It took Ingrid longer than she expected to find the right words. Though the professor was barely older than she was, it was hard to see her as a peer, and the last thing she wanted to do was embarass herself in front of a teacher right before the end of her brief, precious school days.
“There's actually something I want to speak with you about,” she said, hands shaking. Plenty of students did this, but still it made her nervous. It felt like the end of an era and the start of something new, something unknown. But that was silly, wasn’t it? Nothing would change, not really. “There are so many things I want to learn from you,” she continued. “Being in another class makes it especially challenging."
Byleth nodded, and agreed almost immediately, as though it wasn’t the decision that would change the course of Ingrid’s life. Ingrid supposes that neither of them had any way of knowing that it was.
The next day in class, Edelgard offered her a curt but polite greeting and thanked her for joining them, and the rest of the Black Eagles had followed in suit. But it was Dorothea, who was already her friend and confidant, that sat beside her that day, and every day after that.
Five years ago, she’d joined the Black Eagles because she was interested in the Professor’s techniques, and hoped that she could learn something new from her. That was truly the only reason, and yet what had seemed at the time like a simple decision had snowballed into something much bigger. Fighting alongside the Eagles while maintaining her old friendships within the Lions was an easy enough task when they were only friendly rivals, and for a short time she was able to do it easily.
But... things changed, and very quickly. Ingrid hadn’t expected it; neither had Dorothea, and the two of them clung together as the world fell to pieces around them.
It was a long, slow five years. After that, when the Professor returned to give them some hope, time moved even slower.
“...so with all that in mind, we’ll regroup in two days to discuss the plan further.”
Almost the very moment moment Byleth calls the war council to a close, the group starts to chatter. It’s not the same sort of chatter that used to take place during their school days—gone is the naive enthusiasm of youth, replaced with quieter tones and more serious discussions. Today the talk she overhears is talk of food supplies and training battalions and the slow process of recovering from injuries.
Ingrid hurt herself in the last battle, too. Pulled a muscle by her shoulder while she was steering her horse. She didn’t mention it, even to the professor, just in case she sees her as a burden because of it. Nothing to worry about; people pull muscles all the time, so it’s not really a hardship. Nobody needs to know.
That she’s not invited to any of the conversations that surround her is also nothing to be alarmed by. For the past five years, she’s found herself alone more often than not. Even Edelgard, who always spoke to her so politely when they were classmates, now seems to be watching her from the corner of her eye.
She doesn’t blame them. She’s the only person here that’s from Faerghus, so there’s every reason to believe that she might have something to hide. Spying, sabotage—one can’t be too careful during war.
Ingrid waits until everyone leaves, and then she waits some more. If she pretends not to notice that everyone’s gone, it won’t seem as awkward. It’s a waste of parchment, but she can’t help but distract herself by writing notes that don’t need to be taken, and adding a few doodles in the margins. It helps her to ignore the rumble in her stomach and the stabbing pain when she moves her arm the wrong way.
Edelgard is the last to leave the room, and Ingrid can finally leave, alone. It’s the same way after every lecture: gather up her things and shuffle away with her bag to ride or practice her lancework. The same as she used to when they were students.
Only now Dimitri is gone and Felix is probably pretending not to be upset about it and Sylvain is getting himself into trouble so that he can ignore his problems and—
“Why the long face?”
Ingrid nearly jumps out of her skin for how absorbed she’d been in her daily downward spiral.
“Dorothea!” she shouts, just as soon as she gets her wits about her. “I didn’t know you were still here!”
And really, she shouldn’t be so surprised. Dorothea has never been like the others. Maybe it’s because they became friends the very first day they met—chattering away about how Ingrid had braided her horse’s mane, such a trite conversation—or maybe because Dorothea got her out of several pickles when they were students, but something about their relationship is different.
Dorothea frowns. “Of course I’m still here.”
“I... was distracted, I suppose. Concentrating on my notes.”
“What could you possibly always be taking notes on? You never have trouble remembering anything.” Ingrid has no answer to that, but she allows Dorothea a glance. “Have sword sharpened, clean out stall... oh, I see.”
