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Lucky to survive, the healers said. He spent weeks recovering from his fall from the airship, feeling his strength return bit by agonizingly slow bit. Any progress was good; from the tiniest wiggle of his little finger to the moment he flipped his bed stand in frustration.

Alternis Dim didn’t feel lucky.

He was alive, but he would have preferred the sweet quiet embrace of death to the slow burn of humiliation that lingered under his skin. He was the Dark Knight Alternis Dim, member of the Council of Six of the Duchy of Eternia. To be defeated in such a way by four rogue warriors, including the Grand Marshal’s daughter? Had all of his preparation and training been for naught?

Edea… she had been first one in his vision when he opened his eyes again. He had wrongly assumed that he was dead after having been thrown from the airship, but it seemed that the turbulent winds and waters had somehow cushioned his fall, and he survived long enough to fished out of the water. Her crying had pierced through his unconsciousness, and her teary but relieved visage were a sight for sore eyes, even with the edges of his vision blanketed in darkness.

“Thank you,” she had said. “Alternis, thank you!”

It was shameful, but those words helped him survive throughout his recovery.

Now he just had to pick up the pieces and move on.

His table flipping led the healers to diagnose him as perfectly fine. Tomorrow, they promised, they would finish releasing him, and then he could return to Central Command.

“It’s about time,” he grumbled to himself as he reluctantly got back into bed. He could tolerate one more day of this.

His nurse, a rather large man who looked like he belonged in the wilderness of Eisenberg, grinned at him as he straightened out the table. For some reason, he was the only one who could tolerate Alternis’s presence longer than a few minutes.  "Look on the bright side, Mr. Dim.“

“What bright side?”

“You have a visitor. She’s waiting just outside.”

“A visitor? Why did you not say something earlier?” And who was she? Mahzer Lee had visited him several times while he was healing, as expected of such a kind and caring soul. Holly Whyte had seen him twice, to lament that he hadn’t listened to a single thing she had taught him, and to slip in a few Curas while the nurses weren’t looking. But with Victoria gone, and Einheria still recovering from her own injuries, he couldn’t think of any other other “she” who might visit him except - oh. Right.

Edea popped her head in. “Are you decent, Alternis?”

He hastened to throw his blankets over his legs. They were pale and unseemly. “I… I am now, Edea.”

When she entered the room, she stooped to help pick up some of his pens that had scattered across the floor earlier. His ears burned; Edea was too important to clean up after him in a fit of rage! But she didn’t seem to mind, looking at them curiously before setting them down with the rest of the art supplies he had amassed during his stay.

His nurse left them alone so they could talk.

“I’m sorry I haven’t visited before,” Edea started, shaking her head. “Everything has been so busy since my return.”

“I understand.” He did, truly. Her father had also been grievously injured, and with the rest of Council of Six dead, injured, or missing, Eternia had been left with much of its leadership gone. Someone was needed to help run the country, and while Braev had been healed and was now back on his feet, Edea had acted as liaison between him and the rest of the leaders for weeks. He knew from experience how difficult that could be.

Besides, why would she want to visit him? Alternis clearly recalled their battle.

“No, you don’t understand!” Edea countered. It was surprising.

“I beg your pardon?”

Now, Edea reached over for his hand. He allowed her to take it in both of hers, his fingers curling up reflexively… and in an attempt to keep them from shaking.

Alternis was aware that his face was turning red as he watched her, his eyes following the movement of their hands as she squeezed his hand gently, then held it close to her chest.

His eyes flicked up to her face.

“I’m so glad that you’ve recovered,” she said, and their eyes met for just a moment before she broke eye contact, embarrassed. “I truly did not want to hurt you that day! When you went over the edge, I thought I would never see you again.”

“There was nothing to worry about,” Alternis murmured. He had thought he would die, going over the edge. But death was nothing compared to losing against her and the Wind Vestal.

“Of course there was!” she countered. “You are my dear friend. I wanted you to survive. I’m so glad you’re here with us. I couldn’t do this without you.”

His head was beginning to spin as he listened to her. What was she saying? What did she mean? His mouth felt dry, and his throat was tight, but he opened his mouth to speak anyway. “It's… alright,” he decided on, and their gazes locked. “I’m here, now. And…” His heart was pounding. His last confession had not gone well, but that had been said in the heat of the moment. Now, even he could admit that he’d been a fool to expect her to drop down her weapon and join him at his side as his bride.

