Alternative Answers (To What We Already Know)

Written for daemon_angelus(LJ) for Christmas fanwork exchange

"So!" Alfred grinned, leaning over the counter to grin winningly at Matthew behind the counter. "What is this awesome elemental mage-slash-hero-of-the-world's first mission? Do I get to save a terrorized village? A group of damsels in distress? The world?"

"Surprisingly, terrorized worlds are in short supply lately, I can't imagine how come," Matthew replied, dry, and not even bothering to look up from the large tome in his hands.

"Aw come on Matt, my talents are too awesome to be wasted on anything less than saving the world!"

"Mhm," Matthew nodded, not paying attention at all, as Alfred was left to pout.

All mages of this world had to serve a period of apprenticeship under a certified mage of similar specialities and talents, before going for the royal certification test, which was a pre-requisite to functioning as a legitimate mage in the realm.

A test, which Alfred had just passed with flying colours (never mind the damages incurred, due to a slightly over-zealous whirlwind which had blustered off in the direction of the judging panel, after they had declared Alfred's pass).

Francis, the elemental mage who served as his master for five years, had suggested a few paths to him after he'd recieved his certification. Not everyone in their realm was blessed with the capacity for magic, and the number of people who had enough mana in them to be able to use magic proficiently and with enough potence to pass the royal certification wasn't much. Which was fantastic for mages, obviously- They would always be in demand. Francis spent an entire day waxing poetic of the prospects of teaching (nah, 's boring and I can't go anywhere, and I'll be like, stuck with the same apprentices for years! That'd suck, right Francis!), working under the royal seal (yuck boring. Plus everyone there looks totally stuffy and boring and stodgy), engaging in Mana research (seriously? Seriously?) and working in the civil defence corps (Huh. That actually sounds pretty- Wait. But I'd be stuck in the same like, guard house thing for years!), amongst others. "Or well," Francis had half-leered at him at some point, "the exoticism of mages sells well. If nothing else interests you, cherie, you could always-"

But Alfred had always known what he wanted to do. He'd been practicing for it since he was a kid, dragging Matt along on scavenger hunts and extended treks through the neighbourhood sewers and alleys, and now, now. He was here. Here and ready for his first ever assignment at the adventurer's guild he had signed up at. He could feel it in his bones, could feel the awesomeness that was about to be born of this first mission! They'd write poems and sing songs about his heroic bravery, they'd-

Matthew snorted, and Alfred perked up.

"Found it? So what is it? Tell me, tell me!"

His brother grinned, finger poised at a line on the page, handwriting too cursive for Alfred to read it from this angle, so he settled for looking questioningly at Matt.

"So?" He demanded, impatient.

"Your first assignment is... To go get some truffles," Matthew declared, with a dramatic flourish and a shit-eating smirk.

Alfred paused, then squinted. "Wait what?"

"Truffles," Matthew repeated, still grinning as he hefted another thick tome onto the table with a thud. "Those mushroom-like things." His gaze flicked up, then back down again. He apparently eventually decided to take pity on the confused/shocked/how-could-this-be-so expression marring his brother's face. "It's not that small a quest," he said, flicking through the pages of what appeared to be a dated encyclopedia of sorts.

"For one thing," he spun the book around to face Alfred, finger jabbing at the picture of a prickly-looking brown mass. "It's a seriously expensive truffle."

Alfred's expression remained unchanging, staring down at the yellowing picture with a mix of disappointment and shock.

"But yeah. If it helps, the truffle's deep in a cave which seems to be populated by... Some kind of trolls?" Alfred perked up a little at that.

Well yeah, maybe there won't be any heroic saving-the-days or anything this time, but at least I get to mess around on the way there, maybe get some practice in and-

"Oh," Matthew added belatedly, after reading the assignment for the second time. "And you'll have a veteran along with you for the mission. A swordsman? He'll be guiding you, making sure you stay on track for the assignment and stuff."

Alfred let his head drop to the table with a solid thunk.

Dammit.


"Alright then, if you're positive you've packed everything, I suppose we should be setting off again then," Arthur decided, brushing crumbs off his shirt.

Alfred didn't like the way he kept looking at him. There was this... Judging feeling he could feel emmanating from Arthur. It was in his gaze, his posture, the fold of his arms, his eyebrows (which were definitely not at all un-remarkable).

Just because maybe Alfred was a little younger, a little more unorthadox with his magic (so he liked to mix it up a little! So what!), it seemed to set him in a position of permanent distaste in Arthur's mind.

Seriously, would it kill him to be a little, I dunno, less stodgy?

