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The Truest Shield

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Annette was having a terrible day that rapidly deteriorated into an awful evening.

All she had to do was take her small battalion into the Sealed Forest and verify reports of bandits with ill intent traveling through; instead no fewer than three demonic beasts fell on them, and their simple scouting mission turned disastrous. The ensuing chaos separated her from the mages under her command.

Or, rather, she’d ordered them to retreat under cover of spell-casting, and thinking the most dangerous of the beasts close to falling, she’d made the calculated decision to stay behind and finish it off.

It was a mistake, and Annette paid for it with a tree falling and pinning her leg to the ground and magic reserves so low she could barely muster the energy to cast a simple fire spell to light her shadowy surroundings.

At least the tree stunned the beast on its way down; it had long since shambled away, moaning in pain…and leaving her for dead.

The vial of vulnerary - it tasted foul enough she feared it might be too old to be effective - she downed over an hour ago only quelled the throb of her heartbeat in her knee, but every time she so much as breathed her ribs ached as if on the verge of collapse.

So Annette lay there, her cheeks sticky with sweat (and tears), staring up at the darkening sky through the branches overhead. She’d given up struggling to roll the log off her or slip her leg out from underneath it, and she could scarcely muster the magic powerful enough to blow it away.

Maybe the same beast would return to finish her off; she had trespassed on its territory after all. As long as her battalion reunited with the rest of the army and their own families…though a pang in her chest made her realize she’d left someone behind too.

I’m sorry, Mother, she thought, her eyes slipping shut. Goddess, she was so tiredI hope Father still makes it back home to you.

A breeze stirred the tree branches, the rustling of leaves an eerie cacophony. Annette hummed her own counter, an old lullaby her mother once sang to her filling her head. Her lips shaped the lyrics as she wiggled under the log, getting more comfortable as if her head rested on a pillow rather than on a bed of rough leaves and twigs.

“So long, farewell, afraid to say goodbye…
The sun has gone to bed…and so must I…
Good—”

Her eyes shot open at the abrupt crack of a branch. Her breath stuck in her lungs, heart racing while she summoned what little magic she held at her fingertips. Carefully she raised a hand and braced herself.

The ground trembled beneath her to the rhythm of light but thundering footsteps. Annette traced a glyph faster than she ever had and directed a blast of wind through it in the direction of the footsteps.

Magic trickled from her fingertips, leaving her shivering - she would not be casting so much as a Wind spell for a while - and squirming in some faint hope to evade whoever approached. She struggled against the log despite the weakness in her arms as a lump caught in her throat and—

Someone - a man - grunted. Annette stiffened, her blood rushing past her ears with unspent but useless energy, and she turned towards the sound.

Her eyes widened, scarcely daring to believe what she saw. A fierce hope gripped her when moonlight reflected off a bone-white shield, and she stammered, “F-Felix?” She pushed herself up on her elbows as he lowered his shield - his family’s Relic - and stared at her with a shock that reflected her own.

“Annette?” He bridged the gap between them with a few wide strides, falling to his knees beside her. He set the shield aside before he raised his hands, hovering over her as if he wasn’t sure how and where to touch her, before they fell at his sides again. “What happened? Where’s your battalion?”

Annette laughed, hysterically and without humor. “Oh, well, I told them to return to the Monastery without me,” she said. Her awful, aching laughter morphed into a fit of coughs. “Rather stupid of me, I know.”

“Indeed,” Felix agreed, which was hardly sporting of him but Annette couldn’t be surprised. He sighed and reassured her, “You…they made it back safely.”

“Good,” Annette said. That, at least, filled her with some relief.

“But you weren’t with them.”

“I realize that,” she said, rolling her eyes. She frowned at him and wondered, “Wait, why are you here?”

“Because you didn’t come back?” His mouth twisted into a scowl. “What were you thinking anyway? This forest is filled with demonic beasts!”

“I know,” she said, gesturing at the log lying across her leg. “We fought more than one.”

“You—”

“For the goddess’ sake, Felix,” Annette snapped, “if you don’t have anything helpful to say, then shut up!”

For a heartbeat Felix looked as if he wanted to argue, but then, to her surprise, he sighed. His hand raked over his messy bangs and face before he muttered, “I’ll get you out of there.” He reached into a pocket in his coat and withdrew a vial. “Drink this.”

Annette gratefully accepted the vial and uncorked it with her teeth, never mind how graceless and unladylike the action. She spat out the cork and downed the contents of the vial…which tasted far more pleasant than her own vulnerary. Maybe it had been too old to be effective…

Warmth seeped into her limbs, strength following. She covered her face, smiling in relief, before something…dawned on her. She peered at Felix, who’d turned his attention to the log with an almost sweet furrow of concentration on his brow, and wondered, “Wait, how did you find me?”

“I tracked you,” he said simply. “One of your men told me where to go, and I followed the beast’s tracks. Then…” His gaze flitted away from her face as he coughed. “Your singing helped.”

Her face warmed as she winced - wonderful time for him to fluster her, for the refrain it’s like I’m your captive to ring through her head! - and mumbled, “I’m so glad. Now please explain how you’ll get this off without any help.”

Felix’s eyes narrowed as they drifted to the log still pinning her to the ground. “I…won’t,” he said.

“You won’t?” Annette almost shrieked.

“I’m still getting you out,” he quickly reassured her. His hand brushed her shoulder, so briefly she wondered if she imagined it and the goosebumps that rose underneath her uniform, before he braced it against the log.

“If I, um, lift one end,” Felix asked, “can you crawl out from underneath it?”

She tried to find her feet, but the log blocked her view. She tested her slightly revitalized strength with a glyph small enough to summon a tiny fireball and smiled at the flame. “I think so.”

“Save your magic,” Felix scolded her with a roll of his eyes. “The longer we linger in the Forest, the more likely we’ll need it.”

“Right, you’re right,” Annette agreed with a shrug, but with him here - with a plan to get her out from underneath this stupid log - her confidence that she would return to the monastery flourished. She would see her mother again, would have the chance to send her father’s letters, would share tea with the professor and sweets with Mercedes and beat Sylvain at chess and tell Felix—

He crouched at the end of the log closest to her, his sudden motion jerking her from her thoughts. His hands slipped underneath, his jaw tightening with his whole posture taut like a spring. “Ready?” he mumbled so low she barely heard him.

“Yes,” she said quickly, ready to be done with this ordeal.

Felix grunted with effort as he lifted the end of the log from the forest floor, just enough that Annette could feel the sudden, rapid ache of blood rushing to her feet. She gasped at the pain but forced herself to ignore it, instead skittering backwards on her hands and with her legs flailing, and when she was finally clear of the log Felix set it back down with an exhausted sigh.

“Ugh,” he complained, standing and pressing a hand to his forehead, “I’ve never wished I had the boar’s strength so much in my life.”

Annette smiled, but it quickly turned into a grimace when she shifted and pain lanced up her leg. Sweet Cethleann, it might’ve been…broken. “You…got the job done,” she managed through gritted teeth. “Thank you, Felix.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he protested almost sheepishly. He approached her, his face red (from exertion, she assumed), and offered her his hand. “Can you stand?”

She glanced at his hand before looking away, shame curdling in her stomach. “I…don’t think so,” she admitted.

Felix’s frown deepened, as did the furrow on his forehead. “Damn,” he muttered. “Then I might have to carry you back.”

She raised her hands - why did her face warm so easily, especially around him? - and said, “No, I can walk!”

“How the hell do you plan to walk if you can’t even stand?” he retorted.

Annette sighed and pressed her hands against the ground. Carefully she slid her feet backwards, wincing at the throbbing in her right knee, and stood.

Or tried to. Her legs crumpled before she rose too far, and she might’ve fallen had Felix not instantly slipped an arm around her waist, his other hand closing around her wrist.

Her breath caught - she wished she could blame it on the blood rushing to her feet and the agony in her leg - as he steadied her against him. Her gaze flicked up to his face, which drifted far too close to hers, before rapidly flitting away again.

She groaned, her spine stiff with frustration, and slumped into him when her injured leg refused to accept her weight. “Fine,” she muttered into his coat, “carry me if you must, but don’t blame me if another demonic beast attacks us and you can’t fight it.”

To her surprise, he chuckled, his whole body rumbling against hers in a delightful way that made her toes curl…which was patently unfair when that mere, unconscious action earned her a twinge of pain. “I’ll move quicker if I can carry you across my back,” he said simply. He crouched slightly, just enough Annette could shift until she balanced against his back.

