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Rivals No More

Chapter Text

"I always believe in doing the right thing and standing up for others. Glad you're safe," Zeri said with confidence.

The fleeing stranger was well gone by now after falsely accusing a child of stealing his pocket watch. Zeri, sensing trouble, intervened on the child’s behalf. He proved the child’s innocence by figuring out that the pocket watch belonged to him and that the stranger was trying to steal it.

"Thanks for getting my watch back, Zeri!" The child was grateful for this person helping him just now.

“You’re very welcome. I know the world can be a scary place, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.” Zeri was reminded of the one time someone stood up for him very much the same way when he was younger. “Can you make it home from here? Just be careful.”

“Of course! It’s not too far. Seeya!”

“You too.” Zeri waved the child off. He was never the best with farewells, resorting to those two words as a default.

The blue-haired, blue-eyed, bespectacled young man was now by himself. Only for a few moments, however, as he heard slow clapping from behind.

“You did very well out there, Zeri. You were rather reckless in how you stepped in, but you looked like you knew what you were doing. I could see it in your face and body language.” This person spoke with a smile he wore by default.

“I appreciate the compliments,” Zeri spoke with sincerity. He turned around to see a man with rather disheveled brown hair, which belied his calm and collected demeanor. “I’ve seen you around, but I don’t think we’ve properly met before.”

“Oh right, I forgot to introduce myself,” the man scratched the back of his head, before pulling it away, “The name’s Hubert Brixham, a teacher from Lanseal Royal Military Academy.”

Zeri perked up. His tone and posture changed as soon as he realized who the teacher was, addressing him formally. “The name’s Zeri, sir. I’m familiar with your name from back during the war. Aside from teaching, I know you serve as liaison for the academy, scouting potential candidates and being a point of contact for people in high places. Somehow you’ve always eluded me. I’m honored to meet you, Mr. Brixham.”

“At ease, Zeri. Hubert is fine since we’re well outside the school.” Zeri’s posture eased up. “Anyway, I’m here to officially let you know you’ve been accepted to Lanseal. You’ve made quite the name for yourself here in Randgriz, more than enough to catch the attention of the school. And you’ve definitely done your homework. We’ve kept a file ever since you expressed interest a long time ago. What I observed today by chance will be another thing added to that file. Letsee here,” Hubert fished an envelope out of his bag to hand over, which Zeri took, “I already know your answer, but formalities and all. That sort of thing.”

Zeri brightened up while getting the letter out of the envelope and borrowing a pen. He showed enthusiasm as he signed his name at the bottom of the acceptance letter, folded it back into the envelope, and handed both back to Hubert, returning them to his bag.

Hubert held out his hand. “Congratulations, Zeri, you’re officially a Lanseal cadet.” Zeri returned the gesture to make a handshake.

Once they broke the handshake, Zeri said with sincerity, “I was starting to wonder when I’d hear back from the school. You must have been really busy if it took you this long.”

Hubert laughed, glad to have that formality out of the way. “You’re not wrong, Zeri. Lanseal is pushing to get things done sooner to prepare for a civil war. Normally these things would be sent by mail, but they want whoever is available to hand them over in person.”

Zeri felt comfortable enough to express wit. “If I didn’t know any better, I thought you’d be lost.”

Hubert was more than happy to match Zeri’s wit with his own. “Saves me the trip of finding your home, as nice as it would be to see it for myself. Oh right, before I forget,” he rustled through his bag. “I should give you these papers. They’ll tell you everything you need to know before heading to Lanseal. Make sure to look it over and bring along when you arrive week from now.” A sigh of relief followed. “I’ve lost count of how many people I met with today. You were the last person on my route today, though this meeting was even sooner than expected. Luck of the draw.”

“At least you saved the best for last.” Zeri couldn’t help himself.

“Good thing Juliana isn’t around to hear that. She’d have words with you, especially with the ball coming up soon.”

“Oh, plenty. I already have enough for her. It would be a waste to not hold on until then.”

“She never passes on an opportunity to bring up your name into our conversations. Makes me wish I could put you in the same class as her to see what would happen. If only I had control over student placement,” he said half-joking and seriously.

“You probably have better things to do than to hear the both of us in the same room, classroom or ball.”

"I want to say I have better things to do than to attend this ball. I'm not one for these social functions, preferring to meet people more privately. Not only is the school making me run around like this, they want me to represent them at the ball, thinking I'm the best person for the job. They're not letting me out of this one," Hubert spoke with disappointment, "I am however looking forward to all the conversations you and Juliana will have,” he said with a smirk.

“It’ll be nice to have another familiar face there, in any case.” Zeri already appreciated Hubert’s company in this short time. “This will be a good opportunity to get to know you better.”

“The feeling’s mutual. Want to meet up at the gate, time come Friday night?”

“Sure thing. I look forward to seeing you there.”

“Likewise.” Hubert glanced at his watch. “As much as I’d like to stay around, I need to get going. The school has me running all over the place. Until then, Zeri,” he waved.

“You too.” Those two words Zeri liked using for farewells.

Zeri, once again by himself, was lost in thought as he made his way back home. He worked so hard to get to this point, but he’s finally there. The upcoming ball however would be a respite before he began the next chapter in his life.

Chapter Text

A few days removed from his first meeting with Hubert, Zeri arrived at the Everhart estate where the formal ball was being held. Even though life was now moving quickly, he came prepared.

Zeri was a rather stoic person. He carried himself through his calm and collected nature, in which he placed logic and reason over emotions and irrationality. It determined whenever he would speak in a succinct or verbose manner. Behind those blue eyes, he wasn’t without emotion and showed it like any other person would. Such was the case when he found out about his acceptance at Lanseal because he had been working toward that goal for so much of his life. A sense of understatement, just like his dry sense of humor.

All of these things were expressed through the tuxedo he wore for this night. He was as tidy as he could be, making sure there were no mistakes in his appearance. Everything had to look right, from the way his shirt was tucked, to the shine on his shoes. At the same time, the outfit flattered his physical finesse and athletic build, giving him a presence.

Zeri wanted to do whatever it took to achieve his goals. Two in particular. The first was to get accepted into Lanseal Royal Military Academy, which would prepare him for a lifelong career in the military. The second was to learn from the aristocracy and apply it to his own life, from the most influential within Gallian society. Both meant cultivating himself in both body and mind. He regularly participated in athletics at his high school, believing all that mattered on the field was ability, drive, and morale before anything else. He was studious in his academics because he knew how important it was with his interest in Lanseal, something he expressed well before he entered high school.

Outside of school, he spent much of time being around the aristocracy with the sincere interest of learning from them, both out of leisurely pursuits and professional development. Zeri quickly found acceptance through his knowledge of current affairs, economics, and society. Whether people were sincere in taking him under their wing or condescending toward him with the idea they were helping a lesser person was of no consequence to Zeri as he moved forward. He took up hobbies such as fencing and chess, both of which he loved. He was a much welcomed regular at discussions over tea. He even became familiar with some people there his age.

Through it all, Zeri never forgot his Darcsen heritage as he navigated the social climate. He wore a traditional cloth tied around his arm, near the shoulder, making a point of doing so, despite repeated suggestions that he should not. The formal gatherings, which were an important part of Gallian higher society, were the one place he conceded on the cloth. No matter the reason for these functions, often being only one of two Darcsens in attendance, he always brought a Darcsen-patterned handkerchief in its place. It was his way of carrying his pride, no matter what.

