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The Savior King, The Master Tactician and the Queen of Liberation

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If someone had told Dimitri just after he met Claude von Reigan for the first time that he would knock a man's teeth out for insulting him, he would have given them a strange look. 

It wasn't that he disliked the other man – he just found him incredibly exasperating. Claude was capable, intelligent and charismatic; all traits worth admiring; however, he went out of his way to tease and bedevil people, rarely acting like the duke he would become in a few years at best. That in and of itself wouldn't be too off-putting – Dimitri was friends with Sylvain, after all – if it weren't for the way he smiled.

For all that Claude joked, teased and generally acted casual, his eyes...were always cold. When he smiled, bright and friendly, those green orbs were remote and unreadable. Dimitri wasn't a man easily unnerved after what the things he'd experienced...but it did unnerve him, that Claude could act so warm without feeling a thing. It was a carefully practiced act; had to be, seeing how many people fell for it and believed he was nothing but a troublemaker. If seeing the life leave people's eyes hadn't taught Dimitri to look more closely at them, he might have been fooled as well.

People – even Edelgard, brilliant and people-savvy as she was – dismissed the young duke for the person he pretended to be. Dimitri, meanwhile, feared that Claude was a good deal more dangerous than he appeared. If he could smile so warmly while being so cold inside...how could he trust anything the other man said? If he could feign friendship easily, without it meaning anything, didn't that mean he could discard his 'friends' without a care the moment it was expedient?

So perhaps Dimitri had been more aloof toward his fellow house leader than he should have been. Part of the reason he was at the academy was to foster good relations with his fellow future rulers, after all; he was hardly achieving that by being overly critical of the other man in the name of hiding his unease.

Fate, however, as it so often did, was playing a trick on him. Dimitri wasn't sure what else to call a random happenstance that exposed him to Claude's best kept secret.


Dimitri had been headed to the training grounds when he heard the shouting. Someone was in a hideous temper, screaming abuse at another, and that never heralded anything good.

Alarmed, he turned and hurried back the way he came and into one of the monastery's many alleys, where a disturbing scene lay out before him. Cyril – a young man he'd seen a few times before in the Archbishop's company – was sprawled out a few feet away from a reedy man in church armor, a number of weapons scattered across the ground around him. Claude was standing a few feet back, a resigned look on his face. “-could've killed me, you little brat!” The soldier was spitting, hands clenched into fists.

“Hardly,” Claude countered, taking a step forward and helping Cyril to his feet. The poor boy looked incredibly rattled; he didn't quite cower behind the older student, but he visibly backed away from the soldier, shoulders hunched. “He doesn't have the strength to do that by accident. Besides, you're in full plate armor. At worst you would've had to knock out a dent.”

“Did I ask you, you Almyran mutt?” The soldier spat.

Claude's demeanor changed instantly, greater than anything Dimitri had seen before. He went completely rigid, one hand sliding down to his belt and shifting back into a defensive stance. Those cold green eyes momentarily flared with alarm...and what almost looked like panic. “Geez,” He complained, his voice amazingly calm, “get a bit of a tan and everyone assumes you're from the outside world. It really doesn't take much, does it?” Somehow the prince didn't think he was talking about his skin color.

“Don't be coy, it's degrading.” The soldier sneered, puffing himself up so he seemed taller. “Even if I couldn't smell it on you, I've fought at Fodlan's throat. I could recognize your kind a mile away. How humiliating for the duke, for his only heir to be baseborn half breed.

Cyril twisted and stared up at Claude, who seemed unmoved. “You know, considering you're a man of proper breeding,” He said flippantly, “It's odd I'm not the one screaming bloody murder at a kid for bumping into me around a blind corner.”

“You have no right,” The soldier took a menacing step forward. “Neither of you. You have no right to disgrace the monastery with your presence.”

Enough!

It took Dimitri a moment, when all three spun around to face him, to realize he in fact had spoken. He'd rather felt like he was in a dream – or maybe a memory. How many times had he needed to confront a soldier speaking to Dedue in this very manner? How often, since the man had entered his house, had he needed to sternly order his servants to stop whispering behind his back, chew out soldiers for 'accidentally' causing an injury during training? It didn't matter that he'd never set foot in Almyra; he couldn't let this pass by without speaking up.

“You forget yourself,” He told the soldier, intentionally switching to the tones he used when speaking to his people. Even though he'd only done so a handful of times, Rodrigue had praised his oratory power. “The Archbishop invited Cyril and Claude von Riegan into these halls. No one has more authority under the goddess than her! It is you who has no right – not to harass them, and certainly not to abuse Cyril over an honest mistake, the likes of which happens every day in this busy area!”

“The Riegan bastard prays to foreign gods!” The soldier burst out, disbelief and anger warring in his voice. “He's spat on her kindness! It's in his blood. No good will come from having him here. He is -”

“-a man!” Dimitri cut him off ruthlessly, pitching his voice so it drowned out whatever bile was meant to follow. “Claude is a man no different from you, and he is no bastard – not under law, and I doubt he is one in spirit either. His mother returned with him to her place of birth, and that I believe speaks for itself. You owe him an apology, and Cyril too, and I suggest you start to consider what you will say to the Archbishop after I speak of this incident with her!”

“Dimitri...” Claude's voice trailed off. Dimitri looked over the man's shoulder to see the archer staring wide eyed at him. His expression, while still largely unreadable, seemed stunned.

“Aplogize?! To the son of a whore?! You would have-”

The sensation of his temper snapping was a palpable thing; Dimitri felt rather than saw his fist slam into the man's jaw. The force of the impact sent several teeth flying through the air; the man himself flew several feet back into the wall and dropped like a stone to the ground, out like a light. For a moment Dimitri worried that he might have killed him; fortunately, movement in the soldier's chest put that to rest. Dimitri stared at the result of his work for a moment, then sighed, wiping the splatter of blood off his face.

“I shouldn't have done that,” He said, slightly embarrassed. “Hit him, that is. Hopefully this won't buy him more sympathy than he deserves.” He stepped around his fallen victim and began gathering up the weapons that had caused the conflict. “Did he hurt you at all, Cyril?”

“Ah...n-no, he didn't, Claude was there,” The young man stammered out, scrambling to help. “I – c'mon, you don't have to -”

“Please, it's the least I can do,” Dimitri picked up the lance and carefully balanced it in Cyril's arms. “I'm so sorry you had to deal with that. Has that happened often?” Cyril opened his mouth, hesitated, then stammered out a weak-sounding denial. “Please, be honest. And not just with me, but Lady Rhea as well. She won't stand for this, I assure you.”

“She wouldn't, huh...” Claude murmured, just barely audible to them.

Dimitri stood up and held out the few weapons to his counterpart. “Would you take these?” He asked politely. “I have to see to him. And speak with Seteth. The fact that he felt comfortable attacking you and Cyril...” He shook his head.

Claude took the weapons without saying a word, green eyes sharpening. Dimitri was struck with the intense sense that he was being analyzed, though those emerald pools were as frustratingly enigmatic as ever. For him to slip so easily back into that calm...how often had he heard people say such things about him...? “Yeah, no problem,” The brunette said casually. “Though I'm not sure how you're going to explain that,” he nodded toward the unconscious soldier.

“Oh, I intend to tell the truth,” Dimitri said firmly, striding over to the man and slinging him over one shoulder. The plate armor dug uncomfortably into his neck, but he ignored it with long practice. “and by the goddess, he will never mistreat either of you again.”

He left the alley, feeling Claude's gaze burning into his back long after he reached the infirmary.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

Seteth, fortunately, seemed almost as unhappy as Dimitri himself after he was told the full story. Oh, he was displeased by the prince's lack of control over his temper, but punishment that consisted just of two weeks worth of weeding the gardens was a small price to pay for insuring the ornery soldier would be thoroughly disciplined and reassigned to border duty. Dimitri knew it wasn't very princely of him, but he couldn't help the satisfied smirk he gave when Seteth informed the man of Lady Rhea's great displeasure. The soldier turned white as a sheet.

“To think he had the nerve to abuse the Archbishop's guests behind her back,” Seteth muttered afterwards, glowering. “I need to speak to the other knights and see how much they knew of or enabled this behavior.”

Dimitri was quite grateful; both because Cyril and Claude were clearly disturbed by what happened, and because this inspection would likely catch those giving Dedue trouble as well.

“Thank you, for bringing this to my attention.” Seteth nodded at him. “Though it would behoove you not to use your fists should this happen again.”

“Forgive me,” Dimitri bowed, contrite. “It's just that...I have been using words alone to defend my friend for the longest time. The frustration I feel in those moments is immense. I hope that as I continue to master my weapons, my emotions will follow.”

Seteth nodded. “See to it. You are dismissed now; dinner will be served shortly, after all.”

The walk down to the dining hall did wonders to clear his head; even though he couldn't taste anything these days, some good food from home was always welcome. The warm racket of conversation engulfed him as he entered and went to serve himself; the Hunting Festival was on, meaning there was enough food for everyone to have seconds. His classmates were already there; even at the front of the hall, he could hear Annette enthusiastically discussing the desert menu with Mercedes, Ingrid telling Ashe about the new book of tales in the library, and Dedue scolding Sylvain for flirting with the maids amidst the chatter of the hall. He stood there for a moment, plate in hand, just...trying to absorb that warmth he could feel from everyone present.

It made his demons feel far away.

It was almost ironic. He had come to the monastery primarily to find out the truth about Duscur, to chase down the one truly responsible for the brutal deaths of his loved ones and end them. Yet even as he worked, he found himself distracted by...little things. The cheer of his fellow Blue Lions as they pulled him this way and that way, chasing things that caught their eye. The lazy Wednesdays he spent fishing, not often catching much (his tendency to break things extended to fishing lines, unfortunately) but enjoying himself all the same. The tournaments that allowed him test his skills in an innocent way, harming no one while still imparting valuable experience. It was as if, as long as he stayed here, no voice would trouble him.

“There you are!”

Except perhaps for one!

Claude appeared at his side as if out of the ether, beaming brightly and catching his plate before he dropped it in shock. “Been looking for you,” He said blithely. “C'mon, we saved you a seat.”

“I-what? Claude – wait – but I'm not one of the -” Dimitri's confused protests fell on deaf ears; Claude grabbed his arm and half tugged, half dragged him to the far right of the dining hall, where the Golden Deer claimed their long table. Sure enough, there was an empty seat tucked right between Raphael and the leader's own chair; Claude casually put his plate there and dropped back in front of his own meal, which was almost untouched.

“It's the last Friday before our first live training exercise,” The brunette said by way of explanation, “Sounds like a reason to celebrate to me. Seeing as you're already a step head, why don't you impart your wisdom on our unruly gaggle of misfits?”

“So it did happen!” A white haired girl – Lysithea, Dimitri was fairly certain that was her name – leaned forward with an eager smile. “You really did knock out that guy harassing Cyril in one punch?!”

Dimitri's ears burned. “Don't tell me everyone's already heard of that,” He pleaded.

“Eh, too late,” Hilda von Goneril cackled at his embarrassed facepalm. “That was awesome, by the way. That guy is a total creep; he's only at the monastery because my brother kicked him out our household!”

“I heard you knocked his teeth out, and you weren't even wearing gauntlets!” Raphael said eagerly. “That's not all; I asked around, and I heard that you lifted an entire carriage by yourself once!”

“It was for a good cause,” Dimitri protested, “My crest aside, physical strength is in my blood. My father-” He stalled, swallowing hard over the emotions the memory brought up, “-my father once lifted a tree off Felix and I after it fell and nearly crushed us. Before that, he told me a story about my grandfather where he carried a foal through the woods so a healer could tend to its leg. It's a – a family quirk, you could say.”

“I'd love to hear the stories,” Leonie said, stretching before pushing her empty plate toward one of the serving bowls. “Especially if they end with you dropping jerks like rocks.”

Dimitri sputtered and turned to halfheartedly glare at Claude. The brunette grinned at him, eyes dancing with amusement. Something got stuck in the prince's brain at the sight when he realized he'd never seen that before. Not quite. He was smiling, pleased with himself...and it didn't seem artificial. Guarded, maybe; rooted in Dimitri's current awkwardness, absolutely. But...it was real.

It changed Claude's whole face. Suddenly everything in his demeanor was playful, welcoming...and the effect of that was immediate and overwhelming.

The discomfort he'd so often felt around the man evaporated like morning mist; his lips started moving, and he found himself telling stories he had kept to himself...well, ever since Duscur. About his grandfather. About his father, and stepmother, and Glenn. It amazed him that he still remembered those good times; even though, in moments, he would flash back to that terrible day, the laughter and fascination of the lively people around him drove the images away.

It was strange how alike, yet how different the Golden Deer were from his own Lions. They were relaxed in a way noble children weren't; Raphael and Leonie casually swore on occasion, while Ignatz was nervous and fascinated by art, twice offering to paint him a picture. Lysithea was obsessed with sweets and Marianne hardly spoke; Hilda, meanwhile, seemed to get a kick out of being as lazy as possible and was proud of it. Lorenz was the most like a noble Dimitri might have met at home, yet his shameless flirting was dangerously akin to Sylvain. Yet they welcomed him without batting an eye. Suddenly Dimitri wondered if this was Claude's strength; that anyone could come to him and his people and feel like they belonged there.

That...was an incredible power, indeed.

And Claude...Claude kept drawing him into conversation – through jokes, though casual observations...once again, the weight of his attention was a felt thing. Dimitri didn't know what to make of it...and there were moments where the young man casually touched him and he just prayed he wasn't as visibly baffled as he felt. What had changed? Surely such a basic kindness as he showed earlier wouldn't be enough to drop the barriers the future Duke Riegan had built around himself?

Dimitri lost track of time in the midst of this; dinner ended before he knew it, Dedue removing the empty plate in front of him while regarding him very curiously. Claude smiled cheerfully at his retainer and said, “No need to make that face~! We were only borrowing him; just one more moment and I'll give him right back.” He winked at Dimitri and sauntered out of the room, clearly expecting him to follow.

“It's no trouble, Dedue,” Dimitri assured hastily, scrambling to get up. “I enjoyed myself, actually.” He smiled at the Golden Deer, earning friendly grins in return. “I'll be right back.” He left the hall at a jog, a strange hope in his chest that he had earned honesty, somehow, from this morning.

Claude wasn't loitering just outside the door. Instead, he waited for Dimitri to emerge and then left down the stairs to the fishing dock and toward the greenhouse. This late in the evening, there was rarely anyone there except for Dedue or maybe Bernadetta; sure enough, it was empty except for them when the door swung shut behind the prince and the duke.

“So that was nice,” Claude said brightly. “And here I thought you were another boring, stuffy noble. It's good to be wrong sometimes.”

“Claude...” Dimitri sighed, before deciding to cut through to the heart of it. “Was this spurred on by what happened this morning? When we spoke at the table, you mentioned Cyril being harassed, but not yourself. Why?”

The brunette raised his arms, linking his fingers behind his head. “You saw why,” He responded easily. Dimitri flinched, instantly thinking he'd made a mistake, because those green eyes were cold again. “I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread that around; it's what I wanted to say. People in Fodlan look at outsiders like they're some kind of monster. I've heard everything that jerk said before and more besides; there have even been attempts on my life.”

“That's...” Dimitri stammered, dumbfounded by the implications. More than one attempt on his life? How was that possible? Was Claude's grandfather unwilling to protect him? How...how could Claude look so calm while saying that? “That's horrible.”

Claude shrugged. “The scriptures claim the Goddess said that no one born in Fodlan belongs outside its borders, and no one born outside was chosen by Her.” His voice was sour. “Isn't she supposed to be loving and compassionate?”

“That's -” He swallowed his instinctive response hard. “The scripture was written by her children, after Serios defeated Nemesis. Perhaps they made a mistake. I cannot see the goddess saying such things...”

“But don't you?” Claude said, dropping his arms and staring intently at him. “You surprised the hell out of me, you know, barging in and defending the honor of two Almyrans.”

“Why would that be surprising?” Dimitri protested, offense bubbling up in his throat. If he was going there...

“A lot of reasons,” Was the even response. Yes he was. “You're the prince of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus; your people have the closest relationship to the church out of everyone in Fodlan. You were raised on those scriptures. You have access to sacred rites that the Emperor no longer does, after the schism. And you have more reason than most to be wary of outsiders. I figured-”

It's not like that!” The words came out like a whip crack; Claude actually jumped back a step at the force of his response. “Duscur...Duscur was a mistake!” He let out a harsh breath. “If I am to know your most dangerous secret, Claude, in return let me tell you my greatest shame. I do not believe Duscur was responsible for my family's death! The day it happened...the day I lost everyone I loved...the weapons of Duscur are made in particular shapes; distinctive ones, forged in accordance to the will of their gods! The sword that tore my father's arm off was Fodlan made! The arrows that laid Glenn down had no feathers, no ornamentation! I saw men of Duscur struck down trying to help Glenn and I escape the flames; they put their lives down for us! But...but when I returned home...I failed. I failed to convince my father's council of this! I failed to convey the truth!”

Claude stared wide-eyed at him; he went on almost maniacally, gesticulating when words failed. “My father's men...they lead a massacre of innocent people! Even if men of Duscur had killed my father, the brutality shown upon them...! Dedue's sister, his mother... shopkeepers, farmers, street children...! Even if men of Duscur had been responsible, people who would have had no way of knowing it, no way of stopping it, they were all killed. They died because I failed to sway the very people I am meant to rule over! Because it was easier to blame the strange, foreign people of Duscur than attempt to hunt an unknown culprit!”

Dimitri raked a hand through his hair, letting out a seething sob. “Truly, Claude, you may think what you will about me, but do not ever believe I would wish for, or allow, any harm to come to you on account of your Almyran blood. May the goddess have mercy on anyone who tries, because I won't.”

A very still silence hung in the air. It felt oppressive. Dimitri had told precious few people, after that day, about what he'd seen. Even his fellows in the Blue Lions were largely in the dark. The goddess alone knew why he'd just blurted it all out; had the words really felt like an accusation?

“Um...w-well, I clearly shouldn't have said that,” Claude managed after a minute, and at any other time Dimitri would have marveled at the other teen being so clearly on the back foot. “Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that; really, I only figured on understandable distrust and suspicion. You're too much of a knight in shining armor to attack me without provocation.”

A knight in shining armor?, Dimitri wondered. For a man as observant as you...you don't even suspect? I suppose you simply haven't had the chance... “Apologies for that tirade,” He said with a sigh. “That was immature of me.”

“Seriously?” Claude shook his head, his expression softening significantly. Dimitri suddenly felt trapped, a mouse mesmerized by a hawk overhead. “You were talking about people going over your head to commit a massacre. I would have been more disturbed if you could talk about that as if it were a mildly interesting day out.” He frowned. “Don't you realize how ridiculously brave what you did was? You walked into a room full of bloodthirsty, vengeful soldiers in a borderline frenzy and told them they were wrong; that could have ended extremely poorly for you.” He raised his palms up. “There wasn't much you could have done; you weren't king then; in their eyes, you were just the fragile orphan prince who was confused by his grief.”

“Which is a great comfort to Duscur, I'm sure,” Dimitri replied bitterly.

“I doubt it would be, but it's true. None of what happened is your fault.” Claude said in such a matter of fact way; the sun was hot, water was wet, it wasn't your fault. Dimitri almost reeled. “Hey...Dedue is part of your household, right? I guess you've had to defend him from a lot of slander.” He actually smiled. “I'm flattered someone like me, from the wrong side of the landscape, was worth the trouble.”

“You're correct.” Dimitri managed a weak smile in return. “Truly, Claude, if any kingdom soldier gives you trouble, please – tell me immediately. I swear I'll deal with it.”

“You're serious...” Was there a little wonder in Claude's voice? “I should have expected as much from you. Old habits die hard, I guess.”

“If people have honestly tried to kill you over something so petty, you had every right to be wary,” Dimitri responded with a shake of his head. “If it is your wish, I won't speak of your heritage. Though...perhaps someday you won't have to worry over people knowing.”

“Someday, when fish can fly and stars can be woven into crowns,” Claude deadpanned, but there was no bite in his voice. “I guess you can stop wondering why I look like Cyril now.”

“Oh, that.” He was a little embarrassed to be reminded of that comment he'd made earlier in the month. “Honestly, I'd meant to remark on how, if he was blessed by the same arcane magic that touched you at birth, he'd grow up to be quite handsome. Yet I only managed to make you anxious instead...I'm sorry.”

“Arcane magic?” Claude parroted, blinking rapidly. “What, uh, what exactly is the context for that?”

“Well, it's your Almyran blood, I realize now. It makes you incredibly striking,” Dimitri said in all seriousness. “Something about your skin and your eyes...truly, when I first saw you, I thought you'd stepped out of an old northern fable about a star that fell to Fodlan and took on human form. An image that was somewhat tarnished the moment you opened your mouth...but not completely. It's no wonder it's so easy for you to charm people.”

He expected a joke, a laugh, to be teased, any number of things in response to something that he realized the instant after he spoke the words could be construed as a clumsy and shamelessly direct flirtation.

Instead, however, he was greeted with the unusual sight of Claude von Riegan stunned completely speechless. The brunette's mouth moved silently, green eyes full of a cascading emotion Dimitri wasn't sure he could name. The silence stretched on for several moments, until the prince could finally bear it no more. “You say such pretty things,” The brunette said at last, cutting off his worried inquiry. A small smile broke across his face. Small, yes, but brilliantly warm, one that made his expression glow. “You know, if you did something with that unruly hair of yours, you'd be getting lots of attention yourself.”

Dimitri felt his face turn burning red. “Ah...is that right?” He ran a self-conscious hand through his eternally unmanageable locks. “I'll...have to consider that.”

“Heh...” Claude's laugh rang through the empty greenhouse, stirring it to life. Is that his real smile? Goddess, it's amazing. “I've detained you long enough; we better get back before Dedue starts to think I've kidnapped you. We leave with the princess for live training tomorrow, don't we?” He winked. “I'll see you then.”

With that, the enigmatic Riegan heir slipped out of the building, leaving a slightly flustered and very contemplative Dimitri in his wake.

It's like he's a different person. No...no, that's not quite right. It's not that he changed, it's that he felt safe. Dimitri looked down at his hands. It must be lonely; living as a child of two worlds, kept only in one or the other. But what does that mean for us? Can we be friends, Claude von Riegan?

Would you feel safe being friends with the boar prince?

Chapter Text

The one time I run into bandits hungry or stupid enough to try and murder royalty, I get paired up with two rulers who don't know how to beat a strategic retreat, Claude thought dryly when he glanced over his shoulder and realized he had not, in fact, managed to slip off and circle about on his own. Dimitri and Edelgard were right behind him, and as a consequence, so were the bandits. Sheesh, do Fodlan generals teach anything besides charging straight ahead?

Or maybe Dimitri saw him disappear, thought he was using himself as a decoy, and was too bloody noble for his own good. That sounds about right. The thought gave him a mix of amusement and a really irritating backflip in his chest. Gah, this is not the time!

“Claude,” Dimitri gasped out after nearly crashing into a tree, “where are we going?” The bandits shouting was getting closer; give it another few minutes and those axe wielding nutjobs would be right on top of them...

“Remire!,” He shouted back, “Hurry up!”

“That's just a tiny farming village!” Edelgard said incredulously. “If we go there, we'll only involve the civilians.”

“You need to keep up with the chatter!,” He chided her, stomping on his annoyance. It was strange on the face of it. “Lately, Remire's been the favorite haunt of the Ashen Demon and their fellow mercenaries, and that's not a fight some run-out-of-the-mill bandit wants to pick!”

“The Ashen Demon?” Dimitri parroted, matching his pace with his own as an arrow whipped past, missing them both by a foot. “Claude, that mercenary...! All the stories say that person has no feelings; no pity, no remorse, nothing! Even if they were sympathetic, we have little gold to offer!”

“If you've got a better idea, I'd love to hear it,” Claude rasped as they burst out of the trees into a dimly-lit field. “Otherwise, run now and argue strategy later!”

Dimitri choked out a frustrated sentence in what Claude suspected was Old Fodlanese but kept up regardless, repeatedly glancing back to make sure they weren't loosing Edelgard. Fortunately, despite the surprise attack she hadn't gotten hurt at all, only startled awake. Claude, meanwhile, suspected he had bruised ribs judging by the pain radiating from his side. Dimitri's hand was balled into a fist to slow the bleeding in his palm which still had an arrowhead embedded in it.

Claude would give that bandit leader this much credit – it was the first time someone had tried to murder him in his sleep for a while. Fortunately, experience had taught him to keep a knife under his pillow; so he'd been able to slice the tendon of the foot pinning him and free himself before the ax came down on his neck.

Granted, he'd had to immediately throw said knife at the bandit choking Dimitri; it caught the guy in the back of the neck, dropping him. Edelgard then shoved the corpse off of him and the three of them were able to grab their weapons. Of course, they'd quickly been overwhelmed by the sheer number of bandits, including two archers, and he'd known they'd had to run for it. Alois was nowhere in sight, nor was the honor guard – a fire in the distance suggested they'd been lured away. With that in mind, Claude had recalled their last location on the map (and the map itself, it must be said) and drew up a plan as quickly as his tired and pain-addled mind would allow.

The Ashen Demon...really, the name was half a myth. Stories trickled in from traveling merchants and artists about a cold, emotionless mercenary who could carve through dozens of enemies with no more effort than dicing vegetables. Of a single swordsman(woman?) facing immense odds and walking out the other side with a nail embedded in one foot and a ship full of corpses to show for it. It was virtually impossible to tell fact from fiction, but after villagers from Remire mentioned the individual repeatedly in the same breath as the mercenary band that had taken to regularly visiting their home...well, he'd planned to investigate under less frantic circumstances, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

They crossed the first plain, then cut across the second one, where the town's iron-wrought gate were illuminated by torches and the late evening sky. Thankfully, they were still open. Good; there had been a couple of moments in running where he'd thought he'd faint from the pain radiating from his side. Plus we really need to do something about Dimitri's hand. Hopefully the town had a cleric who could tend to him...

“Hey!” Ah, the gods of fortune were smiling on them after all – rushing through the gates nearly caused him to run right into a pair of men in upscale leather armor and golden earrings. Mercenaries who were skilled enough to thrive in the business showed off their wealth in subtle ways. Be it jewelry, silver weapons, or the latest armor; the more expensive their equipment, the longer they'd been around. And long-lived mercenaries were as valuable as any anointed knight. “What's going on out there?!”

Dimitri staggered to a stop just inside the village, wheezing and clutching his wrist. Claude circled back around to him and grimaced, grabbing his arm when the prince tried to hide the injury in his cloak. The blood seeping out of his impaled palm was getting thick enough to stain most of his hand. “Please tell me you didn't rip the arrowhead out,” He said a bit sarcastically.

“I needed my hands free,” Dimitri protested. His face was significantly paler than normal, visible even in the low light of the torch. He tried to flex his hand and flinched, grimacing. “I can't use my lance otherwise.”

“If you'd left it there, it would have staunched the bleeding and you wouldn't have given yourself muscle trauma!” Seriously, don't Fodlan nobles know anything about how to handle war wounds? “You can't use your lance if you pass out from blood loss!”

Dimitri shook his head. “It's fine, Claude; I've fought with worse than this.”

“You can't rely solely on adrenaline to stay conscious! Do that, and you only need to stop for a moment, or get distracted once, before you're too light-headed to do anything but collapse. I can cover you against three or four of them, maybe, if I had a good bow and favorable terrain, but if you pass out in the middle of the field I can't fight and carry you!”

“I take it you kids are in trouble?” One of the mercenaries said dryly, causing Dimitri to start and Edelgard to make an exasperated noise. Claude turned back to the twosome and noted that they both had visible scars, and similar-looking ones to boot. So either they were working as a pair...or they were part of a company that was currently in town.

The other took a step closer and hissed at the sight of Dimitri's hand. “Damn, that's nasty. You were ambushed, weren't you?”

“Yes; they came while we were asleep.” Dimitri said, quickly burying his surprise under his usual princely demeanor. “Forgive us; this was the only place we could reach with them right on our heels.” Distant shouts echoed across the plains behind them. “There were too many of them for us. We...are still in training, after all.”

The two mercenaries looked at each other for a moment, then out at the plains. “Hell...they look like kids,” The first one sighed. “More pro-bono work. Well, whatever – we needed to break in the new horses at some point.”

“I'll go get Captain Jeralt and his girl,” His friend said, glancing at Dimitri. “She'll be able to take care of his hand.”

The first one snorted. “She can do that and a whole lot more.”

“I know. I try not to think about that sometimes.” With that totally-not-ominous remark hanging in the air, the man disappeared up the road.

That gave Claude a moment to address something that was bothering him. “Hey, Dimitri, remind me – how did you end up with an arrowhead in your hand? Did one of the bandits use it in place of a knife?” He hadn't seen the guy he'd managed to knock off holding an arrow, but maybe he'd been looking from a wrong angle.

“Oh...” Dimitri blinked, and shook his head. A look of unease crossed his face. “No. I had...a premonition, I guess. I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye and brought my hand up in front of my face.”

“...You need better gauntlets.” Claude said, his voice carefully dry and observant. A 'premonition?' Is that what you call those little things you try so hard not to react to? A little thing visceral enough to make you throw your hand in front of your face, inadvertently saving yourself? “Can you not buy anything hardier than the standard handouts all students get from the blacksmith?”

Dimitri looked ruefully down at his trembling, bloody hand. “I came here with a limited allowance; the same as you, I wager, seeing as you have little to no armor at all.”

Claude rolled his eyes a bit. Has anyone told you you're too bloody noble for your own good? “I'm an archer. If I let people get close enough to stab me, I'm already up a creek.”

“Truly talented archers are capable of firing point blank,” Edelgard said, her tone slightly lofty. “It's considered an important skill in the Empire. Something worth considering, perhaps?”

Claude made a production of looking contemplative. Before he could fire off a witty retort, the crunch of feet on the gravel and a booming baritone heralded the arrival of their saviors. “What's the situation?” The old man asked; he had the voice of someone who was used to being obeyed, someone who demanded respect, and someone who did not suffer fools lightly. The three of them basically turned around as one, as sure as if one of the teachers had caught them misbehaving.

Claude's first impression of Jeralt the Blade Breaker was holy shit are you actually a walking mountain?, because the man towered over him even more than Nader or his own father. His blue eyes were steely and impassive as they swept over him, Dimitri and Edelgard, assessing them, deciding whether or not this was a trap. He wore heavy leather and fur, with a lance strapped over his shoulder and a sword at his belt. Also, he looked muscular enough to bodily lift Marianne with his left hand and Hilda with his right without even breaking a sweat. Scars cut rough edges into his rugged face, old and faded ones that spoke of many hard won battles. Claude could admit to feeling a little bit of awe, just as his eyes slid to the figure right behind him and the world tilted quite suddenly.

A lithe silent shadow trotted to a halt at her father's board shoulder, impassive blue eyes meeting his evenly with the barest hint of curiosity. She was freakishly tall as well, having at least three inches on both him and Dimitri (which was just unfair) and slender figure built solely of hard muscle and smooth, tempting curves that even the loose-fitted robes of a swordmaster couldn't conceal. She had a blade buckled to her belt, a quiver and a cheap but reliable bow slung over her shoulder. Dark blue hair swept down to her pale neck, cut practically short and pinned away from her face by silver clasps; the only thing she seemed to possess that was at all expensive. The scars she had that he could see, tracing sharp lines across her collarbone, circling the crown of her head, and nicking her jaw, hardly detracted from the divine sight – nah; they enhanced it. Did she have more, concealed by those long sleeves?

Whoa, down princeling! Your Almyran tastes are showing.

Admittedly, her complete lack of expression was a distracting enough that he didn't say or do anything ill advised with her scowling father standing right in front of him.

“Forgive our intrusion. We wouldn't bother you if the situation weren't dire.” Dimitri said, keeping an admirable straight face even though Claude bloody well knew he'd had to mentally pick his jaw up off the ground. A quick glance at Edelgard and what do you know, they were all in agreement about something!

The living mountain – the captain, Jeralt (was it that Jeralt? The famed Captain of the Knights?) – raised a solitary eyebrow. “What are a couple of kids like you doing out at this hour?”

“We're being pursued by some bandits. I can only hope you'd be willing to lend your support.” Dimitri bowed politely; Claude amused himself by imagining Acheron throwing a shrieking fit at the mere thought of showing respect and deference to someone of lower social standing. If the prince who lives and breathes chivalry can humble himself without complaint, what does that make you, weasel?

“It's true!” Edelgard jumped in, gazing exclusively at the girl. “We were resting in camp when they jumped us.”

“We've been separated from our companions, and we're outnumbered,” He tossed in casually. “They're after our lives...not to mention our gold.”

The swordswoman tilted her head, then walked forward in silent steps and took hold of Dimitri's injured hand. She frowned, studying the gory wound for a long moment, before placing her other palm over it. Claude was pretty damn surprised when a flare of white magic surrounded the prince's bloody skin, wiping away the injury as though it had never been. Okay, since when do physically inclined fighters have aptitude for faith magic?

“Thank you,” Dimitri said gratefully, flexing his fingers easily in wonder. “Claude is injured as well – one of the bandits tried to kick his ribs in.”

Without a word of acknowledgment, her attention swung straight over to him. If he swallowed when she placed her hand on his side, pretty face lightly bent with concentration, he blamed it on the disorienting run and lack of sleep. The blessed warmth washing the pain away also made for a half decent story.

“I'm surprised you're so calm, considering the situation,” The Captain said dryly. Something changed in his expression when he looked closer at them. “Wait...that uniform...”

“Captain Jeralt, sir!” Another mercenary ran up to them, panting for breath. “Bandits have surrounded the village. The ones south are trying to start fires. We've moved the civilians further in, but-”

“Right. I'm on my way.” Jeralt rubbed the back of his neck, letting out a tired sigh. The mercenary nodded and darted off the way he'd came, taking the two from earlier with him. “All bark and no brains, these ones.” He turned to his daughter and said without preamble, “Kid, you see that?” He pointed out the front gates. The bandits had left the forest and were making their way towards them.

She nodded once. He smirked at that and said, “Good. You're in charge here. No one gets in, no one falls, and these three are your responsibility. I'll take care of the fires.”

“Wait, what?” Claude said blankly. Jeralt ignored him, whistling sharply. A large gray stallion shot up the road to his side; without breaking stride, he grabbed the bridle and saddled up before the animal even came to a stop. Then he vanished towards the smoke, leaving just the four of them to protect the entrance to town.

“He can't seriously expect you to fight alone?” Dimitri blurted in surprise. “There have to be at least nine of them – ah, my lady?”

She strode past him, out to the mouth of the gates, one hand dropping easily to her sword hilt. Pausing in the grass, head tilted slightly, she waited, fingers idly tapping against the weapon's guard. After a tense moment of silent planning, she turned around and openly sized them up. What little light had been in her eyes the moment before was gone, replaced by a blank coolness.

“You.” His pulse jumped quite without his permission at that rich, resonant contralto. That was an incredibly deep voice for a girl no older than him. “Do you have anything to defend yourself with up close?”

Claude shook his head and gave her his most charming smile. “Unfortunately, I lost my knife in a bandit's neck a while back.”

“Mm.” She drew her sword – a good steel blade, well maintained – and pointed at a thicket further up the plain. “That's your vantage point. Take out anyone you can reach; I will cover you.” Her gaze swung over to Edelgard. “You, take him” she nodded at Dimitri “and make yourself visible further to the right. Let them come to you, and fight together. If one of you gets injured, retreat into the thicket and make use of these.” She pulled a number of familiar looking vials out of her coat. Concoctions, unless Claude missed his guess. She shook them pointedly, causing the royals to quit staring and accept the gift. “The cover will provide you a few seconds of reprieve. It may limit your movement, however, so bear that in mind.”

She glanced at Claude and said very matter-of-factly, “I will go out ahead and engage them. Your job is to hit them, and try not to hit me.” Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked away. “Get going. They're almost on us.”

It was almost hilarious how all three of them immediately scrambled to obey. Claude would have liked to blame flashbacks to Judith and her frequent use of what he called her 'listen, brat, and listen well' voice; that flat order was almost as intimidating despite the lack of an age gap.

He reached the tree with no problems; his head was much clearer without constantly spiking pain to distract him. The blue haired teen – dammit, he hadn't gotten her fucking name – raced ahead of him, attracting the attention of three enemies. The nine bandits were spread out, the biggest and baddest of them (and thus likely the boss) hanging back with two goons flanking him. A few headed off toward Dimitri and Edelgard, but the others seemed to figure that the single woman made for an easier target. He took out an arrow, notched it and waited.

The mysterious girl's first opponent swung his ax in a wild arc; she jerked her blade up, catching it in the curve and wrenching the weapon from his grip, sending it flying into the grass. Immediately she lashed out driving her foot into his gut and sending him a few steps backward, before bringing her sword down. The blade hacked across his face and dug into his chest. His choked scream indicated she'd hit a lung; she drew back and cut sideways, slicing open his throat. Blood splattered her gauntlets as he fell to the ground. She stepped over her pray without pausing, the battle over in mere moments, approaching the two behind him with easy grace.

Letting out a sharp breath, he aimed for one and – keeping movement in mind – fired. She didn't even flinch at the arrow tearing past her to hit one of her enemies dead in the eye; she shifted her stance accordingly and ducked under a graceless swing aimed at her head. Her sword turned sharply and sliced the tendons on the brigand's leg, bringing him down to one knee as she reoriented herself. If her sword biting into the neck didn't kill the man, then the arrow buried in his collarbone did.

Flicking her blade in a gesture that was a bit too deliberate to be contemptuous, she stowed the weapon away and slung the bow off her back. A roar from further up the field told him what's she'd seen – the boss's two goons were charging. She casually strung two arrows and fired; it was a bit far from where he stood, but he was pretty sure she hit one of them in the thigh and the stomach, dropping him before he got within a dozen feet of her. She jumped back a foot as his partner approached, bow pointed straight at the man's face.

Perfect Point-Blank firing posture. She was highly proficient in at least two weapon types, enough to transfer between them without breaking stride? He felt a twinge of inadequacy even as his third arrow struck home, staggering the brigand right before she put an arrow through his throat.

The tides of battle turn rapidly, don't they?, he thought with perhaps more glee than necessary. Hey, just because he was familiar with murder attempts didn't mean he didn't resent them.

His thoughts were interrupted by a high, familiar string of whistled notes. His heart sped up; gods, how many times had he heard Nader use that old standby? Her troupe must have spent some time in Almyra. That signal meant that there was a change in plans without any dialogue getting lost in the chaos of the battlefield. He stepped out of the tree's shade; she nodded, the gesture barely visible, before gesturing sharply toward Edelgard and Dimitri.

The royals were managing, though they seemed to be flagging a bit. Dimitri had gotten himself hurt – again! – judging by the way he was holding his lance, and Edelgard seemed to be favoring one leg. The girl pointed to a tree closer to them and then darted off, sword in hand.

Really, the brigand stood no chance. He was too preoccupied with Dimitri to notice the girl coming up behind him. Just as Claude reached the tree, he watched her smash the hit of her sword into the enemy face – likely obliterating his jaw, given the cringe-inducing crack he could hear despite the distance – allowing Dimitri to shove his lance into the gut and finish him off. With her managing the prince, Claude took aim again and took out the knee of Edelgard's opponent. He crashed to the ground and was promptly decapitated.

Is that all of-? No, of course not, the boss... The man was making his way toward them, clutching a throwing ax in one hand. Yeah, because that worked out so well for your friends. Claude whistled sharply, getting the girl's attention. If he was the big man in charge, he'd probably be harder to kill than his grunts.

She drove the tip of her sword into the ground, slung her bow off her back and fired. The first shot went wide, but as the man turned to face her directly, the second shot glanced off his arm and a third one sank into his stomach. He didn't fall like the others; clearly he had some actual armor. Claude debated trying to go for a headshot, but the brigand was running away from him and toward his companions, so it wouldn't do to miss.

Fortunately, she didn't need help. She just dropped her bow, pulled her sword free of the dirt and feinted left; his attack missed her as she danced aside and swung her sword upward, slicing his nose judging by the murky screech that followed it. Again she spun past his sloppy retaliation, crouching and cashing into him with her full weight. When he hit the ground, she reversed her grip on her sword and slammed it into his face once, twice, three times. Then paused.

A few seconds went by. Claude licked his dry lips and silently lamented his weakness for men and women who could take him on in a straight fight. After yesterday, that is so unfair. Why show me a menu I can't eat from?

The girl got up, casually wiping her sword on the body of her last victim. Something prickled at the back of Claude's brain, the ease, the casualness of it...she wasn't even injured, was she? He stepped out into the open again, walking over to Dimitri and Edelgard where they stood aside from the bodies. It was all over except for the bleeding.

“Done,” Her voice broke the early morning silence. Their rescuer was kneeling in the mud, collecting her bow. She still had a few arrows left; by contrast, his own quill was empty.

“Are..are you uninjured?” Dimitri managed, somehow sounding both awestruck and almost wary within the same breath.

“I'm fine,” She replied absently, examining her weapon with a frown. “Damn, the string is broken again. That's a nuisance.”

He suppressed a chuckle and asked, “Is that all you have to say?” Her eyes turned to him, cool and empty except for the faintest curiosity. Was she carved from stone? “That's an awfully subdued reaction from someone who cut down five bandits in as many minutes.”

“Technically, two of those kills were yours,” She responded with a shrug. “Your support was appreciated; I was able to escape without injury this time.” She looked over at Dimitri and Edelgard. “You all acquitted yourself quite well, for amateurs.”

Claude's burst of laughter was almost involuntary. It wasn't often that someone casually dissed the three most important heirs on the continent! “Ah, you got us there! Oh dear.”

“Claude...!” Dimitri groaned in exasperation...though his voice had much less bite in it than it might have a week ago. “That's no way to show gratitude.”

He bowed with a wink. “I assure you, I am entirely grateful to our glorious war goddess.” She shifted on one foot, blinking rapidly. “It's because of you I'm not dead right now. Thanks for that!” He smiled playfully. “I'd heard there were mercenaries lingering in Remire, but I didn't think you were this good.”

“That's true,” Edelgard mused, regarding the girl intently.

Claude was finally about to ask for her name when a yell cut them off. Somehow – somehow, considering how freakin' bloody his face was – the brigand leader was back on his feet. And he was running straight for the princess.

Something rippled in the air; he could swear it, he felt something shift, could taste magic like ozone surrounding them as thick as rain. But in a blink, the girl moved again, throwing herself in front of Edelgard and catching her sword in the curve of the man's ax. She jerked backward, wrenching the weapon away from its wielder and launching it somewhere in the woods. The brigand staggered backwards, breath heaving, staring at her.

“You...” He gurgled, “It's you. That soulless creature...the Ashen Demon.”

Claude heard Dimitri suck in a sharp breath next to him; a chill of vindication swept over the alarm and surprise that had ruled him only moments ago. The girl, however, merely sighed. “My father warned me that name would stick,” She remarked with tired irritation. She brought her bloody steel blade up and pointed it at his chest. “You should have played dead. Goodbye.”

A death threat had never sounded so gentle and serene.

Evidently, that was too much for the brigand, because he turned and booked it, fleeing into the forest like a terrified child. The girl, as soon as he was gone, smacked her palm against her forehead. “Bloody stupid, basic mistake,” She berated herself. “Cut off the head, sever limbs, and if you don't do that, always check for breathing. Goddess damn it.” She looked back at Edelgard. “I'm sorry. That was sloppy of me.”

Edelgard recovered quickly for someone who'd nearly been gutted, and shook her head earnestly. “He took several blows to the face! That would stop most men. Please, don't trouble yourself. You saved me, again.”

The neigh of a horse cut Dimitri's concern off; Jeralt appeared from the village. Looking at the sky showed that the smoke was clearing up. He must have come as soon as he finished up on his end. “That was...Byleth, did you just...?” He looked worried.

Huh. That was weird. And the weirder thing was...she kind of looked confused too.

Naturally, after everything was over and questions were laying thick in the air...that was when Alois thundered into the clearing, the knights at his side, bellowing about how justice had arrived. “We shall cut you down for terrorizing our students!” He raised his ax triumphantly, only to be thwarted by the empty clearing and fleeing bandits. “Wait, they're getting away! After them!”

Claude rolled his eyes and called out cheerfully, “Sir Alois! You missed all the excitement!” Dimitri facepalmed, and he could just hear Edelgard rolling her eyes at him. The girl...Byleth, Jeralt called her...tensed up, one hand dropping to her sword.

Jeralt groaned as Alois hurried towards them. He dismounted and placed a hand on his daughter's shoulder. “It's alright, kid. He's no threat.” She relaxed, before offering up her broken bow with an apologetic look. “Don't worry about that...I'd been meaning to buy you a new one anyhow.”

Alois skidded to a halt in front of the mountain of a man, eyes widening comically. “C-Captain Jeralt? Is that you?! Goodness, it's been ages!” Byleth started visibly. Wasn't that interesting? “Don't you recognize me?! It's Alois! Your old right hand man! At least, that was how I thought of myself. It must have been – what – twenty years ago when you vanished without a trace?! I always knew you were still alive!”

Jeralt sighed. “You haven't changed a bit, Alois, just as loud as ever.” Claude smothered a snicker in his hand. Dimitri tried to look disapproving, but the twitch of his lip betrayed him. “And drop that 'captain' nonsense. I'm not your captain anymore. These days I'm just a wandering mercenary. One who has work to do.” He nodded. “You've got the kids back unharmed; you'd better return to the school. I'll see you around, old friend.” He made to walk off. Byleth looked back and forth, then tried to follow him.

Ser Alois spluttered a bit, before saying, “Wait! This is not how this conversation ends! I insist that you come back to the monastery with me.”

Jeralt stopped walking and stood very, very still. Claude's eyes narrowed.

So Jeralt hadn't gone missing, he'd chosen to leave without explanation, leaving everything he'd known – and everything he'd gained as the most prestigious Knight of Seiros – without a backwards glance. The man's body language screamed that he didn't want to go back, but he had no way to refuse without looking suspicious as hell. Yet another mystery dangled just out of his reach, begging to be solved. As if he didn't have enough to dig through...especially now.

Why are Fodlan's borders closed...where do the relics come from...the riddle of Duscar's tragedy...and now, why did the strongest man who ever lived run away from the church?

Byleth walked over and placed a hand on her father's wrist. The gesture was small and concerned, and it was the most visible emotion he'd seen from her since the start. “Garreg Mach Monastery.” Jeralt enunciated heavily. He looked at her for a moment, then shook his head. “I guess this was inevitable.”

And one more, Claude added with perhaps greater curiosity than the rest, What happened to his daughter that she seems less alive than the statues of the saints?

Chapter Text

As much as she could say she had emotions, Byleth was quite confounded.

Her father was – with the exception of her mother – not a sentimental man. It had never struck her as odd that he didn't talk about his past. She'd never felt the need to ask (she'd never felt much of anything) where he'd come from before her birth, or why they never lingered in one place for very long. He avoided the church in spite of how precious faith was to members of their own team, so she followed his lead – he never did things without a reason. Why did it matter where he'd come from? He was there with her, that was all that mattered.

Or so she'd thought.

Her mind was whirling as her father vanished back into Remire with that knight, to inform the band of their change in plans. Her father had been a captain, an immensely important man, and now they were going somewhere he would rather avoid. He seemed resigned to it. Why not refuse? Why did he leave in the first place? What in the seventh hell was happening?!

And after that happened earlier...

The girl Edelgard...the power...Sothis...

Byleth bit her lip hard; something indescribable was bubbling violently in her chest and it greatly discomforted her. Though perhaps that was only to be expected, since she had nearly died.

It wasn't the first time she'd brushed with death; she'd been fighting alongside her father ever since she was old enough to properly wield a sword. But it was the first time she would have died for sure without intervention – divine intervention, at that. The thought was...discomforting, for lack of any better descriptor. She reached up and rubbed her left shoulder; she couldn't quite reach the place near her spine where the ax would have come down. There was a twinge of phantom pain there, an ache just strong enough to gnaw at the back of her mind.

It will not linger overlong, a familiar girl's voice promised. 'Tis merely an echo of what might have been. You did live through the moment, after all.

Byleth bit her lip, letting her hand fall down to her side. I see, she thought 'back' at the strange green haired girl she'd dreamed of all her life.

Sothis hummed. It is a good thing. That would have been a shameful way to go, would it not?

...Would it have been truly shameful to die saving another?, Byleth asked in turn, wondering. It was true she did not know Edelgard, but to imply that her life was not worth saving, even at great expense – well, the thought did not sit right with her.

It is a far greater thing to live for another than to die for them, Sothis responded sternly, the childish amusement gone from her voice. If you are to forget everything else I say to you, you must remember that above all. Promise me that right now!

I swear it, Byleth responded quickly and seriously, bewildered by the sudden change in mood. Sothis was mercurial, lazy, and sharp tongued, but her moods up to this point had been playful, exasperated and contemplative – to invoke such a tone must be intentional, to add more weight to the words. She did not know what manner of spirit the girl was (a guardian spoken of in Brigid's myths? A lord of the rising dawn as described by Almyra? A sky god of Duscar? An emissary of Fodlan's goddess?) but it was clear that she was older than her appearance suggested, and likely more powerful than Byleth could imagine.

Only a fool ignored the warnings of the divine.

Good, Sothis responded, pleased, her demeanor reverting as quickly as it had changed. I shall hold you to that, Byleth Eisner. She chuckled lightly. Ah, it seems your presence is required. Get going!

Blinking, Byleth cast her eyes about, instinctively looking for her father. There was no sign of him, however – instead, her eyes fell upon the three lordlings they had saved, all of whom were clearly watching her. Edelgard smiled and gestured lightly with one hand, asking without words for a moment of her time in an almost coy manner.

She paused. As a rule, her father handled contracts and business. But this wasn't such, was it? No doubt a couple of young aristocrats who'd just suffered a near-death experience would feel inclined to keep a powerful warrior close by, especially if this was the first time they'd realized they could, in fact, die violently just as the common person did. There was little she had to offer in the way of conversation, and her instinct was to wait until her father returned.

But...they were young as her, perhaps younger. Byleth spent precious little time around anyone outside her fellow mercenaries, all of whom were – if not peers of her father – older than her by a not insignificant margin. Perhaps...it couldn't hurt to see what they wanted?

Hesitantly, she made her way over to them.

“I appreciate your help back there,” The silver haired ax maiden said with impeccable politeness. Her purple eyes swept over Byleth in a way that made her skin tingle, a sensation she couldn't even begin to explain. “Your skill is without question. The Ashen Demon...I must confess, I had thought you to be a myth. A combination of various mercenary teams attributed to a single individual. Obviously, I was wrong.”

“It...is no trouble,” Byleth hedged uncertainly. “My father doesn't like that name much. It is not used as a selling point.”

“Your father, that would be Jeralt the Blade Breaker, wouldn't it?” Edelgard assumed a thinking pose. “Former Captain of the Knights of Seiros, often praised as the strongest man who ever lived. Am I missing anything?”

“I didn't know he was a captain,” She said honestly, feeling as much up in the air as when she'd ridden with the mercenary Hannah on a borrowed pegasus.

Edelgard blinked in surprise. “How curious. I'd wager the explanation for that is fascinating indeed.”

“Hey,” Claude interjected, smiling brightly at her. Byleth turned slightly toward the archer; isn't that strange? His expression is so warm...yet his eyes are closed off from me. “You are coming with us to the monastery, right? Of course you are. I'd love to bend your ear as we travel.”

You want to talk to me?, Byleth thought in confusion. Aren't you unnerved by me? Isn't that why that smile of yours isn't quite sincere?  Perhaps it was a matter of honor; nobles were often quite hung up on that. It would be 'rude' to blatantly ignore her after she'd saved his life, so he would speak to her despite her disturbing disposition?

“Oh!, I should mention that the three of us are students at Garreg Mach Monastery. We were doing some training exercises when those bandits attacked.” He raised both his hands. “On average, I'd say it was my third most disastrous camping trip.”

“Third?” Dimitri, the blonde knightly young man, repeated blankly. “Dare I ask what you're ranking above us nearly having our throats slit in our sleep?”

Claude chuckled. “Maybe some other time. It's up there, though, if only because I was the only one who knew out to beat a strategic retreat.” He sighed. “Alas, I looked back and found every single one of those bandits chasing the three of us, leaving me to improvise. Again.”

Dimitri's eye twitched. “So that's what you were doing? And here I thought you were being a decoy for the sake of us all. Pray tell, how was I supposed to interpret that amidst the perfectly rational panic we were experiencing?”

“His intentions were as clear as day,” Edelgard replied chidingly. Byleth decided that the three must know each other quite well to bicker so easily after having nearly lost their lives. “You will prove a lacking ruler if you cannot see the truth behind a person's words.” Wait. What. Ruler?

Distracted from remonstrating his comrade, Dimitri chuckled lightly and retorted, “You will prove a lacking ruler yourself if you look for deceit behind every word and fail to trust the people around you.”

Ruler. An able ruler. Byleth didn't quite have the words for the sinking feeling in her stomach when she looked between Edelgard and Dimitri, various memories twigging in her brain about how the Empire and the Kingdom's current heirs were her age...a boy and a girl, not yet at their majority, who quite possibly were sent off to finish their studies before taking the throne. You fought well for amateurs, her own words rang in her head like a roaring fire. She swallowed in a hopefully unobtrusive way. Oh goddess, did I just sass the Prince of Faerghus and the Princess of Adrestia? After ordering them around like common mercenaries?

“Oh joy, a royal debate between their highnesses,” Claude snarked. Byleth felt her face burn and resisted the urge to bolt for her father. Yes, yes I have. A musical giggle did nothing to soothe her newfound anxiety – Sothis, the cruel wretch, was laughing at her! If they held a grudge, her father and their troupe could be blacklisted in both kingdoms! There was nothing funny about this! “I wonder how being predicable affects one's ability to rule.” His grin took on a sharper, teasing edge. “As the embodiment of distrust, I'd say your little exchange is rather idealistic!”

Both heirs pivoted to scowl at him. “Me, idealistic?” Edelgard demanded, indignant. “Tell me, are you physically incapable of keeping quiet, or is your lack of self awareness a condition of some sort?!”

“Is that so wrong, Claude?” Dimitri asked, looking exasperated. “It might do you well to be less suspicious yourself.”

Byleth's eyes darted between the three lordings – between the prince and princess argh what – wondering if she should take this chance to escape. Once they recovered, they might forget all about her in favor of arguing over who should have done what during the attack...

“Ah, but forgive our digression,” No dice; Dimitri returned his attention to her at that very moment. “I must speak with you, if you could spare a moment.”

Byleth might have sighed, if she was capable of much expression. Here we go, she thought in resignation.

“The way you held your ground against the bandit's leader was captivating,” The prince said earnestly, causing her to blink twice. What. “You never lost control of the situation. You're an immensely capable woman; it showed me I still have much to learn.” What?

“Your skill is precisely why I must ask you to consider lending your skill to the Empire,” Edelgard said confidently. Byleth blinked again, the bewilderment she felt ratcheting up beyond anything she'd ever experienced before. “I might as well tell you now, I am no mere student. In truth-”

“Halt, Edelgard,” Dimitri interrupted, looking affronted. “At least allow me to finish my own proposition.” He bowed to her. Him, a prince, bowed to a common, disturbed mercenary! She felt warmth in her cheeks and resisted the odd urge to tug at her hair. “The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus is in dire need of exceptional individuals like yourself. Please, do consider returning to the kingdom with me.”

Byleth shot a quick glance at the treeline, just to make sure the sun was, in fact, rising in the east. Because what else could possibly explain this?

“Whoa, there!” Claude laughed, giving his two companions a mock-disapproving stare. “Trying to recruit someone you just met...tactless, really.” Byleth's relief lasted roughly three seconds before he followed that up with, “I was personally planning to develop a deep and lasting friendship on our way back to the monastery before begging for favors.” He shrugged dramatically and gave her another intimately friendly smile. “But it seems there's no time for niceties in this world. So, capable stranger, where does your allegiance lie?”

It sounded like a joke, but how could she be sure of that?!

“I'm a mercenary,” She protested, amazed that her voice remained as calm and even as ever. “I swear by the sword before politics. I have no permanent home, and I move where the job takes me. I cannot answer that!” Wracking her brain, she tried to think of something to say that would satisfy at least one of the absurdly powerful teenagers in front of her. “I, I am a sword for hire. Whenever a moment arises, I am at your disposal. Myself and my father, that is.”

She waited for a response for an agonizingly long second. Claude responded first...by clapping, “A clever answer, and one that fits the job,” He said playfully. “It's a hard bargain, though. The two of you together are an expensive prospect! What would it cost just for you?”

Byleth's pulse jumped. (That so rarely happened) ...Despite her skill, attempts to poach her from Jeralt's Mercenaries were rare. She unnerved people with her coldness, her lack of expression, the lack of humanity. Why didn't he...those eyes are deep and dark, mysterious as the ocean...what is it that he desires when he looks at me? I...an so unfamiliar with this. I don't know what to do. Father, help me!

“There you are!” The loud knight's voice came to her rescue – at least for the moment. They turned to see her father and the man – Ser Alois – standing just a few feet away. “Come, it's time for us to go! I know you're likely tired, but it's better that we return to the monastery as soon as possible!”

“I doubt your attackers will come back for a second go-around,” Jeralt contributed, arms crossed, “but concerning you three, it's better safe than sorry. We're about ready to move out; if necessary, you can rest in the supply carts on the way.”

“Got it,” Claude said blithely. “Guess we'll pick this up another time.”

Byleth let out a breath and headed over to her father. He squeezed her arm, smiling sympathetically at her. It restored her equilibrium somewhat. I can ask him on the way, surely.

My my, everyone is in such a hurry, Sothis said with a yawn. You know...each of them is most unique.

...It's true, Byleth acknowledged, glancing over her shoulder at the three lords. They were following behind her, talking amongst themselves again, but still clearly keeping her in their sights. Claude...he's welcoming, yet guarded. He has not shared his true self with me, or perhaps anyone. Dimitri...everything he does, all his movements – in battle and off – are carefully controlled. He's very sincere, yet something is weighing on him. And Edelgard...she's refined, yet she looks at me the way a blacksmith regards a fine sword. Carefully judging, wondering what the price is.

Yes, I thought the same, Sothis mused. Something significant has happened here, Byleth. It means something...I must sleep on this...

You 'need' to sleep on bloody everything, Byleth grumbled.

Sothis did not dignify that with a response.


Roughly two hours later, Byleth realized she had greatly underestimated Claude's tenacity, Edelgard's fascination, and Dimitri's chivalrous need to keep her included in conversation. These proved to be the longest and most confusing hours of her life so far. Her father's men weren't this interested in her. Sothis wasn't this interested in her! As they traveled and the sun rose, Alois had become bound and determined to keep her father talking. His jovial remarks about this and that thing that had happened in the Blade Breaker's absence filled the air without end; leaving Byleth adrift and bewildered.

Her father's men were grumbling a bit, annoyed that their guaranteed paycheck in the Kingdom was put on hold and wondering what exactly was going on with their boss. It seemed they had been as much in the dark about her father's past as she was. The Knights of Seiros occasionally gave her curious looks, but largely remained silent guards at the front and back of their impromptu caravan.

However, for the first time that she could remember, this did not mean that Byleth had been left with alone with her thoughts and Sothis's voice.

“You're trained in hand-to-hand as well?” Edelgard said, her tone somehow both impressed and skeptical. “To juggle three disciplines simultaneously is a daunting prospect. Most students at Garreg Mach are limited to two!”

“I learned sword and the bow first,” Byleth clarified, “Brawling came later, as did the lance – and I cannot say I am very proficient in the latter. It is useful to have multiple ways of approaching a fight, and being able to enter tournaments is a good way to shore up the accounts when the troupe is between jobs.”

“And Holy magic?” Claude asked slyly. “That threw me for a loop. It's so rare that anyone outside of mages and priests have any aptitude for it.”

“Is that right?” She shrugged. “I'm not sure what to say; I've always had a knack for it.”

He actually pouted in response, clearly not believing that she was being honest with him. He is such a strange lord! Even compared to Dimitri and Edelgard, who were clearly putting effort into making her comfortable, he was casual and coarse and nothing like the usual haughty or cold (cruel, heartless) men her father was occasionally contracted by. She kept finding her eyes drawn to him, to his golden skin and mysterious green eyes and friendly disposition, and feel a tug of some nameless foreign feeling. Whenever she fell out of step with him, she would speed up or slow down until they matched again. It was silly, and she couldn't explain it even to herself. Was it just because he was a handsome man? Surely not. Even as she'd grown into her body, she'd felt very little emotional or physical inclination towards intimacy.

Such things were associated with a humanity that had always been lost to her.

Yet she couldn't deny...what she could only describe as a curiosity. Why didn't that warm, welcoming smile – a look so very few people had directed at her – reach his eyes? What melancholy made him reserve himself? Perhaps it was merely meant to ensnare her...that thought should offend or worry me, yet it doesn't. Being troubled was not something she experienced, after all, no more than anything else. All she felt was a tugging need to know, to understand...

...To repay the strange feeling his bright smile gave her.

Which wasn't to say she wasn't curious about the others. Dimitri seemed more relaxed now; his posture less rigid, his gaze less distracted. It definitely brought out his gentler features; he looked every inch a prince, a man who valued that aspect of his being quite deeply.

That was not something Byleth saw overmuch; her job exposed her to many freaks, fools and monsters, but the times she ran into actual knights and heroes...well, the results were often memorable, for good or for ill. His fascination bewildered her, to be sure, but his earnestness was charming. It was odd to think of him as the prince of the holy kingdom within the cold north; she would have thought him aloof, chilly or even slightly hostile to a mercenary such as herself. After all, those who sold their swords to the highest bidder were not famous for upholding the sacred laws of the church.

Edelgard...her fascination was a tangible thing. Byleth wouldn't say she was discomforted...just uncertain what it meant. Appraising eyes had found her a few times before, and it had made her father irritable. To this day, Byleth wasn't certain why.

“Being able to heal has proven invaluable,” She insisted in the face of Claude's disbelief. “Particularly when I'm sent to retrieve hostages.” She rubbed her left arm, feeling for an old scar that ran up to her wrist.

“Have you taken many such jobs?” Dimitri asked curiously.

“Some,” Byleth nodded, her thumb idly tracing the line beneath her coat. “The first time involved slavers; pirates raiding the northern Alliance border to keep the salt mines running.” She blinked and mused, “I think that was when people started calling me by that title. Odd, in retrospect. I did not cut a very imposing figure at thirteen.”

“Wait, I heard about that...” Claude said slowly, “One of the ships drifted ashore, the mast burning and a lower deck covered in corpses. That was you?”

“Not wholly me,” Byleth frowned slightly, “I had infiltrated the hold, posing as a slave, to ensure they couldn't massacre the 'merchandise' before we rescued them. Father and the mercenaries dealt with those above deck.”

“They didn't take your weapons?” Edelgard inquired.

“I hid razor blades in my hair.” Byleth shrugged. “After I killed the first two, I stole a bow off a corpse and used the door to pick off the rest who approached via the hall. It was a very favorable position; most of them died before I ran out of arrows. I had to improvise a bit at that point; fortunately, the first mate was drunk, and I've always been unusually strong considering my slight frame.”

“You were so young...” Dimitri sounded faintly incredulous.

Byleth looked quizzically at him. “Do you not start weapons training at five in the Kingdom? I was a bit older than that when I began to learn from my father.”

“Well, yes...but you cannot be made a squire, or be sent to the officer's academy, before you turn fifteen. It's too dangerous, otherwise.”

“I had never thought of it that way,” She said, unsure what to parse from that remark. “Though I suppose my upbringing was not typical, even for a common born mercenary. Father was always on the move, and as a consequence so was I. I've lived in so many places they've become a blur, I've wandered the shores of Almyra and the forests of Brigid...” She looked up at the sky. “And father always worked so hard for my sake...one day, I decided I wanted to help. So I learned how to wield blades and arrows, applied myself with the whole of my concentration.” She dragged a foot lightly in the dirt, shifting gravel as they walked. “Now I fight alongside father. It never felt unnatural. It just was what it was.”

“So you've never wanted to do anything else?” Claude asked lightly. “Never wanted a break?”

Byleth tilted her head. “I'm not sure what you mean. We have lives outside of contracts and battle. My father likes to fish, Hannah cares for horses...Gustav tends to plants and feeds birds whenever possible. I've done all those things, it's...pleasant.”

“Hey kids!” Alois's voice caught their attention; the man was looking over his shoulder at them, waving at the trees ahead. “We're almost there! Lunch and other amenities await!”

A cheer went up from the mercenaries. Jeralt even let out a good-natured chuckle. Byleth was keenly aware of the fact she'd only eaten a bowlful of grapes since they set out that morning, and she accepted those words with a great sense of relief.

“This will be your first time at the monastery, right?” Dimitri asked. “I'd love to show you around, if you'd like.”

“It really is Fodlan in a nutshell,” Claude mused, “The good and the bad.”

“Like it or not, we'll be there soon,” Edelgard said mildly.

Any comment Byleth might have decided to make was swept away when they stepped free of the trees and her eyes fell upon one of the most amazing sights in the known world. Sitting upon vast, sweeping fields of grass and greenery was a sprawling and elegant castle who's many towers scraped the sky itself. Byleth was not a very verbose woman, and in that moment she was speechless with awe, stopped mid step to gaze up at the glorious building.

Sothis was right. This...this was significant, somehow. This place...

+ _ + _ + _ + _

Things moved fairly smoothly after that. After a warm meal in the dining hall, the lords split off from them, and Byleth found herself missing their presence as she rejoined her father and waited in a large, beautifully decorated cathedral within the second floor of the massive complex.

Jeralt was worried. The stiff way he held himself and his rigid back were all but screaming his unease to to the heavens. “It's been years since I last set eyes on this place,” He admitted. “To see her again...”

“Her?” She repeated softly.

Jeralt glanced at her. “Didn't you see her in the courtyard? The lady looking down on us from the balcony? That's the archbishop. Lady Rhea.”

Now that he mentioned it... “I think so.” She frowned at him. “Who is she?”

“You know the majority of Fodlan follow the teachings of Saint Seiros, who brought word from the goddess in our darkest days.” Jeralt said by the way of explanation. A small frown crossed his face. “The leader of that ridiculously large organization is the archbishop.”

“...Are you afraid of her?” That thought made Byleth about as uneasy as she came. Her father was a fearless man. He was more powerful than anyone she'd ever met in their many travels, fighting the likes of Nader the Undefeated and coming out victorious. He only ever worried about her and her unnatural stoicism. For him to be afraid...what sort of woman were they dealing with?

Jeralt didn't get a chance to answer. The door swung open and admitted two people the likes of which Byleth had not seen before. “Thank you for your patience, Jeralt,” The man said, his voice sharp and to the point. He had dark green hair and stern green eyes several shades lighter than Claude's more natural-seeming orbs; he wore dark blue silk with gold embroidery that likely cost the same as their entire monthly budget. A handsome man, if a strange and very taciturn-looking one. “My name is Seteth. I am an adviser to the archbishop.”

“Right,” Her father murmured. Apparently, he didn't recognize the man. “Hello.”

“It has been a long time, Jeralt.” The woman said softly. Byleth's eyes riveted to her; they were the same height, yet the woman had more poise, more...softness. Her long green hair offset the significant oramentation she wore – a gold circlet, a large silk headdress, lilies...she wore primarily white and other soft colors. She looked...motherly, though what gave the young mercenary that impression, she could not say. “I wonder...was it the will of the goddess that we have another chance to meet like this.”

Byleth did not remember the mother who died giving birth to her. Her father had no pictures, and it pained him to speak of those days. Perhaps that was compelled her to pad forward a few steps, remove herself from her usual haunt in her father's shadow so she might be seen.

“Forgive my silence all these years,” Jeralt said, bowing deeply. “Much has happened since we last spoke.”

“So I see,” Lady Rhea said lightly, her gaze moving to Byleth. “The miracle of fatherhood has blessed you. This is your child, is she not?”

“Yes. Born many years after I left this place. I wish I could introduce you to her mother, but...we lost her to illness.”

Byleth blinked once, twice, and resisted the urge to give her father a strange look. That was different from what he'd told her...

“I see. My condolences,” The archbishop said, her voice soft and soothing. Her attention didn't move, however. “As for you...I heard of your valiant efforts from Alois. What is your name?”

Byleth swallowed lightly, and wondered if her mother had looked like Rhea. “I am Byleth,” She said, bowing her head.

“A fine name indeed,” Lady Rhea murmured. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for saving those students of the officer's academy.” Her father sighed. Byleth discreetly elbowed him, quietly impressed that he needed reminders of politeness after all the grief he'd given Gustav over the years. Rhea must have seen it, though, because her smile grew visibly. “Jeralt. You already know what it is I wish to say, don't you?”

“You want me to rejoin the knights of Seiros,” Jeralt ran a hand through his hair. “I'm not saying no, but...”

“Your apprehension stings,” Lady Rhea said gently. “I had expected Alois had already asked this of you.”

“He did,” Byleth noted. “Loudly. Many times.” Jeralt ran his hand down his face and gave her a rueful look. She flushed and clasped her wrist with one hand, averting her eyes.

“I must step away now,” The Archbishop said. Byleth felt a funny warmth in her chest at the clear amusement dancing in the stately woman's eyes. “but I expect they will desire a word with you soon. Please listen carefully to what they have to say. Until tomorrow...farewell.” Giving Byleth one last smile, she and Seteth departed.

Byleth rocked on her heels, bringing both her hands up to her chest. This day was strange, strange, strange. She hadn't felt so, well, lively for lack of a better word, in a long time – only some scattered days in her childhood could compare to the number of feelings she'd experienced ever since the morning...

Look at you, Sothis thought in amusement. Bouncing like a child with sweets. Enjoying all the attention you're getting?

Mean, she fired back without heat. It is...nice...to not be looked at with unease, suspicion and fear. Don't you understand? You are with me, after all.

“C'mon, kid.” Jeralt said before Sothis could retort. She turned to him; he was trying to smile, but it came out as a grimace. “I'll show you the room they've set up for you, and where the bath house is. Then you can eat and rest. It's been a long day.”

“Okay,” She said softly, deciding not to prod him right now.

He always explained things to her eventually.

 

Chapter Text

you promised me son you promised to avenge us

Dimitri woke violently in the middle of the night, the sweat soaking his skin causing him to shiver. A whiff of smoke burned at the back of his throat along with a lingering piercing scream; yet aside from the roaring wind, the upper dormitories were as silent as a crypt. “I will, I will,” He whispered pleadingly, “I haven't forgotten, I just need more time...” He heard his father scoff and squeezed his eyes shut. “I swear, it will be done, I will find them!”

The words echoed through his spartan room, with nothing but the wind to answer him. Dimitri drew his legs up to his chest and pressed his forehead against his knee, gulping for air as he tried to remember how to breath. Tried to forget the weight of Glenn's corpse, pinning him to the ground even as it saved him from the arrows falling from the sky. Tried to forget his father's dying shrieks. Tried to forget the stench of flesh burning throughout the chaos.

Don't ever forget me Dimitri

“How could I?” Dimitri uttered, raking one hand through his hair. “Glenn, how could you believe I would?”

A dryly amused chuckle, a sound Glenn had always reserved for Felix when his little brother dramatically failed to understand something he was driving at, was his only answer.

Suddenly his room was suffocatingly small; the walls pressed in and the shadows were malevolent, living things. Dimitri got up and fumbled in the dark, grabbing the long coat he usually reserved for Faerghus's cold winters of the wall. It didn't matter that it was late summer; he was cold and couldn't stop trembling. Sliding the familiar fur on over his clothes – he'd trained late into the evening and forgotten to change before collapsing on his bed, all in a vain attempt to avoid these very dreams – he grabbed the door handle and walked out into the dark halls.

It was a cool night, with a soft breeze echoing off the stone as he wandered from hall to hall, not really knowing where he was going. Torches snapped and crackled as he passed, one hand trailing along the wall. The physical sensation was comforting, an anchor in the present.

He kept walking, his uneven breathing echoing in his ears. At first he thought he would go to the library – unlike the training grounds, its doors weren't locked after the sun went down – but instead he found himself taking a winding path down to the stables. One of the monastery cats wandered over to him as he stepped out into the open air, winding between his legs. Hesitantly he knelt and petted it; the orange tabby rolled over in contentment.

Animals were good companions when you couldn't bear to speak to anyone. Dimitri had learned that in the days after the Tragedy; holed up in his room, frequently slipping into delirium with flames blazing every time he closed his eyes. The castle cats had been his saviors then – whenever they didn't surprise him by jumping down from shelves, that is.

Dimitri scratched the cat behind the ears, the hard knot in his chest loosening just a bit at the resultant rumbling purr. “Good girl.” He straightened up and looked up at the sky.

It was a brilliant clear night; the silver cross – a thick stream of stars that formed a visible interconnected pattern across all the land – glittering like precious jewels. What was that story Dedue told me?, Dimitri wondered as he gazed upwards. It was something about Duscar's sky god and his last visit to the mortal lands...there was a woman there, one he loved. Was she murdered, or did she willingly walk to her death? Either way...the cross is her blood, raised up and formed into a great and powerful gateway; the final barrier between heaven and earth. How did that tale go? I can't believe I've forgotten...I'll have to ask him to tell me again...

There was something in the scriptures of the Goddess about the silver cross, but it seemed a more mundane tale; a gift fashioned by Sothis for a particularly devout priestess after the deaths of her entire family. Strings of silver gems, hung from the gates of heaven, so all could look up and see their loved ones in the sky.

A simple story, one many found comforting. Perhaps it was unworthy of him as the holy prince that he felt afraid instead.

The cat let out a small whine and headbutted his leg. Dimitri gave it a final pet and walked out of the main monastery. Perhaps animals are wiser than we like to believe. Ever since his...troubles had emerged, he'd quickly taught himself to hide it, to be stoic or merely frustrated when inside he was screaming. Only Felix has seen under the mask; he lamented that, missed their old friendship...but perhaps it was good that someone knew of that dark, swirling undercurrent.

It meant there was someone who could stop him if he lost himself.

He shuddered. Why was it so cold? It was still summer... He pulled his coat tighter and focused on walking. The stone ground turned into sand and gravel as he walked into the stables.

That was when he noticed the person singing.

For a moment, he thought it was another lingering memory – his stepmother had loved to sing, and her lullabies frequently haunted him in the nights when sleep was evasive or disturbed. But...no. He didn't know this voice very well. This was... He turned, casting his eyes around in the dim light, looking for the source. They weren't here...but they were close by...? Hesitantly, he turned and tried to follow it. After a few false starts, he found himself walking down the overcast path past the Knight's Hall. The words grew clearer and more distinct as he went, a beautiful and achingly melancholic tune he'd never heard before...

He turned the corner near the church cemetery and his breath caught in his throat.

Byleth – Professor Byleth, he reminded himself quickly; even if she wasn't teaching homeroom for him and his, she would still lead seminars and auxiliary combat and it wouldn't do to address her otherwise – was standing at the stone railing with her back to him, singing to the night sky. She wore a long black dress that hung down to her ankles, sleeveless and backless that hung loosely off her body. She was barefoot and seemingly untroubled by the wind and stones in the ground; she sang softly, gently, with a little hesitation here and there suggesting she wasn't certain she remembered the notes correctly.

She's beautiful. I had noticed before, but... he thought dazedly, before quickly chasing that errant teenage thought down and throttling it. What is she doing up so late...?

Quietly he made his way over to her, carefully, not wanting to interrupt the song. He'd never heard it before, pure and simple notes of joy mixed with grief and longing...what were the words meant to go with it?

The song tapered off suddenly; Byleth twisted and looked over her shoulder, tense. “Who's there?”

“I'm sorry,” He responded, abashed, as he stepped into the torchlight. She shifted in what he thought might be surprise, before visibly relaxing. “I didn't mean to intrude.”

“Prince Dimitri?” She frowned slightly. “What are you doing awake so late? So early, to be truthful. The sun will be up in a scant few hours.”

“I...some old thoughts were troubling me. When I couldn't get back to sleep, I decided to try and walk it off.” His eyes lingered on her bare shoulders for a few seconds too long before he could pull his attention away, face burning. “I wasn't expecting to see anyone.”

Byleth titled her head and gazed curiously at him for a moment. “I felt confused too,” She admitted, her tone soft and even as ever. “I keep waking, as if my mind can't decide which world is the dream.” She looked up at the sky, tugging unconsciously at the neckline of her dress. “It's strange. I'm so rarely sleepless, even on the worse days.”

“Truly?”

Byleth blinked. “Well...yes.” She let out a huffed breath. “It must be this place. It's strange.”

“Are you not cold?” He asked nervously; she'd heard him walking up behind her, surely she'd noticed his wandering gaze. Ingrid was very aware of the way people looked at her...Glenn had always been openly appreciative of his fiance, mind you, so perhaps she'd simply learned to recognize that look in people's eyes.

“Hm? Oh no. I think it's rather pleasant, actually.” Her expression didn't change one iota. Did she just want to watch him squirm? Perhaps that was fair enough. “...I didn't mean to wander this far from my room. I had a strange thought in my head...but once I got here, I lost it.” She frowned, looking down the stairwell toward the cemetery, the stone monuments casting long shadows over the grass. “I suppose it must not have been important...”

He wasn't sure what to say to that. “I'd never heard that song before. Do you know what it's called?”

She bit her lip lightly. “I don't, actually. I'm not sure where I heard it, or what the words are. It's an old memory of mine...someone sang it to me. I don't know who, or when it happened, or if it's even real...but I find it comforting.”

“It's very soothing,” He said softly.

She looked at him again, very intently, and asked, “I can sing it again, if it would help you. You look haggard, your highness.”

Dimitri's breath hitched. “That's very kind of you,” He said softly. “And – you don't have to call me by my title in this place. Here, I'm nothing but another student.”

Byleth blinked twice, and he thought he saw the faintest trace of a surprised smile if only for a moment. “Alright,” She said, a note of warmth in her voice. Then she took a few deep breaths, and began to sing again. Dimitri closed his eyes, placing one hand on the ledge and leaning his weight on it as the sweet, sad tune filled his entire world. He missed his stepmother, moreso than usual in that moment; he remembered how he crawled to her as a child, shivering from nightmares, and she would hold him in his arms and hum until he fell asleep. He didn't remember his birth mother; whenever he tried to picture the woman, he saw Patricia instead.

She would laugh if she could see him now; flustered by his barely-older professor. Her gently amused smile while watching him give the dagger to Edelgard stuck with him, after all.

Byleth had a pretty voice. Annette would be delighted if she could hear her sing.

“I don't know what's troubling you,” The professor murmured after she wound the song to a close, “but I hope you can put it to rest someday. It's casting a shadow over your face.”

“..Is it that obvious?” He whispered without opening his eyes. His shoulders had slumped, the tension gone out of them, and it no longer pained him to breathe. He wondered if Ser Jeralt would recognize the music if asked.

“Not obvious. Not quite. But I've seen a lot of people with haunted eyes.” He hears her move slightly. “After all, I am the Ashen Demon. Sometimes I'm the cause of it.” ...She...sounded sad...? “We should go back and try to sleep. The Mock Battle will need all our concentration, after all.”

Dimitri wanted to say something, but the words wouldn't come to him. “Perhaps I more than you,” He said with a rueful chuckle. “Claude looked as pleased as a particularly content cat at dinner yesterday, and I have no doubts as to why.”

She let out a startled giggle. “He is strange,” She said in a rush. “He's a mysterious man, and I think that I should be a bit wary of him but I'm not. Not at all. I chose his house almost in spite of myself; I don't understand it at all.”

“Claude von Riegan is a charismatic nuisance, and if you told me he charmed the goddess Herself into transforming the Valley of Torment into rich farmland, I would believe you.” Dimitri said dryly, opening his eyes to see her vexed expression. He could only smile sympathetically in response. “But he is a good man, if a lonely one. You don't have anything to fear from him.”

She blinked. “Lonely? That...is not a word I would have used.”

“Ah, I shouldn't have said that,” Dimitri groaned sheepishly and ran a hand through his hair. Unbidden, Claude's teasing words suggesting he do something with 'those unruly locks' echoed in his mind, and he suddenly flushed a bit. A nuisance indeed! “If and when you start to understand him better, it'll make sense.”

“I see. ...I suppose...I thought it was because I disturb people; I always have. That old fear, the reason he couldn't quite smile honestly at me.”

“That...is not my story to tell,” Dimitri said with a sigh, a tinge of pity and sadness sweeping through him as he remembered that hateful soldier and his ugly words. “But I doubt it had much to do with you yourself. He's fascinated by you.”

“That much I can tell,” She wrapped her arms around her stomach, that vexed look deepening. “I don't understand it, but I can tell.”

“Why does that confuse you so?”

“Because people other than my father do not look at me like that.” She looked away. “I am not completely oblivious, despite my disposition. I've heard frightened people compare me to a gargoyle ever since I was a child. I don't react to pain or fear the way most humans do. That coldness lingers around me like a veil I don't know how to remove. Sometimes I wonder if there's anything under it to reveal by doing so.”

She shook here head in disbelief. “Then here comes this boy – this duke – and he drags me all over the monastery, showing me things, teasing me over that stoicism, laughing and joking like there is nothing strange about me at all. So yes, I am most vexed, Dimitri. I can't really help it.”

There was a small spark of guilt in his chest. He'd had those very thoughts, watching her carve through bandits without a single change of expression; as though killing meant nothing to her. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, he has that effect on many people.”

She gave him a look that contained that tiny almost-smile again. “Heh...maybe it does.”

Dimitri chuckled a bit, enjoying their mutual bewilderment over the brunette, and then offered her his hand. “Shall I bring you back to your dorm, Professor? It's quite dark; it may be good to have another set of eyes about.”

Byleth blinked twice at him before accepting the gesture. Her fingers were slender and strangely delicate, her skin calloused from many years of wielding weapons. It amazed him that she wasn't a little chilly despite being so lightly dressed. “Thank you.”

They didn't say much as they retraced her steps back to the lower dormitories; Byleth took to humming again while Dimitri listened. She knew a lot of music, it seemed, though they all sounded mysterious to his ears. Likely she'd heard them outside of Fodlan; she had made mention of Jeralt's mercenaries travelling outside the borders before. Dimitri had never traveled so far, though he wished to, despite all that was tied up with Duscar. The night air swirled around them as they crossed the courtyard, the grass soft underfoot.

Byleth stopped at the foot of the stairwell to the dormitory, gently pulling her hand free. She turned back toward him, her eyes a bit brighter than he recalled yesterday, and said, “I hope your rest is peaceful, Dimitri.”

He smiled weakly and bowed, as he always did when people said such things. He appreciated the sentiment but suspected it was in vain.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

When the sun bled golden light into his room some indeterminate amount of time later, Dimitri only felt partly like a corpse. Which was better than some other nights when he'd been rendered unable to sleep, but not exactly ideal with the mock battle looming mere hours ahead. Staggering out of bed and into a bath, he splashed hot water in his face repeatedly as he began to consider potential strategies. He had some practical experience, but none of his fellow Lions did, and Byleth was an intimidating opponent – even with Hannamen's support, Dimitri did not like his chances against her. The best he could think of was distracting her from Dedue, who could potentially overwhelm her through sheer physical strength. However, Byleth had vaguely referenced being stronger than one would expect from her frame, so he was uncertain that would pan out as he hoped...

And, of course, he had to consider Claude. Dimitri knew little enough about Almyra, but their love of war and strength was a well-told story. It was entirely possible that his fellow house leader knew his way around a fight as much as he himself did – perhaps moreso, seeing as Claude managed to kill the man pinning him during the ambush and save him from being choked to death. Fortunately, the other teen preferred the bow, so as long as Dimitri could get close enough, he was confident he could take him out.

Admittedly that didn't account for the other Deer who would be joining them...and he didn't know any of them particularly well. Marianne and Lysithea were magically adept with the former likely specializing in the magic of Faith, Raphael was very physically strong and bulky, Ignatz was likely an archer given his constitution, Lorenz and Leonie he had seen handle lances from time to time, and Hilda...he'd never seen her in the barracks, so he wasn't sure what she did. If she didn't weasel her way out of the battle completely. Not all the students in house participated in the mock battle, since it was merely a warm-up for the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, so he could only make an educated guess who Claude would bring with him. Likely he'd choose at least one mage and someone strong enough to shrug off weaker attacks. He can cover distance attacks himself, unlike me. So...Raphael, Lorenz or Leonie and either Marianne or Lysithea.

Edelgard will bring Hubert, no question about that. Other than him...I'd be surprised if she chose Ferdinand given how much she obviously dislikes him, but he is capable with a lance. I've hardly ever seen Bernadetta out of her room, so I doubt she'll come...and Dorothea is another obvious choice for a ranged attacker. Petra is also a possibility for a front line attacker, though she's lighter and comparatively frailer than Ferdinand. So...expect Hubert, Dorothea, and either Ferdinand or Petra.

The warm water was a blessing. He didn't know what witchcraft had gone into the water system of the monastery, but he would pay good money for the secret.

I should bring Mercedes, Dimitri thought after a moment of contemplation. She knows basic healing and she'd likely have more of an effect on Raphael than any blunt hit. He tapped the edge of the tub. Dedue, I need for the professor and possibly Edelgard as well. Ashe can provide long range cover; even if he isn't very strong quite yet, he doesn't need to be. Between them, myself and Hannamen...we are prepared.

Felix will be cross at being left out, but he simply isn't good at defending himself. The professor would outmaneuver him and drop him on his back without too much effort. Ingrid is still building up her physical strength, and Annette may be slightly more adept than Mercedes, but she hasn't trained in Faith. Healing is very important on the battlefield...especially since we're restricted to a single vulnerary each.

Brushing his wet hair away from his eyes, the prince let out a long breath and crawled out. Ah, my head still aches...well, it's not as bad as it could have been. He was largely rejuvenated, as a matter of fact. That made this one of his better days.

He got dressed in his usual dark leathers with some care until he found himself staring at his reflection the mirror. As usual, his hair was a rumpled mess. Only you can spend an hour in the bath and still look disheveled, Glenn's old joke haunted him. ...you'd get a lot more attention yourself... another voice said in a low purr.

On a whim (surely that's all it was), he took the hairpins Annette had given him a little while back and pulled his blonde locks away from his eyes, pinning them back behind his head. The low ponytail emphasized his angular face, and would keep his vision clear during battle. Giving himself a bemused smile, he turned and left the room, heading for the officer's academy.

It was a brilliant clear day; the sun shone like a golden shield in the clear sky, there was a mild breeze and it was warm without being sweltering. He made his way across the fields, vaguely hoping that some tea before the battle would drive his familiar-feeling headache away. Sleep deprivation was an old friend, and even if he was numb to the small aches and pains it gave him, that didn't mean they weren't distracting.

Dimitri pushed the double doors to the Blue Lion's classroom open and was pleasantly surprised to find all his fellow students milling about, waiting for him. He had been certain he would have to chase down Sylvain at least. Annette and Mercedes were sitting together hunched over a book, having an animated discussion. Ingrid was trying to tell Felix something he clearly wasn't very interested in while Sylvain tried to flirt with her, Ashe was studying, and Dedue was standing off to the side – likely having been debating whether or not to go get him.

“Good morning, everyone,” He said.

“Oh, Dimitri! There you are,” Annette said cheerfully, looking up. Then her eyes widened. “Y-Yooou look different! I mean, it's nice, it's nice, I just – um, when did that happen?”

“This morning,” Dimitri replied, slightly bewildered.

Mercedes giggled lightly. “Is that so? It's a good look on you. Who recommended it?”

“Ah...I couldn't say?” The prince had no idea what to make of the way Annette and Ingrid were both gaping at him – or Sylvain's curious expression, for that matter! Clearing his throat awkwardly, he went on, “The Mock Battle takes place after lunch; let's discuss strategy a bit, shall we?”

“C'mon, you're not getting off the hook that easily.” Sylvain responded with a very irritating and worrying smile, making his way over from the shelves. “You've never done anything about your hair before, no matter how many times I nagged you. Do you have a date? Looking to impress someone?”

“No, of course not!” Dimitri said while gave the skirt chaser an intensely exasperated look. “It's hardly important right now. I've largely decided on our team for the battle, but I want to know what the rest of you are expecting.”

“The new professor is the biggest threat,” Felix pronounced evenly. “She has to be taken out for victory to be possible.”

“Is she really that strong?” Ingrid wondered. “I met her yesterday when Claude was dragging her all over the monastery. I know you said she's skilled, your highness...but she just seemed kind of awkward and strange to me.”

“What do you mean?” Ashe said in surprise. “I spoke to her, and she very polite. A bit quiet, but kind. It's hard to believe people call her by that creepy name...”

“I assure you, Ingrid, she's exactly as dangerous as Felix believes,” Dimitri responded wryly. “However, we cannot completely discount Claude and his fellow students. With that in mind...”

Sure enough, Felix scowled when he announced his choice of fighters for the battle, arguing vehemently for a few minutes before finally giving up. Mercedes suggested – somewhat to his surprise – that Claude would in fact bring Hilda with him, despite her layabout tendencies, because she was quite good with an ax. Dedue believed that Marianne and Dorothea would both make appearances; he also agreed to help Dimitri attempt to subdue Byleth. Sylvain expressed the opinion that Edelgard would sooner wait for them to exhaust themselves fighting the Deer before moving in to clean up, while Annette argued that the future empress would charge first because she disliked leaving things to chance. Ashe nervously offered to take out Hubert and Marianne/Lysithea, given his decent ability to resist magic. Suggestions flew thick in the air on who would go on the offensive first, how they should adjust depending on the circumstances, what the terrain would be like...Dimitri quickly found himself thinking that he was lucky to be surrounded by intelligent people willing to argue with him.

“Should I bring a bow, Dimitri?” Mercedes asked sweetly. “I'm not very good with it yet, but it will give me another option to attack.”

“It couldn't hurt,” Dimitri agreed. Using too much magic in a short space of time was known to stress even experienced mages out, after all.

Poor Ashe looked so anxious when he was definitively told that he'd be close to the action. Dedue asked extensive questions about how Byleth fought and what his liege would recommend. It wasn't much, and Mercedes looked fairly intimidated when Dimitri talked about how the professor cut down two bandits one after another without breaking stride.

“It'll be a good fight, boar,” Felix snorted, that slightly resentful look remaining. “If you can take her.”

Dimitri made himself smile in return. “I'm sure you'll find her lingering in the training grounds before long, Felix. The year has only just begun after all.” He clapped his hands together. “We've prepared as much as possible, I think. Come, let us go to the dining hall and eat before we depart for the field.”

His classmates nodded collectively and followed him out of the room.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

The field chosen for the battle wasn't far from the monastery. It was a forested area, gently rolling hills dotted with trees and bushes. Dimitri took a deep breath, his brain buzzing with anticipation. There was no real high ground, only a few ruins one person could use as decent cover. No advantages, unless one was good at exploiting terrain. I had only ever fought with a city before, discounting that bandit ambush. Atop the hill north of the field – the highest vantage point available – stood Seteth and Ser Jeralt, there to oversee the match. The archbishop herself was absent; apparently, something important was demanding her attention.

