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Outside the castle of the Fraldarius Dukedom, rain torrented against the rooftops and wind thrashed at the trees. It was a stormy night—the sort that no one would wish to be caught in.

In the warmth of the castle halls, Rodrigue steeled himself and rapped promptly on his son's door, three times—no more, no less. He was met with silence, which was as good as a hospitable welcome. Felix would have made it known if he didn't want to be bothered.

Rodrigue opened the door and was met with the sight of his son crouched over his desk, penning something in a ledger. Three years ago, he might have been surprised to see Felix actually applying himself to administrative tasks. But these were different times, and now, managing resources and communications and political connections was just as important as wielding a blade—much to Felix's reluctant admission.

"Felix," Rodrigue said, "we will be hosting some distinguished travelers tonight, on account of the flash flood."

"Fine," said Felix, in a tone that very much said That has nothing to do with me.

"As heir of Freladrius, you'll be expected to make a brief greeting, if only for courtesy." Oh, he hoped Felix would be courteous. Or at least bearable. "The passersby are Lord Dominic and his heir. They are not accompanied by a retinue."

Felix frowned. "House Dominic? Sounds familiar."

"You may have interacted with Lord Dominic's niece during your time at Garreg Mach."

"Who?"

"Annette Fantine Dominic."

Felix dropped his quill pen.

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Duke Rodrigue Fraldarius and Felix Hugo Fraldarius stood at the entryway of the castle, safe from the crackling lightning and torrential rain just beyond the threshold. They watched the roads for signs of movement, waiting to see the shadows of two horses.

Felix had been unusually quiet ever since Rodrigue had told him the news of their guests. Usually, he'd be rife with objections—anything from what does this have to do with me to none of them make for good sparring partners, I'm out. Of course, he'd tamed somewhat since Prince Dimitri's proclaimed death, but Rodrigue had still expected no less than three cutting remarks.

He was surprised to hear none.

Lightning flashed, and the silhouettes of two horseback riders flared in the mists. Felix's hand instinctively trailed to his sword. They waited as the sound of hoofsteps, muffled by the rain, thundered closer.

Two riders broke out of the rain and dismounted, passing quickly under the threshold as Fraldarius servants led their steeds away. Their cloaks were waterlogged, and they lowered their hoods to show a tall and stately man, and a young and slender woman, both with hair dripping from the storm.

"Hail, House Fraldarius," said the stately man, the Baron of Dominic. He inclined his head respectfully.

The young woman waited for her own customary greeting. She was quite pretty with slate-blue eyes and fiery hair that settled to her shoulders, even if drenched by the rain.

It was Faerghus custom to kiss a lady's hand upon meeting, but Rodrigue expected nothing from his son. Felix had never willingly kissed a lady's hand. In fact, whenever they hosted visitors, Felix often toed the line between tolerable aloofness and flagrant disrespect. Worse yet, any of Rodrigue's attempts to discipline the impropriety out of his son only made the situation ten times worse.

He only hoped that the young lady Dominic would not be too offended.

"Well met, Lord Dominic," said Rodrigue with a polite bow. He gestured to Felix. "My son and heir, Felix Hugo Fraldarius."

Lord Dominic returned the bow. "Lord Fraldarius. My niece and heir, Annette Fantine Dominic. I thank you for receiving us on account of the weather."

Rodrigue waved a hand. "Make no mention of it."

He sent a significant look in Felix's direction. Even if Felix wouldn't be kissing any hands, he should at least pose a greeting for barebones civility.

To his surprise—shock, really—Felix stepped forward, raised the hand of the young lady Dominic, and kissed it. The motion was quick and a little reluctant, but he had actually done it.

"Miss Dominic," Felix said dryly. "Welcome."

The young lady Dominic's eyes were wide, but she recovered her poise and curtsied. "Sir Fraldarius," she said. "Hail."

And those were the customary greetings, over with.

"Quickly, now," said Rodrigue, ushering them indoors. "Let's get you out of the rain and into some dry clothes."

He clapped for several attendants, who rushed Lord Dominic and his niece into the nearest guest rooms. Once their distinguished guests had disappeared, he turned to Felix, who was very pointedly not looking at him.

