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Professor. 

They wanted him to be a Professor.

Jeralt snorts beside him. He must sense his unease. Rhea babbles on about his duty to these future leaders of Fódland, waxing poetic about their fates being intertwined or some other nonsense, but all Byleth hears is Professor .

“It’s not a joke,” Jeralt murmurs. Seteth shoots them a dirty look. Byleth can’t even bring himself to glare. 

Rhea releases them shortly after with the sound advice of taking a tour of the grounds. Get to know the kids, the house leaders, and familiarize himself with where he’s to stay for the next year. Jeralt grabs his arm and not unkindly yanks him aside, pulling him out of the grand hall Rhea seems to occupy most of the time and into the hallway leading down to the stairs of the reception hall. 

“I don’t know what she’s thinking,” Jeralt growls. He releases Byleth’s arm and turns a glare on him, but its anger is directed elsewhere. “You don’t have much contact with people outside our mercenary group. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to wrangle a bunch of kids.”

Byleth shrugs. His anxiety has settled for now, his stomach no longer twisting into knots. But he doesn’t know if he could do this - there’s not much he’s afraid of, but he’s beginning to understand what people call stage fright.

Jeralt, as always, sees right through him. His expression softens and a hand brushes his hair, a calming touch that works just as well as a hug. 

“I know,” he says. “But you’re stuck. If I’m a Knight here, you have to be working, too.”

“I could be a Knight too,” Byleth says, and even to his own ear it sounds petulant. 

Jeralt snorts. “Yeah? You believe in the Goddess suddenly, huh?”

Byleth’s lips purse. Jeralt lightly smacks his shoulder and wraps his arm around for a hug, one that Byleth accepts graciously. 

“Just do what you do naturally,” Jeralt says encouragingly. “You’re a great swordsman and a brilliant tactician. Keep the snark to a minimum and you just might get these kiddos through.” 

Byleth sighs. Jeralt laughs and ruffles his hair, then let’s him go. 

“C’mon,” he says. “Let’s go meet these future lords.”

He starts down the stairs, and after heaving in a great breath, Byleth follows him down, too. 

 

——

 

The Black Eagles are disciplined, courteous, and just a bit strange. They’re an odd mix, and Edelgard, their house leader, is just a bit intense. She’s nice enough, but Byleth senses in her something coiled and waiting, and after their brief talk, he lets her go to return to her class.

Claude is much the same, though he’s got more in the way of personality than his fellow house leader. The Golden Deer also seem more comfortable with each other, less at each other’s throats and more agile in how they come to conclusions as a group. Byleth chalks it up to their being raised in an Alliance where compromises are common, and thanks them for their time, less wary of their stares at his back than the Eagles’.

The Blue Lions aren’t intimidating at all, despite their proficiency in weaponry and magic. The Black Eagles had been just slightly too proper for Byleth’s liking, and the Golden Deer seemed to be sizing him up at any given opportunity, but besides Felix who genuinely wanted to fight him at any given moment, the Blue Lions were kind because they wanted to be. Most of them had known each other since they were small, with a lot of history that - while it may cause tension - didn’t seem to waylay any positive feelings towards each other.

It was nice, in it’s own way. Byleth was not a people person by any means, but he didn’t feel pressured with the Lions. In fact, they did most of the talking, and were courteous to him besides, even if they didn’t know of his new position yet. 

Byleth returned to Rhea later in the evening fully prepared to have a house assigned to him, gut wrenching and anxious about having to spend a year under the careful, disarming gazes of Edelgard or Claude. Jeralt met him at the top of the stairs to the second floor of the reception hall, having abandoned him to Knight business early in Byleth’s exploration of the monastery. He seemed genuinely apologetic, and when Byleth sidled up next to him, Jeralt squeezed an arm around his shoulders in a sideways hug.

“I saw that look on your face,” Jeralt teased. Byleth frowned, but didn’t push him away. It only egged his father on further, his tone rising in pitch. “You like some of them, huh?”

Byleth shoves him away, successfully fighting back a smile. “No, I don’t.”

Jeralt laughs. “I knew it. It’s fine if you do, kiddo. There’s some good eggs in that bunch.”

And some bad ones goes unsaid, but they both know. He can sense it in some of them, and it’s what he keeps in mind when he approaches Rhea, Seteth, and the other two professors should he get chosen to lead a house with them in it.

Instead, Manuela and Hanneman defer to him. “It’s only right,” Manuela says, her smile saccharine sweet. Hanneman smiles too, and in a split second decision, all he says is “Blue.”

Jeralt tries to hide a laugh in his hand, and Rhea looks amused. Seteth rolls his eyes and the other two professors bow graciously, if a little amused themselves. 

“The Blue Lions, then?” Seteth clarifies, because of course. Byleth nods, swallowing thickly, hoping against hope that his expression is as blank as his racing mind feels. 

“Yes,” he says. “I’d like to lead the Blue Lions.”

Rhea nods and clasps her hands together. “Wonderful. Manuela shall oversee the Black Eagles, and Hanneman, the Golden Deer. Thank you, Professor, for taking upon this task for these shining souls.”

She bows low, the ornaments in her hair tinkling together. Byleth manages a bow after Jeralt elbows him in the side, much to the amusement of Manuela and Hanneman, though not as much to Seteth. He’s free to go after that, so he does, with Jeralt close behind.

“Like the Dimitri kid, huh?” his father quips. It’s nearly lost in the echo of their steps on the stairs down, but Byleth hears that name anyway. “Future king of Fargeas, y’know. Think you can handle him?”

Dimitri had been kind, and cordial, and a little flustered on their first meeting. He wasn’t one to dwell too much on formalities, and seemed to know and care about the Lions greatly. He seemed trustworthy, if a little sad, something that bogged down those proud shoulders even as he smiled and laughed away. Byleth can’t put his finger on it, but it feels familiar, so all he does is nod.

Jeralt makes a noncommittal noise. “Alright, kiddo. Let me know if you can’t, okay? He’s a strong kid. Literally.”

They reach the bottom of the stairs. Jeralt lets him lead, falling into step beside him as Byleth finds his way back to the Academy classrooms. He’s already memorized the layout, as confusing as it is, and Jeralt seems impressed. He bumps their elbows when they reach the classroom courtyards, smiling when they spot all the kids gathering in the grass together to greet their professors. 

Manuela and Hanneman have yet to join them, so Byleth takes up his place near the Blue Lions classroom, Jeralt next to him. The students glance between them, murmuring amongst themselves, pointing more at Jeralt than Byleth. His father seems amused through it all, and after a few moments, leans over, his voice low in his ear.

“You’re gonna do great,” Jeralt says quietly, heavy with pride. Byleth dips his chin, trying hard not to let anything show. He bumps his elbow with Jeralt, a quiet thank you that his father happily accepts.

“Thank you for your patience,” Hanneman announces, coming from the opposite side of the courtyard with Manuela behind him. “The professors have chosen - will you gather in your houses, please?”

The students do, arranging themselves into groups of three in a single line in such a way that Byleth can see all their faces, the three house leaders at the front of each group at the end. Hanneman takes up his spot in front of the Golden Deer, grinning at Claude’s twitchy smile. Manuela does the same with the Eagles, silently announcing her post as their Professor as she joins them, arms crossed and a coy smile on her face.

Then, everyone’s eyes fall to Byleth. Dimitri and the Lions glance between him and Jeralt, sizing them up, reading their expressions (and lack thereof). Jeralt only seems to get more amused, and after wrangling back his own uncertainty, Byleth steps forward, joining his house with as little expression on his face as he can muster.

Dimitri’s jaw drops and the girls look between each other with disbelief. Felix seems pleased, his arms rising and crossing behind his head, and Sylvain seems to find the whole thing hilarious if his salacious grin is anything to go by. Dedue is unreadable as always, and Ashe vibrates with excitement, barely containing his energy as he mutters comments to Annette next to him under his breath.

“These are you professors for the year,” Jeralt announces. “Treat them nicely - you only get one shot at passing this Academy. After that, you’re on your own, and it won’t be your professor’s fault should you fail to take to heart their teachings.”

A murmur rolls through the students, one Byleth ignores. He has no idea what to do, not about teaching, or lecturing, or building a lesson plan. All he knows how to do is fight and live - all he knows how to do is kill and destroy. He blinks back the strange dizziness that almost overtakes him, instead forcing himself to take another step forward, one foot in front of the other.

“I’m Byleth Eisner, and I’m your professor for the year,”

he says. His voice doesn’t waver even as he draws a blank on what to say next. Thankfully, his students seem to know this, and almost in unison, greet him back.

“Welcome, professor,” they all say, and just like that, with their loud, unwavering support, he feels a little better about doing this. When he turns around and spots Jeralt looking at him with a small proud smile, he thinks he could do it all.

 

——

 

So just like his father said, he starts with swordplay.

He’s good at it - well, more than good. He’s a master swordsman if the word of Hanneman about his past is anything to go by, and Jeralt himself never wants to spar him for fear of winding up on his back. It’s easy for him to explain and work around, and in their long, uneventful lives to come, the nobles of the Blue Lions will need to learn how to fight back should they want to consider themselves able to lead and run their lands.

While Hanneman and Manuela take to their chalkboards the first week, Byleth takes his students to the training grounds. They follow him like little ducklings, a line of eager, babbling kids traipsing behind him. The voice in his head is amused, and even though it startles him to hear her, he finds it a little funny, too.

He finds the rack of wooden training weapons and wordlessly hands them out to each of his students as they approach. Ashe and Mercedes are first, and the startled looks that cross their faces when Byleth hands them swords is almost enough to make him smile. After them is Ingrid, who takes her training sword more gratefully, and then Sylvain and Felix, who almost immediately begin hitting each other with them. Dedue takes his without a word, and Annette smiles with just a little hint of worry in her eyes as her hands wrap around hers. Dimitri is last, though he seems the most comfortable, and gives Byleth a little nod before joining the formation his students have taken up in the middle of the arena.

Byleth follows them, his own wooden sword in hand. The heft is weird, lighter than his own sword on his hip. He swings it around a couple times, a little blossom of pride blooming in his chest when his students do the same. After that, he pairs them up, separating them but keeping them close enough so they can see and hear him.

“Swordplay is just as important as bookwork,” he starts. “Reading people is something you’ll do as a noble lord of your house and land. Reading your opponent is just the same - their mannerisms, their pride, how confident they are in the next step they’ll take.”

He’s never done bookwork, not more than is required to learn how to read. He’s got no idea what it actually means to study, but by the looks on his student’s faces, it’s apparent they somehow understand. 

Byleth motions for Dimitri to come forward - the last person he left unpaired. Dimitri steps up, wields his sword, and in one swift strike, the wooden weapon is sent flying from his hands and clattering against the stone. The look of shock on his face is comical, his hands left still and empty, frozen where they were on the downswing.

Byleth huffs. “It’s not a lance,” he chides. “It’s a sword. And remember to read your opponent - where they’ll go, and where they were. Do I seem like someone to be caught off guard?”

Dimitri swallows. “No, Professor,” he squeaks.

Felix snorts. “At least someone can best him now.”

Byleth retrieves Dimitri’s sword and holds it out by the dull blade. Dimitri takes it and wields it properly in one hand, looking Byleth up and down, determining where and when he can strike.

Byleth raises a brow at him and looks to the rest of his class. “Alright then, you may begin.”

The clatter of wood on wood erupts the next moment, with swords falling from unsure hands at nearly the same time. Byleth paired them in a way to pit more experienced swordsman against the less experienced, with Felix being the outlier. No matter who he put the young lord against, they’d lose - it didn’t take long for Byleth to figure that out.

Dimitri assumes a ready stance, mimicking what he’s seen Byleth do so far. His expression is more sure now, more patient and unafraid, even if his form is wrong for his tall frame. The smirk on his face disappears when Byleth advances on him and bats away the blow meant for his wrist, the clack of their swords resounding loudly amongst the rest of the students battling each other nearby.

“Don’t look at my face,” Byleth says. Dimitri’s eyes snap down, looking anywhere but where he was told not to. Byleth sighs and taps his sword against Dimitri’s to get him to look up again.

“I meant when fighting,” he clarifies. “My face won’t betray much, but my body will. My feet, my elbows - all the places that move and counterweight my strikes. Where I look isn’t necessarily where I’ll hit next.”

“Of course,” Dimitri stammers. His broad shoulders look weird without the stretch of a lance between them, his feet too close together and his hands unsure on the hilt of a smaller weapon. Byleth adjusts his grip, careful not to linger too long, only enough to show how to properly place one’s hands on a weapon they may not grow to like.

“Thank you,” Dimitri says, a big smile on his face, and Byleth nods. He steps away, ignoring the leer of the woman - girl? ghost? - in his head, and blocks the next blow Dimitri attempts to land on him.

Where Dimitri lacks skill he makes up for in brute strength. It’s apparent it’s something he’s come to control through trial and error, through long days of training with broken weapons and exhausted sparring partners. But he’s fast, quick on the uptake of trying to disarm an enemy with a single-handed weapon instead of two, adjusting his grip and using the end of the sword as an extension of himself rather than the length of it as leverage like he would a lance. 

Yet he’s clumsy, his feet unable to mimic a swordsman’s form. He steps long where he should go short, lunging with a reach too far for a weapon that should pierce instead of impale. Byleth knocks the wooden sword from his hand with a hit to his wrist when Dimitri overextends, the sound of it hitting the stone ground bringing his students to a halt.

“You really aren’t going easy on me,” Dimitri laughs nervously, breathless.

Byleth kicks the sword back towards him. He gestures for the class to resume, and they do, albeit haltingly, their eyes never truly leaving their house leader.

“It’s not about going easy,” Byleth says. Dimitri picks up the sword. “It’s about reading your partner.”

Dimitri huffs. His smile is bashful, unsure, and yet he assumes his ready stance again all the same. There’s

color in his cheeks that Byleth isn’t sure is from exertion alone.

“Of course, Professor,” he hums, and just like that, he’s thrown himself back into the rhythm.

 

——

 

They finish the day with some light stretching, wooden swords abandoned on the racks lining the training grounds and waterskins lying near-empty at their feet. It feels nice to extend his muscles after a long day of blocking Dimitri’s bull-headed strength, even though the young prince never landed a hit. His students appreciate it as well, and in the cool evening right before the supper bell, they part, chatting amicably between each other, crowding around Dimitri as if he was already the crowned king of Faergus.

“You’re going easy on them.”

Byleth whips around, only jumping a little at the sudden sound of his father’s amused voice. Jeralt slips away from the shadows growing at the edges of the arena, arms crossed and face pinched in a smile.

“You could’ve easily knocked the prince down,” Jeralt continues. He pinches Byleth’s cheek quicker than his son can bat him away. “Going soft?”

Byleth shrugs and gathers his waterskin from the ground. “They’re kids. They won’t learn from being kicked around.”

“Won’t be kids for much longer,” Jeralt muses. They fall into step together, following the Lions paying them no mind ahead of them. Jeralt sounds sad, like he can’t quite understand that people age. It makes whatever words Byleth was going to say stick in his throat, clogging up his lungs and nearly making him choke.

Jeralt, perceptive as ever, notices. “Doing alright, kiddo? That doesn’t scare you, does it?”

It shouldn’t. He’s known these people for less than a week - he shouldn’t be so attached. He’s never understood the importance of bloodlines, never cared to place much faith in what comes with being born into prosperity. He’s never had to navigate a world where one day the ones he cares about will move on to do greater things than he ever will, and now, faced with that, he doesn’t want to let go.

He’s known these kids for a week and he doesn’t want to see them grow up.

A warm, familiar arm wraps around his shoulders, and before he can protest, Jeralt is bringing him in for a hug. It feels foreign, even though they do this sometimes. He hugs Jeralt back, appeasing his father for now, wishing for once in his life it was easy to show expression on his face so Jeralt knew just how much it meant to be understood despite it.

Jeralt smiles, then musses his hair as they part. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll do great. There isn’t anything you can’t do, kid.”

The words warm his chest. He cradles them close throughout dinner, clinging to them even as his students gather around him at the table and chatter away as if he was their friend instead of their teacher. Jeralt sits on his left, close enough for comfort but not enough to make him feel crowded, a presence that reassures more than suffocates. Byleth battles his student’s questions with that weight at his side, feeling more confident than he has in a week with his ability to actually do this. 

 

——

 

Lesson plans are harder to draw up, mostly because he’s never had to write anything more complicated than an “I’m fine” to his father in a long time. He ends up having Hanneman draw up templates, and by the fourth week, he’s able to more or less figure them out on his own.

The Lions don’t seem to mind his inability. He’s a quick learner, so even as he fights to get his plans worked out so they can more easily absorb information, they’re not missing out on core material. Battle tactics, negotiation processes, combat and spell-casting - he covers the basics within the first month, and by the time they’re ready for their first assignment, he’s confident they can not only listen and understand his directions, but they can formulate and carry out their own, too. 

It’s good that they’re bonding as friends, too. Even the commoners, like Ashe and Mercedes, mesh well with their noble counterparts, and Byleth can see as they set out for the Red Canyon that there isn’t anything any of them wouldn’t do for each other.

But then they get closer to Zanado. The reality of what they’re to do sinks in, and the friendly, idle chatter that’d been floating between them dies.

They’re within hours of reaching the canyon when Ashe speaks up first. Byleth rides ahead of them all, the tip of this freshly-hewn spear - Ashe kicks his horse so he can more easily speak to his Professor, and when Byleth turns to look at him, his heart nearly breaks from the expression on the young archer’s face.

“Will we have to kill?” he asks, quiet as a mouse. Byleth nods without hesitating - there’s no use in treating his charges with child gloves. Jeralt was right. They won’t be kids anymore very soon.

Ashe’s face goes whiter than a sheet. He looks away, out towards the fields of grass they’re riding through. Byleth stops his horse, swinging it around to stop their procession from going any further. His class looks at him in solemn confusion, their horses nickering and huffing from the sudden stop.

“You know by now what I did before becoming your professor,” he says, loud enough to be heard by Sylvain and Felix hanging towards the back of their little formation. “What I’ve had to do to survive. What I’ve done to make sure others survive.

You will kill, later today and later in your lives. You all have duties to your parents to succeed in the Officer’s Academy, but you also have a duty to protect the lands your parents rule over. Sometimes, that means picking up a sword and doing what has to be done. This is no longer a game.”

He pointedly looks at Felix. Felix doesn’t back down, staring back with a fierceness that drives home how much he understands that his training is for a reason, much beyond its use for besting opponents. Others, like Mercedes and Annette, have a hard time meeting Byleth’s eyes, but he doesn’t speak until they’ve all overcome their initial fear.

“I have killed a lot of people,” Byleth continues. “I expect you to protect yourselves and each other before landing a final blow. I’m here because I will do what is necessary to ensure you make it through this, but I’m also here to soften the hard reality of why you’re here. Can anyone tell me why?”

Their eyes fall again. Only Dimitri stares back, unwavering even in his own uncertainty. He will make a fine king, one day, Byleth thinks with a pang of regret settling in his chest.

“For the Church,” Dimitri says, hard and cold. He doesn’t sound like Dimitri - no, not then. Something other, something feral. “For the holy lands these vagrants have made a home on.”

Something stirs in Byleth, ancient and unknowable. He doesn’t care for religion, doesn’t care for its pomp and circumstance. He especially doesn’t care for Rhea, for her sad eyes and hungry words. He doesn’t know what stirs there in the confines of his heart, but he knows it’s for something far beyond a useless religion built on blood and war.

Home , that thing says, and Byleth shakes his head. Dimitri’s eyes fall to match his classmates.

“You fight for your land,” Byleth corrects. “For the people who live and toil under you. Never forget that.”

He wheels his horse around and begins their journey again. The sound of hoofbeats behind him in the absence of conversation kills something inside him while also igniting something else, and he vows, right there, to never let a hand be laid on any of his students if he can help it.

 

——

 

The battle is quick and relatively painless. It is not without blood, but the thieves are inexperienced in fighting against crests and their bearers, even as new to real fighting the Lions may be. 

With each taste of new blood the Lions draw, Byleth sees a part of each of them harden up and die. Mercedes is one of the last to kill, a reflex of hot flames thrown from her hands when a thief slips from Felix’s sword and charges for her. Dedue kills with regret settling hard in his eyes, surefooted only because his charge fights beside him. Dimitri and Sylvain are unafraid, but Sylvain fends off his guilt with half-formed jokes and Dimitri clearly struggles to comprehend what it means to truly take a life. Ashe and Ingrid wear similar expressions of solemn understanding, and Annette, wielding a big axe with blood splattered up its side, visibly tries not to collapse along with the body she just cut down. 

Felix is not as moved, though Byleth expected such from him. He understands what it means to die from battle, even as he shrinks ever so slightly from Sylvain when the redhead tries to seek comfort from him, someone he’s never seen without. Byleth takes it upon himself to finish the battle alone, leaving his wretched pride at a job well done in the dirt with the bodies he fells. 

Kostas dies as he lives: alone and afraid. The Knights of Seiros, who up to this point have been merely standing guard over the Lions in the event the fight gets out of hand, descend on the bodies of the thieves and begin retrieving what was stolen. Kostas is the last to be searched, but Byleth doesn’t stick around to see.

Instead, he herds his students back to the horses, using soft touches and glances to lead them back to safety. They’re easy to persuade, as startled as they are, and the ride back to Garreg Mach is filled with more assurances than Byleth has ever given in his life. It’s worth it, in the end, to see his students slowly come out of their protective shells they’d built since the fight in Zanado had started.

He sees them off to bed, escorting them for the first time since arriving at the monastery. Each, in their own way, thanks him for it - Felix gives a shallow nod; Sylvain manages a true, wobbly smile; Mercedes and Annette cling to him in a hug the both of them are loathe to leave; Ashe wishes him a good night’s rest and Dedue thanks him for protecting his highness. Ingrid retreats into her room with soft words of encouragement and Dimitri, wide shoulders drooping and something like true pain in his eyes, tries his hardest to smile and thank Byleth for the lesson in true combat. 

Byleth can see beyond that façade. He sees the rage building under Dimitri’s skin, can see how the young lord is fighting against some inner demons that he must wrestle with every time he picks up a lance. Byleth brings the boy into a hug, saying nothing, hoping the simple comfort of someone else’s warmth is enough to stave off the monsters he sees dancing in Dimitri’s shocked expression. 

Then, he searches for his own room, wandering up and down the dorms until he finds his it at the end of the bottom floor. Like a ghost, Jeralt is there, leaning against the thick post supporting the second floor of the noble dorms above.

“By that look on your face, I’d say the skirmish was successful,” Jeralt laughs. Byleth stops right in front of him and drops his forehead against Jeralt’s chest, his fingers wringing in his familiar orange tunic. Arms wrap around him, and for the first time since he can remember, Byleth has to fight the urge to scream.

“How did you do it?” Byleth mumbles. Jeralt hums, a quiet acknowledgement for him to continue. “How did you know what to say when you taught me how to kill?”