Edea would never disrupt a fight like that.

“Edea,” he started, then stopped to clear his throat.

“Yes, Alternis.” She clutched his hand tighter.

He meant to apologise to her, for not listening to her and for putting her through such things. He meant to ask if perhaps they could move on, as friends and partners, and rebuild the duchy together. He meant to tell her that he forgave her everything, and only wanted her to forgive him in return.

Instead, his bastardly, traitorous mouth moved of its own accord.

“Does this - I mean, I… I…! I only want you to be my bride!”

Even before the words were fully out of his mouth, he cringed. He was already afraid of her reaction.

Edea’s face fell, and she set his hand down gently on his lap. “Alternis, I… I’m sorry, but I have to go.” She was biting her lip, looking everywhere but at him.

The rejection was clear on her face, but at least this time she was kind enough not to push him away so harshly. Was it because he was in the hospital? He appreciated that at least she wouldn’t throw him out the window.

His eyes burned as he nodded silently, not trusting his mouth to say anything more, and watched as she left.

“She hasn’t spoken to me since,” Alternis lamented, finishing up his story and his mug of beer, peering into it. Hmm, it had seemed to be much fuller just a few minutes ago. Where had all the beer gone?

“You idiot,” Holly Whyte groaned, shoving at him.

He growled at her in return.  

It had been a week since his release from the hospital, and he felt more than a little lost. The Grand Marshal had not used him for any type of errand. Instead, he had been assured that he would be summoned soon. He had waited dutifully for days, feeling discontent stir in the pit of his stomach, until Holly and her partner had found him and dragged him out drinking to “cheer him up.”

Barras was laughing at him. Alternis contemplated smashing his mug all over the older man’s head. They had a White Mage with them, after all, and the Monk was unlikely to even notice.

“You really don’t understand women,” Holly said, ignoring his growl. She reached over to pat the top of his head.

“You really don’t understand women,” Barras echoed in his thundering voice.

“I don’t need to hear that from you,” Alternis grumbled, accepting the second mug of beer from the barkeep, a man familiar with their group. “I just don’t know what I’ve done.”

“You can’t just spring something like that on her! You have to ease her into it, slowly. Sweeten her up first with some of those words of yours. I’ve seen your journal,” Holly told him, nudging him in the side.

Alternis could feel his face turning hot, and he choked on his drink, spilling it down his front. Barras slapped him on the back.

“Nah, don’t go slow!,” the older man advised. His face was bright red from his beer. “You just have to take her by surprise. FULL FRONT ASSAULT. Pummel her with everything you got! Don’t hold anything back!”

“That sounds violent,” Alternis commented, wiping at his mouth. But… Edea did like violence…

Holly turned to her partner. “You idiot! Don’t tell him that!”

“But Holly,” Barras whined. “You liked it like that!”

Alternis drowned them out as they started bickering, idling reaching over to take Holly’s mug for himself. As much as he liked the two of them, he never liked to be reminded that somehow Barras had ended up with Holly, while he had… nothing.

The next morning he woke in his room with both a pounding headache and a pounding at his door. “Yes?” he called, rolling over further into his blankets. The headache made him sound extra annoyed. Good.

“The Grand Marshal wishes to see you,” the soldier called through the door.

Finally. Alternis sat up, ignoring the way his head pounded and his stomach churned. Finally, he could be useful again!

But to his dismay, instead of being assigned to run an errand or deliver a message that Braev could entrust only to him, his lord asked him assist Argent Heinkel in a “General Help Desk” to serve Eternia or whomever else needed assistance.

It was just another humiliating tick to add to his scoreboard of the last few months.

Surely Sir Heinkel felt the same? They had once been great leaders in Eternia, now reduced to… this. After seven days of humiliation, sitting in the empty “office” from nearly sunrise to sunset, Alternis congratulated himself on his restraint for not throwing the large wooden table clear across the room.

His discontent only grew. Even after the successful completion of their first assignment, and Edea and the Venus sisters enlisting their help for another, he could not rid himself of the feeling that built in his chest.

