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Dirty Secrets

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The Blue Lions House isn’t so bad once Bernadetta worked up the nerve to transfer. She’d decided to follow the Professor around like a duckling, avoiding everyone and anyone else in the class. ‘Professor’ meant ‘safety,’ and where the Professor was, Bernadetta felt safe.

But the Professor was also in the Blue Lions House. So Bernie should have known ‘Blue Lions’ would, by extension, mean ‘safety,’ too.

All it had taken was a handful of candies, shared between Mercedes and Annette while the Professor’s back was turned mid-seminar, for Bernie to realize this. She’d been under the desk trying to calm a sudden sense of the walls closing in when she noticed the brightly-wrapped sweets passing from one gentle hand to another; the two cheerful friends shared seats in front of her.

Maybe she’d stared too long, or too hard. But the next thing Bernie knew, one of those hands was extended her way. Mercedes hadn’t looked at her, but when she continued to stare and wonder if this was some sort of mean trick to the new girl, Mercedes wiggled her fingers, Bernie snatched, and the Professor turned away from the board to continue her lecture.

Annette shot her a pleased, secret smile over her shoulder. Candy had never tasted so good. And the rest of the Blue Lions? They weren’t so bad.

Dedue wasn’t so big and strong and unsmiling as she thought. Dimitri bumbled through awkward social interactions too often for him to be an imposing prince. Ingrid was good at backing off fast when anyone—not just Bernie—told her why she needed to stop being so intense. Ashe liked to read almost as much as he liked to hum while cooking. Even Felix could crack the smallest, faintest smile if the moon was in the right position in the sky, the weather a certain temperature, and the smallest cat in the sunniest corner all at once.

And Sylvain…

Two months into her new class placement, Bernie let Sylvain read her stories.

She’d been ready to die and also kill him when he’d cheerfully swaggered on up and informed her he’d stolen her work as his new reading material. His compliments on her purple prose were suspiciously genuine. No one said such things to Bernie. No one said them and meant it.

No.

No one said them at all.

But it was hard to avoid the boy when she now saw him every day, slouched in his chair with a quill spinning in dexterous fingers. He’d backed off once he saw the panic steaming out her ears. So she’d thought. But then Bernie had found the letter—no, the review.

And it hadn’t just been praise. Sylvain had pointed out a couple spots and phrases that had confused him, but also explained why, and what he felt would have helped him understand better. He didn’t tell her to do something like this, to write that sentence, to make those plots happen.

It was true, honest critique, and no one seemed comfortable critiquing Bernadetta von Varley.

Criticizing? Oh, surely. But critiquing? Not really. Everyone was so sure she’d burst into tears at the slightest pointer. And Bernadetta knew she had no one to blame but herself for that, for being so pathetic, such a weakling. But…

How was she supposed to improve when no one would help her?

Even the Professor’s feedback would come so halting when they’d had a one-on-one lance practice session. One smile from the woman could make Bernie glow, motivate her into working and stretching and training until her muscles were too sore for her to go to class the next day. But the Professor didn’t seem to know how to correct her mistakes the same easy, helpful way she did with absolutely every single one of her other students.

Bernie’s writing had been improving at the same rate as her lance skills—which was to say not at all—when she’d been paired with Sylvain for lance training.

“Oof, hey, watch your foot!”

Bernie leapt back, clutching the lance for protection. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

Sylvain blinked at her. “Sorry? For what? It’s you you’re gonna wind up hurting.”

“Sorry!”

He nodded. “Apologize to your legs later if we can’t fix them now. Look at your feet.” She did. They were neatly pressed together, knees almost knocking. “Now look at mine.”

Bernie dragged her gaze to the tips of his toes. They were more spread apart than hers.

“Come on, Bernadetta. You can do better than that. Take a good, long look.”

The drawl in his voice did not make his request much easier. But somehow, Bernie managed, and—

“Oh!”

“Yeah, it’s not just a matter of defense or offense with a lance,” Sylvain explained, hefting the training lance in both hands to demonstrate. “Its weight and balance are just as important, if not more so.” Bernie imitated the movement, but he shook his head. “No, you’ve gotta spread your…legs…wider.”

Wide grey eyes met wide brown eyes. Sylvain didn’t blush, because professional skirt-chasers don’t blush, but Bernie refused to look down again because she was pretty sure her shoes had melted.

“Should I just show you?” Sylvain blurted out, and Bernie nodded furiously.

He spent the rest of class bringing her through the motions. The basics. The complex spin maneuver they actually had been supposed to do that day. The gentle nudges to get her into the proper position retreated respectfully each time, and the gentle encouragement came as honestly as the critique. Sylvain was right each and every time, and even the Professor was impressed by her progress after only a week of the assignment.

“Sylvain helped me,” she admitted in a rush. Then she clapped her hands over her mouth. Her voice pitched higher with each syllable. “I mean, it’s not that you haven’t helped me, Professor! You’ve helped so much. I’m not ungrateful! I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me! He’s just really good at using the lance, and—not that you’re not, it’s—”

The Professor gave her one of those faint, rewarding smiles, and Bernie shut up. “No, Sylvain definitely knows what he’s doing. He’s been helpful, you say?” Bernie nodded like her head was about to fall off. “I apologize, Bernadetta. Have I been going too easy on you?”

Bernie had regrets for the next two weeks. But her lancework had improved, not only due to Sylvain’s efforts, but because the Professor had given her a chance, too.

So she’d given in. Bernie had ambushed him the second she saw him strolling around the monastery without a date. When he said his heart had restarted from the way she pounced, she popped the foolish, embarrassing, terrible question.

“Do you think you could maybe help me edit my stories? If you wanted. You don’t have to. You probably shouldn’t. I know you’re busy and you don’t have time for something so stupid. Forget the whole—”

Sylvain’s face lit up, full of life in a way she’d never seen in his expression. “Are you serious? I can’t think of any better way to spend my time!”


When Ingrid found out how much time Sylvain was spending in Bernie’s room, she regretted the whole adventure, and also her own existence.