“You’re trying to keep busy, no matter what. Look, there’s a doodle of a little cow’s face. Cute.” Without Ingrid even noticing, she’s sat down next to her. Her hair is loose around her face, a face that’s perfectly made up even now. Ingrid isn’t sure how she does it.
“It’s not that cute,” she replies, but her tone of voice betrays her, and the objection is a weak one. “You... it’s you.”
Dorothea takes her hand, and Ingrid accepts the touch. She’s not much for showing off their relationship—it’s something private, not quite secret but almost—but now that they’re alone maybe it’s all right. It’s only then, feeling that warmth, that Ingrid realizes how cold her own are, Is it almost winter already? The seasons pass so fast when she barely allows herself a chance to breathe.
She’s forced to breathe now, as Dorothea weaves her fingers in between Ingrid’s ever so gently. There’s the slightest scratch of Dorothea’s nails, and Ingrid does all that she can to focus on the sensation. She wants to be fully in the moment now; there’s nowhere she’d rather be, and nowhere else worth being.
Ingrid tries again. “It’s you who’s the cute one. Or... pretty. Elegant.”
They’ve been lovers for years now, or whatever they ought to be calling it. (Ingrid calls it that; Dorothea just calls her sweetheart and darling.) It happened after Ingrid betrayed her family and before she figured out how to accept it. Still, she’s not sure how to flirt the way she ought to, because between her family’s expectations and her own training and the fact that she grew up with a fiance for a time, she’s never had the chance to learn.
Dorothea doesn’t mind. On top of everything else, she likes to compare Ingrid to a kitten, eager to share her affection. Her soft hair also helps, she says, even though you’ve gotten it cut.
“Thanks. I get that a lot, but it means more coming from you. Seriously, though—” and she squeezes Ingrid’s hand to punctuate this— “are you all right?”
All right is a complicated thing. She’s alive, safe, and not sure what she’s doing with her life.
“I don’t think I belong here,” Ingrid admits.
“Oh, Ingrid, of course you do! The professor wants you here. I want you here.”
Ingrid wrinkles her nose. “I think Hubert thinks I’m a spy.”
“Somethings I think Hubert thinks I’m a spy. Don’t take it personally.”
“It would’ve been better if I did something else. Stayed in Galatea territory and taken care of things and my parents could relax. Kept an eye on Sylvain and other others. At this rate, I’d be more useful as a traveling mercenary or a circus clown.”
“Garreg Mach isn’t good enough for you, huh?” She’s probably trying to joke about it, but Dorothea just sounds tired.
“Maybe I’m not good enough for Garreg Mach. Or the professor, or you. Maybe I should just... go.”
“And leave me? Your elegant fiancee?”
“You know we’re not really engaged, that was just a silly joke from when we were kids. It’s not really funny anymore. To tell you the truth, it never was.”
Dorothea looks like she’s about to say something now, but she’s holding her tongue. It’s hard, talking like this in half-truths and half-silences. Ingrid doesn’t know how to do anything else these days; the war has made her quiet, in a way that’s wrong for her, and not even in the way that her family sometimes wished for.
Her lover is good at silences, too, but she tries to break them anyway.
“You’re like a kitten, Ingrid,” Dorothea finally says. “You don’t know how sharp your claws are.”
They’re not fighting; they never do. It’s easy to waste time with fighting when you’re young and dumb and the most important thing is dressing up for the upcoming ball, but neither of them has the energy to get into quarrels now. Whether that means things are staying bottled up or not, she’s not sure, but some days the best she can do is try her best to be good to the woman she doesn’t deserve.
So: “Did I make you mad?” Ingrid asks, not hours later.
Dorothea wasn’t expecting to see her here, just outside of the chapel, but she also wasn’t expecting to not see her.
“Of course not. Sit?” She pats the spot behind her on the stone ledge.
Ingrid sighs as she joins her, feeling about a dozen years older than she actually is. Though training the past few days hasn’t been especially rough there’s still a weariness deep within her bones that never quite goes away, not any more. One day that will go away, she thinks, one day when everything is easy again. As if it’s ever going to be easy.
They both look up at the cloudy sky, not at each other.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain,” Ingrid says.
“I’m glad for that, I have laundry hanging to dry.”
