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Destiny, Shattered

Chapter Text

Another year meant another fresh batch of students to be moved into the dormitories, and all the chaos that came along with the task.

The village and marketplace were no doubt full of merchants and artisans clamoring for attention from the more well-off students and their escorts as they arrived, and Byleth knew the lower monastery grounds were already abuzz with activity. Knights of Seiros were present on every corner, both to watch over their precious new charges and to impress upon their visitors the strength of the church, while nuns and monks were at the ready to welcome each new pupil and usher them to their rooms.

Byleth was used to the spectacle by now. She’d lived through it every year, growing up in the monastery. That didn’t mean she liked it, though. All the people, all the noise -- it got to be too much after a while. There’d be no getting out of chores on a day like this, not when all hands were required to be on deck, but the least she could do for herself was find a job out of the way of the main commotion. Which was why, much to Cyril’s annoyance, she had busied herself in the cathedral, sweeping the floors and replacing old candles in the sconces. She had just finished polishing the keys of the organ when a glowering Cyril stomped over.

“Hey! I was gonna do that next!” he growled, glaring at the shimmering keys before turning his angry red gaze on her. “I don’t need your help! Why are you even here? Shouldn’t you be down at the lower grounds? Ya know, helping with the new students?”

Byleth shook her head. “Too many people trying to help can hinder things. I figured I’d be needed elsewhere.”

“Yeah, well, wherever you’re needed, it ain’t here! Lady Rhea told me take care of things in the cathedral today, and like I said, I don’t need help!” Cyril insisted, crossing his arms and giving her a withering look. Byleth silently stared back, looking Cyril up and down. She admired the boy’s work ethic for sure, but she had never understood why he was so offended when people offered assistance.

Still, she wasn’t looking to upset the boy, and Cyril was more than capable of doing things on his own. In the end, Byleth merely nodded, murmuring a quiet, “Very well,” before turning on her heel and making for the double doors.

But… what am I to do for the rest of the day?

She slowly made her way across the bridge to the main monastery grounds, pondering her options as she stared down into the abyssal canyon below.

The lower grounds were no doubt still swarming with people. There were more than enough monastery staff ready to process incoming students, so she wouldn't be needed there. The stables would  be busy as well, but they had plenty of people to handle the temporary influx of horses. The greenhouse was right by the dormitories, and most of the nuns and monks who wanted to people-watch without directly dealing with visitors signed up to work there weeks in advance, so there was likely no work left there, either.

I... suppose I could see if Tomas needs any help in the library...

She turned away from the bustling reception hall to head up the steps to the academy offices.

“Ah, Byleth! Long time no see!”

The loud, familiar voice was followed by an almost painfully forceful clap on the shoulder that caused her to stumble forward. The strong hand held her steady, though, and when Byleth turned to her assailant, she was met with Alois’s usual boisterous grin.

“Don’t you love this time of year? All the fresh, young faces ready to learn! Hopefully nothing lessons their enthusiasm!” Alois threw his head back, laughing so loud it caught the attention of several passing nuns. Byleth only stared blankly up at him, prompting him to give her shoulder a vigorous shake. “ Lessons! Get it? Because… we don’t want their enthusiasm to lessen! You know, as in- Oh, fine then! But I’ll get a laugh out of you one of these days! I swear it!”

With a sigh, Byleth shook her head.

“Did you need my help with something?”

“Mm? Oh, of course not! I just wanted to check up on you! You seemed rather lost in thought. Not that… that’s anything new… But I also heard that Lady Rhea was looking for you. Was that where you were headed? I’d hurry along and see what she wants, were I you.”

Rhea… Aside from the crowds, the archbishop was another thing Byleth wished she could avoid today. She had a feeling about what the woman was after, and she was not looking forward to the familiar sight of disappointment on Rhea’s face yet again.

But, she supposed, there was only so long she could put their discussion off.

With a silent nod, Byleth turned away, pulling herself out of Alois’s firm grasp and lifting the heavy skirt of her nun’s habit as she moved up the stairs.

“I’ll head there now. Thank you, Alois.” She paused on her way up the steps, turning back to face the ever-boisterous knight. “While you’re here, Flayn also said something about-”

“Oh! Y-yes, I… haven’t actually had much luck catching that fish like I promised,” Alois seemed to sulk, but only temporarily. The next moment, the usual wide grin was back on his face and he was giving Byleth a thumbs up. “But I haven’t given up yet! If you see her, tell the little lady I’ll have her some fresh fish in no time!”

With a final nod, Byleth continued on her way. Rhea was waiting in her office, reading through the same speech she always gave at the opening ceremony. Byleth would’ve thought she’d have it memorized by now, with how long she had served as archbishop, but the woman insisted on “refreshing her memory” every year. When Rhea noticed her approach, however, she looked up, smiling in that soft, enigmatic way of hers and gesturing for Byleth to close the double doors behind her. Byleth obeyed, stony faced as usual despite the trace discomfort she truly felt.

“It is so good to see you, my child. How are the new batch of students looking? Have any caught your eye?” Rhea asked, setting the yellowed parchment aside and standing. Byleth shook her head, unsure why Rhea asked the same question every year when she knew what the answer would be.

Every year, the students came, and a short year later, they left, always eventually replaced by another set of faces and personalities in an endless cycle. They were temporary. Background noise. And though she and the other nuns were occasionally charged with their care or worked with them on monastery chores, she’d never grown particularly fond of any of them. Her distant behavior bothered some of the monastery staff, but really, why would she bother getting attached? She was as temporary and forgettable a factor in their lives as they were in hers.

Rhea never seemed to be bothered by her attitude, though. The woman only hummed at her response and clasped her hands together, taking a few steps forward.

“I see. No matter. I did not call you here to discuss them. Have you had any luck with your dreams?”

The tips of Byleth’s mouth inched ever so slightly downwards as she shook her head again. She didn't understand why Rhea seemed so invested in her nonsensical dreams, and just as she’d expected, Rhea frowned, her shimmering green eyes dulling with sorrow and her brows knitting together in frustration.

“I see… So you haven’t had any more visions, then? None at all?”

Byleth blinked, glancing to the side. That wasn’t entirely true.

“I’ve had some… but none of the sleeping girl.”

Rhea sighed and shook her head, staring down at her clasped hands.

“I don’t understand… A piece of the puzzle is missing, but what?” Rhea murmured before she looked up to Byleth. “These other dreams -- what did you see? Perhaps they are connected. If we look closely, we may be able to find meaning, or a pattern.”

Byleth doubted that. Try as she might to look for some sense to the visions, some thread that could bring them all together into one cohesive narrative, she had not found it. A bustling city in the desert; an albino wyvern flying overhead, its rider raining arrows down onto those below; a woman with snow white hair dressed in a ruby garb turned away from her, looking at a magnificent throne; and a blonde man with wild hair hunched over on a battlefield, covered in blood.

None of the visions seemed to happen in the same place, or have familiar characters between them. And as long as Byleth had thought on them, tried to remember every excruciating detail, she could think of nothing that linked the separate visions back to the one Rhea seemed so fixated on: a spritely girl, strangely dressed, with pointed ears and long, green hair, fast asleep on a throne of stone.

Byleth recounted her most recent visions to Rhea one by one, and sat through a thorough series of questions about potentially hidden details or symbols that could tie them all together. In the end, though, Rhea’s frown only deepened. The archbishop seemed to come to the same conclusion Byleth had -- that there was no connecting the strange dreams as they were now. Rhea sighed, her shoulders slumping.

“I suppose we will have to wait yet longer to find any answers,” Rhea said, strangely subdued. Then, in the blink of an eye, the disappointment vanished from her face, as if it had never been there at all. When she next spoke, it was in her usual elegant manner. “In the meantime, please continue your prayers to the goddess for clarity on this matter. Maybe stepping away from this will help to clear both of our heads, and we can come at this again with fresh minds.”

Nodding, Byleth murmured a quick “Yes, My Lady,” and was ready to leave when Rhea lifted a soft hand to her cheek. She blinked in surprise as Rhea smiled at her, those enigmatic eyes boring into Byleth’s own. It was an action that was supposed to be comforting, Byleth was sure. Several knights and servants close to Rhea would have envied Byleth her position, would have given anything to have such an intimate show of affection directed at them. Yet Byleth shuffled her weight from foot to foot, restless. Something about the archbishop’s gaze seemed… off. It almost always was these days when Byleth was the focus of her attention.

