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homeroom (or, if we're not recruited in 15 minutes, we're legally allowed to leave)

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Homeroom sucks.

As of yesterday, with Leonie’s surprise switch to the Blue Lions, there only are two Deer left standing. It’s a grim way to think about it, but an almost dead-empty classroom that was full a few months ago is something that can very easily make one feel grim.

“This sucks,” Hilda says. Her voice has the audacity to echo around the empty room.

Claude stills his hand briefly from where he’s been gouging his name into the desk with an arrowhead for the last ten minutes. He shoots a pointed look at Hilda.

You’re the one who turned down an invitation to join the party class,” he says. “Don’t complain.”

“And leave you alone with Hanneman?” Hilda snorts. “I know better than that. I’m not entirely convinced he wouldn’t dissect you if given the opportunity.”

Said crest scholar is currently dozing behind his desk at the front of the classroom. It’s pretty easy to fall asleep in a room this quiet, so Claude won’t fault the guy.

“Your concern for my wellbeing is noted and appreciated, Hils,” he says, and resumes his gouging.

“It better be,” she grumbles. “I hear Mercedes brings baking to class sometimes. If I’m missing out on muffins, I’m blaming you.”

They sit in silence for a while longer, listening to Hanneman snore and the scratching of Claude’s arrowhead.

Hilda lets out a wistful sigh. “You want to get out of here and—”

“Leave? Now? But I’m just about to start the ‘U’!” Claude gestures at his scratched name, which so far just says CLA.

Hilda rolls her eyes. “I was going to say, ‘Do you want to get out of here and bother Manuela’s class?’”

“You say that like it’s not just Edelgard and Hubert in there.”

“Fine. Do you want to go bother Edelgard and Hubert?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 

Edelgard is halfway through copying over her notes from Professor Byleth’s latest seminar when she hears Manuela’s light laughter at the front of the classroom. Her eyes flicker upward to catch sight of the songstress peering over her reading glasses.

“Good morning,” she says, her grin sly and well-manicured eyebrows raised.

Edelgard straightens up, perplexed. Is Manuela talking to her and Hubert? She glances at Hubert, who shares her confusion, and she’s about to open her mouth to say ‘good morning’ in return when:

“Morning, Professor Manuela!” A new voice appears from the ether. “May I say you’re looking radiant today?”

Edelgard chalks it up to years of facing far worse shit unflinchingly that she doesn’t throw herself directly out of her chair at the sound of the new voice—a new voice coming from almost directly behind her.

She spins in her seat and sees Hubert mirror her motion in her peripheral.

A familiar figure stands a few feet from the desk she and Hubert are sharing. The sunlight streaming in the door catches the golden metal of his earring like thrown sparks.

“Claude?!” she definitely doesn’t yelp.

“Riegan,” Hubert all but snarls.

Claude von Riegan, annoyingly golden as the day Edelgard met him, points to himself. “Yup! Those are my names!” He waves at Manuela. “Quick, Professor! Say ‘von’ and we’ll have all three!”

Manuela laughs again, the headshake audible.

Edelgard is not shaken—she does not get shaken by things as trivial as cocky teenage boys sneaking up behind her—but the fact he’d managed to sneak up on her at all is concerning. Neither of them, with all their expertise between them, had heard him approach. He’d gotten so close.

(A dark horse like him, unknown to the world—to any of the Empire’s spies—until just over a year ago… who knows what he would have done to her if he’d had, say, a knife…)

Edelgard clears her throat. “Hello, Claude.”

“Hey, Edelgard—” his eyes go a little wide, twinkling like he’s just discovered something equal parts fascinating and hilarious, “—Oh! Hey-delgard! That’s kinda fun, right?”

“It’s not,” Edelgard and Hubert say at the same time. Claude’s grin gets even wider.

Edelgard frowns. Why does it feel like she’s suddenly losing a game she hadn’t even known she was playing?

“What are you doing?” she asks, realises it’s a little rude, and amends it quickly. “Can we help you with something?”

“Yoo-hoo!” Another new voice, but this one’s presence is a little easier to see coming. Edelgard cranes her neck around her fellow house leader to see the infuriatingly pink figure of Hilda hop through the doorway.

“Claude-y,” she whines. “You said you’d wait for me!”

“No rest for the wicked, Hilda.”

“But I was getting my tools!”

Her what!?

Hubert stands, and from a close a proximity as this he positively towers over the new pair. “Hello, Goneril,” he says slowly.

“Wow, Hubert,” Hilda says in a fake-awed voice. She throws her pretty-pink-nailed hand over her mouth for good measure. “I’m surprised you even know my name.”

“Tools?” Edelgard asks, drawing all eyes to her.

Hilda brandishes a small box inside which Edelgard can see…

Pencils? Paper?

“We’re bored as hell. You guys wanna play hangman?”

Edelgard is just starting to wonder if she’d slipped in the bathhouse last night and fallen into some sort of parallel universe when Manuela pipes up.

“Not that your presence here isn’t a wonderful break from the monotony of watching my two remaining students copy notes, but don’t you two have a class to be attending, too? Where is Hanneman?”

“Asleep,” Claude reports blithely. “It’s just me and Hilda so we thought we’d stop by to see what you’re up to. All good if we stay?”

Manuela waves her hand dismissively and turns back to her book.

Edelgard and Hubert watch in muted awe and confusion as Hilda and Claude circle the desk, drag over a bench and sit opposite them.

Hilda holds up a piece of paper and some pencils. “Hangman?”

They do not play hangman. Edelgard continues to copy her notes and Hubert reads while the intruding duo take turns playing on their own.

It doesn’t go well. Claude is a terrible speller and Hilda keeps choosing words like ‘Princess’ and ‘Hubert’ and ‘Adrestia’ so Claude will say them out loud and make either of the remaining Eagles snap to attention. It’s annoying.

But Edelgard will admit, privately, that it’s also a little nice to have chatter in the classroom again. After Petra’s departure last week, it’s been a bit quiet around here for her tastes.

 

The purpose of these visits is definitely, primarily, to bother Edelgard and Hubert for his own amusement. Claude knows this and knows it well.

But it’s also nice to just have people around, even if those people are the stony-faced Princess of Adrestia and her maybe-one-hundred-percent-a-vampire retainer. They’re fun in their own icy ways.

Hanneman and Manuela have both agreed it’s acceptable for the four students to spend homerooms together, on the conditions that they keep up with consultancy on their training and hand in assignments on time. Edelgard and Hubert hadn’t seemed thrilled… but they hadn’t seemed entirely put off either, which Claude will take as a good sign.

