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It’s strange, waking up one day and finding that the world has gone on without her; that in Byleth’s absence Edelgard has continued to write history in her steady, bloody hand.

Before the attack on the monastery, Byleth had a single month to spend wrestling with herself in the wake of her choice to stand with Edelgard, trying to understand the enormity of what she’d done. She thought about the disorienting free-fall of hearing the words Flame Emperor for what must be the hundredth time and remembering, like a knife to the heart, that she and Edelgard shared the same Crest. About the look on Edelgard’s face when Rhea ordered Byleth to kill her, already braced for the blow. About Rhea’s cold and terrifying anger, the restless creature that lived beneath her skin, the parts of the archbishop that Jeralt must have been so afraid of. The parts of Rhea that Byleth is beginning to suspect she shares. No wonder her father never told her. He told her little enough. How could he have even begun to explain?

Her father lied to her. Rhea lied to her. Edelgard lied to her, even though she so clearly wanted to tell the truth. Even though she’d asked Byleth from behind the mask to join her, surely knowing the answer and still unable to stop herself. Byleth can’t imagine Edelgard tortures herself that way often.

She’s had a month; her former students have had five years. It’s wonderful to see how much they’ve grown. It’s awful, to be forced to confront so starkly the ways the war has changed them, the doubts they’ve abandoned or fostered. Even Edelgard, who seemed so unshakeable as she declared herself the Flame Emperor, is different. Stronger, yes. Colder, yes. But somehow more breakable, visible in the twitch of her mouth and the tears in her eyes when she saw Byleth again for the first time. The way her voice wavered around the word guilty.

Jeralt’s grave is still at the monastery, right next to the mother she never knew. He’d probably laugh at the idea of Edelgard and her ragtag bunch of Black Eagles, destroying the monastery and then coming back five years later to claim it, propelled by a promise they’d made to a teacher they thought long dead. It isn’t particularly funny, but he would laugh. He could always find the humor in even the bleakest situations. Byleth thinks about that as she sits there. She wishes she could ask him what to do. She wishes she could ask Sothis, and get yelled at again for her stupidity.

She’s so distracted that Edelgard’s hand on her shoulder is a surprise. Jeralt would laugh at that too. Guess you’ve been slacking on your training, he’d say, or something like it. That’s what you get for taking a five year nap.

Byleth looks up at her.

“Do you worry?” Edelgard asks. She nods to the headstone. “About what your father would think?”

Byleth says nothing. She wraps her arms tighter around her knees.

“I admit, I never had the knack of it. Concerning myself with the opinions of my family. I never really had the chance, even after they were gone. I don’t want you to feel as though—I am glad to have you back, of course. Gladder than I can say.” Her hand squeezes Byleth’s shoulder. “If you wish to go, Professor, I won’t stop you.”

Byleth imagines it. Getting up and walking away. She could be a mercenary again if she wanted. She only lived at the monastery for a single short year. There’s no reason she should feel tied here. “And if I were to stand against you?” She didn’t know Dimitri or Claude well, but either of them would welcome her help. Rhea is still out there, somewhere. She wouldn’t forgive Byleth, probably, but she might find it in her heart to make use of her for a time.

“Obviously that would not be ideal,” Edelgard says, with a trace of her old humor in her voice.

“That’s not an answer.”

“I can only give you the truth,” she says. So strong and steady, as though Byleth can’t feel the way her fingers tremble. Even after everything, it’s still endearing. “Were you to stand in my way, I would cut you down.” Her voice is steel.

“Just like anyone else.”

“That’s what I would like to think,” Edelgard says, and on that, her voice wavers. “Yes. It would not bring me joy.”

“I believe you.” And Byleth relaxes. She can feel Edelgard noticing, the way she stiffens, the slight awkwardness she always gets when confronted by something she doesn’t immediately understand. “You treat everyone the same,” Byleth says. “We’re all expendable in service of your goals. Even those of us you care about. I can respect that. Appreciate it, even. Maybe that’s what Fodlan needs.”

“I...appreciate it, though I’m not sure I understand.”

Byleth isn’t sure she could explain. Her father is buried here because of choices Edelgard made, but it could just as easily have been anyone. Edelgard set bandits upon the students, the first night Byleth met her; Edelgard will do what she believes is necessary, always. Not out of malice, but out of her unwavering sense of justice. A hard and unkind and unbending justice, but justice all the same.

Edelgard believes it’s all worth it. Maybe that belief makes it so.

Jeralt believed in justice. He believed in forgiveness too.

“He always wanted me to choose my own path,” Byleth says. “Mostly I just followed him around. My whole life. I know it worried him. He was so happy when I seemed to like the monastery. Maybe he’d think it was worth it. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. He’s dead.”

“For what it’s worth, I am sorry for what happened to him. If I could have picked any other allies—you must know I hate them too—”

“It’s worth nothing,” Byleth says. “You shouldn’t say things you don’t mean. Not to me.” Edelgard allied herself with the same people who cut her open as a child. To ask her to be sorry is unthinkable.

“It’s true,” Edelgard says.

“He was a Knight of Seiros. We’d be fighting him now even if he’d lived. I don’t have to like that we’re working with the creatures that killed him. Hubert made that very clear.”

“Would you really still want to be here, if he was with the Knights?”

Byleth shrugs off her hand. “I chose you. I can’t undo that choice, no more than you can undo any of yours. It doesn’t matter if I want to.”

“I see,” Edelgard says. “I’ll leave you be, if that’s what you want.”

Byleth can’t move. She can’t speak. She’s not sure what she’ll do or what she’ll say. She’s not sure she can do anything she won’t regret.

