Title: a proper courtship
A/N: For the 'A lost Ballroom of gold' rarepair zine! I had to write sylvixgrid and I wanted to lean into that masquerade feel. This is utterly self indulgent.
Summary: Ingrid hated the Season, hated dancing with smug men who were more interested in her titles than herself. With her family struggling, she had little choice in the matter. Only, tonight she was dancing with Sylvain and Felix. Only, tonight she could figure out if they were merely being kind, or if there was something more serious underfoot.
Ingrid softly sighed as she looked around the ballroom. Dozens of couples waltzed around the dance floor, each pair magically gliding past each other without so much as a bumped elbow. As A minor noble's daughter, there were many perks to her family's status: there weren't as many functions she had to attend, her father allowed her free reign to hunt and ride on their lands in the attire of her choice, and society's expectations for her were low.
Unfortunately, that was only when Fódlan's was out of season. Now that the balls had finally started, her father had packed her off and sent her to the capital. The season really just meant 'husband hunting', as her friend Dorothea had put it. While Ingrid understood the importance of climbing up the social ladder, of marrying a more powerful family in order to help her own, she hated it with every fiber of her being.
It also didn't help that she was terrible at courtship. She had two left feet, walked in a masculine fashion, and the only good thing about her was that if she kept quiet, she could perhaps pass for a gentle lady. Rubbing her arm, she tried not to glare. Ingrid couldn't scare away everyone, after all.
"Careful, your face might freeze like that," a man to her right teased.
"What—" Ingrid snapped, cutting herself off when she realized her childhood friend stood next to her. "Sylvain!"
The redhead grinned mischievously. "That's the name, don't wear it out!" Hands in his jacket pockets, he leaned forward to take her all in. Suddenly, she felt self-conscious in her pale green ball gown.
"What?" she asked, resisting the urge to tug on her long hair nervously.
With a wolfish grin, he whistled. "Wow, Ingrid, you look gorgeous. How'd they get you in that?"
Immediately, she wanted to elbow him. His flirting came to him as easily as breathing; she should have expected that by now. Still, her ears warmed at the compliment. "Sylvain, please tell me you haven't said that to every woman in the room. I can't save you if you're attacked later."
"Don't worry, the idiot hasn't talked to anyone yet," Felix cut in.
Ingrid blinked, surprised. Leaning forward, she found her other childhood friend on Sylvain's other side. The two were dressed in similar suits, with small differences such as tie colours and buttons matching their families' crests and coat of arms.
It was odd. The season had started a few weeks ago, and while she'd only attended a few events since, she'd seen and heard Sylvain flitting about them. Felix, on the other hand, she'd barely heard a word about and she'd almost thought he'd stayed behind in his estate. "Felix? I thought you didn't like balls."
"I don't," he replied flatly. His posture was stiff as he looked around the ballroom, his perpetual scowl scaring away anyone who'd come near.
Well, if Ingrid didn't find a partner tonight, she could blame Felix for it at least.
"Why do you two always gang up on me?" Sylvain pouted, his cheeks puffing slightly. He'd always had a childish streak. It was cute at times like these, when she wasn't cleaning up after him. "Felix, you think she's pretty too, right?"
Felix made a strangled sound before directing his glare at Sylvain. Despite her best efforts, Ingrid still felt a pang of pain; she'd long known that the extent of his affections was a bare tolerance. Anything more was pushing him. Before he could say something she couldn't unhear, she stepped on Sylvain's foot. "Don't drag Felix into your jokes."
Felix looked at her, his expression unreadable.
"I wasn't, but fine, fine, I give." Sylvain sighed, his handsome features twisting into a frown. "Anyways, been here long, Ingrid?"
"Not really." She rubbed her wrist, remembering the journey over. "My carriage's wheel needed to be fixed, so I arrived late. I could have just ridden here instead, with the time it took."
"That sounds just like you." Sylvain laughed. Leaning closer, he waggled his brows, already over his sulking. "So you haven't danced with anyone yet?"
"No," Ingrid replied slowly, stiffening. There was something inherently untrustworthy when Sylvain asked that many questions in a row. Even more so when her response caused him to sigh with relief and Felix to visibly relax.
Whenever the both of them agreed to something, there was trouble brewing. She'd never understood how Sylvain managed to drag her, Felix, or even the king's son, Dimitri, into any of his nefarious plots, but then again, she'd never met anyone with a silver tongue like his. He'd even charmed her grandmother!
"Why are you asking?" she asked, stepping out slightly so she could glare at both of them.
"Nothing, nothing!" Sylvain walked closer, blocking Felix from her view. Felix had always been the worse liar. "Can't a friend ask questions anymore?"
