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Queen of Wands

Chapter Text

The sun reflected off pearly white snow through the window, glaring and harsh. House Dominic was perched on the rolling hills of Fodlan's plains, so the sun glinted off the packed snow like it was over the open sea.

When Annette was little, she would wake up early, toss a scarf over her neck, pull on some boots, and make snowmen with her parents, playing joyfully in the snow. Now, at twenty-one, she buried her head further into her pillow and cursed it.

The days at House Dominic passed by so slowly. Annette was on the Empire side of the country now, isolated from almost all of her friends. The only real source of joy she found anymore was in writing letters.

She'd sent many to Ashe, who she guessed was also caught in former Kingdom territory, but he never answered. Last she'd heard, he was keeping up the estate of Lord Lonato, but that was ages ago. Her letters may not even be reaching him.

She hadn't seen Mercedes since the confusing and hectic days in the aftermath of the battle at Garreg Mach, but she was staying in Fhirdiad. The church where she was living was looted by the Empire army when they invaded, but it was turned into a makeshift orphanage for children with nowhere else to go. They were good about keeping up correspondence, and Annette was expecting a letter from her any day now.

Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain all wrote to her a few times a year. Felix was working with his father to keep the eastern side of the Kingdom free from Imperial occupation, fighting often, sitting in on important meetings which he described as 'worse than boring'. 

Ingrid abandoned House Galatea and her father after he tried to arrange a marriage to an Alliance noble in the midst of such uncertainty. That was about two years ago, and Annette understood that she'd been moving between Houses Fraldarius and Gautier to help their armies.

Sylvain was working with his father to keep Imperial forces away from their land, but he told Annette that because his territory was so far north, the Empire didn't seem very interested in it just yet. There was one serious attempt to invade a few months ago, and it took all of their forces to hold them off. They'd had a good stroke of luck when autumn led to an early winter and the Empire troops withdrew without much more than an informal skirmish.

From what Annette understood, House Gautier was still replenishing its troops. A strike on the eastern Kingdom at this time would not be well met.

And yet, Annette was still here, far west, in Dominic lands. 

It wasn't that she didn't care. She stayed up most nights, praying to a deaf goddess for the safety of her friends. Several times, she'd packed bags and loaded them onto her favorite horse. She even left once. But her uncle rode out to intercept her, and he told her that her mother would die without her. 

And so she came back.

Sighing wearily, she threw the heavy covers to the side, relenting to wakefulness. It was cold and drafty in the small keep, so Annette pulled on some wool socks her mother had gotten her and a heavy robe that was too long on her.

Since resources were low, they'd let go almost all of their support staff. They had two servants left, and they'd both stayed out of loyalty to the family, not because of the near-nonexistent pay.

Her mother was already awake, leaning against the counter as she sipped tea from a large ceramic mug with both hands. "Good morning, dear," she said, her voice tinny against the inside of her mug.

"Morning." Annette set to making breakfast, scrambling eggs and toasting some bread. Her mother hovered, adjusting the flame on the stove for her, scraping egg from the bottom of the pan so it didn't burn. Just like every other morning.

Annette swiped jam onto her toast, humming to herself more out of habit than anything else. Her uncle strode into the kitchen as Annete bit into her toast. He held several envelopes in his hand, and dropped them on the counter.

"'S that mail?" Annette asked.

"Yes, I rode into town to get it. Horse couldn't make the trip up the hill in the ice yesterday." Her uncle ruffled her hair like she was still a child and spooned scrambled eggs onto a plate for himself. "Breakfast smells good."

Annette set down her piece of toast as she chewed. She immediately spotted Mercedes's pretty handwriting and snatched the letter up. "Thanks," she replied absently.

"I do have some news."

Annette drew her eyebrows together, confused. "Good news, uncle?"

He took off his hat and laid it down next to the rest of the mail. His sandy-blond hair and light brown eyes were so different than her father's features. He shook snow from his short hair as he took a fork from the drawer. "Come, we'll discuss it over breakfast."

She sighed to her letter from Mercedes and brought her toast into the dining room where her mother was already eating. Annette slid into the chair across from her and her uncle sat at the head of the table. There was already tea steeping in a mug for him, and he sipped on it as soon as he sat down.

Annette fidgeted in her chair. Her uncle knew she had a letter to read.

"As you know, I've pledged my fealty to the Empress," the Baron began, and Annette got the feeling that he was speaking to her, although he kept his gaze between herself and her mother. "For many reasons. House Dominic is small, without much by the way of resources, so we haven't had many dealings with the Empire directly. However, Empress Edelgard has inquired about the state of the Relic Crusher, and she has informed me that she will be stopping by as soon as the weather permits."

Annette swallowed her toast too quickly. "What? Edelgard has a love for axes, but she can't wield Crusher."

The Baron fixed his eyes on her, his expression distant and slightly pained, looking so much like her father. "No. But there is someone sitting at this table who can."

Annette felt her heart thump in her chest. "Yes. What of it?"

"The Empress is interested in asking you to join her Strike Force, Annette."

Her heart sunk. "Is that so?"

Her mother set down her tea with a clunk. "What?"

The Baron did not answer, he only popped a forkful of eggs into his mouth.

"Goddess's sake, Aimery, the Empress can't just waltz in here and demand my daughter-- "

"--Celine, I hope you realize that everything I've done so far has been for the good of you, your daughter, and my people. And I'm going to continue to do my best to balance--"

"Okay! Good breakfast!" Annette said, giggling nervously. Her jam and toast lay sadly on her plate, two large bites taken out of one slice of toast. Breakfast was her favorite meal of the day, due to the pastries and the jams, but her stomach was churning nervously and she was quite sure she couldn't eat any more anyway. "I'm going to take my letter and go read it in my room. By myself. So… bye."

She grabbed the letter from Mercedes on the counter and hurried to her room to read it.

 

Annie,

I hope this letter finds you well. I've been busy with the children, but it's very fulfilling! I'm not supposed to teach the children to pray, but one of the little ones walked in on me praying last week and she's joined me every night since. She has red hair, a bit lighter than yours, but I managed to braid her hair into the loops you used to wear. She's my little Annie!

I know we were talking about going to the old monastery for the Millennium Festival, but I don't think I can go. I have some strange news.

Remember the stories I used to tell you of my younger brother Emile? I was never able to find out what happened to him.

Edelgard visited Fhirdiad and she confirmed something I'd always suspected in the back of my mind. It's a long story, but Jeritza the fencing teacher is Emile! I feel that I must go to Enbarr to see him, Annie. He's been through so much without me and I feel that I owe it to him to be there now.

I hope you understand. I hope we can meet up sometime soon. I'm not sure how long I'll be away, but nothing can keep me away from the children for very long.

All my love,

Mercie

 

Annette read the letter twice, confused by the contents. Suddenly, she was drained of all energy, and she let the letter drop to the floor beside her bed.

She curled up on her side and and tucked her knees to her chest, the way she used to when she was small. The way she did for days on end when her father left for good.

She woke some hours later. Neither her uncle nor her mother bothered to disturb her. Their argument probably ended with her mother retiring to her room and her uncle sharpening his personal collection of axes in the armory, as their arguments usually did.

A single fat drop of water dripped from an icicle above her window. She watched it numbly, thinking that she was similarly free-falling at this moment. 

Her bag was sitting at the foot of her wardrobe, still half-packed from the last time she resolved to leave. Her pack with a small tent and a bed roll were ready to sling over her horse's saddle.

In a whirlwind of activity, before she could change her mind, she changed into her riding gear and a thick, fur-lined cloak with matching hat, gloves, and scarf. She tied her hair into a pony’s tail and slung her bags over her shoulder.

The door to her mother's room was closed, and Annette hesitated next to it. She wanted to tell her of her plans. She wanted her mother to be proud of her.

She adjusted the pack over her shoulder and continued through the kitchen, out the back door, to the stables. She tacked her horse, a black stallion with a silvery mane she’d named Licorice, packed him with her things, and pulled herself onto his saddle with no small effort. 

The image she had in her mind was a fairytale image of herself and Licorice charging through the snow out into the plains, his tail and mane flaring majestically behind them. She kicked him to get him going, but he almost threw her from his back, whinnying loudly, as her uncle appeared before them, hand outstretched to halt them.

“Uncle!” Annette cried as she struggled to balance in the saddle. Licorice pushed himself onto his back hooves, swinging his forelegs around wildly. 

Baron Dominic soothed the horse, taking hold of the reins and shushing him until he calmed. 

“Don’t try to talk to me out of it this time,” Annette said icily, gripping the reins tightly as though he might try to pull her out of the saddle. “I can’t stay here.”

“I know,” he said solemnly, his gaze fixed on Licorice’s nose as he patted it. 

“Oh.” Her uncle was always so kind to her, even when she wasn’t kind to herself. 

“I won’t fight with the Empire,” she told him wearily. 

“I hope you understand why I can’t follow your example.”

Annette bit her lip and nodded. She didn’t have to worry about the safety of a thousand innocent people. Her actions affected only herself. 

“It’s a little more than a two-day ride to Fraldarius,” her uncle said. Of course he would have known that she’d have to travel to the center of what remained of the Kingdom lands. “You absolutely must send me a letter when you’ve arrived safely, but don’t sign it with your name. Sign it with your cousin’s name. I had Margaret prepare you some rations.” The Baron passed her a sack with wrapped containers of food. “Your mother’s gingerbread cookies are there as well.”

She nodded again, and she didn’t even feel the choking swell she normally felt when she was so overcome that she started to cry, but she felt tears sting at her face as they dried in the cold air. 

“And Annette? Don’t come back until the Kingdom is free.”

It was a warning and a show of faith. Her uncle would not be able to help her once Edelgard showed up and he had to inform her that Annette had run off.

“I love you, Uncle. Please tell Mother, too.”

“Of course, Annie. Go. Now.” He gave a solid thwack to Licorice’s haunches as Annette kicked him, and he took off like a rocket, completing the fairy tale image Annette had of her departure. Licorice’s hooves punched through packed snow, and the wind stung at her face where it was not covered by the scarf, but her heart felt lighter than it had in years.

Chapter Text

The so-called two-day trip across Fodlan was the hardest voyage Annette had ever had to make. It was worse than anything the professor had ever made them do. It was worse than going to the Rhodos Coast with Flayn and Seteth, and that was a trek. And she was all alone. 

The weather was unforgiving. Licorice was hardy, but she needed to continually coax him through ice. They were visited by bandits, but Annette had grown powerful enough since her time at Garreg Mach to scare most of them off with a Cutting Gale or even a Saggittae. So far, she had only come across small groups. It wasn’t as though she had anything to steal, anyway. In her haste, she hadn’t even brought an axe with her. She preferred her magic anyway.

In the middle of the second day, it began to rain. It was miserable for horse and rider, the snow turning to slush, making the ground slippery and the air heavy. Some of the snow started to melt, but it was so cold at night that it just refroze and turned into ice and powdery snow.

Traveling alone in snow was dangerous. Annette was afraid to rest at an inn, worrying she might be stopped by an Imperial guard. Except for the clergy, who were forced to leave, and merchants with licenses, it was illegal to leave Imperial land. 

It was snowing so much, and Annette was so unrecognizable, this fact was only a minor worry. As long as she stayed away from major towns, she didn't expect to run into many guards. 

It had taken her a bit longer than her uncle predicted to reach Fraldarius. The further north she rode, the heavier the snow became. She became nervous, wondering exactly what she would say to Lord Fraldarius. She remembered him from her days at the Academy, although he was not likely to remember her.

Fraldarius lands were one of the larger territories in the Kingdom, much larger than the small Dominic fiefdom. Annette was not exactly familiar with where the lands started and ended. Nightfall arrived suddenly, the cloudy day giving way to darkness easily.

Panic lodged itself deep in Annette's chest.

Had she gone the wrong way? The land between her territory and Fraldarius was mainly flat, with only hills rolling between them, so she easily could have been traveling due north when she thought she'd been heading northeast.

Licorice was growing tired, but Annette hadn't prepared for three nights' journey. She pulled the reins and her horse whinnied. He must be picking up on her nervous energy.

"It's alright," she soothed, patting his neck. She slid out of the saddle. Her legs were getting sore anyway.

Perhaps her uncle thought to pack a map in her things?

"You've done it again, Annette," she muttered to herself as she rummaged through the bag she'd stuffed in her pack.

"Halt," a man's deep voice warned, and she froze. 

A group of soldiers approached her, and she sized them up quickly.

A bowman, a healer, and two great knights all on horseback surrounded her.

The great knights wouldn't be much of a problem for her, although they were already too close. The healer would probably not be too much of a problem, and the bowman was too close to be much of a threat. She was stiff, tired, and alone, though, and she discreetly dissipated the magical energy she summoned to her hands.

They were definitely not Imperial soldiers, although she didn't see the Fraldarius banner anywhere among them.

"My name is Annette Fantine, of Dominic," she said, doing her best to look and sound unthreatening. 

"Dominic?" the bowman repeated, and she could his tone tensing up. "The Imperial loyalists?"

"My family has sworn fealty to the Empire, it's true. But I could not stand for that, and I have come to aid Lord Fraldarius however necessary." Annette was sweating, nervous. Perhaps she should have been more discrete. 

"Send for the rest of the battalion," one of the great knights ordered, and the bow knight nodded, then turned his horse around swiftly and was out of sight.

Annette had been following the treeline of a forest to her right. The bowman had disappeared between the trees that way.

If she was going to escape, now was the time.

She cast Saggitae at the rightmost great knight, running past his horse before he made contact with the ground. 

"Stop her!" the healer yelled, and she paused only to cast Excalibur at both knights. 

She was worried her footprints would give her away, but she could disturb the snow around her by casting simple wind spells at it. She zigzagged through the dark forest, ducking under branches, her cloak catching on the wind as she ran.

Quickly, she realized that she had no plan, which was unlike her. She was now in the middle of a forest, at night, in winter, with no provisions. She slowed her pace as she ducked under another low branch.

She was going to die in this forest.

She panted, clutching at her thick cloak. She was hot and cold at the same time, her fingers frozen but her face too hot.

The sound of a sword scraping against canvas filled her ears, and she whirled around, trying to identify where the sound came from. She ran at full speed again, looping around a thick tree, zigzagging through thinner ones.

In slow motion, she felt the toes of her boot snag around a raised root, and she threw her hands out to catch herself as she tumbled to the ground. Her ankle pulled, then was pierced by white-hot pain, and she cried out as she fell. Snow packed underneath her sleeves, into her collar.

The bright orange glow of a torch was approaching her, and she considered rolling over and waiting for the Goddess's will, but she raised one hand and put all of her remaining strength behind a Cutting Gale.

"Annette?"

She raised her face from the packed snow, blinking quickly to clear tears which hadn't even realized sprung to her eyes.

The orange glow had not been a torch, but rather the soft glow of a Hero's Relic. A shield, actually.

"Felix?"

"What in the world are you doing?" He was standing over her now, Aegis shield on his left arm, a sword drawn in his right hand. 

Slowly, she sat up. Her shoulder ached where she'd made contact with the ground, but more concerning was the firey pain of her ankle.

"Can you get up?"

She shook her head pathetically. She drew up her riding slacks to reveal her ankle. It wasn't swollen just yet, but it was numb and hot. Her fingertips pressed against a hard lump where there shouldn't be. "I think it's broken."

Felix crouched down to look at it, using the dim light from his shield to inspect it. Already a light purple bruise was forming.

He scoffed at her. "You escaped my branch team and evaded us for ten minutes on foot, but you broke your own ankle."

Just like that, they were back into their old rhythm. He was poking fun at her for something she couldn't help, and she was quick to grow prickly and defensive.

"It's dark . And snowy . I couldn't see--"

"Put your arm around my shoulders and stand," he said, in the tone of someone who'd become used to giving orders. It irked her.

But it was the best chance she had of making it out of this forest alive, so she did as she was told.

Together they stood, and on the way up Annette accidentally touched her foot to the ground, and she pulled on Felix's shoulder more than she meant to, gasping.

"Definitely broken," she said, her voice strained.

"I'll have my Holy Knight take a look at it," he said.

Felix was almost ten inches taller than she was, and she had to stretch just to reach his shoulders. 

"I don't think I can walk like this," Annette said, and Felix seemed to be realizing the same thing. 

She squealed as he lifted her legs over his arm in one easy, fluid motion, and she grabbed onto his right shoulder with her left arm, tucking her head into his chest as he shifted her around in his arms for balance. "No nonononono, put me down!"

"And then what? It'll take half an hour to make it back to my battalion with you hobbling."

"Just leave me and then come back!"

"It's dark and snowy," he reminded her. "I'm not sure I'll find you again."

"In Sothis' name," Annette muttered, embarrassed but relenting. 

"It's not far," he assured her.

She was miserably quiet as he picked his way through the trees, trying to avoid branches that would smack her in the face with only moderate success. 

"What are you doing out here, anyway? Your last letter didn't mention any traveling."

"It's kind of a long story. I ran away from home, sort of. You know my uncle has sided with Edelgard. It's complicated, and I know that, but I couldn't handle it anymore."

"You couldn't have picked a worse time to travel. This storm is what's keeping Ingrid and Sylvain at Gautier."

"What are you doing out here, then?"

Felix chuckled as he stooped under a branch. Or maybe he was getting out of breath. "My father got word that there was an Imperial loyalist trespassing in his lands. He sent me to take care of it."

Annette blinked. She peered at him, unsure of whether or not he was making fun of her. "Me?"

The look he shot her, somewhat annoyed and somewhat amused, one eyebrow quirked up, was answer enough.

"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to cause alarm. I meant to offer my help, but now I've made a mess of things."

"It's no surprise. Traveling in this weather isn't healthy. And I think you have a fever."

She slid off her glove and pressed the back of her hand against her forehead, using the method her mother always used to test for a fever. She did feel a bit warm, but then, her hands were frozen.

The trees were beginning to thin out, and Felix halted. Gingerly, he put her down, bracing her once again so she didn't have to put any weight on her ankle.

Either he was trying to preserve her dignity or he didn't want to be seen carrying her by his battalion. She appreciated the gesture, regardless. She hopped foolishly, using Felix's shoulder as a crutch. He was right--she never would have made it out of the forest this way. 

"Martine!" Felix shouted before they reached the treeline. "Some help, please."

Martine, apparently, was an archer. He marched over to them, looking warily at Annette. A few other soldiers joined him, and she could hear murmurs of more people yards ahead. 

"Fetch the honorable Miss Dominic her horse, if you will."

He observed Annette, looking none too impressed, and nodded once and turned away from them, and a lady brigand rushed up to them. Felix quickly handed Annette off to her, and she was much more comfortably able to support herself with her arm around the brigand's shoulders. 

The battalion Felix commanded was large, around twenty men strong. It wasn't like him to take on a battalion, but then, a lot had changed in five years.

She recognized the great knight she'd dismounted with Saggitae approaching her with Licorice in tow. He didn't look very happy.

"I'm very sorry," Annette said, her cheeks warm with embarrassment. "I didn't realize that you were Duke Fraldius's troops."

He only grunted at her as he handed her the reins. 

The healer approached her, and he didn't seem as grumpy as the great knight. "Hello, miss. Sorry for the confusion. Sir Fraldarius asked me to take a look at your ankle?"

Annette nodded, and the brigand helped her balance as she took a seat in the snow. The healer lit a torch and held it over her leg.

Her ankle was paining her badly, although superficially, and it was still numb. Now it was swelling, and she realized as she unlaced her boot that she probably wouldn't get it laced up again. 

The healer furrowed his eyebrows as he passed fingers bathed in soft white light over her ankle. Annette sighed as the pain went away, but he dimmed the light and looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry, miss. I'm not a physician. The bone is displaced and needs to be set."

Of course.

"We should make a splint. Not too tight, because your ankle will keep swelling." 

The brigand that was helping disappeared while the healer went to get cloth for a splint.

"Problem?" Felix asked. 

How he managed to be so light-footed in several inches of snow, Annette couldn't guess.

"It needs to be set," she said woefully. "Tomorrow I'll travel to town--"

"You aren't going anywhere," Felix said with a roll of his eyes. "We'll get a physician to come to the castle."

She bit her lip. What a disruptive guest she was proving to be. 

"Here we are, miss," the healer said, and the brigand reappeared with several sticks. It was crude, but at least the support would take some of the weight off her ankle.

The splint was painful, but her ankle did feel better after it was immobilized. Felix had to help her onto Licorice, and she had to ride slowly. She couldn't put her foot in the stirrup, so she wouldn't be able to even trot on him. 

Felix walked his own horse next to hers amicably. He ordered the rest of his battalion ahead, the lady brigand and Martine staying behind with them.

"Thanks for your help," she said to Felix quietly. "With my ankle and for putting me up."

He shrugged. "With Fhirdiad gone, Fraldarius has become the capital of what remains of the Kingdom. We've had plenty of people come and go."

Annette nodded. "Mercie and I… we were going to go back to Garreg Mach together. The Millennium Festival would've been soon."

"We all promised to return," Felix recalled. "I didn't think anyone really took it seriously, but Ingrid and Sylvain both want to go back."

Without Mercedes, Dimitri or Dedue… what a sad little reunion. 

"Have you heard from Ashe?" she asked, instead of verbalizing her previous thought.

Felix shook his head. "I thought perhaps you kept in touch with him, since your territories are closer."

"I tried, but he hasn't answered any of my letters."

"I heard Gaspard lands were taken by House Rowe, who are loyal to the Empire now."

Annette heard that too. "That doesn't mean that Ashe…"

"It doesn't mean anything."

She was strangely comforted by his rough words.

Castle Fraldarius, like Castle Dominic and the keeps of most other Kingdom lands that did not have the advantage of mountains, was situated at the top of a set of rolling hills. Castle Fraldarius was much larger than Castle Dominic, and infinitely more imposing. There were vantage towers and a defensive wall surrounding the entire structure.

Felix and the other two dismounted their horses just outside the main entrance, and he made his way around to help Annette off Licorice. She basically had to jump into his arms instead of onto the ground. He supported her beneath her elbows as she landed on her good leg, helping her balance and supporting the weight she couldn't put on her injured leg.

The lady brigand offered her shoulder to Annette once again, which was more than kind of her. Annette would need to get her name. 

A pair of servants emerged from beyond the great door, dressed in furs and outerwear. Felix handed them the reins of his horse, and without question they also took Licorice, presumably to the stables.

Duke Fraldarius stood in the entryway, clapping Felix on the shoulder as he entered the keep. 

"Ah, Miss Dominic!" he greeted her as though he knew her. "What a pleasure to have you with us."

He looked the same as ever, his hair so similar to Felix's flowing down his back, his facial hair trimmed just so. He was a much warmer person than Felix, something she would have appreciated more if she weren't so tired. 

"I've been informed about your ankle and I've already sent a notice to the physician in town. I'm afraid there's nothing to be done about it until the morning."

"Thank you so much," Annette said, breathless from hopping around. She couldn't really curtsey or bow with her arm around the Brigand's shoulder, so she bent her head to him respectfully. 

"I've already set up a room for you and left some clothes of Ingrid's for tonight and the morning. If there's anything at all that you need, please don't hesitate to let it be known."

"Yes, sir."

"The bedrooms are upstairs. Felix, won't you help our injured guest? It'll be a trip for her and Jesse."

Felix had been talking to Martine off to the side, but he stopped to frown at his father. "What?"

"Take Miss Dominic up the stairs, Felix."

Felix was glaring at his father, quietly furious, and a hint of rouge began creeping up his cheeks.

"Oh, no, sir, I think I can manage with help from--"

"I insist ," Rodrigue said, and Annette got the impression that he was not talking to her. 

"Of course," Felix said tightly. 

He joined Annette and the brigand, whose name she realized now was Jesse, and led them to the stairs. The stairs to the bedrooms were wide and winding, stone cut into smooth rectangles, polished to look clean and sharp. They were particularly steep, too, and they certainly would have been a challenge with her totally useless ankle.

For some reason, with Rodrigue's watchful eye on his son, Felix lifting her into his arms as she wrapped her arms around his neck for balance made her blush.

"Thank you for the help, Jesse," he said dismissively over his shoulder. The brigand bowed and disappeared past Rodrigue.

 Instead of putting her down at the top of the stairs, he continued down the wide hallway and past a few heavy wooden doors until he stopped at one that was slightly ajar. 

She pushed it open for him and he entered the threshold, then set her down next to the bed. 

"Um, thanks," she said softly, and she sat on the mattress. She swung her leg up and winced as she set her foot down on the mattress, leaving her other leg dangling over the side.

"Are you in pain?"

She nodded. "It's not so bad. I think once I stop moving around it'll get better." 

The makeshift splint was still wrapped around her foot, and she began unwrapping the cloth that was holding the sticks in place gingerly.

Felix approached the fireplace that had already been set up with fresh wood. He crouched in front of it and and muttered what Annette immediately recognized as a lightning spell. The wood popped and small flames flickered to life.

"You've been practicing Reason!" Annette gasped, grinning at him.

"Just a little. It was Sylvain's idea."

At first, the thought of Sylvain of all people suggesting studying of all things seemed ridiculous to her, but then she remembered the help he gave her in the library with the tricky magical theorem.

She winced as one of the makeshift sticks shifted against her sore ankle.

"Let me help you with that." Felix approached her again and sat at the foot of the bed. As he sat down, the mattress dipped and her foot went with it, and she gasped.

He held her heel in one hand as the other unwrapped the rest of the fabric. He was incredibly gentle with her, which was a bit hard to fathom. The same fingers she'd seen wrapped around the hilt of a sword, or gripped around the handle of a gauntlet, or balled together into tight fists, were holding her broken ankle so carefully and thoughtfully.

The bruising had gotten much worse, dark purple on the medial side of her ankle, fading to dark red which blended into hot, reddened skin.

"I tried reading up on some Faith but it didn't interest me at all. I think I can--" He cut himself off and furrowed his brow, concentrating on the bruised skin beneath his fingers. It was dim and didn't last long, but his fingers glowed white and she felt a soothing warmth sink from his fingers into her ankle. He lifted his eyes to hers. "Did that work?"

She smiled at him. "Yeah, it feels better."

He looked pleased. It made Annette's stomach flip. 

"Thank you, Felix. For everything. I didn't intend to be such a bother. It's a little embarrassing."

He stood gently, trying not to disturb the mattress. "It's good to see you again."

She blushed fiercely, lost for words. The flickering fire cut shadows from his cheekbones, made his eyelashes seem long and soft, and reflected warmly in his amber eyes. 

Felix leaned on the door frame and crossed his arms. He must have seen her deep blush, and she bit her lip nervously under his gaze. 

"You have everything you need? Do you need help with anything?"

"Um, no. I'm just going to change and get some sleep." She brandished the folded nightclothes that had been left on the nightstand.

"Okay. Good night, Annette."

"Good night, Felix."

He nodded and shut the door behind him.

 

Chapter Text

There were two soft knocks on the door that stirred Annette from her sleep.

A woman a few years older than Annette, dressed in a black and white servant's uniform, entered the room with a silver tray.

"Good morning, Lady Dominic," she said brightly.

Annette groaned as she propped herself up on her elbows. The fire was still going, the firelight washed out by the daylight. 

"My name is Lunete. Lord Fraldarius sent this up for you," she explained, lifting the tray in her hands, "and he wants you to know that a physician will be here within the hour."

"Oh, good," she said sleepily. 

The night was fitful. Her ankle bothered her any time she moved, and she'd had to pull all the sheets up from where they were carefully tucked into the mattress to take the pressure off her foot. 

"How are you feeling?" Lunete asked as Annette sat up, leaning her back against the pillow. 

"Um.." she hummed wearily as Lunete positioned  the tray on her lap. "I'd rather not talk about it."

"Oh dear, I'm sorry to hear." Lunete crouched down to stoke the fire, scraping ash from the hearth. 

She took the clothes Annette wore the previous day, offering to wash them and bring them back pressed, and busied herself around the room for a few minutes before curtseying and closing the door behind her.

Annette sipped her tea, pleased to find sweetened rose petal blend in her mug. There were several breakfast pastries and sausages, which she appreciated but found she didn't have a huge appetite. 

Lunete returned and took the tray away, then she helped Annette to dress. When she was a child and her family was a bit more stable, she had a servant who would dress her and do her hair and teach her songs and bake with her. Lunete was kind, and it was comforting to be taken care of.

Although she was clumsy, Annette had never broken a bone before, and she was suddenly nervous to have the bone set. 

Lunete left the door open, and shortly after she left, Lord Rodrigue knocked on the frame.

"May I come in?" he asked, waiting at the threshold for her answer.

"Of course!" Annette swung her good leg over the side of the mattress, but Rodrigue held up a hand to halt her progression off the bed. 

"Please," he said, and he approached her. She noticed two vulnerary bottles in his hands. "The physician instructed me that you should take one vulnerary now to ease discomfort during the procedure, and then one right after." He placed one of the vulneraries on the dresser next to the bed, and handed the other to Annette. "I sent a message to your uncle to let him know of your arrival."

She had started drinking when he handed the glass bottle to her, and when she drained the last of it she gasped. "Oh! I was supposed to write him when I arrived."

"I'm sure you'll need to rest after the setting. I'll have some stationery sent up for when you're feeling up to it."

"Thank you for having me, and for sending messages on my behalf to my uncle and physicians. I'll endeavor to be less of a burden and more helpful during my time here."

Rodrigue smiled at her, and she couldn't help but imagine how that same smile would look on Felix's face. 

"I must say, Miss Dominic, I feel a certain familiarity for you."

Annette blinked at him, not really understanding what he meant by that.

"You see, your father has been telling me stories about you since you were born. He has always been so proud of you. Your affinity for magic, the kitchen mishaps…"

"My father told you about me?"

Rodrigue nodded. "Of course. And I'd tell him stories about my boys."

She smiled at him, then bit her lip. "My father…" she began, although she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to say. "I haven't seen him in quite a long time."

"I'm sorry to hear. The circumstances have been quite trying for him."

She almost laughed at that. Trying for him ? What about her, and her mother, and her uncle struggling to provide for their shrinking fiefdom?

There was a soft knock on the wooden frame, and Felix was standing with a man and a woman just behind him. "Doctor's here," he said with a gesture of his hand behind him.

Rodrigue nodded. "Excellent."

"Hello, my dear. Duke Fraldarius." The physician entered the room, a bishop in a white and gray dress behind him. "This is my wife, the most skilled healer in Fraldarius."

"This is Annette of Dominic, a good friend of ours. Seems to have broken her ankle," Rodrigue explained.

When Lunete helped her dress they decided to forego tights or socks, so her ankle was easily visible to both the physician and the bishop.

"Sorry if this hurts, dear," the bishop said kindly, and she felt Annette's ankle gently. "Did you drink the first vulnerary?"

She chased Felix and Rodrigue out of the room and shut the door as the physician pressed his fingers gently against Annette's ankle. She gritted her teeth and balled the sheets in her hands in anticipation of pain.

"Ready?" The physician asked, and Annette looked into his kind face, his bushy mustache and his green cravat, and she nodded.

He pressed down, steadying her leg with one hand and moving the bone back into place with the other. Annette yelped, but she gritted her teeth and managed to keep the pained shriek that built in her lungs swallowed up with immense willpower.

The bishop's hands glowed bright white, so much brighter than Felix's fingers under the firelight last night, and the pain turned soft around the edges. She groaned as her bone knit itself back together, then watched as the swelling and the bruising disappeared. 

The process was actually very quick, but she felt like each second that passed took minutes to go by.

"Can you wiggle your toes?" the doctor asked, and she did. 

He rested his fingertips on the top of her feet, near her toes, then moved them to her ankle, where he pressed for a few seconds. "Does it hurt when I press down?"

"No, sir."

"Excellent. Well that's all, dear!" The bishop told her kindly. "After all that pain, it's actually a quick fix."

"The bruising and swelling will come back. The tissue has been traumatized and it will take a few days to continue healing. It only looks better now because the magic has soothed it. You'll be able to walk on it, just take it easy. Some light activity will benefit you, as it gets the blood flowing and will strengthen area. Do try to stay off horseback for at least three days, as balancing in the saddle will put a marked amount of strain directly on the ankle," the physician instructed.

"Take a vulnerary at night and a vulnerary in the morning for pain," the bishop added.

They exited the room, and Rodrigue must have been standing on just the other side of the door, because they began speaking before they had even closed the door behind them.

Annette bent her leg to inspect her ankle. It looked just like the other one, except perhaps a little red. The swelling had disappeared and the bruise sank down into her skin until all traces disappeared. She passed her fingers over her ankle and the lump was gone. She raised her leg into the air and pointed her toes, then rolled her ankle around in a circle.

"Feels better?"

She jumped. Felix had snuck up on her once again. It was quickly becoming tiresome. 

"Yeah. Like it never even happened."

He held out a small stack of paper, a sealed inkpot, and a pen. "My father said you wanted some stationery."

"Yes, I need to write to my uncle."

She threw her legs over the side of the bed and stood, gingerly testing her weight on her newly healed ankle. It ached a little, but it was totally manageable.

"Glad to see you up and running again."

She smiled at him broadly. "Ah, not quite running just yet. I've been banned from horseback riding and strenuous activity for three days."

"You should be back to your old self by the time Sylvain and Ingrid get back, then."

Annette turned to the window, where the morning sun was reflecting off smooth, rolling fields of endless white snow. There was no wind, but tiny flakes of snow were falling peacefully. It looked almost like a painting. She thought that Ignatz would have enjoyed such a scene.

"They're travelling now?"

"The storm's passing to the south. They haven't had snow in Gautier in two days." 

"That's good, then. I'm anxious to see our friends."

"They'll want to head out to the monastery," Felix said with a roll of his eyes. 

"You really don't want to go?"

He shrugged and crossed his arms sulkily. "It seems like a waste of time. We should be training, preparing, steeling ourselves. What's left of the Kingdom's borders are holding for now, but we're on the precipice of something. I don't think wasting time with nonsense benefits anyone."

Annette frowned at him. "We can't just go on every day as soldiers. We need to be individual people, too, with lives and aspirations. Just because we're at war doesn't mean we don't also adapt and live."

Felix seemed deep in thought, and he was looking intensely out the window, his eyes shining where the bright sunlight reflected on them. 

"I'm off to get in some training. Rest up. Lunete will be around if you need anything."

Annette nodded and watched him go. She used to be better at innately understanding what Felix was thinking, but only using letters for occasional correspondence dulled that particular skill. It didn't help that Felix's letters were often short, made up of incomplete phrases as though he couldn't even spare the time to write to her. She should scold him for that, next time she got an opportunity.

Being here on Fraldarius lands, Annette felt like a commoner. For all intents and purposes, she was one, as evidenced by her first-floor room in the dormitories at the Officer's Academy. But even the quality of the paper Lord Rodrigue had acquired for her was better than what she could easily come by in Dominic lands. The ink seemed smoother, blacker, and she tried to write her uncle a truly thoughtful letter.

She skipped any mention of breaking her ankle. There was no point in upsetting her uncle by telling him about an issue that had already been resolved. Instead she told him about the poor weather, the route she carefully picked to avoid bandits, the fact that his rations were well thought and sustained most of her meals. 

She told him how kind the Duke and his son, her old classmate, had been, and about how more of her classmates were on their way. She wrote about the Millenium Festival of the ruined monastery, how her friends were planning on visiting the ruins of Garreg Mach and how pleased she was discover that.

She wished him well and asked him to write back, told him she missed her mother and regretted not saying a proper goodbye to her.

She tucked the letter into an envelope Lord Rodrigue had provided and melted wax for the seal, stamping it over the point of the envelope to seal it.

Then she wrote another letter to Mercedes, detailing her broken ankle, her reunion with Felix wherein she blasted him with a Cutting Gale, the kindness he'd been showing her, which seemed uncharacteristic until she made sure to point out that he was as terse and gruff as ever. She told her that Sylvain and Ingrid would soon join them and that they would all be visiting Garreg Mach for the Millenium Festival. Perhaps if Mercedes knew that a whole group of them were definitely going, she would be able to spare some time to make an appearance.

She sealed that one and considered writing a letter to Ashe, as she had been every few months, but he wasn't likely to get it until after they'd already departed from Garreg Mach.

After she wrote her letters it was past lunch, although she found herself not to be very hungry. She'd had a nice breakfast, and she was still recovering so she didn't think much of it.

Castle Fraldarius was quite large, and Annette very much wanted to explore the library. There must have been some interesting reference guides on weapons and swords, and as Fraldarius was the second most important city in the Kingdom, maybe even some original editions of classic books and first-hand copies of knights' journals. Maybe they'd even managed to save some books from Castle Blaiddyd in Fhirdiad.

Her ankle ached her, and it occurred to Annette as she wandered through the halls of the castle that she never drank the second vulnerary. She'd rather save it for when she really needed it, anyway. 

After poking her head into a different assortment of rooms, she found the rather large library. 

She was disappointed to find that it seemed a touch disorganized. Perhaps with all the comings and goings of wartime, a librarian was a role that was overlooked. Maybe he'd been recruited as a soldier and perished in a battle. 

Her thoughts tended to grow dark quickly these days.

She managed to find a book she'd read at least a dozen times before, the story of Blaine, a sarcastic and intimidating knight who'd grown weary of the ideals of knighthood after witnessing the death of his sister. It has a happy ending, wherein he gets the girl, teams up with his friends to save the day, and gets a happily ever after that Annette always craved at the end of her stories, but he never stops being sarcastic and rude, which the story treats like facets of his personality that don't need to be fixed.

She walked past it to find some more official books, but found herself quickly going back to pull it from the shelf before she forgot where it was. There were some armchairs set up in the front of the library, so she picked a particularly comfortable looking one and curled up in it. She started reading in the middle of a random page, since she knew the story so well she could pick it up basically anywhere and get thrown right into it.

Blaine's horse whinnied as an arrow sunk itself into its flank, and he quickly detangled himself from the stirrups and rolled to safety as the creature crashed to the ground. 

He ducked under a fire spell that careened past his shoulder, then raised his Levin sword to deal a shock of magic damage to the archer. 

'You're welcome,' Iselda told him, a hand on her hip as she observed the young knight.

'You almost struck me. Be more careful with your aim.'

Annette flipped a few pages. Iselda was her favorite character in the story. Blaine's love interest and a diverse magic-user, she was friends with his sister and continued to help him in his adventures. She was also the girl he ended up getting, in the end. 

Self indulgently, she flipped forward until she found what she was looking for--one of her favorite scenes in the book.

Blaine threw his helmet on the ground in a fit of anger. Iselda's plan put her at the front lines, to make use of her armor-destroying magical abilities, when one false move could mean her end with an axe in her chest. 

'Why are you behaving like this?' she demanded, equally angry. 'Once I clear the armored units, you and the other cavalry will have a perfect opportunity to storm the fort.'

She was right, of course, she was always right and it made him so angry. There was nothing to be done. Sir Blaine knew what it meant to be a knight, just as Iselda knew what it meant to be a warlock. 

Instead of answering her question, he pulled her into him. She was surprised, and a little indignant. She opened her mouth, and he knew it was only to argue with him, but before she could speak he captured her lips in a fiery kiss, full of things he couldn't bring himself to say.

Annette sighed. It was one of her favorite romance scenes. Mercedes told her that Blaine was immature, and that a kiss should bever substitute an actual conversation between a man and a woman, and of course she was right, but the unexpectedness of the kiss always made Annette giddy.

Mercedes tried to educate her with flowery romance novels written by poets about women who wore dresses with hoop skirts or tended the cattle of their family's milk farms, but Annette always loved the action of a good knight's story.

"There you are."

Annette peeked over the top of her book and became suddenly flustered to find Felix approaching her. 

She must have looked flustered, because Felix explained, "My father was concerned that you didn't come down for lunch."

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize he was expecting me--"

Felix waved his hand dismissively. "It's fine. He asked what you would want for dinner. I remembered that you weren't always a fan of game so I recommended fish."

"Oh, I'm really not picky, it doesn't have to be any sort of particular dish, really."

"I told him that, but he insisted because you're our guest." Felix rolled his eyes. "What are you reading?"

Before she could answer he plucked the book out of her grasp and scanned a line or two.

"Um, it's nothing, just a knight's story. I know you don't like those." She pulled it away from him, and she was blushing a little bit. The idea of Felix reading her favorite love scene made her feel a little lightheaded. He'd surely tease her for that.

"My brother used to read that book to me when I was a kid."

Annette didn't know what to say. She gaped up at him, surprised. 

"He used to cut out all the romance scenes, so I didn't realize that Blaine marries Iselda until I reread it at the Academy."

"Wait, you've read this? I thought you hated knights."

Felix took a seat next to her amicably. "I don't hate knights. I hate chivalry. Blaine isn't brainwashed like the other ones."

She raised her eyebrows at him challengingly. She didn't really feel like getting into it with him about her beloved knight's tales, so instead she said, "I can't imagine you reading this back at the Academy. I don't ever remember you with a book in your hand." 

"I'd only read it at night before bed. Not all of us walked around with thirty pounds of books in our arms."

Annette blushed. She hadn't done anything to warrant this teasing.

"Besides, Ashe asked me to. He had some crazy idea that I was just like the knight in the book."

She felt her eyes widen. This felt like terrible news. She'd always seen herself as a more soft-spoken Iselda, and if Felix was Blaine that meant…

"Are you feeling okay? You look flushed."

"I'm fine," she grumbled defensively. 

"You didn't get sick from traveling in the snow, did you?" He lifted a hand to press against her forehead, which Annette batted away.

"I said I'm fine!"

"Okay," Felix said tightly. "I'm… sorry."

"No, it's okay I'm sort of… I don't know, overwhelmed?" He stayed quiet and inky looked at her questioningly. "My uncle basically said that I couldn't go back home now even if I wanted to. It probably wouldn't be safe since I basically defected from the Empire, even though he defected from the Kingdom first. And there's something really final about not being able to go back home, you know? It's a good thing you and your father have room for me here or I don't know what I'd do."

Felix stood and offered Annette his hand. Confused, she took it and he pulled her up before releasing her. "How's your ankle? Not hurting?"

Taken aback, she glanced down at it and shifted her weight between her feet. "I mean, it's a little achy, but the physician said the best thing is to get some exercise."

"How about a match?"

He was looking at her with an almost hungry intensity, and she recognized it instantly as the look he adopted when he asked people to spar with him. It wasn't often directed at her, but she supposed he had fewer choices nowadays.

"What, a sword match? Against you ? I don't think so. I'll look foolish."

"I'll take that as a compliment. But I meant a fencing match."

She blinked, surprised. Fencing was actually a specialty of House Dominic. Her family was one of the authorities on fencing across Fodlan, and her father and uncle would practice it often. Annette, herself, actually wasn't great at it, but she'd been fencing since she was a little girl. None of that was ever information that had given to Felix. 

"How did you know that I fence?"

"I told you, I recognized the footwork when you were singing that song--"

That was the entirely wrong thing to say. She shoved him back by his shoulders, and he rocked back on his feet but didn't back away. "Goddess, Felix, you were supposed to forget about that!"

"I mean, have you ever tried to forget about something? It just makes you think about it more. Maybe if you didn't make such a big deal about it I would've forgotten about it years ago, but now all I remember about our time together at school is you badgering me about it."

"Are you serious?"

"Of course not," he scoffed. "I'm only teasing you."

She pouted at him. "You know what? I don't want to go anywhere with you now." She straightened her skirts and sat down once more, glaring darkly at him.

"Oh, come on. I don't understand why you get so upset about this, honestly. I'm paying you a compliment."

"What, exactly, is the compliment?"

His expression shifted and he was beginning to look more annoyed. Good.

"That you have a nice voice? That the lyrics you come up with are creative? That the tune is catchy?"

Annette scoffed at him. Her mother often chided her poor singing voice, and she was the first to tell her that her lyrics were childish and silly.

"I don't know," Felix said, exasperated. "I think it's cute."

Silence hung heavily between them, and Felix's cheeks turned a bright shade of pink. Butterflies exploded in Annette's stomach, but she tamped it down quickly. 

"Cute?!" she demanded, and she jumped up and jabbed a finger at his chest. "You think it's cute?! "

"Ah…" he stammered, confused.

Well, she was confused, too! And this was all his fault! "You have no right! That was a private moment!"

He swept her wrist to the side, getting rid of the accusatory finger she pointed at him. "It was in the middle of the greenhouse…"

She pointed her finger at him again. "The door was closed!'

"The door's always closed. It's a greenhouse." He pushed her wrist away once more, but she jabbed her finger at him again. "Would you stop yelling?"

"No, I will not stop yelling!"

He pushed her wrist away again, but instead of letting go he held his hand over hers, preventing her from raising it again. "I forgot how loud you always are."

"Let go." She tried to pull her hand away, but he held fast to her wrist.

"No, you keep waving your finger around in my face."

"Let go!" She shouted, and she tried to wrench her arm away but he was much stronger than she was. 

"Calm down."

"I will not calm down! You've been teasing me about this for years and I hate that! Just because you think my stupid songs and dances are 'cute' doesn't give you the right to lord it over me! I'm not some dumb kid!" As she said the word 'cute', she raised her free hand to make air quotes, and he grabbed that wrist too. She started struggling fiercely against him, but he was holding her still with very little effort.

"You're misunderstanding me." He grunted slightly as Annette continued to struggle, but other than the deep blush that colored his whole face, he remained his usual composure. "I don't just think your songs and dances are cute. I think most of the things you do are cute."

She stilled, suddenly hot. The fire was popping, and with her long sleeves and heavy skirt and the fierce blush that she knew spread from her neck to the tips of her ears, she couldn't breathe. Felix wouldn't let go, so she threw all her weight into the armchair behind her, thinking he'd finally release her.

But he didn't and as she fell backward, he stumbled forward, and he braced himself on the arms of the chair, very much crowding her personal space. 

She was searching his eyes, so confused by the way their conversation had turned, looking for any trace of malice or disingenuousness, and all she found was his eyes, so light, like honey mixed with flecks of brown sugar, only they seemed darker than usual, the pupils blown wide against the irises. 

She didn't remember moving, but the next thing she knew her right hand was on his left arm and she was craning her neck to reach and his mouth was against hers, clumsy and warm and soft. 

The kiss was not long, and it was simple, and when they separated it was with an embarrassing, exaggerated smooching sound.

Her heart was beating so fast, each pulse slamming against her ribs. She couldn't drag herself out of that one single moment, but at the same time, she wasn't sure that it had actually happened. She raised her fingers to her lips as if that would help clarify things.

Felix was breathing hard, staring down at her as though she'd bewitched him. She'd never seen him truly shocked, and she half expected him to draw his sword at her as that was the only form of self-defense he seemed to know.

"I didn't…" he began, but he obviously didn't know how to end that sentence so he let his voice trail off. "That wasn't…" he tried again, but with the same result. "You…"

"Me?!" Annette demanded defensively, and she realized at this point that her hand was still on his arm. She pulled it away from him, shocked by her own impulsive behavior. "I did not … you wouldn't let go of me!"

"But you... !"

"Oh my gosh, okay, I don't know what on Earth you're trying to say, and I don't know what to say, so I'm going to go to my room and take a vulnerary because my ankle is sort of bothering me and maybe take a nap because I didn't sleep well." 

He nodded, and he was still looking at her with wide eyes like he was waiting for her to tell him what to do.

"I'll see you at dinner," she said firmly. She could just imagine herself tripping on her face on the way out, so she stood and carefully gathered her skirt in her hand until her ankles were well cleared of any excess fabric, and didn't look back until she was shakily closing the door of her room.

Chapter Text

Annette emptied the glass bottle that sat on the desk waiting for her.

Halfheartedly, she tried some meditative exercises that Claude told her about, breathing in deeply through her mouth and out slowly through her nose.

Annette wasn't the most patient person. After a few seconds of the exercise she felt no different, and she abandoned it completely.

Normally at a time like this, she would write in her journal. But in her haste to leave she'd forgotten it, and it was still in the nightstand next to her bed at home, miles and miles away.

Or she would write a letter to Mercedes, but she'd already sent one letter to Mercedes and who knew when she was even going to get that.

So, alone and without her usual coping mechanisms, Annette threw herself onto her bed and cried softly. 

She wasn't even particularly upset about the whole thing, it was just that she was so overwhelmed.  

In the span of a few days, she'd left her home and her loving uncle and her mother, possibly forever; she'd taken the worst journey she'd ever had the misfortune to take and completely alone, at that; she'd broken her ankle so badly that an actual doctor had to set it before it could be healed while she was running for her life (or so she believed at the time); she found herself as a temporary guest versus homelessness at Castle Fraldarius, which was huge and scary; and now she'd had her first kiss ever and completely by accident.

Honestly, in the whole scheme of things, the kiss was not very important. There was a war on.

But then, it was her life . Until she was old and wrinkled, every time she thought of her first kiss she'd have to remember fighting with Felix in the library. 

This gave rise to her second problem that caused anxiety to twist around her heart.

What the hell would happen with Felix now? 

She really appreciated her friendship with Felix. He'd been there for her a lot when they were in the Academy, especially when she was fighting with Mercedes and Ashe was trying to split his time between them. They were an unlikely pair, sure, but especially on the battlefield they supported each other well. Felix didn't have range beyond the edge of his sword, and Annette didn't have the stamina to take many hits up-close. So she'd often stay behind him, taking out mages and archers while Felix dealt with melee fighters. 

That kind of strategy would probably work out well for them in the battles to come. 

And she'd ruined it. 

Or, well, they both had.

It all happened so fast, and it wasn't something she cognizantly did, but it certainly seemed like she was the one to kiss him.

But he just casually admitted that he thought she was cute like they weren't stuck in a huge castle basically alone together. 

Lunete hadn’t come to light a fire and the room was a little cold, so Annette burrowed under the covers. It was true that she was tired, although she honestly hadn’t planned on napping. Now that she was comfortably under the blankets, sleep pulled at her. 

She wasn’t exactly sure how much time had passed when there was a soft knock at her door. 

“Lady Dominic?”

Annette groaned as she woke, somehow not feeling rested at all. “Come in,” she said, hoping that whatever Lunete needed would be quick.

“Lord Rodrigue is calling on you for dinner.”

“Oh, um, okay. I’ll be right there.”

There wasn’t a mirror immediately available, so Annette looked herself over. Her outfit she’d chosen this morning was a long sleeved off-white shirt and a navy ankle-length skirt with a gold embroidered design near the bottom. She twisted her hair into a simple updo to dress it up a little bit and she switched the clogs she’d been wearing for brown Mary Janes. 

She’d only brought a small amount of makeup with her, and she paused over the bag. There was really no point, it was traditional to dress up for dinner but the makeup might’ve been a little crazy. 

She opened the door for Lunete, who smiled at her. “I like the way you’ve done your hair, Miss Annette.”

Annette giggled, feeling more flustered than she probably should have. “Oh, thanks it’s just a little… twist, it’s not… too dressy is it?”

Lunete looked confused, but politely she answered, “No, Miss, I think it’s perfectly appropriate.”

“Thanks.”

The two women walked down the hall, down the steep steps Felix had carried her up, through a few more halls until they passed the large kitchens and a stately dining room, where Rodrigue and Felix were already seated. 

Duke Fraldarius stood when they entered the room, and he motioned for Annette to sit in the chair next to him. He clasped one of her hands in both of his warmly when she reached her spot. “You look lovely, dear. I regret that you missed lunch, I do hope dinner makes up for it.” Rodrigue shot Felix a dark look. “Stand up, son. Doesn’t our guest look nice?”

The glower Felix directed at his father was truly one for the books, his expression much deadlier than the one his father favored him with. “I just saw her three hours ago.”

“No manners, honestly,” Rodrigue muttered. 

“No, it’s fine,”Annette assured him as she sat. “About lunch, I mean.” She was pointedly ignoring Felix, trying very hard not to blush in front of his father. “I wasn’t hungry. Still recuperating, you know.” 

There were only three diners at the table, so Rodrigue was at the head of the table to her left, and Felix sat right across from her. This meant that to ignore him she constantly had to be looking at Rodrigue. Or her plate. Or the silverware. Or down at her lap. It was more work than she bargained for, was the point.

A servant that Annette had not seen until now came into the dining room and placed a salad in front of them. Glasses of wine were also placed next to each plate.

“So, Annette,” Rodrigue began conversationally. “How has your father been?”

Annette coughed, having accidentally inhaled what she believed may have a pumpkin seed, and her fork clattered against her plate as she coughed. 

Rodrigue looked taken aback, politely confused by Annette’s reaction. Felix pushed her glass of water closer to her plate, and she took it quickly while still avoiding looking anywhere near his face. 

“I’m sorry,” Annette said when her coughing fit died down. “Um, I just… My father, he… My father is, um… Very… Busy…”

Rodrigue knit his eyebrows together. “Have you not heard from him?”

“Ah, no, not for… quite some time.”

Rodrigue opened his mouth to ask another question, but Felix cut in swiftly. 

“Annette and I were going to fence later, Father.”

She snuck a quick glance at him, grateful for the interruption. He was taking a sip of his own water, and she got the impression that he was avoiding making eye contact with her, too. Which was a relief, because it meant that she didn’t have to work quite so hard at it.

“Oh! Fencing! A fine sport. My money is on Annette, I must say.”

“Oh, that can’t be right,” Annette said, throwing in a casual giggle. “I’ve never seen anyone wield a sword the way Felix does.”

“It’s true, my son has become quite an adept swordsman.”

She snuck another glance at Felix as he stabbed much harder than necessary at a baby spinach leaf. 

“But fencing has never been Felix’s strong suit. Why, I don’t believe he ever managed to win even one match against his brother. And he was such a sore sport about it, why, I recall once, in front of guests we were hosting when the boys were small--"

Poor Felix was seething, but he was staying quiet, Annette assumed, for her benefit, to keep the conversation directed away from her father. Rodrigue definitely seemed to have a knack for bringing up sore subjects. She couldn't just let him go on, but she was blanking about how to direct the conversation, so reached for her glass of water and tipped it over violently, right into Duke Fraldarius’s lap. 

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, sir!” Lord Rodrigue stood quickly, knocking his chair over in his haste.

Annette stood to help him, but Felix was already at his side lifting up his chair. 

“Not to worry, dear. I’ll be right back, kids.”

She sighed as she sank back into her chair, and Felix chuckled. The sound was so unlike him, she looked up at him, forgetting that they were avoiding each other. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, you had my back, first.” 

He nodded at her solemnly. 

“We’re okay, right?” Annette asked feeling foolish as soon as the question left her lips. 

He looked at her closely, then said, “I think--”

He was cut off by the doors reopening, and Annette quickly stood as Rodrigue reentered the dining room. “Not to worry,” he said kindly, and they all sat. “The second course will be on its way. Now, where were we?”

“I was just telling Felix that I’ve been banned from horseback riding until my ankle fully heals.”

“Oh dear.”

After that, it was much more comfortable between Annette and Felix. They took turns directing Rodrigue to appropriate topics of conversation. 

Rodrigue took some time to fill Annette in about the current state of things.

What was left of the Kingdom rallied behind Rodrigue and Margrave Gautier. The Kingdom army was working on taking back Fhirdiad in the beginning, but it was fruitless and only ended in lost Kingdom lives. For the past few years, they’ve managed to do a pretty decent job in holding the current borders. The Imperial Army split its time between attempts at invading the Kingdom lands on the border, quashing rising coups, and mobilizing at the Alliance border. The Alliance was split in three parts: the south-western side, which was loyal to the Empire, the north-western side, which was loyal to the Kingdom, and the eastern side, which remained neutral and didn’t involve itself in Kingdom or Imperial business.

Claude was proving to be a large obstacle, as he had forbidden the movement of Alliance armies across the border.

Felix ended the meal by pushing his dessert, an angel food cake with chocolate chips and black tea-infused icing, across the table for her to finish.

She looked down at the dessert, perfectly plated with chocolate sauce drizzled over the top, and her mouth literally watered. She looked up at him questioningly. 

“Because you missed lunch,” he explained. 

“Last chance to take it back,” Annette said as she picked up her fork. “I will eat the whole thing.” 

He smirked at her and nudged the plate toward her once more. 

“I’m glad you like it,” Rodrigue said, smiling as he looked between Annette and Felix. “The original recipe called for coffee instead of tea, but coffee is a bit hard to come by these days.”

“Thank you so much for dinner,” Annette said. “That fish saute, it was one of my favorites.”

Rodrigue raised his eyebrows and his smile grew. “Ah, that’s interesting. Recommended by Felix, actually.”

Felix frowned at his father, but Rodrigue’s smile did not waver. 

“Would you like some entertainment, Annette? Felix is quite the violinist.”

Annette raised her eyebrows at Felix, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. 

“Or I could get some of the staff to play, and the two of you could do some dancing?”

“You know what, I’m full. Dinner was good, thanks.” Felix nodded curtly at Annette before stomping out of the dining room without looking back at them. 

Rodrigue looked unfazed by his son’s behavior. “It’s not truly a dinner at the Fraldarius household with Felix storming out. Would you like some tea?”

“Duke Fraldarius, sir, I do so appreciate the offer, and the delicious meal, but I don’t think I can put another thing in my stomach.”

Rodrigue nodded. “Thank you for the company. I think it’s good for the spirit when an old comrade joins our cause. Felix was not happy about staying behind with me during the most recent aggression, but I think your presence has helped his outlook.”

“Well, I’m glad to help.” She curtseyed the way her mother taught her and beamed at the Duke. “Thank you, sir.”

She was a little worried about Felix, but after everything that had already occurred, she thought that maybe he needed space. 

She retired to her room, then swapped her Mary Janes for some warm boots and put on her fur-lined riding cloak. She wanted to check on Licorice before she went to bed for the night. 

She found Lunete, who gave her a lantern to take and pointed her in the direction of the stables. Packed snow crunched under her boots, and she wrapped her cloak around her shoulders more firmly as a gust of wind blew her hood back. 

She recognized Licorice’s silvery mane against his shadowy black coat, and he whinnied at her softly when she pulled her glove off her hand so he could sniff it. 

“Hey, boy!” she cooed, patting his nose. She let herself into his stall and took a curry comb where it hung on a hook. 

She softly started singing one of her silly songs, hoping he would recognize it from all the previous times she’d sung it to him. She bounced on her toes as she brushed his coat in tight circles, the way she’d done hundreds of times before. “A horse, of course, my Licorice, tail so soft, swishy swish, runs so quick, a clippity-cloppity, clippity-cloppity--BAH!”

She jumped so violently she dropped the curry comb when a hard knocking interrupted her privacy.

“Come on, I have a lantern with me.” Felix’s tone was apologetic, his hand resting against the wood where he knocked to get her attention. “I thought you saw the light.”

“You heard the horse song?” Annete asked, although she already knew the answer. 

He nodded, and she wasn’t sure whether she should be annoyed that he couldn’t take pity on her when she was obviously embarrassed and just lie to her or if she should be thankful that he never lied to her even when it would be easier.

“Don’t be mad.”

She sighed, and her breath fogged in front of her. She exited the stall, pulling the half door firmly shut behind her. 

“I’m not mad,” she grumbled. 

“You usually get mad.”

“I guess if you think it’s cute and not stupid it’s not as embarrassing as I thought.”

He blushed and didn’t answer. 

“But please don’t tell anybody.”

“Tell them what? A cute girl sings adorable songs?”

Annette laughed nervously and blushed. “Should we talk about what happened?”

“Do we have to?”

“Well, it’s weird now, isn’t it?” 

He didn’t answer her, so she just watched his breath puff in front of him. 

“I don’t even really know how it happened, so we can just forget it, maybe.”

He furrowed his eyebrows at her. “You kissed me.”

She scoffed at him, uncomfortably warm. “What? I did not kiss you .”

“You pulled me.”

“I was trying to pull my hands away from you! Look, it doesn’t matter.” 

“I’m getting the feeling that you’re upset.”

“I’m not upset , I’m confused! ” she snapped, her lantern swinging as she gestured wildly. His expression became shuttered and Annette sighed again. “I’m sorry. You already know enough embarrassing stuff about me so you might as well know, that was my first kiss.” 

Goddess, she’d had too many glasses of wine with dinner. There was absolutely no reason Felix needed to know that.

“Um, I don’t know why I told you that.”

She was waiting for him to say something, but he was just looking at her so calmly. It was making her nervous.

“Okay, I had a bunch of wine with dinner and I can’t handle this right now,” she said, sweeping her hands in wild circles meant to indicate the two of them, “so I’m going to go.”

“Wait. You talk so much sometimes, I’m just trying to keep up.” 

“I do not . I talk a perfectly appropriate amount.”

He laughed at her, and Annette was so embarrassed and uncomfortable and cold and warm at the same time and Felix Fraldarius was laughing at her, but in a nice way and not a mean way. 

A gust of wind whistled through the drafty walls of the stables. Annette stepped closer to the lantern Felix hung on a hook on the wall. She hoped Licorice would be warm enough.

"I asked you if we were okay before. This feels okay, right?"

He nodded. "Yeah."

She took half a step closer to him and threw her arms around his neck, standing on her tiptoes to do so. He was warm and she shivered against him. 

He patted her head to awkwardly show his appreciation for the gesture, then he dipped his hand to the nape of her neck and traced the shape of the twist she'd thrown her hair up in. "Your hair looks nice like this," he said softly.

It was through sheer willpower that Annette did not shiver again, and she loosened her hands from around his neck and slid them to his chest as she stepped back. 

She'd never touched him like this, and she could feel his chest rising and falling as he breathed, and also maybe muscle? She dropped her hands quickly as the thought occurred to her. 

She opened her mouth to say something, a teasing joke, or maybe something self-deprecating, but she couldn't think of anything to say. He grew rigid, looking down at her nervously, except that he was Felix and nervousness expressed itself differently in his body, and he tensed up and became frozen. 

The memory of their blundersome kiss, of the too-quick release, of how warm and soft and endearingly clumsy he was, and the sound their lips made as they parted filled Annette's mind.

As she recalled it, a burning desire flared in her stomach and chased the cold away from her fingertips and cheeks. She could feel her face heat up, and she looked into his eyes, flickering softly in the scant lamplight.

She cleared her throat awkwardly, and Felix looked down at the ground. Now that he wasn't looking at her so deeply , so intensely, Annette relaxed a little and could think.

What were they doing, anyway? Annette could not even begin to imagine a world where, in wartime, Felix put down his blade for long enough to focus on courting. And she was trying to master Reason and Faith, and she was working really hard on her skills with an axe, not to mention her leadership and authority skills so she could better lead her battalions.

It wasn't a good time for them to be doing whatever this was. It only seemed like it because there was no fighting on Fraldarius lands at this particular moment, and Annette was still convalescing so her studies had paused.

As she thought logically about their situation, Felix transformed from a great want that pulled at her thoughts and actions to her friend, and perhaps one of her only friends, until she learned more about Ashe's situation and what was happening with Mercedes. She didn't want anything to jeopardize that.

It was possible that her feelings were just displaced because of how intensely lonely she had been, and it wasn't fair to thrust all of that on him. Once Ingrid and Sylvain joined them, things would get better.

"Do you want to go back inside?" Felix asked. "It's freezing."

"Yes, I suppose that's best. Let me say good night to Licorice."

She clicked her tongue and he approached the stall door so she could pat the silky softness of his nose. Annette wasn't the greatest rider, but she did love Licorice. He was one of the last colts of her father's favorite mount from before he left, so he held a special place in her heart.

She and Felix made their way through the snow and returned to the castle. It wasn't much warmer inside, and Annette hoped that Lunete had started the fire in her room.

They walked in amicable silence to her room, Annette's boots scuffling against the wide stone stairs. Felix only paused as they approached her room and nodded a polite "Good night" to her before continuing on down the long hall to his own room. 

Once inside, Annette sat at the adorable vanity that must have belonged to a woman of the house at some point and brushed out her hair absently. Perhaps, in a world where the country wasn't divided so in a bitter and aggressive war, Felix might have kissed her good night. Perhaps they could have begun a courtship, and her father would approve because he's close to Lord Rodrigue and therefore King Lambert and Prince Dimitri, and her mother would approve because Fraldius was a much more powerful land than tiny Dominic, and the next few months would be some of the best of her life. She daydreamed about this before the cold got the best of her and she started her own fire with a little magic and changed for bed.

The thought of her father stirred something anxious in her. Perhaps their paths would cross, now that she was in the thick of this war and in proper Kingdom lands once again, outside of the Dukedom. Would he really continue to ignore her now that she had left the safety of her own home? She really couldn't predict the things that he would do anymore, and she was cautiously hopeful that she'd see him again soon.

Her mind was busy, but she laid her head down on the silken pillowcase and pulled the covers over herself as the room heated up, and she found that she was able to get to sleep relatively quickly.

Chapter Text

When Annette woke the next morning, her ankle was aching dully. It wasn't terrible pain, but it was certainly enough to bother her. She dressed in a knee-length skirt with fabric that pooled modestly at the bottom, a pair of tights, a long sleeved shirt and a sweater vest for the cold. She pulled on a pair of flat ankle boots. She wished she was able to pack more clothes with her.

She was no Hilda Goneril in terms of luxury, but Annette enjoyed carefully selecting outfits and hairstyles. Thinking of all the clothes she'd left at home saddened her.

Remembering that Felix was itching for a fencing match, Annette pulled her hair into a loose French braid to keep it out of her face. She would've liked to slide on a headband or hair ornament, but all she had were plain ribbons for tying her hair away.

Breakfast was laid put on the dining room table, baked pastries and hot food under cloches organized on the sprawling table so troops could make their own plates.

Annette selected a sweet muffin and some butter, and two pieces of bacon from the hot food. The smell made her miss her mother. 

As she ate, Annette tried to eavesdrop quietly on some of the soldiers, listening for battle plans or happenings around Fraldarius. She was able to pick up that a letter had been sent ahead of the troops from Gautier saying they should be back the next day.

"Ah, Miss Annette!"

She quickly swallowed what food she had in her mouth and stood to face Lord Rodrigue. There was another gentleman standing just behind him, someone she didn't recognize, and it seemed that Rodrigue was making him wait so he could greet her.

"It's good to see you here for breakfast," he said kindly. "I'm pleased your appetite has returned. How's the ankle?"

"Well, thank you. I did take a vulnerary this morning for a bit of pain, but it's really very mild."

"Ah yes, the good doctor predicted you might need to. I do hope you're finding everything you need. Hot water and tea are in the kitchens. Felix says you like rose petal blend, so that's on the counter, dear."

Don't blush. It's just tea. "Thank you. I really appreciate everything."

Rodrigue smiled kindly at her, then he nodded. "Do excuse me, dear."

"Of course," she said, and Rodrigue and the gentleman had already fallen into a discussion so Annette bowed her head respectfully before hesitating over her seat.

Rose petal blend hadn't been available in Dominic in ages, and although she had it with her breakfast yesterday it wasn't as sweet as she usually liked it. She had a stupid feeling that taking it was somehow giving into the strange hold Felix had been taking kver her mind, but she wandered to the kitchens to prepare some anyway.

After breakfast, Annette figured that Felix was probably already waiting for her at the training grounds. 

The training grounds in Fraldarius were much fancier than the grounds of Castle Dominic, or those of Garreg Mach.

Fraldarius was a family of soldiers, Felix reminded everyone more than once during their school days. The training grounds were decorated, portraits of past Fraldarius soldiers--men and women--looking morosely down in battle gear, decorated with pins and badges and armor and weapons. The walls held notches and racks for several weapons, all kinds of lances, axes, swords, and bows, even some daggers and foreign looking weapons. The floor at parts was soft, padded material for some brawling or wrestling matches, and firm, matte material with good grip at other parts. The grounds were large, too, much larger than was necessary for just Felix and his father. The members of their army must also use them.

On a stand against the wall was a large sword, with a decorated hilt and scabbard. She approached it curiously, and immediately recognized it from reference books as the sword of Moralta.

She ran her fingers along the hilt, tracing the designs set in it carefully. This sword was older than the Kingdom. Older than Adrestia. She pulled the scabbard back just a little, a shining mix of blended metals winking back at her. It took her breath away.

"That's not something we usually let guests handle."

Annette jumped guiltily, pulled violently out of her quiet reverence. Felix was approaching her softly, a sword at his hip as usual.

"I got carried away," she admitted, blushing. It was bad manners to go touching her host's things. "It's beautiful."

Felix shrugged. "It's just a sword."

"Yeah, but. Forged with magic, responding to a Crest without being a Relic. It's radiant."

Felix shrugged again stiffly. "It was my brother's sword for a while. It was one of the only things left after the Tragedy. Returned to us by the Kleimans in a grand gesture of their new authority or something."

"Oh, goddess, I didn't know--"

"It's fine." Felix plucked it from the stand and unsheathed it, the blade glinting under the daylight coming in through wide windows. The blade was well maintained, sharp and oiled and ready to be painted in a portrait.

"Amazing," Annette said breathlessly. She had the strong desire to run her fingers over the cool metal, to feel the smooth planes give way to a deadly sharp edge, but Felix would never allow that. She raised her eyes to his guiltily and found that he was looking down at her unabashedly, and it made her stomach squirm nervously to find him observing her as carefully as she was studying the sacred weapon in his hands.

"Again, just a sword." He sheathed it and turned it over in his hands, a gesture he seemed to be familiar with.

Now that he wasn't holding the sword between them, Annette realized how close she was standing. She subtly took half a step back.

Felix placed it carefully on the stand once more.

"Ready for our match?" he asked, his voice ringing with enthusiasm, and he plucked two foils off the wall.0

It had been quite a while since Annette seriously fenced. Not since she was a girl, really, before her time at the Officer's Academy. Before the Tragedy of Duscur.

She waved her arm stiffly, testing the flexibility of the foil. Felix was watching her curiously, and she couldn't stand how interested in this he seemed to be.

"You're really going to be in for a disappointment," she told him as she adjusted her feet into several different stances. "I wasn't a great fencer before, and I haven't picked up a foil in almost a decade." She lowered her arm and relaxed her stance. "This is a bad idea."

"It's just a fun match," he countered dismissively. "I don't really care about all the rules, anyway."

"Well, if we're not going to follow the rules then what's the point ?" Annette demanded, distressed.

He rolled his eyes at her. "Stop taking everything so seriously."

"Fine. But after this we're doing something you're not good at. Like…"

"Like singing?" he asked quickly, his tone almost hopeful.

She blushed fiercely, her neck growing hot. " No. Like… like dancing or…"

"I'm a good dancer," Felix said defensively, frowning at her.

She didn't think he would be one to get defensive about his dancing abilities, and it made her flustered. "Or magic."

"We're not studying," he said flatly.

"Fine, it doesn't have to be something you're bad at. You could play the violin for me."

"You're not even supposed to know about that."

"Even better. You're not supposed to know about my singing." She smiled at him warmly. "You'll do it, then?"

He sighed. "If you win a match."

"You villain," she said, huffy but teasing. "You know I won't."

"We'll see," he said, and he raised the foil, gesturing for her to do the same.

 

Annette was remembering that she never particularly liked fencing.

The rules were strict about footwork and stance, and it was hard for her to move naturally without violating one of those things. She tried to copy Felix's movements, but he was so much more advanced than she was that it was useless.

He got a few points on her before she even successfully parried against him, and she was so excited about it that she forgot to riposte and he used the opening to gain another point.

When she finally did gain a point, Felix started using more aggressive techniques. He parried a strike from her and performed a prise de fer so quick and skilled the foil slipped from Annette's fingers and skittered across the floor. 

"Felix!" she shouted, annoyed. "You're not playing fair. You know that move was too advanced for me."

"It's not a game," he said, and he swept away loose strands of hair that fell into his eyes. "And I'm having fun."

"Of course you are. You're clobbering me."

He retrieved her foil for her and held it out for her, and when she didn't take it he frowned. "You have the footwork down pretty well. Your technique with the foil is rusty, that's all."

He was being so nice to her. "You think?"

"Yeah. You're keeping your arms locked up, that's why you dropped the foil."

She took the instrument from him begrudgingly. Her fingers wrapped around the bell, she tried desperately to do as Felix suggested and keep her elbows loose while conforming to the necessary stance. All this really did was throw her off balance. 

"No, here, look. Can I show you?"

Annette nodded, and she was surprised when Felix came up behind her. "Keep your torso tight and your legs bent. Your feet are in a good position. Your arms are technically correct but you're being way too rigid. Just like with a real sword. You can't sacrifice stance for mobility." As he spoke, he adjusted her shoulders slightly, then both her elbows, widening the angle of her bent arms, elongating the one holding the foil. He traced the shape of her wrists as he fine tuned the placement of her her ams and her fingers curled in her non-dominant hand.

His breath brushed over the back of her neck, where she'd swept her hair away to gather it into two low pony's tails. She was getting ideas, highly inappropriate ones, ideas she shouldn't be toying with especially after the incident yesterday.

She imagined his chest pressed firmly against her back, his grip on her arms gentle but firm, maybe his hand would make its way to her chin and he'd turn her head to him so he could capture her mouth in a kiss, and they'd drop their foils as his fingers continued to brush over her, chaste but curious--

"Annette?"

"Hm?" she asked, blushing as she realized she totally lost herself in a daydream.

"Are you paying attention?"

She sighed and dropped her arms. "Sorry. This is really hard, is all."

"If you're really not enjoying yourself we can stop."

"We can go a little longer," she said softly. "I'm a sore loser, that's all. I should really be glad for the opportunity to brush up on my skills."

He crossed his arms as he stepped away from her. "Just try doing what I said."

Annette tried keeping her arms loose, and Felix wasn't going so hard on her after her protest about it. When she parried his strike this time, he left himself open instead of expertly handling her blade, and she was able to make contact with his torso.

"Told you," he said, smiling very faintly.

"I know you let me do that," she said, rolling her eyes.

"Only because I was limiting myself to basic moves. To be fair."

"Whatever. I surrender, you win. Take me hostage, throw me in a cell, I yield."

Felix's eyes glinted playfully. "I don't think you'd make a good war trophy. You're too much trouble."

"Ah!" she gasped, wounded. "I am not!"

"Couldn't have you doing anything domestic. You'd set fire to the kitchens or something, and the worst part is it wouldn't even be on purpose."

"I'll have you know I'm great at cleaning," Annette told him, her hands on her hips. 

"Wasn't it true that you knocked over an entire bookshelf in the library and you almost killed that old man in the process? Pity you didn't, actually, considering how he turned out."

"Don't believe every rumor you hear," Annette chastised.

"So it's not true?"

"I didn't say that. Just don't believe rumors in general, that's all."

He snorted at her, undignified, but he didn't seem embarrassed about it.

There was a point, five years ago at the Academy, that Annette and Mercedes were having their awful argument, and Mercedes wouldn't speak to Annette no matter how many baskets of sweets she left at her door. And then Annette got tired of apologizing, and she returned Mercedes's anger, and when she tried to apologize to Annette, she wouldn't accept it. Those were some of the worst months of Annette's life, and all the other Lions knew about their squabble, embarrassingly. 

In this time, Felix took pity on her and he took to joining Annette in the kitchens and in the library, so long as it didn't interfere with his training schedule. He never once, in that time, asked her how things were going with Mercedes, but the fact that he made himself available if she wanted company was something Annette wouldn't forget. That was when they really became friends.

Even then, there was a hint of something between them. Felix was handsome, and although his personality was hard to overlook at times, it was also part of what made him so rewarding to be around. Any time Annette could get him to smile or joke or try a new baked good, it gave her a sense of victory over his stubborn stoicism. He wasn't as impassive as he seemed, she'd learned.

They were falling into that friendship again, where he'd show her small pieces of what lay underneath his prickly exterior, and they'd smile at each other before he'd get embarrassed and shutter himself off again.

She really liked coaxing out the soft interior of general villain Felix Fraldarius.

"Sir?"

They both turned to see a low-ranking soldier, a myrmidon by the looks of it, holding some official-looking papers in his hands.

"Lord Rodrigue is in meetings at the moment, and we need a signature for payroll for Martine's battalion."

Felix grunted. His tawny eyes flicked to Annette lazily. "I'll be busy for a while. You're fine, I trust?"

She nodded. "Was gonna do some studying in the library, if that's alright. I have a lot of work to do with Faith."

"You know where it is?"

She nodded, and satisfied that she wouldn't get lost or cause injury to herself or his property, Felix disappeared with the myrmidon.

Annette did get lost on the way to the library, but only slightly, and she was able to find her way there without too much trouble or having to ask for directions.

She avoided the armchairs at the front of the room, instead choosing to pull the reference book she was looking for off the shelf and read it right there on the carpeted floor.

She studied for hours, and when she began getting peckish, she found that she was late for lunch and early for dinner. Lunete snuck her a sandwich and a bowl of soup from the kitchens.

Formal dinners like the one she enjoyed last night were not commonplace in the Fraldarius household, Annette learned. Meals were served buffet-style, as the breakfast had been, in order to ensure that the many troops were able to eat as their busy schedules allowed. She took the heavy reference book back to her room to study from even more. Both Felix and Rodrigue had been scarce, and she imagined there was much to do to prepare for the Gautier army. She would have preferred to help, but she was still new to the environment and she couldn't help with logistics if she didn't know the logistics of the castle.

When the light became too low for her to read, she figured she'd look for a sitting room with a lamp, instead of punishing her eyes and reading by the light of a single candle. She lit the lantern she'd used the night before and carried it with her, book of advanced Faith and white magic tucked under her arm.

Castle Fraldarius was much larger than Castle Dominic. There were proper servant's quarters and dozens of bedrooms. It must have been rather lonely with just Felix and Rodrigue that last decade or so.

One room in particular caught her attention. It was rounded with many windows, and in the center of the room was a grand piano. She approached it curiously, suddenly itching to relax with a psalm or even the arpeggios and scales her mother trained her to memorize.

She lay her book on the piano and ran a finger over the top. It came back dusty, so she clapped her hands together and hurried to retrieve a rag to wipe it off. She wiped down the keys and took a seat at the bench gingerly.

Feeling a little bit like she was doing something she wasn't supposed to, she plucked out a quick scale. The piano was a little out of tune, but usable.

She hummed a little as she picked out one of the songs her uncle made her memorize over months of lessons, and growing bolder, she added her left hand to add a plucky counter melody, bobbing her head to the rhythm as she played. 

She wasn't surprised when she heard a creak in the floorboards and the flickering light of a lantern, but she concentrated on her humming and playing instead of her visitor. After she cycled through the verse and the refrain once, she flicked her eyes up to Felix, watching her from the doorway.

Not skilled enough to talk and play at the same time, she stopped, the melody dying abruptly.

"Is this alright? I saw the piano out here and… I probably should've asked first, but--"

"It's alright," he said, and he approached her, setting his lantern on top of the piano next to hers. "Didn't know you played."

"Yeah. And the flute. My mother spent a lot of time trying to teach me charming skills like that, to be a better noble. Which for girls just means a better trophy for the richest guy or the guy with the best Crest." She rolled her eyes as she added that last part, and suddenly became acutely aware that she was talking to Felix about her future marriage. "Unfortunately for her, most of the things she taught me are ruined by terrible penchant for clumsiness."

Felix didn't answer her, except to lower one of his eyebrows at her. You talk so much, he'd said only the day before.

Quickly, she fixed her eyes on the keys and picked out the melody, playing it slowly with just one hand.

Ever lacking in manners, Felix leaned over the top of the piano, resting one arm casually over the top, the other bent at the elbow so he could prop his chin on his hand.

Annette snuck a glance at him and tried not to think that he looked handsome leaning over her like that, his hair in his eyes, his face free of its usual scowl. He'd washed up and changed, a plain white turtleneck and a pair of dark slacks in place of his usual uniform. She wanted to pull him onto the bench next to her and place his fingers against the ivory keys, teach him to play a scale while she hummed the notes for him.

Her fingers were not practiced, and as she slipped deeper into her thoughts she lost the precision she needed, and the melody fumbled away from her. She laughed at herself, reaching up to one of her pony's tails to give her fingers something else to do.

"You can sit with me, you know. I won't bite." She kicked herself for saying that; it sounded flirty.

He grunted at her and slid onto the bench next to her. He felt warm against the drafty castle air. "Can you play any songs you know the words to?" He asked, looking down at her with an expression that Annette would classify as almost hopeful.

His eyes seemed almost red in the flickering lantern light, pulling in all the warm colors of the flame and the salmon colored walls and the red carpet.

"Only church songs, I know you don't like those."

"Let's hear it," he said, his voice almost impatient.

"Gosh, you don't have to be so pushy." 

She picked out something simple, something that would be easy for her fingers and mouth to tackle at the same time. 

A psalm for harvest came to mind, traditionally a prayer for the Horsebow Moon, but Annette didn't think the Goddess would mind her singing it all the way in Ethereal Moon. Perhaps it would wake her up a little. 

She took it slowly, picking out the notes gently with her fingers, then when she had that under wraps, she added her voice. She could feel Felix's eyes on her even though she never looked up at him once while she played.

She only played one verse, and the refrain twice, before sneaking a glance at Felix. He was so close to her now, and his gaze never faltered from her, and it made her nervous. She stopped playing abruptly and fell into a giggling fit, and she could feel her face turning red.

"What?" he demanded, confused. "What happened?"

"Nothing, you're just making me nervous. Looking at me so intently, it's reminding me of the professor grading our weapons skills."

Now Felix's face turned red, but he didn't look away from her. "I can't help it," he mumbled. "I've missed your voice, Annette."

Goddess, what was he even doing? She'd never wanted to kiss anyone so badly, and the reasons not to that she'd listed just the night before seemed so far away. There was a war in the country, but they were safe now . She had so much studying she wanted to do, but she needed to take a break at some point.

Felix was leaning toward her, and Annette was frozen, watching him with wide eyes as he inched closer.

"Felix," she said, and the sound was so small as it traveled past her lips she wasn't quite sure that he even heard her.

He paused, and he was so close to her that she could see some faded scar on his chin that she'd never noticed before. 

Annette was weak, and she couldn't bear being this close to someone who clearly wanted to kiss her, who she wanted to kiss, too, and not kiss them. She closed the miniscule distance between them, her hands curled tightly at the edges of the bench.

Her lack of experience immediately made her freeze up, and her closed lids pressed together tightly as she cursed herself, once again, for her impulsiveness.

Felix scooted closer to her, their hips touching, and he angled his mouth against hers more comfortably. His bangs brushed over her face as he moved, and for some reason this made her heart flutter.

He was moving so slowly, so carefully, and he opened his mouth against hers just a little. That kiss blended into another, and she was learning, quickly as ever, how to move her mouth and how to breathe against him.

As soon as they separated, he stood and Annette almost lost her balance and pitched forward on the bench. 

"Sorry," he said, and when she looked up at him he was standing with his back to her. "We just discussed this yesterday and I--I'll go."

"Wait!" Annette called breathlessly, and she scrambled to stand. Now she was getting mad. "You can't just do that and then leave!"

He turned to her, an arm at his hip, and she crossed hers over her chest.

"I don't really know what to say," he admitted bashfully.

"Okay, fine. I'll say something." Her arms were still crossed over her chest, and Felix seemed to be avoiding looking directly at her. "I thought that that was, um, really fun and good."

Felix turned an impressive shade of scarlet.

"This is really hard ," she lamented, averting her eyes to give him a chance to recover. "There are so many other things going on that I know that I shouldn't be splitting my attention from work like this. I have so much work to do now with Faith and axes and my leadership skills, not to mention the incredibly difficult task of mastering Reason--"

"And I've got my duties here, which keep me busy for most of the day, and my daily training schedule, and I don't see having the time to properly court someone, even if I wanted to."

She blinked at him. "I didn't ask for you to do that."

"Didn't say you did," he countered, slightly defensive.

"It's just--I'm not ready to think about all of this right now. We don't even know what the next week will bring. Courting and marriage… it's the least important thing I can think of."

Felix nodded his agreement.

"So, what. We're at the same place we were yesterday?"

"Guess so."

She was almost frustrated that he'd started this. How hard was it to not kiss someone? She did it every single day of her life, up until yesterday.

"I just wanted you to know," he said softly, and Annette furrowed her eyebrows as she looked up at him. 

"Know what?"

"That I... wanted that."

Goddess alive. She wanted to gather him in her arms and kiss him again, but she was frozen. "Felix," she murmured, and she was overcome with emotion suddenly.

"I… think I should go."

She bit her lip, keeping herself from saying anything she would regret in a minute or two, and nodded.

"Good night, Annette."

"Good night, Felix."

He left, and she sank down onto the piano bench. Now that Felix wasn't there, scrutinizing her so carefully, she was able to think more clearly. She picked out a different melody, a sadder one, and she played the song over and over until her eyelids grew heavy.

Chapter Text

Annette really would need to do some clothes shopping. She had her warlock's uniform, her brown capelet, and the tights to go with it, and she had her riding outfit that Lunete returned to her on the second day of her stay. She was able to pull together another outfit out of a red short-sleeved, knee-length dress and a blue sweater to go over it. She pulled on white socks that extended just past her knees and gathered her hair to the side in a style reminiscent of the way Mercedes used to wear it, although Annette's shorter ginger waves had nothing on Mercedes's waist length blonde curls.

The snow was all melted now, the cold morning sun shining down on soggy grass, thawing out from its morning frost.

Felix was already sitting down at the table, the scent of his spice blend tea tickling her nose when she sat next to him. He was going over some paperwork as he ate bacon slowly.

She spooned some eggs onto her plate, trying not to disturb him.

"Morning," he said as he glanced up from his paperwork. He glanced down at her as she poured hot water over her tea. She was trying to pretend she didn't notice, but he said, "You look… nice."

Her mouth dried and she took a sip of her tea, which was only nearly-boiling water with undiffused tea at the bottom, and it burned her mouth.

"Um, thanks," she said uncertainly.

Felix's cheeks colored and he quickly took another bite of bacon and returned to his work.

"How's your ankle?" he asked after reading a few more pages.

"Oh! I haven't even thought about it this morning. Just needed a little bit of rest, I guess."

"That's good," he said amicably.

"Any word on what time Sylvain and Ingrid will be getting back?"

"Should be before noon."

They fell into silence again, knights coming and going around them. Annette hummed the tune of the song she played the night before as she buttered her toast, and he tapped his fingertips against his mug of tea in time with her. 

Felix seemed to be taking his time reading, sipping his tea slowly when he cleared his plate. Lunete took his empty plate and silverware and he spread the papers he was reading where they had been on the table.

He didn't always do his work at the breakfast table, Annette knew that much. Perhaps he had been waiting for her to come down. He wanted to sit next to her as he worked. She raised her mug of tea to her lips with both hands, taking a deep pull of the warm, sweet tea, trying to mask a pleased smile that pulled at her lips.

"Felix!" Rodrigue called, and his voice was sharp and severe. He stood immediately, and Annette twisted in her seat to see what was happening. "Felix!" the Duke called again, and when he entered the threshold he was dressed in battle gear, an armorslayer at his hip. "We need to go."

Annette stood, alarmed, and Felix was already moving to the door.

"What's happened?" she demanded, her voice shrill.

Rodrigue sighed. "I just received word. The army from Gautier's under attack."

"What?" Felix demanded, and he disappeared, presumably to change and join his father and their army to head off the attack.

"Please, Lord Rodrigue," Annette called, and she almost grabbed him to force him to stay just a moment longer. "Let me help."

"This isn't a very good first mission. Cornelia's army is ruthless."

"I'm very capable," Annette promised. 

He looked her over, his eyes cold and judgmental. She knew what he must be thinking--she was five feet tall on a good day, her hair was styled neatly, the dress she wore with the tall white socks looked like a schoolgirl's outfit.

"What about your ankle? You're not supposed to ride on horseback."

"It's almost been three days," she insisted. "I'll ride on back of someone else's saddle."

Rodrigue sighed. "Very well. You'll stay with Felix throughout, I trust. You're still our guest, Miss Dominic, and I won't have you coming to any harm while under our care."

She blushed at that. She didn't need to be babysat .

"We'll all meet up at the stables," he told her, and he whirled around quickly for someone in full armor. 

She hurried to her room to change, grateful that she'd just seen her uniform free of wrinkles and clean that morning. She added her riding cloak to the ensemble and hurried to the stables. The weather was actually quite warm for Ethereal Moon, having turned around completely after that storm, but the wind was cold.

The stables were a mess of activity, horses being tacked and mounted and whinnying with nervous energy. 

Felix road out to her, mounted on a chestnut horse with a dark mane, several swords hanging around a belt on his hips. He pulled her up behind him wordlessly.

"How far out are they?" Felix demanded, and his father looked over at him. 

"An hour due north."

Annette could feel him tense up as he made to kick his horse, but Rodrigue interrupted him with one final word.

"And Felix? Be careful. Please."

Felix only grunted in response. He kicked the horse harshly as he turned it around, and Annette had to wrap her arms around him for balance as it reared up and set off in a powerful canter.

A small team of soldiers joined them, and she recognized some of them as the branch team that she fended off the other night. They all kept pace with Felix, who was urging his horse faster and faster.

Only the cacophonous noise of thundering hooves on a dirt path and the occasional dripping sounds of the last remnants of snow melting off branches accompanied them. No one between the group uttered a single word. 

Annette's cloak was flying out behind her, not doing much to protect her from the cold but pressed against Felix's back, that wasn't much of a problem. Adrenaline was surging through her veins, anxiety eating at her. They'd have to ride for an hour to meet Sylvain's army. They could be riding out to a barren wasteland by that time.

She prayed quietly into Felix's back, scripted prayers and her own nervous rambling as one, begging the goddess to keep Ingrid and Sylvain safe.

Time passed by so slowly, but faster than Annette could believe. Her body ached from the rigorous ride, but her mind was still whirling so quickly in dark circles that an hour was not enough time to hold all her thoughts.

"Sir!" one of the soldiers shouted, and Felix pulled the rains of his horse, causing Annette shift against him at the sudden change in momentum.

"I see it," Felix said, and she could hear rage in his voice.

See what? They were at the edge of a field, hills rolling behind it, and to the right was a small forest. The air smelled of ozone, unmistakably the stench of dark magic. It was so strong, Annette was confused.

Felix dismounted, and Annette followed suit, landing heavily on her ankle but ignoring it.

"Cornelia's Golems," Felix explained without turning to her. "Titanus. Weak to magic," he said and at this he turned to her, "but very hard hitting."

She nodded and summoned magic to her fingers. It had been quite a while since she'd engaged in an actual battle. She was keeping her skills sharp with studying. Hopefully it was enough.

"You should wear this," he said, and he pulled from a bag attached to his horse's saddle a white Gremory's veil.

She took it silently, a question in her eyes.

"My father's idea. In case Edelgard is looking for you."

She slid it on, surprised at how easily she could see through it. She pulled her hair over her shoulder and lifted the hood of her cloak to further occlude her features. 