They'd been travelling for half a day now, having just stopped for lunch. The Truffle Cave (Alfred's own personal name for the place) was on the outskirts of a forest a short way away from the main town. The area was mainly quarries and woodcutter-land, with minimal people, which left a number of stray monsters around. There hadn't been too much fighting so far, but it was apparently enough for Arthur's general distaste for Alfred to continue.

Not that he has the right to, y'know. Be distasteful. Of me. And stuff.

After some stilted conversation, Alfred had managed to get some basic information out of Arthur. A few years older, he'd once been a member of the royal knights, but had left for the guild. He was a short-sword user and... Apparently wasn't terribly interested in talking.

Alfred followed Arthur along the small path, twirling his staff as he went. After he'd recieved the assignment, he'd tried to look on the brighter side of things. Like a potential friend, or a cool mentor in the veteran who would be going with him. Or at least someone to talk to on the long trip to The Truffle Cave and back. The potential excitement of the trip itself had already been kind of ruined (unless you seriously considered collecting truffles to be exciting), and it had been the least for Alfred to hope for some good company.

And instead, he got quiet, frowning, stodgy Arthur.

Which was all kinds of disappointing, really. Matthew had spent a good half-hour half-consoling, half-mocking Alfred for his first assignment, but he'd eventually persuaded him of the merits of meeting a swordsman. Mages and swordsmen were natural partners when it came to battle, and knowing a swordsman in some capacity would probably be useful for Alfred some time down the road, Matthew had pointed out, especially if he was planning on doing adventuring and all of the battles which it entailed.

Which Alfred had initially blown a raspberry at, being more interested in sulking than reconsidering like a Responsible Adult, but later, he'd eventually seen Matt's point. It wasn't that Arthur was a terrible swordsman either- He was obviously decent enough to have made it into the Royal Knights, and it showed. He had all the right footwork and fancy sword move thingies (Alfred never pretended to be an expert at that) as far as Alfred could tell, at least. And he got his end of the job done, albeit... Well. Stodgily. He was particular about defined positions, Alfred covering his own bases and him minding his own. He got slightly annoyed at Alfred's spare fireball knocking out the boar which was supposed to be "his target", even though Alfred had already cleared all of his.

He'd just been trying to help! Not like he'd done anything seriously wrong or whatever.

Alfred just couldn't get what was his problem.


"Right," Arthur stopped at the entrance to the cave, Alfred right behind him. "This is the cave."

"No shit," Alfred pulled a face behind him, and he could hear the disapproving click of Arthur's tongue.

"Standard proceedure," he went on, ignoring Alfred's quip. "We go in, try not to disturb the monsters, unless they attack us first. They're trolls, they're unlikely to, I think, unless we provoke them in some way." Arthur turned around to frown at Alfred. "No heroics," and the set of his eyebrows deepened (if that's even possible ha-hah!). "Don't cause unnecessary trouble. We're just here for the truffles and that's it."

Alfred resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Yeah yeah, I got it old man, let's go," he deadpanned, slapping Arthur on the shoulder before entering the cave himself. He could hear Arthur spluttering slightly behind him, and huh, suddenly, that was kinda satisfying.


"Huh, it's kinda dark in here, isn't it, " Alfred wrinkled his nose. It was damp too, and somewhat warm. He could feel the sweat building on the bridge of his nose, and he really wanted to roll the sleeves of his coat up, if not for the ridiculous number of strange insects and monsters hanging from the ceiling in sporadic intervals.

"Yes," Arthur replied from behind him, voice dry, "it's a cave. How astute of you."

Alfred let himself roll his eyes this time, out of Arthur's sight. I'll show this smart guy a thing or two.

"Yeah well, 'least I can fix it right?" He muttered, cupping his hand to summon a small fireball. More light than actual heat, it didn't take up much of his Mana, which was always nice, especially since the cave didn't look like it would be brightening up any time soon-

"What- Stop it! What are you doing!" Arthur suddenly hissed from behind him, voice urgent. "Don't use that spell here!"

Alfred frowned, as he continued to walk forward, unheeding. "What, why? 'm not gonna waste my Mana, in case you were worried I'd be too drained for a fight later or something-"

"No, you sodding idiot! This is a troll cave! Trolls are sensitive to light! Light which is emitted from your bloody fireball!"

"Relax," sighed Alfred, idly scratching the back of his head with his staff. "This is just a narrow part of it, nothing's gonna-"

"-Quiet." He could hear Arthur's footsteps still behind him, as he stopped too, frowning.

"What-"

"Shhhhh!" Pause. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear wh-" Alfred narrowed his eyes, his ears suddenly picking up on something. Thumping. Footsteps?

