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Saint's Favor

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For some unfathomable reason, Seteth’s office had become the meeting place for the faculty debriefings, despite their perfectly serviceable meeting quarters on the other end of the hall. Any moment now and the rest of the Academy faculty would descend in a chattering maelstrom upon his peace and he would get nothing else done until they had finished their discussions and departed once again.

Seteth was already in the process of clearing off his desk when a knock at his door drew his attention.

Somehow, he was not surprised to see the new Professor standing in his doorway. Manuela and Hanneman had ceased knocking ages ago and Flayn would have bounded inside without a thought, tales of her day’s adventures already spilling from her lips.

“Ah, Professor. Do come in.” Seteth gestured to one of the chairs in the corner and Byleth entered with a nod of thanks.

“Am I early?” she asked, voice soft and Seteth shook his head.

“On the contrary. The others are late, as per usual. You are right on time.”

Instead of taking a seat, Byleth wandered over to peer at some of the schematics Seteth had tacked on the wall beside his desk. Plans for Monastery improvements, battle strategies, fortifications… her eyes flicked from sketch to sketch until Seteth, feeling oddly uncomfortable, felt compelled to break the silence.

“I am no artist,” he confessed, crossing the room to stand beside her. “But occasionally some ideas must be sketched rather than written out.”

“They’re quite advanced, some of these fortifications,” Byleth said, turning her gaze to him instead. Seteth considered the schematics.

“Actually, perhaps the point of view of someone outside the Monastery--” he began, but was interrupted by another voice.

“There you are, kid,” Jeralt said. He was leaning in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, and Seteth, for reasons he could not quite puzzle out, took a step away from Byleth, crossing back to his desk and picking up a sheet of paper, only to put it back down again when it turned out to be blank.

“Were you looking for me?” Byleth asked and Jeralt’s expression went from stern to soft in the blink of an eye.

“Not me,” he said and gestured behind him.

Flayn appeared beneath his elbow, beaming from ear to ear and holding something behind her back.

“Professor! Brother! You were here the whole time!”

“Not the whole time,” Seteth said quickly. He avoided Jeralt’s eye, choosing instead to focus on his daughter and the mischievous look on her face. “The Professor only just arrived for today’s staff debriefings.”

Flayn giggled. “Of course. But Professor! I found it! And I just had to come and find you right away.”

“Oh! So soon?” Byleth said and leaving the wall, crossed to where Flayn was rocking on the balls of her feet. With a flourish, Flayn presented the object she’d been concealing behind her back.

“Ta-da!” she announced.

Interest gleamed in Byleth’s eyes and she reached out and took the book from Flayn, flipping it so she could examine the cover. It was an older edition, Seteth noticed, and it looked oddly familiar. Something about the old binding, the dark burgundy of the cover… where had he seen that book before?

“A book?” he asked, folding his arms. “Surely, Professor, if you needed help locating a particular volume, the library might be the place to start? Flayn is not exactly a librarian.”

Byleth turned to look at him, hesitant, but it was Flayn who spoke up first, her hands planted firmly on her hips.

“Brother, do not be like that! The Professor mentioned in passing the other day an interest in the history of the Church and I knew exactly the book she was looking for! It was simply a matter of remembering where I’d seen it last. And I was happy to help.”

Jeralt raised a surprised eyebrow. “You did?” Byleth held up the book wordlessly and his expression cleared. “Ah. That makes more sense.”

Curiosity now overpowering, Seteth stepped around his desk and held out a hand. “May I?” he asked and Byleth handed it to him.

The Saints: A Revised History read the title and Seteth knew at once why the volume had seemed so familiar. The golden lettering was faded now, the leather bindings worn soft with age, but this was undoubtedly the same volume he himself had penned two centuries previously. This one must be Flayn’s personal copy. He shot Flayn a stern look over Blyeth’s shoulder. His daughter seemed completely unperturbed.

“Interested in the Saints, Professor?” he asked, handing her the book back. To his astonishment, Byleth looked mildly embarrassed, a thin flush of color reddening the tips of her ears.

Jeralt laughed. “She may not have grown up in the Church, Seteth, but Byleth devoured any story she could get her hands on about the damned Saints. The other mercenaries used to take turns telling her a tale in an attempt to get her to smile.”

“Jeralt,” Byleth said, an edge to her voice, but Jeralt simply grinned back at her, expression fonder than Seteth could ever remember seeing.

Flayn clasped her hands together in delight. “Oh, but that’s wonderful! Which Saint is your favorite, Professor? You must share with us!”

A pang of apprehension struck Seteth. This was an incredibly dangerous conversation that Flayn should absolutely know better than to encourage. But before he could even open his mouth to speak, to interrupt and steer the conversation back to safer harbors, Jeralt hummed, scratching at his chin in thought.

“If I recall correctly, it’d have to be Cichol. His were the stories you always wanted to hear the most. Hell, you could probably recite most of the popular ones to this day, I bet.”

Seteth went still as Byleth very calmly picked up a pen from Seteth’s desk and hurled it across the room at her father, who caught it easily, chuckling.

Flayn looked as though everything she’d ever dreamed of was coming true all at once. “Oh, truly, Professor?” she cried, clasping her hands together in delight. “That’s wonderful! Saint Cichol would be honored, I am certain of it.”

Honored? Seteth was certainly feeling some form of emotional response to this information, but he wasn’t sure if he’d classify it as honored. Was this feeling honored, this warmth pooling soft in the center of his chest? The way his throat had gone suddenly dry?

He found he could not look away from Byleth’s face, even as she shook her head. “I...” she began, then paused, as though searching for the words. “I suppose… if I were to choose a favorite, then yes. I would probably choose Cichol.”

