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Another Path

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Upon Dimitri’s return to the castle earlier that night, nothing sounded more welcoming than resting in his quarters till morning. The meeting with the merchants had his brain numb by the end of it and he didn’t think he could bear any more mental stimulation. He'd promised Byleth that they would do an activity of her choice the following day to make up for tonight. She was very understanding as usual—for which he was grateful. On the contrary, her indifference did bother him the smallest amount, but not enough to counter the lethargy flooding his body.

Much like every night, when sleep was almost in his grasp, he would be jolted awake by the feeling of panic that pounded his heart against his chest and drenched his forehead with balls of sweat. He would down the water beside his bed before laying back down to try again only to suffer the same fate. This wasn’t a new occurrence for him, unfortunately. The events of Duscur still plagued him heavily in his moments of vulnerability, specifically in the form of voices calling out to him during hypnagogic states or as nightmares replaying the horrors he’d witnessed that day. A voice and face that appeared most often was that of Felix’s late older brother, Glenn. The eldest Fraldarius sibling had risked his life for his liege, holding off the attacks until Jeralt and his battalion were able to interfere. Unfortunately, Glenn died of severe burns and sepsis from his injuries not long after.

For those reasons, Dimitri was most comfortable during the day; there wasn’t the foreboding fear of what lurked in the shadows. His mind had difficulties differentiating between what was reality and what wasn’t. Sometimes he swore he saw faces staring at him from the shadows in the corner. When he blinked, they would vanish. These hallucinations, which were all they were, only acted up at night. When he was awake and alert, they didn’t plague him, hence why he spent very little of his days sleeping.

He wouldn’t have to fear panic attacks waking him up if he didn’t sleep in the first place.

Night walks weren’t uncommon for him. They allowed him to reflect on his day without the fear of falling asleep in his bed and being taunted by whatever voices or faces his mind created.

Giving up on the idea of sleep, he rose from the bed and slipped on his boots and a cloak. He left his room with nothing, but a white-buttoned night shirt and black trousers with his hair out of its usual half-ponytail. He wondered if Byleth was still awake, considering her habit of night fishing and taking walks. There were still many subjects he wanted to speak with her about—some topics leisurely, while others were more serious, involving their situation. Now would be the ideal time since there would be little interruption.

He checked the guest wing Byleth and Flayn shared, but found no one. Save for Dedue who was in the kitchen randomly sharpening knives and polishing cookware, everyone else in the castle with any sense had long retreated to their quarters for the night.

Along his trek, he eventually found her sitting by a pond further back in the gardens. His position on the balcony accompanied by the moonlight and the pathway lanterns gave him a relatively clear image of her. She looked to be dipping her feet in the freezing pond water? Of all her various strange tendencies, this was the most concerning to him. Was she not afraid of frostbite?

The slouching of her shoulders and the way she leaned back on her hands indicated that the temperature didn’t seem to bother her much, which only made him sigh that much harder.

He was already making his way over when a figure approached her from behind. Instinct had him ready to running over, but his judgment proved better when he identified the figure to be Felix. While he was relieved that she wasn’t in danger, he sincerely hoped that the Fraldarius man didn’t share too much or say anything hateful that would offend her.

Getting close enough to make out their facial expressions, his worry quadrupled when he saw Byleth’s brows furrow together while her lips dipped into a frown. She didn’t look insulted, so at least that was a relief, but whatever was being said didn’t have good implications.

Aside from his curiosity about the conversation, something else about the whole ordeal bothered him. He first surmised that, perhaps, he was just uncomfortable with the situation because they were both unmarried individuals meeting up for a late-night rendezvous—which was considered taboo. And maybe he was worried about their image in the event they were caught by someone other than him? While honorable for any other noble, it was unlikely the case for him. He was hardly the kind of person to worry over such a thing.

Although, he had to admit that the scene didn’t look great from an outside perspective.

While losing himself in his thoughts, it never occurred to him that he was technically spying on the two until he felt his hand brush against the bush he hid behind.

Goddess, this whole situation was ludicrous. They were simply talking! He had nothing to be worried about. They were just two people—who happened to be of the opposite gender—having a normal conversation in a secluded area in the middle of night. Nothing odd about that, right?

Right?