“Edea,” he said to the young woman when she and Einheria came to congratulate him and the Knight on a job well done.

“Yes, Alternis,” she said, and the two of them stepped aside so that Heinkel could continue to chat jovially with the Valkyrie on what they’d done to accomplish their assignment.

“I wanted to talk to you…” he started, and he could see her perking up. His heart jumped.

“We’ve both been very busy,” she admitted with a smile. “You’ve been doing a lot of good for Eternia here. I’m proud of you!”

Alternis nearly lost his nerve, and he felt himself flush at her praise. “Yes,” he breathed, thankful that his helmet obscured his features. She need never see how embarrassed he was.  "Yes, I… Well, I wanted to speak with you… about us.“

Edea hesitated, and his stomach plummeted. "What about us, Alternis?”

He tried to remember Holly’s advice. To take things slow. Sweeten Edea up…? Edea did like sweets, even if he sometimes personally thought that she should cut down on the amount of sugar that she consumed. Was she still consuming as much? It had been some time since they had eaten together. Aha! That was it.

“I thought perhaps - that we - would you - may I treat you to dinner?” he finally forced out.

She seemed pleasantly surprised. He hoped that was pleasant, at least. “You want to treat me to dinner?”

“Yes. With dessert. Like old times.”

He held his breath as she thought about, swaying a little where she stood. “Hmm… you’ll truly include dessert? Then I accept!”

Alternis could have collapsed in relief. “G-good. I… thank you. T-tomorrow night, perhaps?”

Edea nodded. “Tomorrow night. Shall I meet you in the city, or…”

“No,” he said, because he had no idea what in the world he was doing. “I shall come to your room to meet you.” His only information on restaurants in the city was their level of security and how much in taxes they paid. He usually ate at the food stands if he ate out at all! He’d have to do some research.

As they bid farewell, he could not stop himself from practically vibrating with glee, despite the noise it made as his armor clanged together. Sir Heinkel appraised him as they once again resumed their vigil behind the desk.

“Courting the Grand Marshal’s daughter? You know I’m required to report that.”

Alternis stiffened, and the other Knight burst into laughter, slapping him on the back.

“Gahaha, of course I won’t rat you out! You two young'uns have fun!” When Heinkel winked, Alternis felt himself burn bright red, once again thanking the stars that his helm covered his features. He could pout with no one the wiser.

He managed to plead out of desk duty the next day, so that he could spend as much time preparing for his night out with Edea as possible. He needed to scout out the location, make a reservation, and then… spend hours in his own rooms, debating on what to wear.

It wasn't… a date, he reminded himself as he paced in front of his wardrobe. He was simply treating her out to dinner, because it had been far too long since they’d had dinner together. That was it.

Still, he knew he couldn’t simply wear his armor out to dinner - doing so would only tarnish the Duchy’s reputation. It would make him seem strange, and he risked causing damage with his armor’s sharp edges. No, he would have to wear civilian clothing for this.  But what did he own that might be appropriate for dinner with the Grand Marshal’s daughter. Not the clothes that he wore to bed or to work out. Nor could he wear the suit that Mahzer had insisted he buy several years ago for formal functions; not only was it too small, but he was certain it was too frilly for this occasion.

Something to match her? But then, he had no idea what she would be wearing… something beautiful, he knew. Something that suited her. And what did he have? In desperation, once he realized what time it was, he grabbed the nearest clean item out of his wardrobe and pulled it on.

“Alternis,” Edea greeted him sometime later. She could not quite mask the surprise in both her voice and her features. “You look… nice.” He had, as promised, greeted her at her door an hour or so before sunset.

He nervously smoothed back his hair. “Thank you. And you, Edea… you look beautiful, as always. Shall we be off?”

He had chosen to wear a powder blue top and black pants. While he knew the color scheme was far too simliar to a certain man’s, the style wasn’t. The top lacked fur, and the hem of it dipped far past his waist. The pants were plain and tight (and a little short). It wasn’t something that he might normally wear, but he had bought the blue top years ago, thinking of Edea’s eyes.  

The way she looked him over made him feel foolish. She was dressed warmly for the walk to the city, but he could see a hint of red under the thick jacket that hugged her figure.