“That’s wrong,” Claude says one day, pointing to an arithmetic question on Edelgard’s worksheet.

Hubert opens his mouth like he’s going to protest, but Edelgard holds the paper up, cocks her head, and says, “Huh. You’re quite right, Claude.”

Claude leans over. “You need to include this two and that five in the first equation,” he says, pointing at the error. “It’s an easy mistake to make.”

Edelgard graciously lets him point out what to do, thanks him, and goes back to her work.

Claude meets Hubert’s eyes, and the retainer looks away.

 

The next time the duo from two doors down visit Manuela’s class, Hilda comes prepared.

“What,” Hubert asks dryly, “is that?”

“It’s a sewing kit, Hubes—”

“Do not call me that.”

“—it’s for sewing. I’m embroidering some handkerchiefs.”

“I was not aware you could sew.”

“I can do a lot of shit, Hubes,” she states. “I just choose not to.”

Hubert narrows his eyes.

“They’re getting along well, aren’t they?” Edelgard says with a small smile, watching Hubert and Hilda tumble into a verbal spar for what feels like the umpteenth time.

Claude snorts. “That’s getting along?”

“For Hubert? Yes.” Claude laughs and Edelgard fights down her smile before it gets bigger. She elects to change the subject. “What are you reading, Claude?”

He looks up from over his book, which is semi-shrouded from Edelgard’s discerning eye by a tall stack of other books he’s placed on the desk between them. That boy can certainly read, she thinks. She sees him in the library at odd hours, nose in a different book each time. Now that they’re somewhat finished with their schoolwork for the month he’s brought his hobby reading to class.

Both he and Hilda have taken to sitting across from Edelgard and Hubert respectively, all four of them now crowded around a single desk. It all looks quite chummy—and unnecessary, considering there are several unoccupied desks in the room they can choose from.

Claude looks at the book cover. “Around the Table,” he recites. “A History of Western Adrestian Community Cooking. It’s about communal homesteading in farming settlements, like, community ownership and raising children as a group. It’s cool.”

She had mistaken it for a cookbook… but no… it was a history book. On her nation? Why?

“And what does that have to do with—” Edelgard runs her thumb over the spines of a few of the stacked books, “—Faerghus Folk Medicine and Midwifery and A Complete Encyclopedia of Venomous Birds? There are venomous birds?”

“Oh, there are a ton,” Claude says at the same time Hubert says, “Yes, there are many.”

They give each other odd looks.

“It’s certainly a varied collection,” Edelgard remarks, and Claude shrugs.

“I like learning,” he says. “Doesn’t really matter what.”

Edelgard tugs one of the books out of the pile. It’s thinner than the rest. One Thousand and One Almyran Nights, the title reads.

“Oh! That’s a good one,” Claude says. “The Fódlani translation is pretty censored, but it’s a fun read.”

Edelgard flicks idly through the centre pages. The text is a little larger than a normal reference book might be, and there are periodic illustrations of fantastical scenes; men on giant wyverns and women in masks with curved swords. Huh. She’d thought it to be some sort of travelogue or cultural account, but it appears to be a storybook.

Her eyes flit to the clock.

There are only twenty minutes left of homeroom… and she’s completed all her study for the morning… it might not hurt to…

She flips back to the first page and begins to read, trying not to notice how Claude smiles at her as she does.

 

The Goneril girl had not been lying about her skill with handicrafts.

Hilda sits across from Hubert, fiddling with a small ring of metal and some tiny tools. It takes him a moment to realise what it is; Claude’s ear is empty of its usual adornment.

“The clasp got bent so I’m fixing it for him,” Hilda says, noticing Hubert staring. “I could teach you how I’m doing it, if you’d like?”

Hubert takes mild note of the fact this is the first time he’s ever heard Hilda offer to do something for him without prompting.

“I don’t see how jewellery making would be a valuable skill in my line of work,” he says. Edelgard clears her throat lightly and he adds, “but I thank you for your offer.”

“Oh-kay, but you’d be surprised at what could be useful,” Hilda says. “Jewellers develop skills in many fine tools, it has a lot of crossover with weapon maintenance and some alchemical practices.”

Hubert files that information away as well. He’s been doing that a lot with these two lately—filing away information that’s not necessarily for political gain, but rather general knowledge.

“Can’t you simply get a new one?” he asks the Riegan boy. He winks, which Hubert dislikes greatly.

“I’d prefer not to,” he says. “My mother gave that to me as a gift, so I’d like to hold onto it as long as I can.”

Hubert stashes that information away for later, telling himself this one is for political gain. He hasn’t heard much about the Riegan heir’s family situation beyond what little Empire spies could scrounge after his abrupt appearance last year. He’s never heard about the boy’s mother.

“How long have you had your ears pierced?” he asks.

“Hm, I was young when I got my first…” Claude says with a hum. “Six? Maybe?”

Is he quite serious?

Hubert’s eyes widen. “You… this isn’t a jest? Truly? Six?”

Claude laughs. “The world is much bigger than Adrestia, Hubert.”

“Much bigger than Fódlan,” Edelgard pipes up in way of agreeing, but there’s more under it too. Hubert knows what she’s implying, and so, apparently, does Claude. The boy narrows his eyes at her. She doesn’t look up from her notes.

“I was simply curious,” Hubert recovers, trying to draw the attention off his lady. “I have not encountered many men with earrings before. I was wondering if it was self-applied, but…” he trails off, letting Claude fill in the rest of the sentence.

“The first time it was done by someone else,” Claude finally says. “I’ve had to re-do it a couple times on my own, though.”

He gasps, and Hubert has spoken with him enough by now to recognize the sparkle of an idea in his eyes. He’s not looking forward to it.

“I could do yours, Hubert,” Claude says, reaching over and slapping Hubert on the shoulder in a too-friendly way that almost makes him wish Edelgard had managed to assassinate this fool at the beginning of the year.

“My—”

“Your ears! All I’d need would be a hot pin and an apple. We could do it today.”

Or maybe Hubert will just kill him now.

 

It’s been about three weeks since they’ve started hanging out in the Black Eagles classroom. Manuela and Hanneman have more or less given up on any sense of separation.

The four of them are good students—even Hilda; they get their work done on time and get it done well, and they don’t make messes they can’t clean up or disturb the other class. The same cannot be said about the Blue Lion’s volume.

For the most part, Manuela and Hanneman have actually started to leave them alone, dropping in once in a while to make sure they’re not killing each other and to pick up assignments, but entrusting the classrooms to them to maintain themselves.

