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The Heart of the Matter
A Fire Emblem: Three Houses Fanfic
#FE3H #SylvainxIngrid #Sylvgrid
Ingrid couldn’t seem to get rid of Sylvain.
She, Sylvain, and Felix had fought together frequently in the five years before their class reunion—she’d have thought Sylvain would have had his fill of her. Yet he had dogged her steps ever since they’d returned to the monastery months ago. It seemed like everywhere she went, he turned up. The monastery wasn’t that small. She barely had time to breathe between training and battles, let alone catch up with her friends. She definitely didn’t have time for his nonsense.
“You know, you haven’t changed a bit,” Sylvain said with a grin as he sauntered up to Ingrid in the dining hall.
“Don’t you have some girl to seduce?” she asked as she took a plate and moved toward a table.
Sylvain gazed at her steadily and took a bite of the apple he held. “Maybe.”
She sat down at one of the tables and tucked into her food. Sylvain claimed a spot across from her, set down his plate, and finished his apple, watching her all the while.
“Stop staring at me,” she said between mouthfuls.
Sylvain finally picked up his fork. “Where else should I look?”
Where was Felix when she needed him? Ingrid raised her head. There he was—moving toward where Annette sat. Ashe sat down next to Annette, both their faces lighting up, and Felix veered away. He came Ingrid’s way, but Dorothea got there first and settled next to Sylvain. Felix scowled and took the chair on Ingrid’s other side, so he wasn’t sitting across from the songstress. Dorothea smirked.
Ingrid and Sylvain exchanged a glance. Sylvain also peeked at Dorothea’s cleavage. Ingrid sighed.
“Felix,” Sylvain said, “Ingrid’s telling me I spend too much time with her.”
Felix glared at Dorothea. “I know the feeling. At least she noticed you stopped chasing skirts.”
“I’m sitting right here,” Ingrid said with a frown. Sylvain had stopped his philandering? Since when? Although now she thought about it, she hadn’t seen him with a woman in a while. He seemed focused in a way he hadn’t been before. War did that to a person.
“Forget them,” Sylvain said to Dorothea. “How’s my lovely lady doing today?”
Dorothea smiled. “As well as one can during wartime. How’s my eligible noble?”
The two laughed. Ingrid hunched over her food. Must be an inside joke. Strange, Sylvain had never been close with people outside their childhood friends. Something besides her meal churned in her belly at the sight of him and Dorothea. Sylvain rarely opened up and was difficult to get to know. But she knew him, didn’t she?
“Disgusting,” Felix muttered under his breath.
Ingrid was inclined to agree, but she caught herself. There was no reason for her to begrudge Sylvain closeness, if he’d found it. Dorothea was smart. She wouldn’t let herself get played just because he was a magnificent specimen.
A shiver went down Ingrid’s spine. That thought had come out of nowhere. She pushed it away and focused on her meal.
“You shouldn’t even be here,” Felix said to Dorothea. “You’re not from Faerghus.”
“The professor recruited me into the Blue Lions fair and square,” Dorothea said, gaze snapping. “I had as much right to show up for the reunion as you did.”
The two began to argue. Again.
“I like watching you eat,” Sylvain said to Ingrid.
Ingrid’s cheeks heated. “I was hungry.”
“No, I mean it. I love the way you lose yourself in the pleasure.”
That sounded oddly sincere. But he was likely hitting on her. Probably didn’t want his skills to get rusty between now and when the war was over.
“I’m going to go train,” Ingrid said, having finished her meal.
Dorothea waggled her fingers and winked. “I’ll see you later, darling. Maybe we can have tea?”
“I’d like that.” Ingrid smiled at her friend, cleared her dishes, and headed toward the exit.
“Hey!” Sylvain caught up as she went outside. “Need a sparring partner?”
Ingrid looked at him askance. “Since when are you so interested in training?”
“Since I decided not to die in this war.”
“Finally applying yourself, then?”
“You could say that.”
They walked side by side toward the training grounds. It was later than she’d thought. The ribbons of cloud in the sky turned gold and pink as the sun sank toward the earth. Sylvain’s hair caught the sunset turned into molten flame. Ingrid banished the thought as soon as she had it and trained her gaze on the path ahead of her.
She was so focused on where she was going that she startled when something nestled behind her ear. Her fingers flew to the offending object and encountered soft petals. A flower. She glanced at Sylvain, who grinned down at her.
“Seriously?” she asked with a sigh.
His grin widened. “Relax. Learn to have a little harmless fun.”
“Since when is your sort of fun harmless? Is this the part where you tell me it doesn’t suit me after all?”
A strange expression flickered across his face. “No, I, uh…”
He’d stopped walking and was staring at her, color rising in his cheeks. Ingrid shook her head and moved to pluck the flower from her hair. His hand darted out and stopped her.
“It complements your complexion,” he said. “And your eyes.”
Ingrid blinked. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Huh? Yeah. I’m fine. Ready to partake in some good ol’ physical exertion.”
Sylvain began walking again, much brisker than before. Ingrid had to jog to keep up. They passed a trio of young women, dressed up for a trip into town, and he didn’t even glance at them. Something was definitely going on.
“Guess it all worked on you, too,” he muttered under his breath.
Ingrid cocked her head. “What worked?”
“The whole lowering expectations thing. If I act useless, no one will expect anything of me. Biting me in the ass now, isn’t it? You really do think I’m worthless.”
“That’s not true.” Except it sort of was. She’d thought for a long time that he was wasting his considerable talents. If he’d only apply himself, he could do so much. That said, she knew what his childhood had been like, although his demeanor made it easy to forget what he’d been through.
Sylvain shrugged. “Guess I’ll just have to prove it to you.”
“You’re one of my dearest friends. You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
Ingrid plucked the flower from behind her ear. It was just a daisy, one with pink along the edges of the petals. Disappointment flickered over Sylvain’s expression as he watched her, so instead of tossing the flower aside, she tucked it into the braid at the back of her head.
“It’ll fall out and distract me during training if it’s in the front,” Ingrid said, inwardly wincing at how defensive she sounded.
Sylvain laced his fingers behind his head and resumed walking. “I’m glad you’re lightening up a little. It’s not good for your health if you’re always worrying.”
“I’m the one who should be giving you the lecture. I’m glad you’ve decided to be serious about something for once.”
“We balance each other nicely then, don’t we?” Sylvain replied with a smile. “I get you to relax, you get me to buckle down. And by the way, I’m serious about more things than you seem to realize.”
Ingrid had no idea what those things might be. Pushing boundaries, maybe. Or finding ways to disgrace his family.
They arrived at the training room and set themselves up in a corner. Ingrid grabbed a training lance while Sylvain picked up an axe. He copied her warmup routine. As she neared the end, an idea came to her. Time to see how much progress he had made.
Ingrid jabbed at him with the lance without warning. It was a cheap shot, since they were still warming up, but war wasn’t fair. To her surprise, his axe came down and deflected the blow. Even more to her surprise, he swung the weapon at her midsection. She jumped away, lance held between her hands in a defensive position. Her blood sang in her ears. She hated killing, but she loved fighting.
Sylvain’s expression turned serious as he swung at her again. She’d never seen such concentration in his face. Instead of their usual mischief, his eyes held determination.
Ingrid parried with her lance and sliced at his ankles. Sylvain danced out of the way, wielding the axe one-handed. It was a training weapon and therefore not nearly as heavy as the one he fought with, but the way he wielded it required considerable strength. That sort of strength only came from dedicated training. It seemed the war had changed her friend in ways she hadn’t participated.
They sparred for a while with those weapons, then Sylvain switched to a lance himself. After a few rounds of that, they transitioned to swords. Ingrid gritted her teeth and stabbed. The sword wasn’t her preferred weapon, but she’d still been training with it all her life.
Sylvain matched her blow for blow. Sweat darkened his hair and plastered it to his forehead. A snarl curled his lip as he stabbed at her throat, and she only just dodged in time. She took advantage of the extension of his arm and aimed for the spot under his armpit, for the gap in his armor. The training blade pressed into his flesh, stopping short of actually wounding him. Sylvain froze, expression grim.
“You got me,” he said, panting.
Ingrid lowered her blade. “It took a lot longer than I thought it would. You’ve really improved. If I’m honest, I envy your natural ability.”
Sylvain shrugged, his usual affable mask sliding into place. His smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“Hey.” Ingrid put her hand on his forearm. “The only thing I expect from you is to live through this war.”
His lips thinned, and he lowered his eyes. “It’s nice to know someone wants me to survive because they care about me and not just because my Crest would be lost if I died. You do care about me, right?”
“Oh, Sylvain.” Ingrid’s heart clenched. “Of course I care about you.”
Ingrid wasn’t much of a hugger, but she could tell when someone needed to be held. Sylvain, despite his masks, had always been a sensitive soul. She put her arms around him as best she could. Their armor made it awkward. He returned the hug, resting his chin on her head. After a moment, he pulled her closer to him.
“You smell good,” he murmured.
Ingrid stiffened and stepped out of his embrace. She opened her mouth to scold him, but the expression on his face sopped her. His cheeks were flushed, and he appeared flustered.
“Is it hot in here? Yeah, it’s hot in here,” Sylvain said. “Help me out of this armor, please?”
She helped him unbuckle his cuirass and pulled off his pauldrons. They had worn heavy layers up north to combat the cold, but those layers weren’t needed in the more temperate climate of Garreg Mach. Sylvain’s armor was heavier than hers and covered more of his body. After a vigorous training session like that, no wonder he was overheating.
Sure enough, when they removed all his upper body armor, his base layer stuck to him like a second skin. Sylvain peeled it off and dropped it on the floor, now stripped to the waist.
Ingrid’s gaze started to wander down his torso, and she ripped it back up to his face. He’d put on a bit of bulk since their Academy days, but not too much. What had really changed was his definition. Every muscle stood out in stark relief. It was evident he’d been training, and hard. No wonder it had been so difficult to best him.
“Do you need some water?” she asked.
“I’m fine—” he began, but she was already on her way.
By the time she returned, Felix and Dorothea were there. Sylvain sat on a bench, still half naked, elbows resting on his knees as Dorothea fussed over him. Something sharp and ugly rippled through Ingrid’s chest at the sight of the brunette touching Sylvain’s bare shoulder. Dorothea had changed into her sword fighting outfit, every curve on full display. Ingrid was fast friends with the songstress, but she suddenly wished the other woman wasn’t treating Sylvain with such familiarity.
“You invited me to spar, and how you’re babying him,” Felix said, arms crossed over his chest.
Dorothea’s eyebrows pulled together in the center. “Don’t you care about your friend? Or are you jealous?”
“As if. He’ll be fine. He just wants the attention.”
Ingrid cleared her throat to announce her presence. Was that all it was? A cry for attention? Sylvain did tend to manipulate the way people paid attention to him. Still, that expression on his face, that look in his eyes… He hadn’t seemed like he was pretending.
“Here.” She held out the water skin.
Instead of taking it from her, Sylvain put his hands over her gauntlets. “Thanks.”
“When are you going to start making him look after himself?” Felix said, frowning at Ingrid. “You’ve always been cleaning up his messes and taking care of him.”
“That’s what friends do.”
Felix shook his head.
Dorothea gazed at him, expression pitying. She rubbed Sylvain’s shoulder. “Everyone needs someone to look after them.”
“Not me,” Felix said. “I’m fine on my own.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Dorothea said.
Heat rose in Ingrid’s cheeks. Sylvain hadn’t stopped looking at her like she was his savior. Finally, he took the water skin and drank.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Don’t let yourself get in that situation again,” she said. Suddenly, she wanted to be anywhere but here, with Dorothea touching him like that. Sylvain hardly noticed. That’s how used to it he must be. Maybe Dorothea touched him other places, too. The thought made her want to throw up.
“Have a good night,” she said. “I’m off to a bath and bed.”
Sylvain moved as if to follow, but Ingrid hurried out of the training room and was gone.
Sylvain had been joining Ingrid for training sessions for weeks now, but as she headed to their latest session, she couldn’t find her center. Her nerves jangled, and her stomach churned. Their interactions lately had been strange, like when he’d noticed her wearing makeup and thought it was to impress a man. But he’d still called her beautiful.
