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Chosen Paths

Chapter Text

 

'What the bloody hell, Jeralt?'  Byleth groaned as soon as the door to his new office was closed securely behind them.  'Did you know they were gonna ask me to be a bloody teacher?'

Jeralt chuckled, he had been expecting this.  'Rhea told me about it yesterday.'  He admitted with a terse smile.  'I guess I must have forgotten to mention it kiddo.' 

'What are you smiling about old man?'  Byleth frowned.  'I'm pretty sure you don't agree with this.. I reckon we both know that it ain't a good idea.'

'Isn't a good idea..'  Jeralt corrected mildly.  'You're gonna be brushing shoulders with royalty now girl, you need to give a bit more thought to your mouth and your manner.'

'Why?'  She moaned throwing herself down on his bed.  'What the hell did I do to deserve this?  I don't play nice with others.  I don't have much patience.  I can think of a whole barrel load of reasons to object to the idea.'

'Well maybe you should see this as a massive learning experience for you, as well as the students.'  Jeralt took a seat at the small table by the window and gazed at her thoughtfully.  'In truth though kiddo, I'll admit I was startled by the idea, especially since I hoped to get you apprenticed to me in the Knights.  The Archbishop was insistent though and believe me - none of her advisors or staff were exactly happy about it.'

Byleth's chin rose stubbornly, just as he knew that it would.  'What?  You mean they reckon I can't do it?'  She snorted derisively.  'I could do it, and do it well - obviously.  That ain't the issue here. It's more that.. why the hell would I bloody want to do it.'  

'I dunno lass,  you could have been right in the first place.  I ain't sure you have the temperament for guiding others.'  Jeralt eyed her seriously.  'It's like whenever we get a new recruit in the company - you are always pretty tough on 'em.'

'I expect people to live up to our ideal and our standards, What's wrong with that?'  Byleth mumbled in exasperation.

Jeralt shook his head at her.  'I dunno By.. maybe it's me that needs to reconsider our options here.'  He looked away from her.  'I have an outstanding debt that I owe to Rhea.. and you know me kiddo  - I hate owing anyone anything - but.. if she is gonna insist on using you in a role that you ain't comfortable with then we should just walk away.'

'A debt?'  Byleth sat herself up to stare at him.  'What?.. I realised you knew these people somehow, figured that out when that idiot knight Alois started fawning all over you in the village - but an actual debt?  That ain't like you at all.'  A worried frown crossed her face.  'We've never come here together before, so this debt you owe has gotta be a really old one.'

'I did have a life before you came along you know.'  Jeralt scowled.  'Can hardly remember what it was like but..'

'Stay if you need to.'  Byleth cut in decisively.  'I can.. give this a try and if it's shit then I can leave.  It isn't like I couldn’t secure mercenary work on my own nowadays - you don't have to spend your entire life looking out for me.'

'You are willing to leave me behind and cut out on your own then?'  Jeralt's brow knotted when she nodded her affirmation.  'You have the skill kid, can't deny it - but being with me and the company has protected you from some of the harsher realities of the long road.'

Byleth found she had no reply to that and her face settled itself into her normal, rather expressionless stare.  Silence fell between them as Jeralt made them both some hot tea and handed her large mug, then settled himself down to stare back at her in their usual and totally familiar quiet insulation.  Despite her calm exterior, Byleth's mind was racing uncomfortably fast - this unwanted intrusion into her normal routine was definitely rocking her equilibrium a lot more than she would care to admit.  When they had first arrived at the monastery there had been something  in the air that had riled her senses and put her on edge although she had been completely unable to name the source of her discomfort.  That had been when she had assumed that they would only be here for a short time. Her prickle of unease was growing beyond control now.  Could she really accept being trapped here for the foreseeable future? 

Jeralt was also probably aware that in truth she was reluctant to leave him behind and set out on her own.  He had always made all of the decisions about their work and what jobs they took.  He made the plans and saw them through successfully.  He ensured that she was treated with respect by the rough and dangerous people that they mixed with as part of their role.  The reality was she would be lost without him and she wasn't ashamed to admit it - it was good sense after all.

'So kiddo.  You  gonna give this a go then?'  Jeralt broke through her anxious contemplation.  Neither of them were the talkative sort so their silence had been an easy one but Byleth couldn’t help but notice that despite the lightness of his words he looked.. disturbed - even if he was hiding it well.

'I guess I am.'  She gave him a flash of her rare lopsided smile.  'What's the worst that can happen anyway?  I suppose I could gravely insult one of the future rulers of the land - or maybe get them killed.  That would hardly be a problem though eh?'

'Be careful kid.'  Jeralt was suddenly deadly serious and she was immediately concerned by the tauntness of his warning.  'I can see that there is a funny side to this whole scenario, knowing you and your winning personality so well..'  He smiled genuinely for a second, but then his frown returned.  'What I don't understand however is what the Archbishop's angle is in this and that rattles my nerves.  For all that she is the head of the church and a paragon, she got to be the head for a reason.  She should not be underestimated and her motives in this are unclear - even to those close to her it seems.  Her main advisor, Seteth is very against your appointment and that ain't gonna be helpful to you.'  Jeralt's fists clenched unconsciously.  'I can't help but feel that something ain't quite right here lass so  I need be sure that you don’t plan on letting your guard down for a moment.  You know better than that, I've taught you better than that!'

'I am always wary Jeralt.'  Byleth nodded at him stoically.

'That's my girl.'  Jeralt grunted and his hands relaxed somewhat. He finished off his tea in a single long gulp.  'So then, what's your plan now?  I missed out on the end of your conversation with the other Professors and Rhea.'

This time Byleth's frown was genuinely perplexed.  'I gotta chose which of the three houses I mentor.'  She told him slowly.  'Those kids we rescued from the bandit's, they are the respective leaders of those houses.  Dunno why they are making me choose which to go with, I don't know shit about any of them.'

'So you ain't got any idea which you want?'  Jeralt raised a brow at her.

'None.'  She admitted sourly.  'I've been told to go and 'speak' with the students and the house leaders so that I can make up my mind.'

'Well then lass,'  Jeralt mused thoughtfully.  'To my mind this ain't all that different to mounting a new campaign.  I know I have drilled you those tactics well enough.'

'Hmm.'  Byleth looked up at him blinking in surprise.  'Never thought of it like that.  Although to be fair it ain't that often we get to actually chose our comrades.'

'You have seen all of the three leaders in a fight.'  Jeralt added.  'That's gotta help - at least it's some indication of their potential.'

'They were all pretty impressively skilled in honesty but none of them really stood out as better than the others.'  Byleth mused.  'The blonde lad, he was strong and had quite good form.  The dark boy was very quick and efficient and I reckon the girl had a mix of those skills.  I will need to gauge the rest of their teams to get a better idea.'

'I concur with your assessment on them if it means anything.'  Jeralt grinned suddenly.  'You haven't mentioned personality though.  It would help if you got along with the people you'll work with, yeah?'

'I hardly see that as terribly important.'  Byleth shook her head.  'They simply gotta be able and willing to take orders.'

Jeralt chuckled at that and rose to his feet.  'About time you get yourself onto it then lass.  The day's wasting away and I have already heard more words from you today than I have in a long time - I could damned well use some quiet time.' 

She scowled but her expression was mixed with concerned worry that was extremely unusual for her.

'Kiddo, I know that you are nervous..'  Jeralt let his tone croon soothingly which he knew would annoy her.  It did, she frowned furiously at him.  He chuckled again, amused by how easily he could read her. 'Like I said By, you have been babbling away your whole time here with me and that really ain't like you at all.   Conquer your nerves and just get the mission faced and done.  I know my girl isn’t a coward.'

'You're right old man.  She isn’t.'  Byleth stood and squared her shoulders firmly, making her way to the door.  'These kid's ain't gonna know what hit 'em.'  She promised fiercely.

Chapter Text

Standing in the reception hall of the Monastery, Byleth contemplated her assignment, trying to gather the will to move into action.  She could feel the stares of the people jostling around her in the large space and being observed so closely was making her strangely itchy although she was thankful that no-one had actually dared to approach her directly yet.  Word had quite obviously gotten around quickly about her new appointment and speculation seemed to buzz through the room as she was regarded closely with interest and curiosity.  She herself remained stood still - simply observing the morass of faces and trying to mentally prepare herself to set about her task.

At least being the object of people's covert attention wasn’t something that was entirely new to the young mercenary.  Her combat partner.. her father, was one of the most renowned fighting men in the mercenary world and that meant that she was often judged and speculated about in the light of his reflected reputation.  She'd never known, or really cared if she was received well by those that sought to appraised her.  Whatever preconceived ideas people made were always answered without question once her sword and her martial skill came into play.  This new scenario however was exceedingly more complicated than a mercenary contract, since she would not be able to simply bluster her way through it with the power of her weapon and her ability to react swiftly and surely regardless of the odds or the threat of conflict.  She didn’t always fight clean and she had a feeling that might not be as acceptable here in this place as it was on the fields of war.

In this new endeavour, she quickly decided that her first goal was going to be reconnaissance.  It would be wise to feel out the terrain and get an eye in on her targets so she could better assess how to progress forward.  If she happened to encounter any random skirmishes along the way she would have to attend to them with blind care and hope that she could make the most of them - or at the very least not come off as an unprepared fool.  She had a bad feeling that it may well come down to the latter however.

Suddenly Byleth was moving, her long and confident stride down the very centre of the hall actually causing one group of young people at the wooden table closest to her to flinch at the unexpected and explosive action.  Inwardly she smiled at their reaction.  A little fear was never a bad thing to instil in others. 

It would have gone much better and made much more of the kind of visual impact she was aiming for, if it wasn’t for the kitten that she had somehow completely failed to notice as it began an attempt to climb up her heavy winter cloak.  She was barely even halfway down the hall when she did become aware of the tiny bundle of fluff as it managed to reach her shoulder and she was assaulted by fur tickling at her ear where her long hair was pushed back in a simple, practical band.  She juddered to a shocked halt at the unfamiliar sensation and was relieved that her instinct at the fuzzy attack hadn't caused her to launch the tiny creature into the air before her senses had kicked in and she realised what it was that was accosting her.

'Hey there fella.'  She murmured softly at the little black puff, its blue eyes staring at her inquisitively.  'That was some stealth attack you managed there.'  She brought her hand up to lift the creature down gently only to have it bitten quite soundly by a mouthful of needle-like teeth.  'Well that's hardly very friendly.'  She grumbled, grabbing it firmly and bending to place it on the floor.  She had no sooner let go of it when it jumped right at her again and started a second determined climb up her cloak.

'Persistent ain't ya.'  She murmured to him, trying to catch his wriggling body as it clawed its way up the wool of her garment.

'You might as well admit defeat now.'  A deep and amused voice sounded unexpectedly behind her. 

Byleth turned sharply, the kitten managing to keep his grip despite the speed of her turn.  She looked straight into a pair of sunset eyes that glinted in humour at her predicament, although after a few seconds they looked away almost as sharply as she had turned. 

'That is Colin.' The lad motioned at the kitten with one heavily gloved hand, while his other came to rest defensively at on the pommel of the sword that hung at his waist.  'He has been a holy terror ever since the day his eyes first opened.  He is a complete law unto himself and honestly, if he's claimed you, I don't really think you have much say in the matter.'

'I see.'  Byleth replied.  'Perhaps I could return him to wherever he belongs..' 

'None of the cats here belong to anyone.'  The lad was looking at her again, but not quite meeting her eyes.  It was odd since he didn’t appear nervous in the least, his pose was confident and upright and his demeanour was relaxed - but then Byleth could probably commit everything she knew about social niceties to one side of a piece of paper and still have enough room to add an illustration.

Colin had taken the initiative to make use of the lull in Byleth's movement to scurry his way back up to her shoulder.  He nestled once again in the crook of her neck and promptly began to purr happily.

Byleth couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say to the lad who was still stood in front of her, observing her with his strange sideways glance.  She tried to cover her hesitation by reaching up to remove the kitten again.  After a second and more insistent warning bite she wisely gave up for the time being.

That raised a chuckle in her companion.  'Yep, you look to be well and truly owned now.'  He noted with a smirk.

'Seems that way.'  She agreed.  'At least for the time being. I think he may well have met his match when it comes to a battle of wills.'

'You are the new Professor?'  The lad asked suddenly, unable to mask his inquisitiveness.

Byleth's head reeled at the term, but she inclined her head silently.

'Dimitri has been telling us that you are quite the demon with that sword.  Although..'  The boy suddenly flushed a little, the red on his pale cheeks quite a contrast given the darkness of his deeply blue-black hair.  '.. Perhaps that isn’t a term that should be used in a Monastery.'

Byleth remained silent, simply staring at the boy.

'I'm hoping that we will get the chance to spar with you soon.  The level of challenge thus far has been mediocre at best and I was beginning to despair of finding anyone to give me a proper workout.'

'Be wary of what you wish for.'  Byleth's smile was feral.  Instead of being intimidated however the lad smiled back quite genuinely.

'I am truly looking forward to it Professor.'  He said enthusiastically and bowed elegantly from the waist. He started to gather himself as if preparing to leave.

'Your name?'  She asked him quickly before he could move away and the chance was lost.

'Felix.'  The boy bowed again, a little deeper this time.  'Felix Hugo Fraldarius.  Blue Lion House.  Currently.'  He added before he moved past her with another amused glance at the kitten on her shoulder and walked steadily away.

Well, Byleth mused as she watched him depart.  That wasn’t entirely bad for a first contact.  She reached to tickle lightly at Colin's head and then choosing a random direction began to walk away herself.

Chapter Text

Byleth found herself in the long and pleasantly appointed avenue that contained the student's dormitories.  She believed that she had also been assigned a room in this very same block, although she had yet to have been formally presented with her new living quarters.  Their first two nights at the Monastery, both she and Jeralt had stayed in the comfortable guest accommodation in the main building and had been housed close enough to each other that she had been able to still hear the familiar and rather comforting sound of his loud snores.  That had been before the announcement that they would be staying indefinitely had been thrust upon her.

Her initial expectation was that she would most likely encounter many of the students in close proximity to their own rooms - it was where you would have found her if she had the choice - however Byleth was surprised to find that the large avenue was mainly deserted, despite it only being a short time off of lunchtime - with just a few bodies scurrying to or from their dorm and even they were oddly quiet and singularly intent in their travel.

'Hmm.  I don't believe that lessons or training have yet begun for the year.'  Byleth mused to Colin, who was pawing at the heavy material of the cloak on her shoulder whilst purring so ferociously to himself that the whole of his tiny body was shaking with the effort.  'I wonder where everyone is.'  Similar to her behaviour in the reception hall some minutes earlier, Byleth placed herself carefully in a central position in this new area, becoming very still in movement but her eyes keenly observant.

The students that appeared during her silent watch all seemed to be simply dropping by their room's on the way to somewhere else.  Nobody appeared particularly inclined to linger for any length of time.  Perhaps there was entertainment being provided before classes officially began or maybe some kind of a tournament or informal instruction was taking place that she knew nothing about.  She could think of no other reason for the absence of people.

After a while of limited engagement, Byleth decided that her time spent here was garnering her no useful information at all and she was preparing to march her way down towards the huge glass building that she could just about spy in the distance, when a new figure swept into the avenue with a confident demeanour that she had not yet witnessed in any of the other youngsters.

This man was most definitely not that far from Byleth's own age, although the uniform that he wore was what she was now recognising to be that of a student.  He didn't have much of the look of a fighting man for although his poise was near perfect, he was lacking somewhat in the tone that came with regular work with weaponry.  His dark hair covered one of his eyes, but the other - even from a distance Byleth was startled by the light golden glint that flashed briefly her way which was followed by a slow and thorough examination of her from her head to her feet and then back up again.  This was all achieved without him breaking his stride, or deviating from his destination.

'Okay, interesting..'   Was the only thought she could muster as the man knocked sharply on one of the dormitory room doors.

Regardless of her excellent hearing, Byleth was unable to hear the actual conversation that took place between the man and the inhabitant of the room.  What she did hear though was a considerable amount of high pitched protestation.  It wasn't a long discourse, the door was never opened and the man turned sharply away after having obviously relaying whatever it was he had arrived to say.  Once again his visible eye snapped directly at Byleth and this time he began to walk purposefully and directly towards her.

'You are the new.. Professor.'  The man said as he approached, the emphasis on the last word tinged with what may have been derision, but might also have just been a pattern of speech.  His eyes had alighted on the kitten on her shoulder but moved away quickly, although his thin, colourless lips twitched just slightly as if holding back from making a comment.

Byleth nodded at him, going with the same tactic she'd employed with the lad in the reception hall.  She stayed silent.

'A mercenary no less.'  The delivery from the man was totally flat.  Again Byleth simply nodded.  'Not untalented with arms, it is being said.'  This time Byleth didn’t even bother with a nod, she  just stared right back at his one bright eye with inscrutable patience.

The man chuckled unexpectedly.  'Come now Professor, I think you may need to speak a little if you hope to teach anyone anything, don’t you think?'

'You haven’t yet said anything that required an answer or demanded comment.'  Byleth noted.

'I see.  Let me pose you a question then Professor.'

'I would have your name first.'  She replied.

'Oh!  How remiss of me.'  The man's brow had raised slightly.  'Hubert von Vestra, the most loyal vassal of Her Highness Lady Edelgard von Hresvelg.'

'Black Eagles House then.'  Byleth noted with a nod.  'Ask your question.'  She added.

'It concerns me that a mercenary will be working so closely with the students, particularly of course, in such intimate proximity to my Lady.  It is my duty to ensure Her Highness' safety and security in all matters, naturally.'  Hubert's eye had darkened rather dramatically and his brow had become wrinkled at the fervour of his words.

Byleth waited stoically for the man's point to be reached.  Eventually, when nothing further was forthcoming she sighed heavily.

'While you have failed to actually ask a question..'  She said slowly.  'I can only assume that you are attempting to gauge whether I am a risk, or even perhaps a plant - intending to do harm to your Lady.  Am I correct?'

'I hardly think you would answer that question honestly if I were to put it to you, now would you?  In which case it would be a pointless endeavour to ask it outright.'  Hubert had unconsciously pulled himself up to his full height.  'I believe what I am trying to impart to you, is that I am uneasy with your appointment here and you should be aware that I will take any step, literally.. anything - that I deem necessary to protect my Lady.'

Byleth relaxed noticeably.  She hadn't even realised that she had tensed in the first place.

'Not bad.'  She murmured thoughtfully.  'I mean your threat was a bit wordy for someone as rough as my kind - but there was a good amount of menace there and your delivery was quite intimidating.'

Hubert's quick intake of breath amused her.  'I beg your pardon..?'  He said faintly.

'I get it, Hubert.'  Byleth's lips curled in the briefest of smiles.  'You have a duty to look out for your Lady and you are addressing it admirably.  I respect that.'  She paused thoughtfully.  'Maybe it could be arranged that I make some attempts to get close to Her Highness to test how well you actually deal with the situation.  It would be an excellent learning opportunity - for both of us.'

'Are you saying that you want me to try and kill you?'  Hubert was completely bewildered which ironically was a rather cute look on his austere face.

'You won't even get close to doing me harm, but it would be an interesting exercise would it not?'  Byleth was enthused, for the first time she saw that there might be some fun in her new position after all.

'Regardless..'  The man had managed to pull himself back together and was scowling magnificently.  'I am now absolutely certain that you warrant having a close eye kept on you.  I must ask that you keep your distance from Her Highness.'

'That might be a problem if I'm to be your teacher.'  Byleth was enjoying herself now.  She seriously doubted that there were many times that this man had been completely thrown off his balance.

'Yes.. right.'

'Don't worry.'  Byleth crossed her arms across her chest with a smirk.  'I only ever kill people that I am ordered to.  Right now I'm just being paid to teach so I swear that your Lady is perfectly safe.  Of course,'  She couldn't help herself adding in pure devilment.  'I would say that if I was meaning her harm too..'

Hubert let out a short, tense laugh.  'Professor, I believe you are toying with me now.'  He wasn’t smiling but his eye gleamed brightly.  'Obviously, anything that is out of the ordinary must be considered a threat and should be treated carefully, however, while you most definitely fit the category of 'out of the ordinary',  I'll admit that you have given me more to think about than I initially expected.'

'Well said, Hubert!'  Byleth's praise was genuine.  'Never let your guard down - to do so would be a disservice to your charge.  Yes..'  Byleth shook her head slightly at her own behaviour.  '.. I'm afraid I have been playing with you a little, it's a bad habit I guess.  You did pretty well dealing with it though. I don’t think you are all that accustomed to encountering someone who isn’t immediately intimidated by your countenance.  It will happen occasionally - so getting in some practise in handling it is appropriate.'

Hubert just stared at her blankly.  Then he sighed. 'Not only have you managed to confused me somewhat, you have also managed to make me late for the very meeting I came here to chastise Bernadetta for being tardy in attending.'  He looked chagrined.  'I must get back.'  He peered over towards the door to the room that he had knocked at.  'The damned girl still hasn’t emerged.'  He grumbled.

'I'll grab her.'  Byleth offered.  'Take it as an apology for my teasing you.'

'Thank you Professor.  I would be grateful.'  Hubert's eye gleamed once again as he appraised her thoughtfully, then he turned without another word and strode quickly away.

'People here are far more interesting than I'd initially imagined.'  Byleth murmured to herself, as she walked over to the door that Hubert had attended earlier and tapped on it lightly.

Chapter Text

'Um.. Bernadetta?'  Byleth called quietly through the obstinately closed door after her third attempt at knocking and receiving no reply whatsoever.  'This is Byleth.. the new professor.. do you think you could open up for me please?'

There was an indistinct squeal from behind the heavy partition and then the sound of slow shuffling feet.

'H..h..has Hubert gone?'  The voice was a low and anxious mumble.  It sounded as if it's owner was just inches away and yet the door still remained between them.

'He has.'  Byleth rested her forehead against the wooden frame and tried to get a hold on her frustration and especially to keep it from her tone.  'I understand that you are supposed to be attending a house meeting.  I said I would escort you there.'

'I.. I.. just can't!'  The reply was teary.  'Everyone will be there, they will all be looking at me when I go in.  They are mad at me for holding them up!'  There was a loud sniff.  'Please, oh please don't make me go!'

'I'm not going to force you to do anything.'  Byleth said blankly after a moments consideration.

'Y..you aren’t?' 

'This isn’t a prison Bernadetta.  What you do is entirely up to you.'  Byleth stood herself back up straight, her hand drifting to Colin who was staring inquisitively at the door.  She petted the furry monster's head.  It was oddly calming even though her fingers got a quick nibble.

There was silence from the reluctant student.  Byleth remained where she stood waiting patiently.

'A..a..are you still there Professor?'  Bernadetta mumbled faintly after a bit of time had passed.

'Mhmm.'

'Um.. why are you still there?'  The girl asked fearfully.

'You recall that I requested you opened your door?  It wasn’t that long ago.'

'Well, yes.. but you said you wouldn't force me to go..'  Byleth heard the key turn in the lock.  It was a start.

'I did.'

The door opened a crack and a fearful little face peered out, squinting into the bright light.

'W.. why do you still want to see me then?'  The door slowly moved far enough open to admit the Professor.

'I am charged with meeting all of the students.'  Byleth explained calmly as she carefully stepped into the immaculately tidy space.  'It would be foolish to have to come back later when I was already at your door.'

'Oh.'  The girl had backed away like a frightened rabbit.

'Do you want me to leave the door open?'  Byleth inquired politely.

'I.. might try and run if you do.'  Bernadetta admitted.

'Run?  Huh.'  Byleth closed the door quietly.  'Where would you run to?'  She asked inquisitively.

'I don't usually plan that far ahead.'  The girl was shaking, her messy violet hair bouncing around her delicate features.

'A flight instinct isn’t a bad thing.'  Byleth said thoughtfully.

'It isn’t?'  The girls liquid eyes were huge.

'Far better than freezing.  That can get you killed.'

'K..killed?'

'Well, yes.'  Byleth nodded seriously.  'Fear is a warning system.  If you are warned that something is amiss, or that your foe is more than you can handle it is wiser to have experience of extracting yourself successfully from the situation, rather than just freezing and allowing yourself to be beaten.'

'Oh.'  Bernadetta was shaking again.  'B..but I don't imagine that you are scared of anything!'

Byleth laughed but there was no humour in the sound.  'Like I said - fear is a tool like any other.  Only an idiot doesn’t listen to their fear and I like to believe that I am not an idiot.'

Bernadetta had finally raised her face to properly look at the Professor.  'You really don't seem like someone that is easy to scare.'  She said quietly.  'Even with that kitten on your shoulder you look.. kind of menacing.'

Byleth shrugged.  'If that's what you see that's up to you.'  She said.  'If you thought about it however, you might realise that it's pretty daunting to suddenly be told you are gonna be a Professor and teach a bunch of kids that you have never met before.'

'Does that scare you?'  Bernadetta looked amazed.

'I wouldn’t say scared,'  Byleth replied honestly.  'But certainly isn't something I have ever done before.  It would be foolish not to be concerned about the potential failure to perform adequately when you have no basis of experience to call upon.'

'You don’t look very concerned.'  Bernadetta noted wistfully.

'Well, I suppose no-one is trying to harm me..  not yet anyway.  I did think to myself earlier that it would be nice to be invisible right now though.  In the reception hall just about everyone was staring at me.'  Byleth stroked at Colin again.

'Yes, how wonderful it would be to become invisible.'  Bernadetta agreed with a sigh.

'Really?  You think so too?  Seems to me that you are actually trying to make yourself as noticable as possible.'

The girls mouth fell open comically.

'Well..'  Byleth explained.  'You did force Hubert to come all the way to your room to have to try and persuade you to attend your house meeting.'  She raised an eyebrow at the girl.  'It would have elicited far less comment and notice if you had just been there under your own steam and on time.  Nobody would have had anything to say or moan about if you had handled it that way instead.'

'Oh no.. Bernie.. you are such an idiot!'  The girl's face fell and tears sprung to her eyes.  'Bad.. bad.. Bernie.  Stupid girl..'

Byleth's eyebrow raised even further.  The girl was working herself up.  Damn.

'Hey kid, we can remedy this.'  Byleth risked a step forward and put a reluctant hand on her trembling shoulder.

'How!  It's not like I can even talk to anyone.. I can't make this right.. It's stupid to think I could!'

'Well you appear to be talking to me, or am I imagining your voice?'  There was amusement to Byleth's tone which made Bernadetta stare at her in awe.

'I am!'  The girl suddenly shrieked loudly.  'That's amazing!  I am talking to you Professor!'

Unsure whether her response was simply hysterical, Byleth peered at her closely.  'You want me to tell you my plan?'  She enquired.

'Yes.. oh, yes please!'  Bernadetta sounded eager.  Her shakes had turned to bouncing.

'Well, since I am the centre of everyone's attention today, why don't I go along with you into your meeting and make a little scene.  You can sneak in while I'm being a distraction and grab a chair.'  Byleth was rubbing her chin thoughtfully.  'I reckon that would work.  What do you think?'

'Why would you do that for me?'  Bernadetta asked in amazement.  'You said that you didn’t like people looking at you either.'

'Well, I guess I am going to have to learn to deal with it.  If I am to stand in the front of a class to teach I suppose it would be wise to expect people to pay attention.'  Byleth shrugged.  'You need to learn to be comfortable with the others, but at the very least, for now, we should be able to achieve your entry as unremarkable.'

'So.. we will be learning something together?'  Bernadetta's brows knitted as she thought about it.  He hands were wringing together unhappily, but she looked up with the first glimmer of determination that Byleth had witnessed from her.  'I can try.'  She agreed hesitantly.

'Well and good.'  Byleth moved over to the door and opened it.  'Promise you won't run out on me and leave me in front of the Black Eagles all by myself?'

'I..I..I.. will try my best.  Like you said, it would bring even more attention on me if I run off again, right?'

'Yeah, right.'  Byleth nodded.  'You'll have to show me where to go Bernadetta, I have no idea where your classroom is.'

'Oh!  Okay.'  The girl stepped out of her room and turned to lock her door.  'It's this way.'  She said shyly, looking up again at Byleth with a weak smile.  'It isn’t far.'

Chapter Text

Byleth had expected that Bernadetta would be silent on their walk to the classroom block but the small girl completely surprised her by talking enthusiastically the whole way.

'You don't seem particularly afraid now.'  Byleth commented when Bernadetta finally had to pause to take a breath.

'Well, I suppose walking with you is like having the best protection ever!'  The girl enthused.  'Sure people are looking at us - heh.. at you really, but even if they were to be unfriendly I expect you could knock them right out with just one finger!'

'I'd probably need to use a whole hand actually.'  Byleth replied.

Bernadetta looked up at her expecting to see a joking smile, but the Professor appeared to be completely serious.'

'Yeah, a whole hand.. right.'  She agreed.  'Urgh.. That one there - that's the Black Eagle classroom.'  She pointed at the closed double doors, the first room in the block of three. She had started to shake again but she also noticed that Byleth was glancing along the building questioningly.  'All of the classrooms are here.'  The girl explained, wanting to help out.  'The one next door is the Blue Lion's room and the one at the other end of the row is the Golden Deer's.'

'I see.'  Byleth was staring around herself as if committing the scene to memory.  There were lots of students milling about in this area, mainly in small groups and talking animatedly together.  As soon as Byleth had strode into the avenue with Bernadetta trailing at her heels, the general noise level had immediately lowered to an excited murmur as her arrival was noted and commented on - nearly everyone staring openly - only a few bothering to be more circumspect in their curiosity.  The blond lad, Prince Dimitri was stood not far from where Bernadetta had motioned that they stop and he was looking rather hopefully at Byleth, going so far as to raise a heavily gloved hand to her in a welcoming motion.

'Crap.'  Byleth muttered under her breath.  She gave the slightest of bow's in response and then indicated that she was currently busy with an impatient flick of her wrist towards the door of the Black Eagle classroom.  Dimitri nodded solemnly.

'Okay, let's get this done lass.'  Byleth gripped Bernadetta's shoulder.  'You ready?'  She enquired.

Bernadetta gulped but nodded.

'Give me a few seconds to grab attention then slip in behind me.  Got it?'

''Thanks Professor.'  Bernadetta's tone was grateful.

'Well it won't work a second time so let's try and avoid the requirement, hey.'  Byleth suddenly looked thoughtful.  'Do you think I should knock?  I ain't that sure on the etiquette.'

Bernadetta screwed up her face.  'I think not!'  She exclaimed.  'This is a classroom and you are a teacher.'

'Yeah, right.'  Byleth straightened herself.  'Let's go then.'  She strode purposefully the few steps to the door and gripped the handles of both, firmly flinging them open with force.  She swept into the room and marched up the central aisle between the tables.  Whatever had been happening before she had entered stopped immediately.  Edelgard and Hubert were stood at the front of the class and the other students were seated randomly around the room, some behind desks, some just having pulled chairs up towards the front of the room.  One red haired lad was lounging against the wall.

'Lady Edelgard!'  Byleth said as she moved towards the young woman, who was managing to withhold her surprise rather admirably at the sudden intrusion.  'Might I speak with you?'

'Professor!  Why of course you may - did you want to see me in private?'  The girl acquiesced immediately, stepping forward as she spoke.  Hubert's hand jerked unconsciously as if to hold her back, but he never actually made contact.

Byleth stopped a small distance away from the approaching woman.  'Oh!'  She exclaimed looking around her at the sea of interested faces staring at her.  'I do apologise!  I would appear to be interrupting something.'

Byleth's only hint that Bernadetta had done as she had been bade and slipped into the room was the slight uplift in Hubert's lips as his eyes flickered to the back of the classroom.

'Please don't worry yourself about that Professor.  I would be grateful to speak with you.'  Edelgard's voice was firm but welcoming.

'None the less, I am sure we can schedule a better time - If you have arranged a meeting I assume that you have an agenda that you wish to get through.'  Byleth met the Lady's eye with a confident gaze.  They stared at each other for a few seconds.

'Indeed, that is the case.'  Edelgard eventually agreed, looking away subtly from the frank appraisal that she had been receiving. 

'I wish to thank you for returning our lost package to us Professor.  Very kind of you.'  Hubert had moved forward to place himself slightly in front of his charge.

'You are welcome.'  Byleth replied seriously.  'I noted that it is a particularly fragile item, so I would advise that you handle it carefully.'

'I will consider your words.'  Hubert bowed his head slightly.

'Should I seek you out later this afternoon then Lady Edelgard?'  Byleth

'I would like that!'  Edelgard replied sincerely.  'I have nothing pressing that I need to attend to for the rest of today - so please, at your convenience Professor.'

Byleth nodded at both her and Hubert, then turned to run her eyes over the other members of the class slowly before she started to walk towards the door.  Their looks of fascination were rather overwhelming.  Bernadetta just appeared happily awed.  Byleth retraced her steps and upon leaving, closed the doors behind her much more gently than she had opened them.  Once they were safely shut she let out the breath that she hadn’t even realised she was holding.  As soon as she was gone a cacophony of noise burst from the room behind her but she found that she really had no desire to overhear what was being said about her so she moved off swiftly, almost bumping straight into Prince Dimitri, who it appeared had been loitering not too far away.

'Professor!'  His sunny smile appeared quite genuine.  'I thought you must have been summoned to Edelgard's little meeting.  I didn't expect to see you emerge so quickly!'

'Oh.. no, I was simply completing a small task.'  Byleth had stopped suddenly to avoid walking into him and Colin had slipped a little from his perch, digging his tiny claws into her arm so firmly that she was sure it must have drawn blood.  She fussed over the furball for a few seconds getting him settled back comfortably before she brought her eyes back to the Prince.  He had begun reaching out a hand towards the kitten but then he stopped abruptly and his cheeks flushed. 

'Better not.'  He mumbled to himself then chuckled at her quizzical look.  'I am afraid that I often mistake my own strength so I find it wise to stay away from anything that is easily breakable.'  He admitted with humility.  'He is a handsome chap though.  I do like cats.'

'He is a holy terror and grumpy to boot.'  Byleth supplied.  'However he is rather persistent.' 

There was an uncomfortable silence.

'I was very pleased to hear that you are going to be the new Professor.'  Dimitri finally said awkwardly.  'Your skills were incredibly impressive, I am sure that you will have a lot to teach us.'

'I hope so.'  Byleth replied seriously.  'I was planning on meeting with you later today, once I have had a chance to familiarise myself with the layout of the place and the other students.  I'd like to get your view of your team and their strengths and weaknesses.  Would that be possible?'

'Yes. Of course.'  Dimitri flushed again, his fair colouring unfortunately showing up the blush quite remarkably.  'I am sorry if I appear over-eager to speak with you Professor.  I find myself hoping that you will be mentoring the Blue Lions, and I assume that you already know whom you are assigned to..'

'Actually no, it hasn’t been decided yet.'  Byleth said quietly.  'I admit I am surprised that you would hope it was me, untried as I am as a teacher.'

Dimitri laughed self-consciously.  'I suppose I should explain myself.'  He admitted and his brow crinkled a little as he considered his words carefully.  'I saw something, that night we fought the bandits.'  He said slowly.  'You were willing to allow us to join in the fight without complaint and you took a very quick measure of our skills in a very short space of time - you utilised our individual strengths in your tactics - which in itself was impressive enough.'  He fell quiet again for a moment of two.  'It was more than that though.'  He added.  'I also saw the close watch that you kept, a protectiveness that was not belittling, in fact, I found it rather empowering - like I didn’t have hold my hand or second guess your orders because I immediately had faith that you had our backs.  You proved that you did a number of times - even in so small a skirmish.  It spoke to me of someone who genuinely values the people that she fights with.'

'You did not expect such from a base mercenary?'  She queried, without rancour.

'It is not a virtue you see everyday, even among the highest born.'  He replied honestly.

'I understand that I will have the opportunity to work with all of the houses regardless of the one that I am assigned too.'  Byleth said.

'Of course.'  Dimitri agreed recognising her indication that the conversation was over for now.  'Is there anything I can help you with right now Professor?'  He asked politely.

'I am just trying to get my bearings.'  She admitted.  'I find it best to do so alone.  I mean no disrespect.  This whole.. experience is quite overwhelming in some ways.'

A tiny look of surprise that she would share that with him crossed Dimitri's face.  'Yes!'  He agreed.  'I should have realised that.  Please, don't let me hold you up any longer.  I will be available when you are ready to speak with me.'  He added respectfully.

'Thank you.'  Byleth smiled the smallest flash of gratitude before she took her leave to head to the greenhouse she had been eyeing up since earlier.

Chapter Text

The greenhouse was a huge structure and had been calling to Byleth since she had first spied it.  She had seen them before of course but she had never had the occasion to actually enter one, although the idea of a house for plants and growing was one that quite intrigued her. 

Once again there were plenty of students, Knights, guards and Monastery staff about in the area where the big glass building was located.  Situated close to a lake in which people appeared to be fishing and very close to both the dining hall and the southern end of the student dormitories, Byleth found the entire scene to be quite breathtaking and calming despite the activity.  She had often noticed that bodies of water managed to have the effect on her.

Taking a moment to soak in both the bright sunlight shimmering off the water and the relaxed ambiance, Byleth was pleased to notice that although the building was large there appeared to be hardly anyone in the actual greenhouse, which should give her a much needed reprieve from prying eyes for a minute or two.  She was genuinely shocked to realise that she needed the break.

Pushing her way into the glass structure, Byleth was welcomed warmly by a woman who introduced herself as the head gardener.  She was encouraged to have a good look around and to feel free to ask any questions that arose.  The riot of colour and scent that assaulted the new Professor was quite overwhelming but not at all unpleasant and she followed the gardeners advice and set off down the well tended borders, stopping at points to look closer at flora that she was unfamiliar with, or to take in a particularly heady smell.  Colin seemed absolutely rapturous with this new adventure.  As soon as they had entered the building he was off and trampling through the undergrowth with enthusiasm.

Byleth apologised to the gardener who just looked amused.  'We do try to keep the cats out of here.'  She admitted.  'Their eliminations really aren’t good for the plants - but how much damage can one singular kitten do?'

'I'm not sure.'  Byleth admitted.  'But I wouldn’t put anything past this particular kitten.  I will keep an eye on him.'  She promised.

She had travelled quite a way down the winding paths, with Colin seemingly content to follow along in her wake when she noticed a student bent at work at one of the patches, carefully tending plants that she had never seen before.  She watched the large figure in silence for quite a while, impressed with his confident botanical skills and his efficient effort.  When he stood, stretching carefully after having spent time in a crouched position she was surprised at just how large he actually was, and how well honed his impressive musculature.  This man was most definitely practised in military arts, belied by the gentle way he had been managing his work with the strange plants.

'Can I help you?'  His voice was deep as he turned to her, his blue eyes piercing against the short white hair and the deep tan of his skin.

'I was just observing.'  Byleth replied honestly.  'I have never seen these plants before.'

'They are from Duscur.  As am I.'  The man replied picking up a cloth and carefully wiping at his hands.  The name sparked a memory in Byleth's mind.  She recalled Jeralt telling her about a war in Duscur.  The man appeared to be waiting politely, as if anticipating a further question.  She had none.

'I need to water these plants.'  The man said finally.  'Although they do not require a great deal of moisture, as their natural environment is quite arid, a little helps them to bloom more brilliantly.'

'Would you like some help?'  Byleth had asked before she could stop the offer.

The man stared at her impassively. 

'You might be better off staying away from me.'  He intoned quietly.  'It would probably not be good to be seen interacting with a man of Duscur.'

'Well, I am a teacher and you wear the uniform of a student, so I feel that a lack of interacting will be impossible in the long term.'  Byleth's eyebrow had risen at the man's comment.

'A good point.'  The man smiled slightly and it lit his stoic face quite unexpectedly.  'Are you opposed to carrying water?'  He was looking discreetly at her arms - most likely comparing them to the rather developed ones that he had himself.'

'I would be happy to.'  She agreed quickly.  'Although I suspect it may be a good idea if you were to undertake the actual watering.  I would hate to drown such beautiful flora because of my lack of knowledge.'

The man grunted his approval and waved her in the direction of the water pump.

When she returned the man set to work on the plants again in silence, although it was comfortable one.  Every now and then he would make a comment or an observation about what he was doing, but it was to the point and efficient.  Within a very short time he appeared to be contented with the job that he had done.  He grunted his approval and then stepped back to admire his handiwork.

'So you are the new Professor.'  He was wiping his hands again and had turned away from the plants and in her direction instead.

She nodded.

'I am Dedue.'  He put his hand to his chest in what looked like a formal pose of welcome.  'I am the servant of Prince Dimitri.'

'A servant?'  Byleth was immediately confused.  'You are dressed as a student.  Are you not enrolled as such?'

'At the grace of his Highness I am.'  Dedue admitted.  'My role is and my attendance is to allow me to attend to his protection however and my own education is of secondary concern.'

'I see.'  Byleth didn't really. 

The large man half smiled again.  'You have an economy with words that I have not noted often among your other countrymen.  It is refreshing.'  He stated.  It was the closest he had come to actual small-talk.

'It has already been pointed out that it may not be a good trait in one who is supposed to teach.'  Byleth sighed.

'I admit I find it hard to understand the need to make comment where none is required.'  The man said stoically.

It was at that moment that Colin decided to launch himself out of some heavy undergrowth and attack her legs.

'Ah!'  Dedue rumbled a deep laugh of sorts.  'It appears you are being attacked by a most fearsome creature Professor.  Do you require my aid in protecting yourself?'

'I think I'll manage.'  She sighed at the holes that the kitten had made in her leggings.  'Unless you want to give him a new target?'  She quirked her own smile at him.  Colin was quickly back up to her shoulder, seemingly now well experienced in climbing her cloak.

'No, he appears to have made himself at home.'  Dedue had gathered his belongings together and looked ready to leave.  'I am going to meet with Prince Dimitri for lunch now.'  He told her.  'Would you care to join us?  I know the Prince has been most anxious to speak further with you after the help that you afforded him with the bandit attack the other night.'

'I had a brief chat with him right before I came here.'  Byleth joined the large man as he started to walk towards the exit.  'I will be stopping by to speak with him again later when I have had the chance to meet a few more of the students.'  She added.

'I would like to extend my thanks to both you and to Jeralt for aiding his Highness.  That he has spoken highly of your skill is no small compliment.'  Byleth remained silent.  'I find I am looking forward to witnessing your martial ability myself.'  Dedue added thoughtfully.

'I'm hearing that a lot.'  Byleth mumbled.  'I have a feeling that people may be expecting an unrealistic amount based on the rumours that seem to be building up.'

'I am not so sure.'  They had come back out of the greenhouse and were stood together beside the lake although Byleth hardly recalled walking over to it.  'I will admit that you are not what I had envisaged, even after the Prince's glowing report.'  Dedue crossed his arm over his chest in the formal seeming motion again.  'I must meet up with him now, Professor - but I have.. enjoyed our discourse.' 

'As have I.'  Byleth agreed and after the man had moved away from her leaving her stood by the water alone with Colin, she was surprised to realise that she actually meant it.

Chapter Text

'Hey you!'   The voice was low and the tone was just the wrong side of disrespectful.  Byleth found her hand drifting unconsciously towards her sword pommel as she turned away from her perusal of the calming lake to stare down at short ginger hair and a pair of accusing ginger speckled eyes staring back at her.  She also noted the student uniform that the girl wore so her weapon stayed where it was.  For now.

'Can I help you?'  Byleth asked tonelessly.

'You are Jeralt's kid, right?'  The girl scowled at her.  'You look nothing like him.'  She added dismissively.

'I certainly am able to swing my sword like him though.'  Byleth noted quietly.

'Well, I would expect that you should - if he trained you!'  The girl sniffed.  'He trained me for only a very short time and I learned more from him that at any other time.'

Byleth peered closer at the girl, wondering if she should recognise her.  No, she was sure she had never seen the woman before.

'Where did you meet him?'  She asked curiously.

'In Sauin Village.. my village.  Five years ago.'  The girl's face took on a faraway look, a small smile curling at her lip.  'His company was the one that saved us - I decided there and then that I would become a mercenary just like him.  You weren’t there though.  Too young to fight?'  She asked and again her tone was slightly challenging.

'Five years ago?'  Byleth thought hard.  'That would have been just around the time that I was convalescing from a shoulder wound.. that I got protecting some rich arsehole from an angry mob.  Alone.  Since my father respected my ability to work independently even then.'  She added, before feeling a little ashamed that she was allowing this girl to rile her.  'Have you seen him since we got to Garreg Mach?'  He voice became softer, wanting to even the keel between them.  'I'm sure he would remember you - he has a wonderful memory for names and faces.' 

'Of course he would remember me.'  The girl bristled.  'He gave me this when he left.'  Her hand had reached down to a little wooden token that she had linked to a cord around her neck.

'I'm sure he would like you to go visit with him in his new office.'  Byleth tried again.  'He was taking tea there not so long ago.  You can tell him that I sent you along if you like.'

'Oh.'  The girl looked abashed.  'Well, that would be.. nice.  Thank you.'

'I didn't actually get your name.'  Byleth added.  'I expect he's spoken about you, so..'

'Leonie,'  The girl said eagerly.  'Leonie Pinelli.  Really - has he mentioned me?'

'Well in honesty, my own memory for names is pretty bad.'  Byleth admitted.  'And I was pretty hurt at the time.. but your name does ring a bell..'  She added kindly when the girl's face began to fall.

'So how come you are gonna be teaching us and not your Da?'  Leonie's hands were back on her hips, and her voice back to being a bit accusing, as if this was all Byleth's fault.

'Oh, well I believe that they need Jeralt working with the Knights - he has some kind of history there.'  Byleth's tone remained calm although she was definitely going to be having words with Jeralt about this girl later on.

'Right.. right, of course they would want him back with the Knights of Seiros.  Makes perfect sense.'  Leonie was muttering to herself.  'After all, his reputation and his skill are quite legendary and I have already heard loads of stories about his time here and the amazing things that he accomplished.'  Her eyes were shining brightly.

Byleth's annoyance was swiftly becoming amusement at the girls very blatant hero worship of her crusty old man.  He would likely hate it too, he really wasn’t one to make much of himself despite his obvious skills.  There had been a certain amount of similar admiration for him from young men starting out on the long road in the past - but Jeralt was always quick to dispel any sort of fanciful regard, settling for honest respect as a preferred response to his mentorship.  Byleth was aware that her Da found a certain hilarity in the idea of her becoming a teacher - maybe him having a little disciple on his case would even the score between them.

'So you gonna go see him then?'  Byleth encouraged enthusiastically.

'You really think I should?  He must be a busy man..'  Leonie coloured slightly at the thought.

'I demand that you do!'  Byleth replied seriously.  'Indeed, he may become offended if you do not seek him out immediately, given you previous history!'

'Oh, I wouldn’t want that!'  Leonie exclaimed, her excitement getting the better of her.  'May I really tell him that you sent me along?'  She asked shyly.

'Please!  Make sure you tell him that I insisted you attended him immediately!'  Byleth was trying very, very hard not to laugh.

'Right!  I will grab some food quickly and get on it straight away!'  Leonie declared.  'Are you not coming in for lunch?'  She added, much more shyly than her challenging manner had been earlier.

'I don't think they will allow an animal in the mess hall.'  Byleth stroked at Colin on her shoulder.  'It's no matter - I can see to it later.'

'Okay then.'  Leonie gave an actual salute.  'Thank you Professor.'  She said before turning on her heel and literally running across the square and up the stairs to the dining room. 

'Oh my, Colin.'  Byleth chuckled to the kitten as soon as the girl was well out of sight and she just couldn’t keep her amusement contained any longer.  'Jeralt is gonna give me such a tongue lashing later - and it's still so worth it!'  She shook her head gleefully.

The kitten didn’t reply, not that she had expected him to - but he did take an exploratory nibble at her earlobe.

'Hey, stop that you little monster.'  Byleth chided pushing the fuzzy face away.  'It's all your fault I can't grab any food you know.  Maybe I should just drop you in the lake and have done with you!'  She threatened.  Colin purred happily.  Byleth sighed and started stroking him.  'Bloody cat.'  She groaned as he pushed into her fingers, demanding the contact with a sweet insistence.  'Stop being so damned adorable will you.' 

'Who me?'  A cheerful voice declared.  'I ain't never been called adorable before but I guess there's a first time for everything.'

Byleth looked up, quite aghast, at the giant that stood in front of her.  'I was talking to the kitten.'  She said weakly to the grinning blonde man mountain.

'Heh, well I figured it probably wasn’t at me Professor.'  He laughed, his light eyes crinkling in merriment.  'I reckon there are many things I am but I doubt adorable is one of 'em.'  He pushed a plate out towards her that was stacked with what looked like three different meals all on one platter.  'Leonie said you weren’t coming inside for food and asked me to bring you something out.'  He beamed at her.  'Neither of us are keen on the idea of someone going hungry.  I'm Raphael by the way.  I'm in the Deer's along with Leonie.  She is a mighty fine fighter you know!'  He added, hardly pausing for a breath.

'Err, thanks.'  Byleth stared at the plate.  'Is that all for me?'  She asked, bemused.

'Well, I guess you can share some with Colin there if you have a mind to.'  The big man replied.  'Didn't know what you liked so I just figured I'd get you a bit of everything.'  He added with a grin.

'Right.'  Byleth took the plate.  'I think this might be a portion more fitting to your size though.'  She mused.

'Oh heck Professor, my plate was twice the amount and then I went back for seconds.  Or was it thirds..'  He laughed.  'The food here is mighty good.'  He advised happily.

'Well, that's something at least.'  Byleth sat herself down at the edge of the water and balanced the plate on her lap.  The man sat down beside her uninvited.

'Guess while I'm here I should have a quick word.'  He was mumbling suddenly, his words oddly serious coming from his cheery facade.  'I spoke to the other Professor's already, but you've only just appeared.'  He explained.

'Okay.'  Byleth picked up a chicken leg and tore a strip of meat to hand to Colin.

'It's just.. well..'  The man rubbed a hand through his short blonde hair nervously.  'I ain't all that good with book learning.'  He admitted, his words tumbling over each other to get them out.  'My little sister, she's the one that's been blessed with the brains in the family - but I am strong.  Even stronger since I got accepted here.  I been working harder than I ever have before to improve.'

'Well, honestly I ain't had that much exposure too book learning myself.'  Byleth told him.  'I know it's gonna be important though so I guess we are just gonna have to try to do our best.'  She stared up at the man.  'Reckon you could do that at least?'  She enquired.

'Well 'course.  I always try my best.  I just don't wanna let anyone down.'

'Me either.'  Byleth agreed, saluting him with her half eaten drumstick.

Chapter Text

Raphael turned out to be an excellent lunch companion, he kept up an easy flow of chatter without really expecting any response or asking any questions of his own.  He also helped Byleth to get through the massive pile of food that he had loaded on her plate.

She had actually begun to relax, the sunlight, the view and the easy company lulling her nicely, so that she was almost able to forget her predicament for a time and simply enjoy the peace.  It couldn’t last though of course.

'Hey Raph, you going to introduce me to your gorgeous lady?'  A tall, handsome young man interrupted with a winning smile and running a lazy hand through his short muzzy red locks.  'Hardly fair to keep so pretty a girl all to yourself.'  He added with a wink for her.

'Oh hey Sylvain!'  Raphael beamed up at the lad.  'This here is our new Professor.'  He grinned at Byleth.  'I guess you are kinda pretty.'  He added with a sparkle in his eye.  'I was too distracted by your food to notice!'

'Professor!'  Sylvain looked taken aback at the news.  'Right.  Ahh.  No disrespect intended, obviously.'  A wary look crossed his sunny features.

'None taken.'  Byleth grunted and looked away from him.

'Sylvain is one of the Lions.'  Raphael seemed completely immune to the slight tension in the air.  'I hear you knew Prince Dimitri ever since you were kids.'  He added.

'Indeed.'  Sylvain's confidence started to return when there was no negative comment seemingly forthcoming from the Professor.  'Along with Felix and Ingrid.'  He added.

'I met Felix.'  Byleth turned her attention back to the boy, happy that she had managed to successfully hide the blush that had risen to her cheeks at his compliment.  'Seemed very eager to get some sparring in with me.' 

'That's our Felix.  Always looking for a new challenge.'  He was frankly appraising Byleth again, although his interest seemed more genuine and less a simple flirt.  'I'd never have guessed you were the new teacher.'  He finally admitted.  'You surely don't look old enough - you can only be a few years older than us?'

Byleth shrugged.  'Sometimes age can be a deceptive mark of ability.'  She noted.

'I guess so!'  He agreed.  'You just don't look much like a hardened fighter - you are so.. pleasing to the eye.'

'And you are coming dangerously close to that line where I may have to hit you for impertinence.'  Byleth's voice was low, but unthreatening.  She was trying again to hold back a blush.  She had very little experience of honeyed words and the lad was insanely nice looking - even she could see that.

'That's more like it.'  The lad grinned.  'Much more what I was expecting!'

'I imagine you get thumped a lot.'  Byleth observed.

'I'm not sure if that's a compliment or an insult.'  He admitted.

'Take it as you will.' 

Raphael was looking between them with a small frown of puzzlement on his huge brow.

'Think I'm missing something here.'  He rumbled.

'Don't worry yourself big man.'  Sylvain clapped him on his broad shoulder in a friendly manner.  'The Professor was just trying to teach me some better manners.'

'I'm already feeling that might be a losing battle.'  Byleth murmured.

'Right!'  The boy laughed easily.  'Seems like we understand each other after all.'

'Are you causing trouble Sy?'  A very neatly attired blonde girl had marched over to them and had overheard at least the last part of their conversation.  'I'm Ingrid.'  She introduced herself both to the Professor and Raphael.  'Is this man being a nuisance?'

'Hey!'  Sylvain grumbled at her.

'Nothing I couldn’t handle.'  Byleth was appraising the girl thoughtfully.  She looked very capable. 

Ingrid hissed in frustration.  'I'm sure you can but you really shouldn’t have to.'  She put a hand on Sylvain's arm.  'Come away and leave the poor Professor to her meal.'  She demanded.

'What are you, my mother?'  The lad muttered rebelliously.

'If that's what I have to be to keep you from being a pest.'  She replied severely.

'There is no need to concern yourself.'  Byleth said calmly.  'I am more than a match for this puppy.'  Her look was slightly challenging.  'After all, the kind of men that I encountered on the long road were ten times scarier and twenty times harder and not a single one gave me a moment's problem.'

'That probably had a bit to do with your father's reputation too!'  Ingrid smiled at Byleth, her look respectful.  '.. Although I don't doubt in your ability for a moment Professor - but I am trying to prevent this idiot from doing or saying something.. well.. idiotic.'  She sighed heavily.  'It's quite the chore.'  She admitted.

Byleth found herself really liking this girl.  'It's rather positive to find that you are willing to put yourself out for the sake of the reputation of your team.'  She noted to Ingrid.  'In most companies you find that there are those that are afflicted with an overindulgence in some area, whether it's drink or brawling, sex or gambling.  A team is only as strong as its weakest link so it is heartening that you look to address such problems head on.'

'Oh!'  Ingrid beamed.

'Teacher's pet already Ingrid?  That's got to be a record even for you.'  Sylvain smirked, but not unkindly and he chuckled at Ingrid's flush of consternation.

'Okay..I'm completely lost.  You are all talking in the same language but I have no idea what's going on'  Raphael admitted cheerily.  He held out a hand for Byleth's now empty platter.  I'll take that in for you Prof.'  He offered with his trademark smile, lumbering to his feet.

'Thank you!'  She murmured as the giant made his way back to the dining hall.

'Reckon I can do without An ongoing lecture over my lack of manners too.'  Sylvain gave a half bow to both ladies and made off at speed after Raphael.

Byleth and Ingrid stared at each other.

'I think it's wonderful that we have so young a new teacher.'  Ingrid said softly after a few moments.  'It's a reminder that you are never too young to strive for excellence.'

'Remains to be seen if I can live up to it.'  Byleth noted, again fighting a blush.  She was beginning to come to the conclusion that her abilities had been grossly over-exaggerated by the three house leaders.  It was worrying.

'Everyone here is looking to learn.'  Ingrid said thoughtfully.  'We may be an eclectic bunch of character's but largely I have noted dedication among the students.  Not that I have met them all yet.'  She added.  'I think that it will make it easier to find commonality with your age.  I admit I am hoping that you are assigned to the Lion's.'  She looked shyly down at Byleth.  'If I have overstepped, please forgive me.'  She added.

'I appreciate your candour.'  Byleth admitted.

'I should stop taking up your time.'  Ingrid smiled self-consciously. 

'I do need to speak to as many of the students as I can this afternoon.'  Byleth agreed.

'Well, everyone is fascinated by you at the moment - so I'm sure you won't find it hard to gather the others.'  She thought for a minute.  'I know that a number of the more studious of our number are planning to have a look at the library after lunch.  You may be able to catch up with a few there.'

'Thank you.  Where will I find that?'

'It's on the same floor as the Professor's offices, and I believe Jeralt's is there too.'  Ingrid informed.

'Ah.  Then I know where that is.'  Byleth nodded her head at the girl.  'Thank you for your time and your help.'  She said genuinely.

'It's been a pleasure.'  Ingrid nodded back.

Chapter Text

Finally Byleth was alone.  Once he had been fed Colin had scarpered, taking off on his little kitten legs ungracefully but at speed to whatever new adventures awaited him.

'Traitor!'  Byleth called after him as he ran.  'Was I just a convenient meal ticket to you?'  She accused with a small smile at his retreating form.  She took a few more minutes to enjoy the lake, wondering if she would get the opportunity sometime to indulge in a bit of fishing herself - from her observation of the anglers that were around the banks, the pool appeared well stocked.  Soon,  she promised herself.

There was one other person whom Byleth had noticed that had been studying the lake while not indulging in taking up a line himself.  He had been standing for some time on the other side of the jetty just staring out at the water with an almost dreamy look on his face.  She had thought when she had first spied him that he had the same kind of calmness around water that she herself did, but the longer she observed him, it appeared to be less just the water that was intriguing him and more the whole of the natural scene - his bespectacled eyes seeming to drink in the vista with obvious enjoyment.

Byleth stood herself up and brushed dust from her leggings, stretching after having sat for quite a period of time.  She decided to approach the lad, who was, to her trained eye in no way threatening at all.  He certainly wasn’t large, but his soft hazel eyes behind their lenses were, which gave him a peaceful look, as did his stillness and his deep concentration.  Even his sandy hair looked soft and fluffy.

Byleth knew that she was quiet on her feet and as she approached the lad she was careful not to startle him.

'Hello.'  She murmured, giving him a short smile when he turned towards her and looked quite amazed that she was talking to him.

'Oh!.. Hello Professor.'  His voice was also soft and a little shy.

'It is quite a beautiful sight is it not?'  She nodded towards the water.

'Oh.. yes!'  The boy's eyes shone in genuine pleasure.  'The sunlight on the water is really very captivating, the way it shimmers when the fishing lines hit and sends out ripples, not to mention the silvery gleam of those fish.. the ones that sometimes jump..'  The lad suddenly seemed to realise he was waxing lyrical and he flushed.  'Sorry.'  He mumbled.  'I get carried away sometimes.'

'It's good to see the beauty in things when they present themselves.'  Byleth was staring out at the scene he was describing.  'I just find it..relaxing.'  She shared.

'I can understand that.'  The boy nodded, then caught himself again.  'I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself.  Ignatz Victor.  I'm a new student, in the Golden Deer house.  My family are merchants from the Leicester Alliance.'

Byleth nodded, noting how the quiet passion to his voice was absent when he stopped speaking about the view.  'So what are your strengths Ignatz?'  She asked, not looking at him but genuinely curious.  She was expecting it would be healing or magic.

'I'm okay with a bow..'  The lad sounded apologetic.  'Sorry, I know how odd that must sound from someone with less than perfect eyesight.'  He added.  'I have a little knowledge of the sword too, learned from the guards that protect our mercantile caravans.. but I do prefer something that isn't so close and personal..'

'Surely the point of your glasses is to correct a deficiency in sight?'  Byleth turned to look at him.  'I think it wise that you stay back if you need them to see properly.  Sensible not to risk it becoming a problem in closer combat.'

'Oh, well.. yes.  Sorry.. I guess you are right.'  Ignatz swallowed nervously.

'That's the fourth 'sorry' you have offered so far.'  Byleth pointed out to him.

'Sorry!'

'Make that five..'  She smiled.

'Oh dear.'  He sighed.

'Why are you here?'  She asked suddenly and directly.

'At the academy?'  Ignatz look of nervousness increased.  'My parents want me to become a Knight.'  He told her.  'I realise I'm not exactly what comes to mind when one pictures such a warrior.' 

'There is no such thing as a usual type.'  Byleth nodded at him thoughtfully.  'Just people who recognise and develop their individual strengths.'

'Okay.'  The lad sounded unsure. 'Sorry..'  He added.

'Six..'

'I guess my strength is apologising.'  Ignatz smiled sadly at her.

'I'll admit you look completely harmless.'  Byleth regarded him closer.  'That could be a great strength Ignatz.  Enemies would disregard you as a threat.  If you can learn to become a threat you would certainly take them by surprise.'

'You think so?'  He looked stunned.  'I suppose I never thought of it like that.'  Suddenly he smiled genuinely and his face transformed.  'That could be quite.. fun.'  He admitted.

Byleth realised that they had been joined - sort of - by a woman who was stood just behind them, her face downcast and her countenance as still as a statue.

'Can I help you?'  She asked, assuming that the girl was looking to speak with her.

'Sorry.. I was just waiting for Ignatz.  I believe we had planned to take lunch together.'  The woman's voice was so quiet it was barely audible.

'Oh, Marianne.. I'm so sorry!'  Ignatz turned to her.

'Seven..'  Byleth murmured.

'I just got completely carried away with the view!'  Ignatz explained.

'It's quite alright.  I'm sorry to interrupt you.'  The violet haired girl still hadn’t looked up from her feet.

'Another apologiser?'  Byleth said lightly.  Ignatz chuckled.

'The first time Marianne and I took lunch together we spent the entire time apologising to each other.'  He grinned.  'We hardly managed to get any food eaten in between apologies.'

Marianne was blushing a very deep red.

'Are you in the Golden Deer as well?'  Byleth asked her directly.  Marianne risked a half glance up at the Professor.

'Yes.'  She replied softly.

'Marianne is already a pretty skilled healer.'  Ignatz supplied on her behalf.  'Which is a good thing, since the rest of us can be really challenging, in getting injured I mean.'  He added self-consciously.

'Healing is a noble art.'  Byleth said seriously, wondering to herself how on earth these two gentle souls were getting on with their house leader.  Even her very short time spent with Claude on the night of the bandit attack had shown her a level of confidence and personality that would most likely be difficult for quieter individuals to manage. 

She was also well aware that Claude had been shadowing her closely since she had come down from her father's office.  She would deal with that later though.  She still wasn’t yet ready to meet properly with the house leaders.

'Please, don't let me keep you from your meal.'  Byleth told both of the youngsters.  'I am needing to get on and meet with as many of the student's as I can.'  She added when neither of them moved.

'Thank you Professor.'  Ignatz inclined his head at her respectfully, before taking one last look out across the water, a small smile crossing his face as he did.  'Let's go then Marianne!' He said finally.  The girl nodded without another word - although she did take a second glance up at Byleth very shyly.  She looked like she might be about to say something but then her nerve deserted her.  Instead she simply followed along behind Ignatz, her eyes never once leaving her feet as they walked in silence.

Byleth sighed to herself as they left her, she knew that Jeralt would be laughing at her if he could see her right now.  He was always teasing her about her softness around children, animals and people who were genuinely vulnerable - largely because she was unforgiving and uncomfortably direct with everyone else. 

She scowled as she started to move off again, out of the lake area and round towards where she believed the market to be located.  Jeralt really had no right to point a finger and taunt her for her weakness -  in truth, despite his own crusty and hard appearance, he too had a gentleness of spirit when it came to those who needed help or succour.  If her own attitude was anyone's fault, she thought sourly - it was most definitely him.  She was her father's daughter after all.

Chapter Text

'Good afternoon, Professor! '  The Gatekeeper at the door to the Entrance Hall hailed Byleth as she turned her gaze away from the bustling marketplace without having actually gone down and explored it - to seek out the more sedate environs of the Monastery instead.

Byleth nodded at the man, just a little put out that she couldn’t see his face due to the formal, full faced helmet that he wore.  She was sure he was beaming brightly underneath all that metal despite how hot it must be and really how unnecessary it was for internal guard duty.

'A very nice and quiet day so far, I'm pleased to report.  No shenanigans at all in fact.'  The man chuckled happily.  'It's not unusual for the students to become a little lively just before the start of a new year and get up to all sorts of interesting pranks.  I myself seemed to have been a rather favoured target in the past few years!'  It was said as if it were something he was honoured by.

'Well, I'm glad that they are behaving themselves.'  Byleth noted.  'If any of them give you any trouble please don't hesitate to speak with me.'

'Oh, well it's always in good spirits Professor.  Ah, I remember my own days at the Academy!  Some high-jinx to let off steam isn't a bad thing as long as it hurts no-one.' 

Byleth wordlessly nodded her agreement. 

'Heh.. Just listen to me wasting your valuable time with my chatter..'

'It's fine.'  Byleth replied seriously.  'It is of the greatest importance to be assured of a reliable report from those that hold our gates.  I look forward to receiving further information whenever I pass by!'

'Any time you need it Professor - It's yours.'  The guard replied merrily.  'Please,'  He added.  'Do also extend a very warm welcome to Jeralt for me if you see him.  I must admit that he has long been a bit of a hero to me!'

'Well, I happen to know that he values good solid reporting just as much as I do, so I have no doubt you will quickly impress him soldier!'  Byleth told him honestly.

'Well, thank-you Professor.  Very kind of you to say.'  He banged a gauntleted fist to his chest respectfully.  'You be sure to have  a good afternoon now!'  She could hear the man's smile again as clearly as if she could see it.

Byleth passed by him and took stock of her new environment.  She had to admit she was initially rather confused by the Entrance Hall.  She understood by its very name that it was the entrance to the Monastery, but to her - the high vaulted and rather sparse space was too large and too cold and seemed to be a room in which people just stood around and talked at each other.  At least the Reception Hall, which was similar in size and appearance - had long wooden tables around which people could sit and work comfortably in groups. 

Since everyone here seemed content to just to loiter aimlessly, Byleth immediately became self conscious of loud echoing thud that her heavy boots made as she moved through the space like a personal tattoo that announced her arrival and her progress.  Heads invariably turned at the sound and she found that she was subconsciously trying to move slower and step lighter.  She began to wish she had taken a different route altogether.  Her feeling of regret intensified manifold when a young man peeled away from the group that he had been stood chatting to and determinedly made his way straight for her.

Byleth knew that she was actively seeking to engage with as many of the students as possible before she met with the house heads but before she could stop herself she had taken assessment of this man and all of her baser instincts screamed at her to avoid him.  She gritted her teeth and chided herself internally about making unfair judgements based simply on appearances and she forced herself to politely come to a halt and allow the lad to intercept her.

'Ah.  You must be the renowned mercenary.'  The man's voice was exactly as she had been expected, his whole demeanour and facade literally screamed aristocrat, from his neatly coiffed purple hair to his aesthetically pinched features and especially his confident aura.  'Perhaps you would like to join me for a cup of tea sometime.'  His smiled quite genuinely.  'My name is Lorenz Hellman Gloucester.  You will want to remember it.'

'Should I be taking notes?'  Byleth murmured quietly.

'I hardly think that will be necessary - but if you prefer to, I will happily wait until you have found a writing implement.'  Lorenz smiled kindly.

'Doesn't get irony.'  Byleth noted to herself.  'It's a pleasure to meet you Lorenz.'  Was what she managed to say aloud.

'Well of course it is.'  He smiled again this time showing enough teeth that Byleth was unkindly reminded of a shark.  'It is quite wonderful to have managed to run into you too Professor - I have heard such good things about you already.  No-one warned me that you were a quite overwhelming beauty however.'  He reached out as if he was honest-to-god going to take her hand and kiss it.  It was enough to break her down.  She couldn’t help her snort of amusement.

'Do you find that line actually ever works?'  She asked with a smirk.

Suddenly the man looked much more like the boy he was as he flushed brightly. 

'In truth, not really.'  He admitted with some chagrin.  'For some reason, just recently the ladies have been avoiding me.  I assume it is simply awe however.  Once we have settled in I am sure things will become easier.'

Byleth nodded.  'So which house do you belong to Lorenz?'  She asked patiently.

'The noble House of Gloucester is part of the Leicester Alliance so obviously I belong to the Golden Deer's.'  He sniffed elegantly.  'While I take my allegiance very seriously indeed, I admit it was a shock to find Claude von Reigan enrolled in the same year - he was only legitimized as his grandfather's heir very recently after all.'

Byleth stared at the sudden disapproval in the boy's voice.  She shrugged at him.  'Sorry.'  She said.  'I'm not yet all that familiar with the noble families.  It was usually Jeralt that dealt with our recruitment details so it never felt the need to get caught up in all the politics - it's really not something I am all that knowledgeable about.'

'Oh!'  Lorenz' eyes lit up.  'Please Professor, if you ever need any help with your understanding on linage  - or indeed in the rather vast area of political and personal allegiances between families - I would be most willing to help.  It's a passion of mine, something of a pastime as it were.  I do get so little chance to share my passion with others.'

'That's very kind of you.'  Byleth bowed her head to him.  'I think that may be a very useful resource - if you honestly don't mind providing me with tutoring.'

'Oh, not at all!'  Lorenz was boyish in his enthusiasm.  'We should most definitely take tea when you have the time so that we can assess how much you do already know!'

'I have a fondness for tea.'  Byleth admitted.  'As does my father, although I am pretty sure that you would indulge in a much finer quality than I am used to.  Perhaps that is a further subject upon which you could educate me.'

Lorenz looked like he might faint.  'You are too kind to me Professor.'  He breathed, his pleasure guileless.

'Likewise Lorenz Hellman Gloucester.  See..!'  She flashed her crooked smile at him.  'I remembered you without having to write anything down after all!'

'Just as it should be.'  He chuckled happily.

'I will have to take my leave for now though.'  She told him gently.

'Of course Professor, you must be so very busy.  Pray, do not allow me to hold you up any longer.'  Lorenz bowed absolutely perfectly and moved away without any further prompting and Byleth returned to walking the hall with a light step - making her way towards where she believed the stables were situated. 

As she walked she couldn’t help a little shiver of pleasure.  A large part of her had been adamant that one of the first hurdles that she would have to overcome in this assignment would be the issue of her common standing - she was after all as base born as they come.  She didn’t care what people thought of her in reality - but it was a niggling worry that in having to teach a load of noble born brats - her status might mark her out as someone not to be taken seriously.  Her usual way of answering that kind of bias was with her fists - which she probably needed to avoid here.   So far though, she honestly felt that her concern had yet to materialized as a reality.  She sincerely hoped that her luck would keep.

Chapter Text

The stables for both the equestrian and wyvern facilities were part of a vast and extremely well-ordered complex which could only be expected as the Monastery was the home to a legendary order of Knights.  Byleth made her way into the first of the individual yard's and marvelled at the sheer scale of the provision, realising that exploring it all would take the better part of an entire day which at the moment she simply did not have.

While Byleth had never actually owned her own mount it was not unusual for several horses to be a part of the mercenary unit at any given time and she had some experience in mounted combat.  She hoped she could build on her skill while she was sequestered here and maybe even learn to ride the flying mounts, which was a wholly new and exciting avenue.

Wishing that she could indulge herself with some time in this area - much the same as she had wished to be simply fishing - she told herself firmly that she needed to see through her mission before she allowed herself any pleasurable pursuits and the sooner that she got it done, the sooner she would be able to actually enjoy herself a little.

'Professor!  How wonderful to meet you!'  Byleth's thoughts were interrupted by a confident hail and she turned to see a young man striding towards with a perfectly measured welcoming smile on his face.  She vaguely recognised him from the Black Eagles meeting.  He had been the red-head that was lounged against the wall in the classroom.

Immediately Byleth noted a strange similarity to her last encounter with Lorenz.  Although this lad was nothing like him in looks he did have the same kind of self-assuredness, immaculate presentation and the willingness to approach her with the expectation that his company would be immediately agreeable to her.

She nodded a welcome to the lad stoically.

'Please allow me to introduce myself!'  The boy exclaimed as he came to a stop close to her but his distance far less invasive than Lorenz's had been.  'My name is Ferdinand von Aegir, I am the eldest son of the proud house of Aegir - a Pillar of the Empire.  My family has held the office of Prime Minister in Enbarr for centuries, as will I on my inheritance.'

'I see.  Very good.'  Byleth nodded seriously.   Seemingly bolstered by her response the boy talked on for several minutes naming links and affiliations in the Empire - at least she believed that was the general gist of it.  She tried to prevent her eyes glazing over at his impassioned monologue.

'Are you paying attention Professor?'  Ferdinand's focus had settled back on her rather than on his recitation.  'Would you like me to go over that again?'  He asked kindly.  'You could take notes if you like?'

'Wow!'  Byleth shook her head in bewilderment.  'Déjà vu!'

'I'm sorry, I don’t understand?'  He was looking at her now with a tiny bemused frown.  'I honestly don’t believe that we have met before Professor, aside from briefly in the Eagles homeroom.'

'No lad, I should be the one to apologise..'  Byleth shook her head again.  'Have you met Lorenz yet by any chance?'  She asked.

'Hmm.'  Ferdinand's brow creased thoughtfully.  'Is he the Gloucester lad?  A good family, well established in the Leicester Alliance.  No, I don't believe I have had the pleasure.  While I do have an extensive knowledge of the Houses of the Empire and the Kingdom - I must admit that on the whole, I am more limited in understanding the complex relationships in the Alliance.  They do tend to shift rather suddenly and for no discernable reason.'

'I heartily recommend that you make Lorenz' acquaintance!'  Byleth noted.  'He is a big fan of tracing lineage and politics apparently.  He has even offered me help with my own limited understanding.'

'Oh!  I see.  Please, Professor, I would gladly add my own knowledge to your learning if you should wish it.'  Ferdinand had the same enthused look that Lorenz had worn a very short time ago.  'Might I be so forward as to extend an invitation to take some tea and discuss this further?'  He added with some gravitas.

'Tea?'  Byleth couldn’t help but smile wryly.  'You really do need to get to know Lorenz!'  She told him.

'I will!'  Ferdinand smiled back unsurely.

'So,'  Byleth indicated the stables around them.  'Are you perhaps interested in cavalry Ferdinand?'  She asked, interested.

'Oh, very much so!'  He agreed amiably.  'It would be my personal choice for a commission if my lineage did not demand I take over a trusted role for the good of the Empire.'  He flushed humbly.  'None the less, horsemanship is a noble skill and one that I am pleased to say I excel in.'

'I'm sure you do.'  Byleth muttered.

'I do admit that I am slightly vexed that we are not allowed to bring our own steeds to the Academy, after all - it would seem to me that expounding on your existing relationship would only be a benefit.'  Ferdinand grumbled.

Byleth looked thoughtfully out over the impressive facilities for a few moments.

'I suppose..'  She began slowly, trying to choose her words carefully.  '.. Well, I guess the reasoning behind that might be something similar as to why I change my weapon on a regular basis.'

'You do?'  Ferdinand looked stunned.  'I was of the understanding that professional fighters are actually rather sentimental over their choice of a blade.  Most of the renowned heroes of battle even have a named weapon, although despite your fathers' reputation I do note that there is no such legend attached to him.'

'It's all well and good to have a trusty tool, one that you know the weight, grip, and balance of completely intimately.'  Byleth agreed.  'However, I have seen that very thing become an issue in fights to many times that I would never allow myself to become prey to it.  Jeralt probably feels the same way I guess, although it ain't something we've ever discussed.'

'I don't really understand what you mean.'  Ferdinand frowned seriously.

'In battle you have to be able to improvise Ferdinand.'  Byleth's reply was equally serious.  'It is a bloody mess and generally confusing, and there will be times when you need to be able to pick up any random weapon from the ground to defend yourself.  If you have only used the one for a long time then you are putting yourself at a distinct disadvantage.  The same goes for your mount.  If yours is lost on the field and you pick up a stray to extract yourself from a situation you need to be confident in managing it, even though it's temperament and responses may be different from the one that you have ridden and trained yourself.'

Ferdinand was nodding thoughtfully. 

Byleth sighed heavily.  'I have seen grizzled veteran's die needlessly because their usual weapon has been dropped and they stop for a second to search for it, believing that they cannot do without it.  Those seconds can count in the reality of a fight.'

'I admit I have not been engaged in a true battle.'  The lad noted.  'Many of my close family have though and none have spoken about it quite like you just have.'

'Oh.'  Byleth looked surprised, then her eyes narrowed slightly.  'That is possibly the difference between a career fighter and someone who has engaged in battle only sporadically when their duty demands it.'  She shrugged.  'Those who do not experience conflict as a way of life will have a different interpretation I suppose.'

'I think I would prefer to learn to stay alive rather than just hear a glorified accounting of war.'  Ferdinand admitted.  'After all, I am a proud son of the Nobel House of Aegir, and we do not fail in anything that we do.  We work hard to become the very best that we can be!'

'Aye, lad.'  Byleth gripped him briefly by the shoulder, once again noticing how easily these youngsters who on first appearance could seem to sure and confident, were actually little more than children.  It made her wonder whatever had happened to her own childhood, and if she had ever actually had one in the first place.  She suddenly felt very weary.

'I suppose I should stop complaining to the Archbishop about bringing in my own horse.'  Ferdinand added a little sheepishly.  'I do understand the point you make, and I will endeavour to learn to manage with completely new mounts this year.'

'A wise choice I believe.'  Byleth agreed.  'And also a way to prove your superior horsemanship.'  She added, allowing the boy a little pride.

'I did wonder why the Knights didn’t keep their own horse.'  He added.  'I guess I could have just asked one of them.  It would have been a better use of my time than simply complaining.  I find I am looking forward to more of your teaching Professor.  You have already given me a lot to think about.'

Byleth shuffled awkwardly at the praise.  'On that note,'  She said lightly.  'I need to be off to the Library.'  She quirked her smile at the lad.  'Don't forget to introduce yourself to Lorenz.'  She added cheerfully.  'I think you two might get on quite well!'

'Thank you, Professor, I will.' He called after her as she turned to leave the stables.

Chapter Text

Byleth was particularly careful as she made her way up to the library, hopeful that she would be able to avoid bumping into any of the 'grown-ups' that occupied this level of the building.  She knew that she would have to tap hard into her fellow Professor's wisdom and experience sometime soon, but for the time being, she was fully invested in the task at hand.  She had also gotten the vibe that Manuela was a 'talker' and she really didn’t need that kind of commitment right now.

Thankfully she managed to get herself into the expansive book repository without any unsolicited attention and was soothed immediately by the cosy ambience of the vast room.   It held a calm quietness even though it was bustling with people. 

Byleth had been completely honest with Raphael earlier when she'd admitted to never having had much book learning.  She hadn't lacked for materials since Jeralt always encouraged her to read whenever possible, but there had been no structure or direction guiding her.   Regardless, her reading and comprehension skills were very good.  She had an inquisitive mind and an almost perfect recall for facts that interested her, and she had favoured books that explored and explained practical skills.  Recently, however, she had found herself drifting rather guiltily towards devouring romantic literature of a more dubious nature and with an appetite that appalled her better senses.  Indeed it was probably a good thing that this was a Monastery and there would likely be little access to that kind of salacious novel.   It probably wouldn't stop her from looking though.

A little red-faced from the direction her mind had taken her Byleth finally moved deeper into the room and started to seek out whom she would approach next.   She had barely gotten a few steps when she bumped into a young man piled high with tomes who appeared from around a corner thoughtlessly weaving his way forward.

'Apologies,'  The lad murmured, securing his stack with his arm as the top book wobbled precariously.

'That's quite a pile of reading.'  Byleth noted, trying to peer around the tomes to observe more than just the pair of large blue eyes and moss coloured hair.

'Please excuse me.'  The boy murmured.  'I am already late for nap time.'  He began to stagger away under the weight of his books.

'Wait!'  Byleth called after him, and with a slight huff of impatience, the lad did as he was bade, turning back slowly.

'Yes?'  He enquired.

'I was hoping to have a few moments of your time.'  Byleth told him.

'Oh.'  Again with a small sigh, the boy moved to rest his books on a nearby table and then turned to face her.  'Oh!'  His eyes opened slightly wider as he scrutinized her.  'You are the Professor who burst so rudely into our meeting earlier.'  His words held no rancour; they were merely a statement of fact.

'Yes.  That was me.'  She agreed.

'Well?'  He asked when a few moments of silence had passed, and neither of them had spoken. 

'Um.. well I was tasked with meeting all of the students.'  Byleth said defensively, the man's dismissive regard making her feel oddly uncomfortable.  She indicated his rather loose-fitting attire with one hand.  'You appear to be a student.'  She added needlessly.