She’d cowered behind her wardrobe while Ingrid berated Sylvain for stooping so low and having no shame and being incapable of decency for even an hour. Bernie nodded along with every single word, misery filling her lungs. Sylvain was indeed shamelessly stooping so low as to waste a decent hour of his life with someone like her. Why was he here? Why had she invited him in the first place?

She didn’t realize she’d cried out all those thoughts aloud until the room went silent.

“Oh, Saints, Bernadetta,” Ingrid said hollowly. “I—I wasn’t saying—I didn’t mean you! I meant Sylvain can treat people like garbage, and—”

“Please, Ingrid. No need to pull punches.”

“—I’m just so angry he’s trying to take advantage of a classmate who doesn’t know any better!”

Ingrid. I’m helping her with—”

Oh no.

Sylvain was about to spill her secret to the social, blunt, tell-it-like-it-is Ingrid. And Bernie would be revealed as…as…

“I do know better!” she found herself squeaking. She peeked out from behind the wardrobe to find the two friends gaping at her, and she whipped back to her hiding place. “I’m not a little kid, you know! And—and I trust him not to do anything to make me uncomfortable. And! And I can throw a punch. A little. Probably, if I needed. I trust him, Ingrid.”

The silence, if possible, grew louder.

“You see, Ingrid?” Satisfaction resonated in Sylvain’s voice. Bernie knew exactly the pose he was in right now: hands casually clasped behind his head, sneering down at his oldest, second-crankiest friend with posture equal parts sensual and taunting. “We’re friends. It’s all good.”

Friends.

Ingrid sighed, apologized—mainly to Bernie—and left. Bernie crawled out from behind the wardrobe when she was sure the girl was really gone. Sylvain scrubbed his face and groaned behind his hands.

“I never thought I’d be apologizing for Ingrid berating me, because she’s usually right. But really. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“It’s okay,” Bernie stammered, fanning herself with the latest stack of ink-splotched papers. “I’m, I’m glad I could stand up for you. For a friend.”

She regretted the taste of the word the second it left her mouth. But Sylvain’s grin was so goofy, warm, and happy she couldn’t help offering one back.


Sylvain took way too long to understand no one—absolutely no one—would see her work.

“You’re so good, Bernadetta,” he’d insist, shaking a bundle of stories for emphasis. “Seriously, I know I’m not the only one who’d kill to read this stuff.”

“Kill? People will kill me?”

And he’d stop her from gathering the scattered papers and tossing them to the fire.

Finally, after enough panicked threats to destroy everything, including his brain with its memories of her work, Sylvain got the hint and left his commentary to editing. It was just like training together.

“Wait, didn’t the warlock come out of the trapdoor, not the window? Why’s the trapdoor locked now?”

“I absolutely love this sentence. No, really, look at the way it calls back to this earlier theme of loyalty. Just an absolute reversal of emotions in such a meaningful way.”

“Oh, I think you mean to spell it as ‘organism,’ not…uh. That. Slip of the hand?”

Their little weekly afternoon sessions became the most enjoyable part of her week once he stopped pushing her to bring her latest battlefield tale to class.

“Fine, fine, I get it,” he’d said, raising his hands in supplication. But then he’d winked and added, “I don’t think I mind sharing your dirty little secrets.”

At the time, Bernie had been a little hurt and a lot scandalized, and she hadn’t even let out a whimper before Sylvain saw her face and apologized so many times she had to cover her ears.

But now…

Now she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The way he looked sprawled out on her floor, surrounded by papers and her own hurried handwriting, thumb thoughtfully tracing his plush lower lip: “I hadn’t realized Lord Venree ran a smuggling ring. Was I supposed to know that already?”

“I don’t think I mind sharing your dirty little secrets.”

The way his laugh echoed in the lonely walls of her bedroom, leaning back on his elbows so he could have more space to calm his snickers at one of her stupid throwaway dialogue jokes: “I’m falling in love with this highwayman like, way more than I thought I had already.”

“I like sharing your dirty little secrets.”

The way the uniform undershirt clung to his broad shoulders when he shrugged off the jacket and pushed up his sleeves so he wouldn’t smudge the drying ink from fresh edits: “Oh, yeah. That reads much more naturally.”

“I like being your dirty little secret.”

The memory warped. Every single time she remembered his stupid, casual, insensitive joke. Bernie could hardly listen to his voice without remembering the way it had gotten so deep and rough. When they were deep into the third hour of edits on a particularly tricky scene, it was easier to forget.

“But I like that paragraph!”

“I know you do, and you can probably reuse parts of it later. But it’s not really…doing anything for the moment, you know?”

“Where else would they go, then?”

“I mean, somewhere not here. Believe me, I’m usually really interested in what women are wearing under their skirts, but I don’t need to know while she’s on the parapets fleeing for her life—no, Bernadetta, don’t throw it out! Those are your words; I said I thought you could reuse ‘em later!”

But whenever Sylvain left for the night with a merry wave and a cheerful, “Can’t wait for next week!”…

Bernie would remember.

Dirtier and dirtier secrets each time.

The way he felt above her when she’s sprawled on the floor, surrounded by paper crumpled beyond recognition, his thumb teasing her lower lip: “Was I supposed to know you didn’t want to be taken on the bed this time?”

Bernie could hardly stand to look at him while he read anymore.

The way his laugh felt between her thighs, resting on his elbows and smirking satisfied, shiny lips at the sounds she couldn’t help making: “I’m falling in love way more than I thought I ever could.”

But clearly, the only solution was to have him stop reading at all.

The way his shirt fell apart under her fingers when she too shrugged out of her jacket, pushing off his sleeves to bare more of those strong, muscled arms: “Oh, yeah. This feels way more natural.”

And Bernie could bear that notion even less.

And, as shameful a thing as it felt, Bernie liked the daydreams. And night-dreams. And idle, uncontrollable fantasies. As long as she kept those thoughts secret, carefully cultivated in her imagination only when alone in her room long after Sylvain had left—or, as their frequency increased, the days and nights he didn’t stop by at all—as long as these delicious ideas remained inside her head, it didn’t matter how exciting or detailed or…dirty they got. Sylvain didn’t need to know. He really didn’t need to know, actually.