Since the makeup incident, his behavior on the battlefield, such as sticking close to her and watching her back, was more intense than before. She couldn’t shake the memory of Sylvain’s face and armor splattered with the blood of the archer who’d tried to shoot her down, the woman’s body slumped at his horse’s hooves.
And yet…she’d put distance between them. He’d said during one of their training sessions—it must have been before the makeup conversation—that he thought she, of all people, would listen to him. He’d been hurt and angry. She thought she’d listened, but had she really? Was he saying things she wasn’t hearing and failing him as a friend? Perhaps that was one of the reasons he was so close with Dorothea.
To her surprise, Sylvain was already practicing. He jabbed the air with the lance, concentration written in the lines of his face, gaze focused inward. He’d discarded his armor, but his shirt clung to him. Muscles rippled as he moved through the forms. Ingrid’s face heated, and a tingle ran down her center. She quickly pushed the feeling away.
“Am I late?” she asked as she retrieved another lance from the weapons rack.
Sylvain finished his move and shook his head. “I was feeling restless, so I got started early.”
Ingrid inspected her weapon. “If you’re ready for a break, I’d actually like to talk to you.”
“Sure.” His gaze skimmed her head to toe, brow furrowed. “Everything all right?”
It was suddenly too difficult to look at him. She shifted her grip on the lance. “Do you feel like I listen to you?”
“You want the truth?”
“I’m your friend. Of course I do.”
Sylvain drew near, expression solemn. “I think you still see the person I was five years ago. When you listen, you’re thinking of him instead of who I am now.”
“Are they such different people?”
“I like to think so, yeah.”
“You still seem to flirt plenty.” The words came out bitter, surprising herself.
“With who? I’m always training with you. When would I have the time?”
Ingrid’s cheeks burned. “Dorothea—”
Sylvain laughed. His shoulders shook, and he threw his head back. The burning spread from Ingrid’s face down her neck.
“If you’re just going to laugh at me—” she began.
“No.” Sylvain’s chuckles faded as he shook his head. “Dorothea…she and I get each other. You’re friends with her too, right? Go to tea with her? Who does she talk about?”
Ingrid’s brow furrowed. “Felix, but—”
“Exactly. Not that he’s the reason she’s friends with us.” He stepped even closer. The scent of his sweat wafted toward her, combined with bay and sandalwood. She leaned into the smell. Something quivered low her in belly.
“Sometimes,” he continued, voice pitched low in a way that made a shiver run down her spine, “I think you forget that while you’re my friend, I’m your friend, too. I wish you’d rely on me more, like you did when we were kids.”
Ingrid met his gaze. Something danced in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure what. “I’ll rely on you when you become reliable.”
“I’ve been working on it. You don’t think I’ve made progress?”
“I do.” She hated to admit it, but he seemed to have grown up over the past few years, despite always having been older than her.
“Then why didn’t you tell me your father was trying to marry you off? Why don’t you think I’m strong enough to protect you?”
Ingrid frowned. “Those are two very different things. Besides, I had to find out from Mercie how you really felt about those girls you chased.”
“Well, I didn’t know about your father marrying you off until Dorothea and the professor took us to fight off that slimy merchant! Besides, you should have known how I felt about those girls—they only wanted me for my Crest or title. None of them bothered to try to know the real me. Maybe you didn’t, either.”
Ingrid recoiled as if slapped.
Sylvain rubbed his face. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. It’s just…you’ve known me longer than anyone. But sometimes I wonder if you know me at all.”
Ingrid’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment. Knowing Sylvain hid his true emotions was different from knowing what those emotions actually were. He was easy to lecture, but maybe she hadn’t paid as close attention to him as she’d thought.
“That said, I know you.” He was close enough now that they were almost touching. “I know you want to be a knight with all your heart, but your sense of duty to your family holds you back. Meat’s your favorite food, but I know you’ll eat just about anything, especially if it’s breaded and fried. I know you hate pink and love green and enjoy nature but aren’t fond of gardening. You love to ride, especially your pegasus, because up there it’s easy to forget you have a Crest and responsibilities and you can just be free.”
She stared up at him, eyes wide.
A soft smile curved his mouth, but it was sad. “Now, what do you know about me?”
“You…” The heat of his body, his scent, muddled her thoughts. His shoulders were broad and his waist narrow. The sight of his shirt plastered to his torso was too distracting.
Ingrid took a deep breath to clear her mind. “You don’t like to be serious for very long—it’s too much effort. You enjoy board games, especially strategy ones, but you lose on purpose half the time so no one will know how smart you are. You failed the entrance exams for the academy for years—on purpose, though nobody could prove it—until the time came for Felix and me to take them with you. If you were to ever apply yourself, you’d be the standard others aspired to. You like tea fine, but you really like expensive wine.”
She paused. How to phrase the most obvious thing about him? But there was no delicate way to say it. “You’re attracted to women, but you don’t actually like them. You’ll take the sex anyway, since you might as well get something out of it.”
“I do like sex. But you left the most important part out.”
“And what’s that?” Her face burned. She never thought she’d be talking about sex at all, let alone with her male friend.
“It’s only ever been sex, never making love. Not a single one of those women knew the real me. Or cared to.”
Ingrid pressed her lips together, brow furrowed. The air between them grew charged. Sylvain gazed back at her, a challenge in his expression. If she said the wrong thing now, it could hurt him. That was the last thing she wanted to do.
So, she took his hand and squeezed. To be a real friend, she had to see the true him, not who she thought he was. It was time to clear her mind of preconceived notions. They were at war, after all. Who knew how much time they had left?
“I see you, Sylvain,” she said. “I don’t care about your Crest or your title. I know how you feel. Those things have done me as much harm as good, too.”
Sylvain blinked rapidly, eyes moist. He threw his arms around her, making her gasp, but immediately leaped back with a yelp. “That armor is cold!”
Ingrid smiled. “Serves you right.”
“I should have known.” He shook his head. “Hey, I think I’m ready to train now. I know I’ve said it before, but I really do feel at ease when I’m with you. Thanks for your patience.”
Ingrid had the odd sense he wasn’t only referring to the rest she’d granted him.
“What are friends for?” she said and readied her weapon. “Now, let’s get to work so neither of us dies in this war.”
Ingrid left after the training session before Sylvain could think of an excuse to make her stay. “‘I see you,’ huh?” he muttered. Did she really? When those clear, green eyes had looked at him, her expression perfectly earnest, she certainly thought she did. Maybe she was right. She knew him better than most people.
And, even better, she was jealous of Dorothea. That had to mean something.
Sylvain picked up his armor and carried it back to his room. He passed Ingrid’s door on the way. Was she inside? Should he knock? If she answered, he had no excuse prepared. She wasn’t ready to hear that he just wanted to hang out with her. Ingrid had such strong convictions, especially compared to him. He wanted to help her achieve her dream however he could, and if that meant being little more than a training dummy, so be it. Besides, becoming a better fighter would help him keep her safe during battle.
Damn it. He was lonely without her. When he was lonely in the past, he’d go find a nice girl, fall half in love, get hurt by her shallowness or his own, and repeat the cycle. No more. He had to prove he’d changed.
He closed his door behind him and put his armor on its stand. It felt good to be out of that metal prison. He was still gross and sweaty, though. The sauna sounded like a good idea. It should still be open even if it was starting to get late. Yeah, the sauna and a quick bath would do the trick. Maybe he’d grab some wine on the way back to his room.
He changed into the approved outfit and hurried to the sauna. His sore muscles ached with the need for heat, and he stepped into the room with an enormous sigh of relief. The place was crowded. Unsurprising, considering most people were off duty and wanted to relax.
Scanning for a place to sit, his gaze snagged on a blond woman. Ingrid. She leaned against the riser behind her, head tilted back and eyes closed. Her position exposed her pale throat, and a shiver ran through him despite the heat. He could almost taste the salt from her sweat as he ran his tongue over—oh, shit. That was not an appropriate thing to want to do to his childhood friend.
Fortunately, Sylvain had never had much use for appropriate.
Once Ingrid spotted him, she’d probably think he was following her, which would make it even creepier if he didn’t sit next to her. Best to take the hit now and try to work his way out of it. As he sat down beside her, he spotted a trio of female knights sitting in the corner. Attractive. Fantastic tits on the one in the middle. Sylvain didn’t think he’d slept with any of them, since he tended to stay away from the knights. A pity, sort of.
Thoughts of other women fled his mind as Ingrid stretched, still oblivious to his presence. The muscles in her arms and legs flexed. Her training had paid off. What would those strong legs feel like wrapped around his waist—damn it, now was not the time. He needed to stay calm. The sauna shorts didn’t hide much.
“Hey,” he said.
Sylvain held his hands up in a placating gesture as her surprise turned into a scowl. “I didn’t know you’d be here, I swear.”
“Can’t be helped now,” she said with a sigh. “You might as well stay.”
Her attitude stung, but he hid the twinge behind a half-smile. “I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“That’s a first.”
“Ouch. You’re starting to sound like Felix.”
Ingrid shook her head and remained silent.
Sylvain hazarded a glance around. The three knights were sneaking looks at him. If he left Ingrid to flirt with them, he could kiss any chance with her goodbye. He’d rather just be kissing her.
Time to face facts. He wanted Ingrid. Bad.
He frowned. It had been a long time since he’d gotten laid. Was it just a matter of lust? Of convenience? But Ingrid was utterly unobtainable. Or maybe his subconscious was trying to get him to change his habits in some perverse manner. Either way, getting together with Ingrid was not going to happen. She’d proven impervious to his masculine charms since forever.
Now was not the time to fantasize about what she would be like in bed. Best to save that for when he was alone in his room.
The knights were looking at him more boldly. Sylvain sighed. He’d always fallen in love easily, but he wasn’t sure what love really was. If his feelings for Ingrid were nothing but lust, a rendezvous with one of those knights might be the cure. He glanced at Ingrid, who stared at the coals at the front of the room.
I see you, Sylvain.
She saw him as a person—which was more than most people—but did she see him as a man?
The knight with the terrific breasts stood and approached. She had to know who he was. There were very few redheaded men at the monastery. A glance at Ingrid revealed she’d also spotted the knight. A tiny crease appeared between her eyebrows, and her mouth tightened, although at him or the knight, there was no telling.
Sylvain chewed his bottom lip. Decision time. He had a feeling there’d be no take backs on this one.
The easiest thing to do would be to put his arm around Ingrid. That’d drive the knight off quickly. But then Ingrid would get mad and—too late. The knight sat down next to him and smiled. Sylvain’s palms started to sweat. He smiled back, hoping the expression was courteous but not encouraging.
“You busy after?” the knight said. She had a nice voice, low and husky, the sort it was easy to imagine moaning his name.
Her phrasing, combined with the look in her eyes, made it clear she was after a fling, maybe no strings attached. Those opportunities didn’t come often. He took a deep breath. It had been so long…
Ingrid tensed beside him, her gaze still riveted to the sauna’s coals as if she were waiting for them to erupt in fireworks.
I see you, Sylvain.
“Sorry, I have plans,” he said. “But I appreciate the invite all the same.”
“Sure,” the knight said and returned to her friends. The three women put their heads together and started whispering.
Ingrid turned to him, eyes wide. Sylvain smiled at her and stretched. In doing so, he laid his arm along the edge of the riser behind her. He wasn’t putting his arm around her. He was just resting it on the ledge. No way could she argue with that, even if the position did bring their bodies a little closer together.
To his surprise, she didn’t seem to notice. It was the perfect time to put the moves on her. Ironically, the second he did so, he’d destroy his chances. The best way to woo Ingrid might be to not woo her at all.
“You’re awfully quiet tonight,” Ingrid said.
Sylvain shrugged, scooting infinitesimally closer with the motion. “Just thinking.”
Ingrid blushed, and it was like a fireball straight to his chest. When had she become so beautiful? All too soon, her expression turned into a frown.
“What about me?”
“About how much I rely on you. You’re my rock, my anchor. I want to be that for you, too. And I wish I could tell you things without you taking them the wrong way.”