'Well spotted.'  He murmured, focusing closer on her.  'You appear rather young to be a Professor.'  He observed.  'While my own intellect is proof that age does not always correlate with ability, I admit I am surprised that the Church has overlooked your tender years.   I have not found the establishment to be particularly forward-thinking in such matters.'

Byleth stared at him, not quite knowing how to respond.

'In fact, I suppose there is a fascination to you, if only for that reason.'  The boy's look had become speculative, and his scrutiny increased uncomfortably.  He nodded to himself as if he had reached an unknown conclusion in his head.  'Interesting.'  He muttered.  'Surely warranting at least a little exploration time.'

'Okay.'  Byleth said warily.

The lad smiled unexpectedly, and the expression lit his entire face.

'Okay?'  He grinned at her.  'As easy as that Professor?'  A light-hearted and very pleased sounding chuckle escaped from his lips.  'Most people tend to run very fast in the opposite direction when I take a studied interest.  How very unusual.'

Byleth's eyes had widened, but she was unable to prevent her lips from quirking into an answering smile at him.

'It is nap-time now, however.'  He said firmly.  'I cannot be thinking upon all of this without a good rest first.  My name is Linhardt von Hevring.'  He added - remembering that she had said she was meeting with everyone.  'Let us continue our conversation sometime soon!'  He offered as he picked up his books again and wandered off without another word.

Byleth watched him depart, unable to hide the bemused look on her face.  She heard a slight, warm laugh from behind her.

'Don't mind Linhardt.'  A very soft, feminine voice bade her.  'He is like that most of the time.  He means no ill.  I have noted upon occasion that a lack of properly correct social skills can often go hand-in-hand with an unusually high intellect, and he certainly fits within that description.'

'I see.'  Byleth regarded the woman that had spoken, taking in the appearance that seemed to match her voice exactly.  She was soft, from her long, almost white-blonde hair and baby-blue eyes to the pretty shawl that she had wrapped around her student uniform.  She also looked older than most of the other's that Byleth had met.

'I couldn’t help but overhear that you are on a mission to meet with people.'  The girl added kindly.  'I am Mercedes von Martritz, of the Blue Lions.  I will happily introduce you to the other's I am here with if that would please you.'

'That would be good.'  Byleth agreed putting up a hand to request that they stay where they were for the moment.  'You are old for a current student.'  She remarked.

'I am.'  Mercedes agreed with a smile.  ' I am probably rather close to you in fact.  What is your age exactly?'

Byleth shifted uneasily.  'I'm not really sure.'  She admitted.

'Oh!'  Mercedes looked fraught.  'I'm so sorry; I really shouldn’t pry.  I must remember that you are our teacher!'

'It's okay.'  Byleth shrugged.  'I'm not that easy to offend, and it has been pointed out several times already that I'm pretty young.'  She thought carefully for a second but decided that she was fine sharing with this girl.  'My da wasn’t around at my birth, so the date wasn’t noted.  I suppose he probably knows the general year, but it's never come up in conversation.'

'So you've never had a birthday celebration?'  Mercedes asked, unable to prevent her curiosity.

'Not a thing on the road.'  Byleth said stoically.  'I assigned an actual date to myself at one stage, a long time ago, mainly because it always sounded so weird to admit that I didn’t have a birthday if anyone enquired.'

'Very practical.'  Mercedes agreed.  'Well then, we shall make sure that we celebrate your chosen date this year.'  She promised warmly.

'There really isn’t any need.' Byleth muttered, suddenly embarrassed.

Mercedes quickly picked up on her companions discomfort.  She smiled gently and changed track.   'I myself am twenty-two.'  She informed the Professor.  'I attended the Royal School of Sorcery  prior to coming here  - that is where I became friends with Annette.'  She indicated a flame-haired youngster with absurdly cute plaits that was seated at a nearby desk with another younger, very striking white haired girl.

'So you are both skilled in the magical arts?'  Byleth asked thankfully, glad that the subject matter had moved from her.

'Annie is far more advanced than I am.'  Mercedes replied humbly.  'Something of a prodigy and very devoted to her studies.'  She smiled fondly towards the girl.  'Lysithia..'  She nodded her head towards the second girl.  'She is definitely cut from the same cloth as Annie, both of them talented and driven.  It can be quite the chore keeping up with the both of them!' 

Mercedes reached out a small lily-white hand which she placed on Byleth's forearm gently.  'Would you like to meet with them now or is there anything further you would like me to tell you?'  She enquired.  Byleth stared down at the foreign hand touching her, marvelling at its soft elegance and the lack of battle-worn calluses.  She found herself blushing.

'I guess I should speak with them too.'  She mumbled trying to hold down her fluster.   The hand on her arm squeezed a gentle reassurance and then released her.

'I am positive they will be happy to make your acquaintance.  I know that I am.'  Mercedes told her quietly.

Chapter Text

'Annie, Lysithea... I would like you to meet our new Professor.'  Mercedes had ushered Byleth forward towards the table where the two girls were sat deep in their books.

'Hello!'  Annette was the first to look up, a huge beaming smile on her face.  'I was hoping we would get a chance to meet you!  Everyone is talking about you and how you are just amazing!'

'Right.'  Byleth replied awkwardly.

Lysithea was frowning, her huge mesmerizing eyes searching the Professor's face closely.  'You don't look much like a teacher.'  She sniffed.

'Oh!  Rude!'  Annette admonished the younger girl.  'You should never judge a book by its cover Ly.'

'I take my study seriously.'  Lysithea raised a brow at her companion.  'I know that you do too.  I believed our tutorage would be taken seriously at the Academy and I am shocked that it could be handed over to an untried mercenary.  I don't have the time to waste on anything that may hold back my learning.'

Mercedes looked distraught.  She moved over to stand behind the tiny girl and placed a hand on her shoulder.

'Lysithea, I really don't think that..'  She began quietly.

'It's fine, Mercedes.'  Byleth interrupted, shaking her head slightly at the older woman.  'The girl has a valid point.'  She threw herself down in an empty chair at the table.

'I do?'  Lysithea was scowling now as if she was expecting a reprimand for her words that she wasn’t ready to accept.

'Yes, of course you do.'  Byleth said firmly.  'I didn’t come to the Monastery seeking a role as a teacher.  I came because my da was asked to attend.  This whole gig is a surprise, and I ain't got a clue whether I can live up to the job or not - but I do know that I'm gonna give it my best.'

'I wasn’t saying that you weren’t going to try.'  Lysithea retorted.

'Right.  I get it.'  Byleth agreed.  'You came here with expectations of excellence, I guess, and you have been lumbered with me instead.  You ain't the only one to have reservations.  Lots do.  Except for Lady Rhea.  I dunno what it is that makes her so adamant that I should be doing this, but she has gone against a whole bundle of advice to insist that I do.'

Mercedes had seated herself as Byleth had been speaking.  'You know, Archbishop Rhea is a very wise woman.'  She said thoughtfully.  'If you have her backing then I think we all need to accept that there is a purpose to her plan and I do not believe she would allow anything to happen that would be of a detriment to the Academy.  Especially not this year - when we actually have all three future rulers enrolled as students.  That has never happened before you know.'

'Wow, that makes me feel better.  Thanks, Mercedes.'  Byleth smirked a little when Mercedes blushed.

'You put too much faith in the Church.'  Lysithea accused, although her tone was less confrontational.

'Perhaps.'  Mercedes murmured.  'But I also put faith in allowing people the chance to prove their worth too.'

'Well, for what it's worth Professor, I think it is wonderful to have you onboard!'  Annette was grinning from ear to ear.  'I mean, you have an expression that is a little bit scary and impassive, but then so do a lot of the Knights.  It's just strange seeing it on someone so young and pretty.'

'I don't know about that.'  Lysithea mumbled.  'Petra is pretty scary as well if you ask me.'

'Heh, well we could just incinerate them all if they frighten us you know Ly.'  Annette chuckled.  'That's the beauty of magic.  You don’t need to be tall or strong or unnerving to wield it!'  Her face had taken on quite a ferocious devilish look, and her eyes gleamed.

'Remind me not to get on your bad side!'  Byleth quirked her smile at the girl, which had her beaming in return.

'I didn’t mean it really!'  She said merrily.  'I could incinerate you, that bit was true, but I wouldn’t want to!'

'We are wasting time with all this pointless chatter.'  Lysithea suddenly stated.  It was almost an apology.

'I do have a lot of work I want to get through before lessons start.'  Annette agreed with a small sigh.

'I guess I should get on and meet the rest of the students.'  Byleth agreed.  She looked intensely at Lysthea for a moment.  'I will be doing my best.'  She promised bluntly.  'That does not mean that I will get it right.  I will always be grateful for your feedback and suggestions.  I believe that your honesty could be trusted and I value that.'

'Oh.'  Lysithea blinked rapidly, unable to hide her surprise.  'If I have the time.'  She shrugged but did look rather pleased.

Byleth nodded at the girls and stood up to take her leave.  Mercedes accompanied her towards the door.

'I believe that you may do better in your new role than you are giving yourself credit for Professor.'  She said quietly, once again placing a warm hand on Byleth's arm. 

'I can only hope that's true.'  Byleth was trying hard not to pull away from the girl's touch.  She was obviously tactile by nature, and that was going to take some getting used to.  It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, just unexpected.

'You handled Lysythea remarkably well.'  Mercedes went on thoughtfully.  'She is a sweetheart, but she can be difficult at times I've noticed.  A tad confrontational and definitely has a desire not to be treated as a child.  Unfortunate since she is the youngest student enrolled this year.'

'Her point was valid.'  Byleth said stoically.  'And I do want to know if I am doing anything wrong or could do something better.  It's useless to everyone if they are to polite to point out a genuine issue.'

'You are right, of course.'  Mercedes murmured.  'Sometimes correctness in manner can be detrimental, I suppose.'

'I do need to learn a few better manners, though.'  Byleth sighed.  'It's all a bit overwhelming.'  She was surprised by her words.  Mercedes was uncommonly easy to speak to.

'I'd hope not to see you change all that much.'  Mercedes' voice was as warm as her hand, which was squeezing Byleth's arm again reassuringly.  'Even in our short discourse, I admit I have found you to be a truly delightful breath of fresh air.'

Damn.  The girl had made her blush yet again. 

'By the way,'  Mercedes seemed to realise she had caused a little discomfort and looked to redirect the conversation.  'Are there any books you would like delivered to your room?  I realise that you are busy at the moment so I would be happy to look out anything you need and see that they get to you.'

'Oh!'  Byleth paused and thought for a moment.  'I'm not sure exactly what I will need yet.  I will liaise with the other teaching staff tomorrow to get an idea of how training is structured.'  She paused and bit her lip suddenly.  'I don’t suppose that this library holds any romantic literature does it?'  Her words tumbled out before she could stop them.

Mercedes giggled.  'It doesn’t.  I've looked!'  It was her turn to blush.

'Shame.'  Byleth said faintly.

'I do have a couple of such stories in my personal belongings.'  Mercedes whispered, bringing her lips close to Byleth's ear, her breath tickling at her sensitive skin.

Byleths eyebrow raised, which made Mercedes giggle gently again.  'I would be happy to share.  Would you like me to drop one off for you this afternoon?'

'I would, thank you.' 

'I happen to know that Dorethea has a decent stash too.'  Mercedes smiled.  'Maybe we could start a little private book club.'  She added.

'I haven’t met Dorethea yet.  Would she be shocked if I mentioned it to her when I do?'  Byleth asked seriously.

'Oh, I doubt there is very much you could do or say that would shock that lady.'  Mercedes laughed.  'She was an opera songstress.  She is as tough as they come but exceptionally friendly.  At least I have found her to be so.'

'Where did you come from Mercedes?'  Byleth asked suddenly.  She could not fathom the woman out at all.  Lysthea's comments about her faith had piqued her interest, especially as she was sensing a slightly more playful side too.

Mercedes' smile never left her face, but there was a sudden tension around her eyes.  'I spent a fair amount of my younger years living in a church in eastern Faerghus.'  She supplied.

'I have had no dealings with the church before this appointment.'  Byleth admitted.

'None?'  Mercedes looked genuinely surprised for the first time.

'I know nothing church-related.'  Byleth affirmed.  'It makes the Archbishop's appointment even stranger in my eyes.'

'Well, quite.' 

'Perhaps you could fill me in on some of the things it might be useful for me to know - or suggest some reading that might help?'

'Of course, I would love to!'  Mercedes beamed.

'I think the Archbishop was planning on taking it in hand, but I'd like not to appear a complete ignoramus when she does.'  Byleth grunted.

Mercedes nodded her agreement seriously. 'Well, I'm sure we can prevent that.'  She promised.

'Wonderful.  That's quite a load off actually.'  Byleth said gratefully and was rewarded by another light squeeze on her arm.  'I really should get on though.'  She added.  'I still have a few people to track down, I believe.'

'Have you been to the training yard yet?'  Mercedes continued to accompany Byleth out into the corridor.  'I am not sure if it's actually open yet, but I know a couple of the students will certainly be hanging around in that area.'

Byleth took directions and extracted her arm from Mercedes gently.  'You really have been an enormous help.'  She said in farewell, pleased when the woman flushed happily.

'It's going to be an interesting year.'  Mercedes replied, breathlessly.

Chapter Text

Byleth came downstairs and lingered in the Reception Hall for the second time that day.  There were definitely more people hanging around now than there had been earlier, and she scanned the crowds to see if she could spot any students that she had not already met.

'Um... Professor?'  She looked down at the child that had politely addressed her.  His charming little face was very serious as he tugged at her arm insistently.

'Can I help you?'  She asked.

'Professor Casagranda asked me to hunt you down and give you this.'  The boy thrust a piece of paper into Byleth's hand.  'You were hard to find.'  He added accusingly.

Byleth grunted as she opened the paper to see what Manuela had sent, expecting a note.  It was a list of students, denoted by their house.  Useful.

She looked at the lad again, unsure whether she was expected to tip him for running an errand.  As she reached to her belt for her purse, he shook his head sharply.

'I work for Lady Rhea.'  He said proudly.  'I'm Cyril.  I am in service to all of the faculty.'  He added.

'Thank you.'  Byleth nodded at him.  Her eyes scanned the list.  'Do you know any of this year's students?'  She asked him as he was about to leave.

'I have acquainted myself with all of them.'  He replied.  'I often need to carry notes, so it is important to be able to identify them easily.'

'Very industrious.'  Byleth complimented and was amused when the boy preened proudly at the praise.  'I still need to talk with..'  She regarded the list again.  '.. Caspar, Dorothea, and Petra from the Black Eagles, Ashe from the Blue Lions and Hilda From the Golden Deer.  Do you happen to know where any of them are?'

'Dorothea is right over there.'  Cyril pointed at a tall, mature looking woman whose uniform only vaguely resembled the student one she had become acquainted with.

'Right.  Thanks again, Cyril.'

'I haven’t seen Petra today.'  He continued.  'But Caspar was talking to the Weaponsmaster Jeritza a short while ago at the training ground, and Hilda looked to be on her way here when I ran past looking for you.'

'Wow.  You really do know your stuff.'  Byleth observed.

'I try.'  Cyril agreed earnestly.

When the lad sped off to his next task, Byleth folded her note and started to make her way over to where Dorothea was deep in conversation with a Knight.  The conversation appeared to be amusing if the amount of giggling that was coming from the woman was anything to go by.

Byleth waited a short distance away, but obvious in her attempt to catch the girl's eye.  Eventually, her not-so-subtle glances were noted.  With a final giggle and a lingering pat to the arm, Dorothea dismissed the Knight and made her way over to the expectant Professor.

'Oh my!'  The woman's voice was like warm honey.  'Now, don't you look like a wonderful person!  Is this your first time at the Monastery?  Would you like me to show you around?  Ah, my name is Dorothea, and before enrolling in school, I was in an opera company in the Capital.'

'I am your new Professor.'  Byleth advised her.

'You are?'  Dorothea blinked in surprise and then smiled softly.  'Well then, I have probably overstepped a little here.  My apologies, Professor.  You are not at all what I expected from a former mercenary.  You do not have the look of your esteemed father at all.'

'Probably a good thing.'  Byleth mumbled.

'Come now!'  Dorothea crooned.  'Jeralt is a legend.  There is very little that is more attractive than heroic deeds and a noble heart.'

'You obviously haven’t met him properly yet.'  Byleth replied dryly.

Dorothea chuckled prettily.  'Would you sit with me, Professor?'  She asked - indicating a nearby bench.

Byleth silently nodded agreement, a little awed by the woman's beauty and confident manner.  Her long chestnut mane managed to look both unkempt and gorgeously lovely both at the same time, and her large green eyes sparkled in merriment when she realised she was being assessed.  Her uniform actually was the same as everyone else's on closer inspection, but it was worn in a manner that made it attractive, accessorized by a black hat and the formal shirt open to reveal a dark lacy layer underneath.

'Do you like what you see?'  Dorothea had a playful smile on her lips.

'I imagine you made a rather stunning impact on the stage.'  Byleth replied thoughtfully.  'Why did you leave that profession?'

'Ah, not one for shying away from the tough questions I see.'  Dorothea's eyebrow had raised artfully, but then her smile returned.  'I think I like that.' 

'I'm sorry.  It was genuine interest that prompted the question.' 

'Don't be sorry.'  Dorothea fell silent for a moment.  'Oddly, I find myself wanting to be honest with you, I believe you might catch me in a lie or an obfuscation anyway.'

'Really...'  Byleth was starting to feel uncomfortable.  'You don't have to answer.  I'm not accustomed to speaking much and I find I'm blurting out exactly what I am thinking.  It's something I need to work on.'

Dorothea's eyes softened as she looked at the Professor.  'See now, that was a very honest confession, my dear.  How could I possibly not answer in kind.'

Byleth shrugged.  'It's up to you.'  She muttered.

'You were entirely correct in your assessment that I created a stir when I performed.'  Dorothea said, staring ahead of her.  'I had many admirers vying for my attention and my time, however..'  She turned back to Byleth.  'The expectation was that my companionship was a commodity; that it could simply be bought and used.'

Byleth looked puzzled. 

Dorothea coughed politely.

'Oh!  Oh, I see.'  Byleth nodded.

'At least here, at School, I get the chance to be seen as a person and not just a plaything.'  Dorethea shrugged.  'I might even learn something.'

'I'm sure you will learn a lot.'  Byleth agreed.

'You are very sweet.' 

'I don't think anyone has ever called me that before.'  Byleth noted.

'More fool them.'  Dorothea's eyes were twinkling again.  'For some reason, I can't help forgetting you are to be a teacher.'  She grumbled lightly.  'It would be so much more fun if you were a fellow student.'

'Don't worry.  I keep forgetting too.'  Byleth mumbled.  'I... um, was speaking with Mercedes just now and she suggested that you may have some novels that I would be interested in reading...'    Somehow she managed to keep a blush from her face.

'Really?  Interesting, Professor.  I would never have taken you for the type to like trashy romance!'  Dorothea smiled.  'Although I was a little shocked by Mercie too.'

'I suppose when your normal daily routine is kill or be killed, those sorts of story provide a welcome relief.'  Byleth replied stoically.

'Quite.'  Dorothea agreed.  'As long as you don’t regard them as a textbook.  Real-life is far removed from the idiocy in those kinds of publications.  The very idea that all of your troubles are suddenly resolved just because you fall in love...'

'It must be a nice thing to experience, though.'  Byleth sighed.

'More trouble than it's worth to my mind. Better to just read about it.'  Dorothea giggled.

'Ah.  Is that Hilda?'  Byleth noticed another girl in student uniform wander into the hall, her pink bunched hair standing out wildly against the other more sobre colours in the room.

'Hah, well that one is a real piece of work.'  Dorothea smirked turning to confirm that it was indeed Hilda.

'Oh?'

'An absolute master in persuading others to undertake the chores that she doesn’t like doing.  I have known her for less than three days, and already, she has tried to manipulate me twice.  As if she could pull one over on me!'  Despite her words, Dorothea sounded as if she admired the girl.

'You and Mercedes seem to have managed to get the measure of your fellow students rather quickly.'  Byleth was a little envious.

'Well, we have compared notes of course.'  Dorothea admitted then smiled at the confusion on her companions' face.  'You haven’t had many female friends have you, Professor?'  She asked sagely.

'Friends, in general, were a bad idea in my line of work.'  Byleth mumbled.  'Although my da' company was fairly solid for a mercenary band, respectful and the like - can't say any of us were particularly close.'

'It wasn't that different in the entertainment business I suppose - a lot of competition for the spotlight.  I like making friends though.  People are generally interesting.'

Byleth nodded, her face completely unreadable.

'Look, Professor.  Don't feel isolated here.  For a start, while Manuela can be a bit of an overbearing personality, she is a really good woman at heart.  I'm sure she could be a good source of help to you if you needed it.'

'You call Professor Casagranda by her name?'  Byleth asked.

Dorothea shrugged.  'She was once a songstress in the opera too.  I would probably name her as a friend.  Obviously, I show proper respect in public.

'I see.'

'I think I could come to see you as a friend too if you'd let me.'  She said kindly.

Byleth blinked, not really sure how to respond.  Her blank look made Dorothea chuckle again.

'I'm always around Professor.  Don't be afraid to seek me out.'  She urged.  'Now why don't you go and introduce yourself to the force of nature that is Hilda Valentine Goneril.  Good luck!'

Chapter Text

'Hilda?'  Byleth strode up to the girl and called her attention away from the Knight that she had been talking to.

'Yes?'  The girl replied curtly with a poorly hidden flash of annoyance.  She noted who it was that had addressed her and her eyes widened slightly.  She held up a hand indicating him to wait at the Knight and moved to the side, away from him to fully face the Professor.

'Loitering Professor?'  She asked, mildly.  'I thought that you would be busy getting yourself ready for the start of the year.  If you were taking your duties seriously, of course.'  She had a smile on her face, but her words were tinged with challenge.  When Byleth remained silent, Hilda smiled further and took the Professor's arm in a vice-like grip.  'Don't worry yourself.  I won't tell tales on you.'  She smirked.

'I have been charged with meeting all of the students.  You are a student.'  Byleth's face may as well have been set in stone.

'Hmm, well consider me met.'  Hilda let go of the Professor's arm and returned her gaze to the Knight who was watching the proceedings with interest.

'Have I said I was finished with you?'  Byleth asked pointedly.

Hilda sighed heavily.  'Sorry Professor.  Is there something you want?'  She asked.

Byleth scrutinized her carefully then allowed her eyes to flicker away.  'No.'  She said simply.  'I think I have discerned enough to be going on with.'  She turned on her heel and started to walk away.

'Hey!  Wait!'  Hilda moved after the retreating woman.  'What do you mean by that?'

Byleth ignored her and kept walking.

'Professor!'  Hilda grabbed at Byleth's arm again, and it took all of the older woman's self control not to react to the invasive and heavy handed touch.

'Is there something you want?'  Byleth returned Hilda's earlier words to her in precisely the same pitch and tone.

'Alright.'  Hilda mumbled.  'I suppose I was a bit rude to you.  I apologise.'

'Don't need an apology.'  Byleth shrugged.  'Don't really care.'  She went to walk away again.

'I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot.'  Hilda sounded desperate now.  'Entirely my fault.  Could we maybe start again?'

Byleth's eyebrow rose.

'Please?'  Hilda added.

Byleth nodded once. 

'Claude said you were enigmatic.'  Hilda puffed out her cheeks in relief.  'I thought he was being his usual teasing self, but seems he was bang on the money this time.'  She looked up almost shyly.  'I admit when I heard that you had managed to land a teaching post,  I wondered what stunt you'd pulled to get it.'  Her eyes narrowed slightly.  'How did you get it?'  She asked bluntly.

'Who said I wanted it?'  Byleth's hands were on her hips now, although her face was still impassive.

'Can't imagine you'd do anything you didn’t want to.'  There was grudging respect to the girl's words.

'Part of being a grown-up is taking responsibility for the things that need to be done.'

'Yes, but..'

Byleth made a small noise in her throat, that may have sounded like a growl if it was louder.  Hilda gulped and wisely didn’t finish her sentence.  They were left staring at each other again in silence.

'Just so you know..'  Hilda's tone was much less confrontational than it had been earlier.  'I am not really all that keen on fighting or that sort of thing.  I doubt there is much you could teach me anyway.'

'Okay.'  Byleth nodded.

'Right.'  Hilda nodded in return.

'Won't force anybody to learn.'  Byleth added.

'A good tactic.'  Hilda agreed.

'However, if you put any of my charges in danger with your attitude, I will destroy you.'  Byleth said with complete sincerity.

'What?'

'I have a responsibility for the safety of those that do want to learn.  If you compromise that, we will have a problem, Hilda.'

'You said you would 'destroy' me!'  The girl squeaked indignantly.

'Did I?  I don’t recall.'  Byleth's face didn’t twitch a muscle.

'Oh... You're good.'  Hilda suddenly grinned, her whole demeanor relaxing.  'I think I like you!'

'I'm so pleased.'  Byleth replied with just the smallest touch of irony.  'You are uncommonly strong, you know.'  She added unexpectedly.  'The grip you held on my arm was impressive.'

'I beg your pardon?'  Hilda tossed her head, sending her pink bunches into pretty quivers.

'What weapon do you train with?'  Byleth asked.

'A lance.'  The girl replied, still stunned.

'I reckon you should try out with an axe.  Seems to me you may have the strength for it and I think it might better suit your personality.'

'My personality?  I'll have you know that I am a dainty flower.'

Byleth's lips quirked, although it was barely noticeable.  'Dainty flower my arse.'  She commented very quietly as she turned and walked towards the exit, allowing a grin to flourish once the girl was unable to see her face.

'What was that?'  She heard cried indignantly as she strode away.

Byleth was still internally congratulating herself when she spied a young lad she hadn’t seen before shyly standing just outside of the hall as if plucking up the courage to step in.  He was probably of a height with her, but he was hunched over himself, and when his light green eyes met momentarily with hers, he looked away quickly.

'Hello.'  Byleth said quietly.  The boy looked back at her in surprise, then a bright smile lit his face.

'Hi!'  He beamed, running a hand through his messy grey hair as if to try and tidy it.  He stood up straighter too.

'I'm the new Professor.'  Byleth added, pleased at the transformation in the lad.  He had honest-to-god freckles all over the bridge of his nose.  Could he actually look any sweeter?'

'I'm Ashe!'  The boy said enthusiastically.  'I know who you are of course.  Prince Dimitri was telling us all about your encounter with the bandits.  It sounded so heroic!  Just like a tale from a book.'

'You like stories?'  Byleth asked.

'Oh very much.'  The boy agreed, nodding.  She really didn’t have the heart to mention that real-life battles were nothing like the versions that the bards or tomes depicted.

'Well, I'm looking for the training ground. '  Byleth appraised him frankly.  'Do you suppose you could show me where it is?'

'Of course Professor.'  He grinned.  'It isn’t far.'  He fell into step alongside her.

'If my memory serves, you are in the Blue Lion's house.'  Byleth noted.

'I am!  Who would have ever imagined I would be sharing a classroom with the Prince!'  He laughed happily.  'He is such a nice man too.  He has been very kind to me so far.'

'You aren’t a noble then?'

'Not me!'  Ashe smiled.  'After my parents died of the plague, Lord Lonato of Gaspard was kind enough to take in my siblings, and I.  He's the one that paid for me to attend the Academy.  A great man Lord Lonato.'

'He sounds it.'  Byleth agreed.

'I hope I can repay him by becoming the best Knight I can possibly be.'  Ashe added fervently.

'Hard work and application Ashe.  If you have the desire.'

'Thanks, Professor that's good to hear.'

'Simple fact.'  Byleth shrugged.

'So will you be our house mentor?'  Ashe asked guilelessly.  'I know that the Prince is hoping that you will, and so am I!'

'The decision hasn’t been made yet.'  Byleth replied honestly, wondering how on earth she was going to manage to make any sort of choice.  It would probably come down to her talks with the heads of the houses.  She paused momentarily to confirm that Claude was still shadowing her.  He was.  He wasn’t bad at it either.

'Alright?'  Ashe had stopped too, to look back at her.  'I didn’t say anything out of turn, did I?'  He asked worriedly.

'Not at all,'  Byleth assured him.  'I was just... OW!'

Her sentence was cut short by the now-familiar kitten bite on her earlobe.

'How in the hell did you get up there without me noticing?'  Byleth swore, batting Colin's tiny face away from her ear gently.  'You would make a good assassin you know.'  She told the cat with respect.

'Wow, where did that little fella come from?'  Ashe looked amazed as the kitten settled himself back onto Byleth's shoulder with a happy purr.

'I believe he is actually a demon from the pits, not a cat at all.'  Byleth mused.

Ashe went pale.  'R..r..really?'  He stuttered seriously.

'Well, no... not really.'  Byleth stared at the boy.  'Something wrong?'  She asked softly.

'Oh.. well... I just don't like ghost or scary stories very much.'  Ashe admitted, his face turning bright red.  'I guessed you were joking, but this Monastery... Well, I gotta say it can be properly spooky at night, and it's so ancient.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the cats were demons.  They are everywhere.'

Byleth couldn't hold back her chuckle this time.  'I guess as your teacher it will be my job to vanquish all demons from the classroom Ashe.'  She told him.  'Have no fear - I believe I am up to the task.'

'You.. aren’t teasing me?'  He asked, wondrously.

'Of course not.'  Byleth gave him a solemn nod.  'Your safety is my deepest concern.'

'Oh.. wow!'  Ashe's grin was back, and he beamed from ear to ear.

'You know, they call me the Ashen Demon.'  Byleth told him.

'Never!'  He sounded quite breathless.

'Maybe you are destined to be my demon-slaying sidekick.'  She raised her brow at him questioningly.

He tried not to look scared.  'It sounds like fate.'  He gulped.

Chapter Text

'I don't think that the training grounds are open.'  Ashe commented as he pointed out the massive structure that Byleth had requested finding.  She nodded her agreement, noting the masked man stood in front of the doors that led into the area.

'Who's that?'  She asked, under her breath as she strode towards him.

'That's Weaponsmaster Jeritza.'  Ashe replied, then stopped where he was - hanging back slightly to give the two faculty staff some space to talk.

'Weaponsmaster.'  Byleth nodded at the man who appeared to be staring at her, his mouth set in a straight line and his face unreadable since so much of it was covered.

'This area is currently off-limits.'  He said tersely, his voice cold.

'So I see.'  Byleth appraised the man for a few seconds.  'I understand that Casper was talking with you earlier.  Do you happen to know where he went after?'

Jeritza didn’t reply, even from behind the mask Byleth could feel his eyes boring into her uncomfortably.

'Do you want to spar?'  He asked suddenly. 

'Now?' 

He reigned in the slight note of enthusiasm that had briefly entered his voice.  'I simply mean that I desire to test your form.  I would be... displeased but not wholly surprised to find that your lack of formal training leaves you entirely unprepared to teach.'

'I was trained by Jeralt, whom I believe was the Captain of the Knights of Seiros at one point.'  She returned stiffly.

'A mercenary.'  The man couldn’t keep the derision from his voice.  'At least for the last twenty years and before his service to the Church too if I am not mistaken.'

Byleth shrugged.  'I don’t have the time right now - but I will happily cross blades when it is more convenient.'

Jeritza had gone very still, his head cocked at an angle, still observing her closely.

'I was planning to set up a demonstration of our facilities in a few days.  Just before lessons start.  Perhaps we could engage in an exhibition match.'  There was a challenge in his tone that was intoxicating.

'I think you might make more of an impact if you asked Jeralt.'  She replied thoughtfully.  'He is the one with the towering reputation and history after all.'

'Scared?'  Jeritza taunted.

'Are you planning on fighting to the death?'  She responded in kind.

He jolted.  'Obviously not.'  He murmured. 

'Then there is hardly anything to fear is there?'

'So you will do it?'  His voice had returned to enthusiasm, which he appeared to be trying to hide.  It made him seem almost boyish, although Byleth assumed he must be older than his current manner was leading her to believe since he held such a responsible position in the Academy.  So much was being made of her own tender years after all.

'Well?'  He was impatient now.

'If it is your wish.  Yes.'  Byleth muttered.

'Good.  I will agree on the details with Seteth and inform you of the arrangements.'

'Can I assist you in that?'  She asked politely.

There was a long silence.

'Sorry.'  Jeritza sounded anything but.  'I don’t like buddying up with others.'  He took an involuntary step backward, away from her.  'If you have no other business here then leave.'

Byleth stared at him for a few more seconds, then inclined her head in polite respect and turned away, walking back to where Ashe was waiting for her.

'You have any idea where I might find Caspar or Petra?'  She asked the lad who was staring at her with wide eyes.  He shook his head, unable to speak as they started moving rather aimlessly in the direction of the classrooms again.

'Are you really going to fight with him?'  Ashe finally asked, his eyes shining in excitement.

'Looks like it.'  She grunted.

'Oh, my!'  He grinned happily.  'That will be amazing!'

'It will?'  She queried.  'I assumed it would be fairly common, in a Military Academy.'

'Well, sparring between students, and teachers with students yes.'  Ashe admitted.  'I heard that there aren’t ever any crossover fights though, like between the Knights and the faculty, or students.  Although we do get to observe the Knight's in their own sparring tournaments.'

'I see.'  Byleth suddenly felt a little exposed.  'Well, I think the purpose is simply for demonstration.'  She said.

'You reckon?'  Ashe smiled.  'The Weaponsmaster certainly seemed challenging to me!'

'Right.'  Byleth's stomach started to churn although her weariness didn’t show one iota on her stoic face.  She mentally added a visit to Jeralt to get his view on the upcoming fight onto her long list of things to do.

'Professor!'  Byleth was being hailed, although it took Ashe nudging her discretely for her to actually notice.

'Lady Edelgard is trying to get your attention.'  He whispered to her urgently.  'You need me anymore?'  He added when she looked up to catch a glance at the young woman who was coming towards her, Hubert in tow.

'No, thank you for your help, Ashe.'  She murmured, stopping to allow Edelgard to catch up with her.  He grinned and then sped off towards the Blue Lions classroom.

'Professor.'  Edelgard had reached her, Hubert a step behind with a massive scowl on his face.  'Professor Manuela was looking for you.  Your room has been prepared apparently.  Since I knew we would be meeting, I took the liberty of taking hold of the key to pass on.'

'My thanks.'  Byleth took the offered key.  'I still have two of your house that I have been unable to track down. '  She added.  I would still like to speak to them if I can.'

'Of course!'  Edelgard agreed.  'If I could ask you to show the Professor to her room Hubert, I will happily round up your missing students and have them come along to you.'

Hubert's scowl deepened, but he bowed and muttered his agreement.

'Caspar and Petra.'  Byleth supplied.  'After that I will be ready to attend on you Lady Edelgard.  If that is convenient.'

'Of course.'  The girl smiled cautiously.  'I have been hearing some of the tales of your meetings with the students.'  She added.

'It has been an interesting afternoon.'  Byleth noted blankly.

'I won't keep you!  Hubert?'  She gestured him forward.

'Of course.'  He muttered.  'If you will follow me, Professor.'  He started to walk in the direction of the student dormitories at a fast pace.

They walked in complete silence, neither of them uncomfortable with a lack of conversation.

'Here.'  Hubert said finally, indicating a room on the end of the ground floor block that housed the students.  'For some reason you have been lumbered with us.  The end rooms are slightly larger than the others though.  I believe that they were initially intended for the House Professor's, but I know for a fact that your fellow staff team are housed elsewhere.'

'Thank you.'  Byleth offered no further comment, and simply moved forward and unlocked her door. 

'I will take my leave then.  Lady Edelgard and I will await your attendance in our house classroom.  Please do not be tardy, she is a busy woman.' 

'As soon as I've seen your other two students.'  Byleth promised.  'The quicker you get them here, the quicker we will be done.'

Hubert disappeared without another word while Byleth walked into her new accommodation.  There was already a small fire blazing on the hearth, and someone had thoughtfully put a kettle on the stand next to it to heat some water. 

The space was much larger than she was used to occupying on her own, and she appraised it without any real feeling other than as a functional place to work and sleep. 

The bed was enormous, as was the worktable set below the window.  There was plenty of space for storage and shelving for books.  A small cupboard was already stocked with stationery and her traveler's bag had been placed by the closet which, when she opened, it contained a couple of uniforms, not unlike the students.

There was also a small round table with an unopened box set upon it.  She recognised the handwriting on the note that rested on top of it immediately.  It was from Jeralt.

Intrigued, she opened up the box and found a plain white teapot, cups, and a blend of tea leaves inside.  She chuckled slightly at the sight of them and was actually a bit touched by the gesture.  'Thanks da.'   She thought, unloading the cups.

Chapter Text

The door to Byleth's room was thumped so hard that she was sure she could hear the hinges groan in protest.

'Professor!'  A loud voice called out.  'Are you in there?'

She made her way over and swung the door open wide, peering out, then looking down slightly at the young man grinning at her.

'Hey!  You are here.  Heard you were looking for me!'  He exclaimed.

'Caspar?'  She enquired.

'That's me!'  He followed her as she stepped back into her room.    'Caspar von Bergleiz at your service.'  He bowed then bobbed back up, his grin still wide on his face.  'Hear that you are one hell of a scrapper Prof,  just like me!'

'That explains the shiner then.'  Byleth nodded towards the purple and yellow bruise that was currently riding high on the lad's cheekbone, clashing rather unkindly with his baby-blue hair.'

'Heh, you should see the other guy!'  Caspar stuck his hands on his hips and smirked.  'He won't be making fun of my height again.'  He added, sitting himself down on the edge of her bed and appraising her openly.   'So did you want anything in particular?'  He asked.

'Not really.'  Byleth admitted.  'I was told to meet all of the students.'  She spread her hands silently and gestured at him.

'Good idea!'  Caspar nodded.  'I saw Lindhardt on his way for his nap, and he said that he'd met you.  Not that common for him to actually notice someone, let alone show any interest.'

'You knew each other before you arrived here?'  Byleth asked.

'We've been friends since we were kids, although it was only chance that we are here at the same time.  We are the same age, though.'  Caspar was gazing at her again.  'If he reckons you're interesting then I'd bet he's bang on the money.  He usually is.'

'My apologies...'  A new voice drifted in from the direction of the doorway, where a girl was stood at the threshold of the room peering in uncertainly. 

'Heh!  C'mon in Petra...'  Caspar invited.  'The Prof here is getting to know us all!'  He explained.

The girl looked politely at Byleth for permission.

'Please..'  Byleth beckoned her, struck immediately by the woman's athletic physique and vividly magenta hair that was piled tidily into a long tail.  A tattoo under her eye matched the colouring perfectly.

'I am full of apologies.'  Petra said carefully, her voice sweet but her accent heavy.  'Her Highness told me that I was wanted.'

'It's fine.  I have been tracking down everyone today.'  Byleth told her.

'Hunting?'  Petra looked a little confused.

'In a manner, I suppose.'

'Will we fight?'  Petra sighed, 'I have not brought a weapon!'

'Heh, yeah.. you should fight!'  Caspar agreed merrily.  'I'll take on the winner!'

'No.'  Byleth said firmly.  'No fighting.'

'I am again full of apologies!'  Petra was blushing now.  'I am not speaking your language well.  I am reading it better than speaking, and I must learn more.'

'Where are you from?'  Byleth asked with genuine curiosity.  She couldn’t place the accent or the girls beautifully exotic looks to any region that she had traveled to.

'Brigid.'  The girl's chin rose proudly.  'It is an... archipelago..'  She stumbled a little over the word.  '.. off the Western coast of Fodlan.'  Her eyes drooped slightly.  'We are a vassal state to the Adrestian Empire.'  She explained in what was an obviously rehearsed line.

'Petra's a real Princess!'  Caspar added.  'A real-life warrior Princess.'  He said with a beaming grin at the girl who raised a small smile back at him. 

'I am a commoner here.'  She reminded him.

'Pfft.'  The lad exclaimed dramatically.  'I'm so far down the line of succession in my house that I may as well be a commoner too!  It's up to us to make something of ourselves, 'cause no-one else will.'

She nodded at him sagely.

'I mean, look at the Prof here.'  Caspar declared.  'Sure, her da is a bit of a legend, but that just means she's got big boots to fill.  Ain't I right?' 

'Indeed.'  Byleth agreed.

'I am wanting to be strong.'  Petra said firmly.

'I just wanna fight!'  Caspar admitted.

'I like to fight.'  Petra agreed with the lad.  'I am liking to hunt also.  Do you go on the hunt Professor?'  She asked a little shyly.

'When I need food.'  Byleth nodded.  'Prefer to fish though.  I ain't that skilled with a bow honestly.'

'In Brigid, we hunt with spears!'  Petra's eyes were shining.  'You must be strong and brave to stand and spear a boar.'

Byleth nodded agreement.  'That would explain your musculature then.  I think I would enjoy that kind of hunting.'

'I am fishing too.'  Petra added.  'So much water, of course, we fish.  With a spear!'  She grinned.

'I've had to do that once or twice.'  Byleth admitted.  'Tried it with a sword to a few times but that didn’t go so well.  What about you Caspar - do you fish?'

'I reckon I wanna try it Petra's way!'  He exclaimed nodding.

'Then we shall fish together!'  Petra agreed clapping him on the shoulder enthusiastically.

Casper's attention turned back to Byleth, this time he looked at her speculatively.

'So, I've been dying to ask Prof - how many men have you actually killed?'  Caspar's eyes were wide and enthused.  'I mean it's gotta be loads, right  -what with your skill and the amount of time you been a mercenary?'

'I hardly think that is the sort of question you should be asking, Caspar.'  Hubert was back.  Byleth's room was starting to get a bit crowded.

'Why?'  Caspar complained, but Hubert ignored him.

'If you wish to speak with her Highness today you will need to come now.'  He said addressing Byleth directly.  'Another issue has come up that will require her attention tonight - however she is adamant that she wants to speak with you first.'  His tone indicated quite clearly that he disagreed.

Byleth managed to keep her frustration from her face.  She hated to be rushed, and she had hoped to have a little time to reflect before she spoke to the house leaders.  None the less she inclined her head at the scowling man.

'Thank you for your time.'  She said dismissing Caspar and Petra who both left quickly.  She found herself silently following Hubert again, back towards the classrooms, trying to work out precisely what she was going to say.  She mentally cursed the entire situation.

'You look a little... perturbed, if I may say.'  Hubert's voice slid into her ear, so oily that she nearly shook her head.

'I am just getting my thoughts together.'  She grunted back at him.  'I have no wish to hold Lady Edelgard up so I wish to be as prepared and direct as I can.'

'Hmm, well... as I am sure you have realised, while my Lady desires to have you as our house mentor, I do not.  I will, however, support her in her wishes even if that means I am required to work with you...'

'You realise that you aren’t intimidating me in the slightest right?'  Byleth murmured.  'I thought you'd realised that earlier too.'  An odd thought crossed her mind.  'Have you given Professor's Manuela and Hanneman the same kind of talking-to that you have given me?'  She asked, suddenly interested.

'They have been at the Academy for a long while now.'  He said evenly.  'I was able to compile my checks comprehensively on them before we arrived.  You, however, are an unknown quantity.  Not only that, a talented and dangerous individual if the rumors are true.'

'Stop it now, you'll make me blush.'  Byleth just couldn’t seem to prevent herself from teasing him.  She had no idea where it came from.  It was almost definitely a bad idea.

Hubert sighed, heavily.

'What about the Weaponsmaster?'  Byleth enquired after a second.  'What's his story?'

'You want me to share my intelligence.. with you?'  Hubert smiled at her, a particularly reptilian smile.  'What is it worth, Professor?'  He inquired politely.

She shrugged nonchalantly.  'Nothing really - I was just wondering why he is so insistent on sparing with me publically.  Thought you might have some insight but I ain't that worried about it in truth.'

'He is exceptionally skilled in his art.'  They had come to a halt outside the Black Eagle classroom.  Hubert looked down at her thoughtfully.  'I'd like to think that he simply wants to put you in your place and humiliate you a bit, but there may be a little more to it than that.  What exactly I couldn’t say.  He is another one that I am keeping a very close eye on.'

'Why are you sharing, Hubert?'  Byleth asked.

'Well..'  The man said as he pushed open the door and held it for the Professor.  'Maybe I am one of the good guys.'

Chapter Text

'Thank you for attending me so promptly.'  Edelgard made her way quickly down the aisle of desks to meet up with Byleth as Hubert closed the door firmly behind them.  'Please take a seat.'

Byleth sat and pulled out the list that Manuela had provided her refreshing her memory of the members of the Black Eagles.  The silence stretched as she waited for Edelgard to speak again.  She didn’t have to wait long.

'Apologies for having to rush you.'  The girl's voice was hesitant as if she were testing the waters.  'My business this evening was quite unexpected, regardless I do have to attend, and it means that I have much less time that I would have liked...'

'I will not keep you very long, Lady Edelgard.  I have already been advised in no uncertain terms of your time constraint.'

'I see.'  Edelgard shot a look at Hubert who returned her stare impassively.  'Is there anything further that you would like to know about our current crop of students?'  She asked.  'I don’t know many of them well yet of course, and we have rather an eclectic mix of personalities, but I am sure that everyone will work hard and do us proud.'

'What are you hoping to get out of this year?'  Byleth finally looked directly at the girl.  'You have already demonstrated that you have a good grounding in martial skill, which I am positive can be built on easily enough.'

'Thank you.'  Edelgard nodded seriously.  'I am looking to extend my knowledge of tactical planning and leadership skills mainly.  Obviously having an opportunity to build better and more personal relationships with others, particularly those from the Kingdom and the Alliance is also a boon and something I am keenly anticipating.'

Byleth was nodding.

'Professor, can I ask...  I have heard it said that you have had no prior experience of the church - how is that?  I would have suspected that in your travels you would have at least some contact, especially since your father was a Knight of Seiros himself.'  Edelgard could barely keep her interest from her voice.

'You would have to ask him directly.'  Byleth replied honestly.  'It is not something that has ever come up between us.  Indeed it was a surprise to me that he had ever had any dealings with the Cathedral.'

'That is rather odd, Professor.'  Hubert said suddenly.  'I am not sure I can totally believe what you say.'

'Hubert.'  Edelgard warned.

'Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but you have to admit that it seems unlikely that Jeralt, one of the most remarkable leaders that the Knights ever had has a daughter who knows nothing of the church.'  Huberts look was inscrutable.

'As I said you would need to speak to him if you seek an answer.  I cannot provide you with one.'  Byleth's face never changed expression, she just shrugged her lack of interest.

'I do wish I had a little more time to engage with you in a more relaxed manner.'  Edelgard said a little brusquely when it became apparent that Byleth had no more to say on her question, 'I would like you to know that I am hoping that you will be mentoring the Black Eagles this year.  Even if you are not, I would very much like to be allowed a little of your time to get to know you better and possibly build a relationship between us.'

'Why?'  Byleth asked bluntly, but her question wasn’t confrontational, just interested.

'I am hoping to recruit you.'  Edelgard replied gravely.

'As a mercenary?' 

Edelgard shook her head.  'Hopefully, as an ally.'  She responded.

'You should know that I have little knowledge of anything beyond fighting.'  Byleth replied.  'Realistically, I have no idea how effective I will be as a teacher, and I certainly do not warrant an interest in ability beyond that as a weapon - a mere tool.'

There was another long silence.

'How long has it been Hubert, since someone we have looked too to provide us help or support has been so brutally honest?'  Edelgard said quietly.

'I would suggest that the answer to that would be that it has never before happened your Highness.'  Hubert replied.

'I believe you are probably right.'  Edelgard sighed.  'It is an unfortunate truth Professor that the game of politics and alliances is based largely on one's ability to obfuscate or outright lie while smiling as you do it.  It can be very tiring.'

'Not something I have to concern myself with thankfully.'  Byleth shrugged again.  'Jeralt is the one who chooses where and when we fight, who we join with and who we avoid.'  She steepled her fingers together, thinking about her words carefully.  'I have been involved in battles that have killed hundreds of men simply because there is a strip of land that would take less than half a day to walk across that's ownership is being contested.  To be able to do that day after day, fight after fight,  well, it is simply not wise to get involved in the why or wherefore and to only consider one's own survival and the role you have been paid to fulfill.  In too many cases, the unavoidable loss of life is for the most futile of reasons.'

Edelgard bristled at her words although she tried hard to cover it.  'Often the genuine reasons do not filter down to the lower ranks.'  She said solemnly.  'That does not mean that they do not exist.'

Byleth's face was still impassive.  'Like I said - it's not my lookout.  I fight, and I live, or I die.  There are many like me, and a good number of them are possessed of much more skill than I.'

Edelgard was looking a little annoyed as if the conversation was not going in the way she had envisioned.  Byleth sighed to herself.

'I am grateful for your consideration your Highness.'  She said dispassionately.  'I am aware that I can be contrary person and I am not at all accustomed to a great deal of attention.  I hope that I will make an adequate teacher and that I can at least meet some of Lady Rhea's unfathomable faith in me.'

'I do still hope that you are assigned to us.'  Edelgard said stubbornly. 

'Regardless of whom I end up with, you should know that you and the other students in your house will have my unwavering support in achieving your goals.'  Byleth suddenly looked thoughtful.  'Your time here is a gift Lady Edelgard, and those in your house are an asset that you should be grateful for.'

'Agreed.'  Edelgard stood.  'Is there anything else that you would like to know Professor?'  She asked politely.

'I don’t think so.'

'Are you...'  There was an awkward pause for a second, as Edelgard looked away as if trying to decide whether to speak or not.  Byleth indicated for her to pose her query.  'I just wondered... The kitten, there on your shoulder.  Do you intend to carry it everywhere with you?'  Edelgard's face had gone a bit red, embarrassed at her inquisitiveness.

Byleth had utterly forgotten that Colin was still on her shoulder, she had become accustomed to his presence in such a short time.

'I don’t appear to have much say in the matter quite frankly.'  Byleth noted.  'He manages to climb up me without me even noticing.  He has some mad skills.'  Her eyes were soft as she tickled the fuzzy face and took the finger-biting with good grace.

'It just seems so... unusual.' 

'I think you have just summed up our new Professor in a single word.'  Hubert looked amused.  'I need to remind your Highness that we are on a tight schedule.'  He added pointedly.

'Indeed.'  Edelgard straightened her uniform.  'Thank you again, Professor.'  She nodded at Byleth, who stood and inclined her head.  Hubert moved to the door to open it for his lady, although once she had passed through, he lingered.

'Do you have a new threat for me Hubert, or are you just going to recycle one of the ones you've tried already?'  Byleth was tired, and her head was running away with her - going over the conversation she had just had.

Hubert was looking at her appraisingly, and it was beginning to annoy her just a little.  He finally shook his head.  'I don’t need to repeat myself, Professor.'  He mused thoughtfully.  'Indeed, I begin to see the merit of keeping you close, where I can easily continue my observation.  You are, without a doubt, an interesting study.  I think I like you.'

'Oh, you are good Hubert.'  Byleth bowed respectfully.  'I think that scares me far more than your threats ever could!'

'How delightful!'  She was sure that he winked at her, but he'd turned to leave before she could be entirely positive.

'I am so not ready for this.  Any of this.'  She moaned to herself, trying to pull herself together.  She needed to see Dimitri next.  At least, she figured the earnest young man would be less of a trial than the solemn future Empress and her trained monkey.  'Please, give me a break!'  She prayed.

Chapter Text

The first thing that Byleth spotted when she left the Black Eagle classroom was the tall and imposing figure of Dedue standing rigid and blank-faced in the exact position that she had bumped into Dimitri earlier.  While the man's eyes flickered towards her as she emerged, he made no move to approach her.  Instead, she walked up to him briskly.

'I'm looking for Prince Dimitri.'  She told him.  'Do you know where he is?'

'In his room.'  Dedue looked down at her, his face as expressionless as her own.  'He bade me make myself available in the event you should be looking for him while he deals with some correspondence.'

'I'm sorry I kept you waiting.'  Byleth murmured.

'There is no need to apologise Professor.  If you are ready, I will escort you to him.'

Byleth nodded and fell into step beside him as he moved off.  She noted that although the pace they kept was crisp, the big man was thoughtfully checking his stride to allow her to keep up.'

'I hope you have had an informative afternoon.'  Dedue said suddenly after a few minutes of silence.

'I achieved what was required.'  She replied.

'Very good.'  He paused a second.  'I believe that you have been assigned the bedroom next to mine, Professor.'  He looked down at her.  'If there is ever anything that you need, I would be honored to be of service.'

'Thank you.'  Byleth nodded again.  'Do you.. happen to snore Dedue?'  She asked unexpectedly.  His eyes widened in surprise.

'I have never been told that I do.'  He said seriously.  'The building is ancient, and I have noted that the walls are very thick so I doubt that there would likely be a problem.  None the less if I should ever disturb you..'

'Oh no!'  Byleth was mortified that she had spoken, not that it showed on her face.  Her words had popped out of her mouth before she could stop them.  'It's just... Jeralt snores like a demon, and over the years it has become like a lullaby when I have trouble sleeping.'  She somehow managed not to blush at the amused glint that appeared on the deadpan face observing her.  'In truth,'  She plowed on resolutely.  'It is more likely to be you that has cause to complain!'

'You snore too?'  He raised an expressive eyebrow at her.  

'No!'  She exclaimed, covering her consternation at the quirk pulling at his lips with her best blank-eyed stare.  'Unfortunately, on occasion, I talk in my sleep as if holding a conversation with another.  In truth..'  She added.  'I do it sometimes when I am awake too.  Jeralt has more than once accused me of having an imaginary friend.'

'I see.'  Dedue's tone was surprisingly warm.  'My youngest sister had a similar affliction.'  He admitted.

'Does she still do it?'  Byleth asked, genuinely interested.

'Unfortunately, she was lost along with the rest of my family.'  He replied stoically.

'Im sorry.'  Byleth's hand touched his arm gently.

'It was the fate of most of the people from Duscur.'  Dedue's demeanor was rigid.  'Were it not for the intervention of Prince Dimitri, it is a fate that I would have shared.'

They walked in silence for the rest of the way.   Dedue knocked on the Prince's door once they reached it.

'Professor!'  Dimitri threw his door open a little enthusiastically, and it protested as it's strong hinges were tested.  He winced.   'Please,'  He said as he indicated her inside.  'Will you take some tea?'

'Thank you.'  Byleth took a seat at the small table as Dedue bowed and retreated, closing the door much more carefully behind him.  Dimitri was pouring water into a very sturdy looking teapot.  The cups that were on the table already were of the same design.

'Ah!'  He noticed her examination of the vessels as he placed the pot between them.  'I generally pick my tableware for sturdiness rather than aesthetics in private.'  He admitted.  'I think I mentioned that I have a tendency to break things.'

Colin picked that exact moment to leap from Byleth's shoulder and onto the table, then jump over towards the bed.  He began clawing at the blanket hanging down, to start his climb up.

'Oh, you little monster, come here.'  Byleth started to rise to go and grab him, but Dimitri chuckled.

'Leave him, Professor, he looks perfectly contented.'

'When he makes holes in your bedding, you will be cursing him.'  Byleth noted.

'I'm sure it won't be that bad.'  Dimitri sat and poured the tea.  The aroma was divine.  'Chamomile - my favorite.'  Dimitri told her.

Byleth sipped at her cup carefully.  Its taste was as pleasant as it's smell.

'So what can I tell you, Professor?'  Dimitri had put his cup down and was gazing at her intently. 

'I have met with all of the Blue Lion students already.'  Byleth put her cup down too.  'Tell me about yourself.'  She suggested.

Dimitri immediately looked flustered and chuckled nervously.  'Oh, dear!'  He murmured.  'Putting me on the spot, I'm really not sure what to say!'

Byleth said nothing - just looked at him.  He ran a hand self-consciously through his hair. 

'I err, favor the lance as a weapon.'  He offered.

'You showed some skill with it when we faced the bandits.'

'Thank you.  I have obviously had experience with other arms and would like that to continue while I am here.'

Byleth took pity on him when his words dried up.

'I believe there are already some existing connections in your house.'  She said.  'Mercedes and Annette appear close and studied together previously.  You have been friends with..'  She glanced down at her house-list, which she had propped on the table in front of her.  Felix, Sylvain, and Ingrid.' 

Dimitri was nodding at her earnestly.

'That will be useful in building your team into a working unit.'  Byleth commented.

'Well, in more recent years I'm afraid our connections have been looser than they were when we were children.   My friendship with Felix especially has suffered over time.'  His honesty was sincere, but he laughed it off - an anxious sounding chuckle.  'It is likely my own fault.'  He confessed.  'I have already commanded in battle - a rebellion in Western Faerghus - as well as my attendance at the events in the tragedy and massacre in Duscur.  I find myself... conflicted in my view of warfare, and that is hard to explain to those that it has not affected so closely.'

Byleth nodded her understanding.

'I need to improve my comprehension of tactics and my understanding of engagement, I suppose.'  Dimitri had to look away, unable to manage her continued piercing gaze.  'When you took control of us in our skirmish with the bandits.. well, as I told you earlier - I was impressed, much impressed with how you managed both us and the level of force we utilised to achieve our victory.  It was not excessive, and yet it was exactly what was required.  I sincerely hope to learn that from you.'

'A great amount of pointless death can be avoided by good management and understanding.'  Byleth agreed.  'I would suggest that you ask Jeralt for his aid in your studies too.  His knowledge is far more comprehensive than mine.'

'Do you think he would spare me some time?'

'I know that he will.'  Byleth replied.  'In our job, we come across all kinds of situations and scenarios.  If you show a genuine desire to avoid the kind of mistakes that lead to heavy casualties on both sides, he will give you all the time you need.  As will I.'

Dimitri looked stunned.  'Really?'  He breathed.

'Just because we sell our military service, don't mean we don't understand the futility of needless death and destruction.  We see it over and over.  Rinse and repeat.'  Her look was intense.  'Some conflicts are unavoidable, but the damage they do can be limited if you care enough to try.'

'I believe so too!'  Dimitri beamed.

'Reagrdless of where I end up, I aim to teach whoever requires to learn.  I don't really get this whole house thing, I reckon a student is a student and that's what matters.  If I do not mentor the Blue Lion's your Highness - it will not affect the aid that I will give to you or any of your members.  The same goes for the other houses too.'

'Please, Professor.  Call me Dimitri.'  He was smiling at her, his earlier awkwardness almost entirely gone in his enthusiasm.  'One of the things that I particularly enjoyed the other night was that you did not coddle any of us simply because of our position or our titles.  I sincerely hope that will continue.'

She nodded at him briefly.

'Do you know when your placement will be decided?'  He asked.

'I do not.'  Byleth broke eye-contact with him for the merest second.  'I assume it will be soon.'  She added.

'I hope so.'  He smiled at her.  'Of course if there is anything that I can do for you, Professor - please let me know.'  He drained the last of the tea from his cup.

'Thank you.'  Byleth stood, and wordlessly retrieved Colin from where he had nestled himself in Dimitri's blankets and fallen asleep.  He rumbled a complaint and bit her fingers.

'Have you managed to speak to everyone now Professor?'  Dimitri asked politely,  trying not to laugh at the kitten's irritable behavior.

'I still have one more to speak to.'  Byleth told him as she made for the door.   'I believe I need to set a trap first though.'  She added enigmatically.

Chapter Text

Byleth had already formulated a plan to catch her stalker, but she was well aware that timing was going to play an essential part in her scheme.  Claude was too close to her at the moment to allow things to work effectively. 

With that in mind, she strode away from the dormitories and back down towards the lake area - her pace brisk and purposeful.  She wanted bodies between them, and it would be even better if they were people who may actually distract the man who was following her.

Although by now, it was relatively late in the afternoon, Byleth was relieved to find that there were still a fair amount of people lingering outside in the gentle sunlight.  Some of the students that she had already spoken to acknowledged her passing as she marched swiftly towards the marketplace.  She gave a friendly wave to the gatekeeper as she went into the entrance hall.

Her pace never slowed as she relentlessly pushed forward, not even when she changed her course suddenly and chose a route through the dining hall instead of continuing ahead.  This allowed her a covert look back, and she was rewarded by a familiar flash of yellow only just managing to get through the main doors to the hall. 

Satisfied, Byleth started to head back to her room, having to rely on the distance now being enough that she could pull off her endgame move.

Her key was already in her hand when she approached the door to her room, and she was through it in a matter of seconds, kicking it closed without pause.  Colin was dumped firmly on her bed, her window at the back of the room opened, and she was out of it quickly and onto the grass below.  She broke into a run, throwing herself at the tree she had noticed earlier when she had observed Claude spying on her meeting with Caspar and Petra.  She managed to get herself up into its branches with moments to spare before her prey came barrelling around the corner of the dormitories - just as she had expected he would.

It was anticipation rather than exertion that had her breathing heavily as she shrank back against the tree trunk, efficiently hidden in the foliage.  She oversaw the man approach her window with care, dipping low under the frame and pressing himself against the wall.   Her face broke into a fierce grin when, after a while, he started to come to the realisation that there was no noise coming from her room, and he began to try and surreptitiously peek inside.  Her grin became feral when he started to swear upon realising that she was not there at all.

Byleth could almost feel his mind working furiously to understand what had happened.  He scowled and gripped onto the windowsill as if he was considering climbing in which was something she hadn’t anticipated.   Thankfully he thought better of it, and with another curse, he turned away and began to slink back towards the end of the building.  That brought him right underneath her.

Silently she dropped from her branch and landed heavily onto his back, his cry of alarm as he fell to his knees incredibly satisfying.  They tussled for a few moments, and even though the slender lad was actually a lot stronger than she had suspected, the outcome was inevitable.  She quickly had him pinned down as she straddled his back, one arm pulled behind him painfully, and her own arm tight around his neck raising his head.  He was spluttering indignantly but had the sense to become still as struggling just made things worse.

'Looking for me Claude?'  Byleth asked him levelly.

'Prof!.. '  The boy choked out.  'I know I'm irresistible, but if you'd wanted to get my attention...'  He wisely shut up as the arm around his throat became tighter.

'You were pretty good, you know.'  Byleth continued conversationally.  'Not good enough to prevent getting caught however...  Why were you stalking me?'  She pulled his arm back just a tiny bit further.

'I..think 'stalking' is a bit of a harsh term.'  Claude blustered.  'And... OUCH!... Are you planning on breaking my arm or what?'

'I haven’t decided yet.'  Byleth murmured.

'Mean!'  He grumbled. 

Byleth eased back, and let go of him.  She stood in one fluid motion and reached down a hand to help him up.  He sat and stared at her, then grinned and grabbed her hand.  She motioned him silently towards her window.

'Perhaps I should come round to the front door instead, you know - just in case people are watching.'  He smirked.

'So you can run away, you mean?'  She jumped gracefully onto the window ledge and swung her legs in.  'Up to you.'  She shrugged, turning her back and going to the fireplace to set her kettle to boil.

'Damn, you're a cool one.'  Claude had followed her, just as she was sure he would.  He sat himself on a chair at her table and leaned back, his arms behind his head, watching her as she prepared the tea things.

'You didn’t answer my question, Claude.'  Byleth reminded him.  'You've been shadowing me all day, I want to know why.'

'Why not?'  He replied his relaxed grin broadening.  'A pretty girl is a pretty girl - Professor or not.' 

She stared at him, expressionlessly.  'I'm not an idiot.'  She stated.

'Hey, teach... I wasn’t suggesting you were.'  He sighed and sat up a little straighter.  'I'm not getting out of this am I?'  He asked, ruefully.

She didn’t bother with a reply.

'Alright.. enough with the death-glare already.'  His tone was a trifle petulant. 'I was merely gathering information.  Same as you.'

Byleth poured hot water into her teapot and set it on the table to steep.  She indicated for him to continue.

'Look, teach..'  He spread his hands imploringly.  'I don’t have the kind of weight that either the eager Prince or the frost Empress have.  I'm an outsider here and just as much an unknown as you are. They both want you though, quite badly, and I can't ignore that fact.  I simply wanted to get an idea of how best to pursue you.'

'Tactical observation?'  Byleth queried.

'Right!  You get it!'

'So what are your conclusions?'  She asked as she poured the tea and pushed a cup at him.  He looked startled at the question, and then even more so when Colin appeared from nowhere and lept athletically up to his shoulder and attacked the braid he wore in his hair.  With a yelp, he grabbed the squirming bundle and deposited him back on the bed.

'You two suit each other.'  He noted, scowling at the kitten before picking up his tea and considering his next words carefully.  'Truth is teach, I have no idea how to win you over to me.  I want to.  Initially, like I said, my interest was only because the other two wanted you - but from what I've seen today I think that you have been told to choose who you want to mentor and if it comes down to choice I want it to be me.'

'Why?'

'It's rejection or a big win over the others.  I want the win.  Obviously.'

Byleth sipped her tea.  'Not really a rejection.  I can only pick one.'  She pointed out.

'You are rather interesting too.'  He said seriously.  'Quite aside from Lady Rhea allowing you a position on the staff, your interactions with the students have been fascinating.'

'They have?'

'Mmm.'  His grin was suddenly back on his face, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.  'Your treated everyone you met as a complete individual.  You certainly gave Hubert a scare, and that's not easily done!'

'Isn't it usual to behave with people in the best manner to suit them?'  She asked, puzzled. 

'It's a great idea in theory, but most people don’t bother.'  Claude's look became appraising.  'For all of your imposing stare and hard demeanour, you were downright impressive with some of the quieter kids.  I'll admit that surprised me.  Assumed you would be more into the tougher crowd.'

Byleth was shaking her head.  'I have no idea what you mean.'  She said blankly.

He gazed deeper at her, the silence drawing out as they regarded each other.

'You really don’t do you?'  He said finally.  'I only wish I had been able to eavesdrop when you spoke with Edelgard and Dimitri.  Unfortunately, the Prince's guard-dog was too close by on both encounters to make it possible.'  He fell silent again, and a look of indecision ran over his face.  He settled on asking the question on his mind though.  'So, who are you planning on picking Prof?  You going to put a poor man out of his misery?  I really want to know.'

'I haven’t reached a conclusion yet.'  She replied honestly.  'I will tell you what I told the other two house leaders.  Regardless of who I pick, it is not a reflection of any lack of interest in providing any aid to the others that I can.' 

'What help do you think I need?'  Claude challenged her.

'You could use a few pointers in stalking for starters.'

He laughed out loud, and this time his eyes glinted in merriment.  'Was that an attempt at humour teach?'  He chuckled.

'No.  It's fact.  I caught you, didn’t I?'

'Wow.  Nice one!'  He was still laughing. 

'I'm not sure what you are finding so funny.'  She admitted, which only made him laugh harder.  In fact he was still chuckling when she indicated that his time was over and she showed him to the door.

'Please pick the Golden Deer, Professor.'  He begged as he leaned against the doorframe grinning.  'We will have such fun!'

'I'm not sure we are supposed to be having fun.'  She told him as he bowed to her and walked away.  She shook her head and closed the door.

'He called you interesting, but I'd say that he is the interesting one.'  The young girl that had appeared on her bed, scratching at Colins' head observed.

'I agree, I think.'  Byleth nodded, gathering up the tea things.

'You do.'  The girl told her.

'What did you make of the others?'  Byleth asked, 'Thank's by the way.  If you had been running commentary in my head while I was talking to them all I would probably have gone insane.'

'I felt that.  You were very focused.  Impressively so.  You want my thoughts now?'

'I really need them.'  Byleth agreed.

Chapter Text

Colin was on his back with all four of his paws in the air, squirming in pleasure as the girl concentrated on tickling the little writhing little monster's fluffy belly.  Byleth watched them, first in amusement and then with a bit of confusion.

'How come he can see you?'  She asked the child suddenly.  'How are you touching him?'

'He's a cat.'  She replied simply, a luminous smile on her face.

'I know he's a cat.'  Byleth's brow knitted.  'Is this an indication that you are not simply a figment of my imagination?' 

'Do you really believe that your limited imagination could stretch to create the wonder that is me?'  The girl replied tartly, glancing at the young woman and tossing back her long green hair.  'Have you never witnessed a cat staring intently at an empty space before?  It is quite normal for a feline to see things that others cannot.' 

'But you are physically stroking him.' 

The child giggled.  'He insisted to me that he required to be stroked and his own will made it happen.  He is a cat, after all.'

Byleth's bemusement grew. 

'Besides which, this place we have come to...'  The child's look became intense.  'Everything is different here.  I feel... much freer -  so maybe I am touching the cat in reality.'   She shrugged, her dainty shoulders making the gesture quite adorable.

Byleth sat at the table and poured a cold cup of tea from the dregs in the pot.  She drank it down quickly.  'I'm probably just insane.' She decided.

'How very dramatic.'  The girl said dryly.  'That is what Jeralt believes though, I can think of no other reason for him to have brought you here.'

'He didn’t bring me here.  It was just chance that we rescued those young people.' Byleth objected.

'This was his intended destination.  I am sure of it.'

Byleth's brow rose.  'Suddenly, you know everything?'  She challenged.  'You only remembered your own name a day ago.'

'Sothis.'  The girl nodded.  'It is an excellent name, don’t you think?'

'And you learned you can turn back time.'  Byleth paused.  'Actually, that did really happen.  Another indication that you are real, I suppose.'

'Made you look quite the hero.'  Sothis smirked.  'Rescuing the fair maiden from the nasty bandits.  No wonder all those brat's want you for themselves.'

'So what did you make of them?'  Byleth asked curiously.

'The brats?'  Sothis was silent for a second.  'I think it's what you thought of them that was more interesting personally.'  Her reply was cryptic, and she gazed at Byleth with an infuriatingly enigmatic smile.

'Oh?  Care to expand on that, or are you just trying to annoy me even more?'

'You were amused many times this afternoon.  I have not felt that emotion from you before.'  Sothis noted.

'Generally, there isn’t much amusement to be found in day after day of relentless fighting.' 

'Hmm.  I see your point.'  The girl agreed.  'What is it that is different here then?  Is it that you are not going to working as a mercenary?'

Byleth's impassive expression betrayed some surprise as she thought about the question.  'I don't dislike being a mercenary.'  She replied.  'I did think that I was going to have to work as a servant here.  I doubted I would be required as a fighter since they have the Knights.  Of course, I didn’t know that Jeralt had led the Knights at one stage.'  The words sounded sour in her mouth, but she quickly tried to shake away her budding resentment.  'I am curious as to why he left and took to the road.'  She admitted.  'It was obviously not because he had shamed himself - judging by the welcome he's received at his return.'

'You could ask him.'  Sothis sounded amused.

'Then he would unquestionably believe that I had become unhinged.  We don’t do talking.'

'Things change child.'

'Not that much.'  Byleth chuckled suddenly.  'I admit that I am also finding myself feeling freer Sothis.  Do you think that is simply because you do?'

'Perhaps, or maybe it's just that we are both affected by the same ambiance.'  Sothis leaned forward to peer at Byleth closely.  'You also seem more engaged.'  She decided.  'Less... distant.'

'I am feeling curiosity.'  Byleth agreed.

'It's a good feeling for you.  It seems to have sparked your brain into action.  You are not quite so much the dullard I initially feared.'  Sothis' smirk was back.

'Sadly you are still just as forgetful, however.'  Byleth retorted.  'Are you going to tell me what you thought of the students?'

'The usual mix of intention, fear, and hormones.  Rather usual for their age.'  Sothis replied sagely.  'Genuinely an eclectic mix of personalities though.  Have you decided which you wish to mentor?'

'No.'  Byleth scowled.  'Claude suggesting that I would be rejecting the others by choosing one has just made things much harder as well.'

'Do you care what they think?'

'I...'  Byleth again looked surprised.  'No... I mean, no - I don’t care, but at the same time I don’t want to disappoint.  If I am given a job I do it.  As well as I can.'

'Your job is to pick.'  Sothis pointed out.

'Right.  Yes right!' 

'So, whom do you pick?'  Sothis was grinning at the chagrin on Byleth's face.  'All of your sudden expression is also interesting... and amusing!'  She laughed.

Byleth ignored the girl and knitted her brow.

'It should be easy to choose.'  She muttered.  'It would surely be best if I were to utilize my known abilities and mentor the house with the most martial potential.  From my interactions I would gage that to be the Lions.  Not only does their leader have actual field experience, but there are already existing ties between the majority of house members and at the very least Dimitri, Ingrid, Dedue and Felix look to have established skills.  Annette and Mercedes also have prior training in magical arts as well as a positive relationship.  Ashe is eager, and Sylvain... is a bit of an unknown.'

'So you will pick the Prince and his Lions?'  Sothis asked.

'Well, there is the consideration of whether I should instead choose to mentor the team that has the least coherency and experience instead - rather than just take on the strongest.  Use my experience to build something out of nothing.'  Byleth's fingers were drumming the table as she studied the house list.  'I would deem that to be the Deers.  It would be a proper challenge - but it should be achievable with some hard work.  I noted a measure of enthusiasm at least...'

'Indeed, so you favor the Scheming Lord and his misfits?'  Sothis sounded less sure this time.

'But then there is the middle ground.  Edelgard is a strong woman, and there are some with obvious ability in her house, and some that are just plain odd.  Merging them into a team would challenge but strengthening what exists and making it more is... exceptionally appealing.'

'You have no idea do you?'  Sothis grumbled.

'None.'  Byleth agreed.

'So what will you do?'  The girl removed her hand from the now sleeping kitten and stood.

'I believe I will ask to be assigned a team and go with what I am told.  I have no preference.  I'd rather be a teacher to them all if I am to be a teacher at all.'

'You can't avoid choosing your own path forever Byleth.'  Sothis murmured, daintily stepping across the room to the window.  'Your handsome stalker is right outside again.'  She noted with a smile.

'Shit.  Really?'  Byleth groaned.

'He is looking rather confused too.'  Sothis added.  'After all, you have been talking rather animatedly to yourself for a while now!'

Byleth had marched to the window and flung it open, dumping the contents of the copper kettle that had been resting away from the fire over the young man's head as he crouched under her sill.

'Get lost, Claude.'  She barked.

'You are so violent!'  He accused with a huge grin, standing himself up and planing away the dripping water from his hair.  'But hey, now I know you were telling the truth when you told me you hadn’t decided who you would pick.  Means I'm still in with a shot right, teach?'

'Much less of one now, you sneak!'  She snarled, slamming the window shut.

'You really do like him, don't you.'  Sothis observed.

'Liking him would be both ill-advised and dangerous.'  Byleth muttered watching the lad stroll away as if nothing had happened.

'So what is your next plan of action?' 

Byleth sighed and replaced the kettle by the fire.  'I will talk to the other Professors next and get their insight I think.'

'Actually that's a good plan!'  Sothis approved.

'Im getting a sore throat from all of this damned talking.'  Byleth complained.

Chapter Text

'You don’t appear to be leaving.'  Sothis noted as Byleth put her kettle on to boil.

'Leaving?'

'You said that you were going to seek the advice of the other Professors.' 

Byleth nodded.  'I will.  In the morning.'  She moved from the hearth to the closet space where her pack was sat and started working on the ties holding the bag together.

'Don't you think you should get it done as soon as possible?'  The child's tone was disapproving.

'It's about the time for an evening meal.'  Byleth pointed out reasonably.  'I'm sure that Manuela and Hanneman  would prefer to wait.'  She looked up curiously at the child.  'Why are you so impatient anyway?'

'I'm enjoying your thoughts and this whole process.'  Sothis admitted.

'Hmm.  Well.  I could use a bit of quiet.  Maybe it will help manage my thoughts better.'

'Too bad!'  Sothis suddenly smirked.  'Someone approaches!'

There was a loud knocking on the door.

'Crap.'  Byleth stood and for a second considered pretending she wasn’t in.

'Won't work.'  Sothis murmured gleefully as the door pounded again and a determined and deeply resonant voice called Byleth's name with a hint of irritation.

'Aww, double crap.  I think that's Seteth.'  Byleth went to the door and pulled it open just as the man raised his hand to knock a third time.

'Professor.'  Seteth lowered his hand and scrutinized her carefully.

'How can I help?'  She stood back and motioned him inside.  Wearily he took a step forward, but when she went to close the door behind him, he asked for her to leave it open.

'My sister was hoping to meet you.'  He said his gaze finally moving from Byleth to look around the room with a slightly puzzled frown.  'She will be along in a short while.'

Byleth shrugged and pushed the door so that a crack remained open.  'Tea?'  She offered, filling her pot.

'Oh.  Yes.  Thank you.'  Seteth had moved over to the window very close to where Sothis had hoisted herself comfortably onto the ledge.

'I think he can sense me.'  Sothis grinned.  'It's confusing him.  Just look at his frown!'

'Is there something wrong?'  Byleth asked the man as she took a seat at the table.  He jolted as if suddenly remembering where he was and turned back to look at her. 

'I do apologise.'  He came to sit in the chair across from her.  'There is an odd...  resonance to this room, or maybe it's a familiar scent that I can't quite place..'  His face had softened, nostrils flared slightly, and his green eyes distant.

'Seteth?'

'Sorry!'  He shook himself and forced himself to look at her again.  'I have come to discover whether you have made your decision as to which house you will mentor.'  His features snapped back into their harder countenance.

'I was hoping to speak with Manuela and Hanneman tomorrow before I answer that.'  Byleth told him, pouring their tea.

'I understand.'  Seteth nodded.  He paused as he picked up his cup and warmed his hands around the bowl.  'I feel I should tell you that I am opposed to allowing the mentorship of one of the three Academy houses to someone whose past or abilities I know nothing about.'

'That's sensible.'  Byleth murmured.

Seteth's eyes widened slightly.  'Regardless..'  He continued.  'It is the Archbishop's wish that you take on this role, so I am required to support her despite the fact she has shared very little of the reasoning behind her decision.'

'I don’t understand it either Seteth.'  Byleth told him honestly.

'Is it something you do not wish to do?'  He asked.

Byleth shrugged, her face it's usual mask.  'I have no idea if I am up to the task.'

'I see.'  Seteth sounded thoughtful.  'You are Jeralt's child I understand.'

'So they tell me.'  She sipped at her drink.

'You doubt it?' 

She thought about it.  'I can see no other reason Jeralt would have dragged me around with him if I wasn’t.'  She admitted.  'He don’t allow youngsters into the mercenary band.  Reckons it's too tough a life, prefer's to take on those who have no other option or who have already been on the road a while.'

'Is it a tough life?'  Seteth asked intently.

Byleth shrugged.  'I don’t have any other life to compare it to.'  She noted.

'Of course.'  He agreed.  'Jeralt's reputation as the greatest ever Captain of the Knight's of Seiros does give at least a little credence to your position.  Your tender years though...  I suppose that you have only been actively working for a short time?'

'I'm not sure.'  Byleth shrugged.  'Maybe ten years.  I was allowed to fight as soon as I was able to best Jeralt in a fight.'

'Surely you jest.  How old are you?'  Sereth's eyes had narrowed.

Byleth looked uncomfortable.  'You would have to ask him.'  She replied.

He scrutinized her carefully for a painfully long time.  'You really don’t know, do you?'  He frowned.  'What in the world was Jeralt thinking, bringing you up in this manner?  No that was a rhetorical question, child..'  He added as she appeared to struggle to reply to him.  'I believe that I will have a conversation with the Captain.  Sooner rather than later.'

'I think he would be able to give you much more satisfactory answers than I.'  Byleth agreed.

'Yes, I am beginning to see that questioning you any further may be futile.'  His voice was softer than before.  'Quite aside from my personal apprehension in your appointment,  I want to ensure that you know you can come and speak to me at any time if you have any problems.  It is in both of our interests to make this appointment work.'

'Thank you.'  Byleth nodded.

'Hello... May I come in?'  A new voice came softly from the doorway.  Byleth looked up to beckon the teal haired girl stood shyly at the threshold.

'My sister, Flayn.'  Seteth introduced as she came in and approached Byleth.  'Flayn, this is the new Professor.'

'You are so pretty!'  Flayn responded breathlessly, reaching out a tiny hand to place on Byleth's cheek.  'Isn't she, Brother?'  She sent a look towards Seteth, who coughed and looked away.

Byleth sat deadly still, the hand on her face an entirely new sensation.  'Others have said the same today.'  She noted.

'You do not agree?'  Flayn asked, startled by the neutral tone.

'I rarely see my own face.'  Byleth stated.  'Sometimes reflected in water...'

'You don’t own a mirror?'  Flayn sounded shocked.

'When you live on the road you have to carry all of your belongings.  Anything that isn’t a necessity is just added weight.'  Byleth observed.

'I see.'  Flayn sounded sad.

'You are very lovely.'  Byleth picked up on the girl's tone and tried to make amends although she wasn’t really sure what for.  The same thought had come from Sothis when Flayn had entered the room, so she was at least partially confident that she was right.

'Thank you.'  Flayn smiled and giggled.  'I think we need to find a mirror for the Professor's room.'  She told her brother firmly.  He nodded that he would.

Flayn stared around the room once she moved away from Byleth, spying Colin who had made himself a nest on the bed.  With a pleased exclaimation, the girl placed herself next to him and started to pet him.

'Take care, he likes to nibble fingers.'  Byleth warned. 

'Oh he won't hurt me!'  Flayn beamed.  'Is he yours?'  She added.

'I believe that I am his.' 

