United in Song
okay so this has been in my drafts for I don’t even know how long and I’m tired of it sitting there collecting dust, so please enjoy this fluffy 3H platonic one-shot.
If there was one thing Dorothea missed about the opera, it was the audience. There was a certain kind of thrill that came with standing on the stage, staring out into the darkened crowd while the music swelled beneath her voice and feeling their tension, knowing that they held their collective breaths in anticipation, in wonder of her song…there was nothing else quite like it, in her experience. And while she didn’t really want to go back to that life of endless practices and performances, of cutthroat rivalries and patrons as dangerous as they were wealthy, she felt a little pang standing in the Garreg Mach cathedral, singing her heart out for absolutely no one.
Well, no, that wasn’t quite true. The monastery choir had finally gotten a few more members, and as the nun in charge dismissed them for the day, Annette and Hilda hurried over before she could wander off. “Wow, Dorothea! You were really amazing!!” the little redhead gushed.
“Aw, thanks, Annie,” Dorothea giggled, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “You were both great, too!”
“You’re so sweet,” Hilda smiled. “But we couldn’t hold a candle to you! Your voice was so beautiful -- and I swear, it filled the whole cathedral.”
Well, that might explain all the sharp looks and decrescendo gestures she’d been getting from the director.
“It’s really a shame nobody else was around to hear,” Annette sighed.
“I know exactly what you mean.” Dorothea scanned the rows of empty pews as they walked toward the doors, feeling again that ache of longing. Even when they did get to stand before an audience, something told her they would just be the choral lead to a devotional hymn for some religious service or another. “Sometimes I really wish we could just…go out and perform, you know? Show off a little, hear the applause…”
“…well, why couldn’t we?”
Dorothea paused at the top of the steps, reeling her mind back from another stage dream to focus on Hilda. “I didn’t think they did that here.”
“Not that I’ve seen. Or heard about,” Annette agreed.
“So why not do something about it?” Hilda asked. “Put on a musical performance! There’s lots of places that would work, like the lawn outside the classrooms, or the walk along the dormitories…”
“Would that really bring in an audience, though?” Annette pointed out. “Back in Fhirdiad you’d see performers doing shows on street corners, but they never really drew crowds or anything.”
“And wouldn’t it be nice to have a real stage, and a real audience?” Dorothea sighed. It was a quiet walk across the bridge to the monastery…and the whole way, she just kept turning Hilda’s suggestion over and over. It really would be nice to have an opportunity to perform…maybe she could ask Professor Manuela about it--
“This is it!!”
Dorothea jumped at Annette’s excited squeak, whirling just in time to see her grab something off the Bulletin Board. “What is?” she asked, taking the parchment and smoothing it out.
“A flier for the Weapons Tourney?” Hilda read over her shoulder. Apparently this month’s challenge was for axe-wielders, and while the pink-haired noble might excel, something told Dorothea that she wouldn’t go anywhere near it without proper incentive from the Professor.
“No! …well, I mean, yes, that’s what it is, but I mean -- this is the answer! We have a music tournament!”
“…a music tournament?” Dorothea repeated.
“Yeah!” Annette giggled. “We could have sign-ups, and people could bring their instruments or sing, and it could have brackets just like they do in the training grounds, only they’d be competing with their music! And the audience response could be how the winner’s picked!”
Dorothea felt a smile dawn across her face. “…Annie, that’s brilliant! We could get a sponsor to help judge ties, and offer a grand prize for the winner…”
“We could make fliers the way they do for the training ground matches, too!” Hilda added.
“I bet if we ask around the monastery, we could get tons of sign-ups -- and I’m sure lots of people would want to see it!” Annette insisted. “Ooh, this is so exciting!!”
“It’s a wonderful idea,” Dorothea agreed. “And I’m sure if we join forces, we can make it into a dazzling show.”
As they put their heads together to plan, for the first time in ages, she felt a thrill of excitement for what lay ahead. Garreg Mach might not have much appreciation for music now -- but if they got their way, Dorothea would make sure that changed.
