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To the Flower Fields of Duscur

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The archbishop is a busy woman, but when she kindly lets Seteth know that she won't be available from the second week of Garland Moon until the fourth, he knows she means business.

Largely because when she'd said it, Seteth's protests were dutifully ignored.

"Archbishop. Byleth. You cannot leave! I understand that you wish for some privacy with your husband, but--" Byleth stares at him with flat, pale eyes. "But..." She adjusts her posture, folding her arms without changing her expression. "But..." He wilts without a word. "But you are absolutely going to do exactly what you wish to and anything I say will fall on deaf ears."

It's then that her lips tilt upwards into a smile. He sighs. "I suppose it's unfair to impose in your marital life further. After all, you were so kind as to deploy your husband to suppress the rebellion in the New Faerghus territories instead of going on your honeymoon..." He taps his chin lightly, then lets out a huff of a sigh. "Which days of Garland Moon? I'll arrange an escort."

"You won't."

Seteth pauses, folding his arms. "Excuse me?"

"The Captain has personally requested this time of me, and we will have it." She eyes him with a stare that he is certain that she has learned from her husband. Seteth's eyes widen.

"That is absolutely irresponsible." She doesn't reply with words, instead smiling. In actuality, she is waiting for him to cave, just as he always does when she presents him with an irrational request. It's only a matter of time until... Seteth mutters under his breath. "You will be the death of me." He lowers his voice, looking at her earnestly. "Please be safe. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"Oh, Seteth." Her smile turns wicked. "That list is much too long."

Seteth's cheeks deepen in color, his brows dipping until they almost meet. "I'm being very serious, Byleth." Idly, Byleth wonders how many times she's made him have that exact expression since she's become archbishop. Hm.

"I know you are." She lets out a laugh. "Tell the faithful that the archbishop is retiring for the day."

Seteth's brows go up. "So early in the evening? There are quite a few who are still waiting to be heard. Unless..." His eyes narrow suspiciously. "You read the report." Byleth nods once, her lips pressing together in affirmation. "Then you know that the Knights of Seiros have returned from New Faerghus an hour ago."

"Yes. So, usher any who linger from the audience chamber and inform the captain I am waiting for his... personal report." Seteth's expression is aghast with disapproval, but he lowers his head into a shallow bow before departing with crisp steps down the hall.

 

 

 

Dedue, Captain of the Knights of Seiros, solemnly walks into the audience chamber. There's no surprise in Byleth's face when she notes that he's come alone--she wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Mentally, she thanks Seteth for his powers of perception as she strides across the chamber to meet him. At the sight of her, Dedue bows low.

"Archbishop? I was informed that you needed me. Is there..." He trails off, looking around him at the empty room in confusion. "Is something the matter?"

"No, Captain." She turns away, heading towards the Advisory Chamber, and with the distinct pause and direct glance over her shoulder, it's clear that she wants him to follow. He trails behind her obediently despite the uncertainty in his step. He is not her advisor, thus, he is absolutely sure that he shouldn't be here, yet...

"Archbishop?" She doesn't reply, her back facing him as she removes the headdress and places it on the table. His voice is quieter. "Byleth?" She drops the cloak from her shoulders, revealing the delicate white robes beneath. Turning towards him, she takes his armored hand in two of hers and rests it against her face.

"Thank you for returning to me safely." Dedue curls his finger to stroke her cheek with the back of his index finger. His heartbeat stirs steadily in his chest as his eyes roam Byleth's lithe form. He can feel it in pounding in his stomach. But...

His eyes flicker around the room uncomfortably.

"Perhaps somewhere more private would lead to a more satisfying reunion." She doesn't reply, shutting her eyes for a quiet moment. She loves this touch as much as the man giving it. Dedue takes his other hand and tilts her chin upwards. Even in the darkness of the Advisory Room, he can see roses spreading across her cheeks as she waits expectantly for his kiss. Dedue obliges, tenderly pressing his mouth lightly to his wife's.

He takes his time, craning his head to kiss her thoroughly, even though bending to her height for prolonged periods makes his neck and shoulders ache. By the time they pull apart, Dedue is already stepping backwards, gently pulling her along with the barest hints of a smile. "Come."

 


The twelfth of Garland Moon is a warm summery day, the wind breezing through Byleth's hair as she eyes the horizon. She hears her husband's steady footsteps behind her and turns with a smile.

"Ready to depart?"

Dedue looks at her bright eyes and tries to stamp down the uneasiness deep in his belly... He reflects on his words the night before as they looked over the monastery from the height of the star terrace across from their bedroom.

"I'm a man of the soil, Byleth." He strokes her hair, tilting backwards to peer into her eyes. "Of course, you may ride there if you wish, Archbishop, but as a knight, I do think it best if I march alongside you."

That cool immersive stare lay on him, sending a shiver through him that only made him want to bury his face in the crook of her neck, back pains or not. Her skin was always cool, and he could feel it more against the natural heat of his skin, perhaps a leftover traits that came from being the son of a blacksmith.

"You can do as you like, man of the soil--but I'm sure you're aware that we're on a schedule. I'll make it to Duscur and back by the time you've walked a fraction of the way." Byleth reaches up and gathers his face into her cool hands, her gaze soft. "Dedue, you should be on a horse alongside me." He grimaces slightly so she prods him again. "You know I'm right."

And he does. But instead of responding, he only dips his face to meet her with a quieting kiss.

Dedue avoids her eyes, silently brooding into the mountain range before them. Even so, she turns towards the horse, patting it down soothingly before the long journey begins.

Of all the transport...

To say that Dedue is afraid of horses is a gross overstatement. ...No, it would be much more accurate to say that he does not trust the beasts as far as he can throw them, and as strong as he is, he could not lift a horse if he tried.

The gentle touch of Byleth's hand against his cheek startles him into reality. His eyes drift downwards to meet hers, worry lined in his forehead. She reaches up gently to light her fingers in the wrinkles there. "Ready?" He nods gruffly in reply.

She starts to pull away, but he stops her with a hand on her waist, tapping the side of his cheek with a serious expression. "For courage." Byleth stares a long moment, before a smile creeps up the sides of her face.

"You're..." she trails off, tilting on her tiptoes as her husband leans downward. Instead of finishing her sentence, she presses her words into his cheek. She feels the corner of his lips tilting upwards, but when she pulls away to look him in the eye, his expression is still deceptively serious.

"Dedue." She steps her foot into the stirrups, swinging her leg over the horse. "Duscur awaits."

Her husband looks away from the mountains and towards Byleth, affection swelling in his chest, face still tingling where her lips touched upon his skin.

"Yes. It does."

Chapter Text

There is only one thing that keeps Dedue from wishing for death as he rides downhill through the mountainous forest, and that is the carefree expression he sometimes glimpses on Byleth's face. That is, on the rare occasion that his horse manages to catch up with hers. That expression alone keeps him going even though he fears that he will fall any moment, and when she calls out to ask if he wishes to stop, he almost cries out in relief. She slows down to a trot, Dedue urging his mount to match her pace.

"This is fun." She looks at Dedue, her lips curled upwards in the slightest of smiles. He truly wants to reciprocate, but he's certain that at the moment, he couldn't smile if he wanted to.

"...I'm glad you think so, Archbishop, but I hope that you can find someone to share such joy with."

Archbishop?

Whenever he defaults to formality, it always makes her laugh--and helps her to gauge just how much discomfort he's feeling. And... now that she thinks on it, how many times did she urge her horse into a breathtaking gallop, forcing Dedue to keep the quicker pace behind her? Her cheeks color slightly.

...Perhaps she had gotten carried away.

Byleth clears her throat. They had passed some signs signaling a town not too long ago--and, she knows, where there is a town, there is an inn. Offering her husband a silent apology, she urges her horse towards that direction.




They dismount, the mountain ranges of the monastery in the distance. "I think we've ridden enough for the day."

Dedue has never heard such melodious words.

The ashen pallor in his usually rich skin tells her that he's ridden enough for a lifetime... but he merely grunts in reply as he rubs the horse's side in thanks for not breaking his neck. Byleth takes the task of securing their mounts, then looks towards the inn. He follows her gaze towards the entrance with a strange hesitation, then reaches towards the horse's bridle in protest but she lightly taps the back of his hand, shaking her head slightly. "I'll handle this." Dedue hesitates a little longer before giving her a solemn nod. Steeling himself, he walks into the inn in a way that Byleth would've called reluctant if she had been paying attention.

She wonders on it for a few moments as she waits on him, the excitement curled tightly in her stomach. Their first night of the trip together with only the stars as witness. A bed to be shared and her husband's warmth beside and against and around her, skin and skin.

She can hardly wait.

But.... when Dedue returns to her, his step just slightly stiff, she detects it right away.

"Dedue?" He replies quickly. Unusual.

"We should find elsewhere to stay for the night." His serious expression is surprisingly guarded. Byleth's confusion is clear. She can't even imagine why he would want to go elsewhere when he is so reluctant to ride as it is.

"Why?"

Dedue hesitates, then shakes his head. "I've been informed that... the innkeeper does not wish to give either his rates or one of his beds to someone of Duscur."

Byleth's hands freeze where they were originally loosening the saddle to let the steed breathe more easily as color creeps up to singe her ears and cheeks and fists. She almost feels like she is seeing red.

"I see." She turns swiftly without another word and marches towards the door, intent hard in her eyes. Dedue reaches out to intercept her, her chest bumping against his outstretched arm. Her eyes whip towards him. "You would stop me?" Her eyes are expressionless and cool, but it's not her face that he takes note of. Instead, his eyes glance down at the firm, experienced hand resting on the hilt of her sword.

"Yes." There's a frigid moment between them where he can see her deciding whether she'll go in or not anyway, so Dedue drops his arm. He refuses to physically restrain her, even if he does not agree with her actions. "Your anger honors me, but I am used to such things. That said, I think it would be wise if you entered on our behalf at the next inn." He tries to smile for her, and it's this forced attempt that helps her win the struggle against tearing the inn apart. With all her might pushing to do as he wishes, Byleth barely succeeds in letting go of her sword hilt.

She can hardly wrap her mind around it.

As the Captain of the Knights of Seiros, he should be given honor.

If not for that, then as the husband of the Archbishop, he should be given honor.

And if not for that, then as the man who helped stopped the former Adrestian Empire's march across the continent, he should be given honor.

And if not for that, then as the formal vassal of the ruling king of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, he should be given honor. But instead, to be met with such disrespect-- and in her presence! ...It burns her up inside. Turning quickly towards the horses, she retightens the saddles, not speaking a word to him the entire time. The moment they're ready, she glares in Dedue's direction. "Let us go. Quickly, then."

He wishes he could say something to soothe her, but he knows that to let men such as the innkeeper say as they like as he always has before... It is the best he can do. To show anger would only strengthen their hate.

He'd had the same argument with others of Duscur as he recuperated in their refugee camp, shortly after being rescued from taking Dimitri's place in the grave.

Which is best? To fight for the right to be recognized, punishing those who would refuse them rights to exist in public spaces? To create their spaces--however small--and risk those who hated them destroying what little they had all over again? To tolerate the oppression indefinitely, even as the treatment of their people worsened and risking the status of younger generations worsening still?

It is a mystery and a puzzle--but not one he bothers to contemplate.

He cared for the people of Duscur, for his people, but... Duscur is dead.

In Dedue's opinion, he ought to have less allegiance to the dead of Duscur and more allegiance to those living, regardless of whether they are his countrymen or not. He wants to imagine a world where his people thrive, but such things feel something short of impossible and, in short, Dedue... he is simply not a man who dreams.

If ignoring the hate of the many means that he can preserve alive his wife--the only family he has now--then so be it. He couldn't stand if her reputation was stained because of him, much less if his defense of his rights as a man to rest with his wife in a local inn led to blood being spilled.

Or rather, led to her blood being spilled anyway. He can admit freely to himself that he values the life of the innkeeper very, very little.

As they ride through the forest into the night, he can almost sense the heat of her anger rolling off of her.

Even when they do find an inn that will accept him with less reluctance, she undresses silently, slips beneath the covers silently, and lies down with her back towards him all without a word.

He lets her be angry, and when he feels she will not lash out, slips between the sheets beside her, gathering her body against his chest. To his surprise and relief, she settles against him without reluctance, snuggling into the warmth of his skin.

"You don't have to be angry with the innkeeper."

"I am." Her voice comes in a burst she has been clearly holding in. She hisses the words into the air. "What if it was not you and I? What if it was a child of Duscur? What if it was our child?"

Their child?

He muses over the thought.

"I would feel tempted to cut him down," he admits easily. "But we do not have a child. And even if we did, I would spare his life."

Byleth's silence is, for once, oppressive, if only because he can feel that her silence is not for lack of words to say. Rather, it is like a dam, bursting with angry, inexpressible things. It is in this silence he falls into an unrestful sleep.





The morning is similarly uncomfortable as Byleth avoids his eyes, even through the morning meal they share. He readies their horses under her pale, gaze-heavy eyes, offering the reigns to her horse when they're ready. She accepts them with an appreciative, if stiff nod, and when he steps back, she steps into the stirrup and swings her leg over the horse.

The moment he is ready to go, she snaps the reigns in her hands, leading her mount into a smooth cantor. He follows easily. At least, in this anger, she is still considerate of his uncertainty as a rider...

It isn't until a full four hours into the journey, when they slow to a stop to water the horses that he even attempts to speak with her. As she sits atop a large boulder watching the horses, he approaches the bottom, looking up at her. "Does it anger you so much that I would not cut him down?"

Byleth stares out the embankment of the river for a long moment... but as he waits, she finds her resolve crumbling, her eyes lowering to meet his. "For injustice towards a child? Yes."

Ah.

He wonders if his words inadvertently hurt her. Surely she doesn't think that the inaction he proposed last night is because he does not care.

Normally, Dedue would not care of he is misunderstood by others--but since his marriage to Byleth, he has changed in one fundamental way: if anyone is to understand his thinking, he hopes above all that it is his wife. At least, he knows that she will listen. That she will try to understand.

He climbs the boulder, grunting slightly with the effort. When he's seated comfortably at the top beside her, he stretches out a hand, his palm facing upwards. "Byleth." She pauses but the comfort of his touch is too much to resist. She laces her fingers between his, pulling his hand into her lap. Then, she waits for the words he is about to say, as he hopes she would have.

"I know you are the Archbishop. With such a position, it is in your best interests to care for the small and the weak. As for me, being Captain, I will always fight whomever you say I must to protect Fódlan, but..." Dedue hesitates over the selfish honest words bubbling forth from his heart, "But Byleth, I am a simple man, the only son of a blacksmith. I cannot love and care in such a broad way. I only know how to fight to protect what is here in front of me, what is mine." He cups her cheek, his voice deadly serious. "A man such as the innkeeper is not worth the pints of blood within him, but I would tolerate such hate ten thousand times over if it meant our family would be unscathed."