She’ll fight for Edelgard. That’s never really been in question. She believes in her. She always has. It’s the touch to her shoulder that she’s not sure about. She doesn’t know what to do with all the parts of her that aren’t the emperor.

Byleth thought the hardest part would be making the choice, but to continue to make it feels impossible.

Edelgard nods, and vanishes into the depths of the monastery, a broken and ancient labyrinthine building full of secrets. Surely it’s no coincidence that they all ended up back here in the end.

-

Dorothea finds her. She doesn’t deny it when Byleth accuses her of being sent by Edelgard. “You know how Edie is,” she says. “Her and Hubie are the same that way. When a problem is bothering them, they can’t just let it lie. They have to solve it, no matter what it takes. I guess that’s really why we’re doing all this. Edie saw a broken world, and she couldn’t accept it as it was. Not like the rest of us.”

“No,” Byleth agrees. “It would be easier if she could.”

With a snort, Dorothea settles beside her. “Can you imagine? None of this would’ve happened. We’d all have stayed at the monastery for a few more years, graduated, gone our separate ways. No war, no killing.”

“You’d be married to a nice noble now.”

“Of course.” Dorothea tosses her hair, plastering on her opera smile. “A beautiful, educated woman with a voice like mine? Who could resist?”

“What about now? Do you have your eye on anyone?”

“In the middle of a war? I shouldn’t be thinking about things like that.” Dorothea tucks her head against Byleth’s shoulder, the way Byleth thinks Edelgard might have liked to. “But yes. I have a few options in mind. You know me, always looking out for myself.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. You should be happy. Find your strange someone.”

Dorothea laughs. “You remember that? I guess it hasn’t been so long, for you.” She grows quiet, pensive. The contemplative part of her that she so often seems to forget exists. “I’m glad you’re back, Professor. Edie really hasn’t been the same without you.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Maybe it’s better that you couldn’t see her. She scared me, a little. I mean, Edie’s always been a little frightening, but...it’s not good for her, leading this war. I don’t think she understands that. I’ve been trying to explain it to Hubert, but he doesn’t get it either. Otherwise he’d stop her.”

“Edelgard can’t be dissuaded.”

“Would you try?” Dorothea asks. “If you thought it would work. If you could do it. Would you make her stop?”

“I don’t know. Five years into a war isn’t the time to stop, Dorothea.”

Dorothea sits up, crossing her arms. “So we should just keep killing people, because we’ve already started? Is that how it works? Once we’ve begun, we have to keep it up until we win or we die?”

Byleth leans back on her hands, staring up at the sky, not seeing much. “Do you really think we’d be at peace, if Edelgard hadn’t done what she did? You saw what the church was doing. What Crests were. To Ashe’s father, to Sylvain’s brother.” She touches her chest, the place where her heart doesn’t beat. To me. “It wasn’t right.”

“Of course it wasn’t right,” Dorothea says. “I grew up on the streets of Enbarr. Do you really think I don’t know that? The church, Lady Rhea, the nobility...it isn’t right the way they ran the world. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that. I just...I know Edie means well, deep down. But she and Rhea are the same in a way, aren’t they? Ruthless. Don’t tell her I said that. But just because what we had was bad, how can we be sure what comes after will be any better? Better enough to kill for?”

“By being there,” Byleth says. “By making sure Edelgard has people who will stop her.”

“Don’t let Hubert hear you saying that.”

“It’s Edelgard,” Byleth says, looking down at her hands, bunched in the sparse grass. “I couldn’t hurt her even if I wanted to. But we can guide her. That has to be enough.”

Dorothea’s arm around her shoulder is warm. “That’s our Edie,” she says. “She’s really cast a spell on all of us, huh? Maybe there really will be an opera about her one day.”

“There will,” Byleth says. “There will be peace someday, and you can write it. I’ll make sure of it.”

“You always did know how to make a girl swoon,” Dorothea says. She buries her face in Byleth’s neck. “I’m glad you’re back for me, too. Not just for her. You always know just what to say.”

Byleth doesn’t think that’s true at all. Still, she lets Dorothea hug her tight.

-

They fight. They kill Ignatz and Hilda; they recruit Lysithea to their cause and they let Claude go. No matter what they do, when they are on the field, Edelgard’s face never changes. It’s amazing how perfect the mask is. If Byleth had never seen her in private, had never seen the cracks, she would never imagine that Edelgard could laugh or blush or cry. She would see only the emperor, crushing everything in her path.

Dorothea cries for Hilda, who she’d always gotten along so well with, while Byleth rubs her back. Hubert admonishes them for letting Claude live to cause trouble another day. Byleth cleans her sword, and imagines her former students on the other side of the war. She’d talked Felix and Ashe into joining her house. What if Claude had stolen Bernadetta away; what if Dimitri had offered Caspar better opportunities to train. If fate had twisted another way, they’d be dead too, buried under the weight of Edelgard’s ambition.

“Sacrifices are inevitable,” is Hubert’s answer to her unspoken worries when he dines with her. He always has a sense for these things. “We are not the only dangerous force in this world. Do you think those who slither in the dark would be content to hide, had we not temporarily allied ourselves with them? They and Lord Arundel’s ilk wreak havoc wherever they go. We have merely changed who is at the point of the blade. Once they have outlived their usefulness, we will destroy them too.”

Byleth takes another bite of the stew. The food was better back during the academy days. The rations now remind her of mercenary life. “Sometimes I envy you, Hubert. You have a very simple view of the world.”