Dimitri shifted his grip on the lance he'd been given and grimaced at its lightness. They'd all been given blunted training versions of their favored weapons to avoid series injuries; live steel wasn't used outside of the Battle of Eagle and Lion. A good idea, yes, but the difference between this and his usual lance was just noticeable enough to be off-putting.

Edelgard and the Black Eagles were to his far left, with Ferdinand and Hubert out front while Dorothea lingered amidst the trees with her house leader. Manuela stood a bit further back, perched atop what might have been the base of a monument long ago (it was hard to tell). About what he expected, though with the branches and bushes in the way it would be hard to approach his step-sister on anything but her terms. That was how she'd always preferred it...

The Golden Deer, meanwhile, were out in the open, due south of his position. Claude looked to be conferring with Byleth, gesturing up the plain. The professor was too far away to read what minute expression she had, but he got the impression she was disputing whatever the archer was saying. With them were Hilda, Raphael, and Marianne, the latter of whom was fidgeting quite visibly. It reminded Dimitri a bit of Bernadetta. Perhaps Claude would have been better served to bring Lysithea...

It looked like Byleth was restricted to one weapon, or perhaps had chosen to go without her bow for one reason or another. That was a bit of a relief, actually. Now, if he could only lure her toward Dedue...he'd need to catch her off guard, and he'd need the other deer to be preoccupied.

Perhaps he should wait it out while Edelgard fought them? He disliked the thought. It was dishonorable.

Byleth pointed at something. He wasn't sure, given the angle through which he could see her. Interestingly, though, Claude jolted back a few steps. He waved his hands slightly. Byleth nodded, the gesture brisk and sharp. The archer looked up at the plain, chuckled, and bowed his head in submission. Both Raphael and Hilda twisted to stare at their leader, who clapped and repeated whatever the professor had said to him.

“Oh dear,” Mercedes murmured. “What are they saying, Dimitri?”

“They're too far away to tell,” He replied apologetically. “Be prepared for anything.”

“Of course, your highness,” Dedue said stoically. Ashe made a noise of agreement that couldn't quite hide his trepidation.

Then the starting horn blared.

Dimitri's pulse jumped.

“Ashe, I need you on the front lines. Stay close to the woods! Dedue, Mercedes...get ready!” He hit his lance against the ground and readied it. A surge of excitement washed over him. Professor, Claude, Edelgard...show me what you can do. Makes this a challenge!

The Golden Deer scattered in both directions. Ferdinand was charging Raphael, Hubert lingering just behind him. Dimitri's brow furrowed. He'd thought Edelgard would play more defensively, that's why she's chosen the trees...Ah, but Ferdinand was quite bent on showing her up, wasn't he? He was loudmouthed enough about it the few times they'd crossed paths. She should have brought Petra in his place.

There was a flare of bright light – Nosferatu, unless he missed his guess – and Ferdinand staggered backward. Raphael then slugged him into the chest, once, twice, and then finished him off with a kick that sent him sprawling onto his back in the grass.

That was a mistake. He left himself open to Hubert – wait...

The flicker of an arrow whisking through the air struck the dark mage. Dimitri strained, trying to see Claude – he must have retreated into the forest – then watched as a black clad figure hurtled across the ground and slammed the flat of her training sword into his stomach. Was that Wrath Strike? There were certain techniques one could use if you had even the slightest affinity for magic; he knew at least one himself and it wasn't a surprise to see her use it.

Hubert staggered backwards, clutching his stomach. There was a flash of pink hair before Hilda put him in an armbar and forced him to his knees. Hubert struggled for a moment before Seteth shouted for the students to know when they were beaten; then he slumped, clearly furious with himself for being tricked by Raphael's apparent vulnerability.

To use one of their own as a feint...in a pitched battle, that would put him in severe danger. Especially if he has low resistance, given how Marianne is fussing over the burn Hubert gave him. Claude, what are you thinking?

Marianne shrieked in surprised pain as Ashe's arrow struck home. Raphael jolted and immediately threw himself in front of her, cradling her so anything that followed up would have to strike through him to reach her. Byleth whirled on the spot and hurtled toward the Ashe's position without a moment's pause.

“Your highness, wait,” Dedue's warning made him realize his feet had carried him forward instinctively. “Claude will snipe you before you reach him.”

Ashe's pained yelp made him flinch. “I sent him too far ahead,” He groaned.

“An easy mistake to make,” Hannamen rumbled from somewhere behind him. “Usually in this battle the students spread out in an attempt to take out as many opponents as possible. It was frugal of them to stick closer to each other, clearly.”

Claude's distinctive golden form appeared from the trees. Ashe stumbled out a moment later; it was too distant to tell, but it looked like the boy gave him an apologetic grimace before leaving the field. Dimitri silently promised to make it up to the young man later on.

Byleth stepped out into the light and began walking directly up the pathway between where Edelgard was holed up and the place the Blue Lions were waiting for them. Her students promptly fell in a loose circle around her, holding their weapons out in an open challenge.

Is she serious?

Some small part of his brain told him that it was too easy, that any of the dozens of thoughts that crossed his mind in that moment would already have been raised by Claude (his schemes were more than just absurd pranks, he'd proven that in the ambush), that he should wait and maintain his position. Of course with Edelgard appearing from the side along with Dorothea – well, with half the team occupied, this was as good a chance as any to try and remove the professor from the field.

He nodded sharply at Dedue and surged forward.

The fight was not an easy one to enter. Claude shot Dorothea with two arrows in the stomach, taking the heat off of Raphael who needed to clear a few feet of distance before he could seize the slender mage. Hilda covered her house leader from Edelgard, who brought her ax down in a powerful arc that made the pink haired girl's arms buckle when she blocked it – barely stopping a nasty blow to the shoulder. Marianne took that chance to fire another Nosferatu at his stepsister while she was caught in blade-lock; El flinched, but held her ground rather better than Ferdinand. She was aware of Byleth approaching her, quick as the wind, but she couldn't quite prepare, not when Hilda broke the impass and took a swipe at her.

Byleth darted around her and struck the future empress harshly from behind with the hilt of her sword; avoiding her spine, of course, but the blow was anything but pleasant given Edelgard's pained shout. She followed it up with a kick, sending El sprawling to the ground.

His stepsister rolled over with some effort, throwing her spare weapon – an ax – at Hilda. That struck home, causing the pinkette to stagger.

Despite that distraction, Byleth either saw him coming out of the corner of her eye or heard some tell, because she turned around just as he closed in on her. Mercedes and Dedue were right behind him; Mercedes took a potshot at Marianne that clearly hit on a bruise Ashe had left her earlier, because she collapsed back against a tree trunk. Claude swore and rushed to cover her; and with Hilda distracted by a flagging but ever determined Edelgard...

He swung his lance up, just missing her shoulder. She jerked aside and stumbled when she hit Dedue's back; the tall man immediately trapped her arms at her side in his stone grip.

Byelth gasped out something distinctly unfriendly-sounding in what was either an Almyran or Dadga dialect, and jerked her head back. The impact against Dedue's face was painful-looking; the unfortunate fact of the matter was the professor's unusual height made her one of the few who could say they could do so. He held firm, though.

Unfortunately, just as he raised his lance to try and take the young mercenary out, something hard and painful hit his back. Dimitri staggered and looked over his shoulder and found Claude several feet away, already lining up another arrow. He swore the brunette smirked triumphantly before letting loose.

Dull-headed arrows weren't nearly as painful as the real thing – but getting hit in the stomach, no matter what with, was often entirely debilitating. He heard Marianne shout, followed by Dedue grunting in pain. Coming to the realization that he was surrounded, Dimitri shifted his grip on the lance and threw it directly at his opponent. The split second of Claude's eyes widening in surprise before the impact – which knocked him back into a tree – was well worth it.

Something hit his shin, unbalancing him so the follow-up attack sent him crashing to the ground. A moment later, a knee pressed against his chest and Dimitri blinked blearily up at the bruised and faintly impressed face of Byleth Eisner. She was panting slightly as she placed the blunt blade of the training sword across his neck, uttering, “Not bad. But not enough.”

When had she...? Ah, Marianne. Dimitri looked slightly to the right and saw the blue-haired girl frantically apologizing to a prone Dedue as Raphael helped the Duscur native back to his feet. Mercedes was leaning heavily against a rock, a bruise visible at her collar. El and Dorothea were both gone, clearly having already lost.

Letting out a shaky breath (he was fairly certain he was winded), Dimitri opened his hands in surrender. Byleth nodded and stood up, thankfully removing her weight from his aching body. “Claude, how are you holding up?”

“Haha...ow,” The brunette laughed before coughing painfully, “I'm good, really. Just, ah, need a minute...”

“Marianne, do your best for him. Raphael, with me. Hilda, Claude, keep an eye out for Manuela, she's on the move.” With that, Byleth walked out of the area, rubbing her side with a thoughtful sort of discomfort. Raphael hurried after her an awkward gait.

See something you like?, Glenn's voice asked mirthfully. Dimitri closed his eyes and carefully sat up, his stomach still roiling. Perhaps you ought to learn a bit from Claude, if you're going to charge every trap you come across.

Riegan's plan was harebrained; His father mused. Engaging both opponents shouldn't have worked, yet he defeated two forces with half the numbers. He made best use of his fellow student's capabilities. Remember this well, Dimitri, for the days when you face overwhelming opposition.

I will, he assured them, catching his breath. It was odd, he should be disappointed...he was, to an extent...but he felt oddly excited as well. At the Battle of Eagle and Lion, I'll be ready for them both.

Now that would be something to see, Glenn purred. Just don't forget why you're here, my prince.

Never, Dimitri promised silently. I will find your killers...I'll find them if I have to tear Fodlan apart.

Good, his father replied, the tone of his voice calm, soothing and pleased. Good...

 

Chapter Text

...the final push into Duscur is to be lead by Rufus, the late king's brother. He has been convinced to take up stewardship of the kingdom in his nephew's stead by the court...”

“Who was previously disqualified from the line of succession for not having a crest.” Claude mused. “There's no other reason the eldest son wouldn't inherit the throne barring an untimely death or committing murder. Isn't that interesting?” He folded the letter carefully and placed it back inside the drawer. It was good for him that Seteth kept his office so orderly; it meant chasing specific older documents wasn't much of a challenge.

Nah, the challenge had been getting that stuffy bishop tipsy enough to swipe his keys. How paranoid did you have to be for your desk to have individual locks on every single drawer?

It feels too easy, though, He frowned, thumbing through the church militia's reports throughout the aftermath of the massacre. If there are any rumors about Rufus attacking or otherwise trying to undermine his brother, they're well-hidden. Of course, he's a bit more important than Miklan Gautier; if there were murder attempts, the kingdom wouldn't want them to become public.

His fingers brushed against records of the Faerghus emergency meetings that the church mediated; he quickly took it and pulled one out.

My grandfather said that King Lambert was attempting a major political reform. Reading all of this...even that feels like an understatement. Open trade? Bringing Duscur warriors and scholars into his court? Talking about sending Dimitri and the Fraldarius boys to foreign land to learn the traditional fighting style? I'm amazed only a third of these letters are peppered with disparaging remarks about his 'heretical worldviews'.

He rather hoped that no one had said such things to Dimitri's face. A feeble thought, likely, but it was there.

It's a wonder anyone believes Duscur is responsible. They're a third the size of the Kingdom, and they have bountiful land but little else. They had far too much to gain from King Lambert's offer to do anything but accept; they don't have that old Almyran 'warrior's pride' getting in the way.

Of course, that means the real question is 'who in the kingdom benefits the most from the slaughter of the royal family'?

Claude squinted at the transcript in the low candlelight; the late hour meant there was no sunlight coming through the window. A description of anarchy in the eastern half of the kingdom, talk of how the knights needed to be reorganized to suppress it...and that was left to the lord of Arianrhod, who'd frequently made no bones of his dislike for Lambert's 'naivety'. Yet he was not one of the three lords who made a lot of loud noise about how Dimitri needed to get married as soon as possible to 'secure the line of succession'; one of whom was aggressive enough that he had his eldest daughter try and slip the prince a knockout drug so she could get pregnant. Claude's lip curled in revulsion. That's disgusting. Seventh hell, he was fourteen! His father hadn't even been dead for two months at that point!

Fortunately, Lord Rodrigue was there when Dimitri passed out and interrogated the girl; having been pressured into it, she broke pretty easily and her father lost his title as a result. Good riddance. So he's not a concern anymore... He could have been involved with Duscar, even tangentially, but I doubt he was smart enough to mastermind it. Not with that mess in mind.

Count Rowe of Arianrhod is a better bet. He's sitting on top of one of the most fortified cities in Fodlan, next to Fort Merceus. If he got caught, he could try to wait out any retaliation, and he has many 'friends' who want to be able to run there if they got invaded. There's no obvious route to the throne for him, of course, lacking both the crest and any close relation...but if he was involved with the mastermind, he might believe his children have a chance at it. Let's see if your name comes up again...

Distant footsteps in the hallway caught his attention. Quickly he shut the drawer and folded himself into the shadow behind one of the room's bookcases; listening intently.

“...only three glasses in and he needed to be helped to Manuela?” Sir Jeralt's voice echoed through the empty hall. “Sheesh. I know some people have a low constitution, but only three?”

“That's Seteth for you!” Alois laughed. “I'll tell you what's amazing; that the Riegan boy convinced him to drink anything! He avoids anything 'improper'; partly because of Flayn, I'd wager. He dotes on her and doesn't want her to have any bad habits. It must have been years since he drunk anything, if it just took three to leave him lurching about!”

Three glasses of the strongest wine in the monastery isn't quite the same as the stuff they serve in your average Fodlan bar, Claude thought with a dry smile. I snagged it alongside the good cheese for Teach and the others. The doors weren't even locked tight.

“He's awfully overprotective, that's for sure,” Jeralt said with an air of dry observation. “Flayn herself looks a little stifled, wandering about alone whenever he's busy. She's probably be happier if she had something to do.”

“Hm! Perhaps she could join your daughter's class? Or maybe she could work with that young lad the Archbishop brought back from the Goneril estate; he always seems busy, and he might like it.”

“Somehow I don't think Seteth would appreciate the suggestion.” Their footsteps carried them past the doorway without pause.

Claude waited patiently until they faded away completely before returning to the desk, an amused smile on his lips. His candles were melted down to a halfway point; even if Seteth was laid out for the rest of the night, he didn't have all the time in the world. He leaned over the wooden table, turning the pages of the transcript again as he looked for the little hints he'd learned to be wary of ever since joining House Riegan. The mediators painted the picture of a disjointed court, nobles arguing with each other over what to do, public order deteriorating, citizens expressing fear for Dimitri who spent the better part of five months hidden away from the public for the sake of his recovery. Five months...I knew he was the only survivor, but somehow I hadn't thought he'd been injured that badly...Claude went back into the drawer, paging through the folders until he found a relief report that was referenced within the page he had been examining.

It turned out that, upon the Church arriving to the capital in order to distribute food to the surrounding towns that had suffered from banditry, Dimitri had unexpectedly appeared from his room and asked to travel the circuit with them in what Lord Rodrigue described as 'more words he'd spoken at once than he had in all the days since his return'. The report didn't explain how Dimitri argued his case, but he clearly succeeded because he went with the detachment through every village with a bag of fruit from the castle gardens. The author spoke of how the peasants cried with relief at the sight of him, crowding at his feet as he passed out food, hovering and rushing to prevent him from doing anything strenuous. A couple of bandits had been holding up a storehouse, threatening to set it on fire; apparently Dimitri went to talk to them, and they surrendered out of shame almost immediately.

His people really love him, Claude thought in awe. He felt a twinge of something unpleasant, something that almost tasted like envy. The conspirators are up a creek. Those people would never accept anyone propped up in his place if they got what they wanted. They'd probably slaughter them if they even suspected foul play.

...That explains why it happened in Duscur. Any 'incidental' death that looked even remotely suspicious would bring riots down on them that would put even this chaos to shame.

He flipped through the remaining pages and let out a sigh before returning it to its folder. It looks like the King Regent is the only one with the means and ability to directly seize the throne...he's a known womanizer; sure, he might just like the company, but it's possible he hopes to end up with a kid bearing the royal crest. If that were to happen...well, Rufus was older than Lambert. That child would technically inherit ahead of Dimitri. And wouldn't that be a mess...unless something tragic befell the orphan prince not long after he met his sibling.

It was neat, it covered all the bases, and the very record he'd just put away described Rufus and Dimitri arguing heatedly over the latter's decision to go among his people. Claude was willing to bet that a few sly questions would reveal that the two didn't get along in general. It was a perfect setup.

It also felt way too easy.

Gah. I feel like a character is a play, being mislead by some charming rogue while he robs me blind. And I can't even put my finger on what it is that feels so off; it's just a nagging sense that something is wrong...He shut the drawer and locked it, shifting through the keys to find the one for the upper-right compartment. At least this isn't a complete bust. The reports in the library are so heavily edited they're barely comparable to these. That makes some sense; if the Alliance or the Empire knew how badly damaged the lands were, they'd likely offer their help in exchange for 'favors'; there's that old popular rant in the Empire about how they never should have let go of their 'old territories', after all.

Though the sheer extent of the alterations...did the council ask that of you, Lady Rhea, or did you do it?

There were a couple of letters in the small drawer, stacked in a neat pile. Taking them out revealed unmarked envelopes and Seteth' neat, precise handwriting. These hadn't been shared with other church officials. Brow furrowing in curiosity, Claude opened one.

...no sign of the force that would have been necessary to get past King Lambert's honor guard, but I did find remains of that magic, near an empty carriage abandoned on the road. Rhea, I wonder if Duscar did this at all. I think those people may have been here...perhaps stirring chaos and confusion, perhaps dripping poison in the ears of the reckless and aggressive. I have no proof...but it's worrying to think about.

“Those people?” Claude repeated aloud before he could stop himself. He snapped a quick look toward the door; it was still silent, with a few people walking around in the distance. Cursing himself for the slip, he looked down and finished reading the letter.

Nothing. He looked through the others, which chronicled Seteth's short-lived investigation of the Duscur area at least four weeks after the battle itself had ended. Nothing elaborated on 'those people', or the strange magic, or who was supposed to be in the empty carriage, which had the emblem of the Faerghus royal house.

Could that have been the queen's wheelhouse? Did she escape the immediate slaughter only to get caught trying to run for the road? It makes some sense, I guess; all records say that she died there, but the bodies that might have been her were burned beyond identification. They can't be sure exactly where and how she died, aside from the fire. Claude frowned as something odd occurred to him. Was she separated from Dimitri and the others? How did she end up so far away from them? ...I suppose she probably ran off in a blind panic. Nothing I've heard about Lambert's queen suggested she was a warrior.

'Those people'. Who the hell is that supposed to be? The church – at least the central church – has its detractors, but who among them would orchestrate a slaughter up north for seemingly no purpose? Is it an organization? Is he just referring to some group of nobles with grand, crazy aspirations? Are they heretics? What the hell?

...Those footsteps are getting louder. Shit.

On impulse, Claude grabbed the letters off the desk and tucked them into his coat, blowing the candles out. Dropping the keys on the wooden surface, he hurried over to the window he'd left ajar and climbed out onto the windowsill. The door to the study rattled as he swung his feet over the side and found a foothold in the old worn stone; glancing over his shoulder, Claude saw one of the many trees surrounding the building creaking in the wind, a couple arms-lengths away. He grimaced, braced himself, and jumped for the lower branches.

Pine needles stabbed face, and he nearly lost his balance due to slamming his knee into the trunk hard enough to bruise. Cringing, he grabbed an upper branch and stared warily up at the window.

He had good hearing and eyesight – something he could thank his father for. He remained still as a statue, listening to the person – two people – stagger about, one of them kicking the bed with a pained curse. Manuela's voice drifted down, murmuring inaudible comfort as she helped the other person, who must be Seteth, get settled. Geez, it was just three glasses old man! Marianne can drink that much without getting tipsy, much less wasted!

He waited, his attention on the footsteps disappearing until all was still again. That was close, Claude thought ruefully, slowly reorienting himself so he could begin descending to the ground. And I have far more questions than answers. Not to mention absolutely nothing to pass on to Dimitri that he hasn't already at least suspected. There's only 'those people', whoever they're meant to be. The grass was wonderfully cool under his feet as he dropped down and slipped into the shadows cast by the monastery. If he went around the long way on the outside, he'd be able to scale the wall up to his dorm room. Ah, I bet that's the most that's in Seteth's office. He addressed the letter specifically to Rhea; if there's anything else about them on paper, it'll be in her office – and that's a damn sight harder to sneak into. Not to mention potentially dangerous.

A half breed born under foreign sky, taking advantage of the archbishop's endless kindness? There were less painful ways of killing himself.

I'll think of something. I wouldn't be much of a strategist if I couldn't sneak around dangerous people, would I?

The tree beneath his window was one of the oldest in the monastery; it towered over the others near it and it's highest branches scraped against the high towers. It took him back to the forest he had so loved wandering through as a child. He'd spent so many hours there, wandering, seeking adventure, sometimes hiding from the cruel words of his peers. His mother liked to joke that he had been meant to be a bird upon once again finding him up in a tree, asleep against the trunk. He loved those trees, that familiar place he was always welcome in.

He let himself smile at the thought for a brief moment before putting it away.

He was not Prince Khalid, not right now. His father's son was traveling, gone on a long pilgrimage to strengthen his will in battle. There was only his mother's son, venturing to her homeland in the faint and vague hope of building bridges. It was one thing for Claude von Riegan to be a layabout, a troublemaker, a dangerous trickster; it was another entirely for him to be at all influenced by foreigners and savages.

At least, not right now.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

The first day of class with Byleth – with Teach – was...interesting.

She'd arrived ten minutes late, a quick stride in her step and a textbook under one arm, her demeanor brisk and no nonsense. Dropping the book onto the table with an unceremonious thud, she turned on one heel to face them and said, “Good morning; I apologize for my lateness, my preparations ran overtime.”

She put one hand on her hip and looked out at her new classroom. “Have any of you been informed of what this month's mission involves?”

Ignatz hesitantly raised his hand, flinching when her cool stare fell on him. “I...I heard we're being sent out for a practical training exercise. Are we sparring with the Knights?”

“There will be an auxiliary battle at the end of this week that this house will be attending,” Byleth said with a nod. “However, the mission itself will see this class dispatched to The Red Canyon to dispose of the remaining bandits who made the attempt the lives of your fellow students just prior to my arrival.”

Claude blinked curiously. Huh, they found that guy after he took off? I would have thought he would have kept running until he reached a border, any border.

Byleth crossed her arms, her severe expression darkening a bit. “Let me make one thing clear – bandits are far from the greatest threat you will face on the battlefield. Bandits are often stupid. They are rarely loyal. Much of the time, they are either peasants who turned to pillaging in the face of crop failure or deserters too violent, insubordinate or disliked by the local lord to remain in society. However, bandits are desperate people, and that is and will always be dangerous.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “When we embark on this mission...you will get injured. There will be real danger. They will not care about your age, your status, your family...anything. They will kill you if they get the chance. None of you are to give them that chance. Am I understood?”

A moment of stunned silence lay thick in the room; Claude watched Ignatz's expression become stricken, Lorenz sit up as straight as if his father were in the room, Lysithea link her hands under her chin, and Marianne shrink back as though struck. “Got it memorized, Teach,” He promised, coming to the rescue of his housemates when the moment dragged on.

“Good,” She said briskly. “Now, from what I experienced during the mock battle, each of you is competent in at least one kind of weapon. In the two weeks before we leave, I want each of you to pick one specialization...” She walked to the blackboard and began writing, “...and begin to make some progress on it. By the time we return, I expect you'll be able preform well in that role. Practical, real-time experience has no replacement. Especially in war.”

She dropped the chalk on the desk. On the board there were now several columns, each with the heading Myrmidon, Soldier, Fighter, and Monk. Garreg Mach's famous starting lessons. “If you already intend to progress down a certain pathway, please use the board to inform me of your choice. If you're uncertain which way to go about this...come here and speak with me, and I shall do my best to approximate what will work with your strengths.”

With that, she leaned against the desk and waited.

There was an awkward quiet there for a very long moment. Hannamen and Manuela, who had overseeing them before, had always tried to ease their way into this moment with jokes, rambling stories and other socialization tricks. Hearing the situation laid out so immediately, so bluntly, without a single second spent on pleasantries was pretty startling.

And the most frustrating thing was her face was a blank goddamn slate. He had to strain to see any tick, any reaction that might indicate her thoughts. In the backstabbing, social-climbing high society that was the ruling body of the Leiscter Alliance, Claude prided his ability to read his older contemporaries like open books. It had saved his life on a few occasions. It prickled at him, being unable to guess exactly what the mysterious Ashen Demon was thinking.

The silence was broken by Lysithea standing up, speed walking to the front of the room and writing her name under Monk. Dropping the chalk, she bowed to Byleth and said, “I'm ready to begin.”

Did Byleth smile a little there? Ah...it was gone so quickly, I'm not sure. “Good to hear.”

That drained the tension away. Marianne hesitantly got up and made her way forward; Leonie shot ahead of her, scribbling her name under Soldier before proclaiming, “I'll show Captain Jeralt how much I've improved since we last met!” Marianne squeaked when the girl walked past her, meekly adding her name to Monk with a mumbled apology before hurrying back to her seat. Raphael and Lorenz came one after another, with Raph picking Fighter and Lorenz surprising him slightly by picking Monk.

Ignatz came the front, paused, and then gave Byleth a helpless look. Her lip twitched upward again as she gestured for him to come closer. Claude made his own way up to the board, watching as his new teacher walked in a circle around the diminutive painter, one hand raised up and resting against her neck as she considered him.

He was mildly impressed that Ignatz didn't blush at all under the scrutiny, and perhaps a little bit jealous.

“You'll be quick, if you build up your stamina just a bit.” Byleth said thoughtfully. “You don't have much in the way of muscle...but with the right weapons, and skills, you won't need it.”

“I won't?” Ignatz repeated uncertainly.

“There are people who can kill the hardiest of soldiers by exploiting small weaknesses; I've met a few on the job, and they thrive on being quick and hard to hit.” She walked around him once more before leaning against her desk again. “I suggest you go with Myrmidon; keep your bow along with the sword. You can adjust along the way if other possibilities present themselves.”

“O-Okay. Thank you, professor.”

Claude handed him the chalk (having written his own name under Fighter. It was as good a time as any to get better with axes; the bandits had proven that having a close range weapon to fall back on was a good idea) and wondered if he realized that Byleth was hinting at him making a decent assassin.

“Good.” Byleth waited until they were back in their seats before speaking again. “This afternoon, we'll be in the training grounds. Until then...” She took a small, glittering crystal from her pocket and placed it on the desk.

“Is that memory prism, professor?” Lorenz asked, his tone carefully polite.

“Indeed.” She nodded slightly. “I want you all to have a good idea of what to expect from battle, and I hope that you will learn a bit from observation. Jeralt's Mercenaries have taken many missions over the years, and I will be building my lessons around them.” She tapped her finger against it. “Shall we begin?”

+ _ + _ + _ + _

Do you know the story of Asch and his gargoyles, my little prince?

Of course! He's the god of war. In a time of strife, when the land was overrun by enemies, orphaned children prayed to him for help. He turned stone pillars into winged wolves and filled them with his power. They felt no pain, no fear, and they fought until they were completely destroyed. But they had no souls, so when there were no more enemies to fight, they just stood in place, and all but three of the children died from injuries sustained in the battle.

...Honestly, Claude had thought Teach had been joking about not noticing having stepped on a nail until an hour after her battle with the slavers was over. Seeing the unstoppable Sir Jeralt freak out when he saw the bleeding only underscored his daughter's completely apathetic reaction to, again, having a nail driven into her foot. Not a lot surprised him these days, but...damn.

The fact that she showed them that part of the memory, rather than stopping directly after she defeated the last of the pirates below deck, spoke volumes. She wasn't embarrassed by her injury or by letting them see her father fuss over her. She didn't make any mock-serious observations about watching your step to downplay what it was like. She didn't even acknowledge it until Hilda asked, at which point she merely observed that she'd felt pain, but had put it aside to focus on fighting.

Knowing she was dead serious made the casualness of the words a little terrifying. How badly could Teach get injured before she stopped fighting? Could she take a mortal wound and keep whaling on her enemy regardless until both were dead? Would she stab herself if she needed to get at an enemy behind her?

So, why are there gargoyles on the palace, if they failed to save the children?

Because they didn't loose the fight. They won, they drove the enemy away and the children that didn't survive died free of captivity. They would never stop fighting for Asch's people.

Claude shook his head, watching as Byleth smacked Hilda's shoulder as her momentum carried her to a crashing thud on the floor. The new professor he'd snared, who'd been so endearingly awkward as he introduced her to life at the monastery, complemented the other girl's footwork before critiquing her inability to control her momentum. Despite the fact she hadn't known she'd been made a professor until a few days ago, she slipped into the role as easily as breathing, remaining in the training grounds long after the class day technically ended so her students could test their readiness against her.

So deadly, so beautiful... Hah...I might be in over my head...

He didn't believe that the war god sent his Teach (he generally didn't think about such things; being told that his mother's goddess considered him unclean was enough for one lifetime, thank you very much), but that old story just wouldn't leave him alone.

There's no way that's natural.

Claude would very much like to try his hand at fighting Teach...unfortunately, he was best with his bow and had yet to master Point Blank. It wouldn't be a fun fight if he sniped her from far away – or she simply knocked him over upon getting close enough. Nah, he'd learn the ax first, then he'd challenge her. He rather hoped she'd enjoy that as much as he would.

Teach was human. She couldn't possibly be soulless. There were feelings there, somewhere, buried deeply under something he couldn't understand – not yet, anyway.

And what kind of prince would he be if he didn't try to help her?

He closed his eyes ruefully. He knew what that sounded like, after all. How many lords and kings abused and stomped on the people they needed to achieve their ambitions, only to be totally surprised when those same individuals backstabbed them when shown a kind hand? Why did they get off, treating someone so invaluable to them like dirt? Did it really stress them so hard to be kind?

Yes, he hoped that a friendship with Teach would sway her to supporting him in the future. That didn't mean he meant her any ill will. Far from it! He'd much rather bring a smile to that pretty face than see her troubled.

“You look like your thinking hard. Are you not going to try your luck?”

Through long practice, Claude did not fall over in surprise at the unexpected interruption of his thoughts. Turning toward a quietly amused looking Dimitri, he gallantly replied, “Somehow, I don't think I'd fare any better than you. Not yet, anyway.”

The prince chuckled. “Fair enough.” He watched Hilda stumble off the training grounds, only to be immediately replaced with Raphael. Teach's body language shifted into something Claude was tentatively classifying as bemusement as she nodded, idly passing her training sword between her hands. “They're sending you after the bandits.”

“Is that a question or a statement?”

“...I had a thought, though I'm loathe to mention it. I don't want you going out on a limb looking for trouble.”

His smile widened slightly until it was a bit coy. I already have, and for you. There's a couple of things I wouldn't mind doing for you, as a matter of fact. “I promise, it's really hard to offend me your highness. Ask away.”

Dimitri gave him a Look (and yes, there was a capital letter for that particular expression) before saying, “Oh, do stop calling me that. You saved my life, Claude. The very least I can do is insist you use my real name.”

“I can? I'm touched, Mitya.”

“Wha-oh, for...only you,” The prince sighed in defeat. Then his expression became serious – well, more serious than usual. “It's that man who got away that night. If the possibility presented itself, I'd like to know why he tried to kill us.”

“Hm...I can't deny a bit of burning curiosity myself, but it's entirely possible the answer would be immensely unsatisfying.” Claude put his hands behind his head. “I've had people in Alliance territory not recognize me before; he might have just seen some rich kids and decided to try his luck.”

“And if he didn't?” Dimitri asked simply.

Claude raised an eyebrow and thought about that for a moment. “That...would a raise a number of questions.”

Chapter Text

“You seem well, kid. Are you adjusting to life at the monastery?”

Byleth blinked up at her father, distracted from the Almyran Pine tea she'd prepared for both of them. “...I think I am.” She said simply, and felt a little surprised at how true it was. Just yesterday, she'd been wavering back and forth on her final lesson plan before their mission to the Red Canyon to the point of flailing before finally shoving it at Hannamen for examination. He'd had to insist that it was a good idea, if not perfectly constructed, for a couple of minutes before she calmed down.

She just couldn't forget how mortified the Golden Deer students looked after they saw her memory of that fight with the slavers. Even Claude's endlessly cheerful disposition had cracked just enough for him to look taken aback. It was a harsh reminder that she wasn't dealing with the other mercenaries from their troupe; she was in charge of a group of children who hadn't, ever once in their lives, been in a life or death struggle.

In the last week and a half, she hadn't slept much. Instead she stayed up late studying old lesson plans, asking Hannah for help setting up drills, wracked her brain for how she could possibly prepare them for fighting and killing in the time she'd been given! It made her...anxious, she supposed. That was what Sothis called the awful knots that kept forming in her stomach.

“That's not the answer I expected,” Jeralt said, blinking. He said that she got the habit from him. “When we were mercenaries, I handled everything. You never spent much time with people outside of the troupe, even when we weren't on the clock. Here I thought getting thrown into a swarm of noble brats would be too much for you.”

“They're not brats,” Byleth argued, then paused. “Well...maybe Lorenz.”

Jeralt sputtered out a laugh, nearly choking on his tea. She patted him on the shoulder, apologizing hurriedly. He ruffled her hair in response, wheezing, “I'm fine; just didn't expect that either. When did you start getting catty?”

“I...had not intended to be?” She ducked her head. “It just sort of slipped out.”

“Was it him or the Gautier boy who propositioned you in the entrance hall? If it was him, 'brat' might be a good word for him.”

“Oh no. That was Syvlain...and I'm not altogether certain he was being serious.” Her brow furrowed. “Prince Dimitri apologized on his behalf somewhat frantically, implying that this is a frequent occurrence.”

“Nobles,” Jeralt muttered, before shaking his head. “They're sending you out after those bandits...that's fairly routine for you now, but don't forget it's the first real taste of battle for those brats.” He frowned. “It'll be tough to sleep at night if any of your little pupils die, so be careful out there, alright?”

Byleth bit her lip, staring intently down at her tea. “...I know.”

Jeralt looked at her in silence, then reached over and gently squeezed her wrist. “I wish I could be there to give my support, but Lady Rhea has me deployed elsewhere.” He grimaced. “The church has always been quick to make use of their knights...”

Byleth tightened her grip on the cup slightly. “Father...why did you tell Lady Rhea mother died to an illness? You said to me that she had died due to birthing complications.”

“...It's a long story.” Her father replied evasively. “Listen, kid. I don't mind you settling into your life here...but don't let your guard down. Ever. I'll try and figure out what she wants from you, for now.” What went unspoken were the words, and if I don't like it, I'll ensure we can disappear again.

“Then you are afraid...won't you tell me why?”

Jeralt gave her a pained look. “I will, I promise. Just...not right now. You have enough to think about, wrangling those brats.” Then he surprised her with a faint smile. “Hey, are you worried?”

“Worried?” She parroted, nettled. “Of course I am worried. Why?”

“Sorry. I just know that's hard for you, always has been.” He leaned back against the couch. “I'm not much of a teacher without a weapon in hand, but if you want me to look at your plans for the battle, just know I'm right here. Okay?”

“...I would like that,” Byleth allowed, letting out a long breath and feeling the knot in her stomach loosen a bit.

+ _ + _ + _ + _

So, we are taking children into battle, are we? Sothis muttered as the Golden Deer house and a detachment of the Knights of Seiros left the monastery, beginning the march toward the Red Canyon with the sun high in the sky. I'm not sure I'll be sleeping soundly after this...

I thought the Archbishop couldn't spare any men to deal with something as trivial as a bandit attack, Byleth admitted with a small frown. But there are enough of them to protect the entire class if something unexpected happens...why not just send them?

Mmm...I doubt any of the villages those men have raided would call them 'trivial', Sothis remarked sourly. The young mercenary winced in response. In her mind's eye, Byleth could see the child spirit leaning on the arm of her throne, eyes closed as though lost in thought. Bah, do not feel so reproached. I know well what you meant by that.

Still...

Let us focus on solutions, yes? Do you believe your students are ready?

Byleth glanced up at the sky. I believe I've prepared them as much as I could within the time frame. They're all competent and decently capable of rolling with the punches, so to speak. Claude could take command of some of them should we need to split up; he's a good deal sharper than I'd expect for a noble in a crisis.

It's true. He puts a lot of effort into playacting the fool, doesn't he? Sothis tapped her jaw.

...Yes. It's likely a necessity, as the one who will eventually take command of the Alliance. Byleth shook her head. My father and I were contracted by one of the leading houses once. Edmund, I think; he wanted us to investigate rumors involving demonic beasts. While I was there...one of Lord Glouester's retainers had a servant attempt to drug me into a coma and frame Acheron's diplomat for it. She scowled at the memory. I don't think he believed I was one of the mercenaries.

I imagine he regretted that, the green haired girl responded mirthfully.

Father called that 'just a taste' of what the jockeying for power among the highest nobles could be like, Byleth recalled. Even with the man demoted and Lord Glouester's firmest apologies, it was a while before he had us take a job from the Alliance again.

“Professor?”

Byleth blinked twice, belatedly realizing that Lysithea was trying to get her attention. “Yes? What is it?” She asked.

“Are you sure about this?” The diminutive white-haired girl lifted her arm. The thick leather shield sitting upon it glittered in the sunlight. Byleth, upon taking one good at her, had dug through her troupe's inventory until she came up that and an iron counterpart she'd immediately forced on Marianne. “I haven't paid you for it yet...and it's kind of heavy.”

“Don't worry about money,” Byleth dismissed firmly. “Healers are priority targets on the battlefield. Even if you don't know any healing magic, your opponents will act on the assumption that you do.” She frowned. “If the blacksmith wasn't having so many logistical problems, I would have had gotten you proper armor. It will have to wait, unfortunately.”

Lysithea gave her a look she couldn't interpret before glancing away. “I can't. It would weigh me down too much. This is alright.” She hefted the shield arm.

“I see...You'll need a guard then...” The newly made professor mused, looking about her other students before deciding, “When the fighting starts, stay close to me. If we get separated, stick to Raphael. If you loose track of him, find Claude. Never stray too far from your fellow students, understood?”

“I –” For a second Lysithea seemed to gear up to protest, but she withered under the stern glare Byleth sent her in turn. “Yes, Professor.” Byleth relaxed just a bit at that and clapped her shoulder in a way the older mercenaries had always done to convey their friendliness and support. The small girl jumped a bit at the gesture, but didn't pull away.

Why, why, why did Alois recommend me? The Ashen Demon wondered in hopeless confusion. I've never held command before! Father would have told him that!

There's no use complaining about it now, Sothis mused. There is simply nothing for it. I shall allow you to turn back the hands of time.

Me?! You can do that? Byleth nearly said the words out loud, only managing to choke them down at the last second with long practice. You can transfer the power to me? I...would not have thought that possible!

Perhaps, Sothis replied thoughtfully, but some manner of bond exists between us, as this strange position we are in proves. My power is yours, though know that it is not infinite! Your magic, as it is now, can only sustain its use three times in a single battle. Reserve it for only the most crucial moments. She could see the girl frowning. For the children's sake.

I see...thank you.

Byleth saw clocks and stars wheel behind her closed eyes, the sun setting and the moon rising, the tides rolling in and out. There...was no adequate way to describe Sothis's power over time rushing through her. The greatness, the vastness...she felt like a child again, lying in the sands on Almyra's shores staring out across the ocean. She felt like she was standing at the foot of Faerghus's snowy mountains, the peaks so far above her they vanished into the clouds. She felt small, insignificant, a speck of dust in an hourglass.

When her eyes opened again, she smiled. Thank you.

“Professor? You seem kind of distracted. Are you okay?”

Byleth glanced over at Ignatz, who had appeared at her elbow at some point. “I'm fine, thank you. I was just lost in my thoughts.”

“Are you a little worried too?” The young man fidgeted with the strap of his quiver. Out of all her students, he seemed the least confident, and honestly, the least fit to be a knight. She wondered what it was that brought him to the monastery – perhaps he wanted to stay with his friend, Raphael? “Oh, I-I'm sorry. I know you've done missions like this before countless times...I just-”

“I don't have a wealth of experience leading, compared to my father.” She didn't have any, in point of fact. But fear would undermine his capabilities just as much as a poor leader, and that was the last thing she wanted. “As a result I've felt compelled to consider my strategy from many angles, and I may well be overthinking it. That is all, I promise.”

It got Ignatz to smile, at least. “T-That's reassuring...thank you.”

Her father would smile, Byleth knew. He would chuckle and make some offhanded comment that would throw the troupe into a fit of laughter. Suddenly she found herself wishing she could do the same, but no clever or uplifting words would come to her.

“We're almost there,” She said instead. “Be prepared.”

Ignatz swallowed, nodded, and focused on the sky ahead of him. They walked the rest of the way to the mouth of Zanado in uneasy silence. Byleth could almost taste the nervous anticipation among the children surrounding her, could see it in the way they fiddled with their weapons and looked over their shoulders. (Perhaps it wasn't fair to call them children, when she was so close in age to them, but she wasn't sure what else to call a person who'd never had to kill before.) Only Claude was relaxed, his body language overtly casual even as the knights retreated to set up a perimeter, leaving Byleth alone with those she'd been entrusted with.

The entrance to Zanado was a slender stone bridge that could take three people walking side by side, chipped and cracked by age. Withered trees and dried grass covered the white gravel and hard parched earth; life was hard to come by in this place. Leaves crunched under Byleth's feet as she examined the area, frowned, and sharply gestured for her students to stop. “The targets are close,” She said calmly. “Get ready.”

Blood and salt sank so deep into the earth that nothing living could ever flourish here.

A hot spike of something stirred in her blood.

“So this is the Red Canyon...” Claude mused, shrugging lightly before slinging his bow off his shoulder. “Doesn't look red to me...” She turned towards him with a confused frown on her face. “Anyway, let's get started, Teach.”

“Archer just beyond the stairs,” Byleth warned him, gesturing for her healers to come closer to Raphael. Lysithea had taken the time to learn the Heal spell on her instructions; though she was better suited to fighting than staying back and healing as Marianne seemingly was, the more of her students could heal another, the better.“And he's not alone.”

“Then let's get them to come closer,” Raphael said with a laugh. “Just like the mock battle.”

Something inside Byleth squirmed, reminded her that the mock battle used blunt weapons and had Raphael ever been seriously injured before, then she righted herself. “I'll go with you. Claude, cover Lysithea and Marianne and get ready to take care of the archer. Leonie, Lorenz, Hilda, when we engage come in from the side and finish them. Ignatz, keep an eye out.”

The first shot came with so little warning that Byleth only caught it thanks to long practice; she snagged Raphael's shoulder and dragged him back a foot, causing the arrow to hit his shoulder instead of his eye socket. Either the massive young man had a high pain tolerance or enough muscle mass to not really notice, but he did not falter, throwing the first punch when one of the bandits charged towards him, cheap rusted ax at the ready. The iron gauntlet crashed into the man's jaw, knocking him back; Lysithea darted up just behind her classmate and threw a spell – Miasma, if Byleth didn't miss her guess (there was only one mage in Jeralt's mercenaries, and she was an ordained Bishop) – that burned a hole clean through the man's chest. He swayed on his feet for a moment, the three of them able to gaze through the ugly, smoking hole to see the land beyond it, before falling to the ground.

Raphael made a knee-jerk noise of mortified disgust. Lysithea barely reacted at all, however, her hands clenched in preparation for another attack. Byleth didn't have time to say anything to that; the archer was lining up another shot while his second companion rushed the stairs. She moved forward to meet them.

An arrow whisked past her, nailing the archer directly through the throat at over a dozen paces. He let out a gurgling noise before collapsing to the ground. Byleth spared a moment to be impressed by Claude's marksmanship; hitting a moving target was hard enough without contending with allies potentially obstructing one's view. Has he been in real fights even before this?

She swung her blade up and then brought it down in Wrath Strike; the blow sliced through the brigand's leather armor; it was old and worn but well used, clearly he'd been in the peasant militia at one point in his life. If Hilda realized this as she brought her ax down on his head, cleaving it nearly in half, her shaky cheer of victory left no hint of it.

“Nice work,” She said, walking past her.

“Hee; I did it!” The pinkette's usual timber was a bit strained, but she seemed to be bouncing back quickly. “I was planning to hang back a bit and watch my classmates be amazing, but it seems I got it after all!”

Byleth's lips twitched upwards, despite an undercurrent of annoyance at the implication that Hilda would make herself a burden in a dangerous situation. Behind her, she could hear Marianne removing the arrow from Raphael and healing the resulting wound. Leonie hurried up behind her, lance in one hand and bow slung over her shoulder.

“The canyon mouth can be approached from two different directions.” Claude said easily, falling in step with her.

“Our team is full of green recruits and you want to split up?” Byleth asked mildly.

“Do you trust me?” The brunette replied her in turn, smiling at her in his usual manner.

What a question... She liked him. She was fascinated by him, for lack of a better description for the way he made her feel. But she didn't really know him, and he was concealing his thoughts from her with long practice. There was something that felt a bit like a challenge in his eyes, telling her that he knew her thoughts, asking her if their partnership was built on solid ground or mere fancy.

“I do,” She responded firmly. Something darted across his face in response to that, but it was gone too quickly for her to untangle. “Lorenz undermines you too much. Leave him with me. Take...Ignatz, Marianne and Leonie with you. Though, we need to take the field across this bridge first.” He smiled brightly at that, causing her an odd sense of relief.

The Golden Deer fell in a circle around the two of them as they made their way across the bridge. “There sure are a lot of them,” Hilda noted with a slight whine as a dozen men in the distance started shouting. “Claude, I thought you said only that one guy got away!”

“He did,” Claude noted dryly. “Clearly he has a lot of friends.”

“I'm not sure I'd call them friends,” Ignatz mumbled. Byleth blinked and had to stare for a minute before she saw what he saw – namely, one of the bandits repeatedly smacking a shorter comrade with the hilt of his ax before shoving him back further into the misty canyon.

“Eh, it depends on your definition.”

“They're coming this way,” Leonie looked about, frowning. “Ugh, there's no decent cover unless you're walking under a bridge. This place is too exposed. What should we do, professor?”

“Archers, form up.” Byleth ordered calmly. “Raphael, Hilda, come with me; Lysithea, stay with Claude, pick off anyone who gets close to you. When they're brought down, we'll split up and capture both bridges; otherwise we risk this man pulling another disappearing act.”

There were two archers in the gaggle of bandits; fortunately, Jeralt had followed through with his promise of buying her a new bow. It allowed her to throw off their aim with debilitating hits and protect her students. It was necessary...Ignatz, despite having a perfect opportunity to pick off one of the bandits, hesitated – perhaps horrified by seeing gore slipping out of the stomach wound – and nearly caught an arrow to the eye for that moment of pity. Byleth was more than a little surprised when Marianne avenged his near death with a single well-placed Nosferatu.

“Please forgive me, goddess,” The blue-haired girl whispered, her hand trembling as she lowered it. “And save their souls...”

Those...those might have been the first words Byleth heard her say, except perhaps for introducing herself. It was surprisingly compassionate...from a noble to a bandit... Nosferatu is not a powerful spell. How did she-? No, this is not the time.

“A nobleman does his duty,” Lorenz sneered before throwing a fireball directly into his opponent's face, killing him in a few painfully long seconds. The smug confidence didn't last when the stench of burned flesh surrounded him; Byleth watched out of the corner of her eye as the noble boy turned first gray, then green, then threw up on the hard ground while Leonie stepped forward to guard him.

Leonie... Jeralt had spoken of her from time to time; always with strong note of fondness. He would speak about a girl who never gave up, no matter what life threw at her. Watching the girl draw her bow with steady hands and pick off an archer trying to harass Lysithea with two well-aimed shots, Byleth believed it. “This is what I trained for,” The short haired girl bit out, stringing another arrow as she moved forward.

Byleth walked over to Lorenz's side and grasped his shoulder. “Are you ready?” She asked briskly.

“O-Of course, Professor,” Lorenz said, affecting his usual lofty tone. “Naturally.” He scowled. “Where in the eternal flames does Claude think he's going?” His house leader was already slipping away toward the far left bridge, Ignatz and Leonie hot on his heels.

“To carry out the plan we agreed on,” Byelth replied chidingly, annoyed. Lorenz balked and started to stammer an apology, but she shook her head. He could be a ridiculous noble on his own time. “Keep up. The last thing you want to have happen out here is to be separated from the army.”

Raphael was prying Hilda's ax out of the head of a bandit when Byleth came up to join them. Hilda was splattered in blood and wore a thoroughly sickened expression; if the Ashen Demon was to hazard a guess, she'd nearly been overpowered and, in a panic, slammed her weapon into the man's face with more strength than she'd intended.

“It's always more visceral up close,” Byleth offered when Raphael managed to dislodge the weapon with a stomach-churning squelch. “You're all doing well.”

“Ehehe...thank you, Professor,” Hilda took the ax gingerly.

“Yeah! We're pretty strong, aren't we?” Raphael boomed with a bright smile. Uncertain what else to say, Byleth nodded. “We just did what you told us, and we're winning! That's awesome!”

At least he's looking at it positively? “Well, we haven't won yet. Stay vigilant.”

The bridge into one of the deepest areas of the canyon gave a good view. There were roughly seven-eight brigands left, and a few of them were already rushing off toward the pathway Claude and the others were approaching from. That meant the experience could be spread evenly among her students, and they'd be able to wrap this up.

...It grated on Byleth to be holding back, which she'd had to consciously to do an extent ever since the fight started. She knew, intellectually, that she couldn't simply storm the canyon and slaughter the bandits single-handedly. Her students (the thought still sat funny in her head) needed to bloody themselves if they were going to become knights and lords of a good caliber. Largely she restricted herself to protecting them, weakening their enemies, and her muscle memory was fighting her every step of the way.

Do not think you aren't protecting them, Sothis murmured. You are; focus on that. Train your mind around it.

...Okay...

Lysithea stepped onto the bridge; a black flicker whistled upward, piercing her wrist. Amazingly, the girl didn't scream, instead as Byleth hurtled to her side, drew an arrow and fired down at the archer who'd been hiding under the stone, she prepared a spell and finished the boy (and it was a boy, a shaky, skinny little thing who'd frozen in either shock or horror upon getting a good look at her) off.

“Lysithea!” Raphael grabbed the small mage's shoulders as she buckled and made the critical mistake of looking at the arrow was skewered partway through her arm. Byleth uttered a number of words her father liked to use when the tide of battle changed unexpectedly; in a small blessing, the arrowhead didn't need to be cut out, but they still had to remove it.

“This will hurt,” She warned the young girl; Lorenz quickly produced an ice pack to numb the skin around the injury (she spared a single second to be surprised that he was carrying that sort of thing before shuttering it aside).

Lysithea made a face. “This is nothing,” She replied darkly. “I'm ready.”

She did make a sound at the arrow coming out – an involuntary sob – but nothing more than that. Byleth quickly cast Recover – better to do more than necessary when muscles connected to the hands were involved – and contemplated how that was more akin to her own reactions to injuries than anything normal. “Consider this a lesson in situational awareness,” She informed the girl sharply. “That is why you have the shield!”

“I...can see that,” Lysithea managed, gulping deep breaths to manage the shock settling over her. Raphael carefully patted her on the shoulder; she tried to glare at him, but it wasn't particularly strong. “Thank you.”

“Are you steady? Lean on Lorenz if you're not.” Byleth turned and glared down toward the little raised pile of stones where the bandit leader was cowering. “It's time to wrap this up.”

She led them and took on the two bandits remaining near their chief. Something boiling hot was burning through her blood; how dare these rats hide in here?! Stepping over the corpses, she looked up to see the bandit abandon his high ground (not a smart man, this one) in favor of going after Claude, taking a wild swing at him.

“Spoiled little noble!” The man raged, flailing wildly. Claude ducked past his strikes with the ease of a dancer and readied an arrow. “Just die like a good little rich kid!”

“Being a noble has nothing to do with how hard your life is!” Claude retorted with a note of exasperation. Then he raised the bow and fired. His point-blank stance was hardly perfect, but an arrow to the shoulder was far more debilitating than most songs and stories made it out to be. The man shrieked and stumbled back. “Your logic is illogical.” In the blink of an eye, he spun an arrow around his fingers and fired it, this time hitting the man in the knee.

That's an amazing draw time, Byleth thought in wonder, even as she put her sword away and drew her own bow. It wouldn't do to get in Claude's way, after all.

“So, how much were you getting paid to knock off this spoiled rich kid?” Claude asked lazily, circling around his opponent like fox creeping up on a hen. “Or maybe you were being paid for the prince of Faerghus, and I just happened to be there? They must be pretty desperate to employ the first brigand they tripped over...” He smirked. “Then again, that does make you pretty disposable, doesn't it?”

The bandit screeched and moved to throw his ax at the teenager; Byleth's arrow pierced through his arm, causing him to drop it instead. Claude gave her a cheerful wave of thanks without breaking stride. “You must not have had anywhere to go after your boss cut you loose; most people who piss off the church don't try to hide in sacred grounds.” He let out a small chuckle. “It's embarrassing to think someone like you successfully ambushed us.”

“He...heh...” The brigand spat out blood. “They're going to destroy your kind. You know that? One day...there will be none of you left. No one to steal our livelihoods, no one to take food from our children's mouths, none! You'll all be laid in a filthy open grave on the roadside like so many of us...” His whole body tensed. “Starting with you!”

What he'd hoped to accomplish, Byleth wasn't sure. Claude's third arrow hit him in the eye, killing him within a couple of seconds.

This time, just to be sure, Byleth made her way over to the corpse and examined it. Confirming his death, she took stock of her students. Lysithea was standing upright again, looking satisfied. Lorenz was hovering at her shoulder with slightly overbearing concern displayed in a manner typical of his personality. Hilda and Raphael trotted up behind her, asking without words if this was over. Claude was frowning down at the body, his remote gaze swirling with thoughts. Marianne came up behind him, also staring. “Who do you suppose he was?” She asked softly. “Before this?”

“...I don't think even he'd remember, now.” Claude said, shouldering his bow. “Whatever he had back then, he'd long since lost. Or it was taken from him.”

“Do you suppose...?” Ignatz started, then closed his eyes. “He said 'they'. Claude, do you think...?”

“I don't know what I think,” The brunette said sourly. “There's just not enough to go on from that. I'd hoped to bait him into saying something useful, but it's no good. It could be somebody with a grudge against nobility...but they also could have just used that line to string him along.”

He huffed out a breath before smiling again. “Your leadership was amazing, Teach.” It was?, Byleth thought, surprised and...a little warm? “Let's leave the rest of this work to the knights.”

She nodded, gesturing for Lysithea to signal their escorts. The knights would comb the canyon, take care of any stragglers, and look for any sort of indication of what the bandits had been after. Her students started to walk back to the mouth of the canyon, chattering wildly amongst themselves...Byleth followed them for a short pace, and then paused, looking all around.

This place was peaceful once...

But how did she know that? And what...what about the bandits being here made her so angry?

+ _ + _ + _

“Hey Teach, on the way back you seemed transfixed by the canyon. Did something happen there?”

Byleth stopped mid step in the entrance hall of the monastery, turning to look at Claude in surprise. “I...” She hesitated under that earnest gaze before saying, “It's...hard to say. In the time we spent there, I felt strange. That place felt...familiar.” She shook her head. “As if I had been there a long time ago.”

“...Huh. Can't say the same,” Claude put his hands behind his head. “Maybe it was a memory from your childhood. Or a past life.”

She blinked. “You believe in reincarnation?” Tales of lover's souls bound together, chasing each other through time...she'd heard them in Brigid, in Almyra, but not often in Fodlan.

“'Believe' is a strong word, Teach,” He replied easily. “It's just a thought. And I have to admit...I'm a bit curious about Zanado myself. How did it come to be called the Red Canyon? Nothing there was actually red.”

Yet another nameless feeling prickled up Byleth's spine. “I don't know...” She sighed, then looked at him. “Are you worried?”

“Huh?”

“About what that man said. Shallow graves and being wiped out.” Byleth raised one hand and leaned her cheek against it. “You were targeted just for being born...”

“Aw, Teach, fussing over your students already?” Claude beamed at her. “I'm fine, really. All I feel right now is a desire to catch the next guy sent after me, hold them by the ankles and shake them until all their secrets fall out.”

“I'll protect you.” It was his turn to blink in surprise. She felt it keenly herself – why had she... “I'm promising you that, alright? Whoever is causing this...has to get through me to get to you.” She hesitated, then bowed just a bit. “They'll lose.”

“I...don't doubt that,” Claude said after a moment, gazing at her with sharpening eyes. “What brought that on? We're pretty safe here...Garreg Mach hasn't been taken in all the years since its construction, though it's been assaulted in times before. Why-?”

“Because I'm grateful.” She interrupted him quietly. “That you aren't afraid of me. Or repulsed by me.” He fell silent, eyes widening. “I have wished for...” She hesitated, the words on the tip of her tongue suddenly slipping away from her. She felt a warmth rise to her cheeks, followed immediately by an inexplicable anxiety. “I mean...ah! I have to file the report with the archbishop. I...I shall see you at dinner, I guess.”

And so the infamous Ashen Demon ran away from a boy with all haste, blood thundering in her veins, wondering what in the eternal flames had come over her.

Chapter Text

“You're doing fine, Ashe,” Dimitri said reassuringly, walking back to the other end of the training ground. His fellow Blue Lion scrambled to get up, wincing from the fall he'd just taken, and brought his lance up with shaky hands. Ruefully, the prince of Faerghus noted that he had yet to successfully distract his classmate from his anxieties. “Do you want to take a break?”

“N-no, your highness,” Ashe said. His usual earnestness didn't reach his eyes. “I'm really grateful for your help here. I didn't mean to take up your entire afternoon...”

“It's no trouble.” Dimitri responded, his tone carefully gentle. I wish you'd call me by my name, he thought but didn't say; this was hardly a good moment for such things. “I always have time to spar.” He smiled lightly and prodded the other boy's leg lightly with the blunted training lance. “Shall we begin again?”

Ashe nodded, trotting warily back and forth as he looked for some way to approach his opponent. The former thief wasn't physically inept, but his comparatively slight frame had it's downsides – when one used a lance, strength and momentum are fairly important. Dimitri was so physically strong that any attempt to overpower him in a straight fight had proven useless. That said, Ashe knew full well there was more than one way around a battle; Dimitri wanted to see if he could exploit one.

The more he concentrated on that, the less he was dwelling on the news of Lord Lonato's rebellion...

Dimitri thought he might have frowned, because Ashe darted forward, smacking his arm with the edge of the lance and darted back immediately, the retaliatory strike only grazing the air. Ashe jumped back again as he pursued, leading his prince in a circle around the training grounds. The boy was quick on his feet, even more than Ingrid.

The huge double doors groaned as they swung open to admit someone, though Dimitri paid it no mind. Ashe had decided to try and wear him down until he made a mistake, and while there was some wisdom to that especially if you were weaker than your opponent...there was an inherent flaw to it. You needed to not get hit.

When most people evaluated him during training, they tended to focus on his unnatural strength to the exclusion of all else. While it was an easy thing to get distracted by, it frequently caused them to fail to notice something important – that is, the fact that Dimitri was deceptively quick on his feet.

He bided his time, letting Ashe feel more confident until he overextended. Then he struck; knocking the lance aside and landing a solid kick on the smaller boy's stomach. Ashe sputtered painfully and dropped onto the smooth stone ground.

The prince was instantly contrite. “I'm sorry, Ashe! Are you alright?”

“I'm...ah, ow...I'm okay.” Ashe wheezed a little, pushing himself up onto his knees. “You startled me...”

“I didn't hit harder than I intended to, did I?” Dimitri asked worriedly, stepping forward and offering his hand. “Felix has remonstrated me for that before...”

“No, it's okay,” The archer took it and got up the rest of the way, smiling reassuringly. “You didn't hurt me. I just failed to brace myself.”

“You guys are going to miss dinner at this rate,” A new voice cut in. Dimitri blinked and looked over Ashe's shoulder to see Claude leaning against a pillar, watching them with his hands behind his head. The prince, not for the first time, envied how relaxed and at ease his fellow house leader was so frequently. With the way he held himself, you'd think he was on a lazy vacation to a southern beach rather than at academy.

Though...now Dimitri wondered how much of that was an affectation. “Come now, Claude. The sun isn't that low.” He ran a hand though his hair. “And I thought you were in a seminar.”

“Hannamen ended it early,” Claude said with a shrug. “Some important meeting got rescheduled. Everything here is a bit chaotic in light of the event that's apparently coming this way. And Teach is fishing, so I have to go bother someone else.”

“And you picked me instead of Lorenz? Should I be flattered?” Dimitri glanced back at Ashe, who was standing very still and staring intently at the other archer. The silver haired boy opened his mouth, closed it, and shifted from one foot to the other in a way that telegraphed his nervousness.

Technically, they weren't supposed to know that Lady Rhea had assigned the Golden Deer house to follow the Knights of Seiros sent to confront Lord Lonato and his troops. Ashe, in his distress, had spoken to everyone he could get a hold of and eavesdropped on those he couldn't; and thus overheard two knights discussing the matter – specifically, one saying that it made more sense to send the Alliance students for mop up because they wouldn't feel compelled to let any heretics they found alive escape. The other had apparently snarked back about valuing a lack of compassion in young soldiers and how the Alliance being pitiless backstabbers was the literal oldest joke in the book so his friend should get new material.

Sylvain laughed; Ashe didn't.

“Lorenz wouldn't be nearly so fun to wind up if he wasn't such a drama king,” Claude said with a shameless laugh. “Actually, I happened to walk by Mercedes and Annette; who were having a very polite fit over how you two missed lunch and wondering where you'd been all day, respectively. I thought to myself, where in Fodlan will I find an overworked prince who might still be upset Teach knocked him on his ass in a mock battle?” He spread his hands. “Lo and behold, here you are.”

“Oh, Mercedes...” Ashe looked down at the ground. “I told her not to worry.”

“She really needn't do so,” Dimitri complained. He wasn't Felix, damn it! “I've been keeping an eye on the sky.”

“How are you not starving?”

“The same way you can so expertly annoy people,” Dimitri said in a fit of exasperation, “That is, long practice.” After a second, he flushed slightly. Where had that come from?

Rather than be offended, Claude's face broke into an incredulous smile. “Was that a joke?” He turned his attention to Ashe. “You heard that, right? Or is the humorless prince actually cracking a joke still a fantasy of mine?”

“I-I'm not sure that was...” Ashe shook his head, “Ah...! L-leave me out of this!”

Claude just chuckled in response as Dimitri gave his classmate a faintly betrayed look. Feeling something between annoyance and a strange amusement, he smiled to himself and walked over toward the rack holding the training weapons. If that's how he's going to play... “Well, if you're so lacking in distraction, come spar with us.” He grabbed one of the blunted axes, turning and sliding it across the ground to the brunette's feet. “There's still an hour of daylight before the kitchen opens.”

Looking up blessed him with the remarkable sight of Claude's emerald eyes widening in momentary alarm. “Oh, I didn't mean to intrude,” He said innocently.

“You're not; I'd meant to give Ashe a break after my misstep there.” Dimitri gave the archer in question a faint smirk. Ashe blinked owlishly at him, then nodded before retreating to the marble sidelines. “You ought to know that not everyone will engage you on your terms. Get ready, Claude.”

His fellow house leader grimaced for a moment before his charming smile returned. “As you wish, your highness.” Dimitri had no idea how he managed to make the given title sound like an endearment; it was either a gift or a weapon. He rolled his eyes and watched as the brunette initially took on an aiming stance before remembering which weapon he was using, and moved accordingly.

Dimitri walked in a lazy circle around his new opponent, eyeing him speculatively. A lot of fresh trainees underestimated how much upper body strength one needed to effectively use any sort of bow; Claude was surprisingly slender with that in mind, his figure largely hidden by his loose academy clothes. The brunette could outrun him, easily; their mad dash to Remire (while he'd been nursing bruised ribs at that) had proven as much. A hit and run strategy would be somewhat more effective in his hands than Ashe's (at this point in his training, anyway).

Claude watched him prowl with a familiar lazy smile, eyes empty except for the dispassionate calculation that had unnerved him for the longest time. His fingers drummed against the hilt of the training axe, whether that was nerves or merely getting used to the weight couldn't be said. Dimitri could feel Ashe watching from the sidelines with wide eyed interest.

“Too nervous to fight up close and personal?” Dimitri asked with a small grin.

His opponent's eyes flashed. “You insult me,” Then he moved, darting forward on light feet.

Dimitri parried, letting the momentum turn him to the side. Claude didn't waste a step, bringing the ax down on the middle of the lance. Briefly Dimitri remembered reading a paper with Glenn years ago; 'the theory of the weapon triangle'. It wasn't a widely accepted postulation, but the crux of it was that the weight of an ax allowed it to crack or outright break a lance, a sword could cleave an axe in half with a well placed strike, and the superior range of a lance put a swordsman at an inherent disadvantage. He seriously doubted Claude had read it, but the precise way he countered Dimitri's strikes suggested he aimed to use the curve of the ax to either break his weapon or disarm him.

You don't like your chances, do you?, Dimitri thought with a spark of heady amusement.

He raised his lance with both hands, blocking Claude's overhead strike. Then he kicked the other boy in the shin. The knee-jerk stagger threw off the brunette's center off; pushing his lance to the side, he leaned forward and lashed out again, this time hitting him in the thigh. Unbalanced, Claude crumbled to the floor, loosing his weapon in the process.

Dimitri re-centered himself and brought his lance down. Claude jerked to the side, rolling over and onto his knees looking up at his opponent. Dimitri made as if to impale him, though aiming for his shoulder rather than his throat.

Claude merely swayed to the right, then reached up and grabbed the shaft right below the 'blade' with his bare hand mid-strike. He smirked up at the prince's surprised face, then fell backwards dragging Dimitri down with him. The prince suppressed an unflattering noise of displeasure after hitting one hand and knee against the rough ground; Claude let go and rolled over one shoulder back onto his feet, hurrying to reclaim his axe.

Dimitri was on his feet by the time the brunette turned around; his knee smarted, but it wasn't debilitating. Claude darted past him, taking a swing at his unprotected back; forcing him to duck and turn, now on the back foot.

The brunette chuckled. “What? Never seen anyone use their hands in a fight before?”

“If there are many people mad enough to try and catch the blade of a sword or axe in their bare hands, I've yet to meet them,” Dimitri responded, taking a stab at the other teen's shoulder. Claude swayed to the right, dodging smoothly, and that's when the prince saw it; without realizing it, he was carrying the fight toward one of the building's pillars. More fool he.

He feinted right, and managed to hit Claude's stomach with the blunt end of his lance. A quick kick knocked the brunette into the pillar, wincing as collided with the hard stone. When those green eyes opened again, they became crossed as they looked down at the tip of the lance pointed at his throat.

“You think I'm still embarrassed by my loss?” Dimitri chuckled. “Hah. I've always enjoyed a good fight...and, might I remind you,” He lightly and gently pressed the lance point against Claude's chin, “If not for the Professor, I would have had you then too.”

Claude took a couple of deep breaths, staring back at Dimitri with a strange gleam in those eyes. “Haha...that was hardly fair, using your crest like that...only the prince of Faerghus could throw a training lance hard enough it hits like a mace to the stomach.”

Dimitri snorted and grinned, lowering his lance when his partner opened his hands in defeat. “I don't need to hear about fairness from the duke of schemes!” Turning on one heel, he walked back to the center of the training ground. “You have your own advantages borne of the golden moon in your blood; I merely leveraged mine better. Now come, unless you've given up?”

He heard the scrape of wood on stone and a low whistle before he turned around. Claude walked towards him, his expression alight with amused curiosity. Training always relaxed him, and getting one over the enigmatic teenager was enough of a victory that he felt immune to the obvious scrutiny. “Hardly.”

This time Claude waited for Dimitri to come to him; he knew he was faster than the prince, even before his crest was factored in. The Crest of Riegan was famous for giving its holders inhuman stamina; stories abounded about various heirs running for a day and a night without stopping, outlasting a room full of foes by fighting until their opponents exhausted themselves one by one, climbing mountains while weighed down by unconscious partners. Claude wasn't physically stronger than Dimitri – few, if any, were – but there was little doubt in the prince's mind that the duke could easily outlast him. As he threw one flurry of attacks after another, Claude focused almost wholly on parry and dodging, occasionally smiling but largely wearing an expression of calm concentration. He wants something to exploit. Dimitri could admit he wasn't the most graceful fighter, and that his fighting style 'clunked' in certain places since he'd largely taught himself after the household knights were slaughtered in Duscur. (No don't think about that right now) He couldn't give the other teen a chance to exploit the vulnerability he knew was there.

Claude's ax hit his exposed leg, as if to underscore his thought. You're too slow, Dimitri, Glenn chided him as he jumped back to avoid the swing at his upper leg. You're still too slow.

I know! I know! He parried, side stepping past Claude to lash at him, regain control of the fight's momentum. Claude slid past the attack again, taking another swing at his chest. Dimitri stepped back, grimaced, and quickly drew up a plan. He circled back and made to visibly favor his bruised knee, squaring his shoulders and taking a more defensive stance.

He saw a brief flare of wariness in Claude's eyes. The brunette swayed in place for a moment, curious, then – quick as an arrow – threw his ax at Dimitri's chest. Swearing, Dimitri dropped his lance and brought up both arms to protect himself; the impact rattled his arms. Claude darted forward and kicked his leg directly on the bruise (on purpose or by accident, who knew with him); the shock was debilitating enough to unbalance him.

Claude grabbed his arm as he stumbled, pulling it behind his back and locking it there. Dimitri winced, instinctively going to one knee in response to the pressure. “Oops,” He said, not sounding sorry in the slightest.

The joke inflamed him, though not in a visceral way – goddess help him, but Dimitri was tempted to laugh. I truly do enjoy this too much, he thought ruefully, right before grabbing Claude's arm and pushing his back into the other teen's chest. The brunette barely managed a squeak of surprise before Dimitri pushed upwards, flipping over his shoulder and onto the ground. The arm Claude had been holding was nearly jerked out of its socket, causing Dimitri's vision to briefly blur as the muscles loudly screeching their displeasure at his tactical maneuver. Claude was starting to get up, though, so he paid it no heed, tackling the slighter teen and pinning him to the ground, one hand on holding his wrist above his head while he sat upon the boy's legs.

Claude blinked the stars out of his eyes and stared up at Dimitri. Their closeness in that moment let the prince see the flush in his opponent's cheeks and how rapidly he breathed as he took stock of the position he was in. “Okay,” he said in odd voice (Did I wind him? I didn't mean to do that-) “so trying to pin you is pointless. Good to have that ruled out.”

“You threw that fight?” Dimitri asked, shifting his weight a bit as he waited for the brunette to signal his surrender and grabbing the teen's other hand when he felt it on his hip. He couldn't help feeling a little annoyed at the implication.

“No,” Claude said, still sounding breathless. His wide eyes darted about Dimitri, and when he clearly decided he couldn't wriggle out of the pinning, he opened his palms with an oddly meek smile. “I thought I had an opportunity. I took it and it backfired. ...Though I figured I'd at least take your arm out.”

“You almost did,” Dimitri allowed, relaxing. He quickly crawled off the teen's legs and got back to his feet. “In a real fight, if you'd dislocated my shoulder straight away I wouldn't have been able to do so.” He regarded the schemer curiously as he slowly sat up, staring at him with yet more careful consideration. “You're doing better than I expected. Are you alright?”

“I'm fine,” Claude waved dismissively, before heaving himself to his feet. He looked past Dimitri, walking over to pick up his ax again. “That's not much where I come from.”

Dimitri swallowed a noise of surprise, wondering if that was a reference to training in the Alliance or an oblique description of combat instruction in Almyra. He didn't have time to debate asking, however; Claude turned around, one hand on his hip while his axe leaned against his leg and smirked, lazily gesturing for the prince to come and get him. Dimitri felt a tinge of embarrassment and thought, only you could make that look insinuating, before snatching his lance up and striding forward.

As they clashed again, it briefly occurred to Dimitri how differently Claude fought compared to Felix, who also greatly favored speed. Felix relied wholly on his strength; he could and would dodge to get the advantage, but he seemed to actively loathe fighting defensively. Claude, meanwhile, would leverage his strengths in whatever way would bring him the win. It was fascinating, really. If he had the chance to watch the two of them spar...

Well, a sudden hit to the side reminded him to concentrate.

He focused on trying to keep control of the battle momentum; no easy task when Claude would simply dart back whenever he tried to initiate a blade lock. Even as his undoubtedly bruised knee keened at points throughout the 'dance', Dimitri couldn't help but grin. This was good. It was too bad that Claude preferred bows; this was completely unlike fighting Ingrid, Dedue or his other classmates. He could see the brunette shifting his strategy moment to moment, changing how he moved just in time to slip out of his grasp. It's so rare that someone makes me work for it, other than Felix.

“You look so cheerful,” Claude remarked between breaths, taking a swipe at his leg again. Dimitri parried it. “Am I that good?”

“You're elusive,” Dimitri replied, feinting vulnerability for a moment. It seemed Claude had caught onto that, though, because he merely stalked around the prince as if to catch him from behind. “I know how to beat you; it's nice when it's not easy, though.”

“Oooh, is that right?” The brunette crooned, slipping past him once again. Swinging behind the prince, he tapped him on the shoulder with the flat of the ax and jumped back when Dimitri turned to jab him. “Cockiness doesn't suit you, your highness.”

“You never let up, do you?” He's overextended himself, again. Dimitri lunged forward, knocking the ax away again and forcing his opponent back. Then he swung again.

Claude dropped to his knees, letting the strike fly over his head. The prince had a split second to realize it...What Dimitri hadn't noticed was that this time, he was the one being lead to one of the pillars. He barely checked his momentum in time to avoid crashing into it, and started to turn about...

...Which was when Claude's hand grabbed his hip – almost like he was about to take him to a dance – and spun him around. Surging upward, the duke shoved his back against the pillar and pressed hard leather against his throat. His free hand grabbed Dimitri's wrist, arresting the lance mid-movement. “Gotcha,” Claude panted triumphantly, emerald gaze alight with glee.

Dimitri swallowed hard against the weight against his throat. He knew what he felt was a sheath, but even still... “...You've had that in your boot all day?”

Claude raised an eyebrow. Hesitantly, Dimitri opened his palms in surrender, and at that Claude pulled back the short dagger and let it rest by his side. “Force of habit,” He said breathlessly, looking incredibly pleased with himself. “Spend a few weeks in the Alliance, if your honor can stomach it. You'll start keeping one at both ankles too.”

“And here I thought the rumors had to be exaggerated...” Dimitri twisted his wrist a bit in Claude's grip, but the other teen seemed content to keep him pinned for a moment, perhaps to immortalize his victory. He could feel a flush rising to his cheeks as he gazed into those intense eyes, eyes Professor Manuela had so accurately described as 'drowning pits for the soul'.

“Eh, they are. But the rumors that stick around tend to come from somewhere.” The prince could feel Claude's breath on his lips. His heart was still hammering; his sudden loss aggrieved by the lingering closeness. W-What's this...?

After a long, confusing moment, Claude released him and stepped back, grinning, his brow slicked with sweat. “Well...as entertaining as that was, Mercedes will be cross with me if I don't do my job and ensure you and Ashe make it to dinner. Let's go and find him again, shall we? ...And we might want to bathe before the first course hits the tables. Lorenz will take all the fun out of dinnertime conversation otherwise.”

Dimitri caught his breath and let out an awkward laugh. “That's true enough.” A glance up at the sky showed him the shift in the sun's rays; the celestial body had begun it's descent, and soon there would be streaks of pink and gold coloring the clouds. “Thank you for that, Claude.”

“Maybe I should thank you,” Claude responded easily. “Teach was most put out at my having 'neglected close combat'.”

As they put their training weapons away, Dimitri winced and rubbed his knee. “Hey, I didn't mess up your leg with that little stunt, did I?” Claude asked with a frown in his voice.

“No, no. It's just a bruise; it's the placement of it that makes it hard to ignore.” Dimitri hung the rack back up and ran a hand through his hair. “I'll go see Professor Manuela after dinner. You're sure you don't need to do the same? I threw you pretty hard.”

“What, that? That's nothing I can't sleep off. No need to worry quite so much.”

Dimitri snorted. “Remind me never to leave Ingrid in charge of your well being. If you think I'm prone to fretting, the two of you might drive each other to frustration.”

+ _ + _ + _

Finding Ashe wasn't a problem; he was lingering outside Professor Byleth's dorm, walking back and forth and clearly frustrated with his inability to approach her privately. Dimitri had a sinking feeling he knew what his friend wanted, though it wasn't his place to protest. If anyone should have the final word on it, it was Ashe...he was the one who had the most as stake with Lord Lonato's Rebellion gaining more momentum.

It baffled Dimitri. Frustrated him. What on Earth was Lord Lonato thinking? It would be one thing if he had the soldiers to back up his revolt against the church, but even his cursory knowledge of Castle Gaspard told him that such a thing wasn't possible unless he had outside assistance. All he would achieve by marching on Garreg Mach with the men he had would be the sacking of the devout villages that littered the road to the monastery. The Knights of Serios may not be a 'true' army like those that could be fielded by Faerghus, Adrestia and the Leiscter Alliance, but they were the greatest soldiers on the continent, and a powerful force when brought to bear. There was a reason the threat of their appearance was used to settle disputes between warring nobles. There was a reason they were feared by those who turned against the compassion and wisdom of Serios's teachings.

What did he hope to achieve? Why drove him to such a drastic action?

It did aggravate Dimitri a bit that Rhea had chosen Claude and Professor Byleth to handle this mission instead of his own house. He had no desire to kill men and women that he, as their prince, was sworn to protect, but he was the Prince of Faerghus. If one of his Lords was doing wrong, did he not have a responsibility to set things right? It rather felt like the ugly matter was being pawned off on the Golden Deer out of political expediency, and that rankled.

A quick bath did little to ease his swirling thoughts on the matter, but it did soothe his joints, and having skipped lunch finally caught up with him when he entered the dining hall and smelled vegetable soup, cooked fish and beef.

“What do I have to do to make sure you eat lunch, Dimitri?” Mercedes complained while he devoured the meal before him, irregardless of being unable to truly enjoy it. “And you too, Ashe! That's a terrible habit to get in to!”

“I'm sorry,” Ashe mumbled, staring down at his untouched soup. “I...I didn't feel like eating.”

Mercedes gently squeezed his arm. “Oh Ashe, I'm sorry too..I know you're upset, but you really must keep yourself healthy! It won't do any good, for yourself or Lord Lonato, for you to be running around without food.”

“I know, I know...it's just...” Ashe fiddled with his spoon. “Whenever I think about eating, it's like my stomach's in knots. I've been trying to concentrate on anything else, but it doesn't help.”

“C'mon,” Annette leaned over Mercedes to ruffle his hair. “Just eat a bit of it! They're serving Peach Sorbet for dessert tonight, and Mercie won't let you have any if you don't try to finish the soup."

Ashe managed a weak smile at that, staring down at his bowl.

“It should be us going out there,” Felix muttered darkly from Dimitri's far left. “Why are the Deer given a Kingdom matter to settle while we're being sent to hunt dime-a-dozen bandits?” The prince was half-tempted to cuff his old friend's head as he often did when they were children for being so tactless within Ashe's hearing. Unfortunately, that gesture would not be taken as it had used to.

“You got me,” Sylvain shrugged, the gesture offset by the genuine uncertainty in his face. “I mean, what could go wrong? Best case scenario, Dimitri or Ashe could maybe talk Lonato down or at least figure out what's going on.”

“Perhaps the Archbishop fears a conflict of interest.” Dedue shrugged, draining the remains of his own soup. “Or perhaps she believes a more neutral party could better assess the situation's aftermath. They are being sent after the vanguard, not alongside them.”

“I don't like this,” Ingrid said, pushing fish bones around her plate with her fork. “Why would Lord Lonato prepare to march on Garreg Mach after having sent Ashe there to study? Maybe we're being fed a lot of misinformation. Maybe someone else is acting in Lord Lonato's name and hopes to use him as a pasty.”

“That's...a rather tempting scenario,” Dimitri acknowledged after swallowing. “Unfortunately, I doubt it. Ordering a march on the heart of the Central Church...his people would insist on hearing such orders from their Lord's own lips. He would have to convince them to join them on such a crusade. It's too mad a suggestion otherwise.”

“The Kingdom has always been blessed with a close relationship with the church,” Mercedes murmured. “What could have kindled such hatred in such a kind man?”

Ashe swallowed a mouthful of the soup and let out a mournful sigh. “I don't know! I've been loosing sleep, wondering and wondering...Lonato is devout. He taught me the prayers and the songs. I just...I can't...” He frantically rubbed at his eyes. “I guess...it must be because of Christophe...”

Dimitri blinked. He'd heard that name before, of course...attached to the list of supposed conspirators involved with the Tragedy of Duscur. Even in his most haunted moments, it had seemed strange to him. Castle Gaspard was the house of a minor noble, and one that had little effect on court. He couldn't imagine what they might have gained from being involved. His father had spoken well of the family.

Then again, he knew in his gut that whomever had slaughtered his family and friends must have had help from within the Kingdom. There was no other way such a total slaughter and decent framing could have been pulled off in a short window. If Christophe truly had...

No. This wasn't the moment for such thoughts. Ashe needed his support, not the cruel bite of his demons. He lowered his eyes away from Glenn's flickering specter, leaning against Ingrid's chair opposite him, and finished his meal.

Ashe made a small noise. Dimitri blinked, following his gaze to see Professor Byleth stand from table where she was surrounded by her students, say something to them, then quietly wander from the room. She doesn't enjoy crowds much, does she? Ashe got up so quickly he knocked his chair over, darting through the crowded hall after her.

“Ashe!” Mercedes cried in surprise, scrambling to chase after him. Dimitri wasn't sure what compelled him to follow, but he did so, apologizing to the serving girl Ashe had nearly knocked over in his haste.

The two of them paused at the top of the stairs that lead into the lower dorms. Byleth hadn't gotten too far; she stood still, one hand tugging at a knot in her hair, as Ashe came to a halt in front of her.

“Professor, please – please,” Ashe said breathlessly. “I-I want to come with you and your class on the mission to Madgral Way. I won't get in the way, I promise, I-I just have to be there.”

“Why?” There was no accusation in Byleth's even tone, just a calm desire for clarification. “Our mission isn't to take part in the fight itself. Just to clean up afterwards. It won't be much different than the bandit cleanup you're being sent on. You may actually face less action coming with us than on your assigned course.”

“I don't really care about that,” Ashe insisted. “It's doesn't matter. I just have to go and see it with my own eyes. Speak to Lonato, if I can. I need this chance, professor, please bring me with you.”

“You're calling him...” Byleth shifted a bit, tilting her head and raising one hand slightly. “Wait. Dimitri told me you were...” It was hard to tell from the distance, but Dimitri swore her face settled into a gentle frown of concern. “I don't understand. Ashe...do you know what we're being sent to do?”

“I do,” He winced as the younger boy's voice crack. “I know the people who will be there. I grew up around them. They were always kind to me. But...but...! I need to know why this is happening. M-Maybe I can convince some of them to surrender. Maybe I can't. But I have to try. I c-can't just sit here while everyone I know and love goes to war.”

“...But...do you really want that? Do you want to see them die? Do you want to identify bodies for the Knights? Do you want to watch...” Byleth's voice cracked into bewilderment. “I...” She wrapped her arms around her. “I...I believe I'd need to ask the Archbishop. Or else your class will be short one member for their mission this month.”

“Thank you, Professor.” The painful relief in Ashe's voice was palpable. “Thank you so much...”

Dimitri's heart clenched as though it were in a vice. He wished Byleth had refused the request. Especially since she seemed uncomfortable. He hoped the Archbishop would agree with him.

He'd watched his father loose his head, be murdered and desecrated....he didn't want kind, gentle Ashe to wake screaming from the same nightmares that plagued him every night.

Chapter Text

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thwip!

Claude reached for another arrow and frowned when his hand brushed against his shoulder blade. “Whoops,” he muttered, slinging the iron bow over his shoulder and walking across the field to the targets he'd set up much earlier. It was misty out, the sun just barely peaking out over the treetops; few people were out and about besides him, which suited him fine. No one needed to see him venting. Venting implied something was eating at him, and the less anyone suspected that the better.

Stupid, idealistic fool, he thought irritably, yanking one arrow after another out of the bullseye. Are you really so starved for a kind smile and sweet words that you'd practically throw yourself to someone who couldn't have you even if he wanted to? He'd yet to decide if Dimitri's apparent obliviousness was a curse or a blessing. Get a grip. You've had your head in the clouds ever since that chat in the greenhouse.

His heart thumped traitorously at the reminder; he wrenched the arrow out of the tree trunk hard enough to snap it, leaving it dangling uselessly in his hand. “Damn it.” Forcing himself to breathe out slowly and count to ten, he made his way toward the next target, toes sinking into the cool grass. “Why do I do this to myself?”

...A stupid question, really. It was like asking why a desert traveler drank so deeply from the well when he stopped in civilization.

Why? Why was it like this? How could a single compliment, not even a direct flirtation!, cut straight through all armor and scar tissue around what might have been his heart to pierce something so desperately vulnerable? It was because he meant it. He wasn't mocking me...he defended me from that very sort of verbal assault. He really looked at me and saw something so breathtaking it left him quoting his country's most famous romantic fable.

Of course he only realized it now. Upon meeting him for the first time, Dimitri had stared at him for several seconds without speaking while he had acted his usual self – that is, mocking the overly serious knights looming in the doorway and sarcastically addressing him as your kingliness. Then, apropos to nothing, the blonde had blurted out, 'lord, El, why didn't you warn me?' Naturally he'd been offended (he'd heard much less friendly variants of that ever since arriving in Deirdru), and promptly dedicated that afternoon to annoying the other royal as much as possible.

If he'd had the chance to read the fable beforehand, he might have realized that those were nearly the exact words the protagonist spoke upon beholding the now-human star, completely mesmerized by the sight of him.

The skin, the eyes, the very things that brand me as mixed blood, an outsider, are beautiful...? Claude shook his head violently – as if the gesture could somehow scatter his thoughts.

He'd just woken from dreams so sweet they were poison in his chest, and it seemed no matter how many arrows he fired, none of them would rend the illusion apart. Send the blissful images back into the depths of his mind where they could be locked away.

Why couldn't he be sensible about this? Observing Dimitri in the weeks before Teach's arrival had proven that the northern prince was staggeringly, mind-blowingly dense. Claude wasn't sure what else to call someone who's bodyguard was in love with him and making no attempts to hide it, yet whom operated entirely on the assumption that they were merely friends. Sure, Dedue seemingly had no intention of ever seriously pursuing Dimitri, but he was so obvious Claude had thought the prince had to know. But no, a few probing jokes made it clear that he didn't have an inkling.

So, Dimitri was socially clueless. If he ever managed to flirt with someone, it was probably by accident, and there'd be no way to mistaken any actual advances for anything else. He'd be too direct and clumsy. If he had any intimate interest in men, he either didn't know it or was hiding it. (Claude had caught him admiring Teach occasionally, but then again so were half their classmates. Dorothea in particular couldn't quite seem to help herself.)

Oh, he didn't doubt that Dimitri meant it when he said...said that. It just...probably didn't mean what it did in the story.

No one's ever said that before. Never said it seriously. When they said it, they were offering me a chalice full of poison so thick I could smell it. Claude strung up an arrow and fired it, hitting the bullseye again.

In the days coming up to the mock battle, he'd gone and made the grand mistake of actually reading the damned fable. He'd spent that night wide awake, heart racing, the constant descriptions of the star's divine beauty ringing in his ears. Serious, honorable Dimitri, who couldn't tell a joke to save his own life, had thought of that when seeing him for the first time...

His arrow went wide, landing somewhere in the grass. Claude nearly swore in his birth language before checking himself.

He had no idea what ambrosia he'd drunk a week ago that made him confident enough to flirt after Dimitri challenged him to a spar. Carefully, quietly, leaving himself an out if it was needed...but he still did it. While Dimitri didn't seem to have picked up on it, Ashe might well have – the kid had excused himself right after the prince had pinned him, momentarily leaving him a flustered mess. Even now the memory of that moment brought blood rushing to his face.

What the hell was getting into him? You'd think this was the first time he'd ever teased an attractive man; generally speaking he preferred girls, but boys had their charms, and he was hardly oblivious to the effect he often had on them (until they realized where he was from). Why the hell was this getting to him? Why couldn't he just laugh, shrug and move on? (Because Dimitri knew, he knew and he still said it and meant it-)

Asch's blood and bones, he was turning into Aisling! He had no idea how a pure blood, properly raised Almyran girl like his cousin could be such a swooning romantic, and sometimes he wondered if his mother had something to do with it. Come on, think about something else, anything else...

I'll protect you.”

Claude's hands shook on the bow. He tightened his grip, swallowing. That's not much better.

Teach...why would she promise that? Just to him. Not the whole class, unless she'd done so after leaving dinner that evening. (And, well, she might've, but he'd been too distracted to notice!) It was her job, yes, but she'd blushed and then fled in embarrassment – that was a stronger reaction than what she'd had to winning the mock battle!

Anyone who would hurt me has to fight you? The attempted poisonings, the weapons thrown in spur of the moment hatred, the beatings, you'd tackle them all in my place? Do you...do you know what you're promising me? Did you mean it? Did you actually mean it, cold and pitiless Ashen Demon?

...She'd thrown herself in front of an ax to save Edelgard, a girl she didn't even know. She let strangers examine her memories in order to prepare them for a battle. She spent several patient evenings improving his and Ignatz's firing posture, telling him that he was close to pulling off point-blank. Even though they'd had to approach her, not the other way around, she always took to their needs with serious attentiveness.

People say all sorts of things, he reminded himself harshly. They always have.

But doesn't it mean something different coming from her? Is an emotionless girl who watches with that look of lost confusion when Raphael and Ignatz laugh at an old joke, when Hilda teases Marianne, when Ingrid yells at Sylvain for being trouble, truly capable of screwing with you that way? Maybe she's serious. Maybe she thinks of you as a friend worth shielding.

Claude angrily strung two arrows and fired. They at least hit the target, though they were off center by a wide margin.

This wasn't safe, this wasn't safe. Hope was a mistake. It always had been.

He reached for that indifference he had cultivated, tried to force all those warm happy feelings back into the vault he'd locked them in after two boys who'd claimed to be his friends left him to drown in a swollen river for the sin of being a half breed as a child. After that lord had his men beat him unconscious for being 'too friendly' with his daughter. After his grandfather's face twisted with revulsion when he looked upon him for the first time and only saw the face of the barbarian king who stole his daughter from him.

He was good at fooling people, but he'd rather not add himself to the list of those he'd tricked into letting their guard down. Wouldn't that be embarrassing?

He was being kind. He's like that with everyone, even Felix, who's constantly antagonizing him. It doesn't mean anything special.

She's concerned about not knowing where the enemy is, not knowing what to expect. It's natural for a mercenary to want their escort to feel confident and safe. She was just trying to reassure me, and felt awkward about it. She's clearly not used to other people her age.

His arrow hit the target, wildly off center, but it struck true.