“Is there something else that weighs on you? I know I should be used to it, but... I don't believe I've ever seen you smile. Are you happy here?” Rhea asked, her soft thumb stroking Byleth’s cheek.

Byleth gave a curt nod, watching Rhea closely. Her response seemed to displease Rhea for some reason, and Rhea sighed again, expression falling before she seemed to catch herself and gave Byleth one final, forced smile. Byleth almost felt relieved when Rhea withdrew her hand.

“I am glad. But remember, if anything is ever on your mind, do not hesitate to speak with me. I am always happy to hear from you,” she said before gesturing to the doors. “You may go. I’m sure the others still need your help preparing for the opening ceremonies tomorrow.”

With a final nod, Byleth turned to leave, and tried to ignore the feeling of Rhea’s eyes boring holes into her back.

 

---

 

The ceremony marking the beginning of the new school year went as smoothly as it ever did. Many of the students had never visited the monastery before, and seeing the cathedral for the first time, during one of its most important ceremonies no less, never failed to leave many in awe.

It was easy to pick out which families and escorts had never visited the monastery either, let alone seen Lady Rhea. To the surprise of none of the monks or nuns in attendance, most of the visitors were almost immediately in the archbishop’s thrall. As far back as Byleth could remember, Rhea was always able to captivate her audience. Even the handful of attendees who seemed initially unmoved by the music and the pristine condition of the ancient temple were drawn in by Rhea’s voice, somehow both as powerful as thunder and as gentle as a spring shower.

“Until now, many of you have been separated by worldly barriers. Yet you will find at the monastery that those barriers that once kept you apart -- whether physical distance or the distance between classes -- are no more. As the goddess loves all her children, we hope that you will come to love your classmates. That you might work together, learn to understand those different from you, and form friendships that last you a lifetime,” Rhea spoke from the pulpit, her sermon echoing throughout the hushed church.

Byleth and the mixture of nuns and monks gathered in the choir sat off to the side, angled to face the new arrivals. Many of her companions used the time during the ceremony to size up the students, who were all conveniently gathered in one place. They would essentially be living with each other for the next year, so they liked to keep a close eye on the students’ behavior.  And following the ceremony, like clockwork, the nuns and monks would come together to gossip, discussing each new arrival and pointing out potential troublemakers.

For her part, Byleth usually didn't pay much attention. Though if she had to guess, a red-head who was quite obviously eyeing up some of his female counterparts would be a big talking point this year, as would the green-haired young man who kept nodding off.

“For the rest of the day, you are free to explore the monastery grounds and get to know your fellow students. Tomorrow, orientation exercises for each of the three houses will begin. At the end of the week, the house leaders will also have a special exercise together to help foster good relations between the houses. Then, your classes will begin in earnest,” Rhea orated, smiling serenely out at the congregation. “The future of Fodlan rests in our hands. It is only by bringing ourselves together that we can move toward a brighter future. In the goddess’s name.”

There was a rumble of amens as Lady Rhea came to her conclusion. The organist began to play, and Byleth and the other choir members stood to sing a final hymn as the students and their families began to file out of the church. It was standard procedure for the ceremony, ending the first church service of the school year on an elegant note, according to Rhea. It also meant that despite Byleth’s eagerness to get back to her room and change into her less formal habit, none in the choir could leave just yet.

An older monk with a deep timbre led the chant, a slow but triumphant melody dedicated to the sacrifices of the goddess for her children. As Byleth and the others lent their voices, she watched the crowd shuffle out of the main doors. Another year, another set of faces, each of which would no doubt prove as forgettable as those that had come before.

As they left, people turned this way and that, taking in the atmosphere of the cathedral one final time. Among them, Byleth spotted a blonde boy, dressed sharply in the academy’s uniform. A cape representing the Blue Lions was draped over one shoulder, marking him as the house's leader for the year. Byleth had not noticed him before, zoned out as she tended to be during these ceremonies, but as he turned her way to admire the cathedral, she took a closer look at his face, and the notes of the hymn died in her throat.

Maybe she was just seeing things. They were quite a distance from each other, after all. But she could’ve sworn she’d seen those eyes before -- or one of them, at least. It had been in the face of a blood-spattered man, half wild with rage, not a well-groomed lordling.

A subtle gesture from the lead monk brought Byleth’s attention back, and the scathing look he sent her had her remembering herself. Her voice once again joined with the others, and she did not allow herself to spare the boy another glance. She wasn’t sure why he’d caught her attention in the first place, or why she’d thought for a second he could be connected to the ferocious figure she’d seen in her dreams. The beastly man was clearly different from the boy slowly making his way out of the church.

Yes, she told herself, the boy was of no consequence; just another face to be forgotten.

Chapter Text

“Sister Byleth, are you sure it’s no trouble to- huuuurgh!

The barest trace of a grimace flitted across Byleth’s face as she stood outside a latrine, listening as one of the monks emptied his stomach. The poor man had been like this all morning, which was odd. He’d been fine only yesterday, and now he was retching so hard it left him panting. She wrinkled her nose at the pungent smell that was starting to waft out into the hall. Disgusting...

“Ugh… I guess it can’t be helped. I’m so sorry. It must have been something I ate. Are you sure you feel comfortable taking over for me? I can get myself to Manuela, and maybe she…”

The man trailed off, once again breaking down into muted groans. Even through the walls, Byleth thought she could hear his stomach churning and shook her head.

“I already sent for Manuela. She’ll take care of you. I can take over with the students in the meantime,” she called, and the monk made a noise she suspected was supposed to mean ‘thank you.’

“You just- ooogh… You just need to pick up the chore and choir sign-up sheets from the Golden Deer House and… oh, goddess spare me… make sure the house leader is ready to report for the special orientation. The others have already turned their paperwork in.”

“Understood. I’ll take care of it. Just… get some rest,” Byleth replied, listening to the monk’s final groans of gratitude before tearing herself away. It shouldn’t have taken Manuela much longer to arrive, so Byleth was sure he’d be okay by himself for a few minutes. Skilled as she was in white magic, she wasn’t sure what kind of treatment an upset stomach of this degree required.

Until now, the day had been off to a good start. She’d woken up early to fish for the dining hall and had managed to bring in a decent catch. She’d also stopped by the greenhouse to inspect the crops, and had found them in decent shape. Some of the more decorative plants that flowered in the spring were beginning to bloom too, multicolored buds starting to pepper their way into the usual green of the conservatory.

She’d been preparing to head to the cathedral when she’d overheard her brother in Seiros having… issues. But no matter. His duties with the students sounded simple enough. She’d be taking a short detour on her routine, but in no time, she’d be back on track.

Byleth made her way to the academy’s courtyard, paying no mind to the various students gathered on the lawn. Walking past the different classrooms, her eyes drifted to the banners of the Blue Lion House before she quickly tore them away.

Approaching the classroom of the Golden Deer, Byleth might’ve frowned at the commotion she overheard if she’d been anyone else. As it was, she only blinked at the noise, continuing forward with slow, curious steps.

“It’s not fair if we don’t all take turns, Lorenz!”

“I understand your feelings Lysithea, but I hardly think it befits someone of my standing to be washing dishes in the dining hall.”

“Aw, come on, guys… we were supposed to have this figured out yesterday…”

“Ignatz is right. Come on, let’s all do our fair share! Besides, you’ll appreciate the food more if you know the work that goes on behind the scenes in the kitchen!”

Byleth stepped around the corner into the classroom and was greeted by the sight of several frustrated students gathered around one of the tables. A bespectacled boy was hunched over a piece of paper, quill in one hand and head in the other. A girl with short cropped hair was throwing a tall, purple-haired boy beside her a dubious look, her arms crossed.

“They said in the opening ceremony that class isn’t supposed to be a barrier here. So you shouldn’t feel held back by yours from doing something we’ll all be required to do,” the girl said, brows furrowing.

From off to the side, a girl in pigtails gave a melodramatic sigh, slouching down against the table.

“Lorenz, I know how you feel. Trust me, soaking my hands in dirty dishwater is not my idea of fun. But this is taking sooo long! Just sign up for a few random dates and let’s get this over with,” the pink-haired girl whined.