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and his arms slid under her legs - he mumbled an apology when an embarrassing whimper escaped her - before he heaved her up.

Her head spun with a sudden vertigo when her feet left the ground, but she easily settled against Felix’s back. She pressed her forehead to the back of his neck, unable to help inhaling the scent of his musk and what curiously resembled cinnamon. She thought a shudder might’ve shaken his body too, but it might just as easily have been her own.

Felix set a brisk pace through the dark trees - when had the sun set so absolutely? - rapid enough to carry them through but not so fast she felt the motion too much. Its rhythm helped her racing heart relax, and she gripped him tighter lest he trip over a root and she fall.

…though he wasn’t nearly as clumsy as she, so maybe she worried about that for nothing.

His near-jog nearly lulled her into a doze, especially with the steadiness of his heartbeat so close to her cheek. He paused - she could feel his back rising and falling with the force of his breathing - and shook her gently. “Don’t fall asleep, Annette,” he warned her, tone harsh (which she had learned was just how he sounded when he worried). “Sing me a song if you have to.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she grumbled. When he didn’t deny it, a slight smile curled her lips, a warmth that pushed back some of the pain filling her chest. “I’m fine,” she whispered; she was so tired it was almost too much effort to shape the words. “It’s just a broken leg, Felix.”

“Just a—what if I drop you?” He stepped out again, more carefully this time as only a full moon illuminated the path ahead.

“I trust you,” she told him simply.

She heard his breath hitch. “You…that’s not…” He hissed. “No longer afraid I’ll tell everyone about your songs?”

Annette snorted, more amused than offended about him mentioning that (for once). “You’ve had over five years to do that,” she observed, snuggling a little closer to him.

“That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said about that,” Felix scoffed, though his grip on her legs tightened.

Belatedly Annette realized this was the first time she’d ever held him so close. Her cheeks grew hot at the thought, a sharp jolt of energy shocking her wider awake. She sighed and rolled her eyes at the sky.

Felix shook her slightly. “What’s wrong?” he wondered. “Aside from your leg, I mean.”

She blinked. “Uh…nothing,” she lied. How had he noticed?

“That was quite a sigh for nothing,” he said.

Annette stiffened, her grip on him tightening and her heart skipping a beat. “Maybe I sighed because of my leg,” she retorted. “Did you consider that?”

He shrugged. “It didn’t sound like an injury sigh,” he said.

“And what does an injury sigh sound like?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Felix glanced over his shoulder at her. “How should I know?”

“You’re the one who brought it up,” she reminded him, “so you tell me.”

“You’re…I…ugh,” he groaned, facing forward again. “I know how you sound when you’re upset, all right?”

Her heart dropped at that - was she really so easy to read? - before she could stutter, “O-oh?”

(The last thing she wanted was to explain her lovelorn sighs to Felix, of all people.)

“Are you, uh, disappointed?” he said.

Annette frowned, nudging his chest lightly. “By what?”

“That it was me,” he said simply, like he explained a basic equation to her.

“That…you were what?” Her tone dripped confusion, which seemed to be a frequent occurrence for her around Felix (though she suspected that feeling, at least, was mutual).

“That I—what the hell?”

Annette flinched at the sudden alarm in his voice. She lifted her head to peer over his shoulder at the path ahead.

Her jaw dropped at the sight of a flickering torch. “Is that…is it one of us?” she wondered.

“I don’t…know,” Felix confessed, though the sudden stiffness in his body betrayed his trepidation.

She could scarcely breathe for the tension thickening the air, could all but sense their options wrangling each other in his mind. Should they wait for whoever lay ahead to hail them first, or dared they keep walking towards them? Or maybe it would be best to try walking around the beacon?

But someone else decided for them.

Other flames burst into life in all directions, blindingly bright spots erupting and converging in the darkness. They all approached where they stood until the clatter of hooves met their ears.

Felix bolted, Annette helplessly bouncing against his back, pain spiking through her leg with every step. She clutched him as tightly as she dared while his hands gripped her legs just as securely.

But the torches followed, the excited whoops of men on the hunt dogging their steps. Annette’s heart raced as if her own feet pounded against the ground, carrying them further away only for the riders that pursued them to draw closer again.

Felix panted, quickly struggling to breathe; she didn’t know how long he trekked through the trees before he found her, and since then he’d lifted the log and carried her as easily as if she was one of the cats at the monastery he pretended he didn’t like petting. But now her weight and the effort caught up to him, slowing them down and making it that much easier for the horsemen to catch up to them.

A horse charged across their path, the rider astride it wielding a torch trailing sparks. Felix slowed, but one of his hands fell to the sword sheathed at his side.

Annette slipped from his back, careful not to put weight on her bad leg, but she kept her grip on him as he drew his sword with a scraping of metal against leather. But still the riders came, herding them closer until all she could see were the dazzling torches and their teeth shining in the light of the flames.

They left afterimages on her eyelids when she blinked, made it that much harder to see the faces behind them as the horses thundered to a halt. But fire gleamed off bits of armor, off breastplates and pauldrons and half-helms, and off the wicked tips of lances and the rough edges of axes.

Her heart skipped a beat, though she reached for the magic that pooled deep within her.

“Well met, good people of Faerghus,” one of the riders said. He nudged his horse forward, out of the circle of riders, and lowered his torch just enough Annette could make out his face. “You have the honor of meeting Heinz von Nuvelle; perhaps you have heard of me?” His eyes drifted to Felix’s raised sword. “Pretty blade, that.” His voice held an air of refinement with the slightest hint of an accent she thought she remembered falling from her Adrestian classmates’ lips. “You can keep it if you hand over the lady.”

“Eat shit,” Felix spat with so much venom Annette flinched.

But the man - Nuvelle - before them only smiled.

(It was an unfriendly thing, less like Sylvain’s smirks and more like what she recalled of Hubert von Vestra’s sly grins.)

Behind the light of the torch he wore the helmet and armor of an Imperial paladin, a high-ranking cavalier, but rust flecked the metal, and dark brown stubble peppered his chin and cheeks. Nuvelle clicked his tongue and wondered, “You really think you alone can take on soldiers trained by the Empire?”

She oh so carefully pulled away from Felix, gingerly balancing most of her weight on her good leg, and wove a white glyph into the air. Its light couldn’t rival those of the torches, but it thrummed with an expectant energy that they couldn’t match.

The men’s horses’ nickered nervously, one of them pounding its hooves and taking a step back before its rider steadied it. Annette, pleased despite herself, glared at the leader and said, “He’s not alone.”

Felix’s head jerked ever so slightly in her direction as he muttered, “Annette—”

“Ah, so she barks,” Nuvelle said while his men chuckled and tittered like hens. “Does her bite match, perhaps, or is her leg too lame?”

Annette’s breath caught, but her sudden fear was nothing to the anger filling her with heat. She could blow them all away without breaking a sweat, so help her—

“Lucky we have a healer right here,” Nuvelle continued, nodding towards a rider dressed in dirty, tattered robes that might once have been a pristine white. “And she need not leave your sight,” he added, glancing right at Felix. “We shall take you right along with her.”

“Try it,” Felix sneered. “See what happens.”

“I would prefer not to,” Nuvelle said with a sigh. “You are far more valuable to me alive and unharmed, and unless I am mistaken - which I do not think I am - the lady will be too.”

Annette lowered her arms, confusion gripping her. “What?”

Nuvelle reached behind him and tugged something from his saddlebag.

Torchlight and shadows flickered over a familiar, bone-white surface.

She stood so close to Felix she felt rather than heard his wordless hiss, sensed how he subtly shifted his left arm where his shield should be. He’d left it behind after freeing her from that stupid log, and now—

Oh, Saints, was this her fault?

“This is a Hero’s Relic, is it not?” Nuvelle wondered, his words tearing Annette from her spiraling thoughts. “One or both of you must then bear a Crest, and if that is the case…” He pointed his lance menacingly at them. “You would make worthwhile hostages.”

Felix shifted ever so slightly, as if attempting to hide her from Nuvelle’s view. His whole body coiled, wound tight and poised to strike in an instant.

“So?” Nuvelle lowered his lance and smiled. “A healer for the lady, and a hostage and this lovely spoil of war for me.” His eyes narrowed, as if making a careful judgment. “Do you not agree that is a fair deal?”