It wasn’t until he saw Felix turn to leave, did he notice the tightening in his chest. The feeling exacerbated when Byleth reached out to grip the other man’s sleeve in haste, almost as if in panic.

Dimitri didn't know what overcame him, but he was out from behind his cover and marching over before he knew what hit him.

Fuck. What was he doing?

Not once has Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd ever marched blindly into a situation without any semblance of a plan, and yet, here he was. His plans in the past didn’t always work, but at least he’d been prepared. Now, however, was a different story. He lacked any sort of foresight and fabricating anything on the spot would be futile knowing that Felix could sniff out his lies as quickly as Ingrid inhaled her first course.

But then again, what did he have to lie about anyways?

“I’m happy to see you two are getting along amiably.”

Byleth jumped, her shoulders jolting up as she turned around. When their eyes met, a small smile graced her face, immediately lessening the tension in his chest.

“What are you still doing up, Boar?” Felix questioned evenly, shifting his body in the prince’s direction.

Felix being the perceptive man that he was, he knew exactly why the prince was still awake. He’d known about Dimitri’s insomnia and night terrors for years. Hell, his room had been right next to the prince’s back at the academy, and Dimitri was the exact opposite of stealthy when he'd leave his room late at night for his midnight walks. Felix never brought it up since it wasn’t his business, but he wasn’t blind to the signs of sleep deprivation in his friend. Now that he’d been staying at Castle Blaiddyd for a moon or two, it was evident that Dimitri’s sleep obstacles continued to persist.

“I was feeling a bit restless and thought that I would walk about the grounds.”

“Hmm. How convenient that you’ve ended up here?” Felix scoffed, “Don’t let me interrupt you on this ‘walk’ of yours, Boar.” Felix nodded to Byleth before walking away, glancing at Dimitri from the corner of his eye with a glint of something as he passed the other man.

The two remaining people watched the other man disappear into the distance before turning their attention to each other.

“Care to join me?” Byleth gestured toward the spot next to her. Dimitri happily obliged. “It is quite convenient that you happened upon us during your walk, I have to admit,” she joked.

Dimitri coughed, “Ah, well, if I may be honest, I was looking to see if you were awake as well. I didn’t forget your invitation for night fishing, you see. Though, in retrospect, I don’t believe you have the needed equipment for it yet.”

“You’re not wrong about that. I was hoping to visit a shop or two soon to acquire some.”

The conversation led itself naturally through various topics—current events, festivity preparations, noble relations, and diplomacy with the Empire. Despite their outward conversation flowing well, they both had difficulty breaching the topics that were truly on their minds. Eventually, they both succumbed to silence, a nerve-wracking silence that had Dimitri fidgeting with his hand.

Byleth broke the silence first, “I’ve noticed that Felix is much more perceptive than he lets on.”

Dimitri looked at her curiously, “Why do you say that?” he asked. He knew Felix to be a very sensitive individual, but that was only because they were close friends. Not even Felix’s father, Rodrigue, knew the extent of his son’s emotions. So, he wondered how Byleth came to that conclusion?

“I suppose that he had noticed a bit of my apprehension, so he came to check on me.” Having nearly forgotten her near-frozen feet, she lifted them out of the water and shook the excess off. She brought her knees to her chest so that her dress skirt could protect her feet from the wind, completely unaware of Dimitri’s inquisitive look.

“Ah, I see. It is a bit unlike him to worry about another’s wellbeing, but he isn’t without his moments of kindness.” He brought his hand to his chin, “He is definitely one of those people who, despite not interacting with others needlessly, pays close attention to those in his environment.”

She nodded, “I can see that. He was very thoughtful just now; he offered me some insight as well as an ear if I ever needed someone to talk to.” Dimitri wasn’t given the chance to reply before she pinned him with an intense stare, “And some of this ‘insight’ he provided was rather interesting, actually. I’d like to know what you think of it.”

He gulped, feeling uncomfortable under her piercing gaze.

“I recall telling you previously that I'd be willing to wait for you to overcome your current struggles before we developed our relationship further. However, I’m starting to believe that whatever information you haven’t disclosed to me yet may actually be more important to the success of this engagement than I originally thought.”

She allowed him two blinks before continuing.

“Please define for me what being ‘acquainted’ with another person means, if you could?” Byleth didn’t know where she was getting this sudden boldness from, but her short conversation with Felix had awoken a desire for clarity.

