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Chosen Paths

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Mercedes had jumped up as soon as the fighting was over and attempted to clamber her way through the excited crowd towards where Professor's Manuela and Hanneman had disappeared with Byleth.  Assistance in her passage came from an unlikely source.  Claude had noted her move and seemed to be trying to open a way ahead of her.  At one stage, he had looked back at her and smiled and winked.  When they reached the refreshment table that had been laid out and was being picked at by Knight's and Clergy, he waited for Mercedes to catch up and put a warm hand on her shoulder. 

'They took Teach that way.'  He told her, pointing to a corridor that led off the arena.

'Thank you.'  She murmured back at him uncertainly.  'I am hoping I can offer my own healing skills...'

'Nice idea.'  Claude beamed.  'I'll wait here to see you safely back once you're done if you like.  I wouldn’t mind hearing how she's doing myself.'

'Right.  That's very kind.'  Mercedes struggled to think of a polite way to decline, Claude had never even spoken to her directly before after all.

'Not a problem.  I reckon we are all anxious to ensure The Prof is okay.  Marianne is quite beside herself.' 

'Oh... I didn’t think!'  Mercedes looked back to try and spot the girl.  'I could have asked her to come along too.  She is skilled in healing.'

'Don't worry about it.  Just be nice to have someone representing the student's giving Teach some care.  At least we will get a more accurate report on her wellbeing from you than we are likely to get from the faculty.'

'I honestly don’t know what they were thinking with that display.'  Mercedes displeasure was obvious.

'You and me both.'  Claude muttered.  He pushed gently on Mercedes's shoulder.  'Get yourself in there, I will wait.' 

She nodded at him thoughtfully and made her way to the corridor.

Hanneman was stood outside the only door at the end of the short passage. 

'Ah, Mercedes!'  He welcomed cheerfully.  'Are you here to offer your services?'

'If I can be of any help, Professor.'  Mercedes replied quietly.

'I'm sure Manuela would appreciate it!'  He assured, knocking lightly on the door.  He had a brief conversation with the inhabitants before he beckoned Mercedes closer.

'Go on in.'  He urged.

Once she was in the small storage room, Mercedes hurried over to where Manuela was trying to get Byleth free of her dress.

'You are so stubborn.'  The older woman declared.  'I should at least clean the cuts - it would simply not do to allow you to get an infection.'

'You are fussing too much!'  Byleth was scowling.  'I am really not hurt.  You would be better off checking on the Knights!'

'I might have guessed you would be a difficult patient.'  Mercedes giggled as she drew level with them.

'I'm not difficult when I am genuinely hurt!'  Byleth complained.

Manuela looked appraisingly at the student.  'Perhaps I could leave this troublemaker in your care Mercedes?'  She suggested.  'Byleth is correct that her injuries are not particularly severe, but they should be looked at.  If you could take that over for me, then I can go and do as she is demanding and check on her victims.'

Byleth growled a little but nodded her head at Mercedes.  'Acceptable.'  She mumbled.

'Besides...'  Manuela added with a chuckle as she sorted out an ungent from her stock and handed it to Mercedes, 'Cute though you are Byleth,  I can't deny that getting to run my hands over a few poor Knights aching muscles is a far more appealing prospect than sitting here arguing with you!'

'Glad I could be of service.'  Byleth snorted.

Once Manuela was out of the door, Mercedes got to work. 

'I am quite literally amazed that you are not significantly damaged.'  The healer murmured, taking stock of the shallow cuts and bruising.  'Nine Knights and Jeritza.  Did you know that was going to happen?'

'No.'

'I didn’t think so.  I fail to see how it was allowed that your adversaries were properly armed while you were not.'

Byleth remained silent.

'You were unbelievable, of course.'  Mercedes smiled gently at her patient. 

'You have an exceptionally gentle touch Mercedes.  Your magic is very warm.'  Byleth appeared intent on changing the subject.

'Thank you.'  The girl couldn’t prevent a slight blush.  'I admit I enjoy the healing arts.  It feels... right.'

It didn’t take long for Byleth's hurts to be tended.  She had just been helped back into her clothes when there was a gentle knock on the door.  Mercedes opened it to admit Seteth, who was followed in by Flayn.

'May I have a moment, Professor?'  He asked formally, his face carefully set.

'Are we done?'  Byleth asked Mercedes, who nodded.

'Thank you.'  Byleth dismissed the girl who slipped out of the room quickly and shut the door behind her.  Curiosity made her linger, though.

'I am happy to report that nobody suffered any damage in your little demonstration.'  Seteth was saying.

'I was careful.'  Byleth replied.

'Lady Rhea agreed to Jeritza's idea to test you.'  Interestingly it was Flayn that spoke up.