He's handsome. He's amazing in a fight. It's fun to tease him just to see his flustered reactions. It's just a little game, a mutual joke between us, and I'm thinking too hard about it. Anything more requires trust and I don't trust anyone. I can't afford to.

Another arrow hit closer to the bullseye. Claude thought about that darkness he'd seen shadow Dimitri's expressions, the tightly controlled behavior that only someone who feared the results of humoring their thoughts utilized. He'd seen warriors who'd repressed themselves that way back at home. The moments when their control gave way...were frightening.

I can't truly trust him, not completely, until I know what's inside him that he's so afraid of.

He felt a twinge of guilt for that thought, especially now that he attached it to a warm, compassionate, friendly face. But his own darkest secret had been dragged out of him, in a frightening, humiliating way, and he knew that until he saw Dimitri the same way the prince had seen him in that moment, there would still be a barrier keeping them apart. He would be kinder, gentler, more careful when seeking this secret...but he wanted to know it. He wanted...

...He hesitated on the next draw, coming to the startling realization that he genuinely wanted Dimitri to entrust it to him. The way he was trusting him to keep his heritage secret, a trust that had yet to be betrayed. How long had it been since someone did that for him?

He couldn't have you even if he wanted you, he repeated to himself. Nope, with him being the last legitimate heir to the throne, Dimitri's future marriage involved a socially acceptable woman who could give him lots of children. It was silly to even whimsically contemplate otherwise. He couldn't have you even if he wanted you...

The arrow hit bullseye.

And Teach...oh, Teach. She was wrapped in so many secrets he doubted even she could fully untangle the knot without help. Unnatural stoicism aside, even several weeks of listening to rumors and gossiping knights had given him little to no insight about why Jeralt had left the church's services. Everyone seemed to regard him highly despite the fact he technically deserted and hid from the archbishop for twenty years. They talked about how powerful he was, about the many missions he had completed in the face of absurd odds, how loyal he had been and how much he admired Lady Rhea. It was as if one day he'd suddenly decided he needed a change of scenery and that dealing with resignation paperwork was too much of a hassle, so he just packed up and vanished in the middle of the night.

A disappearance that took place mere days after a massive fire swept through the building, doing more damage in a single night than some actual military assaults had ever managed. Apparently a baby girl died in the fire; the two clerics he'd heard this from mostly remembered that because of how distraught the Archbishop had been over that particular death.

He couldn't help a slightly relieved smile when that arrow, then another one both hit bullseye. His heart calmed a bit at the perfect marks.

The timing was a rather suspicious... If that baby girl and his Teach were one in the same, that suggested that perhaps Archbishop Rhea wanted Jeralt back less than she wanted his daughter in arm's reach. ...Which would certainly explain why she would make a random young mercenary, particularly one with such a, well, colorful reputation as the Ashen Demon a professor at the academy in the face of all logic and Seteth's blatant disapproval.

Jeralt himself was a man of few words and plenty of scowls; Claude doubted his charming personality would make much of a dent in the man's unwillingness to talk about his past. And he really didn't want to have to explain himself to Teach if she found out he'd gotten her old man drunk, so out went that usually-reliable scheme. So instead he'd have to work on Teach herself; coax her to open up a bit.

Why did you grow up away from the world? Why do you never smile? Why does watching Raphael and Ignatz acting like the old friends they are cause you to make that pained, confused expression? What is it that you want so badly you don't mind having your life upended to be Rhea's pet professor?

Why does the mercenary famous for her frozen heart care about protecting me?

The next arrow went wide again. Damn it all! He'd come out here to distract himself, not vanish deeper and deeper down the bottomless swamp that was his mind. He let out a groan and stared up at the sky, wishing for his wyvern. A good long flight, where he could marvel at the world that seemed so small below him, always made him feel better.

He wondered what Teach would look like if she smiled. If even that cold, emotionless state couldn't obscure her unkempt beauty, what would a smile or a laugh do to her...?

Because I'm grateful. That you're not afraid of me. Or repulsed by me. I...had wanted...”

You wanted what? Tell me....

His last arrow sank into the wooden leg of the target.

Okay. Clearly this isn't working.

Sighing, he let the bow rest by his side and went to collect the arrows again, this time to bring them back to the training armory. He'd read a bit until everyone else woke up – something nice and safe and bland, like the church-sanctioned biography of the Ten Elites. He'd barely gotten started on that before life decided to be really weird...

I hope Hilda gets up soon, He thought. Watching her try to weasel out of training while Teach stands there with her arms crossed and frowning just a bit will never stop being funny.

+ _ + _ + _

Teach's style of whipping her group of 'brats', as Sir Jeralt ever so kindly called them, into actual knights...well, it was both very very obvious she wasn't trained to be a professor, yet her eye for their strengths and weaknesses allowed her an unorthodox, demanding yet capable instruction style.

In her case, 'demanding' meant treating the Golden Deer less like a group of polished nobles and rich merchant class hopefuls, and more like green recruits in her father's mercenary troupe. She frequently pitted them against each other and herself in sparring. She gave them strategic problems to solve that others would have saved for near graduation. She didn't run them into the ground, but she made few of the allowances that other instructors would have for noble students. She would pair them up based on how their abilities would work off each other, rather than any social cultivation for high society or social climbing. It was enough that Lorenz had complained quite a bit in the first few weeks about being treated 'like a commoner', but Byleth's stony refusal to yield and unimpressed scowls had quieted even him.

Claude loved it. Thrived in it. This was a thousand times better than that know-it-all priest who'd abandoned him, Dimitri and Edelgard to the bandits. Gods help him, but sometimes it reminded him of home.

What was even better was that mere observation showed him that it wasn't just him who was learning rapidly under Teach's stern instruction; Ignatz was making visible improvements, Lysithea had three new spells under her belt, Marianne had begun to focus on Reason as well as Faith...Hilda, for all that she moaned about the professor being a 'ruthless taskmaster', was picking up brawling with speed and style...Raphael was testing out heavy armor...Lorenz, once he quit complaining, was making decent progress with his lance as well. Not nearly enough that Dimitri couldn't absolutely demolish him in a cross-class sparring session, but he was improving!

It was why he felt confident when they left the Monastery to meet with Thunderstrike Catherine and her contingent of knights to clean up after the destruction of Lord Lonato's ill-thought-out rebellion. Even having the man's adoptive son in tow for reasons known only to the Archbishop and whatever gods existed didn't fully undermine that; he just decided to stick close to the kid in order to support him whenever he inevitably froze up.

Teach approved, when he sidled over to her to pass on his intention in a whisper. He swore that she looked pleased with him, though it only lasted for a brief moment.

Of course...it wouldn't be that easy. At the end of that day, he wondered if anything that came to pass after Byleth's arrival would be.

+ _ + _ + _

It was raining. It was raining and foggy. Claude had to strain to see more than a couple yards ahead of them, and literally everything his father had ever warned him about the weather was echoing in his ears. The highway they were walking on right now, should it be a battlefield, was a seasoned warrior's nightmare – poor visibility, the ground rendered treacherous by mud and water, and any enemy they encountered would have the advantage of knowing the area very well. They were drawing closer to the border of Gaspard lands, after all.

He didn't say any of this out loud; between Hilda's constant complaining about being wet, Ignatz stopping every ten minutes to clean his glasses, Raphael bemoaning the quality of the lunch rations, Lorenz and Leonie's frequent bickering and Lysithea's dire threats about what she'd do to any knight that didn't surrender immediately after bringing them out here in this dead weather...class morale was not exactly stellar.

“Are we there yet?” Hilda whined plaintively.

“Will you please cut it out, Hilda? Somehow you're making the weather feel even worse,” Lysithea groused, her boots splashing in the mud. The shield Byleth had given her sat comfortably on her arm; she'd made a point of wearing it whenever practicing, so she got used to its weight and having it as protection.

“I can't believe it's been this bad for so long,” Ashe mumbled, pulling his coat tighter. “The skies were clear when we left the monastery...and it in this area, it doesn't usually rain hard unless it's early spring or mid fall.”

“It is rather strange,” Byleth murmured tonelessly, glancing up at the sky. She was wearing her usual gray cloak and heavy black boots, and while she didn't look cold, Claude swore that her sleeves were getting soaked through. Nothing even slightly akin to a complaint ever passed her lips. “It would be one thing if we were a week or so out from Garreg Mach when this started, but we're only a three day's march. The weather shouldn't be so drastically different.”

“Out on the ocean, sailors fear white squalls, because they appear without warning and great violence,” Marianne said, seemingly to herself. “I wonder if there's something similar for over land travel...”

“Well, over the ocean there's nothing to obstruct the winds,” Byleth responded, causing Marianne to squeak in surprise. “So it's easier for them to pick up speed. There is such a thing as cloudbursts, but they rarely last long and they don't usually come with fog. At least, I don't believe so.”

“Do you think this isn't natural, Teach?” Claude asked, tilting his head to look at her. This rain was driving him spare; he'd brought a cloak, but not a very heavy one, and his shoes had taken a bit of water when he had to climb over a tree a ways back.

Byleth looked sharply at him. “It's possible,” She said warily, her eyes flickering throughout the trees on either side of the path. “A strong dark mage could conjure fog, if they were learned enough. But rain as well? That I've never heard of.” She paused for a moment, frowning darkly. “Everyone be on your guard. Pair up.”

Pair up...Claude negligently waved for Ashe to join him while he marveled at the simplicity and strength in this maneuver Jeralt's Mercenaries had pioneered and perfected. Two people, usually with different weapons and fighting styles, who fought at each other's side at all times; one defending or supporting the other, switching places whenever necessary. Byleth had shown them members of the mercenary troupe practicing the maneuver, and even in a relaxed, restricted spar, it was incredible to behold.

Long practice kept him from cringing when Byleth explained that the maneuver's full value could only be achieved by two people who deeply trusted each other. He did appreciate it that she followed that up by having him and Hilda practice together; she was the closest thing he had to a true friend, and the Golden Deer he knew the best.

As of right now, though, he had sweet, innocent-as-a-lamb Ashe to worry about, so Hilda skipped over to Marianne and latched onto her old friend's arm. Leonie sighed heavily as Lorenz made a show of standing protectively in front of her, sliding her bow off her shoulder. Raphael slapped Ignatz on the back hard enough to make his friend stumble, laughing brightly. Lysithea floated over to Byleth, hovering at her shoulder and trying to stare into the fog.

“How do you do that?” Ashe asked him out of nowhere.

“Eh? How do I do what?” Claude put his hands behind his head and grinned at his fellow archer. “How do I be so effortlessly charming and good looking?”

Ashe quickly turned a dark shade of red – lord, it was adorable; were all boys from Faerghus this easy to tease? – “N-no, I-I mean – how do you smile like that right after noting that the enemy might be covering the fields in fog? That's...that's not good for us, if it's true, but you don't look worried at all.” He fidgeted. “His Highness said you were cracking jokes like nothing happened mere minutes after the Professor and Captain Jeralt saved you from the bandits. How do you manage that? Is there...something that makes it easier?”

Claude relaxed a bit and allowed himself to look a little more serious. “To be honest, not really. Smiling makes me feel more confident. There's no point worrying ourselves into a panic before the fighting even starts, right? Not that we're going to be doing any fighting.” Hopefully.

Ashe tilted his head, eyes glittering. “...Does that work?” He fingered the grip of his bow anxiously. “I'd never thought of smiling when a fight started. It – it doesn't really seem right.”

“I get it,” Claude replied easily. “But think of it this way...are you smiling because you're happy you're in a bloody battle? Or are you trying to tell your friends that everything will be okay? One of those things will help everyone keep it together; the other is terrifying.” No lie. Claude loved his father until his heart bled, but it had taken some time before watching him grin while splitting someone in half with his ax was no longer frightening.

“Oh, I see.” Ashe thought about that for a moment, before hesitantly smiling back at him. It was wobbly and strained, but Claude didn't have the heart to comment on that. Instead he wondered, yet again, why in the eternal flames the Archbishop approved of Ashe coming with them.

“Hey there!” A boisterous voice echoed from the far end of the path. Hilda let out a whine of relief and picked up the pace, leading the pack as the bedraggled students rushed to meet their mission leader.

Sir Catherine laughed and clapped her hands together as the Golden Deer formed a rough semi-circle around her. The youngest knight of Serios to reach the rank of second-in-command at twenty-seven, the tall blonde woman was surprisingly cheery and friendly-looking. Given her rank and the trust Lady Rhea had in her, Claude had expected someone more akin to Seteth – that is, an uptight stick in the mud who's suspicious scowl was practically carved into her face. Instead, the famed swordswoman greeted them with a vibrant energy that emphasized her remarkable good looks.“You finally made it, good! What a day for a rebellion, huh? How are your kids holding up, Professor?”

A chorus of muffled complaints sounded from the others. Claude repressed a laugh and Catherine herself looked pretty amused.

“We've had little trouble so far, only discomfort.” Byleth responded, shifting her cloak slightly. “I'm a little worried about the terrain, to be honest, if there are stragglers. What's happening up ahead?”

“Assuming all went well, the main vanguard will have reached Castle Gaspard an hour ago,” Catherine said. Ashe went tense enough to shake; he looked like he might say something for a moment, but he only shook his head. “By the time we get there, they should have the castle and town under control. Our biggest worry should be displaced civilians and anyone who lingered in hopes of setting traps.”

“Traps...what sort are you expecting?”

Claude barely heard the exchange. His eyes were drawn to Catherine's side, where her hand was resting on the hilt of a sword unlike any he'd looked upon. A massive sword hung there, with no sheathe to speak of, protrusions like fangs jutting out from the main double-edged blade. It was a dull gold that seemed more like stone than any steel he'd ever seen, and a dully glowing red gem burned in the heart of the hilt. This is Thunderbrand. This is a relic.

Briefly he remembered being a child, perched on the edge of his chair eagerly listening to his mother's stories of the relics. How the Fallen King Nemesis tore a mountain in half with the Sword of the Creator in order to defend the thralls fleeing from their demon-backed masters, how Blaiddyd Lord of the North fought half an army to a standstill wielding Areadbhar, how Lady Fraldarius deflected Meteor and Excaliber spells with the Aegis Shield to defend Gautier the Horselord as he drove back his former king's army at Tailtan Plains...how his own ancestor, Tempest Master Riegan, stormed an occupied castle on his lonesome to free his companions armed only with Failnaught and his not insignificant cleverness borne from years scraping by as an orphan.

His mother called them weapons of fate. They contained power so great they could tear down the borders of the world and reshape them to the will of their masters.

“Is there something on my coat, Riegan?”

He blinked and smiled charmingly at Lady Rhea's loyal enforcer. “Sorry, couldn't help myself. It's an honor to be accompanying Catherine, wielder of Thunderbrand. I hear your intimidating enough to silence the howling winds!”

Byleth tilted her head at him. “Thunderbrand?” She repeated blankly.

Claude nearly lost the battle with his will that kept him from gaping at her. She can't be serious. I know she was raised away from the church, but she can't be serious. She doesn't expect us to believe...

Catherine merely raised an eyebrow, drawing the sword from her hip and lifting it in one hand. “You mean Lady Rhea didn't tell you? The Archbishop bestowed Thunderbrand upon me when I entered her service. It's one of the Hero's Relics.” Byleth gives her the same deadpan look Claude has come to associate with her being confused by something, and amazingly Catherine didn't immediately ask her to stop being ridiculous – she had to know, how could she not... “A long, long time ago, the goddess gifted ten warriors with divine weapons, which were then passed down to their children and their children's children.” She shrugged, letting the blade rest at her side. “It's an honor to wield, but I'm afraid there won't be much of a chance for that today. Our mission is to clean up the aftermath, not to fight.”

That seemed to be a bit more than Ashe could take. “Why would Lonato incite such a reckless rebellion?” He asked plaintively.

The look Catherine gave the smaller boy was sympathetic, but it also told Claude she bloody well knew why. “You would know more about that than any of us, Ashe.”

“Well I don't!” Ashe protested, shaking his head violently. “Lonato never mentioned anything of the like to me! He's always been so kind, I don't understand...” He frowned, his hand trembling on his bow. “I guess...it has something to do with Christophe...”

“Christophe?” Byleth prompted cautiously.

Ashe flinched; Claude came to his rescue with a matter-of-fact “How much do you know about the Tragedy of Duscur, Teach?”

Byleth blinked twice and crossed her arms. “I heard there was a massacre that only Prince Dimitri survived,” She said hesitantly. “We stayed south that year; many lords hired us in an attempt to restore order afterwards, but no two people told me the same thing about what happened.”

“Well, that's about the size of it,” Catherine said with a sigh. “Among the people Dimitri outlived was his father, the king. It's suspected that he was the sole intended target, and everything else was collateral damage.”

I wonder about that... Claude thought, his mind darting to the stolen letters hidden in his room. Did they really mean to kill him but not Dimitri?

Byleth seemed to wince. Her eyes flickered with thought, and she asked, “Why? I never met him, but the people I talked to had nothing but love for the man.”

“The common people loved him, yes. The lords, however?” Catherine sighed. “That's another story entirely. It became clear in the aftermath that those who instigated the massacre had accomplices in the kingdom as well. Lord Lonato's son, Christophe, was accused of being involved in the whole awful affair...he was executed by the church.”

“King Lambert was attempting a pretty significant political reform,” Claude offered, seeing as Teach's question was only partly answered. “And it's hard to do that without offending a lot of dangerous people.”

Byleth glanced at him, blinking, then back at Catherine. “I didn't realize the church executed criminals,” She said. Her quiet, even voice made it unclear if that was a question or an accusation.

“Speaking from the church's perspective, we took over the judicial matters in the stead of the kingdom, which was in complete chaos.” Catherine's response was so smooth and inoffensive it had to be rehearsed. “Whatever the truth of that matter may be, Lord Lonato has harbored resentment toward the church ever since.”

Ashe looked down at his feet. “I never knew,” He said in a small voice. “He never...I never...”

Claude was finally about to open his mouth and suggest that maybe Ashe shouldn't come with them to survey the wreckage when a soldier clad in the splendid, expensive armor of the Knights of Serios stumbled out of the treeline covered in dirt and blood. You have got to be kidding me, he thought dimly as the man rushed over to Catherine.

“Report,” He wheezed, “Sir Catherine, there's a force from Castle Gaspard coming straight for us.”

What?!” Catherine barked, any trace of her affable stance vanishing like morning mist.

“Their numbers are far greater than we predicted,” The man gasped, clutching his side. Marianne hesitantly raised one hand and cast her newest spell – Physic. The knight looked about, gave her a grateful smile and rapidly said, “This dense fog is the work of a dark mage serving Lord Lonato; they used it to slip past our perimeter. What's coming is their main force – all that was waiting for us in Castle Gaspard was a skeleton staff, his two children and his confused servants.”

“Y-You're kidding...they're coming straight for us?!” Ignatz sputtered, terrified.

“That's most of Gaspard land's standing army,” Lorenz said numbly.

Claude said a number of words he'd learned from Felix when they'd been paired up for cooking duty and notched an arrow. “He knew when to expect us,” He muttered, mostly to himself. “He must have been told what to expect at the beginning of the month; information doesn't travel this quickly, especially not enemy marching orders.” Which means Garreg Mach has a very important turncoat.

Catherine scowled, clearly both hearing and agreeing with him, and brought Thunderbrand to bear. “It looks like our mission has just changed, Professor. All of you, prepare for battle!”

“Get away from the trees! I want you in the center of the path!” Byleth actually shouted – Claude nearly jumped out of his skin, because he was fairly certain he'd never heard her speak above monotone before – as she drew her sword. “They'll be coming out of the woods! Leonie, Ignatz, Ashe, guard our mages; and I want you watching for snipers! Raphael, Lorenz, Hilda, you're up front! Lysithea, Marianne, until we get our bearings I want you on healing duty and lighting torches!” She turned toward him. “Claude, I'm leading ahead. You shadow me; you're hunting for that damned dark mage. Killing them should disperse the fog, and I want it gone before we're overrun!”

Claude barely had time to nod before a fighter burst out of the treeline. “Lord Lonato doesn't deserve such sadness an anger,” the militia man in cheap leather bellowed. “Now it's your turn to suffer!”

Lysithea threw Miasma over Lorenz's shoulder, catching the man in the chest. Leonie followed that up with a shot that curved gracefully and struck the man in the collar, sending him stumbling to the ground. Already leagues better than her work in Zanado.

Civilian militia. Then most of these men would be... As he ran to keep up with Byleth, he looked back for Ashe, who was shaking so badly he couldn't see how the other boy intended to aim, much less shoot anyone down. The kid would know these people. They lived in the villages around Gaspard manor. They worked in the marketplaces he would have visited. He knew them, and they him.

Rhea, why the fuck did you let him come with us?!

Arrows whipped through the fog, one missing him by an arms-length. Byleth was off like a shot, fading into the fog just before a woman's agonized shriek rang out. Claude saw Catherine zip off in another direction, magnificently unconcerned by her lack of backup, and a hot red flare cut through the fog as another person died with gurgling cry.

More men materialized out of the trees and fog. Axes and bows, mostly...no armor or lance knights, which was weird, given what the kingdom was famous for. “What the hell?” One of them said amidst the confusion. “These are a bunch of kids. Where the are knights?”

“Does it matter?! They were sent here to bring back Lord Lonato's head! Come on!”

“So we're dealing with that kind of crazy,” Leonie griped somewhere behind him. “Oh, that's just perfect – hey, Lorenz! On your left!”

“Be careful, Ignatz!” The glorious light of a magical torch washed over the muddy, ruined earth in a wide sweep around them; Marianne jammed it into the ground and quickly cast Heal on Lorenz, who had caught an arrow to the shoulder.

Claude swore when another militia man charged at him. He slid back a step, brought up his bow, and let the arrow loose as the man got right up in his face. The resulting blood splatter hit his cheek and his lips as the eye it hit was destroyed; fortunately the arrow lodged far enough in to kill the man instantly. Perfect Point Blank, he thought dully, and I'm using it on farmers.

Something cold was forming in the pit of his stomach; he tried to ignore it as he hurried forward, doing his best to keep Byleth in the corner of his eye despite the fog. As he moved, he searched, straining his eyes, for a dark costume and the tell-tale flicker of black aether. He'll be hiding in the trees, the schemer thought. He can't be far away if he's maintaining the fog. so...that means...gods, I wish I could fucking see...

“You're irrelevant!” Lysithea's shout and the following explosion of dark magic – Swarm, judging by the hideous buzzing noise it made as it consumed the unfortunate target – was comforting in a strange way. His classmates were keeping up, Marianne lighting another torch that brought blessed light to the area.

“Guess I've got no choice!” “I'm so sorry!” "I'm on a roll!" “Get away from me!” “An offensive sight!” “I'll keep this simple!” “I've got you!”

None of this had to happen, Claude thought, even though his relief at knowing his classmates were handling themselves. He shot down another fighter, and then another, hurrying toward the fork in the road where Byleth was dodging between two more enemies.

He took care of one with two consecutive shots, allowing her to cut the other one down. Catherine was on the militia coming up the left pathway in seconds; red flares followed every swipe of the sword, which blurred and struck twice for every single swing in spite of Claude's eyes telling him she couldn't possibly have moved her arm that fast. Heat followed every strike, sizzling in the air and turning the rain that hit it to steam.

An archer took aim at Byleth. Claude ran forward a few steps, aimed, and fired. His first shot went wide, but the man simply couldn't prepare himself in time to dodge the next one. The trouble with fog, of course, was that it made life difficult for their enemies as well.

“Lord Lonato,” The man choked, curling up around the arrow in his stomach. “Please...don't die...”

The young prince swallowed over the bile rising in his throat. “The nobles start the war, but it's the commoners who spill their blood first,” he whispered to himself. That cold feeling intensified, spreading to his hands. If I want to unseat Rhea, change the person controlling the doctrine of Sothis, will I be the one to...?

“Claude, there! In the trees!”

Byleth's shout snapped him back to the moment; he whirled and saw the blast of dark magic right before it was launched his way. Dropping to the ground, he rolled forward and back to his feet (he'd have to thank Dimitri at some point) grabbing his bow and firing one arrow, then another. It was hard to hit with the underbrush in the way, but his father always said he had good eyes. Thinking back to the combat artes Teach had so carefully explained, he bent his bow in his hands, lined up another shot and fired.

The dark mage let out a gurgling scream, staggering, falling through the trees. A second arrow put him out of his misery, and the effect was almost instantaneous. A bright light flared across the battlefield, followed by a strangled hiss as all that fog disappated at once, evaporating as though it ever was. Rain still gently fell upon them (as if some god, somewhere, was in fact weeping), but the clouds parted, sunlight beamed down on the bloody, corpse-strewn battlefield, and everything became clear.

Relieved, Claude glanced over at Byleth and smiled as warmly as he could manage in the face of his discomfort. She nodded back before turning around, taking a headcount as Hilda and the others rushed up to them.

“How is everyone?” Byleth asked, looking around.

“Need you ask, Professor?” Lorenz responded lightly. “We are putting your instruction into practice. The Lord of Gaspard has much to answer for, throwing untested rabble at us to die.”

“Where's Catherine?” Hilda asked. “Not, uh, not that I think she needs our help, but shouldn't we be sticking close to her?”

Shouts – and the clanking of armor – rang out from beyond the thicket. The Golden Deer house exchanged a single look before rushing forward as a single unit, the understanding shared between them without a word – there was no victory until Lord Lonato fell.

The scene they came upon on the other side of the fork in the road was almost something out of a book; Catherine stood among the corpses of several heavily armored knights, staring down a wall of knights and fighters lead by an old man astride his horse, lance in hand.

“Thunderstrike Cassandra,” The old man snarled. He had a dignified sort of voice, unsuited to the animalistic snarl he applied to every word. “It was your wretched zealotry that killed my son! Dishonored him before his people! Threw his corpse at me to bury in a field far from sacred ground, as if he were a based heathen...!”

This is Ashe's father...so that's how he found out about Christophe's death? When he was sent the body? People were only barred from being buried on church grounds when they had committed heresy. It was considered an ultimate punishment of Fodlan, denying one's soul the ability to return to the goddess. That was cruel, if that's what they did...Christophe and the Gaspard name never came up in those transcripts I read. I'm willing to bet he wasn't anywhere near Duscur. If that's so...

The blonde knight snorted, unmoved. “The only name I answer to is Catherine,” She informed him, readying Thunderbrand with an ease that told him she was not at all intimidated by the forces arrayed against her. “Prepare to taste the blade of one who serves the goddess. Now you face a Knight of Serios!”

“Kill her! Bring me her head!” Lonato roared, sending his troops forward. Troops armed with iron and steel, against a woman wielding a relic. Fool...you grief-blind fool.

“Better keep them busy,” He told Byleth grimly. “I'll go around.”

Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth for a moment without saying anything. She eyed him...almost anxiously...before saying, “Be careful. I'll be right behind you.”

Claude smiled and gave her a small bow before darting off to the side, stepping among the trees and letting the lower visibility hide him from the lance knights that were running into Catherine's sword. Hilda and Raphael rushed the two soldiers, Marianne blasting clean through the helmet of one knight approaching her with a single Blizzard, Ignatz taking potshots wherever he could.

It took him a handful of minutes to approach Lord Lonato from the side, eyeing him warily. The man wore heavy armor, as did his horse. It probably couldn't build up much speed weighed down like that, but if he were to charge and try to run someone down...Claude felt a knee-jerk sense of distaste at where his thoughts immediately took him, but he readied his bow regardless. It was an ugly trick, yeah...but it would save his classmates.

“Lonato!”

Claude nearly dropped his damned bow when Ashe somehow slipped past the melee surrounding Catherine, Teach and their classmates to approach his adoptive father. The other boy's bow hung down by his knee, his quiver virtually empty; he just reached pleadingly for the man who took him in when he had nothing.

It wasn't quite obvious from where he was standing, but Claude was pretty sure he saw Lonato's eyes grow really wide for a moment. But...it was only a moment. Then his face snapped back to the cold rage that he had thrown at Catherine – Cassandra. “Stand down, Ashe. I must destroy these evil-doers by any means necessary!”

“Please surrender, Lonato!” Ashe begged, taking another step forward. “Whatever your reasons for doing this, w-we can still talk it out! I – I'll plead for you, the archbishop-”

“Speak not of that devil woman,” Lonato snapped. “Rhea is an infidel who is deceiving the people and desecrated the goddess!” What the hell?, Claude thought fuzzily as he steadied his bow again. What did that have to do with Christophe? “We have virtue and the goddess herself on our side!”

“The goddess would have you kill my fellow students?” Ashe asked in disbelief. “It's – it's virtue that brought all those villagers out here to die?! Even if that's true, why did you bring them into this?!”

“Your classmates have been reduced to pawns of that witch! Do you think it was an accident that she sent you all out here?! She wanted to threaten you with the consequences of defying her obscene whims!” Lonato's horse stalked forward a few paces. Claude's heartbeat picked up as he crawled to the edge of the treeline. “Do you think it matters a jot to her if any of you die, when she has thousands of believers in her thrall?! She thinks nothing of you, nothing but minds to mold into her pet murderers! We must set Fodlan free from her grasp! Only then will everyone have justice!”

“Lonato, that's crazy. Justice?” Ashe's voice broke. “How many people would have to die in the name of 'justice'? Please, I'm begging you...Christophe is gone...”

“Christophe was murdered!” Lonato raged. “If you will not stand aside and allow your brother to be avenged, then you leave me no choice. If that's how you feel, prepare yourself! I'm putting an end to this!”

Claude's eyes widened as the man took a javelin from his pack and threw it. By either a miracle or a chink in the man's resolve in only grazed Ashe's shoulder, sending the boy stumbling backwards with a startled, agonized cry. Lonato moved to urge his horse forward, dropping his other hand to the base of his lance.

He's going to kill his own son.

With that thought, the coldness rushed forward and swallowed up his heart in its icy maw.

Hitting the horse in the neck wasn't hard. There were gaps in its armor that might have been hard for Leonie to exploit...but Claude had been hunting ever since he was a child, and his arrow flew true. He strode out of the woods with an eerie calm blanketing him as the horse collapsed, throwing Lonato in the process. The old man scrambled to get up, looking around wildly until he saw him.

Claude's lip curved in revulsion. “Kinslayer,” he said, his voice so serene it belied the snowstorm raging inside him. “Child killer. I'll admit, they weren't words I would have associated with the Lord of Gaspard in the face of the love Ashe bears for you.”

“You...” Lord Lonato all but snarled; vaguely, Claude thought it reminded him of a wolf infected with rabies. Something once beautiful and majestic laid low in filth and ruin. “How dare you? I march to avenge the murder of my son, butchered by that fanatic and her puppetmaster-”

“I'm sorry, is there a prettier word for a man who'd kill his son?” Claude asked, an exaggerated note of innocence in his voice. “I'm afraid I'm not nearly as verbose as Lorenz, so I have to make do with the basics.” He took out an arrow, idly twirling it around his fingers. “Though, I suppose you figured that since you planned to die here, your lifeblood would provide you some sort of atonement for that little crime?”

Lord Lonato's expression paled slightly. “You know nothing!” He staggered a bit – clearly one of his legs was injured by the fall – and tried to charge at him. Claude rolled his eyes, raised his bow and fired. The arrow skimmed the man's cheek, stabbing his ear, and let Claude simply dance around the man with ease. “You understand nothing! My son is defiled, his soul cursed to wander, on a lie! My gentle, devout son, who served the goddess every day-”

“What would you say when you saw him again?” Claude asked sarcastically. “Yes, son, I avenged you; I slaughtered your younger brother like a fawn in the butcher shop and walked over the corpses of his friends to reach the Archbishop. The memory of your compassion and kindness was so precious to me I'd spit on it by murdering someone who mattered to you because he tried to talk me out of my suicide attempt. I value what you held dear so much I discarded it like a pebble in my boot so I could kill a teenager unhindered by his love for me.”

“Shut UP!” Lonato spun to face him again, thrusting his lance forward.You indoctrinated brat, how dare you presume what Christophe-”

“What? I dare presume that he loved Ashe in spite of him being adopted? In spite of him being a commoner? I dare presume he was a decent, kind man who disapproved of the killing of children? I wonder precisely what's become of you that you think those are shameful traits to assign someone.”

“Lonato, Claude, please, I, I,” Ashe was beyond coherent words at this point; Byleth rushed up behind him, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him to his feet.

“Get him out of here, Teach.” Claude's attention didn't waver. “I'm seriously afraid he'll let this walking corpse drag him into his grave.”

“There is no grave here but Rhea's!”

“Oh really? So a militia half the size of the Knights of Serios is going to walk up to one of the most strategic locations in Fodlan and...do what, exactly? Force your way in, past their stockpiled weapons, past the reinforcements they'd have plenty of time to call upon before you reached them, past the ballista and the magical defenses, and kill the archbishop? Please.” Claude fired another arrow at him, watching him dodge. “No. You want her to look ruthless. You want her to look savage. What better way to do that than have her slaughter villagers armed with woodcutter's axes and fire pokers because a bereaved father wanted answers from her?”

“This is a righteous cause! The goddess will see us through! She'll protect us until we've deposed the devil lounging in her castle!” Lonato lunged at him, but it was so clearly telegraphed that he barely needed to dodge.

“I have a little theory, if you'd spare me a minute.” Claude said, his lips curving into a cruel smile. “You want to die. You've wanted to die ever since Christophe's body was given back to you. You spend nights awake, wondering why he died, what he got involved in, why he never told you anything that made you realize he was in danger. You blame yourself, you blame Catherine, you blame everyone but him for whatever decision he made that put him on the church's list.”

Lonato's wild jab missed him by an arms-length. He jumped back a bit, keeping light on his feet, keeping moving. “But it's shameful to just drink a little more wine than was responsible, and that doesn't get Chrisophe any justice. So instead you figured that you'd make yourself a martyr; goad the Archbishop into ordering the death of a grieving man who'd lost everything, convince other people to be suspicious of her, maybe force her to step down. You want more, you want her to die, but you're weak, you've been weak ever since Christophe died, and you don't want to spend years struggling to depose her. You just want to see him again.”

Lonato is starting to shake, tremble, his attacks weaker and easier to avoid. Claude wasn't smiling now; he bared his teeth like a wyvern. “You want it so much you haven't thought about Ashe. You haven't thought about how the minor lords will circle him like vultures, poking at his past, looking for excuses to take the castle, lands and titles out from under him. You haven't thought about his siblings, who will have to live years and years with the shame and the stigma of your failed rebellion hanging over them. You haven't thought about your lands and how they'll be left to a boy who's barely started his knightly training, who's never done any administration in his life, with winter approaching in the wings and so many men who would have tilled the fields dead.”

“You cannot...” Lord Lonato gasped, his leg buckling beneath him. He was so pale now he was practically a ghost. “You...you...”

“Martyrdom sounds so pretty in the songs, doesn't it?” Claude mused. “If you were canonized, even just in the eyes of the people, Christophe's transgressions – real or otherwise – would be forgotten in an instant. He'd probably be moved to a church burial ground. A happy ending, for a man who values his dead son over his living one to the point he'd try to kill him.”

Lonato simply stared at him for long moment. “You're a devil,” He whispered, clutching his lance.

Claude laughed harshly. “I'm not the one who just threw a spear a boy who loved me unconditionally.” He growled, taking a step forward. “I'm not the one who looked at the boy who I taught to write, who I watched grow up, who worships me and models his honor and ethics upon me, and tried to kill him. I'm not the one who listened to him plead for my life, pour out his love for me, promise to risk the archbishop's wrath on my behalf, and spat on that affection. If I'm a devil, Lord Lonato, what does that make you?”

And, as if slowly succumbing to poison, Lonato sank to his knees. “My...my sons...”

“So you wanted to die,” Claude said. “But you couldn't do them the kindness of dying without dragging all of them down with you. You brought fathers and mothers out here to die useless deaths in order to comfort yourself. You tried to kill your son. Tell me, why didn't you just quietly send Ashe to bed and drink a cup of nightshade? What would Christophe have been less horrified by?”

He stopped walking when he was standing right in front of the man. Lonato stared up at him. All the fight, all that fire in his eyes...it was just gone. Drained away.

“So you wanted to see him again?” Claude whispered, taking aim. “Fine. I'll send you there.”

The arrow hitting home sounded so loud in the rain. It only took one. Older bodies are frail, after all.

Claude stared down at the cooling corpse lying broken at his feet. The rain was starting to soak through his cloak. That cold feeling in his chest didn't abate, not right away, but there was a certain sick feeling in his stomach.

A devil, huh...aha...ha...and there I was, thinking about how Dimitri had something dark inside him...

“Claude?” Teach's voice sounded right behind him. Quiet and soft as ever.

He hesitantly turned to face her. Mortification mingled with that coldness. How much of that had she been watching?

She gazed deep into his eyes, as though she were trying to read his soul, and quietly asked, “Are you okay?”

“...You should really ask Ashe that, Teach.” The words slipped out without him thinking.

“That would be a useless question, though, wouldn't it?” She shook her head. Dimly Claude realized he could hear someone crying...the sort of uncontrollable wailing that followed the loss of all composure and dignity. “Are you okay, Claude?”

“...” He readied himself for a lie...and yet... “No. I'm not.”

She stared at him for another moment. Halfheartedly he wished, once again, that she was easier to read. Then...then she reached out and took his hand, gently tugging on his wrist. “Come on,” She murmured. “Let's get out of here.”

For once in his life at a loss for what to say, Claude let her lead him away from the body. Amidst all of the confusing feelings in his chest, he felt a spark of warmth. ...Thank you...

Chapter Text

“Flayn, no, no – you never add spices to cookie dough.”

“Oh? I am so sincerely sorry!” The green haired girl cried, wilting. Mercedes smiled patiently in turn, taking the containers from her and placing them back on the shelf. “I had thought the flour and butter needed to mix with something else to cook with flavor!”

“It's sugar I was referring to.” Mercedes responded, altogether too kind to ask where the shorter girl had gotten the impression that one should add any sort of spices to cookies. She reached up and brought down one of the stone jars; Byleth wasn't sure how she could read the carved label from that angle, but the blonde girl was clearly familiar with the kitchen and where everything was. “Here, let me show you how much we need. Professor, how is the butter?”

Byleth stared doubtfully at the bowl on the counter before her. “I've made some progress...I think,” She said hesitantly. She prodded the smooth pool of yellow with a wooden spoon, frowning at its continued resistance to the beating she'd been giving it. “It's still stiff.”

Mercedes paused in her measuring to look over her shoulder. “Don't worry. Creaming takes a little while, and it's coming along very well! Keep it up.” With that, the other girl – a year or two older than Byleth herself – squeezed her arm encouragingly before turning back to Flayn. “Alright, look at the directions, tell me how much sugar we need to add...”

Byleth hesitantly stirred the butter around so more, feeling more out of place than when she'd first stepped foot in the Golden Deer classroom. She'd never worked in the kitchen whenever the troupe had been given access to one, usually as a thank-you gesture from the village inn for their work – Hannah always took charge then, kicking her father (and the rest of the men for that matter) out of the room, and put together the best meal they'd have for the foreseeable future. Yet here she was, fumbling with ingredient jars under Mercedes's patient instructions.

...It was for Ashe.

Ever since they'd returned from Magdred Way, Byleth had been in a state of frustrated discomfort in spite of – or perhaps because of – their victory. Ashe had sobbed like a child until he passed out after Lonato's death; Raphael had taken to carrying him after the first few times he stumbled, unable to keep his feet under him on the walk back. The young archer was so distraught he didn't even attempt to protest it; Marianne walked alongside him, alternating between prayers for the passing of the souls and singing in an attempt to comfort him.

One of the Knights of Serios, disgruntled by how everything had turned out, had lowly muttered about how undignified the display was. Before Byleth could retort, Marianne had turned around, skewered the man with a look she'd been unable to see herself, and coldly demanded he apologize. He did so, under Sir Catherine's withering glare.

Ignatz and Leonie had flittered back and forth, radiating distress and discomfort in spite of Claude's offhanded reassurance that they'd done the best thing they could in this situation. Marianne had walked with her head hanging, the grief that hung over her like a shroud seemingly heavier than ever. Lysithea and Lorenz were the calmest, and the white haired girl seemed largely grave, eyes closed as if lost in memory in many moments.

And Claude... Claude had taken one look at her, buried the unnerving persona he'd used to kill Lord Lonato, and after a few hours of uncharacteristic quiet, started talking and lightly joking as though nothing troubled him at all.

He had told her he was a liar, hadn't he?

Byleth did not like the foreign sensation of helplessness that sank into her bones as she observed this, completely at a loss for what to do. So she resolved to skulk about until she found something resembling a solution.

Admittedly, Ashe had been on her mind most prominently. Upon their return to Garreg Mach, he'd retreated to his room and hid within. His classmates had brought him dinner yesterday, of which he ate very little. In the night, Byleth had woken at the sound of someone walking past her room; going out to investigate had revealed Ashe in a night cloak heading into the monastery. She'd followed him at a distance as he went through the entrance hall, along the bridge and into the cathedral, where he'd knelt before the statute of Saint Cichol and prayed with shaking breaths for his adoptive father's salvation.

She didn't show herself. Perhaps she should have, but it felt wrong to intrude. Instead she shadowed him, making sure he got safely back to his room. Mercedes had found her standing outside his door the next morning, hand raised as if to knock, paralyzed with indecision as she tried to remember how her father had spoken to the families of men who had died during their missions. The gentle priestess-to-be had smiled, squeezed her arm, and asked if she would be willing to lend a hand with her own plan.

And that was how the Ashen Demon, living god of war, ending up fighting to a draw with the bowlful of butter-that-refused-to-be-creamed.

“I see! So it was the pinch of salt that adds flavor to the batter,” Flayn gasped with earnest enthusiasm. “I had not thought it would take so little!”

“Flavor boosters are always meant to be used sparingly,” Mercedes explained. “Or else they overwhelm the meal to the point of spoiling it. Now, we need leaven, and no more than the salt that you just added. Do you know where it is?”

Byleth twisted the spoon in her hands, continuing to mash away at the stubborn yellow mass with an odd sense of righteous frustration. This has no right to be so difficult, she thought indigently. I ought to apologize to Hannah. Clearly I've never been properly grateful for the number of times she cooked for us over the years.

“Aha!” Flayn snagged one of the smaller gray stone jars from the middle shelf and presented it to Mercedes with the beaming smile that seemed to be her default expression. “This is it, is it not?”

“Yes it is,” Mercedes looked like she was trying to suppress an amused giggle. “Thank you, Flayn.”

Byleth set the bowl down on the counter, unsure if she could improve any further, and walked over to the oven. Heat blasted her face as she opened the door to check the embers and charcoal; Mercedes had made a point of explaining that different foods cooked at different temperatures, so she shifted the burning stones around a bit with a fire poker before retreating. The temperature in the kitchen was teetering on the edge of being greatly uncomfortable; they were nearing summer, and the warm weather penetrated even the lowest stone floors of Garreg Mach. That was the reason Mercedes wanted to occupy the kitchen earlier, before the cooks filled the kitchen to prepare dinner; that would have made the endeavor truly more difficult than it had any right to be.

“Well done, professor,” Mercedes's voice drew her attention away from the blasted heat; the blonde was carefully pouring the other ingredients into the butter bowl. “I'm glad to have help; it makes the work go by faster to have good company.”

“You're sure that's good enough?” Byleth asked, fidgeting a bit. “I had not thought it completely smooth yet.”

“Oh, it's perfect, really. A few small lumps here and there are no trouble at all.” Mercedes began to stir, slowly and carefully so as not to spill the flour. “Now all we need are the chocolate pieces and the trays, and then all that's left to do is wait.”

Flayn's eyes lit up, and she darted down the kitchen hallway, throwing herself to her knees to pull the iron trays out from under a lower oven rung.

“She's so cheerful,” Mercedes said with a smile. “It's too bad she isn't a fellow student. I think she'd be happier spending almost all of her time with other people.” She tapped her finger against her chin. “Or maybe apprenticing in the kitchen...once she's gotten better at reading the cookbooks!”

Byleth nodded slightly. Flayn was an...odd figure, around the monastery. She could often be found flitting about the greenhouse and the fishing docks, and would happily talk to anyone who would spare her a moment of their time; but no one really knew anything about her, except that she was Bishop Seteth's little sister. Apparently he'd simply turned up on the doorstep one day with her in tow, asking for sanctuary since their home had been invaded by some unknown thugs and he was worried about her safety. Flayn herself, when questioned, would babble nervously about her childhood in Enbarr and how pretty it was and how much she missed it, clearly uncomfortable with any questions into where she'd been before now. She was also prone to a very formal, anachronistic style of speaking and occasionally would say entire sentences in Old Fodlanese of all languages – seemingly without noticing. Seteth, apparently, was very proud of his sister's knowledge of old tongues.

Despite the oddities, though, Byleth...strangely didn't mind Flayn frequently accosting her on her day off, begging for a fishing partner. The green haired girl talked a lot, but she didn't mind Byleth's responses being short and to the point. She just seemed...well, happy. Innocently, sweetly happy.

“Here we go!” Flayn raised the two trays with a triumphant smile, as though she'd snatched them from the very jaws of death. “Two trays for many cookies! For Ashe's good health!”

“Yes indeed,” Mercedes said with a fond smile. Then she grabbed Byleth's hand and pressed two spoons into her palm. “Now remember not to make them too big or too small, or else they won't cook evenly.” Unperturbed by the professor staring at the utensils as if they were foreign objects, she steered her in front of one of the trays and placed the batter bowl between them. “Make them just a bit bigger than the spoon, and that should be perfect.”

“Um...right...” Byleth managed. She hovered on the spot for a moment, watching carefully as Mercedes scooped some of the dough out and rolled it out onto the tray. She judged the size, frowning with concentration, and then set about her task.

Was it strange, how awkward she felt doing such a mundane task? Unbidden, she remembered Claude's question about what she liked to do in her spare time. Outside of fighting. Outside of the sword. She bit her lip, carefully scraping another round dough ball onto the tray.

Mercedes slipped a pair of thick mitts over her hands and grabbed a tray in each hand. Flayn skittered around her, pulling the oven door open so she could place them in side by side. When the door slapped closed, the older girl sighed contently and said, “All right! It'll take about half an hour for them to cook, so if you two want to take care of some small thing or another, feel free. And thank you, again, for helping.”

Byleth nodded, bowed slightly, and excused herself with a half grunt of acknowledgment. Something in the back of her head (surprisingly not Sothis) called the gesture unfriendly; she argued back that a professor needed to be somewhat aloof. That little voice reminded her that she didn't know the first thing about proper professional teaching; that she had resorted to training her students as mercenary recruits while ordering them to do the necessary (or at least curriculum-required) readings on their own time. She protested that it was working, the voice noted that Lord Glouester would probably have a stroke if he knew that she was having his son up to his elbows in dirt weeding the gardens weekly, Duke Riegan would be offended by her assigning Claude tend to the pegasi and clean the stables, and Lord and Lady Ordelia might keel over when they saw what she had their fragile daughter reading.

“Whoa!” Distracted as she was, Byleth walked directly into something warm and hard; utterly unbalanced, she scrabbled for a handhold as her legs buckled and dug her fingers into a pair of very broad shoulders. “Hey there, professor!” Raphael said, wrapping one strong arm around her waist and saving her from a very embarrassing tumble. “Didn't see you there.”

“Neither did I,” Byleth mumbled, her face flushed with embarrassment. “I'm sorry.”

“Ah, it's nothing Prof. These muscles don't bruise easily!” Raphael pulled her forward a bit to help her reorient herself and stand up straight. “You okay?”

“Of course.”

Her student's brow furrowed a bit. “Are you sure? You have that dark face that Ignatz gets sometimes when he's worrying about something and thinking really hard.”

“That is...” She crossed her arms, frowning slightly. “I suppose I am a bit concerned for Ashe.” And Claude. “He didn't eat much yesterday, or the day before. His classmates are fretting.”

Raphael's expression eased with understanding and a gentle look of compassion that softened his rough-looking face. “Yeah...I can't say I'm surprised. It was pretty awful what he saw back there. We managed to get a handful of those guys to surrender and go home, but the rest of them just kept coming until they died. Then his pa went and...did what he did,” he frowned at that. “It'll be a while before he's really normal, Prof. But he really shouldn't stay shut up in his room like that. I know the lions want to give him his space, but if he just spends all his time lying there, he won't be able to think about anything but how sad he is.”

“...I suppose so,” Byleth hedged, twisting her heel in the dirt. “I am uncertain how to proceed, though. If he doesn't have the strength to do anything, I'm not sure how we might compel him to.”

“Treat it like a normal day,” Raphael replied without hesitation. “Just knock on his door, tell him he's expected, walk off before he can protest, come back in ten minutes if he doesn't show up. Bring food or water with you. Tell him you've got a little thing for him to do – just one little, easy to do thing you don't have time to manage – and when he's done he can go and rest if he needs to. Keep that up, and eventually he'll start coming out on his own.” He grinned. “My little sis did that to me a whole bunch once. Got me back on my feet.”

You were...? “I see. I...shall attempt that, then.” She let her arms rest at her sides again. “Perhaps Hannamen should be the one doing so, but I commanded him during the mission...I think – well, I ought to see to him until the aftermath is settled, shouldn't I?”

Raphael let out a little laugh, a booming sound that made her flinch back a bit at the sheer volume. The boy had a pair of impressive lungs on him, benefiting his size. “You worry an awful lot, Prof! It's kinda nice, you know. If you need any help dragging Ashe into doing something all gentle-like, let me know.”

“Okay.” She said hesitantly, then felt her lips twitch upward when he grinned at her. “Are you heading up to train? Felix is in there right now, and he can be rather intense. Don't take whatever he says too seriously.”

“Ah, yeah! He's awfully serious, isn't he? No worries, Prof. I can handle him. See you later!” With that, Raphael continued his way up the path toward the training grounds.

Byleth looked about, having been sufficiently distracted from her thoughts, and wondered what she should do with the small intervening time she had. After a moment, she found her feet carrying her down the pathway toward the docks, letting the breeze card through her hair and soothe her warm skin. The sun bore down on them from a cloudless sky as she stepped around the kids playing tag near the greenhouse and past the dockmaster. Her shoes clacked on the wooden dock until she was at the edge of it, staring across the lake in front of which the monastery had been built.

The smell of wind over the lake and the soft lap of the ripples against the dock legs welcomed her as she sat down, taking off her shoes and socks and dipping her feet into the cool, crystal clean water. Closing her eyes, Byleth thought to herself, Rhea is very calm for a woman who has been targeted for an assassination.

Hm, Sothis hummed in agreement. That is true. Mind you, this is her seat of power. I find it difficult to imagine how these foes might penetrate through all that is here to protect her.

They must have considered that, Byleth pointed out. The high lords believe they're safe in their castles, boast of it even as they drink from poisoned goblets. If whoever had done this was working with Lonato, they must have planned for multiple results that his crusade made possible.

If they were to plan for his failure, how would they do so?

They might have moved a mole of theirs into position during the confusion last month, Byleth suggested, letting her feet splash in and out of the water. They may have hoped to remove Catherine from the equation, either by injury or death...or by having her preoccupied with patrols while the assassin moves about within the monastery. We're presuming that Lord Lonato was working with this mysterious person or persons, but what if they were working through him? Corrupt lords, magistrates and merchants much prefer to work through disposable pawns.

Working through him...hm... In her mind's eye, Sothis leaned on the arm of her throne, her expression thoughtful. That sounds familiar, somehow. I wonder why...

...It's strange that you can't seem to remember anything, Byleth thought wonderingly. You have such immense power, yet you're restricted to being but a voice in my head who can only offer me your magic through some strange bond between us.

Do not remind me, Sothis grumbled. If I had been able to influence your body, I would have prevented you from that silly romantic hero nonsense you pulled, nearly throwing both of us into the next life.

Are you ever going to let that go?, Byleth thought, a bit disgruntled. I told you, I panicked and moved without thinking. I've yet to make such a mistake again!

That is true, so far, Sothis said with a damning chuckle. However, watching you fret and mother these delinquents is enough to make me concerned. You're awfully invested in them for a cold-hearted mercenary!

They're my charges, Byleth responded, feeling an odd twist in her chest. It is my duty to ensure they are safe and become as capable as I can make them. W-what's this about mothering? How can I mother anyone when I never knew my own? How can I fret when I barely feel anything?

Oh? What else shall I call a famous mercenary awkwardly attempting to make cookies in order to raise a sad boy's spirits, if not fretting? You yourself said that his grief were not truly your concern, yet you've been worrying about him ever since you left the battlefield.

Byleth sat, stunned, her feet so still that a fish brushed against them without fear. I... she looked down at her hands. I...I...suppose?

Hmm...I realize this is all a little confusing. Sothis frowned. I am not the only one in a strange position here. You should not be as you are now. Your body is cold and numb in a way that is not the work of a broken mind. This is not natural... She scowled. And I do not mean in the way people have always muttered around you. I mean that something must be wrong that is distinctly non-mortal in its mechanisms.

A chill went down the young mercenary's spine. Is that so...?

Unfortunately... I know not what those mechanisms are, Sothis let out a single frustrated sigh. If only I could recall...this feels as if it is something I should understand.

A mewl interrupted her thoughts, before something headbutted her arm. Byleth twisted and found herself blinking down at a large, round-bellied tabby cat rubbing up against her, demanding attention in the way overly affectionate animals are wont to. She watched it for a moment before patting it a few times, then scratching it behind the ears. Its rumbling purr seemed to make its whole body vibrate.

“Hello professor. Are you going to fish today?”

Byleth looked up at Leonie, who'd come up behind her at some point she was talking to Sothis. Despite her caution, she frequently lost track of what was going on around her when she conferred with the spirit in her head; it was a good thing she had a reputation for stoicism and quiet thought, or else more people would think it odd... “Not today. I've been attending to some other things. Shall I move out of your way?”

“I'm not in a rush.” Leonie put a hand on her hip. “I gotta ask you something, though. How old is Captain Jeralt? He was always fairly nonchalant about it, but I've heard some weird anecdotes from the knights compared to what I know.”

“I...don't think he's ever mentioned it to me.” Byleth admitted, tilting her head. “In fact, I've heard him give different numbers on a couple of occasions. Looking back on it, I think it's a sign he was trying to avoid going back to the church.”

“Did he ever say anything about that? Because that's kind of weird too, given how happy everyone is to have him back.”

“He really doesn't want to say. I've tried to ask.” She looked down at the cat again. “Maybe you'll have better luck than me. He said that you always had a way of getting the things you put your mind to.”

Leonie made an odd sound deep in her throat. “I guess it couldn't hurt.” She heard the other girl shuffle a bit. “You seriously don't know his real age?”

“...I don't think he's ever said,” Byleth admitted. “My father can be tight lipped when he wishes. Even to me.”

“That sounds about right, honestly.” Leonie sighed. “Nearly a whole year he spent training me, and he never even mentioned having a daughter. Where were you back then, by the way? I can't imagine he just left you behind for no reason.”

“...” Byleth mind darted back to a burning village, a knife buried in her back, and a dark-skinned man drenched in blood and soot lifting her from the ground onto his wyvern. “It's a long story. I'll tell you about it some time, when I won't be interrupted.”

“Eh? Isn't this your free day?”

“I volunteered. Or I got volunteered. I'm honestly not sure. Either way, I'm helping Mercedes with some pastries.”

“Oh.” Leonie said in a tone of voice that told Byleth she was trying quite hard not to sound utterly confused, yet not quite succeeding. “All right then.” She paused. “I would like to hear that story sometime, though. It sounds like it was a bit of an adventure.”

“...It certainly was.” ...All that I can remember of it, anyway. She gave the cat a final, decisive pet before bringing her feet back onto the deck and grabbing her shoes. “I'll see you at dinner, Leonie. Good luck with the fish.”

“See ya.”

+ _ + _ + _

Ashe didn't show up at dinner again. That was about what Byleth expected, but she was prepared this time. Carefully balancing a plate of fruit, chicken, and three fresh cookies in one hand, she hammered on his door and spoke. “Ashe. You can't miss dinner again. Open up.”

For a moment, there was no response. Byleth waited, prepared to force the door if he decided to ignore her – she'd had to do that once or twice when her father had shut himself in his study and overworked to the point of exhaustion – but fortunately, after a minute she heard a lethargic 'oh...professor', and the rustling of someone standing up. Moments later, the door swung open about a foot, Ashe blinking tiredly at her, dark rings emphasizing his pale eyes.

“May I come in?” Byleth asked, adopting the troupe medic Falrie's tone as best she could; the kind tone that asked for permission, yet made it clear she would assert her authority as a healer if she had to. Ashe stared at her for a moment, then nodded hesitantly, opening the door the rest of the way.

He was dressed in street clothes, albiet they were rumped and messy in such a way that it was clear he'd been sleeping in them and likely hadn't changed since yesterday. His room was a mess, books strewn across the floor, shoes kicked carelessly aside, bow lying propped against a chair. “Sorry,” Ashe mumbled. “I just sort of...dropped everything when I got back. Haven't fixed it up yet.”

“Don't apologize. Here.” Byleth took one of the cookies off the plate and placed it directly on his palm. “Compliments from Mercedes and Flayn.”

“Oh,” Ashe gasped, cupping the treat in both hands. “F-For me? They shouldn't have...” Hesitantly, he nibbled on the edge of it. Byleth twitched a bit, waiting for him to say something about it. “It's so good...” He took a bite and managed a tiny smile.

“I hope so,” Byleth muttered. “Creaming is more trouble than it's worth. I think I might reserve it for punishment detail for interrupting me in class.”

Ashe blinked at her. “You...you worked on it too, Professor?”

“Yes.” She shuffled her feet, then walked over to the desk and put the plate down. “If you want to eat the other two, you have to manage most of the chicken.”

“You...didn't have to...” The younger boy's lip trembled a bit. Quickly he scarfed down the rest of the cookie and sat down on the edge of his bed. “I...”

Byleth frowned uncertainly, then in a flash of inspiration, commandeered the chair and let her hands rest in her lap. “I'll take your plate back when you're done,” She said calmly. “Then I suggest you have a hot bath. Now that the sauna is installed, the bathhouse has been reopened. It shouldn't be any trouble for you to go there for a little.”

“T-That's...you don't have to stay professor. I'll eat, really.”

“Mercedes said you barely ate yesterday, I didn't see you at breakfast, and Dimitri was literally leading you by the hand to lunch.” Byleth said flatly. “Forgive me, but I'm a bit concerned.”

Ashe said nothing in response, though he did flinch a bit. They sat there together, the silence lingering. Byleth didn't mind. Jeralt was often quiet when gathering his thoughts, and she'd long learned to be patient. Finally, the young archer moved...picking a book up off the ground. It was an older one, the corners worn, some pages dog-eared. It had been kept in care for a number of years, that much was clear.

“This was the first picture book I'd ever seen.” Ashe said softly. “Even when my parents were alive, we weren't in the merchant class. My father's work as a cook in the restaurant he owned jointly with several others in our village wasn't enough to buy me a tutor who could teach me how to read; there were simply too many other expenses compared to his salary. When he and mother died in an accident, I tried to manage what little savings they left behind to keep my siblings fed. But between the taxes, bandit attacks, and the house...it ran out so quickly. ...So I started stealing.” He frowned. “I was angry then. So angry. I hated the merchants and lords that I saw walking by us on the road, not a worry to be had, occasionally kicking and throwing things at us when we begged for coin. If they could afford to be so pleased with themselves, they could afford to pay for our dinner. ...That's what I thought at the time, anyway.”

Byleth sat still, listening carefully. That's a fair thing to think, she thought but didn't say. She didn't dare interrupt.

“I was pretty good at it. I looked cute, I was quick on my feet, and I knew my way around well enough to loose anyone who chased me.” Ashe closed his eyes. “I got confident. Enough so that I decided to break into Castle Gaspard, see what I could steal and resell. Maybe I could get enough to buy our old house back. Maybe I could pay someone to adopt myself and my siblings. I got inside easily enough – I can pick just about any lock you showed me, then. I still can, to be honest.”

He paused. “I believe you,” Byleth said quietly, when it seemed he wouldn't continue.

“I was looking around,” Ashe murmured, “throwing whatever seemed shiny and intricate into my bag. Then I came across a room that clearly hadn't been occupied at the time...I hadn't been paying attention, or I might have realized it was the room of Christophe's mother, who'd died to some illness a while back. But I went inside, and sitting open on the table was this book.” He smiled softly. “You have to understand...I'd never seen illustrations before. No one in my village had the money for something so valuable. I was transfixed, turning the pages, looking for all those glittering images. I didn't even hear Lonato come up behind me, until he asked me if I was enjoying the book.”

“That...” Byleth blinked, trying to reconcile the image of a man gently teasing a thief who'd broken into the room of his dead wife with the man driven to murder over the loss of his son.

“I was so panicked,” Ashe recalled, still smiling. “but he just asked me if I wanted to take it and finish reading it at home. I found myself admitting that I couldn't read...and he said that if I wanted, I could come back tomorrow and he'd teach me. I thought it was a joke. But I went back the next day and Christophe was waiting in the yard for me, told the guards to let me through. Every night after that, Lonato set aside an hour in his day to teach me my letters.”

He stopped, slowly raising his hand to the scar on his cheek. The scar from Lonato's javelin. “He saved me.” He said quietly. “But I couldn't...I couldn't save him.”

Byleth slowly got out of her chair, sat on the bed next to him, and put an arm around his shoulder. “Ashe, can I tell you something I've learned throughout all the jobs I've taken?” She asked. After a pause, he nodded. “Sometimes...sometimes you can't save everyone. Sometimes you can't even save the people you want to. Not if...not if they don't want to be saved.” She tugged at him, pulling him toward her until his head rested on her shoulder. “And that's not your fault. It's never your fault.” It's his. “Lonato...put a lot of effort into locking you out of his plans. And with that assassination plot to consider; there's clearly more going on than we know. I hope that we find some answers when the plot is unraveled.” She squeezed his shoulder, feeling him shaking.

“I hope so too,” He sobbed out. “I hope I can help.”

“Well, you won't have the strength to help if you don't eat,” Byleth said gently but firmly. “So please start on that.”

Ashe rubbed at his eyes. “I should have thanked Claude,” He mumbled. “Y'know, for saving me back then? I meant to, I swear...I just...I haven't been able to...”

“Take your time,” She responded. “Claude isn't going anywhere. I could pass it along, if you'd like.”

“N-No...I'd rather say it myself. But...thank you, Professor. Thank you...for everything...”

Byleth stayed for another twenty or so moments, rubbing his back and watching carefully as he choked down most of the chicken she'd brought him. Leaving the cookies with him, she took the plate and quietly excused herself, deciding she'd direct Annette over to him in a little while.

+ _ + _ + _

“There you are.”

For some reason, it took Byleth longer than it should have to realize that Claude was hiding out in the library. It was obvious, when she thought hard enough, that his sharp mind would hunger for knowledge with great frequency, but his disarming persona kept tricking her into thinking he'd be goofing off someone obvious she could corral him from.

Claude jerked up from his seemingly lazy position, bent over a book written in middle common – the version of the common tongue used when Loong won his kingdom's sovereignty from the Empire. “Oh, Teach! You shouldn't sneak up on people like that,” He complained.

“Yes, well, you shouldn't pretend to be alright when you're not,” Byleth responded mildly. “Up you get. I'm going on patrol, and you're coming with me.”

“Whhaaat? Of course I'm fine! Why wouldn't I be?” Claude complained when she snatched the book out from under his hands. He smiled carefully at her. “Seriously, I'm just contemplating this whole assassination plot. The whole execution of it is bothering me.”

Byleth put her hands on the desk and looked deep into his eyes. “Do you know that when you smile like that, it doesn't reach your eyes?” She asked him calmly. His expression faded with a flicker of shock. “Up you get, and grab your bow. While we're patrolling, I want you to tell me everything that's 'bothering' you about the plot. Because I think we're 'bothered' by the same things, and I want to compare notes.”

“...Well, since you're asking so nicely,” Claude deadpanned. His expression grew more guarded, almost wary, but he got up and moved to join her with little to no hesitation. “You realize this is a trick?”

“It has to be.” Byleth replied. “Why else would a man who planned to kill the archbishop with his own hands be carrying around a letter plotting her assassination at a later date?”

Claude chuckled. “That is the question of the day, isn't it?”

Something about the way he said those words prickled at the back of Byleth's mind, but she set it aside. “So it seems.” If this was a plot with that sort of trickery, then its roots ran far deeper than one grief-stricken man on a doomed quest for revenge. It had already damaged one of her students.

Byleth refused to let it succeed any further than that.

Chapter Text

Dimitri walked into the entrance hall after lunch, originally intending to make his way to the training grounds with Ingrid, but was a little surprised to see the Golden Deer gathered as one in the middle of the oddly empty room. Ingrid let out a confused hum, “What's going on with them?” Dimitri shrugged, and – despite acknowledging that it was likely none of his business – wandered towards them out of curiosity.

“-task for this moon is to patrol the monastery in support of the knights while they're trying to stop the assassination plot,” Claude was saying when they came into earshot. The Riegan heir put a hand on his hip. “Here's the thing. I don't think the bad guys are really trying to assassinate the archbishop.”

Ingrid's eyes widened with utter bafflement. “What makes you say that?” Leonie asked, before his friend could raise her voice and make things awkward.

“It's a diversion.” Byleth responded before Claude could respond. The professor was standing with her arms crossed, a serious frown marring her lovely face. “If Lord Lonato had even the slightest intention of succeeding, there would be no reason for a second assassination plot at a later date. Given how ill-equipped he and his force were to actually march on the monastery...it's more likely that he was influenced by other figures, who used his attack and now this as a feint for their intended goal.”

“Precisely,” Claude purred, delight dripping off his tone at her insight. “No one who intends to succeed in an assassination carries around a note like that.”

“You really think so?” Ignatz asked nervously.

“Oh yeah, that makes complete sense,” Hilda responded, bobbling her head. “But then, what are they really after that was worth the loss of an ally as useful as Lord Gaspard?”

Something ugly, hot and familiar bubbled up in Dimitri's stomach. He swallowed over it, clenching his right hand. The theory made perfect sense. That meant someone had used Lord Lonato, manipulated his grief and despair and the love his people had for him – all to gain a convenient meat-shield to mask their true intentions. They threw away dozens of lives, left Ashe and who knew how many others without family, caused meaningless deaths.

This can't be forgiven, his father said darkly. Or forgotten.

It won't be, Dimitri swore. They'll pay for this.

“If I knew that, I wouldn't be so worried,” Claude complained, pulling his attention back to the present. He saw Ingrid give him a slightly concerned look and managed to smile at her. “Let's see...It probably involves somewhere that'll be empty and easily accessible during the Right of Rebirth. They mentioned that date specifically, and considering how hard it is to get into the chapel during that ceremony, it's extra suspicious that this is the day they chose to try and kill off Lady Rhea.”

“And since the ceremony is in the goddess tower, the rest of the monastery will be severely understaffed,” Lysithea mused. “Even with the extra knights that were called back, they wouldn't be able to plug all the gaps.”

“Do you suppose they're after the church's donation money?” Leonie suggested. “I hear noble families tend to donate pretty generously.

“My bet's on the dining hall!” Raphael said enthusiastically.

“Whatever they're after,” Byleth said quietly, “It would have to be something they couldn't find anywhere else. Otherwise, why antagonize one of the most powerful people in Fodlan when there are easier pickings?” She lowered her hand from where it rested next to her ear. “Personally...I think what's most likely is that they're after something the church has confiscated or held in protection for a long time. It could be old or rare books, weapons and relics, but I think we're best served concentrating on what the church alone has that someone might want.”

“I bet you're right!” Hilda proclaimed cheerfully. “Let's split up and look around! I'll keep an eye on the reception hall.”

“Why did she even come here if she's so determined not to make anything of herself?” Ingrid muttered.

“She's right there, Ingrid,” Dimitri protested. Fortunately, the pink haired heiress didn't seem to have overheard them.

“You should get some training in if you have the time, Hilda,” Claude deadpanned in an unexpectedly serious tone. “There's a good chance we're going to get in a fight.”

“Ugh. Well, I'm not the only one who needs to train here! It's not right to single me out like that!”

“People who slack off on their exam preparations get week-long dish duty,” Byleth said flatly.

Professor!” Hilda half whined, half protested. Claude, Lysithea and Ignatz all snickered, causing her to pout at them.

Dimitri couldn't help but chuckle. “I suppose we should consider ourselves grateful that Professor Hannamen doesn't threaten slackers with extra chores,” he joked. The Golden Deer turned around almost as one. “Sylvain would be in serious trouble.”

“Perhaps he ought to,” Byleth replied, crossing her arms. “I find it does a good job of motivating certain individuals.” Lorenz and Hilda looked mutually pained at that.

“Your Highness, Lady Ingrid,” The purple-haired noble bowed slightly, perhaps in hopes of redirecting your conversation. “I'm surprised to see you here. Have you not been briefed on your own monthly task yet?”

“Ah, I'm afraid it's been postponed, in light of the assassination plot.” Dimitri eyed the group thoughtfully and said, “Though with that in mind, I suspect we'll be given orders to join the knights in patrolling as well. I can't imagine things settling here until the Archbishop's safety is assured.”

“Probably,” Byleth agreed quietly.

“Still...I loathe being inactive in times like these.” Dimitri acknowledged before looking about the group. “It makes me anxious.”

“Ooooh, I know – why don't you come help us then?” Hilda suggested cheerfully. “Many hands make light work, right?”

“Hilda! You can't just try and foist your responsibilities in the investigation off on a rival house! Are you seriously trying to turn the prince of Faerghus into your errand boy?!” Lorenz sputtered. “I can't believe you-”

“I wouldn't mind helping.” Dimitri interrupted, smiling apologetically at the flummoxed lord before glancing back at his classmate. “What do you think, Ingrid? If you'd rather wait until we got proper orders, I understand.”

“I...well, that is...” Ingrid looked baffled, rubbing her elbow. “I...suppose if you think you have a lead, it couldn't hurt?” The surprised smiles that broke out across the Golden Deer made Dimitri feel oddly warm. “It's true we've been given no assignment, and I think the Professor is right. It has to be something invaluable to the church...and there can only be so many places something like that can be hidden.” She rocked on her heels once and said, “Should I go get the others?”

“If they're willing,” Dimitri answered, thinking about how cross Felix would be if he found out after the fact that he'd missed a good fight – within arm's reach, at that. Ever since their first battle after initiation, his friend had been hungering for real conflict to hone his sword on. “Do warn them that there's likely to be a fight should we catch these people in the act.”

“As you wish,” Ingrid said, then hurried back down the hall.

Lorenz still looked utterly flabbergasted as she disappeared through the door. Claude, meanwhile, was beaming – leaving Dimitri to wonder if he'd heard the two of them come in and deliberately allowed them to eavesdrop. Hilda generally preferred to do as little as possible, and would have jumped on even the implication of extra help being offered. Asking a rival house leader for assistance in your own mission would be seen as weakness – but by passing the question off to her, and knowing that Dimitri was not good at ignoring people facing trouble, Claude could graciously accept the offer of help, cover more ground faster, and succeed in his mission without loosing face.

Maybe he was overthinking it or being too suspicious. But it was one thing for Claude to claim to be a shamelessly frank schemer, and another thing to wonder if you'd just seen him in action.

“So kind of you to join us, your princeliness” Claude said with a smile. “How shall we do this, then?”

“Hilda's desire to split up has some merit,” Byleth said. “We should go in groups of two and investigate various areas of the monastery that are typically off limits for students. Speak to anyone who might have some idea of what the supposed assassins might want. And keep an eye out for anyone who looks like they shouldn't be here. Dimitri, depending on how many of your classmates join us, you might want to take Hilda and go meet them in the officer's academy area.” She turned on her heel. “Ignatz, you and Raphael search together. Leonie, take Lysithea; Marianne, you and Lorenz can manage together, yes?”

“Naturally,” Lorenz responded without waiting for Marianne to say anything. The blue haired girl squeaked, and then nodded hesitantly.

“Alright. Let us begin, then.” Byleth clapped her hands together, and the Golden Deer took off in both directions. Claude lingered by the table he'd been leaning on, hands behind his head with his lips curved in a pleased grin.

“All of this death, in order to steal from a holy vault.” Dimitri muttered, his mood darkening as he contemplated their conclusion once again. “How low can people stoop...”

“In my experience, they don't consider it 'stooping'.” Byleth responded dully, running a hand through her hair. “They think they're completely justified, and that it's everyone else's fault for 'forcing' them to commit to violence. Or that they had a right to it and how dare these peasants judge them?”

“Oh man,” Claude said with a mock groan, “I've lived three years in the Leisceter Alliance and I've already heard the latter enough to last me a lifetime.”

Dimitri forcibly took a calming breath. As much as he loathed to admit it, he'd heard that line among some of his fellow Kingdom nobles as well, and it never failed to spike his blood pressure to dangerous levels. It was truly infuriating that no one who flaunted their rights considered their responsibilities to be of any significance. Instead he tried to think about what little information they had, and asked, “Claude, when you spoke to Lord Lonato, he said something about Lady Rhea being a false prophet, correct?”

Claude's expression darkened for a split second. Dimitri, not for the first time, wondered what exactly had happened in Lonato's final moments that his friend's carefully practiced calm cracked when asked about it. Only Ashe had witnessed part of the conversation between the future duke and the grief-blind lord, and Byleth had hauled him away while Lonato tried and failed to defeat his younger opponent. When she'd gone back, she'd found Claude standing in silence over the man's body. What had happened? “Yeah, something to that effect. He kept rambling about how she was deceiving the people and stealing us away from true faith.”

“I don't understand,” Byleth grumbled. “The first among the Goddess's laws is that murder is the gravest of sins. How can he claim to be among the most devout among her followers while starting a violent insurrection?”

Claude glanced curiously at her; Dimitri shook his head and said, “I don't know, Professor. Though I'm beginning to wonder...”

The door swung open behind them, cutting off further conversation. Felix stormed through first, hand on his sword and eyes alight; Sylvain trailed along behind him, rubbing the back of his head and gesturing placatingly at a scowling Ingrid. Much to Dimitri's surprise and pleasure, Ashe was following behind them, Annette hovering at his side while Dedue and Mercedes brought up the rear. His younger friend looked a little better than the last few days, managing a smile when they formed a loose semi-circle around him.

Amazement washed over Dimitri, leaving him surprised and pleased; he'd thought at least two or three of his classmates would be busy or disinclined to assist without official permission. “What's going on, boar?” Felix asked without prompting.

“The assassination 'plot' is a ruse,” Claude replied, frowning for another brief moment before easily continuing, “and if you're really lucky, we're going to catch our opponents off guard and get in a bloody scrape. But if we're going to do that...we need to know where they're going to show up.”

+ _ + _ + _

Investigating the monastery was more time consuming than Dimitri had anticipated.

Perhaps it should have been obvious to him, but he hadn't quite been able to appreciate just how massive Garreg Mach was until he'd attempted to seek out its secrets from one end to the other. It was easy to see why Claude was so fascinated by the building; beyond the question of whether there was anything of its like in Almyra. As they moved from place to place, he learned more about the monastery's history than any of his lessons had imparted before. It was not the work for impatient men, what they were doing – dozens of possibilities opened up as they ferreted details out drunk soldiers and loose-lipped monks about treasures, secret passageways and old hearsay.

The whole experience was giving Dimitri a terrible headache, and it was vaguely aggravating to realize that Claude was likely thriving in the midst of this. Despite what the walking contradiction likely wanted him to believe, he'd come to realize – which Hilda had then happily confirmed – that Claude didn't just prod and pester people for his personal amusement. Rather, he was probably the most curious soul in all of Fodlan, and he could never leave well enough alone when there were secrets to pursue. Frequently it got him in trouble...and just as frequently it tended to a boon in unexpected moments.

The realization came with a distant, nagging worry; he had secrets of his own, and good reason to keep them hidden. He tried to wrestle down that old unease, strangle it; it wasn't fair to his friend... He gave his head a shake and tried to refocus on the task at hand.

It was taking them days; the Rite of Rebirth was nearly upon them. Days of meticulously running back and forth across the grounds, occasionally meeting up with half of their classmates to share information and rule some of their ideas out. Garreg Mach was usually a cheerful and welcoming place; now it was quiet as a crypt, the unease and fear hanging over the servants and students only broken up by anxious theorizing and jumping at shadows. Even the orphan children, usually insulated and immune from the squabbles of their protectors, knew something was very wrong.

Dimitri was just grateful they were narrowing things down. Claude, after some deliberation, had ruled out the library and the bishop's offices – the lengths these unknown enemies had gone to set this up, and the resources they'd sunk into this attempt, was too much even for rare books and sealed reports/papers. That left just a few loose ends...

“What's the matter? You're running all over creation!” Sir Jeralt remarked after he and Hilda nearly crashed into the man in their haste to speak with one of the knights in the dining hall.

“Professor's orders, sir!” Hilda said breathlessly. “Have you seen Sir Carlton? We have some questions about the Holy Mausoleum and he's on guard duty this week.”

“The Holy Mausoleum? Aren't you supposed to be helping with the knight patrols?” Sir Jeralt looked between them for a moment before a slow smile spread across his face. “Ah, you don't believe Lady Rhea is the real target, do you?”

“Claude thinks it's a feint, designed to draw attention away from another objective within the Monastery.” Dimitri said. “I'm inclined to agree with him.”

The old knight snorted. “So am I. Unfortunately, the knights have their orders. All I can say is that, out of all the restricted areas within these walls, the Holy Mausoleum has the most security throughout the year except for the Rite of Rebirth. It'll be the only day of the year that the graveyard can be entered easily without the Archbishop's permission and assistance.”

“Ooooh~, good to know! Thank you Sir Jeralt!” Hilda unexpectedly grabbed his arm and started dragging him back the way they came. “C'mon Dimitri, let's go find Claude!”

“Ow, Hilda! Goddess, where do all of you find this energy?”

Dimitri heard Sir Jeralt chuckle right before he was pulled through the doors again. He knew he could free himself if he truly desired to – the Crest of Goneril gave Hilda more strength than a normal human could match, but it couldn't compare to his own. The Crest of Charon came close, to the extent that many scholars theorized that the pair were entwined, somehow; in whatever manner the Goddess had created them, they were near twins. So it wasn't as though her iron grip was inescapable...but there was something oddly charming about the energy that Hilda was demonstrating, that she seemed to have siphoned off of her fellow classmates, that he didn't find the need to disrupt.

“He figured it out right away!” Hilda commented with a laugh. “I mean, I guess it makes sense, since he's been a mercenary for so long, but I totally didn't think he'd agree.”

“Much of what Professor Byleth knows, she learned from him,” Dimitri noted wryly. “I would expect no less.”

“There's a scary thought,” Hilda slowed down a bit as they re-entered the main hall. “The Professor can be kind of intimidating; when she isn't spacing out, anyway! I don't envy anyone who walks into a battlefield and finds both of them waiting in the wings.”

“A frightening place to stand, indeed.” They started across the grassy field toward the officer's academy. Cool winds whipped around them, the gray sky above a grim monolith. Dimitri shivered and tried not to wonder if the weather, so frequently oppressive in the past weeks, was an omen of things to come.

Claude was leaning against one of the pillars in the Golden Deer classroom, talking in a low voice with Byleth so as not to disturb the few scattered students who were trying to work in spite of the situation. Leonie was pacing back and forth near Felix, who wore a strong look of consternation. Annette was sitting on one of the desks, appearing quite thoughtful.

“There you are,” Byleth said, calm and remote as ever. “You look pleased.”

“We've got a lead!” Hilda said brightly, throwing herself onto the seat next to Annette while ignoring the orange-haired girl's startled yelp. “Something the church values above all else, and the day of the Rite is the only time it's easily accessible by the public.”

The professor's brow furrowed slightly. “Do you mean the Holy Mausoleum?”

Claude grinned. “Bullseye. That's just where I was going.”

“Saint Serios's bones are interned in the Mausoleum; at least, that's what has always been said.” Dimitri crossed his arms and frowned. “I can't imagine what else is within there worth stealing.” We're dealing with grave robbers. As if the mere setup to this, this heretical invasion hadn't already been disgusting enough.

“We don't know the enemy's intentions, not yet.” Claude said as if reading this thoughts. “But judging by all the information we've gone over? Our best bet is to stake out the Holy Mausoleum.” He grinned. “Let's meet up in the cathedral tomorrow. Don't forget to bring your weapons.”

“Finally,” Felix muttered.

Ultimately, they discussed what they'd learned for a few more minutes before departing from the classroom; Dimitri had just stepped out into the sunlight when he saw Dedue and Mercedes returning from their own information hunt. While Mercedes immediately made her way over to Annette, Dedue stood in place, frowning at Claude's back as the brunette slipped away toward the training grounds.

Concerned by that unusual response, Dimitri made his way over to the taller student. “Is something the matter, Dedue?”

Whatever he was expecting...it wasn't what he got. “Your Highness, this might sound out of line...but why have you suddenly come to trust Riegan?”

Dimitri made a strangled noise of surprise, blinking rapidly up at him. “I'm sorry?” He said blankly. “Where is this coming from, my friend?”

Dedue looked a little pained at being addressed as such, as he always did, before forging on. “For someone who's so keen on discovering the secrets of others, he's very reluctant to share his own,” The Duscur native rumbled. “How can we trust a man who lies as easily as he breathes to have our best interests at heart? I do not know if we should join him tomorrow...”

“Dedue...” Dimitri sucked in a deep breath, and slowly let it out. “He is a liar, yes, but he is not a dangerous man...not to us, at least.” He tried not to think of Ashe's description of Claude nonchalantly side-stepping an attack, cruel, prying questions pouring off his tongue as he toyed with his opponent, drawing him away from the younger archer. “Claude has good cause to keep the truths that he has close to his chest. He is – has told me something I cannot in good conscious divulge without his permission; all I can say is that he is more like you than you might think.”

Dedue blinked twice. “I...forgive me, your highness, but I find that difficult to imagine.”

“I suspect that's exactly what he wants,” Dimitri ran a hand through his hair, wondering how to explain without really telling his friend anything. “Remember that the Alliance is very different from the Kingdom. There may be more freedoms there for most, but in exchange, its politics are treacherous to navigate. Even though Claude will inherit the leading household of the Alliance, he will not inherit the loyalty of his fellow lords the way I shall. He's had to fight to be respected, to prove himself, since his arrival...especially since he had to be legitimized.”

He couldn't help but scowl at that. “There's a saying that Alliance lords are a greater danger to each other than any invader could hope to be. I doubt that's wholly true, but it's a potential danger that Claude must always be wary of.”

'Spend a week in the Alliance, if your honor could stomach it'. I'm honestly not sure it could.

Dedue didn't look wholly convinced, but he visibly set his thoughts on the matter aside. “Besides,” Dimitri went on, “I can't imagine leaving him and his classmates to fight an unknown enemy when I could be there alongside them.”

That, at least, was something Dedue seemed to understand. “Then we shall go.” The larger man said solemnly.

+ _ + _ + _

Dimitri slept very little the night before the Rite of Rebirth, and when he did, his dreams were full of blood and open graves.

There were no bones in the graves set up for his father, stepmother, and the household knights. Fire had ruined their bodies beyond all recognition; only dear Glenn escaped such ruin by vanishing completely; his last memory was his friend shoving him into Gustav's arms before turning to face the flames and their pursuers, arrows still in his back. All that they were able to find was his sword, which was returned to his father. For all that Dimitri had been afraid of going near the smoothly carved stone that marked Glenn's resting place, it was utterly overshadowed by the intense feeling of rage that the mere thought of someone disturbing his grave kindled in him.

Saint Serios had saved Fodlan in days long gone by. Was that not enough cause to be left to rest undisturbed? What could be gained by violating her grave, what cause so valuable that the woman to whom they owed the world they lived in should be desecrated?

Are you ready?

“I am, father.” Dimitri murmured, sliding his boots on.

You're tired. Weak. Are you truly ready?

“Yes. Yes, I promise.”

He ran a hand through his hair before tying it back; he'd grown to like the look, despite the strange looks some of the girls were giving him and Sylvain's constant badgering over where the idea had come from. Dimitri couldn't imagine what sort of conclusions the redhead would jump to if he admitted it had been Claude; for some reason, the thought made him oddly nervous. It made him think of the brunette's reaction to him taking the advice; a brief second of surprise followed by a playful whistle of admiration.

Are Riegan and your pretty professor distracting you again?

Dimitri jolted to his feet, eyes widening. “What? N-no, of course not...!”

Liar.

“It's-it's not like that-”

A sharp knock on the door cut his stammered explanation off. “What are you mumbling about, boar?” Felix grumbled. Apparently Dimitri wasn't the only person who had slept poorly last night.

“Felix, can't you give that nickname a rest?” Sylvain chided, his voice slightly muffled by the wood. “But seriously, your highness, are you alright in there? You didn't bring somebody in last night, did you? Because after all the trouble you've given me about going out late-”

“No!” Dimitri snatched his coat off the wall and yanked the door open, glaring indigently at his childhood friend. “For the love of Sothis, Sylvain! You're the only one who's committed that particular sin against your neighbors. I was thinking out loud, that's all.”

Felix stared doubtfully at him, then snorted. “Hmph. Riegan and his lot are waiting in the cathedral. Let's go.” He stomped off toward the stairs.

Sylvain sighed. “Is he ever going to explain what he's holding against you?” He asked, throwing his arms up in the air.

“Don't mind him,” Dimitri said, shaking his head. He still wasn't sure whether or not he was grateful that Felix hadn't told his friends what he'd seen that day. “Let's just go.”

His red-haired friend frowned at him, before shrugging. “Fine, have it your way. You do know you can trust me, right?”

“Of course I do...”

Dimitri picked up the pace and took the stairs two at a time, using the rush as an excuse to avoid talking any further. For all that he complained, Sylvain kept at his heels as they made their way to the first floor, through the entrance hall and out onto the bridge connecting to the cathedral. There weren't many people out and about – with Lady Rhea preparing to preform the Rite, most of the faithful were at the Goddess Tower while the knights patrolled the halls. It was almost eerie how empty the house of prayer was when they passed the iron gates and stepped inside; only a few monks lingered among the pews, and the usually ever-present organ was silent.

Claude, Byleth and the others weren't hard to spot; Dimitri realized (much to his chagrin) that they were the last three arriving; overslept again... “I'm sorry,” he apologized as he, Sylvain and Felix came to a halt in front of the group. “Nothing's happened yet, has it?”

“No.” Byleth murmured. “The ceremony isn't due to start for an hour. I doubt our enemy wants to jump the gun.”

“Which isn't to say they aren't probably moving about right now,” Claude added. “Time to see if our hunch is correct.”

“Ugh, I hope it's not,” Hilda grumbled. “Then we wouldn't have to fight anyone.”

“I appreciate your respect for the sanctity of life, Hilda,” Byleth said with a startling note of dryness in her voice. “But I suspect you hope in vain. I do hope you didn't put so much hope in that thought that you left you ax behind.”

Felix snorted in amusement; Claude didn't bother to try and hide his snickering. Hilda turned a light shade of red when Raphael got a chuckle out at her expense as well. Ingrid rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, scowling at the other girl.

“We've all come to this conclusion together,” Ignatz said, coming to his classmates rescue. “I'm sure we've got it right.”

“I agree,” Ashe said quietly. Annette frowned worriedly at him, watching him turn an arrow over and over in his hands. Everyone present was armed, but despite their intentions only Mercedes and Ignatz were worrying with their tools as he was.

“Right or wrong, the clock is ticking,” Claude said, his usual casualness subdued. “All we can do for now is stick to the plan.”

“We're ready,” Dimitri assured him.

“You seem a mite too relaxed for my liking,” Seteth's voice sounded from the side. Dimitri turned towards the bishop as he approached with Flayn in tow. The prince wasn't sure what to make of the blatantly suspicious scowl the man threw at Byleth. “The Goddess's Rite of Rebirth is to begin shortly. While we are in the Goddess Tower, we are relying on you to secure the locations lacking in defense.”

“Bishop Seteth, I assure you-” Dimitri started to protest, a little indigent on the professor's behalf. She blinked with what might be surprise.

“May I let you in on something, Professor?” Flayn cut in, smiling. Byleth pivoted to stare at her, a hint of puzzlement on her face. “My brother can be a bit...callous.” Seteth's expression went flat with alarm. “He told me he was concerned about you, and hinted that perhaps you'd be better off patrolling a coffin!” She giggled a bit.

“What?” Dimitri wasn't sure if that surprised yelp came from Annette, Mercedes, Lysithea or Lorenz – or maybe all of them.

“T-That...was said in jest, Flayn! And in confidence,” Seteth sputtered. “Please, stay by my side and try not to cause any more trouble...” The man looked over them again, shuffled almost awkwardly, then turned to leave with one hand on his sister's arm.

“Seteth is way too overprotective,” Hilda mumbled. “He reminds me of my brother.”

Claude rolled his shoulder, watching Seteth leave with an expression Dimitri couldn't decipher. “Well, with that ringing endorsement in our ears, how can we do anything less?” He grinned in spite of the barb. “I know a hidden spot where we can monitor the stairs leading to the Holy Mausoleum. It'll be a bit cramped with all of us...but we'll manage.”

Those green eyes sharpened. Dimitri, almost in spite of himself, shivered at the sight. “If there's anyone down there, they'll be trapped like the rats they are. We'll just have to take them down without getting bitten.”

Whether it was nerves, a sense of caution, or the fact that they were disturbed by Seteth's blatant mistrust of them, both classes were virtually silent as Claude lead them down into the lower floors of Garreg Mach. As they descended, the appearance of the monastery grew more spartan; it never looked quite abandoned, but the bare walls and cracked floors had not been given the same kind of care as the glittering castle above. After they turned several corners following a twisting, counter-intuitive hallway, Claude ran his hand along the wall and pressed hard against one of the stones. It gave way under his hand, revealing a rusty doorknob that required a bit of shaking to get to work...beyond that, a concealed pathway.

“Dare I ask how you knew about that?” Dimitri wondered aloud.

Claude merely smiled at him before gesturing to the narrow passageway. “The Mausoleum is at the other end. Shall we?”

+ _ + _ + _

The passageway likely wasn't designed with nearly twenty people lingering inside it indefinitely, given how close the walls were to each other; with that in mind, they weren't waiting too long before the silence was broken up by occasional mumbled complaints. The quiet was an oppressive blanket, however, and those who broke it tended to cringe and immediately shut up. Even the smallest sound seemed to echo throughout the whole floor.

Dimitri almost wished for Byleth's apathy; she leaned against the wall, eyes closed as if asleep, only the tenseness in her shoulders suggesting anything concerned her. Thanks to the lack of space, he was pressed against her back (internally admiring her height and muscles while also being very grateful Sylvain was at the other end of the passage) and he could feel the stress in her. It startled him, in all honesty. She was always so serene, untroubled...being able to sense her worry like this was humbling, and reminded him again just how little he, or anyone else, knew about her...

“Would you look at that,” Claude murmured from in front of him.

“You know very well that I can't,” Dimitri retorted, twisting slightly so he was looking at the back of the brunette's neck. Claude was standing in front of the door, looking through the small barred window that provided their view of the Mausoleum's entrance. “Are they here? What is-”

Claude's hand grasped his wrist. “Shh,” He murmured, pressing a finger against Dimitri's pulse. “There's a lot of them; they're all headed into the Mausoleum. Some mercenaries armed with axes and bows...and a lot of mages in priest robes.”

