Chapter 1: The One Where They Get a New Singer
Felix checked his phone for the umpteenth time that hour—5:01. They were officially done with this farce, if one of them would only have the balls to say it.
So he did; Felix didn’t mind being that guy. “I think it’s safe to assume no one is showing up.”
“No one has the room immediately after us,” Ingrid said without looking up from her chemistry notes. “We can wait another few minutes.”
Sylvain tapped listlessly on his practice pad, as he had been doing on and off for the past two hours. “I don’t think a few minutes is gonna matter, Ingrid.” A small fill erupted from the rubber surface of the pad; it would be incredible on a full kit. “I just want to know where we went wrong. Was it the flyer?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the flyer,” Felix said irritably. “It’s the boar.”
The flyer looked like it had been hastily done on Microsoft Word (which it had) and then printed in bulk slightly before it was needed (which it also had). Wanted—singer for hard rock band AEGIS. Must be available for weekend shows and weekly practice. Influences include: Metallica, Coheed & Cambria, A Sound of Thunder, Volbeat, Brothers of Metal. Auditions 2-5 pm on Thursday the 29 th in Eisner Hall E256.
Ingrid gave a very large, very exasperated sigh. “Dimitri has nothing to do with this.”
“And you know that,” Felix shot back, “how?”
“I think I’m with Ingrid on this one,” Sylvain said. “How’s he supposed to fuck us up from Fhirdiad?”
Felix leveled them both in a withering stare. “By stealing our music? Posting it everywhere? Slapping a new name on it and pretending like that legitimizes him?”
Ingrid had still yet to glance up from her notes, and it was starting to piss Felix off. “I thought you blocked him.”
“I did! Doesn’t mean everyone else has. You certainly haven’t.”
“Anyone want pizza for dinner?” Sylvain abruptly changed the topic before Ingrid and Felix dissolved into a genuine fight. “I think I’m feeling pizza.”
Ingrid finally looked up from her notes to check the time. “There’s chili in the crock pot at home, so, uh, no.” When the time finally registered (5:05. Felix also checked) Ingrid sighed again. “We might as well pack up.”
Sylvain immediately went about shoving his practice pad and drumsticks into a backpack, while Ingrid carefully put away her notes and loose papers. Felix’s guitar had been sitting in its case for the better part of the last 45 minutes or so, so he merely got to his feet and shouldered the black, sticker-covered monstrosity.
“Waste of fucking time,” Felix muttered.
“You’re welcome to stop bitching about singing lead,” Ingrid told him.
That was rich, coming from her. Felix felt his hackles rise as the fight he itched for came sharply into focus. “Same to you.”
In an instant, Sylvain was standing between them, a hand on both Felix’s shoulder and Ingrid’s. “Whoa, now; you’re both just cranky and hungry and you know it. Stop sniping at each other, or at least promise to stay out of the family room for the rest of the night.”
“I’m not sniping!” Ingrid immediately said, but Felix just pinched the bridge of his nose and drew in a deep, painstaking breath.
“Do you ever—” Felix began, only to be cut off by a new voice from the door, calling, “I’m so sorry I’m late! Is this the Aegis auditions?”
Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain all turned at once to find the source of the voice. A very short, very redheaded girl stood in the doorway to the practice room, fiddling with the strap of her bag. She was dressed in an orange-and-blue knee-length skirt and matching cardigan, and looked more like a schoolteacher than a prospective singer in a metal band.
Felix glanced from Sylvain to Ingrid and back to the girl again. Ingrid was wearing a ratty old Halestorm tee shirt and jean shorts, Sylvain was wearing an Iron Maiden shirt he had cut the sleeves off of and board shirts, and Felix hadn’t washed his hair in probably three days (and thus had it pulled back at the crown of his head) and his jeans had holes in the knees.
“Are you sure you’re in the right place?” Felix asked bluntly.
Ingrid slammed a palm into her forehead. “Already, Felix?”
But the girl—well, woman—in the doorframe only smiled brightly. “I know I don’t look it, but I grew up on Metallica, too.”
Sylvain pulled a face that was one part surprise and one part respect. “Alright, fair enough. You’re… Annette Dominic, right?”
Felix had to hand it to his drummer—he really did know every single woman on campus.
The girl—Annette—nodded. “And you’re…” She racked her brains a moment, and then snapped her fingers as she said, “Sylvain Gautier, right? You had some business classes with Mercedes von Martritz?”
“Alas,” said Sylvain, “my reputation precedes me.” He then turned to the rest of his band. “The blonde girl is Ingrid Galatea, and señor grumpy here is Felix Fraldarius.”
Annette giggled. “Nice to meet you both.”
Felix was so over all of this. “You know Don’t Tread on Me?” he asked in an effort to speed the conversation along. At Annette’s nod, he added, “Good, we use it as a closer sometimes. Let’s hear it, then.”
Ingrid sighed and went to go retrieve her bass from where it leaned against the wall. “Don’t mind Felix, Annette. He’s just…” Ingrid paused, looking for a word. She settled on, “… like this.”
Felix jammed his guitar cord into their mini amp by way of reply. Ingrid plugged in beside him, and Sylvain sat cross legged on the table behind them, his practice pad in his lap. Ingrid’s bass was teal and green with pickups that were borderline giving out, and was her prized possession. Felix’s electric guitar was a black-and-blue hand-me-down that was his prized possession. It was one of the only things he and Ingrid reliably agreed on.
Felix looked to Sylvain and Ingrid. “We’ll start like halfway through the intro?”
Sylvain gave an experimental drumroll, rearranged his legs, and then played again, apparently satisfied. “Sounds good.”
Felix ran his fingers through the opening without strumming, and then fell into the song’s most famous chord progression. It only took Sylvain and Ingrid a moment to follow suit, and then they all looked to Annette. It sounded empty without Sylvain’s whole kit to follow behind, but there was nothing so comforting as playing Metallica. It was like the metalhead’s equivalent to warm cookies and milk.
Felix was always counting, and so it was Ingrid who cued Annette in. “Alright, Annette. Ready… go!”
She nodded, and then launched: “ Liberty or death…”
Felix was immediately struck by the simple, obvious fact that Annette was good. She was well trained, and her tone was clear and resonant, with beautiful, open vowels and crisp consonants. However, her voice was sweet and high, and it was rapidly apparent that regardless of her preferences, it might not matter in the grand scheme of things.
Abruptly, Annette stopped, holding up her hands. “Sorry, sorry!” Felix and Ingrid immediately cut the sound, and Sylvain followed a half second later. “I’m sorry, I just… I just came from pedagogy and I have to go tutor a bunch of twelve-year-olds in like an hour.” She gestured to her clothes, and Felix snorted when he realized the schoolteacher vibe had been right. “And I’ve been going since five this morning, but I really, really wanted to try out, and…”
“If you need a minute,” Ingrid inputted, not unkindly, “go for it.”
“Okay, okay, thank you, hold on!” Annette disappeared back out the door and down the hall.
The current members of Aegis glanced to each other, words somehow unable to encapsulate the sheer bafflement permeating room E256. Felix opened his mouth to say something, but even he couldn’t exactly put his finger on what the fuck was going on.
Annette reappeared a few moments later, looking somewhat calmer. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, can we start over?”
Sylvain counted them in, and Felix and Ingrid picked up the beginning again. The chords came easily to Felix’s fingers, shapes and strumming locked into muscle memory by this point. His mind began to wander for lack of stimuli. This girl looks familiar. Have I seen her before? A smaller, even more private voice in the very back of Felix’s mind, added, She’s really cute.
And this time, when Ingrid cued her in, Annette straightened her spine and snarled.
For a moment, Felix thought she looked ridiculous. But then he heard it—the grit, hiding beneath the sweet, clear notes. There was power and fury lurking beneath her sweet face, and more energy than her tiny frame could hold. Felix felt a grin bloom across his face, and he turned to catch Ingrid’s eye. She gave him a nod, a grin slashed across her face, too. They didn’t even need to consult Sylvain; the table had creaked under the shift in his weight that signaled he was paying attention.
The final “Don’t tread on me!” rang throughout the little room with an aura of finality. It was all Aegis could do to just stare at this little redheaded dynamo that had wandered into E256 on this hot August afternoon.
“You’re in,” Ingrid, Sylvain, and Felix all said immediately.
Annette blinked in surprise. “Really? Wow, okay!”
Ingrid immediately launched into details: “We usually meet for practice on Thursday nights, does that work?”
Annette pulled a face, her button nose scrunching up, and Felix thought it might honestly be the cutest thing he’d ever seen. He immediately shook the thought away and busied himself with unplugging the amp.
“I’m in grad school right now,” Annette said, “and I have a night job to help pay for it, plus some other freelance stuff, so I’ll need to talk to them about moving my schedule around. The flyer said shows are weekends mostly…?” At their nods, she added, “I can request off with enough notice to get someone to cover. Ooo, this is so exciting! I wish I could stay but I have to catch a bus to tutoring…”
Ingrid managed to exchange numbers with their new singer before the redhead took off running down the halls, leaving a bewildered Aegis in her wake.
“What… just happened?” Felix said.
“For once,” said Sylvain, “same.”
Ingrid finished saving Annette’s number in her phone, and then tucked it away in her pocket. Then her shoulders sagged in relief. “We have a new singer, is what just happened.”
A knock came from the door, and this time it was a mousy-looking freshman who exuded timidity. “Um, are you guys about done? I’m supposed to have this room at 5:30…”
Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain had never packed up and bolted so fast.
The first time Annette showed up for band practice was a complete disaster.
Ingrid’s lab had run late, and so she wasn’t even home when they were supposed to start. Sylvain had been in charge of dinner, which had gotten burned to hell when one of his exes showed up threatening to tell everyone he was a “limp-dicked skank” if he didn’t do something-or-other, which of course prompted Sylvain to go try to calm her down (and then they somehow ended up his bedroom). And that was about the point that Felix had gotten home from work, and he had then, without even changing out of his dress clothes, tried to salvage whatever casserole Sylvain had been trying to make as the smoke alarms screamed overhead.
And then Annette had knocked.
“Hi, Felix!” she had said. “I was concerned I didn’t have the right house. Wait, you look exhausted. Is everything okay?”
“No.” He gestured for her to come in behind him.
Which was how they both came to be standing over the blackened, charred mess in a 9x13 on the kitchen counter. It smelled awful, to the point that Felix’s eyes burned in its presence, and it looked even worse. Maybe it had once been lasagna? Chicken and rice?
“Fucking Sylvain,” he muttered.
“Maybe it’s still salvageable?” Annette said, tentatively poking at it with a wooden spoon.
It came away black.
“Nope,” said Felix, “fuck it.” He was on the phone with Ingrid in less than thirty seconds. “Where are you?”
“I just got to my car,” she said, “lab ran over. Why?”
“Do us all a favor and pick up something on your way home, cause Sylvain fucking burnt dinner.” He paused. “Scratch that, Sylvain burnt dinner fucking.”
Ingrid sighed heavily into the receiver, even as Annette laughed from over by the counter. “Must you always be so charming?”
Felix clicked his tongue against his back teeth. “It’s a gift.”
Another sigh. “Yeah, I’ll pick up Red Dragon on the way home. Do you want your usual?”
“Sure. But I’m not asking Sylvain what he wants, so he’s stuck with whatever you decide to get him.”
“Fair.” Ingrid paused, and Felix heard the dinging of her seatbelt alarm in the silence. “Is Annette there? Does she want anything?”
Felix turned towards his brand-new singer and pulled the phone away from his mouth. “You want anything from Red Dragon?”
“Oh, no,” said Annette immediately, “I already ate.”
Felix nodded, and then said to Ingrid, “Nah, she’s good.”
“Okay. Be there in probably half an hour?”
“Alright. We’ll get the room set up.” Felix clicked the line dead. “Well, Annette, do you mind helping set up the basement? It’s where we practice, usually.”
Annette beamed, and it was blinding as the sun itself. Felix practically felt his eyes water. Or maybe that was from the remains of their dinner? “Sure,” she said, “no problem.”
“Great. I’m going to go out on comfy pants, and I’ll meet you down there. It’s the door next to the bathroom over there.” He gave a somewhat vague gesture across the family room.
And so Annette followed directions and, after tripping over an inexplicably sharp coffee table, found herself standing in the least dingy basement she’d ever seen.
The lights were bright and the walls were covered in acoustic paneling. A desktop computer sat on a desk that took up most of the wall beside the door, and a drum kit with sandbags in the kick drum took up most of the far wall. Scattered throughout the rest of the room were a beat-up coffee table that looked like it was frequently dragged to and fro, a comfortably worn couch, and some saggy bean bag chairs. There were also more amps and pedals lying around than one band could possibly need, and cables crisscrossing the floor.
It was honestly incredible.
Felix appeared a few minutes later, dragging in both a sticker-covered guitar case and a disgruntled Sylvian. The three of them got to work setting up amps and cables, and by the time Ingrid appeared with dinner, everything else was ready.
Ingrid passed out the take-out containers (“Double hot pepper chicken for you, Felix, and Mongolian beef for you, Sylvain.”) and the newly formed Aegis sat around and shot the shit for as long as it took to scarf down dinner. If Felix didn't know any better, he’d have almost said it was downright pleasant.
But that was how, almost an hour and a half after they were supposed to have started, Aegis sat down to practice.
“How do you want to do this?” Ingrid asked Annette. “You basically have to learn our entire setlist.”
“Depends.” Annette chewed on her bottom lip in thought. “For covers, you can just text me a list of songs and I’ll learn them on my own time. Do you write your own stuff, too?”
“Yeah,” said Felix. “We have an EP of some of it.”
“It’s on Spotify,” Sylvain piped up helpfully from behind his drum kit. “It’s called Lance of Ruin.”
Annette nodded and set about digging through her bag. She produced a composition notebook a moment later, and then began taking notes. “Lance...of Ruin… okay.” She looked back up at the other three expectantly.
“If you do listen to it,” Ingrid added, a touch warningly, “don’t feel like you need to sound like our old singer.”
“You couldn’t, anyhow,” Felix said. “He was a man.”
Annette giggled as Ingrid threw a pillow at Felix, who dodged with practiced dexterity. “Well in that case, will you hate me if I ask you to transpose stuff?” Annette asked.
“Of course not!” Ingrid said immediately.
“A little bit,” said Felix honestly.
“I don’t care!” Sylvain said brightly, giving a little “buh-dum tss” on the kit.
Annette giggled—“Y’know what, that’s fair.”—even as Ingrid geared up to throw something else at Felix.
They spent the next two hours or so trying to remember all the songs they liked to cover (“Have ever done Enter Sandman?” “Do we want to?”) and listening to their own EP to familiarize Annette with their work.
It was a strange thing, hearing oneself in a recording. Felix could still hear all of his fuckups, the sour notes and missed strings, and although the band overall sounded pretty good, hearing Dimitri’s voice again hurt more than he had been prepared for.
Stand up as one,
We have nothing to hide!
Into the night,
Together we ride!
There’s no holding back,
And we couldn’t if we tried.
Just drink in the rage—
Together, we ride!
They were Glenn’s words, once shared openly and in good faith. Aegis had inherited them when the Black Iron Spurs had broken up, but that bastard Dimitri had gone nuclear and then stolen them for his new band. Hearing Dimitri’s voice and Glenn’s words made Felix’s heart twist and fury pool in his throat, a lot worse than he'd prepared for.
