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Mind and Body

Chapter Text


  

 

"In time’s flow, see the glow, of flames ever burning bright…”

 

Sunshine slipped through Byleth’s lashes, as her eyes hesitated to open fully.
Green, luscious locks, like branches of a willow, cascaded down the chest of the one who gently held her. Pale hands among white silks, like doves nestled among that foliage, hovered over her sleeping form.

 

“Now, you must remain still. Everything is all right. There is no need to worry.”

 


Byleth relaxed into that sight, fully trusting the older woman. She let herself be cradled, across rooms and down stairwells that grew darker around her. She hung onto that soft voice as it began to echo, reflecting back into her ears after bouncing off stone walls.

 

“Those who are trying to harm you are far away…”

 

And still, Byleth believed her, while chains dug into her wrists, across her neck and ankles, till the strength she couldn’t muster would have been useless anyway.

 

“I wish I could hold on to this time that we have stolen… that you and I could create a world without end…”


More words gracefully danced out of the Archbishop’s chest. Green, glittering jewels stared into Byleth’s eyes, slipping past her, as though reaching for someone else deep within their minty depths.

 

“But you, are so much more than the light. You, are my…”


Something sharp suddenly pierced through Byleth’s stupor. Cold steel dug into her skin, which healing spells lit up to restore before too much of her warm, red lymph had the chance to trickle out. Fear finally spiked her veins, as she realised none of those words were ever meant for her.

 

“How lovely it would be, for this moment to last forever…” the Archbishop slowly hummed, while shockingly long seconds lingered on in Byleth’s pain, as the young woman dearly wished her vocal cords could scream.

Chapter Text


 

 

Byleth inhaled deeply as she slowly opened her eyes, letting her senses gently lull her into the waking world, calmly settling to piece reality back together from the hidden depths of sleep.

The smell of damp grass. The soft, warm blankets draped over her body. The first few birds of the day timidly chirping outside her tent. The chill of the morning air biting at her exposed feet. It was getting cooler…they can’t be too far from Fhirdiad at this point, can they?

 

Fhirdiad.

In Faerghus. Away from the Monastery.

Away from Rhea.

 

Relief filled her heart as she breathed out a sigh. She wondered how many more mornings it would take her to stop feeling that relief. But for the moment, she was simply happy to bask in its sweet, healing aura. Once again, it was all true. Once again, it was over. That nightmare was no more.

 

The end of her captivity, however, had not marked the end of her struggles.

Not too long ago, even putting her memories in order every morning had felt far too exhausting. When having lights, voices and people moving all around her again was still too much to handle, and yet even retreating into herself offered very little comfort.

Too scared to let her mind wander, still surrounded by landmines of recent pain and betrayal, but too tired to pay close attention to whomever had tried to speak to her. She simply drifted in and out of that uncomfortable limbo, dragged to and fro by the waves of pain washing over her bones like the ebb and flow of a vast, stormy sea.

All while she was periodically dragged on and off a horse, handed food and blankets, and firmly ordered not to let her body wither.

 

Yet now, she eagerly dipped her toes in her recollections, letting recent events play out again inside her as she stirred. Even If they weren’t always pleasant.

Getting her mind cleared up again, after ages of darkness and monotony had dulled her very thoughts down to ugly, blunt stumps, unable to cut through Rhea’s repetitive litanies and threats…. Was just as painful as it was beautiful.

Recognizing the students that were leading their hidden escape, one by one, getting back the memories and voices and quirks tied to those beloved faces, was an experience she’ll cherish for the rest of her days, in spite of the events that led them all to that point to begin with.

 

But it also meant remembering everything she wished they didn’t see, the day they finally broke the chains that tied her weakened, sullied body to the Goddess’s cursed throne.

It meant recalling Edelgard’s terrified whimpers, as she held Byleth’s face up in her hands and begged her to still be alive.

It meant realizing just how filthy she must’ve been, when Dimitri didn’t hesitate to scoop her up in his arms and carry her back towards the daylight. It meant seeing again the colour the water had become, as she struggled to avoid throwing up while Manuela helped her bathe before tending to her sores.

It meant remembering how she barely mouthed half a “thank you”, before ferociously devouring the sandwich Claude had offered her once she was clean and patched-up, feeling the weight of the three House Leaders’ heartbroken gaze upon her as they realized with horror how famished she was.

 

Byleth sighed under the covers, their faces still clear as day in her mind’s eye as she relived the last few hours she’d spent in the monastery before fleeing.

After finishing Claude’s snack, she barely had the time to wipe her lips before getting dragged, limping, leaning on Edelgard for support, into the dining hall.

As students and staff quietly worked in the pantry, gathering rations for the trip without alerting Rhea, Dimitri rushed in to oversee their efforts while Claude sat Byleth down in front of an impressive helping of meat pie. He had the grace to look away as she stuffed food in her mouth with the decorum of a wild animal, though he kept a protective hand firmly planted on her shoulder until she was done.

 

That memory, at least, made her smile to herself.

Much of the fog clouding her mind had suddenly lifted, once she was at least able to sleep with a full stomach again. The deafening, roaring hunger that screamed mercilessly from her insides till she couldn’t hear herself think had finally been silenced. That relief alone had left her in such a blessed stupor, it numbed the pain of her healing wounds. If only for a short while.

And though her world was still spinning around her at breakneck speed, everything had become so much easier to understand. The pieces were forming a whole.

 

A handful of horses. A couple professors. Gilbert, Manuela, Hanneman.

And her.

They had all left for the Kingdom.

Along with so many students…

 

The entirety of her class, she was fairly certain. Including Flayn, surprisingly, despite hearing her mention how Seteth was staying behind. But many others from outside the Lions had followed them as well.

 Like Leonie, who had rushed to secure Byleth’s saddle more firmly as they departed. Marianne’s unkempt braids briefly fluttered at the edge of her vision, as the girl rushed to check on one mount after the other. And Raphael, who rode directly behind her for the first couple of hours, ready to reach out and support her back whenever she looked ready to faint. And Ignatz too, who always made sure to stick close to his best friend. She hadn’t seen Petra yet, but she could hear her unmistakable accent purring away not too far behind her, intertwined with Linhardt’s soft-voiced interjections. And one evening, as they all came down from their horses to rest, Dorothea quickly walked past her with a shaking Bernadetta clinging to her sleeve.

 

Granted, Byleth was still too disoriented to fully grasp all that was going on. Yet in the midst of more faces than she could keep track of inspecting weapons and studying maps, she was somehow growing more and more certain that Claude and Edelgard weren’t with them.

Dimitri was, though, a fact he wouldn’t let her forget even if she’d wanted to.

He barely ever left her side, speaking to her almost constantly, even knowing he couldn’t really expect her to answer. At the start of the journey, she was silent most of the time. Others who came to offer small talk were quickly discouraged by that. Their disheartened expressions pained her, but revealing just how much of a wreck she still felt like was simply not an option. Whenever she’d tried to reassure them, her own voice frightened her, so weak and unsteady; and her tendency to keep losing track of her own thoughts mid-sentence had rapidly shamed her into silence.

 

But Dimitri never relented. He kept riding next to her, talking over that silence, keeping it from swallowing her mind back into the underground throne room. She soon found herself leaning into his voice, not daring to interrupt the spell of his speech pattern with her own clumsy words. She remembered once again how fond she was of his manner of speaking, his emotions showing through despite his formal tone, his point of view putting an unexpected spin to the familiar and uneventful.

He would comment on the flora as it gradually changed around them, adapting to Faerghus’s colder climate and its long, unforgiving winters. Which led to him venting about the things he missed about home, and how strange it was gonna be to have everyone there, and how worried he was to disappoint his uncle and the rest of the court for reappearing so suddenly before completing the school year.

 

At that, Byleth turned to look at him, surprised at how personal his musings had gotten. He almost seemed to talk as though she couldn’t hear him at all, and he’d been merely thinking out loud next to a breathing corpse.

His gaze was vacant, unseeing, watery, lost in thoughts that cast a familiar shadow on his face. His hands were clasping his horse’s reins far more tightly than necessary. She glanced at her own reddened fingers and bandaged forearms, realizing for the first time since her captivity just how awful she must’ve looked.

Panic silently rose within her gut. Had she really let him believe she was dying? Or that she’d lost her mind for good? How could she be so cruel? And why? Because it was easier to simply listen? She wondered, horrified at herself, exactly how long ago her near-inability to form coherent sentences was slowly replaced by mere laziness. Doesn’t matter, she decided. This had gone on long enough.

 

“Don’t be silly. You’re just bringing your studies home with you”

Well, that all came out in one piece. Better keep the momentum going. “I am right here, Dimitri. And you’re one of my best students. You will complete the year’s program, by the end of the semester”

 

Dimitri’s eyes widened as they rose to meet hers, a grateful smile slowly blooming across his features. Byleth felt as though she witnessed the sun light up a beautiful meadow.

“O-of course! I would never disappoint you, Professor”

 

The relief in his voice made her chest ache. She opened her mouth to form an apology, but suddenly opted for turning her gaze to the sky, pretending she didn’t just see him furtively rub at his eyes.

 

From that point on, Byleth tried her best to start trusting her tongue again, hoping to atone for being unresponsive for so long.

And even though she still fumbled a little, their conversations grew livelier by the hour.

So much so that Annette and Mercedes started merrily swinging by to intervene again. Sylvain followed suit not too long after them. Only for Ingrid to come and pull him back away by the ear whenever he got too crass. Felix eventually reappeared too, patiently waiting for Dimitri to say something he disagreed with so he could complain about it to their teacher. Yet soon enough Ashe was there to lighten the mood, dispelling Felix’s pessimism with ease. Finally even Dedue, who’d always been protectively watching over his liege from afar, got gradually closer to the group until he was able to follow the conversation, though he barely ever contributed.

The return of his quiet presence had truly felt like the final bow on top a beautiful present, tying the company back together after fear and shock had cruelly ripped it apart.

 

The joy brought on by those recollections was what finally pushed Byleth to rise from her pillow and face the pain that stretching her aching limbs entailed.

 

Being surrounded by the people that gave meaning to her existence… she finally felt so grateful to be alive once again. As though they were all still training, resting and thriving within the halls of Garreg Mach. Still blissfully unaware of the green-haired demon’s plans to extinguish her life…

 

“No.” she said to herself, pulling her trousers on and fastening a belt around her waist. She would not allow that shadow cloud her thoughts again yet. She knew she couldn’t put off confronting that wound forever, but whenever she peeked into its depths and glimpsed the hatred and fear it contained… she didn’t like the turn her mood would take. She had just learned to live and breathe and look forward to greeting other people again… she wouldn’t let that hard-won blessing slip through her fingers for anything in the world.

Granted, it was easier said than done. But as she emerged from her tent and waved at Professor Hanneman, standing just a few yards ahead of her, she felt more certain than ever it was a battle worth fighting.

 

“Professor, I have bad news. We have no choice but to fight. Some of the bandits we’ve been avoiding are about to intercept us” the old man heaved out all in one breath, as he closed up the distance separating them surprisingly quickly.

Without pausing to worry at those words, Byleth’s mind sprang into motion, falling back to the familiar thought patterns that ran across the necessary preparations to make. Her hand closed around the hilt of the Steel Sword hanging off her belt, her wrist bending slightly as she moved to unsheathe it.

A sudden, stinging pain sourly clashed against the familiarity of the action, reminding her at once of the toll her body had taken in the past month.

Byleth gasped and looked down at her arm, realizing she couldn’t will it to stop shaking. Her bruised, sensitive skin was still healing, and the muscles beneath it had clearly weakened more than she’d realized. Flashing sparks of fire ached their way up to her shoulder, punishing it for the effort she just asked of her hand. But what was a little pain, compared to the danger her students could face.

 

“What do you think you’re doing? You’re staying back with Manuela. We’ll handle this”

She refused to heed his words, hobbling towards her horse as the scholar went to make sure everyone was awake. The mere prospect of her pupils leaving her sight to venture against enemy forces was too nauseating to entertain. Yet as her arms and legs kept growing heavier with every painful step, a cold realization slowly clawed its way up to her throat, obstructing her breath and making her ears ring.

 

She was in no condition to fight.

Chapter Text


 

Byleth’s arms heavily landed to the side of the horse she’d been assigned. She leaned against the animal to support her weight, huffing from the mere effort of staying upright.

 

Anger and frustration hammered at her temples. 

She stood within a storm of people running and speaking around her, none of them aware of her struggle to ride out the noise without letting it rip through her sanity. If she wasn’t still busy trying to catch her breath, she would’ve shouted. Were the students really off to fight without her? Why wouldn’t they at least let her in on their plan? Curses, would anyone even help her get on her blasted horse!?

 

“Gilbert! Please tell me what’s going on!” she heard herself whimper, as the red-haired knight stepped toward her without pausing to consider her words. He grabbed the sides of her fur jacket and easily lifted her up, as she scrambled to throw one leg to the other side of her saddle.

 

“Manuela will explain to you the details. Your priority is to avoid the enemy’s attention while the students and I clear out the way. But we have to move immediately, before their archers can secure the better position”

 

Byleth tried to protest but her voice suddenly failed her. Panic firmly held her tongue down as Gilbert left to direct more students. She tried her best not to lash out at anyone for uttering words she was too shaken to focus on, as she attempted to slow her breathing, hanging on to her faith that someone, eventually, would speak to her directly and stop the ground from shaking under her.

But the camp kept emptying out. Now only Hanneman, Manuela and Ashe were left at her side, and all Byleth eventually managed to do was let out a yelp so distressed, it finally forced both teachers’ attention back on her.