She needed the security that this whole arrangement would not be in vain—that she was making the right choice.

Dimitri cleared his throat, “Would that not mean getting to know another person, familiarizing yourself with him or her?”

“Then would you say that we are ‘acquainted?’”

“I- well- yes, I suppose you could say that we are.”

“I see, thank you for the clarification,” she said, her intense stare not letting up, “Earlier, Felix found my wording funny when I used ‘acquainted’ to refer to your past relationship. I wonder if I’ve misunderstood something? From my understanding, I was given the impression that you two were only 'acquainted.'”

Ah. So, that was what the two had been talking about.

Dimitri inhaled deeply, letting the cold air fill his lungs, grounding him. “No, you have not misunderstood anything,” he shook his head, “I am the one at fault for withholding the full story from you. I offer my sincerest apologies for causing such confusion.” His head hung low. “I know excuses are not enough, but I promise that I would have told you eventually—soon, in fact.”

Silence filled the air around them as Dimitri gathered his thoughts. Byleth couldn’t bring herself to look at him, instead opting to stare at the moon’s reflection in the water as she waited for him to continue.

“The truth is that I had been informally courting Ma- the other girl. I had even proposed to her,” he massaged his nose bridge, “but as you can see, my attempt was not successful.”

Byleth froze. So, there was a proposal involved in all this. It now made sense why he was so deeply affected.

He continued, “I was already aware of our betrothal, but a part of myself needed to know if there was any way for fate to play out differently. I understand that was selfish of me and I feel awful admitting that to you now.”

She could feel his gaze looking her way, but her eyes remained trained to the pond. She didn’t know what to think or what she should be thinking in this situation. Even if she had secretly expected as much, the news wasn’t any less shocking. He had proposed to this girl, which was proof enough of his devotion to her. Proof of feelings that couldn’t be simply forgotten so quickly, even years later. She knew she should be angry, that she had every right to be, but she couldn’t find it within herself to hold resentment. Rather, she found herself empathizing with him instead—as much as she, an emotionless ghost could, anyway.

Dimitri was still healing from whatever circumstances that ailed him, so to be thrown this soon into the engagement with her must’ve been difficult for him. She did not want to be the reason for his misery, assuming that she was the reason the relationship never grew to fruition.

Wracking through her brain for a plan, she came to a decision, one that she thought would be beneficial to them both.

Before she could share her plan, swift movement from her periphery caught her attention.

While she’d been thinking, Dimitri had brought himself into a standing bow. His head was dipped low, leaving his long hair to obscure her view of his face. “Byleth, I am deeply sorry for my lack of communication. I completely understand if you cannot bring yourself to forgive me, or if you wish to nullify our engagement.”

Her eyes widened, while her mouth agape, unsure of how to respond. Rising, she placed a gentle hand on his back, “Dimitri, please, stand up.” He complied, remorse evident in his eyes. “I’ll admit that while I would have appreciated knowing this sooner, I can’t fault you completely. Our desire as humans to test the boundaries of what is permitted and what is not can be much too tempting at times.” She smiled softly. Turning away to look out at the pond, the breeze brushed her mint strands against her rosy cheeks. “I, too, have had my own selfish desires, which is why I can’t possibly condemn you for your own.

She inhaled deeply before continuing, “If I’m to speak freely, this arrangement has served as an... excuse of sorts for me—so that I may have a valid reason for my grandmother to let me leave Garreg Mach. I've always wanted to travel and see more of the world, you see.”

“But then wouldn’t our engagement and marriage technically hold you in Fhirdiad? Your desire for travel would not be satisfied through our union.”

“Perhaps, but I do recall our fathers’ agreement stating that this engagement isn’t binding if we both agree that the connection isn’t there. In the past, I’ve been courted by several noblemen due to my inheritance and status, yet my personality, or lack thereof, tended to drive them all away. Truthfully, I assumed that our engagement would end up much the same.”

“I see,” Dimitri felt his jaw slacken. “In other words, you were hoping that this wouldn’t work out between us?”

“When you state it like that, I sound much more conniving,” she tilted her head, a finger on her chin. “I wouldn’t say I was hoping, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if you held no interest in me—which brings me to my next point.”