The prince opened his mouth, closed it, and felt oddly flustered as his blood thundered wildly against the archer's calloused thumb.

“Priests?” Mercedes hissed, indigent. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Claude shifted slightly and tensed. “They don't look like they're from Garreg Mach, though. Different designs from the same base...well, well. A power grab by the Western Church?” Dimitri felt Byleth tense. “Can't say I was expecting that.”

“What's he talking about?” Leonie mumbled, her bow creaking slightly as she shifted in place.

“Well, it's-”

“They're all gone in,” Claude interrupted Annette's explanation. “Whatever they want in there, they're setting up to grab it.” He gave the door a kick and forced it open, striding out into the hallway. “Shall we?”

For a moment, the sheer calm purpose in those words left Dimitri speechless. It hardly sounded like the Claude he knew at all...there was power there, weight. For a brief moment, he wasn't looking at his laid-back friend but someone else entirely.

Not that he had time to contemplate it. “Prepare for battle, everyone,” He commanded, following Claude toward the door.

Felix chuckled somewhere behind him. “Finally!”

They flooded into the Mausoleum almost as one, the doors banging shut behind them. The graveyard stretched out ahead of them, dark except for candles on the graves and several torches on the walls. The ceiling stretched far above their heads, startlingly so for a vast room so deep beneath the monastery. Standing among the stone tombs were men in white priest robes, and mercenaries in cheap leather armed with steel axes and bows. There had to be...what? Two dozen, thirty, forty men in total? Counting the knight in the center of the room...

Dimitri's eyes narrowed at the sharp jolt of wariness washing over him as his eyes clapped onto the most distinctive figure in the room.

He rode astride a massive black stallion...how he lead the magnificent animal inside without anyone's guess, but the animal was young, muscular and strong. Certainly, it was capable of potentially charging them down and trampling them beneath its hooves. The rider sat tall despite his lazy and disinterested posture; clad head to toe in spiked black armor with horns jutting out of his helmet. A long lance dangled lazily against the side of the horse; Dimitri for a moment thought his eyes might be playing tricks on him...but he was certain that instead of a normal lance head, the blade curved like a farmer's scythe, the blade as long as his arm.

“Professor...” He murmured warily, looking over at her.

“I see him,” She responded, stepping forward so she was standing in front of Lysithea and Annette. “I'm surprised someone so memorable has been skulking around unnoticed. ...Keep the others away from him. When he moves, I'll take him on. Claude?”

“I hear you,” Her house leader responded, shivering. “I'm getting really disturbing vibes off that guy...no one go near the evil-looking knight, okay?!”

There was a shout at the far end of the room. Dimitri strained his eyes; from what he could tell, a man was kneeling before the casket of Saint Serios, struggling to open it. Fortunately, whatever enchantment had been lain on the tomb years before was holding. The man twisted to look at them and yelled out for his forces to move; the sellswords and priests began moving towards them, weapons drawn with none of the hesitation Byleth had described in the Gaspard troops before.

“We'll take the right, you take the left?” Claude asked playfully, one arrow already drawn.

“That sounds fair,” Dimitri responded, then darted forward. He knew without looking back at his friends were following his lead.

The first myrmidon all but impaled himself on his lance; they weren't cheap hires, judging by their clothes, but there was an arrogance to their gait that Dimitri had learned to recognize in the many brigands who'd attempted to pillage his villages and saw the blonde-haired 'child' as a mere kitten who could be swept aside with little effort. Dimitri kicked the corpse aside, freeing his weapon, and ducked behind a pillar just in time to avoid a couple of arrows. Ashe darted to a pillar just north of him, swung out from behind it and fired back at the archer. When the man staggered, Ashe's attack scoring his arm, Dedue stormed down the narrow pathway between the tombs and slammed his gauntleted fist into the man's face, dropping him instantly.

Anther myrmidon, either braver or stupider than most, rushed forward and smacked the back of Dedue's head with the hilt of his sword. Dimitri couldn't help but smirk when, sure as it had before, the impact didn't even faze his friend. The large Duscur native slowly turned around and skewered the man with a singularly unimpressed stare; the man had a couple of seconds to realize his mistake and pale right before Ingrid's lance rammed through his back and out of his chest.

Ashe was firing arrows again, this time at the pair of mages who'd rounded the corner with the initial attack. One of his targets let out a gurgling scream when an arrow replaced her right eye; the other one staggered and then threw Miasma at the pillar his friend was using as cover. Ashe let out a frightened yelp as the impact knocked him backwards and collapsed the stone, nearly crushing him beneath it.

Dimitri rushed over and pulled Ashe to his feet, eyes scanning for the mage. He needn't have been worried; Felix hadn't given the man even a moment to make something of his success. “Worthless,” his friend snarled, wrenching his blade free and charging forward. Ingrid had been leading another archer away from Annette; Felix stabbed him through the shoulder, allowing the orange-haired mage to finish her tormentor off.

Are you going to stand there and make my brother do all the work, boar?

Dimitri shut his eyes for a split second, then handed Ashe over to Mercedes. Then – with a wary glance over his shoulder at the unmoved knight in black – he took a javelin in his free and and rejoined the fight in earnest.

Hm...maybe there were some low town brigands mixed in among the professional mercenaries. Or at least, that's what he presumed some of the men with axes were, given how they swung their weapons with intent but no grace. He threw his javelin at one rushing toward Annette, pinning him to a pillar, and dodged a retaliatory strike from another before grabbing the man by the throat. Growling under his breath, he felt his Crest stir, and promptly lifted the man off his feet and slammed him into the pillar.

He could feel the bones crack and shatter under his fingers as the impact embedded both his hand and the man's skull into the old stone. The sickening squelch was mercifully cushioned by the battle fever burning its way through him. Dimitri let out a harsh breath and pulled his fingers free, letting the corpse drop to the ground and allowing him to bring his lance up against his next attacker.

“Don't hold this against me, okay?” He heard Claude snark halfway across the room, followed shortly by a shriek of pain and outrage. Slamming the hilt of his lance into the mage's head – this being far more effective than the attempt on Dedue – he glanced to his right and nearly let out a rather inappropriate chuckle. Claude had literally pinned one of the mages to a pillar with two well-placed arrows – the man couldn't move without risking slitting his own throat.

Pay attention! He flinched at his father's angry reprimand. There's more for you to do!

Retrieving the javelin he'd thrown earlier, Dimitri rejoined Dedue and was relieved to find his retainer hadn't been seriously injured yet. There was some blood on his shirt, yes, but whatever wounds he'd had, Mercedes had cleaned them up.

A half-dozen men were waiting up ahead for them. Ingrid was holding Felix back from blindly charging them alone; sure enough, at least one of them was a mage.

Slaughter the grave robbers and scatter their bones throughout the halls!

“Annette!” He called, his grip tightening on his lance. She darted up next to him, and he gestured at the ceiling. “Bring them closer, will you?”

She blinked at him, then grinned, and raised her hands up. Instead of aiming the wind spell at the distant opponents, where it would loose most of its impact after crossing the distance she aimed it above their heads – directly at a number of old, loose shingles. Sure enough, the falling debris forced the group apart, and several of them ran forward instead of back.

Dimitri raised a hand slightly, to get a better chance of hitting...then threw his javelin again; with far more force than he'd used on Claude in the mock battle. The weapon impaled the mercenary's face and went straight out the back of his head.

One more bloody corpse to haunt his nightmares. There were already so many...would he even notice one more, now?

“Death Knight!” A shriek that tried to sound commanding despite the naked fear in its trembling words echoed from the head of the invaders. “Prove your strength and scatter these fools.”

I don't take commands.” The low, rumbling, inhuman voice was like a razor blade on Dimitri's nerves. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mercedes stiffen. “Or obey the orders of weaklings.”

“You fool! This is why you are here! Kill them! Kill all of these interfering brats!”

“Your Highness...” Dedue hissed, glaring uneasily at the black knight.

“Let them argue,” Dimitri murmured. “It seems our enemies are not as united as they appear.”

“Half of these people are militiamen. Like those who left from Castle Gaspard.” Dedue slugged another mage that had managed to slip past Felix in an attempt to escape entirely. “The rest wear symbols of Seiros in some fashion or another. I think Riegan may be right.”

Dimitri glanced down at one of the corpses near him; he could hear someone trying, and failing, to come up behind him without being noticed. It took a moment, but he found what Dedue had seen – the Crest of Seiros drawn in red blood on a black background. “He almost certainly is,” He said, then stepped to the side. The fighter tried to check his momentum, but Dedue's fists crashing down on his spine put his fight to an end. “This has certainly gotten more dangerous than it seemed.”

Any further thoughts he might have had on the matter were interrupted by the doors swinging open. For a second he hoped it was the Knights, having been alerted to their situation; unfortunately, their cloaks put paid to that. “Heretics!” One of them shouted. “How dare you interfere with the restoration of the faith!”

“Faith will never be exalted by murder!” Mercedes shouted back. Felix interrupted his beatdown of a soldier who'd given him a back wound in favor of staring at her in disbelief. “How dare you! How dare any of you do this and claim to be faithful!”

There was a rumbling laugh that followed those words; the rough, inhuman tones of the knight in the center of the graveyard. He had yet to move from that spot, seemingly content to watch his allies get slaughtered.

“Claude?” Dimitri called out, looking across the open floor to where his counterpart was helping Raphael to his feet. The friendly bruiser was nursing some pretty painful-looking burns; Lysithea was trying to heal them, with less success than Marianne usually provided.

“I see 'em.” Claude responded, shrugging casually. “Hey Ignatz, Lorenz, you're up.”

As two of the fresh reinforcements made their way up to the central plaza toward the Golden Deer, one got nailed in the throat with an arrow, and the other was struck by a fireball and set ablaze. The two students responsible appeared like ghosts from behind the cover that had concealed them; Ignatz was shaking a bit, while Lorenz stood tall and confident as ever. He revealed his lance with a flourish and finished the two off one at a time.

Dimitri saw Byleth slip away from her students and approach the man still hovering at the casket, but he didn't have the chance to try and move forward to support her – the reinforcements were fast approaching.

Ashe was ready for them, however. His expression was set in a hard, cold glare, completely unlike his usual self. “No more,” He hissed as he let an arrow fly.

This is the last of them. Finish them off!

“Professor!”

Dimitri stabbed his opponent in the gut and spun around in time to see the mage, having shoved the casket open, throw a fireball. Byleth swung her sword out in front of her -

- and the spell disintegrated, a golden light spilling across the length of the blade. Shocked, the mage took a step back, and then threw another spell. Byleth deflected it again, her surprise melting into her usual confidence. That isn't her sword, the prince realized with a thrill of shock. That's...that's...that blade looks like Areadbhar!

The Professor swung the blade down; with a glass like clatter, the blade separated apart like a whip, each individual part gleaming in the low light of the candles, and swung it into the man's chest. A horrific tearing sound filled the entire mausoleum, and blood splashed across the tomb, the wall and the floor as if a bubble had been burst. With a hiss and a click, the blade reformed into its singular state.

“That sword is...” Dimitri rushed forward to reach Byleth's side; the black knight had turned on his horse, facing her and staring for a long moment. Then he laughed again. “I see. What a pleasant surprise.” And in a flare of purple-pink light, he vanished.

Dimitri stared at the spot where he'd stood for painfully long moment, then turned back toward Byleth. He almost wished he hadn't; the blow from the sword had literally ripped the mage in half; his legs and torso were lying at opposite ends of the tomb. Byleth herself had been splashed with blood and was standing stone still. “Professor?” He asked worriedly. “Professor, are you alright?”

She slowly turned to look at him; he realized with a start that she was trembling – every part of her except for the hand that held the sword. “There are no bones in the casket,” She whispered. “Just...just this.” Slowly she raised the sword, staring at the handle.

“Was that magic?” Claude wondered, jogging over to their side. “We can't even chase after him...” He slowed and gazed down at the sword Byleth was holding with a look of rapturous awe. “Hey Teach...the way that sword is glowing...do you think...” He blinked. “Teach? Are you okay?”

“I...” She looked down at her hands as if she'd never seen them before? “Of course...I just...wasn't expecting the blood...” A green tinge flooded her cheeks. Then – quite suddenly, at that – she doubled over and threw up. Dimitri instinctively yelled Mercedes's name and placed a hand on her back as she coughed. Claude filled the air with worried questions, but Dimitri barely heard them.

Were those tears at the corners of her eyes?

Chapter Text

“As all of you have committed a breach of faith, the archbishop will now pass judgment.”

Claude crossed his arms and leaned against a pillar, watching the scene play out and thinking of how it resembled an attempt on his own life when he was about eight years old. It had been a poisoning – ironic considering his current hobbies – the work of three servants and one of his cousins. Unfortunately for them, they'd used so much nightshade that just a sip of his wine told him something was wrong; he didn't even drink enough to get sick.

Rhea was both smaller and slighter than his father; but her icy, hateful glare as she surveyed the scarred, battered priests was far better suited to an enraged warrior-king than a compassionate woman of faith. She'd held a sword in her life at some point, he was certain of that now. If not a sword specifically, than a weapon of some sort, something used up close and personal, something you drove into your enemy's heart and watched as the life drained out of them. It was eerie how graceful and composed she was in spite of that simmering rage; she stood tall and proud and dignified as ever, her hands still instead of twitching with the hope of spilling blood.

“Inciting a Kingdom noble to rebel. Unlawful entry. The attempted assassination of the archbishop. The assault on the Holy Mausoleum and the attempted murder of the students who confronted you.” Sir Shamir read off tonelessly. He hadn't seen much of the tall sniper before this; apparently she was Catherine's preferred partner, and thus they were often out on missions together. “It is unnecessary to go on, followers of the Western Church.”

“What?! We have nothing to do with the Western Church!” One of the priests exclaimed. Why he expected anyone to believe that, Claude couldn't fathom.

“You have already been identified! Please spare us your second-rate theater,” Seteth said, indigent at the insult to his intelligence.

“Dishonoring a holy ceremony is worthy of death for a member of the church,” Rhea proclaimed solemnly. It was so at odds with the look in her eyes it was almost funny...if any sane person could find such disparity amusing. “You are well past any hope of redemption. If there is any grace remaining remaining in your heart, you would repent in ash and dust and go to the Goddess humbled.”

Claude closed his eyes.

He's lying, he's lying!” Natan shouted. His cousin's face was a twisted rictus of emotion; whether he was furious at failing or terrified for his life, the eight-year-old prince couldn't say. “As if I would bother with the half breed enough to try and poison him like some spineless Fodlander-” His mother's expression was set in a mask of controlled anger. She didn't lash out, not then, but he saw her hand tighten on her husband's shoulder. “-he's a sneak and a coward! He's trying to get rid of me!”

That's not true,” He retorted, fighting with all his might to keep his voice steady and his chin up. The court was watching him. He was a prince of Almyra and a prince is never weak. “You were hovering over the wine jug for an hour before you gave it to me; Aisling and Meera tried to pour themselves a drink but you wouldn't let them.”

Natan had smiled when offering him the glass. He'd called him 'little cousin' instead of 'half-breed', remarked that he was 'actually pretty good' with a bow, offered to take him out hunting. He'd intended that false kindness to be the last thing Claude ever experienced.

Was that better or worse then the healer who had tried to smother him when he was sick with fever?

That's right!” Aisling gasped, just now realizing what she'd narrowly avoided. “I was thirsty and I begged you to give me some but you kept saying to find my own! I complained to daddy and he said to just listen to you!” The small girl stared wide-eyed at her brother, too young to realize she had just damned him with her artless outburst. “It was poison?”

Natan turned white as snow. His jaw worked soundlessly as his eyes darted around the room, seeking some way to escape.

“No! This isn't what we were told would happen! We were deceived!”

“You think that makes you sound less guilty?” Shamir asked caustically. “It is done. Now, try and face your fate with a little bit of dignity.”

“May your souls find peace as they return to the goddess,” Rhea proclaimed, and Claude wondered why words of comfort were being used as a death sentence.

His father lunged out of the throne to his feet; his rage filled the whole room, instantly silencing the babbling lords. Claude flinched in fear, because there was no trace of his laughing, patient father in the murderous behemoth who stood across from him.

Without a word, King Kirah stalked down the few stairs, grabbing an axe from one of the guards. He seized the teenager by the hair and dragged him along behind him. Nader and Wolf both stood in concert, coldly kicking the still-cowering servants and herding them along behind.

Any bravado that his cousin had clung to vanished like the morning mists. He cried for his father, pleaded uselessly, 'why for him, he doesn't belong, I only wanted, please, please, please' as the crowd parted before him. Aisling went as if to follow him, confused and scared, but was stopped by his mother's hand on her shoulder. Tiana von Riegan watched with anger, relief and some regret as Natan's pleading was cut off by the doors slamming shut.

Do you think the father will Challenge?” Nader's wife Nailah asked.

No one will support him,” His mother said flatly. “Not after having proven himself and his son both to be so craven.” She turned slightly and gave him a gentle, reassuring smile...told him without words that he could come and sleep by her side tonight, let her chase his nightmares away. She couldn't openly comfort him here; he was a prince of Almyra and princes were not weak.

“This concludes the investigation. Please remove these poor, lost souls from my sight.”

Claude's eyes opened a fraction, listening as the renegade priests continued to curse and beg even as the Knights of Serios dragged them away. The parallels were so close. He wondered how Rhea would react to the men he'd grown up among watching this scene and then calling her rule 'not weak'.


The Sword of the Creator. The Sword of the King, Sothis's Justice, The Arbitrator, the blade that made Nemesis a divine warrior and then a scourge of the earth when he strayed from the goddess's light. The weapon that decided the fate of the world was being swung back and forth like a common training sword in the hands of an overworked professor.

Claude lingered behind the pillar in the empty training hall, watching Byleth work through another kata, fumbling with the retractable blade as she figured out how to use the distance strike on command. The glass like clatter rang off the walls in the quiet of the dawn; the sound made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Byleth winced when the blade reassembled, the impact knocking her arm back a bit, and she eyed the blade itself ruefully.

The greatest of the relics, ripped right out of the legends. I finally found it, and it ended up in Teach's hands, a mix of frustration and wonder rushed through him. Can I even use it? If anyone with a Crest can wield a relic, could I...? He closed his eyes. Does that matter now, since the Archbishop officially gifted the sword to her? Proclaimed that the sword 'chose' her...

And that was the important part, wasn't it? The Sword of the Creator wasn't just a weapon of awe inspiring power, it was forged from the blood of the goddess Fodlan so loved, a symbol of her will. Whomever it 'chose' (or however Sothis's blessing allegedly worked) would have authority only the kings and archbishop could match, their dreams for the future divine providence. If he had picked up the sword and used it without being rejected...it wouldn't have mattered that he was a half blood, born of a heretical union; the goddess had made him her champion, and that would be all that mattered to her loving devoted. They would have flocked to his hope of opening up Fodlan's borders, changing the structures of the noble class; nothing he spoke of would have been unacceptable – certainly not enough to fight a bloody and bitter war over. Even being the wielder of Failnaught couldn't compare to that.

With that hope dashed, how now would he pursue his dream in a way that wouldn't fill city gutters with the blood of the old order?

Byleth swung the sword again, shifting her stance once and then twice as she accommodated for its weight and balance. Claude wondered if he was projecting his disappointment onto her, or if she really was as uncertain as she seemed; she kept pausing, turning the weapon over in her hand like she was expecting it to either vanish or bite her.

You're all my hope now, Teach, he thought somewhat jokingly. How shall you change the world?

“Claude?” He started at her soft voice. She turned around to face the pillar, head tilted slightly in that strangely, disarmingly cute way that was so at odds with her usual demeanor. “You don't usually hesitate to approach me. What's on your mind?”

“You were concentrating so hard, I didn't want to interrupt. Seemed like a good way to earn extra homework.”

“I'm never too busy if something's bothering you,” She responded, sheathing the relic at her side.

How very professional, Claude nearly teased, but there was something in her expression kept the words behind his teeth. “Thanks. That's very motherly of you.”

He'd meant it as a joke. He wasn't ready for her reaction. Rather than roll her eyes, stare blankly at him, or chide him...she giggled.

It was a quiet, seemingly involuntary noise; soft and sweet and all too brief. Her hand shot to her mouth in surprise, and she shook her head lightly as he stared at her. “That's funny...you're not the first person who'd said that to me. It's so strange. My own mother...” Her eyes darkened a bit, that flicker of humor gone in a blink; Claude mourned its absence admist his shock. “...well, I only know her through my father's stories. He's never been the most emotional person. So I guess it's hard to fathom being 'motherly' when I don't really know what that's like.” She tilted her head. “You're...looking at me oddly, Claude. Was it something I said?”

“I don't think I've ever heard you laugh yet,” Claude responded blankly. Wittiest response ever. Gods damn it. “It's nice.” Truly I have the soul of a muse.

“Oh,” She whispered. To his amazement, a light red flush colored her cheeks. “I...thank you?” Her eyes darted about as she tugged at her sleeve. “It just sort of slipped out.”

“Is it odd to say I hope you slip up again?” He smiled at her. “You have a nice smile, Teach.”

Byleth looked away, faintly sheepish. “Um, I suppose not. Though I'm not prone to...” She gestured vaguely. “I've never been very emotional...” Something flickered across her face; unease, uncertainty. Claude tucked that reaction away for later analysis before changing tact.

“I gotta say Teach, I never would have imagined you were descended from the King of Liberation,” He put his hands behind his head. “You remember that story I told you? About a relic that could cut a mountain in half? That relic was the Sword of the Creator.” He chuckled and added, “So, you know, be careful training with it, alright? Would be a shame to wake up one morning and find half the monastery blown apart.”

His professor did a double take and stared mutely down at the Sword. “It-it can't actually do that...can it?” She asked warily.

“Well, that's how the all the stories go.”

Byleth bit her lip. “I don't know many. I'm not sure I'm even related to Nemesis.”

He sighed. Still don't fully trust me, do you? “Don't be coy, Teach. The Sword of the Creator could only be wielded by Nemesis; when others tried, they either couldn't lift it or its powers retreated leaving it an ordinary great sword. If you can wield it, that means you have to have his bloodline's Crest.”

She blinked at him, wrapping an arm around her chest. “I...suppose I must.” She mumbled. “I always knew I had a Crest...” another awkward, uneasy pause broke up her thoughts; she shook her head and continued, “it's kind of hard to miss whenever it activates, after all. But I never gave it much thought.”

Claude frowned. “Fine. Keep your secrets.” He shrugged, angrily tamping down on the irrational twinge of hurt in his gut. “But just so you know, 'I don't understand' isn't going to cut it here at the monastery.”

Byleth took a step back, “but I'm not – I'm not trying to keep anything from you!” She protested, a note of heat in her voice. “I truly don't understand. There is much my father has kept from me...I didn't realize how much I didn't know until we were brought here. So far he's resisting my attempts to talk to him about it, and he's so often out on missions...He's never been so distant before.”

The hurt and anger burned out almost immediately, melting into surprise and a little guilt. “Tell you what,” Claude said with a warm smile, “I'll get us a bottle of fine wine, and you invite him up for tea and biscuits when he gets back. I'm an excellent host when the mood strikes me, I promise. He'll unbend in no time!”

His teacher blinked once, twice, and when it hit her, she smacked him on the shoulder. It didn't hurt at all – he suspected she was mimicking Raphael – but he playfully winced anyway. “Claude! We are not getting my father drunk!

“Alright, alright,” Laughing didn't take any effort at all; that look of indignation was so adorable he couldn't help it. “I'll just have to be my usual charming self, then.”

Byleth snorted out through her nose, but he saw her lips curve upward in a faint smile. “Father doesn't care much for tea; he tolerates it for my sake, but he won't seek it out.” She fidgeted with the sword for a moment before saying, “Well, this would give me something to do with that overly expensive tea set Ferdinand all but shoved into my hands yesterday. Will you have tea with me?”

Now it was Claude's turn to blink, blindsided. That was a joke, he thought in bewilderment. “Sounds like fun,” his mouth said before his brain could catch up. “Thanks, Teach.”

She smiled at that. It was bright and clear and – just like her giggle fit – gone far too quickly. “Good. Go pick up a sword, why don't you? I think I'm done with this for the morning, and I prefer to spar with a partner.” He must have balked, because she added, “Consider it part of your flexibility training.”

“A sword?! Teach, have mercy on your favorite archer,” He complained as she walked over and set the Sword of the Creator against a pillar. “How am I supposed to become your best student if I'm never in a position to show off?”

“You're already my favorite,” Byleth responded. “Do you think I'd ask if I weren't impressed by you?”

“The last time someone asked me this,” Claude grumbled halfheartedly even as he made his way over to the rack holding the training weapons, “I'm half-convinced he just wanted an excuse to toss me around.”

“Well...you do tease us so,” His teacher responded lightly.

The sun rose slowly over the open ceiling, painting the white pillars with golden beams as they clashed and chased each other across the open floor. Claude was fairly certain he was picking up bruises from each pass, not unlike when Nader was in charge of his weapons training years back. Much to his delight, after the impromptu sword lesson ended with a surprise draw in the final bout, Byleth told him to grab the training bow so she could test his Point-Blank posture. The pleasure he felt at her surprise when he first disarmed her was warm and wine-heavy; she'd never been disarmed by one of her students before. Of course, she'd responded to that by holding back less; he swore that as he kept up with her, met her as best he could even when his breath ran short and his arms ached, her blue eyes brightened. At some point the doors swung open, and then closed, without announcement – allowing them to continue uninterrupted.

Eventually Claude glanced aside. Their visitor was Jeritza, the eerie looking sword instructor he'd expected to be made a professor before Byleth was thrown into the mix. The man said nothing; Byleth smacked his leg with her training sword, drawing him back into the spar.

Jeritza walked around and sat on the steps, watching intently as they worked. His eyes were a cold gray, piercing and empty for all but a wickedly sharp focus. Usually when he observed students training in the grounds, he would bark out sharp but accurate criticisms of their form, their footwork, anything that was out of place. A distant man, but a capable one. This morning, however, the warrior seemed content to examine them...to simply watch them.

No, he's not looking at us. He's looking at Teach...

“And...stop,” Byleth panted, lowering her sword. “You've improved greatly in such a short space of time, Claude. It makes me wonder why your written tests don't reflect this.”

“They don't truly serve a purpose,” Jeritza rumbled. Byleth turned to look at him curiously; the pale haired man shrugged lightly. “Anything that the pen writes about war and bloodshed will never capture the heart of it. Even magic cannot truly be mastered until one has been on the battlefield.” He stood up. “Might I borrow your professor, Claude? You've worked for long enough, and breakfast is near.”

It was phrased as a question, but had the tone of a dismissal.

Claude couldn't help but shoot Byleth a questioning look. She hesitated, then nodded reassuringly at him. He returned the bow to the rack and retreated to the doorway.

“May I help you, Jeritza?”

“I would like a moment of your time. I would like to spar, actually; I'd hoped to catch you when you weren't busy with your students.”

“Oh...sure. Though I may need to sit and catch my breath for a moment...”

“Certainly.”

Claude hesitated with his hand on the door, glancing over his shoulder uncertainly. There was an undercurrent of excitement in the quiet and sedate Jeritza's voice, a sharp edge to words that were usually lethargic and apathetic regardless of the situation. His body language was more alert, light and careful; he seemed like a predator examining a prospect from afar. Unease chilled his fingers even as he twisted the door; he debated staying, or circling back around to see what happened when Jeritza thought the two of them were alone...

Getting a little overprotective, am I? Teach can take care of herself. Felix reacted almost exactly like that after she knocked him on his ass in a training bout. I might just be paranoid.

But he made a mental note to ask her about it later.


Claude nearly walked into Dimitri upon exiting the dining hall; he blamed getting up early and dwelling on Jeritza's oddness. “Ah! Sorry Claude,” The prince apologized, automatically reaching out to steady the brunette with a hand on his arm. “I shouldn't be standing in the doorway like this.”

“I'm starting to think that you're a bigger moon worshiper than Hilda,” Claude teased, gently tugging his wrist free. His skin tingled from the unexpected, innocent contact. “What's on your mind? Aside from Sylvain sneaking out and bringing a girl back to his dorm room, anyway.”

Dimitri flushed, “Wait, he did that last night? But how did you...?”

Claude gave him a deadpan look and responded, “Our rooms aren't that far apart, and unfortunately the walls aren't that thick. You must sleep like the dead, Mitya; Lorenz had more than a few words about it while the rest of us were trying to eat breakfast.” He rolled his eyes. “As if he's perfectly innocent. I suppose I should count myself lucky that his 'noble obligations' don't easily lend themselves to casual sex.”

The blonde buried his face in his hands and let out a long, helpless groan. “Argh, what am I going to do with him?!” Taking a deep, calming breath, he dropped his arms and scowled very intensely over Claude's shoulder. “Evidently, I need to have a long overdue conversation with my old friend. As soon as feasible. I can't believe he managed to sneak another woman in...”

“Dare I ask how long he's been doing this?” Claude asked, grinning. Dimitri merely gave him a pained look in return; his expression said more than words could hope to. “Hah! I wonder if I'm not the only person who's found hidden rooms and stairwells that are all over the place here; if you know where to look, that is.”

“That would certainly explain a few things. I'm so sorry about him, Claude; I can't believe how inconsiderate he's being.”

“You really shouldn't apologize for things you have no control over.” The brunette shrugged. “And hey, they didn't make too much of a racket.”

“What in the name of the Goddess constitutes 'too much of a racket' if that was enough to keep you awake?” Dimitri stuttered. His blush deepened and he quickly added, “Actually, I think I'd rather you didn't answer that. In any capacity. Please!”

Claude didn't bother to try and repress his snicker. “I should've figured you'd be shy, being so honor-bound, but really? Oh Mitya. You've never been with anyone before, have you? Have you even kissed a woman? Or a man, if that's your preference?” Wait. Fuck. I didn't mean to say that last bit-

Claude!” Dimitri sputtered, his cheeks turning redder still. “Y-You can't just ask someone that out of nowhere! It's – it's inappropriate! Never mind what Sylvain is doing – amusing himself with the company of women he isn't engaged to or even courting; what he intends to do if one of them turns up pregnant I can't even begin to fathom...”

“I don't think he's thought that far ahead,” Claude remarked with a shrug. As a matter of fact, he didn't think Sylvain really liked the women he'd seen him with in town square; the redhead often had the look of someone who was forcing a smile. “Though of course he could be-”

“Claude, please-”

“Hehe, sorry,” He put his hands behind his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two people enter the hall, their pace slow as they spoke to each other in an animated fashion. One of them looked vaguely familiar, but he dismissed it in favor of watching upright, serious Dimitri flail about. “It's just hard to imagine you haven't had even one girl try to lure you away for a night. You're quite the catch, after all.”

“I...it might have happened a few times...?” Dimitri managed, something slightly panicky flickering through his face. Abruptly Claude remembered a certain anecdote from the reports he'd secretly carded through and could have happily strangled himself; he opened his mouth to apologize, but the prince didn't seem to have noticed. “I suppose I've not made myself very approachable, however. And frankly I'm too preoccupied to give such things the attention it deserves and requires. Not like you.”

“Eh?”

“Well, I imagine a man who looks like you doesn't have to put any effort into drawing women into your orbit.” Dimitri responded simply.

Claude's instinctive response was a sarcastic, biting remark about a half breed being a cheap lay, an easy source of teen rebellion ultimately grown out of. Then he remembered that Dimitri honestly considered him exotically handsome and his jaw clicked shut, leaving him to fight off a sudden, mortifying blush. Damn you for being so sweetly naive you don't realize what that sounds like! “Ehehe...you'd be surprised...”

Dimitri smiled a bit at that, not quite believing him, and mercifully changed the subject. “A-Anyway, to answer your original question, Hannamen is quite eager to speak to Professor Byleth, and commissioned me to go and find her. However Bishop Seteth took her aside so the Archbishop could give her this month's mission.” His brow furrowed. “Say, the Professor arrived to breakfast awfully late. Did something happen?”

“Professor Jertiza asked her for a spar,” Claude explained with a slight shrug that hid his unease well. “I guess they got held up. It's no wonder she was so hungry, though.”

“Oh? That was rather sudden of him.” Dimitri rested a hand against his chin. “Professor Jeritza is an intensely private man...I'm surprised he approached her without prompting. She must have truly impressed him with her swordsmanship.”

“I bet it was because she has the Sword of the Creator now.” The fact that the Archbishop felt confident giving that blade away to someone with a vague background, right after it was nearly stolen...Rhea had to know something about Byleth that even her father didn't.

He really needed to get into her study. Start trying to find some answers in earnest. Both the riddle of Duscur's Tragedy and Teach's murky past were nipping at his thoughts, all the more frustrating to have to ignore as he put his focus on more immediate things, and it seemed that she might have answers – in some fashion, at least – to both. Unfortunately after the damned false assassination plot, it was going to be weeks, possibly months before he could be confident in getting in and out of that room unnoticed.

“I suppose that could be – ah, Professor!” Dimitri broke off and hurried toward the stairwell, Claude following sedately at his heels. As if summoned by their conversation, Byleth had entered the main hall, drawing many stares to the Sword of the Creator, now properly sheathed and strapped to her belt.

“Dimitri, Claude.” She tilted her head. “Having an interesting debate?”

“It's a friendly conversation, Teach. What's with the serious face? And you looked so cheerful this morning...well, cheerful for you, but still.” Claude put his hands behind his head. “Is it the mission Lady Rhea gave you?”

Byleth took a deep breath, shook her head, and said, “I...Dimitri, I feel like I ought to apologize, honestly. I seem to have once again been given a task that one would think would be solely your concern.” She glanced at Claude and said, “We're being sent to hunt a master thief and his bandits within Faerghus. Apparently he's made off with the Lance of Ruin; House Gautier's relic...and the thief is a disowned son of the household.”

Claude let out a low whistle. If nothing else, that thief was either terminally stupid, incredibly bold, or both. Likely both.

“Really?!” Dimitri looked about as shocked as Claude had ever seen him; “Goddess...does Sylvain know? Has he been informed?”

Byleth shrugged uneasily. “I wasn't told. I could tell him myself, if you want, but...” She bit her lip. Claude wondered if she was thinking about Ashe. “It's strange. I did not think to ask why she hadn't given this mission to you and the Blue Lions; I was distracted by the relic, I suppose.” She bowed slightly. “I'm sorry. It must be galling for Alliance students to be given the task of handling unrest within your kingdom.”

“Oh...no, Professor. Please, don't apologize.” Dimitri closed his eyes. “I will admit to being...vexed, for lack of a better word, but it's hardly your fault. If anything, I should apologize for getting the two of you wrapped up in Kingdom troubles. They should be my own concern, not yours.”

“I'm...I'm happy to help,” Byleth said awkwardly. “I just don't wish to overstep.”

“Besides, it'll be the last thing they expect,” Claude offered.

“Well, if it isn't my little Claude?” An alarmingly familiar female voice cut off any further attempts to be witty. He spun around – force of habit – and stared wide-eyed at the two people who'd come up behind them. “What has you so worked up?”

“Judith?!” He blurted out. “What are you doing here?”

“That's Lady Judith to you, boy,” The tall brunette snapped, her face set in a familiar unimpressed yet faintly amused look. His tutor hadn't changed a bit since he'd last seen her; imposing, no-nonsense and dry witted. “I told you, until you're in charge I expect you to address me with all due respect.”

Her companion – a tall, stately man with dark blue hair and elegant fur-lined robes preferred by Faerghus nobility – merely strode up to Dimitri with a broad grin. Claude had to stare at him for a few seconds before he realized this stranger rather resembled Felix; or rather, that Felix resembled him. “Your Highness! It's been ages!”

Dimitri's eyes widened, and his confused frown was immediately replaced by an amazed smile. “It's been a long time! Two years, if I'm not mistaken!” He blurted out, rushing forward and openly embracing the newcomer.

Other lords might have been embarrassed or annoyed by the public display of affection. Not this man; the gesture earned the prince a laugh and a pat on the back. “Indeed, your highness! You've grown so much in those years, it took me a minute to recognize you.”

“That's the way of children,” Judith commented, not looking away from Claude. “They shoot up the moment your back is turned.”

Dimitri let go and stepped back, his smile decidedly sheepish, and turned to the now startled-looking Byleth. “Professor, this is Rodrigue, an old friend of my father's. I believe I've mention him to you before.” His eyes glowed; Claude briefly wondered if he'd ever seen Dimitri quite this cheerful. “When my father died four years ago, he looked after me as though I were his own son.”

Rodrigue Achille Fraldarius chuckled lightly in response. “You flatter me, your highness. It was my honor to look after such a fine young man.” Looking over at the other two listeners, he said, “It's nice to finally meet you, Professor Esiner. My son Felix has mentioned you in his letters.” Byleth blushed lightly and hurriedly curtsied in response. Then the man turned to Claude, and there was a definite amused curve to his smile when he said, “and you must Claude von Riegan. I've heard quite a bit about you recently.”

“Only the good things, I hope,” Claude responded innocently. Inside, he wondered, why would Felix...? right before he realized that the short-tempered swordsman likely hadn't been filling letters with his antics to anyone, much less his father. Then he resisted the urge to turn and stare at Dimitri, or worse, get flustered.

“Hah! There's a good joke,” Judith chuckled.

“Ah,” Dimitri had the grace to look embarrassed. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to speak over you.” He gave her a polite bow. “I don't believe we've ever been introduced.”

The woman favored him with a faintly approving smile, which left Claude a little envious since he knew that gesture to be one that was hard to earn. “How very mannerly of you. We've met once before, not that you would have remembered – a dozen years back I was visiting some distant relatives on a day you happened to be there with their daughter, Ingrid.” She smirked. “You got that growth spurt you wanted, I see.”

“This is Judith, also known as the Hero of House Daphnel.” Claude offered, both for Teach's sake as well as Dimitri's.

“So you're little Claude's teacher, I take it,” Judith looked Byleth up and down. “You're a bit young for that. How much trouble has he been giving you?”

Byleth shook her head. “I haven't had trouble,” she said. “He learns quickly, and he's quite clever. I'm glad to be his teacher.”

“Is that right?” Judith raised an eyebrow. Byleth nodded, her expression serious. Claude's heart did an unexpected backflip; he wrestled the feeling down as hard as he could. “Anyway...I'm here to retrieve you. Duke Riegan's condition has taken a turn for the worse.”

“Is the old man on his deathbed?” He ventured cautiously, trying to ignore Dimitri's sympathetic look.

“No, not that severe. But in the state he's in, he can't participate in the next Round Table Conference. He wants you to go in his stead; I volunteered to play messenger.” Judith's expression suggested that she'd taken the job from someone else – whether she just wanted to see him again or was heading something off, he couldn't be sure. 

“An intimidating place to stand,” Rodrigue remarked lightly. When Claude glanced at him, there was a legitimate shade of sympathy in his eyes. Maybe that explains why Dimitri is so weird. He picked up the weirdness from his father and his guardian. “I wish you luck, Riegan. My own contemporaries can be difficult to deal with, and they've known me a long time.”

“Thanks,” He said with a deliberate edge of fatalism. Dimitri choked down a laugh and he swore he saw Byleth's lips twitch upward again. “I'll probably need it.”

“The Hero of Daphnel...” Byleth looked curious. “I think I have heard that before. It happened during an incursion from Almyra, right? The biggest in recent memory, one caused by an uncertainty in the royal succession. You were holding the border.”

“Well, that's ancient history,” Judith said with a dismissive wave of her hands.

“That fight made her the biggest hero in the Leicester Alliance,” Claude couldn't help but add, “She used to be a big deal at the round table conferences, but these days she's reduced to-”

“You better shut your mouth before I put my boot in it, you tactless nuisance!” Judith broke in. Rodrigue hid a laugh under a fake-sounding coughing fit while Dimitri sputtered in simultaneous surprise and amusement. “Now let's get going. Sorry Professor, but I have to borrow the boy for a bit.”

“Bring him back in one piece, please,” Byleth said simply. “If only half of him makes it graduation, my pay will be docked.”

...Was that a joke? Was that an honest-to-gods joke from the Ashen Demon? There was a glitter of light in her eyes that nearly had him in stitches. I think it was! “Your concern for me is utterly heartwarming, Teach,” he deadpanned. She flashed him a quick, small smile, and he laughed incredulously. It was. She actually told a joke. Apparently, grandfather, I'm a wonderful influence! “Guess we'll have to finish this conversation later. Nice to meet you, Lord Fraldarius.” He made sure to give the man a proper bow before turning to follow Judith from the hallway.

He heard Rodrigue and Dimitri speaking to each other as they left. Probably filling him in on the details of the theft; the Shield of Faerghus wouldn't come all this way just for a social call.

“So that was the famous Professor Eisner.” Judith gave him a sideways look as they walked toward the stables. “Did you see her using the Sword?”

“With my own eyes,” Claude responded seriously. “She batted fire spells aside as if they were nothing, and it glows in her hands. Her Crest is compatible. The Archbishop has officially placed the relic in her care to use as she sees fit.”

Judith whistled. “Once that news starts making the rounds, she'll be drowning in suitors desperate to bring that power into their families.”

“...Probably,” Claude acknowledged with a sudden, piercing stab of annoyance. “Fortunately, dear Teach is not one to suffer fools gladly.”

“No wonder she's been so good at corralling you.” He didn't dignify that with a response other than an eyeroll. “Still, the Sword being in use for the first time in a thousand years, a child of the King of Liberation's bloodline resurfacing...I'm not the sort to put stock in omens, but I'm a little uneasy. Why now?”

He shrugged. “Because the goddess willed it?”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Do you actually believe that?”

“I don't know what I believe.” Claude muttered, looking straight ahead. “Not yet.”


There's a saying among the merchant class that a committee is a body that keeps minutes and looses hours. It sounds funny until you realize it's true.

Claude leaned back against his wooden chair, trying not to obviously stare at the wooden clock counting down the final minutes of the last day of the Conference as if willing it to turn faster. Lord Gloucester and Margrave Edmund were arguing again; the former accusing the latter of not minding the Forest of Beasts and thus indirectly allowing a monster attack on the man's land, and the latter was furiously denying it and firing back with the allegation that several men had been caught with whips and spells attempting to tame a beast near the border. At least Gloucester had finally shut up about the merchant trails he'd been trying to reroute for his own benefit (it only took him three goddamned days), and Holst Goneril was doing his best to help keep the peace.

Enough,” He thundered at last, slamming his palm on the table. The two lords paused in their argument; Gloucester glaring angrily at him, Edmund slightly more contrite but largely appearing disgruntled. “The Forest of Beasts has been a bane on this land since before the Alliance itself. Margrave Edmund does an admirable job preventing the beasts within from swarming out at random intervals, but to fully encircle the woods would require all the armed forces he could muster and effectively abandon his borders. Twice before the lords of this land have attempted to burn the forest and destroy whatever evil lurks within, and twice before the results were a bloody failure. It's absurd to accuse anyone in this room of underestimating it.”

He turned his head and calmly addressed Marianne's father. “Margrave...have you seen any sign of the Wandering Beast?”

Claude could almost see the chill settling over the table at that name. The Wandering Beast was an ancient horror, a famous one; children who lived in the Alliance were warned not to go out at night alone, lest the Wandering Beast would find and devour you. All anyone knew was that it was a demonic beast, far bigger and more powerful than any other in existence; its stony hide was riddled with broken lances, swords and arrows from all the failed attempts to slay it. Few had seen it and lived to tell; it preferred to linger within the Forest, coming out to feed at night.

“No, Duke Riegan.” Edmund shook his head. “We have seen more demonic beasts leaving the forest than in my father's time, but the devil itself has done little beyond terrorize the nearby rivers in the dead of night. I believe it's safe to say that the beasts that do leave are behaving independently of it.”

He snorted. “Well, there's some good news then, at least.” The thought that the Wandering Beast could control other demonic beasts was just a rumor, but it was a disturbing one, and the one time it had left the forest to rampage through what would eventually become the Alliance, a horde of its fellow wild beasts had joined it. “I'll lend you a handful of men to keep a closer eye on the forest edges. Hopefully we'll be able to catch the next one before it manages to hit a village.”

Edmund inclined his head in gratitude; Gloucester sat back in his chair with a fierce scowl. Claude would consider it a mark of personal pride should he eventually get the man to greet him with a neutral expression rather than hateful disdain.

The bell rang with merciful finality. Claude stood, resisted the urge to stretch or groan with relief. “The Conference is adjourned. I'll see you all again in the future.”

He rather hoped they didn't read anything into the fact that he was the first person out the door.

Judith was waiting for him outside the building; she nodded politely at Gloucester before gesturing for him to enter the carriage. He gave the man a tight smile, climbed in, and let out an explosive sigh the instant his tutor shut the door behind her. “Wake me for the Ethereal Moon,” He mumbled, dropping his head against the curtain-shaded window.

She scoffed as the carriage started moving. “It was that bad, huh?”

“It's nice to see that Lorenz comes by his argumentative personality honestly. ...I seriously think I'm going to sleep until we get back to the monastery. That was far more exhausting than sitting down for four days had any right to be.”

“I warned you,” Judith snorted.

He mumbled some sort of response, or tried to, because even with the rumbling of the carriage he was quickly slipping away from the waking world. The last coherent thought he had was, I really hope that Teach was serious about that tea party...

True to his word, he slept for the better part of the day, forcing Judith to shake him awake when they stopped at an inn for the night. He drank a glass of water, wandered up to his room and collapsed on the bed. His dreams were a tangled mess, bits of the conference mixed together with varying memories of his grandfather.

I wonder why Gloucester hates me so much. He doesn't know who my father is...or does he suspect? That damned knight figured it out just by looking at me... No, I don't think that's it. He would have called me something other than 'child' if that was the case. Something's there, though. Maybe it's just the old family rivalry.

That talk about the merchants being 'safer' if they followed his routes...if that's a threat, I'm not sure how he intends to follow up on it in a way that doesn't make it obvious he's involved. Mercenaries can be expensive, and they talk if they're disgruntled enough. His own knights are too potentially recognizable. But he wouldn't say that after being denied the first few times unless it meant something. How would he go about it?

Ugh. I'm too tired for this. Who knew arguing took so much out of you?

For a brief moment he envied Dimitri immensely, questioned the logic of his great-however many grandfather who had seceded from Faerghus, and dearly missed his home where the throne dealt with the occasional challenger to the throne but nothing else.

The next morning he felt a little less like roadkill, though his headache hadn't fully gone away. He and Judith parted ways at the crossroads and the convoy took him the rest of the way of the three day trip back to the monastery. It was monotone and boring and Claude found himself randomly, frequently wishing that his classmates had come with him. He missed Hilda's chatter, Raphael's single-mindedness and Byleth's quiet concern. He would have welcomed Sylvain's flirting or Felix's barbs and grumpiness, hell he wouldn't have minded Ingrid's nagging if it meant he had company.

It was startling how strong that desire was.


The first thing Claude did upon returning to the monastery in the evening was look for Byleth. It took a couple of tries, but he eventually stumbled over her by the docks, putting away the rod and picking up the basket full of fish from a long afternoon's work.

“Oh, Claude,” Byleth said, spinning around at the sound of his footsteps. “I hadn't expected you until tomorrow.”

“We made good time,” Claude said, peeking into the basket. “That's an awful lot of trout.”

“They're the most common. I'd hoped for a bit more variety, but I suppose that's for another day.” Byleth tilted her head and stared at him for a moment before saying, “I remember promising you tea. Let me get these into the kitchen and I'll set it up in my room.”

He grinned. “You have no idea how welcome that is. Thanks Teach!”

She nodded thoughtfully and said, “Go on ahead; I'll be there in a moment.” She ducked her head lightly and then headed for the stairs. Still smiling to himself, Claude scampered off up the stairs to the lower class dormitories.

Was this what it felt like to have a friend?

Chapter Text

You're so self-conscious, Sothis remarked in exasperation as Byleth made her way up the stone stairs, the last rays of sunlight painting rose and golden streaks across the roof and walls. There was no cause for you to wait until the last hour of the day to go to the baths!

I had to finish my lesson plan, Byleth protested, starting to unsnap her cape as she reached the top step. Shamir asked me to continue Cyril's studies while she was busy helping with the Knight's investigation into the local Western Churchs. He's younger and shorter than the others, so I needed to adjust the basic training regime to suit his current capabilities.

That did take some time, Sothis allowed, and I was a little surprised the young boy was allowed to join your class a few months in...and below the minimum age requirement to boot. Though perhaps Lysithea shall feel less self-conscious now that she is no longer the youngest student in your class?

So long as Claude feels the urge to wind her up, I doubt it, Byleth thought. An odd bubbly feeling sparked a few times in her chest. Ah, I don't like the idea of bringing Cyril along to this mission. When we corner these thieves, they'll sooner fight to the death than be turned over to the Kingdom's custody. It's not a good fight to bring a newcomer to, and we don't have time for team-building exercises before we need to head out.

Sothis hummed sympathetically. I believe you can find some cause to leave him behind; I imagine it wouldn't be too hard to argue that he's too inexperienced to bring to a mission in a week's time. Byleth nodded slightly, slinging her cape over her arm while walking up to the door to the girl's baths. The doorknob was warm to the touch as she pushed the door open. The steam warmed her skin; she smiled a bit, because being able to visit lord-style bathhouses was a rare treat while Jeralt's Mercenaries were traveling the roads.

Walking into the change room, Byleth blinked when she saw a dark purple coat hanging forlornly on one of the hooks. Ah, it seems someone else has neglected taking care of themselves until the last dying minute, Sothis remarked cheerily. You two can be friends!

There's no need for that, Byleth grumbled back, stripping out of her academy uniform piece by piece. You nag worse than Hannah. Wrapping her towel around herself, glad of its fluffy warmth, she pushed through the door to the baths.

“EEK!” Instinct made her tense up and look wildly about for danger. “P-Professor!” However, the bathhouse was peaceful and empty except for herself and a sole other occupant. “W-What are you doing here?” The small girl gasped, sucking in a huge breath as her eyes grew really wide. “Oh no...I'm cutting into your time here? I'm so sorry! I thought no one would be here, I'll get out right away, I'm really sorry-”

“Bernadetta,” Byleth interrupted gently, relaxing her posture and letting her gaze settle on the girl who'd climbed halfway out of the bath in her panic. “Bernadetta, please, it's alright. You don't have to leave...these rooms are designed for more than one person's use.”

“Oh,” Bernadetta squeaked faintly, sinking back into the bubbly hot water until she was submerged up to her chin. “I'm sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” Byleth repeated patiently, draping the towel over the the rack at the side and sliding into the large tub across from the diminutive Black Eagle. The hot water felt glorious on her aching joints; she tilted her head back, soaking her hair and running her fingers through it carefully. “I'm sorry I startled you.”

Bernadetta mumbled something inaudible in response, rubbing her shoulders self-consciously. Byleth let the silence linger; the purple-haired girl was a timid, anxious soul, and she found that it helped to allow her young student to start or finish conversations as she wished; it seemed to make her a bit more comfortable. She focused on scrubbing her skin clean and combing tangles out of her hair. This is glorious, she thought in relief. Perhaps I'll give into Hilda's nagging after the mission and spend an afternoon in the sauna with her. Maybe see if I can convince Marianne to come along as well.

Her shoulder blade twinged in pain. Byleth frowned, turning in the water as she reached back to rub the sore muscle. Ah, I need a massage. How long has that kink been there?

“Professor! Y-Your back...” Bernadetta's cry startled her so greatly she nearly toppled over; she glanced over shoulder, wondering what was wrong now. The girl had stepped forward, a hand partially outstretched, eyes wide. “T-That scar...”

“Oh,” Byleth said, bewildered. “I...have quite a few, I realize, but that's...just part of being a mercenary. None of them hurt anymore.”

“N-None? E-Even this, this super huge one? It-it goes from your shoulder to your hip...” Byleth was a little surprised to feel slightly calloused fingers brushing against her wet, scarred skin. “H-How did that happen?”

“...To be honest, I don't remember.” Byleth closed her eyes. “Do you see a thin scar, like a knife wound, somewhere near the top of that burn?” The finger traveled up a bit and brushed along the short length of the ragged memory. “When I was fifteen, a job my father and I had taken in the Alliance went south. The local lord had paid us to deal with some oddly well-equipped bandits; it turned out that they were soldiers from his neighbor in disguise, and they set the village on fire when father figured that out. I was separated from him, lead away by the chaos, and some point I got stabbed right there.”

“D-Did the burn come from the fire? It...it looks a bit odd...”

“It didn't.” Byleth let out a sigh. “A man on a wyvern appeared, killed my attacker, and took me away from there. He was Almyran; that much I know, though not why he was there or what compelled him to help me if not normal altruism.” She shook her head. “However...that's the last thing I remember. The scar looks strange because the wound was caused by dark magic.”

“...I-I remember Professor Manuela saying something like that...” Bernie murmured, the sensation of her careful touch vanished. “Dark magic can have all kinds of effects that pure Black magic doesn't. Skilled practitioners can do all sorts of horrible, horrible things...”

“It's true.” Byleth sighed. “I remember that it wasn't meant for me. That I had been protecting someone. But the blow hit me, and aside from pain, that's the only thing I remember. The days I spent in Almyra that year, who attacked us, the very person I was trying to protect...all of it was gone when I woke up. Father reunited with me a few days later, but I haven't remembered anything since.”

There was a long pause, the sloshing of the water the only sound in the building. Then Byleth felt fingers gently trace the edges of the scar again and stiffened slightly, confused and unsure what more to say.

“...It's scary.” Bernadetta mumbled.

“What is?”

“You're strong, Professor. You're so, so strong, s-stronger than anyone I've ever met. You can beat Ferdinand and Caspar and Edelgard; a-and you fight slavers and bandits l-like they're nothing, l-like they're uppity c-children. It's...it's kind of reassuring, you know? Having you here. Especially after those people snuck in. B-But...” Her hand retreated again. “The world is horrible place, isn't it? Even you...”

Byleth hesitated, then turned around and reached up, brushing strands of wet hair away from Bernadetta's eyes. “My job is to go looking for trouble,” She said softly. “You can't do that without picking up scars here and there, no matter how good you are at fighting. Out there...it isn't quite so frightening when you're just traveling.” Gently she tucked a few purple strands behind the other girl's ear. “One of my favorite things to do is take a high road whenever we're crossing hills or mountains so I can look down at the world in all its glory. In the fall there are so many colors its as if the ground is littered with jewels and gold; it's quite a sight, especially if you're passing by Deirdru.”

“...I've never been to Deirdru...I've never been outside the Empire before coming here.” Bernadetta said, leaning into Byleth's hand seeking reassurance. “It's too scary. I'm just a weak, frail, useless girl, nothing like you. I'd never survive.”

“Why would you say that?” Byleth stood still, hesitant that any shift in her posture would scare the smaller girl away.

“...I've only ever been bait for a rich husband.” Bernadetta murmured. “Father trained me for it; tied me to a chair for a day challenging me to stay quiet. He set me up for dance lessons and never let me skip, even when I was sick. But I couldn't do any of it right; I tried, honestly...” She raised a hand and clung to Byleth's arm. “I always retreated to my room. Again and again, until he tried to take me out one day and I kicked and screamed and clawed and bit him...” She shuddered in spite of the hot water, sinking back into it a few inches.

“That's horrible.” Byleth murmured, something cold and hard settling in her stomach. She could have sworn she heard Sothis growl – not a low sound in the throat that her father often made in battle, but an actual, distinctly inhuman thundering snarl.

“I can barely step outside my room without feeling this overwhelming fear...” Bernadetta closed her eyes. “Archery helps a little, but I'm nowhere near as good as Claude. I'd never be able to protect people or myself like he can.”

“I've seen you practicing. You're no less capable than Ashe or Ignatz. You can and will get better.” She tried for a smile, the kind that Claude effortlessly summoned that made the recipient feel odd and warm inside their chest.

Bernadetta let out a small whine, eyes screwing closed as tears prickled the edges. “I...”

Byleth gently brushed her thumb against the smaller girl's cheek. “It's alright, Bernadetta. I'll protect you. I promise.”

“I...” The smaller girl sniffled, ducking her head. “I don't...”

“It's okay.”

“I don't...want to be the reason...for scars...”

“I'll wear them proudly.” Byleth responded with a calm she didn't quite feel, stroking Bernadetta's hair while the girl broke down and cried piteously. She looks so fragile...like a little glass doll. Her father did this? Her father, her protector, tied her to a chair and filled her with fear until she can hardly bear to go outside? The sheer wrongness of it sat heavily in her head. Her father had guarded her all her life. She knew in her bones that he would do anything for her, even die. That Lord Varley would not do the same...that he would actually harm Bernadetta...it was alien. Wrong. “Come now. Let's finish up and get some sleep.”

Bernadetta nodded meekly through her tears. She tried to smile, but it quickly crumbled. For some reason, the sight of that agitated Byleth greatly.


She must have been troubled by her conversation with Bernadetta, because instead of waking with the sun, she was roused from an uneasy sleep the next morning by a repeated knock on her door. “Mmmph?” She managed, propping herself up on her elbows and staring bleary-eyed at the wooden door to her room.

“Ah, good morning Professor! I was sent to get you. Are you awake?” Flayn's voice drifted from the other side.

“Well, I am now.” She grumbled, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and rubbing her eyes harshly. Sunlight was streaming through her curtains. That couldn't be right – was it mid morning already? “What time is it?”

“It is just before breakfast.” The green haired girl relayed dutifully. “However, there's a matter that R – that Archbishop Rhea needs to discuss with you as soon as possible, so if you would come with me first, that would be greatly appreciated!”

“What could she possibly need so early...” Byleth grumbled, fumbling with the lock on her trunk as she hunted for a clean outfit. Wait...since when is this early? I've gotten up with the sun for the longest time. Shoving that aside, she yanked out the second copy of the academy uniform she'd been provided with and called, “Give a minute to get dressed, I'll be right with you...”

The Sword of the Creator sat innocently on her desk, glittering in the sunlight as she pulled her shirt, pants and boots on one after the other. She could feel its warmth from the other side of the room; something inside her sang at the proximity (it could only be her Crest). Brushing her hair with rapid, irritated strokes, she pinned it back as she stood and walked over to the sword. Grasping the hilt, she lifted it and examined the blade for a moment, judging if it needed any maintenance. It didn't seem to, (had it even burned the bloodstains from the last battle away?) so she buckled it at her side and pushed the door open.

Flayn chirped another greeting when she emerged, bouncing on her heels. Byleth gave her a bemused nod and began to walk, following the energetic blur as she took off toward the stairs. “It is a marvelous day, is it not?” Flayn asked enthusiastically. “It had been cloudy for so long I'd feared we wouldn't see the sun until the end of summer!”

“It's pleasant,” Byleth agreed mildly, glancing up at the cloudless sky.

“That is one way of putting it,” Flayn responded, a little put out. “It's wonderful fishing weather. I hope that I will be able to scrounge together some bait for the afternoon.” She pouted. “It's terrible that the merchants have been facing so much trouble from bandits on their regular routes! Usually we have men peddling all sorts of wares down in the courtyard by this time of year, but they've been held up because the roads aren't safe.”

“Is that right? That's...not a good sign.” Highway men were an old trouble, after all. The thing that made a road 'unsafe' was when multiple bodies turned up along the same stretch. Otherwise injuries and thefts were just a normal job hazard; and the reason escorting caravans was a lucrative job for a mercenary.

“Indeed it is not,” Flayn said sadly. “I hope that the Knights will settle the matter of the Western Church soon, so they can go back to assisting the people with their troubles. That is what the order was formed for, after all.”

Byleth nodded sedately as they walked down the long road past the training grounds toward the side entrance of the Monastery. It didn't escape her notice that there were more armed guards wandering about – mostly low-ranked Knights of Serios, but there were some mercenary-types mixed in as well, a strange sight to see in a holy place. There was an undercurrent of unease, one that had lingered in the weeks since the attempted assassination/theft had been thwarted. The inhabitants of the monastery would not quickly forget how deeply the Western Church fanatics had penetrated into the building despite how high security had been.

Jeralt confided in her that he thought there was a leak, and a big one at that. Byleth thought he might be right, though he wondered that if this hypothetical mole knew where Rhea would be and how she would react, why they'd tried to steal the Sword instead of luring the archbishop out of the building to somewhere where they could attempt to kill her with fewer obstructions. Though perhaps they had multiple objectives...

“-would like to have more opportunities to bond with you, but my brother is resistant to the idea,” Flayn's chattering pierced through her thoughts, shaking her back to the present. “I do not know why. Your students are so happy and speak very highly of you.”

“...Your brother's job is to be suspicious.” Byleth allowed. “He is the Archbishop's administrator and he clearly wishes to keep her safe. The arrival of my father and I was unusual to say the least, and I was hired on the spot without a word to him. At least, that is the impression I've been given.”

Flayn frowned a bit. “You are taking his needlessly constant suspicion quite gracefully, professor. That alone speaks well of you.”

Byleth shrugged uncertainly, tugging at a loose strand of her hair. She felt awkward at the praise. No need to be embarrassed, Sothis said with an amused laugh. You're awfully easy to fluster for an 'emotionless warrior'.

I...Sothis...! Byleth started to protest, but trailed off, groping for words to explain her confusion. Shaking her head, she walked along behind Flayn as the girl lead her into the chapel.

Rhea was waiting there, smiling warmly when she saw them enter the room. Seteth was frowning again, arms crossed, standing to her right. Standing off to the side were...Felix, Sylvain and Ingrid? Byleth blinked at them before looking back at the Archbishop. “You sent for me, Lady Rhea?” She asked with a polite half bow.

“Indeed. Forgive me for bringing you up here so early, but there was a matter that needed to be settled regarding your mission at the end of the week.” Rhea glanced at the Blue Lions students for a moment with a look that Byleth couldn't interpret. “There has been...a bit of concern, regarding Alliance students traveling within Kingdom territory during these somewhat volatile times. With this in mind, I would like to know if bringing two students from the Blue Lions along with you would cause you any significant difficulties.”

“I...do not believe so,” Byleth said slowly, glancing over at Felix. He was scowling intensely, but that was close to his default expression, so she was unsure how aggravated he truly was in that moment. “While we haven't trained side by side as extensively as my students have, building trust and strategies, we did fight side by side in the Mausoleum. They are each very capable in their own right; I trust them to be a great assistance.”

Ingrid smiled at that. Sylvain smiled too, but it reminded her of some of Claude's smiles – a cover for the unhappiness lingering in his eyes.

“I'm glad to hear that,” Rhea said, pleased. “Choose whoever you think will work best with the skills of your own students. I trust your judgment.” Seteth's expression was neutral, but Byleth was fairly sure that his eyes flickered over to the Archbishop in frustration.

“Thank you.” She said, pretending she hadn't noticed. “If the territory we will be entering is uncertain, is there anything else I should bear in mind?”

“Only that you continue to be cautious,” Rhea responded. “The Heroes Relics, even when in the hands of one who is unqualified, are still weapons, and dangerous ones. There will be a Knight of Serios with you as you travel through the villages, but they may be understandably wary of new conflict in the wake of the thief attacks. Ensure that your students are mindful of this, and remain respectful to whomever you encounter on the way.”

“Of course, Your Worship.”

At that, Rhea turned towards the three to the side. “I hope this is an adequate answer to your family's worries,” She said gently. “Now, how about all of you go and eat a good meal before the day's training starts?”

“Your compassion is boundless, Your Worship!” Sylvain said cheerfully. “I am honored that – ow, ow, Ingrid!” The blonde rolled her eyes and continued to drag him along by the arm, ignoring his flailing. Felix stomped along behind them, clearly irritated. Byleth hastily bowed again and hurried after them, wondering what had happened to influence Rhea's decision so close to the mission day.

“I'm sorry about this, Professor,” Ingrid said once they reached the bottom of the stairs, seemingly reading Byleth's mind. “I know this is very sudden and likely throwing a wrench in your plans, but...”

“It's damned insulting that we were passed over for a Relic Theft in our own kingdom,” Felix bit out. “There's no reason it shouldn't have fallen on us. It's our concern, not the Alliance's.”

“Felix!” Ingrid hissed, releasing Sylvain's arm. She gave Byleth a contrite look and said, “Well, he is partially right. It'll be seen as very strange if at least one of us isn't there to contribute to the retrieval of the Lance of Ruin. We don't want our people to think that we believe fighting bandits is beneath us.”

“And hell, if I'm going to eventually inherit the weapon, I should at least put a token's effort into getting it back,” Sylvain finished with a cheerfulness that she didn't quite find appropriate.

You're not coming,” the words flew out of Byleth's mouth, hard and authoritative, without her even thinking about them. All three students looked startled, at least as much as she herself was. “I've been told who the leader of the bandits is,” she went on after a moment. “I'm not putting you in that position, not after inflicting that on Ashe. No. You're staying here.”

“Professor,” Sylvain started, a little off balance. “I, er, appreciate the sentiment, but seriously, this is different. Miklan is no longer a part of house Gautier, or my brother. He's nothing but a common thief. I can live with it if he refuses to come quietly and has to go down.”

Byleth crossed her arms. “I will never again put someone in the position where they have to kill family,” She said bluntly. “It was ill thought out of me to accept Ashe's plea in the first place, and as a result he witnessed his father's death. I refuse to make that mistake twice.” She tilted her head. “I know you're a strong fighter, and you are continuing to learn quite well. But this is not your fight.”

Sylvain opened and closed his mouth, bewildered, fumbling for an argument. Deciding that she wasn't going to give him the chance, Byleth turned towards Felix and said, “I would like you to come, Felix. A number of my students fight best at range, and even with better armor they would benefit greatly from a guard who can hit fast and hard.” And he would clearly be incensed should he be left behind again.

“Got it,” Felix said, his foul temper lifting to the point that he could give her a small grin.

“As for the others...I'll speak to Claude and figure out which way is best to proceed.” Byleth said thoughtfully. “Either way, let us get to the dining hall, lest breakfast finish without us.”

“That sounds good,” Ingrid replied with an explosive sigh. “We've been arguing out case since yesterday. I could use a good meal after finally succeeding.”

Since yesterday?, Byleth wondered but didn't ask. Instead the four of them started making their way across the building toward the dining hall. Sylvain kept shooting her odd looks when he thought she wasn't looking; he didn't seem upset per say...mostly confused, and a few other things she had no hope of untangling. Ingrid subtly fished for a potential spot on the team, continually mentioning her ability to resist magic and how well she was handling her new pegasus; honestly, Byleth was considering her, but she wanted a second opinion. Felix said little but was clearly torn between being pleased that he was chosen for the mission and holding onto his initial frustration.

Entering the dining hall was like being enveloped in a warm bubble; the wave of conversation crashed over her as she walked in and headed the counter to serve herself. Bernadetta was hovering over a plate of chicken at the far end of the table; Byleth caught the girl's eye, saw her wide-eyed look, and tried once again for a reassuring expression. Bernadetta squeaked, looked all about the room, before scurrying away after the person beside her cleared their throat. At least she felt comfortable coming here to eat, the professor thought ruefully.

Loading up her plate was an unexpected pleasure. They'd often had to be frugal with their food while on the road, if not straight up relegated to rations. This, however? This was marvelous. She was surprised how often she felt a little hungry throughout the day, knowing she could come here and grab fruit or vegetables even when it wasn't mealtime.

Walking over to the Golden Deer table surrounded her with laughter and cheering; Caspar had wandered over from the Black Eagles and challenged Raphael to some sort of eating contest, Hilda was cheering the latter on over Lorenz's protests while Claude and Leonie watched with greatly entertained smiles. Lysithea made a face until Byleth settled in the seat between her and the house leader, mumbling 'boys' and clearly hoping for a sympathetic ear.

“Boys indeed,” Byleth mused. “Just be glad Gustav is out with father. He'd just encourage them.”

Lysithea groaned. “There's a scary thought...”

She snorted. “Oh, it's scarier than that. His favorite are drinking contests.” The white haired girl shuddered dramatically; a warm, tight feeling settled in Byleth's chest again. Was this what it felt like to joke with people? To be amused by some mutual exasperation? It that were so...it was nice...


It was raining again, threatening a storm. Byleth firmly told herself that the sinking feeling in her stomach was wholly the fault of the chill of cold water and nothing else. Not feelings of deja vu, not flashbacks to Lonato's rebellion and certainly not dread. That bred doubt and a mercenary must cast doubt aside before going into battle.

They were approaching Conand Tower at the end of a two week journey. Neither Ingrid's pegasus nor Leonie's horse were particularly pleased with the weather, frequently whinnying in complaint as they trudged along the muddy, winding pathway from the village inn they'd stayed at to the old fortress. Hilda's continued moaning had become background noise roughly yesterday; Ignatz's glasses were wet to the point that Ingrid was effectively guiding him as well as her mount. There was a greater determination to stick it out and remain strong then when they had been trailing Magdred Way, but it was hard to stay positive with the heavens opening on them.

She started when an extra layer of warmth settled over her shoulders. Her hand darted up and grabbed thick yellow fabric; it was one of the blankets kept with the tents. Why...? She turned her head in time to see Claude pat her shoulder and smile in his usual incorrigible way.

“I know you're not the type to complain, Teach, but there's really no need for you to be shivering like a leaf,” He said with a lazy smile. “It wouldn't make for a good tale if we single-handedly defeated the bandits only for our fearless leader to get knocked off her feat by a fever.”

“...This is yours,” She said blankly.

Claude pretended not to hear her, striding ahead. “Hey Gilbert, I have a question...” Maybe she was imagining it, but Byleth was fairly certain she saw the old knight's shoulders slump in resignation. He had probably started to regret promising to assuage Claude's curiosity four days ago, and now he knew there was no escape.

Byleth stared after him, her pace slowing just a bit as she tugged on the edges of the blanket now forming a buffer between her and the downpour.

 

That's a really good smell,” His face lit up when she placed the cup on table before him. The sight of such uncomplicated glee in him was quite charming. “Almyran Pine Needles...you've got exotic tastes, Teach.”

I like the flavor.” She sat on the edge of her bed, having given him the only chair, and sipped lightly on the hot liquid. “It's always been my favorite.”

Something flickered in his eyes, gone as soon as it appeared, and he promptly began regaling her with the tale of a baby albino wyvern he'd found as a child while out hunting. After multiple bites and scratches and half of the rabbit that had originally been his quarry, he convinced it to come out of the warren it had been hiding in and allow him to pick it up. One of its wings was injured; he suspected it had been kicked out of the nest for being the runt of the litter. So he carried it all the way back to the starting point, startling the hell out of his mother by coming up behind her while she was distracted and having it chirp. Once she'd gotten over her heart attack, she informed him that it could stay if he was prepared to take care of it. That had been his job ever since, with her only conceding to take over when he left for the officer's academy.

I think,” Byleth mused, “I know why you tell so many jokes at the expense of others.” She took a sip, put her cup down and mildly said, “You're afraid they'll find out you're actually a giant, sweet and fluffy kitten.”

Claude threw back his head and laughed for several seconds, shoulders shaking. “Sure,” he managed breathlessly, “Yeah, that's it. Definitely. Y-you s-saw right through me, Teach.”

She felt her lips twitch upward. She must be getting used to the oddness that was Claude von Riegan; it was endearing to prod him and be rewarded with little flickers of honesty whenever he felt comfortable. It was...nice.

And there's that tiny smile again.” He leaned forward, clasping his hands together. “You're such a mystery.”

Light heat spread through her cheeks. “That's...” She ducked her head, looking down at her tea. “There's really nothing strange about me...j-just look at me...”

I am.”

 

“Professor? Are you okay? You're face looks red.”

Byleth blinked rapidly and turned towards a concerned-looking Lorenz. “I'm alright, thank you.” She said awkwardly. “Though I hope we arrive soon.”

“This rain is awful,” Mercedes groaned, pulling her coat up so it covered her hair. “I hope that it stops by the time we have to go. It would be terrible to have to walk back in this as well.” Lorenz immediately offered her his hand when they walked up to a mud puddle. Byleth swore she saw Mercedes – sweet, lovely, mannerly Mercedes – roll her eyes a bit before accepting it with her usual smile.

“Here's to hoping,” Felix muttered darkly, stalking alongside his fellow student and sending Lorenz the occasional warning glare. The swordsman was particularly soaked, having forgone a heavy cloak with at his own insistence – saying it would weigh him down. He'd been given a jacket by one of their accompanying knights, but it wasn't working as well as he'd clearly hoped.

“I remember the maps and the times that the villagers gave us,” Ignatz offered, stumbling along behind them. “We should be there shortly.”

“Shortly,” Byleth repeated to herself, tugging the blanket a bit tighter around her shoulders. The fuzz felt pleasant on her skin, even as it grew damp. “Just shortly...”

“You look really cute bundled up like that, Professor!” Raphael announced cheerfully. “We should go camping sometime so you have an excuse to bury us all in blankets.”

C-Cute? Byleth thought, bewildered and feeling her face grow hot again. No one had ever...Goddess, what were these sensations, these feelings? It was happening more and more and she didn't know what to do with any of it! I'm so confused...ah... This is all your fault, Claude! Dimitri too! She plotted how to get back at them as soon as possible, ignoring Sothis's musical chuckle at her internal ranting.

Mercifully, as Ingatz said, another ten-fifteen minutes of walking brought them to the foot of a massive stone tower, overgrown with disuse. It was an impressive structure, towering above both them and the trees; vines wound up to the very top windows, bright orange light gleaming from the upper floors signaling that their quarry was finally within reach. There was no general cheer of relief this time; instead the students gathered around her, Claude and Gilbert, gazing warily at the tower's peak. Despite the fact that the old fortress had only one entrance, no one wanted to tip off their prey – the more disorganized and panicky the thieves were, the better.

“Hey Teach,” Claude said, craning his neck as he looked up. “Are you ready?”

“Are you?” She asked wryly, handing off the blanket she'd been loaned and putting her hand on the Sword of the Creator. The hilt pulsed under her fingers, warm and intense, almost like a heartbeat...

He grinned, the lack of humor in the gesture making it unnervingly chilly. “I'm always ready.”

Ingrid quickly patted down her pegasus, rubbing its wings with a towel and letting it flap them several times in relief. “Sir Gilbert, have you ever been here before?” She asked. “I know Conand Tower hasn't seen use in many years, but if there's anything in the architecture that might have changed...”

“I have scouted it once, but that was many years ago,” The venerable old knight responded. Sir Gilbert was a stout man, shorter than Byleth and nearly equal height with the still-growing Claude. He bore the scars of many battles on his face, and likely throughout his body – though one wouldn't be able to tell, given the amount of armor he was wearing. Fortress Knight...that's what such men were called. Those who had the strength to move and fight while encased in the heaviest protection one could afford, armor that even the strongest opponent could not pierce without magic or the rare specialized weapons such as the famous Rapier. He wielded a steel ax, forged and well-used; many battles were edged into the chips in the blade. “I'm afraid I have not much to tell you but old history. Back in the day, when invasions from the north were at their height, this tower was used for both surveillance and defense. Fortunately, I doubt the bandits will be able to properly make use of the tower's structure; we should be able to make our way up without too much trouble.”

“Mmm, is that right?” Claude said, humming lightly. “The leader of the thieves is the former first son of the Gautier family. He'll be a better strategist than the bandits we've tangled with before.”

“Miklan was...” Ingrid stopped, frowned, and slowly said, “Miklan wasn't extensively educated in the act of war. He's only a few years older than Sylvain, and even back then he was...temperamental. He got worse with age, until, well...ah, it's not my place.” She shook her head. “He'll be tougher than your average bandit, but he's no genius. Nothing we can't overcome.”

“Is that right...” Claude mused. Byleth wondered if there was a thread of...disapproval...under his clear and obvious distaste for Miklan's apparent personality flaws. “How about the Lance? Do you suppose he stashed it somewhere, or would he have kept it within his sight at all times?”

“Miklan has it in his possession,” Sir Gilbert replied gravely. “According to the last report, he used it to turn the tables on his pursuers.”

A wave of shocked mumbling washed over Byleth's students.

“So the Crestless can use the weapons after all?” Claude said, half to himself. “Isn't that interesting...” He sighed. “Man, the rain's really coming down...let's get this over with, shall we?”

Byleth nodded and drew the Sword of the Creator. The blade was warm in her hands...and was it steadily getting hotter? Something in her chest was pulsing...a comforting warmth, a powerful one, a feeling that sang through her blood. “Get ready, everyone,” she ordered, before walking up to the old wooden door and giving it a solid kick.

It busted under her heel, sprawling aside on a single hinge as she strode in. The doorway was just wide enough to accommodate Leonie's horse, which trotted in on her heels, the rain-soaked orange-haired girl grinning wryly before she adjusted the saddle and climbed aboard. After her came Ingrid, her pegasus whinnying unhappily at having been brought in under a roof. Claude lead the rest of the students in, Felix at his heels, everyone drawing their weapons and grimly preparing themselves. There were lit torches throughout the hallways, new hooks and posts sitting within the entrance hall. Very distantly, Byleth could hear heavy thumps amid the pitter-patter of the rain and the rumble of distant thunder.

Conand Tower was a fairly unique by the standards of usual construction for fortresses in that there were no stairs inside; sloped floors were the sole means of ascension, allowing horses, pegasai and wyverns limited mobility within the building. While one might think this a poor choice with enemy mounted units in mind, it had actually worked in the tower's defense many times. Few people expected, once they kicked down the door of an enemy castle, to be greeted by charging mounted units – among other things.

“Unique is the right word,” Claude mused as they sprinted across the first sloped floor, Leonie's horse making a loud noise of complaint but otherwise easily following its rider's command. The setting sun cast light on the floor like glowing orange blades; between that and the torches, it was a disturbingly yet oddly pretty look. “I've never seen a fortress like this before.”

“It's an old Kingdom design,” Byleth said as she ran, “I think parts of the Silver Maiden use this style as well.”

“Huh. I'll keep that in mind for the next 'diplomatic' venture.”

They climbed four floors before they encountered the first of their opponents. Three bandits were lounging on an old couch, playing a card game on the table. “...anything worth stealing,” one of them complained, dropping a card in the pile and causing both his friends to groan.

“Ah, stuff it, at least we've got food and we got the boss's point across,” The other guy said. Byleth thought back to the last village they stayed in, saw the ransacked buildings and injured farmers in her minds' eye, and her resolve hardened.

The third frowned at his hand, looked up to complain, and turned deathly white. “Oh, shit,” He breathed.

“That's one way of putting it,” Claude replied cheerfully, causing both of the other thieves to spin around in shock. He promptly knocked an arrow and fired; his target scrambled to get up, but only succeeded in getting pinned to the wall by his shoulder. Byleth thrust her sword at the direction of one of the thieves. The gesture was odd and went against her muscle memory, but the blade split apart instantly, unfurling and slashing across the the man's lightly armored chest.

Mercifully, this time he wasn't split completely in half...but he did die with a gurgle that made her skin feel as though it were trying to crawl off her bones.

An arrow struck down the third one moments later. Leonie trotted around the corner, her horse snorting and stomping its hooves – likely glad to be back on even ground. Ingatz, Raphael and Felix followed along behind her, weapons drawn and at the ready. Claude pointed an arrow at the closed double doors on the other side of the table. There were footsteps and talking faintly audible from the other side. “Once we go through there, they'll organize against us. And that's assuming that they didn't seen us approaching.” Byleth said, forcing herself to focus. “Even if they seemed idle...it's not a good thing to assume.”

“Never assume anything going into a battle,” Leonie said, repeating her father almost word for word. She slung her bow over her shoulder and took up her lance. “I remember, Professor.”

Seeing the rest of her students, with Gilbert at the rear, joining them, Byleth nodded – almost to herself – before striding onward and kicking the door open.

The uppermost level of Conand Tower was gray and spacious, theoretically the last line of defense for any civilians brought inside. It had a high ceiling, an elevated platform and another rising floor. Torches provided some light against the storm and the fading daylight, but visibility was lower than they were used to. Fortunately, it wasn't so dark that their enemies were hard to see.

“Boss! We've got trouble!”

Lenoie and Ingrid charged forward, driving the group of thieves who'd come to check on the noise apart. Their lances flashed, cutting down one and incapacitating another with a wicked, bloody shoulder wound that would kill him if it wasn't quickly stemmed. To Byleth's surprise, one of the other thieves immediately abandoned his weapon and rushed to the injured man's side, tearing off his glove and using it as a pressure pad. Honor among thieves...?

Lysithea and Ingatz darted forward, quick as arrows, each attacking a brawler and a mage respectively. They died with screams, and the two students walked past the kneeling man and his bleeding friend without paying the latter any mind. Marianne hesitated by those thieves, and then carefully stepped toward them with Raphael at her side, a scowling guardian.

Byleth hesitated, then chose to place her trust in the two – the two men were disarmed, and Raphael would make further conflict look unattractive – before hurrying to join the thick of the fight.

Gilbert strode forward, booming, “Thieves, bandits, disturbers of the peace! The Knights of Serios are upon you! Throw down your weapons and pray for the Goddess's compassion and mercy!”

In response, two arrows whisked over the side, crashing uselessly against his armor and shield. “Ingrid, watch out for the snipers!” Byleth shouted, slamming her relic's hilt into an enemy's face, sending him spinning into a raised stone barrier. The wings of a pegasus were delicate; a single arrow could cripple one for life.

“I see them!” The rider called back, her mount rearing back to kick one of her would-be opponents in the face.

“Claude, Ignatz, take care of them! Leonie, don't get too far ahead! Felix, Lorenz, Hilda guard Lysithea and Marianne while going forward! Keep advancing! Mercedes, use your discretion!” Byleth threw herself forward, dodging a fireball and a thrown ax in quick succession. Rolling to her feet, she impaled the mage through the chest and lifted the body off the floor, letting it catch the second ax before shoving it off with her foot. Again she swung the blade in a wide arc, and it crackled apart at her unspoken will lashing out as a whip. The man stumbled, the massive wound the blade cut burning as though the scar had caught aflame, then collapsed.

Claude's loud, tortured curse caused her head to snap to the right; her stomach dropped violently when she saw an arrow lodged deeply in his shoulder – goddess, the point was sticking out of his leather. The brunette staggered back a step, then notched his bow and fired in retaliation. The twin arrows slammed into his would-be killer's eye socket and cheekbone; the corpse flopped across the railing and fell down to the ground.

Mercedes rushed up to his side, a flood of words Byleth wasn't quite close enough to parse filling the air as she steadied the Golden Deer house leader and grasped the arrow in one hand. A great golden glow lit up around her and quickly surrounded Claude's wounded shoulder. When Byleth blinked, she saw an elegant symbol float in the air; within that light, Mercedes smoothly and effortlessly pulled the arrow out without even a peep from her patient. Tossing it aside, the symbol flickered again, and the light vanished. Claude pawed at his shoulder, surprise radiating from him, before he bowed in thanks.

A Crest with healing properties? Is she descended from Saint Cethleann? Not that she had time to dwell on it. Very relieved that she'd asked for the older girl's help, Byleth threw herself at another mage that had designs on Felix.

Felix fought like a brawler even as he wielded a sword; he forwent guarding and any elegance in favor of quick, brutal strikes that tore bloody stripes out of his unfortunate opponents when he didn't straight-up ram the sword through his opponent's throat. It was a vicious and dominating style, but it left him utterly vulnerable – something of particular note, seeing his muscular but slender constitution. There was no way he could take much damage before being rendered unable to fight.

“Lysithea, mind Felix for me!” She vaguely heard a complaint from the blue-haired warrior, but she ignored it. “Ignatz, be careful!” Ignatz narrowly dodged taking an arrow from the sniper he'd been annoying, firing back again as he ran forward. “Lorenz, what's going on up there?”

The noble glanced back; he'd reached the far corner of the raised platform alongside Leonie who was disposing of a bandit. “There are more enemies on the other side, and they're preparing to meet us on their terms. What should we do, Professor?” He threw a fireball at a man who'd gotten past Leonie, causing him to stagger before stabbing him in the gut.

“We'll group up and decide on a strategy,” Byleth called. “Wait there!”

Ingrid brought her pegasus up in the air, flying in circles about the ceiling. “Miklan is here, he's waiting at the back of the platform. He has the Lance – ah!” Her mount jerked to the right, avoiding one arrow and then another. Quickly she dove, dipping up near the upper level and impaling another man. The momentum dragged the corpse over the side and sent it tumbling across the floor as Ingrid came in for a landing.

“Are you alright?” Byleth asked, skidding to a halt next to her.

“Fine,” Ingrid panted, her face a little green at the edges. “There were more archers than I anticipated; at least two more on the far side. Though, there are a lot of bandits here...more than was recorded in the last report.” She frowned. “How did Miklan sway so many thugs and lowlifes to follow his lead? He's an egotistical, violent ass and he doesn't-”

“Rant about him later. Is your pegasus alright?”

“Y-yeah, she was just spooked. Sorry, Professor.”

Byleth glanced over her shoulder. Gilbert gave her a nod; with the weight of his armor, he couldn't move as quickly as the rest of them; her students had left him the dust as they started to push forward. He wasn't idle, however, taking care of stragglers who had recovered after being assumed unconscious or feigning defeat. Marianne and Raphael were hurrying to catch up with the others; Byleth and Ingrid moved to do the same.

With all her students accounted for, Byleth lead them around the corner and scowled at the bare, empty corridor between them and their quarry, all of whim were hidden around a blind corner. “That's bait,” She muttered, striding forward a few steps and putting a hand on her hip.

“Yyyup,” Claude agreed with a mild chuckle; one once again lacking in any humor. “How shall we do this, Teach?”

“We have to draw them out of there a few at a time,” Byleth said, thinking furiously. “Otherwise whoever goes around the corner will either get sniped or cornered and slaughtered by the massed enemies.” She sighed. “If we had someone with knew Rescue, there's a plan I've used before, but unfortunately that's not an option...”

“Eh, we're not completely without recourse.” Claude said thoughtfully. “It's my experience that bandits take themselves too seriously.”

Byleth opened her mouth to ask what he was on about, then it hit her. “Kostas,” She murmured, then gave him a bemused smile. “Alright then. We'll try that.”

The only warning was the sound of something hitting the floor.

Lysithea's scream a piercing, heartrending sound that would haunt her nightmares for the foreseeable future, along with the sight that greeted Byleth when she spun around in alarm. The wall she'd thought had been solid actually held a concealed pathway; one that a few of the thieves had been hiding in. While the class gathered, believing they had cleared the hallway, the twosome had waited for a moment, then pushed down the door and attacked. Mercedes had gotten away with a gory, rapidly bleeding slash on the arm...

...But Lysithea...the small girl who jumped when ghosts were mentioned, who had snuck a piece of cake into a lecture, who went on amusing tangents whenever she felt someone was treating her like a child...had been impaled from behind, straight through her chest.

Byleth's throat tightened. She let out a wordless, strangled sound. A horrible, overwhelming feeling, as if she was about to pass out, crashed over her, rendering her entire body useless, frozen to the spot. Screams erupted from all of the girl's fellow classmates. Byleth! Remember my gift to you! Sothis shouted in her ear as an enraged Felix turned on the killer and began dicing him to pieces.

G-Gift?

Time! The hands of time are yours! Quickly!

Ah!

Byleth reached inside herself, into her magic, and the world just stopped. An inky blankness, broken up only by a glittering golden-red pentagram with the Crest of Flames blazing in its core, appeared before her. The young Ashen Demon stared blankly at it for a few seconds, her blood racing furiously and her head spinning – aching, as though it had been stuffed with cotton. Hesitantly she reached out and touched the image; a flickering, faded out image of the moment came to life before her.

That's right, Sothis said, her voice soothing yet urgent. Turn it back. You need not go far, just a minute or two. Give yourself enough time to lead her away and prepare!

Carefully, Byleth dragged her fingers long the edge of the circle. Like a painting in reverse, the image before her backtracked; she saw the images of herself and her students walk backwards to the corner, the men retreat and walk back into what she could now see clearly as a hidden alcove and passageway. The door that had hidden them flew backwards, concealing them; it had been painted gray with stones taped and glued to it to enhance the illusion that it was part of the wall. Had it been proper daylight, she wouldn't have been fooled, but the dim light of the storm had caused her eyes to slide over it.

Byleth pressed her hand against the images; she was seized by a great surge of vertigo, and suddenly she found herself back in her body, back in the moment.

“-looks kinda like bait, Teach. Teach?”

Byleth spun on her heels; she couldn't begin to explain even if she tried, and every second counted. Her eyes found the wall. “Sir Gilbert?” She snapped out as the man started to turn the corner. “Can you hear something?”

He stopped instantly, raising his ax and looking back down the hallway. “I don't think so. What is it, Professor?”

“I hear footsteps somewhere behind us. Which might well mean – Lysithea, Felix, Mercedes, get over here now!”

Lysithea blinked, then grabbed a confused and scowling Felix's arm and dragged him forward. Mercedes took a few uncertain steps, looking over her shoulder; because of that, she had a good view of the fake wall falling down and the two bandits surging forward toward her. This time, however, they were prepared – Gilbert surged forward, slamming the side of his ax into one of the men, knocking him down. The second was even less lucky; Claude, Ignatz and Leonie's combined efforts almost instantaneously turned him into a human pincushion. Felix, once he'd gotten over his surprised, instantly snapped into motion – stabbing the fallen man in the throat.

Byleth stared into the wall; no other dangers emerged from it. The corpses on the ground didn't move, not even twitch. The sword that would have killed her student lay harmlessly on the floor where it had fallen.

Lysithea sucked in a sharp breath, and let it out slowly. “That could have been bad,” She said, blissfully oblivious.

The words felt like a hammer on Byleth's chest. She took a deep breath of her own, clutching the hilt of the relic so tightly it hurt. “Gilbert, please watch the rear; Lorenz will help you,” She ordered. She hated the way her voice shook a bit on the words. “Everyone, be on your guard. There might be another ambush in the wings.”

Both Claude and Ingrid gave her odd looks; she didn't pay it much mind though, turning around. “The other end of the hall...we need to draw the thieves out a few at a time, or get ambushed. Any ideas, Claude?”

“Hm...” He gave her a pointed look, then lightly said, “I've got an idea...”

Byleth swallowed slightly as she followed him to the other end of the hall, as he leaned seemingly lazily against the wall and started talking – throwing his voice, really, in a mock-casual way designed to be overheard. It had worked against Kostas; that man hadn't managed to lay a hand on her friend. But if he was charged in a rage by several people...

Marianne lightly touched her wrist. Byleth blinked and found herself looking into the bluenette's concerned eyes. “I'm alright,” she murmured. “Don't worry about me.”

“Head's up, Teach.” Claude said lazily, before casually pushing himself off the wall with one foot and slinging his bow over the head of the short woman who hurtled around the corner, spitting some particularly foul obscenities directed at his lineage and preferences. “Yeesh, everyone's a critic.” He yanked back hard, letting the tight string dig a vicious line into her throat and yank her off her feet; as she stumbled, he pulled an arrow out and stabbed her through the eye.

A flare of blue light caught Byleth's eye. Felix moved in a flicker of blue light; a glow surrounded his sword as he brought it down on an armor knight who'd joined his ill-fated companion. Instead of bouncing off ineffectually, the iron blade cleaved straight through the plate as through it were a Rapier; she saw the flicker of a symbol in the blink of an eye, then again when his follow up swing split the helmet and the head it protected apart in one move. That's right. The Crest of Fraldarius allows the bearer to pierce through all defenses when the will is strong enough...