Felix's eyes skated over her now, perhaps trying to see through the veil, to make sure it was doing a good enough job of hiding her face. "Good," was all he said. 

He took a moment to survey the surroundings. The Titanus was flanked by a few men, and there were some Imperial soldiers at the outskirts of the trees. Some arrows were sunk into the soft earth point first. Sylvain and Ingrid must have called a retreat into the forest. 

Which meant they were now trapped.

Her blood surged through her veins at the realization.

Felix instructed all the magic users--Annette, a holy knight, a dark knight, and a warlock--to attack the Titanus. Everyone else would cover them, leaving just an assassin and a bishop to sneak into the forest to offer aid to Sylvain's army and heal what casualties they could.

Felix must have come to the same conclusion she had, which was that this was only a branch team. The army that carried out the initial attack could still be nearby.

Hopefully Rodrigue wasn't far behind.

Annette moved to head out with the other magic users, and Felix grabbed her elbow beneath her capelet as she passed, pulling her close, his face sharp and severe, a deep line between his eyebrows.

"You haven't fought these things before. They hit hard, alright? Watch yourself."

She nodded. "You be careful too, okay?"

He dropped her arm with a curt nod and they approached as quietly as possible.

At the exact instant that they were spotted, Annette lunged forward and cast two cutting gales at the golem.

It moved robotically, its joints whirring as it rocked back from impact. This thing was not natural.

Two great knights blocked some of the other soldiers from approaching, but Annette soon found herself too busy to pay attention to anything except this robotic monster hulking in front of her. 

A gigantic sword, reeking of dark magic, came swiftly down at her, and she jumped to the side and up to fire off two more cutting gales. The only good thing about fighting this was that it was slow.

Out of the corner of her eye, Annette noticed a bishop charge up white magic, but before she could heal the golem, Felix was upon her, striking out with his sword, Aegis shield glinting in the sunlight, and she screamed as his sword tore into her flesh.

The warlock to her left was hit with a magic attack from the golem, and Annette crouched to heal his wounds.

"Miss Dominic!" The holy knight shouted, and as she looked up the gigantic sword was coming at her.

All she could do was brace herself, digging her feet into the ground and squeezing her eyes shut. She was pulled to the side roughly, losing her balance and stumbling to the side, and when she opened her eyes, she saw Felix, Aegis shield aloft, staggering under the weight of the golem's sword.

The holy knight who'd called out to her took the opportunity to blast it with Thoron, and Felix grunted as it rocked back, whirring mechanically. Annette shot off two cutting gales, and she felt her Crest activate with the first one. The second one erupted forth in a burst of power that surged from deep in her chest, and the Golem groaned, metal scraping against metal as it fell back. 

The dark knight cheered, but they weren't done. There were still many foot soldiers left, and the forest loomed to their right. Felix was so fast, and he was already hurrying to the edge of the forest to fight soldiers who were still trying to infiltrate it. Fighting there had already resumed, arrows raining down from branches on Imperial soldiers, who were advancing with shields drawn. 

Annette saw Martine, who'd been with the part of the team who were trying to shield the mages as they attacked the Titanus, and he loosed arrows into the backs of several soldiers.

Ordinarily, she would have been disturbed by such violence, but she was growing increasingly concerned about Ingrid and Sylvain.

She forewent the fighting and slid into the forest, the sound of arrows flying and bowstrings snapping disorienting her. The warlock was following behind her, whether it was for his own safety or because he'd been told to Annette wasn't sure. She wanted to call out, try to get Ingrid or Sylvain to answer her, but that would be beyond foolish. If they were hiding, it was for good reason.

She pushed forward, jumping back when an arrow landed at her feet.

The warlock pulled her back, behind a tree, and Annette was looking up to the treetops, trying to find where the shot had come from.

"Do you think that was Imperial?"

"Can't say," he answered. "I thought it was our allies in the forest."

Annette chewed her lip, thinking. That arrow was a warning shot. She must be close.

She stepped out from behind the tree, her arms raised as a sign of peace. It was so quiet. Unnaturally quiet.

"Wait," the warlock hissed, and he reached out for her but she stepped out of his grasp.

She paused as she heard footsteps, but she couldn't identify where they were coming from.

She wasn't surprised when an iron grip closed around her arm and a dagger poked into the back of her neck.

"It's not really my style to waste the life of a beautiful woman," Sylvain's voice said, dark like she'd never heard it before, "but I will if I have to."

"Sylvain!" Annette sighed, relieved, and she felt the dagger shift against her skin but he didn't drop it. "Thank the goddess you're safe."

"Turn around," he said slowly, and as she did, he lifted her veil with the hand not holding the dagger. "Annette?"

She reached up to hug him and her veil fell back into place. He was too surprised to do much more than pat her on the head like she was his little sister. "Where's Ingrid? Is she okay?"

He shook his head. "Her pegasus was hit by an arrow. She fell hard."

"I can heal her," Annette said quickly.

Sylvain nodded and he led her to a clearing. "This was the best plan I could come up with. We took heavy losses. I have archers and basically anyone else who can use a bow guarding the perimeter of the forest. I sent Ingrid's battalion ahead to send the message to Rodrigue, which I guess he got."

Sylvain's horse was laying on the ground. Ingrid leaned against him, his saddle blanket draped over her carefully.

Annette's blood ran icy cold at the sight of her. "Ingrid?" she called, trying to be soothing.

Ingrid looked up at Annette, her green eyes fluttering open.

"Annette? What are you doing here?"

The pegasus knight was breathing harshly and shallow.

"Helping out. Are you in pain?"

Ingrid chuckled softly. "Yeah. I think I cracked a rib. Can't stand. Or breathe."

Sylvain was watching nervously, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.

She kneeled gently at Ingrid's side, holding her hands out flat. Taking calming breaths, she built up the white magic in her body, summoning it to her palms and bidding it to flow inti Ingrid's damaged body. She could feel the magic soothing her injury, reaching, knitting skin together. She held her breath, hoping the bone wasn't displaced, but the magic flowed easily and as Annette watched Ingrid started breathing easier.

"Holy shit," Sylvain muttered. "That was so scary! You're seriously a life saver, Annette."

"You okay, Ingrid?" Annette asked softly.

"So much better." Ingrid shifted where she sat on the floor, testing her range of motion, and she stood slowly.

"Don't push yourself," Sylvain told her, and she waved her hand at him. 

"I'm fine now." She turned her gaze to Annette, ignoring whatever lingering effects from her injury Annette knew must still be bothering her. "What're you doing here, anyway? Everything okay in Dominic?"

"Yeah. It's… kind of a long story. I'll tell you on the way back."

"We should really focus on getting out of here first. How's it look out there?" Sylvain asked, his expression uncharacteristically serious.

"It's not bad. I'm not sure if there's a larger army that might be coming back, though."

"No more of those horrible Titanus?" Ingrid asked.

Annette shook her head. "There was only one when we arrived."

"I thought I heard one fall," Sylvain said. "If you're feeling better, we'd better get back out there."

Ingrid retacked Sylvain's horse quickly. He mounted it while the girls remained on foot. The Lance of Ruin, that cursed relic, cast its glow over Sylvain's midnight horse, lighting the clearing in a soft orange glow. Ingrid favored a killer lance, although she could see Luin strapped securely across her back. Perhaps it was in need of repair.

Annette jumped when Sylvain whistled, a high, shrill sound. The trees rustled as archers made their way out, landing on the ground one after another. 

"There's Fraldarius troops out there," Sylvain said. "Our goal right now is to retreat to Castle Fraldarius. We've already taken heavy losses."

Annette emerged from the covers of trees carefully, but it seemed that most of the fighting had been wrapped up. Ingrid didn’t gasp, but her sharp intake of breath alerted Annette to something approaching from the north.

It wasn't the whole army, but Imperial troops carrying a banner materialized on the horizon. There were two different squads, one coming from the northwest and the other flanking the forest to the northeast.

Most of the Imperial branch team they were dealing with had already been vanquished. Sylvain rode out and interrupted Felix's one-on-one battle with an Assassin, spearing the Imperial swordsman in the shoulder with the Lance of Ruin.

Felix looked up at his old friend and clasped his hand in his own. They spoke shortly and exchanged a few sentences before Sylvain pointed over to where Annette and Ingrid stood. Annette quickly averted her eyes, not wishing to hold Felix's gaze.

Now that it was no longer just the two of them, Annette felt even more awkward about the past few days than she had before.

Ingrid gripped her lance and nudged Annette in the shoulder. From the south, the greater Fraldarius army was approaching, the blue and silver Fraldarius banner flying as they moved. The girls nodded at each other before retreating behind the front lines, and Annette was sure Felix and Sylvain would follow. Rodrigue pulled the reins of his armored horse as Felix approached and gave him a probably tacit report of events so far. Sylvain joined the girls, his horse pawing nervously at the ground.

"Heard you felled a Titanus, Annette," he said with a smirk. "Glad to have you with us."

Sylvain was so tall, and atop his horse, with the cold, midday sun shining over his bright red hair, she had to squint to look up at him. "I--not by myself, I--"

"You were already the best black magic user in Faerghus by the end of our time at school," Ingrid pointed out. "I'm sure you've done nothing but study in the five years since."

Annette shrugged. "I haven't had much actual fighting experience though. My uncle wouldn't let me."

"What changed his mind?" Ingrid asked.

Annette looked over to her, considering the words she should use carefully, when Sylvain interrupted.

"Did you run away from home to come here?" he asked, and Annette was remembering how unusually perceptive he was.

She nodded gravely.

"Badass," he complimented her with a grin. "Ingrid's father didn't want her fighting, either. It wasn't until Cornelia moved on House Galatea and Ingrid saved each of her brothers from a Titanus that her father allowed her to join us."

"Here's the plan," Felix interrupted, and they all looked to him. "Sylvain, Ingrid, and I will join my battalion on the front lines. Annette, we have a battalion of mages so--"

"Right, I'll join them," she agreed, trying to mask her disappointment about being separated from her friends.

"No," Felix said, a hand on his hip, his sharp eyes narrowed at her. "My father thinks it would be a good idea for you to lead them."

Annette blinked at him. "Lead?" she repeated, and she snuck a glance at Lord Rodrigue to make sure he wasn't laughing at her with one of his Generals.

"If you're not comfortable--"

"No, no, I'll do it."

Felix let his gaze linger on her, and when she looked away from Rodrigue to him, she found his expression was all edges, tense, and full of more words that she wished he'd just say.

"Good," he said flatly.

She pulled her riding cloak over her shoulders, wondering if the chill that swept through her was from the Faerghus breeze or something else.

Crusher would've come in handy, Annette thought as she watched her friends' relics glowing loyally at their sides. She had no idea where her uncle kept it, but she kicked herself for bit trying to search the castle for it before she left.

Rodrigue pulled her aside to head the mages, explaining that they expected at least one Titanus to be in the coming troops. She was basically responsible for dealing with that, and minimizing losses of her battalion. Another troop of armored units were to provide cover, and Annette was responsible for them too.

She bit her thumbnail nervously as Imperial troops continued advancing from the distance. In only minutes, the battle would begin.

She'd paired up the two battalions, each mage paired off with an armored unit. She was the only one without a partner. She'd fight from the middle of the ranks, dealing damage but making sure to protect herself. It wouldn't do for the leader to fall on the front lines.

"Hey," a familiar voice said, and although Annette didn't jump, she whirled around quickly, fueled by adrenaline.

"Felix!" she said, confused. "You're supposed to be--"

"Just checking on the ranks," he said, and Annette noticed a few of the paired units back a few paces away as he glared around at them. "I was thinking. I want you to take this."

Before she could ask him what he meant, he pushed the cold metal of the Aegis shield into her hands. "Wh--no, I can't take this!"

"I'd feel more comfortable. This is only your second time fighting these things."

She stared down at the dull metal, devoid of its familiar glow in her hands. "But even if I wanted to, I couldn't… Remember Conand Tower?" she whispered, her eyes wide and desperate.

He furrowed his brow at her. "You don't know? Your crest will protect you."

"What? There's no mention of that in any scholastic documents."

"It's almost like the Church doesn't want people to know," Felix replied stiffly, and Annette felt a pit sink in her stomach. "Ingrid, Sylvain and I found out completely by accident. And it turns out, as long as you don't try to harness the power of the Relic, you don't even need to have a Crest at all. It does drain vitality from those without a Crest, but it won’t turn you into a monster like Miklan."

She blinked at him, confused.

"We'll talk about this more later. Sylvain will be happy to tell you." He paused, and then glanced across the field over to where his own battalion was stationed. When he looked back to Annette, he crossed his arms and frowned at her. "Be safe."

She gave him a small, reassuring smile. "Of course. I'm your girl!" she said, the same way she used to say to the Professor, or Dimitri when it was his turn to take command. The phrase brought back a lot of memories she didn't intend to disturb just then.

"Hm," was all he offered in response. He disappeared then, to fight with Sylvain and Ingrid, and Annette ached to join them. Instead, she fastened Aegis to her left arm. It was a powerful shield, she knew, but without the benefit of Felix's Crest, she had no idea how much it would benefit her.

"I know we're only meeting for the first time," Annette said to her troops, and she noticed more than one of them glance at her newly equipped shield. "I'm Annette Fantine, of Dominic, and I have no intention of losing any of you. We'll work methodically to take down those Titanus so the rest of our troops can eliminate foot soldiers. Don't let them distract you or stray from our target. And if you're in danger, pull back into the forest. Try to work together to heal each other. May the goddess go with us."

The soldiers she was commanding listened intently, but before anyone could comment, Rodrigue rode out several paces in front of their army's front lines. The Imperial army, about equal in size to theirs, had lined up across the plains from them. The sky shone brightly, an oblivious backdrop to the blood that was about to be shed.

Annette wasn't nervous, at least, not more than she was nervous to be leading a troop of soldiers she'd never met before. She was confident in her abilities, especially in black magic. While Sylvain's earlier statement about Annette being the best warlock in Faerghus was pure flattery, it actually wasn't far off the mark. Although she didn't have an abundance of practical experience, her studies had taken her far in five years. Her reaction time wasn't the best due to lack of practice, but her magical strength had become quite fearsome.

She adjusted her veil, clipping it firmly against her loose hair.

Rodrigue held his sword aloft as the enemy commander held up his axe, and the battlefield exploded into a flurry of activity. 

She followed the sound of the Titanus's robotic joints, the armored units protecting her mages from harm. She fired off the occasional spell, a simple blast of wind to keep enemies out of her way, but she didn't engage anyone until she came up to the Titanus.

This one seemed even larger than the other one, and it must have been able to take more hits. It served her well that this time, she had a larger force to work with. 

The Aegis shield served her well; she could feel its magic activate when the Titanus's gleaming red sword chose her as its victim. 

When the unnatural monster finally toppled over, machinery powered unmistakably by dark magic, the battle around them was already well under way. The green haired general was fighting with Felix some dozens of yards ahead of her. Felix wielded two swords as he fought the axeman, agile, faster than she'd ever seen him before. 

The axe the general was wielding was wide, and despite the extra weight that must have added, he was quick with it, expertly using the weapon's own momentum to strike devastatingly. Felix was much faster, but Annette could tell that any strike that landed could certainly be fatal.

Felix parried a blow with both swords, and under the weight of the axe, one skittered to the ground, freed from his tight grip. Felix found himself unbalanced, and he rolled to the ground shoulder first, doing his best to keep the point if his sword trained on his opponent. The wide axe came crashing down, and Annette began pushing her way through the chaotic battlefield to aid him. They were locked in a battle of strength, Felix using his sword as a shield, pushing against the huge with both hands on the flat of his sword. As soon as she was in range, Annette loosed a fearsome Saggitae on the general, knocking him away from Felix.

Unrelenting, she aimed the last Cutting Gale she could muster into him just as he began to raise his axe again. He became unbalanced and Felix rushed forward. His sword made contact with the general's shoulder and he cried out, sinking to his knees. Unable to wield the heavy axe, he dropped it and with his left hand drew a hand axe.

"Retreat, dog," Felix commanded, his sword stained ruby with the General's blood slanted diagonally across his body.

The General grit his teeth, his darting from Felix to Annette's veiled face to Felix again. "Death to you all, Kingdom scum," he growled, and he threw the axe sloppily.

Felix was ready to kill him for that, but the trajectory of the axe was so unpredictable that Annette wasn't able to get put of the way. The axe grazed her thigh, tearing her dress and leaving a smear of blood.

"No, it's fine--Don't worry about me!" she urged, and she pushed him away. The General took advantage of the confusion to disappear, and Felix disappeared into the crowd only for a moment before appearing at her side again.

"He's gone," he said tightly. He looked down, where Annette's leg was throbbing. "You're bleeding."

"It's nothing life-threatening. Don't you have to--?"

A horn played from far in the distance. And Felix snapped his gaze up to it. "They're retreating." Annette watched as the confusion mounted, then exploded into a totally new chaos. Imperial soldiers were running north, through the army's front lines in an attempt to make it back to their own army. Soldiers were grabbing those who were attempting to retreat and executing who they could. She ducked as a fire spell careened off toward her, and she followed its path to Sylvain, whose horse reared as he loosed a whole battle's worth of spells at retreating soldiers. Some Imperial soldiers were fighting to reach the front, and others were trying to kill as many of the Fraldarius soldiers as they 

could. 

"Watch it," Felix warned, and he stepped forward to close her in the protective circle of his sword as she fired a wind spell at a thief who approached her with a mini bow. He fell face first in the muddy earth and scrambled to his feet, weapon forgotten behind.

Troops gave them a wide berth as they retreated, and she could have struck out at a number of them. She wondered if Felix expected her to.

"Let's move," Felix said as the crowd thinned. He started his own retreat, unhurried.

Her hand at her side felt wet, and when she looked down at her hand it was covered in blood from her leg. The wound ached as she walked, but a healer would be able to mend it in no time at all. It probably wouldn't even scar.

"Felix!" Ingrid called, and Annette was worried that something was wrong, but she was grinning as she reached him and slung her arm around his shoulders in a half-hug. She glanced over her shoulder as she released him and her mouth dropped when she spotted Annette. "Seiros! Annette's hurt!"

Felix glanced at her over his shoulder, frowning  as Ingrid rushed to her, a hand at his hip. Sylvain rode over to him as Ingrid reached her.

"I'm fine," she assured the blonde, smiling as Ingrid fussed over her.

"Your dress is torn. Annette! You need to take care of yourself!" Ingrid stopped her in her tracks and called over a healer right away.

After the long ride back to Castle Fraldarius and a hot bath and a meal with her friends, Annette lay in bed, reading by dwindling candlelight, elevating her ankle which had become sore from strain. As she read, she distractedly traced the keloid skin which raised where the edges of her wound magically bound together.

It did scar, after all.

Chapter Text

Lunete had expertly sewed up Annette's uniform and gotten all traces of her bloodstain out. War-torn, bloostained clothing was probably not so foreign a sight to House Fraldarius.

Annette was dressed in her riding uniform, slacks, boots, and a comfortable blouse. Her hair was gathered into a fluffyv pony's tail, two braids done in the front to give it better hold.

There was a knock at her door, and Annette bid her visitor to enter. "Did you need any help packing?" Ingrid asked.

The two girls had grown closer in the past few weeks than they ever were at the Monastery. Ingrid seemed freer to Annette now. She still carried the burden of a great responsibility on her shoulders, but she seemed more able to cope with whatever she was handling now.

Annette knew, from her own blundersome attempts at getting Ingrid to indulge in a makeover, that her life at home was hard, that her family was basically depending on her for a dowry, that she had several brothers and not enough money to split between them. Annette imagined that letters from would-be suitors must have greatly decreased if not stopped altogether during this confusing time. Being on the warpath for a shrinking territory didn't tend to make a woman more marriageable.

Ingrid's hair was yet unbraided, and it hung loosely against her head, the blonde tips brushing her chin. It made her green eyes seem bigger, deeper.

"I don't have much to pack, to be honest," Annette admitted.

Ingrid looked to the clothes Annette was in the process of folding and laughed. "You've got about twice as much stuff here as I'm bringing."

The redhead frowned. Ingrid wasn't trying to be mean. They were very different people, and Annette understood that. "I like having… options when I dress."

Wordlessly, Ingrid helped her fold some of the things on her bed. Annette appreciated this, but truthfully, Ingrid was not the best at domestic chores. The way she folded her blouse, it would wrinkle the sleeves, and it wasn't going to fit into her pack like that--

"Remember the Ball?" Annette asked suddenly.

Ingrid blinked at her once, abandoning her folding. 

"From school?"

Annette nodded. "I've been thinking about it. The anniversary would've passed a few days ago."

"Oh! I suppose it would've. You've got a good memory."

"Do you ever wish you could go back to that?" 

Ingrid frowned. "Not really. I had a nice enough time, but balls are really not my thing. My own family doesn't host them."

"Not just to the ball. To our time as students. Everything was so much simpler then," Annette sighed.

Ingrid shrugged. "I like the way things are now. Not politically, obviously," Ingrid rushed to say at Annette's wide-eyed stare. "But, I don't know. I have my own troops of pegasus knights. Sylvain and Felix are keeping out of trouble, except for when they should be causing trouble. I really miss… everyone…"

Ingrid didn't have to say his name for Annette to know she was talking about Dimitri.

When news of Dimitri's passing reached Dominic, Annette didn't get out of bed for three days. Her mother brought her meals on a tray right to her bed, and even then Annette didn't eat. She couldn't imagine how Sylvain, Ingrid, and Felix felt. To lose someone you'd known since you were a child… she literally couldn't imagine. Having been a somewhat secluded only child, Annette never really had any friends until she met Mercedes.

She hoped she was still safe in Enbarr, but when Annette thought about it too much, her chest hurt and she could feel her heart beat wildly against her ribs.

She closed her thoughts with a ten-second prayer for Mercedes's safety before turning her attention fully back to Ingrid.

"I know that might seem callous," Ingrid admitted, jaw set like she was expecting Annette to fight with her about it.

"No, I get it. You, Sylvain, and Felix have something going on. Something that's working . The three of you and your families are the last resistance of the Kingdom, that must feel good. Being able to fight for your country like that is truly special."

"I didn't mean to imply anything untoward about your family." Ingrid put her fingers on Annette's wrist comfortingly.

"It's alright, Ingrid. It's a confusing time for my family, that's all."

"We all know that your uncle has no choice. He held out longer than a bunch of the other western lords--that might be why Edelgard is treating him more harshly now."

There was another knock at Annette's door. Sylvain and Felix, clearly not having been away from the training grounds long, were lingering at her door.

"You guys almost ready?" Sylvain asked around a shortbread cookie Annette had baked the night before. He had four more cookies stacked in his other hand.

"You're bringing all this?" Felix demanded critically, looking at the bag Annette was quickly filling.

"It's not that much!" she defended herself, and as she spoke she subtly moved to cover her small collection of bras with one of her longer skirts. Sylvain and Felix didn't need to peruse her underthings as they spoke. Judging by the redness crawling up Felix's neck, he'd already seen. Just great.

"Annette," Sylvain said, his tone nearing business like as he sat in the chair at the vanity across from the bed. "These cookies are divine . If we weren't in the middle of a war, I'd ask you to marry me."

Felix and Ingrid groaned at him.

At first, Annette found herself flustered by Sylvain's antics, but she found that he proposed a hypothetical marriage to her at least three times a day, usually over her cooking or baking skills, but sometimes it was during a training session, or while she was teaching him black magic, or after she said something particularly witty. Or when she walked through the halls minding her own business.

She had it a great deal better than Ingrid, who he asked at least six times a day to marry him. She guessed the hypothetical was implied with them, because he usually just said, 'Marry me.'

"And I'd say no," Annette told him sweetly as he started on his second cookie.

"If these cookies were a woman, I'd marry them ."

"Well. Thank you, Sylvain. That's nice." 

"We're set to leave in an hour," Felix said, his arms crossed he leaned against the threshold. "You'll be ready?"

Annette scowled. "What are you, my mother? I'm almost done."

In spite of her friends' judgmental nagging, Annette was the first one to arrive at the stables. She tacked Licorice carefully, setting her rider's bag underneath his saddle so it would hang properly over his sides. Felix, Lunete, and Lord Rodrigue had been so accommodating of her, but she was excited to be going to Garreg Mach, to a place where she was more familiar.

"Do be careful on your trip, dear."

Annette dropped the bridle when Lord Rodrigue's voice broke through her thoughts. She bowed to him, stooping to pick it up as she did so.

"Lord Rodrigue! We should be back after a few days."

He nodded to her. "The path is normally dangerous, but I believe this time of year there's not much trouble awaiting you. Although I'm sure you've heard the rumors."

He was speaking, of course, about rumors that a monster lived within the monastery walls, picking off thieves and bandits with animal-like brutality, targeting eyes, ears, cutting off appendages, killing them wickedly and slowly as possible. Too smart to be a beast and too wicked to be a man. Felix was most interested in solving the mystery, and he'd taken to spreading articles out over the breakfast table in the past few days to prepare them.

"Rumors, indeed, sir. Even the Knights of Seiros have abandoned Garreg Mach. No one's there."

"A very level-headed response, Miss Dominic. I do wonder, though, in these trying times if the source of these rumors isn't just one man."

Annette furrowed her brow at him and coaxed the bit into Licorice's mouth. "I think we'll arrive at the Monastery and it will look the same as ever."

"I do hope that you'll take just a bit of extra caution and stay by Felix as you approach--"

"Talking about me, old man?"

For some reason, Annette blushed as Felix approached them. She busied herself in fastening the bridle around Licorice's nose, not turning around to face either man.

"Just warning Miss Annette about the rumors surrounding Garreg Mach."

Felix grunted as he entered the stall next to Annette and began tacking his chestnut mare. "Annette doesn't need protecting."

She blushed again, this time with pride. "Regardless, we'll all be together," she said, and she led Licorice out of the stall. She pulled herself into his saddle, something she'd gotten better at with Ingrid's expert help. Her sapphire riding cloak flared out behind her.

"Forgive me, you're right. I worry needlessly, it seems."

From atop Licorice, Annette could see Sylvain, Ingrid, and Lunete approaching them, each laden with bags. Sylvain was still snacking on the cookies she baked the night before.

Rodrigue bid them all a safe trip, Annette, Felix, and Sylvain on their horses, Ingrid atop her pegasus.

They would journey into Charon territory, to an inn set in the beginning of the small mountain chain that led to Garreg Mach. They were set to arrive at the inn just after nightfall.

The trip wasn't very eventful, Sylvain creating silly games to entertain them, bantering snidely with Felix. Ingrid occasionally lifted into the air to make sure they were on the correct path.

Plains began giving way to steep hills. Then to mountains. The trails became harder to traverse, the paths rougher, overgrown with disuse.

The sun had already set and they were traveling by light if the moon when the inn, set into the side of a mountain, tall stilts supporting one side while the other rested on stable ground, stretched before them. 

The group left their mounts with the young stable girl and entered the inn. It was relatively empty, benches stacked on top of tables as a young boy swept the floor. Felix pulled off his gloves and laid them on an available table as Annette and Ingrid sat down. Sylvain seemed to be handling paying for things, and chatting up the lady a few years older than them behind the bar. 

Annette noticed that he smiled handsomely at her, but he never tried to whisk her off to a private conversation or make any mention of plans for the evening.

“Sylvain’s like a new person since school, huh?” Annette asked as she ran her fingers through her hair. 

Felix looked over at her curiously while Ingrid frowned. 

“What do you mean?” Ingrid asked, glancing over her shoulder at Sylvain as he leaned over the bar.

“I mean, I don’t know. You guys didn’t notice? He’s totally tame now. A little flirty, but not as persistent as before.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ingrid said, tapping her fingers on the table. “He’s the same as ever.”

“Do you think?” Annette asked.

“Does it matter?” Felix demanded, his tone dripping with boredom.

“Hot food from the kitchens, coming up,” Sylvain said as he slid into the bench next to Felix. “Got two double rooms, too. Funny enough, not a lot of travelers this time of year.”

Sylvain smiled easily at his friends, then frowned at their shifty expressions. “What?”

“Anyone else kind of nervous?” Annette asked, eyes downcast. She could feel Felix’s eyes on her, but she didn’t look up at him. “What if no one else shows up?”

“They will,” Ingrid said confidently. “We all agreed.”

“Yeah, I know. But, you know. No one’s heard from Ashe or Dedue. Everyone else in other territories will probably have a hard time getting there.” The silence that settled over them was so uncomfortable, Annette had to look up. Each time she met someone’s eyes, they looked away hurriedly. “What?”

“Annette,” Ingrid began, slowly, septically. “How’s Mercedes doing in all this?”

She felt her mouth hang open, unsure of how to answer. It’s true, she had been avoiding any mention of Mercedes. “She’s--” Annette began, but she bit her lip. She didn’t want to make it seem like Mercedes was a defector. “She hasn’t come to any harm,” she explained, and she was grateful that some of the tension was relieved around the table.

“She stayed in Fhirdiad even after it was invaded by Cornelia. They let her stay in the church she’d been living in. They deconsecrated it and turned it into an orphanage. She worked with the children there.”

“So she’s still in Fhirdiad?” Sylvain asked.

Annette drummed her fingers against the table. For some reason, she looked up at Felix, whose steady gaze comforted her. “So, I don’t know if you guys knew. Mercie was born to house Martritz, but she lived for a time with--”

“House Bartels,” Sylvain finished. 

Annette turned to him, wide-eyed. 

“We were friends,” Sylvain said with a shrug.

That piece of information served to disturb Annette. She wondered if Sylvain and Mercedes ever--

“Annette?” Ingrid asked, encouraging. 

“Right, sorry. So she had a half-brother, Emile. And when she and her mother escaped to the Kingdom, they left him behind. And it turns out, that brother was, ah, Professor Jeritza.”

What? ” Felix demanded after several moments of silence. “The Death Knight was Mercedes’s brother?”

“She didn’t know until recently,” Annette said defensively. “Edelgard reached out to her a few weeks ago and last I heard from her she was traveling to Enbarr to see him.”

Felix was looking resolutely down at the table, Sylvain was staring off to the middle ground, deep in thought, and Ingrid put her hand on Annette’s arm comfortingly. 

“I’m hoping she’ll be there,” Annette said softly. “If she’s not… I guess we all know what that means.”

Felix looked at her now, deep into her eyes, and he leaned his chin against his hand. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

Annette chewed on her lip as she looked up at him. “What about Ashe? No one’s seen or heard from him since school.”

“Actually, he was in Empire territory wandering around with Linhardt and Caspar.” 

Annette looked at him sharply. “What? When?”

Sylvain looked like he regretted mentioning it. “Uh, it was a few years ago, honestly--”

Maybe he was being coerced by Edelgard, too. Maybe she'd have to fight him if he hadn't already come to harm. “Well. I appreciate you telling me. I’m going to actually check on Licorice real quick. Just make sure that he’s warm enough in the stable. I’ll be right back.”

“Wait, Annette,” Sylvain called after her, distressed. She ignored him and rushed outside, drawing the hood of her cloak up. 

The stables were far down the road, and she didn’t really want to walk that far. Instead, she marched over to a creek that ran past the property through the mountains and sat atop a large boulder, being careful not to get dirt on her slacks.

Ashe didn’t get any of the letters she wrote. He probably didn’t even know that she was trying to contact him. Mercedes wasn’t going to be at the monastery, Annette just knew it. Why were they even doing this? Felix hadn’t wanted to, he made that clear.

“Hey.” 

She wiped her eyes. Tears weren’t really falling, but they collected stubbornly behind her eyelashes.

“We didn’t mean to upset you,” Felix said, his hands in his jacket pockets. He was standing next to her, looking out toward the creek. “It’s hard not having any information about the people we care about.”

“I don’t think Mercie’s going to come,” Annette said tearfully, her hands on her cheeks. “I think that this is just a waste of time and energy and a big disappointment.” 

“Would you come down off there before you hurt yourself?” Felix demanded impatiently. He offered his hand for her to take.

“I’m fine, I’m just… Goddess, I didn’t think about how this would force us to accept what’s already happened. Who we’ve already lost.”

“Ashe and Mercedes aren’t lost,” Felix said wearily. 

“You don’t know that. Mercedes went to Enbarr to chase the damn Death Knight. I know how that sounds. And she didn’t even ask me first, she just ran off and did it. You’d think she’d realize that being with the Death Knight is dangerous, but no. And Ashe was so angry when he left the Officer's Academy. It’s dangerous to carry that around.”

“Well…” Felix said, and Annette got the impression that he really wasn’t sure what to say. Just the fact that he came out with her was enough to make her feel better. All she wanted some time to be upset. “We’re together, the four of us. That counts for something, right?”

Annette nodded. “You’re right, I should be grateful for that. The Goddess brought us together. I just miss…” she let her voice trail off. 

It was an unspoken rule not to talk about Dimitri. They skirted around the subject in their letters, both acknowledging what happened to him without actually talking about it. Anything close to the subject made Felix antsy and angry, and it wasn’t even like Annette wanted to bring that particular ghost from its grave. But it wasn’t fair, what happened to him, and knowing that he was alone when it happened made Annette’s heart weigh heavy in her chest. She hoped Ashe and Mercedes weren’t alone, wherever they were. 

Tears started spilling over her eyelashes, hot against her cheeks, and Felix sighed and pulled her from where she sat and gathered her against him. He was trying to be comforting, but he was pulling her too much and his arms around her were too forceful. He was trying, though, so she let herself cry against his teal jacket from a moment or two. 

“I’m okay,” she said, her voice muffled against Felix’s jacket, and he hesitantly released her. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. “There was no reason to get all… I don’t know, upset I guess.”

Felix was standing so close to her. “It hurts every day to think of the people we’ve lost,” he said, and it made her chest hurt. “And it hurts to think of the people we could lose. Even when they’re standing right in front of us.”

She blinked at him, her eyelashes wet and stuck together. He was looking at her sheepishly now, mumbling something about a figure of speech, but he quieted when she stepped into him. She fidgeted with the ties to his hood as she looked into his eyes. “This is hard.”

“It’s life,” Felix said stiffly. Annette wasn’t bothered by his tone, though, not when his eyes were so warm and intense.

“We should go back in before Sylvain and Ingrid get worried.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

Neither one of them moved. 

It would be so easy to push herself up on her tiptoes and press her mouth against his.

“Annette,” Sylvain’s voice hissed, and she whirled away from Felix guiltily. Which was something she would table for reflection later. 

“Sylvain, what--?”

“Sh,” he hissed, and he grabbed Annette by the wrist. She was too alarmed to do anything other than follow him as he led her to the back of the inn. “Imperial soldiers are here looking for you.”

“What?!” she yelped, and Sylvain hushed her again. “Your uncle gave them permission to bring you back to Dominic by force.”

Annette gripped Sylvain’s arm nervously. “Wh-what do we do?”

“Uh, my plan so far was to hide you.”

“This is pointless,” Felix growled. “Let’s just go in there and end them.”

“Felix, come on,” Sylvain sighed. “We can’t just kill a bunch of soldiers. That would be an aggression against the Empire. We’re too far from home to be getting in trouble like that.”

"they shouldn't be here in the first place," Felix growled.

“Where’s Ingrid?” Annette asked nervously.

“I left her in there with the soldiers. They know there’s four of us traveling.”

“I have an idea,” Felix said gruffly. 

“What, already?”

"The stablehand was a young girl," Felix told them. "If Annette switches clothes with her and we present the stablehand as our traveling companion--"

Sylvain clasped Felix by his cheeks and pulled him forward, kissing him on the top of his navy head. This elicited a string of curses from the swordsman, but Annette didn't mind the boys.

"You go in and talk to them," Sylvain said to Felix, jerking his head at the inside of the inn. "I'll help Annette."

Felix cast his eyes down at Annette, but he nodded just once before disappearing inside.

Sylvain put a hand on Annette's shoulder and led her to the stables, down a dirt road, past the creek. 

"The two of you looked pretty cozy out here," Sylvain commented breezily. Annette almost tripped over her own feet, saved only by Sylvain's arm guiding her.

"It's not--we were just talking."

"That's the thing. Felix doesn't talk much."

Annette looked up at Sylvain as they talked. He was so tall , to the point that it was bad for Annette's neck. 

"Just be careful with him, okay?" Sylvain's voice was very serious, almost dark, and Annette felt sweat poke at the back of her neck.

"There's really nothing to be careful about," Annette muttered as they approached the stables. The stablehand was raking hay across the floor, her mousey brown hair peeking out the sides of her hat.

"Hi there, sorry to bother you," Sylvain said, and he made his voice silky and charming. "I have some gold coins if you're willing to give us a hand."

The girl frowned at them, and Annette only grew hotter. "And if I'm not willing?"

"I mean, we're both armed soldiers. I'm sure in the end you'll end up helping us. Why not take the gold, right?"

"Syl vain," Annette hissed, so quietly she was hoping the young girl didn't hear.

"This us about the Imperial soldiers that were poking their noses around here, right?"

They both nodded.

"Fine, fine. What do you need?"

The girl was scandalized when Sylvain explained that she and Annette needed to switch clothes, but he stood lookout outside while the girls undressed.

The stablehand was only fourteen or fifteen, but Annette's slight frame served some good for once. It was odd, seeing the girl in her clothes. While her riding uniform certainly wasn't the most noble of attire, the blouse was carefully made from fine materials. Annette waited six weeks for it to go on sale before she could afford it.

"Here, do you mind? A simple braid makes one's hair much neater." She looped together two braids. The common girl's hair was much longer than Annette's, and finer, and it braided nicely.

"Ladies," Sylvain's voice warned through the door which he'd pushed open just enough for them to hear him. "Soldiers coming."

The girl's mouth fell open, and she looked wildly around the stables, whether for a weapon or an escape Annette wasn't sure.

"It's okay. Sylvain will cover for you."

She nodded, and Annette pushed the door open so Sylvain could slide in. She tucked her hair into the stablehand's hat and took up the rake to busy herself.

"What's your name?" Sylvain asked as Annette kicked hay over her pants to make herself look work-worn. 

"Angie?" the girl answered nervously.

"Angie, right. Pretty name. You're my brother's fiance, okay? And we're traveling to see your family."

"Your brother's fiance?"

"Yep. Don't worry. I'll do the talking, okay?"

Angie nodded, and she jumped when the door banged open.

"Annette Dominic?" 

Annette tightened her grip on the rake, but she swept it along the hay on the floor dutifully.

"We've already told you," Sylvain said, his tone dark once more, and forceful like Annette had never heard it. "We're traveling with my little sister in law."

Angie raised her hand in greeting to the soldiers, and Annette held her breath.

"We have accounts of Annette Dominic traveling with you and residing at Castle Fraldarius," the soldier said flatly.

"Annette Dominic came to Fraldarius of her own free will and that's where she'll stay." Sylvain crossed his arms. "The four of us made the travel to Charon territory without her. Must I remind you that Charon territory is still protected by the Kingdom, and the fact that you're here at all is an act of aggression?"

"No, sir," the Imperial soldier said, and Annette raked her way over to the edge of the stalls so she could better see his face. He looked cool, but impatient. "Nothing aggressive about our presence here. Just trying to reunite a girl with her family, that's all." 

Annette watched as the soldier stepped up to Angie and held his lantern over her face, brow furrowed. She held her breath. If they'd already seen her and he recognized her, they may need to fight their way out.

The soldier stepped back. "Safe travels," he said, and nodded to the door at his companion.

"Yeah," Sylvain said darkly. "If I were you, I'd tell your commander that on behalf of Rodrigue Fraldarius, you guys should get out of Kingdom lands."

The soldiers looked at each other stiffly. "I'll… pass along the message, sir."

Annette looked up at Sylvain, her grip on the rake tight as he locked eyes with her. Angie looked up to him too, anxious, and he held a finger to his lips to keep them quiet.

"Goddess," he muttered after almost a full minute. Unable to take the suspense, he approached the door, bare wood creaking beneath his feet, and pushed it open. Annette could hear Felix and Ingrid talking, but she couldn't make out any words. 

"They're leaving," Sylvain informed the girls shortly, peering out the door. "Ingrid's shouting at them."

Angie had been pressed against the wall of the stables, and at this news she sighed and sank down to a sitting position.

Annette felt bad for her. When she was her age, she was at the School of Sorcery in Fhirdiad meeting Mercedes and learning magic, safe from war and soldiers.

"Are you okay?" Annette asked softly, crouching to look the girl in the eye.

She nodded. "Yes, miss." She looked over Annette, and she fiddled with the sleeve of her fine shirt. "You're a soldier?"

Annette nodded. She couldn't be sure what the girl was thinking.

"Kill those bastards," she muttered darkly. "Business at the inn's come almost to a stop. My family can hardly afford to eat."

Hearing those words from the mouth of a child cast a shadow over Annette's full heart. "We'll do what we can to restore peace."

Angie nodded, then she brushed hay off of Annette's slacks as she stood. "I'll return your clothes to you, miss."

Annette shook her head. "Keep them. They look nice on you."

The girl let her mouth fall open. "Oh, no, I could never--"

"I insist. Please." 

Sylvain interrupted them with a hand on Annette's shoulder. "We should go back inside."

She nodded. "Will you be joining us?" she asked Angie, hoping the invitation was clear.

"No, Miss, I still have some work to do." Angie took the rake from where Annette leaned it against the wall and gripped it tightly.

Annette nodded. "Thank you for everything."

The girl only nodded, and Sylvain ushered Annette into the cold to walk back to the inn.

"That was really kind of you," he noted as they walked.

Annette shrugged. "I've been meaning to go shopping, anyway."

Sylvain snorted at that.

Felix and Ingrid were waiting for them at the table, and Annette noticed identical drinks in heavy glasses at a place for each of them.

Felix swept his eyes over Annette, frowning at her change in clothes, but he didn't mention anything about it.

"That was close," Ingrid said severely as Annette slid into the seat next to her. "It's a good thing Annette wasn't here when they came in."

"We would have figured it out," Annette said brightly. She took the glass by the handle and drank heartily from it, and coughed when the burn of alcohol stung the back of her throat.

Sylvain grinned at her. "Ever the optimist."

"It's not like we could have fought them," Ingrid said, passing a napkin to Annette so she could wipe her mouth. "Not without causing a huge disturbance, and we don't have the numbers to deal with troops right now."

As the drink settled warmly in Annette's empty stomach, she imagined being handcuffed hy aggressive soldiers and whisked back to Dominic territory, perhaps being forced into Edelgard's army or shut into Castle Dominic indefinitely.

"That wouldn't happen." Annette looked around at her friends, who had each fixed her with a curious look. "I wouldn't have just submitted to them. I would've let them take me and then escaped. I'm not completely helpless, you know."

Felix raised his eyebrows until they disappeared under his bangs, and his sharp eyes skated over her face, over her commoner's clothes. Holding his gaze, she took another sip of her drink. 

The barmaid brought out their meals, baked poultry and a potato stew. 

After dinner, Annette retrieved the book of white magic she'd been studying and curled up in an armchair by the fire in the common room. Ingrid went to take a bath and Sylvain was up in the boys' room.

She was in the middle of a particularly boring passage when the fine pages of a newspaper were rudely dropped in front of her book.

She twisted to look over the top of the armchair to find Felix looming over her, one hand gripping the top of the chair.

"What?"

"Look," he said, gesturing to the newspaper.

The article he'd dropped in front of her was about the massacre of a band of thieves who frequently terrorized a village down the mountain from Garreg Mach monastery. The accounts of the villagers described how grateful they were that the thieves were taken care of, but also the terrible carnage.

'I would've thought it was a crazed red wolf, but these were no tooth and claw marks. Only a man could have punctured and sliced these people so carefully.'

She looked up at Felix, not wanting to read further. "I don't understand."

He plucked the paper out of her lap and settled into an armchair across the fire from her. "There's someone in the monastery," he told her conspiratorially.

"So, what, you think we should turn back?"

The look he fixed her with was a wide-eyed glare, excited but disappointed in her. "You don't see?"

"See what?"

"It's the boar."

Annette felt like he'd just punched her in the stomach. "You shouldn't say things like that."

"You know as well as everyone else that he's not dead."

She bit her lip. Reflections of the popping flames were dancing strikingly in Felix's eyes. "He's dead, Felix," she said solemnly.

He was holding the paper so tightly that it crumpled around his fingers. "You know that he isn't."

Although any talk of Dimitri was artfully skirted around by the group, this wasn't the first time Felix approached her about this. When Dimitri was first announced to be dead, she sent him a tear-stained letter, hardly legible for her shaking hand and the smudged ink. She could still perfectly envision the letter he sent her in response.

"Annette-

He's not dead. 

Felix"

There had been times that he would speak about Dimitri angrily, blaming him for getting himself killed, but it seemed that he never truly believed he'd been killed at all.

Annette closed her book and put her feet on the floor, giving Felix her full attention. "Say he wasn't killed. Where on earth would he have gone for five years? How would he have hidden?"

"He wasn't right in the end," Felix reminded her bluntly. "You heard him in the Holy Tomb. He wasn't sleeping. Who knows how insane people get by?"

She leaned her elbow on the book in her lap and propped her chin on her hand. Felix was leaning toward her, his elbows on his knees as he held the paper in both hands.

"I'm right about this. You didn't see him lose it, not fully. I have."

"It worries me to see you like this," Annette said quietly.

Felix furrowed his brow at her, the crease so deep it split his forehead into two halves. "I'm not the one you should be worried about."

She wanted to take the two steps over to him, gather his face in her hands, smooth out the worried line in his forehead, run her fingers through his hair, hold him--

She pushed the idea far from her mind. "The Knights of Seiros would've seen him," sge said weakly.

Felix snorted at that. "They've fallen apart without their leader," he said dismissively.

Annette tried not to think of her father. "I don't know what we'll find at the monastery," she said, putting a lot of effort into keeping her voice calm. "All I know is that this is a hard time for everyone."

His expression shifted, and she wasn't surprised that he was angry at her. "I'm right. You'll see."

Her heart was beating rapidly in her chest. Felix was disturbing her. She was reminded of Mercedes's many ghost stories, particularly the ones that ended in her pretending to be possessed, except that Felix wasn't trying to amuse her. 

"You know, I'm tired. I think I'll try to get some sleep." She stood, clasping her book in her hand and stretching the other one above her head as she yawned.

Felix was so quick, she didn't realize that he was on his feet until he caught her wrist in a tight grasp and pulled her so that their bodies were almost touching. She was almost scared now, his behavior alarming her, his fingers hot against her skin where the poorly-tailored sleeve of Angie's shirt left her wrist and upper arm exposed. 

"Be careful tomorrow," he warned, his voice soft but somehow dangerous, his sharp eyes cutting into her. "He'll kill anyone for any reason."

She opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn't decide if she should be comforting Felix or pointing out that he was acting insane or if she should be trying harder to escape from him. Her eyes were wide as she looked up at him, so close that she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze.

As he looked down at her, he raised the hand not closed around her wrist and brushed some of her hair away from her face. The gesture was so gentle, so sincere, so out of place in this moment that Annette felt her mouth dry as her thoughts flew around her head in a confused whirlwind.

"Felix--" she said, her voice clipped, and it sounded frightened to her own ears.

He released her from his iron grip and averted his eyes, raising his hand to the back of his head bashfully.

"I'm serious," he said, his voice back to normal as he glanced at her before looking away again. "I have this feeling that something bad is about to happen."

Annette nodded, still so confused, still tense. "As long as we're together we'll be okay."

She meant the four of them, but the way Felix looked at her, his eyes boring into hers so deeply, she wondered if he misunderstood. Feeling awkward, she bit her lip, and he looked down at her mouth in a way that made her dizzy.

"I really am tired," she said softly, and she clutched her book to her chest, crossing her arms over the hard cover. "So, um, good night."

It took him a moment to respond, his gaze lingering on her lips before returning to her eyes and then looking sideways into the fire. "Night," he said simply.

She hesitated before retreating to the stairs that led to their rooms, and when she glanced over to the common area before it disappeared from her view, Felix was sitting in the armchair reading the article again.

It was a relief to change out of Angie's thin shirt and into her nightgown. The bed wasn't as comfortable as the one in her own room in Castle Fraldarius, but it was good enough.

She didn't fall asleep until after Ingrid quietly settled into her own bed and her slow, even breaths signalled that she was asleep. When Annette did fall asleep, her dreams were troubled, filled with the sound of Dimitri's crazed laughter and daggers cutting into her wrist and Felix's mouth on hers and Ingrid's broken ribs.

In the morning, Ingrid made a comment about Annette fidgeting in her sleep. The oatmeal they ate for breakfast sat in Annette's stomach like a rock as the foursome tacked their mounts and set off for Garreg Mach.

 

Chapter Text

Felix and Annette hadn't exchanged a single word since the previous night.

She wasn't sure if he was mad at her or not. He seemed to be hyper-focused on getting to Garreg Mach, riding at the front of their quartet, flanked by Sylvain and Ingrid just behind him, and Annette brought up the rear on Licorice.

The sky was overcast, all traces of snow gone but a chill in the air that seemed gloomy in the gray light. Annette kept pulling her cloak more securely around her shoulders.

Garreg Mach was set high in the mountains, past Charon territory. The neutral lands that used to be governed by the Church and protected by the Knights of Seiros fell into disarray after Lady Rhea's disappearance. Most people living in villages there relocated to lands controlled by the Empire or the Alliance, if they could. People in this area were disenfranchised. Most merchants didn't bother traveling here, since the journey through the mountains was arduous and most people didn't have enough money to pay them anyway. People were getting by on what they could grow, hunt, and produce themselves.

They passed by some travelers, all in dark cloaks with glyphs embroided at the edges, and some shady characters, but one look at Felix's many swords and surly expression and most passers by gave them a wide berth.

The area around Garreg Mach was beautiful, plentiful forests fed by branching rivers carrying water from the frozen mountaintops. It was difficult to get lost on the way to the monastery because there was only one real road and it led right to it.

Annette was tired. Licorice was keeping up with the others on his own, but there was a point when Annette was nodding off and she didn't realize he'd stopped to graze until he almost pulled her out of the saddle by the reins. She urged him on to catch up with the others.

There was a sleepy little village about an hour from the monastery they passed through. All seemed peaceful, although considering how dangerous the general territory was, Annette didn't let her guard down.

When a man with blonde hair approached them, she almost fired a wind spell, but he held up his hands peacefully.

"You kids are headed to the Monastery?"

Felix frowned at him sharply. "What of it?" he demanded.

"I--nothing, it's--a man was here yesterday," he explained. "Green hair. No expression. Said he was headed there. That place is a den of thieves and scoundrels." The man frowned and placed his hands on hips. "There's even rumors that the devil himself lives there. I'm worried about him."

"Green hair?" Sylvain echoed, curious.

Felix and Ingrid exchanged a look.

"Yeah. About your age," he added. "I can't pay you or anything, but I figured I'd mention it."

Felix opened his mouth probably to make some sarcastic response, but Ingrid beat him to an answer. "Thanks. We'll keep an eye out."

Annette looked resolutely down at the leather reins in her fingers. She knew what the others were thinking, but it was too painful to entertain.

"They say the devil has one eye," the man said, and Annette frowned down at him. Goosebumps popped up on her arms. 

"What?" she demanded, her voice shaky.

"Come on, Annette," Felix said gruffly. Sylvain and Ingrid were already ahead of them, their horses walking at a comfortable pace.

"It's dangerous," the man told Annette. "You and your friends would be wise to turn back."

"Let's go," Felix commanded impatiently, and when Annette urged Licorice onward, he waited for her to pass him before kicking his own horse.

"Felix?" she asked softly, looking over her shoulder at him.

He raised his eyebrows at her silently in answer.

"Do you still feel like something bad is going to happen?"

He was quiet for several moments, looking in her direction but his eyes unfocused. "Yeah. Why?"

She shrugged and pulled her cloak together at her chest. "So do I."

He didn't answer, but he rode next to her in tight silence.

The path was becoming more and more familiar, overgrown but still visible. The area was so beautiful, even in the dead of winter. Pine trees kept the area green, while bare trees stretched their dark branches artfully to the sky. Many bushes sprouting dark red berries grew along the side of the path.

The monastery eventually appeared in the distance, the wall surrounding it filled with crumbled holes, the spires damaged, the roof caved in at places. Annette thought it still looked beautiful. 

She sucked in a quiet breath. Her anxiety exploded beneath her skin, and she was worried and excited at the same time. 

They hadn't run into another soul since the village. 

The marketplace was dead empty. Of course, with no one at the monastery, there was no reason for merchants to gather there. Annette could imagine where everything used to be: the blacksmith, the fruit vendors, the traveling merchants.

"Don't see anyone else," Sylvain said, his voice neutral, and the group all stopped, looking out over the ruined monastery.

Ingrid's pegasus began fluttering its wings, agitated. She stroked its mane, but it was snorting and pawing the ground.

"We should take a look around," Felix said, nudging his horse past Ingrid. Sylvain rode next to him as Ingrid fell back next to Annette.

"Maybe we can split up? Cover more ground?" Sylvain suggested.

"No," Felix said flatly. "We're not splitting up."

They wound around the stables, long abandoned, doors rotted off their hinges. The knights' hall seemed mostly untouched, but Annette saw a rodent run out of it. 

"I hear something," Felix said, his voice tense.

They rode carefully toward the cathedral, following a sound--Annette identified as metal on metal.

Her pulse kicked up and her breathing was suddenly too fast.

Felix and Sylvain simultaneously kicked their horses into a trot, followed by Ingrid, and Annette urged Licorice to follow them. He whinnied as she kicked him, and she knew her nervous energy was bothering him. 

They went off the path they took as students, out into the grass near the sealed forest, and ruined buildings stretched before them. Annette wasn't even sure what these buildings were beforehand--perhaps part of the convent where the nuns lived?

Sylvain and Felix stopped so suddenly that their horses reared up. Felix drew his sword with a dramatic shing, and Sylvain gripped the reins tightly.

She pulled up just behind Ingrid, her pegasus's wings beating powerfully, and they were all struck as dumb as she felt.

Two ghosts were fighting a group of thieves, a large one from the looks of it.

Annette felt shock run through her body, so intense she couldn't breathe for a moment. If she weren't sitting in the saddle, she would have fallen. She couldn't feel her legs. She pitched forward in the saddle, grasping Licorice's silver mane for balance.

Prince Dimitri, thought dead for years, and Professor Byleth, the missing Ashen Demon, last seen cliffside at the Battle of Garreg Mach, were fighting back to back. Dimitri wore huge Faerghus furs, and he looked impossibly tall. Taller than Sylvain, even, and the furs only added to his height. He was piercing thieves with his lance, not minding the gurgling cries they made, stepping over bodies to reach more enemies. His hair hung down to his shoulders, over his eyes, and it was caked in dirt and blood.

Professor Byleth held the Sword of the Creator, glowing eerily, like a devil's eyes, and he was shooting fire spells into the fray.

With a sharp pang in her chest, Annette realized that Felix had been right last night, when his words disturbed her and he looked half-crazed by his own thoughts. She owed him an apology.

Even for two of such skill, they were surrounded. One of them would fall any moment now.

Annette took a deep breath to summon her courage, then she slid out of the saddle.

"Wait--Annette!" Felix hissed, keeping his voice down to avoid drawing attention to them. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"They need help," she said flatly.

"It's dangerous--Annette!"

She broke into a run and she left the other three behind her. She shot a Saggitae spell at a pegasus knight who was winging her way over to Dimitri and the professor.

Unfortunately, this drew the attention of some of the thieves, and three of them made a beeline for her. 

It was chaos after that. Byleth and Dimitri were apparently stealing back goods the thieves had stolen from the monastery.

Dimitri fought viciously, wasting no time with non-lethal blows. His lance struck thieves across the throat and in their guts. The ground was washed with blood.

As the three thieves approached her, a javelin pierced one in the shoulder from above. Ingrid circled over her protectively, Luin gleaming at her back. She was drawing another javelin from a pack in her pegasus's saddle.

Annette disposed of an archer who was nocking an arrow to aim at Ingrid, and Sylvain slashed down at the third with his Lance of Ruin.

Not one word was exchanged between the four of them as they fought their way to Dimitri and Byleth, who were moving to the north of the battlefield.

Annette busied herself with retrieving keys off slain thieves and opening chests that they'd stored around the area. She'd rather do that than fight, anyway, and they were all so short on supplies they needed what they could get.

As she crouched at one chest, a thief came up behind her, but she dispatched of them with a cutting gale quickly.

The Axe of Ukonsavra winked up at her from the bottom of the chest. She pulled it out gingerly. They must have broken into the treasure vault of the monastery, she realized dully.

The sound of metal on metal crashed above her, and Annette turned to find a wide axe shielding her from the point of a sword. 

"F-father?" she demanded as she stood, the Axe of Ukonsavra weighing her down.

"It is I," he said gravely. He looked the same as ever, severe, face set into a tight frown, orange hair pulled back into a thin pony's tail at the nape of his neck. "You need to pay attention. We can loot the chests later."

Already, he was criticizing her.

"I didn't ask for your help," she said, and she pushed further into the ruins of the monastery.

Gustave did not follow her.

She soon realized that the Axe was much too heavy for her. It took a lot of momentum to swing it, and she was taking too many hits because she was having trouble dodging. Running ahead was a bad idea. Felix, Sylvain, and Ingrid were all on the west side of the battlefield, Gustave making his way back to them. A grappler took a swing at her and connected squarely with her stomach, causing her to double over in pain.

A flash of white magic knocked the grappler off his feet, and Annette turned to the sound of hooves approaching her.

Marianne von Edmund, looking terribly peaceful in the midst of this chaos, was riding toward her with Lysithea clinging to her waist.

Annette could have cried for gratefulness.

"What are you doing so far away from the others?" Lysithea asked harshly as she slid from Dorte's saddle.

"It's a good thing we got here in time," Marianne added, her soft voice soothing. 

"I appreciate the help," Annette told them.

The three of them fought their way up the east side of the battlefield, magic flying, wind rushing, ice splintering across the already frozen ground. They'd almost caught up to the main flank when Dimitri and Byleth reached a raised, closed off part of the ruins where the leader was hiding.

"I'm not the one you're looking for!" a man shouted at the center of the ruins, and all three women turned their heads just in time to see Dimitri drove his lance through the man's throat. Professor Byleth watched, impassive, and Lysithea's hands flew to her mouth.  

"Why did he just do that?" The dark mage demanded, her eyes wide and horrified. 

Annette felt somehow guilty for the madness of her prince. "He's--" she began, but she was interrupted by a new burst of commotion. 

Three men were running north, half-ruined walls separating them from Dimitri's rage. As Annette watched, a wyvern alighted before the three thieves, Ferdinand in its saddle. He disposed of one with his axe and Ingrid got a second with her javelin.

"Okay, okay!" cried the third, supposedly the leader, falling to his knees. He reached up at Ingrid, and her pegasus reared up and stomped at his arms. "I'll give you anything you want, but please don't kill me! Take all my treasure!"

Felix approached him and grasped him roughly by the collar of his shirt. "You looted a church ," he spat right into his face. "Accept your punishment like a leader. Like a man." Felix dropped him after that, but the thief groveled at his feet.

"We have no money, no food, and every day we're harassed by Imperial soldiers. Thievery is all we have. We didn't hurt anybody!"

"What about all the men you led who now lay dead beside you?" Dimitri demanded, and the man cowered at Felix's feet. "Why should they die and you live on?"

"But--that's--you killed them! Not me!"

"What a disappointing waste of space you are," Dimitri growled.

"Highness, maybe you shouldn't--" Sylvain began from behind Felix, but Dimitri swung his lance and blood spattered. Felix had to step back to avoid it.

"You're a disgusting monster," Felix said, anger roughening his voice. "You were better off dead."

Dimitri chuckled at him, the sound unnerving. The hair at the back of Annette's neck stood up, and Felix tensed, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his sword.

"Don't you think I know that, Glenn?" he asked, his voice strangely soft, sharply contrasting with his mad laughter.

Felix's face turned red, his features enraged, and he took a step forward but he was yanked back by Sylvain.

"Just leave it," Sylvain told him, and Felix ripped his arm away and retreated past Ingrid and Ferdinand.

"Highness," Gustave said gently, like he was talking to his long-lost son. A hard pit sank in Annette's stomach. "You're injured. There, on your shoulder."

It was true. Dimitri's left shoulder sported a deep puncture, and Annette guessed that an archer sunk an arrow into a weak spot in his armor, and then Dimitri yanked it out. Blood was flowing down the wound freely.

"I'm fine," he growled.

Annette pushed forward, past her father, and approached Dimitri, determined to be helpful. Standing close to him, she could see that Dimitri was in bad shape. He stood hunched over, his shoulders curled downward. A dirty eyepatch covered his right eye, and his left eye swiveled around suspiciously. 

They say the devil has one eye.

Her heart ached. How long had it been since anyone had shown Dimitri kindness? He was her friend. The terrible sadness she felt when he was announced dead by the Empire came rushing back to her now, and she found herself overcome with tenderness for him

"Here, Highness," she said, her tone soft and soothing. "Allow me to heal you."

Dimitri watched her approaching hands with a single wide eye, and she doused her fingers in white magic. As soon as her hand touched his dirty armor, he yanked her wrist painfully and twisted her arm, his other hand closing around her neck.

Her lungs burned as she tried in vain to rip his fingers away from her throat, but he pinned her against the crumbling stone wall of the ruins so roughly that both of her shoulderblades stung with a sharp pain, and pressed down harder with both hands. He was so tall he was actually lifting her off the ground.

"Annette!" Sylvain cried, and he and Ferdinand and Professor Byleth were wrestling with Dimitri, trying to pull him away from her.

Annette fluttered her eyes open in time to see Dimitri punch Sylvain in the face as he held fast to her throat, and Sylvain staggered backward. She tried to conjure wind to her hands to force the mad prince away from her, but her lungs were burning and her head was in so much pain, she had no energy to spare for magic.

Black spots were dancing in front of her vision. She couldn't focus on any one thing, and colors blurred together. As seconds ticked by, her ears began ringing, too, a high pitched sound that began far away but filled her head with a terrible crescendo.

A crack of lightning hit the ground at their feet, jolting her painfully and causing the black spots to close in on her even faster. Dimitri shouted as he sank to his knees, pulling Annette down with him. She was yanked to the side by Ferdinand, her feet dragging behind her. He was supporting all of her weight, and he was speaking but Annette couldn't hear over the din of the ringing. Blackness closed in on her from all sides.

She awoke with a gasp, her whole body on fire, ears ringing painfully, and Felix, Ferdinand, and Marianne were looming over her.

"Annette! She is awake!" Ferdinand announced, and his voice made her head pound.

"I'm fine," she said, but her voice wouldn't come out. She swallowed painfully and cleared her throat. "I--"

"Don't talk," Marianne said, her voice mercifully soft. Her hands were bathed in white magic and they took away a great deal of Annette's pain.

She could still feel the pressure of Dimitri's hands around her neck, squeezing.

Feeling better with white magic surging through her body, Annette propped herself up on her elbows. She laid her palm flat against her throat, taking in a deep breath, relieved that she was breathing.

Everyone was staring at her. She had just enough sense of the situation to feel embarrassed, and she felt heat rising to her head. This brought back her headache in full force.

"Goddess alive," Felix hissed at her, looking incredibly angry. "Would it kill you to think before you did something?"

Annette blinked at him, her head still groggy. She didn't even care that he was yelling at her, because over his shoulder she could see her father carrying a limp Dimitri away, cradling him in his arms like a child. The pit in her stomach opened up and swallowed her. She wished she could've just choked to death.

Tears were stinging at her eyes, and as they built up the pain in her head increased unbearably.

Felix glanced over to where she was looking and then back at her, his expression ever so slightly softer. He sighed and stood up.

"Gosh, Annette," Sylvain said, standing next to her as Felix walked off. "That was horrible! I've never seen someone get strangled before."

She blinked at him. Surely he wasn't trying to be cruel.

"Can you sit up?" Marianne asked softly, and Annette pushed herself into a sitting position. She must have looked like she was in pain, because Marianne asked gently, "Where does it hurt?"

"My head," Annette whispered, her voice grating past her throat.

Marianne touched her fingers to both of Annette's temples, and warm white magic settled over her head like cotton, smothering her headache and dulling her thoughts.

"Thanks."

Marianne pulled Annette to her feet, supporting her under her arms. Annette wobbled and Sylvain reached out to steady her.

"Easy there, sea legs," he said. "Is she gonna make it back?" he asked Marianne, his voice genuinely concerned.

"Give her some time," she said softly.

Ingrid approached them, her hands on her hips. "Lysithea fixed up Dimitri's wound. He's still passed out and we all think it's best to keep him that way for now. Gilbert's keeping an eye on him." 

The group of former students looked around at each other, all wide-eyed and somber.

"I believe a formal meeting is in order," the professor said, his voice authoritative and sure. "To discuss our situation. Perhaps the war room?"

A general murmur of agreement from the group resounded. 

Marianne walked with Annette while Sylvain, Ingrid, and Felix took everyone's mounts to the stables.

Annette was feeling better, doubtlessly due to Marianne's healing magic, although she did find herself a little winded after climbing the stairs to the second floor. 

Her father joined them, without Dimitri, although  he informed the group that he was resting. Annette tried not to imagine her father laying him on the cots in the infirmary down the hall like his long-lost son. She stared intently at her father, but he pointedly ignored her.

Once Sylvain, Felix, and Ingrid joined them, awkward silence settled over the war room.

"Gilbert," Byleth began conversationally, "how is that you learned Dimitri was here?

"I have been following news of His Highness's whereabouts for some time now. I am relieved to have finally found him." Gustave met Byleth's piercing gaze easily, and a poignant spike of anger pierced Annette's chest.

"He's completely mad," Felix snarled, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. "Speaking to the dead, killing civilians, attacking his own allies," he listed, gesturing at Annette. "He's a danger to all of us."

Gustave frowned at Felix. "His Highness has had a very difficult time of it these past five years. Being framed for the murder of his uncle, his imprisonment in the walls of his own city, his attempted execution, the very act of war declared against his own country. We all owe it to him as his subjects to continue fighting for him."

"I owe that demonic boar nothing ," Felix countered.

"I'm sure that your father would disagree."

"You have a lot of nerve," the swordsman snarled, rounding on Gustave angrily. "I don't care what my father has to say about the situation. He's a senile old man, just like you. Your own daughter was attacked by your beloved Prince, and you don't seem to care a single bit. None of you people have any sense!"

"Felix!" Annette said sharply, driven by her annoyance that he kept dragging her into this. Her voice was rough in her throat but she forced herself through. "We do owe it to Dimitri to see this through. And to the people of Faergus who aren't in a position to fight back! We can't let innocent people be subjugated by the Empire just because His Highness isn't well. Rallying behind the heir to the throne is the best chance we have."

Felix glared at her, but he had the good sense not to argue. It was his own fault for involving her in his argument, anyway.

Everyone was sullen, sitting around the dusty table in the half-light of the few candles they'd found. Ordinarily, Annette would've been cleaning already, but her head was still throbbing and she was devoid of energy.

"What do we… do now?" Lysithea asked. "Where do we go?"

"Maybe our old rooms are still available for use," Ferdinand suggested. "We would have to clean up and do some repairs. Perhaps we should create a table of some kind to split the work between us."

Annette liked the sound of that. Ferdinand was a bit much at times, and Annette clearly remembered that Mercedes was annoyed by a crush he had on her (although it seemed half the students at the monastery had a crush on Mercedes at some point or another), but Annette thought Ferdinand was kind, and although he had some antiquated ideas about nobility, he seemed to genuinely care about people, noble and common alike.

"I'll make it up," Annette offered.

The chatter around the room died suddenly, and Annette oooked up to the doorway. Dimitri, his dirty hair hanging in his face, his armor covered in stains, his furs trailing on the ground, was standing in the doorway, looking over all of them.

"We'll need to vet the traitors," Dimitri said, his arms crossed at his chest.

"Traitors?" Annette echoed, and Dimitri turned his icy gaze on her. She squirmed under his single eye.

"Those who have been disloyal to Faerghus. We have with us the son of the Prime Minister of the Empire and two members of the five families of the Alliance."

Lysithea, Marianne, and Ferdinand stirred uncomfortably.

Annette was afraid to argue, but she thought Dimitri was being unreasonable. The Alliance hadn't done much to disturb affairs between the Empire and the Kingdom, except for Lorenz's family and the few minor lords they controlled. And everyone knew that Ferdinand's father was a prisoner in his own home. His time in the Empire must have been very unpleasant indeed.

No one else objected, and Annette felt like a coward for her silence.

"Don't forget, Highness, that House Dominic has sworn its fealty to the Empire," Gustave said from his place at the head of the table.

Annette turned her wide eyes on her father, her blood icy in her veins. "Father!" she shouted, her voice trembling.

"Yes. They will all need to be rigorously interrogated and swear their fealty to the Kingdom."

Ferdinand spoke up. "I have no issue with that," he said. "In fact, I believe I have some information that would be helpful to our army. I'd like to submit to an interview."

Dimitri said nothing, only focused his narrow eyes on the wyvern rider as he spoke. 

"I suppose an interview would be fine," Marianne said slowly. "I'm only interested in stopping Imperial expansion and bringing peace to Fodlan."

Lysithea glared around at the table, her magenta eyes hard beneath her platinum bangs. "I think you're all a bunch of paranoid jerks," she said harshly. "But fine. Interrogate me if you must. Lay a hand on me, though, and you'll regret it."

"Bring them down to the dungeons until we can conduct the interviews," Dimitri instructed crisply.

Sylvain, Felix, and Ingrid exchanged glances between the three of them. Felix crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. "We're not doing that."

"I agree," Byleth said, his bright green eyes fixed on Dimitri. "I understand the sentiment, but there's no reason to subject our allies to treatment like that. If anyone pushes back during the interview, then we can increase pressure." He put a special emphasis on the softer word. "But I have no reason to think anyone here is an enemy." 

"If anyone here turns out to be a traitor, then it's on all of you," the prince snarled, his one eye whirling around the room suspiciously.

Byleth was stiff when Dimitri stormed out, and a heavy silence fell over the group.

"We'll do the interviews in empty rooms," the former professor said decisively, steepling his hands as he gathered his thoughts. "One here, one in the next room, one in the library, and I'll conduct one in the Captain's office." A knowing silence fell around the room at the mention of Jeralt's old office. "Sylvain will interview Annette, Ingrid will take on Lysithea, Felix Marianne, and I will conduct Ferdinand's interview."

"This is idiotic," Felix muttered, and he looked over at the professor defiantly. "You know that this is all coming from unfounded paranoia, right?"

"I do agree that Dimitri's mental state seems to be, ah, precarious," Byleth began slowly. "However, I think it's right of us to be a bit suspicious considering the circumstances." He looked out over the group. "No one is accusing anyone if anything, we're only trying to consolidate information."

Sylvain stood and stretched his arms lazily above his head. "Whatever. Come on, Annette. Let's do this quick."

"Sylvain," Byleth chastised. "You need to take this seriously."

"I'm serious!" Sylvain said with a smile. "Super serious!"

The professor sighed and quickly scrawled a few things on a piece of paper. "These are the questions you should be asking."

"Got it," Sylvain said as he skimmed over what he'd written.

"And you should take a pen to record answers."

Annette wished she could just write everything down. Sylvain's notes from their time at school were neat when he wanted them to be, but they were often illegible, unorganized, and incomplete.

"Right, right. Come on, Annie," Sylvain urged, and Annette shot a questioning look at the professor who only shrugged in response.

Sylvain led her down the hallway and around the corner. Annette knew the way to the library well.

It looked like the library was relatively untouched, the shelves full and still organized. Most thieves were probably not interested in reference books.

Sylvain pulled out a chair for her and slid into one across the table. They could have been studying.

"Okay, so, do you swear your fealty to the Kingdom?" he asked, brow furrowed in a mostly serious expression.

"Of course."

"Good enough for me!" he said, and he stretched out in his chair.

"Sylvain," Annette sighed. 

"Fine, fine. You're a real stickler." He picked up the quill and hesitated before writing something. "So, in the past five years, you were at Castle Dominic the whole time?"

She nodded.

"Really? You never went anywhere or did anything?"

"I wasn't really allowed. My uncle and especially my mom didn't want me traveling in a dangerous political environment."

"They kept you in the house?" Sylvain asked, his deep brown eyes on her intently.

"Well--no. It wasn't like that. My mom would just get really upset at the notion of me leaving for any reason, so I just… didn't." She paused and looked down at the dusty table. "I guess that sounds stupid now."

Sylvain frowned at her. "I don't know. You're here now."

She smiled at him gratefully.

"So, over the past five years, any courtships? Marriage proposals? Boyfriends?"

The smile slipped from Annette's face instantly. "That's not written on there!"

"So what? It's relevant. What if you were cavorting with Imperial lords?"

She glared at him fiercely. "There was no cavorting."

"Alliance lords?" Sylvain asked, leaning his cheek in his hand.

"Nope." Annette's face was beginning to heat up.

"Any proposals for a courtship?"

"None that I know of," she said, eyes cast downward. "I guess nobody was interested in me."

"It's probably more likely that your uncle wasn't sure which way he should lean, politically."

Annette sighed. "Can we please talk about something else?"

"Any ideas about who you'd like to court you?"

She frowned. "Please stop."

"I'm just gathering information," Sylvain said sweetly.

"What about you? Girl crazy as ever?"

Now it was his turn to frown at her. "Of course."

"Really? Because it seems to me like, I don't know. You've calmed down a little."

"Not really."

"So there's no one--?"

"I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions," he interrupted flatly.

Annette shrugged. "I was just asking."

"Okay, so it says here, 'Did you ever see or hear from any of the Imperial students'?"

"Just Ferdinand. And he'd joined our class, so..."

"What did he tell you he was doing?"

"He only wrote me twice. Once was when Dimitri died. Well, he didn't, did he? Anyway, he gave me his condolences then. And another was when my uncle bent his knee to Edelgard."

"What did he say then?"

"He told me to be careful. He told me not to get involved with Edelgard's strike team, and he told me never to set foot in proper Kingdom territory again or my family would feel her wrath."

Sylvain frowned. "Have you heard from your family?"

"No, but if Imperial soldiers are looking for me with my uncle's blessing, he must have lied and told Edelgard that I was captured. Right?"

"What actually were the circumstances of your leaving House Doninic?"

"Well, Edelgard reached out to my uncle and told him she was interested in Crusher. And that she wanted me to join her strike force. And I said no way, and I left."

"And your uncle let you?"

Annette nodded. "He told me not to come back until the Kingdom was free."

Sylvain actually wrote something down, and Annette craned her neck to try to read it. His handwriting was messy, though, and from this angle it looked like random scrawls.

"I think that's probably about it," he said, and he leaned his cheek on his closed fist again. He looked around them, the library empty with full shelves. It was almost spooky. "It's weird being back here, right?"

Annette nodded. "I feel like a monk will come around the corner and lecture us about curfew any moment now."

"I can't actually imagine you getting in trouble," Sylvain remarked, tilting his head curiously.

"I didn't usually, but I used to lose track of time in here."

"Yeah, I remember."

Sylvain looked up to the doorway and Annette turned to a familiar voice.

Felix and Marianne were peering at them from the threshold. 

"Remember when we got in trouble because you had your warlock test the next day and we stayed here until one in the morning? That nun was pissed."

Annette smiled at him as he approached the table.

"Were you finished?" Marianne asked softly. "Are we interrupting?"

"Nope, all done," Sylvain said. He pushed out a chair for Felix, but he took the chair next to Annette. Marianne sat beside him instead.

"I remember," Annette said. "You were supposed to be watching the time, but you fell asleep."

"You didn't wake me."

Sylvain was watching them closely, and it made Annette nervous. "I hope Lysithea and Ferdinand are okay," she said, and she traced a pattern in the dust on the table. She was overcome with a desire to clean.

"I'm sure they're all right," Marianne said. "We know how high the stakes are to everyone here. It's a minor inconvenience, really."

"I can't believe Gilbert sold you out like that," Sylvain said to Annette. "What a jerk."

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I'm sure he had his reasons."

Felix looked at her sharply. "I don't like that guy."

"Yeah, well, you don't have to," Annette told him tightly. 

Heavy footsteps made Annette turn to the door, where Byleth, Ferdinand, Lysithea, and Ingrid were peering in.

"We're done with the interviews," Byleth said. "You're free to go." 

Felix scoffed. "And do what, exactly?"

Byleth's eyes, so light and jarring even through the light filtering in through dirty windows in the hall, landed on Felix in that flat, severe way all the students remembered well. "Move forward."

A somber silence settled over the group.

There was so much work to be done. The tight fist of anxiety closed around Annette's chest, and she stood suddenly. "I want to see my room. Hopefully there's something salvageable in there! I didn't leave anything particularly valuable, so hopefully it's just as I left it."

"I suppose it's a good idea. There's a lot of work to be done. Everyone should try to get some rest." Byleth nodded at Annette in approval as she passed through the threshold.

That old rush she used to get at any signs of approval from their impassive professor returned in full force, and she smiled at him before ducking into the hall.

Suddenly, as she traveled through the halls, she felt like she was 5 years in the past. Her feet remembered the way like she'd never left the monastery.

"Annette."

She paused before descending the stone stairs that would bring her to the entrance hall. Felix was approaching her, unhurried.

"You shouldn't walk around the monastery by yourself. It's not safe."

"I'm pretty sure any thieves around will stay away once they heard what happened to the others," she said, frowning.

"Thieves are not what you should be worrying about."

She looked up at his amber eyes, sharp and grim. "You're talking about Dimitri?"

"It's not safe with him just wandering around," Felix said, and Annette noticed his fingers twitch toward the hilt of his sword from where his hand rested at his hip.

"What happened earlier… it was my fault." Annette began descending the stairs, her footsteps echoing around the narrow walls, and Felix followed behind her. "I shouldn't have touched him, not without asking him first, considering his situation."

"The situation being that he's completely mad."

She came to the bottom of the stairs and whirled on him, frowning. "It's not his fault. Look at everything that's happened."

Felix paused, two steps from the bottom, and he met her gaze levelly. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is. It's not safe to be near him." He stepped down to stand next to her, and his eyes were on her throat, his expression morose. "If he touches you again, I'll kill him."

"No you won't," she said, rolling her eyes. She moved away from him, continuing toward her room, and he followed a few paces behind her.

She stepped outside and they made their way through the campus, past the Officer's Academy and the training grounds to the long stretch of students' dormitories. Annette's room was almost at the end.

Annette led the way to her room, Felix following just behind. They walked amicably to her room. She thought he would have left to go to his own room or even visit his beloved training grounds, but he stayed at her side as she pushed the door open.

They peered inside cautiously. Felix was tense. His hand hovering above his sword as though he expected someone to come rushing out at them.

It was dusty, but she should have expected that after five years. As Annette stepped inside, dust puffed up from the blue rug that had always covered the floor. Her bookshelf was overturned. What anyone could have been looking for was beyond Annette's imagination. Books were strewn across the floor, most of them lying open, bent at the spine. Her bed looked undisturbed, neatly made the same as it had been the day of the terrible battle.

Felix helped her right the bookshelf, and she stooped to retrieve books off the floor.

Most of the books were black magic reference books, and although she was trying to master it still, she was quite proficient in the skill now and didn't have much need for them. She shelved them anyway.

"Don't work too hard," Felix said, his arms crossed over his chest. "You should probably rest."

"Rest?" Annette echoed. "I feel fine."

"You did pass out earlier," Felix reminded her.

The memory of Dimitri's fingers crushing her throat rushed back to her, and she raised her fingers to her collarbone to remind herself that she was okay, she was breathing, no one was trying to hurt her.

"I'm fine," she insisted, but the pause between Felix's statement and hers made him arch an eyebrow at her.

He stepped up to her and tucked a finger under her chin. He lifted her face and tilted it gently, and it occurred to Annette that he was checking her throat for bruises.

"Felix, I'm--"

"Fine, I know," he said, and his voice was suddenly so soft. "That scared the shit out of me."

She frowned up at him, and she placed her fingers on his wrist to comfort him.

"He would've killed you."

"I don't think--" Annette began, but her interrupted her, his voice tense.

"It took three people to pull him off of you after I hit him with a lightning spell." He stepped into Annette, his fingers at her chin sliding up to push her hair behind her ear. "I won't let him hurt anyone else."

"It's not your job to protect us from him." His fingers on her skin were distracting her, and his eyes were smoldering as he looked down at her, filled with a fierceness and a softness at the same.

She couldn't breathe for a completely different reason.

"I feel like it is," he admitted, and he bent his head down closer to hers like he was telling her a secret. "I'm the only one who knew what he was capable of this whole time."

"Oh, Felix," she said softly, and she wrapped her arms around him comfortingly.

She knew that Felix generally wasn't one for hugs, but he stooped to meet her and rested his chin on her head.

"I think Dimitri needs us," she said softly into his chest. "I'm worried about him."

Felix scoffed at her and stepped back. "You shouldn't be. He's a monster now, Annette."

"You act like he was never our friend."

"The man that was our friend may never come back." Felix's voice was severe, and he could hardly be considered an expert on mental health, but she had to admit there was some truth to that statement.

"No," she said quickly, and she stepped away from him. "That's not… you're not even trying. You're giving up on him before you're giving him a chance."

"He murdered those thieves so brutally," he said bitterly. "He hardly gave them a chance to defend themselves. That's who you want leading us?"

"I believe that the Dimitri I knew is still buried in there," she said defiantly.

"The Dimitri you knew was only a facade," Felix answered.

She drew in a sharp breath. "That's… that's a horrible thing to say."

"It's the truth. And I'm only telling you because I don't want you getting hurt again. He's dangerous."

She looked up at Felix, his sharp eyes and pointed chin, his teal jacket and half-cape and the swords slung over his hips.

So are you, she thought, and she bit her lip nervously.

Through her open door, Annette heard footsteps approaching, and a dark voice. 

Her heart actually skipped a beat when she realized that it was Dimitri's voice she was hearing, and Felix wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, ready to unsheathe it.

For all of her defense of him, actually seeing Dimitri again made her weak with fear. The terrifying memory of her burning lungs and fogging mind made her latch onto Felix's arm.

He never even looked toward her open door as he wandered, his furs dragging behind him, all the while muttering unintelligibly. He passed by, continuing on toward the training grounds, and Felix relaxed long before Annette's mind calmed.

"You're frightened of him," Felix observed.

"I don't want to be. He's my friend. I know that what he did before was an accident. But, Sothis, being strangled like that…"

"I will never let him touch you again," he swore.

She was torn between continuing to protest and just saying thank you. Tears poked at the back of her eyes. "I don't want it to be like this," she said, willing the tears not to enter her voice. She raised a hand to her throat, where she could still feel Dimitri crushing her.

Felix caught her wrist tenderly and pulled it away, holding it gently aloft. He slid his fingers against her palm, caressing her gently. She got the feeling that he didn't know what to say.

His fingers were so soft against her skin, his eyes filled with such concern.

She wanted to kiss him then, and after pausing for a moment, she did. She could blame it on her lightheadedness, but she just couldn't think of a good enough reason not to. She stepped into him keeping her hand entwined in his fingers, and he met her mouth in a soft kiss. He raised his free hand to the back of her head and applied more pressure against her lips.

Gently, he trailed kisses over her jaw, to the soft skin of her neck and her throat. Where she'd wilted under Dimitri's rough hands, she bloomed under the tenderness of Felix's kisses. She clung to his jacket, devoid of any thoughts that were not of Felix and his mouth.

He returned to his lips to hers, and Annette raised her hands to his face, tracing the sharpness of his cheeks and the steep slope of his jaw. "Felix," she whispered between kisses, and he pulled her into him with a hand at her waist.

She could kiss him until the sun went down and came back up in the morning.

With each small movement, whether it was his lips shifting against hers or his calloused fingers in her hair or pulling her close, a new wave of butterflies fluttered in Annette's stomach and through her veins. 

When they finally separated and Annette could look up at him, she found his mouth looking red and inviting, his amber eyes trained on her throat, his bangs swept messily to the side. It made her want to kiss him again. 

"From now on, the only one to touch you will be me," he whispered, and it made Annette shiver. "No one will hurt you if I can help it."

It was a ridiculous thing to say as they were embarking on a war against a dangerous and violent enemy, as they were regrouping now with the intent to fight back viciously, as no one knew where their efforts would lead.

Annette knew this, but she still believed him.

He retired to his own room shortly after, urging Annette to lock her door always, and she set to work dusting and arranging her books and unpacking her clothes.

Everything about this day was so unexpected, she couldn't do much more than reflect and wonder what the next day--and the next week, month, and year--would bring.

Chapter Text

Guardian Moon was passing quickly.

The Knights returned to Garreg Mach promptly, ushered within the walls they'd allowed to fall to ruin by Byleth's return. Apparently, the professor had an agreement with Lady Rhea that he would lead the Church in her absence, which… didn't make a lot of sense to Annette. 

The professor was surely a capable leader, with battle skills honed by years of experience, even at his young age, and preternatural talent. But he didn't know anything about the church. Its customs and meanings were lost on him, not to mention a deeper knowledge of scripture or intimate knowledge passed on by other figures in the Church.

It wasn't actually very clear what had happened with their professor, but the Blue Lions understood that when Solon banished him (into another dimension, if Annette understood correctly?) the Goddess gifted him her power and he reappeared to finish off their foes. But what did that mean, exactly? Was the professor a god now? He didn't seem to have much more knowledge than before. He did seem stronger, more gifted in magic than before. But would that translate to leading an oppressed people?

Annette ultimately decided that it wasn't up to her who ran the Church and stuck to her studies.

Shamir was constantly suspicious of everyone, even Ingrid, Sylvain, and Felix, who had thus far been considered above suspicion by basically everyone. Her lingering stares and light-footed tread were exhausting.

Slowly, the group of knights and former students were restoring parts of the monastery, cleaning rooms they would need to use, pruning the grounds, and minding housework and repairs.

The eleventh of Guardian Moon was a festival day, although the meager celebration the army threw together was nothing like the old days. It was Saint Seiros day, and all of the knights and former students came together in the ruined cathedral for a mass led by Seteth. Manuela led the choir, into which she'd drafted Annette despite her protests about singing in front of people. 

Nonsense, Manuela had said, there weren't enough people to form a proper choir without her. It wasn't about her, it was about honoring the goddess, so on and so forth until Annette agreed.

Felix was not a religious man. This was not something he tried to hide, and he actually seemed to take pride in it. But Annette swore that every time she looked over at him from where he was sat in the pews, he was listening intently to Seteth or the lyrics of a pious song they were singing. There were a few times when she'd look over at him and their eyes would meet before he refocused on Seteth, but she was front and center among a slew of bishops and priests. It was only natural that he'd happen to look over at her once in a while.

Thinking this didn't keep her heart from fluttering or her stomach from leaping as his amber eyes connected with hers.

At the end of the moon, a cold snap settled over the mountains.

Annette had a small fire going in her room. Her work was spread out over her desk, theorems and white magic sigils copied and recopied until she saw them in her dreams.

It was the twenty-sixth of Guardian Moon, and Annette hadn't gotten out of bed all day. Her curtains were half drawn, so that she could watch the snow falling from her window. The sky and the ground blended together into a uniform shade of gray, and it comforted her in her sour mood.

Mercedes used to always write her this time of year, and it was a huge comfort to Annette. Having to get through her father's birthday without so much as a letter from her best mood only made her sadness more acute.

A calico kitten with green eyes scratched at her door, and she took pity on it and brought it inside. It had been sitting by the fire all day.

The church bell chimed for dinner, and Annette's stomach growled but she only turned over in bed.

She'd gotten breakfast early that day, before the dining hall was technically open, but the volunteer staff was so used to her helping in there that they gave her some of the early pastries and shooed her out. That was the last time she left her room.

There was a knock at her door and she stared at it. Perhaps if she ignored it the person on the other side would go away.

"Annette?"

Oh, Goddess. That was Felix's voice.

"One second!" She called, and she threw herself onto her feet. Her outfit, a simple sweater and a knee-length skirt over warm tights, looked at least decent enough. Although her skirt was wrinkled from staying in bed. Her hair was frizzy from its contact with the pillow for several hours. 

She tried to smooth it down, but honestly probably only succeeded in making it worse.

She pulled open the door and Felix was standing on the other side, his hands pushed into his pockets and his hair peeking out from under his furred hood. 

"Come in," she urged, pulling him out of the snow. A gust of wind blew snow into her room and she hurried to shut the door behind him.

When she faced him he was raking his hand through his hair, trying to fix his navy bangs, which were wind-swept and damp with melting snow. It was extremely adorable, and Annette found her mouth suddenly dry.

"Where have you been?" he asked, frowning. He looked over her small room, at the lit fire that she hadn't bothered keeping free of ash, at her unmade bed, at the lack of candles and the scant light. "Were you in bed?"

She frowned at him. "Did you need something?"

"No. Marianne and Lysithea said you haven't joined them in the library in days and I haven't seen you around. I was worried you were sick or something."

Annette shrugged and looked over at the kitten, which had run under bed when she opened the door but was coming out again. "Just needed some time to myself," she said evasively.

Felix frowned at her suspiciously, but he looked down at the kitten and crouched, extending his gloved hand out to it.

Annette watched as the cat approached him cautiously. It rubbed its face against his fingers and he pet it carefully.

It was nice of Felix to check up on her, but really she just wanted to be alone.

The cat decided it had enough attention and wandered over to the fire, stretching before curling up with its tail tucked close to its body.

Felix stood and looked over to Annette's desk, at her work from the day before. "There's a plate in here," he pointed out.

"I know," she said uncomfortably. "I didn't want to eat in the dining hall--"

"It's not like you to leave dirty dishes around." He was looking at her suspiciously, and Annette lowered her gaze. "Did the boar do something to you?"

"What? No. I'm just… ugh." She sighed and sat on her bed, exhausted. "It's my father's birthday."

Felix blinked at her. "What?"

"It's his birthday, okay? And he's right here and he still has no interest in spending the day with me and it really sucks."

"Okay," he said. It was clear by his tone that he didn't really understand what she was upset about, but she could tell he was trying to be considerate. "Are you hungry?"

"No," she said quickly, but the very second she did, her stomach rumbled loudly. Felix said nothing, but he raised his eyebrows at her. "Fine, I could eat. I really don't want to go outside," she sighed. "What if he's at the dining hall?" 

"He's not," Felix said finally.

"Huh? Why not?"

He paused before answering, and she could tell he wasn't sure if his answer would upset her. "He's having tea with prof--with Byleth."

"Oh." Of course he'd want to spend time with the professor. "I really don't want to go out."

Felix frowned at her. "You really should. It's not healthy to stay cooped up in here."

"Felix," she groaned, but she didn't have anything to add to it.

"Come on. I was on my way there from the training grounds."