“But they’re still good ideas, right?” Bernie whispered to her reflection in the mirror. Mirror-Bernie blinked back, a doubtful and stupid look on her face. She took a deep breath and jabbed her finger at the glass. “They are! Just because I haven’t…I haven’t…I’ve read books! And talked—well, heard people talk!”

Mirror-Bernie looked unconvinced.

“They’re cool,” Bernie insisted. She poked the mirror again, smudging the glass. “They’re clever. Creative! Sensual! Maybe…they’re, no, they are alluring!” Her pulse pounded against her skin, and with one more jab, she told Mirror-Bernie, “Maybe Bernie can be alluring, too! Even Bernie can be attractive! With her—her mop of hair, and her—” she looked at the imperious finger on her mirror, “—nails bitten to the quick and…and my dry pale cheeks, and my colorless eyes, and my…”

Tears welled up in those colorless eyes, and her lip trembled. She jerked away from the mirror like it had burned her. Or laughed at her. Or kicked her away.

“Who am I fooling,” she mumbled, and crawled into bed, alone and lonely like she deserved. She squeezed her watery eyes shut and forced herself into dreamless sleep.

“Yeah, that’s it, Bernie. You’re taking me so well, so well—you feel that? Goddess, you’re squeezing me so hard, practically milking my cock. You’re so good at this. I can’t believe it’s your first time. Should I stop being gentle? Should I speed up? Should I—”

Bernie woke with a jolt, hot and sweating and wet between her legs. She scrambled out of bed, tripping over her sheets, and almost lit them on fire when her trembling fingers failed to light the lamp properly.

She’d never gone through so many inkwells before in her life.

She would do it. Bernie could do it. She would write something good, something that really was a dirty secret. And she’d get Sylvain to read it. Give her feedback. Suggestions. Advice.

“Oh, was it realistic? I’d love a tip to get it even better. I want it. I want your honest, true-to-Goddess opinion…”

Bernie was halfway done her first draft when all hell broke out and the world went to war.


Even five years into the end of the world, Sylvain was still handsome.

It wasn’t fair. Bernie had thought she’d grown up, too. Taller, wiser, maybe a little more jaded, but with better hair.

But no. Sylvain was impossibly more muscled; impossibly more charming; more impossible war stories tucked under his belt; and, of course, more…other impossible stories when his belt came off.

Not that Bernie knew first-hand. It was Ingrid who’d constantly complain. Or Sylvain who’d boast when he’d had enough to drink, or not quite enough.

Because for all Sylvain could be found anywhere and everywhere with a pretty lady or handsome man on his arm, or lap, or, on one particularly embarrassing occasion, a picnic blanket under Bernie’s newest (now ‘former’) favorite secluded tree…

No one was going to find Bernie there. In any of those places. Not even that secluded tree anymore.

But one day, Bernie was. Albeit in a way no one, least of all her, expected.

She’d just finished ferreting a week’s supply of cake from the dining hall. The basket in her hands was filled to bursting with sugary-sweet dough and snacks, and Bernie was having a hard time digging in the closer she got to her room. She’d just gotten to the corner between the sauna and the commoners’ dorms they weren’t supposed to call the ‘commoners’ dorms’ when she heard it.

“If you keep doing that, I won’t be able to keep quiet!”

Whatever woman spoke, she’d already failed the task. Her breathless, giggly voice echoed from an undoubtedly open dorm window and bounced around the gap between buildings. Bernie blushed and prepared to hurry home faster, but then a smooth, stroking, familiar voice joined the last ‘quiet’s of the woman’s echoing voice.

“Then don’t hold back, baby. Let everyone hear you. Let ‘em hear those pretty sounds out of your, mm, delicious lips and wish they were the ones fucking ‘em out of you.”

Bernie hardly registered the answering delighted moan, too horrified by the way her feet refused to move.

She knew he was…experienced. A ‘skirt-chaser’ if she asked Ashe. A ‘common whore’ if she asked Felix. Even Sylvain smiled when he said he “didn’t do a lot of good things, but the important part is I’ve done a lot.”

It was an entirely different sort of knowledge to hear him like this, when the flirting was done and successful and whoever had fallen for him had also fallen into his bed.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s it. So good to me, baby. You gonna come for me? Gonna come hard? I wanna feel you. Goddess, you feel so good already.”

Bernie couldn’t move. The basket of cakes trembled in her arms, and a dim corner of her mind warned her not to drop it. It would take another week for the kitchens to restock the confections, and they’d surely notice if so many vanished so quickly.

The woman’s voice again: “I…I can’t! Sylvain, it’s too—"

“Shh, it’s okay, you can. Let it go, baby. You’re doing so well for me.”

A broken cry ripped through the air, and Bernie knew even if she were safely snuggled back home with her desserts and not rooted to the spot eavesdropping like a blind voyeur, she’d be able to hear it.

Sylvain’s rough laughter resounded through the night air. “Oh, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble tomorrow.”

“S-sorry. I told you I couldn’t—”

Silence. Like someone else’s mouth had cut off whatever the woman was going to say, someone’s joking, self-deprecating tongue slipping inside, running along her teeth, and—

Another moan, and—

“Oh, fuck. Fuck, you feel good.”

Bernie wondered if bats ever got embarrassed flying by Sylvain’s window. Somehow, she heard the mattress springs squeak.

And squeak again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

And then fast.

Bernie ran back to her room as fast as the basket of cakes would let her and started writing.


“You used to edit my stuff. My stories.”

Sylvain looked up from his dinner, spoon halfway to his mouth. Bernie loomed over him, fists clenched and quaking. “Yeah.” He smiled, and Bernie’s heart briefly suffocated her with its pounding. “It was something I actually miss about our school days. Other than, you know, the parts where we weren’t at war or being betrayed.”

“Um.”

Sylvain waited, but the confidence Bernie couldn’t believe had followed her to his table had decided enough was enough, abandoning her the moment he directed such a soft, genuine smile at her. But just as easily as he’d noticed her incorrect fighting stances when they were kids, he noticed the source of her unease. And an even bigger smile split his face in two.