Their ambush thrown off, the thieves quickly gave up further turtling and charged forward. There was a crash behind her; Byleth risked a quick look over her shoulder and saw Gilbert and Lorenz handling the other two enemies who had emerged from the secret passageway. Then she threw herself into the fight.

She thrashed the sword out into its whip form, wrapping it around the arm of the other armor knight. Something inside her – a sensation she now recognized as her own crest – burned as an arrow tore a wound open on her arm; a flare of energy lit up the room as she tore the blade back, ripping the arm off – armor and all. A rush of adrenaline went through her; she felt the sting of that arm wound lessen and then vanish completely. The blade retracted, allowing her to clash and blade lock with another thief and self-styled brigand. Pushing him back was easy; she stabbed him through the shoulder, then pulled the blade free and launched it, whip form, the archer who was still taking shots at her. It snared his bow and destroyed it.

Ingrid promptly swooped down and impaled him with her lance. Raphael dove past Byleth, who nursed her numb arm as she walked forward, and slammed his gauntleted fist into a thief's face – knocking him back. Ignatz followed that up with a fatal arrow shot. Leonie shot past both of them, her horse bowling over another thief and clearing the way down the hall. Claude shot down the last archer, who had been distracted taking aim at Ingrid, while Lysithea blasted one enemy with Miasma and an opposing mage with Luna. Marianne blasted the final thief with a dazzling Thoron before turning to Byeth and casting Physic. The effect was soothing and immediate; she waved in gratitude and ran onward, hearing Mercedes and Lysithea terrify an armored knight so badly he surrendered without even trying to attack them.

Ingrid brought her pegasus down by her side, while Claude trotted up on her left. “Some of these men are former farmers and tradesmen,” The blonde said, looking troubled. “Professor...let's hurry and take out Miklan. I bet that without him, the rest will scatter or surrender.”

Byleth nodded in comprehension. The three of them turned the corner – Leonie shot a few arrows at the men who'd been blocking the way, forcing them to make room. Byleth felt a heat stirring within the sword of the creator; that drumming pulse was growing faster and hotter, like frantically beating heart. They ran up the light incline and found themselves facing a tall, armored redhead a few arms-lengths away.

Miklan Gautier had wild, blood red hair and a handsome face (irregardless of the massive scar across his nose and cheek), but that was where his similarities to Sylvain ended. He wore heavy armor not wholly unlike Gilbert's, and his lips were curved into a thunderous, hateful scowl. He carried himself like an angry drunk; bullheaded, aggressive, spoiling for a fight. Clutched in his right hand...was what could only be the Lance of Ruin.

The first thing Byleth thought upon seeing the sacred relic of the Gautier family was that she thought she saw the barbs on it twitching; her nerves were clearly still shot to be seeing such things. The lance glowed with a light that seemed eerie against the torches and the flashes of lightning through the window; like, and yet unlike the sword she now clutched in her hand...

“I know that face...” Miklan muttered, glaring at Ingrid. “So, the marriage bait is still playing at being a knight, huh? There's a laugh.”

Marriage bait. That was the second time she'd heard that phrase thrown around recently...

“What do you know?,” Ingrid retorted angrily, gripping the lance. “The childhood bully has grown up into a bigger menace! You were always a self-centered, selfish man, Miklan, but this has gone too far!”

Miklan sneered. “All I've done is take back my birthright! I was father's first born child! But just because that lazy, good-for-nothing layabout had a damned Crest, he was handed everything without a care. Never mind that he'll run all into the ground while he chases after any girl that'll sit still long enough!”

“At least Sylvain has never tried to murder family!” Ingrid shot back. “Whatever his faults, he was never so childish as to endanger the lands he believed belonged to him to avenge a slight!”

“You don't get to mouth off to me, Ingrid! Not while you're still deluding yourself. Do you really think your venerable father is going to let you, a noble girl with a Crest, but anything other than some rich old man's bedwarmer?”

“Ah yes,” Claude said dryly. “However could Lord Gautier have disowned a man with such a charming personality as you?”

“Shut up!” Miklan snapped.

“After all, you've showed the ability to solve your problems with...murder, theft, and more murder, so clearly you're qualified to balance books, oversee harvests, and negotiate for trade goods. You have such a personable aura, there's no way you would alienate any and every potential ally after spending a few hours with them. Your ability to steal the Lance also proves that you absolutely have a good mind for consequences beyond a couple of days time. I just can't imagine why he thought Sylvain would make a better Lord.” Claude shrugged and glanced at her. “What do you think, Teach?”

“Shut! UP!” Miklan charged forward, lance at the ready.

“Geez; some people just can't take a joke,” Claude said with an exaggerated sigh; Byleth rolled her eyes and threw herself forward to meet the armored thief. She didn't want Ingrid or Claude getting with range of the lance, even if Miklan didn't have the Crest necessary to bring out its full power.

The Lance crashed against the Sword; a horrible sense of wrong prickled at the back of her mind, but she shoved it aside, pushing the weapons to the side and jumping back to avoid a retaliatory swing. Miklan's fighting style was aggressive and untrained; his father must have given him only a basic weapons education after Sylvain was born. Byleth dodged past another strike and ducked, allowing Ingrid to throw a javelin at Miklan's head. The man jerked backward, and Claude followed that up with a couple of arrows. Most of them bounced off the armor, but one of them jammed in the plating near his shoulder.

Miklan growled, swinging the lance at her face. Byleth jumped back nimbly; if he had any hope of outspeeding her, the armor destroyed it. As she lead him in a circle, she knew without a doubt that she could dance hoops around him without worrying. What they needed, however, was to somehow get him to drop the Lance. She didn't have much hope of capturing or otherwise subduing him as long as he held it.

“Pest!” Their enemy shouted as Ingrid's pegasus darted overhead, its hooves narrowly missing his head. “Coward!” Byleth snorted and launched the sword at him; she debated switching to her bow for a moment, try and shoot out his eyes, but discarded it – she needed an answer to the Lance.

Claude shot at him again, making sure to keep Byleth between himself and the homicidal disowned son. Miklan cursed and swore, but they were quickly wearing him down...

Had Rhea said anything about whether his surrender was desired above his death, or at all? Byleth didn't remember anything of the sort, though after what happened with Lonato...well, she wanted to bear it mind, even as she became fully convinced that Sylvain's brother would never willingly come quietly.

They clashed again, and then Miklan jumped back. The Lance in his hand pulsed violently, and again, something felt wrong. Intensely wrong. Byleth chalked it up to worry about her students, who were making enough noise to comfort her that Gilbert was keeping them safe and organized, but it persisted nonetheless...

“Not bad for your kind,” Miklan sneered, “a bunch of spoiled rotten children.”

The lance pulsed again.

Byleth heard Sothis murmur, Can you feel that?

That's when it happened.


A number of his gang rushed up the platform, her students hot on their heels. Just as they arrived, the lance flared with light one final time, and this time, Miklan flinched.

“Huh?” He muttered, looking down at his hand. A sphere/gem/stone within the lance...a visible, carved 'heart' within the weapon, something the Lance had in common with Thunderbrand...began to glow, then blaze with light, and tendrils of thick black liquid oozed out. It spread through the air like a living shadow, wrapping around Miklan's arm and completely engulfing it.“W-What? What the hell?” The redhead gasped, clawing at the black..ink...shadow...on his arm, but the gesture was meaningless. It merely swept onward, the blackness splashing across his chest, down his legs, and up his shoulders toward his neck. Miklan started to scream and thrash, trying to let go of the lance, trying to shake it off, then finally just screamed and screamed as the ink climbed up over his mouth and into his eyes...

“What the hell?” Claude whispered, barely audible right behind her.

“Goddess,” Gilbert gasped, clanking up next to her.

Byleth merely watched in mute shock and growing alarm as the shadow that was once Miklan grew before her eyes; it stretched, twisted, ballooned until it was twice its original size – no, three times its original size! She heard the bandits babbling a few feet behind her, a few of them breaking rank and fleeing. One of them collapsed to his knees on her right, watching as the shadows suddenly burst apart, bit by bit...

...But what was revealed to them was not a man. Men did not have massive, stony legs with claws on the tips of their toes. Men did not have a long, spiked tail that thrashed with enough strength to shatter stone and crack the floor of a reinforced building. Men did not have giant, stonelike spines protruding from a back large enough that several people and a horse could comfortably stand upon its length if it lay completely flat upon the floor. Men...men did not have two sets of jagged teeth the length of Byleth's arm, nor did they have blood red eyes, or a screech that shook the earth.

But Miklan was not a man anymore. What stood in his place was a massive reptilian Demonic Beast.

When the last of the shadows broke away, the creature wasted no time moving. One clawed hand lunged forward, snatching the bandit from where he'd fallen on the ground and bringing it up to jaw level. The poor man hardly had time to scream before that massive jaw came down upon his waist, severing his body in half with a sickening crunch.

The beast didn't even wait to enjoy its meal. It tossed the bloody legs aside and grabbed a handful of stone torn from the broken pillar.

“Everyone get onto the platform!” Byleth shouted, smacking Ingrid's terrified pegasus on the flank. Training kicked in and it took to the air, allowing her and Claude to run to the side, the stone splintering with a thundering crash on the place where they had been standing.

“What is that?!” Mercedes cried, horrified.

“A demonic beast? Here?! How's that possible?!” Leonie shouted, her face draining of blood. “Isn't that – isn't that Miklan?!”

“Go, go, GO!” Byleth screamed at her, grabbing Lysthiea from where she'd fallen thanks to the shaking floor and hauling her to her feet. “If we want to survive this, we have to flank it! Don't let it drive us into the hallway but for the love of the goddess everyone keep moving! Don't let it hone in on you!

The beast screeched and lashed out with its tail. Ingrid narrowly flew to the right; the impact smashed a giant gouge in the raised platform, narrowly missing Felix, one of the first students to snap out of the horrified shock that had taken hold of them. The beast turned, its eyes panning over Marianne and Ignatz; Byleth chose to attack then, lashing out with the sword and scoring a small hit on its arm.

“Loud noises will distract it!” She heard Sir Gilbert cry as the beast swiped at her. She jumped back, but the impact caught her in the shock wave, throwing her to the ground. Her teeth rattled on the landing; her stomach ached. “-need to break the magic around it! That will weaken its defenses!”

That sounded right; her father had fought beasts before, and maybe she'd only done it once or twice-

Gilbert's death scream cut her thoughts off. Byleth shoved herself to her feet and saw the beasts claws come down on him, pounding him down into the ground – pulping him within his armor like a toy in the hands of a careless toddler.

Gasping, she closed her eyes and froze time. Standing there in that dark void, her breath coming out in rapid bursts, she desperately tried to remember what tactics her father had spoken of using against these creatures before. Loud noises, concentrated attacks on certain body parts...fire? Ice? No, there was a certain kind of magic he championed – holy magic! Loud noises drew the eye, and if they could break through the magic barrier, they'd be able to win.

Do not panic! Sothis said urgently. I am with you, and my power is yours. You will prevail as long as you don't loose your wits!

She let out a breath, nodded, and turned the clock back to just as she prepared to attack – draw its eyes away from her students. Then she released time, coming back to herself; she launched the blade again, but this time she gave it a flourish that drove the tip of the blade in deeper than before. As the beast swung towards her and raised its hand, she let her momentum and the tip of the blade throw her several feet across the floor, landing on her shoulder (tearing the tip of the blade free) as the claw came down just short of where she'd been standing.

Gilbert started giving the orders again, while Byleth shouted for both Lysithea (at her right) and Claude (now separated from her by the Beast) to attack at once. The beast roared in annoyance as first the arrows, then the magic prickled at its armor-eqsue hide; its head turned between them once before turning and hurtling a hunk of rock at Claude.

Leonie, having picked up Ingrid's javelin, took the chance and threw it at the creature's exposed neck. It bounced off, but the creature staggered a bit and Claude let out a yell, indicating his continued survival. Felix darted forward, his crest flaring to life again as he swung his sword -

-Byleth's shout to take cover came too late, the tail lashed out and struck him into the stomach, sending him flying off the platform and into the wall with a sickening crunch-

-She froze time again, turned it back a few precious seconds, then lunged forward. Just as Felix carved a deep, bloody wound into the Beast's leg, she tackled him and forced him down. The tail whipped harmlessly over their heads, their enemy screeching in anger over their first meaningful hit on it. Byleth rolled over, picked up her sword and yanked Felix to his feet; he might have thanked her, it was hard to tell over the pandemonium, but she rushed forward again with naught but a small nod of acknowledgment-

“Lysithea! Remember your Faith!” She bellowed, ramming her sword into the Creature's front leg and praying she'd understand the short sentence. Gratifyingly, the relic did penetrate, though as she tore it free it brought the injured limb up, throwing her back. There was great spike of pain at the back of her head and her vision momentarily went gray.

Shouts and yells echoed through the building, but she couldn't hear the words until a golden light filled her image. “-got you, professor,” Mercedes panted as her Crest washed away the concussion Byleth had just gotten, leaving her no worse for wear. Raphael yelled, 'Incoming!' and grabbed Mercedes around the waist; the Ashen Demon threw herself sideways and rolled onto her knees, dodging the chunk of rock that almost certainly would have killed them both.

However, Lysithea did not waste the opportunity. A bright white flare filled her hands, and she threw the glowing sphere at the Beast while it was preoccupied. The result was everything Byleth could hope for – a big, gaping black burning hole in the creature's hide, right in the middle of its chest. Felix shot across the floor, picked her up bridal-style and carried out of the way of its retaliation.

Smiling in relief, Byleth spotted Claude on the other side and waved at him. “Keep it distracted from Lysithea! Marianne, Mercedes, help her as much as you can!” Claude nodded...and then proceeded to make her grateful that her heart had never given her trouble.

He jumped over its tail and then grabbed onto its spiny hide, climbing up its back as though it were a particularly large and angry wyvern. The Beast thrashed, twisting his head from side to side as it tried to get a look at the annoyance that immediately drew his new sword and repeatedly stabbed at whatever crack and crevice he could find in its armor.

“...Ingrid!” Byleth choked out after a few seconds of wrestling with her uncooperative vocal cords. Lysithea was winding up another spell, while Leonie was leading her horse in a circle before the creature, trying to add to its confusion. “Get ready to catch Claude!”

“I'm on it!” The blonde veered hard to the right, dodging past the Beast's tail and lowering her hand. Claude dug the sword into a particularly sore spot – the Creature bucked angrily, and for a second Byleth was horribly certain he was going to be thrown off – then reached up and grabbed her arm moments before Lysithea threw another holy spell at the monstrosity.

Use the sword, Sothis said while Marianne frantically healed the wounds Gilbert had sustained blocking the creature's leg to protect Ignatz. Felix grabbed Lysithea, gave her to Leonie who sped on past another attack, then grabbed his sword and ran forward. Use it's full power!

I am! She protested, preparing to unfurl the blade as Ingrid flew low and dropped Claude off on the ground.

Not quite! There is something you can do to burn through its armor! It is in your crest and within this sword! Know what you desire and channel it through the blade; the answer will present itself!

-the tail crashed into Raphael, sending him sprawling backwards; Mercedes went to help him, Marianne threw a Thoron at the Beast to ensure she could reach him and work her magic, however now the blue haired girl was in danger-

-And just as Sothis said, the answer came to her. Her Crest flared, burned with a power she'd never pulled from it before, and she swung the sword upward with a scream that could only contain pure, honest rage.

The effect was instantaneous and dizzying. The magical armor cracked and shattered with a loud shriek, and her blade dug a long, boiling scar across its hide until it struck the base of the Beast's front leg, cut clean through it like a hot knife through butter and left the limb crashing to the ground. A loud cheer went up from her students, intermixed with the creature's scream; and then her students, her brave, brilliant students, took advantage of the Beast's shock and staggering to unleash absolute hell.

Felix was at the front, darting between its remaining legs and slashing at the soft underbelly, his sword blazing with the power of his crest. Marianne threw one Thoron after another, then changed to Blizzard when Ingatz and Leonie stared firing arrows at the beast's head, hoping to knock out at least one of its eyes. Lornez threw a fire spell and then, grabbing his lance and aiming thoughtfully, threw it at the Beast's back leg, serving something that caused it to shriek in pain as it regained its senses.

Ingrid, having retrieved her javelin, flew up and around its thrashing tail to throw the weapon at the throat. Instead of bouncing off, it sank in. Gilbert got in front of Lysithea and Ignatz, causing another thrown rock to crash harmlessly against his shield. The white haired girl took this chance to throw another holy spell – Seraphim, it was Seraphim, goddess she learned so fast it was incredible – burning through a massive chunk of the creature's other forelimb.

They were winning, they were winning, they had this -

Claude darted around and raised his bow. He grinned, and she saw a slight golden flare in the shape of the moon before his arrow flew – jamming right into the creature's eye. He grinned and moved, running past Marianne and around toward her -

Except she could see it's tail coming up, a dying creature's final spite, and she didn't need Sothis's power to know what it would do to him -

She was running, rushing forward and launched the sword one final time. It cut a clean swath through the tail, giving her a few precious seconds to reach Claude and throw him out of the way before the limb slammed into her.

The impact sent her spinning, her head hitting the floor, tumbling end over end until the momentum was spent and she came to a stop, sprawled on her side on the cold stone floor. Her vision was gray and her hearing incoherent; there was a massive crash that rattled the ground beneath her, and then nothing – the distinct noises plauging her ears fading away. There was a pause, a long pause in which she was only aware of her blood pumping, terrible pain, and the ringing in her ears...then a series of small thuds, like rain, only close...

She blinked. Something hazy interposed it self above her, a repeated series of sounds echoing in her ears. A warm light surrounded her, then another, two different auras working to the same end. Slowly, her pain went away, her head began to clear, and that dark, hazy figure slowly solidified into a pair of wide, worried emerald green eyes.

“-each...Teach,” Claude gasped out. There was a note of fear in his voice; those green eyes were worried and angry and guilty all at once, and for some reason the first thing that passed through Byleth's mind was how handsome honestly was on that face. “Can you hear me? Can you understand this?”

“...are you okay?” She whispered, tilting her head and trying to assess his well being.

Claude choked, and gave her a most incredulous look mixed with relief and a dozen other things that went by in a flash. “Am I okay?” He repeated, flabbergasted. “Teach, you're the one who just – why would you do something so stupidly heroic? What were you thinking?! That damn near split your skull open, why-

“Are you okay?” Byleth repeated. She couldn't hear the beast. He looked dirty, his clothes were in tatters, but if he was hurt she couldn't tell from where she was lying.

“That's – you –” It was...decidedly odd, seeing Claude fumbling for words. His green eyes flashed, and he lifted her up with arm under her shoulders as he stared – trying to decide if he was angry at her or just bewildered. Her father had given her those looks before...but never like this. Byleth had never felt anything quite like what those eyes were stirring somewhere deep inside her. “I'm fine, Teach, but seriously, you were just-”

“Everyone...else...? Is everyone okay?”

“We're fine, Professor.” Mercedes said softly, kneeling and placing a hand on Byleth's forehead. “Everyone's alive. The beast...it's body is gone, but Miklan and the lance remain.”

“No one...touch it... Not if you don't...have a crest...” That was the reason for this. She knew it in her bones. That was why the Crestless 'could not unlock the power of the relics'.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Felix snapped, appearing somewhere over her right. “Never mind that right now, damn it. You're still hurt and Mercedes and Marianne's magic is weak after constant casting. Just – just lie there and don't bloody move. It's over, for now.”

“Good,” She said softly. “Good...”

Claude gazed down at her, anger and relief warring in his eyes. She regretted upsetting him so much, but she was too grateful he was unharmed to be particularly repentant. He was her charge and her friend. She would do it again if she had to.

A friend...yes...that must be why the honest emotion in his eyes was making her feel so warm...

Chapter Text

Byleth looked around the narrow hall of the restaurant, curiosity in her eyes. It was something that, once Dimitri noticed it, he couldn't stop noticing – watching for it. He almost felt like a stalker, watching her face and her eyes so frequently to catch those flickers of warmth, of softness. But he couldn't help himself.

“This is nice,” She remarked, turning back to him. “How did you find out about it?"

“Ashe was raving about it a few months back,” He responded with a grin. “I thought that if I was going to thank you properly, I should take you somewhere that had been highly recommended.”

The professor smiled faintly for a brief moment. “Ashe thought it was good? That's high praise, coming from the boy who started feeding us a few weeks back.” She tilted her head. “I thought he was looking more upbeat the last few days. Do you think he's feeling a bit more like himself?”

“Yes. Though I hesitate to say that he's shaken off his grief, his enthusiasm is trickling back in.” He offered her his hand, and when she took it when a bemused look, he lead her toward the bar. “Raphael was right; keeping him busy doing something he loved helped.”

Byleth nodded, taking a seat with a small wince.

“Are you still in pain, Professor?” Dimitri asked, worried, as he sat next to her.

She shook her head slightly. “No, I'm just a bit stiff. It's been a while since I've taken bad injuries in a fight that couldn't be healed right away. ...Thank you.”

Dimitri frowned, though his would-be questions were interrupted by a waiter approaching them. He smiled, took the offered menu and scanned through it, his mind only party on on the dishes available – it wasn't as if he'd notice much of a difference from one to another. This was a gift for Byleth, and hopefully a reprieve from her work. Especially in the wake of the last mission.

There had been nothing quite so unnerving as seeing Claude keeping Byleth steady with a hand on her arm as the Golden Deer, along with Ingrid, Mercedes and Felix, scrambled back into the monastery a few days ago. Felix was carrying the Lance of Ruin, holding it slightly away from him as if wary that it would spontaneously catch fire. Almost as soon as they were inside the entrance hall, Bishop Seteth and Professor Manuela had approached seemingly from nowhere; Manuela helping Byleth to the infirmary while Seteth lead the class off to speak to Rhea – over the group's initial protests and brief but obvious desire to stay at their professor's side. Dimitri went to visit Byleth, still reeling at the fact that the seemingly invincible mercenary had been sufficiently injured that she was still experiencing phantom pain despite Mercedes and Marianne's best work. While Manuela had initially allowed him to linger while she examined Byleth, she shushed him when he tried to ask what happened, saying that the Archbishop needed to speak to the professor before she disclosed anything. Dimitri was left floundering and disturbed, because even the aftermath of Lord Lonato's rebellion hadn't come with a gag order.

Attempting to speak to Sir Gustav...Sir Gilbert, had done nothing to enlighten him. The older man, still not quite acknowledging that he recognized the prince he'd trained throughout his childhood, only said that there were unexpected events that occurred at the tower. When Ingrid, Felix and Mercedes were released an hour later, they informed him that Lady Rhea had told them to keep what happened during the mission a secret. However, late in the evening Claude had tracked him down to the training grounds and filled him in on the whole story.

If the tale hadn't been what it was, Dimitri would have been flabbergasted by the brunette's audacity – immediately and flagrantly disobeying the Archbishop under her own roof. But the story told was more than enough to distract him from that.

The Lance transforming Miklan into a Demonic Beast. Byleth's brush with death while protecting Claude. The first thought in Dimitri's mind afterwards was incredible gratitude that she had refused to bring Sylvain along for the battle. The second was utter disbelief that the holy relics handed down by the Goddess could inflict such a horrific fate on a wielder – even one so unworthy.

 

Claude's emerald green eyes flashed with challenge; frustration, unhappiness?, anger. “You don't believe me.”

No, I do believe you,” He said honestly, even in the midst of his shock. As bizarre and horrific as the story was, it perfectly explained why Byleth had been so badly injured, and why Felix had been so visibly uneasy carrying the Lance.“It's just – hard to fathom... Some of the stories attached to Areadbhar are bleak, given their circumstances, but I've never read or heard anything even hinting at this...”

Claude put a hand in his pocket, that strangely defensive expression lingering rather than instantly disappearing behind his usual smile. “Well, given that Rhea made us all swear not to breathe a word about it, I can imagine why.”

“Lady Rhea,” Dimitri corrected him, frowning. “Really, Claude; I know you're frustrated, and worried about the Professor, but you need to address the Archbishop respectfully.”

Claude closed his eyes for a moment, head tilted up to the ceiling. “Right. Sorry.”

Had he ever seen Claude stressed out, aside from that awful altercation with that knight? He honestly couldn't recall.“...Pick a weapon, my friend,” Dimitri said, gesturing to the rack on the far wall. “I'd be happy to help you burn out some tension.”

The brunette jerked slightly and stared at him for a moment, surprise plain in his eyes. Then he let out a small chuckle and said, “Oh, if you were but a bit less stoic-serious...” Before the prince could ask what he meant by that, the brunette headed toward the weapons. “I think I'll use a sword this time. I wouldn't want you getting too familiar with my fighting style, after all.”

 

“Dimitri?” Byleth's voice brought him back to the present. He gave her an apologetic smile and glanced down at the menu again. “Is something on your mind?”

“Ah, it's nothing.” He picked a Faerghus-style omelet, writing the name down under her choice of a soup and salad. “I just wish I had been there. Perhaps that's a bit silly.”

She shook her head, blue eyes sparkling warmly. “It's not silly at all; I'm grateful. I've fought Demonic Beasts before, but I'd never seen a human transform into one. I was terribly unprepared...” Her expression fell. “It was a narrow fight; it was as if everything I knew about killing one flew right out of my head. I'd never lots my wits in a fight before...” She glanced aside. “There were several moments where –“ She paused abruptly, then murmured, “Well...I was...rather afraid.”

A few months ago the admission would have greatly startled him; but now...now he knew her better than that. “I don't think anyone who ever went into battle was without fear. I certainly wasn't. After all...how can you fight for your life and the lives of others if you aren't afraid to die?”

Byleth's eyes flickered. “I'd...never thought of it that way. But then again, I'm not a normal human.”

“I don't think that's it at all,” Dimitri retorted earnestly. “You've never had to worry about the other members of Jeralt's Mercenaries, have you? I'm sure you've had to escort civilians at one point or another, but there's a difference between keeping someone out of a fight entirely and watching out for a friend on the battlefield.” I know that better than anyone... “Your father and the other mercenaries are all seasoned veterans. But we're different...we're less experienced, so you have to watch out for us more than you would otherwise. You feel responsible for us, both as our instructor and as a friend. ”

She blinked at him, startled. He ran a hand through his hair and smiled sheepishly. “Ah...I hope that wasn't too forward of me. I know you're my superior, but you're such a caring and constant presence I often forget that.”

“I don't mind,” Byleth said blankly. “It's just,” she seemed to stumble over herself for a moment, “I was a little surprised, that's all.”

“By what?”

For a moment it looked like she wouldn't answer him. Then she said, “Being called a friend.” She fidgeted with her fork. “I've always been 'Jeralt's girl' to the other mercenaries. They like me well enough, but I'd hesitate to say any of them consider me a friend; it would be closer to say that I was the odd child they took turns looking after. There is also...my 'condition', for lack of a better word. When I met you, Claude and Edelgard...it was the first time I could remember when someone wasn't intimidated, disturbed or afraid of me.”

“...How terrible...” Dimitri looked down at his hands. “...to feel so alone in the world...” He shook his head. “You're a very strong person, Professor. I can't imagine I would survive, cut off from all forms of companionship.”

“To be honest I hadn't truly understood before.” Byleth's response startled him. When his eyes met her blue orbs, suddenly sharp and blazing blue like the midday sun upon the ocean, a hot bubbly sensation took hold in his stomach. “How could I? It's...it's like a blind person not grasping the concept of sight. I knew that people felt things – happiness and sadness and wonder and glee, all of it – but no matter how much I watched, listened and waited, I couldn't make sense of any of it. Feelings, emotions, they were all locked away in some dark prison deep within my mind...or perhaps my soul.”

She folded her hands on the table. “Yet being here – with Claude, with you, with everyone – it's as if suddenly my eyes are opening. And I can't quite see past the sunlight. It's – it's overwhelming.”

“I see,” Dimitri said, swallowing a bit and hoping he wasn't blushing under her stare. “W-Well...I know I can't truly understand what you're experiencing right now, but I hope that I can help.”

Byleth favored him with a small smile, leaning forward and looking at him with a softer, but still warm intent gaze. “You're so earnest and kind...sometimes I can't help but wonder if you stepped off the page of one of Ashe's knightly fables. It's almost hard to believe you're real. I have met vanishingly few men like you, Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd.”

The prince felt himself blush hotly; only the timely arrival of their food saved him from stammering like a schoolboy and embarrassing himself. As Sylvain was so often happy to remind him, he never knew what to do with himself when faced with a beautiful warrior; any intelligent thoughts he possessed immediately abandoned him. He hurriedly pretended to be immensely interested in his food, afraid she'd see straight through to his heart if he met those eyes a moment longer.

It wasn't surprising, really. The culture of Faerghus and his own feelings toward knighthood and marriage had strongly lead Dimitri to desire a partner who was compassionate, iron-willed, and capable of fighting multiple enemies at once. Had it not been Byleth's stoic-to-the-point-of-being-eerie demeanor back when they first met, he honestly thought he might have made her a clumsy offer of courtship immediately after she finished saving them from those bandits. Even now he felt himself drawn to her, like a moth to a flickering flame.

If only I had but a fraction of Claude's confidence and wit, he thought idly.

“How are those boys doing?” Byleth asked after a few minutes of companionable silence. “I'm sorry I slept through the last lesson you gave them.”

“Oh, don't apologize; your recovery is just as important. I was able to manage them, though they did tell me they were missing you.” Dimitri grinned, remembering the eldest orphan's clear and obvious mimicry of the professor's combat stance. “I'm grateful that you're continuing to help me teach them, Professor. I know how busy you are.”

She nodded, wearing another small smile. The gesture was so tentative, as if she wasn't sure she was moving her lips correctly. It was strangely endearing. “I enjoy sparring with you,” She said lightly. “There aren't many people strong enough to put me on my guard.”

“Is that so?” He chuckled. “I've studied the sword for some time now, but your skill with a blade and intuition in a fight is something else entirely.”

A thought floated up in his mind, one he'd dismissed a few times before – persistent, though less accusatory now. This time, he finally felt comfortable enough to speak it. “Speaking of which, there's...something else I was hoping to ask you.” Her curious gaze emboldened him. “Were you reconciled with the reality of battle in your first foray? With...with killing, that is.”

Byleth's lips parted with surprised. She seemed to start to say something, then abruptly think the better of it. She looked down at her hands, thinking furiously, before finally saying... “I thought I was. But the first time I killed a man... ...He was a bandit, turned to pillaging after many bad harvests. He thought I was one of the village children, and came up to scare me away with his ax. I...I'm not sure he would have gone through with hurting me, if that was all I was. But I killed him, and I...I remember thinking...that couldn't be all. It should...it should take more than the flick of a wrist to end a life, to destroy everything a person was. But there it was. A life bled out into the dirt in the blink of an eye; he was gone too quickly for remorse to save him.” Her fingers idled with her spoon, stirring the still-warm soup. “It troubled me so much, I asked my father if he had deserved to die. I'll never forget what he said.”

She looked at him with a sad, serious expression. “'Perhaps. There are many who died who deserved to live, as there are those who live who deserve to die. Can you give that to them? A person should never be too quick to dole out death in judgment.'” Turning the spoon over once more, she took another bite before saying, “Whenever I cut down an enemy, it's never a choice I make lightly. I subdue my opponents when I can, but in battle you will have to decide, again and again, what you're willing and able to live with. If I must kill in order to protect you and my students, I'll bear that burden. If there's another way, if risky, I would think it worth pursuing. The answer will likely never be easy...but you have to find one whenever you carry the sword.”

She ducked her head a bit, the gesture oddly shy. “Does that make any sense?”

Dimitri nodded. His throat felt dangerously tight; he took a hopefully unobtrusive calming breath and said, “I see.”

Byleth tilted her head a bit, one hand coming up to her cheek. “It's hard for you, isn't it?”

“Yes.” He had no qualms admitting that. “I do not carry that burden well. I doubt that will change, regardless of what comes.”

“...I would trust a king who abhors killing far more than one who doesn't,” Byleth said simply. “The moment men and women with power stop considering life sacred, terrible things are lying in wait for both their neighbors and their own people.”

“Thank you,” Dimitri murmured. “Of course, we cannot stand idly by and allow anyone to commit senseless acts of violence. But in dispensing what we believe to be justice, we extinguish the lives of beloved friends and family...” His hands tightened. “As a king, I must be willing to do anything for my people, even kill. But still...there are times when I'm chilled by the viciousness I'm capable of.” More than you could possibly know.

Byleth's eyes softened. “I understand. Sometimes...sometimes I'm afraid of myself as well.”

The admission made his heart jump, feelings of compassion and joy and relief and affection all tangling up in each other as they fought for control of his tongue. “That you feel the same is more comforting than you could know.”

Her pale, slender hand slid over his and squeezed gently. Her skin was cool in spite of the heat within the restaurant. Sometimes when Dimitri glanced over at the Deer's table, he could see Hilda holding Marianne's hand this way while she rambled on about this thing or another. “I'm glad.” The professor's voice was a little shy, but serious as ever.

Dimitri smiled a little helplessly, and not for the first time was beset by a streak of jealousy toward Claude. If only I had known how best to win you over back then, he thought ruefully. If you were my professor...

“This soup is really good,” Byleth remarked softly, taking another drink. “I think I'll ask Ashe how he found this place.”

“He goes into town often,” Dimitri recalled with a fond smile. “I'm fairly certain all the shopkeepers recognize him at this point. I do believe Miss Anna ran away the last time we went to get our weapons repaired at the forge.”

Byleth choked on her drink and coughed a few times. “Someone ran away from Ashe?” She repeated blankly. “Someone ran away from Ashe. Our Ashe.”

Dimitri couldn't help but laugh. “It's a strange mental image, isn't it? Apparently his bartering skills are such that he convinced her to part with goods at half the price she usually sticks to. She's been wary of him ever since!”

The professor burst into a small giggle fit, shaking her head. It was such a restrained sound; Dimitri wished she was comfortable within her skin, that she could laugh without a care. Even with the grief he borne since the tragedy weighing heavily on his mind, he couldn't imagine being cut off from everything that reminded him he was alive.

With their troubles put to rest for now, the rest of the meal passed with comfortable small talk. Byleth asked him questions about the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, having overheard Caspar and Hubert talking about it. Dimitri tried to explain, but accidentally derailed it into a history lesson about the King of Lions and Faerghus's war for independence against the empire. She seemed fascinated by the stories, however, which was a little embarrassing in how pleased it made him. She's a professor, he scolded himself when he felt himself blushing at her curiosity. If you're not careful, you could land her in serious trouble! There were mutters here and there that Byleth was unprofessionally close to the Deer as it was.

He did pay for the meal over Byleth's protests, however.

“It's getting cooler,” Byleth murmured when they left the restaurant. A glorious sunset was painting the sky red and gold, with only a few clouds blocking a view worthy of a painting. “Or perhaps I just got used to the oven.”

“No, I think you're right.” Dimitri said, adjusting his sweater. “Winter creeps closer by the day.”

Byleth hummed in agreement, looking up at the sky as they began to head back to the monastery. The cats in the courtyard market seemed to migrate toward her feet as one when they approached the stairs; Byleth let out a rueful sigh and began digging through her pack for food, indicating that he could go on ahead as she knelt in this circle of feline admirers. The sight was so odd and adorable – the Ashen Demon, tenderly feeding and playing with cats – that he couldn't help but look back a few times as he made his way up to the door.

A flash of purple caught the corner of his eye as he pushed the doors to the monastery open. Curious, Dimitri turned around to see Bernadetta Varley shuffling along the wall. He so rarely saw the purple-haired girl outside of her room that his first instinct was that something must be wrong, so he stood in the doorway and listened like an eavesdropping child.

“Oh, Bernadetta. Is something the matter?”

“Professor! Oh, it's...um...your class...that is...” There was a pause, and audible gulp, and then - “canIjoinyourclass?!”

“W-What?”

“C-Can I join your class?” The poor girl sounded like she was on the verge of passing out from sheer anxiety. “Please?”

“I...that's...sure.” Had he ever heard Byleth sound so confused? “I'm not sure how to proceed, but...yes. Certainly.”

“Yes!” Bernadetta gasped, clasping her hands together. “Thank you so much! This will be so much better.” A sound like the shuffling of feet. “I don't know why, but I feel so much more comfortable around you.”

“Your Highness?” Dimitri jumped and turned to face the post man, sheepish that he'd been caught. The man shook his head and gave the prince a letter...one that bore a noble's seal; one that he'd seen recently, as a matter of fact. The pleasant feelings of the afternoon fled, replaced with grim wariness. “This arrived for you from western Faerghus.”

“Thank you,” Dimitri said quietly. He headed off toward the noble's dorms in the name of reading it in private, though he had a sneaking suspicion he already knew the contents.

If it was what he thought, he would need a plan.


“I see,” Lady Rhea's expression was grave. “To think such a small and hopeless rebellion would be met with such overwhelming retaliation...I would have thought the lords of Faerghus would act with more compassion.” She shook her head and clasped her hands in prayer. “Enough blood has been shed in Duscur for one lifetime. You have my permission, and my blessing, to make the journey; along with anyone willing to support you.”

Dimitri bowed low, relieved. “Thank you, Your Worship.”

Lady Rhea smiled, though the gesture was fleeting. There was old sorrow in her eyes now. “I think you are very brave to take this upon yourself, Prince Dimitri. Duscur is a place of great sorrow for you...not everyone is strong enough to face that.”

...It's true. The thought of going back there makes me sick. I don't think I'll be returning to the place where it happened...but I know it won't be far away... “It has to be done. I cannot abide meaningless, avoidable deaths.” Had I not known what would happen if I did not make the attempt, I would rather flee from any thought of the land.

You owe them this, Glenn reminded him. You couldn't stop the lords then, but you can stop them now.

“Indeed. You will make a fine king in time, my child. May the goddess watch over you.”

Will she? The goddess must know what I am in my heart. Will she truly reach out her hand to someone with such darkness inside him?

He didn't ask that aloud, for all that the question was so frequently on the tip of his tongue. Instead he accepted the dismissal with an inclined head and left the upper chapel at a brisk walk, intending to find Dedue and then the rest of his classmates. It was a week long journey to Duscur, and a week back; they would have to pack extensively and bring money for inns. Hannaman would deal with the latter, and there were enough horses to accommodate his classmates – especially since Ingrid had her own pegasus – but it did mean they had to leave sooner rather than later, so collecting what they needed had to start now. And once we get there, he thought ruefully, I'm going to have to figure out how to dramatically arrive as the requested reinforcements, yet still undermine that man by releasing any Duscur warrior we defeat.

Dedue was a creature of habit; if he wasn't in his room, or studying in the Blue Lions classroom, he was most likely in the greenhouse. With that in mind, Dimitri went to speak with Hannaman first so his professor could get started on getting the funds together.

He walked up to Hannaman's office and was more than a little surprised when the door swung open and slammed into him. He stumbled backwards with a yelp, his back hitting the stone wall.

The culprit let out a noise of surprise as she surged into the hall and stepped around to the door to stare at him. “Oh! D-Dimitri?” Lysithea sputtered, the storm of rage in her face dimming a bit into shock and embarrassment. “I didn't think you were – I totally just opened the door in your face didn't I?” She scrambled to his side and grabbed his face in her hands, examining him cautiously. “I'm sorry, are you okay?”

“Yes, of course,” Dimitri managed when he got over the shock, gently prying her fingers away. “I just wasn't expecting that.”

“I can't believe I did that,” Lysithea mumbled, her cheeks rapidly turning red. “Mom'll have a heart attack.” Her voice took on a faux-enthusiastic tone. “'My dearest mother and father, today I had ice cream for lunch and I brained the Prince of Faerghus with a door. I guess tomorrow I'll trip and spill hot soup on the future Emperor so none of the three most important heirs on the continent feel left out.'

“Come now, you've done me no harm.” Dimitri insisted, releasing her hand and trying for a reassuring smile. I wonder what's upset her so much. It's none of my business, but perhaps I should try to divert her attention from whatever she's killing in her mind... “Ingrid has done worse; why, just a year ago she washed one of the hallways of House Galetea and didn't warn Sylvain and I when we came to visit...” He chuckled. “Sylvain ran in to see her, slipped on the damp stone, and cracked his head on the wall. He was unconscious for half a mark until one of the castle staff came back with a healer.”

The white haired girl let out a startled laugh, clapping a hand over her mouth. “Really?” She asked, her obvious anger and distress receding further in the face of that mental image. “Oh, that's amazing. So I should just lure him to a recently-cleaned hall the next time he hits on Professor Byleth?”

“If you wish,” Dimitri said easily to hide the stab on irritation the thought of Sylvain flirting with Byleth gave him. “...Am I to understand you've hit Claude with a door too?”

“No!” Lysithea said, looking mightily indigent. “I hit him with a textbook and that doesn't count because he deserved it!”

He laughed a little at that because even he had heard Claude teasing Lysithea over her attempts to appear mature. “Somehow, I don't doubt it.” Lysithea grinned in turn, relaxing. “Of course, Claude's head is thick enough it wouldn't do him any harm.”

“Hah!” Lysithea cackled. “I like you. Good luck with Hannamen!” She scampered off at that, glancing at him over her shoulder before rounding the corner.

Dimitri's smile grew a tad rueful. It's amazing how Claude and his classmates seem so happy and at ease, even when they hint at the burdens they are carrying. How do they do that? Is it something about how the Alliance looks at the world? Or is it just something about them? Giving his head a shake, he walked through the door to speak with Hannamen.

His professor looked quite chagrined and a little stunned; clearly something had happened with Lysithea that the older man was reeling over. Fortunately that meant Dimitri's request was a ready and desired distraction, so he began to crunch the numbers and take notes over a map. Hannamen was well-traveled, as benefited a long-lived Crest Scholar, so he knew his way around the continent. While he'd never been to Duscur, he'd traveled near it; there were a few inns along the way that he'd had experience with, letting him help plot out a quick route.

With that settled, Dimitri left to go find Dedue.

Taking the stairs down to the first floor and heading to the front hall gave Dimitri a small surprise. Dedue was lingering in the hall, his posture more rigid than usual; perhaps most wouldn't notice the difference, given how his friend held himself, but he could tell in the stiffness of the other boy's shoulders how worried he was. What surprised him was that he wasn't the only person who'd noticed – Byleth and Claude were both standing by, the former clearly asking after Dedue's troubles.

“Your Highness,” Dedue greeted as he made his way down the stairs. There was an edge to his voice, whether it relief or hope he wasn't certain. “You've returned.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Dedue.” He glanced at Byleth and Claude. Byleth's stoicism had softened enough to show a bit of concern, while Claude had his arms crossed and wearing a thoughtful, carefully observant expression. “Professor, would you...?” He paused, and then – with an odd thought seizing him – shook his head. “Well actually, if you don't mind Dedue, would you hear this as well?”

“I don't mind,” Dedue rumbled, though he gave Claude an uneasy side-eye.

“Dedue is already aware, but there has been an uprising in the Duscur region, in the western part of the Kingdom.” Dimitri stated. Saying the words out loud brought a terrible sinking feeling in his stomach; as if his voice had made it real.

“There is?” Byleth asked uneasily. Claude didn't say anything, but his expression immediately became grim. “Why now?”

Dimitri hesitated. For a traveling mercenary, Byleth was oddly sheltered and – dare he say it – naive. There were many things that most took for granted that she simply didn't seem to be aware of. Had Sir Jeralt been so desperate to keep away from the church those years when he raised her that he kept her all but cut off from Fodlan itself? “Dedue...would you like me to explain?”

“No. It is fine.” Dedue turned to face Byleth, severe and straight-faced as ever. “I am from Duscur. It lies just beyond the mountains on the northwestern border of Faerghus. But the people of Duscur no longer live there.”

“The Tragedy displaced everyone?” Claude said, visibly startled. He winced at Dedue's scowl. “I hadn't realized it was so...complete. ...Everyone?”

...If Dimitri hadn't known what he did about the brunette, he probably would have missed the hint of empathy – and of fear – in his voice.

“The land was burnt to ashes by the army of Faerghus,” Dedue responded simply. “Those who did not die in the flames were driven from their homes to the mountains. There is little, if anything, that remains standing of the Duscur of old.” He closed his eyes. “This was our punishment for the crime of Regicide.”

Byleth slowly pivoted and stared at Dimitri. It took everything he had not to flinch. “Faerghus did this?” She asked, faint and almost disbelieving.

He didn't know how to respond. What could he say? That in his first true test as prince, he'd failed to control his own people? Claude's gaze flickered over to him, emerald eyes serious, and he minutely shook his head – somehow both hearing and disagreeing with Dimitri's thoughts. It's not your fault, the other teen had said that fateful night in the greenhouse. He couldn't truly believe it, yet some small part of him clung to that lifeline with both hands.

“In the wake of the murder of their beloved king,” Dedue noted, though his voice was even as ever. Dimitri knew he didn't consider that a just reason – neither of them did – but there would be a time and a place for that. “Now, the barren expanse that was once the heart of Duscur is controlled by a kingdom noble. But Duscur survivors, such as myself, still exist outside the region. This uprising is most likely the work of said survivors, seeking to reclaim their homeland.”

There was something in Claude's expression that suggested he thought that was perfectly fair, but instead he said, “So what's going to happen? I take it they can't muster a force that could really compete with the kingdom's army. Not in the scattered state they're in.”

Dimitri nodded. “A message was sent from Viscount Kleiman to the kingdom capital and the church. He's the one who rules there as of present.” He wondered if his vehement dislike of the man – racist, petty and incompetent that he was – made its way into his tone despite his best efforts, because Byleth was frowning at him in concern. “For now, the lords surrounding the Duscur Region are sending their armies to help suppress the uprising. However...”

“You're not afraid they'll fail.” Byleth said in understanding. “You're afraid of what will happen if they succeed.”

Dimitri swallowed hard. She'd hit upon the precise fear that was buzzing at the back of his skull without rest; the words felt like knives digging into his lungs. “Yes. My greatest fear now is that there will be more unwarranted death.” He gave his head a shake. “If the kingdom's army and the rebel forces collide, there's no doubt in my mind that the rebels will be annihilated. And...it could be worse than even that. It could turn into complete and bloody chaos for both sides.”

Dedue shut his eyes, pained.

“Which brings me to my news,” Dimitri continued stoically, placing a supportive hand on his friend's shoulder. “I have received the permission I requested from the Archbishop.”

“The Blue Lions are going to Duscur?” Byleth asked.

“Yes. Us, and anyone I can convince to join on my mad crusade,” Dimitri said with a faint grin. “Both Sir Catherine and Sir Shamir have returned from their last mission, so I hope to convince at least one of them to help.”

“So we may go?” Dedue said hopefully.

“Yes,” He said firmly, before looking at Byleth. “Professor, if you'd be willing to ask Captain Jeralt to accompany us, I would greatly appreciate that. Not only would his being there lend me a bit more legitimacy as 'the reinforcements', but having the strongest man who ever lived helping would take a load off my mind.”

Byleth opened her mouth, paused, and then gave Claude a meaningful look. The brunette grinned at her, nodded, and then put his hands behind his head. “We can do one better than that, can't we Teach?” She smiled at him and nodded. Claude pivoted toward Dimitri and said, “Lorenz could use some exercise anyway. Otherwise he'll never stop complaining about the training regime!”

“What,” Dedue said blankly.

“We'll come along too,” Claude responded easily, as if there was nothing absurd and ridiculous about a rival house spontaneously dropping everything they were doing in order to assist the Blue Lions on an extremely dangerous two-week extracurricular. “You're picking up anyone you can get your hands on, right? Consider us bought. I'll go bang on the Golden Deer dorms and see how many of them are interested.” He casually turned around and walked toward the dining hall without waiting for a response. “I'll leave your father to you, Teach. Let me know if you need a little help with sweet-talking.”

Byleth rolled her eyes fondly. “Very funny,” she said with a little smile.

“Is he serious?” Dedue asked, and if Dimitri wasn't so utterly taken by surprise himself, he might have been amused by how blindsided his normally stoic friend was.

“He so rarely acts it, but yes.” Byleth said with a soft smile. “Claude values life a great deal; I don't think he would have been comfortable not inviting himself along.”

“I...” Dimitri scrambled for an intelligent response for a couple of seconds before getting his thoughts in order. “I'm grateful for the offer, Professor, but do you and your students not have responsibilities here for the duration?”

“Nothing that can't be postponed,” Byleth said with a shrug. “Everyone has passed their intermediate exams, and we haven't been given an end-of-month mission. I see no reason we can't offer you all the help we can give.” Her eyes darkened. “Especially for something this important.”

Dedue blinked, shook his head, and then bowed. “You have my most sincere gratitude,” He rumbled, warmth and reverence usually reserved for Dimitri himself in his voice.

“And mine as well,” Dimitri said. The words felt completely inadequate compared to the rush of warmth the offer had given him, but they were all he had.


Dimitri felt he could have been knocked over by a feather when he entered the stables to find the entire Golden Deer house discussing travel accommodations. He'd expected maybe one or two to join in on Claude's harebrained choice to help his dangerous plan; to see all of them there was humbling, to say the least.

Catherine was leaning against a stall, talking to Sir Jeralt while he worked on saddling his horse. Hannamen was saying something to Byleth, who nodded attentively as she groomed the mane of a young pegasus that had been brought to the stable a few weeks ago. A number of the mercenaries Dimitri recognized from that day in the woods were milling about, several of them handing out weapons from an old trunk. A startled Marianne was protesting the gift of a Levin sword from a stately young woman with a nasty scar on her shoulder; next to her, Bernadetta was staring at the short sword in her hands as though expecting it to come to life. Lysithea adjusted the strap of the steel shield over her back and eyed the knife she'd been given with a degree of uncertainty; Ingatz fumbled with the forged iron sword before buckling it to his belt. A priestess walked over to Mercedes and offered her a staff carved with runes; a magic staff, or a healing one? Dimitri knew both were handed out by the church, but he could never tell them apart. Cyril was there as well, looking a little intimidated by the warriors he was surrounded with. The young boy fiddled with his bow, the ax he'd been given upon entering Byleth's class banging against his leg.

Claude was talking to an indigent-looking Ingrid; given that his expression was wavering between exasperation and bemusement, Dimitri thought it prudent to go and rescue him from his well-meaning but frequently overbearing friend. “I can't believe you're all coming,” He told the brunette, putting a hand on Ingrid's shoulder. She huffed a bit before walking off to tend to her mount. “How in the world did you spin missing at least two weeks of regular instruction for going on this mad quest into something desirable?”

Claude shot him a playful smirk. “The same way I always do,” he replied cheerfully. “With the ease of long practice.”

Dimitri huffed out a laugh. “Edelgard might be right; you are a conman,” He said incredulously.

“Hey, I resent that! Being a conman implies I don't follow through on my promises. I swear to you right now, Mitya – I always follow through on my word.” The brunette smirked. “I consider that a point of pride, as a matter of fact.”

And something flashed through those emerald orbs that left Dimitri with no recourse but to believe him. “I'll have to remember that,” He said with a mildness he didn't quite feel.

“I gotta admit, I surprised myself when Bernadetta agreed to come,” Claude remarked casually, glancing back in the purple-haired girl's direction. “She kind of looks like she'll be regretting it in a few days, but she agreed to come. Usually only the threat of starvation is enough to make her leave her room.”

“Well, I hope she'll be alright.” Dimitri muttered. “It will be difficult to turn around once we leave. You might want to make it clear she can change her mind before then.”

“Yeah, you're right.” He shrugged. “I'll remind Teach, though I'm not sure I'll need to.” Claude looked up and down the stalls and sighed. “Ah, we're going to have to double up. Isn't Sylvain training on horseback?”

“Yes, though he hopes to transition to a wyvern eventually.”

“What do you know, he does have some good tastes.” Before Dimitri could make a surprised comment – he hadn't taken Claude for a 'sky worshiper' (that's what Sylvain had always called Ingrid's love of flying and pegasi) and most wyvern riders he'd met chiefly used axes – the brunette went on, “He can double up with someone, then. Since Ingrid can fly on her own, and Ashe has some passing experience with horseback riding, that leaves Felix and Mercedes, right? One of them can ride with you, the other with Sylvain, and Ashe can take Dedue. Meanwhile...hm, Marianne could probably take Bernie if she doesn't ultimately bail out, they'd probably be most comfortable with each other...Leonie's got her own ride, she can take Lysithea...Cyril, Raphael and Ingatz will probably double up with Captain Jeralt's mercenaries...Lorenz can ride his own...” The brunette made a face. “...And since pegasi don't like men, he's stuck with me while Teach takes Hilda. I think that covers everyone, though.”

Dimitri wasn't entirely sure Claude realized he'd said the second half of that out loud, but he patted his shoulder sympathetically nonetheless. He didn't know Lorenz very well, but a few conversations were enough to know that the other man could be a bit tiring to deal with. “I will always appreciate your sacrifice,” He said dryly.

Claude beamed in response. “I am corrupting you! Just you wait; I'll have you joking around in no time.”

Dimitri rolled his eyes and fought down an amused smile. His eyes drifted over to Annette, who was looking down at a forged iron ax being offered to her by that stately scarred woman – Hannah, was that her name?; Byleth had mentioned a few of her fellow mercenaries frequently enough for him to remember them – who animatedly gestured for the younger girl to accept it. Now curious, he nodded to Claude and made his way over to Byleth, who was adjusting the straps of the saddle. The pegasus whined and shed slightly away from him as he approached; he quickly stopped and stepped aside so it didn't seem that he was cutting it off from the barn's exit door.

“What is it, Dimitri?” Byleth asked without looking up from her task.

“I'm surprised you knew that Annette had passing familiarity with axes,” He started. “Might I ask why you gave her one? She prefers magic by far.” There was little chance that the mercenaries knew the pastimes of the students, after all.

“I know,” Byleth said, nodding as she finished tying the leather. Dimitri noticed she had her bow and quiver again, the new steel glinting in the torchlight as she strapped the Sword of the Creator to the saddle. “It's meant as a last resort weapon, and a means of surprising an enemy. In my experience, no one ever expects a mage or a priestess to be physically armed; this way if something goes wrong and she or Marianne or Mercedes are exposed, they have more than one option to defend themselves with.”

“I see,” It was something he never would have thought of, for all that he worried about his physically vulnerable friends being exposed.

“As for knowing about her and axes...” Byleth sighed. “It was an educated guess, really...mostly rooted in Sir Gilbert's arrival.”

He blew out a long breath. “Ah, that...did she tell you?”

“I guessed; they look very alike, and Annette seemed distressed after his arrival. I ended up interrogating him, and he said as much, though not why he was here instead of at home with her mother,” There was a hint of irritation and something else in the undercurrent of those words; Dimitri suddenly had a sneaking suspicion that the reason Byleth 'interrogated' Sir Gilbert had everything to do with Annette being 'distressed'. “Anyway, I know it isn't a weapon that uses her greatest strengths, but it's another option, and I thought that may be prudent.

“I'm grateful for your concern,” Dimitri said after a moment, “and for the weapons, seeing as your opening the troupe's inventory for them.”

“It's the least we can do,” The woman – Hannah – said from behind him. He blinked and turned toward her; the short blonde with gray eyes smiled wryly at him. “A couple of weapons have nothing on the lives of your friends there; worst case scenario, we just have to replace them as we have before.” She walked over and gave the pegasus's neck a pet, then looked at Byleth. “She's not used to combat, so I wouldn't take her into battle. But she'll get you there just fine.”

“I see.” Byleth smiled wryly. “I'm not a competent enough rider to fight and fly at the same time as it is.” She put her foot in the stirrup and swung herself up onto the winged horse's back, carefully settling herself ahead of the wings.

That's a pity, some small part of Dimitri's mind said. Astride such a beautiful mount, you're the vision of a warrior queen.

Hannah was smiling knowingly at him. He felt his cheeks flush, and part of him worried that Jeralt was watching him. Once that thought settled in his head, he stammered out one last 'thank you' and scrambled off toward his own horse.


As they drew closer, day by day, to Duscur, whatever thought process Dimitri wasn't solely dedicating to keep himself from screaming noted that at least this time they weren't getting rained on.

Small mercies, Glenn chuckled. He and his father were almost a constant presence in his head now, their voices edged with anticipation and expectation. Well, it can't rain all the time.

“Dimitri?” Mercedes's soft voice echoed in his ear. She gently rubbed his shoulders. “Are you alright? You're terribly tense.”

“Ah...” He glanced down at his hands, white-knuckled on the reigns of his horse. “I'm sorry, Mercedes. I'm letting my mind run away from me and invent disasters before we've even arrived.” It wasn't a lie. Not quite the truth, but not a lie. He was good at that. “Please, don't worry too much about me.”

“Are you sure?” Her grip tightened just a bit. “It costs me nothing to care for you, Dimitri. I'd be glad to help however I can.”

He managed a smile at that. “Just having you and our friends here is a great boon for my nerves; especially so with Claude and the Deer having come along. I'm confident we can do this, I just can't help but worry on and off.”

Mercedes hummed, not quite convinced but conceding nonetheless. Dimitri looked around, taking stock of his classmates. Marianne and Ashe were keeping stride of each other; Ashe was happily regaling her with the tale of Loog and the Maiden of Wind while Marianne listened attentively. Bernadetta was half listening to the story, half hiding in Marianne's arms; meanwhile, Dedue was looking ahead, looking graver and graver the closer they came to his homeland.

Behind them, he could hear Felix griping about Sylvain's jokes, clearly not understand what about them Hilda found so funny. If Byleth was amused or annoyed by them, he couldn't tell, but she hadn't told him off for a day or so now – so either she was used to his sense of humor or he was staying away from whatever it was that irritated her. On his other side, Raphael was telling Ignatz an anecdote from his sister Maya's childhood, while Ingrid offered suggestions about potential presents for her next birthday.

...He was trying to focus on anything but his own thoughts. As they made their way through the mountains to the plains of Duscur, the memories drew nearer and nearer until it was all he could do to hold himself together. Wasn't it unworthy of him that he was so terribly afraid of a land that had suffered as much as he himself had? If not more?

When they reached the ridge between the two mountains, Dimitri could see the flag of Faerghus on the far right of the high rise and hear the distant war chants of Duscur just ahead of them.

The first part of the plan was simple and easily implemented – Captain Jeralt and the other Knights of Serios would go, join up with the Viscount and his forces as requested, and stall for as long as possible before setting out. That left the heart of the struggle with them...

Most of them dismounted; only Ingrid, Leonie, Sylvain and Lorenz being comfortable fighting while riding. “Cyril, I want you guarding Lysithea,” Byleth said, taking the Sword of the Creator and buckling it to her hip before slinging her bow off her shoulder. “Ashe, will you and Bernadetta stay close to Marianne?”

Ashe blinked, looked over at the two girls, and smiled shyly. “I – of course, that's no trouble at all.”

“Mercedes...”

“I'll be with Dedue, Professor.” The blonde said lightly, smiling. “Please don't worry about me.”

Byleth nodded lightly then turned toward Dimitri, silently giving authority to him. Claude meandered over to the edge of the path and rested his hands on the stone, taking in the hills and drops with a silent critical eye. “That's certainly something,” he muttered. “There's...what, fifty, sixty of them? In total? If this really all of them...” He shook his head, visibly disturbed. “Yeah. We better get going.”

Dimitri grimaced in agreement, then raised his voice just a bit. “Everyone,” both lions and deer alike turned to face him in unison. Humbling; yes...that was a good word for it. “What we're about to undertake is a venture most would call 'foolhardy'. To go up against an opponent that is gunning for victory, and fighting to disable...it's a dangerous venture, and it will require more skill and effort than a more 'normal' battle. But I have faith in this cause, and in all of us. Right now, I am surrounded by some of the most competent people I've met in years. We are organized, they are not; we are not desperate, blind with anger, or held back by anything but a desire to save lives rather than end them. So let's win this; for Duscur and for Faerghus!”

It wasn't a speech he'd planned, but it made his fellow classmates cheer with enthusiasm and determination. The stone that sat so heavily in his stomach seemed to loose a fraction of its weight in an instant. “Forward!”

Ingrid lead the way as they crossed the last rocky outcropping down into the hills where the battle would be fought.

It was easier to see now. They had reached a wide grassy pathway in a gulf between two mountaintops; one rose while the other fell; a steep incline impassible to all but Ingrid's pegasus separated the two pathways. They would have to travel down and around in order to climb the other slope, which was a slightly worrying realization to come to when Dimitri saw how many warriors of Duscur were on that mountain. There was enough undergrowth that between the warriors and limited visibility, they would have to walk slower than he'd like to make it around the bend...

“Dead ahead,” Claude said from his right, pointing with an arrow. Byeth slid to a halt on his left, eyeing the same slope he'd been examining with a small frown. Dimitri followed the point and saw a dozen Duscur warriors arrayed out several yards ahead, walking directly away from them. “The rest will probably come running once we surprise them.”

“Not the ones on the other mountain,” Dimitri noted grimly. “I don't want to send Ingrid the cliff alone. Duscur takes pride in its archers; I doubt even a force this size would come without any. Ah, the Faerghus knights will come from the mouth of the mountain on that side...”

“We'll think of something,” Claude said; he sounded like he believed it, but Dimitri wasn't sure how they would go about that. “Right after I take a stab at figuring out where I can shoot someone with an arrow that won't kill or cripple them.”

“Arms. Legs. Shoulders. The ankles are the best place to target, though that's a personal belief. Duscur holds healing magic in high regard; unless muscle memory takes over, you can avoid killing.” Byleth said, quiet and reassuring. She didn't look away from the

“Right,” Claude exhaled and then took an arrow out. “What are you going to do, Dimitri?”

“Mostly?” The prince, apropos to nothing, found himself smiling wryly. He bent his wrist back a bit and let the family Crest flicker in and out. “I was born a Blaiddyd. That's all I need.”

Byleth hummed, her gently amused expression replaced with contemplation. “I wonder...” She glanced over her shoulder. “Ingrid? Can you see just over that ridge? Don't go too high up, I don't want you to be seen, I just want recon. Where are the Duscur soldiers relative to us?”

There was a flutter as Ingrid hastened to obey; a moment later, she swept back down and said, “There are a few near the mouth of the canyon, but most of them are waiting on a plateau a few yards ahead of our position here.” She grimaced. “At least two archers. Sorry professor, I don't like my odds of leading them away.”

“That's fine, thank you.” Byleth lowered her hand to the hilt of the Creator sword, tapping it with her ring finger. “Any archers straight ahead?”

“No.”

The professor nodded lightly. “Then you, Lorenz and Leonie are up.”

Ingrid nodded, raised her lance, and then took off at a gallop. Leonie let out a rallying shout, causing the men ahead of them to spin around in alarm and then scatter in every direction as she thundered straight through the middle of their formation, Lorenz and Sylvain following in her wake. Lorenz threw a fireball at the grass after he passed by the last of the warriors; the luck of the goddess was on their side, because despite of the fact the air was not dry at all, the flames caught and then began to spread, discouraging their quarry from following or quickly regaining cohesion.

Claude went forward a few steps, leaning against a tree as he took aim – a few moments longer than he usually used, though his hands were steady as ever. As Dimitri emerged from the forest lance in hand, the arrow whisked forward and slammed into one warrior's shoulder. He dropped his ax with a tortured cry of alarm, staggered, but didn't fall. The rest of his brothers swung around to face them.

“There!” One of them shouted, pointing a gauntlet-clad hand at him. Dimitri snorted lightly, bringing his lance up. Dedue had initially been against him wearing the regalia, but he knew it would draw them to him like a moth to a flame. Flirting with danger? Perhaps. But it would serve its purpose. “It's the prince of Faerghus!”

“You must not go any further,” Dimitri said firmly while Dedue, Felix, and Raphael emerged from the forest to stand by his side. “The army of Faerghus dwarfs you threefold. There is nothing but death waiting in this valley. Flee while you still can!”

“Flee? From here?!” One of the warriors raged. “This is our home, deceiver! These are our lands! Your people have no right to it or anything else!”

“Be careful,” Dimitri reminded his friends. Felix snorted and darted forward to meet the brawler that had singled him out, bringing the sword down on the metal and forcing it aside. Raphael ducked past a fire ball and knocked his fists together; an arrow whipped past him, grazing the mage and making them stumble – leaving them unprepared for the massive teenager who tackled them with all his might and weight, throwing them to the ground and knocking all the air from their lungs. Dedue caught an ax in the curve of his armored arm, wrenched it aside, and headbutted his adversary. The man stumbled back, flailing; an arrow caught his wrist, forcing him to drop his weapon with a cry.

Dimitri let the brawler who had cried out run up toward him, driving the point of his lance into the dirt and letting it go. He raised his hand and grabbed the fist swung at his face, stopping it dead the way one picked up a stone off the ground. The man's eyes widened in disbelief; Dimitri returned the look with an even smile, knocked his arm away and punched him square in the nose. It was good that, whenever it mattered the most, his massive strength could be curtailed; the man crumbled like a sack of bricks, soundly unconscious and nursing a broken nose, but nothing worse than that.

Lysithea ran up to the edge of the pathway, looked down, and threw one fireball after another, after another. Dimitri heard an alarmed and frightened shriek and a clanking sound often heard when an armored knight was struggling to run; Cyril stuck his head over the edge, bow at the ready, and yelled, “Is that enough, or are you hungry for more?!” A high pitched response formed of a disjointed combination of Duscur's native tongue and fragmented common babbled back at him. “Er, o-kay, drop the ax – that's easy to understand. Yup, that's what I thought. Now run along!”

The boy had just barely said that when his head snapped to the right; he pushed Lysithea back (much to her chagrin) and fired an arrow further down the path. “Archer and mage incoming!” He said. “Be careful, Marianne!” The blunette raised her free hand in acknowledgment from where she was kneeling next to Felix's victim, healing the gouge the swordsman had cut through his side. Bernadetta fumbled with her bow and then raised it, eyes trained on the road up from the valley.

Dimitri was fairly impressed to notice that, while her legs were shaky, her hands on the bow and arrow were rock steady. You're stronger than you give yourself credit for, my fearful classmate.

Grabbing his lance, Dimitri strode forward and watched the road as the archer continued to pay hide and seek with Cyril, incidentally keeping Lysithea back within the tree. Claude entered the side of his vision, training his bow and letting out a short breath before firing. Dimitri heard a clang and spared an incredulous second to wonder if he had just seen seen his friend shoot an arrow out of the sky like a fable before another brawler was upon him.

He dodged to the right, sidestepping with ease and hitting the man's back with the blunt end of his lance. A kick to the back of the knee caused him to stumble, and Claude finished demolishing the warrior's will to fight with one arrow in the ankle – piercing straight through the leather.

“Why?” The mage rasped, staring uncomprehendingly at Mercedes while the blonde carefully sealed up the wound just enough that the bleeding stopped, but not enough to fully heal the limb as to make fighting truly fesible. It was a worse job than she usually did, and he could see it pained her not to erase the injury as she always did with her patients, but it was necessary.

“I will not abide the needless deaths of my people,” Dedue said, pulling the woman to her feet. “Go now. Flee, take them with you. The army of Faerghus will not be as discerning as us.”

Shouts were breaking out on the other side of the mountain; distant, but not so far away as to be inaudible. Dimitri swore, because that was exactly what he was afraid of...

Could Ingrid bring Claude or Bernadetta or Cyril up over the incline long enough to take out the archers? No, it was too dangerous, they'd be rushed by the full might of however many men were on the plateau just a bit up and across from them...

Byleth walked past him, swinging her bow up over her shoulder and drawing the Sword of the Creator. There was an odd quality to her eyes; he couldn't tell if he were imagining things or not, but it was as if she was trying to listen for a single voice amist the chaos. He reached for her, wondering what she hoped to do-

-And then the sword lit up with blazing red and gold flame. Dimitri jumped back, wide-eyed, as the empty hole in the blade's hilt blazed to life with the image of the Crest that adorned every text that referenced the Goddess. The flames spread further than the first time she held it; the air around her boiled, crackling with magical power so intense it warped the world around her. Byleth flicked her wrist back, splitting the blade into a dozen sharp sections burning with the light of the sun, and then launched it forward with a scream of exertion.

The impact, so close to him, sounded like the rending of the world.

Oh, it's nothing; just some old story about a sword that could cut a mountain in half with a single swing.

Dimitri staggered backwards, white spots flooding his vision as dirt, stone and roots flew through the air in all directions. The groan of stone giving way, the sizzling of rock melting wood burning and water turning to steam; half of his brain thought that a rock slide had started – or maybe an eruption, an event he only knew of in stories from the east. The ground beneath him shook so wildly he stumbled into a tree and leaned heavily on it, staring at the dust and light surrounding the figure of his professor, both her hands clutching the sword's hilt. He could vaguely hear a whole lot of shocked yelling from his classmates, Bernadetta's terrified shrieking, and the frightened cries of the Duscur warriors that had yet to flee into the woods. When the noise died down and the dust settled, the prince blinked a few times and let his eyes adjust to the new scene before him...

...Where there had been a rise, a rocky border and a level plateau, there was a massive tear – from one end of the hill to another. This new gorge was several feet wide and many deep; it couldn't be jumped easily and one risked falling into the sharp and still-glowing rocks at the bottom. Horses had no hope of crossing either. The result of a landslide created in an instant...Dimitri's eyes flickered to the right, seeing the men who had just moments ago been preparing to climb the mountain and face the approaching Faerghus army were approaching the scar – a wound in the earth, as if a massive creature had raked a single claw along the mountain – and gazing hesitantly at it.

Byleth's quiet cursing drew his eye. She dropped the sword, letting it clatter to the ground as its aura of power receded. She rubbed her palm and visibly flinched before casting Heal on herself. “I guess...they can't put that in a book...” She panted.

“Teach?” Claude stammered. He'd straight up collapsed against a bolder, and he'd gotten up halfway, staring wide-eyed at her.

“It's like you said...” Byleth said; Dimitri noted, alarm breaking through his stunned stupor, that she was swaying where she stood. “The blade...that could cut a mountain...”

“Yeah,” The brunette managed, for once in his life at a loss for words. “Just...just as the story said.”

“I thought I could...buy some time...we needed more time to reach them, or else...”

Dimitri crossed the distance between them and caught her as her legs buckled, shifting her weight so she was leaning on his shoulder. “Professor, what's wrong?” He asked worriedly.

“Heh...” Byleth rolled her head over, resting her forehead against his neck. “I bet...the stories never mentioned the power it took to do it...ah...I don't think I can trust my hand-eye coordination anymore...”

“That's alright,” He promised, incredulous and delighted and exasperated all at once; only Byleth could snatch a windfall from the jaws of defeat and then still think she had somehow come up short. There was nowhere for those warriors to go but back, towards them, and even if the Viscount arrived within the next minute, he would have a hell of a time maneuvering his people around that! “I'd support you myself, but I'm afraid we're not quite done yet. Raphael, would you-?”

“Yup,” The other teen said. “Hang on a sec, professor.” Byleth let out a startled yelp of protest when Raphael grabbed her and slung her over his shoulder. “Grab the sword, will you Claude?”

“I was raised on stories of the relics,” Ashe whispered, staring at the damage wrought and then down at the still-smoking blade in the grass. “All of them were full of amazing, impossible things...and yet, even now that I saw it with my own eyes, I can barely believe it...!”

“No wonder Nemesis was the sole ruler of the known world,” Sylvain said numbly; he, Leonie and Lorenz were leading their horses in a circle, letting them stomp their hooves and otherwise work to get a bit calmer. “I've seen my father with the Lance before. It was nothing like this.”

“No kidding,” Claude muttered, before cautiously placing his hand on the sword's hilt. When it didn't burn to touch, he lifted it up awkwardly. “Man, this thing is heavy.

“It is...?” Byleth blinked at him. “I would not have thought so...”

“And you have the compatible crest...” Claude blinked a few times and then shook his head. “Never mind; speculation can come later. Let's head down and round up the rest of them!”

“T-the r-rest of them?” Bernadetta squeaked, inching toward the pathway as Marianne got up and drew her sword. “W-Wouldn't they have run away after seeing that?!”

“I wouldn't blame them,” Leonie muttered.

Dedue lead the way down the hill. It quickly became clear that the other warriors had heard the impact, but had no idea what caused it, because they reacted no differently to the student's approach than the first few men had. Felix tackled an archer into the bushes; Ashe and Bernadetta forced a mage into up against the cliff and pinned him by his sleeves. Dedue himself grabbed a brawler and smacked the blunt side of his ax into his face, forcing him down with sheer overwhelming power.

Marianne zapped an armored knight once, wincing at the resulting agonized scream and rushing to heal him, lest his armor melt into his skin. Ashe let out a yell of warning and then jumped from the cliff onto the back of the horse rider that had charged her from behind; he crashed into the rider and threw both of them from the mount. Marianne's head snapped up in shock; maintaining just enough healing power to finish the job as the older and taller man wrestled with Ashe and slamming his head against the ground. The blue haired girl grabbed the Levin sword and sent a bolt of lightning at the man's unprotected back, dropping him into a twitching heap on the ground. Ashe groaned and struggled to push the armored body off of him; Marianne rushed to his side and rather ungently shoved the silver-haired archer's assailant to the side.

“Thank you,” Ashe said sweetly as she cast Heal on him. “Are you alright, Marianne?”

“I...I-I'm fine,” Marianne stammered. “I – I really should be thanking you...” Carefully she lifted him up so he was sitting. “Is that better? Do you think you can stand?”

“Of course. No worries; I'm as good as new.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “Let's stick together, shall we?”

Bernadetta had been separated from her partner by an angry armored knight; she was struggling to do any meaningful damage to him when Felix threw himself in-between her and her aggressor. He ducked under the ax swing and rapidly stabbed at several chinks in the bulky steel, driving the man to his knees. “You're weak,” the blue-haired swordsman grumbled. He cast a pointed look at Bernadetta. “What do you think you're doing?” He snorted, grabbing her arm and pulling her close. “Stay close to me if you're going to freeze up like that.”

“I-I'm sorry!”

“Stop that. You apologize for everything; it's just noise at this point! Now stay behind me.”

Dimitri let out a small sigh of relief; those could have gone very wrong...He adjusted his grip on his lance and ducked into the trees, trusting Claude – lingering consistently in his footsteps – to see anyone the bushes might be hiding from his own eyes. They were descending down to the bottom of this valley; slow and steady progress, with only one or two deaths having proven to be unavoidable.

Byleth had as keen an eye as ever; even half conscious and leaning on Raphael, she was keeping their ragtag group well coordinated.

“They're coming down the mountain,” Claude noted. “Three horsemen, two archers, five brawlers. It looks like they're converging on someone – probably the war master. That sound right?”

“Yes. Ingrid, Sylvain, will your mounts move through the trees? If they're willing and able, please hurry.” They needed to keep the horses from charging anyone down. That was always the big fear when unmounted units had to face the magnificent animals...

Ingrid swept down from the sky, graceful as ever. Sylvain and Lorenz forced their way through the foliage with some help from Felix, and as the three horse men charged, Lorenz made use of his jousting training to knock one right off his mount. Ingrid and Sylvain ran a circle around the two other horses, leading them aside; Dimitri had the two archers in his sight then and went to deal with them.

A solid punch to the face downed one archer. Almost done, we've almost got them routed...! “Heads up, Mitya,” Claude warned loudly, shooting out his opponent's bowstring without pause. “You've been recognized.” Dimitri glanced to the right and saw a massive warrior – his mind briefly darted back four years, to a field of fire and a man dressed and armed just so forcing him and Glenn into the trees just before being consumed by dark magic – pointing his weapon at him, stalking forward with deliberate intent.

“Right. Thank you."

Stay focused, his father hummed. Don't go back to then. Stay here in the now.

Dimitri felt his knuckles turning white on his lance.

“Now this is a windfall,” The war master thundered, focusing on him to the exclusion of all else. Dimitri knew that Claude was preoccupied forcing that archer to stay down, but he almost wanted to warn the man he wasn't alone. If only so he could see someone else realize a moment too late he'd overlooked and underestimated a certain brown-haired nuisance archer. “Who knew our sworn enemy would come out to greet us!”

“Sworn enemy?” Dimitri mused, shifting his stance. “I suppose that's fair enough.”

“We shall slay you and topple Faerghus!” The man lunged forward. “Then our people will be avenged!”

Dimitri let out a small sigh and dodged, sliding out of the way with ease. “I cannot die yet,” he said quietly. “There is too much I must settle.” He dodged again, darting past the man (he was faster than he looked, not many people expected it) and stabbed the man in the side. Yanking the lance out with some care – it wouldn't do to tear the wound, though the man's leather had protected him – he ducked out of the way of a retaliatory strike, then another one...

...and Claude's arrow hit an unprotected part of the man's back, staggering him. A second arrow hit the ankle, sending him to one knee. Dimitri smiled in thanks as the archer walked along and stopped next to him.

Gomen,” The brunette said – not loudly, but not quietly, and Dimitri couldn't help but start and double-check the location of their fellow students. He'd never heard the Almyran language spoken before, but he knew both common and old Foldanese and this was neither. “Koko deha katsu tena I.”

The man, who'd been struggling to stand, froze. “You...” He stared hard at Claude's face. “You are not of Fodlan. How? Why?”

“Only by half,” Claude responded in common. “Enough to have a bit of an idea of what Dimitri wanted to avoid when he got his companions together to beat the Viscount and Faerghus here to you and your brothers.” He cocked his head. “First time I've shot to subdue rather than to kill. You learn new things every day with these crazy people.”

The man scowled. “Why stay with them? They'll never welcome you. The moment the next tragedy comes by, you'll be the first to die for it.”

Claude shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. I'll take my chances. What I came here to chase is worth it.”

A war horn blared in the distance. The man's eyes widened, and he stared at Dimitri...and Dedue...with confusion and distrust. “Why save us?” He demanded.

“I cannot abide the needless deaths of my people,” Dedue said simply. “They will be here soon. Take our brothers and sisters, and flee.”

“My father considered the people of Duscur allies and friends,” Dimitri stated, squaring his shoulders. “I still believe that now. There will be an accounting for that day, for all who caused the senseless death and destruction. For whatever the word of Lambert's son is worth, I promise you; that pain will be paid for.”

The man glared, his posture shifting as he saw his weakened, beaten-back comrades retreating from the combined classes and Byleth, who was standing again. For several terribly long seconds, he wrestled with himself, with his rage and frustration and grief, before he finally snapped, “The men of Duscur do not forget our grudges! ...Or our debts.”

Even though they were spoken as a threat, the words kindled a small, fluttering hope in Dimitri's chest.

Chapter Text

They were laid up in an inn, a day's journey away from Garreg Mach; it was a comfortable one, by all means of judgment, well-appointed and luxurious. Yet even as he tossed and turned on the soft mattress in his room, Claude couldn't fall asleep. It wasn't the thunder and rain; he'd grown up with Almyra's spring storms and he was rather fond of the weather.

The source of his disquiet was nine days behind him.

The frame job against Duscur was weak. An Alliance-born child would call it weak; hell, most of the kids I grew up with would call it weak, and none of them have the slightest head for skulduggery. But it was enough for the people of Faerghus to slaughter them like animals...

Claude threw an arm over his forehead and breathed out slowly.

It's not quite that simple, Riegan, he reminded himself. A lot of people lost family and friends when King Lambert and his retainers got slaughtered. Overwhelming grief is not conductive to intelligent, rational thought; and there's still the question of who was behind it if not Duscur...

...Ah, but does that really matter in the end? They killed children. They killed old wise men and women in their beds. They set entire cities to the torch. Even now the survivors of that massacre are hated and spat upon for something they were vaguely adjacent to; if they could have known about it at all. All of that on a flimsy lie.

A lie the Serios doctrine made so easy to believe.

A part of Claude's heart that wasn't scarred over with world-weary cynicism ached with sympathy and worry for the ridiculous position Dimitri was going to be in once he ascended the throne. Some of his own people would resent and possibly hate him for wanting to reconcile with Duscur, and the people of that land would blame him for the evil that had been inflicted on them. After all, how many of them would know that Dimitri was their sole defender in a room full of people drunk on the need for revenge?

Had they been pointed at the Alliance, would the men have been so easily whipped into a genocidal fury? Would the famously honorable knights have gone on a campaign of extermination and ruin if they believed a lord of the Empire had done the deed in an attempt to bring Faerghus back under Imperial rule? Maybe. Relations have been better in recent years, but that doesn't make them warm.

But somehow I doubt the northern lords would have called their retaliation a 'holy crusade for justice' if their enemy was native to Fodlan.

As if he needed another keen reminder of the biggest risk to his plans.

Claude let out a low growl and threw his legs off the side of the bed. He hadn't changed out of his day clothes yet, having dropped onto the bed and stewed in his thoughts before turning his attention solely to the storm just after the end of dinner. He'd said he wanted to finish up a book he'd started, but the words – the warning, maybe, they were almost spoken kindly compared to the prickly disbelief Dimitri had received – that the commander had thrown at him kept interrupting his thoughts.

The army of Faerghus killed everyone they found. The elderly, the children, beggars on the streets, everyone. How did they justify that to themselves? Was Regicide really enough to kill the civilians along with the men and women old enough to wield weapons? Asch's blood and bones...

...It's probably for the best that Dimitri decided to insert himself into my life and start calling me a friend. I doubt any of my original plans for gaining sway in Faerghus would have gone over well once I properly introduced myself.

He was better for that, honestly; even if it made reaching his long-held dream more difficult. Dimitri deserved far better than being on the wrong end of a usurper's scheme after everything he'd survived. And really, would Claude have been worthy of being any sort of great Unifier if he betrayed that kindly, suffering prince after winning his trust?

A few months ago, his thoughts on that question would have been largely practical – if remorseful. Now the mere concept made him feel sick. Dimitri's friendliness and earnest compliments – the wariness of the Blue Lions giving way to curiosity and fascination – sometimes left him internally squirming with guilt; because unifying Fodlan as he'd initially imagined he would, no matter how he planned it, would have come at their expense.

What was that thing mom said about my grander schemes when I was a kid? 'Be mindful of both the forest and the trees?' Claude blew out a breath before leaving his room, careful to close the door quietly behind him. Most of his classmates were deep sleepers, but it cost him nothing to be careful. It's easy to forget that the people that form the 'big picture' conquerors and saint-kings alike wish to control. But you can't let yourself forget them, or else you let yourself devalue them in your mind and heart...and that leads to innocent lives being considered 'disposable' for some nebulous 'greater good'. He shook his head, frowning, letting a quiet recrimination cross his mind. And I, of all people, should know better than to lessen the worth of others.

He rolled his shoulders back. Besides, isn't it better this way? My ridiculously noble and innocent prince, who wants nothing more than to reconcile with people his own consider enemies, wouldn't bat an eye at breaking the lid off the bottle. Hells, he'd probably be willing to help if I framed it the right way, despite the relationship he has with the church.

Wait. When the hell did Dimitri become 'my prince?' Claude ran a hand through his hair, his usual smile coming out crooked and a little helpless. I guess I've had so few friends in my life I can't help but be possessive of the one who came to me in spite of it all.

Yes, friend...friend was a good word. Friend was a nice, safe word, and it happened to be true, so that was all the better for it. He pointedly ignored the keening sensation in his heart in favor of focusing on that happy thought.

He paused mid step near the end of the hall, the carpet scratching lightly against his bare feet. There was torchlight shining from the bottom of the stairs; curious. This particular inn was three stories, and while the entrance hall and the hallways were always kept lit for the sake of late-night travelers, the upper floors having some light in them suggested he wasn't the only person who was having trouble chasing sleep. Huh...maybe they'll have the bar down there open. A drink would be kind of nice...especially if they have apple cider.

Heading down the stairs, Claude blinked a few times to adjust his vision to the low light. The three torches at the second floor's bar were lit, and there was a faint light beyond the door to the kitchen. He wasn't really surprised to see the lone figure sitting at the bar table, sipping from a mug. No one could blame him for being troubled in spite of their success; after all, this was only a temporary reprieve until Dimitri took the throne...

“Who's there?” Dedue rumbled, not looking up from the counter. His voice was mostly even, but underneath there was a tiredness he'd never shown outwardly.

“Just me.” Claude said, walking over and leaning against the cool wood, squinting at the bottles on display in the cabinets. “My brain's a bit too busy to sleep, I guess. They got any cider here?”

Dedue twisted slightly to look up at him. Claude dipped his head a bit so he could see the broader teen out of the corner of his eye. There was a flicker of that familiar suspicion, but it was mixed in now with uncertainty and...what might be curiosity, if he didn't miss his guess. “I do not know. You can go in the kitchen and ask, if you wish; a few of the servants are still awake as well.”

Claude nodded after a moment, rocking back on his heels before heading on and slipping past the oak door. Sure enough, there was a tired-looking yet smiling young woman within, who giggled and blushed at the charming smile he offered while asking after the preferred beverages and how much they went for. More expensive than it would at a tavern at home, but then again, Almyran inns expect to be invaded by small armies in need of congratulatory toasts on a fairly regular basis. He was rather delighted to find they did, in fact, have his favorite drink (even though no one could make cider quite like his mother) and it only cost three silver.

“I hope they pay her well for staying up half the night,” he remarked conversationally when he returned to the bar and dropped unceremoniously into one of the chairs at the counter.

Dedue didn't respond, but that wasn't discouraging. The Duscur native was a man of few words, and if there was something on his mind that he thought of as important, he would speak it in a simple and blunt way soon enough. He could almost feel the other teen looking at him, so something was clearly on his mind... So Claude leaned back in his seat and hummed softly, sipping from the comfort drink that had soothed him in the wake of all his troubles throughout the years.

“Riegan.”

That was fast. “Yeah?”

“Why did you bring you and yours to help us?” It wasn't clear whether Dedue was referring to the Blue Lions or to his fellow men from home. Perhaps he meant both.

“Is it not enough to say I thought the cause was worthy?”

“I don't quite believe you do anything without what you believe to be good reason.”

“That's not a good one?” Claude took another drink, closing his eyes to enjoy the sweet taste sliding down his throat. “I do mean it, you know. I'm aware I rarely look like I take anything seriously...but I do, when it matters.”

Dedue regarded him for a minute. “...You are not of Fodlan.” He said the words with complete certainty.

Claude let out an aggrieved sigh. He'd known it was an impulsive gesture, speaking to that man as he had; but he'd felt compelled to drive home the image of an outsider working as an equal with the Prince of Faerghus, and he'd opened his mouth before he could change his mind or at least check for eavesdroppers. “Why is it, that just because my father was born east of the mountains, that means I'm 'not of Fodlan'?” He bit out with just a hint of a lifelong resentment, his fingers tightening on the mug. “Why should my mother's decision to marry for love invalidate every tie she has to the land she grew up in? Is that justice? I don't think so.” He threw his head back against the chair, groaning. “Look, I'd really appreciate it if you didn't spread that around. It's not something I can afford to widely acknowledge just yet.”

What was getting into him, to be this careless with his most important secret? Clearly he was getting complacent, too comfortable with the easy camaraderie he was enjoying with his professor and his classmates. ...Worse comes to worst, he could beg Dimitri to order Dedue not to talk about it and know the command would be obeyed. He felt a little guilty blatantly exploiting his newfound friendship with him that way, but this was kind of valuable.

“His Highness knows, does he not?”

Claude tilted his head just enough to stare in bemusement. “...How'd you guess?”

“He did not seem surprised when you spoke your father's language.” Dedue's expression was largely unreadable, except for... “How did that come to be?”

“You could probably guess, can't you?” Claude felt his lips twitch upwards moments after he started to smile – small and fond. “He happened to stumble on someone harassing me and found his honor greatly offended by the display. Then he stepped in and interceded with more passion-” than my own grandfather applied to legitimizing me “-than anyone short of my parents had ever spent on a half blood.”

“Indeed he would,” Dedue decided after a moment of thought. “Riegan...what is in Fodlan for you that is worth the troubles its people bedevil you with?”

“Everything,” Claude responded enigmatically.

“...I am not certain I trust you,” The other teen informed him. “But I am grateful to you for what you have done for my people. And men of Duscur always repay their debts.” He took a drink. “No one will learn about your father from me.”

The rush of relief was almost dizzying. “Thanks.”

Dedue turned his head toward one of the torches, his expression thoughtful. “Who is he?”

“A warrior,” Claude responded, taking another sip; that small smile still lingering. “One of the best. My mother taught me how to use a bow, but it was father who encouraged my interest in strategy and taught me everything he knew from when I was old enough to ask of it.” He placed the mug on the table. “He has a laugh kind of like Sir Alois; loud and warm and it fills the whole room. You might find his sense of humor fairly macabre, but he's pretty easygoing by the standards of the east. He loves children, though he has to keep that under his hat to a certain extent; he always found time to play with me when I was little, and sometimes late in the evening I could find him down by the pond near the royal palace, overseeing the local kids playing war games. He's fierce on the battlefield; wise and cautious off of it.”

“...Not wholly unlike King Lambert, then.”

Claude sat up quickly, startled. “I don't think I've ever heard Dimitri talk about his father. And all anyone else seems to care about is how he died.”

Dedue made a small gesture with one hand. “His Highness is often reserved on the matter; but not to the point of being mute.” Something flickered in his eyes. “Your mother was quite fearless to cross the mountains for love alone.”

“Mother is the bravest person I've ever known.” That was just a fact, though he could and would say it with pride.

Dedue inclined his head in acknowledgment. Claude took another sip, listening to the thunder, rain and crackle-snap of the torches ad-mist the quiet.

“How do the warriors of Almyra avenge themselves?” The other teen asked, aprops to nothing.

“Typically? With a wyvern and an ax.” Claude said humorlessly. “There are a number of reasons Almyra has never been conquered; that's one of them.”

Dedue's lips twitched. “Then perhaps people should be more wary of you than they think.”

“Oh, I wouldn't quite say that,” The brunette chuckled. “I'm only half, after all.”

“If that is what you wish,” The Duscur native rumbled; somehow simultaneously indulging him and politely calling him out a blatant lie.

It's good Dimitri has someone like you keeping an eye out for him.


“Ah, at long last! Garreg Mach!” Hilda let out a very theatrical sigh of relief and slumped against Byleth's back, utterly overwrought. Claude could almost hear their professor rolling her eyes. Bernadetta let out a whine of relief, slumping back against Marianne's chest. The blue-haired priestess patted her shoulder sympathetically, and a quite tired-looking Annette added her voice to the wave of cheer at the sight of their destination. Very faintly he heard Felix grumble about how his classmates lack stamina and Sylvain chiding him for it somewhere behind him; if Dimitri was relieved to be back, he didn't vocalize it. “Our scholarly paradise! I can finally take a break from horseback riding; I ache all over!”

“Good; you should start doing some of the reading for your third tier exams,” Byleth responded in the sort of deadpan voice that leaves you wondering if the speaker is exhausted or being rather sarcastic. “Since you won't be doing anything else on account of being lying down and resting for long stretches of time, yes?”

Professor,” The pinkette whined, “Don't you believe in taking breaks?! We just got back from a job and you want us to go straight to studying?”

“It is a perfectly sensible way to maintain your energy toward your obligations while unwinding after the traveling,” Lorenz said chidingly. “Really Hilda, you ought to treat your studies with the severity they deserve. A noble should be well-studied and diligent in every task they approach.”

“Teach is pulling your leg, Hilda.” Claude corrected, smiling innocently when Lorenz gave him an exasperated look. “Haven't you learned to tell the difference by now?”

“If I discover you avoiding studying, you'll find out exactly how much I'm joking.” His teacher informed him, glittering eyes slightly narrowed in a way that underlined her needling of the pinkette with a challenge.