Ingrid pauses here. Dorothea may not be mad, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a reason to be. She might, Ingrid thinks, just be too tired for anger.
It’s hard to empathize, but she’s trying. She has to. A lot of people are a little bit tireder, thanks to Ingrid, so she may as well ease at least the burden of the woman she loves.
“I’m not going to leave, you know. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
“Not leave the Black Eagles?” Dorothea asks, weary. “Or not leave me?”
“Either. Both. I think a lot about giving up and going home, but...” Ingrid shakes her head. “It’s not my home any longer.”
“So you would, if you could? Yeah, I guess that would be easier.”
“I...” the words catch in her throat. There are days when she thinks it’s true, that she’d rather be anywhere but here. And there are days where it is the opposite, and she’s filled with pride for what she’s chosen to fight for. Most of the time, though... “I’m not sure anymore. I barely have the energy to get through the day, let alone any extra to spend on regrets. All I can do now is do my best to stay alive.” She glances at Dorothea, who’s finally looking at her again. “I do care about you, you know? I truly have feelings for you. It’s just... it’s hard.”
Dorothea lets out the breath that she’d been holding. “Ingrid... thank you. I think I needed to hear you say that out loud.”
“I don’t talk much about my feelings.”
“It might help, if you did. The others— they say you’re avoiding them. I think each of us is as unsure as the next, even if it’s for different reasons. Even Edie. No, especially Edie.”
Ingrid chuckles, despite everything. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her unsure about anything.”
“You’ve never really talked to her in private, have you? About the war or... about anything? Maybe it would help both of you bridge the gap. You two have a lot in common.”
“Is that so?”
“You’re both nobles I can get along with, and that’s a rare thing. Both of you have strong principles, and care about doing the right thing. Stubborn.” She smiles. “And you’re both beauties.”
Ingrid gives her an exaggerated sigh in response, but she can’t object to Dorothea’s comment, inappropriate as it may be. Her flirting makes everything feel a little bit more normal. “How is the Emperor going to feel if she finds out you’re talking about her like that?”
“Good, hopefully. The poor, awkward girl needs some confidence to make a move on the professor already. That’s another thing you have in common!”
“Hey, I’m not quite that bad.”
“Oh?” Dorothea winks. “Then when will you propose to me for real?”
“That’s... does it really bother you?”
“Hmm, maybe a little.”
In Dorothea’s eyes is a mischievous glint, but there must be some truth to what she says. All either of them wants is security; why not find it together?
Anyone could stumble upon them here, outside in broad daylight, but part of Ingrid wants to be brave and suddenly that’s the only part that matters. She kisses Dorothea, chaste but firm, and tastes the powder-sweetness of her lipstick as Dorothea gasps, leans into the kiss. In that moment, everything seems clear.
“After the war,” Ingrid says when they pull apart.
“Once it’s over, and it’s time to figure out what happens next. That’s when we can talk about getting married. I’ll have to stay alive until then, and I’ll figure out the rest as I go along.”
“Oh!” Dorothea says, voice almost shy. “Oh Ingrid, I didn’t think you’d actually... that is, yes, we’ll do that.”
“Ingrid. Are you doing any better?”
Ingrid looks up. Edelgard isn’t very tall, but at this angle there ought to be something about her that’s at least a little imposing. There isn’t; confident as The Emperor can be, she approaches her almost shyly.
“Lady Edelgard,” Ingrid says, nodding politely while she’s screaming inside. “Doing better?”
“Your shoulder, or your arm... you moved like it was hurt for a time. Not today, though.”
“It’s... yes, you’re right. It’s feeling better, I just didn’t think you noticed.” How much more has Edelgard noticed? How much of her watching was concern, rather than suspicion?
Maybe some if it was in Ingrid’s head.
“I’m glad. Would you have a free moment this afternoon for tea? With the professor— and me, if you won’t mind.”
Ingrid wonders for a moment if she misheard, but no, this has to be Dorothea’s doing. She feels lightheaded at the thought of such a private conversation, but her lover’s reassurance that they can learn to get along gives her new confidence, and she takes a deep breath.
Things can get easier for her, if she’ll let them.
“Emperor,” Ingrid says, “I’d be pleased to.”