Felix struck, silent and deadly as a viper. The Crest of Fraldarius ignited the air as his sword caught the first soldier that charged him in the chest. The blow caved in his breastplate, and he fell from his horse and dropped his torch.

Annette summoned Wind, wood creaking as it tore through. The force of one of her blasts struck one cavalier in the shoulder, and when his horse reared up with a whinny of alarm, he toppled.

It didn’t matter that she could barely stand on both legs. She covered Felix, drawing glyphs through the air and charging spells faster than thought. Sweat beaded her brow, her arms trembling, but she couldn’t rest so long as hostile men stood between them and safety.

But her gusts weakened rapidly, her circles flickering faintly rather than pulsing with powerful light. And the riders just kept coming, until a powerful grip seized her arm and hauled her up.

Annette screamed in alarm, her heart jumping into her throat while she shot a burst of air over her shoulder at her assailant. But it was her weakest blow yet, and it barely ruffled the man’s frayed tabard.

Felix spun around, his eyes wide. He crossed towards her in an instant with fury twisting his face as he raised his sword.

Nuvelle’s lance flew at Felix. He raised his arm, attempting to block it with a shield no longer strapped on, only for the tip to slip under his pauldron and pierce his side.

An awful, blood-chilling yell erupted from Felix. He staggered in place but swung his blade at Nuvelle, but after all that effort rescuing Annette and these overwhelming odds, his blow failed to land. Nuvelle knocked the sword aside with a careless swing of his lance, its tip gleaming a sickening red.

Felix clutched at his side while blood seeped out between his fingers. He scowled as he reached for his second sword and—

Nuvelle struck him, the shaft of his lance connecting with Felix’s jaw. His head jerked back, and when Nuvelle again raised the lance Annette shouted, “Stop!”

Cold metal kissed Annette’s skin just under her jaw. She shivered and tried to shift away from it, only for the man behind her to tighten his grip.

“All right,” Nuvelle said, his tone darkening. His hand swiped at some invisible dust on his breastplate before he dismounted and approached them, heedless of the moaning and groaning of the men - his own men - that she and Felix incapacitated.

“Now,” he continued while pointing his lance at Felix, “I suspect you are the better catch…Lord Fraldarius.”

Felix flinched, but his glare didn’t falter. “Then let her go,” he growled.

(Annette hated how the sound of his voice so low…did something funny to her abdomen at the worst possible time.)

Nuvelle paced closer, close enough he towered over Felix, who must’ve been able to smell the stink of his breath. But he stood his ground, despite the man’s imposing figure, despite the bleeding wound in his side, despite Annette’s own quivering against the man holding her so closely she doubted a marriage proposal would be long in coming.

(His breath stank something dreadful.)

“I am…afraid I cannot,” Nuvelle said, sighing with regret. “You see, we are awful, terrible deserters, left behind by Her Majesty when your armies drove her troops from Faerghus, and as such…well”—his voice lowered so much Annette had to strain to hear it—”there are certain, ah, habits and comforts my men - a mean sort, not high class like you or I - have eschewed since.”

She couldn’t see the expression on Felix’s face - her own shock and chest-clenching fear distracted her - but his hand shot out and gripped Nuvelle by the tabard.

The grip on Annette’s arm tightened, and a pitiful whimper escaped her lips when the dagger at her throat pinched her skin.

Felix stiffened - oh, damn her, he heard! - and slowly let Nuvelle go. “I’ll kill you,” he promised lowly.

“By all means!” Nuvelle spread his arms, an almost jovial expression lighting up his face. “Just know that it will be your last act, and that your lady friend will not long outlive you.”

“W-what?” Annette stammered, at last finding her tongue glued to the roof of her mouth. “But you said—you said you wanted him alive!”

“Oh, I do, my lady,” Nuvelle said with a careless shrug. He rested a deceptively friendly hand on Felix’s shoulder - he instantly shrugged it off - and added, “But if he must perish, I am content enough with his esteemed family’s Relic.”

Useless as she was now, Annette never wished so fervently she’d trained more in weapons in her life. Her magic was only a faint wisp of energy just beyond her grasp, and she doubted flailing her tightening fists would give her captor so much as a bloody nose. Although…

“Face it, Lord Fraldarius,” Nuvelle said, “you are well and truly corn—”

Annette jumped.

Her crown connected with the man’s jaw with a sickening crunch.

He lurched back with a shout, and the shock of her blow was enough for her to yank her arm from his grasp. Her heart raced while she lunged for his dropped ax, and she frantically swung it up.

The heavy ax head connected with her captor’s shoulder. He cried out, but despite his pain his eyes were dark with anger when they snapped onto her face.

The ax head dropped, Annette’s arms quivering with the effort of holding it up, as the man glared at her, his knife in his hand. “I’ll gut you like a fish, you b—”

An arrow struck him in the throat, and he crumbled with a wordless gurgle.

Annette didn’t have time to spin around before hooves thundered behind her. She cowered, the ax still in hand, but then a strong hand closed around her arm and lugged her up onto a horse.

She landed against a broad chest with a familiar scent tickling her nose. “F-Felix—”

“Hold onto me,” he said amid the shouts erupting around them all over again.

“But—your side, it’s—”

“Just hold on, Annette!” he snapped, before cracking the horse’s reins and urging it into a gallop.

The air rushing past them tore her breath from her throat. She sat sideways across the front of the saddle, each of the horse’s rapid strides bouncing her enough that a hiss of pain escaped her each time. She’d never much liked riding, but an aching backside was the least of her worries.

She held onto Felix while he pushed the horse to weave a path between the trees, the shouting and torchlight of Nuvelle and his men rapidly fading behind them. One of her arms slung around his neck, and with her other hand she clutched the stolen ax.

They fled, further and further away, but with it so dark - with the horse supporting two riders at once - they were forced to slow. Felix’s chest heaved against her, his breath an unsteady rattle in his throat, and when Annette’s fingers brushed his side they came away sticky and wet.

How…how did they manage to escape?

But there was no use in searching for an answer when they were still so far from safety.

The horse wheezed with effort beneath them, and when they came across a burbling creek reflecting the light of a pre-dawn sky, they halted long enough for it to drink and for Felix to dismount and fill their canteens. She tried to follow, but he rested a hand on her knee and, with a wary glance over his shoulder, insisted, “Don’t. Your leg—”

“You’re bleeding!” Annette reminded him, her eyes flicking down to his side before catching on the bruise blooming across his jaw. “At least let me do something about that before you try taking on an entire battalion alone again!”

Felix snorted. “I wasn’t alone,” he retorted. “You were with me.”

He spoke so nonchalantly, so simply, but her face still burned. “Th-that’s not the point, Felix,” she said. “You - we both - need healing, so—”

“Do you even have the strength left to heal me?” he demanded.

“I—”

He interrupted with a frustrated huff, his lips turned into a grimace and his gaze never lingering on her face. “We need to find shelter,” he said. “I…I have no idea where we are, but you need rest.”

“Oh, and y—”

“So…do I,” he muttered sheepishly. He clambered onto the horse behind her, and this time he wrapped an arm loosely around her waist. “One thing at a time, Annette.”

“Oh, all right,” she mumbled, sighing.

She was too exhausted and spent to argue, much less resist the urge to sink into his warmth and wish he held her for a reason other than this.


They emerged from the trees into a hilly clearing with a stream carving a path through it just after dawn. Streaks of orange cut through the velvety darkness of the sky, the stars fading one by one as the sun’s rays rose over the trees. A single tower - a mill, its wheel spinning laboriously - stood upstream and ahead.

Felix guided their stolen horse in its direction. Some of the tension oozed from Annette’s shoulders at the prospect of rest, and she allowed herself a slight smile.

It faltered quickly. Felix had been awfully quiet - far more than usual - in the last hour or so, his breathing labored and with a worrisome warmth emanating from his exposed skin. Despite her hopelessness at riding, Annette had twice tried to take up the burden of guiding the horse, but he refused both times.

Not like he was a much better rider than her…

The horse stopped at the base of the three-story tower. Her legs ached at the thought of all those stairs after riding for hours through the night. She slid from the horse, wincing when she put too much weight on her bad leg. Felix followed, but when his legs buckled she flung out an arm to brace him.

He staggered into her, his legs all but failing him. Annette caught him by the shoulders, barely holding him upright while her own injured knee screamed protests at her. Her pulse quickened in sudden fear, and she looked up into his face.