“Clarity of purpose makes me more effective,” he says. “Normally I would not tolerate ambivalence, but you are special to Lady Edelgard, and in that, you are special to me. You should share your doubts with her. She is plagued by similar crises of conscience; I believe it would do her good to discuss them with someone she trusts.”

“What if I convince her to run away from all this? To make peace with Dimitri? With the church?”

Even if Hubert was a man in possession of any tact or charm, Byleth doesn’t think he could have managed a laugh. “Were that possible, Professor, we would be living in a very different world.”

It is hard to imagine an Edelgard who could be swayed from her path. “How did you know?” Byleth asks. “That you would follow her.” Byleth can remember the moment she knew with Jeralt. It’s her earliest memory of him, when she must have been nine or ten years old. She knows she should remember things before that, but her memory has always been strange and spotty.

They were eating at a tavern in between jobs. Jeralt was telling her a story about some battle or another; she can’t remember that part. What she remembers is the moment the bandits kicked the door in. Byleth was sitting with her back to them, in the center of the room. As soon as she heard the crash, Jeralt was over the table, between her and the door, brandishing nothing more than his dinner knife. He didn’t have time to see what was coming. He didn’t know he could win. But he knew he had to be between Byleth and the rest of the world, no matter the cost.

She can’t pinpoint the moment she decided to follow Edelgard. It must have happened by degrees. By the time Rhea ordered Byleth to kill her, it was already too late.

“Often I feel that it was something I always knew,” Hubert says. “That would be incorrect. I always knew it was my duty to follow Lady Edelgard. The moment I knew it was my calling was when she was kidnapped, and I was forced to confront the possibility of a world without her. Only then did I realize how strong she was, even at such a young age.” His spoon scrapes the bottom of his bowl. “It’s difficult to contemplate what my life would have been like had she not survived.”

“So it wasn’t really about her ideals at all.”

“Lady Edelgard and her ideals are inseparable. She would not be herself without them. Otherwise, how could it be so unimaginable for her to stray from the path she has chosen?”

“You couldn’t have known that then.”

Hubert shrugs. It’s an odd motion on him. “I could not. And yet, I did. This world contains many stranger things than that.”

Byleth thinks about that: about knowing things she can’t possibly know. About understanding what she can’t possibly understand. It was the way she’d felt stepping into the monastery for the first time. Somehow, she knew she belonged there, though she had no idea she was born there. She knew she was connected to Rhea. When they asked her which house she wanted to lead, she didn’t have to think about it.

When that man swung his sword at Edelgard the night they met, Byleth threw herself in front of it without thinking. And in the end, the sword was in the hand of a man Edelgard had hired herself. But it was still the right decision.

Maybe that’s what Byleth’s been doing since then, all this time: throwing herself in front of the sword of Edelgard’s own making.

Byleth was raised a mercenary. She protected those that could pay, and didn’t feel much about it one way or another; she was happy enough to follow where her father led. It’s harder to have to choose where her sword is pointed. She never had to worry about it before. But if she thinks of herself as Edelgard’s shield, that she can understand. That, she knows, is right.

Edelgard is usually in her study at this hour. Byleth brings her up a bowl of peach sorbet and knocks on her door. Hubert had reliably informed her that she hasn’t eaten yet, and sniffed at Byleth’s choice of sweets. Byleth figures they both need what sweetness they can get.

She’s shuffling her papers when Byleth enters. Byleth catches the edges of another sketch, and leans over her shoulder to look, but there’s already something else on top.

“Assassination plans for my uncle,” Edelgard says wryly. “Hubert draws them up every so often to entertain me.”

Byleth settles the bowl in front of her. If it was a deliberate distraction from the drawing, and whether or not it, like the painting, is of Byleth, it worked. “Why not go through with it?”

Edelgard laughs, startled. “Blunt as ever, I see. Believe me, the moment is it politically possible, Lord Arundel will be dealt with. But that day is far away. He still commands the allegiance of half the houses in the Empire. While the war continues, we need him.”

“I see. Just as while the war continues, we have to keep killing our former friends.”

“Yes. I always liked Hilda too, you know, as little as I understood her. She was loyal to the end.” Edelgard takes a bite of the sorbet. “It doesn’t taste the same.”

“Edelgard.” She doesn’t look up from her dessert. “You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t bother you.”

“How do you know that it does?”

“Your hand is shaking.”

Edelgard puts down her spoon with a clatter. “What right do I have to mourn them? They were my classmates, yes. But I would order their deaths again ten times over if it was necessary.”

Byleth reaches out. Edelgard doesn’t flinch back from her fingers on her cheek. “Is that the kind of ruler you want to be? One who doesn’t mourn?”

“If I have to be.”

“You don’t.”

“It would be easier to forget that they were ever anything other than obstacles.”

“They were my students,” Byleth says. “I won’t let you do that.” Maybe it’s not the same as protecting them. But it’s what she can do.

Edelgard presses her gloved hand to Byleth’s. “I meant it, when I said you could go,” she says. “But please. Stay with me. Help me remember.”

“I’ll try,” Byleth says. For now, that will have to be enough.

-

They kill Flayn and Seteth. Felix drives a sword through his own father’s heart. Shamir aims an arrow at Catherine and misses only by inches, vowing to do better next time.

Byleth cries for the second time in her memory, locked alone in her room. Any one thing she could handle: Flayn’s face as she heard Seteth fall, becoming for the first time an entirely ordinary young girl, watching her father die; the determined tilt to Felix’s mouth as Rodrigue told him there would be no mercy, and he responded in kind; Shamir’s blank look at her own hands after she let loose the arrow, as if only just then realizing what she’d done.