“Like you look really strong. Your training is paying off. But I worry if I say that sort of thing, you’ll think I’m a creep.”
Ingrid sighed. “I’ve heard you heap empty flattery on unsuspecting women too many times.”
“I get it. I don’t blame you. It’s my problem, and I have to figure out how to solve it.”
Ingrid nodded and fell silent again. Sylvain wanted her to lean into his side so badly he could taste it. The need was almost painful. That was another bad sign. He liked to cuddle. A lot. But he rarely stayed after his liaisons, preferring to snuggle for an hour and then retreat to his room. With Ingrid, he wanted to watch her breathe while she slept in his arms all night long.
Damn it. He was definitely in love with her.
“Don’t let yourself overheat,” Sylvain said, since he was on the verge of doing so himself. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Her eyebrow arched, her expression dripping with disapproval. “Off to the rest of your plans for the evening?”
“Yep.” He leaned close, almost close enough for his lips to graze her ear. She smelled like oranges and ginger, and a shudder ran through him. “Bath and then bed. Racy, huh?”
Ingrid pushed him away, but the gesture was playful and accompanied with a slight smile.
“I could be persuaded to go out again after my bath,” he said. “If you wanted to get a treat or go dancing or something.”
She snorted. “Dancing?”
“It’s good for agility. Comes in handy on the battlefield.”
“Right.” Her mouth curled up at the corner.
Good, she was warming up. “Actually, I regret not finishing our dance at the ball five years ago. I always wanted a chance to make up for it.”
“We didn’t finish our dance because you put your hand on my ass.”
“Have you seen your ass? You could bounce coins off it. Anyone in their right mind would want to find out what a perfect ass feels like.”
Ingrid’s mouth worked, her eyebrows plunging in the center.
Sylvain grinned. “I don’t regret the way your ass felt, but I regret the outcome.”
“Sylvain.” Her voice held a note of warning.
“Seriously.” His smile dropped away as he looked into her eyes. “I hope I get a chance to redeem myself someday. I’ll behave like a perfect gentleman.”
Sylvain shifted. His groin stirred at the memory of how it felt to cup her ass. He concentrated on fishing—boring, boring fishing—to calm himself. Even so, it was time to get out of there before he embarrassed himself.
“I understand if you don’t want to.” He stood and tugged on his shirt. “See you tomo—”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to. I like dancing. But we’re at war. Where would we even go?”
Sylvain stared at her. Had he heard correctly? “There’s a tavern in town that reopened. A group of musicians plays there. They used to work for a noble house, but the war displaced them. They mostly play country dances, but they work in a waltz here and there.”
“You go dancing there often?” The intensity of her gaze belied her light tone.
“Not for dancing, no. Felix and I dropped in for a drink, liked the music, and went back.”
“You really want to go? We wouldn’t have to stay long if it’s not your thing.”
“I don’t know. Dancing during a war…”
“Best to live to the fullest now in case we die.”
Sylvain’s own words sobered him. He remembered the archer taking aim at Ingrid’s pegasus. He’d felt no remorse at killing the woman with a whack of his axe. Just the thought of someone trying to hurt her filled him with rage.
“All right,” Ingrid said with a sigh. “Just this once. And I don’t want to stay up too late.”
Sylvain felt as if he might rise toward the ceiling, his heart was so light. He scooped up her hand and kissed her knuckles, exaggerating the gesture and turning it comical to distract her from how his lips lingered on her skin. “Should I swing by your room in half an hour?”
“I’ll be ready.”
The faintest of smiles lingered on her face. Sylvain rushed to take a bath and get ready. He shaved, dressed, dabbed on a little of his favorite scented oil, and hurried to meet Ingrid.
Ingrid opened the door and found Sylvain standing there, hand raised to knock. He startled as their eyes met.
“Hey,” Sylvain said with a smile that made his eyes sparkle. Something in her chest lurched.
Sylvain offered her his arm with an outlandish gesture. Ingrid sighed, but she took it anyway. His scent wafted toward her as he lowered his arm, warming her from within. How did he manage to smell so good? He looked freshly shaven, too. His clothes were neat and crisp. She regretted not washing her hair, but there hadn’t been time.
“This isn’t a date, you know,” she said as they made their way from the dormitory.
“No, it’s an outing. Stress relief.”
Fortunately, they didn’t run into any of the other former Blue Lions on their way out of the monastery. The summer evening was balmy and fragrant, stars shining in the midnight velvet sky overhead. Every so often, Sylvain would look down at her, and his mouth would curve upward at the corners. Ingrid relaxed against his arm. It felt nice to walk with him in the fresh night air. He was easy to be around. He made no demands, expected nothing more from her than common courtesy. His friendliness had never been an act.
“This is nice,” Sylvain said, face turned up to the sky. “It feels like a long time since I just took a walk. Since it was safe enough to just take a walk.”
Ingrid squeezed his arms. “We’ll get there. We’ll win this war, and then there’ll be peace at last.”
“With knights like you on our side, I believe it.”
She knew he was just flattering her, but her face warmed anyway.
They passed the rest of the stroll in comfortable silence. The sounds of town surrounded them—people talking on the walkway, conversations coming through open windows, a dog barking, a baby crying. They were the sounds of normal life, a good reminder of what Ingrid was trying to protect.
Her mind wandered down that path, wondering what her own life would be like once the war was over, when Sylvain steered her toward an open door and inside a tavern. The scent of ale and frying oil hit her nostrils, and her mouth began watering. Sylvain snagged a table and seated her while he went to the bar.
Ingrid gazed at his back as he left. Sylvain had an excellent shape. The inverted V of his shoulders to waist, the length of his limbs…even his hands were nice, square-palmed and long-fingered. The tailored cut of his clothing only helped accentuate his physique. The eyes of the other patrons followed him as he crossed the room, his casual confidence attracting the glances of men and women alike. Ingrid could never draw attention like that. Not that she wanted to. It was enough to just to say she was with someone as handsome and charming as Sylvain.
Wait, had she just used the word “charming” when thinking about Sylvain? She didn’t even have the excuse of having had something to drink.
Sylvain returned with a mug of beer for her and a glass of red wine for himself. Ingrid accepted her drink. It was a stout, her favorite. She opened her mouth to ask how he’d known, but he forestalled her with a wink and took a sip of his wine. A moment later, the server arrived with a platter piled high with fried potatoes, cut into sticks and seasoned.
“To peace,” Sylvain said, raising his wine.
Ingrid clinked her mug against his glass. “To peace.”
Next, she took one of the potatoes and put it in her mouth. A moan escaped her around the food. These were good, worth the trip alone.
“If you ever look at a man the way you look at food, he’ll be one lucky guy,” Sylvain said with a smile.
“Did you try these? Once you do, you’ll understand.”
His smile widened. “You think I picked this place only for the band?”
Ingrid’s cheeks heated, and she stuffed more of the potatoes into her mouth.
They had polished off most of the potatoes before the band finally gathered on a raised platform in one corner of the tavern. The fiddles tuned their strings to the piper, and before long the drums started the beat. It was a lively, uproarious song, and soon people formed lines in the clear space in front of the platform and began a country dance.
“Shall we?” Sylvain asked, standing and offering her hand.
It was why they had come, after all. She put her hand in his, a shiver running down her spine. The skin of his palm was slightly rough from handling weapons. What would it feel like if he ran that hand down her bare back?
No. Those sorts of thoughts had no business associating with Sylvain. Ingrid pushed them away as they entered the dance floor.
She and Sylvain worked their way down the line as they joined the dance, swapping partners every couple of moves. Her eyes met his among the crowd, and he smiled at her despite the lovely young woman before him. Ingrid’s partner spun her and handed her off to the next man. She danced with four more men before large, strong hands took hers and pulled her closer than any other man had. Sylvain’s brown eyes twinkled as he smiled down at her, and she grinned back.
Then he was gone again, off to the next partner, and she didn’t encounter him for the rest of the dance. The next two were much the same. Ingrid’s breath came faster from the exertion. She was used to strenuous activity, but there was something different about dancing.
The musicians slowed their tempo, and the lines of the country dance broke apart. Sylvain stood at the other end of the dance floor. Women drifted toward him, hopeful looks on their faces, but he walked right past them up to Ingrid.
“Looks like it’s time for that dance,” he said, voice low.
Ingrid nodded and put her fingers in his. She sometimes forgot how tall he was, for she had to look up into his face. His hand settled on the small of her back as she reached for his shoulder. The music began.
It was a slow song, with a beat of three, although not a waltz. Sylvain guided her around the floor with ease. His movements appeared effortless, graceful. It was one of the things she admired about him. He turned her slowly, and when she faced him again, their bodies were closer than before. The scent of him filled her senses. Ingrid leaned into his touch, transported.
The song ended, but he didn’t let go. In fact, he nudged her closer. If he hadn’t been holding her in a dancing pose, it would have been an embrace. His lips parted—how had she never noticed the fullness of his mouth before?—and his grip on her tightened.
“I think I need a drink,” Ingrid said. The words came out husky.
Sylvain shook himself as if waking from a dream. “Oh. Yeah, sure.”
He released her, and she immediately regretted her decision. What was happening to her? She’d never been some sappy, stupid girl who needed a man for anything.
Maybe needing was different from wanting.
They returned to their table and sat. Ingrid peeked at Sylvain over the rim of her mug. He tossed back the rest of his wine and stared at the room, gaze unfocused. Spots of color rode high on his cheeks. When the dancing started up again, he made no move to escort her back to the floor.
Ingrid finished her stout and shifted in her seat. The atmosphere had changed. “Are you all right?”
“Huh? Oh, I’m fine. Why?”
“You seem distracted.”
Ingrid studied Sylvain. Usually, she couldn’t get him to shut up. She opened her mouth to keep pressing but decided against it. Maybe she should enjoy the peace while it lasted. Besides, she needed a little time to think. The way he had just walked past all those women, as if she were the only other person in the room…
She gazed out at the crowd. At the edge of the group of dancers, a burly man with a dark beard appeared to be trying to convince a short-haired brunette woman to dance. She shook her head with a smile. The man’s expression darkened, and he grabbed her arm and yanked her toward the dance floor. Fear flashed over her face as she tugged against his grip. The bearded man snarled into her face.
Enough was enough. A true knight would never let that sort of behavior stand. Ingrid shot out of her seat and was across the room in an instant.
“Leave her alone,” Ingrid said. “She’s made it clear she doesn’t want to dance.”
The woman’s face shone with gratitude. The man’s crumpled with rage. He took a swing at Ingrid, breath stinking of alcohol. Ingrid easily dodged it, grabbed his wrist, and put him in an elbow lock.
“Go,” she said to the woman.
“You bitch,” the man growled. Ingrid pursed her lips and applied pressure until his knees buckled.
A glance revealed Sylvain on his way. The crowd had noticed the fleeing woman, and they focused on Ingrid next. The man in her grip spat and struggled.
“What do you think you’re doing?” another man bellowed. “Let the fellow have a good time!”
“The woman he was assaulting wasn’t having fun,” Ingrid said. “He’s lucky I don’t break his arm for trying to hurt her.”
Ingrid scowled as a couple of the more drunken men staggered toward her. She could take them, but she’d have to let go of the man she had in the lock. He was close enough—and big enough—to do some damage. There wasn’t much room to move, either. Ingrid’s gaze darted toward the exit.
“Hey, now,” Sylvain said, only a few feet away. “Listen to the lady. I’m sure if he apologizes, we can all move on and enjoy the rest of our evening.”
One of the drunk men glowered at Ingrid. She tensed for an attack.
“I’m going to kill that stupid bi—” the man began.
Sylvain punched him in the face. The drunk dropped like a stone. He held his bleeding nose as Sylvain shook his hand out.
“You know how to spice up an evening,” Sylvain said to Ingrid as he turned.
The drunk’s friend pulled a knife and moved to stab Sylvain in the back. Ingrid shoved the bearded man aside, yanked Sylvain out of the way, and kicked the friend in the gut. The friend staggered away, but others began to roar.
“Woah,” Sylvain said, eyes wide. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Should we go?” Ingrid said. She picked up a chair and held it legs out toward the group of men moving their way.
Sylvain nodded. “I think we might have to fight our way out.”