Byleth nods slowly. It's such a Dedue thing to say that she cannot pretend to be surprised.

"I... I see." Closing her throat, she looks down at her hands and wonders if they contain enough power to protect the small and weak across Fódlan. It's nice to know that he would support her but... she wonders if it is necessary to care about those one is obligated to protect. She certainly would think so, but... if Dedue does not and yet and still does the right thing... does that still make him a fundamentally good man? Her thoughts race helplessly, only broken by the sound of his voice, again. "There is... something else I wish to say to you."

Byleth looks at him, eyes wide with surprise. Something else? The question is in her eyes, the answer on his lips. "I... would like to build a family with you, if I could. Even in this world." He says it hesitantly, his eyes concentrating more on the beasts below them than the person he is speaking to. "Not in the distant future, if possible... but I do not know your thoughts on the matter. Have you ever... given such things consideration?"

Byleth can only shake her head, eyelids fluttering uncertainly.

Not that she is against a discussion. It's just that...

Well.

Well.

He meets her eyes and for a moment, she is lost in their depths.

If they had a child, would it have her eyes or her father's? Would it be a girl? A dragon? Something else entirely?

The question makes her skin prickle with something like fear, something like anticipation. Dedue's low voice interrupts her racing thoughts.

"Perhaps this is a matter you may consider as we journey towards Duscur."

A not-altogether unpleasant lump in her throat, Byleth nods again and leans on his shoulder.

Chapter Text

"Dedue?" He starts at the sound of her voice, hand gently grasped in his as they walk through the valley. She hasn't said a word for the past four hours, their communication thus far a rich string of languid glances, quirked eyebrows and shaken heads, slowly unfolding smiles and, a mutual favorite, rare but precious laughter. They walk side by side mirroring each other with one hand tightly grasping the reigns of their mounts in one hand and their better half's hand in the other.

He looks down at her, wondering what's caused her to break the silence, and when her eyes find his, she is pleased to see his gaze is curious, warm, inviting. Mostly, Byleth is glad they are inviting, because she feels as though her heart will turn inside out from the question on her lips.

"How many?" His eyebrows draw together, uncomprehending. She turns away, clearing her throat quietly. "...Children."

Ah. He had said to think about it but he wasn't expecting her to bring it up so soon...

Dedue glances at Byleth sideways, tilting his head over to see her face but... she turns away intentionally to hide the expression. Dedue doesn't take it personally. If anything, he's glad she isn't shying away from the discussion, whatever they decide.

"...Five?" He looks at her face to see how she'll react, but it's fruitless, the passive expression there completely concealing whatever reaction she has in mind about the number. When she doesn't move to say anything else, he continues slowly, his gaze directed towards the ground at the path in front of them as they picks their way through the forest. "When I was child, there were two of us. But my mother always said that she intended for there to be twelve. All daughters, if possible so that she could have a personal army. I think she was joking, however." Byleth abruptly stops in her tracks, their tightly intertwined fingers tugging him to a stop. She struggles to echo the only word in that sentence that she heard.

"Twelve?"

"Yes." At the wide-eyed expression, his face flushes. "I know that seems to be an unusual size here in Fódlan, but not so in Duscur. Large families were common. And... warmer, in my opinion." Warmer? She wonders what he means. All she can imagine is the clamor of her many students in the classroom when she first became a professor. It was enough to have them in class, but a family of that many young ones... It's almost inconceivable.

"You said 'intended'. It didn't happen?"

"By technicality, no. My parents did not speak of it often, but as far as I know, they thought I was going to be the only child, until my sister's arrival." He smiles, his teeth hidden behind his lips. "But around six years before the Tragedy, my uncle and aunt brought their children to my parents. All girls. Problems near the border, they said. They thought..." He pauses for a moment, his eyebrows furrowing together. "They thought it would be safer. Mother and Father said yes, of course. It was a dream come true for Mother, and suddenly, I gained seven younger sisters."

"What... what was it like?" Her hesitant voice is the only sign of her surprise as Dedue gently pulls her forward to resume their steps. They don't really have time to waste, after all.

"I was the eldest. Only boy." Byleth tries to imagine eight sisters and immediately fails. In fact, she stops trying to picture it altogether, his words so out of her scope that she almost feels like she is listening to a faerietale. "My days were spent rounding up with my family and playing with the other neighborhood children. Four times per year, there were festivals with music and dancing and sometimes, if a hunt was successful, a whole roasted boar for all of us to share. My cousins... were quiet a bunch. There was Linza. She cried... often. And then Gracina... she was so talkative. Nestra was her twin sister, and she was always playing games. The younger set of twins... They were only eight when the tragedy happened. I... I..." He trails off for a moment, lost in the memories. Then, Dedue clears his throat self-consciously. "I suppose my life was that of a child's until I was around twelve or so."

Byleth looks at him in alarm. "What happened at twelve? Did... did the other children exclude you?" Dedue smiles at the concern lighting in her eyes.

"No. That was I started training to become a blacksmith alongside my father. From that point on, I worked closely alongside him, practically underfoot to learn his trade."

"Only at twelve? You didn't spend much time with your parents before then?" She can't hide her surprise. By contrast, her childhood was spent glued to Jeralt's side, strapped to him as tightly as a metaphorical blade to his scabbard. She had never had a moment in her life without him, in fact, which may've been another reason why the days of her childhood blended so well together, making it impossible to distinguish the years.

"Father was the blacksmith, and us children knew better than to go into his smithy when the fires were blazing. True, three of my sisters eventually joined us for their own apprenticeships when they came of age, but for the rest of us..." He slows for a half-step, picking his way through the foliage. "Too young. Too dangerous." Dedue can't hide his amusement. "Between our training and his work, he was busy, so... even though Father was there, as the eldest, my sisters often came to me to fix their squabbles and make peace."

Byleth tries to imagine it. A childhood surrounded by children her own age... No, more than that-surrounded by relatives sharing family features like her father's brown eyes or her mother's navy hair as she is certain she once did...

It is almost impossible.

Instead, she dwells on it hard enough that vaguely, she can remember snatch of a time where she was small enough to sit on her father's horse, her little frame nestled between the horse's neck and his lap. Like that, Byleth has an epiphany. Is that why she loves riding so much? Because it reminds her of the time they spent together?

Dedue shrugs to himself, oblivious to her thoughts.

"That kind of childhood, playing together in the streams and in the mud with the rest of the neighborhood children... coming together for the festivals and dancing with the neighbors... I'd want any child of mine to enjoy it. To never know loneliness or war, to always be surrounded by warmth and laughter..." He squeezes her hand. "To never come home to an empty room with no one there... That's the kind of life I imagine for... our family."

Byleth stares out into the forest.

For a long moment, she doesn't reply, the thoughts rolling over in her mind. It doesn't sound bad, but... She chooses her words carefully. "It's a little hard to imagine," she says finally, voice soft. "My childhood was... different. I don't remember that much but... your description is nothing like I experienced." He looks at her curiously, tilting his head to invite further explanation. "Jeralt was a mercenary as far back as I remember. Whenever we came upon the villages, most children found me too strange, too serious and truthfully, I... was isolated from my peers. " Dedue tries to ask the question on his mind without offending her.

He's sure Jeralt was a stellar father by the way she views him even now, but... he cannot understand or even imagine the kind of childhood she must've led either. He chooses his words carefully.

"Were you... lonely?" Byleth immediately shakes her head in answer.

"True, I almost never saw kids my own age, much less played with them, but Jeralt... my father made sure I was happy. He... he never made me feel like I needed anyone else."

"I see." Dedue nods, his voice quiet. "Jeralt was a good man. A good father."

"He... he was." She smiles distantly. "You know, he would take me fishing back then. Sometimes, if our traps had any frogs in them, we would try to surprise each other with them. See if we could make the other person scream." Her brows furrow at the memory. "My father was good at pretending to be surprised."

"And you?"

Byleth flushes pink, her reply strangely hesitant. "I... I never screamed. But," she admits, "sometimes he succeeded in... surprising me." Dedue tries to imagine it, but all he can see is a smaller, deadpan Byleth, hair dark blue in tiny pigtails as Jeralt waved a frog in her face.

"I admit, it sounds as strange as mine must to you, but... it seems that your upbringing was pleasant as well." He smiles softly, raising her hand to lightly kiss the back of it. "I can only hope I could be a father like Jeralt, to be spoken of so fondly as he is."

Byleth hesitates at the compliment. She wishes she could offer him similar words about Dedue's parents but... she has never met her husband's family and never will. She speaks slowly, her voice heavy with uncertainty. "My father only spoke of my mother to me once." Their steps slow as they ease out of the slope of the valley and onto the flatter forest grounds. "She'd been gone my entire life and he...tried his best to shower me with the love she would've had. I hope we... I hope we can make that kind of home." Byleth clears her throat. And while they're on the subject... "What was your mother like?"

"Fiery and hot-tempered, yet altogether warm like the sun." He chuckles. "She is the one who taught me to cook, but it was quite a process." He winces in remembrance. "I got wapped by her ladle more times than I can count." Her eyes widen.

"For... for mistakes?"

"Ah... no. Mostly for trying to cause mischief." Byleth tries to imagine Dedue as a mischievous, elder sibling and fails miserably at this, too. He can see it on her face, but he smothers a smile and chooses to explain instead. "Putting extra spices in one of my sister's bowl for a perceived slight. Adding salt instead of sugar to a cake on purpose and the like. But my mother... she would've made an excellent archer. Such sharp eyes." Byleth still can't quite wrap her mind around it, but it pleases her to have a spoken record of such memories straight from the source. It... makes her wish that she could've met them. She says so quietly, and Dedue 'hm's in agreement before the silence returns between them.

Normally he would leave it that way but lately... he feels that he wants to know everything she has to say. A question comes to his mind and Dedue asks it without hesitation.

"With Sothis'... ah... presence, are you... are you able to carry a child if you wished to?"

Byleth shrugs, flashing him a wry smile.

"Well, I've never tried it before. And I'm not able to ask her, not anymore. I guess... all we can do is make an attempt." Dedue tries to keep a straight face but utterly fails, red creeping along the tips of his ears as he nods along, his gaze carefully elsewhere.

"I'll... I'll try my best." What an embarrassing thing to say. Byleth opens her mouth to comment when Dedue suddenly stops in his tracks, eyes narrowed. "Wait. We're not alone." They both pause in the silence of the forest. At first, she struggles to hear what he is sensing-but then... in the distance, she can catch wisps of chatter and music and raucous laughter.

"Bandits?" He shakes his head solemnly. No... Dedue is certain that the voices are familiar to him. He shakes his hand and strains his ears to hear. This accent... this music...

People of Duscur? Here?

Byleth relaxes, dropping her hand from her weapon. Dedue himself doesn't look like he's sensing danger, but especially not when he starts to drift towards the noise. She follows along curiously, wondering where he's going with this, and when they come to the edge of the clearing, Dedue's hand lifts to press gently on her shoulder. She looks up at him.

He takes the chance, tucking her hair behind one ear and leaning his face down towards her, his intentions obvious. Tenderly, slowly, he savors her mouth, the kiss light and chaste as he gently holds her face in his hands. As their faces part, Dedue looks at her, his eyes soft. Just one more, he decides, leaning down again. Dedue feels Byleth's hand graze his cheek, lightly resting it on his face. He leaves his eyes shut for a moment before opening them to gaze at her intently, his voice a touch rougher than before.

"Wait here, Archbishop. Until I'm certain it's safe." Using her title is enough to understand why he does not want her to accompany him. Obviously she would be reminded of her duties to stay alive if he calls her archbishop... But using a kiss this way is such an obvious weapon to cement her compliance-surely he knows her duty to stay alive as his companion is even stronger.

She watches him takes further steps towards the group of strangers and shakes her head in bemusement. Dedue is being completely unfair.

 

 

 

When he crosses into the clearing, the sounds of revelry stop suddenly. He notes that more than a few hands reach for weapons and for a tense moments, Dedue says nothing. Then...

"Wait a second... Dedue?" An older man steps forward, his face a gnarled knot of scars. Dedue nods once. "Do you remember me?"

A woman seated by a fire calls out. "Who is this?"

"Don't you remember, Cloviss? This is Redus' boy! I used to hold him on my knee when he was but a babe!" He waves him forward eagerly. "I wouldn't mistake those silver hairs anywhere else!"

"Redus...? The swordsmith from Cuenca?"

"That's the one!"

By the fireside, she exclaims again. "Cuenca... We haven't been to that town in sixteen years... I've always thought it was a shame that we couldn't go back before..." She trails off and, nodding, the older scarred man looks back to Dedue.

"I'd never thought to meet the son of..." He stops, noting the lack of reply. "Don't tell me you don't remember us, boy?" Dedue stares at him blankly so he smiles, gently. "Ah, then. This won't do. I'm Bunte, leader of the Fede."

He looks surprised. "Fede? You... aren't from Duscur?"

"Born of Duscur, bred of the winds. We're nomads, boy! You never crossed paths with a Fede?" Not in recent or distant memory, he admits to himself, standing under their careful scrutiny. "Where are ye headed now, boy? And who's the moon-looking lass beside you?" Beside him? In shock, he looks down him and there stands Byleth, quietly haunting his shadow. Why didn't she stay where it was safe? He decides to ask her later, responding to Bunte's question.

"Duscur. This is my wife, Byleth."

"Well, I'll be. Frian, strike up the fiddlan again, Baltis, get them a drink! We've got more wedding guests tonight!" The atmosphere swells into something like playful as jaunty music fills the air around them.

Dedue and Byleth share a confused glance. Wedding guests?

 

 

 

Coming upon a wedding feast of Duscur nomads is not a delay they expect, but Bunte doesn't allow them to go. Not, he insists, before feeding them. 'Why, Redus would roll over in his grave if he knew that he'd turned down a chance to show his son hospitality!' Byleth cannot help but think that the embarrassment on Dedue's face after this declaration alone is worth staying.

Byleth didn't consider herself particularly hungry, but when a hot bowl piled high with foods she has never seen before is placed in front of her... well. What else is she to do? She digs in with a vigor that surprises even Dedue as he sits beside her closer to the edge of the camp so he can keep watch. His arm wraps loosely around her waist as he eyes the nomadic people taking their leisure around them. When her bowl is clear, she sets it aside to lean against him.

"Satisfying?" She nods in reply, glancing at the empty bowl. Very. "It's strange. I don't have distinct memories of this tribe but I cannot say the same about this food. I have tasted it for a certainty. Perhaps traditional wedding foods are the same everywhere..." He muses quietly. "This is a dish we certainly would've had if we married in Duscur." Byleth reaches up to smooth her hand gently along his cheek.