The dreams she still has, of her own hands around the blade that killed Jeralt. Rewinding time so she can do it over and over; because surely if she had ever really loved him at all, if she was capable of loving at all, she wouldn’t be here now.

But when it all runs together, she can’t stop thinking about any of it, her mind jumping from one thing to another before she can stop it. Flayn covers her face as Jeralt falls; Shamir shoots Felix through the eye; Byleth cuts Rodrigue and Seteth’s throats while their children bleed out.

Dorothea knocks, and calls out. Byleth doesn’t answer. Dorothea leaves, her footsteps trailing away, and she returns with two more sets in tow.

“We both know I’m fully capable of blasting this door to bits,” Hubert says in bored tones. “I suggest you unlock it.”

Byleth does. She is dimly aware that she’s still crying. She didn’t know how to stop last time, either. “You could have just gotten Petra to open it,” she says. “No need for threats of pyrotechnics.”

“Surely a skilled tactician such as yourself can recognize a bluff,” Hubert says. Dorothea ignores him and rushes in, yanking Byleth into a hug.

She’s warm. Byleth thinks she herself may be unusually cold. She allows herself to be led back to her bed. Dorothea sits down on one side, and Edelgard sits on her other. Her hair is down. She must have been getting ready for bed when Dorothea found her.

“I’m fine,” Byleth says.

“Clearly, you are not.” Hubert has closed and locked the door, and is now leaning against it.

“Here to assassinate me if I’m too regretful?”

“I am here to offer what comfort I can.”

“He was worried about you,” Dorothea stage whispers.

“We all are,” says Edelgard, her hand on Byleth’s cheek. She turns Byleth’s face towards her own, and her expression isn’t that of a general concerned for a soldier’s morale. It’s something else.

“Flayn was just a kid,” Byleth says. There’s something wrong with her voice.

“We all know that isn’t precisely true,” says Hubert from the doorway.

Byleth shakes her head. “Whatever else she was, she was still just a little girl. She was our friend.” She loved to fish, she wanted so badly to learn, she wanted most of all to be free. She was every good thing about the church, and now she’s dead, and they made sure she had to watch her father die first.

“I miss her too,” Dorothea whispers.

“It was her choice to fight us,” Hubert says. “It was her choice to stand for her ideals, as we stand for ours. If you shoulder the sole blame for her death, you rob her of that autonomy. Of her choice. Of a death for what she believed in, instead of senseless violence.”

Byleth had almost turned back time. Almost. But she couldn’t do it. Maybe she could have convinced Flayn to surrender. Or maybe she’d just have to kill her again, over and over, uselessly trying to save her until the clock stopped rewinding.

“We have to win,” Edelgard says. “We will win. Otherwise, she and all the others will have died for nothing.”

“Edie,” Dorothea says sharply. “Now isn’t the time for your manifesto.”

“It’s okay,” Byleth says. “She’s right.” She rubs uselessly at her face. “You’re all right. Why can’t I stop?”

“Come here,” Dorothea says, and takes Byleth into her arms. “Sometimes you just need to cry yourself out. Go on. I don’t have anywhere else to be.”

So Byleth cries into Dorothea’s shoulder, with Edelgard curled against her back. Hubert sits at the edge of the bed, an oddly steadying hand resting on her ankle. Maybe this is what Edelgard feels like always: as though she is being held together by the people around her. As though without them she would disperse, and be nothing.

She falls asleep like that. When she wakes up, her eyes are dry and sore, and the room is dim. Hubert is sitting on the floor beside the bed, his back to it; she can see his eyes glint as he turns his head. She’s reminded of a raven, keeping watch.

“Thank you,” Edelgard whispers, soft against the back of her neck. “For not letting me forget our losses. That every step I take matters. That it is on my shoulders to make it all worth it.”

“You will,” Byleth says, both a reassurance and a prayer.

-

Of all of her former students, Hubert has changed the least in the five years she slept through. His voice is just as chilly as ever. “Professor,” he says, pausing by the door to the library. Byleth is making notes on a map of Fhirdiad, trying not to picture Dimitri’s face as it looked five years ago. “May I speak with you for a moment?”

“It’s not like you to be so polite,” Byleth says.

“I am aware of the concept.”

Byleth inclines her head, and he enters. “Is this going to be another death threat? I almost miss them.”

The ghost of a smile crosses Hubert’s face. Byleth found a certain kinship with him, during their time at Garreg Mach. Hubert always seemed a little bit like her, the way Flayn described her: like an ocean, hiding great depths, but always appearing calm on the surface.

She’d rather not think about Flayn right now.

Hubert certainly feels things deeply; anyone who has spoken with him about Edelgard must know that. But he does not show it easily. He smiles as often as Byleth does.

“No,” Hubert says. “Your miraculous return has done Lady Edelgard nothing but good, and for that, I must thank you.”

That, of course, is the other thing they’ve always had in common—an affection beyond all reason for Edelgard. “All of you seem to have done just fine in my absence.”

“While I appreciate the sentiment, you were not here to witness Lady Edelgard’s distress at your loss. It was...quite painful to watch.”

“For you especially, I assume.”

Hubert does not appear to hear her. “Regardless, Lady Edelgard is the subject I wish to discuss with you.”

“Go ahead.” Byleth gestures towards the seat across from her at the table, but Hubert does not take it. Apparently, he’s in the mood to loom.

“I wish to inquire about the permanency of your place here.”

Byleth blinks down at the map. “You want to make sure I’m not still going to run away.”