“So be it.”
Fifteen minutes, a split lip, and eight bruised knuckles later, she ran with Sylvain through the streets. Their laughter echoed off the walls as they darted into an alley and bent over, panting.
Sylvain grinned at her. “That was not how I thought our evening would go.”
“Nor I,” said Ingrid between breaths.
“But I’m not sorry.”
Ingrid grinned back. “That was more fun that it should have been. I feel bad for breaking so much of the tavern owner’s furniture.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find a way to compensate him for it.”
They fell silent, regaining their breaths. Ingrid’s insides bubbled as she glanced at the tall, sweaty man beside her. Her smile took several minutes to fade.
“You know,” Ingrid said when she’d recovered, “if it’d been you who stood up for that woman, you’d been praised as her savior. I’m just an uppity bitch.”
Sylvain shook his head. “Just one of many things wrong with this world. You were the picture of a heroic knight.”
Ingrid beamed at him, splitting her lip anew.
“I gotta say,” Sylvain continued, wiping sweat from his brow, “you know how to show a guy an exciting time.”
“I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike.”
“Nah. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked about you.” He smiled. “There’s no one I’d rather have my back in a bar fight. In any fight, really.”
Ingrid laughed. Her blood roared in her ears. It felt good to cut loose, to right a wrong. And she’d been careful not to seriously hurt anyone.
“You’re bleeding,” Sylvain said. “Here.”
Ingrid straightened he stood before her. His jacket was torn where the shoulder met the sleeve. She resisted the urge to poke her finger in the hole.
Sylvain’s hands glowed with magic. The backs of his knuckles caressed her cheek as he cast the healing spell, and the bright taste of blood in her mouth vanished. He gazed down at her in the light of the casting, eyes dark. Ingrid’s heart sped up. He was close, very close. She tilted her chin up to look at him.
His thumb grazed her lower lip. “All better,” he said voice ragged.
“All better,” she echoed. Her body tingled. Whatever he was going to do, she wanted him to do it. Now.
Sylvain’s fingers left her cheek and tucked her hair behind her ear. The motion drew her attention, so she didn’t quite understand what was happening until she felt the warmth of his breath on her skin. His mouth brushed hers, feather light, and she went still. She didn’t dare breathe for fear he would stop.
His lips eased against hers until she could taste the wine he’d had earlier. Ingrid’s eyes slid closed as she melted into the kiss. Warmth flooded her head to toe.
Sylvain pulled away with an exhalation that was almost a groan. His eyes opened and locked with hers. She stared at him.
He covered his face with his hand and turned away. Ingrid’s stomach flopped into her knees, and she grabbed his sleeve. He looked at her over his shoulder, expression unreadable.
“What…” Ingrid started, but she had no idea how to finish the thought.
His gaze searched her face. “I’m sorry if I just ruined your evening. I shouldn’t have—”
“Are you toying with me?”
Shock rippled over his features. “No! Never. I could never do that to you.”
“Then…” How to ask for what she wanted when even she didn’t know?
“Because once I start, I won’t want to stop.”
Her breath vanished with the look he gave her. Her fingers tightened on his sleeve, pulling him infinitesimally nearer.
“Do you want me to stop?” Sylvain asked.
Ingrid’s mouth moved, but words deserted her. She shook her head.
Sylvain’s gaze ignited. He pinned her against the wall, hands clamped on her waist, and pressed his mouth to hers. Ingrid tangled her fingers in his thick, silky hair. His lips teased hers, kissing, nibbling, sucking. Her entire body pulsed in time with her heartbeat.
He pulled away for a breath, but Ingrid followed, kissing the line of his jaw all the way to the hinge. She found the spot below his ear and half-kissed, half-sucked the tender skin there. A shudder ran through his body as he emitted a moan. She liked the sound very, very much. In fact, she wanted him to make more of them.
The distant clank of armor echoed through the alley. Sylvain’s head shot up. “Night watch. We should probably get back to the monastery. Unless you want to get caught.” He waggled his eyebrows.
Ingrid swatted him on the arm. “Of course not.”
Sylvain offered her his elbow and grinned down at her. It had been a long time since she’d seen him so happy. Was it because of her? Warmth suffused her as she looked up at him, and she held his arm more tightly. The kissing had left her lips a little swollen. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. In fact, she wished they’d had more time.
That was getting ahead of herself. What did the kisses mean, anyway? Sylvain had a reputation, and although she wanted to believe him, it was difficult. Perhaps she should keep her distance and see how things played out.
“I had a fantastic time this evening,” he said when they arrived at her room. “Definitely the best dance ever. Thanks for indulging me.”
“I had a good time, too.” Her pulse raced in her throat. It was far too tempting to invite him in.
Color rose in his cheeks. “May I kiss you again?”
His kiss was slow, sweet, and tender. When he pulled away, he took her breath with him.
He pressed his forehead to hers. “See you tomorrow?”
“Silly. We both live here.”
Sylvain pulled her into an embrace and kissed the top of her head. “Sweet dreams.”
“Sleep well.” Ingrid squeezed him back and hurried inside her room before she could make a decision she would regret.
After two days of Ingrid making herself scarce, Sylvain inserted himself into one of her training sessions.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Sylvain said as he swung his axe at her head.
Ingrid dodged and lashed out with her sword. “I’ve been busy.”
“I thought we had a good time. Was I mistaken?”
Her next blow lacked focus. Something was bothering her.
“No, it was fun. But…”
Sylvain knocked her sword from her hand. He shouldn’t have been able to. She really was distracted.
Ingrid bent to retrieve her weapon, but Sylvain stepped on the blade. “Talk to me,” he said.
She sighed and ran a hand over her hair. “You seem overly attentive lately. I want to make sure you’re not just misdirecting your impulses.”
Sylvain frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean…” Ingrid blushed and looked away. “You’re used to, um, lots of female companionship. I just want to make sure you aren’t treating me like you have been because you’re feeling…deprived.”
“You think I only care about sex and can’t go without?”
Ingrid shook her head. “I couldn’t venture to say. It’s not something I have experience with.”
Sylvain would have given a limb to change that, but he kept his mouth shut.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll prove it to you. Let’s have dinner together.”
“Yes, please. We are done training, right?”
“Well…yes, but why are you asking me? Don’t we usually eat together?”
He picked up her sword and set it in the rack. “Well, yeah, when you’re not avoiding me. Besides, I thought I’d be polite about it. I know you love to eat, and there’s no time like the present.”
Ingrid’s frown deepened, but she followed his lead as he put his armor away.
“You don’t want to?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light. Maybe he’d moved too quickly. Or maybe… “If you have something else to do. Someone else to be with…”
“Will you stop it?” Ingrid sighed. “I told you, there’s no one.”
“Your father still allowing you to delay considering marriage proposals until after the war’s over?”
The tightness in the center of Sylvain’s chest eased a little. “OK. Good. Yeah.”
“Fine.” Ingrid shook her head. “I’ll accompany you to dinner, if you don’t mind me being all sweaty.”
Sylvain’s gaze fixed on the hollow at the base of her throat, and he chewed his bottom lip. “Sweaty. No, I don’t mind you sweaty.”
“You’re acting strange.”
He stiffened and frowned at the door of the training room. “No, I’m not.”
Ingrid pressed her lips together.
Sylvain fixed her with his best rakish grin. “Shall we go, then?”
Sylvain fell into step and opened the door for her. Ingrid was into chivalry, so he’d show her chivalry. As they walked toward the dining hall, he brushed her fingers with his, testing. She darted a glance at him. Sylvain quickly looked away, gaze focused intently in the distance.
A minute later, he let back of his hand grazed hers again. Ingrid folded her hands behind her back. Sylvain’s eyebrows lowered a fraction, and his mouth tightened. The atmosphere between them grew heavy. He exhaled through his nose. This wasn’t going well. If she wouldn’t even hold his hand…
The noise in the dining hall was at a dull roar when they arrived, and some of the tension leaked from his shoulders. Maybe having so many people around would loosen her up. She strode over to a table, but before she could take a seat, Sylvain had pulled out a chair for her. His hand rested on the small of her back, guiding her. Prickles ran up his arm at the feel of her. Before she could lay into him for presuming, he hurried to pick up the food. It didn’t really matter what he picked. Dedue and Mercedes were on kitchen duty tonight, so the meal was sure to be good.
Sylvain returned shortly with their food and sat across from her. Ingrid blushed as her stomach gurgled. He chuckled. She was so predictable.
“Enjoy,” she said and tucked in.
Sylvain fully intended to begin eating as well, but the sight of her enjoying her food was too adorable. He rested his chin in his hand and gazed at her, drinking in every little detail.
“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked. “You haven’t even taken a bite yet.”
Sylvain jerked as if she’d just shaken him awake from a nap. “What? Oh, yeah, I’m starving.”
He bent over his food and began to eat. They’d grown closer lately, more honest with each other. So why wouldn’t she just tell him what was wrong? Maybe he needed to take it slower. Fine. He could do that.
Sylvain locked his gaze with Ingrid’s. His foot bumped hers under the table, but instead of pulling away, he rubbed his ankle against her. She returned her attention to her food, but the tops of her ears turned red.
“You willing to join me at the stables tomorrow?” he asked. “I promised the professor I’d take a turn mucking stalls.”
Ingrid didn’t reply, her gaze turned inward.
“Come on,” he said with a smile. “It’s almost like training. It’s a great workout. I know you’re not afraid to sweat.”
She startled. “What?”
Man, he thought he’d been distracted. She was a thousand times worse. “The stables. Will you help me with the horses?”
“I love those old riding trousers you wear when we work in the stables. And you’re adorable when you get straw in your hair.”
His cheeks heated. “I said that out loud, didn’t I?”
Ingrid shifted and frowned at her plate.
“Mercie is making dessert,” Sylvain said. “Shall we stay?”
Ingrid’s gaze slid toward the kitchen, and Sylvain’s followed. Dedue stood next to Mercie. They wore matching aprons. Mercie said something, and the stern lines of Dedue’s face softened as he looked at her. A smile curved his mouth, and he leaned down and said something to her in return. She laughed and touched his wrist, and they pressed their sides together, just for a moment. Envy threaded through Sylvain’s gut.
Ingrid, however, looked almost stricken. Sylvain covered her hands with his. Her palms were callused, her hands strong. It was all too easy to imagine what they might feel like gripping his back as—no, he had to stay focused. Keep things slow.
“Hey. Ingrid. Are you all right?” He gave her hand a squeeze. “You seem distracted.”
“I could say the same about you. But to answer your question, I’m fine.”
The heat in his cheeks intensified. That she hadn’t pulled away was a good sign, so he dared to lace his fingers with hers. “Do you want to share dessert?”
“All right,” she said, a slight quaver in her voice.
Sylvain grinned. He cleaned up their plates and returned later with a slice of honey cake. It wasn’t fancy, but it was sure to be tasty. If she wanted romance, he’d give her a bit of romance. He took a forkful and held it before her lips. She swallowed and took the morsel between her teeth. Immediately, she moaned with pleasure.
“So good,” she said around her mouthful.
Sylvain grinned. “I love how much you enjoy food.”
He used the same fork to serve himself a bite, mindful of his lips closing around where hers had just been. It was easy to remember how her mouth had felt during their night out.
He fed her another piece of cake, as gentle and attentive as he knew how.
Even so, she frowned at him. “What do you want from me?”
“What?” His brow furrowed.
“This. You’re being so…courtly. Like you’re wooing me.”
“I thought we could have a nice evening together.”
“I won’t be one of your conquests.”
“I thought I made it clear a few nights ago that wasn’t my intention.”
Ingrid pressed her lips together.
Sylvain took a deep breath. “You want to know something? Each time I was with a girl, a part of me hoped that she’d finally be the one to like me for me. Then I realized that maybe I was distracting myself, trying too hard to find something else because I didn’t think I could have what I really wanted.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, have you ever been looking for something only to find it’s been right in front of you all along?”
“I’ve only ever looked for the strength to serve my king.”
Sylvain barked a laugh. “That the Ingrid I know. But are you really so blind to everything else? You’re strong, beautiful, and skilled. People have noticed—men have noticed—especially those who should have known all along.”