“Hanneman…!” she cried out, her trembling arms barely failing to grab the man’s sleeve. The Scholar returned her terrified stare with eyes that understood. Please, please lead them well. Please let none of them fall.

 

“I will protect them, Professor. You have my word”

 

His promise sank deep into her stomach, doing nothing to placate her anxiety. He then took off to reach the others, heading towards the mass of trees that lay ahead.

And suddenly, as simply as that, silence came to replace the confusion.

Thankfully.

 

Despite the situation, it made it easier for Byleth to keep her apprehension in check, focus on Manuela’s instructions and steel herself for the dirty task at hand. Ashe rode close to the two women with his bow drawn, ready to target unexpected assailants, as the three of them did their best to keep calm as the first war cries broke out in the distance.

When they eventually reached the first fallen enemies, they began to make sure their bodies were really as dead as they looked. It wouldn’t do for any of them to be surprised from behind, attacked by bandits who escaped death by pretending to fall when convenient.

Luckily, they found none who attempted to do so; yet a nagging, uncomfortable suspicion slowly rose in the back of Byleth’s mind. She kept blaming that feeling of dread on her unsteady nerves, until one of the dead men’s eyes smacked her in the face with a sudden flashback.

She’d seen that person before. Smiling at her, in the monastery’s dining hall, when Alois merrily introduced her as the Blade-Breaker’s daughter to the rest of the knights at his table.

And everything clicked into place.

 

“They’re not bandits!”

Manuela looked puzzled by that exclamation, much to Byleth’s dismay. How could she not have noticed?

“I knew they all looked familiar” Byleth continued, growing more frantic by the second “They are Knights of Seiros. All of them! Disguised as thieves! And those swords… Oh saints…”

 

She felt something break within her. There was blood on one of their swords.

 

“P-professor, are you sure? How…” Ashe started, his voice dying out upon noticing the deep-red stains on the silvery grey steel.

 

They had not a second to lose. Sure that the other two would follow her anyway, Byleth spurred her horse at full gallop, refusing to slow down despite their cries begging her to stop. She had to reach the others immediately.

 

Gilbert and Hanneman may have seen through the disguise, but how well could they adapt their strategy on the spot, without knowing the Lions as well as she did?

Did they know that Annette became a better axe wielder than a healer, despite her talent for magic? Or that Ingrid’s horseback lance thrusts were even swifter than Dimitri’s? Or that Dedue held out far better when standing his ground rather than moving?

The further she went down the list, the harder it was to keep breathing. Imagining who that blood could’ve belonged to almost fogged up her eyesight, as she left the open field behind her to venture into the woods, doing her best to spot those she looked for.

A blonde head suddenly stood out among the branches. Byleth nearly gasped out in relief.

 

“Ingrid!”

 

The girl’s green eyes flashed in her direction. “Professor?”

 

More people came into view as Byleth got closer. She saw Hanneman with a few other students, weapons drawn and gloved hands alight with uncast spells, surrounding a crouched figure that leant forward in the ground, with both arms clutching something to its stomach. As Byleth approached, it slowly lifted its head, until a mustached mouth and a pair of beady eyes trembled upon recognizing her.

 

“Alois?”

 

“Professor Byleth! I…”

 

“Stand back, Professor” Leonie drily cut him off. “We can’t be sure of his intentions…”

 

“I already told you, I came here to help! I have something for you…” The knight moved to stand up, but froze again when Raphael’s axe edged closer to his neck.

 

Having the chance for Byleth to hear him out directly, however, he looked determined to keep speaking. Even louder than was usual for him, as though he feared for his words not to reach her, he almost yelled out how Rhea found out about their escape and had planned to catch Byleth’s company offguard.

“We were to split our forces in two after confirming your identity, and attack you from both sides. I was supposed to take the rear. While Catherine lead the front”

 

Like a swarm of disturbed insects, stunned whispers rose all around them as soon as Alois uttered that name. Even Ashe and Manuela, who’d caught up with the group as the knight spoke, had no time to reprimand Byleth before they were stuck exchanging terrified looks with the others.

“He’s telling the truth” Byleth confirmed, hoping to dispel any lingering doubts.

 

“B-but, Professor…” Ignatz attempted “How can you be so sure? For all we know, this could all be a…”

 

“Those bandits you defeated, before I got here? They were Knights of Seiros. I recognized them myself. That’s what I came here to warn you all about”

 

Terror threatened to bend her thoughts again. This was bad. This was very, very bad.

Byleth’s gaze ran across the group surrounding her. Several students were missing. A Relic wielder was out for her blood. If the others were told to stop in the fields ahead just shy of the next mass of trees, thinking it safe to regroup while well out of a bow’s range, the situation was beyond dire.

 

A band of mere plunderers would indeed sooner flee than come out of hiding and become an easy target.

But a well-trained line of knights, led by Catherine of all people, would fiercely power through in plain sight, ready to crush whatever resistance Dedue and Gilbert could’ve put up.

And as much faith she had in her students, she would never expect any of them to survive against an Ancient Weapon such as Thunderbrand. She had to stop them before they could leave the forest. And hope it wasn’t too late.

 

“P-Professor, wait….” Alois groaned as he finally stood, the bloodied gash across his midsection ripping Byleth out of her thoughts.

 

Her mouth fell open in horror, but the knight was quick to reassure her “I am quite fine, Professor. These kind fellows already closed it up for me. A small price to pay for turning against my platoon… Why, right now, I’m only sorry I got blood all over this

 

Byleth bit her lower lip as the Sword of the Creator emerged from the huge sheath in the man’s hands, lighting up in its terrifying, breath-taking glow as soon as her gaze fell upon it, casting sinister red hues on everyone’s faces as it stirred.

Byleth cursed out every god she could think of. Having her Sword back meant nothing to her, now. Even just handling steel weapons had left her shaking with pain, trying to push past it only stomped out what little strength her body had tried to build back up, leaving her arms limp and helpless…

 

Yet something within her lurched forward.

 

Her fingers were quick to close around the weapon’s hilt and tear it from Alois’ grasp, before the Relic could have the faintest chance of corrupting the uncrested knight. Byleth blinked in front of the hand now holding up the Sword, the hole in its core staring deep into her worries like a knowing, all-seeing eye. Her gaze travelled downward. That hand was indeed her own.

She had but a moment to marvel at that miracle. A river of fire forced its way down her veins, invading her chest to clash against the Crest forcing her body to withstand the effort. Understanding flashed upon her within a second, as she swiftly slid the ancient weapon back into its sheath and set it down between her knees on her saddle. Her muscles immediately thanked her for ending that torture, relief filling the air she now hungrily breathed in.

She rolled her wrists and flexed her fingers. She still couldn’t fight, that much she was sure of. But she was able to hold up her Relic, which was something. And that something simply had to be enough.

Byleth held her feelings still, let all emotion drain from her face, and turned to speak to the professors still busy recovering from the spectacle.

 

“How far ahead are the others” She asked in a monotone voice

 

“Hard to say” Hanneman replied “We were supposed to catch up with Gilbert’s team in the prairie ahead, but..."

 

“But we can’t let them get there, where they’ll be spotted in no time” Byleth concluded for him “I have to be the first one Catherine sees, or she’ll kill whoever stands between me and her. I am her target. But I also can’t face her alone. We need to do that as one, united front. But we travel at different speeds. Alois is wounded. Someone must run ahead and tell Gilbert to wait, while-”

 

“Apologies, Hanneman. We’re back! Those enemies are not what they looked like…”

 

Byleth tried not to waver under her own relief as Gilbert pushed his shield across the low-hanging branches, carving a path towards the group followed by Petra, and Marianne, and the rest of the Blue Lions…

All of them but one.

 

“Where’s Dimitri?” She finally asked, when stillness settled for a few moments among the group’s latest additions. They seemed just as surprised as she was and started looking around, as if sure they could spot him close by.

 

“The idiot took off as soon as we realised those were knights from Rhea’s guard” Felix snarled, shaking his head, as everyone else turned towards him “Swearing he’d make every one of them suffer, before killing them himself. He even left his damn horse behind, saying he fights better on foot. How very-“

 

“Excuse me?!” Gilbert thundered, as Dedue’s eyes widened in horror.

 

“Where’d he go?!” Byleth cried out, making everyone but Felix flinch.

 

“If you want to go boar hunting, you can do so by yourse-“

 

“Now’s not the time, Felix! Catherine is out there as well!”

Those who just got there were taken aback. Felix’s shoulders suddenly stiffened, as Annette started frantically asking if she was serious. Mercedes reached out to hold her still, though she was shaking as well. Sylvain slowly turned to look in the direction they’d come from, and that was all Byleth needed to see before sprinting past them to rush into the thickets.

 

Guilt riddled her guts with its thorns, drowning out every other sound as her horse kept stepping over a growing number of lifeless corpses, which both terrified and reassured her.

Finding Dimitri’s body among the fallen would’ve ended her on the spot. But if these were all his own victims, he couldn’t have gotten too far. She nearly jumped out of her skin when a familiar cry echoed near her, followed by the sound of bones breaking under steel.

 

Dimitri ripped his lance out of the throat he’d just impaled.

His latest adversary fell over, lifeless. Blood steadily spread across the mud, staining red the prince’s boots as it greedily clung to his feet. Byleth called out his name as she reached him, but almost regretted it an instant later.

She would never forget the expression he wore when he turned in her direction, a moment before his eyes recognised her.

 

“You shouldn’t be here, Professor” He warned her, a tinge of concern slipping through his growl “These dastards… they’re out here for you. They’re here to take you back to Rhea’s hands! But I swear on my life, none of them will esca-”

Byleth opened her mouth to interrupt him, when a twig snapped somewhere above them. She instinctively slid off her horse and shoved Dimitri aside on her way down. He fell to his knees as an arrow stabbed the soil between the two. A second one narrowly missed Byleth’s head, as Dimitri kicked her out of the way while still on the ground. Not a single new thought could take shape in her mind before the prince’s javelin flew past her, hitting something within the branches.

Shamir’s voice gasped out in pain, as the woman tumbled out of a tree. She ripped the lance out of her right arm and immediately scampered away, turning her head to make sure she was followed.

 

“You… How dare you!”

 

“Dimitri, wait! This is a trap, she’s trying to lure us out…”

But the lad’s rage seemed impenetrable. He picked up his javelin and ran in pursuit, while all Byleth could do was drag herself to her feet and hurry after him, fighting against the weight of her Sword as it inevitably slowed her down.

 

She was suddenly dazzled by the day’s dying light. The treeline ended abruptly before her, replaced by a wide, open valley sprawling out in the sunset.

Byleth blinked, took one more step forward, and unsheathed her glowing Relic. Her whole body screamed out in agony, but her stance and her voice were firm as she shouted out a warning.

 

“Catherine, if you want to live, step away from him right now”

Chapter Text


 

The flames of two deadly Relics echoed each other within the sunset, drowned out by the sky’s own orange glaze shining down on the warriors below it.

Seven deadly pikes glowed pointing towards Dimitri, held back by a simple warning one young woman had thrown to another.

 

“Catherine, if you want to live, step away from him right now”

 

The blue of the knight’s eyes lit up against the golden background with a mix of surprise and anger “Put that thing down and surrender willingly, and I’ll do that right away!”

 

Despite the circumstances, a corner of Byleth’s thoughts leapt up in pure joy.

Catherine believed her. Believed the Sword, believed her bluff, believed that the teacher’s muscles weren’t yelling out for mercy to her within her flesh, their pleas growing louder and louder by the second. Believed she could still swing her arm and swiftly end someone’s life, her Sword’s detaching shards piercing skin and ripping ribs apart unless her victim dodged it in time.

Instead of being locked still in a stance too hard to maintain, mere minutes away from death by overexertion. Brought on by a Crest that obeyed her mind alone, completely deaf to the needs of her body.

Now, all she had to do was wait. Wait, and stall for time.

 

“I will not let you get to my Professor”

 

Byleth’s attention snapped back to the man standing between them, who looked determined not to yield, despite the danger that sent flames reflecting off his armor. 

Right, she thought. She also had to keep Dimitri from doing something stupid.

The shift of Shamir’s feet on the grass was loud in her ears against the silence, as the mercenary slowly limped closer to Catherine’s back, leaning down as her mouth spelled something to her colleague’s ear. The knight’s eyes narrowed further on the lance pointed towards her, sending jolts of terror down Byleth’s back and interrupting her line of thought.

 

“That’s enough, Dimitri. Get behind me!” She ordered, though knowing he wouldn’t listen.

 

“I will not!”

 

The tension rose along with Dimitri’s voice. That request must have sounded so absurd to him, yet Byleth still desperately wished he’d comply. She wished that he’d pretend she could really protect him, and that her words were no mere act to show off power when in fact she had none.

Every second she had to endure seeing him within Thunderbrand’s range pained her more than her arms’ burning ache. If Catherine attacked, she would gladly meet her weapon’s blows in his stead, hoping with everything she was that he wasn’t planning to do the same for her.

But Byleth’s mind sank back to how his eyes took her in, the past few days; took in her head falling limp to her shoulder when she still struggled to stay awake, took in the shame flushing her ears red when she needed help standing up, took in the light leaving her eyes when nothing could keep her thoughts out of the room that had eluded his search for so long.

And recalling the darkness distorting his face, mere minutes prior, and the dead knights littering the soil in his wake… Byleth realised he would not step back.

 

But Catherine had no way of knowing.

“Get out of my way, your Highness. I don’t want to cut you down as well, unless I have to”

 

“Really? How very interesting! Is that what you told your men as well, before they crept up behind me and my friends with their blades raised?!”

