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those who rot in the dark

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Her eyes closed to one type of stone and opened on another. 

The last thing she remembered were the walls crumbling. And the screaming. So much screaming. Unable to move, her students' cries pierced her flesh and weighed far more than the rubble. 

The screams haunted her still, in the darkness. 

 

***

 

They never told her what happened, no matter how much she begged or how loudly she shouted into the long corridor outside her cell. They never gave her anything. 

They rarely came at all. 

She never recognized anyone, and not just because in full armor, helms covered their faces. Voices never sounded familiar. Months of wandering around the monastery and exploring every new part of a life with people had her soaking up every small detail, from each stray cat to the faceless soldiers she grew to know like her own students, down to even the gatekeeper.

What she would have given to be greeted like that, again. 

There were never such interactions these days, only the sound of iron shifting as bars slid and the door opened long enough for food to be pushed inside. The bowl rattled against the ground as it skidded over the stones toward her. It had been a long time since she stopped trying to pry small talk from them, let alone ask for details of her capture or the world beyond her four walls. 

 

***

 

Only Rhea came with words, but it had been what Byleth could only guess were months since she last paid a visit. She bothered less and less often as time dragged on. The questions Rhea demanded Byleth had no answers to. She never did. Sothis had been silent for years now. 

There were no answers for either of them. Only questions about her students’ well-being that picked at and bothered her more than the nits. 

Did Petra manage to pull Bernadetta to safety? Was Linhardt able to heal Ferdinand in time to get him off the battlefield? The last thing she heard that day was a shout of warning from Hubert followed by Edelgard’s scream. Did she-

A cold feeling enters her chest. She presses her forehead into the stone.

 

***

 

She never heard other voices or cries from the cells nearby. No one else must be down here with her. Either the dungeons sprawled far larger than what she could sense, the Black Eagle Strike Force escaped capture, or they died. She’s not sure which option brings more comfort.

And what about the others not in her house? Are they alive, fighting in the war or been killed because of it? Is there even still a war at all?

She’s not sure which faction rules or who the Church has allied itself with. What little she does know is that it’s colder here than at the monastery. Somewhere further north then, she guesses. Faerghus, perhaps? 

It doesn’t matter much, in the end. 

 

***

 

Endless rats scratch in the dark.

Not for the first time, Byleth understands certain forgotten details far too late. 

She misses the cats. 

 

***

 

Even while at the monastery, she was never a devout woman. Despite the presence of a goddess dwelling within her, Byleth has long since stopped praying. 

 

***

 

She almost misses the torture. At least it was something more than the stillness of the cell that pressed heavily from all sides. No stranger to pain as a mercenary, there was always the chance of capture and being pressed for information on who employed them. 

It was madness, she feared. Returning to the blank, unfeeling numbness that had been her life before the monastery. Pain was something to hold onto. It ground her back to the world, made her feel. And for that, Byleth was grateful. 

Sometimes she snarled, a bloodthirsty beast barely contained  - “I know she’s in there, you wretched girl.”

Other times, Rhea’s sweet voice would drizzle like honey. “Come now, mother. It’s time to be free.”

No matter how much she wished otherwise, no one ever answered. Not even her own blood.

 

***

 

It had been several days since she’d eaten. That wasn’t unusual, they’d tried the tactic before. But this time, a parade of footsteps. Clattering of armor and dangling weapons. Voices. Would they finally make up their mind about what to do with her? It’s certainly taken them long enough.

“I’m telling you, a body was never found! We searched, for weeks-

The cell bar is unlocked with haste and a hunched cloaked figure is pushed through first, arms bound behind their back. Byleth’s eyes are weak, and it takes her a moment to make out a jaw slack in shock and his eye (eye. Huh, that’s a new hallucination) widens through long hair in disbelief. “P-Professor?” 

A blurry flash of red. 

“This is what faith in the Church leads to. More lies to keep people in the dark for false truths that suit their purposes.” Edelgard practically spits in disgust. “Tell me, Dimitri, do you believe me now?”

She closes her eyes, exhausted by the noise, light, and tricks of her mind, leaning back against the stone wall once more. Silence must be answer enough because the phantoms shuffle back out of the cell and all is blissfully quiet once more. 

Too much. It’s all too much and she’s so tired

She’d imagined this all, of course. Thousands of times. Hundreds of ways. She must be growing weaker than she thought. It’s been weeks since the last vision. Perhaps death is finally near? She would welcome it this time, having cheated him more times than she could count, even before Sothis’ Divine Pulse came into play. One either became a very good mercenary or ended up dead. She’s long overdue. 

She’s not certain if the manacles or her mistakes weigh more heavily. It doesn’t matter, she supposes. Both chain her to the past.

She folds into sleep’s embrace blissfully; it takes her in tender hands. Sleep is an old friend now. Her touch lingers in a gentle caress, cupping Byleth’s face. 

It’s...cold. Like metal.

Something tickles against her cheek.

Inside, something soft and warm churns. This must be...a kiss. Yes, she decides, a kiss. She remembers seeing them before. 

Lips pull back ever so slowly, and Byleth is suddenly keenly aware of how cracked and dry hers feel. Hot breath pants against her cheek. So that’s what the tickle was.

A sob breaks, cracking on the last syllable, “My teacher.”



***

 

She awakens to a cry and shuts her eyes immediately in pain, blinking against light shining through the window. 

Window. Right, she remembers. Upstairs. 

It must be morning. She raises her hand to shield her eyes and cringes as her palm smacks into her face instead. The weight is different, she realizes, glancing down at her scarred, bare wrists, feeling foolish. She used to be better than this.

“Professor!” Hurrying over, Edelgard looks concerned and relieved at the same time. “Are you alright? Why are you on the floor?”

A hand gently hovers behind her back as she sits up; guiding but not touching. Byleth looks over at the untouched bed piled high with pillows. “It was too soft,” she frowns. “It didn’t feel like anything at all.”

Quiet falls, again. She’d never been very good at speaking and years of imprisonment haven’t improved her conversational skills. She opts to stay silent, not knowing what else to say.

Only the quick clearing of Edelgard’s throat indicates a shift in tone. But the intimate concern from a moment ago evaporates, pulled back into formality. The Emperor speaks. “Forgive me, my teacher. I forgot myself yesterday and my actions were inexcusably inappropriate.”

Yesterday. The dungeon. She touches her wrist instinctively. Still bare. “I’m grateful,” she says.

Despite the lavish armor, cape, and crown, Edelgard somehow seems small. She blushes, “Grateful?”

“You freed me,” she says simply.

The blush deepens, but this time tinged with bitterness and sorrow. “I must beg your forgiveness for that as well, my teacher, for I was five long years too late. But that is not the matter to which I speak.”

“The kiss.”

Edelgard refuses to meet her eyes, locked in an almost half-bow. “Yes.”

Byleth’s brows knit together. “Don’t be.” 

Edelgard pulls back, confused, finally looking up.

“It made me feel...human. Thank you.” It’s all the explanation she has to offer, but it seems to be enough. Embarrassment melts away until only Edelgard remains, who stands and after straightening out her cape, leans down and reaches out her arm. 

Byleth smiles, takes her hand, and returns to the world.