Going back to tonight, Zeri stood near the entrance gate to the Everhart premises. He immediately saw Hubert Brixham, just as planned.

Hubert was dressed in a pinstriped, dark brown suit. It was his outfit of choice wherever he went, whether it was meeting up with Zeri previously, or teaching in the classrooms of Lanseal Academy. The outfit was formal enough that he wore it to this function. It contrasted with his rather shaggy hair that spoke to his personality.

He could appear to be aloof, but it was the furthest from the truth. He was curious about most things and liked being around others. Whenever Hubert takes an interest in someone, he will find out everything he can about them. It was for this reason he was immediately drawn to Zeri. His manner of speech, which could emanate a sense of coldness and strictness, initially caused Zeri to address him formally, as his presence seemed to command, before being told to be at ease. The smile he often wore helped there. It was this contrast between perception and actuality that made him a great conversation partner with Zeri, through the sense of humor and wit they shared in common.

“Ah, Zeri, there you are. I knew you’d be here on time.” Hubert quipped.

“I don’t disappoint, Hubert,” Zeri said with a slight smile.

“You’d think with a civil war going on, this place would look emptier.” Hubert looked around. “You couldn’t tell.”

“For now, at least,” Zeri added, “this ball will be the last one I’m attending for a while.”

“That is, if you don’t drop out,” Hubert said back in response.

“I’m reassured by your confidence,” Zeri replied with a slight smile matching Hubert’s.

“Can’t help it with how long I’ve been a teacher at this school,” Hubert put his hand behind the back of his head.

“Better help yourself if I’m placed in your homeroom class.”

“Last more than a week and I’ll worry then.”

“I’d rather remain a cadet than a failure of a guest at these social gatherings.” Both laughed at this exchange.

“Speaking of guests,” Hubert looked toward a gathering of people, “we should head over from the gate to the garden.”

Zeri nodded in agreement. Both could tell right away this group was full of familiar faces. They were listening along to this one woman in particular.

“You should have seen me when I nabbed that one turkey. We were following it for a while, getting that good shot, y’know? I held my rifle like this,” this woman pretended to hold a rifle in an air motion, “took a deep breath and… BAM!” She pantomimed the recoil. “The turkey made this loud sound… BAAAAAAAAWK, and I was like, YEAH, GOT ‘EM!” She made a downward fist bump motion. “What a wonderful day it was… oh hey Zeri! I see you brought Hubert along.”

“Nice to see you, Anisette. I always appreciate your presence, keeps these things from getting too stuffy for my own liking.” Zeri liked how down-to-earth she was.

Anisette Nelson. An honest and hard-working young woman who is very much a country girl at heart. The sister of Edy Nelson, Anisette seeks to ride the fame of Edy and her exploits from the Second Europan War to launch her career. Her love for country music from the United States of Vinland inspired her to pursue her goal to become a country music star. Though one can say she’s an embodiment of just because you have money doesn’t mean it can buy you class, her charisma was a positive influence on others.

“Finally hear back from Lanseal? I was worrying a guy like you’d be forgotten. And then I’d start shouting at people, raisin’ hell, I tell you what.” Anisette was honest to her words.

“No need to do that, I heard from them thanks to yours truly,” Zeri pointed with his thumb toward Hubert.

Hubert laughed a little. “You flatter me. I was just the messenger.” Hubert smiled with those humble words. “Still committed to Lanseal, Anisette?” He glanced over to her.

“Of course! I want to make a name for myself, the army will be a great place to do so! I ain’t no athlete, but you better not underestimate me. Just you wait! Someday, people will look at me and go ‘There’s Anisette Nelson, country music star!’ OH HO HO HO!”

Another woman next to her giggled once the laughing quieted down. “If only I was there to see the rifle,” she blushed, “the way you load the bullets into the chamber, the sliding, stroking the barrel, that sweet release once you pull the trigger, oh it is all so wonderful.” She noticed the two men in the group. “My goodness, where are my manners,” as she composed herself, “greetings, fine gentlemen.”

“Greetings to you too, Marion,” Zeri said in return. He was never the best with these things, deferring the better words to Hubert.

“I say the same as well, dear madam,” the teacher quipped, “glad to see you hearty and hale.”

“You have a way with words. My parents immediately took a liking to you for a reason.”

Marion Siegbahn. The sole heiress to the longstanding Siegbahn house, she overflows with grace and etiquette. She applied to join Lanseal so she could be around weapons, for which she considers her secret love. Her weapons fetish was serious enough that her parents forced her to keep it a secret. Hubert convinced her parents to let her attend Lanseal, under the strict condition that she not let anyone know about her fetish, which they considered to be unladylike.

“It made convincing them to let you attend Lanseal all the easier. You’d bring so much life and I know a lot of students would really like you. I know how your parents feel about certain things, but I’ll continue to reassure them. You have my word.”

Anisette patted the woman on the back. “One of these days, Marion, when your parents wouldn’t notice, I need to take you on one of these hunting trips. You’d be so much fun to have around. They need to loosen up for once.”

“If only, Anisette. And you’re too kind, Hubert. I would be flattered to have you as my homeroom teacher. You’ve been such a gentleman to my parents and I cannot thank you enough. I couldn’t ask for better company, and that includes you Zeri. You’re one of the few good ones I know. It’s comforting to know some of them learn to be proper.”

“Thank you for the kind words, personal ambivalence aside.” Zeri was well experienced in keeping tact. While appreciating the compliments, he also knew the words carried the same kind of prejudice as the more direct ones aimed at him. These comments he anticipated would happen, with Marion being prejudiced against Darcsens due to her upbringing. Resentfully swallowing his pride, he chose not to make a scene. There was always a time and place. This was not it. “Anyway, I take it people are giving you the proper respect? It would be a shame to see you caught up with the wrong people.”

“Of course!” Marion giggled. “Alexis keeps me safe. Isn’t that right, my good sir?” She looked over to her friend, dressed in a tuxedo.

“I do what I can, nothing more. Being your male or female bodyguard, it doesn’t matter, I’m glad to be of service,” Alexis bowed slightly, something she did out of habit. “So far, I haven’t had to do much, so I can simply enjoy your company. Need no excuse.” She smiled. “Ah, Zeri, glad to see you around.”

Alexis Hilden. A person bound by no gender, assigned a girl and raised as a boy, who considers themselves Alexis first. Her grace and reliability makes her popular among girls, who often go to her as a reliable companion to feel safe. Alexis is more than happy to take on the role of a bodyguard, to make girls not worry about the unwanted attention they may receive from boys. While far from the most talkative person and usually of few words, she is considered a reliable conversation partner.

“As am I.” Zeri said.

“And I’m glad to see you too, Alexis,” quipped Hubert. “One of these days, when I’m not so busy, I need to see you fence with Zeri. You have quite the reputation, after all.”

“I look forward to what Lanseal has to offer with swordsmanship. I always believe there’s a place for it, no matter what technology may bring. Speaking of which, did you hear back from the school, Zeri?”

“Just the other day, courtesy of yours truly.” Zeri flashed a smile as he glanced over to Hubert.

“Congratulations. Lanseal must be really busy if it took them this long to get back to you. Need say no more, Hubert.” This got a brief laugh out of everyone. “Even Magari received her admission letter sooner. Speaking of whom,” she glanced over to her side, “no need to be shy, you can show yourself fully.”

