Even though he was surrounded by trees, a bitter cold wind signaling the imminent arrival of snow was enough to chill Ashe to the bone, shivers running down his spine. His horse paused briefly underneath him before pressing on. "Hang in there, friend," he said as he encouragingly ran a hand through his companion's mane. His mind quickly wandered to his other companion and his eyes traveled upward to see her pegasus in flight above the trees. "Ingrid," he called. "How much farther to Fhirdiad? Do you think we could make it before the snow hits?"
"Judging by the fact that it is coming on from that direction, I'd say our chances are slim." Ingrid's voice sounded out from above.
"That is a problem indeed," Ashe remarked, mostly to himself. He looked back up and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Shall we take cover for the night, then?"
The response to that was a rustling of feathers as Ingrid guided her pegasus back to the ground. "We may as well. Judging by the clouds, it looks like a rough one, so no use getting lost in a blizzard."
If anyone else was present, they wouldn't have seen anything off about the way Ingrid was speaking, but Ashe had known her long enough to catch on to the subtle hints of her being more short with him than usual. He decided to shrug that off for now and wait until a better time to bring it up. "His Highness will just have to understand the reason for our delay."
Despite discussing settling down for the night, the couple made it a few more miles into the forest in search of some sort of clearing to set up camp for the night. To their surprise, they instead found a small settlement hidden in the woods. "Wow, I didn't know this place existed," Ashe said, marveling at the fact that there couldn't have been more than a hundred people in the little village.
Of course, the locals recognized Ashe and Ingrid as two of the king's most loyal and courageous knights, so despite their modest protests, Ashe and Ingrid were given a room for free. Really, they were given two rooms for free, as the locals were unaware of the fresh marriage the two had tried to keep somewhat under wraps, but they found a use for the second room as a place to put all their excess baggage.
They settled into their room just in time to see the snow started to pick up outside, the scant flurries made to look worse by the wing whipping them around the tall trees and small buildings. Ashe watched the snow pick up while Ingrid changed out of her armor behind him. "Ingrid," he said, not looking away from the window.
"You know you can look while I'm changing, right?" Ingrid had an annoyed tone, but Ashe could tell she was teasing him. "We're married now, so I think that's allowed."
Ashe blushed and laughed, his gaze not shifting from the view outside the window. "I just wanted to check on you."
"How do you mean?" Ingrid asked.
The sound of clothes shuffling behind Ashe paused, and he turned around to see his wife in far less clothing than he expected, given how long she was changing. "Ah, uh," he stuttered for a few seconds, putting himself together and feeling his face heating up further. "I just, er, noticed you've been rather curt with me today. Is there anything on your mind? Or, more specifically, does it have anything to do with what we discussed last night?"
Ingrid huffed, crossing her arms over her bare torso, her goal of getting dressed into her evening wear all but forgotten. "I suppose you could say that." She sat down on the bed and crossed her legs, her teasing smile fading quickly.
Ashe grimaced and took a seat next to her, putting an arm around her shoulder. "Listen Ingrid, I promise there wasn't an ulterior motive to bringing up what I did. I just wanted to ask you because I was curious about your plans for the future. We're going to be together from here on, so I wanted to make sure our intentions in regards to that were clear. You know, lay all of our cards on the table, as it were."
Ingrid nodded. "Yeah, and I get that, but the concept of that just..." Ingrid paused and heaved a heavy sigh. "I don't know. I don't like dwelling on it too much."
"And why is that?"
"You know that my father spent a long time trying to arrange various marriages for me and whatnot," Ingrid explained. "All of them were for political gain and for the sake of passing my crest to other families, so I think a part of me considers that concept part of his plan. Like giving up my knighthood for that would be letting him win."
Ashe chuckled softly. "That's fair, but you know you wouldn't have to put down your duties for that long. A few months at most, you know?"
Ingrid couldn't help her laughter. "Ashe, I don't think you quite get how that all works." She put her arm around his waist and pulled him close. "But I appreciate your faith in me. Either way, I don't think I'm...ready for that quite yet."
"I totally understand," Ashe assured her. "I don't think I quite had the time last night to say my piece, so you might feel better if I say that I'm not ready for that kind of commitment either."
"Oh thank the Goddess," Ingrid sighed, her head resting on Ashe's shoulder.
Ashe's eyes glazed over, an all too familiar expression on his face. "The way I remember regarding Lonato...I just know that, even after his birth son died, he was still so good to me. As a father, he was a standard that I don't know if I could hold myself to if I were in his shoes."