'Yes!  That is the way with cats.'  Flayn agreed happily.  'Very wise to recognise the fact.'

'Hmm.'  Sothis grumbled.  'This one is more interested in the animal than in me.  I know she can sense me.' 

Both Seteth and Flayn looked up intently at Sothis' words.

'I'm sorry, did you say something, Professor - I didn’t quite catch that.'  Seteth said.

'I err... think it was Colin purring.'  Byleth muttered, annoyed when Sothis started to chuckle at her discomfort.

'Anyway - I think that we have taken up enough of your time.'  Seteth said formally.  'You will let me know as soon as you have made your decision?'

'I will.'  Byleth agreed.

'Seteth!'  Flayn sounded impatient.

'Ah,'  Seteth's cheeks coloured slightly.  'My sister was wondering if you would like to join us for dinner.'

'That is very kind of you.'  Byleth replied.  'However Raphael brought me a plate at lunch that was at least three times more than I would normally eat.  I have no real appetite right now.'

Flayn giggled again.  'Raphael is huge isn't he!' 

'Quite the giant.'  Byleth agreed.

'He has been very kind to me though.  I admit I was a little scared when I first met him.'  Flayn mused.

'Are you a student?'  Byleth didn’t remember seeing her name on the list that Manuela had provided.

'Sadly not.'  The girl looked at her brother, and a sweet scowl lined her brow.  'My dear brother is terribly protective and hasn’t allowed me to join the classes.  Yet.'

'Flayn..!'  Seteth admonished wearily.

'None the less, I like to make friends.'  Flayn added.  'The students this year are quite an interesting bunch.'

'So I have noted.'  Byleth agreed.

'They are all abuzz about you!'  Flayn continued.  'I think we are going to have a wonderfully fun time!'

'A peaceful and educational time, I rather hope.'  Seteth added pinching the bridge of his nose as if he had the beginnings of a headache.

'That too!'  Flayn laughed.

'Thank you for the tea Professor.'  Seteth rose to his feet and took a final look around the room.  'Come Flayn.'  He added firmly to his Sister, who sighed heavily at him.

'We will eat together another time?'  Flayn requested as she was ushered to the door impatiently.

'I would like that.'  Byleth agreed, with the smallest hint of a smile.

Chapter Text

'How long have you both been teachers?'  Byleth asked Hanneman and Manuela, cutting though their bickering firmly.

'Oh!'  Hanneman blinked as if suddenly remembering that their new faculty member was with them.  'I have been here for fifteen years now.  Manuela, it must be your sixth or seventh?'

'Seventh.'  Manuela confirmed smiling at Byleth.  'Of course, I was on the stage before I came here.  A different kind of role, but I believe it helped.  Teaching is not dissimilar to performing after all - you are stood in front of an audience and required to keep their attention.'

'It always has to be about you doesn’t it.'  Hanneman's eyebrows had raised at Manuela's comment.  'If you ask me, engagement in teaching is achieved by your confidence in the knowledge you are sharing.  If you understand your subject, your students will be attentive regardless of your performance.'

'Dull, Hanneman, so very dull.   I am amazed that your students don’t just sleep through your lectures.'  Manuela sniffed.

'At least I don’t resort to a brazen display of my body to keep interest.'  Hanneman indicated the extremely low cut to the dress that Manuela was barely wearing as well as the high slits up her thighs.

'Darling, if you displayed your body, the poor dears would run in terror.'  Manuela smirked.

'Seriously?'  Byleth had just about had enough.  'Please, I would really appreciate your help, do you think you could spar with each other later?  I will even lend you weapons if you like.'

'Sparring?'  Manuela looked confused.  'Why would Hanneman and I want to fight?'

'I think she is alluding to our verbal contest.'  Hanneman mused.  'Don't worry yourself, Byleth, we mean no harm.'

'What exactly is it that we can help you with?'  Manuela added kindly.

'I want to know how this whole teaching thing actually works.'  Byleth looked at them both carefully.  'Your specialty is white magic and healing Manuela, and Hanneman - you cover bows and dark magic.  Correct?'

They both nodded. 

'Obviously, after fifteen years, I have a good knowledge of most subjects that we teach.  History, for example.'  Hanneman added.

'Only because you've actually been alive through so much of it.'  Manuela muttered under her breath, then jumped when Byleth's hand came down loudly on the table between them.

'How do you go about teaching your specialties to those not in your own house?'  She asked next.

'Well, we conduct lectures that any can attend.  We can use other people too - Seteth, for example, will cover some subjects when he is free, some of the Knights are willing to do the same.'  Hanneman explained.

'So you never actively teach another's house specifically?'  Byleth asked incredulously.

'Not unless requested.  You can request us to fit in general sessions to your timetable if we are free.'  Manuela smiled.

'That just doesn’t make much sense to me.'  Byleth puffed out her cheeks in irritation.  'Shouldn't everyone get the same access to our skills?'

'I admit I have occasionally lamented the fact that my expertise has not been utilised across the whole student body effectively.'  Hanneman agreed.

'You've never said that to me!'  Manuela accused.  'I myself have often been frustrated by the rather haphazard planning that we cobble together.  You would not get away with such shambolic organisation in the theatre. It would be a disaster.'

Hanneman shrugged.  'It's how things have always been done here.'  He admitted.

'Alright.'  Byleth was frowning now.  'Tell me, what exactly is the purpose of the Academy?'  

'Well, there is the prestige of having graduated.'  Manuela explained.  'For the commoner's and the lesser nobles opportunities become open to you that may not be available otherwise.'  

'For those who don't need the recognition, we provide a grounding in the tactics required to manage battle.'  Hanneman added.  'Leadership experience.'

'All of the best martial tacticians have come through our halls.'  Manuela agreed.

'My father didn’t.'  Byleth pointed out.

'Yes, well, there are always exceptions.'

'So how do you achieve all of that training?'  Byleth was still confused.

'The course material contains all of the required reading.'  Manuela shuffled some paper and brought out a list.  'I prepared the schedule for you.  I've included the tests that we have drawn up over the years and a marking guide, although obviously, we will help you with that initially.'

'So the majority of the experience that you offer is from books?  Not real experience?'

'Jeritza provides practical weapon skills, of course, for those who request it, or seek to progress their class and take advanced certification exams.'  Hanneman was frowning too now.

'I see.'  Byleth looked down the list that Manuela provided.  'I don’t think this is going to work for me.'  She said honestly.  'I understand the benefits of book learning, but the kind of thing that I want to provide won't be found in any tome.   Neither do I want to limit sharing my skills to one single house.'

'Oh?'  Hanneman looked intrigued.  'What skill are you talking about exactly?'

'Survival.'  Byleth said simply.

There was silence.

'Surely, all of the learning we cover is actually a way of teaching that.'  Manuela said meekly after a while had passed.

'In a roundabout way, I suppose.  A practical application is a lot more relevant, though.'  Byleth said firmly.

'A mixture of both the theory and practice would be extremely effective.'  Hanneman was nodding.

'For your own specialities too.'  Byleth reasoned.

'Indeed.'  Hanneman agreed.

'What are you suggesting Byleth?'  Manuela's eyes were twinkling now.  'Do you have a solution for us, dear?'

'Not really.  I was hoping we could come up with something together.'  Byleth replied.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to schedule regular weekly slots for ourselves in the other houses.'  Hanneman said thoughtfully.  'At least for a trial period to see how it goes.'

'A day maybe?'  Manuela was scribbling now, her elegant handwriting racing over a sheet of paper in front of her.  'Although perhaps afternoons would be a better time for practical skills, I have noted that the average student becomes less motivated by their books after lunch.'

'Keenly noticed, my dear - yes I concur!'  Hanneman beamed at her.

'So... If we were to spend our full day with our own house in practical skills whether they be in our specialties or work in the stables or with Jeritza, then the other four mornings on the usual book schedule...  Leaving two afternoons each for us to entertain the other houses...  It could work!'  Oh, I do like the idea!'  Manuela clapped her hands.

'We will have to liaise quite closely with each other to make sure we stay on track.'  Hanneman smiled.  'That does not sound too arduous a task, though.'

'And obviously we would retain the overall responsibility for the ongoing progress and conduct of our own house.  Apply any discipline required if problems arise, although having feedback from you both would certainly make that process easier too.'  Manuela enthused.

'I find that completely acceptable.'  Byleth nodded.  Her mind was racing as comprehension finally started to slot into place.

'Oh!'  Sothis murmured in her head.  'I see!  Yes, I agree with your thinking.  Is that actually a decision Byleth?  I honestly thought you would never reach one!'

'I suggest that we get started immediately and get onto drawing up the initial timetables then.  No time like the present after all!'  Hanneman decided happily.

'Hold your horses, old man.'  Manuela smirked.  'We need to know who we are mentoring first.'  She sent an amused glance at Byleth.  'So which house are you going pick?  Do you still require some help in choosing?'

'No.'  Byleth shook her head.  'I have made up my mind, although I would like to know if either of you has a strong desire for a particular house.  I would take that into consideration before finally declaring my choice.'

'I was rather hopeful that I might get the Lions.'  Hanneman admitted.  'The two young ladies in that group attended the Magical Academy, and I would very much enjoy working with them and garnering information about their experience of that establishment.  In truth though I would be able to seek them out independently as well, so please don't let that affect your thinking.'

'I really have no preference one way or the other.'  Manuela added.  'One bunch of students is just as troublesome as another in my experience!'

'Do we need to seek Lady Rhea or Seteth's blessing to start mixing up how we teach the classes?'  Byleth asked, a little concerned at how fast things were moving.

'Not if we present them with a full working model and notes on how it will play!'  Manuela was tapping at the paper she had been writing on meaningfully.  'They can hardly complain if we are taking the entire thing far more thoughtfully than we have in previous years after all!  All we are lacking is your decision, Byleth.'

'I see.'  Byleth took a deep, steady breath.

'I think you have it.  Go ahead!'  Sothis encouraged. 

'In that case, my choice is the Black Eagles.'  Byleth stated.

'Interesting.'  Manuela smiled.  'Can I ask why?'

'I like black.'  Byleth replied with a perfectly straight face.

'Oh you little liar..'  Sothis chuckled.

Chapter Text

It took the professors most of the day - and in Manuela's case a full bottle of Plum Wine - to satisfactorily bash out their first month's training plan.  Once the initial model had been drafted, Byleth was contented to leave the finer details to the older and more experienced tutors.  Hanneman and Manuela had actually managed to find a kind of harmony with each through their enthusiasm at the planning.  Byleth used the time to look over the details of the books and tests that Manuela had provided and started to familiarise herself with the format.

Late afternoon tea was shared by the teachers, and once they were finished eating, Manuela declared that their newly organised schedule was ready to present to Seteth.  Cyril was pressed into service to go and find the man to see if he would be available to meet with them.

Seteth himself strode into the room not long after.  He listened to Manuela's explanation of the changes they had made, remaining silent and impassive throughout.  Next, he was taken through the schedule by Hanneman, who also fielded the rapid-fire queries that Seteth posed.  Once the impromptu presentation was concluded, all three professors waited, with varying degrees of nervousness for Seteth's response.

'Impressive.'  Seteth finally decided.  'We have never before engaged a teacher whose qualifications are primarily practical rather than academic.  You have all done a remarkable job in identifying and addressing the conflicts that may have presented.'

'Obviously, it will be an ongoing process.'  Manuela purred happily.  'We will certainly be required to liaise far more closely with each other, but I fail to see how that can be a bad thing.'

'Quite.'  Seteth agreed.  'If you schedule a regular meeting time, I would also be interested in attending if that is agreeable.  I'd understand if you would prefer to simply provide me a report...'

'Your input is always valued Seteth.'  Hanneman replied.

'Thank you.'  Seteth nodded.  'I will present your plans to the Archbishop tomorrow in our morning meeting, although I am sure that she will have no complaint.  This is exceptionally comprehensive.'

'We try our best.'  Manuela was beaming.

'If that is all, I would like to have a word with you Byleth, in private - if you have the time.'  Seteth motioned to the girl.

'Of course.'  Byleth murmured and followed Seteth from the room and down the corridor to his office.  Once the door was firmly closed, he turned to her, his usual harsh features softened considerably.

'How in the world did you manage that?'  He asked as a small smile played across his lips.  'I have been trying to get those two working together more effectively for years now!'

Byleth shrugged silently.

Seteth leaned against his desk, his arms crossed across his chest as he scrutinised her carefully.

'I may have underestimated you.'  He admitted.  'I should have more faith in Rhea, perhaps, although I truly wish she was showing more faith in me in this matter.'  He sighed.  'I spoke to Jeralt today, as you suggested.  He refused to give up any information about you, saying that he has already covered everything with the Archbishop, and what she chooses to share is up to her.'

'Sorry.'  Byleth murmured.

'Hardly your fault.'  Seteth frowned.  'He did, however, give me one piece of information that I find... well, frankly unbelievable.  He told me because he believes  that it should be shared with those who may learn it unexpectedly.'

Byleth continued to return his gaze stoically.

'Perhaps it is not so hard to believe given your cool reservedness.'  Seteth looked just a little unnerved.  'Byleth, is it true that you have no heartbeat?'

'Yes.' 

'I see.'  The man's hand started to reach out, unconsciously towards her as if he wanted to check the truth of it for himself, but he froze quickly and pulled himself together.  'That is an... oddity.'  His gaze became intent.  'I can see a pulse point in your neck quite clearly.'  He added.

'Do you need to check it out for yourself?'  Byleth asked, her tone devoid of any inflection.

'I... don't think that will be necessary.'  Seteth turned away from her sharply and went behind his desk to pull out his chair and sit down.  'I believe it would be wise to inform Manuela of your condition.'  He commented, picking up his quill, dipping it and writing something quickly on the paper in front of him.  'As well as a teacher, Manuela is the head of our infirmary here at the Monastery.  She is the most likely to discover your affliction if you were ill or injured.'

'I am rarely ill.'  Byleth advised.

'Hanneman will also likely need to be told.'  Seteth carried on.  'He will undoubtedly want to explore the possibility of you bearing a crest.  Indeed it may be due to a crest that such an abnormality has occurred.'

'It is not a common thing, then?'  Byleth asked.

Seteth stared up at her, incredulous at the question.  'Not really Byleth.'  He said softly.

For the briefest of seconds, Seteth saw a flash of emotion in the girl's eyes and a tremor in her rigid shoulders.  He decided that he had pushed enough for the time being.

'So, you have chosen to mentor the Black Eagles.'  He noted, intent on changing the subject.  'Was there any particular reason?'

'Lady Edelgard struck me as the most formal of all of the house leaders.'  Byleth replied.

'Formal?' 

'Manuela explained that the house mentor is responsible for the conduct of their house and administering discipline when required.'  Byleth was speaking slowly, picking her words carefully.  'I believe that Edelgard will also demand good conduct from her fellow students due to her own nature.  This will be a help to me in identifying what is acceptable and what isn’t.  It is not something I am confident in knowing, given my previous situation.'

'That is... rather well-considered.'  Seteth looked surprised.

'The mission the Archbishop gave me was to consider my options  comprehensively.'  Byleth noted.  'I have merely followed orders.'

'I have already told you that you can ask for help if you have any worries.'  Seteth reminded her.

'You have.  It will be a useful resource.'

'Yes.  Talking of resources, this is for you.'  Seteth opened a draw on his desk and took out a large key.  'This is a key to the Library.  The door is locked at the ringing of the last bell, but faculty are all given this access for after hours.  Often it is the easiest time to actually manage to get any quiet work or study done.'

'Thank you.'

'You can allow a student to work after hours too if you deem necessary.'  He added helpfully.

'I understand.'  Byleth moved forward and took the key from the desk where he had placed it.

'It is getting late.'  Seteth stood again.  'I am sorry to have kept you so long.'  He added, indicating her towards the door.  She waved away his apology with a small gesture of her hand and silently left his office. 

With the key cold in her hand and the library so close to her current location, Byleth's feet found themselves taking her in that direction and she considered that picking out a few of the books on the study list she had made a copy of would be a good idea.  She let herself into the enormous space, locking the door securely behind her and picking up a lantern from the entrance.  

'It's peaceful here.'  Sothis remarked in her head.

'Tranquil.'  Byleth whispered aloud.  'The smell of books is pleasing.'  She added.

Taking a moment to soak in the ambiance, Byleth was quick to notice a slight sound that was out of place and the waft of scent that she recognised.  Her sense of smell was extraordinary.   A genuine smile crossed her face like lightning before it was gone.

She stalked the stacks silently following her nose to the source that she knew was hiding away somewhere.  Eventually she was sure she was almost on top of the miscreant that was trying to evade her.

'Come on out Claude.'  She demanded.

The young man appeared from behind the nearest bookcase.

'How do you do that?'  He groaned.

'Your first challenge is to learn just that.'  Byleth waved him to a nearby table.  'Sit.'  She commanded.

He looked for a second that he might just run instead, but instead he sighed deeply and threw himself into the chair.

'I assume you are aware of the house I have chosen.'  She said as she took a seat opposite him.

'Black Eagles.'  Claude said blankly.'

She nodded at him.  'I don’t believe that you overheard my conversation with Seteth however.'  She raised a brow at him questioningly.

'I've already learned that he is almost as good as you at finding me out.'  The lad mumbled.

'My choice is not a rejection of you or the Golden Deer.'  Byleth said tonelessly.

'Hey, it's not an issue.'  Claude sat himself back and stretched his arms behind his head nonchalantly. 'It's not like I expected you to choose us anyway.'  He added.

'In point of fact, I have chosen you.'  Byleth continued.

'Oh, did I miss something, teach?'  Claude winked at her slyly.  'Or do you mean you are choosing me for an entirely different activity rather than teaching?'

'Really?'  Byleth snorted indelicately.

'Alright.'  Claude huffed, but he looked immensely pleased with himself.  'Explain it to me how I am chosen then, oh enigmatic one.'

'Being your house mentor would be counter-productive to you.'  Byleth replied.

'How?'  He sat forward, actually looking like she had piqued his interest.

'Firstly, you have thus far proved yourself completely unable to escape my notice in your covert activity.  As your house mentor I would be required to question your conduct and discipline you for it.  As I am not, I can just assume... let's say.. that you are here in the library after hours because of another faculty member allowing you the use of their key.'

'I see.  Which is the case of course.'  Claude's eyebrows had risen alarmingly.

'Obviously, although if I were to discover you were abusing the trust placed in you in any way - we would have a serious problem.'

'Abusing how?'  Claude murmured.

'Anything that might cause harm or trouble to another student or the reputation of the Academy.'  She said heavily.

'No worries on that account.'  Claude agreed cautiously.

'Good.'  Byleth nodded.

'Why, teach?'  The lad looked genuinely confused. 

'One of your fellow Deer's mentioned that you were a new and unexpected entity in the Leicester Alliance and as such you are an object of suspicion and mistrust.'  Byleth shrugged.  'You need to win your housemate's allegiance and I can better aid you from a distance since I doubt that your methods will be entirely above board.  You are developing your reputation here, and I can see that you do so by gathering information first, which is wise.'

'Again... why are you bothered?'  Claude asked, his eyes blank.

'I am your teacher.  I am required to teach what each of you individually needs to survive.  That is the job I have been given.'  Byleth met his gaze determinedly.  'I rarely fail in my missions, Claude.  I don’t mean to start now.'

Chapter Text

With just a couple of days to go until classes started, Byleth decided that the best thing she could do was to try and get her head around some of the academic subjects that she was going to have to cover.   Tempting though it was to hide away and just concentrate on reading, she was also interested in discovering who would approach her if she was in plain sight, so on the first day, she took her books and an enthusiastic Colin down to the lake and settled herself by the water.

It wasn’t long and probably unsurprising that her first company came from Lady Edelgard, closely followed by the ever-attentive Hubert, who was scowling in a very satisfying manner.

'Professor!'  Edelgard appeared to consider the matter momentarily, but then sat herself down on the dusty ground next to Byleth.  Hubert remained standing.  'I hope I am not interrupting anything important.'  The girl indicated the books that the professor was perusing.

'Not at all.'

'I was very pleased to hear that you have been assigned to the Black Eagles.'  Edelgard continued.  'I believe that we will be able to learn a lot from you over the coming year.'

'That's the hope.'  Byleth closed her book and fixed her stare on the young woman.  'I hope that you are also aware I will be very much out of my depth in the short term until I get to grips with what is expected of me.'

'Yes, of course.  We will be there to help you in any way that we can.'  Edelgard flicked her eyes up to Hubert, who nodded and smiled insincerely.

There was a painful silence.  Eventually, Hubert sighed.

'I believe you have insisted on a set regime of teaching the other houses as well as ours.'  He said delicately.  'I understand that it is an unusual method for the running of the educational program.  I wonder, could you explain why this new format is being implemented?'

'It was a joint decision between the faculty.'  Byleth replied without looking up at him.  'From my own perspective,  the strength I have to offer at the moment is in practical martial skills and tactics, the whole of my experience is from living it - not reading about it.  That should be passed on to all of the houses.'

Edelgard was nodding, but she didn’t look particularly happy.

'I would have assumed that it is actually the remit of the weaponsmaster to develop us physically.'   Hubert's eyes narrowed slightly, and his tone became more genuine, which finally got Byleth looking up at him.  'Perhaps foreseeing a likely conflict in interest is why he has challenged you.'  He commented quietly.

'Maybe.'  Byleth shrugged.  'I can only do my best.'  She said stoically.

'Your honesty is rather refreshing.'  Edelgard put out a tentative hand to Byleth's shoulder. 

Byleth stared for a second at the hand on her shoulder, then she patted at it awkwardly.  'Someone else said that to me.'  She muttered.  'What an odd world you must live in if you are unable to readily accept the words of others.'

'You become used to it.'  Edelgard removed her hand quite quickly, her cheeks pink at her boldness.  'It can be wearisome, though.'

'Lady Edelgard..'  A new voice came drifting towards them, as Ferdinand marched smartly up.  'Oh, and our new house Professor too!  How wonderful!'  Ferdinand bowed elegantly.

'Ah, Ferdinand.'  Edelgard rose gracefully to her feet.  'I assume you are here to escort me to view the stables?'

'Indeed, I am.'  Ferdinand replied cheerfully.  'I can come back later if you're busy, though.'

'Not at all.  You will excuse me, Professor?'  Edelgard smiled at Byleth.

'Hey, Hubert.  No need for you to come along.'  Ferdinand clapped the man on the shoulder.  'Never let it be said that Ferdinand von Aegir isn’t capable of ensuring her Highness' safety!'

'I hardly think...'  Hubert began, but Edelgard waved her hand at him.  'Ferdinand is completely correct.  I will be fine in his care.  Please take some time to yourself.'

'I really don’t mind...' Hubert's words were lost as the pair of them walked away together.  He hissed under his breath in frustration.

'Lady Edelgard is very capable.'  Byleth commented.

'That is not my concern.'  Hubert looked genuinely worried.  'I am not entirely sure of the situation here as yet.  The three house leaders were supposed to be completely safe on their outing with the Knight's too, but if it were not for Jeralt... and yourself, of course, being in the right place at the right time - who knows what would have happened.'

'Follow them then, if you are concerned.'  Byleth suggested.  'I do believe, however, that they would have been fine the other night if they hadn’t run into us.  All three were impressive in defending themselves.'

'I know that you stepped directly into danger to prevent an attempt on my Lady.'  Hubert's voice was blank.  'I admit I find it odd that you do not make more of that fact.  It is no small accomplishment to protect the life of the future Empress after all.'

'I just happened to be the closest person to her at the time.'

'Perhaps.'  Hubert bowed slightly.  'I will follow them now.'  His intense gaze met hers briefly.  'I am not entirely sure why you chose us, Professor.  I will be watching you.'

'You knew it was up to me then?'   Byleth shook her head.   'Of course, you did.  Maybe I chose the Black Eagles because of your winning personality, Hubert.'

'I'm sure that must be it.'  He replied dryly before he walked off quickly after Edelgard and Ferdinand.

Very little time passed before  Byleth's reading was interrupted again by someone striding up her and blocking her sun, as they stood, hands on hips in front of her.

'Those tights are truly tragic Professor.  I assumed once you were in civilized surroundings you may change them, but it appears I was wrong.  I deem it my moral obligation that I provide my - rather exceptional - fashion experience to your education.  We don't need our youngest and most beautiful teacher to go around in hosiery that frankly, my Granny would wear!'

'Hello, Hilda.'  Byleth stared up at the girl impassively.  'I fail to see your issue.'

'You want to look like my Granny?'

'Is your grandmother a fierce warrior?'

'Don't be silly!'  Hilda started to smirk then her eyebrow rose slightly.  'Actually,'  She admitted.  'Pretty much everyone in the family is a bit scared of her.  I'd say her tongue was more of a weapon than any actual blade though.'

'In truth, I have not given much thought to my attire here at the Academy.'  Byleth mused.  'I noted I have been provided with a dress uniform similar to your own, which I assume I will wear to class, but I will still require cover for my legs.'

'Please chose unpatterned!'  Hilda beseeched.  'And maybe a splash of colour, you are far too monotone in your aesthetic, aside from your hair and your eyes.  I would simply die to have eyes like yours.'

'May I appoint you my official leg attire consultant?'  Byleth reached down to her purse and took out some coin.

Hilda beamed.

'Just be aware Hilda, if you attempt to bring me anything in pink, I will be obliged to break your nose.'

'Oh, you!'   Hilda chuckled.  'I was heading into town anyway, I was looking for Marianne when I spotted you.  Have you seen her?'

'Sorry.'  Byleth shook her head.

'Better keep looking then.'  Hilda smiled, gave a pretty wave and disappeared.

As the pink-haired girl was walking away, Byleth noted Dedue letting himself into the greenhouse.  She considered for a moment but decided that she had earned herself a break.  She quickly packed up her books and followed him in with Colin at her heels.

'Could you use an experienced water carrier?'  She enquired of the large man who was already knelt in a border tending a plant when she finally tracked him down.

'Professor.'  He inclined his head respectfully as he looked up at her.  'I would be most grateful, thank you.'

They worked together in companionable silence for a while until Dedue suddenly sat back and regarded her. 

'I wonder Professor, have you met with Bernadetta yet?'  He asked, solemnly.

'I have.'

'She was in the greenhouse every day until recently, but unfortunately I believe that I have scared her and she has stopped coming.'

'She is rather skittish.'  Byleth observed.

'I admit I am accustomed to people reacting harshly to my appearance and origin.'  Dedue responded stoically.  'However the girl appears to have a great fondness for carnivorous plants and her knowledge and care of such appears to be exemplary.  I wished to alert her to the fact that here among my homelands flora I have such a specimen.'

'Carnivorous plants?'  Byleth's brow rose.  'Unusual.'

'I did approach her with care.'  Distress was beginning to flicker around Dedue's usually impassive face.  'However, after accusing me several times wanting to kill her, she ran off, and she has not returned.'

'It is not your fault, Dedue.  I believe it is simply her nature.'  Byleth responded softly.

'Perhaps.  However, I wonder if I could impose on you, Professor.  It distresses me much that she is missing out on what was obviously an important hobby because of me.  Would you speak with her?  I would be happy to provide a list of times when I will be here to tend my plants, so she can be sure of never having to bump into me.'

'Have you tried speaking to her yourself?'  Byleth asked.

'I did.'  The big man nodded sadly.  'I knocked on her door full of apology however it seemed to make things worse.'

'I'll speak to her.'  Byleth agreed.

'Thank you.'  Dedue looked relieved.  'Would you also give her this?  An apology.'  He handed over a beautiful blue bloom.

'Of course.'

'And would you please accept this one for yourself?'  Dedue added, the faintest of flushes rising to his cheeks as he handed over a second flower in a deep green tone.

'Oh!'  Byleth took it and held it to her nose.  'This smells beautiful.'  She noted.

'It is a blossom commonly used for soaps and perfumes.'  Dedue agreed.

'Thank you.  I have never received a flower before.'  Byleth admitted.

'I have found that receiving a bloom can brighten anyone's day.'  Dedue said quietly.

'Yes.'  Byleth agreed.  'It appears it can.  I shall remember that.'

Chapter Text

Jeralt watched as Byleth exited the greenhouse and marched purposefully towards the student accommodation, with two bright flowers in her hand and a determined look in her eye.  He considered calling out to her, but his own curiosity got the better of him.  He followed her from a reasonable distance, then leaned himself on the wall of the end of the housing block when she stopped to rap smartly on one of the doors.  There was a little conversation, some of it very high pitched from the inhabitant of the room, but the door did not open.  Byleth continued to speak, her tone low and firm, and eventually, the door opened just a crack, and she slipped into the room.

Jeralt waited where he was, hoping this meeting wasn't going to take too long.  He really needed to speak to his daughter before he left on his first mission, and while he had initially stormed away from his meeting with Rhea fuelled by righteous rage, he could feel his anger tempering by degree's as more coherent thinking was starting to invade.  He was becoming less and less sure of what he was actually going to say when the moment came.  He was adamant that whatever it was it would be in Byleth's best interests and Rhea be damned.

Jeralt didn’t have to wait too long.  Byleth emerged from the room accompanied by a short, nervous-looking girl.  It was evident that his daughter was encouraging her companion along patiently.  With a small sigh, he decided that he should let her complete her task.  Byleth nodded to him as they walked past, discretely waving a finger in his direction, requesting that he wait.  He nodded his understanding back.

The two girls headed to the greenhouse and entered.  Jeralt waited but eventually decided that time was definitely getting on and he needed to hurry this up.  He strode to the glass doors and swung them open.  He found his quarry relatively easily, she was stood back observing the girl and another lad who were knelt in a border,  tending a group of plants.

'Jeralt.'  Byleth said levelly as he strode up to them.  The lad had risen to his feet at his approach while the girl was literally cowering in the undergrowth.  He tried hard to bring a smile to his rugged face.

'Hey, Kiddo.'  He said lightly.

'Did you want to see me?'  She asked.

'Aye, I'd like a chat before I leave on my first mission.'  Jeralt's eyes moved over her companions, lingering on the stony-faced man.  'It's been a goodly while since I have met with anyone from Duscur.'  He noted.  'It is a welcome sight, indeed.'

'Captain.'  Dedue lowered his head and banged his chest sharply in a respectful greeting.

'Just Jeralt will do lad.'  He grinned.  'I wonder, do you happen to cook?'  His eyes had taken on a mischievous gleam.

'Cook?'  Dedue looked directly at the man for the first time, his face frowning in puzzlement.  'I... enjoy the culinary arts sir, I would claim no particular skill though.'

'It occurs to me that one of the very few times my girl here ever expressed a genuine love of food was when we were briefly in Duscar, long before the troubles there...'  Jeralt took in Byleth's blank expression with a chuckle.  'She was but a slip of a lass at the time mind... but there was a bun, sticky and sweet and made with a particular kind of a nut.  Do you know of it?'  He directed at Dedue whose eyes had become wide.

'I do.'  The big man replied.  'Indeed, the nut of which you speak is the product of one of the tree's that I am trying to grow here.'  He turned to Byleth.  'Once they are ready for harvest I would be honored to prepare a batch of buns for you, Professor.'  He smiled.

'Ohhh cake!'  The girl hiding in the foliage blurted out.  When all eyes swung to her, she clasped both hands over her mouth and cowered back further.

'I will, of course, gift some to you too Bernadetta.'  Dedue promised solemnly and was rewarded by a muffled squeal of pleasure.

'I do not remember.'  Byleth admitted.  'I have no recollection at all of ever having been to Duscur.'  She added with an apologetic look at Dedue.

Jeralt shrugged, still grinning.  'We'd been tasked with getting a letter through by some lord or another, and while I was getting about the job, I left you with some of the mothers in the village we were staying.  When I got back, merely hours later you were a sticky mess from head to toe and had been handed a bowl of the left-over batter to clear.  You were just like a pig at swill!'

Bernadetta was giggling from her hiding place, and Dedue was forced to look stoically down at his feet, trying to hide his grin at the image Jeralt was presenting.

'Well, I think that's quite enough reminiscing for one day.'  Byleth stated firmly, her cheeks flushing.  'Shall we get to our meeting old man?'  She raised an eyebrow at Jeralt.

'I am limited on time.'  Jeralt admitted reluctantly.

'Would you like me to walk you back to your room Bernadetta?'  Byleth enquired.

'I would be honored to accompany the lady if she will allow me.'  Dedue murmured.

Bernadetta looked between Jeralt and Dedue warily.  'S...s ...still got some work to do.'  She stuttered.

'Then please allow me to help, I would be grateful to learn more from you.'  Dedue encouraged.  Bernadetta nodded, only slightly reluctantly.

'Well and good then.  C'mon Kiddo, my office.'  Jeralt declared.

Byleth inclined her head and followed her father out of the greenhouse.

 

The walk to Jeralt's office was undertaken in silence, which continued as he put the tea on and beckoned her to sit at his work desk.  While her outward appearance had remained wholly unchanged and expressionless, Jeralt was well accustomed to detecting the very minute tells that she displayed in place of actual emotion.  When they had entered his workspace he had noticed her surprise at the changes that the couple of days since their last meeting had wrought.  Never the tidiest of men, his room was now cluttered with maps and books and random weaponry, not to mention the reams and reams of reports that were stacked haphazardly everywhere.  He could physically feel her displeasure at the disorder.

'Do I need to be coming in here every few days to reorganize you?'  She muttered.

'I know exactly where everything is.'  He objected as she began to move a pile of books and order them onto the helpful shelving up against the far wall.

She ignored him and continued to whirl around the room in a dervish of tidying.

'Byleth!'  He barked, his tone commanding.  She froze instantly.  'Sit.'  He directed.

He joined her at the desk with their tea and sighed.  'I'm leaving this evening on a mission.'  He told her.

Byleth picked up her cup but offered no comment.

'I had hoped to be here to support you through your first week of teaching duty.'  Jeralt was scowling.  'I'm pretty sure this mission was an excuse to have me absent.'

'Why?'

Jeralt shrugged.  'Damned if I know.'  He admitted.  'I wanted to be here for your match tomorrow against Jeritza.  How the hell did you manage to get yourself into that one?'

'I didn’t.  It was at his insistence.'  Byleth replied.

'Hmm, well be careful kid, I hear he is exceptionally skilled and powerful.  I'd wager he is looking to humiliate you.  He is of noble background, and I suspect he sees you as an upstart and a threat.'

Byleth shrugged.  'As I understand it, he won't kill me - and if anything I could probably use a blow to my overinflated reputation.'

Jeralt chuckled at that.

'So am I just here to be told you're leaving?'  Byleth had raised an eyebrow.  'You seem to have something on your mind.'

Jerlat blew out his cheeks and considered carefully, hiding his thinking behind a long sip of tea.  She seemed to be coping, much better than he had expected.  Did he really need to add another shock to the pile?

'Nah, just thought you might miss me is all.'  He said finally, smirking at her over his cup. 

'I think I'll live.'  She snorted.

'In that case I want a full report of your findings and impressions so far, soldier.'  He demanded.

She nodded and obliged.

It wasn’t long before Jeralt found himself alone again in his office.  Byleths report had been curt and to the point as always.  He had been impressed with the fact that she had managed to interact with every student in the Academy already, but with reflection he realised that she had followed her orders to the letter.  She had seemed just slightly different though.  He believed he had heard just the smallest amount of emotion when she spoke of the various people she had encountered.  It was a baby-step but a step none the less.

There was a tap at the door.  Jeralt tensed.  This next meeting was going to be something completely different.  He wondered if he had done the right thing in not telling Byleth and having her sit in with him now, but perhaps Rhea was correct... She needed time to adapt to her new life first.  He, on the other hand, had been offered no such luxury.  It was like he could feel the tight pull of invisible strings attached to his arms and his legs making him dance like a marionette under the control of the Archbishop.  He thought he had cut those ties years ago.  He was wrong.

'Come in.'  He called, and even he could hear a faint tremor in his voice.

The man in full armor let himself in through the door, carefully closing it behind him.  He turned and made his way to the desk, raising his hand to the full helmet that was covering his face.

Jeralt had risen, subconsciously reaching to grab the pommel of the sword at his waist, but he watched unmoving and impassive as the young man lifted his helmet off and placed it gently on the table.  A tumble of blonde hair and a huge beaming smile were the first things that were evident although a small gasp had emitted from Jeralt at the sight.  His stare was incredulous, the face before him hauntingly familiar.  He had seen its features - if not it's expression - reflected back at him from every mirror he'd encountered more years ago now than he cared to remember.

'Hello, son.'  Jeralt said quietly.

'Hey!'  The man welcomed cheerfully.  'It's truly a pleasure to meet you, sir!'  He was as enthusiastic as a bouncing puppy.  'I have to confess Captain, I could hardly believe it when Lady Rhea took me aside a few days ago and told me that you were my father!'

Chapter Text

Hanneman managed to catch Byleth just as she was leaving Jeralt's office.

'I wonder my dear,'  The scholar mused as he took her arm firmly to guide her into his own office across the hallway.  'Would you perhaps have a moment now for me to have a little look into whether or not your bere a crest?'

'Uh... okay.'  Byleth didn’t feel that she was actually being given a choice in the matter.  She probably could snap Hanneman in half in less than a minute, but it was most likely against the rules, so she decided to just go along with his request regardless of her small spark of annoyance at his overbearing manner.

'Marvellous.'  Hanneman beamed at her and gestured towards the odd piece of apparatus that sat in the center of his workspace.  'Now if you could just place your hand on the pad there.  Carefully...'  He indicated what he meant.

'Will it hurt?'  Byleth asked curiously as she rolled up her sleeve and proffered her hand to be guided to the correct position.

'Oh no, not at all.  Maybe you will feel a slight tingle, but nothing more has ever been reported.'  Hanneman placed her hand where he needed it and then proceeded to do something that appeared to activate the device.

'I've never seen anything like this before.'  Byleth admitted.

Hanneman chuckled happily.  'I would be surprised if you had.  This apparatus is entirely of my own design, although it builds heavily on the work of... OH!'  The older man suddenly froze and was staring at a mirror-like section on the contraption in an almost comical expression of surprise.  There was a vivid and strange pattern showing up on the plate that had not been there before.

'Problem?'  Byleth asked.

'I... well... I... No!'  Hanneman stuttered moving around to look at the result from a different angle.  'You can remove your hand, by the way, the result is recorded.'

'Okay.'  Byleth clenched her fist and stepped back, her head cocked to one side as she watched the excited scholar bring his face so close to the screen his nose was almost touching it.  'Do I have a crest then?'  She asked flatly.

Hanneman looked up at her from where he was now crouched running his fingers over the seemingly random lines that had appeared.'

'Oh yes, my dear, you most certainly do.'  The Scholar looked awed.   'It's simply amazing.  Nothing I have ever seen before.  Remarkable really, that new crests can still show up from time to time!'

'Okay.'  Byleth frowned.  'So what's a crest?'

'I beg your pardon?'  Hanneman blinked rapidly.  'Did you just ask what a crest is?'

Byleth nodded.

There was silence.

'I see.'  Hanneman stood up, brushing the dust from his knees as he regarded her carefully.  'Perhaps...'  He stumbled over to his heavily lined bookcase and pulled out a slim tome.  'I think this might be the best place for you to start.'  He decided putting the tome into her hand.

'Wouldnt it be easier for you just to tell me?'  She enquired.  'You are a teacher, after all!'

'In crestology, I am a scholar.'  Hannaman mused.  'I am not sure how or where to begin to cover the very basics since pretty much every man, woman, and child on the continent knows what a crest is.  That book is aimed at children.'

Crumbling slightly under Byleth's irritated look, Hanneman turned his back and paced towards his window.  'Look, very simply, a crest is something that you inherit in your bloodline from a parent that carries a corresponding crest.  Not all of that offspring receives the gift, indeed in numerous cases, a crested person has been unable to produce a crested heir at all.'

'So it's a noble thing?'  Byleth asked, confused. 

'Yes, well that's how it started out, I guess, but it does show up in other..  See!'  Hanneman sucked at his teeth in frustration.  'We are already deviating - this is just too large a subject for a simple conversation.  Read the book Byleth.  Then I will answer any questions you have or advise further reading.'

Byleth looked down at the book and then up at the man.  He appeared genuinely frazzled. 

'Okay.'  She agreed.   'Are you done with me for now?'  She asked.

Hanneman was back on his hands and knees, examining the results that still showed on his contraption.

'I am.' 

Byleth let herself out of his office.  She paused in the corridor, her irritation growing.  She hated feeling stupid, and the look that Hanneman had given her when she admitted she had never heard of crests had really riled her.  She marched back to her father's door and swung it open violently.

'So, I just had a fascinating chat with Hanneman..'  She blustered as she stormed into the room.

Jeralt had been sat behind his desk, but he rose to his feet, his face turning a strange purple colour.  Byleth suddenly realised that he was not alone.  A blonde lad was sat in an opposite chair and was staring at her with fascinated, twinkling eyes.

'Sorry.'  Byleth murmured.  'I didn’t realise you had company.'  She began to back her way out of the room again, but then she paused.  She recognised the expression on her father's face.  It was the one she saw when he got caught out in excessive drinking or gambling when they were on the road, and he knew he was in for a world of pain from her for his excesses.  Her eyes narrowed.

'What's going on old man?'  She demanded.

'Shut the bloody door.'  He barked at her.

Her eyes swept the lad, who was grinning now.  She pushed the door closed with her rear - wary of presenting her vulnerable back to the company.  She stood still and alert by the door.

'Oh bloody hell, kiddo, sit down.  No-one is going to attack you here.'  Jeralt demanded.  There was just enough command in his voice, despite the odd tremble, that she complied immediately.

'So.'  Jeralt looked nervous.  It wasn’t a look that Byleth was used to seeing from the big man.  She felt Sothis in her head, gently reassuring her wordlessly.

'So?'  Byleth asked stony-faced.

'No easy way to put this so I will just come out and say it.'  Jeralt squared his shoulders resolutely.  'Byleth, this is your brother.'  He indicated the young man sat close to her who was smiling at her gently.

'I see.'  Byleth replied.

There was silence.

'Is that it?'  Jeralt finally exploded.  'I see?  Seriously kiddo?'

'For all I know, old man, I have siblings all over the continent.'  Byleth said stoically.  There was a poorly disguised chuckled from the lad.  Byleth looked directly at him and smiled very slightly.

'What do you take me for?'  Jeralt shook his head.

'Well, right now the man who is introducing me to a brother I never knew anything about.'  She pointed out reasonably.

'Twin actually.'  Jeralt mumbled and was rewarded with a slight widening of her eyes.

'I'm listening.'  Byleth encouraged, stealing another glance at the lad.

Jeralt slumped back down in his seat.

'I promise that the first I knew of it was this morning when Rhea decided to actually tell me of the situation.'  He said bitterly.

'Do you know it to be truth?'  Byleth's eyebrow had raised, 'No offense.'  She added to the lad, who smiled back.

'None taken.'  He said.

'I think I recognise your voice!'  Byleth wracked her brains before Sothis pointed out the full helm sat on the table.  'Right!'  Byleth recalled.  'You are the gatekeeper at the entrance hall!'

He nodded.

'He is the spit of me at his age.'  Jeralt intervened.  'While you most definitely take after your mother kiddo, I am in no doubt that he is my son.'

Byleth looked between them both.  'I can see it.'  She admitted.  'Bad luck.'  She added to her brother. 'Guess that's your future self you see sitting over there!'  She snickered to herself while Jeralts jaw dropped in amazement. 

'Did you just make a joke?'  He asked, incredulously.

'No.'  Byleth shook her head.  'I simply made a truthful observation; however, it is amusing to point it out.' 

'Mean!'  The lad chuckled.

'But true.'  Byleth insisted.

'That's what makes it funny.' He agreed cheerfully.           

'Am I the only one here who is at all bothered by this turn of events?'  Jeralt grumbled.  Two pairs of eyes swang towards him.

'Rhea hid the fact that your mother gave birth to twins!'  Jeralt said exasperatedly.  'I know I wasn’t here for the birth - which I believe was by Rhea's design too by the way - but when I returned she was dead, and I was presented with only my daughter, who was weak and sickly and not expected to live.  The hearty and hale child had been removed completely.'

'Did Lady Rhea not explain why?'  The boy asked inquisitively.  'All I have ever been told is that my parents were dead, which is why I was adopted out.  I came here to the academy at seventeen, and I have been here ever since but when I was called to the meeting with Rhea a few days ago it was the first time she has ever spoken to me directly.'

'Hmm.  Rhea told me that due to the dire condition of my wife and daughter, she had handed you to a wetnurse for care, and when I returned I was in such a state about events - she deemed it wise to keep us apart until I had a better hold of myself.  Of course I left before she got the chance to tell me.  Its all a load of complete horsecrap to my mind.'  Jeralt was scratching at his head.  'I think that we should just screw all this madness and leave again.  You would be welcome to come with us of course.'  He added to his son.

'No!'  Sothis exclaimed loudly in Byleth's head.

'No.'  Byleth said aloud.

'No?'  Jeralt asked.  'Do you want to get embroiled in whatever scheme Rhea has been boiling up?'

Byleth shrugged.  'I'd like the chance to settle for a bit.  I don't really give two hoots about any plans or schemes or whatever.  If someone seeks to manipulate me, I believe they will find it a hard sell.'

'Well, that's true lass.'  Jeralt chuckled.  'Perhaps the best way to scupper whatever Rhea is cooking is to feed you to her.  She will no doubt choke on all the gristle.'

'I can keep my eyes open to Sir.'  The lad was serious now,  'There is no one better informed in what's going on in a place than the guards and the servants.'

'What's your name?'  Byleth asked suddenly.

'I didn’t even think to ask.'  Jeralt swore.

The lad was grinning again.  'My adoptive parents called me Myles.  Mostly around here, I am simply known as the gatekeeper though.'

'Are they making you wear that helm to keep your face hidden?'  Byleth asked.

'Yes.'  Myles picked it up and studied it.  'Rhea initially wanted to take me completely off duty.  Apparently, no-one knows about our relationship - not even Seteth, but she feared that if we were seen together..'  He indicated Jeralt.  'It might raise questions.'

Jeralt huffed angrily again.

'Seteth doesn’t seem to know about very much concerning us.'  Byleth said thoughtfully.  'He is really vexed about it too.'

'He wasn’t here when I was Captain last time.'  Jeralt nodded.  'As far as I can make out, Rhea got him here not long after we left.'

'Oh!'  Something else suddenly floated into Byleth's mind.  'So I was born here.'

'That makes sense.  I think.'  Sothis agreed in her head.

Jeralt nodded.

'I definitely want to stay.'  Byleth stated firmly.  'Even if it is just for a short time.  I feel I have business here.'

'I'll look out for you.  While Captain Jeralt is away.'  Myles offered kindly.

Byleths's brow rose at that, but she kept her peace.

Jeralt sighed.  'The first sign of any danger we are out of here.'  He warned them both.

The siblings looked at each other and then back at him.

'Okay.'  They replied in unison.

Chapter Text

Byleth walked herself back towards her room in quiet contemplation.  At least that's how it would have looked to the casual observer.  Inside her head, Sothis was having one of her shrill moments.

'I can't believe that you are so relaxed!'

Byleth ignored the comment and continued walking.

'Byleth, you have a twin brother!  This is HUGE news.'  Sothis sounded petulant. 

'He seemed nice.' 

'You genuinely don’t feel anything beyond a mild amusement at your father's discomfort, do you?'  Byleth could visualize the young girl shaking her head.  'What will it take to actually move you?'

'Seriously Sothis, would fretting make anything any different?'  Byleth asked stoically.  'I was interested to learn that I was born here, though.'  She admitted.

'I wonder if that is why we feel so at home here.'  Sothis mused.

'Perhaps.'  Byleth considered for a second.  'I don't really understand what 'home' should feel like... it's not as if I have ever stayed in one place long enough to consider it even a temporary base.  I suppose home has always just been Jeralt.'

Byleth felt a wave of compassion rolling off her internal companion,  it was an awkward feeling, but at least the voice in her head became silent.

It was a good thing that Byleth hadn’t been pinning her hoped on quiet contemplation of the afternoon's events because as she finally came striding up towards her room, she found that there was a small crowd congregated on the lawn area to the front.  Colin appeared to be the focus of attention.

'Professor.'  Dedue greeted as she approached them, taking in the kitten who was manically chasing a ball of coloured wool that Felix had rolled across the ground for him.  'Your young feline hitched a lift with me from the greenhouse and Bernadetta was kind enough to provide him with some playthings.' 

'So I see.'  Byleth nodded as Colin hunched down, his tiny rear quivering madly before he pounced on the wool, biting into it and rolling with it in his paws onto his back, rabbit-kicking his prey with enthusiasm.

'He is certainly a feisty little chap.'  Prince Dimitri was stood next to Dedue, grinning at the kitten's antics.

'I've known a few women like that.'  Sylvain commented from his relaxed posture on the ground.

'Idiot.'  Felix lobbed a ball of wool at the redhead.

'Oh...ouch!'  Sylvain smirked as the wool bounced off his shoulder.  'That hurt!'  The ball of yarn was followed swiftly by the enthusiastic kitten, chasing after the thrown toy.  'OUCH!'  Sylvain grumbled, more honestly this time as needle-sharp claws raked along his belly. 

'Now that's exactly the reaction you get from most women.'  Felix deadpanned.

'Arsehole.'  Sylvain sat himself up and looked lazily over at Byleth.  'Hey Prof,'  he hailed, 'I bumped into Ashe earlier - you totally did a number on him.  He actually believed you when you told him that you are the Ashen Demon.'  Sylvain started to chuckle.

There was silence.  Felix's eyes had widened, while Dimitri was frozen, staring at Byleth in awe.  She stared impassively around her, her face not even twitching.

'You are, aren’t you?'  Dimitri said eventually.

She nodded.

'So Captain Jeralt is the Blade Breaker?'  Sylvain was sat up entirely now.  'Well, shit - Professor, you realise that parents threaten their kids with the Ashen Demon coming to get them if they misbehave right?  Woah...  This is way beyond cool!'

'They do?'  Byleth blinked rapidly.  'You... have all heard of me?'  She added quietly.

'The stone-cold killer?'  Felix was now on his feet, beaming.  'I can't believe I asked the Ashen Demon to spar.  You will spar with me right Professor?'

Byleth sank to the ground, and Colin was immediately climbing up to her shoulder.  Gratefully she fluffed his face as he rubbed his own against her neck.

'I admit, I assumed that the nickname was only used by the mercenary unit.'  She said finally.

'Seriously?'  Sylvain looked incredulous.  'The Blade Breaker and the Ashen Demon are like a legend.  I can't believe that it's never been reported that the Demon is actually a beautiful woman - I mean doesn’t that just make the story so much better?' 

'You are such a moron!'  Felix scowled at him. 

'Personally, I think allowing the reputation to build up is a genius move on Jeralt's part.'  Claude had suddenly appeared from around the side of the building.  'I'm pretty sure that the mere fear that the names strike into the heart of your foes means that half the time you don't even have to fight before your opposition is running for the hills.'

Claude's timely intervention allowed Byleth a little space to pull her thoughts together.  She glanced up at him in gratitude.  He inclined his head, although it was barely noticeable.

'Claude is correct.'  She said steadily.  'In some cases, the reputation of our unit alone has meant that a fight has been avoided when it may not have been otherwise.  I find it has particular use when we have escorted diplomatic missions where trouble is a threat rather than a given.'

'I can see the benefit of that.'  Dimitri agreed thoughtfully.  'Of course, having the skill to back up the reputation is the key to its success.'  The Prince looked towards Claude with an amused smile.  'Hardly a surprise that you would see the benefit of avoiding a fight von Reigan.'  He said lightly, with no animosity to his words.

Claude bowed at the lad and winked.  'Never let it be said that I'd ever choose combat over hiding or running away.  This face is way too pretty to get scarred.'

Dimitri chuckled.  'We certainly couldn’t have that now could we.'

'I'm  planning on hiding behind the Demon's skirts till the end of term.'  Claude threw himself down on the ground beside her.  'Please protect me!'  He beseeched.

'Get your own skirts.'  Byleth grouched, pushing him away.

There was a sudden loud but low rumble.  Everyone looked up.

'Are you... laughing, Dedue?'  Dimitri asked in bewilderment.  'I don’t think I have ever seen you laugh before!'

'Apologies your Highness.'  The big man tried to look contrite, but the edges of his mouth were refusing to obey his commands. He turned to Byleth.  'It's just that it's tough to reconcile the idea of the fearsome Ashen Demon with the story that your father told about your time in Duscur...' He started to chuckle again.  'I am so sorry!'  He added with a bow at her.

'Story?'  Claude looked interested.  He jumped to his feet and draped an arm around Dedue's shoulder.  'Don't hold it back, my friend.  Sounds like something we all need to hear!'

'I will take it to my grave!'  Dedue replied solemnly with a grin at Byleth.

'No fair!'  Claude moaned.

'I wonder if Jeritza realises who you are.'  Felix cut in seriously.  'I'm not sure he would have been so quick to challenge you to a display if he was.  You will surely flatten him.'

Byleth hissed out her frustration.  'I assure you my skill has been vastly exaggerated.'  She insisted.  'Obviously I know how to handle a weapon.  I have been a mercenary all of my life, and I still live.  Part of that is down to my da and part my own ability - but I have no exceptional power.' 

'I have seen you fight...'  Dimitri reminded her.

'Yes.  You have seen someone who has spent every day living and breathing battle.'  She replied forcefully.  'Practise and experience can and will yield results.  It is not anything special, it is just application and a desire not to be slaughtered.'

'That's right.'  Felix agreed.  'That's why I train so hard.'

'Some people are naturally gifted.'  Claude said thoughtfully.  'I've seen it myself.'

'I agree.'  Byleth nodded.  'Some have an innate skill for one thing or another, same as other skills, art or music or such.  Don't mean that you will automatically be amazing if you don’t put in the work and find some discipline though.'

'I guess we will all get to judge you tomorrow.'  Sylvain shrugged.  'I admit I have no idea what to expect, but I know that I'm looking forward to it.'

Byleth stared off into the distance.  'Just don't set your expectations too high.'  She murmured.

'And on that cheery note...'  Claude pushed himself forward with a dramatic pose.  'I think it's become way past dinnertime.  I know I need food.'

'You are right.'  Dimitri agreed easily.  'Would you like to join us, Professor?'  He asked politely.

'I have things I need to do.'  She deflected.  'Another time.'  She added, seeing the lad's crestfallen look.

'I look forward to it.'  Dimitri bowed.  'And good luck for tomorrow.'  He added as Claude put a friendly arm around his shoulder and started to lead him away.

'Would you like me to bring you a plate when I return?'  Dedue asked Byleth quietly as the others followed the house leaders towards the dining hall.

'Please don’t put yourself out on my account.'  Byleth stood and picked up the wool balls that were scattered around the grass.

'It is no trouble.  You need to keep up your energy for your fight tomorrow.'  Dedue noted.

'In that case, I would be grateful.  Thank you.'  Byleth nodded.

'I admit I am just as keen as the others to see you in action.'  Dedue smiled at her.  'If you wield a sword as well as you do a watering can then Jeritza is in trouble.'

'No pressure.'  Byleth sighed.

'I think you can deal with it.'  Dedue remarked.

Chapter Text

Lady Edelgard and Dorothea were on the doorstep of Byleth's room very early in the morning,  the Princess knocking politely until the door was grudgingly opened.

'Is there a problem?'  Byleth stared out bleary-eyed.  She had only been asleep a few hours having spent most of the night trying to get her head around the lessons that she would be required to oversee in just a day or so's time.

'We have come to escort you to breakfast.'  Edelgard replied, in a tone that screamed finality.  'It has been remarked that you have yet to actually attend the dining hall for a meal, and I am starting to become concerned that you are not eating adequately.'

'Dedue brought me a plate last night.'  Byleth replied defensively. 

'I wouldn’t bother arguing with El.'  Dorothea murmured.  'She dragged me out of bed too, and normally that would be darned near impossible.'

'Petra has been up a while already and is meeting us in the hall, as for Bernadetta... well...'  Edelgard looked a little cross.

Byleth ushered the ladies into her room as she gathered her clothing and pulled off her nightshirt.

'Well, you certainly aren’t shy, are you.'  Dorothea quipped.

Byleth looked confused.  'Should I not get dressed in front of others?'  She asked.  'I note that that bathhouse is simply split into male and female rather than individual units so...'

'It's fine.'  Edelgard was blushing.  'I believe that there are separate facilities for faculty, though.  You don’t have to use the general pools.'

'I see.'  Byleth was looking down at her clothes.  'There isn’t much privacy on the road.'  She admitted.

'Don't worry honey.'  Dorothea was looking through the numerous pairs of new tights that Hilda had procured.  'These ones, I think.  Nice colour!'  She handed Byleth a teal green pair.

'Do you think I should wear the uniform today?'  Byleth murmured suddenly.  'I have the match with Jeritza - should I be formal?'

'Considering that at least half of the Monastery inhabitants are trying to find an excuse to attend, perhaps it would be a good idea.'  Edelgard agreed going to the wardrobe and pulling out one of the neatly hung dresses.  'Unless you feel it might inhibit your movement of course.'  She added.

'What you are wearing should never be a consideration in your ability to protect yourself.'  Byleth had already pulled on the green tights and her shorts and reached for the dress.  It fit her perfectly.

'You want the cape?'  Edelgard asked.

'Is it cold?' 

'Not particularly.'  The Princess smiled.  'I just thought it might add a bit of... swishiness...'

'I think I'll pass.'  Byleth muttered.

'You simply must wear this though!'  Dorothea had been rooting through the other purchases that Hilda had made and was holding up a hairband.

'It's pink.'  Byleth objected.

'More.. salmon if you ask me.'  Dorothea laughed as she deftly sat it on the former mercenaries head.  'Beautiful!'  She encouraged.

Byleth sighed.

After feeding Colin some leftover scraps that she had saved Byleth shooed him out of her room, demanding that he go and start organizing the 'kitty committee' much too the other girl's amusement.  They picked up Bernadetta on their way to the dining hall quite quickly, the girl seemingly already accustomed to Byleth persuading her out of her room.  She trailed behind the others shyly until Dorothea finally took her by the arm kindly and encouraged her forward.  Petra was waiting for them when they arrived, although due to the earliness of the hour they were the only students in attendance for breakfast, the rest of the tables teeming with knights and the clergy.

'I'm amazed that Hubert didn’t insist on coming along with us.'  Dorothea remarked to Edelgard once all of the ladies were seated with plates full of goodies in front of them.

'One of the reasons we are eating so early.'  Edelgard admitted.

'You didn’t tell him!'  Dorothea laughed her rich, throaty laugh.  'How naughty El.  I knew you had it in you!'

'Hubert is scary.'  Bernadetta shuddered.

'Oh fie Bernie, the man is a pussy cat underneath all his glare.'  Dorothea disagreed.

'He is meant to be scary, Bernie...'  Edelgard said gently to the girl.  'His job is to protect me.  While I wouldn’t agree that he is a pussy cat, he isn’t quite as mean as he seems - especially if you prove to be an ally.'

Byleth stayed silent.  She had already noted that Hubert was, in fact, keeping a watchful eye over his charge, unbeknownst to Edelgard.  Byleth had almost missed his presence, which spoke exceptionally well of his skill.  Now though, she had to bite down on the urge to make a sudden attack on Edelgard, just to see how he would respond.  If it weren’t for the fact Bernadetta would most likely have vapours if she made a sudden offensive move,  she probably would have done it.

'Must be nice to have someone looking out for you.'  Dorothea said wistfully.

'Having someone you can trust unequivocally is a boon.'  Edelgard agreed seriously, a hand twisting at her hair in an unconscious, thoughtful movement.

'Your hair is so pretty!'  Bernadetta suddenly exclaimed out of nowhere.  She pointed at Edelgard.

'I am agreeing.'  Petra nodded at Bernadetta, who had shrunk back in her seat with both hands over her mouth.

'Oh... thank you...'  Edelgard flushed.  'I have often found myself wishing for some colour in it though...'

'I find most people covet what they don’t have.'  Dorothea noted.  'I would give my right arm for natural curls!'

'You would compromise your physical ability for curly hair?'  Byleth's eyebrow had raised in interest. 

'It's simply a saying Professor.'  Dorothea giggled.

'Well, good.'  Byleth replied.  'I was worried you had taken leave of your senses.'

'We talk about hair?  Is this a correct subject?'  Petra asked.  'We can talk about fighting.'  She added.

'Must we?'  Dorothea murmured.

'It is what we are here to learn.'  Edelgard agreed.

'I'm not.'  Bernadetta quivered.  'I hate it!'

'Then what in the world are you attending the Academy for?'  Edelgard demanded.

'I was taken from my bed in the middle of the night and brought to this place.'  Bernadetta was staring at the table.  'I didn’t even know where I was to begin with.'  She added.

There was silence.

'You will learn the skills required to make sure that something like that never happens to you again.'  Byleth said expressionlessly.  'I promise you that.'

'Right!'  Dorothea agreed fervently. 

'Fight like a tiger!'  Petra declared banging the table enthusiastically.

'We will all help!'  Edelgard promised quietly.

'I'd prefer to stay in my room.'  Bernadetta looked up hopefully.

'Are we really that awful?'  Dorothea pouted at the girl.

Bernadetta's eyes widened.  'N..no. I guess not.'  She whispered.

'We shall watch when the Professor fights.  You and me, together.'  Petra put a hand on the girl's arm.  'It will be goodness, I think!'

'Okay.'  Bernadetta nodded.  'I would like to be there.  We must support our Professor.'  She added as if trying to persuade herself.

'I'd appreciate that.'  Byleth said in surprise.

'Claude has organised betting on the outcome you know.'  Dorothea said wickedly.  'Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that in front of a teacher...'  She added.  'But I can report that every student that has wagered is backing you, Professor.  I hope you won't be letting us down!'

'I am going to kick that boy's arse so hard!'  Byleth grumbled.

'If you lose, I face washing up duties for two weeks.'  Edelgard raised a brow at Byleth.  'I trust I can count on you!'

'If I lose it will serve you right.'  Byleth shot back.

'You can always get Hubert to do your chores.'  Dorothea chuckled.

'He will be too busy mucking out the horses.'  Edelgard admitted.

'Hubert bet on me?'  Byleth asked.

'Of course!'

'Now it's tempting to lose on purpose.'  Byleth admitted.

'I can't see you doing that.'  Edelgard smiled tentatively.  'I believe you are too honest to do anything less than your best.'

'She has you there!'  Sothis chuckled in her head.

The ladies finished up their meal with Edelgard and Dorothea, mainly keeping up the conversation.

'I admit, I was unsure how enjoyable this meal together would be.'  Dorethea purred happily once all of their plates were clear.  'But I have had a lovely time.  Thank you all!'

'Your reticence was understandable since we are all so very different.'  Edelgard mused.  'We are all Black Eagles though, and I am confident that we will become an effective team over this year.'

'It will be interesting if nothing else!'  Dorothea agreed.

'I should get myself prepared for my meeting with Jeritza.'  Byleth had noted that more and more students were now coming in for breakfast and she really wanted to avoid getting pulled into further conversations.  She did want to get herself warmed up as well.

'Of course.  Thank you for eating with us, Professor.'  Edelgard said politely.

'Not that she gave you much choice in the matter.'  Dorothea quipped.

'It was... pleasant.'  Byleth said, speaking truthfully.  It appeared that over a meal people were inclined to relax and bond.  It was an interesting concept.

When she left the dining room Byleth purposefully took a path that led her to where Hubert was loitering just out of sight.

'I should have known that you would have noticed me.'  He murmured at her approach.  'You really are far more dangerous than I am comfortable with Professor.'

'I was uncommonly tempted to attack Lady Edelgard to test your reaction.'  Byleth replied.

'I'm relieved that you didn’t.  It is rare to see my Lady relax quite so fully.'  Hubert commented.  'Not to mention how much it would have scared Bernadetta.'

'Precisely.'  Byleth agreed.  'I do wonder, however, who will be looking over Edelgard if you end up on stable duty due to an unwise wager.'

Hubert chuckled.  'Let's not have to find out.'  He suggested.

Chapter Text

Linhardt was a little surprised to find himself in the Academy training grounds with the rest of his classmates awaiting a presentation on the facilities from the weapon master Jeritza.  He had no interest in martial skills and regularly fainted at the sight of spilled blood, so this kind of event was not something he would usually attend.  Edelgard, however, had insisted that his presence was compulsory and while that alone wouldn’t have induced his compliance, the curiosity that had blossomed in him when he had first met the new Professor had compelled him to forsake his sleep for a few hours to observe these unusual proceedings.

'Oh man, I am so excited I think I might burst!'  Caspar was bouncing up and down on the bench next to Linhardt, his enthusiasm burning with its usual ferocity.  In contrast, the taller lad simply cast his lazy gaze around his unfamiliar surroundings, barely moving - his face almost gormlessly blank.   

Given Linhardt's apparent inertia, the casual observer would likely have been astonished to discover that in actuality, the lad was scrutinizing and analyzing the environment with clinical precision.  Despite his indifference to the pleasures of combative aggression, Linhardt was nonetheless growing more and more intrigued by what he considered to be several incongruous abnormalities in proceedings.

Firstly Linhardt was surprised by the sheer amount of people that were in attendance.  He believed that he counted every single student enrolled in the academy along the benches, congregated by their house into little clusters.  Even those that he would have considered as having as little interest as himself in this kind of event were present.   Added to the students were several units of Knights.   Captain Jeralt was absent, away on a mission - but it seemed that most if not all of the remaining Knights were loitering around the arena awaiting proceedings to begin.  Even more curious were the clerical staff that dotted themselves amongst the crowd.  Linhardt could see no reason at all for them to have taken the time to attend.

The atmosphere was interesting too.  Linhardt's father - who was an avid fan of displays of martial prowess - had taken his son along to many such entertainments in the past, and the boy had always been struck by the rowdy nature of the crowds, particularly in the build-up to the fighting.  It had been a feral and uncomfortable environment for the sensitive youngster.  Here though, the feeling was almost nervous.  The students were obviously excited, and Caspar wasn’t the only one who was displaying his enthusiasm with gusto -although he was by far the loudest.  The other groups, however, the Knights, the monks, and the nuns were quiet and watchful although Linhardt could not fathom a reason for such wary regard.

The real surprise came when Lady Rhea herself swept into the arena, accompanied by Seteth and his young sister, Professor's Manuela and Hanneman and finally Jeritza and Byleth.  Rhea was escorted to a seat in a section of the arena that was swarming with Knights and Clergy, right next to a refreshment table that was manned by a couple of the dining-room staff and appeared to have been supplied for the sole use of the grown-ups.  Byleth stood by herself close to the students while Jeritza took to the centre of the arena and held up his hands for silence.

The weapons master spoke for an unbearably long time.  To Linhardt, the notification of the function and the rules of the training area were words that floated directly over his head and didn’t penetrate his focus in the slightest.  He was too busy watching the fascinating reactions and interplay between others during the monologue.

Rhea was relaxed, a small serene smile on her lips as she listened to whatever Seteth was whispering furiously to her.  The man was furious, it seemed.   On more than one occasion, his pretty sister reached out to put a reassuring hand on her brother's arm as if she were the older and more composed of the two of them.   Hanneman and Manuela both looked a little confused by proceedings.  They were sat a respectable distance from the Archbishop and were obviously not privy to whatever contention was between her and Seteth, but they were astute enough to realise that something was amiss - just as Linhardt himself was.  Byleth stood rigid and unmoved as if she were carved from a single block of stone.  She hardly even blinked - a feat that enraptured Linhardt so much that he stared directly at her for long enough that she suddenly became aware of his gaze and her eyes met his solidly.  Her lips twitched upward ever so slightly at him before she looked away.

Finally, Jeritza was winding up his speech, that appeared to have centred in its final stages about the noble arts of weapon-craft.  Linhardt noted that Caspar was beginning to bounce again.

'We are fortunate this year to be in a position to have a new instructor.'  Jeritza was saying sonorously.  'Byleth Eisner, known to all as the Ashen Demon, has been invited to join our staff to offer a new perspective on the art of warfare.  As a lifelong mercenary and under the tutorage of the Blade Breaker himself - we can surmise that her abilities lie outside of the form and training that is typically provided.   To demonstrate this disparity, she has kindly agreed to a demonstration, here today - so that we may all see exactly what it is that she has to offer us.'  He held out a hand in Byleth's direction, and she moved forward towards him mechanically.

'Anything to add?'  Jeritza asked her quietly.

'No.'  She murmured.

'I will try not to hurt you...  too much.'  He smirked.

Linhardt couldn’t help a frown crossing his face as Jeritza threw a wooden training sword towards Byleth and gave her a few seconds to get used to the weight and balance.  Their tutor looked impossibly small and slight out in the middle of the arena, facing a man whose height and brawn was obviously superior.  Simple mathematic's dictated that the Professor was in for a dreadful morning.

Jeritza's first attack was sudden and massive.  Although Byleth didn’t move, her stance shifted slightly to better balance the strength of the blows that she fielded quickly.  The arena was in total silence, the weight of the strikes unmissable in the noise that echoed out from the fighter's weapons.

'Why isn’t she moving?'  Linhardt muttered under his breath to Caspar, who was seated so far forward on the bench he barely heard his friend's words.  He looked back and grinned.

'Dunno mate.'  Caspar admitted.  'Don't look like she's bothered by his attacks though does it?  He's doing all the work, she just looks... well, a bit bored by his posing.'

The crowd quickly started to become restless as Jeritza continued his attacks and Byleth merely countered them, unmoved and seemingly disinclined to provide an attack of her own.

'Do you not find this tedious?'  Jeritza's voice was mocking.

'I cannot match your strength Jeritza.  It is formidable.  One lucky hit and it would be over for me.'  Byleth's words were monotone but sincere.  'My safest option is to wait until you expend enough energy that your force is compromised.'

'How dull.'  Jeritza smirked, 'Let's ramp up the jeopardy a little...'  At his words, two Knights peeled from the crowd close to Rhea and rushed towards the fighting pair, their weapons real, not the wooden training type.

'Hey!'  Someone from the crowd of students called out, but Linhardt was unable to fathom who it was since nearly all of them had now risen to their feet at the sudden inclusion of the armed Knights.

Despite their speed, and regardless of the attack that Jeritza threw at her at the same moment, Byleth was moving and low to the ground almost quicker than the eye could follow.  Jeritza's thrusts went impotently above her head as she shifted her sword from her right hand to the left and span towards the legs of the Knight that has closed in behind her.  The wooden weapon made a crunching thunk as it connected solidly with the Knight's leg, unbalancing him and knocking him into his fellow as they both struggled to stay upright.  Byleth regained her feet, and pushed herself bodily into the attacker she had hit, toppling him to the floor.  Her sword connected briefly to his chest as she announced him dead.

'This hardly seems sporting.'  Linhardt mused as Byleth was attacked by both the Knight and Jeritza simultaneously.  He spared a glance towards the Archbishop who was still serenely smiling although Seteth was now on his feet, his fists clenched in ire.

'Bloody amazing, though!'  Caspar practically sang.

More knights joined in the assault, singularly and in pairs as their fellows were dispatched casually by the blank-faced woman who was still moving with an economy that belied the damage she was doing to her foes.  She was bleeding from numerous places and that somersaulted Linhardt's stomach unpleasantly, but he found himself unable to take his eyes off of the action.  It wasn’t enjoyment in the brutality, he realised - it was more that Byleth was mesmerizing.  There was little grace or even power to her moves - it was her awareness,  she seemed to know where each blow would land and how to counter it - even seeming to decide which hits she would take to facilitate removing another player.

Jeritza had moved away from the action and was simply observing right up until the last of the Knights was finally dispatched.  Byleth stood stock still and regarded him, waiting.  She didn’t even seem out of breath.  Still wielding his wooden sword, Jeritza picked up a rapier in his other hand and made his way towards her slowly.

'Impressive.'  He said as he hit out with the wooden weapon.  Byleth staggered slightly under the weight of the blow against her sword.

Silence filled the arena again at this first show of weakness from the Professor.  Jeritza smiled and launched himself to a flurry of hits against her so strong that there was a huge crack and her sword shattered, her arm stinging at the impact.  She span away from him and threw the useless hilt to the floor.

'Professor!'  Felix had drawn his own blade from its scabbard, and when her eyes darted to him, he launched it in her direction.  She caught it with a nod of thanks to the lad.

Linhardt looked up again towards Rhea.  It was Seteth that was moving, pushing his way through the crowds in front of him despite the frown on the Archbishop's face.  Manuela was also pushing forward with Hanneman just behind her.

'Enough!'  Seteth roared. 

Byleth acquiesced immediately and lowered her weapon.

Jeritza did not.  He flew towards Byleth, his sword whirling in a thunderous attack sequence.  Byleth switched her weapon once again to her other hand and stepped lightly to one side as Jeritza's blade made connection to her shoulder.  She rolled with it, and his own momentum pushed him past her.  She twisted her sword so that the flat of it was presented and she thwacked a tremendous hit to his rear that seemed to reverberate around the arena.  He stumbled and fell.  Byleth grabbed hold of the cape he was wearing and looped it around his throat as her foot stamped down on his sword-arm, forcing him to let go of the weapon. 

'You're dead.'  She told him as she pulled tighter on his cape for a second and then let go.

Silence.

Byleth moved to hand Felix back his sword, and then she turned and made her way towards Manuela who was coming across the arena, babbling something about seeing to her wounds. 

'Jeritza!'  Seteth bellowed angrily and Byleth turned just in time to catch the weapons master who had regained his feet and was charging her down from behind.  She swung a fist at his jaw, which almost lifted him from his feet, and he went down for a second time.

'The dead don’t rise, idiot.'  She chided him as she allowed Manuela to grab her arm and lead her away.

Jeritza sat himself up, rubbing at his chin.

'And that...'  He roared, 'Is an abject lesson in how to survive, regardless of what is thrown at you.'  He brought his hands together and began to clap slowly.

The students went wild.

Chapter Text

Mercedes had jumped up as soon as the fighting was over and attempted to clamber her way through the excited crowd towards where Professor's Manuela and Hanneman had disappeared with Byleth.  Assistance in her passage came from an unlikely source.  Claude had noted her move and seemed to be trying to open a way ahead of her.  At one stage, he had looked back at her and smiled and winked.  When they reached the refreshment table that had been laid out and was being picked at by Knight's and Clergy, he waited for Mercedes to catch up and put a warm hand on her shoulder. 

'They took Teach that way.'  He told her, pointing to a corridor that led off the arena.

'Thank you.'  She murmured back at him uncertainly.  'I am hoping I can offer my own healing skills...'

'Nice idea.'  Claude beamed.  'I'll wait here to see you safely back once you're done if you like.  I wouldn’t mind hearing how she's doing myself.'

'Right.  That's very kind.'  Mercedes struggled to think of a polite way to decline, Claude had never even spoken to her directly before after all.

'Not a problem.  I reckon we are all anxious to ensure The Prof is okay.  Marianne is quite beside herself.' 

'Oh... I didn’t think!'  Mercedes looked back to try and spot the girl.  'I could have asked her to come along too.  She is skilled in healing.'

'Don't worry about it.  Just be nice to have someone representing the student's giving Teach some care.  At least we will get a more accurate report on her wellbeing from you than we are likely to get from the faculty.'

'I honestly don’t know what they were thinking with that display.'  Mercedes displeasure was obvious.

'You and me both.'  Claude muttered.  He pushed gently on Mercedes's shoulder.  'Get yourself in there, I will wait.' 

She nodded at him thoughtfully and made her way to the corridor.

Hanneman was stood outside the only door at the end of the short passage. 

'Ah, Mercedes!'  He welcomed cheerfully.  'Are you here to offer your services?'

'If I can be of any help, Professor.'  Mercedes replied quietly.

'I'm sure Manuela would appreciate it!'  He assured, knocking lightly on the door.  He had a brief conversation with the inhabitants before he beckoned Mercedes closer.

'Go on in.'  He urged.

Once she was in the small storage room, Mercedes hurried over to where Manuela was trying to get Byleth free of her dress.

'You are so stubborn.'  The older woman declared.  'I should at least clean the cuts - it would simply not do to allow you to get an infection.'

'You are fussing too much!'  Byleth was scowling.  'I am really not hurt.  You would be better off checking on the Knights!'

'I might have guessed you would be a difficult patient.'  Mercedes giggled as she drew level with them.

'I'm not difficult when I am genuinely hurt!'  Byleth complained.

Manuela looked appraisingly at the student.  'Perhaps I could leave this troublemaker in your care Mercedes?'  She suggested.  'Byleth is correct that her injuries are not particularly severe, but they should be looked at.  If you could take that over for me, then I can go and do as she is demanding and check on her victims.'

Byleth growled a little but nodded her head at Mercedes.  'Acceptable.'  She mumbled.

'Besides...'  Manuela added with a chuckle as she sorted out an ungent from her stock and handed it to Mercedes, 'Cute though you are Byleth,  I can't deny that getting to run my hands over a few poor Knights aching muscles is a far more appealing prospect than sitting here arguing with you!'

'Glad I could be of service.'  Byleth snorted.

Once Manuela was out of the door, Mercedes got to work. 

'I am quite literally amazed that you are not significantly damaged.'  The healer murmured, taking stock of the shallow cuts and bruising.  'Nine Knights and Jeritza.  Did you know that was going to happen?'

'No.'

'I didn’t think so.  I fail to see how it was allowed that your adversaries were properly armed while you were not.'

Byleth remained silent.

'You were unbelievable, of course.'  Mercedes smiled gently at her patient. 

'You have an exceptionally gentle touch Mercedes.  Your magic is very warm.'  Byleth appeared intent on changing the subject.

'Thank you.'  The girl couldn’t prevent a slight blush.  'I admit I enjoy the healing arts.  It feels... right.'

It didn’t take long for Byleth's hurts to be tended.  She had just been helped back into her clothes when there was a gentle knock on the door.  Mercedes opened it to admit Seteth, who was followed in by Flayn.

'May I have a moment, Professor?'  He asked formally, his face carefully set.

'Are we done?'  Byleth asked Mercedes, who nodded.

'Thank you.'  Byleth dismissed the girl who slipped out of the room quickly and shut the door behind her.  Curiosity made her linger, though.

'I am happy to report that nobody suffered any damage in your little demonstration.'  Seteth was saying.

'I was careful.'  Byleth replied.

'Lady Rhea agreed to Jeritza's idea to test you.'  Interestingly it was Flayn that spoke up.

'I was only advised at the very last minute.'  Seteth added.  'The Archbishop seemed to have total faith in your ability and believed that a show of such strength would set you in good stead with your pupils.  Give you respect that may not have been granted in other circumstances.'  Even though the thick wooden door, Mercedes could tell that Seteth did not approve.

'It was unexpected, but I am trained to deal with the unexpected.'  Byleth's voice was stoic as always.

'All the same, I want you to know that it reflected very well on you that despite being attacked in numbers and facing real weapons, you never lost any control and actually managed to limit damage to others exceedingly well.'

'I suppose there was always a danger that I may become overly aggressive.'  Byleth was thoughtful.  'I know many of my trade who would have reacted with violence in such a scenario.'

'That would not have been good since you are going to be working with students.'  Seteth agreed.  'They can be very vexing at times...'

With a small smile, Mercedes moved away from the door and back down the passage to the arena.

True to his word, Claude was lingering at the entrance to the corridor, waiting for her.  Manuela was administering to a number of the Knights, the rest of whom were still in attendance, taking refreshments and talking in small clusters.  Most of the students were now absent.

'All done?  The others have gone over to the dining hall for a celebration tea - can I escort you?'  Claude pushed himself up from his relaxed position against the wall and offered a gallant arm to Mercedes.  After a slight hesitation, she took it.

'The Professor sustained only some minor cuts and bruises.'  Mercedes reported softly as they walked from the training grounds together.

'Not a single one of those bloody Knights took even minor damage.'  Claude replied.  'Can't help but think the Prof held back a great deal in dealing with them.'

'She admitted as much to Seteth.'  Mercedes agreed.

'Remarkable.'  Claude shook his head.  'What do you make of her Mercedes?  I can't help but notice that you seem particularly astute.'

Mercedes stopped, her sudden stillness causing Claude to turn back to face her.

'What are you asking Claude?'  She asked shrewdly.

He opened his mouth as if to speak and then appeared to reconsider.  He smiled at her. 

'Like I said, you are astute.'  He laughed.  'You rushed to the Professor's aid as soon as the fight was over, which said to me that you already have some kind positive feeling towards her.  I am simply interested in your reasoning for admiring her.  Your thoughts on her abilities.'

'What are yours?'  She deflected back at him.

'That's fair.'  He prompted her to start walking again.  'I followed her on her first day here when she was meeting with the students.  The way she treated everyone was... unique.   My own discourse with her has piqued my interest even further and her skills... well.  I can't discount her abilities and what could be learned from her.  Not in my position.'

Mercedes nodded.  'I, too, was taken with how kindly she dealt with Lysithia and Annette, given her past as a mercenary.'  She thought carefully.  'I sense a vulnerability though.  Oh, not in her ability to protect herself...'  she qualified when Claude scoffed in disbelief.  'I mean more in herself.  Like what happened today.  In no way did I see a reaction that suggested she was bothered by being set up.  Yet to my mind it was an unkindness to test her in such a manner in front of the students.'