The bickering continued, and Byleth’s jaw tightened in annoyance. The Golden Deer House tended to be a little more prone to discord than the other two houses, being mostly consisted of nobles used to arguing their piece and commoners looking to prove themselves. This, though… this was ridiculous. It was just a chore sheet, for crying out loud. Byleth started moving closer, but the students were so rowdy that only one seemed to notice her approach. To his credit, though, he jumped into action as soon as he saw Byleth marching towards their table.

“Look, enough already . Our time’s up. Just give me the sheet, Ignatz. If Lorenz won’t pick his own dates, I will.”

To the huffed protests of this “Lorenz” character, a boy with a peculiar braid in his hair snatched the quill and parchment away from the bespectacled boy and started scribbling. When he was finished, he smoothly maneuvered his way through his classmates to Byleth, holding the sheet out with a grin and a wink.

“Sorry about that! But you know what they say -- better late than never, right?”

Blinking, Byleth took the sheet and stared blankly up at the boy, holding back the beginnings of a frown. That voice… she’d heard that voice before. But where? When? She couldn’t remember meeting him before, or running into him the last few days. Her eyes drifted down to the sash of gold thrown over his shoulder...

… and then it came to her. The echo of a roaring wyvern overhead. Its rider, wrapped in gold garb, shouting commands and raining arrows down on those below.

The vision!

Byleth snapped her gaze back to the boy’s face, eyes widening marginally as she took him in. The half-hearted grin he’d flashed her was starting to fall and those jade eyes of his narrowed slightly, watching her carefully.

“Uh… Miss? Was there something else you needed?”

Something else? Something else, something else, something else-

“Choir sheet,” Byleth blurted out, a little louder than she’d intended. The boy blinked down at her and she heard him repeat her words at a low murmur, sounding a little bewildered before recognition spread across his face.

“Oh, right! The choir sheet! Hilda?”

“Wh- Oh! Oh yeah, I have it right here!” The pink-haired girl swung herself over the bench she’d been sitting on and bounced over, handing Byleth the other form.

Swallowing, Byleth nodded in silent thanks before giving the forms a once over. Looking them over gave Byleth an excuse to linger and get her racing thoughts in order, just long enough to hear the house leader speak again. As the boy with the braid smugly told an aggrieved Lorenz that his “noble obligations” would now include compost and dishwashing duties, Byleth took a deep, shuddering breath. The light, airy tone was a little different than the one she remembered from her dream, but the voice was definitely the same. She had no doubt.

The boy from yesterday. And now him. Both house leaders. Both strangers, but somehow familiar, reminding her of the men she’d seen in her visions. Would that mean…

Byleth felt a surge of adrenaline course through her. Something was at work here. This had to mean something. But what? Clearing her throat, she looked up at the Golden Deer’s leader once again. The boy was snickering at this Lorenz character’s apparent outrage, his fingers intertwined to casually cradle the back of his head, but at the slightest sound from Byleth, he turned his attention back to her, sending her another smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Yes ma’am?”

“Are you ready for the house leader’s orientation?” she asked, voice sounding stiff even to her. The jade-eyed boy nodded, glancing off to the side as if in boredom.

“Oh, that. Yeah, yeah. Got my equipment and everything. We’re moving out tonight, right?”

Byleth nodded.

“Yes. Meet the knights outside their barracks immediately after dinner. Don’t be late.”

“Of course,” the boy nodded, eyes closing as his grin widened. “Mystery shenanigans with the two future royals of Fodlan? Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Unsure of what else to say, Byleth only nodded again before turning to leave. With each hurried step, the chatter from the Golden Deer House faded away, but Byleth didn’t find herself heading to turn in their papers.

Instead, her feet moved her past the Blue Lions classroom once more, her gaze darting inside, hoping to catch another glimpse of the boy from yesterday. He stood by the chalkboard, amicably chatting with a large, dark-skinned student, and for a moment, Byleth lingered in the doorway.

He showed no trace of the savagery she saw in her dreams... but the resemblance that had caught her attention before was still there. From the angles of his face to his blonde hair to those distinctive blue eyes, she could see the framework for the blood-spattered man from her dreams. And this time, she found she could not ignore it.

Byleth’s eyes then drifted to the Black Eagle banners just down the way, and slowly, she moved towards them, painfully aware of the growing tension in her muscles with each step. Holding her breath, she peered into the classroom, hoping for subtlety despite the sense of urgency that had gripped her. The students were scattered throughout the room, but towards the very back, by the bookshelves... Byleth saw her. A young girl with a red cape denoting her as the house leader had her back turned to Byleth as she perused the texts, her pale hair shimmering in the light. Inhaling sharply, Byleth turned and walked away, fingers digging into the Golden Deer’s forms.

A girl with snow-white hair and a ruby red garment, turned away from me…

They were here. They were all here. The mysterious characters she had seen in her dreams -- or, at least, some younger versions of them -- were students at the Officer’s Academy. But what did it mean? And, more importantly, what was she supposed to do now?

… Reluctant though she was, there was only one person in the monastery she could go to.

The sign-up sheets in her hand were temporarily forgotten, as were her chores at the cathedral. Byleth took the steps up to the audience chamber two at a time, muttering a brief apology to a bishop she bumped into on her way up. She blew into the chamber like a storm, and after a quick look around, sighed in relief when she realized Rhea was still in her office. Good.

Rhea looked up from her desk as she entered, and as soon as their gazes met, Byleth swallowed. This wasn’t about the green-haired girl Rhea seemed so interested in, but it was a development of some kind, wasn’t it? A connection. Maybe Rhea would have an idea of what this meant, of what she was supposed to do next or how it all tied together. She knew these students better than Byleth did. She’d had to approve each one’s admission, after all.

“Byleth, is everything alright?”

Rhea’s voice was deceptively soft, and not for the first time, Byleth longed for the maternal comfort Rhea had once epitomized to her, wanted to run up to her as she had as a child and be enveloped in a soothing embrace.

But those days were gone -- lost after Byleth let slip that she had these strange visions in the first place. Rhea had stopped treating her as another orphan under her wing and instead began treating her as... something else. It was hard to say what, exactly. At first when she'd described her dreams, Rhea had seemed intrigued. Curious. But when she'd described the sleeping girl... Well, ever since then, Rhea had acted strangely towards her, even contradictory at times, so much so that it could leave Byleth’s head spinning.

Affectionate yet distant. Pleased but impatient. Rhea would look and speak to her, and yet sometimes it felt like she was looking through Byleth and not truly at her. For some time now, Byleth had gotten the feeling Rhea wanted something- no, expected something from her, but it was something that Byleth didn’t know how to give and that Rhea refused to ask for outright.

All she knew was that it had something to do with these visions -- with the mysterious girl on her desolate throne.

Byleth opened her mouth to speak before thinking better of it, instead turning to close the double doors to Rhea’s office. The dreams were to be kept secret, Rhea had told her long ago, as were their discussions of them. Byleth never understood why.

But then, there was a lot she didn’t understand at the moment.

 

---

 

At the end of the day, Byleth shuffled numbly into her small room in the nuns’ dormitories. After shutting the door and locking it behind her, she stood, mind blank, staring at the plain rug on her floor for far too long. Goosebumps pricked at her skin beneath the sleeves of her nun’s habit as a cold spring breeze drifted in through the window, and she shivered.

Almost in a trance, she lit a candle by her nightstand and moved to close the shutter on her window before dragging herself to bed, dropping rather unceremoniously onto it.

It had been hard going through the day with so much on her mind, but somehow she’d managed. Luckily, not many people had stopped to speak with her today. Maybe that was a perk of being “unapproachable,” as she’d overheard a few people call her over the years -- people didn’t tend to bother you, which was good when you had a decision to think over.

Rhea had been intrigued to say the least when Byleth told her of her recent revelation, but unfortunately the archbishop had no more answers than she did.

“Aside from being house leaders, each of the three you’ve pointed out are also future rulers of the nations of Fodlan. But any deeper relationship they may have or what leads them to the state in your visions I cannot say. And any link they may have to the sleeping girl you’ve seen… well, I cannot think of it,” Rhea had mused, frowning pensively. Yet even so, here eyes had glimmered with excitement.