He nodded, urging her to continue.

“How about breaking off the engagement, at least temporarily? I don’t believe this is the right time for us to have such a commitment.” She hesitated briefly, “I also wouldn’t want to prevent you from pursuing what you truly desire,” she offered, the last part barely audible, yet Dimitri still caught it all the same.

He paused, concern reflecting on his face, “But is this what you truly want, Byleth? My past relationship is over and I do not wish for you to think that I would prefer that situation over you.”

“But is that not the truth?” He remained silent. She sent him a small smile, one that he noticed did not reach her eyes. “This is what I truly want, Dimitri. I wish for us to only court if we genuinely want it, and if it brings us happiness.”

“Then, what of our fathers?”

“I believe that they will understand. We won’t necessarily have to tell them if we choose to continue being acquaintances.”

“Well, I would love nothing more than to stay friends with you, Byleth. I enjoy your company and I appreciate being able to talk to you like this.” The blonde-haired prince sent her a tender smile that she couldn’t help reciprocating.

“I… would love to stay friends with you, too. You are one of the few people who sees me as a person, not as a ghost, or as human chattel. So, thank you.”

“Of course, and I’m grateful to you all the same for your understanding, fairness, and patience with me. It is a pleasure to be friends with you, Lady Byleth.”

“Likewise, Your Highness.”

A comfortable silence settled into place as the two continued to appreciate each other’s presence while admiring the nature around them.

It wasn’t until Byleth shivered that Dimitri extended his elbow out to her, “Shall we head inside? It is getting awfully cold.”

She nodded, lacing her hand around his arm, unintentionally huddling close as the windchill hit.

The small shivers that wracked her body had Dimitri draping half of his cloak around her shoulders, pulling her to him to shelter her from the frigid wind.

Byleth couldn’t help but lean into his warmth.

*

The weeks following proved to be much more eventful than the last. What walls remained between the two were broken down steadily as they grew more comfortable with each other—not as betrothed individuals, but as two adoring friends.

As a token of their friendship, as well as an apology, Dimitri hand-delivered a new set of silver fishing equipment to Byleth’s quarters one morning, accompanied by an offer to go morning fishing. The mint-haired woman took to the gift immediately, excitement virtually radiating off her person in waves. He didn’t think he’d ever seen her look so happy. Her smile was downright mesmerizing to say the least and he was proud to know that he’d contributed to such happiness, especially after having caused her nothing, but doubt and confusion. While he stood there like an idiot admiring her gleeful expression, she proceeded to examine rods with great care before promptly slamming the door in his face.

And so, the prince was left waiting for her in the corridor while she readied herself for their expenditure. The instant she was done dressing, she grabbed his hand and practically warped to Flayn’s door to invite her cousin to fish with them. Unfortunately, the smaller girl was grumpy to have been woken up so close to the edge of dawn that she declined, instead promising that she would feast on their catches later in the day.

Surprise was an understatement for Dimitri when the first thing his female companion did, once they reached the woods leading to the river, was to hunt for worms and grubs under rocks and rotting logs. Her explanation to his questioning look was, “We need bait.” He didn’t think he’d ever seen a noblewoman dig around in the muck for insects only to store them in her freshly washed and ironed handkerchief. The whole scene was slightly comical, but also oddly charming in its own way. Unable to leave her to do all the dirty work, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

Dimitri learned two things that day. One, he was better at catching fish with a spear or with his bare hands rather than sitting around waiting for a bite. Two, Byleth was one of the most patient people he’d ever had the privilege of meeting. How she could sit for hours on end with the utmost concentration was beyond him.

“Practicing patience is one of the most important lessons I was taught,” she explained.

“That would make sense for Lady Rhea to teach you such a thing. Patience is definitely a virtue that I’m afraid many people can’t say they have, myself included.”

“You don’t strike me as the type of person to be impatient,” she examined him. “Someone who is impatient, would be our dear Sir Felix.”

“Can’t say you’re wrong there,” he laughed, “Although, I do have to give him his credit where it’s due. You will have noticed that he’s easily irritable, enough to stab someone, especially when it comes to Sylvain?”

She nodded.

“Well, would it surprise you to say that he somehow hasn’t yet? Not even when Sylvain teased him about Anne-” he coughed before correcting himself, “highly unfavorable moments that Felix would rather bargain with the Goddess to have him forget than to be reminded of.”