Ingrid watched his face intently, listening to his every word. "Right. Well, I'm glad we can agree that now isn't the time. For now, we can focus on our job."
"And each other," Ashe said, a smile returning to his face.
Ingrid couldn't help but return the expression. "And each other," she repeated. "Speaking of which..."
A playful look graced Ingrid's face. "Why don't we focus on each other just a little more tonight, hm?"
Ashe raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid I don't understand. I'm focusing on your right now, aren't I?"
In lieu of any risque activities, Ingrid and Ashe fell asleep to the sounds of the blowing wind plastering the snow to the window. Having grown up in the colder climate of the kingdom, neither of them were bothered by the sound, so it wasn't the lack of wind that woke Ashe up hours later. No, what caused him to jolt awake in the middle of the night was a loud rustling in the room next door, which currently held all of their stuff. He turned to his still mostly nude roommate and whispered, "did you hear that?" When she didn't respond, he quickly jumped out of bed and scrambled to the room next door to investigate. As he left their room, he found himself hunching forward and taking care to step lightly. His experience as a petty thief was coming in handy, letting him quietly unlock the door and step inside to find the source of the noise.
On the other side of the room, next to the open window, he saw a hunched over person ruffling through their stuff, breathing heavily as they tossed aside weapons and armor pieces.
Ashe decided he'd seen enough. "You there!" The intruder didn't even turn around to see who had discovered them, instead bolting straight for the window (and in the process showing Ashe that they weren't hunched over so much as very short.)
Ashe grabbed a bow from the piles of equipment and rushed after them. The sound of them hitting the ground from the second floor was a heavy one, and the cry of pain that came with it told Ashe he wouldn't have too much trouble catching the thief, but his adrenaline told him to follow suit regardless. Much more graceful than his would be assailant, Ashe leapt from the window and knocked an arrow in one fluid motion. What happened during his journey from the window to the ground felt like an eternity.
The first thing he noticed was that the lights of the buildings around them, combined with the freshly fallen snow and the clearing skies, illuminated the thief enough for Ashe to see that he was not dealing with some sort of master thief or saboteur who didn't realize the war was over like he thought.
No, he was dealing with a young girl. And she was making off with his copy of Loog and the Maiden of Wind.
In the next split-second, Ashe's stint as a thief flashed through his mind in its entirety, along with his time with Lonato and at the Monastery. His arrow was already primed to fire, so he adjusted his aim faster than he could blink and let loose. The arrow soared between the girl's legs and buried itself in the snow just in front of her, startling her into tripping on it.
Ashe was so preoccupied by making sure he didn't hit her that he didn't brace himself for landing, so he landed hard on the ground, crying out feebly as pain exploded from his ankle. Still, he managed to scramble to his feet first and hobble over to the girl. She was frantically trying to crawl away from him through the snow, the book abandoned behind her. "Are you alright?" He asked as he scooped up the book and took another stride towards her. As gently as he could manage, he took hold of her arm and helped her to her feet. "Don't worry. I won't hurt you," he said. "Look, I've dropped my weapon."
The girl had calmed down, but before she could say anything, the door to the inn burst open, the man who had so kindly offered them an extra room dashing out to see what the commotion was about. Before Ashe could explain, his eyes landed on the girl and his expression turned stony. "Oi! Is this lass giving you trouble, sir? How many times do I have to kick you out of my inn for rifling through people's stuff?"
"It's not my fault you keep a piss poor inn, old man!" The girl spat, before turning to dash off.
"Hold it," Ashe said, grabbing her arm again and stopping her in her tracks.
The girl screeched, turning to look at Ashe with wide eyes. "Are you going to kill me now?" She asked, eyes wide with fear.
"Yeah, that's what you get for stealin' from a knight of the Kingdom!" The innkeeper said.
Ashe held up the book to get a hold of the situation. "Would you both please calm down? I'm not going to hurt anyone."
The girl raised an eyebrow at him. "Y-you're not?"
Ashe shook his head. "No, in fact, here." Letting go of her arm, he held the book in both hands to present it to her. "This is yours now."
"Wh-what?" Was the response from both onlookers.
"You can have it. It's Loog and the Maiden of Wind. It's one of my favorites." As he spoke to the child, Ashe's mouth curled into a smile. "Sell it, read it, do what you need to with it."