She sighed and begrudgingly reached into a trunk she'd gotten to organize her shoes and pulled on a pair of warm boots. She took her royal blue furred riding cloak from where it was hanging and a pair of gray gloves and a matching hat.

"My hair is so frizzy," she grumbled as she carefully lowered the hat onto her head and adjusted it so it was covering her ears.

"I think you look nice," he said, and he pointedly refused to look at her after that.

He ushered her out into the cold and she clasped her cloak closed so the wind wouldn't blow it open. Thankfully, her room was close to the dining hall. They ascended a wide set of stairs which led to a landing overlooking the fish pond and Felix urged her into the dining hall. It was still early, so not many people were there yet.

Annette could smell spices, a nice contrast to the cold air around them. The dining hall was warm, heated by the ovens in the kitchens.

Sweet and spicy fish was on the menu, which was actually one of her favorites. She was surprised that Felix liked it too, since he usually shied away from anything sweet. She brought her tray to an empty section of a table in the middle of the room, and Felix slid into the bench next to her. 

"Oh my gosh," Annette gasped, and Felix frowned at her. "Your face! Is that a bruise?"

She didn't notice it in the low light of her room, but now that they were sitting in the bright dining hall, she could see a light purple, circular bruise sitting at the corner of his chin. She lifted her hand to his face gently, but Felix's cheeks turned red and he pushed her hands away abruptly.

"It's fine, just eat," he grumbled, annoyed. 

She turned to her fish, sullen, but Felix only left her like that for a few moments. "The boar wouldn't leave the Cathedral last night," he sighed. "Marianne asked me to help her convince him to go to his room. I got him to leave, but when I tried to get him upstairs he punched me."

He glanced at Annette, and at her concerned expression, he added, "It's fine. I'm fine. I can handle getting punched every once in a while."

She wanted to fuss over him, but he was making it pretty clear that he didn't want her to, so instead she speared some fish with her fork, looking down at her plate instead of at Felix's bruised face. "He doesn't ever seem to sleep," she said.

Felix shook his head in agreement. "Marianne worries about it. I think it's just the madness and there's nothing we can do about it."

"You've spent a lot of time with Marianne lately," Annette said neutrally. Her cheeks warmed and she quickly took another bite of her meal. It was possible she was a little jealous: Marianne was so well-spoken and competent, and she always looked so nice and put together. Her calm energy was the complete opposite of Annette's frantic chaos. 

"Not really," he answered. "She's always hanging around the boar. Doesn't seem to be interested in much else, except praying. Two of my least favorite things." 

"She teaches Lysithea and me Faith," Annette said.

"Not a big fan of that either."

She favored him with a small smile. Felix had been busy since they arrived at the monastery. Lord Rodrigue was operating as the main leader of the Kingdom, and he often sent messages via pegasus knights that Felix needed to attend to. He was also very involved in keeping an eye on Dimitri, as much as he complained about it and overtly disliked him. All the men helped, Sylvain, Ferdinand, Byleth, and Gustave. But Felix seemed to be the only one Dimitri would respond to. It was probably because he was constantly mistaking him for Glenn, which was painful to watch, but it was the easiest way to get him to agree to things without a fight.

“Um, thanks for checking up on me,” she said, and when he looked over to her, she sheepishly took a bite of roasted veggies. “I guess staying in bed all day wasn’t the best plan.”

“No, it probably wasn't."

"Annette!"

Both Felix and Annette looked up to the door to find Marianne and Lysithea shaking snow off their clothes and their hair. Lysithea had called out, and she was approaching them quickly.

"You can't come to the library to study with us, but you'll have dinner with Felix?" Her mouth was set in a hard frown, her magenta eyes free of mirth, but Annette couldn't help but giggle. Lysithea apparently saw this as another insult, and her frown deepened. "I wasn't joking. You know if you don't want to study with us you can just say so."

Marianne came up behind Lysithea and put a hand on her shoulder. "Perhaps you shouldn't be shouting."

Lysithea's frown softened. "I didn't mean to be. But we were worried about you! It's bad form not show up to one's plans without warning."

"I'm sorry," Annette said, trying to inject as much sorrow into her voice as possible. "Time kind of got away from me. I haven't been feeling very well."

Lysithea wrinkled her nose at her. "Are you sick?"

"I'm feeling better now." Annette smiled up at the dark mage. "I'll be there tomorrow, I swear."

"Hmph." Lysithea seemed to consider this for a moment. "Fine. Just don't complain when I pass my Gremory exam first."

"I'm glad you're feeling better," Marianne said with a smile. 

Felix finished eating quickly and excused himself, perhaps thinking that it was better for Annette to have a meal with her friends. Or maybe he had things to do.

"We just passed chapter thirteen," Marianne told her as she poked a forkful of pasta salad. "Lysithea wants to take the Gremory exam soon."

"I didn't realize the professor would still make us take the tests," Lysithea sighed. "We're not even in school anymore."

"I guess he wants to make sure we're all prepared."

Lysithea harrumphed at this, but she ate her fish peacefully. "So, Annette," Lysithea began, her tone mischievous. "You and Felix?"

Annette raised her eyebrows at Lysithea and swallowed her food calmly before countering, "You and Cyril?"

Lysithea frowned darkly at Annette.

"Now, now," Marianne interjected, in a tone that reminded Annette painfully of Mercedes. "There's no need to tease each other."

"She's only saying that because she doesn't want us to bring up her crush on Dimitri," Lysithea said with a roll of her eyes. "Which, ugh."

Marianne said nothing, just continued to eat serenely.

"I don't know," Annette said cautiously. "His Highness was always so polite and kind when we were in school. I kind of get why you'd want to try so hard to get that back."

"You're too nice," Lysithea said, gesturing at the redhead with her fork. "I say we should all cut our losses and let the Professor assume the throne and throw Dimitri into a jail cell until he's not a danger anymore." She punctuated her statement by popping a piece of fish into her mouth.

Annette blinked at her, wide-eyed. "You'd better not let anyone else from the Kingdom hear you say that," she whispered. "That's… a horrible thing to say about the Prince."

Lysithea shrugged. "Maybe it's because of the way the Alliance handled things, but I don't give a damn if he's the Prince or not. He's dangerous."

Lysithea was making her uncomfortable. 

"His Highness has been through a lot, and not only has he had no one to support him but his support system has suffered to help him. He's been isolated for years. That will break a person," Marianne said softly.

"He was unhinged before that," Lysithea said, shaking her head. "You remember the Holy Tomb. I'll never forget his laugh."

Annette stood suddenly. "Thanks for joining me for dinner," she said, making her voice probably too bright to be believable. "I'll see you guys tomorrow at the usual time."

Lysithea frowned at her as she slid her hat onto her head. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Sorry, still not feeling a hundred percent."

"Okay, well… see you tomorrow. Don't come if you're sick, though."

Marianne smiled at her. "See you tomorrow, Annette."

Annette took a bit of plain fish back to her room for the kitten, and as it ate she stacked a few books on Reason that helped her back when she was taking her mage and warlock exams. Felix wasn't a beginner, as he already knew a spell in Reason and he had at least a basic command of Faith, but it didn't seem like he formally studied it, so it was best to start at the beginning.

Her conversation with Marianne and Lysithea filled her with a nervous energy, so she decided to head up to Felix's room with the books so he could at least start reading them. The sun had already started setting, but the snow made what light the dusk had to offer seem bright.

Annette almost jumped when, as she approached Felix's room, the door next to his opened and Dimitri emerged.

She should've just said nothing, but Lysithea's words were bunching around her head. "Hello, Highness," she said softly, bowing her head in deference.

"Hm," Dimitri said as he passed her. She was physically relieved when he went to pass her by, but he stopped dead in his tracks and looked over to her. "Your hair," he said softly, and Annette felt her eyes widen even as she tried to steel her emotions. "It's the same color as my stepmother's."

"Oh," Annette said nervously, laughing. "That's… nice." She rebalanced the stack of books in her hands, which were growing sweaty.

"You're frightened of me," Dimitri said matter-of-factly. It was clear he actually got some pleasure out of the idea. A wicked smile curled his lips, but his voice remained dark as ever.

Annette didn't answer. She only tried to gain control over the way her blood was shooting through her veins and her heart was pounding in her ears.

"And yet you fight in my name."

"I fight for my country," she responded.  "I fight because I can't bear to see the Imperial banner flying over my uncle's House. And I do fight for you, Highness, because I believe that whatever is haunting you must be defeated."

Dimitri chuckled darkly at her. "You've always been kind. Such kindness is wasted on those who are already lost to the darkness."

"I disagree. I'll never stop being kind to you, Highness, even if I don't understand what you're going through." She observed him, his single blue eye flat and dull as it peered through blonde hair that fell into his face, his expression blank now that the wicked smile was gone. He always seemed to be half paying attention, as though he was listening to someone else, and he always stared off into the distance. Annette hadn't forgotten what it felt like to be helplessly crushed under his barbaric hands, his strength dedicated to ending her life, but she also couldn't forget the kind boy who danced with her at the ball and studied with her and protected her in battle. "We're friends, after all."

This summoned his full attention, his eye locking onto her from where it was staring off aimlessly. "Friends?" he echoed.

Her heart leaped to her throat. Had she annoyed him somehow? 

"You're a decent soldier," Dimitri said, his eye sliding away from her to stare off into the middle-ground once again. "Focus on that. Don't fill your head with ideas about romance or friendship."

"Wh-what?" Annette demanded, but Dimitri was already in some distant place in his mind. She wanted to call him, gain his attention once more, and ask him why the hell he'd just said that.

The door to Felix's room opened before she had a chance to knock on it, and he paused before glancing over at Dimitri. He ushered Annette into his room and closed the door. One of the books she was carrying fell to the floor, but Felix didn't give her an opportunity to pick it up.

"What are you doing talking to the boar, of all people?" he asked severely as the door clicked shut behind him.

She steadied the stack of books in her arms. "I was coming to drop these off. I didn't know he'd be in his room, I thought he never went in there."

"You shouldn't be talking to him. All he ever says is twisted, messed up shit."

"Would you relax?" Annette sighed. "I've brought you some materials to study."

Felix's eyes dropped to the stack of books she was carrying. He gestured to his empty desk, so Annette laid them there. Her arms were aching from the weight of them.

"You want me to read all of these?" he asked flatly.

"Well… I don't know, at least skim some of it. Magic is a lot of bookwork at first."

"Sylvain never studied like this," he objected glumly.

"Sylvain has some kind of annoying ability to instantly understand theorems and formulas," she mumbled. "For the rest of us, it's a lot of work."

Felix was staring at the stack of books like she'd just dropped garbage on his desk.

"At least read the beginning of the introductory volume," she said, exasperated. "It's not so bad."

"Maybe I should just forget it," he muttered, raising his hand to brush his  hair back.

"What? No! You can't! You only saved me from Dimitri with a thunder spell, remember? I won't let you give it up."

His amber eyes flicked to hers, and warmth bubbled up from her veins. Sweet Cethleann, she was pathetic.

"Fine," Felix sighed. "But if this gets in the way of my sword training, I'm dropping it."

"Yes!" Annette cheered, and she twirled around happily. "You won't regret it!"

He was watching her, his sharp eyes somehow softer than usual, his perpetual frown faded into a neutral expression. It occurred to her then that she was in his room, alone, with the door shut.

Felix's room was super neat, although unlike her room, which was neat because she was constantly organizing things and cleaning, his was devoid of almost anything except the furniture the school provided.

Sword oil sat on the windowsill, and a collection of swords was resting against the wall near his closet, but that was really it.

"I just came by to drop off the books. I guess I'll get going."

Felix nodded at her. She thought maybe he looked like he had something to say, but he didn't offer anything.

The bruise in the corner of his chin caught her eye and she frowned.

"What?" he demanded. 

"Oh, nothing. Just… noticed your bruise again. Which I could heal no problem." She raised her eyebrows at him.

He rolled his eyes at her. "You worry for no reason. It really isn't bothering me. But fine, do what you will."

She smiled at him. "Think of it as you doing me the favor. I'm getting to practice what I'm studying."

"It's just a bruise," he said sourly.

"Still!" She stepped up closer to him, and her cloak slipped off her arms as she raised her hands to his chin.

She rested her palm against the bruise, and as she exhaled, white magic flared in her hand. She could feel it flowing into the bruise, dispersing it until it disappeared. She lifted her hand and it was gone.

"Good as new!" she chirped, and she grinned up at him. 

"You didn't need to do that," he said, and he sounded weary. 

"I know," she said, her smile faltering slightly. "I just wanted to."

Standing close to him like this, all she could think about was the kiss they shared in her room. Felix's mouth on her skin, his hands in her hair, his breath in her ears.

"Okay," she said brightly. "I guess I'll get going."

"I should walk you back to your room," he said, and he reached for his jacket.

She rolled her eyes at him. "You don't have to, really. You know as well I do that Dimitri's gone to stand in the cathedral."

"There are other dangers around," he said as he clasped his jacket closed.

"Fine, then," she said, but she smiled at him.

Snow was still falling, but it was unhurried and gentle, drifting down to join what already covered the ground.

Annette peered into the greenhouse as they passed, wondering if the repairs they'd done had been enough to weatherproof it. The various plants they grew didn't appear to be dying of cold, so perhaps they'd done it after all.

"Thanks," Annette said when they reached her door. Her wrinkled skirt blew in the breeze and snow settled in her hair. 

It was awfully romantic, the gentle snow, the moon shining above them, the quiet that surrounded the monastery. She met his eyes and stepped into him, then pushed herself onto her tiptoes to kiss his chin where the bruise had been.

"Annette," he said gently, looking down at her with a strange expression. "Not… here. Not now."

"Oh." She felt like she was imploding, like her chest was caving in. It hurt to breathe. "No, you're right. I--I don't know what got into me."

She was embarrassed and she wanted to run away, but Felix seemed to know this and he took hold of her arm just above her elbow.

"Don't misunderstand," he said softly, and he seemed even closer to her now than when she pressed her lips to his chin. "I appreciate it."

"Oh!" she yelped, and she was dimly aware that her volume control was lacking. "Well, as long you appreciate it then everything is fine." Her face was very warm and she started trying to turn away from him, but Felix caught her other arm to steady her.

"Wait," he said, frowning. "I think I--I misspoke." 

"I don't think you did," she said, and she pushed herself away from him with her hands on his chest. He released her arms reluctantly. "I understand perfectly." She fumbled blindly with the door for a moment before successfully opening it. Felix was staring at her, his eyes wide, posture rigid. "Good day. Or good night, rather."

She closed the door behind her and the calico kitten stretched out in front of the fire. She felt like an idiot. And she was angry. If Felix didn't want to be with her then he should just say so. This didn't seem to be an issue in the past, certainly not a few weeks ago when he whispered promises of protection to her after a very sexy bout of kissing.

Suddenly full of energy, Annette sat at her desk, where her work from the previous day was still waiting for her, and she pored over it, advancing through her work and copying down more advanced formulas and new sigils, scrawling hurried notes comparing them to black magic.

She spent the next few days avoiding Felix, choosing to throw herself into chores and especially gardening. Now that Dedue was not here (may the Goddess protect his soul) to tend the greenhouse, Annette seemed to be one of the few people who was any good at gardening left. Ashe used to help her with it, but he wasn't here either.

She reorganized the entire library almost singlehandedly, until Professor Hanneman stopped by to help her, and he recruited Cyril to to do the heavy lifting.

Felix seemed to get the hint, and he hadn't really tried to speak to her. Maybe he didn't care that she was upset with him. Well, she didn't care that he didn't care! She was too busy to think about it, anyway. 

It was only days later that the Imperial army moved on them. Everyone was expecting it. Apparently, Dimitri killed all those thieves so horrifically that Imperial scouts had been sneaking around Garreg Mach, and their base wasn't such a secret anymore.

It was only a vanguard, but the number of troops far outnumbered their own troops, even with the Knights of Seiros at Byleth's command.

"I'm going to take Ingrid and Cyril and take them from the west," Byleth told them. The battlefield at the front of Garreg Mach gave Annette terrible flashbacks of that battle five years ago, except now it was overgrown and ruined. "The rest of you will answer to Gilbert. The Knights have devised their own strategy, a fire trap. They won't be able to discriminate between friend or foe, so watch yourself."

Ferdinand and Felix took the front line and Ingrid and Sylvain took up the rear. Annette, Lysithea, and Marianne protected the middle lines, striking out from behind sturdier units while staying well-protected. 

The snow from the previous days had melted, but there was still a chill in the air. Annette gripped her magic staff nervously.

Felix and Ferdinand pressed forward, Felix cleaving the way with his sword and Ferdinand with his axe. Ingrid's javelins flew past them from the rear, sailing into an enemy before Annette could summon a spell herself.

Lysithea struck out with dark magic, taking out most of her enemies in a single shot or with help from a final blow from Marianne. Annette felled her fair share of pegasus knights with Saggitae, and she tried not to think of Ingrid as they fell from their mounts.

"Don't let any of them escape!" Gustave shouted from somewhere to the right. 

"Now!" someone else shouted, and Annette could only shield her face as the ground beneath her lit up in swirling flames. The hem of her dress caught a stray spark, but she shook it out before it could do any real damage. Smoke was stinging at her eyes.

"Annette!"

Confused, she tried to turn toward the sound of her name, but her eyes stung and Imperial soldiers were scrambling to escape all around her. One of them bumped into her and his heavy armor knocked her off balance.

She threw her hands out to cushion her fall, not realizing until searing pain surged up her arm that this wouldn't help much when the ground was on fire. Cursing, she scrambled to a spot where the flames had diminished to throw a cutting gale in the direction of the fortress knight who tripped her.

"Annette!"

Of course, of all the people to find her, it had to be Felix. It was a strange mix of elation and dread to see him reaching his hand out to her.

She curled her injured arm to her chest and started to stand. Felix was pulling her up and she wanted to shake his hands away from her. 

He was pulling her to the side, through a path he must have traveled to reach her. They stopped in the middle of a group of trees, which provided cover from the battle still raging not far from where they stood.

"Your hand doesn't look good," he said as Annette coughed, her lungs still burning from smoke.

She glanced down at it. Her palm was red and raw, blisters making their way up her wrist. Her whole arm hurt poignantly.

"I fell," she muttered. It was a bad injury, but nothing immediately life threatening. Marianne would probably be able to fix it without a problem.

Felix had some cuts on his face, likely from a gauntlet he wasn't able to block in time. Without thinking, Annette summoned white magic to her hand and passed it in front of his face, and the cuts disappeared easily.

"Don't worry about me," he said, sounding annoyed. "You should be saving your energy."

"It's fine for now," Annette said. "It's a burn, not a visceral wound or soft tissue injury."

He raised his eyebrows at her doubtfully.

She turned from him to reenter the battlefied, and he stepped in front of her, blocking the way. "Stay here," he said. "We've basically won, anyway. It was only Randolph and a few pegasus knights left when I went back for you."

"I don't need you to coddle me," Annette snapped. "I don't need both my hands to cast spells, okay?"

Felix frowned, and she almost felt bad for snapping at him. The feeling faded quickly and she pushed past him, magic staff raised in her good hand.

Felix was right, and the battle was already won. Sylvain was finishing up a mounted unit while Ferdinand was engaging the General--the same green-haired man they'd fought in Fraldarius. He swung his axe at him, and as he fell Dimitri began screaming about capturing him alive. The sound of his voice made the hair on the nape of Annette's neck stand up.

She thought Felix would have gone somewhere else, but he was watching tightly at her side as Dimitri accused the General of murdering countless people and branded him as a monster. He spoke of rotting corpses and began describing, in gory detail, how he would remove his eyes.

Mercifully, Byleth's glowing blade cut through the space between them, and the General was sprawled on the grass, limp.

Annette bit her lip to keep from gasping, and her grip on the staff was white-knuckled.

Felix shook his head. "It's worse than I thought," he said to himself.

She looked up at him inquisitively.

"Even when he's not in an active battle, he fantasizes about violence. He's become skilled at murdering people, and it seems he traded his humanity for it."

Her hand was stinging badly. "I guess I should head to the infirmary." 

"Let's head back inside," Gustave said as he walked past them. "There are matters to discuss."

"Can't it wait?" Felix demanded, his tone acid.

Gustave didn't seem to hear him as lumbered up the stairs to the Entrance Hall.

Annette turned easily to join her father, pushing aside any thoughts of how badly her hand was stinging. Felix sighed and followed after her.

Once everyone had gathered, Dimitri and Byleth included, Gustave launched into a lecture.

"I anticipate a second and fourth wave of attack. With the troops we have now, we'll have our hands full just defending."

"We should contact Lord Rodrigue right away and request troops," Annete said, and Felix shifted next to her.

"Rodrigue is in a difficult position, as he's suffered invasions by the imperial army in the last month."

Annette hadn't known that. She'd have thought Felix would have told her, but he was too busy being cryptic and obsessing over Dimitri all the time.

"I wonder what my old man will say when he sees you now," Felix said unkindly to the prince. His tone was actually mirthful. "That spectacle alone will be worth the trip."

Then, for some ungodly reason, Gustave asked Dimitri what he thought they should do next. 

"We'll move on the Imperial capital," he said decisively. "There, I will kill her. We end the war and chase away the lingering regrets of the dead. Nothing could be more to the point."

"Uh, that may be true, but don't forget that your own people need our help right now," Annette said, and when Dimitri cast his eye on her, her blood ran cold. 

Thankfully, this sparked a debate among them, so his gaze didn't remain on her for very long. She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.

"Professor," Seteth interrupted after some back and forth, "whatever you decide wr shall follow."

"Let's take back Fhirdiad," the professor said after only a moment's hesitation.

Predictably, Dimitri was upset at this, and he stormed off after accusing Byleth of ignoring Lady Rhea.

"It's decided, then," said Gustave, watching the prince retreat into the monastery. "We'll send a letter via pegasus to Lord Rodrigue requesting troops and supplies. In the meantime, we'll need to double our defensive tactics to watch for additional attempts to take the monastery."

With a curt nod, Gustave went off in the direction Dimitri had gone, and Seteth was already speaking with Byleth in a quiet voice.

Annette glanced down at her singed hand, then decided that she'd better avoid looking at it completely.

"Professor Manuela," Felix called across the group, and Annette felt her face flush. She'd prefer if everyone didn't know that she'd gotten herself stuck in the middle of the trap they set up for the enemy, thank you very much.

Manuela said something stern to Professor Hanneman, then approached them curiously.

"Um," Annette said softly. "I… My hand. I burned it," she said, and she showed the songstress the damage.

"Ooh," Manuela cooed, wincing sympathetically. "White magic will heal that up, but it'll benefit your skin if I sterilize and hydrate it first. Come up to the infirmary, dear."

She was surprised that Felix followed at her heels. Didn't he have other things to do? Like follow Dimitri around or follow his ridiculously lengthy training regimen?

Manuela set her up at a cot, then she busied herself with some glass vials and a mortar and pestle.

"You don't need to be here," Annette said, looking up at Felix. "I mean, I'll be fine, and I'm sure you have other things to do."

His eyes flashed, but he coolly said, "Not really," and continued to hover over her.

"I think it's nice," Manuela said as glass bottles clinked together in her hands. "I wish I had a young man at my side whenever I needed tending to, let me tell you."

She poured the ingredients together and dipped a cloth into them,  then finished it off with a burst of white magic. She brought the bowl over to the cot and wrung out the cloth so that it was damp but not dripping. 

"Oh, forgot to mention," she said innocently. "This will sting. Sorry." She laid the cloth over Annette's outstretched hand, covering all the blisters that went up her wrist.

Annette yelped. It felt like the cloth was on fire, melting into her damaged skin. Manuela grimaced at her but there didn't seem to be anything else she could do.

The pain was so intense Annette could hardly breathe, and it took a lot of willpower not to grab the cloth and throw it on the floor. She balled her good hand into a fist and bit her lip to keep from shouting.

After about a minute, the pain started tapering, dying down to a constant sharp sting. Still uncomfortable, but preferable to feeling like her skin was melting off.

Manuela peeked under the cloth at this time, then laid it back down. "That has to stay for five minutes." She looked from Annette to Felix and back again. "I'll just go check on the other students. Back in a flash!"

Annette rested her head on the pillows, exhausted from the treatment.

"That looked horrible," Felix remarked.

"Goddess," Annette groaned. "I'd rather she just cut it off."

He laughed tightly. After a few moments, he said, "Listen, I know you've been angry with me."

She pointedly didn't look at him.

"I just wanted to let you know that I'm sorry."

"Felix," she sighed, and she swung her legs over the side of the bed to look up at him. This caused a jolt of fiery pain to shoot up her arm as she accidentally moved her wrist, but she did her best to ignore it. "I don't think now is the best time to talk about this."

"Neither do I. But you keep avoiding me."

"I'm entitled," she said quickly.

"I didn't mean to upset you," he said softly. "It's just… there's a lot going on right now. I don't think it's a good idea to be getting so distracted."

"I know that. But I care about you, Felix, and I don't really want to keep ignoring that. And I… think you care about me, too." She paused to give him room to object, but he didn't. "I'm not asking you to drop everything and be with me. I'm not even asking for you to take me out or anything formal like that. But when we do have the time, I don't see what's so wrong with, um, acting on it."

"Alright," he said softly, and he raised his hand but then seemed to decide better of whatever gesture he was about to make and rested it on the hilt of his sword. "Annette, I don't mean to upset you, but I think it's best if we don't… make a big deal about it."

"You mean you don't want Sylvain to know?" she asked shrewdly.

His face turned red. "He means well, but I can't  imagine how annoying he'd become. There are other reasons, as well. It's not very proper, it looks unprofessional during wartime--"

"Plus it's ten times as sexy if it's secret."

Felix turned a marvelous shade of scarlet. "That's not really what I was going for. And it's not like it has to be a secret, I would just prefer it if all of the mages in your battalion didn't know how we spend our free time."

"Fine," Annette agreed. 

Felix raised his eyebrows at her. "So… that's it? You're not mad at me anymore?"

Annette shook her head at him. "Nah."

"Oh."

"Just do what you can to avoid upsetting me for the next few days."

"Knock, knock!" Manuela's lilting voice announced her impending presence. "How's the patient?" She lifted the cloth from Annette's hand, and when she did, Annette was surprised to find that the blisters had sunk back onto place. The top layer of skin was pink and fresh, but wasn't hurting.

"Wow," Annette said lamely. She curled her fingers cautiously and was met with no pain. "Thanks, Professor!"

"Any time," she said sweetly. "I hope the two of you work out whatever's bothering you. You probably just need to apologize," she said to Felix, pointing an accusing finger at him. 

"Thank you, Professor," Annette said again before Felix could react, and she hurried out of the infirmary.

"That woman," Felix muttered, annoyed. "Is she drunk already?"

"Don't be mean," Annette said, and she stuck her tongue out at him.

"As long as you're better."

"I was always fine, you just worry too much," she said, and she poked him in the chest with her newly healed hand.

"I'll walk you to your room," he said amicably.

"Sure."

She didn't invite him inside. She wanted a chance to think over her feelings before she started letting Felix turn her mind into mush with surprisingly gentle kisses.

Before she slipped through the doorway, he held her newly healed hand between two of his. "I'm glad you're feeling better," he said, and for some stupid reason this made her just as flustered as a kiss would have.

"Oh," she said, blinking at him rapidly. "Um, thanks."

She closed the door behind her changed out of her singed clothes.

Chapter Text

Ingrid was the first one of their army to pass her Master Class Certification. She, Ferdinand, and Marianne traveled several towns over into Alliance territory to purchase a falicorn for her to ride. 

Without Ingrid around, Felix and Sylvain were fighting a lot more. Annette was having a hard time putting up with Felix's sour moods. He was having a difficult time studying, constantly distracted by something Sylvain had said or something Dimitri had done, and occasionally by Annette herself. 

The bigger problem was that Marianne wasn't around to calm down Dimitri.

Felix's fuse with prince was short, and Sylvain never knew what to say except to make a stupid joke. Cyril started accompanying them to help wrestle Dimitri into bed or out of the kitchen or away from the marketplace.

Once, when Annette and Lysithea were studying in the library, Sylvain and Felix marched up to them, Cyril timidly standing between. His nose was bleeding and his eye was swollen shut.

"What happened?" Lysithea demanded, leaping out of her chair. 

Annette looked up to Felix and Sylvain disapprovingly.

"It's not our fault," Sylvain defended sheepishly. "Dimitri swung at me and Felix started fighting him, then Cyril got between them and took a solid one from Dimitri."

Lysithea gently touched her fingers to Cyril's face. He winced as she did, but offered no resistance. "Thank you, Miss Lysithea," he said gratefully when his injuries disappeared.

She grinned at him. "It's no problem." Her expression darkened.  "You should probably stay away from these idiots, though." She sat heavily in her chair, flipping pages in her book until she found a passage she was searching for.

"I don't mind helping, honest," Cyril said. "It's what Lady Rhea would've wanted."

"What was he doing this time?" Annette asked, worried.

"He was, um, trying to mess with the tombstones in the graveyard," Felix said wearily. He sat next to Annette and Lysithea glared at him.

Sylvain leaned both hands on the table and Lysithea sighed sharply and snapped her book shut. "He kept insisting that one had his name written on it. Another hallucination, I guess."

"Where is he now?" 

"Relax, we didn't leave him there. Byleth and Gustave convinced him to go somewhere else. They're still with him, I think." Sylvain looked over Annette's notes, which were written neatly on pages scattered in front of her. "The two of you aren't gremories yet?"

Lysithea glared at the paladin. "Even if we were already gremories, that doesn't mean we would stop studying."

"Seems to me the two of you could be doing way better things with your time."

"Like what, exactly?" she asked. Her tone was neutral, not holding the acid she usually directed at Sylvain.

He shrugged. "I dunno. Going on dates. The two of you are beautiful young women, I'm sure guys would trip over themselves to take you out."

Lysithea snorted uncharacteristically. "That's one of the last things I want to be doing."

"What about you, Annette? I probably know a few guys who'd be more than willing to take you out." Sylvain smiled at her charmingly, his brown eyes sparkling mischievously.

"I'd only consider it if Lysithea goes, too," Annette said. "And she already said no, so. Sorry." She dipped her quill in ink and started copying down a new theorem. Warping seemed incredibly complicated, and Annette was sure she'd never do it, but Lysithea picked it up easily.

"Come on," Felix said, standing up. "It's clear we're bothering them."

"You're not," Lysithea said, gesturing between Felix and Cyril with the feathered end of her quill. " He is." She jabbed the feather at Sylvain to punctuate her statement.

"Felix and I are a package deal, I'm afraid," Sylvain said, and he slung his arm around Felix's shoulders. Felix flinched and looked like he was seriously considering punching his best friend. "Let's go tear into that candy."

"Candy?" Annette and Lysithea asked at the same time.

"Sylvain," Felix hissed, and he elbowed him in the ribs.

Sylvain doubled over. But he was grinning. "Felix didn't tell you?" he asked breathlessly. "Some cute merchant girl gave it to him for free."

Annette was sure her face flickered before she plastered on a polite smile.

"I never said she was cute," he said quickly, locking eyes with Annette.

"No, but I've seen her before and she is."

Both Lysithea and Sylvain were looking carefully at Annette, but she kept the smile plastered on her face. "And you never offered us any? You know Lysithea and I absolutely love sweets."

"Um," Felix said.

"Atta boy," Sylvain said, slapping Felix on the back. "Come on, Cyril. You want any?"

Felix lingered unsurely, looking sheepishly at Annette until Sylvain called him again.

"Okay, let's discuss," Lysithea said when their footsteps faded.

Annette looked up at her wearily. "Okay. I think the Warp theorem is kind of similar to the Silence theorem, except instead of blocking it passes objects through--"

"Not that!" Lysithea said impatiently. "You know what."

"That Cyril looked kinda cute with a black eye?"

Lysithea frowned at her. "Gross, he's like four years younger than you."

"He's two years younger than me, same as you," Annette reminded her calmly.

"I hope Felix does date the sweets merchant; I'm sure she has a much nicer personality than you."

"Come on. You know as well as I do that that wouldn't happen. First of all, I don't think Felix wants to date anybody at the moment." Not a lie! He'd told her as much.

"Is there a 'second of all'?" Lysithea pressed.

"Second of all, it would never work. He doesn't like sweets."

"Very funny."

"Are we done for today, or what?" Annette asked. "I actually do have other things to do."

"I don't think writing love letters to Felix is a good use of your time," Lysithea said, smirking.

Annette flipped her book closed. "I was doing some pruning in the greenhouse and I found a bunch of flowers I'd never seen before. I looked them up and they were all Duscur flowers. Dedue must've planted them, and when we started tending to the plants again the seeds must've taken. I don't really know how to take care of them, but I'm trying to water them sparingly and keep the area free of other plants."

"That's nice," Lysithea said, her voice genuine. "I guess we can wrap up for today. I'm supposed to be helping in the kitchens anyway, and it's getting late."

"I'll see you, then?" Annette asked as she stacked her books neatly. She threw her cloak over her shoulder and started toward the greenhouse.

"Hello, babies!" Annette chirped to the plants once she closed the door behind her. It wasn't true that talking to plants helped them grow, but it was something her mother told her when she was a kid and Annette kept up the habit.

She slid on a pair of gloves and sang to herself as she worked, starting with the Duscur flowers but moving to clean up the rest of the plants in the same row.

She heard the door open and close softly behind her, and she waited until she was done with the verse she was singing to turn around. She smiled at Felix from where she was kneeling. "Did you go visit the sweets girl?" she asked, teasing him gently.

He rolled his eyes, and Annette noticed that he'd unclasped his jacket. He shucked it off and hung it on hooks near the door next to Annette's cloak. He pushed his sleeves up past his elbows--Annette thought this made his arms look especially toned, and she watched him greedily as he slid on a pair of brown work gloves to help her.

She took up her song again, a silly ditty she'd made up about the journey a flower took from a seed to a sprout to blossom to a fully bloomed flower.

It was kind of a mystery to her that Felix liked her silly songs so much. He was a pretty serious guy, and the fact that he appreciated her songs came as such a shock that she assumed that he was making fun of her at first. Claude also liked to eavesdrop on her singing when they were in school, but that made sense, at least, because he liked to make jokes and enjoy things. She still wasn't sure why Felix liked it so much.  Her voice wasn't bad, but she was under no delusions about how good it was. Fine enough, maybe it could be good if she took lessons, but nothing compared to Dorothea's.

"It's funny," Annette said after a few minutes of friendly silence between them when her song finished. "This reminds of the first time we were here together."

"Yeah?" Felix asked.

"Yeah, you remember. I think I threw the watering can at you."

"Yeah, steaks and cakes, I remember."

She gasped and he looked over at her. "You were supposed to forget it!"

"Can't," he said, and the smile he gave her was small but genuine. "Won't. It's my favorite song."

"Okay, that's just mean."

"I'm serious. It's catchy and short. I hum it to myself anytime I'm in the kitchen."

Annette's eyes widened in horror and he chuckled at her.

They'd both been kneeling on the ground, hunched over their work, and Felix scooted a little closer to Annette now. His eyes dropped to her lips, and she fluttered her eyes at him as she debated kissing him.

The last time they kissed had been that day in the snow. And it wasn't really a mutual thing as much as it had been her kissing him.

Was it really okay? They'd talked about it and agreed that it was, but something pulled at her, whispered that it wasn't actually a great idea. With Felix looking at her so deeply, in the calm of the greenhouse, the heady smell of flowers and pollen cloying at her, she couldn't actually identify what those reasons might be.

She closed the distance between them, pressing her lips against his gently. They were both wearing dirty gloves, so they couldn't really touch each other. Annette balanced with her fingertips on the floor, arching to reach Felix, and he let one of his hands hang in the air between them, placing the other one over one of her hands on the floor.

It was a simple kiss, and not terribly long, but Annette was pleased, and she grinned at him happily. 

"I was… worried you'd be mad at me," he said softly.

"Huh? What for?"

He frowned at her and she blinked to clear her head. "The candy?" he reminded her.

"Why on earth would I be mad at you for that?"

"I don't know, I guess I shouldn't have taken it."

"Do you like the sweets merchant?"

"Of course not," he said like it was obvious.

"Then I'm not mad."

"Oh. Good, then."

Annette smiled at him and pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, forgetting the gloves and getting soil on her cheek.

All the plants in the greenhouse had died in the five year gap, obviously. Without anyone to water them, there was no way anything could grow. They'd had to put down new, more nutritious soil, which turned out to be a backbreaking exercise. Lots of the withered plants still had bulbs or clusters of seeds, so Annette and a priestess from the Alliance tried to salvage what they could before planting new crops.

Everything was totally organized, too. Fruits and vegetables grew on the vertical rows, amd the horizontal row at the back was for flowers and anything else, like unknown seeds.

The work had gotten easier, as soil no longer needed to be dug up and switched out, but Annette spent so long working so hard on the greenhouse that she felt responsible for it.

She'd shown Felix the Duscur flowers already, and she'd put a Crest of Seiros among them to serve as a makeshift memorial for her fallen friend.

"Pray with me," Annette said as she peeled off her gloves. She always prayed for Dedue before she left the greenhouse.

"Um," Felix said shiftily.

"I know you don't believe," Annette said softly. "Just humor me?"

"Sure."

She steepled her hands, closing her eyes and bowing her head as she kneeled. Felix stood behind her, and she trusted that he was doing the same. She recited a scripted prayer in her head, and added in some thoughts of her own. When she was done she gathered the trowel and hung it on pegs near the entrance, and she peeled off the gloves and did the same.

Felix had his hands in his pockets, gazing at the foreign flowers absently.

"You okay?" Annette asked, and he turned to her after a moment.

"Yeah." His gaze lingered on her for far too long. She wondered breathlessly if he might kiss her again, and he raised his hand to her cheek and wiped off the dirt she smeared there with his thumb. "You know that it's been decided that you, Marianne, Lysithea, and Ferdinand aren't allowed firsthand knowledge of private information, right?"

She frowned at him. Byleth and her father had gathered the four of them into the old Blue Lions classroom and broke the news to them last month.

"Yeah, I know."

"My father wrote me," Felix said. "The letter came this morning. I haven't told Byleth yet. Sylvain and I were on our way to find him when we ran into Dimitri."

"Oh." He shouldn't be telling Annette this, especially if he hadn't discussed this with anyone else.

"Seems without Sylvain, Ingrid, and me there, some of the Fraldarius and Gautier territories have fallen. Ingrid's family is in trouble. They have no resources, and without aid from my father it's likely they'll bend the knee to Cornelia. House Charon is trying to help them out, but my father isn't very optimistic."

Annette blinked up at him. His amber eyes were gazing off somewhere distant, and Annette knew this must have been weighing on him all day.

"My father will personally lead his troops from Fraldarius to Aillel. He intends to stay with us to help our army after. If he abandons Fraldarius, it will fall."

Annette chewed her lip nervously as Felix spoke. "Maybe we can get troops from somewhere else."

He focused his gaze on her then. "That was my first thought, but I think the old man thinks Fraldarius will fall anyway and he'd rather come to us and help our troops to give us a fighting chance to take everything back."

It was a terrible choice to make. Felix seemed heated, but she wasn't sure if it was because he was bothered by his father's choice or bothered that he had to make the choice at all.

"He wants to meet in Ailell," Felix added. 

"Ailell?" Annette repeated.

"Figures there's less chance of an ambush or interception there."

"I'm sure your father knows what he's doing," Annette weakly. 

"Hope so," Felix answered stonily.

The professor kept them busy that month. It was just as rigorous as their school days. He split them into pairs to clear rubble, tend the stables, and he enlisted two students each day to join the Knights in keeping watch over the grounds.

There were pirates at the Rhodos Coast and deserters in Fodlan's throat.

Her father kept urging her to grow more and more plants in the greenhouse to bolster their supplies. Cyril was teaching both her and Lysithea to use a bow, so they could help with hunting. Annette snapped the bowstring against her left arm so often that red welts appeared on her skin, and Ferdinand made her a custom armguard when he returned with a feisty falicorn for Ingrid in tow.

She Lysithea, and Marianne were dutifully studying white magic, and Lysithea sometimes stopped by for her lessons on black magic with Felix. Sylvain stopped by at times, too, but he refused to do any bookwork and he mostly wound up distracting Felix.

Sometimes at night, Annette would wake up to the sound of a deep voice, muttering strangely, and she'd rush to her window to find Dimitri talking to himself.

Felix was right when he said Dimitri was good at killing people. He always went for fatal blows, never stopped to think about a more strategic or diplomatic way to deal with enemies. His strength was terrifying, preternatural, bolstered by his Crest which never seemed to fail him. Annette kept far away from him on the battlefield.

A meeting was called in the middle of the month for everyone to attend. Annette wasn't supposed to know, but Felix had already told her that as soon as Ingrid and Marianne returned, they had a preliminary meeting that only the "Kingdom loyalists" were privy to. The term stung since it didn't include her.

The Knights of Seiros were already seated, and Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain already seemed to have seats next to one another.

Her father was seated at the corner of the table near Byleth. Annette was tempted to take a seat next to him, but she thought better of it and left two seats between, hoping Marianne and Lysithea would sit there instead. When she scooted her chair closer to the table, she noticed Felix observing her. She averted her eyes quickly as Ferdinand took up the seat to her left.  

"Exciting, is it not?" he asked as he stacked paper for note-taking in front of him.

Annette wanted to tell him not to get too excited, that everything had been decided long before they got there. But she didn't want to be cruel. 

"Sure is!" she said.

When she glanced back at Felix, he was busy talking to Sylvain.

Byleth explained the situation essentially as Felix described it to Annette earlier in the month, except that he left out what Felix told her about territories falling and House Galatea essentially being starved out. Everyone knew Lord Rodrigue, at least from seeing him around the monastery during their school days, and the plan was generally well met.

"Isn't there anything we can do to relieve some of the pressure from Kingdom forces?" Lysithea asked, and Annette looked over to her where she was seated just to her right.

"We don't have many options," Gustave said simply. "House Charon is not the stronghold they once were, Galatea hardly has enough resources left for themselves, and Gautier and Fraldarius have been sharing armies the last five years, anyway."

"And what my old man has left they'll need for fending off forces from Sreng. Fodlan's throat isn't the only border that needs protecting." Sylvain's voice was easy, his hands hooked lazily at the nape of his neck, but Annette sensed a tightness in the corners of his mouth. Or maybe she was reading into things too much.

"What about the Alliance?" Lysithea asked sharply. "Has anyone reached out to them?"

"Many times," Seteth said on Byleth's right. "He's stated many times that he won't mobilize an army past Leicester's borders."

"He said that after the professor returned?" Lysithea demanded.

Byleth and Seteth locked eyes at this. "Reach out to him again," she said. "Especially if we're going to Ailell. Ailell is neutral territory, unclaimed by the Alliance or the Kingdom. It might be enough of a loophole for him to consider it."

It was several days of Lysithea complaining about being left out from meetings during their study sessions and insisting that there was a difference between caution and prejudice. Annette didn't point out that it couldn't be simple prejudice, because she was also excluded, because Lysithea got rather difficult when she was offended. 

A week later, without first holding a preliminary meeting, they were all ushered back into the War Room to discuss an important update.

"In addition to Rodrigue and his forces, we will also be joined by Judith, of House Daphnel, and a sizeable portion of her army. She'll be meeting us at Ailell," Byleth announced. "And Claude sends his regards."

Lysithea smiled smugly at this, and Annette knew she was proud of her country.

The second half of the Pegasus Moon brought fair weather, with mild days but cold mornings and evenings.

Annette lifted a spoon covered in frosting to her mouth and licked it, weighing the flavors carefully as it dissolved against her tongue.

Felix's birthday was tomorrow, and she'd spent way too much time in the kitchens baking a perfect cake for him. 

It was a well-known fact that Felix Fraldarius somehow didn't like sweet things, which was fine by Annette because that meant more for her. But it posed a challenge when she tried to bake something he would like, because all the recipes she knew by heart were for sweet things.

She modified a moist cake that her mother taught her to bake, swapping vanilla extract for almond extract and decreasing the sugar. It took her three tries to get it right, where it wasn't too sweet but not too plain, either. While her perfect third cake was cooling, she'd whipped together a light, slightly plain vanilla frosting, and she had a bowl of sliced almonds she was going to cover the frosting in. The nutty flavor would make up for the lacking sweetness, and she really hoped Felix would like it.

"What are you still doing up?"

Annette gasped and set the wooden bowl of frosting on the counter, then turned to shove Felix out of the kitchens and back into the dining hall. "You can't be in here right now!" she insisted, still shoving him.

He glared at her, not appreciating being shoved. "Would you stop?" He looked over her head at the almonds and the frosting and the unfrosted cake. "Are you baking? It's almost midnight."

"You've ruined everything," she said, forlorn. "Why are you here?"

"You're being strange," Felix said, crossing his arms. "I was doing some training and I smelled something good on my way to my room. Thought it might be you."

"I was baking a cake for your birthday tomorrow," Annette sighed. "It was supposed to be a surprise, but now that's ruined."

"Oh, right," Felix muttered. "Tomorrow's the twentieth."

She blinked at him. "Did you forget your own birthday?"

He narrowed his amber eyes at her. "I didn't forget. It just slipped my mind. Wasn't really planning on celebrating, anyway."

"You weren't?"

"Never do."

Annette gaped at him. "That's sad."

Instead of adding to that train of thought, he lifted his arm to wipe her cheek with the back of his hand. "You're covered in flour," he said disapprovingly. 

"Some of it's confectioner's sugar." She should've worn an apron--there were several hanging along the wall so that staff could come in and put one on before starting--but she was so eager to get going that she forgot. She patted the arms of her burgundy blouse absently. Her heather gray skirt and matching over-the-knee socks were less conspicuous, as the light color his stray flour. "I just need to frost it and put on the almonds." She turned away from him and searched through the drawers for an icing spatula.

"Did you make three cakes?"

"The first two were no good," Annette said as she rifled through dozens of utensils shouldn't even name. "First one was too sweet and the second one was too plain." Spotting the spatula, she made a triumphant noise and pulled it out of the drawer, holding it up as she faced him.

"You didn't have to do that," he said. "I would've eaten whatever you made."

She frowned at him. "Well, I wanted you to actually like it."

The spoon she'd been using to taste-test the frosting was on the counter, and she picked it up and licked it again. She closed her eyes happily as she savored the taste, and when she opened them Felix was watching her.

"Want some?" she asked, brandishing the spoon at him.

He wrinkled his nose at her. "Plain frosting? No thanks."

"Suit yourself." Annette hummed to herself as she carefully scooped frosting onto the spatula and spread it over the cake.

She was missing Mercedes. She wasn't the best at frosting. Mercedes used to pipe frosting onto things and spread it so evenly, making artful patterns and swirls. It wasn't such a big deal for this project, because the almonds would be covering it up, anyway.

She reached for the bowl of sliced almonds after she was satisfied with the frosting, and she sprinkled them over the top. With the same spatula she used to frost the cake, she pressed almonds into the side until it was thoroughly covered. Studying her work, she lifted the spoon that she originally used to taste-test the frosting and licked it, sighing as the sugar melted in her mouth.

"Are you done yet?" Felix asked impatiently from where he was leaning against the counter.

"Hey, baking takes precision and time," she scolded him, brandishing the spoon at him. "I don't see what the rush is, you're not allowed to have any yet, anyway. It's for your birthday, which it isn't yet, so--"

He caught the wrist she was shaking at him and pulled her over to him, then silently took the spoon from her hand and rested it on the counter next to him. He pulled her into him and caught her lips in a firm kiss.

Annette was so absorbed in finishing the cake that she forgot about kissing.

Because he was still leaning against the counter, she needed to lean forward to reach him, and had to press herself against him firmly. He was a little sweaty from training, and he smelled of sword oil, but that only made Annette melt into him even more.

Gently, he slipped his tongue in between her lips, and Annette gripped his arm as a dizzy spell swept over her. She'd only read about this in steamy romance books borrowed from Mercedes, the ones she hid under her pillow when her mother came in her room, and it--well, it was a little weird, actually, and she wasn't sure what to do at first. She angled her mouth against his and hesitantly let her tongue brush against his.

He pulled his head away from hers and Annette clutched at his arms dumbly, her face red, unsure if she'd done something wrong.

She swallowed thickly and he spun them suddenly so that Annette's back was against the counter instead.

His eyes were so dark and his cheeks were red and his lips were wet, and she clutched at his jacket to pull him into her. His kisses were deep and needy, and she tried to do a better job responding to his tongue as he tasted her. His hands were gripping her hips tightly.

She could barely breathe, could barely think outside of doing anything possible to keep kissing him. She pressed into him, and he pulled his lips away from hers for just a moment to pull in a breath, and she didn't mean to but an embarrassingly breathy moan escaped past her lips.

His eyes flashed and he lifted her onto the counter as she squealed his name in surprise. He arched his neck to reach her and she raised her hands to his face as she stooped to connect their mouths again. The whispers of stubble greeted her palms, and she stroked her thumbs over the sharp line of his cheekbones, traced his jaw with her index finger.

His hands were squeezing her hips, and he pulled her so that she was at the very edge of the counter and coaxed her knees apart so he could stand between them.

Sitting like this, the hem of her skirt hiked up past the top of her socks, which extended just past her knees. Felix's fingers were hot on the exposed skin there, not daring to slip beneath her skirt but eagerly caressing what was already exposed.

She leaned into him, sliding her hands into his hair, raking her nails against his scalp before slowly, regretfully pulling away from him.

She was panting, and Felix's eyes were like fire and gold, and she could stare at them forever. She shuddered as she took in a deep breath, intending to say something but she didn't know what.

A hand tangled itself in her hair, and he pulled gently to make her tilt her head and expose her neck to him. She gasped and dug her nails into his shoulder as his teeth scraped against her skin.

"Felix," she gasped, and he tightened his fingers around her thigh as he reached for her lips again.

It was too much, too fast, and she had to duck her head away as she leaned back. He looked almost confused, like he had to acclimate into a state of being where he wasn't desperately kissing her, tasting her, pressing his fingers into her skin.

She cupped his face as she panted, unable to explain that it was so good, that she wanted him, but it was too much at once.

As she searched for something to say, her eyes fell on the large grandfather clock against the wall behind Felix. It was a few minutes after midnight.

She stroked her thumb over his cheek as she smiled at him. "Happy birthday."

He blinked at her, his eyelashes impossibly long in the flickering candlelight. "What?"

Urging him back so she could slide down from the counter, she threw her arms around his neck and pressed into him. Dazed, he raised an arm to her back.

"It's past midnight," she said. "It's your birthday!"

"Oh," he said simply. "I guess it is."

"You can have your cake now, if you want."

"Annette," he said, his voice low in his throat, almost a growl, the sound of it causing her breath to hitch and her toes to curl. "I don't want cake right now." 

She bit her lip, indecisive, and the gesture seemed to do something to him, because he stepped into her and stooped to capture her lips again.

"We'd better go, then," she whispered, a hand on his chest to stop him just before their lips met.

He sighed, defeated, his breath fanning her face. and she looked up into his eyes and pressed a quick, chaste kiss against his mouth as a consolation.

She popped the cake onto the shelf so the frosting could set until the afternoon and took her blue riding cloak from where she'd left it in the dining hall.

As they exited the dining hall, Annette stopped short when she saw Dimitri, staring out over the dock in the fishing pond, his furs trailing behind him.

Felix bumped into her and looked out toward the fish pond. He stepped around her and took her hand and urged her to the stairs leading away from the pond and toward her room. 

"Good night," Annette said, and she hugged him again. "And happy birthday!"

"Thanks," he said gruffly. "Night."

Oh, Cethleann, Macuil, Indech, and Cichol. Annette threw herself into her bed and hugged her pillow tightly to her chest. The things she almost did… Her mother would be ashamed of her. The memory of Felix's fingers on her bare skin was so strong, she could almost still feel it. She wanted to call him back, invite him onto her bed with her, feel his fingers across her skin… This frightened her a little.

They'd both agreed not to turn this into something formal--when everything was so uncertain, it seemed like a foolish thing to entertain. As such, there was no courting, no declaration of intentions, and she was unprotected. She felt vulnerable under his calloused fingers, no matter how gentle or desperate he was with her. He couldn't really expect her to give him what she could never get back, not like this. And yet she wanted to.

Seiros curse it, she was getting way ahead of things. A steamy makeout session in the kitchens didn't mean that he expected sex from her. Felix wasn't like that. Probably.

Annette was in the strange position of feeling like the person most qualified to help her at this time was Sylvain, yet she couldn't possibly ask him about this without giving herself away.

For now, she needed to relax. As she changed into a nightgown, she missed the old days, when Dimitri would brew a pot of decent enough chamomile tea if she knocked on his door unable to sleep. Those days were far behind her, though.

The next day, at around lunchtime, everyone (except Dimitri) gathered to throw Felix his surprise party. Annette had already warned him when she passed him on her way to the library that he ought to act surprised. He looked like he had something to say to her then, but Lysithea was waiting for her impatiently and he let her go.

It was an extremely modest affair. The cake was basically all they could get their hands on, since flour and sugar and butter weren't always the easiest things to get in wartime. Annette was sure Felix wouldn't mind.

Her cake looked even prettier after chilling. The almond slices sunk into the frosting, like a delicious mosaic. Byleth looked like he'd never been to a birthday celebration in his life, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, nervous energy hanging around him. Lysithea was sitting in front of the cake, staring at it longingly. Annette took this as a compliment.

Sylvain entered the dining hall with his arm slung around Felix's shoulders and everyone shouted 'surprise' at him. Annette wouldn't say he looked surprised, exactly. He looked vaguely annoyed. No one seemed to notice he'd already known about it, though, so Annette was pleased.

"It's good," he said to Annette genuinely as she slid into the bench next to him.

She beamed at him and scraped frosting off the side with her fork, then raised it to her mouth and licked it clean. "I'm glad," she said, and it took her a moment to realize that he was staring at her, and she suddenly remembered that right before he pulled her into his arms last night she'd done the same thing. Her pulse kicked up a little, and she did it again, just to see what he'd do. "You don't think it's too plain?" she asked innocently.

"No," he said levelly, his eyes trained on her mouth. Slowly, he dragged them up until they rested easily on her eyes. "It's exactly the way I like it."

Excited flutters kicked out from her belly, and she took a real bite of the cake this time. It was decent--almondy, not too sweet, but the icing made up for it.

"I usually like cakes a little sweeter," she said lightly. "That's why I took a corner piece. Extra frosting."

Felix opened his mouth to say something, and Annette was very interested to hear exactly what that would be, but Sylvain interrupted them by nudging Felix with his elbow and showing him a sword Ferdinand was holding out. 

"The cake's really good," Lysithea said as she slid into the seat next to Annette. "It's been too long since I had cake last." She sighed contentedly. "I'll be thinking about this while we're in Ailell."

Annette wished she wouldn't bring that up while they were celebrating.

Chapter Text

"Aillel, the Valley of Torment, " the professor muttered under his breath. His voice was flat as ever as he looked out over the scorched earth below their vantage point at the top of a cliff. 

Sylvain had no smart comment this time. The hair that was usually styled so particularly over his forehead was drenched in sweat, and he'd opened the collar of the undershirt he wore beneath his armor as much as possible. He'd dismounted his horse to let it cool off, and he was drinking from a water flask greedily as they gathered.

Felix had swept his hair into a bun, reminiscent of the way he wore it back in their school days. His jacket had been shucked off miles ago, left on the caravan with their things. Annette was avoiding looking at him. Ingrid's falicorn was flapping its wings gently, creating a gentle breeze that she was enjoying. Ever the perfect knight, she looked unbothered by the heat, although she had gotten rid of her gloves. Marianne rolled up the sleeves on her heavy dress, but even so her face was glistening. She stood to the left of Dimitri, who was a sweaty mess, his hair damp where it met his face. He was without his furred cape for once, and Annette was disappointed to find that he looked pretty imposing even without it. Lysithea looked unflappable as ever, her dress looking pristine, hair wrapped neatly, without a trace of sweat. Her cold personality must have made her immune to the heat, Annette found herself thinking wildly. There was no other explanation. Annette had made herself as comfortable as she could by clipping her hair away from her face and discarding her shawl and gloves, pushing her sleeves up to let her skin breathe as much as possible. 

They left the caravan and supplies with a few guards and took most of their army down a very roughly cut path, into the maw of the valley itself.

Magma bubbled in a lake that lapped at the edges of charred land. The heat made it hard enough to breathe, but the smell of sulfur and acid choked them. 

"Man, I'm losing it in this heat," Sylvain said as they approached the flat of the valley. "Is that a shadow on the opposite side?"

Annette squinted into the distance, to the top of the cliffs bordering the opposite side of the valley. A massive shadow, in a line, was approaching the edge of the cliff.

"Professor…" Felix said slowly, understanding sparking in his voice as it was dawning on all of them.

"We were set up!" Lysithea shouted angrily. "I knew this was too good to be true!"

As the shadow inched closer, Annette could just make out an unfamiliar banner glaring down at them.

"No," Marianne said softly, "Judith would never--"

"Her army was intercepted, then," Dimitri growled darkly. "We have no option now except to take up arms. How kind of them to save us the trouble of killing them later."

Annette glanced at her future King to find him grinning wickedly, his sweat-drenched hair and gleaming lance only compounding the disturbing image. She looked away quickly.

"Didn't those men used to be your allies?" The Professor demanded harshly, and Annette could hear him trying to come up with some kind of plan.

"Never call those traitors our allies again," Dimitri said harshly. "That is the banner of the Gray Lion. A man such as him is not one to be reasoned with."

"He's right," her father said. "Lord Gwendal is not a man who can be reasoned with. We should prepare to attack."

Under the orders of the Professor, they scrambled to get into one of their practiced formations. Annette took her place with Marianne, Lysithea, Ferdinand and Ingrid at the front lines. She squealed in surprise as the ground belched out a stream of fire a few feet in front of her, and she hopped backward right into Felix. He looked vaguely annoyed, his hand at her back to keep her from bumping into him, but he was staring at the ground in front of them, alarmed.

"Be careful of that," her father called from further back. "The scorched places will shoot out fire and steam and burn you. Try to avoid them."

Annette collected herself and briefed her battalion, ordering them to hold the line.

The Professor placed them so that those who used magic and fliers were out in front, this way they could attack without having to cross the dangerous areas. Being out front made Annette nervous, and she gripped her steel shield tightly. 

Felix was right behind her, which made her feel better, and Ingrid was out front with her, and Ingrid was so competent that Annette felt reassured.

As they waited for the enemy to approach, Sylvain was telling some stupid story about how he dated a girl who turned out to be Lord Gwendal's daughter.

"Isn't Lord Gwendal a knight for House Rowe?" Annette asked.

"Yeah, he's so fierce they call him the Gray Lion."

She felt the blood drain from her face. "Didn't House Gaspard get absorbed by House Rowe?"

No one answered her. She turned to face her friends, who were all looking at her like they all knew some secret that she was just finding out.

"It doesn't mean anything," Felix said, his posture tense and one hand on the hilt of his sword.

She looked to Sylvain and Ingrid. Sylvain fidgeted uncomfortably. "I'm sure Ashe would never turn against us," Ingrid said kindly.

They had the luxury of their territories being in the east. They didn't know how powerless the west was among the fierce rise of the Empire, the way it happened so gradually that it seemed easy to ignore it until Edelgard and Cotnelia demanded your family bent the knee. And Ashe had nowhere else to go. He had siblings to take care of.

It was so hot, and the air so acrid, and Annette's heart was beating so fast she felt faint.

The enemy troops stormed the valley, flooding into the opposite end and organizing themselves into formation.

Her father quickly pointed out Lord Gwendal, and warned them all once again to stay clear of the parts of the valley where flames burst forth.

"If you wish to spare yourself the goddess's wrath, tread lightly," Dimitri said darkly.

In order to maintain formation, Annette was supposed to go out far enough to make a first strike, along with Lysithea and Marianne. Then Felix, Sylvain, Ingrid, and the others could come in with a physical attack to finish it. But, on the opposite side of the formation, Annette spotted Ashe. He made eye contact with her, but his eyes were hard and unfriendly. What had happened to him in the last five years?

"Annette, stay in formation," Felix was saying from behind her. "It'll be alright, just stay over here."

She ignored him. She was panicking so intensely, she could hardly hear him. Ashe was positioned on Dimitri's side of the formation, and judging by previous battles, Dimitri would start killing indiscriminately. Ashe was in a huge amount of danger. The Professor might try to spare him, but the Professor was so unreadable, so logical without much feeling, she didn't have much confidence in that.

Lysithea and Marianne moved forward, Lysithea's attack striking a Great Knight and taking him out. With a powerhouse such as her, surely they wouldn't miss Annette. She glanced over to the side where the Professor and Dimitri were advancing.

Felix urged her forward, so she stepped to the edge of the scorched ground with Marianne and Lysithea and shot a Cutting Gale, which missed its mark terribly. Ingrid flew across the lake of lava and delivered a fatal blow to an archer, and Ferdinand did the same to his counterpart.

She couldn't stand the sick feeling, her racing pulse, the sweat running down the back of her neck. She commanded her battalion to stay in formation and she bolted.

Felix lunged for her and grabbed her arm painfully. She tried to break free, but he was ready for that.

"What are you doing?" he hissed, although he knew very well what she was doing.

"Let go, Felix," she panted, trying to pry his fingers away, but he grabbed her wrist roughly and tried to shove her behind him.

A pegasus knight interrupted them, approaching them swiftly and bringing her lance down between them, causing them to jump apart. She could hear Felix swearing as she continued toward Ashe, although she did throw a Sagittae over her shoulder to help him out.

"Woah!" Sylvain exclaimed in surprise as Annette ran past him, and the Professor was shouting at her, too.

Another patch of scorched earth stood between her and Ashe, and she paused at its edge. She hadn't seen any fire shoot forth since they got there, so she cautiously stepped onto it.

An arrow landed in the earth near her, and when she looked across, Ashe was nocking another. He must not recognize her.

"Annette," her father called sternly, so laden with armor that he was struggling to catch up to her. She set out across the patch of earth, but she hadn't quite made it halfway when a plume of steam shot forth under her feet. She leaped out of the way, but her forearm was burned. Nothing nearly so bad as the injury she suffered last month, so she ignored it except to take more caution.

"Look out!" Cyril called, and Annette was able to raise her shield as an arrow came hurtling toward her. The impact of the sharp point on metal broke it, and Annette stumbled back a few feet.

She peeked over her shield at Ashe. He was nocking yet another arrow.

"Ashe!" Annette cried, although with all the noise, she wasn't sure he could hear her. 

"The goddess won't spare you, Annette," Dimitri told her solemnly as he passed. "So don't take it upon yourself to be the voice of mercy."

She blinked at him, his words turning her blood to ice even as sweat formed at her forehead.

"Don't hurt him," she pleaded, but if he heard her, he gave no indication.

Another arrow flew nearby Dimitri, although he dodged it easily.

Dimitri attacked the second archer, and Ashe used the distraction to engage Annette.

"Ashe…" she said gently, and she raised her hands palms-outward as he aimed an arrow at her.

"Why did you come here?" he demanded, and his voice was like a balm for her soul.

"It's so good to see you," she said emotionally.

"This isn't a game," Ashe told her harshly. "I've done so much in the last five years that I can't take back."

"It's okay," she told him gently. "I wasn't the most loyal person, either. It's so hard to know what to do."

"No. It isn't,” he said, resigned, and he raised his bow.

She realized in that moment that he was aiming at her, that he was actually letting the arrow loose from his bow, that this could be it for her.

She raised her shield too slowly. She managed to skate by with only a graze, but the area the arrow grazed was her injured arm. She cried out, clutching her arm, blood oozing out from between her fingers. Ashe was aiming a second arrow at her already. A flash of light blurred as it placed itself between them, and Annette was shocked to find Felix with his Aegis shield blocking the arrow's path.

He lunged forward with his sword, forcing Ashe to dodge a slash instead of reaching behind for his quiver, and Annette screamed.

"He won't kill him," Lysithea's voice said from behind her, and as Annette tore her eyes from her two friends locked in battle, her arm became swathed in a white glow. The intense pain in her arm calmed, and she ran ahead to intercept Felix and Ashe.

"You're welcome!" Lysithea shouted sarcastically.

Ashe was gritting his teeth, an arrow nocked on his bow, and Felix was ready to strike again.

"Don't," Annette pleaded, and Felix glanced over at her. Their eyes only met for a moment, but Annette could tell that he was angry

A flash of bright green accompanied by an orange glow appeared next to Felix. The Professor looked coldly at Ashe, and before Annette could react, a plume of flames shot up near the group. Lysithea cried out from behind her, Felix used his sword to shield his eyes, and Annette stumbled back so quickly that she fell, ash staining her dress.

The Sword of the Creator made a sickly clanging noise as its moving parts loosened from each other, and he struck at Ashe, his sword lashing him, causing him to drop his bow.

Felix grabbed Annette by the arm and he pulled her up. She made to step around him but he pushed her back roughly and dragged her away from the scorched earth. Lysithea joined them at the other side.

"Let go!" Annette cried, trying desperately to see what was happening with Ashe.

"You almost got us killed!" Felix shouted, pulling her close to him so she was forced to look at him. He was being rough with her, not careful at all, dragging her around and digging his fingers into her skin. "You left your battalion and abandoned the formation, you put no thought into what would happen to anyone else--Marianne is the only mage over there now!"

"I won't lose anyone else," she told him, her voice low but dangerous. "I didn't ask you to come after me. I'm not some helpless kid!"

"Fine then," he said shortly, and he released her, pushing her away from him. "It won't happen again."

"Look!" Lysithea gasped, and Annette and Felix turned to where she pointed. A group of soldiers, clad in yellow, were rushing to meet them. "Judith made it!"

"Sorry," she said, a sword already drawn. "We met a little bit of trouble on the way. Seems the Empire has spies in your monastery."

Lord Gwendal and his men were already moving toward Judith. Annette, Felix, and Lysithea were closest to her at this point, and Felix already started moving toward her.

Lysithea sighed and followed after him. Annette snuck a glance behind, to where the Professor was confronting Ashe, and she saw the Sword of the Creator unraveled, twisting among the ground, its glow matching the bubbling lava that threatened to burst forth from her feet. Ashe was on his knees, his head in his hands, and it was clear that something emotional was occurring. He was alive, at any rate, and Annette rushed forward to join her friends.

Lysithea and Felix were like some kind of unholy force, Lysithea's dark magic tearing through armored enemies and Felix's sword slicing through the rest as his Crest lit on contact. It was a little scary. Annette stuck to healing them when they needed it and picking off anyone who withstood any attacks. 

The last enemy left was Gwendal, and Dimitri and Marianne had him cornered. Annette averted her eyes as Dimitri landed the final blow. The quiet that fell around the valley was eerie, broken only by bubbling lava and flame bursting through igneous rock. 

"It is the way of knights to follow their master's orders without argument," Gustave said solemnly. "Lord Gwendal was a good man."

"Now he is but a corpse, nothing more." Dimitri slung his silver lance over his back and wiped sweat from his forehead. "Let us leave this place."

Annette didn't want to look at Gwendal's body. It occurred to her that it could've been her uncle in his position. It probably would be one of their friends in his position soon. It could've been Ashe. She raised her eyes to the sky, wondering why the Goddess worked in such ways.

That's when she saw another shadow advancing.

"Wait," she said, her voice shuddering, and she grabbed Lysithea's arm. "Do you see that?"

Felix had already started walking back, but he approached them then, drawing his sword. "More troops?"

"Hold, kids," Judith said, grinning. "They're allies."

Felix sighed heavily and sheathed his sword, then, moodier than ever, he set off up the rough path to the caravan. Annette and Lysithea were still squinting up at the cliff face, and as they did, a blue banner with a familiar crest emblazoned on it came into view.

"Hail!" Lord Rodrigue shouted from atop the cliff.

Annette grinned up at him.

"Annette," the Professor called. His expression was as flat as ever, but she knew that he was displeased with her. "Come with me," he said, and led her away from the rest of the group as they returned to the caravan.

His eyes, an impossibly bright shade of green, looked unwaveringly into her own. "I need you to explain yourself."

"I was worried about my friend, Professor."

His expression didn't change, but Annette could sense the energy coming off him had become even darker.

"You are aware that this is wartime, and we have yet to face even a majority of our enemies, several of which are guaranteed to be past allies?"

She shook her head. "This is different. Ashe wasn't just an ally, Professor. He was one of my best friends."

"It's not that an emotional reaction is wrong, but your lack of restraint is not only unprofessional, it's extremely dangerous."

Annette swallowed thickly. She'd never been lectured like this before. Not at the School of Sorcery, not at the Officer's Academy, not by her parents or uncle. 

"I'm barring you from the mission next month."

Her heart dropped. "What?! How can you--Don't we need as many soldiers as possible?"

"Yes," the Professor said evenly, "we do. But your actions were so dangerous that I would rather take one less and be assured that nothing like this will happen again."

"I can assure you that it won't--"

"I'm sure." Byleth paused, and when Annette said nothing, he said, "If you'll excuse me, we need to head out and there's much to be done."

Annette knew that she had an issue seeking approval from authority figures, something her father instilled in her when she was a child, long before she ever dreamed that he would leave her behind--something that probably only added to her complex. Professor Byleth was so difficult to read, and even when he did approve, it wasn’t very easy to tell. The few times when he’d complimented her work, usually during tea, he’d done it with a stony face and a monotonous voice, so she didn’t really feel the impact of his words. 

Five years later he was still very much the same. The flat affect, the lack of intonation, the way his eyes cut right through her were all exactly as they had been, yet when he was admonishing her it all felt much more purposeful. 

She trailed behind her friends as they made their way up the path to the caravan. Felix and Sylvain were sharing water from a canteen and Ingrid, Ferdinand, and Cyril were tending to their mounts. Annette approached the medical cart, where Manuela was fussing over one of the best friends she had left.

“Ashe,” Annete said as she climbed onto the cart, her voice coming out with more emotion than she anticipated. 

He looked into her eyes, then dropped his gaze to the floor shamefully. “I am so sorry, Annette.”

Tears sprang to her eyes and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Please, don’t be. I understand. I’m just so glad you’re safe, and you’re here with us.”

Ashe returned her embrace, and when they parted she kissed him on the forehead.

“I’ve been so worried about you. You didn’t return any of my letters.”

“I never received them,” he said. “I… I swore I would never do it again, but I had to resort to thievery when House Rowe first seized House Gaspard’s lands. When soldiers for House Rowe captured me Gwendal advocated for letting me join their army instead of punishment.”

“Oh, Ashe,” Annette said sadly. 

“I thought it was what Lord Lonato would have wanted, Annette. Lord Lonato had so many problems with the Church, and the more I looked into it, the more I understood why. I don’t support Rhea. I think she has too much power and needs to be stopped.”

“Ashe,” Annette said desperately, looking wildly at Professor Manuela. Sacrilege was still punishable, even without Rhea’s icy grip on the maintenance of the Church of Seiros. 

“It’s alright,” Manuela said as she wrapped a bandage around Ashe’s arm. “I don’t offend so easily.”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Ashe said calmly. “After seeing firsthand what’s happening to Fodlan, I don’t support Edelgard either. I think that she’s implementing a new government that’s just as full of nepotism as the Feudal system. And the power vacuums she’s created by removing officials of the Church and certain nobles are dangerous.”

“So you’ll fight with us?” Annette asked, so hopeful it stole her breath away.

Ashe gave her the tiniest whisper of a smile. “If you’ll have me.”

There was a knock at the entrance of the cart, and Sylvain appearead, with Felix at his side. Annette scowled at them. 

“Hey, buddy. How are you doing?” Sylvain asked, and something about his tone put Annette on edge.

Ashe shrugged. “Well as ever, I suppose.”

They climbed into the cart, and Annette noticed that Sylvain held a heavy chain in his hands. Ashe noticed it to. 

“I am sorry about this,” Sylvain said, grimacing, and Felix crossed his arms. Annette couldn’t tell if he was purposefully not looking at her or he was simply preoccupied. 

Ashe nodded and held out his hands to be bound. 

“Wait,” Annette said, and both Sylvain and Felix looked her way. “Are you serious? He’s not our enemy. He’s our friend.”

“I know, Annette, but he’s been fighting for Cornelia and tge Empire. It’s just a precaution, I’m sure once we get back to the Monastery everything will be sorted out and things will go back to normal.”

“You can’t chain him up, he’s injured,” she said dully.

“It’s fine. I want to cooperate,” Ashe said quietly.

“This is ridiculous.” She went to step closer to him, but Felix stepped between them, hand hovering above the hilt of his sword.

“You should go,” he said. He was avoiding looking at her, eyes cast at the floor near her feet.

Any trace of affection she held for Felix was completely gone, evaporated in the heat like water without a trace, leaving behind all the hard things that polluted it. She felt a tight, hot knot in her chest, so poignant it was almost painful. 

“I really hate you sometimes,” she said angrily, the words scraping against her tongue like glass.

Felix cast his eyes at her then, and they were hard and sharp and for once it seemed like he was going to let her have the last word. Some far part of herself wished she hadn't said that, but a much nearer, larger part was just angry that he wasn't more hurt.

Sylvain was looking at Felix like Annette had just slapped him, and it pissed her off that he had a bigger reaction than Felix did. 

She stormed out of the cart, wanting to scream or kick something or cry. A large boulder sat several yards away from the rest of the group, and Annette sat on it and pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes until she saw fireworks. 

"Get in trouble?" 

When Annette lowered her hands, Lysithea stood in front of her, crossing her arms over her chest knowingly.

"Yeah. And everyone else is mad at me."

"I'm mad at you, too."

Annette raised her eyebrows at the fellow warlock. "You are?"

"Yeah. Maybe if you think about anyone other than yourself for a second, you would see why."

"I wasn't thinking about myself , I was thinking about Ashe and saving his life."

"So why don't you try looking at everyone else's point of view. You screwed up the plan, then made me and Felix screw it up even more so you could save the life of a traitor. Think of how your battalion must feel, picking a turncoat over them."

Annette bit her lip. Lysithea had a good point. "I wasn't picking him over anyone. I was trying to include him in what was best for the whole army."

"Unfortunately, you're a Commander in this army but you're not in charge. The professor and Gilbert and Prince Dimitri don't have to tell you anything if they don't want to, including which of our allies they'll spare. What if it was the Professor's plan the whole time to spare Ashe's life and you made a fool out of yourself for no reason?"

"I did not--"

Lysithea sighed sharply, cutting her off. "I'm trying to be a good friend and be truthful with you. I didn't come over here to argue. All of us understand why you did what you did, but we all knew Ashe, too, and no one else freaked out like that. I know you have a lot going on, but you need to get yourself under control so we can actually function as an army."

Annette felt a lump forming in her throat, and she gripped the rough edges of the boulder to steady herself. "I'm sorry."

"You are!" Lysithea said, sounding accomplished. "Well, good. You should be."

"You're still mad at me?"

"Of course I am. But I know you'll find a way to make it up to me."

"I'll get to baking as soon as we get home," Annette promised, smiling weakly at the mage.

She wasn’t allowed near the cart carrying Ashe after that. She wondered if Felix would try to seek her out, but he didn’t and Annette was half disappointed, half grateful. It frustrated her that she couldn’t stop thinking about him, that the way he looked at her, so angry and annoyed, cut through her even though she gave it right back. 

When they got back to the monastery, she angry-baked four batches of cookies until after midnight.

She still had a lot of energy, fueled by dark thoughts and a good amount of anxiety about upsetting all her friends. She was debating starting on a fifth batch, even though she was almost out of butter and sugar, when footsteps at the door made her turn around. 

She fully expected it to be Felix--wanted it to be him, so that she could yell at him some more--but she was shocked when Ingrid's lanky frame stood with one hand pressed against the doorframe.

"Annette?" Ingrid called cautiously, as though Annette was likely to take offense somehow.

"Hey Ingrid. Do you want any cookies?" Annette made her voice bright, far brighter than she meant to, and she gestured to some of the trays of cookies that had already cooled.

Ingrid blinked at her. "You know what time it is, don't you?"

"Of course." Annette glanced at the grandfather clock against the opposite wall, trying not to think about what was happening last time she was in the kitchens after midnight. "I just have a lot of energy right now, and I figured it was better to do something productive than lay in bed unable to fall asleep."

Ingrid did take a cookie, and she took a bite and chewed on it before saying, "You're not the only one. Sylvain and I have been trying Felix into bed for an hour."

Annette turned to the tray if cookies she pulled from the oven most recently and started sliding a spatula under each one to unstick them from the metal. She broke more than one in half. "Is that so?" she asked tightly as a cookie crumbled under the spatula. 

"Mhmm." Ingrid was chewing on the cookie again. "Hit Sylvain just under his eye with a pair of training gauntlets before he finally agreed."

"Is Sylvain in need of healing spell?" Annette asked eagerly. She jumped at the opportunity to turn the conversation away from Felix.

"No, Annette. He's fine." Ingrid finished the last bite of her cookie as Annette continued unsticking them from the tray, her fingers a bit more relaxed now that the topic of conversation had shifted. "Don't you think you should be getting to bed soon, too?"

"Uh, I guess so. Not really feeling very tired, though." She turned to Ingrid and smiled at her. "Don't worry about me. You can head to bed if you're tired, Ingrid."

A hand rested on Annette's shoulder. The motion was gentle, but Annette jumped. "Why don't I help you clean up?"

"Oh. I wouldn't ask you to do that, I made this mess myself and I can clean it up on ny own."

Ingrid was already picking up buckets of water Annette had prepared earlier. She gathered the bowl Annete used to mix the dough together, preparing one of the buckets for washing.

There was a large basket Annette lined with cloth while she was waiting for her dough to set, so she started tipping cookies into that so Ingrid could start washing the trays.

Now she was burdening Ingrid with cleaning up her mess.

She tried to chase away the thought--Ingrid didn't have to come here, wouldn't have offered to help if she didn't want to--but Annette felt so useless and annoying that she couldn't fight back the hot tears that rose from some awful place in her mind.

She tried to turn away from Ingrid and cry quietly, but the falcon knight had a hand on her shoulder and when Annette turned she pulled her into a hug.

Ingrid wasn't the most emotional person. Annette knew about her fiance passing away, killed before his time, and she knew from the few intimate moments they spent together during their days at the Academy that this affected her deeply. Annette's own problems felt small in comparison, and she tried to force herself to stop crying, but this only made her feel worse and she sank into Ingrid's unfamiliar embrace.

"Ashe meant a lot to a lot of us," Ingrid said softly as Annette desperately tried to pull herself together. "I think it was brave, what you did."

More tears spilled over Annette's lashes, even as she squeezed her eyes shut tightly. "I p-put the m-mission at r-risk," she sobbed into Ingrid's shirt.

"I know," the blonde said softly. "But we got it done. We all helped each other, and that's what we'll continue to do until we win."

"I'm not allowed on the next mission," Annette said miserably. She wasn't planning on telling anyone, meaning to keep the secret pulled close to her chest and then pretend she was ill or something on the day of the battle, but it weighed on her mind heavily and speaking it was a relief. Her tears were slowing down now.

"Really?"

Annette untangled herself from Ingrid's embrace and wiped at her eyes. "The professor thinks I need a break, I guess. He doesn't want me screwing up again."

Ingrid took a cloth and dipped part of it into the clean bucket of water. She handed it to Annette, who used it to wipe off her face.

"I guess you should use the time wisely, then," Ingrid said, and she turned to the dishes once more. "You know, maybe study up on controversial decisions made by generals and the like. Prove to the professor that it doesn't mean you have bad judgment. You're a good leader, Annette. We all make mistakes sometimes."

That was something. She could write a paper on likeminded decisions, or the stress of decision making during wartime. 

Annette quietly continued arranging cookies in the basket, setting broken ones aside. She handed Ingrid the trays when she was done.

There was something she wanted to ask, something childish and self-serving. She finished putting the cookies in the basket, then started drying the dishes Ingrid had washed.

"So…" she began quietly as Ingrid finished up the last tray. "Felix is… he's pretty mad at me."

Ingrid looked over to Annette as she handed her the last tray. "Don't worry about Felix. He'll get over it."

Annette's fingers shook slightly as she dried it off, trying desperately not to think about his mouth on hers or the way his fingers felt on the bare skin of her thigh or the way his eyes looked before he leaned in to kiss her.

"He is mad at me, then?"

Ingrid shifted uncomfortably, and Annette stacked all of the baking trays together and returned them to their spot on the shelves.

"I guess, but to be honest he wouldn't really talk about it. Felix isn't one to come out and say how he feels about anything."

She nodded, and when she looked up at Ingrid she was looking nervously at her.

It would be easy to get carried away and ask Ingrid a million things she wanted to know about Felix, but she knew that Ingrid wasn't like that. She didn't like talking about intimate things like that. Any topic that strayed too far from knighthood made her at least a little uncomfortable, and she'd been so kind to Annette already.

"Thanks," Annette said, and she hoped that Ingrid knew all that she meant by that.

The blonde smiled softly. "You're welcome." Ingrid paused. "We should really head to bed now."

Annette nodded in agreement.

The weather was chilly, typical for a night at Garreg Mach, but the lack of wind kept Annette from feeling too cold. She hadn't brought her cloak with her this time.

"Annette," Ingrid said when they descended the stairs and were about to split up.

Annette looked up at her questioningly. She kept her arms crossed tightly over her chest against the cold.

"Felix is… really stubborn. All the time. But he… I know he cares about you. Just be patient with him, okay?" Ingrid smiled at Annette, then frowned sharply. "Oh, don't tell him I said anything like that. He'd kill me."

Annette chuckled dryly. "No problem."

Ingrid hesitated, then she quickly pulled Annette in for a final hug. "Feel better, okay?"

She nodded. "Good night, Ingrid."

"Night!"

Annette climbed the steps to her room slowly, clutching her basket of cookies like a lifeline. Lysithea would probably take at least a third of them. The rest she'd distribute them among her friends as an apology. After that, she had a lot of work to do.

Chapter Text

Her dreams that night were full of lava and arrows flying at her, Felix pushing her roughly to the ground before impaling her with the wicked Sword of the Creator, his eyes narrowed and sharp but ultimately emotionless as he did. 

She didn't sleep much, waking before the sun even though she went to bed well past one in the morning.

The next day was a festival day, honoring Saint Indech. Indech was a bow user and a brawler, two skills in which Annette was sorely lacking. She'd practiced with Cyril and Lysithea to improve her bow skills a few times a week, but she gave it up and promised to herself that she'd focus on improving her culinary skills instead--if she couldn't help by hunting, she could at least prepare what someone else caught.

And Annette had never hit anyone in her life and she didn't plan to.

Still, Manuela had her singing at masses now, so she had to participate. 

Since she woke up early, she took the time to braid her hair into an updo and apply a little bit of modest makeup. The choir had to wear green and white robes, but she wore a white dress with some embroidery details at the chest and sleeves with gray tights and knee-length boots for underneath. 

It made her stomach churn to think of Ashe--Indech was his favorite saint, and he was still locked up in the dungeons awaiting whatever the professor and her father felt they needed to do to consider him trustworthy enough to join their ranks. It was probably just stress, but she avoided eating. Even the thought of a nice breakfast danish made her feel nauseous.

She stayed in her room until eleven, then made her way to the cathedral in her green robes. She smiled at Manuela like nothing was bothering her. Because she was so short, she usually got put in the front-middle of the choir ensemble, and she had a pretty good view of the crowd gathered for the mass.

Felix wasn't there. Or if he was, he was purposefully keeping out of her sight.

When mass was over, she sat in the front row of the pews and prayed over the crumbled masonry of the cathedral. She felt lost, and even with all the people bustling around, she was able to find a calm in her mind.

She missed Mercedes, missed her every time she entered the cathedral, but she poignantly missed Dedue in that moment. His calm nature and soothing voice were sources of comfort when Annette found herself scrambled and anxious when they were students. 

She wished she could visit Ashe.

The thoughts in her head were too loud, too black, and even the Goddess wasn't easing them today. With a final bow of her head, Annette gave up her search for inner peace and walked back to her room to hang up her robes and retrieve the basket of cookies she'd baked the night before.

Lysithea was already in the library when Annette arrived there, the massive white magic tome spread out in front of her. She was practicing, creating sigils of light in her hand as she read carefully.

"Hey," she said to Annette, and the sigil projected over her hand winked out quickly. "Marianne said she won't be coming because of the festival. She and Dimitri headed into town to--"

"Dimitri went into town?" Annette spluttered, and her pulse kicked up, making her feel faint.

"Yeah, but he seemed totally tame. Maybe Duke Fraldarius being here is having a good effect on him."

"He and Marianne went out alone?"

Lysithea shook her head, platinum hair falling into her face as she did. She pushed it back as she said, "No, Flayn and Seteth went, too. And your father."

"Oh." She still didn't think it was a good idea, but at least there were people who could control him if he started losing it. It pained her that she could be so callous thinking about her former friend's fragile emotional state, but she just didn't have the energy for anything else.

"Your hair looks nice," Lysithea said. "And the recital was nice. It was all nice."

Annette set the basket on the table and sat heavily across from her friend. "It was," she agreed. She felt hollow.

"What's in there?" Lysithea asked, her magenta eyes on the basket.

Annette flipped back one of the corners of the cloth and revealed the cookies. Lysithea squealed happily and took one.

"Told you I'd bake you something."

"Hey, would it be okay if we went to the training grounds?" Lysithea asked. "I wanted to practice Warping, and I think I have enough of the theory down to get it."

"Oh." Annette really wanted to stay in the library and do some theory, but it was true that Lysithea had basically mastered the theory for the latest spell she was learning. "Yeah, sure."

The girls set off, down the stairs, Lysithea taking a cookie out of the basket on Annette's arm when she finished the one she was already eating. "Hang on," she said, and she pulled Annette into the dining hall. She took an armful of fruits--apples, pears, persimmons--and Annette opened her bag to allow her to shove some in there. The serving maid glared over at them, and Annette flashed her an apologetic smile. Lysithea didn't seem to notice, and she pulled Annette out of the dining hall.

"What's with you today?" the dark mage asked, hand on her hips. "You seem really spacey."

"There's just a lot going on," Annette said wearily.

Lysithea's eyes glimmered with concern. "Anything I can do?"

"Probably not. Let's get to work. I think that's the best thing for me right now." She wanted the day to be over already.

"Don't push yourself too hard."

Annette started walking toward the training grounds, making her way past Mercedes's old room, then Ashe's. The strap of her bag was digging into her shoulder with all the fruits weighing it down.

The training grounds were not empty. Felix and Rodrigue Fraldarius were there. Standing across the grounds from each other, Felix with training gauntlets in his fists.

"--an idiotic move like that!" Felix shouted, apparently not noticing the heavy doors opening and closing as the two mages entered. Annette stared at them, and she noticed Sylvain sitting off to the side, looking bored, a training lance gripped loosely in his hand as he leaned his temple against it. She shot him a questioning glance and he only shrugged.

"Your uncle is more than capable, Felix," Rodrigue said, clearly very annoyed but not shouting like Felix had been. "He grew up a soldier in Fraldarius."

"Yeah, and he's gotten fat in the south sitting on his ass doing nothing. How could you think he'd be able to fight off one Titanus, let alone the amount that Cornelia has been sending right to our front yard?"

"Your uncle is a capable fighter, Felix. He's been part of the border protection since all this began five years ago--"

"You really think fighting the Gloucesters is the same as facing Cornelia's army? Even ten red wolves don't compare to those unholy things."

"I don't need your permission to be here, Felix," Rodrigue said, his voice soft and angry.

"And I don't need your permission to tell you when you're being an idiot," Felix bit back.

Rodrigue noticed Annette and Lysithea first, and he straightened his posture, made himself look proper, and nodded at them curtly. "Ladies," he said, his voice still holding some of the acid Felix placed there.

Felix looked over to them next, and his eyes landed right on Annette's. She felt sick.

"Let's get out of here, Sylvain," he growled, and without bothering to take off the gauntlets, he marched to the doors. Both girls took two steps back to clear the way for him, and he tore one of the gauntlets off roughly and dropped it where he stood to push the heavy doors open.

Rodrigue scoffed at his son, crossing his arms in front of him as he collected himself.

"Guess I gotta go, too," Sylvain said cheerily. He put his lance away carefully and stretched as he stood. "Oh, Annette," he said as he neared the doors. "We need to reschedule our study session."

She blinked at him until she realized that by 'we' he meant himself and Felix. She and Felix were supposed to study before dinner. Sylvain wasn't necessarily part of their plans, but he tended to show up whenever he pleased and work half as hard as he was supposed to.

She slid her thumbs under the strap of her bag where it was digging into her shoulder to alleviate the ache there. "Oh?"

He nodded. "Yeah. There's some other stuff going on. Is it okay if you and I meet up tomorrow? Professor's getting on my case about the Dark Knight certification, and he knows my Reason isn't good enough to pass."

"Just you and me?" Annette asked.

He nodded. "Yeah. A one-on-one. Some quality time for us two redheads. A date." He gave her a charming smile.

A sour taste rose in the back of her throat. "Okay, no problem. See you tomorrow."

"We have things to do, anyway," Lysithea said.

"Great! I'll see you ladies around, then." He winked at them before he slipped out the door, presumably to follow Felix.

It was a little awkward with Rodrigue still standing at the edge of the grounds, still fuming from his fight with his son. Annette and Lysithea glanced at each other unsurely.

"Can I see the book?" Lysithea asked, her voice quiet enough to be respectful but loud enough for Rodrigue to hear them. 

As Annette pulled out the book, fruits spilled out onto the ground. She kneeled to pick them up, being mindful not to dirty her dress.

When she looked up, Rodrigue was bending down to pick up a persimmon that rolled to his feet. "I'm sorry, sir," Annette muttered, and she trotted over to him to take it back.

"No need," he said kindly, and he passed the fruit into Annette's open hand. "Glad to see your ankle is faring well."

She glanced down at her feet and remembered the moment she broke her ankle running from Felix in the snow. That felt like a lifetime ago. "Yes, sir. No problems since Ethereal Moon."

"Glad to hear it." He paused and looked to Annette's open bag, which was bursting with fruits taken from the dining hall. "You girls have… come for a picnic?"

"Oh, no, sir. We're studying white magic. We're, um…" she looked to Lysithea for help, since she actually didn't know what they were doing with all this damn fruit. 

"Practicing the Warp spell," Lysithea said distractedly as she flipped through the pages of Annette's book.

"Oh! Warping is some advanced magic." He smiled at her, but eyes were somber and faraway. "You're a nice girl. I'm sure you're nothing but respectful to your father. I bet he's proud of you."

Lysithea snorted and Annette shot a sharp glare at her.

"Thank you, sir," Annette said, and dizzy spell swept over her. She gritted her teeth against it.

