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Steel and Song

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The last time Dorothea sees her before she leaves is at Edelgard and Byleth’s wedding. It’s a sweet affair, and one a long time coming. Even after everything, the years where Byleth was missing, the war, how close they came to losing her entirely, it’s still a quiet celebration. Small. Just them and all the other remnants of the academy.

But it’s a nice moment. A moment that Dorothea enjoys, putting on a fancy dress, sweeping onto a stage smaller than she is used to so that she can sing for her friends, pretending for one precious moment that she can’t still feel the blood on her hands.

Ingrid is there. It shouldn’t surprise her as much as it does, seeing her standing in a corner talking to Felix. Maybe she thought Ingrid would be as tired of war as she is, and would have run off to some distant part of Fódlan long ago. Or maybe that she would have gone home to face her family, to see how they’d react to her now, having earnt a fortune in blood and not gold.

Maybe, she had thought, losing Dimitri would be the last straw. The step too far. The final arrow, that slips between gaps in armour and sinks too deep to ever be dug out.

But she’s still here, even if her smile doesn’t reach her eyes.

Dorothea catches Ingrid glance towards her, just for a heartbeat. She trades her a wink out of habit, and spins around before Ingrid can approach her, taking the stage once more.

This she knows. This is easy, to spin melodies with her voice, to weave stories into a tapestry, to hide behind a shield of song.

Time changes, and Dorothea changes with it. Her childish dreams died on a battlefield long ago, in a fight that she cannot even remember. Her innocence died with it, from the day she first took a life, then died further still when the slaughter stopped shocking her.

She made her choices, stood her ground, told herself that no matter what happened it would be worth it if she managed to keep her friends safe. That the nightmares would be worth it, and the guilt, and the endless itching sensation she feels on the worst days, when she can still feel the warmth of blood on her hands no matter how much she scrubs them.

But she can forget it all for a moment while she sings. One song, and then another, then one more when she sees Edelgard lead her new wife to the dancefloor.

When she’s singing, Dorothea gives herself wholly into her roles. She is a priest, a fisherman, an emperor. A knight, a princess, a commoner with a doomed love. There is a peace to be had in forgetting who she has become, even if it is only for this brief, fleeting moment. To be someone else, burdened by a stranger’s problems.

But she is never herself. She will be anyone but herself.

She is so tired of being herself.

But like all things, this delusional peace doesn’t last forever, and Dorothea descends the stage to join her friends once more. They all have plans, she leans. Responsibilities to fulfil, opportunities they are glad to have. The future excites them, she can tell. And the future is so much more pleasant to concentrate on than the sins of the past. And she is glad for them. But she can’t help but feel a touch lost in comparison, especially when her own plans boil down to returning to where she started from, all those years ago.

They all say it suits her. But Dorothea doesn’t know if she agrees, not anymore. An opera singer with blood on her hands, a songstress more familiar with death than the glamour of performance. It seems like a bitter irony.

But she isn’t sure where to go, now that the war is done. Edelgard would give her a position in the empire if she asked, Dorothea knows that. Petra would let her stay on Brigid for as long as she cared to, she knows that as well. But neither feels right, and neither feels like something Dorothea deserves. At least in the opera she will be wanted, and at least in the opera she will be able to make others smile, and forget their own sins, even if it is only for a moment.

She cannot escape her forever, and Ingrid traps her before the night is done. Without her, the musicians have continued to play, and Dorothea had been happy to just watch. Their war is done, and everyone else seems content to bury everything that had happened, to frame it as a necessity, or little more than a cruel dream. Edelgard is out of her armour for once, and there is a rare smile on Byleth’s face. Caspar amuses them all when he tries to dance with Linhardt and spends more time treading on his feet than touching the ground. Even Bernadetta tries, barely protesting as Petra and Ferdinand lead her out. It’s sweet. And it almost feels worth it, for a second.

At least until Ingrid appears at her elbow, and even with just one glance Dorothea is transported back months, to a forest hidden by mist, to watching Edelgard swing the executioner’s axe. Most of all, Dorothea remembers how badly she had wanted to look away, and how she hadn’t allowed herself to.

Ingrid had stood by their side then, and had never faltered. But Dorothea had been standing next to her when it happened, and she had caught the choked sound that had escaped from her throat. Dimitri had been her prince once, and before that he had been her friend. And Dorothea may not have known him, and the obsessed stranger they met on the fields of battle she knew even less, but she has never relished the taste of needless slaughter.

If the memory haunts Ingrid, she doesn’t show it.

“They look happy.” Ingrid says, watching the dancers. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the professor smile like that.”

“I don’t think she ever has smiled like that before.” Dorothea says. And her charm is still easy to summon, and she turns to flash Ingrid with a smile she hopes is convincing. “Are you jealous? After this I have no doubt there would be swarms of eligible bachelors hoping for a chance with you. One of them might even deserve you.”

Ingrid shakes her head. “Don’t tease me. I’m not jealous. I’m just a bit…” Ingrid is still looking out, and the edges of her lips quirk when Byleth misjudges a step and has to be saved by Edelgard. The professor never was a dancer, Dorothea thinks. “I’m not sure how I feel, if I’m honest. But I’m glad they’re happy. Someone has to be.”

Dorothea lets herself watch Ingrid out of the corner of her eye for a minute more. She has tried her best to be cheerful, and not risk ruining this delicate moment. It’s a good performance, but Dorothea knows how to watch people, how to catch the slight tension in their hands, the way their smiles waver when they don’t mean them. Ingrid has obvious tells to anyone who cares to look hard enough.