Because even now, from a hundred miles away, Dimitri was still clinging desperately to the older brother he’d never had—and frequently stolen from Felix.
And Felix “Fuck You” Fraldarius would never, ever forgive him for it--let alone forget.
Today's chapter is brought to you by "What Happened in Wyoming," by Envoi
It was several weeks before Aegis felt like a band again, but it wasn’t an unpleasant road back. As Annette learned their songs and they learned to play together, everyone (Annette included) was pleasantly surprised to find that it worked.
There was nothing more disheartening than knowing that no matter how much you loved something, it wasn’t meant to be. But Annette’s voice, clearer than Felix or Ingrid’s could ever hope to be, lent a sharp edge to melodies desperately in need of power. It was a different kind of feel than Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain were used to dealing with, bit it grew on them.
“Like the taste of wine,” Sylvain had said one night.
“Or a tumor,” Felix had said back.
Ingrid had smacked the both of them.
The one thing that Felix feared he would never exactly grow used to was hearing his words coming out of Annette’s mouth. She was so cute and energetic, so bright and full of life. The first time she’d sung the word “fuck,” Felix had almost lost his shit, it was so incredibly, hilariously wrong.
Sylvain actually had, and they’d had to pause band practice for a good ten minutes while their drummer regained what passed for his composure.
But even the cursing, Felix had grown used to. It was just that he would never be comfortable getting his own songs stuck in his head. This had never happened when he practiced them himself, or when Ingrid sang for them. And Felix could barely even remember what Dimitri’s voice sounded like, offhand, anymore. But Annette’s voice and his words echoed in his skull like a million bouncy balls in a metal room. It was irritating, captivating, and also a little bit frightening, all at once. What in the hell was going on?
They were getting to be a decent ensemble, sure. But it wasn’t until the first true weekend of fall that they became a band.
They’d had to switch practice to Friday night because of Annette’s work schedule, which Felix and Ingrid hadn’t had a problem with, but Sylvain had complained about having to cancel a date. Which meant he was antsy all through practice, jittery and unfocused.
And when they had made it through an entire Aegis original with Annette and it sounded good, Sylvain had thrown down his sticks and announced, “We’re celebrating!”
Felix eyed him warily. “Do we want to know what you have in mind?”
“Of course you do!” Sylvain set a jokingly wounded hand to his heart. “I’m the only reason y’all have any fun around here.”
“That is blatantly untrue,” Ingrid argued. “I’m the reason we have bad movie nights.”
“Come on,” said Sylvain, sliding out from behind his drum kit and rounding on his friends. “Up you go.”
“Holy shit, I can walk,” Felix barked when Sylvain tried to drag him bodily upright.
“Then do it!” Sylvain said. “Come on. Move it, Fraldarius! We’re going out.”
“You just don’t want to practice ‘cause we threw off your night,” Ingrid said, now fighting Sylvain’s dragging insistence.
“Have fun!” Annette said brightly, waving to Sylvain and Ingrid in their tangle of limbs.
Sylvain extracted a finger to point firmly at Annette, as if to pin her place. “Uh, you’re coming too, new band mate.”
Annette’s face fell first into shock and then—Felix wasn’t sure if he originally read it correctly but no, there was no mistaking it—panic. “I can’t go out dressed like this!” She gestured to her work-appropriate long skirt and conservative sweater. “Really, I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“You can borrow clothes from me if you need,” Ingrid said, and immediately regretted the offer when Sylvain pounced.
“See? Even Ingrid wants to go! We practice all the time; we need to let loose a little!”
“No,” said Felix.
“We need to re-stake our claim at the Golden Deer!” Sylvain argued. “We haven’t been back since…” Even Sylvain struggled putting to voice all that had happened between Aegis and their former singer. “...y’know, Dimitri left and all.”
Felix felt his hackles raise at his mention. “And you think today is going to change anything?”
“Today,” proclaimed Sylvain, “will change everything.”
And that was how the four of them ended up huddled up in the back of an Uber together on the way to the band’s favorite bar.
“Don’t worry about it,” Felix told Annette for probably the third time on their short trip. “It’s like a twelve-dollar Uber.”
“But are you—?”
“Yes,” Felix interrupted, irritated. “I am sure.”
“I wonder who’s playing tonight,” Sylvain interjected.
“Maybe Aymr?” Ingrid grunted, shifting in discomfort. She had, through no fault of her own, ended up with Sylvain’s heavy ass sitting directly in her lap. “Or the Watchers?”
“I hope it’s not the Watchers,” Felix grumbled. “I don’t need Dorothea Arnault winking at me all evening.”
“Uh, she’s winking at me, bro,” Sylvain said with a showstopping grin. “You’re just standing next to me.”
“Ugh,” said Ingrid, shifting again and rolling her eyes.
To everyone’s surprise, Annette then piped up, “Is this the part where we learn she’s actually winking at Ingrid?”
Felix and Sylvain roared with laughter, while Ingrid howled an indignant: “She better not!”
When they strolled through the door a few minutes later, Felix was hit square in the chest with the overwhelming feeling of home.
It wasn’t one he felt very often, ever since his older brother had died. Home had become a house, “dad” had become “the old man,” and music had become a painful knife in the ribs. The only place he ever really felt okay was with Ingrid, Dimitri, and Sylvain, and even then, it was as tumultuous a home as any other he had known, especially since Dimitri had left them.
But the Golden Deer? The shitty dive bar with sticky barstools and a sturdy stage in the back? Whose bartenders poured drinks extra strong and whose regulars were all friends? Where everyone knew he and his band by name, just as they knew everyone else’s?
That was home.
“Aegis!” Hilda, the pink-haired bartender, had come out from behind the bar to grab as many of them as she could in a fierce bear hug. “Oh my god, it’s been ages!”
“Hi, Hilda,” Felix grunted, trying to shove her away.
Sylvain beamed, and squeezed her back. “Good to see you!”
“Long time no see,” Ingrid said, politely patting Hilda’s back a few times.
Hilda pulled away a moment later, putting her hands on a set of rockin’ hips. “First round is on Claude,” she declared, “since I know he missed you fuckers, too.” A grin spread across her face as she added, “Ooo, let me see if I can still guess.” She pointed to Felix with one long, pink nail. “You want an IPA.” And then to Sylvain. “You want a Long Island.” And then to Ingrid. “And you want… oh, a Moscow Mule.”
Lastly, she turned to Annette, and cocked her head as she studied the little redheaded woman. Over Annette’s shoulder, Ingrid was shooting warning daggers at Hilda, as if daring her to comment on her stature or borrowed clothes.
Hilda opted for: “Are you even old enough to drink? I feel like I should be serving you juice!”
“Vodka cranberry is fine,” Annette muttered, tugging at her tartan skirt.
Hilda flashed them a smile almost as dazzling as Sylvain’s. “You know where to find me!”
Ingrid grabbed Annette and found the group a table, while Sylvain and Felix went to snag their drinks from the bar.
Sylvain leaned over the bar with a charming grin--“Open us a tab, would you, Hilda dear?”--and passed her his credit card.
“You’re a dumbass,” Felix said immediately.
“Eh.” Sylvain shrugged. “I just got paid today and we already paid rent for the month. It’ll be fine.”
Felix glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were out of earshot of the girls. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Annette, does it?” The thought irritated him more than it ought to.
“Why do you want to know?” Sylvain took a long drag from his drink as they waited for the others.
“Because I know you,” Felix said, a little too quickly.
“Oh?” Sylvain’s eyebrows rose into his riotous hairline. “Do mine ears deceive, or doth our Little Felix have a--oof!” He cut himself off when Felix slammed a bony elbow into his stomach.
“Shut up,” Felix growled.
But Sylvain’s grin only grew to Cheshire-quality. “But you’d tell me if you did, right?”
Felix shot him a dirty look, and then snatched his beer, Ingrid’s mule, and Annette’s cocktail from the bar. He held the three of them in the practiced triangle of the former server as he began to carefully cross the room, not caring if Sylvain followed.
“Felix!” Sylvain called. “Hang on! I was mostly joking!”
The instant the boys were in earshot, Ingrid announced, “Did you guys know Annette has a dog?”
“What?!” Sylvain was immediately invested. “No! What kind of dog?”
“He’s a grumpy old bulldog,” Annette said embarrassedly, flipping her phone around to show the boys.
And sure enough, there was a photo of the grumpiest, droopiest bulldog Felix had ever seen. Slobber was pooling at its feet and it looked like it was built more solidly than most apartments. It was so ugly, it honestly circled back to adorable.
Annette grew even redder when she added, “His name is Crusher.”
Felix burst into startled laughter as Sylvain said, “Holy shit, that’s incredible!”
“Mercedes and her boyfriend help take care of him when I’m not around,” Annette said, gazing fondly at the dog for a moment before putting her phone away. “But beneath the grumpy, he’s the sweetest thing!”
Ingrid glanced at her very sour, very grouchy guitarist. “Sounds like someone else I know.”
Felix threw a coaster at her.
“Good evening, everyone!” came a voice from the stage.
“Aymr!” Ingrid punched a triumphant fist in the air. “Called it!”
“We’re Aymr,” continued the white-haired lead singer as she idly clacked her long, black nails against her guitar, “and we’re here to claim your souls!”
The goth rock band struck up their most famous song, The Winter War, and Aegis lost themselves in the familiar, heady rush of a live show.
Stand and fight
Or fall, and die,
There’s no end
The frozen throne
Lost in thoughts,
Edelgard von Hresvelg’s smooth alto cut across the clamor of the dive bar. She held herself like an Empress, tall, proud, and Better Than You (™ pending). She commanded attention in the instinctual way of a natural-born-frontwoman, and it was all everyone else could do not to just stare.
“Oh, she’s good,” Annette murmured, her voice small and nearly lost under the band.
“Mmm-hmm,” agreed Sylvain and Felix immediately.
“All the better to learn from,” Ingrid pointed out, and Annette brightened a little.
A few songs later, Sylvain thumped his empty glass down and announced, “I’m out. Who needs another?”
“I do!” said Ingrid cheerfully.
Felix held up a finger, drained the bottom third of his beer, and then slammed the empty glass back down on the table. “Yup, same.”
But Annette tried to wave him off. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Whoa, no,” Sylvain said. “This is a celebration and also my fault, remember? I’m buying this round. Whaddya want?”
“No!” said Annette, this time with much more force. “You’re not paying for me! I already owe Felix for--”
“For the last time,” Felix interrupted, thoroughly irritated, “you don’t owe me shit.”
“Fine!” Annette said. “You’re still not paying for me, Sylvain!”
“If it helps,” Ingrid said, “we do this for each other all the time. It really isn’t a big deal to us.”
Annette made a face. “I just don’t like owing anyone anything.”
“If you weren’t broke,” inputted Felix’s tongue faster than his brain, “he wouldn’t insist.”
Silence fell across their table, although the bar itself was far from silent.
Several emotions filtered across Annette’s face until it settled on fucking angry. “You’re a dick, Felix Fraldarius!”
And she shoved her chair away from their table with enough force to rattle their glasses.
For a moment, it was all Ingrid, Felix, and Sylvain could do to stare after her in mute, tipsy shock. And then Ingrid found her voice: “You go apologize right now, Felix!”
“Don’t be a dumbass,” Sylvain was chanting under his breath, “don’t be a dumbass, don’t be a dumbass…”
Felix got to his feet and, smacking Sylvain upside the head on the way, chased a certain head of red hair across the bar and out the door. The temperature appeared to have dropped since the sun went down; he was shivering in his Rise Against shirt. It would almost be time to break out his favorite jacket soon--the blue, fur-lined one he’d inherited from Glenn--and the thought would ordinarily bring some small amount of, if not comfort, exactly, then calm. But at the moment, Felix had his eye fixed on a certain, tiny singer of his.
“Annette!” He was immediately forced to dodge a small, glowing projectile when she turned to stare him down. It took him a second to realize, “Did you just throw a lit cigarette at me?”
Annette’s lips pursed into a thin line. “I meant to throw the lighter.”
The smoker standing beside her harrumphed and snatched his lighter back, leaving Felix and Annette to stare each other down on the sidewalk, alone.
Annette’s blue-eyed glare was formidable, but Felix’s amber one was absolutely scalding. But she held his gaze, chin up, and didn’t say a word (which, from what he had learned of her in the past month or so, was probably killing her on the inside).
Felix surprised them both when he said, “Alright, I know it wasn’t the most eloquent way to say it. I’m sorry for that.”
Annette’s face softened, just a little. Her arms unfolded from across her sternum, and the sternness in her demeanor fell away. “‘I’m sorry I called you a dick,” she said.
“Don’t be,” Felix said, “I am one.”
Annette snorted so hard she hiccup-laughed. It was the most endearing, inelegant noise Felix had ever heard.
“The point is,” he hurriedly continued rather than dwell on it, “you are not the first woman Sylvain has ever bought a drink for--not even counting Ingrid--and you won’t be the last, probably just tonight.”
Annette shifted uncomfortably in her borrowed skirt and black t-shirt, drawing attention to the fact that one, that skirt was well above her knees, and two, she was probably freezing. Felix realized he had never seen that much of her skin before, given that she was usually dressed for work whenever he saw her. He tried not to stare at the milky skin of her thighs and instead focus on her face but god, was it hard.
“I don’t want to burden anyone,” Annette said softly.
“You aren’t,” Felix said. “Plus even if you were, do you think we wouldn’t tell you?”
“I think Ingrid would make you swear to silence, and Sylvain would cheerfully ignore it.”
Felix blinked a few times. How had she already pinned them down so well? “Look,” he said after another moment, “I know you know who my family is. The Fraldarius from Fhirdiad?”
“Yeah.” Annette nodded, almost apologetically. “Only... you’re not what I’d expect, from a family that loaded.”
Felix’s face grew tight. “That’s because the family fortune isn’t paying for shit--I went to Garreg Mach University on scholarship, survived on kidney beans and the tips I made as a server, and found a decent enough day job after college for the rest. Trust me, Annette. I get it. Sylvain and Ingrid do, too, but those aren’t my stories to tell you.”
Her mouth fell open into a soft “Oh.” Another moment passed, and she added, “Did something happen?”
Felix knew what that meant—did you get disowned, or something? The answer was far more complicated. “Something like that. But it isn’t like it’s some big sacrifice. In most ways, it’s a hell of a lot easier not to have to answer to my Dad.”
Annette winced, at that. “Be thankful you still have one.”
Felix filed that one away for future reference, but pressed on. “Point is, you’re not a burden just ‘cause life dealt you a shitty hand. Let us make your life easier.” He almost said please, but that felt like laying it on just a bit too thick. “It’s what friends are for.”
Something wet glittered in the corners of Annette’s eyes. “Are we friends?”
It felt like he’d been physically wounded. “Ouch,” said Felix, with feeling.
Annette’s eyes widened. “Sorry, sorry, sorry! That isn’t… I didn’t…” She cleared her throat. “I meant, it feels like I’m third wheeling a lot, even though there are already three of you.”
“Fourth wheel is just a car,” Felix pointed out, and Annette giggled. He decided he really liked the sound. “You’re in the band,” he added. “Of course you’re in the friend group.”