The strength of his rage seemed almost unnatural, coming out in a roar fierce enough to shake his ample frame, though the tip of his lance never budged from where he kept it trained towards the knight’s neck. “Not that I’d expect honesty, from someone still serving a monster”

 

Catherine did not appreciate that. Her lips parted, baring her teeth, and Byleth did the only thing she could do to stop her from lurching forward and ending them both.

 

“Is killing the crown prince of your own nation really worth going after me? After all that we’ve accomplished together?” Words. More words. Words were all that she had, all that she could keep throwing at her foes, hoping her voice wouldn’t betray the ache searing her muscles. And that her knees wouldn’t start shaking despite her efforts to remain still.

 

“You think silly attempts at pity could be enough to hide your crimes? My homeland is wherever Lady Rhea is. And I know what you stole from her…”

Perfect, Byleth thought, she does know.

There was hope.

“…And I have no intention to let some lowly thief get away with something so precious, no matter who stands in my way-”

 

“Catherine.” Shamir murmured impatiently, the bloodied hand of her good arm staining the knight’s shoulder as she lightly tugged on it “I’m serious. We need to leave. Now.”

 

But Catherine slowly shook her head, her eyes never leaving her targets. 

Until they did, when Byleth clearly saw her gaze move past her, a moment before the sound of steps and shuffling leaves had even reached her ears.

The knight’s eyes paused on every one of Byleth’s allies as they showed up one after the other, their frantic discourses cut short as they were welcomed by the sight of the Sword of the Creator and Thunderbrand engaged in their immobile face-off.

 

“H-how…?!” Catherine gasped. But then her sight locked on to her answer “Alois?! How could you…”

 

“Who, me? How could you, I should ask. How could you believe, for even a second! I would ever harm Jeralt’s child”

 

The weight of his broad hand settled on Byleth’s shoulder, as Shamir’s grasp tightened on Catherine’s “I knew he couldn’t be trusted. But it’s too late. Our mission has failed. We must retreat. Now.”

 

“No” The knight insisted “You’re not off the hook yet, you little thief. I can still cut right through you, right where you stand!”

 

“Just you try it, and see what happens!” A chorus of similar threats rose to echo Leonie’s challenge, but Byleth couldn’t allow it to continue. Her voice rose against the students’, who were quick to quiet down and let the teacher speak.

 

“Sure, you can. But you won’t.”

Everyone’s eyes were back on her.

“You could have taken me alone and unarmed. Isn’t that why you disguised your own troops? Sure, if we fight now, you may win. But I will not go down without fighting. And by the time you’re done with me, everyone else here will be at your throat”

 

“Now, that’s almost funny. If you think I won’t die for Lady Rhea’s sake, you’re damn wrong!”

 

“Of course you would. But my death alone will mean nothing to her. Or to you. Not unless you can leave with my body. Or even just have the time to cut me open like a slaughter-beast yourself. 

Don’t you think I know what Rhea wants from me?”

 

Byleth saw Catherine swallow, and finally forced her teeth to air the one secret she dearly wished she could have taken to her grave.

 “She wants my heart”

 

The few students she could glimpse at the edges of her vision looked puzzled, confusion breaking cracks through their determination, the hold on their weapons shifting uncertainly.

Worse still was feeling Alois’ hand subtly tremble against her shoulder. She even saw the slightest twitch run through Dimitri’s back, but she willed every ounce of her being to keep leveling the truth she’d just laid out, shouting past the cocoon of pain that by then had enveloped her completely.

 

“But you won’t get what she wants now, matter what! Strike my students, and I will kill you. Strike me, and I will kill you. And even if I don’t, you won’t be standing long enough to take my body from them, with or without your Relic. You won’t survive all of us. So either you retreat…”

She allowed herself to catch her breath, hoping the fury of her tone would be enough to explain her pained gasps “Or Rhea’s precious little heart will bleed out here on this field, and you will have destroyed your lady’s treasure. Is that what you want, Catherine?”

 

There. She’d played her cards. Now everything depended on what her enemies would do.

Byleth wished she could feel lighter, once everyone’s fate was out of her hands, yet she was not surprised when she couldn’t.

Too much of what happened next would depend on unknown variables. Was the knight really convinced she couldn’t win against them all and still have enough strength to claim her prize? Could Rhea have told her something Byleth didn’t know? Would the teacher’s own legs even keep her standing until the next minute, instead of letting her fall over and unmasking her facade in an instant?

Byleth honestly had no idea. So she just focused on the women in front of her, daring to read a sliver of concern in the bend of Shamir’s brow and…. resignation, perhaps, behind Catherine’s locked jaw?

 

Yet before a lone arrow flew straight for the knight’s chest, hitting her wrist instead as Shamir violently tugged her backwards, Byleth could swear she’d seen a flash of insatiable greed in her blue eyes.

 

Spurts of a red fountain bloomed out of Catherine’s hand. The woman’s pain rasped out a scream, before she turned her head to the right.

But Ashe’s hands were quick and merciless, his bow shooting two more darts that Shamir barely saved her companion from. Strong arms were suddenly on the silver-haired lad, blocking him from firing off more, while students and teachers alike hurried around him and Byleth, ready to retaliate against a counterattack that never came.

A tangled mess of red and white writhing in Shamir’s grasp, Catherine bent down in the mud and gripped Thunderbrand’s hilt with her teeth, as the mercenary brusquely dragged her off to where they came from, disappearing into the forest long before their steps and suffered moans stopped rebounding in everyone’s ears.

 

And suddenly, as simply as that, it was over.

 

As silence finally pooled back into the field, people gradually eased back away from each other, letting Byleth finally see the state Ashe was in.

His bow lay helplessly by Gilbert’s feet, the knight’s arms still tightly holding the boy from behind, but it was clear his efforts weren’t necessary. Ashe’s boldness seemed completely spent. He merely trembled within Gilbert’s hold, and nearly fell over when the man released him.

 That sight made Byleth’s strength crumble.

Something inside her felt at once safe and heartbroken, her hands finally letting go of the Sword of the Creator. The Relic stopped glowing as it thumped on the grass. Its wielder’s limp arms slowly swung above it, now completely out of her body’s control. She barely felt the alarmed words and the arms rushing to sustain her, too stunned to even register how her agony had yet to ease off her limbs.

Her eyes locked with Ashe’s. They were both panting, disoriented, still pondering the weight of their own actions.

 

“What in the world has gotten into you, boy?”

 

Ashe slowly shook his head at Gilbert’s question, his eyes tightly shutting as his breath wouldn’t slow down. The words he whittled out were feeble yet firm.

 

“I… I stopped her.”

 

Flayn bit her lip, before stating what most were thinking “Ashe, I don’t think… she had no choice but to leave…”

 

“Yeah. Why attack and risk pissing her off more?” Sylvain shrugged, trying his best not to sound accusatory.

 

But Gilbert seemed the least satisfied of all. He was about to speak again when Ingrid rushed between the two. “With all due respect, I don’t think now’s the time for this. The sun’s going down, and we should keep moving before-”

 

“What’s the point?” Felix’s grunt interrupted her. He clenched his fists under everyone’s gaze, as the girl’s indignation showed clear through her voice.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“What’s the point in moving forward if we can’t even agree on what to do? If you’re all going to keep acting like a bunch of headless animals, we might as well surrender now, pack our bags, and give in to whatever the hell Rhea plans to do with us. We won’t last out here much longer just out of dumb luck”

 

“Dumb luck? Is this really the way you’re going to treat all of our efforts?” Ingrid’s tone was icy, but the swordsman didn’t relent.

 

“What else could you possibly call it? It’s a miracle we’re all still here. Everyone panicking since the start, just because our teacher wasn’t with us. Nobody trusting Hanneman’s instructions, or Gilbert’s, including you, Annette. And not a single one of you didn’t lose it, when we confirmed those soldier’s identity. I can’t believe I’ve been working with all of you till now. Is this what we’ve been training for, this whole time?”

 

“What in the world are you on about, Felix?” Annette intervened, offended “We all listened to orders, and-” she suddenly stopped and stole a glance towards Dimitri, realising her own mistake.

 

The blonde hardly reacted, immobile in his low, seething defiance. He gulped down the sharp reply he could have barked out at his critics, his hold closing so tightly around his worn lance Byleth feared it was close to snapping.

 

“I’d dare say that hardly matters, when all of you insisted to head back” Gilbert sounded tired, yet resentful “As though I could have asked you all to push forward… After the losses we’ve nearly suffered, when the enemy’s trick had come so close to breaking through our ranks”

 

Byleth panicked at those words, her gaze immediately scouring her students’ bodies, looking for blood or signs of weakness she couldn’t believe she hadn’t checked for before then. The absence of anything obvious helped quell her fears, realising whatever blows they suffered must’ve already been healed.

Still, she cursed herself, guilt squeezing her throat shut for not being there when she needed them.

 

“I was just worried about our Professor, I… none of us had even seen her, since last night…” Annette’s voice grew weaker with every word “Wasn’t it obvious, why the knights of Seiros were here…? Th-they…were looking for her…”

 

“That’s exactly why we could leave none standing, before it was too late!”

A sudden thud preceded Dimitri’s outburst. The young man had stabbed the earth with his javelin. “Did you seriously all suggest we let those dogs simply flee and regroup? Squander the opportunity to crush their hopes of killing us all, and bring her back to that witch?”

 

“Stop humouring us, boar. You’re not fooling anyone! I think we all know at this point how-”

 

“No, Felix! You do not know! Hardly any of you do!”

A flock of birds flew out of a tree, startled by the echo of Dimitri's shouts. He tried to modulate his words under everyone’s questioning looks, but his bitterness returned almost instantly.

“All of you who chose to come, your help has been invaluable, and I’ll never thank you enough. But not many of you saw what I did”

 

Please don’t, Byleth silently pleaded. Knowing her own voice wasn’t powerful enough to cover Dimitri’s anyway. Knowing nothing could’ve stopped the torrent of despair he’d somehow kept braving through for days.

 

“If you thought By- the Professor looked bad the past few days, if you’ve been as scared as I was that we may never have her back, you have no idea…” his voice suddenly faded. He took a few, long seconds to muster it back out, which nobody dared to cross into.

“If you haven’t seen, for yourselves, the state she was in, when Claude, and Edelgard, and I first pulled her out of that place…”

 

“Dimitri? I think that’s enough.” Manuela cut in, finally noticing Byleth’s discomfort.

 

“Yes. I will not waste my breath describing it. The daggers on the floor, the rust on the chains discarded by her side, the bloody footprints leading right up to it all? You would simply never see it for what it was. And I… I envy you.”

 

I’m so sorry, Byleth whispered, well below anyone’s hearing range. No agony could rival that of knowing how much she’d made him suffer, made them all suffer. Even Felix’s eyes had lowered by that point, insistently glowering at Dimitri only in between the concerned glances he directed at his teacher.

 

“And really, the point is, there were actual, armored guards holding that blasted door, and going down those cursed tunnels. If I had just kept trusting Rhea’s authority, instead of Edelgard’s suspicions? If I didn’t raise my lance, against the very knights whom I thought were there to protect us? We may never have found her in time.

We were close. Too close. To losing her. And Rhea did not do this by herself. She had allies, and spies, and beasts who knew of it all! And who are ready to die just to let her continue! Did you seriously all suggest I simply let those wretches live?

I will never forgive Rhea. Or anyone! Who helped her carry on this… this senseless defiance of humanity. And if you think that makes me an animal, Felix, then that is exactly what I’ll be.”

 

Shaken by Dimitri’s words, now almost everyone looked down at Byleth, and the young woman dearly wished they stopped.

She could feel their gloomy thoughts work upon her right now, doubled-over with fatigue for holding a sword for a few minutes. She could feel herself getting dragged back to how she was when they’d departed, and further back still, when even she couldn’t behold the state of her own misery.

This isn’t fair, Byleth thought, her eyes veiling with tears over her stone-faced resentment. Why should he bear that weight, when even she couldn’t? And what right did he have, to expose it to anyone else?

 

“What… what in the world are you talking about?”

Alois’ confusion scraped so harshly against the grim atmosphere, that no one seemed to grasp his words immediately.

“I… I never believed any of the lies Rhea told us, before the mission. Byleth dying, in the Sealed Forest, and getting replaced by some outlier like Tomas and that Monica girl? And using her own pupils to bring ruin upon the Central Church and Garreg Mach? Preposterous. And yet no one else seemed to bat an eye, especially not that mercenary! But I could never…”

 

“You mean you were not knowing?” Petra’s doe eyes blinked at his ignorance, before anyone else intervened.

 

Then Manuela finally did. “Well. To put it shorty, Byleth never “disappeared”. It was Rhea, who kept her confined in the Holy Mausoleum for almost a month. We don’t know exactly all that happened down there, yet. The Professor, she… is only starting to recover. And we agreed not to press for questions, until she feels up to it herself. But as the prince so charmingly put it, her situation was rather critical”

 

Raphael’s feet nervously shifted, looking suddenly away from Dimitri “So the knights that came to look for us… they had no idea about Rhea and the Professor either…?”

 

Alois simply turned his back to them, shaking his head. He gravely looked over the land he’s crossed that morning, which the troops he had lived, laughed and fought with would never leave again.

 

Dimitri looked as though his soul had left his body.

The fear creeping up Byleth’s chest was vicious enough to obscure her entire world, save for the prince following Alois’ gaze, getting lost deep in the woods where he’d unleashed his pent-up rage against people who hardly deserved it.