"Get rid of the damned fireball, Alfred!"

And so he did, and suddenly, they were plunged into darkness.

Well, fuck.

"Defences," Arthur hissed from behind him.

Alfred nodded, forgetting that Arthur couldn't see him, as he hurriedly tried to concentrate on a basic barrier spell before anything could-

And then suddenly something was darting around his legs, and he could hear the thin whistle of a blade, barely parried by the bottom end of his staff, which he instinctively used to block. He could hear Arthur cursing behind him, the clang of a sword against metal, but he couldn't see anything dammit, and what good was a mage who couldn't see where he was supposed to be aiming?

He took a different tack this time though, summoning a thin sheet of fire to circle around him. It illuminated the darkness just a little more, barely enough to see the blur of a troll running at him. Alfred yelped, sending a section of the firey barrier outwards instinctively, knocking the troll over, screaming and pawing at his face, singed by the fire. He managed to cloak the top of his staff in fire as well, right before using it to club another troll which had swiped at him twice, only to have his dagger be made burning-hot by his flame barrier.

"Arthur!" He cried, spinning around and squinting into the darkness, as he mended the holes in his defense.

There was another clang of metal on metal, before a piercing, decidedly non-Arthur-like squeal. "What?"

"Do you need me to- Fuck!" Alfred startled, an arrow narrowly missing his ear, as he ducked his head instinctively, "Arrows!"

"What on earth- Get down!" Which Alfred did, surprisingly obedient. He clutched at his staff, rolling to the side when suddenly something tugged at him forwards, away from Arthur. "What-" Alfred squaked, fighting against the force. "Hey!"

"The fuck-?!" He could hear Arthur shouting from behind him, equally bewildered. "Get back here you bloody gits!"

Another tug, and Alfred realized that they were grabbing at his bag of all things, secured around his waist with a piece of cord holding it to him. Alfred rolled around to swipe at the troll with his staff, missing it's wrinkled grey body by a fair amount, due to the awkward angle.

"Stop it! You can't-" The troll dodged another blow, brandishing a dagger, as it somehow managed the time to grin at Alfred before cutting the cord loose. "HEY!" Alfred yelled, scrambling to stand up, as his heels skidded on the fine dust and gravel of the cave floor. "Come back here!" He yelled, finally getting up and giving chase a few moments too late. There was no sign of the trolls, as Alfred ran to the point where the cavern split off into multiple paths.

"Fuck," he panted, clutching at his staff for support, as he heard the brisk crunch of gravel behind him, with Arthur catching up.

"Buggering fuck you-" He cluched at his side, winded by the run. "You lost them?"

"Dunno where they went," Alfred frowned, gesturing towards the split-paths in front of them. "The bastards took my bag!"

"THEY TOOK MY BLOODY SWORD!"

"What?"

"The fucking monsters just- They threw me down and just made off with the damn thing when my grip was loosened!"Arthur shouted, red splotching his face in either anger or embarrassment.

"So your sword-" Alfred spluttered, still staring at Arthur, "They just- Just like that they-"

"Yes!"

There was a beat of silence, as they both just stared at each other.

"Well, fuck."


The both of them doubled back to the ambush point in defeat, making sure that they hadn't dropped anything else in the sudden confusion. The trolls had made off with half of their supplies, along with the sword, which left them a little shorter of hand than planned.

"Is there anything- I dunno, that you could use around here?" Alfred frowned, picking around the piles of dirt and rock and whatever other junk of the trolls which had accumulated in the passage with time. He kicked at a badly melted dagger, and a bent sword which must have been cast away.

"No, it's all rubbish," Arthur snapped, as Alfred rolled his eyes. It wasn't like he wanted to be in this situation, obviously. But they'd have to finish the damn mission and head back, and with one of them unarmed, things would be notably riskier, with Alfred having to watch both their backs.

And sure, he'd be pretty bummed if he lost his staff or something, but Arthur's bitchy attitude really wasn't helping, even without the kind of hopless picking-around-in-the-dirt that they were doing right then-

"Oh." Alfred blinked down. "Arthur?"

"What."

"Um," Alfred picked the weapon up, frowning at the thick layer of grit it had accumulated. Still, beneath it, the frame seemed relatively solid and sturdy, at least in comparison to the weak materials the trolls had seemed to use in their own crude weapons. "Think I found something?"

"Then tell me what it is," Arthur snapped again, making his way over to Alfred, "we don't have all bloody day."

"Um." He turned around, to wave it around. "D'you know how to use a bow?"