If Felix found out that Dimitri almost revealed one of his “weaknesses,” a sword of Zoltan would absolutely find its way up his ass before he could blink. He could only pray that Byleth didn’t notice his blunder, but the glint evident in her eyes told him differently as she eyed him. Fortunately though, she decided to spare him by diverting her attention back to her hook and beginning to hum quietly instead.

To prevent further blunders, he opted to stay silent.

Her humming fit harmoniously with the woodland sounds around them, so much so that he couldn’t help closing his eyes to bask in the peaceful atmosphere. He decided in that moment that he greatly enjoyed the soothing quality of her voice. He could even imagine himself at his desk completing paperwork while she sat on the lounge chair humming while she read—the image left a surprisingly warm feeling in the pit of his chest, one that he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

Very rarely was he able to find time to enjoy these simpler aspects of life, like he was now. His days were typically spent in his office working or in meetings with other authoritative figures. He knew his responsibilities would only continue to grow as his father delegated more and more to him. Lambert was soon to retire, leaving the Kingdom in his hands; hence, the King’s nudges for him to take on a princess consort. Of course, while his father claimed that he was merely suggesting Dimitri begin his courtship with Byleth, he knew that the older man was eager to have her as a daughter-in-law. Unfortunately for the aging monarch, that would not be the case, at least not for a while, he surmised.

Then, there was Lady Patricia, who was no better. With Edelgard taking the reins of the Empire, she had less time to visit her mother whom craved her feminine presence.

Cue Byleth filling in that feminine void for the Queen Consort. They regularly had tea together, typically 2-3 times a week. He still remembered one day when he’d heard Byleth teaching his step-mother about the rich taste of coffee and how pairing the beverage with pastries was a culinary delight. Lady Patricia, intrigued by this foreign drink, requested his father order some of these rare coffee beans for the castle later that evening over dinner. He could always count on Byleth to share her interest in eating with other people. Shame that Ingrid wasn’t there to enjoy the conversation.

Reflecting on the past month or so, having Byleth and Flayn here had proved to brighten everyone up in the castle, especially with winter’s dreary weather approaching. Flayn often ran about the castle helping with one task or another whilst also keeping the staff company. Despite claiming that she was around the same age as her peers, her youthful behavior did well to cheer up the atmosphere of any room she entered. Even Felix seemed to be tolerating her better now, even to the point of helping her chop firewood whenever she requested. Oh, and no one could ignore her horrible attempts at cooking—at least that’s what he was told—and unique love for all things fish related.

Then, there was her dear cousin. He had to commend his female companion for her myriad of interests, many of which were not as common among nobles—including, but not limiting to, fishing, weapon maintence and sparring, gardening, and eatingcooking. Ironically, while Dimitri grew up in the castle, he did not have the luxury to explore the abundance of activities common children were able to. His governesses always emphasized learning leadership qualities and skills that would be beneficial for a future monarch. Of these skills, his favorites were learning equestrian practices and tactical maneuvers. Although, he had to note that Gustave was technically his instructor for those topics, rather than his governesses. The lessons he abhorred the most were when he had to practice scripture. Most of the lessons involved trying to hold the quill without splintering it into a million pieces.

That made him wonder then, as the future archbishop, did Byleth also have to learn similar leaderships skills? Likely. Albeit, there was probably more leniency in her training with how proficient she was in various “commoner” activities, as his governesses would have referred to them as.

A rapid splashing of water forced his eyes open and he looked towards the source.

Byleth stood beside him, struggling immensely to pull a biting fish out of the water. Dropping his own rod, he rushed over to assist her only to have her rod smack him right in the face from the momentum as the fish flew out of the water.

He bit his lip to prevent himself from calling out as he felt his nose crack a bit, wetness beginning to seep out from his nostrils. Where did she get strength like that from anyways?

“Got one!” Byleth exclaimed, seemingly unaware of the damage she had caused. “Ah, looks to be a good sized salmon. This would taste great with some of the Duscurian spices I procured for Dedue,” she said, turning, “A squeeze of Brigidian lemon would also do the trick-” she froze, her eyes wide at the sight of the prince before her with a red mark down his face and a oozing bloody nose.