And Dorothea likes to think she knows Ingrid well enough to catch these subtleties in emotion. Ingrid isn’t a woman who likes deceit, and her earnest nature has only ever made her easy to read.

Not that Dorothea has ever been able to read what she had hoped to see in her. That was a mad dream, a schoolgirl’s crush, a futile hope for something she already knows she cannot have.

Before it all, the decisions Dorothea cannot forget, the war that still stains her hands, Ingrid would have been the sort of person she joined the academy to find. Maybe she wasn’t rich, but she was kind, and brave, with the sort of heart most operatic heroes would kill to have.

It had been easy to let herself slip.

“Where are you going, after this?” she asks instead of dwelling.

“Home.” Ingrid says. “or at least, to what’s left of it. Edelgard granted all my family’s lands back to me, and then some. I’m going to see if any of my family made it through, and then I’ll try and make things better for the people who live there.”

“Is that what you want?” Dorothea asks before she can stop herself.

Ingrid hesitates. “It might be. I could have asked to join Edelgard’s personal guard, but honestly I don’t think she needs my protection.” She smiles again, but it’s forced. “But I think I can help people, back home.”

“Galant as ever.” Dorothea says. “How very like you.”

Ingrid waves the compliment off. “I hear you’re joining the opera again.” She pauses for a second, and then she turns Dorothea’s bladed question back on her. “Is that what you want?”

For a second, Dorothea considers telling her the truth. That she doesn’t know what she wants, that she doesn’t even know if it’s possible to go back to a life on stage after everything she has done. How she had known how to fight while she was with the opera, but she had only ever defended herself, and had never gone to the lengths that are so familiar to her now. That the thought of singing about glamorised wars when she has fought in a brutal one makes her stomach churn, like being caught in a lie. But she doesn’t want to ruin today, not after all it took to make it here.

“It is.” She says, with enough certainty that she almost believes her own lie. “I want to write new operas for it, actually. The last few years have been tough for everyone. I can only hope the opera brings some joy to the people who see it.”

“I have no doubt it will.”

“And if it works out well enough, I might even be able to convince them to pass through Galatea lands someday.” It’s a graceless offer, threadbare and obvious, but Ingrid still doesn’t see through it.

“I would like that.” She says simply, and Dorothea doesn’t push the thought further. If Ingrid had been even slightly interested, she would have tried something years ago. Dorothea just needs to let that lesson sink into her ever-hopeful mind.

The musicians start up a new song, something fast and bright, and Dorothea glances back to the stage, wondering if she should slip away and hide herself behind a mask of song once more. That would be the easiest option, and the least dangerous. But Ingrid doesn’t let her, not today.

“Dance with me.” Ingrid says, holding her hand out. Her poise is perfect, as elegant as a knight in a story. “Just this once. As friends. I want to know if you dance as well as you sing.”

This time, Dorothea’s smile is genuine.

The opera welcomes her back with welcome arms, and Dorothea is thankful for how busy it keeps her. They are always travelling, always practicing, always trying to reach for a level of perfection that they have not yet attained. She had forgotten how much she loved the art of performance, after letting the joy of it fade in all the years she had been away. When she is on stage, Dorothea never thinks about anything but her role, the story she takes on as if it is her own life. And after each one, there is a single moment, brief but pure, where the audience applauds and Dorothea feels something almost like peace.

Then she steps down, and has to bear her own mantle once more.

Off the stage, the things that had once brought her joy feel hollow. People send her tokens of appreciation, and Dorothea doesn’t keep a single one, preferring instead to give them to the less popular members of their troupe. Suitors drift by most days, more than there used to be, but Dorothea sends each of them away. There’s a handsome knight who visits multiple times, a pretty young painter who all but begs Dorothea to be her muse. But she knows that each one cares little for any part of her that is not her voice or her looks, and the thought of anyone lingering long enough to try to see further is terrifying. It’s easier to let them go with a gentle laugh.

It’s strangely lonely. The stage builds a wall between her and anyone she might want to speak to, and the war builds one between her and the other performers. She knows within a few minutes of meeting them that none of them have ever had to fight like she did, that none of them have ever known what it’s like to be terrified to be alone for too long.

At least the constant travel makes it easy to see her old friends.

Their first performance in the capital draws even the Emperor herself down, even if Dorothea can’t see her in the shadows that hide the audience. But she could almost swear she can hear her voice in the cheers that follow it, and she hears it again backstage.

Edelgard has changed, in the months since Dorothea last saw her. The crown she wears is smaller, and while there is still a sword sheathed at her waist, she remains unburdened by armour. But those are the small things, the obvious things. Mainly, Dorothea notices the lack of tension in her shoulders, the fluidity of her movements, the way she no longer tries to hide her emotions when Dorothea brings up Byleth. Peace suits her well, Dorothea thinks.

She doesn’t stay long, only long enough to hand her a letter from Byleth, an invitation to tea the following day. It’s so utterly in character that Dorothea laughs.

“She hasn’t changed, has she?”

“You would be surprised.” Edelgard tells her.

Peace suits her, but love suits her better still. Softens the lines around her eyes, adds a gentleness to her words. She shouldn’t be jealous, but there is an unspoken happiness that has infected Edelgard since they last spoke. And as much as Dorothea wants to tease her, to cut away the lingering remnants of the armour Edelgard has always kept around herself, she is all too aware of where exactly they are. And exactly how many people are watching. So, she lets it go, and sweeps her into one last hug.

Without her armour, Edelgard feels a lot smaller. And a lot more human.

It suits her.