“Felix?” she tried.

He nodded, eyes flickering open - with their awful glazed quality - then closed again. “I’m…fine,” he mumbled.

She wrapped an arm around his waist and pivoted towards the mill. “You’re many things, Felix Hugo Fraldarius,” she grumbled as she carefully maneuvered them up the hill despite the agony in her leg, “but a liar isn’t one of them.”

He chuckled, his breath warm on her ear, his chest rumbling against her. “I’ve lied before,” he said. “Far more than you think.”

“Well, I can see right through you this time,” she told him, rolling her eyes. She guided him through the dilapidated mill’s gaping doorway, into a floor-level room that, judging by the wide hearth in the wall, might once have been a kitchen or boiler room.

Oh, she would kill for a nice roaring fire now.

“Can you, now?” Felix said, and if Annette didn’t know any better she would think he teased her.

“Yes,” she said. “For example, you’re in a lot more pain than you want me to know.”

When he didn’t immediately reply, her gut clenched, but a heartbeat later he muttered, “Second floor.”

“What?”

“Let’s take the stairs…second floor,” Felix said. “Easier to defend if…we need to, and we’ll be able to keep a lookout.”

Annette’s heart sank at the sight of the narrow, uneven stairs winding up into the ceiling. “I suppose,” she agreed, “but can you make it up the stairs? I don’t think I can even make it up the stairs.”

“We have to try,” he said. “We’ll be further out of those bastards’…reach.”

The prospect appealed to her, and a part of Annette doubted their assailants were far behind. She wished Nuvelle would just be content with a stolen Relic, but now he’d probably pursue them simply as a point of pride.

Men could be so dreadfully stupid sometimes.

So she took the stairs one step at a time, one hand braced against the caving wall with her other holding tight to Felix. The ax she stole thumped against her leg with every step. She panted the entire way, no single breath nearly enough to sustain her, and just when she thought she must surely collapse on her hands and knees and crawl the rest of the way up while dragging him, her foot slipped through the air and failed to find another step.

Annette stumbled, but miraculously Felix kept her upright. What a mess the two of them were.

By the time they made it to the second floor - a circular room littered with old, rotting pieces of wood that might have been furniture - the sun streamed in through the narrow windows empty of glass.

Annette carefully lowered Felix to slump against the wall underneath one of the windows before crouching beside him. Dust rained from the ceiling and into her already dirty hair, making her sneeze, while the mill’s wheel turned ponderously with the water streaming over it. Its creaking filled the entire tower, an unpleasant screech that hadn’t been nearly as loud outside.

Felix’s eyes flicked to her face while a slight, out of place smile lit his. When she frowned at him, he shrugged and turned away with pink tinting his cheeks, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, “Looks like snow…”

Annette shook her head and raked her fingers through her sweaty hair. Saints, she would kill for a bath or a foray into the monastery sauna, but for now she reached for the canteen strapped to Felix’s belt, only to think better of it.

She needed that water to clean his wound, not wash her hair.

Her chest tightened, but then Felix said, “We need to take stock of our weapons.”

Annette blinked. “What? Now? I need to stop your bleeding!”

“It won’t take long,” he retorted, rolling his eyes. “Look, I have my backup sword”—his fingers closed around its hilt before he tugged it from the sheath and laid it across his lap—”and my bow and knife.”

Annette decidedly didn’t point out that he’d lost his arrows sometime between the fighting and fleeing, but she rested her stolen ax on the floor beside her. Her fingers tightened around the haft of the ax, stomach all knotted up with dread. “You’re not in any condition to fight, Felix,” she muttered, “and my healing ability is rather…lacking.”

“I would be, um, grateful for anything you can do,” Felix mumbled almost sheepishly, “but shouldn’t you take care of yourself first?”

She glanced up at him before shrugging. “There’s not much I can do for my leg without help setting it,” she admitted. “It…might not heal right after everything it’s been through, but Mercie can do a better job than I can.”

If she ever even saw Mercie again, that was.

She tore a few strips of cloth from the hem of her dress, beyond worrying they were too dirty for bandaging a wound, and poured water from her canteen onto them. A brush of warm fingertips against her jaw startled her, making her flinch though her breath caught in her throat.

“What about that?” Felix wondered in a low, almost tender voice that filled her chest with warmth.

Annette’s fingers found what he’d touched - a rough, shallow scratch on her neck. “Oh, that’s barely a cut,” she reassured him, though the memory of a cold blade pressed to her throat sent a shiver down her spine.

How helpless she’d been in that moment, her strength spent, rendering her utterly useless - even rendering Felix powerless.

She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t see the disappointment - or worse, reproach - on his face and know she was the reason.

This was all her fault. She’d been the idiot who ordered her battalion away only for a log to pin her and render her in need of rescue. She’d spent all her magical strength fighting off a demonic beast, and what she’d recovered hadn’t been enough to fend off a band of Imperial deserters intent on taking them hostage. Felix lost his family’s Relic because of her, suffered a stab injury for her, and—

“I’m sorry.”

Annette’s head jerked up, her eyes wide and startled. Felix stared past her at the opposite wall, his hands clenched in his lap. “What?” she said.

“I’m…to blame for this mess,” he said. “I was hasty leaving the Monastery alone, and I was impetuous in attacking that bastard without a plan.” He rested his face in his hand and mumbled, “I just couldn’t—I can’t stomach seeing you weak and at someone else’s mercy like that.”

So he thought her “weak”? But rather than indignation, a lump stuck in her throat, and all she could say was, “It’s not your fault, Felix. I was the one who—”

“No, no,” he cut her off, and when she glanced up his eyes pinned her in place with the heat of a glare. “Unless you called those beasts onto you, you can’t apologize.”

“Oh, and you can?” Annette argued. She wrung out a strip of cloth with a little more force than necessary before grumbling, “Help me get your armor and coat off.”

She fumbled at the buckle securing his pauldron while Felix lifted his arm. She set it aside before he worked at taking off his coat, but when a hiss escaped him she helped him tug it off too.

(In all the ways and for all the reasons she ever allowed herself to imagine undressing him, this was not one of them.)

She used Felix’s knife to cut away the frayed scraps of his shirt concealing the injury, unable to keep a wince from her face.

“Is it…bad?” Felix wondered, and for the first time his words dripped with fear for himself.

“It’s not…infected,” Annette assured him, though that was the best she could say for the gash in his side. During the fight it looked like a simple stab - it wasn’t like Nuvelle had run him through with that lance! - but simply by pulling the weapon back out, the lance tore at his flesh more than leaving it would have.

Bile rose in her throat; blood still oozed from the wound but at a much slower rate. She’d have to bandage it tightly - and Felix had already lost so much blood - and use what little skill as a healer she had.

It wouldn’t be enough.

“Once I’m done with this,” Annette told him while her mind raced trying to recall every bit of field medicine the professor and Mercie tried to impart on her, “I’ll, uh, shoot a fire signal into the air.” She dabbed around the gash with a strip of soaked cloth, muttering an apology when Felix winced. “We…need rescue,” she explained, “even if we risk bringing those deserters down on us too.”

“Which is to say nothing of demonic beasts,” Felix added with a sigh. “Damn.”

Annette nodded; it had been some stroke of luck that they avoided an encounter with monsters while they fled the deserters. Although… “Perhaps a monster fell upon them,” she said with a note of hope in her voice.

Felix’s gaze snapped to her face, and her cheeks warmed at his scrutiny. “Wouldn’t that be something,” he said with a sardonic chuckle, “though I wouldn’t mind seeing their bastard leader again.” His hand curled around the hilt of his sword while his brow furrowed, as if he imagined running Nuvelle through.

But he let it go with a sigh, running his fingers through his matted hair. “You’re right, Annette,” he said, “but the signal…do you have the strength for that?”

Annette scowled at him and tugged the bandage she wrapped around his back a little too tight. “It’s a simple fire spell, Felix,” she grumbled. “I’m sure even you could cast it.”

He grimaced before blinking at her in surprise. “Maybe I will then,” he mumbled.

“No, you won’t,” she said, and when he narrowed his eyes at her she couldn’t help a grin from poking at her lips; now at last it was her turn to scold him! “You need the rest more than I do—”

“You’ll pass out if you use too much magic!”

“—and I’m far better at controlling my magic output than you think, thank you very much!” At last she finished tightening the makeshift bandages around him and leaned back to admire her handiwork. Her gut clenched at the hint of blood already staining them, but that was where her magic came in.