“As many of us have said: Lady Edelgard suffered greatly at your apparent loss. To experience it a second time would be devastating. I do not have to ask you to be careful on the battlefield; that you always do without question. But no matter what other doubts you have about your place here, for Lady Edelgard’s sake, I must implore you to remain.”

“It’s her fault my father’s dead, you know,” Byleth says. “If you take the long view, which he wouldn’t have, probably. She might hate those—whatever they are, your slithering dark creatures—as much as I do, but she worked with them. She gave them the opportunity. She brought them to the monastery.”

Hubert nods along, as if they are having a perfectly placid discussion. As if Byleth can’t still see Jeralt’s face, the way he looked just before he died. “My father is dead at the hands of her ambition as well.”

“Didn’t you kill him? You didn’t even like your father,” Byleth says. As she speaks, she realizes she is angry. She isn’t sure she’s felt that, since she woke up. “Is that what you want to hear? That I blame her? That I hate her? I’ve already made my choice. She’s our best hope of a better world. After all this time, don’t you trust me?”

“I would trust you with Lady Edelgard’s life. Her happiness is another matter. For that, I require further assurances. There is a great distance between murder and protection. Between hate and love. I need to ascertain where along that line you stand.”

“I’ve already told her I’m not leaving.”

“Forgive me if I do not put full confidence in words spoken out of passion.”

Byleth snorts. “It wasn’t exactly like that.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“Hubert, what are you really asking me?”

He folds his hands behind his back. “If you choose to remain, it should be done with your full conviction. The way you have been living, with one foot out the door on a journey you do not intend to take, is untenable. So commit. While you stand by Lady Edelgard, I hope that you will be honest about the nature of your feelings for her. Sooner, perhaps, rather than later.”

“I see,” Byleth says. She shuts her book and rises, walking around the desk, standing in front of Hubert. “Imagine it. Imagine her dead. Imagine a begrudging ally of mine killed her. What would you do? Could you bring yourself to support me, let alone love me?”

“No,” says Hubert. “I could not. But you are not me. You have always been of a more compromising nature. And as impressive as you are, you are not Lady Edelgard.”

Byleth lifts her chin. She is standing very close to Hubert; he hasn’t stepped back. “Yes,” she says. “We’ve discussed this, haven’t we? I remember. I am only worthy of your second life.”

A strange expression passes over Hubert’s face. “As I said.”

“You would want to kill me. If through my choices, Edelgard died.”

“Yes,” he says. “Are you implying that you wish harm upon Lady Edelgard, Professor?”

He’s looming. “I couldn’t kill her, no matter where her choices have brought her,” Byleth says. “Back then, and now. You understand why.”

“Hmm.” He eases back. “You never have been afraid of me, have you?”

“Not particularly,” Byleth says. “Maybe because we’re the same. People think I’m cold too.”

“But we both know that isn’t true. You are still here, despite your reservations. You did not even hesitate, when Rhea ordered you to strike Lady Edelgard down. You knew instantly what the right choice was, and you did not waver, despite the doubts that have plagued you. That doubt makes you stronger. In the end, it makes you more sure. Since that moment, and in all the time since, I have understood that you are my greatest ally in accomplishing my endeavors. You and I care more deeply for Lady Edelgad than anyone else could know. I am merely requesting that in this, you become my ally as well.”

Byleth crosses her arms, squinting up at him. “Does she know that you love her?”

“We’ve discussed the matter.”

Byleth wishes she could’ve been there for that conversation. “Perhaps my interests lay elsewhere.”

“Do they?”

“Of course not,” Byleth says. “Well. Not entirely. She’s...different, these days. I feel like I must have been away for more than five years. She’s a little more reserved. More guarded.” What Byleth really means, in a way that’s hard to put into words, is that Edelgard seems sad. But it’s hard to imagine an emperor feeling something as simple as that. And Edelgard has never been simple. But it's true. And seeing that makes Byleth sad too. “She’s the emperor, I suppose.”

“Less so, around you.”

“Yes. I noticed.” She looks away. “It would make me happy, if she could be happy. Despite everything. I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen that. But I think it would just complicate things.”

“We are already living a very complicated life,” Hubert says. “I would not have brought up the matter if I did not believe it was in Lady Edelgard’s best interests. Of that, you can be assured.”

“Believe me, that wasn’t in question.” She pauses. “Is that all I am, then? A means to an end, another piece on the chessboard of Edelgard’s life? I won’t be offended. Sometimes that’s what I feel like. Sometimes I think that would be easier.”

“I did not lie to you when we spoke before. I find you quite intriguing on your own merits.”

Byleth leans back against the table. “Are you sure ‘intriguing’ is the right word?”

“Perhaps not. I believe you have been spending too much time with Dorothea.”

“You’re the one acting out an opera plot, Hubert. Dorothea would certainly want to write one about us.”

“I will see to it that she never does.” Hubert bows to her. Byleth is seized with the absurd desire to take him by the collar and kiss him on his way back up. She won’t; hypotheticals aside, Hubert has made it clear he only has the one life to give.

And even with two lives at his disposal, it seems he’s giving them both to Edelgard anyway.

“Do you not think you could make her happy?”

Hubert smirks. “Concerned for my welfare?”

“I was your professor, once. I suppose I never broke the habit.”

“In some ways, I am sure I do. But it is not Lady Edelgard’s happiness that I am most concerned about,” Hubert says. “It is her wellbeing and her legacy. Her ideals. I am her servant in all things. I do the things that she cannot, even when that requires deception. I am told that is not an ideal quality in a husband.”

Byleth rubs a hand over her face, thinking of the ring still stowed away in her room. “So this is you delegating.”