She stared at him in mute astonishment for a long moment, so unlike the way she had been staring only a few minutes ago. “Okay.”
“Now come drink with us.” Felix held out his hand, a peace offering. “And don't ask me to do anything emotional for at least a week; I’ve hit my quota for a while.”
Annette laughed again, and took his hand. Felix was not a big man, but even his spindly fingers dwarfed Annette’s tiny ones. “Okay, okay, understood.” She squeezed his hand, and then let go.
They began to head back inside, and Annette piped up, “Oh, and Felix?”
“Thanks for telling me all that.”
Felix stubbornly ignored the blush rising in his face. “Don’t mention it.”
We're going to pretend like they live in a universe where everyone is a tad less tone deaf
Today's chapter brought to you by "Seal the Deal" by Volbeat
One morning, as Felix found himself heading to work with 20 minutes to spare somehow, he decided to stop at the hipster coffee shop near his office, rather than subject himself to the office’s collection of mediocre K-cups.
He immediately regretted this decision when he heard a voice from behind him in line say his name.
As it turned out, it was none other than Edelgard von Hresvelg.
“Do you work around here?” she asked politely.
Felix nodded. “Yeah, over in that office park off of 3rd. You?”
Edelgard nodded. It was very strange seeing her in a smart red dress and blazer, instead of her usual, goth rock getup. “Yes, I’m over with Bergliez and Sons.”
Felix nodded politely, and hoped that would be the end of the conversation.
“It was good to see Aegis at the Golden Deer the other night,” Edelgard said, and Felix got the feeling she genuinely meant it. “We were all starting to wonder if you’d broken up.”
“No,” said Felix, “just recalibrating.”
The conversation was forcibly paused when Felix got up to the counter and ordered a truly grotesque amount of black coffee and Edelgard ordered some kind of espresso-laced monstrosity that made the barista’s hand shake when she wrote the name on the cup.
“So have you played any shows yet?” Edelgard asked as they stood off to the side, waiting.
“Not yet,” Felix admitted, somewhat painfully. “We’re just now getting to the point where we can.”
Something sharp glittered in Edelgard’s eyes, and Felix did not like it. “Would you be interested in playing Carnage this year?”
Felix’s brow furrowed. The Carnage Fest was the biggest Halloween event of the season, put on every year by Garreg Mach University as a charity fundraiser. It was a cross between a fall festival and a music one, with midway games, food trucks, and a hell of a lot of entertainment. Every act got into the Halloween spirit, playing spooky songs and dressing in black, and Aymr played every year. Felix and Sylvain had always wanted to, but Dimitri had always stopped them because of the massive crowd, and Ingrid was too nice to make him.
“Didn’t we miss the audition cut off?” he hedged.
“Yes,” said Edelgard, “but my uncle is in charge of organizing it every year. I can put in a good word for you…?”
Felix’s amber eyes narrowed sharply. “What do you want, Edelgard?”
She made a face, but at least had the decency to know she’d been called out. She leaned closer to Felix to announce, quietly, “Atrocity is playing.”
Fury lit up Felix’s chest and all the way up through his eyes. “Talk to your uncle,” he said immediately.
Edelgard smiled, but it was predatory. “I thought you’d be interested in that part.”
“Given that Dimitri was the reason we never played Carnage in college? Yes. Excruciatingly.”
Edelgard’s icy blonde eyebrows arched delicately at the news. “I see.” At the questioning look she received, she added, “Dimitri… hasn’t been himself ever since...” She trailed off, wincing just a little. “Well. You know.”
“Yep,” said Felix through gritted teeth. He’d forgotten, Edelgard was technically Dimitri’s step-sister. She probably saw more of him than Felix, Ingrid, or Sylvain did, especially these days.
For a moment, Felix was almost saved by the arrival of a coffee order on the bar. But somehow—honestly, how did the universe do this?—it was Edelgard’s order, and she took a long, satisfying sip of her arrhythmia-inducing drink, but didn’t move.
“I’m sure you know better than I do, anyhow,” Edelgard added, much to Felix’s surprise.
But he only gave an overexaggerated shrug in response. Where the hell was his order? “I wouldn’t, actually. He fucked off to Fhirdiad last year and none of us have seen him since.”
“I see.” Edelgard sounded… almost sad. She recovered quickly, “Well, in any event, I’ll talk to my uncle and see what he says, and let you know?” Something else seemed to occur to her. “I don’t think I have your number.”
“I know I don’t have yours,” said Felix.
They passed off their phones to make the exchange and finally, finally they called Felix’s name. He sarcastically cheersed Edelgard’s cup on the way out.
But the rest of the drive to work, Felix’s stomach was churning with both excitement and fury. He’d genuinely always wanted to play Carnage, it was just that he’d always been vetoed. But Aegis was different now, and he was different, now. He knew Sylvain was on his side, and Ingrid would be if they could just get Annette onboard. Would it be hard to get Annette onboard? Felix genuinely had no idea.
The instant he sat down at his desk, Felix was in the band group chat:
Felix: so guess who may have just gotten us in to play Carnage?
He set his phone down to start checking work emails or something, but forgot that unlike normal people, Sylvain texted in bursts
Ingrid: I would also like to know?
Annette: you mean the one Garreg Mach puts on every year?
Felix: yes, yes, hang on, hang on again, and also yes
Annette: ooo!! The symphonic choir sang at Carnage when I was a junior. We did a bunch of creepy Halloween music. It was super fun!!
Sylvain: are you telling me
Sylvain: that we have a chance to play Carnage
Sylvain: WITH A SINGER WHO ACTUALLY WNATZ TO?!?!?
Annette: of course I want to! Playing shows is why I joined the band ~
Sylvain: Marry me?
Annette: lol no
Sylvain: alas, I shall drown my sorrows in DRUMS
Sylvain: but seriously felix, how the hell?
Felix: well I ran I to Edelgard at the coffee shop
Ingrid: random place to find her
Felix: right tho?
Here, Felix had to pause and pull up Adobe, lest someone (like his boss) discover he wasn’t actually doing work. She stopped by his desk for a moment, asking about projects he’d finished last week and already sent out, and then smiled and moved on.
By the time Felix was able to look at his phone again, the group chat had blown up again
Sylvain: I mean, goths drink coffee too
Annette: [crying laughing emoji]
Sylvain: oh axe-master?
Sylvain: ARE YOU IGNORING US
Ingrid: he’s gonna start if you keep that up
There are times when Felix honestly loved Ingrid. He really did.
Felix: I’m at work, guys.
Sylvain: oh right
Felix: anyway, she offered to talk to her uncle to get us into carnage since we’re back on the scene
Ingrid: why would she do that?
Sylvain: surely not out of the kindness of her black heart?
Ingrid: just so you know, Sylvain, if I could actually see you, I’d throw this chemistry textbook at you
Felix: because atrocity is playing
That shut the group chat up. It stayed silent so long that Felix debated actually starting work for the day.
Sylvain: she better get us in. Holy shit
And that was why, if pressed, Felix would call Sylvain his best friend. He just got it.
Annette: who’s atrocity?
Ingrid: Dimitri Blaiddyd’s new band.
Annette: lets kick ass!
Felix might even love Annette, too.
Sylvain: that’s the spirit!
Annette: [crying laughing emoji] [crying laughing emoji]
It suddenly occurred to Felix what he’d just thought.
Annette: so we all need to come up with a spooktacular set list right?
Ingrid: right. Any ideas?
It suddenly occurred to Felix what he’d just thought.
Ingrid: too cliche
Sylvain: number of the beast?
Sylvain: oh oh oh oh little piece of heaven
Felix: I’m not learning trombone for you
Sylvain: you SUCK
It suddenly occurred to Felix what he’d just thought. He hurriedly threw something out into the group chat:
Felix: Don’t Fear the Reaper
Ingrid: But make it metal? Yes.
Annette: the devil went down to Georgia?
Annette: Idk how to make that metal tho
Ingrid: leave that part to Felix
Ingrid: It might also be a good time to break out some of your new stuff, Felix? It’s dark enough
Sylvain: [crying laughing emoji]
Felix: I’m taking that as a compliment
He set down his phone again and actually started doing what they actually paid him for. It was easier than dwelling on whatever it was he’d just thought. Just his band, yep. Halloween setlist, yep. More brochures for the local city council, yep. He was definitely, absolutely not daydreaming about what Annette would be like onstage, and whether she would be sweet like normal or something a little more hard-edged?
He was absolutely not thinking about it.
It nearly gave him a heart attack when he checked his phone later to discover 28 unread messages--most of which were Sylvain and Ingrid arguing about the setlist. But the last of them caught his attention:
Annette: ooo you know what we should play?
[Annette has sent an attachment]
It was a video of Nightwish playing the Phantom of the Opera, and although Annette’s voice wasn’t nearly so operatic, he could hear how impressive it would be in the open air at Carnage. Annette could easily carry it, and they could make it crunch more than Nightwish had. Felix felt himself grin, already on to daydreaming about how to cover it. He’d have to find tabs, or maybe the sheet music.
Sylvain: hell yes!
Felix almost laughed out loud, which would have given away the fact that his brochure hadn’t changed in probably twenty minutes.
Annette: who used to sing for you guys after Dimitri left?
Ingrid: Felix and me, why?
Annette: Because someone needs to sing the Phantom’s part
But it was too late. Sylvain was already off and running, spamming the group chat with versions of the song--from the traditional theatre version to various covers--and talking about how best to cover it and whether to open or close with it. And Annette was just so excited. He could tell by the explosion of emojis and exclamation points. He wasn’t about to take that from her.
What was the worst that could happen?
It's like grade school--today is my birthday, so y'all get a treat :3
I had to hop on the group chat chain--it's just too damn entertaining
today's episode is brought to you by the Jonathan Young cover of the Phantom of the Opera
Annette had quickly gotten used to the bus ride to Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain’s part of town. They didn’t live too far from campus, probably for Ingrid’s benefit, but they were no longer in one of the neighborhoods where mostly students lived. It was too far to walk, and so Annette had found ways to make herself productive on the bus ride over (usually by doing homework).
Ever since they’d added a Saturday practice into their usual routine, Annette’d had rearranged her work schedule to accommodate. Her boss had been irritated with her (“A different shift again?”), but Annette didn’t mind. Having Saturdays free, even for band practice, made her feel giddy with freedom. It was a crisp, fall afternoon--the kind that breathed life into tired souls--and for once, she wasn’t stuck at work.
Her good mood dropped, however, when Felix answered the door with an unceremonious, “Well, shit.”
Not to be deterred, Annette barreled right on. “Hi, Felix! Ready for band practice?”
He stared at her for so long a moment, Annette shifted in discomfort. Was it something about what she wore? She was dressed, for once, for herself instead of for work, in a grey, duster-length cardigan, jeans, and worn black boots. Was it something on her face? She hadn’t eaten anything on the bus ride over.
“Um?” Annette said.
Felix’s intense, amber eyes never wavered, but he did pull a face. “So yeah, about that. Ingrid’s out of town for her cousin’s wedding this weekend, and Sylvain is her date-ish-thing. They were going to figure it out in the car. We meant to call it off and apparently forgot to put it in the group chat…?”
Annette’s brow furrowed as something niggled in the back of her mind. She hurriedly pulled her phone out of her pocket, and began furiously scrolling through the group chat. And when she saw it, Annette burst into tired laughter.
“Welp...” She wheezed. “You did I just…” another giggle fit. “...forgot until literally just now.”
Belatedly, Felix laughed, himself. it finally broke the tension in his gaze. “You work yourself too hard.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with me being forgetful,” Annette argued, doing her best to regain her composure.
Felix’s eyebrow shot into his hairline, and Annette was struck, not for the first time, with just how handsome Aegis’ moody guitarist was. His face was made of sharp angles framed by dark hair that was frequently falling out of a man-bun, and those sharp amber eyes missed absolutely nothing.
Annette looked away, and then sighed. “Well, I guess I should… head back, I guess? God, I’m so stupid.” She was kicking herself for coming all the way out here, only to clearly be a bother. She could have been doing any number of things at home—like laundry, or homework, or baking with Mercedes--and not have inflicted herself on Felix.
“One,” he said, “no, you aren’t. Two, you can, um, still hang out if you want?”
Annette could only stare at him, stunned. Had Felix just voluntarily offered to spend time with her?
His face grew steadily more crimson until he blurted, “Or, y’know, just forget it.” He moved to shut the door again.
“Whoa no you don’t!” Annette burst out, and this time it was Felix who was stunned into silence. “I was just surprised, is all. You and me need to practice phantom, anyhow. It kind of works out?”
“All the tabs I’ve found are shit,” Felix warned, moving out of the doorway to let Annette in, “so I haven’t exactly gotten around to fixing it yet. There’s nothing to practice.”
“It’s a duet, silly,” said Annette. “Of course there’s something to practice! Besides, I have the sheet music.” She patted her messenger bag affectionately. “Do you want to borrow it?”
Felix blinked at her a couple of times. “That would be great, actually.”
Which was how they ended up on the couch in the main room with Felix’s guitar and Annette’s sheet music between them. Felix was scribbling down the chords on a piece of notebook paper while Annette held the book open for him, their heads bent together. He was so close she could smell his cologne—something earthy and masculine. It was a challenge not to close her eyes and breathe him in.
“So, how does one make something Metal?” Annette asked, partially as a distraction, after Felix had propped up the notebook paper on the coffee table with the artful application of a couple of books and his phone.
“Like this.” Felix began the chord progression, making it shorter, grittier, choppier, and already, Annette could hear what he meant. The song had good bones, after all. It was just a matter of building on them. “With an amp, it’ll sound exactly like it should.”
“Distorted as all hell?” Annette asked
Felix clicked his tongue and grinned. The motion was almost predatory, and Annette felt herself blush something fierce. “Exactly,” Felix said. “The main issue we’re going to have is the organ. It doesn't sound right without it.”
“Oh, I have a keyboard.” Had her voice always sounded so breathy? She didn’t think so. “I teach voice lessons, you know.”
“Oh, hell. That’s easy enough.”
The fell into an awkward silence, and Felix went back to crunching the chords.
Annette counted herself in, following the sheet music. Music, she could do. “In sleep, he sang to me…”
It felt threadbare without Sylvain’s pounding heartbeat on the drums, and Ingrid’s steady hand on the bass, never mind the fact that Felix wasn’t even plugged in. But still, Annette could hear what it could be, with a little bit of Metalhead magic. She grinned in anticipation. Carnage would never know what hit it.
It wasn’t until the chords stretched a little too long after her part that Felix seemed to realize he was supposed to be singing. “Whoops, hang on.” He muted the guitar strings with a quick motion, and then started again. Annette could see the beginnings of palm muting burn on the heel of his hand.
“You don’t have to be shy,” Annette said with a genuine smile. “It’s just me.”
“You know there’s a reason we put out that flyer, right?” Felix asked, eyebrow cocked again. “Ingrid and I aren’t singers.”
Annette put her hands on her hips. “Well, I want to hear you.”
Somehow, astoundingly, it was Felix who blushed this time. He quickly turned his attention to his hands, as if he hadn’t been making the same four chord shapes all afternoon. “Sing once again with me…”
His speaking voice was a smooth, pleasant baritone when he wasn't biting someone with it, so it really should have come as no surprise that his singing voice was just as melodious. Annette found herself drawn to him, just as much as she was to an actor playing the Phantom of the Opera himself.