"Shame you don't remember much about them. I'd love to learn to move the way they do."

"Move?"

Byleth gestures towards the center of the camp. Two people, touching only wrist to wrist, circle each other, a cord laden with bells wrapped around their smallest fingers connecting them together.

"Oh, this. The Dance of Promise. I have seen it before in Cuenca, but I never learned the steps." He lifts an idle shoulder. "But if we had been wed in Duscur..." He trails off again, but she can guess his sentence. 'We would've watched this the same.' He nestles closer to her at the word, 'promise', his thigh pressed against hers as he wraps an arm around her body, his hand gently resting against the space where her hip meets her thigh. "I can tell you the significance, if you wish."

Byleth nods, mesmerized by the two dancers before them. "Please."

"You see how one is in red and the other in green? The red dancer is passion and the green tranquility. First, they will fight." The moment he says fight, the red dancer lifts her leg behind her in a kick aimed towards the other dancer's head. It's too light and no effort is made to connect, but Byleth can feel the adrenaline rush though her body as she watches them battle for control, still tied together.

Dedue narrates quietly in Byleth's ear, his lips occasionally brushing against the side of her ear as her steady eyes taking in every detail of the dance. Some of the moves are different from the way they performed it in my hometown, he whispers at times, but the theme is much the same.

The music stirs into a dark frenzy, the dancers' movements transitioning from fighting to mirroring each other's every step as, Dedue explains, they become one in every sense of the word. Their wrists rotate around each other in a mesmerizing twirl, and when their arms reach above their heads, they turn and press their backs together close, clasping hands over their heads in time with the last, sharp notes of the music.

Byleth can barely catch her breath. She squeezes Dedue's hands, excitement thrumming in her throat.

"I'm... I'm so glad we stayed," she whispers. Dedue is almost sorry that he has nothing else for her. He wishes he were taking her to a living land with markets and festivals and flowers... but here and now, this will have to suffice. She is okay with what he has to offer her, and he is certain he will give her everything of his past. They stare into each other's eyes, the firelight making her eyes glow and flicker in front of him as the clearing fills with wild cheers and whistles.

They kiss to the sounds of Duscur, and when they part, Dedue can't help the flush of pride across his cheeks.

I love you, he thinks as she strokes his hair, his hand still light upon her thigh.

Bunte's voice booms out cheerily. "Now the guests may dance!" In droves, the nomads stand and clasp hands, entering into a well-practiced circle. In the middle, a pair that Byleth can only assume are the newlyweds dance together with reckless abandon to the building music in a dance she has never seen before. Byleth curls her feet under her legs, not expecting anything. But to her surprise... tentatively, one of the dancers from earlier approaches, more than a few eyes lighting on her curiously. Byleth can only marvel at the height of the woman, her long limbs and full body definitely reflective of why her husband is so large himself. The dancer offers a corded rope, her eyes flickering between the couple.

"Do you... wish for a turn in the circle?" Dedue looks at Byleth. To his surprise, her eyes flicker towards the circle oof dancers enviously enough to make him smile, even as she makes an uncertain reply.

"I do not know the steps."

She has a slight accent as she waves Byleth's concerns away. "No matter to Fede people, such things. Your husband can surely teach you?" Byleth remembers a time when he was a student and they had danced, once. She remembers his low voice telling her how he did not know the steps. She remembers her poor toes the following day. She remembers her heart drumming in her chest at the feeling of his hand on her waist.

Byleth shakes her head, even as Dedue is lifting his shoulders in reply. "I suppose I could."

Her eyes are wide as they light on her husband. "You can?" Instead of replying, Dedue reaches out for the dancer's bell-stringed sash, tugging it from the woman's hands. He motions for Byleth to stand and, as she scrambles to her feet, bewildered, he carefully laces it around her hips with strangely practiced hands.

Satisfied with his handiwork, the dancer sidles away as Dedue trails his eyes up Byleth's body to meet her eyes. He replies simply despite the fact that at this point, the answer is clear. "Yes."

For something as complex as the Dance of Promise... certainly not. But for a common dance such as this...?

Dedue has spent four years with his people. Eating with them, healing with them, fighting alongside them and, on those moonlit nights when that their bodies moved rhythmically in the darkness to stave away the sadness and the fear and the anger, he danced among them as well. He has remembered what it once meant to be a man of Duscur.

Another bow-ended bell-tipped knot seals her wrist to his and he stands, towering over her as he pulls her towards the circle. "Come."

In the firelight, as she tries her best to follow his leading steps, the dancer's bells of Duscur ringing from her hips and all around him, in a sea of familiar brown skin tones and the bright laughter... his heart feels strangely lighter than it has in an age.

He almost feels as if Duscur has come to them.

Dedue looks down at his wife, and in the shadows of the flickering fire, he can just barely make out a flush on her cheeks, a telltale smile in her eyes as she meets the challenge of the dance. He makes to tell her where to step, but her eyes have already started watching the dancers around her, mimicking them a half-step late.

He loves it.

Byleth steps towards him boldly with her right hip and he responds with a step of his own, clasping their ribbon bound hands. As with everything, she does it with the cold stoicism before battle, her expression largely steady aside from the dancing in her eyes. As she laughs quietly, Dedue resists the urge to gather her wholly in his arms, his heart near to bursting in the light of her rare, bright smile with Duscur yet alive all around them.

He feels at home.

Chapter Text

He can smell it. The comforting smell of smoke as his father stokes the flames, a pile of weapons in disrepair waiting for his hands to bring them back to life for their masters.

"Dedue, your mother is calling you. It's your turn to help make the evening meal."

He remembers nodding and walking into the kitchen. He remembers her mother's lips on his cheek and the affectionate way he reached up to place his hand on her head to compare their heights. "Stop trying to grow. If I'm taller than your father, then who are you to think you'll ever reach me! Such an impudent child I have." The way she swatted his hand off and playfully wapped him on the behind with the back of her clean ladle.

The giggles and screams of his cousins and sister in front of their home, chasing each other with wet clothes to snap at each other instead of hanging the laundry to dry.

Indoors, the quieter of his cousins sit on the floor playing a game with dice while another two more sit in the corner, whispering stories to each other and drawing figures into the dirt floor with almost fanatical excitement.

Yes, Dedue remembers vividly the last night before they were killed, down to the flavors of that final meal they ate together.

He has never forgotten the way his mother woke him to tell him to run, to take two of his cousins and his sister and leave the smithy shop behind.

"An army is coming. They think we... that we have done something terrible. The Khan has already been mur--" He had never seen his mother cry, but her voice cuts off with a wet, choked gasp. "You must take your sister and the oldest two and run to the south, towards the mountains. Your father and I will protect the youngest of your cousins." He remembers wanting to ask her where she was sending the rest of their family. He remembers trying to protest, to tell her that he is only fifteen. He is not yet a man. He has just learned how to repair an axe, not how to wield one.

"Mother, I can't! I can't leave you. Where will we go? How can I protect--"  

She'd placed her hand over his mouth. "They will cut you down if they have the chance." She'd told him grimly, her trembling lips pressed together in a firm line. "You must run, my son. It does not matter where. Do not... do not give them that chance." He tried to follow her instructions but then, the soldiers rode through the forest and on foot, they could not move fast enough.

The scream of his seven-year old cousin at the sight of her older sister's back littered with arrows echoes in his mind. He runs towards her, reaches out as the seven-year old child herself falls to her knees, joining the dirt.

The thick, choking scent of bloody soil clogs his mind.

He sits up suddenly and without a sound as not to alert Byleth of his nightmare. When he swings his legs over the side of the bed beside her, she doesn't immediately stir. Dedue rubs his eyes, the sweat glistening on the rich skin of his unclothed back. He rubs feeling back into his numb thighs, helping the fabric warm his large hands with its friction.

I'm taller than you now, Mother. Just barely, but I made it.

The thought wounds him, and Dedue wishes he did not conceive it.

Byleth stirs beside him in the bed of the inn. It isn't that comfortable in the first place to sleep deeply but she's slept in rougher places. Rousing herself from his movement, Byleth sits up, pressing an ever cool hand against his hot back. Her voice is thick with sleep.

"Bad dream?"

He doesn't reply. Byleth shifts closer, pressing her face and chest against him, her arms circling the slenderest part of his broad body. He feels like he's burning in her arms, the heat between them like an uncrossable barrier.

He never tells her when he dreams of Duscur. The memories feel too personal to share... but in the darkness, her quiet voice is like a flame, drawing him near to its light.

"A memory." Byleth strokes her hand through his untied hair. He takes a moment to appreciate her touch as her fingers rest against the back of his neck.

"You don't have to speak of it if you do not wish to."

At the lack of pressure, Dedue feels more relieved than he expects to. He tries and fails to hold it in, but her demeanor and perhaps his unguarded exhaustion draws forth a reply.

"Sometimes I dream of Duscur." He admits it quietly, and with some shame. For all his talk of his dedication to the living and Duscur being dead, his perished homeland haunts him. Perhaps it is their brush with people who knew the same lands, who tasted the same fruits, who danced the same dances that has brought such visions with angry vigor.

Her hands pause imperceptibly before rubbing smoothly along the nape of his neck.

"The massacre?"

"Yes." He turns towards her, the bed shifting under his solid weight. "And... before it." He leans his forehead forward, touching it against hers to show his thanks for her comfort. "My father and my mother in each other's arms, kissing when they thought we couldn't see." He cups her cheek in his hand, stroking it lightly with his thumb. "My younger sister. My cousins." The words, held back for so long, flow quietly from his heart as Dedue stares at Byleth, not looking away as though if he does, she will disappear. "My sister, Chiara... was so playful, and witty. And Gioia, the youngest of my cousins took sto much after my father. Quiet, but she loved to tell stories around the firelight." Byleth listens to him reminisce as he shuts his eyes, his voice surprisingly light and painless. "I wish you could have met them all." His thumb slows to a stop. "And I wish they could've met the person most important to me now." A tremble fills his chest, one he has not felt since the aftermath of the tragedy. It is the tremble of resisted tears at the words he wishes to say. He forces himself past it to say them. "Yet, if not for the tragedy of Duscur, I would never have met you."

Byleth is not so callous as to ask if their marriage is worth the lives of all he once held dear, but she does allow the uncomfortable truth roll around in her mind. He is correct, after all. If not for the tragedy of Duscur, he would've become a normal blacksmith, perhaps married a village girl and filled their home with children as his parents had. They would've never met, never had the happinesses they enjoy now. A painful twinge jabs Byleth in the stomach. She ignores it to concentrate on the words her husband will say, but he is spent.

When he says no more, she tells herself to leave it be. She hopes he will tell her more when he is ready.

But for now... she comforts him with her skin as he lies back down against the flat surface, her face against his chest. She listens to the steady, beating heart beneath her cheek and marvels at the fragility contained within the man of Duscur. Pressing her palm against his skin, Byleth strokes it with light, delicate fingers. If it tickles him, he doesn't say. She waits until his breathing steadies to fall back asleep herself.




"How long now until we're reach the territory?" Byleth knows that it is soon because as her husband notes familiar markers of the provinces leading up into Duscur, as the inns grow more sparse and the mountain range on the border of the former nation grows closer... his sleep becomes more and more restless.

"A day." His answer is tense. If her hands were not occupied with horse's reins, she would take his hands into hers. Instead, as they ride, Byleth slows her mount to a stop. Dedue, noticing the lack of noise behind him, returns to her side, a question in his eyes. She smiles at him gently, bringing mount closer to place a hand on his thigh.

"Why don't we stop into Fhirdiad?"

"Fhirdiad?" He brightens at the world, then grimaces slightly. "But... we do not have time for such a delay. We told Seteth we would return on--"

"Seteth will understand." Byleth tries not to smile. "Not that he has a choice. We are too far away for him scold us and farther still for him to feel comfortable with leaving his duties behind to even make an attempt do so." She can't help but notice Dedue glancing towards the sky warily, as though just the thought of him will summon Seteth on his wyvern to drag them back by the ankles. He shivers at his own imaginings.

"Look, here. We can compromise." She dismounts, taking a moment to pull out the map of Fódlan from their packings. "We're here, approaching the coast. We'll have to cross that mountain range to the east of Sacred Gwenhwyvar soon but... if we follow along this route, we'll be north of the Tailtean Plains. If you'd like, we can send a message by Wyvern Express and see if we can get any of our old friends to meet us there? And if not..."

She trails off, smiling privately to herself. It is not an unpleasant smile, but Dedue lifts an eyebrow at the sight of it. Slipping the map back in its container, Byleth climbs back onto her horse. "We'll have to ride hard if we're to make it in two days time. Are you prepared for the ride?"

Dedue rubs the side of the neck of his wife's horse with deliberate slowness. He has to admit that it is a better option than delaying their return to Garreg Mach even longer. But for her to ask such a question... "You know that the answer is always no, Byleth."

She merely laughs in reply.




For two days, Byleth reveals nothing of their destination. When their horses are sweating and too tired to take another step, when they make camp along the coastline beach for the night, when he asks her where they are going for about the hundredth time, she only shakes her head as she places the firewood she's gathered into a pile.

"Can you light this? I'll go catch dinner." And let her escape before giving him details? Absolutely not.

"I'll accompany you. The tide isn't in, so the fire can be closer to ocean without issue, I believe." She glances at the horses further away in the brush, then holds out her hand. To say that he has never taken hold of something more quickly is hardly an understatement. Byleth smiles and draws her husband behind her.

A fire now newly flickering in a pit of sand and firewood beside them, Dedue and Byleth sit on the edge of the beach in silence. Not too far away are their makeshift fishing traps of roped net and bait from their own supplies. Byleth lies down, back to the sand, her eyes nearly shut from waiting. Dedue, not particularly as interested in the task as much as the woman beside him, looks at the ocean decisively, quietly clearing his throat. "I'm taking a swim."

"Okay." She doesn't move in inch, instead shutting her eyes completely. A part of him hopes that she'll join him, but he's just as content to swim alone. His feet already bare against the summer sand, Dedue unwraps the winding scarf first, then removes his single shoulder pauldron. This far north up the coast is usually rather cool but, as the first month of summer, the evening is warm enough that he doesn't shiver when he takes off the somewhat weightier layers of his light armor. He grasps the edge of his pullover and tugs it over his head, tossing the layer onto the sand. As he pulls down his trousers, he wonders to himself if he should just ask her himself rather than hoping she will join him.

Down to his smallclothes, Dedue stretches comfortably in his skin, rolling his shoulders. He reaches in his hair and pulls the tie free, mussing his fingers through it to loosen the strands. Feeling brave, Dedue looks down at Byleth to ask the question on his mind--if she will join him--only to see... her staring directly at him, unblinkingly. Her cheeks are red as she looks at him, mouth slightly agape. He balks for a moment.