“Could I do your hair, Edelgard?” Hilda asks one day.

“I am not interested,” Edelgard snaps.

Yikes, Hilda’s struck a nerve.

“I used to do Mari’s all the time before she switched classes, though,” she moans, testing her luck a little. “And yours is so long and pretty. It would look so cute tied back—”

“I said no,” Edelgard says, and her piercing violet eyes dart quickly away from Hilda’s own.

Fuck.

“Are you alright, Lady Edelgard?” Hubert calls from the other side of the room, where Claude is teaching him how to cheat at poker.  

“I am fine,” Edelgard says through gritted teeth. She sticks her nose in her book. Hilda doesn’t have the heart to tell her it’s upside-down.

Hilda sits tight for a little while, fiddling with her embroidery. Edelgard flips her book around the right way and reads, though her hands remain white-knuckled.

“You’re a little high-strung,” Hilda says quietly, so the boys can’t hear. “Anyone ever told you that?”

Edelgard puts her book down. “Is this your idea of a friendly conversation?”

“No,” Hilda retorts instantly. “Just an honest one. I had a feeling you might appreciate that more than me lying to you.”

Edelgard looks a little staggered for a moment, Hilda takes it as her opportunity to keep talking.

“I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to, Edelgard,” she assures as kindly and quietly as possible. “I understand that different people have different boundaries. I won’t judge you, but I’d appreciate you not snapping at me when I accidentally overstep them.”

It had taken her weeks to get Marianne to let her do her hair. She has a feeling Edelgard is maybe in a similar boat for different reasons.

Edelgard has the decency to look a little ashamed. She ducks her head into some approximation of a bow.

“I apologise,” she says.

“You don’t have to apologise,” Hilda says softly. “I’ll try and be a little more considerate, too.”

 

“—and House Riegan are the traditional heads of the Alliance because our territory has the highest population. That, in itself, is almost democratic. Our say is largest because our pool of constituents is the largest. It’s at least representational.”

“But can you really call it representative if your constituent citizens do not get the opportunity to select you? What is to say you truly speak for them?”

Edelgard usually makes it a rule not to lift her hands during chess unless she had decided on her move, as motions from piece to piece might alert her opponents to her plans, but Claude’s hands flick left and right over the board very openly, so she has decided to match him.

“I think you’re right,” he says.

Edelgard pauses, hand hovering over one of her pawns.

“Did you just say I’m right?” She repeats with a smirk. She moves the piece forward.

“Don’t sound so surprised! I do actually agree!” Claude shifts his rook to the side and keeps talking. “It’s quite an odd in-between, isn’t it? Between choice and birthright? We stand around and vote on things like a true representational government would, but we’re still nobles, born into power we’re not elected to hold. It’s almost like five little monarchies wearing a cloak, trying to look like one big friendly not-monarchy.”

Edelgard tries to make sense of the board in front of her. Claude’s positioning is quite defensive, which is at odds with how she had expected him to play. He keeps his key pieces well protected and well spread out, so one assault will not throw his formations into disarray.

It’s formidable. It deserves aggression. Edelgard moves her queen.

“You have strong thoughts about your nation—negative ones, one might say. It’s strange for someone that will lead it one day to question the process it is founded on.”

Claude chuckles, and captures one of Edelgard’s pawns with one of his own. “I’m sure you have equally strong thoughts about your nation, Princess.”

“Perhaps I do,” she concedes, trying to keep one eye on the game and one on Claude, “though you will not hear them today, I fear.”

“No? At least give me your thoughts on my thoughts, then.”

Edelgard considers it and looks him in the eyes as he moves his next piece.

“Governments that cannot decide what they want to be, or who they want to hold their power, are fragile,” she says finally. “A castle built on sand cannot long stand.”

“Such a castle would need new foundations,” Claude says. “Someone might even have to rebuild it from the ground up.”

“A strong hand. New builders,” Edelgard agrees. “Sometimes it is all one can do to simply… start over.”

His eyes flick up to hers and she adds, “Hypothetically, of course.”

“Of course,” Claude says.

When Edelgard finally looks down, she is staring down the barrel of a checkmate.

 

“Hubert, I have made my decision.”

“Lady Edelgard, I cannot fathom why you would pick a single combatant of such size over an entirely manageable group of smaller foes.”

“Your logic is flawed, Hubert. I am primarily a close-ranged fighter. While your magic excels at damaging many foes at once, my talents are not so compatible with horde-type enemies. I would certainly be overwhelmed.”

Claude frowns. “Wow you… You guys are taking this really seriously.”

“No, no—” Hilda swats Claude on the arm, “—let them speak!”

Hubert rolls his eyes but continues his reasoning. “The logistics of fighting a duck that large are—”

Edelgard sighs in exasperation, which makes Claude squawk out a little amused noise. “But Hubert,” she says, “even if the wyverns are small, they are still wyverns.”

“Big teeth,” Claude says in an agreeing tone, refusing to elaborate further.

“Yeah, I think I actually agree with Edelgard for once,” Hilda says. “I’d definitely rather fight one wyvern-sized duck than a dozen duck-sized wyverns.”

Edelgard shoots her a look.

“What do you mean ‘for once’?”

 

The note Edelgard passes Hubert is small. It’s written on the wax-paper Manuela had wrapped their snacks in (“For your friends,” she’d said, shoving the basket of baked goods into their arms, “they’re always good fun, those two”) and the swirling, carefully inked letters run a bit on the slick paper. 

I like them, is all it says.

I do too, Hubert writes back.

“We brought board games!”

Hubert disintegrates the paper instantly, as he does with so many of their private communiques. He looks up to see their… well…

They’re basically their classmates, now, aren’t they?

“Good morning,” Edelgard greets, and Hubert knows the small smile on her lips is as genuine as anything. “Board games sound wonderful. Manuela has left us some muffins.”

Hilda’s ensuing squeal is enough to bring a small smirk to Hubert’s face, though he will deny it in the days after.

 

“Fuck you, Vestra.”

“C’mon, Hils, be nice.”

“But he has wood and I have wool and I need wood! He won’t trade!”

“I don’t need wool, Goneril. Maybe you should have thought of that before you put all your focus on farmland.”

“This is extortion, you crusty bitch.”

“Extortion? Please. There is nothing in the world you could possibly give me that I would want.”

“This is quite a fun game, Claude.”

“Thanks, Edelgard.”

 

Homeroom is a delicate balance that Kronya does her best to upset. It has the potential, Edelgard thinks, to drive her mad if she lets it continue.