She almost felt him slip away from her outstretched fingers, as she finally attempted one step forward, betrayed by knees locked in place by a fire that wouldn’t die down.

And though she tumbled into the grass, while he stood cold and still into the slowly-descending night; she knew he was also falling, pulled into an abyss of regret Byleth helplessly tried to call him out of.

 

“Dimitri…”

Chapter Text

 


 

Byleth forced her head upright as she was lifted off the grass, trying to pay no mind to the alarmed cries that rose around her. Still frozen in place by horror, Dimitri’s eyes met hers with cold, blue fear; as though torn between concern and desire to run and hide away.

His arms lowered once he was sure Byleth had been taken care of, as the woman carefully eased her weight against Sylvain’s shoulder.

 

“Perhaps we should search the forest. Maybe… there could be survivors?” Mercedes softly offered.

 

“I’ll go” Dimitri murmured, but Gilbert was quick to scold him.

 

“Is this a jest, Your Highness? Even if some did elude our offensive, we cannot risk losing anyone to an ambush. You, least of all.”

 

But Dimitri’s gaze travelled back towards the trees, looking far too much like he wouldn’t mind meeting that fate. Byleth felt achingly grateful for Gilbert’s stern resolve, and to Dedue for slowly shifting till he stood between his liege and the forest.

 

“Th-there…there was no other way!” Byleth gasped, but her words seemed to bounce right off of Alois and Dimitri’s backs. The blonde went even stiller, and the knight lowered his head. Neither of them could speak.

 

Felix crossed his arms, neck tilting back towards the prince “And even if there was, it’s too late for regrets.”

 

Linhardt slowly shook his head “Huh. Regrets, you say? It’s not like any of us would’ve made it, if Catherine wasn’t alone and cornered.”

 

Hanneman exhaled a tired sigh “Perhaps. But going forward, I’d wager you’d all best stick to the plan at hand, least we run unnecessary risks, such as we did today.”

 

“Good thinking” Manuela rested both hands on her sides. Byleth swore she could almost see the woman’s patience drain out of her features “I’ve had enough of running after kids who simply do as they please, and put us all at risk. Do we have an agreement?”

 

“No.” Byleth wondered for a second whether that was her own voice. Ashe’s small, yet firm disagreement had barely anticipated hers.

 

The physician faced the lad with renewed exasperation “Beg pardon?”

 

“I-I’m sorry, but I… I had to do it!”

 

Felix roared out his frustration before anyone could reply “Are you serious? You almost sent that woman’s sword flying right onto our heads! Did you forget the kind of leaps she’s capable of?! Am I completely surrounded by revenge-obsessed fools?!”

 

“This was not about revenge! You really didn’t see it? Am I the only one who did?!” Ashe’s eyes scoured his classmates, not at all intimidated by Felix “Weren’t you with me, that day?!”

Fury reddened the lad’s cheeks and welled up in his eyes “She had that exact same look on her face, right before she went in for Lonato’s throat!”

Ingrid swallowed and placed a shaky hand on his back, but Ashe barely seemed to notice “You know what, Felix? I am a fool. I’ve always been a fool. There was nothing I could do when she came for Christophe. But then I helped her kill Lonato. And I just stood by her, again, and listened, and listened, and let her convince me that if was all for the Church’s good… Is that what I should’ve done? Just stand here and do nothing, again, and let her take our teacher as well?! Because that’s what would’ve happened.

I… I know what I saw…”

 

Byleth tested her feet’s hold on the ground and stumbled away from Sylvain. She didn’t even consider how much she agreed with Ashe. She didn’t care. He needed help.

They all did.

His words further exasperated how wrong it felt to stand aside, as people so obviously unused to life and turmoil out in the open fell apart before her eyes.

She was more aware than ever of the mess she stood within.

 

Marianne and Bernadetta had never been paler. The students who’ve been shouting were lost in their own distress. And almost everybody else looked too scared to set them off again to do anything but avoid crossing their gaze.

While the teachers seemed unwilling to move a finger until someone apologised. As though they were lingering in the academy’s training grounds, rather than unfamiliar territory without any near shelter.

As far as Byleth could see beneath the sun’s final, red-eyed glares; weary shoulders, trembling lips, scared and defeated faces mirrored each other across a barren, exposed field, without a single point of reference to draw them back to safety.

 

So she gave into the pull forcing her throbbing legs toward them, though she couldn’t yet be sure where she would start picking up the pieces of their shattered spirits from. Weak attempts at comfort wrestled the sorrow in her throat, till she was met with chestnut eyes flashing over her feeble body.

Manuela’s painted nails dug into her shoulder, interrupting her awkward march with infuriating ease.

 

“Ashe. If I memory serves, your teacher should not have been there either.”

 

…what?

 

“Muscles weathered down by extended periods of neglect and malnutrition don’t grow back overnight, even with healing magic, and-”

 

“Would knowing what the hell was happening have damaged my muscles?” Byleth’s own grievances broke loose, before she could stifle them “Would it have killed me, to have the slightest bit of information, about whom you all sent my students off against? And how you were going to approach this threat?”

 

“Well, you barely seemed to listen, when I was trying to make you understand what your body can or cannot do. And I’m to believe you were ready to lead anyone into battle?” Manuela scoffed. “I hope you realise, the fact that we’ve been lucky this time does not excuse you from staying in line. You can’t simply keep disrupting our formations as you please. The same goes for everyone else!”

 

Byleth’s frenetic thoughts slammed against a wall.

So this was how they saw her. And how they had been treating her. Like a subordinate. No, not even that.

Like fragile cargo. Hardly worth exchanging words with. The fellow leader whose input and experience they’d learned to trust and to rely on, who once even saved Manuela from almost certain doom?

Gone, mourned and forgotten.

The worst of it all was, part of the blame was her own. She could have at least tried, to utter more than three consecutive words to anyone but her class. She’d taken far too long to wake up to her surroundings, and to brave the outside world in all its aspects, and its people. If any of them still doubted how sound of mind she was, the young teacher’s lack of clarity must’ve truly been abysmal.

 

So Byleth made no further attempt at deflecting Manuela’s tirade.

“I’ve never seen this kind of recklessness before in my career. And I am not willing to believe this is how you operate normally. Because if it were, I would have already found out whoever considered letting you teach, and-”

 

“I did” Everyone’s attention snapped back to Alois. No one knew he had it in him to speak so quietly. 

“Well of course, I… only brought her name up. The final decision was… Rhea’s”

 

That name hung low above them like a cloud heavy with rain, the implications of his words pouring down on the group.

Byleth tightly shut her eyes, and expressed a silent wish. She prayed for the darkness blacking out her sight to pull the rest of her along. She could no longer bear to look, she could hardly bear to feel the others coming to the same conclusion she had reached herself, weeks before, under the blades Rhea caressed along her skin, drawing out droplets of blood spilling on Sothis’s sacred Throne.

 

“Of course,” Byleth choked “Because she needed me”

 

“And to think, you criticised us for keeping secrets” Hanneman crossed his arms “Care to elaborate on what exactly you and Catherine were on about, earlier?”

 

Flayn timidly chimed in “W-wait! Did we not agree to leave her be, until…?”

 

“It’s exactly as you all think” Byleth cut her short. If they really weren’t going to move on without the whole truth, then she’d simply have to discard what was left of her credibility.

“I was Rhea’s little experiment. Years ago, when I was little, she did… something, to me. Something that gave me some of the Goddess’ own power. She saved my life that way. But she really only wanted a host. And now? She was trying to summon Sothis back to her within my body, sparing no thought for my own life! And…

…and I’m sorry I fell for her trap. I’m sorry I was stupid enough to trust her, and that you all got stuck with me for almost a year because of it.”

 

A faint tinge of regret tried to water down her outburst. Not nearly strong enough to silence the words spilling past her restraint, it merely filled them with more poison, their taste ever more bitter as they dropped out of her lips.

 

“But whether you like it or not, you’re still stuck with me, because I don’t believe anyone wants to see someone like her, and in her position, getting her hands on a power that great.

So unless you all want to keep yelling at each other till dawn, or until more knights catch up to us, I suggest we leave. Don’t you dare touch me!” she barked at whomever else tried to gently tug her backwards.

 

She’d had enough of being juggled from one person to another. Handled like a fragile teacup that might shatter in an instant. Held like a doll always expected to smile back whenever lifted, as though rosy lips and cheeks were painted on her at all times.

She was so tired of it all. Tired of being reminded, every time she needed help, of just how helpless she’d become. Tired of pretending she felt fine, even to herself, to avoid anyone glimpsing the full truth of her misery, and infecting others with yet more useless worry.

These, were Byleth’s thoughts, as she spotted her horse by the trees and slowly made her way toward it, every step striking a hammer against her burning feet, as nobody dared to lift another finger in her direction.

 

Then she remembered, once facing her mount, that she couldn’t climb on it unaided.

 

Her saddle stared down at her weakness, as unreachable as if it stood above the clouds. Byleth spat soundless curses up to it, counting out separate hairs within the horse’s sleek coat, her neck growing warmer under everyone’s searing gaze.

Were they really going to make her ask? After all that she’d said? Would they really refuse to spare her that one humiliation?

 

A touch on her left elbow ended that torment, moving on to hold her sides as Byleth failed to whisper half a gracious word.

Something within her gut recognised that strength. The ease she felt it push her upwards poked holes through her self-pity.

 

Dimitri’s mouth bent with compassion as he avoided Byleth’s gaze, retreating from the hand she reached to brush against his, while she settled on her mount.

The prince walked off to his own horse without saying another word. Ignoring whatever sorry nonsense Byleth tried stuttering to his back.

 

Hardly any sounds came from the other teachers, as they reinstated the group’s formation and set the pace of their mounts’ gait.

The silence they rode in was awful. Nobody’s sorrow had privacy. And the more Byleth regretted the path her words had taken, the harder it was to exist there.

As the sun’s guiding light eventually abandoned them, she could barely make out Alois taking over one of the supply mounts, Ashe deflecting Dorothea’s soothing words, and Dimitri moving as far from the others as he could possibly get away with.

 

The night would’ve easily swallowed them, if not for the few torches they lit, but the young woman felt grateful for the shadows blurring out the landscape.

They sheltered her resentment, when nothing else could have. She dearly missed a bedroom door to shut herself behind, despite never having needed one before coming to Garreg Mach.

Her own face had always served as a perfect shield to her feelings, yet mustering it up was now a feat demanding effort. Had she truly changed that much, since pledging her strength to the guide and protection of so many others besides herself? Had Sothis played a part, in that puzzling inner shift?

Byleth found no certain answer, yet those questions still hounded her. Especially since riding for so long every day, and with so many other people, had been dragging her thoughts back to her mercenary years more often than she could handle.

 

Hell, sometimes, she still instinctively looked out for an orange coat among the riders. The whiplash of those moments was never easy to recover from. But here, shrouded in darkness, could she perhaps pretend that Jeralt still rode close by? His gruff tone fondly accepting her oddities without question, looking forward to a chance to oversee his daughter’s lessons, waiting for a spare moment that in the end, would never come…

Having lost the others’ chatter to keep her past at bay, Byleth felt she had no choice but to give into that old, sweet flavour of safety, enduring the tang of regret that inevitably came with it. What else could she have done, to drown out the nausea rising in the back of her palate?

 

The ache that hadn’t left her since holding up her Relic was folding in her insides. Fire spilled into her stomach, as if angered by the hours she’d forcefully ignored it.

But she wouldn’t call for help yet.

She wouldn’t stop their march.

Not until they’d put enough distance from where the enemy had last seen them.

 

She just kept holding on to her nostalgic fantasy, the clop of her father’s horse replacing the nearest one she could hear, as she lingered in that illusion for as long as she was able to. Until she could no longer.

Fear shot past her self-control, gasping out a call for help, as more than just her voice tried to escape her throat.

 

“Byleth. What’s wrong?”

She was grateful to Alois for rushing to her side, but the friendly tap that landed between the woman’s shoulder blades only made everything worse.

Her thoughts suddenly faded, as everything went black save for the flames scorching her gut. More flames emerged to trace a glowing pattern in her mind’s eye. Byleth’s Crest released the young woman from its hold, letting her drop into the abyss.

 

Shades of green washed through her nightmares. And stayed once she opened her eyes.

Chapter Text

 


 

Byleth never could’ve known the stone floor beneath her feet was green instead of black, if she hadn’t seen it in the light before.

But so many lanterns had gone out, since the last time they’d been lit; that the Throne Room’s emerald hues had gone darker than ever. Keeping track of time inside that prison had been hard, but that still wouldn’t stop her from trying to bend it to her wishes.

 

She would force her tremors still, and will her heart to strike a beat. A few extinguished lanterns would then light up anew, the only proof Byleth could find that her Pulse had worked at all. An hour, perhaps a minute, or just a painfully-long second would slip before her eyes, before their glow expired once more. She tried pushing back further. More than she’d ever had. Yet no matter how strongly her Divine Power squeezed her chest, green darkness and pale lamps were all she kept coming back to.

She shook her matted hair off the sweat coating her neck. She’d reached the farthest point in time her Pulse had ever touched. A good ten hours at least. And yet, there she still was.

 

Why isn’t this working?  Her thoughts were growing desperate, as her Pulse steadily ran out. How long have I been here?

 

Whatever bitter poison still lingered on her tongue must’ve dimmed her clarity for longer than she’d thought.

Rhea had already come and gone so many times by then… Painful, scary visits that begged to be forgotten, which spoke of dagger-sharp blasts of cold across her flesh, whenever Byleth’s memories reached back to see what happened; intertwined with hours of a nothingness so deep, it almost sent her back to wishing for Rhea’s tortures.