Has she been watching him the entire time?

And if so... why?

They stand for a moment, frozen for a long moment before Dedue clears his throat. Twice. He is all too aware that he would be mentally unprepared for whatever answer she will give, so he decides against commenting altogether. "Would you... would you like to come for a swim with me?"

She shakes her head slowly. "I'm fine with just... watching." His blush comes fast and furious, so savagely that even his lips feel hot at her only slightly hesitant admission. They stare at each other for a long moment before Dedue drops into a crouch, covering his face with a hand. Byleth sits up in surprise. "Dedue? Are you alright?" He is, and he also isn't.

"There is nothing interesting about me, yet... you stare at me with something I cannot name." His hand runs over his features before he rests a forearm on the surface of his knee. "If I may be frank, it... it unsettles me. Why do you look at me like that?"

"Well..." Byleth's finger traces shapes in the sand as she chooses her words carefully. "To my credit, I was trying to be subtle but... " She clears her throat quietly. "Simply said, I like your body, Dedue." Her fingers pause as she shifts a bit closer to place her hand on his knee. "I like you, Dedue." Dedue knows that it is foolish. But the simple words, said so softly... they make his lips and throat feel dry, his heart thundering in his chest at the touch of her hand. For her to say that she... she liked this body of his, crisscrossed with scars, so obviously and unapologetically Duscur... for her to like him... He feels faint.

He must seem a fool to her. For all the times she's rested against his chest, delicately tracing his scars with feathers for fingers, or insisted on helping him remove his armor after a long day, running her hands along his arms and chest between unlacing the buckles under the guise of checking him for wounds and bruises... it seems so obvious now. To know she loves him... well, that he can assume because she chose to marry him but, conclusively imagining her being attracted to him as well...

It is almost overwhelming to consider.

"...Thank you." His reply comes softly. And then, more softly. "I also..." He can't manage to bring himself to finish the sentence. It is difficult to voice such things, if only because expressing these types of feelings are something he's had to suppress for so long. His body, his thoughts, his will... he'd placed them all in the hands of the now king for so long.

So long, in fact, that Dedue cannot think of a time he has ever been in a position to express his love in all the time he was at his Majesty's side.

They are married now, yes, but he still cannot help but wonder if his thoughts about Byleth are truly something he is permitted to feel freely, much less say. She looks at him expectantly but, try as he might, the words refuse to come.

Dedue moves to stand, intending on offering an excuse while he gathers his thoughts on the matter, but Byleth leans in, her shifting weight on his knee causing him to stumble back and land flat on his back, knees bent. He's not hurt at all, but when he sits up, Byleth's hands come from behind, dragging across his back in worried earnest as they remove the sand coating his skin with quick swipes.

"I'm--I didn't know you were going to stand, sorry, I--" He lets her fret. Maybe he shouldn't, but the sounds of anxious concern in her voice fill him with a certain kind of warmth that swallows him whole. When his back more or less clear of sand, he starts to turn towards her. To his surprise, however, he finds himself unable to. Byleth's arms are around his shoulders, her chest pressed against his back as she embraces him tightly.

"Byleth?"

Instead of replying, she quotes him. "'I also...' what, Dedue?" His body and face have both cooled from their earlier flush, but with the pressure in her body against him... Dedue finds his lips tangled all over again.

'I also like your body.'

It is impossible for him to say. Such things are meant to remain as thoughts.

He knows he allowed to be with her openly now, but...

Her voice is quiet, almost pleading as it vibrates against him. "I want to hear you say it." But he is unable to give her a reply, his gaping, faltering lips outside of her line of vision. Byleth lets go of him, frustration permeating the space between them. He shifts to face her, and the moment they make eye contact, she blurts a question so quickly that he wonders how long she's held it in.

"Is it me?"

"What?" He has no clue what she means, and his surprise forces him to turn completely around to face her. Her arms drop as she sinks down into the sand, legs folded beneath her.

"We are not good at talking. I know. But... we need to." She looks carefully at his face. "Have I ever given you reason to think that... that I don't love you? Or that you cannot trust me?" Dedue's eyes widen with alarm.

"Never."

She nods, but seems strangely unconvinced. "I... I admit that I look at you... often. If you aren't sure that I'm attracted to you, I hope that my eyes say as much. And if not my eyes, then when we make love, I hope that I can express it well. At least, I... I try to." At the sensory image of those opportune times where they squeeze in a few moments of freedom to explore each other's bodies, Dedue forces himself to ignore the quivering in the base of his stomach.

"You express it well," he manages with great difficulty, his eyes dropping from hers. Byleth takes his chin in her hand and tilts his gaze back towards her.

"And yet... unless I ask your direct opinion, you offer none. Why don't you express your thoughts about me freely?" He balks at the question. His thoughts? Because they are... often base, and certainly beneath her consideration. He protests feebly.

"I... I am not good with words." An excuse that she sees through with ease. Byleth stares at him, then drops her gaze uneasily.

"Do you not want to?" Want to? Of course he wants to say his affections freely. But... whenever he even thinks them, guilt gnaws at him for the distraction of his thoughts and their misplacement.

During a meeting for the knights of Seiros, he once thought, for instance, that when sunlight filters through her lashes as she slept, she reminds him a feathered bird. Less innocently, he has thought before that he wished to peel the Archbishop's garments from her body as she undresses after a long day, not unlike the way she helps him to remove his own armor, each and every night they share their bed. Are these the thoughts she wishes to hear?

At his silence, Byleth sees conflict cross his face, her face scrunching in reply. "A husband is not the same as a vassal, Dedue. I want to hear your thoughts. Even if they are not well-spoken." Dedue imagines it in his mind. Caressing her cheek and saying what he thinks so often when he reaches around her for the night to gather her body flush against his.

"Even if they are vulgar? Or not worth expressing?" Byleth's reply is soft.

"Yes."

'I like your body.'

The words did not sound vulgar when she said them. He moistens his lips.

"Byleth." He wills his mouth to do as he wishes. "Byleth, I..." Body. The last word of his attempted sentence makes her form flash in his eyes and brings his words to a halt. At the sight of his failing once more, a slow smile begins to creep across Byleth's face.

"Why don't we work on it?"

'Work on it?' 'Work on it' how?

He stares at her warily as she rises to her feet. "I've decided to swim with you after all." She pauses, then reaches up decisively to pull off the warm scarf matching his, meant to shield her from the wind. Dedue starts. It is one thing to catch her in the corner of his eye, but to watch her undress with just that purpose in mind, so blatantly? He averts his eyes or rather... he tries to.

But... after practically making the admission, he can hardly help himself. He watches her remove her casual layers until she, too, is only in her smallclothes. His eyes cannot help but feast on the tiniest of details. The small nicks along her arms and collarbone, a longer line tracing her hip bone on her lower hip, a scar on her chest parallel to her sternum that slips beneath the cloth covering her breasts--all imprinted into her toned flesh. He averts his eyes to her feet, remembering himself, but it only gives him a starting point to look from as his gaze rises.

A birthmark on her ankle, another on her thigh, her narrow hips and shoulders, the tightly defined stomach between, generous breasts and--by the time his gaze reaches her face, he realizes that he's looking into her eyes, again, watching him. Letting him finish watching her. He is starving.

He is starving, and she knows it.

"Race you." She dashes towards the ocean, leaving him scrambling to his feet. He's the one who invited her to swim, and yet here he is, getting left behind. Dedue moves to join her, but as he approaches, she scoops water into her hands and tosses it in his direction. It is barely a sprinkle, but he still hesitates. But then... if she did it towards him, he thinks, perhaps he is allowed to play as if he is a child again. He suddenly remembers his sisters snickering as he swam in the river, hiding his clothes so he could not find them when he reached the shore.

Games he has not thought of in an age come to mind, and he wonders which are ones that she has played with her father and which are not.

They swim until their skin wrinkles with the salt water, forcing them back out onto the sand. Looking at her like this, completely drenched, the sheer outlines of her body mesmerizing in her smallclothes, he suddenly wishes that they were elsewhere. Here, there is nothing but sand to lay her onto, and no protective walls to ensure they would not be taken off guard. When she looks back at him, noting his gaze, her face is expectant. So often, she is the one initiates words of love. It occurs to him that he has not told her he loves her since the day they reunited after the battle at the Great Bridge.

Dedue considers the day they were engaged, the words he said as she accepted his ring with some apparent surprise on Byleth's part at its appearance.

'I just couldn't imagine you leaving Dimitri's side,' she admitted to him after their wedding as they lay in bed.'I thought we would've had a long distance marriage.' He understands the sentiment but the notion is ridiculous. As if he could bear to love her through letters and paintings. Acts of service are how he shows love. How could he show words written in her hand such affection?

His proposal echoes in his mind.

'I adore you.'

Even then, he couldn't quite manage to say the words. Should he dare to say such a phrase now? His thoughts fluster him.

"We should check the traps," he says quietly. "I'll prepare our meal." 'A husband is not a vassal.' Her recent words ring in his mind. Service... it is a way to show love, he thought, but now he wonders if it is not the only option. He ought to ask... but he is simply unsure how to.

Dedue thinks on the matter as he divides the fish in preparation of their evening meal. The earlier playfulness is gone, Byleth hugging her knees to her chest as she watches him cook. He sprinkles final touches of spice onto the fish with practiced hands before offering her a skewer.

He has not said much since their earlier conversation, but it is not because he dislikes thinking on it. Dedue is just still so... uncertain. How does one open the barrier so easily, to go from resisting idle fantasies to indulging in them? He stares at her, watching her inhale the first skewer, a second already in his hand to offer. "Careful, it's hot." She nods distractedly in reply before eating the next. He frets for a moment, concerned at the fact that he did not notice how hungry she was, but he is quickly distracted.

Byleth eats as though he has prepared something in their full kitchens rather than squatting in the sand with the barest of supplies. The image leaves his eyes so satisfied that he almost forgets to address his own growling stomach. He eats slowly, watching her all the while, and making sure her hands are never empty as she finishes another.

Byleth places the fifth empty skewer aside and looks up to thank him for the meal, finally noting his stare. The moment their eyes meet, Dedue opens his mouth.

"You... always eat as if," he begins hesitantly and without prompt, "As if... everything I make is delicious. When the Knights are deployed, if I have kitchen duty, I imagine you are the one I am preparing food for. And whether I have kitchen duty or not, I imagine that you are eating beside me." It is a strangely sensitive admission to make, and still not one he is sure it is appropriate to share.

Byleth looks at him in surprise. "You do?" He hopes his words don't sound foolish, but her innocent question makes him feel bolder. He nods in affirmation.

"I wish I could sit with you for every meal." He admits with less difficulty than before. "In general, when I am away, I miss you. Greatly," Dedue adds. "Your eyes, your hair, your presence beside me... your smile." He swallows. His throat feels so dry. Such words feel forbidden to speak into the air, but he sins once more, completing his list. "Your body." Byleth stares at him. She opens her mouth, then shuts it, gaping. He can't help himself, blurting the apology before he can try to hold it in. "I'm sorry. It is wrong, I know. I am the Captain of the Knights of Seiros. I should be focused on my duties when I am on a mission."

If he is waiting for her to scold him and agree that he should be focused on his duties, he is sorely mistaken. Instead, Byleth reaches out and grasps his forearm. Her voice is quiet but surprisingly rough.

"What else?"

And goddess help him, she sounds like he feels.

Starved.

He cannot leave her unsated.

"When we met with House Goneril's representatives, they wore their hair tied up in simple, neat styles. I thought... I wished you to wear the same, if only so I could see the nape of your neck as well." He is embarrassed, as his skin tells her. He has never before expressed such things aloud. As Byleth lets his words wash over her, she pulls herself closer.

"I shouldn't be pressuring you like this," she mumbles. "I always thought that you'd tell me when you were ready, but I..." Byleth trails off, her eyes lowering to his mouth. He is already leaning forward. "I just wanted you to know that it's okay now. It's okay to love me openly, if you wish to." He nods as she runs her hand up to his shoulder, stroking his arm with light fingers. "That night you told me about your nightmare about the war.... I was so happy. Please, Dedue. Don't withhold--"

He doesn't reply, his mouth on hers before she can continue.

Dedue is the one who initiates the kiss, so he is actually quite uncertain how it ends up that he is pressed into the sand, her mouth warmly touching his as she crawls above him, her knees on either side of him.

He can feel her skin against him, her smallclothes still damp from their swim. He breaks the kiss breathlessly, but she only shifts her attentions, kissing down his chin.

"Byleth." He feels the sand beneath him, sticking to his flesh. Her delicious weight against his body and the stirrings in his groin are simply not enough to distract him from the danger. For now, anyway--very, very little separates them, so he will have to be quick. "We are outside and unarmed. If beasts come..." He fumbles to articulate why they shouldn't--not here as she presses her mouth along his collarbone, paying him no heed at all. "Byleth," he tries again, but his hands are resting against her backside, the soft flesh so tempting to squeeze that he has to will himself not to lose focus. "It's dangerous, please." He forces the words out, the strangled emotion in his voice strong enough that Byleth stops, sitting up to look him in the eyes. "I'm sorry." He says it again, for the second time. She presses her lips to his quickly, chastely, so they will not get lost again.

"Don't be."

"I... promised you that I would stay alive until we made it to the Flower Fields. When we get there..." He smoothes her salt-water assaulted hair from her forehead, then pushes a few stray strands behind her ear. "I will throw my life away if necessary to please you." To his surprise, she laughs quietly.

"After I spent so much time convincing you not to?"

Recognizing the joke, Dedue smiles, grateful that she is not angry with him. "It is a terrible habit, I fear." She leans in to kiss his smile with long and savoring intent. He shuts his eyes, then stops as Byleth gasps into his mouth. His hands have an idle grip on her hips, but he realizes how dangerous it is as he leans his head back, pulling away from the kiss. It seems no matter how his mind understand the danger, his body does not. Byleth's face reddens.

"Sorry, I know you said this isn't the place--"

"It's fine. But perhaps..." He trails off, and searches his thoughts for a way to ask politely. None come. "Please get off of me." She scrambles off of him, quickly, guilty. He sits up, fighting his embarrassment as he covers himself with his hands. For the second time that night, Dedue looks to the ocean and its embrace of much needed cold water. "I'm going for another swim." It should be obvious but... he smiles down at her wryly. "Please feel free not to accompany me."

Chapter Text

Dedue scrubs the blood off of his arms, trying not to sigh as Byleth does the same a short distance away.