Jeralt rubs a circle into the nape of Byleth’s neck with one calloused thumb. “I just did, kiddo,” he says honestly. “You weren’t like other kids. You took what I had to say in stride and just… moved on.”

Byleth’s fingers clench, twisting the material of Jeralt’s clothes. Jeralt squeezes him tight and then lets him go, his hands lingering on Byleth’s shoulders as he peers down at him sympathetically. 

“They’ll come to learn, too. Just you watch,” he says. “Taking a life is never easy, but it’s what they’ll have to do as lords over their lands. The Dimitri kid especially. Just… be there for ‘em.”

He lingers a little while longer, talking about his day and the training of the Knights he’s taken over in Alois’ stead. The whole time, all Byleth can see is the blood his students will soon spill, the rage and contempt they will sow at the expense of their sanity, a Goddess’ curse as she slumbers in his heart. 

 

——

 

Lonato isn’t much better. Going from killing thieves to innocent civilians is never how Byleth would introduce his students to war, yet Rhea seems perfectly content to do so at their expense.

Byleth never leaves Ashe’s side the whole ride back to Garreg Mach. The assassination attempt is heavy news, something Ashe carries in his hands like so much shifting sand. But Byleth refuses to acknowledge it, not now, not when one of his charges is battling with something far more personal than the death of a woman who throws their lives around like used toys.

“You couldn’t have saved him,” Byleth says, and immediately knows it’s the wrong thing to say. 

Ashe - sweet, loyal, happy Ashe - scowls. “I know, Professor,” he says, cold. “That doesn’t make it right.” 

“No, it doesn’t,” Byleth cedes. “But it makes it easier to swallow.”

Ashe looks away. Dimitri, riding quietly on Byleth’s other side up until now, huffs a dangerous laugh.

“Killing civilians is that easy for you, Professor?” he snaps. Byleth turns to him, but the shock must not be evident on his face, because Dimitri continues. “At what point is it justifiable to kill our subjects? When is it appropriate to kill our families? Our parents? Is that okay with you, Professor?”

His rising, heated tone of his voice silences all conversation between the Lions like scissors to a thread. But Byleth sees through that, too, sees right through Dimitri right to the core of him. The pain, the suffering, the eagerness to do right when so much has gone wrong. 

He reaches out his hand, palm up between them. Dimitri glares like he’s something dirty. 

“Sometimes, war asks us to make sacrifices,” he says. He remembers his father saying something similar to him a long time ago, the memory suddenly coming to him unbidden from somewhere deep inside him. He was young, a teenager probably, sent with Jeralt to clear out looters in a small mining town. It hadn’t been his first kill, but it was new enough to startle Byleth, to see within himself what he never knew: that he’s capable of erasing a person from existence. He can kill and they will be no more, and right then, he understands how Dimitri must feel.

“War shouldn’t ask us to kill our own people!” Dimitri shouts. It startles the horses, and Ashe, on Byleth’s other side, flinches in his saddle. But as soon as the words are out, the rage drains from Dimitri’s eyes, and all that’s left of him is a boy with a broken heart.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, eyes downcast, fingers tightening in his horse’s reins. “I’m sorry, Professor, I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It’s not your fault.”

Byleth’s hand goes untaken. He takes it back, shaking his head, something like heartbreak blooming in his own cold chest.

“Don’t be sorry,” he says quietly. Ashe weeps next to him, quiet and alone. Byleth gives him that space. “Just do better than your predecessors. It’s the most you can do for anyone.”

Dimitri nods. The Lions continue in silence. Fog overtakes them, enveloping them all in mist and shadow.

 

——

 

Class isn’t the same after that. 

The Lions are more determined than ever in their studies, focusing all their worth on techniques and battle skills. They take to lessons like ducks to water, and in only two weeks, several of them have absorbed enough to begin training in combat earnestly. 

It may be because of the looming attempt on Rhea’s life, or because of everything that they’re starting to realize about war - but whatever it is, Byleth is proud of them. He praises them when he can and takes meals with them to boost their morale, and when the end of the month nears, he feels like he’s gotten to know them better than he knows himself.

Their unwavering loyalty and support, the way they cover each other as much as they cover him - it’s nice. He’s lost in his own head sometimes, Sothis’ voice ringing between his ears making some days harder than others. But they ease that pain, more than they will ever know.

He tries to ease that pain for them in return when Rhea’s asassination attempt grows closer. The Knights are so focused on guarding the treasuries, cathedral, and Rhea herself that no one notices when Byleth leads his students down to the tomb, slipping quietly through the heavy double doors and down into a space more massive than the monastery complex itself.

“Goddess,” Mercedes murmurs, a surprise since she is not one to take the Goddess’ name in vain. Sothis cackles in the back of Byleth’s skull to a joke only she understands.

“We know someone must be down here,” Dimitri murmurs. “Hopefully it’s only a token force of -“

They round the bottom of the stairs. Byleth freezes - Dimitri runs into him, as do several others right behind him. The tomb is large, large enough that it nearly obscures the figures darting in between the coffins below, shadows amongst shadows cast by torch light.

It is not a token force.

It takes everything he has not to tear through them all so his students don’t have to. The Death Knight especially, with how he pointedly calls out to Byleth and Mercedes. Instead, he positions himself, Dimitri, and Sylvain at the front, and battles off the thieves’ escape with little more than pure force of will. 

They’re lords, he has to remind himself. They’ll rule over him someday. If they can’t cut down insurgents in their own home, what makes them fit to rule?

The looks of horror on their young faces? The blood splattered on their clothes? The way they look at each other when they fell the last enemy, proud and scared and happy to be alive? The way they pair off with their most loved ones, seeking comfort in an embrace, seeking solace where before they didn’t have to fight to see it? 

They win, of course. At a price. The Sword of the Creator is a boon, a gift from Sothis herself, even though he doesn’t understand how he can wield it without a stone. But that doesn’t matter. Rhea doesn’t matter. The monastery doesn’t matter.

He bundles up his kids - yes, his kids, his students, his whole entire world - and escorts them back to their rooms one by one. They don’t want to part from him or each other, instead staying in their pairs (Annette and Mercedes, Felix and Sylvain, Dimitri and Dedue, Ashe and Ingrid). They huddle together in Byleth’s room instead, a warm, small space to share, finding comfort in simply being alive.

It hurts. It constricts something hard in Byleth’s chest, like a rock buried deep in his heart, preventing it from beating. He doesn’t sleep that night, instead keeping watch over them, memorizing their tired, sleeping faces one by one, thinking that this must be how his own father feels every time he returns home victorious. 

 

——

 

One more relic. One more death. One death too much.

He gives as much encouragement as he can. “You couldn’t have done anything different, Sylvain,” he says. “You couldn’t have predicted this outcome.”

His student nods. He pretends not to remember the things told to him in confidence, the scars and bruises, the story of the well and so many more like it. He pretends to see Sylvain as he is without the shadow of his brother looming over him. He pretends to see a boy coming into his own, a young man finding his path, a lord unburdened by fate.

“I never wanted this,” Sylvain says, hurt and pain and so much regret piled up in four little words. He sounds broken, and defeated, and all Byleth can do is nod.

He leaves, his brother’s body nothing more than a husk on the battered stone floor of the tower. He finds Felix, and together they weather this burden as they’ve always done. They fall into step behind the rest of the Lions, two boys finding comfort in the love they have for each other instead of the love they never got from anyone else.

He pretends to see that instead, the hope, the loyalty, the forgiveness. He marches behind them as the rain comes down, pelting them and soaking them to the bitter bone, and thinks of what this world might have been if they were left to love each other instead of kill each other.

 

——

 

“You’re coming into your own, you know that?”

Jeralt’s voice startles him awake. He sits straight up, forgetting for a moment where he is, the large, cavernous room around him unfamiliar. Jeralt laughs, echoing in the tall space, bringing with it a flood of memories all at once.

The bandit attack. Red, yellow, blue. Fight after fight, heartbreak and loss, smiles and laughs and kind little words. Professor, they all say, voices familiar and unfamiliar, but they bring warmth with that word all the same. He settles back in his chair and remembers where he is, the pulse thundering in his ears finally quieting.

Jeralt sits on the edge of his desk, amused and unafraid of his son waking so violently. He reaches out and shifts some hair out of Byleth’s face, to which Byleth nearly smiles.

“There you are,” Jeralt says. He’s smiling, more than he has in a while with all the death following them around like a starved puppy. Byleth murmurs his thanks, his sleepy brain still catching up with himself.

“If you’re this tired, it must mean a lot of work is coming up,” Jeralt continues. He’s not wrong - there is a lot coming up.

“Flayn is in my class now,” Byleth says. “I have to catch her up with everyone else. She isn’t much of a fighter, but she’s nimble on a Pegasus, so I’m trying to get her used to being in formation with Ingrid. It’s…”

“Taxing?” Jeralt finishes, a laugh in his voice.

Byleth grimaces. “Interesting,” he says instead. She’s naive, in a weird, timeless kind of way, making her difficult to train. Especially after the trauma of being nearly drained of blood and left to die. Especially because of that.

Monica has been a strange change as well. Her return has Byleth on edge, even though she’s not in his house. Her whispering with Edelgard unnerves him, though when he glances up to Jeralt, he sees he isn’t alone.

Jeralt could always read him, even when he was young and less expressive (not that he’s any more expressive now). Jeralt shifts, adjusting his place on the edge of Byleth’s desk, glancing around the classroom like it might hold all the answers to his questions.

“You feel it too, huh?” he asks instead. Byleth nods, humming in his throat. “Thought so.”

Jeralt motions for him to stand, and while he’s still sleepy, he gets up and follows. He doesn’t expect their walk to end at the cemetery, but Jeralt is still full of surprises, so he doesn’t comment. Instead, he merely blinks when Jeralt stops near a grave and holds out his hand for him to take.

They weren’t ever physical when Byleth was growing up, too alike in their inability to really accept physical comfort. But Byleth is beginning to see how much he relies on it sometimes to muddle through, and while they were close, he likes knowing that his father loves him as he is, as broken as he is. He takes the hand offered to him, squeezing Jeralt’s fingers. He has to fight off the surprise from his face when Jeralt squeezes back and then turns his palm up, placing a little leather pouch there like it was the easiest thing to do.

“Your mother is buried here,” he says instead of the hundreds of things he could say right then. He releases Byleth’s hand, letting him retract it to fiddle with the pouch. Jeralt’s eyes never leave the gravestone in front of them, his face cast in shadow from the evening sun sinking below the towers of the monastery. 

Byleth looks away. The name on the headstone is worn away, time and the elements taking its toll on the old stone. But he can make out dates, and that, more than her name, is what tears him up more.

Jeralt continues before he can say what’s clogging his throat. “You didn’t cry,” he says. “Your mother loved you anyway. I do, too. She was a happy person, always smiling and asking after everyone, but…”

He trails off. He looks back at Byleth, something unreadable in his eyes even as Byleth’s chest fills with something unfamiliar. Warmth, and something else. 

Jeralt wraps an arm around Byleth’s shoulder. He turns and kisses the crown of his head, his words soft in the breeze picking up through the trees.

“She was happiest when pregnant with you,” he finally says. His words sound like they hurt to say, grating up his throat and cracking near the end. Byleth wraps his arms around Jeralt’s middle and doesn’t let go, even as his father tries to twist so he can show him what’s in the little pouch.

Byleth moves away just enough to let him, this time truly feeling his face contort in surprise when a little silver ring comes tumbling out into his palm. It’s small, made for a woman, with leaf-shaped sapphires adorning its decorated face. Byleth moves it around in his hand, delicate and afraid. Jeralt huffs a laugh above him.

“I wanted to give this to you when you were ready,” he says, voice still wrecked. He shifts the ring in Byleth’s hand, his calloused fingers rough on his palm. “But I think you are, now. I want you to give this to someone you love, just as much as I love your mother.”

A face comes to mind, but he shakes it away. Instead he puts the ring back in the pouch and pockets it, safe inside his robes, and returns Jeralt’s hug with full force. He can’t manage a thank you with his throat constricted with so many words, but he knows Jeralt hears him anyway with the way his father hugs him tight and doesn’t let go for a long, long time.

 

——

 

He can’t sleep after Remire.

Dimitri’s crazed words haunt him, an echo of who he truly was following him like a ghost. For the first time since meeting his students, he sees what Felix means when he calls the prince a boar. For the first time since encountering the perfection of Dimitri’s façade, he knows what it means for a person to truly break.

It shatters his heart, too. His heart and soul. Dimitri is such a kind, caring boy, and to see him break —

It’s hard to see. It’s hard to think about. Dimitri’s remorse is palpable the next day, evident in his drooping shoulders and downcast eyes, but Byleth knows it won’t last. Not now, and not for a long, long time.

 

——

 

He doesn’t let his students dwell. Remire was a taste of true war, a bitter pill they must learn to swallow, but there are kind, good things in life too.

He’s determined to show them, his feelings on the entire thing be damned. A ball. A ball. Hadn’t his students taken etiquette and dancing classes already? Was this just a clever ploy by Rhea to distract the students - and faculty - from the realities of the war she wishes them to fight?

It doesn’t matter. He wants them to laugh, to smile, to be free for one measly night if that’s what it takes to save them from what war will take from them. 

He encourages them to dress nicely and to try and dance at least once with someone they care for. They may only get one chance at this if their responsibilities take them away from each other later down the line. The looks they exchange with each other are serious, earnest ones after that - they know the stakes, now. They’ve seen what it looks like to grieve a missed chance.

So they do, dressing in their finery sent with them to  Garreg Mach. Of course, he’s grown to be the Academy favourite, too - they told him more than once to dress nicely as well. He doesn’t care so much about that, even as he obeys and pulls out the only clean, fancy tunic he owns. He cares, in a weird way, what everyone thinks of him for the first time in his life, especially where his dear students are concerned.

The looks on his student’s faces when he emerges to join them is enough to make him smile. He can’t remember the last time he did smile, but from the way his class nearly falls down in shock when he joins them, it must have been a long time.

“You look so lovely when you smile!” Mercedes and Annette gush. “And your tunic, too - what a nice cut, Professor!”

“Maybe you should smile more often,” Sylvain says with a wink. Felix elbows him while hiding a grin on his face.

Byleth feels his face heat. “It can’t be that strange,” he mumbles. He suddenly feels like hiding his face with everyone’s eyes on him, but he can’t figure out how to without putting off his students entirely. 

“Can you do that again, Professor?” Dimitri, ever the one to say what’s on his mind, blurts. Dimitri’s face is turning an interesting shade of red, but Byleth can’t help denying him. He smiles, the expression unfamiliar on his face, his muscles cooperating only because he tells them to - and everyone sputters out compliments again, the girls in particular. 

“You look marvelous when you smile,” Dimitri says, plain and heartfelt. Byleth’s chest constricts, a feeling that’s just as unfamiliar as smiling. 

“Oh, please,” Felix grumbles. This time, Sylvain elbows him. 

Dimitri collects himself, squaring his shoulders as the dreamy look in his eyes disappears. “I-I apologize,” Dimitri stammers. He suddenly can’t look Byleth in the eye, which is fine, he supposes. The weird tingling feeling crawling across his skin disappears with that lost contact. Dimitri continues as the class looks on, their stares knowing. “I didn’t mean to tease you. I simply haven’t seen that look on your face before.”

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Mercedes coos. “What a nice smile, Professor!”

She and Annette split away, tittering to themselves, hand in hand. Felix and Sylvain do as well, though they hang back from the crowd of students pushing to enter the reception hall for the ball, their linked hands hidden between the press of their bodies. Ashe and Dedue pair off, as well as Ingrid, beginning to mingle with their fellow students as Byleth is left behind with an awkward Dimitri.

“I meant it, though,” Dimitri says, quiet enough that Byleth nearly loses his words in the chatter growing around them. They’re not alone, not anymore, but it’s clear Dimitri has eyes only for him. “You looked… happy. For the first time since I met you.”

And with that, the young prince takes off. He joins Dedue and Ashe, batting off their amused looks. Byleth is left wondering if he should distance himself from his students or let this end on its own, feeling more lost than he had when he accepted this position at the monastery. 

The feeling never truly leaves him all night, especially with how many people want to dance with him. He isn’t as skilled on the floor as his students are - he’s never had to learn how to dance and bow and curtsey as the nobles do - so he refuses every hand that’s offered to him. Even Claude tries to win him over, but he declines, instead deciding to watch from a relative distance away as his students decide to let loose and dance the night away. 

He keeps an eye on his class, even as Sylvain manages to convince Felix to dance with him and Dimitri and Edelgard exchange a familial bow halfway through a change of partners. They’re happy, smiling easily and melting into the flow of music and finger foods offered to them as the night wears on. It feels nearly like intruding after a while - Felix and Sylvain drift closer, closer than friends would, exchanging soft words that drift to soft touches. Dedue isn’t much for dancing, but Ashe tries his best, and the bright blushes on both their cheeks is enough to send Byleth’s eyes looking elsewhere. Both couples abandon the ball early in its commencement, and with nothing left to hold his attention he breaks away for a breath of fresh air as well.

And walks right into a familiar blue cape he’d been trying to avoid. 

“O-oh, Professor,” Dimitri stammers. He rights Byleth with a hand on his elbow, gentle and warm through his thin tunic. Byleth curses himself for choosing such a thing on a cold night even as Dimitri’s warmth sinks into him. 

“I apologize,” Byleth says. “I simply needed a moment to breathe.”

“You too?” Dimitri says with a chuckle. “It’s not so bad. Though, you don’t look like you were ever taught to dance. Is that why you left?”

Byleth’s lips purse. “There wasn’t ever a need for me to learn, Dimitri.”

Dimitri’s face flushes. He glances away, his hand dropping from Byleth’s elbow. “Of course, of course. I’m sorry, Professor, I don’t know what I—“

“Byleth.”

Dimitri’s eyes snap to his, the blush never leaving his cheeks. “I-I’m sorry?”

“My name,” Byleth says. “ Byleth. Use it, please, instead of Professor.”

He doesn’t know where this strange lance of confidence came from, but the look on Dimitri’s startled face is worth it. Dimitri looks halfway to bolting, but he doesn’t, his jaw working around his next words, something like determination crossing his expression.

“Byleth,” Dimitri says. His name sounds foreign on his lips, but not unpleasant. Byleth feels his face heat when Dimitri holds out one gloved hand. “Will you dance with me?”

The question isn’t what he was expecting. They shouldn’t - they’re only outside in the courtyard, easily spotted from one of the doorways leading into the ballroom. But even as he tells himself that it isn’t proper, that he’s Dimitri’s Professor, he can’t help but stare at his student’s face with something like awe slackening his jaw.

Because Dimitri looks so earnest. He looks so much like a prince right now, with the beginnings of a fresh snowfall starting to dot his cloak and hair, falling on pink cheeks and a warm, embarrassed smile. His clear blue eyes stare right through Byleth, piercing him to the spot with his sincerity, his proffered hand unwavering even as the seconds stretch into a minute of Byleth not answering.

Instead of obeying the instinct to flee, every fiber of his being telling him to run and hide and shutter himself away from the world, he takes Dimitri’s hand. Their gloved palms slide together, Dimitri’s other hand coming around to rest appropriately at his waist, and in one swift, fluid movement, they’re suddenly dancing.

Byleth doesn’t know any steps, doesn’t know how to count or follow a lead - he doesn’t even know if he’s supposed to lead Dimitri or the other way around. His pulse thunders in his ears and words tangle in his throat like mucus, and he knows he’s blushing like a lovestruck idiot - but so is Dimitri. He moves slowly, enough for the dance to feel like a dance but slow enough for Byleth’s feet to follow Dimitri’s across the crisp grass crunching under their boots. Dimitri’s face is a delicate shade of pink that reaches all the way up to the tips of his ears, and the little smile that’s been on his face since he asked hasn’t disappeared.

He’s also warm. Byleth doesn’t know how long Dimitri keeps them moving, but it’s long enough for them to drift closer, they’re bodies gravitating towards each other as easy as can be. Byleth feels himself relaxing, the tension he didn’t know he’d been holding between his shoulder blades melting away under the sure, careful steps of his partner leading him in slow circles across the courtyard.

“Thank you,” Dimitri says after a while, voice a quiet undertone. Byleth doesn’t know what to say - how could he say anything, now, with everything his heart is screaming at him getting caught in his throat? - so he doesn’t. Instead he bows to the will of his body and leans his forehead against Dimitri’s cloaked shoulder, relaxing into the broader chest in front of him as something like contentedness washes over him.

Dimitri stiffens, his steps faltering a beat, and then recovers nearly as quickly. His hand holding Byleth’s curls inward, resting their intertwined fingers against his chest next to Byleth’s head, and his other hand - so far chastely resting against Byleth’s ribs - drops down and around to his lower back. Instead of feeling scandalized like he should, Byleth feels warm, and happy, and for the first time in a long time, like he’s come home.

The cold doesn’t matter, then, with the both of them like his. Dimitri slows their dance to a sway after a while, and then they stop moving altogether, simply soaking in each other’s presence. Dimitri’s heartbeat is solid against Byleth’s ear, a rhythmic thudding that nearly puts him to sleep. He feels a chin rest on top of his head, and then a small, barely-there whisper of a kiss against the crown of his head.

It should scare him, how close they are. It nearly does, and after a minute of simply standing, he straightens and allows their limbs to drift apart. He should reprimand Dimitri - should reprimand himself - but at the sight of the prince’s soft, heavy smile, the words get stuck again like so much tar against the back of his tongue.

“Thank you,” Dimitri says again. He sweeps into a low bow, his golden hair catching snowflakes as they come drifting down. He straightens, reaching out to take Byleth’s hand, and kisses his gloved knuckles like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Byleth bows back, not nearly as low or lordly. Dimitri smiles impossibly wider, whatever expression that must be on Byleth’s face convincing him that there is no rejection to fear tonight. 

Before they can well and truly be caught, Dimitri steps away, still holding his hand. He’s taller than Byleth by only a little bit, but right now, with his breath fogging the air in front of him and something like nervous insects crawling underneath his skin, he feels small. Dimitri lowers his head and kisses Byleth’s gloved hand before letting him go, something like longing coloring his expression.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Byleth,” Dimitri says quietly. It isn’t a rejection, but a promise, one Byleth can only nod to. Dimitri smiles, sweet and relaxed, so much more like the young man he really is instead of the beast he saw at Remire. The prince steps around him and sweeps away, back into the ballroom, leaving Byleth alone again to collect his thoughts in the gathering snow.

 

——

 

He watches them from the moment he first spots them, hidden behind a pillar in the dark. 

His son is always so confident, so sure, so expectant of what his next move should be, that to see him falter when the prince holds out his hand for a dance nearly makes him laugh. Byleth has always been a shy boy, if nothing else than because he’s so quiet. But now, faced with the choice of something he’s never encountered before, Jeralt wishes he’d been more receptive to teaching him things a proper young man should know.