Ingrid’s blush deepened. “We’re at war. There’s no time for that sort of thing.”
“There’s no better time,” Sylvain said with a shake of his head. “We don’t know what tomorrow might bring, so we should find our happiness now.”
Something in Ingrid’s gaze softened. She snatched the fork from his grip, stabbed a bite of cake, and held it before his lips. His eyes widened.
“Don’t let Mercie’s baking go to waste,” she said.
Sylvain leaned forward and slowly closed his mouth around the fork. Ingrid ran her tongue over her bottom lip. He very much wanted to feel that tongue against his.
“I want to spoil you.” Sylvain spoke low, voice soft. “You work so hard. Let me take care of you like you’ve always taken care of me.”
He gently removed the fork from her grasp and fed her more cake. They took turns, gazing into each other’s eyes. Sylvain wasn’t sure how they managed to finish dessert, for he hardly remembered to breathe.
When the cake was gone, Sylvain was disappointed. The dull roar of the dining hall came rushing back, the rest of the world intruding on the little space he and Ingrid had managed to carve out. He missed it, the feeling of it being just the two of them. It was like nothing he’d ever experienced before.
“Promise me you’re not flirting with me,” Ingrid said breathlessly.
“I promise I’m not toying with you.” Sylvain took her hands again and squeezed. “I swear on this awful Crest I bear that I am completely, utterly sincere.”
Ingrid sat silent long enough for it to become awkward, but she didn’t let go of his hands.
“May I walk you back to your room?” Sylvain asked.
Ingrid nodded. She stood and met Sylvain at the end of the table. He put his hand on the small of her back again, reveling in the feel of her muscles. This time, she pressed into his touch. She quickly stepped away, but Sylvain hadn’t missed it. Hope sparked and fizzed in his chest.
“Let me escort you properly.” He grinned as he took her hand and wound her arm through his.
To his delight, she leaned into him a little as they walked back to her room. The lanterns glowed in the darkness, creating pools of warm light. Night birds chirped, accompanied by insects and the scent of flowers on the breeze. Her arm was strong around his, and her small smile seemed brighter than the lanterns. It felt as if, through their glances and smiles, they’d had a lengthy conversation even though they hadn’t said a word.
They reached her door far too quickly. He doubted Ingrid would invite him inside, and he wasn’t about to push. His hand slid around to her back and pulled her close. Ingrid didn’t resist.
Sylvain’s eyes slid closed. His lips brushed against hers, light as the breeze. She caught his kiss and tried to deepen it, but he pulled away. Better to keep her wanting.
“Tomorrow.” Sylvain stroked her cheek with his thumb. “Don’t forget you said you’d help me with the stables.”
“Tomorrow,” Ingrid echoed, expression dazed.
Sylvain strode a few paces way before he stopped and turned. “I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry. I’ll do it again, if you let me, and better. Sleep well.”
“How am I supposed to sleep well after that?” she called after him.
He waved at her and returned to his room. No regrets. He couldn’t wait until tomorrow. Ingrid might want to avoid him, but she’d promised, and she never broke a promise. Working in the stables had never sounded so good.
The next day, Ingrid dressed in her old riding pants and a loose tunic. No point in getting her usual clothes soiled. Her stomach fluttered, as if some sort of butterfly war was taking place within. As much as she didn’t want to go, there was no way she would break her promise. A knight was brave and kept her word. No, she would see this through, no matter how nervous she was.
Sylvain didn’t answer when she knocked on his door, so he was either still asleep or already at work. It was early for breakfast, but she swung by the dining hall and procured two apples, a few sweet buns, and a bowl of porridge big enough for two with raisins and nuts. She told herself she wasn’t stalling.
She made her way to the stables, balancing the food, pulse racing almost as quickly as her thoughts. War was upon them, so perhaps that was why the world seemed to have gone topsy-turvy. Sylvain was probably only trying for a last conquest before they invaded Enbarr. She likely had nothing to worry about.
Sylvain was already hard at work in the stables. Five years ago, Ingrid would have never thought she’d put “hard work” and “Sylvain” in the same sentence. Now, motes of straw danced in the clear morning light. His shirt stuck to him with sweat, and he wore it unbuttoned to below his sternum, just as she’d feared. Muscles rippled beneath the fabric as he bent and pitched more straw.
“Good morning,” she called. If his attention was on her, she wouldn’t gawk, and she was very tempted to gawk.
Sylvain beamed when he saw her, face alight. “You came!”
“I said I would. Have you eaten?”
He put the pitchfork aside as she drew near. “Nope.”
Ingrid offered him an apple. “Good thing I brought breakfast, then.”
Their fingers brushed as he took the fruit, and an electric pulse traveled through her. She kept her face carefully still, although she dared a glance at him. Normally, he would slip on his charming mask and try to sweet talk her. He did not speak, only studied her.
“Do I have something on my face?” she asked.
He opened his mouth and closed it again.
She frowned at him. “You look tired. Did you sleep?”
“Not well. That’s a big bowl of porridge.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“Don’t let that porridge get cold. Unless you like eating glue.”
Damn him, he was right. “I thought we could share it.”
He stared at her.
Ingrid’s face heated. “What? We shared dessert last night. But unlike you, I was smart enough to grab two utensils.”
Sylvain smiled and shook his head. “All right. Let’s eat.”
He took the bowl from her, and they sat on the ground, side by side, shoulders and hips brushing. They didn’t speak while they ate, leaving birdsong and the whickering of the horses to fill the air. It felt comfortable being with him like this. Peaceful, in fact. It was so easy to forget they were at war, that they might die in battle in the weeks ahead.
When they finished, Sylvain took the dishes and set them aside. “Ready?” he asked. “Shovel or pitchfork?”
“You’re quite the gentleman, giving me the choice,” Ingrid said with a smile. “I’ll take the pitchfork. I think you’re better at shoveling.”
Sylvain winced. “I suppose I deserve that.”
“That’s right. I’ve cleaned up after you enough.”
“I swear you will never have to clean up after me again,” Sylvain said with a salute.
“At least until your children start coming out of the woodwork.”
Ingrid thought she’d kept her tone light, but Sylvain’s expression hardened. “I don’t have any bastards. I wouldn’t leave that sort of thing to chance.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Why would I give someone access to my Crest when they didn’t truly care about the man who carries it?”
“I’m sure some of those girls would have loved to know you better, had you given them half a chance, but you don’t trust anyone.”
“With good reason. But I trust you. Now I’m asking you to trust I’m telling the truth.”
An uncomfortable heat grew in Ingrid’s cheeks. She really needed to stop imagining Sylvain in bed. More importantly, she needed to stop including herself in that image.
“Let’s just get this done,” she said with a sigh and took the pitchfork.
They worked in silence for the next two hours. Bits of straw stuck to Ingrid’s sweaty skin, making her itch. They were nearly finished when Sylvain broke the quiet.
“I think the professor is going to ask someone to marry him,” he said as leaned on his shovel. “He was turning a ring over in his hands the other day.”
“It’s pointless to ask anyone before the war’s over,” Ingrid said as she tossed another lump of clean straw into a stall.
“Who knows what’ll happen. We all want to live, but war is anything but kind.”
“At least then she’d know how he felt. What’s wrong with that?”
“It seems like the wrong time.”
“It seems like the right time. No, it is the right time.”
Sylvain’s shovel clattered to the ground. He covered the distance between them in a few strides. Ingrid’s grip on the pitchfork tightened.
“You’re so strong, body and soul,” he said, voice low as he stood before her. “I’m serious about you. More serious than I’ve ever been in my life. But I know you can handle it.”
Sylvain gently removed the pitchfork from her hand and let it fall. His arm snaked around her waist and pulled her close. The skin of his chest gleamed with sweat, and the air smelled of fresh straw. A thrill raced down her spine as she gripped his arms.
He pressed his mouth against hers. This was no tentative brush—it was soft lips teasing her mouth open. Heat filled her. She wanted more. Her lips parted for him, and she shuddered as his tongue slid against hers. Before her thoughts could reorder themselves, he pulled her down into the fresh pile of hay. She landed on top of him, hands against the muscles of his chest, his thigh between hers.
“I love it when you wear these trousers,” he whispered against her mouth. “They show off how strong your legs are.”
He interrupted her with another kiss, and when he broke away, they were both panting. “I love you, Ingrid,” he murmured.
Her heart stammered, and her tongue followed suit. “You tell all the girls that,” she finally managed.
“I love you with all my heart. If you love me back, I swear I will love you and only you forever. If you don’t believe me, that’s fair. I deserve it. But I will tell you every day for the rest of our lives until you understand I’m telling the truth.”
Ingrid pushed up from his chest, but his arms wrapped around her and held her fast. “The war makes everything so uncertain—”
“You want to wait and see how you feel about me later? What if I’m dead?”
“I refuse to let you die.” The ferocity of her tone surprised even her.
Sylvain’s eyes glistened, and he pulled her down for another kiss. This time, she returned it. It felt natural and good to be with him. He was right, after all—after the war might be too late. Not that she’d let anything happen to him. She’d die first.
It seemed she loved him, too.
To hell with propriety. He was right. They might only have this moment, this precious, fleeting time before battle. She slid her hands inside his shirt and pulled it all the way open. He tasted like salt as she kissed his throat.
“Ingrid,” he said, voice strangled.
Sylvain hitched up her tunic until his fingers brushed her skin. She shivered against him, hair standing on end. Her mouth found his, and her body vibrated with need.
“I want to touch you everywhere,” he panted when she broke the kiss. “Please say I can touch you everywhere.”
She nipped at his ear, surprised by her own brazenness. “Yes.”
Sylvain moaned and slid his hands beneath her tunic, his fingers running over her spine. He rocked his hips, and his hardness pressed against her. Sweet goddess, he wanted her. She wanted him, too.
His hand moved around to her front, and she jerked as he cupped her breast. Suddenly, she couldn’t help but think of all the women he’d kissed, all the breasts he’d likely fondled. A prickly, uncomfortable heat filled her.
“I’m sorry, I’m sure they’re not as nice as some—”
Sylvain silenced her with a kiss. “They’re perfect. You’re perfect.”
She arched and moaned as his thumb circled her nipple and his tongue traced the curve of her ear. He pressed his thigh more firmly between her legs, and she ground against it, panting. It felt so, so good, but she wanted more.
The moment she had the thought, Sylvain flipped her onto her back. He pulled her tunic up, baring her chest. Ingrid drew a sharp breath at both the cool air and at being exposed. His gaze devoured her, followed shortly by his mouth. She tangled her fingers in his hair as he suckled her, burning at his touch.
“Am I going too fast?” he asked, breath hot against her skin.
By way of answer, she planted her hands on either side of his face and kissed him with all the passion she could muster. The action pulled him on top of her, and suddenly he was between her legs, his body heavy, his hardness pressed against the throbbing at the apex of her thighs.
Sylvain gasped and ground against her with a shudder. Ingrid wrapped her arms and legs around him as if he were a rock in a wild sea. He lapped at her neck, her ears, her breasts. She let go of him long enough to put a little distance between their bodies, just enough to grip his belt and unbuckle it.
“Hey, now.” His hands covered hers. “Are you sure? This isn’t something we can take back.”
“You’re the one who said we should die without regrets. Don’t you know I love you, too?”
Sylvain practically glowed at her words. “If I die right now, I couldn’t die happier.”
“Stop talking and make love to me.” Ingrid tugged at his belt again, the throbbing between her legs more insistent than ever.
A crooked grin graced Sylvain’s face. “I like it when you’re forceful. All right. Here we go.”
Ingrid squirmed with impatience. Part of her was ashamed she had so easily discarded any semblance of discipline or decorum. The rest of her felt like she was finally living, that her heart and mind and body were truly united.
“Ingrid,” a voice called from outside. “Sylvain? Are you there?”
Sylvain froze, trousers halfway undone. He stared wide-eyed down at Ingrid, and her own mouth dropped open. She shoved him off her, sprang out of the hay, and pulled down her tunic. An inferno burned beneath her skin as she jumped as far away from Sylvain as possible.