As for her suggestion on what to do moving forward… well, Byleth wasn’t sure how comfortable she was with it.

“Clearly these children are of some importance, or you would not have seen them. I can tell you all the information the church has on them, but that wouldn’t lend itself to figuring out why you dreamed of them, or how they come to be what they are in your visions. There must be a connection between them all -- between everything you’ve seen -- but I can think of only one way to find it,” Rhea had continued, lips curving into a thoughtful smile.

Spend time with them, she’d said. Get close to them. Become an ally and a friend to each, and in time, the connection could be revealed, Rhea had counseled. And how exactly was she supposed to do that?

"Hm... You are of proper age... You could always be enrolled in the Officer's Academy."

In the privacy of her room, Byleth let herself frown, reaching up to remove the veil and coif that marked her as a nun of Seiros. She ran her hand through her blue locks, shaking them out a bit and trying to ease some of the tension she felt. Working and living alongside students was one thing. Becoming one was quite another.

Yet she didn’t feel she had much choice in the matter. At first, Lady Rhea had made it seem like she was giving Byleth an option. She’d asked Byleth how she felt about the idea of becoming a student, and Byleth had told her the truth. She would have felt out of place; uncomfortable, even. By the end of their meeting, though, Rhea wasn’t asking if Byleth wanted to be a student. Rather, she’d sent Byleth away and told her to think about which house she’d prefer.

Rhea had already made one decision for her, it seemed. Byleth supposed she was lucky to be left with this one.

Still, the longer she thought on it, the more she chafed under the pressure. She had no preference for any of the three houses. What were they to her? Each student was placed into a house based on their country of origin, but she had none. Garreg Mach Monastery was her home, and Lady Rhea was her leader -- not any of the young lordlings housed across the compound.

And aside from the off chance that she might learn more about her visions, what did she have to gain from becoming a student? Surely she could just keep her current position and make an effort to interact with the house leaders more than she normally would have, right? It would feel less… dishonest, somehow. But when she’d suggested as much to Lady Rhea, the woman had only given her one of those enigmatic smiles that Byleth had gotten so used to seeing and shook her head.

“You’ve lived your entire life at this monastery. I’ve watched you grow up, but I have never seen you grow particularly close to anyone. I think it would be easier for you in this case if there were no barriers between you and the children. And... the more I think on it, the more I wonder…” Rhea had trailed off, eyes growing distant. When she had spoken again, it was in a hushed tone.

“The missing piece… lies within you. It just needs to be properly awakened. Maybe one of these students will help you realize your full potential… help you become who you were always meant to be.”

The advice hadn’t made sense when Rhea had first said it, and it didn’t make any more sense to Byleth now as she slowly stripped away her day clothes and readied herself for bed. But there was no helping it. Rhea had given her until the house leaders returned from their exercise to make her decision, or she would be placed in a house of Rhea’s choosing. The archbishop had made it clear that this was happening -- no matter what, Byleth would become a student at the Officer’s Academy. All she could do now was try to handle the transition with grace, despite her trepidation.

It was hard for her to fall asleep that night, but as she pondered the different houses and what little she’d learned of their leaders from Lady Rhea, she finally drifted away. And with the subject of her visions weighing so heavily on her mind, perhaps it was natural that yet another set of visions plagued her dreams.

An enormous battle with strange weapons falling from the sky, leaving devastation in their wake. It seemed like she was watching history unfold, the fight between Nemesis and Seiros herself.

Flashes of even more -- of cities, ships, buildings the like of which Byleth had never seen...

Then, a more familiar sight. The young girl, resting peacefully on her throne, the only source of light in the surrounding void.

But... something was different. The girl’s figure did not fade away, letting Byleth’s dreams fade to peaceful nothingness along with her. No.

For the first time, after all the other times Byleth had dreamed of her, the girl stirred.

She sat up, yawned, rubbed her eyes.

And then their gazes met.

When the girl looked at her, something stirred in Byleth’s subconscious, something that sent a shiver up her spine and down through her limbs. This had never happened before. The girl had never awoken, and in the other visions, no one had ever seen Byleth. She had been little more than a ghost -- a bodiless entity observing glimpses of some alternate reality.

This... couldn't be happening. Byleth reasoned the girl wasn’t actually looking at her. She just couldn’t be. She must’ve been looking behind Byleth, through Byleth, at something that must have appeared behind her. That's how these visions worked. No one saw her, and the few times she'd thought they had, it had been a mistake on her part. People reacted to everything else in a vision, but not her. Never her.

But the girl frowned and leaned forward, and her curious emerald eyes stayed sharply focused on Byleth’s own. Byleth could only stare back, fixated on whatever the girl would do next, unable to tear her gaze away. Something in her chest tightened uncomfortably.

“Oh my… what could have brought you here?”

Chapter Text

Jeralt the Blade Breaker certainly cut a rather imposing figure. Broad-chested and tall, he towered over even Dimitri with that stern scowl of his, riddled with scars and weathered by years in equal measure.

His skills on the battlefield were nothing to joke about either, as Khalid himself had seen. His experience commanding the Knights of Seiros had easily lent itself to commanding the house leaders as they faced off against bandits in the early hours of the morning. Honestly, Khalid was amazed the bandits hadn't cut and run at the sight of Jeralt's scowl as he'd charged them atop his equally magnificent steed.

An impressive guy, no doubt. He couldn’t blame Dimitri or Edelgard for trying to enlist Jeralt’s services as quickly as they did. He had been rolling the idea around in his head too, wondering what the real price for a man like that would be -- not just for his temporary services as a mercenary, but for his lasting loyalty. After all, one of the reasons he’d come to the Officer’s Academy was to find people who could aid his agenda, and after last night, he’d knew he'd definitely rather have Jeralt as an ally than an enemy.

But as with most things, Khalid had restrained himself, opting to sit back and observe. As talented as Jeralt was, he clearly had his share of secrets.

For instance, despite being the former captain of the Knights of Seiros, he seemed oddly reluctant to return to the monastery. It got Khalid wondering why he’d left in the first place. Even now, as the Blade Breaker appeared to converse amicably with some of the younger knights, Khalid could pick up on the stiffness in the man’s shoulders. Jeralt could try all he wanted to be casual, but Khalid prided himself on being able to sniff out an act, and it was plain to him that Jeralt was not as at ease as he pretended to be.

He'd have to keep his ear to the ground. Anything that could make someone as imposing as Jeralt feel tense had to be juicy, right? He’d be an idiot not to look into it. But those answers would come in time. For now, he figured he’d be better off bending the ears of his fellow house leaders on their way back to monastery. Who knew? Maybe he’d get them to stop being so damn stiff.

“So, Your Princeliness,” he started, tearing his attention away from the chattering knights and redirecting it to the blonde next to him. “How are you liking life at the monastery so far? You know, aside from the whole ‘professor running off while bandits were trying to cut us down’ thing.”

“Well… surely that was not a highlight. But it all turned out well in the end, I suppose. And we would’ve had to face off against bandits at some point anyway, would we not? They said as much when they talked about our monthly missions,” Dimitri responded before glancing past Khalid. “What about you, Edelgard? Are you doing alright? You had a bit of a close call back there.”

The future empress stubbornly shook her head, brows dipping down in mild annoyance.

“It will take a lot more than that to shake me. But I’m surprised you seem so concerned about that professor, Claude,” she said, raising a brow to give him a skeptical look. “Considering you were the next one to make a… how did you phrase it? ‘Strategic retreat?’”

Khalid snorted at that, and he flashed Edelgard his trademark grin.

“Aw, come on, princess. Don’t compare me to that guy! I didn’t run away screaming! I was trying to get into a tactical position. You know, because I have a bow? I need a little distance between me and my targets! But then next thing I know you and Dimitri are tagging along, bringing the whole group of bandits with you, and really all I could do at that point was keep running,” he shrugged. “Maybe if you two had done your part as fearless leaders and stood your ground, I could’ve had your backs. But hey, like His Highness said, right? All’s well that ends well.”

“Aren’t you supposed to act as a leader too, Claude? How can you expect people to follow you if you’re constantly running from your problems and expecting others to put themselves in harm's way?” Dimitri asked, thumb and forefinger raising up to grasp his chin. Though his tone was playful, Khalid could pick up the very real hint of criticism underneath. Still, his practiced grin did not falter.