The slain beasts that litter the quiet sandy beach are nothing more than a nuisance preventing them from the joys of a quiet breakfast, but at least they are good for food. Even if most of their meat will go to waste. In a bizarre way, he thinks as he returns to the sand, sword and body clean, he is almost annoyed that he was right.

As nice as it would've been to continue the night before, they went to sleep on the beach separately, with Dedue taking the first watch shortly after getting dressed. Perhaps, he later reflected, not the best idea because he could not guarantee that he looked anywhere else aside from his wife's sleeping form. She'd slept on her back, sword beside her, and he had watched the rise and fall of her chest with a strange sense of appreciation that she is alive. The monsters did not come then.

It was during that second watch Byleth had silently shaken him awake, the massive, hollow screech of the monstrous birds audible before the birds were seen. The horses were a distance away. He remembers their retreating figures clearly--another sign of approaching danger. He had not worried. When the danger was gone, they would return as they were trained to. He had noted the rising sun lightening the sky and grimaced. He did not wish to wake up with deadly intent, and yet...

He'd taken his axe in hand, eyes trained on the beast as it begins to dive. Come then. Taste this metal. He has never felt afraid to face the creatures, not when he still has promises to keep.

 



The smell of grilling meat has Byleth's stomach growling as she finishes cleaning her weapons, stepping back onto the sand. He does not look at her at first. The adrenaline rush of battle gone, he feels as if their wedding was yesterday rather than nearly five months ago. There is a strange shyness from waking up next to someone for the first time, and he feels it now all over again. Byleth strolls the beach, does her morning stretches, goes to retrieve the horses... and Dedue feels like he is tracking her all the while. When she turns in his general direction, he seeks her gaze to smile at her, but she looks distractedly along the sands instead, not seeming to notice.

He drops his eyes to the grilling meat instead, feeling embarrassed enough to scold himself. No need to be so eager.

When Byleth finally approaches to join him, she looks mildly perplexed as she sits behind him. "I still can't find it."

He hadn't even been aware she was searching for anything. "Can I assist?"

"No, it's fine. But I'm worried for you. Your hair is in your face. Won't it be bothersome while we ride?" Hair? He hadn't even thought about it, quite honestly. Is that what she has been searching for this entire time? It surprises him, then touches him that she sought out a bit of string on a beach of all places, but he merely pulls the hot meat from the makeshift grill and cuts into it to ensure it is thoroughly cooked.

...It could use a few more minutes, he thinks.

"Don't worry about it. I have others amongst the horse pack of supplies. Hungry?" She nods once, then glances behind her at the horses.

"Very. But I'll grab the ties first." Curiously, Byleth jogs off. If he'd known she was going to be this insistent on retrieving them for him, he would've asked her to take the spice pack back as well. He buries the flame and does not watch her go, in part to recover from his embarrassment of not being able to make eye contact earlier and in part to ensure that the meat of their breakfast does not dry out. Just as it is ready, Byleth descends to her knees beside him. "Hair tie." She presents one in her hands. Taking it, he meets her gaze to thank her.

Then stops.

Byleth's own hair is pulled high and away from her neck into a thick ponytail, no doubt using one of his own ties. She looks so... different with her hair pulled away from her face and--most importantly--now he can see the pristine flesh of her shoulders. It's... mesmerizing. Noting his frozen expression, she clears her throat and tries to smile, not quite sure of what the expression means. "I thought it would be nice for a change."

Is that the truth? He wonders, because as he mentioned last night...

'When we met with House Goneril's representatives, they wore their hair tied up in simple, neat styles. I thought... I wished you to wear the same, if only so I could see the nape of your neck as well.'

He... he wants to touch her neck, badly. The thought swallows him whole, refusing to let him think on anything else until it suddenly occurs to him.

He can.

So he does.

Reaching out with deliberate fingers, Dedue delicately strokes from the base of her head along the ridges on the back of her smooth neck, the skin both cool and excruciatingly soft. If not for the fact that he is still cooking, he would take the time to press his lips to this delicate space. He does not say so. "I like your hair up," he says quietly. Byleth's face tells him that she can already tell, but it's refreshing to say aloud. "If it isn't too much trouble... can you wear it like this for the rest of today?"

"As long as..." She's not sure why, but the heat in his eyes makes her drop her gaze for a moment, "as long as you'd like." Dedue drops his hand to her back, caressing it lightly before he turns his attention back to the grill. He'd rather she surprise him, he thinks as he removes the skewer from the flame and hands her breakfast.

...He could say this, too.

So he does.

"I'm fine with surprises." He's not sure she hears him at first as she dives into the meat, but when she surfaces, cheeks shining with grease, Byleth gives him a nod. He watches her open her mouth, but right before she takes another bite into the meal, Byleth pauses to look up at him. "You really do watch me at every meal." Dedue shrugs. More or less. But... how can he not when she eats so earnestly? His... mother always said that a silent meal is an excellent one.

For a moment, however, he wonders at her appetite. Has she always enjoyed his food so thoroughly?

Oblivious to his thoughts, Byleth smiles to herself, speaking between bites. "Any bad dreams?"

"Not at all. I slept very well, actually." He stares down at their breakfast, not without some resentment. "Until the wild beasts came."

"Ah, right." She finishes the meat. "Did you need to sleep in? We could spare maybe another hour." Dedue takes the skewer from Byleth and sticks it into the ash pile.

"No, I'm fine. Actually, I'd like to get to our destination as soon as possible." He finishes the sentence, the air hanging between them as Dedue rolls a thought in his mind. "Byleth..."

"I'm not telling you where we're going." Her reply is quick and amused. He stands, then holds out a hand to help Byleth to her feet. With the both of them upright, Dedue knows he could leave it there and she would think none the wiser as they departed but... something, perhaps their conversation the night before, emboldens him.

"That isn't what I was hoping to ask, actually. I don't need to know where--my question is actually about," he clears his throat, "...the facilities of our destination. Namely... will we be taking rest in a private place?"

"Ah, I see. I guess you would be tired when we arrive. Let me think..." She turns with the intention of walking back towards the horses, a thoughtful expression on her face. Dedue stops her with a hand clasped lightly around her wrist.

"I am not concerned with rest as much as I am concerned with... privacy. " He looks down at her, gently drawing her back towards him to stand chest to chest. Dedue says the words in a voice that is low, private and for her ears alone. "I wish to know if we will be able to... continue our activities from last night." There is a slight flush across his cheeks but he says the words with as much boldness as he can muster.

This is necessary, he tells himself, at first. You are telling her because you don't wish for her to think that... but right away, he does not allow himself to finish the half-truth. He is... a new man. Or, at least, he will try to be. You wish to touch Byleth because you desire the touch of the woman you love, and that is okay, too. She has given herself to you, after all.

The thought is freeing. It is okay to want her and to love her. He tells himself not to look away, staring her in the face with a quiet intensity that actually not only surprises Byleth, but flusters her as well.

"We..." She can only hear her heart pounding in her chest. "We... won't," she manages with great difficulty.

Oh.

It's disappointing but... he brings her wrist lightly to his lips and contents himself with this touch instead, his eyes still on her face. "I understand." He wonders where they're going even more so but decides against asking. "Then... shall we?" Byleth nods wordlessly, and for a strange moment, Dedue has the feeling that she is actually speechless.

It pleases him.




The sounds of laughing, screaming children are heard before their source is seen. As they come through the clearing, Dedue can see it--a massive, dormitory-like building with little ones as far as he can see. There are far too many to belong to a single village, much less a single family, and the hour is much too late for this to be a school. His suspicions are further confirmed when he notes a field of laundry sheets as he rides behind Byleth.

When they ride around to the front of the building to come to a stop, he tilts his head at her. With so many young ones, this can only be one place.

"An orphanage?" But instead of replying, Byleth merely smiles in reply as she dismounts, her movements hasty with something like excitement. She skips up the steps to the fairly new building, then gathers a fist in hand to hit the door. Before it makes contact, Byleth seems to think better of herself.

Putting her fingers to her lips, she makes a familiar sound--a shrill, piercing whistle that he has only heard on the battlefield. The sound when she was preparing to give a command that needed to be obeyed if they wanted to live, no if, ands or buts about it.

It is a sound, Dedue considers, that would be most familiar to someone who was a student of Garreg... ah.

He dismounts slowly, taking a moment to tie their horses to a post before following Byleth up the stairs. There is no reply to her whistle at first, until something that sounds suspiciously like something falling down the stairs clatters behind the door before it is unceremoniously ripped open. "Professor!" Deep blue eyes and short pale hair greet his vision. He cannot help the pleasure that bubbles forth from his heart, manifesting into a smile.

Mercedes.

"What a surprise to see you here! And Dedue, too, how lovely!" She chuckles into her fist, then smiles brightly. "Though it's strange to imagine that your titles have changes quite a bit since that time, isn't it?" She opens the door wider, welcoming them in. "Dinner is being prepared and I'm afraid I've got my hands full at the moment--"

"Miss Mercedes! Timeus is trying to climb the library shelves again!"

"Oh, really? Surely he knows better than that after the last time... Well, it's fine." Mercedes glances over her shoulder with a demure smile. "Once he hurts himself, I'll fix him right up and he'll know not to do it again."

Dedue steps into the doorway. "Would you like some assistance?" He realizes that he speaks without asking Byleth if this is the type of reunion she was considering, but when he looks at her with the intention of giving her an apologetic stare, the twinkle in her eyes tells him that perhaps this is what she intended all along.

"Yes! We would love your help in the kitchen, if you have the time to spare." Byleth smiles, answering for the both of them.

"We have the time."

Mercedes smiles cheerily. "Good! Then let me put you to work." She looks at Dedue and winks. "Do you remember how to bake the tea cookies of House Martritz? I worked hard to teach you, you know." Dedue nods once. "Then let's hop to it!"

They follow Mercedes inside.

Dedue knew that when he volunteered to assist, he was, in essence, volunteering to help the children. However... he did not expect that he would be working alongside them. Perhaps that is a good thing, considering he has almost forgotten the simple fact that most children fear him. Now, as he stands in the orphanage's kitchen with an apron tied around his waist and a team of little ones around him, he is suddenly reminded by the distance they hold from him. The distance that Mercedes ignores as she looks over the ingredients. "Alright! I think that's everything."

"Now, children, this is..." She gestures to Dedue as he stands awkwardly, the ceiling hovering dangerously close to the top of his head. "This is Chef Dedue. He's going to be helping you make the cookies for tonight's dessert. If you have any questions, be sure to ask him and follow his directions explicitly. And," her smile is deceptively gentle. "If there's any mischief made there will be no punishment from me. Instead, I won't check under your beds for the Beast! Listen well!"

The Beast? Dedue has never heard of such a thing, but it seems to work as the children hasten to put on their aprons, looking at him in earnest. "Now, let me go attend to Timeus." Mercedes pats the closest child on the head and leaves to heal the troublemaker who, Dedue has learned, broke his hand after falling from the shelves.

Dedue clears his throat, all eyes on him. A small child peeps through the ruddy hair curling over her forehead to shine a dark eye at him. "Wh-what first, Chef Dedue?" Dedue hesitates for a moment. She is so small...

"First," he begins steadily, "We'll need to measure out the flour."

The children learn quickly. Not only as far as making the cookies but they quickly forget to fear him, eager to do well. "Ch-chef Dedue! D-d-did I mix this well enough?" The wispy, stuttering voice of Collin, a small, choppy haired boy rings out as he holds up his mixing bowl.

"I believe so. Everyone, hold out your bowls for a check." Five pairs of little hands reach out, Dedue peeping inside of each one to ensure each one is neither under nor over mixed. There is no egg on the side, no flour trails in the dough....

Dedue reaches out carefully and places his head on the head of Mira, the last child in line, her hair soft and fluffy beneath his hands. He strokes it gently. "Well done." Collin looks up at Dedue wide-eyed, then casts his gaze to the ground.

"Aw! That's not fair! You made Collin sad!" A burst comes out from Navita, a tanned, spindly girl with pale-peachy hair in a long braid cascading down her back as she slams her bowl on the table. "Didn't we do well?" Dedue looks at Collin in confusion.

"Yes, you did. There's--" She crosses her arms and pouts.

"Then I want to one, too!"

"Navita! D-don't make trouble for Chef D-Dedue..." Collin whispers the words loudly, tugging on Navita's sleeve.

"He's a grown-up! He's supposed to be fair, and it's unfair that I didn't get one! I know you think so, too, Collin." Dedue blinks in confusion as he look at the group of children.

"Do you... er... all want to be patted?" There is a collective answer that surprises and in a small way, flusters him.

"Yes!"

"And a hug, too, for making us have to ask," Navita adds boldly, stamping her foot. Dedue is strangely filled with the urge to laugh. What a precocious child. Children have never liked him, and yet...

"Well, then..." He falls in to a crouch to look at Collin eye-to-eye. Placing a large hand on his head, he pats it lightly. "Good job. You worked hard." He repeats the action for each child, stopping with Navita. To his surprise, her pout only deepening as she looks away when he moves to stand. Navita's voice is demanding.

"A-hem. Hug too!" Dedue looks to the doorway unsurely. Are children usually so demanding? And is it appropriate to accommodate such whims? Hm... He falls back into a crouch and opens his arms. To his surprise, the children all tackle him at once. He is strong enough that they do not move him an inch, but... with their small arms reaching for them, he cannot help but squeeze them into his embrace as tightly as possible. As he does it, suddenly he remembers--

"Linza, Mother says you have to come and eat--"

"Leave me alone, you! Auntie can't tell me what to do. She's not my ma, and she never will be." He reaches out to comfort his cousin with a touch on the shoulder but she swats his hand away. "I... I can't believe Ma and Da left us here like we were naught but a bagga rocks!" He winces, unused to the sound of her sharp border accent. Still... he knows that she needs to be comforted.

Dedue is only nine years old, and he cannot imagine what the similarly aged girl is feeling. In truth, he doesn't know what to say, so he says nothing, creeping closer to his cousin. He sits beside her, his arm pressed to hers.

Dedue feels her stiffen beside him but she doesn't move away. Instead, she hugs her knees and rests her forehead on top to hide her face to smother a sob. The tears continue for what feels to him like forever, but Dedue doesn't say or go anywhere, sitting beside her as he idly plucks grass from the ground. Between her wails, she mumbles wetly into her own skin. "I-I hate 'em all... Why did they leave us here?" But Dedue does nothing. He spies some flowers in reach and pulls them out of the ground, his fingers twining awkwardly in half-remember directions.

When she calms down some, Dedue places his hand on her head and gently pats her soft, thick curls. He always envied his cousins for their curly hair, and normally, she never lets him touch it, but now... she doesn't react at all. He does it until her tears subside, and when she sits up, he silently offers her a flower crown.