“Do you have something for me?” Sylvain wiped his fingers on the cloth by his plate and held out an expectant hand. “I never thought I’d get another chance for this!”

Bernie snapped out of it and recoiled. “Uh, no!” He deflated, hand falling lamely back to the table, and she hurried to correct herself. “I mean, I do. I just don’t have it. Here. Right now. But I do have it in my room, and…” She swallowed. It’s just a story, Bernie. It’s not real. It’s a story just like anything else, and you want your best—and only—editor’s opinion. “I would really love to hear your thoughts. If, you know, that would still interest you. If it doesn’t, that’s okay, too, but…” Sylvain nodded encouragingly. Bernie took a deep breath, and the last sentence came out almost as one rushed word. “It would make me so happy if you read it!”

If Bernie didn’t know Sylvain any better, she would have dared to say his cheeks colored. “You? Bernadetta, you have no idea how happy it makes me you even want me to! What time’s good for you?”

“Tonight?” she immediately replied. Her first impulse was to slap her hands over her mouth, her second was to run away, and her third was to promise to never speak again once she was finished speaking the promise. She resisted doing any of the three.

Her reward was another of Sylvain’s soft, pleased smiles. “Tonight, yeah. Thanks for always trusting me.”


‘Tonight’ came both faster and slower than it had any right to be.

Bernie fussed with the faded rug, smoothing it with her bare foot over and over until it wrinkled again. She shuffled her baby carnivorous plant along the window seat until she figured it was showing its best angle. She shook out the heavy blanket on the bed, replaced it with a brighter one, changed her mind, and swapped them back.

She was debating bringing the bright blanket out again and throwing it on top of the first when she heard that familiar knock accompanied by, “Yo, Bernadetta! I’m coming in!”

“It’s—it’s open!”

Sylvain poked his head in, like he was making sure it was safe, and the rest of him followed shortly after. He looked pleased when the door swung shut behind him. “Man, not a lot has changed, huh? Except that tapestry,” he said with a nod in its direction. “I’m glad you’re still working on it after all this time. You’re really talented.”

This already was not going according to flimsy plan. Bernie flushed from her perch on a floor cushion and drummed an uneven beat on the condemning papers with her fingers. “We’re, uh, talking about my story. Not my…everything else.”

“But I like your ‘everything else.’” The amusement in Sylvain’s voice did not cool the heat in her face. Maybe she imagined it sounding flirtatious, because Sylvain sounds flirtatious with pretty much everyone—except her—and because she can’t stop hearing that memory—“And besides. It’s true about your story. You’re really talented.”

“You haven’t even read it yet. It could be terrible. It could be the worst thing you’ve ever read.”

Oh, Goddess. This was such an awful idea. Bernie needed to get him to leave, and fast, but nothing believable came to mind.

“Let me be the judge of that.” Too busy formulating a plan of escape, Bernie didn’t have time to stop him from excitedly snatching the papers from her limp fingers.

It was done. It was in his grasp. Sylvain started tearing through the thing greedily, and any objection Bernie could raise would undoubtedly be met with bafflement, more curiosity, and maybe even hurt.

“Thanks for always trusting me.”

She fidgeted on her cushion while he got through the exposition. Sylvain pulled at his lower lip with the tip of his thumb, like he always did when he got really into a story. She could see him nodding thoughtfully in several places, pressing his fingernails down on sentences he wanted to comment on later, and…

Bernie pinpointed the exact moment when he got to the smut.

His eyes flitting from line to line froze, remaining fixed on one point. And then, for the first time, they went backwards. And froze again when he read up to that first spot.

Bernie hadn’t realized how long someone could focus on words until now. She fluttered her sweaty fingers in her lip, ready to excuse herself into a corner and wish him good night and good life.

But then his stare unfroze itself, and Sylvain kept reading.

And the more sentences he read, the more pages he flipped and set aside, the more Bernie realized yes, it was indeed possible for Sylvain Jose Gautier to blush. It was a gradual pink threat that started along his neck and crept word by word up his cheeks to his ears.

After an eternity of fear, Sylvain cleared his throat and dropped the final leaf of paper to join the others. “So,” he began, tidying the pile of smutty literature far too neatly to seem casual, “that was. A story.”

“Yep.”

“That you wrote.”

“I wrote it, yeah. Yep.”

Bernie might have described Sylvain’s expression as bad if he’d been wearing an expression at all. His face was blank enough to rival the Professor from years past. His brown, unfathomable gaze bored deep into her, like they were meeting for the first time without a proper introduction.

“Well, it’s a,” he cleared his throat again, “complicated little piece, huh?”

Complicated. Her heart sank hard enough to hurt.

“I’m gonna need to…” Sylvain shook his head, and—no, no—headed for the door. “I gotta, you know. Ruminate.”

“Ruminate,” Bernie echoed hollowly.

“Yeah. That’s what I need to do. Ruminate. And I’ll, uh, get back to you on it?”

The last sentence came out as a question, one Bernie wished she had a better answer to. But Sylvain already had his hand on the doorknob.

“Yeah,” she said, knowing how miserable she must look. “Yeah, please do.”

Sylvain babbled a good night and vanished. Bernie hoped he’d walked fast and was already long gone by the time she muffled her screaming sob into the cushion.

She was needy and embarrassing and not attractive and…and…

And a bad writer.


“Bernadetta!” Loud, insistent knocking on her door encouraged Bernie to bury her head further under her pillow. The voice itself made her want to smother herself with it. “Bernadetta, I know you’re in there.”

“Can’t you read the sign?” she croaked back.

A pause. Then louder, more insistent knocking. “I know you’re not sick.”

“I am. I’m sick. I’m so sick. I’m dying and you’ll never see me again, so please remember me as I was in life and not how hideously ill I am now.”

“No way. I’ll tend to you in your final hours.” Bernie was prepared to snap something back at the grin she could hear in his voice, but the door cracked open without warning. And the grin itself came into view.