"If the two of you require any help, please reach out to me. I'm skilled in white magic and I'd be more than happy to offer my knowledge if you need it."

Annette nodded to him, and bowed as he slipped through the heavy doors.

"Practicing being a good girl for your father-in-law?" Lysithea teased without looking up from her book. 

"Can you please not?" Annette said softly. "I'm pretty sure Felix hates me now, anyway."

Lysithea looked up at that, puzzled. "What do you mean? He was just mad at his dad. Which is how he is all the time, right?"

"I don't know. He obviously asked Sylvain to cancel our Reason lesson."

"His father is here from their territory, which is actively being targeted by Cornelia and her army. He might be busy."

"I guess you're right."

"Come on, let's practice this. Studying will cheer you up."

Ordinarily, Lysithea was right, but Annette wasn't doing very well with the Warp spell. It was extremely complicated. The theorem itself was hard enough to understand, with very complicated physics and a lot of concepts building on each other, but actually casting the spell required a massive amount of energy.

It wasn't that Annette wasn't an energetic person, but she did much better with doing low-energy tasks for a long time, like cleaning or studying. High-energy tasks were daunting for her, even on a good day, and today she felt completely drained.

That was the problem with white magic. Healing especially. White magic required the transfer of vitality--curing another person's injuries by lending them your own magical strength. Annette found it to be draining, even though she generally stuck to the low-energy spells, like Heal instead of Physic, Recover instead of Fortify. Nosferatu was an interesting case of stealing another person's vitality, but Annette preferred black magic spells because they were faster and more efficient in battle.

With magic, you could study the theory all day and memorize every sigil, but a person would never be able to force their body to perform more than it was capable.

"What's with all this fruit, I've been meaning to ask?"

Lysithea grinned at her. "You're aware that the Warp spell transfers a person from somewhere close to somewhere far. I wanted to practice, but I'm a little hesitant about casting a powerful spell like that on a person for the first time. So I'll be Warping the fruit around."

"Ohh." Annette nodded. It was smart to get the fruit--white magic was meant to be performed on living things, so the fruit was alive enough to be good practice.

"Can you help me set them up? I was thinking if we can put each fruit about three meters apart, I would be able to slowly increase my range as we practice."

Lysithea was truly vicious, her magic precise and cutting. She was timid at first, enveloping an apple in light and making it reappear two arm's lengths away. Then she started reaching further, throwing it back two meters. Then three. Four seemed to be her limit, which was standard for users of the spell.

She encouraged Annette to try. Theoretically, she should be able to do it. She knew the theorem, albeit a little shakily, and she memorized the sigil perfectly.

She should've realized something was wrong when she summoned the sigil to her hand, white magic roiling through her body jerkily until the sigil materialized. She picked a persimmon that was about a meter away from her, and when she enveloped it in white magic, it felt like she was trying to lift a hundred pounds with her pinky. She pushed through, clenching her teeth as she forced the magic, more, more, and she was actually pleased to see she moved it. Only about a half meter from where it started, but still.

Suddenly her stomach lurched, and a terrible metallic taste rose to the back of her throat.

"Lysithea," she said quickly, "hand me my bag?"

Confused, the dark mage fetched it for her, and Annette turned it upside down, knocking out the contents, and she fell to her knees as she vomited into it.

"Oh!" Lysithea stared at her as another wave of nausea passed through her body, and Annette retched into her bag again. "Goddess, don't move, I'm going to get--I don't know, Manuela I guess--"

"No, Lysithea," Annette gasped, shivering as sweat beaded on her forehead. "I'm actually… I feel better now. Honest. Don't get anyone, please, just stay here." Annette didn't dare look up, but the dark mage's feet shifted uncertainly.

"Okay, fine, whatever you say. You'd better not be lying, though, because if you're sick and making me ignore it I'll be mad."

"No, I think it's just too much." Ashe, Felix, Byleth, her father, Mercedes. They all swam around her mind and she tasted metal. "Can you just… talk to me?"

"Talk to you?" Lysithea demanded, as though Annette asked her to do something horrible, like bait fishing rods or something. "About what?"

"Anything. Tell me what cute thing Cyril did last."

Lysithea sat at the edge of the grounds, keeping a close eye on Annette. "I don't know."

"Fine, anything, I don't care."

"No, I mean about Cyril. He brought me a bouquet of violets and bluebells. I don't even like flowers. But it's getting… He's getting… I don't know. It's getting harder to joke about."

Annette blinked and finally looked over to Lysithea slowly.

"You look really pale. Are you sure I can't go get somebody? I'm sure Felix would be glad to--" 

At the mention of his name, Annette squeezed her eyes shut, and Lysithea had the good sense to shut up. "I'm not sick, I'm just stressed. Please just talk to me about literally anything that isn't stressing me out."

"You get stressed about everything," the dark mage pointed out unhelpfully. "So, yeah, Cyril brought me flowers. Did you know he couldn't read or write? I taught him. He's getting pretty good, and we probably don't need to keep meeting up for lessons. But every week he comes. We're reading poetry by a half-Almyran writer Claude showed me, I thought it would be good for him. Anyway, I think I'm going to tell him tomorrow that we can't meet up anymore."

Annette furrowed her brow at her friend. "Why?"

Lysithea frowned severely, and she looked over to the doors. "Can I tell you something serious? Or will it make you puke?"

"Not sure. Just go for it."

Lysithea sucked in a deep breath. Annette had bever seen her so nervous. "I don't want him to get hurt when I die."

She tried to really think about what she said and what it could mean, but it wasn't making sense to her. "I'm sorry, I don't understand."

"I have two Crests," Lysithea said, and her voice was grave, quiet, hesitant.

"Um, I'm pretty sure that's not possible. I mean, I guess you would know better than me, but in all the literature I've read--"

"It's not. Not naturally. When I was just a child, a group of dark mages essentially kidnapped my siblings and I and performed horrible blood experiments on us. Every one of my siblings died. I survived, gifted with two crests, but my lifespan was greatly shortened."

When Annette asked Lysithea to talk to her, she thought that she would, like, tell her about her morning. Not drop a huge bomb on her like that. She stared at her, mouth open, unsure of what to say. On the plus side, she didn't feel like vomiting.

"I have maybe five years left. It would be selfish of me to make someone… fall in love with me. Or whatever."

Shakily, Annette stood. Lysithea stood, too, and offered her hand. She led Annette to the edge of the grounds so she could sit next to her. 

"Well, okay. I think… I don't know. Maybe it seems unfair, but maybe Cyril would rather spend five years being in love with you than letting you go without having the opportunity at all. Seems unfair to decide that for him."

"It's not like I can ask him. If he knows that I'm dying then he can't make an impartial decision about it."

"Maybe I can ask him. Like, hypothetically."

Lysithea scoffed at this, but a small smile pulled at her lips. "It's been a long time since I've told anyone about that," she said quietly, and Annette reached out and touched her hand. "You feeling okay?"

Annette nodded. "Yeah, actually. I guess throwing up was good. I haven't been feeling well all day."

The girls stood, Lysithea supporting Annette at her elbow. "Should I help you to your room?"

"I'm actually starving," Annette said. "I haven't eaten all day."

"What?! You should have said something before I put all this fruit on the floor."

With Lysithea at her side, Annette ate a light dinner at the dining hall. Lysithea walked her back to her room, and Annette cleaned up a little before deciding to take a hot bath to calm her nerves even more.

She should've been tired, but a craving for a cup of tea swept over her. The clock red ten PM, and she decided that it was late enough for her to get away with sliding a pair of boots on under her nightgown and her cloak over her shoulders. She took a lantern and made her way to the dining hall.

She boiled a kettle of water and poured herself a cup of chamomile. She had just set the cup on the table when she heard footsteps coming up through the entrance.

Her first thought was that it was Dimitri, but she didn't hear the crazed mumbling that usually announced his presence. She tried to calm herself--it was probably one of her friends feeling a little peckish after an evening of training.

Felix entered the dining hall, and before she could really process what that meant and how she would react to it, a freckled, silver haired face appeared at his shoulder.

"Ashe!" she squealed, and she threw her legs over the bench and ran across the empty hall, her boots echoing as they clicked on the floor, and she threw her arms around the archer's neck.

He returned her embrace, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and squeezing. Annette took a half step back so she could look at him. He didn't look beaten up or injured, just very tired. 

"I'm so glad you're okay," she said, and her voice caught emotionally.

He smiled at her, a small smile, weighed down by something. Hopefully it was just weariness, but it was still too soon to know what he was thinking.

"What are you doing here in your pajamas?" Ashe asked.

"Oh," Annette said, and she pulled her cloak closed over her chest. "I didn't think I'd run into anyone. I wanted some tea, so. What about you?"

"I was a little hungry. Felix said he knew where there was some jerky, so he took me here on the way to my room."

At the mention of Felix, Annette felt her eyes widen. She… actually forgot that he was there. She looked to the threshold, where he'd been standing when they first arrived, but he was gone. She took a few steps so she was standing in the Entrance Hall, but he was still nowhere to be found.

"Where'd he…?" Annette asked, and her stomach sank. He hadn't even said one word to her. "Never mind. Here, let me show where the jerky is." She only knew where they kept it in the kitchens because it was a favorite snack of one particular swordsman. Annette preferred dried fruit or preserves spread on toasted bread. She handed him some, and she wished she'd brought the cookies she had yet to pass around so she could share some with him. They sat back to the table where Annette's tea was growing cool.

"So, what, they decided to let you go now?"

Ashe nodded. "It was Saint Indech day, so things were delayed. Professor Byleth came to see me around two, and after that a lot of different people came down and asked me a lot of different questions. I was totally honest, I told them that I didn't hold the Church of Seiros in my heart any longer. The goddess sure,  and the saints, but the Church itself… I think Seteth had a big problem with that. He wanted to keep me for further questioning. It's… probably going to be awkward around him and Flayn, now."

Annette sipped her tea and Ashe took a bite of his jerky.

"Shamir just finished questioning me to see if I knew anything about who leaked the information about Ailell. I was too low-ranking and I couldn't help much."

"At least it's over now and you're back where you belong." She smiled at him over tea, but he didn't return it.

He took another bite of jerky and chewed it slowly. "Annette," he said firmly, his green eyes stormy. "What's happened to Dimitri?"

She frowned at him. "I'm not sure, to be honest. You're aware, of course, the Regent Rufus was murdered, Dimitri was framed for it and locked up, and then he was killed? Except that he wasn't killed. Dedue broke him out and--"

"Dedue?" Ashe interrupted. "I didn't see him at Ailell. How's he doing?"

Annette but her lip. She hadn't forgotten how close he and Ashe were, and it was cruel of her to bring it up so casually. "Oh, Ashe, I'm so sorry."

His frown returned and his posture slumped a bit. "No, it's not your fault. It's no one's fault. It's war."

She hated to see him getting so upset, not after everything he'd been through. "Anyway, I guess everything that Dimitri went through was too much for him. I think Marianne has been making some progress with him. She took him into town today."

His green eyes were fixed onto the table, and he didn't give much of an indication that he was paying attention to her.

"Here, Ashe, come with me. I want to show you something." She took his hand as she led him down the stairs to the greenhouse, her lantern held aloft so they could see. Their hands still locked together, she pulled him over to the corner where the Duscur flowers bloomed. He recognized them instantly, and he folded his hands in prayer and Annette took a few steps back to give him some privacy. Several minutes passed, and Annette busied herself by arranging the seeds they'd collected into an alphabetized order. When Ashe was finally done, he sniffed and Annette rushed to his side again.

"Is it… okay? I didn't want to upset you but I thought you'd like to see them."

When Ashe looked down at her, his eyes were rimmed with glistening tears. It broke her heart a little to see. "It's really nice," he said emotionally. "Where did you get the flowers?"

"Everything was dead when we came here," Annette explained gently. "We changed out all the soil and weatherproofed it again, and among the seeds that we planted these flowers started blooming. I didn't know what they were at first, until I found a reference book that Dedue had been making with sketches of different flowers. I can show you that, if you like."

She pushed open the door of the greenhouse and they exited, Annette leading Ashe to her room. She stopped short when she saw Dimitri pacing around the middle ground of the dormitories.

"What?" Ashe asked, confused by her sudden stop.

"Um, let's head back to the dining hall for a bit. I think I left my tea."

Ashe blinked at her.

Unfortunately, her voice attracted the prince's attention, and he looked in their direction sharply.

"Let's go," she said, and she urged Ashe toward the dining hall.

"Traitor!" Dimitri shouted, and Annette's stomach dropped.

"Ashe--" she said, but he seemed to understand the situation now, and he was already turning in the opposite direction.

Panicked, they ran to the fish pond, hoping to slip into the dining hall without him seeing where they were headed, but even for all his armor Dimitri was ghostly fast.

He placed himself between them and the stairs, and his icy blue eye fell on Annette. "Stand down, Annette. I command you."

She backed up, Ashe behind her. Of course he had no weapons, coming straight from the dungeons. Her back foot creaked as her weight shifted onto the dock.

"Highness, I think we should perhaps have some chamomile tea and--"

"Tea? How can one be thinking of tea when a traitor walks among us?" He was looking at Ashe now. "Your hands drip with the blood of Faerghus, and the rotting smell of death lingers on your skin."

Ashe's green eyes widened.

Things weren't so bad, not yet. He was only talking, for the time being.

"Dimitri, he's our friend. You know that."

This, evidently, was the wrong thing to say. "Who do you think you are, witch, distributing mercy among traitors as though you were the Goddess herself? You think yourself so powerful?"

"Of course not, but Ashe fights for the Kingdom now--"

"I said stand aside!" Dimitri shouted, and he pulled a short spear from where it must have been strapped to his back.

Now it was bad.

"Annette! Run!" Ashe shouted, but she threw out a hand to stop him.

"If you run he'll only chase you." She summoned wind energy to her hands, a sigil shining in front of her face. She wasn't attacking, but she was ready.

"You summon your power against your Prince?" Dimitri demanded, and he laughed, that terrible laugh that threw shards of ice into her blood. "You should die for that."

"Both of you stop it."

Holding the sigil in place between them, Annette looked to her left.

Of course Felix had shown up.

"You see how she raises her power against her Prince? Against her country?"

"I see a girl defending herself from a vile boar," he said as he walked toward them. There was a sword at his hip, but he didn't reach for it.

"She's not as defenseless as she would have you believe," Dimitri growled, and he took a step toward her. "But then, you know that."

"Would you shut up?" His bored tone was replaced with a harsh one, and he placed himself in front of Ashe and Annette, keeping Dimitri from advancing much more. "Go mutter your nonsense elsewhere."

"Not until the traitor is slain."

Felix balled his fists. "Ashe has been cleared by many figures of authority and you know that. This is nothing more than a childish tantrum. Begone."

"If you will not comply then you are an enemy!"

Dimitri lashed out with his spear, the dock creaking as Felix jumped back to give himself time to draw his sword and parry the spear. Annette stepped to the side to fire a weak wind spell at Dimitri, hoping to force him back, but he gritted his teeth and withstood the attack. With one hand, he flourished the spear, knocking Felix off balance, and swung at Annette with his fist. She pressed even further back but there was only a few more feet of dock left.

"Fuck. Annette, you and Ashe need to--"

Dimitri was attacking Annette now, spear trained on her even as Felix tried to angle himself between them. He was desperately trying to push Dimitri back, but Dimitri was fueled by a mad strength, outmatching even Felix's Crest. Felix's sword wasn't equipped to parry the length of the spear and Dimitri easily thrust it past his sword and Annette had to duck to avoid it. Desperately, Felix lunged at the spear with his free hand, grasping the long handle to try to wrestle it out of Dimitri's grip.

She loosed a cutting gale at the dock beneath Dimitri's feet, and the board he was standing on splintered. The prince jumped back, growling at her like an animal.

As Dimitri leaped back, Felix was pulled forward, and his foot crashed through the splintered wood.

"Felix!" Annette cried, and she made to help him up but Dimitri was prowling like an enraged animal, a steady stream of disturbing muttering coursing from his gritted teeth, and Annette conjured another sigil as a warning. Wind swept around her so violently it created choppy waves on the surface of the pond and disturbed the hem of her nightgown. 

This was the last time she would ever leave her room without proper clothes.

Ashe was trying to help Felix up, but in an animalistic fit of rage Dimitri threw his spear at them. It sunk into one of the planks Felix was using to support himself, and after a few tense moments it splintered with a sickening sound and Felix fell into the water. 

"Felix!" Annette screamed, her voice frantic. The sigil died and Ashe cast the lantern over the water, an inky reflection of the night sky above them. The pond wasn't very deep, but they were barely outside Pegasus Moon and the water was much too cold for anyone to be splashing around in.

He emerged from surface of the water a few feet clear of the dock, spluttering and thrashing as he broke from the surface. He stood, the water lapping at his waist, and he wiped water away from his eyes.

Ashe offered him his hand and Felix took it, and with a grunt Ashe helped him climb back up. Annette glanced nervously at Dimitri, but he was staring over at them with wide eyes, shocked into complacency, at least for the moment. 

"Felix, Goddess," Annette muttered. Her hands were shaking nervously as she approached him. "Here, get out of your jacket." She was already unclasping it for him and pushing it off his shoulders as he shivered.

"S-stop," he said weakly as she loosed the last clasp.

She raised her eyes to his, confused, but continued fussing over her him. She summoned white magic to her hands and moved to touch his face, but he waved his hand between them, shooing her away and shaking cold droplets of water over her.

"I said s-stop!" he shouted, and Annette dropped her hands, hurt. He tore off a glove with his teeth and the other with his naked fingers, then tore off his jacket the rest of the way. He threw it clear of the dock, and it landed with a soggy thunk.

"H-how many t-times do I have to tell you n-not to w-walk around the monastery at n-night?" he growled.

She frowned at him, trying to ignore how raw his words were making her feel. Without a word, she unclasped her cloak from her shoulders and threw it over him.

Instinctively, he clutched it at his chest, but his annoyance with her was only mounting.

"You d-don't think!"

"Felix," she said softly, keeping her voice low to stop it from shaking. "Stop shouting at me."

"You n-never think about what will happen n-next, you just j-jump into the next thing and d-do whatever you please."

"That's enough!" she said roughly. "You're only trying to hurt me, and I won't let you."

He shivered violently, his lips had a blue hue, and water was dripping from his bound hair. "It's not about y-you, it's about the c-consequences that your actions b-bring to other people!"

Ashe was looking between them, confused. "Why don't we get you to your room, Felix?" he asked, clearly trying to diffuse the situation.

"I c-can bring mys-self to my d-damn room." He snapped, then turned his attention back to Annette. "Y-you think you can do or s-say whatever you want, and I w-won't care."

"What are you talking about?" Annette asked desperately.

His amber eyes narrowed at her as he trembled, water sliding off the velvet exterior of her cloak. His eyelashes were stuck together into star points, and his wet clothes clung to his body in a way that Annette might have appreciated if he weren't shouting at her.

"I'm trying to keep that f-fucking animal from f-fucking killing someone and it's like you d-don't even care. S-stop putting yourself in dangerous situations! Th-think before you do things! It's not h-hard!"

Tears stung at the back of her eyes. She didn't do anything wrong, all she'd done was go to get a cup of tea. She was getting the feeling that he was yelling at her for things that weren't even happening right now, and if he was going to avoid her and then explode the second they happened to be near each other, then he could swim in the lake for all she cared.

She stepped up to him, close, and his eyes widened as she did. She would have liked to know what he was thinking just then.

"Fuck you, Felix," she said softly, and she knew her eyes were shining with tears but hopefully it painted a nice portrait that would haunt him for however long he decided to be angry at her.

He was obviously shocked, Annette wasn't usually one to swear like that. She hiked up the hem of her nightgown and stepped over the two broken boards in the bridge. "Come on, Ashe," she said without looking over her shoulder.

"Um," Ashe said from where he stood on the bridge.

If he wanted to stay with Felix and make sure he didn't die of hypothermia, that was fine with her. But she needed to get out of there.

It wasn't until she made it back to her room and slammed the door shut behind her that she realized that without her cloak, her nightgown was sort of indecent. And she'd probably just embarrassed herself. Surprisingly, she was more mad than sad, and she was planning on letting herself cry but found she didn't need to.

In the morning, she'd probably regret saying that to Felix, but right now she was buzzing with a sense of pride.

Annette woke the next morning a little nervous. She washed her face, wore an outfit she felt nice in--a navy high waisted skirt that reached her knees, socks that reached her shins, light boots, and a blouse with a bow at the front. She braided two pieces of hair that she gathered back and pulled into a small pony's tail. Her bag, unfortunately, had been thrown up in, so she gathered her supplies in her arms, pressing them to her chest, and she carefully took the wrapped basket of cookies. She set them up at the front of the classroom and waited for her classmates to file in.

She grew a bit nervous that Felix wouldn't show up, but he and Sylvain sauntered in, sitting in the back of the room on the side opposite of where Annette was sitting.

Sylvain hurried to the front of the classroom and took a handful of cookies from the basket, grinning at Annette as he did. "Want any, Felix?" he asked before shoving one into his mouth so he could carry even more.

"No," Felix said, and Annette didn't turn around but his voice was surly. "I don't like sweets."

Sylvain glanced almost imperceptibly at Annette, but he shrugged. "More for me," he said around the cookie in his mouth.

Lysithea sat next to Annette with her own cookies after shooing Sylvain away from the basket. "How are you feeling?" she asked.

Lysithea couldn't know what a complicated question that was. "Pretty good, I think," Annette answered.

Ashe's arrival to the classroom was met with excited chatter, and Annette grinned at him as he slid into the empty desk next to her. When she looked over to him she noticed Felix in her periphery scowling over at them. When she looked over at him properly, he averted his gaze to the blank chalkboard at the center of the room.

Later, when she was in the library with Sylvain studying black magic, she was going over some of the more basic principles that she was sure he'd glossed over when he taught himself from the beginning, he interrupted her when she was in the middle of a lecture about the conversion of energy.

"I have a question," he said, frowning deeply, looking thoughtful.

"Oh," she said, surprised. Sylvain usually wasn't very interactive in their lessons, just let her explain things to him as she saw fit and called it a day. "Go ahead!"

He tilted his head at her, his brown eyes calculating. "Did you tell Felix to go fuck himself?"

She sighed. "Sylvain, have you been paying attention to anything I've been saying for the last hour?"

"Mostly. Did you?"

"I really don't want to talk about it. If this concept isn't very interesting you to you, maybe we could talk about something different, like, um…" she leafed through several pages, looking for anything that might catch her eye to change the subject.

Sylvain pressed her book against the table firmly, preventing her from turning the pages.

She chewed on the inside of her lip as she raised her eyes to his.

"Felix won't tell me anything more. He's been acting like a kicked puppy all day. It was cute at first, but now it's just getting depressing."

"And, what, you're going to tell me that he's sorry and I should apologize to him?"

"Depends. What's he got to be sorry for?"

She frowned tightly at him.

"I'm not trying to take sides, and I won't even help if you don't want me to. I just want to make sure you're both okay."

Annette blushed at that. The idea that she and Felix needed each other to be okay… it was a lot. "I'm perfectly fine," she muttered, and Sylvain looked at her doubtfully. "I'm serious. I was upset yesterday, but if Felix wants to avoid me and then yell at me when he can't, then I'm done. I've spent so much time chasing somebody who barely acknowledges that I exist, I can't…" She was annoyed to find that a sheen of tears covered her vision. "I can't do it again."

Sylvain leaned forward and touched her hand gently. "You shouldn't have to," he said.

She blinked, the tears dissipating. "I really shouldn't be talking to you about this. There are things that you don't know."

"What things?" Sylvain asked, interested, and Annette shot a glare at him.

"If Felix wants to make things right then he has to talk to me himself. I appreciate what you're trying to do, Sylvain, even if I think it's a little invasive. But it's not enough." She started stacking her things into a neat pile and Sylvain stood hurriedly.

"Wait, I wasn't trying to interfere or make things worse. Don't be mad at Felix because of me."

She looked up at him calmly. "I'm not. We'll meet in the Knight's Hall tomorrow at one, okay? And you'd better not bring Felix with you."

"Tomorrow?" he echoed, confused.

"Yeah. You still have to pass your Dark Knight certification, don't you?" She stood and pushed in her chair as she swept her neat pile off the table and into her arms.

"Uh, yeah, but…"

"And just to be clear, I did not tell Felix to go fuck himself. I just said fuck you."

Sylvain was looking down at her with wide eyes until his expression broke and he graced her with a small smile. "Well, damn, Annette. I'll see you at one tomorrow."

She clutched her things to her chest and smiled to herself as she left the library. She wasn't sure why, but she felt like she'd won some small victory. 

Chapter Text

Not much changed after her conversation with Sylvain. And so, she started allowing herself less and less time each day to think about dark haired swordsmen. By the end of the week she had stopped looking for him when she entered a room.

Annoyingly, Byleth was having Felix work with Ashe. He'd been trained up in House Rowe's army as an assassin, so his sword skills were something Byleth was still trying to assess.

Annette felt that Felix was being meaner than usual to Ashe. He was hard on him during spars, making nastier comments than he had to. She wondered if it was because he was somehow jealous of the time they spent together, but he had to know that it wasn't anything like the way she felt about him. Or, rather, the way she used to feel about him.

Maybe he wasn't jealous, and he was hoping that Annette would seek him out to yell at him. Well, she wouldn't be doing that. Not when she was sure Sylvain would have passed along the message that it was up to Felix to come talk to her.

Ingrid had warned her to be patient, and she was willing to do that until Felix shouted at her that night. She could only take so much.

Sylvain tried to make her feel guilty, telling her that Felix could've used a healer here or help with black magic there or that two-fish saute was on the menu, wasn't that her favorite? Funny, Felix liked that too. She got stuck moving rubble from the cathedral with Ferdinand? Wouldn't she rather do the greenhouse with Felix? He'd trade for it. 

She almost caved on that one, because she really hated moving rubble. It chipped her nails and hurt her back. But she didn't. 

The only upside was that he must have been annoying Felix a hundred times as much.

The week came and went slowly. Part of it was anticipation.

In light of Byleth barring her from the next mission, she had decided to make her own mission. And the sooner she got it done with, the better.

Annette woke early, dressed in her uniform, threw her furred capelet around her shoulders, missing her blue cloak but unwilling to go retrieve it, and propelled herself out the door.

She stopped by the dining hall to nab some breakfast. She didn't see Lysithea or Ashe, which was probably for the better because she didn't want to be distracted before setting out. She also didn't see Felix, which was good because she wasn't thinking about him at all.

The Professor was in the entrance hall speaking with her father. As her father generally avoided her, this was the first time since her outburst in Aillell that she'd seen him.

She was so focused on watching the two men that she didn't notice a barrel that someone left right in the middle of the hall, probably as part of a supply run still in transport.

The noise she made caused Professor Byleth and her father to halt their conversation and look over at her.

Not how she wanted to begin her morning.

She approached them, still dusting herself off. "Oh… hello, Father," she said, trying to make it seem like she just noticed him.

"Father?" Byleth echoed, looking to Gustave for explanation.

Of course, he offered none, and gave no sort of meaningful reaction to being called 'Father' in the first place.

"Another stupendous fall," he said instead, teasing Annette for her clumsiness.

She bristled at that. He had no right for light teasing. She scoffed harshly. "As though you care about my well-being!" Her father offered no retort or explanation. "Anyway," she said, turning to the Professor. "I'm going to be heading out for a bit."

The Professor furrowed his eyebrows at her. "Where are you going?" He didn't seem to have any ill will toward her for her misgivings at Aillell, but she still felt slightly anxious talking to him. She forced herself to push through it.

"I was thinking of going to visit my uncle," she said casually, hoping to breeze over the gravity of the situation, but her father wouldn't have it.

"To see my brother? Why is that, Annette?"

"I wanna ask him to entrust me with the Hero's Relic of House Dominic," she admitted. Although her father had asked the question, she chose to carry on the conversation with the Professor, speaking only to him as her father listened. "The fight from here on out is going to be tough. I need to do whatever I can to get stronger. The best thing we can do, as far as I can tell, is to have another Hero's Relic at our disposal."

Gustave crossed his arms. "You are not wrong, yet it will not be easy. 

"Why's that?" Byleth asked, and Annette found herself forgetting how little he knew about the affairs of Fodlan in general.

"Under pressure from Cornelia, House Dominic is maintaining a pro-Imperial stance. Brother or no, he will not hand over a Hero's Relic to us."

"But he's not a bad person," she reminded them. "And we'll never know unless we ask, right? And Mother might be there too."

"Dominic territory is, at present, in enemy territory. There is no guarantee you can see them safely."

Annette already knew this. Her father had no knowledge of her grueling days-long travel by herself to Fraldarius from Dominic, because he'd never asked. "Fine, be that way. It's not like I was planning to ask for your help, anyway. Professor, don't worry about me. I'll be back soon, and with a Relic, no less."

"Annette! Wait!"

She ignored him, making her way quickly to the stables. Unsurprisingly, Ferdinand and Marianne were there, Marianne with a curry comb in her hand and Ferdinand holding the reins of her mount for her.

"Ah, Annette! When we finish here, we were just talking about having some morning tea. Would you care to join us?"

"Um, no, thanks though." As quickly as she could, Annette began tacking Licorice. He must have sensed her nervous energy, because he was stomping his feet and swinging his head in agitation.

"Going somewhere?" Ferdinand asked as Marianne peeked at her from over Dorte's back.

"Yeah," Annette said, and she pulled herself onto Licorice's saddle, taking the reins tightly in gloved fingers. "I'm going to visit my uncle."

Ferdinand and Marianne exchanged a meaningful look between them. "In Imperial territory?"

"It's actually Dukedom territory," she reminded him sharply. "But yes. I'll only be gone for a few days."

"You're going all by yourself?" Marianne asked, sounding so much like Mercedes, kindly worried but non-judgmental.

"No, she isn't." Her father must have gone around to the back of the stables, because he was already mounted on his horse, laden with armor and dressed for battle. 

"Annette, what is going on?" Ferdinand asked, and Marianne stopped her meticulous work on Dorte's coat.

"Nothing!" Annette shouted, and she tore off for the entrance of the monastery.

She could hear her father's horse right behind her, not only keeping pace with Licorice but catching up to him. And with all that armor, too. Annette wasn't the best rider, but it didn't occur to her until then how unskilled she was.

She pulled on the reins, slowing Licorice's frenzied canter to a trot, and Gustave followed suit. "I didn't ask you to come with me!" Annette shouted. 

"You're being totally unreasonable," he told her. "You've barely any supplies, no camping equipment, no plan--"

"I don't need a plan. There's nothing wrong with a niece calling on her uncle. And I was going to stay at inns along the way, if you must know."

Gustave shook his head. "Many inns along the way won't board rooms to Kingdom loyalists."

Annette continued trotting just in front of her father. He was so exasperating. It was just her dumb luck that he would have been in the middle of a discussion with the Professor when she was informing him of her departure.

"We should slow our pace," he said after a few minutes. "The Professor is bringing on army to meet us."

"What?!" she demanded. "I told you I was fine by myself, and you bring an army ? How is that going to look to Uncle Aimery? He'll think I want to take Crusher by force."

"It's only a precaution," her father explained calmly.

This was turning into a disaster. The hope she'd woken up with boiled away until she was left irritated and self-conscious.

"I'm not camping with them," she said firmly. "I want word to get to Uncle that we were not mobilized with an army. If they're really only precautionary, let them camp away from us."

Spend a little one on one time with your daughter, she thought bitterly.

"You truly never listen," her father muttered, and Annette was sure that he meant for her to hear his words, but she ignored him. "When the time comes for you to marry, your husband will be in for a rude awakening."

"Ugh! Why would you say something as mean-spirited as that?"

"I wasn't trying to be mean-spirited."

She rolled her eyes. 

"Has your uncle begun arranging courtships for you?" Gustave asked softly.

It was a personal question, and it made Annette grow hot and uncomfortable, but she got the impression that it was something he'd been worrying about.

"No," she answered begrudgingly. "Believe it or not, that's something that usually falls to the duties of the father."

"I only asked because he wrote me a letter asking permission to do so."

Her uncle had never spoken to her about this. Not once. "I don't believe you."

"It's true. I'm sure that what held him up was not knowing which land to ally with. He asked me my opinion of the second son of House Bergliez, should the Empire capture Dominic lands."

"C-Caspar?"

"Yes, I believe that was his name. Strategically, not a bad choice. His family is powerful in the Empire, but he will not inherit a title, so the two of you would stay in House Dominic."

"Great. Nice to know that you've been plotting to marry me off to the Empire this whole time. While we're at it, if you had time to respond to Uncle's letters, what happened to mine?"

Gustave averted his eyes. "You always seemed so eager to speak to me. I didn't deserve that from you."

"Well, you fixed that, so good job."

Annette was gripping her reins too tightly, so she created some slack and finally let Licorice fall into a brisk walk. Her father pulled up beside her, matching her pace.

They were quiet for some time, then Annette said, "I spent so much time chasing after you." He didn't ask for an explanation, but Annette continued anyway. "I threw myself into magic and Uncle sent me to the school of sorcery. Then I graduated with top marks to ensure a scholarship to the Officer's Academy. I put in so much work for years. And you just… ignored me."

Gustave was looking straight ahead when he answered. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I thought that it would be best for you to distance yourself from a failure like me."

"See, that's what you say, but I kind of doubt that you were thinking of me at all. I think you were just thinking about yourself and what you wanted."

He didn't answer after that. Annette waited several minutes, watching the scenery pass by them, but she grew tired of staying in her father's presence. "I'm going to ride ahead," she said, and she kicked Licorice into a trot again.

Her father made no attempt to keep pace.

The Goddess blessed them with fair weather, a bit of wind but not a cloud in the sky.

Their trip to Dominic passed quickly over the next three days. Annette let her father do most of the work, fishing, pitching tents, starting their fires. He always pointed out the fire belonging to the professor and his army, guessing how far behind them they were. Annette got the feeling that he was uncomfortable being away from Dimitri.

He told her some stories about the Prince, some of his childhood, some of his training mishaps which always circled around to praise, some more recent ones. He always thanked the Goddess that the Prince was alive. It didn't take Annette long to be absolutely sick of hearing about Dimitri.

He also educated her a little about politics, providing a first-person source about events leading up to the Tragedy of Duscur, and then a lot of happenings in Fhirdiad directly after. 

When they finally approached the path that led to Castle Dominic, Annette was a little sad her time with her father had come to an end, but she was also grateful. Although she did gain some value from their time together, she felt farther away from him than ever. 

A guardsman stopped them, someone Annette didn't recognize, and demanded to know who they were.

It quickly dawned on her that the Empire placed their own soldiers under the command of lords in the dukedom. She stayed vigilant, goosebumps pricking up along her skin. They weren't safe here.

This thought was proven correct when a small force of soldiers came out to meet them, four fortress knights cornering Annette and her father some distance away from her uncle. She could converse with him, if she shouted.

"Uncle, I beg you. Please give me the Hero's Relic!" she said frankly, sticking to her original plan of being transparent and honest.

"Even in this land, the Empire's eye shines bright," he said impassively. "To hand over such a weapon to you, our enemy, is unthinkable." 

"We are well aware," her father answered stonily. "Brother, I beg you. For the sake of the Kingdom's revival." 

"I cannot. If it becomes known that I gave you aid, my land will be annexed in a bitter instant." 

Gistave turned to his daughter sullenly. "Then we must relent. Annette, there is nothing for us here. We should go."

"No. Letting you leave will invite accusations of collusion. I must take you as my hostages."

Annette gasped. It was exactly as her father surmised, yet she was completely taken aback. For her uncle to be threatening her in such a way was completely foreign to her. 

"So. It has come to pass after all." Her father drew his axe, which gleamed in the cold sunlight.

"Annette," her uncle called, speaking just to her, "live here with me. You needn't return to the helpless band of rebels without a glimmer of hope of victory."

So the kind man she grew up loving was there after all! His offer was to protect her, she knew, but she could never dream of abandoning her friends, even as upset as she had been the past week or so. "You're wrong! That will never happen, Uncle!"

"Your mother is also here in this land. Do not dismiss my proposition so readily."

"We can't afford to stay here, Father," Annette said, ignoring the pang in her heart at the mention of her mother. "We have to run!"

"Be calm, Annette. I assumed something like this would happen."

As her father spoke, the Professor and the small force he brought with him came into view across the land. They were separated by her uncle's army, but the gleaming Sword of the Creator brought some small amount of peace to Annette's heart.

She could see Dimitri, his face twisted into a dark smile, ready to fight. Ingrid's falicorn flapped its wings calmly, and Ferdinand's Wyvern roared as he drew his axe.

She couldn't recall seeing a more beautiful sight.

The fight broke out, but the soldiers surrounding herself and her father did not move. Annette summoned wind magic to her hands, ready to strike the soldiers who were cornering them, but her father held up a hand to stop her. "Hold, Annette."

The fortress knights formed a veritable wall with their shields, and Annette couldn't see over them even if she hopped on her tiptoes.

The sound of battle reached her ears from beyond, in the west. It wouldn't take her friends long to reach them, but that was assuming they were all safe. Dominic lands were a long way from Fhirdiad, so their army had to be independent and competent. 

She could've sworn she'd just heard Lysithea cry out.

"Father," Annette said anxiously.

"Hold," he commanded. His calm voice soothed her a little, but she still wanted to do something rather than just sit here, waiting.

She heard another shout, and it was definitely Lysithea. She couldn't tell if it was pained or triumphant, but either way it was too much for Annette. She gripped the magic staff she'd bought for herself and cast a wind spell at one of the four knights, felling him easily.

The three remaining knights surrounding them began to attack. She was able to defeat a second one easily, although a third attacked her. She tried to dodge, but the axe clipped her on her side. The wind knocked out of her, she staggered back in time to see her father raise his shield against the knight attacking him. She used her magic to heal him, and he finished one knight off, leaving one more. The knight who wounded her advanced, and Annette was sure that she would die. Or, she would be knocked out and carried bodily into Castle Dominic, where she would have to live out the rest of the war as a captive and then marry Caspar.

A flash of light distracted the knight and suddenly Felix was rushing toward her, using an armorslayer to cut down the knight as his crest blazed from the point of contact. 

Annette stared at him, mouth agape, and she fought against a wave of different thoughts all crashing in on her at once. 

"Where did you come from?" she spluttered, confused and relieved and a little cautious.

"Lysithea perfected her Warp spell," he told her.

This was the first time they'd spoken since Aillel, and it took a moment for Annette to pull herself together.

She healed up her father again. He'd taken quite a bit of damage from his altercation.

Annette felt a slick wetness at her side. And when she looked down she was surprised to find that she was bleeding heavily from her arm. She thought the axe hit her with its blunt side, but she had a deep gash in her upper arm. She reached out for something to hold onto, but finding nothing, she sank to the ground.

Felix was at her side, crouching next to her and offering her a vulnerary as her father watched.

"We need to move," Gustave said as her skin healed in fast-motion. "Felix, if you head straight up and Annette starts attacking from behind you, then I--"

"You need to shut up," Felix growled, standing to his full height. He was still quite a bit shorter than Gustave, but he didn't seem less confident for it. "Your one job was to protect her and you couldn't even do that right. We'll wait until another mage joins us for backup."

"I'm fine," Annette pointed out as she stood. Her arm was still bleeding, but the wound faded to no more than a superficial cut.

"You need another vulnerary. Don't be stubborn."

She was a little indignant that Felix showed up quite literally out of nowhere, ordered herself and her father around like it was nothing, and was already hurling insults her way.

Lysithea broke through the fighting to join them, and she grinned at Annette as she fired a heal spell at her.

"Thanks," Annette said gratefully.

"Thanks for not abandoning us to live in some cushy castle," Lysithea answered, and she looked over to Felix. He, however, was looking at Annette expectantly, and it occurred to her that he was looking to her to lead them.

Annette turned to her father. "If we leave, the fighting will stop. We should run."

Gustave placed an arm on his daughter's shoulder. "Annette, go. I will retrieve the Hero's Relic."

"Wait, but, by yourself? I can't let you do that."

"Even if it's by force, bring me Annette," her uncle commanded from where he stood. He must have guessed that they could make an easy escape without the burly fortress knights standing guard over them. She stared wide-eyed over at him, scarcely able to believe she'd heard him right.

"What'll it be, Annette?" Felix asked. "Press forward or retreat?" 

He was being weird. She'd never seen him defer to her like this. She looked around at her father,  Felix, and Lysithea, all looking to her for guidance. Other units around the battlefield were starting to close in on them if they weren't already engaged. It was time to make a decision.

"Let's move," she said, summoning wind to her hands as she spoke.

Felix smirked at her, but instead of its usual smugness the expression was full of pride, and it made her cheeks burn.

Her heart was beating quickly, but she wasn't afraid. She attacked a sword user, whom Felix finished off with a slash of his own blade. Lysithea and her father were advancing on enemies in a similar fashion, and Ferdinand had caught up to them on the back of his wyvern. Marianne and Dimitri were making quick work of a group of fortress knights to their left, and Ashe, Sylvain, and Ingrid were taking care of stragglers to the right.

A fortress knight managed to grab Annette by the arm while Felix was making quick work of an approaching mage. She thrust a Cutting Gale at him, but at this close range, her wind magic didn't have all the power that it should. 

"Let go of me," she growled up at the knight, trying to twist her arm away, but he twisted her arm behind her back, causing her to cry out, and then he picked her up and threw her bodily over shoulder.

She kicked out, not that this made any impact against the fortress knight's heavy armor, and she charged up another wind spell, trying to calm herself to come up with a plan.

The fortress knight lurched forward, and Annette pitched back, still pinned between his arm and his shoulder. Another pair of hands was grabbing at her, pulling her away from the fortress knight, and she charged magic in her fists as she turned to face the next foe.

Felix was pulling an armorslayer out of the knight's stomach, breathing heavily. "It's me," he told her, gloved hand squeezing her arm. "I've got you."

She was still disoriented from being thrown around, so she allowed Felix to pull her away from the dying knight, toward a safer spot where their enemies had already fallen. Most of the battlefield was clear. Ashe, Ingrid and Sylvain had cleared the far left side while it looked like the right side, where she and father started out, was also clear now that the fortress knight had fallen. Ferdinand was finishing off a great knight with Marianne's help, a flash of magic springing from her hands as Ferdinand slashed with his axe.

Dimitri was advancing on her uncle, lance dripping in blood, and Annette ducked under Felix's arm to run to him. She wouldn't allow him to slaughter her family, Prince of Faerghus or not. 

"Wait--" Felix called, reaching for her. "He could still try to capture you!"

She ignored him. Although it was probably treasonous, she would rather her uncle drag her into Castle Dominic by the roots of her hair and lock her in the one holding cell in the cellar than watch him die in this war. 

Even Dimitri, in his state where he craved nothing but violence, backed off when Annette approached her uncle.

"I have no wish to enact violence on you, Annette. Listen to me, and do as I say."

"I will not listen!" She cried, and stamped her foot like a child. So many men had been bossing her around lately. She was sick of it. "I can't, and I won't! There is somewhere I must return to." She fired a blast of Sagittae at her dear uncle, and then, energized to the point of frenzy, she loosed one more, pulling her strength at the last second. The spell knocked his axe from his hand, and it landed in the cold earth some feet away. Annette was panting, and she could feel all of her friends watching her. 

Her uncle chuckled beneath his helmet. "So, this is it. I fought well, in the end. I doubt Cornelia will think I cooperated with you. Take the Hero's Relic and go. And in return… promise to restore the Kingdom."

Annette bowed as her uncle handed her Crusher, and as he did she felt a powerful surge of energy rush from her toes to her head. Her breath caught on it, and she gripped the axe tightly. It glowed softly in her hands, obedient to its new master.

"Brother… I thank you," her father said solemnly from somewhere off to the right.

"And don't worry about your wife. Whatever happens, I swear I will protect her. When all of this is over, you had better return to her. Make sure victory is yours, Gustave."

"You have my word."

"Please, tell mother I'm thinking about her," Annette said.

"I will. Go, my niece. Make haste back to neutral grounds."

When she turned around to face her friends, they were all staring at her and the Relic she gripped by the handle. She passed through the group, her father following behind her, and they all began to follow her out.

"Look at that thing!" Sylvain said excitedly once they were far enough away that they could relax. "I bet it weighs as much as you do."

"It certainly does look imposing," Ferdinand said. He'd dismounted his Wyvern and one of the soldiers in his battalion was tending to it. "Do you mind if I hold it?"

Annette shrugged and handed it to Ferdinand, watching as the glow faded like a dying ember. He balanced it in his hands, then turned it over and examined the jagged side. "Remarkable," he muttered reverently. He grinned and gave it back to her. "If you require help mastering the use of an axe, please consider my knowledge to be at your disposal." 

"Oh, thanks!"

"You're still going to take the Gremory exam, right?" Lysithea asked urgently from her other side. "We were going to take it together."

"Of course I am."

"Is your arm okay, Annette?" Marianne asked from just behind her. "I saw that you were injured, I'm sure Lysithea did a great job of healing it though."

"Oh, no, it's fine--"

"Annette!"

From the back of the group, Ashe was calling her. Gripping Crusher tightly, she untangled herself from her overexcited friends.

"Oh my gosh, that was crazy," she sighed as she fell into step beside him.

"I can't believe you were almost kidnapped. By your own uncle! It's like a story."

"He wasn't going to hurt me," she said quickly. Her uncle was only doing what he thought was best.

"I'm sure he wasn't. I have to admit, when he asked you to stay, I was afraid you'd want to."

"Ashe!" Annette gasped, hurt. "I could never dream of leaving like that. We still have so much to do."

"Look at how happy everyone is," Ashe nodded at the group in front of them, all chattering excitedly amongst themselves. "I think this is great for morale. We have the support of Judith and Rodrigue, the Knights of Seiros are with us, and this is probably the most Relics that have been together since the first ten."

"I'm kind of relieved. I was worried that I made a huge mistake."

Ashe smiled warmly at her. "I think we're lucky to have someone who cares so much about the cause that they're willing to put themselves in the path of a little danger to do so much good."

"Don't fill her head with dumb ideas."

They both looked behind them. Felix was walking with Cyril, who was holding his wyvern by the reins beside him. 

"Did you get a look at Crusher, Felix?" Ashe asked jovially. "Pretty impressive axe, don't you think?"

"That's not an axe," Cyril pointed out. "It's a hammer."

"It's true," Annette said with a shrug.

"Have you ever used that thing before? You're going to have a hard time counterbalancing it. It's just as tall as you are. And since it's a hammer, most of the weight is gonna be on one side."

"Um… I mean, I'm still going to use magic, mainly. This is just a supplement."

"Boy, if Lady Rhea heard you say that about a Hero's Relic, I don't know what she'd do."

"That's enough, Cyril," Felix said.

"Just thought I'd put in my two cents, is all."

"I appreciate it," Annette said weakly.

"Any time." 

"What about Felix and how his plan turned out?" Ashe asked excitedly.

Annette looked between the two of them. "What plan?"

"It wasn't really a--" Felix began, but Ashe interrupted him.

"It was Felix's idea for Lysithea to Warp him over to you," he explained excitedly. "She said she just learned how to do it and she wasn't sure, but Felix encouraged her--"

"I told her she'd better do it so you didn't die," Felix mumbled.

"--and he came right out of it with that armorslayer--"

"She was there," he snapped.

"--just like a knight out of a story!" 

Felix sighed tiredly. "It's been five years and you're still going on about stupid stories?"

"Of course! And it's days like today that the stories feel a little more real, right?"

Annette giggled. "Just embrace how chivalrous you've been, Felix."

"Ugh," he sighed, resting the heel of his hand on his forehead. 

The group waited until nightfall to pitch a camp. She had to pitch her own tent this time, but she and Lysithea were about as equally hopeless at it, so they helped each other. Cyril finished setting up first and started a fire while Ashe hunted some small game.

She was moving away from her home and her family, toward something unknown, but she felt much more at home than she had in days, surrounded by friends who had become like family.

Her father, Byleth, and Dimitri were gathered north of their camp. Her quality time with her father was over, apparently. Why would he continue to stay with her when Dimitri was available now?

She and Lysithea pitched their tents off to the side. They were sitting in front of them discussing a timetable for their Gremory exam when Felix approached them.

Lysithea looked up at him, and Annette continued drawing looping designs into the ground with a stick she'd picked up. Lysithea nudged her in the arm.

"Hello, Felix," Annette said then, although she really wasn't sure what Lysithea wanted from her. Obviously, Felix had been inspired to put their fight to rest, but she couldn't just forget everything without even having a proper talk. And that was something she'd rather do at the monastery, when they could get some real privacy.

"Let me help Cyril with the fire," Lysithea said, as though anyone would believe she knew anything about campfires.

Felix sat next to her, and they were quiet for what felt like several minutes. Annette was drawing sigils in the dirt.

"We need to talk," he said finally, and when he did Annette looked sideways at him.

"Yeah," she agreed, and she scratched out the sigil she'd just drawn. "We do. But not here."

Felix looked at her questioningly.

She gestured across the clearing they'd taken up, at the fire they built and everyone gathered in front of it, at Byleth and her father, Dimitri pacing around Marianne as she spoke with Ferdinand, Sylvain and Ingrid heatedly discussing something.

"Right," he said, seeming to understand what she was indicating. "Back home, then. I did want to tell you that I'm sorry. For, um, everything. Even things I thought I was right to be angry about, it all seems so miniscule now. Nothing we were arguing about is important to me anymore. I'm just glad that you're safe."

She shook her head at him. "No, Felix."

He frowned at her. "No?"

She smiled patiently. "You're glad to see me now, and I'm sure you've been worried. But brushing everything away because you're glad I'm safe is not the answer. We need to fight. And then once we're done fighting we'll be able to move forward."

"I don't want to fight with you, Annette. I've put a lot of thought into it--"

"When, over the last three days? That doesn't count. Wait until we're at the monastery again, you'll be angry at me again in no time."

"I disagree," he said solemnly.

"I'm already annoying you, I can tell." She stood and brushed her dress off. "We'll talk at the monastery. I promise. I'm going to help prepare dinner, okay?"

He seemed a little put off by the rejection of his apology, but she didn't really expect him to understand. After days and days of his icy glare and spiteful attitude, he should be glad she wasn't ignoring him.

She really did want everything to be water under the bridge between them, but she spent too much time passive-aggressively arguing with her mother in the confines of Castle Dominic to think they could solve all their problems with an oversimplified apology. 

She wanted so badly to press a quick kiss to his cheek, or to pull him into a hug, just to let him know that things would be alright soon. But she was pretty sure that between Sylvain and Lysithea especially but also anyone else who'd been paying any attention at all to either of them since Guardian Moon, it wouldn't be a nice gesture but a spectacle for everyone. She tried to convey this in the half-apologetic smile she directed at him, but he nodded back gravely and she didn't think he'd picked up on it.

It was late in the afternoon the next day when they returned to the monastery. 

She hadn’t exactly been avoiding Felix, but he was hanging around her a lot, almost nervously as though he was worried she’d run off again. He was clearly distracted and she could barely keep a conversation with him when she tried. She spent most of her time riding in the middle of the party with Ashe and Lysithea, while Sylvain and Ingrid took up the back and Felix rode between the two groups. 

One of the first things Annette wanted to do when they got back was have a bath, and it occurred to her that she might have been procrastinating seeing Felix just a little. 

Annette was hardly done braiding her still-wet hair into a French braid when there was a knock at her door. She opened it to find Felix waiting, and she'd hardly invited him in when he was walking in past her.

"Brought you these," he said, and her gaze dropped to a bunch of flowers he had clutched in his hand.

"Oh!" she gasped, and she took them, a little confused. A bouquet of lilies, carnations, and violets made their way into a vase Mercedes had gotten her as a decoration, that at one point Annette was keeping her feather quills in. She poured water from a pitcher into the vase to sustain them for now.

"Did you really bring flowers to a fight?" Annette asked, holding back a giggle.

He shrugged tensely. "I don't know. The greenhouse is getting crowded and the maid in there kind of gave them to me."

"It's a very cute gesture."

He grunted at her. "Are we really going to fight? Because I don't feel like fighting with you. I'd rather--"

She interrupted him before he could change the subject. "Fine then, I'll start. What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded, her hands on her hips.

He blinked at her, taken aback by how ready she was to jump into an argument. "Me?" he demanded, eyes wide. "What's wrong with you? Goddess, Annette, you break formation--which, by the way, is treason and mutiny--run across a damn battlefield like you're running to the library or something, not to mention the whole fucking time, Ashe is trying to shoot you with arrows--"

"He was only doing that because he had to," Annette said quickly.

"I know that. One of you was acting like a soldier."

She bristled at that, but before she could cut in with her own remark, he was going off again.

"And then you yell at me for protecting you? Yell at me if you want, Annette, but I'm never going to stop. I can't because--" He cut himself off and raised his hand to his forehead. "This was a bad idea," he said softly.

"No. The reason I was angry with you was because you were preventing me from getting to Ashe and I was scared he'd die."

"Better him than you," Felix said bitterly.

The words weighed heavily on Annette's heart, full of meaning, several meanings, actually, and she picked her way through it carefully. "That's not your decision to make. If I want to sacrifice my life for Ashe's then that's something I'm allowed to choose to do."

"Are you serious? You'd expect me to stand by and watch you throw yourself in the path of an arrow because that's your decision? I will never do that."

Annette clenched her jaw and thought of Mercedes. From the tense way that he was staring at her, she surmised that he was thinking of her, too. "Then next time you should help me."

"You realize that even saying that is treason?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

"I have nothing but love for my country, but what good is defending a country if all the people in it are dead?"

"Fine," Felix said. "The next time one of your friends is behind enemy lines, I'll help you get to them. But if they attack you or try to hurt you, I'm going after them."

"She won't," Annette said, dropping the pretense that they were talking about someone hypothetical.

"You forget that she's been in the presence of not only that warmonger, but also the Death Knight, who relishes killing."

"Don't talk about her like you know her," Annette said, her voice dangerous.

"We've strayed from the topic," Felix pointed out.

"You're right. I shouldn't have accused you of treating me like a child. I realize that I was acting irrationally, and I'm sorry I snapped at you. But I would do everything exactly the same way if I had the chance."

"That's not a great apology. But I'll take it."

"This is exhausting," Annette sighed.

"It was your idea," Felix said tensely.

"I know. What's next?"

Felix crossed his arms and glanced away before fixing his gaze on her severely. "How about... what you said to me in the cart?"

"What I--? Oh." Her stomach dropped as she remembered.

I really hate you sometimes.

"It's not true," Annette said softly. "I was trying to hurt you."

"Yeah, well. Got what you wanted." 

"Really?" she asked, a little surprised. "You didn't seem to care at all. I thought you knew I was full of it."

"I knew you were trying to piss me off," Felix said. "Doesn't mean I liked hearing it.'

"I'm sorry about that, honest. I don't hate you, Felix. You really frustrate me sometimes, but I don't hate you."

"What about what you said to me on the dock?"

"Oh, I'm not taking that back. You deserved that."

He furrowed his eyebrows at her.

"Let's see, you somehow blamed me for just going to going get a cup of tea, you told me that I don't think and I don't care about anybody else--"

"I was still mad at you for Ailell," Felix defended.

"Yeah, I know, but if you hadn't been avoiding me then we could've already talked about it and you wouldn't have screamed about it in front of Ashe. Which brings me to my next point: You can't ignore me like that ever again."

"I only did it because I was still working through everything."

"I know, but Felix I can't--I can't do this with you, have you make me care about you and then turn it all off the moment you get angry. I've spent so much time chasing my father I can't chase after two people who ignore that I exist." Tears were rising to her eyes now, and she tried to blink them away but more rose to replace them. "Yell at me, shout at me, goddess, hit me if you want, but you can't ignore me."

"Annette," Felix said softly, and he reached an arm out to her.

She slid into his chest, wrapping her arms around him eagerly, trying to wrestle back control over her tears. They were hot as they slid down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," he murmured against her hair, and he pressed a kiss to her hair. "I didn't realize, didn't think. I'm an ass. I'm sorry."

"Are we done fighting?" He asked softly as he wiped a falling tear away from her cheek.

"Um," she mumbled distantly. "I think so."

He tilted her head back with a finger at her chin and kissed her so, so softly. She wiped her cheeks to dry to her face, her tears evaporating under Felix's firm kiss.

"I missed you," she sighed, and he stepped into her even more. She laced her fingers together behind his neck and pushed onto her tiptoes for more leverage. He pressed a hand against the small of her back and, still kissing her, urged her backward.

Her legs connected with her desk, which was empty after an anxiety-fueled cleaning spree. She sat back on it, her mind wandering to their time in the kitchens, and her stomach pooled with an electric heat.

This heat sparked through her body, beneath her skin, like lightning, seeking out Felix's fingertips wherever he touched her. She had a little bit of leverage on him this way, and he reached up to kiss her.

Just like in the kitchens, except she knew what to do now, wasn't so timid--she spread her legs apart so he could stand between them pressed kisses over her exposed skin, at her throat.

He captured her lips and she leaned down into him, both hands cupping his face. His kisses were deep, needy, and his hands were sliding over her hips, up to her waist, his thumb stroking against her ribs.

"Annette," he growled, and she made to continue trailing kisses over his skin, but he caught her by her careful braid, pulled at it, made her look at him. "You remember that night I fell into the fish pond?"

She frowned at him. It was a bad night. He was kind of killing the mood.

"You were wearing just a nightgown,” he murmured, and her toes curled at the observation. There was so much going on that she hadn't noticed until she returned to her room how indecent it was, the material was too thin to be modest, too form-fitting. "You looked like a goddess," he continued. His eyes looked dark as the setting sun stole the light coming in through her window. 

"Felix," she mumbled, embarrassed, and she knew she was blushing.

"I'm serious. Cast in the light of your own sigil, your hair picked up in your wind spells, and you were so furious." 

It was extremely bad form to compare a person to the Goddess, but Felix was never one to get so earnest about religion, so she held off chastising him about it. 

His thumbs were rubbing slow circles into her torso, and the heat from his hands were making her sweat, even through her blouse.

She pulled him into her by the material of his turtleneck, and he was leaning on her for balance as she pulled, connected their mouths, gasped into him as he ran his hands up her body. She locked him against her, wrapping one of her legs around the back of his knee to anchor him to her.

His right hand traced the shape of her breast, slowly, gently, giving her time to object if she wanted to. But she only leaned into him more,  lifted her hand to the nape of his neck, raking her fingers along the baby hairs that were too short to stay bound.

Her blood was racing through her veins, kicked through her body faster and faster by her thundering heart, making her dizzy, unable to think or speak or do anything but react.

He pulled back and Annette whimpered, her earnest fingers trying to pull him back. He lifted both hands to her collar and she could feel his fingers shaking as he loosed the button there, and his fingers dipped to the next one and he popped it open.

"Annette, I--" he began, his voice hoarse, and she raised her hand to his chin and brushed his lip with her thumb.

"It's okay," she whispered, and pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth, next to her hand. 

He dipped his head down, his amber eyes the color of the setting sun, and his breath was hot against her neck where her collar fell away. Goosebumps prickled her skin, and Felix pushed her shirt down her arms, exposing her to him, and her stomach flipped nervously. He pressed hot, open-mouthed kisses down her neck as he raised his hand to press it against her breast. She sighed, and he pulled her hips closer against him as he sucked the skin at her throat.

She could feel something hard pressing against her thigh, and it distracted her from the wonderful things Felix was doing with his mouth and his hands, and in spite of everything a fierce blush rose to her cheeks. She moaned as he brushed her nipple with his thumb, a hot stroke of lightning twisting around her spine as it shot through her body. Experimentally, she rolled her hips against him, trying to put the most pressure against the hardness at her thigh, and he groaned, a shaky breath escaping past his throat.

"Felix," she whispered, and he ran a hand up her naked back, tracing her spine as he tasted her skin. 

His tongue carved a blazing trail, from the dip of her neck where it met her shoulder and down, over creamy skin that would have freckled if it ever saw the sun, until it reached the peak of her breast, and he closed his mouth over it. She clawed his skin by accident, dimly aware that her nails might have been hurting him but she was grasping for purchase, needing to hold tight to something as fierce, hot waves of pleasure sparked between her chest and her lower belly settling between her legs, making her roll her hips against him.

He bared his teeth as she did it again, sighed against her, and his fingers were so gentle on her bare waist.

Her blouse was still gathered around her arms, she hadn't even taken it off during all this. She slid her hands to his face and he pressed his mouth to the soft skin of her palm before sliding his eyes up her body to settle on her face.

His eyes were so dark, the irises thin slivers against his wide pupils, looking almost red in the setting sun, and--Goddess. If he asked her to, she'd do anything he wanted, right there on her desk.

Get a hold of yourself, Annette, she thought harshly.

His hands followed the slow path up her body his eyes had taken, and he cupped her face as he kissed her gently.

She shrugged her shirt back into place over shoulders, and he ducked his head away as she did, as though it mattered whether or not he looked at her now.

Something about covering up seemed modest, though, so she understood.

"Sorry," he mumbled, and he took a step back and her knees fell together. 

"No, don't be. That was… I wanted … It's just a lot."

"Um," he said as Annette stood and tucked her blouse into her skirt again. "I don't know what that means."

"Everything's good right now, okay? I'm glad we're not fighting anymore."

Felix scoffed at that. "I'll say."

She frowned at him.

"Ah, sorry."

She'd never heard Felix apologize so much. It was making her tense, and honestly it was starting to annoy her. "Please stop apologizing."

Felix Fraldarius squirmed, running his hand through his hair, then adjusting the sword belt at his hips, then placing his hand on his hip.

"Are you okay?"

"It's just--we went from fighting to not fighting to fighting again, and now we're--I don't know."

He wasn't wrong. She looked him over, thought of the way his eyes looked so desperate as they mirrored the setting sun, the way his fingers trembled as he reached for the buttons on her blouse, the way she could feel him pressing against her thigh--

What must he think about when he looked at her, now?

"Want dinner?" she asked, and she retrieved a scarf from her closet and wrapped it around her neck.

"I could eat."

She smiled at him as she threw a thin cloak over her shoulders. "Let's, then."

Chapter Text

"Annette."

She jumped, badly startled. 

Byleth was leaning on the opposite side of the table in the library, his green eyes peering stonily down at her.

The ink in her quill had long since dried up, and her paper was unfinished, the pages sprawled haphazardly across the table.

"You really shouldn't make it a habit to sleep in the library."

"I don't. I mean, I try not to."

The paper she was writing was extremely complicated, citing several ethical theories and controversial decisions throughout wartime history.

She gathered the textbooks into a pile, glumly wondering how she was going to make it back to her room with all of them. Byleth watched as each textbook added several inches to the tower of books. Her cheeks grew hot under his emerald eyes.

"I'll take half to my room now and come back for the rest," she muttered.

"Would you like help?" Byleth asked, and Annette thought she saw the corner of his mouth quirk up, but that couldn't be.

"Oh, no, I couldn't possibly ask you to--"

"I've been meaning to talk to you, anyway."

His words made anxiety roil through her stomach so violently that her chest hurt. "Oh. I suppose it's alright, then."

Even with the professor's help, she had to balance the books carefully as she walked.

"This is about this month's mission," he said, his voice giving no indication about whether this was a good talk or a bad talk.

Her foot slipped and she almost toppled down the stairs. "The one I'm barred from?"

"Yes." Byleth reached the bottom of the stairs and he was waiting for her to catch up. "There's a slight adjustment to my plans in order."

"How so?" She finally reached the bottom of the stairs, but evidently the professor didn't notice her struggle and started walking again without giving her a chance to catch her breath.

"You'll be coming after all."

She did trip, quite spectacularly, and her books skidded across the floor of the entrance hall.  She hurried to pick them up and stack them again. "What?" she demanded. 

"Felix has volunteered to take you on as his adjutant."

She was actually grateful that she tripped before, because in her shock she knocked over the pile she carefully made, which might have been conspicuous if this whole interaction wasn't already a disaster.

"Annette…" Professor Byleth sighed at her clumsiness. It was probably getting hard to watch.

"Sorry, sorry," she said, and she hefted the pile of books into her arms, stabilizing it with her chin. "Um, so I'm allowed on the mission now?"

He nodded once. "Under Felix's command."

"Right." Goddess, she was blushing, and she forced herself not to let her mind wander. "I'd like you to start improving your axe skill," he added as they walked together. "You've become very skilled in both black and white magic." Annette appreciated the compliment, but she really wanted to learn the combat spell Abraxas, a rare and very powerful white magic spell. She wasn't able to cast it yet, but she started learning the sigil. She was hoping to learn it by the end of the month, but now that she was slated to join the army on their mission, she probably wouldn't have time.

"I was hoping to take my gremory exam," Annette said sheepishly. After her outburst at Ailell, she didn't want to seem argumentative, but acquiring Crusher wasn't meant to replace her magic skill, only supplement it.

"You should, that's not changed. I only want to broaden your horizons. We must be as adaptable as possible."

"Of course," she agreed. They approached the stairs that would bring her almost directly to her room, and she struggled going up them. The professor, once again, didn't seem to notice. 

"You'll train with Ferdinand," he added when Annette reached the top.

"Oh." She kind of wished he would let her train however she wanted. He wasn't technically their teacher anymore, although he did continue to have his lessons (they were more tactical now) and spend time training them one-on-one. 

Annette opened her door and placed the books on her desk with a thud. Byleth placed his pile next to hers easily, and she wondered at that.

"What are you working on, if I may ask?"

"Oh, um, just a little project." She didn't feel like explaining Ingrid's idea about an essay to the professor just then. 

The professor's impossibly green eyes lingered on the books on her desk--without a librarian she didn't have to check things in and out so she didn't really keep track, but it had to be more than ten--and nodded slowly. "Try to get some rest. It seems that you need it."

Annette nodded and sank onto her bed. 

She was actually seized by a desire to march over to Felix's room and ask him why the hell he hadn't told her he asked Byleth to arrange this.

She'd be seeing him tomorrow, anyway.

For now she changed into a nightgown and tried to ease herself back to sleep.

At Castle Dominic, when she couldn't sleep, her mother would pour them both a glass of dry wine and a chamomile tea. Annette didn't even particularly like wine, but the habit would've been soothing to her.

She remembered the nap Hilda forced her to take when they were still students. It feels nice to cuddle up to someone, she'd said. She thought again of marching over to Felix's room, and her blood warmed in her veins as it kicked forward.

Shut up, Annette, she thought desperately as she pulled her pillow over her head. Just go to sleep.

That morning she was tired. She couldn't sleep in too much, because she and Lysithea had an appointment to study white magic all morning.

Annette was a little embarrassed that Lysithea had just learned Warp and she was already starting to learn Abraxas. It stung her pride that no matter how she tried, she just couldn't keep up with the dark mage.

Although, Lysithea having two Crests did make Annette feel better. It took some of the blame off her. A horrible thing to think about the thing that was literally shortening her friend's life.

The dining hall was crowded, as it always was now with the extra troops. She snatched a pastry from where they were placed on the long table. A cheese danish. She really must find out which of the volunteers baked such amazing pastries.

She didn't bother finding a seat at the overcrowded tables, instead hurrying to the Knight's Hall to make it on time to study with Lysithea.

As she was hurrying out into the Entrance Hall, she quite literally ran into Felix.

"Easy, Annette," he said as she clutched her danish. "Where are you headed off to?"

"Morning, Felix," she said cheerily. "Studying with Lysithea. We're hoping to take our gremory exam before the end of the month."

"If everyone was as studious as you, the army would be in good shape."

He was being strangely formal with her. She wondered if he was still feeling weird about the other day. He seemed to relax when they ate dinner, but--

She looked over his shoulder at Lord Rodrigue, who was waiting to enter at Felix's side. She looked to him questioningly but he didn't offer any explanations.

"Thank you," she said, and she bowed her head politely. "Good morning, Duke," she said, bowing her head again as she stepped to the side to allow people to pass around them. 

"Miss Dominic," he said, and he smiled at her. "It's no surprise to see you hard at work," he added kindly.

"Thank you, sir."

They started walking away toward the front of the hall, but she caught Felix by his arm before he got out of her reach. She dropped her hand quickly. It was like she didn't know what was proper anymore--her mother would be ashamed.

"Uh, sorry," she said, suddenly flustered. "I know you're busy, but I was hoping to speak with you at some point, when you have a second?"

His eyes grew stormy, and she rushed to add, "I spoke to the professor yesterday and he mentioned something about being your adjutant."

"Oh. Yeah, sure. We'll talk."

"Okay. I'll see you."

"See you," he said, and they went their separate ways.

The sky was overcast as she hurried to the Knight's Hall. They started studying there because they were able to use the reference books and then practice what they looked up on the dummies on the opposite side

She needn't have hurried, because Lysithea was late, too. Annette set up their books at the low table in front of the fire, flipping to the section on Abraxas.

It was about a half hour of copying down notes later that Lysithea showed up. She sat across the table from Annette quietly, and when she finished writing her thoughts she looked up at her.

"There's straw in your hair," Annette pointed out.

Seems that she and Felix weren't the only ones getting up to no good in private.

"Oh, is there?" Lysithea asked, and she brushed it away absently.

Annette raised her eyebrows at her and waited for the penny to drop. 

"Oh, no, it--it wasn't like that," the dark mage said, raising her magenta eyes to Annette's, scandalized. "I was just helping him at the stables, I swear."

"Uh-huh," Annette said, and she dipped her quill in ink as she started writing again.

"Annette, don't," Lysithea pouted, frowning. "That's disgusting, anyway. As if I would do something like that at the stables. Not that I am doing anything like that." She paused. "I'd tell you, you know. You're kind of… my best friend."

Annette's heart warmed and she grinned at her. She'd always consider Mercedes her best friend, but, well… who knew where she was right now. Ashe, too, was one of her best friends. But Lysithea had quickly grown to be one of the most important people in Annette's life, and she couldn't deny that she was just as much a best friend to her as Ashe.

"You're mine," Annette said after a long pause.

Lysithea snorted. "You don't have to say that. You actually made real friends during your time here. I just pushed everyone away. That's why I switched Houses."

"No, I mean it. Things are complicated right now, and I don't know how I would've gotten through all of this without you. That's a best friend."

Lysithea's cheeks tinged deep pink, and she timidly threw her arms around Annette's neck.

She was sheepish after that, and she flipped through the pages of a personal spellbook she had distractedly.

"Hey, Annette?" she asked softly. "When I tease you about Felix, it's just because he's obviously crazy about you. I don't mean anything by it."

Annette blinked at her. "I know that."

"You'd… tell me if there was something going on, right?"

She tried not to pause too long before saying, "If there was something serious going on then yeah, I would tell you."

Lysithea smiled at her. "I'm glad."

Annette threw herself into learning the spell, and by the end of their session she was making progress.

They were scheduled to take their gremory exams the first week of Great Tree Moon, and Annette hoped to learn Abraxas by then. Lysithea was complaining that she wanted to take it earlier, but Annette didn’t think she’d have time.

Their lesson ended, and Annette worked for a bit on black magic. It got dark early because of the weather.

Annette only took a short break to grab dinner. It was a fish sandwich on the menu. Not her favorite, but quick enough to wolf down before returning to her cozy setup in the Knight’s Hall.

When she returned to her post in front of the fire in the Knights' Hall, she realized that Lysithea must have left her bag among Annette's things. She made a note to bring it to her next time she left the hall.

She kind of lost herself in her reading, and it was hours later when Felix came looking for her.

"Goddess, what are you working on now?" he demanded as he entered the Knight's Hall. 

"Weapons training," she answered as she added to her notes.

"Out of a book?" Felix asked incredulously.

He approached the table where she was studying and looked over her notes.

She'd drawn a detailed sketch of Crusher and labeled the parts, and she even went so far as to label each part with the weight and measurements.

"What good is all this?"

Annette's eyes were heavy as she looked up at him, weary after a long day of training and studying. "Ferdinand is going to be tutoring me in axes," she said, tired. "I wanted to prepare." 

Felix took the quill out of her hand and sealed the inkpot.

"Hey! Felix!"

"Shush. You've been working since I saw you this morning?"

"I mean, I stopped for dinner."

"This isn't healthy." He pulled her up and made her sit on the couch in front of the fire. "Let me get you some tea or something."

"No, wait," she protested, and she grabbed his wrist. "Just stay here."

Obediently, he shrugged off his damp jacket and hung it on a nail in the wall near the fireplace, then he sat on the couch next to her.

The rain outside tapped soothingly against the side of the hall, and the fire was so cozy.

Felix sat sideways, his elbow against the back of the couch as he leaned his cheek against his hand. "What was it you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Oh, right." She smoothed her skirt out as she sat sideways, too, facing him. "You told the professor you'd take me on as an adjutant?"

"Oh. Yeah. A while ago. I would've mentioned it to you but I figured he'd decided against it."

"Since when do you take on adjutants?"

The corner of his mouth quirked up. "Since they're you."

"Felix," Annete scolded, and she blushed, but she was pleased.

"But you realize that you have to listen to what I say?"

"I know," Annette said, rolling her eyes. "I've had adjutants before. I've been an adjutant before."

"Just seems to be a problem with you."

"There won't be any problems," Annette said, and playfully, she added, "Sir." 

His eyes flashed and Annette smirked at him. "Anyway, how was your day? Looked very official."

"My father and I were handling some things having to do with Fraldarius. My uncle wrote him so we had a whole damn to-do with Seteth and Byleth and Gil--your father."

"Is everything okay?"

Felix shrugged. "It's the same. The old man spread our resources too thin, my uncle isn't able to compensate. Everything's fine for now, but it won't stay that way."

Annette didn't know what to say. She put her hand on his arm as a substitute, and he leaned into her.

He smelled like rain, and she didn't notice before but his hair was damp. She pushed some of it off his forehead. She glanced over at Lysithea's bag on the table.

"We shouldn't," she said softly.  "Not here."

"Shouldn't what, Annette?" Felix asked, his voice soft and playful.

She blushed. The nerve of him, trying to act like he wasn't thinking about it, too. "You know what."

"No idea what you're talking about."

She really had no restraint. She wasn't sure who started what, but they were kissing softly, Felix still leaning against the back of the couch.

She pulled back, warm bubbles floating up from her stomach.

He opened his eyes at her lazily. "What?"

"We're in the middle of the Knight's Hall. As I said, not a good idea."

"It's pouring out. Cats and dogs and all that. And it's late."

She looked at him doubtfully.

"I'd hear anyone before they came in."

"You swear?"

"I swear."

Felix was still leaning on his arm, but his other hand was curled under Annette's chin as she kissed him.

It was nice, slow, unhurried, without the desperation they'd had in almost all of their other kisses. It felt like they were supposed to be doing this, like she could keep doing this forever. 

He touched his tongue against hers, gently, languidly, and the familiar lightning flashed beneath her skin.

She inched back to take in a breath, and he followed her with his mouth, breathing in time with her. She rested her hands on his shoulders for better leverage and traced the seam of his shirt there. 

"GAH!"

Annette jumped as someone screamed, and she also pushed Felix to the opposite side of the couch. Or she tried to, but he'd tensed up and didn't budge. A sword was already drawn halfway out of its scabbard.

"Annette!" Lysithea shouted, clearly upset. A trenchcoat hung over her small frame, but even so she was waterlogged, her bangs plastered to her forehead as they hung out of her hood. 

"Wait, Lysithea--" Annette began, but she turned away from her and was running to the exit. "Crap," Annette muttered, and she went to follow her.

"Annette!" Felix shouted after her. "It's pouring!"

"I'll be back!" she answered over shoulder.

Annette felt terrible. Lysithea poured her heart out to her earlier this month, and then again this morning… She knew she was feeling betrayed. 

Felix was right, the rain was really coming down. She could hardly see through sheets of rain reflecting the light of the waxing moon.

If she were Lysithea, the first thing she would've done would be to get under something, and the closest thing was the stables, so--

Her boots made soggy sounds as she ran, her feet long since waterlogged. She cursed herself for not bringing Lysithea her bag when she noticed it initially.

"Lysithea!" she shouted over the rain. "Lysithea!"

She noticed that one of the stable doors was swinging in the wind, and she really hoped she'd found her.

If it weren't for her stark white hair, she may not have seen her at all. It was dark in the stables, and Lysithea pushed herself all the way back into the shadows of the far wall.

"You weren't supposed to find out that way," Annette said apologetically as she crossed her arms over her chest against the chill of the mountain air.

"Well how else was I going to find out?" the dark mage demanded. "You certainly weren't going to tell me." Annette couldn't really see her face, but it sounded like she was fighting back tears. Her voice was basically as firm as ever with only the slightest of shakes at the end. "You just told me that there was nothing going on. I feel like an idiot."

Annette leaned against the corner next to Lysithea. "I'm sorry," Annette said miserably. "I said I'd tell you if it was something serious, and we're not courting so I--"

 "That's no excuse," she snapped. "You weren't honest with me. I bet you wouldn't have lied to Mercedes."

Annette didn't know what to say. She absolutely would've told Mercedes. But she'd already been doing whatever this was with Felix when she met Lysithea, so it was a weird situation.

"That wasn't fair, I'm sorry," Lysithea sighed harshly. "I feel so alone sometimes. And it's my own fault because I do it to myself."

"That is not your fault," Annette said firmly. "What happened to you was… so horrible. And it's not something that will stay in the past, it has consequences that go on and on. It's not your fault for being hesitant to reach out."

Lysithea was crying softly, sniffling gently as she hung her head low, and Annette reached for her arm and pulled her against her. "I wanted to tell you this morning. It's… neither one of us has said anything to anyone else at all. I didn't know if it would be alright. With him."

Lysithea sniffed and untangled herself from Annette's embrace. She lit a small flame above her hand, illuminating their faces.

"Really?"

Annette nodded solemnly, and Lysithea frowned.

"No one knows? Not even Sylvain? Or Ingrid?"

Annette shifted uncomfortably. "I'm pretty sure they don't. And if they do, it's certainly not because Felix told them."

The towheaded mage blinked, weighing the weight of Annette's words. "How long has this been going on?"

 "Um, Ethereal Moon? It started out as an accident."

Lysithea furrowed her brow at Annette as her mouth dropped open. "Ethereal Moon? No wonder the two of you have been fighting nonstop."

Annette wanted to argue, but she remembered in time to stop herself that she was the one who messed up, not Lysithea.

"It's not serious. We're not courting. I guess that's why I didn't think to tell you."

"Not serious? What, he's just one of a bunch of other guys you're seeing?"

"No," Annette said, and something about Lysithea's tone was making the words icy on her tongue.

"Date a lot of guys in the last five years?"

"No, of course not."

"What is it, then?"

Annette was a little taken aback that the conversation turned into an inquisition about her relationship. "Um, I don't… we're not… courting."

"Annette, are you kidding? You think it's not serious because Felix Fraldarius isn't courting you? He's the least proper person I can think of, except maybe Caspar."

"Uh," she stammered.

"I guess I have to forgive you, because you don't even seem to know what you're doing. I'm looking out for you, and Annette--it's serious."

Annette blinked at her.

"We can talk about it later," Lysithea said. "I'm freezing."

"At least you have a raincoat," Annette said, but she was smiling.

They ran back to the Knight's Hall, where Felix was waiting for them on the couch.

"Honestly," he said in an annoyed tone. "You're both healers. You should know better than to go running around in the rain."

They both ignored him.

Annette definitely made out worse in that situation, since Lysithea had her coat to provide some relief from the rain. They both kneeled in front of the fire.

"We could do a black magic lesson, while we're here," Annette said. "All we're missing is Sylvain."

"It's ten o'clock at night. I'm not studying. The two of you are nuts."

"Surely you must need to study for your mortal savant certification," Lysithea said. "And I know it's not swordplay that's holding you back."

He shrugged.

Lysithea looked between him and Annette. "Don't think that just because I know about this now means that the two of you can be all gross."

"Gross?" Felix echoed. "We're not gross."

"What I walked in on before? That was gross."

"Okay. As fun as this is," Annette said as she stood. "We should all go to bed. Or at least I should. I have a busy day tomorrow."

"Doing what?" Lysithea demanded. 

She shrugged. "Same stuff I did today."

Annette gathered her things off the table and, instead of folding her arms around them protectively, she slid them into a little-used shelf of reference books. Nobody referenced things in here anymore. It was filled with young soldiers freshly joined a high-ranking battalion, proud of themselves for their strength and their endurance. All with invisible timers over their heads, counting down the days until they died.

She shook the somber thought from her mind as she turned to her friends. "No one will bother that stuff. I'll come back to it in the morning." 

Lysithea shouldered hsr forgotten bag and Felix slipped his jacket over his arms.

The three of them ran to the reception hall, through a side door, then they slipped through the dining hall.

Lysithea's room was closest, and she bolted for her door. Annette thought Felix would head to the left for the second floor dormitories, but he followed Annette to her room, ushered her inside.

"What are you doing?" she asked, smiling.

They were dripping wet, and Felix hung his jacket up by the door. He shook his wet hair out, raking his hand through his too-long bangs.

"Making sure you don't die of hypothermia." He kneeled in front of the fireplace and started a fire with a spark of lightning, and Annette was reminded of her first knight in Fraldarius, when Felix carried her up the stairs and used what tiny knowledge he had of white magic to soothe her pain.

"What?" he asked as he stood, and she didn't realize how she was looking at him.

"Nothing," she said innocently.

"You should change out of your wet clothes," he said, and his eyelashes cut shadows over his cheeks.

She thought of the things Lysithea said to her and her stomach churned.

Felix pulled her into him and he kissed her. He tasted like rainwater.

He placed his hands at her hips, and her clothes were so saturated and stuck to her body that it almost felt like he was touching her bare skin. His shirt was dry, and she ran her hands up his chest.

Annette--it's serious , Lysithea's voice said in her head.

She wanted him to stop at the same time that she wanted him to continue. She was so confused, and afraid to push too hard while also afraid to pull away.

His hands were warm, one at her face, brushing away her saturated hair, the other softly stroking the shape of her body through her clinging dress, her hip, her waist, her breast--

"Felix," she said, and she traced the shape of his jaw as she looked up into his warm amber eyes.

He raised his eyebrows at her and dropped his hands, perhaps thinking that she didn't want him to touch her like that, which certainly wasn't the problem.

"I should change," she said, and he nodded and sat back on her bed.

She could feel herself blushing. "Don't watch," she scolded.

"Fine," he said, and he nudged off his boots and swung his legs over her bed so that he was lying on it properly. He shut his eyes peacefully.

Annette still felt a little awkward, which was silly at this point. He'd already seen her top half naked, she'd encouraged him as he pulled off her shirt, moaned as his callused fingers trailed over her sensitive skin--

Goddess, she really needed to calm down.

She peeled off her dress and pulled on a nightgown. Once that was on, she peeled off her wet tights. Her hair was still wet, but she was substantially warmer.

She sat at her bed, in the small space between Felix and the edge of the mattress, and he fluttered his eyes open. 

"Saw you peaking," she said playfully.

"What? I didn't--" Felix protested, and she interrupted him by giggling and pressing her lips against his.

In order for both of them to fit comfortably on her bed, Annette needed to be sort of on top of Felix. He pulled her so she was laying on him, her legs between his.

Kissing while lying down was… somehow different. At least to her. She was pressed against him, and it was easier to reach him without having to worry about the difference in their height. She pulled his shirt out from where it was carefully tucked into his pants, and she slid her hands over his skin.

Felix's eyes were warm, liquid in the firelight like honey and cinnamon, and he was stroking her hair as Annette unbuttoned his shirt. 

She'd never seen him without a shirt--she didn't realize-- her mouth was suddenly dry. Obviously, being in an army would make all of them pretty fit, and strong, especially someone like Felix who spent all of his time training. But he was so unexpectedly muscular. His shoulders weren't broad like Sylvain's, and he always wore long sleeves and layers. But underneath that, apparently, he had a really… appealing… body.

She was blushing, like they were back in school and she'd seen something she wasn't supposed to. It was stupid, and she didn't want him to see so she pressed her lips to his.

He shifted against her and she could feel his bare skin through the thin layer of her nightgown. It was really driving her crazy, the way his abdominal muscles pressed against her, the way the winged arches of his hips responded as she shifted her legs, the bulging muscles of his arms flexing and relaxing as he did something as simple as brush her hair behind her ear.

Annette was hot. This was too much. She didn't know what to do.

Suddenly she felt like an idiot, and she wondered how many other girls had seen him like this, how many times he'd pressed a woman against his bare skin as he touched her with fingers that were callused but gentle, how many times his tongue had been--

No. That wasn't fair.

She wasn't so naive, obviously she'd known that Felix had been with other women. Five years was a long time to be alone, even for someone like Felix. She didn't even really care, except that she felt so stupid and inexperienced. There were some things Mercedes's romance books couldn't prepare her for.

"Felix," she whispered, and she tried to be brave and mimic what he'd done for her, dropped her mouth to his jaw, then to the soft skin of his neck, and she let her tongue touch him and her teeth scrape, and she wrapped her mouth around the slope of his collarbone and she sucked hard.

He gasped, and Annette was so pleased with herself.

She ran her hands up his skin, from the waistband of his pants, over his quivering abdomen, up his chest. She didn't spend enough time touching him.

He took a fistful of her hair, close to her scalp, and he brought her face up to his. He kissed her deeply, his tongue reaching for hers before their lips properly met, and he adjusted her so that their hips were flush and his hand was kneading one of her breasts through the gown.

This was--Annette could almost imagine what sex would be like, if the hardness poking into her thigh was inside her, buried against the point where mounting heat gathered between her legs.

She shivered against him and she whispered, "Oh," against his mouth as she rolled her hips into him.

Her hands rested on his chest and she could feel his heart hammering rapidly, like it was trying to bury itself in her hands.

"Felix," she whispered, and he pressed his lips firmly against hers as her head spun.

"Annette," he panted in fervent reply, and he stroked his fingers along her hair. He was catching his breath, and a thin line of sweat shone beneath his bangs, and she buried her head into his chest, listening to his heart beating frantically. "Goddess."

She squeezed her eyes shut. She was pretty sure none of this was sanctioned by the Goddess.

He left her, and suddenly she wasn't sure if it was okay to kiss him goodbye, but she turned up his hood for him against the rain and wished him a good night.

The rain slapped the ground mercilessly, loud against the stairs outside her room. Between that and the cracking of the fire in the hearth, she drifted to sleep quickly.

Chapter Text

The next morning it was still drizzling. Annette’s hair was getting frizzy with all this rain. It was even colder today than it was yesterday, and it would occasionally harden the drops into shards of frozen ice. 

Annette had hot tea with her breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. 

Felix wasn’t there this morning, but she would see him later in the day for black magic practice. And at four, Ferdinand was supposed to help her with axe skills. Then she had a little time to herself, but Annette thought she might stop by the greenhouse and do some work there.

It was almost embarrassing how quickly Lysithea was learning new spells. She was casting Abraxas like it was no big deal, coaxing Annette through the theorem, explaining exactly how she should be dispersing energy through the spell. Annette was casting it, but right now it was so painstaking and arduous, it wouldn’t be useful in battle. 

Lysithea encouraged her, but Annette was becoming so annoyed with herself. 

When she made her way to the Knights' Hall to do some black magic with Felix, she was not in a great mood.

“What’s with you?” Felix asked as he deposited himself heavily into a chair across from her. 

“Nothing,” she said, in a tone that did not welcome any follow-up questions.

Felix asked them anyway. “I don’t buy that. You’re not a very good liar.”

“I’m not lying. I don’t want to talk about it.”

He watched her quietly, and Annette was wondering if he was thinking about the previous night. 

This did not improve her foul mood.

“You’ve been working too hard. You should do something fun.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Aren’t you always going on about how fun baking is?”

“We’re out of sugar,” Annette sighed. “We’ve got honey, but I’m not allowed to use it for fun. There goes almost all my recipes.”

“I can think of some things we can do for fun that won’t use up any supplies at all,” Felix said.

She stared at him, wide eyed, a deep blush crawling up her neck.

He grinned at her smugly. “Weapons training?”

She scowled at him. “You know how that sounded.”

“I think you’re the one injecting meaning into perfectly acceptable things.” He was enjoying teasing her, he always had but--

“Are you going to stop being a jerk long enough to get some studying done?”

“You’re the one getting all worked up.” He finally took his eyes off her and flipped to Annette’s annotated spellbook, neat, helpful notes written in the margins. He sank to his knees to look over the low table and spread out the pages of notes Annette brought with her for their lesson. “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.”

“Felix!” she scolded, and she could feel her cheeks growing hot.

He looked up at her and raised his eyebrows, subtly amused. “I’m talking about studying.”

That was even worse, and Annette’s whole face was on fire now. 

She muttered something about how he was teasing her so much it wasn’t her fault, but he said nothing and let her compose herself for their lesson.

He left early when a low-ranking soldier in scant armor approached them and informed Felix that his father was looking for him. 

“I’m in the middle of something,” Felix said, exasperated, as Annette was coaching him through casting Thoron. The sigil was flickering in front of his face as Annette stood off to his side.

“Duke Fraldarius informed me that it was important.”

Annette winced as Felix sighed harshly and let the spell loose, and it crashed into the training dummy with harsh crackles. The smell of singed hay cloyed at her.

“Um, maybe we’ll work on regulating power next,” she said softly. He glared at her and she shrugged. “Just saying.”

She took the opportunity to get something to eat from the dining hall, and she found Ashe cooking in the kitchens. She didn’t offer to help, learned a while ago that he preferred to cook on his own (or maybe that he just didn’t want her help), but she kept him some company as he worked. It was nice to see that he still had the same habits he did five years ago.

The time got away from her a little, and when she finished eating she was running late for her axe training appointment with Ferdinand. It was drizzling again when she left the dining hall.

Annette glanced to the couch next to the fire in the knight's hall, where Felix was sitting with a Reason text flipped to the section on thunder spells. 

"Sorry I'm late, Ferdinand," Annette said apologetically. She shook droplets of rain out of her hair and hung her jacket on a nail by the fire. She tried to catch Felix's eye, but he was ignoring her, seemingly absorbed in his reading as he twirled a dagger between dexterous fingers. She scowled at him anyway.

"Nonsense," Ferdinand said kindly. "It's only a few minutes. Now, from what the professor tells me, you have some experience with axes, yes? And what of hammers?"

"Ah, I guess I haven't used hammers much. I always used magic against armored enemies."

Annette handed Ferdinand Crusher carefully, as though she were giving him her favorite book or a key to her journal.

It was interesting how her Crest reacted to it, compelled her to hold it, connected her to it. She watched Ferdinand with it, suddenly worried that he would somehow harm it.

He turned the weapon over in his hands, testing the weight, becoming familiar with it.