Even with the flickering glow off Alfred's fireballs, which they had used to light the cavern (Trolls be damned, Arthur had hissed, and Alfred wasn't going to do anything but shrug and agree to that), Alfred could see the flicker of Arthur's expression. There was a sudden moment of blankness and then-

"Yes," and his usual expression was back in place, as rigid as ever, as he took the bow from Alfred.

He watched as Arthur's hands swept across the wooden frame, brushing away the grime and dirt, before his hand settled into the worn handgrip, his thumb absently stroking the grain of the wood. "There are... Arrows here, aren't there. From the attack earlier."

"H-Huh?" Alfred blinked, Arthur's voice distracting him from watching the movement of his hands, surprisingly compact (albeit a little pale), and knowing of the form of a bow, flicking the dust out of the tips, where the bow was joined by string, his hands sliding over the worn curves and-

"O-Oh um. Y-Yeah I think uh-" He gestured to the darkened expanse of cave behind Arthur. "Yeah, there."

Arthur didn't seem to notice, nodding as he turned around in the direction which Alfred was pointing in. "Alright then."

Alfred blinked for a few seconds, before shaking his head clear and jogging forward to catch up with Arthur. God that was strange.


After that, Arthur had been even quieter than usual, letting Alfred lead the way without much protest. He'd followed beind quietly enough, seemingly being content with occupying himself with the bow and his thoughts.

"We're almost at the spot where the truffles are," Arthur finally said, breaking the silence, much to Alfred's relief. He'd never been particularly good at maintaining silence. Conversation, sure, but silence had a habit of turning oppressive after long. He'd opened his mouth on multiple occasions, intent on saying something, anything at all but-

The look on Arthur's face made him shut it again. That kind of concentration and... Something else which Alfred couldn't quite place.

"Oh, huh, okay," Alfred answered, somewhat lamely, fumbling for something to say. "So we uh, just pick them right? With our hands?"

He could hear Arthur's snort from behind him, and the familiar (familiar? You've only known him for a day or so!) tick made Alfred relax slightly. "Yes, Alfred," came the dry reply. "With our hands."

"Yeah, okay, awesome," he grinned at nothing in particular, taking Arthur's snort as a victory in itself, for reasons unknown to him. "d'you think the trolls will come for us again?"

"They might," Arthur said. "They think we're half-unarmed now, might find it a good chance to get whatever else we have while we're unaware." Alfred could hear the considering frown in his voice.

Alfred nodded as they walked along. "I'll watch your back while you pick the truffles and stuff then, yeah? I mean, with someone on guard and stuff the trolls are less likely to come for us right?"

"... Right," Arthur eventually replied, and Alfred really wanted to be indignant at the surprise in his voice. "That's... Not a bad idea."

Alfred snorted, turning to roll his eyes at Arthur, the most indignance he could summon, a little masked by his grin at the slight pleasure of proving to Arthur that he wasn't an idiot. "Try to hold your surprise, old man."

Arthur frowned. "I'm not- Ah." He suddenly cut himself off, as the low-ceilinged tunnel they had been in opened up to a taller cavern, the walls liberally dotted around with spots of mossy brown. "We're here."

"Huh." Alfred wrinkled his nose slightly at the smell of the place, then a clump of the brown mass near his boot. "Doesn't look that expensive." He'd gone to look at the price the clients had paid for the errand to be done and well. All Alfred could say was that these things better taste damn good.

Arthur shrugged, bending down to examine a clump. "They're alright, it depends on what you eat them with, and how they're cooked," he commented absently as he dug around in his bag for the small leather pouch they had brought to hold the truffles.

"Huh," Alfred nodded, eyes wandering around the cavern as he stood guard. "How do you cook them anyway?"

"People use their oil, mostly. To marinate or garnish. Gives the dish flavour and all that."

"Right, yeah. You sound like you know your stuff huh. D'you cook a lot or something?"

"... Not particularly," replied Arthur reluctantly. "Stand guard, Alfred."

"I'm on guard!" Alfred protested. "Just because I'm on guard doesn't mean I can't talk right"

"Well, you should focus then. There are a few entrances to this cavern where the trolls could appear. And you seem the sort who could forget his own head if it weren't attached to his body."

"What! Artie! I'm not!" Alfred cried, indignant, even though he really was of the sort.

"Don't call me that. And well, it was just based off my first impressions, but you-" Arthur broke off abruptly, before sounding quite different, and a fair bit surprised. "Ah. Oh. Hello there."

"... Hi?" Alfred tried, warily, back still turned and keeping guard. He didn't really get why Arthur would be saying hello now of all times, but maybe it was a weird Arthur-thing, he thought to himself.