Time marches on, relentless as ever. The opera keeps her busy, most days. But when it doesn’t, when performances have been ground so deep within her mind that Dorothea can hear melodies in her sleep, she finds other things to distract herself with. She writes a terrible opera about the war, and throws it out almost immediately. After that, she avoids trying to write and face failure once again, and finds herself putting her academy training to use by helping the opera’s owner, balancing books and planning routes.

She gets treated to looks of confusion when she finally dares to suggest a trip through Galatea lands, but her advice isn’t questioned.

Let them believe what they will, Dorothea thinks. That there is some hidden strategy, some plan that will increase their fortunes, and not just a needless sidestep from their overall goal.

Most of the preparations are easy. Practicing songs, helping choose which singers should perform in which roles, each is simple when compared with trying to write the first letter to Ingrid since she last saw her two years ago. Words have never been hard, either spoken or written, and Dorothea has always managed to find some subtle song to weave into them. Now, however, she writes and then discards too many letters to count. Some are too formal, some too casual. Some are cold, others far too intense. There is a balance to be had, some way to weigh her words in just the correct manner. But Dorothea cannot find it, and the letter she eventually decides on is awkward and faltering.

In the end, she doesn’t even receive a reply. Just a Pegasus landing by her carriage in the early morning, and a woman in armour slipping off it’s back.

She almost looks the same. Her armour is polished to a shine, and her hair is wind-tousled, but Dorothea could be forgiven for thinking that she has been transported back through time, that they are still comrades in arms and not teetering on the border between strangers and old friends.

Dorothea greets her Pegasus first, letting it nuzzle her hand, the strength of it making her stumble slightly when it pushes too hard against her. But it’s a sweet creature, and even if she has little experience handling them, she still enjoys the feeling of its soft fur under her hands.

“Is she the same one as you used to ride?” Dorothea asks.

“Yes.” Ingrid says. She turns to it, runs a familiar hand down its neck, and within seconds her touch has calmed the beast entirely, and the Pegasus stands quietly, letting Dorothea pet it as much as she wants. “The professor made me take her. She was mine for too many years to let anyone else control her.”

Dorothea laughs, and Ingrid turns to face her properly. She is still easy to read, and Dorothea can see her expression grow uncertain as soon as her eyes drift anywhere but to her beast. She still makes herself smile, though.

From here, Dorothea notices more. Ingrid is almost the same as she was, in the broad strokes. But closer in, things have changed. Her armour is unadorned, functional but simple. And there is a brightness to her eyes that Dorothea cannot remember seeing since their days at the academy. Most of all, she notices the small nick of a scar that runs through her left eyebrow. It says enough.

Maybe it was mad, to think that she would stay off battlefields once the war was done. But ignorance is bliss, and Dorothea has to restrain herself from reaching out and pressing for information. From trying to touch it with her own fingers, from trapping her and making her promise to keep herself safe.

Maybe years ago, she would have. But not now. Not to a woman she barely knows.

Ingrid falters for a moment, and then she is striding forward, her arms outstretched. This is an easy mask to wear, and Dorothea reaches her first. Her steel plate is cold, and hard, but she still tries to squeeze her through it.

Like this, it’s hard to feel her. There are too many layers of armour, enough so that it feels as if Dorothea is embracing a statue. It doesn’t help that Ingrid only holds her lightly, her hands hovering over Dorothea’s back.

“Not that it isn’t always a delight to see you,” Dorothea starts when she has pulled back, “But why are you here?”

“You asked me to?” Ingrid’s confidence has visible cracks, and it only splinters further when Dorothea frowns. She draws out a folded letter, stares at it for a long second before she hides her face in one hand.

“I misread this.” She says. “I thought that you meant- I’m so sorry Dorothea. I wouldn’t have disturbed you if I had realised… I should leave.”

“No.” Dorothea says, her words all too sharp as she reaches forwards to grab her, only to rethink at the last second and let her hand fall lightly on Ingrid’s bicep instead. She forces her voice to lighten. “I didn’t expect you, but I would never ask you to leave. Someone else maybe,” Dorothea winks, thrilled when Ingrid flushes slightly in response, “but never you.”


“Come inside. I’m sure you’re hungry.”

Ingrid had still looked determined to argue until Dorothea had mentioned food, and then Dorothea sees each one of her arguments melt like snow, and she follows Dorothea inside without argument. It is just as amusing as it always was, that for all Ingrid did to make herself look like a fierce and noble knight she is just the same as ever.

Dorothea tries not to notice how Ingrid stares at the inside of her carriage. It’s not exactly befitting of the star of the Mittelfrank Opera Company, and it’s not something she usually lets others see. It had been filled with paintings when she had first moved in, but Dorothea had given each of those away, and never replaced them. Instead, the walls are bare, her furnishings are plain, and as bad as the nightmares have gotten, she has never been able to let go of her weapons. There’s a sword lying close to the door, a knife lying sheathed on her narrow bed. Dorothea doesn’t need them, not when she knows enough magic to fight an entire battalion on her own. But their presence is a desperate comfort on the nights when she forgets where she is, and that the war has already been won.

Thankfully, Ingrid doesn’t comment.

“I think I still have biscuits.” Dorothea says, shuffling about in her things. She finds her target soon enough, a well-crafted tin that has never been opened. It’s as extravagant as a tin box can be, but Dorothea barely glances at it as she opens it, hoping that whatever lies within tastes acceptable.