“In a manner of speaking,” says Hubert. “I think that it would make you happy, as well. I find that I am more able to be concerned about your happiness than hers, without the distraction of devotion. I should warn you that the entirety of Edelgard’s heart is not on offer. Other matters aside, she holds all of Fodlan within it. No one person could ever be enough for all that she requires.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Byleth says. This is the strangest conversations she’s ever been a part of, and she has lived a very strange life. She gives in to her first impulse, and pulls Hubert down. It’s a much less fearsome prospect than giving in to her idle thoughts about rings, and imagining her father’s laugh.

Dorothea happens upon them like that, Byleth up on her heels and a hand at the back of Hubert’s neck. “Well, hello,” she says. “I can’t believe you beat me to it.”

Byleth thinks perhaps she should be embarrassed, but she never really had the knack of it.

“And to which of us are you speaking?” Hubert asks. He still has a steady and unfailingly polite hand at Byleth’s waist. Byleth wonders if he’s ever known how to be embarrassed either.

“I guess that depends,” Dorothea says. She hops up to sit on the table beside Byleth, swinging her legs. Byleth hasn’t seen her this playful since she woke up. “Have you given any further thought to my proposal?”

Byleth turns to stare at her. “You proposed?”

“Precisely my reaction,” says Hubert.

“Aw, look, we made her smile again. See, Hubie, we make a great team, sharing this path of ours.”

Byleth raises a hand to her mouth. She’s fairly certain she’s laughing. “I’m so glad I didn’t sleep through this,” she says. “What if I’d woken up, and you two were married?”

“You’d still think you were dreaming,” Dorothea says. She slings an arm around Byleth’s waist, just above where Hubert’s hand still rests. “Hubie, did you discuss our proposal with her, or is this you softening her up?”

“I see,” Byleth says. “You two have been scheming.”

“Hubie’s more used to cloak and dagger plots, but I’ve been trying to teach him the value of social strategy.”

“An opera company, I’m coming to understand, is a truly harrowing place,” Hubert says. Byleth can’t tell if he’s joking or not. “I have raised the matter. I do not believe I received an answer.”

“I wasn’t aware there was anything left to be decided,” Byleth says. “Edelgard is…” She can’t figure out how to finish the sentence. Edelgard is everything. She knows better than to say that.

“I see,” Dorothea says, warmth in her voice. Byleth can’t help but smile. Dorothea so often sounds sad, these days. Worn down. It’s nice to give her something to be excited about. “Well, give this to Edie for me,” she says, taking Byleth’s face between her hands and kissing her affectionately, with none of the gravitas that Hubert had.

Hubert snorts.

“Greedy, Hubie,” Dorothea says cheerfully. She tilts Byleth’s face in her hands, and goes quiet. “Hmm. It wasn’t a joke about your heartbeat, was it, all those years ago?”

“No,” says Byleth. She wonders how fast it would be beating just now.

“Well, don’t worry. I’ve got enough heart for all of us.” Dorothea hops off the table and loops her arm around Hubert’s, comfortably enough that Byleth abruptly realizes she must have done it before. “Off you go, Professor. We have a few things we need to discuss.”

“Social strategy?” Byleth asks.

“Sure,” Dorothea says. “And also whether you or Edie is a better kisser.”

“An unfair competition, of course,” Hubert says, and this time, Byleth is almost sure that he’s joking.

-

Byleth wanders around the grounds of Garreg Mach for a spell. She used to wonder, as a child, when her heart would start to beat. She and her father never spoke much about it, as they never spoke about most things, but Byleth knew she was unusual.

For a time, she thought she must be a cursed knight from a fairy tale. That one day, she would meet a princess who would defeat the witch, and make her heart begin to beat again. It was only ever a childish fancy. It didn’t take her long to grow out of it.

Once the sun starts to set, she finally turns towards Edelgard’s rooms.

Edelgard greets her warmly. She’s at her desk again, going over the same maps of Fhirdiad that Byleth was distracted from in the library. “Hubert has been making himself scarce today,” she says. “That’s always worrying. You wouldn’t happen to know what that’s about, would you?”

“I believe Dorothea cornered him to talk about wedding planning.”

Edelgard laughs. It’s a sound Byleth doesn’t hear often enough. “Did she finally convince him to say yes? Last time I spoke, he was considering it. I thought I would nearly laugh myself sick. She would be good for him, don’t you think?”

“And vice versa. Oddly enough, yes.” Byleth leans against Edelgard’s desk, remembering the last time she stood here. “I wasn’t sure you knew. Do you mind?”

“Mind? Of course not. Or do you mean that I should be jealous?”

Byleth shrugs. She doesn’t get embarrassed, or jealous, or a lot of other things. It’s hard for her to gauge when she should be.

“I don’t doubt Hubert’s loyalty, or where his affections lie. And, well—Dorothea is of course free to do as she likes. She’s made her feelings for me clear. But I told you that my father had many lovers. It was out of the necessity of his position, but I suppose I wasn’t raised to find anything odd in it. And I’m not interested in heirs, anyway. The next ruler will be chosen by merit, and not their blood.” She makes a face. “Caspar would say I’m making this all about me. I don’t mean to make a speech. If marrying will bring them happiness, or clarity, or anything that they are looking for, then I fully support it. I hope you feel the same way.”

“Dorothea said something about sharing the same path with Hubert,” Byleth says. “That feels right. We’re all on the same path. Yours.”

Edelgard smiles, though dimly. “Yes. I suppose we are. I hope I won’t give you cause to regret it.”

“About what I said before—it does matter if I want to be here. And I am. I’m glad that I chose you.”