“That was good!” Annette said when Felix’s first verse was finished. “One thing, though. Make your vowels nice and long.” She mimicked the sound with her hands, as if stretching taffy. “The phon-tom of the op-eh-ra.” She paused, and then giggled. “The way I remember it is that I need to pronounce ‘phantom’ like my middle name, Fantine.” Felix snorted, and Annette felt herself blush. “I know, it’s a ridiculous name.”
“I’m not laughing at you,” Felix said. “I’m laughing because my middle name is Hugo.”
A startled laugh burst out of Annette before she could stop it. “Okay, yeah, you get it.”
Felix made a face, nodded, and then began to play again. This time, he took care to fix his vowels, making them long and pure as any of Annette’s music school classmates could. It was gorgeous, and Annette found herself wishing his verse were longer.
“Really,” she said when he finished, “we shouldn’t have any problem at all! Now, let’s look at these harmonies, here in the bridge…”
As she flipped to a specific page in the sheet music, Felix warned her, “I’m not good at harmonizing.”
“It just takes practice,” Annette said. “Can you play me this note?” She tapped the beginning of her part with her finger.
And so they continued on for a while, learning how their voices mingled and complemented (or didn’t, in some cases). It was far more intimate than learning to sing with anyone else had ever been, and for the life of her, Annette couldn’t figure out why. But she knew she felt exposed, as if she’d somehow stumbled out of the shower in nothing but a towel to find her apartment full of guests.
When Annette’s phone went off, she started and dropped the sheet music, and Felix nearly dropped his guitar in reactive shock.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry! Be right back.” Annette got up from the couch for the first time all afternoon, her knees cracking and protesting, and answered her phone. “Hello?”
“Annie! It’s Mercedes. Is band practice over?”
Annette glanced over to where Felix was picking up the sheet music from the floor. “Such as it is. Why, what’s up?”
“We’re getting ready to head to the Mason City Oktoberfest, and wanted to know if you guys wanted to come?”
The idea of wandering around the huge festival with Felix sounded like a lot more fun than it should have, all things considered. It was almost a shame that Ingrid and Sylvain were gone; wherever Aegis went, a party followed. Annette supposed that was part of Sylvain’s charm, since it certainly wasn’t Felix’s or Ingrid’s.
“Let me ask him. It’s just Felix and me today.” Annette pulled the phone away from her mouth, and said, “Hey, Felix, Mercedes and her boyfriend are going to the Mason City Oktoberfest tonight. Do you want to go with them?”
Confusion shot through Felix’s face, and Annette realized she’d made it sound like a date. Stupid, stupid! “We’ll be meeting up with some of our other friends, too! It’s not like we’d have to hang out with a couple all night.”
Felix pulled a face, and for a long moment, Annette felt her heart sink lower and lower. Was it just okay to hang out for band practice, but not like, with her as a person? You should have known better, Annie. He doesn’t care about—
“Sure,” Felix said, interrupting her mental spiral. “I guess. Drinking beer sounds like more fun than sitting around here all night.” He got up from the couch, bringing his guitar with him.
Annette felt her face split into a huge grin, and then said into the phone, “Sure thing! Do you want us to meet you there, or…?”
“No, we’ll come grab you. Can you text me the address?”
As Felix put away his guitar, he paid no mind to what he’d just agreed to--which turned out to bode very ill, indeed.
Today's chapter is brought to you by "Get Jinxed" the league song (I know, I wish they weren't all such bangers, too)
Agreeing to this stupid thing had already landed Felix in the most uncomfortable car ride of his life. It wasn’t Mercedes--she was nice enough, if a bit standoffish. And it wasn’t even that he was in the backseat with Annette for a good forty-five minutes--that would have been lovely in most circumstances, honestly.
No, it was the fact that Mercedes’ boyfriend was apparently Dedue fucking Molinaro.
“Felix,” the very large, very-much-existent man had greeted with cautious warmth. “It has been a long time.”
“Not long enough,” Felix had hissed, too low for Annette or Mercedes to hear over their own excited conversation.
Just like always, Dedue’s facial expression didn’t change. Felix had always found that incredibly irritating. “How is Aegis?”
“What do you care?” Felix bit back. “And what are you doing so far off the leash, anyway?”
Still, Dedue didn’t react. “I am Dimitri’s roommate, not his keeper.”
“Do you know Dedue, Felix?” Mercedes asked, suddenly interjecting into the conversation. Felix had the distinct impression she’d heard him, but the blonde woman’s eyes remained fixed on the road, her face impassive.
“We’ve met.” Felix was genuinely proud of himself for providing such a non-argumentative answer on short notice.
“Dimitri used to sing for his band,” Dedue added.
“Wait,” Annette said. “You know Dimitri Blaiddyd?”
Dedue blinked in confusion, turning around to face Annette as best one can in a car. “He is my roommate.”
Annette brow furrowed. “I thought you said Dimitri lived in Fhirdiad, Felix?”
“He does,” Felix said.
“We have moved back,” said Dedue.
Felix nearly spat gas station coffee all over the backseat of Mercedes’ car. “He’s what?”
“Dimitri was offered a teaching position at the university,” Dedue said, “And I have no particular ties to Fhirdiad, so we both moved back here.”
Mercedes smiled demurely. “We met when he applied to work in my bakery.”
Fury rose in Felix’s chest, bright and wild. Was this a fucking joke? The only redeemable quality to the entirety of Aegis’ falling out with Dimitri was the fact that he’d fucked off to Fhirdiad and they didn’t have to see him, pretty much ever.
“Oh my god,” Felix muttered, “Ingrid is walking around campus like an idiot.” He immediately pulled out his phone to warn her, cousin’s wedding he damned.
“I believe Ingrid already knows,” Dedue said.
Felix’s thumbs froze over his keyboard. “She what?”
“Now, now,” said Mercedes firmly. “we are all going to get along in this car even if it kills us. I am not above making you all play I Spy.”
Felix found it far wiser to shut up than argue with Mercedes, but he still texted Ingrid.
Felix: How long have you known Dimitri is back?
A long moment passed. He could feel Annette’s curious, concerned gaze on the side of his face, but he didn’t look at her. He wasn’t sure that he could. It was almost a relief when his phone buzzed, but:
Ingrid: we’ll talk when I’m back
Bitch, Felix thought fiercely. She fucking knew! He could have thrown his phone at the windshield. And she hadn’t fucking told him? Did Sylvain even know? Felix struck that thought down before he’d really formed it; Sylvain couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.
When they finally arrived in Mason City, the air in the car had become so tense, Felix swore he could feel it resting on his skin. It was a relief to get out of the confined area and breathe.
“I know Dedue wants to check out the hops exhibit,” Mercedes said once they’d actually gotten into the festival grounds. “Do you guys want to come?”
“That’s okay,” Annette said. “Have fun!”
Felix shook his head. “Go for it.”
“We will meet up with you later,” Dedue promised, and then off they went.
“Petra and Caspar should be around here somewhere,” Annette said. “Want to grab a beer and look for them?”
Wait a minute. Just how small was this town? “Petra Macneary and Caspar von Bergliez?” Felix asked.
Annette’s far-too-blue eyes widened. “Oh no, please don’t tell me you hate them, too.”
Felix snorted. “They’re in Aymr. They’re fine. I’m wondering how you know them?”
Annette visibly relaxed at the news. “Oh, Petra was in my aural skills classes in undergrad, and Caspar is her friend.”
Felix had to admit, Oktoberfest got a lot better with one of those souvenir boot glasses full of beer in hand. Annette had questioned why he’d bothered, which had prompted a somewhat long-winded explanation of Sylvain’s jank-ass sense of humor. She had also balked at the beer pricing, which Felix had heard nothing of and gotten her one, too--albeit without the boot, which might have sent Annette into conniptions.
“You really didn’t have to do that,” she said for the third time, her small, delicate hands wrapped around a plastic cup full of märzen like a life preserver.
“And I told you,” Felix said, “I hate drinking alone. So don’t worry about it.”
“Just a beer is like, eight bucks here!”
“And hanging out with my singer is worth at least that much.”
It wasn’t until Annette blushed scarlet that he realized that was very easy to misconstrue. “I just mean that—”
“Annette! There you are!” Annette was nearly knocked over by the force of the oncoming hug. It was a minor miracle that she didn’t spill her beer. “It is good to be seeing you!”
“Hi, Petra!” Only Annette could match Petra’s enthusiasm, Felix thought dryly as Annette squeezed the other girl back. She let go a moment later. “Oh, and this is—”
“Felix Fraldarius!” Petra announced, moving to tackle him as well. “It is good to be seeing you, as well!”
He tried to sidestep but was too slow, and found himself crushed by Petra’s wiry strength. His beer was not nearly so well behaved as Annette’s, sloshing over the sides of his boot and down Petra's back. She didn’t seem to mind.
“‘Sup,” Felix croaked.
“Hey, Felix!” Caspar called, waving cheerfully and raising his own glass boot in a mock toast.
Felix raised his own. “Cheers, you useless bastard.”
Caspar pretended to be offended. “I can’t stop Petra!”
“Where are Sylvain and Ingrid?” Petra asked, removing her arms from around Felix’s waist. “Are they being here?”
“They’re out of town.” Felix wasn’t sure why he sounded borderline apologetic. He took a swig of beer to cover for it.
“You will be giving them my love?” Petra said.
“I can do you one better,” Felix said, finding his phone in his pocket and pulling up Snapchat. “Smile.”
Petra beamed at him, and Felix thumbed a quick “look who I found” to Ingrid and Sylvain over her photo.
“Good!” said Petra. “I was not having the chance to talk to you the other day at the Golden Deer.”
“Yeah, blame Edie for that one,” Caspar added. “We had to tear down our own gear and by the time that was done, you guys had left.”
Annette was looking uncomfortable, and Felix was reminded of what she’d said that night. It feels like I’m third wheeling a lot, even though there are already three of you. “Annette,” he began, not really knowing where he was going with it.
Mercifully, he didn’t have to, because Petra was already on to the next thing. “Oh, and look at this!” She looped an arm around Annette’s, and one around Felix’s, and pulled.
“Respect the beer, Macneary!” Felix barked, märzen falling over his hand again.
“Begging your pardon,” Petra said, “I am a liquor person.”
Annette giggled, and it almost made losing half his beer in the struggle worth it.
Petra led them to a large, grassy, fenced-in area, and Felix had to blink a couple of times to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. But no, it was definitely what he thought it was. He felt something bubble up from somewhere deep in his chest, something sort of like the feeling of home the Golden Deer elicited.
“It is mostly boys who have been watching too much Star Wars,” Petra said, “but they are having fencing!”
She wasn’t wrong. There were two pimply teenage boys going at it with fake swords, looking like they were having a hell of a good time and also like they’d watched The Clone Wars one too many times. Felix could hardly blame them; that was also how he and Glenn had started, after all.
“Felix,” said Petra, a dangerous gleam in her eyes, “will you be dueling me?”
Felix glanced to his beer, and then held up a finger. He drained the rest of it in one smooth motion, and then held it out to Annette. “Hold onto this, will you?”
“Why…?” she began, and then stopped. Felix could practically see the answer click into place as the gears in Annette’s brain worked. “You’re not seriously going to fight Petra, are you?”
Felix tested his shoulders a few times, and found his favorite, fur-lined jacket too constricting. He slid out of it, and, unthinkingly, set it over Annette’s shoulders. “Hold onto this, too?”
“Felix!” Annette shouted.
“Relax, ‘Nette,” Caspar said, patting her on the head as if he weren’t barely an inch taller. “They’re okay.”
The Star Wars boys had wrapped up, and Petra had already ducked under the fence to approach the referee. Felix hopped the fence as well, but paused to glance back at Annette and Caspar. She nearly stole his breath, all red-faced and tiny under his jacket. (His. Jacket.)
“You remember when I said I was at Garreg Mach on Scholarship?” Felix asked. At Annette’s nod, he added, “It was for the fencing team.”
“Petra was on it, too,” Felix heard Caspar tell Annette before he was too far out of earshot.
Petra seemed to have squared it away with the referee, and tossed him one of the fake swords. Felix tested the balance, taking a few experimental swings. He realized it was, one, made out of mostly foam with some sort of solid core, and two, completely, hilariously, unbalanced. But that was alright, he supposed. It was only a mock duel with an old teammate.
Felix took up a ready position across from Petra, falling into the old forms easily. He supposed it had only been a year since he’d last dueled competitively, and he still had his old foil taking up space in the closet. Perhaps it was time to take it off mothball.
He knew what he looked like to the casual observer: a skinny, black-haired boy in a Black Iron Spurs tee-shirt and combat boots that were almost comically large on him. And he knew Petra looked equally as unassuming, in her short black skirt and heavy, purple braid. But that was the glory of it, really. Only they knew what they did best.
The wind kicked up between them, blowing Felix's bangs about and cutting through his thin shirt almost like he imagined a real sword would.
“Foils or sabers?” he called over as the referee took up position.
Petra grinned, wolf-like. “Sabers.”
And she struck.
The footwork came back easily enough. It was a familiar dance, after all; one honed over many years of practice. Petra would swing left, and Felix would step left, as well. He would jab and she would parry and riposte, or vice versa. They had always been evenly matched.
Felix hadn’t moved like this in so long, he could practically feel where he’d atrophied. He wasn’t so quick on his feet, or so brisk on the parry. Petra was also an out-of-shape former athlete, so it wasn’t as if she was handing his ass to him. But still, it irked Felix, to know he had once been so much better than this. He was just lucky Petra wasn’t one to shit talk.
“Let’s go, Petra!” shouted a voice from the sidelines.
Both Felix and Petra turned and found their marks in Edelgard and her dark shadow, Hubert. Aymr’s lead singer was cheerfully sipping from a glass boot, and their keyboardist looked about as amused as one would at a funeral. Although, Felix supposed, it might be different when you’re the son of the town mortician.
But then Annette shouted: “You’ve got this, Felix!”
He ignored the blush burning into his face and unleashed a flurry of blows that forced Petra to fall back on the defensive. She was grinning, reveling in the exertion as much as she did playing bass onstage. She wasn’t flashy, but her talent and dedication were evident. Felix wondered what he looked like, after all this time.
The duel only ended when both of them ended up with the foam swords poised at each other’s throats.
For a moment, Felix and Petra could only stare each other down, life filtering back through the narrow-minded haze of combat. But then, a smattering of applause broke out, and he felt Petra grab his wrist to bring their fists to the air together, like a damn wrestling match.
“That was fun,” she said between heavy breaths.
“Sure,” Felix told her, equally as out of breath.
He looked over to where Annette and Caspar had been, and felt his stomach drop through his boots when he realized Annette was no longer there.
“Oi! Caspar!” He called, jogging toward the fence. “Where’s Annette?”
Caspar blinked. “What do you mean, where’s Annette? She right…” Caspar turned, found the empty space where the small redhead had once been, and said “...oh.”
“We will split up,” called Petra. “She cannot have gotten far.”
Fear seized Felix’s throat as he hopped the fence again. It wasn’t like Annette to wander off, and he refused to consider other, darker possibilities as he scanned the crowd. She had flaming auburn hair and was wearing his black-and-blue jacket; he could hardly miss her.