But she can remember how Ingrid was in the war, how she seemed to inhale food rather than eat it. So long as it isn’t poisonous, it likely doesn’t matter. Dorothea lays it down on the small table in her room, and gestures for Ingrid to take the lone chair in her room. Dorothea sits on her bed instead, regretting for the first time just how sparse her furnishings are.

Surprisingly, Ingrid’s hand hovers over the tin, and she looks between it and Dorothea for several long moments. “Are you sure I can have these?”

“Of course.”

“They just look so…” She pauses, and gestures helplessly. “Fancy. Like they’re a gift. An intimate one.”

“Does it? Or is just because the way to your heart still through food?” Dorothea makes herself laugh. “I love it. But eat them. I know they’ll just go to waste otherwise.”

Ingrid still hesitates, and Dorothea breaks the stalemate first, grabbing a biscuit from the box before pushing the rest towards her. “I’d rather you have them, honestly. The woman who gave them to me likely doesn’t even remember my name.”

Finally, Ingrid takes one. And then another, and another, until the box is empty and Dorothea is searching through her things for more food. Ingrid objects, but weakly, and everything that Dorothea puts before her gets put away with ease.

“You must tell me how you’ve been.” Dorothea tells her once she has run out. “Have you found anyone? Another knight, or a handsome commoner? I want to know everything.”

“I… No. There hasn’t been anyone.”

Dorothea leans in closer. “I struggle to believe that. No one? Really? Is there another horrible suitor hounding your steps? You know that you would only have to say the word and I would take care of it.”

“Like you did years ago?” Ingrid asks. There’s a small smile dancing on her lips, and Dorothea treasures it without comment.

“Just the same. Only with your permission, of course. I wouldn’t want to scare off anyone you actually liked.”

Ingrid’s smile flickers, and fades. “I wasn’t lying. There isn’t anyone.”

“Then everyone you meet has terrible taste. You should tell them that.”

“But what about you?” Ingrid says, rather than reply. It’s an obvious parry, but Dorothea allows it. This time. Her opinion hasn’t changed, and something in her stomach grows cold when she considers the idea that Ingrid, her Ingrid, beautiful and strong and so noble it makes her heart ache, should find herself alone after all these years.

“Even in Galatea we’ve heard stories about you.” Ingrid continues. “The glamourous songstress, the woman who stole a thousand hearts with her voice alone. Don’t tell me you haven’t got men and women throwing themselves at your feet.”

“You’re not wrong. There have been suitors, both the kind and the cruel. But no. It’s just me, I’m afraid.”

Before Ingrid can voice her surprise, Dorothea leans in and touches her hand. Just lightly. Just briefly. “But don’t worry about me. I’m quite happy being by myself, for now. At least this way there’s no one to complain when a beautiful young knight comes to visit.”

 It takes Ingrid a moment, but her face turns red once Dorothea’s words sink in. it is as charming as ever, seeing her get flustered over something so simple. It makes the world feel normal for a moment, and even if the moment is brief, Dorothea treasures it.

By mid-morning, the opera is travelling again. And Ingrid accompanies them, guiding them from the sky. The route isn’t a difficult one, and no bandits even attempt to waylay them. But she still stays.

She is a sight, from hundreds of metres below. A glide of distant wings, a snap of a green cloak in the wind. Like a knight in a story, traveling from a far-off land to aid those in need. Those stories don’t hit Dorothea like they used to, not anymore. Fantasies of gallant knights sweeping her off her feet don’t hold so much weight anymore, not when Dorothea can barely begin to calculate just how many gallant soldiers she has struck down with her own hands.

But on this clear morning, with Ingrid far above guiding her way, Dorothea almost believes in them again.

There’s a drawer full of sheet-paper that has lain untouched since her last disastrous attempt at writing songs, but she grabs it back out now, and hums to herself, sketching down ideas for a new song.

Byleth always invites her to tea every time the opera goes through Enbarr, and Dorothea always accepts. It’s a comforting ritual, one that always puts Dorothea under a spell of normality, even if only for an afternoon.

Byleth has changed too, over the years. Dorothea still remembers meeting her years ago, and being more than slightly unnerved by the way she looked at people, like she could see under their skin, ripping apart layers of pretence. And while her gaze is still intense these days, it is no longer quite as terrifying, not when it comes from someone Dorothea knows so well. And especially not when Byleth has softened over the years, and has started acting more human, even if it is only in small increments.

She has adjusted surprisingly well to peace, for someone who spent most of her formative years as a mercenary. Recently, Dorothea has even managed to make her smile, even if she usually has to cheat and mention Edelgard in order to do so. Still. It’s sweet, seeing her open up more and more as years pass.

Byleth does have a nasty habit of asking just the questions Dorothea doesn’t want to answer, however. And it is hard to deny her the answers when she feels like Byleth already knows, so Dorothea usually tells her everything. About the nightmares, the guilt, the loneliness she can never seem to burn out of her skin. Byleth is quiet in response, most days, but her presence is still a comfort.

Dorothea tells her about the endless stream of suitors that she has had to reject, and how she fears she will never find anyone who cares about her for her own sake, and won’t be distracted by the glamour of the songstress.

“I thought you and Ingrid had something?” Byleth asks her, once the tea has gone cold.

Dorothea’s smile falters, and she forces herself to drink down the cold dregs of her cup just to grant herself a moment’s peace. But it doesn’t save her, not when Byleth is still watching her so carefully.

“Ingrid isn’t interested in women.” Dorothea explains, eventually.

“I see.” Byleth says. She has always been terrifyingly difficult to read, even if her emotions are closer to the surface these days. She has always been skilled at drawing her face into a blank expression that not even Dorothea can slice through. “Did she tell you that?”