“Here you are,” said Mercedes as she entered the stable. “Dimitri has called a meeting in half an hour.”
She paused, brow furrowed as she surveyed them. “You have bits of straw everywhere.”
“Mucking stables is messy work,” Sylvain said, his charming mask slipping into place.
Mercedes studied him for a moment, obviously not fooled in the least. “Hm. Well, finish up, and I’ll see you at the meeting.”
Ingrid stared after her, wondering if it was possible to die from embarrassment.
Sylvain groaned and put his hands over his face. “I’m pretty sure Mercedes saw my erection. Please kill me now. If I die by your hand, I’ll feel like I died with honor.”
Heat rippled through her at the mention of his erection, but she pushed it aside. “I’m surprised you’re not trying to show it off.”
“You’re the only one I want to see it,” he shot back.
Surprise spread across Sylvain’s face. “What?”
Ingrid’s cheeks heated, and she looked at the floor. “Would you…Would you like to come to my room tonight?”
“To finish what we started?”
Ingrid didn’t trust herself to answer, so she nodded.
“I’ll be there,” Sylvain said. He glanced skyward and whispered, “Thank you.”
Ingrid tried not to smile. “Go clean up for the meeting. I’ll see you later.”
She hurried toward the stable door, only glancing back at Sylvain at the last moment. She was satisfied to see he had to adjust himself in his trousers. Tonight couldn’t come soon enough.
By the time evening arrived, Ingrid was of an entirely different mind. She paced her room, hands twisting behind her back. Tomorrow was they day they were to march for Enbarr. It was finally time to end this senseless war.
A knock startled her. She stared at the door, wondering if she hoped it was Sylvain or if she hoped he had abandoned this foolishness of theirs. Only one way to know.
She took too long, and the knock came again. Could she do this? Would it be better not to answer?
“Did you change your mind?” Sylvain said from the other side of the door, voice low and tight. Although he didn’t say it, she heard “about us” at the end. If she had worried he was only looking for a way into her bed, his tone put those fears to rest.
Ingrid opened the door. Sylvain’s solemn expression brightened at the sight of her. She waved him inside, heart racing despite its heaviness.
To her surprise, he stopped and took in her room before pulling out her desk chair and sitting down. “So, it’s tomorrow,” he said. “For some reason, I thought we’d have more time.”
Ingrid nodded. “We must do what we can to protect His Highness.”
“I hope I don’t have to choose between protecting him and protecting you.”
Ingrid’s mouth tightened. As much as she wanted to be a knight, she was thinking the same thing.
Sylvain sighed and stared at her candle for a few moments, the light glinting in his eyes. “I’d say it’s too soon for this, except I’ve known you forever.”
The breath fled Ingrid’s lungs as Sylvain slid from the chair and onto one knee. Her heart slammed against her ribs as he slid something out of his pocket, his gaze boring into hers. He took her hand. “Ingrid Brandl Galatea, will you marry me?”
Ingrid gasped, her hand coming to rest over her heart. Blood rushed in her ears, almost drowning out what he said next.
“My Crest and title don’t control my fate,” he said. “I want to choose my own path. I know that if you love me, it’s for me, not my estate or my bloodline.”
Tears pricked Ingrid’s eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
Sylvain’s jaw clenched. “You don’t believe me? I should have seen that coming.”
“Marry me. I’d do anything for you. If I’m with you, I don’t care if I have to stay locked up inside for the rest of my life. If you told me you didn’t want me to look at another woman, I’d go blind for you.”
“That’s going a bit far,” Ingrid said with a strangled laugh.
Sylvain chuckled. “All right, I suppose it is. No other woman can compare to you anyway.”
Ingrid shook her head.
“I’m sorry. I’ve relied on flowery language so long—”
“That’s not what I meant.” Ingrid took a shuddering breath. “Of course I’ll marry you.”
Sylvain’s eyes widened, glistening in the candlelight. He leaped to his feet and enveloped her in a crushing embrace. “Thank you,” he murmured against her hair. “You’ve made me the happiest man in the world. You know what? Strike that. My happiness isn’t what I care about today. I’m going to spend the rest of our lives together trying to make you happy.”
“You already do.” Ingrid clutched Sylvain’s back, eyes squeezed tightly. “You’re my best friend. I can’t imagine a better person to spend the rest of my days with.”
Sylvain released her. His hands trembled as he slid the ring onto her finger. Ingrid held it up to the light, lips parted. The ring’s white gold gleamed, and its green gem danced with an inner fire. The core of her leaped and spun and bubbled.
He folded her back into his arms. “And if you still want to serve Dimitri as his knight, I’ll support you. If House Galatea needs help, you can rely on House Gautier. I want to fulfill all your desires.”
Tears welled up in Ingrid’s eyes and spilled over. All her dreams coming true at once was almost too much to bear. She clutched Sylvain, face pressed against his chest. Without knowing it, this was what she wanted.
“There’s one thing I desire,” she said softly, looking up into his eyes.
He gently smoothed her hair away from her face. “What’s that?”
Ingrid stood on tiptoe and pressed her mouth to his. Sylvain responded greedily, as if he couldn’t get enough of her. Perhaps he couldn’t, if he felt the same way she did.
When he pulled away, his eyes were the darkest she’d ever seen them. “You’re really all right not waiting until after the wedding?” he asked.
“Where there is love, there is honor.”
Sylvain chuckled. “That is so you.”
“It’s so you to be talking when you should be doing something else.”
Sylvain grinned, but the expression faded as he undid a few of her buttons and slid her shirt off her left shoulder. He kissed the exposed skin, and her body tightened with goosebumps. Gone was the frenzy from the stables that morning. He caressed her gently, with careful reverence, as if he were afraid she would push him away at any moment.
And Ingrid did, but only so she could unbutton his shirt. She pulled the fabric out of his trousers and slid the garment off his shoulders. Her breath deserted her at his beauty—pale skin, scarred, sliding over defined muscles. Wielding a heavy axe had given his chest, shoulders, and back a bit of bulk. His stomach looked plenty strong enough to compensate. The fact he was tall made his musculature appear powerful without seeming brutish.
“You’re beautiful,” Ingrid murmured as she pressed her mouth to his chest.
Sylvain swallowed, candlelight shining in the notch between his collarbones. “Hey, that’s my line.”
A trail of russet hair led from his navel into his trousers. Ingrid ran her fingers over his stomach, making him shudder, and followed that trail. A low sound rumbled in his chest as she unfastened his trousers and pushed them down over his hips. Every line of him was graceful and strong. She wanted to touch all of it.
“Don’t I get a turn?” Sylvain asked with a crooked smile, but his hooded gaze smoldered.
He pulled her shirt off over her head and removed the ornaments from her hair. Soon, all their clothes lay together in a pile on the floor. Ingrid’s face burned both at being fully naked before him and seeing him nude.
Sylvain chuckled. “Am I really the first naked man you’ve seen?”
“Unlike you, I avert my gaze when it seems like someone else’s modesty might be compromised.”
Sylvain shifted his weight, cheeks red, and Ingrid realized he was stalling. Was he nervous? She certainly was, but only because it was her first time. She’d never known him to hesitate in situations like this, but perhaps this was different. If she wanted him, she’d have to show him. First, she turned down the covers on the bed. Then she stepped forward, pressed herself the length of him, and rose on tiptoe to kiss him.
Her kiss broke the spell. His soft skin whispered against hers as he picked her up and carried her to the bed. He laid her down and slid next to her before pulling the blankets over both of them. They exchanged slow, delicious kisses as their hands roamed, exploring and teasing. The hard inferno of Sylvain’s arousal pressed against her, stoking her own fires.
Ingrid startled when his hand slid between her legs, his fingers parting her folds. He groaned against her throat, grinding his hips against her. A cry escaped her as he stroked her most sensitive place. Part of her couldn’t believe she was letting someone touch her there, but most of her just wanted more. She sought his mouth, but he’d moved his own to her breast.
Sylvain knew what he was doing. His sure, skilled touch quickly brought Ingrid to a shattering climax. She cried out and arched against his hand, her fingers tangled in his hair. When she fell back on the mattress, gasping and shuddering, he knelt between her legs and licked her juices off his fingers with a smirk.
“Where are you in your cycle?” he asked.
Ingrid blinked, thoughts sluggish. “Two days or so left. Why?”
“That means I don’t have to pull out, unless you want me to.”
She opened her mouth and closed it. Spent as she was, warmth once again grew in the center of her.
Sylvain’s gaze licked over her body. “You’re more gorgeous than I imagined.”
Before she could respond, his weight settled atop her. Their mouths met, tongues intertwined, and her arms wrapped around him. The kiss consumed her with fiery sweetness, until she was no longer sure where the boundaries between them lay, if indeed any existed at all. His ministrations grew more impassioned, his shaft rubbing against her as he ground his hips.
“You want to be on top?” he murmured in her ear. “You’d be in control.”
For the first time, Ingrid didn’t want to be in control. She angled her hips toward him, gripped his rear, and pulled him as close as she could.
“All right.” Sylvain shuddered as his tip met her opening. “Let me know if I should stop.”
Ingrid moaned as he teased her, slipping a little deeper with each stroke. A flush spread over his cheeks, but his dark gaze never wavered even when his breathing grew ragged. It burned as she stretched to fit him. Even so, he slid easily within her, giving her time to adjust.
It was maddening.
She wanted all of him, and she wanted it now. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as some of the injuries she’d sustained during training.
“Sylvain,” she gasped. “Please. More.”
A groan rumbled forth from his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut and buried himself to the hilt. Once he was situated, he pulled her close and kissed her as he thrust. Small sounds left her with each motion. Her fingers scrabbled at the muscles of his back as he hit a place inside her that made her moan. Sylvain redoubled his efforts until he rubbed the spot every time he moved.
“You feel so good,” Sylvain panted against her. “I love you so much.”
Words failed Ingrid as her pleasure worked to a crescendo, her hips working on their own. There was no separation between her and the man she loved. They were one, and they would be forevermore. Light and heat filled her, and she cracked with the radiance of it. She moaned his name as she came again, bucking beneath him.
Sylvain uttered a strangled cry, his movements growing more frenzied. His hands clamped down on her hips, his strokes deepening and lengthening. A grunt left him as he pressed into her. He spasmed again and again, and goosebumps broke out all over his skin. A grin wound across her face as he collapsed on her with a groan, his breath hot on her neck.
A few moments later, he tried to roll off her, but she held him fast. She never wanted this moment to end. With him, she was complete. All her desires were fulfilled as long as Sylvain was with her.
Finally, she released him. He slid from bed, retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket, and cleaned himself off. “You should visit the privy,” he said when he slid back into bed.
Ingrid groaned and cuddled against his warm, strong body. “Why? I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“Sometimes women can get urinary tract infections. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Ingrid sighed. “So romantic.”
“I’ll be here when you get back. I promise. I’ll even keep your spot warm.”
She did as he suggested, and he was as good as his word, scooting over onto the cool sheets so she could have the place his body had warmed. Their limbs entwined, and she laid her head on his shoulder. This is how it would be every night for the rest of their lives, if they could survive the war.
Ingrid had never wanted so much, and for the first time, her hopes felt truly within reach.
The reality of sharing a bed with someone wasn’t quite as good as the fantasy. As sated and tired as she was, she’d had trouble falling asleep. The novelty of having someone next to her was too distracting. Sylvain himself was too distracting, with that smooth skin and hard muscle. They’d made love again partway through the night. When sun finally filtered through her curtains, she winced and rolled away from the light.
Feeling Sylvain’s arms wrapped around her was worth any amount of fatigue.
Ingrid smiled and cuddled closer to Sylvain. Her beloved. Her betrothed.
“Good morning, beautiful,” he rumbled, and her smile deepened as she met his gaze.
“Sleep well?” she asked.
His return smile was soft and radiant. “I can’t wait until the war is over and I can spend as long as I want with you in bed, not only having the best sex of my life, but just…holding you. You feel right in my arms.”
“I don’t want to think about the other sex you’ve had in your life.”
“Last night wiped away the memory of any other sex.”
Ingrid’s cheeks heated, and she buried her face against his chest to hide her blush. “You’re just saying that. I know what a smooth talker you can be.”