A small young woman appeared from slightly behind Alexis. “Zeri!” Her usually shy nature gave way to warmth and familiarity as she made her way next to him.

“Hey there, Magari. You look beautiful tonight,” he pats her on the head.

“Thank you,” she blushes, “the moment I heard you were coming, I gathered the courage to find a dress. I would’ve been too shy otherwise. Thankfully, the people around me made it easy.”

Magari, a young Darcsen girl on the shy side. She prefers to be behind a book than to be in the company of other people, even more so with the prejudice against her kind. Her mother works at the Everhart estate and she often comes along with her. Magari spends most of her time in the Everhart’s personal library, calling it a second home. Zeri is the only person she’s opened up to, as he is often the only Darcsen around. They soon became very close friends, with Magari often staying near him for reassurance. Zeri’s often cool exterior melts around her. A comfort in this sometimes cold world.

Whenever Zeri had his doubts about staying true to his heritage as a Darcsen, Magari’s presence reminded him otherwise. He considered her his best friend and she could say the same. Zeri would meet up with her in the library to whittle the hours away, where they’d have the space to themselves.

It was for this reason Zeri smiled more than he usually would. “They should help you out more often. I’m going to miss going to these things if it means I won’t be able to see you like this. I was starting to wonder where you were. But you can feel easy tonight. You can stick by me the entire time.”

“I’ll be more than happy to! I can forget about the library, as much as I like it over there. I’ll do my best not to run away and hide tonight! Not after I got myself to look good for you!” Magari beamed with happiness.

“I’m proud of you, too,” Hubert said with a warm smile to match her radiant presence. The library will always be there, but these sort of events only last a night,” Hubert said. “I’ll make sure you get placed with the right kind of people at Lanseal. Been pestering the school admins as soon as I found out you were in. For now, enjoy the ball.”

“Of course!”

The conversations became lively with all six people around each other. Catching up with things. Zeri was already familiar with Magari, Alexis, Marion, and Anisette through the social space in which they shared. Hubert, while not one for these large gatherings, knew everyone on a more personal basis. This was the reason why he could ease himself with the incoming Lanseal cadets.

There was one person notably absent from this corner of the party.

“We should probably head inside, as nice as it is out here,” Hubert politely interjected. “I have rather important business to attend to, so I want to enjoy the last few moments I have with all of you somewhere warmer.”

“And that means eventually running into Juliana. Honestly,” Zeri rubbed his temple, “I was putting it off as much as possible. Seems I can never escape her, no matter what.” He glanced over to Hubert. “Not to worry, I saved all my words for tonight,” he said with particular wit in his tone, before looking over to Magari. “I know she can be a rather scary woman. Trust me, even I feel intimidated by her, as much as I try not to show it. I can take her venom. It’s me who she goes after anyway. Stick by me and everything should be fine. I got this.”

Magari nodded in approval. “Thank you so much, I believe in you! I’m ready when you are. After you, Zeri.”

“No time like the present.” For the first time tonight, he didn’t resort to those two words he defaulted to, you too.

Into the snake’s pit, he thought, where Juliana Everhart was. A young woman he could never seem to avoid. The path he took in his social life meant she was always going to be there, the daughter of one of the largest noble families within Gallia, the heiress to the family name. Hubert only knew about the tension between the two from what Juliana told him. Magari knew all too well the tension, having seen it for herself in person. Tonight will be the same, just within a larger crowd.

Chapter Text

Zeri with Magari in tow, Hubert, Anisette, Alexis, and Marion were in the Everhart manor proper, with the ball taking place in one of the large rooms used to host these events.

“This ball sure ain’t the same with so many people gone. I mean, it’s not dead quiet, but still,” Anisette sounded disappointed as she scoped her surroundings. “I’m not taking center stage, not to worry. There ’re plenty of other times for that, I’d rather be around all of you wonderful folks.”

“It’s to be expected, with most of the aristocracy siding with the Gassenarls and the Rebels. Can’t blame them, feeling betrayed that the people they were serving turned out to be Darcsens, the same people who they often saw as inferior,” Alexis quipped, both matter of fact and with prejudice. “However, I’m glad we still have enough company to have this ball. It’ll be a while before we go to one of these things again, so I want something nice to remember.”

“I, too, want to enjoy the pleasantries.” Marion said with her usual grace “If my family didn’t side with the throne, as much as I don’t want to think about it, my parents would’ve never entertained the thought of me going to Lanseal. I can speak for everyone at this ball when I say that we stand by the throne.”

“Agreed, Marion. Our families have served them for generations. Marion, your family deals with all armaments related matters.” Alexis stated matter of fact, to which Marion nodded. “I come from a proud family line who’s served in the Royal Guard for years, at least one family member per generation in their ranks. It is my goal to join the Royal Guard and become part of this proud tradition. Lanseal will help me with getting there.”

Anisette got in her words. “I don’t have anything to add to what y’all already said, and I have nothing against the throne, Darcsen or not. I’m with good people, that matters most.”

“Glad to be one of them,” Hubert said, “as much as I never care for these gatherings. I might need to help myself to a drink or two from the bar to make getting through this night much easier.”

“I hope the drinks won’t distract you from what you really want to see, Juliana and I going at each other. Honestly.” Zeri with that one word he liked using, a catch-all for how he felt in a variety of situations.

“You aren’t wrong.” The way Hubert said it had a certain delivery. “Now if you excuse me, I’ll get my own choice of drink, responsibly, of course.”

“I trust you won’t be going too deep into the cups.” Zeri took to this kind of wit so well.

“And this is when I appreciate you not being able to drink. Anyway, off I go.” With that, Hubert was gone.

A night to be in such good company, all things considered, Zeri thought. Juliana was there, of course, but that was to be expected. Hopefully tonight was going to be uneventful for him.

“Zeri…” Magari poked, bringing him back to reality, “I’m feeling thirsty and could go for some water.”

“I’m… feeling the same,” he admitted. “Thank you for reminding me.”

He couldn’t blame her for waiting until now to mention it. She overcame her shyness to attend this ball, not wanting to let him down. His words of reassurance always helped her and this would be no different, as flustered as she looked in this moment.

“After you,” she nodded.

Magari could focus on Zeri rather than feel overwhelmed by the crowds. Her being comfortable reassured him. After all, they were focused on getting to the refreshment stand. It took less than a minute.

Both were very relieved once they had their fill of water. They both nodded, ready to return to the crowd with whom they were conversing. 

While the walk to the refreshment stand was a breeze for the both of them, the same could not be said for Zeri on the way back.

All because Juliana happened to be somewhere on the opposite side of the room where looking at her was unavoidable. Time seemed to slow to a standstill.

Juliana Everhart. The heiress of one of the most prominent aristocratic families within Gallia, whose name alone commands respect. This proud and outspoken young woman with flowing, long pink hair strives to be the best in what she sets out to do. Destined for greatness, she immediately gained renown when making the transition from from homeschooling to Lanseal earlier than most people, then becoming the chair of Class A

She sees herself as the chosen one for these reasons, making it apparent in every way possible, especially with her physical appearance. Carrying herself with pride, she brings attention to her body shape through her posture and is more than happy to emphasize being well-endowed, often doing so by folding her arms underneath her chest. She’s also the kind of person who feels it necessary to deem if people are worthy to be within her presence, as if she was some goddess. Apparently, he was deemed worthy.