“Teach, Teach!, have I ever let you down before?” He bantered back, his lips curving into a smile without any conscious effort on his part.

“Not yet,” She acknowledged. “But if I wasn't worried about you trying to be sneaky, it would prove I don't know you at all.”

He laughed aloud, the warmth of the sun sinking into him. Hilda twisted back and gave him a meaningful look before smirking like she had a secret. And just what's that supposed to mean?, he glowered at her, but that seemed to amuse her more; she shrugged innocently and turned around, patting a confused Byleth on the arm.

“I know I should be used to traveling on horseback, but I'm glad we're home,” Ashe said with an exhausted chuckle. “I didn't expect the trip to be as draining as the battle itself!”

“Don't loose heart, Ashe. It's something you get used to,” Dimitri said reassuringly. “The more frequently we're sent out on expeditions like this, the less stress it will put on you.”

The Knights of Serios lead them down through the valley and into the town at the foot of the monastery. The first thing Claude noticed was that the children – orphans, locals, merchant's sons and daughters brought along on the long autumn road – that were usually omnipresent playing with the monastery pets and getting underfoot were completely absent. A quick look around made it clear that they weren't just relegated to the alleys, either – they were being kept inside and out of sight. That's not a good sign. What's happened now? For the love of the goddess, it hasn't even been a month since something went to hell –

It wasn't just the absent children that stuck out. The local shopkeepers and blacksmiths looked jumpy and actually frightened; many of them pausing to look warily over their shoulders whenever they walked away from a crowded area to somewhere more secluded. There were low-ranked knights and guards everywhere, tense and agitated, asking questions to anyone they stopped on the streets. There was fear tangible in the air as Sir Jeralt and the Knights lead them to the stables to dismount and dump their extra gear. Something happened while we were away. Another attempted breaking and entering? A follow-up on the previous threat to Rhea's life?

“Um, C-Claude?” Marianne whispered, walking over to him as he dismounted. “S-Something's wrong here...”

“Yeah, I can tell.” He said grimly. Bernadetta let out a low moan and immediately grabbed onto Byleth's arm for support as their professor came to join them. “I wonder if the Western Church is so overconfident they came back for a second go at it. Or maybe it's something else entirely.” He huffed out a dry laugh. “I think I'm starting to understand why Dadga uses the phrase 'may you live in interesting times' as a death threat.”

Byleth's lip twitched and she gave the thought a bemused nod. Clearly she'd heard that phrase used in that context before, quite possibly aimed at her.

“Byleth!” The four of them jolted at Sir Jeralt's voice; the giant of a man looked grim, even from the other side of the stable, and he pointedly gestured for her. “The Archbishop needs us right away. It's about a girl named Flayn.”

“Flayn?” Bernadetta mumbled as she was briskly but gently passed back over to Marianne.

Byleth's reaction was telling; she visibly paled, her dark blue eyes flashing first with alarm, then with worry. “Get everyone sorted out and wait for me in the classroom,” She told him, before spinning on her heel and sprinting to catch up with her father.

“Wait. Who's Flayn?” Raphael asked, popping up behind him. Claude didn't flinch, having heard his footsteps, though Marianne started in surprise.

“Seteth's little sister. Surely you've seen her flitting about the monastery?” Leonie said, hurrying after him. She was frowning intensely, her often serious expression set with concern. “We've gone fishing together a few times before. I hope she's alright...”

Whatever's happened, she's probably not dead. Yet, anyway. Claude grimaced at the thought. None of the clergy in the courtyard were wearing mourning symbols. Flayn may not be ordained, but Seteth is, and he clearly raised her with the priesthood in mind. If she was dead, I don't doubt she'd be mourned the same way...and there's a lot of ceremony involved with putting a servant of the goddess to rest. There'd be some sign of it, even if she died just after we left for Duscur.

“If they're keeping the children inside...do you think she's been kidnapped?” Annette asked in a hushed voice. Her eyes grew really wide. “Ah...there have been these horrible rumors of a Death Knight wandering around the villages in the middle of the night, stealing people away never to be seen again. You don't think that's why...?”

Bernadetta let out a fearful whine, wrapping her arms around her shoulders in an effort to keep from trembling too violently. “Oh no, oh no, oh no...” She mumbled in terror. “I heard that rumor too. It's said that he's death itself...!”

“What would anyone want with Flayn?” Ignatz wondered, stricken. “She's so kind and harmless...she's completely innocent. What could someone possibly want from her?”

A pretty young girl vanishing from her home can mean a number of things; none of them are good, but some of them are mundane – if that's ever a good word to describe rape and/or murder with. “I think if the Archbishop or Seteth suspect anything, we're going to find out as soon as they finish debriefing Teach.” Claude said decisively. “So let's finish getting organized and get back to the classroom. I don't think a low-key day of studying is in our future today."

His classmates accepted that and rushed to and fro in a whirlwind of activity; Annette told the rest of the Blue Lions of this and they took the same tact. Horses were stabled, extra equipment locked up in the Jeralt Mercenary's barracks, while weapons and artifacts discovered on the battlefield were almost universally placed with the blacksmith for repairs and sold to the local collector of gold and curiosities to bolster their individual allowances. (His grandfather hadn't quite been stingy with what he'd allotted to his schooling, but he had a sneaking suspicion it was less than he would have gotten if he had been Godfrey's son.) With that, the Blue Lions broke off – following a worried-looking Dimitri – to ask around about what had happened in their absence. Meanwhile, Marianne slipped off to see Bernadetta back to her room (and, in all likelyhood, help her through the violent panic attack the purple-haired girl seemed to be teetering on the edge of) while he and the rest headed back to the Golden Deer classroom.

“There you are, Claude.” Edelgard said mildly, catching his attention as the others went on ahead. The princess was standing with her arms crossed just outside the closed doors of the Black Eagles room, her expression as calculated as ever. “Here I thought your excursion meant that you would miss the excitement.”

“Is that what this is?” He asked dryly, walking over to meet her. “What in the eternal flames happened?”

“That's what we're trying to figure out,” Edelgard responded briefly and frankly. “Five days ago, Flayn didn't appear for breakfast. When she missed lunch and then dinner, Bishop Seteth went looking for her, and when it became clear she was gone, he sounded the alarm.”

“Have there been any demands?” Claude could imagine a few things Bishop Seteth might know or be adjacent to that an enemy would use extortion to gain quietly.

The princess shook her head. “None. And the initial investigation proved that she isn't the only person who has disappeared.” A troubled frown crossed her face. “There's no real pattern to it, except that everyone who vanished was vulnerable and vanished late at night. ...And in the last few days, one body has been discovered.”

“Seteth must be loosing his mind.” Even that was probably an understatement.


He was freezing, his clothes soaked to his skin. His ankle hurt from the initial fall, and his lungs hurt from coughing up water. The sun was going down, and he hadn't managed to find a familiar landmark within the forest the river ran through. How far had he been swept away? Where was he, wasn't anyone looking for him? Why hadn't his – no, they weren't his friends. They'd pushed him, they'd thrown him into the swollen rapids...

His heart ached horribly. I won't cry. I am a prince of Almyra and a prince is never weak. He repeated it to himself like a prayer, trying to ignore the chill settling into his bones and the pain. He tried to forget what they had said just before shoving him in.

But why...His eyes burned, and he stumbled over a tree root causing him to collapse on the ground. Why is it not enough, why is it never enough, why do they hate me, what did I do wrong... He curled up, wrapping his arms around himself, trembling with the force of his repressed sobs.

...Khalid..! ...Khalid...! Claude!”

His head snapped up. “Mother?” He tried to call back, but his voice rasped and then broke causing him to cough violently. But he wouldn't give up. “Mother!”

Claude?!” The nicker of a horse followed the shout, and it felt like a punch in the stomach how pathetically happy that made him – he pushed himself into a sitting position and cried out again, and again, until Karla came thundering down the winding pathway carrying his mother.

Tiana von Riegan nearly fell from the back of her faithful horse, with how gracelessly she dismounted. Her face was red and streaked with tears, she took a few shaky steps before sliding to her knees and yanking him up into her arms. “Khalid, Claude, there you are, there you are...! Ah Sothis, thank you!” Her embrace was tight to the point of being painful, and she wept heavily and utterly without shame as she stroked his hair, repeating both his names in broken, choked noises of relief as she checked him for injuries.

Mother, don't...” He tried to brush her tears away. They troubled him; this was his mother, his indomitable, fearless mother; it was wrong to see her so weak and shaken.

She shook her head, gently grasping his hand. “I've been looking for you for hours now, and when I couldn't...my little prince, never scare me like this again...” She shrugged her coat off and wrapped it tightly around him before pulling him into another hug. “Goddess help me, I may never let you leave my sight.”

He was too tired and cold to protest, to complain that he wasn't a baby, to do anything but hide in her warm, safe arms.


“...certainly hasn't stopped searching himself,” Edelgard's voice snapped him out of his memories. “So far, no one can figure out where she might have been going when she was taken.”

“They don't think she was taken out of her bedroom?” Claude said, shaking his head slightly and forcing himself to concentrate. “Flayn doesn't strike me as much of a night owl, and she might be naive to an extent but she isn't stupid. Is everyone really sure she was wandering around in the middle of the night in the streets where other people have gone missing?”

Edelgard frowned a bit in thought. “There's no clear sign of her door being forced,” She said after a moment, “and no one near her remember any screaming or sounds of a struggle the previous night.”

Which doesn't rule out the chance that someone slipped her a drug at dinner, probably a slow-acting sedative, and simply followed her around while waiting for it to kick in. If she was too tired to remember to lock her door, they could have just gone in, picked her up and carried her off with no one being the wiser. And even if the door was locked, that could be circumvented if they'd somehow had access to the keys... which, considering that the sacred mausoleum was broken into mere months ago, shouldn't be ruled out too quickly.

“I hate not having much to go on,” He pronounced instead of voicing any of that. “By the time you've scraped together enough information to figure out what happened, a coin flip's chance says you're already too late to do a damn thing about it.”

“Well, those are the facts for now,” Edelgard responded with a distinctly unimpressed look. Come on, princess. I've told you I'm liar; aren't you going to start being more skeptical about what I'm saying verses what I'm thinking? “Hopefully that coin will come up favorably for Flayn. No girl deserves what so often happens when they 'disappear without a trace'.” There was something very dark in her violet eyes when she said that; cold, angry and predatory.

Claude's mind flickered back to stories about the Insurrection of the Seven, and how the Emperor's heirs had disappeared from the castle with seemingly no rhyme or reason just in time for the Lords to seize the moment and the powers the Emperor had been centralizing away from them. Of all the stories those Lords had presented about why that had been so – many of them depending entirely on the sickness and fits of madness that had plagued Ionius's children – he abruptly wondered if any of them had even a sliver of truth to them. “I agree,” he said quietly, seriously. “We'll find her.”

Her lip twitched. “You sound so certain.”

He smirked humorlessly back at her. “I'm always at my best when I've put all my concentration on a single end goal.”

Edelgard tilted her head. “Like befriending Dimitri?” She asked pointedly.

“Come now, princess,” Claude retorted with a hint of playfulness, “Why would such a simple task require extensive plotting on my behalf?”

The princess gave him a Look (which was different from the sort that Dimitri gave him, but significant enough to deserve the emphasis) and responded, “why indeed...”

“Claude,” He took Byleth calling his name as an excuse to bow out of the conversation; he wasn't sure he liked Edelgard's manufactured casual interest in his new relationship with Dimitri. Something about the way she said it, the way she frowned, seemed just on the edge of hostile.

He stowed those thoughts and concerns, however, as he entered the classroom and once again turned his attention to the main problem at hand...

“Our mission for this month is to find Flayn.” Byleth said quietly and seriously. She was leaning against her desk in the classroom, her students clustered in a circle around her. Virtually everyone looked worried, even though few of them knew Flayn very well; she was a sweet figure, easy to like even just in passing, and no one wanted anything horrible to befall her.

“Seteth must be worried sick,” Hilda muttered, tugging at one of her pigtails. “If I were to go missing, I can't imagine what that would do to my brother.”

He'd probably tear the Alliance apart trying to find you, and heaven help anyone who tried to get in his way. “When searching for something, it's best to start by gathering information.” Claude rubbed his forehead. “There has to be someone here who saw Flayn before she disappeared. We can work backwards from there to hopefully figure out who might have taken her...and to where.” If we're lucky, he noted bleakly. Five days was enough time to disappear from Garreg Mach and the surrounding territories entirely.

“There's something Annette said that's bothering me,” Lysithea said remotely. “She said that there's been rumors of a black knight wandering the streets in the night and attacking people. If we ask around and find that rumor goes back to the day the first person disappeared...”

“...Then we might have a working theory to consider,” Claude agreed with a scowl. Rumors are rumors, but they tend to come from somewhere. “There's only one 'black knight' that sticks out in my recent memory...but would he have stuck around this long?”

The question earned a series of worried grimaces from his classmates.

“In any case,” Byleth said softly, “I think we should use a similar system to the first time we turned the monastery inside-out looking for information. Don't go anywhere alone, and keep a wary eye out for anyone who's acting strangely.” There was a distinctly worried look in her eyes and a hesitance in her speech, stark enough that it was impossible to ignore. Both Hilda and Ignatz were looking strangely at her, so it was visible enough that not just he had noticed...

“Right.” He nodded. “You all heard Teach; c'mon, Hilda. Let's go find Professor Hannamen.”

It was a mark of how serious the situation was that Hilda just nodded, not even asking what he had in mind; just trusting him to know his way around. She'd been the closest thing he had to a real friend ever since he 'properly' came to Fodlan; since Byleth was going to investigate independently, the pinkette was and would always be his first choice.

They split up in pairs; Leonie with Lorenz, Ignatz with Raphael, Marianne with Lysithea, Cyril tagging along at Byleth's heels, all of them going in different floors and corners of the monastery. (Bernadetta was back in her room, a prisoner to her fears; Claude casually mentioned this to Alois knowing that the knight would keep an eye out for her even as he helped the search. Meanwhile, he juggled increasingly unpleasant theories as to why the diminutive archer was so terrified of...well...damn near everything, it seemed.)

They just needed to find one hint, a suggestion...anything they could turn into a lead.


“I can't say anything for certain, but I have my suspicions about Jeritza.”

Claude set his plate down on the table, twisting to stare at a more-serious-than-usual Felix. “What makes you say that?”

His mind's eye flickered back to the way the enigmatic man had been watching Byleth ever since she took up the sword of the creator. Always watching, always knowing exactly where she was, pale eyes unreadable but burning with intensity. Hilda batted at his hand, causing him to blink and realize his knuckles were turning white against his mug.

“There's something about the way he's handling his blade. It's more impulsive than usual,” Felix said, gesturing sharply with one hand. The blue-haired swordsman frowned contemplatively. “It couldn't hurt to try to speak to him, at least. At this hour, he should be at the training grounds or back at his quarters.”

Claude hummed, finished off his drink and put it down. “Right. Thanks, Felix.”

Felix's lips twitched. “Don't thank me until we find her.” There was an edge to his voice, but it was worry, not contempt, that lay underneath his grumpiness. You wear your emotions on your sleeve far much much to make a good liar, Fraldarius.

With a nod, Claude left the dining hall with Hilda at his heels.

The previous day had been exhausting; despite their best efforts, all they had to show for hours of careful searching was what had already been determined before they arrived back at the monastery. It seemed that everyone had seen Flayn out and about the day before she disappeared, seemingly perfectly at ease – she hadn't shown any anxious behavior or attempted to cling to someone only to be brushed off, nor had she disappeared for a noticeable stretch of time beforehand. Her room was immaculate, showing no signs of forced entry or having been ransacked in a struggle, and the servants swore blind that she had retired early to bed complaining about a mild headache. That screamed either 'poison' or 'sleeping drug' as far as Claude was concerned, but Garreg Mach didn't see such drinks used in the regularity that Alliance nobility did – it was perfectly reasonable that the possibility hadn't occurred to the non-clerical staff in time. No one could seem to recall anyone following Flayn around who wasn't essentially above suspicion – Hannamen had spent too long nagging Seteth about his and his sister's ancestry to not be an obvious suspect, and if Sir Alois was somehow involved with her disappearance, Claude would eat a week straight of Hilda's cooking and nothing else.

This meant that Flayn's kidnapper had both been in the monastery for quite some time, and that the kidnapping was too methodically and carefully planned to be the spur-of-the-moment decision of a spree killer. Cyril suggested that the culprit could be an agent of the Western Church, but Claude doubted that; Rhea had been a bit too thorough in her shakedown of the closest regions the branch operated in. For the Western Church to be able to seize and bring Flayn somewhere completely within their power, the kidnapper would have to take her far to the north to just west of The Silver Maiden – a month-long journey, if you were pushing it. Too many chances for Flayn to fall violently ill, to slip away, for someone on the road to notice she wasn't following her captor willingly.

Which – again – probably wouldn't have mattered to a spree killer who merely planned to kill her, dump the corpse somewhere mildly inconspicuous, and then vanish into the mist. But the sheer amount of careful planning that went into such a flawlessly executed kidnapping suggested something more methodical and long-reaching than an impulsive end such as that.

Though...there was a chance there was some overlap there.

The rumors of the reaper wandering the streets of the towns within walking distance of the monastery were as disturbing as they were surreal. No one knew what the 'knight' looked like, other than that he was figure clad completely in black who initially seemed like a spiritually disturbed wanderer...until approached. The knight had attacked multiple people – seemingly without any rhyme or reason – and was seen vanishing from the streets while carrying someone by one fortunate (or unfortunate) street urchin he'd overlooked. Since several people had disappeared in the weeks since the first sighting of the specter, most people agreed that he'd done this more than once – and had killed at least one person.

And that unlucky young man had not died well.

“I don't like this,” Claude muttered, pushing the doors to the main hall open.

“You keep saying that,” Hilda commented a bit tiredly. “I mean, I agree with you, but you're getting a little redundant now Claude.”

“There should be something hinting at what happened to her,” Claude said in frustration. “Garreg Mach isn't exactly sparsely populated; there's no way no one saw a distinctive figure like this 'death knight' walking off with an unconscious Flayn. Even if she wasn't awake to kick and scream and make a fuss, it would seem strange wouldn't it?”

“Definitely, but if he left with her late enough, he might have been able to slip past most of the guards. Security is lighter in the evenings just by virtue of the timing.” Hilda twisted a stand of hair between her fingers. “Still, you're right. It doesn't make sense that he could do this without making someone suspicious of him. He has to have worked in the monastery.”

“And he probably has help,” Claude added, sighing heavily. “Though we're not likely to find out who that is even when we find Flayn. At least, not now.” If I'm right, and they're the same individual who leaked our and Catherine's position to Lord Lonato as well as slipping those Western Church priests and mercenaries into the Holy Mausoleum... they're pretty well entrenched. It'll take a particularly clever scheme to trick them out into the open.

“Well, we do know something,” Hilda pointed out with a hint of optimism. “They can't have taken Flayn far from the monastery – if they took her away at all. That narrows it down quite a bit.”

“Hopefully,” He murmured, mostly to himself.

They were about halfway down the hall when a distracted Dorothea crashed straight into Hilda, nearly sending both girls to the floor in an awkward heap. (possibly more awkward than usual, given Dorothea's open affection for both genders and the occasional looks Hilda sent Marianne's way.) “Oh, sorry Hilda!” The songstress babbled apologetically, stumbled back a few steps and awkwardly straightening her clothes. “I really didn't mean to – ah, I'm sorry, I was completely lost inside my own head.”

Hilda straightened back up, shooting Claude a thankful smile as he withdrew his steadying hand. “Everybody's running around at the moment,” she said lightly. “What's the matter, Dorothea? Have you heard something?”

“Oh no, unfortunately. I was looking for Manuela – I saw her run off in a terrible hurry, and I thought she might have found out something. Didn't manage to keep up with her, though.”

Out of all people...Professor Manuela found something first?! “Do you have any idea where she was headed?” Claude asked quickly.

Dorothea shook her head, looking vexed. “No! I tried to call after her, but I don't think she heard me.” She frowned. “She was carrying something, though. It looked like a white half mask. I wonder where-?”

“A white half mask?” Claude repeated sharply, his heart skipping a beat. “You're sure?”

The songstress blinked, taken aback. “I, yes – I think so. I mean, it was either that or a white porcelain bowel, and I'm not sure what she would have found out with that...”

“And how many people here wear masks?” Claude muttered before turning on his heels. “Hilda, go find Teach and the others, tell them to go to Professor Jeritza's quarters. I've got a bad feeling about this!”

“R-Right – hey! Don't do anything stupid without us, okay?!” The pinkette demanded before he could slip off back the way he came. “We want in on any stupidity!”

He made himself smile for her and gave her a little mock salute of acknowledgment. It was a good thing he had so much practice; his heartbeat was pounding in his ears and it was entirely possible that this would be a dead end; and if it wasn't...

Jeritza's fighting style had always struck him as odd; it wasn't until he'd started fixating on Byleth and he saw them training together that the reason for the oddness finally hit home. It wasn't that the man was overly fixated on being technical as he'd originally thought; no, it was extremely controlled – similar to Dimitri; no, worse than him. Jeritza was fighting the urge to lash out, to strike his opponent down; he was a lion pacing angrily inside a small cage, constantly agitated by its restrictions.

Professor Manuela was a mage. Her ability to swing a sword came largely from previous theater productions. She knew a bit of black magic, but even then her innate magical talent was limited – utterly unlike Marianne or Lysithea. She wore no armor – not even leather.

Claude ran, sparing only a moment to be grateful that Byleth had insisted that they all carry their best weapon with them.


He made it just past the Knights Hall when he heard the woman's scream.

Damn it!

Claude ran up to the open door to Jeritza's quarters, bow in hand, and stepped inside. He wasn't sure what he'd expected – whether Jeritza would try and flee, stay and prepare to fight now that he knew he'd been discovered, or some other option he hadn't devoted enough brainpower to consider – but the room he stumbled into was empty except for broken plaster, a bookcase set widely askew, and Manuela collapsed on the carpet in a growing pool of her own blood. An ugly gash several inches long had been carved into her side just above her hip, and worse, the blade had been torn out at an angle – ripping the wound open further.

“Professor Manuela...” A rapid look around the room showed no sign of Jeritza, though he'd clearly been there. The mask lay on the floor several feet away from the woman. Seeing no enemies, Claude quickly put his weapon down and knelt by his teacher's side, tearing off part of her long sleeve to staunch the wound. “Hey, can you hear me?!”

The woman stirred and looked blearily at him; her eyes were hazed over with pain and despite blinking repeatedly she couldn't seem to focus on his face. Claude cursed quietly; there was enough blood soaking the fur beneath them to tell him she was in shock. She couldn't tell him what she'd figured out in this state...and she faced a very real threat of bleeding to death with a wound that big. First time I've actively cursed my utter magical ineptitude, he thought bitterly. Ah, where are you, Teach?!

“Down...”

“What?” He muttered, not really looking up from applying pressure to her wound. Blood seeped under his fingernails and dried there, soaking through the cloth in moments.

“...went...down...” Manuela's shaky hand reached up and grasped feebly at his arm. “...he took...her down...”

“He took her? So Jeritza was the one to take Flayn?” He asked urgently.

Manuela's hand squeezed as tightly as she could manage. Her eyes flickered around him and flared intensely. “...Down there...look...”

Claude blinked and looked up a bit; Manuela's free hand was pointing shakily to the far end of the room, where the bookcase sat out of place. He leaned forward just a bit, frowning as he tried to figure out what looked odd about that...

“Is that what I think it is?” He breathed when his eyes finally focused on what she was referring to – a massive hole in the wall, enough for a person could walk through if they ducked a bit. “Hilda was right. He didn't leave the monastery.”

A horde of footsteps had never brought him so much relief. “Claude! What's – ah!” Was that Annette? Huh, that wasn't quite what he expected. “Professor Maneula?! Are you okay? Professor Manuela!” A shadow passed over him; then Teach sank down next to him, gently tapping his hand as warm white light spread out from her wrists. Relieved, he retreated and left the healing to her, grabbing his bow off the floor.

“Tell Felix the Garreg Mach staff owe him a drink,” He told the orangette with a levity he didn't feel. Marianne stepped away from a horror-struck Ashe to assist Byleth; Ignatz was pale as a ghost and shaking, while Dedue looked grim. Hilda appeared in the doorway moments later, Raphael and Lysithea on her heels. The white haired girl's hands immediately went to her mouth when she saw Professor Manuela on the floor. “Jeritza was the one who kidnapped Flayn; took her down that passageway.” He pointed just past the bookcase.

Byleth looked up, lifting her hands and frowning gravely. Between her and Marianne, the older woman's wound was healed, but it left a pretty nasty-looking scar, and she had passed out while her two juniors tended to her. “Is that right?,” She said, her soft voice cool as a winter wind. “That explains a fair bit. They were keeping her right underneath her brother's feet.”

There was an undercurrent to her voice that he'd never heard from her before... and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

“What is the meaning of this?” Hannamen's voice joined the worried babble that instantly broke out in the room. Claude turned toward the older man; there was a very telling look in his eyes when he looked down upon Manuela's prone form. “What? M-Manuela?!” That look lingered across his face for a second longer, then logic returned with a rush and he turned toward Claude. “We need to take her to the infirmary. Don't just stand there, help me carry her!”

“R-Right, right” Claude said, swallowing over a bolt of utter frustration. “Hold down the fort for me Teach. I'll be back once we've gotten Professor Manuela taken care of.”

Byleth hummed in response. Claude slung his bow over his shoulder and grabbed Manuela's legs while Hannamen slid an arm under her shoulders. Together they lifted her up, if you were a few years younger you could have done this yourself. Or asked Dedue! Well, she's not that heavy...it shouldn't take us too long to get her settled. Somewhat morbidly, he remembered something Manuela said after being defeated in the mock battle – about nearly ending up a patient in her own infirmary. Life is in love with its bad jokes, isn't it?

The trek back through the entrance hall and up the stairs felt like it went on forever. Claude resisted the urge to complain and did his best to stomp on the nagging voice in his head that was warning him of what might happen if Jeritza's ally decided their position would be more secure if they got rid of the remaining evidence.

Corpses told no tales...even if Flayn hadn't seen anything that would point them at the truth, they might simply decide it was more expedient to have her dead. And killing her would thoroughly demoralize Seteth, who Rhea clearly trusted and relied on in many things...

It was embarrassing to admit that he nearly dumped Manuela on the bed in his need to get back to the room where his classmates were gathering. He waited just long enough to make sure she was comfortable, then he took off, not waiting to explain much of anything to Hannamen despite the latter's protests and belated request for an explanation as he hurtled out the door, taking his bow back in hand.

He nearly crashed into Dimitri when he jumped the last steps to the first floor. “You've found who took Flayn?” The prince said urgently.

“It was Jeritza,” Claude said briefly, only pausing briefly to check his momentum before running back the way he came. Fortunately Dimitri was of a like mind, and he easily kept up – lance in hand. “He stabbed Professor Manuela after she found the hidden passageway in his quarters. Teach and the others are waiting there, hopefully we'll catch him and get Flayn back in one fell swoop.”

“Good,” Dimitri said shortly, an edge of anger in that one word saying everything he thought about this revelation and Flayn's disappearance.

However...making it back to Jeritza's quarters revealed an empty room. Claude skidded to a halt, staring at the bare walls in bewilderment...until he realized he could hear faint sounds – the crashing of steel and shouted commands – coming from the passageway.

They left without me, he thought stupidly, a mix of bewilderment, indignation and unhappiness swamping his mind. Why?

“Claude,” Dimitri said urgently, putting a hand on his arm. “Are you ready to fight?”

He gave his head a violent shake. “Yeah,” he managed. “Let's go.”

Dimitri gave him a reassuring smile before ducking into the passage, leading the way through the darkness as Claude tailed him. As they drew closer, the voices grew louder, along with the sounds of battle – and then there was something above all the rest –

One of us will live. One of us will die. I will enjoy this dance of damnation.

“...Very well,” Claude's heart leapt into his throat at Byleth's cold, confident voice answered that grating, demonic snarl. He and Dimitri rushed down the last few steps until they came into the torchlight. There was an elaborate system of passageways there, and other fights going on at the moment, but what held the eye was the familiar monstrous figure of a black knight wielding a black scythe that glowed with a sickly gray light. And standing across from him was Byleth, standing with the Sword of the Creator pointed at her opponent's chest. Behind her was Marianne, cradling a very pale and limp Flayn in her arms.

The other thing he could see...was that Byleth was battered and bloodied. Not so different from just after she'd shoved him out of the way of Miklan's tail. And there was blood on the edge of the knight's scythe... “So be it,” His teacher said, her eyes narrowed into slits.

Claude's hands shook on his bow. He tried to tell himself it was from the run, but the icy chill that flooded him when the enemy knight charged forward killed that lie in its bed.

Teach...!

Chapter Text

“What should we do, Professor?” Ignatz asked worriedly.

Byleth eyed the medium-sized hole in the wall balefully as she got to her feet. Even without turning around, she could feel all of the students staring raptly at her, prepared to act in whatever way she thought was most prudent. She bit her lip, resenting Hannamen for dragging Claude away right when she needed his attentive genius the most. Because what should they do? Wait for him and the Knights to join them, risking Jeritza killing Flayn and any other victims he was keeping down there to hide the reason for the abductions? Or should she take her students and rush after them, throwing themselves headlong into a fight against a foe they knew little about – along with any potential traps and allies of his that might be lurking within the hidden passageway?

She growled low in her throat. Previous experiences screamed that she needed to rush it, regardless of potential traps, or face the overwhelming likelihood that Jeritza would slit Flayn's throat – whether to keep her quiet or simply to spite them for catching him, it didn't matter. If he didn't kill her, there was also the possibility that there was a way out of the monastery somewhere below that he could try and take her though. Their best – perhaps only hope – of getting Flayn back was to run after him now and force a confrontation.

...Even though it meant leading her still-somewhat-inexperienced students in blind to face an unknown enemy, and lacking her best marksman and fellow warrior...

Her hand tightened on the hilt of the Sword of the Creator. I have Sothis's gift, she reminded herself. I can't afford to think of Divine Pulse as a crutch, but it is a tool; and a valuable weapon to get Flayn back to her brother... “I think we need to go down there now,” She said firmly, turning to face the gathered students. “Dedue, Annette, Ashe, go and find Dimitri...”

“But we can help!” Ashe protested, sliding his bow off his shoulder and adjusting the belt of his quiver. “It'll be dangerous in the tunnels, Professor.”

“I'm well aware of that,” Byleth responded, uncertain if she was exasperated or touched by his knee-jerk reaction. “But we need to let people know what we've found out and where we're going. We can't wait for the knights to join us; Jertiza knows he has been found out, and we cannot risk him deciding to eliminate his victims out of spite.”

“I will go,” Dedue responded stoically. His eyes swept over Ashe and Annette, a little uneasy yet visibly reconciling himself to his decision, then declared simply, “A message can be carried by one man. You, however, should go to Flayn's side with all the aid available to you.”

“That's right!” Annette said fiercely. “Maybe I'm not as tough as Lysithea -” The white-haired girl looked startled at the admission “-but I can heal and I can knock soldiers around with wind. Let me help! We have to get Flayn back!”

“...Thank you,” Byleth breathed, a knot of something indescribable forming in her stomach at the implicit gesture of trust the other teens were offering her. She glanced between Ashe and Annette; both of them smiled bravely and nodded. “Remember to be careful.” Then she spun on her heels, taking in Hilda and Ignatz and the others, then barked out, “Let's go,” and ducked into the low-hanging passageway in the broken wall.

She was immediately plunged into near-complete blackness. Without the torches at the far end of the passageway providing the dimmest of light to follow, she wouldn't have been able to see past the end of her nose – much less where she was put her feet. After about a minute of stumbling on fairly smooth ground, she nearly tumbled forward when the rocky ground turned gave way into a steep staircase descending directly down. She placed a hand against a wall, momentarily lamenting that neither Marianne nor Lysithea had any magic torches left over from their mission at Magdred way. “Watch your step,” She warned her students, cautiously taking another step, then another with her hand tracing the stone maintaining her sense of balance.

“It's r-really dark in here,” Ignatz whimpered somewhere behind her as the light from the upper room slowly dissolved as they descended out of its reach.

“Don't be a coward, Ignatz,” Hilda chided from directly at Byleth's back, though her voice was not completely devoid of sympathy. “The Professor's with us.”

The Ashen Demon pressed her nails into her palm, and tried to figure out why that complete confidence made her hands tremble. Dimitri's words about her feeling responsible for her students and his friends seem to echo in the darkness as she descended. Finally she wondered if the tightness in her throat and in her chest was fear...Her blood spiked, and she stumbled on a particularly steep step. “Be careful,” She said – to whom, she wasn't sure; she heard Ashe yelp a moment ago, but Raphael caught him – as her eyes were drawn to the glowing orange light growing in size as they drew closer and closer to it.

“This is so weird...there's this much space below the monastery?” Lysithea mumbled.

“Didn't Claude say something about that?” Ashe asked in turn. “I heard him talking to one of the monks in the cathedral some time ago; apparently no one really remembers anything about how the building was constructed or why anything was added. The man couldn't say much more than that...but if there were always tunnels and such within Garreg Mach, then it makes sense that the Western Church could use them to slip in...even before this.”

“Shhh,” Byleth hushed them, though she spent a second to be both bemused by and grateful for Claude's constant curiosity. There were sounds drifting up the empty stairwell, something other than the muffled apologies and footsteps behind her.

Shouting, cursing. Many footsteps, all echoing in the high ceiling and empty tunnels of the underground. The professor was seized with the sudden, irrational desire to echo Claude's artificially offhanded remark about living in interesting times; there were multiple enemies down there, not just Jeritza. Because of course there were! How in the blazing eternal flames was there half a company's worth of enemies loitering around right under the noses of everyone in Garreg Mach?! And more importantly, why?! What purpose did that serve?!

Using tunnels to subvert castle defenses was an old standby, yes, but who in the wide world would invade a church?

Woolgathering, Byleth told herself sharply. Light from the torches below was growing brighter, casting pale orange streaks across the gray, moss riddled stone steps and dirty, dusty walls. Find Flayn first, ask questions afterwards. Preferably aiming them at one or three of the abductors down there.

“Get ready,” She ordered as the light grew brighter by their descent. She heard Hilda suck in a deep breath and the clink of the pinkette's reinforced iron ax banging against the wall as she took it off her back. Annette murmured something to Raphael Byleth didn't catch; Ashe prayed to the goddess for guidance and protection, and Ignatz made a noise that was a bizarre mix of relief and trepidation. Byleth let out a breath and drew the Sword of the Creator. Strange as it was, despite the fact she'd had the blade for just over a month, it felt like an extension of her arm. The light at the bottom grew brighter and brighter until her feet hit the bottom of the stairs and she exited into the chamber below.

The sight was...honestly, it was about as large as the Holy Masoleum, but far stranger. The room was massive, lit only by a series of torches and strange patches of green light spread out sporadically...most of which seemed to come from the floor rather than the walls. As Byleth walked out onto the moss-covered floor (this room didn't see much use or maintenance. Was this one of the 'secrets' that Claude alluded to when he directed us to that passageway back then?), she saw a yellowish glow rising from the floor just in front of a brick wall. Squinting at it revealed what seemed to be a circular panel with odd letters and symbols surrounding it. There was low light, but it wasn't so hard to see as a foggy forest rendered muddy by rain. Nothing her students would be crippled by.

To the right of the hallway, away from the dead end and the yellow light, was a chamber where a number of archers and swordsmen were standing. Byleth squinted in the low light, frowning. They weren't dressed as mercenaries, their armor was too uniform for that. They wore primarily red, one of the colors of the Empire, but...well, it was hard to tell at this distance, but it didn't look like they wore any of the royal symbols – and why would soldiers of the Empire be here? But if they all bear the same armor, that means they serve the same master. Who is Jeritza to have people like this down in his spider hole? She couldn't think of an answer; that worried her.

Flayn must be somewhere in the labyrinth, Sothis cautioned. We must find her before they try to escape...or silence her.

What if they kill her when they hear us coming?, Byleth worried as the last of her students left the stairwell and surrounded her.

Mmmm, I believe that malcontent Vestra was right, tactless though he might have been, Sothis acknowledged rather begrudgingly. Flayn was taken alive for a purpose. If they have not gained everything they need from her, they cannot afford to kill her.

I hope you're right, Byleth thought, a keening pain in her chest.

“Ugh, it's so dark...and it smells funny.” Hilda grumbled. “What do you suppose that thing is, Professor?” She pointed her ax toward the yellow circle.

“I don't know,” Byleth admitted, frowning at it. “I've never seen anything like it.” Something itched at the back of her mind, but she dismissed it – now wasn't the time.

Ashe tilted his head at it. “They wouldn't be here if they didn't do something.” He rubbed his neck, his brow furrowed in thought. “This is a labyrinth, isn't it? I wonder...” He smiled suddenly, like a light had gone off in his mind. “That's right! There was a story I read some time ago about something like this; a hero was delivered to an evil king as tribute for a previous perceived slight against him; he was sent into a labyrinth that contained a powerful demonic beast.”

“Er, that's nice Ashe, but what does that have to do with anything?” Lysithea asked, glaring warily at the patrolling soldiers.

“Everything,” Ashe responded earnestly before pointing at the yellow circle. “The labyrinth was full of magical traps that moved the hero to different hallways whenever he stepped on one; it was why no one had escaped the labyrinth before. He was able to find the right path because – oh, that part can probably wait. That looks like a dead end or a wall, but what if it isn't? What if that's a magic circle like from the story?”

Annette's eyes widened. “Oh...! I've never heard about anything like that being used, but if this place is old and mysterious...should we check?”

Ashe gave Byleth an earnest look. When she frowned in concern, he appealed by saying, “The more spread out we are, the faster we'll find Flayn.”

Internally, Byleth squirmed with discomfort. I don't want you going where I can't see you, she wanted to protest. But the logic was completely sound, and frankly something she would have suggested herself if she'd had the mind to. She stared at Ashe for a moment, looking at his straight back and the bow he held in a steady hand...and knew that this wasn't the same lightly-educated boy who had followed her to Magdred Way. Exhaling, she said, “Go have a look. Annette, Leonie, Raphael...get ready to follow him.”

Annette nodded, skittering along at Ashe's heels as the gray-haired boy approached the circle. She knew how to heal; Byleth had been a little surprised to see that, and the mage girl had cheerfully told her that seeing the professor's proficiency in keeping her allies healed and healthy had inspired her to take up studying faith magic. It made the little group safer even though they wouldn't have a dedicated healer like Marianne.

Ashe cautiously stepped onto the circle. The light flared up, surrounding him entirely. Ashe flinched slightly but didn't react with pain; a moment later, there was a strange pop, and then he vanished in the blink of an eye.

Byleth blinked in disbelief. Was that...Warp? A Warp spell bound to a floor tile?!

Hilda let out a startled, completely understandable shriek that nevertheless finally drew the attention of the soldiers at the far end of the hall.

Byleth swore in High Almyran – which earned her a very startled and confused look from Lorenz – and gave Annette a little shake to break her out of her shock. “Get going,” She hissed at Raphael next, pushing him toward Annette. “Leonie, you're in charge over there. Be careful!”

“Got it,” The archer promised, flashing her a confident smirk that dripped with battle fever. Then she stepped onto the pad herself and vanished from sight.

Byleth turned then, that same strange feeling twisting in the bottom of her gut. She hoped they wouldn't find themselves immediately ambushed upon arrival. And what are those things...by what magic can they – ah, it doesn't matter now! “Get ready!” She ordered her students, drawing the sword of the creator. “Finding Flayn is your primary objective – and don't get separated!”

She twisted her wrist and swung the sword at the archer setting up to shoot at Lysithea. The blazing blade tore the bow in half and embedded itself at the bottom of the enemy's throat. Byleth winced at the gurgling noise they made before slumping to the ground. W-What is this? Nausea? I don't understand...I never had such a reaction in a fight – except for -

“Professor, be careful!” Hilda's voice jolted her; seconds later, a hand ax whipped past her head an slammed into the swordsman who'd been rushing straight at her.

“Thank you,” She said automatically before giving her head a firm shake. What is happening to me?

Marianne grimaced as she raised her hand, the glittering blue dust of Blizzard swirling around her wrist. “I'm sorry,” She whispered before casting. The ice blast struck one archer on the knee and froze his boot to the floor; which made for a wince-inducing noise when he collapsed but couldn't quite move his leg in time. Hilda took a split second to pat her friend on the arm before launching herself forward and bringing her ax down on a swordsman via a powerful overhead swing. Unlike a similar incident in the red canyon, she wrenched her weapon free of her victim's skull with only a slight whine of discomfort. Lorenz darted ahead – what happened to my order to stick together?, Byleth though with a twinge of a hot feeling that was far from odd bubbly sensation her students usually gave her – and knocked the final archer down with a fireball, forcing his way into the first chamber. Muttering dire, dire threats about what she would do to his training schedule if he started actively disobeying her, Byleth swung an arm to the others and followed hot on the pompous mage's heels.

The room wasn't very big – in fact it was roughly the same size as the golden deer classroom, with a few pillars, moss and the varying signs of a place that had been left to decay being recently and rapidly re-purposed for a new keeper. The light was still low, and there didn't seem to be any of those bizarre warp tiles about...

Lysithea hovered about her shoulder and pointed forward. Byleth looked ahead and frowned. There was a narrow entrance into another small room, and beyond that...an iron gate. It would just figure I sent Ashe the other way, she thought ruefully. Well, the gates are guarded by an armor knight, two mages, and an archer. Hopefully one of them has the keys on them, or else we'll have to waste precious time forcing them open...

Lorenz charged to the mouth of the entrance way, meeting another sword wielding myrmidon and defeating her after a struggle that brought them back a few steps. He was several yards ahead of the rest of them, and he turned after defeating his opponent as if he was going to wave to an opera audience. What am I going to do with him?

Byleth, look at the wall there, Sothis cautioned. There are arrow slits!

Thank you! “Lorenz, get back here!” She barked.

The mage knight wheeled around, stepping just far enough to the right that his confused “Professor, I am more than capa-” broke off into a startled cry when the arrow hit him mid-arm instead of in the chest. Byleth dropped the Sword, slung her bow off of her back and fired back at the arrow slit. Perhaps Sothis was guiding her arm, because there was a telltale shriek of pain despite the low light interfering with her sight.

“Hilda, take this,” Byleth urged, throwing the pinkette the mace she'd gotten off one of the fallen soldiers. “Marianne needs cover to work.” Hilda winked before darting forward to meet the armor knight charging toward Lorenz. Marianne slid forward and began examining the arrowhead while the sound of armor bending and crunching rang through the air. “Ignatz, take the archer on the left.” The diminutive knight-to-be nodded and raised the gift she'd offered him after passing his intermediate exam – a smaller, lightweight bow that allowed him to attack faster and do more damage in spite of his weaker frame. He fired twice while Byleth dipped to the right, taking aim again as the mage's partner threw fire at her

Two arrows to the throat. The woman dropped dead. Huh. I aimed for the throat on instinct. I...hadn't noticed I was doing that. Have I just incapacitated a single person since I started? I usually... She shook her head, again. Well, these are kidnappers, and may well be slavers. I've always made an exception for them unless ordered otherwise. Nothing odd about that.

Her stomach must be a hot, twisty mess due to that stupid arrow slit she'd failed to notice. You'd think I would have learned after that nightmare at Conand Tower...

“I distinctly recall telling everyone not to run ahead and separate themselves from the others,” She said icily when turning back toward Lorenz. Marianne had gotten the arrow out and fixed him, though with markedly less ease than Mercedes would have managed with her Crest. “Did I stutter?” Ignatz's foe fell with a chopped off scream that made her want to cringe.

“Professor, I was merely-”

“-disobeying me when we're facing enemies we know next to nothing about, on their turf, in low light?” Byleth cut him off ruthlessly, her eyes narrowing. “That's precisely what you did.”

“I – was aware, but I believed that-”

“I am aware of your...compunction to prove yourself, regardless of its senselessness,” Byleth said flatly, sliding her foot under the Sword's hilt and kicking it up into her hand. The gesture made Lorenz flinch. “Let me make one thing clear, Lorenz. I can barely tolerate you constantly undermining command when you do it to Claude. I will not tolerate you doing the same to me, especially not right now. I do not have the time to give you a proper lecture, so either you tell me now that you will hold the rearguard until we find Flayn or you will go back upstairs and wait for the knights to appear. What will it be?”

Lorenz's mouth opened and shut a few times as he stared at her, cheeks flushed with shock and humiliation. Byleth felt a twinge of something confusing that she harshly dismissed; the sooner this message stuck, the better. “I...will keep up the rear, as you wish Professor.” The purple haired boy managed at last.

“Good,” Byleth spun on her heel and walked over to the mage. “Check to see if any of them have door keys. Hurry. If we have to force the gates, we'll need every spare second.”

Ignatz, who had been staring at her while she disciplined Lorenz, jumped, nodded rapidly and mumbled, 'o-of course, I'm sorry professor', and rushed back to the mage he'd downed. Hilda stared at her, head tilted, before kneeling next to the downed armored knight. Byleth exhaled slowly and then went to her own opponent and ruffling through her pockets.

Nothing...nothing...a handful of gold coins...the emblem of House Vestra's mage court...? Oh, I do not like that...wait. It's scorched and cracked. Isn't that how the Empire marks dishonorable discharge from the army? Yes, that's right...I've seen this before. That would explain it; she must have been picked up as competent muscle. No keys, unfortunately. Maybe the sword could take the door apart in the least amount of -

“Got it!” Hilda cheered, startling her. Byleth straightened up to see the pinkette cheerfully waving a ring containing multiple keys above her head. Her never-ending, if often inappropriate for the field, upbeat attitude was oddly relief-inducing in that moment. “I think we caught them during a patrol shift. Good luck for us!”

“That's great,” Byleth responded with a rueful smile before turning her attention to the gate. There was a lot of shouting now, some distant and floating from the far end of the labyrinth where Ashe, Leonie and the others were undoubtedly raising havoc – I hope they're okay a stay thought whispered – while the more immediate came from the other side of the gate. Two armored knights, another archer...and unless the light was playing tricks on her, there was another gate and arrow slits in the far wall. She would have to be careful where she had Lysithea and Marianne go... “Lysithea, go and help Hilda with those two.”

The white haired girl nodded, though she gave Byleth a somewhat odd look for a second. Shifting her weight, Byleth slung her bow back over her shoulder and shifted her grip on the Sword so she was holding it properly again.

“How are you, Marianne?” She asked the mage girl, who seemed a bit shaken. Her clothes were a bit burnt too. “Are you hurt at all?”

“N-No,” Marianne shook her head. Byleth noted, a bit troubled, that she said that despite having heavy shadows under her eyes...the same shadows that she always seemed to have whenever her teacher took a close look at her. Did she have the sleepless sickness? Ah, a question for later. “I was just g-grazed. Have you been injured, Professor?”

“Not yet.” She did her best to give Marianne a reassuring smile. It felt awkward on her face, and she wished once again – with a stabbing sense of aggravation – that Claude was here with them. But it seemed to comfort the blue haired girl nonetheless, since she stood up a bit straighter in response.

The crackling of fire and the horrid stench of burning flesh drew her attention back to the front. Hilda let out a gleeful sound as she twisted one of the keys in the lock and forced the door open; Lysithea shook her wrist, attention riveted to the unpleasant sight that was the armor knight she'd just defeated – by superheating and partially melting his armor around him. Seventh hell, she's powerful. That much heat from just a regular fire spell...

She grasped Lysithea's shoulder, shaking her out of the spell. Just keep moving, she urged the younger girl silently. You did what you had to. Don't dwell on it.

“You're making me work,” Hilda groused...rather an underreaction to the arrow that had just hit her in the side, but it didn't impede her from darting forward and slamming the mace into the archer's face. There was a sharp flare of emerald green light – a quick flicker of a symbol – and the unforged weapon took the man's head clean off, sending it spinning into the dark. Hilda staggered a step back afterwards. “Uuughh...” She doubled over, leaning heavily on the wall. “That...sucked...”

“Be careful, Hilda!” Ignatz warned, hurrying forward and taking a potshot through the bars of the gate. Byleth heard a shout from the other side, but no indication of a body hitting the floor. Must have dodged.

Hilda threw up in response – whether from the pain or the fact she'd just singlehadedly knocked a man's head off (or both) didn't really matter – and her face was turning dangerously gray. Cursing, Byleth directed Marianne over to her friend and gently took the keys from her shaking student. “You did well,” She promised.

She walked a few feet forward and nearly caught a Miasma spell to the face; only Lysithea's timely yell of warning saved her a blistering injury. Yet another iron-wrought gate had been hiding in the darkness, and on the other side was yet another knight in heavy armor accompanied by a dark mage along with a regular fire caster. It seemed like a sealed off room; if this was where they were keeping Flayn...

“Lysithea? I've got an idea,” She said when she straightened up on the other side of the door. The younger girl nodded, eyes bright and alert. 'Do you think you can fire a spell from directly behind me without hitting me? When I raise my arm?' She signed carefully. It was her father who suggested she teach her students some sign language, just for situations like this. She'd only started a little while ago, but if there was anyone who might understand...it would be her. The white haired girl worked so hard...

Lysithea's brow furrowed heavily for a moment; then she nodded sharply in understanding. Byleth felt a light, warm sense of – relief? Admiration? She wasn't sure...

Woolgathering, Sothis reminded her. Byleth let out a breath, nodded to Lysithea, and stepped in front of the gate again. Sure enough, the fire caster stepped forward and lashed out with a spell. Whatever instinct the sword – or perhaps her Crest of Flames – had provided her when she first picked the weapon up struck again, and she sliced through the flames, dissipating them. Then she raised her arm up, as if to bring the sword down on the gate itself -

-Just in time for Luna to graze her coat, slam through the bars and strike the man in the chest. The flickering full moon seemed to consume the man in silver-black light, and he vanished without a sound – as if he'd never existed at all.

Then, while the other two occupants were reeling, Byleth brought the Sword down with the power of her Crest behind it. The blade tore through the iron hinges as though it were no more than wet parchment, and the impact knocked the door back and onto the floor, forcing the dark mage to skitter backwards.

Behind them, Byleth heard a telltale dying shriek, the voice too old to belong to any of her students. She pointed at the man in armor before letting the Sword of the Creator loose; it cut through the dark mage's miasma to imbed itself in his stomach. Lysithea wasted no time disposing of the armored man, this time blasting her enemy with Seraphim. It knocked him flat, allowing Byleth entrance into the room.

She strained her eyes in the dark...only a green warp tile provided any respite. There was no sign of Flayn...but there was a young girl tied up in a corner, probably no more than thirteen. Byleth vaguely recognized her as one of Anna's many orphan helpers, who she so often saw feeding and playing with the cats in the courtyard. Quickly she stepped over the mage's corpse and knelt in front of the girl. She took out a knife to cut the ropes and then gently shook the girl awake; the tiny brunette looked up at her with bleary eyes that took a moment to focus and recognize her. “It's okay,” Byleth murmured, casting Heal on the rope burns on her wrists. “We're going to get you out of here.” Tears filled the girl's eyes, and she clung to Byleth's arm as the Ashen Demon stood up.

“Lorenz,” She called. The noble appeared in the doorway in an instant, head bowed slightly. His eyes widened at the sight. “Guard her. Keep her away from the fighting as best you can. I would send you back, but there might be more people here.”

“As you wish, Professor,” Lorenz responded, his tone quiet and dutiful as opposed to his usual proud tones. Byleth carefully lead the girl to him, catching her when her knees buckled, until Lorenz was able to pick her up. Then she hurried back out into the hall.

Hilda was back on her feet, looking no worse for wear; her shirt and leathers were pretty thoroughly bloodstained, indicating that Marianne had needed to cut the arrow out. I need to buy the class better armor... Ignatz was collecting arrows off of the ground and from corpses while Lysthiea twisted the key in the door and pushed it open. Marianne fidgeted in place, brushing soot off her clothes. Byleth smiled upon seeing them, though only lasted a moment. Where are Ashe and the others? I wish there was some way of seeing what was going on with them...

Hilda blinked when she saw the little girl, then smiled brightly and walked over. “Hey there. It's going to be okay,” She promised, patting her on the head. The girl initially flinched away from the bloodstained teenager, but she leaned into the touch with a little whine that made her seem even younger than she truly was.

“Ignatz?” Byleth asked, walking through the gate to the small, narrow room where Ignatz was warily hovering near a suspiciously open door. “Who's in there?”

He didn't get a chance to answer her – a pained scream in a very familiar voice solved the mystery. Ignatz jolted and looked horrified, and the rest of the students sans Lorenz rushed up to join them. “Dear Goddess,” Marianne whispered – whether in horror or anger, or both, it was too quiet to tell – her hands clenched tightly.

Flayn's agony lashed against Byleth's every nerve like a raging fire. A strange red haze filled the entire room, which jerked and moved forward. Byleth!, Sothis shouted though the fog as her (Friend? Host? Channeler?) shoulder-checked the first myrmidon in her path and kicked him into his partner, sending both of them into the ground. Byleth, control yourself!

Byleth gave her head a shake, barely noticing when an arrow thumped into her shoulder. Taking the Sword in her other hand and jamming it into face of another mage, she stepped over the corpse so her students could make headway. Her eyes panned around the room; it was narrow and bare except for a number of enemies who stood between them and a door from which another pained scream echoed. I'm sorry, she thought distractedly.

“I can do this!” Ignatz slammed his iron sword into the face of a mage, the awkwardly kicked them away. “Professor? Are you alright?!”

“I'll manage,” She gritted out. Stupid, amateur move, she chastised herself. Taking a page from Caspar, are we? “Take them out!”

As if on cue, an arrow whisked out. Marianne let out a startled yelp, stumbling back a step and watching in bewilderment as the dark mage that had been approaching her abruptly fell dead. “We've really got to stop meeting like this,” Ashe said breathlessly, darting out of a passageway Byleth had overlooked in her fit of irrationality. He drew another arrow and fired at the archer harassing Hilda on the other side of the room, allowing her and Lysithea to finish him off.

“Ashe,” Marianne gasped, hurrying to his side and healing the superficial-but-painful-looking scar on his face. “Thank goodness.”

“There you are,” Byleth said in relief. Her eyes fell down to his wrist, which was now clad in a strange white band that flickered with silver dust. “What happened over there?”

“A lot of treasure, a bunch of weird mercenaries, and what I think must be some sort of control mechanism for those warp tiles,” Leonie reported breathlessly, hurrying out of the alleyway next. Her clothes were ragged and torn in several places, but she was as energetic as ever. “No sign of Flayn though.” Raphael and Annette appeared right behind her. Raphael looked exhausted and was sporting a disturbing number of bloodstains on his clothes while Annette hovered around him, clearly a bit worried but since she didn't immediately scream for Marianne or Byleth herself, she must have had the injuries under control. “Oh geez, professor, your shoulder-!”

“Yeah, I noticed.” Byleth gritted her teeth. “I got careless; but never mind that right now – Flayn's beyond that door. Go!”

Leonie nodded briskly and shot forward alongside Hilda; sucking in a deep breath and pressing her mouth closed, Byleth grabbed the arrowshaft still stuck in her shoulder and yanked hard. Marianne uttered a horrified 'Professor, no!' and her vision briefly went gray, but the arrow came out in its entirety, and that was just going to have to do. Physic hit her moments later – saving her from the worst of the vertigo.

“Sorry, Marianne,” She said, dropping the bloody projectile to the ground. Ashe let out a strangled noise of distress she barely heard. Oh, Falrie would give me such a blistering lecture for doing that... “I need my shoulder.” She rushed to join her students. Hilda raised her mace, surrounded by green light, and brought it down on the door. The wood instantly splintered and shattered under the sheer force applied to it, cracking off its hinges and crashing to the floor. What Byleth saw within was not conductive to controlling the hair-trigger state that she was in.

Flayn was lying on a raised wooden table which was liberally splattered with a strange green-tinged liquid. Her wrists and arms were bound in multiple places with thick bandages that were dirty and soaking through; and over them were iron chains wrapped around her arms, her legs and her neck, binding her to the table without the slightest room for movement. Her clothes were filthy and while there was a faint rising and falling of her chest, she was slumped on the table with her eyes closed and wasn't moving at all. Just behind her, a red haired girl in a ragged, filthy, barely-recognizable officer's academy uniform was bound and gagged and slumped against the stone wall with a trickle of blood coming from underneath a hasty bandage wrapped around the crown of her head.

A dark mage stood right behind the table, holding in his hand a thin vial with a sharp point that he had just pulled free of Flayn's shoulder. He was...viscerally disturbing to look at; it wasn't that he was heavily scarred, it was that his face just seemed strange, even though there was no one thing about it that one could point a finger at and call unnatural. Alongside him were two men armed with lances and one other mage.

The strange man jerked back a step when the door collapsed, eyes wide ask dinner plates. “Death Knight! Where are you?” He shouted, his voice cracking in a way that Byleth might have found pitiful at any other point in time. “Intruders! There are intru-”

Leonie's arrow skewered his arm; causing him to scream and drop the vial, letting it shatter on the stone floor. The dark mage staggered and then vanished in the same flare of pink light that had swallowed the Death Knight back in the Holy Masoleum. Byleth swore bitterly before pulling an arrow from her quiver and stabbing the approaching lance wielder in the eye. Raphael took down the mage with a vicious one-two punch while Ashe and Ignatz skewered the mage – though not before the latter managed to get off a fireball that ignited Hilda's sleeve.

Raphael hurriedly turned and helped her put out the fire while Byleth rushed to Flayn's side. Marianne and Annette followed right behind them, their worried murmurs sounding as if they were coming from far away.

Byleth carefully pressed two fingers against Flayn's neck, then lowered her ear to the smaller girl's chest. The only response that drew was a faint, cracked whimper; her pulse was weak, and so was her heartbeat. “Flayn...” She whispered, a painful ache knotting in her chest. Straightening up, she immediately began to pull on the chains binding one of her arms, fumbling until she found the lock. “Ashe, come here, I need your help...”

The boy was at her side in an instant, sliding to his knees and revealing a rather expensive-looking set of lockpicks. Byleth briefly wondered where in the world those came from before shoving the thought away, instead taking hold of the chain and waiting for the telltale click of the lock coming open. As they worked to free her, Marianne hurried over and cast a basic heal spell on Flayn before examining her as best she could; Annette carefully stepped over Byleth in order to do the same for the redhaired girl. Lorenz stood just behind them, stock still, the scared orphan girl still clinging to his leg.

“Um...Professor?” Ignatz said nervously.

“What is it?” Byleth grunted as she unwound the chain around Flayn's neck. The girl looked up at her with bleary eyes, tears of relief trickling down her cheeks, before they slid closed.

“Where is Jeritza? He...he went down here, didn't he? He should be here, but none of us saw him...”

“Do you think he just ran for it?” Raphael suggested. “He knows that he's been found out, and the whole of the church is after him. Maybe he just bolted. There're so many passages down here it's possible we missed one.”

Byleth grimaced. “That man seems to think that the Death Knight is here, however. ...I don't think we're out of the woods yet. Not until we get back upstairs.” Where the hell are the knights? Did they have to get recalled? And where's Claude...he wouldn't let himself get held up for long... “How are they?”

“She's alright,” Annette said, gently brushing the blood away from the redhead's eyes. “She's got a bit of a concussion, but the head wound's shallow, and she's not that malnourished. Marianne?”

The blue haired girl shook her head. “...massive blood loss, lacerations, dehydration...she's alive, thank goodness, but I need to take her to Professor Manuela. I...I can't heal this much properly on my own.” She wilted when saying this, her head dropping.

Byleth yanked the last chain off and threw it aside before straightening up and giving Marianne's arm a gentle squeeze. “You'll learn,” She promised. “Now, let me think...Lysithea, can you look after Anna's little friend?” The mage girl nodded, beckoning the orphan closer. “Lorenz, you carry the redhead... and Raph-”

A great, rumbling thud interrupted her. Byleth spun around, staring in alarm at the wall just behind Annette and the redhead. A moment later, there was another, louder crash, and a spiderweb of cracks appeared in the stone. “Goddess. Damn. It.” She uttered, torn between disbelief and resignation. “Annette, get up!

Annette didn't need the prompting; she hastily shoved the redhead into Lorenz's waiting arms and threw herself forward, rolling over one shoulder and back to her feet. Marianne wrapped her arms under Flayn and pulled her off the table with little visible effort just in time for the wall to shatter inward under a great impact and a flare of purple magic. Byleth stepped in front of them, sword raised up, as the dust cleared and their enemy became clear.

The ebony armor of the Death Knight looked almost like a casket up close – even standing a few feet away, Byleth couldn't see how he could have put it on, since there were so few visible joints where one piece of it ended and another began. He didn't have his horse; likely it had been unwilling to come so deeply underground. But he was exactly as she remembered him from the Masoleum. Taller even than her and Raphael, armed with a silver-black scythe that 'hummed' with magical energy, and even though his face she could sense the malevolent smile beneath it. The glowing red eyes in his helmet swept dismissively over her students. “I have no need of you,” He rumbled, raising the scythe up.

Byleth's eyes widened; she had just enough time to shove Ashe back before the scythe came down and grazed her shoulder, cutting straight through her leather armor. Fortunately she'd thrown her weight enough that she was only grazed, rather than loosing her arm entirely. She hit the ground, rolled and swung back to her feet in time for his second attack; she brought the sword up and countered it.

The weight of the scythe felt heavier, and hit harder, than anything she'd countered with the Sword before. Had she not been in the throes of battle fever, she might have been taken aback for a critical moment; as it was, she forced the weapon to the side while her students scattered.

The Death Knight swung again, blindingly fast; she attempt at dodging resulted in another gouging scar on her arm. The spike of pain wracked her arm terribly, but she cast a rapid Heal and swung in retaliation. She was more than a little surprised when the sacred weapon's blade cracked his shoulder armor, but didn't immediately destroy it – it must be enchanted, nothing else has survived that before – and it didn't really stagger him. Her opponent walked a few steps and swung again; the blade flashed with magic. Byleth threw herself to the ground, letting the likely fatal blow fly directly over her head; his armored boot lashed out, hitting her injured shoulder and knocking her onto her back.

She forced herself to draw in a deep breath and threw herself to the right; the scythe slammed into the ground where she'd lain moments ago. She rolled onto her knees and got back to her feet, spinning to the side so his next blow missed her as well. He's fast for someone wearing so much armor! She pressed her finger against the hole in the sword and launched it at her enemy, who didn't really attempt to dodge. It cracked his armor again, staggering him a bit.

“Get back upstairs!” Byleth shouted at her frozen students before rushing forward.

“But professor-”

Go!” They couldn't fight someone like this. They weren't ready!

The Black Knight's eye trained on Ashe again. Snarling, Byleth threw Nosferatu directly at his chest; she gained little relief from it, though thankfully her left shoulder stopped bleeding and didn't feel quite so numb. Sure enough, he swung the scythe at her neck; she blocked it, though her arm buckled and she ducked out of the way moments later. Is this man truly Jeritza? He fights like an animal –! She parried again and then took a stab at him; he retreated from her reach, showing he didn't believe that his armor was invincible.

Marianne – proving once and for all that she was far braver than her disposition suggested – dove straight past the Death Knight, coming within a hair's breath of him, to run for the stairs with Flayn in her arms. Only a pair of brigands coming from a side hallway cut her off, and the blue hared girl merely knelt on the floor so she could free one hand to cast Thoron. Byleth saw this because the Death Knight saw it, tilting his head as if rendered curious by the display of resolve.

Then he cast a glance back at her. It was a brief look -

-but when he pointed the scythe at Marianne's back, that purple-black magic crackling around it, Byleth knew precisely what it meant. He wanted to make sure she was watching while he killed her.

That red tinge flooded her vision again. She cast the sword out, the collapsible blade wrapping around the blade of the weapon; then she yanked back with the dull burn of her Crest augmenting her strength. A blast of black energy flew directly upward, smashing into the ceiling and bringing mortar and brick raining down on their heads. The Death Knight had a death grip on his weapon, so she failed to pull it away; nevertheless, she retreated the sword and scrambled backwards, narrowly avoiding the falling bits of ceiling, so she was standing between him and her student.

Ashe and Leonie were had teamed up to take potshots at a pair of mages who had appeared out of one of the labyrinth entrances. Raphael was preoccupied to the right. Lorenz, Hilda, Annette and Lysithea were guarding the other two victims; Lysithea looked like she was trying to aim for the Death Knight, but couldn't take her eyes off her quarry for long enough.

One of us will live. One of us will die,” The Death Knight said, a lusty undertone of excitement dripping from every word. “I will enjoy this dance of damnation.

Byleth cast one quick look at Marianne. There was fear in the other girl's tired eyes, but she held Flayn tightly and set her face in defiant resolve. The Ashen Demon had no doubt she would take another run for the stairs if the Death Knight could be sufficiently preoccupied. “Very well,” She said coldly, pointing her sword at him again. Now matter how much she ached and bled, as long as she could breathe, she would fight him. “Let us begin.”

The Death Knight took a step forward...and was forced to stop and cringe when an arrow whisked through the air and lodged itself in the cracked armor in his shoulder.

Byleth's head snapped to the right. A pale and stone-faced Claude drew another arrow – there you are, she thought with a surge of warmth – while Dimitri forwent any sort of planning to jump down the remaining steps and head directly for the Death Knight. She opened her mouth to warn him off, but ended up coughing roughly instead while Claude yelled for her and Marianne.

The Death Knight deflected Dimitri's first lance strike. “You're getting in the way of my game,” He snarled before trying to bring the scythe down on his head.

Dimitri didn't even twitch. He merely raised his hand up and grabbed the pole of the blade, stopping it dead. Just...just reached up and stopped it, like picking up a stone from the road. A pale silver-blue light began to emanate from him; he was so tense he seemed about to shake.

“Game...?” The prince bit out. Byleth stiffened. Dimitri's voice was full of a hatred so pure it was almost holy; the Death Knight tried to pull away, but this time his strength wasn't enough. “You call these acts of bloodshed and murder a game...?!The light flared and formed into the Crest of Bladdiyd; the crackling of crushing stone echoed in Byleth's ears. “Perish, you monster!”

Before her disbelieving eyes, Dimitri twisted his wrist and the weapon that had clashed with the Sword of the Creator cracked and shattered like a child's toy; he turned the curved blade slightly and slammed it into the Death Knight's chest. The impact cracked and shattered the battered chest armor and threw the man several feet backwards into and through the part of the wall he hadn't destroyed earlier.

Byleth stared wide-eyed at Dimitri, and knew without looking that everyone else was as well. The prince started to walk towards his downed opponent, nonchalantly tossing the fragmented blade aside, when there was a pink flare of light...this time bringing someone into the room.

You're done here,” A distorted voice told the Death Knight, who was clambering to his feet when this person appeared in front of them. “There will be plenty of time for you to 'play' later.” There was a somewhat sarcastic emphasis on the word 'play', though perhaps Byleth's exhausted and spinning mind was imagining it. Claude had run down to her and Marianne's side, and he stared at the figure with narrowed eyes.

I will go,” The Death Knight said reluctantly; then he vanished in a flare of light.

The figure turned to fully face her, Dimitri, Claude and the rest of her students. They were a heavy armor knight, whoever they were, though hardly an ordinary one. Parts of their armor were painted black, they wore a scarlet cloak with a feathered trim, and the ax that they held in one hand was of a make that Byleth had never seen before. Much like the scythe... The helmet they wore included a completely concealing face mask, the likes of which were used in theater for comedies. They weren't a tall figure, but they radiated absolute confidence, even though they were technically surrounded. “I see your Crest serves you well, Prince of Faerghus,” They said. This time, there was an undeniable sneer on the word 'crest'. “Few have defeated my Death Knight before.”

“So, you claim responsibility for all of this?” Dimitri spat, his free hand clenching into a fist. “For the abduction and torture of students?”

I claim responsibility for my creature, nothing more,” The person answered. Their attention shifted over to Byleth. “We will cross paths again. I am the Flame Emperor. It is I who will reforge the world.” With that, they vanished, despite Dimitri's attempts to reach them.

“Coward!” The prince shouted after them, furious.

“Dimitri!” Claude called after him urgently. “Dimitri, Lorenz needs your help!” Indeed, a somewhat bloody Lorenz was struggling to carry the red haired hostage while Annette worked on healing him. Lysithea and Ignatz were trying to comfort Anna's sobbing helper with little success.

“Please help him,” Byleth said when Dimitri partially turned around, frustration warring with worry in his face. “We need to carry them up to the infirmary.”

The uncharacteristic anger seemed to die away at that; Dimitri nodded, slid his lance over his back and ran to Lorenz's side. Marianne stood up, still dutifully carrying Flayn, while Claude finally stepped in front of Byleth. “You need any help?” He asked.

“I'm fine,” She tried to say dismissively, though a pain in her shoulder made her wince.

Claude gave her a most incredulous look. “No offense, Teach, but you look like you just lost a fight with a wyvern over it's dinner.” He took her hand and slung it over his shoulders. “Come on. I won't tease you about it later, I promise.”

“Hah...” She wasn't used to this. She wasn't used to feeling weak. She wasn't used to being overwhelmed by her senses as she had so many times this fight. What was happening to her? Was she falling ill? Did...did normal people feel these things every single day? “I'm holding you to that...” She looked around. “How is everyone?”

“Bruised, bloody, very tired...” Raphael huffed out, “...but we're gonna be fine, Professor. C'mon. We know we're not allowed to die.”

Marianne let out a startled laugh. Byleth smiled. “Good.”

“This is why you shouldn't go off without me!” Claude complained as they made their way up the stairs. “C'mon, Teach, I wasn't that long gone, was I?”

“I'm sorry,” Byleth murmured, finding herself leaning more heavily on him. “I was afraid that, now that he was discovered, Jeritza would kill his hostages. It's happened on the job before.”

Claude tisked and sighed; and Byleth had a feeling that while he understood the explanation, he didn't like it. “Right. Makes sense, but still...blood doesn't look good on you, Teach.”

“I don't think it looks good on anyone,” She responded quietly. “Though I...appreciate the sentiment. Thank you.”


When they got out of the passageway, they were met with Catherine, Shamir, Alois and Seteth – all moments from storming the labyrinth themselves. Seteth let out a strangled cry when he saw Flayn and rushed to her, carefully taking her out of a tired Marianne's arms. The blue-haired girl grasped his sleeve and murmured something to him that Byleth couldn't catch; whatever it was, the bishop nodded shakily in response and the two of them set off for the infirmary together.

Catherine and Shamir promptly took the little girl and the redhead, respectively, from Dimitri and Lorenz before ordering everyone to follow them to the infirmary. Alois then – much to Byleth's shock – promptly took her from Claude and picked her up bridal style, completely ignoring her squawk and resulting protests as her amused students trotted along at knight's heels. “I can walk, dammit!” She complained, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment; it fell on deaf ears, and even Dimitri and Ashe were smiling at her situation! That was just unfair!

Manuela had regained consciousness when they reached the infirmary, in no small part due to Archbishop Rhea having stepped away from her duties to provide healing personally. Her eyes grew very wide when she saw Seteth with Flayn, a look that didn't go away when she saw Alois lower Byleth onto one of the cotts. The woman hurried over, and hovered for a moment between the two beds – Flayn was lying right next to Byleth – looking torn, before sitting on the edge of Flayn's bed and going to work. Byleth approved, and promptly ordered her students (and the Blue Lions) to stay and get cleaned up. Marianne flitted from bed to bed, providing healing while Manuela patiently talked her through the more complex injuries; ensuring that the blue haired girl wouldn't heal a bone incorrectly or cause a blood clotting.

Byleth, at Seteth's insistence, gave her report while Marianne tended to her injuries. Raphael chimed in once or twice, which Catherine looked a little scandalized by, but Rhea gently laughed it off and said that they had all fought very bravely. The labyrinth and its mechanisms gained a number of raised eyebrows, but – tellingly, as Claude would say – none of the church knights looked particularly surprised. Catherine volunteered to go down with Shamir and a detachment to investigate the area and make sure that no one could use the tunnels to get back into the monastery.

Rhea was a remarkably skilled healer; it wasn't long before Flayn was stable and in a sleeping properly. It would take her a few days to recover her strength; she'd been steadily drained of blood for several days, after all. But she would suffer no permanent physical damage.

Byleth herself hadn't been seriously injured; Marianne cleaned up her injuries in less time than that. Once she and the others were released and dismissed, she went straight back to her dorm and fell into a fitful sleep without dreams.

The next morning she was once again woken by a knock on the door; this time it was Cyril, saying that Seteth wanted to meet with her. Giving her hair a quick brush and pulling her boots on, she made her way to his office on the second floor of the monastery.

“Professor...allow me to extend my eternal gratitude once again.” Seteth bowed deeply to her. “Flayn is safe and sound, and I have you to thank for that. Mere words can never express how thankful I am. I...” His voice cracked a bit. “I am indebted to you.

Byleth ran a hand through her hair, giving him a small hesitant smile. “I'm just happy she's safe.” She answered truthfully.

“Yes indeed.” Seteth's returning smile was wobbly, and for a moment Byleth genuinely thought he might start crying in front of her. What should she do if he did? “I...I, too, am overjoyed.”

She bit her lip, then asked the question that had been burning at the back of her mind since her father had told her of the situation. “Do you have any idea why they took Flayn in the first place?” She asked hesitantly.

That seemed to snap Seteth out of his happy daze, and his expression settled into something closer to his usual seriousness. “Her kidnapper was Jertiza, who, considering the evidence we now believe to be the Death Knight you've encountered.” He shook his head. “An of course, we cannot forget about this mysterious Flame Emperor...his motivations are still unclear.” The man crossed his arms, troubled. “However, given that they were draining Flayn of her blood...I can only assume that means they know how valuable it is.”

“...Is it because of the Crest of Cethleann?” Byleth hazarded a guess. “Did they think just taking her blood would be enough to somehow transfer it?”

Seteth shook his head more vehemently, and Byleth knew right away that there was a secret he did not dare share about his only family. “I cannot say. But if enemies that know the power of Flayn's blood have appeared, then we have no choice but to flee and go into hiding.”

Byleth frowned slightly. Her lips parted to suggest that they were as safe as they would ever be in the heart of the central church when the door swung open. “Brother, wait.” Flayn protested. She looked dramatically less pale and sickly than yesterday, but she was leaning on the wall and her breath came out in harsh pants.

“Flayn!” Seteth sputtered in disbelief, hurrying to her side. “What are you doing, you should be resting!”

“I do not like the path of your thoughts,” Flayn responded, pushing his hand away. “I do not want to go away to some lonely, remote location where I never get to see anyone! Not ever again.”

“If we stay here, you could be targeted again! It's too much of a risk!” Seteth protested.

Flayn put her foot down. “Even if we run off to some new, secret location, there is no guarantee that they would not find us,” She responded. Byleth couldn't help but nod in agreement. “I do not want to keep running, brother. I believe it is better that we stay here, surrounded by capable professors and warriors.”

Seteth wavered, raising a hand to his chin. “I...I see your point, I suppose. But...”

Flayn turned fully towards Byleth, eyes glowing hopefully. “You know it is the only reasonable option! What if I were to join the professor's class?”

Byleth blinked twice at the other girl. “I would like that,” She said, and was a little surprised by how much she meant it.

“Oh, you would?!” Flayn gasped, clapping her hands together. “I am so very pleased to hear that! With a professor like you nearby, I know I will be as safe as I will ever be!” She spun and nearly fell down, with Seteth catching her. She looked beseechingly at him with wide teal-green eyes. “Please, brother, you can see that now, can't you?”

“...It's true,” Seteth said. He helped his sister stand up and turned toward Byleth. “You have proven to be a brave and valuable ally to the church, Professor Eisner. If you would be willing to take in Flayn and protect her, I...I trust that you are my best hope for a normal life for her.”

Byleth smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”

Seteth bowed again. “I shall go and speak to the archbishop immediately. Please...do take care, Professor. Flayn is all I have left.”

“She'll be safe,” Byleth responded, taking Flayn's hand in hers. “I swear it on the Sword of the Creator.”


“You're sure you're up to a proper lunch?” Byleth asked Flayn as the two of them made their way into the dining hall.

“Oh yes,” Flayn said. “I desperately want to eat something other than the foul gruel those...” She shuddered. “t-those terrible people deigned to let me eat while I was trapped with them. I am desperately craving some grilled fish; I promise to take care and eat slowly.”

“Good,” Byleth said, leading her to the Golden Deer table. It seemed like it was inter-house reception day (she'd somehow forgotten about that) because Dimitri, Ashe and Dorothea were sitting with Alois, Claude, Bernadetta and the others; meanwhile Lysithea was sitting next to Annette over with the Blue Lions. “Hello, everyone.”

“Flayn!” Hilda cheered brightly as the two of them sat down at the table. Bernadetta gave them a small wave while Claude finished off his drink and grinned warmly in their direction. “Good to see you on your feet! How are you feeling?”

“I'm rather tired, but I believe I am well. Thank you Hilda,” Flayn responded, picking up her knife and fork. “I am in good spirits, because my brother has allowed me to join your house for the rest of the year!”

“Really?!” Claude said brightly. “That's wonderful! You hear that, Mitya!” He raised his class to his fellow class leader. “You have one more thing to try and plan around for the Battle of the Eagle and Lion!”

“Oh yes, whatever shall I do?” Dimitri responded drolly, but his sarcasm quickly gave way to a genuine smile. “I'm glad to see you in good spirits, Flayn. I'm sure you'll do well under the Professor's guidance.”

“Of course! Teach could turn the first street kid she tripped over into the next second-in-command of the Knights of Serios.” Claude bragged, taking another deep drink. Byleth felt herself blush and that bubbly feeling again. Heavens, she was coming apart at the seams these days...! “And now that she's here, she can swoop in and save us from Sir Alois's terrible puns.”

“Puns?” Byleth asked curiously. Her father mentioned that Alois has a somewhat eccentric sense of humor, but puns?

“Come now, Claude!” Alois protested. “They're not that bad, surely!”

Byleth shrugged. “I suppose I wouldn't know without hearing them,” She mused. Claude and Hilda both gave her martyred looks, while Dimitri looked slightly amused. Alois spared a second to look offended, and then laughed, before telling her one of his patented jokes...

She didn't really know what to expect. And on the face of it, puns weren't very clever. And yet...

should I say, Your spryness?

Something bubbled up in her throat, yet another new and odd feeling she had no name for. Byleth sat there for a moment, tried to imagine saying that to the faces of any one of the nobles her father had worked for...

And burst out laughing.

It seemed to seize her whole being. Her blood buzzed happily, her head spun from lack of air, and she laughed and laughed with enough force to make her shoulders shake. Her hair fell in front of her face, blocking off her sight, and she braced her elbows against the table as she fought to breathe. “Ah,” She hiccuped, still giggling uncontrollably as she fought to get control over her breathing. She reached up and tucked some of the blue strands behind her ear, seeing Alois's dumbfounded expression, “Oh my...ahahaha...aha...your...spryness....oh my goodness...”

“Wait. You actually found it funny?” Alois managed, eyes wide.

For some reason, that caused her another round of giggling. “C-can you imagine s-saying that t-to someone? T-The l-look on their faaace...” Her sentence promptly broke down; she laughed and laughed, running a hand through her hair. It took her several seconds to realize the table was staring at her; Flayn had clapped her hands together in delight, Hilda's mouth was hanging open...Claude looked completely awestruck, while Dimitri...he was staring at her with...

“W-What?” She managed as best she could, catching her breath.

“I-I'm sorry,” Dimitri stammered, smiling himself. “I just...I don't think I've ever seen you so happy before. It's...downright mesmerizing.”

Byleth ducked her head, letting her hair fall down again. “Oh...ahaha...I guess that's right...”

Claude's lips moved without any sound – a rare sight, indeed. Then he turned towards Alois and calmly said, “Hey, you've got a few more of those, don't you Sir?”

Alois blinked once, twice, and then puffed up. “Well of course I do!”

Byleth took a quick drink, not trusting herself to have anything in her mouth when whatever resided in the knight's mind hit her ears. She felt light – like she could fly without a pegasus and touch the sky. How had she lived her entire life without feeling something like this?

Chapter Text

The crowd cheered loudly as Lysithea threw one final Miasma spell. Dimitri winced sympathetically as Mercedes was knocked flat – even at Quarter Strength, deliberately suppressing the vast majority of her power in order to safely spar against others, the diminutive white-haired girl hit hard. He'd been rooting for his classmate, but he'd had a sneaky suspicion that Lysithea would overwhelm even her not-insignificant magical resistance. “Oh, Mercie,” Annette said in sympathetic disappointment, watching Lysithea help her friend back to her feet. “You gave it your all!” It didn't stop her from clapping for her rival classmate's victory.

It was a week after Flayn had been rescued, and something akin to normalcy had fallen over Garreg Mach. Classes resumed, and a series of weekly tournaments had been announced to build up anticipation for the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. The champion would get a gold purse and a corresponding weapon forged from good silver; those who placed second and third would get smaller but not inconsiderable prizes. Lady Rhea was sponsoring the events, providing all of the rewards from the monastery's own coffers. It was both a test to see how far the students had come in their studies, and a lighthearted attempt to return to normalcy after the attacks on the building. To that end, it was most certainly succeeding – all three of the houses were in a flurry of training and enthusiasm as they aimed for the glory of first place.

Today was the Black Magic tournament, including both members of the Knights of Serios and his various classmates. Unfortunately, Dimitri had suspected there was little chance of a Blue Lions victory this time; Lysithea had conquered every opponent she'd faced so far, and now she was off to the semi-finals. Her classmates were cheering her on enthusiastically from the opposite side of the what was usually the training grounds, but had now been re-purposed into the tournament house. Even Bernadetta was there in spite of her fear of crowds, bouncing on her heels and clapping happily as Lysithea bowed and walked off the floor.

“Man,” Sylvain groaned, rubbing the back of his head. The white haired girl had trounced him quite thoroughly in the second round. “Who would've thought that such a cute little girl would be such a powerhouse?”

“Anyone who paid any attention to her?” Ingrid suggested in a rather snarky way. Sylvain gave her a wounded look that she'd long since become immune to. “She's incredibly studious for her age, isn't she? I don't think anyone else in the tournament has shown off as many different spells as she has.”

Annette groaned and slumped back in her seats. “Thanks, Ingrid. I'd been trying not to think too hard on the fact that she knows the one move that takes away my advantage of being more resilient than her – and a dozen other things that I hadn't had the time to read about, that she somehow did!”

“You're faster than her, though.” Ingrid pointed out, squeezing the orangette's arm. “Don't give up before you've even stepped onto the floor!”

“A little faster, maybe, but she hits harder,” Annette moaned, throwing an arm over her eyes. “WhatamIgonna do...?!”

“Well if you go into the fight like this, you'll definitely loose,” Felix grumbled from his seat behind her, crossing his arms. His new silver sword was buckled to his hip, a visible sign of his triumph in the sword tournament the previous week. Of his opponents only Petra had given him serious competition, which won her his respect; Dimitri had seen the pair sparring a few times afterwards.

“Give it your all, Annette,” Dimitri said, giving her a smile. The announcer was calling for the final match of the round, between Lorenz and Hubert. The Black Eagles cheered loudly; after Linhardt and Dorothea both lost in the early rounds, the taciturn teenager was their last chance at victory. “We'll be cheering for you either way.”

“He's right, Annie,” Mercedes said warmly, stepping around some of the third year students to reach her seat next to her friend. Annette immediately gave her a tight comforting hug; the older girl smiled and patted her shoulder. “Don't put yourself down too much. You'll surprise Lysithea, I'm sure of it.”

“Thanks Mercie,” Annette said, looking a bit more confident in the face of their reassurances. She settled back into her seat, Mercedes wincing a bit as she did the same, and they all turned their attention to the floor where Lorenz and Hubert were circling around each other.

Dimitri couldn't help but look across the stands to where Claude and Byleth were sitting. The relative distance made it difficult to parse their exact expressions, and even then Claude's body language was completely relaxed. He was sitting with one leg over the other, beverage in hand with his expression set on the field; however, as if he could sense he was being watched, he lazily raised his glass in Dimitri's direction before taking a drink. Byleth was leaning forward in her seat, hands clasped together, watching avidly in spite of her reserved posture.

He couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment; he'd rather hoped to catch her laughing or cheering with the same enthusiasm Alois's terrible jokes had inspired in her...

The starting bell snapped his attention back to the floor. Lorenz had made the first move, and it was immediately obvious that he wasn't much stronger with magic than he was with his lance – and there was absolutely no comparison between him and Lysithea. He had a good sense of battle ebb and flow, and rather pompous demeanor he wasn't a fool...but near as Dimitri could tell, the man simply wasn't very strong. Hubert, meanwhile, while often overconfident, had plenty of magical power to speak of. And despite everything Claude had ever said...he wasn't the only ruthless student in the monastery.

Dimitri winced when Lorenz collapsed onto his knees, Mire dissipating as the damage was done. The crowd gasped, and Leonie leaned forward on the seat in front of her in visible alarm. Lorenz staggered to his feet, a visible limp in his step, before coughing violently.

“That move is meant to poison enemies, and he used it on another student? Even at restricted strength...!” Ingrid said, disappointed and revolted. “Can't they can foul on that?”

“There are no fouls in a real battle,” Sylvain reminded her, though he was scowling too. “As long as he didn't draw blood, it's acceptable.”

“That's just nasty,” Annette said, wrinkling her nose. “Why would he pull that out in a friendly tournament? It's such a low blow.”

“Vestra takes great pride in dealing out 'low blows'. He loves reminding everyone who will listen that doing so is his job as Edelgard's retainer.” Felix answered, rolling his eyes. “It would serve him well in a real battle, which I'm sure is what he'll say. Of course, the real reason he's doing it is to prove a point.”

Dimitri scowled, watching while Lorenz threw a fireball at Hubert's face when the latter walked up to finish him. He was tempted to say that served the black-haired mage right. Goddess, it's true that he will take on tasks that El could not or should not in time, but that gives him no cause to treat the rest of his fellow students with contempt.

“Gloucester is going to loose,” Felix said, rolling his shoulder. “Frankly I don't think he would have won even without the cheap shot.”

Ingrid sighed heavily. “And you wonder why some people aren't interested in training with you...”

“What?” Felix snapped defensively. “It's true. Has he ever physically or magically out-preformed his classmates? Ever?”

“He might have, and we just weren't around to see it,” Mercedes suggested kindly.

Felix snorted. “I doubt it. He can build up his strength, if he applies himself with all his concentration to bettering himself, but right now, he's the weak link of the Golden Deer. Even Victor is more useful in a fight than he is.”

Dedue didn't say anything, but the way his lip twitched suggested he actually agreed with Felix. Dimitri sat back in his chair and returned his attention to the fight...and as Lorenz staggered under another blow, tried to retaliate...he thought that he, too, might see it. He hadn't given it much thought when he won the first tournament back in the third month – he had trained with the lance most of his life, after all, and he was stronger than Lorenz could hope to become as a matter of course. But now that he thought of it...Raphael was stronger, Ignatz and Leonie were faster, Bernadetta was faster and she had the Crest of Indech, Hilda was strong and could fight with lances as well as axes, Claude and Byleth went without saying...honestly, that only left Flayn and Cyril, and he hadn't seen either of those two fight personally.

Dimitri wondered if Lorenz was aware of this, even subconsciously...and that's why he so aggressively insisted that he was a better leader than Claude...ah, but that was mere conjecture.

There was a thud as Lorenz finally fell down, and the victory bell rung loudly. There was applause, of course, but it was markedly less enthusiastic than what Lysithea had gotten; Hubert either didn't notice or didn't care, because he roughly pulled Lorenz to his feet and walked off without a word.

“Is it petty if I hope that he gets blown away in one move next round?” Sylvain muttered. It was a mark of how angry that cheap shot had made Ingrid that she didn't even pretend to chastise him.

“Then I guess we're both petty,” Annette answered, scowling fiercely as Marianne hurried over to give her classmate a checkup. Dimitri, again, looked back across to the Golden Deer's section. Claude was as unreadable as always, but he didn't clap for long; Byleth, meanwhile, had stood up halfway when Hubert cast Mire...and the prince was fairly certain that if he was standing closer to her, he could see indignation in her face.

Dimitri shook his head. Getting a little presumptuous there, are you? He thought wryly, before saying “well, let's put that aside, shall we?” The announcer loudly declared that the tournament would resume after lunch, which would go on for one hour. “After all, Annette needs to eat well and prepare herself for her next fight!”

Annette moaned at the reminder, though they was excitement in her eyes as well as trepidation. Dimitri lead the way, standing from his seat and making his way through the crowd as people began to disperse. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Flayn tugging on Seteth's arm while the bishop was trying to say something to Lady Rhea; he resisted her only for a moment, before letting her pull him up and after her new classmates. Dimitri couldn't help but smile a bit at the sight, and...not for the first time...wish that he'd been blessed with at least one sibling. He remembered how lonely the castle often felt as a child, and how blissful the year with El as his constant companion had been.

But the world had not let him keep her at his side, and now he felt the silence of the castle halls all the more keenly. It made him grateful for his friends, grateful that his uncle – for all that the man had no sense of priorities – was alive and present in his life, for whatever that was worth.

It hurt to be alone.

The warm smell of grilled fish and onion gratin soup hit him the moment he stepped into the dining hall. Excited babbling quickly filled the room was everyone streamed in; extra tables and chairs had been drawn up for the knights and staff who were participating in the tournament as opposed to being out and about on duties. Ingrid dragged Dimitri into a conversation about saving money for weapon repairs; the blacksmith was a hard but friendly woman and she gave them a discount, but now that their armory was bigger Ingrid's thrifty instincts were kicking into high gear.

She's worrying too much, Glenn said fondly. Tell her she's freaking out over nothing. Half of those weapons are almost brand new.

I will once she's calmed down a bit, Dimitri responded silently. I don't have a death wish. That made is father chuckle softly.

Picking some food at random, Dimitri retreated to his usual seat at the table and smiled encouragingly at Annette, who looked pretty green at the gills even as she put a light plate down in front of her. “You're going to do great, Annie!” Mercedes insisted with a smile, sliding a glass of water over to her best friend. “Don't be afraid.”

“Yup! You're gonna go and fight the scariest girl in the Alliance knowing that the honor of our house depends on you, it's gonna be great!” Sylvain said cheerfully. Annette blanched, and Ingrid smacked their childhood friend upside the head without even having to be asked. “Ow!”

“Shut up,” Felix grumbled, glaring at him. “You deserved that.”

Dimitri gave his classmates a bemused smile, his eyes drifting across the room without really looking for anything. Over at the Black Eagles table, Edelgard was talking animated to Hubert; her expression was obscured from him, but the way she was rapidly moving her arms suggested she was irritated with him. Dorothea picked up seat and turned it so she was facing Edelgard and had her back to Ferdinand, who was obviously trying to talk to her. Caspar was chatting with Linhardt, while Petra was eating a little off to the side from them.

By contrast, the Golden Deer looked cheerful as ever. Lysithea was basking in Hilda and Cyril's attention while eating quite a bit. Bernadetta and Marianne seemed to be engaged in conversation – and a rather animated conversation for them at that, seeing as the former was gesticulating with some energy while latter watched attentively. Raphael was clearly trying to convince Lorenz to eat something he'd never tried before, while Ignatz was staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. Claude was talking to Byleth...and unless Dimitri missed his guess, trying to get her to laugh again, seeing as he said something that made her double up and clap a hand over her mouth while her shoulders shivered.