Bernie yelped and scrambled out of bed. “I locked the door!”

“You did?” Sylvain, who had already made himself welcome and closed it behind him, glanced at the decidedly unlocked doorknob. “Not well enough, I guess.”

She wailed. “Go away.”

She expected more teasing, but Sylvain only frowned. “Do you mean that?”

She hiccupped, baffled by his bafflement. “Huh?”

“I can leave if you really do want,” he said uncertainly. When she didn’t reply, he tilted his head and studied her face with a curiosity she’d never seen on him before. And that slow, toothy grin unfurling on his lips?

Bernie had never seen that before, either. Not directed at her.

“Uh,” she said eloquently. Sylvain hooked his thumbs in his belt and kept that heavily-lidded gaze trained on her.

“I thought you wanted to know how I felt about your work. The story you were so excited to show me.”

Something electric sparked inside her with a suddenness that startled her. “Feedback,” she whispered. “I wanted your…feedback.”

“Oh?” Sylvain glanced at the doorknob again, and with a casualness that simultaneously thrilled and terrified her, locked it properly. “What kind of feedback you looking for?”

“Uh.”

He kept that pleased smirk on his face as he approached. “Grammar issue?”

“N-no.” Bernie tucked her hands under her chin and fidgeted.

Goddess, why did her room feel so much smaller with Sylvain stalking through it. “Plot?”

“No.”

Sylvain nodded slowly, mock comprehension dawning on his face. “Oh, I see. You wanted to know what I thought—” Oh Goddess, how had he gotten this close, how was that tempting, lip-brushing thumb pressed against her chin and forcing her to look into his unsympathetic, delighted brown eyes, “about its content.”

Bernie could only nod back, dumber and with less comprehension. Sylvain chuckled, and the familiar, easy sound of his laugh was edged in affection. Warmth flooded her from head to toe. “Could’ve asked me that specifically in the first place, Bernie.”

The noise she squeaked at the sound of her name in his mouth had supposed to be repressed.

“Shall I make a suggestion?”

Bernie blinked so fast she could hardly see how close he was now. But Goddess, could she feel it. Her bangs fluttered every time he breathed. “Yes. Please. Do.”

“Seduction scenes,” he whispered, speaking just above her lips, “really get going once they kiss.” His mouth was on hers barely after her mind caught up with her ears.

Sylvain kissed her like he wanted to memorize her lips. He took tiny baby sips from her mouth, softly suckling on her bottom lip with his dark brown eyes trained on her face, evaluating her expression. His hand was still under her chin, keeping her close but not too much, and when he let go, Bernie fell forward into his arms.

“Sorry. You okay?”

He sounded almost nervous, but this was Sylvain. Kissing definitely didn’t make him nervous anymore—Bernie was certain he couldn’t be that good at whatever he’d just done to her to get nervous about the prospect. She gripped the soft, thick leather of his shirt and felt his heart beating through it. Fast. Faster than she’d expected.

“Your skin is very warm through this,” she informed him, head spinning. She felt him shake as he laughed softly.

“So’s yours. I mean, it’s not like you’re wearing much to begin with.” Sylvain’s voice had dropped an octave when he said that, and Bernie shuddered as if with sudden chill despite feeling despairingly, deliciously hot.

“Uh, I was…in bed.”

“In bed, huh?” Sylvain brushed aside her hair and pressed a soft, cool kiss on her neck. Bernie bit her lip.

“Yeah. Because, you know. I was dying.”

“Mm, well, death becomes you if that’s true.” His lips trailed lower, brushing her shoulder.

“The plague. Ah!” The wet tip of his tongue laved a careful circle where her neck met her shoulder, and his lips sucked gently on the same spot.

“Never heard of that one. Sounds pretty bad.” Sylvain’s teeth grazed every bit of skin on their way back up her neck, and it was both a relief and a shame when he let her go and smoothed back her hair to smile at her.

Bernie’s heart hammered through her nightgown. It was all the more embarrassing knowing he could feel it. “It’s…not as bad a plague as I thought.”

His smile grew. “Glad to hear it.” And then he was kissing her again, hotter and harder, drawing out sounds from her mouth Bernie didn’t even know she could make. She felt his tongue trace her lips, pushing lightly between them, and when she moaned, he slipped it inside against hers. Bernie clumsily tried to do the same, match each skilled stroke of his tongue on her own, the roof of her mouth, curling under the tip of her tongue to slide along the underside. She tensed, expecting mocking laughter any second, but no. He kept kissing and licking and coaxing and she grew bolder.

The next time his tongue slipped from her mouth, Bernie followed. And she had never heard anything so enticing as the shocked, rumbling moan she startled out of him when she bit his lip and pulled him close with her fingers in his hair.

“That wasn’t in your story,” he gasped when she couldn’t figure out how to breathe evenly through the kiss anymore. Somehow, at some point, Sylvain’s hands had crept to her waist. The strong, firm feel of his grip sent little prickles of excitement down her spine. Bernie shuffled closer, seeking some closeness she of all people didn’t know how to put into words.

“You’ve always been very encouraging,” she said, and Sylvain failed to stifle his quick intake of breath. “Did I…Oh, no, did I say something wrong? Was that not something alluring to—"

“Goddess, not at all. You’re beyond fine.” She closed her eyes when he nuzzled her hair, a slow kiss on her forehead heating the sweet gesture. His hands began stroking slow paths up and down her back, lingering at the base of her spine before sliding back up.

Bernie took a breath to steel herself, deeply enough there was no way he hadn’t heard. “So, uh. Do, um, do you…” Her voice broke off in a whisper. “Do you have any more, um, suggestions? For me? In the, you know, the story, and—”

Now she could feel him struggle not to laugh. “I might.”

His voice was like honey. Bernie wanted to drown in it. Had Sylvain always sounded like this, or had she just tried not to notice?

“But, well…readers like anticipation, you know.”

Bernie lifted her head from his chest and pushed her brows together. “Anticipation?”