"Not when the friend is you." She pursed her lips, trying to read his expression.
"Am I really that untrustworthy?" His smile didn't drop a notch, his eyes crinkling with amusement. Without waiting for her to respond, he held out a hand. "Well, since you haven't had a chance yet, could I claim your first dance?"
"Huh?" That wasn't the response she'd expected. Flabbergasted, she stared at his hand. "Me?"
"Who else?" he winked playfully.
"But…but…" Incredulous, Ingrid spluttered as she tried to make sense of it all. She couldn't tell if this was one of Sylvain's japes, or if he was earnest. And even if he were earnest, this wasn't one of their family functions; the dances here were for a singular purpose for them.
"Let's get in before the song starts." He gently grabbed her hand before she could reply and quickly guided her to the dance floor. When she hadn't been paying attention, the last waltz had ended and a new one had started. Couples swapped on the floor, pairs exchanging partners as they tried to find a suitable spouse.
And now, in the midst of it all, she stood with Sylvain. His arm hooked around her waist, pulling her almost flush against him. His other hand slipping into her right, cupping it carefully. Her skin burned from the impropriety of it all, but this was the waltz. They were supposed to be this close. Sylvain's breath was supposed to warm her ear, his long hair was supposed to mingle with hers if she turned her head just so, and no one would think this was shocking.
Unless they realized it was Ingrid he was dancing with, and not one of his many, many dancing partners. God, she hoped no one recognized her, she couldn't handle the gossip after.
"Shall we?" he asked, cocking his head slightly, green eyes bright with merriment.
It was impossible to resist those eyes. Gingerly, she rested her hand on his shoulder and nodded, not trusting her voice. Luckily, the music started immediately after and they slowly glided through the ballroom in time with everyone else. Ingrid had never been a good dancer—she could handle the movements just fine, but she lacked the grace to make them look good. Sylvian never had that problem and in his arms, she felt comfortable with the moves for once. It was like she'd finally learned to read or solved a difficult problem.
"Having fun?" Sylvain asked quietly.
She hadn't realized she was smiling. "Yeah. I didn't realize dancing could be so" Fun. "Easy."
"That's because you always overthink things." He chuckled, his eyes sparkling. "You and Felix are both the stiffest dancers I've ever seen."
"Well, sorry for that," she huffed. "Why don't you dance with someone more graceful next round?"
"Hey, I didn't say it was a bad thing!" Sylvain protested, dipping her slightly before pulling her back. "I find it cute."
Ingrid fixed him with a flat stare. "Cute."
"Yes, very cute." Sylvain chuckled. "Your expression is so serious when you try to dance, and Felix's is so determined to beat his partner. It's like you're both fighting a war. There's just something really cute about how terrible you both are."
"I'm not trying to be cute," she grumbled automatically, though her mind was awhirl from what he'd just said. She'd had her suspicions over the years, but this was the second time he'd brought up Felix. Maybe she hadn't been imagining things after all.
"Which makes it all the cuter." Sylvain grinned as he squeezed her hand. "Man, I'm glad you finally debuted. The season's was too long last year. I really missed you."
If he hadn't taken the lead, Ingrid would have frozen in place. Sylvain was a consummate flirt, something that was easy to forget in face of how goofy he was. These lines just rolled off his tongue naturally. They didn't mean anything. He'd said them to dozens of girls, some she'd had to console after.
Her skin heated up anyways.
"Sylvain." She frowned, looking up at him. "I know you act like this to every girl you meet, but you shouldn't be telling people you have no intention of courting that they are cute or that you miss them or well, flirt with them."
He didn't look the least bit contrite or chastened as he locked eyes with her. "What makes you think I have no intention?"
The implication wasn't lost to her. Incredulous, she studied his face once more, looking for some sign that this was another jest of his, that this was out of pity or something akin. "Sylvain, you're supposed to take this seriously," she hissed, lowering her voice.
"I am taking this very seriously," he replied. For once, there was none of his charm in his voice, none of his light-hearted teasing. His green eyes bore into hers and she swallowed. The music stopped. Before she could get her bearings, he leaned close, his lips brushing her ear and sending a shiver down her spine. "I meant every word."
Then he stepped away, bowing slightly, his usual teasing smile in place as he headed to the side of the room. She could only stare at his back, her blush spreading down her neck. How was she supposed to take that? React to that?
Someone behind her coughed, and Ingrid realized she was still on the dance floor. The next song would start soon. "Sorry," she mumbled, turning around. "I—"
Her apology caught in her throat as she found Felix stiffly standing behind her, his hand out. "Next dance is mine."