"I don't understand grown ups," he begins slowly, "but I'll listen if you're sad." When she takes the crown, he stares at her intently , clasping a protective hand on her shoulder. Unexpectedly, his words make her start to sob again.

"Y-you think you're so grown-up, don'tcha?" In spite of her sulky words, Linza throws herself into his arms. Dedue freezes at first, then continues to pat her head with slightly more certainty.

He steels himself, remembering what he has heard his father say many times to his mother... 'we Duscur-born protect the weak in our care...' True, he's never been 100% sure what that means, but... right now, he thinks he understands. Linza is sad now. If this embrace will make her better, then he will hold her as long as he needs to.

Dedue blinks to clear his mind.

He has not thought of Linza in many years. In reality, it is because he tries not to consciously, but the memory makes him hold the children in his arms tighter still for just a moment longer. He wishes he could do more to protect them, but Dedue is well aware that he is just a temporary guest and the children will need better care than what he can provide. If only Linza, Rindell, Plesia, Taran, Gracina, Nestra, and Gioia had protectors. Not to mention his sister, Chiara, and their mother and father...

Hm... Dedue wonders for a moment how he can help. The thought surprises him, because as acting Captain, his thoughts have always revolved around how he could best execute the missions set before him by the Church of Seiros. He has never before wondered how the work he does could have an impact. How he could have an impact in crafting the peaceful world he has wanted for so long...

He thinks on the matter as he pulls out of the hug and stands to his full height, folding his arms. Dedue clears his throat, his chest strangely tight "Now, we must prepare for the next step. Everyone, wash your hands. I will show you how to size the dough for baking."




There are certain sights that makes Dedue's heart feel full. Waking up beside Byleth each day, for example, and noting her smiling in her sleep as she dreams. Going to the greenhouse and seeing that his Duscur roses have blossomed yet another year, for another. Now... he adds a third to this precious stack of memories, namely... the children of Mercedes' orphanage dressed for bed, laughing and jostling as they munch on the fresh cookies baked with their own hands.

He looks to his wife to share in his joy but she is curled up in a corner sofa, a small child sleeping within the confines of her arms and another two leaned against her on each side. If he were beside her, he would feel the urge to run his fingers through her hair, but as is, a small thrill goes through him as he imagines for a moment that the children nestled against her are theirs.

Dedue feels embarrassed for the thought and instead of considering it further, takes another draft of his ginger tea.

Mercedes looks around the room from where she sits on the floor in the direct center, telling a story that, by the faces of her listeners, both enthralls and scares them. He watches in amusement, considering. Perhaps he could speak with Dimitri on how best to care for more orphans. Perhaps more schools? Or, really, more than opening schools, he should try to discuss with the king how could they prevent them from being created in the first place.

The noise of protesting children interrupts his thought.

"No, I don't want to go to bed!"

"Me either!"

"Same!"

Having finished her story some time ago, Mercedes beckons at the stairwell. "I know, I know. But if you go to sleep now, then you can wake up early enough to have more fun tomorrow!" No one in the room looks sold, and to Dedue's surprise, he hears a small voice say his name.

"But... I want to hear a story fr-from Chef Dedue.... if it's okay...." Mercedes looks surprised for a moment, seeming to consider the thought. She looks at him.

"Then, would you be willing to tell us a story before bed?"

Dedue puts down the tea cup slowly. "I... am afraid that I am only really familiar with tales of Duscur, and I may have forgotten some details at that. Our stories tended to be passed down in words and songs, so without writing..." He trails off but cannot continue under the piercing gaze of such pleading eyes. Sighing, Dedue sits back in the chair. "I will try my best." Mercedes smiles from the stairwell, turning to take the sleepiest of the little ones to bed.

A small hand shoots upwards. "Er, yes?"

"Who's Duscur?"

"Duscur... is not a person. It is a place, the land I come from." Another hand. "Please."

"Is it far away?"

"From here?" He shakes his head. "Not so." Looking around, he notes their ages and it occurs to him that most of these children were born after the tragedy. The thought makes him feel strangely old. "Duscur is like the sprout of old fallen tree. It wilted once, but it is growing anew."

"I-I know Duscur..." Dedue smiles at the familiar child.

"Do you, Collin?"

"My grandma... before she used to tell me that my dada was from Duscur, b-but I never been there." The answer surprises him, then pleases him.

"Well, then, listen carefully. That means Duscur is yours as well, and..." He remembers Mercedes' words from long ago. 'Duscur may be gone. but you're still here.' "As long as you are here to listen, Duscur is alive and thriving. This is a story my father once told me. It comes from Cuenca village, in the central part of Duscur, not too far from our former capital." Dedue thinks to himself, trying to grasp the beginning of the tale in his memory, then takes a deep breath. As he begins, he can almost hear his father's voice saying the words alongside him. It is a story his parents would tell them often as they sat around the fire on nights not unlike these. "She was an ancient goddess who once ruled over the universe in the time before life itself--in fact, Duscur itself was yet unmade, the world just a stewing sphere of molten rock. Her name was Fleurrée, and all of her thoughts were selfish."

He tells the tale of a selfish goddess and her first accidental creation, that of a single star given lips to speak. He tells of her friendship with that star spanning many millenia and how, once it faded away, promising to see her again, that promise inspired her to create more and more in pursuit of the feeling of being entranced by another creature once more.

He tells of her deep sleep in which she dreams even now, to meet her star again.

When Dedue finishes the tale, he finds the candlelight low and the room silent except for that of quiet breathing. Sometime during the story, Navita had squeezed herself into his lap, Collin occupying the opposing knee. Dedue gathers his arms around them and stands to take them up the stairwell. Mercedes stands at the top, eyes widening in surprise. She beckons with her fingers, leading him to the shared rooms where they sleep. Quietly, they work until the main room is clear of all persons except Byleth.

When all of them are tucked into bed, Mercedes lets out a quiet sigh. "I'm sorry that I don't have an extra bed for you and the Professor. I'm sure you'd like something more private, but are the couches alright?"

Dedue nods. "They're fine." He expects her to smile and say good night, but instead she beckons him into the kitchen. When he sits, she lights a fire to heat water for tea.

"So, Dedue. How are things with the Professor?" The question shouldn't throw him off guard, but it does, just a little. "Are you happy?" It's an interesting inquiry, but thankfully, one he can answer with full confidence.

"Yes," he says quietly. In a way, so much so that it frightens him. "I am unsure I completely know how to process such feelings, if I am honest. I..." He trails off to assist, taking cups from the shelves to help prepare their tea. As he grasps the container of tea leaves from the shelf, his eyes look for a sugar bowl.

"Oh! You don't have to help."

"It's fine." He locates the bowl on the table, then takes a seat. "Sometimes, I feel unworthy of so much happiness. Other times, I feel afraid that it will collapse in blood as so many things in my life have. Such uncertainty coupled with this need to please her and be close to her... They are emotions that I have never felt before," he admits softly, and not without displeasure. The honest confession almost hurts to say. More than anything, Dedue wants to be understood by her. To be close to her. To be respected by her. "Mercedes, some days it feels as though I am going mad."

"Dedue, you're not going mad at all. In fact, that sounds totally natural, I think!" She grasps an oven mitt as the kettle whistles. Pouring the tea slowly, she glances at Dedue. "Love is frightening in so many ways, and of course... we both know that it can be taken away so easily. In the case of my mother, for example, she didn't speak of him often, but I never doubted that she loved my father very much. I'm sure his loss hurt her deeply." Taking a sip of her tea, she beams. "Oh, this is good. Please, take some tea yourself, will you?"

"I'll let it cool down first."

Mercedes nods in reply. "As you wish. I know that love can change you, but I don't think you're going mad. In any case, what are your plans then?"

"I will stand at the professor's side. As you know, I left Dimitri's service when I decided to marry Byleth. I... feel that it is my duty to stick with my decision." He hesitates for a moment, lowers his voice. "But I admit, I have never felt such apprehension in my life. I have been thinking about my future with Byleth and it is certain that I wish for it to be a happy one, but... much has happened to us. I fear what fate holds."

Mercedes sips her tea, her expression thoughtful. "I think that's okay, too. But if I could give a piece of advice?" Dedue looks at her expectantly, cooling his tea with pursed lips. "Don't let duty be the thing that keeps you at the professor's side. Let love do that." She frowns slightly, voice worried. "I'm just an outside observer, but I've seen what happened to Annette and her father, how it ripped her apart and I'll just say this... When tragedy strikes, you should draw closer to the professor, not away from her, Dedue."

He considers the advice. He would never... never wish to abandon Byleth as Gilbert had, but... if something happened to his small family in the future, it pains him to admit that he could imagine it. Leaving Garreg Mach to crush whatever it is that destroyed his happiness and never returning because it would be proof that a lowly man of Duscur is not a worthy of joy. Mercedes touches his arm lightly. "Rely on your family and friends. Just... talk to one of us if there's a problem, alright? As for me, I'll always be here for you and I just know that all of our friends feel the same."

Dedue stares at Mercedes for a long moment. He feels... warm, and not because of the tea. Is this what it is, to have a true friend? He has nothing more to give her--he cannot swear his fealty, and more than that, she is not requesting it. And yet... she will choose to help him if he is in need...?

"...I apologize in advance for troubling you in the future." Mercedes waves her hand dismissively.

"Well, it troubles me when you apologize! Just say 'thank you' and promise the same to me, okay?" Dedue nods in affirmation as Mercedes finishes her tea, yawning. He watches her clear the kitchen dishes and quickly finishes his own drink so that he can hand her the cup.

"Thank you." Mercedes' reply is a smile. Then she stretches her arms mildly. Shaking her head, she lightly taps her cheeks to keep herself awake.

"Now! You'll have to excuse me if this is an intrusive question, but I must know. How do you feel about tiny feet in Garreg Mach's halls?" Dedue flushes.

"I... hope it happens soon," he replies, trying to beat down the strange shyness he feels in his chest. Mercedes stares at him knowingly.

"You know, the professor tucked away quite a lot during the meal time. A few of the children mentioned it to me as I was put them to bed, or else I don't think I would notice."

Dedue tilts his head. "She is putting away quite a bit lately, yes."

"I wonder if..." She trails off thoughtfully, then smiles. "Well, it's too early to speculate. If something happens, you must send me news, and not by horse. I want notice delivered to me by Wyvern Express! And in general, try to write me more, would you? Even Dimitri takes the time to write regularly."

Mercedes' words give him a strange sense of hope, but he stamps it down. "We will certainly try." The news that Dimitri has been writing Mercedes surprises him, but he doesn't pry any further, only noting the shy smile on her face as she says the words. She stands to put her cup in the sink when a sleepy voice interrupts them.

"Miss Mercedes? I can't sleep." There is a child standing in the doorway, rubbing her eyes.

"We'll have time to talk more later. Good night, Dedue." Mercedes excuses herself to take the little one back to bed.

Dedue takes the moment to wash the dishes, then returns to the main room where Byleth is still curled up. Kneeling in front of her, he unlaces her boots and removes them along with her jacket and scarf. When he scoops her dozing form into his arms to lay her on the larger couch, she snuggles into his chest, her breath steady and unchanging.

I love you, he thinks as he settles her down, pulling a warm comforter across her body. They are indoors and there is no need for him to take watch but... he settles into the corner couch and watches over her sleeping form, feeling as though he needs nothing else in this world.

Chapter Text

"Now, children, everyone say thank you to Uncle Dedue and the Profe--Auntie Byleth." Mercedes' voice is soft and unassuming, but the obvious joy the kids have in crying out at her request tells Dedue exactly what they think of her. The thought warms him, but not as much as the cute surprise on Byleth's face. She mouthes the word at him. Auntie? He smothers the amusement fighting to break through.

"Thank you! Bye-bye!!"

"Come again soon! Thank you for playing with us, Auntie Byleth!"

"I want to eat your cookies again, Uncle Dedue!"

Byleth waves broadly at them, then steps into the stirrup, her hips settling into the saddle with ease as the children file indoors. Only Mercedes watches them from the top of the steps, her hands clasped together in what may or may not be a prayer for their safety. Looking towards Dedue, Byleth nods to let him know that she's ready to depart when a small, sharp voice rings out.

"Wait!" They both turn to look, and right away, Dedue recognizes the small figure of Collin running towards the horse, thumb in his mouth as he drags Navita behind him by hand. "Navvy says... she wants t-to tell you something."

Navita turns red, glowering at Collin for a moment, but his determined expression doesn't change. She huffs, squeezing his hand tightly.

"I... I just want to say that... that the cookies were just alright, I guess!" She glances behind her at Mercedes, her expression dark. "Th-thank you for making them! A-and Miss... Miss Mercedes says your food is delicious. I don't believe her so... you have to come back again! I'm not asking!" Dedue's eyes widen. He seeks Byleth's gaze, and they share nods. Eyes wary, the corners of Navita's lower further. "Collin will be mad at you if you don't come back, you know!" Collin frowns around his thumb, tugging at Navita's hand in warning. "Ugh! A-and m-me too! So come back really soon, okay?" Dedue thinks for a moment, then dismounts to kneel in front of Navita. As he gets closer, she takes a timid step backward, blushing deeply. Dedue reaches out, placing his hand solidly on her head.

"Collin and Navita, thank you for coming to say goodbye. I'll come back and make better food next time, alright?"

"You'd better!" Navita throws her arms around Dedue's neck. Her voice quivers. "Or else I'll hate you forever! B-because I lied, I'm sorry! Those were the best cookies I ever had!" Dedue feels frozen for a moment, but he brings his arms around the child, patting her gently on the back. It is hard to remember a time when he was so small, so fragile. It hurts him to say, but he cannot remember an age where he was young enough to express his emotions so freely, perhaps because he had always been older brother before anything else. Perhaps that is what endears this little girl to him.

"I'll visit." He glances at Byleth, a smile crinkling his eyes. "We both will."

Collin looks satisfied and leans his face into Dedue's shoulder, his thumb still in his mouth. He gathers his arm around him as well, then thinks to himself. Unclipping the tassel from his scarf, he hands it to the boy. "I make these from time to time to remind me of home. When I return... I will teach you more of Duscur. You have a right to know where you come from, if you wish to."

Collin nods silently, then pulls his thumb from his mouth. "I w-want to."

Byleth watches, her butterflies forming in her stomach. She has seen many faces of Dedue--some she wished to remove from her heart, such as the haunting expression he makes when he is gasping for his final breaths, metal embedded in his chest, and some... some that she wished to preserve in her heart forever, like his expression when he wakes up before her and she awakens to the sight of him lightly stroking her hair... Of all the faces she has seen, Byleth has never witnessed a soft expression quite like this.