Yet so much time had passed now, so many lanterns had died, with no one to refuel them, that her hope lingered on. Did Rhea finally give up?

 

Careful steps approached her. Their clacking light and gentle, yet by that point so familiar it pained her weary ears. A kind, ghastly smile flickered over a new lantern, blinding Byleth’s hopes as her eyes slammed shut.

A small, crimson globe was there when she reopened them, crowned by bony spikes swaying like fingers of a living hand. Its red sank through her thoughts, to the red of a man’s hair, to the same red of his brother’s, to the red around his eyes as he clutched the spear close, when he thought no one could see.

 

“Do you remember this one, Mother? The sorrows that we shared, the laughter we’ve enjoyed… He used to be among those whom I held dearest. And I know you did too…”

 

Sylvain…? Byleth thought.

Her face rose to meet her captor’s, whose lips parted expectantly as Byleth opened hers “That’s the Gautier family heirloom… why do you still have it? P-please! Give it back to his family…where it belongs…”

 

“…I see” Rhea sighed, looking sorry, and for but a split second Byleth dared to hope she’d comply. But the Archbishop swiftly masked her disappointment with more kindness.

“What if you were to take a closer look?” She suggested with a smile, sinking the Lance of Ruin past the skin on Byleth’s chest “Now, be still, and listen. Can you not feel his whispers drawing nearer to your heart…?”

 

Byleth’s lungs soundlessly screamed, heaving airless breaths as Sylvain’s voice flashed before her.

“Take this thing away from me” He’d handed her the Relic, stashing away the brave façade he’d kept up throughout their mission. “I-I mean… Please. Could you just make sure it gets back to my father?”

 

“Forgive me, Sylvain. I'm so sorry…” was all Byleth could say, coughing sobs in Rhea’s face.

Yet soon enough the pain awakened something in her veins, something she just knew would’ve made her hands reach out, stopped only by the chains locking them against the Throne. A new fear swept through her. Chased by a new decision.

 

“Hush…worry not” A vast, leafy mane shook along with Rhea’s head, their surroundings flashing green under the woman’s healing spells.

“Although your vessel’s thoughts may keep clouding your own, I have complete faith in your return. Until that moment comes, please wait for me, dear Mother…”

 


 

When Byleth finally woke, the sun was peeking through the trees.

Beams of light caressed her lids, as her eyesight slowly focused on the figure sitting near her.

Long, emerald hair mirrored the leaves above them, descending in thick strands upon pale-coloured robes. A sweet, soft melody danced from a lady's lips, ending when eyes as green as Byleth’s noticed that she was awake. A dove-like hand swooped down; its cool, dry palm gently pressing on her forehead…

 

Byleth screamed.

 

She failed to move her hands, and her panic blew up further. Stripes of cloth tied her wrists to their opposing elbows, locked in front of her middle in an awkward, cross-armed stance. She could only roll over, cold grass and dusty soil rubbing on her skin, until her ears finally placed the startled scream that had followed her own.

 

“Flayn?!”

 

“Professor! What in the world…!?”

 

“I… I just…. Is it really you?”

 

“Who else could it be?!” The girl sprang to her feet “Is my singing truly that horrific? I’ll have you know, Dorothea will not appreciate your feedback. She is the one who taught me this-“

 

“No, Flayn, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! I just… I thought you were Rhea.”

 

“…oh” Flayn’s voice finally lowered, mellowed-out by pity “I… apologise for startling you. That was not my intention.” Her expression was so hurt the teacher hurried to apologise.

 

“Well, course it wasn’t. I didn’t mean to scare you, either” Byleth pushed forward a smile, even as unsettling memories resurfaced in her thoughts. It took her a few moments to place them all where they belonged. Her green, frightening nightmare was of events long past; while Flayn was here and real, just like Byleth’s escape, just like the sturdy trees standing high above them both.

Relief came to her at last. “Is everybody okay? Are… are you all right?”

 

“Who, me?” Her student asked, surprise pitching up her tone “I believe I am the one who should be asking that to you! How are you feeling, Professor?”

 

Byleth calmly considered that question, trying to ease her quaking nerves.

Her recent shock still rang in her head, and the bile she must’ve retched out in her sleep still nastily stank up her mouth. And yet she was clean and well-covered, if wrapped in far more bandages than she remembered collapsing in. But, most importantly, most of her pain was…. gone?

She blinked at the revelation. “I… I think my Crest finally stopped healing me? Does this mean I’m fine? I… I am feeling better, all things considered.”

 

Flayn’s shoulders relaxed before Byleth even stopped speaking. But she tilted her head slightly as her confusion peeked through “Your…Crest? Is that how you…?”

 

“Well… yes” The teacher leaned back, still measuring her breaths “It reacted to the Sword, and gradually healed me as I held it. I would’ve been useless without it. And…”

She sighed at the memory, wishing she could rub her temples “Sorry, I… almost can’t believe we really made it past Catherine. If Seteth knew of the danger I put you in… I’m sure he’d skin me alive. And I wouldn’t object”

 

“Professor!” Flayn straightened up, her resolve looking too strong to be contained in her small body. “I should certainly hope you’ll sleep off whatever foul thoughts plagued you last night, if you have not already. You are the last person one should blame for all this!”

 

Byleth sighed, trying to sit in a more dignified position. She could hardly argue, in her current state. She barely glimpsed her student kneeling next to her to offer help, but when she saw none was needed, she simply dusted off her healer’s robes and ran fingers through her hair, tugging it forward so it all fell in front of her shoulders.

Byleth’s eyes followed their trail, wondering how much longer she’d have to go without brushing her own head, which must’ve already resembled a green, abandoned nest.

 

Her defeated gaze fell back to the strange cast binding her arms. It almost looked like a silkworm’s bundle, enveloping a creature yet unable to fly free. “So, can you tell me what… this is?”

 

Flayn’s hand rose to her mouth “Oh, that. Well… Professor Manuela thought it necessary to keep you from using your arms, until she can decide otherwise herself. She seemed convinced she couldn’t trust you to simply do as she says. Many of us attempted to argue against it, but…”

 

“Yeah” Byleth scoffed a laughing sound. “I can imagine how that went.”

 

“I am so sorry” the girl offered, her words infused with compassion “She did say it will not last for more than a day or two, though.”

 

Byleth could feel a dark train of thought coming, latching on to the implications of such a limiting constraint. So she nipped it in the bud, and abruptly changed the subject.

“I can’t stop thinking about Seteth… Whenever he hears about what happened, I bet he’ll never let you leave his sight again. And we haven’t even made it to Fhirdiad yet”

 

“What we had to face yesterday… it would be enough to give him the mother of all headaches. No use lying about that” Flayn agreed “I cannot say that I’m not worried...

But… you see, at the time, right after Dimitri and the others found you… his choice was between sending me to the Kingdom Capital with you and the other teachers, or allowing me to stay near Rhea herself a minute longer than was necessary. I think I understand why he allowed me to come. Even though he hugged me so tightly, I thought I was ready to faint! And in front of everyone else, no less!”

She broke into light laughter, which soon faded into Byleth’s guilty silence.

“My brother, of course, had no choice but to stay. He said he was the only one who could remain by Rhea’s side, and divert her attention from us. Naturally, he… also wished to investigate the full scope of her intentions. He would not risk me staying there, i-in case… any of them included me.”

 

Byleth suddenly recalled what Hanneman once told her about Flayn’s blood. So, Seteth feared… that Rhea wanted to use her as well…? Could she have done that?

“Flayn…” The teacher started, unsure of what to say next “Why…would Seteth think that? Going by what Rhea was saying to me, when...” she swallowed “In the Tomb. I am the one who received the Goddess’s heart. Not you, or anyone else…”

 

The girl seemed hesitant, as though she feared to upset her “Well… I don’t believe my brother knew anything about it. Naturally, neither did I, before what you said yesterday. But even still. If that is indeed the truth, then there are…other ways, in which you and I are alike.”

 

“What do you mean?” Byleth inquired. But Flayn refused to meet her eyes.

 

“Y-you… shouldn't concern yourself over it.”

 

“Flayn. Are you serious? I think I’m well past the point of not worrying about-”

 

“Professor, you’ll have to forgive me. I will not break my brother’s promise! He would only let me go because I swore to keep guarding our past. Our very safety depends upon how well we conceal ourselves. And I fear that I’ve revealed too much already”

 

The girl had rarely looked more shaken by mere words. Despite her disappointment, Byleth knew Flayn well enough to see that pressuring her further would do nothing but upset her. She was already fidgeting with a stem of grass she’d plucked out of the soil. But she promptly flicked it away to reach into a satchel hanging off her waist “Well. In any case, you really should eat something”

 

The sound of crumpling papers made Byleth realise how hungry she was. But when Flayn suddenly moved something way too close to her teacher’s face, the woman flinched back and pulled her knees against her forehead.

No.

She felt like the whole sky had crumbled down upon her. The weight of her own feelings shocked her once more. She was hungry, and recovering, why could she not accept whatever means she had to eat? Yet her body and her mind could only recoil in shame.

No.

Not this. Anything but this… She’d almost rather starve than let someone else feed her like that. Well…no, she wouldn’t. She knew the others would mourn her. But still…!

 

“Uh- is something the matter? I understand you may not be hungry, but you need…”

 

“No, Flayn, I’m fine. It’s just…” She forced her face out of hiding, chin resting on her knees “This is just… beyond mortifying. Who forced you to come do this? Did you make anyone angry? Is this their idea of a punishment?”

 

“Wha- I am shocked you would even suggest that! I’ll have you know, I volunteered myself! I saw that Professor Manuela was about to wake you for your meal, but she looked still quite angry. I merely thought I’d do you a favor, and spare you one of her lectures!”

 

Byleth wasn’t sure whether she choked back a laugh or a sob. What did she do to deserve her?

…But, Manuela. That strangely sounded less awful, and Byleth wondered why. Was it really just because the physician had already seen her at her worst? And if she was still angry…well. All the better. At least she wouldn’t have to pretend to enjoy what was to come.

So she willed a kind expression, and gently encouraged Flayn to go ready herself for the day.

 

“Are you certain?”

 

“Don’t worry, Flayn. I can take her” Byleth reassured her, holding up a smile despite the effort it took “Especially now that I’ve seen you”

 

“Aha! Despite the scare that I just gave you?” Flayn chuckled

 

“Of course. Could you also show me where my tent is, before you go? Tell Manuela I’ll wait for her there”

 

Byleth’s energy felt greater than it had been in weeks, and yet reaching her tent was a challenge she wasn’t ready for. Her legs had frozen still as soon as the other students saw her, her bandaged arms killing every conversation that she crossed. She almost ran towards the simple refuge Flayn was pointing at, genuine fear gripping her belly as she fled their piercing looks.

Eating out of someone’s hand was the last thing she could have handled, after that walk of shame. And yet, that’s what she did.

Her breath had been so shaken by fatigue not due to effort, that Manuela made no further comment, upon seeing her sitting there with her head against her knees. She simply helped Byleth swallow her fuel in peace, said something about coming back for her once everyone was ready, and tactfully left her alone to writhe in something she couldn’t cope with.

Her mouth, still marred by crumbs she didn’t let herself be wiped of, bit down on the rough fabric of her trousers, a scream of pure, white anger held back behind her teeth.

 

Her mood hardly improved when they resumed their march. Byleth soon asked for a cloak, blaming her wish to hide her arms on the air’s fast-growing cold. Manuela shot her a knowing look, but closed the coat's buttons down her front without protesting.

Even riding by herself was now a feat beyond her means. With no arms to hold its reins, her horse had to be tied behind Hanneman’s steed. She was still concerned over her class, not to mention Alois, but they were nowhere within her sight, and she couldn’t look for them…

She was grateful for the students whose banter she could hear, their cheer belying the danger they were in because of her. So many bits and pieces of their lives kept sprouting forth, each bud brighter than the last, yet all of them kept slowly winding vines around her throat. So many futures crushed, so many people wronged, had Catherine’s plan succeeded…

She did see Felix rush past her on foot, at some point, hand clasping his sword’s hilt as he went to scout ahead. Something in Byleth’s chest begged her to follow him, squirming in a prison too weak to let her do so.

 

…Rodrigue would’ve had to bury another son. And the Gautiers, too…

 

She tightly shut her eyes, casting off those hurtful musings. She wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. She would’ve had no hands to wipe her face with… She felt like her mind was trapped, just as much as her arms were. Then shooed away that thought too, when it made her eyes sting more.

As soon as they stopped to rest, she stumbled away from the small camp, hoping to alarm no one with her need to stretch her legs. She inhaled the twilight’s silence, seeking more uplifting thoughts. When that failed, she tried not to think at all. But all that truly meant was sinking back against green stones, green lanterns and green…

 

Pine Trees?

 

The beauty of the spectacle before her stole her breath. She’d reached the edge of a deep precipice, the thick forest below it laying out more shades of green than Byleth had ever seen. She stepped towards the brink, peering at the trees extending through that verdant mantle, glittering like emeralds of distinct shapes and hues.

She couldn’t help but wonder what falling down would feel like. She couldn’t help but think of how much safer the others would all be, if Rhea’s target stopped clinging to their backs. She doubted needled branches could hurt more than a Relic’s spikes…

But then her sight caught something that felt strangely familiar. She’d never seen fir trees with needles quite that pale. But if so, how did she know of the sweet aroma they unleashed, at the start of every winter…?