"Not you, git," Arthur replied, but with little bite, before his voice turned oddly soft again. "Ah- No sorry, I was talking to you, not him, yes. Yes, yes, I can, I was just a tad startled, that's all. I didn't expect to be seeing one of you here of all places- Oh? The truffles, really? Well that's quite fascinating isn't it? Yes, yes they are quite charming, I agree. I simply had no idea that-"

"Arthur? Who're you talking to?" Alfred asked, finally deciding to turn around to fully face his companion after a few attempts to catch sight of who on earth Arthur had been talking to. The trolls seemed to present themselves as a highly unlikely possibility; Alfred seriously doubted that Arthur would be anywhere near polite with them, not after what they had done to the two of them at least. Which left with... The truffles? But that would be seriously weird, Alfred frowned.

He glanced over Arthur's shoulder, into the patch of truffles he was facing. There didn't seem to be anything else.

Troll mind control magic stuff? Alfred worried to himself. But Arthur would've said something if the trolls had any powers like that right?

"Arthur?" he called again, placing a wary hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Are you... Alright?"

"Quite, I mean, look at her, Alfred!" Arthur smiled, open and delighted, and if that didn't throw Alfred off enough, Arthur was waving at a seemingly normal clump of truffles, calling them a she.

"Uh, I don't think truffles are female, Art."

Arthur made an impatient noise at the back of his throat, before the smile fell off his face, as if remembering something, "Right. You can't- Never mind then. Forget it." he frowned, turning back to the the patch. "Sorry about that," he apologised to the truffles(?). "Yes, it's not terribly common and I.. Forget sometimes that not everyone can-"

"Wait a second, you can't just tell me to forget something I don't even know, and then go back to talking to truffles like nothing happened!" Alfred squaked, forcibly pulling Arthur to face him. "Tell me!"

Arthur frowned, turning back towards the truffles. "No, stop acting like a child and go back to guarding."

"Hey, that's not fair," Alfred cried, because it wasn't. He and Arthur were kinda almost getting on a little better, but then suddenly they were back to Arthur calling him a child and talking to truffles! "Plus, you're like, talking to thin air, dude! Are you sure you're okay? It's not like, troll magic or whatever, right?"

"Troll magic what- No! What the hell are you even-" And the suddenly Arthur's eyes shot open wide and startled and he jumped Alfred, right there on then, pushing the air out of Alfred's lungs as he let out a startled yelp, thrown to the right under the weight of Arthur's body, surprisingly strong and warm, beneath all the chainmail and-

"-Get up, you bloody git, or the trolls are going to-"

And then Alfred blinked and refocused, and suddenly groups of the trolls were swarming into the cavern, packs of four or six, armed with their worn-in daggers and bows and-

Fuck.

"I'll take the front, you go up against the wall and I'll keep them back!" Alfred shouted, grabbing at his staff before the trolls could get their hands on it, hurriedly casting a few simple speed and mana enhancement spells, before setting up his special fire-defence spell to wrap like a sheet around him, materialising to a certain solidity, before splitting off into seperate fireballs to hover around him.

Arthur didn't acknowledge his command, but he could hear the whistle-thin sound of arrows flying past him, and some of the trolls were going down with arrows in their chests or heads, so Alfred figured that Arthur couldn't have done too differently. Which was good- great even, because up till this point, Arthur had treated the most of Alfred's ideas as nothing but mere rubbish, insisting on his own systems and methods. And there was a certain satisfaction in getting Arthur to respect him enough to follow his commands, even if it was only a reflexionary response in the heat of the moment. Which was interesting line of thought really, and there might be more to that, but right now, trolls were coming running at Alfred, and he really thought that Arthur would agree that now was Not The Time.

There were at least twenty or so of them, Alfred roughly estimated, as he shot off a few fireballs to disperse the bigger groups, before quickly switching to raise a few rock pseudo-fences to hold them off for a bit,

"Three to your right!" Arthur shouted, and Alfred found himself reacting instinctively, throwing three rock shards towards his right. There were a few satisfyingly solid collisions, and then screams of pain. Before Alfred had the time to marvel at the instantaneous little teamwork stunt they had managed to pull off, another troll was already running at him with a spear, screaming what sounded like a deranged war-cry. He sent out another rock shard out on reflex, spinning around to solidly knock the troll out with his staff.

"Behind you!" And Alfred was in the midst of his half-turn when the troll that had been inches away from him was thrown off-course by an arrow into his chest, which Alfred followed up with by sending a fireball to engulf it's screaming body.