“Hey, there’s no one way to be a good leader, you know. Some people may want to run headfirst into danger like lunatics -- oh, I mean, to set a good example for the troops, of course," Khalid’s smirk widened when he saw Dimitri shake his head, a look somewhere between amused and exasperated on the prince’s face, "But others may like to approach things with a bit more finesse. Running around behind the scenes may not be as glamorous, but a well-played scheme can help pick off your opponents and make it safer for those under your command. Or, depending on how you play your cards, you could prevent a fight altogether! Can’t that be the mark of a good leader, too? Looking out for your followers just as they look out for you?”

“Of course,” Edelgard cut in. “But a leader must also show strong conviction and inspire people in the face of hardships and uphill battles. And watching you wordlessly run away into the woods hardly inspired me to stand my ground, let alone believe you’d 'have my back.'”

Giving a dramatic groan, Khalid threw his hands up and shook his head, temporarily discarding his easygoing mask and letting his best disappointed expression slip on.

“Oh, ye of little faith,” he tutted, to which Edelgard rolled her eyes and faced forward again, apparently having had enough of his shenanigans. “Fine. Let’s all just agree to disagree. We’ll have a chance to put our leadership strategies to the test against one another soon anyway.”

Well, that got them talking. Maybe not about their battle plans, as would have been ideal, but it seemed Edelgard and Dimitri couldn't help exchanging quips about their odds of success at the upcoming mock battle.

Khalid’s easy smile returned as he took it upon himself to stoke the flames of competition, throwing in his two cents whenever the conversation began to die down and prodding the two into a roundabout pissing match only tempered by Their Royal Fodlanese Highnesses’ sense of propriety. After all, what harm could stirring the pot do?

Especially if it meant the two became so focused on beating each other that they underestimated him.

By the time the group had marched back to Garreg Mach, though, the three had fallen silent, fatigue starting to set in. Khalid actually let out a small, relieved sigh at the sight of those ancient walls, something he'd thought only a few days prior he was never likely to do.

When he'd first seen the monastery, he'd respected the ancient structure for its impressive (if dull) architecture and its history, sure. After all, what happened within its walls played an undeniable role in shaping his mother's homeland, and the continent of Fodlan as a whole.

Yet he'd also resented the monastery, and the hegemony it symbolized.

Khalid knew the church wasn't entirely to blame for the sour relations between Fodlan and Almyra. Along with the serious historical attempts at conquest made by his father's family, would-be warlords, Almyran bandits and even greenhorn warriors looking to "prove" themselves had habitually made incursions into Fodlan. It was like a strange, pointless, bloody national sport for certain circles. Honestly, it would have been crazy if Fodlan hadn't erected a giant fortress to keep them out. But it wasn't like lowlifes from Fodlan didn't cross the border from time to time too.

The church's orders to limit contact with Almyra rather than send diplomats did nothing to help the situation -- in his own opinion, it seemed to have made things even worse. The people of his homeland were not the barbaric, bloodthirsty hoard that many in Fodlan imagined, but without exposure to anything but news of the latest Almyran raid and all the lives that were lost because of it, they'd never see anything else.

Almyrans were many and diverse, comprised of several different ethnic groups and subcultures. While it was true that overall there was a big emphasis on martial prowess, some groups prized other things -- they focused on becoming skilled artisans, merchants and scholars. Almyrans were no more united or homogeneous than the people of Fodlan, really. But as long as neither side made an effort to talk to or learn from one another, Fodlanese would continue to be considered weaklings and cowards in the east, and Almyrans would continue to be known as heartless savages in the west.

For now, though, he didn't think of the blood feud between his parents' nations when he looked on those towering walls. In that moment, the monastery didn't represent the enormity of the challenge that lay ahead of him, the years of entrenched dogma that stood between him and his dream.

At that moment, it meant that his bed was now only a short walk away, ready to be collapsed into.

As their entourage passed through the main gates, Khalid was already fantasizing about a quick soak in the bath house before his afternoon nap. But, alas, it was not to be.

As the group passed through the hedged-in gardens in front of the reception hall, the archbishop’s ever-serious advisor, Seteth, appeared to be waiting for them. The green-haired man appraised their group, eyes widening with increasing alarm as he took in the state of Khalid and the other house leaders before narrowing as they landed on Jeralt.

“Ah, Seteth! Come to greet us? Well, look who I found wandering in the wilds -- the old Captain Jeralt Eisner himself!” Alois boomed with a laugh, clapping a hand on the mercenary’s shoulder. The action caught Jeralt off guard, but the man quickly recovered, going from staring at something above them to greeting Seteth. Khalid glanced up while Alois explained their run-in with the bandits, curious about what could have caught Jeralt's attention -- only to see the distant form of Rhea staring down at them from a balcony.

“-will need to speak with you as well, Jeralt. For now, please make yourself at home. I believe the dining hall is still serving lunch, if you are hungry. Alois, please follow me for a debriefing. You too, Claude.”

Frowning, Khalid snapped his gaze back to Seteth.

“Huh? Me?”

“Yes, you,” Seteth replied, giving a curt nod. “There is a matter the archbishop wishes to discuss with you. The rest of you may leave. I apologize for the cowardly conduct of someone under the church's employ. Rest assured, it will not happen again. If you are injured, remember to check in with Manuela. That will be all.”

Khalid briefly shared glances with his fellow house leaders who appeared just as confused as he was, all raised brows and silent questions. He could only shrug before he broke away with Alois and Seteth, trying not to let his worry show on his face. What could Rhea want with him? He hadn’t even been at the monastery, so he couldn’t be in trouble for something… could he?

… Oh no.

They… they hadn’t gone through his room while he was gone, had they? No, Khalid thought, that can’t be it. It’s too well hidden. Still, he couldn’t help but worry. He really hoped this wasn’t about his, uh… ‘alchemy’ set.

Outwardly he remained casual as ever, following Seteth and Alois up to the audience chambers, but internally he was practicing his lines. Hopefully they hadn't connected the dots between him and that monk who had 'mysteriously' gotten sick only a few days ago, but if they had, and if they had found his secret stash to boot, he’d need to find some way to justify his collection of shifty looking vials and materials known for their questionable applications.

It was the craziest thing, he'd say. Really -- the guy had been giving a servant boy (who was clearly Almyran, but he wouldn't mention that because it certainly didn't have any bearing on anything) a much harder time than was really necessary. The next day, word was he'd gotten some sort of bad food poisoning or something.

The Goddess sure worked in mysterious ways, didn't she?

As for his little stash of materials and his alchemy set, he really didn’t plan on using any(more) of it on people, honest -- not at the moment anyway, but he’d be sure to keep that side note to himself. And what was alchemy if not another area of study? Isn’t that what he had come here to do? Study and learn?

As they shuffled through the double doors of the audience chamber, Lady Rhea was waiting for them, standing tall in front of a golden throne. The glow of light behind her from the ornate, stained-glass windows made it seem as if she belonged in one of those illuminated manuscripts depicting the Fodlanese saints, lending a holier-than-thou effect to a woman who, in Khalid’s opinion, already acted a bit too sanctimonious.

To Rhea’s side, a girl wearing a silver-accented variation of the Officer’s Academy uniform also watched their approach.

Strange , Khalid thought, giving her a once over. He couldn’t remember seeing her at any of the inter-house orientations, but something about her stony face and the blank look in those blue eyes was oddly familiar.

“Hello Alois. Claude.” Lady Rhea sent them a delicate smile that only caused Khalid’s cynicism to flare up like a rash. No one was as pure as Rhea liked to portray herself, and he definitely aimed to dig some dirt up on her, too. “I trust the orientation went well?”

“Er, well, we had a little interruption thanks to some bandits, but it all turned out fine in the end!” Alois said, partially stumbling over his words. Khalid didn’t miss the bewildered look the knight was sending the mystery girl. “But what’s this? Why is By-”

“I will talk with you in a moment, Alois. For now, I want to settle matters with Claude.”

Khalid had to resist the urge to fidget, his distrust of the archbishop’s smile deepening with every second, but he did his best to return it with a diplomatic one of his own.

