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Sharpen Your Knife

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Hubert was loath to admit that Byleth was a fairly competent teacher. He was even more loath to admit that she was particularly suited to teach him. He had smirked to himself when she’d first begun to work with their class, seeing how gently coaxing she was with Bernadetta and assuming it would be easy for him to brush her off by demonstrating basic battlefield competence.

That first week he’d given her a technically perfect magical display, impressive but hardly taxing of his abilities. “As you can see, Professor, I’m more than capable of defending myself.” A flash of his teeth. “I suspect your time would be better spent on some of your more… inexperienced students.” And with Byleth otherwise occupied, he’d have more time to weave Lady Edelgard’s webs.

Byleth hadn’t smiled, hadn’t frowned. Just stared, with that frustratingly tepid expression. “Good, but I know you can do better.” And then she’d walked away, wiping the smirk from his face.

If she had been a lesser teacher, if her challenges to him had been merely busywork, he would have resented her. But her trials stretched him. He found himself avoiding Byleth in the library as she worked her way through books on magic, deep into the evening.

He himself dealt with the Empire’s business on his long, late nights. Tangled little details that Lady Edelgard did not need to concern herself with, and acts that would only burden her conscience had he not taken them on in her stead. This was House Vestra’s purpose, this was House Vestra’s duty. Byleth would cross the class towards him the morning after, and they would start again.

She had given him a bag of coffee earlier that week, a reward for his hard work, as if a gift was an idle thing. He had gone so far as to drink it, after assuring himself that it contained no unusual chemical additions. He had gone so far as to enjoy it, and wonder if Byleth had studied him this deeply or if she was merely lucky.

Hubert had continued to assume that even with her reading, he would reach the end of Byleth’s spellcasting expertise sooner rather than later, and be relinquished from her attentions. Her training was frustratingly valuable, but so were his preparations for after Lady Edelgard's coronation.

Byleth put a hand out to stop him.

“Yes, Professor?” Hubert asked. Dust hung in the heavy light that fell through the classroom windows, and she walked towards him, watching him carefully with her void-dark eyes.

“Your footwork is stiff,” Byleth said. “You need to be prepared to respond to a counterattack.”

But wherever her spellcasting expertise might have ended, she had killed enough mages to continue to advise him on where her former adversaries had gone wrong with brutal battlefield pragmatism. Most that he fought on Lady Edelgard’s behalf would not have the chance to strike back against him. But some would. Byleth fetched a training lance from the rack in the classroom, and tossed it to him.

“We still have some time. Spar with me, and watch my footwork.”

Byleth drew her dulled blade, and gestured for him to move first.

This duplicitous woman, practiced in mystery. Hubert would watch her closely, of course. Attempt to pry the weaknesses from her body, in case the time should come when he needed to fight her like this on the battlefield. Take her lessons and, should she betray Lady Edelgard, twist them against her in turn.

He decided to surprise her with a spell. His lash of dark magic cracked against the chalkboard as Byleth lunged towards him, so close to the ground that her free hand touched it, steady, still moving towards him.

This wasn't the training ground, where she would have knocked him clear into the soft dirt. Faster than he could calculate, he landed hard against her desk, found her sword pressed to his throat.

“You cast from your core, which seems to be good for your aim.” Inches from his face, close enough to feel her breath if not her heartbeat, she lectured him. “But you lack flexibility.”

Byleth drew back, her expression still set in the flat mask she wore to war. “You'll be practicing with Dorothea tomorrow. Watch how she moves; I think you'll be able to something from her.” She pressed something into his hand as she turned away. A button from his uniform. Even with her blunted sword, her message was clear. If they hadn’t been practicing, this would have been his face, his neck, his heart.

Testing her had been a mistake. The rest of the class apparently found what had happened very entertaining. Caspar would be retelling this for weeks. The bruise she left across his spine was mild, though Byleth warned him not to strain himself in case he should exacerbate it. The bruise she left across his pride was worse.

Lady Edelgard visited his room that night.

“Hubert,” she hissed. “I told you not to antagonise our teacher. What were you thinking?”

Hubert laughed darkly. His white-gloved hands worked the needle in-out, in-out, deftly re-attaching the severed button. Easy as adding a concealed pocket to a jacket, or stitching a wound. “Whether I could kill her, if I had to.”

He found himself watching Byleth when she sparred with other students. How she moved. She had the capacity for calculation, clearly, but lived by her instincts, as if there was no barrier between her brain and the rest of her body. Something between animal and human; honed reflexes, purposeful ferocity, her sword an extension of her shoulder. She moved differently when she fought Lady Edelgard, given that she was training in heavier armour, but he could see the principles.

To his irritation, Byleth was also right about how much he could learn from Dorothea. Light on her feet and fluid in her movements, whatever she was casting.

“It’s like dancing, Hubie,” Dorothea explained, with a pinkish grin. “You have to keep moving.”

He had declined Dorothea’s offer of dancing lessons. Continued to spar, instead. With Caspar, Ferdinand, Petra, people whose survival depended on their alacrity.

Byleth met him again the next week. In the training grounds rather than the classroom, this time. And this time, he didn’t play any tricks. In silent concentration, they fought back and forth across the sand. It would take more practice for him to perfect what she was trying to teach him, but he already felt more aware. He knew where his feet were, even if he could tell she was pulling blows against his arms. He didn’t let himself linger.

“I can see you’ve put a lot of work in,” she said. He steadied himself with his lance, breathed slowly and deeply to disguise that he was panting. She paused, and he thought he saw a glimmer of something else. A smile or a word, awkward or devious. “You’ve improved. You should be proud.”

Hubert scoffed. “Please, Professor. I don’t need empty words.”

Byleth slowly sheathed her sword. “You dislike gifts and you dislike praise. How should I encourage you to continue when you’ve done well?”

Hubert grinned. “I dislike flattery, Professor.”

“Why do you think I’m flattering you, Hubert?” she asked, tilting her head gently.

“Because to serve Lady Edelgard requires perfection, and I have not yet attained it,” he replied. “You could still kill me easily, if you wanted to. You’ve demonstrated that quite clearly. Until I can take your throat just as easily as you can take mine, I will still have work to do. And as long as I still have work to do, I do not need your platitudes. House Vestra’s philosophy is to punish failures, rather than to reward mediocrity. Do not praise me for that which I do because I need to. And do not praise me thinking it will win you into my confidence.”

To his surprise, she simply nodded. “When you live as a weapon, surviving is its own reward. I hadn’t expected any of my students to be living as mercenaries do.” She hesitated, eyes darting to meet his. “Meet me here again next week, if you’d like to keep working on this.”

“Very well,” he replied. “But do not think this means I trust you.”

“I won’t,” she said.

The training ground fell silent as she walked away. Hubert found himself wondering if she would turn around, wondering if she had something else to say.