 

“I would always pick some up and rub them in my hands, so my gloves could save the scent" Dimitri’s voice had soothed her as they rode side by side, the images he conjured easing her towards the light, back when even talking was still too hard for her… "When I was little, those were my favourite days to practice outside the castle grounds... If Gustav was satisfied with my training, I would beg for him to let me play around those trees for a short while, before escorting me back to Fhirdiad. I still remember their smell so vividly, I… it will always remind me of home”

 

A gust of wind pulled at the hems of Byleth’s cloak.

She swallowed and suddenly stepped back, shocked by how close to the cliff her feet and thoughts had dragged her. She’d never do this to him. Nor any of her allies. Not if she could still save them. After all the ways they’d helped her, and the ways that she could help them… well. In the future. And only if her strength ever returned to what it was...

 

Someone yanked her collar, and Byleth nearly yelled. She sputtered as strong hands pulled her sideways by both shoulders.

“Are you insane?!” A roar blew in her face “What in the world are you…?!”

Her mouth moved against her gasps, failing to form words, shocked by the rampant terror shining in Dimitri’s eyes. “Please, listen to me! I am aware, that things may seem hopeless right now. And I know you must be in pain. Believe me, I know how you’re feeling! But… but what kind of solution is this? Did you not spare a single thought for how the rest of us would feel?!”

 

He finally stopped shaking as her voice could spell his name. “D-Dimitri…”

 

Another gust swept by, blonde and light-green hair lifting in its wake. His gaze kept searching hers. Byleth returned it without flinching. She could feel him relax as what he saw in her reassured him. His lids fell shut at last, but his hands didn’t let go.

Byleth wished she could hold them.

Chapter Text

 


 

Only once Seteth finished reading the last letter from Faerghus, he allowed his relief to flow out in a sigh. So, the spies sent to the Holy Kingdom hadn’t found anything. Yet.

Flayn…

He leaned back for a moment, wiping sweat off his forehead before any of it could drop on the precious paper. It needed to look perfect, unopened and unspoiled, when Rhea picked it up herself to read the latest lack of news.

The gravity of his crime ran cold in him once more. But not nearly enough to freeze still his resolve.

Going through Rhea’s correspondence? Well, he simply must be aware of her every exchange with the outside world. If the Church’s knights found something, news of it must never reach her. He was ready to burn that letter, if it ever came.

The reason for it all already tugged hard at his chest. Yearning mixed with worry, concocting the deep sickness only a parent could contract, stealing all joy from his days, and all rest from his sleep. An ache that wouldn’t pass until they’d reunite…

Flayn...

No, not only her. Every other reason she was still alive were with her, as well. The students that had dragged her out of the Death Knight’s fatal trap. And, though he still sometimes struggled to believe it, so was their Professor.

Concealing Byleth’s traces still felt nearly surreal, after the whole of Garreg Mach had spent weeks looking for her. Though painful to admit it, Seteth had been among those who’d started fearing she’d never reappear, in spite of how much her students kept desperately insisting otherwise.

 

Until one day, she simply did.

He was on his way to meeting Flayn in the Cathedral, when Professor Byleth was once again before him.

He saw a heap of scrunched-up cloth, pale and bloodstained skin, surmounted by a face that met Seteth’s eyes without seeing them, bundled in Prince Blaiddyd’s arms; as the young man sprinted past him on the bridge, closely followed by Claude and Edelgard.

Between the new, ghastly hue that her eyes and hair had taken, and the way she almost looked more like a corpse than a living person, Seteth would never be quite sure of how he had recognised the Blue Lions’ teacher. And yet he somehow found himself running after the three students on their way to the infirmary, their rush not slowing down to accommodate his step.

 

“You… you have found her?! What happened?!”

 

“Ask Rhea!” Edelgard spat, red mantle and white hair flying wildly behind her back, with the fury of a queen’s flag waving over a war zone. “Unless you can answer that for yourself, of course!”

 

“What is the meaning of this?! And why do all look like you’ve been fighting?”

 

Claude drily scoffed. “It’s not like the people guarding the place were happy to have guests”

 

“What… place are you referring to? She was here, in the Monastery?!”

 

Dimitri didn’t say a word. Claude eventually chose to utter something akin to an explanation “She was locked down in that…. That underground cemetery! You know, the one behind the forbidden passage, near the cathedral?”

 

“You… you can’t mean! the Holy Tomb?” Seteth huffed, as they climbed a flight of stairs.

 

Claude’s sardonic tone was devoid of all mirth “Yeah. If that’s what you call it. We kept seeing Rhea going in and out of there, ever since the Professor was gone. So we checked, and guess who was there?!”

 

Suddenly, they all stopped.

“Professor Manuela!” Edelgard called out to the woman who’d almost crossed their path, wide-eyed at the sight of Byleth’s head lying limply against Dimitri’s chest. The Adrestian Princess grabbed her arm, speaking before a single noise could leave the healer’s throat “She needs an empty room, and medical attention. Tell no one about this! This is a matter of life or death”

 

Manuela’s expression straightened, as she fumbled with her cloak’s many pockets. “Third room down from here should be empty, but no one used it in a while so I’ll have to fetch supplies” She seemed shaken yet determined, handing Edelgard a key “But I need to know for what. What exactly am I dealing with, here? What in the….?!”

 

“Tortured. Probably starved, too.” Claude cut her off, his brief yet heavy words dropping like stones on Seteth’s ears “But we can’t be sure of anything, until someone takes a closer look”

 

Manuela’s lips had thinned as she nodded before leaving. The rest of them hurried to catch up with Dimitri, who was already standing by the room the healer’ d mentioned. Edelgard bent down to fumble with the old key, but Claude soon waved her away, so he could try his own hand at it.

 

“If this thing does not open, I will kick it down myself!” The roar that broke Dimitri’s silence nearly made Seteth flinch.

 

But to everyone’s relief, the lock swiftly surrendered to Von Riegan’s nimble fingers, and the door flew open. They all spilled into the room, eyeing the single, bare mattress-bed inside it. The blonde quickly dashed past them and lowered himself over it, carefully easing his precious cargo on the soft, clean surface.

He went still before retreating. All of them saw why. Byleth’s small, trembling hand had gripped the front of Dimitri’s uniform, her shockingly pale arm bridging the space between the two.

Only then, as she shivered laid out in Seteth’s view, he was able to behold the full horror of her plight. Reds both bright and dull stained the cloth tunic she wore, which was torn in so many places it was practically falling off of her, revealing far more marks than Seteth could’ve counted without soon feeling ill. She looked like a white vase, traversed by scarlet cracks, as if every drop of blood had drained out of her skin to pool into her barely-closed cuts; while stripes of weeks-old sweat ran down her every limb.

Seteth should’ve looked away, but his gaze was swept along those dry, greyish tracks; his eyes following them upstream on the arm clinging to Dimitri with what little strength it had.

 

Something clanked on the floor. Dimitri had pulled both gauntlets off his hands, letting them fall.

All of them fell silent, as the blonde gently unhooked Byleth’s fingers from his collar, held her hand in both of his own for perhaps a moment longer than needed, and carefully moved to fold the woman’s arm back against her body.

He unclasped his azure mantle, pulled it off his shoulder and laid it over her. The scratch of wood on wood tore through the stuffy air, as his foot dragged a stool closer the bed. Dimitri slumped down on it, one hand holding up his face, the other resting on Byleth’s forehead, his thumb tenderly stroking the woman’s minty fringe.

Seteth’s nose and palate could start to taste his own nausea. But his clarity flowed back once less of Byleth’s wounds were on display to assault his mind. Yet words kept evading him, still whirling with his thoughts, like birds scared off their perch by everything he’d seen and heard.

  Tortured.

Starved.

The Holy Tomb.

…Rhea?

Could anyone but Rhea have locked someone in the Holy Tomb? And placed people down there to guard its interior? And yet… could she even be capable of doing anything like… this?

His gaze flew across the room, unable to find a spot to rest upon that didn’t startle it anew. From Byleth’s close-eyed face tilting toward the hand caressing her, to the sharpness of Claude’s features giving his anger a frightening edge, to Edelgard’s closed fists curling beyond what he’d thought possible, to the tears silently dripping down Dimitri’s locked jaw.

The sight of their despair further fuelled his own. While humans might’ve called those four youths “adults”, to him they were mere children, hopes lost and bodies broken, shivering in hiding from a world that kept on hurting them. He couldn’t ask for answers, which they couldn't yet give, and that he could not yet process. Not until they’d at least learned whether or not Byleth would survive…

 

But to Seteth’s dismay, Edelgard soon made that mistake.

“Dimitri.” Her gloved fingers reached for the young man’s shoulder, slowed by hesitation that didn’t taint her voice as much “I need to know for certain. Her hair colour had already changed by the end of your last mission with her. Correct?”

 

“How many more times must I tell you” Dimitri rumbled, anger bleeding into sorrow beneath the wrist wiping his cheeks, “It did. She said so herself. That is how she was able tear open the sky a-and… come back to us. With her Relic Sword, and the power given to her by the Goddess…”

 

The Goddess…! Seteth nearly gasped.

 

 The word turned in the Seteth’s mind, like a key to a dark prison, sinisterly clacking down the tunnels of his past. The Blue Lions’ last report, Jeralt’s journal entries, and the strange manner in which Rhea had evaded his questions on the matter… everything was making sense in ways that sickened him. This wouldn’t even be first time she had tampered with Byleth’s life.

Missing puzzle pieces were falling into place, lining out an image too grotesque for speech to convey.

Betraying each other’s trust, with all that They had shared, meant breaking eons of familial kinship, bonds that had persisted long after Their family had dwindled; the last signs of their lineage barely risking to give him and Flayn away wherever they hid: drake-like ears, hair like grass, and eyes of new-born spring leaves…

Seteth almost leapt backwards when his gaze fell back on Byleth, her new colours allowing his thoughts to slip someone else into her place, marked and bare and dying helplessly before him.

Flayn…!

If Byleth’s ties with the Goddess were what the Archbishop valued, then...! Who was to say she wouldn’t threaten even her?

Despite everything it meant, he couldn’t have ignored the ugly truth in front of him. No, not when his child, his life’s own very light, so radiant yet fragile, was once again at risk of getting blown out like a candle.

 

 A creak and a loud slam snapped Seteth from his panic. His vision returned to find Dimitri’s fist against the wall, shaking with the rest of him, the sharp noise only briefly breaking through the three students’ incessant back and forth. “If you take me for a witless fool, you can come out and say so! But that is exactly what I saw, with my very own eyes. Why would I even fabricate such a lie?!” He rattled, his knuckles still digging against the hard surface.

 

Edelgard shook her head, unfazed “I am not insinuating you are not telling the truth. You are simply not telling me enough! That cannot be all the Professor said about…”

 

“She had passed out! Before we even had the chance to leave that damned forest! I had to carry her out of there. And as soon as we set foot back in the Monastery, I…” Dimitri stood up abruptly, avoiding her gaze.

“I handed her right to Rhea…” He exhaled in a way that sounded like he might breathe fire.

 

Claude had stepped between the two, as if fearing that Dimitri may actually set Edelgard aflame, but the Princess looked as though she was ready to respond in kind. None of them had even noticed how Byleth’s lids shot open, her startlingly bright eyes darting through her surroundings.

 

“That is quite enough!” Seteth heard himself declare, stepping boldly right up to them. “Need I remind you of what is at stake? The last thing the Professor needs, in her condition, is more disquieting commotion. If you three cannot control yourselves, the very least you could do is leave, and take your squabbling elsewhere!”

 

He saw a flash of panicked guilt light up Dimitri’s eyes, as he hurriedly returned one of his palms to Byleth’s head. Her lashes fluttered down, relieved anew by the contact; but the other two royals turned to glare daggers into Seteth.

 

“And leave you alone with her?” Claude had scoffed “Nice try. How can we even be sure that you’re not on Rhea’s side?”

 

…thinking back to that day, Seteth often surmised how Manuela couldn’t have reappeared at a better moment. He could’ve offered no better proof of where his allegiance lied, than his reaction to seeing Flayn peer at him from behind the healer’s cloak.

Flayn…

He had to hold her close and stifle her shocked sobs, right after she’d pushed past them to see the particularly awful marks stretching up from Byleth’s sternum, which extended long past the rim of Dimitri’s mantle.

 

“I ran into your sister on my way back. She was looking for you, and I am an awful liar” Manuela had stated simply “And now, I want everyone who isn’t more than well-versed in healing out of here!”

 

Flayn had tried to resist, as Seteth dragged her out, but she folded into his arms as soon as they stepped into the hallway. “You can go in and offer your aid if she needs you. But for now, please…” Seteth gasped into her ear, his own voice finally cracking.

 

They were lucky, he had thought, that nobody else seemed to be around the second floor at that time of day, or others would’ve seen what he was seeing, through veiled eyes. Three pillars of strength, three Houses’ solid anchors, three countries’ future leaders; bent against a wall, sliding towards the floor under a month’s worth of anguish crashing on their shaking shoulders. At one point, Edelgard stood back up to pace up and down the corridor, as though using actual movement to justify her heavy breaths. Claude’s head lifted towards her, but Dimitri’s remained buried deep into his hands.

They almost quivered even more under their relief, when Manuela had promising news to share upon emerging from the room. Byleth was safe, and would’ve soon walked out of there herself. If helped. But she’d brushed the void so closely that her full recovery would be a slow one.

 

That was all Dimitri needed to hear before letting his anger march right over his spent anguish. “She isn’t spending one more night under the roof of this cursed place! As soon as she is able sit up without any blasted chains holding her, I am taking her home”

 

“Home?” Seteth blinked.