“No.” There’s a heartbeat where Byleth just stares at her, unblinking. “But she never had to.”

Byleth shrugs, and maintains that same all too intense stare. She knows all too much, Dorothea thinks, even the things she has never said. The lies, the truths, the things Dorothea prefers to hide from even herself.

She leans in, and grabs Byleth’s hand loosely. “Listen, professor. It’s sweet how much you care. But it’s fine. I promise. Worry about yourself, or your wife for a change.”

“I worry about her enough.” Byleth murmurs. There’s a tiny smile playing at the edge of her lips, almost unconscious. It shatters her usual frozen expression, and even if small, it finally allows Dorothea to read her. Just this once.

Years ago, Dorothea might not have believed it possible, to see their emotionless teacher react like that, especially not to something as small as a reminder of the woman she married so long ago. And while it would be easy for Dorothea to be jealous of their happiness, she still fights against that bitter feeling with every breath. Even if it’s harder to see them these days, she is still glad to see them happy.

Someone has to be.

The years march on, but this time Ingrid doesn’t stay as distant. Letters are hard to write when Dorothea is always travelling, but Ingrid has a Pegasus on her side, and more than once she surprises her by travelling to whatever city the opera is visiting next, and finding her after the show. Each time, Dorothea invites her to dinner, and each time Ingrid reluctantly accepts. She always insists that she has work she should be doing, places to travel to, and that she doesn’t want to impose on Dorothea any longer than is necessary. And yet she always lingers, sometimes for so long that Dorothea has to insist on her staying the night.

There are usually empty beds to be found, after all. And the thought of Ingrid struggling through a long ride through the night when she came all this way just for her is… unpleasant at best.

Usually she leaves in the early morning, just after she has had time to bid her farewells to Dorothea. But today she lingers, through the day and until the next night’s performance. Dorothea expects to see her gone by the time she manages to slip out, but she’s still there, waiting.

“Can I steal you away for dinner again?” Dorothea asks. “My treat.”

“Actually, I…” Ingrid looks nervous for once, restlessly tapping her fingers on her arm. “I wanted to take you somewhere. As a thank you.”

“You have nothing you need to thank me for.”

“I do. I’ve been to enough of your shows free of charge to owe you.”

“It’s always a delight to see you. You know that.”

That makes Ingrid smile, has some of the restless tension melt from where it had been wound into her shoulders. “Still. Let me give you this one thing.”

“If you insist.”

Ingrid leads her away from the opera theatre, and down and through the city and doesn’t stop until they have passed the city walls themselves and to a small field outside, lit by moonlight, where her Pegasus is waiting.

Dorothea reaches for her, and the beast pushes her nose against Dorothea’s hand, leaning into her touch as Dorothea runs her other hand down her neck. This time, the Pegasus controls her strength, and doesn’t try to bowl her over at the first chance it is given.

“What is her name?” Dorothea asks. “I don’t think I’ve ever asked.”

“Loog.” Ingrid tells her. In the dark, Dorothea cannot see her embarrassment. But she can hear it, even in one reluctant word. “Like, you know, Loog and the Maiden of Wind. But the old king as well. I guess.”

Dorothea laughs, only laughing harder when Ingrid brushes past her, and starts fiddling with the straps securing her saddle to the Pegasus’ back.

“It seemed appropriate at the time.” She grumbles.

“You’re still adorable, did you know that?”

“And you’re still teasing me. Come on. We have better things to do tonight than stand in a field poking fun at me.” With that, Ingrid swings herself onto Loog’s back, and she offers a hand down to Dorothea, her gauntlets shining like silver in the moonlight. Her face Dorothea cannot see, nor any of the details in her armour. But she is unmistakable still, the moonlight catching on every piece of metal she has adorned herself in, and in her hair, until she is bathed in liquid moonlight, like a hero of old.

It still hits Dorothea hard, seeing her like that, gallant and noble. Especially since beyond it all, she is so beautiful. Now just as she always has been.

If this had been years ago, if Dorothea was young and reckless and unscarred, she would have tried something, right then. Given her a flirtatious word, or tried to pull Ingrid down into a kiss. But time has marched on, and dragged Dorothea with it, through the thorns and the mud.

Instead, she runs one last stroke down Loog’s soft neck, and whispers loud enough for Ingrid to hear. “Your mum is adorable.” She tells her, smiling when the beast snorts in response, like the Pegasus can understand her words. “Tell her that for me, will you?”

“Come on, Dorothea.” Ingrid says.

Dorothea gives in at last, and takes Ingrid’s hand. Ingrid lifts her with surprising grace, and Dorothea finds herself settled against Ingrid’s back, having second thoughts. The Pegasus had been easy to admire from afar, watching her glide from hundreds of metres below, or just petting the beast with her feet stuck on the ground. On her back, however, Dorothea feels suddenly unsure, as if the slightest movement from Loog will have her tumbling to the ground. And while that would be embarrassing enough to do on the ground, the thought of the same happening from miles in the air has Dorothea suddenly nervous.

“You’ll have to hold on.” Ingrid tells her.

It’s obvious what she means. Still. Dorothea has been trying so hard to ensure that Ingrid always feels that she has her own personal space, has since that day when Dorothea had pushed too far and Ingrid had snapped at her. It’s a bitter memory, and one that lingers still, years later. But Ingrid is the one telling her what to do, this time, and Dorothea slowly leans forward and wraps her arms around Ingrid’s waist, securing herself in place. It still feels like too much, but Dorothea’s hands remain on cold, inhuman steel.

