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Warmth for the Winter

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“Alternis! I won’t let you get away with this!”

“Edea, hold on a moment—“

“No! I won’t! I let you have your way the last time, but you promised me it’d be different this time around!”

“I-I’m just not sure that it’s really necessary…!“

“’Necessary’? Mrrgrrgr! I’ll tell you what’s ‘necessary’!

Alternis found himself stumbling backwards as Edea shoved him out the door and into the hallway, forcibly vacating him from the premises of her room. For a moment, he had a flashback to a much younger Edea Lee pounding futilely at his side until he got the message and left on his own. Now she had the strength to probably kick him out the nearest window if she wanted to.

She was incredible as ever.

Hands on her hips, she scowled at him. “Nobody goes to tour the Solstice Festival in full-body armor, Alternis! You’ll scare every tourist, child, and clueless housewife around! I’ll still go with you—I go with you every year—but I want you in casual clothes. Wear something else for a change! Or are you going to tell me that your Asterisk is glued to your skin?”

He supposed she was right to be upset. For the last several years now, he had repeatedly managed to get away with wearing his heavy black armor to even the most benign of social events. Edea’s exasperation had been mounting for half their lives, and it seemed that today marked the breaking point of her *usually rather short) patience. He’d been lucky to survive for as long as he had.

“…Very well, very well,” he intoned from beneath his helmet, lifting his hands in a bid to placate her. The fire in her eyes didn’t quite die down, but at least she didn’t look like she was about to sock him in the jaw. “I promise to be properly presentable in time for the festival.”

“So you’ll be right back, yeah?”

“As quickly as I can,” he conceded, and she grinned.

(His heart skipped a beat, like always.)

“Great! I’ll see you soon then!”

With that, she slammed the door shut. Alternis paused for a moment, and sure enough, he heard her grumbling through the door.

“Wearing Dark Knight armor to a holiday festival...Seriously?! I know he’s a little shy, but this is just…getting ridiculous! How can one man manage to be so…!”

Well. He’d better get going to his private chambers, then, before Edea found out he was still loitering in the hallway. The last thing he needed was for her to catch him delaying carrying out her orders.

Outside of Central Command, the Eternian winter was swelling in earnest. It’d been steadily flurrying since yesterday and was showing little sign of stopping. Warm fires were burning in every grate in every home in the country—and here as well, though it took considerably more firewood and magical energy to keep the soldiers from freezing in their boots. It wasn’t anything that they weren’t long used to, however, and all involved were equipped to deal with the weather.

It was just a shame that he wasn’t equipped to deal with social gatherings.

This had been my idea, Alternis reminded himself as he walked. A few soldiers saluted him but he was too lost in thought to notice. It’s a tradition. Edea has always enjoyed this festival since she was a little girl. It’s something that makes her happy.

And despite his eternal reluctance to mingle—not that he disliked people, but he preferred to deal with children or have a buffer in the form of work—Alternis delighted in the fact that this was something uniquely his and Edea’s.

That made it worth the discomfort.

Right outside of his door, Alternis found himself suddenly intercepted by a most unexpected pair.

“…Holly? Barras? What are you two doing here?”

Holly glanced up, only mildly interested in the obstacle in the hallway known as Alternis Dim. “Oh, it’s you. We were just on our way back from speaking with Braev.” She returned to filing her nails, her mind clearly elsewhere.

Barras, however, was right in the moment. He punched a fist into his palm. “That’s right! Holly and I were thinkin’ about headin’ to the festival, so we—wait a moment. Don’t you always take today off? You and the Templar’s daughter always go together, don’t you?”

Was it common knowledge? Logically it’d not be hard to deduce after one worked here long enough, but for some reason, he felt rather…

Alternis grimaced and was severely thankful for the fact that no one could see.

“Yes, but I require a change of clothing. This Asterisk is far from appropriate for such matters.”

“That never stopped you before,” Holly pointed out with a smirk—not unkindly, though.

“I didn’t even know you had regular clothes,” Barras guffawed.

“Oh, as if you’re one to talk, you oaf,” Holly was quick to quip. It seemed as though she was sufficiently intrigued, because she was actually looking at Alternis now. “…You look as though you need advice, Dim.”

“…I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

“A scarf. Every date in the winter needs a scarf. It’s not complete without one.”

“A scarf? Do you really think—i-it Is not a date!” Alternis had the feeling this would happen the instant he saw Holly Whyte. Things always took a turn like this whenever the White Mage decided to tease him about his, er, affections.

