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Who We Are, And What We Are Meant To Be

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Enbarr Palace Gardens, 1176 (4 years before present day)


Edelgard laid back on the grass and watched her beloved Avarine make lazy circles in the air, flying higher up than any daemon should ever go.


Avarine noticed the figure approaching Edelgard first and folded her wings into a sharp stoop, only pulling out of the dive at the last minute when she recognized the black hair of Hubert and the orange fur of Thanily, the fox daemon by his side. Hubert, for his part, was unfazed by the enormous gyrfalcon very nearly digging her talons into his face and merely lifted a hand in greeting.


“Lady Edelgard, Lady Avarine, it is good to see you out in the open air.”


Edelgard folded herself into a sitting position and regarded Hubert with a mild smile. For a moment she debated deflecting what was on her mind, but no. This was Hubert and Thanily. She could trust them. “…Near the end there, I thought I would never see the sun again.”


Hubert merely closed his eyes, and so it was Thanily who took a step forward and spoke. “Lady Edelgard, I must again beg your forgiveness for our failure to rescue you from—”


“Enough, Thanily. You too, Hubert. You would have joined me in those dungeons if you had stayed. In any case you learned valuable information while searching for me down there. And…you saved my brothers and sisters.” A pause. “What was left of them anyway.”


“I did not save them, I killed—”


“They would have thanked you, if they had been able to do so.”


The awkward silence hung in the air until Avarine cried out, “I still don’t understand why. What was the point of kidnapping and torturing El, and my brothers and sisters, and dozens of innocent people, and for what? To shove another Crest into El when she already had one proving our legitimacy? I mean, I know why they did it, but I still don’t understand why they did it! Why does every single nation on this fucking continent have such a fetish for Crests?!” She flashed her wings and screeched.


Hubert sat down beside Edelgard. His face was as impassive and icy as always, but Edelgard could see the way he dug his fingers into Thanily’s fur, had been for the past several minutes actually. “Because Crests are how the nobles and the Church maintain control. The Church makes Crests the sum of a person’s worth, and the nobles enforce it because that is how they maintain power.”


“And on and on it goes, the nobles oppressing the people they are supposed to protect while tormenting their children to fit the mold of the Church, their children grow up doing the same, and all the while the Church steps on our throat and we thank them for it,” Edelgard added. “The ones who tortured me and my siblings are evil and need to be destroyed, but the only way we can make a world where people aren’t chained by a magic birthmark is to dismantle the system itself!”


Hubert simply listened and nodded. “And why is gradual reform not an option?” It sounded almost like the first half to a call and response.


“Because people will continue to suffer and die while ministers hem and haw and do nothing! Not to mention that there is no way the Church would tolerate any separation of religion from state affairs. The moment I publicly call for reform or a deemphasis of crests they’ll at best overthrow me in a coup like what happened to Father or at worst brand me a heretic and publicly execute me after some show trial. And I’d rather not have my head on a pike at Garreg Mach while the rest of my corpse is burned and chucked into the river, thanks.” She scowled. “Come on Hubert, you know this. Why are you asking me?”


“I ask you because, unfortunately, even with your Crest and position as next Emperor, unless both the Sword of the Creator and someone who can use it somehow fall into our laps,”


“—Which they won’t—”


“Then I fear that the only way we can obtain the power to defeat the Church and break this cycle is to obtain the aid of our “friends” in the dark.”

Edelgard and Avarine stared at Hubert and Thanily in horror and disgust. Avarine broke the silence first. “You can’t be serious. After everything you saw, after everything they did?”


Hubert clenched the ground, his nails digging shallow furrows into the earth. “As much as it disgusts me, I am perfectly serious. They had the ability to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Adrestian empire. Some of the information I…obtained while searching for you hinted at moles they have planted within the Central Church itself. If we are going to topple an institution as mighty as the Church of Seiros itself, we need all the help undermining it we can get. And then, afterwards, they will pay. Furthermore, if we work with them, we may be able to curb the worst of their sadistic excesses. From what we know about those who slither in the dark, I doubt your blood was enough to satisfy them."


Edelgard sat up, her face settling back into that mask of determination. Meanwhile, Avarine flew up into the sky screaming profanities into the open air. “I suppose we have no other option then. At least, until we have broken the chains the Church has bound us with. Then we can wipe out our “friends” in the dark from their nests.”


“And I pledge to walk with you every step of the way.” Hubert stood and bowed, low and deep. The effect was somewhat ruined by the fact that he was still a gangly teenager with acne scars pitting his chin, but his intimidating demeanor would come with time.


Avarine, eventually, flew back to Edelgard and perched on her shoulder. Her talons dug into Edelgard’s clothes and she made a mental note to have the tailors reinforce all of her outfits with shoulder padding, now that Avarine was going to be a gyrfalcon for good. Avarine, for her part, just glared a grinning Thanily. “What, what is it?”


Thanily laughed, more of a sinister chuckle than anything else. “Oh no, it’s just funny how big a mistake your tormentors made,” she said. “I mean, look at you, Lady Avarine. You’re a gyrfalcon! They rule the frozen northern skies. They nest on cliffs where none can reach. They chase wyverns out of their skies! Lady Edelgard, that means you’re something of a gyrfalcon too. And they thought they could break you?”


A Battlefield In Western Faerghus, 1178 (2 years before present day)


The world took its time fuzzing back into focus. Sound returned first, a distant echoing that pierced the din of battle, the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.


“—mitri? Dimitri?!”


Someone was calling his name. A black-haired smear was a few feet away, or maybe really close, but either way was shouting his name. The rest of the world was still fuzzy, but he could start to feel that his hands and face were wet and sticky and he was gripping the shaft of something and his daemon could smell blood everywhere. But he knew that smear of a black-haired…man, yes a man, shouting his name above the roar of scrambled senses.


“…Glenn?” he asked, almost pitifully. And yet as Dimitri spoke the name soured on his tongue. Something was wrong, something was horribly wrong. There was Glenn but there was only Glenn where was, “Where’s Argentia?”


The black-haired figure froze, snapped straight up, took a step back but Argentia didn’t because Argentia was not there because—


oh


—Because the figure that snapped into focus all at once wasn’t Glenn but Felix and Felix’s daemon was not Argentia but Bismalt and Argentia had been a musk ox, solid and strong, but Bismalt was an iridescent blue Brigidnese fighting fish currently staring at him from inside an enchanted capsule firmly strapped to Felix’s side and Glenn was dead.


And Felix, one of his best friends, a boy he used to go ice skating with in the depths of winter, was staring at him in horror and disgust and betrayal. And Bismalt was staring at Delcabia with the same look on his face.


“Dimitri, what the fuck was that?!”


Dimitri could only mumble in blank incomprehension. What was Felix shouting about? All the noise, the screams, it was so much. He looked down. There was a lance in his hands. The lance was soaked in blood. His hands were soaked in blood. There was blood and worse smeared on his face, spattered over his clothes. Felix had blood on him too, but nothing like Dimitri. Ah, right. The rebellion. They had gone to quell this rebellion. They had gone into battle and he had raised his lance and Delcabia had been by his side and—


“You didn’t answer my question! What the fuck was that?! What the fuck, Delcabia?!”


Dimitri still felt like he was swimming up to the surface of a very deep lake. “Delcabia?” He turned around, and there was his daemon with the same slightly glazed-over look on her face. But his eyes slid a bit further down from hers and both pairs snapped into focus as they realized just what Felix and Bismalt were screaming about.


Ever since…since Duscur…Delcabia had taken the form of bison, moose, large animals with horns and tusks and hooves, great beasts as big as daemons can get that protect their young from the lions and wolves. Delcabia was still one of those forms, a boar this time, but that wasn’t what got Dimitri’s attention.
Her tusks were dark red, dripping with blood.


She had gored people. Delcabia had gored people. His Delcabia, his beloved, wretched, vile Delcabia had gored people.


And he was so lost in bloodlust that he hadn’t even known she had done it.


“Delcabia,” Dimitri croaked, he begged, his voice suddenly hoarse, “Please, become something else. A rat, a bug, anything.”


But Delcabia simply stared at the ground. Blood dripped off her tusks in slow drops. Ghastly hands clawed their way up from the ground to snatch at her hocks, her hooves. Then Dimitri blinked and they were gone. “…I’m sorry Dimitri. I can’t.”


“No,” Dimitri begged, bile building up in the back of his throat. “No, you can’t mean that! Now? From this?!


Delcabia simply looked past him, helpless, as the din of battle and the exhortations of vengeance from the everpresent ghosts echoed around them both. And then Dimitri and Delcabia heard a laugh from the only other living person around, high and bitter and broken.

 

“Of course, of fucking course! Dimitri the boar prince; I can’t think of a better shape for you!”


Claude’s Study, Almyran Royal Palace, 1177 (3 years before present day)


The feast to celebrate Simurg’s settling had lasted well past midnight, and Claude was both exhausted and mildly hungover, but he still found himself hunched over an enormous bestiary with a steaming cup of pine needle tea and a plate of baklava on one side of the tome and Simurg stretched out for inspection on the other. The book was currently opened to a sketch and description of a viper with a broad head, dark zig-zagging bands running down its full length, and a distinctive rattle on its tail. Simurg was a little darker than the image depicted in the book, but there was no doubt. She had settled as a timber rattlesnake.


“Well,” Simurg said, eventually, “At least being a wyvern rider is still an option?”


Claude rubbed the heels of his hands against his face with a groan. It did absolutely nothing to alleviate his headache. “The problem is that you’re a viper. And as much as that’s both badass and completely appropriate in retrospect, it does mean we’ll attract unwanted attention. Well, even more unwanted attention. Point is, if we had trouble staying inconspicuous before, we’re really going to have a hard time of it now.”


“To be fair, I think that ship sailed after what you did to Assar.”


“Hey, don’t pin this on me! The bait was your idea and you’re half of me anyway. And besides, Assar had it coming. If he really wanted to be considered for that post, or really anything with any chance of advancement, then he should have thought twice before trying to blind me out of the line of succession!” That was a stupid rule anyway, saying that heirs to the Almyran throne needed to be physically perfect, whatever that meant. Did nothing but encourage infighting and left a lot of mutilated royals around. There had to be a better way.


Simurg would have shrugged, if she still had shoulders. Instead she just flicked her tail in the air and let the sound echo. She wasn’t sure if she liked this substitute yet. “I’m just saying, this is what we are. Not like I could have hidden it for much longer.”


Claude leaned back in his chair and groaned. “I know, I kn—ow!” His last word broke off into a muffled shout as he tipped his chair back too far and crashed against the ground. Simurg simply slithered down from the desk and over the chair, onto Claude’s legs which still dangled over the now-upturned edge of the chair. She looked down and flicked out her tongue at Claude, who stared balefully up at her with his hair unkempt over his eyes and his arms awkwardly splayed out. He offered her an upturned middle finger in return, then proceeded to continue his thoughts while still toppled over. “It’s just that nobody’s going to underestimate us anymore. And that’s both satisfying and scary. It’ll be harder to stay ahead of our enemies now.”


“Actually…I think we can still outsmart them,” Simurg said. She slithered back to the desk as Claude stumbled to his feet. He sat back down in the chair, made a valiant but ultimately futile attempt at smoothing down his bedhead, and took to sipping his tea and nibbling at the baklava. The tea had a slightly acidic edge to it, and the honey dripping from the baklava was just as sweet against his teeth. He chewed and motioned for Simurg to continue. “Okay, there’s no hiding that we’re a schemer now, but everyone else was figuring that out regardless of what I settled as. But they still won’t know what we’re scheming about.”


Claude sat and chewed his baklava, smiling as he stroked the stubble on his chin that was his attempt at growing a proper Almyran beard. As Claude was all of fourteen the attempt was more a few pathetic bits of stubble than anything else, but his daemon said nothing. Better to let him dream. Either way, the sly smile creeping across Claude’s face was a response enough to her idea.


“We can’t hide it, but we can deflect it.”


“And then lie in wait to strike. Nobody will ever see us coming.”


“We’ll show them just what an outsider can do.”


Claude smiled, Simurg squeezed his arm, and they both went back to reading the bestiary’s entry on timber rattlesnakes. Their lifespan, their hunting habits, their habitats.


“Native to the deciduous forests of eastern Fodlan…Hey, Simi, what do you think about visiting your formsake?”


Garreg Mach Monastery, 1159 (21 years before present day) - Remire Village, 1174 (6 years before present day)

Something was horribly wrong with his daughter.


Jeralt had dreamt of holding his child for months now. He had dreamt of him and his wife holding a laughing and smiling child, all three of their daemons nestled together sharing in warmth and love. But his wife was dead, and his daughter…might as well be, it seemed. After that terrible day, when Rhea walked out of that room with an unreadable expression and a small bundle in her arms…well, all Jeralt remembers of those gray days is sitting with his breathing but silent daughter in his arms, Domaghar occasionally nudging her limp daemon with her nose and begging them to move, or shift forms, or do anything at all.


Byleth was alive, at least technically. She breathed, she ate, she shat. But that was it. Even in those first few days of life she never laughed, she never cried. She barely followed his gaze. And her daemon, Belial, was a disturbingly wan and listless thing, as grayed-out as Jeralt’s world had become and so frail-looking that he was afraid they would crumble to pieces in a stiff wind.


And then he took her to a doctor in town, one not under Rhea’s direct command, and he learned that Byleth somehow had a pulse but no heartbeat—and what the everloving fuck did that mean?!—and he realized with a clawing horror that Rhea must have done something terrible to his baby girl. So that night he started a fire, put what possessions he could onto Domaghar’s back—she was a draft horse, she could easily carry him and his belongings—and took off into the night while clutching Byleth and Belial close to his own hammering heart. It wasn’t until they saw the far southern shores of the Empire that Domaghar slowed her gallop and Jeralt allowed himself to breathe, and finally focus on the near-impossible task of raising a husk of a child alone.


Byleth did improve from those early dark days, slowly. She was smart. She learned to speak, and read, and swing a sword very quickly. She and Belial both had a strange presence about them, something that made people pay attention even through their uncannily empty gaze. She had a knack for teaching others. She didn’t like seeing other people upset, and was good at listening to them. But she still never laughed, never cried. Never expressed any more emotion than the faintest smile or frown. As intelligent as she was, as quick on her feet when it came to rote learning, Byleth was creatively…sterile. She never doodled, or sung to herself, or made up stories, or even expressed the creativity to lie. And Belial almost never changed form without prompting, rarely played with Byleth or Domaghar or any other daemon. Some days they seemed more like an ordinary animal than anything else. Some days Byleth and Belial barely seemed to acknowledge each other, and even on the best days there seemed to be no limit as to how far they could stand to be away from each other. Some days, it seemed like they weren’t aware of anything at all.


Other days were better, and Jeralt soon learned that they tended to be associated with Byleth’s recurrent dreams of a great battle, or a strange young girl with green hair sleeping on a throne. He grew to yearn for the nights Byleth had those dreams, because for several days afterwards both his daughter and her daemon would be more alert and aware, would be closer to, well, normal. They would smile, explore, ask questions, be present in a way they otherwise never were. On those days their seemingly infinite range was invaluable; Belial could easily scout out enemy camps and formations and report back without being spotted. But invariably, after several days, the effects of the dreams would wear off and Byleth would sink back into her torpor.


The years passed, the dreams happened more frequently, and Jeralt and Domaghar learned to read the miniscule emotions on Byleth and Belial’s faces, but his daughter’s heart still never beat. She still never laughed. Never cried. Not even when she was twelve, came up to her father with blood-stained smallclothes, and flatly stated that she was dying. Not even afterwards, during that horribly awkward conversation that ended with Domaghar dragging Jeralt off out of sheer embarrassment and returning with one of his female mercenaries to please for the love of Sothis explain this don’t make him do it. Not even when she was sixteen and a bandit smashed her knee in with an axe, damaged the joint so badly that even with magical healing she would need a brace for the rest of her life.


It was during that time, while Byleth was convalescing in Remire Village and Belial took advantage of their seemingly-infinite range to patrol, that Jeralt took a job in a village in Alliance Territory. While there, he met a brash and excitable girl with bright orange hair who ran right up and begged him to teach her how to fight and be a mercenary.


Well, he couldn’t say no to that, and so Jeralt became an unexpected mentor to Leonie, and sort of a secondary father figure too. It was that second thought he kept turning over in his head as they crept through the undergrowth, Leonie staring at him with unadulterated hero worship while her daemon perched as a small bird between Domaghar’s ears so they could communicate quietly. Jeralt found himself yearning for that kind of relationship with Byleth, a daughter who would grin and laugh and chat about nothing, a daemon who would shift form on their own, perch on Domaghar’s back, and tell stories. And Jeralt found himself grieving, that Byleth would never be able to do any of those things.


He hated himself, a little bit, for that. Byleth was his daughter, the most important person in the world. He loved her more than anything. How could he even think of her being different than she was, of being not her? “Don’t think about it,” Doma had said. “We can’t change it. Dwelling only leads to madness.” And so he tried not to.


Jeralt returned to Remire a few months later to find Byleth fighting off bandits, because of fucking course, and arrived on the field just in time to see Belial, a wolf this time, crush the daemon of the bandit leader between their jaws. The bandit’s daemon disintegrated into golden dust, the bandit fell over dead, the survivors of the gang fled into the night, and Belial never took another form again.


Byleth had settled, and Jeralt swept his daughter into a bone-crushing hug, and everyone in both his troupe and the village cheered and congratulated the young woman and her wolf daemon. There was a feast in her honor, and Byleth gave a tiny smile that only Jeralt knew would have been an ear-splitting grin on anyone else, and Belial wagged their tail once, but that was all.


Just what had Rhea done to his daughter?

Chapter Text

Remire Village, 1180 (present day)


Even before Belial padded over and nosed her hand Byleth knew it was going to be one of the Good Days. Might even be one of the Best Days, actually; for the first time she could remember the green-haired girl with the ethereal garb in her dreams had spoken. Had asked for her name.

Belial’s cold nose against the warm skin of her palm shook her out of her drifting reverie. “I think Dad’s been calling you for a while,” they said, cool and level. “Get dressed. Let’s go.”

Her dad was just outside, talking to Domaghar as he adjusted the armor on her flanks and legs. His senses were keen, honed by years of battle, and he turned around before she and Belial had even entered the room. His gaze flitted down to Belial, how they were walking alongside Byleth instead of meandering around like some disinterested half-tame animal, and his face broke into an easy smile. Was that relief on his face? She’d been alive for however many years and still couldn’t really tell.

“Byleth! One of the Good Days then? Which dream was it this time, the girl or the battle?” There was always a weight to those words, a certain emphasis that Byleth herself had picked up over time without thinking. Byleth dreamt of the girl, and so this was a Good Day. It certainly felt like a discrete Day in her mind, an individual day to be noticed and interacted with alongside Belial instead of a hazy blur that drifted by. That’s probably what her dad meant by a Good Day, although whenever she asked why she was the only one who seemed to have Good Days and Bad Days he’d just change the subject.

“And Doma isn’t talking either. I’ve tried,” Belial muttered.

Byleth shook her head and tried to focus on their upcoming mission. But then one of the greener mercenaries ran into the room shouting something about a bunch of teenagers under attack and their plans changed very quickly.

 


 

Edelgard and Avarine. Dimitri and Delcabia. Claude and Simurg. Byleth repeated those names like a mantra with every footstep, every swing of her blade. This was one of the Good Days she would be capable of remembering, and so she tried to lock down every detail she could in her head. And Belial was doing the same, even as they viciously shook a jackrabbit clenched in their jaws. The jackrabbit dissolved in a shower of golden dust and her human, a bandit, crumpled to the ground.

Edelgard was a short woman with white hair and ramrod-straight posture, seriousness and discipline drilled into her. She had thick leather shoulder pauldrons on which Avarine perched. Avarine was an enormous white falcon, with dark gray feathers speckled throughout her body. Dimitri was a tall young man with straight blond hair and a carefully put-together demeanor. His daemon, Delcabia, was a large boar with sharp tusks and bristly-looking fur. Where Dimitri was quiet and polite, Delcabia would snort and dig at the ground. Claude was a young man with brown skin, tousled dark curls, and a roguish smile. Which is what made Simurg, the rattlesnake coiled around his upper arm, slightly disconcerting. They had been chased by bandits and stumbled upon her father’s mercenary band. They needed help, and so Byleth and her father took the job. Something about their uniforms made Domaghar pin back her ears and snort in agitation.

Avarine cried out a warning in time for Edelgard to whip around and bury her axe in the onrushing bandit’s guts. Delcabia had pinned another bandit’s daemon to the ground. She stomped on the bobcat’s chest, forced her human to his knees with a pained gasp, an easy target for Dimitri to run through with his battered lance. Claude and Simurg darted through thick undergrowth as one. They would spring up to launch an arrow at an attacker’s throat, then duck back down to move on to the next target. Her father rode on ahead atop Domaghar’s back. Bandits would instinctively shrink back to avoid accidentally touching the horse daemon—the greatest of taboos, even in the thick of combat—only to find themselves the victim of Jeralt’s lance. It was combat, after all. You did what you must to survive.

Byleth, for her part, cut down enemies left and right with her sword. Even on the Good Days she rarely spoke during combat; it was Belial who would bark out orders which Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude would thankfully scramble to obey. They knew Remire, knew just where bandits would be hiding, where the best places to strike would be.

It wasn’t much of a fight. By mid-morning, the fight was mostly over. Claude shot an arrow into the bandit leader (she heard his name shouted above the din, Kostas or something like that), staggering him long enough for Edelgard to lay him out flat with her axe. Claude clutched Simurg to his chest as he lowered his bow and allowed himself a small sigh of relief, Byleth turned around to check on Dimi—

“DIE!!!”

She whipped around in time to see Kostas spring to his feet and charge right at Edelgard. The young woman’s eyes widened, she reached for her dagger. Too slow, she wouldn’t be able to defend herself in time. All these things came to Byleth at once; without even thinking about it she lept in front of Edelgard, blocked the young lady’s body with her own.

A wet tearing sound. The crack of bone. Pain like nothing else blooming through her. All sensation below the pain immediately fuzzing out to a horrible heavy blankness. Somewhere, screams. Then the world froze, and was gone.

 


 

“Honestly, what is wrong with you?! Just what did you think you were accomplishing with that little stunt? Are you trying to get us killed, or are you just that stupid?!”

Hearing returned first, then sight. She was in the cold green room from her dreams. The girl on the throne was there. She was standing this time, and looked very angry.

She groaned in exasperation. “I didn’t think I’d have to teach you the value of our lives, but here we are. I guess I’ll have to guide you and help you protect it from now on. I suppose I should introduce myself. I am Sothis. Though I think I was also called The Beginning, once. Oh, I wish I could remember when, or at least where...”

“...” Byleth simply stared at Sothis (and that name felt…familiar. But where? It definitely wasn’t the name of any human or daemon she had ever met before), her mouth gaping open like a fish. She had absolutely no idea how to respond in this situation. It seemed like Belial didn’t either. Belial was...sitting on the dais next to Sothis’s throne. They didn’t say anything, but they were just looking, expectantly.

Sothis reached over and scratched Belial behind their ears.

Byleth did gasp then, at the sheer...she didn’t even know what. Even in this place outside time and space it should have been an obscenity unlike any other, the kind of violation that even on her worst days should leave her forced to her knees, clawing at her skin in an attempt to tear away the utter wrongness of it. But Sothis petting Belial, scratching their ears, their chin, the thicker fur at the angle of their mandible, felt—fine. Not too different from when she herself would touch Belial, on the Good Days. Belial was even wagging their tail.  And Sothis seemed completely unaware of the magnitude of what she was doing.

“Do not fret,” she continued, still petting Belial. The wolf’s tail thumped against the stone floor.  “I stopped the hands of time. For now, at least you live.”

Byleth blinked again, still dumbfounded. She should probably say something, shouldn’t she? “Uh...thanks,”

“Really? I save your life and that’s all I get? ‘Uh...thanks’?! Well, I suppose it is temporary. I can only stop time’s hands for some long after all; once they move again the bandit’s axe will tear through your back, and that will be the end of us.”

Well that wasn’t helpful at all. Although... “If you stopped time, can you reverse it?”

Sothis’s eyes widened as realization dawned. “You’re right, of course I can! Oh why did I not realize that sooner? But no matter.” She stepped back and began chanting in a tongue that was both unknown and strangely familiar. A sigil appeared in the air before the girl, and its twin suddenly lit into existence beneath Byleth’s feet. Belial dashed off the dais and joined Byleth.

The world became fuzzy and indistinct again, until all Byleth could see or hear was Sothis. Her green hair, her pointed ears and teeth, the strange garb. The girl in her head was unlike any person she had ever seen. “Now go!” She commanded. “Save the girl, and find the answers we seek!”

And then she was back in the outskirts of Remire. Her body was whole. She could feel her legs. It was mid-morning, Claude was clutching Simurg to his chest as he lowered his bow and allowed himself a small sigh of relief, and in just a moment—

“DIE!!!”

Right on cue the bandit leader was charging at Edelgard. Right on cue, she turned around. And Byleth was still too far away to protect Edelgard and parry the bandit leader at the same time. What was the point of bringing her back then? To watch Edelgard die? To die herself? But Belial was faster, and they were not tethered to Byleth like every other daemon in the world would be to their human. They bolted forward, launched themselves between Edelgard and the charging bandit, and snarled, “Get BACK!”

The bandit leader—Kostas, that was his name, not that it mattered—instinctively stumbled back at the sight of the wolf daemon that suddenly appeared to guard the white-haired woman. Edelgard stepped back as well, drawing her dagger in the same movement. That was all the time that Byleth needed to catch up and draw her blade into a fighting stance.

“What the—how did you get over there?” He staggered back, barely ducked under Byleth’s slash, and then turned to flee. “Demon! I’ll remember this!” He and his hornet daemon took off into the woods, and were gone. Silence fell over the village outskirts, accentuated by the occasional pant for breath. The ground was damp from half-melted snow, stained pink with blood. But the battle was over; Jeralt, Dimitri, and Claude picked themselves up and converged on the two young women standing under the shadow of the watchtower.

“Thank you,” Edelgard said. There was a faint flush to her cheeks. Maybe embarrassment at having been caught off guard? Byleth wasn’t sure. There was one odd thing though. Edelgard was thanking her, giving gratitude, but Avarine was quiet. She didn’t say anything, just stared at Byleth and Belial like they were some new calculation, or prey.

And then Byleth remembered. Belial had raced ahead of her to rescue Edelgard, far outside of any daemon’s range. And Edelgard had seen it all.

 


 

She’d never seen her father so tense or nervous before. Normally after even the most dire of fights, Jeralt could be found slapping his men on the back, teasing or congratulating her, chatting with anybody who approached him, getting rip-roaring drunk in the nearest tavern while Domaghar tried to wedge herself in places that were entirely too small for a horse daemon. But here and now? Her father’s fist was tightly clenched in Domaghar’s mane. Domaghar herself was stiff, her tail lashing back and forth, her ears pinned back. She looked like she was picking her way across some narrow cliff face, not a gently sloped trail through the low mountains of central Fodlan. Jeralt wasn’t even paying more than cursory attention to the nearly-endless stream of chatter from Alois, who somehow managed to possess an ability to hold an entirely different conversation from whatever Erikaf was chatting about while still maintaining focus on both topics. Erikaf herself was also completely oblivious; the otter was perched between Domaghar’s ears and yet somehow completely failed to notice both their tense position and the fact that she wasn’t listening to anything the other daemon was saying.

It had all happened so quickly that Byleth hadn’t registered what had happened until they were already on the road. Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude had approached to thank Byleth and her father, Jeralt was about to take the money and leave with uncharacteristic abruptness, Edelgard had opened her mouth to say something about her identity, and then a large boisterous man in silver armor with an equally loud otter daemon had burst onto the scene with a small battalion in tow while shouting something about the Knights of Serios. Turned out that Edelgard, Dimitri, and Claude were not only the heirs to their respective nations, which meant that Byleth and her dad had rescued two princes and a princess, but they were also students at a military academy called Garreg Mach, they were doing a training exercise here when they had been ambushed, things had gone completely sideways, and apparently the silver armored man—Alois—knew her father from somewhere? From long before she had been born? Alois seemed to remember Jeralt fondly, but it didn’t seem like her father felt the same way; at least, not from the way he and Doma went completely stiff and then tried to leave with her. Alois then tried to get Jeralt to rejoin(?) the Knights of Seiros, which her father really didn’t like the idea of, but the loud man just wouldn’t take no for an answer. So now here they were, with Alois, Edelgard, Dimitri, Claude, and a battalion of silver-clad infantry.

Oh, and the girl from Byleth’s dreams was now apparently awake and talking to her. Her voice seemed to come from Belial’s general direction, but not from them, and Sothis herself was never anywhere to be seen. This…worried Byleth. Wasn’t hearing voices from someone who wasn’t there a sign of madness?

Are you kidding me? I AM here! Or did you just pull the ability to reverse time out of the aether?”

For all her power, Sothis sounded…young. Emotional, in a way both Byleth and Belial were wholly unfamiliar with. But she did have power, and she was with them now, in a way that she had not been before. Best just to go with it, at least for now.

“Hang on,” said Belial, “If Sothis is awake now, does that mean that we’ll have more Good Days? I hope we do. It’s much better this way, knowing what’s going on, being close to you. And the Good Days aren’t cold like the other days are.”

Byleth looked down at Belial, gave the wolf a quick scratch behind their ears. She hoped the Good Days would continue in the Garreg Mach place, especially if it made her father so worried and had people like the three nobles they had rescued.

“They really are fascinating people,” Sothis mused from somewhere behind her eyes. Or maybe Belial’s; it was hard to tell. They were the same being in the end, Byleth supposed. At least, that’s what she was always told about humans and their daemons. “Tell me, what do you think about them?”

They seemed like very lively people. They had been chatting amiably with each other, with Alois, with Jeralt, with her this entire trip. They had been teasing, competing, each bragging about themselves and their exploits and their nations, almost like they were trying to recruit her.

Dimitri seemed very open, honest, and friendly, what many people would call a “proper gentleman.” He seemed to embody the concept of chivalry that even Byleth knew his nation valued above nearly everything else. He’d talked amiably with her for quite some time, didn’t seem to mind when she fell silent and simply listened. And yet Byleth had never seen a daemon look or act quite like his, scratching at her hocks, occasionally biting at her flanks. When she thought nobody was watching, Delcabia looked haunted.

Claude would not stop talking. He chatted about everything and flirted with everyone. He teased, laughed, joked with an easy smile. Almost too practiced in its ease, actually, Byleth began to suspect by the third day.

“And Simurg doesn’t join in his banter with the others at all,” Sothis added.

All three of them were talking, asking questions, wanting to know more about Byleth and it was too much. Too much, too fast. They wanted her to talk and ask questions and interact in a way she didn’t know how to do. So first she trailed off and listened to their conversation, and then she hung back entirely. Belial slunk along beside her. They didn’t talk; they seemed to be off in their own world.

Which is why Byleth startled when she heard Edelgard’s voice soft in her ear. “It’s a lot at once, isn’t it?”

Byleth didn’t jump; she didn’t—couldn’t, for whatever reason—emote enough to express that. But her shoulders did stiffen slightly. “What’s a lot at once?”

“Those two,” Edelgard said, pointing at Dimitri and Claude, who were currently extolling the virtues of their nations’ respective traditional fighting styles. Loudly. “If you need a moment to catch your breath, I understand.”

“Thanks.” Her gaze slid past Edelgard’s face to the falcon perched on her shoulder. Avarine opened her beak to say something, then closed it again. “What?”

“…It’s nothing.”

And that was Edelgard. She was without a doubt polite and regal, calm and poised, charming and charismatic. There was something compelling about her. But she was reserved, reticent. And no matter how charming Edelgard was, Avarine always seemed to be evaluating and calculating someone, something, everything.

They marched for some more time up those steady slopes. The air became colder. Fresh snow blanketed the earth and trees. The trees themselves changed from deciduous trees bare and naked to the mid-winter air to pointed conifers with dark green needles coated with snow. Off in the distance, nestled in the peaks, was a large fortress-like stone structure. Garreg Mach Monastery.

“Byleth,” Domaghar said as they marched, the first time she or her father had spoken to her directly in days. “Come over here.” The horse daemon waited for Byleth and Belial to approach before bending her head down to continue. “Listen to me very closely,” she whispered into Byleth’s ear. Jeralt looked straight ahead at the monastery. His face was impassive, but his eyes flicked downwards to his daughter’s blank expression. “You’re about to enter the lion’s den. Kid, you may not be a lion, but you are a wolf. Take care of these brats. Find your pack. Keep your head down. Because sooner or later they’re going to roar, and when they do you better be ready to howl back.”

What was it about Garreg Mach that scared her father so badly? Byleth wished she knew, but he wasn’t talking. She wasn’t sure if she’d understand anyway. But for his sake, and apparently hers, she needed to try. “I will.”

“Good. I’m proud of you, kid.” Domaghar lowered her head to nuzzle Belial’s, and the wolf nuzzled her back.

They continued to walk up that mountain road as Garreg Mach came larger and larger into their view. What was inside those walls, Byleth figured she’d soon find out.

Chapter Text

“I wish this was some kind of mistake, some drunken fever dream, something other than what’s actually happening. Why in the world would Rhea make Byleth a professor?! I figured she’d be made a Knight next to me, or awarded a position as a guard, heck even a janitor! But nope! Apparently, Alois went and recommended that she teach these royal brats based on how she directed them in that skirmish, and I swear to the goddess I’m gonna strangle that fool the next time I see him.

“But Alois has always run his mouth like that; I wasn’t expecting Rhea to actually go along with it! I mean, she’s just a kid, she’s barely older than those brats! I’ve done my best to teach her, and she’s a quick study, but Byleth’s never seen the inside of a classroom in her life. Her education’s consisted entirely of secondhand books, calculating payments, and trying to kill and not get killed in various ways! I…I should have done a better job. I did my best, and for years she and Belial were…” He broke off with a shudder and changed the subject, “But I should have done more…” Jeralt trailed off, staring at the grass before him. It was stiff from the winter chill, covered in a rime of frost.

“Goddess, I just, I wish I knew what Rhea’s playing at. I don’t know why she’s buttering up our kid so much but it kind of creeps me out. You…you were always smarter than me. You’d be able to figure this out.” Jeralt paused to scrub the tears from his eyes. Domaghar let out a soft pained whinny and scuffed at the frozen ground. “I guess that’s the one good thing about being back here. I get to talk to you again.”

There was no answer. Not that Jeralt was expecting one from a grave. He pressed his fingers against the granite, worn and pitted by the years. The grave hadn’t been maintained well, and that twisted hot and painful in his guts. Even his wife’s name had been largely worn away to illegibility, although the engraved image of her daemon was still visible. Jeralt traced his fingers along the depiction of her daemon’s horns, remembering how they felt in life, and failed to hold back his tears. Domaghar rested her head against Jeralt’s shoulder and they stayed there for some time, overwhelmed by it all.

“…The only one against this idea was that Seteth guy,” Domaghar said, breaking her silence since they arrived at the grave. “I wish he had been at the monastery when Byleth was born. He’s the only one around here with any sense.” The green-haired man with the neatly-trimmed chinstrap beard had been the only one to openly object Byleth’s new position, the only one to bring up her youth, her lack of experience, all the reasons she was unqualified to teach nobility. Seteth’s bearded dragon daemon hadn’t even said anything; she had simply clung to his robes and stared at Rhea’s mantis daemon kept safely inside an enchanted capsule like she wanted to eat him and silence his human’s stupidity. But Rhea had worn him down too, eventually. “Something is definitely going on here, and I wish we had the words to describe it.”

“But we don’t. So we’ll just have to keep our eyes out.”

“As much as we’re able.”

“I hope Byleth can make friends and allies here. She’ll need as many as they can get.”

Domaghar let out a long snort of a sigh while Jeralt closed his eyes and rested his hand on his wife’s grave once more. “I don’t know if any part of you is here and listening, but if it is, please watch over our daughter. Because…I don’t know how much I’ll be able to protect her by myself here. I’m so worried about how she’ll manage, if she’ll get used. But…I’m so proud of her, how far she’s come. I’m sure you would be too.”


 

Sothis also had quite a bit to say about Byleth’s sudden change in career. Since the now-ex-mercenary seemed to be resigned to her fate, if oddly apathetic about it, she decided to make her opinions very clearly known.

“Great! We’re stuck in this gig! I don’t know why Rhea decided to make you a professor, but this is going to be a complete shitshow!”

“Well, at least you won’t actually be around to deal with the fallout,” Belial muttered. “You can just watch from the peanut gallery and laugh.”

They kept walking towards what Rhea had said were the classrooms. Not like Byleth had any idea where she and Belial were going. The monastery was enormous, with open courtyards carved up by iron fencing and tall stone towers. The walls were thick and old, old stone, the stairs worn smooth by years of footsteps upon them. Cats brave enough to stand the chilly air sunned themselves on the ramparts in the weak winter light. The place was a maze that Byleth couldn’t even begin to navigate. Garreg Mach wasn’t just a monastery, but a fortress. Byleth had gotten so lost, in fact, that by the time she actually found the classrooms the rumors had spread to essentially every single student and most of the staff and faculty.

“That’s the new professor?”

“She’s so young!”

“What was Rhea thinking?”

Byleth paid them no heed. It didn’t matter. Words like that never really affected her. Not much did. But still, she was stuck her, and was apparently going to be a professor to one of the three houses now. Might as well make the most of it. And might as well learn more about the students she would be teaching. If this was an officer’s academy, then they’d be learning how to fight.

“So maybe we should think of it sort of like how dad runs the troupe? We have to take care of them,” Belial said, finishing her thought.

“Yeah.” Belial had been doing that more, finishing her thoughts. Actually, she’d been doing that with them as well. It had been happening more and more since Sothis woke up. It was weird, but nice.

“Byleth! Is that you?” A somewhat familiar voice, a female voice of elegance and poise, shook Byleth from her thoughts. She looked up from her pacing to see Edelgard a few feet away, waving at her in the open courtyard. Behind her was a long and low stone building carved up into three rooms. Each of those rooms was decorated with banners of the Black Eagles, Blue Lions, and Golden Deer houses, respectively. Edelgard was standing closest to the room with Black Eagles banner, and…ah, yes, that must be why she was wearing a red cape. “I see you found the classrooms. This place is large; it is rather easy for newcomers to get lost.” As she approached Byleth Avarine flew down from a low branch to perch on Edelgard’s shoulder. She didn’t even flinch from the sudden added weight.

“It is. I hope I can find them again when classes start. Teachers are supposed to be there before students, right?”

Edeglard chuckled. “Yes, that is generally how it is supposed to go. I would not worry though, We are all very understanding of the, ah, unusual circumstances. Or at least, the Black Eagles house is. I can assure you that, should you choose the Black Eagles house, you will not have to worry about…issues of discipline.” She stood up straighter as she talked, Avarine shifting her stance to more accurately imitate the pose of the dual-headed eagle that was the symbol of the Adrestian Empire. But then Edelgard smiled. “Actually, you’re in luck. We just finished a seminar, so this is a good time to introduce yourself to everyone. Come, follow me.”

“…Okay.” Byleth turned to follow the Adrestian princess. Even though Edelgard was shorter, she moved with speed and purpose back to the classroom. At Sothis’s wordless prodding she asked, “Can you tell me about yourself?”

Edelgard stopped. “Oh! Well, hm, as you know, I am the princess and heir to the Adrestian throne. As such, I spend most of my time studying politics, economics, military affairs, diplomacy, that sort of thing.” She turned around to Byleth, and there was a somewhat wistful smile on her face. “Some people say that I am far too formal, uptight, and serious, but there is nothing much I can do about that. Heavy is the head that wears the crown and all.”

Avarine looked down at Belial. “You know, for the longest time I thought I was going to settle as a wolf. I think we might have more similar personalities than you know.”

“…Harris hawk felt right to me for a while,” Belial said in return.

“Wait, hold up.” Byleth stopped short and held out a hand in front of Edelgard. “Who’s that person over there?” Indeed, there was a man hidden in the shadows that the overhang created in front of the classroom doors. He was blended in quite well with the darkened stone, having found the perfect spot to…lurk, there really was no other word for it. He was tall and gaunt, with slightly greasy black hair that fell over his right eye, and was dressed nearly entirely in black. His entire aura raided severity and menace. The only splash of color to be seen was in the red fur of his fox daemon who peeked out at the two young women from behind a pillar.

Edelgard didn’t seem concerned at all by the man who was watching their every movement. In fact, she laughed. “Oh, that’s just Hubert and Thanily. Don’t mind them. Some people think of him as cold and creepy, which…okay, he is. And I think he revels in it. But you could not ask for a more loyal comrade. He has been by my side for nearly my entire life. Hubert! This is Byleth, the mercenary I told you about. Come over and introduce yourself!”

“Come on, Thanily. I know you’re curious, don’t hide it.”

Even Byleth could feel the apathy and slight tint of disdain radiating off of Hubert. Nevertheless, he detached himself from the shadows and made his way over to the two women. “Hubert von Vestra,” he said to Byleth with a slight bow that Thanily mirrored to Belial, along with her own introduction. “I heard that you saved Lady Edelgard from a most dire fate.”