“Yes,” she finally said, offering him a smile. His face felt hot as he tried to return it, the gesture feeling foreign on his face.

The restaurant he had chosen was a good one. It was very secure, and they had a good reputation, not just for the quality of their food, but their overall atmosphere. The most important thing was that they had a very extensive dessert menu.

“This is… really expensive,” Edea commented as he pulled out the chair for her. He’d looked it up. That was what one did when eating out with a lady. And Edea, for all of her exuberance and activity, was a lady.

“It’s worth it,” he promised her as he took his seat across from her. They ordered quickly, both favoring traditional Eternian dishes.

It was worth it. When was the last time that the two of them had been together like this, eating happily and talking as though they were normal people. Even though they had grown up eating meals as a family, with her parents, there had been plenty of nights in which Braev was too busy to join them, or Mahzer was in the hospital. Or both.

She dug into her meal with gusto, and he watched her eat for a moment, admiring both her appetite and how lively she looked. And then he realized that it was likely weird, so with a flush and a duck of his face behind his hair, he began eating his own meal. It wasn’t that he didn’t have an appetite, it was simply that hers was a force of nature to behold.

“I don’t remember the last time we ate together,” Edea said wistfully as she read over the dessert menu. He drank a cup of coffee as she tried to choose. He’d already agreed to buy her two items if she so wished.

“It has been a long while,” he admitted. “It’s always good to spend time with you.”

“It is!” she agreed, and his heart leapt at the smile that she gave him. He bit his lip, rather than reply. He didn’t want to mess things up.

As she finished her desserts some time later, their waiter came around with the bill.

“I’ll pay for it,” he said. As a member of the Council of Six, he made more money than she did. Besides, he was the one who had invited her out.  Wasn’t it natural that he pay in that instance?

“If you’re sure,” she said slowly, and as soon as the waiter had disappeared, she turned to him. “Alternis, why did you ask me to dinner?”

Alternis faced her. “I wanted to eat with you,” he replied. “Didn’t we agree? It has been a long time since we ate together.”

Edea played with her fork. “It has been, yes… and I’ve enjoyed our night out. I simply don’t wish to give you the wrong idea.”

He frowned. “What wrong idea is that?”

It was Edea’s turn to flush, looking down at the table. “I would like us to be friends, Alternis.”

“We are friends, are we not?”

He knew that the past few months, ever since the business with the Crystals had started, had been rough on their relationship. Not just theirs, but on all relationships Edea had in Eternia. But that didn’t mean that they weren’t friends.

“That isn’t what I mean,” she said, shaking her head.

“Then what is it that you mean?” he asked, confusion mounting with him, along with a wave of hurt. Edea was assuming things again, wasn’t she? And refusing to talk to him about it! She knew that he wasn’t a mind-reader.

“I just want to be friends.”

“This isn’t a date,” he replied. Anger kept him from flushing. “I simply wanted to treat you to dinner.”

She seemed to visibly relax. “Not a date, not at all. Thank you for treating me.”

Discontent was simmering underneath his skin. “Is it an unpleasant thought? That we may be on a date?

"It’s not,” she said. “No! I just… want to be friends. Nothing more.”

He tried to remind himself not to feel the pain of her words, because she had no reason to be want to be more than friends. It wasn’t her words that stung. It was the memories of his proposal and the rejection thereafter.

“Do you think it’s rubbish?” his mouth said, of its own accord. He allowed it.

Edea took in a deep breath, but whatever she had been about to say was dashed by the waiter returning. Her mouth snapped shut and she looked away into her drink. His anger extinguished with the look on her face.

“I’m sorry,” he said as they packed up to go. Edea was bringing food in a little container for later.

“I’m the one that should be sorry,” she said, and it was only after they left the restaurant to begin their walk back to Central Command that she elaborated. Snow fell around them, catching on the strands of hair that peeked out from under her jacket. It clung to her lashes and cheeks.

“I would like for us to start over,” Edea told him as they walked through the path.

“Start… over?” He didn’t understand what she might mean by that. “I – I don't…”

“Start over!” she repeated, and the flush on her cheeks didn’t seem to be just the cold. “Please, Alternis!”