Then something happened he wasn't expecting – Captain Jeralt walked into the hall and grabbed a chair off of the wall. With little but a nod toward a very surprised-looking Alois, he walked over to his daughter and said something Dimitri had no hope of hearing amidst the general chatter. Byleth jerked her head up when she saw him, and she nodded vehemently before standing up and pushing on Claude's shoulder. The brunette flailed a bit before shuffling his chair over a few inches, the rest of the deer doing the same one by one. Jeralt grinned, set the chair on the floor and sat down in the newly created spot next to his daughter.

Dimitri smiled softly at the scene, both admiring it and feeling achingly wistful. There was also an irrational stab of jealously, that rose as quickly as it was shoved down, since he could only dream of doing the same.

“Dimitri!”

He jolted in his seat and turned sheepishly toward an indigent-looking Ingrid. “I'm sorry, I was lost in thought,” He apologized, rubbing the back of his neck. “What is it?”

“Shouldn't we start talking about strategies for the Battle of the Eagle and Lion?” Ingrid asked in turn, mopping up the remains of her first bowl of soup with a bread crust. “It's in three weeks, after all.”

Dimitri took a drink cold cider and swallowed thoughtfully. “We can start planning for some possible eventualities, yes,” He said. “I'm just not sure how much we can plan this far in advance. We don't know where the battle is being held yet, after all.”

“We can consider what the others might plan to do,” Ingrid persisted. “Claude pulled a fast one on you during the mock battle. What do you think he'll do this time?”

“Hard to tell,” Dimitri responded evasively, feeling a little defensive. “And honestly I think trying to predict a trickster like him is an exercise in futility. Claude isn't just a troublemaker, as he likes to portray himself; he's genuinely clever.” He leaned back in his chair. “And we can hardly forget about Edelgard and the Black Eagles.”

“What exactly are they going to do for the battle?” Ashe wondered, idy tapping his fork against his glass. “They're a classmate short with Bernadetta's transfer. I know that's not a huge gap in their team, but it puts them at a disadvantage, doesn't it? Plus Bernadetta's pretty good with a bow herself...”

“Either Monica will take her place since she's rejoined the Black Eagles, or one of the lower-ranked Knights of Serios will sub in.” Sylvain supplied. Then he shrugged and smiled a bit. “The way I see it, the only way we'll put Claude off his game is if we force him to adapt to our strategy, rather than trying to figure out what he plans to do. So we just have to do something he doesn't really expect...like, perhaps, rush forward and aim to get more kills before he can spring whatever trap would give him the victory?”

He grinned proudly for a minute. That expression slowly slipped away as he realized that literally all of his teammates were staring at him. “What?” He asked, chagrined. “It's not that bad an idea, is it?”

“No, it's a good one,” Felix said flatly. “What's weird is the fact that you're the one suggesting it.”

“H-hey!”

Dimitri burst into a fit of laughter before he could stop himself, shaking his head. Ashe snickered a bit himself before hastily apologizing to a pouting Sylvain; Mercedes put a hand over her mouth while Ingrid rolled her eyes in spite of her lips twitching upwards. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Glenn miming whacking his brother over the head while his father leaned against the wall, watching the display with a familiar twinkle in his eyes.

“Edelgard prefers to lead with overwhelming strength,” Dimitri noted when he caught his breath again. “I think, between all of us, we can come up with a plan for that.” He smiled. “The Black Eagles prefer to fight on foot, after all.”

That sparked a spirited discussion about formations that Ingrid lead with great enthusiasm, Ashe occasionally offering suggestions while Sylvain played up his sulking. While they talked, the green tinge slowly but surely left Annette's face the more she contributed, by suggesting what sort of terrain they might have to deal with and what might happen if the battle became a free-for-all melee. The topic proved absorbing enough to last them through the rest of the lunch break; the bell rang, and while Annette jolted in her seat, she didn't look quite so sick as when they arrived.


“It's nice to watch a fight with low stakes after last week,” Ashe said, quietly enough that Dimitri almost missed it amid the cheering for the semi-finals. Hubert had just defeated his opponent, leaving him to be the final opponent for whoever won this round.

“Ashe?” He inquired quietly.

The silver-haired boy jolted, as if he hadn't realized he'd said that out loud. “O-Oh...” He glanced over his shoulder at the people behind them, including knights and older students. Satisfied that none of them were even slightly interested in what he was saying, he shrugged uneasily and said, “You...you didn't see how they were keeping Flayn, down in that labyrinth. Or the traps, or the mercenaries. I almost got skewered twice, trying to make my way through some of the back passageways. It was dark...it was like an enemy could appear from anywhere.” He sighed. “I know that being a knight means I'll have to see more things like that, but it was really terrible. I'm just...well, I'm glad we're putting all of that behind us for now.” He paused, clapping loudly for Annette and Lysithea as they entered the field.

“I understand,” Dimitri responded after a moment, watching as Lysithea's arrival caused a number of people to stand up and cheer enthusiastically. She had made a huge impression over the course of the tournament for demonstrating all that she was capable of. “It's alright to feel that way, Ashe. Honestly, I'm glad of it as well.”

“O-oh. I-I'm glad to hear that.” Ashe clapped along with the crowd. “Though between the passageways to the Holy Mausoleum and that underground chamber...I wonder what else is beneath the monastery that we don't know about.”

Or aren't supposed to know about, Dimitri thought but didn't say. Either way, further conversation was interrupted by the starting bell.

“Go Annie!” Mercedes cried as Lysithea opened up with a basic Fire spell launched right at Annette's chest. The orangette threw herself to the side, narrowly missing, and retaliated with Wind. It blew up quite a bit of dust, and Lysithea barely flinched on the impact, but this was just the beginning.

It was fascinating, at least to Dimitri (who had absolutely no talent for magic whatsoever), to watch two talented magic users spar. You'd think that it would be quite different from physical weapons just due to its nature, but in truth there wasn't that much of a distinction. One tried to overpower their opponent while taking as few hits as possible – magic just provided many more esoteric ways to strike your opponent. Perhaps that was why magic-channeling weapons were comparatively rare; they weren't easy to make and more difficult to spar with, since one couldn't innately control their power output. Both Ingrid and Annette's earlier analysis was about right – Lysithea was stronger than Annette, but the latter was faster...but not by much.

Lysithea seemed to be aware of this, too. She was watching where Annette moved through the first half of their duel, waited for her opponent to attack...then dodged, then she broke out the Luna spell. She aimed not where Annette was, but where she anticipated the other girl would dodge – and managed to catch the orangette in the side.

Mercedes gasped as Annette staggered, dropping to one knee, and the crowd went into an uproar. Both Cyril and Raphael jumped to their feet, cheering for their classmate to draw the fight to a close; Dimitri didn't need to be close to know that Claude was smiling smugly – and quite possibly proudly – while lounging on his chair, clapping. Byleth was clapping as well, leaning forward in her seat and watching the fight avidly. Annette had not given up yet, after all.

She could see that Lysithea was running on fumes, after all. Annette being faster on her feet was not for nothing; she could chip away at the girl and do more damage over time. And while Lysithea was powerful beyond what someone her age could reasonably be expected to do, she was rather on the frail side in comparison, and when Annette stood up again and threw another spell, she stumbled back when it hit and clutched at her chest, shoulders hunched.

Dimitri frowned, unable to help but worry at the gesture. That...was a stronger reaction than she should have had. These tournaments were meant to be safe... Was Annette miscalculating how much power she was using in the heat of the moment, with defeat seemingly moments away? He looked across the field again, trying to determine if any of her classmates were seeing this as well, but his attention was snapped back to the field by a blinding flare of light.

Let it not be said that, for all that he annoyed her with his teasing, Lysithea hadn't picked up on any of Claude's flashiness. In order to win, she threw Seraphim at the floor, causing a blinding light to fill the immediate arena. Then she charged Annette down and threw a fireball into her chest, finally knocking the other girl flat on her back.

The bell rang, declaring the victor. Lysithea smiled, pained, at the cheering crowd for a few seconds before collapsing bonelessly to her hands and knees.

Dimitri instinctively jerked to his feet, unnecessary though it was; both Manuela and Hannamen were on the floor in an instant, while Annette quickly rolled over and put a worried hand on Lysithea's shoulders. Across the hall, Byleth jumped up and stared for a second before roughly pushing her way through the cheering, clapping crowd toward the stairwell. Marianne and Cyril had both stopped clapping in shock, while Claude sat upright – visibly alarmed, which said a lot coming from him.

“What happened there?” Mercedes asked worriedly, her hands clasped together in prayer. “Is Lysithea sick? Did she get hurt? I didn't see Annie make any mistakes...”

“I don't know,” Dimitri admitted, watching Manuela pick the white haired girl up and carry her off the floor. Annette, her defeat seemingly completely forgotten, hurried along behind her with Hannamen at her heels, the latter trying to make her slow down and listen to him. “I think it must have been some sort of accident. She's in good hands, though.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Byleth disappear down the stairwell to see her student. “I'm sure she'll be fine.”

“Why'd she collapse?” Felix wondered, frowning. “She didn't take more hits here than in any of her other fights, did she?”

“I don't think so?” Dimitri tried to think back, but all that came to mind was her blowing away her first few opponents. She had virtually controlled the battle in her previous engagements – a smart strategy for mages in general, so it didn't necessarily mean anything... If Claude looked surprised, he doesn't know why it might have happened either. There's a worrying thought.

“Was she just tired?” Dedue suggested cautiously. “Annette gave her far more trouble than her previous opponents. Perhaps she overexerted herself.”

“So badly she collapsed? In a mock battle?” Ingrid frowned. “I wonder if Lysithea has health problems that she's been keeping quiet. She really should have been fine...”

They all paused when the announcer spoke again. Apparently Lysithea had fallen to a severe bout of dizziness, so the final match would be postponed for half an hour while she downed an elixir and lay down to recover. “That might explain it,” Ashe pointed out, though there was a worried look in his eyes. “Lysithea is very self-sufficient, and she really doesn't like asking for help. I bet she felt a little funny after lunch and just assumed she could work through it.”

“And how do you know that?” Sylvain asked lightly. Dimitri knew by the look on his face that he was setting the younger boy up; unfortunately, Ashe wasn't quite so savvy when it came to the redhead and thus answered innocently.

“Oh, I tried to give her an extra coat when we were walking to Magdred Way, and she got all embarrassed by the offer. Swore up and down that she was going to be just fine and that she could keep herself warm, and that I didn't have worry about her...honestly, she went on long enough that I realized how much she valued looking strong in front of her teammates.”

“Ah, tough luck,” Sylvain said, patting his shoulders sympathetically. “Most girls really like the doting approach. But don't worry; I heard she loves sweets. You could probably bake your way into her heart!”

“I-what? That wasn't – I didn't – Sylvain!” Ashe protested, rapidly turning a shade of red not dissimilar to Edelgard's cloak. “It w-wasn't like that...! I was just a little worried for her!”

Sylvain just laughed; Mercedes laughed a bit herself, though she smiled apologetically at the very flustered archer. A few minutes later, beverages were passed out once again and Annette returned to the Blue Lions seating area. “Lysithea's alright. She just stressed herself a bit too much; nothing that can't be fixed by lying down a little. She'll be up to kick Hubert to the curb in no time!” Dimitri relaxed at that, though he noted that Byleth hadn't returned to the stands yet; was she still lingering at her student's side? It was odd to think of the quiet, composed Ashen Demon hovering and fretting... but, perhaps that name no longer suited her.

The Ashen Demon didn't laugh, after all.

His heart skipped at the mere memory. Seeing Byleth's face lit up with sheer, unadulterated joy as she laughed at Sir Alois's terrible puns...it shattered something; suddenly she looked innocent, pure and young. She became – no, it was like looking at a statue that suddenly gained a massive crack, revealing a warm, vibrant being beneath it. It...defied description. He'd been so taken with it he'd hardly heard anything Alois said throughout the rest of the meal, just waiting to hear her voice like that and see that smile again...

He knew that Claude had similar thoughts. Dimitri had only seen that stupefied expression on the other boy's face once before...when they'd been in the greenhouse together that night. He didn't begrudge him it one bit. How could he?

Jokes, laughter, teasing and discipline applied by Ingrid to Sylvain filled the time until the announcer (it was the same man who usually was on guard duty at the front gate, unless Dimitri was quite mistaken!) enthusiastically announced that the final round of the tournament was upon them. Lysithea walked onto the floor across from Hubert, back straight and head up as if nothing had ever gone wrong; at the same time, Byleth appeared at the foot of the stairwell. She made no attempt to get back to her seat, however – perhaps considering it a fool's errand, seeing as most everyone was on their feet and cheering loudly for the final duel, jumping and jostling for space as it was. If Hubert was perturbed by the crowd's obvious preference for his opponent – seeing as his entrance had a not-inconsiderable number of boos mixed in with the cheers, likely do to his poor show of sportsmanship earlier – he was careful not to show it as he squared off against the young prodigy.

Curious, Dimitri scanned the crowd until he found El, standing and yelling for her right hand man to grasp victory. The energy of the crowd must have infected her; she rarely showed 'undignified' bursts of emotion out in public...that had been true all the way back then, and it seemed not to have changed...for the most part, anyway. The other Eagles were cheering for Hubert as well; at least his own house had his back, regardless of how he preformed and the displeasure of the crowd. Despite their differences and frequent arguments, they were a loyal group.

The bell rang, and Dimitri sat back in his seat with his hands together. He wasn't worried, unlike Ignatz, who was so wound up on his friend's behalf that he was still standing, yelling out encouragement as Lysithea elegantly dodged the glimmer of Mire and threw a fireball back. He remembered the fiery look in the younger girl's eyes when she'd stormed out of Hannamen's room, and when she'd knocked Duscur brawlers around like wooden posts at the mountain range. He was already certain of the outcome.

Hubert didn't have the same sort of determination that infected every corner of Lysithea's consciousness.

“He's already lost,” Felix said, very matter-of-fact, when Lysithea walked right through a Miasma spell in order to throw Luna directly at Hubert's chest. “He just hasn't realized it.”

Dimitri chuckled in agreement, letting the roar of shock and awe drown out his reaction. Felix would glower at him, and he'd rather let Ingrid remain absorbed in the battle playing out before them rather than having to scold his friend and possibly miss the final blow.

Hubert tried to use Mire again, but Lysithea dodged it again and then smirked at her opponent – Dimitri had been lucky enough to be able to see her reaction; she'd forced her opponent back far enough to see her well enough.

Perhaps it was in the interest of being flashy that she retaliated with Swarm – or maybe she was mocking him for using Mire the way he had against Lorenz; he couldn't be sure, but whatever her cause...seeing the spell bodily pick Hubert up and then drop the older teen on his back on the ground – well, it was a sight to see.

And a reminder that she would need to be taken out quickly at the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, lest he loose half of his classmates to her. Only Ingrid and Mercedes had any real resistance to magic to speak of...the less he said about his own ineptitude on that field, the better.

“Your winner, and queen of the grounds, Lysithea von Ordelia!”

Dimitri was duly impressed that he could hear Hilda screaming in delight above all others, even as the entire crowd went wild. Lysithea seemed a bit overwhelmed by the adulation; she turned in a circle, looking all over the crowd, at her classmates (all of whom were on their feet, clapping and cheering with the sort of enthusiasm that generally wasn't considered 'proper' by nobility) and at Seteth, who was approaching her with her prize. Hubert got to his feet, hunched over a bit in frustration, before giving her a bow and stepping aside.

Lysithea carefully took the bag and the magic staff and gave the crowd a proper curtsey. Then – almost like a child – she rushed off to the side of the field. Dimitri stood up and realized that Byleth had walked a few feet out of the entrance, just in time to catch her young student as the white-haired girl rocketed into her arms and hugged her for dear life. The young professor stumbled back a step, flailing a bit before carefully placing her arms around the Lysithea's shoulders and returning the gesture.

He couldn't quite see her expression, but he thought, with the way she was standing, she might be a little hesitant, a little shy...and a little grateful.

Smiling a bit to himself, Dimitri got up and carefully made his way off of the stands, Seteth announcing the remaining prizes as he left. Annette had won something, which she hadn't expected judging by her squeak of surprise; Mercedes urged her to follow him and go collect her winnings.

Making his way down to the doorway was easier than he expected; and sure enough, when he got there, the Golden Deer had beat him to their victor. Raphael had bodily picked Lysithea up and perched her on his shoulders, Hilda was bouncing in place and quite literally singing the girl's praises...Ignatz and Cyril were hovering on Raphael's left and right, the former looking a little worried while the latter rambled about how amazing the fights had been. Marianne and Bernadetta were comparatively quieter, but both were smiling brightly, while Leonie shook her head and chuckled. All while Lysithea herself looked as if she couldn't decide whether she was completely embarrassed or soaking up the attention.

Dimitri blinked, realizing two people were missing. Curious, he looked around the hallway until his eyes fell on the open double doors.

Just beyond them, a haggard-looking man dressed as a traveling merchant was gesturing animatedly while speaking to Byleth and Claude. “...following the road, demanding a toll that increases every time we pass by them,” he lamented when Dimitri stepped close enough to hear over the din of cheering behind them. “One of my partners was crippled the last time we attempted the journey to the monastery and I couldn't give them the gold they wanted. The worst part is, they're hardly worse than any other group of highwaymen, but we don't have the funds to pay for a mercenary guard...and the Knights of Serios are busy with more important matters.”

“How many of them are there?” Byleth asked patiently, her arms crossed.

The man shrugged helplessly. “I...I confess I'd never had the presence of mind to count carefully, but I'd say about fifteen, twenty? Something akin to that. They would be no danger to a properly armed militia, but...”

Claude hummed lightly. “That's all? That's essentially the same stakes as our first mission, isn't it Teach?” He smiled entreatingly at her. “After the last two months, it seems more like a breather.”

Byleth tapped her foot a few times, clearly thinking. “That's true,” She decided after a minute. “We have faced worse than this by now. We have the time and the resources to deal with these people permanently.” Turning toward the man, she said, “We accept your commission. I'll have to speak to the archbishop, but I believe we can depart for the road quite soon. If you can show us your maps...?”

“A-Ah, of course! Thank you so much...my friends and I are in your debt!” The man bowed deeply and handed Byleth what looked like a contract before rushing off in the direction of the courtyard.

“No need to hover there like an eavesdropping servant, Mitya,” Claude teased without turning around. Dimitri felt his face flush; Byleth started and turned around, blue eyes widening slightly in surprise. “Pass Annette my congratulations, will you? Not a lot of people can take a Luna from Lysithea and keep on fighting!”

“I'm sure she'll appreciate it,” Dimitri said, running a sheepish hand through his hair. “Though she might like it even more if you were to tell her yourself.”

“Normally I would,” Claude said, finally turning around, mirth dancing in his emerald eyes. “But I think she's still in knots over my overly theatrical introspection on one of her hand-written songs, and I feel bad about that.”

“Oh, you do?” Dimitri said dryly, rolling his eyes a bit. He gave Byleth an apologetic look before changing the subject, “That man is one of the merchants who usually brings produce and metals to the monastery, isn't he?”

“Yes,” Byleth said, fiddling slightly with the scroll in her hands. “However, the trade route he and many others have long used has fallen under the control of bandits. He's offered us a reward for going out and dealing with them.” She frowned. “I know that not all merchants can afford to buy protection for the road, but I would have thought that trade at Garreg Mach would be substantially lucrative.”

“Well, it is,” Dimitri said with a sigh, “However...you likely know more about this than even I, but bandits and social unrest seems to be stalking every corner of Fodlan. Even the Knights of Serios are being stretched thin.”

“Did you know, Teach? It wasn't Officer's Academy policy to send students out into live battles until about two years ago,” Claude said. Byleth blinked and looked curiously at him. “The manpower problem proved bad enough that everyone who even sort of knows their way around a weapon is being encouraged to go out and try to restore a bit of order. Between the Insurrection of the Seven and, well, the obvious,” He gave Dimitri a quick mildly apologetic look, “the nobles seem to be unable or unwilling to secure more 'inconsequential' problems like this.”

“I see.” Byleth mused. “If he's lost as much as he has to these bandits, his offer for rewards is rather generous.”

He must be getting fairly desperate. “It's quite an honor to get a commission before you've completed even a year's worth of study,” Dimitri commented, smiling lightly. “Your reputation proceeds you, Professor.”

“That's...” Byleth ducked her head a bit. “Ah, you flatter us, Dimitri. Please pass Annette my congratulations; I ought to go and speak to Bishop Seteth and Lady Rhea about the Deer departing for this mission. It should only take us a couple of days, but I need to clear our plans with them.”


True to the Professor's expectations, Lady Rhea gave her blessing and the Golden Deer departed for the highway the next day. Dimitri couldn't help but worry a bit, even when common sense told him that Byleth, Claude and their classmates were more than capable of handling a motley group of highwaymen. It was hardly any more dangerous than what they'd faced over the last three months – honestly, this was probably less dangerous than what they'd faced in those tunnels beneath Jeritza's quarters.

Dimitri did his best to focus on his training, and doing what little information hunting he could in the library late at night. Tomas was a little more vigilant these nights, apparently since Claude had been reading some books that were supposed to have been removed and fell asleep in the room over a book of tales of the Heroes Relics. Dimitri couldn't help but be a little amused by the mental image...he briefly entertained the notion of asking for the other boy's help in his own search for information, but he shied away from it.

Claude had his own troubles to worry about without Dimitri burdening him with his own. Finding the truth about the tragedy was his responsibility, and no other's.

With no impending disaster or undercurrent of trouble on the horizon, his dreams were less troubled and thus he managed to sleep through the night more than once – a blessing if there ever was one. Dedue had expressed interest in participating in the Intermediate Axe tournament; he encouraged his friend to sign up, both to show off his capabilities and to test himself against such fine opponents as their classmates. Ashe seemed to have completely come back to his warm, cheerful demeanor from before that terrible would-be rebellion; he was frequently out and about helping in the garden as well as the kitchen. He'd even encouraged Dedue to serve some Duscur-style cuisine even in the face of disapproval from some of the monks.

Dimitri hoped that Ashe knew how much that meant to his friend.

A few days went by without incident, and Dimitri found himself training late into the night once again. For once it wasn't entirely intentional; he'd found himself on the edge of a new technique, and in his determination to preform it perfectly and commit it to memory, the final bloody rays of sunset were cast across the sky when he finally put his training lance away and left the grounds. Dimitri let the double doors swing shut behind him and leaned against them, sighing heavily and running a hand through his sweat-soaked hair, drawing a wet line along his cheek as he let it drop. Slow and steady, he reminded himself as he caught his breath. Slow and steady...you'll make it.

You still have time, his father assured him.

Do you have the time? Glenn wondered, a slight frown on his face. With all the shit that's happened in just three damned months, how much time do you really have?

It will be enough, Dimitri promised his brother in all but blood. However much time there is, it will be enough, I promise...

So you've always said, Glenn noted with that familiar deceptive mildness.

Dimitri gave his head a shake and straightened up. “I mean it,” He whispered. “I promise, Glenn. I'll never give up.” Giving his head a shake, he grabbed the bag containing the change of clothes he'd had the sense to remember this time, and began to make his way toward the bathhouse. Cats and dogs darted to and fro across the cobblestone pathway as he walked over to the stairwell to that upper level. The cool wind whipped around him as he made his way up the stairs, his breath still coming out in heavy and almost painful gasps. There was light blazing through the windows, even this late in the day, which he was grateful for.

Entering the bathhouse, he quickly dropped off his bag and grabbed a towel before beginning to fumble with the clasps of his uniform. His hands were a bit shaky, perhaps I should have brought some watered down ale to the training hall...ah... It took a few minutes, and as he worked, he slowly realized that he could hear someone humming an unfamiliar tune and the sound of water sloshing against stone from beyond the wall and the curtain separating the bath from the change rooms. Curiosity flickered within his tired mind, who else would be here this late? ...No, I know that voice...

“Claude?” He called hesitantly once he'd finished divesting himself of his soaked clothes, throwing the towel over his shoulder.

The humming paused momentarily. “...Mitya? What in the blazing flames are you doing up so late?” Claude's bemused voice floated back.

“I was training...when did you get back?” Dimitri asked, walking past the door into the room.

Claude was submerged up to his neck, scrubbing his shoulder. His eyes widened when he noticed Dimitri coming in, a gesture quickly followed by him turning around so his back was to the prince. “About ten minutes ago. Raph and Ignatz went straight to the dorm, but my mind was a bit too busy for sleep, and I craved a hot soak.”

“Oh,” Dimitri said, a bit dumbly. Why did he...? He stood a foot from the tub, a little hesitant, before putting the towel aside and slipping into the large tub.

For a second, he thought he heard Claude's breath hitch.

Feeling oddly self-conscious, Dimitri began to splash his face with water, welcoming the warmth and the salt. An awkward silence lingered for a few moments before Claude quietly resumed humming, water sloshing as he moved. It wasn't a tune the prince was even passingly familiar with; it had a rapid tempo, Claude's soft tone rising and falling sharply on words that were spat out like rapid arrow fire. It was lovely and strangely hypnotic; Dimitri leaned back against the side of the tub and found himself just listening to it, his eyes flickering as the tune swept over him.

“It's beautiful,” He said quietly. “Is that song from home?”

Claude's humming stuttered, and he managed a few more notes before pausing entirely to chuckle. “You...” The half blood huffed out a laugh. It was warm and coy, and something about it sent a shiver down the blonde's spine. “If I hadn't met Teach, you would be the strangest damned Fodlander I'd ever met. You know that, right?”

“...I'm sorry to be strange.”

“Don't be. It's a good thing.” Claude disappeared under the water for a moment, then stood up straight, throwing his head back and running his hands through his hair.

Dimitri blinked a little, his eyes traveling down the archer's back...there were scars marring that golden skin, some small, others less so; how many of those came from people who hated his mother, and all that he represented...? ….I almost hope that most of them are from pitched battles. It seems less cruel... yet, isn't it terribly wrong that the violence of war is the lesser evil implied by scars...?

Water dripped down Claude's muscles as he worked his fingers through his wild hair; he was wry and muscular in a way that suggested much more strength than met the eye. The scars were easy to dismiss if you were used to such sights, which Dimitri was, and once you put them aside one could truly see the dangerous alchemy his father's blood had bestowed on him. His stomach was almost flat, the muscles flexing slightly as he worked...even his lazy gestures implied a certain amount of strength that might take you by surprise...

“Is there something on my back, Mitya?”

Dimitri jerked in surprise, his eyes flickering up to Claude's face. The brunette had tilted his head slightly, stray strands of wet hair dangling in front of his emerald green eyes...eyes that had a strange, remote and careful expression within them, even as his lips turned into a familiar teasing smirk.

“A-Ah...n-no, I...I...” Dimitri floundered, groping for words. Had he been staring? He – he hadn't noticed. He hadn't...his cheeks flushed. “I'm sorry...I didn't mean to stare...”

That smirk widened, but it didn't go up to those emerald pools. That expression was almost akin to the mask he'd worn before that chance encounter. “Like what you see?” Claude purred lazily.

Dimitri choked; he could feel blood rushing to his cheeks. He reached for a denial but his tongue seemed to form in a knot. “I...c-come now. You...you know I believe you to be quite striking.” Handsome. Claude was handsome. Why did that suddenly feel frightening to say aloud?

“Yes you did,” Claude said, almost to himself. Dimitri wondered why his throat felt tight all of a sudden; almost unwillingly, he looked up and met Claude's eyes...Manuela's voice drifted through his memory...Riegan practically stepped right out of an opera. Those are dangerous eyes he has...they're drowning pits for the soul. He could draw in anyone he desired. Suddenly, that felt quite literal. Was the bath making him light headed? What was happening to him?

Claude's calloused fingers brushed against his shoulder. When did I stand up? It traced the length of a long scar, down slightly past his collarbone. “How did that happen?” The other boy's voice echoed from somewhere far away. “It looks like someone tried to cut your arm off.”

“O-Oh...that...” Dimitri murmured, his vision flickering down to the familiar wound before quickly – inexorably – flickering back up to the brunette's face. “They weren't trying to cut my arm off. This was from when I met Dedue...I found him on the street, being beaten by several of the guards. They were prepared to kill him...they didn't hear my voice shouting for them to stop; they didn't even see me until I was standing between them and their target.” He shook his head, trying to clear it. “I'm proud of them, I admit. They're proof that I managed to save one life, in the end.”

Claude was silent for a moment, staring at him. Then he let out a quiet chuckle. “Are you sure I'm the one who fell from heaven?” He asked lightly. Then his hand disappeared, and the weight of his gaze was suddenly gone. “Well, I'm about done here...I'll wait for you outside, kay?”

Dimitri started to say something, only to gasp and look down at the water when Claude pulled himself out of the bath. His heart was racing, and it didn't slow even when his friend disappeared behind the curtain.

W-What is happening to me?

Chapter Text

“A-are you sure about this, Claude?” Marianne whispered, tugging on her hood. The silver thread moon pattern decorating it was remarkably elegant in its simplicity, yet still visibly expensive. It was a gift from her adoptive father, one of several he'd given her just before she left for the monastery.

“Absolutely. Though I may have trouble firing my bow due to lack of circulation in a couple of seconds.” Bernadetta squeaked and immediately let go of his arm, which she'd been clinging to quite fiercely as the three of them started walking down the open road. She was dolled up too, wearing a furry overcoat loaned from Dorothea that almost dwarfed her. Claude reached up and ruffled her hair, cutting off her rapid-fire apologies and causing her to squeak again. “Wouldn't be the worst handicap I've ever fought with.”

The purple-haired girl flinched a bit when he touched her head. A small, involuntary jerk she didn't seem to be conscious of...and, after a moment went by and no blow came, she tried to lean into the gesture like a child seeking reassurance.

Claude tugged lightly at her bangs and let his hand drop back to his side, making sure to smile playfully at the girl's embarrassed whine. She desperately doesn't want to be alone, yet she's terrified of other people...at least, she's terrified of displeasing them somehow. Following up criticism with a joke and a friendly gesture would go a little way to acclimating her to the idea that she was safe with them, so he made a point of doing so whenever he got the chance. “C'mon, little sis, this road takes us right to Garreg Mach.” He said at a just-slightly-louder-than-normal tone of voice, which echoed over the quiet road and through the trees. “There's nothing to worry about.”

“I-If you say so,” Bernadetta responded, requiring absolutely no effort to sound nervous. Claude put an arm around her shoulders; a little hard to make the gesture look casual without giving away the bow and quiver hidden under her coat.

Marianne shifted her pack and stepped closer. “We're just a little less than a day's travel away. Isn't it strange that we haven't seen anyone else on the road for a while?”

Claude shrugged. “A little, but it's probably just a slow week. It happens in Deirdru sometimes, it makes sense that every now and then the road to the monastery is quiet too.”

“Or everyone else has started taking different routes,” Marianne countered, shifting the large pack she had slung over her shoulder. It mostly empty except for several concoctions, her Levin sword, and a few silver items they'd found scattered in the woods – which served the purpose of making it look like it was packed with goods. “There's been trouble in these parts, love.” She flushed a bit at the endearment and side-eyed him; he smiled back encouragingly.

“There's trouble everywhere these days. Does that mean we should stay at home and never leave the mansion?” He responded easily. The trees behind him shivered; his lip curved upwards.

It wasn't hard to find the stretch of road that the bandits preferred to ambush the merchants at. It was surprising how comparatively close to Garreg Mach it was; another sign of how out-of-control the bandit problem was, really. Teach had scouted for the bandits, and upon returning confirmed that they were indeed as ill-equipped for proper opponents as the ones they'd faced months ago. She'd gone on to say that there was a risk of their enemies scattering if they confronted them in force; something that had been a recurring problem for Jeralt's Mercenaries in the past. With that in mind, Claude had proposed luring the bandits into an ambush and encircling them – to that end, he, Marianne and Bernadetta were posing as a couple of rich travelers headed for the monastery while the rest of the class split into two groups and concealed themselves in the woods.

There was a bridge up ahead that was wide enough for two horse-drawn carts to travel side-by-side over a river with a fast current. No cover, which was a bit worrisome, but that meant that the bandits wouldn't have access to it either. Plus the forests at the far end meant that anyone who was injured could retreat past the encirclement that they planned to set up.

Bernadetta hesitated at the edge of the bridge and gave him a nervous look. She'd offered to be one of the lures; he wasn't sure why, though he had a theory. He nodded at her ever so slightly and pointed behind him slightly with his thumb. They had a tail; just as planned. He could see the movement out of the corner of his eye. The purple-haired girl gulped and her hand dropped down to the short sword at her belt. “It's going to be fine,” He said easily. The ax at his belt shifted slightly as he moved.

Footsteps thudded against the dirt and stone. Bernadetta flinched and then spun around; Claude did the same, eyeing the shoddily-armed and armored bandits as they surged out of the trees from the direction they'd started crossing from. Fifteen in all, former farmers judging by their scarred hands, bulky builds and the fact that some of them were still wielding woodcutter's axes in spite of their lucrative thefts. He did his best not to smile; this display was oddly run-of-the-mill compared to the Holy Mausoleum conflict or the fight in the Duscur valley.

“Lookie what we got here,” The man he presumed to be the leader leered, looking Marianne up and down in a way that made her flinch. Claude immediately took a step in front of his classmate and glared at the brigand. Oh, are you volunteering to die first? The wagon can't take everyone, after all... “A couple of spoiled rich kids.”

“What's in the bag, pretty one?” Another man asked, trotting closer to Marianne and reaching for her pack. “You've got something in there to pay the toll, yeah?”

“O-of c-course,” Bernadetta said meekly. Claude twisted to look at her, worried for a moment, until he saw her shoulder tense up. “I've-I've got it...r-right here...”

One of the bandits grinned down at the shaky little girl and strode up to her. He moved to grab her by the shoulders; which turned out to be a poor idea, because it meant that he couldn't put an arm over his chest when Bernadetta pulled the slender, shortened Killing Edge out of its sheathe and violently slashed upward – cutting a clean swath through his chest and slicing the edge of his throat open. The jagged edges of the blade were so vicious that even someone with (comparatively) less physical strength could cut an enemy's limbs off; the man gurgled and collapsed, blood spraying everywhere from the neck wound.

Claude didn't wait even a moment to admire Bernadetta's initiative; he pulled the cord holding the cloak on his shoulders off revealing his officer's academy uniform, grabbed his ax and swinging it into the lead bandit's chest while he and his men stood gaping at the diminutive noble girl. This one was actually wearing some decent armor, seeing as the wound only staggered him; he promptly kicked the man's kneecap and when he fell to his knees followed it up with a knockout kick to the face.

Marianne dropped her pack and cast Blizzard; the first bandit regained his wits in time to dodge, but that only resulted in the blast hitting the man behind him and freezing his feet to the ground. She followed that up with a second blast that shattered the ice and put the man on his back, before reaching into the pack and drawing out the Levin sword.

“Heh,” Claude chuckled at the stunned shock on the brigand's faces. “You didn't seriously think you could hold a road to Garreg Mach Monastery for ransom indefinitely, did you?” He smiled over at Bernadetta, who rapidly struggled free of her coat and grabbed her bow in her other hand. “See, Bern? You were amazing right there. Don't you agree, Teach?”

Byleth swung up onto the bridge from where she'd been lying in wait; the Sword of the Creator sizzled with steam as she let it rest by her side. If the bandits were scared by the realization that their targets were armed and trained, they were terrified by the sight of the relic weapon. “Agreed,” She said with her typical calmness; it was joined by the hint of a smile that made Bernadetta perk up.

Arrows whipped out of the trees, striking a few arms and legs but otherwise missing or simply forcing the bandits back toward Byleth. Leonie and Ingatz both emerged from the forest after Lorenz, who was rushing to join the fight. They were followed by a slightly-worried looking Flayn, who clapped in relief when she saw the three of them standing straight and clearly not injured. A blast of fire forced one of the bandits to jump off the bridge and into the river; Lysithea and Cyril emerged then, appearing on either of Byleth's sides to glare scornfully at their opponents.

The bandits, in either a fit of desperation or the mutual silent decision to go down fighting, actually snapped out of their fear at that. Claude stepped in front of Marianne and blocked the ax headed for her chest; he pushed the man back a bit, and then kicked him away completely when Bernadetta's arrow lodged itself in his shoulder causing his body to lock up in shock. He quickly stowed his ax and took his bow in hand again.

Byleth darted into the middle of the fray, dodging past an ax in such a way that the bandit hit one of his partners instead of her. She spun on her heel, slammed the hit of the sword into the side of her would-be opponent's head and then kicked his leg out from under him. Seeing another man approaching her, she stepped elegantly to the side letting his swing pass her harmlessly and ensuring that she was out of the way so Cyril had a clean shot at him. The orphan boy raised his bow, just a few feet away from the man's chest, and fired two arrows; the close range increased the intensity of the impact twice over. It punctured the man's chest and likely one of his lungs; Byleth gave him a merciful death then by slicing through his throat.

Claude shot out the knee of the bandit who decided that he'd win by rushing the archer he could reach; he stepped over the man and fired at the back of another who had designs on Bernadetta, who was preoccupied helping Raphael deal with two guys at the same time. Marianne was alternating between healing the minor injuries they were picking up here and there, and firing off spells that either incapacitated a man by freezing his arm to a tree, or knocked him off the railing into the river. Lorenz and Leonie were paired up again, tag-teaming one of the bulkier men until they could force him onto his knees and bind him with some of the rope they'd brought along.

Flayn was watching avidly, sticking close to Ignatz as he provided support to whoever needed it most in any given moment. Occasionally she would cast Nosferatu, but largely she kept in the shadow of her bodyguard as he guided her across the field to whomever needed her healing. Claude's observation was that Flayn, for all that she was physically squishy in a similar way to Lysithea, had a stupidly huge capacity for channeling magic. Once she started getting through those Reason tomes that Teach had given her, she would be able to defend herself quite ably.

“Claude! Get to Lysithea!” Byleth's raised voice was impossible to ignore; even as her demeanor softened, became more human, she was still as quiet and self-possessed as ever. Claude grabbed an arrow from his quiver and stabbed it into the side of his current opponent – causing him to double over and collapse, leaving him at Marianne's mercy – and immediately swept his gaze over the bridge, looking for the spirited white-haired girl.

When he spotted her, he saw what Teach had seen. Lysithea was fighting alongside Cyril – though maybe it was better said that she was bodyguarding Cyril while he alternated between annoying people with his arrows and looking at her with naked awe – and she was so absorbed in that task that she was forgetting to watch her own back. A bandit was rushing towards her, his ax poised to come down on her unprotected back.

Claude crossed the distance in a flash, managing to knock the weapon aside; he snarled in pain when it bit into his shoulder, sinking into the flesh and nearly scraping bone. He raised an arm and shoved it aside, nearly biting his tongue at the pain from the weapon's removal from his flesh, then raised his bow so the tip of his arrow was scraping against the man's throat.

“Shall we dance?” He asked sarcastically, and grinned darkly when the man's eyes widened.

He felt the flare of power that came from his crest moments before he let the arrow go, the force of the impact driving it right through his throat. Hot golden light surrounded the arrow as if it had been dipped in liquid flame; it spread through the man's body in the blink of an eye, pulling blood and light from it like draining a fruit of its juice. The light flowed into Claude as the bandit crashed to the ground, his skin rapidly turning gray and stony as if he had been carved from crumbling granite. Warmth flooded his veins, as pure and perfect as Recover; his body was instantly restored, the wound vanishing as though it had never been, leaving him feeling like he'd just had a long nap and a hot bath. The glory of the Major Crest of Riegan, Claude thought with a level of grim humor. That stamina that can keep me fighting through storms and the hours of the night is sustained through the blood of my enemies. It's a 'gift' I'd sooner associate with the Asch, god of war, bloodshed and ruin, than the benevolent Sothis...

“Thanks,” Lysithea said breathlessly, bringing him out of his thoughts. Claude glanced over his shoulder and frowned, noticing that her face was pale and drawn.

“Hey, retreat if you have to, okay? We can handle this,” He said while turning and taking aim at another bandit and firing. The arrow sank into his knee, dropping him and allowing Marianne to proceed to tie him up while Ignatz stood guard by her. The bandits were thinning out immensely; there were only four still fighting – desperately trying, and failing, to get past Byleth – while the rest of them either tied up and incapacitated, or had bled out on the ground.

“I'm okay!,” Lysithea protested, shaking her head. “I'm just a bit dizzy. It's nothing serious.”

“You said that at the tournament lunch, and then you ended up collapsing after you beat Annette,” Cyril interjected, a frown in his voice. “You can sit down, Lysithea. We're about done here.”

“I'm not hurt, I'm just short of breath! It's not a problem.”

Claude let out a bemused sigh and turned on his heel to go help Teach, leaving Cyril to fuss over their pint-sized powerhouse. As he took aim, he watched Byleth dodge between her two opponents, causing one to cut into the other's side. The man took umbrage at this, and forgot all about the blue-haired Ashen Demon to attack his former ally with his bare hands. Claude lowered his bow slightly and began walking over; Byleth came up short and watched serenely while the two men hammered away at each other, weakening as their wounds were further aggravated by the movement.

“Does this happen a lot?” He asked her curiously upon reaching her.

“More often than not,” Byleth explained; one of the men tried to grab the other's neck, but he was too weak at this point to properly strangle his enemy. “While I have faced bandit groups with strong bonds of loyalty, they tend to be the exception. Groups of outlaws often fall to infighting and back-stabbings because their first priority is always themselves and elevating themselves out of their current circumstances. Desperate people take desperate measures.”

“I figured that was probably it... of course, the way I've always heard it at the Round Table, you'd think it was because peasants and deserters inherently lack moral fiber.”

Byleth snorted. “I find that the more successful bandit groups are headed by someone who had enough education and leadership skills to give the local militias the slip. Since many nobles deliberately make even the basic learning of the letters expensive...” She let the sentence hang and shrugged.

Claude rolled his eyes. “It's funny how that works, isn't it?” Everyone is expected to read and write at home; born low or high, the grandparents teach the grandchildren, and the record-keepers are two of the most respected members of the king's court. To attempt to deny someone the ability to record their family's history like that is begging for a fight.

His Teach didn't respond to that, but he saw her lip twitch upward in agreement; something warm and buoyant settled in his chest even at that small reaction. You're more expressive now, have you noticed? You claim to have no emotions, but that can't be true. At least...not anymore. “Should we intervene, or should we leave them to it?” He asked casually.

That finally seemed to remind the two bandits that they did, in fact, have proper opponents; they looked up at the two young adults from where they were sprawled, bleeding, on the ground with wide eyes. Byleth shook her head. “I think they're done,” She said with a tone of finality. “The real question is if they'll surrender or bleed to death without making a conscious choice at all.”

Ultimately, the bandits chose surrender. It didn't surprise Claude much; most people decided they wanted to live when staring death in the face. Flayn patched them up, and the class worked together as a group to move the captured bandits into the prison wagon their knightly assistants had come with – as well as burying the men they'd had to kill. After that, Byleth went among her students checking them for injuries; aside from some shallow scars on Lorenz, a few ugly bruises Bernadetta picked up from close combat, and Leonie's bleeding hand – all of which were quickly dealt with – everyone was more or less uninjured. Byleth smiled, small yet warm, when she realized this; Claude tucked the memory of that expression away with the others he'd seen and picked a dizzy and protesting Lysithea up bridal style, amusing himself with her weak attempts to hammer on his shoulder.

“Well done, everyone.” Byleth said, clapping her hands together. “That was perfectly executed.”

“Expect nothing less from us!” Leonie responded cheerfully.

Teach nodded lightly in her direction before going on, “I think it's safe to say that we can take other missions like this, despite your status as students. I am...very impressed, by the amount of progress each and every one of you has made since I started teaching.” She ducked her head slightly, then added, “Clearly I need to step up my material. I'm not challenging you anymore.”

“C'mon, professor,” Hilda laughed, “you can still knock all of us flat in a fight without really trying. We have too much catching up to do still!”

“I'm not so sure about that,” Byleth retorted with a tiny smile, putting one hand on her hip. “Anyway, let us return to the inn. I think we may be able to make it back to the monastery in time for the ax tournament.”

This was met with tired but enthusiastic cheers.


Claude woke before sunrise, shaking and tense from a dream that faded into haze as soon as his eyes flickered open. He sat up in the inn bed and placed his hands on his knees, focusing on evening out his breathing. It's been a while...but why now?

Nightmares were nothing new to him. These days it took more to faze him enough to trigger one, but he was more than familiar with the dark places his mind could take him. The first time someone had tried to assassinate him, he'd been eight years old, abed with a fever and only partially awake when the nurse came into his room and tried to smother him with a pillow. His Crest had saved him; he'd kicked and struggled and managed to slice her wrist with a hairpin, drawing in enough power to force her hands back so he could scream for help. For so many nights afterwards, he'd been terrified of going to sleep; and when he did finally drift off, he dreamed of suffocating darkness and the nurse's curses as he fought with her.

You little bastard! Abomination, affront to the sun and moon! Just lie there and try to die like an Almyran!

Never mind, Claude thought ruefully, that no 'proper Almyran' would passively allow themselves to be murdered if they were even slightly aware of the danger.

After that, the next attempt had been the river....the nightmares changed then into a blend of darkness and water, the inexorable feeling of being dragged forward and under, trapped there, knowing that salvation wasn't far away but being unable to reach it no matter how much he strained and struggled. The boys' laughing and jeering was there, though far away and muted by the rushing of the waters. Sometimes the nightmare would end with him being flung over the side of a waterfall; a bit odd, since that river ended upon reaching a lake, but who said dreams were rational?

As he grew into his role – the schemer, the tactician, the social genius – the nightmares became less frequent, until they were more of an occasional reminder of potential danger and bad memories. Dodging assassination attempts or other ploys to undermine him became almost like a game; something exciting, a test of his will to achieve his dream.

Claude looked down at his dominant hand, raising it up to eye level. It was still trembling. He felt cold all over, despite the warm blankets draped over him and the fact that the windows to his suite were tightly shut and shuttered.

He tried to remember the dream, scrabbling in the darkness of his mind for some sort of context. All that he found was the flash of an image, a memory; Teach, blooded and battered yet standing protectively in front of Marianne, her relic sword pointed at an unseen enemy.

Claude rubbed his eyes and gave his head a shake. “That was...” He looked over at the dying embers in his fireplace. “...Why now...?”

...Up until they fought Miklan's Black Beast form, Byleth had seemed invincible. As unstoppable and unmovable as one of Asch's war gargoyles. The sudden reminder that she was human – that came from taking a blow meant for him, at that! – had shaken him more than he'd care to admit.

He'd...grown used to her and her quiet way of worrying about him and the others; grown to like the feeling of her curious eyes on him whenever he did or said something that caught her by surprise. He liked her spontaneous moments of blunt sarcasm and exasperation. He liked her watching in approval as he – they – practiced. He liked her sweet smile and her beautiful laugh.

He just...liked her. All of her.

Not just the Ashen Demon, a useful mercenary for his plans for Fodlan.

It shouldn't have been such a revelation...but it was. He truly felt like he had a friend. He'd had Hilda, previously, but even when he opened up a bit to her he was always, always dogged by that nagging fear that as soon as she realized who he truly was, she'd reject him. Yet...somehow Byleth never triggered that anxiety. It was strange, because if there was anyone that might cotton on to his secret, it was her – she mentioned more than once that she and her father's mercenaries had spent not-inconsiderable time in Almyra. He'd inherited just enough of his mother's features to hide his Almyran blood from most Fodlan eyes, but someone who had regular contact with his father's people could see through it if they put their minds to it. But he was never worried. Never afraid of loosing her. Until...

Are you hurt?

The first thing she'd said after opening her eyes, her body aching from the Black Beast's final blow, concussed and bleeding internally from the blow that had been meant for him...was to ask if he was unharmed. That was the first and foremost thing she cared about, not her own injuries, not if the Black Beast was still alive...only if he was alright.

His heart raced at the thought, even now.

With a heavy sigh Claude swung his legs off the side of the bed and stood up, grabbing his coat and throwing it on over his nightclothes. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep when his mind was buzzing like this. Leaving his room, he made his way up the stairs and out onto the balcony so he could look up at the early morning sky.

The stars were starting to fade as the day crept closer; a cool wind whipped through his hair as he sat down on the wooden deck, leaning back on his elbows to better loose himself in the vast indigo depths so far above.

It was quiet out here; only crickets chirping and the howling of wolves breaking the silence of the night, along with the wind whistling through the trees. The inn, though luxurious, was solely the province of travelers and didn't have a village attached to it. The light of candles and flames through the windows cast orange shadows across the forest floor; eerie and beautiful in its own right. Very different from the wide open plains and rivers that he so often traveled as a child. He counted the stars he could still see until the pale light of dawn began to paint long ribbons across the sky.

Footsteps creaked on the wooden floor, drawing close to him and then pausing. “Claude?” A welcome soft voice asked. “What are you doing awake so early...?”

Claude turned his head and smiled at Byleth, who was resting her cheek against her raised hand in a disarmingly cute gesture of puzzlement. She was wearing a heavy gray overcoat over a simple black shirt and pants; both seemed a size too big for her and hung loosely off her frame. Claude was suddenly, sharply and keenly aware that likely, that was all she was wearing; yet she approached and knelt on the deck next to him with no self-consciousness whatsoever. “Is something wrong?” She murmured, her blue eyes lanterns in the early morning darkness.

Claude swallowed and carefully focused on a point just over her shoulder. “Nothing serious, Teach. I woke up from some dream I can barely remember, and then I started dwelling on a project I had to leave half-finished back at the monastery...got me worked up enough that I couldn't go straight back to sleep.” He shrugged lightly. “So I came up here to watch the sky.”

“A project?” Byleth repeated, tilting her head. “Is this the reason you've been falling asleep in the library so often?”

Nah, that's because of my research into something that might well get me killed if my targets twig to the fact that I'm getting closer to them. Once I've gotten into Rhea's office and found everything I can, that's probably all I'll be able to find about the “Duscur Incident” in the church. After this I'll have to find some excuse to go into the Kingdom to continue my search... “Nope, this was something else. I was putting together a new poison.”

Byleth blinked twice and stared at him for a moment before warily saying, “a new poison?”

He chuckled. “Yup! It's a colorless, odorless poison. After about two days, you'll get a terrible case of...oh, let's say stomach trouble. I can hear your silent question Teach, why the delay?” He made a little flourish with his hands. “That's just in case you don't have access to the target when you need the poison to take effect.”

Teach eyed him dolefully, not saying anything. “Naturally, I have no immediate plans for this stuff!” Claude went on a little hastily. “I just felt like broadening the old horizons a bit!” He leaned back on his elbows again. “When devising schemes, it's best to have as many options at your disposal as you can manage. Expanding those options one of my hobbies.”

“...Why such a dangerous hobby?” Byleth rested her hands on her knees, her expression softening back into honest curiosity. Claude drew in a sharp breath that he hoped was unobtrusive. The cold indifference that had once seemed like a permanent mask had kept him away from her thoughts and feelings, but now...

When she smiled, when she was worried, when she was pleased or embarrassed, she became the most open and honest person he'd ever met.

“Well, I grew up in an environment where it was necessary to think that way, at times.” He straightened up again under the weight of her gaze. “I told you before that I hadn't grown up in the sort of luxury the other nobles in our class are used to.” He hesitated, wondering how much to say – how much he dared say – before continuing, “ever since I was a child...I've been perceived as different. An outsider, I suppose you could say.”

“Why?” Byleth asked, frowning slightly. “You're certainly an odd one, Claude, but there's no reason you shouldn't belong anywhere you wished to be. How could anyone say otherwise?”

Claude felt his lips part in shock. ...Well, just come out and punch me in the stomach, why don't you?  “Oh, I'm the odd one, am I?” He retorted teasingly to cover up the way his heart raced and the warmth flooding through his veins at hearing those words spoken so bluntly and sincerely. The sky is blue, water is wet, he belonged here. Some whimsical part of him contemplated kissing her on the cheek; the rest of him quickly shoved the thoughts back, insisting it would give the game away. “That's a little rich coming from you.”

She rolled her eyes and brought her hand up to her cheek again. “You are odd,” She responded simply. “You are the strangest man I've ever met, and whenever I think I've finally gotten used to your oddness, you turn around and surprise me again.” She crossed her legs. Claude felt his gaze flicker down to her muscular thighs and quickly looked back up to her face. “You walked up to the terrible Ashen Demon, still splattered with blood from her last fight, called her a goddess and started shamelessly teasing her. If that isn't the definition of strangeness, I don't know what is.”

Yeah, well, where I come from, there is nothing more desirable than a man or woman who knows their way around the battlefield. “Well, who am I to judge people for not being like most others? That's defined me since my birth.” He shrugged. “I've been resented and hated. There have even been attempts on my life. I don't think I've earned such treatment, but that's how it goes for people like me.”

Byleth's eyes widened. “What?!” She blurted out, her whole body tensing up like a fight was about to start. “Assassination attempts?! When? Why? You've never even implied that you've been targeted before! How could I not have...? Ah, when did you last-?”

“Whoa, whoa, Teach, take it easy,” Claude interrupted, grabbing her hand. The way her other hand instinctively dropped to her hip where her sword usually was worried him; it seemed like she was ready to go out and fight some unseen opponent. “I haven't had any trouble since entering the academy. Don't worry about it.”

“Don't worry?!” Byleth hissed, glaring at him. She was practically vibrating with agitation, anger and something else... “You are my student and my best friend! It's my job to worry about you, you dunce! Who's targeting you, do you know?” The sharp edge to her voice told him in no uncertain terms that if he named names, he'd have dead bodies.

“Teach, I caught most of them,” Claude protested, squeezing her hand, both bewildered and flustered by the sheer force of her reaction. I'm your best friend? “And some of them happened a long time ago. Besides, it's nothing I can't take care of myself! There's no need for you to go out on a crusade and get yourself in trouble.”

“I don't care about trouble. I've lived through plenty of trouble.” Byleth said mulishly. She did reluctantly settle down a bit. “I care about keeping you safe.”

He smiled in response – automatically, without thinking about it – raised her hand to his lips and kissed it lightly. Her surprised squeak was well worth fighting down a telltale blush. “So that's why Sylvain calls you 'mother and murder',” He teased. She...almost pouted in response; at least, that's what he thought that gone-in-a-blink expression was. “It suits you.” He shrugged. “But really, people regard outsiders as a beast of sorts. It's not really surprising that some of them want us to vanish from their lives.”

Her eyes flashed. “You're not an outsider. You're Claude von Riegan.”

...Why couldn't I meet you sooner...? “Thanks Teach.” Claude carefully maintained his smile, not wanting that vulnerability to bleed through. “You know, in many ways I'm just a normal person like everyone else. But in the right environment, anyone can seem like an outsider.” He let go of her hand and glanced up at the sky. “It can become overwhelming. So I kept running, kept fighting.”

“That sounds lonely,” Byleth murmured.

It was. “Sometimes. My parents told me that I wouldn't grow up strong if I couldn't fight my own battles. So in the end, I did. And I grew up as independent and self-reliant as they always wanted me to be. Lucky me, right?”

She smiled softly at him. “You grew up well.”

If you want to know my secrets... “If anyone knows what I'm talking about, it must be you. Eh, Teach? I get the feeling you know what it's like to be an outsider.”

Byleth tilted her head, and pressed a finger against her mouth. Something dark settled over her expression; sadness or resignation, or perhaps both. “...It's true.”

She turned to face him again, tugging at the edges of her coat. “The first person who called me a demon was a person I'd been hired to escort. We were attacked on the road and I ended up getting stabbed in the shoulder. I kept fighting anyway, drove them off...when I turned to my client, she was horrified. She said no human could ignore that pain like it was nothing. No human could be stabbed and not make a sound. No human could cut down a dozen enemies and not feel a thing...”

Byleth rolled her sleeve up and ran a thumb over her wrist. Claude squinted for a moment, before realizing – with a flash of ice-cold shock – that there were old scars along the skin above the vein. Scars that cut sideways, scars that...that must have been self-inflicted... “I always knew something was wrong with me. I never cried, I never smiled, I never felt scared. My father is a reserved man who keeps his emotions close to his chest, but he was never empty the way I was. I accepted the moniker of Ashen Demon as a matter of course, though father always hated it...because how could I be human if I couldn't feel anything like them?”

She brushed her thumb against the scar again. “I've been beaten by villagers as a 'witch'; one group tried to stone me to death. I wasn't willing to take that, of course, and father ultimately had to intervene...” She sighed. “One woman poisoned me for killing her son; he'd been a part of a bandit group that the mercenaries wiped out. I actually hadn't participated in that raid, since I'd been down with a fever, but I was the one who didn't even twitch when she wept and cursed us for killing her only child...so I suppose I looked like the one who deserved it.”

“The worst part was, I couldn't resent my deficiency. It was just something I knew existed. One night...one night I wondered if I could somehow bleed out everything that was 'wrong' with me, and be the living, human daughter my father deserved.” She shook her head, pulling the sleeve down over her arm. “Of course, all I succeeded in doing was almost bleeding out and giving father an awful shock.”

“How terrible,” Claude murmured, gently placing his hand on top of her wrist. Over the scars. “...You deserved better than that, Teach.”

She let out a shaky breath, clasping his hand with hers. “I just wish-” She blurted out, then shook her head. “I...I...this – this is going to sound silly, but I think I was fated to come here. Fated to meet you. Because just by knowing you, I-I'm changing. The curse I've always lived with is – is going away. I can feel things now, burst by burst. It's-it's like a pot that's boiling over.”

“Isn't that a good thing?”

It's scaring me,” Byleth whispered back, her fingers tightening on around his. The admission shocked him silly; he must have made quite the face, because she blushed a bit under his reaction. “It's true. I...I was hurt more than I should have been back when you came to help us save Flayn. That was because – I kept making mistakes, basic mistakes. I kept feeling things, getting lost in my own head, reacting in – in anger, and I slipped up. More than once.” She gave him a pleading look. “What's happening to me?”

“Nothing you can't learn to manage.” He promised. “Teach...if you want, I'm willing to spar with you as many times as you need. I'm good at annoying people, after all, and if you want to learn how to fight in spite of your emotions...well, there are worse places to start.”

Byleth let out a small, startled laugh and smiled. “Thank you.”

Anything to see you smile like that, my friend, Claude thought but couldn't quite bring himself to say.


Fortunately the trip back to the monastery was uneventful, and this time they didn't come back to discover chaos had ensued in their absence! Claude amused himself by imagining writing about his first months in the academy in a letter to his father. The old man would get a huge kick of the sheer amount of bloody chaos he'd gotten into in the heart of the Serios faith. One more for the pile I've got already, I guess. Still need to find a way to actually get the messages across the border...

Feeling a little distracted, his heart to heart with Byleth still on his mind, he decided that instead of going directly to bed he'd have a hot bath first.

How was he supposed to have guessed that Dimitri was there?

C-Come now. You know I think you're quite striking.

Claude leaned against the wall of the bathhouse, heart pounding. Part of him wanted to stay and see what he could cajole out of the flustered prince, but the other part of him wanted to flee directly to his room and lock the door. He was watching me the whole time...what was he staring at? My scars? Or was he just looking at me? His fingers tapped rapidly against his bow. He turned into a stammering mess when I caught him. Why would he do that if he wasn't-

No, stop that thought right there, you're hoping for the moon-

Dimitri's wide, hazy ocean-blue orbs flashed through his mind. That look had come over him when Claude had touched his bare, scarred shoulder...

Ah, why did I do that?! What was I thinking? Oh, right, I wasn't, I was trying very hard to think about anything other than the fact that I was sharing a bath with someone I'm attracted to- He clapped a hand over his mouth – as if doing so would somehow erase the admission he'd inadvertently made to himself. His chest ached painfully.

There was faint movement that he could hear within the bathhouse; Dimitri was finishing up. The urge to flee intensified immensely. Damn it...why did it have to be him? A warm, knightly prince charming, devoted to his friends, to justice, to compassion... the last living member of the royal family. Claude screwed his eyes shut. He can't afford to have anything but a temporary, passing fling with another man; and Dimitri's not the type to separate sex from emotional devotion. It's silly to even contemplate it...

...But I am attracted to him. There's no doubt about that. He huffed out a weak, quiet laugh, letting his hand drop back to his side. Asch's blood and bones, I'm hopeless. This is the whole reason I shut everyone out of my heart. Yet he just walked through all those walls I put up like they didn't even exist with just a few sincere words...

His grip on his bow tightened. C'mon, Khalid. Pull yourself together. Attraction is one thing, and it's something you know plenty about. You're not about to deny being attracted to Teach, after all. You can find a way to deal with this, as you have before. Are you a schemer or what?

The door opened, and Claude's heart nearly escaped his chest via this throat. Dimitri smiled hesitantly at him, his golden hair still damp from the water and clinging to his pale neck. He was wearing black and indigo clothes that weren't particularly familiar to the brunette; it was probably casual wear from home, given that he'd changed out of his officer's academy uniform. “Thank you for waiting,” The prince said softly. “Shall we go?”

“Sure,” Claude said, smiling playfully back at him.

They headed down the stairs and started to cross back to the monastery proper. “I'm sorry,” Dimitri said, breaking the silence. “I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable back there, if that's what I did.”

“Hm? Oh, come on, that's hardly what happened.” With a force of effort to keep his voice light and playful, Claude added, “It was nice, actually. I don't get admired quite so often.”

Dimitri blushed hotly, “A-Ah...truly? I admit, that's kind of surprising.”

“You're such a gentleman. How often do you notice other men to be so confident in what you see in me?”

“I...ah...I've never truly thought about it that way?” Dimitri stammered a bit. He was flustered enough that Claude was convinced of his honesty; being the only child of the king probably meant that sort of desire would be indirectly discouraged, even before the incident... “I-I mean...one can admire the sunset without understanding it, right?”

“I suppose that's true,” It's also neither a yes nor a no...you're killing me, Mitya...please, don't make me ask you this directly... “Ah, you're too easy to tease, you know that?”

“So I've come to realize,” Dimitri responded ruefully. “How went your mission?”

“Went off without a hitch,” Claude said with a smile. “It was a bit touch and go at one point, but in the end they didn't stand a chance. But did you expect anything less, with us having Teach's guidance?”

“It's true. So no one was hurt?”

“Not aside from a few scraps and bruises. Business can now safely travel to Garreg Mach! That merchant was so happy he cried; still insisted on overpaying us, too. Teach had to argue with him for a while before he stopped trying to give us most of his current wares.” Claude stretched his arms. “Flayn tried to sneak off to bed without seeing Seteth, unfortunately he was waiting for her in the front hall. I understand he was worried, but she looked like she might die of embarrassment when he started fussing over her in front of everyone.”

“He is her family,” Dimitri said, a wistful note in his voice. “He would likely worry himself needlessly if even without the kidnapping lingering in his mind.”

Claude opened his mouth to ask if he was alright when someone slammed into his shoulder, nearly throwing him off his feet. His prince grabbed his arm, catching and steadying him and allowing him to see his assailant...

It wasn't one of the knights, or one of the students from outside his class. It was an older man, pale in pallor and scarred from many previous fights. He wore dark and scruffy clothes that had dirt on the helms. But more pertinently, there was a large sack tucked under one of his arms that rattled and clinked; the tell-tale sound of clay jars knocking into each other. And the only place nearby that used that sort of jar in great numbers was...

“Are you Caspar's pantry thief?” Claude asked semi-sarcastically as he righted himself. The man was staring in wide-eyed panic at the pair of them. “Ah, it would just figure this would happen in the evening. At least the march wasn't too trying. Are you going to make us chase you?” In lieu of answering verbally, the man took off. “He's going to make us chase him. Running away from the guy possessing the Major Riegan Crest...smart. Mitya-”

“I'll go with you,” Dimitri interrupted. “Quickly, before we loose sight of him.”

They both took off in pursuit. Fortunately, the man either wasn't too fast on his feet or was being weighed down by his stolen goods, because keeping him within their sight wasn't hard despite his attempts to zigzag or hide within the trees and bushes. They nearly crashed into Edelgard when going up the stairwell; Dimitri slowed long enough to give her an explanation, leaving Claude to run ahead. The man ran past the knight's hall, went partway toward the graveyard, and then ducked toward the wall...and disappeared.

Claude skidded to a halt and stared blankly for a few seconds before his eyes adjusted to the low light of sunset. There was a hole in the wall, not unlike what he'd seen in Jeritza's office. Curious, he walked closer to it and peered down into the darkness. It was a tunnel that lead to a stairwell, and there were lights coming up from the darkness. Another hidden passageway in Garreg Mach...ah, how many secrets does this building have? Any thoughts of sleep were long since banished, but this gave him a whole new shot of adrenaline. Yet another way into the building...I wonder what's down there for you, mister thief...

“Claude?” Dimitri's voice echoed from somewhere behind him. “Where are you?”

“Over here!” He called.

To his surprise and delight, is voice drew not only Dimitri and Edelgard, but Byleth and Bernadetta as well! The group came to a stop behind him, blinking and staring at the hole in the wall. He grinned and pointed down the dimly lit passageway. “Our little friend went down this way.” He said by way of explanation.

Byleth stared at the wall for a moment before groaning tiredly. “Not this again...”

“It looks dark...and, um, dark, down there,” Bernadetta whimpered, edging over so her professor was standing between her and the entrance. “Maaaybe we should go wake Sir Alois or something...?”

“He's in a meeting with the Archbishop right now,” Byleth said, running a hand through her hair. “Of course he is. Ugh...food theft is a serious problem if we just ignore it. If he's the same person Caspar mentioned, he's been at it for a while.”

“This reminds me of something...” Edelgard mused, looking into the darkness. “There have always been rumors about secret passageways beneath the monastery, but it's hard to tell what is fanciful thinking and what might be fact. If there is a labyrinth down there, we have to keep in mind the possibility of getting lost should we pursue. He would know his way around better than us after all.”

“That's true...there's no telling where this leads,” Dimitri murmured with a frown.

Claude grinned at him. “Oh no. Oh, there's no telling what we could find down there. Terrible danger. Wicked creatures. Unspeakable smells!”

“Claude, don't wind up Bernadetta,” Byleth instructed in exasperation, over the purple-haired girl's noise of alarm and distress. “Edelgard, Dimitri, I'm going to go and try and see if we can catch up with the bandit. If we're not back in fifteen minutes, please get my father and whatever knights are still awake.”

“Please, Professor!” Edelgard responded indigently. “As if we could let you go down there with only two people for backup. With so little information, it's far too dangerous. Don't you agree, Dimitri?”

“I agree on principle, yes; considering what happened at the Rite of Rebirth and Flayn's kidnapping, vigilance is paramount.” However, Dimitri then shook his head, looking abashed. “Unfortunately the two of us happen to be unarmed right now. It limits the sort of help we'd be able to offer.”

“What's going on over here?” A new, vaguely familiar voice asked. Claude turned around to see Hannah of Jeralt's Mercenaries standing a few feet behind them, weighed down by a number of what looked like freshly repaired weapons – axes, swords and lances – wrapped in a sack. He'd seen her multiple times down in the stables; she'd helped him feed the pegasi and wyverns and was kind enough not to rat him out when he took one for a late night flight. “Kid, has something happened? Don't tell me there's been another disappearance.”

“Nothing that severe,” Byleth explained, gesturing towards the entrance-way. “However, there's been another food theft. He used this hidden passageway to escape.” She nodded toward a blanket of foliage that was set askew next to it. “He's clearly been in and out of here many times before.”

“Another one?” Hannah said, throwing her hands in the air. “By Sothis's grace, was this monastery built on top of an underground city?” She sighed and held out the sack so the weapons and quivers were facing them. “Well, I know that expression well enough by now. You lot come and arm yourself, and if I yell down there in half a mark and don't hear from you, I'm bringing the Captain down. Got it?”

Byleth gave the slightly older girl a grateful smile. “Of course. Thank you, Hannah.” She took out a familiar steel bow and a quiver, slinging one then the other over her shoulder; her hand easily slid down to the hilt of the Sword of the Creator, buckled at her side as always.

“My gratitude,” Edelgard said politely, taking first an axe and then a sword from the bag. “Let's not dally any more. Unless you think there's someone else we can call for right now?”

Byleth shook her head. “Most of the rest of the Golden Deer are dead to the world right now, and I doubt your other classmates are much more alert. I'm not sure we should spend the time looking around to find out.”

“Whoa, what's this professor?” Speak of the devil and she shall appear, Claude thought in delight as Hilda, Ashe and Linhardt all appeared from the either. “Don't tell me someone else has vanished and the knights were too polite to come get us this time?” The pink haired girl pouted while he restocked his quiver.

“Where are you going, your highness, professor?” Ashe asked worriedly. “You're taking weapons with you. Has something happened?”

“It looks like a whole lot of something is about to happen,” Linhardt deduced, promptly turning on his heels. “I think I'm going to go back to bed.”

“Stop right there, Linhardt.” Edelgard commanded in her best Emperor voice. The green haired boy instantly froze in his tracks, a great blanket of resignation immediately covering his whole body. “Your bad luck is our good fortune. You're coming with us to get a pantry thief."

“You can stop thinking of ways out of this, Hilda,” Claude added cheerfully when the pinkette opened her mouth to do just that. “We could use your help too. Right Teach?”

“She seems alert enough to be an asset,” Byleth replied in her usual neutral voice, but the hint of a teasing grin on her face completely spoiled the look. Hilda sulked mightily in response.

“You as well, Ashe. I'll explain on the way.” Dimitri said. Ashe, in contrast to his two companions, simply bobbled his head in acceptance and immediately went to arm himself from a very amused-looking Hannah, who seemed to be suppressing laughter.

“The more the merrier!” Claude said. Bernadetta let out a low, hopeless moan before walking over to take a bow and short sword – which was rather impressive for her, seeing as a month or so ago she would have dug her heels in and refused to take one step into the underground out of pure, frozen terror. “Let's hope we're not marching to our doom in the pits of some long-forgotten civilization.”

Claude,” Byleth said in a warning tone, even as her lip twitched. He beamed back at her before turning and being the first one to step into the tunnel.

The first thing he noticed is that, very much unlike the stairwell in Jeritza's office, aside from some moss here and there, this tunnel was cleaned, decently maintained and well lit. Which pointed to a lot of people using it, not just one thief; and using it with some frequency to boot. Claude kept one arrow in hand as he lead the way down the steep stairs. They walked down for something like ten, maybe thirteen minutes before finally reaching a wide hallway lined with torches.

“Look at that...” Bernadetta mumbled, stepped out from behind Byleth to look around the room. “It's too big to be a tunnel...it's more like a hallway, isn't it?”

“I think you might be on to something,” Edelgard mused. “But...let's get deeper in before we jump to any conclusions.”

Byleth nodded without saying anything. In a few strides, she caught up with Claude and made a point of walking just ahead of him. He blinked and quickly realized that she was standing in such a way that if someone rushed them from the end of the hall, they would hit her before reaching him. Teach...you don't have to protect me at your own expense. I can make my own way in a fight... in his minds eye, he saw the scars on her wrist. ...Let me protect you too. Please.

The hallway quickly turned into another one, and then another one. Claude quickly noticed that there were tiles on the floor similar ones he remembered seeing in the Holy Mausoleum – they hummed with magic whenever someone stepped on them. “Remember these, Mitya?” He asked quietly, tapping his foot against one of them. A shadowy echo of his leg followed the movement, blurring precisely where he was standing and making it difficult to know where to aim.

“Indeed I do,” Dimitri said, shifting his grip on his lance. “That's worrisome.”

“Everyone, keep an eye on where you step.” Byleth ordered, tapping her fingers on the hilt of her relic sword. Bernadetta ducked forward and grabbed onto her arm, straightening up a little as though drawing strength from her professor. Byleth allowed it with small smile, taking a second to ruffle her hair without breaking stride.

They found another set of stairs, shorter than the first one thankfully, which lead them to a wide room with several pillars and a gateway through which further halls were visible. Byleth paused, tilting her head. It looked like she was listening to something, but even as he strained, Claude couldn't hear anything except for footsteps.

“Look at this place,” Bernadetta mumbled. “Doesn't it look kinda...lived in?”

Edelgard looked around. “It does seem like more than a simple passageways. It's too defensively designed. And people have clearly been moving through this place with frequency.”

“People living under Garreg Mach...” Hilda muttered; then she gasped loudly. “Oh! Holst used to tell me all sorts of stories when he was studying at the officer's academy. Stories about people who shunned the light of day, choosing to live in a maze of tunnels and hiding places underneath the monastery. He treated them like fun urban legends, but what if they aren't?! What if the...Abyss...is real?”

“That's two points for the pink-haired girl!” A boisterous voice proclaimed, snapping Claude's attention to the gateway. It slid open with a grinding screech, and a massively tall figure strode through it. It was a man in his mid-twenties, unless he missed his guess; a muscular brawler wearing an open gray overcoat and a black chain across his torso. He had little to nothing in the way of armor, aside from possibly his heavy leather pants, but that wasn't nearly as eye-catching as what was on his wrists.

Massive gauntlets that more resembled the claws of some great monster than anything meant for a human, glowing a blazing orange. They had a very, very similar shape and coloring to Byleth's Sword of the Creator. “Welcome to the Abyss, strangers,” The giant laughed, smiling the way men did when they were anticipating a fight. Claude's hand tensed on his bow.

“Identify yourself!” Dimitri demanded reflexively, also going for his lance. The prince looked a little pale, clearly coming to a similar conclusion as him. “...That uniform...”

The man eyed them for a moment before letting out a chuckle. “Welcome, curious students of the Officer's Academy! What brings such fine, upstanding surface dwellers to our humble abode?”

“We were chasing someone who stole from the dining hall,” Claude responded with artificial casualness. “You wouldn't have happened to see a shifty-looking guy with a huge sack creeping around these parts, have you?”

“Our business is no concern of yours,” Edelgard said with the calm aloofness that so often characterized her. She regarded the man with equal parts disdain and cool composure. “Do you intend to let us pass, or obstruct us?”

“Ahaha!” The perfect haughty noblewoman's laugh answered that question. “Such indulgence simply cannot be permitted.” Said a golden haired, well-dressed aristocratic young woman who strode through the gate to join the brawler. She tossed her head and proclaimed, “your words may fool the fool, but I cannot be so easily deceived!”

“Sheesh. Harsh, Constance...” The brawler grumbled halfheartedly.

“I, Constance von Nuvelle, shall divine your true intentions!” The blonde declared as if her companion hadn't spoken. “You are here by order of the church...which cruelly plots to eliminate the inhabitants of the Abyss!”

“What?! No no no no no! Never, never, nothing like that!” Bernadetta shrieked in rapid-fire protest. “We didn't know anyone was down here! We didn't know anything, we were just looking for a thief, we'll leave right away, I promise!”

Byleth put a hand on her shoulder and frowned. “There's been no talk of exterminating anyone up in the monastery,” She said flatly. “And if there was, we would not willing be a part of it. Why do you think that the church plans to kill any people living down here?”

“Did you say Nuvelle...?” Edelgard asked, half to herself.

The brawler tossed his head and laughed. “I don't care what the reason for this brawl is. A fight's on the menu, and I'm ready to feast! So let's get go it, huh?”

But we don't want to fight you!” Bernadetta protested, her voice shooting up an octave.

“C'mon, scardy-cat,” the brawler cajoled lightly, taking a combat stance. “You've been at least one decent fight before, haven't you? There's no better way to learn what a person is like than seeing how they throw down. We'll see what your soul's made of!”

“My soul is made of yarn and endless dread! That's all there is to it, I swear!”

Claude very firmly told himself not to laugh at his classmate's very audible worries about the situation they were in. She would not appreciate it, and no matter how funny that mental image was, it was just a dickish thing to do.

“We have no quarrel with you,” Dimitri said, visibly bound and determined to attempt to defuse the situation. “If we are trespassing here, we will leave you be. We have not come to kill anyone.”

“Very true,” Claude said, deciding to add his voice to the choir. He could always come back when these guys were preoccupied to snoop around, after all. “We'll just pull a strategic retreat and be out of your hair.”

“Turning back already? Oh, but you'll make me so sad,” a silkly smooth voice interjected. Claude's eyes were drawn to the two newcomers. The one who had spoken was a tall, androgynously gorgeous young man with sleek purple hair, pale skin and violet eyes sharp as knives. He wore gray, purple and black, with a short sword buckled to his hip. On his wrists...they looked like fancy jeweled bracelets, but they glowed a hot orange and shimmered with a glittering rainbow of light. The boy looked in his direction and gave him a very deliberate and coy smile. “Now why would you wanna do that?” His eyes weren't smiling, though. They were cold, deliberating. “Everyone here is starved for amusement, after all the attacks we've suffered over the past few weeks. They've been waiting for a decent fight.”

“Wow, look at that.” Claude responded with exaggerated surprise. “A flawless example of a surprise attack. You're not run-of-the-mill loners, are you?”

“Claude, this isn't the time for your particular sense of humor,” Dimitri pleaded. “We have to find a way through.”

“Y-You...” Bernadetta whispered, staring. Then – greatly startling Claude (and everyone else for that matter) – she let go of Byleth's arm and took a few steps forward, her hand partially outstretched toward the boy. She stalled after a few steps and just stared. “You...? N-no...y-you can't be...h-he's gone...” She wrapped her arms around her shoulders, staring at him.

“What are you on about?” The boy asked, peering at her in puzzlement. Claude watched his eyes carefully, and thus saw the flicker of shocked recognition before it was quickly shoved back behind a mask of flirtatious casualness. “I know I'm quite the sight, but there's a time and place for that, isn't there?”

Bernadetta, whatever or whoever she was thinking about (or remembering) was so deep in her head that she didn't react to that comment. Which, as far as Claude was concerned, meant that whoever this guy was, he had been fairly important to her.

“You know this girl, Yuri-bird?” The last newcomer asked. She was a girl with strikingly red hair and dark brown skin, dressed in gray, white and black like her three friends, except she wore riding boots. I wonder how the hell they'd have horses down here, if they actually do. Those kinds of animals really don't like going underground.

“I think I might?” Yuri said with a lightness that would have fooled Claude if he hadn't spent most of his recent life listening for affectations. “Admittedly, I know a lot of people. I do know some better than others, though...” That pretty, coy, inviting smile slipped over to Byleth, who tilted her head slightly in response.

Watch yourself, pretty boy, Claude thought in a hot spike of indignation. To his (minor) amusement, both Dimitri and Edelgard both shot the opposing sword user death glares.

“Claude...wait...Claude, is it? As in the brand-new heir to House Riegan?” The brawler blurted out, now eyeing him with a speculative look he very much did not appreciate.

“Who? Me? Nah. Wrong guy. Claude's a common name in Fodlan. It's just too dashing for new moms to pass up.” After all, it is the name of the knight from my mother's favorite fable, which is why it's one of my names. Father teased her a bunch over it, but she held firm. “It's even a popular choice for fake names. It's nice, easy, rolls off the tongue...just a natural choice, yeah?”

“Right, except there's only one Claude enrolled at the academy this year,” The brawler responded smoothly, gesturing to him. “Looks like that's you.”

“Why would the guy living in the basement's basement of Garreg Mach have access to the enrollment lists?” Claude asked dryly, even as his heart skipped a beat. “I guess the Claude Harvester who works in the kitchen just doesn't exist, then.”

The brawler huffed. “I also happen to have heard that Claude von Riegan is a teenager and famously smart-mouthed. Since that suits you pretty well, it seems my luck has finally taken a turn for the better. So! Your choices are as follows:” He smirked dangerously at them. “line up for the beating of a lifetime...or let us lock you up like the good little boys and girls you undoubtedly are.”

Bernadetta let out a whimper of terror.

Byleth ripped the sword of the Creator out of its sheathe and swung it at the brawler, letting it split out to its full length. Yuri's eyes widened, and he grabbed the brawler and forced him to move to the side. The blade went wide – Teach hadn't been going for a killing blow; she rarely opened with one – but it would have hurt if it had hit. The noble girl – Constance – let out an alarmed shriek and jumped backwards into the redhead, who grabbed her and tensed up like she was trying not to vomit.

The Sword hissed as it reformed; Byleth pointed the blazing blade at the brawler's chest. “I haven't come here for a fight,” She growled, her voice dropping to a low alto that simultaneously gave Claude chills and did treacherous things to his stomach. “But if you put a single one of my students in danger, I will split you in half.

Yuri eyed her carefully while the brawler, now somewhat pale in the face, straightened up and took on a combat stance. Claude saw a look of honest respect in those violet pools before he nodded and responded, “I understand. Unfortunately, my own people have been suffering from attacks and indignities for a while now...so I can't back down until I discern who you are and what you want.”

He then twisted his wrist. There was a flare of Crest energy, a dark green light...and then he vanished from sight like a the shattering of a desert mirage.

Well, Claude thought dully though his shock as he readied his bow, that's going to be a problem.

Chapter Text

I don't like this, I don't like this...! Byleth chanted silently as she dodged past an assassin's sword and fired a point-blank arrow into his shoulder. He crashed to the ground with a tortured curse; his friend immediately abandoned his attempt to get past Edelgard in favor of kneeling and helping him. Edeglard clearly contemplated either knocking him out while he was distracted; Byleth sharply gestured for her to leave him be. “Go guard Linhardt,” She urged, turning on her heel. “There's too many opponents here.”

“Understood,” Edelgard said a bit reluctantly. “Watch out for those two; I don't want you getting stabbed in the back!”

“I know,” She responded, choosing not to point out that those two weren't fighting to kill and more interested in protecting each other than taking her out. There would be a time and place for that conversation. Her eyes panned the crowd as she ran forward, slinging her bow over her shoulder and grabbing the Sword of the Creator out of its sheathe.

Yuri's vanishing act had prompted the four initial strangers to scatter, and summoned dozens of other pale-skinned, disreputable-looking people out of the dark twisting corridors to their aide. They had to be outnumbered at least twenty to one, and two of their opponents had what might well be relic weapons. Constance and the other girl had vanished down the hallway, but the brawler remained at the front lines. He hadn't been shaken by her threat for very long; he'd headed for Bernadetta, but Dimitri cut him off, and while the prince was fighting defensively he was holding his own. Ashe and Claude were fighting side by side forcing the other three brawlers to keep their distance, forming a protective line in front of Linhardt who was mostly healing their injuries with Physic and occasionally throwing fireballs whenever the opportunity presented itself. Meanwhile, Hilda was guarding Bernadetta while tussling with a warrior; the diminutive archer took potshots at anyone who entered her range whenever possible.

We only have one dedicated healer, we're outnumbered, two of our enemies have crests and compatible relic weapons, there could be traps here that we can't anticipate...argh, I should have asked Hannah to get father right away and come join us...! It's times like this that I'm grateful I devoted all that time to faith and its magic. Think, Ashen Demon; how should you proceed?

Claude teasingly blew Edelgard a kiss when she rejoined them and threw her ax, forcing one of the brawlers to dodge and consequentially get nailed in the knee by Ashe. Byleth could almost hear the white haired princess roll her eyes in response. “Just focus on the job, won't you,” She scolded.

“Your wish is my command,” Claude laughed in response, swinging his bow across the room, one eye narrowed, before firing. The brawler, focusing on him at the expense of both Ashe and Byleth herself, dodged to the right – putting himself directly in her cross-hairs. She slammed the her sword's hilt into his helmet, rendering him dazed and dropping him.

“That was amazing,” Ashe enthused.

“What, that? I'm not even showing off yet. If you stay close you might see something real special, how about it?” Claude winked at the young archer and began prowling around the edges of Dimitri's duel with the brawler. Byleth was mildly shocked to realize the prince was actually having some trouble; she'd never see someone meet him blow for blow before. Only she really came close to matching his strength...

“Who are you people, anyway?” Dimitri asked before ducking past a swing aimed at his chest. Not at his head, Byleth noted. “It doesn't seem right to cross blades without knowing at least that much!”

“Wow, does it hurt to take yourself that seriously?” The redhead said disbelievingly from where she stood in the mouth of the hallway. The red-black aura of dark magic danced around her fingers; she'd taken a few potshots, but she mostly seemed to be just watching the fight unfold. She shrugged. “Answer the man's question, B.”

“Why me?” 'B' complained, then grunted in startled pain when Dimitri kicked him hard in the stomach. The impact sent him stumbling back several feet, forcing him onto the defensive as Dimitri took advantage of his disorientation. “haah, whoa, you've got a mean hook for someone so skinny.”

“I am Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd,” the prince responded firmly, before dodging past 'B''s next punch and grabbing his arm just below the relic weapon. Byleth's heart skipped a painful beat; she could see Ashe trying to aim at the brawler, but given how both he and Dimitri were circling in each other he didn't have a clean shot. “Might I know who I'm dealing with?”

The brawler let out a startled, yet boisterous laugh, twisting around and leveraging his position so Dimitri will loose his grip without directly challenging the other boy's strength. “The holy prince himself, down here in the dark with us abandoned rats? Now there's a tale!” He grinned. “We're the Ashen Wolves. The secret four house in the Abyss. The surface world turned its back on us, and we did the same in return. Back for a back, as they say.”

“A fourth house? Impossible...” Edelgard said, baffled.

Hilda, meanwhile, screwed up her face in concentration as she stared at the brawler. “Professor...I swear, I know this wild man from somewhere...”

“You do-?” Byleth shook her head. “Ah, save it for afterwards. Focus on the fight.” Then she darted toward Dimitri.

The prince saw her coming out of the corner of his eye and smiled. 'B' was clearly tipped off by that, because he stopped trying to put Dimitri in a grappler's hold and stepped back, avoiding the first swing of the Sword. Dimitri swung his lance up and then across; 'B' dodged the first hit but not the second one which caught him upside the head. He stumbled back a step but kept his grounding very well; he was a veteran fighter, one who enjoyed the struggle. Byleth could match him blow for blow if she was fighting to kill...however, she didn't want to kill him; something was going on here that they knew nothing about, and tragedies were built on that which was not spoken.

And if the behavior of their first few opponents was anything to go by, the...Ashen Wolves...weren't trying to kill them either. However, Byleth was in no mood to allow herself to be beaten unconscious and tossed in a cage, and more importantly she had no intention of allowing her students to be violently manhandled by a bunch of trigger-happy sewer rats.

'B' punched Dimitri in the shoulder, throwing him back several feet. Byleth's blood pressure spiked as she narrowly ducked out of the way of a punch aimed at her. A bloody, burning heat washed over her skin as the gauntlet passed by; a radiation so similar to the Sword of the Creator she swore she felt her weapon pulse in response to its presence. Dimitri landed well, rolled onto his knees and forced himself back to his feet; Ashe and Claude both took shots at 'B' after she dodged past his next to strikes, trying to buy herself enough room to bring her sword up without impaling him on impact.

“Not bad, not bad!” 'B' said with a disarming cheerfulness. Byleth had the sense that the compliment was genuine, rather than the odd brand of frustrated sarcasm she'd heard many times before. “Come and get some, kiddo!”

“I'm twenty,” Byleth retorted flatly, swinging the blade out so it split apart, just barely missing 'B' and tearing up the floor behind him. She grimaced and noticed that their conflict had resulted in him stepping onto one of the enchanted parts of the floor. His image blurred and shuddered when she looked at him, as if she was drunk or drugged up with something strong.

“C'mon, you're too pretty to be so serious.” 'B' responded brightly, not the least bit deterred by a glare that had sent enemies fleeing into the woods for their lives. “You're that mysterious new professor aren't you? So many people were talking about you, the news drifted down here. Makes me wish I hadn't graduated!”

When did I become 'pretty' instead of 'disturbing', 'corpselike', or 'demonic'?, Byleth wondered in pure bewilderment. Dorothea had called her pretty, Mercedes had called her pretty, Sylvain had called her pretty, Professor Manuela had called her pretty...where were all of these compliments coming from? Why weren't they disturbed by her like everyone else? “Are you trying to distract me?” She asked, finally deciding to voice this confusion.

“Nah, that's more Yuri's style. I just call it as I see it!” 'B' said, throwing another flurry of punches; not so much aimed at taking her out as they were meant to keep her from using her sword. He's twigged to the fact that I'm holding back... She frowned a bit. More Yuri's style? Ah, that's just what I need, fighting a Claude who can turn invisible...

Dimitri rejoined her, swinging his lance and forcing 'B' to break off his current stalemate with her. “Stand down!” He snapped in audible frustration. “This battle is meaningless!”

“No can do,” 'B' said sharply, his humor fleeing and replaced with something colder and harder. “No offense, but I'm not sure I dare bring the Holy Prince of Faerghus down into Abyss where those who fled the church take refuge.”

“I'm no threat to refugees!” Dimitri sounded like he couldn't decide whether to be outraged or mortified. Byleth shot him a meaningful look, one that she hoped conveyed 'don't loose your cool' without saying as much out loud.

An arrow whisked past her cheek, missing her by a few inches, and slammed into the brawler's upper shoulders. The man let out a strangled curse, his punch going wide as the shock hit his arm; Dimitri promptly slugged him in the face and kicked his leg out from under him as he careened backwards. Byleth quickly knelt on his chest, pinning one of his arms and pressing the blade of the Sword near his neck. Not deep enough to bite into him, but close enough that the heat radiating off it warmed his skin and fear briefly flashed through his dark eyes.

“Stay down,” She growled low in her throat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ashe clasp his hands together, impressed, while Claude strolled forward with a pleased grin. 'B', thoroughly winded, couldn't do much but let out a tortured groan of acknowledgment. “Hilda, can you tie him up?”

“With what?” The pinkette protested, peering down at him from over her shoulder. “Who carries three coils of rope around when they're taking a midnight stroll? You don't have any, do you?”

“Then someone has to stay and guard him,” Byleth explained, keeping a wary eye on the redhead and warriors who had rushed up to the mouth of the hallway. Bernadetta eyed their downed opponent with blatant mistrust and stuck to her side. Not that I would choose her to do it. If he slipped any bonds we put on him, he could overpower her easily just by virtue of how much he outweighs her. The Major Crest of Indech is superhuman accuracy and 'multi-shot', not strength. “Any volunteers?"

Dimitri looked torn, glancing between 'B' and the hallway. Edelgard sighed, and opened her mouth to say something when she was cut off by a worried cry of “Balthus!” from the redhead at the other end of the hall. The girl clenched her fists, seemed to come to some sort of decision...she gestured sharply at the men behind her and then stepped back.

Byleth's first instinct was that she possessed some sort of siege magic, like Meteor or Bolting. Mages who knew them were comparatively rare, but they were a nightmare to fight against without some sort of dedicated countermeasure – of which they had none. “Get ready to run,” She warned the others, tensing up and shifting so she was standing light on her feet.

As if on cue...the ground startled rumbling. Byleth's head jerked upward, for a split-second fearing she'd see dust falling down as a prelude to part of the ceiling giving way. Wait...no, there are no cracks in the ceiling plaster. That's not what's – the ground shuddered again, more violently, almost directly under her feet. Oh, I don't like that! “Scatter!”