Dropping her fish in a bucket, she quickly fumbled for her spare handkerchief, “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were there.” She guided him to sit down and pressed her handkerchief to his nose. “Here, allow me,” she dabbed at the blood. Noticing him flinch, she questioned, “Does it hurt much?”

He shook his head, covering her hand with his larger one, “It is only a bit tender.”

Feeling the warmth of his hand, she froze, eyes deeply seated on their touching hands. Her eyes scanned the area until she was met with his blue irises. They were so close; the closest they’d ever been, that their breaths were mingling in the crisp morning air.

Were his eyes always that blue?

They reminded her of the tender blue forget-me-nots she grew this past spring. They were beautiful—whether she meant the flowers or the cobalt hue of his eyes, she wasn’t sure.

Similarly, Dimitri reveled in how petite her hand was compared to his. He had placed his hand over top hers reflexively to lighten the pressure on his nose, but for some reason, he found himself unwilling to let go. She was so close, her natural scent of mixed tea leaves and mint hit his nose as hard as her fishing rod had. If he had to get another nosebleed just to have another chance to appreciate her fragrance again, he would do it many times over. As the breeze blew strands of her hair forward, he noted the way she’d chose to style her hair today. She had it in a high ponytail with strands on either side of her head braided into the ponytail. That left her bangs and small strands to frame her face perfectly, allowing him full view of her ears and her neck. He had never been close enough to notice how slender her neck and collarbones were under her cloak, let alone the skin that reached further dow-

Byleth removed her hand from his nose and leaned back, averting her gaze, her cheeks pink, “Please keep the handkerchief,” she said softly, “Will you need healing? I'd be happy to heal you, if you wish.”

Dimitri felt heat rushing up his neck to his ears, unable to face her. Could he be any more shameful, ogling his friend like that? He knew her to be an attractive individual, but why did he have to eye her like a piece of meat? If he thought he’d fucked up before, now he did for sure. What would she think of him now? That he was no better than Sylvain? That he was just like all the other men who looked her body up and down? Don't think he didn’t notice the stares she got when they traveled into the marketplace.

“Dimitri?” She placed her hand on his arm, making him jump at her contact, “You don’t have a concussion, do you?” Placing her other hand on his cheek, she turned his face so that she could examine him for uneven pupils.

When she looked at him with her head tilted like that, concern laden in her eyes, he felt like he needed to back away from her. Fast. “I-” he coughed, “I am quite fine, thank you. I don’t believe my nose is fully broken, so no immediate healing will be necessary,” he said, quickly retreating to his fallen rod with shaky hands and red ears.

*

Flurried snow graced the Faerghus skies when Byleth and Flayn decided to head into town to gather tea leaves and ingredients. Felix, despite being hateful the whole time, accompanied them because he apparently was sick of the castle and was planning on “surveying the weapon stalls, anyways,” apparently. He also apparently claimed joining them was, “For convenience sake,” he said.

Apparently.

Byleth never did see him browse said stalls, even when they passed by them.

“Felix, won’t you stop brooding?” said Flayn, shooting him an unamused look from over her shoulder.

“Hm.”

“Have you not noticed that people cower away as we trek past them?” Flayn pointedly eyed a pair of children who looked frightened by Felix, especially so after he scowled at them directly.

“It must be because of that look you always have—the one where you look like someone kicked your cat,” Byleth said casually, placing her finger on her chin. Flayn giggled, sticking her tongue out at the brooding man walking behind them.

“A brilliant explanation, indeed!”

“More like the look I have because I have to escort you two around when I could be polishing my collection instead of wasting my time shopping,” he spat, crossing his arms.

Byleth, completely unfazed by his mean tone, scanned a merchant’s stall displaying specialty teas, “Hmmm, but were you not the one to volunteer when Dimitri requested someone come with us?”

Felix didn’t reply, muttering something about annoying boars under his breath before walking off ahead of them a few steps.

“My, a pleasant gentleman as always, I see,” Flayn sighed, grabbing Byleth’s sleeve just as she was about to wander off.

Both females couldn’t help but think the Fraldarius man wasn’t unlike a feral cat hissing when poked and prodded at with a stick, a thought that had Flayn giggling and Byleth smirking to herself.