The way Sylvain was looking at her, so close but so high, could melt the entire Kingdom if he ever decided to smile at a single snowflake like that. “I mean, it depends,” he murmured. His hands roamed all over her nightgown now, massaging her shoulders, fingers barely tickling her waist, stroking her suddenly-sensitive ribs just to the side of her breasts. “How long do you want to draw it out? Maybe it’ll be chapters and chapters before they even—” Sylvain’s grip suddenly got tighter, and he yanked her impossibly closer, forcing her hips to grind against his, “—touch each other?”

“We’re touching, we’re touching,” Bernie babbled, wiggling in his arms to recreate whatever liquid-hot thing he just made her feel. His laugh felt like dark velvet brushing her ears.

“’We?’ Getting into your characters’ mindsets, huh?”

Bernie’s mind went blank. She had forgotten everything in her life until now, because his fingers had begun teasing her hipbones, dipping briefly into the creases of her thighs. “Yes,” she breathed, “the characters. They’re…um, they…It’s a one-shot?”

The fingers halted their progress. “One-shot?”

She couldn’t quite place the tone in that question. “You know, uh, they have to…um, the story has to reach a climax because it’s. It’s one chapter.”

The teasing touched abruptly stopped, and Sylvain pulled back. The frown on his matched the feeling of his body leaving hers: cool, detached, unwanted. “Ah. Just one chapter.”

Bernie could name the sound.

Resignation.

“Oh,” she whispered to herself. Sylvain leaned closer to hear her, and she offered him a wobbly smile. “I mean. One chapter’s just one moment, right? Just one…one scene. And there can be, um, other scenes! Maybe. If they—if the author, uh. Wants. If it works?” She squeaked on the last word, and maybe it was her own feeling of hope, but she ventured to guess the small, matching smile on Sylvain’s face had a bit of a hopeful aura, too.

“Then we better make sure it works,” Sylvain agreed, his voice even rougher than before. “So can I make some more suggestions?”

Bernie nodded way more times than necessary, and the tiny, hopeful smile on Sylvain’s face grew back into that predatory smirk. “I suggest you take your nightgown off,” he purred, and Bernie would have collapsed as an overheated pink puddle on the rug if he hadn’t wrapped his arms tight around her again. He’d suggested it, but he also seemed to be following his own advice: Sylvain tugged the hem up without much of her assistance.

“That’s—a good suggestion.” The nightgown disappeared from her body before Bernie had a chance to give it a proper farewell. “Oh Goddess, this is nothing like what I’ve written.”

Bernie, naked in a fully-clothed Sylvain’s embrace, suddenly had never hated herself so much for accidentally spilling what were supposed to be secret thoughts.

Sylvain, however, was not one to be deterred. The opposite, apparently: his hands suddenly cupped her rear to keep her still, and he rolled one slow, hard grind into her. “No, it’s really not,” he said directly into her ear. “It’s even better.”

And just like that, Bernie stopped caring about whatever silly-sounding whimpers, squeaks, or moans came out of her mouth, or even the embarrassing damp spot left behind on Sylvain’s trousers when he figured she’d had enough of those awful, teasing little thrusts.

“Please take those off.”

Bernie could not even be bothered to check her tone or apologize for the greedy demand. But Sylvain only raised an eyebrow and refused to let go, hands back to their aimless exploring up and down her body. Each touch left a new trail of goosebumps.

“Take what off, Bernie? I’m still wearing a lot.”

“Everything. Everything, please.”

Sylvain decided for her, releasing one hip to start unclasping his too-thick winter shirt. “We’ll get there eventually. Readers like anticipation, remember?”

“But I like you.”

Sylvain’s unbuttoning fingers paused. “You—what?”

Bernie squeezed her eyes shut, suddenly certain she’d made a grave mistake. “I…like you. And I…I would really like to see you with your clothes off!”

Silence from Sylvain’s general direction, an unpleasant fact due to his close proximity. When she heard the snap of clasps popping open again, Bernie’s relief almost pained her. “Well,” he said too casually, “I’ll take that advice. Since, you know, I like you and all.”

Bernie giggled. Why Sylvain of all people sounded so nervous in his breezy tone was something she didn’t quite get, but…

He liked her?

He liked her.

Maybe it was because he liked her.

Sylvain tugged his own shirt over his head, face disappearing for one tragic moment. A faint blush graced his cheeks when it reemerged, red hair tousled. Perfectly-shaped curls, Bernie thought, for Bernie-shaped fingers. But Sylvain had complied with her request, and the sight of him with his hands on his belt buckle was enough for her to keep her twitching hands to herself.

“You,” Sylvain said confidently, tossing his belt to the side with a heavy clunk, “have such amazing breasts.”

Bright-red Bernie immediately covered them, and then, remembering she was wearing nothing below the waist, either, tried to do the same over her curls. Unfortunately, she only possessed two hands, and Sylvain pulled them both aside while she was busy figuring out how to rearrange them.

“No, no,” he murmured. “I want to see you like this.” He tilted her face again to leave a long, lingering kiss on her lips that had her panting when he released her. “One time here, after class, you let me in wearing exactly that and…” She could see Sylvain swallow, but better yet, she could see his eyes grow darker. “When we sat down to read, you just…spread your legs and lay back. Didn’t even care about me being there.”

Bernie squeaked. “You…you looked?”

“No!” Sylvain insisted, color flooding his face again. “No, I didn’t, I swear. But Goddess, was that a test of will.” He groaned, and Bernie became abundantly aware his pants were only half-done. “You trusted me so much back then. I definitely wasn’t going to do anything to break it. I definitely wasn’t going to steal a peek.” He grinned and dropped his hands, choosing to smooth his fingers over the stiff peaks of her nipples. Over her soft moan, he whispered, “Much as I wanted to.”

“Y-you’re still wearing your pants.”

Sylvain looked down, like this fact surprised him. “Very true.” He dropped to his knees, pulled her down just so, and laved his tongue over one of her breasts. Bernie gasped when the tip of his tongue curled against her nipple, and he did it again.

Gorgeous,” he mumbled against her breast and swapped to the other to do the same thing.