She pressed her palm to his side just over the wound and closed her eyes. She reached deep into herself, feeling like she scraped the bottom of a bucket for its last few drops of water, and ensnared that bright energy within. It coalesced under her fingertips, and her eyes fluttered open when a bright glyph glowed under her hand against Felix’s side.

The energy spilled from her hand into his flesh, seeping into his body with the directive to close the wound and stem the flow of blood. He shuddered under her touch, a sign that the magic took effect, and Annette sagged, almost spent.

Felix prodded at his side, but when he grimaced she smacked his hand away. “It’s not fully healed,” she reminded him. “I just managed to stop the bleeding, but, ah…” She scratched her chin, her skin prickling with anxiety. “It’ll probably leave a scar.”

He shrugged and said, “It just means I’m strong enough to survive it.”

How…could he say something like that with a straight face? But his eyes drifted to her leg, a furrow on his brow.

“I think I’ll be sleeping for most of the day,” she confessed with a wry laugh. When Felix shot her a sharp look, she raised her hands and asked, “We’re here to rest, aren’t we? So I’ll cast a signal, and then I’ll rest.” She slid backwards towards the window and, bracing her hands on the windowsill, slowly stood up.

Vertigo made her head spin, and for a heartbeat she teetered, heart jumping into her throat with the terror that she might fall from the window and plummet out. But Felix’s hand closed around her arm, steadying her.

It seemed he’d been doing that often throughout this whole ordeal.

But his touch calmed her racing heart, enough that she wove the glyph for a simple but strong light spell into the air. The glyph glowed, but the column of light that emitted from it burned an afterimage into her eye, so brightly it shone.

She held it in place for one, two, three heartbeats for dismissing the glyph and watching the light fade until the only illumination was the mid-morning sun.

Annette fell to her knees beside Felix while fresh sweat beaded on her brow. She wiped it away with her sleeve and sighed before turning and leaning against the wall.

“And now we wait,” she muttered, “for someone or something to find us.”

She prayed whoever it was would be friendly.


Annette woke with a start, her breath little more than a gasp caught in her throat. The threads of a dream, of a nightmare, of a giant wolf dogging her steps as she raced through the trees only for it to draw closer and closer until its foul jaws closed around her leg, clung to her, and she struggled to catch her breath, to recall where she sat slumped against a warm body and why her leg ached and refused to even move and—

“Annette,” a voice, just a touch too harsh, hissed into her ear.

She opened her eyes, blinking blearily around at her surroundings. “What…Felix?” She turned her head to find him - why was his face so close? She could count the shades of gold in his eyes and the purples and blues in his bruised jaw if she tried - staring at her with a furrow on his brow. “What’s…why are you looking at me like that?”

“Nothing, you just…” The back of his hand brushed her forehead before his fingertips pushed her sweaty hair behind her ears. “You were…a nightmare?”

Annette tore her gaze away from him while something tightened in her chest. She hesitated, then nodded.

Felix sighed. “I…wish—ugh, I don’t know what I wish!”

She jumped, startled by his abrupt frustration. “Felix, what’s—are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine,” he said quickly, tersely, through gritted teeth. He held the hilt of his sword, lying across his legs, in a white-knuckled grip. “I just…what good am I now? I can barely stand, I feel almost naked without my damn Shield, and the longer we stay here, the more likely a demonic beast or those bastards will corner us again!”

Annette, unsure how to calm and reassure him, bit her lip. She rested her hand on his knee, and when his eyes drifted down to it, she squeezed. “Our friends will find us first,” she promised.

“How do you know?” Felix demanded, glaring at her. “It’s already mid-afternoon, hours since you sent your beacon, but there’s still no sign of anyone.”

“But no one unfriendly has found us either,” Annette pointed out.

Felix seemed to twitch in place, his whole posture stiff, though one of his hands drifted to his bandaged side. He obviously grew restless with staying in one place (never mind it was his idea they find shelter and wait), and Annette couldn’t fault him, not when she used most of their water to clean his makeshift bandages.

“Is there…something else bothering you?” she wondered carefully.

He jerked his head towards her, eyes wide, though they fixed on some point beyond her. “Hmm.”

“Felix…”

“That damned Relic was the only useful thing my old man left me,” he muttered. He pressed a hand against his forehead and groaned.

Oh, it was…sentimental, Annette realized with a peculiar tightening in her chest. Maybe part of it was utility, but losing the Relic caused Felix more personal pain than he’d let on.

She…she wished she knew how to help him with that, or that she could even promise to track down the deserters and reclaim it. Maybe someday, she swore to herself, but not with the two of them injured and in need of rescue.

Her head dropped onto his shoulder, and her hand found his. He relaxed slightly under her touch and even let go of his sword, and Annette started humming.

Because - though the thought of it never failed to warm her from head to toe - he liked her singing.

It’s like I’m your captive. Well, she could try taking advantage of that; anything so that he would stop scowling at his hands or frowning at his sword.

“So long, farewell, afraid to say goodbye…
I hate to go, and leave this pretty sight…”

Predictably, Felix only lasted through the first verse before he turned to her and wondered, “Where are you even going?”

“Um, to bed?” Annette told him, though she couldn’t help her giggle. “It’s a lullaby, Felix. My mother used to sing it to me when I didn’t want to go to bed.”

He hummed thoughtfully. “Are you trying to put me to sleep?”

She shrugged and said, “Sleep is good for you, especially in your state. Did you even sleep at all earlier?”

Felix shrugged, which Annette took to be denial. “I was too…preoccupied.” His gaze slipped to her bad leg before returning to her face. “If no one finds us by sunrise, I’ll carry you back to camp.”

“But we’re lost,” she told him, frowning, “and you’re in no condition—”

“Doesn’t matter,” Felix insisted with a shake of his head. “We’re getting back.”

“You, well, I’d sooner have to carry you,” she protested, though something about his obstinacy warmed her.

And he really was much too close. He leaned closer to her by the second, his breath warm on her jaw while her heart pounded. His eyes captured hers - who between the two of them was the captive anyway? - before drifting down.

They slipped shut, and some internal battle crossed over his face before he bridged the gap and pressed his lips against hers.

Annette gasped when he kissed her, when a pleasant heat flooded her. Her fingers fisted in the collar of his shirt so she could drag him closer, kiss him back with just as much fervor, as much desperation, as much want and need and love and—

Felix broke away, his breath short and his eyes snapping to hers as soon as she opened them again. His hand cupped her jaw, his calloused fingers rough but warm against her skin. “Annette…

“I’m glad it was you,” she blurted. “I—you—maybe”—she cleared her throat while heat rushed to her face—”it was a little…humiliating that you of all people found me like—like that, but it was you.” His eyes widened in surprise as she curled a finger around the shell of his ear. “Thank you, Felix.”

A smile, something small but genuine, curled his lips. “You’re welcome, Annette.” He took her hand and stared at her open palm, at how his dwarfed hers. “I…have some things to say to you too,” he said haltingly while red dusted his cheeks. “Once we’re safe again, and your leg is healing, I’ll tell you.”

A smile of her own pushed at her face. She leaned into him, pressing her forehead against his chest. She smiled just a bit wider when his arms wrapped around her, her heart lighter than it had been in a long time - longer even than this disastrous excursion - and with a flutter in her chest, thinking it strange how she could be so happy amid all this.


This time when Annette woke she woke a little easier, with a little more strength in her limbs and with magic thrumming in her veins again, begging to be used. Felix also slept, and when she lifted her head from his shoulder he didn’t even stir.

He looked so peaceful, she mused, with his brow smooth and his mouth relaxed rather than twisted into a displeased scowl or pained grimace. His breath rattled in his chest, warm on her cheek, but though she longed to snuggle in a little closer she knew she didn’t have that luxury.

She pulled away, intent on using what tiny bit of sunlight streamed in through the western facing windows to check on his wound, when an unsteady thundering of hooves erupted, louder than the creaking of the waterwheel.

Felix stirred right as she froze. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and mumbled, “Ann—”

“We know you shelter up there, young lovebirds!” a chillingly familiar voice shouted.

Felix stiffened before climbing unsteadily to his feet, his back pressed against the wall. He clutched at his side as he hobbled towards a window opposite.

Annette followed, tugging herself along the rough stone ground and wincing at every jolt to her leg. “Wait, Felix—”

“I don’t have—I don’t have any arrows…” He clutched at his head as he peered out the window. “Dammit.”