Kronya lounges in the seat across from Edelgard, and all she can think is that’s not yours.

“Well aren’t you cute?” she drawls when Claude and Hilda arrive for homeroom.

“Well aren’t you a stranger,” Claude retorts, eyes flicking in brief question to Edelgard. “A very complimentary stranger… but a stranger all the same.”

“I’m Monica,” she says, and holds out her hand for Claude to kiss it. He shakes it instead. Edelgard stifles a snort.

“I’m Marquis Claude von Riegan of the Leicester Alliance,” he says, and Edelgard has to clear her throat to hide another laugh because she had never ever heard that title before. “You must be the student that was rescued along with Flayn. It’s good to see you well.”

It’s demure and polite and a bit pretentious and very unlike the Claude Edelgard had become acquainted with over the last few months. She’s silently impressed.

“We brought backgammon,” Hilda says weakly.

It’s safe to say homeroom is not very fun.

 

“Don’t come to homeroom anymore,” Edelgard says dryly, cornering Kronya in her room later in the day. “You are not technically in the main class. You do not need to be there.”

“Oh, but your little pet fawns are so cute,” Kronya giggles. “So colourful and sweet. I’m a little tempted to take a bite outta that little Riegan boy.”

She winks and Edelgard feels something in her blood start to burn, but luckily Hubert is calm. He steps forward.

“Riegan is smart,” he says. “Very smart. I cannot guarantee your cover will be safe if you remain in such close proximity to him.”

Kronya bats her eyelashes. “Aw… you guys really do care about me, don’t you?”

None of them believe it, but no one comments.

“Just keep your distance,” Edelgard spits. “This is your last warning.”

Kronya does not show up to homeroom again. The next time Claude and Hilda arrive a weight Edelgard hadn’t been aware of lifts from her shoulders.

 

The Battle of Eagle and Lion looms.

The sounds of the Blue Lions’ strategy meeting echo through the courtyard. They’ve shut their doors, but the sheer number of students pushes their noise to new heights.

“I wonder if we could eavesdrop?” Hilda ponders.

“Good luck getting close,” Claude muses. “Between all the mages in there I’d bet they’ve cursed the ever-loving shit out of the door.”

They’re sitting in the Golden Deer classroom because it has a sofa, and if they are going to plan their inevitable failures then they want to do it in comfort.

(No one mentions how they had fished the sofa out of the pond during a homeroom the week prior with the help of a pair of merchants. The residual smell of algae says enough.)

Edelgard sighs and stands up, staring down at the map of Gronder Field from above like it’ll hold some new insight.

“Looking good from a bird’s eye, your Eagle-ness?” Claude asks.

“Not really,” Edelgard says. “I just don’t see how either of our classes have a hope of prevailing. While I loathe to discredit the skills of my reserve troops, it’s merely a fact that the former Eagles were our best fighters—and capable tactical minds.”

“I don’t know about tactical minds,” Claude says. “But I’m having nightmares about facing Lysithea in a fight. It was bad enough when she was on our side… but now…”

He shivers.

“The Professor will probably get all the dirt on us from them, too,” Hilda whines. She’s painting her nails alternating shades of red and yellow and is edging ever closer to Hubert with the polish bottle. “I told Marianne everything before she left. She knows, like, all my secrets.”

“The Professor is smart,” Hubert says, swatting Hilda’s hands away from his own. “I have no doubt she’ll be able to utilise her new students to their best abilities.”

“There is one thing she probably won’t be expecting, though,” Claude says softly.

Edelgard glances at him, violet meeting verdant green. The air is charged with… something. “And what, pray tell, would that be?”

Claude grins, eyes sparkling with ideas. Edelgard and Hubert find themselves more excited than wary at what that expression could mean.

“She wouldn’t expect us to work together, would she?”

 

They lose, of course. Felix is a whirlwind and Lysithea is a beast and Linhardt is way too smart when he actually applies himself. But they do not go down without a fight.

As the four of them survey the fiery wreckage in the centre of the field (mostly their doing) and the droves of injured Blue Lions students covered in red and yellow dye (in the end, Byleth had been the only one left unharmed) they can’t help but feel like it’s not a defeat.

 

It is the middle of the Red Wolf Moon when Claude starts bringing official documents into homeroom.

Edelgard covers her eyes, because she may be fated to be this man’s political rival, but she is not without honour. She smacks Hubert until he covers his eyes too.

“Claude,” she says, and she hears him jolt across from her. He had been in quite a state of focus, apparently. “What are you doing with those?”

“Oh, uh, reading them?”

“We are friends,” she says, and congratulates her voice for not tripping over that shocking truth, “but I am also the future leader of the Adrestian Empire. It is hardly appropriate to be working on confidential Alliance documents when you are sitting directly across from me.”

“They’re just shipping manifests,” he says with an audible smile. “If your court is hankering to know about our internal sugar trade then I might have to hide them but otherwise I think we’re probably fine.”

He laughs.

“Actually, I might ask for your help with them.”

Edelgard peeks out from behind her fingers to see Claude holding a piece of paper out to her.

“My help?” she lowers her hands. “I’d be happy too, but…”

She takes the paper from him, sees the words ‘refined sugar’ and ‘200 barrels’ and ‘Guardian Moon’, and says, “Oh, this is… exceedingly boring.”

Hilda snorts.

“If I may ask, Claude,” Hubert chimes in from where he has resumed threading bracelets with Hilda. Hers is very pink and his is very not. “Why are you working on something as trivial as shipping manifests?”

If Claude takes offense to Hubert’s statement, he doesn’t show it. “Duke Riegan is the leader of the Leicester Alliance but he’s also the duke of Riegan, so he has to manage the affairs of the territory as well as the Roundtable. Derdriu Harbour has the biggest port in the Alliance—It’s one of the Duke’s primary responsibilities to maintain it.”

Hubert hums, and Edelgard can practically see him sorting the information into ‘useful’ and ‘not useful’ in his head. “But why are you doing it?”

Claude’s expression darkens almost immediately. Oh. They’ve touched a nerve.

Said nerve does not stay unexposed for long.

“His grandfather’s dying,” Hilda stage-whispers to Hubert, reaching down to adjust one of the beads on his half-made bracelet at the same time.

“Hilda!” Claude hits her over the back of the head with the manifest. “Now that was actually sensitive information.”

“Truly?” Edelgard says in a careful voice, cutting through the burgeoning argument between the two Deer. “I had heard he was ill, but…”

“It’s sort of an open secret…” Claude sighs. “Most of the Alliance lords are aware. I’d appreciate it if you two would be discrete, though.”