“Byleth. You don’t have to lie to me.”

Byleth’s face feels hot. No one ever calls her by her first name anymore. “I’m not. If I’m going to fight, I want it to be for you.”

“Thank you.” Edelgard looks up from her papers, an expression she would never show anywhere near the battlefield on her face. “That means more to me than I can say.”

“There’s something I need to tell you.”

Edelgard puts down her pen. “I’m happy to listen.”

“You know I’m a creature of the church,” Byleth says. She thought it might be hard, but in the end, it’s a secret that wants to be told. She tells Edelgard what she found in her father’s journal. She’s never told anyone else. Edelgard listens, her expression betraying nothing. “Part of me is Rhea’s.” Byleth takes Edelgard’s hand, removes her glove, and presses her fingers to Byleth’s neck. “I have no pulse,” she says. “I never have. I am something more or less than human. Will you strike me down?”

Edelgard’s fingers twitch, and for a moment Byleth can imagine it. Edelgard is strong, and if she went about it the right way, she could certainly overpower Byleth. She is the emperor. She could do it. She has the capacity, in her hardened heart that Hubert mourns. Edelgard will let nothing stop her from achieving her goals, not even herself. On some level, it’s why they all love her.

But she allowed Byleth to take off her gloves; she painted a portrait of her, and hid it away. Byleth still hasn’t seen it. Edelgard is something less than the emperor in Byleth’s presence. Hubert was right about that.

“No,” Edelgard says. The unbending emperor, yielding. “I won’t. I knew that we were the same. We were both hurt in ways we never asked for. I’m not going to abandon you for it. Together, we’ll remake the world.” She grasps Byleth by the back of the neck and pulls her down. Her kiss is nothing like an emperor’s. It’s warm, and a touch uncertain. They break apart. Byleth wants to do it again. “You asked me before if I would cut you down, if you stood against me. After everything I have done, to stop now—to spare you because I care for you—it would be unthinkable. And yet I find myself thinking of it, all the time.”

“I do too,” Byleth says helplessly. “I dream about crossing swords with you. About throwing my own down. It would be so easy for us to be on that path instead.”

“But you’re here with me,” Edelgard says. “And I won’t let you go.” She stands, nearly knocking Byleth over with the force of her kiss; Byleth will probably have a bruise on her hip from where she hits the desk. She sits, and pulls Edelgard to her, and feels warm throughout, like what she imagines a heartbeat would be like.

“It’s different,” Edelgard says. She strokes her fingers across Byleth’s cheek and her neck and her collarbone, the touch more assessing than tender. Edelgard always does everything a little bit like she’s going to be tested on it later; Byleth always fails to not find it endearing.

“Than with Hubert?”

“And Dorothea,” Edelgard says. She’s blushing just at the very tips of her ears. Byleth touches her there, fascinated. “We spoke about how I would never have time for such matters, and things—progressed. She was very cheerful about the whole thing. I do hope that part won’t make it into the opera.”

“And now?”

“I find that I am...overwhelmed. You’re very special to me, you know.” Edelgard cups Byleth’s face in her hands. Byleth pulls off her hairpiece, letting her hair go cascading down. “And—adrift, perhaps. I’m not sure that I know what I’m doing.”

“Just lead, El,” Byleth says. “I’ll follow you.” She draws Edelgard close again, arms around her shoulders and legs around her waist.

They ruin the papers on Edelgard’s desk. Later, curled around each other in Edelgard’s bed, Edelgard laughs, and says that Hubert will admonish her for it in the morning.

Byleth tucks her head into the curve of Edelgard’s neck. “He’s the one who suggested I seduce you.”

“He did not. And you did not.”

“Not really,” Byleth says. “That’s how Dorothea would put it, maybe. But he did tell me to stop waiting around. To commit.”

“That sounds like him,” Edelgard says. “Hubert’s always been with me. Sometimes I wonder who I’d be without him. If I’d been alone, all these years.” She sighs. “Do you ever wonder who you might be?” she asks, running her hand through Byleth’s pale hair. “If Rhea and the goddess had not interfered.”

Edelgard has a series of long pale scars along her legs and torso and arms. Byleth traces the one closest to her heart. “Do you?”

“I used to,” Edelgard admits. “Perhaps I would be happier. But I would be blind. I would grow up to be a ruler like my father: kind, maybe, but weak and ignorant of the abuses of power that went on under my nose, and just as unable to stop them.”

“Sometimes I think that I could have been someone else. That I was someone else, and that person is gone now. That I’m just Rhea’s creation. But even if that’s true, it wouldn’t change anything now. I am who I am. I don’t want to be anyone else.”

“No,” Edelgard says. “Neither do I.”

-

“Are we strange?” Byleth asks. She’s bunking with Dorothea for the night; at midnight, Hubert and Edelgard were still ensconced in a strategy meeting, and Hubert, after her third yawn, had sternly excused her. “I’m not sure I would know.”

Dorothea hums against her collarbone. She lays her forearms across Byleth’s chest, resting her chin on her propped hands. “Let’s see,” she says. “You’re spending the night with me, while my husband-to-be and your beloved are discussing the best ways to subdue our political opponents, likely with violence. No, dear, I don’t think we’re exactly normal.”

Byleth runs a hand up Dorothea’s back, and she inches closer. “You’re my beloved too,” she says. Dorothea hums, wriggling a little against her. She never tires of hearing it, and so Byleth never tires of saying it. Three people is, perhaps, just enough to convince Dorothea that she is in fact cared for. Maybe this is the perfect arrangement after all.