“I-I have magic!” Annette reassured him. “And we have the higher ground.”

Felix’s gaze snapped to her, a ghost of a smile flickering across his lips. “Then maybe we can fight our way out—”

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Nuvelle bellowed. “And you should know, if you try to fight us from your pathetic little position, I’ve a mage with me who can cast a good Silence spell.”

Annette shuddered - every mage’s worst nightmare was a Silence spell - but braced her hands against the wall before tugging herself to her feet. Standing beside Felix, her eyes caught on the line of torches hovering between the stream and the line of trees, distorted shadows belonging to men and horses wavering between them.

And at the front, mere paces from the mill entrance, stood Nuvelle astride his own horse with the Aegis Shield gleaming on his arm.

He sucked in a breath. Felix’s hand found hers, steadying her…and, she suspected, steadying him.

“I suppose I should warn you,” Nuvelle continued with barely a pause, “that there is nothing stopping me and my men from climbing into that mill and dragging you out by your ears like the naughty, recalcitrant, uncooperative children you are!”

“Then why the hell haven’t you done it yet?” Felix snapped.

“Felix…”

“You have the advantageous position up in that tower,” Nuvelle conceded, a theatrical sigh escaping him, “and you have already cost me quite enough. Who knew two noble Kingdom brats could be so much trouble?”

“Then why go to that trouble?” Annette demanded, and though a hint of remorse tugged at her heart, she added, “You already have the Relic, so what more do you really want with us?”

“I must confess,” Nuvelle said while torchlight illuminated his unpleasant smirk, “it is truly a matter of pride at this venture. However, if I return to the Empire, I cannot have it be known I allowed such important captives to escape my grasp.”

Annette’s eyes caught on a movement, and she looked to the side to see Felix fitting his bow with his knife. Her jaw gaped for a heartbeat - how in the name of the goddess would that work? - but she wouldn’t question him. He knew weapons far better than she, and if that was what it took to save them - a single well-placed blow in the flesh of their assailants’ leader - then so be it.

Still, an anxious tremor filled her words as she retorted, “W-What makes you think the Emperor will even welcome you back? You deserted, didn’t you? So why do you deserve her forgiveness?”

Her own tirade cut her. Her hands tightened around the windowsill, her heart racing as words she longed to spew at another man far closer to her spilled from her lips. Something hot pricked at her eyes, but Annette still glared down at Nuvelle’s silhouette.

(Meanwhile Felix tossed the bow aside with a muttered curse and raised the knife.)

“Perhaps I do not,” Nuvelle admitted in a low voice, “but it is worth a try, is it not? A soldier without a commander is little more than a beast, just like a man with no loyalty.” He sneered, any trace of fake friendliness falling away. “I would think you nobles and knights of Faerghus, of all people, would understand—”

The Crest of Fraldarius flashed as Felix flung the knife out the window with a grunt, and Annette cast the speediest Wind spell she ever had. The glyphs burst into life with a flash of white light, and the gust of wind tore at her clothes and hair and through the glyphs to blow the knife faster, further, steadier on its path.

It connected with the Aegis Shield with an explosion of force so powerful it shoved Nuvelle from his saddle.

He tumbled gracelessly to the ground, landing in a groaning heap of dark armor and white shield. His men tittered nervously, their horses shifting in place before calming, but before one of them could offer him a hand he jumped to his feet, his face twisted in rage.

Annette’s heart jumped into her throat as he pointed his lance threateningly up at them. “You have done it, my good lord and lady,” he hissed. “I would have offered you yet another chance to surrender to spare you the trial of storming the mill - perhaps even allowed my healer to look over your wounds - but you spat in the face of my kindness for the last time!”

She stiffened before turning to Felix. “Oh, we’re really in it now, Felix.”

“Men!” Nuvelle yelled like a man possessed. “Prepare to attack!”

Annette barely heard him and their flurry of preparations and the barking of orders. Her attention lingered on Felix staring back at her, but rather than panicked like she increasingly felt, his bruised jaw held a steely resolve. His hand covered hers, and her fingers slackened. “I’m not letting them take you,” he promised.

“And they won’t be taking you,” she insisted, his stubbornness in the face of these odds firming her own spine.

He nodded once before he touched her chin. Heat erupted over her face, but he pulled back quickly. “Sorry, I don’t—”

She flung her arms around his neck and rested her forehead against his collar. “I…”

After a brief hesitation he returned her embrace. “They’ll underestimate us,” he said in a low voice that traveled straight through her. “That’s how we’ll get them, and that’s how I’ll kill that bastard.”

Annette chose to believe him, despite her uncertainty curdling her gut and all the words and feelings trapped behind the dam in her throat threatening to burst free, despite the hot tears pooling at the corners of her eyes. “Felix, I—”

A bloodcurdling shriek rose from the darkness.

The ground shook beneath the mill, the tremor traveling up its weak foundation, and dust rained from the ceiling. Outside startled and frightened yells tore through the eerie silence.

Annette clung to Felix, uncertain if he supported her as much as she him, and slowly they peered out of the tower.

Firelight revealed the broken and bleeding bodies of men and horses scattered across the clearing, some still twisting or trying to crawl away while shrieking in terror. And above it all towered a black beast engulfed in dark, acrid smoke, its eyes glowing a malevolent red.

“W-where did that come from?” Annette stammered. Even if her leg could support her, she doubted she would be able to run with the fear now freezing her in place.

Another demonic beast, after all this?

“I don’t…know,” Felix said through gritted teeth. He reached for his sword, though the mill’s wall stood between them.

The beast in the form of a giant wolf crouched, laying waist to the imperial deserters that threatened them. It knelt and howled, a predatory keen that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. A Crest, indiscernible in the darkness, stood out on its forehead.

“Maybe if we stay here,” Annette mumbled hopefully, “it won’t notice us and leave.”

Felix’s hand clutched her shoulder, his fingers digging into her flesh almost painfully. “I don’t…” He squinted into the darkness past her before his eyes widened. “Is that—on its head—is that my Crest?”

“Is—”

The beast snapped its jaws shut around the torso of a deserter before pivoting to focus its red eyes on the mill. Annette shuddered, while Felix grabbed her elbow and tugged her away from the window.

“We can’t stay,” he said.

“But—”

“If we leave, we might die,” Felix said, “but if we stay, we will die.”

“Then at least…” Annette reached for her magic and wove it through the air. A glyph she rarely used even in the most dire of circumstances ignited a blinding white - if the beast hadn’t seen them yet it certainly would now. Energy coursed through her, a fierce tempest with the power to fell wyverns from the sky whipping around them. Felix drew closer to her, as if unconsciously sheltering near her, and she could feel him stiffening against its force.

Annette unleashed Excalibur.

The spell tore at the beast’s rancid fur. It growled into the wind, but its muscles rippled as it stiffened, bracing itself.

Annette didn’t wait to see what would happen next. She took Felix’s arm, heedless of the energy from the spell rapidly leaving her body - she’d never wished she’d been blessed with a major Crest more! - and dragged him towards the stairs.

A jolt of pain shivered up her leg with every other step, but between Felix’s support and the wall she could manage it. Her fingers tightened around his arm at another shake to the mill’s foundation, and the wheel shuddered on its axis.

Thoughts and half-formed plans of their ultimate escape flew through Annette’s mind. She almost longed for Nuvelle and his band of desperate deserters; at least they were more predictable than a rampaging demonic beast!

Her lungs burned with the need for air as they burst out of the mill’s entrance. Felix’s breath rattled unevenly - worryingly - in his chest, and a simple brush against his side left her hand slick with his blood.

“Felix,” she gasped, “you’re bleed—”

“I-I’m fine,” he said, and from the unsteady tremor in his voice she knew he tried to control his breathing. He leaned over slightly too, and suddenly Annette couldn’t tell who held up whom.

His knees buckled, and he slipped from her grip, landing in a heap at the base of the tower.

“Felix!”

His glazed eyes reflected burning torchlight, and he dumbly mumbled, “It’s like…Miklan, that…bastard.”

“W-what?” Annette grabbed his arm in a feeble attempt to tug him up. The ground shuddered beneath them, stronger with each rumble, and her heart raced with the realization the beast approached.

“Stupid,” he muttered. “Stupid to forget it like that…for any ambitious fool to find.”