"I have done my research," Ferdinand explained. "The Combat Art passed down through the Crest of Dominic is Dust. A powerful magic attack bursting forth from the flat of the hammer. I am sure you know."

Annette nodded. 

"Before we get to that, we should work on the basics of your axe wielding. Crusher is heavy, and in order not to be slowed down too much you will likely need to do some weight training. Magic users are not the strongest soldiers by nature, whereas brigands and warriors are some of the strongest."

He handed Crusher to her once more and it flared to life. 

He worked with her on the very basics, which was somewhat embarrassing for her. Dominics had been axe users since Seiros graced Fodlan, and here Annette was, an army general, relearning stance.

"Your knees have a tendency to come together," Ferdinand observed, and he came up behind and fixed her shoulders, slid his foot between both of hers and widened the distance. "It is important to keep your feet shoulder-width apart, especially since right now your core is not very strong. You risk injury to your back, otherwise."

Annete knew, at this point, what touching someone in a sexual way felt like. It was thunder and lightning and deliberate and slow. This was not that, and although Ferdinand was standing so close, his strawberry hair around his shoulders brushing against her body, his hands adjusting her arms, her hips, his foot nudging her legs apart, it was so platonic that Annette didn't even realize how it might seem.

He was helping her arc the hammer properly over her shoulder, correcting her posture as she moved in slow motion, when she looked over to the couch to find Felix scowling at them.

It occurred to her at that moment that Ferdinand's hand was on her waist, the other directing her arm as he instructed, "Feet apart, Annette."

Nervous energy flooded her body all at once and she paused so suddenly she almost toppled over. Annette was not the most graceful person, and the unnaturally slow way Ferdinand had her going through the motions didn't help. 

As he helped her to swing the hammer, her eyes met Felix's amber ones, and it felt like he'd caught her writing love notes to another man, or something stupid like that.

She lost her balance and jumped away from Ferdinand before falling in the dirt.

"Annette?" Ferdinand called, and he was definitely confused, from the tone of his voice. "What happened?"

"Nothing I just… I'm very clumsy, don't you know?"

Her cheeks burned, and she was annoyed with Felix. He could've gone elsewhere to study.

Then, as she pushed herself onto her knees and brushed dirt off her hands and sleeves, a familiar pair of polished boots, dirty at the soles from the training grounds, appeared in front of her. She looked up and Felix was offering her his hand.

"What nonsense are the two of you doing?" he demanded, even though Annette told him that she and Ferdinand were due for axe training in the Knight's Hall at four.

She hesitated to take his hand, but he slid his fingers against hers and pulled her up anyway.

"Hello, Felix," Ferdinand said, and he dipped his head slightly. "We were doing some axe training. Professor Byleth asked me to help, and it seems--"

"You're assessing her skills with an axe?" he interrupted, and it was clear by his tone that he didn't think Ferdinand was doing a great job.

"In essence. It is important to gauge a skill baseline, so that improvements may be noted."

"That's true, but I don't think swinging around an axe at nothing will help. How about a spar?"

Annette frowned at him. 

"You've experience with an axe, yes, Annette?" Felix asked, and he plucked a training lance off the wall. "Forget the relic for a moment. You should be able to disarm me with a training axe. We'll spar, and Ferdinand will watch and better gauge your skills."

It was annoying her that he was doing this. She'd be better able to focus without him there. "I think Ferdinand probably had a plan for how we would spend our time," she said shortly. "Thank you for the offer, Felix, but we don't need your help."

"Actually, that is a fine idea! Watching a spar will let me see different stances and get an idea of how you fight, Annette. I appreciate the offer!"

Felix smiled at Annette, and she wanted to shove him. 

She handed Crusher off to Ferdinand and selected a training axe. She was reminded of their fencing match back in Fraldarius.

She took one of several identical training axes off the wall and sized it up nervously. It was much smaller than Crusher, and Annette wondered if she shouldn't be using a hammer instead.

There was something appealing about seeing Felix with a training lance. She couldn't explain it. She was so used to constantly seeing him with a sword in his hand, she'd gotten used to it until it became another accessory, like Mercie with her shawl or Ashe with his hoodie. But the lance jumped out at her, reminded her how dangerous Felix could be. How competent he was even without a sword gleaming at his side.

He ran his hands over the handle and practiced a few steps fluidly and Annette had to force herself to focus on her own abilities with the axe.

Felix had the benefit of more distance, the length of the lance’s handle giving him a wider range than the short training axe offered Annette. He used this to his advantage, sweeping it across the ground at Annette’s feet when she advanced on him. It was tempting to use magic to force him into a position that would be beneficial for her, but she knew the point of the exercise was to get her into a new comfort zone, without magic. 

Felix was so fast, and Annette was too clumsy to keep. She wondered if he could teach her that. 

She could tell that he wasn’t as sure with the lance as with the sword, and he was trying to keep the distance between them. After a few failed attempts, she sidestepped the sweep of the lance and got close enough to make an offensive move. 

She swung at him, and he parried her swing with the lance's handle. The axe was so close to his hands, she should've been in the perfect position to disarm him. She tried, though, and his grip on the lance was too firm.

She sighed at herself, disappointed, and Felix raised his eyes to hers.

"Wait, stop," Ferdinand interrupted, and Felix's sharp gaze slid to him. "You're doing well, Annette, and you almost had it. The reason your disarming attempt did not work is because your stance is poor, and it is not lending your strength appropriately. Your knees are too close together and your arms are too loose. Could you do that last move again, but slower?"

Ferdinand hurried over to them to help Annette while Felix adjusted his grip on the lance.

Ferdinand fixed her arms, pushed her so she was standing a little closer to Felix, and adjusted the angle that she was coming at him.

"Now try to disarm him."

Felix tried to twist the lance away, but Annette had it now, and by knocking the wood out of one hand and then twisting the blade of the axe near the other, the lance landed softly in the dirt.

"Excellent!" Ferdinand cheered. "You are a fast learner."

"Well," Annette said breathlessly. "You're a good teacher. And Felix is a good partner," she said, and she looked to him shyly but he only raised his eyebrows in response.

"Good thing the both of you will be working together during the mission coming up, then," Ferdinand said.

"Yeah, good thing," Annette said, and she smiled at Felix. 

"It's getting late," Felix said, and he picked his lance up off the floor and returned it to the rack where it belonged. "You've done well, Annette."

Warmth radiated out from her chest, filling her head, her stomach, her limbs with stupid butterflies. She wanted him to kiss her.

"Thank you for your help, Felix," Ferdinand said as Felix returned to the table to gather his things. He turned back to Annette and grinned. "You have suitable knowledge of axe weaponry and skills! It's a matter of fine-tuning them. And your stance is poor, but I think strength training will help that."

"Thank you for your help, Ferdinand!" Annette bowed to him respectfully. 

"It was my pleasure. I'd like to do this again, if that is alright with you?" He seemed sheepish, nervously looking over to her, and Annette blinked at him, confused.

"Of course. It's not like I can stop training after one session."

Ferdinand smiled at her. "Very true." He bowed to her and lifted her hand to his lips, then brushed his mouth softly over her knuckles.

Annette was frozen where she stood.

"Until next time, Miss Dominic."

Annette was still frozen.

He slung a messenger bag over his shoulder and smiled at her before leaving.

She spun around to face the fire, where Felix was gripping the spellbook tightly.

"Felix--" Annette began desperately, but he wasn't listening to her. 

"I'm going to murder that idiot," he muttered darkly.

"But--he didn't know--I didn't know he was--!"

"I'll do it with the Sword of Moralta and start a blood feud between our families."

"Would you stop?" 

His eyes reflected the firelight as they swiveled darkly over to her. "I'm sorry, would you rather be Lady von Aegir and spawn a bunch of spoiled children?"

"You're being a jerk," Annette pointed out, exhausted. "Ferdinand doesn't know that we're seeing each other. And I'm sure he's had a hard time of it, being the only one here from the Empire. I think he's just lonely."

"You're not training with him again," Felix said finally.

"Don't be a dummy. I have to."

"I'll train you," he said at once.

"I think I know more about axes right now than you do."

"So what? Strength training and stance are things I'm good at. Sylvain can help."

She approached him carefully, the way she'd done with Dimitri when he needed healing on the battlefield. His eyes were fixed on the threshold, where Ferdinand had just disappeared.

She placed her hands on his forearms and squeezed, and his eyes flicked to hers, stormy and distant. "This is silly," she said, trying to be soothing. "I have no interest in Ferdinand, or anyone else. Just you."

He raised a hand to her cheek and collected her against him with a hand at the small of her back. "It's not silly. If I ever see Ferdinand put his fucking mouth anywhere near you again, I'll shove a sword in it."

It was totally not the attitude she was trying to have, but Annette shivered against him. He noticed, she could tell by the curious way he was looking down at her, and her cheeks flamed.

"You like this?" he asked, and for a moment she wondered if he was upset with her, but he pulled her into him and dropped his head so his breath brushed over her ear and her neck. His grip was firm and commanding and her breath caught even as she realized that this was stupid. "You're mine, Annette."

She bit her lip and her grip on his arm accidentally tightened. Her heart was suddenly too big too fit inside her chest, and it pumped her blood around her body sluggishly. She couldn't think and her mind fogged. "Felix," she breathed, trying to gain control over the situation. Over herself. "Wait, that's not what I meant--"

"I don't care. The next time that idiot even looks at you I want him to know."

"What do you--?"

He pushed her two steps back, just to the side of the mantle where the last embers of the fire were glowing, and as he braced himself against the wall with one hand the other found its way under her chin and he forced her to look up, gentle but firm, and he pressed a searing kiss to her lips before trailing his mouth down her jaw--

And he sucked painfully on the sensitive skin of her neck, his teeth against her skin as his hand slid roughly into her hair to keep her from flinching.

Heat pooled between her legs as she cried out, and she dug her nails into his arm through his shirt.

"F-Felix, stop it!" she gasped, and she tried to shove him back. They were so tangled together that she wasn't really successful, but he took his mouth away from her skin and pulled his fingers away from her hair.

"Crap," she murmured, and she clapped a hand over her neck. "Is there a…?"

He was trying so hard not to smirk, but the self-satisfied smile pulled at his lips. "Yeah."

This wasn't funny anymore. "Are you serious?" she wailed.

"Yeah."

Annette thought wildly of Dorothea, how everyone knew she'd spent the night in Sylvain's room when she showed up to mass of all things with purple marks over her neck that her long hair covered except when it slipped back over her shoulder. She thought of the mean-spirited whispers and the names people called her.

"Oh, Saints, I can't believe you did that," she whispered, pressing her hands against her eyes as she slid down the wall until she folded in on herself into a tight ball.

"Oh, come on, it's not that big a deal," Felix huffed, and he reached down to pull her up.

"Of course not, for you! You're not the one people will be whispering about!" She poked him in the chest hard.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, and he had the good sense to be a little embarrassed. "I got carried away."

She was going to chastise him some more, but he seemed to realize now how upset she was, and damn her if she didn't love it in the moment. 

"Just… be gentler next time," she sighed. "Don't leave a mark where everyone can see it."

He blinked at her, and his eyes swept over her so slowly and deliberately she wanted to cover herself up. "Next time?"

"Shut up," she said sourly. She escaped from between him and the wall, and she took Crusher from where it was leaning in the corner of the training area. 

She folded her books in her arms and left the Knight's Hall. The monastery was dark and rain was coming down in a misty drizzle. 

Felix appeared beside her, even though she'd purposely stormed out. "Let me walk you to your room."

She rounded on him, and she hoped he could see in the dark that she was annoyed with him. "No. I'm fine."

"But the boar could be--" 

"I've got Crusher with me. Go to bed."

He crossed his arms but didn't argue with her. She started to walk again and he continued just behind. She rolled her eyes but didn't fight him on it.

He was getting rained on, and when she pulled open her door she turned to frown at him.

"Annette," he said from the bottom of the short wooden stairs. 

"Yes, Felix?"

"I'll see you next time."

A fierce blush heated her face, and her neck was throbbing where Felix bruised her. "Good night, Felix."

"Good night, Annette," he said, and she was so annoyed at how smug his voice sounded. She lit a candle and a low fire and sat on her bed angling her silver mirror to see the offending mark, trying to think of how she could wear her hair so that it would cover it while also being inconspicuous.

"You're mine, Annette," Felix's voice growled, low and deep and commanding.

She thought of the previous day, how she could feel him pressing into her thigh, how his callused fingers felt against the bare skin of her chest--

She tripled her prayers that night as penance to the Goddess.

Her routine the next morning was interrupted by a counsel meeting for everyone.

Annette slipped into the War Room quietly. Their mission was approaching, and now that she wasn't barred from going, she needed to catch up on the details. 

Byleth, Seteth, Rodrigue, Judith, and her father were all talking at the head of the table, Dimitri pacing around them, within earshot but muttering so much it wasn't clear if he was listening.

Annette was so anxious not to be late, she'd arrived a little early. She slid into her usual spot, where she knew Ashe would be to her right and Lysithea to her left. They didn't have assigned seats exactly, especially with their numbers constantly shifting, but everyone generally sat in the same spot.

She'd been creative with her hair that morning, and with a combination of a braid and pins, gathered it to one side of her head and then let it fall loosely around her left shoulder. A quick test in her dull mirror proved that because of the pins, it wouldn't slip from its place and expose the ugly bruise.

More people started milling in and when Ashe slipped in the seat next to Annette, she relaxed a little. "Glad you're here," he said kindly, and she beamed at him.

Lysithea was finishing a muffin when she took the remaining seat next to Annette.

Ingrid, Sylvain, and Felix sauntered in, and they took seats on the opposite side near the head of the table. Annette purposefully didn't look over to them, but Sylvain wasn't being quiet when he nudged Felix in the arm and asked, "Doesn't Annette look cute today?"

She knew it was because of her hair, and Sylvain pointing this out to Felix made her face burn.

"Stop it Sylvain," Ingrid sighed. "It's too early in the morning."

Sylvain winked at Annette good-naturedly. 

Felix had leaned his elbow on the table, chin in hand, and his sharp eyes were fixed on her. He hadn't answered Sylvain, but the way he was looking at her made her stomach flip.

Lysithea looked between them and rolled her eyes. She leaned into Annette so no one else would hear when she whispered, "Gross."

This only darkened Annette's blush and she wished wildy that she never left Dominic and she'd wake up to see rolling plains outside her window. 

A map of Fodlan was resting on an easel at the front of the room, with the current political borders marked. Red for the Adrestien Empire, yellow for the Leicester Alliance, blue for what remained of the Kingdom, and orange for the new Faerghus Dukedom.

The problem that they had run into was that the Great Bridge of Myrrdin was in Gloucester territory, and the Gloucesters were loyal to the Empire. Judith had apparently written to Claude to ask him to cause trouble and divert most of their army, allowing them safe passage through Myrrdin. There was a delay in his answer, but Claude agreed, and they should have a relatively uneventful time until they reached the bridge.

Annette's heart was beating quickly as the professor explained the situation.

They were really going to move on the capitol. Once they captured the bridge they'd have to go south through Grondor and keep on to Enbarr.

She didn't have much sway, but she was very against this. Lord Rodrigue was depriving his own land to send reinforcements and she thought it was only right that they march on Fhirdiad and provide relief to the struggling northeastern lands. She was sure Sylvain, Felix, and Ingrid felt the same way.

Ashe pointed out that if they could win the war once and for all, it would end suffering in the northern territories. But who knew how long they could hold out.

Annette was thinking of Fraldarius and the bad situation in which Felix and his father found themselves after years of leading anti-Imperial battles, but she also thought of her own family. Perhaps if Cornelia could be defeated at Fhirdiad, the western lords would fight back and the rest of the Kingdom could be taken back via coups. 

At least, she hoped that is what her uncle would do.

Marching on the capitol seemed risky. Walking right up to Edelgard's front door three months after coming together seemed like the plan of a madman. Her father knew it. Lord Rodrigue knew it. Even Byleth seemed to know it. Yet no one tried very hard to dissuade the prince.

At least Claude seemed to be on their side.

Annette's memories of Claude were fond. He'd enjoyed her singing in much the same way as Felix, and like Felix, she was never quite sure if he was sincerely complimenting her or making fun of her. Claude was strikingly handsome and so charming that she was always more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

When Lysithea switched to the Blue Lions, Claude actually spent a bit of his time trying to get Annette to transfer to the Golden Deer. She considered it, but in the end she could never leave Mercie.

That thought brought a bitter stab of something sour spiking up through her stomach and into her heart. Apparently, Mercedes did not have the same sentiment.

This reaction startled Annette. Even when they fought after the incident at the market, she'd never felt resentful of Mercedes, but now…

She looked around the table, as though everyone could hear her thoughts and how she betrayed her best friend. 

Byleth had switched the image on the easel to a layout of the Great Bridge, the ramparts and areas of the most troops.

Annette reached for the pitcher of water on the table and a glass. Once she poured it she pulled it over to her and took a sip. She accidentally knocked it over then, and suddenly everyone was looking over at her.

Her notes were saturated, her skirt had a blooming wet spot across her lap, and Lysithea had to snatch her notes off the table to avoid getting them wet.

She muttered an apology and tried to ignore everyone staring at her. 

Maybe she'd been spending too much time with Felix, but she could taste the 'F' word in her mouth.

Once Byleth started speaking and everyone more or less was listening to him, Annette slipped out of the war room.

It shouldn't surprise her that Felix followed her into the hall.

"You alright?"

"Uh, yeah," she said distractedly. The weather only improved marginally after the previous days' rain, and Annette meant to open a window but ended up turning the corner and pacing the hall.

Felix just watched her.

"Do you think Mercie will be at Myrrdin?" Annette asked. 

He crossed his arms and leaned a shoulder against the wall. "Honestly? No. This is Alliance territory, not Imperial. But we can't be sure. Lorenz is certain to be there, though."

She stopped her pacing an arm's length away from him. He looked so calm, and it was the exact opposite of how Annette felt. Her insides were vibrating with nervous energy, making her uncomfortable and anxious. "His father could've sent him to fight Claude."

Felix scoffed. "I'm almost sure the Count would rather do that himself and he's sent his son to guard the Bridge."

Annette searched his eyes for malice or disingenuousness, but he looked levelly back at her and she started pacing again.

"You need to get used to the idea that we'll fight people we know," he told her. His voice was soft but firm. "It's dangerous if you can't."

"I know," she muttered in reply. "I'm trying."  

"Annette," Felix said, his voice soft and as kind as he could make it, and he reached for her arm as she passed him. He pulled her into him and traced the braid she was using to anchor her hair in place. His fingers passed over the bruise on her neck beneath, and she couldn't help but look down at their feet. "Come on, we shouldn't miss any more of the meeting."

"You go," she said, and she leaned her forehead into his chest. "I need a minute."

He tucked a finger under her chin and made her look up at him. "Listen. The reason I told the professor I'd let him add you as my adjutant is because I know how strong you are. You can do this, Annette." He dropped his hand and looked down at her, then added, "I don't associate with weak people."

"Right," she said, and he nodded at her before returning to the counsel.

Felix wasn't one to hand out praise when it was not due, and Annette thought that regardless of how he felt about her, he wouldn't compliment her unless he meant it.

She reentered the War Room, careful to be quiet, and Ashe handed her a dry piece of loose paper.

"We may expect an attempt at a pincer attack, or calls for backup from other Imperial or allied Alliance forces. It's important to watch our backs." Seteth was speaking now, and Dimitri was standing at the back of the room, arms crossed, muttering. No one paid him any mind anymore.

Byleth stood again and went over different formations they might try, speaking of sending fliers and mounted units to the far reaches while foot soldiers--Annette and Felix included--would take the near side of the bridge to the right of the entrance.

When the meeting concluded, Annette found herself a bit sleepy, and she was wondering if she should reward herself with caffeinated tea and something sweet when Ferdinand approached her.

"Ah, Annette, I do hope I am not interrupting. I was wondering if I could get a word?"

She stood hurriedly, pushing her chair in until the back connected with the table. She folded her arms around her notes and gathered them to her chest. "Of course, Ferdinand."

She was purposefully not looking that way, but she could feel Felix's eyes on her. After the way he behaved yesterday, she wouldn't be rewarding him with her attention.

"A word… alone?" he clarified, and Annette could tell he was uncomfortable.

"Oh, sure," she said, and she exited the room with him. As they passed through the threshold,  she couldn't stop herself from glancing at Felix. He was scowling in their direction, and she gave him a sharp glare.

The closest place that was sure to be empty at this time was the library, so they entered and Ferdinand paused before explaining himself.

"I fear my actions yesterday were impulsive and misdirected. I do hope you will forgive me."

Annette felt a poignant flash of sympathy for him. Ferdinand had never been anything but friendly, if not a little too talkative and eager about the nobility, and their training session was the first time she'd really spent time with him.

"Of course! No hard feelings."

"You are a lovely woman, and I am sure that there are many men who would vie for your hand. But truthfully, my heart has already been stolen another, and my actions yesterday were out of loneliness. I wholeheartedly apologize."

Now he was getting a little long-winded, and he was saying things that were making Annette uncomfortable.

"Who might that be?" Annette asked. On the Goddess's name, she hoped it wasn't Marianne. "An Imperial lady? Someone we know?"

He smiled at her, and Annette thought it looked a little sad. "Ah, Miss Annette, I fear I have said too much already. I do hope I have not made things difficult in your own search for romance."

"I'm sorry, what?" She could feel her cheeks warming.

"Oh. I did not mean to overstep--I thought it common knowledge that--"

"I'd really prefer it if my own private affairs were not thought of as common knowledge." Annette plastered a smile on her face, but she could feel how disingenuous it was. She didn't mind that.

"Yes, of course, you are right. My apologies for such crass behavior." He paused and crossed his arms, and now it was apparent that they were both feeling awkward. "If you did not want to continue axe training with me, I would be sure to explain to the professor myself."

"Ferdinand, I'm really not upset with you. I see no reason that we can't continue axe training on, say, a weekly basis."

"Excellent! Wonderful idea. I will see you next week then!" He bowed properly to her, and Annette only smiled in return.

Ferdinand was a nice guy, but by Indech, he was exhausting to be around.

"Oh! Excuse me, Felix," Ferdinand said as he exited the library.

Annette rolled her eyes. She figured that Felix would be listening to them, but it didn't even seem like he was trying to be subtle about it.

"What did he say to you?" Felix asked gruffly as he entered the empty library.

Annette frowned. "Do you not trust me?"

"Hm?" Felix blinked at her. "Of course I do, but if he's done something then I--"

"Felix," Annette said, and she wrapped her arms around his neck to soothe him. He wasn't interested in returning the gesture, but that was fine. She rested her cheek against his chest and he patted her between her shoulders.

"I'm not--" he began, but Annette shushed him.

Felix Fraldarius wasn't used to keeping things. His brother had been ripped from him when he was only a boy. His best friend slipped into the dark pit of madness and despair. His home was being invaded by such intimidating enemies.

And they'd only just started this war.

"I'm yours," she murmured into his shirt, an echo of what he'd said to her the night prior, except instead of driven by whatever dark jealous forces propelled him into her, pressing his hands into her body, his mouth roughly into her skin, she was trying to be genuine and open and gentle.

He finally returned her embrace, pressed her against him, trailed his fingers over the creases of her braid.

"I know," he said, and his voice was gentle and smooth. "I know, it's just… that idiot is trying to--"

Annette shook her head, and she smoothed his shirt down where she'd wrinkled it as she stepped away from him just enough to see him.

"You don't need to fight for me. Not against other people, anyway. I want to be with you, Seiros help me."

Felix scoffed into her hair. "Annette, I--" he paused and sighed. "Thanks."

She was pleased that she effectively assuaged whatever deep thing was bothering him. It was tempting to press a soft kiss to his lips, or even his cheek, but after being caught by Lysithea it was really best not to.

"Do you want to do some training with me?" Annette asked, and she folded her notes to her chest.

He rolled his eyes at her. "Don't you ever relax? Goddess. I have some work to do with my father."

"Oh." She couldn't help the disappointment that crept into her voice. "I'll see you though? Maybe at dinner?"

"Sure," Felix said. "I'll see you."

She watched him disappear through the threshold and sighed. Maybe Lysithea would be available for magic practice.

Chapter Text

Passage through the Alliance was tense and quick. Sylvain was responsible for a cavalry force that rode ahead of the foot soldiers, and Ingrid had the terrible responsibility of heading a winged battalion, flying above the cavalry and foot soldiers to watch for a possible return of Earl Cloucester’s troops but staying low enough to keep safe from prying eyes. 

Felix was horribly tense the whole time, and Annette knew that he was worried for Sylvain and Ingrid. She was worried for Ashe, too, who'd joined Sylvain's troops, but she had Lysithea to keep her company.

The march east was laborious, but nothing near as horrible as Annette’s solo trek from Dominic to Fraldarius. The air still held a chill, but the sun was shining brightly on them. She was sweating under her capelet even as cold pinched her cheeks and the tip of her nose.

They were only a short distance away when Ingrid and two pegasus knights flanking her flew back to report to Byleth.

“They spotted my troops,” she said grimly. “We weren’t flying a banner, so they may think it was a one-off. There’s at least one ballista that took down one of my wyvern riders.”

Byleth’s hand twitched around the glowing hilt of the Sword of the Creator. “I understand.”

“There are two Demonic Beasts, and we confirmed that Ladislava is fronting this effort.”

“Yes, soaring toward her death by the bite of my lance. An unfit precursor to the blood of that woman, no doubt,” Dimitri muttered at Byleth’s side. Marianne had also been recruited into Sylvain’s troops, and Dimitri had been babbling since they left the monastery.

Felix gritted his teeth, and Annette was sure that he was going to shout at the prince, but he resisted the urge. “One of your fliers was shot down with a ballista?”

Ingrid nodded solemnly. “We scattered thereafter. We passed the cavalry on the way back and warned them. We need to attack quickly before they have time to call on reinforcements.”

“How’s your knight?” Annette asked from just behind Byleth. “Do you need a healer?”

Ingrid shook her head morosely, and Dimitri laughed darkly. “The Goddess demands the blood of the damned before true battle begins.”

“Would you shut up?” Felix growled, balling his gloved hand into a fist and bringing it down between them. He turned to Ingrid, clearly struggling to keep his composure. “They didn’t send anyone after you?”

“I left my battalion with Ferdinand hiding nearby and instructed them to kill anyone who leaves the bridge once they’re a safe distance away.”

Byleth nodded his approval. “Good thinking.”

“Unless we get there and they’re all dead,” Felix muttered. 

Dimitri laughed maniacally at this, and Felix made to turn to him again, but Annette pressed her fingers to his elbow to stop him. He shrugged her off, but he left Dimitri alone.

“We’d better hurry and find out, then.” Lysithea said matter-of factly.

It was about forty-five minutes of tense traveling until the bridge came into view. Byleth was already assessing, the Sword of the Creator drawn and glowing an acidic orange against his dark armor.

Sylvain’s troops had met up with the fliers, and Annette was pleased that Ashe would be joining her and Felix on an assault on the right side of the bridge. The plan changed a bit, and instead of sneaking around and circumventing the defensive fortress that was filled with fortress knights who would soon be dead under Lysithea’s merciless and powerful dark spells, they would be helping Ashe take control of the ballista. Once he was safely attacking from there, then they could continue with the original plan.

Annette was almost disappointed to be Felix’s adjutant for this battle. There were so many fortress knights around, she could have easily taken most of them out on her own. But she had to wait for Felix to give her the order. 

Felix really should’ve had an armorslayer, but he seemed content to draw the fortress knights toward him, allowing Lysithea to escape to the left of the barracks. The Aegis shield was burning against his forearm, casting a dull glow against the softness of his furs, and Annette completed his parry of an axe with a powerful burst of wind. Ashe’s arrows weren’t much help against the knights, and Felix motioned for him to begin heading for the ballista. 

It made Annette nervous that Ashe was heading off without them, but she reminded herself to trust Felix.

One of the knights had a hand axe, and he threw it at Annette violently. She dodged just in time, throwing herself to the ground as it tore through the fabric of her capelet. Felix shocked her by summoning lightning magic to the arm burdened by his shield, and it arced into the knight violently as a sigil flashed between them. He fell to his knees, horrible death croaks rattling past his lips. 

The third knight swore and charged toward Annette, shouting. She turned onto her back and shouted as she loosed Excalibur at him, and the might of the wind pushed her back roughly against gravel. She could feel her tights catch on something as wind whipped around her.

She shook her hair out of her face as Felix finished off the third knight, whom they’d already damaged earlier, and when he turned to Annette, his eyes only alighted on her for a moment until they focused on something behind her. 

Color drained from his face and his mouth hung open, if only for a second. Annette pushed herself onto her knees as she shook her hair out of her face and whirled around. 

“Dedue!” she shouted, and she meant to push herself into a standing position but she was working hard enough to breathe in her shocked state. He approached her and offered his hand to pull her up. She didn’t notice at first, but as she stood she noticed that his face was covered in silvery healed scars, some disappearing up into his hairline or distorting the shape of his lips. She reached a hand to touch his cheek, but Felix’s footsteps made her refocus.

“We need to catch up to Ashe,” he said. 

“Yeah,” Annette agreed. She hurried ahead of Felix, stepping onto wooden planks making up the proper bridge. She tried not to pause as she glanced over to where Dimitri was fighting.

This was too emotional for her to handle right now.

So instead, she ran up behind Ashe where he was fighting a mounted unit at close range, and she arced Sagittae past him, dismounting the rider and felling his horse. Wordlessly, Ashe shot an arrow down at him, and Annette tried to ignore the wet cry that grew weaker until it faded to nothing. “Hurry up,” Felix said, and Annette hadn’t even heard him approaching. “Before they reach the ballista first.”

The clanking of armor made Annette turn, even as Felix tried to urge her forward. “Shit,” she murmured, and Felix looked down at her, surprised, before turning to look at the space they just cleared. 

Acheron, the bumbling Alliance lord they’d fought against at Lorenz’s behest when they were students, was shouting some nonsense about loyalty and alliances. He was flanked by many fortress knights and mounted units. 

“Wait, Felix, Dedue is alone out there,” Annette said, and she bit her lip as she looked up at him imploringly.

He flicked his eyes down at her, then over to their ally, newly returned from the dead, and back. “Fine, but don’t go too far into their range.”

She nodded and had to scoot past him awkwardly, and as she did he closed his fingers around her wrist. “Be careful.”

She blinked at him and looked over his shoulder toward Ashe. He reached the ballista and was dismounting his horse as he set up the equipment, and two mounted units were approaching his position. “Go help Ashe,” she said firmly. 

He dropped her wrist and moved quickly over the loose planks of the bridge.

Dedue was not doing so badly on his own, but Annette healed him quickly, and she fired Abraxas at a mounted unit that he finished off with a hand axe. 

An arrow soared past her shoulder, and she looked over to where Ashe was using the ballista. “Annette!” he called, and she could see a small battalion approaching, commanded by--

“We need to go,” she said, and she urged Dedue onto the bridge with her. 

“But there is still--” Dedue protested, gesturing toward Lysithea and Cyril, who were fighting together to finish off Acheron.

“Lysithea will have no problem with him. Look,” Annette said, and she started off over the bridge hoping Dedue would follow. 

Lorenz commanded two mages and two mounted units, and right now Felix was the only one attacking them while Ashe protected the ballista.

Annette wasn’t as fast as she wanted to be, but she hurried past Ashe as quickly as she could and reached around Felix to cast Cutting Gale at the paladin he was fighting. 

She put a hand on his back and let a strong burst of white magic flow into him.

Dedue was fighting the second mounted unit to the left, and Ashe was striking the mages with arrows from the ballista. 

Felix turned on the last mage, and Annette charged wind magic between her two hands, her hair flying up and off her shoulders. A sigil burned brightly, almost obscuring Lorenz from her view. She could pretend it was someone she didn’t know, almost.

“Annette,” Lorenz said, and he leveled a lance at her. She immediately recognized it as the Arrow of Indra, and she wished she had Felix’s shield. “It’s been a long time since we were at the School of Sorcery together.” His tone was light, easy. They could be having tea.

She shouldn’t be talking to him, and if Felix were here he wouldn’t let Lorenz talk at all. “I don’t want to hurt you Lorenz,” Annette said. Damn her, but her voice came out shaky.

“The only reason for my hesitance is that I promised not to hurt you if I met you in battle. Foolish of me, really, and not a promise I can very well keep, and yet--”

Annette’s heart exploded in her chest. The only person on the planet Lorenz could have promised something like that was--

She grunted as she launched Excalibur at him. The spell she had prepared was a Cutting Gale, and the sigil spun as the runes directing her magic shifted and changed. Light was flashing furiously from her hands, and her heart was hammering rapidly. 

Lorenz’s horse was not ready for the attack, and it whinnied as wind ripped into it, but Lorenz jumped off and rolled as he hit the ground.

Keep pushing, she thought to herself. Don’t let him distract you.

“Wouldn’t you like to know how Mercedes is doing, Annette?” Lorenz asked as he stood to his full height. 

She should’ve killed him already. “Don’t you dare talk about her,” Anette said, and she tried to make her voice dangerous, just like she’d heard Felix do--no, like Dimitri’s, rage and pure hurt buried in words. 

“Wouldn’t you like to know where she is?”

The magic drained from Annette’s body as her blood turned to lead and her breath escaped through lips parted in shock. 

She didn’t even realize he was swiping at her with the magic lance until Felix was in front of her, pushing her behind him as the lance clashed against his blessed shield.

“Annette, go help Dedue with the Beast,” Felix instructed through gritted teeth. 

“Where is she?” Annette demanded, and she knew Felix would be mad at her later but she couldn’t physically stop herself. 

“Annette,” Felix hissed. “Go.”

“Wait, Felix,” she said desperately. “Just let him tell me--”

Lorenz struck violently at Felix, a combat art only adding to the lance’s deadly strength, and he grunted. 

Felix drew a second sword and from his belt and spun in an arc, pointed edges aimed at Lorenz, and he shouted as Felix’s vicious attack tore into his flesh. 

Blood spattered, and Annette dully realized that some of it spattered the hem of her dress. 

Felix was panting, and Lorenz groaned as he leaned back against a stack of supplies. 

Annette watch as Felix forced Lorenz onto his feet, holding him up by the collar of his shirt, and the stupid rose that he apparently never stopped wearing fell off his shirt and landed in an expanding puddle of blood. 

Felix leveled a sword at Lorenz’s throat, and it was all he could do to keep his chin angled away from it as he struggled to support his own weight. It was hard to watch. 

“Are you going to tell her what she wants to know,” Felix asked, and his voice was actually soft, almost bored, actually, “or should I kill you now and save us all the trouble of your ridiculous small talk?”

Lorenz winced, and his pale purple eyes swiveled to Annette. “I’m… courting her. She’s… in Enbarr… the Empress's most prized healer… and so devoted to… the Death Knight…”

Felix seemed shocked by this, and he let his sword come away from Lorenz’s chin. A thin red line ringed his throat.

Annette couldn’t breathe. Not Mercie. None of that sounded like her. It was all a lie. Fueled by rage, she threw a Cutting Gale at him. He crumpled in Felix’s grip, and the Arrow of Indra landed at his feet. Felix dropped him and stepped back, and when he turned to Annette he had Lorenz’s blood spattered across his cheek and on the sleeve his white shirt. 

Annette didn’t say anything. She was too angry to think. Barely recognizing what she was doing, she joined Dedue as he fought a Demonic Beast. Ashe was aiming arrows at it from the ballista, but it was clear Dedue needed backup. 

She cast Recover at him, and she stepped into place at his side. A too-powerful Excalibur burst from her hands, the sigil exploding as wind burst forth. She was reaching her threshold, her magic power was giving out on her. That would be the last time she could cast that, and she’d have to spend the rest of her energy on lower levels of magic.

Her heart was thudding in her chest as she fought bitterly. 

She hadn’t brought Crusher, it was only slowing her down at the moment, and she still needed practice with axes. But the thought of swinging that terrible hammer down on the head of the beast filled her with some dark satisfaction, and it startled her to think that maybe she could understand why Dimitri was so angry all the time.

Felix slashed the beast with his sword, and it disappeared in a burst of acrid dark magic, and the ruined body of a human being remained before it crumbled away like dust.

Dedue rushed forward, to join Dimitri where he was fighting wildly against Ladislava. Somehow, Lysithea ended up helping him. Ingrid and Sylvain were fighting the other Demonic Beast, while Marianne was crouched to the side with Cyril. He must have gotten hurt, Annette realized with a pang. Ferdinand was fighting a fortress knight, protecting Marianne and Cyril from his advance. 

Felix put a hand on Annette’s shoulder. 

“I’m fine,” she said, although she felt her blood was on fire as it rushed through her veins. It made her feel sick.

“Annette,” he groaned, and the fire in her blood turned to ice so quickly it was painful. His grip on her shoulder was tight, and he was leaning heavily on her. 

She helped him to sit on the stone floor, and he winced, guarding his left side. At first she couldn’t see any apparent injury, but she unclipped his sword belt to peel off his jacket and she noticed a growing black circle staining the teal of his jacket. Her fingers shook as she unclasped his jacket, and a bright red stain was seeping into his shirt. She untucked it from his pants, summoning white magic to her fingers, but she paused when she saw violet streaks radiating like petals, blooming from a clean puncture wound just above his hip.

“Poison?” she gasped, and she shrugged off her capelet quickly. Poison wounds were best not healed with white magic, at least not until the poison was drawn out. And she had no antitoxin. She picked a dagger off Felix’s belt and cut a thick strip off her capelet and pressed down on the wound. 

“Fuck,” he swore softly, and he was trying to prop himself up on his elbows. “That hurts.”

“Sothis, Felix, when were you going to tell me you were stabbed? And by a venin lance?” She thought her voice would come out shakily, but snapped at him just as she had dozens of times before.

“When I got back to the medic cart?”

“Be quiet and lay down,” she said, and he really must not have been feeling well because he did what she told him for once. 

Annette needed--she needed help. Marianne was still crouching over Cyril, and Lysithea was bound to be there, if Ladislava wasn't a problem anymore.

She was starting to panic.

"Aren't you going to heal it?" Felix asked.

"I can't. The poison will be sealed into the wound."

"Annette, I'm… getting dizzy."

She bit her lip and brushed his bangs away from his face, and as she did she let a controlled amount of white magic flow into him. Not to heal, but to revitalize.

"Better, thanks."

Her heart leaped to her throat when she heard footsteps approaching them, but it was only Ashe. "Everything okay?" he asked, concerned. 

"Um, can you go get… someone? Marianne, Manuela? We need antitoxin."

Felix was looking up at her calmly, and somehow it was making her feel better. He shouldn't be the one calming her down right now. 

He winced as she put more pressure on the wound, and with closed eyes he said, "Remember when I said you looked like a goddess and you got upset at me?"

She blushed fiercely. When he said that, she'd been sitting on top of her desk, kiss-drunk and blasphemously forgiving of Felix's flowery compliments, his shaking fingers were at the buttons of her blouse and--

"You look like one now." He was looking at her again, calm, quiet, composed as usual.

Annette blushed. "Felix," she chided. 

The sound of hooves coming nearer made Annette whip her head around. Goddess forbid it was an enemy soldier.

Lord Rodrigue approached them on his horse, Manuela clinging to his back. She felt Felix tense up under hand.

"Let me see, Annette," Manuela said, and she was kneeling next to Annette faster than she expected.

A sudden wave of fierce protectiveness swept over her. Manuela was only going to help, but she didn't want to hand Felix off to her. She hesitated, then lifted the bloody strip of fabric.

Manuela placed a strip of fabric over the wound and bit the cork off a glass bottle before she poured it over.

The wound sizzled, and Felix cried out.

"Concentrated antitoxin," she explained.

"Thank you for your help," Rodrigue said to Annette. His blue eyes were stormy, and he only looked to Annette for a moment before watching Manuela work over his son.

It seemed to be as much a dismissal as a gratitude, so she stood and she had to stop herself from brushing off her skirt with her bloody glove.

"Annette," Felix yelped, startling her. "Don't leave."

She felt her eyes widen as her panic mounted. Rodrigue had clearly dismissed her, but Manuela didn't seem to mind her presence and Felix wanted her there.

Rodrigue put a hand on her shoulder. "You should help the rest of the troops. Felix will be alright," he said, his tone much kinder than the first time.

"Annette," Felix said again, and Rodrigue urged her away and he stepped up next to Manuela.

The rest of their party wasn't in such bad shape. Cyril had taken an arrow to the abdomen, which was a serious injury, but Marianne had been with him. Ferdinand's chest was scratched open by one of the demonic beasts, and it was bleeding but not too heavily.

Annette warned him that it might scar before she healed it. He shrugged listlessly.

"Are you okay?" she demanded, and he he inhaled sharply against the pain of the healing wound.

"It's likely that I would have been stationed here," he explained. "Edelgard was not interested in keeping me near Enbarr, and Aegir territory is not far from here. My thoughts are simply elsewhere."

His injury healed up, but the scratch marks were puckered and angry. Monster injuries wreaked havoc on the skin, and Demonic Beast injuries were even worse.

"Sorry Ferdinand," Annette said softly. "I'm sure Professor Manuela has a salve that will help."

Ferdinand shrugged. "Sylvain is always telling me that women like scars."

It was a joke, but after his behavior the other day, Annette didn't find it particularly funny. "Do you hurt anywhere else?"

"No, Annette, thank you," Ferdinand said softly.

"Highness, you're bleeding," Annette said as she passed him.

"My blood is but a paltry sacrifice for the dead. Their blood stains the earth still, feeding the oceans with--"

She turned away from him as he continued to babble.

She stood quietly over Cyril, Lysithea, and Marianne. The wound was deep, and  Marianne was healing him layer by layer--viscera, fascia, then layers of skin. With arrows it was tricky because if they were in deep enough, an inexperienced healer could accidentally close the wound around the arrow.

"Everything okay?" Annette asked Lysithea softly. She swept her long white hair off her neck and rested a hand on her back.

"So far," Lysithea said. Her fingers were curled around Cyril's, and pained groans were escaping his lips occasionally. He seemed only barely conscious. "How's…?"

Annette shrugged. "Manuela's with him now, so I trust he'll be fine."

Lysithea gently untangled her fingers from Cyril's and turned to Annette, her magenta eyes sharp and weary. "Can you come with me for a minute?"

Annette glanced to Marianne, who was still working in safely removing the arrow from Cyril's wound. "Yeah."

Lysithea led them the long way around the bridge so that they wouldn't have to walk past Manuela, Rodrigue, and Felix.

She was taking them to Lorenz.

"Lysithea," Annette said uncomfortably. She didn't want to face what she'd done.

"It's not your fault," the dark mage said, and her voice was soft and sad. "I'm going to bless him."

Lysithea kneeled in front of him, and Annette took her place next to her.  Lysithea shut her eyes and repeated the chant, white magic flowing from her fingertips around Lorenz's body.

She finished the prayer, and bowed her head. Annette wasn't sure when she switched from praying to crying, but she shuffled into Lysithea and wrapped her arms around her shoulders.

"Lorenz," Lysithea said, her voice wet and breaking, "you poor, lost idiot."

Annette threaded her fingers through Lysithea's hair and fought back her own tears. She'd done this. Lorenz might still be alive if she hadn't lost her temper. 

Still crying, Lysithea untangled herself from Annette's embrace and she stepped up to Lorenz. His blood was on her shoes. She positioned him more naturally and folded his arms over his chest. Then she unsnapped a holster which wrapped around his back, and Annette saw that an odd magic staff was the only thing strapped to it.

"What is that?"

Lysithea was still blinking tears out from between her eyelashes. As an answer, she freed it from the straps of the belt and it flared to life in her fingers, an orange glow casting soft shadows against the last of the daylight.

"A Relic?"

"Thyrsus," Lysithea explained. "It technically belongs to Lorenz's family, but I bear the Crest of Gloucester. He never followed through with his magic skills, anyway."

Annette gingerly picked up the Arrow of Indra. It was also covered in blood.

"I'd better take this, too."

"Girls?"

Byleth's voice interrupted them, and clutching their new weapons, they turned to him.

"We're preparing to de-brief."

Annette wasn't listening as Byleth spoke. She and Lysithea, Sylvain, Ingrid, Ashe, and Ferdinand were the only ones there. Dedue and Dimitri were earnestly discussing something iff to the side. Her father was standing next to him, looking over the small group of able-bodied soldiers left, and for once Annette didn't even care if he noticed her.

The medic cart had been brought over, and Cyril and Felix were being loaded onto it. Lysithea reported that they'd picked up Thyrsus and the Arrow of Indra.

Byleth congratulated them and decided with Gilbert that they would start on to the monastery instead of stopping to build camp.

The journey wasn't so bad, but it would be late when they got back. Annette was so tired. She'd never exhausted so much of her magic at once.

Annette stayed away from the medic cart. Rodrigue was staying by Felix's side, and for some reason Annette felt that she was not welcome.

Sylvain kept updating her on how he was doing. Apparently Manuela was able to draw out a lot of the poison, but she had to close up the wound because it was bleeding so much. He was fine, but he'd need to stay in the infirmary so Manuela could monitor how well he was expelling the poison. He'd have to take scheduled doses of antitoxin as well.

Professor Hanneman would be drawing his blood and analyzing it, which disturbed Annette. Hopefully he wouldn't do anything untoward with it.

Annette kept her distance from Felix, even declining to sit in the medic cart with Lysithea and Cyril.

Ashe stayed with her, to distract her or to keep her company, but her thoughts were crowded with guilt and the way Lorenz's eyes iced over as life left him.

They finally reached the monastery again after midnight, and Annette only meant to change before heading to the cathedral to pray and then to the infirmary to visit Felix, but she fell asleep. She woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented, and it was just before four AM.

Felix was probably asleep, but she wanted to know that he was alright.

She wasn't in her nightgown--she wouldn't make that mistake twice. Instead she wore a white skirt and a matching top with some embroidery at the chest and sleeves. She wore a pale blue sweater over it and she wound a pale pink scarf around her neck. It was Great Tree Moon now, and spring had just arrived, but it was still chilly in the mountains at night.

Annette figured that even Dimitri was too exhausted from battle to be wandering around, but she still held her lantern in front of her warily. 

She could hear the sounds of people sleeping in the infirmary. She left her lantern on a decorative table near the door. Waking up sick people was not why she was here.

There were soldiers from various battalions, Cyril among them, and next to the window at the far side of the room was Felix, his hair splayed out on the pillow around him. Lord Rodrigue was asleep in a chair, leaning against the wall with his hands crossed in front of him. Annette was surprised to see him there.

Her heart swelled and tears flowed to her eyes. She was so relieved to see that he looked perfectly well. 

She sniffled, and Felix's eyes snapped open.

"Shoot, sorry," she whispered as he blinked at her blearily. "I wanted to check on you and--"

Wordlessly, he reached a hand out to her and pulled her to sit on the edge of the cot. Being careful of his wound, she leaned over him and pressed her cheek into his chest, squeezing him as well she could in a makeshift hug.

He was pressing his lips to her hair, running a hand down her back, and his fingers were gripping her wrist as though she might leave him if he let her go.

"Where were you?" he asked when she pulled away so she could sit next to him.

"Sh," she urged, and she tipped her head to Lord Rodrigue, who was still sleeping uncomfortably in the spindly chair. 

Felix rolled his eyes at the sight of his father. "Come on," he whispered, and he propped himself up on his elbows. "Let's--"

She pushed him into the hard mattress again firmly and he frowned at her. "As though I don't know you're on bedrest," she scolded. 

"I'm fine."

"Just stay in bed," she whispered. "I only came to see that you were alright, you weren't even supposed to wake up. I'll let you rest."

She made to stand, but he held her still by her elbow. "Don't leave," he said, and Annette couldn't believe it but he sounded pouty.

"I can't very well stay, Felix."

He frowned at her. "This sucks."

She scoffed at him and he released her elbow sulkily. "I'll… I'll bake something for you. And bring it in the morning. Okay?"

"Fine," he said petulantly. "I'll see you in the morning."

She rolled her eyes and, after glancing to Rodrigue to make sure he was still asleep, she pressed a very quick kiss to his cheek and then escaped before he could pull her into him.

"Feel better," she whispered, and she left before she could change her mind.

Annette didn't want to get into bed. The Cathedral was calling out to her, but that was where Dimitri always stayed. Felix would be angry with her if she went.

But what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. 

She held her lantern loosely, letting it swing as she made her way to the Cathedral.

It seemed that no matter how long they spent trying to restore the roof, they ran into more and more problems. Right now, a makeshift roof covered the gaping hole above the pile of rubble that they'd managed to sort into reusable stones and ones that would need more creative repurposing. Moonlight filtered through boards prettily, catching on some of the stained glass accents. Annette slid into a pew and placed the lantern down next to her. She leaned forward in the pew and leaned her forehead on the back of the one in front of her

Lorenz's violet eyes, glassed over and lifeless, danced in front of her vision.

How hypocritical of her, putting not only her life but the lives of her friends and allies in danger to save Ashe, but ending Lorenz's existence with a flourish of her arm.

She thought not only of Lorenz, but of Caspar, Linhardt, Dorothea, and Bernadetta. People she'd gone to seminars with, who she let copy her notes in the library, who performed tasks around the monastery with her when they were teenagers. People who accompanied her in these very pews as Seteth droned on.

She wanted to cry, but her eyes were dry.

"Your eyes are dry because the Goddess has stolen your tears."

Annette jumped, the pew creaking under her.

Dimitri was not looking her, but up at the boards that patched up the roof. 

"She takes from us until we have no more to give, and then she takes our tears, our joy, and finally our blood."

Annette twisted the material of her skirt in her fingers. "Maybe she takes our tears because she is weeping, too."

Dimitri turned to her, his blonde hair almost obscuring his eye from her.

She looked up at him, trying to keep her face calm, her expression gentle. Her heart was pounding against the embroidery of her blouse.

"The Goddess does not weep. She knows only fighting and brutality."

"Perhaps. Perhaps that is why she sent Saint Seiros to spread love and goodwill."

"You truly believe in the Goddess, don't you, Annette?"

Dimitri was… having a conversation with her. Asking questions. Waiting for her responses. 

"I know that not everyone feels the same way," Annette said, and her instinct was to look away from him, but Felix warned her never to do that. "I think the Goddess is fighting for our safety as much as we are."

Dimitri scoffed, and Annette braced herself for his terrifying, demonic laugh. It didn't come. "No one will fight as hard for your safety as you will."

She thought of Felix in Ailell, desperately trying to catch up to her, raising his shield as an arrow hurtled toward them, and said, "I don't think that's true."

He grunted at her considering. "It is for most of us."

"Only if you let it be," Annette countered. 

Dimitri's eye widened at her as a crease split his forehead in the middle. She was really talking far too much.

"Highness, I hope you know that I would fight for you until I could not anymore."

"There's no need to worry about my life," Dimitri answered harshly. "My life is guarded by something much more concrete and than the Goddess's benevolence."

She wanted to ask what he meant by that, but she was sure he would tell her unprompted.

He turned again to the moonlight filtering through the patched roof. His hair fell away from his face as he looked up at it. The eyepatch and his hair painted quite a different portrait than the boy she knew at the Academy, but with the moonlight highlighting certain features of his face, carving shadows here and whiting out features there, she thought she could see the face of the boy she knew then.

"The dead's desire for vengeance." His voice broke as he said it, and Annette bit her lip against the desire to soothe him.

What could she say to that? All of her demons were still here, on this earth, for her to face directly. She couldn't offer Dimitri any comfort or help him to deal with the terrible succession of losses that plagued him from his stolen childhood to this present that felt so much like a nightmare that she couldn't blame him for blurring reality.

She wanted to hug him. He seemed so docile now.

The memory of her shoulders scraping against stone as her lungs burned and black spots danced in front of her vision as Dimitri fiercely strangled her kept her sitting in the pew. 

Dimitri seemed frozen next to her, staring off at things she couldn't see. She leaned against the pew and rested her head against the back, tired. 

She wondered if Lorenz was among the dead who visited the prince, crying out for vengeance.

Chapter Text

"Miss Annette?"

She jumped and the first thing she realized was pain in her right side.

She almost swore then, in the holiest place in Fodlan, in front of Flayn, of all people.

Flayn was frowning down at her, her girlish face the picture of concern. Her green eyes were so bright, it almost gave Annette a headache. "Are you not feeling well?" 

"Oh, Flayn, I'm so sorry I--" Annette pushed herself into a sitting position and forced herself to get her bearings. It was no longer the middle of night, but it had to be early morning still. The light filtering into the Cathedral was thin and gray as it shook off the night. A blue furred cape had been thrown over her, and Annette stared down at it, confused.

She remembered belatedly that she was trying to explain herself to Flayn, so she looked up at her once more and tried to remember where she'd left off. "I came here to--pray, I guess, and then… it was so late, I…"

"I understand," Flayn said kindly. "Would you like some water?"

"Thank you, Flayn, but I'm perfectly fine."

"Are you certain? Sleeping on a church pew must be most uncomfortable."

"Yeah, I'm sure. I just--" She stretched her arms outward and arched her back a little to ease the tension. Her back cracked several times, which improved her discomfort minimally.

Annette looked to Flayn as she stood slowly. The tiny priestess was perhaps the only person in the monastery shorter than Annette. She appreciated her for that.

"Aren't you going to scold me for sleeping in the church? Isn't it disrespectful?"

Flayn shrugged. "My brother certainly would, but I think that if you find comfort sleeping in the house of the Goddess, who am I to judge? That is what she is here for, after all."

Flayn had been struggling with a bucket full of soapy water, and Annette rushed to help her. "Cleaning Flayn?"

The small girl nodded and brushed her spiraling curls behind her shoulder. "The statues of the Four Saints have grown dusty, and rain coming down through the ceiling has dirtied the floor of the vestibule. I was hoping to clean the statues off.

"Let me help!" Annette offered at once. 

Flayn looked to Annette doubtfully. "I do not think that is such a good idea. Your pretty clothes might get dirty. "

There was no judgment in Flayn's voice, but Annette blushed. "No, it's fine. I'm really good with cleaning." Instead of waiting for Flayn to agree to her help, she rushed forward and took the bucket and carried it into the Saints' chamber herself. There were brushes soaking in the soapy water, and Annette took one and started scrubbing circular patterns at the base of Saint Cethleann.

Flayn made some weak protests, but she picked up her own brush and joined Annette, scrubbing at Saint Chichol's likeness.

"Saint Cethleann was always my favorite Saint," Annette sighed as they worked. "Mercie's too."

"Really?" Flayn asked, pausing.

Annette smiled at her. "Yeah. I guess I should've liked Saint Macuil best, since Reason has always been my specialty. And he was a wind magic user, like me. But I don't know, Saint Cethleann seemed so strong and hardworking. I like that as something to aspire to."

This was good. It felt like penance. She tried not to think about how Saint Cethleann's stone eyes reminded her of Lorenz's as her spell ripped through him. She scrubbed with even more vigor, ignoring her aching arms.

Annette stayed for about a half hour, enough time to quickly clean the first layer of grime from the entire statue and to get the base completely clean. 

When she left the Cathedral, she folded Dimitri's cape into a square and brought it back to her room with her. She figured she could have it cleaned with the rest of her laundry.

She must have fallen asleep before he left, and he… threw his cape over her as a blanket? Dimitri hadn't so much as blessed someone after they sneezed in months. Making a nice gesture like that was completely unimaginable.

Annette changed into a dress with a frilled collar and sleeves and slipped a cardigan over it that complemented it well. She pulled on socks that reached her knees and boots that came up almost as high and made her way to the kitchens.

The maids there clucked at her, since she was a little in the way while they were trying to get breakfast under way. The recipe for cheesy rolls was simple, good for breakfast, and not sweet at all, so Felix would definitely like them. 

She tried not to see Lorenz's fading purple eyes in the round dollops of dough she separated  into a baking sheet.

She popped the rolls into a spare oven and she paced nervously around the dining hall. She wanted to keep busy, busy, didn't want to give herself too much time to think about… anything, really.

Her stomach growled, and she picked a Danish that was still warm out of a bowl that was being prepared to be displayed in the food line. As soon as she bit into it she found that she suddenly had no appetite, but she forced herself to finish it because the maids bustling around her would have been so upset if she wasted food they'd just cooked right in front of them, and Annette Fantine Dominic was not rude.

Maybe she could get Byleth to let her take the Gremory exam today instead of waiting for the weekend.

Once the rolls finished, Annette didn’t even wait for them to cool. If she was quick, she could get them to Felix while they were still warm. She folded the cloth around them and slung the basket around her forearm.

The sun was coming up through the mountains, and it was nowhere near as chilly as it had been in the past few months, but Annette shivered against her cardigan as she left the warmth of the kitchens.

When she entered the infirmary, Manuela was fussing over Cyril. At the far side of the infirmary, Hanneman and Lord Rodrigue were standing on either side of Felix. They looked busy, and Annette wanted to check up on Cyril, anyway.

“Cyril!” Annette said, and she smiled at him. His abdomen was bandaged up, and he was wearing comfortable-looking slacks and a button-up shirt that he’d unbuttoned, probably so Manuela could work on the dressing. 

Manuela looked back at Annette. “Good morning, dear. Those smell lovely.” Her slender fingers pulled back the bandage on Cyril’s stomach, and he didn’t even flinch.

“Thank you,” Annette said politely. 

“Anyway, this guy leans all the way across the bar and he calls me toots. Toots! Can you believe that? A classy lady like myself? I said--”

Cyril was fixing Annette with a miserable stare, wordlessly begging her to shut Manuela up. 

“Professor,” she said, setting down the basket. “Would you mind showing me how to do that dressing?”

Manuela sighed. “You know it’s rude to interrupt. You have an interest in medicine, Annette?”

“Well, you know. As a supplement to white magic. It could be interesting.”

“Singing, Faith, and medicine.” Manuela smiled fondly at Annette, and she felt bad for misleading her. “Too bad you aren’t interested in swordplay, or else you could be my little apprentice. There’s only one Manuela in this world, unfortunately.”

Professor Manuela showed Annette the salve she was using. Cyril’s wound was closed, but the salve was to ease scarring. “Remember, Cyril, darling: light duty. Doing too much work will split the healed tissue open, and then you run the risk of internal bleeding. We don’t want that.”

“Right. I don’t know who’ll do all the chores around here, though.” Cyril slid off the cot and buttoned his shirt up. 

“I’m sure someone will be up to the task,” Manuela said dismissively.

“I can help you do a few of your chores, Cyril,” Annette offered. 

“No thanks. Don’t you remember that time you knocked down a whole shelf in the library? It took ages to clean that up.”

She frowned, affronted, but she had to remind herself that Cyril was always like that. It was probably why he and Lysithea got along so well. “Well… do you at least want a roll?” She brandished the basket at him. 

“Can’t say no to that,” he said good-naturedly.

“Would you like one, Professor?” she asked as she flipped back the cloth so Cyril could take a roll off the top.

“Aren’t you sweet. No, thank you. I’m watching my carb intake.”

Annette nodded. When she glanced to Felix again, she noted Lord Rodrigue watching her. She looked away, embarrassed. He approached her and Manuela, looking slightly agitated. Annette wondered if Hanneman said something untoward about Crests. 

“Professor Hanneman is almost done with Felix,” he told her. “Say, Miss Dominic, I have some errands to run, but I would greatly appreciate it if you could join me for tea in the courtyard at noon.”

She blinked rapidly, more than a little surprised that Rodrigue would request such a thing of her. “Oh, sure,” she said, and her mother would’ve scolded her for being so informal to the Duke Fraldarius. “Noon it is, then, sir.”

“Oh, and Miss Annette, I would appreciate it if you could keep this between us.”

Annette’s smile died as it was being born on her lips. “Oh. You mean, as in… a secret from Felix?”

“Yes, precisely,” he said. “Thank you for understanding.” He nodded at Professor Manuela and headed out of the room before Annette could protest.

That was strange. Why would he need their meeting to be a secret…?

Felix was looking over at her, and she plastered a bright smile onto her face and flourished the arm carrying the basket at him.

She found herself distracted as she spoke to him, and he was sulky about it.

“How much longer do you have to be on bedrest?”

“It was initially supposed to be until tomorrow,” he said crossly. “But I negotiated it down to until tonight. She’ll let me go after my night dose of antitoxin and a last blood draw.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Don’t you feel odd about Professor Hanneman collecting your blood?”

He shrugged. “Don’t care much either way, as long as it gets me onto the training grounds faster.”

How very like him, Annette thought with a roll of her eyes.

“I saw that,” he told her, annoyed.

She excused herself after a few minutes. The uneasy feeling in her stomach was returning, exacerbated by Lord Rodrigue’s invitation.

The time of the appointment approached rather quickly, and Annette took an empty seat at one of the stone tables. Rodrigue was only a few minutes behind, and he brought with him a servant who carried a tray of an adorable tea set that must have been from home.

"I didn't tell Felix that you asked me for tea," Annette blurted nervously.

Rodrigue smiled at her kindly. "I know. If you had, I certainly never would have heard the end of it from Felix." He sipped from his tea, and as he sat it down on the saucer, he gestured to her own cup. "Please. Rose petal blend is your drink, if I remember from your time in Fraldarius?"

"Oh, yes. Thank you so much." Annette dropped two cubes of sugar into the cup and stirred them well before she took a sip. She actually liked more sugar than that in her tea, but her mother taught her years and years ago that it wasn't polite to use so much sugar.

Her fingers shook as she sipped her tea. Rodrigue was making her so nervous.

"I hear you're taking your Gremory exam this week. You must be proficient in white magic by now."

She looked down at her tea, which was still swirling around a cyclone in the middle from the wake of her spoon. "Yes, sir. I'm casting Abraxas now, and I've been reading on increasing the range of my spells. It's very useful in battle."

"Ah yes, Abraxas. A favorite spell of mine."

He actually coaxed a smile out of her, although it was a small one.

He cleared his throat, and the sound made Annette wince. They were getting to the heart of the matter.

"Miss Dominic, in the past months that I've gotten to know you, you've seemed very level-headed and hardworking, studious, and loyal to the crown. So I must admit that I was surprised when--well. The situation is complicated but I'm afraid it's best to ask directly. What, exactly, is your intention with my son?"

Annette's reaction to his words was physical, and her shaking fingers spread to a whole-body tremble as her eyes widened to an improper degree and her face turned so hot that she was sweating.

"I--my--what?" she gasped when she finally was able to inhale again. "Sir?" she added weakly, grasping at the straws of propriety as they flew by her.

He was watching her closely, which only made Annette's condition worse. He smiled shrewdly. "I'm sure it's best for us both if I refrain from repeating myself. I should add that I was perfectly awake last night when you stopped by."

Annette could cry. It was so stupid-- she never should have stopped by at such an hour, she should have waited until the morning to visit him. But then, she had no idea that Lord Rodrigue would be there, or that Felix would wake up.

"Sir, I--intentions?" Annette echoed. She hoped she wasn't annoying him by repeating his question, but her mouth was full of cotton and she couldn't think of anything else to say.

Rodrogue sighed. "You're both adults of marriageable age, Miss Dominic. Surely a nice girl like yourself can't think it appropriate to--"

She hurried to cut him off before he could speculate as to what exactly she was doing. "I assure you, sir, there are no intentions."

He blinked at her, confused. "I fail to see how that is reassuring. What the two of you appear to be doing is highly inappropriate at best, and sacrilegious at worst."

Dear Goddess, Annette prayed quickly. Please let a sinkhole appear beneath my seat, that I might fall into it and die a quick death and never have to speak to another person about anything ever again. "Sacrilege, sir?"

"Surely you're aware of Felix's Major Crest of Fraldarius."

The danish she made herself eat earlier was not sitting well in her stomach. She was actually not aware that Felix possessed a major Crest. She'd speculated, certainly, based on how often it manifested during battle, but never put any further thought into it than that. It wasn't like Crests were something they discussed.

"And you're aware of Faerghus's centuries-long commitment to ensuring the longevity of Crests in noble bloodlines."

Well, of course she was. Anyone who lived in Fodlan knew about that. Except, apparently, for their Professor when he first joined them. Annette nodded quickly when she realized she had not answered his questions.

"I learned very recently that your father has forfeited his claim of not only the Dominic territory, but also of you. And I do apologize for that, but perhaps it explains some of your behavior. Are you aware, Miss Dominic, that Crest-bearers do not generally marry?"

Annette shook her head dumbly. Her mouth was so dry, and she wanted to take another sip of her tea, but she knew she'd tip it over.

"This is to ensure that two Crests do not have to fight to manifest in one child. You're a studious girl, so I'm confident you're aware of Crests which have been lost to history. The main reason for this is thought to be inter-marriage of Crest bearers. As the last Crest-bearer of your House, you have a responsibility to marry to protect your Crest, Miss Dominic."

Snippets of Sylvain speaking so harshly of Crests flashed in her mind. Annette never shared his sentiment, but now that Rodrigue was piling all this on her, she understood him a little better.

"Sir," Annette said weakly, and she regretted it as soon as the syllable left her lips, because now she was expected to form an actual coherent sentence. "Ah, I'm sorry, but I'm not--" she paused. It was probably not a good idea to say outright that she didn't care about that when Rodrigue clearly seemed to think it was very important. "My father abandoned me, and just recently my uncle threatened to kidnap me and hold me a prisoner in my own home. An appeal to honoring my family's legacy doesn't strike me as very meaningful."

The Holy Knight nodded. "I thought you may feel that way about it. I felt it was my duty to inform you."

Annette felt her mouth drop weakly. "That's all?"

"Well. If I were your father, I'm sure I'd be much more firm in reminding you that this behavior is most improper, and I will be having a conversation with my son about it when he's no longer confined to a cot in the infirmary."

Annette's face burned.

"However. Felix is… he's been so angry. At me and at so many situations over which only the Goddess has any control. And I'm very…" For the first time during their extremely awkward conversation, he dropped his blue eyes from hers and looked down, and when he continued his voice cracked. "... grateful that he has someone who appears to care for him."

Annette paused, and now that she didn't seem to be in trouble, she took a long sip of her tea. "Sir, I… I'm not really sure what you expect me to do now."

Rodrigue sipped his tea and raised his eyes to Annette's again. "For now, nothing, I suppose. I should ask, before I bring up the topic with my son. You would be agreeable to a courtship, is that correct?"

Her heart fluttered in her chest, and she took a slow sip of tea to keep from answering embarrassingly quickly. "Yes," she said simply. Rodrigue was looking at her expectantly, so she nodded to emphasize her agreement.

"Very well," he answered, and they both drank their tea.

Rodrigue tried to redirect the conversation, and he even offered Annette white magic tips for her Gremory exam, but she was effectively exhausted from the amount of emotional energy their conversation drained from her.

"Why don't you go to the infirmary for a while? I have some errands to run before I head back there."

Annette didn't ask, because it didn't seem to hold much relevance, but she wondered if he would ask her father if he had any opinions about a courtship bridging their two Houses. She wondered if he did have any opinions.

When Annette made her way back to the infirmary, it was after noon. She already decided that if Felix was asleep, she'd leave and let him rest. But he was awake, being talked at by Manuela as she supervised him drinking a full dose of antitoxin.

He grimaced as he pulled the bottle away, its contents drained. Felix looked to Annette. "I'm really getting sick of being here. I should be training."

Annette sat in a chair she pulled over from next to one of the other beds. "Did you like the rolls?" she asked brightly, choosing not to indulge him in complaining about the treatment.

"Yeah, they were good."

"I'm glad," she said softly, smiling at him. 

Anxiety bubbled up from her stomach so quickly that she almost felt sick. It was too much, her conversation with Rodrigue and the fact that Felix was totally ignorant of it. Every second she sat in front of him and didn't tell him about it felt like a lie.

Should she even tell him? If their positions were flipped and Felix was the one getting an earful from her father. Annette would want to know.

"Felix," she said, and he frowned at her, concerned. 

Goddess curse her, she simply didn't have the strength to get into that right now. His father was right to want to wait until he was well to have this conversation with him. He'd get upset and try to storm out, Annette could envision it now. 

"What is it?" he asked. And his forehead was so creased with worry Annette wanted to kiss it.

She grasped for something compelling to tell him as a substitute. "I… ran into Dimitri last night," she blurted. It only occurred to her belatedly that this was not a much better option. 

Felix leaned forward and she was worried that he would try to stand for a moment. "What? Were you alone?"

She sighed. "Yeah I was, but--"

"Annette," he growled, and she could tell that he was annoyed with her. "I keep telling you not to walk around on your own at night."

"I know," she huffed. "It was after I left here."

"The boar was in your room?" he asked doubtfully.

She rolled her eyes at him. "Of course not. He was in the Cathedral."

"So in the middle of the night you decided not only to walk around the monastery but also to go to the Cathedral? It's like you're trying to get yourself hurt."

"I'm not, but listen--"

"What would you have done if he attacked you, Annette?" Felix was working himself up more and more as he continued. This agitation was probably not good for his condition.

"What? I would've attacked him with magic. I'm not helpless, Felix."

"Really? Because every time I've seen him corner you, you've needed to be saved."

Her face was heating up now, and she knew it was turning red in that splotchy way it always did when she was angry. "I have not."

"What about last time on the dock with Ashe?" he replied, heated.

"I was casting spells at him!" Some of the other soldiers in the infirmary were whispering about them, but Annette didn't care. Felix was making her so angry.

"Basic wind spells. You're practically a Gremory now, I know you know more advanced spells than that. If you're not aiming to injure that beast, you won't make it out of a fight with him alive. And I know that out of some insane loyalty to a nice, polite prince who's never coming back, you won't raise a finger against him, so why don't you stay in your room at night. It's really not hard Annette."

She didn't interrupt him as he lectured her, biting her tongue because she knew if she did they would wind up shouting at each other. He was goading her now, either that or he didn't realize what an ass he was being. She leaped out of the chair she'd pulled up and put her hands on her hips.

"If you would shut up for a moment you'd understand that what I'm trying to tell you is that Dimitri did seem like his old self again! He was talking to me so nicely and--and I fell asleep on the pew and when I woke this morning he'd thrown his cloak over me like a blanket--"

"What?!" Felix was gripping the metal frame of the bed, and Annette was ready to push him down should he try to stand. "You fell asleep in the Cathedral?!"

"Lower your voice," she told him, more annoyed than embarrassed.

"You think that, what, he covered you up like some prince out of a fairy tale so he's good as new?"

"Of course not."

"He's dangerous, Annette. I thought by now you would've realized that the boy you thought you knew never existed. This monstrosity is the true boar, and the one who dressed nicely and said polite things and was your friend was only ever an illusion. You can't possibly be clinging to the childish belief that he's going to get better."

"You're the childish one!" Annette insisted, and she willfully ignored how childish that sounded. "You'll never forgive him for his mistakes--"

"Mistakes?" Felix echoed, but she didn't let him interrupt her this time.

"--It's not his fault your brother died!"  

His amber eyes widened and she thought the color even drained from his face. She regretted saying this before she'd even finished saying it, but before she could even begin to formulate an apology, he grabbed her arm roughly and pulled her into him as he towered over her. It didn't hurt so badly, but she winced, more from surprise than pain.

"Don't you dare talk about things that you know nothing about," he said dangerously, his voice cold, and she was reminded, for the second time in as many days, of fingers closing around her throat, struggling to breathe, that terrible feeling of being completely overpowered--

She pushed against him but he only tightened his fingers around her arm.

"You cannot speak to me that way," he growled.

She stopped struggling against him and stared at him in disbelief. 

"How dare you," she snapped. Black magic was roiling underneath her skin, surging to her fingertips, but she swallowed it back forcefully. "I do not belong to you, and I can say whatever I please and go wherever I wish." This time, instead of trying to loosen his fingers around her arm, she shoved him beneath his chest and to the left, and she knew that this would bother his wound. 

He grunted and half collapsed onto the cot again. It would be better to leave now, before either one of them had an opportunity to stab at the other with more harsh words.

"Fuck," Felix grunted breathlessly. "Why do you always…"

She raised her eyebrows, but apparently, even Felix realized that saying whatever she always did was not a good idea, and he let his voice trail off.

"Just so you know," she said, and her voice was surprisingly venomous to her own ears. She leaned in close to him, and he could've grabbed her again but he was nursing his side and she was confident that he wouldn't. "Your father saw us last night and I got an earful about why we aren't courting. So enjoy that later."

It satisfied her too much to see his eyes widen, his eyebrows shoot up, his posture slacken for a moment. She turned from him and marched past the soldiers that were staring silently at her.

She expected him to try to chase after her or to call to her, but when she glanced back at him as she passed through the threshold, he'd thrown himself onto the cot with his arm over his eyes, looking miserable. She felt a pang of regret and satisfaction at once. 

She wasn't paying attention to what was in front of her and walked right into Professor Manuela in the hallway.

"I really don't need you upsetting my patients, dear," she said. It was as much of a scolding as she'd ever gotten from a professor, not counting Byleth's scolding at Ailell. 

"He deserved it," Annette explained quietly.

The songstress sighed. "Well, I can't argue with that. I will have to ban you from visits until Mr. Fraldarius has left."

That sounded kind of like an argument, but Annette couldn't hold it against her. "Okay. You might want to ban Lord Rodrigue as well, because Mr. Fraldarius won't be happy to see him at all."

Anxiety ate at her the rest of the day. She spent quite a bit of time at the training grounds, comforted by the fact that Felix would not be there. She was repeating some motions that were common for stances in axe-wielding, following a training regimen mapped out for her by Ferdinand. She didn’t have much of an appetite for dinner, and after a small meal that she couldn’t finish, she decided to take a nice bath and wash her hair completely. 

She stayed in the bath until the water ran cold, trying to take up as much time as possible.

When she got back to her room, she changed into a nightgown and decided to retire early. She just wanted the day to be over, really.

She'd only just gotten comfortable in bed when a knock sounded at her door. She tried to ignore it, intending to pretend she was already asleep, but it came again and louder. 

"Great Saint Cichol, give me a moment!" She threw a robe over her shoulders and didn't even bother to tie it over her waist before she opened the door.

Her stomach twisted in a confusing succession of knots when she realized Felix was peering at her from the deck.

"Can I come in?" he asked after several moments, and she hesitated.

"It's late," she said softly.

"I know. It'll be fast."

She opened the door even wider, so he could pass her and wait for her to close the door. But he didn't, and instead he stepped into her and kissed her, his hands at her cheeks to keep her against him.

Annette was kissing him back before she realized it, her hands resting at his shoulders as he slid one hand into her loose hair and the other slid down to her neck, tracing the slope of her throat as she arced up to reach him.

"Felix," she gasped, several moments too late, and he finally slipped past her into her room properly.

"Manuela cleared me for light duty, before you go on about that," he said, and already he sounded annoyed with her.

"Oh. But--"

"My father's been trying to speak to me all day and I've been ignoring him. I'm a little surprised he wasn't waiting for me outside the infirmary."

"Oh," she said again. "But, Felix, isn't--"

"Wait Annette, you can scold me however you wish, but let me say what I came here to say first, because I'm not entirely sure that it's a good idea but I've decided that I need to, anyway."

She frowned at him. It was rude of him to pick a fight as bad as the one they had earlier, then come to her in the night and expect her to sit quietly and demurely while he said his part.

She frowned at him. "Fine, but I'm still mad at you."

"That… makes this much harder, thanks." 

She bristled at his sarcasm, but she busied herself with lighting a candelabra, a simple one with three wicks she'd purchased for herself to take the strain off her eyes when she read at night.

Felix's eyes flickered so prettily in the dancing candlelight, and it made Annette's heart swell. She was mad at him, sure, but rising above the surface of that anger was joy to see him out of bed, unhurt, seeking her out like it was any other day. She needed to order new gloves because she couldn't get the sickly stain of his blood out. Seeing him whole in her room, eyes some beautiful liquid swirling around a dark center, made her ache to touch him.

"Um, sit," he said, and he pulled the chair of her desk out for her and turned it so it was facing him.

Annette blinked at him owlishly and he frowned.

"Please," he added.

She sighed and did as he asked, feeling suddenly awkward.

"Right, good," he said, as though her sitting down suddenly completed a picture he had in his mind. "Annette, I, ah, I know that things are… well, unpredictable right now. And that with this war, that's not going to change any time soon."

She furrowed her eyebrows together, wondering what this had to do with an apology.

"One thing that is, um, predictable is that the time I spend with you is always the bright spot in what is generally an otherwise miserable existence."

"Felix," she breathed, concerned.

He waved his hand at her dismissively. "Annette, a few weeks ago I sent for, um, this." He reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out what looked to be a necklace, a silver chain glinting against the flickering flames. 

She cupped her hands as he dropped it gently into them, and she straightened the chain and balanced a rather large blue gem on her fingertips. That, too, seemed almost liquid in the candlelight, the orange flame reflecting deep in the center, precise cuts in the gem catching the light and scattering it in countless directions.

"That's been in family for centuries. There's some story that it belonged to my great, great, great, however many great aunts."

She curled her fingers around the stone more protectively, and suddenly her heart skipped not one but several beats. It was becoming evident that this was more than an apology.

"Felix, I couldn't--" she stammered, her voice suddenly losing its gusto and fading to a whisper.

"I was hoping you'd accept that, and a request to, ah, court you."

She felt her eyes grow wide, and her blood sang as it rushed through her veins, and her ears rang with slow-fading shock.

"Felix," she said, breathless, and she noticed then that his hands were balled into nervous fists, and his face looked a little pale, and he'd been rather fidgety since she opened the door for him.

"I… I want to say yes." Suddenly, tears blurred her vision, and the gem in her hand reflecting the candlelight was all she could see.

"But?" Felix prodded, his voice less nervous and sounding quite pragmatic. 

She blinked the tears away and gulped past the lump that appeared in her throat. "I… Have you talked to your father? Because I wouldn't want to--"

"No, that's the point." He reached out his hand and she took it, and he pulled her up gently. "I don't give a fuck what he says about this. I want to be with you."

Embarrassed, she looked down at their feet, but Felix gently tilted her face upward again so he could see her. 

"This is a big deal, though," Annette protested. "You could be disowned."

"I doubt it," he scoffed. "With all the importance Faerghus places on Crests, I doubt they'll hand off the title to my uncle, who has no Crest and whose children bear no Crests. Besides, even if he did, I don't care. I'd go anywhere with you. Annette, sometimes I feel as though I'm your captive, and as long as you'll allow me to go where you go, and I can follow the sound of your voice, I'll never want for anything else again."

By the Will of The Beginning, Annette was blushing so fiercely that surely there was no blood left anywhere else in her body and she'd die right there on the floor of her old dorm room holding a ridiculously valuable gem that could buy all of her uncle's lands and also might have belonged to Kyphon Fraldarius. Felix was kind of vague about it.

"M-my captive?!" she spluttered. "Oh my. I'm… really flustered, suddenly."

"Ugh." Felix turned away from her suddenly, but not before Annette saw that he was blushing, too. "Forget it. This turned out to be a disaster."

"Wait, Felix… are you blushing?" Annette teased gently. 

He faced her again, frowning. "I'm not blushing. Shut up."

She giggled as she pressed into him, burying her head into his chest. He still smelled like antitoxin and disinfectant. Even as annoyed as he was that she was poking fun at him, he raised a hand to the back of her head and threaded his fingers through her hair.

The sapphire was heavy in her palm, and she turned it over in her fingers, watching the light catch at different angles. She’d never held something so beautiful-- even her mother’s fine jewelry wasn’t half this nice. The disparity between the Fraldariuses and the Dominics must have been even greater than Annette thought.

“Let me put it on you,” Felix said softly, and her stomach flipped uneasily.

“Um, I don’t know,” she said. He couldn’t honestly expect her to wear something like that. Annette Dominic was a walking disaster, it was no secret. She’d lose it somehow, or damage it. 

He was looking at her so softly, and it occurred to her that rejecting the necklace was rejecting the courtship, and that wasn’t what she intended to do. She really shouldn’t accept until he spoke to his father. And, come to think of it, she should probably try to speak to hers.

That issue seemed so complicated, not to mention far away. And Felix… he was offering her this now, a simple yes or no. Between the sapphire scattering beautiful rays of light and Felix’s molten eyes, Annette didn’t know where to look.

“Okay,” she breathed, and Felix was behind her quickly, brushing her hair away from her neck as he settled the necklace into place. His fingertips brushed the back of her neck, and his lips followed suit. 

She shivered as he pulled her hips against him and traced the curve of her neck, his mouth hot on the sensitive skin there. 

“Felix.” She turned to him to try to redirect him, still so unsure about everything, but he was so close to her and his hands were so warm and it was a simple yes or no, to fall into him or to gently turn him away, and she simply didn’t have the will.

His lips were gentle against hers, and warm, and he pulled at robe she’d thrown over her shoulders. It landed at her feet in a heap.

The nightgown she was wearing was ruffled at the collar, and collected at the waist by a thin ribbon she tied into a bow at the back before it flowed in a shapeless combination of organza and thin cotton around her hips and legs. As he kissed her, Felix untied the ribbon and slid his hands over her front. His right hand continued upward, over her collarbone and the silver chain, pausing to caress her throat, until he was tilting her face back with his thumb at her cheek. 

“I like the way you look wearing that,” he said, his eyes dipping to the sapphire at her throat. 

Well, of course he did. It was a priceless heirloom, anyone would’ve looked amazing in it. He could’ve gone outside and put it on the first stray dog he found, and it would’ve--

She gasped as he pressed his lips to the soft skin of her throat, just above the spot where the sapphire rested, and she raked her nails over his scalp. It was a little awkward, with his eight inches on her, and she wished she was taller, or--

She pulled away from him and urged him to sit on her bed, then she clambered on top of him so she was kneeling over his lap. 

“Annette,” he muttered, his hands at her waist. 

As an answer, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, slipping her tongue past his teeth as his hands dipped from her waist to her hips, pulling her more firmly into him so he could change the angle of the kiss, making it deeper and more languorous.

At this angle, she could definitely feel him, hard against her thigh. She shifted her weight onto him experimentally. His hand tightened around her hip, guiding her as she moved against him.

The gem at her throat shifted heavily against her skin as she kissed him, and it thunked against her chest as she drew back. Felix glanced down at it, and he raised a hand to cup her breast. She was getting used to this now, and she sighed appreciatively. 

His hand at her hip dipped, and she squeaked as he ran it past her bottom, and he took the hem of her nightgown between his fingers and lifted it slowly, a question in his actions.

Annette felt her face heat up, knew she was turning bright pink under his hopeful gaze. He’d already seen her without a shirt, but without her nightclothes she’d be almost completely naked, save for the pair of plain white panties that she wore beneath. Her legs and her entire front would be exposed to him and she wasn’t sure if she was ready for that. 

With her insecurity, so many other anxieties rushed to her mind. Lorenz’s purple eyes as the light fled from them, Mercedes, wherever she was, Lord Rodrigue who probably hated her now, even simple things like her Gremory exam. She refocused on Felix, on the way he was looking at her like she was the most important thing in Fodlan just then. If he could just make her feel better, if only for a little while, she didn't have it in her to say no.

She nodded, and Felix pressed a quick kiss to her lips before lifting the nightgown gently, the material pooling in his hands as more of her skin was exposed, and then she was nearly naked in his lap.

Her heart was racing, kicking irregularly in her chest, and she was so nervous and unsure. She clutched his shoulders. She had no idea what would happen next. If she was one of the princesses in Mercedes’s books, they’d probably have sex next, but the girls in the books never seemed scared like she was right now.

He pressed his hand to her back and, in one fluid motion, he flipped her so that she was pinned to the mattress beneath him. He was looking down at her, the candlelight still playing on his eyes, and she was comforted by the swirling gold of his irises. She could drown herself in his eyes, Goddess help her.

“Are you okay?” he asked, frowning. 

She realized then that she was tense, her fingers wound in his shirt tightly, and she bit her lip nervously. “Yeah, I’m, um… maybe a little nervous?”

He nodded, and his eyes swept over her carefully. “Do you want to put this back on?” He was reaching over her, for the nightgown he’d tossed over the edge of the bed, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm. 

“No, Felix, just… just kiss me.”

He did as she asked, and as he leaned over her, she unbuttoned his shirt, then helped him shrug it off.

He was so warm, and he was all around her, his breath across her cheeks and his hand caressing her arm for now and his knees against her bare legs.

"Annette," he said breathily. "You're so damn beautiful."

She looked into his eyes and they were so sincere, the sharp edges somehow softer. It was almost funny to compare his expression then to the one he saved for Sylvain, or Goddess forbid Dimitri. Felix was downright fearsome at times, and yet he was capable of being so gentle, so thoughtful, so careful with her. 

He pressed kisses over her chest, and he dropped a hand to her bare knee and slowly grazed his fingers up her thigh. She gasped as he drew her nipple into his mouth, and his fingers were still inching higher and higher up her thigh. He trailed his hand over her torso to rest at her hip again, and he pressed light kisses against her abdomen.

Heat was pooling between her legs, and between his descending mouth and ascending fingers, she was fighting to keep from rolling her hips.

He dipped his tongue against her navel and she gasped. It made her hot desire flash beneath her skin, made her want him, his tongue, his fingers, in a different place.

She did roll her hips now, and Felix boldly passed his hand over the material of her panties as he slid it to join the other one at her hips.

She glanced up at him and he was watching her, far too calm in her opinion while she was coming undone beneath him.

"F-Felix," she groaned, and she thought his eyes flashed when she said it, but it could have been the flame flickering in a draft.

She raised her hands to his torso, tracing the line of his muscles as they shifted with minute movements, and paused as she reached his left side. She'd pushed him earlier today, and now she could see that he had an angry, puckered scar, and a few long stitches as well. That spot between her legs was throbbing so hard she could hardly stand it, but she paused and traced the edges of the wound with careful fingers. His skin twitched, and she knew that when she looked up at him her face was the picture of concern.

"It's fine," he said, and he brought a hand to her cheek to comfort her. "Thanks to you."

Praise that she didn't deserve--she hadn't done a thing to help him at the Bridge. 

"Does it hurt?" she asked softly.

"Hm? No. I mean, not really."

It was as much of a yes as she needed to hear, so she doused her fingers in white magic and pressed them to the edges of the puckered scar.

He sighed against the magic as it sank into him. "Hey. You don't need to do that."

She pouted at his admonishment and trailed her fingers over the waistband of his pants. "I know," she said softly, innocently. "I want you to feel good." It felt like a stupid thing to say, and she regretted saying anything at all, but she punctuated this statement by passing her fingers over that hard spot against his thigh.

"Ah, Annette," he breathed, and she flicked her eyes up to his. His calm expression was gone and he looked desperate now. A proud, smoky tendril curled around her heart as it raced.

She traced the shape through his pants, each stroke of her fingers eliciting a groan or a sigh from him. She got braver, and she slid her palm against him--

He bucked his hips forward and shuddered. "F-fuck, Annie," he said, and her heart leaped at the use of her nickname. He'd never called her that before. "You need to stop."

She dropped her hands quickly. "Oh, I--was I doing something wrong?"

"Goddess, no, just the opposite. Unless you want to, um… I think that's enough for now."

"Oh," she said, her face growing warm, understanding dawning on her. "Oh. Sor-"

"Don't," he said, and he moved so that he wasn't leaning over her anymore.

She rolled onto her side so she could face him. Her bed was small, and his back was almost against the wall as he looked down at her.

“Lay with me, for a while?” she asked, and she didn't realize how hurt she would be if he refused until after she said it.

He nodded, though, and laid on his side next to her, pulling her against him, skin against skin. He traced his fingers against certain parts of her, her hip, her waist, her shoulder. The bulky sapphire was heavy against her chest, but Annette didn't mind.

They didn’t talk about their fight earlier, and normally that would make Annette anxious, but things were so peaceful at the moment, and she was so calm with Felix's chest rising and falling against her back. She knew what she'd done wrong, anyway, and she was sure Felix knew how she felt about him ordering her around. They'd talk about Dimitri again when he was ready. 

She fell asleep curling into his arms as his breath fanned gently over the back of her neck, the sapphire warm from her body heat at her chest.

Chapter Text

Annette stirred slightly, tried to burrow in to her pillow--

But her pillow was not her pillow. In the night, Felix wound up laying flat on his back and Annette shifted half on top of him, her head buried against his chest as his arms held her in place. She wasn't sure how long they'd slept like that.

It wasn't quite morning yet. The light coming in through her window was a thin blue, a color she'd definitely seen in Ignatz's water paints.

Felix stirred beneath her, and he rubbed at his eyes and blinked softly at her. "Morning," he said, his voice rough with sleep, his hair loose around his shoulders. 

Oh. Oh. She wanted to kiss him, wanted to throw a leg over his hips and settle on that spot that was delightfully hard, the way she should've last night--

"Morning," she purred, and she pressed her lips to his jaw, traced her fingers over his chest--

The heavy sapphire thumped against his chest, and he pressed his hands into her shoulders, pushing her back so he could he look at her.

"Hm," he hummed, and he brought his hand to the gem and turned it over in his fingers. "I like the way you look in just that," he said, and Annette felt her heartbeat between her legs.

"Don't look at me like that," he added, and it startled Annette slightly to imagine the way her expression must have looked. "I should really go."

She frowned and he chuckled and raised his fingers to her chin. It was such a soft gesture that she couldn't help the wave of affection that rose warmly through her.

Felix reached for their clothes, which had been thrown over the side of the bed, Annette slipped her nightgown over her head and watched as Felix buttoned his shirt.

"You don't need a dressing over your wound?" Annette asked, and he instinctively pulled his shirt closed over it and buttoned hastily.

"It's not much of a wound. It's not open."

"It's stitched. You need to be mindful of the stitches."

"It's fine," he said shortly. 

She dropped the matter.

"You should get some more sleep," Felix said as he folded his collar into place. "I'll see you later, okay?"

She nodded quietly. 

The door closed gently behind him, and Annette sighed as she pulled the covers up to her chin. 

How could he expect her to sleep when… when… well, everything was so much!

She curled up onto her side, thinking that her narrow bed felt much more spacious than usual. Her pillow smelled like Felix’s hair, and electricity surged through her veins. 

Over the next week, Felix wasn’t available for bedtime cuddles, which was probably, definitely for the best, but each night that Annette went to sleep by herself, part of her ached to slant her body against his and bury her face into his chest as she fell asleep.

Cyril was still on light duty, so Annette found Lysithea roping anyone who could help into doing chores for Cyril. 

Annette actually missed Hilda’s gentle persuasion.

Lysithea seemed to have the opposite approach, where she’d demand help and then if the third party declined, she’d make some scathing statement about how they’d all have a lot more chores to do when Cyril was dead.

It wasn’t that her methods were ineffective, but it was kind of a lose-lose situation. 