“A music show? Oh, you mean like they’ve got at the fair? Hey, count me in! Are you gonna have snacks?”
“No, Raph,” Dorothea sighed.
“You sure? Everybody likes good food -- I bet you’d get a ton of people to come if they could eat while they watched.”
She shook her head, fighting back a smile. It was hard to be frustrated with him when he was so enthusiastic, but she did wish he’d think about more than food. “Do they have snacks for the weapon tournaments at the training grounds?”
“Heck yeah they do!” he laughed. “I never miss a tourney, they’ve always got something for the people in the stands…”
“…huh.” She hadn’t known that. Maybe they could ask about refreshments: after all, everything else had been going splendidly so far. Professor Manuela had been over the moon when they approached her with the idea, and had swiftly appointed herself as their ‘impartial’ judge (said with a wink that made Dorothea certain she was far more partial than she’d ever admit to being); while the former diva took to planning and preparations, including venue selection and construction, she left the three students in charge of gauging interest and getting early sign-ups so they could start preparing their brackets. Hilda, rather expectedly, had complained of feeling poorly, so Dorothea had agreed to help out in canvasing the Golden Deer…which had led her, rather unexpectedly, to Raphael and his surprisingly helpful suggestion.
“Alright,” she agreed, making a note for later. “I’ll see what we can do about snacks, then.”
“All right!!” he cheered. “You’re the best, Dorothea!”
“Aw, thank you,” she smiled. “But would you want to take part? You know, be up on the stage in front of the audience? We’re looking for any kind of musical talent, whether you sing or play an instrument…”
His face scrunched up for a minute in deep, somewhat painful-looking thought. “Hmmm…I’m mostly good for muscle,” he shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, I love music! I’m just not much good at makin’ it -- oh, hey, have you asked Bernadetta yet?”
“Yeah! Oh, man, she’s got this little brass thingy she plays -- she was playin’ it in the greenhouse one day, an’ I heard it from all the way in the training grounds! It was the best thing I’d ever heard!”
“Interesting,” Dorothea mused, scribbling another little note down.
“You didn’t know?”
“Bernie’s pretty shy about her talents,” Dorothea confided. “Seems she’s got all kinds of hidden ones…”
“Uh…if you go ask her, can you maybe…not tell her I told you?” he asked nervously. “See, uh…she got pretty upset when I found out, and made me promise not to tell anybody, but then you came talking about music an’ stuff and I just got real excited about maybe seein’ her up there an’ hearin’ it again, so…”
“Oh, Raph, you’re a sweetheart, aren’t you?” she giggled. “Don’t worry. I won’t say a word.”
“Thanks, Dorothea,” he beamed. “You really are the best.”
“M-music show? Me? Perform!? How did you find out? Did Raphael tell you!?” Bernadetta demanded through the tiny crack between the doors of her room.
“Raphael? I haven’t talked to him,” Dorothea lied. “Hilda’s asking around with the Golden Deer, since they’re her classmates, just like Annette’s asking the Blue Lions and I’m asking all my fellow Eagles. We’re trying to get a list together of students who want to take part. Do you have any musical talents, Bernie?”
“N-n-no!” she stammered. “Nope, not me, Bernie’s just good for staying out of the way, yes indeed…”
“I think you’re good for a lot more than that,” Dorothea insisted. “I know you’ve got so much talent, and it’s such a shame to hide it all away. Maybe you sing in here, or play an oboe when we’re all away from the dorms…”
“Trumpet,” the archer mumbled. “B-but I could never get up in front of so many people!”
“Oh, but from on stage, under the lights, you can’t even see most of the audience -- and wouldn’t it be great to share all that talent with the whole academy?”
“Maybe for you!” the archer squeaked. “All those people out there in the dark, staring at me, and no place to hide? That s-sounds terrifying!”