“Belial jumped in front of an axe for me,” Edelgard said. “Surely that merits more of an acknowledgement, even from you.”

“But of course it does,” Hubert said with a smirk. “Clearly you would make a dangerous opponent. I certainly hope you give us no reason to test that conclusion.”

“Okay, Hubert,” Edelgard cut in, rolling her eyes. “Come on Byleth, let’s introduce you to the rest of the Black Eagles.”

The classroom was tightly packed with banners, books, and several chalkboards. One appeared to have a diagram or flowchart of some sort scribbled on it; the others were recently erased. A map of the Empire lay unfurled on one table and surrounded by chairs, only two of which were currently occupied. Other people were split off and chatting with each other, or their daemons were doing the same. There was a long tank that completely encompassed one wall where aquatic daemons could swim; it was currently occupied by a clownfish and, for some reason, a red panda floating on her back. Their humans (two young men, one tall and slim with shoulder-length green hair and loose robes, the other short and stocky with short choppy sky-blue hair and a clear backpack filled with water) were chatting with each other just a few feet away.

“This is—”

“I AM FERDINAND VON AEGIR!”

“AND I AM EMBRIENNE VON AEGIR!”

A redheaded blur had materialized out of nowhere, grabbed Byleth by the hand, started shaking it vigorously, and shouted in her face. All at the same time. Less than a second later a higher-pitched voice shouted just as loudly from the same direction.

“…Yes.” That was Avarine, who simply sounded resigned. Edelgard refused to dignify Ferdinand with a response, instead opting for a sigh. “We know.”

“This must be the new professor! She does not know! I am Ferdinand von Aegir, the noblest of all nobles in the Adrestian Empire! I heard that you rescued Lady Edelgard from a pack of bandits! Your battle skills must be a sight to behold; not that I would ever need rescuing!” The man kept talking, and shouting, and being generally loud. Once Byleth had a moment to adjust she could see that the loud man was in his late teens, with neatly groomed wavy orange hair, immaculate gloves, and his honeybee daemon—Embrienne, presumably—perched on the prominent bridge of his nose. Everything about him was loud. Unlike the trembling girl next to him whose face was hidden under a mess of tangled lavender waves.

The girl raised a trembling hand. “H-hi…eep!” She cringed at Byleth’s sudden eye contact and tucked into her shirt as far as it could go.

“Come now, Bernadetta! At least say hi to our newest professor! Simply hiding in the corner will not do,” Ferdinand said, turning to her with a smile.

Embrienne chimed in with her own encouragements to Bernadetta’s daemon. “Malecki, come and say hi! It will not do to be curled up in a ball all day!”

“W-what if I like it?” said a tiny voice from somewhere around Bernadetta’s waist. Belial eyed it curiously; in fact, there was a tiny trembling ball wedged in one of her uniform pockets. “It’s not easy being around so many people all day!”

“I understand that you have difficulties socializing, but it is still your duty as a noble to—”

“Okay, fine!” A tiny hedgehog’s nose poked out from Bernadetta’s pocket. “Malecki. Can I go now, please?”

Bernadetta slipped her hand into her pocket to cradle Malecki. “I-I’m Bernadetta. Are you happy now, Ferdinand?”

“Of course I am! You are doing wonderfully introducing yourself! Of course, you need to be more confident; stand up straight! Speak with purpose!” Ferdinand and Embrienne both continued the effusive praise, completely unaware as to how Bernadetta was backing away with every step, at least until Thanily materialized out of nowhere and cleared her throat.

“Are you truly that much of a fool, Embrienne? And here I thought you were the wiser of the two, not that that accounts for much. Even I can tell that Bernadetta is terrified.”

“Uh…Ah, I see,” Embrienne settled back on Ferdinand’s nose; for his part the young man rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “My apologies, Bernadetta. I was overly enthusiastic.”

“You’ve done enough today, Bernadetta,” Edelgard cut in with a gentle voice. “You can go now.”

Bernadetta didn’t need to be told twice, and before Byleth could blink she was out the door and running back to her room.

“Oh, we’re dismissed then?” said a worn-down deep voice behind Byleth. “Goodnight then.” There was a bit of splashing as the red panda tried to leave the aquarium to accompany her departing human, while a clownfish bit at her tail to try and get her to stay. Since the red panda was much bigger, this just resulted in the clownfish being tossed out of the tank to flop on the floor. Her human, the stocky blue-haired boy, scooped her up and placed her in his backpack, then glared at the taller man.

“Linhardt, that’s rude! You should introduce yourself at least!”

“Linhardt. Runilite. Goodbye.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it! Hey, come back here!” He chased the taller man out the classroom door. Again, the two women and their daemons just watched in varying combinations of bemusement and amusement.

Edelgard sighed, again, and began to explain to the still-silent Byleth. “The taller one and the red panda are Linhardt and Runilite. He’s remarkably intelligent, but refuses to apply himself towards anything. He prefers to obsess over whatever’s piqued his interest—usually Crests—and then sleep the rest of the day away. The shorter one and the clownfish are Caspar and Peakane. Don’t ask me how, but they’re best friends.”

“And I think Caspar took all of Linhardt’s energy and enthusiasm,” Avarine added.

She should say something, shouldn’t she? This was all quite a lot. “You…certainly have quite the class,” she said. Belial was still wandering around, careful not to stray too far from Byleth’s side.

Edelgard rolled her eyes and sighed. “Ugh, don’t remind me.”

Still, there was a smile on her face.

“On the contrary, I quite enjoy it,” piped up a melodious voice. It was coming from the direction of the table with the opened map. Now that Byleth looked closer, she could see that those two remaining figures were two young women. One was wearing a black cap, had pale skin and long flowing dark brown hair, and perfectly applied makeup. The other woman looked a little younger, with light brown skin. Her hair was done in an intricate braid and there was an triangular tattoo under her eye. “It’s a good reminder, that even the stuffy nobles of the Empire are just a bunch of eccentrics.”

“Eccentric? What is this word meaning…er, what does this word mean?” The woman with the tattoo spoke in a precise, formal tone, like she was carefully lining up her words before speaking. Byleth couldn’t place her accent.

“It means odd. Which many of the people here certainly are. Ah!” She turned to look at Byleth. “You must be the new professor. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Dorothea. If I look familiar, it’s because I was once a songstress at the Mittelfrank Opera Company in the capitol!”

“And I am called Petra. I am from Brigid, which is an...archipelago to the west. Please forgive any difficulties I may be having with the language of Fodlan; it is a difficult tongue to be learning.”

Opera didn’t mean anything to Byleth but Dorothea clearly took a lot of pride in it, so she nodded and said, “It’s nice to meet you. Likewise to you too, Petra. And you are perfectly understandable to me.”

Belial crouched under the table to find their daemons; a tiny greenish songbird with a golden crest called Calphour and a white snow goose with black-tipped wings named Ardior.

The class eventually emptied out, leaving only Byleth, Edelgard, and their daemons in the room. As well as Hubert and Thanily, lurking somewhere in the shadows.

“Take your time and learn about the other classes before making your choice,” Edelgard said. “But I do hope you join the Black Eagles House. You are a fascinating person, and we will help you in your new position as much as possible. And also, the Empire has need of people like you.”


 

Dimitri didn’t like talking about himself much, Byleth noticed. And Delcabia didn’t want to look Belial in the eyes.

“I’m sorry, I’m not really that interesting to talk about.” He scratched his shoulder. Dimitri seemed to fidget a lot, actually. “But my classmates are all kind and wonderful people. Well, mostly. Felix can be…rude, and Sylvain is a bit of a, well, a skirt chaser. But we’re working on that! Felix, Ingrid, and Sylvain are still in the classroom. I think everyone else is in the kitchen. They’re apparently wonderful cooks; I’m sure they’d be happy to share.”

Byleth nodded and entered the Blue Lions classroom where indeed two men and a woman were chatting with each other. Three animals that were presumably their daemons were just a few feet away. More specifically, a tortoiseshell cat was batting an enchanted capsule containing a bright blue fish back and forth. An alligator was curled around them, using his body as a barrier to prevent the capsule from rolling far away.

As soon as Byleth and Belial entered the room, six heads turned to look at them. The tall redhaired man approached first with a lazy smirk on his face. “Ah, you must be Byleth, the new professor. I’m Sylvain, and the cat over there is Zepida. Gotta say, I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to meet someone as lovely as—ow!” He flinched forward as if struck, but nothing actually contacted him.

However, behind Sylvain, the cat rubbed her head where the alligator had whacked her with his tail. She turned to the alligator as, behind them, the shorter black-haired man scrambled after the orb that skittered out of Zepida’s paws and was currently rolling into the corner. “What gives, Albarrog? I didn’t do anything!”

“You didn’t, but Sylvain did. I can’t exactly smack that oaf upside the head and Ingrid wasn’t close enough, so here we are.”

“Jerk.”

“You’re both jerks,” the black-haired man muttered in a theatrically loud voice while cramming the capsule back in a metal mesh pouch fixed to his belt. The blue fish inside settled into an upright position. “How about you keep a closer eye on Bismalt next time?”

“Sorry, Felix.”

“Hey, dipshit, next time instead of a sorry, why don’t you…” He stalked back and the six of them trailed off into bickering. There was a dance here, a dance that Byleth didn’t know the steps to and wasn’t sure she could ever learn. Byleth had no clue how to fit herself into their conversation, so instead she awkwardly walked away to wherever she hoped the kitchens were.

She would have gotten lost if not for Belial’s nose. “Something smells divine,” they said. “Cinnamon and ginger? There’s nutmeg and allspice and clove there too. Follow me. Mmmmm…”

The dining hall was very large, probably large enough to fit most of the class at once. The windows on one side were open to the greenhouse and pond, which made for quite a nice view when eating. Right now though it was empty except for eight figures by the kitchens themselves—four human, four animal. They were split off into two groups, and the smells of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and clove wafted from them both. On one side, a mountain of a man, dark-skinned and silver-haired with an even larger cape buffalo daemon, fed apples into a press. The handle to crush them was made of wood and iron and looked heavy, and yet he squeezed the apples into cider with seemingly no effort at all.

“That must be Dedue,” Belial said. Nobody else could fit the brief description that Dimitri had given them.

Dedue turned around, as did the younger man beside him—a short slim teenage boy with messy gray hair, a dusting of freckles across his face, and an honest and friendly expression. His daemon turned into a rat and raced up onto his shoulder. Unsettled then.

“Are you Byleth?” At her nod Dedue continued, “It is a pleasure to meet you. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for saving Dimitri. I owe you a great debt. Our names are Dedue and Levia. If you ever need anything from us, you need only ask.”

“And I’m Ashe, and this is Fuergios! I really hope you join our house. Saving Dimitri and the others, that was so gallant of you!” the younger teenager piped in. He even sounded utterly guileless. “Oh, would you like some mulled cider? It shouldn’t be long before we’re done with this batch!”

It smelled delicious, actually. Byleth found herself hovering over the gently simmering cauldron, the cloth bag of cinnamon sticks and nutmeg and other fitting spices diffusing into the cider, and took a deep breath. It smelled of cool nights bundled up by the fire, her dad and some of the mercenaries telling stories to keep out winter’s chill.

…When did she ever think like that, instead of simply what was flat, factual, and in front of her?

“Hey Ashe!” came a high-pitched excitable voice from the other side of the kitchen. The voice came from a short girl with bright orange hair and brighter eyes, a coil of energy mirrored in the squirrel daemon skittering up and down the shelves collecting supplies. “Can you pass us the cinnamon?”

“Oh, uh, sure thing Annette. Sorry about that.” Fuergios became an owl and gripped the satchel of cinnamon in her talons. He flew over to Annette, whose squirrel daemon scampered across the countertops to meet her halfway. She raced back to drop the cinnamon into a mortar, then began grinding it with a pestle.

“Now Annie, don’t forget to grind it to just the right consistency,” said a taller woman next to Annette in a serene, slightly breathy voice. She had long ash-blonde hair that tumbled over her shoulder and was loosely tied in place with a ribbon. Everything about her seemed soft and calm.

“Don’t worry, I can smell when it’s ground just right,” added her daemon. He was a large wild dog with enormous round ears, a white paintbrush of a tail, and a coat of many mottled colors.

“Aww, thanks Mercie!” Annette looked up and finally seemed to notice Byleth. “Oh, sorry! I was so busy making cookies with Mercie I didn’t even notice you. I’m Annette, and this is my best friend Mercie! Er, Mercedes, sorry, I always call her Mercie. We’ve been friends for years.”

“Ever since the magic academy,” Mercedes added with a smile. “I’m so lucky to get to spend another year with Annie.”

“Aww, then I’m just as lucky!”

Mercedes’s daemon turned to Belial. “My name is Cygnis, and Annette’s daemon is Serrin. What is your name?”

“Belial.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Would you like to stay for a while?”

“Annie and I are making gingerbread cookies,” Mercedes added. Behind her Annette poured some of the cinnamon into the dough and mixed the rest into a separate bowl of sugar. “Ashe and Dedue are making mulled cider. Would you like to stay and try some when they’re ready?”

“Mercie makes the best sweets ever! She made me the most delicious cake when Serrin settled.” Annette clapped her hands, creating a small cloud of flour. “Ooh, Mercie, I just had a thought! Ignatz just settled, right? You should make a cake for him!”

“That’s a wonderful idea!”

Cygnis sat down and chimed in, “Although in that case we should probably include Petra too. From what I heard she settled just before arriving here a few weeks back. And she’s all the way from Brigid, right? It would definitely make her feel more welcomed here.”

“Oh Cygnis, that’s so sweet of you! Maybe we can make this a huge inter-house party!”

They kneaded the dough and rolled it out flat while slipping into comfortable friendly banter, seemingly forgetting Byleth’s presence for the moment. Byleth didn’t mind though. It was…relaxing, to sit back and take a breath. There was so much going on at once. Even Sothis was quiet and contemplative. Belial was flopped down on a relatively clean part of the stone floor. Byleth just hoped the cookies and cider were good.


 

The cookies and cider were amazing. The balance of spices in the cider was perfect, and it warmed her up just right on this cold spring day. As for the gingerbread cookies, they were an exquisite balance of spiced and sweet. Mercedes and Annette had even shaped them into gingerbread men, and decorated them with icing smiley faces and buttons, then dusted them with cinnamon sugar.

“They’re almost too good to eat, but they look like they taste so good. You don’t know how lucky you are, being able to taste things.”

“…It’s not really fair that you can’t,” Byleth whispered to seemingly herself.

“No it’s not, but here we are. Don’t deny yourself on my behalf!”

Byleth brought the gingerbread man to her mouth, although it really was almost too cute to eat…

“By. The. Goddess.”

She snapped her jaw shut and bit the gingerbread man’s head clean off. A young woman with short dull orange hair and a robin daemon stared at her like she was some kind of apparition, or divine image. “You’re Captain Jeralt’s daughter, aren’t you?” She stepped closer, leaning right into Byleth’s face for some kind of inspection. She then stepped back and placed her hands on her hips with a triumphant smile. “Of course you are! Which means the rumors are true, Captain Jeralt really is here! He really is here oh my gosh oh my gosh!”

…Now she was making a sound like a teakettle going off.

“Um, are you okay?”

“I’m more than okay! Even in my wildest dreams…okay, yes in my wildest dreams I wished that Captain Jeralt would be here to teach us but now it’s actually happening! I’ll never be able to pay everyone back enough for this, this is going to be the best year of my life!”

The robin flew down from her shoulder to perch on Belial’s muzzle. “You may be his daughter, but I’m his number one apprentice, so watch out—I’ll be training right alongside you!”

Claude’s voice rang out to save her as he scaled the steps from the fishing pond to the patio in front of the dining hall. “I see you’ve met Leonie and Kamen. She’s incredibly hardworking and reliable, just…intense. Sorry Leonie, but I have to borrow Teach for a bit. Need to show her around after all!”

Leonie waved them off, but there was still pure delight and the spark of rivalry in her eyes.

“Anyway,” Claude continued, “you’re probably really tired so I’ll just give you the quick rundown. The Alliance doesn’t have any stuffy kings or emperors, just a roundtable of nobles and a bunch of people trying to work together and not trying to tear each others’ throats out. Which our house mirrors quite well.”

He pointed to a young woman with bright pink pigtails who was heading to the marketplace. “That’s Hilda, and frankly some days I don’t know why she’s here. If you looked up ‘lazy’ in the dictionary…you won’t find her picture there because she never got around to submitting it. Great talker though, like damn she can chat circles around you if you’re not careful. You probably can’t see him from this distance, but Halmstadt is a butterfly. I don’t know what kind of butterfly Halmstadt is beyond ‘blue’ but he’s a freaking butterfly so of course she milks it for all it’s worth.”

“You think she’s shopping for herself, or Marianne?” Simurg asked.

“Knowing Hilda? Probably both. Oh, Marianne is another one of our classmates. She’s got light blue hair and looks tired all the time. She doesn’t really talk much; I don’t even know her daemon’s name, just that he’s an armadillo. Honestly, Teach, even if you don’t pick our house, can you help me keep an eye out for Marianne? I’m a bit worried about her.”

Simurg stared Belial down when Claude said that. He was probably being completely honest, she realized.

Claude clapped his hands, and then the smile was back on for the world to see. “Anyway! See that guy with the worst haircut I’ve ever seen in my entire life?” He pointed to a tall man with a long face and a haircut that was, indeed, terrible. He was wearing a rose, for some reason, and was walking into the greenhouse alongside his deer daemon. Presumably to get more roses. “That’s Lorenz and Vincatel. Lorenz is, how do I put it,”

“The very definition of an upper class twit and Vincatel is no better.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Simi. Speaking of Vincatel, you know what, I lied about Hilda and Halmstadt. Lorenz milks his daemon’s form for all it’s worth. As if nobody in the Alliance has ever had a deer daemon before in its centuries-long history. Honestly, I’m just surprised he hasn’t gone and made fake antlers for her yet!”

Byleth’s face was stony and impassive, but Sothis was already snorting. “I like this guy. Can we keep him?”

They were by the fishing pond now, which appeared quiet and calm. There was a thin sheen of ice covering the water. Claude didn’t skip a beat but whipped around to point at another person, a small girl with white hair who was carrying a stack of books almost as tall as she was. The stack of books teetered dangerously, but just as it was about to topple her daemon shifted forms from ferret to bear and took on some of the load. “Typical Lysithea,” Claude remarked. “She’s one of the most focused students and powerful mages that I’ve ever seen. She also hates being treated like a child. As for me, I do that all the time. Gotta make your own fun around this place, you know? And honestly, if she really wanted to be an adult then she should just go and settle already!”

“I heard that! Fuck you!”

“I would, but I don’t want to go to jail!”

“Go fuck yourself!”

“Now what kind of impression do you want me to leave on poor old Teach?”

“AAGGHH!” She and her daemon stormed into the room. The door slammed behind them.

Sothis was howling in her head, but Byleth just watched the scene with a blank expression. “Seriously? Not even a chuckle?” Claude shook his head in disbelief. “Wow, tough crowd.”

They continued to the other side of the fishing pond, where two young men were sitting, their dog daemons—one a spaniel, the other a retriever—playing with each other. One man was short and slim, with light green hair and glasses. The other one looked like he was carved from granite. His hair fell in messy blond curls and his shirt looked like it was about to tear itself to pieces under the strain of his muscles.

“That’s Ignatz and Mistella, and Raphael and Oakley,” Claude explained. “They’re both from merchant families that have done a lot of business in Riegan territory. Raphael’s parents were killed in a monster attack a couple years back, but he hasn’t let it get him down. He’s actually an incredibly resilient guy. Ignatz is a bit more sensitive, okay a lot more sensitive, but he’s a good guy too.” Claude lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “Don’t tell Iggy this, but since Mistella just settled, we’re planning on throwing a huge party for them both. You’re going to make it, right?”

“Of course.” Her response was automatic.

“I’m going to hold you to that, you know.” He was still smiling. “And I think that’s everyone. I’m sure your head is swimming right now, but take some time and think about it.” He winked. Simurg flicked out her tongue. “Because, you? Me? Golden Deer? We could be great together.”


 

Byleth’s head was still swimming. Belial laid down on the floor and whined. She was never good at talking to people, and to meet so many at once? Her head was swimming. She barely even noticed the two other professors. Hanneman and Manuela? Were those their names?

“What do you think of our crop of students? Rhea asked. “They are all fine young people, are they not?”

And then to have to make a choice among the three classes?

Byleth hadn’t made many choices in her life, not outside of combat. But this, deciding which house to teach, taking on that much responsibility, all these choices…

Belial made a whining noise that sounded almost like a cry for help. In their heads, Sothis made a disapproving noise. “I’m just in the peanut gallery. I can offer advice if you really need it, but I’m not going to make this decision for you.”

That…meant a lot, for some reason. She didn’t really know how to express it, or even understand it, so Byleth packed the thought and associated emotion away for the time being. She must have sunk onto a bench because when she looked up, Rhea was sitting beside her. She was the very picture of serenity and grace with her perfectly coiffed mint-green hair, her robes, her crown thing, her praying mantis daemon in the capsule by her side.

“I know we are asking a lot of you,” Rhea said, her voice still calm and level. “You showed great courage back there in Remire. We need people like you, Byleth. I need people like you. No matter which house you choose, you will be a wonderful teacher and guide to our students.”

Rhea was so nice to her, so patient. And seemed to think very highly of her for some reason. She couldn’t let her down.

Byleth looked down at Belial, who whined but did get to their feet. They didn’t ask for this, but this was their life now. They needed to take care of these students. “Can…do we have to be only with this one house.”

“Of course not,” Rhea said. “You will be spending most of your time with your house, yes, but there will be plenty of time to interact with other students on days off, seminars, and the like.”

Okay, okay that was better. Now to actually…make a choice.

The Black Eagle house seemed to be disciplined, if chaotic to some extent like the rest, but Byleth still couldn’t get Avarine’s evaluating gaze out of her head. And yet there was an odd…resonance between her and the future emperor. The Blue Lions were sweet and kind, but they were already in such tightly-knit friend groups. Byleth wasn’t sure how or if she could penetrate them. Not to mention that something about her interactions with Dimitri felt like walking on cracked glass. Claude and the Golden Deer were so…vivacious, so full of energy. It was nice, but…at the same time, it made her feel like something important was taken from her. She didn’t know if she could be around that feeling every day.

And what if she slipped back into her bad days, where she wasn’t aware of anything? Dad wouldn’t be able to help her, she’d be the one in charge. If she slipped back into that haze, who would take care of her students?

Byleth sat and stared at her hands, paralyzed in indecision. Which is why she didn’t hear what Belial said until they repeated it.

“The Black Eagles.”

Chapter Text

“That was stupid. That was really, really stupid. That was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. Avarine, please don’t ever let me do something that stupid ever again.”

Avarine’s talons curved around the mahogany perch, digging into worn but still fine leather. It was a special piece that Edelgard had brought from the palace instead of using the monastery-supplied perches for avian daemons.  Right now the perch was set before Edelgard’s bed, where she sat on the edge with her head buried in her hands. The gyrfalcon’s gaze was even sterner than usual. “Edelgard, if you want me to stop you from doing something stupid, then you’re going to have to listen to my advice first. What part of that manufactured attack was a good idea?”

Edelgard’s voice came out muffled through her hands and hair trapped between her fingers. “It wasn’t like I wanted them dead! I just wanted the church to look stupid, make them look incompetent and incapable of taking care of their students. Because maybe then people would look closer beyond the façade of the church.”

“Uh-huh.” Damnable Avarine, she wasn’t letting up. Her gaze pierced right through Edelgard.

“Okay, yes if the bandits had…killed Dimitri and Claude then their nations would have been even more destabilized and ugh yes the next steps would have been easier but there would have been even more fighting and more people would have died and then Dimitri and Claude would have been dead because of me and ugh Ava I am such an idiot.” Edelgard couldn’t even bear to look Avarine in the eye. Such a damnably stupid idea, how did she ever get talked into doing it? No, the fault was hers. She was the future and hope of Adrestia; she needed to take responsibility for all of her actions, even the utterly idiotic ones. And then on top of everything else, she could have gotten herself killed too. And if she died, then…there were too many people who needed her. Too much to do, and not nearly enough time to do it. And Dimitri and Claude…

“I’m glad they’re okay. I didn’t actually want them dead. Even if it makes things harder in the future, I’m glad Dimitri and Claude are alive and okay.”

“…Me too, Ava.”

Avarine hopped off her perch into Edelgard’s lap, taking care not to dig her talons into her tights. She roused her feathers and settled into Edelgard’s warmth. Edelgard traced the sleek feathers of her back, the soft fluff underneath, and the broken world felt okay again.

“Well, at least someone was there to clean up our mess this time. Speaking of that, what do you think of our new professor?”

“Professor Byleth? Hmm…” Edelgard trailed off, though she was still idly petting Avarine. “There’s something eerily compelling about her. Like a…” She waved her hand in the air, a vague gesture and a failed attempt to capture the flitting thoughts that danced through her head. “There’s theis force of personality around her, something that makes people pay attention, but I’m not sure how aware she is of it. There’s definitely something…magnetic about her. She seems really quiet, and not really sure how to talk to people though. I hope she’s as skilled in the classroom as on the battlefield.”

“She’s really quiet and distant though,” Avarine added, “And I’ve barely heard Belial speak. El, you don’t think…?”

Edelgard shook her head. “No. Don’t even bring that up, Ava. She’s…even if the Professor is quiet, there’s too much in there. She’s not…what they did to…” Edelgard couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. She couldn’t even bring herself to finish the thought; there was an iron wall slammed down in her head that turned back any attempt to even wander down that path. Perhaps some day she could get through that wall, but not today.

“Sorry about that. I guess we’ll find out how she is in the classroom soon.”

“And why Rhea has such a special interest in her.”

“…That too.”

“We’re going to have to keep an eye on her.”

"Heh, as if Hubert wasn’t enough. At least she made the job as easy as possible by choosing us.”

“True. I wonder what she’s doing now?”


 

Byleth was currently sitting against some old crates stacked up against each other at the fishing pier. It was late winter; there was still a thin sheen of ice over much of the fishing pond and the few deciduous trees in the monastery were still completely bare, but she sat against the crates and fished anyway. There was something calming about it. No need to think, no need to make decisions, just watch the line in the water and react to its movements. And she was good at it, as the steadily increasing pile of fish in the basket next to her could attest.

Focusing on fishing was also a welcome distraction from the very put-off Sothis lecturing her inside her head.

Why did you pick the Black Eagles? Why not the Golden Deer? Claude is hilarious! If they’re going to shove you in this situation, then why not have fun while doing it?”

Herring seemed to be most common in the fishing pond this time of year. Byleth focused on the fish and tried her best to ignore Sothis’s speil. Ignoring people was easy. She did it all the time.

Belial, however, decided to engage. “Hey,” they growled to seemingly nothing, “I thought you were just going to sit in the peanut gallery.”

I was, but if you’re going to make monumental decisions like this, then you better have a reason for making them! You can’t just make choices like this on a whim!”

But it was sort of a whim, wasn’t it? There were reasons, yes, but it was also a snap moment of indecision. At least from Byleth. Belial, on the other hand…

“Grr…Look, we have no idea what we’re doing. What happens if you go back to sleep and Byleth starts having Bad Days again? We’re barely aware of what year it is on the worst of them, and now we have a bunch of noble children and the fucking princess of Adrestia to take care of! These students depend on us and we need someone to pick up the slack if the Bad Days start coming back and Byleth can’t do it. The Black Eagles seemed like the most cohesive of the three without any of that weird shattered-glass feeling that I got with Dimitri. Something about Edelgard makes me trust her the most with helping out on the Bad Days. Happy?”

Byleth couldn’t see Sothis, but she knew that somewhere beyond seeing the girl in her head had thrown up her hands in vindication. “Yes! That’s a reason for the choice you made! There’s the emotion I was looking for!”

The fishing line lay forgotten in the pond. Byleth was so focused on the conversation that she didn’t even notice someone else sitting down until they spoke.

“Ah, hello there. You must be our newest professor, Byleth. It is a pleasure to meet you!”

Byleth stiffened and turned around to see a girl who appeared to be in her early teens staring back at her with an earnest and open expression. Her hair was green, just a little bit lighter in shade than Sothis’s, and framed each side of her face in long thick ringlets. She looked a little bit like Seteth. “…Uh, hi.”

She laughed, a light airy chuckle. “I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Flayn, and I am Seteth’s younger sister. Therefore, although I am not a student, I do live here and you may see me around the monastery grounds quite often. I actually came here to fish,” and indeed, there was an old and well-loved fishing rod in her hands, “and was quite surprised to find someone else here, especially this time of year. I presume you also enjoy fishing?”

"I do. I find it soothing.”

“Ah yes, there is something so relaxing about sitting down and watching the line bob up and down in the waves! Not to mention the delicious results. Do you mind if I fish here with you?”

“Of course not.” Belial scooted over, pressing themselves against Byleth. She did not seem to notice, but kept fishing. Flayn made no mention of this but simply cast her line out in the water as far is it could go with a satisfying plunk. She then settled in, leaning against a few baskets. Just her. There was an empty capsule hanging around her neck, but…

“Where’s your daemon?” asked Belial.

“Oh! Ah, he is currently swimming in the pond! Do not worry, he has not settled yet so he will be back in here—” she tapped at the capsule over her heart, “—once I leave. Oh I do hope he settles as a fish; then he could enjoy the water just as much as I do.” She gazed out fondly at the pond.

As active, talkative, and cheerful as Flayn was, she entered a state of intense quiet and concentration when fishing. It was nice, having someone nearby while not being obligated to talk to them or keep up a conversation that she could not maintain for long. Instead they fished, and watched the clouds reflect in the water, and occasionally spoke.

“I would like to apologize for my brother’s behavior,” Flayn said after an unknown period of time. Byleth’s connection to the passing of time was loose as it was, and it was so easy to lose track while fishing. “Seteth can be…overprotective. He cares deeply about me, and all of the students here, and unfortunately he does not always know how to channel it in a way that is not overbearing. I assure you, he means well, and only wishes for our safety in a complicated and dangerous world.” She turned to Byleth with a smile, even as she reeled in a large herring. “And I do understand his apprehension. Your situation is rather unprecedented, after all. Still, Rhea is the archbishop; she must have a good reason for her decisions! After all, you did rescue three students. And there is something soothing about you.”

“Really?” She hadn’t heard that one before. Usually it was ‘eerie’ at best, or ‘Ashen Demon,’ or ‘soulless’ at worst.  There were others too.

“Why yes! Has nobody else mentioned it? There is something soothing and…familiar about you. I apologize, I—oh!” The loud pealing of the cathedral bells interrupted Flayn’s monologue. Indeed, the night sky had taken on a rosy golden hue, and the moon was faintly visible. Where had the day gone?

Flayn stood and quickly gathered her things, doubling back to quickly scoop her capsule into the pond, presumably to catch her daemon, and jam it under her dress to rest against her heart. “My apologies, I must be going. You should get some rest yourself; the mock battle is tomorrow! I hope we can spend time fishing together again. It was a pleasure to meet you, Byleth and Belial.”

And then she ran up the stairs and was gone.

You know,” Sothis said, “She seems so young and naïve, and yet simultaneously so wise beyond her years. I hope we can talk to Flayn again.”

Byleth hoped so too.


 

The morning of the mock battle was clear and cold. The slight damp in the air hinted at snow later, but for now the clouds kept themselves to the edges of the horizon. Byleth and her students were loosely assembled, along with the rest of the students, as Jeralt laid down the rules for the mock battle, saddled up on Domaghar as she walked up and down the attempt at an assembled line.

“We’ve got healers lined up on the sidelines; wave us down if you’ve got anything worse than a busted nose. You see the paint on your weapons? When somebody’s got what would be a fatal blow, they’re out. I don’t want anybody to get ganged up on while they’re down. And I can’t believe I have to say this, but if anybody so much as lays a finger on anyone else’s daemon, you’ll both be pulled from the battle and the Knights will launch an official investigation. If the contact is determined to be deliberate, you’ll be expelled so fast your head will spin.”

“D-did someone actually do that?” Malecki whimpered from inside Bernadetta’s pocket.

“Once, several years ago, I believe,” Embrienne replied from inside Ferdinand’s capsule. She liked to be outside of it, but not here, not now. Even if it was only a mock battle, there was just too much risk for a little honeybee. “I heard that afterwards the offender was stripped of his title, even though he bore a minor Crest. As it should be! To commit such a despicable act is utterly reprehensible for any human, much less one who claims himself a noble!”

Bernadetta squeaked in terror. “Eep! How could somebody do something like that? Do I need to be here can I just go back to my room?”

“Bernie, we have to be here, don’t we? Or else we’ll fail out…I, I’ll be right here, safe and in your pocket, o-okay?” Malecki’s voice came out muffled from inside Bernadetta’s tight grip. She didn’t respond, but just trembled, though at least she nodded as well.

"Do not worry, my fair Bernadetta! No harm shall come to you or Malecki as long as I am around!"

Jeralt’s voice boomed from the end of the line. “Hey, if you’re done chatting, go over to the field and get in position. Rule one: Don’t get to the battlefield late!”

Indeed, the Blue Lions and Golden Deer had already set up positions on the field. The Blue Lions were spread out around a partially-collapsed stone structure, and the Golden Deer were holed up behind some hastily-constructed fortifications near a small copse of trees. Which meant that the Black Eagles were stuck in an open area to the southeast. No sooner had they set up than the gong rang out across the field. The students all drew their training weapons and moved forward. The mock battle had begun.

“We’ll have to draw Claude and Hilda out from behind those barricades,” Belial said as Byleth stood beside them and drew her wooden sword. “I can’t see Ignatz or Lysithea but they’re probably behind those two. Even so, we should target the Deer first; Dimitri is extremely strong and Dedue is on the front lines, which means—Caspar!

“YEEAAAHAHAHA! BRING ‘EM ON!”

“…He just charged on ahead.”

“Goddess fucking dammit.”

“Caspar, you damnable fool! Get back here!”

“…At least he’s heading towards the Deer. Come on everyone, let’s go!” Belial raced forward, and everyone else followed behind.

Caspar was already locked in combat with Raphael, the two young men grinning and laughing as they pummeled each other with training gauntlets. Oakley barked excitedly, leaping back and forth in a play bow in lieu of wrestling with Peakane. Neither of them were paying attention to anything else, so neither of them saw Lysithea drop a vortex of dark magic onto Caspar’s head. She pulled her punches—this was a mock battle, after all—but the sheer power behind her magic was more than enough to singe Raphael’s hands and knock Caspar out cold.

“Caspar’s down, Professor,” Edelgard said, her hands wrapped tight around her training axe. Avarine followed her from tree to tree. “Hubert and I will have words with him later, but what are your orders?”

Byleth’s eyes flicked back and forth across the scene before her. Her breathing settled into the calm pace of battle, the one place where she always felt awake and aware. The Blue Lions had also crashed into the deer; many of them were fighting in a wooded area that Byleth couldn’t see through. Hilda and Claude were still behind the barricades; Claude had nocked his bow and Hilda had a small crate of wooden throwing axes next to her. Lysithea was behind them, her daemon Zilbariel in the form of a wolverine, launching dark magic at anyone within range that she could see. A head-on assault was stupid; anyone who tried to get over those barricades would be picked off in moments.

But there was a copse of conifers next to those barricades…

Byleth observed, and Belial spoke. “Petra, Bernadetta, into the trees. Edelgard, Ferdinand, try to draw Hilda and Claude’s attention. Linhardt, you’re on healing duty. Hubert, Dorothea, snipe anything not wearing red that comes out of the trees.”

“Professor, why me?!”

“Ah, I believe I have understanding. Come, Bernadetta.” The Brigidian princess vanished into the trees; even her stark-white goose daemon managed to hide himself in the shadows. Bernadetta followed, reluctant and yet surprisingly capable at concealing herself in the woods.

Distracting Claude was easy. There was something Edelgard needed to say to him anyway. Not getting distracted herself would be the hard part. “Hey, Claude!” she shouted, then immediately tucked forward into a somersault. She could feel the mud clinging to her hair; multiple baths would be in order later.

Just as she thought, an arrow buried itself into the ground right where she was before rolling forward. Claude scoffed but didn’t skip a beat as he nocked another arrow. “What’s this, a missive from the princess herself?” he teased. “Come to surrender already?”

“Haha, you wish!” She didn’t dodge as well the second time; this arrow clipped her on the upper arm. Paint splashed over her uniform; there was enough force behind the blow to leave her with the dull ache of an oncoming bruise. Thankfully there was no training axe to follow up; Ferdinand was loudly and efficiently occupying Hilda’s attention. “Actually I wanted to apologize for that whole mess back in Remire.” She meant it, too.

“What for? It’s not like you had a bunch of bandits chase after us. And if I remember correctly, the big guy went after you specifically at the end!” Another arrow, this one against her wrist. Edelgard grunted in pain. The axe fell from her grasp and would have landed in the dirt if not for Avarine’s rapid reflexes.

It was, it was, it was my fault and it was so stupid and I am so sorry. Guilt that Edelgard could never, ever express twisted in her and she shouted, “I know, but I’m still sorry about the whole mess that training exercise turned out to be, you know? Anyway, I’m just glad you and Dimitri are both alive and okay!”

“Me too! This is a much better way to battle, isn’t it?”

The moment slipped past and Edelgard found herself slipping back into comfortable banter with the Golden Deer House Leader. “I’ll agree, once we win!”

“Oh-ho, you haven’t even considered losing?” Another arrow, another bruise and simulated wound to her knee. Another hit like this and she’d be forced to withdraw. “Ooh, this’ll be a bit of a shock then.”

“Claude! The trees!”

“Trees? Hilda what are you—”

Petra and Ardior burst out from the canopy, Ardior honking with every fired arrow that splashed paint onto Hilda’s chest. Bernadetta was behind her, her frame trembling and yet her fingers steady as she leveled her training bow at Claude.

Claude’s eyes narrowed. “Very clever, Byleth,” Simurg said just as paint burst over Claude’s forehead, the force of Bernadetta’s shot knocking him to the ground.

“I-I’m sorry! Are you okay?”

Claude took Bernadetta’s outstretched hand and used his other one to wipe away the paint that was trickling down his face. “I’m fine. That was a clever scheme.”

Behind them, the battlefield was filled with Hubert’s cackling as he launched spell after spell until his magic reserves were completely depleted; behind him Dorothea was doing much the same as she compensated for decreased power with increased range.

Even though Dorothea was forced to withdraw under the power of Dimitri’s lance once he managed to close into melee range, the battle didn’t last long after that.


 

The battle may not have lasted long after Byleth’s gambit, but the party had been going for four hours and showed no signs of letting up. Mercedes, Annette, Dedue, and Ashe had pulled out all the stops when it came to catering and cooking. Two enormous cakes of dark chocolate and raspberry cream stood side by side, one decorated in dark greens and blues reminiscent of Brigid while the other was softer, more abstract, like an impressionistic painting. The cakes were topped with sculpted and dyed marzipan shaped like a goose and spaniel, respectively. It was probably best not to think about how expensive things like that were. But a settling party was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Over on the other table sat a bounty of food. There was a small pyramid of pastries and strudels stuffed with things like spiced lamb, wild mushrooms, goat cheese, roasted vegetables, and more. No fewer than five roasted turkeys were carved up and served alongside mashed cranberries and some kind of slightly tangy sauce. There was an enormous cauldron of venison stew, meant to be ladled out and served in still-warm hollowed-out bread bowls. Acorn squash had been candied, roasted in maple syrup and brown sugar. The mulled cider had been spiced to perfection, and at least some of it had been spiked with brandy, if the way Manuela’s lemur daemon draped over her shoulders was any indication.

Perhaps it was post-battle adrenaline, but the atmosphere was lively and raucous. Petra and Ignatz—or rather, Ardior and Mistella—were the focus of the celebration, but everybody was chatting, flirting, dancing, and generally having a good time. Even Bernadetta had slipped in to steal some cake and offer a quick congratulations before beating a hasty retreat back to her room. Dorothea had broken into song—not one of her dramatic arias but something bouncier, more of a commoner’s jig—and a bruised-up Leonie and Raphael were both dancing to it. Petra began moving to a dance all her own, a Brigidian style that was wholly unfamiliar to everyone else. Without missing a beat, Dorothea changed the key and tempo of her song to match Petra’s movements, and Calphour opened his little beak to turn it into a duet. When Calphour flew into the air, Ardior matched him. The two birds flew around each other, Calphour dipping between Ardior’s larger outstretched wings, continuing his part of the song all the while. They spiraled up in the air, descending to circle around their humans dancing and singing side by side, finishing the song with a simultaneous bow and cheers from the surrounding students.

Petra panted in exertion, her face flushed under the scratches from the earlier battle, but she grinned as Ardior pressed his head against her leg. “I have not been dancing like that in some time! Dorothea, where did you learn to mimic the songs of Brigid?”

“Honestly, I didn’t,” Dorothea replied. Calphour perched on her outstretched finger; she carefully transferred him to her shoulder where he nestled at home in her flowing hair. “I’m classically trained, and I was a commoner before that. I saw the way you were dancing and made a guess as to the tempo of the song.”

“It was a very excellent guess! If you would like I could be showing…I could show you some more songs and dances of my home.”

“That would be wonderful, Petra!”