Felix looked utterly uncomfortable about the whole thing and Ingrid bit back a sigh. "I can guess why Sylvain did it, but you don't have to copy him. I don't need your pity too."
He snorted. "Like I would do this out of pity."
Well, she couldn't deny he had a point there. Ingrid couldn't remember the last time anyone had forced Felix to do something he didn't want to. Even his father had a hard time reigning him. Puzzled, she bit her lip. "Then why are you here? You don't like dancing. You don't like the attention. You can barely tolerate me. What do you get out of this?"
He looked at her, his expression unreadable. "The dance is about to start."
"That isn't an answer," she grumbled, rolling her eyes as she took his hand. However infuriating he was, dancing with him was still better than dancing with yet another unknown suitor.
Felix's hands were surprisingly gently as he slipped into position, his right hand featherlight as it settled on her waist. His other hand clasped hers delicately, like she was china and easily breakable.
"You can hold on a little tighter. You know I don't bruise that easily." Ingrid clicked her teeth disapprovingly, resting her left hand on his shoulder as she stepped closer. "We can't dance if I'm that far."
He didn't say anything, not even his usual scoff, as his fingers dug into her side a little firmer. When she peeked up, she found his ears a soft pink, jaw clenched. Normally she'd think of it as his usual annoyed look, but now she reconsidered. Felix seemed more embarrassed than irritated. Ingrid giggled softly. Even when they were kids, he'd always strived for perfection; it must bother him that in this one arena he couldn't quite reach it.
"Why are you laughing?" he asked as he took the lead.
"Nothing," she lied, hiding her smile. Knowing how he'd take it, it was better not to say anything at all.
He harrumphed but didn't press. This dance wasn't quite as easy as her last. Felix was steady, for sure, and mostly smooth, but he lacked that innate grace that Sylvain had. Then again, she wasn't much better herself, and she felt at ease as she kept up with him. They were equally uncomfortable on the dance floor, and there was something oddly reassuring about that.
From the corner of her eye, she studied him. Standing under the bright candelabras, he cut a dashing figure. A classical handsome, with his well-cut jaw and stern expression. Sylvain had always been the preferred one, but she'd still heard ladies tittering for Felix, not realizing just how sharp a tongue he had.
Or how carefully he hid his soft spots. Like this dance. Ingrid scanned the wall as they danced, trying to find their misguided friend. "I'm sure Sylvain pushed you into this, but thanks anyways."
"Sylvain didn't push me."
His response was blunt, to the point, and Ingrid tore her eyes back to him, flabbergasted. "Huh?"
Felix's eyes were dark, burning, as they met hers. She'd seen this gaze directed at Sylvain before, but now that it was on her, she was surprised by the intensity. "Why do you think I can barely tolerate you?"
"I…" It was a little hard to think and she studied his shoulder. "I've known you for years. After Glen—"
At the mention of his dead brother, of her ex-fiancé, his grip tightened. Even now, he hardened when Glen's name was brought up. "That was years ago."
Oddly enough, his voice was tempered for once. She'd expected his usual harsh outburst, but today he had reigned in his emotions enough for them to actually talk. "It was also a rejection," she replied carefully. "Not just of the engagement, but of me."
Ingrid hadn't expected him to take on his brother's engagement after; he had always chafed against his father's expectations. But he had been unnecessarily cruel when he had. With time and distance, she could see it for what it was: a boy in pain lashing out. Yet they had never properly talked about it and it was ironic that out here, as they swayed and spun in time with a dozen strangers, that they were having the most honest conversation they'd had in years.
"We haven't been the same since then," she added, lowering her eyes.
Felix fell silent and she wondered if he hadn't noticed the gap between them. Sylvain had always filled it; ever since he'd pulled her out of her depression, dragged Felix out of his rage, he'd always done that. They'd had a handful of times when it'd been just the two of them after, and it had always been an awkward dance of figuring out where they stood with one another.
Letting go of his shoulder, she twirled once before he pulled her back into his arms. Quietly, he muttered, "I shouldn't have said that."
She had to strain to hear his response; he wouldn't repeat this, she knew. It was as close to an apology as Felix could get, and something in her unclenched. Clearing her throat, she offered a lopsided smile. "It's fine. Like you said, it was years ago."
"Anything else?" he asked, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her.
It took her a moment to remember what he was talking about. "Well, there's…"
Ingrid frowned, parsing through her memories. What else was there? Felix had a sharp tongue, it was true, and they'd gotten into more than a few fights over it, but that was the case with everyone. While he had never sought her company, it was almost impossible to imagine him asking for anyone either.