…Dorothea actually hadn’t thought about that. She was so used to basking in the attention…but that would be scary for someone as shy as Bernadetta. “That’s okay,” she smiled. “You don’t have to. But…would you maybe come to watch? Ferdie and I have already signed up to take part, and we could always use someone to cheer for us.”
“…m-maybe,” came the muffled reply.
“And if you do change your mind about being on stage, you know we’ll both be cheering you on, right?” she coaxed. “Annette even told me that Felix promised to come watch the performances, and you know how he feels about everything that isn’t training. We’d all really love it if you joined in.”
Silence from the other side of the doors. Had she pushed too hard…?
“I’ll…I-I’ll think about it.”
Beaming, Dorothea made a note on her sign-up sheet. “That’s all we’d ask for. Just let me know, okay?”
And maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she heard the smallest sound of agreement before the doors clicked firmly shut between them.
Even in her fantasies, Dorothea never could have dreamed things would go this well. Not only did they get enough sign-ups to make a full five-round bracket, the whole monastery was buzzing with anticipation days before the event. It reminded her a little of Enbarr the week before a Mittelfrank production, where every group she passed on the street seemed to be talking about the upcoming show -- whether it was about their excitement to see the spectacle or despair over not getting one of the endlessly coveted (and frightfully limited) tickets. Here, thankfully, seating was hardly an issue, since Professor Manuela had managed to secure the Reception Hall for the event: the whole student body could fit there with standing room to spare, even with the stage taking up the front quarter.
Come the morning of the show, posters listing the contestants appeared on every bulletin board, and Dorothea scanned the starting matches before the thought of breakfast even occurred to her. She recognized more than a few names: Ferdinand of course, and herself (naturally), as well as Lorenz (unfortunately), Hilda, Annette, and even Bernie.
It was all so exciting, she could hardly bear it.
Time crawled by while she waited for the tournament to begin. Before noon she’d warmed up, improvised a few little tunes as practice, and rehearsed a few of her favorite songs in preparation. By the time the Reception Hall opened to the competitors, she’d chosen her starting and ending arrangements and decided on the pieces she would use if she faced any real competition. And once the doors opened and the audience began to crowd into the available seats, she felt her heart begin to race in anticipation of what was soon to come.
She didn’t even mind that she had to wait. The first match, to her delight, featured Annette and Bernie: blushing fiercely, the little red-head made her way cheerfully through an obviously original tune, while Dorothea’s fellow Eagle stuck to a familiar Imperial melody, squeezing her eyes shut tight and playing her trumpet at the stage rather than the audience. In spite of that, it was a remarkable performance, and Bernie might have won just by virtue of Raphael’s enthusiastic applause -- but his thunderous cheer startled the poor recluse and sent her bolting from the stage before the match could be officially declared, forfeiting her chance to proceed. But that might have been for the best, she supposed: Bernie clearly wasn’t big on the spotlight.
The rest of the first round and all of the second went smoothly enough. Though she didn’t bother watching every pair, she saw both Ferdinand and Annette proceed on to the quarterfinals, while Hilda lost to Lorenz in her second bout (though the noblewoman hardly seemed bothered by the loss). Dorothea’s own matches barely required any effort on her part to win: she’d spent so long practicing her favorite songs from her favorite operas in the days leading up to this competition, but a few simple melodies were all it took to ensure that she made it through the preliminaries. Even against her third opponent, all it took was the chorus from an Adrestian folksong to seal her victory...though Annette lost her own bout against Ferdinand in the same round. Dorothea congratulated her all the same, and promised to win for Annie’s sake -- perhaps a bold promise from anyone else, but one that the former Mittelfrank diva felt assured she could keep.
And sure enough, in the semifinals she not only faced her fellow Eagle but beat him handily with one of the arias she’d so carefully prepared. He lost quite gracefully, too, applauding her as enthusiastically as the audience itself and conceding even before Profesor Manuela could announce the final judgment. And with the round done, Dorothea made her way back behind the stage, humming to herself as she waited for the intermission to end and the finals to begin…
“Congratulations on sweeping the competition, Dorothea.”