Zeri saw Juliana as a rival from the moment they first met. He wasn't letting anyone intimidate him as he sought to prove he was the best, while Juliana would do anything to stay ahead of anyone who might surpass her. It should have ended there, were Zeri not a Darcsen who wanted to make his way into higher society. That got to her more than anything. While disdain for Darcsens was common among people of her social standing, he already made a name for himself. They had to one up each other in activities. Both would rather not think about how often were paired up for ballroom dancing, even though people always remarked they worked well together. While both thought it was some form of mockery done on purpose, it brought out the best in each other.

For better or worse, he had no shortage of words to describe her, though there were some words upon which he’d rather not contemplate, however. He wanted to be the last to admit her being attractive, despite describing her physical appearance in much greater detail than any other woman he’s been around, being unable to take his eyes off how flattering the outfit she wore for tonight made her look. Why did it have to be her? 

He wasn't one to express interest in those of the opposite sex to whom he was attracted, so he told himself. Getting involved with women on a romantic level was the furthest thing from his mind, claiming to not have time for it, having more important things to consider.

Trying to get his mind off Juliana, Zeri thought about Magari, a calming presence by contrast. Shorter in height, with a more slender figure and blue hair being on the shorter side, Magari was very book-smart girl who preferred to keep to herself. She probably would have wonderful conversations with Juliana, if the latter swallowed her own pride.

Once again his thoughts returned to Juliana. He knew full well it was unfair to Magari because he considered her to be one of his best friends.

It was times like these where Zeri was glad he could keep a straight face. Time finally went back to its normal pace as he and Magari returned to the group.

Zeri could ease his way back into the conversation with Magari listening along. That is, until he suddenly felt himself being tugged away… by Juliana. Great, just what he wanted.

“You’re coming along with me” she whispered softly in a way that made him weak in the knees, the way she said his name getting his full attention.

“Don’t you have better things to do at this ball?” He tried his best to maintain his composure.

“I already have and I want to forget that I’m overseeing this entire event for a moment.” She looked into this eyes to get her words across.

“And how would we go about doing so? I have no idea,” he said with both sincerity and sarcasm.

“You should know, put that mind of yours to good use,” she winked at him. That always did the trick.

“Right, the dance floor, putting our ballroom dancing practice to good use, with how everyone says we make the best dance partners,” said Zeri with a sigh throughout.

“I knew you’d listen, Darcsen.”

“The name’s Zeri and you know it, woman.”

“Juliana. Say it,” she paused, “Zeri,” making it sound like a command.

“You know best, Juliana,” he said sarcastically.

“Good boy.” Once again, the way she whispered into his ear, making him weak in the knees.

And that’s how I ended up here, Zeri thought.

Off in the distance, Hubert was sitting at the bar. A history professor needs to have his alcohol, after all, a nice, chilled glass to take his time drinking. Anything to help him make this night go by faster, since he didn’t care for these sort of events as a more private person. That general feeling changed when he saw Juliana take Zeri to the dance floor, something he wasn’t expecting to happen. This was going to be fun, he smiled as he thought to himself, and he needed to get a better look.

“Bartender, hold my beer.” With that, Hubert left the barstool. He was impressed how well those two worked together, demonstrating how they were both their equal.

Considering how they saw themselves as rivals, they were standouts on the dance floor, cooperating surprisingly well. It was that equal footing, that need to match each other, which defied any odds. They weren’t able to get out of practice together, so they made the best of it, the arguing could always resume later. This willingness to put aside their pride gave them the ability to dance step-by-step with grace. All became silent around them, like nothing else mattered, even the man whom both disliked. They even forgot their rivalry with each other.

Only when the dance stopped did reality return, with an uninvited guest making himself known as he entered the manor. 

Juliana was visibly upset. “Great, the last person I want to see. The gall of him to crash the ball like this.”

Baldren Gassenarl. A man who often disregards tact as he holds firm in his own beliefs, especially with his pronounced disdain for Darcsens, expressing them through his oratory skills. The son of the Gassenarl family and the next-in-line, he’s well known for his tactical prowess and his skill on the battlefield, proving himself on the battlefield during the Invasion of Gallia. 

He found a place where he could speak at the center of attention, whether or not people wanted to listen.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he started, “you’re all probably asking, why is your enemy standing before you?“

Meanwhile in the back, “Marion, you might want to stay by my side as long as he’s here, who knows what he might do,” Alexis advised.

“This is exactly why I have you accompany me, after all. Need say no more.” Marion still remained pleasant even with the unwarranted turn of events.

Back to the front, “Lend me your ears, if you will hear me out. We all may have our differences and agendas, as any aristocratic family would, mine included. As you all know, our countrymen have taken up arms to do something about the Darcsens who scourge our nation.” Baldren would have preferred that no Darcsens be present before him, staring at Zeri, the target of his contempt.

Magari knew encountering Baldren was almost unavoidable because she’d often be with her mother while she was working at the Everhart estate. If not for the courage she built up to attend this ball, thanks in due part to Zeri, she would’ve fled to the library once again. Wanting to not disappoint Zeri or anyone else, she hid behind Anisette. “There, there, you’re in good hands, Magari. I always hate that guy, him going on about Darcsens is bad enough, he also spits in my face, saying I ain’t got no place here. Good thing he’s too far to spit this time. I should spit back at him, I tell you what.”

Magari broke into laughter. “I feel better, thank you.”

Baldren scanned the crowd, Magari still being out of sight. “Not only do they live among us, they scourge the throne with their Darcsen blood. We’ve been deceived! Most of our kind, knowing what’s good for this nation, support our countrymen in this glorious cause to make Gallia great again!”

“I need another drink, badly, also finish that beer I left with the bartender,” muttered Hubert to himself. Back to the bar he went.

Good thing Hubert was out of hearing range for the rest of the glorified mumbling. “Now, I get that everything isn’t so simple, so cut and dry. I know everyone here owes a lot to the throne, and you all have good reason to remain loyal. You all have your livelihoods, after all, but do you want to be seen forever as lapdogs to our Darcsen overlords? That’ll all change when we overthrow them, when we purge this nation of these filthy people, when we bring Gallia into true prosperity!”

It was time for Zeri and Juliana to temporarily put aside their differences. He was more than happy to converse with her to tune out Baldren in the meantime. “There he goes again. He’s not going to change anyone’s mind if they stuck around this long to attend the ball. Honestly, I’d say he should know better, but that’s expecting too much of him.” 

“Agreed,” Juliana shrugged. “How are you able to deal with this dimwit? Being stubborn enough to stay around me is one thing, you being the only one for this long, but even I lose my cool with him.”

“The usual answer, me not retaliating, something you get really good at after a lifetime of learning. With much due respect, I’d belt him. He tests my ability.” Leave it to him to word things so calmly.

Juliana was less inclined to hold back how she felt. “I wish he’d piss off, knowing my parents were away on business with the royal family. If only my father were here, at least he never antagonizes my mother.”

“At least he respects you,” he paused, then added, “somewhat.”

“And he can only take so much of you because he feels dirty being in your presence.”

“Good thing you aren’t dirty by now, being this close to me. Why else would you make us put our ballroom dancing practice to good use, out of your boredom nonetheless. I’m probably the only other person who talks back to you.”