The girl looked from Ashe to the book and back again, sizing him up and unable to believe what she was hearing. Finally, she grabbed the book and dashed away, leaving her prints in the freshly fallen snow.
"Are you sure about that?" The innkeeper asked. "Why wouldja just give away one of your favorite books?"
Ashe sighed, turning back toward the inn and walking towards it with a noticeable limp. "What do you know about that girl?"
The innkeeper shrugged. "Well, I know her father died in the war. Her mother couldn't handle it and took her own life about a year ago. Left her all alone with nothin' but an empty house to her name. Been stealing things and causing trouble ever since. You're the first one what been able to catch her, but I suppose that's to be expected of a knight who serves directly under King Dimitri."
Ashe smiled again, but this time it seemed to be a sad expression. "Then I'm glad I gave her that book. She needs it more than me."
The innkeeper could only shake his head. "You're a strange one, you know that? Now let's get you back to bed, sir."
Miraculously, it seemed Ingrid was able to sleep through the ruckus, so Ashe was able to slip back into bed unnoticed. As soon as he was laying down, Ingrid rolled over in her sleep, putting an arm over him and smiling at his touch. Between that, and the mercy he showed the young girl, Ashe was able to peacefully go back to sleep with a smile on his face.
The next time Ashe woke, it was to the sun shining through the window and Ingrid's peacefully sleeping face right where it was when he fell asleep. "Ah, morning for real this time," he said to himself with a chuckle. "Now, to wake up Ingrid."
Once Ingrid was awake, the two set about getting ready to set out. Ashe didn't get far before pain returned to his ankle, causing him to stumble slightly. "You okay, Ashe?" Ingrid asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Ashe said quickly. "I just took a spill."
Ingrid crossed her arms, not convinced. "I've been with you at all times for the last two weeks, and I don't recall that ever happening."
"Here, I'll tell you the story while we get ready."
Ashe recounted the story as they prepared to leave. Outside the inn, he motioned toward the scene of the encounter, which was undisturbed thanks to the snowstorm stopping shortly before. The arrow he fired was still buried in the snow, and he grabbed it as he wrapped up his story.
Ingrid shook her head as they started toward the stables to retrieve their steeds. "It's always that book with you, isn't it?"
Ashe laughed. "Yeah, that's what I thought I well. Ow." Stepping on his ankle again cut his laughter short.
"Let's just get to Fhirdiad so you can keep off that foot as long as possible," Ingrid said as she prepared her pegasus for the trip.
"Sounds like a plan," Ashe said from his horse's stall.
The couple got as far as the town's gates before a somewhat familiar voice rang out in the morning air. "Hey, mister!"
Ashe turned to see the young girl trudging in their direction through the snow. In the daylight, he could more easily make out her features, including her stringy black hair and bright hazel eyes shining from her dirt-caked face. Her clothes were just as dirty and hung loosely over her gaunt, pale frame. She was still holding the book from the previous night, and her expression didn't seem pleased.
"Oh? Is this the girl you were telling me about?" Ingrid asked.
Against his better judgment, Ashe slid off his horse, making sure to put his better foot down first. "What can I do for you, young one?" He asked.
The girl reached him and held out the book with a huff. "You can have this back."
"Oh? Did it not strike your fancy?" Ashe asked, hands not moving from his side.
This seemed to frustrate the girl, who waggled the book in his direction. "No, it didn't! Look, I was trying to steal food from you last night. This ain't gonna feed me no matter how hard I try."
"You could sell it," Ashe said quickly. "Then use the money from selling it to get food."
"Are you stupid?" The girl snapped, earning a gasp from Ingrid. "Nobody in this town is gonna buy anything from me!"
Ashe stroked his chin, fingers grasping for the wispy, barely-there hairs he couldn't even begin to make into a beard.
"I'm going on ahead," Ingrid said, turning down the road. "Let me know when you catch up."
Ashe took a deep breath. "Okay, so why don't you use it for what a book is best for. Read it. It's a story about the Kingdom, and one of my fav—"
Suddenly, the girl threw the book down into the snow, her dirtied face reddening. "Don't tell me to read it, stupid! Everyone knows I can't read!"
Ashe's eyes widened and suddenly, the world around him changed drastically. The girl standing in front of him wasn't there anymore, instead replaced by a younger Ashe. In Ashe's place stood Lord Lonato, looking down at the pathetic criminal who was caught stealing his own copy of that very same book, making that exact declaration. And though the circumstances were different and this was a much more vulgar child, Ashe knew in that moment what he had to do. "Young lady," he said. "Did you just say you can't read?"