His hair was, in fact, perfect for Bernie-shaped fingers. She couldn’t help but tug it, something he seemed to enjoy, given the soft grunt of surprise followed by breathy moan he gave against her chest.

But he was still wearing pants. And Bernie wanted…

“Sylvain. I want to see.”

“Hm?” Sylvain released her nipple with a wet pop of his lips, and it was such a filthy-sounding noise that Bernie immediately forgot what she’d asked. Fortunately, Sylvain had not. “You want to see? That’s it? Research, and all?”

“Uh. No.”

He’d gone back to unlacing his pants, but the teasing grin remained on his face. “No? Should I stop?”

“Sylvain!” Bernie pouted, ready to take matters into her own literal hands. Sylvain’s hands sped up on his laces, however, and his self-satisfied laugh was rather undignified for a noble.

“You know, Bernie,” he said, dropping his pants and stepping out of them with unconscious ease. Bernie struggled to pay attention to the rest of his sentence, because it was just there—“If you wanted to get me into bed, you could have just asked.”

Sylvain pulled her in for another kiss, and she felt him rub against her, slick and hard and so, so hot on her stomach. Bernie tangled his hair in her fingers again and smiled against his lips when he moaned. She had made that sound come out of him. Bernie with her unruly mop of hair and bitten nails and pale, sad face.

Sylvain thought Bernie was alluring.

But his last sentence struck her as…odd, now that she thought about it.

“But I wanted—oh!” Sylvain’s fingers found a happy place between her thighs. He stroked his middle finger slowly up her seam, wet and teasing.

“Sorry, what?”

“I’d missed—agh, Sylvain!” Bernie’s hips jerked into his hand, because that middle finger had just reached the sensitive little nub she never, ever dared to hope anyone but herself would touch. “I’d just missed you is all,” she gasped when his finger retreated. Thank the Goddess.

He stayed quiet. Tender, gentle strokes still circled her steadily-growing-wetter entrance.

“I don’t mind if you didn’t miss me! You can like me and not miss me, right? Ha! Oh—”

Sylvain plunged that finger inside and growled against her neck, “Yeah, I missed you, too.” The finger curled, and Bernie sank her nails into his shoulders. “Fuck!”

“Sorry,” she tried to say, but Sylvain only pressed a frantic, sloppy kiss on her lips and curled his finger again. He caught her moan on his tongue and matched its pace with the pumping of his finger.

Bernie’s legs shook, trying to find and keep the rhythm Sylvain had set for her and seemed to know better than she did. She gasped helplessly into his mouth when she felt a second finger pressing inquisitively against her, already wet with her own arousal. She could feel it slick on her thighs, but Sylvain pressed again on that shivery sensitive spot with his thumb and she forgot how to form the weird apology on her lips.

“I, I think I need to lie down,” Bernie said instead. Sylvain nodded and withdrew both fingers. She immediately sank to the ground, managing to lean her head on the floor cushion. Paper from a barely-started draft of something unimportant floated off her desk.

Sylvain bent over her, running his hands over her neck, back down her breasts, her nipples, creeping downwards. “Not the bed?”

Bernie laughed, and the sound was hysterical even to her own ears. “Gah, no! Goddess, definitely not!”

She’d had way too many fantasies there.

One of those fantasies, however, had happened here.

Sylvain shook his head with a smile and kissed her with so much affection tears sprang to her eyes. “Whatever makes you happy.” His fingers slipped back down, back in, and Bernie’s moan was so loud she ended it on a laugh. Sylvain’s two fingers curled again, two instead of one, and while her eyes were trying not to roll back, he asked, “Angle’s better?”

“Mhm.”

“Come on, Bern-a-det-ta,” Sylvain cooed, drawing another desperate moan from her lips. “Give me feedback.”

It was such a silly, stupid, ridiculous premise.

Bernie couldn’t believe it had actually worked.

“Feels nice.”

“Nice?”

“I really like this—oh! Yeah, I like that, too!”

“And this?”

“Sylvain!”

“Thought so. More?”

Bernie cracked her eyes open, and Sylvain looked just as smug as he’d sounded. Her gaze dropped down to where he was still hard, leaking, and neglected.

“You…can I have, uh…” Sylvain didn’t help her out. He kept pumping his fingers while she tried to gather herself, lightly stroking himself at the same time. “I want more.”

“I’ve got three fingers buried inside you,” he teased, speeding up to prove his point. Bernie canted her hips towards them without meaning to. “What more could I give you?”

“You’re so mean. You were never this mean to me—” Bernie covered her mouth to stop another moan. Sylvain apparently had little sympathy for her plight.

“I just want to be careful with you,” he said slowly. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m okay,” she panted, wiggling her hips to prove her point. His fingers shifted inside her, and she sighed with pleasure. “I’m fantastic.”

Sylvain hesitated, but his fingers slid out. “You still feel kind of tight. And it’s your first time, right?”

Bernie frowned. Now was absolutely not the time for her to share with Sylvain just how many ways she’d imagined her first time with him. This also meant it was not the time to indulge in any of the rougher versions of those scenarios. But at the same time…

“I...Tight feels good, right?”

Sylvain waited, but he didn’t dispute her claim. Bernie’s shoulder relaxed.

“And I…want to feel you inside me. I don’t even mind as long, since…as long as I can, um, feel you. I want to know you’re there.”

Something flickered behind Sylvain’s eyes. It was gone too fast for Bernie to identify or decide if she’d imagined it. “I’m here,” he said, and his voice suddenly had a ragged edge to it, like he’d been keeping himself together the entire time he’d focused on pleasuring her. “And trust me, Bern—you’re really about to feel me inside you.”

When Bernie felt the tip slide in easily, it was just as easy to relax and wrap her arms around Sylvain’s shoulders. She sighed, and he went still.

“Doesn’t feel how I thought,” she mumbled into his neck. She’d been expecting a joke back, something about her story, or characters, or anything, but Sylvain seemed too shocked to reply with anything witty.

“You’re so fucking wet,” he choked out. He thrust forward a little more. “How are you this—you good?”