She paused, turning to see the leader of the Golden Deer House grinning at her from a few feet away. Mustering up a pleasant enough smile, she offered a nod in greeting. “Why, thank you, Claude. Are you here to wish Lorenz well before I crush him?”
The nobleman blinked. “Why would I do that? Lorenz got knocked out in the last round.”
Dorothea stared at him for a long, silent moment. “To who?” she demanded, hunting about for a bracket that might give her an answer--
Slowly, carefully, she turned again to face the leader of the Golden Deer. “Guess you weren’t watching the match,” he chuckled, hefting an odd lute-like instrument. “Lorenz was...less than thrilled with the outcome, if it helps.”
Actually, it just made her regret all the more that she hadn’t paid attention: she’d been looking forward to seeing his face when he finally lost. “Well, I suppose congratulations are in order for you, too, then,” she said, turning away from him again. “May the best musician win.”
“Oh, uh...about that.”
She glanced at him over her shoulder, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear as he drummed his fingertips along the neck of his instrument. “I was...well. I was wondering how you’d feel about calling it a draw.”
A thin smile carved its way across her face. “Are you that confident you can beat me, Claude?”
“Hardly,” he scoffed. “I have no doubt that you’d mop the floor with me.” She felt sure he was flattering her -- but she waited all the same, watching his grin soften almost shyly, though it still didn’t quite touch his eyes. “I was just...hoping I could perform with you, instead of having to compete against you. Y’know, everything here at the monastery is about pitting us against each other: the weapon tourneys, the fishing competition, and now this...I feel like we could put on a better show working together than we could separately trying to one-up each other. You can have the prize, too, if you want,” he added. “Pretty sure you’d win it anyway, but...what do you say?”
Beyond the curtain, she heard Professor Manuela take the stage again and announce the final round to the audience. Claude only watched Dorothea, though, seeming content to be patient and wait for her even as their names rang out over the wild cheering of the crowd.
And at last she smiled, lifting a hand to cup her cheek. “How are you at improvising with that lute of yours?”
“If you can sing a few bars, I can probably make something work,” he grinned.
“Why don’t we put that to the test?”
“With pleasure,” he agreed, bowing playfully before offering his arm to her. Returning the gesture with a teasing curtsy of her own, Dorothea accepted -- and they walked out onto the stage together, applause washing over them in waves of wondrous sound. They parted smoothly, Claude taking up his instrument and strumming a few notes to ensure it was properly in tune before looking expectantly to her, waiting for her lead; Dorothea turned her own attention to the darkness, savoring the anticipation of the shadowed audience before her...and finally beginning to sing, the somber melody echoing throughout the crowded reception hall.
“Reach for my hand, I’ll soar away,
Into the dawn, oh I wish I could stay…”
A soft chord joined in, the notes as sweet and clear as her own...and yet it did not overpower her voice: instead it seemed to carry the words higher, elevating the music in ways she had not heard since she left the Mittelfrank Opera House. She did not falter, though: instead she continued, allowing a smile to creep into her voice as she sang.
“Here in cherished halls, in peaceful days
I fear the edge of dawn, knowing time betrays…”
“Is this really gonna be the last song we do?” Claude asked, his voice carrying out into the dark and startling her back to reality. “Come on, Dorothea, we’ve gotta liven it up a little!”
Even as he spoke, his fingers flew over the strings, keeping the key but tumbling into a bright, rousing accompaniment. He winked at her when she turned to stare at him, repeating the same refrain in invitation...and though she’d only ever heard the piece as a wandering lament before, she could not deny his compelling harmony.
Their music rang through the reception hall, her voice rising into the rafters on the strum of lute strings...and for the first time since she’d come to the Officer’s Academy, Dorothea felt that familiar, wonderful thrill again as the enraptured crowd watched them perform their duet on the stage.
In the fortnight following the tourney, Dorothea had become the most popular girl in Garreg Mach. It seemed like every young man, noble birth or otherwise, wanted a moment of her time, a scrap of her attention...and, of course, a chance to hear her sing again.