On the occasions that someone offered up an excuse good enough not to help out, Lysithea took to helping Cyril herself. Which was how Annette found herself roped into gathering wood for chopping on the outskirts of the sealed forest.

The three of them started out gathering wood together, but they each wandered off in a different direction in a matter of minutes, following the trail of useable kindling and pieces of wood wherever it took them. 

This was how Annette found herself wandering breathlessly through trees in the Sealed Forest until she found her way back to Cyril and Lysithea by following the sounds of their voices.

Their arguing voices.

“You can’t do everything just because you want to,” Cyril said, and Annette paused. She tried to stay behind a tree to give them some privacy, but she didn’t want to wander away because she didn’t want to get lost. And, well, she was invested in their budding relationship and she wanted to hear what was going on. Goddess punish her, yada yada. Annette was who she was, and she wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity for a greater insight because it was rude.

“I’m only trying to help,” Lysithea said, not as loudly and Annette had to strain to hear. 

“You’ve really helped me and all, but sometimes I wish you’d just let me do all the real work. I have a lot to get done, and when I have to keep worrying about you it slows me down.”

Annette bit her lip. That wasn’t very nice. Especially for Lysithea. She was so proud.

“Look at your hands,” he said, and his voice became softer so Annette had to strain again. “They’re so soft. Like a princess’s.” His voice returned to its regular volume once again. “That’s why you got a splinter like that, not to mention all these blisters.” He held her wrist aloft, inspecting her palm closely. “You should’ve said something.”

Lysithea pulled her arm away from him and tightened her hand into a fist. “I knew that if I was hurting me, it must be even worse for you.” 

Cyril put a hand on his hip. “It isn’t. I got you to heal me up, and you can’t heal yourself. I’m used to this work, anyway. There’s no reason for you to lower yourself into my world.”

“Lower myself?” she repeated indignantly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means," he said calmly, like he was reminding her of some formula or well-known verse. "You knew all along.”

“Ugh! Don’t you realize how insulting that is?” She crossed her arms over her chest and frowned at him.

“Nothing insulting about it. We come from two different worlds, that’s all.”

She frowned at him. “It doesn’t have to be like that at all. Just because I’m a noble and you’re not doesn’t mean we can’t share our skills and enrich each other’s lives. And it doesn’t mean I’m lowering myself into anything.”

She stooped to pick up the log that she dropped, but whatever injury she suffered to her palm prevented her from doing so. She kicked the log in a fit of anger. 

“That’s enough help for today, Lysithea. Why don’t you find your friend and have her patch up your hand?”

“You know, I helped you learn to read, which was kind of hard and definitely a high class skill! But the second you have to slow down for me, suddenly I’m too hoity-toity for you!”

Cyril frowned. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Don’t worry, I’m getting out of your hair now.”

"Lysithea!" Cyril called after her, exasperated.

Lysithea seemed to know that Annette was waiting for her, but she wasn't angry. Instead she rushed over to her and Annette took her by the hand and led her away. 

Lysithea's face was splotchy and angry, and at the same time, her eyes were rimmed with red. Annette brought her to the dining hall and put the kettle on, then grabbed two mugs and sweet apple blend tea.

"I don't know how you and Felix make fighting seem so easy," she muttered finally, both elbows propped on the table, hands cradling her face and her hair falling like a curtain around her. 

"What?" Annette asked, then she decided to ignore the backhanded comment. It was Lysithea's token bluntness, not a purposeful insult. "Um, no, I mean… fights are hard."

Lysithea's sharp magenta eyes flicked up from the table to land on Annette's. The dark mage was really very pretty, her eyes ending in points that sharpened her cheekbones, bordered by long eyelashes and and framed by thin, arching eyebrows that were severe enough to make her look serious but soft at the edges in a girlish way that was flattering to her appearance.

"He does this sometimes," she said darkly. "He pushes me away when things are going so well, and I know it's sort of a complicated situation, and he's always so anxious about damn Lady Rhea, but how am I supposed to know how he really feels?"

Oof. Annette was not the right person to ask about that. She thought back on her first kiss with Felix, the uncertainty, the embarrassment, the feeling that he thought it meant nothing. It was a hard situation to be in.

"I'm almost positive he does care for you," Annette said, trying to keep her tone light, like she was telling Lysithea that the blouse she was wearing suited her. "He never seeks anyone out except for you, and it seems like a big deal that he was willing to let you help him with his chores in the first place. He's always been so protective of his tasks."

"I know," Lysithea mumbled, her tone almost defensive. "But I'm getting tired of getting little glimpses that he cares for me. I want… more than that, you know?"

Annette nodded sympathetically.

A harsh sigh expelled from Lysithea's lungs, and she turned her head even more toward the table. And Annette thought she might've been crying.

In the kitchens, the kettle whistled.

"Be right back," Annette said softly.

Except for blessing Lorenz on the Bridge, she'd never seen Lysithea cry before. She always seemed slightly removed from the more emotional side of things, cutting through with a cold logic that guided her to a steely calm. She was sort of like Felix in that way. 

Annette poured two cups of tea and carefully made her way to the table again. She grabbed a dish of sugar cubes and placed it beside Lysithea before sitting next to her, instead of across. She liked her tea even sweeter than Annette, so she spooned two sugar cubes into the already sweet blend and one into her own cup.

"It's not easy to trust someone else with your feelings," Annette said softly.

Lysithea shook her head. "I don't know how you could think to do that with Felix, of all people."

Annette sort of wished Lysithea would stop bringing him up. "You have to make yourself vulnerable," she said softly.

Lysithea turned her magenta eyes on her. "I've spent so much of my life being totally vulnerable and defenseless. Being that way on purpose is… it's really hard for me."

What could Annette say to that? 

“I know you can’t fix any of this, but I appreciate you listening to me,” Lysithea said, and she smiled at Annette. It was a small smile, but Annette grinned widely enough for the both of them. 

“Of course. Anytime you want to talk, I’m here for you.”

The month continued, and usually Annette loved spring, with warmer weather and budding flowers being some of her favorite things. But with their impending mission at Gronder, the month was tainted with a tense atmosphere that affected all of them.

The best coping mechanism that Annette had was to throw herself into work. She passed her Gremory’s exam with flying colors, as did Lysithea. She doubled her chores, to make up for Cyril’s temporary inability to work as much as he always had and to keep her mind off the coming battle. 

On Wednesdays, she tended the greenhouse with Ashe, and Dedue took to joining them after he finished at the stables with Marianne and Ferdinand.

Annette closed the stuffy greenhouse door behind her. "I'm sooo sorry I'm late, Ashe," she said, panting. "There was some weird guy in the marketplace yelling about wanting to see Marianne."

Ashe raised his eyebrows at her. "Everything okay?"

"Seems to be, for now. Felix had to keep Dimitri from attacking this guy."

"Good thing he was there," Ashe said seriously. He paused as Annette busied herself tying back her loose hair. "Speaking of Felix, I should congratulate you."

"Huh?" Annette furrowed her eyebrows, trying to guess what he was talking about. And then she remembered the sapphire glinting at her neck. "Oh, gosh, right! Sorry, um, I meant to tell you about it but…" She let her voice trail off instead of making a laundry list of excuses. They'd both been busy. That was the long and short of it.

"No worries," he said kindly. "It's an awkward time to be thinking of things like that."

She raised her gloved fingers to the gem at her throat, and Ashe's light green eyes flicked to it.

"That really is some necklace," he said, and something about his tone was a little dreamy.

Annette hurried over to his side, so he could look at it properly. "It's an heirloom gem," she informed him, and she was a little embarrassed that a tone of pride creeped into her voice.

"How old?" Ashe asked, and he removed a dirty glove and cupped it in his warm fingers.

She kept still so he could really look at it. "Felix said centuries. He said it belonged to some great great-something aunt?"

"Oh, wow. Kyphon's sister, Kadissa, was given a necklace by Loog. It's said that Loog loved her, but Kadissa never married. She went on to travel and it's thought she went to Morfis and lived the remainder of her life there after Loog's coronation as King of Faerghus. Legend says it was a diamond, but who knows? Could've been this."

Annette was excited to hear about the story behind the gem, and the fact that this was initially a gift from Loog of all people made her a little dizzy. She was just Annette, the fact that a gift like this found its way around her throat was a little ridiculous. It made the whole thing seem a little bit like a joke.

A mean one.

She swayed a little, and Ashe gripped her by the arms, concerned. "What's wrong?"

"I'm fine," she said, and he shot her a wide-eyed glance and helped her to sit on the warm tiled floor. 

The scent of Dedue's flowers were sweet, and she breathed them in slowly. 

"Sorry, Ashe. It's a lot, I guess. A year ago, I never would've thought things would be like this."

He frowned at her. "A year ago, I was fighting for the Dukedom with House Rowe and Lord Gwendal. I prefer this, if you can believe it."

Annette raised her hand to Ashe's face, then threw her arms around his neck. "I missed you so much," she whispered, and he linked his hands together behind her back. "I was so scared for you."

"I should've written," he murmured into her hair. "I knew you were still in Dominic. I wanted to go there, to visit, but for a while nobody was sure where your House's allegiance truly lied, so it wasn't allowed."

"Oh, Ashe, it wasn't your fault. For all my uncle's faults, I was safe in Dominic."

She pulled away from him and wiped at her face with the back of the gardening gloves.

"I hope Mercie is alright," Annette sighed fretfully.

Ashe looked down at the ground between them. "If the Death Knight is at her side, I'm sure no harm will come to her."

"I guess you're right," she sighed. 

"Come on, these flowers need tending," Ashe said softly.

The purple petals of a type of Duscur flower made Annette think of Lorenz. She didn't tell Ashe this. 

Dedue joined them after some time and he kneeled over next to Ashe. He didn't wear gloves--his hands were too large to fit into the ones donated to the monastery.

Ashe lit up around Dedue, asking him questions about Duscur and the way they tended plants there. Dedue always answered so patiently. 

It was like it always was at the academy. Her heart was glad for it. So many things were changing, it was nice to see Ashe and Dedue fall into their routine of cooking and gardening together. Their allotted time for gardening ran out, but Ashe didn't seem ready to leave. He and Dedue were in the middle of a conversation, so she slipped out without interrupting them.

She intended to take a nice bath, wash the dirt from the greenhouse off her skin.

She noticed Dimitri lurking by the pond, and when he turned to her, she wasn't afraid. Maybe it was because he looked so much less intimidating without the furred cape.

"Hello, Highness," she said with a bow of her head.

He grunted in reply. "I need my furs," he said, his voice impatient.

"Right, of course. I've washed them for you, and patched up a few tears. I hope that's alright."

"A waste of time. You may as well beautify a death shroud."

Her stomach twisted at that. "Here, it's hanging in my closet. I'll get it for you."

He followed behind, muttering something under his breath. She hadn't intended to invite him to her room, but it wouldn't hurt. She was just giving him his cape back.

She left the door open to her room as she rummaged through her closet, pushing aside blouses and pressed skirts to get to wear she'd hung his cape.

Her heart jumped a little bit when she saw Dimitri standing in the threshold.

He was so tall now, he took up almost the whole frame. His dark clothing contrasted with his light hair, which melted into the bright sunlight. The dark eyepatch and his icy blue eye contrasted dizzyingly. 

He reached a hand out, and Annette handed him the cape. 

"Highness, I wanted to thank you," Annette said softly as he fitted the cape over one shoulder.

He looked to her sharply, defensive, and she dropped her eyes from his. "Whatever for?" he demanded gruffly.

"You know. For covering me up."

"The voice of the Goddess compelled me to," he said shortly. "Even I cannot deny her Will."

"Are you sure it wasn't your own voice, Highness?" Annette asked softly.

"Impossible," Dimitri scoffed, and he started trying to attach the cape over his other shoulder. "My own voice compels me to do nothing."

He was struggling to fasten the cape on his right side, and Annette frowned at him. "Would you allow me to help you with that, Highness?"

His eye narrowed, and his hair blew over it but he didn't seem to notice. "What is that you want from me, woman?" 

"Nothing," Annette said calmly. "Except your friendship, Highness. And if you aren't ready to offer that, then I will wait until you are."

"You're too kind-hearted for this war," he growled. "It makes you weak. But that didn't seem to stop you from slaughtering Gloucester, did it? Perhaps your kindness is only self-serving."

Even in this state, wild and hallucinating, Dimitri was so insightful and cutting. Annette's pulse jumped in her veins. "Let me help you with your cape, Highness."

"Very well," Dimitri sighed. 

Carefully, Annette approached him from the side. The cape buttoned onto his armor, and it would be a little tricky one-handed. Silently, she slipped the buttons into place. 

"Annette?"

She jumped, and Dimitri shook her off and spun around.

Felix was staring at both of them, his eyes pale in the sunlight. "What are you doing?"

Dimitri was standing between them, his arm thrown out in front of Annette, as though he were protecting her.

Felix's hand gripped the hilt of his sword.

"Don't," Annette said desperately. "I was only returning his cape."

"Why the hell would you do it in your room?"

"The Goddess sees your sins, Felix," Dimitri said.

"You shut up," the swordsman snapped. "And come out of there."

Suddenly, Dimitri turned and grabbed Annette by both arms. His single blue eye was wild and wide, and he pulled her into him roughly.

"H-Highness," Annette stammered, and she heard Felix unsheathe his sword.

"He's haunted the same as I am. When Glenn's ghost is not tormenting me it--"

Felix's approaching footsteps made Dimitri turn around. He was still holding onto Annette tightly with one hand, and she was shaking. Felix's Sword of Zoltan was pointed at Dimitri's chest. 

"Let her go, before I'm forced to do something that only one of us will regret."

"Neither of us," Dimitri corrected him roughly. 

Felix narrowed his eyes at Dimitri.

"Stop it!" Annette shouted, and she threw up a hand at Felix and the other at Dimitri, and she shot a wind spell at each of them, twin sigils flashing weakly in the sunlight. Felix threw an arm over his face to protect his eyes, and Dimitri staggered backward into her room.

"Highness, it's best if you leave," Annette said, and Felix glared at him as he passed by, cape trailing behind him in the chilly Great Tree Moon breeze. 

"And Felix," Annette continued angrily. He frowned at her and sheathed his sword moodily.

"I don't see how you're upset at me. I keep telling you to stay away from him."

Annette took him by the arm and pulled him into her room. "He was fine until you showed up and started shouting."

"I wasn't shouting."

She rolled her eyes at him. "I'm tired of having the same argument with you over and over," she said, and flopped onto her bed.

He frowned at her and crossed his arms over his chest. "You think I like it any better? The boar is dangerous, unhinged, and unpredictable. Even on good days, he goes from docile to completely wild at the drop of a hat. And you see that and think, 'oh, let's invite him into my room!' It's frustrating. I can't be here all the time to protect you."

Her heart wavered at that, but she wasn't going to let him talk her out of being angry so easily. "I think he is predictable, actually. If you aren't calm, he isn't. If you shout, he gets violent. Easy. Also, I didn't invite him in here, he sort of followed me. He was about to leave."

Felix opened his mouth to say something, but Annette pushed herself off the bed and put her hands on her hips as she said, "And I don't need you to protect me all the time."

He frowned at her. "Sometimes it's not about you needing me."

She shook her head at him gently. "I don't understand."

"It's… ugh." Felix dropped his forehead into his hand, and he swiped his bangs out of his face. "Forget it."

"You forget my songs, then." She stepped into him and wrapped her arms around him, resting her chin on his chest so she could look up at him.

He looked down at her before turning his head away. "You can't look at me like that and just expect me to do whatever you want," he muttered.

"I'm not looking at you any particular way!"

Felix ran his fingers through her hair absently. "You really take offense to every little thing."

She hummed, and then she shifted onto her tiptoes so she could kiss him.

Wait, they were arguing, this wasn't really the time to--

He dropped a hand to the small of her back and pressed his tongue into her mouth, gentle but insistent. 

"Felix," Annette sighed, and she ducked her head away. "We're fighting."

"Always," he said, and kissed her again.

In the Goddess's Name. She melted into him, clinging to him pathetically as he pressed her against him. 

This wasn't supposed to be part of courting, in fact according to tradition, they weren't supposed to go anywhere without a chaperone.

Not that Felix had any sort of respect for tradition.

"Annette--BAH!"

She moved to step away from Felix, but he was already in front of her, hand on his sword.

Her face burned as Byleth and Lysithea peered at them from the doorway.

"Don't you knock?" Felix demanded, and Lysithea was blushing even more deeply than Annette, if possible.

"Sorry! I didn't think--Professor was looking for you two and I--"

"Annette. Felix," Byleth said, as though he and Lysithea hadn't walked in on them together. "There's an important update about the mission this month. We're gathering for a meeting in the War Room."

"Oh, okay!" Annette said weakly. "We're on our way." 

Byleth nodded at them and turned away.

Lysithea mouthed "Sorry!" at them before joining him.

"That needs to stop happening," Annette sighed against Felix's arm. 

His face was red too, but he said, "Does it? We're courting, so isn't that… the point?"

She blinked at him. "What?! No! Courting is about getting to know each other and chaperoned dates and visits to each other's territories."

"Really?"

"Were you raised in a barn?" Annette demanded. Honestly.

"No, I just… never thought I'd have to worry about it. Leave all the niceties to my brother and I'd become a mercenary or something." He paused, and at Annette's questioning expression, he added, "Mercenaries don't court."

"Let's go," she said with a sigh.

The War Room was packed. Annette took her seat between Ashe and Lysithea, and Dimitri was pacing, agitated, royal blue cape flourishing behind him. All of the Knights were in attendance, and even some high-ranking members of battalions.

Lysithea used her hair as a curtain as she leaned over to Annette and whispered, "I am so sorry. But it's the middle of the day! I didn't think you'd be--"

"It's fine," Annette said, blushing.

Sylvain was nudging Felix in the ribs about something.

"How're things with Cyril?" Annette asked, eager to turn the conversation to something else.

"Wouldn't know," she answered icily. "Haven't spoken to him in days."

Annette glanced over to Cyril, sitting at the far edge of the table with Shamir and Catherine. His eyes were trained down at the table.

"We have bad news," Seteth began at his place next to Byleth with his arms folded over his chest.

Annette felt her stomach drop.

"It seems our messenger was slaughtered by the Imperial army," Byleth announced crisply.

Dimitri lapsed into rambling muttering as he paced. 

"We still have no choice but to proceed to Grondor. It's a crossing point for many important locations. We don't have the support of the Alliance at this point, and I expect everyone to take this battle very seriously."

“Claude’s troops may still provide backup. I doubt he’d raise a sword against us now, not after the diplomacy of Myrrdin,” Seteth said. There was logic there, but Claude had always been unpredictable. Just because he was an ally one day didn’t mean he would remain so the next. 

Lysithea was fidgeting nervously, and Annette placed her fingers on her forearm beneath the table. The towhead frowned over at her and leaned her elbow on the table as she furiously began scribbling notes. 

Annette glanced over to Felix, who was sitting back in his chair, arms crossed tightly, shoulders curled forward as he listened. Even Sylvain seemed to be taking this seriously, his eyebrows slanted toward each other as he furrowed his brow. Ingrid was writing neat notes on thin paper, her hand gliding quickly across the page as she wrote.

Marianne was watching Dimitri pace, her expression distant as her pupils flicked across her chocolate-brown eyes. 

Ferdinand was sitting primly, his bright hair falling over his shoulder as he listened attentively. He wasn’t taking many notes. 

Ashe was sitting with his chin in his hand, light green eyes drifting form Seteth to the map that was always pinned to the wall. He looked like he was getting a lecture in class.

She realized, as she continued watching people around the room, that her father’s eyes were on her. Suddenly mindful of her posture, she straightened her back and folded her hands in her lap.

For the first time since their journey to Dominic, her father held her gaze. Like he wanted to look at her. She was afraid to look away for fear that her father would drop his gaze and his eyes would turn steely against the table, looking right through her as they always did when he raised them again.

The meeting dragged on, and Annette was getting fidgety. It seemed that every time she focused her gaze on her father, he was looking back at her. After everyone asked their questions about the mission, questions Annette normally had but couldn’t bring herself to care about, Byleth excused them and people began to mill around. She stayed in her chair. 

So did her father. 

Lysithea scurried out the door quickly, Annette assumed to keep from bumping into Cyril. Seteth was pulled into a soft, serious conversation with Professor Manuela, and Annette could hear her questioning him about things like supplies, and how many carts they’d bring, and how much help she’d have.

Ashe stood, and he looked down at Annette, who hadn’t budged. “Coming?” he asked, stretching his shoulders as he stood. 

“Not yet,” she said, her voice more clipped than she had meant for it to be. “I’m waiting.” 

Ashe shot a questioning glance over to Felix, who was heading to the door with Ingrid and Sylvain, but she shook her head quickly. The archer swept his eyes over the rest of the room, and when they landed on her father, they softened as understanding filled them. “Catch up with you later?”

“Yeah,” she said, grateful that he understood.

Most people were leaving or already left. Shamir and the professor were talking near the door, Catherine standing nearby with a hand on her hip. Her father was still sitting properly in his seat, and Annette could see notes that he must have written up earlier annotated with fresh ink in the margins. Her handwriting looked a lot like his. 

“Annette.”

She whipped her head to the sound of her name. Cyril was looking down at her, standing just behind her and to her left. He looked very uncomfortable.

Over his shoulder, she could see Felix looking back at her as Ashe urged him out the door.

“Um,” Cyril said, and Annette flicked her eyes to him and felt her expression soften. She was anxious to be alone with her father, but Cyril looked so helpless in that moment. “I… Do you know where Lysithea ran off to? I’ve been trying to talk to her for days, and she keeps…”

She took pity on him and saved him from his own guilt. “Sorry, I really don’t know where she went. She didn’t say anything to me.”

He nodded, his eyes trained on the floor. “Right. Thanks, anyway, I guess.”

“Say, Cyril,” Annette said gently. “If she won’t talk to you, you could always, you know, write her a letter.”

“A letter?” he repeated slowly, thoughtfully. 

“Mhmm. That way she’d have no choice but to read it.”

“You think?”

“Well, maybe. It would work on me. Lysithea and I are pretty different, but it’s worth a try, right?”

“Uh,” he answered, sounding less impressed with her idea. “I don’t know.”

“Think about it, okay?”

He nodded slowly, then retreated from her as though Annette was the reason he was embarrassed. Catherine followed after him, and then it was only Annette, her father, Shamir and Byleth. And those two were talking so quietly, it may as well only have been the two of them. 

“Annette,” Gustave said after the two of them sat, several chairs apart, in near silence.

“Father,” Annette answered. She was careful to keep her tone crisp, but not icy. She already knew why he was deigning to speak with her, and while she was glad for anything that made him seek her out, it stung a little.

“It’s come to my attention that the Fraldarius boy is courting you,” he said.

So straight-to-the-point that it almost hurt. 

“Yes,” she said. She wasn’t sure what he was thinking yet. He stayed silent, hands clasped together on the table in front of him tightly. “Are you… pleased?”

He paused before making a statement. “You’ve done well for yourself.”

“I… what? I don’t know what you mean by that.”

Gustave sighed. “The boy is… he’s very defiant. And a far cry from his father.”

Annette took a deep breath in through her mouth, then exhaled from her nose slowly. Annoyance was creeping through her veins, and she tried to tamp it down. “Are you saying that he’s not… loyal enough to the crown?”

Gustave shifted in his chair. “The Fraldarius family has always been second-in-command to the Crown, since Loog founded the Kingdom. Felix seems to chafe at this. That is all.”

“I mean, he’s fighting a war alongside him, even though His Highness is clearly not well, but I guess there’s something more you’d rather him do?”

“It’s not his actions, and you know that. He’s disrespectful. And, I worry, a poor influence--”

Annette stood and faced him properly. She could feel her face heating up. “If that’s how you feel about it, why didn’t you say something to Lord Rodrigue when he asked you?”

“I…” Gustave gaped at her, taken aback. “How do you know about that?”

“Does it matter?” she asked. She didn’t mind her father knowing that Lord Rodrigue had spoken to her, but it was satisfying to keep information from him that he wanted to know.

“You’re already aware that I have forfeited my right to have a presence in your life,” he said stiffly. 

“You mean that you decided to abandon me, and that you don’t care what happens to me or anyone else as long as His Highness is taken care of?” She was making herself dizzy. She shouldn’t be saying these things, but her father was making her so angry. 

After all the time she spent looking for him, she really shouldn’t be shouting at him. It was funny, in a way--if it hadn’t been for her blind pursuit of him, she never would have even met Felix, or been dragged into this war. She could have been married to some minor noble, blissfully unaware of the struggles of the Eastern Kingdom. But this was the path her father chose for her when he disappeared from her life when she was only a girl.

“I never decided to abandon you,” Gustave said, and Annette’s blood fizzed with some kind of twisted excitement because he sounded angry. It had been years since he’d been angry with her. Annette was violently, cruelly reminded of the time she ate a cake her mother left on the counter before her family hosted visitors from the Alliance. He’d shouted at her, sent her to bed without supper, grounded her to her room for the remainder of the night. 

He’d acted like her father then.

“I left you because it was the only option I had.” 

“That’s a cowardly excuse,” Annette said swiftly. 

“Annette. You’re only a girl yet, you don’t understand what it means to be the cause of such torment. I wasn’t there when I should have been. And nothing that I ever do will make that better.” His voice broke as he spoke.

Annette had such a weak heart. She actually felt bad for him. 

Maybe he was broken in the same way that Dimitri was broken, but instead of acting like a caged animal, craving violence, muttering nonsense, and losing his grip on reality, her father’s guilt ruined his life. 

But it ruined hers, too.

“You have no idea what I understand,” she said, and she meant to sound strong and wise so this statement would have a grand impact, but her voice broke and tears stung at her eyes. 

Gustave set his jaw against her tears. 

That fatherly anger, that emotional connection they shared for a moment--it disappeared instantly. He was once again an impassive, uncaring knight, his heart heavily armored for battle, only the things he was fighting were invisible and he blocked her affection as well as unseen blades. 

All because his daughter shed a few tears.

“I know that you will never understand my decision, and that is something with which I have made peace.”

“That you have no problem making peace with?” she demanded. 

He only looked at her emotionlessly. 

“I hate you,” Annette spat, and she cried because she only seemed to say that when she couldn’t possibly mean it, and it hurt her own soul.

She turned from him, blindly picked her way through the hallway, tears blurring her vision, and she turned the corner--

“Annette?”

She blinked furiously and Ashe’s light green eyes were peering at her. 

She threw herself into his chest, not caring that she looked a mess or that her face turned a horrible and splotchy red all over when she cried like this.

Ashe wrapped his arms around her back, and he pressed her against him comfortingly. After the stony emotionlessness of her father, she needed that, needed comfort. She needed someone who gave a damn how she was feeling.

“I’m going in there.”

Annette tensed up against Ashe. She hadn’t even seen Felix there, she was crying so hard and she wasn’t expecting anyone to be there at all, nevermind both of them. 

“W-wait, Felix,” she managed. 

He paused, and Annette raised her head long enough to look up at him. She really didn’t want him to see her like this.

Such a vain thought, she realized. He’d seen her almost naked, and yet she was embarrassed of him seeing a small thing like a little crying fit? It was sinful, nothing short. 

And yet, she kept her face buried in Ashe’s shirt. “Don’t,” she said pathetically, her voice watery.

He must have had some interesting sort of reaction to that, but she missed it as she tried desperately to get tears to stop springing to her eyes by burrowing into Ashe’s oversized shirt. 

“Fine,” he said sourly.

She peeked sourly over Ashe’s shoulder and he was furious, leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the hallway from where Ashe was holding her. For a moment, she wondered if she’d made him angry, but then he said, “Can I get you tea, or something?”

Ashe sighed sharply, and with an arm still around Annette’s back, he stepped away from her. “Here, Felix--” He reached forward and grabbed him by the shoulder, then pushed Annette into him as she squeaked at being jerked  around. 

He was moving stiffly, and Annette was much more uncomfortable clinging to him in the hallway compared to Ashe. Anyone could happen upon them out here. But she still didn’t want him to see her face, splotchy and red and tear-stained, so she buried her face into his jacket. 

He brought a hand to the back of her head and pressed her against his shoulder, the other resting at her waist. Why couldn’t he be gentleman, he was always touching her in ways that he wasn’t supposed to--

But he smelled so nice, and he was warm, and even though he was tense and awkward, she was used to resting her forehead on his shoulder and twisting his cape in her fingers when they embraced. 

“That’s better,” Ashe said, and Felix’s hand tightened at her waist. 

Once Annette calmed down, Ashe offered her a handkerchief for her face. Felix released her and she scrubbed her face with it. She looked between them, and an overwhelming surge of affection swept over her. She could cry again.

“How did you know…?”

“What, that your father would upset you?” Ashe asked gently. 

Felix scoffed. “Your old man hasn’t made it a secret that he doesn’t like me. Besides, my old man likes you, and he wasn’t even tickled about the whole thing. So I was pretty sure it would end something like this.”

“And I could tell pretty much as soon as I asked you why you were waiting,” Ashe added. “We wouldn’t leave you alone after that. Felix didn’t want to leave at all, but I thought you’d need some privacy.”

“Which wasn’t a very good idea, obviously,” Felix muttered. 

Tears did swim in Annette’s eyes then, and the boys exchanged a concerned look. She threw her arms around both of them, pulled them down as she hugged each of them in one arm. Ashe patted her on the back, but Felix was so much less than thrilled about the gesture. She considered herself lucky that he didn’t push her off.

“Thank you,” she said, trying to regain control of her tears. 

“Of course, Annette,” Ashe said as Felix grunted something unintelligible. “We’d do anything for you.”

Felix flicked his eyes to Ashe’s solemnly before he looked over to Annette. He shrugged. “He’s right.”

It occurred to Annette that while her family was so splintered, her uncle unavailable physically and her father emotionally, but she’d made her own family in the central mountains of Fodlan.

“I’m going to cry again,” she announced, her voice watery. 

Felix frowned at her. “Please don’t.”

She silenced his stiff protest against her brazen display of emotion by pressing a kiss to his cheek.

Chapter Text

Annette sank onto the flat of her feet, letting her arms drop from around Felix's neck as she released him from her tight hug. He'd tensed up when she'd done it, but then he pressed a hand to her back and gathered her to him for one heartbeat, two, three, four--and then he dropped his hand.

"Felix," she whispered, nervous and with a sense of foreboding. "Be safe."

"You too," he murmured. 

Annette wanted to kiss him so badly, but Sylvain was already nudging Ingrid's arm and gesturing at them, and Ingrid was watching them with a faraway expression, and Annette wondered if she ever thought Felix looked like Glenn, and if she wished she could have been there at Discur to embrace him before the battle.

That was way too morose a thought for Annette to be entertaining.

It was her first time wearing a Gremory's uniform, and she hadn't had a chance to get it tailored. The hem was a bit long, and she had to pick up the skirts a little when she did anything important. Crusher was strapped to her back, and a hexlock shield Felix bought for her off of Anna with his own money gleamed on her arm. He'd been teaching her how to use it, teaching her to dodge, making her move faster, faster, past his arms as they reached for her, and then if he caught her, he'd mime spearing her with a lance, or running her through with a sword, or throwing her up against the wall in the training grounds or the knight's hall and slanting his mouth over hers as she panted.

That last one didn't have a practical battle application, but it was nice to think about.

Everyone was tense and severe. They arrived at the plains, caught sight of the Imperial banner in the distance, and then thick fog enshrouded them, so heavy it was impossible to see more than ten or fifteen feet beyond. Lysithea immediately pointed out that the fog wasn't natural. Annette was much more skilled with magic now than she was in the academy days and she could feel that the fog was alive, pulsing with dark magic, curling around them, pressing in and totally obscuring the plains from view. 

Byleth paced around them before barking orders, changing up the plans they made. The priority was to stick together now, Dedue, Gustave, and Ferdinand, mounted atop an armored horse instead of his usual wyvern, leading them forward while Annette, Lysithea, and Marianne stayed in the center of the group and healed their allies. Hence the emotional hug between them.

Byleth made sure to distribute concoctions evenly among them, and Annette slid hers into a bag she attached around her waist.

No one was allowed on winged mounts, except Ingrid with her magical Aurora shield to protect her. 

Sylvain clutched his Lampos shield, picked from the twisted body of Lord Gwendal. Ashe and Ingrid were being paired up more and more, since Ashe had the range to help her if she got too far ahead. Today, however, Byleth paired her with Sylvain with explicit instructions not to get too far ahead.

The Professor was nervous.

As he should be.

Edelgard was here. They couldn't see where, but a reconnaissance team had seen her before the battle. Dimitri was practically foaming at the mouth, and Felix was tasked with staying by him, keeping him in line while also fighting for his life. He tried to protest, Annette was sure he'd asked to stay with her, but Byleth wouldn't hear it.

Ashe and Cyril brought up the rear, Ashe on horseback and Cyril on foot. They'd have the range to watch out from all sides. 

They arranged into a formation and all was still. Fog curled around them, shifting around even though there was no wind. All was silent.

"I will have Edelgard's head," Dimitri growled. He started forward, but Gustave blocked him with an armored hand.

"Hold, Highness. I think I hear--"

An arrow embedded itself into the soft ground at their feet. Gustave crouched to inspect the arrow. "A ballista," he said. "Armored units should go out first."

Annette felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She thought that perhaps to her right the fog was disturbed. By wind, maybe. Or wings.

She stepped a few paces to the right and she could make out the sharpening silhouette of two pegasus riders.

The forest which stretched behind them for acres dwindled to the right. Staying along the treeline, she stayed as far from them as she could before striking out at one of them with Sagittae.

The Knight screamed as the spell tore into her, and her companion launched a javelin at Annette.

Her axe lessons were helping, making her faster, and she sidestepped the javelin. The wind in its wake disturbed her hair.

The second knight didn't even scream as an arrow pierced her chest. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. As life faded, she slumped over, then fell from the pegasus's back to the ground. Seeing pegasus knights fall like that always reminded Annette of Ingrid.

She expected Ashe to be behind her, but instead, Cyril's wide, calm eyes burned into her.

"Thanks," Annette said, smiling.

Instead of an answer, he turned his eyes to the sky and nocked an arrow, tensing his bow. Annette turned her gaze above them, but she didn't hear anything. He loosed an arrow, and a third pegasus whinnied as it fell. The knight rolled on impact, the way Annette had seen Ingrid practice, but before she could come out of the roll, Annette blasted her with a Cutting Gale.

Three down, and Annette hadn't even broken a sweat. Of course, she would've been in real trouble without Cyril. 

"We shouldn't get too far behind the others," he said, and he gestured from where they came with his bow.

She felt a little awkward with him, and she wondered what ended up happening between him and Lysithea. As much as the dark mage liked to come to Annette for advice, she cruelly denied her most of the more specific details about her burgeoning love life.

Now wasn't the time to think of that. 

The rest of their units were moving out, and Cyril urged Annette back to the group with a hand at her back. 

"Hurry," he said, and Annette was panting. 

"I'm trying," she said, "but--"

"Watch!" Cyril shouted, and he pointed above them. 

Instinctively, Annette raised her hexlock shield. A ballista arrow splintered against it, knocking her back into Cyril. He steadied her with a hand between her shoulder blades.

"Are you hurt?" he demanded, and his voice was edged with nervousness. 

"No, I'm fine." She shook out her arm, which was practically vibrating from the impact.

"Let's go," he said then.

They approached the rest of the group. Felix and Dimitri were only visible by the glow of their relics, and they'd veered off the the left to fight a few axe-users. Annette sensed a magic user, too, which made her nervous because neither of them were very good at withstanding magic attacks, but Lysithea was already crossing over to help them. Her father was heading up to the fort to help Ingrid take out the archer at the ballista. A shock of purple hair and high-pitched squeals gave away Bernadetta, and Ingrid was circling above, javelin drawn and ready to throw.

Before she had the opportunity, the fort suddenly erupted into intense flame. 

The smoke stung at Annette's eyes, burned at her throat, and she wasn't even on the fort. Her heart leaped to her throat as her father shouted, but he hadn't made it very far into the fray, and an instant later he was rolling away.

Ingrid's falicorn pulled up, high into the sky and away from the heat of the fire.

Sylvain was fighting a knight, lances clashing, and when the fire sprang to life both their horses reared back. After years of friendship with Ingrid, Sylvain turned out to be the better rider, and he fired a simple fire spell at the other rider. His horse took off as he slumped over, either dead or clinging to life as the reins slipped from his fingers.

"Bernadetta was…" Sylvain said as Annette and Cyril caught up to  him. He was looking into the flames, dark brown eyes reflecting the shifting flames eerily. He looked ready to command his horse forward to save the tiny introvert.

Annette reached up for his arm, and she soothed his horse with a hand on its chest. "Sylvain," she said sadly, shaking her head at him.

He steeled his expression, looking Annette solemnly in the eyes, and flourished the Lance of Ruin resolutely. 

"Where's Ashe?" Annette asked nervously.

Sylvain's dark eyes flicked again to the fort, still consumed by flames. They were losing their intensity, but the fire was still going. 

Her heart dropped and she felt her blood turn icy.

"No," Sylvain said quickly. "He wasn't… I don't think…"

"Sylvain!" Annette cried, panic in her lungs.

"No, Ingrid would've--" 

He cut himself off with a grunt as an arrow flew into his shoulder from their left, cutting through the fog and into his flesh in the same instant.

Cyril drew the axe slung over his back as Sylvain reeled in his saddle. Annette shouted his name desperately, but he waved her away as he winced.

Her heart beating wildly, she drew Crusher. Its glow in the fog did not help her see any further, and in fact it only made things worse as wispy tendrils of fog reflected the glow around her.

She saw a misshapen orange light several feet away through the fog moments earlier than she would have were it not a Relic, so she swung Crusher with both hands as it came down on her. The sharp edge of the axe was knocked away, but before Annette could recover, it was circling back at her, the wielder using the momentum to launch a new attack.

She held the Crysher so it was horizontal across her body and the sharp edge of the axe came down on it.

Pink eyes peered at her through the fog.

Pink eyes and a glowing axe…?

"Hilda!" Annette shrieked, and the other girl also shouted, arcing Freikugel away from her at the last second. The sharp, razor edged fin missed her by mere inches, and Hilda slammed it into the soft earth to avoid injuring Annette.

"Oh my gosh!" Hilda gasped, her eyes wide. "Annie! I almost--!"

"Yeah, I know," Annette muttered, her eyes wide as they studied Freikugel winking at her from the soil of the plains. 

Another arrow sailed past them, and Hilda whirled around, shouting, "Leonie, quit it! I think you hit Sylvain!"

Sylvain was holding his shoulder, blood seeping out from the site the arrow impaled. "Just a scratch," he wheezed.

Annette hurried over to him and stood on her tiptoes, passing her hand bathed in white magic over the injury as Sylvain pulled the arrow out.

He sighed, holding the arrow covered in his blood in front of his eyes. "Fuck."

"Where's this crazy fog coming from?" Hilda demanded, as Leonie joined them atop her horse.

"It's dark magic," Annette answered immediately. Sylvain looked to her questioningly. "If we defeat the mage, the fog will clear.

"I'll bet they're staying near Edelgard," Leonie said.

"Let's keep moving," Annette said, and she tucked Crusher into the strap at her back and picked her skirts up as she traveled over the grass. She really needed to find Ashe. And it would be nice to regroup with Felix and Dimitri, too. And her father.

Marianne was the first to appear in the fog, and she had scratches on her face, likely from a wind spell. Annette healed her.

"Ashe was just ahead. He's safe," Marianne said softly. "We heard cries of a Demonic Beast, and we got separated."

"Thank you," Annette said, and Marianne nodded.

Leonie was fast, and Annette was struggling to keep up with her. No doubt the bow knight was looking for Byleth. Annette wanted to find the mage responsible for the fog and take them out. That way, she'd be able to actually see across the plains.

Leonie cried out, and when Annette caught up to her she was aiming an arrow across the fog. Annette could make out the pointed masks of Edelgard's strange dark mages.

A fireball was hurtling toward Leonie, and Annette raised the hexlock shield and stepped in front of her. The shield softened the blow, and Annette had become pretty good at withstanding magic attacks. Still, the force of magic from the spell washed over her painfully, and heat grazed the side of her face.

She fired two Cutting Gales at the mage, and Leonie shot an arrow right into the stream of wind. Annette's spell carried it into the mage's chest, where it sank so deeply the feathered end was just barely visible as it protruded from his body.

The dark mage gasped, the air moving through wet lungs sickeningly as he died, and the fog immediately started dispersing.

It was then that she could see they were only a few yards from Edelgard, who stood protected atop a small fortress.

Annette scrambled backward, well out of her possible range.

She cleared the fog in time to see the Demonic Beast Marianne earlier mentioned perish in a burst of magic. The body of a girl Annette could imagine to be her age remained, then disintegrated into the earth. The Goddess would not embrace her demonic soul in death.

As dark magic dissipated from the crumbled body of the girl, Annette could see past to where her friends had been fighting.

Lysithea was kneeling in the dirt, Seraphim dying in her hand. Ashe's head was cushioned on her lap, his bow broken and discarded some feet behind.

A lance was clutched weakly in his hand, and his arm was clawed open, blood weeping from a deep gash.

Lysithea raised her eyes to Annette grimly. 

Dimitri rushed past her, Felix trailing closely behind. She was torn between helping them and aiding Lysithea, but Marianne was approaching on Dorte, so Annette bit her lip and nodded to Lysithea, then followed the boys.

Leonie was off to the right, a Fortress Knight dead some feet away from her with arrows sticking out from his armor. She was pinned beneath the weight of her horse, but Hilda was at her side, working to free her.

Annette decided to stick with Dimitri and Felix. Leaving them exposed to magic didn't sit well with her, and if Annette remembered correctly, although she preferred axes, Edelgard was skilled at Reason magic.

Areadbhar was gleaming in Dimitri's hands, and he arced it in a circle into Edelgard.

She blocked it with her axe, her heavy armor clanking as she met him, unafraid.

The sight was almost breathtaking, Dimitri and Edelgard with their gleaming Relics locked together, Edelgard looking serene as Dimitri shook with wild thoughts and sparking emotions.

"How the Prince has fallen, " she said calmly.

"I'll cut your tongue right out of your throat!" Dimitri's voice was guttural, animalistic, his face red as he screamed at her.

Aymr gleamed as she shrugged Dimitri off, cold sunlight reflecting from its sickly orange surface as she brandished it above her head, then she brought it down swiftly.

Felix jumped in front of the axe, Aegis shield at his arm. He grunted as she pushed forward and his feet slipped on uneven ground.

Dimitri's muttering was at a fevered pitch, and he was shouting to his father and to the Goddess. He wasn't focusing on the task at hand.

Edelgard stepped back from Felix, out of his sword’s range, and before he could dart forward, she cast Luna at him.

The magic of the Aegis shield cushioned the blow, but Felix staggered forward, unsteady. He immediately looked pale. If Dimitri didn’t press forward, he’d be totally exposed to Edelgard’s cursed axe.

Annette lashed out with her own spell, firing a Cutting Gale at her.

Edelgard cried out and staggered, her dress blowing violently as her hair whipped around, but she didn't fall. 

Felix needed to withdraw while Edelgard was recovering, but he was indecisive, wavering on his feet as he held the shield aloft.

The Empress hesitated only for a moment, deciding whether to finish off Felix or wipe out Annette to prevent more attacks that she couldn't counter, and in that moment a flash of green appeared at Annette's side.

The Professor, tactical as ever, struck out out with his Relic, lashing Edelgard in the face well above all of her armor.

Annette geld her breath as the Empress sank to her knees.

Dimitri growled at her like a junkyard dog.

"I lost?" Edelgard demanded, her voice calm but laced with disbelief. Her face wore a welt increasing in size by the moment from the Sword of the Creator, which was twisted, unfurled, at the Professor's feet. When she next spoke, her teeth were stained with blood. "Just as expected, you aren't making my path an easy one. I must retreat for now. We will meet again on the battlefield." Before any of them could react, Edelgard was enveloped by a column of purple, smoky magic and she was gone.

"Dammit," Dimitri hissed through his teeth from the spot where she stood only seconds ago. His eye was wide, bulging, and his face was red and splotchy. "So, you think you can escape, Edelgard?" he growled darkly. He circled the spot from which she'd disappeared like a caged animal, then turned his gaze due south, where more Imperial troops were surely gathering.

The Professor sighed at Annette's side, weary, and as his sword snapped into place, metal clanging forcibly against metal, he looked over the plains distantly. 

Annette felt like crying. Her concern for Ashe was clawing at her chest, but Felix staggered on the way down from the fort, so she rushed to him and put a hand on his back as he sheathed his sword. 

He was angry, Annette could tell from the way he clenched his jaw and balled his gloved hand into a fist. But he also looked like he was about to pass out. 

“I’m fine,” he muttered tersely as she lit her fingers in a white glow. He raised a hand to brush her away.

“Stop,” she said, her tone serious and firm. He dropped his hand as he rolled his eyes and Annette pressed her palm against his chest over his heart. Magic flowed between them and she could feel his body respond, his pain fade, his energy rise. He locked eyes with her and something about it felt so intimate. She dropped her gaze to her hand at his chest as the spell finished.

She pressed her lips together seriously, and when she looked up to Felix as she moved her hand away from him, he was still looking down at her. 

“Ashe,” she said softly, and his eyes lingered on hers before looking over her shoulder. His expression was so impassive, to as-per-usual that she couldn’t tell whether the situation had improved or declined from it.

She turned to follow his gaze. Ashe’s blue and purple coat had been unclasped and pushed off his arms, and he was still resting on Lysithea while Marianne kneeled over him. 

“Go on,” Felix said, and he pushed her toward the scene.

The battlefield was bloody, soldiers scattered around, minor battalion soldiers and Imperial officers scattered over each other. She didn’t look at them as she crossed.

Now that the fog was gone, she could see clearly across the field. Ignatz had healed Leonie and he was wrapping her arm in bandage. Claude was near them, speaking to her father.

Lysithea looked up at Annette as she approached them. She was crying. 

“I’m so sorry,” Lysithea said, her voice strained. “His bow broke and I told him to keep back, but--it was my fault, I left myself open and he took the blow instead--”

Ashe was asleep in Lysithea’s lap. His arm was partly healed, but the Beast’s claws had torn his arm from bicep to wrist. Marianne was wrapping it in a long bandage she pulled from a bag at her hip. She raised her dark eyes to Annette’s. 

“It was hard to heal.” Her voice was so calm and soothing. Annette’s initial sense of dread was fading to something more numb. “Demonic Beast’s claws have so much dark magic in them, and the wound was deep. It might still bleed, but right now that’s all I can do.”

Annette kneeled next to Ashe and tucked his hair behind his ear the way he always liked to have it. Lysithea was watching her tearfully. “It’s not your fault,” Annette told her tearfully. 

“We should’ve retreated when his bow broke.” Her voice was wet and it broke twice. She blinked rapidly, and then, quietly, she asked, “Is Cyril okay?”

Annette nodded. “He’s fine. He protected me.”

Lysithea pulled in a sharp breath as fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. She nodded and lifted her hand to her face to wipe the tears away.

Marianne was finishing her wrapping of Ashe’s wound, and Annette watched protectively as she secured the bandage in place. “He lost a lot of blood,” the blue-haired healer informed Annette, as though she couldn’t’ see from the state of his jacket. “He’s weak, but stable. He’ll probably stay in the infirmary until Professor Manuela can close the wound.”

Annette slid her fingers into Ashe’s limp hand. “Will he be able to use his arm?”

“He’s lucky it was his left arm.” Not really an answer to Annette’s question. 

"Your Highness! You're alive!" Rodrigue's voice drifted over the plains. Annette looked over at him, near the fort with Dimitri and Felix. "We have to retreat to the Great Bridge of Myrrdin."

"That woman… We failed to capture her.” Dimitri brandished Areadbhar in front of him, as though Edelgard could reappear at any moment. “I will keep pursuing. The rest of you, keep fighting!”

Annette looked over her shoulder to Dimitri. Rodrigue had come to stand near him and Felix, and Dimitri was shouting, bloodthirsty as she imagined seeing Edelgard again would have made him. She didn’t move to follow his orders. No one did. Felix placed a hand on his hip, annoyed, and the arm laden with his shield hung down at his side.

“I’m so sorry, but we can’t do that. I understand how you feel but the Imperial army is closing in!”

“I’ll kill all of them. No matter how many hundreds or thousands there are!”

Annette turned her attention to Ashe once again. There was still talking and shouting going on from behind them, but Annette was tired of Dimitri trying to order them around when they were already so broken.

"Will the two of you stay with Ashe?" Marianne asked. "I should probably help."

Annette nodded.

"I never meant for him to get hurt," Lysithea whispered.

"It's not your fault," Annette soothed. "We're in a war."

"I know." 

Annette pulled the bandage a little bit higher on Ashe's wrist.

A high pitched shout from Rodrigue made the girls snap their heads up, and Annette looked over just in time to see Lord Rodrigue jump in front of Dimitri as a girl aimed a dagger at his back.

Felix was watching, wide-eyed, and as Rodrigue fell back he groaned, "Professor, do it now!"

"What the--"

Lysithea was pushing Annette away. "Go, Annette!"

Annette scrambled to her feet, confused and terrified at once. "But--shouldn't you--"

"Marianne and I used all of our healing spells on Ashe!"

Annette's stomach dropped. Of the three mages, Annette was the least skilled in white magic.

"Go!" Lysithea shouted, and Annette picked up the skirts of her Gremory's uniform and flew across the plains.

Byleth had buried the sword of the creator into the young green-haired girl's chest, and tears were still falling down her cheeks as Annette ran past them.

"This punishment…" Dimitri said as he clutched at Rodrigue's shoulders. "It was mine to bear."

"There are no sins of punishments… on the battlefield."

Annette threw herself down and Dimitri did not let go but she had enough room to work. A strange dagger was buried in the Duke's abdomen. Not a good sign. Abdominal wounds were notoriously deady. Blood was seeping out from the wound.

"Don't die," Dimitri sobbed as Rodrigue groaned. "Please, don't die!"

Dimitri went on about those who had already left him behind, but Annette couldn't split her concentration to focus on that. She summoned white magic to her hands and passed them inches over Rodrigue's bleeding stomach, but as soon as the magic sank into him, Annette gasped and recoiled.

"What's wrong?"

Pain flooded Annette's system, and her vision blurred. She needed to blink to clearly make out Felix, who stood behind her tensely.

"I--I don't know. I can't--" she shook her head and took a deep breath of air, as though she were about to dive underwater, and she tried again. This time she put her fingers right on the wound, Rodrigue's warm blood staining her fingers, and she fiercely pressed forward with her magic, the same way she would with Abraxas or even black magic.

As she forced the magic forward, her ears rang and she squeezed her eyes shut to keep away the blurring. The magic was roiling against her, turning back at her with a sharp edge. The harder she pushed, the worse it turned against her.

"Annette." Felix's voice was soft and somehow distant, but firm. "Just stop."

She blinked, and as she did tears gathered. "I can't," she said, and her voice shook. Shame on her. She had to be strong for Felix. He deserved that much.

"I'm dying for what I believe in… just as they did," Rodrigue said weakly.

His hand slipped from Dimitri's face and the prince pressed his own hand over it to keep it in place. 

"Your life belongs to no other, living or dead. Live… for what you believe in."

Dimitri let Rodrigue's hand fall then, and tears spilled down his face.

"Dimitri, my boy… you really do… look like his Majesty."

Annette pulled the knife from the wound, desperately hoping that would somehow make a difference. She lifted both her hands, as though increasing the surface area of her magic would somehow help, and as they became bathed in white magic she pressed them over Rodrigue's abdomen. She tried again, and pins and needles attacked the flat of her palms. She clenched her teeth as she pushed forward, but the more kagic she poured into Rodrigue, the more aggressively it bounced back at her.

She couldn't stop this.

Tears slid down her cheeks. She felt so useless. It should've been Marianne healing him. She was the one who knew what she was doing. 

"Lambert… my promise… I…"

Rodrigue stilled, and Dimitri bowed his head as he sobbed. Marianne was standing behind him, and calm tears were trailing down her cheeks. 

"No… Rodrigue…" the prince sobbed, and Marianne crouched behind him, her hand on his shoulder.

Annette turned to Felix, but when she looked up he was already gone.

She stood and searched for him, and he was walking to the north. He was already to the small footbridge that they had to cross over the river.

"Felix!" Annette shouted, and she knew people were watching her.

She wished the fog would come back.

"Felix!" she shouted again. He was either ignoring her or he didn't hear her at all. "Don't go off by yourself!" she added weakly.

A hand at her shoulder made her turn around. Sylvain was looking down at her, leading his horse by the reins. His expression was soft and hard at the same time.

"Why don't you stay back here, Annette?" Sylvain asked softly.

She blinked up at him, not understanding. "But he--he needs--"

The Dark Knight frowned at her. "Why don't you let me and Ingrid handle this?"

"You--you think he's mad at m--?"

"No," he said quickly, before she could finish. "I think he wouldn't want you to see what's about to come next."

"But that's stupid, I--"

"I know," Sylvain said, and he even sounded apologetic. "Just give him some time.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but Ingrid flew over them on her falicorn and it occurred to Annette that she was going to catch up with Felix.

Sylvain and Ingrid knew Rodrigue. They knew Felix in a way that Annette probably never would. They were there when his brother died. And now…

Annette nodded miserably. “Okay, fine. But can you tell him…” Tears were spilling down her cheeks quickly now. “Tell him I…”

“I’ll tell him,” Sylvain said, and he squeezed Annette’s shoulder. Without another word, he mounted his horse and hurried to join Ingrid and Felix. 

Annette made her way back to the others. Ferdinand was crouching by Lysithea, and Annette could see that he was taking Ashe from her. 

“Wait!” Annette shouted. Dimitri was still sobbing over Rodrigue’s body. Her father was with him now. She glanced over to them before refocusing on Ferdinand. A childish sob escaped from between Annette’s lips. “Wait, don’t move him, he’s…”

Lysithea’s eyes were shining with tears, but she wasn’t crying like Annette. “It’s okay, Ferdinand,” Lysithea said quietly. “Just be careful of his arm.”

Seeing Ashe, pale and with his arm bundled, and hearing Dimitri’s guttural sobs in the background, and the pain in her head from trying to heal Rodrigue was too much. Annette pressed her hands against her face and sobbed like a child, and Lysithea shifted and then wrapped her arms around Annette’s shoulders. 

Annette clung to her, wrapped her arms around her back and pressed into her. She missed her mother. She missed Mercedes. She missed her life from five years ago, when her worst problem was that she was afraid she’d fail the Priestess exam. 

“Come on, Annette,” Lysithea whispered into her hair. “We have to go. We can’t stay here.”

Annette made Lysithea untangle them, and Lysithea made to direct them to the north, away from the plains and from Rodrigue’s body, but Annette dug her heels into the soft grass of the plains.

“What is it?” Lysithea asked, trying to be soothing. 

“I… can we bless him? If Marianne exhausted her white magic then she must not have.”

Lysithea nodded. The sun was setting, casting an unfairly pretty orange glow over the plains. Rodrigue looked like he could have been sleeping. Lysithea wrapped her hand around Annette’s arm as they approached him. 

Annette hadn’t known Lord Rodrigue particularly well, but he’d taken her in when she needed help, did his best to manage the crumbling Kingdom, probably had a hand in staving off Dimitri’s psychotic break during his childhood. Faerghus was definitely worse without him. 

What was left of Faerghus. 

How unfair of the Goddess to take him away when things were only just starting to turn around. The Goddess never gave without taking away.

“Do you know the prayer?” Lysithea asked softly, and it occurred to Annette that she had been standing in silence over the Duke. 

She nodded. “Yeah sorry.” Annette murmured the prayer softly, and a sigil lit up beneath Rodrigue’s body and the white magic glowed. 

She finished the prayer, spent. Her supply of white magic was probably spent, too. Her head throbbed with every turn of her head.

Lysithea tightened her grip on Annette’s arm, and a wave of dread washed over her. What now?

When Annette turned, her father was waiting for her. 

They looked at each other silently, and Lysithea had to urge Annette forward. Her father fell in step beside them. 

“That was nice,” Gustave said. 

Annette nodded. She wasn’t equipped to deal with this right now. “I thought you would be with His Highness.”

Gustave was quiet for a moment. “His Highness requested to be left alone. He’ll only let Miss Edmund and the Professor near him at the moment.”

So Annette was his second choice for company right then. She shouldn’t be surprised. And she really wasn’t. 

But her father… he was here. It stung that she was second choice to him, but it hurt less when she started to expect it. Maybe they wouldn’t ever have the relationship she wanted. Maybe in Duscur, some part of her father that Annette could never understand died along with his comrades.

But he lived on, and as long as he was on this earth Annette would never stop caring about him, and there was always that hope, weak like Ashe’s heartbeat as Ferdinand carried him away, that they could work out their issues. 

Overcome by a strong wave of affection, Annette pulled away from Lysithea and launched herself at her father, reaching to wrap her arms around his neck. His armor was dirty but Annette didn’t care. 

Gustave patted the top of her head. He even awkwardly moved his palm down her head, like he was petting one of the hungry dogs at the Monastery.

She appreciated the gesture more than she could explain even to herself.

“I wanted to tell you,” Gustave said softly, and he untangled his fingers from Annette’s slightly unruly hair. “The Fraldarius boy… He will be alright.”

Annette’s heart sank like one of the rocks Caspar used to throw in the fish pond. Why did her father have to bring him up? “I don’t think anyone should be speaking for him right now,” she said crisply.

“He’s very strong,” Gustave continued, quietly as though he was trying to keep Lysithea from hearing. “Very perceptive. And, well… he has you at his side.”

Annette’s face burned at the compliment. “Yes, well…” she mumbled, but she couldn’t think of anything to add. 

“You should get some rest. You’ve worked hard.”

Maybe Rodrigue’s death was a wake up call for him, too. Her father hadn’t said so many nice things to her since before Duscur. Actually, he hadn’t said so many things, period, all at once.

Gustave bowed to them both. It stung Annette when he bowed to her, and she frowned at him. 

“Are you okay?” Lysithea asked as Gustave disappeared, her tone nervous.

"I… yeah. I just want to see Felix again."

Byleth gathered them in a group. Manuela in her medical was working over Ashe, which made Annette anxious but from what she could see in the background of Byleth's spiel, she was rewrapping his arm.

Byleth and Gustave agreed that with the Imperial army on their tail, it would be best to beat a retreat back to the monastery. Claude's army was already retreating. It was a shame they couldn't have met up under better circumstances.

Annette didn't even get a chance to say goodbye to Hilda.

How many of her former friends did she just see for the last time?

The pretty sunset, fiery with reds and oranges and pinks, gave way over the next few hours to rolling clouds that brought thunder, lightning, and sheets of rain. There was some debate about stopping to set up camp but Annette already decided that if they did stop, she'd take her battalion and continue to the Monastery. They weren't even so far at this point, an hour and a half away at most.

She hoped Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain were alright.

Licorice was miserable when the monastery finally appeared over the mountains. He hated thunder. She would wpoil him tomorrow, but for now she was too busy to do anything more than towel him off and set him up with a blanket thrown over him and plenty of food and water.

She checked on Ashe in the medical cart. He was still sleeping, which worried her, but Manuela informed her that he'd been in and out of sleep and wakefulness. He was weak from blood loss, she explained.

She was still worried about him, but she was horribly anxious for Felix. She missed her riding cloak as she hurried through the halls of the monastery, then cut through the dining hall and ran past the greenhouse through the rain to the stairs leading to the second floor dorms.

"Annette, there you are!" Ingrid exclaimed. She'd been waiting on the top step, twirling her green hair ribbons through her fingers. "You need to see Felix. Please."

"Is he okay?" Annette demanded as she squeezed rainwater from her hair.

"Yeah. I mean no, but yeah."

Annette tilted her head at Ingrid, confused.

She reached for Annette's arm to urge ger up the stairs. "He's doing what he always does. Shutting us out. I think it would be good for him if you visited."

"Wait, you made it sound like he asked for me," Annette said as they reached the top of the stone stairs 

"Well, no. But trust me. He'll be glad."

She blushed slightly. Ingrid either didn't notice or didn't care. 

As they ascended the small steps in the middle of the hall, Annette could make out Sylvain sitting in the hallway, his back against Felix's door. He was resting his forehead on his knee,  looking defeated. Parts of his dark knight armor was thrown haphazardly on the floor next to him.

"Hey," he said, smiling weakly at Annette as Ingrid pulled her over to him. "Look who's here."

Something about Sylvain's tone made her so uncomfortable, so cautious, so wary. It was edged with something she couldn't recognize. Maybe he was just tired.

Ingrid impatiently motioned for Sylvain to stand, and he did, slowly. He stretched out his shoulders and twisted his back gently before moving away from the door.

Annette noticed a pile of things thrown against the wall opposite from the door, books, writing supplies, a pillow, a candlestick. She could imagine Felix throwing things out the door at his friends as they tried to comfort him through it.

"Okay, Annette," Ingrid said gently, and she paused with one hand at Annette's wrist, the other on the door handle. In the same instant, she opened the door and shoved Annette inside.

She stumbled as she entered, throwing a glare behind her but the door was already closing.

"Sylvain, I fucking told you I--" He was sitting on the floor, his back against the frane of his bed. He was staring into the empty fireplace.

Annette couldn't be sure how long they'd been back, but he was still dressed in his full uniform, sword belt at his waist and all.

"Oh. It's you."

She felt extremely awkward suddenly. She was reminded of their days at the Academy, when she wasn't sure if he hated her or not.

"Is it okay if I… come in?" It was a little late for that, but Felix nodded.

His room was dark. He hadn't bothered lighting more than a single candle, whose wax was dripping onto his otherwise empty desk. The light if offered was weak and flickering, no match for the stormy night.

Instinctively, she started tidying up. It looked like he'd knocked some things over, scattered a bunch of papers at his desk over the floor. There was broken ceramicware against the wall and a lot of water spattered everywhere. He must've thrown a water pitcher at some point. 

"Felix," Annette murmured, and she had to fight to keep her tone even. She wanted to fuss over him, touch his hair, cry into his chest. But he was so particular about feelings, she wanted to respect that.

He didn't answer her, so she continued straightening things up. She considered starting a fire--it wasn't cold, but the rain was so dreary and it was dark in Felix's room. She thought back to how she'd felt when she thought Dimitri had died, and even to when her father left their territory. Maybe Felix wanted it dark.

"You can sit, you know," he said irritably.

She looked down at him. "Do you want me to?"

He tipped his head to the side to indicate the space next to him as an answer.

Annette sat gingerly, arranging the heavy skirts of her dress around her. She leaned her back against the bed frame, mirroring Felix.

She was so tired, and she really wanted to curl into Felix and fall asleep against him.

He was staring blankly ahead and he didn't move toward or away from her.

Annette started to hum quietly. She felt kind of dumb, but she knew Felix liked that. She didn't pick anything sad, just a little something her mother used to sing around the house. The melody was bright and cheery, a good distraction from how terrible everything felt. 

Felix pulled her into him by her hip, and he rested his temple on her bare shoulder. His loose hair tickled the exposed skin of her clavicle and she raised her fingers to it as she hummed.

"You're all wet," he complained.

"It started raining pretty hard," Annette admitted.

"How's this come off?" 

"What? Just leave it," she muttered. Underneath the Gremory uniform she wore a silky petticoat and a corset to keep everything in place, so taking the dress off wasn't actually the end of the world. But she didn't come here for that, she wanted to comfort him gently. Fully dressed.

He was pawing at her, running his fingers over her damp dress.

To get him to stop and settle down again, she showed him the clasps in the back, which he quickly undid. 

The dress hadn't been tailored to her yet anyway, so as soon as he started unclasping it the dress pooled around her shoulders. 

"Felix," she muttered, and she felt her face heat up, but he didn't mind her and pushed the fabric of the dress away from her. "Impatient," she admonished, and she stood so the dress could pool at her feet. 

Felix's closet was sparse, filled with a few replicas of his teal jacket, and Annette hung the dress there so it could dry properly.

He reached for her as she returned to him and pulled her down, positioned her so her legs were thrown over his, then he leaned his forehead against her shoulder, pulling her tightly against him.

Annette breathed in the scent of his hair, the exact same color as his father's, and she threaded her fingers through it. 

"That old man is a fucking idiot," Felix murmured, and Annette tensed against him. "It should've been the boar who died, not him."

She slowed the descent of her fingers against his scalp. He was probably not looking for her input, so she kept quiet.

"He would have let that child kill him. If he's not going to fight for his own life then what the hell are the rest of us doing?"

Annette looped the ends of his hair around her fingers as they slowly trailed downward.

"My father… that idiot. Calling out to the dead King in his last moments. What was he thinking?"

Felix was making himself more and more agitated, and Annette pulled back. As soon as she did, he straightened his back and looked into her eyes. 

"He didn't say one word about me, or even… my brother… just went on and on about stupid shit."

Tears were forming in Annette's eyes, and she tried to blink them away but she couldn't help it.

"I'm so sorry, Felix," she said, and her voice broke and once they spilled over her eyelashes the tears were flowing freely. "I wish there was something more I could say or do. It's so awful."

He grunted at that. "It's war. I should've known this would happen. He was reckless from the very beginning. He never should have agreed to lend us any troops in the first place."

Goddess, grant her power to stop crying. She was supposed to be strong for Felix. After everything he'd done for her, she could've at least done that much.

"I blessed him," she whispered, and she bit her lip. 

"Thanks," Felix said gruffly. He untangled their limbs and stood, and Annette wondered if she was upsetting him with her crying. He removed his sword belt, leaned it against the wall, then shrugged off his teal jacket.

She stood and blinked through her tears. He paused as she did, and she stepped into him and helped him unbutton his shirt.

He raised his hands to hers as the button slipped through the fine material, and he said, "You don't have to do that."

"I know." Her voice was shaky, and Felix kept his fingers gentle on the top of her hand as she slid them down to the next button. "I want to take care of you," she explained. His expression shifted and he looked almost confused. "I know I'm not any good at it but--"

Felix slid his hand under her chin, made her look up at him, and he stroked her skin with his thumb. "You're the only one who's been any good at it in years."

Her fingers shook as she slid them down his torso to the next button. 

She turned away after he slipped off his shirt, busied herself with cleaning some of the wax that dripped from the candle onto his desk.

"You don't have to clean," he sighed, and when she turned around he was in a loose nightshirt and slacks for sleeping. 

"Oh, I wasn't trying to. I just--"

Felix slid his fingers into her hand and she squeezed them. His other hand cupped her cheek and she stepped close to him and he kissed her, so soft and slow and--

"Fuck," he said, and ducked his head away. He raised the back of his hand to his mouth, pressing his knuckles against his lips. "Sorry. I keep thinking of--" 

"No, don't be sorry," Annette soothed, and she took a half-step back as she trailed her fingers down his arm. "I couldn't imagine--you're probably having so many disjointed thoughts right now."

"You're so--" he said, and he cut himself off, leaving Annette horribly curious about what she was so. "Are you tired?"

Exhausted, actually. "A little. Are you?"

He shrugged. "I'm tired of being awake but I don't think I'll sleep."

Annette nodded. "Do you want me to go to my own room?"

"No," he said before she'd even finished speaking. "I really don't."

"I'll stay, then," she said softly.

"Where's the…?" Felix asked, and he trailed his fingers over the hollow of her throat.

"Oh." She shivered at his touch. He was making her flustered. "Um, I didn't want to wear it during a battle. Didn't want anything happening to it."

"Hm," Felix hummed. "Good idea."

Felix threw back the blankets on his bed, and Annette settled in first. He came up behind her, pressing his body into hers, pulling her hips into his, tangling their legs together. His arm rested under her waist, curling around her to press them even closer together. She could feel his heartbeat in her back, listened as the even sound of his breathing mixed with the sounds of the storm.

They were alive. And they were together. She clung to that, and as she drifted to sleep she prayed, thanking the Goddess for sparing them and asking her to protect Duke Fraldarius's soul.

 

Chapter Text

Felix didn't sleep much during the night.

Annette would drift to sleep, then be startled awake by Felix shifting, going from his side to his back, messing with the pillows, throwing a blanket away from his body then pulling it up to his chin. Whenever he settled he'd reach for her, pulling her more firmly against him or running a hand down her side or through her hair.

She tried to be comforting, and she'd curl into him again once he changed positions, press her hand against his chest or his arm.

The sun rose weakly through thinning storm clouds, and when gray light finally pierced even the corners of Felix's room through the thin white curtain that hung over his window, Annette stirred.

Felix immediately tried to reach for her, to pull her against his body and coax her into laying against him, but she stilled him with a hand on his arm.

He cracked an eye open at her. "Morning."

She brushed his hair away from his face tenderly, then asked, "Did you sleep at all."

He shrugged noncommittally. "Don't know. Might've drifted asleep a few times but never for very long."

Annette frowned as she pushed herself into a sitting position. "I can get you some chamomile tea. Or maybe some sleeping herbs from Professor Manuela."

"Don't bother." He settled into the bed again on his back and raised his arms over his head. It would've been easy to rest her cheek against his chest and try to sleep for a few more hours.

Instead, she scooted to the end of bed. Her skirts were tangled against her legs and the corset was digging into her skin. She probably should have taken it off before sleeping.

"You're leaving?" Felix's tone was neutral, but it broke her heart anyway.

"For a little bit. I need to go see Ashe."

"Fine," he said. He made no attempt to get up, himself.

"Aren't you hungry?" Annette straightened out the skirt as she went over to Felix's closet to retrieve her dress.

"No."

She frowned at him as she stepped into her dress. "I'll bring you something from the dining hall."

"You don't need to." He pulled the blue blanket over himself and turned onto his side.

Concern washed over her. She tried to imagine how she would be feeling if it was her father who suddenly passed away. Lonely, probably, and foolish. But Felix was in a much different situation than she would be, and the exercise proved not to be very helpful.

"You'll be okay?"

He scowled at her, but Annette didn't mind. It was the same scowl he'd been fixing her with since they were students, and the piercing glare actually comforted her, brought her back to a time when she was shouting at him in the greenhouse.

"I'm not a child," he said, his voice surly.

"I'll be back later."

He grunted at her in response, and she beamed at him as she stepped into the hall.

The first thing she needed to do was change. It wouldn't do to have everyone on campus know she'd spent the night in Felix's room. Aside from that, her dress was dirty from rainwater. She'd need to wash it as soon as possible, and she really should go for a fitting.

She was passing by Ingrid's room and she hesitated. The Falcon Knight was so worried about Felix, Annette figured she'd want an update.

She knocked on her door quickly.

"One second!" she answered frantically. Annette furrowed her brow at the door.

"I can come back later," Annette offered. 

"No, no!" Ingrid answered. A moment later she was at the door, dressed in a skirt and a simple top. Her hair hadn't been braided and pinned back yet, and Annette really noticed how long it was getting.

"I… am I interrupting?"

"No," Ingrid said quickly. Her face was turning pink. "How's Felix?"

Annette glanced curiously over Ingrid's shoulder. She responded by pulling the door closed more, so she was speaking through Annette sandwiched between the door and the frame. "Um, he's. It's like you said; he's fine and he's not fine. I don't think he really slept at all."

Ingrid's green eyes flicked to the corner of her room, then back to Annette. "You were there all night?"

Annette blushed now. "Just to sleep," she said, and Ingrid nodded. "Have you heard anything about Ashe?" 

Ingrid's expression softened. "No updates. I guess no news is good news, right?"

"I'm going to see him now. I was going to change first but I'm worried, so--"

"Annette." Ingrid placed a hand on her shoulder gently. "You need to take care of yourself, too. Change, get something to eat. You've done a lot already."

For some reason, this made tears jump to Annette's eyes. Ingrid smiled tightly at her, probably meant as an encouragement. 

"You're right. Thanks, Ingrid." Annette glanced at the door--she swore she saw some movement from the small crack between the hinges--

"Anytime, Annette." Ingrid was already closing the door, and Annette had to step back to avoid it hitting her face. 

Baffled, she hesitated outside the door. She could probably figure out who was in there if she listened closely enough. 

But if Ingrid had something she wanted to keep from Annette, maybe she should wait until she was comfortable sharing it.

With a last, longing look at the door, Annette continued down the stairs. 

The morning seemed thin and far way, the cold fading from the mountain air as the sun struggled its way up above the mountain peaks. Last night's storm yielded a clear morning, but Annette felt like it was somehow wrong. It should've been raining, like it had when Jeralt died. 

She stopped in her room to change and fix her hair. The sapphire Felix got for her glittered at her throat in the rising sun. She grabbed a book for Ashe off her shelf and hurried to the infirmary.

Manuela was crushing several ingredients into a mortar and pestle while a priestess was bustling around between soldiers lying on cots. Annette barely even greeted them as she walked by.

Ashe was sitting in the bed where Felix had been, and he was awake and eating some breakfast off a tray. Annette almost dropped the whole thing when she threw her arms around his neck. 

His left arm was wrapped up, a splint around his elbow keeping it straight. He patted her back with his right hand and Annette kissed his cheek before she pulled away.

He still looked pale, his lips colorless at the edges and his cheeks starkly white against his freckles. But his skin was warm and he grinned at Annette as she stood over him.

"Sothis, it's great to see you sitting up and eating breakfast. How's your arm?"

Ashe shrugged noncommittally. "Well, it's not hurting. Professor Manuela put a splint on my elbow so the wound can't reopen with movement and it itches. No pain though." He wiggled his left hand at her to prove it, and Annette squeezed his fingers supportively.

"I'm so glad. Lysithea was upset, I'm sure she'll be glad to see you later."

"It wasn't her fault. I need to work on my skill with a lance. My bow broke and I wasn't about to leave Lysithea alone to fend off a Demonic Beast." He paused, then said, "I heard about what happened. How's Felix?"

"I don't really know, to be honest. Isn't that horrible? I stayed with him last night. He's obviously very stressed."

Ashe nodded and took a bite of some bacon from his plate.

"I wish Mercie was here. She always says the most comforting things and I… don't really know what to do."

The archer chewed on his bacon slowly. "I don't think there's a lot you can actually do. Just being there is probably enough. I don't know what I would have done when my parents died if I didn't have my siblings."

Annette frowned. She couldn't imagine Ashe, just a boy, having to care for two younger siblings and deal with the loss of his parents at the same time. The idea broke her heart.

"I didn't come here to talk about things like that. I wanted to make you feel better."

"Oh! It doesn't bother me to talk about that time. After all, if none of that happened, I never would have come here and met you."

Annette shot Ashe a watery smile. She had no right to get tearful over Ashe's unending optimism, not when she could still feel Rodrigue's blood on her palms. But tears sprang to her eyes anyway, and she blinked them away.

"I brought this for you!” she said quickly, and she reached into the bag at her hip and pulled out the book she selected for him. “Hopefully Professor Manuela lets you leave soon but I wanted you to have something new to read just in case."

Ashe took the book with his right hand and spread it open in his lap, skimming a few lines. He turned his eyes to her, shockingly bright against his current pallor, and he grinned. “Thanks! I’ve been bored sitting up here with nothing to read.”

“Ashe,” Manuela said, and Annette stood to help the professor with the tray of medical equipment she was carrying. “It’s time to change that dressing dear.”

Annette identified salve, a vulnerary, and a mortar and pestle with ground herbs in i among the supplies.

“I’ll get going,” Annette said, and she smiled encouragingly at him. “I hope you like the book!”

“Thanks, Annie,” Ashe said, and Manuela smiled at her before she pulled a curtain on a noisy track closed in a sweep of her arm.

Annette stopped by the Dining Hall. It was still early, and although Marianne was usually there first thing in the morning so that she could head to the Cathedral before the first mass, she wasn’t there this morning. Annette piled a tray with breakfast meats that Felix liked; bacon, sausage, ham, and she added eggs and toast just because they were good staples. She swiped herself a muffin and drank a glass of juice quickly before she added a teacup with hot water and spice blend to steep as she made her way back to the second floor dorms.

“Felix?” Annette called as she knocked softly. There was no answer, so she cracked the door open slowly and peeked inside.

He was laying in bed, supine, staring up at the ceiling motionlessly. “You don’t have to knock,” he said without looking over to her.

Taking this as an invitation, she entered and placed the tray with Felix’s breakfast on his desk.

“I brought you breakfast,” she said.

“Not hungry,” Felix answered flatly.

She frowned at him. “You should still eat.”

He finally looked her way, “Don’t really want to.”

“I know, but… still…”

He sighed and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. Dark shadows ringed the bottom of his eyes. He must have gotten even less sleep than Annette thought. 

“There’s tea,” she said gently, and even though he’d been looking at her his eyes seemed to refocus when she spoke. “Spice blend, no sugar.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“I thought you could use a little caffeine.”

He blinked at her slowly, then he grunted and pushed himself onto his feet. He sat heavily in the desk chair, as though he’d been training for hours and now he was sitting down to work on an unpleasant assignment. He leaned his forehead on his hand as picked up a piece of bacon and chewed on it.

Annette made the bed as he started eating, happy to have something to do. When she finished she sat back on it and watched Felix. 

“I saw Ashe in the infirmary,” she said quietly.

“Oh, right,” Felix responded, as though he’d forgotten that Ashe even existed. “How is he?”

“His arm’s splinted. That Beast got him deep. He’s in good spirits though.” 

Felix grunted in reply, and Annette fell quiet as she ran her fingers over his comforter. She felt a little awkward, and pretty useless, but she tried to remember what Ashe said about being there. It wasn’t long before Felix returned to the bed, sitting next to Annette and then swinging his legs over so he was laying on top of the covers. 

She bit her lip as she looked down at him. “Did you want to do some training today? I’m sure the training grounds are available.”

“No,” he said, staring at the ceiling again.

“Maybe take a walk? Get some fresh air?” she suggested, panicking a little. She’d never seen Felix like this.

“No,” he said again, but he did look over to her. “Don’t feel like doing much of anything.”

“That’s totally fine! Here, let me bring your tray back to--”

Felix caught Annette as she made to stand, sliding his fingers against hers. “Leave it for now,” he said. 

“Oh, right. Sorry, I’m just trying to help.”

He actually smiled at her, the corners of his lips quirking up affectionately. “I know.” He pulled her down, so she adjusted herself so that her head was on his chest and he could tuck his chin onto the top of her head. He ran his fingers through her freshly-brushed hair silently.

She could hear his heart beating, strong and loud against her ear. His fingers were warm as the brushed over her scalp and the nape of her neck, and his breath breezed over her gently. He was alive. And they were together. 

She lifted her head and looked up at her flatly. It broke her heart a little, and it made her sad that she couldn’t even guess what he must be feeling. Wordlessly, she stretched to press her lips against his cheek. His eyelashes fluttered closed against her skin, and she adjusted herself better to press a kiss to his other cheek. 

She wanted to tell him how sorry she was, how she didn’t understand but she wanted to, that she wouldn’t leave him if he didn’t want. That she was grateful, above anything else, that he was alive. 

Gently, she pressed her lips to his, the lightest brush she could manage, and when his hand came up to the back of her head and adjusted her body against his and she let her hair fall to one side as she brought a hand to Felix’s cheek and kissed him again, more firmly but still gentle so he could push her back if he wanted.

He didn’t seem to want to. He rested a hand at her hip and with the other he pushed her hair behind her ear. 

He twisted his fingers into her hair as she pressed her tongue against his, and she slid a hand to his chest, stroking her fingers over him through his thin sleep shirt. He sighed against her, and she dipped her head to his neck, pressing gentle kisses over sensitive skin. He trailed his fingers over her spine.

It didn’t feel like an appropriate time to let things get too heated, so even as Annette’s heart started racing and her stomach filled with excited flutters the way it did whenever she kissed Felix, she reined it in, pressing gentle kisses to his lips. When she pulled back he was looking up at her, and she was almost proud to see that his gaze was much closer, that his gaze was as warm and fiery as it always was when they kissed like this, and she raised a hand to his hair and smiled down at him.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Felix said, and it was so stupid but she blushed and buried her forehead against his chest. 

“Of course,” she said when she managed to compose herself a little more. “This is where I want to be.”

He lowered his gaze to the sapphire at her throat. 

A knock at the door made her turn around, but Felix held her in place with a hand at her arm. “Just leave it.”

She looked back at him and frowned. “People are worried about you,” she reminded him gently. “You can’t just ignore them.”

He grunted and shrugged, and as another knock sounded at the door Annette stood and straightened out her dress before pulling it open. 

She almost fainted of embarrassment when her father peered at her from the other side, along with Professor Byleth and Dimitri, standing shyly off to the side.

She could tell immediately that something had shifted in the prince’s mind. His gaze was more focused, his expression less stony, his body less rigid. She stared at him, almost gaping, but she dragged her eye back to her father. 

“Hello,” she said belatedly. “Um, what…?”

“Annette,” Byleth said, while Gustave appeared to be trying to think of something to say to his daughter upon finding her in Felix’s room without a chaperone. “Is Felix there?”

She glanced over to Felix, who had sat up but was just watching disinterestedly. “Um, yes,” she said to Byleth, “but I don’t think he really wants visitors right now.”

The professor frowned. “It’s important.”

“Uh,” Annette said, and somehow Felix appeared over her shoulder.

He didn’t say anything, but his posture was tense and he was glaring intensely at Dimitri. The prince was not able to hold his gaze, and he let his chin drop and stared down at the floor.

“Felix,” Byleth said, and judging by the long pause, he waited for Felix to look at him before continuing.

“We’ve put together a funeral for your father.”

There was silence, and Annette winced.

“You what?” Felix demanded, and Annette bit her lip.

Byleth frowned at him. “To honor him.”

“Honor him?” Felix’s hand was balled into a fist and it was trembling.

Annette wanted to reach out to him and touch him, soothe him somehow, but the fact that her father was standing on the other side of the door was freaking her out too much. 

“My father’s dead because of you,” Felix said, and he gestured over Annette’s shoulder at Dimitri, “but it’s alright, because he has so much honor.”

“You know that’s not what it means,” Byleth said, and his eyes were sharp as he looked on at Felix. “He deserved a proper burial.”

“Yeah, well, a proper burial would happen in Fraldarius in the plot next to my mother, but that won’t happen because this fucking war has left the area so exposed to our enemies that we can’t go there safely. Do whatever you want, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re doing anyone but yourselves any favors.” He pulled Annette back as he slammed the door shut, and she stared at it wide-eyed. 

“Felix…” she began, gently but disapproving, but she turned to him and he was trembling, and his head was bent low as his hair fell into his eyes. 

She watched as he staggered over to the desk, and he picked up the teacup she brought him and launched it against the opposite wall suddenly. “Fuck it,” he growled, and he tipped the plate to the saide and then launched that against the wall, too. 

“Felix!” she cried, shocked by his behavior. “Stop!”

He turned to her like he’d forgotten she was there. “Did you hear that? The boar won’t deign to return to Fhirdiad or help the people he’s supposedly going to be king of, but they all want to throw a nice, traditional funeral and be done with it.”

“I don’t think that’s what anyone was suggesting.”

He didn’t seem to be listening to her, and instead he walked over to the ceramicware on the floor and he threw a large remnant of the plate at the floor.

“Okay,” Annette muttered, and she took hold of him by the arm and forced him to his bed, then pushed him onto it. “That’s not how adults deal with their feelings.”

He glared up at her, apparently not appreciating being shoved backward. “And how would that be? Singing ridiculous songs all day?”

She drew in a sharp breath. “I know you don’t mean that,” she said. “So I’m going to ignore it.”

“No, really, “ he said. “You always seem to know the answer. So tell me, Annette. What am I supposed to do?” His tone was sarcastic and sharp, cutting at her on purpose. 

“I don’t know, Felix!” She was sharp when she said it, and she hated that Felix’s eyes seemed to glint with some kind of twisted satisfaction, but she took a breath to calm herself and she made herself soft. “Maybe, for an hour or two, you’re supposed to set aside the way you’re feeling so you can bury your father, and then you’re supposed to go on fighting. And when we best the Empire, you can go to Fraldarius and bury your father the way you want.”

“We won’t win this stupid fucking war,” he told her darkly. He took her by the wrist and pulled her into him. “We’ll bury my father tonight, and someone else after the next battle, and more and people until--I won’t watch you die, Annette,” he said, and his voice broke at the end and he bent his head and leaned into her.

She was having a hard time keeping up with everything he was experiencing, and she was still a little taken aback by the violent outburst he’d turned on the crockery. But he was trembling against her, and she ran her hand through his hair. 

“I’m not dying anytime soon,” she murmured. 

“You can’t promise that,” he said fiercely, and he raised his eyes to Annette’s and they were shining with tears.

Gently, she raised her hand to his cheek. “I’m stronger than you give me credit for.”

He bit his lip as he looked up at her. “I know, but--”

She bent down to reach him as she pressed a kiss against his lips. He froze against her, and she pulled back, worried that she’d done the wrong thing or he was too distraught for that, but he pulled her into him, pressing his hand into her thigh above the back of her knee to anchor her against him. 

She could feel his heart beating too fast against her hands at his chest, and she ducked her head away, thinking that wasn’t a good idea, that he needed to think and get some space--

Before she could say any of that, he stood, pushing her back, and the hand that had been on the back of her leg he swept her into his arms and deposited her on his bed. He was kneeling over her as she clung to him, disoriented, and his mouth was on hers again shortly, hungry, pressing, desperate.

“Felix,” she murmured, and her voice was breathy and low, and it wasn’t helping. “Wait,” she panted, and she pushed him away with her hands at his shoulder. 

Looking like it was causing him great pain to do so, he paused over her. 

“I don’t know if now is a great time to--for us to--”

“Would you quit acting like you know everything?” he growled. “I want you right now, and for the first time since last night that’s the only thing I’m thinking about, and not--”

“Okay, okay,” Annette said, and so much blood rushed to her face and other places that she was almost dizzy. She reached for him, but he took her hand from the air and pushed it down to her side. “What?” she demanded, almost whining.

“I mean, if you don’t want to--”

“You’d already know,” she said, and she sat up and pressed her chest into his as she kissed him.

He repositioned them, pinning her beneath him as he continued to squeeze her hand. His kisses were soft and deep, urgent and slow, and he was working her into a frenzy. Her heart was pounding beneath him, and she moaned into his mouth as he ran his hand down her body.

He pulled back to look at her and she knew that she was a blushing mess, so she pulled his shirt over his head quickly and pressed kisses over his collarbone.

“Annette,” he gasped, and she ran her hands down his abdomen, encouraged. She flicked her eyes to his and ran her palm over his thigh, feeling for him and, finding what she sought, she paused and applied more pressure as she stroked over that spot. 

“Fuck,” he panted, and he dropped he head into her collar bone as he shifted his hips against her. “Annette,” he said. Just her name. She shivered.

Her fingers shook as she slid them over the waistband of his slacks, and she looked up at his eyes and hesitated. 

“You don’t have to,” he said, and his voice was strained. 

“I know,” she murmured, and bit her lip. She noticed Felix’s eyes flash down to her mouth and it made her glow on the inside. “You want me to, right?” she asked, unsure. 

His face instantly turned bright pink. “I--Fuck, Annette, of course I do, but--”

She pushed his pants down in one fluid motion, trying to calm her shaking fingers. She glanced down at him and she knew her face was red.

She’d never seen-- it --before, not outside of artistic depictions from a time before modesty was enforced the way it was in modernity. She swept her eyes over it--heaven’s sake, if she couldn’t even think the word then she shouldn’t even be doing this.

“Fuck,” Felix said again, and nervous that she’d somehow done something wrong, she looked up to his eyes. 

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly, and raised his hand to her chin, which he stroked with his thumb. “I just… You’re very cute, Annie.”

She raised her eyebrows at him, half-insulted. 

“I’m sorry, but you are.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, and defiantly, she dropped her hands onto his length. He groaned, a soft, breathy noise, and she considered telling him that he was the cute one, but didn’t imagine that going over well.

She tried to remember the kinds of things she’d read in Mercedes’s books while she was holed up in her room, and wildly wished she’d brought one or two of them with her, but obviously they weren’t among the things she’d packed for her journey halfway across Fodlan.

She hesitated, unsure, and then she made her hand into a fist and dragged it from the base to the tip, 

“Ah,” he sighed, and he dropped his head again

Her heart leaped, and she felt just like one of the heroines in Mercie’s books, she felt sexy and powerful and, true to her own nature, stupidly, helplessly in love with Felix. She wanted to tell him, wanted to so badly that her chest hurt--

Instead she repeated the motion, again, again, and Felix was groaning above her.

“Goddess, Annette,” Felix groaned. 

Suddenly she remembered that other people might be around, and that they had ears, and that she’d be super, duper embarrassed if they heard. Which way was Sylvain’s room again?

“Sh, Felix,” she soothed, and tried to continue her ministrations as she pressed her lips against his. 

He was so warm, and he squirmed as she kissed him, and he was squeezing her hip in his hand desperately. She pressed her tongue into his mouth slowly, and he groaned against her. 

She got braver and trailed her fingers up to the tip, where slickness met her fingers and she used it to help her hand slide more easily over his skin. His soft groans were encouraging, and her heart thrummed with pride each time he whispered her name or couldn’t contain a pleasured moan.

“Annette,” he almost whined, and she paused but he added, “wait--don’t stop, I--I’m--”

She understood what he was trying to tell her and increased the speed that she pumped her hand around his cock, which was throbbing and twitching beneath her fingers.

He felt blindly for his sleep shirt, and once he found it held it over his cock as he released, his hips jerking forward as he did. 

Annette felt her face heat up as he did, which was so naive and childish, she felt stupid, but something about that made it very easy to imagine the way it might feel if he was buried inside her, grunting against her skin as he came, and it made her dizzy. 

He collapsed on top of her, panting into the collar of her dress. 

“Annette,” he breathed, he reached for her hand. His fingers were so warm. “You-- that-- Goddess.”

She cringed. Felix really had no manners, bringing up the Goddess while they were doing things like that. He looked so peaceful, curled against her, and he also seemed exhausted. He pulled her against him with his hand at her hip and buried his head into her chest. 

Annette was tired, too. She slept more than he did during the night, but he was so restless he kept waking her. So she closed her eyes and counted his breaths until she drifted to sleep, too.

“Annette,” Felix’s voice called, gentle, and she fluttered her eyes open. 

Somehow he’d woken up before, and he was already pulling on a teal jacket, not the one he usually wore, that was embroidered with gold accents all over. He looked nice. “Are you going somewhere?” she asked sleepily. 

“The funeral,” he reminded her. 

She gasped and sat up, suddenly panicking. Felix raised his eyebrows at her. “Oh, Saints, I don’t know what I should wear, I don’t even have anything that nice--how long do I have to get ready?”

“Um, fifteen minutes?”