Because he’s awful at dancing. He’s stiff as a board, watching his feet more than his partner’s face as the prince leads them around the moonlit courtyard. But the prince doesn’t seem to mind, doesn’t seem to flinch or laugh when inevitably one of Byleth’s feet steps on his after an unexpected move. Instead, the younger boy just smiles, earnest and so hopelessly in love it makes Jeralt’s heart ache.

Byleth has never shown interest in anyone. People flirted after him, tried to woo and buy him for a nice night if that’s what it took (he looked just like his mother, afterall, all beauty and quiet grace). But he’s never taken them up on their offers - not that Jeralt would allow these people within a hundred feet of his son anyway. 

He sees that now, though. A blush riding high on his cheeks, his body relaxing in a way Jeralt hasn’t seen since he was a boy. A dance meant for lovers, for kings and queens, shared between a lovestruck prince and a mercenary from nowhere.

Jeralt watches as the prince kisses Byleth’s hair, his knuckles, gives him a bow grand enough for an emperor. He’s well and truly swept Byleth off his feet if the slack expression on his son’s face is anything to go by, but before anything else can happen, they part. The prince leaves Byleth alone in the courtyard, retreating back to the ball, turning to look back at Byleth when he reaches the double doors even though Byleth can’t see him.

Jeralt wonders, idly, if anyone had watched he and and his wife just like this once upon a time. If they saw the same amount of love in his eyes as he sees in Byleth’s now as his son smiles stupidly to himself, blushing and covering his eyes like he couldn’t believe that just happened to him. He can count on one hand the times he’s seen Byleth really show any expression, and to see it now warms him more  thoroughly than anything ever could.

He lets Byleth go on his own after that. Lets him wander across the courtyard to the path that will lead him far away from noise and prying eyes of the ball. The next day when he finds his son teaching sword practice to his class in the training grounds, there’s a little pink rose tucked in his hair, matching the tint on his and the prince’s cheeks as they spar.

 

 ——

 

She said he couldn’t. That no amount of time travel would change fate. That no matter how hard he tried, he’d only be left exhausted, alone, and an orphan.

He refuses. 

He turns back time. He tries a third time. A fourth. He will not let this happen.

Sothis begs him to stop on the fifth. No. He will not let Solon get away with this. He will not let his father die. He will not watch as the sole reason for his existence peter away like so much rain into dry soil. He can’t, his heart screams, even as it lay unbeating. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t.

The sixth time, he doesn’t aim for Kronya. Not at first. Not to kill. He aims where he knows Solon will be, aims low instead of high, swings the Sword of the Creator around like a whip instead of a lance. It lands, blessedly so, taking with it an arm - taking with it Kronya’s head in the same swing. 

Jeralt whips around, shock on his face at the commotion behind him. Solon wails, dark magic billowing out and around him, like so much fetid smoke, swallowing up the ground around him, swallowing his arm, Kronya, and Jeralt.

He moves without thinking. He runs, ignoring the painful, sucking sensation of the smoke reaching out to grab him, pushing through until he’s close enough to Jeralt and shoves. His father tumbles out of the grasp of the spell just in time for everything around him to be gulped up, and just like that, in the blink of his eyes, he’s alone as the dark swallows him whole.

But he’s not alone, not truly, not like this. Sothis is exhausted from turning back time so frequently before, but she stirs in him, making him sleepy. He closes his eyes and opens them again, and instead of there being nothing but black all around, there’s her throne, high above him, old stone pulsing with a magic he wonders if he’ll ever understand. 

“Do you wish to die?” she asks him, tone more even than he’s ever heard from her.

He thinks of his students, of his father, of flowers and tea and lovestruck dances. “No,” he says, and something stirs in him, wild and untapped before right now.

It’s Sothis, he realizes, even as she stands from her seat in her throne and descends the steps to meet him. “Neither do I,” she says, and reaches out her hand.

Her power surges through him like it hasn’t ever before, invigorating him and burning through his veins like spellfire. She disappears in stardust, vanishing from his chest like a weight lifted from his bones, but he feels deep inside her attachment to his soul. Cradling it in her warm hands, she blows life into him, and with it life into the Sword at his hip. He takes it up and with a mighty yell he rips apart the darkness around him, splitting the sky in two, and steps back out into the world as he left it.

Jeralt, alive and well, with the bodies of Kronya and Solon limp on the grass in front of him. The Lions not too far behind him, rushing to meet them, their yells and cheers heard even from so far away. Byleth looks at his father, at the rain starting to dot his clothes and stain them a darker orange, at his smiling, surprised face, the thin lines that crinkle at the corners of his eyes. He memorizes them like he never had before, and then, as if Sothis herself was the only thing keeping him standing, collapses in exhaustion.

 

——

 

He wakes to a warm hand resting over his heart.

He blinks his eyes open, blurry and disoriented as he is. He doesn’t try to sit up - instead, he merely tries to get his bearings: what day it is, where he is, whose heavy hand rests so tenderly across his sternum in his sleep.

The first answer he doesn’t know, and as the room comes into focus, he recognizes his desk and book collection behind the slumped form of his father in a chair next to his bed. His quarters, his father, and the fluttering in his stomach subsides.

Jeralt is alive. He’s sleeping, snoring quietly, his other arm folded on the arm of the chair so he can rest his cheek in his palm. His hair is in a fresh braid and next to him sits a little folding table with a tray of tea and a half eaten sandwich. Byleth smiles and covers his father’s hand with his own before squeezing, relishing in the solid feel of Jeralt’s fingers before he jolts awake like someone sent a lightning bolt through him.

“Byleth,” Jeralt croaks, his eyes instantly finding Byleth’s as he straightens. He sits on the edge of Byleth’s bed and gathers him up in his arms, crushing him to his chest, a welcome weight that Byleth can’t help but to laugh at. He wraps his arms around Jeralt’s neck and squeezes just as tightly, basking in the warmth of the embrace, thankful to Sothis and all that she’s done for him that his father is alive.

“Don’t you dare do that again,” Jeralt snaps. He pulls away just enough to plant a kiss on Byleth’s forehead - enough for Byleth to feel fresh tears brush against his skin.

“I’m sorry,” Byleth murmurs, but he doesn’t mean it. He’d do it again if he had to. Even Sothis, as fused with his soul as she is, agrees with him.

He realizes after a while of embracing that he’s crying, too, soaking Jeralt’s shirt with hot tears. Jeralt doesn’t seem to mind, and for a long time, they stay like that, clinging to each other as if in any other world they couldn’t. 

 

——

 

“Professor! You’re awake!”

He smiles - they’re coming easier now - at his students gathered around the entrance to their classroom. They’re all smiles, too, pink cheeked and vibrating with excitement. Jeralt nudges him good-naturedly, his own grin coloring his face, and nods for him to meet his students.

They practically dogpile him when he gets close, each vying for a good position to hug him from. Ashe and Annette get to him first, flinging their arms around his neck and kissing his cheeks in unison. Mercedes hugs him from the front while Dimitri hugs around his back, warm and gentle like their first dance. Ingrid drapes herself across Annette, and Sylvain and Felix hug around everyone else, their arms barely able to encircle them all. And like a great big bear, Dedue hugs them all, squeezing them together as if to make them whole.

Byleth can barely breathe with all their arms around him, can barely even muster a laugh as they giggle and hug him tighter. He feels tears prick at the corners of his eyes, but for the first time since he cried when he woke, he doesn’t care who sees. Instead, he rests his head on Mercedes’, relishing in the warmth around him, thankful to powers he still doesn’t understand that everyone is alive and safe. 

“You’re crying,” someone - Annette, he thinks - says after a while. They loosen their grip on him, releasing him and each other from their group hug to all turn and stare at their crying professor. He wipes at his eyes with his gloves, beyond caring, letting his smile burn at his cheeks.

“I’m just happy you’re all safe,” he says, and his voice sounds unfamiliar. It’s weak, and shaky, and clogged with something he’s never felt before. It clings to his every atom, nearly shaking him apart if it weren’t for the lingering hands of his students on his back and shoulders.

“Well, we aren’t going anywhere,” Dimitri says softly. He’s close, a warm presence at Byleth’s back. “We’re just glad you’re safe, too. You had us worried.”

“And your hair!” Ashe exclaims. His thin fingers card through Byleth’s bangs, and through his tears Byleth can see they’re a lighter color - a near-white green instead of a dark teal like it’s always been. He blinks, touching his hair, surprised when other hands start touching it, too.

“Your eyes, too,” Dimitri says, and Byleth turns to look at him. He’s smiling, small and scared, and from somewhere in his uniform he produces a small handheld mirror.

Byleth absorbs his reflection with barely contained shock. His eyes are lighter now too, the same shade as his hair instead of the dull grey blue they’ve always been. It’s like looking at a stranger, but it’s still just him - his hair length is the same, and his eyes haven’t changed much besides their color, either. His pupils are thinner in a weird way that he can’t place, less round like a person’s should, but he doesn’t dwell too long on them. He gives the mirror back with a shaky smile, resigning himself to Sothis’ fusion with him if this is all that will change.

“I don’t look too bad, right?” he says jokingly.

“No!” all his students chorus together. He truly laughs then, the sound unfamiliar to his ears. His students watch in shock before joining in, their joy startled out of them all at once. They hug him again, and this time Jeralt joins in, and for the first time since coming here, there’s nowhere he’d rather be.

 

——

 

But Edelgard has other plans. Apparently she always has, and in the wake of Dimitri’s fury and the rise of the mighty Immaculate One, Byleth sleeps.

 

——

 

“You must wake, Byleth.”

“But I don’t want to.”

“You aren’t a child any longer. I don’t have to hold your hand to get you to do what you must.”

“I’m so tired…”

“As am I, old friend. Now please, before we lose too much more! Get up, you insufferable oaf! Don’t make me do this myself!”

Chapter Text

The first day after the fall of Garreg Mach, he waits.

He’s alone save his horse. The rain beats down, a constant hiss of unrelenting wet and cold, a wall of sound that doesn’t let up even at night. He makes camp in the outskirts of the town below the monastery, using whatever he can scavenge from homes and shops left empty in the rush to escape the Imperial Army. Even they will not venture down in the rain - even they will not go out of their way to ensure victory on such a sad day.

A blessing or a curse, he doesn’t know, but it gives him time. Time to grieve, to cry, to find a remedy for his (already shattered) breaking heart. It’s not long before the ghosts come, staggering in the rain, wounded and tired and just as heartbroken as he is.

He collects them as they come, wrapping blankets around their shoulders and hiding them away under the shelter he built hidden in the trees. First, it’s Mercedes and Annette, cuddling together under Mercedes’ torn shawl, soaked to the bone with blood splattered up their leggings and skirts. Sylvain and Felix limp behind them, a broken arrow sticking out of Felix’s thigh. Jeralt extracts it as quickly as he can, Mercedes’ healing hands following after him while Felix soundlessly grits through the pain, his hands twisted in Sylvain’s shirt. When he’s clean and wrapped up, Jeralt bundles the both of them in blankets, too, and just like that, they’re a sleeping heap of black and red hair on the floor of the tent he hides them in.

Ashe and Ingrid follow them atop their mounts, Ingrid’s Pegasus too tired to fly through the rain. Dedue and Dimitri are not far behind, riding in on the prince’s equally exhausted war horse. The rest of the Lions looked tired, but Dimitri looked especially so, beaten up and beaten down as he was. Jeralt dries them off and wraps them up, too, and for the second and third nights, he doesn’t sleep as he watches over them.

Because they’re his kids, too, now. Byleth wasn’t here anymore to protect them. Byleth wasn’t here at all - and that, over everything, is what makes him cry. 

He watched his son fall. Watched his face crumple in horror, heard him scream as the cliff sunk underneath him. Something inside of him broke at the sight of his son disappearing into the depths of the forest below. Something small, and precious, and so, so sacred. 

After his wife, Byleth had been his everything. He still remembers the day he was born: small and pale and lifeless. He remembers the moment Rhea had taken his dead baby boy and returned him whole and alive - quiet, but alive. He remembers his first steps, his first words, his first fall and his first paper cut. He remembers his baby boy showing nothing on his face when he accidentally tore off a fingernail when he got it caught in a door jam, and he remembers the first time he nearly cried when he came across a dead butterfly. 

He remembers everything, the good and the bad. The first time he came running to hide behind Jeralt’s legs when a horse snorted too loud and scared him, and the first time he smiled when Jeralt came home with his first sword. He remembers his first kill, too, the shocked look on his face when he realized the bandit he’d cut down was really dead. He remembers holding his son tight that night, comforting his tearless sobs as he came to terms with what it meant to be a mercenary.

He remembers his first dance, too. Just a few weeks ago. The blush on his cheeks, the light in his eyes. His first love, and now he wasn’t around for a first kiss, or anything else, anymore.

Perhaps he was a bad father for not trying harder to protect him. Or for leading him down a path full of violence so early - or at all, for that matter. Perhaps he shouldn’t have begged Rhea to save Byleth at all that fateful day he was born, but then he wouldn’t have had such light in his life without him, either.

Whatever choices he made, whatever brought him here instead of anywhere else he could’ve been, he still thinks it’s worth it. He stands guard over Byleth’s kids, feeds them and clothes them and nurtures them where he can. He’ll do this in his son’s absence even if it kills him - even if it brings everything he knows and loves crashing down into dust.

On the fourth day, he gathers up his collection of wounded kids and leads them away from Garreg Mach. Felix, who still can’t walk, he places on a horse, while the girls ride behind him on another. Ingrid’s Pegasus regains her energy, and in a streak of confidence that swells Jeralt’s heart, she flies ahead as a scout for their battered caravan. They pick up others on the way - students from the other two houses and faculty alike, wounded and terrified of what Edelgard had become - and Jeralt scoops them up, too.

They have places to be, of course. Families to return to and lands to protect from the new Emperor reigning supreme in the south. But for now, they travel together, and for a moment, it’s nearly like having Byleth back.

 

——

 

“Has he always been like that?”

Felix’s voice startles him out of his thoughts, jolting him awake from where he’d dozed in his seat at the fire. Jeralt straightens and pokes at the dying embers with a stick, feeding it a couple logs and sighing at the warmth they bring.

“Has who always been like that?” Jeralt asks quietly.

Felix shifts under the weight of Sylvain in their shared hammock, his injured leg sticking out so he could keep it stretched. Despite Sylvain’s considerable weight and height, Felix appears comfortable, bundled as he is in some wool blankets Jeralt found in an abandoned town nearby. He peers out of them at Jeralt with sharp amber eyes, looking at him as if he expects him to read his mind.

“The Professor,” Felix clarifies, and despite his hard eyes, his tone is soft. “Has he always been so… stoic?”

Jeralt snorts. He sinks to the dirt and leans back against the log they’d dragged over to use as a bench, scratching at his cheek. Just the sound of Byleth’s title breaks something in him, something precious. He scrapes up the pieces and finds the words to answer Felix anyway.

“Yeah, for the most part,” he says quietly. He debates on how much to reveal, and settles on not caring what Byleth’s student’s know. It’s about time these poor kids stopped encountering secrets, anyway. “He was born dead, you know. Rhea had to save him with some ritual she wouldn’t let me see.”

Felix’s eyes get comically wide. He nearly sits up, but Sylvain grumbles in protest in his sleep.

“You knew Rhea before? You both did?” Felix hisses.

“Not so surprised on the “dead” thing, huh?” Jeralt snorts.

Felix’s eyes narrow. “It’s not the strangest thing to happen to him.”

“No, I suppose not. But that’s the answer. To your question, I mean.”

“How?” Felix says slowly.

Jeralt thumps his own chest. “No heartbeat. No heart at all - no heart to breathe life into a soul. He has one, somewhere. But it took meeting you guys to bring it out of him, for him to really start to feel.”

Felix’s expression falls into something close to regret or heartbreak. He’s quiet for a while, nothing but the sounds of the forest around them, the fire crackling between them, and Sylvain’s quiet snoring filling the air. It’s obvious he wants to say more, but for the first time since meeting him, he’s holding back from stepping on Jeralt’s toes.

In his own way, Jeralt supposes he’s grieving, too. Byleth left their mark on all of them, and to have him gone, ripped away so suddenly and without fanfare -

“He loved you,” Felix says quietly, breaking the silence around them and shattering something else held close to Jeralt’s heart.

His eyes burn and his chest aches, but he nods anyway. “I know,” Jeralt croaks.

“Every time he spoke of you, it was with fondness,” Felix continues. He won’t look up, his eyes downcast and his fingers playing with Sylvain’s hair. He sounds lost, too, like there’s something underlying his words that he can’t quite bring himself to say. “You should be proud of him, even with what’s happened to him.”

“I am,” Jeralt says. “I am. So much more than you know, kiddo.”

Felix nods. His fingers keep moving, tying little braids in the crop of red hair lying on his chest. Jeralt watches him, watches those calloused fingers thread carefully through Sylvain’s curls until Felix falls asleep again. After that, he’s alone again, sitting in the dark with only the fire to keep him company as he watches over the camp, left wondering what these kids would’ve done without him in the wake of Garreg Mach’s fall.

 

——

 

But it’s Dimitri, out of all of them, that suffers the most.

He has no home to return to, no family to take him up and shelter him from such a massive betrayal. He has his people, and his country, but those wide shoulders can only hold so much before they begin to crumble under such an enormous weight.

So Jeralt keeps an eye on him. He makes sure he eats, and bathes, and keeps him as sane as he can during the fights they inevitably wind up in when the Imperial Army comes nipping at their heels. It’s nearly like caring for Byleth again when he was a teenager, but instead of the blank stares and quiet words he got from his son, he gets bitten out threats and looks that could light coal with just a glance.

But he does it anyway. Dimitri is the first person Byleth fell in love with, and he’ll be damned if he lets the stupid brat fall on his own lance in his crazed attempts at justice.

It’s hard, though, especially when students start slipping away to their families as they travel close. All Jeralt is trying to do is keep them far, far away from Adrestia and Garreg Mach, but that means travelling northeast towards the Alliance. One by one, they drop away, until there’s just the Lions left wondering if they should go home, too. After three weeks on the run, Jeralt turns them around and heads to the Kingdom, aiming to escort each and every one of them personally to their front doorstep.

“We can’t leave you,” Annette says, steely-eyed and determined to stand her ground. For a small girl, she’s got a fire in her, and Jeralt respects that more than blind rage.

“I need you to be safe,” he argues. “ Byleth needs you to be safe. Please, if not for me, than for him.”

It’s a cruel knife he twists, using Byleth like that. They all miss him, all love him and ache for him to return just as much as he does. But it works, and one by one, he finds their families and doesn’t leave until they’re locked up in their big fancy estates with all the Kingdom’s armies barrelling through their lands to protect their borders.

Mercedes and Ashe leave first, and then Annette and Ingrid. Felix and Sylvain leave together, always together, for Felix’s estate further inland where he can recover from his wounds. Jeralt stays a night on his lands, resting in a real bed and eating real food for the first time since before the monastery fell. He promises to come back if nothing else than to show his face, and when he sets out the next morning with the intention of escorting Dimitri and Dedue back to the capital, he finds their tents empty and their horses long gone.

There’s no use in looking. The next week, when Jeralt is gathering the remnants of his mercenaries that had scattered when the Emperor had enacted her revolt, he hears that the crown prince has been killed in a coup attempt on the new ruler of Faergus. For a long time, he doesn’t stop crying, but for Dimitri or Byleth (or both), he will never know.

 

——

 

For five long years, he doesn’t know.

He mourns, and he buries, and he wonders what it might have been like to see his son again. Whole, smiling, wrapping his deceptively strong arms around him again and squeezing. He wonders what it would have been like to attend a royal wedding had this gone differently, to hold his son’s hand and pass him off to a man that would protect him and love him and treat him like the treasure he was. He wonders what it would have been like had Byleth turned around that night at the ball to see Dimitri looking back at him, if he would return to him and kiss him like so many fairy tales had said those nights should’ve ended with.

He wonders what it would have been like for none of this to have happened at all, and for the first time in his long life, he prayed.

 

——

 

“Hey! Stop the boat!”

Rheese stops paddling. He jerks the oars aside, turning to face his sister behind him in the boat with a look of consternation on his face.

“What? What’s wrong?”

Kasey leans over the side of the boat, pointing. “Look! Is that a body?”

Rheese follows her finger with his gaze. The lake is foggy this time of day, the sun setting low along the tops of the trees making visibility bad even in torchlight. But he can see, faintly, something resembling a body bobbing in the dark water, still and serene as if it was dead.

“It better just be a log,” Rheese grumbles. Kasey smacks him on the shoulder.

“Row over there! We have to see if they’re okay!”

“But we still haven’t caught any fish for -“

“Fuck the fish!” Kasey shouts. She drags her pole back into the boat, moving to yank the oars from Rheese’s hands and start paddling herself. “Are you going to help me or not?”

Rheese sighs and plunges the oars into the water. “Fine. If it’s a log, you get to row us to shore and tell dad we didn’t catch anything.”

“Shut up and row, Rheese,” Kasey huffs.

He does, jerking the paddles through the water more aggressively than is probably necessary and most definitely scaring away any fish that might’ve been their dinner. But as they approach the log-body, the anger seeps out of his limbs, replaced only with the cold dread of maybe really finding someone dead in the lake. As they get close and the waves from the boat moving through the water begin to lap at whatever it is, Rheese realizes it really is a body and nearly froze in shock.

“Slow down,” Kasey orders behind him. Her voice brings him back, so he does, jerking one oar forward and another back so the boat turns and slows. Kasey reaches out, extending her arms over the side, her hands catching on black cloth as the boat drifts steadily closer. 

It is a body, dressed in dark robes and subtle armor. Kasey kicks him, spurning Rheese into action, and together they heave it over the lip of the boat, careful not to capsize themselves with the sudden added weight shifting it side to side. The body is cold, but uninjured, and when Kasey flips it over, they both gasp.

“He’s alive!” Kasey shouts. Her voice bounces across the lake, startling ducks from the surface of the water at the bank. Rheese scrambles without a word to get the oars back in the water and, in record time, rows them back to shore while Kasey tries to find a heartbeat.

“I can feel a pulse, but no heartbeat,” she says, tone panicked. Rheese grunts and hauls the boat onto the bank, then hops back in and lowers himself to help her carry the stranger. Kasey gets his head and shoulders, and Rheese gathers the boy’s - man’s? - legs. “Okay. Now lift!”

It takes both of them to get the man inside their little cabin, Rheese shuffling backwards and kicking in the door with a crack. Their father, Garret, startles at the door swinging in, jumping up out of his chair at the sight of a body between his children’s hands.

“What happened out there?” he asks, alarmed. Kasey orders he brother to put the man on her bed in the corner, careful to lay him down gently.

“He’s alive,” Kasey pants.

“We found him in the lake,” Rheese says. “Just floating there.”

Garret ventures closer and places one large, gnarled hand on the man’s cheek. He’s breathing, even and deep, as if in a slumber he cannot wake from. His near-white hair sticks to his face in drying curls, and his clothes don’t appear to be worn or ripped from a fall.