She wonders at the circumstance in which she could see it again--but even as she thinks the thought, it occurs to her that she already knows. It is an expression with a future promise in the tilt of his lips. Worry creases her brow at the thought of that future. Fódlan is still unstable. There has not been a month since before or after Dimitri's coronation where they have not had to fight someone or something. She knows there is no guarantee that peace will ever come over the continent, much less anytime soon.

'I... would like to build a family with you, if I could. Even in this world.'

...Is that why he phrased it this way? Did he know which direction her thoughts would inevitably go? He once thought she was lost to death, and she wonders if his desire to start a family sooner rather than later is a result of that. As is, his vigilance in watching over her when she performs her duties as Archbishop is at least in part because of her half-decade sleep. Not that she doesn't empathize. Byleth has lost Dedue more times than she can count, and she fears there may come a time when she is not present to turn back the hands of time and return him to life.

Or, worse still, a time where she would be present, but powerless, like... like with her father. The thought is devastating to imagine.

"Byleth?" Dedue's voice calling her name brings her back to reality. When she focuses her eyes to meet his, she can see the worry in them. He has already completed his goodbyes and mounted again. "Are you... ready to depart?" She nods, forcing herself to smile.

"We're already behind schedule. We should hurry." Byleth nods, noting dark grey clouds gathering in the distance. "Especially if we are to avoid that storm."

Dedue nods in agreement. "After you, then." Byleth urges her horse forward, hoping to leave her dark thoughts behind.




They do not manage to evade the storm. Not only that, but they are forced to ride through it until they see at last, an unexpected shelter from the storm. By the looks of the outside, it is a surprisingly lavish inn.

...Or, perhaps it ought not come as a surprise since Mercedes suggested the route as a lesser known backroad for important nobles journeying to and from Fhirdiad. The innkeeper's eyes are wide when they request a room, but Byleth cannot be certain if it is because from the shock of hosting the Archbishop, or the fact that she looks half-drowned. Minutes pass between their entry and the moment when a heavy, iron-wrought key is placed in Dedue's hands. Trailing behind him up the stairs, she shivers as Dedue unlocks the door and pushes it open. The moment he shuts it behind them, he locks the door and quickly tears the blankets from the bed to wrap them around her body. She tries to show her appreciation through wet lips and chattering teeth.

"Th-th-tha--" He presses a gentle finger against her mouth.

"I'll not have you ill. Preserve your energy and rest there, please." Dedue gestures toward the bed, his own clothes and hair still dripping with rainwater as he kneels in the fireplace and tries to bring forth flame.

It takes more tries than he'd be comfortable to admit to get the fire going, but the moment he has one going, Dedue gathers her in all of her blankets to sit her bundled body directly in front of the flame. She doesn't look like she will stop shivering any time soon, and though his body is normally quite warm, he can feel himself starting to quiver. He ignores the sensation and gently eases the blanket off of her feet and legs to rub sensation back into the cool, damp skin.

"W-wait, but you're also we--"

"I'm fine," he replies gruffly, mainly because he's still annoyed that when she first suggested they stop before the storm reached them, he'd convinced her otherwise. He just wanted to be able to make it home--to Duscur, that is--as soon as possible, and as a result of his impatience...

Byleth struggles an arm from the blanket cocoon to press her hand against his cheek. "Hey..." She is speaking aloud, but all he can feel is how cold she is. "Don't worry so much. I'm n-not so fragile, you know. I slept under rubble for five years, so I think I can take a little rain storm. Why don't you... sh-share the blankets with me instead?" He is already shaking his head, all business.

"I fear you will not be warm enough if we share. We are both quite wet." He leans into her hand, even though it chills him to feel her skin so much colder than usual. Just her touch alone is a comfort. Byleth draws him forward, her lips brushing gently against his.

"Well..." She strokes his cheek with her thumbs. "If we remove the wet layers, we may be able to get warmer a little faster. There wouldn't be a problem sharing then, would there?" There's a hint of mischief in her expression that he cannot mistake, regardless of the flickering reflection of the firelight highlighted in her eyes. Dedue's breath catches as she pauses thoughtfully. "Though, there may be a small problem."

"...Problem?" He murmurs the word, his voice barely audible as he stares into her eyes. He could not look elsewhere, even if he wished to.

Dedue does not wish to.

"My hands are still unsteady. I'll need help removing the wet layers." Dedue is absolutely unsure that his own hands won't be shaking if she's asking him to do what he thinks she is. And by the quirk of her eyebrows...

"Okay." It's all he can say in reply. He reaches out for her buttons first, three obscenely small obstacles that he must deal with using large, clammy fingers. It does not help that when he loosens a button, Byleth leans forward as if to tease him, pressing her lips instead to the scar on the center of his chin. He pops the second button open and her lips journey a little further, lightly touching on the space where his jaw meets his neck. The final button is the hardest, but when he manages to pry the ends apart, he is surprised that she does not lean forward. Instead, she lifts her chin, waiting for him to lift the blouse away.

Dedue leans down instead, his lips lighting on the edge of her mouth. It is not what he intended, but the firelight and dancing shadows make it difficult for him to see her well enough to kiss her as properly as he wishes to. Byleth laughs quietly and he is glad for the shadows, if only so she does not see the absolute starstruck expression on his face. He is like a blushing adolescent, to play these games, but he cannot help but kiss her again and again--first on her cheeks, then on her earlobes, then on her eyelids.

When she lets out another soft chuckle, Dedue is suddenly certain that he is so happy, if he were to die right then... well.

He would be very displeased at the interruption.

Leaning away, Dedue grasps the bottom of her warmest layers along with the shirt she wears underneath and gently slides the material upward to reveal the pale skin of her stomach. He carefully tugs it over her head. Even up close, he can see where the battles have kissed her skin. How many times has he presses his lips to those scars, those pieces of her that whisper of darker days? The smallclothes wound uniformly about her chest are damp as well, but he looks at her uncertainly. She says nothing but grasp his hand and press it against her skin.

With that permission, Dedue unwinds her smallclothes slowly from around her body with a deliberate slowness. He must be patient, because if he rushes through this, he is uncertain what else he will rush into. Her upper half is bare before him as he tosses the wrappings aside. He reaches for her, but she clamps the blankets shut, her expression deviously calm. "Aren't you forgetting something?" Is he?

She gestures towards his own body with her chin. Ah. He is still... yes. He stands to peel the damp layers off of his own body, shuddering for a moment in the contrasting chill of the air. Skin bared, he kneels back down to huddle closer to the heat of fireplace. Byleth takes a moment to stand without the blankets to kick off her pants and the rest of her smallclothes. As she does so, Dedue tosses the now-wet innermost blanket away, taking the thickest of them around his shoulders. When she is ready, he opens the blanket, looking up at her body from his seat by the fireplace.

It is a body he will never tire at gazing upon, and by the way she stares down at him, Dedue could not be more certain that she feels the same about him. It makes him self conscious for a moment, but she takes no more time to delay.

Byleth settles between his legs, her back to his chest as they face the fire, bare skin against bare skin. The sensation of her body, softer than the petal of any flower he has tended, feels so good against him that he almost does not know where to start. Dedue nuzzles lightly against her hair, pressing light kisses against her ears and the sides of her rounded cheeks. She leans into his touch at first--but then, Dedue feels her body stiffen against him. His lips hover over her skin for a moment, as he wonders if he's done something wrong.

"Byleth?" Peering over her shoulder, Dedue tilts her face towards him. "Is there something the matter?" Byleth does not reply at first. He clears his throat. "If you do not wish to..." She shakes her head before he finishes the sentence.

"No, it's... never mind. This is a bad time to bring it up. Maybe later we can--"

His eyebrows furrow. "Byleth." He only says her name again, and softly at that, but she stops speaking as though he has interrupted her in a much bolder fashion. "What is it?"

"Children."

He blinks, not quite following. "What about them?"

"It... it might be too late," she admits slowly, "It's not as if we've been taking particular precautions otherwise but..." She glances up with difficulty to meet his eyes. "I hadn't given them much thought before this trip. Now, though, when I imagine having children as we are..." She reaches up to strokes his cheek, her cold legs sliding against his for just a moment. "I think I am afraid."

"I see..." He wonders what in particular frightens her, leaning into her hand. "What is it that scares you?"

"I cannot raise five children alone. As is, I never know when you will need to go, or when you will be able to stay. Or if... if you will return at all. My bed at the monastery is often cold without you." She falls silent, her hands still stroking his skin for comfort. "A house without you isn't home, Dedue."

He cannot pretend that he does not understand. But it is an easy solution, is it not? "Then I will not be a Knight of Seiros."

"What?" To his surprise, her voice is filled with displeasure.

"I will relinquish my position as Captain." At her stunned silence, Dedue strokes his palm reassuringly against her stomach. "I do not need a position to be happy, and I am content enough just to be your husband. I would prepare our meals and maintain the grounds of Garreg Mach with pleasure." There is a note of soothing in his tone, as though he senses her inevitable protests.

"That is... no! Dedue, we spoke of this. A husband is not--"

"A vassal. Yes, I... I know." Of course she would be unhappy with him if he were to give up his position, especially if it were to look as though he were just trying to please her. They lay there together, touching each other gently. His hands coast up and down her frame, lighting on her shoulders as she trails her own fingers against the silhouette of his sculpted thighs. "Actually, I've been thinking..."

"Mhm?" She glances up at him suspiciously, but he doesn't catch the look, his eyes instead drawn towards the fire.

"When we were at the orphanage, it occurred to me that perhaps instead of suppressing rebellions, there is something... a more pressing matter that I would like to bring attention to." It feels strange to discuss politics in such an intimate situation, but... he thinks to himself that, though strange, perhaps it is appropriate to bare his heart open wide to accompany their already bare skin.

"What are you thinking?" She turns towards him, and Dedue adjusts the blankets more to accommodate the change as she presses a hand against his chest.

"I have always wished to support his Majesty because... he promised me an equal Fódlan for people of Duscur and Faerghus. Even now, there is nothing I wouldn't do to see that dream accomplished. But..." he pauses, unable to stop himself from pushing the damp hair of her ponytail sticking to her cheek out of her face. He cups her cheek once he has, his thumb stroking up and down the clammy skin, in part to warm it up, in part to feel her. "I have perhaps... put aside such dreams because I wished to support you instead. Meeting the children of Mercedes' orphanage has made me reconsider... perhaps I have been thinking too small." His brows furrow. "Why limit it to Faerghus and Duscur? Reparations between our nations in particular must be made, true, but... perhaps... the entire continent could be united together in peace. Dagda, Brigid and Almyra as well."

"As a single nation?"

Dedue shakes his head. "I think to attempt such a thing would require more blood than I am comfortable with. Rather, I wish to form good relations with such nations, so that we can, perhaps... create an environment where orphans will not be made by war."

Byleth lets out a low, steady stream of breath as she considers, her hands pausing. "That would be... quite an achievement. You would have the full support of the Church, however... the monarchy ought to be aware of such plans. In fact..." She looks at him thoughtfully. "I suppose you couldn't be a Knight of Seiros. That would be a conflict of interest, wouldn't it?"

"It would. I would need to be in a more neutral position. Perhaps as..." He considers a word to best fit the position he is thinking of, but it comes with immediacy. "A diplomat?"

She is nodding in agreement before he even finishes his proposal. "And perhaps as a liaison between the Church and the Kingdom as well." Dedue tilts his head. "It would be reasonable, then, for me to be stationed at Garreg Mach in such a circumstance, correct?"

"Correct." A smile blooms on her face, the pink of her lips tilting upwards as she leans into Dedue's chest. He gathers her against it, stroking her back tenderly, his hands gliding as low as propriety allows. "And as the Church supports you, it would only be right that the Archbishop accompany you on such diplomatic missions, yes?" She leans her chin upwards, Dedue's lips naturally stroking against hers. They are silent for a long moment, skin much warmer than before. Byleth breaks the kiss breathily. "We ought to speak with Dimitri."

Dedue nods and leans in, speaking between kisses. "I'm... certain we would... have his... support." They fall silent again as Byleth deepens the kiss, but as he starts to feel his body come alive, Dedue forces himself to pull away, gazing at Byleth intently as he presses his forehead against hers. "I think we should stop here. If you are uncertain about--"

"It'll be okay." His expression turns to puzzlement, so she clarifies. "If this plan of yours seems as viable tomorrow morning as it does right now, then I will reconsider. And yes, as we are currently, it's true that I cannot manage five children alone." She lifts her body to her knees, her arms around his neck. He gathers her against him in reply, looking up at her. "But... one or two is okay." She runs her fingers through his hair. "A child with silver hair, like their father..." Byleth lowers her lips to his eyelids. He murmurs under her touch.

"I do not question what color their eyes will be." She pulls away to see his eyelids ease open, her gaze just spring green as his.

"No," comes her laugh-sprinkled reply. "I suppose not." She pushes against his chest lightly to press his back against the ground. "But we will see."




The mood as they ride through the mountain pass bordering Faerghus and Duscur is still fragile, but less so than it was the first time they were so close. Dedue takes the lead, and it is obvious to Byleth that the closer they get to their destination, the more frequent breaks he requests.

It is on one of these that she stops him with a hand to his cheek.

"Dedue...?" His gaze is distant, but he focuses on her immediately. "If this is too much for you, we don't need to go." Dedue tries to smile, but cannot.

"I do, I think."

"Are you certain?" Her eyebrows tilt downwards with worry. "I am worried that wherever you intend to take me is going to require too much from you." He winces. Is it so clear? His nightmares have worsened since they crossed the border, but... he does not wish to run away.

"I need to go, Byleth. I promised you that I would take you to see the flowers of my home in bloom, and I will."

His home? As far as she knew, he only mentioned bringing her to Duscur itself. It never occurs to her that he plans to be this specific. Not just anywhere in Duscur, but to the place of his birth... She suddenly feels guilty for agreeing to come and putting him in so much torment, but she pushes the feeling down.

This, perhaps, is not about her, and with him choosing to be this stubborn, there is not much that she can do. Dedue takes a deep breath as Byleth tilts his head downward to touch her forehead to his, her hands pressed against both of his cheeks.

I'm here.

He places his hands over hers. If he is going to persist, then she will do her best to support him. Perhaps he, like Dimitri, has held onto his own ghosts and this is what he needs to let them go. She is not sure what will happen when they reach the fields, but... she will certainly be here to find out.

"How far are we now?" She asks the question gently, just to be sure that he does not think it is because of impatience that she wishes to know.

"Three hours, give or take."

She sucks in deeply through her teeth. She wasn't expecting them to be so close. "Are you ready? If not, we can set up camp here in the meantime." Dedue nods, then stops.

"I think I'd like to rest here a little longer, if that's okay with you." She only nods.