"Thanks!" Alfred called, grinning as he pushed his hair back a little from his forehead.

He thought he could almost see a smile on Arthur's face, the barest flickers of one at least, but then it was gone again, as the remaining few packs decided to make a run for them, screaming.

"I'll take the ranged ones at the back, you go for the front-liners!" And with a nod, Alfred was off.

He cast a quick shroud of a flame barrier before himself, right before the trolls stepped over it, simultaneously setting the entire group on fire. He could hear arrows whizzing past his head, nicely catching on fire before lodging themselves neatly into screaming archer trolls at the back. Alfred tried not to grin too hard as he finished off the ones at the frontlines, sending the trolls sprawling either with a launched fireball, or his magically-reinforced (now who said that mages could only play ranged!) staff.

Everything was over faster than they'd expected, leaving them slightly winded and surveying the floor of the cavern, littered with trolls.

"Well," Arthur said.

Pause.

"High-five?" Alfred offered, grinning.


They made it out of the cave with little hassle after that, apart from Alfred crowing loudly as he walked backwards, resulting in a trip over a root which Arthur promised he hadn't been laughing at.

By the time they were out, truffles in hand, night had fallen.

Alfred looked around the wooded area. There hadn't been any monsters around when they'd made their way by in the day, but he knew that in areas like these, nocturnal creatures weren't a rarity.

"I suppose we should set up camp here for the night then," Arthur said, echoing his thoughts. "We should start a fire - Temperatures tend to fall a fair bit in these regions."

After they were seated around the fire, the last of their food rations pulled out and split, much to Alfred's surprise, it was Arthur who spoke first.

"So... You're a close-combat mage," he frowned, picking at the last bits of his bread. "That wasn't stated in the mission brief from the guild."

Alfred shrugged. "I dunno, I actually never thought I had to... Label it like that." He laughed a little. "Actually, I didn't know there were close-combat mages. I thought it was just me um, doing stuff... Differently?"

"I've only met one who called himself as such, but yes, I suppose they do exist," Arthur's brow furrowed. "He was someone I met while serving with the royal knights. He was in the mage corps but... His style was different from yours." He looked up at Alfred, a little curious and brow less furrowed than before. "Where did you learn your techniques?"

Alfred shrugged again. "I dunno, I kinda just... Came up with them? Francis - He was my elementalist master-mentor person guy - thought it was pretty interesting so he let me continue and... Yeah." Alfred frowned a little. "He kinda warned me though? Like people usually wanted mages for ranged work and stuff, so I could continue with that when it worked but I should practice ranged magic as well," he explained, making a face. "Don't like ranged magic though, so didn't really practice as much as I should."

Arthur nodded, frowning again. "It would be beneficial if you could become competent in ranged magic as well. Mages in general are usually called upon to work in a team, and so having consistent styles to what your commanders expect of you is important to your functionality." Alfred frowned as well, wanting to cut in, to tell him to screw all of that, he was gonna have his own team eventually, and they didn't have to work in a big group if they didn't want to. He was going to be the leader of his own band of adventurers, and no one would have to do styles they didn't really like or anything and-

"But," Arthur continued, "your style of combat was... Very interesting." He paused. "And effective."

Alfred blinked. Other than Francis (and Matthew, but Matt was different), all the other mages he had come to meet and work with over the years had frowned at his style, calling it a phase. It was part of the reason why he'd specifically insisted on having Francis as his mentor in the first place, aside from the allocation system. He'd done a weaker, more simplistic version of his favourite fire-cloaking spell in front of the panel of mages, ridiculously proud of his own genius.

At the end of his affinity test, Francis was the only smiling face (amongst the confused and confounded and well, whatever. He'll show them) in the panel.

He'll mature into a competent, ranged mage before long, they had told Francis, but it will take... Work. Try to get him out of this phase soon, or it'll hinder his future capacity as a mage.

Not that Alfred really gave a crap, but it was still surprising to hear those words from Arthur.

"Of course it is!" He crowed, albeit after a momentary pause of surprise. "We were pretty awesome together! I mean, if I weren't good with close-combat, the two of us would have been seriously screwed after the first attack by the trolls, yeah?" Alfred grinned. "You're pretty awesome with the bow too! I mean, you didn't look like you could've handled anything other than a sword at first," Alfred chuckled, "but I guess I was wrong yeah? You were pretty cool!"

Arthur looked down again, and Alfred could literally see the line formed between his scrunched eyebrows.

"Thank you," he finally said, and Alfred raised an eyebrow.

"Sooooooo," Alfred continued, after the awkward pause. "Where'd you learn to use the bow?"