“And you are mine,” Dorothea says. “Oh, there certainly wouldn’t be any operas about us like this. It would be swordfight after swordfight between all of us for Edie’s honor, that kind of thing.”

“Hubert slitting my throat, you mean.”

“Hubie? Of course not. He’d make it look like an accident,” Dorothea says sternly. Then she collapses into giggles. “Oh, dear. We really aren’t normal, are we.”

“You’re the one who proposed to him.”

“I did, didn’t I. Well, I don’t think I was wrong. He really is nothing like what I imagined for myself. None of you are, really. You’re all so...driven.” She laughs a little. “It’s hard to imagine why you all like me so much.”

“You hate this war enough for all three of us. Even Hubert loves you for that.”

“Now, I wonder if I’ll get him to say it before the wedding,” Dorothea says. “I had no idea how much fun being engaged was going to be. Did you know he blushes?”

“I’ve noticed,” Byleth says. “Why did you really propose to him? Was it just so you could walk the same path? There must have been a simpler way.”

Dorothea, somber now, rolls over onto her back. “Oh, that’s part of it,” she says. “I’ve always admired Edie, and that made it hard not to admire him, strange as it sounds. But also...I can’t live my whole life wondering if I murdered my friends for nothing,” she says. “I have to believe it was worth it. And he believes that. I thought, if I devoted myself to him, then I would believe it too. I didn’t matter so much if I loved him, but...it is a kind of love, isn’t it? Wanting to believe what someone else does. Wanting to believe in their version of justice. Wanting to walk their path, live in their world. His world is Edie’s world. And her world will be beautiful, won’t it?”

“Yes,” says Byleth. “We’ll make sure of it.”

“See, you believe it too. All of you do. If I stick around long enough, it won’t hurt my heart so much to say it.”

“Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” Byleth says. “Or that it isn’t right.”

Dorothea cups her cheek. “Just like that,” she says. “The romance of conviction.” She sighs. “I keep thinking—I wish I could tell Ingrid about all of this. She’d be so shocked. And then I remember.”

“Do you wish you’d chosen a different path?”

“No,” Dorothea says. “I’m still selfish at heart. I wouldn’t give you or Edie or Hubie up for the world. So maybe I haven’t changed at all. I’m still looking out for my own happiness first.”

-

The war ends; Rhea falls. Byleth’s heart begins to beat again. Edelgard can’t stop confirming it, her head pressed against Byleth’s chest as they sleep. Dorothea is much the same, laughing in delight as she presses kisses to Byleth’s collarbone. Even Hubert seems pleased, with two careful fingers pressed to her neck as he kisses her, cool and assessing.

It is nothing like a fairy tale. Edelgard hasn’t been a princess in years, and Byleth is not anything so virtuous as a knight. But she escaped from the battle unscathed, with a newly beating heart. Edelgard and Hubert and Dorothea lived too. It is much more than enough.

Byleth tells them that she doesn’t feel that different, though it isn’t true. There has always been an emptiness inside her, and there still is. It’s just a different one now.

She misses Sothis. She’s never mentioned her to anyone. But she tells Edelgard and Hubert and Dorothea one evening, while they sit and drink tea and pore over draft after draft of Fodlan’s new legal system. Dorothea is, according to her, just there to keep either of them from working too hard. The insightful comments she offers up from her spot draped over the couch, head in Byleth’s lap and feet in Hubert’s, belie the truth.

“I think I used to be the goddess,” she says abruptly. They aren’t going to get anywhere with the new tariffs tonight, anyway.

“Not to steal your thunder, dear, but we kind of already knew that,” Dorothea says. She tugs playfully on a lock of Byleth’s hair, dark once again.

“That’s how you were able to return to us after five years, is it not?” Hubert asks. He hasn’t looked up. “Lady Edelgard believed you were merely of the goddess’s bloodline, but I have always suspected there may have been more to the story than that.”

“Have you, now,” Edelgard says. She hasn’t looked up either. “I told you.It doesn’t matter who you’ve been. You’re here with us now.”

“She spoke to me,” Byleth says. “Not just the once. She was always there. And now she’s gone.”

Edelgard looks up. “So you’re free.”

Byleth wonders if she could ever explain, to someone like Edelgard, that the voice in her head was always a comfort. That the goddess’s power saved Edelgard’s life, more than once, and now it’s out of Byleth’s grasp. That Sothis wasn’t the church. She was Byleth’s friend, too.

Dorothea sits up, and slings an arm around Byleth’s shoulders. “It’s okay to miss her,” she says, quiet and close to Byleth’s ear.

It’s easy to imagine a world where Sothis is still with her. One where she faced down Edelgard and put a blade through her heart. Maybe that world would be happier, or kinder. Maybe that’s the life her father wanted for her. But Byleth is sure, in that world, that her heart still fails to beat. That whoever stands by her side there is nothing like what she has now.

Nothing could be worth the sight of Edelgard dead at her feet. Byleth’s always known it, and the knowledge brought her here.

She misses Sothis. She misses Flayn, and Catherine, and Cyril, who all only ever did what they believed was right. The picked a path, and followed it; they lived no differently than Byleth, and died for it.

Byleth picked her world. She chose Edelgard and her heart. To regret it now would mean that her friends died for nothing.

“She’d be happy for me, I think,” Byleth says slowly. “She’d think this world was beautiful, too.” She supposes she’ll never have to know whether or not it’s the truth. She’ll have to keep choosing for herself from now on. Maybe that’s what Edelgard means by freedom.

Byleth will keep making her choice. She’s thrown herself in front of the sword. All that’s left is to wait for it to fall, and live with the outcome.