Ingrid whistles a command, and Loog starts to run, faster and faster, until Dorothea is squeezing Ingrid hard enough for her to feel even through her armour, and then with a single strong beat of her wings Loog launches them into the air. And they’re flying, smooth and strong and faster than Dorothea can believe, the city below shrinking with every heartbeat, until it is just them and the dark sky.

Dorothea laughs, the sound escaping a touch hysteric, and she digs her fingers into hard steel.

“Are you alright?” She hears Ingrid say, and she feels one of Ingrid’s armoured hands reach up to touch her own, the touch gentle even through her armour. But it’s enough to make Dorothea relax a fraction, to stop holding Ingrid quite so tightly. “If this is too much I’ll take us back down again.”

“No.” Dorothea says, forcing sense back into her mind. “No, it’s fine. It’s wonderful, actually. Is it always like that?”

“The shock fades.” Ingrid tells her, her voice soft and wistful. “It’s never as surprising as the first time. So no, it isn’t always like that. But even if it gets as familiar as breathing, there is still a beauty to it. One I don’t think I can describe.”

Dorothea smiles to herself, and she is glad for once that it is dark, that Ingrid is facing away from her, and cannot see the sadness in it. Because she shouldn’t be feeling the strange mix of emotions that is currently rolling through her stomach, that rises through her chest to wrap thorned vines around her heart. Dorothea had known, long ago, that Ingrid didn’t want her. And that was fine, really. Dorothea is glad to have known her at all, to be so privileged as to call her a friend, after all they have been through.

And losing her to another might have hurt, but she could have endured it, for Ingrid’s sake. But knowing that Ingrid is in love with the sky, with flight and freedom and the magic of the air, that hurts a bit more.

Ingrid belongs here, she knows that. And even if this moment contains is an unspoken spell, it will end all too soon, and Dorothea will return to the ground, where she belongs.

“It’s wonderful.” Dorothea repeats, controlling her voice. “Thank you, Ingrid. Really.”

Dorothea rests her head against the cold, hard metal of Ingrid’s shoulder and looks out at the sky, to the bright moon and the darkness beyond, the abyss between stars.

Dorothea leads the opera back to Embarr in time for the now annual celebration of the war’s end. This year is special, marking five years since the war officially ended. Five years of change, five years into a new era. It barely seems real, and Dorothea is half convinced that she will soon wake up from this mad dream, and find the war still raging on, and have a sword pressed into her unwilling hands once more.

Edelgard has organised another celebration, but a small one. Like her wedding, the only people there are those who followed her out of the academy all those years ago, but this time, less attend. She’s told Caspar and Linhardt are travelling in some distant land, that no one knows where Felix even is anymore. And Petra is still in Brigid, caught up with her new responsibilities as Queen.

Even those that are here are more sombre than they had been, five years ago. The future had held such promise then, and they had only just tasted peace after so long. Time has stolen that enthusiasm, it seems, and while in the city below commoners and nobles alike mingle to celebrate, here the room is quiet, and far from celebratory.

Ingrid rushes in late, her jacket crooked and her hair windswept. For once, she isn’t wearing armour, but a sea-green dress that would have suited her perfectly if it didn’t look as though she had thrown it on last minute, or that she had worn it for hours on horseback.

Dorothea reaches her before too many of the others can see, and subtly adjusts her jacket to sit on her shoulders better, smoothing down as many creases as she can find.

But she doesn’t let her hands linger.

“Really, Ingrid?” She says with a laugh. “I’m surprised your clothes aren’t on backwards.”

“I got caught up.” Ingrid tries to argue. “Loog was being- You know what? It doesn’t matter. You’ve caught me, I was late.”

Dorothea opens her mouth, intent on finding some way to tease her more, but Ingrid breaks her off, sweeping her into a quick hug. It’s only brief, but it’s strong, and both of Ingrid’s hands press Dorothea closer into herself in the instant before she draws away.

“It’s good to see you.” Dorothea says quietly. “And despite the rush, you look incredible. More so than usual.” Dorothea finishes the compliment with a wink.

Dorothea had expected her to brush her compliment off, to ignore it or lambast Dorothea for teasing her. But instead, Ingrid’s face grows bright red, and she ducks her head, gesturing at Dorothea with a loose hand.

“I hardly compare to you. You look…” Ingrid swallows. “Beautiful.”

Compliments have stopped meaning so much, these days. Their impact had faded before Dorothea had even joined the Academy, when she was just beginning to learn just how far people will take their lies when they want to get their way. And the war had stripped what joy remained in them away, left them hollow. Every time someone new slips by after a performance to tell Dorothea just how breathtaking they think she is; she knows more and more that they have no idea who she really is. And every time, she wonders whether they would say the same if they had seen her at her worst, huddled off the side of one battlefield among many, blood and ash in her hair, her tears having long since run dry.

Dorothea is so tired of the mask that her own appearance has burnt to her skin, and how it deludes everyone she meets. How no one ever sees Dorothea, the survivor, the soldier, the woman who helped unite Fódlan by slaying anyone who raised a sword against her. To them, she is just the opera singer, the young beauty, a woman to be charmed and then used.

But Ingrid, her Ingrid, charming and honest and beautiful in her own right… Ingrid she believes. And Dorothea believes her enough for her own breath to stutter in her chest, and she curses her traitorous heart as Ingrid moves to check on her, laying one bare hand on Dorothea’s forehead. Ingrid’s blush lingers, even as her eyes grow focused in their concern, and she is so close that Dorothea is afraid she will slice through her armour, slip between the gaps to find the woman hidden beneath. That Ingrid will know at last that she has never been joking, not once in all these long years.