With that said, she rushed ahead of him on the path. Alternis made to follow her, but kept his distance. While he couldn’t well let her walk on the path alone, Edea had made it clear she didn’t wish for his company, hadn’t she? Or… something. He was so confused.

He had hoped that dinner would pave some sort of bridge between them, or would make up for what had happened during her travels with the Wind Vestal. Instead, she seemed even more upset with him, and avoided him for a week, even as he returned to duties in the Council of Six on top of helping Sir Heinkel with the help desk. His days were spent behind the desk in a mostly empty room, though the traffic increased through word of mouth. His evenings were full of reports and writings, until his dreams danced with dark ink and figures. The pace was nice. It kept his head busy.

Still, on more quieter nights, he kept running his conversations with Edea over and over in his head. What had he done?

He would get his answer soon enough.

The Grand Marshal’s chambers had always been open to him, as a member of the Council of Six, but more than ever official business was being conducted in them. The usual Council of Six chamber was so empty, due to the death of more than half its members. Alternis hated being in there.

Braev had long since recovered, but seemed to prefer the comfort of his own rooms compared to the bleak space he’d normally conduct his business. There, he could sit at his desk and discuss paperwork with Alternis.

Alternis enjoyed it. It could be described as cozy. Certainly more effective.

“You’ll have that report finished soon?” Braev asked, as Alternis finished writing down all the things he would need to research. Braev wanted to open Eternia’s borders to all refugees who had been negatively affected by the Duchy’s actions. Of course, they could not displace their own citizens while doing so. It would take planning.

“Of course. By end of week, my lord.”

“Good. Now… Alternis, there is something else I wish to discuss with you. Please have a seat.”

Feeling confused, Alternis sat at the wooden chair on the other side of Braev’s desk, and watched mutely as the Templar sank down heavily into his much larger, leather armchair. The Dark Knight had a fleeting flashback to his younger days, when his tutors would sit him down in much the same manner.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Braev started.

“Is that not what we are doing?” Alternis asked. Was he in trouble? Braev looked at him gravely, and his stomach sank. He was being demoted, wasn’t he? Or shipped out overseas…

“You and I talk about business nearly every day,” Braev admitted, nodding. “But I regret to say that I’ve neglected talking to you as a person.”

Alternis sat up straighter in his chair. “My lord?”

“How long have you been with this family, Alternis?”

He had to think about that, and count down the years in his head. The time before coming to Eternia was a dark haze in the back of his head. Since arriving in the wintry country, he had spent… “Over twelve years,” he finally said.

Things were quiet for a moment before he spoke up again. “Is something the matter?”

“I’ve been spending time with Edea.”

“That is good news, Lord Marshal.” It truly was. It warmed Alternis to hear it. Communication between the Grand Marshal and his daughter had been lacking, even before her journey. Though it may be a little late, he was happy that they were finally spending time together, like family should.

His happiness faded somewhat with Braev’s next words. “Yes, it is. She has been talking about you quite a bit.”

Dread boiled in Alternis’s stomach, and he felt a sudden wave of nausea.  "Has she?“ He steeled himself, thankful that the helm hid his grimace. "Anything I should know, my lord?” Obviously so, if Edea were complaining about him enough for Braev to mention it.

Braev ran a hand down his face, and for a fleeting moment, Alternis felt some pity; the man not only had to run a country, but also raise a teenage girl. He didn’t know which one would be harder.

“Alternis, when I brought you to Eternia, I had hoped you would find a place for yourself in my family,” Braev started. Alternis colored under his helmet as the older man continued. “That you would see yourself as an equal to myself or Edea, not merely a servant following your master’s wishes.”

“I…” Alternis started, but Braev cut him off.

“Edea has told me of the struggles the two of you have been facing. Of your confrontation on the airship, and your attempts to grow closer to her as of late.”

The Dark Knight could feel his face getting hotter. “Am I out of line, sir?” Braev was his commanding officer, but he was also Edea’s father. He had always been quick to defend her when she seemed truly in need.

“You need to speak with her on that,” the Templar replied, shaking his head. “Were you truly so desperate to join this family that you would propose to her in such a way?”

“No!” Alternis protested, then lowered his voice, embarrassed. He wanted to crawl into a hole and die, just as his mother had intended all those years ago. “My - my proposal had nothing to do with the family, or her name. I just want to be with her.”