Ardior stretched his wings and neck in a low bow to Dorothea and Calphour. “Calphour, I would be greatly liking to dance with you again. I am most pleased that we have both been settling as birds! Although I am still not quite sure what kind of bird I have settled as.”

“Well, Brigid is a pretty warm place! I’m not surprised you’ve never seen a snow goose before.” Calphour hopped down to land by Ardior’s face. “Snow geese are tough and adaptable, and not quite as obnoxious as Sreng geese are. They live in groups, they migrate, and they can live in many different places. They’re also incredibly protective of their family and other in their flocks. Ardi, snow geese may not be from Brigid, but the fact that you are one shows your resilience and pride in your home.”

Both Petra and Dorothea was silent as Calphour spoke; the Brigidian princess’s eyes shining with pride and love, new adoration for her daemon and his settled form. “Oh, Ardi…” She knelt down and embraced him, and he wrapped his wings around her in return.

On the other side of the room Ignatz stood; even if he was one of the targets of celebration he needed to step away and take some time to himself. It was…a lot, talking to so many people at once. And it was a lot, seeing Mistella’s shape carved in marzipan like it was a celebration.

He didn’t feel much like celebrating it, and Mist was still furious with him over it. Not like he hated her form! She was adorable, with her long silky coat and brown spots and floppy ears. It…it was just…

“What is it ‘just,’ Ignatz?”

“It’s just…you’re a spaniel. You’ve read all the stories with me, you know the sagas. If you’re a spaniel, then is that all I am? Slavish, passive, and nothing else?”

Mistella snarled. “Hey, that’s not just me you’re talking about!”

Ignatz wasn’t really listening; instead he slumped down slightly against the wall. “Might as well say it out loud, I didn’t really want to be here.”

“We wanted to be an artist,” Mistella murmured.

“But there’s no money in being an artist. I’m a second son, so there goes running the family business.” Ignatz slid down the wall further until he was seated against the ground, and yet Mistella still kept her distance. “My parents wanted me to be a knight, and they spent a lot of money and pulled a lot of favors to get me in here. I…I can’t let them down.” He couldn’t go against his parents’ wishes, couldn’t disobey in the face of their service and sacrifice. They needed him to serve, and so he would serve. But…wasn’t that slavish and passive in the first place?

And Mist had settled shortly after arriving here at the academy.

There had to be more than that to a spaniel daemon…right?

“Hey Ignatz!” Ashe’s bright, cheerful voice broke him out of his melancholy. He looked up from his seated position to see the teenager’s smiling face focused on him. Fuergios was at his side in the form of a collie; she greeted Mist with a play bow which the spaniel daemon half-heartedly returned. “I wanted to congratulate you on settling! Mistella is absolutely adorable! Man, I am so jealous.”

“Jealous? How come?”

Ashe waved his hands around as he spoke, unable to contain his enthusiasm or excitement. “You’re at the officer’s academy, and Mist is a dog! All of the most faithful knights in the stories have dog daemons; lord Fraldalius’s daemon is a dog, and there are tons of other amazing knights with dog daemons too! To have discovered that you have the nature of a loyal and faithful knight right after stepping foot in the academy, oh it’s like something out of the chivalric legends! Ignatz, this must mean you’re destined to be an amazing knight!”

“I wish I had settled when entering the academy,” Fuergios added. “I just hope I stay a dog when the time comes.”

Ashe meant well, but…that didn’t help at all. Did the opposite of help, actually. “…Thanks, Ashe. I…think I’m going to go to bed. I took a bit more of a beating than I expected in the mock battle and I think it’s catching up to me.”

“Oh…okay. Take some cake at least! And sleep well?”

“I will.”

Ignatz walked past Claude as he headed back to his dormitory; the house leader opened his mouth to say something but shut it again at the look on his face.

“I don’t think he’s happy with Mist’s form,” Simurg hissed from his arm where she was coiled.

“I don’t think so either, but what can you do? She’s a dog and he needs to figure out what that means, or hate himself forever.”

“We’re going to help, right?”

“Of course, but there’s only so much we can do. Iggy’s going to have to do most of the work himself.”

They turned back to the feast, which really was well-done for something so hastily put together. They saw Raphael busy himself by cramming entire turkey legs into his mouth in one go, Hilda flutter from student to student in endless small talk, a very bruised Caspar arm-wrestle any and all challengers while Linhardt vainly tried to keep him from straining himself, Annette run around cleaning up small messes, everyone having a good time.

"And to think we were just beating each other unconscious a few hours ago,” Simurg said.

“For all that Fodlanese call us Almyrans unwashed barbarians and brutes, this isn’t so different than the post-battle feasts we know and love, isn’t it.”

“Not at all. Eat, fight, fuck. People are basically the same everywhere, aren’t they.”

“Yeah, we are. Though there’s more to us than just eating, fighting, and fucking. That’s all animals do.” Claude vaguely waved a hand at the ceiling above them, the engravings on the stonework, the stone gargoyles perched on edifices outside. “Animals don’t make things like this.”

"No, they don’t. If only more people would see, and understand.”

“Oh, they will. Once we’re done here, they will.”

They watched as Sylvain chatted up some student in a different house, presumably to get her back to his room. Judging from the way her gecko daemon responded to Zepida’s purring and rubbing up against his body, it seemed to be going well. “…Dimitri’s room is right next to Sylvain’s, right?”

“HAH!” The timing had to be deliberate; Simurg had to know that he was taking a sip of cider just as she mentioned that. As it was, the cider was no longer in his mouth but against the wall. Worth it though. “Poor bastard; I hope he has earplugs!”

“Maybe we could get some for him as a gift? What do you think: anonymous, or with as much flourish as possible?”

“Hah, either works. I like it, Simi. A snake after my own heart.”

“Claude, I am your heart.”

Claude just laughed in response, soft and easy. “Well then, Simurg my heart, want to rejoin the feast?”

“Always.” Claude put his smile back on and stepped back into the throng of students, the dashing charismatic heir to the Alliance. And nothing else.

Chapter Text

The sigil floating above Byleth’s outstretched hand looked strangely familiar. Which made no sense, because she had never seen it before in her life. It was…odd, all tight loops and curved lines that put Belial to mind of a butterfly’s wing. Theophania, Hanneman’s wolf spider daemon, appeared to share the same insect-related sentiment from the look of delighted hunger in her many eyes. Belial felt less like a wolf and more like a bug pinned to an examination tray.

“Hanneman, I don’t remember seeing a Crest like that, ever!”

“I haven’t either! Oh, this is astonishing! What a wonderful discovery, a completely unknown Crest, and in our mysterious new professor no less!”

Hanneman was an older man in his mid-fifties, dressed in a formal manner, right down to the monocle. Even his hair was slicked back, except for the little fringe that stubbornly stuck up above his forehead. And yet his face was split open in a boyish grin, his eyes shining with glee. Hanneman himself was not dancing around his office, but Theophania skittered back and forth on the mahogany desk making little squeaks of joy the whole while, so he might as well have been.

Byleth cocked her head at the odd Crest floating in the air before her, a depiction of the Crest that apparently resided within her. There were a lot of things that weren’t her and Belial stuffed in their body, apparently. There was Sothis, and now this mystery Crest too. She idly wondered how many extra things a human body could safely contain. Hanneman didn’t seem to be wondering about that. He was still talking, although she hadn’t been paying attention.

Theophania was talking too. “Research has indicated that crest-bearers can tolerate greater distances of separation from their daemon. The effects seem to be greater with a major crest, but there are simply not enough data points for a statistically significant conclusion! Belial, was it? How far can you be from Byleth?”           

“I’m…not sure, actually. Really far, but I haven’t found a limit yet.” They looked up at Byleth. Better to be vague here, right?

But even that wasn’t vague enough for Theophania as the wolf spider somehow clapped her front legs together. “Hanneman, this is simply astounding!”

“Yes, my dear Theophania!” The older professor had already begun circling Byleth for further investigation. He lifted up her hair, inspected the tattered sleeves of her coat. Byleth didn’t say anything but she didn’t like this. It felt…intrusive, awkward. Sothis was spewing indignant syllables of gibberish, so that wasn’t helpful at all. Best to just deal with it for now and make her exit quickly.


 

“An unidentified Crest? Oh my poor Byleth, you’re going to be Hanneman’s new pet project. Might as well resign yourself to it now, all that poking and prodding and asking all sorts of odd questions is just going to be your lot in life now! Here, drink up, you’ll need it.”

It had taken far too long to extricate herself from Hanneman’s inquisition, and now here Byleth was in Manuela’s infirmary. A glass of something amber-colored smelling vaguely like paint thinner somehow materialized in her hands. Manuela was a fast pourer, and an even faster drinker. She had only just propped herself up on the table and yet half the glass had already made its way down her throat. Byleth took a tentative sip, which she immediately coughed up and spluttered all over the wall. Goddess, and she thought her dad’s rotgut was vile! It still burned the inside of her mouth and throat.

“Hey, that’s some expensive whiskey! If you can’t appreciate it, then don’t drink it.” Manuela didn’t seem that annoyed though, more amused than anything else. And even if she had, Puccini’s cackling from her shoulder was evidence enough of her true feelings on Byleth’s inability to hold her liquor. “In all honesty though, Hanneman does mean well. He’s just simply awful at realizing when he’s stepping on peoples’ toes. Just tell him off and he will.” Nodding at her own sage advice, Manuela drank down the rest of the whiskey like it was water and followed up with a self-satisfied burp. The lemur daemon hopped off her shoulder and settled onto one of the infirmary beds. They both, in sync, leaned forward and regarded both Byleth and Belial with anticipatory grins. “So, I bet you’re just brimming with questions for your good friend and colleague Manuela to answer!”

“…Um.”

“…Or you could just be completely out of your depth and about to crash and burn in a spectacular fashion, possibly taking half the monastery with it.”

Manuela leaned back and refilled her glass with even more whiskey. It splashed dangerously with each wild gesticulation she made. “Puccini has a point. Okay, in all seriousness, here’s a dirty little secret. Your class is here to learn military tactics, combat experience, diplomacy, leadership, blah blah blah. But what nobody tells you is that the hardest bit is actually outside the classroom.”

That didn’t make any sense, and Byleth told the overly-flirtatious physician as much. She simply responded with a laugh and another drink. “You’re not just your professor, you’re also their mentor, at least for now. Might end up their friend. But either way, your students aren’t just your students, but also a pack of horny hormonal teenagers trying to learn and deal with their own personal shit at the same time. You’re going to have to help guide them through it all, and minimize the amount of trouble they get themselves into at the same time.”

“I know, I know, it all sounds like hypocritical nonsense coming from her,” Puccini said, easily dodging her now-drunken swipe. “But she is right. Often life problems either create classroom problems or make them worse. Keep an eye on your students. Learn about them, help them. Help them become mostly-functional adults and help them make smart decisions, or at least keep some courtesan’s tea, chocolate, and a handkerchief in your desk for when they inevitably don’t. Be firm when you have to but always kind. There’s some odd ducks in the bunch, but they’re mostly good kids. And be sure to tell us if things get really out of hand, or if there’s any particularly juicy gossip!”

It sounded like good advice. But how would she be able to do that? Even if the Good Days stayed, how would she be able to nurture and guide her students through emotional issues?

“Don’t worry,” Sothis said in her head. “If they’re your students, then they’re my students too. I’ll help you take care of them.”

Belial looked up at Byleth with her blank expression. “We’ll just have to do our best.”


 

If Byleth’s heart beat, it would be racing in her chest as she looked out at the classroom of students. Her students, even if they were only a couple of years younger than her. All of them were seated, scattered throughout the classroom in a pattern that she just knew would end up becoming their unofficially assigned seats for the rest of the year, even though it was only the first day of classes.

Edelgard was front and center, with Hubert on her left and Ferdinand on her right. She already had her notebook opened to a blank page, quill at the ready with several more in reserve. Avarine was on a perch between her and Hubert, who loomed like a specter beside the princess and her gyrfalcon daemon. Thanily sat by Hubert’s shoulder with military precision and stiffness, her fluffy tail curled around her legs. Ferdinand sat to Edelgard’s right, Embrienne nestled somewhere in his hair. He sat up straight in his seat with a broad smile on his face, his notebook also opened with quill inked and ready to write while he drummed another one between his fingers. Every time Edelgard shifted, Ferdinand tried to sit up straighter, as if to one-up her in enthusiasm for class. Edelgard studiously ignored him, but Hubert looked like he was just a little bit closer to murder with every one of Ferdinand’s unnecessary movements.

Dorothea and Petra were right behind the trio from Enbarr, no less enthusiastic but not looking to get involved with whatever tension or nervous energy was brewing among the three in the front row. Several maps, reference books, and at least one dictionary were stacked up between them for easy access. Calphour fluttered between the books and Dorothea’s shoulders while Ardior preened himself, plucking free any loose feathers to turn into spare quills. They both had similar smiles and intense determined gazes.

Caspar was all the way at the edge of the row of desks, right next to the tanks where Peakane swam. She must have had a short range for him to be so close to the tanks like that. Linhardt was next to him, and he was already nodding off. The only reason he didn’t completely pass out onto his notebook was the crumpled bits of paper, sticks, and other detritus that Caspar flicked in his general direction every time his head slipped towards the desk. Eventually, with a muttered, “Ugh, fine,” Runilite hopped off Linhardt’s shoulders and into the fishtank, where she flopped onto a piece of driftwood floating in the tank. This also meant that whenever Linhardt fell asleep, his daemon would fall into the water and wake him up.  

Byleth almost didn’t spot Bernadetta at first, but the terrified young woman did show up to class. She had wedged herself all the way in the back corner, curled up on the chair with her knees drawn up to her chest, her eyes wide open and searching for any potential threats. She couldn’t see Malecki, but she knew the hedgehog daemon was probably wedged in Bernadetta’s pocket anyway. At least she managed to make it to class. Speaking of which, time to begin.

She spoke as if she had rehearsed the speech over and over in the mirror that morning, which she had. “Good morning, everyone. My name is Byleth Eisner, my daemon is Belial Eisner, and I suppose I’m your new professor. No, I don’t know how this happened either, but I will do the best I can to guide you both inside and outside the classroom. If you have any problems or concerns, please come talk to me about them I’ll do what I can to listen and help.” She was different from other people, and dad had always helped her, so… “You have responsibilities as students in the Officer’s Academy, but it’s only fair to make reasonable accommodations for anybody who needs help along the way. I can’t read your mind though, so you’ll have to tell me if something is wrong. Or write it, if telling me is too difficult.”

Belial and Sothis were both quiet. Good, that probably meant she was doing well. Byleth took a shaky breath and continued. “I may only be a commoner, but I am your professor and mentor, and I hope one day to become your friend. I have a lot of experience in combat and leading small squads of troops. After our introductions, we’re going to go outside and do some sparring practice. That way we can work together and find out what you’re best at.” She looked down at her wolf’s impassive gaze. “But first, let’s talk about the mock battle. You did very well, but I have some concerns about following orders in combat.”

Hubert and Edelgard remained impassive, but their daemons slowly turned to look at Caspar in perfect synchronicity. Caspar, for his part, responded with a nervous laughing grin. Peakane flattened herself against the bottom of the tank. Because she was a clownfish, it did absolutely nothing to conceal her from those accusatory glares.

“I want to tell you all a story,” Byleth said, continuing as if she didn’t notice the brewing confrontation before her. Instead, she swung her left leg up onto the desk.

The class suddenly went very quiet, and very still. The metal brace on her knee shone against the thick scar tissue poking out from underneath it, yes, but in the position that Byleth took her skirt rose up her thigh to expose a dangerously large expanse of smooth pale skin. The class was suspiciously quiet, and although Edelgard’s eyes suddenly went wide Avarine was extremely still.

Neither Byleth nor Belial realized any of this, although she could feel the suppressed laughter bubbling up from deep within Sothis, wherever she actually was. So Byleth continued. “About five years ago I ran ahead in battle against my father’s orders. I saw a way to finish our mission quickly. I overextended myself and took an axe right to my knee. It took weeks of magical healing and physical therapy before I was able to walk again. Even today, years later, I still need a brace to keep my leg from buckling underneath me. I will probably need it for the rest of my life.

“This is what happens when you do not follow instructions in combat. If you throw yourself into a group of enemies without thinking, if you overextend yourself, if you decide to go it alone, you will find yourself surrounded. You will find yourself seriously injured. You may find yourself dead. You are training to be a leader, but you are also learning to work with others. Follow my instructions, but please tell me if you have any questions or concerns about my judgement or a plan of action. But when the swords come out, we need to work together to succeed. And to survive.”

Byleth stepped off the table and moved to the chalkboard. With the first scrape of chalk, the lesson officially began.


 

Things…wasn’t going as horribly as Bernadetta had feared they would be. She was still alive, for one thing. She really, really thought she’d be dead by now; that Edelgard would have finally tired of her and so would have arranged for her execution, or Hubert would have assassinated her in the dead of night, or she would have drowned in the pond, or…or…

She curled up in her bed and whimpered, hugging her own knees. She couldn’t even hug Malecki through her panic attacks, not since he settled as a hedgehog a couple years ago. He deserved better than her, a terrified useless pathetic girl who could barely even go to class, somebody who was a waste of air and couldn’t even make a decent wife and was just taking up space here and oh stupid useless Bernie—

“Bernie!” Mal had crawled into her lap and had started nipping her fingers to try and break her out of yet another panic spiral. “I don’t want to be with anyone else. I want to be your daemon!”

“But why, Mal? You’re so much braver than I am; all I do is hold you back.” She sniffled into her legs. “If it weren’t for me, you’d be a lion, or a big brave bear, or—”

“But Bernie, I don’t want to be a lion, or a big brave bear. I’m happy as a hedgehog. Yes I’m small, but it means I get to be with you. It’s a big scary world out there, and it would be just as big and scary if I were a lion or a bear. But if I’m a little hedgehog, it means I can stay close to you.”

“R-Really?”

“Really.” Malecki butted his head against the palm of her head. “I…guess we have to go to the stables now?”

Bernadetta took a shaking breath that was just as tremulous on the exhale. “I guess we have to, don’t we?”

At first she was terrified of the concept. Working with the horses? With Ferdinand? There was so many ways that could go wrong! She could get kicked, or stepped on, or Mal could get stepped on and killed and then she’d die too or she’d do something really stupid and then Ferdinand would laugh at her and tell everyone what a stupid failure she was and then she’d get expelled from the academy and shipped back home and her father would tie her to a chair again and she’d never ever ever—

She had started to tell Professor Byleth this through the door, the first part at least, but the stoic professor had actually cut her off. She never did that. Bernie kinda liked that about her, that she listened instead of just dismissing her fears. Professor Byleth was weird, sure, all quiet and stoic and sorta detached, and Belial always looked a little bit blank and distant, but she was patient. She listened to Bernie and never asked her to leave her room when she didn’t have to and always made her feel a little bit safer.

Which is why Bernadetta was able to actually hear Professor Byleth out when she explained her assignment to the stables without panicking. Too much. And in the end, she’d reluctantly agreed.

It took a while, but now, after nearly a month, Bernie could admit to herself that Byleth had been right. Working with animals was soothing. They were patient, they listened to her, they didn’t judge. Ferdinand had been surprisingly encouraging and patient with her as well, teaching her how to properly groom the animals, pick their hooves, mix their feed. He had even praised her effusively, going on about how even he struggled to mix the exact right proportions at times and there she was doing it nearly perfectly her first time out. It was…nice. She hoped he wasn’t lying to make her feel better. Oh, what if he was?

No, he seemed honest at least. No, no she couldn’t think about that. Think about the foals! The foals were adorable, just a few weeks old and trailing after their mothers. When Ferdinand was too much Bernie would drift off to the stables where the mares and foals stayed, and watch Marianne care for them. Marianne was a lot like her, but where Mal was just a little bit braver than Bernie, Marianne’s daemon was somehow even more timid and reserved. But either way they both had a way with horses, and sometimes Marianne would share what she knew with Bernie. It was…nice. She liked Marianne, even though the blue-haired woman always looked so sad.

The days passed to weeks to nearly a month, and things were actually going mostly okay. She hadn’t even had an all-day panic attack yet, which was nice. Bernadetta did stay in her room most of the time, and Hubert was terrifying, but the rest of the Eagles seemed to be okay. Working with Ferdinand to care for the horses was going better than expected, and she was starting to get the hang of riding the animals. There was even a greenhouse in the monastery! She and Mal could spend hours in there making a little patch of soil just boggy and acidic enough for her pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. And even though Dedue was often there and always terrifying in his enormous stature and permanently stern expression, his daemon was even bigger—too big to get through the door—and so was stuck outside the greenhouse. That meant that Dedue could only ever work on one side of the building so as not to be too far away from her, and Bernie could always just work on the other side far away from him. It was actually a little sad to think about, having a daemon so big that it limited your life. It would be really hard to hide in her room if Mal was a lion or a bear, she thought as she stroked his spines. There were positives to being a tiny adorable hedgehog.

No, things were going mostly okay. Maybe this…wouldn’t be so bad.

And then Professor Byleth came in one morning with the news that they were being sent on a mission to fight bandits in Zanado, the same bandits that had tried to kill Edelgard, and Bernadetta’s carefully-constructed platform of stability fell apart.


 

The idea of taking her students into live combat at the orders of the archbishop sat low in Byleth’s stomach in a way that she didn’t like. Sothis was even more uncomfortable with the idea, and she was never one to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself.

“Sending teenagers into battle…who decided this would be a good idea?! I can’t just sit by. I have to help.”

Belial growled. “How? You’re stuck in my head. Byleth’s head. Our heads, whatever. Nobody else even knows you’re there.”

“Remember how I turned back time to save your life? I’ve been awake for longer, and I think I might be able to do it again.”

“Wait, are you saying…”

“I might be able to help you turn back time, if something happens. But I can’t turn time that far back, and there’s only so many times I can do it. And you’re only a mortal; I don’t know what will happen if you play around with this too much!

“But you can still turn back time.”

“Yes. Only if we have to.”

“Only if we have to.” She turned back towards her students, who all walked the path up the side of the canyon with a mix of apprehension and building dread.

Zanado was a canyon, but it certainly wasn’t red. The stones here were kind of a grayish-brown, as were the crumbling ruins. Maybe the sunsets were particularly red? Or perhaps the red was a metaphor. Either way, it was cloudy, and it was cold. And somewhere deeper in the canyon were the bandits that tried to kill Edelgard and Dimitri and Claude. Bandits that the Black Eagles were now being ordered to execute on behalf of the church.

Edelgard and Hubert looked almost eager, or at least like they were going to enjoy this chance at vengeance. Linhardt, Bernadetta, and Dorothea looked like they were about to throw up. The emotions on her students’ faces were written clear as day, clear enough that even she could see them.

Byleth raised a hand, and everyone fell silent. The already nervous energy turned into a tense hush.

“Don’t tell them Byleth, if you use my power they won’t remember; you’ll only serve to freak them out even more!”

“The enemy is likely down there. Scouting ahead would be the safest option for all of you, but while Petra is the stealthiest one here—” the Brigidian princess smiled in pride, “—she lacks the experience to scout without being spotted. Plus this terrain is different from Brigid, right?”

“It is. I have never seen a land so bare of trees back home.”

“Exactly. Thankfully, I have something that can help. Do not be afraid.”

“I’m warning you!”

Byleth looked down at Belial, who nodded back. “It’s a Good Day. I’ll let you know what I find.” They loped off, down the canyon, out of sight, to a chorus of gasps and more than a few shrieks.

Byleth stood before her students, utterly impassive, absolutely alone. Ferdinand reached up to his nose where Embrienne rested, just to make sure her fuzzy body was still there under his fingers. Linhardt clutched Runilite like a child with a teddy bear. Even Edelgard reached for Avarine’s outstretched wing, even Thanily pressed up against Hubert’s leg.

“It’s not that I didn’t believe you,” Hubert breathed, “But to see it for myself…”

“No, I was starting to wonder if I had just imagined it too,” Edelgard replied in horrified wonder. Nobody was able to quite look Byleth in the eye. A human without a daemon…it was an aberration, a thing that should not be. It was like staring at a mutilated corpse. A mutilated corpse that still blinked and breathed and spoke.

“How many of you have seen someone die?”

Everybody except Bernadetta and Linhardt raised their hands.

And how many of you have killed? Byleth did not ask. She suddenly did not want to know.

She stared through her students and spoke in a monotone. “The first thing you need to know is that this is no mock battle. Do not hesitate; hesitation will get you killed. Because that’s what this is, kill or be killed. And you will likely leave this place with blood on your hands. It’s…hard, especially the first time. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Come talk to me after this, even if you think you’re okay. I’m…not good at this sort of thing, but I’ll listen to you, and give what help I can. Even if it’s just a shoulder to cry on. You’re here at the Officer’s Academy to learn to talk with people, to prevent fighting. But when diplomacy fails, you’re also here for combat. To learn how to fight, to win, to kill. To live for tomorrow, for yourself and everyone else. Because in a few minutes it’s going to be you or them, and I want it to be you who comes home.”

“But…but how do you know we’ll all still be alive tonight?”

Byleth’s eyes slid back into focus. There was a sigh of relief from someone, and—ah, yes, Belial appearing over the rise. She waited for the wolf daemon to return before answering.

“Because you are my pups, and I will look after you.”


 

The bandits were scattered on a low mesa, many of them huddling behind some rocks. There was an old broken-down walkway, only hints of the cobblestone remaining, between the bandits and the Black Eagles. Somehow, they had not yet been spotted. Belial’s information had been spot on.

Bernadetta drew back an arrow to scrape her cheek, ready to loose. Her knees were shaking but her fingers were still. Beside her, Hubert and Dorothea’s hands glowed with magic—Dorothea’s sparked with lightning, while Hubert’s oozed a sticky draining sensation.  

“You can do it, Bernie. One clean shot, no hesitation.”

The timid young woman whimpered, but her arrow flew straight and true, right into the bandit’s arm. He cried out in pain, the others grabbed their swords and axes, and the fight was on.

Caspar ran in first, whooping and hollering as he buried the spiked gauntlets into an onrushing bandit. He pulled them out with a squelching sound, blood spattering both him and Peakane’s backpack-turned-portable-tank, and roared as the adrenaline overtook him.

“YEA-HAHA! Is this what all fights are like?!” Caspar’s whole body trembled as he slammed the claws of his gauntlets into the man’s side and dragged them down, tearing him open to bleed out onto his dying daemon and the canyon floor, and he barely seemed to react when another bandit dogpiled him to split open his shoulder and very nearly do the same to Peakane’s tank.

But Linhardt noticed, noticed how Caspar’s body was reacting to the damage and pain he was too hyped-up to feel, and raced into melee to protect his friend. White magic flowed cool and soothing down his fingers, his Crest lighting up to amplify that healing magic and knit Caspar’s split muscle and torn skin back together.

Someone shouted, “Get the healer!” and a woman split off, her sword drawn back ready to run Linhardt right through. And Caspar was locked in melee, unable to fight two people at once.

It was reflex, pure survival instinct. Those same hands that just healed now loosed a powerful blast of wind that slammed into the woman’s chest. There was a visceral cracking sound, a muffled cry. She immediately crumpled, coughing pink foam and gasping for breath, fighting against the cracked ribs and pneumothorax crushing her lungs. Her daemon, some kind of sparrow, fell to the ground beside her and could do nothing more than twitch.

It was a fatal blow without treatment, Linhardt immediately knew, and the bandits had no healers. It was a fatal blow, and it took minutes that felt like years for her to die. Minutes that felt like seconds where she coughed hot pink foam onto Linhardt’s clothes and shoes and the dry earth, minutes that felt like years for her to finally still and her daemon to dissolve into golden dust. Longer still for Linhard to stare at her cooling corpse, his own hands, his beloved Runilite with her red fur now stained redder with blood.

“I…I killed her. What have I done? The blood…”

Her. Her because the bandit the corpse looked female, with a lithe build and a higher-pitched voice and a softer chin and smaller shoulders and a waistline. But just because she looked female didn’t mean she was female; Linhardt knew of people whose genders didn’t match their bodies but it wasn’t exactly like he could ask for her pronouns in the middle of combat, not when she was trying to run him through and it didn’t matter now because she was dead and he killed her oh by the goddess what have I done—

Sharp pain and a yelp from Runilite snapped Linhardt out of his spiraling thoughts. He whipped around, a spell on his fingertips that fizzled out when he saw it was Thanily, just Thanily biting down on his daemon’s tail; behind her Hubert fought back to back with Ferdinand, tearing apart their enemies with spell and lance. Hubert’s face was set in a snarl, so Thanily spoke for him.

“Have an existential crisis over taking life if you must, but save it for when we are no longer in mortal peril! You are our only healer, Linhardt!”

“...Right. Right.” He staggered after Caspar, who had already joined several of the others. There was work to be done. Work only he could do. He could heal, he needed to heal. Heal instead of kill.

Because around him everyone was killing and dying.

“I’M GONNA DIE!”

“YOU’RE NOT GONNA DIE!”  

Bernadetta was screaming, sobbing, crying out for them to stay away from her, she wanted to go home, please let this be over! Her crest activated, almost firing the arrows for her as she rode the edge of a panic attack, sheer survival instinct driving her. Dorothea’s eyes were wide as she stared at her thunder magic, and how it reduced a man to little more than a twitching corpse. Petra’s breaths were deep and deliberately even as she sprung out to disable a bandit in a sneak attack meant to cut ligaments and sever tendons, rolled to hide behind a rock, and then did it all over again.

Belial stayed behind to shout orders and attack any daemon that dared to threaten their students. But Byleth ran with Edelgard to take down Kostas. The two of them nodded in understanding and circled the bandit leader like wolves coming in for the kill.

Edelgard gripped her axe, her face set in harsh lines. “Remember me?”

His eyes, already wide at the battle he was losing around them, narrowed. “You. The princess and the inhuman bitch! I should have finished you off back there!” He raised his axe. “I’m not going to make that mistake again!”

Kostas ran towards Edelgard with a war cry, but she was ready this time. She parried his axe with her own, using her smaller stature to twist off and roll out of the way of his strike. Avarine flew off her shoulder, splitting off to chase down Kostas’s hornet daemon. She ducked and dodged around the gyrfalcon, but that took concentration, concentration that Kostas badly needed to fight off two warriors at once.

And that was enough for Byleth to drive her sword into Kostas’s back. She pulled it out with a spray of blood; the stench of pierced intestines filled the air. Kostas fell to his knees with a low keening moan, could do nothing more than look up at Edelgard and the cool contempt on her face and the axe in her hands.

“You should have finished the job,” she said, and brought the axe down.

It was actually very difficult, even with an axe, to behead somebody with one stroke. Kostas died from the blow as it crunched through his spine, but the axehead got stuck somewhere in the meat of his neck. Edelgard was forced to step on Kostas’s shoulder for leverage to wrench her weapon free. She looked at Byleth with a mixture of shock and guilt as she did so.

The few remaining bandits fled at the death of their leader. The battle was over. Byleth surveyed the scene and felt something unclench in her as she did so and Belial returned with their report. Nobody had died. Nobody was seriously injured.

At least, not physically.

Dorothea stood over the body of a man she had killed with her magic; a nervous laugh bubbled out of her. “So…is throwing teenagers into live combat an official part of church doctrine?” Edelgard stood up a little straighter and made her way to the young songstress. Something flickered in Hubert’s otherwise stoic gaze at her words as well.

Petra plucked a few feathers from Ardior, let the wind carry them off as she bowed her head and said what could only be some sort of prayer in her native tongue. She was trembling.

Bernadetta collapsed to the ground as the terror of battle caught up to her all at once. She clutched Malecki and sobbed, gasping out incoherent apologies and disbelief at being alive.

Ferdinand leaned against his lance; his fingers were curved around it and shaking. “Why did they not flee sooner? Surely those ruffians knew they were no match for the likes of us. Why did they not flee, and live, and possibly change their ways?”

Linhardt leaned against the façade of a crumbling building, panting and retching as he brought his breakfast back up onto the ground of the sacred canyon. Caspar clapped Linhardt on the back with a shaky, “Great work there, hey come on bud—ulp—” and then immediately vomited alongside him.

Byleth was the Ashen Demon, and so felt nothing about killing beyond a vague hollowness. But seeing her students, no longer children, forced to kill? Well, Sothis as always took the slight things that she was on the cusp of feeling, amplified them, and then gave them words.

“What have we done?”

Chapter Text

The march back to Garreg Mach was uncharacteristically subdued. Some people, like Hubert, walked alone, but most people walked together. Caspar patted Linhardt’s back, encouraging him to keep moving, thanking him for his healing magic that knitted together the wounds that still scabbed under his torn clothes. Dorothea leaned against Petra, their daemons flying alongside each other just overhead. Even Bernadetta let Ferdinand wrap his arm around her for support as she sniffled into Malecki’s spines. Edelgard and Byleth brought up the rear, or more accurately they lagged behind. Something was picking at the back of Byleth’s mind.

“Why does this place seem familiar?” She’d never been here in her life. Her dad always made sure to take jobs as far away from Garreg Mach as possible; Remire had been as close as they dared go and look how that ended up. So why did this canyon feel familiar, like a half-remembered dream?

"I…I think it’s because I’ve been here before. A very long time ago, and…a lot of emotions are tied up in this place,” Sothis offered with unusual hesitation. “I…I can’t remember anything else, nothing specific anyway. I wonder what happened here, why I remember it so much?”

“What I’m wondering is why I find it familiar now too,” Belial added. “First you’re in our head, now you’re sharing your thoughts?”

"I wish I knew, but I don’t remember anything at all!”

“I wish you did, then maybe we could—Edelgard?”

The white-haired woman had snuck up behind them. “Who were you talking to just now?”

“…Belial. Just Belial.”

“Hm.” She looked around the ruins surrounding them, the crumbling stone structures that were not content to limit themselves to the ground but also spiraled up the canyon walls and onto the rim of the canyon beyond. “These ruins…there’s not much architecture left, but they don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen. Not in Enbarr, or Fhirdiad, or even Deirdru.”

Byleth had been to these places before, but only briefly, and sometimes during the Bad Days when she wasn’t aware of anything. And yet, “I think you’re right.”

“Which means somebody else must have made this ruins.” She folded her arms and looked around. “I wonder why we’ve never heard about them, or where they’ve gone. Or even why they’re gone. You’d think, if this is a sacred site, that the Church would tell us about the people that were once here.”

“Maybe?” Truth be told, she never thought about it. Then again, until recently, she didn’t know much of anything about the church and rarely thought for herself at all. But since Sothis woke up, she was able to do it more and more. And it was so much better this way.

Belial looked out at their students, clinging to each other and reminders that they still lived and breathed. “We should go. I think they need us right now more than anything else.”

Edelgard nodded. “I think we all need you right now, Professor.”

The march back to Garreg Mach was silent and subdued. Hubert and Edelgard were unaffected, while Petra, Ferdinand and Caspar were regaining some color to their face. But Bernadetta, Dorothea, and Lindhardt were still ashen, their daemons slow and distant. Byleth strode up to the front of the impromptu marching order and held up a hand. Everyone stopped at her command.

"You all did very well back there, working together,” she said. Belial sat by her side, watching them all but not judging in any way. “I’m glad you’re all still here and okay in front of me. But I also know how hard this can be. If anybody wants to leave, I completely understand. I will not judge you, and I will make sure nobody else does either.”

ll of her students were silent for a few minutes, their daemons casting furtive glances at each other. Surprisingly enough, it was Bernadetta who spoke first. “I…T-thank you, Professor, but I think, I think I’ll stay. I like it here!” She brought Mal up to her mouth and squeaked into his spines.

“I’ll stay too.” Dorothea’s voice was much more level. “I’ve got a point to prove. I’m not going to wimp out just now.” Petra turned to her with a smile.

Linhardt sighed, a loud echoing thing. “I suppose I’ll remain as well. Somebody has to keep this idiot—” he shouldered Caspar, who shoved him back, “—safe, and I’m the only one here who can heal. You really should get someone else to do that by the way, Professor. Unlike you, I can’t be far away from Runilite so I can only tend to one person at a time.”

“Can you even cast spells?” asked Peakane.

“I’m honestly not sure. It might be an interesting experiment.”

“...Thank you, all of you. Regardless, you all have the next two days off. Please, come to me at any time. I’m always here to listen.”Byleth and Belial looked out upon their students with…with…it was an unknown feeling, swelling in their chest around their still and silent heart. Something that made them smile at the sight of their students, want to see them grow into the adults they could be.

Ah. That’s what it was.

Pride.


Of course, that wasn’t the end of Byleth’s problems. There was the little matter of her being able to separate from Belial. Belial had always been able to be far away from her, and so to her it was normal. She knew other people thought it was unusual, but didn’t realize just how much it would frighten her students.

But frighten them it did. And of course, being gossipy teenagers, they were unable to keep it to themselves. Within hours of returning to the monastery, Caspar told Hilda, Dorothea told Ingrid, Ingrid told Sylvain, and Sylvain and Hilda told everyone. By dusk of the following day the entire monastery knew that Belial could separate themselves from Byleth with no ill effects at all.

So now even she could feel the eyes of all the students, and most of the staff, following her—some with trepidation, some with curiosity. Dimitri and Delcabia seemed frightened of her. Delcabia would snort and try to hide behind him whenever she passed by. Claude would not leave her alone. It seemed like every time she turned around he was there, asking some question or another about whether she was always like this, how she came to be this way, questions she didn’t feel entirely comfortable answering and had no idea how to answer even if she did. She’d always been like this. And she’d always been quiet and distant and unaware of the world during the Bad Days, but…but…

Which was how Byleth found herself knocking on her father’s door, hoping that he would be here this time. He’d been out for the past several days on one mission or another. Byleth had talked to Rhea about what she wanted to ask her father, but the archbishop hadn’t been quite as helpful as either of them had hoped. Sure she said all the right comforting things, made her feel like she needed to get more of Lady Rhea’s praise and trust, but this was something she really need to talk to Dad about.

Thankfully, he opened the door this time. He looked tired, like he had only just gotten back. Domaghar was also tired; she kept nodding off and bumping her chin against the desk. Thank goodness there were sloping ramps to the second story in addition to stairs, or else they might have been forced to move the captain’s quarters entirely. Still, as exhausted as he was, Jeralt shook himself awake at the sight of his daughter. “What is it, kid?”

Byleth slunk into the office where Jeralt could actually get a good look at her, and he didn’t like what he saw. Her shoulders were slumped and she stared at the ground instead of off into the distance. Belial’s ears were lowered and their tail dragged behind them. For Byleth, she might as well have been wiping away tears. Alarm rocketed through Jeralt at the sight of his daughter so upset. He held her shoulders as Domaghar leaned down for Belial to press against her head. “Hey, kid, what’s wrong?”

“Dad? Is something wrong with me?”

Jeralt stilled. He’d heard the whispers; there’s only one thing this could be about. “Haaaah…Kid, come over here.” He sat down and patted a spot on the rug next to him. Without prompting she sat down and leaned against him, just as she had done around campfires for over twenty years.

“Kid, Byleth, nothing’s wrong with you.” He wasn’t looking at her, just…sort of at the space between them and the door, where a campfire would be. “Sure, you may be a little…odd, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or that you’re a bad person.”

It was a lie, the first part at least. Something was Wrong with his daughter, so wrong that he had to put an emphasis to it. Not the part about her and Belial being able to separate, although that was unnerving in and of itself, but all the other parts. Her days, weeks, sometimes even months of blankness where she wasn’t aware of anything, Her emotional range, which went past stunted and could only be described as barely-existent. The way Belial sometimes seemed like an ordinary animal rather than a daemon, the very shape of his daughter’s soul. How only her dreams of that strange girl on the throne managed to wake her from her torpor.

Just what had Rhea done to his daughter?

He hadn’t been around much the past couple of months; Rhea kept sending him on one mission after another as if to make up for over twenty years of lost time all at once. But Byleth looked so much better, so much more like the woman she could be, the woman she had grown up to be. And even if something was Wrong with his daughter, it didn’t make her bad.

Byleth noticed, actually noticed the way he looked at her with fondness and pride. “Dad?”       

“I’m just so proud of you. Come here, kid!” He pulled her into a one-armed hug, curling his other hand into a loose fist to give her a noogie and mess up her hair even more.” Doma batted Belial to the ground; the wolf daemon sprang to their feet and barked back, their tail wagging.

They only stopped when Doma’s heavy hoofbeats threatened to knock things off the walls. Byleth attempted to smooth her hair; her face settled back into that neutral expression.

“How are the little brats, by the way?”

Byleth looked down at the floor. “They’re doing okay. That last fight did a lot to them. I’ve been giving them some time, trying to find out what they like. Edelgard’s birthday is in a few days; I was thinking of going into town and buying her some sweets.

“Heheh, looks like they’ve already got you wrapped around their fingers. Ah, I know what that’s like.” He knew all too well. “Just remember to teach them the most important thing alongside all that combat and diplomacy nonsense.”

Domaghar chimed in. “Kid, what’s the most important thing?”

“To think for yourself.” Dad had drilled that into her, made it very important for some reason. Although…she was starting to understand why, now that she had had so many Good Days and so was capable of doing so. “And watch out for Rhea.”

“That’s my girl.” Jeralt hugged her again. “And it’s especially important in a place like this. Both of those things, actually. But you can handle it. I know you can.”