'I don’t disagree.'  Claude murmured.  'She handled it incredibly, but there was every chance that it may not have turned out so well...'

'Seteth said that Rhea thought such a display would give her a gravitas with her students.'  Mercedes frowned.  'It stinks to me though.  Why offer her a position in the first place and then seek to test her - potentially setting her up for a fall?'

'Unless the Archbishop had such blinding faith in her ability, I suppose.'

'Maybe.'  Mercedes still looked troubled.

'Whatever the reasoning behind it, she certainly impressed Jeritza.'  Claude's voice was so low that Mercedes had to strain to hear him.  'I overheard him telling Hubert that her abilities would be a great boon to the future Empress.'

'My understanding is that she will be training all of us.'  Mercedes bristled.

Claude shrugged.  'That's definitely Teach's ambition.'  He agreed.

Mercedes was silent for a moment.  'I admit you have surprised me, Claude.'  She said finally.  'I know we have not spoken before, but you realise that you come off as an entitled brat don’t you?'

'You wound me!'  Claude smirked.  'Surely my boyish good looks and charm are completely appealing!'

Mercedes giggled.  'Oh, is that what you are going for?'  She asked wickedly.

He chuckled.  'I am appealing!'  He insisted.  'Although maybe just a slight bit more thoughtful than my reputation suggests.  I doubt I could keep the wool over your eyes for long though my Lady.'

'You are probably a little dangerous to know, Claude.'  Mercedes grip tightened slightly on his arm.  'I think I would prefer to be seen as a friend rather than an enemy though.  Might that be a possibility?'

'I think that sharing some of the things that we notice might be of help to both of us.'  He said lightly as he held the door to the dining hall open for her.

'It may well be.'  She agreed.

Chapter Text

Byleth was pleased to manage to get back to her room without running into any of her students.  Even though she had managed to hide it well, she was exhausted and more than a little angry. 

You have every right to be annoyed.'  Sothis noted, floating languidly over Byleth's bed in a relaxed pose.  'There was no need to test you so thoroughly, in my opinion.'

'I'm not angry about that.'  Byleth replied as she set up her tea-things.  'In honesty, the challenge was negligible.  Those Knights were trying even less than I was, I'm sure.  What I AM bothered about is the fact that that Jeralt was sent away and then his forces were used in his absence.  That will not sit well with him.'

'I see.'  Sothis looked interested.  'Why is that such an issue?'  She asked.

'Da's already skittish about this whole set-up.'  Byleth sighed.  'The events of today won't help matters at all.  There is every chance he will decide we should leave.'

'And you really don’t want to leave, do you?'  Sothis' sounded even more interested.  'Honestly, based on your previous reactions to life in general - I would have expected that you wouldn’t care one way or the other if we stayed or if we go.'

Byleth shrugged.

'You want to know what I think?'  The girl asked slowly as she floated to the floor and came closer to Byleth, her face a mess of mischief.

'I expect you are going to tell me, regardless of whether I want to know or not.' 

'I think you are enjoying the company here.'  Sothis taunted.

Byleth thought about it.

'I'm not sure.'  She said cautiously.  'Perhaps.'

'Mercenaries can be so boring!'  Sothis moaned.  'Kill this, fight that, drink beer.  Rinse and repeat... there is so much more to life than that Byleth, and there is so much that is of interest right here!'

'Hey!'  Byleth protested.

Sothis chuckled to herself.  'You know that I'm right.  And talking of interesting... you do remember that you will be teaching actual lessons tomorrow?'  The girls face splint into an impish grin.  'Now that is going to be a whole lot of fun... for me!'

'Right.'  Byleth murmured.  'I think I should get back to the books.  I ain't even close to being ready yet.'

Byleth was uninterrupted for most of the afternoon, allowing her to slowly relax into her study.  Cyril knocked once, bringing with him two large wooden buckets, covered over with a lid.

'These are heavy.'  He grunted as he lugged the containers into Byleth's room and set them down into the corner that she indicated.

'Teaching aides.'  She told him as she thanked him.

Dedue knocked a little later with a tray of food and a tiny vase with a single flower in it.

'You really don't have to keep on worrying about me!'  Byleth chided him.  'I promise that I will go and grab food once I get hungry.'

'I am just next door.  It is no hardship.'  He replied stoically.  She offered him tea, but he declined.  'I am sure that you must be fatigued after your exertions earlier.'  He pointed out.  'Your feline is currently with Prince Dimitri, I suspect he will be returned to you at some point.  His Highness seems to have taken quite a shine to the animal.'

Byleth snorted.  'I expect he is spoiling him.  I have observed that the kitten is a whore to anyone who will cave into his demands.'

'A wise creature.'  Dedue observed.

It was beginning to get dark when a very harassed looking Seteth turned up at Byleth's door.

'I am sorry to bother you so late.'  He said without preamble, striding into her room and immediately pacing.

'Is there a problem?'  Byleth was a little surprised at the man's demeanor.

'There has been a sudden outbreak of sickness.  Predominantly amongst the ranks of the Knights.'  Seteth was frowning worriedly.  'I assume that you have had no such issues with the students?'

Byleth shook her head.  'I have been in here since the tournament.'  She admitted.  'Perhaps I should check.' 

'I think it wise.'  Seteth stopped pacing for a moment and turned to face her.  'It is a somewhat violent and sudden vomiting, followed by tiredness and lethargy.  Manuela is doing her best, she has a team together trying to contain those afflicted in case it is communicable, although it is suspected that it is most likely something they ate.'  Seteth started his pacing again.  'If that is the case, then it is unlikely that the students will be afflicted.  Hanneman has been putting together a list, his findings so far suggest that all of those that have fallen ill were at the demonstration earlier and took refreshment from the table provided.'

'I see.'

'You did not imbibe anything from the table?'  Seteth enquired.

'I did not.'  Byleth replied.

'Well, that's something at least.'  Seteth ran his hand through his hair.  'While you are checking on the students, I think it would be wise to inform them that lessons will not start for another few days.  With Manuela busy and Hanneman looking into the source of this illness... so many unwell...'

'I see your point, but surely it would be a better idea to keep them contained in so much as is possible in case the illness is catching?'  Byleth asked. 

'I just don’t have the resources to provide cover for the other professors.'  Seteth admitted.  'Normally, either I would do it, or we would appoint one of the senior Knights.'

'I could just take them all until things have settled down.'  Byleth suggested.  'I mean - I doubt that I can actually teach anything, but at least I could keep them occupied rather than ranging the Monastery and getting into trouble.'

'Twenty-four students all at once?'  Seteth gave a short incredulous snort.  'They would eat you alive, Professor.'

'Would you like to wager on that?'   Her eyes had taken on a steely glint.

He paused where he stood, and she was sure she heard a small laugh, although his back was turned away from her and she couldn’t be sure.  When he turned, his face was quite serious.

'I am not a gambling man.'  He said shortly.  'However, if you think you can manage, then I have to admit it would ease the pressure on this situation somewhat.'

'I would suggest that students keep to their rooms, classrooms and the dining hall only until you decide otherwise.'  Byleth added.

'Agreed.'  Seteth appraised her closely.  'You really think you can do this?'

Byleth shrugged.

'Do I really believe I can even teach?'  She replied stoically.  'I guess it is simply a case of seeing what happens.'

'Does anything actually manage to shake your composure?'  Seteth asked quietly.

'A particular type of bun from Duscur apparently.'  She admitted. 

His eyebrow rose.

'So my father says.'  She added.

He huffed a laugh, his stern face relaxing for a second.  'Do you require any aid in checking the students Professor?'  He asked politely.

'I should be fine - I will enlist the house leaders.' 

'In that case, I sorely need to get back.  I will try and check in on you tomorrow.  Hopefully, things will have calmed down by then.'  Seteth bowed to her slightly.  'Goodluck Professor.'  He paused by the door.  'If I were to be of a mind to wager...'  He said thoughtfully, then shook his head.  'I have faith that you will manage.  Don't let me down.'  Then he was gone.

Byleth knocked on Dedue's door first.

'I need to speak with the house leaders.'  She told him when he warily opened his door.  'I know where the Prince's room is - but do you know where Edelgard and Claude are located?'

He nodded and pulled on his jacket before stepping out to accompany her.

They stopped at Dimitri's room first, where they found both Felix and the Prince entertaining Colin.  The kitten made a run for Byleth the second Dimitri opened the door to admit them.

'Dedue and I will ensure that all of the Blue Lions are well.'  The blonde lad promised sincerely.  'If we discover a problem you will be the first to know.'

Byleth followed direction to Edelgard's room next.  She wasn’t particularly surprised when it was Hubert that answered the door.  Indeed he blocked her completely from entering but was unable to prevent her from seeing Edelgard sweeping reams of paper up into an untidy pile on her desk and placing an opened book over the top of them before coming up to the door herself.

They both listened to Byleth's news in silence. 

'Hubert, will you check on our classmates?'  Edelgard requested when the Professor was finished.

He nodded but didn’t move from her side.

'Are you sure that merging the classes together tomorrow will be a good idea?'  He demanded.  'After all, we are all adults.  We don’t actually require to be babysat.'

'Lesson's start tomorrow.'  Byleth said with finality.

'I can see sense in not disrupting the schedule.'  Edelgard mused.  'I am just not sure that much will actually get done with so many of us all together.  I'd suggest that more could be achieved if we were left to study independently.'

'Lesson one will be learning to play nice with others.'   Byleth muttered.

'Not my forte.'  Hubert smirked.

'I know that I can rely on your Highness' support.'  Byleth bowed to Edelgard.  'As such, I am positive that the other Black Eagles will present as model students, having such a good lead to follow.'

'Well, of course, they will.'  Edelgard looked pleased.  'We will not let you down, Professor.  We will show the other houses what correct discipline is.'

'May have to tape Caspar to his chair.'  Hubert was murmuring.

'I need to get on and speak to Claude.'  Byleth was moving already.  'Let me know if anyone is unwell.'  She added.

Byleth wasn’t at all surprised when she knocked at Claude's door, and there was no response.  She tracked down Hilda instead, who was taking tea with Marianne and enlisted her grudging help instead.

'No idea where the boss man is.'  Hilda scowled.  'Probably up to no good somewhere.'  She blew out her cheeks.  'Do I really need to check on everyone...?' 

'I will help.'  Marianne's sweet little voice cut in.  'It won't take us long together Hilda.  It would be awful if someone is all alone and unwell!'

Byleth paced the corridor for a while, but reports soon came back that everyone seemed to be suffering no ill effects.  The only student that remained unaccounted for was Claude.  Byleth briefly considered going to look for him but decided that he could literally be anywhere.  Once things had settled back down from the disruption, she prowled along the corridor and back to his room, tapping quietly once again in case he had returned unseen.

When there was no reply, she took a clip from her pocket and bent down to the lock, surreptitiously looking around to make sure that she was unobserved.

'You aren’t planning on breaking into his room, are you?'  Sothis sounded scandalized in her head.

'He may be sick and unable to answer.'  Byleth though back piously.

'You don’t really believe that, do you?'  There was a chuckle.

'Of course, I do, and as a conscientious adult, I have to check.'  The lock had clicked open easily, and Byleth slipped into the darkened room and closed the door quickly behind her.

Once she had lit the lantern Byleth was met with a cacophony of mess that was even worse than her father's office.  Books were strewn everywhere, over every surface, including the bed.  The shelving and the desk and a part of the floor in the corner held a load of unidentifiable detritus, odd equipment, tubes and vials that she could not have named if her life had depended on it.

'Seem's the lad is rather more studious than I gave him credit for.'  Sothis sounded rather impressed.

'What the hell is this stuff?'  Byleth said aloud as the door clicked open.  The look of surprise on Claude's face was quite gratifying, although it lasted barely seconds before his usual smirk slipped firmly into place.

'If I had known you fancied a late-night liaison Professor, I would have tidied up a bit.'  He leered at her with a wink, shutting the door behind him and spawling himself on his bed.

She crossed her arms and stared at him.

'What?'  He asked.  'You are the one that somehow managed to get into my locked room uninvited.  Am I not to suspect an ulterior motive?'

With a heavy sigh, Byleth explained the situation.

'Aw teach, I'm touched that you were so concerned for my health.'  He clutched a hand dramatically to his chest.  'I'm also reasonably impressed with your lock-picking skills.'  He added.

With a scowl, Byleth indicated the instruments that crowded the boy's space.  'What is all this?'  She asked.

'Just some experiments I have been conducting.'  He half sat himself up, and his eyes were shielded.  'Call it.. a hobby.'  He added.

She picked up a vial containing a muddy brown liquid and held it up to the light.

'Careful with that, Prof.'  He warned quietly.

'Is it a poison?'  She enquired, although her tone remained level.

'No!'  He shook his head vehemently, but she had caught the brief look of panic that ran over his face.

'Perhaps I should get Hanneman to have a look at it?'  She suggested.  'I would hate for you to get hurt after all.'

'It's just a concoction I have been exploring.'  He said a bit sullenly.

'I see.'  Her eyebrow raised.  'What exactly were you planning on doing with it?'

'Nothing.'  He kicked his foot off the edge of the bed petulantly.

She stared at him silently.

'Look, theoretically, if that was added to a liquid and someone were to drink it they may get a little sick.  It would upset the stomach for no more than a day.'  He finally caved.

'Sort of like the affliction that is running through the Knights at the moment?'  She asked.

'Theoretically.'  He repeated.

'I wonder, theoretically, why this liquid might find it's way into someone's drink in the first place.'  Byleth added.

'I'd suggest that maybe it wasn’t planned that way, but when it became apparent that the victims were intent on bullying someone it may have been seen as a just reward for their unkindness.'  Claude said quietly.

'They were merely doing what they were told.'  Byleth barked.  'Indeed, they could have gone a lot harder with me than they did.'

'Did I actually claim that it was a good idea?'  Claude finally met her gaze.  'I have spent enough time being an outsider that I find picking on someone just because they are different abhorrent.  I had a vial in my pocket.  It... just happened.'

Byleth sat herself on the bed next to him.

'I am perfectly capable of fighting my own battles, Claude.'  She said quietly.

'Well, yeah - that was pretty obvious.'  He agreed.

'You can't keep this stuff here like this, you realise.'  She waved a hand at his apparatus.  'If anyone saw it...'

'It isn’t like many people think it's okay to break into someone's room.'  He pointed out.

'Maybe, but any of the faculty could demand a spot-check if there were a reason to suspect...'

'Okay yeah.'  Claude nodded quickly.  'I get that, I've been trying to find somewhere else to store it.  Needs to be safe though, as in - I actually don’t want anyone to stumble across it and get hurt...'

'What purpose does it even serve?'  Byleth was curious.

'I don’t agree that everything needs to come down to a fight.'  He shook his head.  'If I can prevent a situation coming to that with this kind of scheme, then it's got to be better than running the risk of people getting seriously hurt.  I meant it when I said it's a hobby.'

Byleth stood.  'Get it moved.  Soon and safely.' 

'You aren’t going to tell anyone?'  He sounded incredulous.

She shrugged.  'I broke in, didn’t I?  Not sure I can admit to that.'  She scowled as Claude started to grin.  'I do think that some punishment is in order though.'

That wiped the grin straight from his face.  'Oh?'  he said warily.

She thought about it for a second.

'I want you to spend some time, perhaps the time you would have spent on your little hobby here... with your classmates.  I want a full report in a week's time on their strengths and weaknesses.  Talk to them.  Assess them.'

'So basically you want me to do your job for you?'  He noted.

She growled.

'No, obviously it's a great idea. Teach!'  He said quickly.  'It will be informative.'

She nodded at him as she opened the door to slip out.

'Don't even start...'  She warned Sothis in her head as the girl began to laugh, loudly.

Chapter Text

Nervousness was not something that Byleth was used to feeling, even before a big battle where the odds and the response were unpredictable.  She was definitely feeling it this morning though, and it was... uncomfortable.

Byleth had woken as the sun started to rise.  She was up and dressed quickly, then ran down to the dining hall for a speedy plate of food which she barely tasted in her haste to get it eaten.  Next, she headed over to the classrooms, which she unlocked with the large key that had been left for her by Seteth. After careful consideration of her available options, Byleth left a notice on the blackboard serving the Golden Deer and the Blue Lion's class in her best and most precise handwriting asking those students to liaise in the Black Eagles room first thing (and bring a chair).

There were still a few hours to go until the students would be making their way to the classroom.  Byleth thought about just sitting and waiting for the time to pass, but the itch of anxiety that was still rubbing her forced her to her feet.  Focus was impossible, so she decided to try and walk her nerves out.   She found her way quite naturally to the entrance hall, where the gatekeeper - her brother - was standing guard.

'Morning, Professor.'  She could hear his smile.  It seemed to be a talent he excelled in.  'Nothing to report.  A quiet night once the number of people afflicted by illness started to calm down.  Hasn't been a new case for several hours, so it's looking like there is no need to worry about a potential epidemic.'

Byleth leaned casually on the wall next to him.

'I noticed you at the fight yesterday.'  She said quietly. 

'I was hardly going to miss the opportunity to see you in action!'  He chuckled.  'Managed to swap my shift.  That's how I ended up on night duty last night.'

'Lucky you didn’t come down with the sickness too.'  She observed.

'Well... happens that I noted a little something  was being added to the keg of beer that the knights were drinking.'   Came the murmured reply.

'You saw that?'  Byleth exclaimed, then lowered her voice too.  'You didn’t report it?'  She queried.

'I saw the look on the face of the one who did it.  It kinda mirrored my own feeling at what had just happened.'

'I see.'  Byleth nodded.  'You didn’t think there might actually be any kind of danger to those that drank?'

'I've got a good nose for trouble.'  The gatekeeper stood straighter.  'What I saw on the face of the perpetrator was annoyance and a dash of mischief but no genuine ill intent.  The lad in question also attended the infirmary in the first week he was here with a rough stomach not dissimilar to what the Knights have experienced.  Reckon his creation was tested on himself first.  You think I was wrong to stay quiet?'

'It's not my place to say.'  Byleth looked troubled. 

Myles chuckled at that.

'It happens that the miscreant has a pretty complex setup in his room for his little experimental hobby.'  Byleth whispered.  'He's been looking for somewhere safer to conduct his research.  Do you know of anywhere that might fit?'

'So you don't have an issue with it then?'

'Not in theory.  Have to see how it plays out in practice.'

'Reckon there are a few hidden places that could work.'  Myles said thoughtfully.  'Let me think about it.'

'I will want a key to wherever you decide.'  Byleth pushed herself from the wall and eyed her brother.

'You want me to approach him with a solution to his problem?'  He asked.

'Yeah.  He could use some allies.  If you don't have a problem with that.'  Byleth replied.

'Whatever you want sis.' 

Byleth's eyes widened.  'It's odd to be called that.'  She murmured.

'I could always call you 'little sis.'  He teased.  'I believe I was born first, after all.'

'It's your funeral.'  She observed stoically.

'Heh, noted.  I've seen you fight.  I definitely intend to stay in your good books.'  He laughed.  'Anyway, don't you have teaching to do today?  What are you wasting your time standing here chatting to me for?' 

'Anxiety.'  She told him honestly.

'Huh.'  He sounded surprised.

'I'm not actually made of stone, you know.'  She frowned.  'And I get all of the students all at once today.'

'Can't see any of them wanting to give you any trouble, any more than I would want to.' 

'Yeah, I ain't worried about discipline, fairly sure I can manage that one.'  She huffed.  'More worried that I don’t know much about anything other than the pointy end of a weapon.  I don't wanna let anyone down.'

'Just listen to them, Professor.'  Myles said gently.  'The best way to support anyone is to let them speak and really listen.  Don't matter if you don't have an answer immediately.  You can always find it.'

She mentally shook herself.  'Right.'  She agreed.  'Thanks.'

'We could meet up after lessons are done for the day if you like.'  He added.

'I thought we were supposed to be, you know... keeping our association a bit of a secret?'

'Do you generally do what you're told?'  He asked, inquisitively.

'Always.'  She nodded

'Really?'

'Sometimes, with a bit of creative license.'  She amended.

'Isn't like Captain Jeralt is around and you and me certainly don't look alike.  I've never actually seen Lady Rhea grace the dining hall... so...'  He left the idea dangling.

'Alright.'  Byleth was actually quite relieved.

'I'll see you later then.'  She could hear his grin again behind his helmet.  'Knock 'em dead sis.  Not literally though...'  He began to chuckle to himself.

'Funny.'  She grouched as she walked away.

Ironically, despite being up almost before the sun, Byleth was a little late for her first class.  It wasn’t by intent, but after she had spoken with her brother she had headed back in the direction of her room to pick up the buckets that she needed to take along to class and had bumped into a very harassed Manuela who had obviously gotten no sleep at all overnight.  Byleth had seen the woman safely to her room and then got into a discourse with an equally sleepy Hanneman.  Both of the Professors tried to give her helpful words and encouragement for her first day of teaching but managed only in holding her up.

By the time she finally ran to her room and picked up what she needed and sprinted around to the classrooms, she was aware that she was tardy.  The door to the Black Eagles room was wide open, and the noise coming from it was deafening even from a distance.  Slowing herself to a more dignified stride, Byleth swallowed hard and entered the class, walking down the central aisle with her head high and her blankest look on her face.  When she reached the table at the front, she lifted the wooden buckets that she was carrying onto it and then turned to face the students.

Silence had fallen as soon as she had entered. 

Byleth's first emotion was relief.  It appeared that everyone was here.  The room was uncomfortably full - each of the eight student's desks, meant just for one person having three bodies crammed around them.

Byleth cooly took stock as twenty-four pairs of eyes stared back at her.

'Say something...'  Sothis suggested helpfully in her head.

'I have just returned from meeting with Professor Manuela.'  Byleth's mouth was dry, but she managed to keep the croak from her voice as she stared straight ahead.  'While it appears that there have been no new cases of illness for several hours,  the decision has been made that it would be wise to limit movement around the Monastery for the time being.  That being the case you are all required to restrict your activities to your accommodation, the dining hall and obviously the classrooms.'

'No library?'  Lysithia was unable to contain herself.  'There are books I need!'  she complained.

'No training grounds either.'  Felix noted crossly.

'We will be alerted as soon as it is deemed appropriate that other areas are available.'  Byleth frowned.

'Inspiring speech.'  Sothis observed.

Ignoring the unwanted commentary in her head, Byleth leaned herself against the front of her desk.

'I understand that this isn’t the best way to start the year off, but I'm confident it will only be a day or two before normal activities can commence.  Until then, we'll have to muddle along as best we can.'  Byleth inwardly cringed at her words.  'That is to say, I will start off with the lessons that I planned specifically to present in my sessions with each class.  Since you are all here I guess it will save a bit of time.'

Edelgard, seated at one of the two front desks with Hubert and Ferdinand raised her hand.  When Byleth nodded towards her, she stood.

'Do you mean weapon training?'  She asked.

'No.'  Byleth looked away and removed the cover from one of the buckets that she had placed on the desk.  'While martial skills will be a part of my training, that is an individualised study.  My main aim is far more generalized.'

There was a pause as she looked up and scrutinized the class.  'I believe all of you were at the demonstration yesterday.'  She noted.  There was a slight murmur.  'Then I would be interested to hear what you observed about the fight.'  Byleth requested.

Caspar shot to his feet.  'You are a total badass Professor!'  He yelled.  Hubert looked round at him disapprovingly as a small ripple of laughter, and one or two muted cheers went around the room.  'Well, she is!'  Caspar grinned.

'I believe that is an opinion rather than an observation.'  Byleth said, her expression unchanging.  'Ignatz - perhaps you have an observation to share?'  Her eyes swung to the bespectacled boy.

'Oh!'  Ignatz rose to his feet, his face flushed bright red at the attention.  He thought about it for a second or two.  'I think... well, I noticed that you didn’t move around very much.  It surprised me.'

'Good.'  Byleth nodded and waved for him to sit down.  'Hilda.. could you give a suggestion as to why I stayed as motionless as possible?' 

Hilda was sat right at the back of the room alongside Marianne and Leonie.  She stood up with a smirk plastered to her face.  'Because you are lazy?'  she drawled.

'Wrong.'  Byleth's arm moved so fast it was almost a blur.

'OUCH!'  Hilda cried her hand, moving to her forehead.  'What in the hell was that?'

Byleth's attention had moved on.  'Annette, perhaps you could offer a reason I didn’t move much?'  She requested.

'Conserving energy?'  The girl said nervously.

'Exactly.'  Byleth's arm moved again, and Linhardt bolted upright from where he had started to reline back in his seat, his eyes closed.  He looked startled.  'I'm awake.'  He groaned.

'Then perhaps you would like to share any observations you made yesterday?'  Byleth raised an eyebrow at him.

Linhardt sighed heavily and stood.  'I think what you are referring to is the fact that your awareness of your enemies and your ability to not only predict their attacks but to counter them comes from your own training in observation and perception.  I expect that you intend to try and test our own ability to anticipate and prevent attacks by the use of the rubber balls that you are throwing at us.'  He sighed again and sat down.

'Oh!  Well, yes.'  Byleth wasn’t the only person staring at Linhardt, who had reclined back in his chair again and closed his eyes.

'Wait.. you intend to physically attack us?'  Hubert sounded outraged.

Byleth picked another rubber ball from her pail and threw it up on the air catching it quickly as it fell. 

'Think yourself lucky Hubert.  When Jeralt taught me, he used stones, to begin with then moved onto dagger's once I started getting the hang of it.'

'Seriously, I fail to see how violence is a training method.'

'Builds your reflexes and observation.'  Linhardt informed, although his eyes were still closed.

'If I only manage to teach you all one thing this year...'  Byleth's voice was oddly passionate.  'It will be to be aware of incoming danger an how to counter it.'  The ball in her hand skidded out at speed and smacked into Sylvain's brow.

'Wow, I really didn’t see that coming!'  He grinned, rubbing his head.

'When I'm done with you, you will.'  Byleth promised.

Chapter Text

It was just a little disappointing that so far not one student had repelled or dodged an attack.  Everyone was aware that the balls were being thrown; every time  Byleth's arm whipped back, there was a collective shudder as the class waited to see who was going to be struck and yet nobody had actually managed to prevent the ball from squarely hitting them in the forehead.  A few had jerked reflectively when the missile was close but much too late for it to make a difference.  Byleth realised she was going to have her work cut out for her.

'Cut them some slack.'  Sothis chided.  'It's not like many of the little beasts have had to actively consider their own self-preservation before, they have staff around them to deal with that.  Those that don’t are just not important enough to have considered being the focus of an enemy.'

'I wasn’t expecting it to be this bad.'  Byleth mused, then noted that Hilda was missing.  She walked along the aisle towards the back of the room.

'Hmm.  Hiding is an effective counter-measure, I suppose.'  Byleth considered when she finally spied the girl lounging underneath her table.  'Of course, you have removed yourself completely from battle and abandoned your unit.'

'At least I'm alive.'  Hilda pouted.

'Agreed.'  Byleth nodded, 'Although now that you are discovered you are a sitting duck.'  Three balls bounced one after the other off the girl's head, the cramped space she was occupying not allowing her to move out of the way at all.  'Now, you're dead.'  Byleth observed walking back to the front of the room.  'Retreat and obfuscation is always a viable option when the situation requires it.'  She lectured as she walked, 'However you must make sure that if you are followed or discovered you need to have an out.  Don't allow yourself to be trapped, it's completely counter-productive.'

' I wasn’t planning on being in the fight in the first place.'  Hilda mumbled as she got out from under the table.

'Sometimes, you have no choice.'  Byleth turned to face the class.  'Better to know what to do if trouble finds you.'

'It's an excellent point, Hilda.'  Dorothea suddenly spoke up.  'There have been occasions when I wish I'd had more awareness of my surroundings and was more circumspect in my retreat.  When you try to escape but end up crushed against a wall by a much stronger and determined person...'

'Stamp on the foot, knee to the groin, punch to the throat.'  Byleth recommended.

'I'd call that foreplay.'  Sylvain smirked.

'Idiot.'  Ingrid groaned angrily and smacked him.

'Alright.  I think we should move back a step.'  Byleth sat herself cross-legged on her desk.  'I'm still gonna throw the balls, but this time I'm gonna call your name and give you five seconds to consider your tactics.'  She eyed the students thoughtfully.  'Marianne.'  She intoned and drew back her arm.

Marianne looked up from her desk, her liquid eyes full of fear.

'I... I... don't think I..'  She stuttered as the ball launched towards her.

'No, you don't.'  Raphael was on his feet with a roar and launched himself in front of Marianne who was seated at the table behind him.  He threw his arms wide and puffed up his chest to such an extent that a button popped from his shirt.  The ball bounced off his impressive musculature.  'You okay, Marianne?'  He asked, turning to pat the girl on the head.'

'I... yes... Thank you.'  Marianne's face was bright red, her eyes downcast.

'Nicely done Raphael.'  Byleth was down from her table and striding towards him.  She put a hand on his arm.  'Protection is admirable, although we need to work on how to take a hit to better conserve yourself.  Unfortunately, that blow to the chest would likely have killed you.'  She handed him a rubber ball.  'None the less, you saved the target, and you get a chance to take a shot at me.  Anytime you wish.'

Raphael looked down at the ball in his hand.  'I don't want to hit you, Professor.'  He said with an uncommon frown on his sunny face.

'Don't worry.  You won't.'  She patted his arm again and went back to the front of the class.

Things progressed far more satisfactorily to Byleth's mind once the student got a few seconds of warning of her imminent attack.  Claude moved slickly away from the ball that was lobbed at him, evading the incoming threat easily.  Felix smashed his shot with the flat of his sword and with such force that the rubber orb bounced off several walls before it finally came to rest.  The fact that he nearly eviscerated Sylvain in the process slightly dampened proceedings - but to give him his due, Sylvain dodged that particular threat admirably.  Caspar simply headbutted the ball that flew his way with a fierce shriek.

'Dimitri!'  Byleth called, bringing her arm back for her assault.  The boy was a blur, he was suddenly charging towards her from the front row of tables and grabbed her wrist with surprising strength before she could release her missile.  Within seconds she had him turned and pulled tight against her, one hand around his throat and the other pressing a dagger against his kidney.  'Nice idea!'  She congratulated as he flushed bright red at the intimacy of her hold.  'If you had used that against someone less aware, it would have worked well.  You are still dead, though.'  She let him go with a pat on the shoulder.

'I hardly even saw you move!'  Edelgard breathed.  'How did you turn him like that?'

'Dimitri, would you help me demonstrate?'  She asked the lad who was making his way back to his seat.

'Uh... Yes, of course, Professor.'  His blush deepened as he turned back.

'Grab hold of my wrist again.'  She ordered, raising her hand as if she were about to throw a ball.  He did as she bade.  'You could easily have broken my wrist, you know.'  She told him conversationally as he held her.  'You certainly have the strength for it and if you had the outcome would have been very different.  Your restraint is admirable.'

'Thanks...'  His face was almost purple now.

'His forward momentum allowed me to unbalance him slightly.'  Byleth was looking over his shoulder at the class.  'It was simple to move with that momentum and use it to turn him.'  She demonstrated slowly, pulling him against her again, the hand that he'd grabbed breaking free at the movement and snaking to his neck.

'Where did the dagger come from?'  Leonie was leaning forward, eyes wide.

Byleth lifted the skirt of her uniform slightly with her other hand to reveal the sheaths strapped to her thighs.

'Oh Goddess...'  Sylvain moaned while evading Ingrid's incoming slap.

'If I had wanted to kill him immediately, I would simply have slashed his throat while turning him.'  Byleth lectured.  'In the scenario of containment, however, the knife to the kidney is a preventative measure.  If your foe tries anything to get away, you will almost certainly stab them regardless of intent.'  She released Dimitri and allowed him back to his seat after handing him a ball.  'I think you deserved a pop at me.'  She told him.

Byleth called more names and was becoming happier with the results.  Lorenz threw himself behind Raphael who he was sitting next to, Bernadetta actually caught the ball that zoomed towards her and threw it back at Byleth all in a single fluid motion.  Ferdinand threw himself to the floor rather dramatically while Mercedes took the hit for Annette who had stumbled to rise and then toppled forward as her feet became entangled together in her haste.

At some stage in the proceedings, Lysithea had obviously become bored and had snuck a book from her bag, holding it below the table and reading.

'Lysithea.'  Byleth called noticing the girl's lack of attention.

'I don't think so.'  The girl replied tartly as a ball flew towards her.  Without looking up from her book, her hand rose and patterned a few complex movements.  The ball combusted into fire just before it reached her table the burning remnants falling to the floor.  Dedue and Claude were up quickly, stamping out the fire before it could do any damage.

'Impressive!'  Byleth threw a second ball.

'Really?'  Lysithea sighed heavily.  The second ball erupted into flame just like the first.

'Oh man that smells like shit!'  Caspar complained as the fumes of burning rubber wafted through the classroom.

'Language!'  Byleth lobbed a ball at him which he headbutted again.

'It does smell pretty bad.'  Ashe spoke up.  He was sat next to Lysithea whose own nose had crinkled at the smell.

'Should have just frozen them.'  She said grumpily.

'We are close to lunchtime anyway.'  Byleth decided, going over to Lysithea and handing her two balls.  'Go and get fed, I think we will take our afternoon session outside.' 

There was a confusing silence.  Byleth looked up and noted that every eye seemed to be trained on something behind her.  Without a word she jumped forward and threw herself into a forward roll along the aisle of the classroom, just as one of the buckets from her desk upturned itself overhead from where she had just been standing, the balls clattered noisily all over the floor.  The bucket itself was floating - as if held by an invisible hand.

'Very good!'  Seteth was positioned in the doorway of the classroom, his fingers moving slightly as he gently allowed the empty pail to settle on the floor.

'Seteth.'  Byleth launched a ball from her seated position on the floor that rose straight and true directly towards the man's face.  It stopped inches from his forehead, still turning slowly over and over as it hovered.

'Byleth.'  He said quietly as the ball suddenly sped back towards her at an inhuman speed.  She rolled to the side neatly, and it clattered past her.

'The first person who manages to get a hit on our Professor here may come and see me for a reward.'  Seteth announced to the stunned class.  'A little incentive is often an excellent motivator.'  He added noting Byleth's confusion.  She nodded her agreement.  He looked around at the sea of faces staring at him.  'I believe the Professor released you for lunch?'  He prompted, indicating the door.

The students filed out quickly and very quietly.  Byleth moved to start gathering up the balls that were scattered around the room.  Seteth came forward and bent to aid her effort.

'While I would not put it quite as bluntly as Caspar, I must agree that the smell in here is rather noxious.'  He noted.

'Lysithea was truly remarkable in her reaction, however.'  Byleth replied.

'Yes, I saw that.  She has enormous potential.'  Seteth agreed.

'Your own skill was both effective and unexpected as well.' 

Seteth chuckled.  'I can't remember the last time I actually used it, and I had certainly forgotten how tiring it is to utilise.  I admit that temptation quite overcame me.  I should apologise for my disruption.'  He paused a moment, 'I played a similar game with my own siblings when we were young.'  He said softly.  'I was obviously the champion at it.'

'I can see that.'  She looked up at him, and her lips twitched in the ghost of a smile.  'I don't believe I would want to engage in a match with you any time soon.'  She admitted.

Seteth stood when the last of the balls were back in their pail.  'I just popped by to check that everything was okay, but I can see that you are coping.'  He said thoughtfully.

'The students are surprisingly keen to learn for the most part.'

'Would you join Flayn and myself for lunch?'  He asked, offering his hand to help her rise.

'I really need to set up for this afternoon.'  She replied, 'I intend to inject a little healthy exercise and competition.'  She added.

'You need to eat.'  He admonished.  'And I am quite sure that Flayn would enjoy aiding you once our meal is done.  I would like to myself, but I have important work that needs my attention...' 

'Okay.' 

'I think we should leave the doors open.'  Seteth added as they left the classroom.  'That smell really is foul.'

Chapter Text

Lunch with Seteth and Flayn was enjoyable despite Lysithea launching an attack with one of the balls she had won earlier.  She had noted that the Professor was distracted by the excellent chocolate pudding she was devouring and had tried to take advantage.

Unfortunately, Lysithea's throwing arm and aim were in no way as impressive as her magical skills.  Byleth hadn’t even needed to move as the ball sailed on a slow and harmless trajectory and landed slap-bang into her bowl of melted goo.

Without batting an eyelid or even pausing in her conversation, Byleth scooped the ball up with her spoon, called out Edelgard's name and catapulted the missile.  Hubert shoved his Lady quickly out of the way, but the sticky mess hit him quite solidly, splattering on the top of his head before he could duck.  The amusement of watching chocolate slide down Hubert's face increased substantially when Edelgard began telling him off for assuming that she was incapable of managing the threat herself.

'I think I have mentioned before that I am not a gambling man, but if I were, I believe I would bet that Hubert will be the one to pick up the prize for tagging you.'  Seteth observed to Byleth as a giggling Dorothea tried to wipe at Hubert's cheek only to be impatiently chivvied away.

'In his dreams.'  Byleth smirked. 

Once the food was done, Flayn walked back to the classrooms with Byleth while Seteth returned to work.

'I think my brother likes you!'  The young girl noted once they were clear of the dining room.

'Oh?'  Byleth considered.  'He has been kinder than I expected.'  She noted.

'I know he looks all stern and severe.'  Flayn had grabbed hold of  Byleth's arm companionably.  'It is true that he has concerns over Rhea's unexplained insistence of allowing you a position on the staff, but that isn't personal.  He is very protective of... well everything.'

'Actually, everyone had been kind.'  Byleth mused. 

'You say that after you were so badly outnumbered in your match against Jeritza?'  Flayn asked seriously.

Byleth nodded at the girl.  'It was easier that way.'  She admitted.

'I don't understand.'

'When there is a crowd around you fighting, they tend to get in each other's way, and it hampers them from attacking with full strength.'  Byleth had slipped back into a lecturing voice without realising it.  'Jeritza was very strong and exceptionally skilled.  I don't know if I could have beaten just him alone.  In the end, I believe he assumed that fighting the Knights had tired me, and his own confidence was his undoing.'

'But I note that soldiers often fight in pairs.'  Flayn said, her brow furrowed.

'The best stance is back to back.'  Byleth agreed.  'It gives protection and also allows each fighter a good amount of space.  I think that this afternoon, the students will also notice how much easier it is to dodge attacks outside with the greater freedom to move - than cramped up in the classroom.' 

'I see.'  Flayn beamed up at Byleth.  'So what is your plan?'

'Well...'  They had reached the classrooms, and Byleth looked intently up and down the long grassed and hedged area that ran the length of the buildings.  'I think that it's time to let them all attack each other.'

'Fun!'  Flayn grinned.

'Educational.'  Byleth said sternly.  'And a bit fun.'  She added.

Between them, the two girls started to carry furniture out from the classrooms; chairs were placed randomly up and down the lawn.  The blackboard that they wheeled out they set in the very centre of the space.

'So how come you haven’t joined the classes?'  Byleth asked as they lugged the heavy pails of balls outside.  'You seemed interested in the details of my fight.  It wouldn’t be a problem to find you a place surely.'

'Like I said, my brother is very protective.'  Flayn sighed.  'I was ill for a long time, and it has just made his instinct to cosset me more fierce.'

'Oh!'  Byleth stopped.  'Should you be carrying these things about?  I had no idea!'

'Please don't you start too.'  Flayn replied grumpily.  'I am fine now.  I need to rebuild my strength and stamina, not sit around as Seteth would have me do.'

Byleth nodded.

'I used to love to fish.'  Flayn continued wistfully.  'When I first arrived at the Monastery, I took up a line but ended up being pulled right into the lake because my arms were not strong enough to land the monster I'd hooked.  Alois had to pull me out!  I so very much want to get stronger.'

'You can fish with me if your brother allows it.'  Byleth offered.

'That would be wonderful!'  The girl clapped her hands.

'Ah, the students are starting to return.'  Byleth noted as Edelgard and Hubert came into view, followed by a few other of the Black Eagles.  'Are you going to stay an observe the lesson Flayn?'  She asked.

'May I?'

'Of course.  If you intend to remain - perhaps you would agree to be the referee of our competition?'  Byleth enquired.

The girl squealed.  'Really?'  She asked breathlessly, then squealed again when Byleth nodded.  'Yes, please, I would love to!'  She agreed happily.

Once everyone was returned, Byleth talked them through the afternoon's challenge.

'It's pretty simple.'  She told them as they stared around at the mess of furniture.  'You are going to run the length of the grass in your house teams with the objective of getting as many people to the end as possible.'

'I don’t run!'  Lysithea moaned.

Byleth ignored her.  'Each of you will have three balls, and may utilize whatever you come across in any way you wish.'  She gestured the chairs spread out down the course.  'No use of magic or weapons.'  She added.

'This is not hardness.'  Petra spoke up.  'Running is easy.'

'While you are making your way down the course, the other two teams will be stationed behind the hedges.  They will also have three balls each.'

'Ahh, crap.'  Leonie blurted.  'They are going to be attacking us, aren’t they?'

Byleth nodded.  'If you take a hit, whether you are running or an attacker, you are dead and out of that game.  General Flayn here will be overseeing the action and making sure that nobody rises from beyond the grave...'

'You'd better not try it!'  Flayn added, her voice as menacing as a kitten's purr.

'Each team will get the chance to run the gauntlet five times.  That means you can work on your tactics once you get a grip on what is effective and what isn't.'

'Why no magic?'  Annette moaned piteously.

'This challenge is about developing physical evasion and teamwork.  Relying wholly upon your weapon or your spells isn't enough to keep you alive.  Your whole body and your mind is as much a resource as anything else, and you need to start to learn what it is capable of and how best to use it.'

Sylvain opened his mouth - most likely to make a comment about using his body, but Felix preempted it and shoved him.

'Questions?'  Byleth asked.

'How is this competition scored?'  Claude asked.

'A point for every team member successfully over the finish line alive.  Accumulated over your five runs of course.'  Byleth replied.

'Can we attack the attackers?'  Caspar yelled.

'Only with your balls.'  Byleth replied, then slapped her forehead at the loud snigger that erupted from a number of the students.  'Really?'  She asked wearily.

'Um..'  Edelgard had raised her hand, a blush on her face and biting at her lip.  'Might we be permitted a moment to go and change into something that may be more practical for physical activity?'  She asked.

'Of course.'  Byleth nodded.

'Are you going to be participating, Professor?'  Lorenz suddenly spoke up.  'If Flayn is our marshal, then I cannot help but wonder what role you intend to take in proceedings?'

'That would be telling.'  Byleth raised a brow at him.  'You are required to expect the unexpected after all.

'That's perturbing.'  Ferdinand muttered.

'Is there a prize?'  Bernadetta asked unexpectedly.

'Hmm.  I suppose there should be.  What do you suggest Bernie?  What would motivate you to win?'  Frankly Byleth was surprised the girl was even still here, let alone showing an interest.

'Maybe... cake for the winning team?'  Bernadette said dreamily.

'Nice one Bernie!'  Lysithea agreed as Felix groaned.

'Perhaps a personal request from each team member then.'  Byleth mused.

'Interesting.'  Linhardt sat up.  'Anything?'

'Within the bounds of propriety and reason.'  Byleth amended with a quick glance at Sylvain.

The questions dried up as the student's considered that particular incentive.

'Okay then, ten minutes to go and change if you wish then back here, please.  General Flayn, do you have a running order for us?'  Byleth turned to the girl.

'Um.. yes.'  Flayn nodded.  'Eagles, Deer then the Lions.'  She pointed along the line at the house leaders.

'Dedue, Raphael - could you help me bring out a table from the classroom.'  Byleth was looking at Flayn.  'I think our General will need something to stand on so that she can see the whole field.'

As people got themselves ready, Flayn was set up on top of one of the sturdy desks, pacing up and down its length with a beaming smile on her face.  Byleth handed her a silver whistle that she hung around her neck.

'I think this may be of use to you General Flayn.'  Dimitri had disappeared while many of the ladies had gone to change clothes.  He presented her with an exquisite golden tube.

'A spyglass!'  Flayn bounced excitedly.  'Oh yes Prince Dimitri, this is marvelous!  Thank you!'

'Well then.'  Byleth decreed once everyone was returned.  'The field is your's General Flayn.'  She saluted the girl crisply.

'Okay, then!'  Flayn shouted.  'Please take your missiles... no more than three each or I will disqualify you!  Black Eagles, I give you five minutes to discuss your tactics and then you may start your advance when I blow my whistle.   Lion's and Deer - behind the hedges please!'

The Black Eagles were huddled together down at the start of the course.  Edelgard was talking and gesturing intently flanked by Hubert and Ferdinand.  Bernadetta was slightly apart from the group, but Dorothea was holding her arm comfortingly and whispering to her.  Both Petra and Casper had a look of fierce enthusiasm while Linhardt unsurprisingly was stretched out on the floor, his eyes closed.

Flayn eventually raised the whistle to her lips and blew hard on it.

'Go!'  She shouted as the Eagles began to form up.

'Well, this should be entertaining if nothing else.'  Byleth murmured to herself.

Chapter Text

Edelgard wasn't feeling terribly confident that her team was going to actually stick to any of the tactics that she had set out for them.  Ferdinand was questioning her plan right up until the second the whistle blew, and she was pretty sure that Caspar, Linhardt, and Bernadetta weren’t even listening.

In actuality, it started okay.  Caspar and Petra charged onto the field first as directed, tasked with getting their attackers to waste as many shots on them as possible.  Caspar ran directly at the bushes with a loud, intimidating roar loosening his three balls at Ignatz and Lorenz who were crouched behind it.  Lorenz managed a purely reactive shot at the blue-haired maniac, missing him and getting pummelled.  Ignatz though, with an unexpected coolness and an accurate aim hit Caspar squarely on the chest, then apologised profusely as the lad went down to the ground on the barked order of General Flayn.

Petra chose a path that was as far away from the bushes as she could get while still being on the lawn and was moving slowly towards the first set of chairs.  She lobbed one ball as a tester but was too far away for it to have any impact.  A few shots were sent in her direction, but she evaded them easily.

Bernadetta and Linhardt moved next.  Bernadetta sprinted with impressive speed in a direct line while Linhardt was zigzagging wildly all over the field. Both of them, quite miraculously,  took out attackers with all three of their balls.  Bernadetta had crossed the finish line before Edelgard and her little group had even started.  Unfortunately, the girl didn’t stop there and kept on running, disappearing around the side of the building in the direction of her room.

Finally, Edelgard moved, flanked by Hubert and Ferdinand with Dorethea at the rear.  Petra was now crouched behind a kind of chair fort she had hastily constructed, covering those running with her remaining missiles.  Linhardt was still doing... whatever it was he was doing - but Edelgard was willing to give him a pass since he's taken out so many of their foes.

The quartet moved down the field, dodging and weaving gracefully as they maximized space between them to make hitting them harder.  Edelgard felt her confidence growing at their steady progress, her heart beating hard in excitement.  It was Dorothea who took the first hit, which was launched by Annette who bounced wildly from behind a bush halfway down the field - her grin almost maniacal. 

Edelgard managed to reach Petra and her fort, with Hubert and Ferdinand still intact - and she ordered that they stopped for a breather.

'I can't actually believe that Linhardt has crossed the finish line.'  Ferdinand moaned, taking stock of the ground that they still had to travel.

'More points for us.'  Edelgard replied tersely.  'How many balls do you think the enemy still have?'  She asked Hubert.

'Four people have moved up to the end of the course.'  Hubert replied.  'They must have at least one ball each.  That's Ignatz, Claude, Annette, and Ingrid.  All four of them have pretty good aim.'

'We still have all nine of our balls.  The odds are in our favor.'  Edelgard mused.  'I think we should run at them, stop around halfway across the field and pound them.  We may suffer some loss, but nine shots against four is an acceptable risk.'

'I really don't think...'  Ferdinand began.

'Shut it.'  Edelgard commanded.

It worked well.  Ferdinand took a hit from Ignatz, but the other attackers ran out of ammunition without eliminating any of the others. 

'Ferdinand von Aegir will have his revenge - mark my words!'  The lad declared dramatically as he rolled to the floor in a theatrical plunge.

'Just die already!'  Flayn demanded impatiently.

'To the finish line then.'  Edelgard crowed when no other missiles were forthcoming.  She had utterly forgotten about Byleth.

The Professor was stood to the side in quiet observation, but as soon as the last ball was thrown, she charged forward onto the field of play, running directly at Edelgard herself.  The girl faltered to a halt at the impending collision and braced herself.

'Allow me.'  Hubert murmured stepping delicately in front of Edelgard and meeting Byleth's assault full-on, grasping hold of her shoulders, and taking her down to the floor with him.

'Run, your Highness.'  He called to Edelgard as he and the Professor started to tussle for superiority.

Edelgard glanced at Petra, who looked as stunned as she felt.  She nodded at the girl, and they both started to lope forward towards the line.  They were within a few steps of it when something hit Edelgard's back solidly.  She turned in surprise as Flayn called her out as 'dead.'

Hubert had managed to get himself on top of Byleth and was sat heavily on her chest, pinning one of her hands. 

'Your aim is utterly remarkable Professor!'  He said breathlessly.

Byleth's eyebrow raised at his unexpected compliment.

'And your sheer physicality is a rather pleasant surprise, Hubert.'  She replied.

Edelgard gawped as Hubert broke out in a blush and rose quickly to his feet.

'Too easy.'  Byleth murmured, bouncing a ball lightly off his thigh as he stood.  He offered her a hand to help her up.

'Okay.'  Byleth called once the noise settled down.  'Eagles, can you get the course straightened up for the next run...  Hubert...'  She reached into her pocket and handed him a block of chalk, '... If you could please mark your score on the blackboard, and Deer - you are up next so start your team talk.  I'm going to grab Bernadetta.'  She ran off in the direction of the bedrooms.

Edelgard wanted to be annoyed that her team had only scored three points, but... She moved towards the blackboard, where Hubert was marking up the result.

'How long have we known each other Hubert?'  She asked innocently when she reached him.  He looked down at her in surprise.

'Close to fifteen years now, Your Highness.'  He replied.

'You know, in all that time I have never once seen you blush before!'  Laughter welled from her belly.  'Does our Professor genuinely vex you that much?'  she chuckled.

'I'm not blushing!'  Hubert declared with as much dignity as he could muster.  'If my face is reddened, it is merely because I am unused to physical exertion.'

'Is that so?' 

'It is.'  He said firmly.

'Whatever you say.'  Edelgard patted him on the arm, still chuckling as she walked away.

It wasn’t long before Byleth returned with Bernadetta.

'Sorry.'  Bernadetta mumbled to Edelgard as she joined the Eagles behind the hedge ready for their assault of the Deer.  'I guess I forgot to stop running.'

'It's fine, Bernie, you did a brilliant job.'  Edelgard replied.  'Better than me!'  She added.

'Oh!'  Bernadetta smiled shyly.  'I like throwing things.'  She admitted.

'I prefer punching things - but I know what you mean.' 

'Yeah, I get that, but punching makes my hands swell, and I do embroidery...'  Bernadetta explained seriously.

'You think you could throw my balls for me?'  Edelgard asked suddenly.  'With your skill, it would be a far better use than if I tried.'

'If you really want me to.'  Bernadetta agreed. 

The Deer's tactic was very different from her own Edelgard noted immediately.  The entire team set out together, charging down the field. 

To begin with, it looked like uncoordinated mayhem, but with all the bodies weaving and dodging, it was actually quite challenging to focus on a target.   Lorenz had grabbed hold of Marianne's hand since the girl hardly seemed to look up at all, but interestingly she appeared to have a sixth sense for incoming missiles, and it was her that pulled him out of danger on more than one occasion.

Raphael didn’t make it very far.  His movement was cumbersome, and his bulk made it almost impossible to miss him, although he managed to shield his teammates a quarter of the way up the field before he was felled.

Claude and Ignatz were dangerous.  Their aim on their attackers was precise, and they didn’t appear to need to stop to focus their shots.  Leonie's shooting wasn’t nearly as good, but her movement was athletic, and she popped up from everywhere,  her randomness adding to the confusion.

Lysithia was scowling as she was being pulled along by Hilda, who also looked particularly unimpressed with proceedings.  As soon as Raphael had been taken out, Hilda was the next to go as she had been relying heavily on hiding behind the big man.  Claude noted that Lysithia was left alone and adrift, and he dodged back quickly to where she was and hoisted the startled girl over his shoulder.

'Hey! Put me down!'  Lysithia shrieked and began to kick at him.

'I'm trying to help small-fry.  Quit kicking me.'  Claude moaned.

With the added burden of the irate, squirming girl in his arms, Claude only made it to the last part of the field before Bernadetta popped up and chucked an evil shot at his head. 

'Run Lysithia!'  Claude urged as he went to the floor as per Flayn's orders.

'The white-haired girl took off at a trot towards the line and passed it without issue.  She turned and smirked at Claude who gave her a thumbs up.  Her returning gesture wasn’t at all polite.

After Byleth got involved - the deer's run ended with Lysithia, Leonie and Ignatz across the line, with the same score of three that the Eagles had achieved, and Edelgard began to suspect that it was by Byleth's design and the competition was likely to end in a draw.  Her suspicion became firmer still when despite a stunning performance from the Lions, they too only managed to get three to the finish.  

Scores remained level between the teams through the next three runs as well, Byleth blatantly culling off units at the end, nobody managing to get past her attacks.  For the last race though she announced that she would be sitting out.

'You have all had the chance now to get experience and hone your teamwork.'  She told them.  'This time, I will not intervene.  It's over to you all to show off what you have learned.'

Edelgard was absolutely thrilled when the Eagles managed to get everyone except Caspar to the finish.  In honesty, she had already begun to realise that in a real battle, the best option would be to put Caspar in the most massive armor they could find and hope for the best.  The same was probably true for Raphael, who was the only member of the Deer's who failed to finish the course on their last attempt.

As the Lion's got together for their final run, Dimitri went over to Flayn's table.  'General Flayn, I wonder if you would like a go at actually competing in the gauntlet?'  He asked her formally.

'Well, yes - I would love to.'  Flayn admitted.  'But alas, my mobility and stamina is not yet good enough to compete.'

'I understand General.'  Dimitri smiled up at the girl.  'However, in battle, the General always rides.  If it pleases you, I would happily be pressed into service as your noble steed.'  He removed his cape and offered his broad back to her.

'Noble steed?'  Felix scoffed.  'More like a donkey.'

'Oh!  May I?'  Flayn asked.

'That would give the Lion's one extra team member.  That's hardly fair.'  Edelgard pointed out.

'As merely a mount, I would not be counted.'  Dimitri appeased.

'Anyone have an issue?'  Byleth asked, although her look definitely suggested that she did not expect anyone to have an issue.

When nobody spoke, Flayn squealed happily and threw herself on Dimitri's back, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.

'Walk on, donkey.'  She ordered him imperiously.

Edelgard was forced to admit that the Lion's had definitely saved their best tactics for last.  Mercedes took up Annette onto her back, while Dedue, Felix, Sylvain, and Ingrid all rushed to collect chairs that they used to significant effect as shields.  Ashe was everywhere, the slight boy ducking and slipping around, collecting balls from everyone and either throwing them himself or passing them up to Annette who grinned like a demon while decimating their attackers.  In very little time the whole team was up the field and across the line cheering at their victory.

'That was really well done.'  Myles had appeared behind Byleth, with Colin perched on his shoulder.

'Yes.'  Byleth agreed.  'Everyone surprised me.'  She glanced at her brother, inquisitively.  'I thought you were meeting me after class.'  She said.

'Class finished almost an hour ago, sis.'  He laughed.  'Seems like the kids were enjoying themselves too much to notice!'

'So it did!'  Byleth looked surprised.  Suddenly she noted that the students had gone strangely quiet.  She looked up to where they were congregated at the finish line, all of them whispering and grinning. 

'Oh dear.'  Myles put a hand on her shoulder.  'Looks like you might have a bit of retaliation heading your way.'

'They wouldn’t dare!'  She stated, then all twenty-five of them seemed to look up at her at the same time.

'Oh crap.'  Byleth murmured.  'I don't suppose you plan on helping me out here?'  She beseeched her brother.

'Not a chance.'  He chuckled.

Chapter Text

'So, what's the plan then Professor?'   Byleth could almost hear Sothis' smirk in her head.  'Destroy the lot of them and walk away unscathed?'

'Oh, Is that an appropriate option?'

'Doubtful.'  Sothis chuckled.

The students had created a wall of bodies and were moving down the field slowly.  Grinning.

'I can't even run that far away.'  Byleth grumbled bouncing on her toes as she considered her choices.  'We are supposed to be limiting our movements around the grounds.'

'Well, you had better decide quickly.  Those brat's look mightily determined.' 

'Right.  Well, I suppose the end is inevitable, but I'll be damned if I'm going to make it easy for them.'  Byleth suddenly sprinted off to the side of the area and scrambled up a stone pillar, climbing onto the roof of the classrooms.

'Mutiny is it?'  She called loudly to the students, balancing herself with ease on the slight incline.

'We are merely exercising a little teamwork and initiative Professor.'  Flayn replied from her perch on Dimitri's back.  'That is the purpose of the session, after all!'

'Was this your idea you little fiend?'  Byleth tried not to smile, managing a well-developed glare instead.

'Yes!'  Flayn was giggling.  'Yes, it was!'

The students organised themselves quickly.  Those with good aim stationed themselves front and centre in a group - heads bent together in discussion. Lysithia and Hubert went to grab the buckets of balls while Mercedes and Linhardt began collected up those that were strewn over the grass.  Ashe and Leonie moved to shimmy up the stone columns towards the roof themselves.   Under direction from Flayn and her horse, everyone else was splitting into two groups and heading towards either end of the avenue.

'Look's like they have you surrounded.'  Sothis observed smugly as the first wave of balls were launched towards Byleth.

'Kinda wish they weren’t such quick learners.'  Byleth grouched, evading the projectiles while carefully managing her footing and balance.

'You can't stay up here forever.'   The observation was apt.  Byleth had no wish for Ashe or Leonie to actually try and accost her so high up in case of any unfortunate accidents. 

'Well, here goes nothing...'   Byleth went low then rolled down to the edge of the roof, grabbing on to it and swinging herself down in a single graceful movement.  Once on her feet, she dived behind the nearest pillar just as balls peppered the area.

'I suppose I could lock myself in a classroom until they give up.'  She mused.

'Pfft.'  Sothis snorted.  'I know you better than that, my girl!  A cowards retreat is not in your nature and nor would you demonstrate such to your pupils.'

'It could be argued that it's a sound  tactical withdrawal and good sense!'  Byleth sighed.  'Tsk... Death or glory it is then.'  She scooted at pace from behind her cover and chose a direction at random.  She found herself charging towards a group consisting of Dedue, Edelgard, Hilda, Petra, and Felix.  She could also hear the rest chasing after her from behind.

Not actually harming anyone in the tussle that followed took all of Byleth's skill since her pupils were very intent on subduing her.  She was managing really rather well, evading being taken down entirely, shimmying out of attempts to grasp at her and rolling away from incoming assaults - right up until Lysithia and Annette reached her.  With joyful shrieks, the girls joined forces to leap at her bodily, Lysithia landing on her back and Annette wrapping herself around her right leg and refusing to let go.

As soon as she was down, Byleth was swarmed.  Lysithia and Annette sat on top of her, Dedue grabbed one arm and Edelgard the other.  Someone took hold of her feet.

'Tie her up!'  Flayn commanded.

'Um... with what?'  Ingrid, the voice of reason spoke up.  'I know I didn't bring a length of rope to class.  Anyone?'

'Oh...  Here!'  Hilda sat on the grass, having kicked off her shoes.  She pulled down her knee-high socks and chucked them towards Ingrid.  'Use these.'  She smirked.

Once Byleth's legs and hands were bound with the pink, fluffy stockings, and on Flayn's orders, Dedue lifted her very gently and carried her towards the blackboard still in the middle of the grounds.

'Apologies for manhandling you, Professor.'  He murmured politely as they traveled.

'Traitor!'  She grumbled, which elicited a low rumbling chuckle from him.  He placed her down carefully, propping her with her back against the blackboard as the students formed a tight semi-circle around her.

'General Flayn, since it was your magnificent plan that subdued this fearsome foe, it is only right that you should be the one to vanquish it!'  Claude came forward with a ball in his hand which he offered to the girl, once Sylvain had helped her down off of Dimitri's back.

'Flayn!  This was your idea?'  Nobody had noticed that Seteth was now in attendance, stood with Myles and Colin.  He looked mildly outraged.

Flayn ignored him completely.  She turned to the assembled students.

'The success of our endeavor was achieved by us all working together.'  She said solemnly.  'I believe we should finish off this monster in the same spirit.  As heroes.  Together.'

'Oh YEAH!'  Caspar bellowed.  'Let's kill the beast!'

'In that case...'  Mercedes started to pass the bucket so that everyone could take a missile.

'Any last words Teach?'  Claude winked at Byleth.

'You did well.'  Byleth gazed up at them, expressionlessly.  'There is hope for you all yet.'

'High praise indeed.'  Hubert observed sardonically.

'I should point out that it took twenty-five of you to fell me though.'  There was the tiniest edge of smugness to Byleth's comment.

'If you had any inclination to harm us, I rather doubt we would have succeeded at all.'  Surprisingly it was Marianne that had spoken.  'There is not one single person who took any hurt.'  She added, blushing at the realisation that she had actually vocalised what she was thinking.

'Right!  So you could just let me go...'  Byleth noted.

'I think not!'  Edelgard laughed.  'Will you count us in General Flayn?'

'Three... Two... One... ATTACK!'

A rain of balls launched and fell - striking Byleth from every angle.  Not one of them was thrown hard enough to leave even the tiniest of bruises.

The celebrations lasted a long time.  Myles was laughing as he came over and crouched next to his sister to untie her from her bonds.

'Laugh it up.'  She sulked.

'Professor, that was one of the most amusing things I have seen in years.'  He chortled as Colin moved from his shoulder to hers.

'You are alright Professor?'  Seteth had come up behind them.

Byleth nodded at him nervously, wondering if she was about to get told off.

'Flayn... I am surprised at you!'  Seteth's attention was diverted as the girl came over, his tone admonishing.   Once again, she completely ignored him.

'Oh, that was magnificent!'  Flayn threw herself at Byleth, who had only just risen to her feet, almost knocking her back down in her enthusiasm.  The girl's arms went around Byleth's waist.

'You are quite the tactician General Flayn.'  Byleth said, patting the girl awkwardly on the shoulder.

'Um... Professor...'  Dedue was standing to the side of them.  'I wonder...  I believe that as one of  the victors of the competition earlier I may request a boon?'

'Of course Dedue.  What is it that you wish?'  A hush had fallen over the other students, obviously interested in what the quiet man would ask for.

'Well, I observe that it is past time for tea - so I was wondering whether you would permit me to request the dining room to provide us all with sustenance here... perhaps a kind of picnic.'  He looked up at Bernadetta.  'With cake of course.'  He added.

'Oh!'  Byleth looked towards Seteth for guidance.  'Would that be something that could be arranged?'  She asked.

Seteth stared into the distance for a second as if thinking.  'I could accompany you to the dining hall and make the request myself Dedue.'  He agreed.  'I am sure that something can be provided regardless of the short notice.'  He looked towards Flayn again.  'I assume that you will wish to stay for the celebration tea General Flayn.'  He huffed.

'Oh may I?'  Flayn finally acknowledged him sweetly.

'Please do not stay up late and Professor...'  Seteth looked to Byleth.  'Would you please ensure that my Sister is delivered safely to her room when you are done?'

'Of course.'  Byleth agreed.

Seteth motioned to Dedue, and they set off in the direction of the canteen together.

'I guess we should get everything tidied up then.'  Mercedes looked around at the devastation that their afternoon endeavors had wrought.'

'Hey!  Class was over ages ago, count me out!'  Hilda complained, sitting herself firmly down.

'No cake for Hilda!'  Bernadetta sang.

'Hey!'

'Come on you big lump.  It will be done quickly if we all help!'  Leonie pushed Hilda's shoulder.

Everyone burst into action to get the furniture back to the classrooms, and all of the balls gathered up.

'Who is that?'  Dorothea murmured to Edelgard and Mercedes quietly as activity began to wind down.  She tilted her head subtly at Myles.

'I have no idea.'  Edelgard admitted.  Mercedes shook her head too.

'That's Myles.  He is the gatekeeper at the entrance hall.'  Flayn had overheard them.  'He wears that full helmet now, he never used to - but the dress code was changed recently.  A shame.  He is quite aesthetic isn’t he?'  Flayn was grinning.

Dorothea's eyebrow rose at that.  'You have excellent taste Flayn,'  She giggled.  'Although I think what you meant to say is that he is hot!'

'Dorothea!'  Edelgard scolded.

'Oh, come on El... look at him.'  Dorothea sighed.  'Really quite dreamy.  Looks like our Professor is a fast mover!'

'Dorothea!'  Edelgard repeated, her voice an octave higher while Mercedes giggled.

'A shame though.'  Dorothea noted.  'Still, maybe I will go and introduce myself, just in case!'

'She is incorrigible.'  Edelgard complained to Mercedes as Dorothea swayed off in the direction of Byleth and Myles.

'Well, in truth, she isn’t wrong!'  Mercedes smiled.  'He is rather nice to look at.'

'Okay...'  Edelgard muttered.  'I grant that he isn’t completely unpleasant to observe.'

'That's the spirit.'  Mercedes laughed.

Food arrived astonishingly quickly, and everyone fell on it like vultures.  Byleth wrangled a plate and took it over to Linhardt who had fallen asleep, gently waking him and handing it to him.

'Oh, this is my favorite!'  He beamed at her.  'However did you know?'  She chuckled and left him to it.

'So how do you feel after your first day teaching?'  Myles asked inquisitively once she had gathered her own plate and sat herself down next to him.

'You know what...'  She said thoughtfully.  'At the start of the day - everyone was split into their houses, and even though they competed in those very teams look at them now!'  She indicated the sprawling students, mixed together chatting and laughing.  'I don’t really know why they are kept apart so much.' 

'Well, it's based on where they come from isn’t it.'  Myles noted.

'I suppose.'  Byleth frowned.  'I expect I don’t understand because I don’t come from anywhere in particular.  I've never had a real home.'

'Don't see that as a bad thing, teach.'  Claude had appeared from nowhere, taking a massive bite of a chunk of meat he was holding.  'Way I see it, invisible lines on a map shouldn’t dictate the way that you think about anything.'

'Right.'  Byleth nodded at him.  'I mean - when you slice open the belly of any man, and his entrails slip out, they look exactly the same and are just as messy and smelly regardless of who he is, what station he holds or where he is from.

Claude spat out his mouthful of food as he gagged heavily.

'Thanks for the image.'  He moaned.

Chapter Text

Byleth's first two days of teaching, covering for Manuela and Hanneman and taking on all of the students at the once had allowed for a  couple of very positive outcomes.  Firstly, she believed that she had garnered a decent amount of information on each individual's strengths and weaknesses.  Naturally, she had focused on their current physical skills, but also got a handle on their potential, as well as their willingness to listen, learn, and follow commands.  Secondly, when she was finally relieved of solo teaching, going into the classroom with just eight students to manage was an absolute breeze.

'You know, your level of observation is really quite remarkable.'  Manuela noted at the end of the week, when the Professor's and Seteth congregated for their next planning session.

'Oh?'  Byleth was pouring tea for herself and Seteth, as Manuela and Hanneman started on the wine.

'I concur!'  Hanneman beamed at their youngest colleague.  'The notes you provided for us on the pupils have been enormously helpful.  It usually takes a few weeks or more to put together so succinct an evaluation.'

Byleth shrugged.  'I was lucky I got the chance to put them through some field challenges.  In my line of work, it's always been imperative to be able to accurately judge both your opponent's and your allies' capabilities.  There are always plenty of idiots fighting on your own side who can inadvertently get you killed.  I guess forming a solid assessment of everyone else is simply another survival technique.' 

'I have been inundated with enthusiastic reports from my class-members about your little competition while we were absent.'  Hanneman chuckled.  'I am truly sorry I didn't get to witness proceedings myself!'

'You know that Flayn sent a letter of thanks to Prince Dimitri?'  Seteth asked with a wry smile.  'She included a carrot and a few sugar-lumps with her note.  I'm not sure how appropriate that is to gift the future King of Faerghus...or the fact she addressed her missive to 'My most noble donkey..'

Manuela laughed.  'He is a sweet lad.'  She observed.  'I'm sure he would have appreciated the gesture!'

'General Flayn is certainly a determined young lady.'  Byleth added.  'Impressively tenacious.'

'Sometimes uncomfortably so.'  Seteth sighed.  'I have not seen her quite so enthusiastic for a long time, however.'

'So how have you coped with the more academic side of the syllabus Byleth?'  Hanneman refilled his wineglass and gazed inquisitively at her.  'I can't help but note you have spent a great deal of time in the library this week after hours.  Are you finding it a challenge?'

Byleth's brow furrowed a little as she thought carefully about her answer. 

'I admit I find some aspects a little confusing.'  She said finally.  'It's not the texts themselves, so far things are pretty easy to follow but...'  her frown deepened.

'But?'  Manuela pressed.

'I don't know how to say it.'  Byleth ruminated.  'It doesn’t seem... whole...'

'Incomplete?'  Hanneman queried.

'Kinda.'  Byleth thought some more.  'One-sided.'  She eventually concluded.   'It's like that battle we looked at from the tactics book..  well, it only covered the engagement from the perspective of those who won.'

'History is always written by the winner.'  Hanneman pointed out.

'Why, though?'  Byleth questioned.  'While the book explains what plan was used, it does not cover why that particular system beat the opposing army.  It just says 'this is an established formation because it won in this particular fight.'  Seems rather short-sighted to me.'

'The lessons are only to give an overview Byleth.'  Seteth poured her another cup of tea.  'A good leader always adapts established tactics to the individual circumstance, but there are so many variables, it would be impossible to scribe and study every one.'

'Yes.'  Byleth nodded thoughtfully.  'I see.  So the point I should be making to the students is that the text is an example only.'  She looked a bit embarrassed.  'I assumed that because it was written down, it was the only acceptable manner of engagement to learn.' 

'Plenty of academics would like you to believe that.'  Hanneman chuckled.  

'You are quite correct that it would be useful if both vantage points were explored though.'  Seteth mused, 'In my own experience a great deal can be learned when mistakes are made - regardless of whether they are your own or your opponents.'

'Well, if the text is merely a loose tool, I guess I better understand it.'  Byleth sounded relieved.

'You are so keen.'  Manuela giggled.

'Not everyone is as airheaded as you Manuela!'  Hanneman snorted.

'Hey, you old goat... who are you calling an airhead?'  Manuela squealed.

'So, I am told there is to be a house challenge in the middle of next week?'  Byleth interjected quickly before her fellow's squabbling could get out of hand.

'It is just a customary start to the academic year.'  Seteth nodded.  'A provisional gauge of ability.  Nothing nearly as intense as the Battle of the Eagle and Lion later on.'

'My house has won the last three years.'  Hanneman smiled.  'I expect this year to be no different.  I believe the Lion's were victorious in your own little challenge Byleth!'

'Pfft.'  Manuela smirked.  'You will be smiling on the other side of your face when the Deer run rings around you. I doubt you will even see them coming given the sheer size of your nose!'

'There is no need to be personal...'  Hannaman huffed.  'I am simply pointing out a fact.'

'So was I.'  Manuela taunted.

'There they go again...'  Byleth muttered.  Seteth choked a little on his tea.

'I expect you will give them both a run for their money.'  He raised a brow at her, trying gamely to hide the smile that was threatening at her words.  He choked again when she solemnly winked at him.

Blessedly, the staff meeting didn’t last much longer and Byleth finally found herself with a little free time.  Since her father wasn’t yet back from his mission, she decided to see if she could hunt down Felix and take him up on his request to spar.  She hadn’t managed to squeeze in any time to training for herself during the week, and she was feeling the need to hit something.

Felix was already in the yard, the first place she looked -  decimating a target dummy with fierce enthusiasm.  She had barely taken to the floor when he turned and threw a training sword in her direction then dropped into a defensive pose, waiting.

'Eager...'  She noted.

'I need a challenge.'  He said seriously.

'And I need a good workout... I hope you can keep up.'  Byleth weighted the sword and moved forward.

'If it's stamina you're after I think I'd be the better option to exercise with.'  Sylvain was lounging to the side of the arena.   Seconds later, a ball bounced off his forehead.  He laughed loudly.

To give him his due, Felix managed to keep pace for a reasonable amount of time.  Byleth felled him again and again, but he simply brushed himself down, listened to her suggestions, and started over.

'You could at least pretend that I am giving you some competition.'  The boy grouched eventually as Byleth offered her hand to help him rise for the umpteenth time.

'You are.'  Byleth replied.

'You aren’t even breathing heavily.'  Felix scowled.

'I have had to fight for my life continually for ten years.'  Byleth commented.  'If I weren't good at it I'd be dead.'  She put a hand to his shoulder briefly.  'There have been very few that I have sparred with that I can honestly see ever besting me.  You have the potential.  I had to take greater care than usual to not make any mistakes facing you.'

Felix stared at her closely for a few seconds before averting his eyes.

'You mean that?'  He asked quietly.

'Yeah.  Don't see the point in saying something I don't mean.  It's a waste of breath.'  Byleth sat on the ground cross-legged.  'That being the case, I wonder if you would consider a regular session.  I need the practice just as much as anyone.  All this standing around teaching is gonna make me soft.'

'Then perhaps I'll beat you sooner rather than later!'

'Heh, maybe.'  She agreed.

Sylvain had been unusually quiet as the two of them had sparred.

'Professor, do you have proficiency in any other weapons?'  He asked suddenly.

'I prefer the sword, but I have a passing skill in most melee weapons.'

'Would you spar with me?  Lance or axe, don’t care which.'  Sylvain's request sounded totally serious. 

'You are volunteering to practice?'  Felix looked bemusedly at his friend.  'Since when do you want to spar?'

'I admit I'm interested in seeing if there is anything the Professor is crap at.'  Sylvain stood and picked up some practice axe's, he held one out to Byleth.'

'I'm pretty shit with bow's.'  She told him.  'I like to fight up close.'  She took the offered weapon.  Felix sat himself down, unable to hide his interest in the event.

'Anything else?'  Sylvain took a tentative swing which Byleth dodged easily.

'Hilda would tell you my fashion sense leaves a lot to be desired.'  Byleth fielded another hit from the lad and readjusted her balance.

Sylvain chuckled.  'At the risk of it sounding like another flirt, I happen to think you look pretty good!'  He grinned.

'Thanks, I'm not really all that interested in accessorizing.'  Byleth finally took a hefty swing at the lad which he just about managed to deflect.

They fell into silence as Sylvain became more invested in the fight than Byleth had expected he would.  It was evident that he lacked dedicated practice and he could certainly use working up a bit more muscle - but he was much better than she had assumed he would be given his attitude. 

'He's a lazy arse.'  Felix agreed when she toppled Sylvain after a short while and told him her thoughts.

Sylvain was breathing heavily, but he smiled up at Byleth.  'I reckon if you practiced with me, it would give me a much better initiative to work.'

Byleth was silent for a few moments.  'Okay.'  She eventually agreed as Felix scowled.  'Dinner then?'  She raised a brow at them both.

'Are you asking me on a date?'  Sylvain wasn’t even halfway through his question before a ball ricocheted off his forehead.  'Guess not!'  He sighed.

'By the time we have finished eating you will probably look like you have an infectious disease.'  Felix noted.  'The Professor has managed to hit you in different spots each time..'

Byleth silently turned and walked out of the training arena heading in the direction of the dining room, followed closely by the bickering boys.

Chapter Text

The sky was beginning its march towards darkness by the time Byleth managed to get away from the dining hall.  While she had started out eating with Felix and Sylvain, they had been joined by others throughout the evening.  First Ashe had approached them, then Petra and Caspar, followed quickly by Raphael.

'May we observe you fighting next time?'  Petra asked when Sylvain told them all about their sparring session.

'Of course.'  Byleth agreed.  'I guess we could organise a couple of evenings after classes.  It would be good to get you all sparring with each other too.  A less formal environment than your lessons with Jeritza - which will happen only in your houses.'  She added.

'I am thinking this is a good idea.'  Petra agreed.

'Oh, before I forget...'  Byleth reached into her pocket and brought out a button.  'I think you lost this when we were all in the Eagles classroom Raphael.  I've meant to return it for a while.'

'It's okay.'  Raphael chuckled.  'I lose them all the time - as my muscles grow, my shirts fail to grow with them!'

'I wish my muscles would grow like yours.'  Caspar moaned.

'You need to eat more!'  Raphael said seriously.  'Look at that plate you have.  Pfft, no wonder you are so small!'

'Oh... Yeah!'  Caspar nodded.  'I'll go and get another portion right now!'

Byleth found herself having to grab a second plate of food when Lorenz and Ferdinand invited her to dine with them as they debated the internal politics of the Empire and Alliance.  Dimitri appeared a while later and joined with them to add insight into Faerghus too.  It was a lively debate but one that Byleth found hard to keep up with, her base knowledge lacking to the point that a lot of the conversation went right over her head.   It was nice, however, to see the enthusiasm with which the lads were pressing their points and coming to agreeable conclusions.

Eventually, Byleth managed to make her escape but only long enough to get to the door.  She bumped into Mercedes, Annette, Lysithia, and Dorethea who were seeking a sweet fix and they begged her to join them for pudding.  She didn’t have the heart to decline, despite the fact her stomach was grumbling unhappily at the amount that she had already eaten.  By the time the ladies were finished with her, she was seriously stuffed and was looking forward to lying down and letting her poor belly recover a bit.

Walking swiftly towards her room, Byleth stopped in at Bernadetta's to drop the girl off a piece of cake that she had hidden under her cape instead of eating.  She made her excuses not to stay, and her relief when she finally got to her own door was overwhelming.  She let herself in, and her heart sank a little.  Claude was sprawled on her bed, playing with an ecstatic Colin.  She quickly swallowed down her annoyance at his intrusion since she herself had broken into his room just a week ago.

'Seem's I'm not the only one with lock-picking skills.'  Byleth said mildly as she took off her cloak and hung it over the back of her chair.

'I jimmied the window.'  Claude's voice was tight, he sounded angry.  'It was ridiculously easy, actually.  Being on the ground floor, I would do something about that if I were you.'

Byleth bristled at his tone but kept her features carefully bland.

'Are you here to present your report on your classmates?'  She asked.

'I suppose.'  Claude had sat forward on the edge of her bed, his shoulders rigid. 

'Hmm.'  Byleth turned the chair around and straddled it, looking closely at him.  'Something wrong?'  she asked.

Claude seemed to struggle internally with whatever it was he wanted to say.  Then he shrugged.  'Your boyfriend accosted me after class today.'  His brow had furrowed deeply,  'He made me accompany him to a place he had identified as appropriate for me to store the gear for my hobby.'

There was a short silence.

'Is it a good place?'  Byleth enquired.

'That's not the point Teach.'  Claude's hands had fisted, and he hit the mattress in frustration,  'I'm a little annoyed that you shared my secret with someone else.  Honestly, I didn’t expect that from you after the last time we spoke.'

'I see.'  Byleth rested her chin on her hand and pondered him thoughtfully.

'I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.'  Claude's shoulders drooped a little.

'It was Myles who brought the subject up with me, not the other way around.'  Byleth advised stoically.  'He saw you putting your little concoction into the ale barrel at the arena - well, he never mentioned your name, but obviously, I knew who he was talking about.'

Claude's eyebrows had shot up alarmingly.

'He saw me do that?'  He gulped.

'Yeah.  He did.'

'He didn’t report it?'  Claude's eyes narrowed.  'Well, obviously he didn’t... but why?'

'He said the look on your face when you did it pretty much mirrored how he was feeling.'  Byleth shook her head.  'Stupid the pair of you, but... whatever.' 

There was another silence as Claude took in the information.

'You think he is trustworthy?'  He asked suddenly.  'I mean, you must I guess if you're in a relationship...'

'I don't know how to answer that.'  Byleth replied seriously.  'I don't have a lot of experience in needing to trust people.'

'You are trusting me with my hobby.'  Claude pointed out.

'You think?'  Byleth raised an eyebrow.  'I believe that I am merely supporting you in your endeavours and keeping a close eye on you in case it ever presents a danger.'

Claudes looked up sharply, but his expression was much more his usual relaxed smile.  The one that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

'You wound me Teach, and here I thought I was special to you.'

Byleth snorted.

'Seriously though, do you think it's a good idea to move my stuff to this place that Myles has suggested?  It did seem like a secure location.'

'The reason I asked him to look into it for me was because as well as having been a student here himself, he has worked as a guard for nearly four years.'  Byleth reached out a hand to pat Claude's knee reassuringly.  'He will definitely know which places are the least guarded, and since you value information so much, I'd also suggest that Myles would be a good friend to court. He made the point to me that guards and servants know best what is truly going on in any place so he could probably share more secrets with you than you could ever find out on your own.'