Another pause.

"I... Picked it up when i was a lot younger," Arthur said, somewhat cautiously. It really just made Alfred want to prod harder.

"Huh, I see. Just by yourself or something? I mean, I couldn't really see you just now but it looked like you were pretty good huh! Didn't think swordsmen learned stuff other than just swords."

"They don't," Arthur said, meeting Alfred's eyes uncomfortably, and Alfred raised his eyebrows again, as if to say go on.

"I... My family has a tradition of serving in the royal knights. A tradition which I followed, obviously. Mostly." Arthur's face pinched uncomfortably, as he continued. "However I... Had a short period of... A lapse of judgement, if you will," he frowned, shifting around in his seat. "I... Left the corps for a couple of years to join a- A group of land-pirates, if you would." His gaze darted up to Alfred's momentarily, as if attempting to pre-empt any kind of response. "Perfectly civilized group, of course, aside from their profession. Good chaps, met a few friends and... And they were used to poaching merchants from afar, so they taught me how to use the bow. And they were obviously, very good at what they did." His eyes went a little glassy and far-off for a moment, the hint of a smirk curling up at the corner of his mouth, before he checked himself and glanced back at Alfred. "Good people, of course, they donated generously to orphanages and the poor but... Well yes. I eventually left them and returned to the tradition of my family. The royal knights very graciously accepted me back into their forces, perhaps, in no small part due to my family's influence." Arthur sighed, coming to rub the back of his head with his hand, then at his temples, as if chasing the ache of a headache. "But I eventually left them too, due to... Well. Various reasons. So yes." He lifted his gaze to Alfred again, steadier his time, almost challenging, as if daring him to comment on his history.

Alfred laughed, loud and chortling, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see Arthur doing his best not to look too startled, before settling on a slightly aggrieved look.

"Now look here," he began, his typical frown coming to settle again, "I was- I was a lot younger back then, but now I understand that-"

"Dude, no," Alfred grinned, finally managing to stop laughing. "No, I'm not- Jeez hahaha, sorry, I'm seriously not laughing at you- Well. Maybe I am," and the frown came back, whoops, "but like, I'm laughing with you."

Arthur didn't look any more appeased.

"Whaaaat? Will you stop looking at me like that seriously- Hey! I think you're cool okay! Like, seriously cool! For doing that stuff with the pirates and stuff!"

He was beginning to look a little more dubious than anything now, and Alfred was beginning to feel a little exasperated at his suspcion.

"I'm serious!" He cried, and Arthur sniffed.

"It was a... Regrettable part of my youth and I'd rather not be mocked for it- Or talk about it at all really."

"Not mocking you," he reminded. "Plus, I dunno, I just don't think it's something that you should regret and stuff?"

"It compromised the tradition and honor of the Kirkland line. It wasn't something I'm proud to have done, obviously." He sniffed again, frowning at Alfred in the same uppity way he had at the beginning of all of this. "I don't expect you to understand the importance of something like linage and such."

Alfred snorted and rolled his eyes because seriously, Arthur must have this special talent for making everything sound seriously stodgy and old.

"Well, whatever about that linage and honor stuff," he scoffed, quickly continuing before Arthur had time to protest. "But I mean, whether you think it was a mistake or not, all that stuff's experience right? I mean," he waved at the bow lying next to Arthur, "you learned useful stuff from it. Like the archery and stuff. And lots of other things I guess? And I bet you had fun right?" Alfred grinned.. Pirates had to be a good break from stodgy royal knights. "So yeah, I dunno, I just don't think there's much to be woth regretting if you got all that experience from it. And I guess all of that piled up experience and stuff makes you who you are today. So even if you made mistakes or whatever - although seriously, Artie, joining a band of robbing-the-rich-and-giving-money-to-the-poor pirates does not sound like a mistake - in the past, you'll learn from it and stuff, and I guess it makes you a better person and all that, right?" He finished, shrugging.

Arthur stared at him.

"... I suppose," he finally conceeded. "I... Never saw it like that."

Alfred grinned. "Takes a hero to show people the way!"

Arthur snorted, a smirk curling up on his lips, and wow, yeah, that's a much better look on him than a frown, especially when you get past all the stodgy and bitchy.

"And is that what you're trying to be? A hero?"

Alfred leaned back, lying down onto his makeshift pillow and blanket.

"'m not trying, Artie, I am one." He stretched, grinning up at the night sky, framed by the trees around them. "I kinda saved you today, right? So that makes me a hero already!"

He could hear Arthur shifting around, another disbelieving snort, before silence.