“I’m humbled to be called on like this, Lady Rhea. To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked, giving a respectful bow as was expected of him. He didn’t want Seteth, who had stationed himself at Rhea’s side, to have a conniption over any perceived disrespect -- that guy definitely had a stick stuck somewhere unpleasant.

“You will have a new student joining you henceforth. As she has missed the usual orientations, I’d hoped that as house leader you would guide her and help her get to know her fellow classmates.”

Raising a brow, Khalid glanced again at the mysterious girl. Her vacant expression hadn’t changed, which was kind of off-putting to say the least. Where is this coming from?

“Oh. Well, sure. I’d be happy to show you around,” he addressed the girl, hoping a smile and a little warmth might spark some life in her. “Welcome to the Golden Deer! I’m Claude von Riegan. And you are?”

“Byleth,” came the girl’s deadpan reply, followed by silence as Khalid waited expectantly for a last name that never came. The girl only continued to give him an almost lifeless stare. Then she blinked, a flicker of something unreadable passing through her gaze, and she added with a nod of acknowledgement, “Nice to meet you.”

… Yeah. You seem absolutely thrilled to meet me.

“Uhhh… right. Well, it’s nice to meet you too, Byleth. I trust the monks helped you settle into your room already. Do you want to go on a tour of the monastery first, or should I introduce you to our classmates?”

“A tour will not be necessary, Claude,” Rhea interrupted, glancing over at Byleth. “She is already familiar with the monastery grounds. She just needs to be informed of what will be expected of her as a student and given a proper introduction.”

Byleth nodded, confirming Rhea’s request, and Khalid glanced between the two, still finding this whole situation odd. Why hadn’t he been told before now that there would be another Golden Deer student? Even if she was to arrive later than expected, shouldn’t he have been made aware of that fact, as house leader? And who was this girl, who hadn’t even offered up a last name? It was clear Alois knew her. Was she from around the monastery, or the nearby village?

Khalid again took in the details of her face, trying to put his finger on why she was so familiar. When it finally hit him, he just managed to catch himself before his eyes widened; it wouldn’t do to let on how wary he was.

The nun from before -- the one who came to pick up the choir and chore forms!

He hadn’t recognized her right away with her hair down -- she looked different without the typical nun’s coif framing her face. Dressed up in the student’s uniform, she seemed younger than he’d first thought, too. But now that he thought about it, he definitely recognized that odd, blank stare from before, and those big, cryptic doe eyes.

Yet knowing her identity only raised further questions. Why was a nun from the church suddenly being assigned to his house as a student? Was it to monitor them? Or, more specifically, him? Was this because the church suspected who he was, or would the other houses also be assigned someone similar? He hadn’t heard of anything like this happening when he’d researched what life would be like at the academy.

Regardless of all his questions, Khalid kept his smile up, giving no hint of his inner misgivings. He’d have plenty of time to ferret out some answers later, and he wouldn’t get any by standing around here. Jerking his head toward the exit, he raised a brow at his new ‘classmate’.

“Alright then, Byleth! If you already know your way around, that just makes my job easier, I guess. You ready to go? I’m sure the others would love to meet you.”

Byleth only nodded, and with another aggravatingly serene smile, Lady Rhea dismissed them with one of her churchy well-wishes. As he led Byleth out of the chamber and down the stairs to the reception hall, Khalid couldn’t help but marvel at the past few days. He’d thought his time at a stuffy church academy would be useful for gaining connections, but otherwise pretty dull. The way the past few days had gone was making him rethink that assumption.

This place is definitely full of surprises, I’ll give it that much. There are so many secrets here I hardly know which thread to follow first!

For now, though, he supposed his best course of action was to focus on the mystery following quietly along behind him. Whoever this Byleth girl was and whatever her reasons for being shoved into his house at the academy, he’d find out the real story sooner or later.

 

---

 

Byleth wasn’t sure she’d ever get used to the school uniform. She’d only been wearing it for a few hours, true, but she couldn’t get past how exposed she felt. She wasn’t used to feeling the breeze on her bare legs like this -- or even showing her legs at all.

She didn't mind the top, but the skirt only went down to her mid-thigh, and the material was so light that it fluttered with each movement or gust of wind; very different from the longer, heavier robes she was so comfortable in. At least Rhea had allowed her to wear a cloak, which made her feel a little less vulnerable. It offered a bit more of the coverage Byleth was used to, at least in the back. Still, she tugged irritably at the front hem of her skirt as she followed her new house leader, trying to adjust it to fall a little lower. 

She already felt bleary and out of it after one of the most unrestful nights she’d ever experienced in her life. The last thing she wanted was to walk into the courtyard and have a sudden breeze blowing her skirt up for all of Garreg Mach to see.

“Sooo, Byleth.” She looked up from her skirt to see the boy -- er, Claude -- looking over his shoulder at her as they made their way down to the reception hall. “Is that your full name, or do you have a last name to go with it?”

Realizing it was probably improper of her to tug at her clothes like this in front of a future lord, she shook her head, hands falling to her sides.

“No. Byleth is the only name I was given.”

“Really? I thought everyone in Fodlan had a last name -- even the commoners,” Claude hummed, lips puckering in a childish frown. “Unless… I mean, I hope this isn't too personal, but... do you not have a good relationship with your parents?”

“... I don’t have parents,” Byleth replied with a shrug, glancing away. Though he acted reluctant to broach the subject, he sure did it with relative ease, she noted. “I was taken in by the church as a baby. They said I was brought in with a few other children after a bandit attack.”

“Ah, I see. I guess if you don’t know your parents, there’d be no way of knowing if you had a last name or not then. So, the church took you in, huh? Is that why you were dressed like a nun the other day?” When Byleth looked back at him, Claude’s frown had been replaced with a sly smirk, a smug sort of twinkle in his eyes. “What? You didn’t think I’d forget you so quickly, did you?”

She blinked, unsure why he was giving her such a self-satisfied look. Like he’d caught her in the act of something.

"... I figured you might recognize me, or you might not,” she shrugged again. “Students of nobility don’t always bother to remember the faces or names of monastery workers. But yes, that is why I was dressed as a nun.”

“True enough, sadly. But if you were here this whole time, why are you just now becoming a student? I mean, if you'd already planned on enrolling this year, why not join earlier and go through the orientations with us? Seems to me like it would’ve been easier that way.”

He sure is a nosy one.

Still, she couldn’t begrudge him asking all these questions. The whole situation was very unusual -- and this was precisely why she’d wanted to stay on as a nun rather than be enrolled in the academy.

“I didn’t want to be a student, and I didn’t expect to become one. It’s as surprising to me as it probably is to you,” she replied, eyes drifting down to the floor. “I’m sorry if I’m causing you trouble.”

“Oh, hey, no need to apologize. I’m just doing my noble obligation, as is expected of the house leader and heir of- pff, haha! Sorry, sorry! I tried imitating Lorenz there and I couldn’t keep a straight face. Do you remember Lorenz? From the other day? Well, if you were lucky enough to forget, I’m afraid I’ll have to reintroduce you,” Claude snickered before turning away. “Seriously though, no need to look so grim. The Golden Deer can be kinda chaotic, but I think we’re more relaxed than the other two houses. I’m sure you’ll feel right at home in no time. Or, well… I guess you kind of already are home, huh?”

Byleth only hummed in acknowledgement and the two fell back into silence as they reached the ground floor. The reception hall and courtyard were pretty busy this time of day, and the air was filled with chatter. Most people were busy relaxing after their lunch but some had brought food out to the courtyard for a picnic, enjoying the pleasant spring weather.

As Byleth and Claude made their way to the Golden Deer homeroom, a group of nuns heading to the cathedral passed by. It would have been impossible for Byleth to miss the strange looks and raised brows they gave her, and she almost frowned at the hot, unpleasant sensation beginning to blossom in her chest. Again, she tugged at the edges of her skirt, feeling strangely cornered despite the openness of the courtyard.

It was just starting to hit her that there was no going back now.

"Claude! There you are."

Both Claude and Byleth came to a halt as the lanky leader of the Blue Lions waved Claude down, half-jogging across the courtyard towards them. Following closely behind was the same tall, dark student Byleth had seen the blonde boy talking with before, and she wondered how close the two of them were.