“Difference is,” Juliana winked, “you behave properly around me.” She looked off into the distance at Baldren, remarking, “Let’s hope his sister shows up soon and smacks him one,” before turning her attention back to Zeri. “You, Darcsen, come with me, we need to deal with him until then. You do what you do best, standing there next to me, arms crossed, you not saying a word. I’ll do the talking.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Juliana whispered into his ear, “Good boy.” It always made Zeri feel weak in the knees, leaving him open for Juliana to take along as she stomped her way toward Baldren.

“Excuse me, sir, I don’t recall you being invited to this event.”

Baldren’s face changed from conviction to the sort of smugness that asked for Juliana to deck him in the face, were she not trying to maintain some dignity. “Oh hello there, it’s nice to see you around in these troubled times, ma’am.” He said with a smug look on his face.

Juliana, rather than choosing violence, pointed while shouting. “Don’t you ma’am me, you’re speaking to Juliana Everhart, the host of this ball, and as such, I ask that you leave the premises immediately!”

“You should listen me out, I won’t take up too much of your time, I swear,” he shrugged his arms.

“Your insolence is already wasting my time.“ 

“And I think you have better company to be around. Much better people than that dark-hair right there. He’s such a pest, doesn’t know when to give up.”

Zeri stood there, hands crossed, straight-faced, without moving an inch, letting Juliana do the talking.

Juliana fired back. “At least he knows when to hold his tongue, unlike you.”

“Always making excuses for him, I see.”

Juliana was trying to maintain her composure. She glanced over to Zeri, still standing there with the same expression, the one constant in this heated conversation. He was the only person she knew who could remain stoic in this kind of situation. With a deep breath, she continued.

“I dislike Darcsens no more than you do. At least Zeri knows when to shut up and not run his mouth like a fool. I’d say he taints these grounds, but he keeps himself clean. He’s the obedient kind, while you,” she pointed at Baldren, “are a stray dog.” 

“If I didn’t know you any better, you sound like you’d want to copulate with this Darcsen.”

“Shut your foul mouth!” 

“I take back my words,” raising a hand with the palm backward as if he was tossing something over his shoulder. “What I meant to say? You best consider with whom you continue your bloodline.”

“Baldren, I have better things to consider than the virility of a potential partner. I, Juliana Everhart, have a name to uphold, not only my family name, but my given name. The simple prize of a man I am not.” 

And just like that, a loud slapping noise cracked across the room.

There stood Audrey Gassenarl, a woman of calm and cold composure whose demeanor underlied her convictions. A gifted tactical thinker in war and politics, she is a devoted woman whose belief in Yggdism influences her own sense of righteousness and reverence for the Valkyria. While her personality is vastly different than her brother’s, she still shares his disdain for Darcesns and the ambitions to take over the throne.

“I apologize for my dear brother. I see he’s being the usual blathering fool rather than the charismatic speaker he sees himself as such, telling him that doing such a stunt wasn’t a good idea. While he was quite boorish just now, his words have truth and merit. We both believe what we’re fighting for is a just cause. You can’t persuade us otherwise. I wonder when you’ll stop being lapdogs for the Darcsen overlords. Think on them, Juliana. If you excuse us, I hope we can meet under more ideal circumstances.” Audrey then glared at Zeri with great indignation before looking back at Juliana. “Farewell.”

With that, both of the Gassenarls were gone. The guests at the party made their awkward transition back to the atmosphere that existed before they were so rudely interrupted. 

Zeri let out a sigh of relief, after holding everything in that entire time. “Honestly.”

Juliana, tired from everything, wanted to step away for a while. Not wanting to be by herself, she took Zeri along.


Zeri and Juliana soon found themselves on a balcony, in another part of the manor, far removed from the ball. Both leaned near the guardrails, next to each other, taking in the clear night skies and a near full moon. Below laid the expanse of the Everhart estate, with nobody else in sight. It might have been a cool night, but neither minded. The quietness of it all helped them relax.

“Zeri… thank you for being there. I really mean it.” Juliana said with softness in her voice, gazing off into the distance.

“Not a problem, Juliana. You looked distressed out there and I saw you were doing your best.”

“As much as I hate to admit, having you there kept me grounded, to calm me down. You always seem to be my go-to person for these sort of things. I can deal with most people, but he’s different. Always was and always will.”

“Even I find him difficult to be around. If not for my belief in not retaliating…” he paused, “what am I saying, I’d still act the same, Darcsen or not.”

The name of his people. In their heated rivalry, Juliana simply referred to him as 'Darcsen,' refusing to acknowledge his given name. Zeri would return the volley by calling her 'woman.' It got to her more than anything. Even though Darcsens were officially barred from having a surname as punishment for the alleged sins of their fore-bearers, Zeri made his given name known to everyone, just like how Juliana Everhart did the same with hers. This is why Zeri thinking about were he not a Darcsen was an unusual occurrence. 

“Still, how do you not raise a hand against others, no matter what?” Usually the question was said with contention, making Zeri sound like a coward, but this time it was with sincerity in her voice.

“It’s our way of life, something we practice everyday. We’re taught these things from a very young age, and like with anything else, it’s never easy. We struggle with it. When we learn how to speak, we squabble with other Darcsen children over the smallest things. That we grow out of quickly. As we get older, we encounter other children who taunt and bully us, all because of adults who taught them to dislike us. Usually we’d ignore them since they aren’t a part of our community, but there will always be that one time where you let yourself go. You can only hide the scratches and bruises for so long, ashamed of how you got them. Your parents will eventually find out, getting you to sit down, to tell you why trying to get revenge won’t solve our problems. We learn our lessons, taking them to heart as we get older. You couldn’t tell from looking at me, but I was the same exact way when I was much younger.”

Juliana looked over at Zeri with wonderment, not expecting to hear an answer so intimate from him. As proud as he was of his Darcsen heritage, he rarely brought up his personal life to this degree, if at all, preferring to have logic and reason speak for himself foremost. Letting his guard down to talk about his past seemed to be the best way he could answer Juliana’s question, the kind of explanation he felt comfortable giving only to someone he knew well enough, one-on-one, far removed from where anyone else could overhear them. This was the same Zeri who stood firm as he spoke with conviction, whose assertiveness, in addition to his form, the product of dedicated physical fitness and cultivation, made him unlike any other man with whom she was acquainted. Beyond his blue eyes laid a great expanse of mysteriousness, stirring her to know more about this young man, despite being this familiar with him. If there was only one word Juliana could use to describe Zeri, he was exceptional.

“That was such a beautiful answer. Usually, you'd say things so matter of fact, but you looked at home with your words. I admire the way you speak, it's on a completely different level than most people, even most nobles. It's just like how you are with so many other things. I'm supposed to be the one person who is supposed to be on a much higher level than everyone else, outdoing anyone who might challenge me by a long shot. Then there's you, who defies all expectations. I’m saying this not just because you’re a Darcsen. It’s the way you aren’t intimidated by your surroundings or the people around you. It’s how you look so undeterred in what you do. That look of ambition, like you will do whatever you can to become a part of high society. With the way you carry yourself, it's like you were born a noble, just like how I am. I’ve never met anyone like you before. You feel like the total opposite of me in so many ways, I wouldn’t know where to begin. You’re by far the greatest rival I’ve ever known. Sometimes I wonder if we’ll truly get to understand each other someday…"

 “I wonder the same thing,” Zeri said. “Will we always be at odds with each other, or will we eventually become rivals no more? Can the both of us coexist?”