As he bent down to pick up the book and brush the snow off of it, she crossed her arms and stomped her foot. "Yeah. Don't make me say it again. I know I'm stupid and so does everyone else."
"Would you like to learn?"
The girl looked at him with a confused expression. Once again, she seemed to be sizing him up, but finally she turned back and huffed again. "I'm hungry. Learning to read won't make me not hungry anymore."
After tucking the book under one arm, Ashe extended a hand to the girl. "Come with us. We're going to the capital, and we can feed you on the way."
"Wh-what?" The girl stuttered in disbelief.
"I mean it," Ashe said, a genuine smile on his face. "I can take care of you. Once we're in the capital, I'll get you a nice, warm meal and then maybe I can teach you to read."
"Why would you do that for me?" The girl asked. She was trying to keep an angry face, but Ashe could clearly see tears starting to form at the corners of her eyes.
Ashe's answer came to him so easily, he felt like he'd said it a million times before. "Because it's what my father did for me."
This seemed to throw the child for a loop, and she stood there for a moment, seemingly unable to process what she'd been told. "Shall we go?" Ashe finally asked.
The girl took a deep breath before finally putting her tiny, dirty hand in his. "Fine. But don't bother teaching me anything. I just want you to feed me."
Ashe laughed and helped the child mount his horse. "Something tells me you'll change your mind once I start reading this to you. It's a classic; I promise you'll love it." He climbed up on the saddle behind her, making sure she was comfortably and safely seated before spurring his horse to move onward.
It didn't take long to catch up with Ingrid, and Ashe could tell they were close once he saw the shadow of her pegasus on the snow in front of him. "Sorry for the delay," he called.
"That's quite alright. We didn't lose too much time." He could tell from Ingrid's response that she hadn't looked back, but he decided to let his new companion be a surprise.
His passenger didn't pay any mind to the pegasus in the air ahead of them, instead looking around the forest with wide eyes. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice.
"What was that?" Ashe asked. "I didn't quite catch that."
"I'm sorry I stole from you," she said, only slightly louder. "You got hurt when you were coming after me, didn't you?"
Ashe shrugged. "Not really, no."
"You're lying," she said quickly. "I saw how you didn't wanna stand on your foot back there. That was from falling out the window, huh?"
Just the mention had his ankle throbbing in pain, but Ashe ignored it. "Perhaps, but that's nothing compared to some of the injuries I've sustained. Don't worry."
"I don't wanna hurt nobody," the girl said, her voice wavering. "I just wanna eat..." She sniffled, finally catching Ingrid's attention.
"Ashe, are you talking to someone back there?" She asked, eyes still looking forward.
"I might be," he said sheepishly.
Confused, Ingrid turned her pegasus around and gasped at what she saw. "Ashe? Would you mind explaining our hitchhiker to me?"
The girl waved at Ingrid nervously while Ashe explained. "She brought the book back to me, so I decided she deserves something nice. Like a meal at the castle."
Ingrid didn't seem amused. "Are you serious?"
Ashe put his hand on the girl's head and ruffled her hair slightly. "Look, I'll explain later, but for now, let's not waste too much time. I'll give her some of the food from my pouch for now, so the faster we get there, the faster both of us can eat a proper meal."
"Okay, but you better have a good explanation for this." Ingrid still didn't look amused by the situation, but she turned back down the road and continued forward. "Does our new traveling companion have a name?" She asked.
Ashe opened his mouth, but realized that in all this, he had never thought to ask the girl her name. "Er, what is your name, young one?"
The girl seemed less nervous now that Ingrid wasn't staring her down. "I'm Jocelyn."
Ashe smiled. "That's a beautiful name, Jocelyn. I'm Ashe, but you probably figured that out already. Our friend on the pegasus up there is Ingrid."
Jocelyn sighed. "I shouldn't have gone with you strangers," she said.
Ashe dug through his bag for a moment before producing one of his snacks for the trip. "Will this change your mind?"
Jocelyn snatched the food from his hands, but said, "no, but I'll take it anyway."
"Heh, don't worry," Ashe said. "We won't hurt you. Here, let's pass the time with a story."
Before Jocelyn knew it, the very book she had just returned was opened in front of her. "I've already told you that this is my favorite story, so let me show you why. I'll read it to you while we travel. To pass the time."