Warm weather came late to the mountains around Garreg Mach, but when it arrived it did so with vigor. It was one of the first indisputably nice days out in months—a free day no less—and the students were taking full advantage of it. Linhardt was napping on a chair by the fishing pier while Caspar had stripped down to his smallclothes, chucked Peakane into the pond, and cannonballed in after her. Bernadetta had opened up her window to let in some fresh air, and anybody who walked close enough to her room could hear her humming. Even Lady Edelgard had taken off her outer jacket and cape, although she still covered every inch of skin below her neck with glove, sleeve, and stocking—Hubert would have to arrange for more breathable clothing for the warm summer months. Hubert himself had also taken off his outer jacket in concession to the warm air, although unlike certain degenerate reprobates he kept his dress shirt on. Speaking of certain degenerate reprobates, Albarrog throwing Zepida into the fishing pond after Sylvain was a nice touch.

“It’s a shame that Sylvain’s only goals in life seem to be having as much sex as possible and acquiring every venereal disease known to man,” Thanily muttered as she and Hubert watched the redhead wring out his hair. “He is clearly intelligent, and somebody with a history like his would likely be a sympathizer to Lady Edelgard’s ideas.”

“Yes but if he dares approach our lady we’ll have to kill him.”

“He probably knows that, which is why he’s been keeping his distance.”

They fell silent as Dorothea and Calphour walked by, although Hubert did return her greeting with a raised hand. He respected Dorothea, who had managed to rise above her commoner birth and wretched background to make a name for herself at the opera. She was incredibly perceptive—he and Lady Edelgard had spent some time discussing Dorothea’s offhand comment back in Zanado—and had a wickedly sharp tongue. In short, she was the kind of person who exemplified his lady’s ideals and goals of a brighter Fodlan, a place where people could rise and fall based on merit alone, not circumstances of birth or the misfortune of being bestowed a Crest. They would have to approach her at some point, before she put enough pieces together on her own.

Petra was also a woman to watch, for similar reasons. Hubert had immense respect for her. A political hostage could very easily fall to bitterness and despair, especially after having their daemon settle while in captivity, and yet she managed to stay positive and determined. Her goals were clear, and they were ones he could sympathize with. The teachings of the church of Seiros were disgustingly insular and xenophobic, and Hubert was honestly surprised that Petra had not meet more resistance from their other classmates. She was both intelligent and one of the hardest workers he had ever seen. If Lady Edelgard could forge a peace treaty with Petra, then they could very well have valuable allies in the war to come.

Even Bernadetta was starting to earn his grudging respect. The young woman was clearly terrified of the entire world, and if it weren’t for Malecki and a fear of failing out then she probably would have never left her room at all. Still, she was trying, and even he could appreciate the effort. There was clearly something going on in Bernadetta’s past. He had heard certain rumors about House Varley…he would have to investigate further once he had some spare time.

“The women of the Black Eagles truly command respect,” Thanily mused.

“I agree. I wish I could say the same about the men. Caspar is a reckless idiot, albeit a persistent one, and Linhardt would be capable of greatness if he only applied himself. And Ferdinand…”

“Ugh.” Thanily’s voice dripped with disdain. What an idiot. He reminded Hubert of an overgrown puppy, jumping at anything remotely attention-grabbing and stumbling over too-large paws all the while. Ferdinand was not outside enjoying the nice weather. Instead, he was in the infirmary with two broken ribs after deciding to take on not one, but two Demonic Beasts at once in some foolhardy attempt to outperform Lady Edelgard. As if such a thing was possible. Predictably, Ferdinand had found himself outmatched, and Professor Byleth was forced to run in and rescue him. Hubert supposed it would be too much to hope that this near-death experience would spur Ferdinand to actually engage in some self-reflection for once in his life. As it was, Ferdinand von Aegir (as he insisted on using his full title whenever possible) would likely continue to be a thorn in both him and his lady’s side.

“You know,” Thanily said, “Embrienne is so small, and Ferdinand hates using that capsule outside of battle. It would be quite easy for me to eat her, and his death would simply be dismissed as a tragic accident.”

“Lady Edelgard has expressly forbidden murdering our classmates,” Hubert muttered behind a smirk. “Still, I am rather fond of the idea.”

“A shame we will have to put up with him and his incessant…Ferdinandness.” There really was no other way to put it. “At least he is a fairly benign distraction, as far as these things go.”

They fell silent as Byleth walked by, striding to the fishing pond with pole in hand. Belial walked beside them, seemingly oblivious to the less-frequent but still-present second glances and hushed whispers they got as they passed the rest of the students and faculty. Now there was an enigma. Their professor truly deserved the moniker “Ashen Demon,” with her deadened emotions and silent efficiency on the battlefield. There was an eerie charisma about her that he wasn’t sure she was entirely aware of. And then there was the matter of her and Belial.

“She has a Crest, but only the one,” Thanily said. “And I don't think she…she doesn’t act like the others did when they were severed.”

“But she still does not act entirely normal either. And even if she did, the undue fawning attention that ‘Lady’ Rhea bestows upon her bodes ill.” Hubert frowned. “I would say that Rhea made her our professor in an attempt to spy on us, but she chose our house of her own free will.”

“Just don’t be that blatant in your attempts to threaten her again,” Thanily added. “You weren’t even trying to be subtle, Hubert! I know she is unnerving and we can’t trust her, but we have to be more inconspicuous about it.”

“She wasn’t even worried by our threats. With her emotionlessness, I cannot tell if she was truly not frightened of us or if she did not know to be frightened of us.” He rubbed his temples in a vain attempt to stave off the oncoming headache. “I wish she was easier to read. But then again, if she were, we would not be having this conversation, would we?”

“Either way, Lady Edelgard seems to have a…blind spot…when it comes to our professor. We need to talk with her about…wait…” Thanily trailed off, one ear twitching. Then she lept off the stairs onto the ground below. There were growls, the short sound of a scuffle, a high-pitched squeak cut off by the sound of Hubert’s boots slamming against the stone as he vaulted off the side of the staircase, the pained tug at his heart forcing him along the quickest path back to Thani. And Thani herself bent over a weasel daemon, the smaller creature pinned beneath her until he shifted to a large wolverine and tried to struggle out of her iron grip.

“Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” He shifted again, a bear thrashing against the smaller fox daemon, but Thanily still clamped down on his ear.

Male. Unsettled. Hubert strode up to the daemon and leaned in as close as he dared get. “Zilbariel, why were you spying on us? And just where is the rest of you?”

Thanily bit down harder, and Hubert was rewarded with a faint cry of pain from the bushes close to the dormitories. She let go of Zilbariel and they both raced over and dragged out a panting Lysithea, leaving her on her hands and knees as she caught her breath. Several students saw the scene but decided to give them a wide berth for fear of incurring the wrath of Hubert.

Lysithea gasped from the shared pain of her injured daemon, a few reflexive tears creeping out of the corner of her eyes despite her best attempts to hide them. “What the fuck is wrong with you?! Why would you do that?!”

“Why were you spying on us, Lysithea?”

“Why would I spy on you, you creep? I was spying on Professor Byleth!”

He ignored the jab. “And why were you spying on Professor Byleth?”

“You know why!” Zilbariel raced back to her, leaping into Lysithea’s arms as a ferret that she curled her body around in a protective embrace. “Can she and Belial really separate from each other? That’s not right. Why is she able to do that?”

“Hubert…” Thanily’s voice was soft and distant. “Zilbariel wasn’t in any pain until I attacked, and it’s pretty far from the stairs to the bushes.

It was pretty far. Farther than he and Thanily could stand to be apart despite intense training in his youth that never wanted to repeat again. And yet Lysithea was not pained by that. Hubert’s thoughts ran up against each other as he looked down at Lysithea, bent over Zilbariel so all he could see was her crown of

white hair

 Thanily gasped, a barely audible sound, and took a half-step back. Hubert’s eyes widened. No.

“…Thanily?”

“Lysithea…” Hubert gave her a shallow bow. “I apologize for attacking Zilbariel. Please forgive my impudence.”

“Uh…Hubert? Not that I won’t accept your apology, but are you okay? Did you hit your head?”

“I’m perfectly fine.” No, he wasn’t, but he would never admit that to anyone. The horrified hypothesis still ran cold through him. Lady Edelgard needed to know about this, and the sooner the better. Not to mention that Lysithea was a powerful and intelligent woman in her own right. “I understand your concerns with our professor. Lady Edelgard and I have been discussing them.” That wasn’t quite true, but only in the sense that they had not yet discussed said concerns. “Lady Edelgard’s birthday is in a few days. She and I will be having tea in the gazebo behind the dining hall shortly after lunch. It is a secluded location, so as long as we remain quiet we should not be disturbed. Your presence may answer some of your questions. I would recommend bringing some pound cake, preferably lemon pound cake if you can get it.”

And then he left, leaving a very confused Lysithea behind, leaves still caught in her hair.


It had taken Byleth a lot longer to get back from town than she anticipated. She had helped Ashe get some supplies, and then there was that issue with the thief that ended with the boy running off and returning sans stolen book but with an explanation on his personal philosophy on helping others. Then she saw Sylvain jilting some unfortunate woman, and that turned into an impromptu lecture on inappropriate behavior which ended in Sylvain stalking off halfway through in a huff, Zepida hissing and growling beside him. Then...

Well, suffice to say that it was already dark by the time she got back. At least Byleth had managed to make it to the candy shop before it closed. She hoped Edelgard liked dark chocolate orange truffles. They were not cheap, but Byleth wasn’t about to skimp on her students. Especially when the student in question was the princess to the Adrestian empire, and tomorrow would be her eighteenth birthday.

Which was why Byleth found herself outside Edelgard’s room shortly before midnight, box of truffles in one hand and a birthday card in the other. The plan was to leave the birthday card on her door, then surprise her at teatime later. She’d also obtained a belated birthday present for Ferdinand; a gleaming steel halberd barely a week out of the forge.

A lone pained cry interrupted her meandering thoughts, stopped her still in front of Edelgard’s room.

“Nn...you can’t...mom, dad, please...save...!”

“Is that a ghost?”

“Really? This is a monastery; there are no ghosts here!”

“El! El, please...no, please, I...El!”

Belial snarled. “That was Avarine!”

Was she being kidnapped? Where was Hubert?! No time to think; Byleth and Belial slammed into door once, twice, three times, at which point it flew open and they flung themselves inside.

So did the hand axe, which embedded itself a half-inch deep into the wooden door just above Byleth’s head, the handle quivering slightly. Byleth traced the trajectory of the axe back to Edelgard, who was sitting straight up in her bed, her blankets rumpled around her waist. Her eyes were wide and wild; one hand groped at a bare nightstand for another hand axe while the other clutched Avarine to her hammering heart as she gasped for air.

“Edelgard?” She had never before seen the princess so lacking in composure.

Edelgard was still somewhere else, gulping down ragged breaths, Avarine pressing herself further against her chest.

“Edelgard!”

The princess came back to herself slowly. Her eyes slid back into focus, settled into their normal coolly evaluating gaze. Her posture relaxed, straight but not rigid. Her breathing slowed, her hands settled to her sides. Avarine hopped down to her lap and preened her feathers back to smoothness, though the gyrfalcon daemon stayed close enough to feel the rise and fall of Edelgard’s breath. And her nightgown was still soaked with sweat and plastered to her skin, outlining every muscle and curve. Even the nightgown had long sleeves that concealed her wrists.

Edelgard stared above Byleth’s shoulder to the axe lodged in the door; her expression softened into guilt. “Ah! P-Professor, I am so sorry! Are you okay?” She paused. “Uh, what are you doing here?”

Even two months ago Byleth wouldn’t have been able to catch the quaver in her voice. But now she could. “I got something for you, and then I heard a voice.” Sothis nudged the back of her head, urging her forward. “I’m okay, but are you?”

A sigh. “I’m okay. It’s just...”

“Nightmares?”

“Yes. I’ve had them since I was a child.” Edelgard turned towards Byleth, who was silent and waiting for her to continue. Nobody else was going to fill the empty air. Avarine’s talons tore into the sheets, mirrored Edelgard’s suddenly clenched fist as she continued, “Stupid, useless nightmares I can’t control...”

Edelgard hated losing control more than anything else. And here she was, suffering night after night and too proud to tell anybody.

Byleth found herself seated on Edelgard’s bed, one hand resting in the space between them for the princess to reach for if she wanted to. “I have repeating dreams too, although they don’t seem as bad as yours. I would talk about them with Dad. Do you want to talk about it? It may help.”

The room was silent for a long time before Edelgard broke that quiet with a sigh. “Hubert isn’t here tonight. And...for some reason, I feel I can trust you.” She looked up to meet Byleth’s distant expression. “But you must swear to never tell a single soul.”

Byleth nodded. That was an easy promise to keep. And even if it wasn’t, she would keep it anyway.

Another long sigh, then silence as Edelgard prepared herself. Finally, in a soft distant voice, almost a monotone, she spoke.

“I dream of my older brother, crying out for his daemon, bound and chained in a cell all alone. My older sister, begging for help that never came. My younger sister, babbling words beyond meaning...I had ten siblings, once. Eight older, two younger. Ten siblings, and yet I am the heir to the throne. Do you know why?”

Edelgard fell silent, no longer able to continue. Avarine picked up where she left off. “Every single one of them became crippled with illness, or went mad, and then...they died. All of them. I had ten siblings, and now I have none.”

“Edelgard, that’s...” The worst thing she had ever heard. Something tore at her chest, a need to do something, but what?

Avarine kept talking. She wasn’t even looking at anyone anymore. Neither was Edelgard. It was like a dam had burst. “In the end, I was the only one who could inherit the throne. I suppose the nightmares are a reminder, to never forget what happened, never let it happen to anyone ever again. The future of the Adrestian Empire...of everything...depends on me. I’m the only one left to shoulder the burden.”

What could Byleth possibly say to that? She couldn’t think of anything to say. But maybe....

She shifted a little closer, and placed her hand over Edelgard’s (it was bare, Edelgard always wore gloves, and she could feel the rough edges of scar tissue), comforting her in the same way her students comforted each other after Zanado.

Edelgard breathed in at the contact, a short shallow inhalation instead of the desperate clawing from before. She looked back up to Byleth. “I...never told anyone about this before. Hubert is the only one who knows. Please, forget I said anything. It’s late. You should go to bed.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay alone? I...I could stay.” Sothis hadn’t nudged her there, she would later realize. That was all Byleth.

Edelgard shook her head, although there was a curious pink flush on her cheeks and the back of her neck. “No, that would be...improper. I’ll be fine. I’ve dealt with these nightmares by myself before.”

A huff of disapproval from Belial that Sothis echoed from the back of their mind. “You have, but that doesn’t mean you should. I’ll stay here tonight. Byleth can go back to our room.”

Edelgard and Avarine glanced at each other. “Will you talk until we fall asleep?” Avarine asked in a small voice. “That way I’ll know you’re still, well, here.”

That didn’t make much sense and Avarine wouldn’t elaborate, so the wolf responded with a cocked head and an, “Okay.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Edelgard.”

“...Sleep well, my teacher.”

Byleth left, but Belial remained. This was a mistake, Edelgard thought, as nausea clawed up in her. But then Belial spoke and they...sounded like Belial. Quiet and distant in a slightly unnerving way, but not whimpering and begging for their human, begging for death. Not a broken empty shell. If she closed her eyes, it was like Professor Byleth was beside her. Belial spoke in a monotone, something about a past battle they were in. But the content didn’t matter, only the voice. Only the presence of another person, a weight above the covers as she settled back underneath them, a reminder that she and Avarine were not alone.

Slowly, Edelgard fell back asleep.


Belial was still there in the morning, a curled-up lump on the far edge of the bed where neither they nor Edelgard could accidentally brush against the other. But the wolf daemon was still there, keeping her company in a way she had lacked for some time. Edelgard had fallen back asleep, and the rest of her dreams had been better. Significantly better, she thought with a blush, not quite able to look Belial in the eye. Those dreams may have been highly improper, but at least it was a, ah, pleasant start to her birthday.

A knock on the door startled Edelgard out of her drifting and highly inappropriate, stop that El! thoughts. “Ah!” Behind her, Ava nearly fell off her perch with a squawk. She stared at the offending door, in which the axe was still embedded, too high up for her to reach without jumping or standing on a chair. “Who is it?”

“It’s me.” Byleth’s voice filtered through the door; Belial sat up at the sound of it, ears pricked up in attention. And it was this which made guilt wash over Edelgard. What kind of person was she, taking someone’s daemon away from them? Even if Belial offered, even if Byleth was unaffected by the distance, she shouldn’t have spent the night alone just because of one of her student’s shameful weakness. She sprinted towards the door and flung it open, catching Byleth mid-knock.

Her professor was already dressed, and here Edelgard was, still in bare feet and a nightgown. “Professor, I am so sorry. I should have never taken Belial from you; that was incredibly cruel of me. Please, forgive me.”

Belial hopped off the bed. “There’s nothing to forgive. I offered, and you needed me more than Byleth did.” They padded over to Belial and leaned in for a head scratch.”

It wasn’t that Edelgard didn’t appreciate it, but it made no sense. Sure she could be far away from Ava, but to do so for an entire night…She didn’t suffer the anguish of separation anymore, but there was a pain all the same.  Yet Byleth didn’t seem to care either way. There probably wasn’t much point in arguing, and it did help her, so, “Thank you, my teacher.”

“Of course. And Edelgard, last night wasn’t the best time, but happy birthday.” She held out a small wrapped box and a card.

“I…thank you.” She took the box. “I’ll open it later.”

“Let me know how you like it.” Her face softened slightly. Was that Byleth’s equivalent of a smile? “I need to grade your papers, but happy birthday. I hope the rest of your day goes better.” Then she and Belial walked back down the hall, leaving Edelgard and Avarine with a card and a box of—the paper made a very satisfying tearing noise—truffles that looked and smelled absolutely exquisite.

The rest of her day went just as well. Even Ferdinand had remembered her birthday and gotten her a present, something which Hubert could not help but tease her about over tea. They had to talk shop, sure, but today they could also relax. Just a little bit, just for an hour.

“Heh.” Edelgard folded her hands under her chin and smiled.

“What is it, Lady Edelgard?”

“Nothing. It’s just, when I see you at the monastery, studying with everyone—”

“—Messing with Ferdinand’s head—”

“It makes me wonder what kind of life you might have had without me. Without all…this. That’s all.”

Hubert chuckled and took a sip of his tea. He normally hated the stuff, but had drunken the Hresvelg blend so many times that it had sort of grown on him. “I thought I had left my years of carefree innocence behind me.”

“If we ever had them at all,” Thanily chimed in.

“But I cannot deny that I find myself enjoying my time at the monastery.”

Edelgard smiled again, a softer one this time. “I feel the same way. Even if we’re only playing at being students, there truly is something so…innocent about it all. I’m glad we have a chance to experience these halcyon days, even if it’s only for a little while.”

They continued that conversation for a while, until soft footfalls announced another guest. Edelgard, Hubert, and their daemons fell silent as Lysithea and Zilbariel entered the small enclosed space. She held a pound cake with lemon-yellow frosting.

“Okay Hubert, I’m here, now what did you mean by…answers…”

Lysithea trailed off as she and a confused Edelgard locked eyes and took each other in. Daemons on their shoulders, cloaked in long hair bleached bone-white. Every inch of skin below their neck covered in clothing, even in the warmth of this sunny day, even as sweat pooled in the creases of Edelgard’s clothes and she knew they must in Lysithea’s as well.

Lysithea was thinking the same thing. She had to, with the way her perpetually-wary eyes were wide, her body stiff. Zilbariel, a white ermine curled around her shoulders, broke the silence with a whispered, “Charon and Gloucester.”

She could only have meant one thing by that. Or two things, as the case may be. Edelgard took a deep breath, her eyes closed as she held it, let it out slowly. Slow, controlled. No holding back now. Avarine replied for her, a sad confirmation. “Seiros and Flames.”

She opened her eyes to see Lysithea wiping away tears, and knew from the stinging in her eyes that she would soon be doing the same as well. “I was only two when they started,” Lysithea added.

“…You must have been their prototype, and I their final product. Oh Lysithea, I am so sorry.”

She shook her head. “Don’t be. I don’t want pity, not even yours. It’s not your fault, and being sorry won’t change anything. I’m just…it’s funny, but for some reason I’m really grateful right now.”

“So am I. I think it’s because I’m not alone anymore. There’s somebody else out there who understands.”


Caspar announced his arrival and important news in his typical fashion: by kicking open the door to the training grounds and shouting his news at top volume with no regard to whomever might be around.

“Didja hear? Thunder Catherine’s back! Awww, yeah!!!”

Caspar would have happily shouted this to an empty room, but his guess was right and there were two people at the training grounds. Ingrid and Leonie were over by the training dummies, sparring with training lances. Caspar’s shout came just as Leonie thrust her lance, making her overshoot and drop it on Albarrog.

“Ow! Yeesh, watch it!”

Kamen winced. “Sorry!”

“Wait, Thunder Catherine is here?” Ingrid’s eyes gleamed with excitement.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying!”

“Sorry, but who’s Thunder Catherine?”

Leonie might as well have asked where the Empire was, judging from their reactions. Both Caspar and Ingrid goggled at her in disbelief. “Only the coolest knight ever! She’s a monster on the battlefield, tearing up all her foes with Thunderbrand!”

“That’s her Hero’s Relic,” Ingrid added.

“She’s like, ‘Pow! Bam! In the name of Seiros, I’ll destroy you, evildoers!’ And then she totally does!”

“She’s honest, she’s just, she’s got a sacred weapon, and her daemon’s a ram. She is a model of chivalry.”

“Haha, before Peakane settled she’d become a sheep and we’d totally play at being Thunder Catherine and Fortinbras.”

“Caspar, you still pretend to be Thunder Catherine,” Peakane teased from inside her backpack.

“Yeah but you can’t be Fortinbras anymore; you’re a clownfish.”

“Heh.” Leonie folded her arms. “Well, you two can brag about chivalry all you want but that won’t help you if you die in battle. And besides, so many of them are all talk, no action—or the wrong kind of action. I still say Captain Jeralt is the best knight ever.”

“Blasphemy!”

The reason for Thunder Catherine’s arrival was currently in a heated argument with Professor Hanneman. Byleth would have just turned into the captains’ quarters, but something about his tone of voice made her stop outside the antechamber and listen in.

“Your Holiness, I must protest! This mission may be necessary, but I cannot in good conscience send my students on it. These are not bandits, but civilians. More importantly, this is Ashe’s father we are talking about!”

“Fuergios is still unsettled,” Theophania added from his shoulder. “On top of everything else, I shudder to think of the consequences that this could have on her form.”

Rhea’s voice was placid, but Byleth couldn’t see her face. Her face was always pretty calm though anyway. “Professor Hanneman, it is imperative that our students understand their civic duty and place in Fodlan as knights—"

“—No, Your Holiness,” Hanneman interrupted. Byleth and Belial stared at each other with wide eyes, and Byleth could feel Sothis sit up to pay closer attention; metaphorically speaking, anyway. “I am fully aware of my students’ civic duty, but sending this class of Blue Lions on this particular mission is not civic duty. It is cruelty!”

“Hanneman.” There was a new edge to Rhea’s tone, one that Byleth had never heard before and reminded her of the moment before an arrow was shot. She looked down and Belial was already gone, had already headed over to the antechamber.

“Ah, Belial. It is a true joy to see you. Hanneman, you are dismissed. Please come in, Professor Byleth.”

Byleth watched as Hanneman stormed past her, barely-restrained fury carved into his face. She entered slowly. There was nobody else in the antechamber, not even Seteth. Just Rhea and her mantis daemon in the capsule. She was still speaking. “Professor Byleth, I have heard such wonderful things about your ability to teach. I knew I made the right decision in hiring you. How are you adjusting to life at the monastery?”

“It’s going okay. The Black Eagles are good people.”

“I’m sure they are; and with you as their guide they will soar to even greater heights. About that…I have a mission for you. We have evidence that a Kingdom noble, Lonato Gaspard, has allied with the Western Church, raised a militia, and is planning on rebelling against the Central Church itself.” The edges of her face twisted into a snarl. “Such blasphemy against the Goddess cannot stand. The Knights of Seiros have already been dispatched, but you and your students are being assigned to accompany them and help with the aftermath.”

It didn’t seem like something that Byleth could argue against, and even if she did, she didn’t know how to. Never really made a decision like that before. So instead Byleth nodded.

“Good girl.” Rhea’s face smoothed back into its tranquility. “I knew we could rely on you. This mission should prove useful in demonstrating to the students how foolish it would be to ever turn their blades on the church.”

Byleth felt Sothis freeze in the back of her head. Not the usual quiet of her going on standby, but the deliberate silence of somebody who needs to be very, very careful about whatever they say or do next. So Byleth just nodded, and Belial said nothing.

“Excellent. I knew we could count on you.” She reached out and ran her hand down Byleth’s hair, one long stroke that ended with the strands between her immaculate fingers. “Please, feel free to visit me any time. I’m sure we can learn a great deal from each other.”

That must mean she was dismissed. Byleth walked out, Belial’s tail low beside her and with a queasy feeling in her stomach. She needed to be away from the antechamber. Or the cathedral, or anywhere that reminded her of the Goddess or the church.

Which is why she found herself back at the fishing pond, channeling that queasy feeling into terrorizing the fish swimming within and drastically reducing their population. Flayn would certainly be happy at dinner tonight.

“You always have a choice! You don’t have to do this!” Sothis and Belial were arguing again.

“Great, can you figure out a way to decline this mission and keep our students safe? Because I can’t!”

“I thought the whole point of these missions was learning to lead troops and keep the peace, not…” Sothis waved her hands in frustration, “Follow the church’s orders or else!”

“Neither did I but I can’t think of a better solution! They’re our pups, and we have to look after them!”

“Professor! There you are.” That was Dimitri’s voice, and it sounded out of breath.

He bent over to catch it, Delcabia filling in for him. The boar looked particularly agitated. “Please, come with me right away. There’s an emergency with Ashe.”

More importantly, this is Ashe’s father we are talking about!

Byleth had a bad feeling that she knew what this was about.

“Mercedes found Ashe in the cathedral; she’s collecting the rest of the Lions right now for moral support,” Dimitri explained as they ran down the corridor to his dorm room. “He’s utterly distraught; it took me some time to get an explanation out of him, and what I heard…” He shook his head.

Ashe was, indeed, curled up on Dimitri’s bed, Fuergios in the form of a tiny puppy making low whines. He looked up at Byleth’s entrance, and he looked...awful. The normally bright-eyed cheerful boy was pale to the point of being ashen. His eyes were red-rimmed, tears streaking down his face. His frame shook, as did his voice. It quavered. He sounded like he was going to be sick.

“Urgh…Professor,” he said, a low croak, his voice cracking halfway through the sentence. “It’s not true. Please, it can’t be true! Lonato took me in, when he had every right to turn me over to the guards. He’s a kind man; he wouldn’t do something like this! There has to be some misunderstanding somewhere this has to be a mistake!” Ashe was frantic now, words running up against each other. Delcabia lashed her tail at Ashe’s distress and her inability to help.

Fuergios rolled over, her tail tucked between her legs as she looked past Belial. “Please, Belial, Professor, please don’t let the knights kill him. I’m begging you, there has to be a trial or something, please!”

“…”

This mission should prove useful in demonstrating to the students how foolish it would be to ever turn their blades on the church.

“…I’ll try.”

She stayed there for some time, just holding Ashe as he fell apart in fear and dread for his father, his family. She stayed there until the rest of the Blue Lions piled into the room, nearly shoulder to shoulder as their daemons wedged themselves into one corner of the room to prevent any accidental contact, and took over her attempts to comfort the distraught boy. Byleth and Belial were one human and daemon too much, and so she slipped out, past Levia (forced to remain outside Dimitri’s room due to her immense size, her horns scraping the walls), and back to the stairs.

Hubert stopped her. He must have been listening to open his door just as she passed. Byleth turned to glare at him; what was it now? This wasn’t the time to threaten her.

…But Hubert didn’t look like he was going to threaten her again. He looked angry, yes, but Thanily’s ears were lowered, her head drooped. She looked…sad. Hubert glanced down the hallway to Dimitri’s room and then said in a low voice, “Mark my words, there won’t be a trial. Despite their honeyed words the church holds no mercy, no forgiveness for those who would dare question their dogma or challenge their authority. Lonato is already condemned, and we will return to Garreg Mach with his head.”


Hubert was right, of course.

Catherine and Fortinbras did live up to the name of Thunder Catherine. She was an imposing and competitive woman whom Caspar idolized, unquestioningly devoted to Archbishop Rhea. Thunderbrand was one of the Hero’s Relics, a gift supposedly bestowed by the Goddess. Byleth had never seen a sword like it before. Even before the glowing bit, it looked like it was made of several overlapping plates of an unknown material, with several curved barbs or spines that put Byleth to mind of horns, or ribs. It cut through flesh and metal alike like butter.

But what was more important was this:

Except for some personal knights and a couple of oddly-clad mages whose presence seemed to startle Hubert and Edelgard, the militia consisted almost entirely of civilians. Lonato had done the best he could to arm them, but they were still civilians devoted to their lord. They loved Lonato, loved him enough to fight to the death with no military experience or training at all. And die they did, no match for her or her students at all. They had to fight to defend their lives, but they were able to win easily. In a way, it was even worse on their psyche than the bandits. That was the first time many of her pups shed blood, yes, but this was fighting a militia that wanted to rebel against the church—not bandits. They were definitely taking Rhea’s lesson to heart.

But what was more important was this:

Lord Lonato was defeated, his horse screaming in her death throes behind him, her belly split open and her shrieks filling the air until Ferdinand marched over and ended her suffering. He was bound and forced to his knees before Catherine, who approached in an implacable march, Fortinbras at her side. Lonato’s daemon, a tiny screech owl, pressed up against his bleeding face to feel him one last time. Byleth opened her mouth to ask for the mercy that Ashe had begged for, but…there was no point. Hubert was right. Lonato had been a dead man walking the moment judgement passed from Rhea’s lips.

“Lonato,” Catherine said, “I never thought you would meet your end like this. I can at least promise you that Ashe will not be judged for your crimes. Do you have any last words?”

Lonato looked up at her not in fear of death, but burning hatred. “Fuck you, Cassandra. You took Christophe from me, you killed my citizens, and now you’re going to steal my last son from me as well. I hope you burn in the eternal flames.”

“I hope you’re happy, Fortinbras,” his screech owl daemon added. “How does it feel, being a docile sheep, always following the herd without a single thought for yourself?”

It was difficult, even with a sharp blade, to behead somebody in a single stroke. But Thunderbrand was a Hero’s Relic. It cleaved through flesh and bone like they weren’t there at all.

But what was more important was this:

Edelgard spoke in a low voice, afraid of being overheard. It was not a good idea to loudly express her respect for Lonato after all, not when his headless body was cooling in the dirt just inches away. But she did respect him, and the civilian militia they killed.

“They died for a cause they truly believed in,” she explained. “It’s something I completely understand, and sympathize with. They deserve the proper respect for that, even if nothing else.”

And then Catherine interrupted them with news of an assassination plot against Archbishop Rhea.

But what was most important of all was this:

The march back to Garreg Mach was quiet for a different reason this time. Instead of her students dealing with their first kills, they were all dreading the moment Ashe found out his adoptive father—and so many of the townspeople that took him and his siblings in, treated them with such kindness—were dead. Killed at their hands. Yes, Byleth and her students had orders, they were following orders, but…

There was a choice. They could have disobeyed. There would have been consequences, yes. But they could have disobeyed.

The Blue Lions were waiting at the gate, all of them, in support of Ashe. She couldn’t see their faces yet, but she’d have recognized the enormous frames of Dedue and Levia anywhere. The smallest two figures pacing back and forth must have been Ashe and Fuergios.

The silhouettes stilled. The smallest human one—Ashe—raced forward, only to be stopped by Dedue, who grabbed Ashe and locked him in a full-body embrace. Ashe kicked and thrashed, and now they were close enough to speak.

“Ashe, don’t look!”

“No, dammit Dedue, let me go please I need to—!”

Dedue held Ashe tight, but he couldn’t do anything about Fuergios. She shifted from fennec fox to screech owl and flew towards the Eagles, stretching the limits of Ashe’s range from pure adrenaline and desperation alone, until she could see them and there was no more hiding just what happened on the Magdred Way.

Byleth never remembered a dream without Sothis. In fact, she was unsure if she ever had a dream, or a nightmare, that did not feature the mysterious ethereal girl in her head.

But if she did, then Ashe’s broken wail at the sight of Lonato’s severed head would haunt every last one of them.

 

Chapter Text

Lonato’s execution would have been the most talked-about event at the monastery, if not for the note that was found on his corpse. A plot to assassinate Archbishop Rhea, on one of the holiest days of the year. It was unthinkable. And yet, so was Lonato raising a rebellion.

All of this was to say that even though the monastery gates were open during the month as was tradition, security was tighter than ever. Every class had been pulled from their previously scheduled monthly missions, reassigned to defend the monastery and archbishop at all times. Seteth had taken to following Rhea around like her shadow with a gleaming axe in his hands and a tenseness to his jaw.

The Black Eagles had also been pulled onto monastery guard duty; since they were the ones to discover the note and the ones with Professor Byleth, they were working directly with one of the high-ranking Knights of Seiros, along with her apprentice of sorts. Shamir was just as stoic as Byleth and just as blunt as Felix, although her emotions appeared to be restrained rather than absent. Her only tell appeared to be when she reached up to stroke the back of Veradis, her fire salamander daemon. By contrast, her apprentice Cyril wore his emotions and devotion to Lady Rhea on his sleeve. Byleth had seen him around, running back and forth doing all sorts of errands—chopping firewood, cleaning classrooms, and so forth. Maybe he was a squire and they had to play the role of servant for part of their apprenticeship? Cyril wasn’t dressed as nicely as the other pages and squires though. Maybe it was because he was younger? He definitely was a few years younger than her students, a bit of baby fat still clinging to his cheeks, a few spots of acne hidden under his mop of curly dark hair. And yet his daemon had already settled, a yellow-winged bat who liked to nestle in that messy hair.

“Something doesn’t feel right about this plot,” Edelgard said.

Ferdinand nodded. “Lonato and his militia stood no chance against us or the Knights. I don’t know why he decided to embark on such a suicidal mission, but why would he leave a note detailing future nefarious plots on his person for us to find afterwards?”

“Oh! Unless he meant for us to find it!” Dorothea’s eyes lit up; Calphour danced up and down her shoulder. “A trick within a scheme, meant to distract us and keep us off our guard!”

“If this note is a ploy, then what are being their…what are their true motivations?”

Edelgard looked around. “I think we need to split up and gather information. Our enemy could be using the chaos of the assassination plot to sneak in somewhere else. Let’s not do anything rash, Caspar.

Caspar lowered his hand. “That wasn’t what I was going to say?”

Hubert raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Then, pray tell, what was it?”

Instead of rubbing his hand on the back of his neck, Caspar awkwardly cupped the base of his backpack for Peakane to swim down and bat against his palm. “Actually, I was gonna ask if I can go check on Ashe? I haven’t seen him at the training ground all week, not since…you know. I even went to ask Dedue but he’s barely seen him either, and not outside of class! And, I mean, they’re always cooking together. I mean, I’m just a bit worried.”

That comment immediately sucked the air out of the room, leaving nothing but a mournful silence, thick and heavy. Humans and daemons shuffled around awkwardly, not quite able to maintain eye contact.

Thanily’s expression softened. “You have our permission. It’s not like subtlety is one of your strong suits.”

“Aww, thanks!” He ran off before anybody could even finish their sentence.

 Shamir nodded. “Cyril and I will do our own reconnaissance and report back once we have more substantial information.”


It was a bright, beautiful, hot and sunny summer day. Motes of dust danced in the sliver of light shining between both closed curtains. Ashe had not opened them in several days. He had barely moved from his bed in several days, only getting up to attend necessary classes and obey the biological demands of his body.

Caspar pounded on the door again, louder on this time. “Come on Ashe, open up! It’s me, Caspar! I know you’re in there!”

Peakane chimed in. “Ashe, everyone’s worried about you! Please open up!”

“Go away!”

The door rattled again, harder this time. “No, I won’t!”

“I said go away!”

“Ashe, you’re not Bernadetta, this isn’t like you! Please, your friends and classmates are worried about you; I’m worried about you!”

Silence. Then, the sound of bare feed padding closer, a hand fumbling on the handle, and the door creaked open.

Ashe looked terrible. His eyes, normally brimming with curiosity and optimism, were dull and hidden under limp hair. His face was red and blotchy, his clothes rumpled like they had been worn for several days. Fuergios was still on the bed, looking at him with bleary owl eyes. “What do you want?”

“I, uh, wow you look really terrible. I—I mean!” Caspar raised his hands, cringing at the words that tumbled forth.  “Can I come in?”

Ashe blinked, sighed, gave in. “Yeah, sure, I guess.” He watched silently as Caspar cautiously entered.

Caspar flopped down on the bed and immediately wished he hadn’t. If Ashe hadn’t been going to class then he certainly hadn’t been bathing. Even he could smell the week’s worth of unwashed teenage boy that had been marinating in the summer heat.

“Hey, Ashe, do you want to go to the sauna? It’s pretty warm now so it should be empty, we can chat and then get some tea or coffee or something after?”

“Thanks but not really.” His voice was flat, with none of the curiosity, optimism, or joy that made up Ashe. “I think I just want to stay here.” And Fuergios wasn’t talking either. Come to think of it, wasn’t Lonato’s daemon a screech owl too?

“Oh jeez, please don’t tell me she settled like that,” Peakane whispered to Caspar.

The four of them sat in silence on that stinking bed for some time. Caspar and Ashe stared at some spot in the center of the room seemingly identical to every other spot on the floor; Fuergios and Peakane’s gazes slid past each other.

Caspar broke the fragile silence first. “It wasn’t me who did it,” he blurted out, as if that would make everything magically better, as if he hadn’t carved and pummeled his way through barely-armed militia. “It was Th—Catherine.”

He didn’t really want to call her by her title. Thunder Catherine seemed much less glamorous now, through the screams and the fog and the burning hatred in Lonato’s eyes, the love in his subjects’, the grief in Ashe’s.

“Her name used to be Cassandra.”

That was new. Caspar hadn’t heard of anything like that; though, to be fair, in his mind Catherine sprang onto the scene fully-formed with Thunderbrand in hand and Fortinbras by her side. “Buh?”

“Her name used to be Cassandra. She…after Duscur, Christophe—my adoptive brother, Lonato’s trueborn son—was arrested for treason. Cassandra, Catherine, whatever, she turned him over to the Church for execution. Lonato was never really the same after that.” He held Fuergios to his chest. “Still, I didn’t think he’d ever do anything like…” He broke off again in a shaking sigh.

Wait, what? Catherine had been named something else? And she….she had executed Lonato’s son, who was Ashe’s brother? “…Holy shit. Just…Holy shit. Ashe, I…”

And why did the Church execute Christophe? Peakane wondered, the thought prodding into Caspar’s mind through their bond. Wasn’t Duscur a Kingdom thing?

“Save it,” Ashe muttered, turning towards the wall. He hadn’t looked at Caspar once since sitting down.

But Fuergios kept talking through Ashe’s silence, her voice growing more bitter and biting with every word. “That’s just the way it goes, isn’t it? Apostates will suffer the punishment of the goddess and all that? Fath—Lonato wanted vengeance for Christophe’s death, so he tried to rebel. And because of that he was executed. And he…he wasn’t even buried. There was no funeral, no consecration. He was left to rot, and his daemon will be left to wander…”

She broke off, the silence heavy in the air again as Ashe was beyond words. The only think that tore from his throat was a low keening noise, a hoarse, “Just…go.”

A small part of Caspar was all to eager to flee this place of despair, to no longer hear an Ashe making sounds that such a cheerful person should never make, and the rest of him hated himself for thinking that. This was Ashe and Fuergios; he’d only known the other boy for a few months and they had already become fast friends! And to see Ashe like this…

Peakane swam to the edge of her backpack, pressed a fin against the clear material. But instead of turning into a dog and pressing her nose to her fin in return, Fuergios became a small cat and nestled deeper into Ashe’s arms.

“Right. I, um, I’m just gonna…go.” Caspar stood and awkwardly made his way to the door. He could feel Ashe’s gaze flick up to him, but the teenager made no motion to stand. Or call him back. Or anything. “I’m gonna check back in on you later, okay?”

Ashe made no motion to move, or speak, not even when Caspar opened up the door to let the light back in. Only when he heard the lock click did he lean against the door and dig his fingers into his choppy blue hair.

“Holy shit Caspar, this is bad, this is really bad, this is a lot worse than we thought,” Peakane said from behind him. Caspar unhooked his backpack, held it in his hands so he could stare at her, with her beautiful orange and white bars while he walked blindly down the dormitory path. “I’ve never seen Ashe like this, what do we do?”

“I…I don’t know.” And it terrified him, that he didn’t know. He’d always been one to rush through life fists-first, dispensing justice right then and there. But this? What justice was there, in killing townspeople? In this whole mess? Christophe had apparently been involved in the Tragedy of Duscur or something, so the Church had executed him—

“And why was the Church involved in the first place? Wasn’t the Tragedy of Duscur a Kingdom thing?”