 

“To Fhirdiad, I mean” Dimitri quickly rectified “And you had better hope I will not see Rhea before I leave. If I do, one of us will die. Of that, you can be certain” The low burn of his growl chased all doubt from Seteth’s mind. The Prince was dead serious. “And I need to stay alive, to lead us safely to the Capital”

 

“I will do everything in my power to hide all this from Rhea, of course” Seteth heard himself declare “But regardless of what I do, soon enough she is going to find out that the Professor is missing. And when she does, there is no telling of how she may react. If sufficiently angered, she may even...” He paused befoe continuing “What I’m trying to say is, I cannot guarantee anyone’s safety”

 

“The Immaculate One…” Claude hissed.

 

Seteth was taken aback. Especially when Edelgard simply nodded at the statement.

He truly did not know how he’d kept his tone under control “Well! I can see you did not desist from prying when I kindly demanded it. Though I must admit, it does save me quite a bit of explaining”

 

“So it is true...” He could hear Dimitri rasp.

 

 ************

 

Seteth eyed again the stack of papers on his desk. He could swear that for a moment, the Faerghan Prince’s eyes were watching him from the letters’ blue, torn seals.

If you don’t guide them well, Prince Dimitri of Faerghus…

Seteth thought to himself, wishing the man could hear him

…I am going to make sure that you shall know no peace either.

 

As soon as he’d confirmed the secret of Rhea’s powers, Dimitri had wasted no time before immediately announcing he’d take his entire class with him. Echoed shortly thereafter by the other two House Leaders. And all Seteth could do was adjust to the new circumstances. The thought of the youths leaving eased much of his worries, but he rapidly realised that Rhea’s secret, their secret was about to spread with them, across all three nations.

Despite all the Church had done, for the sake of Fodlan. The miles of finely-patterned lace they’d woven over people’s hearts. Rhea’s single, loose thread was undoing it all. He realised that dark times would soon descend once more, regardless of his actions.

And while facing the brink of such deep and bleak unrest, all Seteth could do to keep his thoughts in healthy motion, was plan ahead to safeguard those he most dearly cherished.

 

“Brother. I shall accompany my class as well.”

 

Flayn, bright as she was, hadn’t taken long to reach his same conclusions. He never could’ve deprived Rhea of her first prey, only to leave a possible alternative right within her grasp. If the Archbishop was somehow exploiting Byleth’s connection to the Goddess, he couldn’t leave Flayn there. Where he, himself, was needed, to keep an eye on Rhea.

And yet, letting go of his child had been too painful.

As they stood by the stables, at nightfall, surrounded by noises of people and horses that Seteth barely registered, Flayn’s insistent pleas perfectly mirrored his every thought. And yet he couldn’t even bring himself to speak a “yes” out loud. He merely shut his eyes against the light that would soon leave him, cutting off her speech by dragging her close to his heavy heart.

 

“I swear to you, I shall always think of my own safety first and foremost. And I will keep guarding our secret, for as long as it can remain such. There truly is no better way. Still, I will dearly miss you... Cichol.” She whispered against his coat.

 

“If anything were to happen to you, I would no longer know peace. You, are my reason for breathing. Cethleann.” He breathed into her hair, where no one could read his lips.

 

He emerged from the hug an eternity later, his gaze searching for Byleth so he could offer her… anything. Gratitude for all she’d done, prayers for her health, and demands to keep Flayn safe, but he quickly realised that of course, the others had hidden her from view before departing. Though Seteth could guess where a little too easily.

Felix, Dedue, and even little Annette stood by one of the stable doors, looking ready to bite off the hand of whomever got too close. Seteth chose not to try his luck, and simply dragged his tired gaze over his surroundings.

 

Just as Dimitri’ d promised, he’d said he would gladly welcome all who wished to come, since both Hanneman and Manuela were needed at Byleth’s side, and therefore could not keep instructing their own classes from that point on.

Seteth’s brow had furrowed. He’d underestimated how heavily their futures depended on their studies. All commoner students chose to follow their teachers into Kingdom territory, rather than going back home with nothing to show for almost a year at the Academy.

But several noble-borns had joined Dimitri’s group as well, despite how easily their families may have found other educators. Bernadetta and Marianne never spoke highly of their home lives, which may explain their choice… but he was outright baffled when the Princess of Brigid climbed on a horse next to them. But he’d felt far too drained to inquire.

 

Bearing witness to the scene would’ve tied knots in any father’s chest. These youths should be kept safe, and protected as they learned. And yet, they’d even left their uniforms behind, to better avoid detection, clothed for war instead in their respective combat garbs…

Seteth marched back inside, and watched Flayn leave with them from behind a closed window. He’d feared he might run after her, if he remained by the gates.

 

Staging his heartbreak, as he told Rhea of Flayn’s “disappearance”, had been far from hard. All he needed to do was discard his restraint, and let the Archbishop behold his very real anxiety. She had warmly matched his worry, and promised her knights’ aid in finding her again. Unaware of much Seteth wished they never would.

The next lie was only slightly less easy to pull off.

“When the royal heirs of Fodlan announced their intention to pull out their classes, I… there was not much I could have said to stop them. Why even would I? I believe everyone, at this point, has reached the conclusion that Garreg Mach is not safe. After all, both students and staff have been targeted, this year. And both students and staff were hiding traitors, as well…” Seteth let his voice trail off to his throat’s deep vibrations. He was suddenly thankful for his years of clandestinity, which he’d spent honing his skills at convincing deception.

Rhea’s answer to that was, instead, strangely lukewarm. And mostly concerned with the Academy’s reputation, now tarnished by the threats it posed to pupils of status.

 

But then… she’d found out that her prisoner was gone.

It took her two days to realise that Byleth had escaped. Two entire days! Which Seteth had spent wondering, enraged, clenching fists behind his back, just how long Rhea had been leaving her down there, between visits. Without food, without light, without water or…

 

“Seteth!” The Archbishop’s feral howl rattled his core, even though he’d been awaiting it with livid anticipation “We must out send more searching parties at once! An extremely valuable treasure is missing from the Holy Tomb!”

 

Seteth bit back a dry answer, masking his real feelings behind surprised concern “What? What is missing?”

 

Rhea’s mouth gaped for a moment. She clearly hadn’t yet considered what sort of lie to tell him. “T-the Sword of the Creator!...”

 

“…The Sword of the Creator?”

 

Rhea had firmly stuck to the lie she blurted out. Then wove it into an even bigger lie, wherein Byleth returned the Relic so it could rest with Sothis’ remains. Right before going missing. Seteth did not dispute her. Heavens, he was thankful she did not take her other form. Yet he knew she would’ve sent troops to track Byleth down, without letting him know.

 

To leave no stone unturned, he’d started keeping track of when Cyril would drop off written reports from outside areas. He warmly smiled at the boy whenever he saw him, unassumingly offering to bring the missives to Rhea himself.

Without telling him, of course, he would first inspect them in secret.

Watching Cyril still adoringly serve the Archbishop, made Seteth’s ears ring with worry every day. But everyone had concluded that he could not be trusted with Byleth’s secret. Cyril would uphold Rhea’s words over anyone else’s, and over any ugly proof they could’ve shown him of her actions. They couldn’t have risked him revealing everything to his liege, instantly uprooting their escape plans.

Lysithea was devastated when she’d accepted their decision; her alarmed, unsteady voice begging Seteth to watch over him. Of course, he would have done so without being asked. Protecting the bright, unsuspecting young Almyran was among Seteth’s new, critical duties at the Monastery.

Along with, of course, finding out Rhea’s objectives, and hampering her efforts in whatever way he could.

 

************

 

Then I had better start re-sealing these envelopes, he thought. When he noticed something else on the bottom of the pile.

That letter looked so different from the ones he’d read so far… the paper felt much rougher, the seal on it more solid, and as Seteth eased it open, he could swear it smelled of blood. His hair stood on end. His hands shook as he read something that confirmed his deepest fears: Rhea had a separate channel which he knew nothing about.

 

Lady Rhea,

I regret to announce that our cover has failed. One of our own betrayed us, and joined Prince Dimitri’s forces. We found ourselves unable to rout them as you asked. None of them had fallen, while nearly all of our own did.

 

“ROUT THEM?!” Seteth roared.

Rhea had asked the knights to… attack the students? His daughter’s gaze flashed through him. He felt again the squeeze of her arms around his shoulders.

“She is alive, none of them had fallen, none of them had fallen, none of them had fallen…”

Those words kept on repeatedly falling from his lips, a litany that barely stopped his mind from imploding as he desperately tried to move past that sentence of the letter and read the rest.

 

To make matters worse, the target took possession of the Relic. I’m afraid the only good news is that the Heart still beats inside her. We couldn’t bring it back, since we were outnumbered. But we did nothing to harm it, just as you demanded.

We’ve gathered our wounded, and we’re on our way back. I won’t waste your time with my apologies. But know that I’d rather die, than disappoint you ever again.

Forever yours to command,

Catherine

 

 Seteth’s chair slammed backwards, thrown behind his legs as the man sprang to his feet. He tore his office door open and flung himself outside, the cursed sheet of paper wickedly crumpling in his fist.

Cethleann!

 

 


 

Chapter Text


 

 

The long, heavy breath Byleth realised she was holding fled her lips in a swirling white cloud. It blurred, for but a moment, the features of the man still grasping both her shoulders. The air was growing colder. And yet, she didn’t shiver. As though her body understood how she didn’t dare moving, afraid to break the small truce that had settled over their panic.

Still, she had to do something. Or say something, at least.

 

“Dimitri…let go of me”

 

His head didn’t shake, so much as tremble to the side “I beg of you…don’t do this.”

 

Byleth hesitated at the clear choice she could see, and took the one she hoped would dispel his fears more quickly. “Do what…?” She exhaled kindly, realising her mistake as Dimitri’s hands tensed up against her.

 

“Pardon my bluntness, but you used to lie better than this”

 

She’d never heard him use this tone with her before. Defiant, yet gentle, marred by a shrill of fear that made Byleth’s words weigh more than boulders as her tongue pushed them out. She shifted within his hold “Really? Have I ever lied to you before? I am not going to do anything stupid, Dimitri. Now please, let me go.”

 

He swallowed “I will do that soon. But first, you must allow me to escort you away from this cliff”

 

She couldn’t help but gasp. Was this really happening? He’d never defied her so openly before, if not…

Oh no.

…If not when he’d refused to leave her open to Catherine’s blows. She realised he now feared for her just as much. More than anyone, Dimitri would never restrain her, against her own wishes, unless he truly believed that her life was in danger. She could feel her skin starting to bruise under the Prince’s strong fingers, but saying so out loud would merely upset him more, knowing he’d still choose that over seeing her…

She slowly turned her gaze to the vast, distant forest “That would be a shame” Byleth longingly stared at the green void below; as a boy’s golden locks darted from one tree to another, engaged in a child’s game conjured by her mind’s eye. “I was hoping you’d tell me more about those scented pines. And, maybe even teach me the correct way of picking up their needles, so they don’t lose their-”

 

A sharp, breathy sound snapped her attention back to the grown blonde before her “You…you were listening…!”

 

“Of course I was listening” She said, in a sort of timid cheer that made the notion sound so obvious. So simple. So uncaring of the plight that had made it all but easy; despite how eagerly, and dearly, she’d clung onto all he said.

 

“Wait, so you were looking at…?”

 

“What did you think I was looking at?”

 

Dimitri’s only reply was the relief lifting his features, while a strange sort of regret marred Byleth’s own relief, as the Prince’s warm grasp finally left her. Her gut flinched as Dimitri’s forearm met his middle, and he bowed deeply, gravely, strands of light hair falling free from the tuck of his ears. “P-please, you must forgive me! Such rudeness was inexcusable, but…you left camp without saying a word to anyone, and I was concerned. And then, the way I saw you looking down this precipice…” When he finally rose to face her, his expression iced her veins “It…frightened me, to be honest.”

 

“No need to apologise. I’m sorry that I made you worry” She reassured him, while her remorse slowly grew at the half-lie she’d told. But was it really a lie? She only chose to omit a brief moment of weakness, which she’d never burden him with. Not if she could avoid it. “To be fair, I can’t blame you for thinking I couldn’t hear you, back then. I’m sure I was not in my right mind yet, if I seriously thought I could still be your teacher, and help with your studies in Fhirdiad” The realisation hurt her. He was merely entertaining her, when he’d accepted her absurd offer, too glad to hear her speak at all to argue his way into her delusions.

 

“Do not dwell on that, Professor. Pain and shock require time to ease off one’s mind, and considering… what you went through, one could hardly fault you for feeling a little confused. You’re on the mend now, which is all that truly matters. Having you back, at last, it…makes me happier than I can say” Finally, he smiled “Oh, and…! You need not be concerned about our training. There are plenty of capable instructors back at the Capital. With or without the Academy, we will keep getting stronger.”

 

“I’m glad to hear that, of course” Byleth bit her lip “I suppose I only wish I could be more of use. Even though it made no sense… for a while, the thought of being able to help our class again, was what pushed me to go on” She recoiled from that sentence as soon as it left her. It came out all wrong. She had meant to sound uplifting, saying just how much their future helped her work toward her own, and instead…

 

Her regret caught him by surprise “Professor, you…do not really believe we saved you just because we need to graduate, do you?” He paused at her silence “Do not act as though our bonds don’t run deeper than that. We care about you, and-”

 

“Even after I’ve been putting you at risk, out here? Even though I never should’ve been teaching in the first place?!” She erupted, before her wisdom could catch up with her words, bitterly bubbling up thoughts she’d promised herself to abandon “Rhea wanted me there so she could use me, Dimitri. And all of you almost paid the price…”

 

“Professor!”