“Hey.” Sylvain rolled onto his side and cupped her cheek, thumb brushing across her mouth. His gaze locked with hers, his brown eyes solemn. “It’s the truth. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you. You and I have been through so much together. You’ve seen me at my worst, and yet here you are.”
Ingrid was about to reply when a commotion in the corridor caught her attention. Footsteps hurried to and fro, voices raised. A glance at the sun through the gap of the curtains told it was far later than she’d first thought. They were supposed to have reported to Dimitri at least an hour ago.
“You have to go,” Ingrid said, shoving away from him. “We’re late.”
Sylvain’s smile evaporated, and his expression went flat. “What?”
“I said get out of here. We’re supposed to mobilize for Enbarr now.”
Sylvain leaped out of bed and started pulling on his clothes. Ingrid did the same. Fortunately, she’d spent a few hours yesterday packing in order to work off some of her nerves for Sylvain’s visit.
When they were dressed, she said, “Don’t let anyone see you when you go.”
Sylvain frowned. “I thought we’d go together.”
“I don’t anyone to get the wrong idea.” Dimitri mustn’t think that she’d put her personal life before her duty. If she was going to be a knight, her king must come first.
Sylvain’s expression grew to a full-on scowl. “What, like we’re in love and are going to be together?”
“That’s not what I—”
“Are you ashamed of me?”
“I don’t want them to think I’m another one of your conquests.”
“They would never think that!”
“I…we aren’t married…”
“Your value is absolutely not tied to your virginity.”
“At least my father can’t try to marry me off anymore. No one would have me now.” Ingrid said it lightly, trying to ease the tension that was building between them. Sylvain was usually good for a joke.
Not this time. His expression darkened. He loomed over her, nostrils flared and mouth flattened into a thin line. “Is that why you slept with me? Why you agreed to marry me? So your father can’t marry you off and has to let you be a knight?”
“Of course not—”
“I’ve got news for you,” he said, nearly spitting the words. “Those suitors don’t care about your virginity. They care about your Crest. Just like all those women only cared about mine.”
Sylvain pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “I can’t believe this. I thought you were different.” A bitter chuckle escaped him. “I thought you loved me. But you were using me, just like all the others.”
“No!” Ingrid’s blood went cold. How could things go so terribly wrong? She had grossly underestimated how deep his cynicism ran.
“Then why did you take off your ring?”
She flinched at the angry hurt in his tone. True, she had taken off the ring just now, but only because it wouldn’t fit under her gauntlet. “I can’t wear it. During battle—”
“I see how it is.” His breathing was rapid, his face flushed. He blinked, eyes moist.
Ingrid held out her hand to him. Unfortunately, that hand held the ring.
He glanced down at it. His fists trembled at his sides. “Keep it,” he snarled and barged out of the room.
Ingrid rushed to the door. “Sylvain, wait! You don’t understand!”
“I understand perfectly well,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“I love you!”
But he was gone.
The deployment to Enbarr was agonizing. Sylvain kept his distance from Ingrid no matter how she tried to corner him. Years of evading pining women and their angry relatives had made him a master of the craft. How could she make him understand when she couldn’t get two minutes with him?
Pressing the top of her armor and feeling his ring on its chain dig into the skin of her chest became a ritual. As much as she wanted to wear the ring on her hand when she wasn’t in battle dress, she couldn’t. Something told her the offer of marriage was off the table. She should have remembered how deep Sylvain’s feelings ran, how sensitive he truly was despite the persona he presented. He was a master of masks.
He wore his mask well, because she never would have known how much he was hurting if it weren’t for the fact he was avoiding her. He joked and was his easygoing, affable self with everyone else.
Her own misery was apparently plain to see. Nearly everyone had asked her what was wrong. Except Felix. He, apparently, already knew.
“That was stupid. You know how much baggage he has,” Felix told her.
“He knows how much I have,” Ingrid shot back. “But yes, it was stupid.”
Felix sighed and shook his head. “I hope you two make up before we’re all killed on the battlefield.”
“Thanks, that’s helpful,” Ingrid said between her teeth. As if she hadn’t had the same thought.
By the time they marched into Enbarr, she and Sylvain still hadn’t patched things up. But now she understood that Dimitri’s demons stemmed not from his weakness, but how deeply he loved. Her own demons grew from her love. And now she had to face death without her beloved.
The battle began. Just because Ingrid didn’t have her love by her side didn’t mean that she couldn’t be by his. The professor and Dedue had Dimitri’s back, which meant she was less necessary for his protection. Whenever she could, she broke formation and did her best to watch over Sylvain. He was easy to find, especially from above—his red hair was a shock of color in an ocean of armor. She wished he’d wear a helm.
Sylvain fought recklessly, like a man possessed. He charged into every fray he could find, laying about with his axe. Ingrid couldn’t see his face, but his swings were wild and furious. More than once she used her lance to take down enemies he’d allowed to sneak up on him, but he never acknowledged her.
They made it to the palace. Enemies swarmed, and Sylvain dove into the center, hacking furiously, expression twisted. He cleared a path only for it to close around him once again. His horse whinnied, shrill, and went down. Sylvain cried out and disappeared among the flashing blades.
Ingrid’s heart stopped. To lose him at all was unthinkable, but to lose him before she could make amends was unforgivable. She nudged her pegasus into a dive, scattering the enemies with the beating of its wings. There—Sylvain lay beside his dead horse, hand pressed to his side. Blood seeped between his fingers as Imperial soldiers moved in for the kill.
“Sylvain,” Ingrid cried and stabbed the nearest enemy with her lance. Her mount kicked and flapped, unused to ground battle. She slid off and let it fight its way free. Sylvain was on the ground, and she would remain with him.
The lance was no good in close quarters. She managed to spear a few enemies and abandoned the lance in favor of her sword. Her blade whistled as she stood before her beloved and cut the enemy down. Blood spattered her face and soaked through the fabric of her gloves, but she refused to give ground. She was a knight at heart if not in title, and knights never gave up.
Sylvain said something behind her, but she couldn’t make it out under the din of battle. Her arm grew weary, but she pushed on. No one made it past her perimeter. She batted arrows away with the flat of her blade, teeth bared. Glenn had died, and she had been too young and unskilled to be on the battlefield and defend him.
She was no longer too young and inexperienced, and she would not lose the man she loved again. Sylvain would live. She would make sure of it.
Sylvain’s voice finally cut through the rushing of blood in her ears, and she spun around. A mage had arrived, his hands aglow with magic. No matter—she’d survived spells before. She raised her blade and lunged, but the mage was faster. His spell cut through the air with a furious crackle. It hissed with green and black and purple, no spell she’d ever seen before. It hit her square in the chest.
Pain raced through her limbs. Her jaw clenched as the spell paralyzed her, her entire body jerking in the throes of agony. Ingrid toppled to the ground, and the last thing she saw was Sylvain’s terrified face before everything went black.
Ingrid woke with a groan. Her skin felt tight and hot, as if her entire body had been sunburned. Even the weight of the sheets hurt. She tried to speak, but no words would make it past her cracked lips. The scent of scorched hair filled her nostrils.
She lay in a cot in a field tent, her bed curtained off so that it was almost as if she had a little room. A tiny table sat at her bedside with a glass of water and, absurdly, a flower in a bottle that served as a makeshift vase. A vacant folding chair sat next to the table.
The curtain stirred, and Sylvain appeared. He wore a loose shirt, unbuttoned to reveal the bandages wrapped around his torso. The side of his face was bruised, and his left forearm also bore a bandage. He moved with a limp. He froze when he saw her, eyes wide, and ducked out of sight.
“Come back,” she said, but the words came out soft and raspy. Tears filled her eyes. All she wanted was to see him, to feel his hand in hers. But he was gone, and it was worse than when Glenn had died. Sylvain was alive, but he no longer wanted to be with her.
A sob worked its way out of her parched throat. She gripped the ring on the chain around her neck as tears rolled down her cheeks. The salt stung; she must have open wounds on her face.
Mercedes appeared, Sylvain hovering at her shoulder, brow furrowed. She took in Ingrid with a frown.
“Give her a few sips of water,” Mercedes said as she laid hands on Ingrid. “Gently, now.”
Sylvain’s hand slid between Ingrid’s shoulder blades and lifted her to sitting. He put the glass to her lips and tilted a bit of water into her mouth. Ingrid coughed at first, but she soon remembered how to swallow. Cool, soothing healing magic flowed into her from Mercedes’s hands.
When the healing was over, Sylvain laid Ingrid down. Mercedes smiled at the two of them. “I’ll be back later for another session. In the meantime, why don’t you have a bit of time together?”
Sylvain nodded, took the chair, and waited until Mercedes was gone. His gaze swept over Ingrid, his expression bereft. “I thought I lost you,” he murmured.
“I thought I lost you before the battle even started,” Ingrid replied, her voice stronger but still rough.
Sylvain ran a hand through his hair and looked away.
Ingrid sighed and released her grip on the ring. Her hand slid to the cot. Sylvain glanced at the motion, and his gaze caught on the ring.
“I couldn’t wear it on my hand,” Ingrid said. “It wouldn’t fit under my gauntlet.”
Sylvain’s face twisted. He rubbed his eyes. His shoulders shook, and a sob escaped him. He pressed his hands against his eyes as he wept.
“I’m such an idiotic asshole,” he said once his crying had eased a little.
Ingrid smiled and winced at how her skin pulled. “I could say the same about myself. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I love you so much. Can you forgive me?”
“You saved my life. You are my life. Of course I can forgive you. Can you forgive me?”
Her smile broadened despite the pain. “I forgive you.”
Sylvain took her hand between his and raised it to his lips.
“There should have been a blue silk box among my things,” she said. “Could you find it for me, please?”
“Are you going to be all right if I leave?”
“I’ll be fine.”
Sylvain left, but reluctantly. She hated to make him go, what with that limp and other injuries, but she obviously couldn’t go herself. And it was important.
She dozed while he was gone. Her sense of time had vanished, so when he returned, she had no idea how long they had been apart. The creaking of the folding chair was what woke her.
“I found it,” he said softly.
“Did you open it?”
“Of course not.”
“Open it now.”
He did as she asked, and his breath caught. His eyes glistened with unshed tears. She knew what he saw—two golden rings, a matching set, sized for his hand and hers.
“Will you still marry me?” she asked.
Sylvain laughed, the sound husky. “I’ll marry you right this second if we can find someone to do the ceremony.”
“I’m sorry they’re not nicer. They were all I could afford.”
“They could be made of string for all I care. Thank you for still loving me.”
“I will always love you.”
Sylvain took the larger ring and set the box on the table. He positioned the ring in her fingers—her hand had been badly burned. “Put it on me,” he said.
Ingrid slid the ring onto his finger. It tested the limits of her pain threshold, but the light that shone in his eyes was worth it. Her hand fell back on the bed.
He waggled his fingers at her, the gold glinting. “Now all the ladies will know I’m taken.”
“You shouldn’t be getting close enough to the ladies for them to see you’re wearing a ring,” Ingrid whispered, but only half the words came out. The problem wasn’t with her throat, although it was dry, but something further down in her chest.
Sylvain appeared to understand her meaning, although fear rippled through his expression. He covered it with a tender smile and took her hand. His touch was feather light, as if he was afraid she’d crumble to dust.
“I swear I’m not going to look at other women,” he said. “Do you want to know when I realized I was in love with you?”
Ingrid sighed and rolled her eyes. At least her eyes weren’t in pain.
“Seriously,” Sylvain continued. “It was when I thought you were prettying yourself up for a man. I felt sick and furious at the same time, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. It’s because I’ve always relied upon you, that I thought you’d always be there, even though I knew by then your father was hoping you’d use your Crest to secure a good marriage and help your family. You’ve always looked after me, cared about me no matter how terrible my behavior was. You’ve always been on my side against the world, even if you didn’t agree with what I was doing. And you understand the damage Crests do to our lives.”
He took a deep, shuddering breath, blinking rapidly. “But you were always too good for me, so I never considered you an option. All those other girls…looking back on it, I wonder if part of it was just me trying to find a substitute for you.”