He cursed the fact that he didn’t have Mercedes’ number, because that meant breaking a year’s worth of silence, and texting Dedue.
Felix: is Annette with you guys?
After a few, increasingly frantic minutes of searching down the midway games in the growing dusk, Felix got a response:
Dedue: no, why?
Why else would anyone ever ask that question?
Felix: we can't find her
Dedue: I will alert security.
Felix: might be overkill. She can’t have gotten far
Dedue: we will be safe, not sorry
God, security was the absolute last thing Felix wanted to deal with. He had seen the Seiros Security logo plastered all over the banners on the way in, and really, the only thing worse than a private police force was the actual Fhirdiad blue. Most all of them recognized him as “Rodrigue’s boy” and it just was not worth the headache. Usually.
Just as Felix was starting to think that maybe Dedue might be onto something, he spotted a head of flaming red hair flit around the corner of one of the stalls. Felix was off like a bottle rocket, whipping around the corner of the market stall and nearly slamming into Annette in the process. She gave an undignified squeak as she caught him.
“What the fuck, Annette?” Felix barked, even as relief spread across his chest like butter in a hot skillet.
She looked genuinely confused as she held him at arm’s length. Her hands burned into the bare skin of his arms. “What do you mean, what the fuck?”
Beneath his relief, Felix was seething. “Why the fuck did you just run off?”
Annette’s facial expression shut down hard, and she yanked her hands back. “What do you care? You were dueling Petra.”
Now it was Felix’s turn to be genuinely confused. “What do you mean, what do I care? We thought something had happened to you!”
“Well, I’m fine,” Annette snapped. “So you can just go.” Her voice cracked on the last word.
“Annette, what the…” It had been a long time since Felix had been at a loss for words. “No, I’m not going. You’re coming.” He made an impatient gesture for her to follow.
“Go meet up with everyone else.” Annette tried to shoo him. Shoo him, like a damn stray cat. “I’ll be back once I--eep! He’s here!”
Felix found himself putting his body between Annette and whatever had just startled her. He didn’t turn around, and instead kept his gaze focused on her face, trying to get a read on her.
“What the fuck is going on, Annie?” Felix pressed.
It was the nickname that did it. When her gaze snapped back to his, sky blue meeting earthy amber, her anger died away, leaving anxiety in its wake. Annette spared one more glance over Felix’s shoulder, and then yanked him into the small alleyway between tents.
Felix could feel her entire body press against his, and his heart gave a funny little stutter stop that he desperately hoped she couldn’t feel. She was so small, so soft. She would fit easily into his arms, if he only reached out.
But Annette was speaking quickly, quietly, angrily, and whatever else besides concern that was building in him died.
“My Dad left my Mom and me when I was eight,” Annette hissed. “He never visited, never sent child support, and never even fucking called.” She drew in a harsh, sharp breath and shut her eyes for a moment. “And I think I just saw him.”
Her eyes snapped open, and found their mark on his. Waiting. She was waiting.
Despite everything screaming at him not to, Felix stepped back. Sense began flooding back into his brain. “Lead the way.”
Annette blinked at him for a moment in wholesale shock. “You’re… not telling me not to?”
“Why would I?” There are plenty of people whose asses he would happily kick, and Annette’s dad had just made the list.
Annette’s jaw dropped a little, and it took her a second to respond. “Right. Okay. Follow me, I guess.” She took off again, setting out at a brisk pace.
He was really feeling the weight of the beer in his stomach, now. Between dueling Petra and running across creation looking for Annette, this was more physical exertion than Felix had bothered with in months. Maybe he ought to take Ingrid up on her offer to go jogging in the mornings, if he didn’t vomit tonight, first.
Annette seemed to be zeroing in on a large, red-haired man wearing the Seiros Security uniform (because of course he was). The closer they drew, the more Felix could pick out a family resemblance. His face was far harder, and his hair streaked with grey, but the bright blue eyes were the same, unmistakable shade.
“Dad!” Annette shouted, but the man did not turn.
“Dad!” she tried again when they drew closer, but again, to no avail.
“Gustave!” she shouted, and finally, the man turned.
He stared at Annette for a moment, and Felix saw the glint of recognition in his eyes. But he said, “Do you need something, miss?”
Annette stared at him, confusion and hurt warring on her face. “Dad, it’s me. Annette. Your daughter. Why are you acting like you don’t know me?”
The man--Gustave--hung his head in shame. “Annette, I--”
But Annette wasn’t really asking. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Why won’t you look at me?”
Gustave sighed, but did not raise his head. “I’ve… lost the right to face you, and your mother.”
“This has nothing to do with rights,” Annette spat, her face red and tears threatening to spill, “this has to do with right and wrong. I am your daughter.”
“But I am no father,” Gustave said, so quietly Felix almost missed it.
“But you could be.” Annette was pleading, and Felix’s heart hurt in ways that made no sense. Why wasn’t she still angry? Why wouldn't her father fight for her, or at least fucking look at her when he spoke?
Gustave was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Annette.”
“Don’t apologize to me.” Annette was well and truly crying now, tears spilling down her face. “Apologize to Mom. She’s been waiting for you all this time. God only knows why.”
“I’m sorry, Annette,” Gustave said again, and he finally, finally looked to his daughter’s distraught face. “But I cannot. I know you don’t understand, but it’s just how things have to be.”
“That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard,” Annette said, and Felix’s chest swelled with pride.
“Good evening, miss,” Gustave said, nodding to Annette. “Fraldarius.” And to Felix, as well.
And then he was gone, slipping between crowds of people until they lost sight of even his flaming red hair.
Annette was still standing frozen in place, her hands balled into useless fists at her sides. Noiseless tears slid down her face, and her shattered expression was just too hard to take. As gently as he possibly could, Felix steered her away from the crowds, into the shadow of one of the lesser-liked midway games. She was barely arm’s length away, and he could see every tear clinging to her eyelashes.
“Do you wanna go after him?” Felix asked, and winced when it prompted a fresh wave of tears.
“What’s the point?” Annette asked, her usually cheerful, bright voice small and broken. “He doesn’t want me.”
Something heavy and instinctive roared in his chest, screamed at him to protect, to defend. “And he’s a fucking idiot.” Even Felix was surprised at the fierceness in his voice.
Annette managed the ghost of a smile, and then she was tucking herself against his chest, burying her face in his collarbone. “Thanks,” she mumbled against him.
He had been right, earlier. She fit perfectly into his arms. “Don’t mention it.”
And he held her there while she cried, smoothing her hair back and drawing loose, calming circles on her back the way his father used to when Felix had cried as a child.
After what felt like an eternity, Annette’s breathing steadied. She squeezed him tightly, and then stepped back. But she didn’t let go completely, and Felix basked in it.
“He knew you,” she said.
Felix shook his head. “No, he doesn’t. He probably knows my dad, who I look just like.”
“Oh.” Annette was no longer looking at him.
Felix tried to channel Ingrid and read what Annette needed before she even knew herself, but it was like trying to read a language he didn’t speak. “What do you need?” Felix asked instead. “Do you want to go home, or meet up with the others?”
Annette’s face suddenly grew fierce. “I’m not leaving.”
She stepped away from him, and it was all Felix could do to let her. She scrubbed at her eyes, wiping globs of mascara away. Felix had a horrible moment of what did you do to my shirt before remembering that it was black. He looked down anyway, just to confirm.
He then had a second, horrible realization: “Oh my god, I never told the group chat.”
Annette steered them through the crowd as he put together a group chat with Aymr and Dedue.
Felix: I found her. Where are you all?
Caspar: Thank fuck!
Felix snorted. Leave it to Caspar to break a mood.
Petra: I am so glad she is safe!
Edelgard: Hubert and I are in the biergarten near the dueling ring! We have your beers, Felix and Annette
Dedue: I am adding Mercedes to the chat.
Cue a stream of texts from an unknown number, and Felix glanced up to tell Annette, “I think Mercedes was worried about you.”
Annette blushed again, and hung her head sheepishly. “I’m sure. I need to tell her I’m sorry.” She paused, and then looked to Felix. “I’m… also sorry I was so harsh to you, earlier.”
Felix cocked an eyebrow. “You do know who I am as a person, right?”
Annette laughed, really laughed. “You still didn’t deserve it. You were just worried.”
“Shut up,” said Felix.
Annette didn’t really perk up until rounded up their friends and found Edelgard and Hubert at a table in the biergarten with Dedue and Mercedes. The blonde girl was immediately on her feet and running to Annette, mother hen-ing and asking a million questions.
“I’m fine, Mercie,” Annette inputted, “I really am. Felix was there; he’ll tell you.”
Mercedes looked at him over Annette’s shoulder, and Felix saw flint in those blue-grey eyes. If he lied here, Mercedes would never trust him, and he was not dumb enough to get Annette’s best friend on his bad side. So he shook his head slowly, saying nothing.
Something softened in Mercedes’ stare, just a little, and Felix felt like he’d just passed some kind of test. “Well, I’m glad you’re safe, Annie,” Mercedes said. “Come eat something. We got a pretzel and they’re to die for.”
It was a strange combination of people—Aymr, half of Aegis, Mercedes, and Dedue—but the rowdy crew of misfits quickly knitted itself around Annette. Nobody pried, but everyone could tell she was hurting. And so Caspar told stories of dumb fights he’d been in, Edelgard told stories of office shenanigans, and Mercedes asked after the bands and their preparations for Carnage.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Edelgard said, flipping through something on her phone a moment, “the official flyers are out. Check it.”
Felix didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he let it out in a glorious whoop. There was Aegis’ logo, sitting proudly on the edge of the paper alongside the others’—Aymr, The Watchers, a couple of comedians and bands that were probably nothing like his (given the logos), and Atrocity. But not even Dimitri could ruin this moment.
“You actually got us in?” Felix asked, incredulous.
Edelgard gave an exaggerated shrug and sipped her beer. It was Hubert who said, “It was the strangest thing. They had originally asked Thyrsus to play, but their lead singer came down with a horrible case of mono a few days ago.” He coughed, and took a delicate sip of beer. “Tragic, really.”
Annette blinked a few times, the movement a wee bit slower than usual given how deep in her cups she was. “Are you implying that you gave—”
“Arundel your names?” Hubert inputted. “Indeed.”
Felix cackled along with the rest of Aymr, and continued trying to drown how much he liked seeing Annette in his jacket with beer after beer after beer.
It wasn’t working.
Today's chapter is brought to you by "Claim Your Weapons" by Christian Reindl
Felix was not home when Ingrid and Sylvain returned on Sunday afternoon. He was not home when they came in, not speaking to each other, and he was not home when Ingrid left barely twenty minutes later.
When he did come home, it was with groceries, and Ingrid was not there. There was only a very dazed Sylvain, absentmindedly eating popcorn on the couch and watching some terrible, made-for-TV SciFi movie.
“Oi, come help with the groceries,” Felix told him.
“Oh.” Sylvain blinked a few times, as if Felix had startled him. “Yeah, sure.”
It didn’t take long for the two of them to drag everything in, but putting it away proved to be, apparently, quite the challenge. The third time Sylvain tried to put a box of pasta the fridge, Felix folded his arms, leaned against the kitchen counter, and said without preamble, “The fuck is your problem?”
“Huh?” Sylvain dropped the can of tomato sauce he was holding, and both boys had to jerk sideways to avoid getting their toes flattened. “I’m fine.”
Felix just fixed him in an amber-eyed stare, and waited.
At first, Sylvain tried to avoid his gaze and put away more groceries, but the drummer had never liked being scrutinized, even and especially by Felix and Ingrid. He eventually gave up, set a jar of peanut butter on the counter with more force than was strictly necessary, and said, “Ingrid is mad at me.”
Felix’s brow furrowed. “And that’s news?”
“No, Fe,” Sylvain said, “she’s like, genuinely mad.”
Felix narrowed his eyes. “What did you do?”
Sylvain looked like he wanted to melt into the floor. “Okay, look, I know we don’t really talk about girls—er, I mean, I talk, you listen—but I think we genuinely need to talk about girls because Ingrid is so mad she isn’t speaking to me, and do you have any idea how awkward an hour long car ride is with someone who isn’t speaking to you?”
“Yes,” Felix interrupted. “And you haven’t answered me. What. Did. You. Do?”
“I kissed her.”
The silence stretched between like a spiderweb.
“That’s it?” Felix asked. “Jesus, I was expecting something way worse.”
“Uh, it’s still bad!” Sylvain said. “She isn’t talking to me, and is studying in a Starbucks. A Starbucks, Fe!”
Felix visibly cringed. That really was bad; the only thing Ingrid hated more than boys who thought they knew more than her was noise when she was studying.
“Start over from the beginning,” Felix said.
Sylvain sighed, and pushed his fingers through his bangs. They flopped back down over his forehead a moment later. “Ingrid asked me to go to the wedding with her because she got a plus one and knew that I would have more fun than you would.”
“Valid,” said Felix. “Plus, there’s fewer rumors with you.”
“She didn’t exactly say that, but…” Sylvain made a face. “Anyway, on the car ride over she told me she hoped I didn’t think this was a date-date, and so I said, ‘Not if you don’t want it to be.’”
Felix made a face and then shrugged. “That sounds healthy, all things considered.”
“I know! But she gives me this weird look like I’ve said something wrong.”
Felix could only offer another, slightly more confused shrug.
Sylvain made an annoyed face. “So I was thinking to myself like, ‘Okay, that answers that. You’ll still go and have a good time, and free beer is best beer.’”
Felix winced. He could already see the oncoming train.
“But then…” Sylvain trailed off, sighed, and then started over. “Weddings make people sentimental, you know? And she’s just so damn pretty, whether or not she’s even wearing any make up, and I couldn’t keep my damn mouth shut, so I told her that, and then... well. I told you why she’s mad at me.”
Felix tried to mentally piece together what exactly would have upset Ingrid. He could think of several things offhand, but mostly, “You definitely surprised her, and probably embarrassed her. Apologize, and go from there.”
Sylvain was full-on puppy dog pouting in the exact way that had irritated Felix ever since they were kids. “But what if I fucked everything up?” Sylvian said, his voice very small. “What if she moves out, and we never see her again, and we have to find a new bassist and don’t get to play Carnage…”
“She isn’t moving out or leaving the band,” Felix interrupted, “and we'll definitely see her again. You just need to make your intentions clear, and then see what her answer is.”
Sylvain drew in a shaky breath. “I... don’t know how to do that, Fe.”
Felix scowled. “It’s easy. You walk up to her and say, ‘Hey Ingrid, by the way, I’ve kinda sorta been in love with you since we were seventeen and would love to take you out sometime?’”
Sylvain laughed, but it sounded more like he’d been punched in the gut. “And you’re such an expert, mister can’t-stop-staring-at-Annette?”
Felix busied himself with the groceries again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh?” Sylvain was enjoying this, wasn't he? Bastard. “I see you at practice, bro. And, I have… this!” He scrolled through something on his phone, and then held it out triumphantly.
It was a screenshot of a snap from last night, at Oktoberfest. Sylvain had told him to get one of those boots for him, and Felix has sent back a shot of him glaring at the camera, glass boot to his lips and arm around Annette. She was laughing, her face just inches from his. The caption read DONT TELL ME WHAT TO DO.
