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The mercenary girl falls. 

Edelgard watches it happen in excruciatingly slow, painful detail: first the bandit’s axe comes down, and there is a shrill cry as a fountain of blood lands on her, but none of it is Edelgard’s. The girl crumples, her face dreadfully pale and her pupils blown wide as her knees fold under her, and it’s all Edelgard can do to hold on because this wasn’t supposed to happen.

She says nothing, when one of the Knights of Seiros gently pries the girl away from her. She says nothing when Alois’s voice goes oddly soft as he talks to the girl’s father with one hand on his back. She says nothing when the girl is rushed to the infirmary and the archbishop herself goes with them, delicate hands clasped tightly around the girl’s father’s shaking hands.

She says nothing, as the girl quietly dies there.

Byleth. Her name was – is – Byleth. Dimitri learns her name too late, hours after the healers pronounce her dead. A lifelong mercenary, loved by her father. Her father, the former captain of the Knights of Seiros, looking anything but knightly as he falls apart just outside the room where his daughter died.

Dimitri is no stranger to self-criticism, and so he welcomes the whispers at the back of his mind that claw their way to the forefront – that he should have been faster, stronger, better, and then maybe that girl would have survived.

Another ghost, just as cruel as the rest – crowding his head, refusing to let him rest.

Edelgard and Claude do not weep for her, and Dimitri wonders if it’s because none of them had known her before she died for them – but Claude’s eyes are oddly distant as he stares at something or maybe nothing by the window, and Edelgard continues to pick at her hands where the girl’s blood had once been.

–they’re in school, for the goddess’s sake. It was supposed to be safe here. No one was supposed to die; no one was supposed to die for them

“They say the former captain will be rejoining the Knights of Seiros,” Edelgard muses, her voice cold. 

“It’s just as well, I suppose,” Claude sighs, and Dimitri very deliberately does not ask: what else does the girl’s father have, now that his daughter is gone? 

–and by the goddess, if he could only go back in time, tear that bandit apart limb from limb before he could come anywhere near that girl – something, anything to get her damned voice out of his head–

–and then, against all reason, the girl sits up. She does so completely on her own, even though she’s supposed to be dead. Her eyes are a brilliant green as she stares, unseeing, ahead.

Claude clamors out of his chair, a high-pitched curse on his tongue. “Wh-What?” Edelgard gasps. “But you were just…” She slowly, shakily, makes her way towards the girl, lets her hands hover by the girl’s shoulders–

–and Dimitri can only stare in horror as the girl’s green, green eyes widen and she cries out, “Survival strategy!

The first time it happens, it sends Claude’s heart racing into his throat. It doesn’t get any easier, after that.

The mercenary girl Byleth, who was dead less than a moment ago but now apparently is not, stands before them in a fluttering black dress that looks out of place against the stark white of the infirmary, her arm outstretched as she hollers, “Imagine!” at the top of her lungs. It’s not her, not really – the battle where she had died is a blur, but Claude can remember that her eyes hadn’t been quite so green, or so sharp – that that great golden headdress that tangles in her hair hadn’t been there, either.

“Listen, you lowlifes who will never amount to anything,” she says in a voice that is both hers and not. 

“What is the meaning of this?” Edelgard demands, struggling against the golden chains that suddenly bind their hands.

“But you were…” Dimitri gasps, his face utterly pale. “No, that’s not possible…”

“I am not the girl who fought alongside you,” says the girl who is not Byleth, behind those unnaturally bright green eyes. “I have come from the destination of your fate.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” Edelgard retorts shrilly, her perfect composure splintering with every step that not-Byleth takes towards them.

“I have decided to use my powers to temporarily extend this girl’s life,” says not-Byleth. “However, everything in this world has a price. I will be claiming the price for her life now.”

“What price?” Dimitri cries. “What could you possibly want–” The last word fades into a scream, as he falls away from them all.

–and not-Byleth’s green, green eyes drift between them both. “Let’s initiate the survival strategy.”

When it’s over, Byleth blinks, heavily, and her eyes are a dull, opaque blue. The great golden headdress is gone, and so, too, is the fluttering black dress in favor of the simple white shift that Professor Manuela had slipped onto her in the absence of her now ruined armor. Dimitri grasps her hands so tightly in his that he very nearly crushes them. Edelgard smiles, surprisingly gentle, as she wipes at her eyes.

Claude allows himself a moment to take this all in, before heading out into the hallway and retrieving the girl’s father. He used to be the captain of the Knights of Seiros, if Alois is to be believed – but there’s nothing knightly about the way he all but flies into the room and sweeps his daughter into his arms. “Don’t ever do something so stupid again, do you hear me?” he says into her hair, and his voice shakes so much that Claude can’t fault him for it.

At the door to the infirmary, Archbishop Rhea smiles. “Thank the goddess,” she says, serenely – and for one absurd instant, Claude wonders if she knew – if she’d heard what Byleth had said when the girl had seemingly not been there at all, as if there was another person or entity entirely behind those brilliant green eyes.

Claude looks at the great golden headdress that sits atop Rhea’s head, and wonders why a random mercenary girl, whose existence seemingly none of them knew of until just a few short hours ago, would have something so similar.