"I'm surprised," Rodrigue said.

Felix was still not meeting his eyes. "At what."

"You greeted the young lady Dominic properly."

Felix shrugged. "She was a classmate."

There was definitely something else to the story, but Rodrigue didn't have time to pursue it. He had a dinner to prepare. Even sudden visitors were deserving of the most of Fraldarius hospitality.

He shelved the moment in the back of his mind and rushed to inform the kitchens.

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A few hours later, Lord Dominic and the young lady Dominic arrived at the dining hall, suitably refreshed and dry.

Rodrigue didn't miss the way his son's eyes lingered on the young lady Dominic when she entered the room. He expected the two former classmates to jump into conversation and catch up on the lost years, but to his surprise, they were completely silent, stealing glances from time to time. Perhaps they didn't know how to break the stiffness of three years' parting.

He made small talk with Lord Dominic—how is the estate, oh quite well, have you news from Fhirdiad, not of late—as the courses were rolled out: a light salad, a rich creamy soup, and then the main dish, filet mignon with fresh herbs and vegetables.

Felix's brow raised when he saw the main dish. "Steak," he murmured.

"What's that?" said Rodrigue.

"Nothing," said Felix.

Rodrigue thought nothing of it, and turned his attentions to the young lady Dominic. She had lovely manners and a charming air about her, responding with a smile to his questions—about recent hobbies, training, and even her time at the academy.

The main course was finished, and out wheeled the dessert: lemon shortcake.

And at that moment, Rodrigue heard something so unbelievable that he wasn't sure if he could trust his ears:

Felix chuckled.

It was an unusual sound—a dry sort of snort that melted into a warmer rumble. Rodrigue glanced at the dishes to see if he'd missed something, but as far as he could tell, they were just ordinary cakes.

"Felix?" he said.

"Nothing," said Felix blandly. "You know how I enjoy steaks and cakes."

All polite decorum vanished from the young lady Dominic's face, and she shot him a sharp glare that was so acerbic and so genuine that Rodrigue wondered if they were secretly close friends.

"Sir Fraldarius," she said tightly.

Felix looked at her, his expression even. "Do you like cake, Miss Dominic?"

"I..." Her anger faltered, and she looked almost torn. "Yes, I do."

"How fortunate." The servants finished dividing and distributing the cake, and Felix raised his fork.

The young lady Dominic frowned. "I recall you aren't greatly fond of sweets, Sir Fraldarius," she said politely.

"You would be right," said Felix evenly. "But I'll still endeavor to eat every crumb of this cake. That's what one does with yummy cake."

The young lady Dominic flushed a bright crimson red, so prominent that Lord Dominic shot her a concerned gaze.

"Are you alright, Annette?" Lord Dominic said.

"Fine," the young lady Dominic muttered, but she was glaring viciously at Felix, who seemed to be ignoring her wrath.

Rodrigue groaned internally. What terrible improprieties was his son subjecting her to? He made a note to apologize for Felix's behavior later, even if he didn't understand it.

"House Dominic," he said, attempting to change the subject, "should you be interested in any of the facilities of our residence, know that you are completely welcome to our library, gardenhouse, and music room."

"Ah, yes," said Felix. "Following dinner, Miss Dominic, I'd like to show you the library, since you enjoy reading."

Rodrigue frowned, puzzled. "Naturally, whatever she would enjoy would be best—but would not the gardenhouse be more scenic and pleasant?"

"Yes!" said the young lady Dominic, and maybe Rodrigue was imagining things, but she sounded a little panicked and desperate. "Yes, the gardenhouse! That sounds—that sounds lovely! Much better than a library."

"But at least our library is still standing," says Felix, which made no sense to Rodrigue.

The young lady Dominic buried her face in her hands, which was quite unrefined but charming.

Rodrigue exchanged a glance with Lord Dominic, who seemed just as bewildered as him.

What in Seiros's name is going on?

But they were not enlightened with an answer. Felix appeared satisfied with flustering the young lady Dominic, and he settled back, polishing off his shortcake.

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.