He’s beautiful, Kasey thinks, in an odd, ethereal kind of way. He kind of looks like a sleeping prince, waiting for a true love to come and wake him from a curse.

“Do you think the Imperial Army is nearby?” Rheese asks quietly, as if the mere mention of their name would summon them. “Is this a casualty from a battle?”

Their father grimaces. “No. He’s armed, but there isn’t a scratch on him, and there hasn’t been any soldiers at Garreg Mach since -“

Suddenly, the man coughs, hard and painful. He doubles over himself and curls on his side, retching up water onto the floor - Kasey reacts on instinct and leans down to keep his damp hair out of his face as he does. His breathing is ragged when he finishes, but he sits up anyway, his piercing green eyes flicking between the three people huddled around him with confusion written clearly on his fair features.

“Where am I,” he asks flatly, less a question than a statement. His voice is rough from coughing, but it’s a pleasing sound despite it. Kasey stutters and takes her hands away from his face when he pointedly leans away from her.

“Just a little village near Garreg Mach,” she says quietly so as not to startle him. “Were you injured in a battle? We found you floating in the lake. You were breathing, but your heartbeat -“

“Garreg Mach?” he interrupts. “The monastery is nearby?”

“Y-yeah. But the Imperials -“

The man gets up and makes for the door on wobbly feet. He leans on the door jam for a moment, getting his bearings as he stares outside, and then he disappears out into the night. Rheese, Kasey, and Garret follow him, but instead of finding a collapsed stranger in their front garden, there’s a mighty dragon, its great feathered wings stretching out into the air.

“Goddess,” Garret whispers. 

Kasey can’t breathe, every word and thought stuck behind her tongue. The dragon is gorgeous, with white scales that glimmer in the moonlight and six powerful legs, digging into the loamy earth as if testing their strength. Its long neck stretches up towards the stars, twisting around its great horned head, slender snout sniffing at the air. And then, in one great beat of its four wings, it sets off into the sky, its feathered tail steering it up into the night and around towards the monastery in the mountains. Kasey watches with her family, transfixed to the spot, as the dragon goes from a bird-like shape in the sky to a star amongst the stars in the heavens.

 

——

 

Transforming is tiring , he first thinks, and collapses on six feet when he finally gets to Garreg Mach after an hour of flying. Sothis, fused with his soul as she is, murmurs her agreement, exhausted from expending so much energy in keeping his form after waking. 

His claws scrape against the stone of the marketplace - or, what was the marketplace. It’s in shambles now, as is much of the monastery as he ambles through to the fish pond and the dorms. At some point - he doesn’t remember when - he’s walking on two feet instead of six, feeling less tired than he had when transformed. He moves along all the same, his heart twisting and breaking with every shattered wall he passes, every broken door, every rotted corpse left unceremoniously where they’d been cut down.

Bandits and Imperials alike litter the grounds, growing in number as Byleth climbs the stairs to the Goddess Tower. He doesn’t know what brings him here - Sothis’ will or something else entirely - but he feels dread settle cold and uneasy in his gut as he does. As he climbs, the bodies get fresher, and when he hits the top floor, the sound of his boots resounding in the round room, he sees why this feeling has settled within him so easily.

It’s obvious he’s been away for a long time, but now he sees what that stretch of time has done to something more than just a monastery. The eye that glares at him from the dark is a familiar clear blue, filled with anger and hatred and fear that is too dear to his heart. He steps closer, careful to close the distance, and the boy - no, a man - watches him, wary, the fist wrapped around his spear growing tighter and tighter with each timid step.

“I should have known you would have come to haunt me,” Dimitri says, and it is Dimitri, he’d know that voice anywhere. Byleth falls to his knees in front of him, stretching out his hand, wishing through his breaking heart that he can quell the rage he sees pushing down those once-proud shoulders.

“I’m real,” is all Byleth can say. His voice sounds foreign, sad and broken all at once. Dimitri flinches, and in one clear moment, he’s the sweet young man he danced with so long ago.

“I missed you,” Dimitri whimpers. He takes Byleth’s hand, tentative in the way he grasps at his fingers. “Why did you leave me?”

“I’m so sorry,” Byleth whispers. He squeezes Dimitri’s hand, so much bigger than he remembers it being. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. It was just a -“

“Why did you leave me!” Dimitri shouts, and just like that, the young man is gone. He is an all powerful force now, hatred and revenge wrapped up in one tall, imposing body. He wrenches himself away from the floor and nearly topples Byleth over in his rage, his blood-encrusted spear coming dangerously close to parting Byleth’s head from his body. 

But instead of retreating in fear, Byleth stays kneeling, his hands raised halfway to surrender. He doesn’t move as the blade of Dimitri’s lance shakes against his neck, doesn’t dare breathe too hard as he looks up into that eye and sees nothing of the man of his past.

Dimitri huffs at his silence. He swings his blade away, his cloak billowing behind him as he steps away towards the stairs. “I’m going to rid this place of an infestation,” he says instead. “If you are to be of any use to me, you will come and aid me in my extermination.”

Byleth feels something in his soul crush and die. He gets up, his limbs feeling heavy, the Sword of the Creator swinging numbly at his hip, and follows Dimitri through his bloodshed to the town below Garreg Mach. He fights, and he kills, and turns himself off as he does. This is not his body. This is not who he is. This is not -

 

——

 

“Professor!”

Voices. The kids’ voices. He whips around, spurring his horse to meet Sylvain’s as the lancer cuts down another bandit hauling an armful of trinkets looted from the town.

“What’s going on?” Jeralt asks, unafraid to show the panic in his voice. Sylvain grunts and pulls his lance from the body he just cut down, wheeling his horse sideways for Felix to climb on behind him in the same movement.

“The Professor,” Felix answers instead. His eyes are frantic as they meet Jeralt’s. “He’s down in the field, with Dimitri. He’s alive, Jeralt!”

Jeralt’s world spins. He grips the reins harder in his fists, trying his best to rein in his breathing as well. He wants to see for himself, wants to confirm what Ashe and Mercedes’ shouts are telling him as they continue to yell down from their entrenched positions on a broken battlement. But he still has these brats to protect, and instead of charging through, he matches the gait of Sylvain’s horse as they march to the front line.

Sylvain and Felix look at him in confusion, but don’t comment. The rest of the Lions fall in behind them save Ingrid, who flies high above them, picking off stragglers on their side of town with well-aimed javelins.

He will not abandon them now. Not even for his son - especially for his son. If Byleth is alive, he needs to see that all his kids are alive and well, too.

“When you find Dimitri, protect him from the worst of the bandits,” Jeralt orders. Felix snorts beside him, but Sylvain nods, a tight smile alighting his features.

“You got it, Captain,” he says. He spurs his horse on and in a cloud of dust, he’s off. 

Ashe and Annette move up in his wake, bow and axe at the ready. Jeralt hauls Mercedes up behind him so she can cast spells as they move, and as a unit, they advance together, following the desolate sounds of bandits being cut down by sword and lance ahead. The abandoned buildings of the town make it hard to determine a direction, but Jeralt pushes on anyway, willing himself to find his son even if it takes them all night of searching.

In the end, he should’ve known it was easier than he’d thought.

They round the corner of a thoroughfare and end up in a town plaza of sorts, nothing more than a dirt square now that time has taken its toll on what was probably a bustling center of activity. The last bastion of thieves are squaring off here against a familiar flash of blue and black, losing despite having the advantage in numbers against the crazed prince. However, in the light of the moon, Jeralt spots a familiar flash of green in the fray, and his heart nearly stops.

“With the Prince!” he shouts, hoping his voice carries over the scrape of metal on metal to Sylvain and Felix ahead of them. His order seems to work, and with a spur of his horse, Sylvain is diving into the mess of bodies, pinching the bandits in from behind. Felix, ever the daredevil, leaps off the back of Sylvain’s horse with his sword drawn, cutting down three unfortunate souls in a single swipe.

Byleth would be proud, Jeralt thinks, and spurs his horse to join the battle.

With the Lions regrouped, the last of the bandits don’t stand a chance. When the dust clears and the last body is left to fall, Jeralt slips off his horse and sprints right for the familiar shape of black and green standing next to Dimitri, uncaring of the startled yelp his son gives out when he crushes him to his chest in a hug.

After a moment of hesitation, Byleth’s arms are around him, squeezing him back just as tightly. He feels more than he hears his son laugh, a relieved, aching thing that rattles up his chest in spurts. Jeralt picks him up, unwilling to let go, and feels like his boy is just a kid again, all gangly limbs and untapped strength as Byleth turns his face and plants a kiss to his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” Byleth says, his voice flat but thick with something he’s keeping shoved down. Jeralt shakes his head and sets him down, leaning back just enough to look at his face.

He looks just like he did five years ago, his hair the same length as it had been and his clothes damp but clean. He doesn't look a day over twenty, and despite having him back in his arms again, dread settles deep in Jeralt’s chest like a rock sunk to the bottom of a gurgling stream.

Later, he tells himself, as Byleth quirks a brow and stares. There’s unshed tears in his eyes, his cheeks a blotchy red, so Jeralt reaches up and wipes them away.

The Lions encircle them then, much like they did five years ago when Byleth awoke from collapsing. They’re older, wiser, sadder than they were back then, but they bring Byleth into their arms just the same, hugging him just as tightly as he tried to hug them.

“You’re all so tall,” Byleth laughs, happy and startled all at once. Mercedes cards a careful hand through his hair, now near eye level with him where she’d barely stood at his chin so long ago.

“It’s been a little while since we’ve seen you,” she says quietly. Byleth blinks, twisting to look at all of their smiling faces, craning his neck to look at Sylvain in particular. He glances to Jeralt then, a question in his eyes, and Jeralt resigns himself to being the bearer of bad news for a very long time.

“You’ve been gone for five years, kiddo,” he says as kindly as he can. “We couldn’t find you after the battle at Garreg Mach. So for five years we’ve just been…”

“Fighting,” Ashe finishes forlornly. He grips Byleth’s sleeve even as his former professor blanches at the information being told to him. “We’re so sorry, Professor.”

Byleth nods, his eyes going dull and tired. He doesn’t speak, merely turning to get a proper look at his students circled before him. He looks at Mercedes and Annette, who’ve grown to be beautiful, proper women in his absence, powerful in their own right while still retaining the grace that came with being magic users. At Ingrid, at her shining armor and the Pegasus standing proudly behind her, the spitting image of a knight she so desperately wanted to become when she was younger. Sylvain, so much taller than he was as a young man, no longer too-long limbs and over-styled hair but a man now, confident in himself and his ability to lead rather than the crest he bears under his skin. Felix, too, having kept his slender frame but also gotten stronger, faster, and more capable as a swordsman like he wanted, but kind in the eyes, too, like he was too tired to be properly angry with the world like he’d been as a teenager.

And Dimitri. Dimitri, who stands far off behind the group, a lurking shadow of black armor and sulking shoulders, glaring at them with one crazed blue eye like they were the ones responsible for his sins. Byleth lingers on him longer than the others, his gaze tired and heartbroken, never truly leaving the eye-patch that now covered his other eye. 

He doesn’t speak, not even to comment on the absence of Dedue. Maybe that, most of all, hurts more than anything he could say. That, more than anything, is what crumples the last of Jeralt’s waning resolve.

“Come,” he urges. Byleth flinches, his eyes skipping away to the bloodied dirt under their boots. “Let’s go to Garreg Mach. With these bandits out of the way, we can set up camp there in relative peace.”

Everyone hesitates, hanging not on his word anymore but on Byleth’s now that he’s returned. Byleth nods once, and without hesitation, the Lions move, Jeralt included. They scramble to get organized so that Byleth doesn’t have to do it for them, and in the wake of having nothing to do, his son wordlessly climbs atop Jeralt’s horse and waits.

Jeralt follows him, careful not to kick him as he swings his leg around. Byleth’s arms snake around his middle, his forehead hitting Jeralt’s back without a sound. He sits there, unmoving, soaking in Jeralt’s warmth like a sponge, no doubt battling with what it means to have lost five years without realizing it.

 

——

 

It doesn’t take much for Jeralt to coax him somewhere secluded and alone. With a revelation such as that, he supposes it wouldn’t take much at all. 

“Here,” Jeralt says. He pulls out the chair behind Byleth’s old desk, his weathered hands curling into its back. Byleth sits down, feeling dazed, as Jeralt comes around and kneels in front of him.

He’s never seen his father look more lost than he does right now. He can’t properly meet Byleth’s eyes, staring at his cheek or over his shoulder, his hands unsure of where to rest. He settles them after a moment of fidgeting, one gripping Byleth’s knee with the other he holds palm up in Byleth’s lap.

“There’s some things I need to tell you,” Jeralt starts. Byleth takes his hand - he feels like he’d float away if he didn’t. “I want you to know that I kept these things from you because I wanted to keep you safe. Safe from outsiders, and safe from Rhea.”

Byleth feels his brow twist in confusion. “Rhea?”

“You know I told you to be careful around her?”

“Yes,” Byleth says slowly. 

“She’s the reason why you’re alive,” Jeralt says. He pokes a gentle finger into Byleth’s chest, something sad crossing behind his eyes. “There’s a crest stone in here instead of a heart. It was the only way to save you when you were born.”

It’s as if his world has been taken up in unsteady hands and tilted sideways he feels so dizzy. He blearily raises his hand and presses his palm where Jeralt’s finger had been, feeling for the first time nothing beating against his sternum. He can’t remember the last time he’d done this - can’t remember anything of his past at all - and feels as if he isn’t caught, he’ll be swept away in the panic he feels racing under his skin.

Jeralt - ever perceptive to him even when he betrays nothing - takes the hand he has pressed to his chest and gently pries it away. “It was the only way to save you,” he says, quiet and broken. “I didn’t know she’d done it until a while later, but it was the only way. Your mother did it to save you.”

There is no anger in his words, no regret or accusation. Only love, for his son and for his long-dead wife. Only understanding for what’s been done to Byleth and the consequences it had on him. 

“So I’m dead,” Byleth hears himself say.

Jeralt nods. “In a way.”

“And my memory. Why I can’t remember anything when I was growing up?”

“It’s different, but they’re connected.” Jeralt takes a deep breath, and with the air of someone about to reveal something monstrous, continues. “Rhea had a crest stone that matched the Sword of the Creator. It, along with your mother’s crest, saved you. But the stone…”

Everything clicks. Like a sword finding a nick in an enemy blade or a strategy panning out with dangerous efficiency, it clicks. The memory loss, the dreams, the sword, Sothis, the transformation —

You and I were always meant to be, Sothis says sadly. But Seiros shouldn’t have hidden it. You didn’t deserve such a burden. You didn’t deserve to suffer.

“I’m this way because of the stone,” Byleth says flatly.

This way. Broken. Detached. Only capable of being a weapon, and even then —

“You’re my son,” Jeralt says instead. “And that stone saved you. It brought you back, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Something in him breaks, ringing out in the emptiness of his chest, the quiet of a cavernous space without a heartbeat. He slides his arms around Jeralt’s shoulders and hugs him as tightly as he can, holding those words close, the sad expression on his face, the tears he saw glittering in eyes so far left dry. He’s broken and his father loves him anyway, and that is more than any reconciliation he could ask from the woman who ruined him.

“I transformed into a dragon,” he blurts through his own tears. Jeralt startles, leaning back with surprise written plain on his face. He looks Byleth up and down like something new, something foreign, but not dirty or disgusting.

“It’s Sothis that lets me do it,” Byleth continues. “The stone - it has her inside of it. She’s the girl from my dreams.”

Jeralt’s expression clears. He understands, even a little but, what all of this means.

And then a grin splits his face, good-natured and so much like him it makes Byleth’s nonexistent heart ache.

“I’m not going to call you a Goddess,” he says, “no matter how pretty that hair makes you.”

A laugh startles up Byleth’s throat, which makes Jeralt laugh, too. They hug again, chasing away five years of guilt and remorse. They join the others in the light of a new day, and in the rising sun, Byleth finds the heat necessary to forge his will to move forward.

 

——

 

It’s strange, still, navigating a place that - to him - was clean and pristine just yesterday.

It’s stranger still getting used to familiar faces that have grown unfamiliar, even as they smile and still call him Professor.

And they do. They missed him, as evidenced in how they rarely leave him alone. Annette walks with him to breakfast every morning, and Mercedes and Ingrid meet him shortly after to accompany him on his daily rounds through the monastery. Ashe is eager to talk tactics with him, spending hours in the library and the archer’s fields alike, his excited chatter no less endearing than it had been long ago. Felix and Sylvain, now more inseparable than they were before, are eager sparring partners, helping him learn new strategy against the strength they’ve gained over the five years they’ve grown.

Their bonds have grown, too, Byleth notices, and it makes his heart swell. Five years of war has worn them down and built them up, and to see them laugh and smile and support each other in such bleak times heals him in wondrous ways. Annette and Mercedes are so gentle with each other, taking walks together and finding excitement in whatever the other is doing. Sylvain has outgrown his penchant for skirt chasing, his fingers wound around Felix’s more often than his lance, with Felix’s prickly demeanor melting away under Sylvain’s attention. Ingrid has found her inner peace with her childhood friends, too, no longer their babysitter and now a proper friend as they take part in heated debates over meals together. And Ashe, heartbroken as he is over Dedue, doesn’t let his smile fall because of it, finding strength in the others where before all Byleth saw was a lost boy atop his horse, holding the fate of the world in his trembling hands.

They’ve been broken and grown from it, and as much as he wanted to be there, he sees now that he needn’t of worried. Not now, and not ever.

Except for Dimitri.

Where once there’d been only a shadow of what was to come hanging over him, now he is nothing but that shadow, cloaked in fear and revenge and bloodlust as he stalks the halls. He mutters more to himself than to anyone else, his words clipped and drawn with pain, every uttered grievance aired to no one but the ghosts that follow him. For a time, it’s all he does, even as those around him attempt to console him. After a while, they fall away, leaving only Byleth to stand by his side and listen to his confessions.

Because he refuses to abandon him, even now. He refuses to leave him and let the chasm between them grow bigger. Enough time has passed where he couldn’t be there to protect him - that changes, right here and right now.

The first week passes in silence. Byleth can’t find the words to quantify how he feels, to describe the ache in his soul at how Dimitri is more animal than man. He can’t even bring himself to apologize, not again when he was so callously tossed aside before. So he waits in their downtime after everyone else has been checked on, when meals have been shared and hearts have been mended. He waits, wondering if his own will ever return to be healed, too.

The second and third weeks are much the same. The fourth, they must march to protect Garreg Mach from Imperials, which only seems to spur Dimitri’s muttering. When the monastery has been secured, he returns to his pacing in the cathedral, a hasty back and forth with those that haunt his every step.

It’s heartbreaking. He wants to help, wants to use whatever he can to bring the Dimitri he knew back to the surface, but like all the others, time has changed him. He is who is because of his past, and no matter how much Byleth wishes it, there is nothing he can do to spin back time.

He is alone, well and truly, in this guardianship. Sothis weeps for him, deep in their intertwined souls, crying for a loss so profound it leaves them both speechless.

 

——

 

“Why do you wait for me to change?”

He knows, somehow, the question is meant for him. Maybe it’s the tone of Dimitri’s voice, or how it carries across the cathedral more than his crazed whispering normally does. 

Whatever it is, it makes him sit up in the pew he’d been slumped in. He blinks away the sleep from his eyes and tries to find the words that won’t make Dimitri angry.

“I know you’re in there,” he says. His voice sounds strange, thick with tiredness. “You’ve always been. This is just… a temporary state.”

Dimitri scoffs. He’s looming in the light of the moon spilling in from the caved-in ceiling of the cathedral, waiting just at the edge of the light where its darkest. Byleth can’t see his down-turned face as he stares at his feet, the fur of the pelt hanging over his shoulders obscuring much of his head except a ring of gold the light catches. 

“You’re a fool,” is all he growls. Byleth stands and ventures closer, willing himself to be brave enough to stand next to Dimitri. Instead of getting his head bitten off, Dimitri allows it, albeit with several feet between them.

“I meant what I said,” Byleth says instead, ignoring Dimitri’s snide remark. “In the Goddess Tower. I’m sorry, Dimitri. I don’t know how to make it up to you.”

“You could leave me alone,” Dimitri rumbles.

“No. I can’t. Not anymore.”

Dimitri doesn’t respond, either out of hatred or simply because he doesn’t hear him anymore. Byleth stands on the edge of the moonlight falling down on the cracked and broken cathedral floor, staring down instead of up, tracing the seemingly random patterns time has carved in the once-pristine illuminated floors. This was a place of holy worship, once, a place parishioners could go to vent their prayers and sins - now it stands empty to even monks and nuns, devoid of all holy voices except his own.

“I loved you,” he says quietly. It bounces inside of him before rebounding out into the church, echoing back like some sad confession. Dimitri doesn’t respond, so Byleth steps back, away from the light of the moon showing her full face. He retreats to his pew and site, reclining back like he had before being woken, and closes his eyes.

 

——

 

If he’d kept them open, he’d seen Dimitri turn to face him, innocent confusion writ plainly on his once-noble features. He’d see pain in that glistening eye, and heartache, and an apology - but most of all he’d see love and regret, as if watching all his hopes and dreams be written in the stars only for the Goddess to swipe them away. 

He’d see, for the first time, the bleeding soul kept hidden in Dimitri’s broken ribs. But instead he closes his eyes and sees nothing, and Dimitri turns back around, the voices inside his head whispering their lies until they’re hoarse.

 

——

 

The join with Rodrigue’s forces - more than a token brigade or two he was expecting. It bolsters their numbers and resolve alike, but instead of throwing that spear where it’s needed most - at the Kingdom’s capitol - Dimitri wrenches it away in his wicked hands and points it south.

“He’s crazy,” is all Felix says, and for the first time in a long time, Byleth snorts.

“It’s still a strategic point of interest, Fe,” Sylvain tries. “Even if it weren’t in Imperial territory, it’s a stronghold, and we need those now that we have more soldiers.”

“He’s going to get us killed,” Felix hisses.

“There’s not much we can do,” Ashe says, ever the voice of reason. “We can’t move north without his say so - we may be Kingdom citizens, but we can’t take the capitol without him. And moving east is a no-go without knowing Claude’s intentions with the Alliance. So the bridge…”

“Is all we’ve got,” Byleth sighs. He rubs his eyes, resigning himself to a long ride for a maybe-victory. “Let’s just pack enough supplies to make a retreat - we don’t know what we’ll encounter there, but we know it won’t just be a couple soldiers holding that bridge. That’s our only way into the Empire that’ll take us straight to Enbarr, and Edelgard knows it. We’ll be ready when we arrive.”

“You got it, Professor,” Ashe says. 

“If I die because of this, I’ll haunt you to your grave,” Felix sneers. Sylvain follows him out of the war room, throwing an uneasy grin over his shoulder at the others. Ashe gives Byleth a sympathetic look.

“He doesn’t mean it,” the archer says quietly. 