“Unfortunately, I bet it’s not. Hang in there, Dim,” Holly said as she patted his shoulder with her free hand. A moment later, she flinched. “Ugh. Your girlfriend’s right—that armor is not for this weather. You’re freezing to the touch; it’d give a girl frostbite.”

Barras snorted. “Really? I don’t think it’s that cold. All you need is the proper exercise! Warm those muscles right up!”

“I don’t start my diet ‘till the spring,” Holly replied flatly. “Let’s go, Barras.”

The pair departed after an exchange of well wishes with Alternis, mercifully leaving the Dark Knight to flee to his room.

He did have other clothes, of course. Whether or not they still fit or were actually acceptable to wear in freezing weather was another matter altogether. Rummaging through chests and throwing open closets, Alternis resigned himself to the task.

Hopefully, he’d not keep Edea waiting too long…

~***~

He felt…strange.

Vulnerable.

The darkness that he commanded was still obediently asleep beneath the surface, but without his armor, he felt infinitely more fragile. Alternis flexed his fingers and smoothed down the deep black coat that Mahzer had bought him two years before, thanking the Crystals or heavens or what have you that had blessed him with such good luck.

It had worked out.

And it had only taken him about twenty minutes to throw together.

(It was just a shame that he didn’t have a scarf.)

Knocking on Edea’s door, Alternis cleared his throat. “Edea? I apologize for the wait.”

“Alternis!” There was a patter of feet from within, and then she appeared, in all of her white-furred glory; where had she gotten that coat?

(He’d always known she’d look beautiful in white.)

For a long moment, she looked at his face, and went still.

Alternis shifted, self-conscious, resisting the urge to smooth down his upswept hair.

(He wondered what she was thinking about; who she saw standing here before her, now.)

The second hung, dazzling and quiet between them, before passing on by, never to return. Edea smiled, stepping out and closing her door behind her.

“Wow, it’s…been a pretty long time since I really got a good look at you, Alternis. You clean up pretty nicely.”

“…Thank you. You are radiant as always, Edea.”

He tried to say the words with confidence, but they felt bizarre coming from him, even though he was entirely sincere.

She blinked once before laughing.

“Really now? Well, thanks. But enough about that! We’re already a little late—because somebody decided to take his sweet time—so we’ll have to really get going now!”

Edea took his hand in hers—his eyes widened, his heart quickened—and tugged him toward the elevator, smiling at him over her shoulder.

“It’s always so serious around here. I think what we both need is just a few moments to relax, you know? Especially considering everything that’s happened.”

Alternis really didn’t want to think about the fights he’d endured against her—so he didn’t. He merely nodded, concentrating on the feeling of their intertwined fingers.

(He wanted nothing more than to place a ring there.)

It didn’t take them too long to get to the front door of Command. He expected Edea to just go charging on out like she typically did, but instead, she paused.

She turned to regard him. Her eyes looked so pensive; her gaze, so wondering. He found himself questioning her before he could stop.

“What’s on your mind, Edea?”

“Nothing,” she replied, a bit too fast. With a soft chuckle, she pulled her hand from his.

Before he had time to miss the contact, she took off the fluffy white scarf that’d been wrapped loosely around her shoulders, looping it around his instead. As she smoothed it into place, he ducked his head, trying to hide the traitorous red seeping into his cheeks.

She observed him with no small amount of amusement. “I sorta had the feeling you’d do that. I hope it helps a little, Alternis.”

The gate was open, and the winds of Eternia blew her hair about her face, sprinkled white flakes across blonde, contrasted the blue of her eyes.

“Thanks for coming with me. It’s...really nice to know that you’re always here.”

What should he say to something like that?

A lump formed in his throat, and he tried in vain to clear it, burrowing deeper into the scarf.

(It carried her scent. Something soft and floral and a bit sugary—completely, entirely, her.)

“Ever and always, Edea,” he managed at last, and she nodded, giggling.

“That’s enough serious stuff for right now. Come on, Alternis! Let’s go!”

She interlocked their fingers again.

“If there’s new sweets at the festival, you know I’m going to try them all!

With that, they were off. Edea was talking a mile a minute, but Alternis found himself hopelessly focused on one particular fact.

The winds of Eternia may have been blowing especially cold that day, but the feel of Edea’s hand in his own was anything but.