Her students dove in every direction. Byleth just barely managed to hit the ground, roll and get back to her feet just before the floor not far from 'B' – Balthus – erupted upward, spraying chunks of stone in every direction. A large, serpentine, spindly body twisted and writhed as rose from the ground; a monstrous creature screeched as it rose to its full height, swinging its head around as it jumped from one person to the next. The torchlight caught on its desert-yellow scales and its massive, gaping mouth; it looked like some sort of combination between a snake and a worm. Maybe her eyes were playing tricks on her, but Byleth was fairly certain the monster had three rows of teeth, each as long as a serrated short sword.

“You've got to be kidding me!” Claude blurted out, quickly drawing two arrows and firing at the creature's head.

“What was that?” Linhardt demanded, staggering backward and quickly lunging behind Dimitri who'd grabbed an abandoned rusted javelin off the ground and thrown it at the beast's midsection. “That can't have been a summoning spell – I couldn't see her using magic!”

“Focus on healing now, theorize later!” Edelgard barked, giving Ashe a push before throwing herself in a different direction. The beast had coiled back and brought its head down on the ground where they had been standing moments later.

“I haven't seen anything like this before!” Claude complained. He sounded more startled than actually worried, which was a bit comforting. “And I've been on the edge of the Forest of Beasts!”

Movement flickered in the corner of Byleth's eye. She turned her head, looking just past the wyrm monster to where Balthus lay; he was trying to sit up, visibly wheezing. Cursing, she started to make her way back toward him, dodging past the beast's tail in the process. She managed to get several feet away from him when a flicker of dim reddish light appeared next to him; and like the shifting of a mirage Yuri melted out of the shadows in a flicker of green Crest energy, placing his hand on Balthus's shoulder.

He looked up from his friend and gave her a look that...honestly, even though she saw it for a split second, she felt it looked familiar. It looked like the same speculative, calculated look she had seen behind Claude's smile in that very fight where she had met him.

Then the intricate jeweled fetters on his hands lit up with bright orange light, and both he and Balthus vanished in a flash. Byleth came to a stop, allowing herself only a split second to be startled before wheeling around to face the monster again. That reminds me of how the Death Knight would vanish from the battlefields we faced him at...he can turn invisible and warp around the battlefield? Oh, I really don't like that...!

“Get back!” Bernadetta shrieked, dropping into a bracing stance. There was a light silver flare around her and a flash of a sigil; that light then surrounded her bow, and the one arrow she loosed multiplied into three – no, five ghostly doubles – and smashed into the beast's scales, piercing multiple places in its magical barrier and burrowing into what Byleth tentatively figured was its chest. “Ahaha! I got him!”

“Well done!” Byleth yelled back, smiling to herself before unfurling the Sword of the Creator and focusing her Crest power through it. Just like when she'd fought Miklan's warped beast form, the blade caught fire as she swung it once, twice, three times against the creature's back; she could hear a warped crash as the barrier splintered and then shattered. Claude took aim himself and fired off an arrow, managing to catch the creature through its mouth. It screeched and spat black blood, splattering a mortified Bernadetta who Edelgard quickly pulled her to the side.

The creature's tail broke out of the ground and lashed at Byleth; she rolled out of the way, allowing Dimitri an unimpeded killing blow. The prince jumped onto the creature's lower 'tail', allowing him to aim and throw his lance so it stabbed through the creature's head and into its brain, impaling it and killing it instantly. It fell to the ground with a thundering crash.

Well, Byleth mused. If that doesn't send Hannah sprinting for father and possibly the other mercenaries in the bargain, I can't imagine what would. Honestly I wonder if that racket can be heard further up in the monastery.

Turning to the hallway had revealed that the redhead had retreated. Her two companions hadn't, and they retreated with shouted warnings when the creature didn't move after Dimitri stepped back onto the floor. “Goddess willing, she won't try that again,” Linhardt wheezed, casting a quick Heal on the prince. “What is that thing?” He peered down at the monster's corpse, prodding its scales with his boot. “Hmm, interesting...I wonder what could be learned from studying the scales. The other monsters have been harvested for precious metals. Perhaps this one would yield new possibilities for the blacksmith; if we can get it up to her later.”

“The places your mind goes...” Edelgard huffed in exasperation. “Might we focus on the problem at hand, Linhardt?”

“I don't think they'll call for another one, if that is what happened,” Claude said in a very matter-of-fact way. He'd calmed down remarkably fast after that nasty surprise. “Too much of a risk of drawing attention, or bringing the ceiling down on all of us. Neither are very conductive to keeping a low profile as these guys clearly have.”

“How is everyone?”

“We're fine,” Hilda said urgently. “C'mon, they're going to get away!”

“I don't think they have any interest in leaving without us in tow,” Byleth muttered, stalking forward. The beast's appearance had drawn some memories to the surface that she would rather have left alone, and now that she was reassured, she could feel anger bubbling in her blood. “But you're right. I'm going to get answers for this if I have to beat them out of someone...!”

Byleth, Sothis said, her tone somehow both cautious and warning.

What?, she 'thought' back as she put her relic sword away at her belt and slung her bow off of her shoulders. She nodded at Hilda and the two of them went ahead into the passageway, Claude and Ashe following at their heels arrows at the ready.

About that monster...did you notice? She could almost see Sothis hovering next to her, arms crossed, frowning into the dim tunnels. It was ignoring you at the start, even though you were just a few feet away from it. For that matter, it was ignoring 'B' as well, despite the fact that he was easy prey. When it first rose from the ground, after it attacked Ashe, it turned back toward this tunnel – back toward that girl who called it.

...What?! Who would summon a monster if it would immediately turn on them? Two assassins burst out of the ground from behind a corner. Hilda brought a lance up to catch the sword and force him into a blade lock; Byleth dodged to the side and fired an arrow point-blank into the man's arm, causing his swing to go wide.

Someone who wanted to force you away from their friend? And possibly scare you off in the bargain? Sothis suggested pointedly. You just witnessed that boy Yuri turn invisible. I find it quite likely these lost children have other abilities that haven't seen the light of day in a long time.

Byleth ducked under the man's punch and tossed him back over her shoulder. He crashed to the ground and was promptly set on by Edelgard, who pinned him. A power that summons monster? Or at least draws them to her... if that's true, I can see why she's hiding down here.

There was a flicker of light in the corner of her eye. Byleth twisted to her right, frowning for a moment...before her eyes widened and she grabbed Bernadetta's arm. “Down!” She yelled, dropping to her knees. The archer squeaked and obeyed instantly; moments later, a blast of Miasma flew over them, smashing uselessly against its wall. Edelgard swore and jumped backwards-

-right into Yuri, who melted out of the darkness in time to trap her arms against her side, and pressed a long dagger against her throat. Edelgard tried to kick and elbow him, but he simply yanked her off-balance, invalidating her crest-boosted strength. “Sorry about this,” He said mildly.

Byleth shut her eyes and reached for Sothis's power. Time slowed to a crawl, and then froze; glass shattered at the corners of her vision as the rune-laden circle appeared before her again. I don't think so, she thought heatedly, turning time back second by second. She kept a careful eye on the direction from which Yuri appeared, occasionally glancing at the Miasma attack as it moved. He was lying in wait for us...probably left Balthus with a healer and doubled back to set up an ambush. Oh, he is going to be a problem-

-Wait. She paused in her movements, allowing time to remain completely suspended as she turned fully to stare at the partially-visible Yuri. His wrists are glowing...no, it's that bracelet. His invisibility was hiding it, mostly, but there was a telltale orange-red glow by his side. Can I use that to find him? If he can't extend his invisibility to that light, it will probably be my only warning he's nearby. He doesn't seem to need to drop the 'cloak' in order to attack. Giving herself a brief nod, she turned the clock back another few seconds and then released her grip on time.

“Watch the arrow slits in the wall!” She shouted. Edelgard glanced at the wall, swore Old Fodlanese and jumped backwards; Bernadetta came up short in her run, her bow swinging toward the wall. Moments later, the Miasma spell crashed through one of the shadowed gaps in the wall just as she remembered, crashing harmlessly into the wall.

Byleth's eyes panned the hallway, but saw no light. Thinking fast, she unfurled the Sword of the Creator and then swung it in a wide arc so the blade tore a long semi-circle across the floor from one wall to the next. She heard a muffled curse, but saw nothing but a faint flicker of the orange light dart from the wall to midway through the hall before it winked out.

“Damn it,” She muttered.

“Teach? Er, what was that for?” Claude asked blankly, swinging around and firing into one of the holes in the wall. Linhardt threw a fireball at the bigger slit, causing part of the wall to crumble away – giving the three archers much more room to work with.

“Countermeasure against our invisible friend,” She explained shortly, still looking around warily. “Keep an eye out for a small sphere orange light that looks like its moving. He could be on us at any moment.”

“Right,” The brunette sighed, striding past her. She moved to grab his arm – Hapi was still in range, harassing Dimitri and Edelgard as they tried to pass by the wall – but he shrugged in a way that made her pause. Dimitri was sporting a nasty-looking magic burn that was worrying her; fortunately, Linhardt was already moving to tend to it. “Don't hold this against me, okay?” He asked loudly.

Byleth swore she heard a voice on the other end of the wall start to say 'what the h-' when Claude spun around and fired two arrows through the broken slit at an angle. She heard a shriek within; it worried her for a moment before it was followed up by a flood of tortured, angry cursing in a heavy accent as opposed to a guttural, dying groan. It sounds like the redhead. Hopefully that's her taken out. “Good shot,” she said with admiration. Claude preened in response.

Ashe hurried to catch up, casting a wary look at the wall as he moved past it. Reaching the edge of the corner, he peered around it slightly for a moment. Then he hooked up an arrow, swung around and fired, then retreated backward. A blast of fire magic blew through the hall and hit the stone wall, missing him completely.

“Ashe?” Linhardt asked tiredly but with concern.

“I'm fine,” The young archer assured him. “The hallway here's narrow, there's just two armored knights and a mage waiting. Beyond that is an open chamber and another doorway; I think the rest of them are holed up back there.”

A long clang behind them made everyone spin around. Dimitri had been ambushed by a pair of warriors, one of whom had broken his lance; the other one grasped his arm and pinned it to his back. Cursing, Byleth froze time again, dialing it back a number of seconds to before their approach.

Now ready, she clasped Ashe's hand as she ran past him and threw him a smile, running back to join Dimitri. Edelgard called after her, but she barely heard; even as the princess spoke, she saw the two warriors pop out of a hole in the wall. “Dimitri, behind you!” She warned him loudly, tossing a sword one of the assassins dropped at him.

Dimitri didn't question it; he caught the sword by the hilt and spun around. When Byleth reached his side, he blocked the first ax strike and forced the weapon away with his follow up. She notched an arrow and fired over his shoulder; it grazed the man's weapon arm, causing him to stumble a bit – allowing Dimitri to focus on his companion, who was charging him.

“Professor, down!” Edelgard's voice echoed from behind her. Byleth dropped to one knee instantly; a hand ax whipped over her head and slammed into the man's chest plate, embedding itself there. Calling back a quick 'thanks', Byleth strung another arrow and shot out the man's knee as he staggered, dropping him to the floor.

Edelgard appeared at her side, offering her a hand up. Byleth glanced at Dimitri, saw him bring the sword down on the man's ax hard enough to split it in half, and accepted the hand with a wry smile. “Nicely done.”

“Why thank you,” Edelgard replied, looking pleased. Byleth took out another arrow and glanced over her shoulder; Claude, Hilda Bernadetta and Ashe were in a fight at the base of the hallway with those three enemies; Hilda was more-or-less using herself as a human shield, hacking away at the armored units with her ax while protecting her comparatively squishier allies from their advance; Ashe and Bernadetta were taking shots from just behind her, taking the mage out while Claude applied a concoction to her injured shoulder.

Linhardt was standing in the middle of the hallway, looking torn. Byleth followed his gaze to where Dimitri was wincing and clutching his arm and called, “I'll take care of Dimitri, Linhardt; go help them take out those armor knights!” The green-haired bishop nodded and rushed off.

Dimitri walked toward her, a rueful smile on his face. “Thank you, Professor. You must have ears like a fox to have heard them approaching us like that...I certainly didn't.”

“It's not hearing so much as paranoia. Most mercenaries have it.” She focused on the ragged scar along his upper arm and willed the healing magic through it. As she worked, she noticed that the sword in his hand had a visible crack in the blade; she raised an eyebrow at him.

His expression grew sheepish. “I don't know if Felix has told you, but I have a this...tendency to break weapons, especially when I invoke my crest – even slightly.”

“I wasn't sure how serious he was being,” Byleth responded wryly. “And there's a difference between being told that someone is strong enough to snap a steel sword with their bare hands, and seeing them do so.” Honestly, she shouldn't have been so surprised considering what he did to the Death Knight's strange weapon. But there was just something incongruous about seeing him fracture a sword without even meaning to.

The wound sealed up neatly, without a scar. Dimitri tugged at his coat to better cover up the newfound hole in his leather armor and nodded fiercely, “Let us go rejoin them, quickly.” He retrieved his lance from where he'd dropped it and the three of them rushed back to the other end of the hallway.

“That's enough!” Hilda shouted when the armored knight – his once pristine shield sporting multiple cracks in it – took a swipe at Bernadetta, snapping her bow and coming within an inch of cutting her fingers off. Her Crest flared to life, and she brought the hand ax down on the man's chest. The armor cracked and then shattered like breaking the shell of an egg; the steel slid off and clattered to the ground as the impact threw the wearer backwards and to the ground (likely breaking his ribs and causing some internal bleeding in the process). “Are you alright, Bernie?”

“I-I-I'm okay,” Bernadetta stammered, trembling from head to toe. Claude put a steadying hand on her shoulder while Ashe hovered in worry. “I saw it coming...just barely.” She put a shaking hand on the hilt of her killing edge and drew it. “I-I'll just use this now. Just like the professor taught me.”

“You're alright?” Byleth said, just to check. The purple haired girl nodded, raising her sword. “Good,” she breathed out, then glared down the hallway. “I'm just about done with this...just Constance and Yuri remain...I don't doubt that they're the leaders. Let's concentrate on them; take the others out if they get in your way.”

“We'll have to catch Yuri,” Claude noted. His tone was dry, but his eyes were alight with furious thought. “Hm, he appeared us after we knocked out 'B' and after Hapi attacked, right? If that's the case...” he hummed and then said, “Hey Teach, I've got an idea...not sure if you'll like it, though.”

He told her, and he was right – she really didn't like it. (It rather looked like Dimitri and Hilda didn't like it, either.) However, she also didn't have any better ideas for catching their elusive opponent. So with reluctant acceptance (and the knowledge that Claude usually knew what he was doing...) Byleth lead the way down the hallway and out into the spacious room it lead to.

A cursory glance at the walls and floors made her think that the room had used to be a training arena; there were glowing tiles scattered across the floor, old rusted racks on the walls, and was wide enough to accommodate a large number of people sparring with each other. Standing on the tiles were a pair of warriors, another archer, an assassin...and Constance, who's hands were lit up with the yellow-black haze of Black Magic. Byleth strained to look past her, and could just barely make out a couple more figures moving about just beyond the doorway.

“To think you've made it this far!” Constance let out an exaggerated laugh that greatly reminded Byleth of both Ferdinand and Lorenz, particularly when they were feeling dramatic. (...which was often...) “You are no ordinary church lackeys, that is for sure!”

“That's because we're not lackeys! No-one made us come here to hurt you!” Bernadetta yelled back, waving her sword with a surprising amount of vehement frustration. “L-Let's just stop this now! We can just talk, can't we?!”

“Humph! A likely story,” Constance scoffed. “The first mercenaries to come here claimed to be fleeing from the surface, and then used our charity to take children hostage! Such base deception shall not avail you! Have at thee!” Her hand flared, a bolt of golden light in the image of a spear flying upward.

Bolting!” Byleth yelled before hurtling herself forward, hoping the one word was enough of a warning. Moments later, a muted crash-crackle burst against the floor behind her, filling the air with ozone – much weaker than the siege magic she'd faced before. Still holding back, despite us defeating Balthus and the redhead...they must really want answers for these invasions. The lack of screams told her that her students had managed to scatter. Swinging back up to her feet, she called “Ashe!” and thrust the Sword of the Creator at the assassin in front of her. The man blocked it, leaving his back wide open for Bernie to bring her sword down on him. He dropped with a scream, and Bernie scrambled away while Linhardt knelt to ensure he didn't die, babbling 'sorry!' as she dodged past a fireball from Constance.

Ashe darted to her side, taking a potshot at the warriors Claude and Dimitri were demolishing in tandem; they're showing fairly decent teamwork, considering they've only fought on the same battlefield two or three times. “A plan, professor?” He asked hopefully.

She nodded shortly and briskly before delivering a couple of rapid-fire orders. “Edelgard, stick near Bernadetta, give her cover! Hilda, watch out for Linhardt; Lin, focus on healing, you can't do enough damage fast enough! Claude, keep Constance away from Dimitri!” It was a big dangerous, implicitly drawing attention to the prince's lack of resistance to magic, but she trusted Claude to protect him. Plus, as long as Constance was looking elsewhere...

Ashe glanced questioningly at her. Byleth smiled lightly at him before quietly saying 'I need you to cover me. Watch out for orange light; that's Yuri approaching'. His expression lit up in spite of his serious nod, and he strung up two arrows. Nodding confidently, Byleth dove forward, jumping over the fallen body of the assassin Lin had patched up and making her way directly toward Constance. The latter was standing with his back to her, throwing fireballs in Dimitri's direction. However, the latter was keeping out of her range while Claude forced the blonde girl to keep back with a continual volley of arrows. Edelgard was trying to bait out the archer standing in the doorway, but the man was savvy enough to keep his distance so long as Constance was controlling the room.

“You are of noble stock!” Constance proclaimed, turning her attention to Edelgard. Byleth ducked past an arrow, narrowly keeping herself out of the blonde's vision. Ashe fired back at the archer, forcing him to divert his attention away from the princess now standing in the mage girl's cross-hairs. “Pray tell, what is your name?”

“I am Edelgard,” Edelgard pronounced calmly, spinning her ax around in her hand.

“What a fine name; the same as the imperial princess! That might be a bit presumptuous, isn't it though?”

“That is...” Edelgard started, her expression blank. Then she sighed. “Well, I suppose if you've been down here for some time, you wouldn't recognize me on sight.”

“How unseemingly! To proclaim that I, Constance von Nuvelle, would be unable to recognize royalty standing right in front of me! Why, I ought to – AH!”

Byleth slammed the hilt of her relic hilt into her back, right between her shoulder blades; not too hard, she was a slender girl and the demon didn't want to do her any serious lasting harm. Constance screamed and collapsed to her hands and knees; Bernadetta darted forward and kicked her in the shoulder before wrestling the taller girl to the ground with another surprising splash of unusual determination that ended with Constance pinned face down on the ground with Bernadetta kneeling on her back – panting and red-faced. Ashe took another shot at the archer, this time catching the man in the arm; making him drop his bow.

Claude headed forward, spinning an arrow between his fingers as he made his way over to the doorway. “I think this is the second-most awkward misunderstanding I've ever been in,” He complained. “And I woke up on Count Gloucester's couch nursing a hangover with his niece asleep on my legs.” He rolled his eyes at Dimitri's scandalized noise. “It was perfectly innocent cohabitation, thank you very much Mitya; she was afraid of the thunderstorm and I told her 'uncultured' jokes until she fell asleep. If I hadn't been half-drunk, I would have had the sense to carry her back to her room.”

Without breaking stride, he darted across the doorway entrance, spun around and stabbed the assassin who had intended to skewer him while he was whimsically approaching the last phase of the battle with an arrow. “This is less awkward?” Bernadetta asked plaintively, trailing after him up to the doorway; Linhardt took her place keeping Constance pinned. Her hands were shaking. “Oh, I'm glad that I stayed home instead of going to all of those awful balls and parties...”

There was an orange flicker right behind her as she spoke. Claude, having seemingly been taking point at the doorway to pick off the remaining underground soldiers, grabbed the smaller girl and yanked her forward, putting himself between her and the flicker. He brought his hidden ax up just in time to catch the sword aimed at his shoulder and catching it in a blade-lock. Rather than letting that keep him still, Claude lashed out and kicked at the air in front of him. Byleth heard a grunt of pain before the air flickered and shimmered, partially revealing Yuri and the short sword in his hand.

Yuri let out a disarmingly warm chuckle. “Not bad,” The beautiful street rat complimented, sincerely. “Not a lot of people see me coming.” His armlet lit up again, warping him away – and standing where he had been was a mage, who jumped backwards to avoid the downward swing of his ax. Dimitri rushed to tackle the man while Yuri reappeared behind Claude, wrapping one arm around his neck to press a knife against it while taking care to pin his arms.

Claude responded to that by tugging at his sleeve, whipping out a concealed dagger over his own and stabbing Yuri in the side of the leg. The light violet-haired teenager cussed with very street-level tact – Byleth heard three words that she usually associated with bar fights, and two she hadn't heard before and made a mental note to look up – and loosened his grip just enough for Claude to wrench his arm free, grab Yuri's wrist and force the knife away from his throat.

“Leave my mother out of this!,” The brunette said hotly before delivering a violent kick to the leg he'd injured. Yuri drew back a step – but not before slashing the length of Claude's arm, making him instinctively drop his ax.

“Sorry,” Yuri responded; again sounding oddly sincere. “That was crude of me.” He swung his hand and threw the short dagger; Claude dodged to the side easily, leading him away from Bernadetta in the process. “You're light on your feet for your average noble scion.” There was definitely sarcasm on the word 'noble'.

“Is that what you think?” Claude replied with a coy smile. Byleth felt an odd spike of annoyance watching him grin like that at a stranger. “You might be assuming a bit much there.” He casually grabbed his bow and stringing up an arrow. Yuri took a step back in a battle stance and vanished once again in a flicker of light.

Claude's eyes flickered down to the floor; ignoring a worried Hilda calling his name, he moved his arrow across the room...and then fired. The arrow grazed past Yuri's side, causing his glamour to drop again. Byleth realized with a thrill that he'd used the drops of blood on the floor to guess at where the other teen was moving.

Her thoughts were quickly interrupted by a grappler charging after Bernadetta; she darted off to help, trusting her best student to keep the wild card in hand. Dimitri, Edelgard and Hilda were clashing with the few remaining warriors. Byleth slammed into the man's side as he tried to overwhelm Bernadetta and her killing edge, throwing him off balance. Bernadetta quickly hit him in the face with the hilt of her sword, bruising his nose and knocking him on his ass. A mage was heading towards them; Byleth dissipated his first blow with the Sword of the Creator and prepared to try and charge him...

“Claude, be careful!” Dimitri warned from somewhere behind her. Byleth twisted to look over her shoulder and saw Claude favoring his bloody arm while trying to put Yuri in a headlock to keep him from vanishing again. However, Yuri wormed his way free despite his bleeding thigh and vanished again...

Gritting her teeth, Byleth made a decision and froze time once again. What is it about you that makes you attract clever boys?, Sothis wondered as she turned time back a few seconds. I think those two would try to outfox each other until they collapsed from blood loss, neither willing to concede.

I would rather they didn't bleed themselves into a coma on my watch, Byleth responded dryly. And how am I 'attracting' them?

...Truly? Sothis said with a note of incredulity, before letting out a burst of musical laughter. Oh, my poor child. I do hope I can explain this to you plainly when we have a moment.

Byleth gave the spirit/ghost a look she hoped was properly indigent (she saw the look often enough on Hilda's face) before letting time restart again. She promptly handed Bernadetta her bow and two arrows from her quiver; the girl didn't have time to let out much more than a startled squeak before she spun around to face the direction where Claude had grabbed a hold of Yuri, forcing him to be temporarily visible again.

She lashed out with the sword one more time – not to strike the violet-haired boy, that was too dangerous with Claude holding him the way he was – instead, she aimed for his sword. The whip-blade wrapped around the silver weapon, catching it in a crude but firm grip; Byleth then yanked back with all the might she could muster, wrenching the weapon out of his hands.

Yuri let out a heady laugh; “Impressive,” He said between heavy breaths. “I haven't had anyone see through my little quirk...well, in a long time. However-” His hand flared with white magic. Claude let out a pained curse as Nosferatu hit him in the face, causing him to stumble and collapse, bringing Yuri down with him. The street rat pushed himself up by the wrists and smiled a bit, “I've got a few tricks up my sleeve too.”

Claude's hand vanished into his boot; Yuri seemed to notice this and he quickly pinned the arm to the floor. “Two concealed knives?” His voice was almost a purr, almost playful instead of ominous. “I think I might like you, Riegan.”

“I guess that makes two of us,” Claude retorted, though his breathing was pained; his arm still bled sluggishly and he was clearly bruised both from the fall and earlier fights. Byleth could still see his brain whirling, looking for another angle...

...Which promptly proved unnecessary when Jeralt cut across the room and grabbed Yuri by the collar, yanking him up and off his feet as if he weighed no more than the kittens Byleth had so often played with in inns and restaurants. “That's enough,” Her father said in his cool, matter-of-fact way. “Your wasting all those street smarts on someone who isn't your enemy.”

“Is that a fact?” Yuri countered, though his voice lacked heat and accusation.

Jeralt gave him a flat look. “I suggest you quit struggling before you tear that wound in your thigh and put yourself in a real problem. You can thank your Crest for the fact that you aren't dizzy from blood loss at this very moment.”

The boy seemed to consider that for a long moment, before raising his hands in surrender. Constance, upon seeing that, ceased struggling against Linhardt and lay limp with a whimper.

“Father,” Byleth said, a warm flicker of relief pooling in her stomach. She dropped the sword to the ground and hurried to kneel next to Claude, helping him sit up. “Hold still, Claude...tell me what hurts...” Hannah had arrived right behind him, pointing her lance warningly at the tired, battered yet determined men and women they'd defeated who'd made their way over to the chamber.

“Captain Jeralt,” Dimitri said; his relief was much more audible as he approached. He gave her father a quick bow before kneeling at Claude's other side, watching Byleth heal him. Edelgard walked over, bruised, dirty, and somewhat bloodied but otherwise unharmed, watching the scene through analytical eyes. Bernadetta trotted over to Byleth and half hid behind her...all while staring at Yuri. She was always watching him, whenever she could see him. What's going on here?

“It's good to see you, sir,” Ashe said gratefully. He looked pretty battered and dirty, but there was no blood on him. He'd been kept quite safe. A harried-looking Hilda joined him, frowning down at the broken, soot-covered ax in her hand. “Things were getting a bit precarious!”

Jeralt gave him a bemused smile. “Is that right? You lot seemed to have handled yourselves pretty well, for how outnumbered you were.” He waved at Linhardt. “Come over here and heal up his leg before he has to have it amputated, will you? I've got a hold of him, don't worry.”

Linhardt eyed Yuri uneasily for a second before obeying; Edelgard's eyebrows shot up at that, but she didn't comment.

“'M alright now, Teach.” Claude said as she wrapped her arms around him, helping him stand up. “Really, I can walk. Just needed to catch my breath.”

“You were amazing,” Dimitri told him seriously, smiling warmly. “The way you kept track of Yuri even when he moved around...”

Claude shrugged, but the way his eyes sparked told Byleth that he was very pleased. “He was dripping blood,” He explained. “I could see it splatter on the floor. Helped me approximate. I knew if I got him to think I could keep up with him, he'd focus on taking me out rather than sowing discord across the battlefield.” He groaned. “Wasn't expecting the damned white magic cheap shot. He's the first person other than Teach who I've seen use regular swords and magic at the same time; guess we out-schemed each other.”

“I couldn't believe you recovered from having him warp a new enemy right in front of you,” Dimitri said. “You weren't expecting that, were you?”

“Nope. He certainly knows some unusual tricks.” Claude ran a hand through his hair; his braid had come loose at some point in the battle, leaving long strands of brown hair sticking to his face. “Color me fascinated.”

Footsteps in the hall caused Byleth to turn around. It was Balthus and the red-haired girl; both looked harried and a little uncertain, though Balthus was hiding it behind a mask of bravado. Neither made any move to attack; the former had put his relic down somewhere and the latter looked to pale in the face to try any serious magic.

“It's safe to say we've won this 'round, and without a single casualty,” Claude said lightly, turning to face them. “Don't you think? ...Er, 'B', was it?”

“The name's Balthus,” The brawler reiterated, shrugging. “I don't loose often, but I can at least recognize what it looks like.

Hilda stared at him. “Balthus...Balthus...” Her eyes widened. “BALTHUS?!” Byleth blinked and she shot across the floor, coming to a stop right in front of him, her tarnished ax tossed aside. “From House Albrecht?! Baltie, is that you?” She grabbed his face in her hands, squeezing his cheeks and staring into his eyes. “Wow, you look...old!”

“Huh...” Balthus said blankly, looking bemusedly at Hilda as though random girls manhandled him all the time. “Do we know each other, pal?” As he stared at her, however, his expression slowly slipped into shock. “Wait a minute...that hair, those eyes, that voice...!” He grabbed her around the waist and picked her up, spinning her in a circle. Instead of screaming, the pinkette squealed in utter delight. “Hilda! I don't believe it! When the hell did you get so tall?!”

“...What?” Byleth asked plaintively. Some small part of her did make note of, and appreciate, Claude, Dimitri and Edelgard's identical expressions of stunned bewilderment.


Apparently, that little bit of recognition killed any lingering doubts the underground teenagers and their collective men had about surrendering. Weapons were dropped, Byleth, Linhardt and (surprisingly) Yuri went around healing all the remaining injuries, and the four teens formed a clear leadership band to face their counterparts to offer up some sort of explanation. Of course, before explanations could be offered...

“I barely recognized you, running around playing bodyguard for everyone!” Balthus told Hilda with a laugh. “Why didn't you speak up sooner?”

Now that she was over her initial rush of happiness at seeing him, Hilda was not amused by his attempt at levity. “Baltie, this isn't the time to catch up. What would Holst think? I bet you didn't even consider that, did you?”

Balthus's face dropped a bit. “Yeesh. I dunno, but it wouldn't be nice.”

Hilda glared at him without saying anything. That seemed to make the brawler sweat, much to the amusement of both Yuri and Constance. “Look, I'm sorry okay? Just don't tell Holst!” The brawler pleaded. “If he knew I raised a hand against you, he'd have my head on a silver platter!”

“Hah! Like he'd stop at your head,” Hilda scoffed, before shaking her head. “Fine though. Just this once, and just for you, I'll keep quiet.”

“Now that that's sorted...” Claude cut in, eyeing Balthus with faux curiosity. “What did you mean by being 'lucky you found me'?”

“Oh, one of the guys I owe money to is Count Gloucester.” Balthus said by way of explanation. “He told me he'd consider it covered if I dug up some dirt on you.” His eyes flickered over to Byleth; she must have been making quite the face, because he immediately cringed. “And, you know, dirt can mean a lot of things, and I certainly wouldn't have put you in actual danger and I'm sure you're a really upstanding guy, please make her stop glaring at me.”

Claude chuckled and shot her a quick look she couldn't quite interpret with warm eyes. “Well, I guess you're stuck paying the old geezer back in gold, then. Teach takes the fact that I'm her problem very seriously.” He put his hands behind his head. “But onto more serious matters, was a fight really necessary? We're not a big enough group for a proper strike force, after all.”

“Really was!” Balthus responded seriously, pumping his fist. “The best way to aquatint yourself with someone is to get into a tussle. That's common sense right there.”

“That is so not true...” Bernadetta grumbled from her place pressed against Byleth's side.

Yuri let out a laugh. The sound made Bernadetta flinch, like she was torn between being happy to hear it and running away. “That's what a sensible person would say. We're not all as far gone as Balthus here.”

“Say what you will,” Balthus replied with great dignity, “but I've learned all that I need to know. It's clear this lot has nothing to do with the church's intentions. You spent way too much effort on not killing people to be an enemy.” He frowned. “But that means those other creeps could be on us at any time.”

“I've yet to see anything that convinces me the church is winding up for a 'cleansing'. And I've known Lady Rhea for a long time.” Jeralt said gruffly. “So what's got you so wired up you'll try and beat people into a coma for the crime of getting lost?”

“Someone is targeting Abyss.” Balthus responded, apparently immune to the sally. Mercenaries keep sniffing around and causing trouble. More than once they've ended up attacking people, demanding directions to some 'treasure'. They won't let up.”

“It's a real problem, and we have no idea who's pulling the strings.” Yuri said with a sigh. Byleth had inkling that he was quite vexed by that fact; his eyes were as sharp and cold as Claude's so often were...if it were possible, those violet orbs seemed even more remote and distant by comparison. “There are many within the church who would like to see this 'filthy' underground city purged.” He shook his head and his lips quirked into a small, apologetic smile. “When you showed up, we thought you were here to do just that. Apologies for the confusion.”

Byleth was tired, bruised, somewhat bloody, and coming down from the battle high left her with nothing but fading anxiety and an immense feeling of irritation. She opened her mouth to let him know exactly how little she was impressed by that apology, but Hilda got there first. “So that's why you came at us with that nasty 'kill the outsiders' act!” She gasped with a sort of sugary malice that a theater diva would envy.

“As Yuri-bird said, we're sorry.” The redhead added her voice to the contrition, bowing her head. “We're all pretty on-edge these days.”

“Indeed!” Constance said loudly. She still looked rather miffed by the 'barbaric handling' she'd received during the battle, but she did sound sincerely apologetic. “That someone would descend into Abyss out of pure curiosity was far too outlandish to consider.”

“You hadn't yet met Claude,” Dimitri said wryly. Claude shot him a mock-despairing look; Yuri's eyes flickered with something Byleth couldn't parse, but she noticed that his attention seemed to be switching between her, Claude, and Bernadetta the most out of everyone.

“An underground city?” Byleth asked finally, her mind buzzing a bit at the implications. “How many people are down here with you?”

“Oh, many many, my friend, and all those who the ones who shun the light of day,” Yuri answered smoothly. “It's the secret shadow of Garreg Mach, in a sense. It's reflection.”

“The church quietly tolerates us,” The redhead added. “They think this place serves enough of a purpose to justify existing. Who knows when they'll all change their minds about it, but it's lasted this long without being spoken of.”

“The deal is simple,” Yuri finished. His smile was cold and devoid of humor. “Abyssians never get involved with the surface, and the surface doesn't get involved with us.”

“Alas! For some foul reason, surface dwellers have been after us of late.” Constance gestured angrily. “Further oppressing the souls who can only find solace underground?! I cannot abide it!”

“That does seem cruel...” Bernadetta murmured, wrapping her arms around herself. “They're hiding away from the sun itself. What more could they want than that?”

“See?!” Constance pointed at her, causing her to squeak and hide fully behind Byleth. “She understands the heart of it! Why can no one else?!” She closed her eyes. “Though it pains me to admit it, we, too, harbor valid reasons for not venturing into the light.”

Hilda's eyes widened. “You too, Baltie? Have you gone and gotten yourself in trouble again?”

“Heh...that's about the size of it.” Balthus rubbed the back of his head. “You see...I've got more bounties on my head than hair. Needed to lay low. Real low.”

“Baltie...” Hilda said sadly, clasping her hands together. Idly Byleth wondered exactly how she felt about the older man, but she quickly brushed the thought aside. It probably isn't my place.

“Well, that's enough misunderstandings for tonight.” Yuri said definitively. “Lets lead these outsiders back up to the monastery proper so we can all get some sleep.”

“Nonsense!” Constance stomped her foot. “Intolerable nonsense! Whyever would we let slip this chance to acquire their aid?”

Excuse me? You attacked our party on the mere suspicion that we were effectively bandits, threw traps, arrows and SIEGE magic at us with the intention of beating us unconscious and taking us prisoner, and now less than five minutes after we managed to defeat you by the skin of our teeth, you want us to help you?! Why, I should just - “If you're struggling to protect people who have fled here for sanctuary, we could help on occasion.” -prove that I've suddenly turned into fable knight.

Byleth was quite aware of her father's – and Hannah's – startled stares. Yuri looked shocked for a split second, but his face quickly smoothed over into the calculated look she'd seen so often in Claude. Ashe was looking at her in awe and reverence, Bernadetta was squeaking at being implicitly volunteered, Edelgard looked fondly exasperated, Claude was giving her side-eye, and Dimitri...he was smiling knowingly at her.

“Yeah, that's what we think of – wait, what?” Hilda stumbled, turning and looking wide-eyed at her professor. “You're serious, professor?”

No! “Of course I am,” She responded, instead of backing out of the remark like a halfway sensible person. What in the world?! Her eyes traveled over the four in front of her, the same age and temperament as her students. Where had that thought come from? All of them looked quite taken aback, especially the redhead. “If we're going to defuse tensions between the church and the Abyss-” whatever that means in its totality “-and figure out why mercenaries are getting into the tunnels beneath Garreg Mach, shouldn't the professor personally appointed by the archbishop offer her support?”

Possibly as a result of her brain scrambling for a more rational explanation, she then added, “besides, the last two time a large mercenary force slipped into Garreg Mach undetected, the Holy Mausoleum was sacked and Flayn, among others, were kidnapped and done serious harm. It would be prudent to figure out what's going on and nip it in the bud, don't you think?"

Claude's mouth opened, closed, and then he sighed heavily. “Why did you have to go and bring logic into it?” He complained, mock resigned.

“Oh, so you were just going to go to bed and completely ignore this new, ongoing mystery?” Byleth asked teasingly. Jeralt's eyebrows somehow migrated even further up his head while Hannah stared at her like she'd never seen her captain's daughter before.

“Well when you put it like that...

“How wondrous of you!” Constance said happily, clapping her hands together. “How selfless! How utterly befitting of the honorable noblewoman you so clearly are!” Byleth blinked, baffled; she opened her mouth to correct the blonde, but she merely drove onward. “There are many in the abyss who cannot defend themselves. Orphans, the elderly, the infirm, merchants destroyed by artificial barriers, lost souls of all kinds. With such great warriors at our backs, we shall drive this miscreants out for good and seek out the truth behind these ghastly attacks!”

Byleth pivoted slightly and stared at her students, hoping they weren't too mad at her inexplicably volunteering them for this new mission. Surprisingly, none of them looked fit to throttle her like that one time Robb got drunk at a party and sold their services to that weasel Lord Acheron as bodyguards for two consecutive months.

“It is a noble cause, and one I am willing to lend my lance to,” Dimitri said solemnly. “If you feel your are able to trust us, of course. We are from the surface after all.”

“Trust is a choice,” Yuri said simply, a meaningful look in his distant eyes. “We're choosing to trust you. For now. It's clear you're not here by anyone's command. And you're not just a bunch of noble twerps, either.” His eyes lingered on Claude for a moment. “You know your way around a good fight. It's in how you carry yourselves, even the shyest of you.” He cast Bernadetta a playful smirk.

“Still...” He pressed a hand against his forehead. “I'm reluctant to get you involved in this madness. It's our problem, really; not yours.”

“And yet it's often the people outside of the problem who are best suited to see the cause of it,” Jeralt said with a heavy sigh. “Well, I'm going to go have an interesting conversation with Lady Rhea. I can take over your classes for tomorrow and the day after, kiddo, but we're gonna have to figure out something a bit more complex after that point.”

“True,” Byleth nodded. “Thank you, father.”

“You're really set on this? Moved by that one single plea?” Yuri gave her an incredulous look before smiling. “Well then, guests of ours. Let us show you Abyss itself. There's much to fill you in on.”

Chapter Text

When Yuri lead them down the stairwell into what he called the 'heart', or 'downtown', of Abyss, Dimitri very nearly forgot how to breathe.

Calling Abyss an underground city was barely an exaggeration. They emerged from a narrow hallway that lead down a set of stairs, guarded by two men; one with an ax and the other armed with steel gauntlets. Despite being older, marred with the scars that spoke of a lifetime of struggles, both men snapped to attention when Yuri emerged with them trailing behind him. Dimitri could feel them glare warily at him and the others; yet with a word from the purple haired teen both of them stepped aside, not quite comfortable, but completely trusting their 'prince' and his judgment. (He had a sneaking suspicion that was effectively Yuri's role within Abyss proper.)

Yuri lead them down the stairwell and out into a walkway that was wide enough for two horse-drawn carriages to travel side-by-side; the ceiling towered far above them, elegant-if-tarnished chandeliers lit with magic flame illuminating old, faded murals damaged by water and fragmentation. The 'road' lead out both to the left and to the right; a low hum of chatter, the clanking of steel and crackle of fire from a smith's forge, the loud calling of a merchant peddling fresh wares, and the low chatter of people speaking happily with each other. It...was a marketplace, plain and simple; crowded, energetic, and bustling. The fact that it was lit by torches rather than the sun and lined with carpets instead of a cobblestone road didn't make a difference.

And the market itself was just the first thing that caught the eye...looking straight ahead, Dimitri could see a sprawling series of hallways that branched off at more than one point. Beneath the dialogue that he could overhear was the rhythmic humming of rushing water; a river, or possibly an artificial canal, was running through the tunnels somewhere within. The hallways were well lit with torches and well maintained, as smooth and clean as anywhere within the monastery proper. Children darted to and fro across the halls, laughing and playing with cats; men with crippled or missing limbs were leaning against the walls, observing and speaking with their neighbors. He saw a woman who's face was covered in a terrible burn scar break up a squabble between two children, her tattered coat hanging loosely off her small frame.

They were noticed quickly. Cries of 'Mockingbird!' 'Hey, B! You're back!' 'there you are, Hapi!' and 'Lady Constance!' seemed to come from everywhere at once; followed by civilians of all ages swarming around them, filling the air with enthusiastic and anxious questions. Seeing that everyone, but especially the Ashen Wolves, were dirty bruised and battered from their unfortunate scuffle, there was a great amount of fussing and not a few wary glares shot in their direction.

“I brought them here,” Yuri said firmly, waving off a grizzled older man who was giving Edelgard a particularly poisonous look. Dimitri instinctively stepped forward, putting himself on his sister's right to give her a bit more protection; she gave him a wry look in response. “To be honest, we brought most of the dirt and blood on ourselves; to make up for our little misunderstanding, this lot are our guests for the next few days.”

“They're officer's academy students, aren't they?” One kid asked, standing on his toes and eyeing Bernadetta through the crowd of people. The shy girl was latched onto Claude's arm, looking for all the world as though that contact was the only thing keeping her conscious. He responded by patting her on the head absently, his eyes panning Abyss with a now familiar look of sharp-eyed fascination. “They don't look like knights.”

“Hey, look at that! Is that...is that the Sword of the Creator?” A young woman whispered, gazing fearfully and reverently at Byleth. “Then this girl is...”

“That can't be the real thing. Can it?” Another voice in the crowd hissed. “The sword hasn't resurfaced since the war with Nemesis, and neither has the Crest of Flames. The King of Liberation had no children, I remember reading about that...”

“It's glowing, just like Mockingbird's fetters. It's real, I'd stake my life on it...She must be that new professor, the archbishop's favorite...I didn't think she'd be so young...”

“What sort of person do you think she is? If she's the archbishop's favorite, there are powers and influence she can gain from that position...”

“She doesn't have a cruel face...but she's sort of aloof, isn't she? Have you seen another young girl with a face that composed...?”

...Once again, it seemed, she was at the center of everyone's attention. Of course only now would I think of how unsettling that can be... A little worried about how she was taking the whispers, Dimitri glanced over at his professor. Byleth glanced right and left, blinking somewhat uneasily, her eyes panning the crowd. Jeralt put a hand on her shoulder and murmured something Dimitri didn't quite catch; whatever it was, she nodded and he could see some tension ease out of her shoulders.

“Everyone,” Yuri cut in, somehow projecting his voice through the room without changing his tone from an easy, friendly timber. The babbling cut off virtually instantly. “These people are our allies, not just guests. Try to make them as comfortable as possible, yeah?”

Varying sounds of agreement mixed in with each other alongside nods and smiles as the crowd spread back out a bit; giving them a bit more space. Constance and Hapi split off at this point, the former glancing curiously back at Edelgard with narrowed eyes before heading off down the front hallway. “There's a lot of space down here, so don't worry about accommodations. We're not that that separated from normal society.” Yuri said, turning to face the group again. “We have a couple of rooms set aside for individuals who need to hide for a short period of time, or people who are passing through while trying to keep a low profile. I'd give you a run down of what's going on right now...but if you lot are as tired and sore as I feel right now, I'm not sure how much of it you'd absorb.”

“Ahaha...” Ashe let out a weak, embarrassed laugh, rubbing the back of his head. The silver-haired boy was swaying slightly on his feet; Hannah was hovered near him, a steadying hand on his arm. “Yeah, that's...that's fair.”

Byleth ran a hand through her hair, eyes squeezed shut like she was trying to listen to something far away. Dimitri started to reach for her when she shook her head. “I need to go back upstairs...inform Lady Rhea of where I've brought you lot and get someone to cover my class...”

“You mean, you'd tell the others that something was going on down here that you need to take care of, and thus bring all of them down with you on your way back?” Claude responded jokingly.

“That's not...” Byleth started, giving him a confused look as a light blush colored her cheeks. Does that notion really surprise her so? “I didn't think that-”

“I'll worry about informing the Archbishop,” Jeralt interjected. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “And like I said, I'll take care of the rest of your brats while you're down here.”

“They're not brats,” Byleth responded so immediately and tiredly, it could only be something she had said a number of times before.

Jeralt just chuckled a bit in response. “That's a little hard to take seriously when I know you're including that one in that statement.” He nodded pointedly at Claude. The brunette made an exaggerated face in response, then gave Byleth a beseeching look. This interplay made both Hilda and Bernadetta giggle a bit.

“Quit insulting my students, old man, and go give the mission statement,” The Ashen Demon grumbled in a startlingly Felix-esque manner. Jeralt merely ruffled her hair in response and stepped back while a very visibly curious Yuri began to lead them down the hallway deeper into Abyss. “Then come back, you hear me?”

...In the end, Captain Jeralt is much like his daughter, Dimitri thought as he walked, looking all about this mysterious hidden town. They're affection is quieter than most', but it's there....and it's all the more tangible for it.

“Yeah, yeah. You know Robb's never going to let you live this down, right?”

“He can bloody well try; I still have the high ground. For one thing, Yuri is not the Weathervane and can't possibly be as bad as him-” Yuri glanced to the right, and Dimitri rather wished that he could see the other teen's expression at that. “-and for another, I wasn't so drunk I offered our services as his bodyguards for the equivalent of one night's dinner at a high class inn.”

Balthus burst into a fit of choked-off laughter, while Hilda stared wide-eyed at Byleth. “Whaaaat? He DID? Professor, how come you've never told us that story?”

“...It never came up?” Byleth said after a moment, looking a touch off-balance. She tugged on her hair again. “It's not a very impressive tale; more of an object lesson on minding how much you drink at important gatherings.”

Claude clasped her hand in his and solemnly said, “To suffer through extended time having to serve him in close proximity...and you didn't kill the guy who got you into it...you are the moral standard that all should look up to and admire, Teach.”

“Who are we talking about?” Ashe asked, slightly plaintive that there was some joke being made here that he didn't understand.

“Lord Acheron, the Weathervane.” Balthus answered helpfully. He shuddered dramatically before giving Byleth a sympathetic smile. “Put it this way, kiddo – think about every bad thing you've ever heard about Alliance nobles, multiply that by five, and then give it a physical embodiment in the shape of a man with the world's most punch-able face. That is the guy Robb drunkenly sold his and the lady's services too.”

Ashe contemplated that for a moment. Slowly, his face went a bit pale, and his eyes grew really wide. “That sounds horrible.

“And yet, even compared to that image you've got in your head, once you met him...you'd realize he was actually, somehow, even worse than that!” Claude chuckled.

Byleth let out a tired groan of agreement; the sheer implications of that reaction – the image of the cold, unflappable, apathetic Ashen Demon being driven to frustration by some self-important minor noble – caused Dimitri to laugh incredulously without thinking. “Aha...I'm sorry,” He started, chiding himself for finding amusement in what had clearly been a very trying experience for her, but was startled into silence when she just smiled ruefully in response.

“A true saint,” Yuri mused airily, “would be a person who could spend several days in Acheron's company and never be seized by the urge to kill him, kill themselves, or both.

That made Claude flat out cackle. Dimitri honestly wondered if his friend found so much amusement in this purely because of the fact that he'd met the man, and found the comparisons lacked the weight of actually meeting and having to negotiate with him. I'll have to ask...

Yuri and Balthus lead them over a bridge above a deep canal of crystal-clear rushing water and into a series of hallways. The rows were long and narrow, the walls bare except for torches and an occasional painting. (Said paintings were...interesting. Well. Strange, bizarre, fascinating, possibly heretical – it was easy to see why they were here instead of adorning the walls of a proud lord's home. They were quite a sight, in spite of that...) It was more mazelike than a proper dormitory; some rooms who's doors were partly open revealed messy and somewhat haphazard upkeep.

For as fascinating and bewildering as all of this was, and despite the fact that he should really be a little bit wary of their new 'hosts' after what had transpired...the prospect of an at least comfortable bed to rest on was currently ruling over all of Dimitri's thoughts and desires. His body ached terribly in spite of his cuts and bruises having all been healed; exhaustion hung over him like a thunderstorm, giving him a terrible headache. Now that the adrenaline that had supported him throughout the discovery of the tunnels and the battle had finally drained away, the weight of both the day and the night (how long into the night they were, he couldn't surmise from underground, but his body's objections suggested it had been no small time sink) had him fighting to remain alert and even just keep his eyes open. He wasn't the only one; Bernadetta was fully leaning on Byleth, her head hanging as the latter guided her forward step by step, Hilda was mumbling unkind things about raiders and their ability to cause stupid misunderstandings and swayed a bit as she walked, and Linhardt looked so pale and drawn that one could easily believe that he had fallen quite sick. Edelgard seemed alert by comparison, but her movements were still a bit sluggish.

Isn't it strange, that these people who claim that Fodlan had no place for them came to live beneath the heart of the Serios faith? His father mused, looking back and forth as they traveled. I would have thought that they would leave for Sreng, Dagda, Almyra or even beyond. Surely distance and the time to forget their losses would be preferable to lingering beneath the feet of those who failed them...

This doesn't seem right, Glenn muttered. He was frowning at Yuri's back. The logic is so circular. Oh, the lords and the church made my life unbearable!, I reject them, their values and everything they stand for – but I'm still going to live under their floorboards for the rest of my life and rely entirely on their willingness to ignore me. Who looks at that and decides 'yeah, this is a good idea that gives me everything I want'?

Leaving Fodlan is not as easy for most as it would be for us, Dimitri thought. It's no short walk to the borders, no matter where you start. Some people simply can't make that journey...and the sanctity of Garreg Mach would provide some protection from creditors, angry lords, and other powerful enemies who would otherwise give chase.

Possibly?, Glenn shrugged, though his tone made it clear he didn't think that explained enough. But how many people who resent the faith want to live in their basement indefinitely? You'd think it would fuel their resentment...warp it into something worse.

That's... Dimitri wondered how he should respond. ...I don't think everyone would consider this place a permanent home. More of a temporary haven...

“-round here. Ladies first.” Yuri's voice sounded like it was coming from far away, but he managed to catch the conversation thread before he ended up embarrassing himself. Dimitri blinked and forced his mind to reorient himself in the present.

They'd come to a stop in the middle of one of the hallways, with open doors on either side. There were a number of rooms along the way, some of them having one or two people within, but mostly they were empty. Within the rooms were several oddly designed beds; they were in sets of two, one stacked on top of the other on thick stilts. They were brightly colored and warmly lit, welcoming despite their sparse décor. The beds were made up, too. It was almost as well-appointed as a proper inn.

“Thank you,” Byleth said, the lowness of her voice the hint of how tired she must be.

Hilda immediately flounced in with a loud, relieved sigh. “Oh, thank goodness! This is niiice...” She turned on her heels and waved widely in Balthus's direction. “You're not off the hook, Baltie. Tomorrow I expect you to tell me eeeeverything that's happened since we last saw you. Got it? We're gonna catch up right proper.” She swung almost drunkenly on the door frame, leaning back until she was an inch from loosing her grip and spectacularly crashing to the ground. Byleth hurried into the room and grabbed her by the shoulder, steadying her.

“Yup, I got it Hilda.” Balthus said, his expression slightly pained but otherwise quite warm.

Edelgard entered the room with a bemused look, not saying anything. Bernadetta hovered in the doorway for a moment, hesitantly glancing over her shoulder back at Yuri. Her eyes flickered, focusing on his face, before she shied away and retreated, closing the door behind her.

I wonder how she knows him... Father mused. She clearly recognizes him to some extent, but there's more in there...

Good question, Glenn commented. Varley's scared of the heavens and everything, so I wonder when she had the chance to befriend a dangerous street rat.

...well, I doubt he was always a street rat... Dimitri noted in turn, turning his head slightly to watch Yuri give them all a patient, friendly smile that nevertheless seemed a bit practiced. The sheer speed from which the other teen had switched from considering them violent invaders to potential allies was jarring; he was glad that the misunderstanding was cleared up, but the fact that some of Yuri's mannerisms reminded him of the first time he met Claude had him a bit on edge... I wonder who he was before...and who he is now.

Riegan will figure it out, Glenn said with a hint of amusement. I give it a few days, at most.

I doubt it. Yuri will be on his guard around him, Father objected, crossing his arms. The professor will the be the one to win him over. It is impossible to be faced with the sort of care and devotion she shows her allies and not feel a desire to reciprocate it.

That's certainly true... Dimitri thought. Though if he sees Claude as a kindred spirit, he may feel comfortable enough to let something slip. ...Honestly, I hope as much happens. I would rather we did not stumble into yet another brewing disaster without some sort of context for it.

Glenn shrugged. Does it really matter? Someone's perpetrating attacks on innocent, bereaved people who have already given up almost everything in their lives. If you have to go and smash some skulls together to put a stop to that, what does the 'why' even matter?

Ah...of course...

“Hey, Mitya. You're falling asleep on your feet over there.” Claude's calloused fingers wound around his wrist, tugging him forward. Dimitri blinked a few times and flushed, embarrassed yet grateful for the brunette's assumption. “C'mon. The bed should be at least a bit more comfortable.”

Something about the way that sentence was phrased made Dimitri's heart stutter. He avoided those piercing emerald eyes and let out a soft chuckle. “R-right...”

He let Claude lead him into the room across from the girl's 'dorm'. Visually, it was mostly identical, including the odd bed setup. Linhardt, unsurprisingly, had immediately crawled onto the lower bunk on the right, thrown the topmost blanket over himself, and curled up on his side with the intention of going straight to sleep. Ashe climbed up the ladder to the top bunk with shaky and obvious care, crawling over it and eyeing the raised bar on the side (likely there to keep him from rolling off...) a little uncertainly. “So this is a thing,” The silver-haired boy said, quietly and a bit lamely. “Do you think these mercenaries might be the same people who kidnapped Flayn? They're using hidden passageways...”

“I don't know,” Claude said with a sigh, immediately grabbing the ladder and hoisting himself up onto the upper bunk bed on the left. “It could be, but we really don't have anything to go on. Constance and Balthus mentioned that the mercenaries kept trying to shake people down for some kind of 'treasure'; so it's not the same M.O as the guys we fought last month. It could be a coincidence.” He groaned, slumping dramatically on the mattress. “And I hate those.”

“I wonder if it would be more prudent to call for the Knights of Serios...” Dimitri sighed heavily, letting himself collapse on the lower bunk. The mattress sank a bit beneath him, but it was softer than he expected, which was nice.

“From what Yuri said, most people down here don't trust anyone wearing the symbol of Serios further than a Demonic Beast can spit, and the feeling's pretty mutual.” Claude pointed out dryly. “With that kind of friction screwing things up, no help would be better than the help they'd get out of that.”

“I just can't believe we've been here for several months without ever knowing about this place,” Ashe said with more than a hint of wonder. “A whole community of people, right below our feet as we went to all our classes. It's amazing. I wonder how far down the tunnels and chambers under the monastery go...”

“That is an excellent question, and I wonder if Yuri has the answer,” Claude remarked lightly. “He's the type to know his way around.”

“I was surprised,” Ashe said urgently. “I didn't comment on it on the way down, but I actually recognize Yuri. A number of years ago he was adopted by Count Rowe; I saw him at a number of functions. People often pushed us towards each other because of that commonality between us.”

“Really?” Dimitri heard Claude's bed creak as he sat up abruptly. “How long was he there for? And why would he leave such a useful position?”

“Oh, I don't know. He didn't leave the Count's territory much, at least not officially, and I didn't hear anything about scandals or crimes that could have forced him to flee.” Ashe wrapped his arms around his knees. “Maybe I'll remember more tomorrow, but all I can think of now is that he just disappeared after some time.”

Claude hummed a bit, and the raw excitement blended with fascination, eagerness and determination was almost a tangible thing now that Dimitri could recognize it for what it was. Oh Claude, please be careful...not everyone will find your endless curiosity endearing. There is enough danger lingering in the shadows of Fodlan now without you going out and courting it directly. “Would he recognize you if you said as much?” He wondered aloud instead.

Ashe shrugged uncertainly. “I don't know. Maybe? I guess it would depend on how much of an impression I made on him back then.” He smiled a little sheepishly. “I wouldn't count on that, to be honest.”

“You? Unmemorable? That's a joke, right?” Claude teased, leaning against the wall. “How could anyone forget such a sweet and earnest dork like you? I certainly wouldn't.”

Ashe blushed fiercely and buried his face in his knees, mumbling a weak protest. “I have to agree with Claude,” Dimitri said, unable to help the smile the sight caused. “You're quite memorable.”

“Guuuuys,” Ashe half-protested, half-stammered before dissolving into a startled and embarrassed fit of laughter.

Linhardt rolled over on his bed, brow furrowed, pressing his forehead deeper into the pillow in protest of the noise he was distantly aware of. Dimitri was a little amazed to realize that the green-haired boy had effectively dropped off to sleep moments after flopping down on the bed. I'm almost a little jealous it's that easy for him...

“We can tag-team Yuri,” Claude said lightly. “You just ask him about his life and be adorable, and I'll sneak in the important questions when you've gotten him loosened up and relaxed. He'll let slip something eventually; even if its not that important, it'll give us a better picture of who and what we're dealing with.”

“B-Be adorable?” Ashe peeked out from beneath his arms to look nervously at the brunette. “H-How am I supposed to...you think that'll work?”

“Even the most cautious of people relax somewhat when they feel like they're in good company,” Claude said easily. “And you are the definition of good company. So's Dimitri, of course, but Yuri would probably talk circles around him.”

“...As much as I would like to deny it, I'm not certain I can,” Dimitri sighed ruefully, swinging his legs up onto the mattress. “After all, I let you dupe me into thinking that you were a man who didn't value anything for over a month.”

“I live in the Alliance. I have practice.” The prince is almost certain he could hear Claude's genuine smile in his voice.

“It can't be that bad...can it?” Ashe asked with a edge of hesitation.

Claude chuckled lightly. “Not all the time, no...but you know what they say; when it rains, it pours.” The bed above Dimitri's head creaked as the brunette shifted, probably lying down. “Maybe I'll tell you a few stories when we have a moment. Give you an idea of what to look out for when you inherit the Gaspard Dukedom.”

“Oh! That's actually a good idea, Claude.” Dimitri said, while internally he wanted to bang his head against the wall. Really, after Lord Lonato's demise he should have put some thought into what would happen to the man's land. (Was he the prince of Faerghus or not?) It wouldn't be hard for him to ensure that Ashe inherited the lands as he deserved, but his poor friend needed a (comparatively) gentle introduction to politics before he could properly take up the role. And really, if anyone could tutor him on the side about the ins and outs of dealing with petty lords, it was a lord ascendant of the Alliance.

“You'd do that for me?” The note of awed wonder in Ashe's voice was very sweet, and a little saddening. The little pause after he said this made Dimitri really wish he could see Claude's face.

“Sure. I mean, why not? Besides,” Another creak suggested the brunette had moved, possibly to put his hands behind his head. “you love reading fables and old tales, right? I can't wait to tell you about some ridiculous scheme ripped right out of one of your books, then see your expression when you find out that it's actually something some lord actually tried.”

“...There's a scary image,” Dimitri said in a slightly strained way.

“C'd the rest of you j'st go to shleep?” Linhardt's muffled, slurred complaint preceded Claude's undoubtedly witty response. The green-haired boy had rolled over and was looking baefully up at them from beneath his thick blanket.

“Oh, right! Sorry, Linhardt. I'll put out one of the torches.”

Dimitri untied his boots and kicked them off before pulling the covers aside and crawling into bed properly as Ashe dimmed the light in the room. His body was sore, but rather less so now, and the mattress was soft and comfortable enough that lying on it was soothing. Tomorrow, we'll learn more from Yuri about what's going on. Maybe this time we'll be able to nip this budding conflict in the bud and return to the normal path of things.

Why are you certain you can trust Yuri? His father asked mildly. It's dangerous to assume that he's like Riegan. How can you be sure that his smiles don't hide a malevolent creature? How do you know he isn't stringing you along for some purpose of his own?

I...I trust Byleth, Dimitri thought back hesitantly. She believes that the Ashen Wolves are telling the truth, and if she gets suspicious, I know she will try to send me and the others away. I mistrusted Claude at first, suspected all sorts of things, and I turned out to be utterly in the wrong. It's true that Yuri may well be cut from a different cloth, but if he is like Claude and he and his friends need help...

There is such a thing as being too trusting, Glenn chided. You are not permitted to die down here. You know that, right?

Of course I do. Dimitri tilted his head, looking at his father who was sitting on the edge of his bed. Lambert's expression was as it had always been when he caught his son doing something that left him worried, angry, or both; like the time he'd gotten out of bed to find Dimitri up in the tree next to his window – four floors above the ground.

Are you relying on Riegan to intuit whether or not Yuri is trustworthy? His father asked pointedly.

Dimitri shrugged a little helplessly. He's better at it than me.

You're putting your life in his hands? Your life, our justice, everything? Glenn responded hotly, running up to the side of his bed and gazing down at him intently. Who is Riegan to you now?

That's...I... Dimitri shed away from the image, both startled and frightened by their sudden aggressiveness. He's my friend...

You friend, Glenn repeated skeptically. Only your friend?

Of course...what else could he be...?

Glenn snorted and shook his head, his expression sliding away from anger and frustration into the softer, patient amusement that he always wore when Felix failed to understand something he was driving at. 'What words could possibly paint the vision I saw that night as it deserved to be rendered unto all? He was unearthly, vibrant and golden and perfect, too pure to be mortal and yet so visibly human.' He quoted lightly. 'I stood there like a trapped rabbit, staring at him as though he were the whole world. In that moment, for me, he was.'

...Stardust... Dimitri's heart skipped a beat, remembering that passage where the young knight tried to convince the assembled lords that he had seen the fallen star they claimed was a rumor spread by their enemies. He remembered the proceeding passage as well, where she reflected upon the star's strange beauty, the very one that had come to his mind when Claude first sauntered into the monastery all those months ago. Glenn, I – I don't understand.

Glenn's lips curved into that little smirk that had always reminded him that, honorable and knightly though he was, he was still Felix's older brother and just as snarky. You will, he retorted. Think about it for long enough, and you will.

Don't force Eisner to protect you all by herself, his father added while Dimitri tried to wrap his head around what Glenn was implying. You really ought to be returning the favor by this point.

I will. I'll always protect her, even if she doesn't expect or want me to. It...it's about time that someone did.

His father gave him a crooked smile in response, but said nothing more before vanishing.


It was a little surprising that his sleep went undisturbed, considering all that happened. Yet Dimitri slept without dreaming, and woke at some indeterminate point in the morning to find their candle burned down to nothing and only the faintest sounds of chatter indicating that anyone else was up and about. The lack of sunlight shining through the window, which he'd long grown fond of, was disorienting and left him feeling a bit discomforted. I wonder if living underground distresses anyone else here...

Giving his head a shake, Dimitri pushed the blankets aside and got up, sliding his feet back into his boots. In the dim light he could see that both Ashe and Linhardt were still asleep, breathing evenly. How early is it...?  Lacing up his boots, Dimitri got to his feet and walked over to the doorway. He hesitated when grabbing the doorknob and glanced over his shoulder.

Claude's bed was empty. He probably woke early so he could go snooping around, Dimitri thought, faintly amused. Hopefully he's avoided doing anything that would get him in trouble with the people here. They're on edge as it is...

Leaving the room, Dimitri glanced at the door to the girl's room. It was closed, leaving him wondering if any of them were awake yet. In case they're all still sleeping, I won't knock.

Following the hallway back to the entrance was a little bit confusing, partially due to the fact that he hadn't been paying terribly close attention when Yuri lead them here last night. He ended up turning a corner twice and walking in a circle past a room that looked like the mock-up of their classrooms in the officer's academy. (It made him wonder, were any of the children here being educated? Or were their parents simply teaching them what little they could, and the room was a wistful recreation of yet another thing lost to them?) Fortunately, the heart of Abyss wasn't as mazelike as he feared, so reaching the 'market hallway' wasn't a problem.

It was less busy than last night, but there were still a large number of people out and about. Dimitri wandered down the length of the hall, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, just...taking all the sights in. Some children peered warily and curiously at him from behind large wooden crates; a young woman kept watching him when he faced away from her but shied away when he turned and looked her way. Cats wandered to and fro, nudging at people's ankles and fishing for both food and attention. A nice smell caught his attention when he wandered past the weapon's stall; both curious and (admittedly) rather hungry, he followed it and the building sound of numerous voices to the far end of the walkway and turned the corner.

A wide set of double doors – having clearly been installed long after the fact some time ago, given the hinges were bolted into the stone wall and the doors themselves were made of fairly fresh wood – greeted him there. Now that he was closer, Dimitri knew that what he smelled was all manner of cooked fish. (Fish made sense, considering that the lake next to the monastery was famously plentiful.) He hesitated before pushing one of the doors open, making his way inside.

A blast of warm air hit him the instant the door opened; the air was well filtered but almost entirely contained within the room itself. It was...well, about as large as any other surface-based inn on the roadside that he'd stopped in before. People were milling all about, eating and joking and loudly debating all at once.

What quickly caught his eye – well, who, honestly – was that Claude was there, sitting at a table off to the side with a mug, a plate of half-eaten fish, and a book that he was bent over with intense concentration. More than a little curious, Dimitri made his way over to him, carefully stepping around a table where three people were playing a card game that may have been rigged judging by how angry one of the players was getting.

It was a mark of how absorbed Claude was in his reading that he didn't react to Dimitri pulling out one of the chairs at his table and sitting down; only a quick flicker of his gaze showed that he'd noticed anything at all. Dimitri sat forward and peered at the words when Claude's slender dark fingers turned the page over. '...Maurice had another bloody fit. I barely managed to get the children away from him in time...my own damned fault for assuming it only happened at night. I need you to find that pale bastard, drag him down here and make him give the boy a proper examination before this happens again. His body...it was more warped and animalistic than I'd ever seen before, and he didn't recognize me when I had to fight him off. This can't keep happening!'

“...What is this?” Dimitri asked, a little unsettled.

Claude raised one finger, tilting his head as his eyes flicked back and forth. “...It's still just signed Michael,” he murmured. “No family name. Did he not have one?” Puzzled, Dimitri looked back at the pages and realized that, upon closer inspection, these weren't traditional chapters – but rather transcribed letters. “Come to think of it, every time he writes to this guy, he just calls him Ren. Maybe they're both retainers...”

“Claude? You're thinking out loud.”

The brunette finally glanced at him at that, a small, pleased grin on his face. “Sorry; I'm kind of excited. Do you know they have a library down here?” He took a drink from his mug, careful to keep away from the book as he did. “It seems like a lot of the stuff that Seteth and the church have banned ends up down here. And that doesn't cover letters and books that should have been lost to time that were preserved instead!”

“Ah...” Dimitri side-eyed his friend a bit. “Bishop Seteth wouldn't ban things without good reason. The church is entitled to control the what knowledge they want to make public; same as any of us.”

Claude rolled his eyes. “C'mon, Mitya. Is there any sane reason the personal correspondence of someone who worked with the Ten Elites – hell, might even be one of them – shouldn't be common knowledge to history seekers?”

What?” Dimitri blurted out, leaning over so he could take a better look at the letter Claude had been reading.

The response earned him a smug chuckle. “Precisely that.” He casually leafed through a dozen previous pages and tilted the cover so he could see better. Dimitri goggled when he read the head of a letter addressed to one Lady Renata Fraldarius. “These letters are mostly written by the same guy, with some from his friend that he'd had on him when he first compiled them. I haven't read many of them, and I haven't read them in order – I've been bouncing around trying to follow the thread regarding this guy, Maurice.” He flipped back to the letter he had been reading.

“Who?” Dimitri said, thinking furiously back to his old lessons. “I don't think any of the Ten Elites went by that name...”

“Neither do I, but here he's mentioned in the same circle as them.” Claude tapped his fingers against the page. “He's young, much younger than the others. Very reserved and dislikes most other people, which might explain why he's slipped through the proverbial cracks of history, but that's not what's interesting about him.” The brunette expertly flipped back to a much earlier entry and turned the book around so Dimitri could read for himself. “Read this and tell me if it reminds you of anything you might have heard happen recently.”

Nodding, Dimitri looked down and focused on the page. These weren't the old letters themselves, but copies transcribed into modern Common Fodlanese. The date was missing, as was the last name of the intended recipient (leaving only the first name Angel), but the body of the letter was almost completely in tact.

My friend Angel ( ),

I'm writing to you in the middle of the night propped up in medical bed, and even this much might get me yelled at by Ren. I'm not supposed to be moving around for the next week; another reminder of how much we rely on you, I guess. Heh, that's a bit tactless of me; I miss your ability to distract me with your words and tease a laugh out of me no matter what my mood is. Your power to erase the worst of injuries as if they never existed is a bonus.

( )

However, I'm not writing this letter for a social call. You're probably screaming at me to explain how I got myself bedridden in spite of my powers already, so I'll be blunt –

Something's wrong with Maurice's powers. And by 'wrong', I mean I was woken last night by what sounded like an animal tearing his room apart; but when I got down there, I found this... ( )

( ) ( )

( )

I'm at a loss for how to truly put it to words. It was like someone was trying to create a humanoid dragon, gave up halfway, and discarded their creation alive and screaming. ( ) He had two arms and two legs, but his head was spiked and covered in scales, claws the size of knives burst out from his knuckles, and his jaw and tongue elongated as if to accommodate for much bigger teeth. He was screaming bloody murder when I showed up. He barely sounded sane, ( ), couldn't string three coherent words together... Heaven only knows what he thought was going on, ( ) seconds after I came in he attacked and did his level best to kill me. He didn't even realize it was me until he crushed three of my ribs and was in the process of trying to bite my throat open. ( ) recognized the blood? I don't know.

When the sun came up, he transformed back. His collapsed, and there was blood dripping from wounds where his body had been warped by the transformation. Maurice hasn't talked to me since then, though we're in the same infirmary, but Ren said that his memory of what happened is fragmented. ( ) sure if he just wants me to believe that, but I'm alive, so I guess that's what's important.

Ren's trying to get a hold of the Big Man and his alchemist friend, but they seem to be out of reach doing who knows what. If you could come over here and examine him, I'd be grateful.

-Michael

Dimitri sat back in the chair, eyes wide. “Miklan...” He breathed, turning to stare at Claude.

“Yeah,” The brunette said seriously.

“But how? Surely the Elites would have kept him away from their Holy Relics if he worked alongside them!” Dimitri said urgently, looking up and down the letter for some sort of explanation. “Did they loose the passage referring to it?”

“Hm, here's the thing,” Claude said, green eyes darkening. “Maurice apparently had his own relic. It's a magic-infused sword called Blutrang. Two of the other letters mention him fighting with it.”

“That's...” Dimitri swallowed hard, his throat unaccountably dry. “But if he had sacred blood, why would wielding the weapon hurt him?”

“I'm trying to find out,” Claude said, taking another drink. “Supposedly Miklan used the Lane of Ruin to turn the tables on his pursuers, so it obviously didn't transform him straight away. But you'd think that his gang would have noticed a halfway transformation that made him temporarily feral; yet they were as surprised as us when he became the beast. It makes me think that he must not have gone through this, 'phase' for lack of a better word, that Maurice seemed to have.”

“Why would it be different? ...Does it say anywhere which Crest he had?”

“No,” The brunette scowled. “Not even a visual description. Which makes some sense, seeing as everyone this guy Michael wrote to would have known about it already, but it does make my life a bit harder.” His expression became contemplative. “It does sort of remind me of an old wives' tale around the Alliance...”

“How so?” Dimitri blinked at him.

“Well, supposedly there was a cursed family that brought ruin and despair down upon everyone they came in contact with. During the day they seemed like ordinary people, but at night they would transform into Demonic Beasts and devour their neighbors.” Claude's lip twitched. “I always thought it sounded like a tacky campfire story, but reading this...I wonder if the myth's origin came from someone who knew Maurice, and used his gradual transformation against his family.” He shrugged. “Assuming he had one, anyway.”

A terrible thought struck Dimitri then. “If the relic transformed him in spite of him possessing the holy blessing...could that happen to any wielder of the Hero's Relics? To us, if we prove unworthy?” An icy finger of dread ran down his spine.

“I'm not sure what worth has to do with anything,” Claude half-muttered, squinting at the text.

Everything,” Dimitri responded empathetically, figuring that Claude's Almyran upbringing might have affected his understanding of exactly what the relics truly were. “The hero's relics were gifts from the divine goddess Sothis. Miklan didn't merely lack a Crest, he was a vile man to his core. Who's to say that other Crest bearers who failed to act justly suffered a similar fate and were cast out of history?”

Claude sat back, thought for a minute, then cast him an easy smile. “Then I don't think you of all people need to worry yourself silly about it, Mitya.”

Dimitri wanted nothing more than to insist that his friend take this seriously – he didn't doubt Claude's worth as the rising wielder for Failnaught, not at all, but given that the other teen self-described as a schemer it was in his best interest to keep that in mind! – but he found himself stuttered a bit, embarrassed by the compliment...and a little ashamed, as well.

Of course you can say that with a smile. You haven't seen the Boar. I've kept that side of myself hidden from you so far...except for that slip against the Death Knight, and you were preoccupied enough that you didn't comment on it. Or chose not to.

He looked back at the brunette, trying to find his train of thought before it slipped away. The difference between your smile when you're playacting and when you're honest is both small, yet significant...I think I can finally, confidently say I can tell the difference...

“As adorable as you look absorbed in that book, Riegan, I feel like I have to remind you not to run off with any of Atra's hard-won collection.” A smooth voice interrupted his thoughts abruptly. Dimitri blinked and glanced over his shoulder to see Yuri lounging against the last empty chair at the table, a small smirk on his face.

“I wouldn't run off with it,” Claude replied, mock-affronted. “I'd only be borrowing; I'd bring it right back when I finished.” He gave the purple-haired teen a beseeching look. “You wouldn't deprive a curious man of the most authentic information he's been able to get his hands on, would you?”

“Reference books can't leave the library,” Yuri responded lightly, dragging the chair back with one ankle and sitting down with lazy grace. He pressed two fingers against the top of the open book. “You'll just have to come back here to read it again. Oh dear.”

“You want a surface dweller constantly going in and out of these parts?” Claude smiled innocently in turn, lightly batting Yuri's fingers away. “I wouldn't want to make anyone uncomfortable.”

“Is that right?” Yuri retorted, his smirk widening a bit as he nevertheless retracted his hand. “I suspect you're the type to get into theoretically secure places quiet and unseen. After all, you're the only student I've frequently spotted investigating the hidden passageways.”

“...How do you find the time for that, between your classes and all that studying you do?” Dimitri wondered, partially out of genuine curiosity and partly spurred by a strange desire to interject.

“I multitask,” Claude replied blandly; he was unaffected by the prince's disapproving frown. “You know, you're much more personable when you aren't hitting me in the face with white magic. I thought I was gonna go blind for a second!”

“Heh...sorry,” Yuri said with a slight shake of his head. “I could say I was on edge, but honestly, at some point during our little dance I was more invested in not being outwitted than anything else. I have a reputation to maintain.” He tucked a stray strand of his hair behind his ear. “I promise you weren't ever in danger. I wanted to win, but I hadn't completely discarded my wits.”

“I'm sure I would appreciate that even if I woke up seeing nothing but white,” Claude deadpanned.

“Well, if it makes you feel better, my leg still aches a bit where you stabbed me, so I'd say we're about even.” Yuri riposted. “You're the first lord I've met in a while who keeps knives on his person. The rest don't seem to find that practice 'honorable'.”

“Conflict is ugly enough without deception,” Dimitri grumbled, frowning. “If you're going to end someone's life, you owe it to them to look them in the eye. If you can't do that, then perhaps they don't deserve to die.”

“A very northern philosophy. Then again, you are the prince.” Yuri eyed him with that same unnervingly neutral expression he'd seen in Claude. “It's a little funny, seeing you two fight side by side and generally act like good friends. I would have thought you're respective positions would demand a certain amount of distance.”

“And I would have thought that a street orphan wouldn't have any sort of connection to the next Lady Varley, yet there clearly is one.” Claude retorted easily. Yuri blinked twice and raised an eyebrow. “Seeing Bernie not panic in the face of aggression is a hard thing to miss. How do you know her?”

“It was a long time ago,” Yuri said dismissively, though he eyed Claude in a way that made something in Dimitri's stomach prickle with discomfort. Was it admiration, curiosity, something else? Why did the violet-eyed teen keep looking at Claude like that?

“Come on; you shouldn't fish for secrets if you aren't willing to give up a few of your own,” Claude chastised him, putting his hands behind his head.

Yuri's lip curved upward. “The other lords at the round table must think you're a handful.”

“Admittedly, I don't think Lord Gloucester would loose much sleep if a terrible accident happened to render me mute.” Claude said the words so casually Dimitri wondered if he'd imagined them; Yuri's other eyebrow rising a bit informed him that he had not. And Balthus had said the man was paying for blackmail he could use against House Riegan... “But I think Holst Goneril likes my sense of humor, so it's a start!”

“...I think I like you, just a bit.” Yuri laughed. “Well, you'd best finish what you're reading there quickly. My men have reported back about the mercenaries; they're making another go at Abyss very soon. Once everyone's awake, I'll lay out the defense strategy we've set up.”

Dimitri nodded stiffly. He decided right there that he didn't like the pleased smile Claude gave the Ashen Wolf's leader in return. You just met him, he thought sourly. You don't give you trust easily. Why are you smiling like that at him? It's not a warm smile, but it's genuinely full of amusement and interest. I don't like it. Aren't you wary of him?

Even Claude's knowing wink when Yuri turned around to break up a budding bar brawl didn't totally dislodge that agitated feeling.

Chapter Text

Despite what he said, Claude wanted very badly to make off with some of the mysterious 'Atra's' collection of banned and lost lore; but both his resurrected sense of decency and the warning that the girl may well kill him for it stayed his hand.

Letters from the 10 Elites; possibly written by his own ancestor! The increasingly clear information that what happened to Miklan was no anomaly; and that the truth about the Hero's Relics might be within arm's reach! Other letters, forbidden lore and so much more was hidden in a gorgeous massive library within the Abyss, carefully curated and tended to. He hadn't even scratched the surface in the twenty or so minutes he spent browsing the shelves and charming the reluctant librarian into allowing a mysterious surface-dweller to take one of the books away to read.

It was nearly enough to make him forget exactly why he was down here, so far away from the warmth of the sun. (By any and all divinity that might pity humanity, how could anyone bear to live down here?)

Fortunately, Yuri's revelation that information – and likely another attack – were on their way was enough to draw him back to the present.

“So exactly what should I be expecting to happen when Yuri leads us into your terrifying maze of confusion and despair?” Claude asked Balthus with a bit more faux cheer than was strictly necessary when the older man joined him at the blacksmith for repairs and reinforcement work on their respective weapons. “I mean, how many people are willing to crawl around in dark tunnels for hours on end for the nebulous hope of treasure?”

“Can't be sure,” Balthus said lightly. “Last time it was somewhere around a hundred, all hired goons. Comparatively cheap muscle, sure, but there was a lot of them.”

Claude coughed to cover up a choking fit. “I'm sorry, what? How in the blazing eternal flames did over a hundred mercenaries get down here without anyone seeing them approach the damned monastery?”

“No idea,” Balthus replied sourly. “And it's really bugging Yuri that he can't figure it out either. Best we can gather, they've found underground entrances further away from the building and slip in one group at a time. So the good news is that if they do arrive in numbers like that, we won't be fighting them all at once.”

“Glory,” Claude replied fatalistically, before accepting his newly forged iron bow and the silver bow he'd just bought back with a smile at the well-built blacksmith. The older man gave him a bemused smile in return before returning to the forge to continue his work on the arrowheads and Balthus's gauntlets. “It's a good thing my classmates aren't the kind to freak out, because we're going to have one hell of a story to tell when we go back up there.” A thought swam up that made him chuckle. “Though Felix might throw an epic hissy fit when he finds out he effectively slept through another grand struggle he could have tested his skills on.”

“Felix? Oh, I think I remember him!” Balthus said cheerfully. “He's that touchy blue-haired kid from the Mausoleum, right?”

“You saw-?” Claude stopped and then rolled his eyes. “Of course. They would have had to use the underground system to sneak the Western Church mercenaries in, and Yuri would have noticed. Thank you ever so much for just standing around watching us fight, that was a big help!”

“Hey, I would have been happy to jump in!,” Balthus protested, giving him a wounded look. “Yuri did too; but he was worried it might violate the terms of our agreement with the Archbishop, and potentially put Abyss in danger. We care a lot about protecting the people down here, and you guys seemed to be completely on top of things. Granted that creepy guy on the horse didn't join in...” He shook his head and gave Claude a serious look. “If he had moved against you, we would have jumped in, no question about it; that's why we stuck around for the whole fight. I promise.”

Claude eyed the older (and taller, annoyingly...he wondered how Teach was feeling having to look up at someone for once) man carefully for a minute before nodding in acceptance. It wasn't just the intense seriousness in the jovial brawler's eyes that convinced him; Holst considered the man a good friend, and Claude trusted the guy's judgment. “Alright, I can accept that.” He rolled his shoulders. “Surprised Holst never mentioned you across all the times I saw him; maybe he did and I forgot, because you do seem a bit familiar.”

“Eh, Holst knows where I am, so he keeps quiet to avoid tipping off any 'interested parties',” Balthus shrugged before grinning again. “Besides, you didn't need to hear about me from him specifically. I'm the almighty King of Grappling, after all!”

“...Huh. There's a name I know I've heard.” Claude's lip twitched upward. There were a lot of street-level stories about a brawler without peer circulating ever since he first arrived in the Riegan dukedom. “Somehow none of those awe-inspiring stories mentioned debtors. Though those make for very good songs.”

Balthus just chuckled in response. “Yeah, they sure don't.”

Claude couldn't say that the easy banter they fell into afterwards made him fully relax, but it at least made him feel a bit more comfortable. Fun as Yuri was to talk to, he knew from their first proper conversation that right now, he couldn't afford to trust the guy very much. Byleth, sweetly compassionate and naive as she was, had chosen to do so, which meant he had to watch over her and make sure they weren't getting lured into a trap.

Which kind of sucked, because Yuri was fun. He never got to talk to someone who was so much on the same wavelength as him, especially one who indirectly acknowledged that they had secrets they were keeping to themselves. Maybe if he could suss out what Yuri was sitting on and help him with it, he could cut through the knot and turn the guy into a proper friend. Maybe, indeed...living with Teach is turning me into an optimist.

The blacksmith emerged again, handing him his quiver. Claude paid him and added an extra tip for his services – much to the man's shock. (He could feel Balthus's eyes on the back of his head, and briefly wondered if he'd just passed some sort of test.) He pulled a few of the arrows out and was pleasantly surprised to see the spiked barbs on the heads of several of them. Anti beast arrowheads, designed to pierce the hardiest scales, and I'm getting them for cheap? A quiver of these cost an arm and a leg in the Empire. “You see beasts down here often enough to stock up on these?” He asked curiously as he twirled the arrow around his fingers.

“Something like that,” The blacksmith said gruffly. “Don't forget to send the other two down this way so they can pick up some for themselves. Who knows what those surface dwellers will bring with them next...”

“Got it.” Claude bowed in gratitude and strode out of the forge, sliding the quiver over his shoulder and very much enjoying the startled stammering he could hear behind him.

Walking out into what he tentatively considered the 'main roadway' of Abyss showed him a low buzz of activity a bit too furtive to be the normal daily routine. The children he'd seen happily playing in the roads are missing, likely hidden away in the homes or perhaps taken away from Abyss entirely to hide away in passageways meant to aide in escapes. The older civilians who were out and about looked grave and wary; several of them shot him looks that varied between hope and uncertainty. Claude wondered how bad the previous attacks had been; both Yuri and Constance had only described them in passing, with the latter mentioning hostage-taking but no deaths. Either way, though, the people here were clearly fearing for their future.

“Eeeek! I'm really sorry Hilda broke your armor I didn't mean for your nose to get knocked out of joint pleeeease leave me alone!”

...Some for different reasons than others, mind you.

It was a tragic fact that Claude immediately recognized Bernadetta's panicked babbling admist the general chatter and from fairly far away as well. Shouldering his bow, he wove his way through the crowd and followed the voice until he reached it's source. Happily enough, what was transpiring wasn't serious. As a matter of fact, a rather-tough looking guy was attempting to hand Bernadetta a freshly-repaired (and unless he missed his guess, newly-reinforced) bow, and he seemed fairly distressed by her terrified, arms-raised-to-cover-her-head-from-a-blow cowering.

Claude gave his head a slight shake and strode over to salvage the conversation. “Hey Bernie, what's the matter?” He called easily.

In lieu of responding, Bernadetta shot over and immediately hid behind him, grabbing his elbows and turning him into an impromptu human shield. “He attacked me during the fight,” She informed him meekly. “He broke my bow and that made Hilda really mad so she clubbed him, broke his armor and hurt him. He must be really mad at me!”

“Wha-? No, no,” The man said, shaking his head and looking pained. “I'm the one who screwed up. I nearly seriously hurt her, 'cept she wasn't an invader at all. I earned those bruised ribs.” He scratched the back of his head and tried to look past the brunette to give the girl an apologetic bow. “I did snap her bow in the fight, so I figured I ought to fix it up and give it back. Y'know, to apologize? That's all.”

Claude hummed in understanding, while Bernadetta let out a half-defiant, half-frightened whimper and clung all the tighter to him. “Don't take it too personally; Bernadetta is nervous around new people.” He held out his hand. “If only the other Alliance lords were this considerate; would make the round table conferences less migraine-inducing. Do you know much arm-twisting it takes to get an insincere apology out of one of them, much less actual restitution?”

The man let out an uncertain laugh that steadied when Claude grinned in response to it. “It's tough to be the guy in charge sometimes, huh? Pity none of those power-grubbing lordlings never think about what power means once they've got it.” He took the silent cue and handed the bow over to him. “I better go get ready myself. The boss's plans have many moving parts.” With that, and one final guilty look in Bernadetta's direction, he vanished back down one of the roads.

Claude let out a breath and turned around, gently pulling his arms free of the slender girl's grip. “Did you sleep well, Bernie?”

She nodded a bit jerkily, accepting her weapon back gratefully and pressing it against her chest. “Yup. Though I wonder what Marianne and the others are thinking right now. I mean, what would have Captain Jeralt have told them?”

“Probably that we're on some sort of emergency mission,” Claude guessed, taking her hand in his and starting to lead her back toward the blacksmith. “I'm assuming Lady Rhea has supported Teach's decision to help out the wolves, or else she'd have sent the knights down to retrieve us.” With Teach being the number one priority...I bet Rhea knows why Teach is able to wield the Sword of the Creator, and why she has the Crest of Flames. I just can't figure out how or why... “They'll be a bit confused, but that just means we'll have a hell of a story to tell them when we get back.” He chuckled. “Though I can't see Dedue or Hubert being very happy that their prince and princess were deployed without them. Mitya's going to have to endure a lot of scolding and hovering when he gets back, just watch.”

“W-Why do you call him that?”

“Hm?”

Bernadetta winced at his curious hum, but rallied – much to his pleasure. “I-I know why you call me by a nickname, because I'm your classmate and you are a horrible terrible tease to all your f-friends,” she stumbled painfully on the word 'friend', but went on before Claude could think of a way to pursue that reaction, “b-but Dimitri is the Prince of Faerghus. Isn't it, um, odd for you to be calling him by a nickname?”

“Well, you're a noble heir apparent of the Empire. Doesn't stop me from calling you Bernie, does it?” Claude smiled and shrugged. “Honestly...Mitya is my friend, and he doesn't mind it. You know, he'd be happy to be your friend too, if you wanted.”

Bernadetta squeaked, and her fingers dug into his hand in what he decided to be a fairly intense involuntary reaction. “M-m-maybe,” she stuttered.

Accepting that response for the moment, Claude let silence fall as he brought her over to the blacksmith. He did most of the talking for her, getting her quiver restocked, her sword repaired and getting a number of anti-beast arrows along with it. Bernadetta did pay and tip, managing a bow and squeaky 'thank you' before fleeing the forge. Claude exited himself and did his best to keep up, waving at Ashe when the latter turned the corner and spotted him.

He was headed toward market square when Bernadetta suddenly rushed back to him and hid behind him once again. Puzzled, Claude looked out from around the corner of the road and saw Yuri standing there, deep in conversation with a young woman roughly the same age as him.

She was...odd-looking, to say the least. She wore the loose-fitted robes of a swordmaster, but instead of having one sword buckled at her side, she had two – one of which was a sword that flickered with red embers, dangling loose by her side without a sheathe. Her sleeves were rolled back, revealing rather pale skin that nevertheless looked like it had been repeatedly and badly burned by the sun. She was skinny rather than slender, suggesting that there had been times where she had gone without food for while, and her arms were scarred not just with the sunburn marks but sword and magic inflicted scars as well. Her raven-black hair was long and tied back in a low, practical ponytail, and she wore leather armor beneath her robes and thick gloves on her hands. Her back was to him, so he couldn't see her face, but calm nature of her gestures as she spoke with Yuri suggested she wasn't worried by whatever she was reporting.

She must be one of Yuri's warriors and spies, Claude figured. Not sure I've seen anyone with that sort of coloring before...maybe she lived really far north in Faerghus, and her skin didn't respond well to the sunnier, warmer south? Ah, not enough information. “So, how do you know Yuri?” He asked casually, grasping Bernadetta's wrist just in-case she intended to bolt entirely. She wouldn't be able to fight if she kept panicking every time she saw one of their allies.

“I don't know him,” She whimpered. “I've never met him before!”

“You sure? Because you're a little more skittish than usual around him.” Claude gave her wrist a gentle squeeze. “You know that if he tries to hurt you, Teach will kick his ass, right?”

“...I know that...” Bernadetta murmured, pressing her forehead against his back. She clung to him as though he was her salvation. “...I'm not afraid of him.” There was a certainty in her voice that surprised him, and he glanced over his shoulder at her. He could see her messy, spiky hair out of the corner of his eye, but not her face.

“No? Then what's the matter? Can you tell me?”

“...That's...” She swallowed hard over what he strongly suspected was a sob.

“...Would it help if I promise I won't repeat it to anyone, except Teach?” He offered gently, keeping one eye on Yuri and his companion to make sure they weren't being overheard.

Bernadetta took a deep breath at that, and let it out slowly. “...He looks like Micah.” She mumbled. “He's older, and taller, but he looks so much like him...”

“Micah?” Claude reached over and clasped her hand again, trying to communicate his support without badgering her with passive-aggressive pleas.

“Micah.” Ber