She can’t. Not now, not after so long.

“I’m sorry.” Dorothea says, stepping away. “I got something stuck in my throat. But I shouldn’t keep you for as long as I have. I’m sure the professor has been waiting to speak to you.”

She doesn’t wait to hear Ingrid reply, and steps back again, spinning on her heel, finding the small stage hidden in the corner and heading towards it. This she knows. This is a shield strong enough to keep her and her secrets safe from harm.

There is no band supporting her this time. But Dorothea has never needed one, and as she ascends the steps, she can feel the eyes of her former classmates settle on her. The soft buzz of their talking drops in volume, until it is just her, alone, with nothing but a stage to protect her from their questions, their judgements.

Dorothea closes her eyes, and sings like she’s alone. The way she does when she is trying on a part for the first time, and is trying to understand the characters she is becoming, letting her entire self melt away to reveal a new mask for her to wear.

She is a priest experiencing a crisis of faith, an emperor trying to unite a nation. She is a knight, loyal and true, a princess trying to discover who she truly is. She is anyone and everyone, but she is never Dorothea. Only a mask, only some pretender who steals a stranger’s burdens for herself.

After the first song, people start talking again. She can hear their voices, echoing in her ears like the undercurrent of a song, a melody that twists and turns. Dorothea doesn’t mind. This isn’t about her, after all. And she knows all too well how easy it is to be shoved aside and ignored, when more important issues rear their head. Dorothea is many things. A singer, an adventurer, a woman with blood on her hands. But now that the war is done, now that no one asks her to use her talents to steal breath and still hearts, Dorothea is like a familiar song in a ballroom. Nothing more than background noise.

She sings one last song, before she steps off the stage. This one is new, and this one isn’t from any opera Dorothea has ever performed in.

She sings about a woman, with wings like pure silver. A winged knight who wanders the land, doing her best to right wrongs, and bring justice to those who need it. But she never truly succeeds, and as much as the people she helps love her and beg her to stay, the knight is in love with the sky, with storms and great racing winds, with clouds and stars and the distant moon.

Dorothea sings this one softer, with faltering words and a tone that bleeds a heartache she never speaks of. She sings it softer still when she reaches the part about the woman who falls in love with the knight, and how not even she could convince the knight to leave the sky to join her, not for a lifetime, not even for an hour.

Dorothea has looked over the lyrics a thousand times, and practiced it over a hundred. But that was always in isolation, and she has never sung it with this much passion, nor has she ever let a single note of it fall within the hearing of anyone else. But with her eyes closed, with the sound of her friend’s voices bubbling in her ears, alive and happy after everything, she can get through it without pausing long enough to doubt.

The last note trails off, and Dorothea opens her eyes to a hall bound in raptured silence, to every eye focused on her. She bows low and deep, and forces a laugh out of her lips that fills the entire room.

“You know where I work, if you want more!” she calls, and slips off the stage.

It breaks the silence, and the hall returns to normal within a few heartbeats. But Ingrid is waiting for her by the stage.

“Can I steal you away for a moment?” She asks.

“Anything for you.” Dorothea says.

Ingrid finds them a quiet spot, nowhere so isolated as to be suspicious, but out of earshot of anyone else. Without her armour, it’s a lot easier to read her, to find the tightly wound tension in her shoulders. It puts Dorothea on a knife’s edge, makes her wonder just what sharp questions she has rolling through her mind.

“I need to know.” Ingrid tells her, low and serious. “Are you alright?”

“There’s- I’m sorry?”

“Are you alright?” Ingrid repeats. “You’ve been acting strange since I arrived. If you’re injured, or sick, I’ll grab Manuela.” She pauses. “I’m worried about you.”

Dorothea laughs. “I’m perfectly fine. And you never need to worry about me.”

“But I do.” Ingrid says. The tension in her shoulders winds tighter and tighter, and Ingrid starts playing with the sleeves of her jacket, not quite meeting Dorothea’s eyes. “You don’t have to tell me anything. But when it’s just us… Don’t pretend you’re fine if you’re not.”

Her words sink into her like a knife, slicing apart Dorothea’s mask. For a heartbeat, she wishes she were back on stage, hiding behind a stranger’s song. Then, another heartbeat, one where Ingrid is still watching her, with no judgement in her tone, and Dorothea is no longer quite so sure if she wants to run.

Change is terrifying. And the thought of being known, even slightly, is more terrifying still.

“I don’t know.” Dorothea starts, eloquently. “It’s not just one thing. But I’ve never been able to forget what we did during the war. What I did. The lives I took, the families I helped destroy. I don’t regret standing with Edelgard or the professor, but…” She hesitates. Honesty has a bitter taste, and Dorothea almost recoils from her words as she speaks. “It feels wrong, celebrating war, even if it’s over.”

Ingrid stares at her. She’s silent for so long that Dorothea regrets letting any vulnerability show, for saying anything at all. Surely silence would be better than to have Ingrid stare at her like that, to think her weak or broken. Anything would be better than that.

“I didn’t know.” Ingrid says finally. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed.”

“I didn’t want you to know.” Dorothea says. Even now, truth burns, setting her lungs on fire as she speaks. “I didn’t want anyone to know.”

Ingrid reaches for her, only to falter at the last second. It’s hard to know what she wanted to do, whether she was reaching out a hand of comfort, or trying to draw Dorothea into an embrace. But like this, here, they are still in full view of everyone else. As much as it might be a comfort to feel her touch, she is glad to not be seen crying into Ingrid’s shoulder. Not on a night like this.