—Peakane was right about that, it was weird. But, back on topic, the Church had executed Christophe so Lonato fought against the church in revenge. And honestly, Caspar couldn’t really blame him. If the Church did something to his brothers, or Lin, he’d want justice for them too. So Lonato wanted to hurt the church because the church hurt him and maybe fighting wasn’t the best way to go about it after all. Because now Lonato was dead, and Ashe was hurting, but it’s what he would have done too.

“Aagh!” Caspar gripped the sides of Peakane’s backpack and shook it. “I don’t know what to think here! I don’t see any justice here, just a whole lot of hurt people hurting people and now Ashe is hurting too!”

Peakane righted herself, but was still swimming in circles as she vocalized her thoughts. “I want to ask someone for help with this but I don’t know who to ask, or even what to ask! And I kind of want someone to tell us what to think but at the same time I really really don’t.”

“And we can’t leave Ashe like this either. We need to do someth—oof!” Caspar stumbled back, rubbing his smarting head from where it had bumped into a wooden pillar, bracing against a wooden door. He turned around to see Mercedes von Martritz written on the door in a flowery script. There were a couple of felt flowers tacked neck to the name, either the work of her or Annie.

“Mercedes!” Caspar thumped his fists on the door with increasing speed until he was drumming them both in rapid succession. “Mercedes, open up; we’ve got a big problem!”


Mercedes was not in her room, or the dining hall, or even the classrooms. She was at the training grounds with Annette, as they both practiced flinging spells at dummy targets.

Which now, apparently, included Caspar, who talked in between ducks and dodges and the more than occasional head-on hit. Or rather, it was their daemons talking

“Oh my,” Cygnis said as Mercedes chanted another incantation. “Thank you for checking in on Ashe. I was worried he was hiding the true extent of his grief from us.”

“Why would he hide it? And he wasn’t doing a good job of it; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ashe that bad,” Peakane grunted as Caspar sprung up from a sidewards roll. The grit from the training grounds dug into his shoulder but it was better than the spells.

Serrin danced around Annette’s feet as she launched another spell at Caspar. She was careful to pull her punches but even her attenuated fireballs were still enough to singe his skin and clothes if he let them hit. Which it did, as he doubled over with a grunt. “Cyg, I really think we need to do an intervention. We’ve got to tell Dimitri about this. Maybe even Professor Hanneman.”

Cygnis shook his head, trotting after Mercedes as she went to check on the groaning Caspar.. “I don’t think that would be a good idea, Serrin. You’ve seen how Ashe feels he needs to be subservient to Dimitri. I don’t think he would be able to handle Dimitri’s attempts at comfort.”

“Not to mention he’s…not the best at it,” Mercedes added, though her eyes were still focused on Caspar’s singed torso. The skin under his shirt was red and angry-looking, but not badly burned. A whispered prater, a glow of white light, and the burn faded from his skin as it returned to its normal pinkness. “Are you okay, Caspar? Annie and I toned down our spells but you’re not the most resilient when it comes to enduring magical attacks.”

“Nrgh, yeah, I’m fine.” He jumped to his feet, shaking himself off as the water in Peakane’s backpack sloshed back and forth. “I dunno Dimitri that well but I am also worried about what Ashe said about Lonato’s daemon getting lost or something? I’m not a religious guy but that’s got to do with the way we sort of, you know, left him there without a real consecration or anything, right?”

“Essentially, yes,” Mercedes said. Cygnis whimpered next to her, his tail drooping. Caspar swallowed at the sudden sick feeling in his gut, at what they might have done to Lonato, and to Ashe in turn. “Although it is a somewhat traditional attitude, and there is quite a bit of discourse and debate over what sort of funerary rites and blessings are needed to help a human and daemon pass on to the goddess’s embrace.”

Annette dropped her hands mid-cast and slowly turned to Mercedes, eyes sparking with an idea. “Hang on, Mercie, aren’t you a priest? And my territory is close to Gaspar lands…”

It took a moment, but then Mercedes’ eyes widened in understanding. She smiled as she brought a hand to her mouth. “Annie, that is a wonderful idea. I’m sorry Caspar, but we have to cut this practice short. Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention!”

“Uh, okay?” He stood there awkwardly in the middle of the training ground, shirt singed and grit digging into his cheek, as Annette and Mercedes left. “I’ll just, uh, pack up? You’re welcome?”


The entire monastery was up in arms and panicked over the threat to the archbishop. Everywhere Bernie went there was a pair of guards on duty, and the knights had made sure that at least one of those pairs had a big scary daemon with sharp horns or teeth. Professor Byleth and the three house heads were running themselves ragged trying to find information and scout out potential weak points in monastery security; Professor Byleth and Edelgard had both concluded that the assassination attempt was likely a fakeout for something else, which is why they asked everyone in the house to help gather information. Even poor old Bernie got volunteered, though at least they let her pick where she would scout, and let her deliver her information in private.

“Told you offering to inspect our room wasn’t going to work,” Mal teased from inside Bernie’s pocket.

“Mal, you’re a jerk,” she whispered. At least the greenhouse was nice and quiet, even if Dedue was still there, his enormous hulking frame bent over some…oddly pretty white flowers? They were the same color as his hair, a little more silvery than Edelgard’s, and he always spent a lot of time tending to those flowers in particular. Once she had actually seen him carefully open up a window so that Levia could poke her head in to see them directly. She wasn’t sure how he had managed to do it so carefully with his enormous fingers, much less replace it without the greenhouse manager yelling at him.

Actually…the way she was stalking forward…did she notice?! Bernadetta let out a little yelp and ducked behind some large ferns, praying that her violet hair would blend in among the occasional flowers, praying that the greenhouse manager was going after Dedue and not turn her ire on poor old Bernie instead. This was one of her safe spaces! She couldn’t get kicked out of here, what would happen to the pitcher plants and Venus flytraps she had so carefully raised her babies would starve and drown without her and then she wouldn’t be able to sing anywhere else wouldn’t find a place to breathe and—

“—Yow! Mal!” she yelped, immediately drawing her voice down to a harsh whisper. Mal had nipped her thumb again.

“Shhh, Bernie, listen.” There was a worried, hard edge to his voice that was rather new. “Do you hear what the greenhouse manage is saying?”

Saying wasn’t quite the right term. Lecturing was more like it. Or maybe dressing-down. Whatever it was, the greenhouse manager was up in Dedue’s space, thrusting her finger at his face in a way that would have had Bernie run sobbing to her room had it been her. But Dedue just stood there and…took it, his shoulders square, his face set and yet almost resigned to his fate. Bernie sidled a little closer until she could make out what she was saying to the large Duscurian man.

“Listen here, boy,” the greenhouse manager spat, even though Dedue was over a foot taller than her. “You’re only here because His Royal Highness made you his little pet project. I don’t know what he was thinking but you’re probably just as shifty as the rest of your kind. Looking to add another assassination to your nation’s crimes?”

She continued like that for some time, all but accusing Dedue of being a part of the assassination plot simply because he was Duscurian, her frog daemon implying that Levia was no more than a dumb beast, and all the while Dedue and Levia just stood there and…took it. Not a single retort from Dedue, not a single snort or shout from Levia’s even larger frame silhouetted in the greenhouse walls.

And Bernadetta just…watched it happen as she cowered behind some ferns.

Mal’s frantic thoughts echoed across their bond. Do something! Stop her! Dedue is scary but he doesn’t deserve this!

I-I can’t! What if she kicks me out! And I, I can’t do it Mal!

“We need to do something!” he whispered.

Bernadetta whimpered in response, her breaths coming faster and faster to the state of near-hyperventilation. She shifted again and again, moving to stand up before her fear took over again and she just as quickly crouched back down. Stupid, useless, pathetic Bernie! Here was Dedue in trouble getting all sorts of awful things thrown at him when he was just gardening and she was too much of a pathetic fucking coward to do anything about it or even help him!

By the time Bernadetta looked backup the manager was gone, leaving Dedue alone next to those little white flowers. He waited until she was gone, the greenhouse door slamming behind her, before kneeling down and resuming his digging. It was much more violent this time; Dedue slammed the trowel into the ground with a loud chok as little flecks of earth flew everywhere.

She wanted to flee in shame, at her inability to help. But even Levia had lowered her head; he was hurting. And so, at Mal’s urging, Bernie sighed, stood, brushed off her knees, and cautiously approached Dedue for the first time in months. “I, uh, Dedue, I’m really sorry pleasedonthateme!”

Dedue didn’t jump up, but his shoulders did tense, his enormous hand tightened over the comically-small trowel. When he turned to her his face was carefully neutral but there was no hiding the thickness in his voice. “Bernadetta. I am sorry you had to see that.”

“Eeeeeepleasedontkill—wait, what?” She lowered her hands to see Dedue looking at her, that same frighteningly stern look on his face. The apologies spilled out of her mouth again, becoming higher and frantic and more of a wail with every passing word. “Why are you sorry? I’m the one who should be sorry! I saw that and I should have stepped in and done something but I was too much of a stupid useless coward and just let her say the most horrible things to you and you don’t deserve that and I should have said something I’m sorry!!!” Mal tugged at her hair but to no effect as she sobbed out apologies that did nothing to quell the hatred she felt for doing nothing to help Deude in the moment when he actually needed it.

“Bernadetta.” That was Levia, Bernie realized after a moment. She had never heard the cape buffalo daemon speak. Her voice was deep and soothing, like a wise mentor who had lived countless ages and seen countless things. It was not a voice of authority like Edelgard or Avarine’s voices were, but there was a gravitas to it that made her pay attention. “This is the first time we have spoken, yes? Then you do not know me. For all you know, she could have been right.”

“N-no, she wasn’t! She shouldn’t have disrespected you like that, and you both deserve better than that! And I’m sorry that she said that!” The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop herself, indignation at seeing someone else treated so terrible the way she had been treated, sure he wasn’t tied to a chair and what little she knew about the slaughter of Duscur was beyond anything she had endured, but she knew what it was like to be treated as an object, like less than nothing overpowering her terror at speaking to someone, especially someone as big and scary as Dedue.

Dedue’s stern gaze softened at that, just a little bit at the creases of his eyes. “Thank you. It is…nice, to hear that you think such a thing.”

“Do…do  you want me to tell Professor Byleth?” Her professor was incredibly understanding and fair and helpful. Even if Dedue wasn’t in her class she’d probably be furious, well as furious as she was capable of being, to hear somebody saying awful things like that about him; maybe she’d stop the manager from treating Dedue like that. And even if she didn’t, she’d tell Dimitri, and he would. He and Dedue were really close, after all.

But Dedue shook his head. Bernie dared to look in his eyes, tried and failed to keep the fear from welling up within her as her head craned up and up and up to look at his, but there was no evidence of his true feelings there. Just his same sort of scary sternness, not Professor Byleth’s blankness but a wall of stoicism and mild intimidation.

She’d been staring at him, frozen, for several minutes until Levia broke the spell. “Thank you Bernadetta, but we will be fine.”

“Oh! Um, um, okay then.” Bernadetta instantly cringed back in on herself. “I’ll just, uh, be goingnowbye!” The last words were a tumble as she sprinted out of the greenhouse, only slowing down when her shoes tracked against the grass of the path to the dorms instead of clacking on the cobblestones outside the greenhouse.

Malecki pressed his nose against Bernie’s wrist. His whole body was quivering in her palms; whether from excitement or adrenaline she couldn’t quite tell. Her hands were shaking too. “Bernie, we did it! We actually talked to Dedue! No, you did it!”

“We…wow Mal, I, haha, I talked to Dedue I can’t believe it I talked to Dedue, haha…” Her laugh became something high and nervous as the adrenaline and weight of the past few minutes slammed down on her all at once. The world spun around her, tilted under her feet as she could hear her heart hammering a rapid pace all the way up in her ears. She talked to Dedue, that enormous stoic mountain of a man and here she was, still alive and still breathing even after he had every right to be furious at her for—

“I should have stopped her from bothering him, I shouldn’t have let her say those awful things,” Bernadetta whimpered. “Stupid worthless Bernie, can’t help someone right in front of me, I—”

“—Bernie, don’t say things like that,” Mal implored, placing his little paws around her thumb. “We, yes, okay we should have helped, but we talked to him. That’s more than before! And next time we’ll do better, right?”

“…Why does there have to be a next time?” But there was going to be a next time. Of course there would be a next time. She was so tired all of a sudden. Now that the adrenaline had washed over her and her hammering heart slowed, the terrified certainty that she was about die squeezed away, she felt drained. Scooped out. “That, haa, that was a lot, Mal.” He nodded; she could feel the weariness in him too, all the energy used up in pulling them both together holding them through that conversation with Dedue because she was too pathetic to just do it like a normal person would. “Tomorrow’s got to be just an inside day.”

Malecki nodded, too drained to speak above a low murmur. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. Inside day sounds good.”

Of course, Hubert von Vestra picked that exact moment to approach her, his voice low and menacing, promising a slow and painful demise.

Oh nonononono! Please nodontkillme help me gonna die gonna die I’mgonnadie!

Her mind went blank, blind panic slammed down over her, and the last thing she remembered was the icy grin of death itself making its implacable approach.


Hubert nudged the limp body slumped before him. “Oh dear. I may have taken this too far.”

Thanily sniffed Malecki; the hedgehog daemon had rolled out of her hands into a loose limp comma inches away from her fingertips. “Gee, you think?”

Bernadetta was still breathing; her breath was slow and even as it ghosted warm on his gloved fingertips. She had simply passed out from fright. Hubert remained in his crouched position as he looked her over, checking for obvious injuries and finding none. He was frightening; he knew that. Reveled in it, actually. Carefully crafted that aura of menace and murderous intent, the better to intimidate people into following Lady Edelgard’s will. Bernadetta, terrified of the world, was petrified of him. But she had never actually passed out from fright due to him.

Normally he would be filled with satisfaction at a job well done. But instead, for some reason, he felt just a little bit…hollow. Sad? The feeling made no sense, but it wouldn’t go away, not even when he turned to level a glare at the likely source of it, the half of him that was more likely to openly express emotion.

Thani didn’t even pretend to look embarrassed. Instead she stared him down, maintaining eye contact as she batted a paw over the unconscious Malecki. “Well? Are we just going to leave her here?”

Bernadetta was still unconscious. Was she just asleep now? She did look exhausted before he snuck up on her. Everyone in the Eagles, no the entire monastery was exhausted to some extent or another. That damnable archbishop and her lackeys had run them all ragged, forcing teenagers onto security detail while at the same time cutting all unessential classes from their schedules. Not to mention Professor Byleth had, with Lady Edelgard’s prompting, realized that the archbishop was not the true target, so the entire house was doing reconnaissance alongside security and classes. Hubert’s coffee intake had doubled over the past few weeks, Ferdinand had taken to steeping his black tea to the very edge of acceptable palatability just for the extra caffeine, and stores of both were running low in the pantry.

Hubert sighed and scooped her up in his arms, staggering back as he lifted her form; she was as light as she looked but he wasn’t particularly strong. One arm dangled and he leaned back to try and tuck it back over her stomach, positioning his hands so as not to accidentally touch anywhere, ah, improper, so to speak. Thanily bent down and picked up Malecki, trotting along beside him as she carried the hedgehog in her mouth, lips curled back so as not to pierce herself on his spines.

The walk back to Bernadetta’s room was slow and cautious; Hubert carefully picked his way around the cobblestones so as not to trip and give them both a concussion. Thani had a much easier time of things, to the point where she even tried speaking around the hedgehog daemon in her mouth. “Cah oo ihwa—” Thani stopped, wincing as those spines poked her tongue. She gently deposited Malecki, still unconscious, onto her paws before trying again. “Can you imagine if it was Ferdinand and Embrienne instead?”

The sheer absurdity of that mental image made Hubert stop dead in his tracks and laugh, full-bodied and just as ominous as the rest of him. He and Thanily could both clearly see it, Ferdinand nobly carrying Bernadetta like in the gaudiest and schlockiest of tapestries…while also trying to carry Malecki without touching him. A trowel would likely be involved, or perhaps a paper bag, neither of which would fit well in Ferdinand’s oh-so-noble presentation.

“Yes Thani, yes I can. And it is glorious.”

They continued to Bernadetta’s room, Hubert’s shoulders shaking in mirth much of the way. Her door was surprisingly unlocked, and was silent as it opened. It was dusk; the furniture in her room cast long shadows that obscured corners. But Hubert von Vestra was a man of the shadows, and Thanily’s yellow eyes gleamed as she quickly adjusted to the dark.

Bernadetta’s room was cluttered—sheets of paper were scattered on the desk, with a half-finished embroidery piece partially covering them, and several textbooks were stacked up by the foot of the bed—but clean. For all that she frequently ate in her room there was barely a crumb. Her bed was made, the blankets smooth, and the smuggled dishes were rinsed and neatly stacked on the adjacent nightstand. Even the chair was clean and wiped down, free of dust.

Hubert carefully laid Bernadetta down on the bed; Thani jumped up onto the bed to place Malecki on the pillow next to her. “I was expecting more of a hovel, or a rat’s nest,” she said. “But this place is surprisingly clean. Especially given how Bernadetta does not seem to give much regard to personal grooming beyond regular basic hygiene. Which, at least, she is meticulous about.”

“Hm. That is an interesting observation,” Hubert mused, distantly. Like he wasn’t paying much attention. Because he wasn’t paying much attention.

What he was paying attention to were the corners of dusty letters peeking out from under Bernadetta’s bed. And several faint, jagged, irregularly lined scars marring her right hand and forearm.

“I think,” Hubert said, a dangerous note creeping into his already-sinister tone of voice as Thanily’s eyes narrowed, her lips curled in a snarl, “We need to do some digging regarding a certain Minister von Varley.”


Delcabia and Belial’s sheer size made it difficult for the six humans and their daemons to squeeze into Byleth’s room and impossible for Dedue to attend at all (though he had been under close watch from the monks anyway; Dimitri was seething from the naked injustice of it all but couldn’t do anything about it at the moment), but they managed. Even if it meant that Dimitri spent the entire conversation practically sitting on Delcabia, Avarine was precariously perched on the bulletin board, and Claude, Hilda, and Hubert were squeezed up against each other atop the low bookcase next to the window. Rain lashed at the windows; the rumble and crash of thunder interrupted them every few minutes.

In other words, nobody wanted to be outside, and nobody would be listening in. Which was good, because what they were doing was mildly heretical. Nothing too serious, especially since Byleth held Archbishop Rhea’s favor for some reason, but shady enough that they didn’t want anybody asking uncomfortable questions.

“Annette and Mercedes should be back within the next few days,” Dimitri said as Delcabia snorted and flicked her gaze back and forth between the window and door. He was the most uncomfortable with this whole plan, the one who adhered most to the rules and laws of the goddess and society, the crown prince of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, after all. But Ashe had barely shown up to class in the past three weeks, and Fuergios looked like she was slowly wasting away. Something had to be done.

In contrast, Claude and Hilda looked positively giddy to be causing some mischief, and Hubert and Edelgard looked…eager. Like hyenas circling a kill. They were enjoying this, and if they were trying to hide it then they were failing miserably.

“Marianne was surprisingly okay with the idea,” Hilda yawned, stretching wide enough that Simurg had to slither to Claude’s other arm with a protesting hiss. “Though I did have to take over her weeding duties for the rest of the month—you owe me for that, by the way.”

“Ignatz wasn’t terribly difficult to convince either,” Halmstadt added from atop Hilda’s head, his iridescent blue scales a garish yet somehow fitting contrast with her bubblegum-pink hair. “I just needed to reframe it in terms of the goddess, and Mist did the rest of the work.”

“Not to mention Iggy’s never worked with wood before,” Claude chimed in. “It’s not often you get to indulge in a hobby and get a challenge at the same time.” He deliberately ignored Hilda’s comments about the weeds.

Everyone else in the room, except for Byleth, nodded in agreement.

Hubert forsook all niceties and simply gave his status report. “Our performance in the last battle has attracted the Archbishop’s attention, not to mention the presence of our esteemed professor herself. As such, our assistance will be limited at best.”

“I can cover for you though, at least to some extent,” Byleth chimed in.

“Of course,” Claude muttered. “Will Petra still be able to help?”       

“I believe so.”

“Then we’re still good.” Claude leaned back into his easy smile, kicked his legs up against Byleth’s bedpost. He refused to put his feet down, even at Belial’s annoyed growl.

Simurg lifted her head off Claude’s bicep to observe the room. Three lords, two retainers, one Teach, and all their daemons, wedged into a tiny bedroom plotting mild heresy (or sacrilege, whatever, she was never one for religion) for the sake of one grief-stricken classmate. “You know, when the Church talked about diplomacy and forging bonds between the nations, I don’t think this is what they had in mind.”

That drew laughter from the students, though it ranged wildly from Hubert’s appreciative chuckle to Dimitri’s nervous laugh, echoed in their daemons.

The rain slowly died down to a steady downpour instead of the earlier deluge as the thunder faded away. The downpour then faded to a gentle consistent patter, and Dimitri was the first to leave. He bowed politely as he left, as did Delcabia—although the bristly hog was still lashing her tail, and stared at Avarine with an unidentifiable emotion. Dedue was already waiting outside, uncaring of the warm rain that soaked him and Levia through. Claude and Hilda left next, Halmstadt taking cover inside an elaborately decorated capsule around Hilda’s neck.

Claude left with one of his signature easy smiles and waves. “See you around, Teach. This was fun!”

Edelgard and Hubert stood to leave next when a bare hand on her clothed wrist stopped her. “Edelgard, wait.”

Rhea’s words still circled in Byleth’s head.

“This mission should prove useful in demonstrating to the students how foolish it would be to ever turn their blades on the church.”

She needed to tell Edelgard, whose cool disdain for the church was beginning to be noticed even by her. Needed to warn her.

So she did.

Both Edelgard and Hubert seemed unfazed by the news. Unsurprised. Almost…like they were expecting her to say something like that. But Edelgard’s nostrils flared, and Hubert’s fingers tightened on his arms. Less subtly, Avarine leaned forward and flash her wings with a screech, and Thanily’s fur bristled straight up as she snarled.

“Of course she would say something like that,” Edelgard said, her voice clipped. “That’s what the Church is, that’s what the Church does. I would say that’s what Rhea does, but it seems like they are much the same more often than not. This is a training ground, not just in tactics and diplomacy but in teaching us to be good obedient little soldiers, always ready to jump at the Church’s beck and call. And more importantly, teaching us to live in fear of the Church and what it could do. They train us well. When you teach someone they can’t escape when they’re too small to succeed, they’ll never try. Even when they’re older, stronger, and able to do so.”

“But if you think about it, Rhea was quite foolish to say this to Byleth,” Hubert added. “Learned helplessness depends on the subject not even considering escape, believing it is pointless to even try. But now that we know her aim, we can see the façade for what it is.”

“Byleth, don’t tell anybody we’re talking about this. Openly questioning the archbishop? Well, we’ve seen all too well where it leads.” Edelgard was serious.

Unbeknownst to them, people were listening. Or, rather, Ardior and Calphour were. The little goldcrest daemon perched atop Ardior’s head, his entire body smaller than the snow goose daemon’s skull. They hadn’t moved from the corner window for the past several minutes.

It really had been an accident. Petra had been giving Dorothea some pointers in the wicked-fast swordsmanship of Brigid when they had been caught by the sudden summer thunderstorm. They had heard the low conversation in Byleth’s room while racing back to theirs. And now here they were, Ardior and Calphour listening in while Dorothea and Petra hid in a nearby nook at the very edge of their range, the sweat from the psychic strain of distance washed off in the downpour.

“So it really is official church doctrine,” Calphour murmured to himself. And Edelgard openly questioned this? Openly spat her contempt for it? The Adrestian princess was…wow. His heart surged with respect for her. Screw those greedy narcissistic nobles. This was a future ruler worth following.

Ardior looked up at the little daemon on his head, though he couldn’t catch more than a flash of wing. He was so light, and it felt surprisingly comfortable to have Cal perched atop him. “What exactly are you meaning by that?”

“Remember when Thea made that sarcastic comment about sending us into live combat as part of official church doctrine?” He was shaking, but it wasn’t just from the rain.

The rain flattened Ardior’s feathers too, but not his voice. That was flat from something else entirely. “Ah. I believe I have understanding.”

Calphour watched Edelgard and Hubert leave, watched Byleth pull up a chair and get back to grading papers. Belial yawned and curled up on the bed. “I think we need to talk to Edelgard. Sooner, rather than later.”


Several days later, Petra sat cross-legged in the ungodly mess that was Claude’s room, making it that much messier as she whittled away at a hollowed-out piece of wood. Ardior and Simurg stood (or laid, in Simurg’s case) on several blueprints. The pieces of wood had to fit together perfectly, had to be sanded down to prevent friction. Claude was more familiar with metal, leather, and stone when making these sorts of things, but Petra was surprisingly good at the craft.

Quite aggressive though, as she dug the small knife into the wood, flinging off pieces of it with great force. Almost as if she was channeling some frustration into the carving. Which, actually, she was.

“Hey Petra, something eating you?”

Was this another weird Fodlanese idiom? “I am not being eaten. Claude, what are you…what do you mean by that phrase?”

“Oh, sorry.” Claude leaned back, casualness exuding from every inch of him. But his smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Is something bothering you?”

Actually, something was. Claude was always questioning, probing. Simurg was a good fit for him, even if the snake daemon did make people look twice at the roguish young man. But snakes always looked for the best spots to hide and hunt. And that was what Claude always did. And yet his charm compelled her to speak. Edelgard would have also listened, especially given what she said to Byleth a few days ago, but she wasn’t here right now. And by the time they would have seen each other again, Petra would have already pushed her concerns down beneath her duty and need to make allies.

“It is…The monastery is looking for enemies in every corner, and I have understanding as to why, but they are looking in our corners as well. I do not know what they are wanting from me! The priests and monks say that I am a suspicious person for this plot because I am not being…I am not from Fodlan, but when I am going to the cathedral to keep Rhea safe and show that I am being…I am trustworthy, they are saying that because I am not following the Fodlan goddess I should not be there!”

Her frustrations spilled over, the wave quickly receding but the foundations still weakened in their wake. Petra’s carving became even more violent, her knuckles white as they gripped the blade, and Ardior shouted every frustration. “Bakit ba parang lagi nalang walang tiwala yung mga taga-Fodlan sa atin? Wala na ngang tiwala, ang yayabang pa!”

Claude paused from his inspection of the blueprints, one eyebrow raised at Ardior’s tirade in his native tongue. “Okay, I have no idea what you just said but I think I understand the sentiment. This place can be a real racist shithole sometimes, can’t it.”

“Claude, you should not be saying such things out loud!” Not even in his room. Who could be listening outside?

“Oh, my apologies.”

A pause. Then Simurg spoke. “This place can be a real racist shithole sometimes.”

She should have seen that coming, Petra thought as she rolled her eyes. But when they returned to Claude she looked at him—really looked at him. The smile that never reached his eyes. His black hair with its loose curls. His bark-brown skin, darker than hers but lighter than Dedue’s. The slight accent, different from anyone else she had ever spoken to in the Golden Deer. His casual talk of outsiders. The strange urn—an incense burner?—in the corner of his room whose likeness she had never seen in the cathedral, whose pattern she had never noticed on the architecture of this monastery.

“Hindi ka rin taga-Fodlan, no?” Ardior whispered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. It was nothing.” Petra returned to her carving; the final image was starting to take shape. “The people in my class are being very…are very kind and accepting, but this has been the exception in my time here. It is as if the people of Fodlan are being raised to look at those outside its walls as predators. Or sometimes prey.”

Now Claude wasn’t meeting her eyes at all. And yet Simurg slithered off his arm to curl around Ardior’s webbed feet. “Have you ever read the holy texts of the Church of Seiros? Really read them, I mean, not just skimmed them during services but parsed the text and actually thought about its implications? Because if you haven’t, I would highly suggest doing so.” He laughed, hollow and bitter. “It’s quite, shall we say, enlightening.

It didn’t sound like that was the term Claude wanted to use at first, but Petra understood. “At the next Saints’ Day I will. If they will be allowing…if they allow me entrance into the cathedral.”

“Hopefully all this will have blown over by then.” Claude looked back up at Petra, and that rakish smile was plastered on his face once more for the world to see. “I took a look at the class registrar in the library; they have the records of previous classes as well. Did you know that our class is probably the most diverse one that Garreg Mach has had in years, both in terms of nationality and social status?”

Petra furrowed her brow as she thought rapidly. In terms of nationality, only she and Dedue, and likely Claude himself she just realized, were not from Fodlan. In terms of not being noble, Dorothea was a commoner who clawed her way here on her own terms. Ashe was a commoner, but his circumstances were…unique. In the Golden Deer, Ignatz must have come from a well-off family to afford glasses, Raphael sold his fortune, and from what she heard Leonie’s entire village had set up a collection just to send her to the monastery and she was drowning in debt. “Our class is diverse?”

“Yeah.” That hollow laugh was back. “Really says a lot, doesn’t it?”

A hiss from Simurg as she looked up from where she was loosely curled around Ardior. The snow goose daemon had sat on the ground, her white feathers fluffing out around her. “But this is still the most diverse class Garreg Mach has had in years, which means this is our greatest chance to get those stuffy nobles to see some different perspectives firsthand. We’re all going to be leading our nations some day. So maybe, if we can get our classmates to think differently, see different perspectives, then when we all end up leading our nations things will be better. We can start breaking down those walls. Fodlan won’t be a hermit continent anymore. I mean, look at us now, all working together for the sake of one student.”

It was a lovely dream, and one Petra found herself working towards as well, in her own way. “I would be hoping that greatly.”


“What do you want?”

There was a bit of emotion in Ashe’s voice. And he had opened the door. So that was good. Fuergios was still that tiny owl though, more disheveled than she had been the prior week. And the room still smelled, really bad.

“I wanted to give you something,” replied Caspar. “Actually,” he motioned to the collection of students (even Marianne was there) from all three houses crowding the doorway, “We all did.”

Dimitri stepped forward; he cradled a package in his arms. “I’m sorry. I’m not the best at this sort of thing. And I know it won’t bring Lonato back. But...maybe this can provide some solace.”

A confused Ashe took the package. Caspar found himself leaning forward, Peakane swimming up to the top of her backpack to take a closer look. His conversation with Annie and Mercie may have sparked all this, but he hadn’t had a chance to see the final product. The sound of tearing paper punctuated his thoughts, their abrupt cessation a full stop.

Ashe’s hands trembled as he stared at the gift. It was a smallish box, about the diameter of a notebook, made from many interlocking slats of wood. The box was apparently sealed, but one side—the lid, presumably—was adorned.

A carefully whittled screech owl, painted and glazed with such care as to be almost lifelike at first glance, rose up from the lid to stare back at the boy.

“It’s a puzzle box,” Claude explained as he ran his fingers over the box. They probed and pressed and occasionally twisted the smooth wood in a deliberate, preordained pattern. “I love these things, spent way too much time learning to make them as a kid. It looks like a sealed box, but when you move the pieces just so...”

Right on cue, the lid unfolded. Inside, nestled in fabric and stoppered with cork, was a small clay jar. Ashe popped it open and...

...Held it. And held it.

“Magdred Way also leads to Dominic lands,” Annette said in a low voice. “It wasn’t too hard to find the battlefield. And Mercie and I both know fire magic, so...

“Everything in there is Lonato,” Mercedes whispered, her feathery voice even softer than usual. “We made sure of that. “

Ashe was trembling, but he still clutched the urn like it was the most precious thing in the world. Which, to him, it probably was.

Mercedes continued, every word a balm. “Since Lonato never had an official Church funeral, a proper funeral would require two people familiar with the rites. Marianne also knows them all.”

“Penumbrior has a beautiful singing voice,” Cygnis added over the armadillo daemon’s rapid-fire denials.

“Lonato and his daemon won’t be lost. And he got a proper funeral.”

Ashe was still silent, still clutched the urn and the wood box it rested in. But Fuergios shifted to a crow on his shoulder, her eyes bright on a way Caspar hadn’t seen in weeks, and the brawler found himself wiping away some very unmanly tears.

Caspar would always run fists-first through life. That’s just the kind of man he was. But maybe there was something to diplomacy and talking and patience after all.

Ashe joined him for sparring practice the next day. And although there was still a deep sadness in his eyes, it wasn’t the wild grief of before. And he had bathed, and combed his hair. So although there was a glint in his eyes that made Caspar for some reason reluctant to talk about the church or even Thun...Catherine in a way that was entirely different from before, it took him a while to notice what was significantly different.

Fuergios was a snake. Fuergios was never a snake. She preferred the forms of dogs, of hooved herd animals that banded together to fend off predators. The stereotypical daemon forms of chivalry, the daemons of the most brave and loyal knights. Even Uncle Randolph’s daemon was an Aegir Hound.

But Fuergios was a snake. And although Caspar did not yet know it, although she had not yet settled, she would never take those traditional knightly forms again.

Chapter Text

The Albinean Berry blend smelled of cherries and vanilla, smoothing out the astringency of the black tea that made up the base of the blend. The teapot was still warm, and the cookies had a cloth over them to keep the flies and bees away. Edelgard drummed her fingers on the table, glancing back and forth between the entrance to her favored place for a semi-private teatime and the perch on which Avarine rested.

“Dorothea is extremely intelligent and equally as adept at reading people,” Edelgard said. “How much are we going to tell her?”

Obviously not the declaring war part, Avarine thought across their bond, closing her beak at the sound of footsteps. We’re going to feel her out, see how much disdain she really holds towards the church and the nobility, and go from there.

Right on cue, Calphour fluttered around the hedges, with Dorothea just behind. She waved a hand in cheerful greeting. “Ah, Edie! It’s not every day I get a missive from the princess of the empire herself.” She pulled out the chair and swung into it; meanwhile, Calphour flew up to the perch. Avarine shuffled over to allow the little goldcrest daemon enough room to comfortably sit as Dorothea leaned forward, head propped up on her elbows, a slightly flirtatious smile on her face. “And in such a secluded location, no less.”

Even though it was still too hot to drink, Edelgard took that moment to sip her tea and hope that the cup would block the faint amount of color in her cheeks. Flames, why did so many people at the academy have to be physically attractive? Her professor was bad enough, especially after letting Belial stay the night, and Dorothea was likely teasing as she was apt to do (after all, despite her smile, Calphour still gave Avarine her space on the perch instead of snuggling in closer as she had seen truly flirting or dating daemons do), but still.

It’s a cruel joke, Ava murmured across their link, when we don’t have the time for romance, in any sense of the word. We don’t even have time to change the world in a gentler way.

“Edie? You’re being awfully quiet.”

“My apologies, I just have a lot on my mind.” She took another sip of tea. Bergamot was her favorite, as was the custom-made Hresvelg blend, but this wasn’t bad. It had a nice sweetness to balance out the slight bitterness of the tea itself. The cookies were also quite tasty; was there almond in them? “I am a princess after all, which means I have to deal with Empire duties on top of regular schoolwork and being a house leader.”

Dorothea’s brow knitted in concern. “I’m not taking up too much of your time, am I? Because I can just go if it’s too much trouble.” Calphour shifted, ready to take flight.

Avarine’s wing shot out, shielding Calphour and encouraging him to settle back down on the perch. “I promise, we wouldn’t invite you if we couldn’t spare the time. Besides, it’s useful to get another perspective every now and then.”

“So many nobles of the Empire are completely useless,” Edelgard spat. “They’re more interested in filling their bellies and coffers than anything else. When I become emperor, I intend to only appoint those with the merit to fill the necessary bureaucratic positions, regardless of their position of birth.”

And there was the shine in Dorothea’s eyes that Edelgard was expecting, the slow smirk creeping up one side of her face. “Really, you can do that? Well, don’t let me stop you; I’d give all those greedy sacks of lard the boot if I could.” Calphour let out a shudder that was only slightly dramatized.

A heavy nod from Edelgard. “It’s not a matter of can or can’t, but a matter of doing it and doing it right. There was no concept of nobility before the Adrestian empire took shape. If somebody could create it, then somebody can change, or even undo it.”

Dorothea frowned. “But that’s over a thousand years. Nobility is entrenched in every aspect of society. What would take its place? The church?”

She didn’t sound happy about that prospect, and a moment of fervent hope sparked in Edelgard’s chest.  “Dorothea, what are your thoughts on the church?”

“Don’t worry,” Avarine quickly added, “This is a safe space.”

Calphour and Dorothea laughed, a short derisive bark from each in unison. “Well thank the goddess for that.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “Or not, because her servants in Fodlan can go fuck themselves.”

Both human and daemon sat up a little straighter. “Oh?”

“Well, the nobles are, with very few exceptions, a bunch of lazy idiots working off our sweat and not doing anything to actually, you know, help in return—”

“—Though Bernie, Ingrid, and a few of the others aren’t quite as bad, maybe there’s some hope in this batch—”

“—Yes yes Cal, don’t write them all off, I know. Point is, first off the Church endorses the nobility system and their crests in the first place. And when the noblility inevitably failed, the Church could have really stepped in! They could have really helped set up something to help people through the long winters, but what did they actually give? Empty platitudes and the occasional soup kitchen where they would take the opportunity to preach at us while we stood in line for a bowl of lukewarm watery gruel!” The teacup clattered as Dorothea slammed it onto the saucer with unnecessary force, her lip curled in a snarl before she composed herself.

It wasn’t anything Edelgard didn’t know about—Hubert had prepared a thorough dossier on Dorothea in preparation for this meeting, after all—but to hear it from the normally wry flirty young woman herself was different. “I’m sorry to have brought up painful memories.”

“Oh Edie, it’s okay. It’s not like you knew, and it’s all in the past.”

She did, but it wasn’t like she was going to say it. They spoke for some time on the nature of Adrestian politics, the nobility, the church, and their complete uselessness. So many times Avarine wanted to openly recruit Dorothea to their cause, but Edelgard stopped her. They needed to be oblique, circumspect. But even with her careful speech, she…had fun. Dorothea was intelligent, diligent, witty and sharp with a sense of humor and insight as cutting as Hubert’s. She was fun to talk to. So they talked for nearly an hour, long after the cookies were devoured and the tea had gone cold.

Finally, with some reluctance, Avarine flew off her perch to Edelgard’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, but we have a scheduled meeting with Professor Byleth.” They had narrowed down the possible locations of attack (what was Raphael thinking, attacking the mess hall? Edelgard wasn’t privy to all of the details on this assault but if the rumors about the Holy Mausoleum were true…) and now needed to plan their counterassault. She hated this, hated playing both sides and pretending to be a student when she had much greater, and more horrible, goals. All she really wanted was to soak up these halcyon days, enjoy herself with her new friends, flirt and fight and learn and fall in love, enjoy the life she should have had before those who slithered in the dark and those who dared to call themselves holy stripped all that away from her, along with her siblings’ lives, and the lives of so many others.

“But I would love to speak with you again. If I am going to make a new and better Adrestian Empire, then I will need wisdom and expertise from as many different sources as possible. Dorothea, you are a woman to be admired, and I am proud to call you an ally and friend.” And oh, she wanted that to stay. At that moment, she hoped that Dorothea would understand and forgive her inevitable betrayal, even if it was too much to ask the former opera star to walk beside her.

Dorothea was not privy to her thoughts, and so chuckled. “My, that almost sounds like a recruitment speech! And yet I find myself wanting to believe in you, or at least see your path. I would love to talk again. Honestly, Edie, you say the most fantastical things sometimes. And yet you somehow manage to make them sound attainable, like you’re going to bend the world to your will. It’s almost like you’re the starring character in your own opera!”

It was almost operatic, wasn’t it. But there were two genres in general. “I wonder how they would portray me,” she mused. “The revolutionary who guided the Empire to a new dawn…or the foolish ruler who took her revolution too far…”

Calpour turned to eye Edelgard, but the smile never left Dorothea’s face. It was fixed there as she said, “Well, either way, it would make for a wonderful story.” And then, Flames take her, she broke into song. “Hail the mighty Edelgard, though red blood stains her story…”

Now Edelgard buried her face in her hands, where she could feel the blush warming her cheeks. “Dorothea, stop…”

She did not. And then Calphour joined in with his liquid baritone. “Hail the mighty Avarine; her talons—"

Avarine launched herself off Edelgard’s shoulders and chased Calphour around the courtyard; both he and Dorothea screeched in laughter at Edelgard and Avarine’s flustered protests.

Eventually Dorothea actually got up to leave with the same cheery wave as when she entered. Though she was humming her new hymn to Edelgard under her breath the whole while.

Edelgard’s head was still buried in her hands, but she flicked her gaze over to Avarine. The gyrfalcon silently took to the air and followed Dorothea and Calphour from a distance. Edelgard sat up, closed her eyes, and breathed as she let herself more clearly see through Avarine’s eyes and hear through Avarine’s ears at the expense of her own senses. But it was safe here, as safe as anywhere could be at least.

Calphour sat on Dorothea’s shoulders and spoke in a low voice. “There’s more she’s not telling.”

“I know, but Edie keeps her cards close. And we are, in the end, just a glorified street rat while she's the freaking princess; don't look at me like that Cal it's true and you know it. Frankly I think we got a lot of information from her today. We’ll just have to wait and see until she feels comfortable telling us more.”