Flayn reached for her hand, taking it. “I know all of Saint Cichol’s stories,” she said. “We can share a pot of tea and I will tell you each and every one that I know!”

Seteth’s heart leapt into his throat. “That’s quite enough, Flayn,” he said, perhaps a bit sharper than he’d intended. “The Professor…”

But Byleth had turned to look at him and the expression on her face, subtle as it was, as she stood there hand in hand with his daughter, struck the words clean from his lungs. For the first time in centuries, Seteth found the words he wanted to be hovering just out of his reach.

He swallowed. “The Professor is incredibly busy managing her class,” he said, softer now. “As are you, Flayn, busy attending it. I am certain the volume you’ve provided her will be more than sufficient.”

Byleth’s brow creased faintly, questioning, and Seteth found himself continuing to speak, the words spilling from him almost without his bidding. “But if you do happen to find yourself with a question, Professor, I would… I would be happy to answer them.”

Byleth blinked, slowly, then smiled at him. A tiny smile, barely even the tilt of her lips, but a smile all the same. Seteth looked away, tearing his eyes from her and folding his arms across his chest as if that action alone might settle his heart.

“Now. Jeralt, do you happen to see Manuela and Hanneman anywhere out there? They are far later than should be allowed for what amounts to a ten minute staff meeting.”

Jeralt was silent for a long moment and when Seteth looked up it was to find the other man studying him, meeting his gaze without blinking. For a long moment, they assessed each other. Then Jeralt turned away. “I’ll go find them. Shouldn’t be too hard to track them down. Two won’t stop arguing to save their lives.”

Seteth watched him go, unsettled. What had Jeralt been hoping to find in his face that he’d been studying him so closely? Had he found it? Could Jeralt suspect that precious secret that Seteth had fought so long and hard to keep hidden?

“Good-bye, Professor,” Flayn said, slipping her hand from Byleth’s and bobbing into a shallow curtsy. “Let me know what you think of the book! I particularly like the passages on Saint Cethleann!”

“Certainly,” Byleth agreed and Flayn shot Seteth a look before skipping off into the hallway. Seteth frowned after her. They would have to have a serious conversation about the importance of protecting their identities. Again.

He sighed, turning back to his desk and looking down at it, trying to remember what he’d been working on before Byleth had knocked on his door.

Ah. The Professor was still in the room. He turned back to her, watching as she gingerly opened the old book, taking the utmost care with the fragile cover.

“So,” she said, looking up from the title page to fix him with that penetrating expression. “Who is your favorite Saint, Seteth?”

If only the Professor knew what sort of a question she’d just posed him. Seteth folded his arms.

“As a man of the Church, it would be highly improper for me to have a favorite Saint,” he said, but rather than be deterred, Byleth merely closed the book again and wrapped her arms around it, pressing it into her chest.

“Well then. I will have to win you over to my side by convincing you that Saint Cichol is worthy of being namedyour favorite,” she said, the corner of her mouth tugging upward again in that tiny, infectious smile. Seteth ruthlessly forced his own smile away, keeping his lips pressed together in a thin line.

“If you are forcing me to choose,” he said, praying that Rhea would never hear of this, lest she tease him mercilessly, “then... I suppose I would have to say Saint Cethleann. But I must stress again that it would be highly improper for me to go about declaring a favorite.”

“Of course. Somehow, I suspected you might choose Cethleann,” Byleth said and Seteth flinched. How? Why? Surely she didn’t… but no, Byleth was not looking at him with suspicion or accusation. She was instead looking at the book again, tracing her fingertips over the faded golden lettering of the title.

“I admit that I am fond of the tales of Saint Cethleann as well,” she said, more to the book than to him. “But there was always something that drew me about Saint Cichol.” She lifted her eyes and met Seteth’s gaze again, perfectly calm. “Jeralt used to joke that if anyone could choose to have a patron Saint, that surely Cichol would have to take notice of me with how often I begged the others for his stories.”

“I am not sure that is possible,” Seteth said and Byleth shrugged.

“Perhaps not,” she replied. “But it was certainly a nice thought.”

Seteth looked at her for a moment. It was a strange sensation, to feel as though he’d stepped outside his own body, heart beating furiously inside his chest. He still did not know Rhea’s purposes behind the hiring of this stranger into such a role so deep within their ranks, but… he could not quite find the same sense of mistrust that he’d started with pertaining to Byleth.

“Professor,” he said, and was horrified to hear his voice crack. He took a moment to collect himself. “Professor,” he tried again and Byleth met his eyes. “Come to think of it, I do believe Flayn was correct. If Saint Cichol were to hear of this, I think he would be… touched, to know of your regard.”

Byleth laughed, softly, barely even a breath of a noise, and looked back down at the book. “It’s unlike you, Seteth, to comfort merely for comfort’s sake.”

A clatter in the hallway drew their attention, as voices swelled and ebbed. Manuela’s familiar soprano clashed with Hanneman’s rapid-fire staccato and Byleth met Seteth’s eyes, amusement dancing across her face. When had she become so easy to read? How could he have ever thought her expressionless?

“We may need those fortifications sooner than planned,” Byleth said, and by the time Seteth realized she’d made a joke, Manuela had already swept into the room, making her entrance as she always did, even as Hanneman stormed in after her and the moment was lost in the chaos the other members of faculty often brought with them.

For the best, probably. After all, the conversation had gotten uncomfortably close to revealing everything that Seteth would die to keep hidden.

Why, then, was he disappointed to be turning back to business?

His eyes strayed to the book in Byleth’s arms.

“Focus,” he barked, slicing through Manuela and Hanneman’s conversation mid-argument. “We are already behind schedule due to your combined tardiness. Now. Let us hear from the Blue Lions first.”