Nearing the end of their trip, the trio passed by a bakery on their journey back to the castle. Exiting the small shop was a pair of familiar faces—a blonde-haired bishop and her ginger-haired warlock best friend. To be expected, the reunion was quite the scene with many hugs, squeals, and tears to be had between the females.

Mercedes was currently running a local orphanage not too far from the castle as a representative of the church. The everyday tasks of caring for the children kept her occupied throughout the day, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. When she wasn’t running the orphanage, she spent her free time knitting and sewing clothes for the orphans and baking bread to accompany their meals.

For Annette, she currently held a teaching position at the Royal School of Sorcery with a focus on reason magic. After classes were over, being the busy body that she was, she spent much of her time planning and developing lectures, attending seminars, participating in studies with her fellow teachers, and honing her faith magic skills. As usual, the small warlock knew nothing of the term, “relaxing.”

“While I am still here, please consider visiting the castle as my guest. I’m sure Dimitri wouldn’t mind,” Byleth encouraged, “I would enjoy having more familiar faces around to keep me company. Not that Flayn and Felix aren’t pleasant company enough.” She gestured to Felix who was oddly much further back than the last time she saw him.

Mercedes and Annette tilted their bodies to look around Byleth for said man.

“Oh Felix, I didn’t realize you were there!” Mercedes smiled, “You should have said something.” She moved around her group to give him a hug, one that he hesitantly reciprocated by offering her back a few pats. “I thought you were in Fraldarius this whole time. It’s great to see you!”

“Likewise,” he said, a barely noticeable smile making its way onto his face.

The air was light until Felix fixed his gaze on Annette, whose demeanor had changed drastically. Her expression hardened, a small frown tempting to appear.

“Hello Felix.”

“Hello Annette.”

Neither bothered to say anything else, instead opting to borderline-glare each other down. Byleth merely blinked, wondering what all the silence was for. Perhaps they didn’t like each other? Flayn snapped her head back and forth between the two, her curls nearly slapping her cousin on the arm each time. The smaller girl was very obviously interested in what underlying circumstances led the two to regard each other with such coldness.

Mercedes clasped her hands together, stepping in between the two tense individuals. “Ah! On another note, what brings you to Fhirdiad, Byleth?” She redirected the attention. “I believe I heard you refer to Prince Dimitri by his name. Are you close?”

Byleth blinked, taken aback by the question, “Oh, well, I suppose you could say that I am here as King Lambert’s guest. My dad is friends with the King.”

Felix snickered, “That’s a way to put it.”

Having forgotten about what had previously transpired, Annette stepped around Felix, looking at Byleth questioningly. “Captain Jeralt is friends with His Majesty?! Were you and His Highness friends at the academy? I didn’t think you knew each other?” she questioned, until another thought occurred to her, “WAIT! Are you two childhood friends? That’d be so cute if you were!”

Byleth cracked a smile, “To answer both your questions, no, we are not. We have only been getting to know each other very recently.”

“Oh wow, I had the impression that you knew each other well from how you spoke of him just now,” Mercedes placed her hand on her cheek.

Flayn giggled, “It really does seem that way, does it not?”

“Wait…” Annette grabbed both of Byleth’s hands and held them up, “Don’t tell me… are you two courting?”

“Oh my!” Mercedes brought her hands up to her mouth.

Byleth suddenly felt overwhelmed, being put on the spot. What could she say? They still hadn’t told anyone about their decision to call off any binding relations between them. Even then, their engagement technically hadn’t been official anyways. The two friends looked at her expectantly, Flayn looked just about to explode, and various townspeople had stopped in their tracks to indiscreetly eavesdrop. Her eyes scanned all the faces watching her intently, until she found Felix, whom she silently—and unintentionally—pleaded for help from.

Recognizing the panic in her eyes, Felix immediately blocked her from everyone’s view by hiding her behind him, “Even if they were, I don’t believe that is information to be shared so publicly.”

She was grateful that he understood her. She’d have to thank him later with a pre-spar tea session.

What Byleth didn’t see though, was Annette's confused stare flicking back and forth between her and the Fraldarius man protecting her from public view.

What was going on?

*

Next chapter…

Disarray at Garreg Mach. The beginning of the Kingdom’s Founding Day Celebration. Various familiar faces arrive in Fhirdiad.