Juliana, this woman who should have been so far out of reach, in both body and mind. Even though she was very selective about the people who could stay near her, he never fully understood why he was one of those few people. Yet there she was, in front of him. The lanterns from the exterior walls of the manor met the moonlight from the sky to illuminate her in a way that felt so unique and special. Juliana really was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She had every reason to be proud of her appearance. He wondered if it was okay to look at her in this kind of light, to let his eyes go along the many things he appreciated about her. Sensing the reassurance he needed so much, she nodded. With that, he let his eyes go where they desired to wander.

Juliana sensed how Zeri was struggling with his own feelings, just from the way he was looking at her. It wasn’t unusual for her to call him a beast as a derogatory way of describing him as a Darcsen, but what she was experiencing was a beast of raw emotion and desire, the kind that Zeri would tell himself he’d never be. A beast that no longer wanted to deny himself, who wanted to close the distance between them until he was right in her face, to overpower her, to feel up every single thing about her. The way he wanted to get his hands onto her chest, looking at them no longer being enough. How he wished to tear the clothing off her. This beast may not have wanted to do anything beyond that, he wanted to admire her in a way nobody else could have the ability to do so.

She would’ve slapped anyone else who looked at her this way well by now. Nobody dared to force themselves onto her, right? He wasn’t that kind of person. How could she explain him in that moment, then? He felt repressed, doing whatever he could to avoid to dealing those emotions. He probably struggled with it the entire night. Most of the time, it would end there, but he couldn't hold back anymore. At the same time, she was caught up with how strange this all felt, trying to sort through her emotions as well. The one thing she felt certain about? With the way she convinced herself that she was fine on her own, that she didn’t need anyone close, the strong need for validation could no longer be denied. In these moments, the way he looked at her was more validating than anything else he could've done. It was the kind of look letting Juliana know he'd listen to her at her most honest yet most vulnerable. With that unspoken assurance, she spoke from the heart. 

“If only things were that easy. If only… I wasn’t the person I am. If only… I had anyone I could actually call a true friend. For as long as I can remember, I never saw the need for one. Of course, there are people who I might call friends, but I only let them get so close.  Normally, I’m used to this sort of thing, it’s in my nature. It’s when I’m around you that I start doubting myself.” She became almost lost in thought, before continuing. “Here I am, telling you all of this. Never thought I’d see the day, or should I say night? Then there’s everything with Cordelia revealing her Darcsen heritage, finding out that our rulers have been Darcsens all along, understanding why they had to hide their ancestry for the longest time…” she trailed off, thinking about how much she loved hearing him speak, wanting to hand over the conversation to him, “How do you feel about everything? I want to hear from you, as a person.”

“It was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else.” A sense of melancholy entered his tone. “You know what was the first thing I thought? How lonely it must’ve been for her, to live like that. Maybe the path I walk in life is just as lonely. I wish I could speak with Cordelia, not as royalty, but as a fellow Darcsen. I like to think we’d understand each other so well. But alas, it’s only wishful thinking.”

“You always have a way with words. My father might work closely with the royal family these days, but it isn’t the same. I wish I knew how to respond to something so personal, coming from the heart.”

He questioned if she kept him around because he was convenient for so many situations. In these rare private moments, he recognized how much she longed for close friend, someone who could accept her for the person she actually was, rather than the person who strove to be the best. He doubted he could ever be that kind of friend for her. Even entertaining the thought seemed unrealistic.

Juliana was still the best person to ask about certain things he had on his mind. With that, Zeri continued their conversation. "I wonder what Lanseal will be like? Getting accepted was a goal of mine for a long time, doing everything I could to get there, but I did it, I’m finally there. I know it’s only the beginning, of course. I don’t know what life will be like there, as much as I’ve read up on the school. If there’s one thing I struggle with, it’s dealing with the great unknown. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. It’s the sort of thing that will make me doubt myself. I doubt myself long enough, it’ll lead to the kind of negative thoughts I don’t wish to have. I do whatever I can to make sure people never see me like this, ever.” Zeri wanted to look away from Juliana because he was ashamed looking this vulnerable, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so.

It wasn’t lost on her.

“You don’t have to act strong all the time. It’s okay to let your guard down. I appreciate seeing this side of you when I’m able to. Soon enough, we’ll go back to being rivals, like we’ve always been. I’ll still be chair of Class A, and then… there’s you. I doubt you’ll be put in Class A, but end up in Class G and you’ll be surrounded by idiots. Who knows, their idiocy might rub off onto you. Would be a shame to see that mind of yours go to waste.”

Zeri chuckled. “I know, right?” He allowed himself that moment, before sighing. “I’m sorry I’m doubting myself like this around you. This isn’t like me, I want to think I’m better than that. I keep asking, what if? What if I fall short of my goal? What if something goes wrong? What if I let my ego get the better of me? I’m… being pathetic.” His voice began to falter.

“It’s a lot to handle, I know. A few days from now, I want to see the Zeri I’ve come to know so well, the one who always wears the cloth near his shoulder. Anyone who’s been around us long enough know how strong our rivalry is, but I want to let the entire school see that I’ve finally met my match there, someone who could be my equal. You may not believe me, but I want to see you succeed at Lanseal.”

He felt the sincerity from her. “You saying those words feel more believable than if they came from anyone else.”

She nodded. “Some people will be unfairly tough because of who you are, thinking Darcsens have no place at Lanseal. If they lay a single hand on you, thinking they can drive you out of the school, I will find out, and I will teach them a lesson. They know better than to cross me. Besides, only I can put you in your place, if you get what I mean,” she winked at him.

“Treating me like the dog I am, as usual. Calling me one is nowhere near enough for you, honestly.”

“You’re the only one with the audacity to talk back, it’s admirable. Calling you a dog feels so right because it gets you worked up, every single time. Admit it, you play into it so well.”

“You may as well say it as a compliment rather than an insult. All that’s missing is a collar to put around my neck, and a leash to go with it.”

“I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing. Good thing you told me, I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Why do I have the feeling you’ll go through with it someday?”

“You’re saying it like you want me to. Helps that you’re all bark and no bite, though, you should bark for me more.”

“Never change, I should have known this kind of peace wouldn’t last. Honestly. I wish I could see this side of you more often, but our lives will soon go back to normal.”

“So it goes. You’re wonderful company when you let more of your personality show through. It makes me wonder if we could ever become true friends. Though, speaking of company, we should probably get back to the others. They’re probably wondering where we’ve been.”

“Agreed. After you?”

“I’ll need a moment to myself. Thank you, again, for everything you’ve done tonight. Anyway, I won’t keep you any longer, I’ll meet you there.”

“You too.” There were those two words. With that, he walked off. 

So much weighed on Juliana’s mind. What is it that drives Zeri to keep up with her? No matter what she does, he’s still there. It could be his stubbornness, but that can only go so far. It could be his pride, but it only explains some things. As much as he opened up about himself during their conversations just then, there was still so much that remained a mystery. 

By all normal logic, based on how she was raised and her sense of superiority, she shouldn’t even consider him a serious rival.

She remembered earlier that night seeing Magari, the Darcsen girl whom Zeri considered a best friend. Both opened up to each other in a way she saw neither do with anyone else. Even then, the way Zeri opened up to Magari was very different than how he was around her only moments earlier. According to Juliana’s reasoning, they seemed better meant for each other.