While they’d agreed to a draw before ever taking the stage, Claude had gracefully conceded when Professor Manuela declared Dorothea the winner. It had bothered her when it happened -- all the more for how she couldn’t correct the matter over the riotous applause -- and try as she might over the intervening days, she’d still been unable to set the record straight with anyone she spoke with (aside from Hilda, who didn’t seem the least bit surprised to hear it). But strangest of all was the fact, despite now having an audience eager to hear her perform again...she couldn’t find that thrill anymore. It had been there while she was on stage with Claude, but in every performance since -- no matter how many people she had hanging on her every note -- she just felt the same hollow sort of yearning she had in the cathedral before all of this began.
Dorothea sighed as she made her way out of the dining hall, taking the stairs down to the fishing pond and wandering toward the dormitories. All the attention did get tiring after a while; luckily the grounds seemed deserted this afternoon, and she stretched her arms high as she tipped her head back, breathing in the crisp autumn air while the sun warmed her face and the soft sound of music drifted by…
She stopped, scanning the lawn and the path along the row of dorms. No one was there that she could see, but she could hear the strum of lute strings; she hurried on, listening to the music grow louder and louder until she felt certain she was close -- but the sound was too clear to be coming from behind the closed doors, and there was still no one around that she could see. “Claude?” she called, raising her voice as much as she dared.
The music stopped. “Dorothea?” the nobleman’s voice replied -- not from beside or behind her, but from above.
Tilting her head back and shading her eyes, she stared at the young man peering at her over the eaves of the dormitory roof. “What are you doing up there?” she asked.
“Playing,” he said.
“How did you even get up there? And why are you playing on the roof, for that matter?”
“It’s complicated,” he shrugged. “...well, alright, it’s not that complicated, but...should I come down so we can talk?”
Dorothea opened her mouth to agree...and paused. “...I could always come up,” she offered.
A grin twitched across his face. “I’ll meet you at my room, then,” he laughed, waving before disappearing from view. Hurrying back down to the greenhouses, she turned into the stairwell leading to the second floor of dorms where most of the noble students stayed; at the top of the steps, she saw Claude poke his head out into the hall, beaming at the sight of her. Smiling despite herself, Dorothea hurried over and ducked past him without even thinking...and as he closed the doors, she stifled a giggle at the sight of his room.
She had seen cluttered her share of dorms before -- Linhardt’s came immediately to mind -- but she’d never seen anything quite like this, with books taking up half the bed, papers spilling off the desk and onto the floor, and shelves cluttered with a mix of plants, vials, and strange brass instruments she couldn’t identify. Claude seemed briefly puzzled by her reaction...though, after another moment, he rather sheepishly began gathering up the parchment piled on his chair to give her a place to sit. “So what can I do for you?”
“Well, first of all I’d like to know how you got onto the roof,” she replied. “And off it so fast, for that matter.”
He quirked one eyebrow in apparent surprise. “What, that? It’s easy.” Dropping the papers in a haphazard pile on the desk, he stepped up onto the wide ledge beneath the open window, leaning out into empty space and stretching one arm up...
Dorothea lunged for him, knowing already it was too late -- but he did not fall. She stumbled into the sill, gaping as he effortlessly pulled himself up out of sight; crawling up onto the ledge, she cautiously poked her head out the window...and saw him lean out over the eave, grinning down at her from his perch. “That doesn’t look easy to me,” Dorothea pointed out.
“It just takes some practice,” he laughed. “Want to come up? The view’s great,” he added, reaching a hand down to her.
The sensible, logical, rational part of her brain insisted that she’d rather not break her neck trying to get a nice view of the monastery...even as she extended her own arm, gripping his wrist and feeling him hold fast. She heard the instructions he gave her -- she was more than certain of that, since she never would have done this on her own -- but whatever he’d said escaped her the moment she stepped off the ledge into empty air, clutching tight to Claude’s wrist even as his pleasant laughter rang in her ears. In the end he did most of the work pulling her up beside him...but once she caught her breath and her heart stopped feeling like a bird trying to escape its cage, she had to admit that he was right: the campus was lovely from so high up.