Byleth knows. Rodrigue makes things tense, but they can’t afford to throw away allies. They’ve barely had the manpower to defend the monastery - now that they have men, they need to push forward, even if it’s in the opposite direction. Enbarr is not where they need to march. Faergus is, and Byleth wonders if they’ll ever get through to Dimitri so he knows that.

He and Ashe adjourn the war meeting and spend the rest of the day drawing up strategy plans. It’s comforting being around his former student, his voice soft and his words kind. He enjoys being around all the Lions, but Ashe soothes his sleep-deprived nerves in such a way that he doesn’t feel judges for making mistakes. Instead, Ashe corrects him silently, and when the day is done, he slips away to the cathedral.

Or he would have, had his father not slipped out of the shadows of a building and scared him witless.

Jeralt laughs, more out of habit than finding Byleth’s annoyed expression funny. “Sorry, kiddo. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“We always meet like this,” Byleth says tonelessly. He accepts Jeralt’s hug around his shoulders anyway, his pace slowing so they may walk together like that. 

“Ah, I try and stay out of your way. You’re always so absorbed with the kids - it doesn’t seem fair to drag you away.”

Byleth’s annoyance withers away, replaced with guilt that buzzes uncomfortably in his stomach. “I don’t mean to ignore you. I’m sorry.”

Jeralt shrugs. “Don’t apologize,” he says, and his tone is genuine. “If I had a group of students as dedicated as yours, I wouldn’t want to leave them, too.” 

The air changes between them, inexplicable but there. Byleth stops walking, staring at his father as Jeralt takes a few steps ahead and turns around to face him, hands on his hips in the stereotypical we need to talk pose parents tend to fall into when something’s on their mind.

Byleth feels his stomach twist. “What is it?” he asks, and Jeralt meets his eyes with something like pain pinching his face.

“You can’t keep waiting for him,” he says quietly. There is no question who he is. “What’s been done to him, what he’s done to himself - that kind of pain doesn’t just go away.”

Byleth feels himself bristle. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve been gone for too long, abandoned him for too long. He needs someone there, even if he doesn’t want it.”

“He’s not who he was, Byleth. He isn’t that boy at the ball anymore.”

“He’s in there somewhere,” Byleth snaps, quick and brutal. Had Jeralt been there that night when they danced? Had he seen what Byleth had become - a young man just as Dimitri was, not much older and not much wiser when it came to love? It hurts him to think that he was, that he’d seen what had been a private little moment of weakness, and to twist it —

“He’s in there,” Byleth repeats, the anger draining out of him like a broken hourglass. It feels like sand as it grates him through, leaving him hollow and heartbroken. “I refuse to believe that this is what he’s always been. He’s had everything taken from him, and maybe this is just how he copes.”

Jeralt steps closer, his hands finding Byleth’s shoulders and squeezing. “You can’t save him, kiddo. He’s beyond even a beast.”

Byleth jerks away from him. “Don’t call him that.”

“Byleth —“ 

“No,” he snaps. He can’t meet Jeralt’s eyes, can’t bring himself to see the pain and regret written on his father’s features. Can’t face the fact that he put them there. “No. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He stalks away, past the crumbling Academy and across the bridge to the cathedral. Dimitri is there now, having left the briefing the Lions gave him about their imminent march to the Great Bridge. It’s not quite dark, leaving Dimitri more in light than shadow this evening, and as the few brave souls that have come here to pray leave, Byleth stays, collapsing into his frequented pew and resuming his watch over this wayward soul.

Jeralt doesn’t follow him. He wishes, deep down, that he had, so that he had someone to share his quiet tears with instead of the hollow silence of the cathedral and the hushed muttering of his broken heart.

 

——

 

Dedue returns. The Lions are whole again. Dimitri, for just a moment, is himself again, and Byleth finds hope in that.

Ashe is whole, too, more than the rest of them. It’s been five long years of thinking him dead, and to see him return, scarred but alive, brings the archer to tears. They embrace for a long time, simply holding each other and whispering things not meant for anyone else’s ears. So the Lions leave them, splitting off in their couples as they are wont to do.

Except Byleth. Except Dimitri. Byleth wonders if he was always meant to be this way, broken and alone, his only constant a Goddess in his heart and his father by his side.

 

——

 

After the Great Bridge, when word spread of their victory and of the King’s return, they start to come. Familiar faces, from all over the continent, ghosts that haunt Byleth’s dreams even when he’s awake.

They don’t arrive all at once. But even former students of the Black Eagles, some who had sworn fealty to Edelgard in the wake of her betrayal, appearing in the ranks of familiar faces as well. Caspar, Raphael, Ignatz, Ferdinand, Lorenz - all of them appear in the first week. The second, Lysithea, Marianne, Leonie, Linhardt, Dorothea. Bernadetta, Petra, Hanneman, and Manuela return as well, and with the church staff that had followed Gilbert in the five year war, it’s nearly like being at the Academy again.

There’s life in these crumbling walls that hadn’t been there before, laughter and smiles and reunions alike. Byleth is received with hugs and handshakes, and he receives them in kind. He missed them, every single one of them, even as it hurts to see them so war torn and lost.

“We came to help,” Lysithea says. The rest of her former house, all so tall and tired, nod behind her. “We couldn’t leave you to fight this alone.”

“We won’t allow our former house leader to destroy what we’ve fought so hard to protect,” Caspar says. His house agrees, and for the first time since he woke, Byleth believes they can win this. 

 

——

 

And then they return to Gronder field. 

A place that holds such precious memories, of innocent rivalry and hard-earned victory. Claude lets them win, lets his former housemates fight for the Kingdom instead of himself, does not call to arms their loyalty like Edelgard does to her house. In the end, it’s moot. 

They lose anyway.

 

——

 

“Do you remember what I said? A few months ago?”

He’s used to Dimitri not responding. He’s taken to rambling on his own, now, getting used to the ebb and flow of his voice as it bounces around the cathedral. Dimitri ignores him for his own whispering, always awake, always suffering. Byleth likes to think that he isn’t so restless when he speaks, when he has someone else there to hear his soul weep.

He’s to it being a one-sided conversation, but this time Dimitri turns around. Something like recognition colors his lone eye, drawing away the thunderstorms so often clouding his once-clear expression. He peers back at Byleth through his hair, going unnaturally still as he listens instead of rambles.

“Do you remember?” Byleth asks again.

Dimitri shakes his head. 

“I loved you,” Byleth says. “But I think I was wrong.”

Dimitri doesn’t speak. He doesn’t move, a statue in the moon’s shadow. He doesn’t urge Byleth on, but he doesn’t hiss for him to shut up, either, so Byleth presses on.

“Do you want to know what I was wrong about?”

At this, Dimitri nods. “Yes,” he croaks, his voice nearly like it’s been so long ago, pleading and curious and afraid all the same.

“I loved you, but that isn’t right. I love you, even if you won’t let me. I just,” Byleth stops, his courage and his words running dry. “I just — wanted you to know,” he finishes lamely.

Instead of turning away and spitting out some insults in disgust, Dimitri is still, watching him from under his bangs. It’s the first time Byleth has seen him stand so still since waking from his deep slumber, and it’s eerie. Dimitri is supposed to be all jerky movements and hastened pacing, not careful consideration and dawning understanding. He is not capable of doing or feeling such things, even as it hurts him to think so.

“Do you mean it?” Dimitri asks after a while. His voice is small, barely a whisper shared between two strangers in a church. Byleth nods, and watches as the vindication melts away.

“Thank you,” he says weakly. “Thank you, even though you should find someone else. Thank you for this gift you’ve given.”

He doesn’t say anything after that. He watches as Byleth gets up from his pew and approaches him, wary eye roaming him up and down, studying weakness and strategy written into his body. He will find none, either born of forethought or chance opportunity. He will see just a man, as Byleth has always been, and always will be.

For eternity, a voice says. Byleth reaches out past his shattering heart and takes a chance on that, too.

They march for Gronder soon, but for now, they have this: Byleth’s hand over an armored heart, and a prince leaning down to close the distance.

 

——

 

He finds Jeralt where he expects to find him. They have their habits, even after all this time. It’s comforting to know that no matter how much time has passed, there are still some things that haven’t changed.

Jeralt blinks up at him, turning slightly from where he’s been leaning against the buttress lining the graveyard. Byleth holds up a hand to stop him from leaning away, instead moving to stand next to him as the cool evening breeze sweeps between them.

“How’s Felix?” Jeralt asks. A greeting all the same, but there’s genuine worry there, too.

Byleth winces. Felix has been strong, holding fast to his armored heart even as the cracks grew too big to be filled on the ride back from Gronder. There hadn’t been words, not for the loss he now carried in his heaving chest, not for the emptiness he must feel knowing the home he returns to will be empty. He’d disappeared with Sylvain as soon as they’d passed onto monastery grounds, and Byleth hopes they find some healing.

“With someone who loves him,” is all Byleth can say. They both know Felix isn’t alright. No sense in trotting around the obvious.

Not now, anyway. Not when there’s too much to say. 

“I wanted to tell you something,” Byleth says after a while. Jeralt hums, bumping their elbows before he leans over the buttress again.

“Shoot,” Jeralt says.

“I can turn back time.”

His father jolts upright again, turning blinking, startled eyes on him as his mouth gapes. “You what?” Jeralt nearly hisses, his tone rising in pitch in surprise.

Byleth swallows the thick anxiety in his throat and presses on, unwavering as he meets Jeralt’s eyes. “The day Monica attacked you, in the old cathedral ruins? I had to turn back time to save you. You were going to die.”

Jeralt blinks at him. “I died?”

Byleth finds it hard to suddenly speak, so he just nods.

“Well, you said you can transform into a dragon, too,” Jeralt says slowly, as if everything is starting to click into place. He looks back at Byleth with a calmer expression, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “Why tell me, kid?”

This, he can answer. “Because I wanted to turn everything back, before this war and before I went to sleep. When you told me I shouldn’t wait for Dimitri, all I wanted to do was turn back time to a place where I wouldn’t have to. At least for a moment.”

“Would it have been worth it?”

So perceptive. 

“No.”

So heartrending, too.

Jeralt leans away from the buttress and finally, as if closing a great gap between them, takes Byleth under his arm in a hug. The painful heat that’s been building behind his eyes finally breaks, so he hides his face in Jeralt’s tunic, hoping he won’t notice his tears as they soak through.

Naturally, he does. His father winds his other arm around him, bringing him close and hugging him properly. Byleth feels more than he commands his own arms return the embrace.

“What’s this really about, kiddo?” Jeralt asks softly.

He can’t answer. He can’t begin to quantify the fear he has building in his gut, the twisting, evil thing inside him that wants to throw everything away and run as far away as he can. He can’t say that when he saw Rodrigue fall, all he saw was Jeralt being stabbed over and over as the rain began to fall, a casualty he couldn’t prevent, fate holding fast to his grip on time.

He can’t say that as he saw Felix retreat to finally weep, all he saw was himself. He mourns for Felix, for what he’s lost and what he will have to rebuild once this over, but in those amber eyes fighting back tears, he saw himself.

Jeralt, inexplicably, knows. He knows as he always does - of years of reading micro expressions in someone who rarely has any. He strokes Byleth’s hair, leaning his cheek on the crown of his head.

“Don’t worry about me,” Jeralt says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

He wants to believe. He nods, moving that belief into existence, hoping against hope that what they have to do next will not destroy them. Jeralt doesn’t let go of him for a long time, and that, more than anything, is comfort enough to know that they won’t be.

 

——

 

The next day, it rains. Byleth, on a walk to the Knight’s training grounds, finds Dimitri lurking near the awning of the stables as he barely conceals himself under it, getting himself soaked.

“You shouldn’t stand in the rain,” he calls. Dimitri whips around, but instead of he being startled, it is Byleth. No longer are there bags under Dimitri’s eye, nor is his face drawn with the pain that comes with being haunted by voices only he can hear. He looks near enough to the future King he is going to be, and that more than anything nearly has Byleth tripping over his feet.

“Leave,” is all Dimitri says. His voice is broken, but not by his past. Byleth suddenly understands, and before Dimitri can wrench open one of the horse stalls, Byleth jumps in front of him, slamming the door shut with a palm.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Dimitri’s expression twitches. “ Leave ,” he hisses.

Byleth grimaces. Dimitri is taller than him, much taller than before, and while it’s obvious he’s holding back his anger, Byleth is one misstep away from facing its full force. But he understands, now, and he refuses to let Dimitri go.

“You’re going to Enbarr,” Byleth says evenly. 

“I’m giving you one final warning,” Dimitri growls.

“You have to know this won’t appease them. Your father, your stepmother, Glenn. You have to know that it is you that is suffering, not them.”

There’s a terrible cracking sound behind him, like wood exploding. Byleth turns only enough to see that Dimitri’s hand, up until now still resting on the stall door when Byleth had closed it, is now holding a handful of splinters from where his grip lost control. Dimitri grimaces and drops the wood, shaking his glove free of dust.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. 

“I know that you’re torturing yourself,” Byleth tries. “That all of this is not good for you. You’re angry, I understand, but this is —“

“This is all I can do!” Dimitri shouts. Byleth flinches away. “I have come this far. The dead cannot seek revenge, cannot ask for their pleas to be made real. I have fought too hard and sacrificed too much these last nine years for their wishes to go unbidden! I am merely a vessel for the dead, and to have it all ripped away —“

He stops, cutting himself short. He takes a deep, deep breath, and then lets it out, and just like that, all the last remaining rage and regret drains out of him. Byleth watches as it does, and takes a step closer. 

“Please,” Dimitri pleads. He can’t meet Byleth’s eyes, his face instead turned heavenward, towards the hissing rain. “You always have the answers. So please, tell me…”

Byleth can’t. Not anymore. Instead, he reaches out a hand like he’s always done, an offering from a god to a king, and hopes he will finally take it.

You big softie , a voice whispers inside him. He couldn’t agree more.

“You don’t have to fight anymore,” Byleth says quietly. “You don’t have to suffer anymore.”

Dimitri stares at his hand in apprehension. “I have no right to continue on like that. I have no right, as the sole survivor of that day, to live in the light rather than the dark.”

“You were a child. What happened was beyond your control.”

“Then what?” Dimitri says, and it sounds like every single fight has left him all at once. He’s tired, well and truly, and Byleth wants to take him away and make him sleep. “What do I do?”

“Live for what you believe in,” Byleth says, and he watches as something breaks in Dimitri.

He takes his hand, their wet gloves sliding together. Dimitri’s grip is strong, and warm, and everything inside Byleth - his own regrets, worries, wishes and dreams - settle like a flock of birds finally finding a roost. They step closer to each other, and he can pretend, for just a moment, this is just like their dance five years ago.

“Your hands are so warm,” Dimitri says quietly, awe in his voice. He takes Byleth’s other hand in his own and presses them both to his cheeks. “Have they always been?”

Byleth doesn’t know that answer. Dimitri leans down, pressing their foreheads together. It feels right, finally meeting like this. He feels whole.

They stay like that until Byleth starts to shiver from the rain. They step away, though not far from each other, hands still wound together, unwilling to truly separate. 

“Come,” Byleth says. He steps back, releasing one of Dimitri’s hands. Dimitri follows, unquestioning as Byleth leads him through the monastery to the dorms on the other side.

Byleth opens the door to his room and pulls Dimitri inside. The fire in the fireplace still crackles weakly from the morning, and with a flick of his wrist, Byleth brings it back to life. He turns Dimitri around so he’s got his back to the fire and unclasps the cloak from his shoulders, careful not to drop it from how heavy it is.

At Dimitri’s raised brow, Byleth gestures to the bed. “Get undressed and go to sleep,” he says. If he hadn’t been paying attention, he would’ve missed the faint blush climbing up Dimitri’s neck, but he is not an unobservant man. It warms him to see that even now, Dimitri is still just a man.

“I won’t keep you from sleep, Professor,” Dimitri says quietly. Yet he moves to sit on the bed, beginning to unlace the armor around his arms and legs.

Byleth feels a smile pull at his lips. “I haven’t seen you sleep since I found you again. Please, as a favor.”

Dimitri blinks at him, dumbstruck. Byleth forgot the power smiling had over the prince.

“Of course,” Dimitri murmurs. Once his armor is off and he’s left in his underclothes, he lays back, tentative in a way that says he hasn’t slept in a bed in a very long time. 

He tucks the covers around himself and watches, stricken, as Byleth strips as well. Byleth tries not to think about it, tries to tamp down on his quickening pulse at the thrill of being so close to Dimitri. He tells himself the prince needs sleep, and with all the nights he spent at Dimitri’s side as he rambled in the dark, that he needs him there, too. 

Dimitri holds the covers open so Byleth can slip in beside him, and because the bed was not meant for two full grown men, they end up a lot closer than is probably comfortable. Their legs tangle oddly and Dimitri tries to keep some semblance of propriety between them, but Byleth simply lays his head down and closes his eyes.

He feels the tension slowly start to drain from Dimitri, his ever limb going slack one by one. The blankets settle over them both eventually, and in a move that warms his nonexistent heart, Dimitri’s arm drapes over his waist, bringing them closer than before. His head rests beside Byleth’s, their hair tangling together, and for the first time in a long time, he hears him fall asleep. He does, too, warm and safe as the rain patters against the stone and washes away everything already long forgotten.

 

——

 

Cornelia, after gathering his strength and his will to finally face what has been taken from him, doesn’t stand a chance against Dimitri’s lance. 

To be fair, neither does Byleth. Dimitri is beautiful in the midday sun, even covered in blood and sweat as he is. He takes in the sight of his kingdom like a man starved of it, twisting to see the battlements change color from red and black to blue and silver. He looks like a king, and if Byleth had a heart, it’d be beating right out of his chest. 

Maybe that’s why he doesn’t notice the assassin sneaking closer, or the sound of a blade drawing naked against the sounds of a victory well fought. It’s not until he hears a shout and the scrape of boots on stone that he turns, and maybe that more than anything is what saves his life when the blade sinks between his ribs. 

 

——

 

Zanado. Her home. Her life. She will have to give it up to save them, but before she does, she retreats back into the temple, hiding away from the sounds of her people being slaughtered for now.

“It will be a long time before you and I meet,” she says. “But we will. I want you to slumber for now, and dream happy dreams.” 

In her hands she holds a small, unbeating heart, a soul close to dying. It does not glow like hers, does not radiate from within itself life like the rest of them. It is tired, and she knows it will be a long time before it can rest.

“Can you do that for me?” she asks. The heart does not respond. It cannot. She kneels before the altar, one erected for herself, and places the heart in the stone bowl as gently as she can.

“My daughter will try to find you,” she continues. She bows before the heart, a reverence usually reserved only for her. “She will create you from the ashes of her failures. Don’t cry, and don’t be angry, either. She will not be able to control what her own heart calls for her to do. I want you to know that there will be a time when this will never matter, and you can live in your future instead of your past.”

She takes up her robes and stands, her prayer finished. The heart, right before her sad eyes, begins to turn to stone. 

“Sleep,” she coos. “I’ll return. Don’t worry.”

She turns and leaves, never glancing back. She goes back to her burning city, to the screams and cries of the dying, and faces her death. Her bones will be made anew, and her heart - her sad, broken heart - beats no more, just like his. 

 

——

 

He remembers Byleth’s first real injury.

Sure, he’d fallen, and gotten cuts and bruises from just being a normal kid. Byleth was quiet, but he got into all kinds of trouble, and usually that meant dirty faces and plenty of bandages. 

But to see him fall in battle, wounded to a point where he couldn’t get himself back up? To see him truly hurt? Jeralt couldn’t sleep for a week after his first injury, let alone let him hold a sword again. The risk was too great.

He’d healed, and eventually, Jeralt let him back out into the fray. Byleth was a skilled fighter - is a skilled fighter - and always turned the tide when his calculated ferocity was let loose. He may have one more scar on his body, but he was alive, and that was what they fought for.

Until this. Until now.

Byleth falls before the assassin has time to yank his blade away, which is a blessing. In an instant, his attacker is sent flying by a bolt of energy, and when Jeralt looks, he sees Felix nearby with his hands smoking from the spell. In the next moment, Mercedes and Dimitri are upon his son, hands held out to heal and to hold.

“Don’t let him die,” Jeralt begs. Somehow, they let him through, and he gets his hands on his boy. “Please, you can’t let him die.”

Mercedes tries her best to sound comforting, but with the blood on her hands, it only makes him sick. “I know. Trust me, I won’t let him die.”

It’s hard thing to promise with his son bleeding out on the stone. Byleth’s entire left side is turning red, blood soaking through his robes and dripping down his fingers, the blade still lodged within him. Byleth, to his credit, doesn’t move much, his eyes slow to blink and his limbs going slack with every second that ticks by. 

Jeralt clutches him, holding him up so Mercedes can work, never taking his eyes off Byleth. Dimitri kneels by his other side, motionless until Mercedes orders him to rip open Byleth’s tunic. Jeralt steadies his son for them to work, watching as their hands tear his clothes apart, watching as they discover the starburst-shaped scar in the center of his chest before moving on to the blade stuck in his side.

He tries not to cry. He tries to watch for as long as he can, to see his son’s eyes close and he passes out from blood loss, to take in all that he is in this moment in case its the last one he has. His son, who has never shown emotion on his face, who has been cursed by the Saints and blessed by the Goddess, who is his entire world and more, deserves that. If nothing else, he deserves the courtesy of being known as he died. 

But Mercedes is a Saint in her own right. She manages to extract the blade, pulling it out centimeter by aching centimeter, her hands quickly replacing where it’d impaled Byleth. Her hands glow and repair the damage just enough for him to be moved, and together, they lift him up and put him on a stretcher Sylvain and Ingrid fetch from one of the infirmary units. Jeralt refuses to leave, so he helps Sylvain carry Byleth to the castle, uncaring that his first impression of it is with his son’s blood on his hands and his life dangling by a too-taught thread. 

After that, he’s taken away. Shuttered behind guarded doors, ensconced in who knows how many hands to heal him. He’s left alone, standing in a too-grand hallway with a crowd of people behind him he considers his own children now. He turns and looks back at them, and in their faces he sees a reflection of his own deep-seated horror. 

A son, a lover, a friend, a professor. Byleth is all these things - more than the Ashen Demon, the progenitor god, the vessel for their hopes and dreams. He’s theirs, and to have it taken away by such a tiny blade --

 

----

 

They wait. They all do. They always will.

 

----

 

Wake up, she says, and he does.

The ceiling above him is unfamiliar. Gold spirals in filigree patterns across its expanse, interlaced with blue and silver. A hunting scene dominants its center, a deer stabbed through with a lance, dogs on its heels and a great prince astride a horse, his expression heartbroken even as he grips the lance in his fist.

How sad, he thinks. To sleep with something so gruesome hanging above you while you try to dream. 

“It’s not so bad,” a voice says next to him. He startles, sitting up, and immediately regrets it as his left side erupts in liquid flames.

“Take it easy,” the voice says again. Gentle hands help him lay down, cradling the nape of his neck and his side even as his own fingers twist in his shirt. He vaguely recognizes the voice, no logger clogged with rage as it is. 