'I see.'  Claude was rubbing his knee, where she had patted him.  'I suppose it's just that I don't trust people easily.  Having people knowing... things that I would keep secret, is uncomfortable.'

'I get that.'  Byleth said softly.  She scrutinised him carefully for a short while, then she smiled slightly.  His eyes widened at the unexpected expression on her face.  'How about I share a secret, so we are even?'  She enquired.

'Okay.'  He tentatively smiled back, far more genuinely than she had seen before.

'Myles is my brother.  Definitely not my boyfriend.'

'What?'  Claude stared at her in confusion.  'Really?  Why on earth is that a secret?'

Byleth shrugged.  'No idea.'  She admitted.  'Neither Jeralt or I knew about him before we came here, though.'

Claude's eyes had narrowed again, and she could almost see his brain working furiously.

'You don't look anything alike.'  He finally noted.

'I know.'  Byleth agreed.  'He does look an awful lot like our father though.  Apparently, that's why Lady Rhea made Myles wear a full helm.  See them together, it's really quite striking.'

'Wait... back up a bit.'  Claude sat forward.  'So Lady Rhea knew about your kinship when you didn’t?'

Byleth nodded.  'She told Jeralt that Myles was born first, absolutely healthy even though our mother was struggling.  When I appeared, I wasn't doing so well.  Myles was given over to a wetnurse for care, and when Jeralt returned to the Monastery, he was so distraught about our mother's death, he wasn’t immediately told about his other child.  Then he left with me before he found out.'

Claude's head was reeling.  'Twins?'  He sounded even more disbelieving.  'And if what Rhea said is true then you were born right here...' 

'I guess so.'  Byleth agreed.

'That doesn’t explain why it's a secret, though.'  Claude was frowning.  'Is it your father that's insisted on it being kept under wraps?'

'No.'  Byleth said.  'It's at the Archbishop's insistence.'

'Why?'

'Who knows.'  Byleth shrugged.

'You don't sound like you care that much Teach.'  Claude noted.

'It is what it is.'  She agreed.

'Wow.  For real?'  Claude looked amazed.  'Do you seriously not have burning questions you want answering?'

'Not really.  It won't change anything will it.'  Byleth looked puzzled.

'I agree with the lad, you know.  He is far more sensible than you!'  Sothis moaned in her head.

'You are an odd one.'  Claude murmured, mainly to himself.  'No-one will hear about this from me though, that's a promise.'  He added.  'I might look into it myself though.  Smells off to me.'

'So will you take Myles advice on his offered location then?'  Byleth asked changing the subject succinctly.

'Yeah.'  Claude puffed out his cheeks.  'You have a point that he will have useful information if he is willing to share, so I suppose it's a good idea.  He offered to help me move my stuff this evening after curfew, says he knows a way down that will minimise the chances of being seen.'

'Oh!'  Byleth nodded eagerly.  'I'll help too!'

'Wouldn't it be pretty bad if you got caught?'  Claude asked.

'Yeah, probably.'  Byleth admitted.  'I guess I do trust Myles to keep us safe from detection.'  She decided.

'Okay.'  Claude stood and stretched.  'I'd better go and get myself packed up and ready then.'

'Hey!  Not so fast!'  Byleth stood too.  'You owe me a report!'  She huffed.

'So I do.'  Claude's face broke into a huge grin.  'Guess you will have to come with me and help me get my stuff together while I talk you through my findings on my classmates.'  He declared with a wink.

Byleth groaned.  'I ate two dinners and a load of pudding, I was looking forward to having a nice lie-down.'  She looked at her bed sadly, then she put her hands on her hips.  'I will come and oversee your efforts while you make your report.'  She decided.

'Fair enough, but I reckon you will be unable to resist getting involved when you see what a hash I make of packing stuff up.'  Claude plucked her cape from the back of her chair and settled it around her shoulders.

'I bet I don’t.'  She muttered.

Chapter Text

Cyril was uncomfortably hot next to the roaring fire in the opulent sitting room, it's warmth working against him - trying to lull his tired body into relaxation.  Obstinately, he trained his gaze on the Lady Rhea as she paced back and forth along the length of the space, her mere presence demanding that he battle against his body's desperation to sleep.

'You are sure that Byleth is engaging in relations with the Gatekeeper?'  Rhea turned to the boy, staring at him questioningly, her brow creased in displeasure.

'I have not witnessed the two of them together myself, Lady Rhea.'  The boy answered carefully.  'It is the speculation of the students that I am reporting.  There has been a load of talk over the last few days that the Professor is a 'fast mover' and that she and Myles have been spotted together on several occasions.' 

'I see.'  Rhea's eyes never left him, but Cyril had the uncomfortable feeling that she was looking right through him at something in her mind's eye that he couldn’t discern.  After a few moments, she grimaced slightly and focused back on the boy in the chair.

'Please eat Cyril.  You have done well as always.'

'Thank you, Lady Rhea.'  He replied breathlessly, although food was the last thing he wanted.  He picked at the plate that was in front of him.

As he ate, the Archbishop continued to question Cyril gently on the past week's activities.  He was in a unique position, she had explained to him some time ago.  He was not much younger than some of the students, and as her faithful retainer, she trusted him to be her eyes and her ears.  She had tasked him primarily, to keep her abreast of what was occurring in her domain day to day.

Cyril wasn’t entirely sure that he was worthy of this particular task.  His desire to please Lady Rhea was absolute - but chores kept him busy from dawn till dusk and many of them were unrelated to the academy itself.  It was true that the students barely noticed his existence if he happened to be working in their midst.  It allowed him to overhear many private conversations, filling his head with inane gossip that he deemed both dull and indulgent.   He couldn’t understand why anybody would waste precious time in such a pursuit.

Lady Rhea though loved to hear it all.  Her eyes would light up, and she seemed to be able to hear more in his words than he actually said.  Cyril didn’t understand - but the Archbishop was pleased with him, and he would never do anything less than his best in any endeavor she requested.

Finally, Rhea ran out of questions just as Cyril managed to swallow down the last morsel of food on his unwanted plate.  The woman's eyes were soft as she placed a hand on the boy's head.

'It is terribly late Cyril, I have been cruel to demand you attend me at such an hour and to keep you here so long.'

'I am fine, my Lady!'  The boy objected passionately.

'Your devotion is such a balm to my soul.'  She murmured.  'I insist that you get yourself to bed now.  We shall meet again a week hence - unless something transpires that you feel needs my immediate attention.'

Cyril rapidly got to his feet and bowed low.

'Your will, Lady Rhea.'  He intoned and scurried to the door.

'Sleep peacefully Cyril.'  He heard her say as he closed the door quietly behind him.

Cyril raced along the corridor towards the tiny room that he called his own.  He slowed carefully as he passed Seteth's suite, concerned by the light that flooded out from under the door.  He crept passed and thought that he had managed to escape detection, right until a hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump.  Seteth truly was as quiet as a ghost.

'Cyril.'  The man whispered, unwilling to disturb others whose lodgings were nearby.  'What are you doing creeping about at this hour.'

Cyril briefly considered his option's but honesty seemed to be the only viable response.

'The Archbishop required my presence.'  He breathed quietly.

'I see.'  Even with his lowered tone, Seteth sounded angry.  'It is just a few hours until you would normally rise to begin your morning chores is it not?'  He asked.

Cyril nodded.

'In that case, you will forgo your morning tasks.  I will see that they are reallocated.'

'There is no need!'  Cyril looked up at the man imploringly.

'Cyril, it will not do to have a member of my staff collapsing due to overwork.'  Seteth's tone was firm.  'I insist that you take a break tomorrow.'

'Yes, Seteth.'  Cyril tried to keep the resentment that he was feeling from his tone.

'Good.  We will talk more on this at a more acceptable hour.'  Seteth released the boy and motioned for him to depart, watching the lad as he took to his heels and sprinted to his room.

Seteth stood for a moment and debated whether to march straight to Rhea's room and ask her to explain what the hell she was thinking keeping a child up so late, but he quickly thought better than trying.  She had been complicated of late.  Secretive and evasive.  He would be in a more positive position to approach her once he had slept himself and got a decent handle on his objections.  With a sigh, he turned and returned to his room.

Just as Cyril was thankfully rolling onto his mattress and falling into an exhausted sleep, Edelgard and Hubert were sneaking back towards the dormitories from their own late-night excursion.

'I think the meeting went well.'  Edelgard muttered, her hand on Hubert's arm as they negotiated the almost complete darkness.

'I suggest we stay silence your Ladyship.'  Hubert replied, his voice so low that she nearly missed his words.  'It would not do us well to be discovered.'

She nodded at him, although it was invisible in the blackness.

They had come close to the building when there was a discreet cough from somewhere in front of them.

'Cute, a lover stroll in the moonlight?'  Claude's voice drifted through the darkness.

'What are you doing out of bed von Riegan?  Hubert's tone was cold as frost.

'Well, it's hardly like you two have the high ground in this scenario is it?'  Claude noted.

'Our activities are none of your business.'  Edelgard's voice was shrill, and a lot louder than was wise.

'Likewise, Princess.'  Claude was moving off, running up the staircase towards his room.  'I guess we all have our secrets to keep, eh.'  With a chuckle he was gone.

Hubert ushered Edelgard quickly into her room, quietly closing the door after him.  When he lit up the lamp, he was met with a fierce, angry frown.

'Who the hell does he think he is!'  Edelgard demanded.

'Quiet, please your Ladyship.  Keep your voice down!'  Hubert requested.  'The last thing we need is a disturbance being reported...'

There was a soft tapping on the door.

With a finger on his lips, Hubert pushed himself next to the wall by the side of the door.  Once in position, he motioned for Edelgard forward.

'Who's there?'  The girl demanded imperiously.

'It's Byleth.  Open the door please, Lady Edelgard.'

Edelgard eyes widened.  She looked towards Hubert for direction.  He nodded tersely.  As she pushed the door open a slither, Edelgard realised that Hubert would be obscured from view by the door itself.  She relaxed slightly.

'What do you want at this hour, Professor.'  She asked through the crack.

'I would like you to let me in please.'  Byleth replied.

'I'm sorry, but I am just about to get ready for bed.  I hardly believe that it is appropriate...' 

'And I hardly think it's appropriate that Hubert is in your room at such an hour.'  Byleth noted.

'I beg your pardon!'  Edelgard's voice had started to rise again.

'I know he is here.  Regardless of the fact I actually saw you both sneaking back from wherever you have been, I can smell him quite clearly.'

Hubert sighed and stepped forward, moving Edelgard gently aside and practically pulling the Professor by the arm into the room.

'You can smell me?'  He asked, a little disgruntled.

'If you don’t want to be smelled you had better stop drinking that vile coffee you seem to prefer.'  Byleth nodded.

'Look, Professor...'  He began, but Byleth held up a hand to stall him.

'I don't want to know, nor do I care what you have been up to this evening.'  She said reasonably.  'What I do have an issue with is your inability to return with anything even close to discretion.'

'That was hardly our fault.'  Edelgard pouted.  'It was Claude... he...'

'Yes, I saw him too, and he is going to be my next visit.'  Byleth cut her off.  'Look.  I am responsible for ensuring that the curfew is adhered to and that fratanisation between students is kept to a respectable minimum.'  She looked slightly amused when both Hubert and Edelgard flushed at her words.

'It's nothing like that!'  Edelgard protested.

'As I said, I don't really care,  I am sure you are both old enough to be aware of any potential issues that can result from...'

'Professor please!' Hubert was rubbing his temples, his eyes closed as if his head was hurting.

'There are several students that I have noted away from their rooms after the last bell has sounded.'  Byleth leaned herself against the table in the room and scrutinized them both tightly.  'I believe the reasons for such wanderings are varied and in more than a few cases completely innocent.  I can suffer badly from an inability to sleep from time to time myself.  I really don’t  want to report people or restrict people who, to my mind, are adults and capable of making their own choices.'

'A good view to have.'  Edelgard agreed.

'Yes, but I have to take notice when people who are out are potentially disturbing others, or who are so very indiscrete that I would look like an idiot for not noticing and reporting them.'  Byleth explained.

'A fair point.'  Hubert admitted.

'So can we please put this down as a one off, and agree that you will be more careful in the future?' 

'We can.'  Edelgard agreed.

'I will make sure that von Riegan keeps his mouth shut.'  Byleth added firmly.

'Good luck with that.'  Hubert muttered.

'You doubt me?'

Hubert though for a moment.  'Actually, I don't.'  He mused.

'Okay then.'  Byleth stood herself back up.  'I think it's time for you to leave Hubert.'  She said pointedly.

'Right.'  He flushed again as he bowed slightly to them both and left.

'I need to go and speak to Claude.'  Byleth sighed heavily.  'Get some sleep El.'  She added to the Princess.

'Yes.  Thank you, Professor.' 

Byleth made her way silently along to Claude's room and knocked very quietly.

'I smoothed it over with El and Hubert.'  She whispered to him when his door opened a crack.  'They didn’t see that we had been together, they were coming from the wrong direction.  They won't mention anything either, although I'm pretty sure they are unhappy with you.'

'I can live with that.'  Claude smiled.  'You are pretty sneaky teach.'  He praised.

She scowled at him.

'Can't help but wonder what they had been up to...'  He added. 

'Drop it.'  Byleth demanded.

'Sure thing.'  He agreed, a bit quickly for her liking.  'Anyway, thanks for your help tonight.  Myles is surprisingly good company actually.  I had fun.'

'Goodnight Claude.'  Byleth turned away to finally take herself to her bed.

'Night teach...'  His soft voice drifted after her.

Chapter Text

Having a day free from any obligations came as a bit of a shock to Byleth.  After a lifetime of being continually on the move - undertaking commissions, and having to squeeze in the practical considerations of life on the road - being faced with a stretch of free-time where nothing was pressing or expected was almost a challenge in itself.

Regardless of the late hour that she had finally managed to get to bed, Byleth was quite unable to sleep in any later than just after dawn.  She was tired and a bit grouchy, but the thought of staying under her blankets and wasting the morning wasn't even something she considered. 

She took breakfast first thing, the dining room mostly empty - only two students appearing during her meal.  Leonie and Petra had arranged a hunting trip between them, both of them passionate about their skills and eager to compare their styles.  They joined Byleth at her table, asking for her input on hunting methods and sharing anecdotes of past experiences.

'Care you to hunt with us?'  Petra asked eventually, although Leonie scowled a little at Petra's invitation.  Byleth noted her look and smiled slightly at Petra.

'You should go and enjoy your morning.'  She told the girl.  'I regard hunting as a chore that must be undertaken rather than a relaxing activity.'

'Well obviously I only hunt for the procurement of food!'  Leonie said severely as if having fun was something to be avoided at all costs.

'I am understanding this view.'  Petra agreed.  'The challenge and skill in achieving the task is enjoyable to me, however.   I am thinking that you might find it so too Leonie.'

'Well, I suppose.'  Leonie muttered.  'Improving skills and learning new ones is always an excellent way to spend time.'

'We shall hunt in pleasure and also obtain much meat for the kitchen.'  Petra promised kindly, clapping Leonie on the shoulder.

'We'd better be about it then.'  Leonie muttered, tidily stacking the empty breakfast plates and running them to the kitchen.

'I am thinking Leonie needs to relax a bit.'  Petra noted quietly to Byleth with a wide grin.

'I'm sure she will loosen up once you get out into the woods.'  Byleth replied.  'Be careful, though, Petra.  It's only two weeks ago that we were accosted by bandits not far from the Monastery.'

'I did speak with the Knight's.'  Petra nodded.  'They have patrolled regularly.  They say it is safe for us to go outside.'

'All the same.  Be vigilant.'  Byleth requested.

'Always.'  The girl murmured.

After the girls had departed, Byleth wandered for a while.  Her step was quick, but she had no formalised destination in mind as her feet carried her around the familiar grounds.  She observed as the Monastery started to awaken for the day, the market traders setting their stalls, the student's beginning to rise, and the night shift guards change for the day.  Eventually, Byleth found herself at the stableyard, where there was a good deal of activity already as the mounts were fed and groomed, their stalls cleared, and their exercise organised.

'Good morning, Marianne.'  Byleth didn’t mean to startle to the quiet girl who was deep in conversation with a particularly handsome brown equine, but the girl jumped violently at being addressed.

'Oh!... G...good morning Professor.'  Marianne stuttered, her hand still on the side of the horse's head, but her eyes firmly on the ground between them.

'You're up early.'  Byleth noted.

'Yes.'  Marianne's reply was so soft it was barely audible.   'Mercedes, Linhardt, and I have a meeting with Professor Manuela this morning in the infirmary, but I wanted to see to Dorte before I attend.'  She indicated the horse.

'Dorte is yours?'  Byleth enquired.

'Oh, no.  We have just become good friends in the time that I have been here.'  Marianne explained with the beginnings of a small smile on her lips.  'He is a handsome brute, but also a gentle soul.'  She explained.

'Ah, you like animals?'  Byleth reached a hand to pat the stallion.

'Very much.'  Marianne risked a look up at the Professor.  'More than I like most humans.'  She admitted.  'Do you like animals too?'  She asked shyly.

'I haven’t had a great deal of experience of them.'  Byleth replied.  'I have never been able to keep a pet, but I admit that I enjoy their company when I do have occasion to spend time with one.'

'Like Colin.'  Marianne smiled, genuinely.

'He is a fine friend, although don't you dare tell him so.'  Byleth raised a brow at the girl.  'He already has an overinflated idea of his own self-worth.  We certainly wouldn’t want him becoming any more big for his boots.'

'Your secret is safe with me, Professor.'  Marianne agreed with a small laugh.  She patted the horse again, then sighed a little sigh.  'I need to get on and get his stall cleared before my meeting.'  She noted.

'Hey, don't worry about it, Marianne!'  Ferdinand had appeared in the doorway of the stable.  'If you have a healers meeting to attend, I can sort out Dorte's accommodation for you.  I have a few stalls I'm clearing this morning so it won't be any trouble.'

'That's very kind, Ferdinand.'  The girl's eyes were back firmly on the floor as she quietly replied to him.  'I don't mind, though.  I got up early so that I could manage both tasks.'

'Well, so I see.'  Ferdinand agreed readily, resting against the frame of the door.  'But I think Dorte here would be far happier to have your company for a while longer, rather than watch you clean his lodgings.  He is always calmer and better tempered after you have been to visit with him.'

'You really think so?'  Marianne risked a flushed look up at the lad who was smiling at her.

'There is no doubt about it.'

Marianne looked torn.

'I don't mind helping out with the cleaning.'  Byleth added with a nod to Ferdinand.   'You would have to show me what to do, though.'  She admitted.

Ferdinand beamed and bowed to her.

'It would be my pleasure, Professor.'  He declared.  'That's settled then, Marianne.  Why don't you take Dorte out for a walk to the paddock,  he could use warming up before I put him through his paces.'

The morning passed swiftly once Byleth was happily settled in a chore.

'I am amazed at how good a workout cleaning stables is.'  She observed to Ferdinand as she carried a fresh bale of hay into the stalls and threw it down.

He laughed.  'Indeed, it is an excellent way to build and maintain strength.  While I prefer to train with a lance, I do believe that my strength and stamina would suit me to an axe well enough.  Obviously, I am already superior to Edelgard's skill in her chosen weapon.'

'Is that so?'  Byleth began to spread the fresh hay as she had been instructed.  'I have not seen you work with weapons yet.  I look forward to it.'

'Perhaps we will be practicing before the mock battle next week?'  Ferdinand asked, hopefully.

'I suspect we will.'  Byleth agreed.

'Then I warrant  that Ferdinand von Aegir will most assuredly surprise and please you!'  He beamed.

Once the work at the stables was completed, Byleth considered a further workout at the training grounds, but her lack of sleep the night before was niggling on her.  Instead she took a trip to the bath-house to relax in the waters then after a very speedy lunch, she made her way back to her room for a fresh look over her study plans for the next week.

Byleth must have been observed returning, for she had no sooner set her kettle to the fire when there was a firm rapping at her door, which she opened to reveal Edelgard and Hubert.  She sighed inwardly.

'If this is about last night, I told you there is no need to explain...'  she began.

'Oh...  Um, no, actually.'  Edelgard couldn’t prevent a blush.  'It's about the mock battle next week.  I wondered if you had picked the participants yet?'

'Me?'  Byleth asked, opening the door fully to let them in.

'Well, yes... I assume you will be running the tactics for our win in the competition.'  Edelgard sat at the table, while Hubert hovered by the open door as if keeping a lookout.

'No.'  Byleth replied.

'No?'  Edelgard repeated dully.

'It's not my battle.'

'Well, it is really.  You are our mentor.'  Edelgard's mouth set in a stubbornly firm line.

'None the less, it will be on you all to decide on your plan and discuss tactics.'  Byleth crossed her arms.  'I'm not just going to tell you what to do.'

'As a leader, getting the correct strategy from those best educated to give it is relevant.'   Edelgard pouted.

'As a teacher, getting my students to think for themselves and work together for success is also.. you know.. relevant.'  Byleth mimicked.

Anger flashed quickly in Edelgard's eyes and then was gone.  Byleth flickered a quick look at Hubert, but his face was as stone.  Completely impassive.

'We will discuss our way forward tomorrow in class.'  Byleth said with finality, indicating the door without any subtlety to her meaning.

'I just think that...'  Edelgard began to argue.

'Excuse me!'  Hubert exclaimed unexpectedly as he was suddenly crowded at his post by three fast-moving figures.

Linhardt went straight to Byleth and was pulling at the laces of the corset at her waist.  She took in Marianne and Mercedes expressions and knew immediately what was going on.  She straightened up a little allowing Linhardt better access.  Once he had loosened the tight garment, Linhardt pulled on her shift, untucking it from its binding, and his hand was immediately up underneath it and pressed to her chest.

'Linhardt!'  Edelgard was on her feet, her expression shocked, while Hubert's mouth was open in stunned disbelief.  'What in the world do you think you are doing?'

Byleth motioned her down with her hand as Mercedes and Marianne crowded closer to her.

Linhardt looked up into Byleth's eyes as his hand groped around under her clothing.  She smiled slightly at him.  He shook his head, then undid a few of the lower buttons opening up an expanse of flesh and pressed his ear just underneath the swell of her breast.

'Linhardt!'  Hubert sounded outraged.

'Nothing!'  Linhardt had retrieved his head from under Byleth's shirt and looked at Marianne and Mercedes in wonder. 

'May I?'  Mercedes murmured, stepping forward as Linhardt moved towards the fire, sinking down to the ground cross-legged and pulling out a notebook from the satchel that was hung across his shoulders.  He opened it and began to write furiously.

'What's going on?'  Edelgard's voice was imperious as Mercedes was now listening intently to Byleth's chest and motioning Marianne forward.

'Oh my.'  Marianne breathed when her turn to listen came. 

Mercedes had finally noticed the presence of Edelgard, who was fuming at being ignored and Hubert, who was watching proceedings intently.

'This is healer business.'  She told the Princess in her soft but firm voice.

'The Professor is my class's mentor.  If she is unwell, I believe that I have a right to know.'  Edelgard scowled.

'In fact, you don't...'  Mercedes began.

'It's fine.'  Byleth spoke up. She had started to rebutton her blouse but instead walked over to Edelgard and took her hand gently placing it up under her clothes.

'What am I supposed to be feeling for?'  Edelgard sniped through her flush.

'A heartbeat.'  Byleth replied quietly.

'Well, I can't feel one.'  Edelgard challenged.

'That's kind of the point.'  Byleth agreed.

'No heartbeat.'  Linhardt was shaking his head in amazement.  'Yet quite obviously a pulse.'  He added.

There was silence.  Edelgard's eyes had widened, and her hand pressed firmer against Byleth's skin.

'This is a joke.'  She insisted faintly.

'Hanneman believes that it may have something to do with her crest.  He has been unable to identify it beyond that it is a major crest.'  Linhardt was scribbling again.

Hubert had started forward as Edelgard removed her hand.

'You have a crest too?'  He asked drily.  'It appears you have been keeping secrets, Professor.'  He backed away a step when she reached out her hand to take his.  'I don't need to examine the evidence...'  He muttered.

'In fairness, I wasn’t aware I had a crest, and I don't actually know what one is or what having one means beyond what is told in the book that Hanneman lent me... although I believe it is a tome for children.'  Byleth went to the hearth to extract the boiled kettle and fill her teapot.  'In terms of my lack of a heartbeat - it was Seteth who told me that it was unusual to lack one.  It's not like I have ever been in close contact with people in general unless I have been killing them.'

'It's rather unique, Professor.'  Mercedes said gently.

'So I am beginning to understand.'  Byleth agreed stoically.  'Tea anyone?'  She added.

Chapter Text

Byleth strode up the centre of the classroom in silence and went straight to the blackboard.  A lull in fell over the students as they watched her progress, the muted 'good morning's' ignored as she passed by.  In large letters, Byleth scribed 'Mock Battle' at the top of the board and then turned to face her class.

'We have two days to prepare.'  She said quietly.

'Oh...YEAH!'  Caspar cheered jubilantly.  'We are gonna DESTROY the others!'

'So, what's the tactic, Caspar?'  Byleth enquired, hoisting herself up on her desk to sit cross-legged on its edge.  'How are we going to win?'

'Hell if I know!'  He grinned.  'I'm ready to thump whoever you point me at, though!'  He added zealously.

'You are assuming you make the team.'  Edelgard turned to face him with a frown.  'The number is limited for this battle.  The Professor and I are the only ones who are required to present.  The other four places are at our discretion.'

'You wouldn’t leave me out?'  Caspar looked astounded.

'You all need to decide exactly how you are going to organise and execute this challenge.'  Byleth told them firmly.

'Isn't that something that you are going to do?'  Dorothea asked.  'Since you are our fearless and very experienced leader?'

'I've already made that point.'  Edelgard said flatly.  'The Professor disagrees with it.  She feels that learning about the process is more important than winning.'

'That's not what I said at all.'  Byleth's tone was mild.  'I am fully expecting us to learn and to win.'

'So you will be organising our tactics then?'  Edelgard challenged.

Byleth sighed heavily and rolled her eyes.  'What is it that you think makes a good tactician?'  She asked, seriously.

'The ability to organise and lead?'  Ferdinand stood up.  'The great army generals that I have read about garnered such respect from their troops, that regardless of the situation and the orders, their men would follow without question.'

'On the battlefield, that is a good trait.'  Byleth agreed.  'It is important that everyone is working in unison, and that requires orchestration and a leader that people are confident to follow.  What else?'

'Well, obviously, a deep understanding and experience of battle formation.'  Hubert said with a frown.

'Indeed.  Experience is advantageous.'  Byleth nodded.

'The ability to be adaptable.'  Linhardt said sleepily.  'I think that is probably the most crucial trait required.'

'Why's that?'  Byleth raised a brow at the lad.

'Well, regardless of how many plans you put into place, you are pitting yourself against others who will have differing agendas and skills.  In some cases, you can predict how they will act, but you would be foolish to assume that they will never surprise you or rout you.'  Linhardt yawned.  'I believe that a good tactician needs to be able to react quickly to any situation as it unfolds, and have the confidence to change their plan on the fly if required.'

'Exactly right.'  Byleth jumped down from her desk and went to pat Lindhardt on the shoulder encouragingly.  'As well as initiative and adaptability - a good tactician should always seek the thoughts and ideas of others.  You cannot ever disregard the fact that another advisor or soldier might have a perspective or a scheme that you have not considered.  One person - no matter what their experience - is ever so good that they can win a war on their ability alone.'

'It is their job, though.'  Edelgard sounded impatient.  'Why bother appointing a tactician at all if they expect others to do their ground-work for them.'

'Once the battle starts, the person you appoint is wholly in charge.  Beforehand though..'  Byleth shrugged.   'It only makes sense to solicit all available information.  In our mercenary company, Jeralt is the undisputed leader both on the field and off - however, before each mission, he will gather everyone together to discuss what we are being paid to achieve and to work out how to best do it.  This process, in his case, also involves drinking a copious amount of beer while planning, but  I think we will forgo that particular requirement. '

Ferdinand was nodding thoughtfully.  'Leaders who don’t listen to anyone else or who refuse to consider options aside from their own generally lack the trust of their vassals and subjects.  That is another lesson from history.  That is also why those in charge have ministers - to offer insights, alternatives, and informed opinions even though in the end, decisions belong to them.'

'So...'  Byleth was back to her perch on the table.  

'It's time for a war council then.'  Edelgard said fiercely.

The debate was a lively one.  It took most of the morning before the team for the competition was decided upon, and then the afternoon was filled with speculation about whom the other houses would field and how they could combat the challenges they would face.

'Tomorrow, we will put in some physical practice.'  Byleth confirmed when the school day finally reached its end.  'That way, we can work on the teamwork aspect and get in some training on supporting each other.'

'Do you really intend not to be involved in the fighting, Professor?'  Caspar asked miserably. 

'I will deal with Professor's Hanneman and Manuela.'  Byleth shrugged.  'They made it clear that they will entrench at the starting position for as long as possible, the battle is about you students after all.'

'I bet there is some competition between the three of you, though.'  Dorothea smirked.

'Professor Hanneman has pointed out that his house has won three times in a row now.'  Byleth noted.  'He will not be winning a fourth.'  Her eyes gleamed with steely determination.

'So, if we don't win, we will be letting you down.'  Ferdinand sighed.  'No pressure, then Professor!'

'No pressure at all, Ferdinand.'  Byleth replied.  'I know you are capable.  I would have insisted on more input if you weren’t.'

'You seem very sure.'  Hubert murmured.

'I am.'  Byleth said with finality.  'If I take over this battle, in planning and in fighting, it could be fairly accused that you won simply because the Ashen Demon was on your side.  You do not need me to win this - you will triumph on your own merit.'

'Oh.'  Edelgard flushed.  'You really believe that?'

Byleth huffed.  'How many times do I need to tell you that I never say anything I don't mean?  I do expect you to put in some hard work tomorrow, though.  There are a load of areas in your combat skills that require some attention.'

'How very... motivating.'  Hubert observed drily.

'I wish I was involved in the actual fighting now.'  Bernadetta noted sadly.

'The ideas you shared have been really insightful, Bernie!'  Caspar consoled her.  'I know thinking isn’t my forte, but you have been amazing.'

'Indeed.'  Hubert agreed with a chuckle.  'Who knew you could be so very sneaky in your plotting Bernadetta.  I probably need to keep a much closer eye on you going forward!'

'Please don't kill me!'  Bernadetta squealed piteously and ran from the room.

'Hubert!'  Byleth sighed.

'I'm sorry... I couldn’t help myself.'  He laughed.

'Did you just laugh, Hubie?'  Dorothea was up and heading towards the door to follow Bernadetta.  'I didn’t know you knew how - what an amazing and enlightening day this has been!'

The rest of the students filed out except Linhardt, who was snoozing quietly, his head on his desk.  Caspar stopped to awaken him, but Byleth shooed him away.

'I'll see to him.'  She promised as she started to gather up her papers and tidy the classroom.  Once she was done, she gently shook Linhardt awake.

'You want to join me for dinner?'  She asked him as he rubbed his eyes.

'Did I miss anything important?'  He enquired as he nodded his agreement and started to gather his things together.

'No, you stayed awake far longer than I expected.'  Byleth admitted as they exited the classroom together, pausing for a second as Byleth locked the door behind her.

'It's odd.'  Linhardt noted.  'You don't seem terribly concerned that I am inclined to snooze in class.  The tutors that my father employed were driven mad by it.  I was expecting it to be.. somewhat problematic here at the Academy if I'm honest.'

'I'd have a problem if you weren’t taking in the lessons.  Last week I noted that you slept when your attention drifted.'  Byleth patted his arm.  'Since you have a curiosity for just about everything, I assume that you either know the lesson content already or we are going too slowly for you.'  She shrugged.  'You need to help me out here, though.  I need to know what you need, Linhardt.'

He was silent as they entered the dining hall and queued for their meal.  When they had finally settled at a table at the back of the room, he blinked up at Byleth and smiled.

'I want to study you, Professor.  You already know that.'  He said thoughtfully.  'My father was pleased when I showed an interest in attending the Academy.  Believed that it might just awaken an interest in martial skills that I have historically lacked.  Alas, my desire to attend was only because I realised that most of the students, being from noble houses and investing in time at the Acadamy, would be crested.  The chance to observe so many crested individuals in action, was too much of a temptation to resist.'

'You have a lot to offer your peers Linhardt.'  Byleth said quietly.  'You have more than once surprised me by knowing precisely the point that I am trying to make before I actually make it.  Applied to any scenario that is a boon, but I get an idea that your mind works exceptionally fast even if your body doesn’t naturally follow suit.  I am just as intrigued by you, as you are by me!'

'Shall we study one another then, Professor.'  Linhardt looked enthused by the prospect.

'Can you promise to try out my suggestions when I make them?'  Byleth countered.

'You are my teacher.  I am obliged to try even without a promise.'  He noted playfully, then he sighed with what sounded like genuine regret.  'I do have a problem with becoming bored, however.'  He noted.  'I end up abandoning so many research projects because I lose interest.'

'We can work on that.'

'I hope so.'  His smile was genuine.  'I have a few other things that I need to finish off before I begin an in-depth study into your crest, although I have to admit - when Marianne suggested that maybe your lack of a heartbeat was because your crest was cursed in some way - it did pique my interest somewhat.  Afterwards I spent hours in the library and could find no reference at all to cursed crests in any form.'

'Let me know when you want me then.'  Byleth had cleared her plate and was sitting back in her chair, observing the diners around her.  She whipped back a hand suddenly, and a rubber ball bounced off Lorenz's forehead.  He looked up and bowed his head to her apologetically, found the ball on the floor and brought it back to her.

'Attacks can come at any time Lorenz.'  She admonished.

'Yes Professor.'  He acknowledged and went back to his seat.

'I can't imagine what it must have been like to grow up being you.'  Linhardt murmured reflectively as Byleth started on her pudding.

'Generally quite dangerous.'  She admitted stoically.

Chapter Text

Professor Manuela was apprehensive, to say the least.  She might even go so far as to say she was nervous.  Generally, she had never much cared about the mock battle (although a desire to rub Hanneman's big nose in an overwhelming win by her team was attractive).  The fight itself was just an exercise meant to highlight the abilities of your class and a yardstick by which to measure their progress when the actual battle between the houses happened later in the year.

This time, however... Manuela took a covert look over the field to where Byleth was standing on the starting point of the Black Eagles house.  Her students were already in formation, silent and focused, gripping their weapons tightly with a look of steely determination in every eye.  Edelgard was at the front point flanked by Ferdinand and Hubert.  Caspar was behind them, almost subdued in his demeanor, and next to him, Linhardt was both awake and alert.

Manuela sighed and ran her steady gaze over her Deer's.  Claude was reclined on the floor at her feet, bow by his side, and a lazy grin on his face.  Leonie and Lorenz were arguing loudly, Lysithea was scowling, looking like she would rather be anywhere than here (which Manuela could heartily sympathize with) and Raphael... where the hell had he managed to find a whole roast chicken from?  Manuela wondered why she hadn’t brought along her hip flask.  She was sure she was going to need something a lot harder than water to bolster her before this was over.

A quick look at Hanneman showed him deep in a huddle with his team.  Prince Dimitri appeared to be giving a pep talk of some kind.   Felix was looking off into the distance with a sneer on his face, but Dedue, Mercedes, and Sylvain were all nodding along to their house-leaders words and sizing up their competition thoughtfully.

'So then...'  Manuela had to speak louder than she wanted since she had to cut over Leonie and Lorenz' bickering, which was near to the point of coming to blows.  'Shall we get into position?'

Raphael wiped his greasy fingers on his shirt-front, losing a button in the process.  'I'm ready, Professor.'  He beamed.

'I don't see the point.'  Lysithea sighed.  'I could have spent the afternoon in the library.

Claude rose to his feet, gracefully.  'Don't be like that small-fry,'  He wheedled, patting Lysithea on the head, then jumping back quickly when a fireball erupted under his feet.  'Hey!'  He complained.  'I was just going to say that you are our secret weapon!'

'Hardly secret after that display.'  Leonie grouched.

'Please... Let's form up...'  Manuela cut in before Lorenz could add his dissatisfaction to the conversation.  Her eye was caught by some movement over where Seteth was stood waiting to begin proceedings, along with Flayn and the student's not taking part in the actual battle.  Jeralt was striding up to the sidelines, looking both disheveled and annoyed.  He could only just have returned from his mission.  Leonie must have noticed him at the same time as Manuela because her attitude changed abruptly.

'Come on!'  She ordered.  'It's nearly time to begin, lets at least try to look like we are professional.'

The start was delayed slightly as Jeralt was engaging Seteth in an animated and obviously tense conversation.  Manuela wished she could hear what was being said, although if she were to wager, she would suspect that Jeralt had heard about what had happened during Byleth's sparring session with Jeritza.  He looked fearsome.  To give Seteth his due, he was utterly calm in the face of the other man's ire, and after a couple of minutes seemed to have placated him enough that he could get proceedings underway.

'Everyone knows what they're doing?'  Manuela asked as Seteth started his usual long-winded speech about fair play and other such nonsense.

'Isn't it a bit late if we don’t?'  Lorenz asked techily.

'Just because you think your plan was better...'  Leonie appeared to be grinding her teeth as she spoke.

'It was better.'  Lorenz muttered rebelliously.

'Alright, kids, settle down!'  Claude smirked, which earned him an angry growl from Leonie and a derisive snort from Lorenz.  Lysithea added her own unladylike hand gesture to the general consensus.

Manuela pinched the bridge of her nose as she sincerely lamented not bringing her hip-flask.  'Our plan is just fine.'  She muttered.  'Just please try and stay focused long enough to actually execute it.'

'Well... here we go!'  Raphael, the only one of the Deer that looked even slightly excited, cheered.

Nobody moved.  As per their plan.

Already Dimitri had crossed towards the Eagles, flanked by Dedue and Sylvain, with Edelgard and Hubert moving to meet them in response.  Felix was close by Mercedes's side, a way behind but also angling in the direction of their fellow classmates.  Hanneman stayed where he was, but he had taken up his bow in readiness.

'See.'  Claude muttered.  'Stood to reason that they would prioritise each other as their main competition.  We can just let them slug it out and then swoop on whoever remains standing.'

'I'm not quite sure what Caspar is doing though... I'd have assumed he would have been the first to rush in...'  Manuela admitted cautiously, sweeping a look to take in that Ferdinand also was loitering behind the initial push - although he did appear to be keeping close to Linhardt as the Eagles healer moved slowly forward albeit more centrally in the field.

'They can't be splitting their attack surely.  That would be suicide.'  Claude mused thoughtfully.

'We should prepare just in case.'  Leonie suggested.

'Agreed.'  Lorenz startled everyone with his acceptance.  'What?'  He asked.  'I'm not actually stupid, you know,  just because I didn’t happen to agree with the original plan doesn’t mean I can't see the merit in reactive response.'

'What do you suggest here then?'  Claude asked.

Lorenz looked at him closely, expecting some kind of sarcastic follow-up, but the man seemed genuine.

'Well..'  Lorenz replied cautiously.  'Some ranged might just dissuade an assault at this stage.'

'Right you are.  You going to back me up?'  Claude pulled an arrow from his quiver and started to pace forward.

'Me?...  Yes.  A good idea.'  Lorenz fell into step with his house leader.

'Watch your distance.'  Manuela urged after them.  'We don't want to force an engagement - just prevent them from making one.'

'We're on it.'  Claude saluted.

There was an almighty crash that signaled that Dimitri and Edelgard had finally reached each other.  Manuela stared at the two youngsters as they clashed ferociously, her axe arching dangerously as his spear clattered against her armor in strong, quickly-paced jabs.  Hubert had cast, his miasma rising between both Dedue and Sylvain, the poisoned particles preventing either from getting close enough to assist Dimitri in his efforts against the Princess.  Hubert quickly wound himself up for a second attack, aimed directly at Dedue this time, as Sylvain threw himself towards the mage.  With a neat sidestep, Hubert avoided the threat and turned to rattle his third assault on Sylvain, but it was an unexpected cast from Linhardt that toppled the lad first.

'Sorry.'  Linhardt murmured before refocusing his attention on a heal for Edelgard.

'That's a surprise.'  Manuela shook her head as Ferdinand finished off the job on Sylvain, and the boy removed himself from the field.   'Watch out for magic from Linhardt!'  She called out to her team.

'Should we try and deal with him?'  Leonie asked impatiently.  'He is their healer, after all!'  She added.

Manuela pondered the question.  'Raphael, head towards Linhardt but don't engage.  We will just let our presence be felt, like with Caspar.'  She decided.

'Yes, Ma'am.'  Raphael took off at a steady trot, unconsciously flexing his arms, as he trundled along.

Ferdinand and Linhardt had changed position.  They were moving centrally forward, skirting past the battle between Dimitri and Edlegard and heading in the direction of Felix and Mercedes.  Raphael had stopped a distance away from the moving pair and looked back at Manuela, seeking guidance. 

'Leonie, Lysithea... move along the top way there.'  Manuela gestured a path north of Felix and Mercedes.  'If Linhardt and Ferdinand are planning to try and take those two, you could add to the confusion, and maybe all four of them can be dispatched.'

'On it!'  Leonie grinned, grabbing hold of Lysithea, who was actually looking mildly interested.

They had only just started to move when Caspar suddenly bolted forward directly at Claude and Lorenz, who had come in close to where he and Byleth were stationary.  His sudden action startled Lorenz, who thrust his spear out reflectively even though his attacker wasn’t yet in range.  It was enough to put him off balance when Caspar dodged past his weapon and bowled heavily into him, knocking him squarely into Claude, whose hastily notched arrow went immediately askew.

'Watch my face!'  Lorenz squealed when Casper jumped on top of him, raining his fists on the prone lad.  Claude started to backpedal to get a better aim.  With barely any effort, Casper quickly hefted Lorenz and the arrow that Claude shot went straight into Lorenz's backside as his position with Caspar was reversed.

'You shot me, you bastard!'  Lorenz bellowed indignantly as Manuela sighed, her shoulders slumping.

'Um... Oops?'  Claude had another arrow notched but was retreating now, not sure whether the danger to him would come from Caspar or Lorenz, who had called his yield grumpily and was scrabbling to his feet.

Caspar watched the retreating Claude for a moment, then turned back to look at Byleth, who shook her head at him.  With a sigh the lad took to his heels and ran directly towards Raphael instead.

'Hey little-bit, are we gonna rumble?'  Raphael smiled cheerfully at Caspar as he turned to engage him.

'Heh, you bet your arse we are!'  Caspar agreed with a returning grin as the two of them literally bounced off each other.

'Fun!'  Raphael beamed.

'For goodness sake don't shoot!'  Manuela called to Claude when he stopped to look speculatively at the two lads who were now full-on wrestling.  'Raphael is way to big a target and Caspar know's it.  He is almost taunting you to try.'

'Yeah.'  Claude agreed mournfully.  'Shooting one of my own team is bad enough, better not make it two.'  He stared out to take stock of the rest of the field.  'Dimitri and Edelgard are still at it then.'  He noted to Manuela.

'They are both getting healed.'  She nodded.  'Their skill is surprisingly even - I wouldn’t like to call a winner.  Think it will come down to whichever healer runs out of juice first.  Dedue's stamina is absolutely amazing too.  He has taken so many hits of Hubert's magic - yet he refuses to go down.'

'Where should I head then?'  Claude considered carefully.  'Reckon I should provide some cover for Leonie and Lysithea.  Looks like it's going to be an epic showdown, and if I can stick a few shots in, it will stack the odds better in our favour, you think?'

'Just be careful.'  Manuela demanded.

'It's not like I meant to hit Lorenz!'  Claude smirked.  'It was pretty funny though...'  he added as he sprinted forward.

'Yeah, it was.'  Manuela agreed under her breath with a small chuckle.

Chapter Text

Hanneman had been a Professor at the Academy for fifteen years and had taken part in every mock battle that occurred during his tenure. 

Never before had he participated in one that was being as fiercely fought as this one. 

Every other year, it had quite the task to encourage enough students to volunteer for the team.  With his current batch of Lion's, however, there had only been eagerness -  not a single one of them trying to duck out of participating.  For some - the enthusiasm to show off their skills was their motivation;  for others, a desire to bring glory to their house was their main drive.   Whatever their reasons, Hanneman found that the mix of focus and dedication made his job in bringing everything together pleasurable and much easier than usual.

He also harbored absolute surety that his Lion's were going to win.  He had heard all of the talk surrounding Byleth and her martial abilities.  He had been as impressed as everyone else when she had fought Jeritza and the Knights a week earlier.  Regardless, he could not believe that the Eagle students were as dedicated to this battle as his own Lions were.  The Deer kids didn’t even make it very far into his sphere of concern.  He was looking forward to securing his fourth victory in as many years, and the bragging rights it would win him in his ongoing competition with Manuela.

Thing's weren’t actually going quite as he had initially envisioned, though.

For a start, he had seriously underestimated Lady Edelgard's strength and skill with the axe.  Her clash with Dimitri was brutal, both of them relying heavily on their healers to keep them from capitulating.  Had Dimitri been pitched against anyone else, he would likely have found the task a minimal challenge as the lad's strength was prodigious.  Edelgard, however, was razor-sharp in her focus and determination, and that was backed up by her ability. 

Hanneman was also starting to get antsy at what appeared to be about to begin.  Ferdinand was moving towards Mercedes, obviously hoping to cut off the healing that Dimitri was receiving.  Linhardt was at his side, looking more alert than Hanneman had ever seen him before.  Leonie and Lysithea were close too - although who they intended to target was anyone's guess.  The final straw was when Claude started a jog towards them all, obviously looking to add some ranged mayhem into the explosive mix.

Well, two could play at that game.  Hanneman already had his bow in hand.  He knew that as soon as he stepped out of position and inserted himself into the fight that Byleth was more than likely to come for him.  He was confident, though, that if he timed it right, he would be able to get enough damage in to thwart both the Deer and the Eagles before having to switch to Byleth and try to take her down at range.  He smiled to himself as the players started to position themselves.  He hadn’t enjoyed himself quite so much in a long time.

Ferdinand attacked first, only for Felix to roughly push Mercedes away and meet the red-haired lancer resoundingly with his sword.  Felix was hit simultaneously by two magical attacks.  One obviously from Linhardt, the other, much stronger blast coming from behind them all - Lysithea shouting her glee when her strike drove the swordsman to his knees.

Hanneman moved quickly.  His first two arrows flew directly at Leonie, who had been moving swiftly in on the unprotected Mercedes.  Mercedes managed to get a heal on Felix, the lad rolling rapidly to the side then jumping to his feet, just as Ferdinand's lance struck where he had been only moments before.  Claude had come into range and shot at Linhardt, whose brow creased in annoyance and then swiftly sent a blast of power to finish off Leonie, and pull some of her own energy back into himself. 

'It must be awful to lose to me.'  Linhardt lamented to Leonie as she stormed off the field, defeated.

'Linhardt... Healing!'  Edelgard was calling out desperately, but it was too late.  Dimitri pressed his advantage and toppled the Princess with a fierce blow, his lance coming down hard to her chest then repositioning at her throat.

'Yield?'  He asked politely, although his focus was already warily on Hubert, who had seen his mistress fall and was trying to make his way towards them.  Dedue followed the mage at a much slower pace, obviously almost at the end of his fearsome endurance.

'I have no choice.'  Edelgard replied through gritted teeth.

Dimitri gallantly helped her to her feet, and Edelgard trudged to away to the edge of the field, her shoulders shaking in rage.

Hanneman felt a surge of exaltation at the sudden change in fortunes as he let off another arrow at Ferdinand, hoping to free up Felix.  The Professor had completely allowed Byleth to slip from his mind, so caught up was he in action.  Suddenly the Ashen Demon was there right in front of him - her sword still on her hip, her hands gripping onto his bow and swinging it roughly from his grasp.

'I don’t want to have to hurt you, Hanneman.'  She said, her face utterly devoid of any emotion.  'I can't allow you to continue your attack, however.'

Hanneman raised his hands to cast instinctively.

'You may want to rethink your threat...'  He chuckled as he unleashed a wave of magical arrows.  Byleth smacked a stunning blow to his wrists with the frame of the bow that she had liberated from him.  She didn’t even try to avoid the damage from his spell, many of the arrows missing completely.  Hanneman quickly considered his options.  He moved backward, his hands framing a more simple fire spell, despite the pain radiating from where he had been hit.  Byleth continued moving towards him, hitting out with his bow, peppering his wrists and his hands to prevent his casts.  Those that he did manage to get off, she mainly dodged with ease.  As he began to tire, Byleth started to add a few softer hits to the side of his head and once or twice a poke to his belly.  With a growl, he flung a considerable amount of energy into a fire spell and was gratified when her cloak began to burn, and she was forced to duck to the ground to roll in an attempt to put it out.

'I really don't like bleeding Claude.'  Linhardt's voice cut through Hanneman's concentration, and there was a sudden fierce yell from  Raphael.   Hanneman's attention went to the big man who had obviously suffered a cast from Linhardt and was now being overthrown by Caspar.

'Would you please go and stop that menace from shooting at me?'  Linhardt ordered Caspar as soon as Raphael yielded.  Caspar grinned broadly and shot forward towards the archer, just as Lysithea conflagrated Mercedes, and the healer collapsed in a blaze of pain.

Hanneman noted that Manuela had now come forward from her original position. 

'Retreat!'  Manuela called to her two remaining students.  Lysithea began to make her way towards Manuela, but Claude paused, weighing up his options.  It was apparent that Caspar was going to reach him too quickly, and Claude's eyes narrowed as he looked over the remaining combatants to decide where best to spend his last available attacks before Caspar engaged him.  With a sudden smile, he twisted dramatically and let off a long shot towards Dimitri, who had taken a moment to drink down a vulnerary before he tried engaging with Hubert.

Dedue, ever aware of his Prince's situation, threw himself in front of Dimitri with the last of his energy, taking the arrow solidly to his side.  He went to ground with a groan.

'You really should pay better attention.'  Byleth was in Hanneman's face again, his bow pulled back, ready to swing at him.  'Do I have to hit you, or will you yield?'  She asked.

'Well played, Byleth.'  Hanneman seated himself willingly, his energy depleted.  'I honestly thought you were done for.  Should have known better.'  He chuckled.  She nodded at him and looked out over the field of play, her eyes catching Manuela as she sent a heal to Claude, who was now grappling with Caspar.  Linhardt was sat, but he threw a heal at Ferdinand, who was still holding his own against Felix.  With Dedue gone, Dimitri had turned to face Hubert.

'It's pretty even.'  Byleth noted to Hanneman.

'I wouldn’t like to call it.'  He agreed.

'I'd better go and deal with Manuela.  Good fight, Hanneman.'  Byleth nodded at him.  'I wouldn’t mind some instruction in the dark arts.'  She added.  'I could better learn to counter them with a bit more knowledge.'

'I'm not sure you need to be any more dangerous!'  He chuckled.

Byleth set off at a prowl in the direction of Manuela just as Felix finally got the better of Ferdinand.  Without pause, Felix turned to intercept Byleth.

'Please don’t.'  Byleth murmured to him.

'Draw your sword.'  Felix demanded.

'I won't.'  Byleth shook her head at him.  'Not unless we are the last two standing.'  She added.

He scowled at her.

Her face was impassive.

'Fine.'  He huffed and turned on his heel - he looked towards where Linhardt was seated, close to Caspar, who was now wrestling with Claude and decided that option was too risky.  Instead, he raced down the field to add his sword to Dimitri's efforts with Hubert.  Dimitri was done before Felix could reach them, but Hubert was even whiter-faced than usual at the effort of his struggle with Dedue and then besting Dimitri.  It took very little for Felix to run in and bring down the mage with a few half-hearted blows.

Hanneman sighed.  The Lions now only had Felix remaining, while the Eagles still fielded Caspar and Linhardt, and the Deer numbered Claude and Lysithea.  At least Felix had the sense to stop, take a vulnerary before moving cautiously forward, keeping a distance from the fighting for the time being.

Byleth continued towards Manuela, but her eyes were trained on Lysithea, who was bouncing up and down in anticipation, just waiting for Byleth to get within her range.

She heard the squeal when Felix sneaked up behind Linhardt to take him from the game but didn’t bother looking back, keeping her attention on Lysithea, and assuming that Felix would next plow into the battle between Caspar and Claude. 

Hanneman couldn’t hide his amusement when Felix completely skirted the fight raging next to him and started out on a large circuit that would bring him behind Manuela and Lysithea.  The boy really did have some smarts, for all of his sour demeanor.  While Hanneman doubted the lad could ultimately defeat Byleth, at least his house was giving a good showing of itself.  As it stood, that was really the best he could hope for.

Byleth was now dodging blasts from Lysithea, while Manuela concentrated on providing heals to Claude.  Unexpectedly, Claude was holding his own against Caspar, avoiding many of the blows against him, and although he wasn’t doing much damage to his adversary, he was keeping him busy.

Lysithea cheered when she managed to finally get a hit on Byleth, who was on fire for the second time.  As she was gearing up for a second hit while Byleth rolled to put out the flames, the mage was hit from behind completely unexpectedly by Felix.  Manuela had her sword drawn quickly to attack the lad, but Byleth was quicker.  With Lysithea out, Byleth jerked her head at Felix directing him towards where Claude and Caspar were engaged.  With a sigh the boy nodded at the unspoken command and trotted over to help quickly subdue Claude. 

'You and me then, Felix!'  Caspar grinned.

'Just like training.'  Felix groaned.

'Aww, this is nothing like sparring!'  Caspar declared happily.  'It's way more fun.'

Hanneman was astounded by Manuela's skill with the sword.  Technically he knew that she trained in the discipline, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember ever actually witnessing her using the skill.  She was quick and accurate, even though her strength was paltry compared to her opponent.

'Keep your right shoulder still, Manuela.'  Byleth chided as they fought.  'You are signaling your attack far too easily.'

'Lesson's in the middle of a competition?'  Manuela smiled although she was sweating heavily.  'Should you actually be helping me to improve given the circumstances?'

'Your skill is worth improving.'  Byleth noted.  'Where did you learn?'

'I'm sure Dorothea will tell you that life on the stage can be hard.'  Manuela replied.  'You need to have some ace up your sleeve if you are going to survive it.  You are toying with me though Byleth.  I know I can't beat you.  It's rather exhilarating to try, though darling.  Somehow, despite your expression, you look simply divine even amid the trials a fight.'

Byleth chuffed what might have been a laugh.  'If you are attempting to flirt to put me off Manuela, it isn’t working.'

'You can't blame a girl for trying.'  Manuela pouted.  'Well, I think I am quite sweaty enough.  I yield.  You have me.'  She raised an eyebrow at Byleth's sudden blush.  'So you are flustered after the fight.  Interesting!'  She smirked as she sat herself down. 

Hanneman made his way over to sit himself next to Manuela.  Byleth stood by the side of them, and they all watched in silence as Caspar and Felix continued to trade blows.

'You could go and end it.' Manuela noted to Byleth after a few minutes had passed.

'Caspar can manage.'  Byleth shrugged.

'It's a moot point now, though.'  Hanneman added.  'It's not like Felix will beat you.'

'Regardless, it's Caspar's tournament to win.'  Byleth cast her eyes over the two students.  'Or Felix's.  Even if I beat him, he would still be the last student standing.'

A huge cheer rose when Caspar finally felled Felix, knocking his sword from his hand and landing on his chest, winding him completely.  Byleth went to collect his sword and helped Felix to his feet.

'You were impressive.'  She told him as she handed his weapon back to him.

'I wanted to fight you.'  Felix scowled.

'I owe you one.'  She gripped his arm before being caught up in a rough hug from Caspar that nearly felled her.

'You were so right, Professor!  Not just running in without thinking is awesome!'

'You did good.'  Byleth patted his back awkwardly.  'Looks like Linhardt is asleep in the middle of the field.'  She sighed.  'I'll go get him.'

'Hey, Edelgard!'  Caspar was running across the field to where the other students were watching and waiting.  'Guess what!  We won!'

Chapter Text

Byleth carried Linhardt from the field of battle, the boy having used far more energy than he had in a very long time.  His eyes fluttered open briefly when she scooped him up in a bridal hold.

'Did we win?'  He murmured.

'We did.'

'I suppose all the bleeding was worth it then.'  He decided and snuggled down against her shoulder and fell into slumber again.

Moving to where everyone was congregated, Byleth immediately noted the scowl on Jeralt's face and sighed inwardly.  She had an idea of where his thoughts were - and it probably wasn’t going to go well for her.  So much for being happy about his return.

'You managed to get set on fire not once but twice kiddoWhat the hell?'  Jeralt's gruff declaration cut through the cacophony of noise that the students were making and the celebrations of the Eagles.  Volume dropped to a deathly pall.

Byleth didn't reply.  She went to Hubert and physically handed the sleeping Linhart over to him, ignoring his reluctance and look of disdain.

'You need to keep up attention girl - there is never an excuse for a lazy defense - have you forgotten everything already?'  Jeralt's eyes had narrowed.  'I ain't having you going soft on me.  You know the drill.'

Byleth nodded.

'Ten laps then.  Go!'  Jeralt's barked command made more than one of the students jump.

Byleth obediently took off at a run back to the field.

Everyone's eyes followed her.  Seteth looked as if he was about to intervene, but Flayne pulled back on his arm.

'It should be noted that we actually won.'  Edelgard murmured, just the slightest edge of defiance in her voice.  She cringed when Jeralt's stony eyes turned abruptly to her.

'I'd keep my thoughts to myself, Princess.'  Jeralt told her quietly.  'Especially if I'd had the audacity to demand healing on the battlefield.'

Edelgard's cheeks went pink.

The man crossed his arms over his chest and stared down the rest of the students. 

'Anyone else have anything to say?'  He asked, his tone deceptively mild.  There was complete silence. 

'Good.'  Byleth had completed her first circuit, and as she ran past them, Jeralt drew a dagger which he threw with starling speed and aim directly at her head.  She avoided it easily.

'Actually...'  Sylvain stood himself up from where he had been reclined on the grass.  'I was out of the contest first, I am most undoubtedly soft.'  He chuckled when Ingrid rolled her eyes at him.  'I guess I deserve putting in some laps too.'  He stretched himself lazily and then took off at a trot after Byleth.  'Wait up!'  He called.  She slowed her step to allow him to catch up.'

'Honestly, I should be penalized too.'  Lorenz admitted.  'Unfortunately, I got shot in the posterior, so running is off the cards for a day or two...'  He grimaced at Claude.

'Point taken.'  Claude grinned.  'Allow me!' He sped off down the field.

'Bernie didn’t even fight.  Bernie does run well, though.'  Bernadetta stood, Petra by her side as they too joined in the laps, chased by an enthusiastic Caspar and a smiling Ferdinand.  Wordlessly, Dimitri led the rest of the Blue Lions to the sidelines.

'You shouldn't run Felix.'  He told the swordsman.  'You were magnificent.'

'Shut-it Boar.'  Felix shot back.  'I'm never going to miss an opportunity to get stronger.' 

'Well, ain't that something.'  Jeralt murmured to himself as the other Deer's joined the fray - all bar Hilda who remained resolutely sprawled on the ground, and Marianne, who was attending to Lorenz alongside Manuela.

'Seems that the Professor inspires loyalty.'  Flayn remarked to Jeralt.  'I wish that I could support her too.'  She added a little sadly.

'I am rather tempted to join in myself.'  Seteth stated, fixing Jeralt with a hard glare.

'Now come on, Seteth.'  Jeralt said levelly.  'We do the best we can to protect those we love.'  He looked pointedly at Flayn.  'For the kind of life that By and I have led, that means harsh discipline.'

Edelgard was looking annoyed.  'We won.'  She repeated doggedly, but none the less joined up to the running after ordering Hubert to stay and keep a hold of Linhardt.  'I suppose he performed much better than expected.'  She explained grumpily.

It took very little time for the laps to be completed, although more than a few students ended up pulling out before the end.  When Byleth, not even out of breath, finally returned, Seteth declared that a post-battle tea had been arranged in the Dining-Hall, which was met with cheers.

'My office then.'  Jeralt had put a hand on Byleth's shoulder.

'Oh please, Captain, can't the Professor join us for tea first?'  Flayn begged.

Jeralt huffed.  'I suppose.'  He agreed.

'Perhaps you would join us too?'  Leonie dared to ask.

'Oh, yes, Captain.'  Manuela practically purred.  'You surely need to eat after your long journey.'

Jeralt's eyebrows raised.  'I hardly think...'  He began, then Byleth punched his arm.  Hard.

'An appraisal of the student's performance would be appreciated.'  She told him.

'I can give that to you when we...' 

'Captain, a brutally honest review can only be a boon and aid in our improvement.'  Dimitri spoke up.  'I know I would rather take your criticism first hand.'

'Byleth is more than capable...'  Jeralt was becoming flustered.

'Indeed she is.'  Seteth was rather enjoying the large man's discomfort.  'However, I agree with Prince Dimitri.  It should be pointed out that you were in the position of observing the action from the sidelines and thus will have a much clearer overview of the entire event.'

Jeralt scowled.  'I won't go easy on you.  Any of you.'  He warned belligerently.

'Perish the thought!'  Hanneman smiled.

'Hmm.'  Jeralt shrugged.  'Okay.  Honestly, you all did much better than I was expecting overall, so it won't take that long.'

'I'm really glad I didn't fight now.'  Bernadetta was remarking to Petra, in what she thought was a whisper, but was actually a fairly loud squeak.  'Captain Jeralt is terrifying!'

Finally Jeralt relaxed and let out a massive explosion of a laugh as he turned to Bernadetta.

'Is that so little mouse?'  He asked with a chuckle.  'Don't worry lass, By is ridiculously sentimental at times.  If I even tried to scare you properly, she would hurt me.'

'Damn right, I would.'  Byleth frowned at him.

Tea was a cheerful affair with Jeralt going around and chatting individually with the students.  Felix positively glowed when the Captain praised him, and Casper was so shocked at his own positive feedback that he was speechless, for at least ten minutes.

'Sentimental Professor?'  It was Claude that was grinning at Byleth as he pushed Bernadetta aside to squeeze in next to her.  'I find that hard to believe.'

'Compared to Jeralt, I'm a fluffy kitten.'  Byleth replied with a perfectly straight face and flinty eyes.

Dimitri, sitting opposite them, started to chuckle.  'A stone is likely more sentimental than Captain Jeralt.'  He agreed.  'His words to me, while completely on point, did not pull any punches.'

'You and me both!'  Claude agreed cheerfully.

'There are always things to work on.'  Byleth said sagely.  'While I have your attention,'  She added, turning to Claude.  'I was planning to ask you to organise some basic bow training for Bernadetta, and possibly Ashe too.  I believe you have been giving Ignatz some time already.'

'You want me to teach?'  Claude looked a little shocked. 

'You want me to learn to use a bow?'  Bernadetta's voice drifted down from Claude's other side.  'With Claude?'  She added fearfully.

'Would you rather have one to one sessions with Jeritza?'  Byleth asked.

'Jeritza!  Oh no... NO!'  Bernadetta squealed.

'Hey, I'm not scary, am I.'  Claude smiled broadly at Bernadetta.  'Besides, I saw your aim when we were throwing the Professor's rubber balls.  I reckon she's right.  You probably have the eye for bow work.'

'I don’t know...'  Bernadetta sank down under the table.

'What are you doing down there?'  Claude asked, perplexed.

'Hiding you idiot.'

'But I know where you are... how is that hiding?' 

'Can you see me?'  Bernadetta huffed.

'Not at this moment - but I can hear you and if I bend down...'

'Don't you dare!' 

'Really?  You want me to teach... her?'  Claude mouthed at Byleth, then blinked when Byleth smiled at him.  It changed her face almost completely.  Dimitri was staring in awe too.  'R...r...right! '  Claude stuttered, aware that a blush had crept over his cheeks but totally unable to prevent his flustered response.   'Well, I suppose a few lessons to cover the basics and see how it goes... might be okay.'

'Ashe and Ignatz won't scare her too much either.'  Byleth whispered.

'Please don't make me, Professor!'  Bernadetta's voice drifted up from under the table.  She had scooted along to wrap herself around Byleth's legs.

'I'm not going to make you do anything, Bernie.'  Byleth replied gently.  'I reckon it's a good idea to learn to protect yourself though and Claude's a complete idiot - You don't have anything to worry about with him...  except maybe getting shot in the arse!'

'Hey!'  Claude complained, as Dimitri started to laugh.  There was a chuckle from under the table.

'That was pretty funny.'  Bernadetta agreed.

'I guess while I'm at it, I could teach you better hiding techniques, Bernie.'  Claude risked bending to put his head under the table.  'I'm an expert at running away!'  He added.

'Would you like me to teach you a little bit about carnivorous plants?'  Bernadetta asked him shyly.

'Err.. okay.'  Claude looked dubious.  'Are any of them poisonous?'

'Well...'  Bernadetta slid out from under the table and took a seat.  'In the main they trap their prey, either by closing around it or by pinning it with barb-like hairs -  although to actually consume the nutrients they require some secrete a liquid to break down the insect.  I'm not sure what quantity would be needed to present a danger to something the size of a human - but there is at least one desert plant whose fluid will numb your fingers if they come into contact.'

'There's a tree whose sap is similar, I heard that if you dip your arrows in it - it can paralyze your target.'  Claude enthused.

Linhardt, who had been resting his head on the table next to Dimitri suddenly opened his eyes.  'I know that one.'  He blinked at Claude.  'It can be used in medicine as a pain surpressant and an anesthetic in the correct dosage.  It's rather rare, though.  Only grows in one region apparently.'

'I had a load of my botanical books shipped from home.'  Bernadetta was blushing.  'If you are interested you can look over them.

'I have long held an interest in the apothecary arts.'  Linhardt nodded seriously.  'Well, sometimes.'  He amended.

'Is that right?'  Claude was eying Linhardt with interest.  'I would love a look at your books Bernadetta.'  He added.

'Come on then.'  Bernadetta shot up and out the door. 

'You'd better hurry.'  Byleth looked amused.  'She may have forgotten her offer by the time she gets to her room!'

'Right.'  Claude stood and was off with a cheery wave.  Linhard followed them at a far slower pace.

'Im not sure what just happened there.'  Dimitri admitted when he was left alone at the table with Byleth.

'Probably nothing good.'  Byleth admitted with another small smile aimed at him this time.

'Regardless, you appear to be happy, Professor.  I admit it is pleasurable to see you smile.'  Dimitri looked up at her shyly.

'You all did so well today.'  Byleth settled back in her chair.  'Plus, I believe Claude will get just as much out of training newbies as they will from his knowledge.'  She sounded just a little bit smug.

'Is that your sentimental side coming out?'  Dimitri teased.

'Maybe.'  Byleth sighed.  'My next job is to persuade Hubert he wants to give some instruction to Linhardt and Dorothea in dark magic.'

'Wow!'  Dimitri was grinning now.  'Good luck with that one!'

'Yeah.'  Byleth agreed.  'I think I'll need it!'

Chapter Text

The walk over to Jeralt's office was made in complete silence, which continued as once they had arrived, Jeralt had shut the door and bent to put the kettle to the hearth and arranged the tea-pot and cups in readiness.

Byleth knew what was coming, but she wasn’t about to defensively leap in and explain.   She was actually a little interested to see how Jeralt was going to conduct his criticism.

She didn’t have to wait long.

'So what happened to actually providing an adequate defense kiddo?'  He asked quietly, his back still to her as he waited for the kettle.

'Hmm?'  She murmured.

Jeralt turned.  'You allowed four members of your team to die.  That isn’t like you By.  I know there must have been a point to it.  You aren’t that stupid.'

Byleth settled back in her chair, relaxing a little at his query.  'I left the fight to the students.  The team, the planning, and the tactics.'  She told him.

'Why?'

Byleth had been preparing herself since she had started running her laps to answer this question.  She wasn’t sure what her father would think, but she was sure of her motivation.

'I couldn't go about it like you would.'  She replied simply.  'On the road, the mercenary band is a group of fighting men with experience.  You have the most expertise and skill, and so you lead it.  Regardless you still seek the companies' input before we fight.'

Jeralt nodded, indicating that she go on as he poured the tea.

'My students are completely new to it all.'  She picked up her cup.  'Some have a little exposure to real fighting, but not many.'

Jeralt chuckled suddenly.

'So you allowed them the freedom to make mistakes.'  He raised a brow at her.

'Since no-one was actually going to be in a position to get seriously hurt, I believe that it was a good first exercise in learning.'  Byleth took a sip of her drink.  'I wanted to see what they already knew, what they'd prioritised, and what they would do right.  I reckon you noted as well as I did that they didn’t fail spectacularly, that there was some real potential.'

'So tomorrow in your lessons, you will be dissecting what they did wrong and why?'  Jeralt was nodding.  'And I assume you will be focusing on defense.'

Byleth shrugged.  'Obviously.'  She agreed.

'Still, I don't get how you managed to get burnt twice...'  

'I think I need a bit more experience with mages.'  Byleth eyed him sourly.  'Is there a reason we have never had a mage or a healer in the company?'  She asked.

'Those classes are in high demand.  Hardly ever become mercenaries in the first place.  Those that might be in a position to need to join a band like ours.. well it's because they have proven a problem in a normal unit and that ain't the kind of person I solicit.'  Jeralt admitted.  'You have fought against enough casters though... most armies have them.'

'Actually, Jeralt,'  Byleth's tone was faintly accusatory.  'I haven’t fought against them much.  You usually have me in close combat - melee.'

Jeralt rubbed his chin and thought about it.  'You do know how to combat them, though.'  He pointed out.  'You may not have directly faced them that often, but I haven’t shirked on your knowledge to that extent.'

'True.'  She suddenly grinned at him, the expression shocking him.  'So why would I have let myself get hit?'  She asked him.

'Are you trying to go all teacher on me?'  He guffawed.  'Alright.  I'll play...'  He swirled his cup around in his hand thoughtfully.  'So, against Hanneman, you didn’t even draw your sword.'  He mused. 

'He forgot to keep an eye on me - If I had gone at him armed, he would have been down in seconds.  No need to embarrass him in front of everyone, I just wanted to get him to stop interfering.'  Byleth explained.

'So you grabbed his bow and kept him busy casting at you.  You wanted him to run out of energy, I suppose.'

'Yeah, I dodged most of his attacks and smacked him up a bit, then he pulled out the stops on a big blast, so I went down, and his attention went back to the battle.'  Byleth's eyes twinkled.  'He thought he'd finished me with it, but I'd anticipated the hit and had the flames out quick.  When I popped back up, he was out of juice and out of the match.'

'Okay, so you chose a longer and more painful method to allow him to save face in front of his students.  Fair enough.  Not what I'd have done...'

'Of course not.' 

'The little girl, though.  I have no idea why you took her fire.'  Jeralt was perplexed.

'Actually, it was to distract Manuela.'  Byleth admitted.  'Felix was sneaking in behind Lysithea, and she was never going to notice as she was focused on me.  Manuela, however, could have spotted him and stopped him.  Manuela is a dedicated healer, though, so when she saw me go down aflame for a second time, I too became her focus as she was subconsciously checking to make sure I was okay.'

'Which allowed Felix to get rid of the mage for you.'  Jeralt nodded.  'She was the greatest risk.'

'Manuela was actually far better with her sword than I anticipated!'  Byleth noted.

'Okay, I get it.'  Jeralt was smiling.

'Aww, daddy's pleased with you!'  Sothis cooed unhelpfully in Byleth's head.  'Isn't that sweet!  Maybe now would be a good time to ask HIM some questions...'

Byleth frowned.

'So how are you getting on here?  Seriously?'  Jeralt was asking her.  'It's been a couple of weeks now.  I heard all about the match with Jeritza, by the way.'  He added with a scowl.

'It's still... strange.'  Byleth said slowly.  'The bookwork is a bit scary, and I'm flying by the seat of my pants most of the time in the classroom.'

Jeralt shook his head.  'You would never have admitted something like that a few weeks ago, Kiddo.'  He said.

'I have to talk a lot more than I'm used too.'  She added, then fixed him with an unwavering gaze.  'Da, were you planning on coming here?  We ended up mighty close to the Monastery, even before we ran into the house leaders and the bandits.'

'Well done!'  Sothis cheered.

Jeralt's eyes widened.  'Since when did you start asking questions or taking an interest?'  He asked, weakly.

'Since someone clever got into her head.'  Sothis crowed triumphantly.

'Shush, you!'  Byleth grumbled back silently.  'Well, I know me and Myles were born here, then you ran off with me.  I can't fathom why you would choose to come back.  It's obvious you don't trust Rhea.'

Jeralt was scratching at the side of his head.  'I wasn’t planning on bringing you here, By.'  He said finally.  'I was going to contact Rhea and ask a few questions.  Maybe allow her to visit with you at a place of my choosing.'

'Why?'  Byleth asked as Sothis echoed the same question in her head.

'I was worried about you, lass.'  Jeralt looked very unsure of himself.  Not a look that Byleth was used to seeing on his craggy face.  'I mean, you have always been remote and quiet, but when your dreams started, and you began speaking to people that weren’t there... That was something I couldn’t just ignore.'

'So it's all your fault.'  Byleth thought smugly at Sothis.

'Ask him why he would go to Rhea for help.'  Sothis ignored the accusation completely.

When Byleth repeated the question, Jeralt looked away. 

The Archbishop saved my life once.'  He finally admitted.  'That's how I ended up in service to the church.'  He was silent again for a moment. 'She was also present at your birth, Myles' too, I guess.  You know that you were ill when you were born.  She knows more about what transpired on that day than anyone else, even if she is unwilling to share the information.'  He was unable to keep the bitterness from his voice.

'So what has she said then?'  Byleth asked.  'I assume you have spoken to her about me already?' 

'Yeah, obviously.'  Jeralt's bitterness had turned into frustration, and his words were clipped and angry.  'She suggested that you needed a break from our lifestyle.  That you could use being around other young people, have a purpose, and get into a routine.  It's the only reason I accepted staying.'  He looked at his daughter keenly.  'You have changed a bit already, Kiddo, even though it's only been a couple of weeks.  I guess she may have had a valid point, even though I am sure that her actual agenda is far more complex than anyone else knows.'

'There wasn’t anything wrong with our life before coming here.'  Byleth said stoically.

'Right, but it wasn’t exactly a normal upbringing for a kid though lass.  Always on the move, facing death and destruction on every side.  Even the time spent on the gentler missions, when we were in other countries and doing tasks other than fighting - it was a constant change.'  Jeralt's shoulders slumped.  'While you ain't coming to any harm, I'm okay with staying here, giving you some breathing space and seeing how that goes.  The students seem to be warming to you, and I wasn’t expecting that to happen.'  He added.  'There is also the fact that I figure the only way I'm gonna get any answers is by actually being here and pushing on Rhea.'

'We both know we have to be wary, and that's hardly something new to either of us.'  Byleth agreed.

'Yeah.'  Jeralt thought again for a moment or two.  'I gotta say, I am also a little relieved that it ain't just us that don't know what the hell Rhea is plotting.  She doesn’t appear to have spoken to Seteth either.  He wasn’t here when I was last time, but I understand that he is her aide and confidante.  He truly isn’t happy that she has blocked every attempt he has made to get her to tell him more about you and her interest in you.'

'He has been kind.'  Byleth muttered.  'Even though I have the impression, he really wanted to maintain a suspicious distance.'

'He spoke very well of you earlier.'  Jeralt agreed with a half-smile.  'You seem to have impressed him, and yeah... I reckon it's against his will too.  I ain't gonna trust the man, that would be folly.  I just don't think he is acting with any ill intention, either.'

'The old man is more astute than I gave him credit for.  He looks like a brute, but he might have some decent thinking there.'  Sothis observed.

'So, you got anything else you wanna tell me?'  Jeralt raised an eyebrow at his daughter, who shook her head. 

'I have to prepare for class tomorrow.'  She said.  'Spend most of my nights with my head in a book these days.'  She lamented.

'You wanna hear about how heroic and amazing I was on my mission?'  Jeralt grinned.

'Is it just gonna be boasting or anything actually interesting?'  Byleth countered.

'Boasting.'  Jeralt laughed.

Byleth snorted.  'No, then.' 

'I want to hear!'  Sothis grumbled.  'It's boring clattering around in your head you know!'

Byleth sighed.  'Oh go on then da.  I've always liked a good fairy-story.'

'Bloody cheek!'  Jeralt poured another cup of tea and settled back.  'Well, first of all - I was forced to take Alois with me, and I had totally forgotten just how bad his jokes are...'

'I hope you appreciate this.  Once he gets started on a tale, it goes on forever..'  Byleth grouched.

'You are such a sweet child.'  Sothis praised happily.

Chapter Text

On the days when Marianne had the most trouble sleeping, she usually found herself making her way down to the stables.  Although the entrance to the complex was guarded and the grounds regularly patrolled overnight, she had found a way in that bypassed the gates entirely.  From there, she had quickly learned the night routine that the guards and stable-staff followed, and this allowed her to find solace in the warm stalls alongside her best friend, Dorte.  With him, she had discovered that the fears and the nightmares that so regularly plagued her were eased.  She could curl up in the hay of his stall and find a modicum of peace to relax her frazzled soul.

Tonight was one such night.  The school week was ended, and the only commitment that she had tomorrow was her healer's meeting with Manuela. Finding sleep impossible in the solitude of her own room, she crept through the darkness,  passing as silently as a ghost, to let herself into the stables.  Her arrival created no concern amongst the equines who were housed in the same block as Dorte - they were all accustomed to the gentle girl who drifted amongst them with a handful of treats and a kind welcome for all.  Once she reached Dorte, she threw her arms around the horse's neck and began to sob into his thick black mane as he nuzzled her affectionately.

Marianne remained this way for a while until her tears were spent, and her head ached.  She murmured quietly under her breath to the horse, explaining her troubles as he stood stock-still and provided his usual comfort through his magnificent presence, his heat and his unending patience.  Eventually, when fatigue claimed her, Marianne pulled the blanket she wore around her shoulders tighter and settled down in the corner of the stall with a small sigh of relief.  By now, this purging of her pain was almost a ritual, and for a few hours at least, she would know peace.

She had only just begun to close her eyes and drift off when Marianne was suddenly assaulted by a familiar and utterly unexpected feeling.  The girl had struggled for years now with deep anxiety, and she had exhausted many methods to try and help her manage her fears.  Aside from tonics, calming magic had been extensively explored, and the spell that Marianne was currently feeling rushing over her was one such casting.  She had never before experienced such an active and robust version of the spell, though.

As was usual, while Marianne could feel the casting battering against her mind, it's effect on her was negligible.  Its impotence was just another indication that proved to her that the power of the curse that afflicted her was real.  Despite what the spell was supposed to achieve, Marianne's fear ramped up to fever pitch as her mind tried to make some sense of what was happening. 

Calming spells were particularly useful in gentling animals, Marianne reasoned.  Most people who worked with beasts would be able to achieve at least a basic version of the casting.  It would be applied if there was a problem happening with one of the horses.  There had been no indication of an issue though, she had heard no undue noise or panic during her visit.  Huddling herself closer to the wall of the stall, she listened hard, only hearing her own heart thundering in her chest.

The door to the stable was creaked open gently, and two shadowed figures slipped in.  Marianne stuffed her hand to her mouth to stifle her gasp and cringed into as small a ball as possible.

'That one, over in the corner.'  A soft feminine voice murmured.  'Take the tack you need, but don’t put it on the mount yet.  You will need to lead the horse until you are clear of the Monastery anyway.'

The second figure moved forward with a grunt of approval.  'Not a bad nag.'  He replied gruffly.

'I'm so glad that it meets your approval.'  The woman muttered sarcastically.

'It's part of my payment.  It wouldn't go well if you tried to fob me off - now would it?'  The man's tone was challenging.  'Speaking of payment, when will I receive the rest?'

'I would think you would be grateful enough that you are not swinging from a rope.'

'True, but you have poisoned me.'  The man spoke louder, and the woman winced.

'Keep your voice down!'  She commanded tersely.  'My spell is strong, but if we draw attention...'

'Honestly, I think you have more at risk than me, lady.'  The man returned to a whisper.  'You are abetting a criminal to escape after all.'

'You will receive the antidote once you have carried out the mission successfully.'  There was a heavy pause.  'As well as the rest of the agreed coin.'  She added.  'If you fail this time though, then the poison will kill you, and our business will be concluded anyway.'

They had started to lead the horse from its stall and make their way to the door.  Marianne sank back further - sure that the sound of her heart was loud enough for them to hear.

'Should have known better than to get mixed up with you church-types.'  The man was grouching under his breath.  'Bloody mad the lot of you.  You want a bunch of kids attacked, and yet you call me the criminal.'

'Silence.'  The woman sounded angry.  'Let's get this over with.  Once you are out of here, just get yourself ready to get the job done.'

'You had better keep up your end of the bargain.'  He huffed as they walked away.

A trembling Marianne stayed where she was for a good deal of time before she found that she could move again, her mind playing and replaying what she had heard.