At the same time, the rivalry Juliana had with Zeri was engaging, finding him so fascinating. Enough so, that she’d encourage and support him, however indirectly, in order to keep things between them going.

How long could this last? Clearly it couldn’t go on forever.

Too many questions, even more unknown answers.

Why does she think about Zeri all the time?

Why him?

Who knows what the future will hold?

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Zeri was lost in thought, recalling the conversation from the other week.

“I doubt you’ll be put in Class A, but you’ll be surrounded by idiots if you end up in Class G. Who knows, their idiocy might rub off onto you. Would be a shame to see that mind of yours go to waste.”

If only Juliana was joking when she said that.

What a terrible fate, doomed to descend into idiocy, brought about by the people with whom he’d soon associate. Brow furrowed, he sat by himself in a lounge space within the male dormitory.

Zeri’s familiarity with the class placement process gave him some comfort because he knew how it worked and why the school went with this approach. Students found out what class they’d end up in shortly after being accepted into Lanseal. The idea was to place them evenly across Classes A to G so all of them were on equal enough footing.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. Class A and G inevitably shifted in opposite directions. A handful of prospective students with the highest aptitude were usually admitted the earliest and placed into Class A to start the process. From there, the school would go through all the different classes, filling them out as they admitted more cadets. Class G was always the last to be filled for the school year, giving it a hodgepodge feel.

Zeri was absolutely certain he was the last person to be selected for the school year. To be fair, Lanseal has been preoccupied with the ongoing civil war, ensuring they were ready for mobilization. The overall situation must’ve been that drastic if they only got around to him at the last minute, with less than a week before classes would begin, based on what Hubert said during their first encounter.

“I’ve lost count of how many people I met with today. You were the last person on my route today, though this meeting was even sooner than expected. Luck of the draw.”

And that’s how Zeri ended up here.

The handful of people he came across gave him their condolences upon finding out he was placed in Class G, as if they were mourning the passing of his dignity. At least he’d make sure it receive a proper sending-off. 

Zeri already told himself he’d make the best of things.

He started with moving into his dorm room, which consisted of a bed on one side, a desk on another, and a window on the side opposite from the door. His bed was perfectly made, without any wrinkles within the sheets. The floor was spotless, not a single mess of things strewn about. His personal belongings he brought along to the school included his personal library of books placed on some shelves, a map of Gallia that was hung up, and some personal trinkets he kept inside his desk. He also set aside space for newspaper stacks, to keep up with current events. The room might have looked barren to other people, but for someone generally unenthusiastic about interior design, it was lively enough for him.

He moved in earlier than most other students, by about a day, because he wanted to immerse himself in the school as soon as he could before things picked up. He wanted to let things sink in, that he finally got into Lanseal after all this time.

Then his stomach grumbled, letting the hunger also sink in.

Time to go to the mess hall.


The mess hall was a large, open room with several rows of tables and chairs. The place being empty gave him the opportunity to appreciate the interior design. The floors were made of light brown wood, which was also used for the floors, wall designs, and window frames, while the walls themselves took on light beige color. Both the light brown wood and the beige walls made up the majority of the interior design within Lanseal, giving it a certain kind of extravagance and pride in being a military academy whose tradition went back several centuries.

Food was presented buffet style, letting students grab as much food as they needed while ensuring everyone would be fed. Even though only two classes came in at a time based on a schedule, the format let students stop and immediately prepare if an emergency mission came up, something more likely during the ongoing Gallian Civil War.

Zeri took his time filling his tray with food and carried it over to a table where he could sit by himself and have a nice outside view through one of the windows. This was going to be a peaceful meal, he thought to himself.

“Oh man, am I glad to find someone to talk to, it’s like a ghost town around here! Lemme take a seat here and help myself to some beefsteak, I’m famished!”

So much for the silence. Zeri looked down at his tray to see his beefsteak suddenly disappeared, then looked up at this person.

“That was my beefsteak, you know. I was about ready to bite into it. The buffet is right over there, not like you’ll have to wait in line.”

“I swear, I didn’t mean to do it! Sometimes I get a bit reckless when I’m hungry and I  don’t think.”

“It’s okay, I can always get another slice. How about we grab some and then get to know each other?”

“Works for me!”

Some moments later.

“I could get used to this food, it’s good stuff! Oh yeah, I should introduce myself. The name’s Avan.”

Avan Hardins. A red-haired young man who is lively, charismatic, and rather hot-blooded. He can befriend just about anyone, thanks to his willingness to interact with them regardless of their background. Very straightforward in how he approaches things, Avan is the type of person who usually acts before he thinks, for better or worse. One thing is for sure, there’s never a dull moment with him around.

“I’m Zeri.”

“Nice to meet you!”

“You too. You know, I don’t know whether to be impressed or dumbfounded at how you invited yourself to this table like it was nothing, me not knowing who you are, and then helping yourself to my food without thinking twice. Somehow, I’m already taking a liking to you. It helps that you’re the first person I’m getting to know around here.” He sighed slightly, knowing he was better company than nobody. 

“Oh yeah, what class are ya gonna be in?”

“Class G, apparently.”

“Yo nice, me too! I don’t know what it’ll be like, but I’m already glad to have you around! I can’t wait to meet everyone else!” Avan laughed, cheerful as always.

At that, Zeri cracked a brief smile, something he didn’t do often. “I’m looking forward to it. I wonder what they’ll be like.”

And so they chatted for a bit until Zeri’s stomach grumbled. Avan was quick to point it out.

“My dude, you look like you need to eat! Let’s dive in!”

“Ah yeah, thank you for reminding me. Letsee here,” Zeri muttered to himself, thinking about what to eat first from the tray, the beefsteak, the bread, or the salad.

Avan meanwhile dived right in, eating with his mouth open, not a care in the world. “Better get on your food before I accidentally grab another bite.”

“I dare you to try.”

Avan readied his hands, ready to grab a roll of bread. Zeri was quick to deny him that opportunity.

“You’re pretty good!” The manners of this guy, Zeri thought, they mean nothing to him. “Man, I need to unpack everything, I don’t know where to put it all. You don’t have to worry about helping me, I can handle it.”

“You read my mind. I know they like to place students in the same class right next to each other, since they’ll spend so much time together. There’s the male and female dorms, of course, that’s a given. I don’t mind helping you unpack if it gets too much. Wait… that means… you’re most likely next door to me…” Zeri was trying to process everything.

“Sweet! Oh man, I’m really looking forward to this school year!” Avan chuckled, genuinely happy to be here. Then he noticed someone else who appeared to be lost. “Hey you, over there! You should join us at 0ur table!”

“On my way over!” She was almost at the table when she stumbled and faceplanted onto the floor.

Both Avan and Zeri looked worried, with Avan speaking up first. “Need a hand? Hope you’re okay.”

The young woman soon picked herself back up. “I’m okay, sorry about that. Anyway, I’m Cosette!”

Cosette Colhearth. A blonde-haired young woman who is kind-hearted, cheerful, and hard-working. She is also something of a klutz, which people find to be one of her many endearing traits. Her generally optimistic personality makes her very likable.

“I’m Avan!”

“And I’m Zeri.”

“Nice to meet the both of you! You’re the first two people I met around here. I’ve been by myself in the girl’s dorm this entire time, so I’m glad to see anyone from the other side. What class did the both of you end up in?”

“Class G,” both said at the same time.