“The hell did you save that?” was Felix’s first question.
“Because it’s hilarious, first of all,” Sylvain said. “Second of all, because it’s proof.”
“Of what?” Acid dripped from Felix’s tongue.
“You like Annette.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Felix. “And wasn’t this about you and Ingrid?”
“Yeah, but I’m remembering the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. Which is, you. Like. Annette.” He jabbed a finger to Felix’s chest with each word.
Felix slapped his hand away. “Fuck off.”
“Grumpy-ass Felix likes super-sunshiny Annette. It’s fucking adorable,” Sylvain said earnestly. “It’s also literally never happened before. We were starting to wonder if you were ace or…”
“I said, fuck off!”
“Which would be okay, too!” Sylvain continued as if Felix hadn’t spoken. “It just didn’t sit right on you for some reason, but I…”
“Sylvain, I’m serious. Fuck. Off.”
Sylvain stared at Felix for a long moment, something unreadable in his usually cheerful expression.
“It’s okay,” Sylvain finally said, with quiet concern. “I’m poking fun because that’s what friends do. But Annette is pretty, and smart, and doesn’t take your shit or get offended at what you say. So really, she’s everything you, specifically, could ask for in a girlfriend.”
“Now who’s giving hypocritical advice?” Felix snapped.
“I mean,” said Sylvain, “I feel like I’ve been in enough bad relationships to know a good one when I see it.”
“We’re not in a relationship,” Felix pointed out. He knew it was pedantic but he also didn’t care. “She’s the singer in my band.”
“Ooooh-kay,” said Sylvain in a tone that suggested the complete opposite. “So you’re telling me that you don’t…?”
At that point, the front door banged open, sending Sylvain yelping to his room to hide.
“Hey!” Ingrid called.
“Hey,” Felix shouted back, “Galatea! You and I still need to have a chat.”
Ingrid froze, her backpack thumping hard against her back. “I have clusters this week and really need to study.”
Felix folded his arms across his chest, feeling his hackles raise. “That isn’t my problem.”
“Oh, so my dreams of being a pharmacist mean nothing to you?” Ingrid fired off.
“Our friendship,” Felix corrected, “means something to me.”
Ingrid’s face twisted as though in pain, and then, defeated, she set her backpack down by the door with a heavy thud.
“Alright,” she said quietly, coming over to the kitchen. “Alright.”
Felix felt his hackles raise, felt fury building in his chest. “How long did you know?” His words cut like ice.
Ingrid’s face twisted again. “I saw his name on the teaching roster when I was looking at classes for this year and put two and two together.”
Felix’s eyes shot open wide. “Since last semester? You have known that asshole walks among us since last spring? And you didn’t warn us? What the hell kind of--”
“I chose to let sleeping dogs lie,” Ingrid interrupted sharply.
Felix’s teeth were ground so tightly together he felt something shift in his molars. “You chose to lie to me.”
“There you go again, making everything black and white!” Ingrid was shaking, her hands balled into fists. “What would you have done if I’d told you last spring? What could you possibly have gained? You already don’t listen to a damn thing I say about Dimitri; you weren’t going to do any better knowing he may or may not be in town.”
“I’m sure as hell not listening to you now!” Felix thundered. “And there you go again, thinking you know what’s best for everyone else, never letting them choose, never letting them decide, just being your perfect self--”
“I never claimed I was perfect,” Ingrid shouted, “just that I think about my actions before I take them!”
Why was it so difficult not to argue with Ingrid? How did they always manage knock-down, drag-outs when neither of them really intended it? Felix would never know. Maybe it was because she was the sister he’d never had.
Would never have.
“You’re just like fucking Glenn,” Felix growled. “Telling me to think for myself, and then making decisions for me.”
“Don’t you dare bring him into this!” Ingrid was now crying, as well as yelling. Capital, Felix had fucked up on all accounts.
“And who should I bring in, instead, Sylvain?”
A sharp, resounding crack across the kitchen told Felix he’d been slapped long before the pain in his face did.
“Don’t be cruel,” Ingrid snapped.
Felix itched to hit back, to bleed. “Don’t break your fucking promises.”
“What on God’s green Earth--”
“What did we promise after Dimitri left?” Felix didn’t give her the time to think. “No more secrets. No more lies. No more bullshit.”
Ingrid stumbled backwards, as if he really had hit her back. Her shoulders caved in, her eyeliner streaking silently down her face. She was staring at him in open-mouthed shock, hand to her heart as if in pain.
“You’ve no right to criticize me.” Ingrid tried to reach her previous levels of anger, and failed. “I hear you pacing your floors at three in the morning. I see those bags under your eyes. I know you buried your fencing foil in your closet a year ago and haven’t touched it since.”
“What’s it to you?” Felix snapped. “I’m at practice on time and haven’t broken my fingers yet.”
Exasperation filtered through Ingrid’s expression, and all at once, she looked more like herself. “I know you aren’t taking care of yourself, Fe. I just... didn’t want to add to your burdens. Goodness knows you have enough.”
Felix felt something sharp twist in his guts, and then, just as suddenly, it loosened. He felt something warm suddenly fall on his face. “You don’t have to protect me, Ingrid.”
“Of course I do,” she said. “I don’t want to lose anyone anymore.”
There were only about four people in the world that Felix would let hug him, and Ingrid was one of them. So when she held out her tired arms, Felix huffed an annoyed sigh and allowed himself to be squeezed. (He would never admit it was sort of nice, being cared about like that.)
“You’re a dumbass,” Felix said.
“I value my friends,” Ingrid said, giving one more squeeze and then letting go. “If looking out for them makes me a dumbass, then so be it.”
“You’re also insufferable,” Felix told her.
Ingrid shot him a watery grin in reply.
Today's chapter is brought to you by "Crawling" by Dream State
She should have known this would be a terrible idea.
Carnage was this weekend , and Annette still had two days of work to get through. She had made the mistake of saying she was nervous at band practice earlier this evening, and Sylvain, bless him, had suggested she watch some bootlegs on YouTube to get a feel for what kind of frontwoman she wanted to be.
It was a good idea, all told. Sylvain just had no idea what kind of researcher Annette was.
So now it was almost 2 in the morning, and Annette was fixated on video after video of singers she wanted to be like. First had been the obvious ones—Metallica and Volbeat and Avenged Sevenfold—and then she’d had the thought of looking into Aymr, which had turned into being overwhelmed by just how good Edelgard was, which had spurred the YouTube rabbit hole by which she’d wound up watching old Aegis and Black Iron Spurs shows.
In Black Iron Spurs, a boy who looked remarkably like Felix dazzled crowds with guitar riffs and a low bass voice. He was hard rock incarnate, with long black hair, sleeves of tattoos, and a killer smile. He was a frontman who grabbed you by the face and demanded your attention, whether you’d intended to give it or not.
In Aegis, Dimitri was a force of nature, a blond man with a deep, booming voice who commanded the floor with the stage presence of a king. It was a far cry from the quiet boy who’d sat behind Black Iron Spurs’ drumkit. And Annette found herself wondering, not for the first time, what exactly his falling out with Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain had been.
I will never measure up, Annette thought miserably as Dimitri paced the stage like a caged beast. I’ll be the worst frontwoman ever and we’ll completely suck at Carnage and then everyone will hate me and Felix will never talk to me again.
She buried her face in the couch cushions as tears threatened to fall.
How could she possibly have thought she could do this? She was small, and bright, and frequently referred to as adorable. She didn’t have a booming voice and a commanding personality. She was just… Annette. Full time broke-ass grad school student, part time tutor, and part time voice teacher. Her clothes were shabby and conservative, her hair was violently orange, and there was nothing special about her.
Auditioning for Aegis had been a terrible mistake. She should call Ingrid right now and let her know. Ingrid would understand, right? Sylvain wouldn’t and Felix wouldn’t, but surely Ingrid would? She was far kinder than the boys. But she always looked so sad, when she thought no one was looking. Annette wasn’t sure how she could break the news to her without making that worse.
Maybe Sylvain, then? He was bright and cheerful, although he’d probably dated most every eligible woman in the tri-state area (and even a few that weren’t). His demeanor reminded Annette of when Crusher had been a puppy, and with that thought came the memory of all the times she’d had to shut the door on a pouting bulldog when she’d had to leave the apartment.
Okay, okay, Sylvain was no good. Felix, then?
Oh, but Felix would stare her down with those sharp, amber eyes, and whatever fell out of his mouth would be heart-wrenchingly cold and biting. Who the fuck do you think you are, dropping out on us?
No, she absolutely couldn’t disappoint Felix, either. Not when they’d worked so hard on Phantom.
Annette’s head snapped up at the sound of her nickname and she yanked out her headphones, only to find one very concerned Mercedes von Martritz just coming through the front door. She must have been baking pastries on the third shift; she still had flour in her hair.
“Annie?” Mercedes repeated, concern growing in her expression. “What’s wrong?”
Annette struggled to find her voice for a moment, during which Mercedes kicked off her nonslip sneakers and came over to their beat up couch.
“Annette,” Mercedes said, more firmly the third time.
“I’m doomed,” Annette croaked.
Mercedes blinked. “Nonsense. What could you even be doomed about?”
“Why would you be doomed about that? The weather sounds like it should hold off, and Dedue and I will both be there to cheer you on.” Mercedes’ smile was tired, but genuine. “And you’ve been so terribly excited all month about it. Why the…” Mercedes paused to look for a word. Upon finding none, she just gestured to Annette, who was still hunched over her phone on the couch. “...this, now?”
“Did you know Dimitri Blaiddyd used to sing for Aegis?” Annette said.
“Yes, I did. I’m dating his best friend, remember?”
“Oh.” Annette turned an embarrassed shade of red, but pressed on. “Well then you know. I don’t have that kind of charisma. Or that kind of voice. Or that kind of…”
“Annette,” Mercedes interrupted, gently but firmly, “He’s the former governor’s son. Those things surely come as naturally to him as breathing.”
“His breathing is also perfect,” Annette inputted, “in case you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t, but I believe you.” Mercedes gave a small, tired laugh. “My point is, you have things that come just as naturally to you . Comparing yourself to a large, blond man isn’t going to do either of you justice. “
“But I’ll ruin everything,” Annette got out in a tiny, rushed whisper.
“No, you won’t,” said Mercedes immediately. “Why on earth would you say that?”
Annette glanced down at her phone again. She could still see Dimitri commanding the stage, albeit soundlessly given the lack of earbuds.
“Because I’m the furthest thing from Metal that there could possibly be,” Annette said. “I’m small, and cute, and actually listen to the rules, and…”
“And Aegis chose you anyway,” Mercedes interrupted.
Annette stopped dead in her tracks. “What?”
“They know you’re all those things,” Mercedes said. “They saw that you’re those things. But they chose you anyway. Which means they see something metal in you.”
It sounded ridiculous coming from Mercedes, whose usual playlist consisted of relaxed, indie bands, but it still held the authority of a best friend. Could she be right? Could Aegis have seen something?
“Believe in them,” Mercedes said, “if you can't believe in you.”
That… sounded doable. Aegis knew what they were doing. Sylvain certainly had confidence to spare, and Ingrid was always so cool, so focused. And Annette hadn’t missed the way Felix tended to watch her when she sang. Surely he would have said something by now if she were were terrible? He usually did.
“Now stop making yourself feel worse.” Mercedes jerked Annette’s phone out of her hands with one smooth, practiced motion. “And go to bed. You’ve got a show to do this weekend and you want to be awake for it.”
Annette made a show of being annoyed about her phone, but then she softened. “Thanks, Mercie.”
Mercedes smiled, and it was as brilliant as the sun. “That’s what best friends are for! And besides.” She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial pitch, as if there were anyone else in their apartment. “They have to like you.”
Annette blinked. “What makes you say that?”
“Because Felix does.”
Annette choked on her own spit, coughing and spluttering. “What?”
“I saw the way he looked at you during Oktoberfest,” Mercedes said, hands on her hips and matter-of-factly. “He wouldn’t be looking at you like that if he thought you were a terrible singer.”
“Like what?” Annette asked.
“You know, like you’re the only person in the room.”
Annette had seen that look. It was the same one Dedue gave Mercie when he thought she wasn’t looking.
“You’re joking,” Annette said immediately.
Mercedes’ eyes widened. “Annie, I would never!” She held out Annette’s phone as a peace offering. “It’s so hard for people to care about each other sometimes. Why would I joke about it?”
Annette took her phone back, and looked away. “Because it doesn’t make any sense. He’s so good-looking, and talented, and I’m just…”
Mercedes’ eyes narrowed. “Annette Fantine Dominic , you had better not say what I think you’re going to say.”
Annette snapped her jaw shut, and started over. “I just… what could he possibly see in me?”
“What I do,” Mercedes said firmly. She held Annette’s tired, stricken gaze for a moment, and then reached out to pull her into a gentle hug. “Do you want me to call your boss tomorrow and say you’re throwing up or something and can’t come in?”
“No, I’m going to work.” Embarrassed, Annette squeezed back and then pulled away. “Honestly at this point I might just stay up until I have to leave…”
“No,” said Mercedes. “You’re going to bed.”
Annette sighed. “This is what I get for rooming with the mom friend, isn’t it?”
Today's chapter is brought to you by "Massive Addictive" by Amaranthe
Backstage at the Carnage festival thrummed with energy.
Partially literally, as bands continued to take the stage deeper into the evening, and partially metaphorically, as nothing amped up musicians quite like a live show.
Annette was practically bouncing off the walls of the backstage tent, and Sylvain had already talked to everyone back there at least twice. Ingrid was doing her best to calm the two of them down, and although Felix had been helping at first, he had quickly reached the limits of his patience. With more than an hour until their set time, he said something to his bandmates about taking a walk, and disappeared out of the tent.
That was when the end began.
The cool night air hit him immediately, and he drew in a grateful breath. The backstage tent was too crowded, too stuffy. It thrummed with nervous energy that was both infectious and irritating. Felix, however, was not the only one with the same thought.
He dodged Dorothea from the Watchers and Professor Jeralt from the faculty band with ease, but even as accomplished a fencer as Felix was, he couldn’t dodge everything.
That was how he came face to face with Dimitri Blaiddyd for the first time in over a year.
“Felix,” he murmured, his low voice completely unchanged, “it’s been a while.”
Fury roared to life in his chest as Felix’s brain scrambled to process. Dimitri had let his wheat blond hair grow long and shaggy, and he seemed to have put on more muscle than Sylvain and Felix combined. He had always been bigger than the other two boys, but somehow Felix now felt dwarfed. Whatever costume Dimitri had for the show consisted of an eye patch, fur-lined cloak (yes, cloak), and fake armor with a blue X over his heart.
But the thing that remained the same was his eyes (well, the one, anyway). Once boldly blue and bright, Dimitri’s visible eye was clouded over, greyer somehow. Dead eyes, Felix remembered thinking last year just before Dimitri had left the band. He has dead eyes.
“Not fucking long enough,” Felix growled, attempting to pivot around his ex-singer.
Dimitri gave a rough sound that was somewhere between a snort and a scoff. “Charming as ever, aren’t you?”
Felix shot around him like a bottle rocket, heading in no particular direction. He refused to look over his shoulder until he’d counted at least a hundred paces, and even then, it was only a quick glance.