“What in the goddess’ name are you talking about?” Annette demanded. But she shook her head - her own strength dwindled after casting Excalibur and the agony of fighting her own leg - and said, “That doesn’t matter right now! We just need—”

The beast growled, low and menacing, and so close its hot, sticky breath washed over her.

The air in her lungs iced over. A pathetic little whimper escaped her, but she somehow still found the wherewithal to shape a glyph in the air. She might not have the strength for another Excalibur, but she’d be damned if she went out without a fight or if she let it take Felix when he could barely lift his sword.

“Annette…” Felix’s eyes fixed on something over her head. “Is that—”

A blinding column of white light struck the beast in the side. It instantly recoiled with an angry growl, its red eyes flashing, and rounded on the direction of the spell.

Wings beat the air overhead, a shadow flickering across the ground, and a horned Pegasus descended on the beast, its rider lashing at it with a lance glinting wickedly.

“Hiya!” the rider shouted as she jabbed the beast’s flank before jerking the Pegasus out of its reach.

Hooves behind it thundered before a mounted bowman galloped into view, shooting arrow after arrow at the beast. A well-placed one struck it in the eye, and the beast reared up on its hind legs with a howl of agony.

A silhouette with a flapping cape shot into view, sword glowing an unearthly red expanding with a series of sickening clicks. One hand held out as if to tame the beast while the other lashed at it with a sword.

“P-Professor—!” Annette gasped. She tried to stand, to join in the fight while the professor, Ingrid, and Ashe herded the monster away away from them until all it could do was cower and whimper pathetically.

They finished it in mere heartbeats.

The beast dissolved in a cloud of acidic smoke that burned her throat when she inhaled, leaving nothing behind but the Aegis Shield, gleaming as white in the moonlight as ever.

The tension oozed from Annette’s body, her breath short as if she’d fought the beast as ferociously as her friends, but when Felix burst into a fit of coughs, her attention snapped back to him.

He’d managed to sit up, leaning into his sword as a makeshift cane, but a grimace twisted his face.

“Professor!” Annette shouted. She crawled towards him, ignoring the pain in her leg, and touched his face. “Felix?”

“I’m…fine,” he said. He flashed her a small, rare smile. “We’re fine.”

“You’re not yet,” she said. A lump stuck in her throat, and she cupped his cheek with one hand. “But yes”—she allowed herself a triumphant smile—”we’ll survive this.”

Felix’s eyes slipped shut though his smile lingered, and for a heartbeat Annette feared he’d passed out.

She hadn’t noticed the professor approaching them until she knelt beside them, her eerie Relic sheathed at her side. In the dark her pale green eyes glowed with their own ethereal light.

Annette’s breath caught, her heart pounding in some alarm, but she released her tight grip on Felix and allowed the professor access to his wound.

“He’ll live,” she reassured her. Her hands emitted a warm white light somehow different from Annette’s own healing magic. “He just needs time to recover in camp, where there aren’t monsters breathing down your neck.” A smile flitted across her impassive face. “As do you, Annette.”

Annette was spared the need to reply by Ingrid’s and Ashe’s approach. His hand landed on her shoulder with a squeeze, while Ingrid crouched to peer at Felix, her brow furrowed with obvious concern.

“What in the goddess’ name happened to you?” she demanded.

Felix’s eyes flickered open and landed on her. A scowl instantly shaped his lips, but when Ingrid glared at him it softened into something resembling a smile. “Don’t have to fuss over me, Ingrid,” he said.

“Like hell I don’t!” Ingrid retorted with an emphatic wave of her hand. “If you had just waited—”

“Professor?” Ashe interrupted, his gaze flicking between Felix and Ingrid, doubtless concerned about an impending quarrel. “I can take Felix back to camp now. I’m sure Mercedes can finish patching him up.”

“That’s a good idea, Ashe,” said the professor. “I’ve done all I can for him with just magic, but I’ll need to set Annette’s leg before she can safely ride back with Ingrid.”

Her heart plummeted at the professor’s words; all this, only to part from Felix? “But—”

The heat of his gaze, intense for someone battling unconsciousness, drew her attention, and she could read in his face - and in how his hand grasped hers - the same reluctance. The thought of it made a pleasant flutter fill her chest (not that it was the time to entertain such fancy).

Before Ashe could help drag Felix to his feet, Annette hugged him one last time. This time he didn’t hesitate to return it, squeezing her so tightly she wondered if his Crest activated. She buried her face in his dirty coat, the scent of him pleasant and comforting underneath the sweat and metallic tang of blood.

“You’ll be back at camp too before you know it,” the professor said with a sigh, though the smile she offered them was reassuring.

Annette pulled away, sniffing, and watched Ashe wrap an arm around Felix’s waist before tugging him upright and helping him hobble off towards his horse. Ingrid trailed behind them, doubtless to carry on lecturing Felix (and make sure he remembered to retrieve his Relic this time).

He glanced over his shoulder at her, his step too slow. Ingrid followed his gaze, her eyebrow lifting when hers landed on Annette, before she turned back to Felix and leaned close to his ear, mumbling something.

Annette could just make out a scowl on his face and a teasing grin on Ingrid’s before he nodded and allowed Ashe to assist him in mounting the horse.

She would’ve watched them melt away into the darkness if the professor hadn’t chosen that moment to snap her leg back into place.

Annette shrieked, half in surprise and half in pain, while black spots crowded her vision. She turned forward again, unable to hold back tears, and glowered at the professor.

She frowned and said, “I apologize. I took advantage of your distraction.”

Annette shrugged, suddenly too exhausted to reply. She numbly observed the professor secure her leg in a makeshift splint and barely even noticed Ingrid resting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Annette,” the professor said, “what happened?”

She shuddered, remembering Nuvelle’s anger, his lance spearing Felix, the knife held to her throat, the eyes of the beast - once Nuvelle himself - gleaming an evil red. She…did not wish to relive it, not even to recount it to the professor, so she quietly admitted, “I was beginning to fear we wouldn’t make it back.” Her eyes drifted up to her face. “You saw my signal?”

The professor nodded. “Dimitri dispatched us as soon as we saw. We’d already been worried when your battalion returned without you, but”—she glanced up at Ingrid—”it seems that Felix was too eager to find you on his own.”

Ingrid snorted. “Maybe if he hadn’t been too impatient to wait to assemble a rescue party—”

“That no longer matters,” the professor cut her off almost gently. “They’re safe now - or as safe as any of us is in the midst of this war - and that’s what matters.”

Annette smiled, reassured by the professor’s words - and knowing she’d see Mercie, her father, her mother, and Felix again.

“I…have some things to say to you too,” he’d promised, and she would hold him to that.

Chapter Text

The second time Annette woke in the infirmary, she woke with a dry throat. She bolted up and gulped down the water in the cup at her bedside before glancing around.

Sunlight streamed in through the window, telling her it was mid-morning and she again slept longer than she meant to. She set her cup down with a groan.

Her second day…and still no sign of Felix.

Mercie and her father spent much of the first day with her. Mercie flung her arms around her, trembling with residual fear, before pulling back and beaming as she brandished a tray laden with Annette’s favorite food. Her father, of course, was far more taciturn, but her heart had lifted at the sight of him standing in the infirmary doorway, his gaze drifting to Mercie before he wondered, “May I come in?”

Her other friends dropped in, making sure she didn’t get too bored. Sylvain, damn him, brought his chess set and challenged her to another match that she liked to think lasted longer than the last. Dedue and Ashe brought her a bouquet of violets that now sat in a vase at her bedside. Ingrid brought her a few of her favorite books and insisted Annette read the first chapter of all of them before she left again. The professor’s and His Highness’ visit was briefest, long enough to wish her well and give her a few updates before they left, claiming regret and a sinfully cluttered schedule.

Annette, of course, couldn’t blame them, not when her legs itched with the sort of energy she’d missed so much throughout the whole ordeal. Now, despite the cast spanning her lower left leg, she swung the pair out of bed, but before she could so much as place them on the floor, the infirmary door flew open.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Professor Manuela exclaimed, her eyes wide with alarm. Her hair was untidy as if she too had just woken, her usual robes a little crooked, but she wagged her finger at Annette and said, “You’re confined to this bed for another day, Annette. And for the goddess’ sake keep your weight off your leg!”