“You doing okay?” he asked, patting her shoulder gently.
“Better, I think,” she agreed, scooting further back from the edge. “So, that explains how you got up here -- now why are we here?”
“Well, in my case it’s because it’s a nice day, I don’t have anything going on, and I’m tired of dealing with Lorenz, so I figured I’d come up here and play a bit. He can yell all he wants from down there, but I’m not stopping unless he gets on this roof to make me.” As he spoke, he removed the lute strapped to his back, strumming a few notes and idly beginning to tune it again. “But what brings you up here?”
“Well...actually, I was looking for you,” she admitted, tucking a few strands of hair behind her ear. “I haven’t seen much of you since the music tourney.”
“You’ve been busy,” he winked.
Dorothea rolled her eyes, leaning back against the slightly pitched roof. “Don’t remind me, I needed to get away from it for a while.”
“Really? I thought you’d be happy about all the attention.”
“I was at first,” she sighed, “and it’s been wonderful to have more chances to sing, but…”
She trailed off, watching a few wispy clouds wandering across the pale blue sky. After a moment, the quiet strum of lute strings fell silent; glancing over at the nobleman, she found him watching her with interest, his head canting slightly to one side as he gestured for her to continue. “It...doesn’t feel like I thought it would. Back in the opera, it was always so grand and emotional, singing to an audience -- I loved that feeling, and it’s one of the things I’ve missed most since I left. I’d hoped the competition would bring it back, and singing with you I found it again, but...I haven’t felt it since. I’ve been feeling guilty about the way it ended up, and…”
“Hey, I said from the start that you’d mop the floor with me in a competition,” he laughed. “I don’t mind. I’m glad I got the chance to perform with you -- that was my prize.”
“Be serious,” she huffed. “I’m trying to apologize!”
“And I’m saying you don’t have to -- it’s not like you had a say in Professor Manuela deciding on a winner.”
“But if I don’t get it sorted out, how am I supposed to enjoy singing like I used to?”
“Are you sure guilt is what’s keeping you from it?”
Her eyes narrowed slightly as she stared at him. “What do you mean?”
“You said that you haven’t felt that thrill since you left the opera. You didn’t get it again until the finals, right?” She nodded in agreement. “And then after the finals it was gone again?” Again, she nodded in agreement. “So what was different about the finals, compared to everything before and after?”
“The drama of the grand finale?” she offered.
“Well, that, too,” he chuckled, “but you weren’t performing alone, either: your melody had a harmony.”
Dorothea scoffed at the notion. “That seems…”
She trailed off as Claude leaned forward, propping his chin on his hands. She hadn’t thought of it like that before, but...her fondest memories from the opera were of performances with accompaniment: grand arias carried by a full orchestra, soft odes lilting over quavering strings. “...possible,” she conceded.
“So maybe what you were really looking for was a chance to sing with somebody, instead of going it alone or singing over them.”
“I’m flattered you think I’m so selfless,” she giggled. “Really, I just wanted an audience.” But even so, that final performance with him, building on one another’s leads and creating something far grander and more beautiful than Dorothea could have done alone...it had brought with it a familiar, delightful frisson.
“Well, I know I had more fun playing with you than I did taking Lorenz down a peg -- and I really enjoyed that,” Claude laughed, strumming his lute again, “and I, for one, would be honored to reprise the performance -- though, fair warning, I can’t promise a crowd this time around.”
“You know, I am free this afternoon,” she grinned. He beamed back at her, picking a cheerful tune on his lute strings -- an Adrestian folksong she recognized instantly; as she started in on the first verse and their duet drifted out over the quiet campus, she felt the thrill lift her heart again...and maybe it was just her imagination, but she swore Claude’s smile finally reached his eyes.
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