 

Byleth visibly flinched, but Dimitri showed no remorse for barking out “Do you think I care one bit about whatever Rhea wanted to make of you? You’ve shielded us from harm more times than I even remember. And whenever we needed you, to talk, or to listen, you were there. You have taught us how to survive, and if it weren’t for what we’ve learned from you, none of us would’ve made it past a bandit raid, let alone a group of Seiros Knights disguised as such! You haven’t forgotten any of that, have you?”

 

“Of course not, but-“

 

“Do you know why the Academy still needed a teacher, when we first met?” He insisted “Has anyone ever told you?”

 

Byleth swallowed. She did know, but said nothing.

 

“There already were enough instructors for everyone, when we arrived” He went on “We were supposed to head out of Monastery grounds for field training, with a dastard that was sworn to protect his students, just as every other teacher. But he ran off on us at the very first sign of trouble, when a mere band of thieves chose to sneak up on our base! He had us all saddle up, and take up arms, promising he’d teach us how to handle ourselves against foes. Only to abandon us, the very same day, in the middle of battle…”

He trailed off for a moment, as his bottom lip shook “I don’t know what would have happened if a few Knights weren’t with us, as well. How… how do you suppose we came out of that fight?”

Byleth was sure Dimitri expected no real answer. Yet for a few, long moments, the rustling of leaves was all she could hear over the disdain squeezing her gut, before the Prince continued “I shall leave it up to you to imagine how angry, how… betrayed we all felt. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I tried to keep morale high, as we waited for a replacement. There was no stopping ourselves from fearing the same thing might happen again with our next guide, regardless of how capable they may seem at first glance. Trust is far more easily broken, than mended”

 

If Byleth’s hands were free, she would’ve clenched her fists. But all she could do was stare down at her shoes, pressing a small rock under her heel, wishing she could picture that stranger’s face in it. She had wondered before, as she fostered the Blue Lions’ progress, what sort of vile coward could’ve abandoned such bright, eager faces under enemy blades. Being raised to fight to eat ever since she was small, she had been downright shocked at how much they had to learn.

Ashe could barely hold anything heavier than a bow for very long, and Annette’s diligence in Magic Theory was in serious needed of more actual practice. Even most noble-born students, who weren’t new to armed skirmishes, couldn’t hold correctly more than one or two weapon types each. Every single one of them had likely faced serious trouble, when they were left with no direction to their own, poor devices, against someone who would actually cut them down for profit. She’d grown angrier at the thought the longer she’d trained them, and the closer she got to them all, one by one.

 

“And then… you appeared” Almost a whisper, another white cloud softly eased Dimitri’s voice to Byleth’s ears.

“We asked for your aid, and you gave it to us. And then, you came to teach. Right after our first Professor decided he valued his own pathetic life before ours. But you…?”

There was something, in that you, that tilted her chin up, demanding she bore witness to deep, glowing intensity of the young man’s stare. “Yesterday, you….you could hardly lift a weapon. Let alone hold anything resembling a shield. You were…completely defenceless. And yet you still rushed right into the danger, out of a mere chance you could turn the tide in our favour! I am…” his voice vanished. Then resurfaced with a vengeance.

“There is no one. No one! That I could be prouder to call my teacher, and my ally, than you. Regardless of how, or why, our paths came to cross. I am…glad, that they did. Nothing you can say will ever change my mind”

 

Byleth distantly felt herself breathe. Dimitri stared into her the same words he just spoke, without leaving her room to question why she couldn’t help but feel her chest growing softer, and fonder, under the weight of his gratitude, his unwavering trust. It was at once a heavy burden, and a blessing so heady it made all else vanish. She felt lost for a moment. She swore that she could see blue skies stretching above her, between lashes spreading open as far as they could reach, as if trying to pull her entire being up there with him.

 

“You…” She shook her head out of that oddly serene haze “You make it sound like I was brave.”

 

“Well, were you not?”

 

“I… I don’t think so” Byleth tried her best to be honest. She owed him that much, at least about this “I was much more scared at the thought of you all being in danger. And you!”

This time, it was her turn, to make the young man flinch “Didn’t I ask you to move out of the way, when Catherine found us? I wish I could scold you for not doing like I ordered, but… since I also spent the whole day ignoring everything Manuela and Hanneman said to me, I don’t have much ground to stand on, do I?”

 

His seriousness was coloured by a faint twinge of mirth “I suppose not. And besides, you asked me to do the impossible, Professor. As though I could let that brutish outlaw get anywhere near you with an Ancient Relic. Although…”

 

Her brow lifted “…although?”

 

“W-well, I think I may have spoken too harshly, just now, since we all underestimated how much it takes to make you, uhm… ‘defenceless’. The way you drove off Catherine was nothing short of incredible! With a mind like yours, it truly is no wonder we always fared so well under your command. That said, I am… not entirely sure I understand why those two couldn’t attack you” Dimitri clearly noticed her unease. His next words were careful steps of someone treading on thin ice “D-did you say something about your…?”

 

“My heart” Byleth confirmed, somehow feeling it grow even stiller in her chest. “The heart keeping me alive. Rhea wants it back”

 

She could see something heavy building within Dimitri’s shoulders “…why?!”

 

“Because it was her mother’s. The Goddess. She kept saying the vessel, uhm… me, I… I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for what she did. Only, she wasn’t talking to me, but to her, a-and…” She forced herself to stop. Once again, her tongue was tangling up in itself.

 

The prince’s mouth fell slightly ajar “And now…she tried to...?”

 

“Have her replace me? Yes. And she didn’t seem to care how many times I repeated that Sothis is gone, that she gave herself up to save me, in the Sealed Forest. I’m not even sure whether she was pretending to ignore me, or if she really did see me as her mother… She just kept trying to call on her, again, and again, saying how much she missed her-”

 

 

I miss you, Father… Byleth mouthed into the wind blowing past Jeralt’s grave.

 

 

She tore free of the sudden memory to find Dimitri trying to wave away her distress “Professor… that is enough. Please, forget I said anything. It was foolish of me to ask. Painful thoughts like these are best left alone, at least for the time being-”

 

“T-that’s not it…” Something welled up in her throat, and she avoided the man’s gaze, feeling suddenly foolish herself. Why was her father, of all things, upsetting her this much? Over two months had passed, so much else had transpired, so many others still needed to be saved and protected…and yet here she was, still saddened beyond reason for someone who could no longer be helped.

She had no time for this. She’d been dormant for too long. She needed her thoughts sharp, her senses wide awake; the paths she’d soon trace on maps, and follow across battlefields, should be prudent and precise. Yet waves of nostalgia, so frighteningly huge compared to her own will, always seemed ready to ambush her at every turn; leaving her vulnerable in ways she was never trained to deal with.

And now, that she was free to stretch out in a headspace that was all hers again, without Sothis’ tiny feet impatiently stomping between its walls… silences were emptier. Her emotions, louder; their ceaseless whims stealing all composure from her face, now showing her soul’s ripples like clear, limpid water.

She wasn’t used to this. She wasn’t used to people accessing her mind with such little effort, as easily as Dimitri could now tell something was wrong.

 

“Professor…?” Her gut sank. As expected, he was worried.

 

“It’s nothing” she croaked, with a voice that said otherwise, with a face that betrayed how fast her grip was slipping. She was sure Dimitri knew, since the Prince said nothing more, merely waiting for her feelings to unravel by themselves. He almost looked eager to catch her, as though she were about to fall, if only that abyss could be reached by his ready arms.

“It’s just… my father warned me not to trust Rhea, and I didn’t listen. I did try to keep my distance, but…she offered me this new life at Garreg Mach, with all of you. I began to fear I was being too cold, after everything she gave me. But my father was right. And… only I wish I could tell him. If only I could see him again, just once, I would tell him how wrong I was, and how sorry I am. I…still miss him” she muttered pathetically, to someone who’d already powered through that, and so, so much more “I know it’s silly, but…”

 

“What?” Dimitri was aghast “What could possibly be…silly, about that?”

 

Byleth opened her mouth, but found she couldn’t speak, and closed it again when a tear slipped down her face. Something within Dimitri’s eyes seemed to shatter at the sight. She failed a poor attempt to wipe it off on her own shoulder, and his wide hand surprised her by approaching her cheek, before stopping mid-way.

“L-let me…” He stuttered, looking at her with taut sadness, not daring to move further without her permission. She hoped her gaze alone would suffice to convey it, since her voice had gone mute in her tightly-wound throat. And, sure enough, the man’s face flushed pink, but his thumb’s delicate touch still moved across her skin, gently swiping off the tiny, wet trail. A second tear fell to replace it, as if to mock his gesture.

 

“I’m sorry-” she choked, her arms feeling more trapped than ever, as more tears followed suit from both her eyes.

 

But he brushed off her apology, as easily as both thumbs went to brush her cheeks, his mouth tensing up as if the task required effort. “You’ve nothing to apologise for. Do you remember what I said? That there is nothing wrong, or weak, in taking the time to grieve?”

 

“But I… I’ve already been through this!” she sobbed between his hands. “I hid, and I mourned, and I worried everyone, until I finally felt ready to move on. Even though I was still angry, of course, I… thought the worst was over”

 

“Professor, that is…not how grief works!” He sounded so incredulous, despite his hushed tone.

 

She felt like she was shrinking “It’s…not?”

His throat swallowed down questions he didn’t dare asking, but Byleth answered all the same “I’ve never…he was the only family I had”

His gaze kept on following every drop caught by his fingers, almost pondering them all just as carefully as her words, before replying “I can assure you, there is nothing strange about this. After my family, and so many friends were taken from me, I… must confess that I also started telling others I felt better, when asked, long before I truly did. I understand all too well the fear of disappointing those around you, but there is just no rushing this. Pain is selfish, and cruel. No matter how strong you try to be, for other people’s sake… it simply demands you let it take its course”

 

 “I’m sorry” She said again, not knowing what else to do “I am sorry for dragging up your past like this, too”

 

His jaw shifted slightly “Don’t be. My father and stepmother are always in my thoughts, every day since. That never changes, no matter how rarely people bring up those events.”

 

Byleth barely stopped herself from struggling out of her bandages right then and there. How could she simply take his words, take the unrelenting kindness of the touch cupping her face, keep taking stroke after stroke peeling away at the barriers she had tried to hide behind, without doing…something, anything! To give back a mere fraction of his understanding patience.

Yet, she could not. While he kept pushing past everything that came his way, as diligent and strong as anyone could hope him to be, even considering that he would one day be King. Byleth wanted to help, not weigh on him as well. She fought against her sadness. And miserably failed. How was she still crying? Sobbing like the emotional, sensitive child her father never had the chance to see…

 

“S-sometimes…” she began “I’m almost afraid my father never knew me at all”

 

That made Dimitri’s thumbs lock in place. His wrists slipped past her neck. Their eyes found each other’s, blue asking green, and green letting blue know. Byleth hadn’t even realised how cold she was, until the Prince’s arms shut her out of the evening’s cool winds. She slid in his embrace with the ease of someone welcomed to a home where she was wanted; hitting a wall of warmth that muffled her sorrowful whimpers.

 

“I… understand what you mean” he said at last, above her head. Did his voice crack, or was she simply closer to it? “…Sometimes I feel the same way about those whom I lost at Duscur” His arms shifted on her back, clearly unsure of how tight was too tight “But… if it isn’t too bold of me to say so, I doubt that is the case for you. You may look a little different, but deep down, no one would think you aren’t still the same person who saved Edelgard’s life, at Remire”

 

She dug her nose out of his jacket “Oh, please… I’m sure you noticed too. You used to think I was emotionless, and it confused you. Just like it always scared everyone else I wasn’t close with…”

 

“Yes, and I also remember saying I was wrong about you!” He insisted “You’ve told me so yourself. You have never been… emotionless, Professor. No one who truly lacked feelings would’ve helped us as much as you did. The fact that I ever even said such a thing still bothers me. I only needed to grow accustomed to your manner of-”

 

“No, I am the one who became easier to read” Byleth sighed “M-maybe…I just never needed to, before. Mercenaries in our company used to come and go all the time, while my father had my entire life to learn how to guess my needs. I never had to work hard to make my feelings known, with him”

 

“Well, that is only natural. Time, and experience and…well, life, changes us all. As does loss...” Dimitri gently pulled her back, till she could see directly the timid upturn of his lips “You know Jeralt far better than I ever did. And yet somehow, I am certain he would still be proud of who you are today, no matter how different you say you used to be. At least, I know I am”

 

“Hah… I bet. He raised me to make sure I knew how to defend myself. And look at me now!” She laughed with false pride, reining in the jest when the blonde did not partake. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. I know you mean well, Dimitri. And I thank you” She added, keeping her smile on “For what it’s worth, I’m proud of you as well”

 

Their tranquillity vanished, as the Prince’s frown deepened, pulling Byleth’s stomach down with it “You…cannot possibly be serious.”

 

Byleth silently chastised herself, even as she realised she couldn’t have avoided that sore spot for long. “Why wouldn’t I be.” She asked, her tone stern, despite perfectly knowing what this was about.

 

“Is this a joke?” His arms dropped “Do not try to tell me that anyone with a shred of humanity could be capable of…! Of what I did, yesterday”

He stumbled away, and Byleth felt cold again in more ways than one. She fruitlessly hoped that what she said next would soothe him. But something vicious and deep seemed to curl through the Prince. His trembling outline, traced out by what little light still survived the dusk, was as stark against the heavens as the grey clouds overhead.

 

“Dimitri. This wasn’t your fault.”