She gasped again, and Felix actually stopped buttoning his jacket. “Fifteen minutes?! Are you crazy? I have to do my hair, change, put on makeup--’

“What? You don’t have to do any of those things.”

“I’m going to assume that you’re saying that out of ignorance and not spite.”

“Spite?” he echoed. 

Annette slid her feet into her shoes and she hurried to the door, but Felix caught her wrist as she hurried past him. 

“Hey,” he said, and he pulled her into him tenderly and Annette forgot how to breathe for a moment. “Thanks,” he said, and he kissed her gently before releasing her and continuing to button up his jacket. 

She blinked at him rapidly. “For what?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, for everything.”

“Oh. I mean, yeah. No problem.”

Felix frowned at her. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah! Of course I am. I just have to figure out what I’m going to wear, and I literally have five minutes to do that. I’ll see you later, okay?”

He nodded at her and she closed the door behind her. She rushed to her room and dumped the contents of her closet onto her bed, and quickly picked a deep red dress, dark burgundy, the color of the wine Rodrigue served back in Ethereal Moon when Annette ate an awkward dinner with him and Felix. 

She picked ankle boots that disappeared under the modest skirt and tied a black ribbon around the waist. She styled her hair into a twist, also like the one she’d worn to dinner half a year ago. She wondered if Felix would notice. She swiped a little bit of shadow over her eyes and then hurried to the graveyard.

Blessedly, she was not the last one there, but she did arrive after Felix. Everyone was standing over a freshly dug grave with a blank tombstone over it. There was a pile of flowers from the greenhouse, and Dedue was holding a bouquet  of lilies. To his left was Dimitri, dressed in a stately blue cloak, embroidered with black thread that glinted in the sun, which had just started to set. Marianne was to his left, and she was already praying. 

Ferdinand was standing with Cyril and Lysithea, and Annette approached them solemnly.

Lysithea turned her magenta eyes on Annette and frowned at her. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you since last night.”

“Um,” Annette said, and she tried to subtly look in Felix’s direction.

Lysithea put her hands on her hips. “We’ll have to talk later.”

Annette nodded.

Apparently, Lysithea and Cyril had come to some sort of understanding, judging by the affectionate way Cyril was looking at her as she scolded Annette. She’d be interested in hearing about that later.

The funeral was nice, led by Seteth and Flayn as Gustave and Byleth stood to the side. Felix watched impassively, as far as Annette could tell. His eyes were practically alive in the setting sun, and any time he looked over to her she felt her breath catch. 

It wasn’t an appropriate time to let her mind wander, but she couldn’t help it. Seteth had an expressive voice at times, but while he was writing scripture, it became someone monotonous. The casket was lowered into the ground by a few of the Knights, Catherine and Alois included, and they all took a flower from Dedue and threw it over the casket. 

Annette headed over to Felix as soon as the ceremony was over, and his eyes slid over her warmly. “Hey,” he said, and in spite of their nap he sounded exhausted. 

“You okay?” she asked, concerned, and he shrugged in reply.

She saw Felix tense before she noticed Dimitri approaching, Marianne at his side. She seemed to encourage him with her fingers at his wrist, and Dimitri said, “Felix, I never meant for it to end up like this.”

Felix crossed his arms over his chest tightly, and Annette remembered him throwing his tea against the wall, and she held her breath for a moment until he answered. 

“He died for you,” Felix said curtly. His voice was cold and cutting, but he wasn’t shouting. “You’d better take that seriously and pull yourself together so we can actually win this war.”

Dimitri nodded, and Felix narrowed his eyes at him. Dimitri looked so exposed, so vulnerable, and Annette wanted to protect him from Felix. 

He nodded at the forlorn prince and turned on his heel. 

“Felix!” Dimitri called, and he paused but didn’t turn around. Dimitri hesitated before continuing. “Will I ever… be forgiven?”

Felix balled his fists at his sides. “That’s not for me to decide,” he said coolly, and he started walking again.

Dimitri looked absolutely crushed. Annette wanted to know what happened to him, what made him so docile and clear-headed, but she would have time for that later. 

“Highness,” Annette said as she bowed to him, and then she took off after Felix.

Chapter Text

The moon shone down on Annette through a barred window. Cold air bit at her skin and the hair at the back of her neck stood on end. It was cold in her nightgown. Her shadow was thrown starkly against the stone moonlit wall, and she raised her hand to her shoulder. Her hair was in twin braids, looped at the ends, the way she’d worn it when she was a kid. She didn’t remember styling it that way.

She knew immediately where she was. The dungeons underneath Castle Dominic were mostly disused nowadays, as the Dominics didn’t do much peacekeeping except to hire the occasionally mercenary troupe to solve a squabble between villages, but she’d always been terrified of them as a girl.

“Uncle!” Annette shouted. She approached the thick bars that separated her from the rest of the room. “Let me out!”

Suddenly, her mother’s face appeared before her, green eyes cutting into her sharply. “You left me, Annette,” she said. Her voice was soft, but Annette immediately recognized it as the disappointed voice which easily brought her to tears when she was a child. 

“I had to,” Annette answered, her head bent low, and she remembered the time she stole her mother’s cake off the counter. “I’m doing this for you. For everyone.”

“Why couldn’t you act like a proper noble’s daughter and stay in the house with me?”

“I’m.. I’m trying…” Annette began, but the force of tears rising to her throat made speaking difficult. 

Suddenly, her mother disappeared, and Annette pressed her face to the bars to try to follow her, to see where she’d gone.

She reeled back as flat, purple eyes closed in on her and gloved fingers wrapped around the bars. Her heart was pounding and her breath was coming to her in shaky sobs. “What about me, Annette?”

“L-Lorenz,” she said, and she drew up her knees and tucked her face into them. “You’re dead.”

“Murdered, actually,” His voice was even, but when Annette forced herself to peak at him, his eyes were bulging and he was pointing at her, his arm extending through the space between bars as though he were trying to slip through them. “By you.”

“You’re not real,” she said, and her stomach was twisting with fear. “You’re dead.”

“You killed me, Annette.”

“You’re not real.”

She didn’t look up at him again, but it didn’t matter. She could see him in her mind’s eye, teeth pointed like a monster in one of Ashe’s books, purple eyes flat and glassy as they bulged at her, arms reaching. “What you did to me is real enough.”

It was like being pierced through the chest with a sword. She tried to calm herself by breathing into her knees, her own breathing warming her cool skin, her ragged breathing filling her ears and drowning out Lorenz’s words. 

“Annette!”

She gasped as she woke suddenly, her body springing into a sitting position. The details of her dream were already fading, slipping from her mind like sand through a sieve. Her heart was racing, and it took her several seconds to reorient herself.

Sunlight was shining through the small, boxy window, filtering through the plain white curtain that hung over it. Felix was next to her, his arms reaching for her but floating in the air a few inches away. He looked concerned. 

“What?” Annette demanded blearily. He raised his eyebrows at her but offered no answer, so she pressed, “What is it?”

“Nothing. You seemed… troubled.”

“I’m fine,” she muttered, and she brushed her bangs away from her eyes. They were getting too long. 

“You were twitching.” Felix paused, and he seemed to be waiting for her to contribute something. When she stayed silent, he added, “And crying.”

“I had a bad dream, I guess.” she said. 

“What about?”

She scowled at Felix, and she burrowed into the pillows again, turning on her side away from him. “I don’t know. Nothing important.”

He moved into her, his elbow pressing into the mattress at her back as he leaned over her. His loose hair brushed her arm. “You don’t know or it wasn’t important?”

“Felix,” Annette whined, and she turned onto her back, looking up at him. “Go back to sleep.”

“No, come on. We’ve already slept in.” 

She already knew it was late judging by the amount of light in her room. “It’s my birthday.” she reminded him. “I’m entitled.”

“You’d choose to spend your whole birthday laying in bed?” he asked doubtfully. 

She frowned at him, pouty. He smiled at her, and she could hardly breathe at the way his eyes were a cool gold in the morning light as the sun shone through her curtain, and his mouth was ever so slightly curved into an affectionate smile that Annette knew he saved for her.

Cethleann strike her down.

“No,” she relented, and she sat up, stretching her arms over her head as she did.

“That’s my girl,” Felix said, and she stuck her tongue out at him. His eyes were glimmering in a way that Annette had come to adore, in a way that let her know she was about to be kissed, and kissed well. He leaned into her, and just before their lips met, Annette ducked away.

“If you wanted to schedule in some time for that, you should’ve woken me earlier,” she said mischievously. “I’m supposed to go help Ashe in the greenhouse.”

“What? You’re doing chores on your birthday?” Now he looked pouty, but it wasn’t on purpose the way Annette had done it. He just wanted to kiss her. 

“Not chores. I told you this already. Ashe has been growing me daisies.”

Felix blinked at her like this was the first time he was hearing about this. “Daisies?”

“Orange, like the ones at Dominic. As a birthday present.”

“Oh.” Felix paused. “Shouldn’t I challenge any man who gives you flowers to a duel, or something?”

She rolled her eyes at him exaggeratedly. “You’d use any excuse to initiate a duel.”

He shrugged at that. 

“Don’t worry, I’ve got my hands full enough with you to look after,” she told him, and she threw the covers away and slid her legs over the side of the bed. It was finally warming up enough that she didn’t shiver as soon as she clambered out of bed each morning. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked harshly. 

“It’s my birthday,” she reminded him sweetly, pitching her voice a little so it had a sing-songy quality. “So you can’t get mad.” 

“Is that a fact?” Felix asked, watching as she pulled open the door of her closet and rifled through dresses and skirts. 

“What do you think?” Annette asked, and she held up a blue dress and a green skirt in either hand. “Which seems more mature?”

He gaped at her. “Mature?”  

She nodded. Honestly, it wasn’t a hard question. 

“They’re clothes, I don’t know.”

Annette sighed. “If you’re going to spend your nights here, you should be making my mornings easier.”

“There’s other ways I could do that,” he said matter-of-factly, and he leaned on the mattress and tilted his head as he raked his eyes over her slowly. 

She felt her face heat up. “No, stop that. I have to get going. Turn around so I can change.”

Despite the progressively more adult nature of their budding courtship, Annette firmly enforced her silly rule that Felix shouldn’t be looking when she changed. She wanted the times that he did get to see her undressed to be special and romantic, not perfunctory. Her cheeks were still warm from Felix’s implication, and they heated up even more, at her own foolish romanticism and naivete, and she was glad Felix had sunk down against the pillows facing the wall.

She pulled on the green skirt, which was ringed in a gold stripe embroidered at the bottom, and she pulled on a yellow blouse with ruffles at the collar. 

“Done,” she called, and Felix rolled over to his back. She looked over to him as she brushed out her hair. “What are you up to today?”

He shrugged as he watched her lazily. “I don’t know. Might as well get some training in. I thought we could get dinner in town.”

With the comb halfway between her roots and her ends, Annette froze. “In town?”

Felix immediately became nervous, his expression shuttered and his shoulders locked. “Yeah.”

“Really?”

“Do you not want to?”

“I think it’s an amazing idea!” she said, and she beamed at him. The set of his shoulders softened a little but his expression remained guarded. Annette hastily continued brushing her hair, hoping to set him at ease by reining in her reaction a little. She fluffed her hair a little, trying to make the waves cooperate and form uniform shapes. “I didn’t know you were planning a date for my birthday.”

He frowned at her sharply. “It’s not a date.”

She frowned theatrically. “It’s not?”

“No.”

“So a kiss will be out of the question then?” she asked sadly. 

He glared at her.

“That won’t work on me, I have birthday immunity,” she said. “What time?”

“I don’t know, whatever time you want.”

“That’s not very romantic,” Annette sighed, and Felix scoffed at her. 

“I thought that’s what Ashe was giving you flowers for,” Felix said quickly.

She frowned at him, “I thought you were going to duel him.”

“Not if getting flowers from him gets this romantic nonsense out of your system.”

“Oh, Felix, you villain,” Annette sighed, a little annoyed with him, honestly. “You can’t even be nice to me on my birthday.”

“I am,” he said. “I’m trying to take you to dinner.”

Annette frowned at him moodily. Maybe she was asking a bit much from him. He liked her, and since the events of Gronder Field, he'd been much less shy about letting her slide her fingers into his hand as they walked together or allowing her to press into his chest in a weak hug good-bye when they parted ways. Maybe that would have to be enough for her, for the time being.

She turned away from him and tied her hair into a pony’s tail with gold ribbon, so that it would be out of the way when she went to the greenhouse. “You should get dressed,” she said, much more gently. 

“Yeah,” he sighed. He glanced to the wall, where Annette always kept Crusher leaned against the corner. Felix leaned the Sword of Moralta there, too, balanced against Crusher’s long handle. The sheath and hilt were just as Annette remembered them from Castle Fraldarius, embossed in gold thread and jewels. It was strange to think that only months ago, it was sitting maintained but disused as a decorative trophy in the Fraldarius training grounds. 

The Goddess was shrewd in her ways. 

As Felix dressed, Annette clasped the sapphire around her throat and applied a little bit of makeup. It was her birthday, after all. 

For someone who was decidedly un-gentlemanly, Felix always dressed nicely. In winter he favored turtlenecks and sweaters, but now that summer was around the corner, he switched to button-down shirts in muted colors and dark slacks with a pair of boots that were becoming worn after months of use. He was clipping his empty sword belt around his waist when Annette looked over to him.

He took the Sword of Moralta from where it was resting and slid it into a holster. He glanced at Annette, then frowned at her. 

"What?"

She didn't realize she'd been staring at him. "Nothing," she said quickly, and she shuffled her makeup around to look busy.

"You look nice," Felix said, and he was at her side, twisting a particularly wavy piece of hair from her pony's tail around his finger absently. "Guess the green skirt was the right choice."

She blushed at him, pleased, and she put her hand mirror down on her desk. She placed a hand on his chest and stepped into him, and his eyes, trained on hers, reflected the morning sunlight like finely cut gemstones.

A soft knock at her door sounded, but before she could pull away from him, Felix pressed his hand into her back and his lips against hers. She allowed herself to sink into him for a moment before she ducked away. 

"The door," she explained breathlessly.

"Don't care," he said, and he trailed his fingers up to the nape of her neck.

"It's probably Ashe wondering where I am!" she said, flustered, and pushed him back before whirling over to the door.

"Sorry I'm late," she said as she opened the door. "We slept in and--" She cut herself off with a confused, nervous squeak.

It wasn't Ashe at her door, but instead the wide, tall frame of her father, casting a shadow over her as he loomed in the doorway.

Alarmed by her reaction, Felix made to join her at the door, but the last thing she wanted after last week's episode in Felix's room was for her father to find them together in her room now. She closed the door a little, hoping to keep him out of her father's sight. 

He didn't get the hint, and he kept trying to join her. She shoved him back by his chest, to an indignant scowl from him, and she shouted, "Father!"

Felix's indignant scowl became stormier and more deliberate, but he settled for crossing his arms and glaring over at Annette and remaining hidden from Gustave's view.

"Annette, I… hope I'm not keeping you."

Gustave seemed nervous to be talking to his own daughter, an observation that filled Annette with sharp animosity. But he was there, after all, so tried to shove it down.

"Not at all. Of course I have time for you."

Felix fidgeted on the other side of the door, but Annette was pointedly ignoring him.

"It's a nice morning," Gustave said, and Annette hadn't had many conversations with him in the last ten or so years, but he didn't seem like a person who would strike up small talk. "Warm with a hint of Faerghus chill in the breeze. Just like the day you were born."

She gaped up at him. 

"You arrived two weeks early, had your mother in tears. You were a bit small, but healthy."

"Father?" Annette asked gently.

He cleared his throat, then reached into a deep picket. "I have this for you."

She gasped, and tears jumped to her eyes. A wooden doll with orange yarn glued to the head for hair smiled at her from her father's cupped hands. He'd glued a blue bow beneath the head in an obvious attempt to mimic her warlock's uniform.

She took it gently. Her room back in Dominic was filled with dolls like this. As far back as she could remember, her father had been whittling dolls for her, and other knickknacks aroundsthe house. The doll was simple, and Annette thought that by now his skill must have exceeded this, but he was obviously trying to replicate the dolls he made for her as a child. She held in her hands as though it were fragile and she might crush it in her fingers.

"Father, I--I don't know what to say," she breathed emotionally.

He shifted as he watched her. "I was planning a different project, but my hand carved the shape of the doll, and I remembered how much you loved them in your youth."

How sad that the only way they could connect now was through nostalgia. The thought stung at her like one of Marianne's ice spells

“A lot has changed since then,” she said softly. 

She meant as a segue to deeper conversation, but her father bowed her head. “Yes. For both of us.”

She frowned at him. Everything that changed in his life was because of his own choices. Annette’s life was thrown into chaos, uncertainty, and heartbreak for years because he up and left with no thought of her or her mother. It wasn’t the same at all. 

Her expression must have darkened, because he said, “I only came by to wish you a happy birthday. I know that I have no right, but an old fool cannot help himself.”

No right? Annette felt her cheeks heat up. “You have as much a right as anyone else, if not more.”

“That was true, once, but no longer. Your life has only improved without me in it, I can see by the way you’ve honed your skills and the life you’ve forged for yourself.”

Her hand was trembling, and she curled it into a fist to hide the fact. “You truly believe that?”

“I know it to be true.”

“You’re my father, and you left me.” Annette took a deep breath, not to be swayed by the look of pain on her father’s wrinkled face. “I... I was so lonely after you left. I was always, always alone. I didn't know where you were, or who to turn to for comfort. All I could do was look at the dolls you carved for me, and remember you… and weep!” When she told him this in her imagination he always apologized and saw the error of his ways. 

In real life, he looked tired. “If you don't need it, you can throw it away. It is all the same in the end. I am sorry, Annette. I should have given more thought to my actions.”

All the same in the end? If he didn’t care if she even kept the stupid doll, why bring it to her in the first place?

He was already turning away, and Annette shouted after him, “I will! Not only that, I’ll throw it in the fire to use as kindling!”

He didn’t turn back to look at her, and she slammed the door closed with as much might as she could muster. And she kicked the door, for good measure. 

She glared down at the doll in her hands, and tears ran down her cheeks. 

“Annette,” Felix said, his voice so soft she almost didn’t recognize it. She’d forgotten he was there, and she blinked at him, which only made more tears fall down her cheeks. 

He pulled her into his chest in an attempt to be comforting, and she wondered what kinds of things he must be thinking about his own father. This wasn’t fair to him. 

“I’m sorry,” she murmured into his chest, the wooden doll still clutched in her hand. Its stupid blue bow was crooked. 

“Of course I could never throw it away,” she hiccupped, and Felix only answered by stroking his fingers against the nape of her neck. 

“Your father’s a jerk,” Felix said softly. 

She pushed him back by his shoulders, hard, and he dropped his hands away from her. “He’s not a jerk. Or, he never was. When I was a kid, he was a loving father, he’d spoil me, he was so proud of me. That person has to be in there.”

Felix frowned at her. “You said it yourself. Things are different now.”

"I know but--" She pressed her fingers beneath her eyelashes to stem the gathering tears and avoid disturbing her makeup. "Ugh. This doesn’t matter right now. It’s my birthday.” She smiled weakly at him. 

Felix looked levelly back at her, and she knew what he was thinking. We’re fighting this war, he might say, and my father’s been killed, and Ashe’s arm might not fully heal, and--  

“Go train, or do whatever it is that you do during the day. I’ll see you later.”

He nodded at her, and he still looked a little solemn for her liking so she grinned and closed the door behind her as she disappeared through it.

Her eyelashes were still wet, but the sun on her face helped to dry them. It was late in the morning, and people were already milling around. Volunteers from the town, members of the clergy, members of the Knights of Seiros, battalion soldiers--the Fraldarius soldiers Rodrigue had sent were now under Felix’s command, not that he really wanted them to be--were all bustling somewhere, some carrying supplies, some with a weapon in hand. It was nice to see the Monastery returning to the hub of activity it had once been. With the increased number of people, the cleanup efforts were becoming easier, and some of the young priestesses who came from the Alliance brought paint with them with a promise to touch up classrooms and hallways.

The greenhouse was not far from Annette’s room, and the walk over didn't help to calm her down much, but she took a brave breath and entered the greenhouse.

She tried to be quiet as she entered, but Ashe turned to smile up at her, and he peeled his gloves off his hands as he stood. The Duscur flowers were blooming at his feet, petals that exploded into pale colors and leaf fronds stretching onto the tiled floor. Dedue was carefully trimming at the stems with a small pair of pruning shears, and when he finished a very precise-lookin snip, he also smiled up at her, his expression warm and subdued. 

They could’ve been back in school.

“Sorry I’m a bit late! I slept in a little today.”

“As is deserved on your birthday.” Dedue said warmly. 

“You? Sleep in?” Ashe asked, cocking his head to the side. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

Annette decided not to mention that it’s easier to stay in bed when you’re curled against someone else coaxing you to stay just a few minutes longer.

“Special occasion,” she said instead, breezily. “How’s your arm?” she asked gently. 

Ashe had been cleared to leave the infirmary days ago. He was wearing hoodies, even though the weather was reasonably fair and he didn’t need them. Annette could see some bandage wrapped around his wrist when he pulled off the gloves, but it didn’t look like his arm was causing him any pain. Remembering the sight of his arm flayed open, blood pooled beneath him and layers exposed in a way that made her stomach turn, she found her gaze lingering on his arm. He might have noticed, because he raised his left arm to tuck his hair behind his ear.

“It’s fine!” he said, smiling. She’d been getting good at listening to people’s voices when they spoke, since it was the best way to understand Felix’s true feelings or Lysithea when she was defensive or hurt. Ashe’s voice held some tension as he said it, and she was sure he hadn’t meant for her to notice.

She dropped the matter.

“I’m excited to show you,” Ashe said, and he bounced the balls of his feet softly. “Close your eyes.”

She tilted her head at him and giggled. “What for? It’s not a surprise, I already know--”

“I advise that you do as asked,” Dedue said, mirth in his voice as he continued to calmly clip at flowers’ stems. “He worked on it all morning.”

“Oh. Alright, then!” She did asked, unsure, and after a few moments she felt something disturb her hair and perch on her head. She opened her eyes to find Ashe grinning at her, and she pulled from her head an intricate flower crown, daisies woven together with smaller buds tucked among the stems. Orange and white daisies fit together, and Ashe managed to weave them together so the stems were sturdily braided but, where visibly, twisted into a neat pattern. Annette gasped and carefully rested it on the crown of her head, adjusting her pony’s tail so that it didn’t disturb the crown. “Ashe!” she said, and a wide smile pulled at her cheeks. “It’s so cute, I love it.”

“I still feel bad that we were separated for so long,” Ashe said, his voice openly sad now. “So many times I was half a day away from Dominic and I... “

“Don’t,” Annette said, and she squeezed his fingers supportively. He winced slightly, but he didn’t draw his arm back, so Annette relieved some of the pressure but kept his fingers against her palm. “It’s okay. We’re here now.” 

His eyes, pale green like the stems of the daisies at her head, looked down at her sadly, and hurt. He never really talked about the things he’d had to do in the five years that they were separated, but it was clear that he’d had a difficult time of it. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight, much tighter than she usually hugged Felix. Felix was always tense, all sharp angles and scowls and harsh sighs, but Ashe wrapped both of his arms around her, squeezing her firmly against the soft material of his hooded shirt.

She pressed a sisterly kiss against Ashe’s cheek before they released each other. 

"Any plans for the day?" he asked, and Annette could tell he was studying the daisies in her hair.

"Tea with Lysithea," Annette informed him with a grin. "And dinner with Felix."

He nodded in approval. "Sounds like a fun day."

She nodded. "Thank you very much for the flowers." She bowed to Ashe and to Dedue, because no one could tend a garden like him, not even Annette when she tried her absolute best before he returned to them. "I'll see you both later!"

The greenhouse was only slightly warmer than the weather outside. A sharp contrast from trying to make sense of the dead leaves and general mess of the place back in Guardian Moon. She was so glad that time was behind them.

She made her way to the courtyard past the dining hall, where tables were set up expressly for tea. They were all empty save one, and Annette could imagine Lysithea, with her von Orderlia air of authority, clearing couples out of the rest of the tables so they could have a private tea together.

Lysithea looked up at her as she approached, her eyelashes brushing against her platinum bangs. “Nice flower wreath,” she said, tipping her chin at Annette’s head. 

“Yeah, thanks. Ashe made it for me! They’re Dominic daisies.” Annette pulled out her chair and fixed her skirt as she sat, eyeing a stacked display dish. The top was filled with finger sandwiches for their tea, and on the bottom was an assortment of pastries, many dusted in powdered sugar. She could feel her teeth ache, but mostly she was more excited than she’d been for anything, in ages. 

“We can eat dessert first, if you want. It is your birthday, after all.”

Annette laughed. “We should really eat the sandwiches first. I didn’t eat breakfast this morning.”

Lysithea raised her eyebrows at Annette, a knowing smile on her face. “Busy this morning?”

Immediately, a full-face blush rose from her feet to her head, and Annette frowned furiously at her. “It wasn’t like that.”

Lysithea arched her eyebrows even further before lowering them to a position that didn’t fill Annette with nervous ire, but her mouth was fixed in its coy smile. She tipped the teakettle forward and fragrant, blush-red liquid steamed as it filled Annette’s cup. 

“Sweet-apple blend,” the dark mage explained. 

Their mutual favorite tea. Annette inhaled it and sighed. Lysithea passed her the dish of sugar cubes as she poured her own cup, and Annette plunked one into her tea, watching as the sugar dissolved and the cube disintegrated. 

“But really, how’s Felix?” Lysithea asked gently.

Annette passed the sugar bowl to her again. “He’s doing better. He’s training a lot again. Which is better than seeing him lay in bed all day.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him there. His skills have certainly not suffered. He’s been fighting three men at once and winning. Generally.”

Annette took a cheese and apple sandwich and a butter cucumber sandwich and stacked them onto a dish. “He’s overworking himself, but I think he’s trying to stay busy. I do what I can to help, but...”

“I’m sure you are helping. You’re comforting to have around in a bind,” Lysithea said matter-of-factly. 

Annette grinned, pleased at the compliment. “Oh! Thanks.”

Lysithea glanced around them warily before she leaned closer to Annette. “Have you seen how much better Dimitri has been?”

The sugar cube was refusing to dissolve completely, so Annette stirred it with a delicate spoon. “Yeah. It’s kind of scary.”

For a few days, Dimitri had disappeared, but one morning when she and Felix were taking a walk as the sun was coming up (Felix had jolted awake from some nightmare and he wouldn’t stop pacing around her room, so she convinced him to get some fresh air if he was going to be stomping around anyway), they turned the corner around the training grounds and Annette tripped over Professor Byleth, who was discussing something official with Dimitri. 

Dimitri and Felix had stared at each other before Felix silently turned back to the direction they had come, Annette throwing a profuse apology over her shoulder as she hurried after him.

He spent the rest of the morning polishing all of his swords and cleaning every inch of scabbard, sheath, and hilt before he said another word. It took Annette two hours to coax him into a bath, after which he fell asleep with his head in her lap as she read up on white magic. 

It wasn’t until their weekly lecture, which Felix skipped in favor of doing some “actual training” (his words) at the Training Grounds, that she was able to have a conversation with Dimitri. 

He tried to tell her how sorry he was, but his voice broke and Marianne explained that Annette knew what he meant, it was all right. 

Annette didn’t believe that what happened to Rodrigue was Dimitri’s fault. She had no idea what the Goddess was thinking, why it had to be Rodrigue, why that Imperial girl was able to fool all of them into believing she was so innocent, why Dimitri couldn’t fight back. It seemed that some dark trade had been made, that with the power of Rodrigue’s spirit returning to her the Goddess breathed new life into Dimitri. He was speaking logically, apologizing for his past behavior, no longer speaking to people who weren’t there or drifting to some dark corner of his mind in the middle of a conversation.

He seemed cautiously reoriented, and Annette heard from Ingrid that plans were in the works to march on Fhirdiad instead of Enbarr. She read over Ingrid’s detailed notes when Felix refused to after he missed a War Meeting, and Dimitri seemed not only on board with the idea, but eager to wrest Fhirdiad from Cornelia’s control. 

He seemed like the boy she knew in school. 

After months and months of Felix assuring her that he would never go back to the way he was, she was unsettled by this

“I don’t know about scary,” Lysithea said lightly, and Annette tore her eyes away from the sugar cube swirling around her cup of tea. “It’s certainly interesting.” 

“Yeah,” Annette said weakly. 

“I hope you’ve been taking time to take care of yourself,” Lysithea said sharply. “I know how you get.”

Annette frowned at her. “What are you, my mother? I’m fine! Felix is taking me into town for my birthday.” 

“Really?” Lysithea asked, and she took a sip of her tea. “On a date?”

Annette nodded proudly. 

“I can’t see Felix on a date,” Lysithea mused. “I’ve walked in on the two of you enough times you’d think I could, but I can’t. He doesn’t like sweets or anything fun, so I can’t image what the two of you will be doing.”

“He likes fun.” Her tone became defensive without her meaning for it to.

“What does Felix Fraldarius do for fun? No points if it has to do with a sword.”

“Well, he--” Annette began, before realizing that she had nothing to fill the space in the sentence. “He does read.”

“Really? When?”

“Well--I don’t know. But he has books.”

Lysithea rolled her eyes. “It’s not a personality that you look for in men.”

Slightly insulted, Annette took a bite of her apple and cheese sandwich. Lysithea was lucky that it was good.  

“Don’t be mad,” she said as Annette chewed. “I was only teasing.”

“I know,” Annette said, ladylike around a mouthful of sandwich. She took a proper sip of tea to make up for her lacking manners. “How’re you and Cyril?” Annette asked the question delicately. It was always tricky for her to get information, because every time she asked about them it seemed they were in a wildly different situation than the last time she asked. 

To Annette’s delight, Lysithea smiled at the question, like she’d been waiting since they sat down for Annette to ask. “Okay, don’t freak out.”

Annette immediately started to freak out. If she was smiling, it must be good news. But maybe it was bad news she’d already made peace with?

“I can tell you’re already freaking out. Okay, it’s nothing, but we kissed.”

Annette almost knocked over her tea cup, and Lysithea smiled more broadly. “You what?!”

“Yeah. Don’t get too excited, though. I think it was a one-time thing.”

“A… why?” Annette tried not to sound too crushed by this information.

Immediately, Lysithea’s expression became guarded, and Annette felt a little bad for pressing. But she’d make it up to her.

“Well, I don’t know. I thought at first that... you know. Something would happen. But he sort of avoided me? But at the same time he was avoiding me, he was kind of hanging around me. Cleaning the library while I was there, but he’d stay on the second floor while I was on the first. Eating meals at the same time as me, but across the Hall. He even went to mass at the same time as I did.”

Annette raised her eyebrows. “You went to mass?”

“Um, yeah I’ve been going every now and then since Lorenz… well, you know.”

The mention of Lorenz brought the image of his face, inches from hers and separated by thick bars, glassy eyes bulging at her, right out of her nightmare and into real life. Annette wasn’t expecting it, and she squeezed a thing cucumber slice out of her sandwich by accident.

Lysithea pretended not to notice. Or, she was so consumed by recounting her experience with Cyril that she really didn’t notice. 

“Anyway, that’s when he gave me this letter. It was so sweet, Annette, and he said that he’s so grateful that we’re friends. And I agreed that we’re better off as friends, and we decided to spend more time together.”

Annette paused. “As friends?”

“Well, yeah,” Lysithea said, as though it were obvious. “That’s what he wanted.”

Annette frowned. If that was the letter that she encouraged Cyril to write, it would have been weeks before they kissed. “Can I read this letter?” Annette asked hopefully. 

“Absolutely not,” Lysithea answered quickly. 

“But… it’s my birthday.”

“Find someone who cares,” Lysithea said daintily, and she took a careful bite of a sandwich. 

“Rude!” Annette said. “You can’t disrespect me while I’m wearing a crown of flowers.”

“That seems like the best time to disrespect anyone, actually.” She took another bite.

“I was going to tell you something really interesting, too,” Annette said woefully. 

Lysithea wiped her mouth. “Fine, fine, I was rude. Please tell me.” Her voice was flat and bored, but Annette could tell she really wanted to know.

Her stomach twisted nervously. Actually, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to tell Lysithea--

“Come on, I was really kidding!” The younger girl’s tone became petulant, and Annette had to smother a grin.

It was too late to back out now.

“Okay, so. Me and Felix.” To stall for time, Annette took a sip of her tea. Maybe Lysithea would think that the heat rising to her cheeks was from the temperature of the drink. Suddenly, it was hard for Annette to speak eloquently. Or at all.

“You know how they say a Pegasus won’t let a woman ride it unless she’s a virgin?” Lysithea asked, her tone way too casual for the topic, and Annette’s cheeks burned even brighter. 

“Yeah,” she answered slowly, and she took a careful sip of her cup. "Although I don't think it's technically true, that's just something mothers tell their daughters to instill a sense of modesty." 

With the gentle tinkling of fine dishware, Lysithea set her cup on its saucer. “Well… Can you still ride a pegasus?”

She gasped, and unfortunately she inhaled a lungful of tea, and she hardly had the presence of mind to be careful with Lysithea’s tea set as she placed it clumsily on the table and coughed. 

She looked less concerned with the china, and actually, Annette’s health, and more interested in sitting smugly in her seat as she sipped her own tea regally.

“Lysithea!” Annette choked when her coughing lessened. “You can’t just--”

“Is that a no?” she asked clinically.

“It’s--Goddess, I can still ride a pegasus, thank you for your concern.”

“I must’ve been close, because an innocent person doesn’t react to a question like that.” Lysithea picked up another apple and cheese sandwich. 

Annette dropped her gaze to the teacup, and she spun it around in its saucer to inspect it for cracks or chips. She’d feel terrible if she broke Lysithea’s china over some teasing. 

“Okay, so we didn’t do… the whole thing."

Lysithea blinked at Annette once, her magenta eyes rounded in confusion, and she paused before asking, "What?"

Annette glanced around them to make sure they were still alone and she said, "Okay, so I… touched… his… you know, him. Until… you know."

"Annette, you're speaking like a child," Lysithea said, frowning. "But, yes, I know what you mean. And that's… well, how was it?"

"It was, um…" she paused to really consider the question. The memory of her hand wrapped around his length, his shuddering breath, his hips jerking forward instinctively… "I liked it," she said softly.

Annette was actually interested to see Lysithea's reaction. Mercie's voice was already in her head, scolding her gently, telling her the Goddess would want her to wait until she was married and she sometimes had a habit of acting impulsively. Lysithea's stance on the subject was totally new.

"Do you think I'm terrible? For not… waiting?" Guilt that Annette didn't even realize she felt bubbled up from her stomach, left an acid taste in her mouth.

"Waiting for what?" Lysithea asked. Her tone was harsh, but gentle at the same time. "Marriage? What are the chances that we all survive for that long?"

Annette blinked, and Lysithea nibbled at the edge of a sandwich before adding, "We're not in a position to have the luxury of waiting around. I think what's most important to all of us is being decisive and moving to the end goal. If that includes falling off a pegasus once in a while, I say go for it."

Annette nodded. "I think you're right."



"You're wearing flowers," Felix remarked, left hand at his hip, practice sword held over his shoulders absently.

"Ashe made it for me!" she told him proudly, and she reached up to touch some of the petals.

"It's cute," he said gently, and she smiled up at him. He paused, then reached down to press his lips against her cheek. 

She giggled pathetically at him.

"Ready for dinner?" Felix asked, and Annette thought he still looked a bit tense about the idea. 

"Yeah," she said, and flipped her book closed. "You'll need to one-up the pastries Lusithea ordered for our tea."

"Hm," he said. "You know that new confectioner's shop?"

"Mm-hmm," Annette said. Felix deposited the training sword carelessly against the corner of the wall, then he started unbuttoning his shirt.

She should have been used to this by now, but the casual way he did it as he talked to her made her audibly gulp.

"They're not open yet, but last time I was in town I stopped by and he said I could bring you."

It took her a moment to realize what Felix was saying. "Wait, we're going there?"

He nodded at her as he pulled off his shirt, then opened the drawer Annette cleared out for him and selected an almost identical shirt in a beigey off-white.

“Yeah. After dinner.”

“When did you even make these plans?” Annette swung her feet as she talked, finally looking away as Felix buttoned up his shirt. “With everything going on I didn’t really think I’d be doing anything at all for my birthday.” 

“Last month,” Felix answered, and he ran his thumbs over the collar of his shirt to fix it into place. He clasped his sword belt over his waist and slid a silver sword into place. 

Annette allowed it. Not that she really thought they’d need a weapon, but carrying a sword was sometimes a show of status, and for Felix probably also a habit. 

“Last month…” Annette said softly. That was before… everything. “If you didn’t want to go into town, I’d understand. We could stay here.”

“No,” Felix said, and he frowned at her. “I’ve spent enough time sulking.”

She grimaced at him. “It’s not sulking. It’s a really big deal, everything that happened.” Her poor, overworked twin-sized bed creaked as she stood, and she pressed her cheek against his chest and wrapped her arms around his waist gently. “I don’t mind taking care of you.”

He didn’t return her hug, but he didn’t tense up either. “You’ve done enough of that. It’s your birthday.” He placed his hand on Annette’s head just below the crown of flowers, following her pony’s tail and curling the ends around his fingers. “I’ll take care of you.”

Something about the soft way he was speaking made Annette shiver into his chest. 

Annette nodded, feeling almost shy at the prospect of an official date. “Mm-hmm.”

He held the door open for her, and Annette wondered if she should have taken a cardigan from her room, but she chose vanity over warmth--her outfit looked so cute, and she didn’t have anything that would match it well. Besides, the only chill was in the breeze.

The sun was dipping below the tallest mountain peaks, hanging low in the sky. 

She felt awkward, walking beside him as he led her past the fish pond and to the entrance of the monastery. She ached to reach out and thread her fingers through his, or loop her arm around his elbow. It wasn’t really proper for them to be touching like that in public, though. They shouldn’t even be going out on dates without a chaperone. It was very common.

Being common was nice, though. Annette was glad that Felix liked her as a person, that he didn’t care about her status or her Crest. She’d been so focused on tracking down her father that she never worried much about marriage or her future, but she could’ve been in a much worse situation, like Ingrid or even Mercedes. 

The market outside the Monastery was crowded, stalls packed with people on a Friday evening. She even saw Ingrid and Sylvain at Anna’s stall, Ingrid with her hands on her hips, heatedly discussing something with Anna. Sylvain was holding two lances, comparing them and looking carefully between them. He noticed Felix and Annette as they passed, and smirked at Felix as they passed. Felix put a hand to the small of Annette’s back, hurrying her forward through crowds. 

The heart of Garreg Mach town was a short walk away from the monastery. A dirt path yielded to a road, worn with carriage tracks, which gave way to buildings and shops and a bustling village.

When she, Felix, Sylvain, and Ingrid traveled through this way in Guardian Moon, the town was abandoned. Spurred by the army's presence at the momastery and the protection they offered, the town repopulated, especially after winning at Myrrdin.

Street lamps were lit as the sun set, the yellow flame flickering as the sun faded to a rosy orange. The mountain peaks were cast in shadow over the horizon, and the spires of Garreg Mach looked peaceful and familiar, like a painting of a castle from a storybook. 

It was her birthday. And they were basically alone. She could hold Felix's hand if she wanted. Tentatively, she reached for his sleeve at his elbow, and he looked over to her, alarmed, his other hand sliding to the hilt of his sword. But she slid her fingers down the inside of his arm and brushed them over his warm palm before gently but insistently sliding her fingers between each of his.

Come to think of it, Felix was always grabbing her by the wrist, or the arm, or pushing her somewhere with a hand on her back.

Redness dusted his cheeks as understanding dawned on him. Annette wanted to kiss his face. 

They had plenty of time for that later, so she urged him on instead, a pleased smile pulling at her lips as she did.

The restaurant Felix selected was nice, and it served a deliciously sweet red wine that Annette was mystified by and perfectly cooked pheasant roast. Annette ordered hers with sweet berry sauce and Felix ordered his without, and a waiter kept coming to check on them and refill Annette's wine.

It occurred to her that although Felix had not yet taken the title of Duke, people seemed to be looking at him differently, and they were bowing deeply to him, and although no one had called him Lord Fraldarius (luckily, because she wasn't sure Felix could get through it without breaking the fine dishware), people called him sir and my lord. Felix didn't seem to notice, and in fact throughout the whole meal the only thing he seemed to notice was Annette, his eyes fixed on her throughout the meal.

Annette was getting just a bit drunk, and the more she drank the broader she smiled at Felix, and the prettier his eyes became, and the louder her voice got.

"Lyisthea and Cyril kissed," she told him too loudly after a waiter took her plate away.

Felix raised his eyebrows at her, and his eyes, which were absolutely liquid in the light of the candle candle between them, shifted over her face. He looked quietly amused, although she wasn't sure why because she hadn't meant fo it to be amusing. 

"Yeah. But!" She paused for dramatic effect, waiting for his expression to become more interested than amused. It didn't change, but she desperately wanted to continue anyway, so she did. "They haven't spoken about it since and I think it's sort of my fault."

The corners of his lips twitched fondly and she wished he would take this more seriously--this was important information she was giving him.

She took a sip of her third glass of wine as he asked, "Why's that?"

"Well!" She set her wine glass down carefully between them. The liquid was jewel-toned, like a color of lipstick that Hilda would wear, and she thought it complimented Felix's eyes well. "They were fighting earlier, because Cyril snapped at Lysithea and she got all upset, and then she wouldn't speak to him, so I encouraged him to write a letter. But apparently in this letter he went on and on about much her friendship means to him, which is fine, I guess. Only then they kissed, and Lysithea didn't read this letter until after, so I think she interpreted it as Cyril wanting to be friends instead of more." She grinned at him and gestured between them. "Like us."

As she was gesturing, her fingers hit her wine glass, which Felix swiftly saved--too swiftly, actually, and she indignantly wondered whether he'd been waiting all dinner for her to spill something.

He didn't seem upset by her clumsiness, though. His mouth twitched briefly into a smile before he raised her glass to his lips.

"Ugh," he said, that soft smile disappearing forever into a grimace, and for some reason Annette's heart pulled. He had such a nice smile, soft, a little timid but well-earned. She always wanted to kiss him when he smiled. "This wine is so sweet."

"I like it."

"I know you do."

"Pay attention to what I'm telling you!" A whine edged into her voice, but she didn't mind it. Felux set her glass down and his sharp eyes focused on her.

"I'm trying to figure out a way to help them figure out what they're doing."

"Maybe meddling isn't the best option."

"Ah!" she gasped, hurt. "It's not meddling! I'm her friend and I'm involved in her life! Besides, Lysithea doesn't like anyone, and she likes Cyril so much. It breaks my heart that they're not together."

"She likes you," Felix pointed out, and he took a sip of water. "Everyone likes you."

She grinned at him. "It's not that everyone likes me, I'm just nice to people, and not constantly grumpy and prickly all the time."

"I'm not prickly," he muttered.

"You are. But in a cute way. Like a porcupine."

"A what."

"I don't know, okay? This wine is really good." She grinned up at him, and she hoped the wine wasn't staining her teeth, and that her lipstick looked okay, and that the light from the candle cast her face in a flattering light.

I love you, she thought. "I love this," she said instead, and she took another sip of the wine.

"We can always come back whenever you'd like."

"No, not the food," she said, and as she shook her head her flower crown swayed. "Like. This. This whole thing. Our date. It's nice."

And I love waking up next to you in the morning, and your fingers on my skin, and the adorable way you smile at me when I know you can't help it, and your eyes in this candle light, and I love you.

Maybe it was time to stop drinking.

"It is nice," Felix agreed, and she felt her cheeks warm pleasantly. 

The waiter brought out a Nirvana cake, spongy and rich, and two teas, although Annette didn't remember ordering it. Felix opted for Almyran pine needle blend, and steam rose in curls from Annette's favorite rose petal blend.

"Goddess," Annette sighed after the first bite of her cake. "I hope one day I can bake like that."

"You will," Felix said.

She smiled at him. Goddess, she wanted to be in her room, kissing him deeply, sighing against his lips as he trailed his hands over her gently, as he pulled her into him, as he gently coaxed her into undressing. 

Their meal ended, and the gentle warmth of the tea combined with the numbness from the sweet wine made Annette's head spin pleasantly, and she let Felix lead her through town by their entwined fingers.

The moon was in the shape of a crescent, curved prettily as it hung it the sky, and a smattering of stars decorated the night sky. Annette loved Harpstring Moon, not only for her birthday but for the weather, which was so comfortable. In the mountains the air was a bit thinner, and she was just barely on the chilly side of comfortable, but it was probably better for her mind after all that wine.

The confectioner's shop was next, and he explained to them how he and his wife had been baking for years, and they used to travel around Fodlan baking but it had become so unstable that they went to their hometown, which as it happened, was not far from Dominic. They had a daughter who was studying at Garreg Mach before the war to become a priestess, but when the Empress outlawed worship, she had to stop her studies and blend in as a baker. She was so miserable, they risked their lives to cross the Dukedom's border in the middle of the night, and they settled in Garreg Mach town and planned on staying there forever. Their daughter was living at the Monastery again, and Annette made a mental note to seek her out for help baking some sweets.

She pressed coins into his hands, even though she was pretty sure Felix had already paid him, and he bowed to them so many times she was getting dizzy. He gave them samples and packed Annette many of her favorites before letting them leave.

It was fully dark by the time they left the shop, and Annette guessed it must have been between eight and nine o'clock at night. She looped her arm around his, just chilled enough in her short-sleeved blouse to use it as an excuse.

A river ran through Garreg Mach town, overall not very wide, but just wide enough to justify the building if several adorable bridges around the town, to make traveling between shops easy. The were crossing one such bridge when Annette stopped them and detached herself from Felix's arm to look over the railing. The moon and stars were mirrited over the surface the gentle breeze not enough to disturb it.

How lucky was she to be able to admire a view like this, with a person she was pretty sure she loved, even as a war raged on. She bent her head and thanked the Goddess.

"Having a nice time?" Felix asked. 

"Of course," she said, and she turned to him and leaned against the railing, and he stepped into her and suddenly she forgot about the moon and the stars and the bridge and sweet wine and powdered sugar. 

His eyes reflected the flickering flame of a street lamp several yards away as he looked down at her, and Annette couldn't breathe. He straightened out her flower crown and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear gently.

"I do have something for you," he said, and Annette refocused on his voice.

"Oh, it's been such a lovely night, I don't need a gift," she said, and she straightened her back. She didn't realize she'd leaned into him.

He reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out a black velvet box.

She looked up at him, unsure, then took the box from him and flipped it open. A ring winked up at her, pretty green gems along a silver band, and a larger blue gem set into the top.

She almost dropped it in her nervousness. "A ring?" she demanded, incredulous.

"A Goddess ring," he explained quickly.

Annette's heart slowed to a normal rate. She really had too much wine. For a moment she thought--she thought Felix was-- "Where'd you get a Goddess ring?" she asked softly.

"Anna had one in her shop. Tried to gouge me for it, that thief. She won't sell things to nobles at even halfway decent prices, so I gave Ashe money and had to have him go buy it."

"Felix, that's so thoughtful!" 

"Here, put it on," he said, and he pulled the ring out if its velvet casing and took her right hand, then slid it onto her finger. She felt faint, her mind racing to a similar scenario, but Felix grounded her by raising her hand to his lips.

Annette was a bit drunk and overwhelmed by her own thoughts. She moved to slide her arms around Felix's neck and stumbled. He caught her and pulled her closer, into the circle of his arms, a hand steadying her at her elbow and the other at her hip.

"The Goddess ring will keep you safe."

She pushed herself onto her tiptoes and kissed him, and she was worried it would be a little sloppy but he pulled her hip into him and she rested a hand on his chest and she fit so neatly against him it felt perfect.

"Come on, Annette," Felix said, his voice soft in a way that made her cling to him as her head spun. "Let's go back."

She nodded in agreement and he laced their fingers together and pulled her after him.

Chapter Text

Felix was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, looking across the room at Annette, very annoyed. 

"I asked you to be ready on time," he reminded her unhelpfully.

"Relax, would you? The sun's barely up." She continued pushing aside dresses as wooden hangers clunked against each other in her closet. "I want to look nice when I meet your uncle." Concentrating, she pushed aside a high-collared dress with long sleeves. "But not too nice. This is business, after all. Maybe a shawl? But then, we'll be on horseback for hours, and I don't--oh!"

Felix had come up next to her to glare at her from up close. "Annette, I have to tell you, I really don't care what you wear. We have to go."

She scowled at him. "If you care so little then go without me altogether," she snapped, hurt. "I'll see you on the way to Fhirdiad, anyway."

Felix sighed at her. "That's not what I meant, Annette."

"Five minutes. I just need to pick out a dress and shoes and I'll be ready."

He raised his eyebrows at her. "Shoes?"

“Yeah, you know. For your feet?”

He was getting exasperated, and Annette didn’t mean to aggravate him further, but she was genuinely nervous about meeting his uncle. It wasn’t her fault he was all… well, the way he was. 

She finally decided on a blue skirt and a cream-colored blouse with a knit cardigan. They were going north, after all, and it would be cold in the woody regions near the castle.

Lucky for Felix, she already knew that she wanted to wear a pair of navy riding boots, with cream colored socks peeking out over the top. She looked cute, not that Felix would admit it after that.

“Done,” she called as she finished lacing up her boots. 

Felix looked unimpressed with her. 

“Don’t be so grumpy,” she sighed, and she bent to pick up her packed bag, but Felix snatched it before she could lift it. 

“Let’s just go,” he said, his voice tense, and slung her bag over his shoulder. 

It wasn’t as though Annette wasn’t feeling tense, too. Accompanying them on this little mission was her father, which was almost enough to make Annette decide she didn’t want to go, actually, but Felix insisted. 

The sky was clear, at least, and it was a nice day, typical of Harpstring Moon.

They were at the stables before even Ferdinand or Marianne, and birds chirped as Annette tacked Licorice carefully. Her father, ever the knight, was layering his horse with pieces of armor. 

Felix was finished first, his chestnut mare pawing the dirt anxiously. Annette could tell he was making the poor thing nervous with his stormy energy. 

"Relax," Annette said softly after swinging herself into Licorice's saddle.

He glared over at her moodily.

Annette didn't mind him. 

She fidgeted with Crusher, which was strapped securely to her back. She tried to position it so it was free of her shoulder blades, but so that the head of the hammer rested at the side of her hip. 

"We must be careful of thieves," Gustave said as his armor clanked together as he settled in his saddle. "Times like these make people desperate."

Felix strapped the Aegis shield to his back, and he touched the hilt of each sword strapped to his waist. "I'm in the mood for cutting down lowly bandits today."

Annette sighed at them. She was just glad to be getting out, and in a silly way this felt like a real courtship. Ignoring that this trip was for an important meeting with the current Lord Fraldarius to negotiate a path for their army to take in their march on Fhirdiad and possibly some more troops, this could have been a proper courting. With Gustave there to aid them, Annette could pretend that this was a leisurely riding trip and her father was there to chaperone.

The ride would be long, and they'd arrive at Fraldarius just before supper--so it wasn't totally unreasonable for Felix to be on her case about timeliness--but she was happy pretending they were setting out for a nice morning ride.

When Annette last traveled to Fraldarius, she had been cold, alone, hungry, scared, and slightly lost. She was confident that this trip could only be an improvement. 

Her spirits were slightly dampened the farther north they traveled. Thieves were crawling along the main road, claiming a fee for safe passage. Most of them didn't need much more than a simple wind spell from Annette or a thunder spell from Felix, but he dismounted once and drew his sword on a larger group. He dispatched the leader quickly, and Annette provided cover with wind magic for the fight but it wasn't a difficult task. 

It would have been hellish for a civilian travelling, though. Annette felt a pang in her heart for merchant families. Traveling like this, without their honed skill or adequate companionship, would have been not only dangerous, but soul-crushing.

They arrived to Fraldarius after hours of riding, and her father remarked that the army proper was probably heading out or already departed. The plan was for the Kingdom army to make it to Fraldarius as Annette and Felix were heading back--enough distance to respect the current Lord Fraldarius while still moving with urgency.

Felix was to smooth things over with his uncle, bolster their troops with whatever strength Lord Fraldarius could lend, and then double back to the south and meet up with the rest of the army a few hours behind.

They approached the entrance of Castle Fraldarius, and Felix was hailed by many of the guardsmen.

Standing at the wide entrance was a man in grand blue clothes, a cape over his shoulder that was lined with fur. Navy hair gave way to sharp eyes Annette had come to associate with the Fraldarius family, and a goatee decorated a sharp chin. His wife was dressed in a flashy supper dress, deep burgundy with lace at the end of elbow-length sleeves and tiered skirts. Deep brown ringlets flowed over her shoulders, and sharp cheeks gave way to pointed eyelashes. She could kill Felix--she felt severely underdressed by comparison.

"Hail," Felix's uncle greeted them. Felix dismounted easily, and immediately a handservant appeared to take the reins from him. 

"Hail, Felix," his uncle greeted.

"Hail, Uncle," Felix returned. Annette suddenly felt awkward, unsure of what she was supposed to be doing or if she was even supposed to be doing anything in particular.

"I hope your travels met you well."

Felix frowned. "Well enough, not counting the scores of bandits we met on the way."

"If memory serves, they were no match for your sword," his aunt said after a too-long pause.

"Yes. And I'm sure your companions are also well-met, Felix. Hail, Sir Gustave," Felix's uncle said, and it occurred to Annette that her father probably knew him already. Annette suddenly felt like a third wheel.

"It is Sir Gilbert, now," her father said with a humble bow of his head. "Hail, Lord and Lady Fraldarius."

"Felix," his aunt said, and her eyes were now on Annette, her eyelashes fluttering against the low-hanging sunlight, "you're being rude, my nephew. Will you not introduce us to your friend?"

Annette looked down at Felix, feeling rather put on the spot, and he offered her his hand. She took it and he nearly pulled her out of the saddle. "This is Annette Dominic, Sir Gilbert's daughter."

"What an amazing necklace, dear," his Aunt said, her eyes fixed on the sapphire at Annette's throat, and Felix's fingers tightened around Annette's hand possessively.

Annette found it strange that he was so on edge around his own family.

"Annette, Sir Gilbert, this is my aunt, Adelaide Fraldarius, and my father's brother, Roland Fraldarius."

Roland smiled, a kind, warm smile, if looking somewhat disused. He shook her father's hand, then raised Annette's hand to his lips, as was custom. 

Felix pulled her back to his side, and Annette glanced sideways at him, questioning, but he wasn't looking at her.

A second servant greeted them, bowing deeply, and he took Licorice and Gustave's horse by the reins.

"Let's go inside, shall we? We're ready with the first course of supper."

"Thank you for accommodating our late schedule,” Gustave said as he followed them inside.

"Why are you so nervous?" Annette asked quietly before urging Felix forward.

He shook his head, his bangs falling in his eyes. "Don't know. I have a bad feeling about this."

Supper included a sparse salad, a watery but well seasoned vegetable soup, slow-roasted meat, and a berry pie for dessert. No wine was served, and Annette wondered if that was because there was none or due to the impending negotiation. Conversation consisted mainly of her father speaking in a low voice about the state of things with Felix's uncle as his aunt kept staring at Annette's necklace and Felix glared at everyone.

"I know you're eager to talk business, Felix," Roland said once Annette had polished off her pie. "It's poor form to do so right after supper. Shall we retire to the War Room after some entertainment?"

Felix clenched his teeth. "Forgive me, uncle, but my father's not been buried a month and I've never been one for propriety, anyway." He stood and pushed his chair into the table with too much force. "I'll wait there until you are ready to do some work, for once."

He stalked out of the room and Annette felt her face heat up on his behalf.

Gustave took a sip of his tea. "The boy has been through much hardship in the last few months, and at such a young age."

"Unfortunately, my nephew is no stranger to hardship," Roland said in a voice that was not unkind. "Growing up without a mother, losing his brother, losing his father. My wife and I wonder if the title of Duke would be too much for him to bear."

Annette clenched her fists in her lap. Whether or not Felix actually wanted the title of nobility was something about which he was vague, at best. But he certainly wouldn't want his aunt and uncle to decide for him.

"Perhaps it is best if we appease him," Roland mused. "I'm sure he's anxious to begin proceedings."

"The boy can wait, dear," Adelaide said as she raised her tea to her lips. "I must say, it is nice to see a father and daughter joined together in arms. How do you feel about your daughter fighting in this war, Sir Gustave?"

"Sir Gilbert," he corrected gently. "It is always difficult to see one's own blood struggling, as I am sure the two of you know well. But Annette's service to His Highness and the Goddess make my heart proud."

"Do forgive me," Annette said as vexation exploded beneath every inch of her skin. "I think I’ll join Felix in the War Room, and wait for you to join us there." She stood and curtsied, crossing her ankles and dropping low. "Thank you very much for dinner."

Her father was frowning at her, but then, he was never happy with her choices. 

She realized once the heavy oak door swung shut behind her that she had no idea where the War Room was, and she was about to start calling out to Felix in the hope that he'd hear her and respond when she spotted a familiar person. 

"Lunete!" Annette cried, excited to recognize the girl from her previous visit. She was dressed in her maid's outfit, white apron dusted with dirt.

"Oh, Miss Annette!" Lunete grinned at her. She'd been polishing the sconces in the wall, by the look of it, and she pushed a rag into the apron pocket. "I'm so sorry to hear everything that's happened."

Annette shook her head. "There's no need to apologize. Um, Lunete, would you happen to know where the War Room is?"

Lunete smiled softly at Annette. "Looking for Master Felix, are you? I knew he fancied you, Miss, back in Ethereal Moon. Never seen him that way with anybody, let alone a lady."

Annette blushed spectacularly. "Oh, um… I--"

"I'll take you to the War Room, Miss," Lunete said, evidently taking pity on Annette. "I'd quite like having you as Lady of the House. You're nice, and you've got some very nice dresses."

Lunete was being very sweet, but she was making Annette so flustered. 

"Here we are," she said, stopping in front of a set of intricately carved double doors. "Master Felix seems to be in a sour mood."

"Isn't he always?" Annette asked, and the other girl smiled. 

"I think Master Felix can be nice, in a quiet way."

Annette blinked. "Thank you for taking me here, Lunete."

"Of course! I hope I'll be seeing you around here more, Miss."

Annette beamed at her, then opened one of the doors gingerly. 

A long table was positioned horizontally in the room, and against the back wall hung a large map of Fodlan, a grand, old one, that showed the borders the way Annette always remembered them from her childhood.

Felix was sat at the near side of the table, the chair positioned to the side so he could keep an eye on the door, and he was twirling a dagger between his fingers moodily.

“You… where did you get that?” Annette asked, watching as his deft fingers kept the sharp edge clear of his skin. 

He frowned at her. “I always have them with me.”

She sighed and sat sideways in the chair beside him, their knees touching. 

“I thought you would’ve stayed with your father,” Felix said after another minute of sulking. He laid the dagger on the table to regard Annette fully. 

“Yeah, I don’t know. Your aunt doesn’t seem like the nicest person.”

Felix chuckled at her. “She’s always been like that.”

“You don’t think it’ll be a problem, do you?”

“A problem?” Felix repeated, one eyebrow arched.

“Well, yeah. With negotiations?”

“I don’t think so. My uncle may be incompetent, but he wants the Kingdom free of the Empire’s grasp. He’ll give us what we want, even if we need to shut his wife up.”

Annette frowned. She hoped this would be easy. After last month, Felix deserved an easy mission.

“Hey, teach me how to do that neat trick with the dagger,” Annette said, reaching for it. 

“Absolutely not,” Felix answered, and he grabbed it hastily.

“Why not?”

He shot her a withering expression. “You know why.”

“Are you calling me clumsy?” she asked petulantly. 

“I very specifically did not call you clumsy.”

She frowned at him. “I could’ve had another slice of pie, but instead I came here to be with you.”

Felix only rolled his eyes at her. 

It was at that moment that the doors opened once again, and Felix’s uncle entered, his aunt just behind him, and Gustave taking up the rear. 

Felix straightened in his seat and pushed his chair into the table. Annette copied his posture, and Gustave took the chair on Felix’s left.

“Here we all are, Felix,” Roland said, his eyes locked with his nephew’s. “Shall we begin.”

Without a word, Felix tightened his grip on the dagger, then forcefully drove it into the thick tabletop, the point sinking several centimeters deep.

His uncle didn’t seem alarmed by this, and Felix swept his arm across the table before he leaned forward officially. “We’re marching on Fhirdiad, uncle. By order of His Highness himself. We’re seeking the aid of Fraldarius, which has, until a month ago, been a great resource to the Kingdom army.”

“Aid?” his uncle echoed, his voice interested.

“Nothing major. Safe passage, and I want my father’s battalion that you’ve been commanding. You’ve only had them for a month and you shouldn’t miss them much.”

Roland was quiet. 

Felix frowned over at his uncle. Gilbert had produced a map, passed it over to Felix, and unfurled it. This one was miniature of the grand one on the back wall, but it had the updated borders of the current regime. “We want our army to come up through the east of what’s left of the Kingdom and then cut west through Fraldarius.”

Roland looked up to his nephew, his eyes a muddier brown than Felix’s. “And then what? Attack Fhirdiad head-on? Have you thought of the common lives that could be lost?”

“I have, actually, and I figured it’s more or less the same amount you’ve let be lost since my father came to Garreg Mach.”

Roland pursed his lips, clearly fighting to keep his expression some semblance of neutral. 

“It’s not been easy, Felix. Your father took with him more than half of the Fraldarian troops.”

“You were supposed to replenish them with your own troops,” Felix said, impassive.

“My troops are not the elite soldiers your father’s troops were. It isn’t the same.” Roland sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You wouldn’t understand any of this--you’re only a boy, yet.”

“I understand very clearly. You didn’t keep your troops up to snuff and they and the citizens of Fraldarius suffered because of it. Enough. We’ll take back Fhirdiad and chase the Empire and Cornelia out of these lands.”

Felix’s uncle looked down at the map, his mustache twitching as Annette guessed he chewed on the inside of his lip. “And if you lose, Felix?” he asked, exhaustion creeping into his tone.”You’ll go to Fhirdiad with our best troops, with my sanction, and everyone will die.” He looked up to Gilbert. “You understand this, don’t you?”

“He’s not running this negotiation, I am,” Felix said sourly, slamming his fist on the table. Annette wondered how much of his attitude was for show and how much of it was genuine. “We have the Crown Prince of Faerghus and the Ashen Demon with the Sword of the Creator to lead us. We have Sir Gustave, a seasoned knight who’s served Faerghus his entire life. We have myself, Sylvain, Ingrid, Annette, and Lysithea, all of us with Hero’s Relics. And, if you believe in that sort of thing, the Goddess on our side.”

Roland stroked the navy hair of his goatee. “There must be a contingency plan in place. What if you fail?”

Felix sat back in his chair and crossed his arm. “There’s no contingency. If we fail, and we’re all killed, the Empire will continue expanding its hold eastward and northward, and Fraldarius will fall. Sooner rather than later, judging by the looks of things.”

“I can’t accept that. You expect us to stay here like sitting ducks while your army moves into Fhirdiad under the misguided notions of His Highness?”

Felix scoffed. “I don’t expect you to do anything, other than what I’ve asked you, although if you’re so sick about it, you could join us in our march on Fhirdiad.”

Roland paled at the idea. “Your father left me to protect Fraldarius. I couldn’t abandon it now.”

“My father was an idiot,” Felix said, and Annette watched as Roland’s eyes widened at Felix’s flippancy. “As are you. There won’t be a Fraldarius to protect.”

“That is enough, Felix,” his aunt finally cut in. Her deep chocolate ringlets shook as her pinched, pale face twisted into an absolutely enraged expression. “Sothis hears all you say, and to speak ill of the dead in such a way--”

“Sothis hears nothing,” Felix interrupted. “Uncle, I must confess--I only came here as a courtesy. I’ll be taking our troops, and the Kingdom army will be coming up through the route I suggested. It would only be a short stop on the way for the Ashen Demon to obliterate what’s left of your troops.”

Roland’s eyes narrowed, and Annette saw some of the sharpness in Felix’s eyes there. “Our troops, Felix.”

He scoffed at this. “It seems to me that we’re done here.”

“Wait,” Roland said, and he placed his hand on Felix’s wrist to keep him from standing. “It’s--I didn’t want so much animosity between us.” He frowned. “You never wrote back after your father died.”

“I’ve been busy,” Felix said, his tone clipped. 

“I’ll allow your troops to pass if--if you give me the Sword of Moralta.”

Roland’s eyes dropped to the hilt, which Felix covered protectively with his hand.

“My sword?”

“The sword of House Fraldarius. With your father gone, you and I have equal claim to it.“

“That’s bullshit. My brother died with that sword clutched in his hand. My father died with it at his hip. The notion that you have any claim to it at all--”

“And the Aegis Shield,” his uncle added, undeterred by Felix’s harsh words. 

“You don’t have a Crest. Surely you can’t be that stupid.”

“I will protect our family name. You seem to understand nothing of that, and I can only hope that the Goddess forgives you. But I will do what I must to preserve the Fraldarius family line and their holy weapons.”

“I give you the sword and the shield, and you allow safe passage of the army through Fraldarius?”

Roland leaned his arm on the table. “Yes.”

Felix set his jaw, looking enraged, but he simply said, “Fine.”

“Felix,” Annette breathed, and she noticed that his face was tinged red. 

“Annette,” Gustave said from Felix’s left, his tone warning, and she quieted. 

Silently, Felix freed the Sword of Moralta from its place on his belt and set it on the heavy table with a thud. 

"We don't need these," Felix growled at his uncle. "Magic shield or not, the Kingdom army has the might of the most elite soldiers in the country." 

"I'm glad you feel that way. Goddess protect you, Felix."

“There is one other thing, Felix,” Adelaide added. It was so tense for a moment, Annette forgot that she was there. “That gemstone around Miss Dominic’s neck.”

Annette blinked, and suddenly all eyes were on her. She looked levelly over to Adelaide, whose manicured finger was twirling around a ringlet. “That belongs to House Fraldarius. As such, I think you should add it to the pile there.”

Felix narrowed his eyes at his aunt. “Absolutely not.”

“That gemstone is very valuable, Felix, not only in terms of money, but its history is entwined with that of House Fraldarius. It was given by King Loog to--”

“I know what it is,” Felix said, his tone scathing. “I gave it to her.”

Adelaide tilted her head at Felix and smiled at him sweetly. “Unfortunately, dear, it was not yours to give. That gemstone belongs to the head of House Fraldarius, which is now your uncle. And he has not given little, common Miss Dominic permission to wear it.”

Annette blinked, and a hot, angry coil wound tight in her chest. She tried not to look over to Felix too obviously. His hands were clenched into tight, white-knuckled fists. He leaned forward, his bangs falling over his forehead to brush against his eyelashes, and with as much vitriol as he could muster, he spat, “Fuck you.”

He snatched the dagger out of the tabletop and stood, his chair scraping violently against the stone floor. "I did not come here to participate in a power play. You are guests in Castle Fraldarius, and when this war is over I will come back and claim the stupid fucking title my father left for me just to spite you.” 

Roland set his mouth in a tight line, looking grim, and Annette quickly stood at Felix's side. "Thank you, Lord Fraldarius," she said, bowing demurely. Roland’s face was almost impressively blank, and she could see the familial similarities between him and Felix well in that moment. Adelaide was sitting rigidly in her chair, scowling at her nephew, her sharp nails digging into the sleeve of her dress as she crossed her arms over her chest. Her face was red and splotchy with anger.

Gustave stood, as well. "Thank you for putting us up for the night. I will ensure that the horses have been lodged and we will retire. It's been a long day."

"I'm sure," Roland said, his eyes on Felix.

“History will look back on the both of you as cowards,” Felix snarled, and he turned sharply and walked to the heavy double doors that marked the entrance to the room. 

Annette glanced to her father before scurrying after Felix, catching one of the doors just before it slammed closed. She grunted with effort as she pulled it open enough for her to slip through.

"Felix!" she called after him, the soles of her boots tapping on the stone floor. "Felix," she called again. He was walking quickly, his jaw clenched, his hands balled at his sides. 

Annette reached over to touch his arm and he jerked away from her.

"Don't, Annette, not right now. I'm so fucking… my uncle is… My father would be disgusted."

She dropped her hand to her side. "We'll get the Sword back. And the Shield."

"It's not about that. It's about what a fucking coward he is. He wants to lead Fraldarius? How anyone so cowardly could have any ambition in their weak minds is beyond me."

Felix exited the castle. Dusk was fading into proper night time, and Annette would have been lost without a lantern but Felix obviously knew the castle well.

"Where are you going?" Annette asked as she struggled to keep up with his fast pace.

"Training grounds," Felix answered gruffly. 

"Oh." She paused at his side, but he kept walking quickly, and she had to scurry to catch up to him. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? We’ve had such a long day I think it’s better to rest and--”

He stopped short and Annette walked into his shoulder. “I’m not going to train, alright?” he snapped. 

She bit her lip. He wasn’t yelling at her, she knew, but still. She didn’t appreciate being spoken to like that.

He sighed sharply. “Sorry. I’m--I’m trying to--”

“It’s fine,” Annette said.

He swept his eyes across her face quickly, then he placed a hand on her back to guide her. “Come on.”

He led her through a courtyard, past a garden, through another courtyard, and up some stairs to the training grounds. 

It was dark, and Annette hardly saw the flash of silver in the moonlight--one moment the area was clear, and the next a sharp arrow was in the dirt at her feet.

Felix rested a hand on his hip casually as Annette sprang into defensive mode. “Thank you for meeting me,” he said, and Annette looked up at him curiously. 

A figure dropped down from the high rafters, and Annette wrapped a hand around Felix’s arm nervously. 

“It’s alright, Annette. You remember Martine?”

The figure straightened out, and the way the moonlight cut across his features, Annette could only just recognize the face of one of the soldiers she’d thwarted on her first day in Fraldarius, not long before she’d broken her ankle. 

“Oh, yes, of course. I’m so sorry to have been startled.” She bent her spine in a polite bow. 

Martine tilted his head, appraising her. “Not at all, Miss Dominic. It’s lovely to see you again.”

“Oh!” she said, pleased. “You remember me?”

“One doesn’t take a direct hit from a powerful Saggitae like that and simply forget it,” he said, and Annette couldn’t tell, what with the darkness, but she thought he might have been making fun of her.

“My uncle is an even bigger idiot than I thought. He’s not given me permission, but I was hoping you’d still accompany us to Fhirdiad, Martine.”

The Bow Knight frowned at them. “Defect from House Fraldarius?”

Felix snorted. “My uncle will not become Duke. This is a temporary arrangement.”

“Temporary defection? I assume you can’t guarantee death will be as ephemeral.”

Felix let his arm drop. “Will you join us or not?”

“I suppose I can’t let the self-proclaimed next Duke return to his army empty-handed. It wouldn’t reflect very well on Fraldarius.”

It was subtle, but Felix relaxed slightly from his stiff posture. “We leave tomorrow. Before dawn.”

“The battalion will be at the ready, sir.”

“You know I’m not one for sentimentality, but I’m sure you can imagine how my father would feel about this,” Felix said, his voice with a soft edge that Annette rarely heard him turn toward others. 

“Not doing it for your old man, sir.”

Felix nodded and bowed. “I understand. I won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t sir. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some of us have to work for a living.”

Martine plucked the arrow out of the ground and exited the grounds with a near-silent gait.

Felix sighed and dropped his hand to Annette’s. “I guess we should head to bed.”

“Felix,” Annette said, her voice as serious as she could make it. “Are you alright?”

He squeezed her fingers as he pulled her into him. She rested her hands on his chest, and he dropped a hand to her back as he raised his fingers to her chin. “I have to be,” he said softly. 

Felix was confusing her, and the fact that he wouldn’t give her a yes or no answer was concerning. She tilted her head away from him slightly to better look him in the eye. “I’m worried about you.”

“I know,” he said, and he looked down at his feet. “Sorry. I guess I need that.”

She blinked at him, and he dropped the hand at her back. “We should get to bed.”

It was a little unfair that after a month of sleeping in a cramped bed made for one person, they were expected to sleep apart when the beds were an appropriate size for two people, not to mention much more comfortable. Felix didn’t make much fuss about it, which made Annette suspect that he wasn’t actually going to sleep. 

She pulled on a comfortable nightgown and brushed her hair out before sinking into the plush mattress. It wasn’t long after that that she fell asleep. 

Long fingernails haunted her dreams, reaching for her throat, grasping, clutching at the sapphire which hung there.

A repeated knocking startled her, and she woke abruptly. 

The knocking sounded again and it took a lit sigil floating above Annette’s hand to help her remember where she was.

She pulled open the door and Felix was on the other side, his hand raised and poised to knock. 

"Sorry to wake you," he said, and he did look sorry. His hair was still bound, although it was disturbed in the back. His nightshirt was thin and unclasped at the neck, and in her sleepy state Annette wanted to pull him into her bed and rest her cheek against his exposed skin there. "I can't fucking sleep."

She nodded and opened her door wider. Felix entered and closed the door behind him. He was wearing his boots, for some reason, and Annette wondered if he’d been wandering the castle grounds all night. "I keep running scenarios in my mind, thinking about how horrible breakfast will be in the morning, thinking about how we'll have to fight with my father's battalion joining us now."

He immediately started pacing around the room,  and he was making Annette even more tired. This was a perfect opportunity for comfortable cuddles in a super soft, gigantic, queen-sized bed they could both comfortably fit in instead of the hard twin-sized mattresses at the monastery. She wanted to pull him into bed.

"Martine's good, he'll be a great asset, but I'm not sure how the rest of the battalion's changed. They seem tired of following my uncle and I'm not used to leading, so I'm worried they won't take commands from me."

"Of course they will," Annette said, and she blinked at Felix in the moonlight. "You're a very capable soldier."

"I know, but is that enough? Is any of this enough?"

His eyes were searing into her, made pale by the white light of the moon, and Annette approached him cautiously. "What do you mean?"

He crossed his arms over his chest tightly. "I mean all of this. This move on Fhirdiad, this effort to take back the country. Part of me thinks we should get our horses from the stables and take off."

Annette blinked at him. "And go where?"

He shrugged and let his arms fall to his sides. "I don't know. Almyra, Sreng, Albinea. You could study magic in Morfis. Doesn't matter. I have a really bad feeling about this, Annette. I feel like… like I need to get you out of here."

"I'm not going anywhere," she said softly. "And neither are you. Our troops are stronger than they've been, and we're all unified in this attack on Fhirdiad. Once we capture the city the rest of the Kingdom will follow."

"Cornelia won't make it easy to win. I'm not looking forward to fighting those damn golems again."

Annette slid her fingers into his palm, then upward beneath the unhemmed sleeve of his nightshirt. His pulse was racing at his wrist above his thumb, faster than Annette could feasibly count.

"Felix," she murmured, and she ran her hands up his arms, over his chest, and around his neck, pulling him into a firm hug. He breathed in her hair and brushed his fingers through it. "Whatever happens we'll get through it together."

"I can't shake the feeling that something will go horribly wrong, and without my shield I won't be able to protect you properly."

"You're worrying too much about me," Annette said, and she let her fingers slide up to the nape of his neck to touch the hair there. "Let me worry about you," she whispered, and she pressed her chest against him and looked up at him. 

She let her hands fall down his back, then she carefully slipped one under his shirt at the hem. He sighed into her hair and linked his hands together behind her back.

"Come on," she said softly, and she stepped backward toward the bed, bringing him with her gently.

As he allowed her to pull him, he raised his hand to her cheek, and Annette stilled as he tilted his head and stooped to kiss her. She fluttered her eyes closed and her breath caught in her lungs.

Felix paused, his breath brushing against her face. Confused, Annette pushed onto her tip toes to seal their impending kiss, but he pushed her down by her shoulder.

"Quiet," he said suddenly, his voice tense, and Annette's blood turned to ice. "Sh. I heard something."

"Felix, there's nothing there," Annette tried to say, but he pressed a finger against her mouth, eyes wide, and he released her to creep closer to the door.

He was freaking her out, and she knew she needed to wrestle him into bed and make him sleep.

As she formed this thought, a hard thunk sounded against the door, and Annette jumped back. 

"Wha--" she began, but a second later the door splintered and an arrow sailed through it. Annette screamed as an Assassin in full imperial armor kicked the door in the rest of the way, grabbing her sword as she rolled through the splintered remains. Annette threw a shaky Cutting Gale at her, trembling badly from fear and adrenaline. The Assassin easily catapulted into another roll and dodged. Felix grabbed Crusher from where it rested against the wall and it flared to life in his hands, glowing orange, and he was able to parry the blade as she engaged him. 

A hammer was a poor choice against a sword, so Annette fired another wind spell, items flying around the room in its current, and the Assassin lost her footing, giving Felix enough time to land a devastating blow with Crusher. She was wheezing on the floor, and Felix wrestled her sword from her grasp as he pinned her to the ground with a boot on her chest. 

“How many?” he growled, gritting his teeth. 

She coughed and blood spattered on the carpet. 

She wasn’t far from death, and Felix yanked her up by her collar. She whimpered as he jostled her. 

“How many?” he demanded again. 

“Long live the Empress,” she said, her breaths wheezing around her words. 

Felix’s face became a mask of rage, and he slashed at her throat with the sword. Blood spattered, and Annette averted her eyes as she fell. 

“Annette,” Felix said severely, and she met his eyes. “Get the fuck out of here. Run to the stables, take your horse and ride south--”

“What?” she demanded incredulously. “I can’t leave. You’d be alone.”

“I'll be fine. You need to go.”

“I’m not leaving, Felix.” She stalked over to him and snatched Crusher from where he’d dropped it. 

“There are more. We’re completely fucked, Annette, and I need you to go.”

“We don’t have time for this,” she said, and she stepped carefully over the Assassin’s body and tried to sneak out the door.

Felix yanked her back roughly and stepped in front of her, sword drawn, one arm thrown out as if to help shield her. 

They came to a corner, which led to the wide stone stairs. They’d be completely exposed down there.

There were sounds of a struggle, and Annette’s heart lodged itself in her throat. She balked, and Felix pressed forward. 

The entrance to the castle was flung wide open, and Annette could see flashes of steel in moonlight and hear the clanging of metal on metal from beyond. The Fraldarius army must have been busy.

Two soldiers in Paladin’s armor and a mage entered through the open entryway, and they immediately spotted both Annette and Felix at the top of the stairs.

Felix raised his sword and slanted it across his body, daring them to come up to chase them. A thick iron banister wrapped around the stone stairs, and Annette sank down behind it. There were many gaps in the design of the ironwork, but it was better than nothing. The mage struck first, and Annette used Crusher to absorb the force of the ice magic, then struck out over the banister with a Cutting Gale. Felix rushed down a few steps and fired Thoron at the pair of Paladins. 

He shouldn’t be sacrificing the high ground like that, and a lance had a much longer reach than a sword. Lighting was crackling around Felix’s fingers, and he was firing off another Thoron. 

Annette was so focused on Felix, she wasn’t worrying about her own fight. The mage managed to aim an attack at the banister, behind which Annette was crouching. The railing exploded, and shards of ice and iron flew at Annette. She tried to cover her face with her arms, but she wasn’t fast enough. The right side of her face was lashed with sharp pieces of shrapnel, and she grunted as she fell back, her face stinging. She blindly launched another attack at the mage. Saggittae tore into her, and she grunted as she fell, pierced through with magical arrows, and she scrambled away from the foyer, down a hallway that led deeper into the castle. Annette’s stomach dropped as she realized he was probably going to get reinforcements. 

One of the Paladins rushed Felix, and he swiped at the lance with the Assassin’s steel sword, then fired a Thoron right at the Paladin’s chest. 

He tumbled down the stairs, his lance clattering around him. 

The Paladin was left, and it was clear that he was about to bolt, too. Felix rushed him, and as the Paladin thrust forward with his lance, Felix blocked with the sword and used it to pin the head of the lance to the ground. He stepped forward, onto the wood of the lance, and the Paladin was faced with the decision to either drop the lance or stumble forward with it. Felix was too quick for him to make a decision, and the Assassin's won sword pierced his armor decisively. 

Annette rushed past them to see if she could stop the mage from earlier. The halls of the castle were unfamiliar to Annette, and stone carried noise so well. She could hear Felix behind her, and she could see him in her mind with his sword drawn. She didn’t look back at him, though.

In her studying of various magic, she learned how to sense other mages. Once she became good enough at controlling magical energy, this was mostly an innate skill. Her magic reached out and met the magic of others as it swirled around her. 

She sensed a lot of magic as she continued down the hall, but she didn’t think it was the mage. It was stinking, tremulous dark magic. It made goosebumps pop up over her arms, made her shiver, made sweat glisten on her brow. 

“Where are you--” Felix began, just behind her, but she held up a hand to silence him.

“I sense a mage,” she whispered, so quietly that she thought Felix was more reading her lips in the dark than hearing her voice. “Or mages. I’m not sure.”

He looked around, his eyes darting from corner to corner, sweeping across the hall. 

She continued down the hall, and she started to recognize this path as the same one she took months ago in Ethereal Moon. The dining room was down this way. 

Her heart started thumping in her chest, and her palms were sweaty. Something really bad was waiting for them in there. She peeked into the dining room, but it was all cast in shadows, cut severely through the wide windows, letting in what moonlight there was. It seemed empty, and although Annette sensed a mage was nearby, she didn’t think they were so close. Gingerly, she stepped into the dining room, and Felix followed. 

Annette was convinced that someone would spring out at her from beneath one of the heavy wooden chairs, or appear from behind the ornate curtains Felix’s aunt had hung on the window. 

The sound of steel clattering on tiled floor made her jump, and Felix pushed in front of her to look into the kitchens. The door which separated the kitchens from the dining room was ajar, about halfway. Enough for Annette to peer between the hinges while still staying clear of the frame, and thus invisible to those who might see her from inside. 

To Annette’s horror, Felix dropped low to the floor, and, sword in hand, he rolled silently past the open portion of the door. He was across from her, only feet apart, his finger pressed to his lips to silence her. He certainly had a better vantage point than she did, able to see through the part of the door that was open instead of having to peer through the hinges. Annette didn’t dare try the same move--she wasn’t exactly catlike like Felix, and she wouldn’t risk blowing their cover. 

There was a dark mage in there, she was sure of it. 

“It’s okay, Roland,” Adelaide said, and Annette could only just make out a jagged dagger in her hand. “I’ve saved us.”

Annette was robbed of his reaction, but he answered, “What is the meaning of all this? Why attack us in our home?”

“Not us,” Adelaide said, and she adjusted her chocolatey curls. “Your nephew.”

“Adelaide, no. This is not the way--”

“It is the only way,” a voice answered, and Annette thought it seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place how. “Your kind can only achieve goals through senseless violence and murder of each other. Something the Lady seems to understand.”

“I bargained with them, dearest. Traded your nephew’s life for yours.”

“What?!” Roland demanded. Annette could see a steel lance on the ground, and she wondered if he’d been disarmed by his wife or someone else that she couldn’t see. 

“It was the only way. They threatened to kill you in your sleep, and I offered them a better prize. As long as we swear to never interfere, they won’t hurt us.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than a black, gauntleted hand wrapped around her slight wrist and twisted her arm back, snatching the dagger from her. 

“Hey!” she cried indignantly. “What is the meaning of this? Explain yourself, Thales!”

Annette adjusted her angle, and she could hear Felix’s uncle struggling but she couldn’t see a thing. She tried to adjust her angle, and as she peered through the hinges the masked visage of the Death Knight sneered at Felix’s Aunt. 

Annette felt her eyes widen, her pulse race, her mouth dry. She could hear the Professor's stern voice warning them not to engage. She could see Mercedes reflected in his inky black armor.

She reeled back, looking desperately to Felix, and he was crouching with a tight grip on his sword. She could see him trying to decide whether or not he should attack, but she would tackle him the moment he tried. They weren’t prepared to fight the Death Knight.

“The meaning?” that somehow-familiar voice echoed. “In the end, there is no meaning. You vermin are like cattle--one slaughtered after the other, unknowing, unquestioning your death in the embrace of your forsaken Goddess.” The voice paused, and Annette could see Adelaide trying to struggle out of the Death Knight’s grip. “Oh,” the voice continued dryly. “And I lied.”

There was a sickening, wet sound, and Annette could hear the death throes of Lord Roland. She couldn't see it happen through her limited view, but blood pooled on the floor and Adelaide screamed. “He wouldn’t have hurt you!” she sobbed, going slack in the Death Knight’s grip. He forced her to stay on her feet. “He would’ve done what you wanted!”

Felix was fixed to the spot, his sword ready, and Annette couldn’t imagine what must be running through his mind. 

Don’t, she thought, desperately hoping he would somehow hear her frantic thoughts. Let’s run, we can make it out--

She saw the mysterious speaker as he approached Lady Fraldarius, and Annette thought she might recognize him but she didn’t. He was dressed like Tomas, from many horrible years ago in Remire village. His eyes were milky white and his hair was white, whiter than Lysithea’s, streaked with occasional jet black. It was apparent that he was the dark mage Annette sensed.

“I’ve dirtied my hands enough,” the dark mage said. “Kill the bitch.”

The Death Knight pulled Adelaide as she screamed, letting her go only to draw his scythe with both hands, and before Annette could do anything about it, Felix pounced. 

He didn’t attack the Death Knight, though. The Scythe of Sariel tore through Adelaide, and she fell to the ground in a lifeless heap, her pretty ringlets soaked with blood. 

How unfathomably shrewd of Felix to use his aunt's nurder as cover for his attack.

The dark mage heard him approach, but as he turned around Felix slashed with his sword, and he screamed as the borrowed blade drew blood. The Death Knight reacted quickly, and he flourished his scythe, Adelaide’s blood flying off the razor-sharp edge like Ignatz’s paint. 

Annette launched herself through the door, trembling as the Death Knight set his dead eyes on her. She threw out her arm and conjured a sigil. 

The dark mage roared with fury, and he fired a spell at Felix that tore through the open door and launched him back into the dining room. He landed on the thick table, shoulder first, and Annette wasn’t sure if it was the weight of his body or the awful spell that did it, but the table splintered, caving in at the middle where Felix’s body landed. 

She wished for Mercie, or Marianne, someone who could heal from a distance--

Felix rolled off the table as the dark mage launched another attack at it, and wood splintered with a sicking noise as the spell tore it apart.

The Death Knight was still set on her. Reaching for all her power, she fired Abraxas at him, and her spell hit its mark. He grunted, but he hardly seemed injured by one of the strongest spells she knew. She stumbled back, torn between Felix and the Death Knight. Maybe it would be better if she could fight the mage instead. 

Annette lit sigils in both hands, throwing double-handed wind spells, but the Death Knight kept approaching, undeterred by her magic. 

He’d crossed into the dining room with her now, his red eyes fixed on her, and she desperately tried to understand how Mercedes could leave her for someone so threatening, so lethal--

She loosed Excalibur at him, trying to think of Lysithea at her fiercest. 

But she was no Lysithea, and the Death Knight dodged her spell, impossibly quick even with all that armor. 

“Annette!” Felix cried, and she was too busy casting two Cutting Gales in quick succession to glance at him but the sound of steel on steel told her that he was occupied. 

One of her Gales cut into the Knight, but he kept advancing. Annette’s elbow bumped the wall, and she only realized now that he was backing her into a corner. 

He reached out a hand to grab her, which she dodged and tried to counter with a wind spell, but he was too close, and her spell wasn’t at its full strength at this range. 

One gauntleted hand pinned her firmly against the wall by her chest, and Annette’s mind flashed back to the first day at Garreg Mach when Dimitri choked her against the ruins of her beloved Academy.

Felix couldn’t save her this time. 

She kicked out as his hand slid to her throat and he lifted her bodily, and she wrapped her arms around his wrists to take the pressure off her throat. She had to be fast, before dizziness closed in around her. 

He was as strong as Dimitri was the last time she found herself in this predicament, and she found herself expending her precious air to croak, “You don’t have to do this…”

He laughed at her, the sound distorted, and it was becoming harder to brace herself against his wrists. “I don’t have to do anything. I want to do this.”

“Emile… please…”

She could see the Death Knight’s Scythe tremble as his hand shook. “What did you call me?”

“I--” she croaked, and black spots were closing in on her. She’d wasted her opportunity to save herself. Felix would be so angry. 

“Never say that name again,” he snarled, rage in his voice, and she knew the Scythe would be on her any second now--

A distorted grunt filled her ears and she was jerked to the side. 

Her father appeared behind them, the bejeweled Sword of Moralta in one hand, the Aegis Shield gleaming on his wrist as the cursed scythe scraped against it.

Annette gulped in too little air before she threw all of her might into casting Excalibur. 

The Goddess ring on her hand thrummed in time with the flash of her crest, and the Death Knight wailed as her attack tore into him. 

She was struggling to gulp in air through her damaged throat, but she looked to Felix, whose steel sword was no match for Thales and his Levin sword. Even with his damaged arm, Thales possessed speed which was preternatural, and he’d managed to wound Felix, who sported a long gash across his torso which soaked the material of his nightshirt with blood. 

Her father had fallen to his knees and he was grunting, and Annette didn’t understand and she was torn between her father and Felix, desperately trying to devise a way to save them all. The Goddess ring on her finger returned to its dormant state, and Annette wondered numbly if a prayer would help.

Felix’s steel sword crossed with Thales’s Levin sword. His brow was wet with sweat, and the gash across his body was spilling blood. She moved to go to him, but her father was gasping and clutching at her arm. Felix was grunting, his struggling apparent, and Thales released the Levin sword with one arm and a sigil spun before his palm. 

“Father, please,” Annette hissed desperately, struggling to loosen his hold on her. 

Felix’s feet slipped among the rubble on the floor, and Annette was planning to throw a wind spell as close to Thales as she could get from this distance, but she gasped as an arrow flew past her, sinking into Thales’s side. 

He screamed, and the Death Knight was still a whimpering heap at the floor near Annette’s feet.

“Damn you, Death Knight,” Thales hissed. “We got enough of what we came for. This is not the last you’ll see of us.”

Felix was panting, but understanding dawned on his face and he shouted, “Now!” through a clenched jaw. Thales and the Death Knight were enshrouded in purple light, and as they disappeared a silver arrow flew past the spot Thales had been and flew into the stone wall.

"Annette," Felix said, his voice strained, and his face was bleeding from a cut over his eye. Annette's own face was stinging, as she'd been caught with shards of iron and ice from that mage earlier, but she wasn't as bloodied as Felix. She crouched to tend to him, a sigil lighting beneath her feet. The gash across his torso sealed itself together in fast motion.