At first, Jocelyn was not interested in the slightest, but Ashe continued reading aloud regardless. As he progressed through the story, he could tell Jocelyn was paying attention, as she would lean forward during the more tense moments, and even Ingrid had started to hover closer so she could hear the story. Though they couldn't see her face, it was a safe bet she was mouthing the words along with Ashe, considering she knew the story just as well as he did at that point.
Finally, Ashe looked up from the pages of the book to see the capital city approaching. "Look's like we're nearly there," he said, clapping the book closed and slipping it in his pack.
"What? No!" Jocelyn watched him put the book away with wide eyes. "B-but what happens next? Will Kyphon be okay?"
Ashe laughed, putting a hand on Joelyn's greasy head. "All in due time, young one. Let's get you fed, first."
"You have a knack for helping people fall in love with that book," Ingrid said. At this point, she had brought her pegasus to the ground and was now trotting next to Ashe and Jocelyn.
The conversation ended there, because once inside the gates to the city, they were already being approached by a familiar face. "It's about time you got here," he snapped, arms crossed over his chest. "Do you know how long I was standing out here in the snow last night waiting for you two?"
"There was nothing we could do about it," Ingrid explained as she hopped down from her pegasus and opened her arms. "That snow storm was nasty at first."
Their welcoming party of one rolled his eyes, but accepted Ingrid's hug regardless.. "You would have been fine. Come, the boar's been waiting for you."
"I was kind of hoping we could eat first," Ashe said, feeling his stomach grumble and knowing Jocelyn's must have been too.
"You should have thought of that before arriving a day late," the man said, flipping his dark hair out of his face. That was when his eyes landed on Jocelyn, who flinched back against Ashe at the eye contact. "Who's the hitchhiker?"
"It's a long story," Ingrid explained.
"You better not have run off to get 'secretly' married because of a child you had...must have been many years ago now," he said with a smirk.
"Felix!" Ingrid's face flushed and she punched his shoulder.
"Let's just get this over with," Ashe said. "Jocelyn's hungry."
By now, they had reached the gates of the palace. Felix turned toward the two still on horseback and ushered for them to come down by motioning toward the handler Ingrid was handing her pegasus off to. Ashe helped Jocelyn get down safely before hopping down himself. However, he nearly stumbled into both her and Felix when he landed on his injured ankle. "Goddess help you, what happened while you were away?" Felix asked, helping Ashe stand back up.
Remembering the exchange they had earlier, Ashe put on a pained smile and shook his head. "I'm fine, really."
Felix shook his head. "I obviously don't have the time to dispute you, so whatever. Would you like me to feed the kid while you speak to the king?"
"No, I brought her along, so I'll help her get fed and whatnot," Ashe said, putting a hand on her head again.
"So you're going to bring an unbathed child before the king."
"Felix, that's quite enough," Ingrid snapped. "Let's just go."
As the group made their way to the throne room, Ingrid helping Ashe keep steady, Jocelyn tugged on Ashe's sleeve. "I'm nervous."
"Don't worry, little one," Ashe assured her. "King Dimitri is a very good friend of ours. He is much kinder than his appearance would suggest."
"As is Felix over here," Ingrid said. "But he doesn't have Queen Marianne to help him seem like less of a prick."
"I heard that."
Jocelyn couldn't help but laugh, her face lighting up in a way Ashe hadn't yet seen from his new friend. It wasn't much longer before they arrived at the throne room. In the middle of the grand hall sat the king and queen in their ornately decorated thrones. Jocelyn gasped at the king's blue robes that hung over his hunched shoulders and made him look much heavier than he was. To his left sat his blue-haired queen and to his right stood another of Ashe's good friends. He and Dedue shared a smile as Felix spoke. "King Dimitri, may I finally present to you Ingrid and Ashe Galatea."
Dimitri's smile seemed melancholy as usual, but Ashe tended to attribute that to missing an eye making it difficult to properly emote. "Welcome back, you two," he said. "And congratulations."
Ashe could feel his face redden at the usage of the single last name for them. "Thank you, your majesty."
"If I may interject," Dedue said, stepping forward. "Who is our guest?"
"Oh, uh, this is Jocelyn," Ashe said, motioning toward the girl. "The short version is that...she's hungry, and we intend to feed her."
Suddenly, Jocelyn spoke for the first time since entering the throne room. "My dad died in the war." This earned a gasp from everyone in the room and a narrowed eye from the king. Between her face and her tone, it almost seemed like she was asking Dimitri for something in return.