He found Dimitri deep in conversation with Edelgard.
Felix wondered what in the hell those two would even have to talk about, especially with their shared parent gone. They seemed perturbed, heads bent and brows furrowed. Felix did his best to squash his curiosity, unwilling to go near Dimitri.
Out onstage, Felix caught a glimpse of Volkhard von Arundel, Carnage’s longtime organizer and benefactor, thanking the crowd for coming out. The man had always reminded Felix of an old timey movie gangster, what with his sleek, dark suits and slicked-back hair. And he was Edelgard’s uncle, apparently? The girl certainly didn’t lack for connections.
“This year’s donations will go to two organizations very dear to my heart,” Arundel was saying, “the Lambert Project and Out of the Dark. There are brochures about both groups at the drink stalls if anyone is interested. And now, please give a warm welcome to comedian Alois Rangeld, who will be our last family act before the bands come on!”
Felix had, of course, heard of the Lambert Project; his father donated to them every year. They petitioned for stricter gun control laws in Fhirdiad and the rest of the tristate area, albeit with lackluster results. They’d tried to get Dimitri involved for years, although the man was unwilling to put his face anywhere for them.
Out of the Dark, though, was a new one. A quick google search told him that they were some sort of political activist group, although the website’s details were vague. Governor Cornelia was a frequent donor, it looked like, plus a few of the teachers at Garreg Mach.
Weird combination of people, Felix thought.
“This is nothing like the sound check,” Annette murmured as Aegis took to the wings, waiting.
“Never is,” Felix told her.
The Carnage stage was set up in one end zone of the Garreg Mach football stadium, with rolling waves of crowds coming and going from food tents set up on the other end, the midway games, and everywhere in between.
“Stick around for a band come back from the dead,” Dorothea was saying at the end of the Watchers’ set, “Garreg Mach’s very own Aegis!”
They took up their places after the Watchers vacated the stage, and Annette didn’t even introduce them. Instead, she simply struck up that first, imposing chord progression to The Phantom of the Opera.
Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain all layered in behind her, all crashing drums, heavy bass, and distorted guitar. The storm on the horizon was kicking up, making the stage coverings snap and billow.
“In sleep, he sang to me,” Annette began, and the crowd—which had been muttering, wandering, as crowds do—was instantly, gratifyingly silenced.
Felix listened hard, feeling a swell of pride bubble in his throat as Annette took to the stage as naturally as a fish to water. She had the grit and she had the power, and now was the time to prove it. He also refused to forget his cue, which he was wont to do if he listened to her for too long, and so he forced himself to watch the crowd, his fingers, Ingrid—anything but her.
And then he stepped up to his mic, still crunching chords and gritting his teeth. “Sing once again with me…”
The wind kicked up again, blowing Felix’s black hair—down and ironed straight for the occasion—about his face and snapping the collar of his jacket against his neck. He could smell the oncoming storm, ozone and fresh rain blooming on the horizon.
The first time his voice swelled towards the sky in harmony with Annette’s, he felt a chill run up his spine, and the crowd was further silenced. The second time, goosebumps erupted across his arms, despite the fact that he was wearing his favorite, hand-me-down, fur-lined jacket in a not-so-subtle political statement as to who, exactly, were the rightful successors to the Black Iron Spurs. Also, it was warm.
The third time, though, Felix became aware that he might actually be fucked.
“Sing for me, Annette,” he ordered into the mic when she hit the coloratura notes at the end of the song. He was supposed to keep encouraging her—that’s what the sheet music said, anyway—but in every single version he’d heard, Felix had always thought that whoever the Phantom was just needed to shut the hell up and let Christine sing.
It was doubly true, when it came to Annette.
“Sing,” he growled a few bars later in a low tone that, afterwards, Dorothea would tell him got even her a little hot under the collar.
Annette hit that last, highest note, with striking precision and beautiful vowels, and Felix felt a heady thrill run down the entire length of his body.
Felix absolutely detested when Sylvain was right. So he shoved the thought away and focused on his guitar.
The crowd was roaring, and Annette was introducing the band in a way that was distinctly unlike Dimitri and made a grin curl across Felix’s face. “We’re Aegis,” she called, “best not forget it.”
First came Don’t Fear the Reaper, and Paint It Black—the easy, crowd-pleasing ones. Sylvain had even bought a cowbell just for the occasion. Then came Udoroth and the Soul Eater Theme Song (for which Annette dropped into cadence-perfect Japanese during the last chorus, and the crowd ate that shit up). Then came Army of the Night and Teenagers, and just as the brewing storm was whipping everything into a frenzy, Annette announced that it was time for an Aegis original.
The first chorus began a cappella, and slowly brought in just the kick drum. Annette’s voice rang clearly in the open air:
“Dead eyes, nothing behind,
Nothing left but a chill inside
You tried to blow their minds
But ended up on the other side.
Dead eyes, nothing inside,
Lost the last bit of your mind.
Fuck your truth and fuck your lies,
Now you’re left on the other side.”
Sylvain punched the drums with ferocity previously unseen, and Felix ripped into a particularly vicious riff. His fingers were already stiff, the heel of his hand chapped and bloody, but he had never felt more alive. Every nerve was a live wire, every breath like liquor, and Felix had begun to pace the stage just like his brother, a wireless pack in his back pocket.
Annette broke into the song for real as if it had always been written for her to sing:
“Nothing new and nothing real,
Did you forget how to feel?
Sit back, say you tried—
We’re just along for the ride.
Face facts, rearrange
Furry coat shot through with mange
Lessons taught and lessons learned
Bridges built and bridges burned
We all know this is the end
But you dare still call us friends
Wink, nudge, fist fist
Boy you made it on our list.”
Annette commanded the stage like she was born to it, like you could do no less than pay her your full attention. It was by sheer force of muscle memory that Felix continued to play. He knew he was staring.
“Dead eyes, nothing behind,
Nothing left but a chill inside
You tried to blow their minds
But ended up on the other side.
Dead eyes, nothing inside,
Lost the last bit of your mind.
Fuck your truth and fuck your lies,
Now you’re left on the other side.”
She was pacing the stage, the jagged hem of her long black skirt whipping about her heavy black boots. They were all wearing Ingrid’s latest t-shirt design, with the Aegis logo splashed across their backs, and a running gag across their chests ("If lost, please return to Ingrid, Annette, or Felix"), so the wind cut through to the quick.
But Felix could have been drinking mulled wine all night, for how warm he felt and how little he cared.
“Something borrowed, something blue,
Tell me something, do you
Even remember it all?
Did you forget in your fall?
Something old and something new,
Last chance, we angry few
Let the fucking games begin:
Break under the weight again.”
It wasn’t very often that Felix wrote himself a solo. The whole thing typically felt too vapid, too self-centered. He and Sylvain had a running gag of turning video game songs into short little metal covers, but that was as much to give the band a break as anything else. But the bridge for Dead Eyes had insisted, if Annette were to be believed, and so he’d taken the last few days to compose something, anything to put in these few bars. His fingers flew across the keyboard, in quick sweeps and runs, in crunching chords and elegant arpeggios, and the crowd roared its approval.
And when the final chorus kicked in, the entire band sang, gang-vocal-style, with Annette:
“Dead eyes, nothing behind,
Nothing left but a chill inside
You tried to blow their minds
But ended up on the other side.
Dead eyes, nothing inside,
Lost the last bit of your mind.
Fuck your truth and fuck your lies,
Now you’re left on the other side.”
The last chord rang through the open air at Carnage, nearly lost in the roar of the crowd. Annette couldn’t hide her smile, and for once, neither could Felix. She was radiant in the stage lights, a goddess, a demon, his angel of music.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” came a voice Felix was rapidly becoming familiar with. “That’s all I have.”
It was Edelgard, deep in conversation with Dimitri again. Something compelled Felix to go completely still, his guitar still slung across his back. He held out a hand to stop Annette, who was dragging part of Sylvain’s drumkit with her, but he hadn’t even needed to. She had also come to a halt, her brow furrowed and cute little nose scrunched.
Stop that, Felix mentally slapped himself, It’s just a nose.
“He’s planning something.” Dimitri’s voice was a low growl.
“I know,” said Edelgard, annoyance creeping into the edges of her voice. “That’s what I’m telling you. The other thing I’m telling you is that I don’t know what.”
“Then keep looking,” Dimitri said.
“No,” said Edelgard, sarcasm dripping on her words. “I planned to stop now.” Exasperated, Edelgard rolled her eyes and looked away, only to find Felix and Annette coming towards them. “Oh, hey Felix, hi Annette!” she called over. “Are we in your way?”
“Yeah,” Felix called back, deadpan as ever.
“Also Atrocity’s on in five, Dimitri,” Annette added in an attempt to be helpful.
It was thwarted by Felix. “Get your ass in gear, Blaiddyd.”
“Right,” the blond man growled. He gave a brusque nod to Edelgard, and then left, brushing past Felix and Annette as if he barely saw them. Annette shivered, but no one knew it wasn’t from the cold.
Dead eyes, Felix thought again. Nothing behind.
For a moment, it looked like Edelgard wanted to say something. Felix and Annette continued to head towards the gear tent, and it was only after visible hesitation that Edelgard said, “You guys killed it out there, by the way. Dead Eyes is a banger.”
“Thanks!” said Annette brightly. “Felix wrote it.”
Edelgard grinned. “I figured.” She paused again, and then went with, “Anyway, let me get out of your hair.”
When it was just Felix and Annette again, hauling equipment to the gear tent, Felix took a moment to study her. He had always seen her energy and fiery red hair, naturally, but was she always so animated? It was as though he were seeing her—really seeing her—for the first time. There was so much motion in her movements, so much life. Trying to watch too long was like staring at the sun.
For the first time in a long time, Felix felt the twang of something deep in his chest that didn’t hurt.
Whatever it was, though, was lost when Annette broke the silence. “He really does have dead eyes.”
Felix shrugged. “I always thought so.” It wasn’t exactly the truth, but it also wasn’t exactly a lie.
Another moment passed, and then Annette said, “Hey Felix, can I ask you something?”
“You just did.” He held open the tent flap for her. Because she was dragging bits of Sylvain’s kit, of course.
Annette giggled, and even that was suddenly melodic. Or had it always been? “That's fair. I have another one, though.”
“Okay?” He would have to teach her to cut to the quick, instead of dancing around things.
Well, maybe just in speech. Her little dances onstage were mesmerizing and the absentminded ones she did in practice were fucking cute.
Nope nope nope. This was not happening. Deny deny deny. It was what Felix was good at, after all.
“What happened with Dimitri, exactly?”
Wait, hold on. This was not happening.
“Nope,” Felix said, crushes be damned.
“That isn’t fair, Felix,” Annette said, exasperation in her voice, but no whining. It stopped Felix cold. “You, Ingrid, and Sylvain all lived through it, and you dance around it and talk without talking about it, and I’m left in the dark.”
He was reminded of what she’d said outside The Golden Deer. It feels like I’m third wheeling a lot, even though there are already three of you.
She was right, damn her. It wasn’t fair.
Felix drew in a tired breath, and bought himself an extra moment to think by fussing with his guitar case. But the lid came down hard, as it always did, the clasps snapped shut tight, as they always did, and then there was nothing standing between him and her.
“Do you know what happened to the Black Iron Spurs?” Felix asked.
Annette folded her arms across her chest. Her shirt, which read I’m Annette in red lettering, moved with the motion. “Not offhand,” she admitted.
Felix sighed, suddenly exhausted under the weight of it. “They played a show, six years ago, at the Duscur Nightclub. Dimitri was their drummer and my…” This was the part that always hurt like hell. “...older brother, Glenn, was their singer and guitarist.”
Recognition shot across Annette’s features. “Oh no,” she breathed. “Wait, I think I do know what happened.”
“There was a shooting,” Felix said numbly. “It was all over the news; you couldn’t escape it. It killed the governor, his wife, a lot of bystanders, and everyone in the Spurs—except Dimitri. And they never even fucking caught the guy.”
A look of horror crossed Annette’s face. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
But Felix only shook his head, too numb to deal with it. “We formed Aegis, after that. We were in high school—well, Ingrid and I were—and it was mostly okay for a while. But Dimitri wasn’t right, and we could see it. Or at least, I could.”
Dimly, Felix became aware that Annette had reached out and was holding his hands. She was squeezing warmth into him by sheer force of will, and all of Felix’s instincts were screaming at him to run, dammit. He compromised by yanking his hands back and folding them across his chest, his own shirt’s Keep him twisting in the motion.
“Last year we played a show in Remire, up past Fhirdiad. Someone in the crowd had their concealed carry, but was too drunk to, y’know, conceal it. When Dimitri saw it, he just… fucking snapped. Went ballistic on the guy; we had to yank him off of him. Dude ended up with a broken jaw and thirteen stitches.”
Annette looked over her shoulder, as if the blond head of Atrocity’s lead singer would suddenly appear at the sound of his name. “Is that how he lost his eye?”
“I think that’s a costume,” Felix said. It hadn’t occurred to him that it might not be.
“Oh,” Annette said. “I wasn’t sure.”
“Anyway, Dimitri quit the band the next day,” Felix said, “fucked off to Fhirdiad, and none of us have really heard from him since.”
At Annette’s silence, Felix felt compelled to add, “So, there you have it. Don’t ask again.” More softly he added, “Please.”
He was suddenly in her arms. She had moved like lighting; Felix hadn’t even seen it. How did she do that?
“I’m so sorry,” Annette murmured into his collarbone, squeezing him with every ounce of force in her body. “I didn’t know.”
It felt weird, to be cared about like this. Felix sort of wished she would stop, and sort of basked in her attention. His heartbeat pounded painfully in his chest, and when he could stand it no longer, he patted her back a few times. Annette, ever the thespian, took her cue to let go.
But the thing in his chest mourned the loss of her softness, her warmth. He was a creature of cold edges, sharp and callous, and he was afraid of cutting too deep. It would do him no good to melt now.
“We should head back,” Annette said. “I want to see Aymr and the faculty band.” Bless her, she was offering him a way out.
He absolutely jumped on that shit. “My old fencing coach is in the faculty band this year; I would have paid to see that.”
He didn’t miss how Annette studied him on the way back, her blue eyes boring holes in him. Part of him wanted to call her out on it, but part of him was also giddy she cared so much. He wondered what she saw.
It was not the two gut-droppingly familiar figures patrolling the backstage area, though. And even Felix saw those a little too late.
“Go that way,” Felix ordered, catching Annette’s elbow and trying to steer them away from certain disaster.
“What?” Annette asked.
“I said—” Felix began, but it was too late.
“Felix!” called one of the figures.
The guitarist froze, his free hand clenching at his side. “Shit,” he muttered. Annette went still beneath his hand.
Gustave and Rodrigue were on them in an instant. “It’s good to see you, son,” Rodrigue said, giving Felix a hearty clap on the shoulder.
Of course, it was the Seiros Security Company on guard duty for Carnage. They were the best private security force money could buy, and Arundel was hardly the type to spare expense. There was no reason for them not to be here, especially with this town’s history of mass shootings at fucking concerts.
That didn’t make it hurt less, though.
“Hi, dad,” Felix muttered. Never mind his own discomfort, he needed to get Annette out of here. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Rodrigue didn’t miss the inflection—he never did—but he let it pass without comment. “You’re looking more and more like your brother, up there.”