And even when she'd barged in, uninvited, he had never turned her away either. Even at his grumpiest, he'd listen to her rant about Sylvain and his pilfering ways.
"You…" She bit her cheek, trying to figure out why she'd felt that way. Grasping for straws, Ingrid mumbled, "You're softer with Sylvain."
Felix snorted. "You're the same."
Ingrid couldn't deny that. "Then…" She had nothing else. Had she spent years misreading their interactions, all because she couldn't let go of the past? Embarrassed, she stared at his shoulder. "I was wrong."
She expected a smirk, an insult, anything but the soft chuckle he gave. Surprised, she looked up at him only to find his usual exasperated expression was more fond than annoyed. Felix brought them to a halt, bowing slightly as he let go of her hand.
As he left her not only with more questions, but the strangest sensation in the pit of her stomach.
"Fe—" Before she could take a step forward, broad shoulders blocked her sight and Ingrid looked up to find Sylvain grinning at her once more.
"Can I have the next dance?"
For all her intelligence, Ingrid knew she could be dense on some matters. However, after swapping between her friends yet again, even she could figure out what their plans were. Or, at least what part of their plans were—their conversations left her confused and flushed in ways she couldn't understand.
Still, that could possibly be chalked up to the fact that she had done four dances in a row. For a woman that hated her heels, that was four too many. It was time to end this game. The second the song ended, Ingrid grabbed Felix's hand before he could disappear. Pivoting immediately, she found a surprised Sylvain already waiting in the wings.
"We're going to talk," she ground out, snatching his hand as well. The nobles would titter about this, no doubt. It was highly improper to act the way she did, but she was tired of the questions, the confusion, and, most importantly, the dancing.
They're almost too compliant as she drags them to a secluded balcony. Ingrid had never known Felix to agree to anything in his life. All but shoving them out into the cool, night air, she hastily loosened the curtains on the doors before closing them behind her. It was the most privacy they could get, unless she forced them further into the gardens.
Sylvain and Felix stood in the middle of the balcony, watching her expectantly. There was a single candelabra outside, giving just enough light that she could make out their expressions. Sylvain's looked apprehensive, while Felix's was more bored. Her heels clacked against the marble as she approached them, coming to a stop just in front of the two. "What do you think you're doing?"
Felix snorted. "Told you we couldn't keep it from her."
"I know, I know." Sylvain sighed, running a hand through his fiery mane. "I thought we'd have a little longer."
Triumphant at this admission, she crossed her arms. "I knew it. Is this some sort of game."
"Game?" Sylvain laughed, shaking his head. "No, no, we're just keeping the others from dancing with you."
That wasn't a response she'd expected. Or, well, maybe from Sylvain, but not Felix as well. Confused, she glanced from one to the other. "What? Why?"
Felix regarded her coolly. "Why do you think?"
She didn't really have an answer to that. Turning it over in her mind, she hazarded a guess. "You remembered how I complained about my father? I'm grateful, truly, but—"
The words died in her throat when Felix frowned, shooting her a derisive look. She'd guessed wrong. Even Sylvain sighed, pinching his nose. "How are you so sharp in everything else, but get this wrong?"
"Are you calling me an idiot?" Ingrid retorted hotly, flushing. She had known these two for years now, how was she having such a hard time reading them tonight?
Felix shrugged. "You are one," he stated simply.
"Your denseness is adorable," Sylvain smoothened over, grinning as he wrapped an arm around Felix's shoulder. "But it makes things a lot harder than it has to be."
"What? Dense?" Ingrid gaped, not sure how she'd ended up here. She was supposed to be the one lecturing them, not vice versa. What was she even being attacked for? Irate, she pointed at them. "I know about you two."
This stopped their laughter in its tracks. Sylvain's eyes grew wide, his expression almost comical as he managed an incoherent, "Huh?"
Even Felix looked shocked. It was a major victory. Ingrid savoured it for a second before she realized exactly what she'd admitted. Immediately, she covered her mouth, but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag. The air grew tense and she wondered if it was too late to step back into the ball and pretend that none of this ever happened. "I…"
"You knew?" Sylvain finally asked, regaining control of his mouth.
"Since when?" Felix was as straight to the point as ever.
Ingrid rubbed her arm, looking away, past the railing and out onto the barely lit gardens. It was strange, she had suspected this for years, but somehow their admission made her heart ache a little. Maybe it was the lies or the loneliness or—she didn't know. It just hurt. Quietly, she explained, "It's hard to miss the way you two look at each other sometimes. Or, you know, the way your hands linger."
She blushed as she spoke; it felt even more inappropriate to talk about than it had been to witness.
Amazed, Sylvain stared at her. "And you noticed that?"