Dimitri seemed to get that vibe too, because his face fell. "I'm sorry to hear that, little one. Ashe knows that feeling all too well."
A somber tone fell over the throne room, but Marianne wasn't intending to let it last too long. "Excuse me," she said, immediately catching Dimitri's undivided attention. "This young lady did come for food, did she not? Then shall we prepare a meal to celebrate out newly wed knights' return from their honeymoon?"
"I think I like that idea a lot," Ashe said.
"Excellent idea, my queen," Dimitri said, sitting up straight. "Dedue, have the kitchen staff prepare a feast. We shall all partake."
Ingrid smirked. "If there's one thing your old house leader knew, Marianne, it was that feasts are always appropriate. Let's do it!"
"A feast…?" Jocelyn asked, a smile coming to her face. "I've never had a feast before!"
Dimitri stood from his throne and stretched his legs briefly. "Then allow us to show you. Ashe, Ingrid, can one of you get her cleaned up?"
Ashe nodded, turning his gaze to Ingrid. "Can you handle that? I can go get some clothes for her."
Dimitri's eye narrowed. "No need. You should rest your foot, Ashe. Marianne can handle procuring clean clothes."
"What? How did you—"
Dimitri raised a hand to stop Ashe. "Don't think I didn't see the way Ingrid has to support you right now. I don't know what happened, but you should rest while the food gets prepared. I would hate to see one of my two best knights out of commission for something so trivial."
"Right," Ashe said with a nod. "Sorry, sir."
Ingrid and Jocelyn helped Ashe limber his way into a room that was set aside for the knights' extended stays in Fhirdiad, and then went their separate ways. While Ingrid and Jocelyn went off to get themselves cleaned up, Ashe laid in bed, his foot elevated on a pillow and his mind wandering its way through the events of the day.
His train of thought was derailed when a knock sounded at his door. "Come in," he called.
The door creaked open and Dedue stepped inside, a bag of ice hanging from his left hand. "Good evening, Ashe," he greeted.
Ashe gave his visitor a smile. "Oh, Dedue, how unexpected. I would have thought you would be in the kitchen helping with the preparations."
"I was, but I stepped away to bring you this." In his trademark style, Dedue unceremoniously propped the bag of ice against Ashe's ankle. "I hope your foot feels better."
"Thanks, Dedue!" Ashe leaned up and adjusted the bag so it could rest against his foot easier.
Despite accomplishing his task, Dedue did not move from the foot of Ashe's bed. "Although, I would be lying if I said that was my only reason for this visit."
"Let me guess," Ashe said. "You're going to ask about Jocelyn.
Dedue nodded. "You do not have to tell me the whole story, but I do wish to know why you brought her before His Highness."
Ashe chuckled and scratched at his face. "Well, the plan was to eat and get her settled down before meeting with Dimitri, but Felix had other ideas."
"Heh, that does sound like Felix." Dedue gave Ashe a weak smile. "I do wonder, though: what's your plan after she gets fed?"
Ashe clasped his hands together in his lap, a grave expression on his face. "I don't know. I haven't thought that far ahead yet."
"Have you considered talking to Mercedes about it?" Dedue asked, oblivious to the door opening behind him. "I'm sure her orphanage always has the room to take her off her hands."
The shrill "No!" that pierced the otherwise calm air in the room was enough to startle even the 6 and a half foot brick wall of a man. He spun around to see Jocelyn and Ingrid in the doorway, the former glaring daggers at him, unphased by his massive build. "Those idiots at the village tried to shove me into their stuffy orphanage, and there's no way I'm ever going back!" She stomped further into the room and pointed a menacing finger at Ashe. "You did this just to get me out of everyone's hair, didn't you? Who paid you? Was it that innkeeper?"
"Whoa, Jocelyn, calm down," Ashe pleaded.
"No!" Jocelyn stomped the ground as hard as her small foot could muster. "I'm going to eat your stupid meal and then you're taking me back to my house."
"Jocelyn, please listen to me."
"Fuck you!" Jocelyn spun around and bolted for the door. Ingrid spread her arms to stop her, but the young girl deftly dove between her legs and sprinted down the hall.
"Jocelyn!" Ashe shouted after her.
Ingrid looked out the door and shook her head. "It's useless," she sighed. "Who knows where she is now."