As she rose shakily to her feet, she moved instinctively, barely making a sound, retracing her steps towards the dormitories.  For once, she craved the security of her room and the four solid walls surrounding her.  Stumbling through the darkness, Marianne had very nearly reached her goal when a pair of strong arms went around her, pulling her swiftly behind a wall and a large hand clamped over her mouth, stifling her scream.

'Marianne, it's just me, Claude.'  She recognised his voice immediately, but it didn’t ease her fear in the slightest.  She struggled against him violently.  'Please!'  He begged his mouth so close to her ear that she could feel his breath.  'You were just about to walk straight into a guard patrol.  I'm assuming you don't particularly want to be caught out so late after curfew!'

She stilled in his arms right as the patrol marched past their position, validating his claim and calming her slightly.  None-the-less tears began to flow from her eyes with such intensity that they reached the hand that was covering her mouth.

'Are you okay?'  Claude removed his hand slowly.

'Y...y...yes.'  Marianne replied weakly.  'I need to get to my room.'

'Has someone hurt you, Marianne?'  Claude's hands were still on her shoulders, and he pushed her a little further away from him, trying to look her over although it was too dark to really see anything. 

Marianne shook her head.  'Please let me go.'  She whispered through her tears, as the trembling began again, shaking the entirety of her body.

'I'm not going to leave you like this!'  Claude replied.  'We could knock for Hilda or Leonie.. or we could see Professor Byleth, her room is just around the corner.'

'I don’t... I can't...'  Marianne was hyperventilating.  Claude caught her before she hit the floor when the world went black.

.

Marianne was disoriented when her eyelids finally fluttered open.  She was wrapped up tight in a blanket ad there was a soft light illuminating a room that was not hers.

'Welcome back.'  The soft voice prompted Marianne to turn her head and she found herself looking directly into a pair of blue eyes.

'P...P...Professor...'  Marianne stuttered and tried to sit herself up.

'Careful now.'  Byleth put a gentle hand to Marianne's shoulder and helped her gain her balance, which was hampered by the trembling that once again started to wrack the girl's body. 

'Here.'  Claude was sprawled in a chair by the table and handed a mug of something steaming and sweet-smelling to Byleth.  The Professor took the cup in one hand, offering it to Marianne, aiding the girl to take a sip while rubbing calming circles on the girls back.  They sat that way for a while in silence as Marianne was helped to sip at the drink and her shivering started to come under control.  She was completely unable to raise her eyes to either of her companions, but at least she wasn’t crying.

'Did I pass out?'  Marianne finally asked very quietly.

'You did.  Thankfully Claude caught you, and he brought you here to my room.'  Byleth explained, standing up and giving the girl some space.

'I'm very sorry to have been a trouble to you.'  Marianne murmured.  'I'd like to go back to my room now if I may.  I am very tired.'

Claude looked like he was about to speak, but Byleth put up a hand to silence him.

'That's fine, Marianne.  I will walk you there.' 

Marianne looked up in surprise.

'Really?'  She asked - she had expected to be questioned at the very least.

'Of course.'  Byleth nodded.  'While it is evident that something has upset you greatly this evening, I understand if you do not wish to confide in myself or in Claude.  I do hope that there is someone that you will speak to about it, however.'

'Oh!'  Marianne blinked rapidly.

Claude was frowning.

'We will leave when you are ready to stand then.'  Byleth said.

There was silence for a moment.

'I go to the stables.'  Marianne offered eventually, gazing down at her hands as she spoke.  'When I can't sleep, when I need to settle my mind a bit - I go and see Dorte.'

'The beautiful stallion?'  Byleth remembered.

'Yes.'  A small smile made it to the corners of Marianne's lips.  'When I spend a bit of time with him I feel a whole lot better, and I can sleep.'  She looked up briefly at Byleth before lowering her eyes again.  'I sleep in his stall.'  She admitted.

'I understand.'  Byleth had taken a seat next to Marianne on the corner of her bed.  'I have spent nearly every night of my life sleeping close to my father, and he snores like you wouldn’t believe.  I have found it...hard, sleeping here.  I even asked Dedue, who has the room next door if he happened to snore - because I miss the familiarity of it.  Poor Dedue thought I was making a complaint - he doesn’t snore, unfortunately.'

'Do you go and sleep near him sometimes?'  Marianne asked.  'Your father, I mean, when you need to?'

'I've spent years telling him that his snoring is a pain in the arse.'  Byleth shook her head.  'If I went and told him now that I miss it I would never hear the end of it!'

'Oh dear.'  Marianne reached out a hand and patted Byleth's shoulder.  'I'm sure he wouldn’t mind.' 

'Maybe.'  Byleth took the hand that Marianne had reached out.  'I guess I'm not as brave as you, to know what could bring me some comfort and then go and actually do it.'

'I'm not brave.'  Marianne's gaze focused on the hand that Byleth was holding.  She looked up again briefly.  'Something odd happened tonight when I was at the stable.'  She said, her voice suddenly a great deal clearer.  'I don't know what it means, but... it doesn’t seem right.'  She flicked a quick look at Claude.

'I can leave if it makes you more comfortable.'  Claude said quickly.

Marianne paused and then shook her head.

'It started with a spell that I recognised immediately.'  Marianne began, and slowly went through the events she had witnessed with a surprising clarity and attention to detail.

'I don’t know what to make of it all.'  Marianne admitted once she had reached the end of her tale.  'Who do you think I should tell?'

Claude and Byleth shared an uncomfortable glance, trying to process what they had been told.

'Well, Jeralt obviously.  He is the only person that you trust, and he will surely know if a prisoner has gone missing.'  Sothis had obviously been listening in intently.

'I'd suggest speaking to your Da.'  Claude said unexpectedly.  'He would know who has gone missing from the dungeon I suppose.  Probably be tasked with looking for him too.'

'I really do like that boy you know.'  Sothis mused.  'Perhaps I should invade his head instead of yours.'

'Will I need to see him now?'  Marianne couldn’t help the quake in her voice.

'No, I will get you to bed.  I'll get you excused from your healers meeting too so that you can catch up on your sleep.'  Byleth's mind was ticking over. 

'I'll get her back to her room.'  Claude offered.  'While you see Jeralt.'

'I'm going to wait till dawn.'  Byleth stood and poured more tea for everyone.  'If the guy had a horse, he will be long gone by now, and I don’t want to raise suspicion by running to Jeralt at an ungodly hour.  I will call on him and ask him to spar.  Unless he is already caught up in the prisoner's escape, it will seem a perfectly natural activity.'

'Right.  We don’t know who is involved.'  Claude agreed.

'We keep it to ourselves.'  Byleth nodded.

'I won't tell anyone.'  Marianne looked pale.  'May I tell Dorte, though?'  She asked quietly.

'As long as you aren’t overheard.'  Byleth agreed.  'Dorte looks the sort that will keep a secret.'

'Oh yes.  He is.'  Marianne agreed.

Chapter Text

 It was just after lunch that Byleth made her way down to the storage room that Claude was currently using as a workshop.  She unlocked the door and slipped in silently, relieved that she had guessed correctly that the Deer's house-leader would be there.   He looked up at her as she entered and immediately noted the bleak look on her face.

'Took your time Teach.'  He commented blandly.

'Been following up on a few things.'  Byleth's voice was tight.  Her usual blank stare had been replaced by a fearsome frown.

'I take it inquiries haven’t gone particularly well?'  Claude carefully stored the bowl that he had been working with when she had come in and wiped his hands on a wet cloth.

'I dunno.'  Byleth admitted with a shrug.  'Talking to Jeralt certainly didn’t go as I expected.'

'Well, there hasn’t been any gossip around the Monastery at least nothing more than usual.  I spent a good few hours with my ear to the ground and couldn’t sniff out anything that was even slightly beyond the norm.'

Byleth threw herself down in a large comfortable seat forcefully, her frown not leaving her face.   

'What happened, Teach?'  Claude's voice was gentler than she had ever heard it before.  'Something is eating you... why don't you share?'

'Jeralt listened well enough to what Marianne told us happened last night.'  Byleth had pulled her legs up into her chair and was hugging them defensively.  'He listened, and he considered everything quite extensively.  I was expecting him to lose his shit over it if I'm honest - he has been expecting suspicious activity since we arrived, and he is generally over-cautious when it comes to potential threats.'

'He didn’t, though?'  Claude's eyes narrowed.

'No.'  Byleth scowled.  'After he had pondered the situation for a goodly while, he admitted that he just couldn’t see how what Marianne said was possible.'

'He thinks she is lying?' 

'It's not exactly that.'  Byleth stood again and started pacing.  'He suggested that Marianne had a nightmare that she thought was real, and it scared the living shit out of her.'

'Oh.  I see.'  Claude was silent for a moment.  'I suppose that if she were upset enough that she had sought out the stables in the first place, and then she woke suddenly after a bad dream, she would be disorientated and afraid.  It is a possibility.'

'Mmm.'  Byleth was non-committal.  'To my mind, she spoke honestly.  She believed her words, even if the incident was a figment of her imagination.'

'Did Jeralt say why he believed the events to be improbable?'  Claude pressed on.

'Of course.'  Byleth made her way over to the blackboard that was propped against the far wall of the room and took up a piece of chalk.  'The most damning point was that there are no prisoners currently housed in the dungeons.  The last inhabitants were the five bandits that were rounded up after they attacked you, Dimitri and Edelgard, a couple of weeks ago.'

'What happened to them?'  Claude asked inquisitively.

'Four of them had outstanding crimes that they were wanted for.'  Byleth started to make a note on the board.  'A part of Jeralt's recent mission was to provide escort for those to the relevant Lord's lands so they could face trial appropriately.'

'So what about the fifth bandit?'

Byleth tapped at her cheek.  'He was the leader, and according to Da, he was a complete lunatic.  Spent a whole day proclaiming that 'the flaming Emperor' had commissioned him to attack you all.'

'Whoa!'  Claude laughed.  'Given that the Emperor's own daughter was in the party makes that a bold claim!'

'Well, exactly.'  Byleth agreed.  'The man clammed up eventually, once he was told Edelgard was in the group they attacked.  Crazy to try it as a defence at all. Since nothing could be found out about the man, it ended up falling to Rhea to pronounce sentence on him.  He was executed five days ago.  Jeralt wasn’t here for the act, but he did sign off the paperwork and took the report from the Knights that witnessed it.  Nothing unusual there.'

'That's pretty decisive.'  Claude murmured.

'Jeralt also made the point that if someone at the Monastery wanted to hurt the students, there would be little point in supplying them with a horse in the first place.  They would want to stay around the local area, or even stay hidden within the grounds themselves.'  Byleth added the note 'horse?' to the blackboard.

'A mount from the stables here would be a far better animal than any lowlife would be able to afford.'  Claude agreed.  'If he tried to sell it or rode it in the local town's or villages, it would bring attention to him.'

Byleth sighed heavily.  'Da's last point was that he really can't see how any of the church staff would have the necessary skills needed to steal a horse and aid a criminal to escape when the whole place is so well protected by both Guards and Knights.  It does seem beyond the realm of probability that anyone here would have the kind of magical skill required to make it happen without any notice.'

Claude shrugged at that.  'That's not wholly unlikely.'  He countered.  'It isn’t like magical ability is something that can be seen and measured.  If someone wanted to keep it hidden, they could.'

'Perhaps.'  Byleth made a final note and threw the chalk down before moving back over to her chair and falling into it.  'How do you deal with this stuff Claude?'  She asked wearily.

'Stuff?'  He enquired.

'All this damned thinking.'  Byleth rubbed her hand over her eyes, her shoulders slumped in fatigue.

Claude's eyes widened.  'I genuinely have a desire  to understand what is going on around me at all times.'  He stared at Byleth closely.  'I have noted that you don't seem to have the same kind of curiosity that I generally do.'

Byleth nodded.  'I have always done what's needed to be done and then moved on to the next thing that's needed to be done.  Simple.  Uncomplicated.'

'While you might not have my insatiable desire to get to the bottom of every mystery Professor, I do believe that you will be just as tenacious as me in chasing around after this potential threat  because you want to protect your charges.'  Claude sounded thoughtful.  'There is much that is unfathomable about you, but that I am sure about, even after just a few weeks.'

Byleth blinked at him in surprise.  'It is my duty.'  She agreed.

'I think Jeralt will also keep his eyes open, regardless of whether he has written off the incident as an over-active imagination on Marianne's part.'  Claude continued.

'You are most likely correct.'  Byleth admitted raising an eyebrow.

Claude smirked at her look.  'Hey, it stands to reason that I would be right at least some of the time.  No need to look so shocked about it!'  He teased.

'I suppose so.' Byleth relaxed a little.

'Did you remember to let Manuela know that Marianne wouldn’t be making it to the healers meeting?'  Claude said suddenly.  'I looked in on her before I came here and she was still fast asleep.'

'Yeah.  Actually, Manuela canceled the meeting herself until later this afternoon.  I think she may have over-indulged a little last night.'  Byleth made a drinking motion with her hand.  'I went and advised Linhardt and Mercedes as well as Marianne.'

Claude chuckled.  'Whatever are you insinuating about my beloved House-Mentor?'  He asked with a wink.

'I don’t believe I am insinuating anything.  My point was factual.'  Byleth looked confused, which made Claude laugh harder.

'So what do you suggest we do now?'  Byleth asked once Claude had managed to catch his breath.

'I'm always listening out for stuff.'  He smiled. 

'Will you tell me if you find something relevant?'  Byleth queried.

The question seemed to tale Claude by surprise.  His brow's knitted for a moment.  'Yes.'  He answered quietly.  'Will you tell me if you make a discovery?'

'Of course.'  Byleth seemed equally surprised by the question.  'You are the one that is good at thinking after all.'

'Some people call it scheming.'  Claude had turned his back quickly and was staring at the blackboard again.

'Okay.  Scheming then, if you prefer.'  Byleth amended.  'I think I will talk to Myles.  He's a good place to start.'

'Already tapped him.'  Claude admitted.  'You were right - he is an excellent source of information.  I didn't tell him why I was asking if anything unusual was reported last night.  After all, you haven’t known him for long, and we said we were keeping it to ourselves.  Reckon it's worth you speaking to him too, though.  He might say more to his sister than to me.'

'Okay.'  Byleth stood up and made her way to the door.  'I'll run around the grounds too, see if anything pokes out as unusual.'  She added, slipping out of the room as silently as she had entered.

'You really are something else Teach.'  Claude murmured as the door closed.

 

~0~

 

Seteth's morning had been frustrating.  It started with Rhea's adamant refusal to meet with him to discuss the House Missions for the next month, claiming that she had one of her famous headaches and sequestering herself in her room instead, along with her handmaidens who were more effective at keeping him at bay than a pack of hounds.  Seteth had already been required to put off the Acadamy faculty meeting from its usual Friday night slot since the schedule needed Rhea's agreement before it could be delivered - and she had been too busy to see him yesterday as well.  If there was one thing that Seteth hated more than anything, it was a lack of proper organisation. 

Next, when Seteth was getting together the coin for the Professor's classroom expenses, he was sure that there was a mistake somewhere in the accounting ledger.  He didn’t actually oversee the finances himself although he did sign them off - there were simply too many areas of expenditure for him to manage them all - but he was reasonably sure that there was a problem somewhere, based on the totals from when he had looked over the books last week.  Without dedicating at least a few days to going over everything however, he had no option than to request his staff to try and locate the discrepancy.

Flayn quickly became the third trial of the morning.  She let herself into his room with a pot of tea and a smile and then proceeded to chat away at him while he was trying to see if he could spot anything glaringly wrong in the tightly cramped numbers that were vexing him.

'Could you not take a break, brother?'  Flayn chided him when he finally asked her - quite politely he thought - to shut up.

'I cannot.'  He frowned.  'I am well behind on the basic admin this week, mainly thanks to the Archbishop.'  He added.

'Rhea is most certainly getting under your skin recently.'  Flayn noted, sipping at her own cup of tea and watching her brother closely.

He mumbled something, waving away her comment impatiently.

'You must admit that she seems to have been right in her appointment of the new Professor.'  Flayn added.

'Flayn, please.  I really am very busy.'  He looked up at her, and she was a little shocked at the fatigue that was evident on his face.

'If you wear yourself into the ground and make yourself ill, you will get even further behind you know.'  She admonished him.  'Let us take lunch together.'

'Can't you go and bother Rhea instead?'  Seteth growled.  'Her harpies might actually let you in.  You could aid me by getting her to agree to meet  and allow this month's schedule to be finalised before the month is actually up.'

Flayn's look of obvious concern finally registered with him.  He tempered his tone immediately.

'I am fine, child.  I just want to get this all done and finished.  You know how much I hate inefficiency.'  He smiled wanly at her.

'I do.'  She agreed.  'Perhaps I will go and have a word with Rhea.  I am not happy that she is allowing you to get into this sort of state.'

Seteth sighed.  'I didn’t really mean it, Flayn.  She is indisposed at the moment, and she works just as hard as anyone else.  While she is vexing me with her reluctance to confide and her seeming determination to avoid me, I am sure there is a good reason behind it that will become apparent in time.'

'Perhaps.'  Flayn's eyes had hardened.  'I haven’t had a good talk with her in a while, though.  I do think that it is overdue.'

'Please don't antagonise her, Flayn.  I need to get her on side right now.'  Seteth wished he had just stayed quiet.  Yet another black mark against the morning.

'I will be sweetness personified!'  Flayn promised, smiling a particularly innocent smile.

'Oh Goddess, help us all!'  Seteth lamented.

Chapter Text

Hubert was running late for dinner, and he knew as soon as he walked into the dining room that Edelgard was in a fury.   It was unlikely that anyone else would have noticed the extremity of her bad mood - but his long association allowed him to read her mercurial emotions as if she were an open book.  He sighed, and his heart sank into his boots.  As if his afternoon hadn’t already been challenging enough.

'Your Highness.'  He greeted with a slight bow as he approached the table where she sat alone.

'Where have you been?'  She asked, her voice deceptively light.

'Apologies, I received a letter that needed urgent attention.'  He winced inwardly and wished he had thought of an excuse before approaching her.  He didn't really want to share the information that his missive had contained just yet.

'I have been sat here alone for a while now.'  Edelgard said frostily, standing up and marching to the queue for food, not bothering to check if Hubert was following her not - which of course he was.

Hubert cast a gaze over the other inhabitants of the refectory, noting that there were several students of all houses present.  Their Professor was also seated at one of the tables, currently in conversation with Ashe, Ignatz, and Bernadetta.

'It would have been fine if you had joined others for your meal, your Highness.'  Hubert commented.  'You should not have reserved your company simply because of my unfortunate tardiness.'

'Or someone could have joined me.'  She hissed under her breath.

Ah.  So that was it.  Hubert gritted his teeth as he collected a plate of food.  They were both silent as they made their way back to the table.

'Forgive me for pointing this out...'  Hubert finally said delicately, 'But you have been quite short with both Ferdinand and Dorothea when they have sought out your company over a meal.  Nonetheless, I am sure either of them would have been most happy to have been invited to accompany you.'

'That's not my point, Hubert.'  Edelgard growled.  'If you take a look around, you will note that our Professor has once again chosen to spend her spare time with members of the other houses rather than with me.'

'I believe she is seated with the three students that she has asked Claude to mentor in bow practice.'  Hubert replied carefully.  'Actually, although they have only had the one session so far, I cannot help but agree that Bernadetta does truly appear to have an aptitude...'

'I don't like the fact that the teacher who is supposed to be our mentor prefers to interact with anyone rather than with me.'  Edelgard cut across him petulantly.

'Perhaps if you were to simply ask her...'

'I shouldn't need to have to ask her.'  Edelgard threw her fork down noisily.  Hubert flinched.  'I genuinely don't understand it.  I have been nothing but accommodating to her, and yet she has not once sought out my company or my input in anything besides what is required within the classroom.'  Edelgard's ire had slipped, and her expression was a much more genuine confusion and hurt.

'I thought that one of the things that you particularly like about the woman is that she has no inclination to curry favor simply because of your status.'  Hubert said gently.  'Our Professor seems to mainly give time to those students that need support and encouragement - I expect that she recognises your strength and does not believe that you need her in the way that others do.  It is probably a compliment that she does not prioritise you.'

'Perhaps, but it does not fit our agenda to have her ambivalent to me.'  Edelgard's tone was firm.  'I want her to join with us, Hubert.  I will not risk her compassion leading her away from us and our cause.'

Hubert placed his own cutlery down delicately.  'It should be noted that I may be to blame for some of the Professor's reluctance to become close.'  He admitted very quietly.

Edelgard's eyes narrowed.  'What do you mean?'  She asked tonelessly.

'I may have suggested to her that I did not trust her and that I would protect your person by any force necessary.  Once or twice...'

'You threatened her?'  Edelgard kept her voice level, but her eyes were flashing pure fire.

'In a way, I suppose I did.'  Hubert agreed.  'I should add that she found my protectiveness amusing, rather than alarming.  It may, however, have led to a reluctance to seek you out, knowing that I was wary of her influence and agenda.'

'This will not do!'  Edelgard began to spoon her dessert quickly into her mouth as she thought.  'You will have to repair this problem, Hubert.'  She said once her bowl was empty.  'You will need to befriend her.'

'Befriend her?'  Hubert's eyebrows rose alarmingly.  'Your Highness, I am sure that it has not escaped your notice that I do not foster any friendships.  I wouldn’t know where to begin!'

'I could just order you to seduce her.'  Edelgard threatened.

'You are definitely appealing to the wrong person for that kind of assignment.'  Hubert said faintly.  'Seduction is likely a job better suited to Ferdinand - for all that the man is an ignoramus, he is absurdly good-looking.  I think you also forget that the Professor appears to have already formed a romantic attachment with the gatekeeper, so the success of such a tactic is unlikely regardless.'

Edelgard waved away his protests impatiently.  'Hubert, I will have the Professor onside, and if achieving my goal is reliant on you repairing any damage you may have already done, then I do not expect you to fail me - and you will use whatever method is required.'

'Of course, your Highness.'  Hubert murmured.

'You are a resourceful man, after all.  I am sure that complimenting a woman is not beyond your skills, even if you are not altogether comfortable with the action.'  Edelgard suddenly smiled a hard little smile.  'You don’t actually have to trust or like her, you know - but if you do manage to get closer to her, then just think how much better an eye you would be able to keep on her!'

'As always, your wisdom cannot be faulted.'  Hubert said, although somewhere inside, there was definitely a part of him that was screaming.

'Good.  I expect to see some positive results very soon then.  Now that's sorted, we can get onto the matter of your letter.'  Edelgard stood and took Hubert's arm companionably as they left the dining hall.  'I assume there is news that you need to fill me in on.'  She sounded almost cheerful.

.

Hubert spent most of his evening considering his options.  Throwing himself off the Goddess tower ranked quite highly in the list of his possible solutions.  There was just absolutely no way that Byleth would fall for any feeble attempt on his part to butter her up, and the mere idea that she might find him personally appealing was laughable.

In the end, he decided that the only workable solution was the very one that was the most alien to him, and filled him with almost as much dread as trying to seduce her.  He would have to be honest and appeal to her directly to get him off the hook.  He would also have to apologise.

He couldn’t bring himself to approach the Professor on bended knee and begging for aid.  He planned to be smarter than that.  His final course of action, however, was what directly led to him ending up in the predicament that he currently found himself.

'Seriously, am I not allowed to have even one single night's undisturbed sleep?'  Byleth moaned piteously.  She had shot from her bed within seconds of Hubert letting himself into her room and currently had him prone on the floor, crushing the air from his chest with her weight.  'Are you here to kill me, Hubert or is this just a practice run?'  She demanded.

'Can't... actually... speak...'  Hubert exhaled painfully.

'Hmm.'  Byleth eased the pressure just a bit, but she remained seated on his chest, her dagger to his throat.

'I intended to discover if perhaps you were vulnerable when you slept.'  Hubert gasped out.  'I can see that you are not.'  He added, swallowing hard.

'Why would you think I might be?'  Byleth sounded genuinely confused. 

'You must have some kind of weakness, Professor.  After discovering that your heart does not beat, I admit I have been struggling to decide on a method that I could use to kill you if I had to.'

'What does my heart have to do with it?' 

'Well, given your level of awareness and martial skill, poisoning was the most attractive and possibly the only option directly available to end you, however since most poison's work by stopping the heart, and yours doesn’t actually beat - it would probably not do the job as intended.'

'I see.'  Byleth had retracted the knife now but still hadn’t risen.  'If you want to kill me, then I'd suggest using the knowledge that while you are my student I would actively avoid seriously hurting you.  If you were to apply some thought to that fact you could probably come up with a viable plan.'

'You would seek to defend yourself, though - as you are doing now.'   

Byleth nodded.  'Obviously, but there are lines I wouldn’t cross.  You share a similar sense of duty, so I'm sure you understand.'

'Do you think I could get up now?'  Hubert asked.

'I dunno.'  Byleth was frowning.  'There is every possibility that you will just attack me again.'

'And you will simply put me down again.'  Hubert pointed out.

'Here's the deal, Hubert.  You tell me why you are really here, and I will let you up.'

'I already told you...'

'I know that you want to test me, but do you honestly expect me to believe that you thought creeping into my room in the middle of the night wasn't going to end this way?  No.  You are up to something.'

There was a polite knocking on the door.

'Is everything okay, Professor?'  Dedue's voice called through the door, low and urgent.

Byleth looked thoughtfully at Hubert, wishing the light was better so she could actually see his expression.  'Yes, thank you Dedue, I apologise if I disturbed you - I had to catch a rat that got in somehow.  Unfortunately, Colin took the night off.'

Dedue chuckled.  'Just shout if you need assistance.'  He offered.

'Talk Hubert.'  Byleth prompted as soon as they heard Dedue's own door close.

'My Lady discovered that I had threatened you.'  Hubert said with a sigh.  'She wasn’t thrilled by the fact.'

'And that prompted you to come and attack me?'  Byleth queried.

'I know how that sounds..'  Hubert mumbled.

'Pretty stupid?'

'The point is, if I have to be nice to you from now on, I really wanted to have something in place that I could use if I needed to.  My last chance to test you as it were.'  Hubert shifted slightly.  'That really is the truth, so do you think you can let me up now?'

Byleth stood and went over to light her lantern, indicating Hubert to sit.

'So, you have to be nice to me now?'  She asked.

'Apparently, my Lady wishes for us to be friends.  Indeed I have been ordered to befriend you.'

'Well.  That's awkward.'  Byleth took the seat opposite him.

'Not as awkward as her other suggestion, which was to seduce you.'  Hubert managed a chuckle when Byleth's jaw dropped.  'I know...'  He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.  'It would be hard enough getting you to believe that I liked you, I can only imagine your reaction if I tried some pathetic attempt at a romantic overture.'

'I really don’t understand.'  Byleth admitted. 

'Lady Edelgard is genuine in her admiration and respect for you.'  Hubert shrugged.  'She feels however that you spend more time with other people than you do with her, and that displeases her.  When she discovered that I had threatened you, she felt that it was my actions that have prompted you to stay away from her, and so she insisted that I fix the problem.'

'Oh.'

'While I realise that you were not concerned by my threats, I do wish to apologise if my approach has led you to keep a distance, and I hope that we can rectify the matter.'  Hubert inclined his head.

'You have no need to apologise.'  Byleth was frowning.  'This is my fault, not yours.'

His eyes narrowed in confusion.

'I understand your duty, Hubert.  Indeed out of everyone here - I probably understand you better than anyone.'  Byleth explained carefully.  'I think if you were to consider me with a little less suspicion you would probably find that you understand me quite well too.'

'You do?'

She nodded at him.  'You are quite correct, I have kept a personal distance from Edelgard.  One of the reasons I chose the Black Eagle was to be able to maintain a professional relationship with her since I felt that you would be greater threatened if I approached her as another house's mentor.'   Byleth considered her words for a moment.  'I appreciate how difficult your role must be.  I respect your sense of duty even if I tease you about it and I don’t want worrying about me to add significantly to your burden.  I hope that in time, you may come to appreciate that I am not a risk to her Highness - but I was willing to wait until you reached that epiphany yourself.  I see now that in trying to aid you I have neglected her.  So we must work out a balance that is fair to both of you.'

'Would you allow me to think about this?'  Hubert asked quietly.

'Of course.'  Byleth agreed.  'You know her best, and you should be the one to guide me on what she needs from me.'

Hubert stood.  'I am sorry I interrupted your rest.'  He said formally.

'That's okay.'  Byleth sighed.  'It's only to be expected if you are trying to seduce me.'  The edges of her lips turned slightly upwards in amusement.

'I'm going to regret telling you that aren’t I?'  Hubert's cheeks had turned pink.

'I guarantee it.  Thing is you do look so cute when you are flustered.'  Byleth smirked.

Chapter Text

'Finally, some peace!'  Byleth muttered as she lounged on the dock in the brilliant sunshine with Flayn holding tight to their fishing rod and Colin gambolling about using them both as a convenient climbing frame.

'Poor Professor.'  Flayn sympathized.  'Are the students giving you a hard time?'

'Not too much, really.'  Byleth admitted.  'All the thinking and learning I have to do is far more exhausting than I expected, and  I am certainly not looking forward to having to grade my first papers next week, either!' 

'I suppose study utilises a completely different set of muscles.'  Flayn ruminated.  'Mental ones, rather than physical ones.  You do have experience of tactics and initiative on the battlefield, though  - so you aren’t really any kind of slouch when it comes to the more cerebral skills.'

'You think so?'  Byleth blinked at Flayn in surprise.  'I figured that using your head, observing terrain, organising troops - it's just a natural reaction.'

'You are so used to doing it you don't realise that you are thinking about it.'  Flayn grinned.

Byleth was silent for a moment.  'You are no slouch, either.'  She complimented.  'I genuinely think it's a shame that you are not enrolled in classes. You have a calmness and wisdom that I believe would be a huge benefit to the other students.  I know that I find your company and conversation engaging.'

'Oh!...'  Flayn blushed.  'Well, I find you to be strangely soothing, Professor.  Sometimes rather exciting too!'

'She is a complete sweetheart.'  Sothis commented.  'Although obviously, it's me that she finds soothing - not you!  Somehow she can almost sense me, just like Seteth.'

Almost as if to prove Sothis' comment, Flayn was staring at Byleth with a faraway look in her eye.

Byleth cleared her throat.  'Well.  It's nice to finally get around to fishing.'  She deflected.  'I have wanted to get down here since I first arrived.  This...'  She indicated the lake, '... is relaxing.'

'Yes.'  Flayn dragged her eyes away from Byleth's face to refocus on her rod.

'Oh wow... are you ladies fishing?  I love to fish!'  A painfully loud and cheerful Casper exclaimed, running up to where the girls were sprawled comfortably.

'I spoke too soon.'  Byleth muttered.

Flayn giggled.  'Hey, Casper!  You need to be a bit quieter, or you will scare all the fish away!'

'Damn right, I will!  Everyone is afraid of Caspar the Mighty!  Even Fish!'  He grinned broadly, flexing his arms.

'Caspar the mighty pain in the arse.'  Felix grumbled, walking briskly down the dock.  'And Caspar is supposed to be heading to the training grounds.  We have a sparring session remember.'

'Yeah!  Training.'  Caspar agreed enthusiastically.

'How fun.'  Flayn said a little sadly.

'Do you have any skill in weapons, General Flayn?'  Felix asked her curiously.

'Well...'  She coloured slightly at the attention.  'I am very interested in healing, but before I was ill, I did do a fair amount of flying and lance work.  That is what my brother excels at, so he was the one who taught me.'

'Wow... I can't imagine Seteth kicking arse!'  Caspar laughed.

'He hasn’t always been an administrator, you know!'  Flayn giggled.  'He is very capable of... as you say... kicking arse...'  She giggled again.

'Flying must be wonderful.'  Byleth said dreamily.

'Oh, would you like to try it?'  Flayn looked pleased.  'I am sure my brother would be happy to take you up on his wyvern if you wished to give it a go.'

Byleth shook her head.  'I wouldn’t want to be a bother!'

'I have been trying to get him to take some time off.  I think it would be a perfect excuse to force him away from his desk for a while, and he loves to fly.'  Flayn suddenly had a dangerously determined glint in her eye.

'Professor!'  This time, it was Dimitri shouting and running towards them, his expression unusually fraught.  Byleth was on her feet immediately.

'What is it?  What is wrong, Dimitri?'  She asked.

'It's Captain Jeralt... He told me... to find you...'  Dimitri was out of breath.

'Calmly...'  Byleth took the Prince gently by the arm.  'Is he okay?'

'I don't know!'  Dimitri replied.  'I was coming from the Library when he burst from his office like a raging bull.  He grabbed hold of me and shouted at me to come and find you immediately.  Then Seteth came out to see what was happening, and they started having an argument...  Jeralt was waving a letter in his face and demanding to know if Seteth knew about it.'

'Crap.'  Byleth peeled Colin off her shoulder and handed him over to a flummoxed Felix.

'I think I should come too.'  Flayn had stood and passed her fishing rod to Caspar.

'Do you need me...?'  Dimitri was looking worried. 

'No.  Thank you, Dimitri.'  Byleth turned to start running, then looked down at Flayn.  'Can you keep up?'  She asked the girl.

'Hopefully.'  Flayn replied.

Without another word, Byleth picked Flayn up in a bridal hold and sprinted back towards the monastery.

'I guess our sparring session is delayed then.'  Felix grumbled, watching them depart and tickling Colin as the kitten bit at his gloved finger.

'Reckon so.'  Caspar was pulling the fishing line in carefully.

'Never a dull moment with the Professor around.'  Dimitri added thoughtfully.

It took very little time for Byleth to get to the upper floor where the library and the offices were contained.  Already the scene was complete pandemonium.  Byleth could make out Jeralt's loud, angry voice even as she was climbing the stairs, although his actual words were indistinct.  The corridor leading to the Archbishop's audience chamber was filled with people, knights, and clergy as well as both Manuela and Hanneman and a couple of bemused looking students.

'What's going on?'  Byleth asked her fellow Professors when they rushed to her side.  She set Flayn down carefully on her own feet.

'We have no idea!'  Hanneman admitted.

'Jeralt was ranting at Seteth, then they both headed to Lady Rhea.  Honestly, both of them looked furious!'  Manuela added breathlessly.

'The Knight's won't let anybody else in.'  Hanneman pointed to the double doors of the chamber, which, as he had said, were being guarded.

'We'll see about that.'  Byleth huffed, pushing her way forward.  Whether it was the fierce determination on her face or the fact her hand was already on the pommel of the sword strapped to her waist, the crowd of onlookers parted before her as she pushed her way forward.  Flayn, Manuela, and Hanneman followed in her wake.

'Open the door, please.'  Byleth firmly requested one of the Knights that blocked her way.

'Lady Rhea said no-one was to enter.'  The Knight was wary but impassive.

'I will attend my father.  He requested my presence.'  Byleth's grip on her sword tightened, although she didn't draw it.  'I really don't want to make the scene any worse, but I will not allow you to deny me entry.'  She added, her tone matter-of-fact.

There was a heavy pause in the overall noise in the hallway, everyone straining to hear how the standoff would resolve.  What was heard instead was a string of expletives from Jeralt, ringing from the other side of the door.

Byleth moved her way forward, one hand reaching for the handle, the other still on her sword.

The guards did not move to stop her.

Byleth opened the door quietly and only far enough to allow her and Flayn to slip in.  Manuela and Hanneman stayed where they were, both obviously unsure of what to do.

Jeralt, Rhea, and Seteth had frozen in a tableau when the door had opened.  Interestingly, it was only the three of them in the room - seemingly, the usual guards and clergy had been ejected at some point.  Jeralt's face was bright red, and his anger was palpable, his shoulders shaking in rage and his stance defensive although he had not drawn a weapon.  Rhea was stood in front of her dais, looking as calm and serene as ever, the only outward sign of her ire was in the stiffness of her posture and a slight creasing on her brow. 

Seteth stood resolutely between the two others.  His concern was obvious, but more than anything, he looked confused.

'Brother?'  Flayn went immediately to his side, putting a hand to his arm comfortingly.

'You requested my presence Captain Jeralt?'  Byleth ignored the others in the room and faced him directly.

'Yes, lass, I did.'  Jeralt replied, his tone much steadier than they had heard from him through the door.  'I want you to find Myles, and then get your things together.  We are leaving.  Today.'

'Yes, father.'  Byleth agreed meekly.  'Might I know why?'  She added.

'Because Lady Rhea is an idiot, and I will not allow your safety to be compromised.'  Jeralt barked.

'I see.'  Byleth nodded and made to move to the door.

'Is that all you are going to say, Jeralt?'  Rhea's voice was sweet and melodic.  'Does Byleth have no say on the matter, is she not even worthy of a full explanation?'

'I have every faith in my father's opinion.'  Byleth turned to look directly at the Archbishop and was surprised to see an element of challenge directed straight at her in her serene eyes.

'You want me to say more?'  Jeralt's volume rose again.  'Fine then.'  He took Byleth's arm in a firm grip.  'The Archbishop sent me a note this morning appraising me that she would require a unit of Knights to be made free later in the month to deal with a large group of bandits that seem to have settled in Zanado.'

'The Red Canyon?'  Flayn gasped, her eyes flying to Rhea's face in question.

'Aye, I believe it is known as that.'  Jeralt agreed gruffly.

Byleth shrugged in confusion.

'Aside from the request, which in itself is standard...'  Jeralt went on.  'She also noted that you and your class of students would be accompanying the Knights on this mission with the purpose of observing and assisting in its completion.'

'The Archbishop wishes to send unprepared children into battle?'  Sothis sounded appalled.

'I see.'  Byleth replied.

'I have made the case that the students are not ready for such an undertaking.'  Jeralt squeezed harder to Byleth's arm.  'When you first took up the position here I made inquiries, and while students are expected to complete practical assignments - it has never taken place until half-way through the year when their training and skill have been honed.'

'This is the first year that we have ever had a seasoned warrior as a Professor.'  Rhea countered.  'It is also the first time that the three future leaders of Fodlan have been pupils.  We would be remiss not to properly expose them to skills that they will need in the future.'

'Don't be so bloody stupid, Rhea!'  Jeralt bawled at her.  'Zanado is over a day away on horseback.'  His brow rose towards Byleth, his comment making its mark as he hoped.  'That means that aid would be slow in coming if there were a problem, and Rhea has refused to allow me to attend the mission against these villains directly.  There is no strategic point to settling in Zanado either - it is inhospitable.  If these bandits are congregating there I suspect they have a motive that is unknown to us, and that increases the risk tenfold.'

'I think we should hear what Byleth has to say.'  Rhea suggested.  'After all, you are showing no faith in her ability and seem to be trying to make the decision for her Jeralt.  This mission allows her to truly become what she has the potential to be after all.'  Rhea's eyes bore into Byleth with almost painful intensity.

'There is definitely something more to this.'  Sothis sounded tense.  'Be wary child.'

Byleth stared around impassively at the others.  Her eyes settled on Seteth.

'You have been silent, Seteth.'  She observed quietly.  'I would hear what you think if you are happy to share it with us.'

Seteth momentarily looked like a cornered animal.  'I was not advised of this mission, Byleth.  The first I heard of it was when Jeralt confronted me.  In honesty, I do not doubt your ability to manage the task, however I do share Jeralt's concerns over the student's readiness to deal with such a challenge.  I admit I also share his view that the Red Canyon is an odd and unlikely place for bandit's to dig in.  That there may be an unknown agenda is a valid point.'  His eyes flicked to Rhea, who, for the first time was looking angry.  Her ire increased when Flayn nodded her agreement.

'Thank you.'  Byleth nodded then looked towards the Archbishop.  'My father has dedicated himself to keeping me alive, there is no reason for me to doubt him.  While I do believe in my own skills, I cannot just reject his concerns.'

'Good girl.'  Jeralt approved gruffly.  'Go round up your brother, and we will prepare to depart.'

'Wait!'  Flayn suddenly exclaimed.  'Your brother?  Myles is your brother?'  She looked astounded.

Jeralt chuckled, seeing the same astonishment echoed on Seteth's face.  'Yet another thing Rhea kept to herself?'  He taunted.  'Actually, Myles is By's twin.  Lady Rhea decided to hide the fact that I had a son from me.  I am sure that she would have denied me knowledge of my daughter too if I had not returned earlier than expected.'

'They were born here?'  Seteth was looking at Rhea now, whose anger was evident on her face.

Jeralt had started to swear colourfully, his embitterment finally tipping him over the edge.  'That woman is nothing but a danger and a bane.' He accused fiercely shaking a fist at Rhea, his face thunderous.  'I should never have allowed Byleth to come back here, let alone stay.'  

'You go too far, Jeralt.'  Rhea hissed moving forward toward him imperiously.  'I will have you thrown in the dungeons to rot for your insubordination!'

'Is that a fact?'  Jeralt bolted forward suddenly, his hand reaching for his weapon.

'Father!'  Byleth grabbed hold of him quickly, trying to restrain him.

'This isn’t good.'  Sothis moaned, as fear wracked through Byleth's body, her head spinning and the lights seeming to intensify alarmingly as she struggled against her father's strength.

'Can we roll time back?  Not let things get this far?'  Byleth begged.

'Do it.  Do it now!'  Sothis agreed.

Chapter Text

A momentary blackness, a disorientating rushing, and a sense of overwhelming fatigue...

Byleth was stood in the corridor outside the Archbishop's audience chamber, with one hand on the handle of the door and the other on the pommel of her sword.

The guards were not moving to stop her from entering.

'Do you have any idea how you are going to deal with this?'  Sothis asked urgently.

'I will have to take control.'  Byleth replied as she pulled open the door and stood back so that Flayn could push her way in.  She gestured Manuela and Hanneman to follow, then opened the door wider and stalked in.

Flayn had gone straight to her brother's side as before, but she was staring wide-eyed at Byleth as the Professor went directly to Jeralt and grabbed him forcefully by the arm.  Jeralt's face was thunderous, but at his daughter's touch, he paused.

'I could hear your cussing all the way from the stairwell, old man.  What in the hell are you thinking?'  She demanded, her fingers tapping a nervous tattoo on the arm that she was gripping. 

There was a momentary silence as Hanneman, the last to enter, closed the door behind him.

'This is a private meeting.'  Rhea sounded irritated.

Byleth turned to face her.  'My father requested my presence.'  She said evenly.

'Damn right, I did...'  Jeralt began, but Byleth squeezed harder on his arm.  'Watch your language.'  She chided.

His eyes flashed annoyance, but he shut his mouth and handed her the paper that was scrunched in his hand.

Byleth let go of him so that she could smooth the note out.  She read its contents carefully.  'I see.'  She said finally.

'You understand why I'm mad, right?  By, I want you to...'   Byleth quickly pressed a finger to her father's lips.  He jerked in surprise.  'Have a little faith, da.'  She murmured.  He swallowed hard, his eyes intense, but he nodded at her tersely.

Byleth's gaze swept the room, noting that everyone was staring at her.  She focused on her fellow Professors.

'This note is from the Archbishop appraising Jeralt that she requires a unit of Knights to be made available later in the month to deal with a group of bandits that seem to have settled in Zanado.'

'The Red Canyon!'  Flayn muttered.

Byleth nodded at the girl.  'It goes on to say that my class and I are being tasked to accompany the Knights to observe and assist as required.'

'What?'  Manuela sounded appalled.

'The students aren’t ready for a practical mission yet!'  Hanneman added.

'That was the point I was trying to make.'  Jeralt agreed sourly.

'It is true.'  Byleth looked straight at Rhea.  'The Black Eagles have a considerable amount of potential to build upon, but I would not seek to actively engage them in battle just yet.'

'Aside from the student's lack of experience and ability, from a tactical perspective, the location is odd, and that is another cause for concern.'  Jeralt's anger seemed to have been replaced with a level of professionalism now that he realised he had backup.

'Explain?'  Byleth pressed him.

'Well, the area is not a strategic place for a group of bandits to settle.  It's inhospitable and not easily defended.  That makes me uncomfortable.  There might well be something we are missing here - an objective that is unknown and may present more difficulty than usual in subduing a random group.'  This time it was Jeralt that took Byleth by the arm.  'If there were trouble, Zanado is over a day's travel away on horseback.  Getting help to you in time would be problematic.'

'I understand completely.'  Byleth nodded.  'Archbishop, Seteth...'  She turned her attention to both of them.  'I am grateful that you have the faith in me to decide that I can manage this mission.  After all, you are taking a significant risk.  If I fail and any of the students are seriously hurt or even killed, the reputation of the Academy will suffer, and your judgment will be under scrutiny for allowing an untried mercenary to mentor underprepared students in a real-life scenario.'  Byleth paused to let that sink in for a moment.

'She has a point.'  Flayn murmured.

'Since you are showing me such a level of respect...'  Byleth continued slowly.   '.. I find it difficult to decline your mission outright, although in light of my father's concerns, and all of our belief that the students are not ready - I would ask for an explanation as to why you are requesting this action.'  Byleth inclined her head at Rhea.

Suddenly, Rhea looked unsure of herself although she couldn’t help a frown when Seteth cleared his throat and stepped forward.'

'I had no knowledge of this mission before Jeralt approaching me with it this morning .'  He said gravely.  'Had I been asked for my own input, I assure you I would have the same concerns as the rest of you.'  He smiled slightly at Byleth.  'None-the-less I don't doubt in your ability, Professor.'  He told her softly. 

'None of us do.'  Hanneman agreed.  'That isn’t the point though is it.  Taking an unnecessary risk this early in the academic year is what we are discussing.'

'Enough!'   Rhea finally spoke, coming forward from her dais a few feet, her features screaming displeasure.  'I apologise that I did not have time to consult with everyone before this announcement.  I wasn’t aware that we require an intervention meeting every time I make a decision.'  Her sarcasm was palpable.

'As their mentor's we do have a duty of care to the students.'  Manuela reminded Rhea firmly.  'I believe in this instance, we are merely trying to determine what is in their best interests.'

'We are breaking new ground here this year.'  Rhea continued as if Manuela had not spoken.  'Not only do we have a Professor who is a seasoned warrior, but we also have the three future leaders of Fodlan among our ranks.  They would be best served by receiving the most significant amount of practical skill that we can provide to prepare them for the role that they will play later in their lives.  Thanks to Byleth - we also have the means to give more of that experience than we could in any previous year.'

'My input, however, seems only to be available to the Black Eagles.'  Byleth noted.  'You say that all of the leaders require additional experience.  Am I to be permitted to allocate time on practical missions with all of the houses?'

There was a pause.  Rhea's brow knit in thought.  'Yes.'  She agreed.

'We can talk on that later.'  Byleth suggested to Manuela and Hanneman, who both nodded at her.

Rhea moved over to where Byleth was stood and took both of her hands in her own.  'Child, you have such enormous potential, and as well as the genuine boon that you could be in helping to shape the knowledge and confidence of our future rulers, you also have a great deal of untapped potential yourself.  Let us help to unlock it so that you may become exactly who you were always meant to be.'

Byleth stared back blankly into Rhea's passionate gaze.  'I have already said that I would accept your mission, Archbishop.'  She noted.  'I ask that you accept that my father has dedicated a lifetime to keeping me alive with both his skill and his guidance.  While he may have approached you rudely this morning, it was only due to his dedication and care.  I would also be foolish to ignore his concerns over this task.  Will he be allowed to accompany us?'

'No!'  Rhea snapped, then fought to temper her tone.  'I require him here, I cannot allow my Captain the time away on a chore for which he is not required.  He will pick the Knights that will accompany you, though.'

'Seteth could go.'  Flayn suddenly spoke up.

'I can manage even less without my chief advisor than I can my Captain.'  Rhea replied stiffly.

'Well, yes.  I understand that Archbishop.'  Flayn smiled at her sweetly.  'However, since my brother is an accomplished Wyvern rider, he would be able to meet with them at Zanado just before the actual battle and fly back directly after.  He would need to be gone less than a day.'  She turned her smile to Jeralt.  'Since a wyvern flies directly and at such speed, it would also be useful to have him there to allay your worries about the distance and backup if required.'  She added winsomely.

Seteth put a hand on his sister's shoulder.  'While I agree with your assessment Flayn, I would be loath to leave you unguarded in my absence.'  He admitted.

'Well...'  Flayn grinned and skipped over to where Jeralt was stood.  'Captain, if my brother agrees to look out for your daughter in your stead, would you agree to look out for me while he is gone?'

Jeralt couldn’t help himself, he was crushed by the weight of her dimples.  'Sounds a bit like a hostage situation to me.'  He grinned at her.  His eyes then moved to Seteth, and the two men appraised each other for a second before they both nodded.

Rhea looked as if she was about to add further objection, but a quick glance around the room at the concerned expressions stalled her protest.

'Fine.'  She said tersely.  'Now unless you have any problems with the other houses missions this month...' 

'We haven’t received them yet.'  Hanneman pointed out.

'Our staff meeting is still set for tonight after dinner.'  Seteth promised.

'We are done here then.'  Rhea walked back to her dais silently.

.

There was still a large crowd outside of the audience chamber when the doors were reopened, but a look from Seteth quickly dispersed them.

'Later then.'  He murmured to the Professor's and went back to his office.

'Tea, kiddo.'  Jeralt was pushing Byleth purposely forward and into his own space.  He closed and locked the doors behind him.

'I don't even know where to start...'  He whispered, dragging a chair close to her, worried that their conversation may be overheard.

'I knew about the mission before I arrived.'  Byleth cut him off, speaking equally as quietly.  'I also knew by the fact that you were already cussing the place up that you were in a rage da.' 

'Do you blame me?'  He asked, harshly.  'I was going to tell you to get your brother and get packing.'

'Yeah, I guessed as much.'

'Can you tell me why you stopped me?'  He looked hard at her.  'When you used the mercenaries code to tell me to shut up, I nearly fainted.  I've never even seen you use it before today.'

'I've never had to tell you to shut up before today.'  She shot back at him.

'I still think we would be better off just walking away.'  Jeralt said stubbornly.

'You suspect Rhea don’t you.'  Byleth's voice dropped even lower.

'More so after all this.'  Jeralt nodded, 'I had my suspicions about that story you brought to me in the first place.  The only person who might have the sway to assist an escape in the manner you described would be her.'

'Why did you fob me off then?' 

Jeralt scratched at his head.  'I didn’t expect anything to happen so fast.'  He admitted.  'Thought I had time to investigate.  I already had my doubts about the bandit who was supposedly executed on Rhea's orders.  It should have been held back until I returned.'  His face grew angry again.  'Why did you go and accept the mission By, that is just plain stupid.'

'I think you are missing one crucial thing, dad.'  Byleth fixed him with a sobering look.  'If Rhea is plotting something, what are the chances that she is going to let us get in the way of her plan?  We are on her turf.  She is the head of the bloody church.  Even if we were to leave, I doubt we would be able to get far enough away quickly enough to keep us safe.  What I don't need is for you to lose your good sense and end up thrown in the dungeons for insubordination.'

'Pfft.  That won't happen.'  Jeralt scowled.

'Don't be dumb.  Of course it could.'  Byleth scowled right back.  'Then I would have to rescue you as well attempt an escape.'

'No!'  Jeralt was suddenly deadly serious.  'If the worst happened, you just run.  Take Myles and go.  Promise me.'

'Not a bloody chance.'  Byleth shook her head.  'Which means we both need to play nicely and toe the line.  Our best chance here is to be clever and careful.'

'Everyone was on our side though, kid.  Nobody was happy with the mission.  We could have got it abandoned, and yet you have gone ahead and accepted it.' 

'Well obviously.'  Byleth looked surprised.  'How would we be able to get an idea of what's going on if we didn’t let it happen?'

'So you are willing to risk your little brats then?'  Jeralt raised an eyebrow.  'If something happens to one of them, you will never forgive yourself.  You know that right?'

'It's true.  It would destroy you.'  Sothis murmured.

'I don’t like risking them.'  Byleth admitted painfully.  'But if someone is willing to put them in the firing line in the first place whose to say that it isn’t one of them that's the actual target of the plot.  Can only protect them by identifying the danger.'

Jeralt was silent as he poured tea. 

'I'm not happy with any of this.'  He sighed.  'Coming back here was a huge tactical error.'

'We know there is something off, Jeralt.  That puts us ahead of the game.'  Unusually, Byleth reached out her hand and took her father's.  'You have taught me to be strong, dad.  I'm not going to shy away from a threat, and nor are you.'

'Who are you, and what have you done with my daughter?'  Jeralt asked in amazement staring down at their joined hands.

Chapter Text

'You managed that well.'  Sothis remarked as Byleth left her father's office.

'I think I need to lie down.  Byleth's entire body felt sore.  'I ache as if I have been training all day.'  She groaned inwardly.

'That may be the result of turning back time.'  Sothis apologised.  'When we did it before we only turned back a few minutes.  I'm not sure that we are supposed to turn back as far as we did today.'

It was an indication of just how tired and distracted she really was when Byleth was startled by someone grabbing her arm gently and propelling her into an empty conference room before she could even object.

'You look a little unsteady, Professor.'  Flayn said, dragging her to a seat.  'Please, rest a moment and allow me to get a glass of water.  We could head to the infirmary if you prefer?'

'Thank you, Flayn.  I'm fine, really.'  Byleth protested.

'I don't think so.'  Flayn said softly.  'I noted how much you struggled to stay focused after you turned back the timeline.  I believe it is only due to your formidable strength that you are still conscious now.'

'I beg your pardon.'  Byleth gulped as Sothis hissed in dismay in her head.

'Please don’t be alarmed, Byleth.'  Flayn smiled at her although there was a little sadness mixed into her expression.  'All of us are required to hold secrets and for many different reasons.  I did not feel it would be fair to you if I did not admit that your spell failed to affect me.  It took me back, of course - but it did not erase my memory of the time already spent.'

'Interesting!'  Sothis remarked.  'The child does not appear alarmed by your ability.'  She noted.

Byleth was speechless.  Her head felt muzzy anyway, but formulating a reply was beyond her.

'I'm sorry.'  Flayn took a seat and reached out to take Byleth's hand in her own.  'Perhaps I should have left this alone until you were better recovered.  I was concerned that you would fall, though.  You were looking a bit unsteady on your feet.'

'Say something!'  Sothis ordered.

'Do you know what it is I did?'  Byleth eventually mumbled.  'Or how it is done?'

'Pfft.'  Sothis snorted.

'Not really.'  Flayn peered closer.  'Is it new to you, Professor?'  She asked.

Byleth nodded.  'It's only the second time it's happened.  I have never learned any magic.'

Flayn looked thoughtful.  'Well, if Hanneman is correct about your crest being a major one, then I would suspect that it is linked to that.  Since it is unsure what your crest actually is, there is no telling what skills it might gift you.'

'Are you going to tell Seteth?'  Byleth asked quietly.

'You diffused an exceptionally challenging situation.  Actually, you did an excellent job in smoothing things over.'  Flayn squeezed Byleth's hand tight.  'If you had used your ability in a way that presented any kind of threat, then I may have had to consider speaking with my brother.  Since you did not, I see no reason to divulge a secret that is yours alone to share.' 

'Why do you think the spell did not work on you?'  Byleth said suddenly.  'Do you think there are others that would be immune like you?' 

Flayn shrugged.  'I am possessed of a major crest as well, and I have a naturally high resistance when magic is cast at me.  Indeed I possess an exceptionally rare skill of my own, which prevents my own magic from being silenced.'  She was quiet momentarily.  'I doubt that there would be any others that would be aware in the manner that as I was.'  She concluded.

Byleth closed her eyes with a groan as a wave of nausea flooded over her.

'I really should have left this until later..'  Flayn sounded cross with herself as she stroked Byleth's hand.

'I'm fine.'  Byleth managed to say.  'Just really, very tired.  It seems to come on in waves, though.'

'It's not surprising.  The situation was stressful enough without the magic, and I have just managed to make it worse.'

'No Flayn.  I'm glad you told me.'  Byleth opened her eyes again.  'You helped out a lot too.  I guess since you remember what happened the first time...  Oh!'  Byleth stuttered to a halt.  'I suppose you recall what was said about Myles too.'  She queried.

Flayn nodded and surprised Byleth with a small giggle.  'Everyone believes that he is your beau, you know.'  She smiled.  'Quite a few people would be happy to hear that he is not!'

Byleth raised an eyebrow.  'Does that include you, young lady?'

'Well, he is rather... 'hot,' as Dorothea describes it!' 

'Just remember that he will end up looking like Jeralt.'  Byleth gave the girl a wan smile.

'How unkind!'  Flayn grinned back.  'Your father is a sweetheart.  He is very suspicious of the Archbishop, though, isn’t he.'

'I'd imagine that has something to do with having his son hidden from him.'  Byleth said stoically.

'Indeed.  That is a remarkably strange revelation.  One that Seteth nor I knew anything about.'  Flayn said thoughtfully.  ' Of course, I have only been here for a little over a year, and my brother came to the Monastery after Jeralt had left.  All that Rhea told him was that it was thought that his child had died in a fire and that he left due to his grief.  Obviously, you did not die, however, so it would appear that he took you away purposefully.'

'I really know nothing about any of this.'  Byleth's hand was placed on her brow, trying to ease away the headache that had started to pulse there.  'Jeralt has never spoken of it.  Not even now.'

'The Archbishop isn't sharing either.'  Flayn admitted.  'Professor, I think we should get you back to your room so that you can have a lie-down.  Do you think you can walk?'

'Can I just curl up here?'  Byleth asked piteously.

'Actually, my room is close.  Would you like to rest there?'  Flayn offered.

'Thank you.'  Byleth nodded.

'May I try a little healing on you?' 

'If you like.'

Flayn smiled gently, and the hand that was holding Byleth's became warmer.  After a few seconds, the girl peered closer. 

'Any better, Byleth?'  She asked.

'A little thank you.'  Byleth replied.

With a bit of encouragement, Byleth stood, and Flayn led her to her own small suite of rooms and settled the Professor on her bed.

'I promise that your secrets are safe with me.'  Flayn murmured as Byleth got comfortable.  'I hope that in time, you may see that my brother is worthy of your trust too.  For all that he drives me insane with his protectiveness, it is driven by a caring heart.'

'I don't really understand why you should be helping me, Flayn.'  Byleth muttered as her eyes closed.  'You hardly know me, and all that you do know is shrouded in oddness and questions.'

'I suppose so.'  Flayn agreed.  'But then, I am not completely dissimilar myself, and I believe that you are not purposefully hiding anything - you don't actually have any answers.'  She laughed a tired little laugh.  'Perhaps it is simply that us odd ducks should stick together, Professor.  There is a certain kinship in that.'  She stroked back a loose strand of hair from Byleth's cheek.

'That's nice.'  Byleth agreed before falling into a deep slumber.

.

Flayn woke Byleth with enough time to eat the tea that she provided and get to her faculty meeting in good time. 

The meeting was almost subdued as the monthly missions were discussed, followed by the next week's lesson plans.

'Let's not get into the issue of the bandits in Zanado too deeply until we have gathered some more information.'  Seteth suggested.  'Jeralt has organised for reconnaissance to help us gauge the situation there better before we deploy.'

'In honesty, a fight against bandit's is hardly something that would normally warrant such attention.'  Byleth murmured.  'I have yet to come up against a band with anything more than basic skills.  I'll admit that I have greater concern about exposing those students with no experience whatsoever to the reality of having to use lethal force.'

'How old were you when you first killed a man?'  Manuela asked curiously.

'I was still being dressed and presented as a boy at the time, so it was before I began to develop...'  Byleth indicated her ample chest.  'Probably no more than ten.'  She decided.

'Good gracious, are you sure?'  Hanneman looked stunned.

'I mean, I had obviously witnessed people being killed before that, it was inevitable no matter how much Jeralt tried to shield me from it.'  Byleth added.

Seteth was shaking his head in disbelief.

'Well, if I hadn’t been carrying a dagger and known how to use it, I would be the one dead now rather than the man I killed.'  Byleth pointed out stoically.

'Yes, quite.'  Hanneman said breathlessly.

'It ain't easy, though, not at any time - to be an instrument of death.'  Byleth said softly.  'I have noted than many of the students have been filled with stories of the glory of war and the valiance of Knights and all that sort of crap.  I did hope to have time to get that nonsense out of their heads before they had to face the stark reality themselves.'

'You don’t like killing?'  Manuela asked in surprise.

Byleth stared at her.  'Nobody should like killing.'  She said.

'Of course not!'  Manuela replied quickly.  'It's just that your reputation, as the Ashen Demon... It is of a stone-cold slayer.  I suppose 'like' is probably the wrong word to use...'

'I am merely efficient.'  Byleth said, her tone hard.  'Reality is kill or be killed.  Where I can avoid having to kill, I do.  Where I can make someone's death as clean as possible, I will.  Since I can manage my skill well, I would rather be the one to do what is necessary rather than it fall to someone who can't.'

'At least the students learn in an environment where they are supported through the process.'  Seteth said quietly.  'Some extra time would have been preferable to prepare them, but we have faced this very challenge each and every year with each intake of students.'

'Yes, we do have experience in helping those students that struggle with the taking of lives.'  Manuela agreed.

Byleth looked relieved. 

'If that is all I suggest we end the meeting early.'  Seteth glanced around at the others.

'I need a drink.'  Manuela agreed.

'When don't you?'  Hanneman questioned her.

'I know you were thinking the same, Hanneman.'  Manuela grimaced at him.  'Join me?'

Hanneman sighed and nodded.

'Byleth?  Seteth?'  Manuela offered.

'I need to get in some study before class tomorrow.'  Byleth stared down at the timetable.

'Regretfully my own paperwork was interrupted this morning, so I believe I am in for a late-night too.'  Seteth apologised.

Byleth made her way to the library to pick up the books that she needed for the week.  She was relieved when she noted that only Linhardt was in there, and he ignored her completely, probably not even noticing her arrival.

Once she had her reading material, Byleth made her way directly to her room, moving fast, and her expression must have signalled her desire to be left alone as nobody tried to intercept her for once.  When she got to her room,  she bumped into Dedue, leaving his.

'Are you alright Professor?'  The big man asked her quietly as she fumbled her key.

'Rather worn out.'  Byleth admitted.

'His Highness has been quite concerned about you.'  Dedue supplied.  'I will let him know that you are returned and okay.'

'If you would.'  Byleth had managed to get her door open.  She looked inside warily, half expecting to find Claude camped out waiting for her.  Her room was blessedly empty.

Byleth flung her books down and sank onto her bed as Sothis appeared in her usual spot over by the window.

'It has been a curious day.'  Sothis observed.

'I will be glad when it's finally over.'  Byleth agreed.  'Just in case.'

Chapter Text

The whole principle of an organised time schedule was new to Byleth.  Her life thus far had been completely ruled by the contract's that her father had taken and lots and lots of traveling between jobs.  It was a rarity that any day was predictable in terms of location or content, let alone requiring preparation and forward planning.  It would be fair to say that the Monday morning blues was something that she had never experienced before.  This week it hit her straight between the eyes as she sprinted to the classroom, having rolled out of bed so late that breakfast had to be forgone.

Byleth's own study for the week's curriculum hadn’t gone terribly well the night before, and she knew that she was woefully under-prepared to teach this morning's class.  She had tossed and turned all night, sleep eluding her until the early hours, and even then, it had been fitful.  She genuinely felt hungover although she hadn’t touched a drop of drink.  Just the mere thought of facing Caspar's loud enthusiasm or dodging Hubert's dry comments made her want to rush back to her blankets and hide.

Stalking into the classroom, every face turned to her as she entered, and the hum of conversation that had buzzed as she opened the doors evaporated.  Byleth wondered if her typically expressionless face was betraying her mood.  She didn’t really care, but everyone did seem to have picked up that something wasn’t quite usual with their mentor.  Everyone except Ferdinand. 

'Good Morning, Professor!'  He chirped as she marched past his table.  'We are all looking forward to a bright new week!'

Byleth grunted unintelligibly as she chucked her booked down on her desk with a resounding clatter that made more than one of the student's cringe.  She turned to face them, and her eyes swept the classroom mercilessly.

'Caspar, why have you brought a fishing rod to class?'  She enquired tonelessly.

'Oh... Um...'  The boy looked flustered.  'Well, I think it belongs to you, Professor.  Flayn thrust it into my hands yesterday morning, so I thought I should return it...'

'Oh, right.'  Byleth nodded.  'Thank you.'  She tried to relax her stance a bit at Caspar's unusually meek response.  This was another aspect of her new life that she had little experience in.  On the road with Jeralt, if he actually even noticed that her mood was stormy, he kept a wide berth until it passed.  Her students, however, didn’t have that luxury.  She needed to manage herself a whole lot better than she currently was.

'So, I have some exciting news.'  Byleth tried to go for a light tone and missed by a mile, but it was at least a bit better than her fearsome frown.

'Just the thing for a Monday morning, I'd say!'  Ferdinand beamed back at her.  Byleth stared at him for a moment, basking in the warmth of his smile, trying to take on board a little of his optimism.

'I agree Ferdinand.'  She replied, hopping up on her desk to sit cross-legged facing the class, in as relaxed a pose as she could manage.

'Don't let them see that this mission worries you.'  Sothis commented helpfully.

'Yeah, I get that.'  Byleth grumbled internally.

'You could try smiling.'

'YOU could try shutting up and letting me get on with it.'  Byleth replied pointedly.

'Ouch... So touchy today...!' 

The class were all staring at her now.  Byleth cleared her throat.

'Our mission for this month is to subdue some bandits.'  There was a small ripple of surprise.  Byleth put up a hand, and the students fell silent again.  'Normally, for the first few months here, you would learn the basics of combat through study alone, but this is an early opportunity to garner practical experience.  The Knights will be leading the mission, we are simply there to observe and to assist if they require.'  Byleth paused to look over her class.  'This will be no mock battle.'  She emphasised.  'We must work hard on being prepared for anything.'

There was silence as her words were absorbed.  Hubert put up his hand.  'I understand the necessity of real battle from time to time, Professor.'  He said carefully when Byleth motioned him to speak.  'I admit I am surprised, however, to be tasked with punishing these bandits without any warning.  It is a somewhat different sort of mission than I was expecting.  It makes me wonder what the Archbishop's thinking was...'

Byleth couldn’t help but be impressed by his astuteness.  'It is considered that since my experience lies in practical application, it would be wise to utilise it in relevant situations.'  She explained.  'Taking out bandits is a routine exercise for me.  They are rarely very skilled or organised and, as such, they make a good target for a first encounter.'

'We will be killing them?'  Bernadetta blurted out.  'Killing them... as in... dead?'

Edelgard got to her feet.  'For some of you, I guess this will be your first time stepping onto a real battlefield.'  Her focused gaze took in her classmates, and although her posture was rigid, her words were soft.  'It will be vital that you are all mentally prepared for what you will see and what you may have to do.  If there is anything that you wish to speak to me about in this matter, I will be available to you.'

'Thank you, Lady Edelgard.'  Byleth murmured, as the girl sat back down with a faint blush on her cheeks.

'The last time we fought bandit's, you saved my life, Professor.'  Edelgard was unable to meet Byleth's eyes.  'I hope that this time, I can return the favor by supporting you and my classmates in whatever way I can.'

'As a team, we have a lot of ground to cover between now and the mission.'  Byleth said firmly.  'We will be building on the work we started last week after the mock battle in better managing our defensive strategy, as well as focusing on survival skills.'

'Watching the Knights in the field will be awesome!'  Caspar grinned.  'That kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often!'

'I am not understanding.'  Petra suddenly spoke up from her table at the back of the classroom.  'We are to bring fighting, yes?  Who are these bandit people that we must hurt?'

'Bandit's live outside of society.'  Ferdinand explained, turning to face her, his expression serious and earnest.  'They have chosen aggression and stealing as their way of life, harming those they deem weaker than themselves.  They have no honor.'

'I am full of apologies.'  Petra had stood now. 'I am meaning - what is their actual crime that we bring them to death for?'

'I get what you are asking, Petra.'  Dorothea spoke up.  'I believe most bandits generally have a list of misdemeanors linked to them and warrants for arrest from wherever they have passed through.'

'If they are in an area, then the towns and villages close to their location are at risk, even if they have not yet performed an actual attack.'  Edelgard supplied

'Travelers too.'  Ferdinand added.  'It is common for coaches and caravans to be a victim to bandits as well as the lone wanderer.'

'I see.'  Petra sat down.  'Understanding why life is taken is important.'  She said thoughtfully.

'I agree Petra.'  Byleth nodded.  'It is the nature of a bandit to take a life without pause or consideration in their pursuit of material gain.  As such, they are a danger to all,  much as a wild beast too close to a settlement is.'

'Then they have chosen their own demise.' Petra replied sagely.

'I think I should probably stay here.'  Bernadetta announced uncommonly loudly.  'I am of no use, I will get hurt and just be in the way.'

'Aww, Bernie, I won't let you get hurt!'  Caspar declared.

'Ferdinand von Aegir would never allow his classmate to suffer injury!'  Ferdinand agreed nobly.

'Realistically Bernadetta, while I find the idea completely repugnant too, we must endure these things in the pursuit of knowledge.'  Linhardt added.

'Bernie would rather be stupid.'  The girl muttered.

'As our esteemed Professor has pointed out before Bernadetta, learning to survive is the best way to remain safe.'  Hubert said firmly.  'This is an exercise that you must face.  You are stronger than you think.'

'Oh!'  Bernadetta stared at Hubert in surprise.  'You really think so?'

'Are you suggesting that I may be... wrong?'  Hubert challenged coldly.

'Eek!'  Bernadetta squealed, covering her face with her hands.  'No Hubert... Bernie would never dare to say that!'

'Then, I must be correct.'  Hubert smiled wryly.

'I will admit, I am surprised at how quickly the brats have learned to begin to support each other.'  Sothis noted.

'Yes.'  Byleth agreed, a warmth spreading through her chest.

'At least it's made you less grumpy.'  Sothis continued with an annoying chuckle. 

.

The conversation about the upcoming mission filled the morning session quite quickly.  Byleth was relieved that she would have the lunch break to try and cram the bookwork that she hadn’t covered last night before the students returned for the afternoon.  She would just have to miss yet another meal.

That was the plan, at least.  As soon as the last student was out of the door, Claude appeared as if by magic.

'Hey, teach.'  He said quietly, looking intently at her as he made his way forward to her desk.  'You okay?'  He asked.

She raised a questioning eyebrow at him.

'I tried to see you yesterday afternoon.'  Claude sat himself on the edge of her desk, still peering at her with a concerned expression.  'Dimitri told me you had run off to attend your dad, and I caught some of what was going on in the Archbishop's room, although obviously just the raised voices and not the content.'

'Of course, you did.'  Byleth sighed.  'I admit I was expecting you to visit me last night.'  She murmured.

'Well, I would have done.'  Claude agreed easily.  'Except, when I was looking for you in the afternoon, Flayn caught me.  For someone so small and so cute, she really knows how to be intimidating!'

'Oh?'

'Yeah.'  Claude nodded.  'She told me in no uncertain terms that you were exhausted and that if I didn’t leave you alone to recover, she would commit violence.  She was quite graphic too!'  He grinned.  'It was really, very impressive.'

'She was right, I guess.'  Byleth put her elbows on the table and rested her head in her hands wearily.  'I expect you have heard about the Black Eagles mission for the month by now.'

'Yeah.'  Claude's expression turned serious.  'You up for telling me about what happened?'  He asked.

'I will, yes, I think we need to talk it through.'  Byleth agreed.

There was a gentle tapping at the classroom door, and Dimitri slipped in, followed by Dedue.

'I just wanted to check that you were okay, Professor.'  Dimitri said politely.  He noticed Clause leaning against her desk.  'I'm sorry!'  he added contritely.  'Am I interrupting?'

'Nah.'  Claude smiled easily at the Prince and beckoned him forward.  'I was just telling Teach here how jealous the Deer are that they Eagles have received so interesting a mission!'

'Well, quite!'  Dimitri agreed as he walked towards them.  'You should have heard Felix complain!  His moans went on for rather a long time.'

'Actually, I have agreement from Lady Rhea that the next practical assignment that becomes available, I will be able to complete with a different house, so that all of you get the same access to experience.'  Byleth informed him.

Claude chuckled at that.  'Hilda will be so thrilled by that news!'  He laughed.

'Are you not going to lunch Professor?'  Dimitri and Dedue had reached the table, and the Prince's eyes roamed over her open books and the start of her notes.

Byleth couldn’t repress her sigh.  'I have fallen behind in my preparation.'  She admitted.  'I need to get together my understanding of this afternoon's lecture.'

Claude turned the nearest book around to get a better look.  'Practical formations for flying units?'  He asked.  Byleth nodded.  'We covered that this morning.  I can go over it if you like.'

'So did we.'  Dimitri added.  'You can borrow my notes if it would help you.  I have been told that my paraphrasing skills are succinct - so it might save you some time.'

'I should take responsibility for my own failure to prepare.'  Byleth replied stoically.

'Hmm.'  Dedue stepped forward.  'I believe that we have all seen how many hours you spend in the library Professor.  I do not agree that you should consider yourself a failure.'

'Linhardt was telling me how your lectures are actually engaging and thoughtful.'  Claude added.  'It isn’t just a case of someone going over what the book says and taking notes.'

'Likely because our Professors have covered the topics so often.'  Dimitri agreed.  'Since it is new to you, you have a fresh perspective.  None the less, I wish you would let us help you here - we can go over the main points while eating, and you won't have to miss out on a meal.'

'Well... maybe just this once then.'  Byleth agreed, a bit shyly.

'Wonderful, I will run and grab my notes.'  Dimitri beamed.

'I'd get mine too, except... I spent most of the lesson drawing rude pictures...'  Claude smirked.

'I am so glad I'm not your mentor.'  Byleth grumbled at him as she gathered her things together.

'Me too, Teach.'  He smiled.

Chapter Text

Byleth was well aware of the glare that she received from Edelgard when she took her lunch with Claude, Dimitri, and Dedue - but in this instance, it was unavoidable.  She would have to ease over her transgression with her house leader later. 

'Dedue, if I wanted to present a flower to someone, what would you suggest?'  She asked the big man as they made their way back to the classrooms together.

'That would depend on the message that you wanted your gift to convey, Professor.'  He replied solemnly.  'Flowers have their own language.'

'I see.'  Byleth thought about it.  'If I wanted a flower for a friend?'  She edged.

'Well, I can only answer based on my knowledge of flora garnered from my homeland, but I believe that the Alstroemeria, while also symbolising good fortune, is the main flower that represents friendship.'  Dedue's brow creased.  'Bernadetta mentioned that she has a compendium that explains the meaning of flowers.'  He added.  'It is not simply the flower itself, but sometimes the actual colour of it that carried the significance.'

'I never realised gifting a bloom could be so difficult.'  Byleth groaned.

Dedue huffed his deep rumbling chuckle of amusement.  'In truth,'  He said.  'I doubt that many are aware of the significance that is conveyed.  Most people will just pick a flower for the look of it, and some have a favorite due to its scent.  I wouldn’t worry too much.'

Byleth wasn’t by nature a worrier, but she had to admit to herself that when she finally managed to get to Edelgard's doorstep, not long after class had ended for the evening - with a delicate pink and white flower gripped tightly in her hand - she was apprehensive.

'Oh!  Hello Professor.'  Edelgard looked surprised by her visitor, but opened her door wide to reveal Hubert stood just behind her at her shoulder..  'Did you want to have a chat about this month's mission?'

'Um, this is for you.'  Byleth thrust the flower forward awkwardly, trying to ignore the smirk that suddenly bloomed on Hubert's face.  'I guessed Hubert might be here too so... err I brought this one along too.'  She shoved a dark purple plant towards the mage.

'Thank you!'  Edelgard's face had tinged pink as she took her flower and brought it up to her nose.  'Lovely!'  She declared.

'Stinkweed.  How very kind.'  Hubert added, taking a brave sniff of his own gift. 

'Seemed apt.'  Byleth murmured.

'Do you want to come in?'  Edelgard asked.  'Hubert and I were about to go and get dinner, but if you wish to talk...'

'Can I come along with you?'  Byleth asked quickly, 'I mean unless you have specific plans or need...'

'Oh, no, Professor!  We would love for you to join us.  Wouldn't we Hubert?' Edelgard turned to her retainer.

 'I can think of nothing I would like more.'  Hubert replied, trying hard to keep his voice level.  'Although if you ladies prefer to dine alone, I would be more than happy to take my meal later.'

'Don't be silly.  We are all friends here.'  Edelgard said firmly.

'Of course.'  Hubert agreed quickly.

During the shared meal, the table that Byleth, Edelgard, and Hubert took soon became filled with others in the manner that Byleth was frequently experiencing these days.  Edelgard, however, seemed to take it in her stride, engaging with the students that joined them in good spirits.

'I admit I am amazed.'  Hubert whispered close to Byleth's ear.  'My Lady rarely welcomes company.'

'Well, you said yourself that she is used to people approaching her to curry favor or because they want something.  I imagine that it is tiring.  This crowd mainly came up asking me stuff... so she wasn’t the one they were soliciting.'  Byleth whispered back.

'A good point.'  Hubert mused.  'I suppose I am not the best at understanding the need to interact with others.'

'You think I am?'  Byleth raised an eyebrow.  'I'm making it up as I go along and just hope I'm not making too big a fool of myself.'

'Well, I'm not sure that stinkweed is a particularly appropriate gift, Professor.'  Hubert smirked.

'Oh, I know that!  But at least the odour masks your bitter smell of coffee.' 

'Unkind..'  Hubert grouched.

'My dear Hubert, if I were to be nice to you, or to gift you with something you actually like, you would immediately be suspicious of my motivation.'  Byleth patted his thigh lightly under the table, causing him to jump violently.  She snorted in laughter when his face lit like a beacon. 

'You are probably right.'  He admitted ruefully.  'None-the-less I am grateful that you approached us this evening.  I believe even I failed to realise how much it would mean to her Highness.'  He paused for a moment and finished up the last few mouthfuls on his plate, obviously pondering something.  Byleth waited patiently for him to speak.

'Professor, what do you really make of this mission that we are to undertake this month?'  He asked, finally.

Byleth thought carefully for a few seconds.

'I think that it is too soon.  I am not confident that the students are ready yet to face the reality of what we are teaching.'  She replied.

'Yes, I thought as much.  You obscured your reticence well, I do not believe that anyone else picked up on it.  Possibly I only noticed because I have much the same feeling.'  He gave her a sharp look.  'Why do you think it is being allowed?'

'The only person who is comfortable with the plan is Lady Rhea.'  Byleth had brought her mouth in close to his ear.  'The rest, Seteth, Jeralt, the other Professors all opposed it.'

'And the Archbishop still didn’t back down?'  Hubert raised a brow.

'I think she may have before I eventually agreed to her request after some stipulations were put into place.'  Byleth told him.

'I see.'  Hubert tapped his fingers on the table in front of him.  'If you have concerns, why did you agree?'  He asked, curiously.

'I felt that if it were just dropped, I would lose an opportunity to discover what the true motivation behind it was.'

'You'd risk your student's safety for that?'  Hubert caught straight on to the heart of her dilemma.

'I believe in my own abilities.'  Byleth replied softly.  'I also believe that if there is anything nefarious going on behind the scenes, it would be a whole lot safer for everyone if it is discovered as soon as possible.'

'Yes.'  Hubert agreed.  'You do not trust Lady Rhea then?'  His eyes seemed to gleam at his question.

'I do not know Lady Rhea.'  Byleth said stoically.  'However, I do question her motivation in both making me a Professor and in this decision.  My father is incredibly suspicious of her, and I have always trusted his judgment.'

'It is rather damning that even though Jeralt was a Knight of Seiros, he chose to leave and then brought you up with no knowledge of the church whatsoever.'  Hubert mused.  'Why are you telling me this, Professor?'  He asked suddenly.

'While the others need to believe that I am confident in our task to feel secure, I think that you have no such requirement.'  Byleth smiled slightly at him.  'You are as suspicious as my father in your manner and just as tenacious in protecting Edelgard as he is of protecting me.  I understand that trait and the motivation behind it, so I also realise that you will work hard to try and root out potential dangers.  I think our co-operation would be beneficial.'

'I agree.'  Hubert sounded a little surprised.

'I have never been responsible for others before Hubert.'  Byleth's hand found his thigh again, and he managed not to jump this time.  'My father and our mercenaries were more than capable of looking after themselves, so my only concern was doing my job and keeping myself alive.  Suddenly having the wellbeing of my students resting on my shoulders is terrifying.  I cannot help but care about keeping you all safe.'   

'Your skills are formidable, Professor.  I am not sure you need be all that concerned.'  Hubert's voice was so quiet it was hardly audible.

'You have been looking out for Edelgard since you both were children.  You understand what that kind of responsibility is.  I would learn from you if you would let me.'

There was a long silence.

'Either you are one of the best master manipulators I have come across, or you are the most honest and forthright person I have ever met.'  Hubert sighed.  'Both scenarios make you dangerous.'  He paused again as she blinked at him in confusion.  'We will get ourselves through this mission, and then see where we stand.'  He finally decided.

'Wise.'  Byleth agreed.