“Sylvain…” Tears welled in Ingrid’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks, leaving cool trails down her fevered skin.
“Good thing I pulled my head out of my ass, don’t you think?” Sylvain gave her a lopsided smile. “So, here’s what’s going to happen now. You’re going to get better, and we’re going to have a big wedding. You’re going to wear a pretty dress—I see you wanting to argue, but I’m not going to budge on this—with precious little beneath, for easy access after the reception.”
Ingrid gasped. “I’d never!”
“And then…” Sylvain held her hand more tightly, voice thickening. “Then we’ll go to sleep and wake up every morning in each other’s arms. I’ll talk dirty to you, but you’ll love it because you’ll know it’s a sign of how much I love and want you.”
Ingrid’s body warmed in a way that had nothing to do with her burns.
“If we have children,” he continued, “we won’t care if they have Crests, because they’ll be ours, proof of our love, every single one precious. I’ll spend the rest of my days making you the happiest person alive, and when we die, we’ll die knowing we lived the best lives we possibly could.”
He swallowed, hand trembling. “Doesn’t that sound like a good deal? Worth living for?”
“Yes,” she said, but her strength had vanished.
“I’m sorry. You need your rest. I’ll stay here until you fall asleep,” he said.
And he did. But she roused a little when he left, enough to hear him go and address the infirmary attendant on the other side of the curtain.
“Will she survive, Doctor?” Sylvain asked.
“We’re doing our best. Don’t give up hope,” the doctor replied.
Ingrid clenched her teeth. She wasn’t about to leave things in the hands of hope.
The trip back to Garreg Mach was long, but they fed Ingrid poppy juice and kept her asleep for most of it. The next time she became fully aware, she was in the infirmary. A cot sat next to her bed, blankets rumpled. Whoever slept there should have made an effort to tidy the space.
Midafternoon light filtered through the windows, although they had erected privacy curtains here just as they had in the field hospital. Ingrid took a deep breath, tears springing to her eyes with the pain. Her body throbbed.
“You look terrible,” a familiar voice said as the curtains parted. Felix appeared, but he moved gingerly.
“Are you wounded?” Ingrid rasped.
Felix began to cross his arms, winced, and let them relax. “A scratch. I’ll live.”
Ingrid sighed. A lecture welled up inside her—she loved Felix too much to let harm come to him—but Felix held up a hand and shook his head.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Worry about yourself. Sylvain needs you.”
Felix reddened. “Fine. We all need you. But him the most. Took him how long to realize he loved you?”
“He only realized a few months ago.”
Felix snorted. “When you hid yourself away, mourning my brother, Sylvain was beside himself. He was in love with you then. He just didn’t know it. He’s always been an idiot.”
“I seem to be friends with idiots,” Ingrid said, smiling just enough to avoid pain.
“Don’t compare me to him. If this is what I get when I come to see how you are, I’m going to leave.”
He turned, but Ingrid said, “Wait.” If anyone would tell her the truth, it was Felix. He never minced words.
“Do they say I’ll make it?”
Felix came to her side and took her hand. Coming from him, it was as good as a hug. “They’re not sure. But you’d better. We’ll never forgive you if you don’t.”
The smooth, sing-song tones of Manuela’s voice came from the other side of the curtain, followed by the woman herself. “Hello, Felix. It’s time for Ingrid’s treatment, so perhaps you’d best make yourself scarce. Besides, Dorothea is looking for you. I promised her I wouldn’t let you overexert yourself.”
Felix glared at her, color rising in his cheeks. Ingrid raised her eyebrows. Felix glared at her, too.
“I’ll see you later. Don’t go dying on me,” Felix said and stalked away through the curtains.
Manuela whistled as she pulled out a large jar of ointment and unscrewed the lid. Her expression was contented and relaxed, her appearance the most polished Ingrid had ever seen it. She was radiant, as if she was finally free to be who she needed to be. Love did that to a person, as Ingrid well knew.
A ring sparkled on Manuela’s finger as she scooped up some of the ointment and slowly, gently applied it to Ingrid’s chest. “At least the blast mostly spared your pretty face,” Manuela murmured. “But don’t worry, we’ll have you patched up as good as new. Leave it to me.”
“Congratulations,” Ingrid said.
Manuela blushed. “You, too. Sylvain’s grown into a fine man. It seems now that the war’s over, everyone’s in a hurry to get married. Almost dying makes people realize what’s important, wouldn’t you say?”
Heat rose to Ingrid’s cheeks. She’d been willing to die for what was important. By the goddess, she was going to live to enjoy it.
Manuela prattled on as she finished applying the ointment. Already Ingrid’s skin felt cooler, and the pain ebbed. Opinions about Professor Manuela were divided, but everyone agreed she had a special healing touch. Ingrid couldn’t disagree. She felt a little better, and Manuela hadn’t even started casting magic yet. Then the healing began, and darkness claimed Ingrid once more.
Ingrid blinked her way to consciousness. The thin, gray light of dawn seeped through the curtains, falling slantwise on the still figure on the cot next to hers. Sylvain lay tangled in the blankets, red hair wild. His features relaxed in sleep, lending him a boyish air, and his long, dark eyelashes cast shadows. Stubble covered his cheeks and chin. What would he look like with a beard? Devastatingly handsome, most likely.
Her body hurt so much, but she needed to touch him. Gritting her teeth, she extended her hand and stroked his cheek. She’d never been able to enjoy waking up slowly in his arms, to hold him as they whispered to each other in the morning, before the world intruded. Never had she wanted something so much.
But she was tired, so tired.
Her hand went boneless, her strength gone. Sylvain’s eyes fluttered open. She tried to smile, but her vision went gray. It was too hard to breathe.
Sylvain sat bolt upright and shook her shoulders, but not even the pain cleared her sight. He shouted something and gathered her up into his arms. It was as if he were speaking underwater, his words garbled to her ears. She relaxed against him, and the pain stopped. It was nice to enjoy his embrace without the pain. Everything was easier now.
The tromping of boots filled the room. Too many hands and too many faces spun around her, and there was light everywhere. Slowly, the pain came back. Her professor’s green eyes bored into hers. Flayn stood next to him, hands glowing. The other faces slowly resolved: Manuela, Mercedes, Dorothea. Even Annette.
“It must be a curse,” Manuela said and gave instructions that Ingrid didn’t understand. Her flesh peeled away from her bones, and the marrow drained from her. She screamed as it happened, Sylvain’s arms around her like steel bands, his lips whispering nonsense into her ear as the magicians reforged her.
When it was over, she was small and cold and trembling. Voices filled the air, but the only one she heard was Sylvain’s. “You need your own bed. I’ll take you.”
Ingrid flopped about, fading in and out of consciousness as Sylvain carried her through the halls. His heartbeat sounded loud in her ear whenever she roused. He laid her on something soft and peeled away her sweat-soaked clothes. Moments later, a cool, wet cloth ran across her skin. She didn’t even care when it scrubbed her armpits or private areas. Sleep called, and she answered.
Ingrid felt like she’d been trampled by a herd of horses. A groan escaped her as she put a hand to her head. Someone shifted in the bed beside her, smooth, bare skin sliding against her own. She startled and pushed away.
“How are you?” Sylvain murmured, voice thick with sleep. His arms wrapped around her, his legs tangled with hers.
“I’m…” Her eyes widened. It didn’t hurt to talk. She was sore, but no more than if she’d had a hard day’s training.
Sylvain took her face in his hands and kissed her cheeks, her brow, her nose. “You almost died. Don’t ever do something like that again.”
“I can’t guarantee that. You’re worth it.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You are to me.”
A sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob escaped him, and he crushed her to him. They lay entangled, listening to each other breathe, no words necessary. This was what she had wanted. She smiled against his chest, her fingers tracing the muscles of his abdomen. His thumb stroked her shoulder. She was at peace.
“Dimitri had to go back to Fhirdiad,” Sylvain finally said. “But he’ll be back in time for the wedding. You wanted to get married here, right? Or would you prefer to have the ceremony at your home?”
“Here is good. I suppose I should let my father know.”
“A formal letter wouldn’t hurt. But my father might have already told him.”
Ingrid sighed and shook her head. She settled deeper into Sylvain’s embrace, her thigh draped across his.
The silence between them turned awkward. “I’m sorry,” Sylvain said. “Being with you is the best thing in my life, and I almost ruined it.”
“I’m sorry I made you feel that way. Your first apology was better, by the way.”
Sylvain chuckled ruefully. “If you hadn’t just recovered from a near-death experience, I’d show you exactly how grateful I am to have you.”
“Time enough for that later,” she said. “We have our whole lives ahead of us now.”
Although they’d been preparing for weeks, the wedding snuck up on Ingrid. Sylvain paid for everything—the invitations (although she’d written them, with Dorothea’s help), the food, the decorations, even her dress. She stood in her dormitory room, staring at the things from her student days. Although her life at the Academy had been cut short five years ago, it hadn’t truly felt over until today. Annette and Mercedes fussed with her makeup as Dorothea finished pinning up her hair.
“There,” Dorothea said. “You’re the very picture of a noble bride.”
“It’s so nice of you to humor Sylvain and wear a gown,” Mercedes said. “I know you’re more comfortable in your dress uniform.”
It was true that while Ingrid would have been perfectly fine getting married in full battle dress, it didn’t hurt to be fancy once in a while. It would be much easier to dance with Sylvain in a gown than in armor, especially a no-fuss gown like the pale green silk one she wore. Although it was simple, its lines were elegant, and the craftsmanship was the highest quality.
“It’s time,” Annette said, eyes alight with glee.
“Could I have a moment by myself?” Ingrid asked.
The women tittered and left. The second she was alone, Ingrid prepared her wedding present for Sylvain. She had no money to spend, but she knew what would please him, even if the thought made her burn with embarrassment.
When she was ready, she joined her friends in the hall, and they made their way to the cathedral. White ribbons and roses adorned the enormous doors, the pews inside festooned with the same. Her female friends peeled away to join the others. She spotted her family at the front, across the aisle from Sylvain’s.
Sylvain stood at the door waiting for her, hair combed back. The black suit trimmed with gold accentuated his frame, and his handsomeness took her breath away. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, hands flexing. Was he nervous?
Ingrid smiled as he caught sight of her. His mouth dropped open, his eyes wide. “You look amazing,” he said breathlessly.
“You look handsome yourself.” Her smile broadened, her heart lifting and soaring.
“Your granny’s in there. She looks just as good as ever.”
Ingrid rolled her eyes, but her smile remained. Typical Sylvain, trying to distract her from his true emotions. “Shall we?”
Sylvain offered her his arm. Ingrid took it and held it tight. They walked down the aisle together. There might have been music, or cheers from their friends, but she only had eyes for him. He didn’t break her gaze until they arrived at the altar, where their professor stood ready.
Ingrid hardly heard the ceremony. She was dimly aware of saying her vows, of Sylvain’s palm sweating against hers. His eyes were alight as they gazed at each other. They used the simple rings she’d bought—ones that would fit beneath gauntlets—and she slipped it onto Sylvain’s finger a second time.
It was over before she knew it. The moment the professor pronounced them husband and wife, Sylvain crushed her to him and kissed her. With tongue. It took her breath away and set a fire low and deep inside her.
Their loved ones cheered and threw flower petals as Sylvain escorted her back down the aisle.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he said with a grin.
“I’m not wearing anything beneath my shift,” Ingrid replied.
Sylvain stopped dead at the end of the aisle and stared at her. His cheeks flamed, and he swallowed hard. “Seriously?”
“Happy wedding day.”
A tremor ran through Sylvain, and before she knew it, he’d scooped her up and broken into a run. She dropped her bouquet and held on as he dashed for the nearest closet and darted inside.
“But the reception,” she said with a gasp as his hands ran up her thighs, lifting the gown over her hips.
“They’ll wait,” he replied, voice husky, as he unfastened his trousers and pressed her against the wall.
They were fifteen minutes late for their own wedding feast, but no matter. Their life together had already begun.
Published June 2, 2020
This is a work of fan fiction based on characters and scenarios from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, developed by Koei Tecmo and Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo. Author makes no claim of ownership to the world or characters borrowed.