"Well, she said she would eat, so you can discuss matters with her then," Dedue suggested.
Ashe shook his head and moved to get out of bed. "No. I'll find her now."
"Ashe, you shouldn't walk on that foot," Ingrid said, rushing to his side.
"I'll be fine," he said, rummaging through the nightstand by the bed. "Jocelyn needs me right now."
Ingrid stomped into the room and slammed the drawer of the nightstand closed. "We need to talk about that. Dedue, can you excuse us?"
Dedue bowed his head and excused himself too hastily to even close the door all the way. Ingrid took a moment before she continued. "What is your fixation with this orphan?"
"I think you know just as well as I do, Ingrid," Ashe said. "I just...I look at that girl and I see how I used to be. And how Lord Lonato helped me get where I am today."
Ingrid's shoulders slumped. "Yes, and I respect that, but don't you remember the conversation we just had the other day? If you don't take her to Mercedes and you don't take her home, what else are you going to do?"
"Lonato didn't plan to adopt me," Ashe said simply. "It just happened."
Ingrid let out an exasperated sigh. "Ashe. What did I just say? We're not ready for that."
"Perhaps not, but if I don't, who else will?" Ashe's face was stony and determined. "Look at everything I have today. This knighthood. These people willing to give me free lodging. You. It's all because of Lonato. If it weren't for him, my siblings and I would have withered away to nothing. Lonato already had enough going on when he took me in, but he taught me everything I know and gave me everything I have. What would he think if I were to look at this child in need and just do nothing?"
"I can't turn my back on Jocelyn. I know it's against what we talked about, and I would understand if you didn't want any part of this." Ashe reached down and fiddled with the ring on his finger. "I want you to be happy as well, of course, so if you'd rather not have this on your plate, I wouldn't make you give up on your dreams."
Ingrid could feel tears welling up in her eyes. "Go. We'll talk about this later."
Without a word, Ashe opened the nightstand again and grabbed a book from it. He hobbled out of the room and the door latched closed behind him, leaving Ingrid to collapse on the bed.
Searching the whole castle for one young girl was a daunting task, especially with only one working ankle, but Ashe didn't need to go far before he heard a sniffling nearby. He kept shuffling past the source of the noise, pretending to be oblivious to it, but shortly after passing the small crevasse Jocelyn hid herself in, he paused, leaning against the wall and cracking open the book that was previously under his arm.
"The Tailtean Plains were alive with the sounds of battle. A cacophony of swords clashing and blood spilling surrounded Loog and Kyphon, who readied their blades.
"'Are you ready, old friend?' Look asked Kyphon.
"Kyphon didn't say a word. Instead, he nodded and the two jumped right into battle. Neither man knew if he would live to see the sun rise the next morning, but one thing was for sure: The War of The Eagle and Lion was going to end today."
Ashe looked around the hall, pretending he didn't know where Jocelyn was. "Guess she's not here," he shrugged, snapping the book closed. "I'll move on."
Ashe had just turned away from the hiding place before he was stopped by that shrill voice again. "That's not fair!" He turned and feigned surprise to see Jocelyn scrambling out of her hiding place. "That's exactly where you left off earlier! I wanna know what happens next!"
"Guess you'll have to stick with me to find out, huh?" Ashe asked playfully.
Jocelyn didn't seem enthralled by his teasing. "I heard what you said."
"That big scary guy didn't close the door all the way," Jocelyn explained. "I heard what you said to Ingrid."
"Then you know that I only wish to help you," Ashe responded.
Jocelyn heaved a deep sigh. "Y-yeah, but...were you an orphan too?"
Ashe kneeled down, making sure to support most of his weight on his good ankle. "I was. And then you know what happened? He caught me stealing this very book from him, and then he took me in and raised me."
Jocelyn sniffled and rubbed the back of her hand against her nose. "S-so you're not going to send me to an orphanage?"
"As far as I was concerned, that was never even an option."
Jocelyn said something, but Ashe didn't quite catch it between that and her flinging herself at him to hug him as tight as her malnourished arms could muster. "I lost my parents, too," he said, stroking her newly-cleaned hair. "And my adoptive father...also died in the war. I know what you're going through, because I was in that exact spot once. If I can just save one child from the hell that I went through as an orphan, I'll do everything in my power."
Jocelyn sobbed into his shoulder. "Thank you," she said.
Ashe gently pushed her away and looked into her glistening eyes. "Now let's get you ready for a feast, yeah?"