Faerghus custom, of course, called for an evening of relaxed dancing after dinner. Not that Felix would ever accede to it, Rodrigue knew. Even if he, as the heir of Fraldarius, should offer a customary dance to the heir of Dominic, he would never do so for propriety's sake. And as dinner had ended, Rodrigue was fully prepared for Felix to excuse himself and withdraw to his room.

But Felix proceeded to shock Rodrigue for the third time that day by standing from his chair, extending a hand to the young lady Dominic, and jerking his head toward the dance floor.

"Will you do me the honor?" he said in his clipped tones. Rodrigue could pick out some vague annoyance, but it didn't seem to be directed at the young lady Dominic. It seemed almost... abashed, prickly to hide embarrassment.

Interesting, Rodrigue thought.

Instead of demurely accepting his hand according to custom, the young lady Dominic only sighed. "You don't have to if you don't want to, Fe—Sir Fraldarius. You've been more than welcoming. I won't make you dance with me if you'd hate it that much."

Her response cut right through the politicking and the games, and Felix blinked in surprise.

"I didn't say I'd hate it," Felix said, his tone also dropping to something casual.

"Your face seized up like you'd just eaten something really sour," the young lady Dominic pouted.

"Maybe I just ate something really sour."

"You just finished dessert."

"Desserts can be sour."

"Felix—!" The young lady Dominic broke off quickly, casting a worried glance to Rodrigue. He made sure to betray no expression, though it was hard to smother a chuckle.

Ordinarily, Rodrigue would attempt to infuse some propriety back into the situation—but they both seemed close, and he was rather enjoying watching them. Lord Dominic didn't seem to mind either—although Rodrigue wondered if his expression moved at all.

"Come on, Annette." Felix extended his hand further. "It's a custom. Faerghus loves those."

The young lady Dominic reluctantly accepted his hand, and they strode to the middle of the vast room, waiting for the string quartet.

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The moment they were in confidence, Annette dropped her voice to a whisper.

"You're the absolute worst, Felix," Annette hissed.

Felix rested one hand on her hip, and took hers with the other. "What do you mean?"

Annette's eyes flashed. "Don't play dumb! You've been making fun of me all dinner, and now this?"

"I was just remembering your song lyrics. That's all."

"It's been three years!"

"I know. You should be proud for making them so memorable."

"Fine! Fine, then. Don't forget them, even though I begged you to. Remember them forever. Tell all of your friends. I don't care. I'm just going to be that eccentric singing spinster with a billion cats."

"What?"

"No one wants to marry a woman who sings silly songs about steaks and cakes and crumbs and yums, Felix!"

"I would," Felix said, then froze.

Annette froze too.

And at that very inopportune moment, the music began.

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Felix and the young lady Dominic had been in fervid discussion, but the moment the music began, they stopped short. Rodrigue watched as Felix led the dance, noting his awkward expression and the slight hint of color on his pale cheeks. What in Seiros's name could they have possibly been discussing to leave his aloof son like that?

He leaned slightly in Lord Dominic's direction. "It appears our two scions are closer than I expected," he said.

Lord Dominic inclined his head. "From what my niece has told me, the Blue Lions were quite close during their time at the academy. Closer than the other houses, really. Although hearing such accounts may be biased; you know how spirited young ones can get when competing with their schoolmates."

Felix swept the young lady Dominic around as the music swelled.

They look very good together, Rodrigue thought.

The young lady Dominic said something, her brows drawn down, and Felix said something back, looking a bit flustered.

I would very much like to have her as my daughter-in-law, Rodrigue thought.

Felix dipped the young lady Dominic as the music came to a close, and he could see the young lady Dominic glaring at him, as if warning him not to drop her.

I wonder what my grandchildren would look like, Rodrigue thought.

The dance ended without incident. Felix bowed and the young lady Dominic curtsied. They returned to the table, composed and straight-faced.

But Rodrigue saw how his son flexed his hands uncertainly, as if memorizing her touch. And Rodrigue saw how the young lady Dominic bit her lip, eyes darting in Felix's direction.

And Rodrigue found himself smiling.

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All parties retired to their rooms for an evening of well-deserved rest. Rodrigue saw to it that their linens were of the highest quality, freshly washed and pressed.