Their voices went low, low enough that Avarine didn’t want to risk getting any closer. That was enough for today anyway. She turned around and flew back, aching to be close to her El again.


Petra had been holed up in the cathedral for literally the entire day and was getting increasingly frustrated. Ardi had surrendered to a moment, well, several moments of immaturity and honked as loudly as he could just to hear it echo around those polished stone walls and vaulted ceilings, just to break the boredom of sitting and alleviate some of Petra’s mounting frustration.

“It’s not that I can’t read these; they’re perfectly legible,” she said to Ardior, comfortable in their native tongue. “I’ve been in Fodlan long enough to learn how to read and write the language, even if some of the grammatical constructions still elude me when speaking out loud.”

Ardior nodded before leaning over to flip another page of the Book of Seiros. “The problem isn’t the words, it’s the sentences. This may use the same letters and words as the language we read and write and hear and speak every day, but it’s not the same language at all! This is a language of, of,” He flapped his wings, searching for the word. “Of stories and parables. There’s a whole layer of metaphor and allegory here that I’m just not getting. Like this!” He pointed towards a passage. “Why do they refer to wolves and stars so much when this Immaculate One is neither, at least from what images exist? And just what is this Immaculate One, and why is it called that?”

“I don’t know.” Petra groaned in frustration and shook her head. “Fodlanese is a second language, and Fodlan is a second culture. We don’t have the wider context for the language of the Fodlan religion like we do back home. I’m sure the people here wouldn’t understand the deeper meaning of our stories or spirits without a very long explanation. Probably several.

This wasn’t going to work, not alone. Petra flopped onto the pew, tabling her research for the moment. “We’re going to have to ask someone for help parsing these and giving context. Maybe Dorothea?”

“What? Why?” Ardior honked. “She’s not religious at all! Actually, I think she kind of hates the church.”

At this point Petra’s arm was over her head, so her voice came out muffled. “Oh yeah, good point. Maybe Linhardt? Or Mercedes? What about Marianne?”

Ardior sat on Petra’s chest and nestled down; Petra absentmindedly ran her hands over his sleek white feathers. He had settled about five months ago and she was still finding new things about his form every day. It did make a certain kind of sense; she was only fifteen. Even if Petra knew who she was at the very core, there were new things to discover about herself every day. “Linhardt might have the knowledge to help us, if he doesn’t fall asleep halfway through. Mercedes would know the most for sure, but she’s got enough on her plate right now with Ashe and everything. Marianne might know quite a bit too.”

“So Linhardt and Marianne would likely be our best options.” Petra sat up with a yawn and stretch; Ardior fluttered to the ground. They both stared at the holy text. Would she be allowed to take it out of the cathedral? She was pretty stealthy, and she could always say that she wanted to study the religion of Fodlan on her own time. That would probably satisfy the monks looking to convert her as well, even though she prayed to the spirits of home and always would, even though the priests declared that the Flame Spirit in particular would watch over her from her very first breath. Still, she was a foreigner, and many people of the church seemed awfully eager to think the worst of foreigners—especially these days.

In the end, Petra decided to take a chance and slipped the book into her schoolbag. It was heavier than she thought, but she adjusted quickly. The sunlight glared in her eyes as she stepped outside. Just how long had she been in there, reading the texts and trying to parse them out as Claude had suggested?

Ardior brought her out of those thoughts, albeit in a particularly obnoxious way. “So why did you suggest Dorothea, if she’s not fond of the Church?”

“Nggllkk!” Petra stumbled forward but managed to catch herself. “Well, um, given her opinions on the Church, she could provide a, uh, a unique perspective?”

Somehow, Ardior managed to smirk. How could he smirk? He had a bill! “Bullshit. You like her, don’t you Petra?”

“I—” Her sentence broke off into stutters as she felt heat rise to her face. “Ardior, you’re my daemon. If I like her, then you like her too!”

Ardior simply honked a laugh in response, beat his black-tipped wings and took off in flight. He soared as far ahead as he dared go without being too far from Petra, out of the empty echoing cathedral and into the afternoon sun. Petra gave chase—how could she not?—shouting for him to come back, teasing him in their native tongue as he laughed and flew on ahead in the bright hot summer air.

He and Petra had the fate of their nation on their shoulders, but they were also only fifteen. What was the point if they couldn’t take a break every once in a while?


Ferdinand von Aegir was not having a good week.

First there was Dorothea, who hated him in a way that went past the distant cool disdain he knew she held for many nobles into something visceral, venomous, personal. And he could not for the life of him understand why! He had never met her before in his life. Perhaps his father had done something to her and her family? It was painful to accept but his father behaved in a way that brought shame to the von Aegir name. When he became prime minister he would work to benefit his subjects instead of lining his own pockets. He was Ferdinand and Embrienne von Aegir, after all! Was this duty towards others not how they settled, not who they were to the core? Dorothea was clearly thinking of something else when she challenged them with why Embry settled as a bee, but he could not even begin to understand what that something else might be.

Still, even if his father had done something terrible to Dorothea or her family, she did not seem like the type of person to visit the sins of the father upon the son. And if what his father did to her was egregious enough for her to do so then he would have likely heard speculation as to why! But alas, no such rumor existed, and so Ferdinand was left with little more than cryptic clues to figure out why Dorothea hated him so, why Calphour stared at Embrienne with such venom as to make her want to hide inside her capsule like they were preparing for battle.

That would have been bad enough, but then he had most grievously offended Bernadetta. He had found himself growing closer to the timid young woman over the past several months in the academy. He could tell that she found working with the horses soothing, and found himself looking forward to the relaxed smile that crossed her face when one of the foals would approach her for a carrot or some apple slices or another treat. Found himself looking forward to the way her voice became quiet and soothing as she talked to the horses, the way muscles slowly built up from archery rippled on her small frame as she hoisted buckets of water and feed. The way they worked in largely amiable silence but increasing synchronicity, as the more outgoing Malecki would converse with Embrienne.

And then he went and messed it all up.

He had only wanted Bernadetta to talk to people, do things, go out and experience the world. It was not healthy to be holed up all the time! But in his overenthusiasm he had violated her boundaries and thrown her into a panic attack from which she had yet to emerge. She was terrified that he held a grudge against her for accidentally injuring him in her fright, and had yet to leave her room.

We cannot blame her, Embrienne mused as he rubbed the brace over his wrist. It was mostly healed, but better safe than sorry. Our conduct towards Bernadetta was simply beastly. Entirely unbecoming of a noble.

Ferdinand was ashamed by it. He deserved the sprained wrist. And if he had utterly destroyed the growing trust between them both, and she never wanted to speak to him again, well he deserved that too.

But we do not deserve this! Embrienne cried out in her thoughts across their connection.

Since Bernadetta refused to go to the stables, and Ferdinand’s sprained wrist limited the work he could do, Professor Byleth has been forced to find a substitute partner for stable duties. And in some divine prank, the only person available was the least favorite person in his class—no, the entire school. The one person who made him snappish and impulsive and exasperated on sight. The lank and lean shadow of the princess, the man whom he quite possibly despised most in all the world.

Hubert von Vestra.

They had crossed paths before, but this was the first time in years that they had been extended contact with each other. It was incredible, the immediate intensity of the...loathing, yes it had to be loathing, what else could it be? that he had for the skulking shadow of Edelgard. They were, quite literally, incapable of holding conversation for more than thirty seconds without it degenerating into an argument. It started with that hypocritical sycophant accusing him of obsessing over Edelgard to an unhealthy extent—as if he actually possessed an identity outside of his devotion to her! Embrienne was fairly sure he would hand over Thanily herself to Edelgard if she asked it of him—and escalated from there. If they were lucky, their arguments remained in the realm of shouted debates. If they were unlucky, which was far more common, they would quickly become little more than diatribes and ad hominem attacks, shouted to the point where they sometimes spooked the horses (they did save their shouting for the feed room and empty breezeways after that).

And the arguments were about everything. They ranged from topics as utterly mundane as the superiority of tea over coffee to the quandaries of tax revenue allocation in the Empire to the ethics systems proposed by great philosophers. Even on those rare topics where they seemed to agree on the surface concept or end goals, Hubert would quibble and quarrel and pick him apart over the tiniest little details, often with personal attacks thrown in for good measure. And what could Ferdinand do to such a challenge but respond?

Truth be told, he did find the constant debates to be mentally stimulating, on some level. And he supposed it was beneficial to examine his moral codes and proposed reforms more closely. “It would not be so bad,” Embry said as he shoveled manure into the traps and imagined that it was the words coming out of Hubert’s mouth that he was shoveling instead, “if it were not Hubert.”

That man was going to be the death of him, or at least the failure of his stable duties. He loathed that man. He both dreaded and was simultaneously eager for afternoon stable duties, where they would get too distracted in their fights to actually finish their work to his satisfaction, to the perfection expected of a noble. Ferdinand found himself fantasizing about besting Hubert in verbal and occasionally physical combat, watching the taller man hang his head in defeat, the normally sarcastic Thanily silent as she searched for a retort that would not come. His heart raced, his face flushed at the thought. There was a strange exhilaration to his total detestation of the man.

“We will show him who is superior, in stable duties and noble duties,” Embrienne said, buzzing in anticipation.

They were changing the feed, Ferdinand adding new hay to the net while Hubert held the hungry horse back from launching herself at her meal and taking Ferdinand’s hair with it. He was sure that abominable shadow would love to do nothing else, if not for the inconvenience it would cause.

That was probably the same reason Hubert actually waited to let the horse back into her stall before turning to tear into Ferdinand with some new diatribe that he was expecting from the way Thanily’s tail twitched. This one was about to whom oaths of office were directed, and how Ferdinand was a contemptible fool for his beliefs, and...what was that high pitched noise? Was that screaming?

“AAAHHHHH!!! PLEASE DON’T KILL EACH OTHER!!!”

Four heads peeked around the corner—Hubert leaned over Ferdinand’s shoulder for a better view, Embrienne nestled herself deep into Ferdinand’s hair to avoid accidentally brushing against Hubert, and Thanily’s orange muzzle was barely a foot off the floor—to see Bernadetta racing down the breezeway, tears in her eyes as she screamed frantic apologies.

“I’m sorry I’m so sorry stupid useless Bernie, couldn’t even do my job I’m so sorry Ferdinand I’m sorry I hurt you and got you both stuck together please don’t kill each other!!!”

She was hyperventilating, breaths rapid and shallow and short.

“Bernadetta,” Ferdinand said, leaning forward in front of her. His hands hovered over her shoulders, but would contact just make her worse? Better not to risk it.

She was still panting. Now Hubert looked concerned—or rather, Thanily did. The fox daemon took a few steps forward. “Bernadetta, both of us are alive and well. As you can clearly see, we have not yet murdered each other.”

She was still panicking, and even Mal was curled up, whimpering apologies.

“Bernadetta!”

She jumped from his shout, her shoulders brushed against his fingertips. That was enough to snap her out of the worst of the spiral, at least for the moment. “Yah! Ferdinand? Ferdinand! Uh, y-you’re alive? And so is Hubert?”

He nodded. “Do not fear, Bernadetta. We are both alive and well. But if I may ask, what happened to put you in such a state?”

Bernadetta’s storm-gray eyes flitted back and forth between Hubert and Ferdinand. “W-well...”


“Stupid useless Bernie. You really messed it up this time.”

“We hurt him, Bernie,” a curled-up Mal sniffled, his voice muffled. “He was nice, and helped us out, and he’s okay with us, and he’s kinda cute, and we hurt him!”

Ferdinand had been nothing but kind to them, and he only wanted to help, and now look what they did! He’d never want to speak with them again, and even if he did she knew just how much he loved competition and hated being beaten. He’d probably deem her his eternal rival or something and while Ferdie thrived on that she couldn’t handle it! She’d really messed it up this time.

The ironic thing was that Bernie had been spending some more time out of her room later. Not much, but she had even talked to Dedue not even a week ago! And yet ever since the fight with Ferdinand a few days ago she had regressed to holing up in her room, skulking out only to snatch food from the dining hall.

“I’m too scared to see him again, Mal,” she muttered as she shuffled off the bed. Mal had scampered off to the other side of her room, where the weekly schedules were posted. “I know I need to do my stable work, but...”

“Uh, Bernie?” Mal’s voice was slightly strangled. “I don’t know if we have that option...”

A shuffling, then a thump as Bernadetta made her way out of bed to Malecki. “What are you talking about?”

Mal tapped his paw on the weekly schedule. In particular, the penciled-in name on the stable duties that replaced Bernie’s scribbled-out one.

“Oh no...oh no!” Hubert? Hubert working with Ferdinand?!

“Bernie, they hate each other!”

“AAAAAHHHHH!!!” She yanked on her shoes, snatched up Mal, and sprinted full-bore to the stables. “THEY’RE GONNA KILL EACH OTHER!!!”


“So, uh, that’s why. And, uh...here I am?” Bernadetta squeaked. “And, you’re alive! You didn’t kill each other!”

Ferdinand chuckled, a low and warm thing. “Bernadetta, I appreciate your concern, but you need not worry. A sinister villain like Hubert is no match for me!”

“I’m right here.”

“Oh, I know,” Embrienne smirked from the bridge of his nose.

Hubert glared, but he and Thanily were both biting back smirks—literally, in the fox daemon’s case. Bernadetta noticed. “Hubert, why aren’t you laughing?”

“You said my laugh frightened you, so I am endeavoring not to laugh. Is there a problem?”

They waited for Bernadetta to work up the courage to speak. It came in fits and starts, with quite a bit of literal paw-holding from Mal. Still, it didn’t take long for her to say, “Actually, there is. It’s not working, and...and you shouldn’t have to muzzle yourself because of me! If I’m scared it’s because I’m scared and I need to get better and be less frightened of everything!”

“So I can laugh as loudly as I want?” At Bernadetta’s tentative nod he and Thanily both threw back their heads and, “Ahaha...Muahahahaha!”

They sounded...exactly like Ferdinand would expect someone like Hubert and Thanily to sound. Hubert’s laugh was low and sinister, menacing in a way that made the hair on his neck prickle and a shudder run up his spine, while Thanily’s laugh was more of a high-pitched cackle.

It was successfully intimidating somebody, as Bernadetta paled and stepped back. “I, uh, I think I’m gonna take care of the horses bye!” The last words came out in a jumble as she snatched up a pitchfork and ran to the (very many) dirty stalls.

Ferdinand and Embrienne watched her go, so focused that Hubert’s musing made them startle. “She was terrified of both of us, and yet sprinted all the way due to concern for our well-being.”

“True.” There was so much more to her than the timid girl afraid of her own shadow. If only she could see that more easily!

Ferdinand...

You are right, Embrienne. Damn it all. “Hubert? I hate you.”

“The feeling is mutual.”

“I loathe every last inch of you. Your face, your voice, your ‘moral’ code; I loathe it all. And yet, I feel we must come to...a truce, at least while Bernadetta is here.”

Now Hubert raised an eyebrow. “What exactly do you mean?”

“Bernadetta has pushed herself to an admirable extent, coming back here. We should keep our arguing to a minimum, or at least quiet, at least while she is working with us. It would not do to frighten her into believing we are about to come to blows.” Ferdinand extended a hand, calloused and slightly smeared with dirt from the stables.

Thanily pricked her ears at the sound of Bernadetta’s slightly frantic humming floating in from another stall. Hubert extended a gloved hand, the leather dark to conceal stains, and shook Ferdinand’s hand. “Very well. Truce.”

Ferdinand beamed. “Wonderful! Now if you will excuse me...” He turned and made his way over to Bernadetta, who was cleaning out half of the stalls alone. “Bernadetta?”

“Eep!” She jumped, Mal curled up, and both actions stabbed a pang of guilt in Ferdinand.

Ferdinand stepped into view, his hands held up in a gesture of peace. “Bernadetta, I just wanted to talk. Actually, I wanted to apologize.”

That caught her attention. “Apologize? I should be the one apologizing to you! I hurt you.”

“No, not at all! Bernadetta, my injury was a direct result of my carelessness. In my own insistence and thoughtlessness, I violated your boundaries. You were perfectly justified in defending yourself against a perceived threat.”

Malecki’s mouth fell open (was an apology truly that unexpected?), but Bernadetta shook her head more frantically. “Still, I hurt you! I could have done something other than panic and flail and injure you.”

Was it truly that difficult for understand an apology, a promise to reform poor conduct? What happened to make her so disbelieving of one? “Bernadetta, I...I truly am sorry. My wrist is already healing quickly but like I said, I caused you unnecessary pain and anguish, and violated your boundaries. I tried to force you to do something you did not wish to do! I…I try to be a good person, and yet despite my best efforts, I have failed in my duty as a noble.”

Bernadetta paused in her cleaning. She glanced at Malecki, some private conversation passing between the two. Bernadetta was brave, and reliable, deep down. She just needed some help to draw it out. What could have quashed it in the first place?

And yet it was never quashed, not really. Malecki held her courage. He could feel Embrienne swelling with pride and admiration at that little hedgehog daemon.

Then Bernadetta cupped Malecki in her hands and said, “Ferdinand, I...don’t get down on yourself like that! I...” She sighed. “I think some day I’ll be able to tell you exactly why, but I like my time alone. Actually, it’s more of a need.” She played her fingers over Malecki’s quills, which were soft and relaxed. “When I mess up, or even if it’s just a bad day, I can’t go outside. It’s too much, and I’m too scared. But you’re right. I do need to leave my room more often. And I’ve been learning here. So...the next day, I get up, and I get dressed, and I go to class and try again. Because one mistake doesn’t have to ruin absolutely everything.”

It was like something warm squeezing the bottom of his heart, softening it even more before rising to the rest of his body. He found himself smiling, found Embrienne surge with admiration. He wanted to grasp her hand and shower her with praise, embrace her, show her off to the world with a mighty cry that she was so much more than the timid shrinking violet everyone believed her to be.

But that was something Ferdinand and Embrienne von Aegir would enjoy, not Bernadetta and Malecki von Varley. So instead he smiled, warm and soft, and said, “You are doing wonderfully, Bernadetta. Keep at it. You are already much more outgoing than you used to be.”

Bernadetta looked up at him, and...yes. She was blushing. And...did his heart jump at the sight of the faint smile on her face, the dusting of pink on her cheeks?

...Oh.

Malecki fidgeted in her hands. “So, does that mean we’re good?”

Ferdinand was too lost in his soft realization, and it was more polite for Embrienne to respond anyway. So, “Of course we are.”

Perhaps Ferdinand von Aegir was not having such a terrible week. Well, except for what happened right after.

Apparently, the three of them did such a marvelous job cleaning the stables, and Hubert had so thoroughly alienated the people on weeding duty while adamantly refusing aerial patrols, that Professor Byleth simply decided to put the three of them on stable cleaning duties. Together.

Truly, the goddess was a capricious one, who took a special interest in tormenting Ferdinand von Aegir.


Professor Byleth and Edelgard couldn’t have been talking for more than thirty minutes or so, but it felt like hours. It was all so very dull, and Linhardt found his mind wandering again as he stared at the snow-white of Edelgard’s hair. Such an odd color, or rather the lack thereof, nothing like his own deep forest green or Dorothea’s luxurious brown. And yet there was one other who shared that hair color—Lysithea. Lysithea was brilliant but with a drive and determination that baffled Linhardt. How was she not completely exhausted? Even thinking about the amount of work she must do made him want to use Runilite as a pillow and doze off.

There was a frantic edge to Lysithea; she lived like she was running out of time. Which was rather foolish of her. Everyone was running out of time, why not take it easy and enjoy it? There were only so many days of summer sun in a single person’s lifetime, why not bask in as many of them as possible? Why lock himself up in a study when he could simply take his books outside, nap under a tree, read at his leisure, and let his mind wander? They could stay there for hours, him and Runilite, their minds skipping off in different directions like stones on a pond surface. Sometimes they’d forget to eat, or sleep, and their bodies would pay those debts during class. Perhaps it was dangerous but there were so many threads of inquiry to follow, and never enough time for them all.

Caspar was the one to bring him back, every time. He was bright, kind, simple. A hot knife of intent, a splash of cold water after a muggy summer day. There was no getting lost with him. Linhardt was especially exhausted today, after getting a belated birthday present for Caspar. And oh it was exhausting, going into town, talking to people, trying to think about what somebody else would like, presenting it to the recipient, everything. But Caspar was worth the effort.

Caspar wasn’t here right now, though. So Linhardt and Runilite walked those threads together; their minds, already connected, melded even further as they gently steered themselves back to Edelgard, who was glaring at them. They must have been nodding off again. Saying something about the fake assassination attempt. So many things were hiding here. Edelgard was hiding something. So was Lysithea. Lysithea had white hair, and two crests. He saw the power thrumming through her veins, no matter how she tried to hid it. Did that mean Edelgard had two crests too? Sometimes it felt like the world was a series of jigsaw puzzles, and it was his job to piece them together on his own. Like right now, wasn’t it obvious where their enemies were going to attack?

“Really now?” Avarine’s voice chimed through his thoughts, cool and cutting. “If it’s so obvious, Runilite, then why don’t you share?”

Runilite scrambled under his cheek, forcing him upright as well instead of slumped on the table. They blinked bleary eyes at each other. Damn it all, she must have said that last part out loud. Ah well. Runilite yawned. “Well, these infiltrators aren’t actually trying to assassinate Rhea, right? Which means that they’re trying to target something else. But why would they attack the monastery on the day of the Rite of Rebirth? That’s the holiest day of the year, and the monastery will be packed to the gills with both visitors and security. That’s the worst possible scenario for pulling off a heist that I can think of. Unless they are looking to break into a place that is inaccessible every other day of the year.”

Ferdinand slapped the table. “The Holy Mausoleum! Er, my apologies Professor Byleth, I forget you were raised astonishingly ignorant of the church.” He explained for Byleth’s sake. Now there was an enigma. Their professor was eerily blank, and so was their daemon. And yet he had seen more emotions cross them over time. They weren’t empty, no, but they were muted. Like someone muffled under so many blankets you only so a vague lump of the person underneath. Was she suffocating too, somewhere deep under those many layers?

They were talking about something else again, maybe battle plans, maybe Claude’s upcoming birthday, something Linhardt could only partially pay attention to because, frankly, he didn’t care. He had to be in this academy, and there was so much to learn, and he’d learn the magic needed to keep his classmates and friends alive because he hated the sight and smell of blood and didn’t want anybody to die. But all of that required so much effort, and he and Runilite only had a finite amount to go around. So he rested his head on his daemon again, closed his eyes, and cast out his mind to wander alongside hers.

If there was anything important in that conversation, Edelgard would be sure to let him know.


Linhardt and Runilite were right. Dozens, possibly hundreds of people had made the pilgrimage to the Holy Mausoleum. It was easy for a few dozen people to stay behind and make themselves inconspicuous.

Well, except if your name was Linhardt and Runilite. In that case you and your daemon would all but crawl over the casket, poking and prodding every last inch of it, and promptly get discovered and chased out by the guards. Which also distracted them from the actual infiltrators. Byleth could feel Sothis banging her head against the metaphorical wall and frankly she felt like doing much the same. The three of them—Byleth, Belial, and Sothis—had quickly and unanimously decided to have Linhardt take some remedial stealth classes.

“Maybe have Petra tutor him?” Belial mused. The young Brigidian princess was the best in the class at stealth—possibly best in the year. Even Shamir was impressed, and the stoic sniper did not impress easily.

But that would have to wait. For now, Rhea, Seteth, and Flayn had retreated to perform the Goddess’s Rite of Rebirth, a mysterious ritual which for some reason required the archbishop, her administrative adviser or whatever Setheth’s position actually was, and an unsettled girl to remain in a secluded location for several hours.

“Which isn’t unnerving at all, not one bit,” Sothis snarked. Hubert and Edelgard would like her, but mentioning the voice in her head would probably raise more questions than answers. “You’d think somebody would have raised questions in the past thousand years or so, but apparently not. Sometimes I think you really are little more than sheep, no matter what your daemons may be.”

Byleth wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. This sort of moral or social debate, she...couldn’t do. She didn’t have strong enough convictions to defend either way, much less make a forceful argument. Something did bubble in her at Sothis’s words, which was more than before. She’d examine them when they weren’t in a battle.

Right now, an unnervingly-enthusiastic Ashe forced open one of the locks to the Holy Mausoleum, the infiltrators having locked the door behind them, and offered to guard the entrance alongside Cyril to prevent reinforcements from arriving. In the meantime, Byleth gathered her fledglings for some last minute advice.

“We all got a good look at the mausoleum today. They’re probably waiting for us, so everyone be ready to attack the moment we open the door. If I would them I would station archers, mages, and maybe a couple of heavily armored people just behind that ledge to rain hellfire on anyone who tries to climb up. Bernadetta, Petra, Hubert, Dorothea, I’ll need you to fire back and fire fast.” She pointed to Ferdinand and Edelgard. “You’re both good up close and can take a hit. Keep our ranged classmates safe. Caspar, I want you to stick to hit and run tactics. Don’t overexert yourself, and keep Peakane safe. Linhardt, how’s that ranged heal spell coming along?”

Linhardt yawned, but flashed a thumbs-up with his free hand.

“Good, we’ll need it. Belial and I will be where we’re needed.”

“We may be apart from each other,” they warned. The Black Eagles shot nervous glances at each other, and held their daemons a little closer, but otherwise swallowed their trepidation for now.

An echoing noise of metal on metal and Ashe’s quiet, “got it!” were the final warnings of the imminent battle.

Edelgard and Byleth threw open the door, and true to their suspicions were met almost immediately by an onslaught of spell and steel.

Four men with sharp swords and two female spellcasters, their daemons all different types, charged right at them. There were more people, at least eight on each side, holding the line by the staircase and behind those old marble pillars. Two spellcasters and an archer right on the raised back half of the mausoleum, just as she predicted. A man in bishop’s robes and some sort of monkey daemon all the way in the back, knelt in front of the old sarcophagus while two heavily armored soldiers stood guard. And, in the center, just before the raised platform, staring them down…

“Who is that man on horseback? And just what is he wearing? That mask, that scythe, it’s like he’s dressed as the Reaper himself. And..”

“Where’s his daemon?!” Bernadetta cried out to Byleth’s left, even as she fired into the leg of a charging man, sending him sprawling to the ground for Caspar to finish off. On her right, Dorothea took a fire spell head-on, redirected most of the energy into her blade with barely a singe to herself, and thrust the now red-hot sword between her assailant’s ribs. He fell with a scream.

Indeed, the knight dressed like the Reaper himself had no visible daemon.

“Maybe his daemon is—ngh!—being hidden in his armor?” Petra shouted as she parried a sword thrust and responded with a slightly weaker, but far swifter, one of her own.”

Caspar looked around wildly, his spiked gauntlets dripping with ichor. “Normally people who do that paint an image of their daemon on their armor or something! Must be a real showoff or freak to not do that!”

“Regardless, that knight looks extremely dangerous, so I would highly recommend you keep your distance!” Thanily shouted, as Hubert was currently engaged in a magic duel with another priest. They danced around each other, trading incantations and blows, the other man’s fire against Hubert’s oozing miasma, until the now-singed retainer overpowered the other man, laughing all the while.

Most people obeyed Thanily; there were others to fight anyway. Even Edelgard kept her distance, although she kept an eye on that…that death knight. Belial wouldn’t keep their eyes off him, even as Byleth carved through foes for the sake of both herself and her students. But the death knight wasn’t moving. He was just standing (well, sitting, she supposed) there, menacingly.

At least until Ferdinand scoffed. “Hah! Is that a challenge, Hubert? That egotistical knight is standing between us and the most direct path to the sarcophagus. He won’t get in our way!”

“Ferdinand, this is no jest!”

But he wasn’t listening. The young noble readied his halberd, a weapon designed to drag riders off their horses, and charged with a cry of, “I am Ferdinand and Embrienne von Aegir, and I command you to—!”

The Death Knight ran Ferdinand through, that wickedly curved lance erupting from his back, with all the ease of someone swatting a fly.

Ferdinand, his blood dripping from around the wound as more began to trickle from the corner of his mouth, would have sunk to his knees. But instead, the Death Knight lifted the spear aloft, bringing the impaled noble along with it. All Ferdinand could do was weakly kick and gurgle, fumble at the spear coated slick with his own blood and worse as he slowly slid down it to meet the Death Knight eye-to-eye.

“Is that it?” the Death Knight asked, in a distant echo. “No more fight? No more resistance? Pathetic…”

A spike of dark magic curled in his free hand, which he then closed around Embrienne’s capsule. With a crack that somehow echoed above the din of battle, he obliterated the capsule…and Embrienne, weakly buzzing inside it.

Ferdinand von Aegir died with a choking gurgle, dangling several inches above the ground. It was over in seconds, and the surviving Eagles broke.

“AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!”

“FERDINAND!”

“FERDIE, NO!”

“Damn it, you contemptible fool!”

No! No nononono“NonoNO!” There was no time to think, no time to do anything. On panic, or instinct, or something else entirely, Byleth reached deep inside herself, beyond herself, to a connection still fresh and new…and beyond, to wherever Sothis was.

The world pulsed, a reverberation which she felt in her chest as a single thud, then shattered. Its shards remained suspended in midair, a strange haze around them that Byleth could only describe as beyond black. She couldn’t hold this for long. Couldn’t turn back the clock long. But she only needed a few moments…there!

The death knight wasn’t moving. He was just standing (well, sitting, she supposed) there, menacingly.

At least until Ferdinand scoffed. “Hah! Is that a challenge, Hubert? That egotistical knight is standing between us and the most direct path to the sarcophagus. He won’t get in our way!”

Ferdinand leveled his halberd, and Belial lept in front of him with a mighty snarl, “Don’t you fucking dare!”

That made him stop. Belial had never, ever spoken to any of their students in that tone before. And when he looked to her, he lowered his halberd. She had never looked at him, or anyone, with an expression of naked fear before.

“Professor, I—”

But Belial cut him off. “So help me Ferdinand if you charge that Death Knight I will rip Embrienne’s capsule off your chest, flee this mausoleum, and force you to chase after me!”

“Nice,” said Sothis. “Good initiative there! Whatever it takes to keep him safe!”

Ferdinand was actually dumbstruck, at least until a wounded mage made it past Bernadetta and forced Hubert to close into melee to prevent her from incinerating the young noble. “Very well!” Finally, he turned and rejoined the fray, instead of charging the Death Knight on his own.

That should have been it. The moment was gone, they took a careful berth around the Death Knight (who was still just…watching. And waiting), and Ferdinand von Aegir still lived.

But Byleth could still hear the sound of the spear ripping through his innards, could still see Embrienne dissolving into golden dust alongside Ferdinand’s last shuddering breath.

She used Sothis’s Divine Pulse many more times during that fight. Sometimes to have her students avoid injury, sometimes to take them on herself. She and Belial bled, and hurt, and ached in a bone-deep way that she had never before experienced. But better her than them.

They were her pups, and she would look after them.

Finally, Edelgard and Byleth fought back-to-back, axe and sword in coordination.

Edelgard swung in a wide arc, cleaving one knight’s armor open while Avarine crushed the other knight’s bat daemon between her talons. “Now, my teacher!”

“Haha, you’re too late!” The bishop and his monkey daemon pushed aside the sarcophagus lid. “The seal is broken, and we will have…what the…?”

That was all the moment Belial needed. They grabbed the monkey daemon, tossed her aside with a scream from both her and her human, lept into the sarcophagus, and came out with their jaws clenched around…a sword?

A sword made of many interlocking yellowish pieces, each piece wickedly sharp, with a strange almost rectangular spur on one end. The crossguard was broad, almost wing-like, and there was a large hollow in the center where something should be, but no longer was. It hurt Byleth’s eyes to look at, and so she didn’t.

“By, catch!” Belial tossed her the sword, Byleth caught it, and—

Lub-dub

—That singular thud in her chest, there and gone. Her fingers curled around the sword one by one, and people always talked about swords being an extension of the person, but this…

“YAH!”

The sword flared to life, a glow just like Catherine’s Thunderbrand as she swung it at the bishop. The blade extended like a flail, each individual razor-sharp piece separated but threaded on a glowing coil like beads on a string. They tore into the bishop and his daemon; his scream rang out at the fatal blow.

And then the pieces retracted, and it became a blade again. Not just any blade. A holy relic that activated in Byleth’s hands alone.

“What is this thing?”

Chapter Text

If she thought Hanneman was intrusive and overexcitable before, then this—!

She stood awkwardly in his room, her coat on a hanger, shivering slightly despite the summer heat. The older professor and researcher danced around her in pure joy, as if she was nothing more than the most fascinating specimen in the world.

Which she sort of was, to him.

“The Crest of Flames! I can’t believe it; the actual Crest of Flames! Please, show me again!”

“The sooner we do this, the sooner we can leave.” Byleth found herself in agreement, and so held out the sword again. It still…she found she did not want to look at it. It was a powerful and amazing tool, but when she looked at it too closely, especially that hole in the hilt, it almost reminded her of that time that bandit split her knee open and she stared at her own flesh and blood and bone. Still, she held her hand over the analyzer, again felt the tug deep within of something that was simultaneously hers and not hers. The Crest of Flames—the full crest, not the fragment from before—unfurled before their eyes like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Hanneman and Theophania lit up. Byleth and Belial just stared.

She had sometimes felt a flash of power, a quick surge of strength in battle, or sometimes outside of it. Usually after her dreams of Sothis, though to be fair if she had them without the Sothis dreams she was in no condition to remember at that time. Was that this crest, this power slumbering in her veins this whole time?

“Yes, but I think it’s more than that. Argh, I wish I could remember more, for both our sakes!”

Hanneman was still laughing, Theophania reaching up to the image as if she could actually touch it and not merely pass through the illusion. “Nemesis had no recorded children when he died; the Crest of Flames was thought lost to history! And yet, here it is, right before me! Oh, what a joy this is, the first crest scholar in a millennium to actually witness this sight!”

Nemesis, there was that name again. The King of Liberation, who apparently turned to evil and had to be put down like a mad dog by Seiros herself.

Belial growled. “But what exactly did he liberate humanity from? The story feels…jumbled.”

“Maybe because we didn’t grow up in the church? There might be a lot of missing context.”

“Can we stop talking about Nemesis? I don’t know why but thinking about him makes me feel sick.” Sothis did sound somewhat queasy in the back of her head. Could a voice in her head that existed somewhere outside physical space actually vomit? And what would it do to her?

“I don’t know, I don’t want to find out, can we stop talking about Nemesis? Please?”

Hanneman already had; he had gone back to the Crest of Flames itself, something about wanting to test some of her flesh, something about the Sword of the—wait, what?

“…No.” She and Belial spoke as one, and walked out as one to Hanneman’s frantic backpedaling and apologies. To tell the truth, Byleth wasn’t really paying attention. She had taken out the Sword of the Creator again, that odd sawtoothed blade that broke down into a barbed whip, pulsed and glowed gently in her hand. It should have been disturbing, it was disturbing, and yet the feel of it was oddly…soothing? No, not quite that, but what else could it be? And why did Rhea entrust it to her? Why did she trust her that much? She couldn’t let the Archbishop down.

Byleth’s gaze slid down the blade to that empty hole in the hilt. It seemed to suck her in as much as it repulsed her, and every time she looked upon it she briefly forgot to breathe. Belial reached up to sniff it, drew back with curled lips. “Hanneman said you need crest stones to make a hero’s relic work, right?”

“Crest stone, that’s like the red gem thing that was in Thunderbrand, right?”

“I think so. But this works for us even though there’s no crest stone at all.” And it didn’t work for anybody else. Hanneman had tried; he had a minor crest of his own and so could activate Relics, but it was little more than a paperweight in his hands.

“A space where something was meant to be…I cannot make sense of it.”

Where something was meant to be…what would happen if they put the crest stone from Thunderbrand into this—

“Don’t you even fucking think about it!”

The outrage from Sothis’s mind was like a whip behind her eyes; Byleth actually staggered back from the vehemence of her outcry. “Okay, okay! I won’t do that.” She and Belial looked at each other, then down at the sword. “So…I guess we should practice using this. Is Felix at the training ground?”

“Absolutely not,” Belial growled.

They were right. Thinking about it, the idea of going to spar, well, Byleth usually enjoyed it. She usually enjoyed the burn of her muscles, the rush of breath, the way the world went slow and clear. But right now she didn’t want to fight. Right now she wanted to fish with her father and Leonie. Or go to choir practice with Dorothea and Annette. Anything other than fighting.

Anything to make her not think of the sound that Ferdinand’s body made when it hit the ground.

“That fight messed up us worse than anything else, but why? Ferdinand is alive.” He was alive, he was so loudly vibrantly alive. He shouted answers in class, practically forced Hubert off of his desk, loudly instructed Bernadetta in lancework, everything about him was loud and excited and alive. So why did his dying moments that never happened still replay behind her eyes?

“Because it did happen, even if only briefly. That’s one of the prices you, we, pay for Divine Pulse.”

It was a heavy price to bear, and Byleth knew it would only get worse. She still ached deep within from tapping into Sothis’s power. But compared to having her students actually die? It was no price at all. It was funny. Byleth was the Ashen Demon; she was no stranger to death. She had seen members of her father’s mercenary band die too, though thankfully not as often as she killed. And it was always sad, yes, but nothing like that wild pain and grief from seeing Ferdinand killed before her, nothing like that wrenching agony that must be what people feel when they describe their heart breaking. Why did she feel such pain at seeing her eaglets hurt? Why did it drive Belial wild with agony?

“Heh…isn’t it obvious? You love them, don’t you.”

Love them? Byleth looked down at the sword again, at Belial. She cared for her students, yes. She couldn’t stand to see them hurt. She wanted to see them grow throughout the year, wanted to see Bernadetta slowly come out of her shell, wanted to hear Caspar’s tales of defending the weak, wanted to see Petra share her nation with pride, wanted to see Dorothea fully come into the confidence she presented to others. Wanted to see Edelgard slowly grow to trust her and her classmates.

“…I think I do.”


In theory, the spiderweb of secrets and conspiracies that Claude could only grasp tantalizing hints of should have been the puzzle of a lifetime, something that would give him endless satisfaction and joy to solve. And on some level it was, and it did.

The problem was that in practice said spiderweb was at least partially responsible for the emnity between Fodlan and Almyra as well as the hatred and discrimination he was forced to endure growing up, the absurdly stratified and rigid Crest-based caste system, the instantaneous and violent crushing of any rebellion or dissent, need he go on?

“No, keep going,” Simurg hissed. “Best to make the charge list as complete as possible.”

Against such crimes, how could the burning of books possibly compare? And yet it somehow stuck in Claude’s mind in a way the others did not.

Thank the gods for Tomas, the kindly old librarian who remembered his duty to the books. He had tipped Claude off, one snake to another his coral snake daemon had said to Simurg with a sly smile to her voice. Although he hadn’t told Claude when and where, the little information that Tomas was able to slip had been enough. He’d somehow managed to rope in Hilda, who as lazy as she was got a kick out of causing a little bit of chaos just by standing in the right place at the right time, and Lysithea, who wanted to learn absolutely everything in as short of a time as possible.

“Do you realize just how scary Seteth can be when he’s on the warpath?” Hilda whined. Halmstadt fluttered around her, keeping watch. “You owe me big for this, Claude!”

“Help me out with this and I’ll cover for any weird noises coming from your room after curfew. Though if you’re too loud and they actually open the door there’s not much I can do there.”

“Fair enough. Gotta say, I don’t know of anybody else who would have thought of that. I wish the Almyrans Mom and Holst talk about fighting were as clever as you instead of going all ‘’WRRAAGGH look at me I’m gonna charge the Locket head on to show just how manly I am!’ Would make things less dangerous.”

Hilda couldn’t see from her angle, but Claude’s smile froze, as did Simurg. He wanted to like Hilda. She was a useful ally. She was funny, smarter, stronger, and more perceptive than she liked to let on. She was incredible at delegating tasks and motivating people, with an uncanny ability to make people do all her work for her without making them feel used, and was manipulative but not outright cruel. And she was an invaluable friend to Marianne. The problem was, well, that.

“She grew up in a family on the front lines against Almyra. At least there’s a reason for her distrust. It comes out of ignorance, not active malice...” Simurg’s excuses fell flat. Even if they were true, it didn’t change Hilda’s ignorance or xenophobia. Didn’t change anybody’s.

Claude looked down at his brown hands. Back home they thought him a frail, willowy thing. Here, they saw him as a hairy beast. Judith was only a quarter Almyran and she still needed that whole "Hero of Daphnel" business and the toughest hyena daemon he'd ever seen for her to command the respect that she did. He could do little to conceal his heritage to those who knew how to look, but he could hide its origins, take refuge in audacity. As far as he knew most people thought he was the result of a tryst between a noble and an Almyran “servant” or possibly a battlefield assault (and oh, it said so much that most people used honeyed euphemisms for the former and only called out the latter for what it was), and that he was only made heir due to his crest and his grandfather’s desperation. He did nothing to dissuade these rumors. Let them think he was weak, the pawn of a desperate gamble, Simurg had said during one of their many strategy sessions. Such a position would only make it easier to surprise them all.

Lysithea’s voice cut through his thoughts. “Claude, this is a waste of time. I’ve only found shitty gossip rags and shittier porn.” Zilbariel kept digging through the condemned literature, his badger paws efficiently spreading out the papers and books.