'Now can you please return to being mean and desist in patting my leg?'  Hubert demanded.

Byleth raised an eyebrow at him.  'And allow you to feel comfortable.  I think not.'

'Order is restored.'  Hubert noted.

.

Byleth had set up a sparring session after dinner, and Edelgard was keen to attend when she was offered.

'We should most definitely get in all available practice that we can before our mission.'  She explained.

Felix and Sylvain were already waiting at the training grounds, but the word had obviously gotten around as the rest of the Blue Lions were there too, as well as Caspar, Ferdinand, and Petra from the Eagles and Raphael and Leonie from the Deer.  Claude sauntered in just after Byleth arrived and called Ashe to join him, Bernadetta and Ignatz, for archery practice while the sky was still light enough.

'Talk later?'  He murmured to Byleth in passing, who nodded her agreement.

With so many students in attendance, Byleth agreed to an observed spar with Felix first, after which she split everyone up and got them fighting against each other as she moved between them, all offering help and advice.

Edelgard had been matched with Ingrid, and the two girls appeared to be getting along rather well.  Their skill was relatively evenly matched.  Edelgard was strong, and her stamina was quite formidable, but her axe was slow compared to Ingrid's fluid lance technique and deft movements.

'I hope eventually to become a flying unit.'  Ingrid admitted to the Princess when they took a well-earned break.  'Of course, my future will depend on my husband's wishes ultimately.'

'Are you engaged already?'  Edelgard asked curiously.

'I was.'  Ingrid fell silent for a moment.  'Despite my fiance's passing, my father is very keen to get me affianced again as soon as possible.'

'Duty.'  Edelgard said, rather flatly.

'Obviously.'  Ingrid sighed.

'There is never any getting away from the pressures that duty inflicts upon us.'  Edelgard put a hand on Ingrid's shoulder.

'Of course you would understand that.'  Ingrid noted.

'You know - I sometimes forget that there are others that might empathise with the weight of expectation that I face.'  Edelgard met Ingrid's eyes, and they smiled at each other.

'Shall we go back to trying to kill each other?'  Ingrid suggested with a laugh.

'Yes lets.'  Edelgard agreed.  'Sometimes, hitting things is the best medicine.'

'You should spend some time with Sylvain.'  Ingrid moaned as they stood together and took up their starting positions again.  'If there was ever someone begging to be hit, hard and often, it's him.'

'I don't think so.'  Edelgard mused.  'I have heard of his reputation, and I am in a position to order him beheaded if he tried it with me.'

'Right!'  Ingrid agreed cheerfully.  'Probably best not then.'

Chapter Text

Ashe had been looking forward to this day since he had first met with Professor Byleth.  It was to be her initial afternoon session spent exclusively working with the Blue Lions.  Ashe's enthusiasm was only partly due to his desire to learn what she had to teach.  On a more personal level, it was also because she was such an enigma -  so very different from any of the characters in the books that he loved.  Watching her was almost like observing a new kind of story coming to life before his very eyes.

Ashe also felt a debt of gratitude to the Professor, even though she had not been directly involved with him or his house so far.  She had helped him in finding his feet when she had requested that Claude include him in bow training sessions with Ignatz and Bernadetta.  It wasn’t that he had been troubled before, but the people in his house had already been bound in existing friendships before their arrival, and he was a little shy of all of them.  Everyone had been incredibly welcoming to him, especially Price Dimitri, but at the same time, Ashe couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the confident and talented nobles.

Initially, he had thought that being trained by Claude would be just as intimidating and scary.  However, the future leader of the Leicester Alliance was both laid back in his approach and seemed genuinely pleased when all three of his pupils showed a real aptitude for ranged combat, just as the Professor had suggested.  Ashe found he got on very well indeed with the quietly spoken Ignatz, and Bernadetta was undoubtedly unique in a cute and quirky way.  In all, since the Professor's intervention on his behalf, Ashe was feeling a lot more settled and secure.  He hoped that he could make her proud in return.

It appeared that Ashe wasn’t the only member of the Blue Lions that was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Professor Byleth.  Everyone was back into their classroom a full fifteen minutes before the start of the afternoon session, chatting animatedly amongst themselves and trying to guess what the Professor would have in store for them.  Even Felix, who was trying to maintain a disinterested scowl, kept shooting impatient looks towards the door.

'Good afternoon, Lions.'  Byleth greeted as she strode into the classroom, up the central aisle, and hopping up onto the desk at the front to sit cross-legged and gaze at the sea of faces staring back. 'I have been really looking forward to working with you all.'

Dimitri stood and bowed formally.  'I think I speak for us all when I say that we are eagerly anticipating our sessions with you, Professor.'  He stated.

'Thank you, Dimitri.'  Byleth inclined her head back at him, but her eyes were void and dead looking.  'I need to start our training with an apology of sorts.'  She said, her toneless delivery matching the distance in her face.  'You have all heard by now that practical assignments with me are to start immediately and that I am currently preparing the Black Eagles for the first of these missions.  As such, it has pushed my training agenda forward much quicker than I anticipated.'  She jumped down from the desk and started to pace.

'Does that mean we will be getting physical battle objectives too then?'  Felix demanded.

'Yes.'  Byleth nodded.  'I will be responsible for leading the student forces in carrying out the commissions themselves.  All three house professors, Seteth and Jeralt, will consider and assign each task as applicable.  Most will likely be offering assistance to the Knights, although later on through the term, we may have  independent quests.'

'I don't know why you feel you have to apologise Professor.'  Dimitri said, a little confused.  'After all, we all knew we would be tested in real-life situations before we came here.'

'Of course.'  Byleth agreed.  'However, I did expect that there would be some time to prepare you better for what we will have to now discuss and what you are going to see today.'

'See?'  Sylvain sat forward in his chair. 

'There will be a presentation of sorts for the last hour of class this afternoon.'  Byleth replied.  'All three houses will be attending.  A demonstration to illustrate the teaching you will be receiving going forward.'

 'I.. don't really understand.'  Ashe blushed when he realised he had spoken aloud.

'That's okay, Ashe.'  Byleth's face relaxed a tad when she looked towards him.  'For me to teach what I need to teach you - you need to get an idea of why I am teaching it.'

'Right.'  Ashe still looked confused.

'I know a few of you already have field experience.'  Byleth carried on stoically.  'For those who do not, I am sure you have all experienced the stories brought back by family or friends and the tales told by bards and in books.'

'Of course.'  Ingrid agreed.

'You need to forget them.  Completely.'  Byleth held the girl's gaze.

'Forget them?'  Ingrid looked a little annoyed.  'I assure you, Professor, the reports that I have been subjected to are certainly not fairy stories.'

'You can still forget most of what you have been told.'  Byleth repeated.  'I guarantee you that no matter how gruesome a recounting you may have heard, it will not convey the entire truth.  It is not actually any desire to deceive that fuels such telling.  It is usually a desire to forget.'

'I think I understand what you are saying.'  Dimitri said quietly.

'The biggest error that an inexperienced warrior will make is assuming that their opponent will play nicely.'  Byleth leaned against her desk.  'Added to the belief that form and skill alone will allow them to survive.'

'Well, of course, if you are the better-skilled combatant, you will most likely win.'  Felix scoffed.

'In many cases, yes.  A large proportion of any enemy you face may well have far less training than you; many may not even be true soldiers.'  Byleth agreed.  'That just means though that their desire to stay alive can push them to do things that no amount of your formal education will prepare you for.  You are not taught to play dirty when you are drilled.  I will be showing you how to not only defend yourself against the unexpected and less chivalrous behavior that you may encounter - but how to deal it in return if you need to.'

'You plan to teach us to fight like a mercenary?'  Ingrid asked.

'Mercenaries are most often used where the fighting is thickest, and most do live to collect their wage.'  Byleth replied without rancor.  'You think that it is only the common sellswords who commit acts that are less than honorable in battle?' 

'It can be chaos.'  Dimitri whispered.  'It's not talked about, but the Professor is right.  The instinct to survive can make animals of us all.'

'I'm sure that it does you, boar.'  Felix muttered.

Byleth's hand slapped down hard on Felix's table, making the boy jump. 

'It may not fit the lofty ideal's of how fighting should be.'  She told the class calmly.  'But, indignation at the method means nothing if you are dead.'

Byleth walked slowly down the classroom as she let that thought sink in.

'Look.'  She said finally.  'All trained fighter understand the need for discipline and following tactics, but reality means that you will end up facing a stranger in a fight that will be to the death.  We are going to be focusing on defense to begin with.  Staying out of trouble, supporting each other as a unit, and working together to achieve a common aim.  It's not a game, though, and sometimes the rules that you have learned are broken.  Keeping your head both literally and figuratively in those situations, being confident in adapting and doing what you have to - that is the key to coming back alive.'

'That... makes sense.'  Mercedes said slowly.  'What is the demonstration that you mentioned?'

'Ah, well...'  Byleth walked back up to the desk at the front.  'Obviously, I can't recreate an actual battle environment to illustrate my point.  It would be impossible to stage the stench of blood, shit, and piss and the sheer noise and confusion.  You will have to wait until we are in the field to experience those problems.'

'Oh...'  Ashe felt his face go red.  That was certainly not something he had read about.

'Instead, I intend to give you a taste of what you might face.  If, for example, the person you engaged with in battle was someone like me.'

'You are going to let us fight you properly?'  Felix's eyes shone.

'Hardly.'  She shook her head.  'I am going to be fighting my da.'

'Bloody hell!'  Sylvain sat back in his chair.  'Like for real?'  He asked.

Byleth nodded.  'No restraint.  Since our ability is fairly even we will have to be creative to actually claim victory, and therein will lie the lesson.  The stuff that you might get thrown at you that is beyond the norm.  How we each deal with it.  How it affects the fight.' 

'Who will win? I mean, who usually wins when you spar?'  Dimitri asked.  He sounded nervous.

'I can't remember the last time we actually fought each other.'  Byleth admitted.  'It's not like we need to since we normally engage in real combat on a regular basis.  It's probably been a few years, at least.  I can beat him.  Just, it never happened that often.  I guess we shall see how much I've improved!'

'Professor...?'  Ashe's hand had risen.  'Can you tell us a bit about some of the fights that you have been a part of?  It all sounds so very different from what I have read about...' 

'Not a great deal on the specifics actually.'  Byleth mused.  'Most of the details become a bit of a haze unless something exceptional stands out.  You would be better asking someone who has fought but only sporadically.  For me - it has been so often over so many years that all of the combat tends to run together in my mind, the knowledge of what to do, when and where more of an instinctive reaction than something of remark.'

'But you say that most people would not give an honest telling of what they have done.'  Ashe reminded her. 

'Well, that's true.'  Byleth sighed.  'It is easier to forget that you had to leave a man with their belly spilled on the ground to suffer instead of killing them cleanly - that you couldn't end their agony because three others were trying to finish you at the same time.  It's hard to accept that you sliced off a man's hand when he moved it in front of your blade unexpectedly due to his own lack of awareness and that he ran screaming away before you could do anything else.  You just say, 'I won.' and leave it at that.'

'This is all really depressing.'  Annette spoke up mournfully from the back of the classroom.  'I think I'd like to stick to throwing rubber-balls at people.  Perhaps when you become King you could make it a law that disputes are settled by snowball fight's or something Dimitri!'

'A poetry competition!'  Ashe suggested.

'A bake-off.'  Mercedes beamed.

Byleth's lips quirked into her small smile, her eyes softening as Dimitri chuckled.  'Sounds good to me!'  She agreed.  'Dimitri - was are counting on you to make it so!'

'Counting on the boar... well that will work.'  Felix grouched.

Chapter Text

All three of the houses left their classrooms to head to the training grounds at precisely the same time and mingled into one large unit on the short walk up to the arena.  Claude sauntered alongside Hilda, his usual grin plastered to his face, but his eyes fixed firmly on Professor Byleth.  She was marching crisply at the head of the pack, deep in conversation with Dimitri and Dedue, looking like she didn't have a care in the world.

The same could not be said for Claude.  He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was at least partly responsible for the duel that was about to happen, and it didn't sit well with him at all.  He was very capable of processing information quickly and clearly, and his intelligence was far sharper than he allowed anyone else to realise.  His wariness meant that his thoughts and schemes were his alone, and the only person likely to be hurt if they blew up in his face was himself.

The Professor was different, though.  She was disarming.  A few nights ago, they had escaped to a secluded spot behind the greenhouse and overlooking the lake, where she had filled him in on what had happened at the meeting between her father and Rhea.  Her rhetoric had been subdued, but it was abundantly clear from her concise report that Jeralt believed the Archbishop herself was the woman that Marianne had overhead assisting a villain to escape.  If that was the case, then it was also likely that the same villain was the bandit that was waiting in the Red Canyon for Byleth and her students. 

Claude's mind had gone into instant overdrive. 

'Seems odd to me Teach that Rhea appears intent on making forcing you into fights.'  He said after a bit of thinking time.  It wasn’t a statement that he had fully processed himself, but it had fallen from his lips regardless - his usual reticence undermined by her honesty and the unexpectedness of her sharing the information with him, even though she had said she would.

She looked at him quizzically and waited for him to expand an explanation.

'Well,'  He continued, thinking aloud. 'If Seteth is to be believed... it was Rhea who tampered with the odds in your session with Jeritza, allowing the Knights to attack you as well.  That attempt to overwhelm you screamed that it was a test of some kind.'

'I assume it was to see if I would lose my shit when in a difficult situation, to gauge whether I was a risk to you kids.  Why else would she be interested in making me fight?'  Byleth asked.

Claude shrugged.  'I don't know.'  He admitted. 'It's just a thought.'

Byleth tapped at her chin with a finger.  'If she needs me to continue to prove my control, then maybe I should address it myself.'  She mused.

'You have already agreed to her stupid mission.'  Claude said sourly.  'Not that I am sure it was a good idea to accept, by the way.  I'd have thought that thwarting her plans, whatever they are, would be a better tactic.'

Byleth smiled at him, although her eyes were dead.  'Killing bandit's isn’t going to be much of a challenge, Claude. Not in itself.  Even if it is a set-up of some kind, Jeralt will ensure that the Knights that accompany us will be the best, and Seteth will be there too.  If there is anything out of the ordinary, he will provide additional protection for the students.'

'Still...'  Claude was feeling itchy.  It was an odd kind of sensation.  He couldn’t put a finger directly on his cause for concern.'

'...But, if it is just fighting and proving myself that Rhea is after, well - that is an objective I can address straight away.'  Byleth paused thoughtfully.  'I haven’t fought properly since my arrival.  To do so would be a good lesson for you students in the reality of battle as well.'

'None of us are ready to fight you properly.'  Claude shook his head.  'Not even Felix.  I know that you are holding back when you spar with him.'

'I will fight with Jeralt.'  Byleth said quietly.  'A real bout.'

'What?  Why?'

Byleth smiled again, but it was hard and feral.  'We push each other to our limits.  It's one of the reasons we don’t spar together anymore, no need to.  It will, however, be brutal and short of actually killing someone skilled; it's the closest I can get to a punishing workout.'

'What will that achieve though Teach?'  Claude looked concerned.

'I can't accept that the Archbishop wants to actually harm the students.'  Byleth said thoughtfully.  'The point I made on how much flack would come back on the church if someone was seriously hurt or killed after being sent out by Rhea with just an untried mercenary is too compelling.  I have to wonder if she is simply trying to activate the stupid crest that I appear to have in some way.'

'Wait.  That's new.'

'Oh.'  Byleth looked up at Claude in apology.  'It's not a secret, I only learned of it recently though.  Hanneman doesn’t recognise it, but it is a major crest.  That's all I know.'  She sighed. 'I read that they are activated offensively.  It could make sense to get me fighting properly if she is looking to get more information about it.'

'You didn’t know about it before?'  Claude looked stunned.

'I didn’t even know what a crest was.'  Byleth told him.

'That does sound viable then.'  Claude agreed slowly.  'Although surely it has played a part in your skill before now... you have fought a lot more than most people.'

'I wouldn’t know if I had been doing something unusual.'  Byleth grimaced.  'My da might have noticed something, but honestly, he appeared properly surprised when a crest showed up as well.'

'If that's the case, then you might well be right, I guess.'  Claude frowned.  'I can't help but think it's more involved than we realise though.  I don't like the idea of you pandering to what Rhea wants without knowing why she wants it.  Are you sure about fighting your Da?'

'Yeah, its a plan - if I can get the other Professor's and Seteth on board.'  Byleth replied stoically.

Claude hadn’t exactly avoided Byleth after their conversation - but he had needed some time to gather his thoughts.  He was still to reach any kind of epiphany.  He was definitely uneasy, and it wasn’t just regarding the situation at hand.  Interesting though it was, he was becoming distracted and careless.  He was not a man who trusted others or allowed them to see him too clearly, he had learned the hard way to avoid letting anyone in.  Yet he had started to find himself opening up to the strange Professor.  Not only that, he found that talking with her was genuinely stimulating.  Together, it seemed natural and easy to open up and feed off of each other - but when he considered his actions later, he cursed himself.  He needed to regain some distance and equilibrium.

Jeralt was already waiting for them when they reached the training grounds.  He grinned when the students entered and sketched a rough salute at Byleth.

'Get yourselves settled.'  He demanded gruffly as Byleth started to strap on some armored pieces to her usual mercenaries outfit.  'We will get this done as quick as possible so that there will be time for questions at the end.'

He was interrupted by the door opening and Seteth coming in, followed by Rhea and Jeritza.

'Huh.'  Jeralt looked annoyed.  'This is a lesson, not a spectacle.'  He grumbled.

Rhea smiled at him gently.  'It has been a very long time since I have had the opportunity to see you fight old friend.'  She said softly.  'When I heard that you would be matching yourself against your daughter, I'm afraid I was unable to resist the pleasure of witnessing the event.'

'Well, sit down then.  We want to start.'  He replied gruffly.

Claude caught Byleth's eye at Rhea's entrance.  The Professor's glance in his direction was a bit smug.

'I don’t like this at all.'  His return look conveyed.

'Alrighty.'  Jeralt noted that Byleth was ready.  'So the point of this is to give you kids an idea of an actual fight to the death.  I don't want any healer intervention unless we call for it...'  He gave Manuela a smile.  'It's gonna be bloody, but we both know our limits, and neither of us actually wants to die, so just let us be till we're done.'

'If you insist.'  Manuela snorted.

Without warning, Jeralt turned and charged at Byleth.  She moved sharply to her right, making him correct his course as he drew out his sword and clashed into her bodily.  She shoved him back hard and put a bit of distance between them.

To begin with, the combatants met each other with fierce speed and dexterity.  Byleth had hardly moved in her match against Jeritza and the Knights, but against Jeralt, they were both a flurry of activity.  As they flowed against each other, they both displayed nothing less than correct textbook engagement - recognised attack and counter that those students who had trained with a weaponsmaster could name albeit administered at a frightening pace.

From the start, it was evident that Jeralt was undoubtedly the stronger of the two.  His bulk and stance made him practically unmovable unless he chose to shift, but it didn’t hamper his strength or velocity in the slightest.  His face was granite as he hacked at Byleth, relentlessly pounding her defense.  Byleth's eyes were empty, her body moving reflectively against the onslaught, her own attacks well-executed counters that were lighter but no less deadly.  Within a very short time both were bleeding from a myriad of minor cuts and slashes that had found their mark.

It wasn’t until Jeralt scored a deeper wound to Byleth's sword-arm which sent her weapon spinning from her hand that the action became unpredictable.

Byleth hissed in pain, but without any further consideration of the injury she threw herself down, avoiding the second swing of his blade by a mere fraction and wrapped herself around one of his legs trying to unbalance him.  Jeralt's stance was too solid however.  Keeping both feet firmly planted, he twisted slightly to drive his sword once again in her direction as she brought her elbow upwards in a wicked jab at his groin.  He groaned loudly, and his attack faltered for a second, which was enough time for Byleth to pull herself up his body with a grip on his arm, which she then bit into - hard.

'Bloody hellcat!'  Jeralt swore as he fisted his other hand and punched her solidly on the side of the head, knocking her back but unable to keep a grip on his weapon or prevent the short staccato kicks that she aimed at his knee and leg as she went down again.  Before he could move she lunged herself across the floor towards his fallen blade, and he swore colorfully as he dived in the opposite direction to where her own sword had landed a while ago.

The combatants now had some space back between them, both had a weapon again, and they were both on their feet, circling.  Blood was trickling steadily from the side of Byleth's head, and Jeralt was moving with a noticeable limp.

The audience was silent.  Claude dragged his eyes away from the action for a second to sweep a look over his companions.  Everyone was on their feet except for Lady Rhea, who sat frozen like a statue with a small smile hovering on her lips and her eyes gleaming.  Many of the students looked scared.  Seteth was frowning, and Manuela's hands were wringing together as if holding back her healing skills was becoming a challenge.

The ringing of blades brought Claude's attention back to the fighters.  They were inches apart, and while they were both pushing each other backward and forwards in a deadly dance, Byleth now held her sword with both hands, the wound on her arm obviously affecting her grip.  Seemingly aware that she was now at a disadvantage, her assault was more desperate and much less refined, and her breath was coming heavily.

'I'm not falling for it, By.'  Jeralt advised her.  'Save it for someone who doesn’t know you as well.'

With a growl, Byleth moved into a stunning attack, her strength and vigor seemingly miraculously restored.  She took a kick to the stomach, which hardly bothered her, her blade moving faster and faster.  When Jeralt finally gave in to her momentum he aimed a sweep to her legs, pushing them out from underneath her, very quickly turning on the floor so that he could grab her neck and roughly press her face into the dust.  Unfortunately the angle was too tight to get his sword in on her effectively, so he chose to grab her throat instead in an attempt to choke her.  Byleth's free hand moved to her own thigh and she took out her dagger, which she drove with some force into Jeralt's leg, although the heavy armor of his guard negated a lot of its damage.

Jeralts' hand moved back to her head, holding it firmly in the dirt making it hard for her to breath.  Byleth became completely inert.  He shifted his weight to bring his sword around correctly, but in that moment Byleth twisted violently, managing once again to get a knee connected to his groin and throwing up gravel up into his face with force.

She pushed him bodily off her and rose gracefully, stamping down on the hand that was gripping his weapon - forcing him to let go of it.  Jeralt entangled himself around her legs, and they were grappling for several moments, trying to get the upper hand - fists and feet connecting brutally, but Jeralt's greater weight eventually subdued Byleth and this time he was able to reach directly for his sword to end her.

His one second of distraction meant he missed the incoming headbutt on the underside of his chin that had him gasping for breath.  By the time the next second had passed, it was him that had the sharp edge of a blade resting at his throat.

'Dead.'  Byleth said quietly.

'Aye kiddo.  Guess I am.'  He agreed with a proud grin despite the blood pouring from his split lip.

'I am really, really glad that they are on our side.'  Caspar whispered loudly to Linhardt, who could only nod his agreement.

Chapter Text

'That bloody woman is following me again!'  Sylvain muttered, throwing down his cutlery and pushing his plate of half-eaten food across the table grumpily.

'Tsk.' Was all the reply that Felix bothered with, rolling his eyes.

'Hey, it really isn’t my fault this time!'  Sylvain moaned piteously.  'I don’t even know who she is, but for the last couple of weeks, she keeps turning up... everywhere.'

'Which one?'  Ingrid sounded bored, but she was the only person even remotely willing to humor him.

'Over in the corner...'  Sylvain looked up covertly.  'Nah, she's gone now.' 

'Unusual for a woman to be stalking you.'  Dimitri said seriously.  'Aren't they normally either actively chasing after you or running in the opposite direction in tears?'

'Ouch!  Harsh.'  Sylvain's grin was back.  'But yeah, true.'  He agreed.  'I wouldn’t mind so much, she's quite pretty, but her stare is really intense - it cuts right through you.  Even worse than the Professor.'

'Well then, that probably clears up the mystery you idiot.'  Felix had finished his meal and stood up to leave.  'If she is giving you the evil's, she's probably a friend of one of your latest conquests.  Expect a beating once she's worked out that you're as weak as shit.'

'Ingrid will protect me!' 

Ingrid grimaced.  'Ingrid will probably be siding with the girls you offended.' She told him.

'No fair!'  Sylvain grumbled.

Felix left without another word, and Ingrid shrugged and moved a few tables over to sit with Dorothea and Petra, who had just come in and settled.

'What are your plans for this evening, Sylvain?'  Dimitri asked politely.  'Would you care to join Dedue and I in the library?'

'I have a date.  Obviously.'  Sylvain grinned.

'I see.  Well, no knocking on my door needing a place to hide when it all goes horribly wrong.'  Dimitri insisted.

'I have such a bad rep... it was once Dimi.'  Sylvain lunged back on his chair and smirked.'

'Not quite how I remember it.'  Dimitri smiled at his friend.  'So who is the lucky lady this time?  Do we know her?'

Sylvain smirked.  'Happens that you do.'  He replied languidly.  'It is our lovely Professor!'

Dimitri's fork clattered noisily to the table.  'Professor Eisner?'   He asked, breathlessly.  Even Dedue had a stunned frown on his normally stoic face.

'I have been asking her out ever since we won the right to a boon in the ball tournament at the start of term.'  Sylvain said smugly.  'Finally wore her down.  Don't underestimate the power of my overwhelming charm.'

'When did she agree?'  Dimitri demanded.

'I asked her this afternoon, right after her fight with Captian Jeralt.  Figured she could use a relaxing evening off after all that brutality.'  Sylvain looked immensely pleased with himself.  'I was right.  She immediately said she could do with a laugh.  She obviously appreciates my wit.'

Dimitri began to chuckle maniacally.  'I don't think that's quite what she meant, Sy.' 

'Eh?'  Sylvain looked puzzled by the sudden change in his friend's demeanor. 

'I think she means she will be laughing at you.  Like a court jester.'  Dimitri smiled brightly.  'Now that I can totally see!'

Sylvain's eyes narrowed.  'You are just jealous.'  He accused.  'You'll be eating your words once I have completely wooed her.  After all, I am the one here who will be taking out a pretty lady tonight.'

'Hmm.  What flowers would you prefer for your funeral wreath?'  Dedue asked inquisitively.   'I am quite sure that it will be needed if you attempt any of your usual tricks on the Professor.'

Sylvain's mouth dropped open.  'Are you teasing me, Dedue?  Woah... that's progress!'  He clapped the big man on the shoulder enthusiastically.  'I'm not even going to be offended by your comment.  It warms my heart to have you join in with the Sylvain bashing brigade!'

'...Which the professor will join quite literally too if you don’t behave yourself.'  Dimitri chortled.  'I have to admit I would love to be a witness to this debacle!'

'Meh, just you wait.  She will be begging me for a second date before the end of the evening.'

'Okay...'  Dimitri stood up, still laughing.  'I want a full and honest report tomorrow morning, before class.  If you make it to class, that is!'

.

Sylvain left the dining room with Dimitri and Dedue and then cheerily waved goodbye to them when they split off to head to the library, while he made his own way to the dormitories.  He considered picking up some flowers first, but rejected the idea quickly, not wanting to put any undue pressure on the evening.  He had only been half truthful with Dimitri after all. 

Sylvain had been sitting at the end of his group for the fight earlier, as well as the subsequent talk that Jeralt and the Professor had given after.  Once the class was dismissed, he'd remained seated waiting for the crowd to disperse a bit while Byleth had moved over closer towards him waiting for her father, who was in a hushed conversation with Seteth.  She had eased herself gingerly to the floor, obviously still hurting even after the healers had seen to her wounds.  Sylvain was just about to get up to leave when Seteth's voice rose slightly, and it was just about possible to make out his words from his and Byleth's position.

'She is your daughter Jeralt.'  Seteth said sourly.  'How can you possibly think it is okay to train her that hard?  Cause that much injury?'

'Something happens to me, then she is on her own.'  Jeralt replied levelly.  'You think I like beating on my kid?  I haven't gone that hard on her for years now; only did it today because she asked me to.  But at least I do know that if I'm gone, she's got a chance.  I've prepared her as best I can, and I'm proud of her.'

'I am fully aware that the point you were making to the students is a valid one.'  Seteth sighed.  'I also know first hand the lengths that you have to be willing to go to if you are to survive.  It was just surprisingly difficult to watch it in this particular setting.'

'It ain't like she didn’t hurt me in return, you know.  Little cow bit me so hard it'll scar.'  Jeralt grouched, then suddenly he grinned.  'None of our more recent commissions have been all that difficult though.  Good to see her able to beat me.'

'I doubt there is anyone here that could come close to her Jeralt.  If she can beat you ... well, you are a bit of a legend after all.'  Seteth grasped the man's shoulder.  'If you aimed to give her the upbringing she needed to survive, then I'd say you did a pretty good job regardless of the method.'

Sylvain snuck a look at the Professor as the two men started to move away.  She was staring into space, her face blank.

'Hey, Professor.'  Sylvain called softly.  'You feeling okay?'

Byleth focused on him after a few moments had passed.

'Yes.  Thank you, Sylvain.'  She replied tonelessly.

Something tugged at him, whether it was the beat-up bruising on her face or the vacant expression, Sylvain couldn’t say, but compassion rose like a tide.

'Hey,'  He said lightly.  'How about you finally agree to that date I've been begging you for?  You look like you could use an evening off.'

'I really don't think...'  Byleth began.

'You owe me a boon.  Please, Professor, let me cheer you up a bit.'

She scrutinised him closely, her eyebrows knitting together.  When she didn’t see any of his usual cockiness, she turned her head to the side curiously.

'Okay.'  She said tentatively.  'I could use a good laugh.'

'Like anyone has ever seen you laugh!'  Sylvain stared back at her with equal curiosity.  'So that's set me a challenge then.'

'If you start making any jokes like the ones Alois uses, I will punch you.'  She warned, standing up and stretching her back carefully.

'Please!'  Sylvain grinned.  'Give me some credit!'

'Well, then.  You go get some food, and I'll have a lie-down.  Call on me when you're done.'  Byleth started to move away. 

'Wait!'  Byleth turned back.  Sylvain anxiously ran a hand through his messy hair.  'I was going to take you for food.  Don't you want any?'  He asked.

'I took a pretty heavy kick to my stomach.'  Byleth grimaced.  'I mean, I have never actually been on a date, but I reckon that projectile vomiting during one isn't the aim?'

'Right.'  Sylvain laughed nervously.  'So what would you like to do then?' 

'Surprise me.'  Byleth patted his arm lightly.

'Great.'  Sylvain murmured as she left the building.

.

It was definitely odd that as soon as he had gotten within view of the Professor's door, Sylvain started to feel nervous.  'Get a grip Gautier..'  he admonished himself.  'She is just a girl.  Granted, she could kick your arse from here to next week, but still...'  He sucked in a deep breath and marched up to tap politely for her attention.

Despite the healing that she had received, Byleth's face and neck were still discolored with bruising, and when she swung the door open, her eyelids were droopy from sleep.  Sylvain wondered idly how she still managed to look beautiful regardless.  His ears turned red, then redder again when she thrust a bright yellow flower at him.

'Aww, Professor - I didn’t bring you a gift.'  He admitted swallowing hard as he took the offered bloom.

'That's okay.'  She looked confused.

'Well, it's customary for a man to bring flowers when he is wooing a woman.'  Sylvain explained.

'There will be no wooing.'  Byleth frowned. 

'Of course not.  I like my chest free of dagger wounds.'  Sylvain agreed quickly.

'I wouldn’t stab you, Sylvain.'  Byleth replied seriously.  'Just hurt you enough to cool you down.' 

'That makes me feel so much better.'

'I'm teasing you.'  Byleth said completely dead-pan.

'You mean you would stab me?'

'Are you going to try it and find out?'  Byleth raised an eyebrow.

'Absolutely not.'  He promised.

Her lips quirked a little at his expression.  'You are amusing me already.'  She told him.  'So, where are we going?'  She stepped out of her room and shut the door behind her.

'Ah.. well.'  Sylvain tugged at his collar awkwardly.  'I did a bit of thinking, and my usual haunts won't be any good.  You have already vetoed a meal, then normally after food, I'd suggest a quiet and secluded walk... I know a few places...'

She frowned at him.

'But obviously, that is completely out of the question!'  He added quickly.  'So I needed somewhere that you would enjoy and that was populated... so...  sorry Professor.  All I could come up with was the training hall to watch Felix knock me on my arse for an hour or so.'

'Okay.'  She agreed.

'Unless you want to forget about fighting for the evening, and we could go to the library or something.'  He added.

'No, I do like watching Felix decimate you.  Sometimes it's funny.'  She nodded.  'Although you could have just asked me to come and watch you spar - you didn’t have to waste your boon on making it a date.'

'Oh, no Professor.  Telling Dimitri I had a date with you was pretty much the highlight of my year.'  Sylvain smirked.  'Telling Felix might be even better.'

'Hmm.'  Byleth matched her pace to his as they meandered towards the training hall.  'Why's that?'  She asked.

'He totally won't believe it.'  Sylvain grinned.

'I see.  So I should play along?'  Byleth said thoughtfully.

'That would be so good.'  Sylvain's enthusiasm was compelling.

'It's your boon.  I feel I should do what I can to meet your expectations.  Within reason.'  She agreed.

Felix was the only person in the training hall when Byleth and Sylvain entered.  He was busy taking vicious swings at a target dummy.

'You here to spar?'  He looked at the state of Byleth's face.  'I'm not sure that's such a good idea after your exertions this afternoon.'  He added sorrowfully.

'Sylvain is going to spar with you.'  Byleth replied.  'I am just here as his date.'

'You what!'  Felix stumbled in the middle of his swing and had to scramble to keep himself upright.  He did drop his sword.

'Did I forget to mention?'  Sylvain asked innocently.

Felix looked from Byleth to Sylvain and back again... his mouth hanging open.

'Are you bloody crazy?'  He demanded of Byleth.  'Perhaps Jeralt hit you too hard on the head.  We can go to the infirmary...'

'I'm fine, Felix.  Thank you.'  Byleth told him, taking a seat.

'Why in the world... why... I mean...him?'  Felix was shaking his head.

'Thanks, friend.'  Sylvain grouched.

'Why?  Well, Sylvain is very handsome - and I have been wondering what all of the fuss is about.  Since I have never been on a date before it should be noted that my expectations aren’t very high.'  Byleth said seriously.

'You can't date a student.'  Felix said crossly as Sylvain beamed at Byleth.  'Seteth will go off his head if he finds out.'

'Don't get your pants in a twist, Felix.'  Sylvain laughed.  'I just called in my boon is all.  We are having a very public date to give the Professor a well-earned break.  He turned back to Byleth.  'I have to admit Professor, you lied like a trooper.  Totally believable!'  He bowed at her.

'I didn’t say anything untrue.'  Byleth replied in confusion.

'You did say he was handsome.'  Felix pointed out.

'I have got eyes.'  Byleth shrugged.  'And I am simply fascinated by the inexplicable way he goes through relationships.  Not having any experience myself - he is an interesting study.'  She added.

The redness of Sylvain's face clashed horribly with his hair.  Felix burst into a short bark of laughter.

'Totally met your match.'  He punched Sylvain's arm.  'Come on then, loser.  Fight me.' He demanded.

Chapter Text

Byleth lowered herself into the heat of the main bathing pool with a happy groan.

'Mind if I join you?'  A soft voice sounded behind her from the entrance of the complex.

'Of course, Mercedes.'  Byleth didn’t bother opening her eyes, the relief of the water soothing her aching muscles almost overwhelming her.

There was a small tinkling laugh as Mercedes slipped into the pool close to her.

'You look like you are enjoying that, Professor.'  The girl observed warmly.  'You must ache after your exertions earlier.'

'It was the hardest work-out I have had in quite a while.'  Byleth agreed easily. 

'Well, I'm relieved that it's not because you were forced to beat up on Sylvain during your date!'  Mercedes giggled again.  'Prince Dimitri joined Annette and I in the library and was trying to lay bets with us that you would have to slap him at least once!'

Byleth lazily opened her eyes.  'Sylvain was actually rather charming.'  She said matter-of-factly.  'It was amusing to note that he appears unable to control his suggestive commentary even when he tries.  Several times he ended up apologising for what came out of his mouth.'

Mercedes nodded with a smile.  'I have realised much the same.'  She agreed.  'You have a good read on people, Professor.'

'You think so?'  Byleth glanced at the girl relaxed beside her.  'I don't really know that much about interactions with others.  I would be glad if I am not making a total fool of myself, though.'

'You are definitely much franker than any of us are used to, but that isn’t a bad thing.'  Mercedes beamed back at her. 

'I never spoke very much before I came here.'  Byleth admitted.  'Obviously, I observed my companions in our unit, their fighting style, and their strengths and weakness in battle, but it was pointless seeking friendship with someone who may die in the very next fight.'

'That's quite a hard way of looking at it.'  Mercedes observed softly.

'I suppose there was a little more to it than just that.'  Byleth agreed after a moment's consideration.  She sat herself up and reached for her cloth and soap.  'Life on the road was a constant blur.'  She explained as she began cleaning herself carefully around her bruising.  'The travel, fighting... keeping ourselves fed, grabbing somewhere to sleep, mending armor, keeping weapons maintained...'

'Yes.'  Mercedes said thoughtfully.  'I have never considered what it must be like on a practical level.'

'Busy and exhausting.'  Byleth nodded.

'What in the world could encourage people to chose that kind of life?'  Mercedes sounded perplexed.  'I know that mercenaries may not have the highest of social standing in general, but there are bands like your father's that are very well respected.  I must assume that your company was not made up of villains.'

'There are circumstances that a person can feel the need to run from other than the law.'  Byleth replied quietly.  'I don't suppose I have ever really thought about it before - but a large number of the people that joined with us over the years left behind a secure position and took to the road after they lost family.'

'Oh...'  Mercedes breathed compassionately.

'I guess my father would have been drawn to that need in a potential recruit.'  Byleth added thoughtfully.  'After all, he left the Knight's of Seiros when my mother died.'

They sat in silence for a few moments.  Byleth ducked herself under the water then attempted to reach up to soap her hair.  Sharp pain in her shoulder caused her to hiss uncomfortably.

'Let me help?'  Mercedes murmured.  Byleth nodded.  Mercedes scooted near and reached a hand to lay on Byleth's sore wound.  Heat infused it, soothing away the sting in the muscle.

'Thanks.' 

'You are welcome.'  Mercedes took the soap from Byleth and tentatively leaned closer to start massaging it into Byleth's hair.

'You don’t have to...'

'Oh, shush now.'  Mercedes smiled, continuing her work.  'Close your eyes, Professor, lest the suds get in, and they start to sting.'

Byleth did as she was bid, the dextrous fingers of her companion working firmly on her scalp and easing her into deep relaxation.

'You are very good at that.'  Byleth sighed happily.

'I spent quite a bit of time aiding in an orphanage that the Church I lived at ran.'  Mercedes explained.  'I have bathed many, many children.'

'Um...'  A new voice sounded from the doorway to the pool.  'Am I interrupting?'

'Not at all your Highness.'  Mercedes said kindly motioning for Edelgard to join them.

'I didn't expect there to be anyone here so late.'  Edelgard admitted.

'I just have to rinse out the Professor's hair.'  Mercedes smiled.  'If you wish to wait until we are done...'

'Please don't rush on my account.'  Edelgard insisted, coming forward hesitantly and dropping her towel to get into the water.  'I imagine that after your fight, the water is a balm, Professor.'  She added.

'Mmm.'  Byleth carefully opened her eyes and nodded towards Edelgard, who was self-consciously huddled in the corner.  'I thoroughly recommend Mercedes magic fingers.'  She added.

Mercedes giggled when Edelgard's eyes widened.

'Did I say something wrong?'  Byleth looked confused.

'Not at all, Professor.'  Mercedes laughed as Edelgard flushed and cleared her throat.

'I... I... imagine it is extremely relaxing.'  Edelgard stuttered.  'It was an awe-inspiring display that you and your father provided us earlier...'  She carried on, dragging her face away and gazing down at her hands.  'Are we working on practical skills in tomorrow morning's session?'

'We will be starting with defensive skills.'  Byleth agreed as Mercedes poured clean water over her head, washing away the soap rather efficiently. 'I am hoping we will have time for some hiding too.  It was one of my own favorite lessons from my Dad.  I could hide for hours, and he couldn’t find me.' 

'Hiding?'  Edelgard repeated.  'Really?  Professor, I can see the point in the more unpredictable tactic you employed against your father in the pursuit of staying alive, but you cannot expect me to believe that you have ever hidden on a battlefield, or run away from a fight.'

'Of course, I have.'  Byleth looked surprised.  'If the odds are too high, what point is there in blindly rushing in to die rather than waiting for support or a better opportunity?' 

'It sounds a little craven...'

'It is good sense.'  Byleth said firmly.  'Although not if it means compromising anyone else, of course.'

Edelgard sighed.  'You keep making me have to think about things in a different manner, Professor.'  She grumbled.

Both students were shocked when Byleth started to laugh, a short but genuinely amused chuckle.  'I think that's what a professor is supposed to do!'  She noted cheerfully.

Edelgard found it impossible not to smile back.  'I suppose so!'  She agreed while Mercedes clapped her hands together happily.

'I realise that given your status and responsibilities, you will most likely have to consider a battle from a position of detachment in the future.'  Byleth's voice was gentle.  'It will serve you well, though, to also be able to see and experience things from the perspective of those that fight for you.'

'As long as you don't allow such sentiment or consideration to distract you from the ultimate aim that initiated the conflict in the first place.'  Edelgard added seriously.

Byleth's smile melted.  Mercedes, who had moved from her washing the Professor's hair to massaging her shoulders, felt her tense against her fingers.   Mercedes squeezed a purposeful support.

'I think I am done here.'  Byleth stood carefully.  'Thank you, Mercedes.  You have been a real help.  I expect my muscles will be grateful in the morning.'

'You are very welcome.'  Mercedes also stood and hopped gracefully from the pool, passing Byleth a towel before wrapping herself in her own.'

'Would you like me to wait for you, Edelgard?  I can walk you back to the dorms if you wish.'  Byleth asked with detached politeness.

'There is no need.'  Edelgard was looking away from her two companions, a flush back on her cheeks.  'Hubert is awaiting me outside.'

.

Byleth and Mercedes walked back to their rooms in companionable silence for most of the way.

'I feel that I am sorely lacking in my understanding of what being a noble actually means.'  Byleth said suddenly.  'The vast majority of my students are nobles - I should address this shortcoming.'  She sighed heavily.  'There is so much more than I expected - that I know nothing about.'

Mercedes took her arm reassuringly.  'I don't think you need to press for an immediate understanding.'  She said simply.  'You are a very quick study.  I think it would serve you better to learn as you progress.  After all, being a noble means very different things to different people.  It isn’t something that you can just read a book about.'

'Edelgard concerns you - does she not.'  Sothis observed unexpectedly.  The girl had been silent all day.

'I know that it probably sounds strange coming from me...'  Byleth continued.  'But I find that Edelgard appears very isolated, except from Hubert.  I know that she has pressure and responsibility that is currently beyond my understanding, but given her status, do you think it is wise to encourage her to a greater closeness to others, or is she right in maintaining her distance?'

Mercedes paused in her step and slipped her hand down Byleth's arm to take her calloused hand in her own soft one. 

'That is an excellent question.'  Mercedes replied as they began to walk again.  'Not one with an easy answer, I suspect.'

'She has sought out company from me.'  Byleth added.  'Albeit in a strange and roundabout way.'

'Quite apart from her role, Edelgard is quite hard to get to know.'  Mercedes mused.  'It is driving poor Dorothea crazy.  She says that sometimes Edelgard lets her reticence slip a little, and she is just like any other girl her age, but those instances are few and far between.'

'Trust definitely seems to be an issue.'  Byleth noted.

'Well, yes, I imagine that would be the case.  Mercedes replied.  'If you were to ask for my input Professor, I would say the same here as I did earlier.  Give things some time.  We are all only just beginning to get to know each other, even the more gregarious ones among us.  Time and experience may result in a different attitude, or at least give you a better understanding of how you can best support her.'

'I think that perhaps it is you that should be the Professor, Mercedes.'  Byleth squeezed her hand.  'Although if that meant I was required to take on your healing duties, I am afraid we would all be in trouble.'

'Pfft.  You would likely be excellent at it if you bothered to learn.'  Sothis huffed.  She seemed a little put out.

'You have never learned any magic?'  Mercedes asked.

'We never had any magic-user or healer in our band.' 

'Hmm.'  Mercedes looked thoughtful.  'You know it would probably be a good idea to learn the basics of healing at least.  You are likely to always be in the thick of a fight.  You could potentially save someone's life, given your proximity to the action if you had the right skills.'

'I'll speak to Manuela.'  Byleth agreed.  'My time is rather limited these days, though.'  She added.

As they came up towards Byleth's room, the rest of the Blue Lions were outside of Dedue's playing with an ecstatic Colin.

'There you are, Mercedes.'  Annette beamed.  'You took your time in the bath!'

'Hey!'  Sylvain added.  'I thought I was the one who begged a date with the Professor.  Looks like you were the one that got all the action!'  He indicated the girls joined hands.

'Whatever you do..'  Mercedes whispered to Byleth with a wicked smile.  'Do not mention my magic fingers!'

Chapter Text

'You will be heading out to conduct your mission in two days' time.'  Jeralt told Byleth.  'I expect Seteth will be in contact with you soon, but I wanted to give you a heads up first.'

Byleth silently poured them both tea as she considered his news.  'How many Knights?'  She asked once they were settled with their cups.

'I have assigned a unit of six.  Alois will be commanding them.'  Jeralt noted the twitch to Byleth's brow.  'I trust him kiddo.  Not only that, but he will listen to you if he needs to.'

Byleth nodded thoughtfully.  'Okay.'  She agreed.

'All the reconnaissance says that this is going to be a simple mission.'  Jeralt continued.  'It does appear that the bandits have constructed what appears to a kind of base, but the numbers - while they do fluctuate - aren’t unusual or anything more than would be expected.'

'Any word on who is leading them?'

Jeralt frowned.  'No.  Can't seem to get any eyes on the leader.  If it is Kostas - the bandit that was supposedly executed here - I would assume he is expected to keep a low profile.'  Jeralt took a slow sip of his tea.  'I would also assume that he is not meant to be caught.  You would recognise him, as would Alois and possibly Lady Edelgard.  Even Seteth may, although I don't know for sure if he actually ever met with the prisoners directly.'

'So you believe he may have an escape plan in place?'  Byleth mused.

'That would be my reckoning.'  Jeralt agreed.  'I have mentioned it to Alois in a roundabout way - but I think it will fall mainly to you to stop him if it's possible.  I don’t know what bringing him back here would accomplish, but it will be proof that a man who was supposedly executed here didn’t die as the paperwork states.'

There was a tapping at the door.  Jeralt scowled.  'Bit late for visitors.'  he grumbled.

Byleth cracked the door open and quietly admitted Seteth.

'Ah.'  Seteth's eyes settled on Jeralt.  'I see you have already been brought the news then.'

'I assumed that you wouldn’t think it fit to visit my daughter's room after hours.'  Jeralt barked harshly.

Seteth colored slightly at the grizzled man's accusatory tone.  'I did consider the propriety of the situation; however, I felt the situation warranted being conveyed at the earliest opportunity.'  He turned his face to Byleth.  'You will have your lesson time tomorrow with the students to detail your final arrangements, Professor.   I realise the notice is short, but I trust that you will be ready.'   He turned stiffly as if to leave.

'Ah, sit down, Seteth.  Take some tea.'  Jeralt ordered.

Seteth paused and looked to Byleth.  It was her room, after all.  She nodded at him with a small smile.

'So how are the brats doing then?'  Jeralt asked once Seteth was seated.

'Very well.'  Byleth admitted.  'After our display, they really buckled down to training.  I expected it from the Eagles - they knew they would be facing a real scenario soon - but actually, all of the houses have shown a great deal of dedication to becoming prepared.'

'So splitting your time between the houses hasn’t been an issue?'  Seteth enquired.

'If anything, it has helped.'  Byleth replied.  'Each group presents very different challenges, but also require differing solutions - which are actually applicable to all.  There are a lot of 'characters,' but strangely not that many egos.'

'Jeritza has also commented on how inspired the students seem this year.'  Seteth commented.  'Honestly, despite my reservations about the whole premise of this mission, I am heartened that it has led to the student's motivation increasing.'

'So long as there are no mishaps along the way.'  Jeralt grouched.

'Indeed.'  Seteth agreed.  'It does appear simple enough, though.'  He smiled at Byleth.  'You will be traveling out with the Knights on Saturday morning, and a site for that night's camp has already been determined.  I will be joining you Saturday evening, and then we will complete the remaining march to Zanado at first light on Sunday.  It isn’t expected to be a protracted encounter, but there is quite a large area to search.  I anticipate, though, that I will be able to scout by air once the visible forces have been dealt with.'

Seteth and Jeralt didn’t stay much longer, leaving Byleth with a  bit of time to adjust her lesson plan for the next day.

'You hid your worry rather well.'  Sothis remarked as soon as the others had left.

'Da probably picked up on it - but we don’t do the talky thing.'  Byleth replied as she poured herself more tea and settled with her schedule.

'It's a shame it's had to come up now if you ask me.'  Sothis was on the bed, scratching behind Colin's ears.  'It has been a really positive few weeks.'

'Yes.'  Byleth agreed.  'The birthday parties for Annette, Mercedes and Raphael were a lot of fun.  I had never attended one before.'  She smiled at the memory.  'I think Raphael actually managed to eat his own body-weight in food.'

'I wished I could eat.'  Sothis laughed.  'Those cakes that Mercedes made looked divine.'

'They were!'

'The lesson in hiding was good too.'  Sothis' eyes sparkled.  'Linhardt falling asleep hiding in the laundry basket and then getting dumped in the washing pool was rather memorable.'

'Why Sothis.  Are you actually becoming fond of the students?'  Byleth teased.

'I think it's your feelings carrying over to me.'  Sothis accused.  'But... hmm.  I suppose they are entertaining in their own way.  Better than being stuck with just you and a bunch of surly mercenaries, that's for sure.'

'What if I can't keep them safe?'  Byleth suddenly asked in a whisper. 

'Oh, fie child.  You have me on your side, making you at least five times more intelligent than you would be on your own.'  Sothis retorted, then her tone became gentler.  'We can turn back time if we have to.  I'd not advise trying to turn it back as far as we did the last time - it devastated your energy reserves.  It should be enough to avoid any major disasters, though.  If we keep our wits about us.'

'I am glad you are with me, Sothis.'  Byleth admitted shyly.

'Well, of course you are, my darling.  I am simply amazing.'

'And so very modest...'

Sothis laughed gleefully.  'That too.' She agreed.

.

It didn’t take long to make the necessary amendments to her lessons for the next day, and Byleth was done before the evening curfew bell tolled. 

After a little consideration, Byleth slipped from her room and made her way to Edelgard's door, knocking sharply.  For once, the girl was alone and getting herself ready for bed.

Byleth told her about the details for the upcoming mission and gave her the schedule she had put together.

'I will need you to ensure that the team is packed and ready by the end of tomorrow.  You will be free from lesson's tomorrow afternoon, although I will stick to my normal session with the Deer.'

'I should let Hubert know.'  Edelgard murmured.

'I expected him to be here.'  Byleth admitted.  'I will pop along and appraise him of the situation.'

'That would be good.  Thank you.'  Edelgard agreed.

That made up Byleth's mind for her.  She had considered speaking with Hubert several times in the last few weeks and had held back, but now - on the cusp of the mission and with a chance to talk to him privately, she decided that she would.  He looked surprised when he opened the door to her, and a little alarmed when she asked if she could come in.

'Is there a problem?'  He asked as he ushered her through the door.

'Wow!'  She exclaimed as she entered.  'What the hell happened here?'

Hubert looked sheepish.  'I don’t generally have company Professor.'  He grumbled.  'If I had known you were coming I'd have tidied up.'

Byleth was genuinely surprised.  Given the man's fastidiousness, she had expected his room to be spartan, but it was a complete explosion of stuff. 

'You are actually worse than my da!'  Byleth told him.  'How do you find anything in here?'

'I know exactly where everything is.'  He insisted.

'Yeah, Jeralt says the same and moans like hell when I tidy up around him.' 

Hubert looked horrified.  'Please... don't even...'  Byleth had picked up a pile of books from a chair and gently placed them on the floor so she could sit down.

'My fingers are itching, but I'll cope.'  She said.

Hubert huffed a sigh of relief and turned his own desk chair round to face her.  'So I assume this isn’t a social call.'  He stated.

Byleth repeated the information she had given to Edelgard.

'I see.'  Hubert said, finally.  'Do you believe we are ready, Professor?'  He asked.

'Our main task is to observe.  I think that as long as no-one panics and remains disciplined, we will be okay.'  Byleth told him.  He nodded agreement.  'There is one other thing, though.' 

'Oh?'

'Hubert, do you know of any reason that the Emperor might wish to harm Edelgard?'

Hubert's face was immediately concerned.  'What have you heard?'  He asked quickly.

'The person we believed was the bandit leader - who was brought here after the attack where I first met Edelgard - he was swearing that the attack on the students had been commissioned by the Emperor.  Obviously, his claims were dismissed as an attempt to defend himself.'

'Honestly, no.  I can't think of any reason her father would want Edelgard harmed.'  Hubert replied.  'That's not to say that it couldn’t be someone else from the empire conspiring.  It's hardly a stretch to come up with at least a dozen individuals that would be happy to see her dead.'

'Right.  That's... alarming.'

'That is merely her reality.'  Hubert said with a grimace.  'Are you concerned that these bandits we will be clearing out may have the same orders?' 

'I would rather consider it and be forewarned than just ignore the likelihood.'  Byleth admitted.  'It may also be that the leader - Kostas - is still alive and in the canyon himself.  If he is, I would like to ask him a few questions, and that would be our secondary mission.'

'The bandit leader was executed by the Knights.'  Hubert disagreed.

'If it was actually Kostas that was imprisoned here at all.  He may have had someone else take his place before they engaged with Jeralt and I that night.'  Byleth pointed out.  'The bandits had given chase for quite a distance.  It would have been easy to slip away unnoticed once he saw that things were going wrong.'

'The Archbishop and the Knights believe this too?'  Hubert asked faintly.

'No.'  Byleth leaned forward.  'The execution seemed to be the end of things in their eyes.  It is my own theory and my own worry that came from looking at every available source before this mission.  I may be way off the mark; there was nothing particularly remarkable about the first attack except for the fact it was the three future leaders of Fodlan that were threatened.  It's just the oddness of the suggestion that 'the flaming Emperor' was behind it that raised my hackles.'

Hubert was very pale.  'In truth, it could be something or nothing at all.'  He observed.

Byleth nodded.  'I don’t have enough concern that I feel I should call off our participation in the mission.  I simply thought that you would rather I shared my niggles, given your role and duty.  You will obviously make Edelgard your priority regardless of anything suspected, and I will also be especially vigilant for anything that may target her in particular.  A bit more cooperation and teamwork Hubert... If we keep this up, we are in danger of becoming friends after all.'  She smirked.

'How very quaint.'  Hubert deadpanned.  'Nonetheless, your dedication to my Lady's  safety and that of the others is appreciated.'  Hubert was silent for a moment then he looked at Byleth questioningly.  'You haven’t said why you think it is Kostas himself still at large though Professor.  I admit I don't understand your logic on that.'

Byleth paused for a moment considering her answer.  She made up her mind to keep things simple.  Trust only went so far.

'There is no honor among thieves.'  She stated baldly.  'It takes a strong leader to pull and keep a team of bandits together.  It is simply a suspicion based on how quickly a second bandit group emerged in close location to the Monastery - it is an odd place for any bandits to set up given the proximity to an institution boasting the Knights of Seiros - let alone two unique groups.'

'Yes.  I can see your thinking.'  Hubert was nodding.

'However - even if it is the same leader, there is no real evidence to suggest that Edelgard, or indeed anyone, is actually a specific target.'  Byleth admitted.  'I guess that's what I hope to ask him when we catch him.'

'Indeed.'  Hubert said quietly.  'I'm sure his answers will be most enlightening.'

Chapter Text

Byleth spent Friday morning with the Eagles going over the details of the next few days.  There was a distinct air of anticipation, albeit a muted one.  Even Caspar was quieter than usual.  One of the first issues that arose was one that Byleth had not anticipated in the slightest.

'We are going to be camping out?'  Dorothea asked incredulously.  'I assumed we would be staying at an inn or something.'

'We will be making camp as close as is safe to our target location.'  Byleth replied,  'This is news to you?'  She asked.  'I am sure that when an army marches, it does not stay at inn's on its journey.'

'Well, of course not.'  Dorothea agreed.  'It's just, I have never spent the night out of doors before.'

'Really?'  Byleth was a little bewildered.  'Has anyone else not camped before?'  She asked. 

Bernadetta looked even more scared than she had when she'd heard the news they would be leaving the next day.  'No walls!  No walls at all...!'  She was murmuring to herself.

'I have never camped out.'  Edelgard admitted.  'I don’t see that it will be an issue for one night, however.'

'I think it will be fun!''  Ferdinand added.

'I have been outside on nights many times.'  Petra stated.  'Sometimes hunts are long and requiring of patience.'

'Yeah, me and my siblings camped loads.'  Caspar agreed.  'Linhardt came with us too sometimes.'

Linhardt nodded dreamily.  'I don't really mind where I sleep, as long as I get to sleep.'

'It's just... How do we manage things... well... like our personal needs?  Washing, changing clothes...'  Dorothea asked.

Now Byleth was completely confused.  'Water will be brought up from the nearest water source.  Our location will have been chosen with that in mind.  You can change in your tent if you need to.  Obviously, they will be shared, but...'

'We can address the issue of privacy when we have an idea of how the camp works.'  Edelgard interjected.   

'This is your main concern?'  Byleth asked.

'Simply a practical one.'  Dorothea replied.  'You must have encountered challenges when it came to modesty when traveling with the Mercenaries, Professor.'

'I... well, no... not really.'  Byleth was at a loss.  'I mean, we mainly spent our time living outdoors, so you just got on with stuff.  The longest I have ever spent residing in an actual room has been here.  There were no special rules or treatment on the road, so I'm not really sure... I...don't really know...' 

'The Knights that accompany us will be experienced in travel logistics and will aid in ensuring we are set up correctly.'  Hubert said, noting Byleth's discomfort.

Byleth nodded at him, gratefully.  'Yes, they will.'

'So no stripping yourself of your blood-crusted armor in the middle of camp after the fight.  It would probably cause half of the students to faint!'  Sothis advised with a deep chuckle.  'Although actually, it would be immensely amusing if you did.'  She added wickedly.

'So is there any other concerns that come to mind?'  Byleth asked although she couldn’t prevent her blush at Sothis' commentary.

'Bernie should hide now...'   The girl looked up into the silence that hit at her statement.  'I didn't say anything!'  She insisted realising everyone had heard her.

'You can hide behind me.'  Caspar told her.  'On the mission, I mean.'

'You are too short!'  Bernie disagreed.

'Yeah, but I'm bigger than you, and I'll smack anyone who tries to get you!'  He said seriously.

'He does love smacking people.'  Linhardt agreed with an absent smile at Bernadetta.

'We have practiced our defensive position's extensively Bernie; as long as you listen, everything will be fine.'  Edelgard added.

'I can't hear anything!'  Bernadetta covered her ears.

'I know that you would never let your friends down.'  Hubert frowned. 

'Bernie doesn’t have any friends...'  The girl objected miserably.

'You don't have to come.'  Byleth said over everyone's protestations.  'Nobody has to if they don't want to.'  She added into the stunned silence.

'I... can stay here?'  Bernadetta asked breathlessly.

'You can.'  Byleth agreed.  'It is a shame, of course.  One less person on our side is an advantage to our enemy.'  Her gaze swept over the other students.  'Can anyone else use a bow, by the way?  I would be happier about our chances if we had some aerial cover.'

'You could always ask Claude to step in.'  Bernadetta suggested meekly.

'Claude?'  Edelgard scoffed loudly.  'The last time we faced bandits, Claude was the reason we nearly got killed.  He ran away instead of standing to fight.  We hardly want him along with us.'

Byleth was frowning.  'So, does anyone else want to sit this one out too?'  She asked.  Nobody said a word.

'I'll come...'  Bernadetta whispered.

'Pardon, Bernie?'  Byleth smiled at the girl.  'I couldn’t hear you.'

'I said... I'll come.  If you need a bowman so much.  I'm not that good yet, though.'  She ended belligerently.

'Oh, wow, I'm so glad.  You had me worried for a second there!'  Caspar cheered.

'Indeed.'  Hubert inclined his head at the red-faced girl.  'I will definitely feel more confident with your support.'  He did an excellent job of keeping the sarcasm from his voice, although it was evident in the covert eye-roll that he directed at Byleth.

'Cute!'  Sothis laughed.  'Hubert was right.  You are a master manipulator.  I am so proud of you!'

.

The afternoon saw Byleth teaching the Golden Deer, which was by far the most challenging of her sessions each week.  While the Eagles were disciplined and the Lions respectful, a few of the Deer were neither.  Leonie remained rather dismissive of Byleth and was argumentative to boot.  Lorenz had a habit of continually questioning whether many of the principals that Byleth was attempting to instill were actually appropriate for a noble.  Hilda made no kind of effort whatsoever, although Byleth had quickly learned that the one thing Hilda hated more than activity was being ignored.  The battle of wills between them was interesting.  Lysithea was unbelievably impatient and often challenging and belligerent in her manner.

Regardless, Byleth absolutely loved and respected their spirit.

Countering them, Ignatz and Marianne were quiet and needed to be coaxed gently, and Raphael struggled with most things until he had been given a chance to physically do them a few times.  Over it all sat Claude with a generally amused but distanced humor.

'Would you prefer to be noble or alive, Lorenz?'  Byleth asked testily when the lad questioned her for what felt like the millionth time in the practical session she was running.' 

'I'd prefer to be both.'  He huffed in annoyance.

'Let him die, that'll teach him, Teach.'  Claude remarked from the sidelines of the training ground.

'Not an option, unfortunately.' Byleth grumbled.

'I'm tired!'  Lysithea moaned as she was stumbling up the obstacle course that had been set out.  Her physical stamina was appalling, and Byleth had already made a note to question Manuela on Lysithea's overall health.  There was no way a child of her age should lack as much conditioning as she did.

'Take a seat, Lysithea.'  Byleth called to her.

Byleth somehow managed to get through the afternoon, but she was relieved when the final bell tolled, and she could call an end to the class.  There had been too much on her mind to deal with the challenges today, and her head was pounding.

'You look like shit.'  Claude grinned at her as soon as the other students had raced out.  'Tough crowd, huh.'

'My head has been elsewhere today, I fear.'  Byleth admitted sprawling down next to him.  'Anything new come to light?'  She added once she had confirmed they were alone.

Claude's grin turned to a frown.  'Nothing.'  He admitted.  'Myles mentioned that the Knight's have been moaning about the babysitting job they have to do - but there certainly isn’t any worry about your mission.'

'Just need to make sure that Kostas doesn't get away then.'  Byleth sighed.

'I have a little something that might help if you want it.'  Claude said delicately.  'A mild paralytic, just to ensure that he doesn’t put up so much of a fight, you have to hurt him.'

'How mild?'  Byleth asked suspiciously.

'I haven’t had a chance to test it.'  Claude admitted.  'We could always try it on you, see what happens...'  He joked.

'I don't think I would make the best test subject.'  Byleth replied seriously.  'Besides, I need to be fit for tomorrow.'

'Good point.'  He agreed.

'Claude...'  Byleth's brow had creased questioningly.  'Can you tell me about the night I met you.  About the bandit attack.  All I know is what happened after you ran into us.  I'm wondering if I'm missing something.'

'I don't think so.'  Claude sat back, his arms behind his head.  'It was all fairly standard.  The Knights had taken Dimitri, Edelgard, and I out to familiarise us with the local area.  Point out dangers and places that were off limits - the kind of things that house leaders need to know.'

'So it was part of the orientation program?'

'I'm not sure.  I'd not heard anything about it until the day before - but it made sense.  Never questioned it, to be honest.'  Claude frowned.

'Go on.'  Byleth urged him.

'We were actually on our way back home when we were accosted.  We were all a way behind the Knights. I was in front of the other two all on my lonesome while Dimitri and Edelgard were bickering as per usual, bringing up the rear.'  Claude sat up straight.  'I suppose it was a bit strange that the bandits drove straight into the Knights first, but then almost ignored them and turned their sights to us.  Some stayed, keeping the Knight's busy... but the majority rushed forward.'

'You would have thought that the bandits would have deemed the knights to be a more dangerous foe than three students.'  Byleth agreed.

'Right.  Except it was only two of us.' 

'Two?'  Byleth looked confused.

'Yeah, as soon as the attack came Edelgard was gone - hidden somewhere.  Standard royal protocol, I guess, although Dimitri didn’t disappear.  He drew his weapon and nodded to me his intention to stand his ground.  I immediately dived back a bit to get some range for my bow,  and that's when I stumbled over Edelgard in the undergrowth.  Trouble was the bandits all rushed towards me, completely ignoring Dimitri - I guess to counter my weapon - and in doing so they were unwittingly heading straight for Edelgard.'

'Edelgard says that you turned tail and ran away.'  Byleth noted quietly.

'Yeah, I know. '  Claude's mouth was set in a straight line  'She is right to a point, I was trying to lead them away from her.  Didn't really work that well; they were already almost on top of her by that stage, so she ended up having to run too.  Dimitri followed trying to protect us.'

'Why didn't you stick up for yourself when she accused you of trying to desert them?'  Byleth asked gently.

'What's the point?'  Claude's tone was suddenly harsh.  'Truth is, if I hadn’t gone in her direction in the first place she would have never been in any danger, so she was pissed at me for that.  And who is going to believe my version of events rather than her Imperial Frostiness's anyway?'

'I do.'  Byleth said firmly.  'I'm sure Dimitri would back you up too.'

Claude's shoulders slumped.  'Yeah, he probably would, but he wasn't that close to us and busy being heroic at the time.  Besides, his own relationship with Edelgard if bad enough as it is.  No point in making it worse over something that really doesn’t matter.'

'You don't mind?'  Byleth asked.

'Edelgard knows what really happened.  If she chooses to present a different version to save her own face at the fact she hid from danger, then that's up to her.  I'm no stranger to people thinking poorly of me. Besides, if I am believed to be a coward, then I have the upper hand if I need it.  The element of surprise and all that.'  Claude plastered a smile to his face.  'Except I doubt I can get one over on you.  You are too bloody observant by far.'

'Oh Claude.'  Byleth sighed at him, but she was smiling.  'You are far smarter than I will ever be.  I guarantee that in a short time you will be running circles around me.  To be honest I'm dreading it!'

'Is that so Teach?'  Claude's own smile broadened.  'Well, I'm looking forward to that!'

'Have you considered that it might have been you that was the target that night?'  Byleth asked after a few moments of reflection.

'I always consider that.'  Claude nodded.  'Too many people would like to see me dead not to.'

Sometimes I think being a noble is actually deadlier than being a mercenary.'  Byleth grouched.  'I don't understand a lot of it - but from what I've seen and heard so far, it completely sucks.'

'You got that right.'  Claude agreed heartily.

'All the more reason to learn to survive!'

'Speaking of which, you will be careful on this mission right Prof?'  Claude looked away from her.  Byleth swore she could see a blush as he turned.

'Careful is my middle name.'  She replied stoically.  'Along with dangerous, obviously...'  She heard his snort of amusement.  She stood and ruffled his hair affectionately.  'Hopefully I will come back with some real answers.'  She said as she turned to leave.

'Just make sure you come back in one piece.'  He replied, but she was already gone.

Chapter Text

Laying completely still and wide-eyed on her bed, Byleth was overcome with a crushing sense of oppression that made it hard to breathe, let alone sleep.  She had never suffered from pre-fight anxiety before. Typically her stoicism overcame emotion yet tonight; a thousand worries trampled her delicate equilibrium and threatened the slumber that was crucial for peak performance.

After an hour or so of tossing and turning,  Byleth conceded defeat and got out of bed.  Pulling on some clothing, she slipped out of her room into the darkness and started to walk briskly with no intention in her mind except to physically wear herself out.  Her feet took her down towards the lake, the gently lapping water serene and calm as she came to a halt on the dockside to take in the ambiance. 

Byleth had only been there for a few minutes when she was suddenly alerted to movement, far too subtle to be the regular guards making their rounds.  She reacted immediately, her hand seeking out her weapon and her stance slipping into a defensive half-crouch.

'I did not take you for the type to be restless on the eve of a mission Professor.'  A soft voice murmured to her, startling her with its closeness.

'Jeritza?'  She turned to the figure stood uncomfortably close behind her.  'There aren’t many that can sneak up on me.'  She breathed. 'I honestly didn’t notice your approach till the very last minute.'

 He didn’t reply, and neither did he move, forcing her to step back warily.  In the moonlight, he looked ethereal, his long light hair and porcelain mask seeming to radiate gently in the lunar glow.  His piercing eyes were trained to hers, although any expression that he might have been wearing was lost by the mask.  His lips certainly gave no hint of his intention.  He had not drawn his own weapon, however. 

Cautiously, Byleth lowered her blade although she didn’t sheath it.  With her back now to the water, she was uneasily aware that he could likely push her into the lake before she would be able to retaliate appropriately. The thought made her more nervous than it warranted.

'I am restive on occasion, although I am generally not afflicted before a fight.'  She eventually told him in order to break the strained silence.  'Taking charge of a number of untried children though is a new and daunting prospect, and I believe it is playing on my mind.'

Jeritza's shoulders relaxed a fraction at her reply.

'I see.'

He moved past her to the edge of the dock, staring out across the water as if in reflection.  After a moment's consideration, Byleth shifted to stand by his side.

'You have sleepless nights too?'  She inquired politely.

'It is rare for me to rest completely undistracted.'  He replied and turned a quick glance in her direction.  'I neither want nor seek any companionship.' He added harshly.

Byleth shrugged.  'In that case, I will bid you goodnight.'  

'Professor...'  His eyes had turned back to the water as Byleth began to move away.  She stopped and waited for him to speak.  'I have no doubt that your mission will go well.'  He offered quietly.  'You are prodigiously skilled.'

'Thank you.'

'I have no desire for friendship.'  He stated although it came out rather awkwardly.  'However, I admit that sparing with you would be to both of our's benefit.'  He paused again.  'If you find yourself thus afflicted on another night, I would not be entirely opposed to crossing swords.'  He added finally.

Byleth nodded.  'Would you care to spar now?'  She asked.

He made a soft sound that may have been a laugh.  'I would hate to hurt you before you head out tomorrow.  Another time.'

Byleth sighed.  'You are right, of course.'  She noted.  'It would be difficult to predict an outcome between us - your strength is astounding.  I would go so far as to say that it is greater even than Jeralt's.'

'Flatterer!'  There was definitely amusement in his tone now, and it sounded good on him.  'I have no need for your empty words.'

'Why do you bloody nobles always assume that what I say is anything other than honest?'  Byleth asked curiously.

There was a loaded pause.

'Why do you assume I'm a noble?''  He asked, equally curiously.

'Because they never take a comment at its face value.'  She ground out.  'It's like lying to each other is a sport.  Besides, your form when you fought me was similar to what the students have learned.  It's different from the Knight's and the guards, and different again from the base-born.'

The silence was longer this time.  Eventually, it was Jeritza that broke it.

'Good night Byleth.'  His voice was soft again.  'Be vigilant on your mission, but don't doubt yourself.'  He left her standing on the dock, moving as stealthily away as he had been when he had approached her.

It took Byleth another hour of walking before she was finally exhausted enough to return to her room.  When she did, she fell into a deep and untroubled slumber.

 

~0~

 

Seteth was beginning to question the good sense of leaving Flayn in the company of Jeralt while he went out to oversee the Black Eagles on their mission.  He wasn’t entirely sure his sister wouldn’t push the grizzled man into mischief simply to amuse herself.

The students, along with Alois and his Knights and of course, Byleth had left the Monastery early that morning and in generally good spirits.  Flayn had accompanied him to see them off, and Jeralt had been in attendance too.  As soon as the party had left, Flayn grabbed onto Jeralt's arm and asked him enthusiastically what his plans for her entertainment were.  It was evident that Jeralt hadn't even considered that she would want to undertake any actual activities with him while she was under his care.  He had looked flustered and unsure, and Flayn had picked up on his weakness immediately with a wicked glint in her eye that had Seteth's heart dropping.

'I'm sure I can think of a few suggestions, Captain.'  Flayn said innocently, patting his arm.  'We can discuss it later when my brother takes his leave.'

'Right.'  Jeralt looked at Seteth for help, but her brother just shrugged awkwardly and wondered if there was any chance of reigning his sister in from whatever it was she was planning.

Although Seteth had a mountain of work he had to get through before he could even consider starting his journey later that evening, he made sure that he found the time to take Flayn aside and speak to her sternly.

'Remember that Jeralt is Byleth's father.  If you get him into any trouble, it will hurt her too.'  He pointed out.

'Whatever do you mean?'  Flayn smiled sweetly.

'I saw the look in your eye earlier, Flayn.  You have identified Jeralt as someone who is likely to be a sucker for your charm, and you intend to use it against him mercilessly.' 

'Brother!  What an accusation to make...'  Flayn's grin was feral.  'I admit I generally have scant opportunity to be able to distract Captain Jeralt from his work, and I am intrigued to see if I can get him to share just a little more information on his past than you have been able to prise from him.'

'Flayn...'

'What?  You don't want to know what the man is hiding?'  Flayn suddenly looked much more severe.  'We are getting nothing from him, or Rhea for that matter - and poor Byleth knows nothing to tell.  Most of the daily records from his time here were lost in the fire that occurred when he disappeared.  I deem this as a perfect opportunity to see if I can knock a few things loose.'

'You need to take care.'  Seteth beseeched.  'For all that Jeralt may indulge you, he is not a stupid man.'

'No, he isn't, but then I am not a child who needs to be reminded constantly to be wary.'  Flayn retorted.  Her eye's softened a little at the concern that flooded Seteth's face.  'I promise that I will be circumspect.'  She told him.  'I am genuinely motivated by a desire to help Byleth, not curiosity or devious intent.  There is something intangible about her situation, and she needs answers.'

'And what if you find answers and have to keep them from her yourself?'  Seteth enquired quietly.  'It isn’t like we don’t keep a great many secrets of our own, and for a good reason.'

Flayn's brow knitted into a frown.  She didn’t reply.

'I know you like her Flayn... but I don't want to see you getting hurt...'

'You like her too.'  Flayn hit back at him.  'At least, if the amount of time I spy you staring at her legs is anything to go by...'

'Flayn!...'  Seteth felt a headache coming on.

Flayn snorted.  'Did you really think I wouldn’t notice, brother?'  She chuckled.

Seteth knew he had lost this argument.  He wisely stayed silent.

'It's not like I can blame you.'  Flayn considered with growing amusement.  'She is gorgeous after all.  I should note however that if you were to observe me staring so lecherously at one of the young men here, you would certainly have something to say about it.'

'I think this conversation is over.'  Seteth said firmly.

'No denial.  Hmm.  Interesting!'  Flayn's eyes were gleaming.

'I know when I'm beaten.'  Seteth tried to pull some dignity together.  'Regardless of whatever rebuttal I offered, you would choose not to listen.'

'True.'  Flayn agreed.

Seteth stood and indicated the door.  'I am too busy to deal with such nonsense.  If you are going to torment Jeralt then just have a care.  That is all I ask.'  He begged as she stood and skipped to the exit.

'I will Seteth.'  She agreed solemnly.  'And please - you take care out in the field.  I would hate to lose you.'

'I will.'  He promised.

'And take care of our beautiful girl too!'  She added with a cheeky wink.

'I intend to.'  He said quietly once she had closed the door.

.

There was still an hour or so's worth of daylight left when Seteth managed to get down to his Wyvern to commence his journey.  Jeralt and Flayn went with him to see him off, both of them fussing and offering 'helpful' advice.'

'I know you are both nervous.'  Seteth appeased them once he was astride his mount and ready to go.  'Jeralt, you know your daughter is capable and Flayn you know that I am too.  We will both be back before you have even had a chance to miss us.'

'Aye.  And if you let anything happen to my baby girl, I will kill you... so no pressure.'  Jeralt threatened.

'Then you will have to look after me forever Jeralt.  Are you sure you'd want that?''  Flayn smiled up at the warrior.'

'Good point.'  He grunted.  'I will just severely disable your brother then.'

'Deal!'  She agreed shaking his hand.

Seteth sighed heavily.  'I am really not sure I want to leave you two together.'  He grumbled.

'Aww.  What's the worst that can happen, brother?'  Flayn smiled up at him.

'I am hoping there will be a Monastery left for us to come back too.'  Seteth grouched as he brought his heels into his Wyvern's flanks, and the beast began to move.

'He is really protective isn’t he.'  Jeralt noted to Flayn as the Wyvern took to the skies with a shriek.

'Honestly, Captain.  You have no idea.'  She lamented.

'Figure that I do.'  Jeralt shrugged.  'The method may be different, but I annoy Byleth just as much in my own way.'

'I'd love to hear all about it!'  Flayn smiled her most winsome smile up at him as she pulled on his arm.  'Tell me some baby Byleth stories over dinner?'  She begged.

'Oh,  well now - there's an idea.  I'm pretty sure I have a whole ream of them that would embarrass her mightily!'  Jeralt agreed with a smirk.

Chapter Text

The spot that had been scouted for overnight rest on the way to Zanado was reached just as the sun was beginning its descent.  The forest they were travelling through was all gloom and shadows in the disappearing light, and a slight breeze had started to pick up.

The three mounted Knight's at the head of the column pulled up sharply when they recognised the clearing.  It was marked by a prepared stack of wood for the fire and signs that some of the underbrush had been cleared away to facilitate their accommodation.

Byleth was pleased to note that it was a good spot in terms of defence, although she hadn’t really expected anything else.  The western side of the clearing was lined with a sheer rock face thrusting well above the tops of the tree's which their tents were to be erected against, allowing some relief from the elements as well as protecting their backs. 

The stream that they had followed during their march was just over to the east and was both broad and deep enough to make crossing it a risk - also serving to prevent an easy attack from that direction.  They were vulnerable to the North and the South, but the knights were quick to set up a watch at both ends of the camp - sending out two to scout ahead and look for any signs of trouble.

'Oh, thank goodness.'  Dorothea breathed when the group finally came to a halt.  'Honestly, I thought my feet were going to be worn away to nothing.'

'Didn't you spend hours stood up when you were performing on stage?'  Caspar asked, poking the songstress on the shoulder. 

'Well, obviously, but that didn’t come with copious amounts of actual walking and having to carry all my belongings with me.'  Dorothea grouched testily.

'I'd have carried your bags if you'd asked!'  Caspar declared.  'I could have carried everyone's!'  He flexed his biceps with a cheeky growl.

'A bit late now to offer!  I will employ you on the way home, though, so thanks in advance!'  Dorothea beamed at him and winked, which raised a rosy blush to his cheeks.

'How do you expect your stamina to improve if you let others lessen your load?'  Byleth commented with a frown.  'I don't hear anyone else complaining!'

'Bernie is too tired to complain.'  Bernadetta sighed, flopping to the floor with a grimace.

'No time to rest yet.'  Byleth warned.  'You have tents to put up, a fire to build, water to haul, and cooking that needs to be done.'

'Oh, Professor... you are so mean today!'  Linhardt admonished her, but he was grinning, and not only was he looking surprisingly alert but also somewhat engaged.  Fresh air obviously agreed with him.

'Yeah, Prof.'  Caspar added.  'Tough and mean.  Hey!  Can I organise the tents?  I've built loads of tents, it's so much fun!'  He asked, enthusiastically.

'In that case, I place you in charge of the accommodation, Captain Caspar.'  Byleth nodded at him,  'Do you think you can manage to keep Lin awake long enough to help you out?'

'Of course!'  Caspar declared, pushing Linhardt so hard the lad nearly flew off his feet.  'He's tall as well so he can do the hard to reach bits!'

'Who wants to do the fire and start cooking then?'  Byleth enquired next. 

'Me!  I want to!'  Bernadetta squeaked, scrabbling back to her feet.

'Please allow me to help in your endeavor, Lady Varley.'  Ferdinand stepped forward and bowed to the girl with a broad smile.  'Ferdinand von Aegir shall feed his companions the best dinner they have ever tasted!'

'Really?'  Bernadetta looked skeptical.  'Ferdie, I don’t think I've ever seen you cook before...'

'That is true.  I have never actually prepared a meal...'  Ferdinand agreed, taking her arm gallantly and leading her towards the pile of firewood.  '...But really, how hard can it be?'

'I want to go home now...'  Bernadetta moaned piteously.

'I guess that leaves collecting water for us.'  Edelgard nodded to Hubert, who went to the pack mule to collect buckets.

'Petra, please accompany them to provide a lookout.  The knights are patrolling the area, but it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant.'  Byleth requested.  The girl nodded solemnly and drew her weapon, a look of fierce determination on her face as she followed the other two back towards the stream.