Dimitri, she supplies with a smile. How could you forget someone so dear?

He blinks through the painful tears beading in his eyes and stares back at a steely blue gaze, much closer than he thought the prince to be. Dimitri’s hands never really leave him after he’s laid back down, his fingers finding Byleth’s, gently prying them from his close before the former professor rips holes through them. Byleth lets him, his stomach twisting in nervous knots.

“What happened?” he croaks. 

Dimitri winces through a smile. “A safety measure. Should Cornelia fall, an assassin was to strike, hindering us useless. Thankfully, he had bad aim.” His voice drops, tone going soft. “I’m so glad you’re alright. It’s been a couple days since you last woke.”

Byleth blinks. “I woke before?”

“You didn’t say much,” Dimitri says. He colors, suddenly, his entire face going pink. “Only that you wanted me. I haven’t left since.”

Byleth, since the first time he could remember, feels his body begin to heat. “Oh,” is all he manages. 

Dimitri can’t meet his eyes, but he’s still smiling, small and private. “Yes. Would you like to get up? Slower, this time.”

Byleth nods. His face feels hot as Dimitri slips his arms underneath him and lifts him with ease, standing up beside the bed and slowly letting Byleth’s feet touch the floor. He’s thankful whoever dressed his wound left him in his thin tunic and leggings rather than nude, because standing next to Dimitri even as he is feels like he’s revealed too much.

That, and he’s wobbly from not standing for so long. Dimitri takes his hand, his other a steady presence on his back. It takes a moment before Byleth can take a step, and even that is tentative and weak.

“I feel gross,” Byleth blurts. A laugh startles out of Dimitri, making Byleth smile. 

“I can run a bath for you,” Dimitri says. “It’s about time to change your bandages, anyway.”

He leads Byleth into an adjoining room, slow and careful and at Byleth’s own pace. It’s nice, being held like this, even as he feels vulnerable under Dimitri’s sweeping gaze. His eye never leaves him, roaming across him in search of what hurts and what doesn’t, watching Byleth for anything that may cause him discomfort. Even that makes Byleth feel warm, nearly full to bursting with it like his body can barely contain what must be joy at being this close to Dimitri.

Dimitri, who sets him down on a bench in the wash room and carefully draws a bath for him in the immaculate marble tub. Dimitri, who asks him politely if he’d like to use his magic to heat the water instead of waiting for a servant to come do it for him - a choice he makes gratefully and, with the help of the prince, wobbles over and sticks his hands in the cold water to warm it. 

Dimitri, who despite knowing he should probably leave Byleth alone right about now, seemingly can’t bring himself to do it. After only a moment’s realization, Byleth finds that he doesn’t want him to.

He picks at the buttons of his tunic, unable to meet Dimitri’s warm stare. “Could you close your eyes?”

He still needs Dimitri to help him stand, his stupid, weak legs damn him. Dimitri nods and does as he’s bidden, tilting his face to the side as well as Byleth unbuttons his tunic and wiggles out of his leggings. He hesitates on his underclothes for only a moment before dropping them and swinging a leg over the tub’s lip.

Dimitri, even with his eyes closed, holds onto him. His hand in Byleth steadies him and the one at his back, now tentatively brushing his skin, ensuring he doesn’t topple back from lost balance. Byleth nearly sinks into the hot water before remembering the bandages around his ribs, tight as they are. 

He nearly rips them off in his haste, but when they start to unravel, he merely tosses them aside with his clothes. Dimitri’s hand follows him down as he sinks into the water, unwavering in his support. Byleth sighs against the sting of his wound, and brings his knees up against his chest before asking Dimitri to open his eyes.

“I don’t want to be improper,” Dimitri stammers.

“Dimitri,” Byleth sighs. “I think you and I know this is beyond proper at this point.”                               

At that, Dimitri’s eye blinks open. Byleth smiles, and with it washes away the last of Dimitri’s resolve.

He surges forward, crushing their lips together in a heated kiss that startles them both. Byleth’s fingers curl into Dimitri’s hair and Dimitri’s hands, so far straying nowhere that would be improper, slide around Byleth’s chest to cradle his back as he sits up in the tub. They part for air only to come back together again, and again, and again, until each kiss melts together, neither unwilling to part until the heat inside them is tempered just enough.

Byleth presses their foreheads together after their lips linger, feeling more than hearing Dimitri breathe through his excitement. There’s an underlying current of electricity between them, a buzzing that Byleth wants nothing more than to sate right here, but he keeps himself where he is. Dimitri, it seems, is having a similar struggle, and pointedly doesn’t let his hands wander below the water line. 

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” Byleth murmurs. 

Dimitri huffs a laugh. “I know. I’m sorry, for that and for your wound.”

Byleth looks down, startled only a bit at the bathwater slowly turning pink. He grimaces and wraps an arm around Dimitri’s shoulders, gathering his legs under him.

“Help me stand, please.”

Dimitri sputters, turning a bright shade of red. “But your clothes —“

“I don’t care if you see me, Dimitri. Not now.” His pulse hammers in his throat, and Byleth has to swallow whatever pleas he had on his tongue before he ruins this moment more. “Please, Dimitri.”

Dimitri obliges with only a small amount of hesitation. He lifts Byleth out of the water, wincing at the rivulets of blood that stream down from the opened wound. He quickly snatches a towel from the standing rack nearby and wraps it around Byleth’s middle, putting pressure against Byleth’s side as he winces.

“I apologize, I didn’t know it would open,” Byleth says through his teeth.

Dimitri, still pink in the ears, shakes his head. “Come - lets wrap it up again.”

He helps Byleth dress in clean clothes left for him for when he woke, careful to keep his eyes anywhere but down. His hands are gentle as he wraps Byleth’s side after a healer has looked at it, fingers grazing its edges with his brows drawn.

Byleth hisses as he snatches his hand away, something shiny caught on his fingers. When he holds his hand out, Byleth sees that its a scale, tiny and translucent, catching the candlelight in rainbow reflections as Dimitri tilts his hand.

“There’s more on your skin, all around your wound,” Dimitri says. He looks up, a question in his eyes.

Byleth swallows the bile in his throat. “I’ll tell you later. I promise.”

Dimitri’s lips purse. “Alright.”

Perhaps its the fear in his veins pushing him forward, or the thought of revealing all that he still doesn’t understand, but he manages to crawl back into the bed on his own. It’s bigger than his at Garreg Mach, grander and more comfortable. But when Dimitri slips in behind him, he still curls up next to him as much as his side will allow as Dimitri does the same.

 

——

 

Claude is a valuable ally, even as he disappears as quickly as he comes. The Alliance has formidable forces - he will use them wisely, even as the end draws near.

And it is near. They march for Enbarr in the morning, when the troops are fed and rested. For now, Byleth simply watches the sunset, imagining a different war from a different time, thinking there isn’t much of a difference at all.

 

——

 

There is, sometimes, a moment in time where he thinks it’s over. When they’ve bled and cried and sacrificed enough - isn’t it supposed to be that way? 

Edelgard has sacrificed too much. She’s given up her humanity for something else, for something huge and inhuman, a demon wrapped around her, suffocating the last of the young girl he thought he knew. It’s too much, and when be thinks it’s over, when she’s got them backed into a corner with no hope of escape, something inside him moves.

It isn’t like last time, born out of desperation as it had been. There is no uncomfortable stretching of limbs and tearing of flesh, no twisting of bone and crack of growing muscle. He is a man one moment and a dragon the next, the goddess inside of him burning bright to make herself known.

They are the same for one brilliant moment. Like before, before they were they. When it was just she, and he was a thousand years away. 

“Before you, I grow weak,” Edelgard pleas. Because she is begging, even as she raises her hands to conjure her next attack.

He wants to laugh. He doesn’t know why. The Sothis part of him does, but he suppresses her, and draws himself up to attack as well. 

 

----

 

“Holy shit,” Annette breathes. 

“That’s the professor? ” Sylvain says with a squeak. 

Jeralt wants to laugh. Of course it is. It’s always been, but now, he had the power to show it. Before them stands a mighty dragon, its four wings stretching out across the grand throne room, its feathers grazing the stone on the walls and ceiling. Its scales reflect the evening sunlight streaming in from the stained glass windows, and as it shifts onto its hind legs, wings arcing out, feathers on its spine and tail bristling, Jeralt feels proud

“Everyone move back,” he orders. “Retreat, hide - whatever you have to do.”  

The Lions, exhausted and in awe as they are, back away. They move together, back towards the entrance, out of the corner Edelgard had forced them into and into a more defensible space behind Byleth’s hulking form. When they’re farther away, the dragon opens its mouth, long, graceful teeth catching the light, and releases a terrible beam of energy conjured from nothing. 

The beam sweeps the wall and Edelgard, blowing out the wall and melting Edelgard’s skin with only the barest of contact. Smoke billows out in its wake, smelling of heated stone and acrid, burnt flesh. Edelgard falls, weakened, her demonic form struggling under its own weight. And then she’s hit again, and again, and in a final attack, as if to taunt her, Byleth does nothing. 

Nothing. Not even as grand and beautiful as he is, all white glittering scales and green tinted feathers, he falls back, six pairs of sharp nails scraping across the stone floor, his wings winching back against his side. Edelgard doesn’t get up, and in a plume of smoke, her twisted form disappears, leaving only a wounded girl kneeling at her own throne. 

As if in deference, the dragon bows its great horned head and steps away. And then, from one moment into the next, its gone, leaving Byleth in its shadow, looking back at them with something like regret on his face. 

“You should get the courtesy of talking to her,” he says quietly. He gestures to Edelgard, but he has eyes only for Dimitri. 

Jeralt turns and watches as Dimitri, dumbstruck, only nods. He seems to regain his sense and follows Byleth’s lead, climbing up the short set of stairs to where Edelgard has collapsed, her dress puddled around her like a pool of fresh blood. 

Dimitri holds out his had. “C’mon, El,” he says, and just like that, she betrays him. 

The flash of steel, of movement, and just like that, her life is gone. Dimitri grunts as he rips out the dagger. He refuses the healing hands of Mercedes and Annette, choosing instead to march forward. The Lions, in silent command, follow him, out into that setting sun, a new moon, a new era to share in. Jeralt goes with them, and thinks of a time where they could be happy despite it. 

 

----

 

“So were you going to tell us you were a dragon , Professor?”

Sylvain’s accusing tone makes Byleth wince. He turns, watching as his former students surround him in the hall, effectively cutting off his way of escape. He could continue on his way into the celebration, but then he’d have to have this conversation later, and now that he’s forced into it, he’d rather get it over with. 

“To be fair, it’s a relatively new thing for me, too,” he tries. 

“Right, but a dragon!” Ashes gushes. “Professor! You know what this means?”

He blinks, taken aback by the whiplash of the conversation changing in tone. “I’m a dragon?”

“A manakete!” Ashe corrects. “They’re dragons that spend a lot of their time as humans - wait, do you have a stone, Professor?”

He’s a smart one, Sothis coos. 

“I don’t have one,” Byleth lies. 

“Please, I’m sure the Professor had a good reason for hiding it,” Dimitri says. His tone is slightly hurt, but only Byleth seems to be the one that picks up on it. His eye finds Byleth’s, and he smiles in reassurance.

Byleth nods, the tension bleeding out of him. “I couldn’t endanger you. I barely understood what was happening. I can’t exactly do it at will, either.”

“Whatever the case, it helped us win,” Felix grumbles. He crosses the arms, feigning annoyance - but his eyes were fond. “Just don’t keep anything else under wraps. We can’t help if we don’t know.”

“Aw, you do care,” Sylvain hums, a big, goofy smile on his face as he wraps his arms around Felix’s shoulders. Felix turns pink, and the other Lions laugh. 

Byleth does, too. He missed them like this. Happy, carefree, comfortable and peaceful. It took a war, but now he had it, and he doesn’t want to let it go. 

“Thank you,” he says quietly. The Lions settle down, their attention brought back to him. He smiles at them, small and genuine. “Thank you for being here at the end with me.”

“There’s nowhere we’d rather be, Professor,” Ingrid says, a fond smile on her lips. 

“You can’t get rid of us that easily,” Mercedes laughs. 

“Mostly Sylvain,” Felix grouses. 

Byleth covers his face as another laugh bubbles up his throat. “Never change, you guys,” he says, and just like they had so long ago, they hug him, all at once. Ashe and Annette at his sides, Mercedes at his front, Dimitri at his back, Sylvain, Felix, and Ingrid filling in the spaces left behind. Dedue wraps his big arms around the lot of them, and like a final puzzle piece slotting into place, Jeralt does, too. Byleth is warm and safe in the center, and all around him are the soft laughs and smiles of his family. 

It’s yours , Sothis says. Yours to hold and protect. Thank you for sharing this with me, and thank you for waiting to finally meet them. 


Of course, he says back. And thank you, Goddess, for believing you’d find me.

Chapter Text

He wakes up in a strange bed. He’s used to it by now.

Travelling as a mercenary meant sleeping somewhere new every night. In a forest, a village, a field, a burn scar, a snow storm - name it, he’s slept there. Jeralt always made sure they were safe, but until now he never understood why they moved. Why sometimes he’d wake up under strange stars and unfamiliar weather patterns

Why he’d wake up alone.

Finding her had been easy, in the end. He spent two weeks looking, but in his heart of hearts, he knew. Sothis knew. Sleeping in inns and his tent was second nature now, and to do it again to find her when all he wanted was to be back in the Kingdom ——

He shakes the thought aside. He gets up, makes the bed with it’s soft wool blankets and slightly too stiff mattress. He puts the cap on the oil lamp in the corner he kept low during the night and dresses as methodically and quickly as possible. She’s here, and while he’s used to it, he doesn’t want to wake in a strange bed ever again.

He emerges from the tiny inn right as the sun rises. No one else is awake, and somehow, he’d convinced his father and Dimitri that he needed to travel alone. It wasn’t easy, and he knew they sent a tail after him anyway. It didn’t matter. He walked out into the trees lining the inn, his boots crunching in the fresh-fallen leaves, and between one step and the next, he was up in the air.

It’s becoming easier , he says to her.

I don’t have to hold back, Sothis laughs. She stretches their wings, and like a moth to a flame, follows the tug of her daughter pounding in their chest.

It doesn’t take long. Not now, at the end. They alight on a thick branch of a great big tree surrounded by others like it deep in the thick of an untamed forest, their wings tucking away against their sides. They nimbly climb down to the ground, snaking around the base of the tree, sniffing the air until they spot a figure around the tree’s trunk. There they stop, and as if expecting them, the figure turns.

It is Rhea, but also not her. She looks different than she had at the Academy, less soft and forgiving. Her ears poke out from her hair and her eyes see more than Byleth is comfortable with, more than he wants to reveal. Sothis feels the same, a great roiling of regretguiltimsorrydontgo bubbling inside them. She transforms them back, and just like that, Rhea’s angular façade breaks.

“You have no idea how long I’ve waited,” she cries softly. She approaches him on quiet feet, her bare soles whispering across the dying grass and leaves, her dress waving across the earth like feathers. Byleth steps back from her, putting more distance in the already considerable gap between them. Rhea stops, her eyes going round.

“She’s with you, isn’t she?” Rhea asks. “My efforts weren’t in vain all those years ago?” 

“She is a part of me,” Byleth agrees. 

Rhea smiles, hopeful. “Do you think I could —“

“She is a part of me,” Byleth hisses. He can hear, even so far away from her, her teeth snap closed as she clenches her jaw. “I never said she was whole.”

Rhea tries her best to smile. “Please. Just this once. I’ve waited for so long…”

He wants to feel angry. With her, with the world, with what he was. There’s so much boiling inside of him it's hard to pick something to be angry at, especially now when he’s got her here in his grasp. There’s so much to say, and yet —

“I will take over your duties,” he hears himself say. Rhea blinks and looks up at him, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “You left Garreg Mach to me - but it will not be the same Garreg Mach when I’m done with it. The Goddess doesn’t require blind devotion and she certainly doesn’t require any sin to be met with a blade. You were wrong in how you led this faith, Rhea, and I will fix it.”

Rhea drops her chin. Instead of a grown woman, she looks like a child scorned, and that more than anything makes Byleth angry.

“Yes,” she says quietly. “Of course. You’re right, mother, I…”

“My name is Byleth,” Byleth grits out. “Do not return to Garreg Mach - you aren’t welcome there.”

He takes to the skies after that, leaving Rhea in a wave of tousled leaves. Something beats inside his chest just for a moment, blazing with the anger he feels buzzing just underneath his skin, but from one moment into the next, it’s gone.

She is simply mourning, Sothis says, sad and quiet.

She should know the different between you and I, Byleth aays back.

Sothis sighs. If Jeralt had died that day, wouldn’t you give anything to see him again, too? To be comforted and told you’re right to have done what you’ve done?

He wants to say no. He wants to say that if he’d watched Jeralt be cut down and been unable to do anything, that eventually, he’d move on. He wants to say that he’s strong enough to see that the death of his only parent, his sole connection to the rest of the world for so long, would not shatter him if taken away. He knows he’s wrong, knows that for the rest of his life he’d be seeking Jeralt’s kindness and guidance from the grave. He wants to think he’s stronger than Rhea, but he knows, deep down, he’s wrong.

He’d give anything. Do anything. Be what he must be to see his father again - and when he lands just outside the Kingdom walls, careful to hide himself in a copse of trees so no one will see him transform, he’s determined to let Jeralt know that. He probably already does, but seeing the loss on Rhea’s face reminds him just how close he’d been to losing everything.

 

——

 

“You wanted to talk?” 

Byleth feels his insides clench. “Just for a moment. I have… news.”

Jeralt raises a brow. “Don’t hurt yourself saying too much, kiddo.”

“No, I just —“ Byleth sighs. “I just… there’s a lot. I have to say.”

Jeralt humors him and steps aside, making room next to him despite there being no one else on this particular battlement. Byleth leans on the stone half wall at the same time Jeralt does, and for the first time since all of this ended, he takes a long look at his father.

They look nothing alike, but there are things in Jeralt he sometimes recognized in himself. Things that explicitly told him Jeralt was his father and no one else - not even Leonie - could shake that faith in him.

Byleth leans to the side and rests his head on Jeralt’s

shoulder, wrapping an arm around his middle as he does. Jeralt makes a quiet noise in his throat and returns the hug, leaning his chin on the crown of Byleth’s head, his beard scratchy and uncomfortable. Byleth wouldn’t have it any other way, and doesn’t move.

“You find your answers?” Jeralt asks quietly. 

“Rhea didn’t, but I think I did,” he says. Up here, it’s just the two of them. Byleth doesn’t feel the need to cloak his words. “I left her where I found her. If she doesn’t want to return, I suppose I will have to assume her duties.”

Jeralt leans away just enough so their eyes can meet. “You mean as Archbishop? You haven’t ever been much of a believer. You okay with that?”

He wants to say no. He isn’t, but what choice does he have?

“You have a choice, kiddo,” Jeralt says.

Oh. Of course Jeralt knows.

“And leave the Kingdom without support?” Byleth asks instead. “How could I do that to them?”

Jeralt turns to him, a knowing look crooking his brow. “Them? Or him?”

Byleth feels his face heat. Jeralt laughs.

“You’re just a young man,” he says through a wheeze. “Go, be a young man. Just for a moment, huh?”

Jeralt slaps his shoulder and ruffles his hair, his smile big and bright. He looks at Byleth with such love in his eyes that he couldn’t imagine saying no.

Byleth steps away. “Alright,” he says. “I will, father.”

When he walks away, he feels his cheeks burning. When he touches them, he realizes he’s smiling. 

 

——

 

He finds Dimitri where he thought he might: in his rooms preparing for the coronation.

“It’s not for another day,” Dimitri calls. Byleth freezes, one foot in the air - he forgot how well Dimitri could hear having lost half his sight. “But I’d like to look more… presentable. Than I’ve been. What do you think?”

Byleth turns the corner into his dressing room, finding him standing in front of a floor mirror with his arm swept to one side to hold back the heavy cloak draped across his shoulders. His Blaiddyd armor - given to him by Rodrigue - has been patched and shined, gleaming white in the candlelight of the room. His combed hair is pinned back away from his face in a trim ponytail, and instead of the furred pelt obscuring much of his face as he turns, the crushed blue velvet cloak gathers together at his collar with a reserved silver brooch. His boots and leather gloves look newer than the ones he wore to fight, and there is no lance in his hands or leaning against the wall.

Just Dimitri, smiling tightly as if expecting a rejection. Byleth realizes he’s probably been standing here staring and nods, prompting Dimitri to laugh.

“You look surprised,” he says, still smiling. “That bad, huh?”

“No,” Byleth rushes to say. “No. I simply - wasn’t expecting this.”

He isn’t overly familiar with coronation procedures. His own is due soon, and if the dread he feels in his gut is this bad, he can only imagine what Dimitri must feel.

But instead of frowning at Byleth’s horrible interpersonal skills, Dimitri’s smile turns bashful. “To be honest, I had an ulterior motive. I had hoped to catch you somewhere else, but now that I have you…”

He steps forward, away from the mirror and towards Byleth. Byleth raises a brow, watching as Dimitri fumbles to properly stand before him, looking more like the awkward young man he was not so long ago than the soon to be king of Faergus.  It’s endearing, and Byleth has a hard time not reaching out to take his hand to make him feel better.

Dimitri does it for him instead, a soft look crossing his face. “How are your wounds?” he asks quietly.

The question throws him, leaving Byleth to blink in confusion before coming up with an answer. “It’s been a few weeks. They’re healing fine, Dimitri. And yours?”

Dimitri rotates the shoulder Edelgard shoved her blade through. “Much better. My armor stopped her from doing much damage, thankfully.”

“Good,” Byleth says. He swallows his fear and places his other hand over Dimitri’s heart, his glove sliding smoothly over the clean metal of his breastplate. They haven’t been this close since his near-death at the hands of Cornelia’s assassin, and to stand this close makes him dizzy. Had Dimitri always been so tall?

Dimitri chuckles, probably at the odd expression Byleth feels pulling at his face. “You seem startled, Byleth.”

Byleth. Not Professor anymore. It’s enough to make him lean forward and press a kiss to body-warm armor, emboldened by a future they fought and killed for. Dimitri bends to return the kiss, his lips gentle on his forehead.

“Not startled,” Byleth says quietly. He tips his head back enough to accept the chaste kiss pressed to his nose. “Just happy.” 

“As am I,” Dimitri rumbles. And just like that, with that little confirmation between them, he tilts his face and brings their lips together for the first time since the war ended.

It isn’t as desperate as the first time, or awkward and heated. It simply is, and all the tension Byleth felt coiling in his bones melts away as Dimitri continues to kiss him. They’re little kisses, sometimes wandering to the corner of his mouth, his cheek, his eyelids. Byleth returns as many as he can given the height difference, making up for some of them by cupping Dimitri’s face in his palms and running his thumbs across his cheeks. 