"We did it together, you idiot. Don't make me sound like a damsel in distress."


"Well, that's that then," Arthur said, as they left the guildhouse. They'd arrived back at the headquarters safely. Nothing else unusual happened on the way back, and the trip home was peaceful, and pleasant, almost. The two of them had chatted easily, with minimal sarcastic banter (but even that, Alfred was surprised to find, was kinda fun, teasing Arthur and poking at him just for kicks) as theymade their way back. And after having deposited the truffles with Matthew, and having signed all the relevant forms (there was apparently a lot more paperwork to adventuring than Alfred had previously thought), they were free to go again.

Which should have made Alfred ridiculously happy.

But instead, there was this awkward silence between them, as they stood outside the guildhouse, not quite sure how to say goodbye. Whether either of them was willing to admit or notice, they had struck up a strange, oddball kind of friendship between them, born of banter and the situations they had faced during the trip, and neither of them quite knew what to do with it. Alfred bit his lip nervously, gaze flickering.

Say something!

"So what are you gonna do about the sword you lost?" He blurted.

He noticed the slight pinch between Arthur's eyes, and tried not to wince.

"Replace it, obviously," he replied drily, before rubbing at the back of his neck absently. "Shouldn't be too much of a problem, that sword was wearing thin anyway."

"Oh. Right. Yeah."

Pause.

Alfred fidgeted uncomfortably, as he tried not to meet Arthur's awkward gaze.

"So I suppose this is goodbye then, Alfred," Arthur finally broke the silence, stepping forward and offering a handshake, which Alfred accepted, after a beat.

"R-Right, yeah," he stuttered, unused to the formality of the gesture, after he'd seem a looser, warmer side of Arthur in the past day or so. "It must've been pretty awesome working with me, huh?" He cracked, grinning, the only way he knew how to deal with formal, uncomfortable things like these.

And then Arthur smiled. A small, warm, genuine thing which blindsided Alfred for a moment, before he remembered that breathing was necessary. "Quite," Arthur murmured. "It's been... Interesting."

Alfred grinned so hard he felt like his face was splitting into two, before realizing that their hands were still joined, probably past formalities. He hastily let go of Arthur's hand, running his own backwards through his hair.

"So, yeah, um. Bye? I'll still- We'll still see each other around and stuff, yeah?"

Arthur nodded. "Of course, the guild isn't a terribly large place to begin with, no matter what the membership. I hope..." Arthur coughed, the tips of his ears pinking a little, and Alfred felt his eyes snagged on the sight of it. "... Perhaps we will have the chance to work together again, some time." And then it was Alfred's turn to nod, perhaps a tad too vigerously, but then again, Arthur wasn't quite looking him straight on, so perhaps it didn't matter.

"Yeah yeah! Of course! So I'll see you then!"

"Right," And there was that smile again, a quick glimpse before Arthur turned around to walk away, bow and quiver slung over his back, and wow, Alfred thought to himself, realizing that he had never thought that the sight of Arthur walking away would make his stomach tighten a little and well, that was new wasn't it? This kind of feeling, and Arthur of all people, and they'd only known each other for two days, really, and Alfred was always a pretty impuslive guy and you never knew until you-

"Arthur!" He called out, and Arthur froze mid-step.

"I was just uh, I mean um," Alfred fumbled. "I wanted to uh-"

"I was just thinking that I kinda wanted to try how truffles tasted and uh- I don't really know what kind of truffle foods taste good but- But you do right? I mean you've had truffles before and stuff you said so and-" stop rambling Alfred oh my god you're going to make him think you're an idiot! "-So maybe um, you could show me? Like, over dinner or something? Some time?" And Alfred could taste the desperation in his words, soaking it clean through and wow damn, this was embarrassing, and he was pretty sure Arthur could see what a crappy made-up excuse it was, and he wasn't even really sure if Arthur even-

"Thursday at eight then? The tavern across the fountain in the eastern part of town square." Arthur didn't turn back, but Alfred could've sword he saw a twitch of his neck, as if he was fighting the impulse to. "And if you're late, you git, you'll be the one paying, do you hear?"

Alfred did a fist-pump in victory, not caring if Arthur (or anyone else) could see because, damn, this adventuring thing was suddenly a lot more awesome than he thought.

"Loud and clear!"

A/N:

Belated happy holidays everyone! Early happy valentines day? Sorry we've been inactive for so long, but we're happy to tell you that we'll be working on the next chapter of SoD really really soon! In the meantime, we hope you liked this fic, written by Cass for daemon_angelus for her university's comics and animation society Christmas exchange thingie.