Bernie nodded. It felt…nice so far. Not the same white-hot jolts of pleasure he’d been giving her like lightning strikes, which seemed strange, but aside from feeling a little more stretched than his fingers had left her, it seemed pleasant enough.

She confessed herself a tad disappointed. Mercedes’s books had made it all seem much more…intense.

Sylvain, however, seemed to disagree. He buried a hand in her hair and pulled her close, mumbling something incoherent in her ear. And with that tug forward, when he thrust inside to the hilt, when the whole angle changed

Oh.”

“Yeah,” Sylvain panted, and she could hear the smile. “Yeah, you were right. Should’ve trusted you. Fuck, you feel good.”

“S-so do you.”

And he did. Hot and thick and throbbing inside her, every time he shifted just a little against her stomach, shivers wracked her body like a thousand little kisses.

Sylvain weighed her breast in his hand, gently rolling her nipple between his finger and thumb while he gave another shallow thrust. Heat shot through her back. Bernie’s head lolled forward, trying to get closer, and he kissed her almost too gently. “Okay?”

“You won’t break me if you go harder, you know,” Bernie muttered without thinking better of it. “You were the only one not to treat me like an…awful crybaby.”

Sylvain’s inhale came sharp, and without any more questioning the statements she keeps meaning not to say, he lifted her leg, sank inside her even deeper, and hardly gave Bernie warning before he…

“Oh—wow—"

Now this…

This was what those books meant when they said ‘fucking.’

Bernie’s body rocked back and forth with the force of his thrusts, but Sylvain’s arms around her back, hand on her rear, fingers on her spine, kept her safe and secure even as his hips pounded her deeper into the cushion. Each time he pulled back, the tip of his shaft grazed that deliciously shivery spot he’d found with his fingers, that spot she’d only managed to find on her own a couple times. And each time he thrust back in, grazing it and making her moan all over again, her walls clung just as tightly to him as they had when they’d first started, trying to keep him inside as long as possible.

‘Possible,’ however, was not very long.

“You feel amazing, even more than I—” Sylvain broke off, like he hadn’t meant to say it. He hid his face in her neck and licked more than kissed it. Bernie smiled, even though he couldn’t see.

“You feel really nice, too.”

A short laugh on her neck. “Just ‘nice,’ huh?” Sylvain didn’t even have to look at her or stop driving into her to reach between them and rub. “Yeah, that scream sounds ‘nice,’ but I bet we can do better.”

“Sylv—”

She didn’t even get a chance to finish his name. Sylvain’s relentless touch, relentless thrusts, eliminated any and all words from Bernie’s otherwise sizable vocabulary. Her voice was reduced to syllables, vowels, half-formed meaningless moans.

“I can feel you,” he panted, kissing any part of her he could reach. “You’re close?”

Bernie squeaked and hoped he understood.

“Oh, thank the Goddess.” Sylvain sped up, matching his cruel, careful touches to his own hard, perfect rhythm. Bernie whined into his shoulder, feeling pleasure coiling from both inside and outside in a confusing, overwhelming spiral of sensation.

She lifted her hips, following a direction for a reason she couldn’t elucidate, and—

“Syl, ah—"

“Oh, fuck!”

Coming that hard, that violently, seemed only to make sense with the skin of Sylvain’s shoulder in her teeth. She gasped, trying to ride out the crashing waves of pleasure, but Sylvain pulled out completely and spilled himself onto the loose papers from the desk. Bernie watched, mesmerized while Sylvain’s pretty brown eyes squeezed shut and the paper caught every hot drop.

Bernie did that to him, she realized, like it hadn’t occurred to her the second she saw how hard he’d been.

Bernie, shit.” Sylvain…laughed when he came. He opened one eye, and Goddess, but that smile made him look younger and happier. “Sorry about your story.”

He gestured vaguely to the now-ruined papers and huffed out another laugh.

“Uh, that’s okay,” Bernie searched for some reassurance, “it means you liked it, right?”

Sylvain stared at her. Bernie stared back. She hoped she wasn’t as red as she felt.

She probably wasn’t.

She probably was redder.

“Are you kidding me,” Sylvain scoffed, reaching for her before she could cringe and apologize. He pressed kiss after kiss on her forehead, hair, cheeks, nose, once on her lips. “I said I liked you.”

Bernie fidgeted and giggled as he assaulted her face and neck with quick kisses. “But not the story?” Sylvain pushed himself away from her and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, the story was great,” he drawled. He propped his elbow on the cushion next to her and leaned his cheek against his hand. “Did a great job. Let me know you liked me, too.”

Bernie covered her face with her hands. “I can’t believe I thought that was a good idea,” she wailed. Sylvain pried her hands away and kissed her lips again.

“No complaints from your editor.”

Sto-op!”

Sylvain stopped.

But only because an insistent knock was coming from the door. And it naturally was not Sylvain’s knock.

They both shot confused looks at each other, Bernie’s confusion tinted with more panic than his.

“Bernadetta?”

No, now Sylvain looked more panicked. “Oh, no.”

“Bernadetta, I see your sign. I didn’t know you were sick—you should have told me the other day!” Ingrid jiggled the locked handle from the outside, and Bernie’s ice ran cold, remembering how strong Ingrid was and how weak the doors in the monastery were. “Can I come in? You shouldn’t lock your door if you’re sick!”

They both sat up and began scrambling for their clothes.

“Uh, I’m fine now!” Bernie called back, trying to seem breezy and calm. Neither tone came naturally.

“Are you sure?” Ingrid’s voice was closer, more muffled, like she was trying to talk through the door. “You sound kind of weird.”

Bernie gestured wildly at Sylvain, as if that would communicate her need for help more than was painfully, desperately obvious. But he was flitting his gaze to the wardrobe, the window, under the bed, behind where the door opened, and back to the wardrobe again.

Like a habit.

Like someone’s dirty secret.

Bernie set her jaw and grabbed his hand. Sylvain flinched, but the tension left his shoulders.

“I’m—I’m coming, Ingrid,” she said louder to Sylvain. He forced a smile onto his face, and she squeezed his hand tight enough he winced. “But…but you better not get mad. Okay?”