He loved Edea. He was sure of this. She was so perfect and sweet, and thinking about her made his heart soar. He wanted to be with her for the rest of his life, if only he could prove himself.

Braev did not look disturbed at the outburst. Instead, he was calm as he replied. “Your feelings are your own, and no one can question them. But have you learned nothing of her from being her enemy for the past year? Is she still the woman you fell in love with?”

When Alternis did not reply, he said: “Alternis, you are a man I know is worthy of my daughter. My opinion, however, means little compared to hers. How is she to form one when you’ve barely spoken? The past year has taught me that communication could have saved many lives. It is also vital between two people in any relationship.”

“… I don’t understand.”

“Talk to her,” Braev implored him. “Leave aside the proposals to simply talk to her as you did when you were children. She doesn’t need a husband right now; she simply needs her childhood friend at her side. And to be quite honest with you, I’m not quite ready to see her married.”

Talk to Edea? Wasn’t that what he had been doing? Alternis bit his lip but nodded his head. Gathering up the reports and papers he had been nervously piling together, he fled the room to begin work and to have some time to himself.

The next morning found him bleary-eyed and exhausted. Luckily, it was a Sunday, and the help desk was closed for holidays. He’d be allowed to sleep in and work quietly in his room.

With a yawn, he headed to the mess hall to get some breakfast before diving into the papers. With the forces as low as they were, no one important would see him if he left his helmet and armor in his room.

… except  Edea, who rounded the corner at the same time he did. Alternis choked as his mouth snapped shut mid-yawn. “Edea!”

“Alternis!” she replied, stepping back. But there was a smile on her face as she took in his pale face, the disheveled state of his hair. He resisted the urge to smooth it down.

“Good morning,” he managed to say after clearing his throat. “You look - you look lovely.”

Edea shook her head at him. “I look half-asleep, as do you. Are you… headed to breakfast?”

“Yes. Shall I es- shall we both walk together?” he asked. She nodded, and he felt a smile cross his face unbidden.

Breakfast in the mess hall was gathered quickly, and they took their seat in a quiet corner, away from the few other knights in the room. Alternis cupped his coffee and inhaled the fumes to force himself awake, watching Edea sprinkle powdered sugar over her pancakes and syrup.

“You seem to be in a good mood,” the woman said as she shoveled her pancakes into her face.

Alternis tried not to make a face; he could practically taste the sugar from here. “As do you. Did you sleep well?”

“Mmm! It was nice and cozy last night. It looks like we’re starting to get some summer.”

He laughed. “Eternia doesn’t experience summer. It’s simply melting the tips of the icicles. If we’re lucky, we’ll only get a few feet of snow this month.”

Edea’s eyes widened as she took an extra large bite of her pancakes. Their gazes met, and he found his face growing warm as she chewed and swallowed without breaking that contact. “Did you just make a joke?”

Despite himself, he frowned. “Is that so… strange?” He liked to think that he had a sense of humor, though he knew it wasn’t like others’.

“No, not really,” she poured more sugar on her pancakes; the cook had given her a large box. “I just can’t remember the last time I heard you joke. I mean, Ringabel would make these awful jokes now and then, but they were truly terrible!”

His mood soured immediately at hearing the name of the other man. Braev had told him of the other worlds; he had even hinted that there were multiples of himself in that world. His suspicions had only been confirmed during his recovery period, when his journal had been returned to him, and Edea and Braev both spoke to him about the vagrant with his face, though not his name or memories.

Edea noticed the expression change.

“Oh, not to say that I want you to act like Ringabel,” she said hastily. “Quite the opposite, in fact. He was nothing if not incorrigible. I couldn’t believe someone like you could turn into someone like him.”

“Do… you prefer me that way?” he found himself asking, staring into his mug.

“No,” she answered, and the force behind her words caused him to look up into her blue eyes again. “You’re Alternis… whatever happened to him, that made him Ringabel. You two are separate. I prefer you the way that you are. Please don’t change, especially not like that.”

That was encouraging…

“I don’t intend to,” Alternis replied. “I have no need to be anyone but myself.” Especially if Edea didn’t think he needed to change. That thought pleased him.

Her smile pleased him even more and he returned it with his own, more cautious one.