"What did Lady Rhea call on you for? Nothing serious I assume, seeing as you've already been let go. Did it have something to do with the mock battle?"

Claude snorted, putting a hand on his hip and jerking a thumb back to Byleth.

"That's right! Rhea was so impressed with me that she decided to entrust me with a secret weapon. I'd be quaking in my boots if I were you, Your Princeliness."

"You truly are incorrigible, aren't you?" The blonde boy sighed and shook his head before turning to Byleth. "But who's this? Forgive me if we've already met -- there were so many names and faces to remember at the orientations. I fear I was not able to memorize them all."

"Nah, she wasn't at the orientations," Claude replied with a dismissive flick of his hand. "She's a bit of a late comer. This is Byleth -- the newest member of the Golden Deer."

Byleth wondered if she was supposed to curtsy. She'd never done it for any of the other noble children that had passed through, but none of them had ever been princes or princesses. The academy was supposed to make things level, bringing each student and even some staff members onto relatively equal footing, but there were exceptions -- or hypocrisies, depending on who you asked. As it was, Byleth only nodded politely.

"It's nice to meet you."

"The pleasure's all mine. My name is Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, and I'm the leader of the Blue Lion House," Dimitri replied, giving a small bow before gesturing to the boy behind him. "And this is my friend, Dedue Molinaro. I look forward to working with you in the future."

"You do, huh? Say, since she's new and all, you'll go easy on her in the mock battle, right? I mean come on -- who could raise a hand against those big old eyes!" Claude crooned, holding a hand out just below Byleth's chin as if trying to showcase her.

Dimitri chuckled, a small smile creeping onto his face as he shook his head again, eyes briefly flicking over to Claude before returning to Byleth. His eyes were not as wild as they were in her dreams, but... there was a darkness in them all the same that made her wonder.

"I'm afraid I cannot do that. If our paths do cross in the mock battle, please do not take anything I do personally. I aim to lead my house to victory, which means I cannot hesitate. I would ask that you take it seriously as well."

"Of course," Byleth replied. "Everyone should try their best."

"... Uh, Byleth?" Claude made a show of clearing his throat before gesturing for her to lean closer with a childish pout. Byleth side eyed her house leader for a moment before humoring him, which prompted Claude to give her a conspiratorial look. "See, this was supposed to be the part where you fluttered your eyes at him and beseeched His Highness to show mercy. You're kind of killing me here."

“Oh, enough, Claude. If that’s the best scheme you can come up with, I worry for you. Anyway, I’ll let you both get back to business.” The prince gave Byleth a polite smile and one final nod. “Take care.”

Byleth watched as Dimitri and Dedue marched away, back toward the Blue Lions homeroom. It was hard to imagine someone so disciplined could transform into what Byleth had foreseen, and for a moment, she felt a flicker of doubt. Maybe Dimitri was not as put-together as he acted, and the courtesy he had shown her was just that -- an act. Or... maybe something tragic awaited him in the future. Something that would change him so wholly and completely that there would be nothing left of the Dimitri she’d just met.

She’d chosen the Golden Deer because despite their disorderly nature, she wouldn’t feel beholden to a future royal, as she’d feared would be the case with the other houses. The relatively large number of commoners also made her feel like she’d be more easily accepted. She’d been thinking more about her own comfort than anything else, really.

Now, though, she began to wonder if her choice had any greater consequence. Rhea believed each of her visions were somehow tied together, but Byleth’s part in each of them wasn’t actually clear. Were they all glimpses of the same future, of events that would happen regardless of her choices? Or had she been shown different branches of fate, each somehow dependent on her actions? Were the house leaders already set on their chosen paths, or could she have a hand in changing their futures?

And if it was the latter, had she made the right choice?

She didn’t have much time to ponder the possibility. Claude began to move on, motioning for her to follow.

“That reminded me, we’ll have to get a feel for your combat strengths before the mock battle. Don’t worry if you don't have much experience, you won’t be alone in that regard. The Golden Deer aren’t exactly an elite group just yet, so we’ll all need to do some training to whip ourselves into shape. Oh, and a word of advice: If the time comes and you do end up running into Dimitri out there, be careful. I think the guy forgets his own strength sometimes.”

“I’ve studied white magic,” Byleth supplied. “And I…”

Her brows twitched downward slightly, voice trailing off as she deliberated over her next words. Lady Rhea had once let her practice swordplay with the knights, and had even offered her tips on her form and fighting style from time to time. Byleth remembered those days fondly. The training sessions had been one of the things she’d enjoyed most growing up.

When she’d said she wanted to use her skills to become a Knight of Seiros, though, Rhea had squashed the idea and halted the lessons. It was too dangerous for her to be on the front lines, she’d been told, and from then on she’d been put on the rather monotonous track to becoming a nun.

If she marched onto the field with a sword in her hand, she could only imagine the disappointment she’d face from Rhea. But… it was only a mock battle, wasn’t it? She would never be in any real danger. At least, not this time around. She could just hang back on any missions that came up afterward.

“I can wield a sword as well,” she finally finished.

Claude made what sounded like a grunt of approval, hands swinging up to cradle the back of his head as they walked. “Swords, huh? I wouldn’t have figured. Having someone who can heal who isn’t also completely defenseless would be pretty advantageous. We’ll have to see just how good you are with one, though.”

As the pair of them rolled into the Golden Deer homeroom, two girls Byleth recognized from the other day stopped their chatting and approached, eyes twinkling with excitement.

“There you are! I was actually starting to worry! People were saying bandits attacked you guys during your orientation, and when Dimitri and Edelgard came back without you --”

“Like I said Hilda, if it was really Captain Jeralt who helped them, of course he’d be fine! Speaking of, do you know where he is right now? Please, Claude, it’s been so long since I’ve last seen him! If he’s not sticking around, I want to make sure I catch him before he leaves!”

“Hold on there, Leonie. Jeralt is probably getting mobbed enough as it is. Besides, I get the feeling he’ll be around for a while yet, so just hold off for now. There’s someone else you have to meet,” Claude replied before raising his voice and making a quick ‘come hither’ gesture to the other students scattered around the room. “Everyone gather ‘round for a second. We’ve got a new classmate joining us starting today.”

It didn’t take long after Claude’s introduction for the class to descend into the familiar jabbering Byleth had seen before. A boy named Raphael, whose shirt likely would’ve been crying out in agony if it could, almost immediately invited her to dinner, as did the infamous Lorenz. The bespectacled boy from before, Ignatz, suggested they all eat together as a way of welcoming her into the Golden Deer, but when a soft-spoken girl named Marianne tried to voice her hesitation, she was promptly scolded by another girl, Lysithea.

As the group started to spiral off into their own conversations (and arguments), there was a sigh from Byleth’s side.

“Alright everyone, calm down. We don’t want to overwhelm her,” Claude spoke up. “Though I like where your head’s at, Ignatz. Let’s all meet up at the dining hall tonight and have a sort of mini-feast to welcome her into the fold. What do you say, Byleth? Sound good?”

Byleth blinked. She had never been the center of so much attention before, let alone had a feast -- or even a 'mini-feast' -- held in her honor. Feeling the weight of so many expectant gazes, she murmured her consent and gave a small nod, eyes darting to the floor. She was completely out of her element.

Even after the plans had been made, though, she could not escape. The students closed in around her and the questions began. She’d thought Claude was nosy, but his casual probing was nothing compared to the interrogation of almost an entire house. Only Marianne gave her a sympathetic look, opting to quietly look on from the back of the group.

She was so preoccupied with answering the volley of questions sent her way that Byleth didn’t realize Claude had moved from her side until he was already gone. But in the midst of her interrogation, she spotted him again, standing a few feet away with Leonie. He seemed to be fielding his own set of questions as the girl tried to get him to spill all that had happened with this Captain Jeralt person.

Yet from the corner of her eye, Byleth could swear she saw those verdant eyes slide back to her, evaluating her like they had in the audience chamber.

There was something about the way he considered her that reminded her of Lady Rhea; of the way the archbishop would sometimes watch her, deep in thought, with a depth to her gaze so unfathomable that it always left Byleth feeling small. Like the way Rhea had watched her as she’d described her brief interaction with the strange girl in her dreams.

Rhea had been ecstatic, she could tell, and yet… Byleth also sensed there was something she was holding back.