"As long as you need. Is there a river near by? I can catch us something to eat." Dedue nods as she slides her hands away from his face. He reaches for one of them, catching it to hold on to and intertwining her fingers with his.

"Come."




By the time night falls, they still have not moved from the same camping spot. Byleth builds the fire up, the crackling sound a comfort as it reminds of her of a time in the monastery when together, she would prepare meals for their class under his watchful gaze.

At a time when she would willfully ignore Sothis, taunting her over her tangled stomach each time he reached over her to grasp something from a higher shelf, or his hand brushed hers when he passed her a container of seasoning.

How does he like his fish seasoned? It has been a while since he has not insisted on preparing their meals, so she feels embarrassingly out of practice. Byleth lets her hands guide her by memory, warmth filling her chest. How would the person she was then feel to know that the man by her side would be by her side now in a much different circumstance? She glances over her shoulder to catch sight of Dedue embroidering quietly, an embroidery hoop in his hands as he loops the needle back and forth through the cloth. She knows that tasks like these calm him, and for a moment, marvels at the fact that he is so good with his hands.

Cooking, cleaning... her mind strays as she gazes into the fire. Just like the fire mere nights before where they dried off after the storm and those very same hands had...

She blushes as she tries not to think on it, instead turning away to concentrate on the meal before her. He will notice that she is staring again if she keeps looking at him so intently, so she turns back towards the fish, wafting the smell towards her to check on its status. Her stomach growls as she breaks it apart lightly with a fork, the white flesh steaming lightly through the opening. It's definitely cooked through.

Removing it carefully from the fire, she wraps it in a clean leaf she's boiled for this very purpose and steps towards him, blowing lightly before offering it near his lips. He smiles graciously as he lowers his hands, leaning forward to bite into the corner. She pulls away, watches him chew, then offers him another piece.

He eats the entire fish from her hands, and suddenly, she completely understands why he watches her eat. The sense of satisfaction she feels... she can't help but ask anyway, even though the answer is certain.

"How was it?" Dedue licks his lips.

"Good. It could've used a little more something. Maybe cumin?" She smiles at the chef in him peeping out before he looks up at her sheepishly, but she is unoffended by the advice. "Is there more?"

They polish off the rest of what she's caught and cooked with ease, and when it is time to sleep, he rolls out their bedrolls, dragging them as close to each other as possible. Snuggled inside, they gaze at each other instead of sleeping. Dedue strokes her cheek as he rests on his side, his cheek in his hand as he gazes down at her. He leans forward to press a kiss to her forehead and rolls onto his back.

"Dedue..." Byleth speaks faintly, her eyes shut as she rolls on her back as well. She doesn't really have anything to say, but his presence is such a comfort that she cannot help but say the word aloud. Thankfully, a topic comes to mind. "Tell me about your family." His face freezes for a moment before he swallows thickly. "If you want to." Dedue gazes up at the stars. How long as it been since he's gazed at these stars from Duscur soil?

"My father's name was Redus Molinaro. He was... a blacksmith by trade like most raised in my village, but he stayed, unlike most people of his skill. Above all, he was a storyteller." Dedue feels a knot, tight in his stomach. He can no longer remember the way his father smelled, but he remembers his smile, and his heavy hand of praise on his head at a time when Dedue was much, much smaller. "My mother called him a gossip because he would go to the inn to hear traveler's tales." His hands seeks hers for comfort, grasping it lightly. She yawns, squeezing it lightly.

"Mercedes told me that you told the children a story while I was asleep. Was it a story from Duscur?" Dedue nods, forgetting that she cannot see him.

"Yes. Father never spoke much, but whenever he did, it was to tell us a story or a fable, or more rarely, a song he heard in the inn." He expression falls, his voice breaking for just a moment. "I am certain he would disappointed if he knew how many I have forgotten."

Byleth shakes her head. "I never remember much about my childhood, you know. It startled Jeralt plenty, but... it never seemed to anger him. I'm sure your father would be pleased with what you do remember, considering the circumstances."

"Perhaps." Dedue falls silent, struggling for a moment to imagine it. Is it okay to believe that his father would not be ashamed? He is a pitiful example of a man of Duscur, he thinks at times, if only because he has spent so many years in a foreign land conforming to a standard that Faerghus can accept that he sometimes wonders if Duscur would still accept him as its son. "My mother always said I took after him, you know."

"What was her name?"

"Renata. I remember... many in our village thought her to be sometimes overbearing, but..." He remembers the bone crushing hugs she would give him each day before sending him to school. The memory of her unsheathing a sword and telling him she'd teach him how to use it one day... Her raucous laughter when she suspected he had a crush. "I think you would've liked her."

"Do you take after her at all?" He's never considered it, not really. He does so now.

"In at least one way. We were similar heights." He laughs quietly. "She towered over my father, actually. Chiara, you remember, my sister by blood? She would always get jealous that I was growing faster than she was. As a woman, she would say, she deserved to be tall like our mother was." He shakes his head, still smiling before his expression grows solemn. "She was 14 when the Tragedy happened. I... I wonder how tall she would've been now."

Byleth squeezes his hand. "Tell me about your other... sisters." She hesitates over whether she should call them "cousins" or not, but the fact that he remembers them as fondly as his immediate blood decides for her. Dedue nods and begins with the eldest. "First, there was Linza. She was the same age as I was. I'll never forget the time..."

By the time he finishes, he hears quiet breath beside him. Byleth has fallen asleep. Reaching out, he strokes her face only to find, to his surprise, that her cheeks are wet. Tears? For him? The feeling on them on his fingertips makes him bite his lip to hold in his own. He leans back onto his back and rubs his eyes, pulling himself from beneath the blankets to take the first watch.




The morning comes and with it, a comfortable quiet over the two of them as they eat a breakfast of freshly caught fish alongside bread gifted from Mercedes and fruit purchased from the inn. He holds her hand in his the entire time, navigating to help her reach for what she cannot because of his intrusive fingers--but she does not seem to mind, doing the same as he eats.

They take turns bathing in the river, keeping an eye out for monsters, but it seems that even the monsters will respect their journey on this day.

Clean and full, they mount their horses, riding along an overgrown path that Dedue could not forget if he did not return to his homeland for one thousand years.

Byleth rides behind him, her eyes attentive, but he does not speak, nor does he signal for a break as they ride. Usually, she is the one who rides too fast when she leads, but Dedue sets a pace that is much faster than his usual preference. It is easy for someone of her skill to follow, but she can tell that this urgency may not even be something he notices.

A sense of growing dread fills her as they go. The fact that there is not another soul to be seen on these paths is unnerving enough, but what truly unsettles her is the overgrown evidences of the bitter past that line their path. Flowers blossoming over broken carriages with missing wheels and burnt steel skeletons, singed rocks and, in the cracks of walls with pieces completely torn away, she can see ivy has taken claim.

It is as though she is riding across the healed skin of a great burned and broken beast and it is not difficult to see that something terrible has happened here. She does not dare ask Dedue the specifics of what happened to his village exactly on the day the Tragedy and he has never offered to speak on it himself.

Perhaps he never will.

Her heart sinks as she imagines what he has seen through those worn green eyes. She vowed to him once, when they wed, that she would use her strength to protect all that he held dear. Seeing what he has lost... she cannot held but feel the need for that promise to be kept.

It is lost in these thoughts that she does not immediately notice that he is stopped in front of her. She pulls her own horse to a halt but, noticing that he has not dismounted, urges the steed forward to be at his side.

When Byleth catches up, she looks at him inquisitively.

"Dedue...?"

He does not reply, only staring upwards. Her gaze follows to see a charred sign, hanging from a rusted metal arch. There are pieces of the sign broken off in some places, rotted away in others, and just barely, a script she cannot read.

"What's it say?"

"'Welcome to Cuenca: Proud training ground of the greatest blacksmiths in the land.' This is... was... my village. I was born here." She lets go of her reins with one hand to reach over to squeeze one of his.

"Are you sure you want to go in? Even if we turn back right now, you have brought me to Duscur. You are released from your promise." Dedue shakes his head.

"I..." He trails off, eyes still stuck on the sign. He tears his gaze away to look upon her face instead. "I want to proceed. The flower field I wish to take you to is near my home." He dismounts then. "Leave the horses. If there are monsters, they will not escape otherwise." Without people to eat, she cannot imagine they would haunt as place such as this, but... she silently complies.

Strapping her sword on her waist as a precaution, she looks to Dedue when she is ready and smiles, taking his hand. "Whenever you're ready."

She follows him past flattened planks of overgrown wood, flowers coating what she is certain was once the equivalent of a city gate. They pick through the broken remnants of the village, her hand on her sword hilt the entire time. It is unnerving and much too silent to be of comfort. She looks at Dedue's face, but he reveals no expression at all, his eyes distant as though he is seeing a place that she cannot touch.

His eyebrows twitch as they come upon the skeleton of a particular building, the face of the entryway completely split apart as though it had once been crushed under the feet of a great beast and not merely destroyed by raging men. She wants to know what lies behind the expression, what this place means to him, or meant to him, but he offers no words, only tugging her away from it with hasty steps.

There is not much here to tell her about him, as much as it pains her to say. There are more trees and flowers than ruins and she can barely imagine that it was once inhabited at all.

The scale of what Dedue has lost weighs even more heavily on her chest. She can see now that the only Duscur that exists lies primarily in his memories, and it occurs to her that he will never be able to share memories of what Duscur was in the same way.

The thought pains her with its truth.

Dedue stops abruptly in front of her. She peers around him to see his former home, but....

Byleth looks up at Dedue surprise. In front of them is... nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is no skeleton of a building here. At most, with enough imagination, she can see a high stack of rocks what just might've been a forge.

Son of a blacksmith...

"Is this..."

He nods. "The house I was born in." Looking down at her, he tries to smile. "Or, it was, once." They stare together at the space, a tree jutting in the center of what may've been a floor. She can make out clumps of rocks in the ground that may have been a step in an entryway as well. She thinks to force a smile for him to ask for a tour anyway, but when she looks, his expression is completely crumpled. He covers his face with the hand not holding hers and before he knows it, her touch is everywhere--rubbing his back and stroking his face and hair. It is no surprise to her that when he opens his eyes, she can see that they are glassy with tears yet unshed. "I have wondered many times why I lived while so many died, Byleth."

"I don't have the answers," she replies honestly. "But I am glad you are here anyway." His eyes squeeze shut for a long, fragile moment, only opening again at the sound of her voice. "Redus, Renata and Chiara." Byleth says their names slowly, a quiver in her own voice. "Linza, Rindell, Plesia, Taran, Gracina, Nestra, and Gioia. Even though I never met your family, I will not forget them, Dedue. They made you who you are, so what else can I do but care for them, too?" When she looks into his eyes, it feels like they are shaking with the effort to to hold in tears. She does not pressure him to cry, only leaning into his chest to wrap her arms around him.

'Thank you.'

He does not speak the words in his thoughts. Instead, Dedue clings to her as though she is all he has left. In some ways, she is. As much as it pains his neck to do so, Dedue rests his head against the top of hers. She can hear the unsteady, shuddering breaths he takes, feel him quivering down to his knees. To her surprise, he straightens and tugs her hand forward in spite of his still shaking lips, closer to the house. Behind the space, she can see a narrowing path full of weeds and flowers and guess at their direction.

"Come." The word is barely audible from his lips, more breath than sound, but she follows without hesitation.

'I told you once before that I would like to show you the fields of Duscur in bloom. I know that you cannot leave the monastery for long due to your position, but...'

As they pick their way through the path, Dedue does not speak. There is a chance that if he did, she would not hear him because, in her mind, she is thinking on words he said to her once, in a much different, more dangerous time.

'I am excited also. To show you the flowers as they are meant to be seen, in my homeland... And to be by your side in all the days to come.'

Her distraction does not allow her to prepare for what she sees next as Byleth lets out a gasp. He does not need to tell her they have arrived. As far as she can see, the flowers coat the space in front of them, reaching down into a valley and sloping towards the mountains even. She does not know most by name, and there are maybe only one or two that she can recognize  at all because of their existence in the greenhouse of Garreg Mach.

It's an accident, but she lets go of his hands to take further steps into the meadow. It is a place untouched by human hands in a decade, neither for care nor for destruction and it... it is beautiful.

She turns starstruck eyes towards Dedue. His expression is solemn, but he wades deeper amongst the flowers to join her.

"Dimitri saved my life when I tried to cross the border into Faerghus, but that was not my initial encounter with the soldiers. When they destroyed my village, I barely managed to escape their wrath and by accident at that," he admits, his lips twisting into a pained frown. "My mother told me to run, but... I returned back to my home. I should not have. They were already..." He trails off painfully. "And this flower field, too, was burned to ashes." Stroking her hair, he takes a deep, shaky breath. "It looks nothing like the way it did when my village cared for it. Organized by color in neat rows..." His eyes grow distant before he shakes his head slightly. "And yet, you look at it the same way you look at me... as something precious. The blossoms are lovely, but it is still ruined, though in a much different way."

Byleth draws close to him, her voice quiet but full of inexpressible emotion. "No matter what it looked like before, this field is beautiful to me. And like it, I would never think of you as ruined, Dedue. No matter how many scars you gather." He shuts his eyes at the feeling of her hand on his cheek. Does he deserve such love?

He does not know the answer, but he hopes dearly that it is not something that will be taken from him.

"Please, sit. There is something else I wish to do for you." They lower themselves in the grass and, crossing his legs, Dedue plucks flowers carefully from around him. He inspects each stem before he takes it from the ground, working silently. The long stems of red Duscur roses are carefully woven together with those of pink flowers she does not know. She can see his expression calming as he works with quick, deft fingers, and in what feels like no time at all, Dedue pauses to turn the circlet in his hands. Byleth thinks he will offer it to her, but instead he shakes his head, looking around him at the nearby flowers with sharp eyes.

Nodding once he finds what he seeks, he adds a perky white blossom to the crown and then inspects his work again.

Shuffling closer, Dedue places the flower gently on her head. "If Chiara were here, I'm certain she would've made this for you," he says quietly. Dedue straightens, pulling Byleth to her feet. As he adjusts the crown, she smiles at him with a rare, completely open smile.

  


 

 

 

 

Dedue stares down at Byleth, adjusting a flower crown on her hair that he has made for her.

 


"Thank you for bringing me here, Dedue."

"I made you a promise," he answers simply.

"Then let me make one to you." Dedue looks into her eyes, waiting. "I will never leave you alone. Perhaps I cannot fill the hole left behind by those you have lost, but..." She brushes the back of her hand against his cheek. "I will try my hardest to build a happy life with you." Byleth's voice is firm. "I will make sure that we are happy for the rest of our lives."

Dedue's eyes are as gentle as she has ever seen.

"I look forward to it, my petal."