"Yeah," she said, cracking a small smile.
Ashe took a stand and Jocelyn grabbed his hand as they walked back to the room together. Despite his best efforts, Ashe couldn't stop himself from limping a bit, but Jocelyn stayed by his side to help support him a little bit. Ashe struck up a conversation so they weren't making the trek in complete silence. "How was your time with Ingrid?"
"She was nice," Jocelyn said. "Not as nice as you, but I like her."
"I like her quite a bit too," Ashe said with a laugh.
"Does that make her my mom now?" Jocelyn asked as they rounded the last corner before their destination.
Ashe's shoulders slumped, the conversation he'd had with Ingrid earlier flashing through his mind. "I'm not sure," he finally said, pushing the door to the room open and stepping inside. The amount of light still filtering through the window told them that they made it back with plenty of time to rest, so that was what they did.
Ashe was anticipating the room being empty upon their return, but that didn't stop a pit from forming in his stomach at Ingrid's absence. He laid out on the bed and propped his foot up. The ice in the bag Dedue brought him had started to melt, but the cold was still soothing, so he held it there while Jocelyn curled up next to him to take a nap. He watched her snooze and thought about his future and what it held. Obviously the first thing on his to-do list was finish reading her the tale of Loog, and then he would have to go about teaching her how to read and write. Perhaps some manners were necessary for her to learn too, but that was easy enough.
But where was Ingrid, and how was she going to figure into his plans for the future? At that point, he was just hoping she would, period.
Jocelyn woke up after a couple of hours and asked to hear more of Loog's story in her half-awake haze, but before Ashe could explain that he was saving it for later, Felix came in to inform them that the feast was ready.
The dining hall was alive with activity, which confused Ashe at first, until he saw that he was not exactly the guest of honor.
"Who is that?" Jocelyn asked of the person with striking green hair and elaborate robes.
"That would be Archbishop Byleth," Ashe explained.
Jocelyn looked like she'd seen a ghost. "Gods, how many important people do you know?"
Dimitri smiled at Ashe with a somewhat guilty expression. "Sorry that you are the last one to know, Ashe, but the feast wasn't entirely for you and Ingrid."
Byleth waved at Ashe with a silent smile. "It's always good to see the Professor," Ashe assured his king. "Even when it's a surprise, it's a welcome one."
He and Jocelyn took their seats, and shortly after Ingrid sat at Ashe's other side. "Hello Ingrid," he said in a small voice. "Have you thought about what we talked about?"
Ingrid took his hand in hers, a smile on her face. "I have."
Before Ingrid could say anything, Byleth spoke up. "Can I ask about our guest?
"Yes, please finally enlighten us," Felix said.
The look of curiosity on Byleth's face was compelling. "She looks rather old to be your child," they mused.
"Well, she's our child now," Ingrid said before turning to Ashe with a smirk. "Does that answer your question?"
"It does," Ashe told her. "Now let me tell the story."
Telling the story over dinner soon became a group task. As the tale progressed, Jocelyn seemed to get less nervous about being in the presence of a king, queen and the archbishop, and interjected once or twice to explain about her father's death during the war and her mother's not long after. While she talked about that, Byleth's face visibly fell, and anyone who knew the professor could see that they were just as sympathetic as anyone else there, save for Ashe.
Once the story reached its conclusion, Ashe looked to Jocelyn, who seemed to be over the moon about being able to eat so much. "I'm going to take her in. Teach her what Lonato taught me."
"And I'll help, of course," Ingrid said.
Jocelyn paused, a strange look passing over her face. "I hope you don't want me to call you mom and dad," she said. "I just...can't do that. I'm sorry"
"That's quite alright, young one," Ashe said in between bites. He could feel his face heat up at just the mention of being called that, but if that was Jocelyn's one condition, he was willing to accept it.
Dimitri leaned forward, evaluating how the couple interacted with the child. "I would hate to sound selfish, but I do hope that doesn't mean I'm losing my best knights."
Ingrid made sure to swallow the massive bite she had just taken before she spoke. "Rest assured sir, we will continue serving you to the best of our ability."
"If Lonato could raise me, my siblings and Christophe in between his duties, I don't see how we can't," Ashe agreed.
Sure, less than twenty-four hours ago, the couple were just discussing how daunting the mere concept of parenthood was, but now that this child had stumbled into their life, Ingrid and Ashe were going to do their best to act like they'd always planned it that way.