'So what do you want me to do?'  Dorothea asked curiously as the others set about their tasks.

'Take a seat.'  Byleth instructed, pointing towards a large log that had been rolled into position for just such a use.  'I noted that you were limping as we came into camp, I expect you have worked up some blisters on your feet which I should look at.  I have brought a salve along, the one that my father and I use ourselves.'

Dorothea groaned miserably when Byleth helped her to remove her boots and rolled down the stockings that the girl was wearing.

'You need some proper socks.'  Byleth told her, 'If you are walking any distance, you need to cushion your feet against the continual impact.  I will lend you a pair of mine.'

'Hmm.  Let me help.'  Linhardt had observed what Byleth was doing and had wandered over to peer over her shoulder at  Dorothea's battered feet.  He directed a little healing magic, and Dorothea's expression immediately relaxed.

'That is so much better!'  She exhaled.  'Thanks, Lin.'   He nodded to her, then meandered back to Caspar, who was fighting to get control of a sheet of canvas three times bigger than himself and losing.  Byleth searched through her pack and brought out a big pair of socks.

'Ah... yes.'  Dorethea pulled them on and wiggled her toes against the rough wool.  'I am beginning to see I was woefully underprepared for this.  I believe I have become far too accustomed to comfort and style to have retained any sense of practicality.'

Byleth shrugged.  'All good practice.  Your blisters now will remind you never to forget the importance of a good pair of socks in the future.'

Dorethea smiled at the woman crouched in front of her.  'You are so skilled at making everything a good lesson, Professor, do you never... Oh!'  The girl froze, and her eyes opened wide in astonishment.  'Well now... would you just look at that!  What a surprise!'  She practically purred.

Byleth raised an eyebrow and turned to see what had caught Dorothea's attention.  It was Seteth, striding through the treeline from the south.  Byleth turned back to Dorothea and squinted at her appreciative expression in puzzlement.

'Did you not know Seteth was joining us?'  She asked.

'Of course, I knew!'  Dorothea said quietly, her eyes still fixed on the man striding towards them.  'But just look at him!  Who would have thought he was hiding all that muscle under his robes!  Now I understand why Manuela has so lamented her inability to snare him.'

Byleth gazed back at Seteth again.  He was dressed simply in Wyvern Lord garb and carrying a lance, and she had to admit that out of his formal monastery attire, he did look different - somehow younger and more relaxed.'

'Ladies...'  He greeted as he reached them.  'I see that you are all arrived safely.'

'Alois and the Knights are ensuring that the perimeter is secure.'  Byleth advised him.  'I didn't hear you land.  Where have you housed your wyvern?'  She asked.

Seteth was sweeping a measured look around the camp.  'He is off hunting.  He will return either to my call or when he feels like it.'  He shrugged, facing Byleth again.  'We have been partners for many years now.  Once a bond has been established, there is no need to control their movement or keep them tethered.'  He explained.

Alois was heading back into camp with two of the Knights.  He welcomed Seteth enthusiastically and reported that everything appeared to be in order.

'We have a watch rota in place, so the evening should be peaceful!'  He explained cheerfully.

'Err... excuse me!'  Dorothea said suddenly.  'I think I should go and help Bernie before she throws Ferdie on the fire and cooks him instead!'  She indicated to where the pair of students appeared to be having an impassioned disagreement.

'I will aid with the tents.'  Byleth added.  'You can manage with overseeing the cooking, Dorothea?'  She enquired.

'I'll get them both in hand.  Never fear!'  Dorothea laughed.

Once the ladies had moved to help out, and Seteth had stored his pack, he went back to where Alois was stood, watching over the camp with a practiced eye and a beaming smile.

'The journey went well?'  Seteth asked, standing beside the Knight and watching as Edelgard and Hubert hauled pails of water back towards the fire.

'No problems at all.'  Alois told him.  'There were a few grumbles, of course.  The kids aren’t conditioned for the march yet, but Captain Jeralt expected that and allowed the time so that we could keep the pace relatively easy.'

'Thoughtful of him.'  Seteth observed. 

Alois chuckled.  'Well, he's a hard and dangerous man, of course, but underneath that gruffness is a whole bucket-load of decency.  Not a surprise that Byleth is so protective towards her students.'  He jabbed this thumb towards where Byleth was patiently showing Linhardt the best way to mallet the ground-pegs down.  'Mind you, her mother was just about the kindest and gentlest soul you could ever hope to meet, and her girl is the absolute spit of her.'

'Is that so?'  Seteth's heart began to beat a little faster in his chest.  A sudden wave of competitiveness swept over him.  He would just love rubbing Flayn's face in getting more information out of Alois than she managed to get from Jeralt.

Alois was still chuckling.  'I can only imagine the Archbishop's face when she first clapped eyes on our Byleth.  It must have been like seeing a ghost.' 

'Rhea knew Byleth's mother?'  Seteth enquired lightly.  'I assumed that it was only Jeralt that she knew.'

'Oh.... crap.'  Alois's grin disappeared into a worried frown.  'I thought you knew, being who you are and all!   Aw, Jeralt is going to kill me for opening my mouth.'

'Please don't concern yourself Alois.'  Seteth said carefully.  'Rhea hasn’t been quite herself since Jeralt's arrival, and I haven’t liked to push her on why in case I stirred up unfortunate memories.  It would be a big help to hear what you know.'

'It ain't much.  It was sensitive at the time you understand.'  Alois still looked nervous. 

'I see.  So Rhea knew this woman well then?'  Seteth pushed gently.

'Jeralt's wife was originally one of Rhea's handmaidens.'  Alois said quietly.

Seteth couldn’t prevent his shocked expression.  Then unexpectedly he started to laugh.  'How extraordinary!'  He said gleefully.  'Why am I not surprised that Jeralt managed to steal away a nun from right under the Archbishop's nose!  Oh my days... that's priceless!'

Alois began to chuckle again too, his relief palpable.  'Yeah, totally a Jeralt kind of move.'  He agreed.

'Did they have to leave the Monastery once their relationship was discovered?'  Seteth enquired.

Alois shook his head.  'No, not at all.  They were married quietly - no big deal made of it.  I don't think many knew who she actually was; after all - the archbishop's intimate staff kept mainly to Lady Rhea and the church.' Alois scratched at his chin thoughtfully.  'Jeralt didn’t leave until after Byleth was born.  Her mother died at the birth of course, and By was in a bad state herself,  sickly and not expected to live.'

'That must have been difficult for him.'  Seteth said quietly.

'Yeah, we were out on a mission when it all happened.  He never got to say goodbye.'  Alois replied sadly.  'Then there was the fire...'  He continued.  'It was reported that the baby died in it.'  He looked fondly over at the girl who was now adding something to the food that was cooking on the fire. 'That at least is proven to be wrong!'  He noted.

'So Byleth was born at the Monastery.'  Seteth sounded thoughtful.  'Then Jeralt stole her away with him when he left, letting everyone believe she was dead.  I wonder why.'

Alois shrugged.  'If that's what happened, the Captain would have had his reasons.'  He said loyally.

'I don't doubt that in the least.'  Seteth agreed.  'I won't mention to Jeralt what you have told me.'  He added.  'I am grateful, however.  Given the situation it would have been harsh to have pushed either Rhea or Jeralt for the details.  I don't need to now.'

'Well that's something at least.'  Alois sounded relieved.

'Yes, it's quite something indeed.'  Seteth murmured, feeling sure that he had outdone Flayn's inquiries by a mile.

Chapter Text

Caspar's turn on watch came an hour after midnight when he was pushed awake by Linhardt, who had completed his own duty covering the first section of the night. 

'It's all so quiet, I could barely keep my eyes open.'  Linhardt reported as he climbed into the warm blankets that Caspar vacated, humming happily to himself.

'Can you please keep it down.'  Hubert huffed in annoyance.  'Some of us are trying to sleep.'

Caspar stepped over Ferdinand's slumbering form and pushed his way out of the tent, heading over towards the fire where Byleth, Alois, and Seteth had laid out their own bedrolls.  Edelgard joined them.

'Caspar, can you take the North point and Edelgard the South, just at the edge of the camp.'  Byleth requested quietly.  'There are Knights in place a bit further out, so if you hear any disturbance, report at once.'

Marching himself swiftly to the spot that the Professor had indicated, Caspar stared out into the trees, trying to adjust his eyes to the gloom and see if he could spot the Knights that were out there.  He could see nothing except the trunks of trees.  A glance back into the camp showed him that the Professor had laid down again, her eyes shut, although he was sure that she was awake by the tenseness of her posture.  He could just make out Edelgard's form stood at the other end of the site.  Aside from that, there was nothing of any remark to take his attention.  It was going to be a long few hours of boredom he realised.

Despite the peace, Caspar's enthusiasm and focus never wavered.  He amused himself primarily by counting the paces from one side of his watch post to the other - first in massive strides, then in mini-steps, and once that became dull, he tried to imagine what wildlife it was that was making the noises and the rustles he could hear. 

It was probably around halfway through his watch when Caspar heard something very different from the other sounds he had been listening to.  It was distant - but he would have bet anything that the incongruous ringing he could just about make out was the clash of weapons against each other.  He strained both his eyes and his ears so intently that he didn’t notice the Professor coming up behind him with a frown on her face.

'Wake the other's.'  She told him quietly, making him jump.  'Start with Seteth and Alois.  'Ensure that everyone stays silent, but gather them by the fire and be ready.  Let Edelgard know too.'  She added, just as a distant shout of warning echoed through the trees.  'Hurry!'  She urged, drawing her weapon.

Casper nodded and stumbled across to the fire, shaking Alois first and then Seteth. 

'Trouble.'  He told them - pointing towards where Byleth was stood frozen and alert.

Alois swore under his breath and dived for the tent where his off-duty Knight's were resting.  Seteth rose quickly and sprinted, lance in hand, towards Byleth.  Caspar headed to the boy's tent.

'Guys!'  He kicked indelicately at Ferdinand, who was closest to the entrance.  'Wake up!'

'Ouch!'  Ferdinand sat up.  'What the hell Caspar?'

'Shh!'  Caspar urged as Linhardt and Hubert blinked wearily at him.  'Looks like we have incoming.  Prof says to get ready and group up by the fire.  Gotta stay quiet.' 

'Edelgard?'  Hubert hissed as he swiftly stood, his sleepiness gone and grabbing for his boots.

'She's the lookout to the south.  The threat appears to be from the north.'  Caspar replied as he let himself out to go and get the girls.

In the short time it took for everyone to get together, the unmistakable sound of fighting had grown much louder and distinctly closer.  Byleth and Seteth remained on the edge of the camp, heads together, deep in conversation, and there was no sign at all of Alois or the Knights.  After a few moments Seteth looked up at the students, nodded to Byleth, and gave her a reassuring grip to the shoulder, then he hurried over to the fire.

'The Knights are dealing with the problem.'  Seteth said shortly.  'We will remain here and engage with any hostiles that get past them.  The Professor wants you to adopt your defensive pairs - Petra and Dorothea, you are to keep a close eye to the East and raise the alarm if you spy anything - Edelgard and Linhardt, the same but stay closer to the fire and look South.  We believe that any threat will come from the North, but it pays to be wary.'

'Shouldn't we go and aid the Knights?'  Casper asked excitedly.

'Alois will signal if help is required, but in honesty, given the denseness of the forest, everyone would end up split.'  Seteth frowned.   'Since Alois has placed Knights to cover the route along the river, the only place left for anyone to go is this camp.  If they do, you are to keep defensive.  Only engage if you are ordered or if it's completely necessary.'

Bernadetta let out a piercing scream of alarm, making everyone jump as two armed men suddenly burst from the trees and into the clearing a few yards in front of where Byleth was waiting.  Caspar grabbed Bernadetta by the arm and put a finger to his lips before she could cry out again.  She choked back a sob and nodded at him.

Caspar's attention swung back to the Professor.  She had retreated a dozen or so steps, to bring the interlopers further into the light and away from the cover of the forest, then with a single slash to one and a thrust at the other - both went down under her blade.  There was a ripple of shock that ran through the students, but Seteth quickly motioned for their silence.

Byleth placed her foot on the chest of the man she had impaled to pull her sword free of his body, and just about managed to jump out of the way of an arrow that sped at her from an unknown location.

'Seteth, take my position, Caspar and Ferdinand in behind him, and Bernadetta stay in range.  Hubert with me.'  Byleth turned to beckon the mage.  'We need to take out the archer, I want you to stay behind me as we run into the tree's and keep your sights up in the branches.  You see any movement you cast.  Got it?' 

Hubert nodded and trotted forward.  When he reached Byleth, they took off together at a run. 

Casper watched as they disappeared, only to hear a loud shout and a lot of cursing then a scream from an unknown voice.  Weapons rang, and there were several flashes of purple and violet magic.  Caspar started hopping from foot to foot, anxious to join the fray - then several bandits, all carrying large sacks ran out from cover and charge directly towards them. 

'Hold.'  Seteth ordered as Caspar twitched with the urge to run forward and meet them.  'Make them come to us.'  He added, raising his lance and firming his footing.  Caspar and Ferdinand followed his lead and prepared for the onslaught.  As the men ran forward, the one at the front stumbled unexpectedly.

'Oh... oh, dear... I think I hit him... time to go home, Bernie.  Yes, time to go home...'  Bernadetta didn’t move, however, but she did loosen a second arrow at the afflicted man which hit him squarely in the chest.  'You have really gone and done it now.'  Bernie reflected mournfully as the man fell face forward.

'Nice one Bernie!'  Caspar congratulated her.

'Oh, yes.  Nice one, Bernie!'  The girl replied, sarcastically.

Byleth and Hubert were already back, Byleth running up behind the group of men before they had even reached Seteth and the students. 

Caspar could only watch in stunned amazement when his Professor cried out a vicious taunt as she plowed into the attackers - her blade whirling faster than he could follow.  Her face was a mask, her eyes completely void of anything even remotely human as her entire body moved as intuitively as if she were simply taking an evening stroll.  It wasn’t pretty; her maneuvers were robust and functional rather than graceful, but there was a beauty in her economy, and to a fellow brawler, her efficiency was like poetry.

'Truly the Ashen Demon.'  Ferdinand breathed as the last of the five men was cut down, spraying arterial blood in a dramatic arc, covering the woman that had ended him.

'Petra report!'  Byleth shouted to the girl on the east side of the camp. 

'Quietness here, Professor.'  Petra called back.

'Edelgard?' Byleth barked.

'Nothing, Professor.'  Edelgard confirmed.

'Good.'  Byleth murmured her eyes sweeping around the campsite and the students.  'Everyone okay?'  She asked hoarsely, some light re-entering her eyes.

'Bernie killed one.'  Bernadetta suddenly sobbed and collapsed to the ground.

'All's clear!'  Alois came jogging back into camp with a Knight at his side.  Byleth's shoulders relaxed noticeably.  She joined Bernadetta on the ground and pulled the girl to her.

'You are covered in blood, Professor!'  The girl wailed.  'E...e...even your hair!'

'None of it's mine.'  She reassured.  'Do you think you could come and help me get cleaned up at the stream Bernie?  I think I will need a bit of help.'

'Y...yes, Bernie can help.'  The girl hiccupped.

Byleth gazed towards Seteth.  'Can you manage here?'  She asked.  He nodded.

'Take your time.'  He said.  'We'll get the mess sorted.'

Seteth organised Ferdinand and Caspar to help with searching and then moving the bodies while Hubert tended the fire and made tea.

'Looks like these fellows were running off with their loot.'  Alois commented, after opening one of the sacks that the bandit's had been carrying.  'A couple turned once they saw us and appeared to be heading back to the canyon, but I sent some lads after them.  They won't have made it very far.'

'There are five here, two by the tree's... how many did you deal with when you went to get the archer, Hubert?'  Seteth asked.

'We took the archer out from a tree, and the Professor took down another melee on the ground.'  He replied.

'And the Knights?'  Seteth queried.

'Two that I'm sure of, and the two that scarpered back towards the camp.'  Alois reported.

'So that's twelve.'  Seteth stroked his chin thoughtfully.  'That's over half of the men that were reported to be in the canyon.  I wonder what happened to make them leave.'

'Odd time for them to go too unless they were sneaking out.'  Alois agreed.

'It's only a couple of hours till first light.  I'll do an aerial sweep as soon as I can, see if I can spy what's happening.'  Seteth decided.

Caspar's concern over Bernie was eased when he saw her arrive back at camp hanging on to the Professor's arm in a death grip, but appearing calm.  He grinned at the girl and sent her a cheerful thumbs-up.  She smiled back, wanly at him, and seated herself next to the Professor, then laid her head in the woman's lap and closed her eyes after declining a mug of tea.  The Knights had also arrived back in dribs and drabs and were reorganised efficiently by Alois after taking tea and exchanging reports.

'Definately all clear as far back as the canyon.'  Alois eventually declared.  'You kids need to get some rest.'  He added to the students.

'As if we could.'  Caspar groaned.

'I could and will!'  Linhardt declared.  'Far too much excitement for one night.'  He complained to the Professor as he curled up with Bernadetta adding his own head to Byleth's lap and falling immediately asleep.

'Bloody hell!'  Byleth grouched. 'Do I actually look like a pillow?'

'More like a comfort blanket I think.'  Hubert smirked, but without malice.

Byleth looked up at him blankly for a second, then she smiled.  'Your reflexes were excellent tonight, Hubert.  It was good to have you at my back.  Thank you.'

Hubert looked genuinely surprised, then covered it by scowling.  'No need for flattery, Professor.'  He murmured.

'Pfft.  Take it as you will.'  She retorted.

He bowed slightly to her, then took himself off to his tent.  Ferdinand followed, but Caspar camped down a slight way away from Linhardt.  Edelgard and Dorethea also said goodnight and headed for their beds while Petra was still stalking around the perimeter of the camp.  Alois joined her, chatting to her quietly.

'You aren’t going to be able to lie down like that.'  Seteth noted to Byleth, indicating the two heads on her lap.

'I know.'  She sighed, but her eyes were soft, and he saw that she had an arm protectively around Bernadetta's shoulders.

'You really should get some rest, you know.'  He added, sitting himself down by her other side.  'Feel free to use my shoulder if you'd like.'  He offered.

'I'm fine.'  She asserted, but she did lean in against him lightly.  'If I use you, you won't be able to lie down either.'  She pointed out.

'I'm not the one who took down seven men by myself.'  He replied.

She gave a little snort.  'Slacker!'  she whispered.

'Oh, really!  Are you issuing a challenge, Professor?'

'Once you get on that magnificent beast of yours I doubt I'd stand a chance.'  Byleth admitted.  'In honesty though, those bandits were woeful.  They wouldn’t even throw down their loot to protect themselves, so it was hardly difficult to best them.'  Her head landed gently on his shoulder.  'What is it about shiny stuff that makes a person willing to give up their life to protect it?'  She wondered aloud.

'Damned if I know.'  Seteth responded with a heavy sigh.

Chapter Text

Seteth took to the skies on his wyvern as soon as it was light enough for him to be able to scope out their target with a decent degree of visibility.  The distance to Zanado was utterly negligible on the wing, and it would be less than an hour march on foot yet the contrast in the landscape - from the lush green of the forest to the scorched earth and rock of the canyon - was almost wrenching.  Seteth remembered a time when all of it was vibrant and teeming with life.

Turning his mind resolutely back to today, what he assumed was the bandit camp was still and silent.  Seteth could make out a couple of fires that were burning low and a few man-shaped forms surrounding them, most likely sleeping.  He was too high in the sky to make out much detail - but he decided to risk swooping just a little bit lower to try and gain a  better insight into the numbers that were remaining.

It didn't appear that the camp had even bothered to set any kind of lookout.  Seteth was sure that his presence in the air above them wasn’t noticed by any of the scant amount of people on the ground.  He counted less than a dozen, although there was also a large and roughly built lean-to construction over on the western side of the camp - just beyond the only bridge spanning the deep chasm that dissected the terrain. 

Seteth veered his wyvern around and started to make his way back to locate the Monastery forces using the stream as his guide.  They should have started out by now, he considered, nobody having slept much after their unexpected encounter in the night and everyone already being up as the dawn broke, anxiety and restlessness the main culprit.

Turned out he was right.  Seteth quickly caught sight of the marching unit, moving at a fast clip towards Zanado, unencumbered by their camping gear and the bounty that had been carried by the bandits they had fought overnight.  They would need to organise wagons to get the spoils back home once the fighting was over, but until it could be arranged, Alois had left one of his Knights guarding their base. 

There was very little chat as the students marched.  Once Seteth had reported to Alois what he had seen, he took back to the air and followed above them, keeping a wary eye for anything unexpected or out of the ordinary.  It did not take a great deal of time for them to reach the edge of the canyon.

'This feels... familiar.'  Sothis murmured in Byleth's head as soon as they came close to their destination.

'I agree.'  Byleth thought back.  'There is a sense of uneasiness in the air that I cannot put my finger on.'

'I feel both happy and sad.'  Sothis mused.  'It is odd.  Almost like memories are floating in front of me that I just can't grasp.'  She sighed.  'My general  feeling that I have forgotten something that is  vitally important feels much heavier here than normal.'

'Regardless, we need to focus.'  Byleth said firmly.  'We have a job to do.  We can ponder our mysteries later...'

'You are right of course.  I still feel uneasy about bringing children along to a fight.  Perhaps that is the basis of this uncomfortable sensation.'  Sothis agreed.

'It went better than I expected last night, though.'  Byleth admitted.  'It may have only been a light skirmish, but there was no panic or impulsive action.'

'All the same, I don't want any accidents... or any ambushes.'  Sothis's voice drifted into a much quieter tone.  'I think you are also  correct in your suggestion that I have become somewhat fond of the brats.  I blame you entirely for that.'

Alois was gathering everyone together at the entrance to the canyon.  Byleth shushed Sothis so she could focus on his words.

'Seteth didn’t spot that many bandits remaining on the ground, but they have already surprised us once.  Be on your guard and pay attention to your orders.'  Alois demanded, his usual jocularity completely absent.  'From my perspective that means let the Knight's do their job and try not to get in their way too much.'

'I thought we might take the western bridge and head for the structure that's been set up out that way.'  Byleth said quietly.  'The map showed that there is an exit from the canyon in that direction, and it would be lax of us to let anyone slip away in the chaos of the moment.  It's also likely to be where the leader is if he's still on site.'

'Probably a good idea.'  Alois agreed after a bit of consideration.  'Should I send a couple of my guys with you?'  He asked.

'You have already had to leave one Knight back at our base.  I am confident we can manage a couple of bandits between the whole lot of us.  We did last night.'  Byleth pointed out.  'Besides which both of us can utilise Seteth, who will be overhead if there are any problems.'  She added.

'Right you are.  Should be over pretty quick anyway, I reckon.'  Alois pulled himself up straight, squared his shoulders, and drew his weapon.  'Let's go then.'  He declared.

 

~0~

 

'I expect they will be there by now.'  Flayn's voice was small as she sat next to Jeralt on the dock of the lake, a fishing rod in her hand as the sun continued its lazy rise on the eastern horizon.

'Don't think about it, Flayn.'  Jeralt advised.  'Ain't nothing we can do from here, so there is no point in worrying ourselves unduly.'

'You must be concerned though, just a little bit.'  Flayn pouted at him.

Jeralt chuckled.  'I'm about ready to jump on a Wyvern and get there myself.. not that I've ever ridden one before!'  He agreed. 

Her eyes widened, and she giggled.  'Is this the first time Byleth has ever been off somewhere fighting without you?'  She asked, her voice filled with compassion.

'In a sense, I suppose.'  Jeralt reclined himself back on his elbow's comfortably.  'We have usually been in the same location or thereabout's, but often our objectives have differed depending on the job.'

'I'm surprised that you seemed to travel about so very much.'  Flayn continued after a moment's contemplation.  'Given your reputation and the skill of your unit, I would have thought that you would have been offered a permanent position somewhere before now.  I mean, even I had heard of you, and I have been cloistered due to my ill health for the longest time.'

'We have been offered.  On many occasions and in many places.  I've always preferred to keep on the move.'  Jeralt grunted.  'It just so happens that the pay is much better if you work the routes between Fodlan and Almyra.  Not many want to make the trip so that kinda work is at a premium.'

'It must be nice to have the freedom to travel and see so many different places.'  Flayn sighed wistfully.

Jeralt patted her arm as her fishing line taunted.  She handed the rod to him to battle in the catch.  'The best bit about being a mercenary and staying on the road is that you never have to get tied up in  politics or the shitstorms that come with staying in one place.'  Jeralt told her, reeling in a colossal queen loach with practiced ease.  'Unlike being here.'  He added.

'Then why on earth did you come back?'  Flayn was trying to carry the wriggling fish in both arms to their awaiting basket.  'I mean, I'm so glad that you did - but it sounds like you were happy with life as it was.'

'Are you pumping me for information Mistress Flayn?'  Jeralt asked shrewdly, but he was smiling as he busied himself rebaiting their hook.

'What a thing to suggest!'  Flayn glanced back at him cautiously.  'Here I am taking a polite interest to pass the time...'

'You're good...'  Jeralt admitted, 'But I am a suspicious old coot, so regardless of how cute you play it, I'm not very likely to be completely taken in.'

'Seteth warned me you weren’t stupid.'  Flayn admitted.  'I guess I may have underestimated you.'

'It's my face.'  Jeralt grinned at her.  'It looks stupid, so people assume I am stupid - it's not totally your fault!'

'You don't seem particularly bothered that I may have been trying to pry.'  Flayn noted.

Jeralt considered her closely.  'I don't pick up any ill intent from you, Flayn.  I could be wrong, of course, but I generally have a good nose for that kind of thing.'

'There really is none!'  Flayn agreed quickly.  'Rhea's reluctance to speak to my brother is unusual, and it's eating at him that there may be something amiss that could be pertinent to his own concerns.'

'Yeah, I get that.'  Jeralt agreed.  'I'll admit that in the time I have been here, I have developed a grudging respect for Seteth that I wasn’t expecting, given his relationship to Rhea.  Sometimes though, secrets need to be kept - no matter how you feel about the person you are keeping them from.'  He stared knowingly at the girl sat by his side.  'I have a feeling that you understand that requirement too - on a personal level.'

Flayn returned his look measuredly.  She inclined her head silently at him.

'What I will say, though, is that I came back because I was worried about Byleth, and I hoped that Rhea may be able to help her.'  Jeralt said quietly.

'Worried?'  Flayn's eyes narrowed.  'Is she unwell?'  She asked.

Jeralt shrugged.  'She's always been quiet and reserved,'  He said.  'It's only gotten worse over time - her hardly ever speaking and becoming more and more detached.  Obviously, I know Rhea well, and regardless of how I feel about her and the church, if she can help my daughter, I will deal with whatever she throws at me.'

'I admit, I am confused.'  Flayn had a small frown creasing her brow.  'The Byleth that you are talking about is not the one that I have come to know.'

'Well, seems that Rhea may have been right in her assertion that becoming a Professor here would be good for her.'  Jeralt said sourly.  'The Archbishop believed that if Byleth became a student she could just squirrel herself away and have no reason to change - but my girl takes duty and responsibility very seriously.  Putting her in charge of other's wellbeing and education... well it's opened her up in ways I never imagined possible already.'

'The students certainly relate to her.'  Flayn said thoughtfully.  'Even my brother is not immune to her charm, and that is no mean feat.  He is probably just as careful and suspicious as you are.'

'Not long before we got here, Byleth had become so bad that she had created some kind of imaginary friend that she was talking to and dreaming of.'  Jeralt added quietly.  'I guess she really did just need company of her own age and a bit of stability after all.  It makes me feel like a bit of a failure as a parent if I'm honest.'

'Oh shhh, Jeralt.'  Flayn beamed at him.  'Any fool can see that you adore your daughter and that she adores you.  Of course, the fact that she hasn’t had a mother's influence...  well that is a situation that I can empathise with myself.  It can be hard.'

'Maybe.'  Jeralt agreed.  'So can I count on you to be a friend to my daughter Flayn?'

'Well of course.'  Flayn nodded seriously.  'I would be a friend to you too if you would have me.  Turns out that you are even better than the Professor at fishing after all!'

'I dunno kid.  You're tricky, and I'd bet that you can be a whole lot of trouble if you set your mind to it.'  Jeralt smirked.

'I don't think you are the sort who'd enjoy a boring and placid companion.'  Flayn replied tartly.

'You got me there!'  Jeralt agreed.

'Friends then?'  Flayn took one hand off her fishing rod and extended it towards the grizzled warrior.

'Aye alright.'  Jeralt grabbed her tiny hand in his huge one and shook it.  'It's likely better that I have you close by where I can keep a good eye on you anyway.'  He laughed.

Probably wise.'  Flayn agreed.

Chapter Text

The overwhelming sense of unease remained with Byleth as the Knights and students marched further into the Red Canyon.  Sothis was bouncing around in her head anxiously, and each forward step taken was making her tenser.  Byleth was forced to share in the girls growing confusion as Sothis tried to get a grip on the elusive rememberings that were sliding unseen all around them.

'Please try and calm down.'  Byleth urged her passenger.  'I am having problems concentrating, and I need to be alert.'

'I can't help it!'  Sothis groaned miserably.  'It's like a physical assault that I am powerless to stop.  What in the world could have  happened here?'

'Whatever it was, it's in the past now.  We need to concentrate on today.  We need to keep these children safe.'  Byleth gritted her teeth.  Her head was hurting with the extreme focus required to keep herself together.

Alois and his Knights moved into position at the head of the canyon, as they silently slipped into view of the bandit camp.  There was an immediate cry of alarm when they were spotted, and they moved quickly forward to engage with the first cluster of foes.

Byleth and the others headed towards the bridge to the west.  Byleth spotted the only structured shelter immediately, it was higher up on a slope, and it overlooked the camp below.  There was no movement from it at all.  Once all of the students had safely transversed the bridge, she motioned for them to stop so they could observe what was happening over on the other side of the ravine.

The knights were undeniably well trained and disciplined.  Byleth felt a stab of surprise at just how well they managed their objective - particularly Alois, whom she had never seen engaged in fighting before.  The large man moved with much greater grace than she had imagined possible, and he was both solid and strong in his execution.  Alois had called out to the camp initially, requesting they surrender without conflict.  Nobody appeared to have taken that option; instead choosing to face the onslaught even though at no time did it look to be going well for them.

It was clear that the Knights had everything well under control, which was a blessing because when the first drop of blood spilled to the canyon floor, Byleth was hit by a wave of intense nausea so strong that she wobbled on her feet.  Sothis keened a wail of pure misery in her head.

'Everything okay, Professor?'  Hubert appeared to have noticed Byleth's quickly corrected stumble and was by her side his voice low and quiet.

She turned to look at her charges.  Hubert looked genuinely puzzled as he appeared to be checked her over, although he also seemed to be the only one who had noticed her reaction.

'I am a little tired.'  Byleth murmured back. 

Linhardt was staring at the floor in front of him, now that people were dying, and he was gripping Bernadetta's hand.  Caspar had a hold on the girl's other hand while they both watched the fighting closely.  Dorothea was stood off to one side, her arms crossed and a frown on her face as she witnessed the Knight's confrontation. Ferdinand fidgeted anxiously just behind Edelgard, whose own face was devoid of emotion.

'I think it's time that we moved.'  Byleth said, although her voice was gruff.  She began to stride forward towards their target with Hubert keeping pace at her shoulder.

The group reached the structure without any incident.  Byleth silently organised everyone into position, and then she stepped forward and lifted the covering to the front of the space with the flat of her sword.  As she did, three men burst out, weapons drawn.

The first went down to an almost lazy flick of Byleth's sword, but as his blood welled and his body hit the ground, a rise of bile assaulted her throat, and her movement stuttered.  She stepped back instinctively.

Caspar was rushed by the second man, but he had prepared his stance in the manner he had observed Seteth take the night before, and he met the attack with a confident block of his axe.  A flash of violet magic took the man to his knees before he could find a second attack, and Ferdinand speared him competently from the side as Caspar brought down his weapon decisively and ended the struggle.

Edelgard had edged herself forward to engage the third man after realising that Byleth wasn’t moving.  Her swing was erratic but intense, driving the man back a step and unbalancing him.  Her next, slower chop cleaved a deep wound into the bandit's shoulder but also trapped her weapon.  Byleth physically shook herself, and stepped forward to finish off the job and allow Edelgard to reclaim her axe.

'Professor!'  Linhardt warned as a fourth man stumbled out into the sunlight rushing towards Byleth, whose back was open and unprotected to him.  It was Linhardt's cast that stopped him in his tracks, giving Byleth a chance to turn and knock the man onto his back physically and raise her sword to take out his throat.

'I..I.. yield!'  The man stammered fearfully.  Byleth held her swing brought her weapon to rest against his chest instead.

'Is there anyone else in there?'  She demanded, nodding towards the shack.

'No... we just came up here to get the rest of the loot!'  The man's eyes were wild with fear.

Byleth pressed harder on his chest.  'Where is your leader?' 

'Dead.'  The man coughed out.  'Night before last, he was taken.  We were dividing up the spoils and planned on moving out today.  Guess we should have gone with the ones that left last night instead.'

'They stumbled into us.  It was a terminal encounter.'  Byleth's voice was flat.  'What do you mean, the boss was taken?'

'I mean that some big scary bastard in black armor with red glowing eyes and a bloody scythe of all things came waltzing into camp in the middle of the night and knocked the boss's head directly from his shoulders without so much as a word.'  Fear was bright in the bandit's eyes.  'The head got chucked into the ravine, and his body was kicked onto the campfire.  Then the bloody black knight said that he didn’t have any business with the rest of us, but if we wanted to challenge him over his actions, he would happily kill us all.'

'Did you challenge him?'  Byleth asked.

'Not bloody likely.'  The man murmured.

'Do you know who the boss was?'  Byleth was getting desperate now.  She wasn’t surprised when the man answered that he didn’t.

'Just heard word that there was a job to be had here and the pay was good.  Turned up to see if I could get in on the action.'  The man admitted.  'When the boss got beheaded, appeared that none of us knew what we had been gathered for exactly, and the loot was just sitting there all shiny and pretty.  Looked like it was a golden payday for us all.  Should have known better.'

'This is futile.  There is no way we can prove that it was Kostas that was in charge - even to satisfy ourselves.'  Sothis complained.

Byleth could only agree.  'Just leaves us to wonder who it was that came and killed him, and at whose orders.'  She said sourly.

'It may not even have had anything to do with us.'  Sothis added.

'I think that is unlikely.'  Byleth hedged.

Alois took charge of the prisoner and the structure that he and the three men had been guarding contained nothing more than further sacks of booty.  Clean-up of the site began in earnest, and eventually Seteth landed to report that he could spy nobody else in the vicinity.

Byleth was finding it harder and harder to mask her adverse reaction to the environment, the longer that they stayed.  Eventually she took herself off a distance to take a break and sat herself down, closing her eyes with some relief.

'Thank you for leading us, Professor.'  Edelgard's serious voice broke into her reverie.  'I suppose there was no real way that we could have lost to such a familiar foe.  Nonetheless, I feel this mission has been both a success and a lesson to us all.'

'That was the point I believe, Your Highness.'  Byleth agreed, her eyes still shut.

'This place though...'  Edelgard continued, her tone becoming softer and more reflective.  'There is something about this canyon that feels... inexplicably strange.'

'I would not have taken you for the sort to have flights of fancy Edelgard.'  Byleth had opened her eyes and was staring at the Princess with a dull gaze.

'In truth I am not.'  Edelgard agreed.  'It may just be the conflicted feelings of the others that I am picking up on.'

'Probably.'  Byleth had closed her eyes again.

'I apologise for disturbing you, Professor.'  Edelgard added.  'I don't believe you were able to get any sleep last night.  After your martial display in our camp you must be exhausted.  Let me leave you to a bit of peace.'

'That would be appreciated.  Thanks.'  Byleth murmured.

'Interesting that it is not just us that has noticed the strangeness.'  Sothis observed as Edelgard rejoined the other students.

'Right now, I can't be bothered to think about it.  I am sure that we can chew it over later.  Much later.'  Byleth groaned.

'Well, unfortunately, Seteth is heading over now, so you don’t look like you are going to be getting a reprieve just yet.'

'Of course not.'  Byleth grouched.  'That would be way too much to ask.'

'I am going to be heading back to the Monastery now, Professor.'  Seteth told her as he sat himself uninvited beside her.  'Is there anything you would like me to pass along to Jeralt on my return?'

'Just that everyone is okay.'  Byleth replied.

Seteth looked at her intently.  'Are you really okay?'  He asked quietly.

'Tired, Seteth.  As I keep having to tell everyone - I am simply tired.'

'I can take you back with me if you wish.'  Seteth offered.

It was tempting, so tempting.

'I have a duty to the students.  I will be fine once I have some food in my belly.'  Byleth determined.

'And I have a duty to your wellbeing.'  She felt Seteth's hand on her arm, and at his touch, nausea rolled over her again, extremely violently.  She jumped, and he removed his hand quickly, a frown creasing his brow.

'Are you uncomfortable in this place, Byleth?'  He asked suddenly, flexing his fingers as if he had received a shock in them.

'It has a strange ambiance.  It is an anomaly - the sudden bare landscape...'  She looked at him.  'Why is it called the red canyon?  It isn't actually red.  I have seen earth that is rich in a particular type of mineral that has a red hue, and I expected this place to be like that - but it really isn’t.  Everything is grey and dead.'

'I believe it was the site of a battle in antiquity.  The details are lost from history though.  It is more tale than fact.'  Seteth replied carefully.

Byleth looked away as Sothis bristled in her mind.  'A battle.  Hmmm.'

'I'm sorry, did you say something?'  Seteth asked.

'Not really.'  Byleth had regained a little control over her roiling stomach.  'Travel safe Seteth.  I assume I will be seeing you on my return.  I will need to report to Lady Rhea?'

'I'll make sure that you are allowed the time to properly rest before that happens.'  Seteth replied firmly, getting to his feet.  'I admit, I am wary of discovering what Jeralt and my sister have been up to in our absence.'  He added with a sigh.  'They seemed to be bonding in a most worrying fashion before I left.'

'Oh dear.'  That actually raised a small smile.  'I can't decide which of them has the most potential to lead the other astray.'  She admitted.

'You aren’t making me feel any better, Byleth!'  Seteth moaned.

'I'd hurry back if I was you!'  Byleth agreed.

Chapter Text

Dimitri let himself out of the Archbishop's council chamber with an anxious frown and all the signs of developing one of his debilitating headaches.  He paused at the door for a few moments to compose himself and decide what to do now.  He certainly wasn’t going back to class -  Professor Hanneman wouldn't be expecting his return anyway.  The teaching staff must already be aware of the news, which went some way towards explaining Hanneman's look of concern when he'd advised Dimitri that Rhea wanted to see him.

The fact that Dimitri had been excused from his afternoon lessons to attend his meeting meant that when the Prince spotted Claude loitering just around the corner from Rhea's room, his interest was piqued regardless of the fragile state of his head.  Instead of heading for the staircase, Dimitri made his way along the corridor towards his fellow student.

'Von Reigan.'  Dimitri welcomed as he approached.

'Hey, Dimitri.'  Claude looked startled for a brief second, then his usual sardonic grin slipped into place.  'Are you skipping class too?  Didn't think you had it in you to be contrary, your Princeliness!'

Dimitri frowned.  'I was requested to meet with Lady Rhea.  I am most certainly not skipping anything.'  His look became curious.  'Isn't this a rather odd place to chose to hide out if you are trying  to escape your lessons without detection.' 

'Yeah, I guess it would be a pretty dumb location.'  Claude agreed easily.  'I kinda persuaded Manuela that someone should wait for Seteth's return from the Black Eagles mission to find out how it went.  Honestly, it's stupidly easy to appeal to that woman's untamed nosiness.  She agreed immediately and sent me off straight after lunch.'

'Is Seteth back then?'  Dimitri asked eagerly.

Claude shrugged.  'I saw Jeralt making his way down to the wyvern roost ten minutes ago - so I figure he may have just arrived.' 

'Oh.'  Dimitri looked confused.  'Why aren’t you down there then?' 

Claude chuckled and leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest.  'I don't think Seteth is likely to tell me anything interesting.  I was planning to listen in once they get back up here.  I doubt they will talk about anything juicy till they are safely inside anyway.'

'I see.'  Dimitri shook his head.  'So just standing around here is your big plan to spy on him?'  He asked, incredulously.

'No, my Prince.  I need to see where they hold their meeting first before I can decide how best to snoop on them.'  Claude smirked.

'Yes.  I suppose that's wise.'  Dimitri nodded.

Claude looked directly at the Prince, his eyes shrewd.  'Colour me surprised Dimi.  I was sure you would disapprove of my underhandedness.  That or you'd just think I was winding you up.'

'Are you?'  Dimitri asked.

'No.'

Dimitri's frown was back.  'I suppose I should disapprove.'  He decided eventually.  'But after the meeting I've just had, I can't find myself caring all that much.'

'Oh?'  Claude's sudden alertness reminded Dimitri of a hunting dog scenting prey.  'You want to share?' 

'Maybe.  It will be common knowledge soon enough.'  Dimitri pondered thoughtfully.  'We need to complete your objective first, though, right?  I assume you have some reason behind wanting to know about the mission in Zanado so much.'

'You want to play shenanigans with me, your Highness?'  Claude sounded amused.  'If Dedue finds out I've been leading you astray, he will tear me limb from limb.'

'You know what... I'm feeling a little belligerent.  I'll help you out if you will listen to my news and give me your thoughts after.'  Dimitri held out a hand to Claude, which the other boy took and shook with a wide grin.  'So why do you care what happened to the Black Eagles then?'  He asked.

'I don’t, aside from not wishing harm on anyone who went along, obviously.'  Claude replied.  'I do care what happens to teach, though.  After her saving our arses against bandits, I can't deny a certain protectiveness when it comes to her - and this mission was strange.'

'Yes.  That I can understand.'  Dimitri agreed.  'I believe I feel much the same way.'

'Right...'  Claude smirked.  'Your concern has nothing whatsoever to do with the massive crush you have on our beautiful Professor then.'  He winked at the Prince whose face was immediately flaming.  'Can't say I blame you.  Good luck with that one, though!'

'Is there any point in denying it?'  Dimitri asked sheepishly.

'Not to me.'  Claude grinned.

'I wouldn’t call it a crush exactly.'  Dimitri muttered.  'More of a courteous and dedicated respect...'

'Okay.'  Claude chuckled.

'Even Dedue has developed a fondness for the Professor.'  Dimitri added defensively.  'I have never known him to take so easily to a person before.'

'I get it, Dimi...'  Claude patted the Prince on the head and winked at him again.  'Now then.  Any thoughts on our desire to snoop?  In honesty, Seteth might actually talk directly to you.  For some reason, he doesn’t seem to trust me in the slightest...'

'How do you plan to overhear if they go straight in to see Rhea?'  Dimitri asked in interest.

Claude made a face.  'That would likely be impossible.'  He admitted.  I'm hoping they head to Jeralt or Seteth's office first.'

'Hmm... well, I might have something that would help then.'  Dimitri's eyes suddenly sparkled with mischief.  He moved forward, beckoning Claude to follow him.

Dimitri stopped by the Infirmary door and peered in carefully.  It was empty. 

'I sometimes get some rather bad headaches.'  Dimitri told Claude as he pushed his way into the room and made for the supplies cupboard at the back.  'Manuela makes up a unique mixture for me that the royal physician has used for several years, but it is kept locked in here due to some of the ingredients being dangerous in high volumes.  I do have a key to the store-room, however, so that if Manuela is unavailable - usually because she is drunk - I can come by and sign out a draught if I need it.'

'Okay.'  Claude filed that information away carefully, although he was unsure of the relevance in this situation.

'In truth, I was considering coming and getting some of my tonic after the meeting I had as I can feel the symptoms building towards an attack.'  Dimitri said quietly as he unlocked the door and opened it.  He gestured Claude into the good-sized space beyond and carefully shut the door after them.

Claude's eyes were glowing brightly at all the vials and reagents that stocked the shelves around him.  His fingers were twitching.

Dimitri smiled at Claude's reaction.  'I haven’t even told you the best thing about this place yet, Claude.'  He was unable to hide his amusement.

'There is something even better than a vast stock of medicinals right in front of my eyes?'  Claude asked reverently.

'Oh, yes!  Although I had no idea that you would be so enamored with a few herbs and remedies!'  Dimitri pointed at the end wall.  'That wall connects directly to Jeralt's room.  I was in here once when the Captain was talking with Alois, and I could hear every single word as if I was in the room with them.'  He said.

'I think I might actually love you, Dimitri!'  Claude declared theatrically, throwing both his arms around the Prince and crushing him in a hug.  'You are going to let me make a copy of that little key, aren’t you?'

Dimitri was blushing again.  He gently extracted himself from Claude's arms.  'I am most certainly not going to make you a copy!'  He said severely.  'I will, however, consider letting you borrow the key if you needed to, and you tell me what you need it for.'  He offered.

'How do you know I won't just make a copy if you lend it to me?'  Claude asked.

'I don't, but I would ask you to promise not to.'  Dimitri said seriously.

'You are killing me here, Dimitri.'  Claude moaned.

'I don’t believe you would go back on your word if you gave it.'  Dimitri added earnestly.  'Would you?'

'I take it back.  I hate you.'  Claude said grumpily.

'If that means no more impulsive hugs, I'm okay with that.'  Dimitri laughed.

'Hey... Shush!'  Claude suddenly moved forward as Seteth's voice floated into the small room.

Dimitri beamed at Claude, and they both went still, listening hard.

'...never really any threat at all.'  Seteth was saying.  The door to Jeralts room closed with a bang.  'They were all far more obsessed with their treasure than in protecting their own lives.  Byleth cut through them with embarrassing ease.'

'Where the bloody hell were the Knights?'  Jeralt barked, his ire obvious.

'Doing the right thing, Jeralt.  They were the ones that went into the dense woodland and were split up.  Byleth kept the students together, then took out those that got through.'

'Hmm, well...'  Jeralt sounded slightly appeased.  'No-one took any injury?'  He asked.

'None.'  Seteth assured.  'Young Bernadetta was in a bit of a state, to begin with.  She took down one of the bandits with a couple of arrows.  Actually quite impressive.  Byleth took her in hand, though.'  Seteth chuckled.  'When the camp finally settled down again after the attack, your poor girl had both Bernadetta and the von Hevring lad cuddled up in her lap asleep.  She refused to wake and move them.'

'And the actual camp in Zanado?'  Jeralt asked.

'Hardly anyone remaining by the time we got there.  The Knights took them easily.  Byelth and the students engaged a couple - and they secured the prisoner they are bringing back.'

'The leader?'  Jeralt queried tersely.  Dimitri couldn’t help but notice that Claude had leaned forward at that news too.'

'No, not the leader.'  Seteth's voice was serious now.  'That was a very odd detail actual.  The prisoner says that the leader was killed the night before we arrived in the area, by some kind of hellish figure in black, carrying a scythe.  Took his head off completely and bounced it into the ravine.'

'What?'  Jeralt exclaimed.

'I know.  Strange.'  Seteth agreed.  'Strange too that whoever the leader was he already had loot in camp and had been gathering random help with the promise of good pay for a job.  No-one knew what the job or who the leader actually was.'

'Yeah.  Strange.'  Jeralt repeated sourly.

'Byleth did extremely well, Jeralt.  She continues to impress me with her abilities as well as the dedication that she is showing to her role.'  Seteth said quietly.  'I believe that the students are in very safe hands on any future missions that they are given.'

'That goes without saying.'  Jeralt agreed gruffly.  'I didn't expect any less.'

'Well, I need to report in to Rhea, and I would like to catch up with my sister.'  There was the sound of footsteps as Seteth moved towards the door.  'I assume Flayn is still in one piece as well.'  He said lightly.

'Oh, yeah.'  Jeralt agreed.  'We fished for a while, then she came and helped me with my rota's for the week.  She is absurdly good at organising stuff.'

'You fish?'  Seteth asked in interest as the men left the room.

Dimitri and Claude were quiet until they heard the door close.

'Poor Bernie.'  Claude whispered.  'I can't imagine how she took killing someone.  Her bow skills are pretty good already though.  She is quite a natural at it.'

'Ah, I forgot - you have been training her.  Ashe as well I believe.'  Dimitri looked thoughtful when Claude nodded.  'Actually you might be just about the perfect person to speak to about my conversation with Rhea.'  He admitted.

'Oh?'  Claude's brow had raised in inquiry.

'Yes.  It was Ashe that Rhea called me in to talk about.'  Dimitri nodded.

'Ashe?  Really?'  Claude asked in amazement.  'I can't even imagine him doing anything worthy of an intervention meeting - let alone one with the Archbishop herself.  He is a complete innocent!'

'Well, quite.'  Dimitri's voice was troubled.  'It's not directly him that is in trouble however, it's his adoptive father.  Lord Lonato.'

'By association then?'  Claude asked.

'Rhea wasn't even bothering to hide her suspicion that the lad may be complicit in the predicament that Lonato is making.  Unfortunately, the man is directing his agitation directly at the church.'  Dimitri scowled.  'I don't know Ashe as well as I might.  He is very shy of my position, and no amount of begging him to relax has changed that.  Nonetheless I am adamant that he has no agenda, hidden or otherwise against the establishment.'

'I'd fully support that assessment.'  Claude agreed, sincerely.  'He has been nothing other than...'

The door to the stockroom was suddenly and violently thrown open.

'Well now.'  Jeralt thundered, filling the doorframe.  'Frankly, you two were the last people I expected to find spying on me.'

'I assure you Captain...'  Claude cringed back instinctively but tried to begin a protest anyway.

'Save it von Reigan.'  Jeralt demanded.  'My office.  Now.  Both of you.'

'Yes sir.'  Both lads muttered as they crept past the angry man.

Chapter Text

'Sit!'  Jeralt demanded, after marching Dimitri and Claude into his office and slamming the door behind them firmly.

Both boys sat immediately.

'So you wanna tell me what you were doing listening in to my conversation?'  Jeralt leaned against his desk, his arms crossed, and a heavy scowl on his face.

'Apologies, Jeralt.'  Dimitri spoke up bravely.  'I'd just had a particularly difficult discussion with the Archbishop, and I required to secure some of the medication that Professor Manuela keeps made up for me. I am trusted with a key to the storeroom for that very reason.'

'I see.'  Jeralt's shoulders relaxed a little.  'Rhea spoke to you about the situation at Castle Gaspard then?' 

Dimitri nodded jerkily, his face downcast.

'I will be heading out there shortly.'  Jeralt mused.  'In fact, I've been there once before.  It was many years ago, and it was by the request of the son of the family... Cristophe, I think it was.'

'The son is dead.  He was executed by the Church for his suspected involvement in the... events... in Duscar four years ago.'  Dimitri said tonelessly.

'Aye, I heard that.'  Jeralt's voice was soft, his frown gone.  'I also heard that there wasn’t that much of a trial for the lad before his sentence was carried out.'

'Yes, that is true.'  Dimitri agreed, looking up at Jeralt firmly.  'Faerghus was in turmoil following the murder of the King.  Many unfortunate things happened in the chaos that followed.'

Jeralt grunted.  'King Lambert was attempting political reform at the time of his death.  Needless to say, he had many enemies, and his death sparked any number of rebellions.  Some of which are still raging.'  He gave an apologetic look towards Dimitri.  'I'll admit that it is one of the reason's I chose to work mainly between the lands of the Alliance and Almyra.  Politics make my head hurt.'

Dimitri chuckled humorlessly.  'Mine too.'  He agreed.  'Hence, my requirement for medication...'

'Right.'  Jeralt nodded.  'You got your tonic?'  He asked.  Dimitri nodded, pulling a vial out from his pocket.  'I'd suggest you get yourself somewhere quiet and get that taken.  The next few weeks are likely to be a bit of a trial.'  Jeralt sighed heavily.  'Since I am personally leading the Knights to subdue this rebellious posturing, I can assure you that it will be handled appropriately.  The Lady Catherine is also being recalled to mop up the pieces once the area is secured.'

'She is?'  Dimitri sounded stunned.

'I believe she was the one that attended the death of Christophe.'  Jeralt murmured.  'I assume her presence is meant to be an abject lesson to Lord Lenato on the folly of opposing the church.'

'Lord Lenato, to my understanding, is a very devout man.'  Dimitri agreed.

Jeralt sighed again and nodded.

Dimitri rose and bowed, ready to take his leave.  Claude followed suit.

'Not you von Riegan.  I haven’t even started with you yet.' Jeralt pushed the lad back down into his chair while he went to the door to let Dimitri out.

'Captain!'  Dimitri objected.  'If you plan on reprimanding Claude for our eavesdropping, then I genuinely feel that I must be included.  I swear that we were motivated only by our respect and concern for Professor Byleth's wellbeing...'

Jeralt pointed over towards the wall of his room that aligned with the medicine cupboard the other side.  Along the bottom, a discrete plank of wood was missing, hardly noticeable until attention was called to it.

'I always know when someone is in there.'  Jeralt told the Prince, 'And I can see when people are loitering.  I'm glad it was just you two pups and nobody more sinister.  Overhearing information isn’t something to be ashamed of in itself.  In your position, what you can learn - truthfully spoken - is a boon.'

'I see.'  Dimitri glanced back at Claude, who nodded at him.  'I would still like your thoughts on how to deal with Ashe later, Claude, if you don't mind.' 

'Look me up once you have your headache under control.'  Claude agreed.

Dimitri bowed again and took his leave.

Jeralt closed the door behind the Prince and walked to his desk, this time sitting himself behind it and resting his head on his hands to observe Claude carefully.  Claude wisely remained silent and waited for the older man to speak.

'Does your mother know that you are here, boy?'  Jeralt finally said harshly.  Whatever Claude had mentally prepared himself for from the man - it certainly wasn't that.

'That would be impossible, sir.'  Claude replied carefully.  'My mother is believed to be dead.'

'You can cut the crap with me son.'  Jeralt was leaning forward and speaking in little more than a gruff whisper.  'Your mother was very much alive when she was a student here, hassling me continually about becoming a Knight, and she was also alive a few years later when I turned to her for help when I was escaping the church.  Happen's we were able to aid each other since she wanted to get over the border and into Almyra as much as I did.'

Claude swallowed hard, frozen in place, his mind reeling. 

'Cat got your tongue?'  Jeralt asked, mildly raising an eyebrow.

Claude swallowed again, bile making his mouth taste sour.  'I had no idea my mother attended the Academy.'  He managed to say.

'Well, I suspected as much.  I imagine she will be horrified when she finds out you are here.'  Jeralt grinned a particularly evil grin.  'I wrote to tell her not long after we arrived.  Your arse is gonna be in so much trouble.'

'What!'  Claude squeaked.  'You can't just write to her.  There is no way a letter would get through unmolested.  I haven’t spoken to her since I left home to meet with my grandfather!'

Jeralt outright laughed.  'Lad, I spent twenty years carrying messages back and forward for your mother.  Mine will get to her, and you will no doubt get a reply when the time comes.'

'Mother never really spoke about her life in Fodlan.'  Claude sank back in his seat, worrying at the braid he wore in his hair.  'You recognised me straight away?'

'I recognised the name once you gave it.  Since I carried the message that your Grandfather wanted to meet with you, I knew you were in Fodlan too.  Never expected you to end up here.'

'There were things I wanted to investigate that I believe can only be found here.'  Claude said elusively.  'So you know exactly who I am.  Does that mean that Teach does too?'  He asked.

'Byleth pays no attention to politics.  Even less than I do.'  Jeralt shook his head.  'I have no doubt she would recognise your Almyrn heritage but nothing more than that.  You have met her a few times before mind.  When you were tiny.'

Claude was still unable to gather his thoughts coherently.  His mouth fell open.

'Actually, when you had just learned to walk, you used to toddle around after her like a bloody shadow whenever your mother brought you to a meeting.  Byleth was a couple of years older and seemed to have limitless patience for your attention.  She used to hold you on her lap and stroke your hair.'  Jeralt added, thoroughly enjoying the embarrassment that was rising in the lad sat before him.

'So, I have nothing to worry about then.  You divulging my secret to others, I mean.'  Claude couldn't keep the anxiety from his voice.

'No, you don't.  There are people here that would remember your mother, though.'  Jeralt frowned.  'Not that many, but enough to make it a concern.  Rhea for one.'  He pointed out.

'I see.'  Claude nodded. 

'Luckily the records around the years that your mother was here went up in a fire.'  Jeralt sounded a little smug.  'I checked it out.  You couldn’t be found out directly through an administration record.'

'That's good to know.'  Claude exhaled deeply.

There was a short silence.

'I have a great deal of fondness for your mother and respect for your father, Claude.'  Jeralt said, finally.  'I will offer my aid to you should you ever need it, and I will happily continue to arrange for you to be able to send letters to your parents for you.'

'Thank you.'

'I do ask, however, that whatever you are up to here, you keep it away from my daughter.'  Jeralt's eyes went hard as stone.  'I have given everything over to her safety, and I will not stand to see her compromised for anyone.'

'I have no intention whatsoever of allowing anybody close to my secrets.'  Claude replied staunchly.

'As long as that remains the case, then we won't have any problems.'  Jeralt agreed.  'I was relieved when she didn't pick your house to represent.'

'Regardless, she does teach us.'  Claude pointed out.  'I also have a student's view of her situation here, you know.  I could be invaluable to you in keeping your eye on her wellbeing.'

'Oh really!'  Jeralt grinned meanly.  'You really are just as much of a sneaky pain in the arse as you're mother, you know!'

'I guess I learned from the best.'  Claude admitted with his own smirk.

Jeralt shook his head and shrugged.  'If you lead my daughter into any trouble, I will kill you, Claude, regardless of who you are.'

'I get that.'  Claude's grin widened.  'But teach seems perfectly capable of heading straight into trouble all by herself.  Isn't it even a little bit reassuring to know that someone else has her back too?'

'I think you may actually be worse than you're mother.'  Jeralt moaned piteously.

 

~0~

 

Byleth and the Black Eagles returned to the Monastery just before lunchtime the next day.  They were all exhausted and hungry after their march back, eager to take in the baths, grab food and then relax for the rest of the day.

True to his word, Seteth had left a note for Byleth advising her that she was not expected to report into Rhea until early evening.  He had also completed her class schedule for the rest of the week in his extravagant handwriting - with notes on the lessons - so that she had no need to complete the task herself.  If he had handed it to her in person, she thought she might have ended up kissing him in her relief at having it all done and prepared so comprehensively.

'It's odd is it not - how quickly we have come to think of this place as home.'  Sothis noted once Byleth had reached her room and thrown her aching body down on her bed.

'Mhmm.'  Byleth wasn't really paying attention.

'I wouldn’t get too comfortable though, girl.  I have no doubt you will be entertaining a whole parade of visitors this afternoon.'  Sothis smirked.

'Let them come.'  Byleth mumbled into her blanket.  'I will just pretend I'm not here.'

'So you are not going to answer the door to your father, who is on the other side, no doubt wondering if he should knock or not?'  Sothis asked gleefully.

'Aw crap.'  Byleth swore.  'If I don't, he will only worry.'  She added when Sothis chuckled at how fast she jumped up.

Jeralt didn’t stay long.  He just wanted to see for himself that she was okay and agreed that they would talk about things later when she had rested.  Flayn was the next to her door.

'My brother told me to leave you alone.'  Flayn admitted when Byleth let her in.  'However I felt that I may be able to ease some of your aches and pains before you rested.  Linhardt is good at healing, but he is nowhere near as good as me!' 

'That's kind of you.'  Byleth agreed as the girl ran her hands over her head, neck, and back and then colored slightly when she moved her healing down to her legs and thighs.

'Is it helping?'  Flayn asked timidly.

'A great deal!'  Byleth nodded, surprised.  'It will certainly make it much easier to sleep.'

'Oh, I am so glad!'  Flayn clapped her hands together before taking her leave.

Byleth laid for a little over an hour, but when the bell tolled that marked the end of lesson's she brought herself to her feet and pulled on her cloak.

'I figure I may as well go see the students rather than have them trickle to me one after the other.'  She explained to Sothis, who was smirking at her again.

'It must be so hard, being popular.'  Sothis sniggered.

'I think it has more to do with curiosity and the fact that I'm probably the easiest touch to get information from.'  Byleth sighed.

'Yeah, sure.  That must be it.'  Sothis agreed with a laugh.

Chapter Text

'Professor?'  Hilda had her hand in the air and was waving it towards Byleth impatiently.  Byleth turned from the blackboard with a sigh.  She had already picked up on the fact that Hilda was in one of 'those' moods. 

'What is it, Hilda?'  She asked, none of her exasperation apparent in either her voice or her expression.  'It had better be relevant to our lesson, else I swear I will have you running laps around the block till the evening bell!'

'Well... okay, it is a slight deviation from the lesson plan; still, I believe it's relevant.'  Hilda huffed back with the snarl of a sharp grin on her face.

Byleth motioned her to continue.  Claude looked around at his classmate with a frown.

'I was speaking with Dorothea about the mission in Zanado.'  Hilda continued airily.  'She had some mightily interesting observations about the event as a whole.'

'Oh?'  Byleth had spent some time herself talking with Dorothea during their return to the Monastery.  Nothing had come up that had given Byleth any pause for concern in her attitude.  Dorothea had simply been somewhat dismissive of what she had termed the 'casual violence' on display.

'Yes.'  Hilda nodded solemnly, but there was the glint of mischief in her eyes.  'Dorothea believed that the force used against the bandits was wholly unwarranted.  That they were pathetic in their martial skills to the point that you were able to dispose of six or seven of them without even breaking into a sweat.'

'They lacked both discipline and formal training.'  Byleth agreed cautiously.

'So slaughtering them like animals was more of a sport for you than an actual fair fight then?'  Hilda asked innocently.

Nobody moved.  Everyone was frozen, looking at Byleth.

'The Knights gave the bandits the opportunity to surrender.'  Byleth replied evenly.  'Despite that, the lure of the reward that they were carrying meant they were unwilling to give themselves up.  Instead, they chose to fight it out.  It was an unwise choice - but ultimately, it was theirs to make.'

'Yes, but Professor - you have been preaching to us that what you teach is survival, yet you willingly cut down men just because they didn't do what you wanted of them.'

Byleth nodded.  'The bandit's fled from the Knights in the forest and chose instead to attack a camp filled with children.   Students that I am sworn to protect.  You seem to be under the illusion that just because these men were not particularly skilled - they did not pose a threat.' 

'Well, according to the gossip, you slew them with ease.'

Byleth nodded again.  'I dispatched them as quickly and painlessly as I could.'  She replied quietly.  'Any of the bandits could have killed me, either by luck or by my own mistake.  If it had only been the Black Eagles holding the camp, I have no doubt that one, if not more of them, would have taken serious injury.  Just because a foe lacks training does not make them less of a threat when they are intent on doing harm or avoiding punishment.'

'Have you ever been attacked by bandits, Hilda?'  Leonie had risen to her feet with her fists clenched and her face red.

'Well, of course not.'  Hilda replied stiffly.

'My village was.'  Leonie retorted.  'If it weren’t for Captain Jeralt and his mercenaries arriving when they did, everyone would have died.  As it was, a handful did lose their lives, and the bandits were beginning to round up us women and girls to 'use' after their victory.'  Leonie shuddered and passed a shaking hand through her hair.  'There was no point in attacking us, you know.  It's a poor place.  The most they could have hoped to make off with was a bit of food and a few worthless trinkets.'

'I'm sorry, Leonie.'  Hilda looked aghast.

'Merchant's have a bad time with bandits too.'  Ignatz added quietly.  'It is treacherous - transporting your goods, even when you have spent a fair amount of the potential profit for the journey on guarding your wares.'

'Yup.'  Raphael agreed.  'My sister is moaning the cost in pretty much every letter she sends me.  It's a good job we have people that are willing to stand up and face these wrongdoers.'

'I guess the point is that bandits choose to prey on the vulnerable and on honest men just trying to make their way.'  Claude summed up, leaning back in his chair, arms behind his head. 

'Regardless, unless you are in direct danger, it is always best to try and avoid the need to fight and kill.'  Byleth was speaking to Hilda directly.  'It is much more likely you will survive if your foe surrenders instead and staying alive is the aim.  Allowing people in your care or otherwise to get hurt by your own inactivity, though - that would be wrong.  Particularly if you have the skill to make a difference.  As both I and the Knight's do.'

'I'm sure it is harder to understand when you actually watch the events unfolding as Dorethea did.'  Marianne commented quietly.  'I know that I will have to attend such a lesson at some point, but I am not looking forward to our class going into the field at all.  Linhardt was also distraught by the loss of life that he witnessed.'

'That is quite natural, Marianne.'  Byleth assured.  'It should never be an easy thing to watch.  I have never understood how people can find enjoyment in gladiatorial matches that are played to the death.  A show of skill in a proper tournament is one thing.  Glorifying the use of terminal force is quite another.'

'It is just as bad when animals are used in fighting pits.'  Marianne shuddered.

'Oh, for goodness sake!'  Lysithea was on her feet, and she stamped her foot aggressively.  'Are we going to waste any more time over this?  We actually have lessons you know... or have you all conveniently forgotten. This is a school and not a bloody self-help group.  Whine about your insecurities in your own time!'

'A little harsh Lysithea.'  Lorenz commented, thin-lipped.  'It is important to...'

'Important?'  Lysithea repeated sarcastically.  'I see nothing of importance in a pampered princess who wouldn’t know adversity if it came up and slapped her in the face, trying to bait our Professor who, as it happens, does know what the real world is like.'

There was a shocked silence.  Even Byleth's eyes had widened in surprise.  Then Hilda started to laugh.  Loudly.

'Oh my!'  The pink-haired girl exclaimed.  'You called me out rather thoroughly Lysithea, I am impressed!'  She turned her face to Byleth.  'I apologise Professor.  Lysithea is entirely correct; I was just trying to get a rise out of you, which was wrong of me.  No-one should question your dedication to our wellbeing.  I apologise to you all, in fact.  It appears you have experience that my pampered self does not, and I meant no disrespect.  To any of you!'

'Well.  Good.'  Lysithea grunted.  'Can we please get on with our lesson now?'  She requested.

'Remind me never to get on Lysithea's bad side.'  Claude whispered loudly.

'Too late pretty-boy.'  Lysithea turned to make her favorite rude gesture at him.  'You are permanently etched at the top of my list.'

'Goddess, help me!'  Claude wailed.

'She has a list!'  Ignatz added fearfully.

 

~0~

 

Sylvain's birthday was celebrated much as the others had been the month before; however, this time after a tea which included all of the house's participation and a load of Mercedes special cake, Byleth found herself being invited along to the after-party party.

'Please, Professor.'  Sylvian begged her.  'You didn't attend Mercedes, I know, but I will be bereft of you fail to turn up for my special day!'

'I have shown up, Sylvain.'  Byleth pointed out.  'We have had tea with the others, and I have given you some flowers.  I fail to see how having your teacher along to your additional celebrations - which are for your close friends - will add in any way to your enjoyment.  I note that you have not asked Hanneman to attend, and he is your actual Professor.'

'He isn’t as nice to look at as you.'  Sylvain smirked.

'Tsk.'  Byleth had to hold back a grin.  'Nonetheless, I don't believe it is appropriate...'

'I see.'  Sylvain looked down at her with doleful eyes.  'It is your mission to break my heart and deny me at every turn...'

'Ah.  Now you understand!'  This time Byleth couldn’t prevent the smile from upturning the corners of her lips slightly.  Sothis was cackling away happily in her head too.

'You are a cruel and heartless woman, Professor.'  Sylvain moaned.

'Mhmm.  Quite literally.'  She agreed.

'Would you leave the poor Professor alone.'  Felix grouched at Sylvain as the rest of the Blue Lions started to surround them to accompany the birthday boy. 

'I am sure that the Professor has much better things to occupy her time.'  Ingrid added, shoving Sylvain in the side.

'Oh, no!  It isn’t that.'  Byleth assured them.  'I have nothing at all planned for my evening, and in honesty, I am sure that there is little that would be more agreeable.  I am only just learning how to celebrate a birthday properly, so I don't want to get anything wrong and spoil it for you.'

'Um... have you never celebrated your own birthday Professor?'  Ashe asked.

'Now then, I don't think we need to pry.'  Mercedes had a hand on Byleth's arm. 

Byleth nodded gratefully at the girl and bowed slightly.  'Thank you for the offer, Sylvain.  I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.'  She reached to ruffle his hair, making him blush before she turned and took herself away.

'You really wanted to go.'  Sothis commented as Byleth walked quickly towards her room.  'Why deny yourself a new experience?'

'People think I am odd enough already, without making it even more apparent.  I have never had friends, let alone a party.  It would be awkward.'  Byleth replied stoically.  'Once we get back on the road, I won't get the opportunity either, so it is probably best not to begin to enjoy something that won't last.'

Once Byleth was back in her room, and the door was closed, Sothis materialised on her bed and stared up at Byleth.

'Would you like to have friends?'  She asked.

'I'm not sure.'  Byleth admitted.

'Do you not consider me to be a friend?'  Sothis pressed.

'Oh.'  Byleth scrunched up her face in thought.  'Well, yes - I suppose I do.  It's not like I can actually get away from you, but I do generally enjoy our talks.  Most of the time.  When you aren’t telling me off.'

'I don't know if I have ever had a friend either.  I can't remember.'  Sothis stated.  'Perhaps at some time, I did.  We make quite a pair, don’t we!'

There was a gentle tapping at the door.

'Hey Professor...'  It was Sylvain.  Byleth sighed, but she went and opened the door.  It was indeed Sylvain and the rest of the Blue Lions.  Sylvain actually looked nervous.  'Heh, hello again...'  He tugged at his collar.  'Err... well since you didn’t seem happy to come to my party I... no we... wondered if we might bring the party to you instead.'

'Colin also hitched a lift with us.'  Dedue added, motioning towards the kitten on Felix's shoulder.

'Right.'  Byleth blinked.

'If you want us to get lost, just say.  We won't take it personally.'  Sylvain added.

'Or if you just want Sylvain to get lost, we can ban him from his own party!'  Annette added cheekily.

Byleth stepped back and opened her door wider to admit them silently.

'Alright!'  Sylvain punched the air.

'You sure you are okay with this?'  Dimitri asked as he came in.  Byleth nodded, still unable to speak.

Somehow a pile of extra cakes and sweet drinks were loaded on Byleth's small table, and everyone crammed into her space, finding somewhere to sit.

'This room is a bit larger than the student ones.'  Mercedes noted.  'It's not quite as badly cramped as when we meet in one of ours.'

'It's time for my presents now!'  Sylvain insisted, having taken up residence on  Byleth's bed.'

'You are so bloody demanding.'  Felix moaned, handing him a brightly wrapped parcel.

'He has always been demanding.'  Ingrid added, placing her gift down next to him.

Byleth took a seat on the floor by the window and watched as Sylvain opened his gifts while the others teased him mercilessly.  She stayed quiet, but nobody seemed to notice or commented on it at all. 

'I think I would definitely like to have friends.'  Sothis admitted quietly as she enjoyed the lively banter and discussions going on around her.

'Yes.  I think I agree.'  Byleth sighed happily.

Chapter Text

'I'm really sorry I'm late, guys.'  Ashe said quietly as he walked towards the others who were already firing their bows at the practice targets they had set up at the other end of the range.

'There is no late.'  Claude let off his shot and turned with a grin.  'This isn't a class, just a group of archers looking to get better.'

'Right.'  Ashe flopped to the floor, looking pale and exhausted.

'Everything okay?'  Ignatz paused in what he was doing to observe his friend with concern.  It was rare that Ashe wasn't bright and chipper.

Ashe shrugged unhappily.  'I had a meeting with Professor Hanneman.'  He admitted.  'I don't know what to make of it.'

'Are you in trouble?'  Ignatz sounded surprised.  'I'm sure it must be a misunderstanding.'  He added faithfully.

Ashe sat silent for a few moments, his eyes staring distantly at the archery targets.  Bernadetta thwacked an arrow directly into the central ring on the heart of the human-shaped dummy, then she turned away from her practice.  She went over to where her satchel was sat on the sidelines and took out a squashed brown package and sidled over to Ashe.

'Emergency cake.'  She explained, pushing the parcel into Ashe's hands.  'Professor Byleth suggested that I carry some with me in case I get worried or scared.  Cake is... good.'  She sat down on the ground next to the lad and pulled her cape over her head, her large eyes gently encouraging him.

 'T...t..thanks, Bernie.'  Tears started to well as Ashe carefully unwrapped the messy bundle.

'Do you want to talk about it?'  Ignatz sat down, cuddling his legs up to his chest.  'It's not like you to be anything other than cheerful.'  He added.

'Even his freckles are happy normally.'  Bernadetta agreed with a solemn nod.

'Happy freckles?'  Ashe asked through a mouthful of cake.  He offered the package back to Bernadetta, who took a chunk.

'Well, yes.'  Bernadetta said seriously.  'They dance over your nose when you smile.'

'Please... please stop!'  Claude groaned.  'I am too cynical to deal with all this wholesomeness!'  Three sets of confused eyes peered back at him.  He sighed.  'Why don't you fill everyone in Ashe, if you want to.' 

'Well, I'm not really sure what to make of it myself.'  Ashe's brow was wrinkled in his effort to organise his thoughts.  'Professor Hanneman advised me that my adopted father - Lord Lonato has been stirring up trouble against the church and that the Archbishop is sending her Knights to deal with him.'

'Oh!'  Ignatz blinked and removed his glasses to wipe against his shirt-cuff.  'That... doesn’t sound good!'

'I think it must be a mistake.'  Ashe looked down at his hands that were twisting the now empty brown paper tightly.  'Lord Lonato is a good man and a devout one.  I know that he has been unhappy since his son's execution, but I cannot believe he could hide the level of malcontent he is being accused of from me for so long.'

'So you had no idea that Lonato intended a rebellion?'  Claude asked.  'Even though it was the church that had his son put to death...'

'No.'  Ashe shook his head sadly.  'I was close to Christophe, he was everything you could wish in an older brother.  His acceptance of suddenly having three new adopted siblings was... overwhelming.  I shared Lonato's grief at his passing, although it was a while before I learned that he had been taken by Catherine and the Knights to his death.  Lord Lonato protected us from the rumors and the ugliness of the whole affair as best he could.'

'I guess they think you know all about what he was planning.'  Bernadetta said acutely as she pulled her cloak entirely over her face, her voice muffled as it sounded through the heavy fabric.

'Professor Hanneman asked me directly if I was a part of the scheme, yes.'  Ashe said stiffly.  'He was kind about it but... The Archbishop suspects that I may have been sent here to feed some sort of information back to my Lord.'

'Well, that's rubbish!'  Ignatz exclaimed hotly.  'As if you would do something like that!'

'In truth, I don't know what I would have done if Lonato had requested it of me.  I owe him a great deal.'  Ashe replied honestly.  'I can totally understand why I must be suspected of subterfuge.  It is strange that I was sent here when Lord Lonato intended to start a rebellion against the very institute he placed me at.'

'Hmm.'  Claude was looking thoughtful.  'It could be that it was a clever move on his part, rather than a strange one.  It seems to me that you are of an age where you could be punished as an adult if you were with Lonato and complicit in his scheme.  I would suggest that sending you here - well, it could be a way of protecting you, Ashe.  If you are here, you are not by his side, fighting for his cause.'

Tears welled in Ashe's eyes again.  'That does sound like something he would do.'  He agreed quietly.  'He has always put high regard on the wellbeing of my siblings and I.  It is concerning that my younger brother and sister are still with him though.  They are just children, so I can't help but worry.'

'Understandable.'  Ignatz agreed compassionately.

'If only I could speak to him.'  Ashe lamented.  'I'm sure I could get him to rethink his actions.'

'I assume you have been forbidden to contact him.'  Claude stated.

'Oh, well, yes.  Hanneman said that I will be very closely monitored for the time being.  Prince Dimitri has also been advised that I should be treated with suspicion.'  Ashe's face fell even further.  'If it isn’t bad enough that Christophe was executed for having played a suspected role in the Duscar tragedy which killed the Prince's family, now I am suspected as being a dissident against the church.  He must truly hate me.'

'Speak with him, Ashe.'  Claude said firmly.  'I am positive that he harbors no such ill-feeling towards you.  I believe that he would help you in any way that he can.  He isn’t the only one, either.'

'No!  If you need anything, Ashe you have only to ask.'  Ignatz agreed vehemently.

'I'd also suggest speaking with Captain Jeralt before he leaves for Castle Gaspard.  He is a fair man as well as a skilled one.'  Claude put a hand on the boy's shoulder.  'Let him know that you are worried about your siblings.  He would probably even carry word from you to Lord Lonato if you wished it.'

'I'm not sure I could speak to him...'  Ashe looked fearful.

'Ask Dimitri to go with you.'  Claude advised.  'Or you could ask Teach.  If you are able to give Jeralt some idea of what to expect it will make things go a lot easier on everyone, and that would hopefully bring about a more positive outcome for your adopted father and his household. '

'I'm sure it will all work out okay!'  Ignatz said hopefully.  'After all Lord Lonato must be as good a man as you say if he adopted you and your siblings like that.  That is not the action of a bad person at all!'

'You don't know the half of it!'  Ashe declared, wiping away the trail of tears that had fallen, drying his cheeks.  'When he first met me, I had broken into his house to steal from him!  I got distracted in his library, though, and he found me reading his books!'

'You were a thief?'  Bernadetta had lifted her cloak from her face and was staring at Ashe in fearful awe.  'Did you murder people and steal the virtue of fair maidens?'  She squeaked.

'No!'  Ashe squeaked in reply.  'I was ten!  I never killed anyone or stole any virtue!'  He was blushing bright red.  'The most I ever stole was food to feed my family after my parents died... and sometimes a bit of coin if I could.

'Oh...'  Bernadetta sounded a little disappointed.  'It would have made a brilliant story if you did.'  She mused.  'The handsome thief who steals hearts... and kisses...'

'Bernie!'  Ashe's blush had deepened.  'I have never read any book like that.  Not ever!' 

Bernie smiled wickedly at him.  'Perhaps I shall write one then!'  She threatened.

Ignatz laughed.  'If you write it, then I shall do some illustrations for you.  Should we make the handsome thief look just like Ashe do you think?'

'Oh, yes!'  Bernadetta giggled.  'The smiley-freckled thief!'

Claude had to turn his back to hide his grin.  'You guys are something else!'  He commented, shaking his head unbelievingly.

 

~0~

 

'Once Catherine has arrived, you will liaise directly with her concerning your travel to Castle Gaspard and her specific requirements of you and your students.'  Lady Rhea proclaimed to Byleth.

'I understand.'  Byleth inclined her head.  'May I ask, though, what exactly is our intended role in these proceedings?  I'm not sure that I comprehend the purpose of the mission itself.  Since Jeralt has already left to subdue the rebellion why are we following after?'

'Catherine's job is to determine what needs to be done in order to restore the order and ensure that there are no further attempts by the instigators to incite unrest.  She will speak with my voice in the matter.'  Rhea tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair as she considered her reply further.  'Lonato resides in Faerghus, so his lands come under the remit of the Kingdom that Prince Dimitri will one day rule.'  She continued patiently.  'While this rebellion is explicitly aimed at the church, and we have the blessing of the Regent to address it independently, I feel that it is an excellent opportunity for the Prince to witness first hand how the church dispenses justice to those that dare to threaten our institution.  He may well have to deal with such insurgents himself in the future.  That is why I specifically ask that you take the Blue Lions on this venture.'

'It is a fairly long journey...'  Manuela mused, almost to herself.

'Yes it is.'  Seteth agreed.  'However, as Byleth noted in her report on the Red Canyon mission, that the students have had very little exposure to campaign travel, so it is a good exercise for them.  All of the Blue Lions can ride, so at least their journey will be mounted and less arduous this time because of it.'

'Dedue hates riding.'  Byleth murmured.

'As a bodyguard to the Prince, that is something that should be addressed!'  Hanneman interjected cheerfully.

'You will also be required to keep a close eye on the lad, Ashe during the mission.  Obviously we cannot be entirely sure that his innocence in this uprising is entirely on the level.'  Rhea added.

'Would it not be best for him to stay behind?'  Hanneman asked.  'While I am confident that he is no traitor, this whole experience is difficult for him.  I am not sure his attendance is in his best interest.'

'I'd agree.'  Rhea replied.  'Ashe and Dimitri spoke with Jeralt, however, and it appears that the boy is deeply concerned about the wellbeing of his younger siblings who are residing at Castle Gaspard.  It would be the greater unkindness to deny him the comfort of knowing that they are okay.'

Byleth nodded slowly. 

'Catherine should be here within the week.'  Seteth informed.  'Hanneman will be taking over the lessons with the Black Eagles in your absence, so please make sure he is up to date on your schedule.'

'Do you have any further questions?'  Rhea inquired.

'No.'  Byleth stated.  'It all seems perfectly straightforward.'

'Jeralt will have everything under control by the time you reach your destination, I am sure.'  Rhea agreed benevolently.

'Of course.'  Byleth nodded.