“Of course. And… my sympathies, Claude,” Edelgard says in a soft voice. Softer than she thought she’d be able to manage. “It is not pleasant to watch family go.”

She knows this intimately and though the circumstances are in no way the same, she does not wish the pain of loss she’s experienced upon Claude, however inevitable it may be.

He thanks her, gentle and sure, and she tries to spend the rest of homeroom not thinking about how her future war will likely no longer be with a wizened and old Duke Riegan, but rather the young man sitting across from her.

 

I like them very much. I do not know what I will do when the time comes, she scrawls on the edge of a napkin. The ink dissipates into the soft paper.

You will do what you believe is right, he assures, his script strong and small. And I will stand by you.

 

Solon razes Remire to the ground.

I fear I have set a fire I am no longer in control of, says the next note.

I have faith in you, he replies, and the ink bleeds before it is burned away.

 

“Do you guys have dates to the ball?”

Sometimes, when the weather is nice, the four of them take homeroom on the lawn. The temperature is dropping by the day, so they are taking advantage of the sun as much as they can.

“Are we supposed to have dates?” Edelgard asks, confused. “I wasn’t aware that was a requirement.”

“It’s not,” Claude concedes. “Lots of people do it, though—got any fives?—Hilda and I were thinking it would be fun to go together.”

“Go fish,” Edelgard says. Claude swears under his breath and draws a card.

“A… four-way date?” Hubert discerns. Edelgard can tell he’s amused. By the looks on the Deer-duo’s faces, they’re starting to pick up on the small signs of his good humour too.

“Yeah, sure,” Hilda laughs. “Or, you could take me and Claude could take Edelgard.”

The idea isn’t… terrible, Edelgard thinks. “Do you have any eights, Hubert?”

Hubert hands her a card and she tucks it into her hand.

“The alternative,” Claude offers, “is that we could keep up this tradition we’ve started of going against all standards and practices here. I can take Hubert and you can take Hilda, Princess, if that’s more amenable.”

“Is that what this is?” Edelgard can’t keep the amusement out of her voice. She gestures to the four of them, sitting in their little circle on the lawn. “Breaking the rules?—Any sixes, by the way, Claude?”

“Go fish,” he says, and grins as Edelgard swipes up a card from the pile. “Do you not think it is? They keep us separate for a reason—teaching us by our nations of origin rather than by skill or discipline—there’s a reason for that lack of mingling. Just like there’s probably a reason they make us relive a centuries-old battle for the fun of it.”

Edelgard feels her mouth go dry.

There is a reason, she wants to say. Of course there is! You see the cracks in this place just like I do!

“Any Kings, Edelgard?” Hilda asks to her left.

“No,” Edelgard says, trying as hard as she can to keep her voice even.

It almost works.

 

“Okay. I’ll go first.”

Hilda rolls up her sleeve. A long scar, about the size and width of a pencil, stretches from her elbow and up her forearm. The boys hiss, Hubert much more subtly than Claude.

“Fell out of a tree when I was eight,” she says proudly. “Dropped right onto a broken fence post.”

Claude makes and exaggerated gagging sound, which seems to please Hilda. She rolls her sleeve back down at nods to Hubert.

“What about you, big guy?”

Hubert tugs down his collar, exposing the top of his clavicle. There’s a thin scar just over the top of the bone. Claude recognises the width and texture of the wound immediately.

“That’s a pretty gnarly place to get shot, buddy,” he says, voiced laced with amused sympathy.

“It came from an assassin attempting to harm Lady Edelgard,” Hubert reports. “I would gladly do it again.”

“Assassination attempts?” Claude’s lips quirk into a smile. “If that’s where this conversation is going, then…”

He begins to unbutton his shirt.

“Ugh! Don’t take your shirt off,” Hilda whines.

Claude tuts. “I’m not taking it all off, just—hold on a second.”

He unbuttons his shirt enough that he can tug it off his shoulder and down his arm. There, under his right pectoral, is a stark, thick scar. The table seems to hold their collective breath as he points it out.

It’s a very old wound, but still large and obvious. Getting it, unfortunately, is one of his first very clear memories. Blood and choking and his mother screaming his name... it hadn’t been pretty.

“Stabbed when I was four,” he says, in the same tone of voice someone might say I’m heading to the park for a stroll because the alternative is crying and he won’t cry in front of these people. “Punctured my right lung clean through. It was healed poorly so… tah-dah! Scar!”

Edelgard, who had refused to participate in the conversation up to this point, suddenly speaks. “Who did that to you?”

Her voice is stern and cold, though it’s not directed at him. He meets her pale gaze and she’s not looking at his scar—she’s looking him in the eyes, searching and strong.

“No one you’d know, Princess,” he assures, trying not to let it show how off-guard this change in tone has made him. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Were they punished?”

He slips his shirt back on.

“Yeah. Yeah, they were.”

“Good.”

 

“Edelgard! Come quick!”

Hilda runs into the open door of the Black Eagles classroom, red-faced and panting.

Edelgard is on her feet instantly. “Hilda! Is there an emergency?”

Hilda beams. “Claude is piercing Hubert’s ears.”

Holy shit.

They find Hubert lying prone on the sofa in the Golden Deer classroom, arms crossed in an illusion of nonchalance over his chest while Claude bustles around beside him.

Claude actually seems to be taking it seriously. The pin he’s holding is long and wicked sharp, but he’s obviously washed his hands thoroughly and cut and cleaned his nails. He’s sterilizing the needle with great care as Edelgard leans over her retainer. She smiles.

“I never took you for desiring such a bad-boy look, Hubert. I must say I’m surprised.”

“You think I have a bad-boy look, Princess?” Claude asks, looking ecstatic at the very idea. She rolls her eyes.

Hubert brushes off Claude’s excitement as easily as breathing. “Lady Edelgard, do not worry. I assure you that this is purely academic. I will not be keeping the piercings.”

“Academic. Sure.” Claude points at Hubert’s prone form and mouths ‘this guy’ at Edelgard, which makes her chuckle. Claude turns back to his… patient? “Now hold still, big guy, I don’t want to pop your ears.”

Hubert sits up in a flash. “Pop my—No!” He swings his legs over the sofa and staggers to his feet. “No! I am done! Goodbye!”

“Hubes!” Hilda wails after him. She’s a good actress, but the laugh bubbling in her voice is unmistakeable. “Come back! He was joking!”

“Goodbye!”

“Shit,” Claude curses, watching Hilda run off, yelling at Hubert’s rapidly receding form. “I guess all this prep was for nothing.”