And I’m still not him, Felix wanted to shout. “Thanks, I guess.”
Rodrigue was more than used to his son stonewalling him in conversation. He was almost as much a natural at drawing words out of the surly young man as his bandmates were. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
Felix’s eyes narrowed. Was his father that dense? “Are you?” Felix shot back.
Annette’s eyes flashed helplessly at him—a warning sign not to take this too far, please please please—but Felix, for once, wasn’t looking at her.
“This is Gilbert Pronislav,” Rodrigue said, gallantly. “Gilbert, this is my younger son, Felix.”
“We’ve met,” Gilbert said, shortly.
Your only son, Felix wanted to say to Rodrigue. “This is Annette Dominic,” he said instead. “She’s the new singer for Aegis.”
Recognition crossed Rodrigue’s face; he hid it behind his manners. “A pleasure to meet you, Annette. How long have you been with the band?”
“A few months, now.” Annette may have been startled, but the one thing that never failed her was her voice. “This was our first real show, though.” She glanced to Felix, a hint of desperation in her expression.
He would bear the brunt of his father’s ire later. “We need to finish helping Sylvain take down the rest of his kit,” Felix said. “And don’t you have patrols or something to do? Be a shame if another Duscur happened on your watch.”
Gilbert/Gustave/Whoever-He-Was staggered like he’d been physically struck, and Rodrigue’s sharp blue eyes landed on Felix with all the force of every single childhood lecture. “I will not tolerate this from you,” Rodrigue snapped.
“You don’t have to tolerate shit,” Felix said, grabbing Annette’s arm again. “We’re leaving.”
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Fraldarius!” Annette called over her shoulder as she allowed herself to be pulled away by Felix, waving as she went.
Rodrigue’s exasperated sigh chased Felix and Annette across the end zone.
“You didn’t have to go that far,” Annette muttered, mostly to herself.
Felix could only blink at her in surprise. “I piss off my dad every time I see him. Really, it’s par for the course.”
“I meant the bit about Duscur,” Annette said. “My father was on duty that night, guarding the governor.”
He really was a natural-born asshole, wasn’t he?
“Well,” said Felix after a moment, “it’s not like he doesn’t deserve a kick in the ass, too.”
Annette laughed, just a little, breathless thing. “I wish I had half your courage.”
Felix felt his face go up in flames. “It’s not courage, it’s not giving a fuck. I can teach you sometime, if you want.”
Annette laughed again, this time much more full-throated and natural and it set Felix’s heart more at ease. “Maybe I’ll hold you to that.”
Felix smirked. “Maybe I’ll let you.”
God, he was so fucked.
Setlist for this chapter includes:
Phantom of the Opera here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giKRecwNJxM
Don’t Fear the Reaper https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMovgqqRC0w
Paint It Black here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7jVO6OfH0w
Udoroth here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lClUC2Kw4hg
Resonance, the Soul Eater Theme Song here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8wTmqSby0E
Army of the Night here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LzfNk28K-0
Teenagers here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faG5mmkDbyc
maybe one day I'll make a garage band version of Aegis' song, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Happy listening :)
Chapter 10: The One Where Holidays Suck
Chapter Nine: The One Where Holidays Suck
October bled into November, and suddenly Felix, Ingrid and Sylvain were flooded with texts of what are you doing for Thanksgiving? Christmas? Your birthday ten years from now? from all fronts.
Parents were exhausting.
Sylvain said so one evening at band practice, and although everyone laughed, Annette’s was melancholy.
“Something the matter, Annie?” Ingrid asked. Felix was irrationally annoyed that she beat him to the punch, even though he knew that if he had asked, Sylvain and Ingrid would never let him hear the end of it.
Annette sighed, and gave a little shrug. “I just haven’t been home for the holidays--Thanksgiving or Christmas--since I came to Garreg Mach, is all.”
Sylvain blinked a few times in surprise. “Well, what do you do, then?”
Annette sighed. “Thanksgiving, I’m usually working. Christmas, I used to do stuff with Mercedes and her mom, but since she’s dating Dedue now, it’s kinda weird.”
“Wait, hold up,” Sylvain said. “You don’t do anything? For either holiday?”
Annette could only offer a small, sheepish shrug. “I can’t afford to go home. The flights are always too expensive.”
Felix startled everyone when he leapt to his feet. “I’ve got a phone call to make,” he said. “Back in a minute.”
Understanding glinted in Ingrid’s eyes, but if she filled in Sylvain and Annette, Felix would never know. He was taking the stairs to the family room two at a time, mentally steeling himself for whatever was about to greet him on teh other end of the line.
His father answered on the third ring. “Captain Rodrigue Fraldarius speaking, what can I do for you?”
“Hi, dad,” Felix said. “It’s me.”
“Oh, Felix.” There was careful surprise in Rodrigue’s voice. “I’m surprised to hear from you.”
“Yeah, I know, I heard it. Listen, about Thanksgiving, who all is coming this year?”
“Oh, well.” If Rodrigue was surprised before, he was downright shocked, now. “Your aunt and uncle and cousins, of course. Plus the Galateas, minus Frode and his family. The Gautiers will be there, possibly Rufus Blaiddyd...” Felix could practically see his father ticking off names on his fingers. “You and Ingrid and Sylvain, possibly a few members of the force who won’t be able to go home for the short holiday. Why do you ask?”
It was the usual suspects. There would be nothing too weird about what he was about to ask, right? The thought occurred to him that maybe he should have run it by Ingrid or Sylvain first, but it was too late now.
Felix drew in a deep breath. “Annette doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
Silence fell across the line.
“Is there something I should know?” Rodrigue said after that long, agonizing moment.
Felix’s brow furrowed. “No…?”
“Hmm.” It was noncommittal, but Felix felt like he was somehow missing something. “Well, in any case, tell Annette she’s welcome to celebrate with us. There will be plenty of food, and she and Ingrid can always share a guest room.”
Was it… really that easy?
“Okay,” said Felix after a dazed moment. “Cool.”
“Oh, and Felix?” Rodrigue didn’t wait for his son to respond. “It’s good to hear from you.”
“I’ll see you at Thanksgiving,” Felix said, and hung up.
Back downstairs, Felix’s feet didn’t even hit the landing before he announced, “You’re coming with us, Annette.”
Annette turned almost as red as her hair. “I’m what?”
“I thought that’s what you might be doing,” Ingrid said. She was smiling and nodding her approval. (Although he would never admit it, Felix was secretly relieved.)
“We go to the Fraldarius’ every year, Annie,” Sylvain said. “Felix’s dad always hosts Thanksgiving ‘cause…” Sylvain trailed off. He glanced to Felix, as if asking for permission.
Felix snorted. “Because Fraldarius manor is uncomfortably quiet without a million fuckin’ people in it.” His edges softened, just a little, when he added, “Or at least, y’know, my mom and Glenn.”
“So my family always goes,” Ingrid said, not giving anyone (least of all herself or Felix) the chance to dwell, “and Dimitri and his dad usually went, and after a while, Sylvain’s family usually went.”
“Plus my cousins,” Felix said. “You’ll fit right in.”
Annette was overcome with two emotions at once, the first being just overwhelmed . She still felt like a third wheel sometimes, but clearly, her bandmates cared about her enough to make sure she wasn’t alone on Thanksgiving. That alone would have made her feel like crying.
The second was panic, though, since: “I don’t know if I can get off work this late.”
“You said you’ve worked every holiday previously, right?” Sylvain said. “Tell ‘em to fuck off; you’ve earned one.”
“Agreed,” said Felix, looping his guitar strap over his head again.
“I, um.” Annette looked down at her mules, which were scuffed at the toes and falling apart at the heels. “Don’t know if I can afford not to.”
“We won’t let you starve or go homeless for taking a break,” Ingrid said, and Felix and Sylvain immediately agreed.
“I don’t want your money,” Annette said stubbornly.
“Then we’ll give it to Mercedes,” Felix said, “but the point remains.”
Annette narrowed her eyes at him, and said, after a moment, “You're a dick, Felix.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “We’ve been over this.”
Sylvain broke into laughter. “Hey Annette, couldn’t you just take on a few more voice lessons the following week to make up for it?”
Annette groaned, and covered her face with her hands. “I barely break even on those. I can’t imagine taking on any more.”
A sudden and uncharacteristic silence fell across the basement. Felix leaned forward over his guitar, as if catching the scent of something. “What are you charging?” he asked, his voice suddenly low and dangerous.
Annette suppressed a shiver. “Sixty bucks an hour.”
Sylvain dropped a drumstick in shock, sending it to the floor with a mighty crash, and Ingrid’s jaw hung open in surprise.
“Double it,” Felix ordered at once.
“I can’t do that!” Annette said. “I’ll lose clients.”
“Yeah,” said Felix, “shitty clients. They’re paying you not just for your time, but also for your education and expertise. Trust me. Double it.”
“As usual,” Ingrid said, finding her voice with a sigh, “he's not wrong, he’s just unpleasant about it.”
“Felix and I are both freelancers too, Annie,” Sylvain said. “We know it’s kinda hard to gauge what you’re worth, but we promise, you’re undercharging.”
“You can also do some googling and see what other people charge for the same service,” Felix added, “since I can see you don’t believe me.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Annette said, “I just… don’t think I’m worth that much.”
Fury roared to life in Felix’s chest. What fuckhead made her think like that? “Then triple it.”
Annette squeaked in surprise. “Are you crazy?”
“Doubling is probably a good start,” Sylvain said. “Seriously, Annette, what’s your degree in?”
She studied her scruffy shoes again, and them mumbled, “Music pedagogy and performance.”
“Bingo,” said Sylvain. “Just do it. You’ll thank us later.”
Felix was startled awake late one night by his phone ringing right near his ear. It took him a few tries to grab it, and mutter a very muted, very grumpy, “What the fuck?”
“Felix. It is Dedue.”
Felix blinked a few times, trying to push sand out of his eyes. “The fuck? It’s…” He squinted at his alarm clock through the gloom. “... three in the morning.”
“I am sorry to wake you, but it is urgent, and Sylvain and Ingrid did not answer. ”
Felix smooshed the side of his face into his pillow again, setting his phone on his cheek so that it just laid there and he could bring his arms back under the covers. “Yeah, they’re asleep. Like I’d like to be.”
Felix wasn’t certain, but he could have sworn he heard a faint laugh from the other end.
“It is Dimitri.” Dedue wisely did not give that the chance to sink in. “I returned home from the third shift and cannot find him.”
Felix felt a momentary pang of pity for the poor soul who had to work third shift with a roommate like Atrocity’s frontman. “Is his car there?” he asked. Dimitri had, once upon a time, been known to take off at night to just go aimlessly driving. It had spooked Rodrigue on more than one occasion.
“Yes. As are his keys.”
Felix blinked a few times. “Are his boots at the door?” Dimitri also went for walks at inconvenient times, If memory served.
There was a moment of silence and some soft footsteps, and then Dedue said, “It appears so.”
One more thing came to mind. “Well, is he in the bathroom?”
And why was he helping, anyway? His groggy brain was finally catching up to the rest of him. What did he care if Dimitri went AWOL? They weren’t friends anymore.
“The light is off.”
“That doesn't mean shit,” Felix heard himself say. “Check the shower.”
Unbidden, Felix recalled how, more than once, he’d found Dimitri in a dark bathroom, fully clothed and crouched in the coldest water he could physically stand, staring dead-eyed at something no one else could see. Ghosts, maybe, or the Duscur Nightclub.
Felix tried to scrub the memory from his eyes, with less success than his spite would have hoped. All he came away with was more sand.
Quiet thuds from the other end of the line told Felix that Dedue was on the move. Then came some knocking, and a “Dimitri?” far from the receiver but loudly enough to hear.
“Just fucking open it,” Felix said, exasperated and uncaring as to whether Dedue could hear him or not. “Have you never been in a locker room before?”
The door cracked on the other end of the line, and then a surprised Dedue said, “What are you doing?”
Yep, thought Felix. Sounds about right.
There was some jostling on the other end, some unintelligible muttering from Dimitri, and then Dedue came back on the line properly. “Thank you, Felix. You were correct.”
“Usually am,” Felix said. “ Don’t call me again.” And he hung up.
He sank back into blissful silence and pillowy comfort of his bed, already grumbling internally about how tomorrow was going to be a three-cups-of-coffee kind of day. He was of half a mind to block Dedue’s number, too, but he remembered a moment later that he’d forgotten to save Mercedes’ number.
Then his phone rang again.
Felix squinted at it this time before answering, and sure enough, the caller ID read “Blaiddyd’s Dog”. “What could you possibly have forgotten?” Felix muttered into the receiver.
“Felix,” drawled a voice that was most certainly not Dedue’s, “why didn’t you answer me?”
“You’re drunk,” Felix said. He could practically smell the alcohol on Dimitri’s breath from here. “Go home.”
“But whyyy?” Dimitri pressed. Jesus, he was drunk.
“Why the fuck you think?” Why was he even talking to him, anyway?
“Ingrid and Sylvain will text me back sometimes, but you never do.”
Felix wished he could facetime just to get the proper glare off, but it wasn’t worth the effort of changing his settings. “Why the hell would I want to talk to you?”
“Because it’s Glenn’s birthday, and I thought you'd understand.”
Blind rage rose in Felix’s chest. Forget sleep; now he wanted to kill something. “ You don’t get to talk about Glenn!” He was yelling. Fuck . Ingrid was going to kill him, if he didn’t spontaneously combust in raw fury first. “And we are not friends!”
Felix slammed his phone down, Dimitri‘s voice growing fainter and fainter in the gloom. Felix pressed his face back into his pillow, pulled another pillow over his head, and waited for the noise to shut off. And it did eventually, only for his phone to go off a moment later. Felix ignored it this time, burying his head further in his pillow fort.
He counted the rings—one, two, three, four, off. One, two, three, four, off—until his phone clattered off his bedside table and onto the floor. It continued to buzz, albeit much more quietly, and Felix was left to count breaths and heartbeats instead.
Felix tried to shut his eyes and block it out. He would not pick up. He didn’t want to talk to Dimitri or Dedue--or anyone else, for that matter. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t hung up in the first place, besides the fact that Sylvain was right again, damn him. Most of Felix's edges were self-inflicted.
Irritated, Felix pulled his pillow off his head and glanced over to where his closet door stood slightly ajar. His fencing foil was in there, somewhere, alongside his medals and uniform. It was just waiting for him to get a grip and dig it out.
For a moment, Felix imagined digging through his dirty clothes and spare shoes, trying to find his familiar old sword. Maybe Sylvain would knock on his door while he was digging, asking if he was okay. Or maybe Ingrid would come yelling, telling him to shut up while she tried to sleep. Felix would brush them both off and disappear into the garage, where he’d hung a punching bag in college. It had Xs taped at various points like some sort of demented training dummy.
It was probably still there; he hadn’t touched it in ages, and Ingrid and Sylvain would have no reason to take it down.
He imagined drilling form after form after form until his arms shook and his legs threatened to give out. He imagined moving and parrying, as if a swinging punching bag were a real opponent instead of a poor substitute. He imagined…
Felix rolled back over and tried to sleep, ignoring the buzzing from under his bed.