It’s nice, being like this. Having nowhere to be, no war meetings to strategize. There are still fights to win, things to do, but now with his prince’s arms around him, it doesn’t feel like anything at all. Just warm, and home, and like nowhere he’d rather be.

Dimitri presses their foreheads together after one last long kiss, his hands curled gently around Byleth’s back, those strong arms holding them close. This close Byleth can make out the faint floral embroidery sewn into Dimitri’s eyepatch, the leather more supple than the crude one he wore before. There’s a gentle smile on his lips and his eye has never looked more alive, and that is probably what drives Byleth to dig a little leather pouch out of his robes.

He dumps the ring out of it into his palm and holds it up between them despite the little space he has to brandish it. Dimitri blinks, his face going red, frozen to the spot as Byleth works up the courage to speak.

“I want you to have this,” he says instead of Marry me . He thinks Dimitri gets his meaning when he digs in his pocket and produces a ring as well.

“You were supposed to let me go first!” he laughs. Byleth’s chest constricts, and his throat closes up as he struggles not to laugh as well. 

“I’m sorry,” Byleth says, “if I had known I —“

Dimitri, ever more eloquent in action than words, drops to one knee, the ring still held up proudly in his hand. Byleth hears his jaw snap shut and his face heat even more when Dimitri pointedly takes his other hand and slips off his glove for him.

“Byleth Eisner,” Dimitri starts, his voice low as if he’ll scare Byleth away. With how his ears pound with blood and his body refusing to obey his commands, Byleth doesn’t think he would be able to if he wanted to. “There is a question I’ve been meaning to ask for several weeks now, so please let me before I lose the courage.”

Byleth nods wordlessly. Dimitri smiles, brilliant and with purpose.

“Will you marry me?” he asks quietly. A small question, tiny in the face of all Byleth has done for him already. He’d walk into spellfire if it meant knowing Dimitri was safe and happy, but this? This little thing - to be known not as Byleth Eisner, a nobody mercenary from nowhere, but as husband and equal to King Dimitri? To know that standing beside him means he has earned this man’s undying devotion just as much as he has earned Byleth’s?

Byleth swallows through the scratchy dryness of his throat and nods. There is only one answer in any lifetime he could say. 

“Yes,” he croaks. “Yes, I will, Dimitri.”

Always yes. Forever yes.

The will-be King smiles and obediently slips the ring over Byleth’s left ring finger. As if in a coordinated dance, they switch places, Dimitri straightening as Byleth kneels before him. Somehow it feels right this way, to see Dimitri standing tall before him as he always should have. Not stalking the cathedral, or whispering to voices only he can hear. 

Just a man, as he’s always been. Broken and rebuilt again, and Byleth struggles to say exactly that when the words just start tumbling out of him.

“You have been in rough places,” he says, “and suffered grief beyond what I could ever imagine. I would ask you to share that with me so that I could mend it, and even though I’ve already said yes, I want to know if you would stay beside me so I may mend your broken heart a little more.”

Dimitri laughs through a watery smile. “You make my own proposal sound so weak in comparison.”

Byleth struggles not to look away in embarrassment. “Will you marry me?”

Dimitri snorts and bends to kiss him. “Yes,” he breathes on his lips, and though the ring is too small for his fingers, he grips it tightly in his palm for safe keeping anyway. 

He brings Byleth to his feet and they share another kiss, this one more urgent than the others. Byleth revels in it, in the restrained strength he can feel in Dimitri’s hands as they roam his back and hips, his hunger stronger than ever before. Byleth has to part for breath just to give himself a break from the intensity, resting his forehead on Dimitri’s breastplate to hide the heat he feels rushing to his face.

“I wanted to do that in the garden,” Dimitri rasps, voice rough from kissing. Byleth feels himself huff a laugh before the arms around him curl tighter, bringing them closer. 

Byleth, in a strange streak of confidence, returns the embrace, his hands wandering low. “If you did, we’d have to worry about other things.”

He hear Dimitri choke off a mangled noise in his throat, covering it up with a laugh. “Yes, I — I suppose we would have, wouldn’t we?”

In his own burst of confidence, Dimitri leans down and braces his arms under Byleth’s thighs, lifting him with the ease of a man who doesn’t have to think about the strength something like that takes. Byleth nearly shouts in surprise before wrapping his arms around Dimitri’s shoulders to steady himself, feeling warmer than he has in a long time.

Dimitri smiles, wide and just a little sheepish. “If this is too far —“

“No,” Byleth blurts. He slaps a hand over his mouth as Dimitri’s smile grows seductive, a look he hasn’t ever seen on him but is rather alluring. Byleth lowers his hand as Dimitri walks them into his room, stopping at the edge of the bed, a silent question in his eye even as his grin grows hungry.

Byleth can only nod. He’s wanted this for a while, even before the thought of marriage was in his mind. But there was never a right time, never a place that was comfortable enough for them to go slow. It feels like they rushed too fast, and he wants to take his time, wants to learn what feels good and what makes Dimitri melt. Dimitri has been in pain for too long to go undeserving of a gentle touch, and he wants to soothe away those years spent under the yoke of his nightmares. 

Instead of being dropped on the plush mattress like he thought he would be, Dimitri lowers them both down, first with his knee on the bed and then with a steady hand below them. Even fully clothed and pressed against Dimitri’s hard armor, it’s comfortable, and after a shared kiss, Dimitri straightens to rid himself of his clothes.

Byleth has done this, with strangers in inns and tents alike. He’s fucked and gotten fucked as quickly as it takes for a man to cum, but to be here with someone he loves, he’s lost. He feels his body start to burn as Dimitri loses the armor and starts on his underclothes, unbuttoning his tunic and tossing aside his boots. He knows he should start undressing, but the moment he starts, Dimitri stops him.

“Let me,” he says softly. He’s left only in his leggings, Byleth’s eyes tracing over scars and toned muscle now revealed to him even as he tries to keep eye contact. Dimitri doesn’t seem to mind even as his own face turns red and his hands shake when he reaches for Byleth’s belt.

Byleth still helps, wriggling out of his robes and boots as efficiently as he can. Dimitri goes slower, savoring the act of undressing, his calloused fingers lingering on the scar left from the assassin’s blade in Byleth’s side and numerous other wounds that have left silvery scars all over him. When he gets his tunic off, Dimitri freezes at the sight of him, a hand lingering over his chest that Byleth has to look down at to understand why he’s stopped.

“Oh,” he sighs. The starburst scar on his chest left by Rhea - he forgot. Before learning the secrets of his past, he always assumed it was left by a spell gone wrong, but now —

Dimitri presses his palm to the scar, rough against rough, making Byleth wince. Dimitri lets up with a pained expression, biting his lip.

“When?” is all he says.

Byleth swallows thickly. “When I was born. The crest stone for the Sword of the Creator - Rhea used it to save me. I was born stillborn.”   

Something shifts in Dimitri’s gaze, sad and broken and all too much for Byleth to bear. This isn’t supposed to be a moment like that - they’re supposed to be consummating something they’ve searched for for a very long time - but instead of being enveloped in the heat of passion, Dimitri wraps his arms around him and squeezes, their bare bodies coming together bringing comfort instead of arousal. Byleth returns the embrace, hiding his face in the juncture between Dimitri’s jaw and neck, fighting hard not to seem as vulnerable as he feels.

“I understand, now,” Dimitri says. “When you revealed your lack of a heartbeat all those months ago, I didn’t. But I do now. Thank you, Byleth.”

Byleth. He tips his chin and kisses Dimitri’s cheek, shifting so his arms are around Dimitri’s shoulders instead of his chest. It presses more of their skin together, and now he cannot ignore the slide of their bodies and the warmth that pools in his guy because of it.

“You can thank me after completing what you started,” Byleth whispers in Dimitri’s ear.

The future King shudders. His hands, so far chastely resting on Byleth’s waist, curl further around his backside, slipping over his ass and squeezing. Byleth wraps a leg around Dimitri’s hips in response, reveling in the surprised gasp it rips from his prince’s lips.

“Your wish is my command,” Dimitri breathes, and for a very long few hours, he doesn’t break that promise.

 

——

 

Of course, marrying a King isn’t that easy. Not where the two of them are concerned.

They keep it a secret - for now. Goddess knows the Lions won’t be able to contain themselves when they find out, and even though he’s certain Jeralt knows, he won’t say a word otherwise. Dimitri’s coronation is the next day, and for the people that reside in the capital city, that means a week long party.

For Byleth, he’d rather it not get any crazier. Dimitri agrees, and while he’d like to just get it over with, they’re content to simply enjoy each other’s company in peace for the time being.

The coronation itself, however, is a different story.

It’s far from peaceful, even as solemn as crowning the prince without a royal family to attend him should be. The people gather in the streets and in the grand hall of the castle, all clamoring to get a view of the prince as he makes his way by horseback up the cobbled streets of the town in a ceremonial path to Kinghood. They cheer and toss flowers and coins, celebrating the return of the royal family, and even in the hall where the nobles are gathered, no one can sit quietly. 

The Lions especially. Byleth is not anointed yet, but he stands up at the King’s throne with a crown in his hands anyways, having eyes for none other than his King to be and his students standing in front of the crowd nearby. Their bright smiling faces give him strength, and as Dimitri approaches, he feels less and less like a fraud in the eyes of the Church.

He doesn’t have much to say. He recites the words given to him by the Church officials, and then Dimitri kneels before him - a mirror of his proposal the day before that makes Byleth’s pulse pick up, though he hopes no one notices his shaking hands - and dips his chin to accept the crown. Byleth places it on his head, careful not to drop it, and holds his hand out to help the King rise in the light streaming in from the stained glass behind him.

“Your King,” Byleth announces. His voice echoes through the hall, and not a second after he speaks, cheers erupt. Dimitri keeps their hands clasped together as flowers and well wishes are tossed his way, his eyes never wavering from Byleth’s. 

Your King,” he says quietly, barely audible through the din in the room. The nobles clamor around them, held back by the presence of Dedue and other knights, giving Byleth time to dip his chin to hide the heat he feels climbing his neck. Dimitri leans forward and kisses his hair, and right there in the pomp and circumstance of the hall is their betrothment announced.

 

——

 

He remembers the day Byleth was born.

His dear wife, his sweet, enduring Marissa. He should have known this would happen, should have predicted that good things never truly come to bless him. He is a walking curse, only good for muscle and a drink - to have and to hold his wife and child was never meant to be.

But she was strong, and in the light cast by the candles in the infirmary, catching the sweat on her brow and the pain on her face, he sees how beautiful she is. She pushes out that tiny dead body and instead of weeping like he is - hot, uncontrollable tears that only her hands seem to stem as she grips his own - she begs for their little baby’s life.

“You must save him,” she pleads. She is not a minute from giving birth and she is already trying to sit up, much to the chagrin of the nurses trying to clean her up. She looks up at the cold, calculating stare of Lady Rhea above her and begs. “Please. Save him.”

Jeralt is too much of a mess to understand the desperation in her voice for what it is. All he hears in that moment is a mother gambling for her son’s life, a desperation so raw it crests his own. He watches as Lady Rhea scoops up the limp body of their son and shoos everyone out with a flick of her wrist. Marissa, her fingers so far intertwined with Jeralt’s, let go.

“You have to let me stay,” he begs as well. “Please, for our baby —“

“It’s best if you don’t,” Marissa soothes. Her hands cup his hair, his jaw, his cheeks. He leans forward so he may kiss her, and she does so reverently, as if it’s their last. “Please, Jeralt.”

There isn’t time. He gets up, his legs wobbly, and follows the last of the staff out. He’s urged away, down the hall and out into the thundering skies, the clouds dark and pregnant with rain. He stands there wondering what it is Lady Rhea could do to save their baby, and for a long time after that, he still wonders.

Because when he’s brought back, their baby is alive and his wife is not. Her body is wrapped in sheets, hidden from view, as if there is too much to show if left revealed. Rhea holds out his baby and reluctantly places him in his arms, and instead of the joy he feels, he feels dread.

“She wanted this,” Rhea says. Her eyes are dead, like a bird’s, like a predator’s. They never truly leave the bundle in his arms. “This was her choice.”

His baby doesn’t cry. He fusses, as babies do, big grey eyes peering up at Jeralt with a curiosity unseen in most newborns. His little hands grip the blanket wrapped around him, and if Jeralt looks close enough, he can see a faint, fresh scar blooming from his little chest.

He buries his wife and escapes from the monastery in the proceeding month. Rhea is not to be trusted - she performed something on his son, and he will not let her dig her hunting claws in his baby if he can help it. He tells her his baby died in the fire he started, weeps and pleads for her to perform a burial for a body they cannot find. After that, he escapes on the fastest horse he can find, a bundle strapped close to his chest and fear trampling his heart to smithereens.

Rhea will not get his baby, he vows. He hasn’t named him yet, hasn’t thought of something Marissa would be proud to have called him. But it is his baby, his flesh and blood, his poor little thing that doesn’t cry even when Jeralt struggles to find a way to feed him. He simply looks up at Jeralt with those eyes that seem deeper than they should be and he vows to never let his son fall into the hands of the Church ever again.

He finds a name, eventually. When his boy can walk and nearly talk. 

“Byleth,” he says. So far, he’s been saying kiddo, something the boy responds to if not from the word than the sound of Jeralt’s voice. The name sounds right, and when Byleth turns, he knows he chose correctly.

A demon, he thinks. A king of the eternal flames, a commander of legions and giver of love to all mortal men. It fits, some part of him says. His boy is not of this world, is neither angel or demon, but in the strike of his sword and spur of his horse, he sees a commander. As his boy grows, he sees a king.

 

——

 

So he gives him back to the Church, in the end. Not as a demon, or dead body. He doesn’t inter his remains in the ground with his dead wife, bless her eternal soul. No - he doesn’t do any of those things.

Instead, he takes his son’s hand and gives it in marriage. He takes his son’s hand and, like a long-past dream buried away in his hopes for his boy, he holds it out for a King to take. Lowly mercenary he may be, but his son is a Goddess now, and who better to marry the blood and flesh of something so holy than a King washed in the sins of his own making? 

He watched this love grow, afterall. Watched it bloom from a simple dance to devotion through hell and heartbreak. Watched his son stand vigilantly over the rantings of his king, watched as a schoolboy crush turned into something some people experience only once in their short lives. He watched it all, from heartbreak to this, to hands held fast as Dimitri’s subjects celebrated. 

He watches as his son is blessed as the new Holy Leader of the Church of Seiros and watches as he pointedly doesn’t enforce the blind devotion Rhea had held fast to in her appointment. He watches as his son - whom he vowed to never abandon to a militarized religion like this, that wanted nothing more than to chew him up and spit him out, bones and all - leaves his people to celebrate and worship as they wish, enforcing nothing but the well-wishes of a Goddess long dead. 

He wonders if his prayers had been answered long ago, when the rain poured down and he thought his boy was lost forever. He wonders if the Goddess heard his pleas for something like this, for a grand wedding and a man to love and protect the son he tried so hard to shield from the worst the world had to offer. When he loops his son’s arm through his own and walks him down the aisle, he thinks she did.

 

——

 

“I’m proud of you.”

Byleth dips his chin. His face is red, he knows it, but it’s been like that since the wedding songs started. They’re nearly to the front of the Cathedral, and Byleth is sure he’s going to explode from embarrassment before he gets there.

Jeralt, so far steady and reserved, leans over and kisses his hair. “I really am,” he says again quietly. “Your mother, too. She’d be proud to see you here.”

They stop at the bottom of the stairs leading up to where Dimitri stands. The rest of the Lions stand behind him in an orderly line, dressed in their armor and looking all the world like the kids they were not so long ago. Byleth takes in their smiling faces, lingering on each one, taking in the lines on their faces and the differences between now and then. He looks at Jeralt, too, dressed in his armor too, wearing a smile so proud and wide Byleth has a hard time returning it.

“I want you to be happy,” Jeralt says. “And taken care of, and free. I know the Church is a big responsibility, but you have a big heart, kiddo. Bigger than whatever it is the Goddess could’ve given you so long ago.”

Byleth feels tears burning hot behind his eyes. He nods. “Thank you, father. For everything. For taking care of me, and protecting me, and giving me the blessing of being here right now.”

Jeralt snorts. He tips his head towards Dimitri, his smile turning sly. “When I saw you dance for the first time, I don’t think I could ever bear to watch you abandon what you wanted even if I tried.” He brushes a strand of hair out of Byleth’s face, soft and gentle. “Now go. I think you have a life to live, kiddo.”

“You’re a part of that, you know,” Byleth says through a grin. Jeralt nods, a knowing smile on his face, and holds Byleth’s hand out to take. Dimitri steps down the three steps to get to them and graciously accepts, bowing as deeply as he can go.

“Thank you, Jeralt Eisner,” he says, “for the offering of your son’s hand.”

“You protect him, y’hear?” Jeralt says. His tone is good-natured, if edged with the knowledge he will follow up on hunting Dimitri down should he decide to revert back to how he was several months ago. 

Dimitri straightens and smiles graciously. “Of course. You have my word that you may cut me down yourself if I don’t.”

“Not if I do it first,” Felix grumbles behind him.

“Fe,”  Sylvain hisses.

Jeralt laughs. He releases Byleth, his hands dropping away, and goes to stand on Byleth’s side of the procession, next to the priest to ordain the union. “You’ve got a good set of kids, kiddo.”

Byleth nods. However, he can only stare at Dimitri, who smiles at him and leads him up to their places before the priest. After that, everything is a blur of vows and kisses, and for a long time Byleth wonders if Jeralt knew this would happen all along.

 

——

 

“Live a long life,” Sothis says to the sky. Vultures pick at her flesh and soon, her bones will be pillaged for something new, something greater. A sword, the future says, a sword and stone for the hands of the dead thing she left in her temple.

“Live long, and happy, and without reservations,” she says. He daughter screams and screams. “Love with all your heart, and one day, it won’t hurt anymore.”

Her daughter steals away her heart, while her enemies steal her bones. Byleth sleeps, a soul without a vessel, a thousand years away from being what he must. She curls herself around him and vows to protect what she created even as he body turns to dust and his essence forgets what he must be.

 

——

 

He does live for a long time. A long, long time.

 

——

 

He watches the Lions age. He attends Felix and Sylvain’s wedding, as both guest and ordainer. He watches them both grow to become the Duke and Margrave of their combined territories, protectors of the Kingdom and dear friends to him and his King. They love fiercely, as only they could, two men who have grown together through the blood and torture their families wrought upon them. They die peacefully in the arms of each other, old and happy and accomplished, and he buries them together, too, as their children cry and mourn over a love so strong lost to them forever. 

He brings Dedue’s grave Duscur flowers, watches them grow and mould to the headstone sharing Ashe’s name, too. They lived as they died - valiant, kind knights, serving the people and fighting for the people of Duscur’s place in the kingdom. He wishes they could see the fields of Duscur as they are now, blooming with vibrant wildflowers of every color as villages crop up on the bones of the fallen, a culture rebuilding itself from its own ashes. He wishes them well, and watches over them as their patron god.

Ingrid he buries with her Pegasus, loyal to her even in her old age. She flew skies as aid and tactician to the King, scout and warrior alike. She married not out of necessity, but out of love, and through her hard work, made the name Galatea a prosperous one. Her wife dies long after her, in old age rather than by sword, and for a long time Byleth watches over their grandchildren as they flourish in the lands their grandmother once protected.

Mercedes and Annette, too, he buries together. Two accomplished mages they were, working diligently together to fight and to heal, two sides to the same coin. He cherishes the meals they shared and the times spent teaching him his own magic, too, and when he goes to send them off, he tries his best not to cry. Mercedes wouldn’t want him to cry, and so he remembers them as they were, vibrant and happy, and memorializes them in his memory like that instead.

But one death he cannot hold his tears for is his King’s. No matter how hard he tries, whenever he returns to the royal graveyards, he cannot stop himself from weeping.

Because he lived a long life, a good life. They were young men for a long time, and to say he didn’t enjoy that time would be a lie. They kissed and made love and sometimes wouldn’t leave bed for days. Dimitri was a King, a man whose attention everyone constantly demanded, and still he made time to lazily wrap his strong arms round Byleth’s middle and kiss him until he couldn’t breathe.

He made time for intimate meals and horseback rides, for tea and sparring sessions. Their duties brought them apart sometimes, King and Holy Grace alike being pulled in opposite directions. And yet they always met again, after weeks or months spent apart, always with a hug and a kiss and an I missed you.

He misses now, too, Dimitri’s soft lips and tight embrace. He misses the small things, the way his hair always curled in the steam of a bath or the way he melted under Byleth’s hands when they were finally left alone. He misses the way Dimitri wrote him little love letters, slipping them along with his correspondence as if they were school children instead of world leaders. He misses his soft words in the warm dark of long evenings and the way his eye always crinkled when be smiled.

He misses him, like an ache neverending, a heart never beating. He sits at the foot of Dimitri’s grave, listening to the sounds of thunder rolling in the near distance as something profound in him finally breaks, a heart broken, a soul without its equal. He sits for a long time, and inside him Sothis mourns. He sits and cries, and even the hands of his father, soothing across his shoulders, cannot rouse him from this loss.

“Come,” he hears his father say anyway. For a long time, he didn’t understand that his father could live just as long as he could. Now, it’s a blessing, one Byleth cradles close even as he weeps.

Byleth eventually obeys. There is nothing left here, nothing but memories long past. He leaves behind a scale, a single, tiny thing, translucent in the fading light of the say. It is a part of him, a promise and an offering. After laying it in the grass and flowers, he stands, heeding Jeralt’s gentle hands on his shoulders.

He does live a long time. But he never forgets, and in time, he loves again. He never buries his father, and his father never buries him, and for years and years to come, he doesn’t fear what that kind of loss will bring. He mourns it, and cries for it, and for the rest of his days, he carries it marked into his unbeating heart, just as Sothis did before him. 

Chapter Text

His first kiss was with a young woman.

He can’t remember her name - much like he doesn’t remember his childhood. He can’t remember her face, or what she liked, or even if she was a neighbor or friend - the only thing he can remember was no, I don’t like this.

And he didn’t. From what Jeralt tells him, she smacked him so hard her handprint was still on his cheek the next day, and while Byleth didn’t often feel embarrassed, he did when the story was recounted to him. 

“You looked like a cat dunked in water,” Jeralt wheezes. He always finds stories like these hilarious, and if Byleth could muster up a smile, he probably would. Jeralt takes pleasure in his own amusement despite it, wiping a small tear from his eye. “Kiddo, you were so shocked. From that day on, I knew you weren’t a ladies man.”

“I could be,” Byleth says with the confidence of someone who couldn’t be.

Jeralt guffaws. “You keep telling yourself that!”

Byleth frowns. Why couldn’t he? He never noticed himself having a preference, and besides, he knew plenty of women that could possibly be amenable to… activities

Jeralt, by some force of nature, smiles knowingly. “Nuhuh, kiddo. Don’t even think about it.”

He points an accusatory finger at Byleth. Byleth blinks, his eyes squinting. How does his father know?

“Because parents are supposed to know,” Jeralt taunts, waving the finger.