“Well, maybe not for nothing…” Edelgard is speaking before she can think better of it.

Claude meets her eyes. She smiles. He smiles back.

 

“Lady Edelgard, I cannot believe you—”

“Hush, Hubert. I think they look quite fetching.”

“I have a bunch of earrings I can lend you, Edelgard! I’ll bring them down tomorrow!”

 

Hilda immediately knows the knock at her door isn’t Claude. Claude always knocks like the world is going to end if she doesn’t open the door. This knock is nice and gentle—prim and proper.

It’s not entirely a surprise when she opens the door to reveal Edelgard. Hilda brightens.

“Hey there, Edelgard, what’s—”

Two male voices from down the hall interrupt her.

“We’re coordinating—”

“I will die by my own hand before I coordinate with you, Riegan!”

Edelgard winces, trying to hide a smile as a distant door slams and Claude starts shouting. “Claude is trying to get Hubert to wear green to the ball,” she explains.

Hilda winces too. “Oh no. Hubert is much more of a winter.”

Edelgard doesn’t seem to understand but smiles anyway. They stand in silence for a slightly awkward moment.

“Anyway! What can I do for you, Edelgard?” Hilda asks, trying her best to drown out Claude’s shrieks from the other end of the hall. She’s got a pretty good feel for what it’ll sound like if Hubert starts really killing him, so she doesn’t have to spring to action before then.

Edelgard looks a bit bashful. She never looks bashful, and Hilda quickly decides it’s adorable. “Well, some time ago you offered to do my hair, and I said no at the time, but I figure now that we are attending the ball together you could—”

Hilda gasps and claps her hands together, startling the other girl. “I can do your hair like mine and we can be matching!?”

Edelgard plasters on a very nervous smile. “Sure…?”

Hilda drags her inside and slams the door.

 

Hilda sits Edelgard on the end of her bed and crawls up behind her, working her hair out of its pins and ribbons and running her fingers through the straight strands. It’s beautiful, she thinks, she’s very lucky to be working with it.

“Hey, I meant to ask… Edelgard is a bit of a mouthful. You got a nickname you like?” Hilda pulls the hair back through her fingers. It’s so soft and well-brushed that she almost doesn’t notice the way Edelgard stills under her touch.

“Dorothea calls you Edie, right?” Hilda continues in the wake of the princess’s silence. “But I won’t cramp her style if you don’t want me t—”

“El,” Edelgard says quickly. “If you’d like, you may call me El.”

Hilda hums and begins to twist her long, white locks into a crown of braids. “El,” she tries it out. “That’s really nice.”

She doesn’t see Edelgard’s smile, but she knows it’s there.  

 

“Good evening, you two.”

Claude looks over to see Dimitri, a vision in blue, drift over to their corner of the ballroom.

He bends into a short bow, which Edelgard answers with a polite curtsey. Claude doesn’t know what to do, since one hand is occupied with a whole-ass plate of crackers and cheese and the other is clutching a flute of kiddy champagne he absolutely did not swap with real champagne. He decides a polite nod is better than nothing.

“Hey there, Your Royalness!” he greets. “How’s life with the party class going these days?”

Dimitri winces at the nickname and its implications.

“Once again, I must apologise for that,” he says. “I don’t know what the Professor was thinking, reorganising the classes in the way she has. I can only hope it isn’t affecting your learning time negatively.”

“Quite the opposite!” Claude declares. “Without Lorenz breathing down my neck I can actually get some work done.”

“And though I am fond of him, I will admit it is much quieter without Caspar,” Edelgard concedes.

Claude turns back to Dimitri. “We have so much free time now we’ve merged our classes, you’re talking to the joint heads of the Black Deer House.”

Edelgard hums through her very-not-real-champagne. “I thought we were going with the Golden Eagles,” she muses. “I am still of the opinion it sounds better.”

“Maybe. What do you think Dimitri?”

Dimitri doesn’t look like he knows what to think about it at all. He looks nervous, actually. “I’m not… sure… I—I do feel quite bad, though. I am sorry about the class swaps.”

“It’s fine,” Claude and Edelgard say in unison. They shoot each other amused looks.

“We are still getting study done,” Edelgard assures. “And I’m learning much from Claude and Hilda I feel I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“Likewise,” Claude says, “and afterwards we all hang out and eat muffins and gossip about you guys next door. That’s fun.”

“It’s quite fun,” Edelgard agrees. “Plus, Hubert has even taken up jewellery-making with Hilda.”

A small smile appears on Dimitri’s lips. “O-oh… really?”

The trio look out to the dance floor, where Hubert is leading Hilda in a very complicated Adrestian two-step. It mostly involves her standing on his feet and him moving the two of them around the dance floor at speed. Hilda is shrieking in delight, and though Hubert remains impassive, Claude can see the amusement in his other classmate’s body language as well.

Wait. Classmate?

He smirks to himself, a little disbelieving. When had that happened?

“Well, I shall leave you to it, then.” Dimitri’s voice draws him out of his thoughts. When Claude looks back to him, the prince is already walking away.

“He’s an awkward little fella, isn’t he?” he muses aloud. “Not ‘little’, but, you know…”

“Mm,” Edelgard hums. “He has always been that way.”

Well that’s… something. Claude doesn’t know if he has time to unpack it right now.

“Wanna dance, Your Highness?” he asks abruptly. “I’ll have you know I’m terrible at it.”

Edelgard only smiles. “Oh? Then I suppose I will have to teach you.”

 

Jeralt dies. The monastery is thrown into mourning and chaos. The howling aches of loss and grief rip their way through the Professor.

“I’ve never lost anyone before,” Claude says softly. “Not anyone who mattered to me anyway.”

“Not your uncle?” Edelgard asks.

“I didn’t know him,” Claude says. “I wish I did but… but that’s a different sort of grief, isn’t it?”

“I lost my grandma,” Hilda says in a small voice. “She was sick in the head for a long time, and she died slow.”

She’s curled up between the boys on the sofa, clutching a mug of something warm and sweet and steaming in her hands. Rain lashes the windows. Edelgard sits close from her perch in Hanneman’s old chair. They’ve dragged everything over to the fire to keep themselves warm. No one really feels like studying.

“I lost my mother… and my siblings,” Edelgard says.

She sees flashes of sympathy in Hilda and Claude’s wide eyes.

“I do not like it when people say sorry,” she says. “It’s not their fault the person is dead… so why are they saying sorry?”