"That's because I—" Watch you. Fortunately, what little brain power she had left was working right now and she cut herself off before she could embarrass herself further. If she even finished that sentence, she knew how Sylvain would look at her, and then how he'd ask questions she didn't know the answer of. Clearing her throat, she finished lamely, "We're close, that's probably why. I'm sure no one else has noticed."
"Who cares?" Felix grumbled, hands in his pocket.
Their parents, for one, high society, for another. While the nobles were willing to overlook discrete dalliances, anything too obvious would result in blacklisting. And with Sylvain's penchant to flirt publicly and Felix's inability to read any room, it was amazing they'd made it through life as it was.
For tonight, at least, they'd spent all that time dancing with her and not angering their peers. Whether it was out of pity (and her heart twisted again at the thought) or friendship, they'd spent the last few hours keeping suitors off her hands. It was the most fun she'd had at a ball, even if it had also been the most perplexing.
It was only fair she returned the favour. Clasping her hands in front of her, she offered, "I can keep the balcony empty for you two."
"Huh?" Once more, a befuddled Sylvain stared at her.
"What are you talking about?" Felix asked, his brow furrowed.
It was strange, knocking them both for a loop a second time, and it threw her off balance too. Resisting the urge to rub her neck, she gestured at the empty space around them. "It's a nice night, and there's plenty of room here. I know you can't dance inside, but the music still reaches here."
"Ohhh." Sylvain's expression brightened, catching on. He whistled appreciatively. "Nice eye, Ingrid."
"What are you going on about—"
Before Felix could finish his sentence, Sylvain wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him close. "Mmm, yeah, I've wanted to do this for a while."
"You're an idiot," Felix huffed, but he didn't pull away.
Her heart tinged again, an inextricable pain. What did she want? It wasn't this. They were her friends, she should be happy for them, but she didn't want this. Not trusting herself, she turned around "I'll keep an eye for a few songs. They won't miss you for that long."
Luckily, her voice remained strong. Maybe later she could figure out how to smile in front of them.
Before she could open the door, Felix growled, "Where are you going?"
That was the only warning she got before Sylvain's soft hand wrapped around her wrist, halting her in place, before Felix's hand splayed against the door from behind her, pressing on it hard as he kept it shut. Ingrid gave an undignified squeak when she realized she was penned in between the two of them and the doors.
Every one of Annette's and Dorothea's raunchy novels ran through her mind. It was the most inappropriate time for that to happen and did nothing to help her calm her racing heart as she slowly turned to the pair of them. Her cheeks burned a dark red but Ingrid tried to keep her voice as even as possible as she asked, "What are you doing?"
"Stopping you," Felix scoffed, still towering over her.
"I can see that." Ingrid glared at him. "I mean…" She tried to tug her hand out of Sylvain's vise-like grip, but he merely grinned, not letting go. "I'm trying to give you some privacy."
Sylvain chuckled. "That's why I called you dense."
"You got us wrong. Or not entirely right?" He shrugged carelessly as he leaned forward, tucking a stray hair behind her ear. "How could you see how we looked at each other, but miss how we've looked at you?"
"Me?" She swallowed. Certain she was misunderstanding, she glanced at Felix, waiting for him to deny it all in his usual blunt manner. "Felix?"
"Don't make me repeat him," he glowered, his ears a bright pink.
"Wait…then…" Ingrid's eyes flickered from Sylvain to Felix and back again as she put together everything that happened tonight. "The dancing…"
"Well, you deserve a proper courtship," Sylvain explained, his hand now cupping her jaw. Tenderly, his thumb brushed her cheek. "And we couldn't let anyone else snatch you up."
Felix lowered his hand from the door, his fingers now threading through her long hair. Even without saying a word, she got the message loud and clear.
It didn't make sense, really. Even hearing their words, she couldn't believe. But Ingrid had seen the way they'd look at each other, when they thought no one was looking. Something soft and hungry and more powerful than the sun.
It was how they were looking at her now.
"Really?" she asked, not fighting her blush as it spread down her neck and up her ears. Her voice came out softer than she'd intended, shyer.
If they noticed, they didn't say anything. Sylvain leaned forward, pressing a kiss against the corner of her lip. "Really," he answered, and she shivered as his breath warmed her skin.
"Like we'd do this for any other reason," Felix grumbled, his finger brushing her ear, sending a jolt of electricity through her.
Ingrid wasn't sure what she'd tell her father. Or the nobles. Or anyone, really.
But that was a tomorrow problem. The door was still closed behind her, the curtains drawn, and the night air cool on her hot skin. For now, all she wanted was a moment to just feel it all, this joy that threatened to burst her heart.