Annette blinked, her heart racing thanks to her sudden appearance, and raised her hands defensively. “I’m—”

“You know, you’re lucky all that torture you put it through didn’t permanently handicap you.” Manuela sniffed, her hands resting on her hips and her nose in the air. “Really, there’s only so much medicine and healing magic can do, so if you young men and women insist on being so reckless with your own skin—”

Annette sighed, tuning out her tirade. Where was Felix then if not resting in the infirmary? Her chest tightened; she’d hoped he’d be one of the first faces she saw, and despite Mercie’s and the professor’s updates, they hadn’t told her much more about him than that he was “recovering nicely”.

(Never mind their knowing smiles when she worked up the nerve to wonder about him.)

“—and honestly, you’re nearly as bad as that boy of yours!”

Annette’s gaze snapped to Manuela. “I’m sorry, Professor, my what?”

Manuela frowned. “Your boy? Felix? The grumpy one whose father—”

“Oh!” Her cheeks burned at the implication, and she hastily said, “He’s not my—I mean, if he was, he’d be here, right?”

Right?

Manuela crossed her arms and sighed. “He came here last night after I’d closed the infirmary,” she admitted. “I actually caught him trying to sneak in and told him if he was so intent on wasting his energy he ought to be resting to save it for visiting during daylight instead.” She picked up a tray of breakfast she’d set on the center table, heedless to the thoughts and emotions swirling within Annette. “Now, I suppose I don’t need to remind you that you need to eat.” She set the tray on her lap. “If that’s not empty by the time I return, I will make sure the pain draft is extra foul next time.”

Annette shivered at the threat, but upon inspecting the food - and her stomach rumbling - she doubted she would have much difficulty finishing it.

(Oh, Sothis bless Dedue for his skills. Or maybe she ought to be praying to Duscur’s gods for that?)

She gulped down the tea before it cooled more than it had, then started in on the rest. Her thoughts again turned to Felix, worried about what his absence could mean - why hadn’t he visited during the day? - and wondering how he recovered.

The sound of rapid footsteps jerked Annette from the depths of her mind, and she glanced up to find…Felix.

Her breath caught at the sight of him standing - standing! - in the doorway, his intense eyes on her and one hand braced against the door frame and the other—

“Are those lilies from the greenhouse?” Annette blurted. When he just blinked at her, her face warmed.

Felix’s jaw - a little less violet and more yellow than last time she saw him - hung open before it clicked shut. “Uh, yes,” he said. He cleared his throat as he stepped into the infirmary, approaching her. “Ashe helped me pick them.”

“Oh, um…”

Felix practically shoved the bouquet of tiger lilies at her. “They’re for you,” he said, “since, well, you’re supposed to bring flowers to someone at the infirmary, right?” He scratched at his ear before his hand fell to his side.

Annette clutched the bouquet to her chest, but her eyes caught on the motion of his hand. It hovered over his wounded side - did it still pain him? - before dropping. “Thank you,” she said, unable to help a smile from tugging at her lips. “They’re pretty.”

“You’re, um, very welcome.”

A part of her doubted Felix was really the sort to bring anyone on their sickbed flowers, but for some reason he’d done for her…it made something flutter in her chest. He was almost charming like this, stumbling over his words as badly as she was - which probably made her a hypocrite, but Felix had that effect on her.

Him standing there, his hair swept up into a messy bun and cheeks painted pink like hers must be…Annette really wanted to kiss him again, so badly her hands shook with the desire to grab him by the collar and tug him down to her level.

So she sat on her hands and asked, “How are you…feeling?”

Felix’s hand drifted to his side. “Well enough,” he replied simply. He nodded at her bad leg. “You?”

“I’m healing.” She scowled at her breakfast tray before setting it aside. “I’m confined to bed rest for another day; how did you get so lucky?”

“You, well, turns out the quick healing you did at the mill…really saved my life.” He rubbed his face, though she thought she spied the ghost of a smile crossing it. “It might’ve gotten infected if you hadn’t.”

Annette’s eyes widened, but her whole body warmed with the praise. She was a decent healer in a pinch, but not nearly enough for anyone to claim she’d saved their life.

“I…should’ve visited you sooner,” Felix continued unprompted. At last he perched in the chair at her bedside, but his back was so rigid he looked like he prepared to bolt at any instant. “I was just…working up the, um, courage to see you again, because I told you I had some things to say to you.”

A slight shiver traveled up her spine at the memory. Her lips tingled, as if remembering the press of his against them, caught in that moment of fear and desperation.

But no enemy - no man or beast - pursued them now.

Her stomach churned with anxiety, and suddenly she wasn’t sure she was ready to hear whatever he had to say. “Y-you’re a hypocrite, Felix.”

“W-what?” He gaped at her.

She pointed a finger at him. “You—Ingrid said you left to find me without bothering to wait for a rescue party!”

“H-how does that make me a hypocrite?’ he demanded.

“Because you had the audacity to lecture me about ordering my battalion to retreat without me!” Annette griped.

Felix scowled at her. “That’s not nearly the same!” he retorted. “It’s not like you couldn’t afford to hesitate in rescuing someone dear to you; meanwhile you isolated—”

“Wait,” Annette cut him off, her heart racing as her mind caught up, “I’m…’dear’ to you?”

Felix’s eyes shot open before he smacked a hand over his face and snapped, “Yes, you are, Annette! Are you not listening to what I’m trying to tell you?”

“I know, I’m sorry!” She covered her mouth to hide her smile, but there was no disguising the giggle that burst from her. She sighed, chest light and face pleasantly warm, and said, “I just, um, wanted to make sure.”

His face too burned a bright red before he stared past her and blurted, “I-love-you-and-want-to-spend-my-life-with-you”—he took a shuddering, bracing breath, his gaze snapping back to her face—”if you’ll…have me?”

Annette’s breath caught, her tongue sticking as words failed her. She’d…half-expected a confession of some kind from him, especially after what happened between them in the mill, but, in her experience reality rarely lived up to expectation.

“A-are you…um, Felix”—she coughed, as if that would dislodge her thoughts and free them—”are you asking me to marry you?”

He frowned at his hands clasped tightly in his lap. Then, slowly, achingly bashfully, he nodded.

For a long heartbeat Annette couldn’t find it in herself to respond, so tightly did the shock grip her. But a smile bloomed across her face while her heart pounded to the beat of the song rising in her.

“I, um, you can keep the flowers,” Felix mumbled as he jumped to his feet. He winced, his hand darting up to his side.

Annette swallowed her sudden panic, practically leaping off her bed to grab his arm and drag him back. “Wait, Felix!” she gasped. “Why are you always trying to run away from me? Saints, I’m not your enemy.”

“I don’t run away from enemies,” Felix retorted instantly, then added as an afterthought, “You once thought I was your enemy just for hearing you sing.”

“I suppose,” Annette conceded with a sigh while she squirmed in embarrassment, “but you hadn’t given me a reason to trust you then.”

Felix tilted his head to the side, looking sweetly confused. “Had I given you a reason to distrust me?”

“Well…no,” Annette admitted, “but I do have an answer for you now, if you’ll stay long enough to hear it.”

His eyes caught hers, and she took that as a tacit permission to tug him down to sit beside her on the bed. “O-oh?”

She smiled, nodding. “I, um, ah…” Goddess, how long had he struggled to work up the courage to say it to her without knowing if she returned his feelings? Because she probably needed twice as long. She hooked her arm through his and leaned against him. “I love you too, Felix.”

She felt rather than heard his intake of breath and looked up to meet his gaze boring into her. “Uh, can I…”

“Y—”

He kissed her, stealing her breath away while giving his in return. His strong hands clutched her shoulders, tugging her closer, and her fingers fisted in his shirt.

There was something to be said about kissing Felix while they were both more lucid, with neither of them half-delirious with pain or on the brink of succumbing to fear, while they sat in a far safer and more comfortable place and secure in the other’s feelings. But his touch still warmed her, the firm, insistent press of his lips still made her head spin, and Annette doubted she would ever get enough.

When they parted, dizzy and smiling, Annette laughed. Felix rested his forehead on hers, his thumb brushing a tear - when had she started crying? - from her cheek, and said in a low voice that made her toes curl, “You still haven’t answered my question.”

“Oh, no?” Her smile didn’t falter - oh, goddess, her cheeks would hurt as much as her leg soon - as she said, “Yes, I’ll marry you, Felix, but, um…” She smoothed down the wrinkles she’d left in his shirt. “Maybe we should wait till after the war?”

Somehow, miraculously, Felix laughed.

The promise of hearing it more almost made the rotten ordeal worthwhile.