“There is a rage in loss,” Hubert says, and Edelgard knows he knows this as intimately as her. “Anger festers in the heart. Humans… do not like to lose… we do not like it when things aren’t fair.”

They bring Byleth hot cocoa, after that. They, the students she could not bring into her fold like she did their classmates, knock on her door and wait for an answer. Maybe they should be resentful for her leaving them behind, but in that moment, they don’t blame her for wanting company.

She opens the door with red-rimmed eyes and takes the mug gratefully.

“Thank you,” she says, in that broken, husky voice she rarely uses.

They do not say they are sorry, they just smile and nod.

Edelgard thinks if she ever sees Kronya at the monastery again, she might just kill the bitch herself.

 

The Deer-duo do not show up to homeroom one day. Edelgard hadn’t quite realised how attached to their presence she’d become until they were no longer there.

“Should I check on them?” she asks Hubert. He glances up from his notes, eyes skirting around the classroom, and nods.

“Perhaps they are in the Golden Deer classroom,” he posits. “Would you like an escort?”

“I should be fine, Hubert. I will scream if I need you.”

He laughs. She leaves.

Edelgard drifts past the Blue Lions classroom, the sounds of laughter and a crowd floating out through the doorway. When she reaches the Golden Deer classroom, however, the door is only half-closed, and she hears the argument within before she sees it.

“—and they’re letting him go with you!?”

“Claude, it’s not my choice!”

Claude and Hilda, shouting at each other loud enough to be heard from outside the door. Edelgard stops walking, but she cannot stop listening.

“If it were, would you still take him?” Claude’s voice bubbles with humourless laughter.

Hilda makes a tsk noise. “I… I don’t know… he’s a good fighter, we could use that on the—”

“He’s a child, Hilda, and they’re his people.”

“Are they? Didn’t they conscript him? Leave him out there?!”

“Didn’t your people indenture him?”

“You know what, Claude?” Hilda says darkly, her voice colder and lower than Edelgard has ever heard it. “Maybe people are right to question your loyalties—”

Excuse me?!”

Edelgard has never witnessed Claude and Hilda this angry with each other, and something stirs within her that tells her it needs to stop.

“Hello?”

Edelgard ducks her head in the door, defusing the argument in an instant with all the grace of a locksmith picking a lock by hitting it with a brick.

Hilda and Claude both whirl around. A storm of emotions crosses Hilda’s face, and in a flash she’s storming past Edelgard and out of the room. And Claude—

Claude is—

Oh. He’s crying?

Fuck, she thinks.

“Fuck,” he says, wiping his face. “Shit. Uhm. Hi, Edelgard… what’s up?”

Edelgard is not a very good fixer. Dorothea had been a good fixer, but the Blue Lions are in class right now, so she can’t exactly outsource.

She walks over and, very awkwardly, takes Claude’s hands in hers.

“Are you alright?”

“Would you believe me if I said yes?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Okay.”

They sink into the sofa, which no longer smells very strongly of algae, and Claude explains himself.

The Locket. The Throat. The Almyran insurgents. The potential beginnings of a new holy war. The hurt on both sides. A noble girl with a legacy and a servant boy with a grudge. A young heir who doesn’t want any of it.

Claude sighs. “They’re just perpetuating this fucking war and they won’t stop. They won’t look at each other and see that the images they’ve constructed in their minds are wrong. I don’t know Cyril all that well, but I don’t want him to get hurt, and I don’t want him to be put in a position where these sides of himself are going to be pit against each other. That’s fucking awful.”

He’s not talking about Cyril anymore. Edelgard knows that, and Claude probably knows that she knows.

Sometimes Edelgard wonders if he’s even trying to hide his heritage sometimes. In moments like this it is… next to obvious. But maybe he’s just letting her get close enough to see?

“No matter how much living here with Rhea has convinced him of the church’s unflinching better-ness, I don’t want him to have to kill his own people.”

No honorific for the Archbishop, Edelgard notes, but what she says is: “But he wants to?”

“He’s internalised all the same shit as Hilda.”

Edelgard nods for him to keep going.

“The church teaches that the humans of Fódlan were created by the Goddess,” Claude says in a strained voice. “So what of the humans beyond its borders? Who made them? What are they in the eyes of Seiros? Of the Goddess?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but he still pauses, and Edelgard watches the light in his eyes fizzle and crack with rage.

It’s a rage she recognises. She looks at it in the mirror every day.

“They’re unclean…” he says finally, and the word seems to stick to his teeth and hang in the air like a dark cloud. “Because some woman decided centuries ago they might as well be, and was lucky enough to write it down.”

“Hilda thinks this way?” Edelgard asks. She can’t picture the girl being that hateful.

“I don’t know… it’s what she’s been taught, at least. But she’s so far removed from ever having to act on it… she doesn’t want to think about it too hard, because it will mean acknowledging that her family’s work is not… not just.”

“Bullshit,” Edelgard says, standing up. Claude blinks in surprise.

“Huh?”

“Bullshit,” Edelgard repeats. “You cannot allow her to think that way.”

She points out the door, where Hilda had run off. “It is your responsibility as a leader to tell your allies when they are wrong! Just as it is your responsibility as a friend to tell your loved ones when they are taking actions that could be hurtful! You believe Hilda is wrong, you believe the church is wrong, and I believe you are justified to feel such anger. But you cannot lash out with it blindly. You must direct it. You must make it a tool.”

Claude grits his teeth. “How do you suggest I do that? I can’t change minds in a day.”

“But you can try,” Edelgard assures. “By making her understand. As her friend.”

“But the church—”

Fuck the church,” Edelgard says, her mouth working faster than her brain. The seconds after are quiet, and stretch ad infinitum. Edelgard feels as if the very Earth below her feet has stopped spinning.

But Claude doesn’t look angry—he doesn’t look offended. No. Instead, his face cracks into a disbelieving, almost ecstatic smile.

“Hypothetically, of course,” she adds quietly, her lips twitching to match his expression.

“Of course,” he whispers.

 

Claude pulls Hilda aside when she returns from the Throat. Edelgard does not catch their quick, hushed conversation as she stands by to chat with some of her old classmates, but she watches them all the same.

Hilda speaks to him in rapid patter, and he replies with a stern but sympathetic look. They exchange words for a while before Hilda, who Edelgard is quite sure is in tears, sweeps Claude into a bone-crushing hug.

Edelgard smiles and turns away.

 

Solon shatters and takes Kronya into the bowels of hell with him.

I am happy, the next note says.

Hubert disintegrates it instantly, but the smile he sends his lady is not so easily hidden.

 

The professor is chosen… by the Goddess… by fate… by something.