He had every motivation to make certain that House Dominic had a very, very good opinion of House Fraldarius.

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Felix woke in the middle of the night, restless.

The storm sounded like it was passing right by his window, booming thunder and flashing lightning and—was that hail? With the elements pounding against his window, sleep would be impossible for the time being.

He decided to toe down to the kitchens through the silent castle. Maybe he'd enjoy a midnight snack before he returned to bed.

He was rewarded by the sound of faint, cheery humming as he drew close to the kitchen. Annette Fantine Dominic was standing at the counter, spreading a layer of plum preserves over buttered toast. She was in her own little world—a happy world that chose to find joy in something as simple as food, even among the chaos of the current times. Seeing her brought a smile to his face.

"Boo," said Felix.

Annette screeched, and in an instant, wind was lancing up her arms and crackling through her hair. She faltered when she saw Felix's surprised face in the shadows, and her magic quickly extinguished.

"Felix, don't scare me like that," she muttered. Then she paled. "Oh no. I didn't mean to steal from your kitchens."

Felix stepped out into the dim light of the kitchens. "Is that what you're doing?"

"No!" Annette blurted, then colored. "Well... maybe. Kind of? I felt restless, so I was walking around, and I just saw this perfectly delightful piece of toast lying on the counter. And I thought, it'd be so sad to throw it away."

"Alright," Felix said. "But what if someone else was eating it?" He paused, frowning. "What if my father was eating it?"

Annette blanched. "Would he execute me?"

"Probably not."

"Probably?"

"I don't think stealing toast would constitute anything more severe than a few days in prison," Felix said truthfully.

Annette leapt towards him, and her hands gripped his shoulders desperately. "Can you tell him you ate it?" she whispered hurriedly.

"You're asking me to aid and abet your thievery?"

"I have to return back with my uncle," she said, flustered. "I can't go to prison. I'll repay your father once we're back! I'll send a hundred pieces of toast!"

Felix shrugged. "Wouldn't worry about it too much. He doesn't get that bent out of shape about toast."

Annette froze, her hands still on his shoulders.

"You mean," she said, "you were just winding me up for fun?"

"You were more winding yourself up."

Her eyes flashed, and she socked him in the shoulder. "Ugh, Felix! You're such a villain, I swear."

He rubbed his shoulder as Annette sullenly returned to her toast. "What did I do?"

She glared at him, and only took a petulant bite. Her expression changed when she tasted the sweetness of the plum preserves, melting into a delighted smile. He almost laughed.

I missed that. I missed you.

Her smile, her singing, her spark of joy at the simplest pleasures in life like good food and interesting stories and well-designed costumes. Only now, after three years of separation, did he remember how much he enjoyed her presence. She helped him see the world in a completely different, vibrant way.

"Taste good?" Felix said.

"Yes," Annette sighs breathlessly. "Saints, we're never able to make preserves this good."

"Maybe it's magic."

"Food magic. Please. Someone teach me." She took another bite, and made a cute little noise of appreciation. "I've decided. I'm going to marry these plum preserves."

"You use that word a lot."

"What, plum preserves?"

He frowned—surely no one could be that clueless—but then saw her grinning at him, eyes glittering. She was teasing him.

"Sorry," Annette said, turning away. "I know we just met again, and we're already fighting a lot—well, bickering, I guess—but it's fun, in its own way. It reminds me of how things used to be." Her eyes crinkled upward. "I miss having you as a classmate, Felix. I miss seeing everyone all the time."

"You could visit more often," said Felix, his tone unreadable.

Annette smiled, but it was a little sad. "You know I can't do that. None of us can."

Silence fell, and they remembered the classmates they'd once eaten with, now drawn up on opposite sides of the battlefield. How long would it be before they had to kill one with their own hands?

How long would it be until the political tensions split Faerghus and set them on opposite sides?

Felix tried to imagine spearing Annette with his blade. Even the mental image turned his stomach and he quickly shut it away. He'd like to think he could never hurt her. No, he'd like to think he would never have to hurt her. The thought made him want to cherish this simple, easygoing moment that much more. A moment of stealing away to the kitchens for a midnight snack, chatting with an old friend.