Claude gasped in mock outrage. “Lysithea! Avert your innocent eyes from such salacious adult material!” That mock outrage broke down into a strangled wheeze at the last word. 

“Innocent?! Go fuck yourself on the professor’s new sword!” She didn’t even turn around.

“How could you possibly show such disrespect to our dear Teach?” Simurg flicked her tail against Zilbariel’s muzzle; the rattle briefly echoed in the small room.

Lysithea rolled her eyes, casually flipped him off. “You’re utterly obsessed with that sword, don’t try to hide it.”

She was right, of course. He was fascinated by that sword, by all of the powerful, eerie, disturbing Relics. He only saw Failnaught once, during the test to confirm his Crest, but still remembered the way the glow on that stone pulsed in time with his heartbeat, the way Simurg shuddered and slithered to his other arm that was not reaching for that bow. There was something Wrong about it, just as there was something Wrong about the occasional blankness of Teach’s gaze. Oh, if only she had decided to teach the Golden Deer!

“Better the Eagles than the Lions, at least,” Simurg muttered. The Lions seemed nice, but also very involved in themselves and their own issues. Now that he thought about it, he almost never saw Dimitri outside of the training grounds. The prince of Faerghus went to class, studied, trained, ate, trained, and went to bed. He did nothing else. Even Raphael and Oakley spent time organizing a tournament with Caspar, or birdwatching with Marianne.

Simurg curled around to rest her head on the back of Claude’s hand. “Do you remember when we were all together and planning Lonato’s secret funeral? Dimitri and Delcabia didn’t speak to each other. Not once.”

That was...more than a little concerning, actually, but didn’t seem to have anything to do with the larger mystery going on. The Black Eagles, on the other hand, were. Even without Byleth, they were fascinating. Edelgard was calm and intelligent, but where he was patient and calculating she was forward and driven. Oh, he needed to challenge her to a game of nardshir, or shatranj. He wasn’t the biggest fan of nardshir, but how would Edelgard react and adapt to the element of chance?  He needed to get closer to them, but without revealing too much of anything. Petra and Lysithea—those two women were probably his way in, and who commanded respect in their own right. What did Lysithea talk about during their teatimes, and what did Edelgard plan to do to Brigid once she took the throne?

Once more, Lysithea’s voice jolted him back to the present. “Hey, Claude, stop salivating over that sword and check this out!”

In her hands was a thin collection of papers written in a language he could not understand.  The pictures, at least, were easily understandable. They were detailed diagrams of an enormous winged lizard-like creature that Claude now knew was the Immaculate One, a divine beast supposedly sent by the goddess in an ancient time of great need. The details were frustratingly vague, but he suspected it involved a foreign invasion. Especially given that in all the holy texts the goddess was described as creating, then protecting the land of Fodlan and all the people in it.

And if the goddess made the people of Fodlan, then what did that make the people outside Fodlan?

He had never seen this detailed a depiction of the Immaculate One before. It almost looked like a sketch from a field guide, or an animal encyclopedia people often used to identify their newly-settled daemons. And that marking on her head...

“Is that the crest of Seiros?”

Claude and Lysithea shared a nod as he slipped the papers into his pocket. He needed to speak with Edelgard. Best to proceed with caution, avoid showing his hand too early. At least he had time to forge relationships, work his way in. In a year they would graduate, and soon after that he would lead the Alliance and Edelgard would become emperor. After that they would have all the time in the world for diplomatic summits, places to speak in private while he dismantled the Locket and hatred dividing Fodlan and Almyra. Professor Byleth would continue to teach, and once she taught the Golden Deer it wouldn’t be too difficult to evaluate her more closely.

In the meantime he and Simurg would do what they do best. Bide their time, avoid the enemies all around them. Warn off those they could not evade, and only strike as a last resort. He could lie in wait for the perfect time and place to strike. He had time.


“Yes, those are all the standard pieces of horse tack. You are learning so quickly, Bernadetta.”

Ferdinand was in her room, sitting at her desk. They were studying for his cavalier exam, the textbooks and diagrams strewn over the wood. Malecki and Embrienne were there, the bee daemon nestled in his quills. His hair shone like sunlight, brighter than the single flickering candle in her room.

Bernadetta draped over him as he read out the notes for her archery quiz. She could feel his cheek warm against hers, his fingers soft as they reached up to intertwine with her own. He rubbed his thumb gently back and forth along the pulse of her wrist. “You will do wonderfully on this exam, Bernadetta. You have been doing so well since arriving here.”

“N-no, I I’m not doing that well at all, I...” Nervous laughter bubbled up in her chest, but that wasn’t why she stopped attacking herself. She was stupid useless Bernie wasn’t she? Wasn’t she? But Ferdinand didn’t think she was. Bright Ferdinand, the very incarnation of sunlight himself, he didn’t think so.

“Nonsense, Bernadetta. You are so much more outgoing than you used to be. You are amazing and intelligent and beautiful, my Bernadetta.”

Mal sighed, stretching out under Embry’s contented hum. Her? Amazing and intelligent and beautiful? No. No way. She wouldn’t, she wasn’t...was she? Was she actually beautiful? Funny? Someone worth being with?

Ferdie seemed to think so. Ferdie seemed to think so as he ran his thumb along her knuckles, brought her hand up to his soft pink lips. “You have me trapped, my little sundew.”

It would be more accurate to say she was trapped. With one hand, Ferdinand gently pushed her back against the soft pillows on the edge of her bed. Ran a hand through her tangled lavender hair. Held her (her shirt was unbuttoned, her front exposed) to his bare chest. Pressed his lips against her forehead, the top of her nose, her own chapped lips. One of them, maybe both, let out a soft sigh, an invitation for him to slip his tongue in her mouth, run it along hers.

His other hand slipped down her chest, down the smooth expanse of her belly, over the coarse thatch of hair below her navel to rest between her thighs.

“A-ah! Ferdinand...”

He kissed her, and he kissed her, one hand buried in her hair with the other buried between her legs, his fingers gliding against her as she became wetter with every delicate stroke. He kissed her and he held her, and all the while he kept stroking and rubbing in exactly the places she liked best. This was happening, his wonderful hands were slick with her and she bucked her hips up against those warm fingers but it wasn’t enough she wanted more she needed more

“Bern-a-det-ta,” he moaned into her mouth, thrusting a finger into her with every dropped syllable and why was it only four? Say her name say her whole name Bernadetta von Varley she gasped into his mouth, though it came out as nothing more than gibberish, squeaks and moans with every stroke. He was so caring, so patient, like she was worth something. She chased into his mouth and rutted up against his glorious hand and she could feel him against her bare thigh and oh Flames she needed

“More, moremoremore!”

Ferdinand smiled against her mouth and kissed down her body, worked her legs apart and lined himself up between them and—

“Aaahhh!” Bernadetta catapulted awake, going from asleep to sitting in a single heartbeat. Malecki shouted and flailed as he went flying off the bed to land quill-first into a half-finished plushie pitcher plant.

“Hey!” Mal rocked himself upright, a rather difficult task given the plushie pitcher plant still stuck to his quills. “I was enjoying that!”

Bernadetta said nothing, just sat up, chest heaving as the dream shattered around her, their shards gently falling and fading away. It wasn’t as if these dreams were entirely new. She was a nearly grown woman, getting taller and stronger by the day if the way she just had to let out her uniform was any indication. Even she, ugly unmarriageable Bernadetta, had these thoughts and feelings and dreams, would, ah, indulge herself to them on occasion.

But these fantasies usually involved fictional characters, perfectly crafted gentle and kind men from the romance novels she smuggled under her bed and her own horrific attempts at erotica. They weren’t for real life, not for her. Her father and the Wife Lessons had taught her well. Real life was rich graying men with leering eyes and wandering hands, who thought her...everything was an acceptable price for her crest and her maidenhood. Real life was her father marrying her off and everyone at the academy forgetting about her, if they even knew she existed in the first place, and her designated husband siring crest babies on her until he got as many as he wanted and then threw her and Mal away.

Real life, for her, was not this year of relative respite at the academy where the idea of going outside was becoming slightly less terrifying day by day. Real life was not the friends she had made here, or the Professor, or the princess who listened to what she had to say. Real life was not Ferdinand von Aegir.

“But why can’t it be?” Mal had made his way up the ramp to her bed, a somewhat impressive feat given that the half-finished pitcher plant was still impaled on his quills. Bernadetta pried it off and squished it between her hands. “I mean, he’s so nice! And he listens to us, and apologized when he was too pushy and he’s so encouraging and handsome. Why can’t we court him?”

Why not? Because...because... “Because he’s going to be the next prime minister. He could marry anybody in the empire, so why would he even consider courting somebody like,” she waved a vague hand over her whole self, her cracked calloused fingers and scarred-up hand and frizzy bird’s nest excuse of a hairstyle and sad face and clothing that stood no chance of keeping up with her last-minute growth spurt and her...everything, “Like me?”

Oh no. She had it bad, didn’t she.

“Okay, maybe you’re right, you’re probably right, but maybe we should tell him? Who knows, maybe we’ll get super lucky?”

“Or he’ll never want to speak to us again and we’ll ruin what we have! I, Mal, he’s our friend, I can’t, I’ll—“

“—Sit here and be consumed by lust?”

Bernadetta threw up her hands. “I guess?!” To make matters worse, the gossamer threads of her arousal had evaporated, leaving her merely uncomfortably damp. She tore off her smallclothes and chucked them at the pile of laundry, flopped back onto the bed and buried her head in the pillow. An experimental grind against the wadded-up blankets, but...nope, feeling was gone, wanting was gone and all that was left was the frustration and mild, ever-present panic. She pressed her face deeper in the pillow, the better to muffle her voice. “Why me?!”

Unbeknownst to her, Ferdinand had also been plagued with similar dreams of himself and Bernadetta.

Well, not just the two of them.

Ferdinand sat up in bed, uncharacteristically silent, his hair mussed with sleep and sweat, his blankets crumpled in his clenched fists. He glared at the ruined sheets, but no answers were forthcoming. Embrienne sat on his shoulder.

“...Ferdinand, we speak of this to nobody.”

He was inclined to agree.


The smell of incense hung heavy in the air; it permeated every inch of Seteth’s room. He knelt before the shrine and began his morning prayers, just as every devout member of the church did. But these prayers were his own, slightly different from the official ones in all the most important ways.

He started with the prayers to the dead. Not a request that they and their daemons be sheltered in the goddess’s embrace instead of wandering lost, but a series of apologies. Apologies for not recognizing the threat of Nemesis and the Agarthans quickly enough, for letting his wife fall in battle, for letting his son be murdered, for not being able to stop Riegan from carving up his corpse.

He did not know whether the parts of his son trapped in Failnaught could hear his apologies, his prayers, his promises that his sister was safe and sound and loved, and did not know whether he wanted to find out.

Seteth sometimes found it hard to look at Claude, the smiling inquisitive arrogant young man, and not see his son’s stolen blood running through his veins. To not think about how he would soon innocently receive, as a trophy, his son's flesh and bone and Stone. What would Flayn do, if he told her? But the students in Garreg Mach now were not the ten “elites”. It was truly a testament to Rhea’s wisdom and restraint that she did not repay the monstrous sins of their ancestors on these children, that she let them grow up with the confidence of believing they were descended from heroes and not a pack of thieves and murders. And that had its own repercussions; the additional emphasis that humans placed on crests had unforseen consequences that the students were forced to deal with, but it was certainly better than the alternative. Rhea had made the right decision, all those centuries ago.

Which is what made her more recent actions so...disquieting.

Another prayer, this one to Seiros, who received the goddess’s blessing and for whom the Church was named. Rhea, as she preferred to be called now, had been acting oddly ever since Byleth arrived at Garreg Mach. She was enamored with the girl, no, obsessed.

She made a girl barely older than her charges professor of the future Adrestian emperor, Prime Minister, and nearly every other minister of the empire. Tasked her with guiding them through professional and personal dilemmas, leading them into combat, keeping them alive and safe through what was rapidly becoming an unusually tumultuous year. True, Byleth was quite effective at the job—Bernadetta was seen out of her room increasingly often as of late, Caspar was developing some modicum of impulse control, all her students scored top marks—and her father’s history with the Knights was impeccable before the fire, but she was a blank slate in every sense of the word.

There was nothing on Byleth’s background. No mother. No formal education. No record of church ordainment. No teaching experience. Not even a year of birth. The mercenaries he tracked down and interviewed all told the same story, a story of a blank girl and a dead-eyed daemon who could be any distance apart, who rarely spoke but seemed to look right through them, who only had fleeting moments of awareness that did, to be fair, improve as the years went by. Who turned into a fearless and ferocious demon on the battlefield, especially when one of her allies was in danger. And somehow Rhea believed that was enough to make her a professor. Nothing he did could convince her. Yes, Byleth was performing with aplomb, but now? This?

A prayer to the goddess, who blessed Fodlan and the people who walked it. A prayer to Sothis, whose bones Byleth unknowingly wielded, whose blood she unintentionally inherited.

That sword, the Sword of the Creator, the mutilated remains of Sothis, was the most valuable thing in the Church, the most precious thing Rhea possessed. She never let it out of its place of repose in the holy mausoleum. And yet she let Byleth wield it, carry it around, use it in battle. And Byleth could do all those things, utilize Sothis’s power in the sword, even though the Stone was missing.

The prayers were done; the bells to the cathedral sang out their conclusion as the priests, monks, and more devout students left to start their day. Seteth knelt and opened a drawer. The crickets chirped and sang in the container that he held in his hands. Byleth was an unusually emotionless girl with an unusually emotionless daemon, no background, no teaching experience, whom Rhea placed in a prestigious position. Whom Rhea gave special attention, shared stories about Jeralt in her own private chambers. He did not understand just what Rhea’s motivations were here, only that they were erratic and disconcerting in a way he had never before seen from her.

Worst of all, there was nobody Seteth could talk to about this. He did not dare bring Flayn into these discussions. Macuil had quite literally washed his claws of Fodlan and flown off to parts unknown. Indech had hidden away in some unknown location; he had not yet found his younger brother.

Seteth placed the crickets in the cage by the window, watched them hop around, watched the bearded dragon chase them down and swallow them whole. In times like this, he wished he had a daemon, just to hear another voice of concern. But he was a Nabatean, not a human. Even if he would never again shed this human skin, would never again feel the wind beneath his wings, the rumble of a mighty roar in his throat, the swoop of his horns against his fur and scales, he was still a dragon.

And dragons did not have daemons.

The bearded dragon finished her meal and scrambled back onto the wooden perch to sun herself. Seteth went back to the library to sort through the new donations, filter out everything that he and Rhea had deemed too dangerous for human eyes. He was not sure what a daemon would say in response to those thoughts, and was not entirely sure he wanted to know.


Hubert was not in the cathedral. Hubert was as not in the cathedral as a man could possibly be. The last time Hubert set foot in a cathedral or church or any other place of Seiros worship he was fourteen and desperate. He and Thanily had vowed that the next time they stepped into a place of Seiros worship, it would be to burn it to the ground. He was in the small wooded area where they had their first mock battle, and he was not alone.

Hubert usually trained alone, for Dark magic was...not favorably viewed by the Church. But this time Lysithea was here with him. The air was heavy with the sticky feel of dark magic that drained at their fingertips and left them numb, shattered rocks and made the blades of grass wither and wilt. But it was powerful, and difficult to counter due to the sheer unfamiliarity most people had with it as much as anything else.

Seeing Jeritza, or the Death Knight, or whatever that rabid hound in the guise of a man called himself these days, in the Holy Mausoleum unnerved him. The Crest system had torn away the man he was supposed to be, and all that was left was a barely-controllable thing of murderous intent. Hubert hated working with the Death Knight almost as much as he hated working with those who slithered in the dark. It reminded him too much of what could have happened to Lady Edelgard, what could have happened to him.

And now their “friends” in the dark had taken that living weapon for their own entertainment, which would inevitably mean more unnecessary bloodshed, and all but guaranteed another encounter with the Death Knight on the battlefield. That...concerned Hubert, he reluctantly admitted under Thanily’s direct confrontation. There was precisely one spell that could instantly incapacitate him; otherwise his classmates could not stand a chance against the Death Knight.

He had nightmares about what would have happened to Ferdinand if Belial had not literally lept between the two.

All of this was to say that Hubert needed to learn Dark Spikes fast, and the best way he could think of doing that was to train with the only other dark magic user in the entire monastery. Lysithea was also a valuable source of information. And, yes, her company was tolerable and her insights and verbal takedowns were entertaining, even if her words were more sledgehammer blunt, less cutting honeyed barbs than Dorothea’s.

So they trained. They trained until the rocks were shattered and the grass around them was black and dead, until Hubert’s fingers and hands went numb like he was touching the world through thick leather gloves, until Lysithea cried out and nearly lost control of her incantation. But they kept training, and all the while their daemons kept talking through the agony of dark magic’s spiritual recoil, because pain was an old friend.

“Where did you learn dark magic?” Zilbariel asked, a honey badger far stouter than Thanily’s fox shape. “Because I had the basics drilled into me before I could reliably speak in full sentences.”

Thanily flexed her claws. “I stole it.” Those scraps of magic and her settled form were the only good things to come out of their secret mission below the palace.

That caught Zilbariel’s attention. “How did you manage to do that?”

“With great difficulty, teenage bravado, and very nearly dying multiple times.” Thanily smirked with false levity, her back stiff. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Zilbariel shuddered, his form rippling under another wave of pain. Mire this time; he pressed himself to the earth. “I wouldn’t recommend my method either.”

Thanily moved to help Zilbariel to his feet; he growled and did it himself. It was a struggle, but he did it himself. “I’m fine! I’m fine. But what about you?”

Hubert let the incantation fade away and started rubbing the feeling back into his fingers. It would take hours for them to feel like actual parts of him again. “I’m perfectly fine. I should be asking you the question.”

Zilbariel scrambled to his feet and made his way to Lysithea’s side. She glared at Hubert, more so than usual, dug her fingers into Zilbariel’s fur, and said, “You know what, I’m just going to cut to the chase. You and Edelgard are always a little bit cagey and evasive, even around me, and I know about her two crests. I...I’m not living past thirty. I don’t even know if I’ll make it to thirty. Edelgard will be lucky to see her thirty-fifth name day. I’m pretty sure both of us are sterile after what those bastards did to us, if the way my cycles are a visceral horror of my body trying to turn itself inside out without warning or predictability instead of a regularly scheduled inconvenience is any indication. The rest of our families are gone. We have no time or future, in any sense of the word. Edelgard isn’t the type of person to play at being student without an ulterior motive, and you’re her freaky shadow. So what are the two of you doing here, and what are you planning?”

Lysithea was brilliant, Hubert had to remind himself. She was brilliant, and had suffered in the exact same way Lady Edelgard did. Furthermore, she and Lady Edelgard had tea together once a week since their initial introduction; although she still widely restrained herself she was slightly more open with Lysithea than with any other teatime guests. There might have been enough dropped crumbs for her to pick up on something.

But he could trust nobody. Would Lysithea truly join them, once the war began? And in any case, this was Lady Edelgard’s story to tell.

“What do you want?” Hubert whipped towards Thanily. Why was she saying anything? “Lysithea, what do you really want?” The remnants of dark magic still hung in the air. It was the spiritual equivalent of sandpaper to the skin, leaving emotions oozing and tender to the touch.

Zilbariel snarled. “What do I want? You know exactly what I want! I want to not know what it’s like to be cut open and get a first-person look at my insides! I want to live long enough for my hair to grow white naturally! I want a body that’s not crumbling to pieces on me from having two crests! I want to settle properly!” Zilbariel kept ranting as he paced back and forth, his form shifting to a foul-tempered wolverine. “I want to go home and see my brothers and sisters instead empty chairs at empty tables and my parents’ daemons too broken to talk and a house full of ghosts! I want to live! I want my family back! I want time!

“I’m sorry,” Hubert said. “But that’s impossible. Your family is dead and gone and never coming back.”

“I know that!” She snapped at him. “That’s why I want, no I need to learn as much as I can, and make sure that my parents are going to be okay after...after I’m gone.” Lysithea paused, and when she spoke again there was a different edge to her voice. “And revenge.”

There was the glimmer in Lysithea’s eyes, the burning conviction and determination that propelled her forward. The two crests may have been tearing her body apart inch by agonizing inch, but Zilbariel’s fur was sleek and thick, and he stood tall and strong. He couldn’t trust her fully, not yet. What if she blamed the Empire for the atrocities visited upon her and her family instead of the true enemy?

But maybe...maybe...

No. Hope was a useless, dangerous thing. Still. “Lady Edelgard and I desire much the same.” He stood and paid his respects to the younger dark mage with a shallow bow. She had earned that much. “I have a meeting with her now, but I am sure Lady Edelgard will call upon you again soon. Until next time, Lysithea.”


Edelgard and Hubert walked the perimeter of Garreg Mach as they spoke; Thanily kept pace by his side while Avarine soared far overhead as lookout. Hubert had almost a foot on her and yet he deliberately shortened his stride to match hers, just as he always did.

“Hubert, remember our conversation all those years ago, in the gardens shortly after I was released from the dungeons?”

“We had a lot of conversations back then.”

“The one where you mentioned the Sword of the Creator falling into our laps.” They made their way past the empty graveyard; Avarine descended in a sharp stoop, pulling up at the last minute to land on Edelgard’s shoulders. “I mean, well...” The weak attempt at humor died on her lips.

Hubert folded his arms, pensive. “How much of it is a coincidence, I wonder.”

“No, you’re right.” Edelgard stopped walking; without missing a beat Hubert turned to shield her from any potential passers by. “Nemesis had no children; I have no idea how my captors got the Crest of Flames but there is no other potential source I am aware of in the world. And your background check for Professor Byleth came up empty. It is as if she sprung into the world from nowhere at the age of seven or so, with even that little more than an educated guess, and gained the moniker of Ashen Demon less than a decade later.”

“They used Lysithea as a prototype for the two-crest model, but they did not implant Flames into her.” Hubert ticked off on his fingers. “She has no background or history and her father is reluctant to share details. She has the Crest of Flames. She has infinite range from Belial. Although they have improved as of of late, her affect and emotional range are severely stunted—"

“She is not severed!” Avarine screeched with a flash of speckled wings.

Hubert held up his hands. “I didn’t say she was. But either way, although they deny it, Professor Byleth was likely the result of an earlier experiment by our “friends” in the dark.” Thanily slightly hunched her shoulders, let out a tiny whine.

“They must have considered her a failure and threw her away, at which point Jeralt found her and took her in.” Her teacher was just like her. Did she remember her time in the dungeons, knives peeling away her flesh and bare hands grabbing at her daemon, rats skittering over the scraps of food tossed to her while Avarine screamed in her cage and tried to scare them away?

“Edelgard! Breathe. I’m right here.”

Edelgard let out a shaky breath. Breathe, just as she had to learn. Five of Avarine’s tail feathers, darker than the rest. Four kittens hiding under the bushes. Three sets of eyes guiding her through the breathing exercise. Two hands which could still hold an axe and cut a path to a better future. One professor, her teacher, a comrade in arms, a friend, beautiful and stoic and strong and...maybe...

“Hubert, our teacher has the Sword of the Creator, and she was raised outside the influence of the church. Maybe, just maybe...”

“Don’t give yourself false hope, Lady Edelgard, I beg you,” Hubert growled. “Rhea is doing everything she can to get the professor back into her clutches. And even if she fails, remember we need the war to draw out those who slither in the dark into the light so they can be properly dealt with as much as we need it to destroy the crest-based caste system, the corrupt church, and this entire rotting society. But it’s still a war; do you truly think the professor would side with us? Do you think anyone would?"

“Lysithea might. And Dorothea seems sympathetic to our cause as well.”

“But how much do they know?” It pained Hubert to say this; she could see it on Thanily’s face. “I agree that it would be useful to feel out potential alliances, but I would not expect them to truly last. They may be our friends now, but it won’t last. I will walk by your side until my dying breath, Lady Edelgard, but we cannot trust that anybody else will!”

“...I know.” Hubert was right, of course. Still, it would be worth feeling out alliances, and she found herself enjoying those chats with her classmates, talking about the future or even just joking around, taking the few moments to play as the young woman she never got to be. And for the first time Edelgard felt something stirring in her heart. Something beautiful and terrifying, that she thought had died beneath the palace all those years ago.

Hope.

Chapter Text

Sylvain woke, stretched, and bumped into a body that was not his own. His mind snapped into place, shaking off the threads of dreams, and he began rapidly filing through his first-moments-of-consciousness checklist. He was awake in a room that was not his own, in a bed that was not his own. It was warm, the windows open and a fresh breeze drifting in. His foot brushed against a smooth leg, taut muscle underneath skin that was softer than his own. Pink hair spilled over the pillow to brush into his mouth; a butterfly daemon rested on the windowsill, shimmering blue wings folded up in sleep to reveal the duller brown undersides, dotted with eyespots.  

Ah, right. He was in Hilda’s room. Fucking finally. He’d been trying to get in her panties for weeks, ever since she saw right through him to the bastard he was. Takes one to know one, of course; she probably wanted to see just how much she could get him to do for her in bed ever since that thing with the books. Joke was on her though; he had a lot of anger to take out. Heh, at least she’d have a good excuse for skipping training today if last night was any indication. Or tomorrow; today was a free day, wasn’t it? Aw yeah, as good an excuse as any to just stay in bed and enjoy the lazy humidity of this summer day. Better that than going outside and having to deal with Ingrid lecturing him, or the Eagles Professor. What was her name? Beleth? Ah, Byleth. And her creepy wolf daemon Belial.

He didn’t even want to look at Professor Byleth; just the thought of her made his stomach turn, sent an angry flame through him, sent Zepida into a hiss. It wasn’t like this before. Before he couldn’t get enough of a look at the hot new professor, who was tall for a chick, all corded muscle and wild hair and the biggest tits he’d ever seen—and with Dorothea and Mercedes as classmates and Manuela as the Deer professor there was some stiff competition. But now all he could see when he saw the professor was not her glorious rack or even her creepy blank gaze but her Crest of fucking Flames. All this time she had a Major Crest, a Major Crest that had been gone from the world for over a thousand years. She shouldn’t be a professor! She shouldn’t have been wandering the world doing mercenary shit with her dad until the Church plucked her up from the marriage pool and placed her under their protective wings. By this point she should have been wed off to the highest bidder, pumping out crest babies instead of teaching older ones.

Instead Byleth and Belial got to grow up free. They never had to suffer the weight of expectations of a crest. Never had a brother who hated them for the crest they never wanted. Never had to stand stock still while women and their daemons checked over him and Zepida like they were horses at market. She was a lucky bitch who should pay for being free.

Yeah, he’d show Byleth just how lucky she was, he thought, his hand slipping below the thin blankets to fumble at himself. Hilda was still asleep next to him, her breaths slow and even. He’d get that blank stare of hers to crack, get that wolf to howl. He’d pay that debt, make her pay the price for the freedom that she didn’t even know enough to appreciate. He’d knock her to the ground, and—his breath turned harsh, his grip reflexively tightened around himself—and then he’d say something like, “It’s time to collect on your debt,” and kick her legs open. Would she or her daemon struggle, not that it would even matter, it never mattered what he said, to Miklan, or his future, or suitors or anything—

—Sharp pain, claws raked across his face. “Ow!”

“The fuck is wrong with you, you piece of shit?” Zepida hissed, her claws still out on his chest and wickedly sharp.

“Shut up, you stupid cat,” Sylvain grunted, grabbing her by the scruff and shoving her away from his face, ow that smarted, she didn’t scratch deep enough to draw blood but she did scratch deep enough to leave three angry red lines. At least it shouldn’t be too difficult to explain those away.

“Mmrrgh…Sylvain?” Hilda woke slow and languid, but her hand stilled on his thigh when she rolled over and got a good look at him. “Sylvain? What happened to your face?”

He smiled and tried to laugh it off. “Oh, nothing. Must have really gotten into it last night. Say,” he eased back into his characteristic smirk, swung an arm over Hilda’s bare shoulders, “What do you say about…sleeping in?”

Hilda wasn’t looking at him, but at those three angry red lines on his cheek, so obviously from a cat scratch. Halmstadt was still on the bedpost. “Yeah, um, I think I’ll pass. Not to say last night wasn’t fun,” she stretched and dear goddess she truly had no shame set to brushing her hair, “but I have stuff to do today.”

“O-oh.” Sylvain suddenly felt very foolish; bringing his hand back up over the covers only slightly alleviated the feeling. “Well, maybe I can come back over tonight?”

“Mm, maybe, I’ll let you know.” She sat up without even a motion towards her discarded clothes or dresser, and dismissed him with an imperious wave. “You should get going before anyone else wakes up!”

And then she left him to pull on his discarded clothes and make the walk of shame back to his room.

“Thanks a lot,” he muttered to Zepida, whose tail lashed in agitation as they walked. Stupid daemon, always messing things up for him.

“Don’t thank me for anything, you stupid piece of shit. You’re the one who wrecked it.”

Would it be possible to kick her down the hall without causing him more pain? Whatever, it wasn’t worth it. Best to not make a scene, get back to his room and change and “Felix? What are you doing here?!”

“Waiting for you, obviously.” His arms were folded, his nose wrinkled in contempt. Bismalt swam to the edge of his capsule to bump against Zepida’s outstretched nose. “Ugh, you stink of sex. Go to the sauna or something.”

“Good morning to you too, Fee. No, but seriously, what are you doing in my room so early in the morning?

“I got a letter. From your father. You weren’t in your room so the messenger delivered it to me.”

Fuck. Fuck, what bullshit was it this time? “Felix stop dicking around and give me that!” He swiped the letter from Felix’s hands as his best friend beat a hasty retreat towards the open door. Sylvain tore open the letter and scanned it. Then read it again. Then read it a third time, with Zepida reading over his shoulder and reading the words with increasing horror.

Thank the goddess that Felix stuck around, slouched against the doorframe. And thank the goddess that he closed the door so nobody could hear his profanity-laced screams of rage.


Fish grilled with spices that Dedue hoarded viciously. A stew that Ashe had initially learned in his first parents’ restaurant, but with chunks of venison just as Christophe had suggested. Baked sweets with…was that cinnamon? Perfect to go with tea. Mercedes had suggested that the three of them cook something that was personally important, and then they could all share a lovely meal together.

It was probably some sort of therapy thing, not just the three best cooks in the Blue Lions, possibly the entire school, making a meal together. When Ashe stirred the stew and its flavors mingled with Dedue’s heavily spiced fish and the aroma wafting from the oven, when Fuergios perched sandpiper-shaped on Levia’s horns and Cygnis watched with his tail thumping the ground, it almost reminded him of home. Of Christophe’s mountain goat daemon and Lonato’s screech owl.

But Christophe was gone, and so was Lonato—both of his fathers were dead and gone. All that was left of Lonato was the little wooden puzzle box, and a vial of ashes strung to a necklace that rested next to his heart.

How could he ever repay his classmates for what they did?

Either way, this meal, and the conversations they had while making it, brought back sweet memories tinged bitter with tears. Judging by the looks on their faces, Dedue and Mercedes felt the same way.

People in Fodlan prayed to the Goddess before a meal, but that did not happen in Duscur, Dedue had explained as he cooked, standing respectfully several burners away. Ashe was small and nimble enough to get closer without accidentally brushing against Levia’s bulk, but Mercedes was not so fortunate and so had to raise her voice to be heard, or have Cygnis come closer to them and speak for her.

“We would pray to the sea god before fishing, pray to the…farming god before a harvest,” Dedue had said as he added more of a brownish aromatic powder. “To pray afterwards would be redundant. It would feel more like a prayer to the people who made the food and not the gods who allowed the food to happen in the first place.”

“Your beliefs and reasonings sound so different from ours! Please, I would like to hear more.” Cygnis sat close to Levia, close enough for Levia to touch for support if she wanted. Mercedes didn’t sound disgusted, or revolted, or anything like that. She sounded intrigued. He was too; he wanted to hear more about Duscur from one of its own inhabitants, not whatever people in the Church or Kingdom said about Duscurians. The whole eating babies thing was a lie, so what was the actual truth?

But Dedue just looked down at his fish. It was delicious, the skin crispy but the inside moist, seasoned to perfection. Even the presentation was lovely, with little shavings of carrot and parsnip curled into the shape of flowers. “Why? There is no point; Duscur is a ruin.”

Oh.

“They, they couldn’t have killed everyone in Duscur!” Fuergios cried out and no no no shut up Fuergios! Ashe scrambled over to his daemon, flailing to get her off of Levia without actually touching Dedue’s enormous daemon, but it was too late. “Lonato said there were over a million Duscurians; how could the Kingdom have killed all of them?”

Dedue stared at his fish, his breaths deep and deliberately even. Levia answered in a low voice. “They may as well have. The towns are destroyed, the survivors scattered and crammed in slums instead of the mountains and forests of home. I have heard that the churches are taking orphaned Duscurian children, and even those lucky enough to have a surviving parent, and raising them to be good citizens of Faerghus, good servants of the goddess. They have nobody to teach them the words of our gods. When I was a child, I did not pay much attention to the priests. I was going to be a blacksmith, and the incense made my head hurt. But now my village is gone, and I do not even know the prayers of mourning.”

That…that didn’t seem fair, or right at all. The Kingdom and Church took Dedue’s family from him too, and now they were stealing what was left? He…this world would be a lesser one without Dedue’s cooking, or the tales he remembered of his gods. They shouldn’t do that, and by the growl in Cygnis’s voice Mercedes felt the same way.

“I am so sorry, Dedue. Your people were stolen from you. The Kingdom…we stole your people from the world. I can't bring them back, but Dedue, you are still here. I want to hear about your stories, your lands, your culture. They are worth telling, and worth sharing.”

Ashe scrambled to make up for his prior words. “And Dedue, I want to try your food and hear your stories. And I’ll help you find other survivors and learn the words of those prayers! You shouldn’t have had it stolen, but it matters, getting it back!”

“I suppose, if the stories and memories live on, and are shared, then in a sense our loved ones are not fully gone?”

Mercedes smiled and nodded. “That’s what I believe, anyway.” Weren’t these sweets from her fallen noble house? So she sort of understood.

His father and mother, Christophe and Lonato, they were all gone but he was still here. And he had their stories to share and tell.

So they sat there for a while, eating and sharing the stories of loved ones whose presence still lingered. They did this until they heard Sylvain’s raucous shout announce his presence.

“Oh, that smells divine! Say, you got any left for me?”

Sylvain swaggered in, a grin plastered too wide on his face, three angry red lines glaring from one cheek. Zepida sauntered besides him. Her limbs swaggered with every step, her tail quivered upright yet the tip lashed back and forth, and her eyes were wide as could be. She was agitated, looking for a fight. Felix walked beside him, tenseness radiating in every coiled muscle.

“Uh, Sylvain, are you okay?”

“Never better!” That grin was still there, too wide on his face. He swung himself into a chair a few feet away from them and laughed, a feral thing. “Miklan’s really fucked up this time!”


“Hey, Dorothea?”

“Yes, Bern?” Oh, she was going to murder her excuse for a father. Perhaps if she dropped a few hints to Hubert or Edelgard and they went digging, they could arrange an “unfortunate accident” for him. They definitely seemed like the types who would take a grim pride, if not outright glee, in cleaning up the filth of the upper crust.

“They’re most definitely planning something,” Calphour muttered under his breath. Edie had cut short their semi-regular teatime where they would talk about how awful the nobility was and how she was going to fix things once she took the throne to speak privately with Professor Byleth, and Dorothea was fairly sure it wasn’t just to spend time awkwardly flirting with their professor. Although Edie was probably doing that too, because oh the princess had it bad.

“Um, remember in the greenhouse, when you asked me if…if I had a crush on someone?” Bernadetta squeaked. “Well…”

Dorothea let out a squeak of her own, her hands flying to her mouth. “Wait, seriously? Ooh, Bern, who is it, who’s the lucky guy? Or girl? Oh, I’m so excited for you!”

Bernadetta blushed into Malecki’s curled-up form and, reminding Dorothea to take a step back. Right, don’t overwhelm her. She waited for Bern to compose herself, tap her fingers together, blush deeply, and finally spill out, “It’s Ferdinand.”

What.

Ferdinand? Ferdinand von Aegir, as he so loved to remind people? That loudmouthed pompous hypocrite with the bee daemon? That Ferdinand? That’s who Bernadetta had a crush on?

“Oh, no no no, not him,” Calphour whispered frantically across their link. “He’ll just use her and throw her away!”

Dorothea could still remember that day, the way a much younger Ferdinand had stared at her with chocolate smeared across his face, that burn in his gaze that sent shame running through her. Shame at the simple act of bathing, of being dirty, of being a street rat. And if Ferdie was like that at ten, then how much worse was he at eighteen?

She needed to warn Bern. But…she couldn’t go right out and say it. That would just scare her off.

“Ferdinand? I wouldn’t have expected you to fall for someone with such a…strong force of personality. You’ve got to tell me why.”

And okay, she always loved a good piece of gossip.

“Well, I mean, he’s always so nice and patient with me. We’ve been working in the stables for a few months now, and he’s helped me so much with working with the horses, and how to ride them, and he loves the horses so much it’s adorable to see. He’s never gotten angry or upset with me when I’ve messed up, but he’s taken the time to help me get better. And Dorothea, he really scared me by accident at one point, but after that we talked and he apologized and he asked me what he could do to help not accidentally scare me again and he’s been doing it!

“I know he talks about himself a lot,” Malecki added, “But I think he really wants to help people. He showed me some notes he’s working on about some sort of art program for the people in his territory? Ferdie loves art and he also wants to share it with other people, which I think is just so sweet. And he’s cute!” The last words were muffled, as Malecki curled up in embarrassment.

“Huh. That was…not something I was expecting,” Dorothea said, and she meant every word. Ferdie was a yammering hypocrite but he didn’t seem like the type to pull off an outright deceptive act for that long. Maybe he got a bit of a reality check during those eight-ish years?

She would have had more time to muse on that if Calphour hadn’t spotted another friend. “Oh, Ingrid! How are you doing?” Bernadetta yelped at the sudden intrusion and hid behind a pillar.

Ingrid’s response was to let out a long-suffering sigh. Albarrog looked like he wanted to tear something apart.

“That bad, huh?”

Ingrid’s only response was to hand over a letter. Dorothea quickly scanned it over and…oh dear. It was a marriage proposal. But what was really disturbing was the name attached to it.

“Oh fuck, not this guy,” Calphour muttered.

Albarrog flicked his gaze up to her daemon. “You know him?”

At the same time Ingrid said, “He likely wants my Crest of Daphnel to adorn his family name.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right, the prick.”

“You know him?”

“He tried to court me when I was a singer. Best advice I can give you, Ingrid? Stay far, far away from this guy.” He was one of the worst of the lot. As awful as the younger Ferdinand was, he was nothing compared to this monster in human form. And he dared pursue her Ingrid?!

Ingrid stared at the letter like it was announcing the death of a family member than a possible marriage. “He’s offered a sizable dowry, so I must at least consider it…”

Dorothea and Calphour just let out a bitter bark of a laugh. “Hah! Blood money, that’s all it is.”

“Can we prove it?”

“I don’t want to get married to someone like him,” Albarrog added.

“Um,” Bernadetta stepped out from behind the pillar. “I’ve seen Ignatz in archery practice, and his parents are merchants. Maybe he knows how to track down the records and prove it?”

“You can’t get married to someone like him!” Malecki added. “He only wants you for your crest; he’ll, he’ll—!”

“Hey, hey, Bern, it’s okay!” Cethleann’s grace, and Bern had a crest too, didn’t she? “That’s a really good idea. We’ll go track down this bastard, and give him what’s coming!”


It made sense that Byleth and her students would be entrusted with this mission. After all, most of the knights were away purging the apostates of the Western Church, and she could use the Sword of the Creator. If this Miklan person really was running around with another Relic, well, she remembered just how powerful Thunderbrand was.

“Purging. What a pretty euphemism,” Sothis had muttered. The word didn’t sit quite right with Byleth either. Yes, the Western Church had raised a rebellion, and then they broke into the Holy Mausoleum, but…

She shook her head. Right now the mission was what mattered, and making sure her students stayed safe. Besides, she had a request for Archbishop Rhea and Seteth.

Rhea smiled, as serene and trusting as always. “The Crestless cannot unleash the goddess’s power, even if they possess a Relic. Nonetheless, they are still capable of simply wielding these weapons. They are immensely powerful and so we must meet this thread with adequate force. The Sword of the Creator is a powerful weapon, well beyond the other Relics. You have nothing to fear. However, I know how much you care for your students. You are doing an admirable job as a professor. Therefore, to ensure that no harm comes to your students, we will also send one of the monastery’s most skilled individuals to aid you.”

“Thank you.” Even if she could turn back time thanks to Sothis, she would still remember if her students died. Still did. Anything to prevent that from happening again.

Belial was silent, but now they spoke up. “I feel kind of bad for Miklan, if he was disowned just because he didn’t have a crest.” They had a crest, but they spent their whole life not knowing they had one, and it never made a difference. They were the same person last month when they didn’t know than this month when they did.

Seteth flicked his eyes at Rhea. “Regardless of that, he did steal a Hero’s Relic and has been terrorizing the countryside along with his bandits. He is a threat that must be stopped.”