Rhea’s happiness rolls off her in waves.

Edelgard feels sick. She sees snatches of pale green hair in the halls, she sees hungry eyes follow it from both the shadows and the light.

They spend homeroom in comfortable silence.

Claude will not get on his knees and pray. He will not debate the theological significance of a woman he has comforted with cocoa.

Names scratched on the desks.

Hubert opens the classroom doors wide. It is not until their fawns are inside that the room feels full, that the class feels like it has begun.

“Knight to E6.” “King me.” “Go fish.” “All in.”  

Hilda’s fingers thread through El’s hair. She does not flinch away. Hubert’s smiles are with his eyes, and she sees them clear as day.

 

“Goddess shit again? As if this school could get any weirder,” Hilda says. She’s taken up knitting as the months have gotten colder. The scarf she’s making now is soft and red, and they all know it’s for Edelgard without having to ask.  

“Too right,” Claude sighs. He’s teaching Hubert how to fletch arrows, using—very purposefully—dark eagle feathers. Hubert has taken to the Deer’s eclectic lessons like a fish to water; homerooms he spends with Claude leave him with bruised fingertips and well-earned cuts, while homerooms with Hilda leave him with finger cramps and trinkets in his pockets.

“Are you worried?” Edelgard asks. She fiddles with one of her new earrings, turning it in the way Claude and Hilda had taught her to do every day. They’re red flowers, made by Hilda.

“About what this means for the church?” Hubert finishes her thought. He runs a pale finger over Claude’s fletching and then his own, comparing their shapes.

“Eh. Church-smurch,” Claude drawls. He twirls his completed arrow and hands it to Hubert for inspection.

“Careful,” Edelgard says, not at all seriously. “Someone might think you’re a non-believer.”

“Oh, El,” Hilda says in a good-natured, teasing tone. “What’s a little heresy between friends?”

“If you’re still doing embroidery,” Hubert says, “I might have to ask for that on a throw pillow.”

 

Edelgard finds Claude in the evening, a few days before she is to leave for Enbarr. He’s out by the dock, swinging his legs over the edge and letting his bare feet trail on the water’s surface.

They did not often spend time together outside of homeroom in the beginning, but times have changed and so have they, and they take meals together, lounge together, and train together as much as they (pretend to) study together.

Edelgard settles next to her classmate, draping her legs over the edge too. She adjusts the red scarf Hilda has given her as she sits. Her legs are too short to reach the water, and they both laugh as she swings them back and forth like a child on a swing.

“I have a question for you,” she says. “You are… politically minded, and very smart.”

“I’m also incredibly susceptible to flattery, so keep going.”

She swats him on the arm and continues. “An old philosopher once said, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Are you familiar with this saying?”

“I am,” Claude says, and he gives her a go-on gesture.

Edelgard bites her lip. “Let’s say, hypothetically—”

“Of course.”

“—that a castle, one built on bad foundations, was in need of repair.”

Claude exhales sharply, and Edelgard turns to see a disbelieving smile on his face.

Edelgard clears her throat and looks back out across the water. It’s easier when she’s not looking at him.

“This castle is plagued, by something systemic and awful—something cruel—a rot that runs through its bones. To rid it of this rot, the new builders want to burn it out, but their fire is dangerous.”

Claude hums—not in disinterest, but in understanding.

“This enemy of an enemy… they are as destructive and abhorrent as the rot, but they are a tool for a job.”

“Fire to burn away rot,” Claude reasons. “But what happens when the rot is gone?”

“Indeed. And on the way… what damage the house sustains from the fire—the healthy, useable parts of the house—can that damage be excused?”

Claude leans back and smiles.

“So, what you’re asking is… At what point does alliance with a hostile but beneficial force become active collaboration—at what point does turning a blind eye become excusing this enemy-of-an-enemy’s actions? And at what point is excusing the same thing as supporting?”

Nail on the head. She had expected nothing less.

“Alliance…” Edelgard huffs a laugh. “That’s an interesting way of putting it.”

Claude seems to understand what she’s getting at. “It’s apt,” he admits wryly.

Edelgard raises an eyebrow. That statement is very loaded.

Claude looks over his shoulder, making sure they’re alone. “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t told many people,” he says.

Edelgard nods.

“Lorenz’s father, Count Gloucester, murdered my uncle.”

Eyes fly wide. “What?”

“I have no proof other than words,” Claude says quickly, “but myself and a few others are positive it was him.”

“How could he have gotten away with that?” Edelgard breathes.

“The Alliance is a shitshow, Edelgard. It’s full of backstabbers and liars, and they’re all vying for pieces of a prize that doesn’t belong to one man—so we tear it apart for just a little bit to call our own. We kill each other over scraps of land and money and power people like you and Dimitri inherit without contest.”

He doesn’t sound bitter about it, and Edelgard is left wondering it it’s even something one should be bitter about.

“My grandfather works with him—with his son’s murderer—he sits two chairs away from him at meetings and has to listen to him drone on about toll borders and harvest taxes… and soon I will too. We’re allies—”

“He murdered your uncle.”

“—but I won’t help him,” Claude says. “I won’t give him what he wants if it’s going to endanger lives. That’s the scrap of power I hold. That’s my responsibility to my people and to him.”

“You told me that, you know,” he says, turning to her. “That it’s my responsibility as a leader to hold my allies to account, to call them out and make them right. It was good advice.”

“It was good advice, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Maybe you should take it.”

Edelgard blanches.

“Hypothetically, of course,” Claude continues. “This rotting castle? You fight rot with fire and the world burns. So, what then? You fight the fire with water, and it might feel a bit better… but who’s to say the world won’t drown? How long can you let that fire burn in good conscience before any attempt to put it out causes more destruction?”

“But what other options are there?”

“There’s always another option. Always.”

“You’re an optimist to a fault.”

“Someone has to be.”

Edelgard leans back. It’s that halfway time of the evening when the dusk bleeds across the sky. There is still bright light on the horizon, but the barest glimpses of stars are visible right above her. A time of change. A time of transition.

“How long until this house of cards topples?” she thinks aloud. “How long until the fire I have so deftly ignored burns everything in its path, and I am left holding the match? How long until my nation’s foundations burn?”

“Hypothetically?” Claude asks.

“No,” she says gravely. No.

Claude sits up straighter, eyebrow quirked. “No?”

“No. Claude, I—” Edelgard sits up, looks at the lights in the sky, to the moon and sun and stars all sharing the heavens. She turns to face her classmate fully.

“There is something Hubert and I must tell you and Hilda.”