Felix shook his head. "Your father, he--he used Aegis."

Annette whipped her head around, careful to keep the magic flowing into Felix, focusing on her father who was doubled over in pain, groaning. 

She rushed over to him and it occurred to her for the first time since Felix appeared in her room that she was barefoot. 

"Father?" she demanded, her voice shaking. "Father?" She repeated when he didn't answer.

She crouched and made him look at her. The Aegis shield was still fixed to his arm and she yanked it off, holding it under her arm as she inspected it.

His hand almost burned, the skin deep red and discolored. Her stomach lurched at the sight of it. 

"It'll be okay," she whispered, shocking herself with how even her tone was.

She summoned white magic, a sigil shining as she cast Recover over her father. His moaning quieted, but he didn't look much better overall.

Felix also looked a mess, and he limped over to her carefully. "We have to go," he said urgently.

"What? Now?" Annette demanded. "But this--this isn't--"

"They'll send more after us." He held out his hand, expecting Annette to pass him the Shield, but instead she reached for the Sword of Moralta, which had fallen some feet away, and she pressed it into his hand. She glanced down at her father, who'd fallen into a quiet, pained daze in the aftermath of her white magic, and she stood slowly. Felix didn't offer to help her stand and she knew he must have been hurting. She let white magic glow over her fingers and trailed them over the wound at his torso, which was still oozing blood, and she reached for his face to heal the more superficial cut over his eye. She looked down at his feet, trying to figure out why he was limping and if it was worth trying to fix, but he caught her fingers in his hand.

"No more of that," he said in a final tone. "Go put on your shoes. We have several hours of riding to travel." His stony expression softened just a bit and he raised his fingers to Annette's face, carefully passing them over the stinging cuts on her face. "I wish I could…" he muttered, and she felt warmth sink abruptly into her cheek. 

It was months ago, in this very castle, that Felix held her broken ankle in his fingers so gently and tried to use what little white magic he picked up to ease her pain.

Tears swam in front of her vision.

Felix dropped his hand quickly. "Shit, sorry, did I hurt you?"

She blinked and a tear escaped through her lashes. "No, no, I'm just--I don't... this is--"

He frowned at her sympathetically. "Annie, I'm sorry but we don't have time. Go put on some shoes. We have to go."

She nodded, and her throat was still hurting her so much. Being on the verge of tears was really irritating it.

"Stay with him until I come back?" Annette asked, and Felix's eyes flicked to Gustave.

He nodded once, then urged her to start walking to the stairs with a gentle push to her lower back.

Annette cried as she walked up the stone stairs, desperately wishing Felix was carrying her up them. She gave the dead Paladin a wide berth, as wide as the steps would allow. She cried as she stepped through the splintered door to her room, and she cried as she turned her bag upside down and slipped into real clothes as quickly as her trembling fingers could manage, and she cried as she laced up her boots.

She left her torn nightgown in a heap on the floor and stole into Felix’s room to rummage through Felix's bag for clothes for him.

He'd probably not want to change, but she could at least bring him an untorn shirt.

Annette returned to what used to be the dining room and was now just wreckage, splintered wood and broken glass decorations scattered about. Her father was now sitting in a chair, slumped, his arm pulled uselessly over his lap.

Felix was speaking with some soldiers, the only one of which Annette recognized was Martine, his quiver almost empty save for two silver arrows. 

“One mage dead in the kitchen,” the Bow Knight said gruffly, adding to a count on his fingers. So that’s what happened to the mage Annette fought earlier. “There are more outside the castle we took care of. It was a small force, but they fought well. Killing them wasn’t easy.”

"They’ll send another team. No one can stay here," Felix said gruffly. "Any staff that can't return home to their families will come with us."

"Yes, sir."

"Give them a chance to decide if they want to, I guess. I want to leave quickly, though."

"Yes, sir."

A bishop appeared in the doorway of the entrance to the kitchens. "Sir. What would you like us to do with Sir and Lady Fraldarius?"

Felix frowned sharply. 

We don't have time for a proper burial.  Lay their bodies out in the foyer and I will send for the Physician and his wife to collect them in the morning."

"Shall I bless them, milord?"

"My uncle," Felix said quickly. "I'm sure the Goddess has no love for his traitorous, bitch wife."

"Yes, sir."

The bishop and Martine both bowed to Felix, and Martine settled his gaze on Annette. Felix noticed this and turned to her, and she felt somehow that she'd been intrusive, watching him work. 

"Are you alright?" 

Her face must look a mess, with all the crying she'd done. "I'm fine," she said, although her voice sounded thin to her own ears. "I brought you a change of clothes."

"Thanks," he said, and to Annette's chagrin he began unbuttoning his nightshirt right then, in the middle of the room. 

His nightshirt was mostly ruined anyway, but Annette made an indignant noise at him.

His wound had already been healed, but the fresh scar was a red and puckered keloid that stretched from his right pectoral to his left hip, and it was probably still hurting him. He was favoring his left arm, and she would've liked to wrap it a bandage to support it. 

"Your father seems better," Felix said as he shook off the shreds of his nightshirt. "My bishop did some work on him. His arm seems pretty damaged, though." He was sliding on the fresh shirt as he spoke.

She tore her eyes away from Felix's injury to look over to her father.

"Why don't you take him to the stables and help them tack mounts? We need every horse available."

The thought of leaving Felix in the Castle while she was outside filled her with a sickening wave of anxiety, and she blinked up at him, unsure. As she blinked, hazy tears filled her eyes. 

Felix responded by combing his fingers through a small section of her heir from crown to end. “Go on,” he said, gentle but firm. “I’ll join you in a few minutes. I have a few things to straighten out.”

She hated how unsure she was, how frightened she felt, how much she wanted Felix to make everything go away. She needed to be strong, and sure of herself, and a good soldier. 

“Okay,” she said, and she did a remarkable job of keeping her voice even. “I’m your girl,” she added to assure not only Felix but herself, too.

“I know,” he answered, and he turned away from her, walking briskly into the kitchen, where Annette could see blood spattered across the stone floor.

“Come on, Father,” she murmured to Gustave, who was sat in one of the only unbroken chairs, staring down at some unspecified spot on the floor. He didn’t acknowledge her. 

She crouched, her brow furrowed, and made him look her in the eye. “Father?”

He blinked at her, his eyes so similar to hers in color, but hard and distant. “I didn’t mean to do it,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “The Relic, I--I had nothing else and I--and you--”

Her heart ached painfully, but she was used to that with him. “Let’s go, Father.” She reached out to take his arm underneath the elbow, but he jerked away from her, his left arm curled into his body. She felt her eyes go wide. “Father,” she said, and her voice shook.

“Maybe it’s best if I--if I stay here--”

“No. His Highness needs you,” she reminded him softly. 

“Not like this,” he answered glumly.

“Yes, Father. Even so.”

He looked up at her, and this was one of the only times Annette could ever remember looking down at her father. After several long moments, he stood, and as he did his face twisted into a pained grimace.

“Father?”

“Come, Annette,” he said, sounding suddenly like his usual self. The change was so abrupt it confused her. 

Apparently, there was nothing her father would not do for Dimitri.

She vaguely remembered the way to the stables, and when they arrived she made quick work of spotting Licorice, tacking him, and pulling herself into his saddle. 

It was only a few moments of waiting with several members of what she figured was Rodrigue’s battalion when Felix approached them, flanked by dozens of people, some soldiers, some not.

He approached Licorice, raised his hand to his nose and looked up at Annette in the saddle. Even in Harpstring Moon, the night air carried a chill, and she tried not to shiver as he looked at her, severe.

"Ready?" he asked, not looking back at the castle. As he looked up at her, others were pulling themselves into free mounts, some doubling up the way she and Felix had months ago, lifetimes ago, when they rode north to rescue the Gautier army.

She nodded and squeaked in surprise as he nudged her foot out of the stirrup and clambered onto the saddle behind her. He took the reins from her fingers and she felt impossibly small in the circle of his arms. His front was pressed into her back, and maybe it was her own anxiety but she was convinced she could feel his heartbeat thumping against her back at her right shoulder. He was alive. She was alive. Her father was alive. That had to be enough for now. 

Annette didn't train Licorice the way Felix had trained his horse, but she thought he did quite well with two riders and Felix's firm kicks that made Annette wince.

They set out, many riders doubled up as they were, and they rode hard. Felix was terrified they'd be ambushed again, but their group was large enough that the bands of thieves they passed on the way didn't pay them any mind.

Daylight bled into night, and they stopped to tend their mounts in midmorning, but Felix had only grown more tense. She was sure that he was exhausted, and the image of his aunt and uncle's body was probably haunting him. It haunted Annette, and she didn't even know them.

He pored over a map with Martine while Annette got them both a bowl of porridge, thanks to Lunete repurposing dried oats meant for the horses. It was dry and bland but between anxiety, hunger, and lack of sleep, Annette was grateful to have anything at all. She didn't mean to interrupt Felix and Martine as they conferred, but when she set the bowl down next to Felix he caught her by her wrist and pulled her to sit next to him. 

They continued on after that, and it was a few more hours when the Kingdom army, blue flag emblazoned with the Crest of Blaiddyd at the front, appeared on the horizon.

Annette could've cried.

The trip wasn't particularly hard, but they were all exhausted, and she wanted nothing more than to curl up in a bedroll and sleep until the next morning. Some real food would be great, as well, but mostly she wanted to sleep.

Felix pulled up in front of the bannermen, turning his horse to the side to halt them. "Where's Dimitri?" he demanded impatiently.

One of the Great Knights disappeared into the crowd, and Dimitri immediately came out to great them.

Annette's face was still raw, and they must have looked awful.

"What happened?" Dimitri demanded, one eye wide. 

"Bad shit," Felix answered, and Dimitri looked between Felix and Annette.

"We're stopping here for now," Dimitri ordered, and the second Great Knight stajed the flag into the ground easily.

"We shouldn't stop for long," Felix said as he slid down from the saddle. Annette slid down just after him, and she figured Dimitri and Felix and possibly her father would want to confer together, but as she made to disappear Felix caught her by her fingers and shot her a questioning look.

"Right," Dimitri said gruffly. 

Byleth appeared at Dimitri's side, and his bright green eyes lingered on Annette Felix. "Come," he said as he turned away, "there's a caravan with meager supplies we can use for privacy."

The caravan was mostly empty save a few crates, and when Dimitri closed the tarp behind them it blocked out a good portion of sunlight.

"What happened, Felix?" Dimitri demanded again, his tone grave.

Exhausted, Felix sat on one of the crates. "My aunt and uncle are dead."

"What?" Dimitri demanded, his eye impossibly wide in the semi-darkness.

Professor Byleth seemed as unmoved as ever.

"The fucking Death Knight showed up with some dark mage named Thales. He killed them. Tried to kill us, too. Well, me, I'm sure."

"The Death Knight?" Byleth demanded, calculating.

"We didn't kill him," Felix snapped. "Wounded him, I think.

"There's still so much we don't know," Byleth murmured.

"I know one thing, Professor," Dimitri said, pacing as he spoke. "We must win at Fhirdiad."

"The troops I brought back were hand-picked by my father. I worked with many of them after the Battle of Garreg Mach."

"Good to know. Well, I appreciate the troops, Felix," Dimitri said softly. 

"We'll plan once again to cut through Fraldarius. I want to limit our time at the western border," Byleth said, his voice calculating.

"Did the two of you sustain any injuries?" Dimitri asked, and Annette felt that he was trying very hard to be careful with Felix.

Things were still tenuous between them, Annette knew that much even though Felix didn't talk to her about it much.

"Gilbert's arm," Felix said. "He tried to use my shield."

Byleth frowned severely. "The Aegis Shield?"

"It's my fault," Annette said. "He was protecting me, I… Anyway, his arm is purpley-red all the way up to his elbow."

"I'll take Hanneman and Manuela and examine him," Byleth said.

"Felix, truly… are you well?" Dimitri asked, and Felix frowned at him sharply. 

"No, I'm not," he replied bluntly. Annette's stomach dropped as he said it. "I need to fucking sleep. I didn't sleep at all last night."

Dimitri nodded. "Why don't you stay here? That way we can keep moving and you can still rest. We'll get you a bedroll."

Felix only grunted at him, and Annette knew he would feel compelled to decline. 

"That's a lovely idea, I think," she said.

Dimitri nodded. "We'll brief the troops you brought over. Get some rest, Felix."

Dimitri and Byleth each ducked under the flap of the cart. Felix rested his elbow on his knee and his forehead on his hand.

"You should've said something to me," Annette scolded him wearily. "I would've taken the reins, or--"

"I wouldn't've slept on horseback, anyway," he told her dismissively. "Goddess, Annette, I still can't believe--everything got so fucked up."

She didn't know what to say. There was nothing she could say, really. "I'm so sorry, Felix," she whispered.

"The fucking Death Knight, he almost… He would've… I couldn't stop him."

"Oh. Well… everything turned out fine," she said lamely. So much had happened, she actually sort of forgot about the Death Knight's fingers around her throat, crushing her against the wall, and the blade of his scythe flashing in her periphery. At a loss for words, she stepped as close to Felix as she could as he sat on the crate, his forehead in his hand. He wasn't looking at her, but she gingerly reached out and brushed his bangs away from his brow.

He still didn't look at her, but he reached out with the arm he'd been leaning on and wrapped his arm around her thigh, and he leaned his head into her stomach in an exhausted embrace.

"My brother, my father, my aunt and uncle. Somehow I thought that the Goddess had taken enough away from me already. But you… Without you, I don't--"

There was a quick knock on the wooden floor of the cart, and Felix sighed as he let go of Annette.

She hurried over to the tarp entrance and pulled it back. "His Highness asked me to bring this, Miss," a myrmidon said, brandishing a tight bedroll.

"Thank you," Annette said, and she rolled it out, shoving aside some of the crates as she did. "Here," she called to Felix. "Come rest."

"I don't even know if I'll be able to sleep," he muttered. He sat on the bedroll and threw his boots over to the side. "Sylvain and Ingrid are going to kill me for not finding them first."

"Oh, do you want me to look for them?" Annette asked, latching onto a possible task excitedly. "I could tell them what happened, and--"

He frowned at her. "I thought you'd stay with me."

Her heart fractured at that. "No, I will, if you want."

He nodded, and laid on his side so there was as much room for her as possible. She was tired too, actually. She slept a few hours, but it hadn't been long before Felix woke her. It would probably do her well to at least nap.

She kicked off her boots and laid down on her side next to him, and a bedroll was really not made for two people, even less so than the twin mattresses at Garreg Mach. but Felix snaked his arm beneath her waist, and held her tight against him with the other one, and although Annette's limbs were constantly at the edge of the bedroll and the hard wood of the cart's floor, she didn't mind. Felix's steady breaths soon told her that he was asleep and she tried her best to join him. 

The cart lurched forward, signalling that the army was moving again, and Annette tried not to think of Fhirdiad and the tense battle that would take place there. Instead, she imagined another world, a world where Edelgard was able to live in peace with the other territories and she and Felix were heading to Fhirdiad for business or perhaps to visit together as a fun trip in their courtship.

She vaguely realized as she drifted to sleep that her cheeks were wet with tears.

Chapter Text

Stay alive and follow your heart, Dimitri had said. Wind blew through the city, disturbing the hem of Lysithea and Annette's dresses in tandem. Thyrsus gleamed in Lysithea's hand, and Annette clutched her hexlock shield. Cyril's wyvern snorted from behind them, and the wind jostled the arrows in his quiver. 

All three of them commanded battalions, a new accomplishment for Cyril. He was still unused to throwing orders around, but Lysithea silenced anyone who questioned him.

Annette had to admit that she was a bit uneasy about being separated from Felix. After all that had happened yesterday, he still had wounds that were unhealed. Annette was still sore, herself. The right side of her throat sported three purple bruises, and one on the left from the unforgiving black-gauntleted fingers of the Death Knight. Felix pointed it out to her this morning. She wished he didn't.

She glanced to her right, where the main force of their group was located. She could just see Felix by the orange glow of his Relic and the glint of morning sunlight off his many swords. She wished she knew Physic, that she'd made Mercie teach her, or even Marianne. It made anxiety swirl around in her chest to know that she wouldn't be able to reach him with her healing magic.

When the Professor handed out the assignment for this mission, she and Felix had glanced over at each other. Byleth's hauntingly green eyes swept over them, challenging, but neither one of them argued. Dimitri implored for them to follow their hearts--well, Annette's heart was three hundred yards away, glaring down a defensive wall of mechanical golems, Sword of Moralta gripped tight in his hand but terribly, humanly exposed. 

She'd focus on the 'stay alive' part, for now. 

Ashe, Ingrid, and Marianne took up the far right, and the plan was for everyone to come together in the middle after the edge teams fought their way clear. 

Annette wasn’t quite sure if the professor had accounted for the sheer number of Titanus. Eight of them loomed over the battlefield, their horrible mechanical joints whirring as they moved, oversized katars reflecting the bright sunlight. 

Cyril’s wyvern flapped behind her, and she could hear the faint sounds of metal and the whirring of mechanical joints that signalled that the center team started their push forward. 

“Okay, guys,” Annette said to Cyril and Lysithea as magic rushed to both of her palms. “Let’s settle this!”

Byleth had positioned Annette, relying on her experience of having fought the golems a whopping one time, and Lysithea on the edge of the battlefield, where the greatest amount of Titanus were lying in wait. The heavier hitters in the middle, like Ferdinand and Dedue, Sylvain and Felix, and of course, her father, were to sidepass the ones in the center of the city and try to make their way to Cornelia.

Standing between Annette, Lysithea, and Cyril were three Imperial soldiers, two axe-users and an archer. With Thyrsus, Lysithea had the better reach, while Cyril could hang back until the archer was defeated and then swoop in to take out one of the grapplers. 

“Can you get ahead to that archer?” Annette asked Lysithea as Cyril fired at one of the brawlers. “I would do it myself, but you have Thyrsus.”

Lysithea frowned, her forehead creasing solemnly. “Of course I can.”

The two girls advanced, Lysithea striking first, felling the archer easily with her magic staff. Annette fired two rapid Cutting Gales one after the other, knocking the axe user out of the way, and Cyril flew in from above on his wyvern to dispatch the second one. 

“Hah,” Annette said to herself, smiling triumphantly. “Not even a challenge.”

“We’ve only just started,” Lysithea reminded her, but she was smiling, too.

They pushed forward, through buildings and into a closed-off square, probably where street vendors normally set up, and pounced upon more enemies as a single unit. A Titanus hulked in the corner of the square, its oversized katar glowing as its body emitted strange jets of steam as it moved. 

Cyril flew right for it until Annette called out, “Don’t engage the Titanus!” and she fired Saggitae at a grappler who bared his pointed gauntlets at her. They weren’t much help as magical arrows tore into his flesh, unarmored to provide more speed. Speed didn’t help when magic could come for you out of reach.

“If I don’t attack it, it’ll just attack me first,” he snapped at Annette. 

Wary of the second grappler, she looked to him. A stream of magic burst forth from behind her and Lysithea clutched Thyrsus with both hands.“She’s right. By attacking you’re only allowing it a chance to counter. Just try to dodge and counter. Focus on the enemies ahead and don’t let it hit you.”

Cyril muttered something under his breath, but raised his brave bow to sink two arrows into the dark mage that blasted Lysithea with a weak spell.

The Titanus approached them, its steps rocking the foundation of the brick walls on all sides, and it raised its katar slowly. It swung at them, magical wind cutting, but she and Lysithea were able to dodge while Cyril flew out of range. A third grappler stood guarding the opening to the next square they needed to take, and he engaged that unit while they waited out the Titanus.

A strong jet of dark magic sprang from the ground into the body of the Titanus, and it jerked to the side before righting itself. 

Heavy pants filled Annette’s ears, and concerned, she glanced to Lysithea to find her leaning heavily on her staff. 

“Hey, what’s the matter?” she asked, worry in her voice.

“Just hit it,” Lysithea ordered, gesturing at the Titanus, which was still recovering.

Her Goddess Ring thrummed on her finger as she loosed two Cutting Gales in quick succession. A bad feeling, heavy like lead, settled at the pit of her stomach.

The Titanus struck out again, this time aiming its katar at Lyisthea. Annette tried to move in front of her with the hexlock shield, but she wasn’t quite fast enough. Lysithea used Thyrsus’s long handle to deflect the sword and aim it to the ground, crying out as the tip lashed her shoulder. Gritting her teeth, she jumped into the air and fired a spell from the staff, which blasted into the Titanus as it creaked. 

It didn’t seem possible, but Annette thought she could see the dark magic linger in the staff, and Lysithea whimpered and gasped. She was close enough to heal her, and she had enough energy to spare Recover for her. But something was wrong--her magic flooded Lysithea, and for the amount of energy Annette spent the fresh wound should have closed, but it only became more shallow, a small sliver of red against her pale skin. 

“Wait, what’s happening?” she asked, confused. Lysithea frowned sharply at her, and then shot another spell into the Titanus. It must be close to falling now.

Annette couldn’t heal Lysithea and cast an offensive attack before the Titanus struck again, and Lysithea was backing out of range as the Titanus turned on Annette. 

She held the shield aloft, but the Goddess Ring thrummed against her finger, vitalizing her and making it almost too easy to sidestep the katar as it crashed into the ground to the spot where she’d been standing almost moments ago.

Lysithea’s arm was shaking as she leveled Thyrsus at the Titanus, and Annette suddenly realized--her magic was hurting her. But it couldn’t be the magic alone, even dark magic didn't have that effect. The gem inside Thyrsus glowed as a purple sigil sparked above it, and Annette could see Lysithea draw in a shuddering breath.

“Lysithea, stop!” Annette shrieked, but she was already aiming Thyrsus and a jet of purple magic shot forth. The metal body of the Titanus groaned through as the hole where Lysithea’s magic ate away at it until it smoked. It’s joints creaked as it went limp, and the giant katar fell from its mechanical fingers. 

Lysithea stumbled to the side, a hand thrown out to brace herself against the nearest brick structure, and she ducked her head low. An archer was moving forward to meet them, but Annette couldn’t focus on that. Something was wrong with Lysithea. Cyril was vulnerable in the sky as he aimed an arrow at a mage.

“Lysithea--” Annette, said, unsure. She aimed a spell that she hoped reached the archer as he was nocking an arrow as she glanced over her shoulder at the dark mage.

Lysithea was panting, leaning a shoulder against the brick wall. Thyrsus was crackling with stormy dark magic. 

The twang of Cyril’s bow refocused Annette, and she let her spell loose. The Imperial archer pulled back on the arrow as Cutting Gale struck him, and the arrow flew wildly across the battlefield. Cyril glanced down as he pulled his wyvern higher into the sky. 

“Focus, Annette,” Lysithea said sharply. 

“What--” Annette began, and she turned again to Lysithea, who looked perhaps a bit pale but had pulled herself together. It was hard to tell if she was still breathing heavily. “But you--”

“I’m fine. Let’s go.”

Another Titanus from the next open square was making its way toward them, and Annette took a last lingering look at the one Lysithea had dispatched, the hole in its metal body leaking brackish oil dark like clotted blood. 

“You’re hurt. We should wait for backup.”

Lysithea whirled on her. Annette didn’t often feel shorter than Lysithea, though she was now, but Lysithea seemed to be glaring down at her more so than usual. “I’m not hurt.”

“I just saw you--”

“--Dizzy spell,” she interrupted. She stepped forward and blasted Luna from her palm at a Titanus approaching from the center of the city. 

Annette raised her shield to cover her face as the approaching Titanus swung its sword in their direction. Its magic missed Lysithea, but Annette was knocked back by it even with her shield. 

“Help Cyril,” the towhead barked, and she held Thyrsus diagonally in front of her body as the Titanus approached.

“What? I can’t leave you alone with that thing!” 

“I’m telling you, I can handle it.” To punctuate her statement, Lysithea stepped forward, toward the Titanus, throwing her weight into a spell that shot forth from the magic staff and tore into the mechanical golem. It rocked back, and for a moment, Annette thought it would topple, but it found its balance and teetered in place until it stilled. 

Annette lashed out with Excalibur, although even her strongest spell was much less impressive than Lysithea with her combination of Crest and Hero’s Relic. 

As wind whipped past Lysithea and into the Titanus, her bangs lifted away from her forehead, which Annette could see was drenched in a sheen of beaded sweat. 

“You need to go,” Annette said, using the voice she saved for her battalions, and Lysithea ignored her. “Go back to the city gates and wait for the battle to be over.”

“Not if your life depended on it,” Lysithea muttered. 

“Hey--”

“Watch!” Lysithea shrieked, and she dragged Annette back, out of reach of the Titanus’s katar. Her magenta eyes burned angrily as she snapped, “Maybe you’re the one that needs to go if you can’t focus!”

Lysithea’s skin was burning as she pulled Annette away, and their gremory skirts lifted at the hem at once as wind swept by them, carrying the acrid scent of dark magic, ozone, like the air in summer moments before lightning struck. 

“Lysithea,” Annette said softly, truly growing concerned. Her eyes flicked down to the staff clutched in Lysithea’s trembling hand. “The staff-- your Crest-- It’s hurting you!”

She opened her mouth to protest, her lips pale, and suddenly the red glow of a giant katar pierced Annette’s periphery. She stepped in front of Lysithea as a reflex and held the hexlock shield up, unsure, and she squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the Goddess to decide on the outcome.

The Katar swung down, but instead of making contact with the shield, Lysithea reached out from behind Annette and called down dark magic onto the golem. Its mechanical parts groaned, and its movements became more jerky, but it didn’t fall. 

Lysithea groaned and fell to her knees, panting. “What are you doing… idiot…” she said weakly to Annette, as though this whole thing was her fault. 

The Titanus was still recovering from Lysithea’s attack, so Annette took the opportunity to pull the Relic from her fingers. 

Or, she intended to, but Lysithea’s grip was far tighter than Annette had anticipated. “Let go!” Annette shouted, frustrated. “Every time you use this it makes you weaker and weaker!” Lysithea used Annette’s grip on the staff to pull herself up, breathing heavily as she did so.

“It makes me stronger.”  

“You’re being ridiculous.” Annette was as offended as she was concerned. Byleth placed her in charge of this makeshift squadron; Lysithea should at least respect that, if nothing else Annette was trying to do for her. “I’ll have you forcibly removed from the battlefield.”

“Dimitri is not my King and you are not my General,” the towhead snapped, and Annette knew that she was only lashing out because of her dire situation, but her words stung. 

“Give me the staff!” Annette shouted fiercely, and she yanked on it. 

Lysithea was not able to balance against her pull, but her grip didn’t loosen. “You’re just jealous,” she insisted as she bumped weakly into Annette, “because with my Relic I’m so much stronger than you are!”

“This isn’t the time for this!” Annette shouted desperately.

“Then stop!” Lysithea answered, just as desperate, and she tugged back on the staff. 

Neither of them noticed the Golem approach them, and this time Annette couldn’t raise her shield in time. 

A sword pierced through the body of the golem, and, spent from the rest of the fight, it’s mechanical limbs dropped and the oversized katar clattered to the ground as Annette shrieked. 

“What are you doing?” The voice belonged to Felix, but Annette couldn’t see how truly confused he looked until the sword disappeared and he appeared around the side of the Titanus. 

“Nothing,” Annette mumbled, and Lysithea’s eyes were wide. With a final show of strength, she pulled the Relic from Annette’s loose grip. 

“Let’s go,” she said, and without looking back, she pressed forward, where Cyril was waiting in the skies. 

“Everything okay?” Felix asked, one eyebrow raised. 

“I--What are you doing over here? Did something go wrong?”

“There are so many Titanus we changed course. Professor thinks we can avoid fighting most of them. How many did the three of you take out?” he asked, his voice warm around the edges with something that might have been akin to admiration.

“Um, I don’t know,” Annette said, finding herself unable to hold his gaze, and she moved to follow Lysithea. “Two, I think.”

Cyril was able to take out the two mages from the sky, and he landed his wyvern when they approached him. “There’s a lot more Golems. Guarding her.”

Felix nodded. “We’re trying to avoid some of them.”

Annette noted a trail of bright red blisters from Cyril’s jaw to his cheek, probably from a stray magic attack. Lysithea must have noticed it, too, but she didn’t heal it. 

“Here, Cyril, let me heal you.” Annette stood on her tiptoes and leaned onto his wyvern for balance as she stretched her arm so that her fingers were within casting range. He winced as the area glowed white, then faded into perfectly healed skin.

“Thanks,” he said with a nod. 

“Can we stop wasting time?” Lysithea demanded, and she tossed some of her hair over her shoulder. Annette peered at the skin on her neck, which was still coated in a layer of sweat, and Lysithea immediately covered it with her hair again. Glaring at Annette, she pressed forward to engage three enemy units waiting for them. 

Without assistance from Thyrsus, Lysithea aimed Swarm at a swordsman, although he sidestepped it and charged at her. Felix rushed forward and crossed swords with him as Cyril flew above and aimed at a second swordsman. 

Annette set her sights on a dark mage, and she threw Saggitae at them. Without the benefit of a shield like hers, the attack tore at the sleeves of his robe as he raised an arm to cover his face. He stumbled back and Annette pressed forward, turning as she shifted her weight to her other foot and casting Cutting Gale at him. Cyril felled a swordsman as Lysithea cast MIasma over Felix’s shoulder and he fell at his companion’s side.

She was breathing heavily, but Felix didn’t seem to notice as he led them to the end of a wall. Annette didn’t bother hanging back to check on Lysithea--she’d only shout at her if she did--and she joined Felix as he tried to peer around the corner they’d be forced to follow.

“There are two Titanus just ahead,” Annette whispered, leaning around Felix to peer across the streets she knew so well. “There were eight, we beat two, two were at front… that leaves two unaccounted for.”

“Probably around the corner,” Felix muttered. 

“Here.” Annette rested her palm on Felix’s forearm and let white magic flow into him. He didn’t look hurt as far as she could tell, but a boost would be a good idea before taking on unseen enemies and at least two horrible magic golems. 

“Thanks,” he said. “Save your strength. We’ll need it.”

She nodded at him. “Here goes,” she said, and she charged magic in her hands as she climbed the steps to round the corner, intending to attack the first Titanus. With Felix at her side and backup from Cyril and Lysithea, she was sure they could beat it in three rounds. If they got lucky with Felix’s Crest, maybe two. 

A grappler came at her from the unseen edge of the corner, and she raised the hexlock shield reflexively as a gauntleted fist came at her face. She wasn’t fast enough for the second left hook that connected with her abdomen, and wheezing, she dropped to her knee. Desperately, she summoned magic to her hand, but she didn’t have the strength to cast a spell. Another flurry of fists came at her, but Felix stepped over her, his own glowing shield absorbing damage. Annette recovered in time to counter, but Felix slashed at him with a sword and blood spattered over the Aegis Shield as wet gurgling bubbled from the grappler’s lips. 

“Sorry,” Annette gasped. “I--look out!”

As they fought the grappler, the nearer Titanus had been approaching, and it was raising it’s katar to strike at them. 

Annette was sure she wouldn’t withstand another physical hit, not with pain in her stomach like a lead weight. Felix was on the wrong side of her to help, and Annette threw Excalibur at it, hoping it would be enough.

The Titanus shuddered, but it didn’t stop its attack. Felix swore next to Annette, and she hoped that if she blocked with her shield it would at least be enough to keep the katar from slicing fully through her. 

Purple magic shot past her, and it burned an ugly hole in the Titanus’s body. The white light of an activated crest shone in her periphery, and Annette whirled around to face Lysithea.

Already it was evident that the attack was too much for her, pushing her over the precipice she’d been teetering against since the beginning of the battle. “Lysithea!” Annette shrieked, and she stumbled into her as she pitched forward, using her shoulder to try to keep Lysithea standing. 

“Fuck--Annette!” Felix growled, and Annette had to twist her neck to look over to the Titanus, who was honing in on her. Cyril’s wyvern roared as he swept low and shot two arrows, cleverly aimed next to the smoking hole in the golem’s body. 

Felix grunted as he aimed Thoron at it, and with a creak the katar dropped from its fingers. 

Annette tried to hobble behind one of the walls with Lysithea in her arms, but she was taller and Annette wasn’t the strongest Blue Lion. 

“Annette,” Lysithea muttered, and her knees completely buckled, making Annette’s knees give out, too. Annette slid down to her butt to take most of the impact from the fall, and Lysithea splayed over her limply. 

“Shit, are you okay?” Annette demanded. 

“I..” Lysithea stammered weakly, her eyelids fluttering as she fought to stay conscious. 

Cyril jumped out of his saddle to join Annette, and Lysithea coughed weakly, blood tingeing her lips as she did. 

“What--” Cyril began, his voice thin and panicky, and Annette grounded him with a firm voice.

“You can’t leave Felix alone with another Titanus to fight. Help me move her and go back.”

Cyril looked down at Annette with wide eyes. “But--”

“I’m still the commanding general,” she said authoritatively. “One of us has to go back, and I don’t think you know white magic.”

Cyril frowned, but he scooped Lysithea gently into his arms and took her down the steps they ascended minutes ago and brought her behind the brick wall that shielded them earlier. “Take care of her,” he said as he propped her limp body so it was sitting against the wall.

Instead of answering, Annette dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers to the pulse point above her thumb and closed her eyes as she counted the beats of her heart. Her pulse was weak, thready and fast, but regular. She tilted her head back and pulled open one of her eyes and shone the light of a sigil into a pupil which shrank under its light. 

Cyril had left once he was sure Annette was doing her due diligence, and a wave of anger at the dark mage washed over her. She could be helping Felix, not to mention Dimitri and the rest of the Lions, if it weren’t for Lysithea’s stubborn attitude. 

Annette squeezed her fingers too hard as she let white magic flow into her. While her wounds weren’t physical, the magic flowed easily, like water into dry soil, and she felt her pulse again when the Recover spell ebbed. It seemed stronger and less thready, but still fast. It was hard to properly assess without a clock. 

Lysithea’s head lolled to the side, alarming Annette, but her magenta eyes fluttered open and she coughed onto her arm. More blood stained her lips.

“What happened?” she asked, her voice weak.

“You pushed yourself too hard,” Annette said, unable to keep the annoyance out of her voice. “Keep still.”

“I passed out?”

“Yep,” Annette told her tightly. “Right on the battlefield.”

Lysithea sighed tiredly. “Crap.”

“Is that really all you have to say?” Annette asked harshly. “I could be fighting right now but instead I’m--”

Lysithea’s eyes had gone wide, and her lip was trembling, and Annette suddenly felt guilty. 

“I’m just saying. You have to be more careful. It’s not like it’s only you and your spells out there.”

“Fine, whatever. Sorry to bother you.” The dark mage reached for Thyrsus, which was lying a few feet away on the cobbled ground, and Annette snatched it.

“Are you crazy?” she screeched, holding it as far away from herself as she could. She’d always thought Crusher looked quite intimidating, but Thyrsus made her feel sick as it glowed in her hand, points outstretched like probing fingers.

“I was just going to use it to help me stand up.” Lysithea was obviously annoyed at her, but Annette didn't care just then. 

“You shouldn’t be standing. You’re coughing up blood. Goddess, what will it take for you to take this seriously?”

“I am taking it seriously. This factors into how much time I’ve probably got left. If I can help end the war faster by being stronger, then the damage it does to my body will be worth it. I can work through sickness, but I can’t work through this stupid war.”

Annette frowned down at her. “It’s no use, counting the remainder of your life. You can die any moment. Any of us could. We could survive this war and die of pneumonia a month later. This fascination you have with your time left isn’t healthy.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Lysithea shouted, and once the words tumbled over Annette, as effective as any dark magic spell, she lapsed into another coughing fit, bits of blood spattering against the sleeve of her dress.

“I have a vulnerary,” Annette said, more gently. “I’m not really sure it’ll help--you don’t have any physical wounds. You can have it if you want.”

“Fine. Give it.”

Annette reached into her pack and handed Lysithea a vulnerary after unscrewing the top for her.

“Are you in pain?” the redhead asked, and she sat against the wall with Lysithea, trying not to think about what was happening on the other side of it.

“I’m always in pain,” she mumbled. 

Annette frowned. “Think you can make it back to a medic cart?”

“You just told me not to stand up.”

“You shouldn’t, but it’s not a good idea to stay here, either.”

“Just give me a minute.”

Annette relaxed against the wall and she tried to imagine that she and Lysithea were sitting in the training grounds at Garreg Mach and Lysithea brought a bag full of sweets for them to eat after they finished. She tried not to think about the groaning metal bodies of Titanus or the occasional sparks and rings of metal she could hear from over the wall.

“Okay. I think I’m good,” Lysithea said, snapping Annette out of her thoughts. 

Silently, she stood, and reached her hand out to Lysithea to help her stand. She seemed barely able to hold herself upright, and Annette helped her sling her arm over her shoulders and they hobbled to the gates of the city, outside of which a cart was parked, ready to help the injured.

A few battalion soldiers were holding empty vulneraries, and Manuela was wrapping some gauze around the arm of one soldier. Annette helped Lysithea to sit on the floor of the cart. Once she was seated, Lysithea leaned heavily back on her arm, and she was out of breath from their walk to the cart.

“Are you going to be--?” Annette began, but Lysithea interrupted her by fluttering one pink open at her and waving her away with her hand. 

“Fine, I’ll be fine,” she panted. “Go.”

Annette nodded and she ran through the streets they’d just traveled, up the steps and around the corner, past the bodies of Imperial soldiers and Titanus broken like children’s toys.

Dimitri was kneeling on the ground, looking down at Cornelia. Annette wasn’t close enough to hear much, but the court mage reached up and touched his cheek with a bloodied hand.

“There’s nothing left for you now. Nothing but despair.”

Her father, at Dimitri’s left side, stepped forward and rested his hand on his shoulder. 

“It can’t be true,” he said, and Annette would have expected his voice to be emotional after such a significant kill, but it sounded strangely even and detached. 

To the right, Felix and Ferdinand looked to have been fighting another Titanus, although when Cornelia fell, it dropped its katar in defeat and the life faded from its mechanics.

Ingrid, Ashe, and Marianne had been fighting some stragglers to the left, but the scene was quiet by the time Annette rejoined them. 

“Highness,” Dedue said, the first one to speak as wind passed along the open square, where people used to gather on the rare occasion that King Lambert spoke to them. “It is done.”

Dimitri looked over his shoulder at his retainer and, slowly, lifted himself up. “Right you are, Dedue. I… we did it.” He turned around to his Generals, all of whom were looking up at him, even Felix, his sword dripping with black oil.

“Thank you all,” he said, his blue eye scanning over them. Annette noticed that his face was spattered with blood. It was probably Cornelia’s. “To be back in my home is…” his voice did break here, and he paused to collect himself. “We will get through this war, I’m almost sure of it now.”

Cyril made his way over to Annette, worry in his eyes. He’d dismounted his wyvern, perhaps to avoid the deadly point of an arrow. “Is she--?” he began, his voice rough and harsh, and Annette quieted him with a small smile and her hand on his wrist.

“She’s okay. She woke up and she’s talking. I really think she overexerted herself.”

Cyril dropped his arm and Annette’s fingers slid away from his wrist. “Okay. That’s good, right? I mean, it’s not good, but at least she’s not…”

“It’s good,” Annette assured him, and she was so pleased that he nodded and seemed set at ease.

“Everything alright?” Felix asked as he approached them, and Annette nodded. She opened her mouth to explain what had happened with Lysithea, but Felix led her down the steps which were in front of Cornelia’s lifeless body, past two golems, their bodies frozen in place and their katars dropped to the ground in defeat. “Let’s go, then.”

“Felix? What happened?” she asked, alarmed. He wasn’t being rough with her, but she could feel the tension in his arm at her back, in the way he was hurrying her along even though they all should have been relieved.

“Nothing. Cornelia said some shit after the boar stabbed her. I’ll fill you in later. There’s still a lot to do.”

Annette frowned, but she didn’t push the matter. He was right, after all.

They barely had time to address new wounds before they were all gathered inside the castle, at a tower overlooking the wide square, the same one where Cornelia had met her demise, although now it was lined with Kingdom soldiers and borrowed Fraldarius troops. The throne room was located beyond, and the balcony was set into the side of it, with an ante-room with wide doors so the King could prepare before he stepped onto the balcony to greet his people.

Even restricted as she was to the ante-room, Dimitri’s coronation was like something out of one of Annette’s books. It made tears spring to her eyes. 

They fought so hard to make this happen. They still had a long way to go in order to keep all of these people safe. But she was home in Fhirdiad. If she never threw herself so single-mindedly into learning magic, and attending the officer’s academy, and reuniting with her father, she would be out there in the crowds, she was sure of it. All of the Blue Lions formed an arc safely out of the spotlight, supporting Dimitri as he addressed the crowd. 

Sylvain was crossing his arms, and he looked like a proud older brother as he listened to Dimitri. Ingrid was leaning her head against his arm, biting her lip probably to stave off whatever emotions were rising to the surface. Ashe was clenching both his fists, green eyes wide, hanging on every word Dimitri was speaking. Dedue, on his right, was his exact opposite, head bowed as he listened, hands clasped behind his back. Marianne and Ferdianand stood together, both looking solemnly on, although Annette thought that Marianne’s generally somber expression was colored a little brighter by a subtle smile that pulled at the corners of her cheeks. Cyril was pacing nervously behind the group, unable to stay still, probably so anxious about Lysithea. Annette tried to get him to stand off to the side with her and Felix, but he declined in his terse way. 

Annette was standing close to Felix, and a little in front of him. She was crying, too laden with emotions to keep the tears in, for too many reasons to explain. Felix started off fretting over her, but lapsed into silence, a little rigid in posture, looking down at his feet instead of at Dimitri. He was feeling a lot of things, too, Annette was sure, and probably thinking about his father. 

Dimitri addressed them after, thanked them for their help, apologized for his past behavior. Felix still seemed very tense, and when Gustave announced that there was to be a feast to honor the people of Fhirdiad and the members of the Court who remained loyal to the crown, Felix pressed his fingers into the inside of her arm. 

A quick glance around the group showed mostly excitement at this sudden development, with Ingrid and Sylvain looking a bit confused, although it was nothing next to the fury on Felix’s face.

He turned away from the group while Dimitri was still wrapping up his spiel, and Annette bit her lip unsurely as she looked between her newly coronated King and the door Felix let slam behind him. Dimitri kindly ignored this, and she decided that Felix needed her more just then--besides, Dimitri had her father and Marianne to look after him. 

She closed the door behind her carefully before hurrying to catch up with Felix before he disappeared around a corner. 

“Felix,” she called softly, and he didn’t stop to wait for her to catch up. “Wh-where are you going?” she asked shakily. 

“My room,” he said curtly. His voice was sharp, but not pointed at her. “I instructed for your things to be kept with mine,” he added over his shoulder. “Lunete should have taken care of it.”

Annette blushed. Sending her things to his room will start rumors. It wasn’t proper. But now was certainly not the time to bring up etiquette about their blundersome courtship.

She hurried to keep up with him as he walked down far too many halls. He didn’t bother explaining things to her as they went, and she knew it was because he was so upset. Finally, almost at the end of a long hallway which must have been clear across the castle, he stopped to pull open a door.

“Oh,” Annette breathed. 

The room was clearly reserved for high-ranking members of the court, she could tell before the door had swung all the way open. More specifically, this was the sleeping quarters of the Duke Fraldarius, confirmed by the Crest of Fraldarius mounted proudly above the fireplace. A rich, navy blue rug adorned a sitting area with bookcased filled with many interesting titles alluding to the history of Faerghus and the genealogy of its nobles. A fire had already been lit, and Annette remembered Lunete tending the hearth in her room from her time in Fraldarius. 

Felix was already rifling through his pack, which had been set against the stone wall near the door, next to Annette’s. He was being quiet in a way that let Annette know how angry he was.

She could understand why: here they were, in Fhirdiad, standing in the Duke’s quarters--quarters which would have belonged to his father until very recently--and they were preparing for a feast instead of doing something more action-based. This was the city where Dimitri was nearly executed. It was the city where Cornelia and her followers turned almost all of the Kingdom lords into mindless followers of the Empress. It was a place which must have meant a lot to Felix that Annette couldn’t even fathom. She was sure he wanted to be planning, dealing with all the horrors they’d endured in a more active way. 

She investigated the room instead of prodding him about it. He’d open up to her when he was ready, she was sure.

Besides, Annette was feeling a lot of things, too.

The townhouse where she’d grown up wasn’t far from here. Her father was a knight for the Blaiddyd family for years, and he probably had personal effects here, somewhere. The Dominics probably had a room reserved for them like this one, and she never even knew about it.

The room was clean, something Annette had to attribute to Lunete and not the Dukedom staff who’d been in this place the last five years. There were two doors, and one seemed to lead to a study, which was a bit small and most of the room was taken up by a very official looking writing desk. A small window offered a view to the gardens below. The second door let out to a bathroom, complete with a porcelain tub and sink. After months of sharing a bathroom with the other women in the monastery, Annette could have cried, and she resolved to take a bath at some point.

As Annette entered the room, she caught sight of herself in the freshly-polished mirror and her stomach sank.

She looked a mess, in more ways than one.

Towels hung on an iron bar set into the stone wall, and Annette dipped the end of one into cool water from the sink and patted it along the tender skin of her face. It had been healed yesterday, after she and Felix napped for a few hours in the supply cart, but the wounds from her fight with the mage in Castle Fraldarius were all raw, newly healed skin which left her face embarrassingly blotchy.

She was a little upset about her outfit choices, mainly because there weren't many. She only had what she'd packed for Fraldarius, and it wasn't as dressy as she would've liked.

"Holding a feast now is stupid," Felix muttered, and she could hear him handling in his swords in the bedroom, and then the sound of his jacket on the stone floor. 

"It's… politics," Annette answered distractedly. The red marks on her face were prominent, even in the dim pre-dusk light. 

"A subject in which the boar has never excelled."

Annette was suddenly not in the mood to listen to Felix complain about Dimitri. Her face was ruined, and Lysithea was lying in the infirmary, and her father's left arm was still bandaged tightly and she hadn't even had the chance to ask about it. 

"We've only just started making some progress. Throwing a feast like a fool to celebrate won't do any good. It'll make us look arrogant."

"Oh, Felix, who cares?" Annette sighed harshly. "We fought for so long and things have been so awful. Let's just relax for a change."

There was silence from the bedroom, and Annette frowned at her splotchy-faced reflection in the mirror and passed the towel over her cheek again.

"What are you doing in here?"

In the mirror, Annette could see Felix enter the bathroom over her shoulder. For some reason she couldn't look at him, even through the mirror.

"Nothing," she mumbled, pressing the cool towel into her cheek. 

Felix came up behind her, looking at her carefully in the mirror, and he covered her fingers over the towel with his own. She didn't resist when he pulled the fabric away from her face, but she did lower her gaze to the porcelain sink beneath the mirror. 

"Relaxing is hard for me," he said softly into the crown of her head.

"I know, sorry. I didn't mean to snap. Maybe it's good to take a break from everything, even if it's only for a few hours. I could certainly use a break."

Felix pulled her by the arm to turn her, and when she turned around and looked up at him, he raised his gloveless fingers to her cheek.

"Felix," she complained, and pressed her fingers into his wrist to push his hand away, but he wouldn't let her. "It--my face is--" A blush was snaking its way up her neck, over her cheeks, probably making the raw, healed skin even more apparent. "It's horrible," she said softly.

She was a soldier. A leader. She'd seen people killed in front of her. But for some reason looking at her scarred cheek in the mirror was pulling at her, or maybe everything was pulling at her and this was the one thing she couldn't ignore even when she was in her bathroom preparing for a feast. Tears swam in Annette's vision and she pressed her lips together as she avoided Felix's eyes.

"Your face?" Felix asked, and his voice was surprised, like she'd said something preposterous. "It's not horrible. Annie," he said her name softly, and she looked up at him hesitantly. "It's… pretty."

His cheeks were tinged a deep red, and Felix, not used to dispensing compliments, was a little red in the face, too, but he was looking at her earnestly. 

Annette tried to hold his gaze, but she was uncomfortable and liable to start crying any moment. The last time he'd called her beautiful she was laying under him in her bedroom just after he'd given her the sapphire that hung beneath her throat.

It wasn't something that he said all the time, and it bothered her that he was saying it now just to quell her rising tears. 

"You don't have to say that," she murmured, and she tucked her hair behind her ear.

"What? I'm not just saying it . Annette," he said, and he clasped his hands at the small of her back and pulled her into him. 

He caught her in a kiss, and Annette rested her hands on his upper arms for balance. He trailed his kisses up her cheek, over the new skin there, and he pulled back. 

Annette leaned her head on his chest and focused on taking slow breaths. "It's not just my stupid face I'm upset about, you know."

"I know," he said, and he stroked his fingers through her hair.

She wanted to tell him about Lysithea and her second crest, her bloody coughing fit, and her shortened lifespan. But it wouldn't be fair to make him promise to keep it a secret, so she closed her eyes and focused on his fingers in her hair.

"Get dressed," Felix said gently. "Then you can go see Lysithea in the infirmary."

"Oh, but I don't want to be late for--"

"It's fine," he interrupted firmly. He ceased the movement of his fingers in her hair and Annette missed it. "Nothing diplomatic is going to be happening, anyway. It's a celebration. No one will mind if you're late."

She nodded and exited the bathroom to kneel in front of her sparse bag with the extra clothes she'd packed for Fraldarius. All she had was a full blue skirt and a mustard-colored top in a scoop neck. If she had some jewelry to wear with it, it would've been a passable outfit. The necklace Felix gave her was at least something.  

Felix directed her to the infirmary--they were terrible directions, full of landmarks such as specific portraits which were no doubt removed during Cornelia’s time occupying the castle and, and Annette got lost more than a few times. If it hadn't been for Cyril pacing around outside the hall, she would have missed the infirmary entirely, because the door had been pulled shut and candles had not been lit.

“I’m trying to keep the place quiet for her, poor dear. She needs rest,” Manuela said softly as Annette entered.

Lysithea looked pale against the sheets of the infirmary bed, her lips almost white, dark circles like bruises under her eyes. 

Manuela clicked her tongue at Annette. "She's alright, dear. Overexerted herself, that's all. Hydration and sleep are the cures."

Annette didn't answer. It wasn't true. She'd seen Lysithea cough up blood. Magic exhaustion didn't do that.

"I'm going to join the festivities downstairs," the songstress said lightheartedly. "You should, too. You earned it."

Manuela's heels sounded on the floor, then continued out into the hall until the click of her heels faded away entirely. 

Annette didn't make a sound, only waited. She stared down at Lysithea and crossed her arms over her chest.

After a few minutes, Lysithea cracked an eye open, and even the magenta of her irises seemed pale to Annette.

She sighed. "What are you still doing here?" Her voice was soft, softer than Lysithea ever let it get.

"You didn't tell Manuela," Annette said tightly. "You didn't tell her the truth."

"I told her enough."

A grandfather clock ticked in the background, and Lysithea wouldn't make eye contact.

Sick of this, Annette sat on the bad, pushing Lysithea's legs to the side as she did. 

"You're gonna die if you keep this up."

The clock was ticking so loudly. It sounded so many times Annette lost count before Lysithea answered.

"I'm going to die, anyway." Tick, tick. "Might as well die fighting."

"Why use the Relic? It's making things worse. You don't need it."

"I might as well make full use of my Crest, if it's going to kill me anyway. No use hiding from it."

Annette's face was growing warm. Lysithea was making her angrier now than she was on the battlefield, hurling insults left and right with her spells.

"But you don't have to run toward an early grave with open arms! You can pick up sword fighting, or something. Use a Levin sword. Felix can teach you."

"Magic is what I'm good at," Lysithea snapped, and some of the edge was returning to her voice.  "I'm not starting over with a new skill in the middle of a war."

"You're being stubborn for no good reason," Annette huffed. 

Lysithea shoved her by the shoulder and pushed her legs back into place, and Annette had to push back into the bed to keep Lysithea from shoving her off.

"I've had a lot of time to think about this. Way more than you. My Crests aren't going to make my decisions for me. And you certainly aren't, either."

Annette clenched her jaw and tears sprang to her eyes. "If you can only hold on until after the war, I'm sure that Professor Hanneman can--"

"Don't," Lysithea interrupted. "Don't start blathering on about a cure. And don't cry! I'm not crying, so you don't have any right to."

Annette stood, and as an act of defiance, she didn't wipe her tears away. "You're infuriating . I'm allowed to feel however I want to!"

"You're older than I am, but you're such a baby." Lysithea crossed her arm, looking away from Annette. "You should go. People will wonder where you are, and they'll think I'm more hurt than I am if you stay too late."

"You are hurt," Annette said, exasperated. 

"Just go. Please. I'm fine for now. Just tired."

Annette fell quiet and wiped her cheeks dry. "Cyril's wandering around outside like a lost puppy."

Lysithea's expression immediately softened. "Tell him to go enjoy the feast," she said softly.

"You know he won't. He's worried about you. I think he saw you cough up blood."

"You didn't say anything, did you?" Lysithea demanded sharply.

"No. But I think you should talk to him. Tell him whatever you want, but he needs to hear something from you."

"Fine, whatever. Send him in."

Annette frowned down at her friend, her lips pressed together, disapproving.

"Go," the dark mage ordered. "Spend some time with Felix. You both deserve that."

"Fine. Feel better," Annette said moodily.

"Thanks." Lysithea's voice was bland, which Annette supposed was better than vitriolic, like it had been. 

Annette tried her best to smile at Cyril as she passed him in the hall. "Go in and see her, she's feeling better."

Cyril's red eyes looked over her face suspiciously, as though he didn't know whether to believe her or not. "Alright, I will," he said slowly. "Thanks."

She pulled her smile over her cheeks so it was even brighter, then she headed down to the castle’s Great Hall. It actually made her homesick for Garreg Mach, which wasn’t something she was expecting to feel, especially not here in Fhirdiad, her hometown, city of her beloved School of Sorcery. There were many people Annette didn’t recognize, all dressed officially, some in armor and some in furred Faerghus robes, many clamoring around Dimitri and Dedue, stoic as ever and imposing over his shoulder. 

“Oh!” a soft voice sounded, and Annette turned to pick out Marianne.

The Holy Knight had changed into a deep blue dress, the fabric flowing into a small circle at her feet, the collar of the dress adorned with a small cape with a thin lining of fur at the shoulders and the hem. 

She looked very Faerghan, and it surprised Annette for a moment. 

Suddenly, sh felt very underdressed. 

“Marianne, you look lovely,” Annette said, a small, genuine smile pulling at her lips. 

“Oh,” the healer said, and her cheeks flushed bright pink. “Borrowed clothes. I don’t even know whose they were before me. Dimitri--His Highness--His Majesty--” she blushed even deeper as she fumbled with his title, at which Annette could only bite her lip to suppress her growing smile-- “he insisted I have something appropriate to wear.”

Annette glanced over to him. He seemed at ease as he spoke with people Annette had never met before, smiling and even laughing at something that was said to him. His hair had been gathered back into a half-pony’s tail, and he looked almost the way Annette remembered him from their school days. 

When she looked back to Marianne, her deep chocolate eyes were swimming with tears. After a moment, Marianne noticed Annette was looking up at her and she blinked them away. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head and blinking her tears away. “It’s been so much struggle and hardship until now. I know we haven’t won yet, but it’s almost easy to imagine winning this war, isn’t it?”

Annette tried to look through the boundaries of time, through Sothis’s eyes to the future. Perhaps she would be back here in a few months’ time. Who knew under what circumstances? Perhaps for official court business, or to celebrate an anniversary, or maybe she would stay in Fhirdiad as a teacher for the School of Sorcery. Maybe Edelgard would best them yet, and she’d march them back to Fhirdiad to be executed. 

“I guess it is,” Annette said as lightly as she could manage, and she smiled. 

“Aren’t you hungry?” Marianne asked kindly. “Felix saved some dishes he thought you liked. He’s sitting over there.” She pointed through the crowds of people, and Annette could see him rolling his eyes as Sylvain nudged his arm. 

“Aren’t you sitting with everyone, Marianne?” Annette asked. 

“Oh, I was, but I promised Dimitri that I’d stay close by. He was worried he’d be a bit nervous, but I think he’s doing well.”

As Marianne said this, Dimitri’s blue eye flicked over to them, and, Annette thought, to Marianne specifically. His mouth curled upward at the corners, and Marianne smiled back softly. 

“He is, it seems, but I think it’s great that he can rely on you,” Annette said warmly. 

Marianne nodded, and her cheeks turned a soft pink. Annette thought she was pleased at the compliment. 

Felix’s eyes landed on her first, then Ashe’s, and while Ashe stood and waved to her in case she somehow didn’t already see them, Felix relaxed in his seat. He was sitting between Sylvain and Ferdinand, and Annette didn’t want to make a fuss so she slid into the seat across from him, next to Ashe. 

“Here,” he said, and he slid a plate laden with food across the table to her. 

“Thanks,” she said, and it didn’t occur to her until the aroma of different dishes hit her that she was absolutely starving.  

“How’s Lysithea doing?” Ferdinand asked, and his bright eyes on her made her wish she’d just taken a more ladylike bite of the fish Felix had saved for her. 

She chewed hurriedly, then answered, “She seems alright, just winded. She’s pale and has no energy. She seems convinced that by the morning she’ll be good as new.”

“Excellent!” Ferdinand cheered, and everyone else seemed put at ease by her words. She pushed another forkful of fish into her mouth to avoid any more questions about it.

Ashe brought her a goblet of a sweet, bubbly spirit, although exactly what it was Annette wasn’t sure. Felix turned his nose up at it, which Annette was expecting. This was a feast and not a ball or a banquet, but she wished there could have been some music so she could dance around the hall with Felix holding her in his arms. 

The night was full of amicable talking, levity that had been missing even on the best of days for as long as Annette could remember, and staff from the castle introducing themselves (Annette got more than a few ‘You’re Sir Gustave’s daughter!’ s, and through each of them Felix rested his hand on her back and glared down at whichever well-meaning official had said it). 

Toward the end of the night, when the hall started to empty out, a group of people who all looked like they meant business flocked Dimitri with final concerns, proposals, and questions, and Sylvain and Ingrid got up to help him and dragged Felix with them. After all, their families were the ones who were consistently involved with the active reformation of the Kingdom as they knew it. Any plans for future rebels against the Empire would no doubt be carried out through them.

Annette’s eyes were getting heavy, and still Felix took questions from unfamiliar men in suits, and Ingrid and Sylvain stood together as they answered other nobles, or court officials, or concerned citizens. It was getting hard to keep track of the crowd around the new King and the most influential players of the newly liberated Kingdom. 

“Annette,” a deep voice said, and her father had walked primly up to her as she leaned heavily against the table. “Will you not go to bed? It is getting late, and we are all lacking sleep.”

"I wanted to wait for, um,” she began, but for some reason it embarrassed her to talk about Felix with her father. “Maybe in a few minutes.”

He nodded, and uncomfortable silence fell between them. “Say, Father, how is your arm?”

Gustave’s eyes dropped to the ground, away from Annette. “At this time it seems that it is much the same. Miss Casagranda has some theories, but as of yet not much progress has been made.”

“Would you not allow me to--?” Annette began, and she reached for his hand which was hanging limp at his side, but he jerked away from her. 

“Please,” he said curtly. “I’d rather no one touch it.”

Annette frowned at him. It was her fault he’d been hurt in the first place. “Father,” she said, frowning up at him. 

“Do not worry over it, Annette.”

“Of course I’ll worry,” she muttered, frowning.

Gustave raised his eyes to hers solemnly. “Perhaps you should think about turning into bed soon.” With a polite nod, he made his way into the crowd to stand near Dimitri or something, Annette presumed. 

She was tired, but perhaps another cup of tea would be enough to keep her up.

The world shifted when she stood, and Annette thought that perhaps she was more exhausted than she truly realized. She glanced into the crowd of people, trying to find Felix in it. She didn’t really need to be here. It wasn’t as though anyone had anything to say to anyone from Dominic other than a snide ‘I told you so,’ perhaps. As much as she wanted to wait for Felix, it would be embarrassing to fall asleep at the table. 

Reluctantly, she crossed the hall, which was empty except for the dwindling crowd of people accosting the noble families. The door to the hallway seemed heavier than she remembered from the way in, and she sank into it with her whole body’s weight to push it open. Of course, because she was Annette Fantine Dominic and things couldn’t ever just be simple for her, her foot slipped as the door creaked hesitantly open.

She would surely have landed on her face had a firm hand not caught her at her elbow.

“Sneaking off?” Felix asked, frowning down at her. He held the door open easily so she could pass through it.

“I was not sneaking,” Annette said indignantly. “I was trying to wait, but I’m so tired.”

“You didn’t really have to wait for so long. I was hoping you’d come get me to say good night. I could’ve used a reason to leave, honestly.”

“I didn’t realize--I thought I shouldn’t bother you when--”

He nudged her through the door with a hand at the small of her back. “Just assume that you’re never bothering me.” He stepped through the threshold after her and let it close behind them. 

“Are you finished in there?” Annette asked, looking behind them with wide eyes. 

“Don’t really care,” he said, and he let Annette linger while he began walking down the hall. “I’m tired, too, after all.”

“Let me get my things from your room and I’ll let you get to sleep.” She scurried forward to keep up with him, but he paused at this and she bumped into him clumsily. 

“You--you want to go to your own room?” he asked, his brows furrowed. 

“Well--I mean--we’re in Castle Blaiddyd. It’s not--not proper for us to share a room.”

“You really worry about the silliest things,” Felix said, and he reached his hand out to her and Annette took it. 

“I do not. You just have no manners.” 

Felix scoffed at this, and he didn’t let go of her hand until he pushed open the door to the Duke’s quarters, and Annette changed in the bathroom and splashed cold water over her face before crawling into bed next to Felix, who pulled her into him by her hips and pressed his lips sleepily into the back of her neck as they fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Annette wasn't sure who woke first, only that she and Felix were so tangled together that either she woke him up by stirring or he woke her the same way.

It took Annette a moment to realize where she was, unused to the opulence of the Duke's quarters in Castle Blaiddyd, and she thought guiltily that she really shouldn't be there, sharing a bed with Felix when they were only courting, her status in Faerghus's nobility too low to allow such a thing in such a place.

But Felix's arm was wrapped tightly around her waist, and he was so warm from their restful night of sleep, his skin burning through her nightgown onto her skin as though there was nothing between them. He pulled her into him, sleepy sighs brushing over her face, and he pressed kisses to the crown of her head, which had been tucked under his chin.

"Good morning," she said, giggling, and she rolled over so she was facing him and pressed her palms into his chest.

Instead of answering her, he traced his fingertips over her cheek and down to her chin to tilt her head up and press a kiss to her lips.

They sometimes began the day by kissing in bed, but he seemed more insistent than usual, pressing into her more firmly, kissing her with an edge of roughness that made her dig her fingers into his shoulders. He coaxed her into laying on her back beneath him and traced his fingers over her waist to the swell of her hips.

"Felix," she gasped after he let his teeth sink into her lower lip, and he looked a bit dazed when she pulled away. "What's gotten into you?"

"I--sorry. Did you not… like it?" he asked, sheepish, his cheeks darkening as he blushed.

"That's not it," she said quickly, and she brushed her fingers from his cheek to his forehead to push some of his hair behind his ear. "It's just that it's been a while since I've seen you like this."

It had been quite a while since their kisses turned fiery, and heat tumbled down Annette's chest into her belly, stoked by Felix's mouth and hands.

"Hm," he grunted, and he tilted his head so that his hair fell away from his eyes. "I don't know. We're in Fhirdiad. Cornelia's dead. We might actually… be able to do this."

Felix Fraldarius was known for many things, but optimism was certainly not one of them.  Overnight, their territory expanded by more than double, and with it the western lord's troops joined their cause. Her home and her uncle were free of the pull of the Empire.

"You're right," Annette said, and she looped her hands around his neck, grinning. "It's amazing, isn't it?"

In the dull light of the morning, Felix's eyes looked a softer brown than usual, and he swept them over her solemnly before answering, simply, "Yeah," and leaning down to kiss her again. 

She didn't balk this time when he swept his tongue into her mouth, or when his hand drifted to her knee over her nightgown, and she arched her back into him so their chests were pressing together and tangled the ends of his loose navy hair into her fingertips.

A knock at the door made her startle against him, and she could feel Felix tense up as he leaned over her. They both stayed quiet, hoping that whoever was knocking would turn away, but instead a familiar voice came from the other side of the door.

"Felix? It's me. Is your door locked? This is important," Sylvain's voice said from the hall. 

Felix growled and muttered something Annette couldn't quite make out. "One minute," he said to her, and he reached for his robe as he slid off the bed.

Annette covered herself up with the blankets and found herself holding her breath in an attempt to keep quiet, suddenly wishing that she never came here and that she stayed in her own bed last night like she knew she should have.

Felix opened the door only enough to lean against the frame and speak to Sylvain, meaning that the bed where Annette remained was mostly hidden from view. 

"What?" he asked gruffly.

"Good morning to you, too," Sylvain greeted, his voice chipper. 

"You said it was important," Felix reminded him with an exasperated sigh.

"Yeah. So in the middle of the night a messenger from the Alliance showed up. Hand-delivered His Majesty a letter from Duke Riegan asking for help. Situation's dire, he says. We're having a meeting as soon as everyone's gathered."

"What, now?"

"Yep. What else do you have to do, anyway?"

Annette rolled her eyes. Sylvain had always been good at pressing Felix's buttons. 

"Fine. I'll be there," Felix answered. He moved to shut the door, but Sylvain held it open easily. 

"Tell Annette I say hi," he said, and Annette couldn't see his face but she could imagine him firing off a cocky wink with a sly grin. Her face heated up and she sank deeper under the covers.

"Just go," Felix commanded, and Sylvain laughed as he closed the door.

Embarrassment flooded through her veins, although she knew Sylvain hardly even cared except to tease them.

"You know what this means, don't you?" Felix asked as he leaned against the door, his sharp gaze on the floor, his expression thoughtful and serious.

"Oh, um," she stammered, her heart sinking. Perhaps Felix was also embarrassed or annoyed with her for Sylvain's teasing. "Probably nothing, right? It's not as though we've been keeping so secret in the past few weeks, and--"

"Not that," he interrupted, his voice sharp and edged so that Annette winced. "The messenger. If they arrived in the night, Claude must have sent word to us before the battle at Fhirdiad concluded in our favor."

It took a moment for her mind to switch gears, but she quickly realized that Felix must have been right. 

"Oh. Oh! Yeah, I guess you're right. Do you think we have the troops to spare for that?"

"I'll find out in this damn meeting." Moodily, he stalked over to his packed clothes and rummaged through them. He disappeared into the bathroom and, his voice reverberating off the stone, he called, "You should come."

Her heart twisted painfully at the idea. As much as she would love to be included from the start, at the moment she was still considered a liability. Although now that Dominic was once again under the rule of House Blaiddyd, perhaps His Majesty could be persuaded to overturn that rule. The last thing she would ever think to do would be to disrespect Dimitri the morning after his coronation uninvited.

"I can't, Felix, you know that."

Felix appeared at the doorway, fully dressed, pulling his hair into its usual tight, messy knot. "I'll bring it up to Dimitri."

Annette didn't miss the use of the new King's proper name instead of the crude nickname Felix used for him at all times, but she didn't remark on it.

"It's fine. I could use the time to sleep a little more, anyway."

"Probably a good idea." His sword belt was leaning on the wall next to the dresser, and he crossed over to the bed to reach it. "We've had a shitty past few days."

"You'll need some more sleep, too," she said, looking up at him worriedly.

He seemed fine, almost impossibly so. It was only a month ago that his father had died, and scarcely more than a full day since his aunt and uncle were murdered in front of him. She wondered if he was hiding something, or many things. The even way his eyes swept over her and his mouth curled into a smirk lessened her worries. His hand on her cheek as he leaned over the mattress chased them almost completely away.

"I'm fine," he said, and he punctuated this by running his thumb along her cheekbone, and it hardly bothered her that she could feel the raised scar from their fight in Fraldarius.

She raised her hand to his wrist and traced repeating lines over his hand to his fingers and back. "I hope so."

He withdrew, and she missed the warm, gentle pressure of his touch. "Of course I am; I have you to worry about things for me."

She grinned, her worries calmed. She felt safe for the first time in days, and Felix's reassurance put her at ease. A surge of gratefulness for his calm presence swept over her, and before she realized what she was doing, she said softly, "I love you."

Felix's whole body tensed, his arm withdrawing toward his body as he reached for the door, his other hand curling into a fist, the line of his shoulders squaring up, and the angle of his eyes cut sharply across over the brown of his irises. "What?"

Her heart dropped like an anchor, splintering her chest as it fell to her stomach. "No. Wait. I didn't mean to say that."

His arm went slack and flopped uselessly against his side. "You didn't?

Her heart was beating frantically in the pit of her stomach, her face a fierce red. "No. I mean, I don't know, I--I've been thinking and I feel like maybe--but I didn't mean to just say it like that for no reason when you're on your way out. And it's fine anyway but I don't want you to--"

She was babbling, and she only really stopped to inhale, and she bit her lip to make herself shut up and looked across the room at him mournfully. 

"It's just that I… I have to go," he said, his voice oddly flat, and Annette's heart was flopping in her stomach like a fish before its head was cut clean off.

"Yeah, I know."

He reached for the door again, and Annette desperately wished he'd come over to the bed instead and tell her what he was thinking. He pulled the door open and she mumbled, "Sorry," into her drawn up knees.

He looked back at her sharply, hesitating. "No, I don't want you to be--we'll talk later, alright?"

His hesitation and concern eased her pain just a little, so she nodded her agreement and when the door clicked closed, she threw herself violently back into the pillows.

Annette had been teased in school for being overly loud sometimes, and talking too much without even realizing it. Nothing she'd ever done, no loosely kept personal secret or sarcastic remark or confession of unabashed excitement had ever stung at her like this. 

She curled into a miserable ball, twisting fine linens in her fingers anxiously. It wasn't as though she wasn't thinking about possibly telling him that. But she'd wanted to do it somewhere more romantic than in their unmade bed. The first time she'd ever said she loved someone other than her mother, her father, or her uncle, and she was wearing nightclothes. And her hair was a mess from the cotton pillowcases which seemed to rub frizz into it. 

The rich curtains were so heavy against the windows that she could almost pretend that it was still night, and everything that just happened was part of some exhaustion-induced dream.

Her heart was beating too quickly in her chest still, so she threw the covers away, suddenly full of energy, and dressed in the last set of clothes she had left and set out for the kitchens.

Breakfast would help her forget her troubles, some warm toast and sweet jam, seasonal for the summer.

Ashe and Ferdinand had beaten her to the Great Hall for breakfast. They were talking amicably about the benefits of iron as opposed to steel in weapon making when Annette quietly took a seat across from them and reached for a jar of ruby-colored strawberry jam.

"For axes, at least, it's fine to sacrifice speed for power," Ferdinand was saying.

Annette's toast crunched loudly as she bit into it and his gaze flicked over to her. 

"Do you think the more weight on an axe, the better, Annette?" he asked.

It was nice of him to draw her in on the conversation, but she wasn't really in the mindset to talk about weapons at the moment. 

"Ah," she said, after hurriedly chewing at her toast. "Well, I'm not sure. Too much weight isn't good for me, personally. Enough to make it top heavy but not so much that I can't counterbalance is best."

"How has it been going with Crusher anyway, Annette?"

"Oh," she mumbled, and she took another bite of her toast. As she did she looked over to Ashe, who raised his eyebrows at her. "Fine! I was, you know, so focused on learning Abraxas that I sort of, um. Well I haven't been training with it as much as I could have! But the combat art is really going well."

"Mastering Abraxas is no small feat!" he assured her with a smile. 

"Lysithea did it, too," Annette answered automatically. 

"We're lucky to have you both," Ashe said gently. 

Annette glanced down at her toast and took another bite. 

“Ah, Cyril!” Ashe called, and when Annette looked to the entryway to the Hall Cyril was there, dressed in his gear, a large olive-green bag thrown over his shoulder. HIs wide eyes focused on Ashe as he paused. “Did you need any help getting supplies at the market?

“Nah, I don’t think so. Don’t worry, I’ll get all the stuff you put on the list,” Cyril assured him, and he held a long strip of paper between his fingers.

“Oh, Cyril!” Annette chirped, and his eyes flicked to her, his expression slipping into one of quiet consideration. “I’ll go with you. I think getting out into the fresh air will be good for me this morning.”

“Oh,” said the archer, not sounding particularly enthused but Annette was used to that by now. “Sure, if you want.”

Ashe looked up at Annette, one eyebrow raised questioningly, but she only gave him a wide smile before leaving her toast mostly uneaten to join Cyril on his way to the castle entrance. 

She and Cyril walked in silence. He was looking over his list as they walked, and Annette wasn’t about to interrupt him.

“Thanks for taking me with you,” Annette said when he slipped the list back in his pocket. “I won’t bother you too much while you’re shopping.”

“No problem. I just have to pick up a few things for Seteth, and Ashe wants to cook a meal for everyone so he asked for a few things, too. You looking for anything in particular?”

“I don’t know, maybe some fruit? I could turn it into a tart or a cobbler.”

“Not sure how much you’ll get. There’s not much extra produce during a war.”

The hall they were walking down opened up into a wide entrance hall, and people were milling around, soldiers discussing things amongst themselves. The light of the summer morning shone brightly through the open front doors, and Annette was actually starting to feel better about things.

Standing just outside the doorway, shin-length skirt blowing in the gentle breeze, was Lysithea, her hair loose around her shoulders. 

Annette paused, falling out of step with Cyril, surprised. 

Lysithea’s gaze cut past Cyril to Annette, and her eyebrows knitted together and her mouth slipped into a frown. 

“Lysithea’s out of the infirmary?”

“Got out this morning,” Lysithea said shortly, and Annette hurried to catch up with Cyril. 

“That’s… great!” Annette said, and she didn’t have to try to inject excitement into her voice. Her smile faltered and she added, “Are you sure you’re ready to go out?”

Lysithea pushed a sheet of white hair behind her shoulder. “I’m sure.”

“You’re feeling better, then?” Annette tried to make her tone more gentle. 

“Good as ever,” Lysithea said, and she turned away from Annette toward Cyril. 

“I’m glad,” Annette said, sincere, and Lysithea’s magenta eyes wavered as they fixed on her. 

Cyril looked between them, one eyebrow lowered, and Annette cast her gaze to the ground. She didn’t know he’d been meeting up with Lysithea when she asked to join him. 

“Downtown’s down this path. There probably won’t be much of a market the day after a siege, but we’re early so we should be able to get what we need.”

He started walking, and Annette caught Lysithea’s billowing sleeve to halt her before she could catch up to him. 

“I didn’t know… I thought you’d still be in the infirmary,” she admitted quietly, so that Cyril wouldn’t hear.

Lysithea snatched her arm away. “I told you I’d be fine.”

“Yeah, no. I meant that I could leave. If you want. I could… not be here.”

Understanding parted the dark mage’s lips, and she glanced over to Cyril as he walked ahead of them. “Not necessary,” she said, a blush tingeing her cheeks. She started walking after him, and Annette followed. “Besides, I’m not mad at you. I know you’re only looking out for me. It’s just annoying.”  

A small smile pulled at Annette’s cheeks. Even though Lysithea was still being short with her, it pulled a weight off her shoulders to know that she wasn’t truly angry with her. 

“I won’t stop worrying about you,” she said softly, “no matter how annoying it gets. So I’m glad you’re not mad.”

“Yeah, well. Don’t push it.”

Annette’s smile grew wider, and Lysithea pushed her hair behind her ear as a breeze blew past them, and she smiled back. It was only brief, and when her eyes flicked to Cyril as they walked Annette gestured to him with her chin. 

“Go,” she mouthed, and Lysithea grimaced at her but she quickened her pace until she caught up to Cyril. 

Annette firmly pushed away thoughts of Felix or their blundersome morning, and instead she thought of the church in downtown Fhirdiad that she and Mercie used to visit on the weekends when they bought fried dough from street vendors. 

Perhaps the street vendor would still be there and she could pretend that she was still the same person she was at the School of Sorcery. 

The market was in the same spot that Annette remembered, although it was much sparser. Carts had been wheeled out, some with weapons, some with food items, some with glasses and bottles and odds and ends. Stationed at each one was a vendor, be it an old mad or a young girl or a merchant man Annette could convince herself she’d seen before. 

Cyril moved through the stands quickly, and Lysithea lent a critical eye to the vegetables he inspected before adding them to a basket. Not that she was much of an expert, but he didn’t seem to mind passing a vegetable to her for a second opinion before adding it to a basket. 

Annette stepped away from them, not wanting to intrude, and she instead looked over a fruit stand. A girl stood at the back of the cart, her eyes darting nervously over Annette. An iron lance was resting against the cobblestone, point in the ground, and the girl hovered near it nervously. She must have been younger than eighteen, and Annette wanted to sit down with her and ask what brought her there. 

The cart she watched over was full of baskets, most of them less than half full of fruits, the bottom of woven baskets visible through the product. 

Cherries, peaches, berries, and apricots were among Annette’s favorite, and she reached for an apricot, the girl’s eyes following her hand. 

“These look good,” Annette said encouragingly, and the girl gave her a small, fleeting smile. The basket was only just full enough to cover the bottom, and Annette asked, “How much for the whole basket?”

The girl looked up at her, unsure, and then she said, “Five gold pieces.”

Annette nodded and reached into her coinpurse for the money. She slipped an extra gold piece into the girl’s hands as she passed them over.

“But, Miss,” the girl protested slowly, her fingers tight around the gold pieces.

“Please take it,” Annette urged her softly. “I’m buying out all of your stock.”

She bit her lip and unbuttoned a pocket in her skirt to slip the coins inside. “Thank you.”

Annette grinned at her and slipped the apricots into her bag. If she weren’t sure that their stay in Fhirdiad would be soon cut short, she would have added some berries to the bag as well. 

She pushed through the market, passing the spot where the fried dough vendor used to park his cart--the spot was empty now, she noticed with a pang--and she came to the entrance of the church. She could practically hear Mercedes urging her to be more careful going up the stairs, and she slid her palm over the stone banister as she climbed them. Before pushing open the heavy stone-carved doors, she glanced back at the marketplace--Lysithea was holding a glass bottle of something up to the sunlight as Cyril looked over her shoulder at it.

The church was always lit by scores of candles, and the smoky smell of incense was as key to her memories as the statue of Saint Seiros at the back center. They were absent now, and the church was dark except for the fractals of colored light thrown onto the stone floor by the stained-glass windows. 

Annette’s steps echoed through the church, reverberating off the walls and the bare floors. A pew creaked loudly when she sat in it, and she substituted the earthy smell of damp stone with incense conjured up from her memories. 

She reached out to the goddess, her prayer devolving from the scripted words she practiced at the Monastery to a stream of consciousness to Annette simply hoping the goddess would be able to read her emotions. 

She prayed for her father and his wounded arm, and for Felix, and his late aunt and uncle,and Dimitri,  and the merchant girl who sold her the apricots which weighed down her bag on her shoulder. She also prayed for herself and for her heart, in a burst of selfishness. 

The door opened with a creak, and Annette turned in the pew to find Lysithea, her stark white hair blending in with the too-bright sun. 

“I thought I saw you come in here.” Her footsteps echoed as she walked down the aisle to where Annette was seated. “It’s very dusty in here.”

“Yeah. It’s just nostalgic.”

Lysithea folded her arms over her chest, then took up the space next to Annette along the aisle. “I want you to know I thought about what you said. About not using Thyrsus.”

Annette said nothing but kept her eyes focused on Saint Seiros. 

“If I don’t use my Crest and all of its power then all I’m doing is letting it destroy me.”

Annette glanced to Lysithea, but she was keeping her gaze trained on one of the stained-glass windows. 

“Crests are powerful, everyone knows that. And they’ll kill me eventually. So I want to use that power to change things. I won’t run away from it.”

“Don’t you think you can do that without hurting yourself so much that you pass out on the battlefield?” Annette demanded.

“I’ll figure it out,” she answered dismissively. “And… I think I will tell Cyril. Eventually. But you can’t try to decide when I should. It’s… really complicated.”

“Of course,” Annette said quickly, but Lysithea whirled on her and suddenly her index finger was so close to her eyes the she had to cross them to follow it. 

“You say that like it’s no big deal, but I know how you get!”

“Lysithea, we’re in a church. I swear I won’t. Cross my heart.

“Good.” She stood and brushed off her skirt. “Come on, I don’t want Cyril to worry.”

“Me neither,” Annette agreed, and she stood too. The puff of dust that rose around them quashed any desire to linger. 

Across from the exit of the church, a small but familiar cart had cropped up. The vendor was still setting up the cart, and Annette gasped as he lit a small fire and a delicious smell wafter up from a pot settled over it. 

She gasped, and Lysithea wrapped her fingers around her wrist, alarmed. “What?” she demanded, and Annette could feel the magic at her fingertips. 

“No, nothing. It’s just--fried dough! I used to get it with Mercie all the time--have some with me! You’ll like it, you can top it with confectioner’s sugar or cinnamon!”

After perhaps overselling the wonders of fried dough to Lysithea and Cyril, the trio made the trip back to the castle and Annette deposited her apricots in the kitchens. Ashe was already busy, stirring a tall pot of something that was starting to smell delicious. 

“Room for two?” she asked, and she reached for ingredients to make a buttery pie crust, a recipe of her mother’s that she knew by heart now. 

Ashe cleared a workspace for her and she had the dough kneaded and set to proof in ten minutes. 

She offered to help Ashe, and he let her stir the broth while he chopped ingredients off to the side. It bubbled over the sides of the pot and Ashe politely suggested that she find Professor Manuela in the infirmary, since the songstress had been looking for her that morning.

When she finally found the entrance to the infirmary after wandering just a little, she entered to find the room mostly empty, the cots occupied by injured soldiers the previous night were made up perfectly, crisp white sheets looking like they were ironed onto the mattress.

The floor, polished white stone, clicked under her boots as she stepped further inside. The sun reflected off the floor and the white translucent curtains in a disorienting way, and it took her a moment to realize that in the corner near a single sink and a counter of supplies Professor Manuela was sitting in a chair across from her father, unwrapping white bandages from around his arm. 

“Is there any pain when I’m doing this?” she asked, her voice soft, and Gustave shook his head, his orange and white-speckled hair unbound and falling past his shoulders. 

“Father?” Annette called, and they both swiveled their heads around to look to her.  

“Ah, Annette, dear,” Manuela chirped. “I was looking for you this morning. I have a salve for your cheek.” Manuela shifted her gaze from Annette to Gustave and back again. “Would you like to help me redress Sir Gilbert’s arm?”

Her father was steadfastly looking down at the wrappings, his shoulders hunched as he sat in his chair, and he would not look up at Annette.

“Yes,” she answered, partly just to be stubborn. “I would, if it’s alright with my father.”

“If it’s alright with Mistress Casagrande,” Gustave answered in a quiet voice. 

“Excellent! Everything is alright with everyone. Now come over here, dear.”

Annette did, and looking over Manuela’s shoulder she could see the deep purple skin of her father’s injured arm. It made Annette suck in a breath and hold it, and bite down on her lip. 

“Normally darkened skin like this is an indicator of poor blood flow. People that we rescue from beneath a crushed building may have some blackened body parts, or people might get it from frostbite. But I don’t think the skin is dead in this case,” the songstress explained. She reached for the counter and perched a small pair of delicate glasses on the bridge of her nose. 

She also picked up a long stick with a swab of cotton on the end of it and used the firm end to poke the tip of his fingers. “Do you feel that, Sir Gilbert?” she asked. 

“Yes,” he answered, looking up at her but refusing to let his eyes drift up to Annette. 

Manuela poked each of his fingertips, and when he affirmed that he could feel each one, she trailed her finger from his thumb to his wrist. 

“Here, Annette, hold your finger over that spot there. You feel his pulse?” 

Gustave watched as Annette replaced Manuela’s index finger with her own. His pulse was easily palpable at the spot there, over purple-black skin.

“I don’t think it’s dead skin at all,” she said thoughtfully. “I think it’s almost as if it’s a bruise over the surface of the whole arm. The bruise is full of all the toxins that would have affected his entire body.”

“I don’t know, Professor,” Annette said carefully. “That seems…” she said, and she paused, unsure of how to say preposterous in a polite way. 

“The area has been improving in coloration each day, with a decrease in pain and increase in range of motion along with it. Whatever it is, it’s not dead, and he hasn’t changed into a Demonic Beast, either. I’ll tell you what I think, speaking as a white magic scholar and not a physician: I think the Goddess protected you, Sir Gilbert, because even though you used that Hero’s Relic without a Crest, you were doing it to protect your daughter, and the goddess couldn’t possibly fault you for protecting your own child.”

Annette whipped her head to look over at Manuela, although she wasn’t looking at her; her tawny eyes fixed on Gustave, sharper than they were when Annette entered. 

When Annette looked back to her father, he was looking up at her, a pained expression on his face. 

“Well,” Manuela said. “Now that I’ve seen the improvement your arm has made, I can wrap it again for you to keep any swelling down. I’ll use a salve for pain, as well. Would you like to help me, Annette?”

She tore her gaze away from her father, the guilt of the pain in his expression eating at her. 

“No, Professor, I’m sorry. Thank you very much for, um, taking care of… things. I’m… I’m going to go,” she announced, without looking back at Gustave. 

“One second,” Manuela called, and Annette suddenly felt her skin crawling with the desire to bolt out of the infirmary. “Take this. It’ll make the scars fade. Once in the morning and once at night, alright?”

“Thank you, Professor,” Annette said, and she bowed deeply before whirling around and making her way out of the infirmary.

Manuela’s words were swirling around her frenzied mind. She was tired, suddenly, and if it weren’t for her dough which should have proofed by now, she would have wandered around until she found Felix’s quarters and slipped beneath the luxurious sheets for a nap.

Thankfully she remembered the way to the kitchens--it wasn’t much more than a trip down the stairs and then down the main hallway until the smell of Ashe’s soup guided her there.

He was hard at work over a sample of meat he’d pulled out of the oven, sprinkling spices over it ,and she settled into the space companionably with him. She started to roll out the dough, managing to spill only a minimal amount of flour on herself. 

"There you are," Felix said, sounding exasperated when he entered the kitchen.

"Hi, Felix! Feeling hungry?" Ashe asked as he put the lid over his broth.

"No, thanks, Ashe."

Annette put all of her weight into rolling out the dough for her pie crust, and she didn't turn around to give Felix her full attention. He crossed his arms as he leaned against the counter right next to her workspace. The expression on his face wasn't quite a glare, but it was certainly displeased.

"I've been looking for you all day," he told her shortly.

"It's only three o'clock," she reminded him with a roll of her eyes. "I went to the market in town with Lysithea and Cyril. Didn't know I had to ask your permission first." It was a little argumentative of her to say, but he started it with his bad attitude.

He frowned at her. "You don't, obviously . I was getting the feeling that you were avoiding me, though."

She didn't answer him, and he watched her knead the dough silently.

"Want a taste, Felix? Ashe asked after he shook some spices into the broth. "It's a little spicy. Dedue has been teaching me about Duscur recipes--"

"Yeah, I'll try it." Even at his surliest, Felix wouldn't turn down a meal cooked by Ashe. No one on the Blue Lions would, as a matter of fact.

"I have Duscur bear meat cooking in the oven until it pulls apart with a fork, then I'll drop that in here. I'm also going to add rice, beans, some greens, coarsely chopped onions…" Ashe explained excitedly as he dipped a spoon into the pot. "In here I've boiled the bones of a boar and some root vegetables, which I've strained out already to cook with the meat. Let me know if it's too spicy."

The two of them chatted for a bit, and Annette cleared her mind of their voices. Felix’s presence was making her nervous, and her hand shook as she kneaded the dough for the pies.

"So, how was the church?" he asked as he sidled up next to her again as Ashe peeked into the oven. His voice was impatient even as he started the conversation, and Annette knew he just wanted to cut to the chase.

"Well, you remember that I lived in Fhirdiad with Mercie when we attended the School of Sorcery. It was a nice, nostalgic trip. Lysithea and Cyril both had fried dough for the first time."

Felix nodded.

Annette cut the dough into two halves, one for the bottom and one for the upper crust.

She reached for the apricots she'd bought at the market, and began searching for a knife so she could peel and cut them.

"Can I help?" he asked as he opened a drawer and immediately located a wide array of knives.

"It's kind of a one person job," Annette mumbled. She noticed Ashe shoot her a quizzical look, which immediately made her feel guilty. "I mean, it's baking. I know you don't like that kind of thing."

He shrugged. "I don’t mind it so much."

"Fine, then,” she relented, feeling flustered. “I need the apricots peeled. I'll show you how."

"I don't think I've ever had an apricot," Felix muttered as he pushed his sleeves up past his elbows. 

Annette found herself appreciating the way his muscle of his biceps bulged out from around the fabric before quickly responding, "They're not too sweet. I think you'll like them."

She picked a short knife with a sharp edge and showed Felix how to slice into the skin so that it came off in one continuous ribbon from top to bottom.

He tried to mimic her on his own apricot, but he inserted the knife too deeply into the flesh.

"No, here. You have to be gentler." She readjusted his fingers on the knife and, guiding his hands, showed him the proper way to do it. "There you go," she praised when the skin began curling away in a thin strip.

Ashe kept looking over at them, his green eyes flicking to their joined hands or to Felix as he leaned too close to her as she worked. The effect was that Annette was becoming very flustered while Felix was totally ignorant of this, and he kept doing things like touching her arm or coming very close into her personal space that were flustering her even further.

"Now to chop them," she said, and she ran her tongue over her dry lips. "They need to be pretty uniform in size and shape so they all cook evenly."

"This I'm good at," he said, and he was holding the knife exactly the way her mother taught her when she was young, and Mercedes taught her again when they started baking frequently as teenagers.

"Good." She was somewhat relieved that she wouldn't have to guide him again as Ashe looked on at their overlapping fingers and the way Felix was standing so close to her that he was looking down over her shoulder. "They have a pit, so cut around that."

Annette began to make the filling, gathering butter, sugar, brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon into a bowl. Felix made quick work of the apricots, and she cut a lemon in half and squeezed it over the apricots he'd chopped.

"It keeps them fresh," she explained as he watched.

"You've got flour on your forehead," Felix said, and he raised his fingers up to her hairline to brush it away. "And in your hair."

"It's okay, just leave it." She batted his fingers away, blushing, and he frowned at her. Her heart was beating so fast and suddenly she desperately wanted his fingers in her hair, on her skin. "The filling goes in and then we have to make the top."

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