Edea returned to her meal though, more intent on filling her stomach than in chatting. Which was fine with him. Alternis returned to his coffee and his biscuit, watching her eat. The two of them sat in a comfortable silence as she gorged herself and went back for seconds.

“You should really cut down on the sweets,” he commented, even though she had returned with a steaming cup of coffee.  "Thank you.“ It was black and bitter, just the way he liked it.

"Please have some pity - sugar is the only thing that gets me through these long, dark days…” Edea bemoaned. He could see that at least this time, the cook had added fresh fruits on top of the pancakes. Good. She needed something nutritious.

Edea had just finished her second plate when she paused and set the fork aside.

“No thirds?” he asked her. He had long since finished his coffee, but had elected to stay and wait for her.

“No. I wanted to talk.”

Alternis took in a deep breath. Talk. She wanted to talk. After his discussion with Braev, he had sat awake for long hours thinking about it. Thinking about her. They needed to talk, didn’t they? Talk about something that didn’t involve the Crystals, or the Vestals, or their roles in the conflict over the past year.

“What would you like to talk about?” he asked.

If she was surprised that he was open and willing to the idea of a discussion, her face did not betray it. “Anything.”

Anything? He raised an eyebrow at her. “We have our entire lives to talk, Edea. Why don’t we take it slow?”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

Ah? Had he not spoken as well as he wanted? He’d rehearsed a little, but… his face flushed. “I simply mean that we can always talk, you and I. I would like to spend more time with you.”

When she said nothing immediately, he plowed on. “I - I mean… you and I are comrades, and the Lord Marshal aside, we are possibly the highest ranking members in Eternia at this moment. I would like your input and assistance on some projects he has asked me to undertake. And… it has been far too long since we’ve spent time together that did not involve shouting at each other. At the very least, if we’re to shout at each other, we should make it productive.”

Edea was quiet for another moment before she giggled, propping her chin in her hand. “Oh, Alternis! Father talked to you, didn’t he?” she asked. But before he could answer, she continued. “I suppose I could help you! I know I must learn how to lead Eternia some day… I can’t rely on you and Father forever.”

“No, you can't…” Her father was recovering, but still wounded from the battle against Edea and the Vestal. As for Alternis…  "But we will be there as long as we can, Edea. I would glad to serve at your side as your right hand. For Eternia’s sake.“

They sat in silence.

"For Eternia?”

Alternis took a deep breath. The conversation was steering away from the direction he had rehearsed yesterday, but he couldn’t let her wait as he mulled things over in his head. “For the duchy. And for our family.”

The look she gave him was heartrending. “Alternis…”

He swallowed hard. “I would like the opportunity to do what’s right, and to correct my previous wrongs. Will you allow me that chance? I promise that I’ll do all I can to support you.”

“I know you will,” she answered softly.

“Remember… when I had just entered the military - you made me swear fealty to you.”

Edea groaned and shook her head. “I remember! I was such a brat.”

“You were worried that I would forget you now that I was grown, and would not be able to remain at your side. Of course, I gladly gave you my word that I be your knight for as long as I lived.”

“You need not worry about childhood promises, Alternis.”

“It’s a promise I intend to uphold,” he argued. “A knight, even a Dark one, never goes back on his word.”

“So what will you do?”

Alternis took a deep breath. “Allow me to serve at your side as your Knight, Edea. I expect nothing more.” When she looked somewhat unconvinced, he continued. “Your knight and… your friend?”

That seemed to tempt her, and the woman leaned toward him, a smile on her face. “My friend, huh?”

He knew he was blushing, but he tried to keep his voice even all the same. “I would say that we could both use one. Though I may argue with you at times, I do want to be your friend… please.”

That wonderful smile, remained on her face. “I would like that… ”

The warmth that spread in his chest was second only to the heat on his face. “I as well.”

It was a start, wasn’t it? Edea retrieved a cup of mush she claimed was coffee, and the two of them sat in their corner for some time, chatting amicably about the day’s plans. To his surprise, the warmth did not fade the longer that they spoke. Instead, it seemed to spread across his chest and to his entire being. It was a feeling he was familiar with; affection for her.

Perhaps she may never return it, but… for now, this was good.