'I was only advised at the very last minute.'  Seteth added.  'The Archbishop seemed to have total faith in your ability and believed that a show of such strength would set you in good stead with your pupils.  Give you respect that may not have been granted in other circumstances.'  Even though the thick wooden door, Mercedes could tell that Seteth did not approve.

'It was unexpected, but I am trained to deal with the unexpected.'  Byleth's voice was stoic as always.

'All the same, I want you to know that it reflected very well on you that despite being attacked in numbers and facing real weapons, you never lost any control and actually managed to limit damage to others exceedingly well.'

'I suppose there was always a danger that I may become overly aggressive.'  Byleth was thoughtful.  'I know many of my trade who would have reacted with violence in such a scenario.'

'That would not have been good since you are going to be working with students.'  Seteth agreed.  'They can be very vexing at times...'

With a small smile, Mercedes moved away from the door and back down the passage to the arena.

True to his word, Claude was lingering at the entrance to the corridor, waiting for her.  Manuela was administering to a number of the Knights, the rest of whom were still in attendance, taking refreshments and talking in small clusters.  Most of the students were now absent.

'All done?  The others have gone over to the dining hall for a celebration tea - can I escort you?'  Claude pushed himself up from his relaxed position against the wall and offered a gallant arm to Mercedes.  After a slight hesitation, she took it.

'The Professor sustained only some minor cuts and bruises.'  Mercedes reported softly as they walked from the training grounds together.

'Not a single one of those bloody Knights took even minor damage.'  Claude replied.  'Can't help but think the Prof held back a great deal in dealing with them.'

'She admitted as much to Seteth.'  Mercedes agreed.

'Remarkable.'  Claude shook his head.  'What do you make of her Mercedes?  I can't help but notice that you seem particularly astute.'

Mercedes stopped, her sudden stillness causing Claude to turn back to face her.

'What are you asking Claude?'  She asked shrewdly.

He opened his mouth as if to speak and then appeared to reconsider.  He smiled at her. 

'Like I said, you are astute.'  He laughed.  'You rushed to the Professor's aid as soon as the fight was over, which said to me that you already have some kind positive feeling towards her.  I am simply interested in your reasoning for admiring her.  Your thoughts on her abilities.'

'What are yours?'  She deflected back at him.

'That's fair.'  He prompted her to start walking again.  'I followed her on her first day here when she was meeting with the students.  The way she treated everyone was... unique.   My own discourse with her has piqued my interest even further and her skills... well.  I can't discount her abilities and what could be learned from her.  Not in my position.'

Mercedes nodded.  'I, too, was taken with how kindly she dealt with Lysithia and Annette, given her past as a mercenary.'  She thought carefully.  'I sense a vulnerability though.  Oh, not in her ability to protect herself...'  she qualified when Claude scoffed in disbelief.  'I mean more in herself.  Like what happened today.  In no way did I see a reaction that suggested she was bothered by being set up.  Yet to my mind it was an unkindness to test her in such a manner in front of the students.'

'I don’t disagree.'  Claude murmured.  'She handled it incredibly, but there was every chance that it may not have turned out so well...'

'Seteth said that Rhea thought such a display would give her a gravitas with her students.'  Mercedes frowned.  'It stinks to me though.  Why offer her a position in the first place and then seek to test her - potentially setting her up for a fall?'

'Unless the Archbishop had such blinding faith in her ability, I suppose.'

'Maybe.'  Mercedes still looked troubled.

'Whatever the reasoning behind it, she certainly impressed Jeritza.'  Claude's voice was so low that Mercedes had to strain to hear him.  'I overheard him telling Hubert that her abilities would be a great boon to the future Empress.'

'My understanding is that she will be training all of us.'  Mercedes bristled.

Claude shrugged.  'That's definitely Teach's ambition.'  He agreed.

Mercedes was silent for a moment.  'I admit you have surprised me, Claude.'  She said finally.  'I know we have not spoken before, but you realise that you come off as an entitled brat don’t you?'

'You wound me!'  Claude smirked.  'Surely my boyish good looks and charm are completely appealing!'

Mercedes giggled.  'Oh, is that what you are going for?'  She asked wickedly.

He chuckled.  'I am appealing!'  He insisted.  'Although maybe just a slight bit more thoughtful than my reputation suggests.  I doubt I could keep the wool over your eyes for long though my Lady.'

'You are probably a little dangerous to know, Claude.'  Mercedes grip tightened slightly on his arm.  'I think I would prefer to be seen as a friend rather than an enemy though.  Might that be a possibility?'

'I think that sharing some of the things that we notice might be of help to both of us.'  He said lightly as he held the door to the dining hall open for her.

'It may well be.'  She agreed.