Ingrid flips her reaching hand over, and offers it to Dorothea, palm up. “Come with me.” she insists. “I think we both need some fresh air.”

It’s more than easy to take her hand.

Ingrid leads her outside, to the stables, where Loog is waiting tied up. The Pegasus seems displeased to have been abandoned all night, but she calms when Ingrid runs a hand down her neck and begins to speak to her.

“I know, girl.” Ingrid says, “But I’m here now. And I’ve brought a friend.”

Dorothea moves forward, and Loog breaks from Ingrid in order to meet her first, and the Pegasus bows her head, waiting for Dorothea to greet her. In the chill of night, the Pegasus is burning hot, and for a moment Dorothea is tempted to just wrap her arms around her and not let go.

“I think she might like me more than you.”

“Please don’t steal my Pegasus away from me.” Ingrid says.

“I make absolutely no promises about that.”

Ingrid hesitates for a second, and then she lays one hand on Dorothea’s shoulder. “With her, I can give you the sky. And anything in it. Where do you want to go?”

“Somewhere quiet.”

It’s less terrifying, this time. The fear of falling remains, buzzing in the back of Dorothea’s mind, but she doesn’t hesitate to lean into Ingrid, to wrap her arms around her and laugh into her shoulder when Loog lifts off the ground. She trusts in the strength of Loog’s wings, and in Ingrid above all. It’s easy to let the fear fade out of her heart when Ingrid is here, steady and unafraid, guiding her Pegasus like she was born in a saddle.

“I’ve missed your laugh.” Ingrid says, facing away from her. Her words are quiet, almost like she doesn’t mean for Dorothea to hear them. And while the wind is strong, and tries valiantly to tear each word apart, she still hears. She still knows. “Your real laugh. The one you make when no one is watching.”

Dorothea doesn’t answer, and Ingrid doesn’t continue. Just lets the silence swallow them both, until the wind is deafening, drowning them in the silence of their own creation.

Ingrid flies them to the rooftop of one of the towers of Edelgard’s palace, and delicately convinces Loog to land. She swings off her back, and murmurs to the Pegasus for a moment, convincing her to slowly lay down, and Dorothea clambers off her back, stumbling in the second before her feet remember how to walk.

Despite the cold, Ingrid shrugs her jacket off her shoulders, and lays it down on the cold stone, gesturing for Dorothea to join her. The jacket is thin, and provides poor protection against the chill of the stone, but the thought means more. Still. It’s only small, and it forces them to sit close together.

“That last song was beautiful.” Ingrid says after a moment. She still speaks quietly, almost as if she is speaking to the distant stars. “The one about the winged knight. Beautiful but tragic. I can’t believe I’ve never heard it before.”

“No one has, until tonight.” Dorothea says. She’s speaking to the stars too, distant and without judgement. They don’t know her, her hopes, her dead and dying dreams, the guilt that has sunk in beneath her skin and stained her bone-deep.  Regardless of who Dorothea is, what she has become, they will always continue, relentless.

“I- really?” Dorothea can feel Ingrid turn closer to her, can feel her eyes try to slice under her skin, even in the dark. “But it was- wait.”

Ten years, Dorothea thinks. Ten years and she is finally putting the pieces together, solving a puzzle that has been in front of her eyes from the start.

“Did you write it?” Ingrid asks. Dorothea lets herself indulge in the awe that is so evident in her voice for a moment longer before she replies.

“I did.” She says, and she turns too, finds the glimmer of Ingrid’s eyes in the dark. “Only the best for my Ingrid, of course. I’m glad you liked it.”

“More than just liked it.” Ingrid is quiet for a second, but Dorothea knows she is still looking at her. That secret can’t be hidden, not from the moonlight that washes over them. “I’ve heard you sing hundreds of times. But never like that.”

Dorothea has heard a thousand compliments on her voice, from all manner of people. The impact of each one is like so much rain, washing over her shoulders until she barely notices each new one. But in this quiet moment, with the honesty of the dark, with Ingrid sitting so close… Dorothea feels this one like a tidal wave.

“Thank you.” She says, honest for once. “Of everyone who heard it tonight, of everyone who might ever hear it, your opinion matters most.”

Ingrid shuffles closer to her, until she can feel the press of her against her side, and she leans her head against Dorothea’s shoulder. The night is cold, the stone they lie against is colder still, but she is warm enough to make it fade.

“Can you sing it again?” Ingrid asks, her voice uncertain. “You don’t have to. I took you here for your sake, after all. But I want to make sure I remember it.”

It’s harder to pretend here. Without a stage to protect her, without even an inch of space to shield her, Dorothea feels left bare as she begins to sing again. Her voice falters, once, then twice, then a dozen times, but the song still spills from her lips, and takes a life of its own.

It’s harder still, when she starts singing about a woman she can never have, a woman in love with the sky, when her own winged knight is leaning against her, humming along to her song.

“Dorothea.” Ingrid says, when the last note fades into the night air. “Stop me if I’ve read this wrong.”

She can feel one of Ingrid’s hands press against her cheek, her touch gentle but unmistakable in its intent. Not even the dark can hide the truth, not now. But there she hesitates, adding one more moment of waiting amongst a thousand.

Dorothea reaches her hand up to cover Ingrid’s, and anchors it there.

“I think we’ve waited enough.” She says. And Ingrid leans in and kisses her. It’s only soft, only hesitant, but Dorothea doesn’t care. She just pulls Ingrid closer in.

They stay for a long time. But the night doesn’t feel quite so lonely, not anymore.