“Oh hey, me too! This school year is already going to be fun with the both of you as my friends! I know what we could do first! How about we get to know ourselves better?” She glanced at both of them, before continuing. “What’re your goals with being at Lanseal? Me, I want to become a doctor, just like my father. Going through medical school is expensive and I can’t afford it. Fortunately, I found out enrolling at Lanseal will let me learn at no cost. That’s how I ended up here. Next, how about you, Zeri, what’s your reason for coming to Lanseal?”

Zeri adjusted his glasses. “I came here to prove myself, to help my people overcome the prejudice we face everyday, in the hopes of one day becoming a hero. The biggest Gallia has ever known. Someone who my people can look up to, who is respected by so many others. Lanseal is where I begin my path to becoming one.”

“I admire your drive and determination, Zeri. I’m sure you’ll do well here!” Cosette applauded, being impressed by him. “And that leaves you, Avan, I want to hear why you came here, in your own words.”

Avan brightened up. “I came here to follow in the footsteps of Leon, my older brother. He used to tell me about this school all the time and he’s the reason I wanted to get into this place! I also want to find out what happened to him…”

“Oh yeah, Leon, I’ve heard of him! I believe in you! Letsee here, I want to be a doctor and Zeri wants to be a hero. What do you want to be, Avan?”

“I haven’t thought that far yet!” He pointed a thumb to himself, as if it was a point of pride.

Zeri couldn’t pass on the opportunity to comment. “So you do things in the moment and think right on the spot, am I getting this correct?”

“Well yeah!” Avan stated it as matter of fact.

Zeri, looking at him straight-faced, went, “So that’s why you took my beefsteak…”

“He must’ve been really hungry, that’s all” Cosette quipped.

Zeri sighed somewhat. “You can say that right.” Then his stomach growled again.

“You’re really hungry too!” Cosette said in response. “Want to look around campus after we eat? It’ll be fun with my new friends!”

“Yeah!” Avan shouted. “Let’s dive into our food!”

“Let’s eat,” Zeri said.

Maybe Class G won’t be as bad as he thought.

He was in good company.

Chapter Text

“Target acquired.” A young girl with long silver hair and red eyes aimed her lance, glowing azure as it charged up. SHWAAAAA. A beam of light ripped through a target dummy. “And over there.” She immediately jerked the lance to the left to hit another target nearby, before swinging it much further to the right to fire at a third target far off in the distance.

By the numbers.

“Changing attack mode.” The weapon changed from a lance rifle to a whip, as it lost its solid form and fell to the ground, her mannerisms changing along with weapon. While she sounded almost monotone with how she fired the energy blasts, her now voice picked up, her words being more pronounced. “Let me at them. I am so ready, they won’t know what hit them.” She loved when she could use the weapon in whip mode, her glowing red eyes widening.

She crouched, hand on one knee, other hand on the handle, scanning the horizon. She breathed deeply.

Then she took off, dashing across the open field within the testing grounds, taking a rightside arc, whip dragging along by her feet. Closing in on one of the previously blasted targets, she swung the whip, all in one smooth motion.

“HEEEEEEEYAAAAAAAAA”

The target was struck, blue sparks flying.

She closed in on the next target. THWACK

She loved the sound it made, the sparks, how in control she was of this whip. THWACK.

With increasing ferocity, she went across a string of other targets. THWACK THWACK THWACK.

The girl jumped back from the target dummies, then made a run for the surrounding forest, wanting to keep that combat high going. SSSSSSSS THWACK! “HAAAAAAAAA” She struck several trees, weaving in and out. It was a personal thing she loved doing.

“GRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” The girl sprung from the forest, barreling toward a target. Despite the target being someone larger than her, she knocked it down with the impact from her velocity. She hopped back, looked down, and went at it. “HAAAAA” THWACK. “Take that!” THWACK. “I’ll kill you!” THWACK. The shouting of a human weapon, of someone who took great joy in inflicting this sort of damage. If this target was another human being, they would be well dead by now, their blood splashed across the face of this girl, who wouldn’t stop assailing until she got her fill. Dummy target or actual person, it didn’t make a difference, the lashes and tearing rendering the target nearly unrecognizable.

A voice came from not too far away. “You can stop now, the testing is over. We got what we needed.” At that, the glow disappeared from the girl’s eyes, as she dropped both the weapon and shield.

Off in the distance stood a woman in her late 30s. Wearing a lab coat over a slightly loose black shirt and a black pair of pants, she adjusted her eyeglasses, having finished her note-taking for this session.

Clementia Förster. A researcher currently based at Lanseal to study the Valkyria and their powers. Has messy black hair she simply chops away with a scalpel whenever it gets in her way. An emotionally void person, she believes the value of her research is absolute, does not bother with human traits like compassion, and feels no remorse about about the lack of ethics within her work. While called mama by Aliasse, Clementia sees her as only a test subject who obeys and does as she’s told. In short, she’s a cold bastard.

Meanwhile, the young girl had a look of innocence about her, the total opposite of how she was just before, as she waltzed back to where she started today’s testing.

“Mama, did I make you proud?” The girl hugged Clementia.

“Of course you did. You made mama very proud. Good work.” She patted the girl’s head, something done as a reward rather than any real care for her.

“Yay!” The girl beamed. “I will do anything to make mama proud!”

Clementia meanwhile kept a straight face. “Who knows when we’ll need to deploy you onto the field for actual combat, so it’s good to keep this up.”

“Oh oh! Can I go walk around campus? I wanna go for a walk!”

“You can, yes. You earned it.” She waved the girl off.

“Aliasse, out!”

Aliasse, a young Valkyria girl. 13 years old. Fighting is all she knows, having spent most of her life cut off from the rest of the world. The young girl considers Clementia her everything and a mother figure, having nobody else to rely on. Eager to please her, Aliasse often employs her talents to great effect on the battlefield, providing data to her mother figure for the sole purpose of getting her acknowledgment. She doesn’t know what friends are, nor how people live normally. While she can go from a human weapon to cheerful girl at the drop of a dime, she has nobody who can appreciate this lighter side of herself.

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“This has been such a nice walk.” Cosette was glad she had the idea.

“Yeah! This school sure is something!” Avan exclaimed.

“It’ll help with when classes start tomorrow, not having to worry about being lost. I could appreciate the design of this school all day.” Zeri adjusted his classes.

“You’ll have to tell us all about it! I’d be curious.” Cosette will remember to ask another time.

“We should do these walks whenever we have downtime. Who knows what we’ll find.” Avan laughed.

Zeri was zoning out, when he noticed something far off in the distance, within some shading. He thought it was a hooded figure. It wandered about, paused for a moment, then disappeared in the blink of an eye.

“Are you okay, Zeri? You look like you’ve seen some sort of ghost.” Cosette poked Zeri.

“I’m not sure, I swore I saw someone over there. Might have been a person, but I couldn’t tell.” Zeri adjusted his glasses, as if making a point.

“Whoa man, I hope there aren’t any ghosts or anything around here!” Avan staggered. “Now that would be too spooky! I wonder if we’ll come across any ghost stories.”

“I’d be spooked too!” Cosette reflexively held onto Avan.

“Maybe it noticed me and ran off? I wish it was just my imagination.” Zeri thought to himself out loud in response.

Was the sighting a coincidence, or a foretelling of things to come? What makes the researcher such a cold bastard? Who was this mysterious girl?

One thing was for sure.

Starting tomorrow, classes would be in session.