He wondered if she knew how incessantly her voice played in his mind—every day, nearly, for three years.

Annette flushed, and Felix realized that he'd been staring at her without a word.

"Annette," he said, but she suddenly stretched her arms with an exaggerated yawn.

"Well!" she said brightly. "I'm beat from the journey. I'm going to retire for the night, if you don't mind. I'll see you tomorrow."

He blinked. "Oh. Good night."

Annette slipped out of the kitchens, smuggling a countertop cookie with her. Felix watched her disappear into the stairwell, feeling a bit at a loss, like he should have stopped her.

It was alright. He probably had another day to figure out what he wanted to say. Flash floods in Faerghus didn't just disappear overnight, after all.

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The flash flood disappeared overnight.

The sun glittered in the sky, uninhibited by dark clouds, and pounded against the dampened pavement. A fresh, mild breeze brought the light smell of rain through the castle windows.

Rodrigue assured his guests that they were welcome to stay as long as they would like, but Lord Dominic was eager to set on his journey without delay. And so they were brought their steeds straightaway, and given additional provisions for the journey ahead.

Felix had been acting odd all morning—a strange combination between snappish, distant, and considerate. He personally examined their horses before grudgingly deciding that they were in stellar condition. He imparted the small gift of the Fraldarius Dukedom specialty sweet—caramel sea-salt chocolates—to the young lady Dominic, but spoke tersely as he did so. He oversaw the preparations for their breakfast, but served the food brusquely and without decorum.

Rodrigue was beginning to think that his son would have to see a doctor.

At last, they reached the outdoors, standing on the threshold. Lord Dominic thanked them formally with all propriety, then mounted his steed.

Felix and the young lady Dominic stood before each other in silence, face to face.

"Safe travels," Felix said.

The young lady Dominic glanced away. "Um. Yeah. Peace to your domain."

They lingered there for a moment, like they didn't want to part. The last time they had, three years had passed.

Lord Dominic mildly cleared his throat. "Annette," he said.

The young lady Dominic glanced at her steed, then back to Felix. Then she rushed forward and quickly slid her arms around Felix's neck, pulling him down into a warm hug.

"Take care," she said in a rush. "I hope we meet again. And not—not on opposite sides. Be well, okay?"

Felix didn't even have time to raise his hands before she split away and mounted her horse. With a crack of the reins, Lord Dominic and the young lady Dominic rode out of the gates, disappearing into the street.

Rodrigue eyed his son, who stood frozen with his arms half-raised. Felix noticed his attention and quickly regained his composure, crossing his arms and turning away—but Rodrigue didn't miss the slight frown on his mouth and the color on his cheeks.

Rodrigue felt a little spark of something—hope, glee, humor, maybe—and decided to fan the flames. Just a little.

"You know," he said, keeping his tone somber and reflective, "with the political turmoil within Faerghus, this may be the last time we ever see House Dominic."

He was rewarded by a flash of very real alarm over Felix's face before it was quickly masked with a cool expression.

"Probably," said Felix.

So, it's true. He's fallen for the girl.

Rodrigue pushed a little harder. "Seiros forbid if we ever have to take up arms against them. Rumors abound that House Dominic is inclined to side with Cornelia."

His son squirmed a little. "Sure."

So, that wouldn't work. Rodrigue changed tack.

"Would you be interested in attending her union?" he said. "She is currently in courtship, and Lord Dominic expects a wedding within the year. Attending could demonstrate our goodwill towards—"

"What."

Ah, there it was. Felix's hackles, rising sharply.

Ha. There you are.

"What is it?" Rodrigue said patiently.

"She can't be courting." Felix's voice was sharp. "She just told me that no one would marry someone who—that she's not courting."

Rodrigue eased back. He didn't want to lie to Felix too much, after all. "Ah," he said. "Perhaps I misheard."

"Your ears are going, old man."

"But I daresay she must receive a great many offers. Every day. From very eligible suitors." He let that statement hang in the air, let Felix chew on it for a moment. Move quickly, my boy. "At any rate, thank you for being hospitable to our guests."

And he swept back into the castle, leaving a very conflicted Felix standing on the veranda.