Of course; that part was clear. That was something she knew how to do. Now for the next part. “Archbishop Rhea? I have a request, if it’s okay to ask?”

She blinked; her praying mantis daemon watched impassively from inside his capsule. “Of course, Professor Byleth. What is it?”

“I have been speaking with Edelgard and she wants to start a club to,” how did she put it? “discuss future political and social policy with the future leaders of Fodlan, with an intent to find common ground among all three houses. Would it be possible to start a club, if I’m the adviser?”

Seteth smiled. “I don’t see a problem with that. I think it would be a wonderful way to help forge stronger bonds among the three nations. However, as adviser, you will be responsible for the content of these clubs and meetings, and likewise it will be your duty to prevent and report any subversive activity. In times like this we cannot be too careful.”

That…was more than Byleth was expecting. She nodded, thankful that they had no idea about what she and the house leaders did just a few weeks ago. Besides, Edelgard probably wasn't going to do anything too nuts with it.

Sothis cheered in Byleth’s head. “Look at you, taking initiative! I knew you had it in you.”

Rhea placed a hand on her shoulder. That fond smile was still on her face, although Seteth’s appeared to vanish. “You must be rather bewildered by the power that was hidden within. However, know that I believe in you. I have no doubt that you will use that power justly. You will most certainly fulfill the grand destiny that the goddess has seen fit to grant you.”

Grand destiny? But then again, nobody else could turn back time. Maybe she did have a grand destiny. Byleth nodded. She couldn’t let her students, or the archbishop down.


Shopping bags full of bread, sweets, ingredients for more sweets, adorable clothes, some new makeup, a couple of fascinating little nick-knacks, and a few books swung from Mercedes and Annette’s arms, hung off of Cygnis’s side. Serrin raced back and forth between Annette’s shoulder and Cygnis’s head, happily chittering away. They had completely overdone it on their shopping trip, again, and it was incredible fun.

“We overdid it again, didn’t we Mercie?”

“Maybe, but if we had a good time together and didn’t truly spend more than we could afford, then it was time and money well spent! And I certainly had a good time. Did you?”

“I always have a good time with you!” Annette laughed, sunny and bright, a wellspring of optimism. Mercedes felt rejuvenated just being around her best friend. Annette was a remarkably resilient young woman who managed to stay positive despite the hardships life sometimes brought her, as life always would. She was proud to call Annette her friend.

They continued walking around town, sharing stories about classes or giving advice on spellcasting, or just talking about their school life. More than once she and Annie would break off their conversation to browse some market stall while their daemons would pick up where they left off without missing a beat. It was good to be out in the air like this, outside of the monastery walls every once in a while.

“—So then Felix heard me singing in the greenhouse; and what’s worse, it was the food song! Ugh, I thought I was going to drop dead of embarrassment right then and there!”

Cygnis’s chuckle turned into a mighty yawn halfway through, which Serrin noticed. Annette’s squirrel daemon tapped his ear and asked, “Hey Cyg, you okay?”

His response was to let out a huff and a teasing flick of his ear. “I’m fine, just a bit tired is all. A lot’s been going on lately.”

“Haha, tell me about it. I thought it would be a normal boring year but instead it’s been new professors and weird conspiracies! And, well, you know...”

“I don’t think Sylvain is doing as well as he wants to let on,” Mercedes mused. “He’s a very disingenuous man, and I suspect he’s much more angry and bitter than what he presents to the world. Annette? If Sylvain starts flirting with you, please turn him down. I would be very wary of his intentions.”

Annie flashed her a soft smile. “Ingrid already warned me about Sylvain but if you’re worried then I’ll be super, duper cautious.” Relief flowed through Mercedes; that was all she wanted. Sylvain definitely needed help, but that was no excuse to hurt other people in the meantime, much less himself. Hopefully she could help him see that.

A flick of Cygnis’s tail against her leg jolted her back to the present. Annie was still talking. “...know just how much you’re taking care of us, but please remember to take care of yourself too? You’re my friend, and I care about you.”

“Oh Annie, you’re so sweet. I promise, you won’t have to worry about that.”

Annie smiled, and Cygnis could feel Serrin relax slightly atop his head. “Thanks, Mercie.”

They continued in that amiable silence, two best friends simply spending time together. Until a flash of orange made Cygnis stop. The painted wolf daemon swiveled towards the motion. “Mercedes, look.”

She did, and saw the figure over by a vegetable stall. Square face. Stocky build. Bright orange hair tied back in a low tail. Large red crab daemon. Oh no.

Annie saw him too. “...Father?” All her purchases clattered against each other as she took off running; a bag of flour bounced out and spilled open against the cobblestones. “Father, it’s me! It’s Annie! I finally found you!”

Serrin lept off Cygnis’s head and bounded after her. “Dad, Flikris, look! Remember when Annie would climb everywhere and you’d call us your little squirrel? Look what I settled as!”

Mercedes approached, a wary sidestep. She watched as Gilbert went still, his daemon—Flikris—freezing midstep. Watched as Gilbert slowly turned, Flikris move to close the gap and his hand hold her in place.

Wished she was astonished at how Gilbert said—no, lied—“I am sorry; you must be mistaken. I have no family.”

Annette staggered back as if struck, Gilbert had the audacity to step forward and help her up, and oh that was it! Mercedes raced forward to support her friend, who crumpled in her arms as if she had actually taken a mighty blow, and Cygnis placed himself snarling between Annette and Gilbert. Cygnis was not as large as Belial, but he was still a painted wolf.

Cygnis snarled, stared Gilbert down just as Mercedes did. “You have no right!”

Gilbert saw them, Annette with her heart carved in two, Mercedes holding the pieces together, and for a moment appeared to be nothing more than a sad old man. “…You’re right. Forgive me.”

And then he walked off. Annette managed to hold it together until he was out of view before collapsing into quiet sobs.

“Annie, I…I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that. No matter what, please remember that you didn’t deserve it.” Mercedes helped Annie to her feet, quashed the small selfish part of her that worried about getting her essay in on time. That didn’t matter; she could always stay up late to finish it. What did matter was that Annie was in trouble, and needed her help. Her best friend, her classmates, they were all hurting in some way. What kind of person would Mercedes be if she didn’t do everything she could to help them?


 “Hey, you think the Eagles will let me on their mission?” Sylvain’s voice was still sharp and shiny like a shard of broken glass. Zepida paced back and forth, her tail twitching, her eyes and fur both standing on end.

Oh, he hoped the Eagles would let him go with them. He couldn’t wait to see the look on that bastard’s face upon seeing Sylvain in the group sent to take him down.

“Miklan, you’ve fucked up now,” Zepida growled, tail still lashing back and forth. “Go ask the professor yourself! Or are you afraid you have so little self control that you’ll bury your face in her tits instead of speaking to her like a normal human being?”

“That’s not true!” But wasn’t it, on some level?

“Sylvain?”

Oh no. That had to be Mercedes. That woman would not let up. And Felix was there too, because of course his oldest and closest friend wouldn’t take his smiling lies at face value. Thank goodness Ingrid’s attention was split between him and whatever she was doing with Dorothea, because there was no way she bought it either.

Everyone in the Lions had checked in on him once the news of Miklan and the lance came out. They’d be checking in on each other a lot lately, since Lonato. It had been Mercedes who spearheaded the effort and did the bulk of the work, of course. Sylvain liked Mercedes, but he was also a little afraid of her. She was sweet, she was kind, she was gorgeous, she had made peace with her past in a way that poured an acid burn in his chest, and she was uncannily perceptive. She had this preternatural ability to see right through you and go straight for the throat.

“She going to show Felix just what a piece of shit you are? Joke’s on her; he already knows and yet he’s still here for some reason.”

“Mercedes wouldn’t be here for that!”

“Sylvain?” Mercedes had plopped down on a seat across from him, close enough to be intimate but far enough away for him not to feel trapped. Cygnis laid down, seemingly comfortable yet with his gaze still alert and trained on him. Felix was not nearly so careful in his movements and so slouched with folded arms and a scowl. Still, Bismalt seemed to move faster in his capsule. “I’m sure this must be very difficult. Is there anything you would like to talk about?”

“I’m fine, really.” He laughed again, shiny and bitter. “Honestly, this was a long time coming. And it’s not like this is anything new.”

All of which was true. Miklan was a fucking asshole made of bitterness, jealousy, rage, and impulsivity; it was only a matter of time before he did something this stupid and got himself killed for it. And it’s not like asshole family members were a rarity here. This was the Blue Lions after all; with the glaring exception of Ingrid everyone’s family was either dead or dead to them.

So Sylvain was fine. He was absolutely, completely fine. Could they stop asking him if he was fine?

That’s what he said, and Mercedes smiled in that knowing way while Felix just scoffed. “I’m asking the professor if we can both go on the mission,” he said in a tone that brokered no argument. “Come find me when you’re ready to be an adult and talk about how you really feel.”

And then he stalked off, leaving Sylvain with Mercedes and her expectant smile and her endless patience and her cutting gaze.

Zepida stared down Cygnis, her tail drumming an irregular beat on the wooden table. “I bet she can see just how much of a piece of shit you are. You’re a real piece of shit, you know that, brushing off Felix and Ingrid like that? They’re the only two people in the world who put up with your garbage, and you brush them off like that? How long before they get fed up and walk away too?”

“They’re Felix and Ingrid, they won’t—“

“—Yes they will! Sooner or later you’ll drive them away and then you’ll be all alone. Which you deserve, you worthless whore. Everywhere you go you hurt people!”

“That’s not true!”

“Oh yeah? What about the girls you fuck and dump? What about Ingrid who has to clean up after you? What about Ashe? What kind of example are you setting?”

“What does this have to do with Miklan?! Shut up!”

Zepida hissed and hopped off the table to crouch and stare at Cygnis. The painted wolf daemon didn’t move, didn’t even twitch those huge round ears of his.

“If you need to talk, or ask for advice, or anything, I’m here for you.”

Just what had Mercedes seen in the church? What had she seen before the crests ruined her life as well? Did she see people even worse, even more wretched than him?

Mercedes saw right through him, but she still didn’t really know him. Didn’t know how awful Miklan was, didn’t know just how awful he was. Didn’t know all the rough and jagged edges, those open sores the way that Felix and Ingrid and even Dimitri did. Didn’t know why he could never, ever ask Felix these things that would scratch at those bleeding wounds.

“Mercedes?” he asked, in a voice surprisingly small for how bitter it was, “What’s it like to have a brother who loves you?”


It was dusk, and everyone who had an ounce of sense in their heads had gone back to their dormitories to study for certification exams and possibly sleep. And grunts and the sound of metal against wood still echoed from the training grounds. Felix didn’t want to know what dragons might be in the boar’s head but there certainly wasn’t any sense in there.

“Hey! Boar!”

The actual boar turned to look at him. The one wearing his former friend’s skin didn’t stop stabbing the training dummies, but he did slow down in acknowledgement of Felix’s presence. “Felix, are you here to train as well?”

Felix gritted his teeth, but his fingers curled around Bismalt’s capsule. How dare this mockery of Dimitri talk to him with that voice, with those earnest blue eyes?! “I don’t make a habit of talking to beasts. I’m here to let you know that Sylvain and I are joining the Black Eagles to take down Miklan. That’s it. I’m going to get some fresh air. Remember what that is?”

Now the boar prince saw fit to put down his lance. “Felix, I...thank you for telling me. And thank you for going with Sylvain on this mission. Edelgard and the Black Eagles are lovely people, to be sure, but your presence will—"

Felix held up a hand. “Shut it. I don’t want to hear it. I’m going now, but just a word of advice, boar. The goddess gave us daemons for a reason, so we have someone to talk to and keep us from going mad with isolation. You should speak with her some time, if you can talk about anything other than bloodlust.” And with that, he turned and walked away.

Bismalt made sure they were out of earshot before asking, “What about Sylvain and Zepida?”

“That’s something else entirely.” And yet just as scary, in his own way. He wished...he just...it...

“Goddess damn it all. I can’t wait to take out that bastard,” Felix muttered, storming off.

Dimitri didn’t even wait for Felix’s form to vanish into the evening shadows before turning back to the training dummies. The lance tore into leather and straw, and Dimitri tried to imagine that they were the bodies of the ones who massacred his family instead.

It only helped a little bit.

He could hear the scuffling noise behind him as Delcabia opened her mouth to speak, and he interrupted whatever she was about to say with a raised hand. He didn’t want to hear it, didn’t need to hear whatever she had to say. He didn’t need to see his fathers’s ghostly hands clawing at her bristles either.

“I’m working on it!” He growled. Another swing of the lance, another crack as it splintered in his hands. He pitched the broken weapon aside and pulled out another one. “Just, give me time...”

Delcabia said nothing, and thankfully the ghosts stayed silent for the time being as well. She sat at the very edge of their range and watched as Dimitri trained late into the night.

Chapter Text

Well, the Goddess certainly knew how to set the mood. The rain came down in thick sheets, turning the sky a greenish-gray and the ground to a thick muddy slop. Mud tracked up everyone’s shoes and kicked up as they walked, coating the backs of everyone’s legs. They were forced to abandon the horses and make the rest of the way to the tower on food. The rain plastered everyone’s hair to their heads, soaked through clothes, ran into scabbards and spellbooks and socks. Only the fact that it was a warm rain kept it “merely” intolerable instead of a living hell.

In other words, it was the perfect weather for hunting down some bandits and killing Sylvain’s shitstain of a brother.

“I can’t wait to take down that rat bastard,” Bismalt muttered in his capsule. “He’s had this a long time coming, everything he’s done to Sylvain…”

Felix sighed. “Bis, not that I don’t agree, but keep it to yourself, okay?”

“Why? Its true, and Sylvain seems fine about it.” Indeed, Sylvain was chatting with Edelgard. Surprisingly enough, he seemed to be restraining himself. At least, Felix assumed that was the case because although Hubert was hovering nearby like a particularly hungry vulture, Edelgard’s creepy vassal hadn’t blasted Sylvain yet.

“Sylvain’s very good at seeming.”

What could he do? What else could Felix and Bismalt do beyond what they were doing right here and now, marching alongside Sylvain and the Black Eagles in the storm? How much did they understand the personal history here, or was it just another job for their mercenary-turned-professor?

A flash of orange in his vision, and Felix’s ire quickly latched onto a new and much more deserving target. He jogged up to Gilbert—Macuil’s ire, he hoped he’d rust himself in that armor, he deserved worse—and growled, “You.”

The older man (and his face was grizzled chiseled and wrinkled and his hair was streaked with gray but the same color as Annette’s. The blue of his eyes, the hue of his skin, both of them were exactly the same as hers) looked down (not up) at him with soft blue eyes. “Ah, you must be Fraldarius’s son. Felix, was it? I’m surprised to see you on this mission. You are still part of the Blue Lions, are you not?”

Hypocrite, hypocrite, just another sad old man who chose to enslave himself, Felix wanted to vomit at the sight of him, wanted to punch him in the face. “So’s your daughter. Remember her? Because Annette hasn’t forgotten you.”

Gilbert’s crab daemon scuttled under his armor, but her likeness was still carved into the steel, and Bismalt still glared at it in absolute disgust. Gilbert merely closed his eyes. “I do not deserve to see her, not after—”

“No. No you don’t. You don’t deserve Annette, you don’t deserve her forgiveness, you don’t deserve to be anywhere near her! And not for whatever bullshit Duscur-related excuse you’re about to spout. You don’t deserve to be anywhere near her because you abandoned her! Gilbert, or whatever you’re calling yourself nowadays, you got so wrapped up in your guilt or self-pity or I don’t actually fucking care that you forgot about your own fucking wife and daughter, who are alive and actually needed you! You’re nothing but a selfish bastard who’s more interested in feeling sorry for himself and chasing ghosts than helping people who are actually alive and need you!”

And then Felix stormed off. He didn’t want to hear whatever self-pitying bullshit Gilbert had to say. He felt a little better, but Bismalt was still darting back and forth in his capsule, fins shimmering in the water. The tempest still raged inside Felix. Rage and a twisting clawing feeling that made him want to scream and cry. Anger at a broken world and broken friends, grief for everything, rage at that glorified death cult everyone in Faerghus called chivalry. Bullshit. Bull-fucking-shit. Chivalry was nothing more than a pack of lies that glorified death and dying and killing over actually doing something for people who were actually alive. The dead couldn’t speak, couldn’t wish, couldn’t dream. They were gone. And to worship them over the living?

Any word other than “bullshit” would boil down to the same thing in the end.

He made his way back to Sylvain, whose was displaying an impressive amount of self-control in his conversation with Edelgard, if the fact that Hubert still hadn’t murdered him was any indication. They were going over the internal plans of the tower while standing a safe spot from the structure. Professor Byleth was discussing plans of attack while her…while oh shit it was true; Belial must have been scouting because they were not there. Sure, the professor had warned him and Sylvain beforehand, and he’d heard the rumors that had swept through the monastery, but it was another thing entirely to actually see a living human being without their daemon.

Felix opened the lid of the capsule and dipped his fingers in the water for Bismalt to swim up against. His scales were smooth against the rough pads of his fingertips. “That’s not right,” he muttered.

His gaze slid from Belial (how did the Eagles ever get used to that sight?) to Sylvain, who was speaking with a too-easy smile but with his eyes specifically trained on Edelgard, not Byleth.

“My apologies, Sylvain. I know this must be emotionally painful for you. Whatever his tactical acumen might be, his crimes against you and the general populace must not go unanswered.”

“Oh, you don’t need to tell me twice. Edelgard, Professor Byleth, thanks again for letting me and Felix go on this mission. After everything he’s done I need to see the end of this myself.”

Zepida lashed her tail back and forth. “Sure he could have been a good military leader, but that didn’t happen, now did it?”

Belial returned, their fur soaking wet and blending into the grayness of the stormy landscape, the rain masking the sound of their footfalls. Both Sylvain and Felix relaxed slightly—Edelgard must have been used to it, somehow—and that was as good a time as any to walk in.

“Sylvain.”

“Gah!”

“You ready for this?”

“Of course I’m ready. I’ve been ready for this since the mountainside. Or the well. Or, well…”

Of course Sylvain was going to say that, and he was smiling. He was smiling so widely that Felix’s cheeks hurt just looking at him. Bismalt pressed a fin against the capsule, and Zepida responded with a paw to the cool glass. “When you’re ready just let me know.”


The lance was twitching. The lance was fucking twitching.

Miklan was screaming out orders above the din of battle and his bandit lackeys were fanatically loyal to an extent that Byleth had not seen in some time. There were reinforcements pouring in to the point where the rear lines nearly got overwhelmed and Belial had to split off so they could attack on two fronts. Dorothea was out on an emergency mission with Ingrid, Linhardt was working himself to exhaustion with long-range healing spells, and Sylvain and Felix were not quite fighting in synchronization the way that her eagles had been learning to do.

Her students really had been learning well. They fought in much more harmonious concert then that first fight a few long months ago. Caspar was at Linhardt’s side as he cast and healed his injured classmates; anybody who thought him an easy mark would be instantly tackled and pummeled. Petra was slightly out of step without Dorothea’s magic, but she was the swiftness to complement her and Edelgard’s strength, and she was also fast enough to slip into the fray wherever she was needed. Somehow, Ardior managed to keep himself inconspicuous until the last minute. Bernadetta and Ferdinand were rarely far from each other; much like Linhardt and Caspar he defended her from anybody who dared close into melee, and even when many closed in on Ferdinand and Bernadetta at once they always did so feathered with arrows, or smoking from a spell that Hubert cast. His hands glowed with greasy magic; he and Thanily cackled in malicious glee at any particularly strong hit. She and Sothis could not help but feel the surge in pride at how her students had grown.

As for Byleth herself, this was the first she had used the sword in combat for an extended period of time, and it…it really felt like an extension of herself. When the blade extended into the whip and those barbed fragments, and she lashed it forward, it was like she attacking with her own bare hands or claws.

She felt more connected with the sword than she did to her own daemon.

And now they had turned the corner, had directly engaged Milkan and that stolen lance, and the lance was fucking twitching.

“What kind of sacred relic twitches?” Sothis shouted in her head, giving commentary whenever she wasn’t keeping another set of eyes out for her students. “Seriously, I haven’t seen many supposedly sacred items but generally something that’s holy is NOT supposed to twitch!”

Sylvain was locked in combat with his older scarred brother, his face set in a snarl, Zepida’s fur standing on end as she tried again and again to grab Miklan’s foul-tempered Almyran hamster daemon off of him without actually touching Miklan himself. Miklan was lost in fury at the sight of his younger brother, and the things he said were…

“Shut up!” Sylvain cried out, parrying that horrible twitching lance with his normal dinged-up steel one. “I’m tired of you blaming me for things that aren’t my fault! I’m tired of you—ugh!”

Zepida had lept for Miklan’s daemon again, but this time Miklan had caught her in the chest with a sweep of his lance. She yowled in pain and bounced across the room, forcing Sylvain to his knees and scrambling after her as she skidded to a stop inches from the wall.

Miklan’s armor clanked as he approached, his face twisted into a feral snarl as his armor clanked with every step of his approach. That lance twitched faster, as if eager for the promise of more blood to feast upon. Sylvain turned around, his back flush against one of the inner walls of the tower.

“How do you like being on the receiving end for once?” Miklan’s daemon taunted to Zepida and Sylvain alike.

Miklan raised his lance. “Why don’t you be a good little brother for once in your life, and die for me!”

“Byleth!”

I’m on it, Sothis! She reached within, prepared for the world to shatter as she walked back time, let it be before Sylvain’s life spilled on the ground and Zepida faded away—

—The lance pulsed. Something dark began to ooze from between the wiggling pieces.

“What the…?”

The rest of her students had caught up, which meant that everyone got a front-row seat to what happened next.  

Reddish-black ichor shot out of the lance, almost what dried blood would look like if it had a shape and form, and wound its way up Miklan’s hand, wrist, arm, torso.

“What—what the--?!”

Sylvain scrambled away and to his feet. He held Zepida close, could do nothing but watch in terror as Miklan was slowly consumed. Whatever substance oozed out of the lance kept working up and down his body, up his torso, down his legs, up his neck. The pulsing tendrils of ichor crawled over his face, and as Miklan screamed in terror and agony they wormed into his mouth, his nose, his eyes.

Miklan’s daemon jumped off him, her eyes wide as she tried to run away. That dark energy swept over the hamster, pulsed, and flattened out. She was gone.

“K-Kilkari!” Sylvain was silent, his eyes wide. Zepida, and nearly everyone in her class whether human or daemon, screamed.

Kilkari was gone, and so was Miklan. Even the screaming had been consumed. All that was left was a writhing mass of…of what looked like thick worms made of bloody meat, shifting and oozing and growing.

Until the ooze was sucked into…into…

The thing that used to be Miklan was a black beast, vaguely lizard-like but many times larger than even Levia. Too many fangs jutted from the beast’s mouth, and spikes that looked almost like enlarged versions of those twitching protrusions of the lance jutted from its back. It looked twisted, warped, and writhed in agony. One hapless bandit who was too frozen in terror to flee was torn in half for his trouble, got to see his lower half disappear down the throat of the thing that used to be Miklan before the rest of him, still screaming, followed. It took too long for his daemon, trapped outside the beast, to fade away.  

Carved into its forehead was the Crest of Gautier.

Sothis was still and quiet in Byleth’s mind. After a moment she heard her mutter, “That beast, and that crest…”

“This…Miklan, what is this?!” Sylvain muttered. Zepida was whimpering, pressing into him as far away from the beast as possible. “This is like a bad dream come to life.”

The beast that was once Milkan roared and lunged, and Felix just barely managed to dodge in time. Sylvain was not so lucky.

Those wicked claws tore Sylvain open, rending through armor and flesh like butter. His insides spilled out onto the ground, and he collapsed, bleeding out.

“SYLVAIN!”

Felix’s cry of anguish shattered mid-syllable as Byleth, Sothis, and Belial pulled back the threads of time. Belial huffed as time resumed.

“This…Miklan, what is this?!” Sylvain muttered. Zepida was whimpering, pressing into him as far away from the beast as possible. “This is like a bad dream come to life.”

The Sword of the Creator whipped out and lashed across the black beast’s face and split its cheek open. It roared in agony and reared back.

“Get up, you idiot!” Felix dashed into the provided opening, pulled Sylvain to his feet, and retreated.

“That beast has an armored shell around it! It will get more powerful the more it’s hurt, so take it down fast and don’t put anybody squishy nearby. You see that glow in the back of its mouth? It can breathe fire over a wide radius so get ready to dodge!”

Sothis, how do you know all this?

“If you have time to talk, you have time to fight! Go keep our pups safe!”

As always, Byleth inserted herself into the ebb and flow of battle, and it was Belial who barked orders.

“Edelgard, Ferdinand…Sylvain, to me! Stay close to me, get its ankles, and get ready to dodge! Linhardt, you’re on healing duty! Petra, Caspar, Felix, hit and run tactics only—don’t get hit, and don’t get cocky, that means you Caspar! Bernadetta, Hubert, stay back and stick to range attacks; go for the eyes!”

And they did. Her eagles barely needed the instructions at this point. She and Edelgard and even Ferdinand covered for each other, fought in synchrony, in a way which showed Sylvain awkwardly sticking out, a half-step behind for all he fought with power and fear and an inner anger.

Petra, Caspar, and Felix were small and fast. They could duck under those huge and wicked claws, slice at the more vulnerable tendons and underbelly, and get back out before the beast could turn underneath and attack. All the while there was a nonstop barrage of spell and arrow from above. No sooner would Bernadetta fire an arrow and reload than Hubert would cast a spell. And by the time Hubert moved to recharge his magic, Bernadetta was ready to fire another arrow.

But as the beast that was once Miklan roared in pain and dark blood oozed from its wounds, it seemed to move faster, and it struck out with more force. It then reared back, flames curling at the corners of its mouth.

Edelgard and Ferdinand were slightly stronger than Byleth, but she was slightly faster. The beast reared back and she knew they would not be able to dodge in time.

“They’ll survive, dung-for-brains; get out of the way!”

No! What kind of teacher would I be if I left them?

Even though she and Belial were able to separate, they couldn’t…

Before Belial knew it, she had tackled Edelgard to the ground as Felix dragged Sylvain to a slightly safer spot by his collar. She closed her eyes, prepared to turn back time again, stupid why did she go for Edelgard, she couldn’t see or hear Ferdinand die again—

—A flash of a crest. A blur of purple. Bernadetta, screaming, “GET BACK!” burst out from behind the impromptu ramparts to tackle Ferdinand in turn. Malecki curled up, quivering in terror as they braced themselves for the flames.

They never came. There was another flash of dark magic, a shout of, “You will not touch Lady Edelgard!” from several feet away, and Hubert rammed a bolt of dark magic straight down the beast’s throat. It shrieked, high and unearthly, and collapsed.

And then dissolved—no, melted—like snow in the sun. All that was left was Miklan’s corpse. Miklan, and the lance.

Byleth found herself gazing into Edelgard’s wide lilac eyes and furiously pink face. Avarine froze under Belial’s paws, her beak hanging open.

“I, um,” She and Edelgard scrambled off and away from each other. Behind her Bernadetta frantically babbled apologies to Ferdinand as she did the same thing. Hubert was already there, pulling Edelgard to her feet and checking her over for injuries while Thanily glared daggers at Belial.

“And just where were you a moment ago, rat boy?” Sothis shouted in her head. “Some bodyguard you tout yourself as being when you’re all the way in back. What was it you said to Byleth about serving the emperor at all costs? I thought you’d use every tool at your disposal!” She continued that rant for some time, all the while carefully locking away just what she, they, everyone had just seen.

The Black Eagles, Felix, and Sylvain collected themselves one way or another, tallied injuries and held their daemons close. Linhardt pressed his face into Runilite’s plush fur coat. Caspar plunged his hand into his backpack just to feel Peakane’s form. Many students and their daemons were whimpering. A few were outright crying.

Belial crossed the space between the students and Miklan. They picked up the still-twitching lance and returned to Byleth, who was still standing there.

Sylvain hadn’t moved either. He held Zepida, and held her as they looked down at the body of their tormentor and older brother in silence. Felix, one hand clenched around Bismalt’s capsule, sidled up next to his friend. Sylvain didn’t lean into the contact, but he didn’t run away either. He said something, but Byleth could only hear the last few words.

“Miklan…my brother.”


That fucking lance was still twitching. It wasn’t even a consistent movement either; it would be less disturbing if it was as rhythmic as a metronome. Nope, those claw-like protrusions would instead stay deceptively still, then out of the corner of his eye jerk and spasm like a half-squashed bug. Every time Sylvain looked at it he was dragged back to a battlefield years ago where he saw a man take a war hammer to the head. He had dropped like a stone, just crumpled to the ground as his daemon suddenly went glassy-eyed and simultaneously collapsed. The poor man’s head was visibly dented with bits of brain oozing out from the smashed-in bit of skull, but his body had spasmed and contorted in an unnatural way. The man’s limbs twitched and jerked while he gasped like a fish even after his daemon had faded away.

And if it wasn’t that sight, it was the memory of the lance turning on Miklan, devouring his shithead brother it’s my fault he’s a shithead I made him do that to me shut up shut up I was a kid!

Zepida’s claws twitched. She wanted nothing more than to tear that Lance apart, but the pieces would probably still twitch like a severed lizard’s tail. And it was the Lance of Ruin. It was his now. And it fucking ate Kilkari!

He had it coming, piece of garbage.

Not even he deserved that.

Sure he had the Gautier Crest, he was safe, but...

But.

Sylvain took another swig of whiskey and stared down the lance. It went still, and then jerked again. Sylvain hurled the flask to the floor where it left a small but visible dent in the wood.

“I can’t fucking do this,” he muttered, storming out of his room and slamming the door behind him. He heard the clatter of the Lance falling to the ground, then the occasional faint clicks of those spike things as they randomly twitched and tapped the floorboards.

“Hey, we should go pick that up,” Zep hissed. She was right. They should. It was a Hero’s Relic, his family’s relic, passed down through generations of Gautiers, was responsible for defending the borders of the good and chivalrous Holy Kingdom of Faerghus against the barbarian hordes of Sreng. Where the people were uncouth, unwashed, feral. The people of Sreng and Duscur and everywhere outside Fodlan were little more than barbarians. They married for such base things as love, not the noble preservation of family lines. Certainly not for goddess-blessed crest babies. The goddess never cursed them with the gift of crests. Savages, that’s what they were, nothing more. They weren’t blessed with animated Relics that moved like a dying man and bore such auspicious names as Crusher, or the Lance of Ruin.

The cool night air, a promise of the upcoming fall, briefly stirred Sylvain from his drunken haze. The shops in the market had closed for the night; he was already halfway to town.

What do you think you’re doing, you idiot? Go back to bed, you’re the only Gautier son now!

He staggered into the bar.

I can’t believe you’re getting drunker!

He sat down at the bar; flopped back onto the stool more than anything else. Zep curled up at his feet, her fur and ears smoothed flat.

One drink.

Sylvain blinked, and found himself several hours and glasses later pawing at some woman with long dark hair and too much lipstick that she smeared all over his face and neck with sloppy drunken kisses. Her daemon was some small mouse or vole thing, soft and compliant under Zep’s aggressive grooming. She kissed him all the way upstairs, and her daemon was still limp and relaxed as Zep carried him in her mouth.

Look at yourself you insatiable pervert, going to stick your dick in something again. How about you do something constructive for a change? Or at least if you’re going to whore yourself out like the glorified studhorse you are, might as well charge for it! Jerk off in a bottle, find some magic to preserve it, and sell it by the ounce, turkey baster included. Think we’ll have enough to pay child support? At least we have an easy way to test for crests and not deal with failures like Miklan after!

Sylvain kissed her harder, and her daemon squirmed in Zep’s mouth. That shut the stupid cat up.

Sylvain turned back to the girl and pressed her closer. Lost himself in the wet heat of her mouth and in between her legs until his hand came away slick and she was begging for it for a crest baby for status shut up shut up! and his own need pressed urgently against his trousers. Bent her over the bed she wants this she’s wet and she wants it, it it isn’t—I’m not—I’m not like—, rucked up her skirt, and fucked her into the mattress. Came on her back and in her long dark hair. Passed out somewhere in the middle of her fury.

He dreamt of demonic babies with no daemon in sight, black scales and twitching spines in place of smooth skin, biting at their mothers’ breasts.


“Ferdinand, take a deep breath. If we unload all our concerns at once it will only serve to frighten her off.”

He took a deep breath, just as he tried to teach Bernadetta to do. But it barely touched the fluttering deep in his chest. If this was how she felt all the time, well...she certainly was a strong woman to push herself regardless. And foolish, to throw herself into danger like she did against that thing which was once Miklan. Is that what demonic beasts were? Crestless humans unlucky enough to come in contact with a Hero’s Relic, only to have their form warped and their daemon devoured and every part of them twisted into a monstrosity to the point where death was a release?

Embrienne shuddered against the palm of Ferdinand’s hand. That was the worst thing they had ever seen in their entire life. “Why did Archbishop Rhea forbid us from discussing what the Lance of Ruin did to Miklan?”

“Likely because the knowledge would spark a panic. Given the Western Church revolts, it would not do to introduce more instability at this time.” He turned and paced the length of the grassy corridor once more.

“That may be, but the potential danger to the public is just as immediately pressing. Perhaps even more so, given that there have been reports of demonic beasts prowling the wildernesses of Fodlan for centuries.” Another lap back and forth in front of Bernadetta’s room. The door was closed but he knew she was inside.

“Releasing such information must be done cautiously, not in a fit of rebellious pique! Not to mention, the Knights of Seiros would trace such a dissemination back to us. The punishment for disobeying a direct command from Archbishop Rhea would be most dire indeed.” He did not even want to think about the potential consequences.

“Ferdinand that was not my suggestion and you know it.” With each word, Embrienne bumped against Ferdinand’s nose for emphasis. “You are stalling, trying to get us off topic. We need to talk with Bernadetta about what happened.”

He knew that. How could she put herself in such peril for him? She was safe fighting at range alongside Hubert. True, Bernadetta was faster than him, but he was sturdier and more able to withstand a blow. More importantly, just the thought of Bernadetta injured—especially while protecting him—made Ferdinand want to vomit. It was almost too terrible to contemplate. But if he just ran into her room beside himself with worry it would only serve to terrify the young woman. Ferdinand had tried to talk to Dorothea about it; the songstress had been spending more time with Bernadetta as of late and might have some useful advice. But she was out on some sort of mission with Ingrid, and when she got back, well.

One look at her face and the question died on his lips. Her facade of coolly distant disdain was gone, replaced with blazing eyes and a tight jaw. Calphour’s feathers were puffed up, turning him into a tiny ball of rage. All Ferdinand did was stand in front of her and she held up a hand in his face.

“Just, don’t.”

Calphour had to finish for her. “Ferdie, I know you’re trying, or as much as you’re able to, and that you’re more of an ignorant buffoon than actively malicious. But I swear to the Saints, if I have to see your smug noble face that has seen nothing but benefit from the system for one more minute, I might actually punch it in.”

Dorothea then stalked off towards Ingrid’s room, practically shoving him aside without even a clipped apology. Ferdinand wisely took the hint and did not pursue. However, that left him to figure out how to speak with Bernadetta alone. It should have been easy, but for some reason every time he saw her this past week he remembered the feel of her weight on him and her face so close and it was if someone reached inside his chest, wrapped a hand around his heart, and squeezed. It was a shameful display of temerity that Ferdinand thought he had conquered long ago.

“We are Ferdinand and Embrienne von Aegir,” she said, hovering by his ear. “We can do this.”

Ferdinand’s fist hung suspended mid-air above the door. He could feel Embrienne roll her eyes seconds before she said, “Bernadetta?”

“Eep! N-nobody’s home!” Silence, then a more hesitant, “Embry? Ferdie, are you—stupid Bernie of course Ferdie’s there...”

“May I come in?” As nervous as he was, hearing Bernadetta berate herself was worse.

“Uh, yeah, sure, that’s okay!” she squeaked.

Bernadetta’s room was cluttered but relatively neat, with an oversized plushie bear by the desk and a couple of odd-looking plants—one real, one plushie—resting on the windowsill. Bernadetta fidgeted with Malecki’s quills, her face bright pink for some reason. Even when he left the door a crack open—a noble must avoid any implication of scandal, after all!—she couldn’t quite meet his gaze.

“I-Is this about the fight against that monster thing Miklan turned into? Because that was…that was awful!” She held Malecki to her face.

“It was quite a horrific sight. But Bernadetta, if it was so horrific then, well I was quite surprised to see you leaping into the fray. Particularly to knock me out of the way of a blow.” His voice sped up, impassioned. Embrienne started headbutting his neck, attempting to get his attention, but it was too late. He was off. “Why did you do that, Bernadetta? You are faster and more dexterous than me to be sure, but I am more physically durable. You put yourself in unnecessary danger and—”

“Ferdinand—”

“I cannot stand to see you hurt. Simply the thought of it is a greater pain than whatever injury that beast could have inflicted upon me! You—”

“Ferdinand!”

That shut him up. His mouth actually snapped shut under Bernadetta’s trembling gaze. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths, closed her eyes, and then spoke.

“Ferdinand, I did it because...because I don’t want to see you hurt either. I didn’t even think about it, but I’d...even if I was, I’d do it again. If it meant you’d be safe. I wouldn’t do that for just anyone, you know that, right?”

Ferdinand heard the words, but they did not register. Preposterous. Bernadetta could not possibly mean…what I think she means.

But what if she does?

A noble should be discreet. A noble should speak with careful language. A noble must maintain proper rituals of courtship.

Embrienne buzzed over to Malecki and bumped her fussy head against his paw. Bernadetta turned to Ferdinand, and his heart surged at the sight of her expression of joyous shock and disbelief.


Summer did not officially end until partway through the Horsebow Moon. Although the nights were starting to cool off the days were still pleasantly warm, warm enough that letting ones’ feet trail in the pond was refreshing and not painful. It was still a bad idea in this circumstance though, given that Byleth and Jeralt were crabbing in the pond, and were liable to receive a nasty pinch if they didn’t stay on the docks.

Jeralt drew in the line; two crabs were firmly attached to a slightly-rotten drumstick, fighting over the choicest bits. He pried them off and tossed them into the bucket. Domaghar sniffed the bucket, sneezed at the strong smell of the crabs. It would have been easy for them to escape, if only they didn’t keep pulling each other down.  

“You know, I’ve only ever gone fishing with you,” Jeralt said as he tossed the drumstick back into the water where it sank with an unceremonious plop. “No, wait, we did go crabbing once. It was…yeah, it was at the beach in a village near Deirdru."

“We did?”

“I don’t remember doing such a thing. And there’s no way I’d forget how bad this bait smells. Who decided to lug around rotten meat as crab bait anyway? Or decided to eat something that eats rotten meat? Honestly, sometimes I just don’t understand you humans.”

Her father’s smile went soft around the edges, and for some reason Domaghar’s nuzzle between Belial’s ears was more obviously affectionate instead of their normal roughhousing. “Yeah. I’m not surprised you don’t remember. You were about eight or so.”

Eight or…Oh. “Was it one of the Bad Days?”

A nod from her father, more of a quick jerk of the head really, and his voice was suddenly rough for some reason. “You just held the crabbing rod and stared at the water. Wouldn’t respond to anything, no matter what I tried to say or how many crabs pulled at the bait. Some kid ran up all barefoot and sunburned and wanted to play tag with you. You just stood there…I don’t even know if I can call it confused, because confused is still an emotion.”

“Don’t,” Doma nickered. “What’s done is done. Don’t dwell on it, Jeralt. Look at Byleth and Belial now.”

“Is that what the Bad Days were like? I would remember if you stood there like a puppet. How did your father stand it?”

He pulled in the line again—empty this time—and cast it further out into the pond. “You’ve really started to open up. I’ve seen you around the other students, especially Edelgard. “Which dream has it been since you started, the battle or the girl?”

“Wait, what?” Sothis did the mental equivalent of a mid-air trip in her head. “The flashes of you I had in my sleep, that was you dreaming of me? And that was when you were actually a person?”

“It’s been the girl,” Belial said as Byleth pulled in a couple more crabs. That was technically true. Somehow Belial got the feeling that telling the full story, that the girl was named Sothis and she was now awake and following them around and talking to them in their heads and that she was surprisingly snarky would lead to more trouble than it was worth.

“Thank goodness; you’re actually capable of learning something!”

Doma flicked her tail against Belial’s flank. “Well thank you, mysterious girl in my daughter’s dreams, for giving her the Good Days.”

“You’re very welcome, alcoholic mercenary dad who’s the most reasonable adult in this entire joint.” Sothis gave a not-entirely-mocking bow before settling back into what would be a reclining position. “But this is so strange. It seems that, to put it simply, you are only awake when I am awake.”

Byleth looked down at the sword. The line wobbled in her hand as a crab took the bait. “I wonder why that is.”

Sothis and the sword. The Good Days and the Bad Days. Belial, their distance, and her own stilled heart now slowly filling with what had to be warmth and love. They had to be connected, somehow.

A sudden weight clapped down on her shoulder—her father’s arm, wrapped around her in a one-handed hug. “Hey, kid, I’m proud of you.”

And for the first time Byleth realized what her father was trying to say. “Love you too, dad.”