“You don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I know it was going to get your ass kicked six ways from Sunday. Don’t pretend you weren’t thinking of trying to find a girl, kiddo.”

Byleth frowns. “So? The others frequently find partners when we stop in towns. Is it really so strange if I try too?”

Jeralt, smiling up until now, frowns just as well. He knocks Byleth’s elbow with his own, a soft look coming onto his face.

“Just let stuff like that come naturally,” he says. “There’s no rush. If you find yourself someone nice, then go for it. But the others? They’re just out for a good time. You don’t strike me like that kinda person.”

Byleth doesn’t know what to say to that. He doesn’t even know what kind of person he is, either, so to think he has the confidence to chase pleasure like the other mercenaries do would be foolish. He’s always been alone, and yet —

 

——

 

— he does, eventually, find his way into someone’s bed.

Not by accident, but not quite by choice, either. It’d been a convenience, and at the time, Byleth thought nothing of it.

He doesn’t remember the man’s face. Only his hands, worn and calloused from sword fighting. They’d felt incredibly nice against the skin of his cheek as the man clumsily tried to flirt, a back and forth Byleth didn’t bother to return. The man didn’t seem to mind, and for several hours afterwards, neither did Byleth.

He focused only on those hands for a long time. The press and twist of rough fingers working him open; the dry rasp of skin gone numb from hard labor across the sensitive skin of his back and thighs. He especially enjoyed the faint bruises those hands left on his hips after being roughly fucked senseless, because at any other time, a bruise or a scar meant he’d been hurt instead. 

He liked it. Liked the feeling of being filled with a heavy cock and a man’s breath at his ear. He liked how messy it was, how uncoordinated the simple act of a body joining his own made him feel. His muscles spasming and relaxing, a push and pull of mouths and hands and cocks and breath, an ebb and flow that was entirely unfamiliar yet not so far removed from sword fighting. His body knew the moves, but those hands guided them into dangerous efficiency, and while the man called his name, Byleth only remembered that simple point of contact.

His hands. 

He didn’t exactly seek it out after that. Sex was good, releasing a tension coiled low inside him he didn’t know he carried. It was nice, sometimes, to use himself for something other than killing.

And apparently he was good at it. He liked being in control no matter the position, and that afforded him partners that he wouldn’t have otherwise been with. He liked forcing a man to obey him even as he rode a stranger’s cock - he liked watching a body come undone underneath him as he used only his hands to bring a man off. There was a certain thrill that came with hearing a man shout his name as he cums, and that more than anything is what drives him to find partners when they stop in town.

Not all the time. Not every town. Jeralt has surely noticed, and while he hasn’t said anything, he’s sure his father will scold him for his libido if he keeps it up. So he paces himself, and like an addict moderating consumption, finds balance.

He’s young, afterall. He’s afforded some room where sex is involved, damned the consequences. 

(Even if his dad shoots daggers at him after emerging from his room more disheveled than normal. Totally worth it).

 

——

 

But there’s something missing in the encounters he has with these strange men.

Something hollow and barren. They fuck hard and passionately, deep and filling like they don’t know how to do anything else. Byleth enjoys it for what it is, for the physical exhaustion as well as the feeling of hands on him that don’t want to hurt.

But it’s wrong. Wrong like a stumble mid-fight, a missed step on the stairs, a decision made too hastily. He realizes it as a man is pushing into him one night with his breath hot on Byleth’s neck and cock thick and filling as he thrusts inside.

It’s just that, he thinks. A body to use and discard once he’s cummed. A sweet release and then it’s over - he will never see this person again. Never know how intimately he wants to be touched or held, never know the full extent the feelings this man is capable of having. 

He’s just a hole to fuck or be fucked. That drives him to finish this rendezvous as quickly as possible, shoving back so this man will fill him and leave. The man fucks hard and fast, their skin slapping together loudly in the dark of Byleth’s room, breath quick and humid. He cums and it’s still a nice feeling being used like that, having fingers probing him when he’s wet and messy, a stimulation of nerves not quite shot enough to hurt. 

But when they’re calmed enough to manage to dress, Byleth kicks the man out. He ignores his insults and cleans up as best he can, feeling for the first time the heat of shame burning his cheeks. Jeralt doesn’t mention it even though he notices, a blessing as well as a curse.

He doesn’t find partners after that. He can’t, not when something calls out in him for something more than a fast lay in the quiet of the evening. His chest aches with it, painful as it twists and awakens inside him. That’s the end, then, and for a long time he wonders if he’s broken for even trying.

 

——

 

He’s not broken. Just tired, and confused, and for a while, not entirely sure why he’s anything at all.

 

——

 

He forgets after a while. He forgets a lot. Sothis is the cause, but he doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t begrudge her. Forgetting is not so bad when he doesn’t know what he’s missing.

And there is something missing. He can’t quite place it, not even when he finds a place amongst the staff at Garreg Mach and begins his new life as a professor instead of a mercenary. Many blanks are filled in for him except for one - what this ache in his chest really means.

A lack of soul, maybe, and thats why he doesn’t understand the growing need in him to find something that completes him. Fighting only fills the void, and it’s not nearly enough just to get to know his students. He loves them and would kill for them if it’s the last thing he ever did.

But it’s not enough. Not for a while. Not until one fateful dance under the falling snow.

 

——

 

He’s doomed after that.

 

——

 

So is Dimitri.

 

——

 

There were moments, though. Small ones like this.

Dimitri wrapped around him like a great beast, his long limbs trapping him against his chest. Byleth didn’t mind one bit, especially since it was cold - until one hot hand slid down his back, fingers curling under the hem of his shirt. 

Byleth jolts, feeling his body stiffen. “Dimitri?”

The hand retracts like it was bitten. “Sorry,” Dimitri mumbles. “I just thought -“

They’re not two weeks after Rodrigue’s death - two weeks since Byleth invited Dimitri to share his bed. Becoming intimate like that hadn’t come with the proposition, and in all honesty, hadn’t been on Byleth’s mind. Dimitri was still struggling, and to take advantage of him like that —

Byleth frowns. He shifts, rolling partially away and disentangling their limbs in the process.

“Am I making you feel like you should?” Byleth asks.

Dimitri blinks back at him, a sheepish look on his face. Even in the dim light from the dying fire behind him, Byleth can see his hesitation.

“We could,” he says, “if you want to. If that’s what you want.”

He sounds lost. Like if Byleth said yes, he wouldn’t know what to do. To prove his point, Byleth takes Dimitri’s hands and places them low on his hips, rising up on an elbow to lean over the prince so he has more room. 

“Would you know where to start?” Byleth asks, not unkindly.

Dimitri’s hands, though warm, twitch against Byleth’s hips. He shifts them away, shaking his head.

Byleth takes them and returns them, sinking back down into a more comfortable - and confident - embrace. Like before, Dimitri squeezes him to his chest, burying his nose in the crown of Byleth’s hair.

“You needn’t force yourself,” Byleth says quietly. He returns the hug, relaxing into the body under him. Dimitri is so warm. “It will come, if at all. Do not think I expect it of you.”

Dimitri can do nothing but nod. He wraps the blankets around them like a cocoon, hiding them away from the bitter cold the fire is barely keeping at bay.

“But you will tell me, won’t you?” Dimitri asks.

Byleth nods. In the dark of their shared nest, he kisses his prince, finding him smiling despite his nerves. Dimitri’s hands wander after that, whispers of calloused skin over his clothed shoulders and back. Byleth allows it, letting him find his confidence, falling asleep to the touch of a man that wants more from him than something hard and fast.

It’s Dimitri’s ritual after that. His hands grow more comfortable with Byleth’s body, roaming his sides and thighs and feet like a man feeling his way through a maze. It isn’t sexual, but it’s nice, and Byleth returns the favor after a while.

Dimitri is all hard muscle and battle scars, worn down through time and fatigue. He ends up sleeping without a shirt most nights because of Byleth’s hands exploring him, memorizing the starbursts and swipes etched onto his skin forever. There are arrow wounds and sword wounds, magic and creature wounds - Byleth even finds a tiny, self-inflicted set of scars on Dimitri’s wrists, a ladder of faint lines crawling up his forearms like spiderwebs.

Those, he leans down to kiss. He kisses them all after that, even lifting the eyepatch and kissing the scarred-shut mess of his right eye. He kisses Dimitri for a long time after that, an apology on his lips after they part. Dimitri doesn’t have it, instead returning to roam like before, gentle and eager to learn.

It isn’t until the war is over and there's a ring on his finger that they try. It fails because of his own scars, as horrific and telling as they are. They try again and again, always ending up where they began - nowhere at all - until one day Byleth can’t help but ask.

 

——

 

Dimitri can’t help but answer.

 

——

 

“Are you sure?”

He nods. He wants to laugh, but no, this is his King. If anyone deserves a laugh it’s his King.

“I don’t want to push you,” Dimitri says. Even still, he scoots closer, draping his taller frame over Byleth’s. A comfortable weight, one Byleth finds his courage in as he wraps his arms around Dimitri’s middle.

“We didn’t get to before,” Byleth says quietly. “So yes. It’s alright. I wouldn’t have this any other way.” 

Dimitri hides his blushing face in Byleth’s hair. He doesn’t speak, but the arms caging Byleth in are enough of an answer on their own. Dimitri isn’t letting him go, not now that he’s got him. Not now that they won’t be interrupted.

Maybe he finds confidence in that. Enough to bring his hands skating down Dimitri’s strong back, over lean muscle and scars too many to count. Dimitri sighs, relaxing into his hands, his weight growing heavier as every bone in his body melts.

Byleth smiles and kisses his jaw. His fingers toy with the hem of Dimitri’s leggings, and the King squirms.

“You needn’t ask,” Dimitri says shakily. 

Their mouths come together briefly. “I must insist, Your Majesty,” Byleth teases.

“Your Grace,” Dimitri grits. Byleth ventures a hand down Dimitri’s leggings, his calloused fingers dipping low between two firm cheeks. Dimitri shudders, his body going slack again. His voice loses its authority, replaced with a whimpered “Please.”

“Perhaps it is you that must do the asking,” Byleth says with a smile. His fingers stop short on their adventure, retracting back to glide over Dimitri’s clothed flank. Dimitri releases a shuddered sigh, his hips grinding down in a delicious instinctive circle.

“We have waited too long,” Dimitri says. Some semblance of authority returns to him, and in a swift move Byleth wasn’t expecting, he pins Byleth’s wrists at his sides to the bed. 

Byleth sucks in a breath. There’s an animalistic look in Dimitri’s eye as he looks up at him, something feral curling at his lip. Never in a million years would Byleth admit to that turning him on, but the smile on Dimitri’s face tells him he already knows.

“I’ll ask kindly,” Dimitri says, sickly sweet. He releases Byleth’s hands and dips his head, using his teeth to pluck at the hem of Byleth’s leggings. It’s all he needs to ask for Byleth to reach down and wiggle out of them. 

“When did you get so pushy?” Byleth breathes. 

“When you got so hesitant about touching me,” Dimitri shoots back. “I am not made of glass, beloved.”

The nickname strikes the words from Byleth’s lips. He allows Dimitri to undress him the rest of the way, his face burning and body acclimating to the presence of another on top of him. It’s been a long time, but this is familiar, and despite his embarrassment, he finds the courage to urge Dimitri further down when his leggings disappear over the King’s shoulder.

Dimitri is apparently finished playing games as well. He follows the guiding hand on his neck, his lips trailing kisses down Byleth’s hip to the soft flesh connecting thigh to groin. He mouths at it, tongue laving and breath coming hot and long. Byleth gasps, his hips arching up, his insides beginning to flutter with arousal as it courses like molten metal through his veins. Only then does Dimitri lick a stripe up the underside of his cock, making them both groan.

He guides Dimitri as well as he can, fingers curling in his hair, pulling strands from the ponytail coming loose at the back of his head. Dimitri follows his movements, taking him in one swallow, his apparent lack of a gag reflex nearly making Byleth choke. He knew Dimitri spent a long time eating near-raw meat during the five years he was gone, but for him to be able to do this —

His brain helpfully shuts up when Dimitri sucks him down all the way to the root. Byleth feels his toes curl, his thighs locking up and the heat growing in his belly flaring. It takes everything he has not to rip Dimitri’s hair out when he pulls away, wiping his mouth on the back of his wrist as he pants.

“That’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” he laughs.

Byleth can barely move. He blinks down at Dimitri, confusion writ plainly on his face. Dimitri merely shrugs, climbing back up so they’re face to face. 

“Speechless, I see,” Dimitri teases.

Byleth finds his voice and narrows his eyes in a glare. “Careful, Your Majesty.”

He flips them, thankful Dimitri doesn’t try to counter with his strength. Instead, he allows Byleth to kiss him, on his face and neck and ears. They relax like that, the heat from before simmering low, hands wandering and kisses degrading into nips and licks.

Byleth trails his kisses down, over a pronounced collar bone and scarred chest. He kisses Dimitri’s ribs, and when he gets to his navel, Dimitri’s hands come around to caress his back and hair. It elicits a shudder up his spine, calluses catching on scars as he moves, a gentle touch meant to encourage. Byleth slides the soft fabric of his leggings over those strong legs, relishing in the pent-up power underneath Dimitri’s skin as he tosses them away. Byleth licks down Dimitri’s stomach, then kisses back up, climbing over his hips to straddle him properly.

Dimitri blushes red, his hands curling around Byleth’s hips. He blinks up at him, suddenly unsure. Byleth takes pity on him and takes both their cocks up in his hand.

Dimitri’s eyes flutter and he sighs, long and low. His feet plant on the bed and his hands dig bruises into Byleth’s skin, thumbs pressing into the dip of his hip bones. Byleth relishes in the slide of their skin together before releasing them, moving away just enough to grab the oil he left on the bedside table before they started.

He leans down and kisses Dimitri in the same movement, disguising the pop of the bottle with the sounds of their lips coming together. Dimitri grinds up against him, seeking friction as Byleth guides their hips together. It’s an easy slide of skin, if a bit dry, but distracting enough that when Byleth takes one of Dimitri’s hands and coats his fingers in oil, the King doesn’t immediately pull away at the strange sensation.

He does stiffen when Byleth guides his hand down the small of his back and down behind him. Dimitri straightens up, propped up on one elbow, staring up at him like he’s been told his entire Kingdom has just been burned down.

“I’ve never done this,” Dimitri says sincerely. His fingers twitch just above Byleth’s cheeks, rigid and frozen. Byleth doesn’t push, but he does have to fight an eyeroll.

“I have,” Byleth assures. “You can’t hurt me, Dima.”

Dimitri’s expression withers into something hesitant but fond. Byleth kisses him, slow and languid, leaning forward so Dimitri has no choice but to lay back and allow his hand to slip low between Byleth’s asscheeks.

It’s been a long time, but the sensation of fingers massaging his hole never gets old. It helps that this is Dimitri, a man he loves more than anything his heart could describe - his star, his moon, his King. He doesn’t direct Dimitri like he would a quick lay, doesn’t demand or critique as his rough but gentle fingers start circling his hole, not quite pressing in but never staying still, either. He simply enjoys the feeling, his muscles going slack and his body responding in ways it hasn’t for a long while.

Dimitri rolls them over slightly so they’re on their sides, giving his wrist a better angle as he hesitantly slips one finger inside of him. Byleth sighs, shuddering, the heat in his belly pooling hot like liquid fire. He clings to Dimitri as a second finger is slowly added, wrapping arms around his neck and bringing him down for a sloppy, uncoordinated kiss.

“I haven’t done this before,” Dimitri whispers against his lips. If it weren’t for the fingers in his ass, Byleth would laugh, but he only musters a smile.

“You’re doing just fine,” he says. “You needn’t be afraid.”

He strokes Dimitri’s hair out of his face as he attempts to hide it in the crook of Byleth’s neck. His fingers press in deeper, eliciting a soft moan from Byleth. He hooks a leg over Dimitri’s hips to make things easier, and somehow Dimitri turns redder.

It’s cute, and it expands Byleth’s nonexistent heart tenfold. He kisses Dimitri’s cheeks, his scarred eye, his forehead. It takes more effort not to let out a shuttering moan as Dimitri’s long fingers probe him, brushing the spot inside him that makes his body tense and melt. And then he realizes they don’t have to hide - they’re in their own bed in their rooms. He lets his body and throat relax after that, and the absolutely delicious look on Dimitri’s face when he sighs at the fingers stretching him makes his cock twitch.

Dimitri lurches forward and sucks a bruising kiss under the hinge of his jaw, previous hesitancy gone. His teeth nip at his throat and collarbone, little points of electricity amidst the warm licks and kisses he drops on Byleth’s skin. His fingers twist, adding a third, and Byleth sees stars - Dimitri kisses him through the moan, hungrily chasing his voice before removing the fingers completely.

“Please,” Dimitri says desperately against his lips. He sounds like a drowning man, like someone left desperately without that which will give them life. He rolls their hips together on instict, their wet cocks coming together, pressing Byleth down into the bed with a strength that makes him hot.

Byleth scrabbles for the bottle of oil and somehow manages not to spill most of it when he slicks up Dimitri’s length. The weight of it in his hand distracts him for a moment - it’s nicely curved, the head peeking out of the foreskin a soft red, and when he gives it a few strokes, Dimitri sighs through his nose. He hooks his leg higher over Dimitri’s hip, the King’s hands coming around his back and rolling him on top. The bruises on hips don’t quite hurt yet, so when he guides himself down and presses the head of Dimitri’s cock against his hole, he doesn’t feel the pain of Dimitri’s nails digging crescents into his skin.

“Oh, Goddess,” Dimitri groans as Byleth sinks down. The hot weight inside him is mouth-watering, and it takes all of Byleth’s energy not to start riding right there. But he takes his time, Dimitri moaning soft words of encouragement under him, every slick inch slipping inside him just another reason for him to take this slow.

And then he bottoms out with a shaky sigh, settling onto Dimitri’s hips with his hands planted firmly on his stomach. Dimitri blinks up at him, dazed and waiting, his fingers beginning to soothe the scratches he left on Byleth’s hips.

Byleth leans over and kisses those waiting lips, all teeth and tongue. He raises his hips just enough to lose an inch or so of Dimitri’s cock, and then slides down again, swallowing the surprised breath it drags from his King.

They don’t say much else after that. Dimitri lets his hands wander as Byleth sits up and starts rolling his hips in earnest, setting a slow and easy pace for them both to enjoy. The King’s fingers soothe scratches as much as he inflicts them, nails dragging down Byleth’s thighs and palms dragging back up as if in apology, only to do it again when Byleth whimpers from the combination of pain and pleasure. After that, Dimitri doesn’t hold himself back, letting his hands pinch and scratch, unwilling to draw blood but hard enough to leave red tracks down Byleth’s hips and stomach and thighs. 

Byleth spreads his legs wider and tries to put on a show despite the fog of pleasure clouding his thoughts as Dimitri’s questing hands never leave him. He leans back on his King’s thighs, dragging his hips up until only the tip of Dimitri’s cock is left inside him, and then sinking back down, the slap of their skin drawing a moan from them both. Dimitri’s hands are gentler as the encircle his back and draw him close, pressing their stomachs and chests together before rolling them over without drawing himself out of Byleth’s body. The weight of Dimitri on top of him is hot and not at all oppressive, and when he wraps his arms around Dimitri’s neck, the King takes it as the sign it is and rolls his hips in one long, delicious circle.

Oh, Dima,” Byleth moans. The strong body above him shudders, the muscles in Dimitri’s back twitching, his hips driving up and into him in a pace much quicker than before.

Dimitri turns his face and kisses his jaw. “My beloved,” Dimitri sighs back. He hooks his arms under Byleth’s knees, drawing his legs apart as he hooks them over his hips, his cock pistoning deeper. Dimitri’s breath comes in hot, quick pants against his cheek, his lips whispering “my beloved, my beloved” over and over like a prayer.

And maybe it is, in the end. Maybe it’s the combination of sweat and cum and oil between them, or the platitudes Dimitri can’t help but moan as he drives them closer and closer to the edge. Or maybe it’s the weight of a body on top of him, a cock inside him, hands roaming his battle-worn skin - or maybe it’s nothing at all, and it’s simply time.

Byleth feels more than he knows he’s coming, his body flooding with heat and every bone and muscle tensing and relaxing at once. He clings to Dimitri, pressing kisses into his whispering lips, swallowing his moans as the King chases his orgasm. He wraps his thighs tighter around Dimitri’s hips and tries not to cry out from overstimulation, turning his head to press kisses into the sweat-damp hair at Dimitri’s temple.

“Come inside me,” he breathes. Dimitri shudders, his hips faltering before driving his cock inside even faster. Byleth whimpers, feeling tears prick at his eyes. “Please, Dima. My beloved.”

“Oh, Byleth,” Dimitri moans, nearly a shout, and with one hard thrust he cums. He shoves his cock inside, a thick, heady weight that Byleth can feel at the back of his throat, a hot wetness following immediately after. It takes a long moment before Dimitri starts to relax, but even then he doesn’t move to pull out or release him.

Byleth wouldn’t let him leave even if he wanted to. He feels full, hot inside and outside, and without moving too much and drags Dimitri down for a kiss. Their bodies melt together, Byleth’s cum sticking to their stomachs and sweat making their skin tacky. Byleth doesn’t mind, and by the way Dimitri languidly kisses him, tongue delving deep to taste him, he figures he doesn’t mind, either.

They doze for a while, exchanging kisses and soft touches. Dimitri softens and slips out, leaving cum to dribble out onto the sheets. He gets up and sheepishly wipes them both clean with a towel from the adjoining washroom, his fingers gentle on Byleth’s sensitive skin. He returns to bed and starts kissing him, beginning at Byleth’s still-trembling thighs and moving up, lips careful on the red welts his nails had left behind.

“I apologize,” Dimitri says. His breath tickles Byleth’s warm skin, cooling sweat on his abdomen. He kisses another scratch, carefully laving his tongue over it to soothe. Byleth strokes his hair, feeling warmth building in his chest.

“It’s alright,” Byleth assures. Dimitri hums and licks another welt, this one raking across his ribcage. He draws Dimitri back up to him, cupping his face as a smile graces his lips. “We finally consummated our marriage, you know.”

A deep flush reddens Dimitri’s face and neck. He returns the kiss earnestly, hands finding their place along Byleth’s hips and thighs.

“Thank you,” he breathes, “for being my guide.”

Byleth huffs a laugh. “You needed little guidance, my King. Your body knew what you wanted.”

“Still,” he says. He turns his face and kisses Byleth’s temple. He settles his weight on top of him, their arms coming around to embrace each other. Byleth can feel his smile against his hair. “Thank you.”

“My Dima,” Byleth sighs. 

Dimitri hugs him tighter. Their lips come together, a kiss to eclipse all others with how soft and warm it is.

“My beloved,” Dimitri whispers back. 

They relax like that, sated and contented. It takes a long while for them to return to the world, but even then, they do it hand in hand, King to Archbishop, husband to husband.