Despite the fact that Byleth had tried to be forthright with news about her visions, particularly news of the girl, it felt like Rhea was not doing the same for her. And that was frustrating. She wasn’t stupid -- she had seen the knowing gleam in Rhea’s eyes, knew enough to tell when the woman was preoccupied with her thoughts.

Yet when Byleth had asked for her honest opinion on what the interaction could mean, or what she should do next, Rhea hadn’t offered those thoughts of hers up. She had only smiled, in a strangely detached way that had left Byleth shifting uneasily, and said, “It means we are on the right path.”

And now here she was, being silently scrutinized by her new 'leader.' Or house leader, anyway. As much as it bothered her sometimes, Lady Rhea’s monitoring was one thing -- she was the archbishop, after all, and had practically raised Byleth  -- but this stranger?

Maybe she was just in a bad mood after a troubled night’s sleep. Maybe it was the tension of having so many ridiculous changes foisted upon her, or the frustration of having questions she felt, to some degree, were being left purposefully unanswered by the one person she was supposed to look to for guidance.

All she knew was that she wasn’t in the mood to be silently picked apart by someone she didn’t really know, and who didn't know her. When there was a lull in the questions from her new classmates, she dared to glance at Claude head on, but he was surprisingly unabashed about being caught staring. Instead of looking away, he smiled at her.

As striking as it was, she noticed it did not reach his eyes.

Chapter Text

It was strange to be back. When Jeralt had ridden through the main gates, returning to Garreg Mach Monastery in the company of the Knights of Seiros for the first time in 21 years, he hadn’t been sure what to expect.

Some sort of welcome to be sure, if the reactions of his traveling companions were anything to go by. Many of the knights he made the journey with were too young to have served when he was captain, or at least couldn’t have served under him long, but they still seemed to know just about every accomplishment he’d ever earned -- no matter if it was a battle won or a monstrous fish caught.

Apparently, Alois hadn’t been very discreet about his admiration over the years.

Of course, Jeralt also expected an uncomfortable talk with Rhea. It was unavoidable after the manner of his departure all those years ago. Try as he had to stay civil, both out of respect for her position and the many long years they’d known each other, grief and suspicion had flavored his parting words a little too strongly. Even with so much time between then and now, the weight of his final accusation would not easily be cast aside.

What he hadn’t expected upon his return, though, was the sense of detachment. The near-millenia old monastery had not changed at its core, and its old structures remained almost exactly as he remembered them, right down to the decorations. So far, the people that greeted him were all friendly and respectful; reverent even, if they knew who he was. Yet Jeralt felt oddly restless navigating the halls of his once-home. Like he was stuck in a bad memory.

Maybe that’s all this place is now. A bad memory I should’ve just moved on from.

Jeralt snorted.

Yeah right. As if I could ever really move on from this place.

Truth be told, Jeralt wasn’t sure why he’d decided to return to the monastery. Alois had been insistent, yes, but if he had put up any hint of resistance, he was sure his former squire would have let him go free. Yet Jeralt had come along with only a few mumbled complaints, packing his things and saying goodbye to his mercenary band.

He didn’t regret leaving the church, so that wasn’t the reason. All those years ago, Rhea had “offered” to let him leave the Church’s service, but he likely would’ve vanished with or without her permission at that point. He hadn’t just needed some space. He’d needed leagues of it. And he hadn’t just needed some time -- he’d needed decades.

Maybe he'd returned because some small part of him thought all his questions might finally be put to rest. Maybe the whys and what ifs that had built up in his mind over the years, that had taunted him during restless nights and when he’d gotten too deep in his cups, could finally get some answers. It was years after the fact now, after all. He would never be able to be completely unemotional about his lost family, but time had cooled his temper. With less sentiment ruling their reactions, maybe he and Rhea could finally put the past behind them and find some understanding.

Of course, knowing Rhea, he doubted it would be that easy. But the hope was still there, begging him to at least try.

When Rhea’s new advisor, Seteth, finally called him to the audience chamber, pulling him away from another group of young knights seeking tips and tales from him, Jeralt was equal parts relieved and resigned.

But he did not get the private audience with Rhea he had been expecting. Instead, once the doors to the audience chamber had been closed behind them, Seteth walked up to Rhea's side, hands folded neatly behind his back and emerald eyes watching Jeralt carefully.

“It has been a long time, Jeralt,” Rhea spoke first. “I wonder… is it the will of the goddess that we have another chance meeting like this?”

She was as ageless as ever, all delicate features and graceful poise. Someone who didn’t know her might even think her fragile, reminiscent of the lilies that adorned her hair. Jeralt didn’t pretend to know all her secrets, but at least he’d seen through that illusion long ago.

“Forgive my silence all these years. As you know, I... had a lot on my mind when I left the church,” he said with a bow.

“Of course. I remember well,” she replied. Jeralt wondered if Seteth also caught the storm of emotion in her eyes before it vanished. “Even so, your skills have not waned. Alois told me of what you did for our students. On behalf of the church, I thank you.”

“He also made a rather interesting proposal,” Seteth interjected. “You probably heard from the knights on your way to the monastery that one of our professors abandoned their post. We have no plans to retrieve them, for now -- their cowardice has shown they would be ill-suited to the task of guiding Fodlan’s most promising youths. However, that leaves us short a professor only days before our school year is scheduled to begin in earnest.”

Jeralt exhaled deeply through his nose, already sensing where this conversation was going. His gaze flitted back to Rhea, but she was staring at the floor, lips pressed together in a tight, flat line.

“Are you asking me to become a professor, Lady Rhea?” he asked pointedly, and Rhea’s eyes slid up to his. He could practically see the wheels turning in her mind.

“No. I am not.” From her side, Seteth made a small noise of protest, but Rhea forged onward, her stubborn gaze not leaving him. “I would not ask you to stay here when this place holds so many tragic memories for you. And while I have no doubt you remain one of the finest fighters in Fodlan, your last few decades are lacking in trackable history. It would be irresponsible to foist upon our students someone who had neither proper recommendations nor a clear background from the last few years.”

Before Jeralt could reply, Seteth spoke up again. While Jeralt would give him credit for trying to maintain a calm tone, the slight frown and furrow of his brows gave away the advisor’s quiet frustration.

“Lady Rhea, I understand your caution. More than anyone, I do. Yet I feel you should reconsider. Jeritza was allowed a position here despite his mysterious past, and with minimal recommendations. Jeralt is being recommended by Alois, a tried and trusted associate. He has a golden reputation amongst the knights, and you yourself said he had not allowed his skills to dull. I have reservations regarding the gaping hole in his history, too, but he stepped up to protect our students when he was needed, and without even the promise of payment beforehand. Not many mercenaries can boast that type of honor.”

“No,” Rhea insisted, shooting Seteth a meaningful look. “Jeritza’s references accounted for his recent history. Jeralt has no one to provide such background -- no one that we can be sure is reliable. And there is still the matter of his past at the monastery. You know the circumstances preceding his departure, do you not?”

“I do, but-”

“Then you can imagine the difficulties it might present him, lingering in such a place. I believe it would be more prudent to ask Alois, or maybe even Gilbert, to step in.”

Jeralt crossed his arms and shifted his weight onto one foot, eyes switching back and forth between Rhea and Seteth as their little debate continued. He didn’t appreciate being talked about like he wasn’t there, but they weren’t really giving him a chance to reinsert himself into the conversation.

And honestly? It was kind of interesting to watch. Seteth hadn’t been around when Jeralt had left; back then, there hadn’t been anyone in the church who was willing to argue with Rhea, much less someone she didn’t outright dismiss for it.

“Alois is needed in the knights,” Seteth contended with a shake of his head. “ Gilbert too -- besides, when I spoke with Gilbert, he seemed uncomfortable with such an arrangement. We have no one else to spare! Tomas can handle the library, but I doubt he’d be able to keep a handle on a group of youths all day. Jeritza is best kept in his current position. He has combat prowess, but not interpersonal skills. I would take up the mantle, but I already have so many other duties, and we have no one in line to replace me if I became a professor. At the moment, Jeralt is our best option.”

There was a pause as the two fell quiet, but while they had stopped exchanging words, the argument seemed to live on in the silence, hanging in the air between them. Both were well-practiced at maintaining diplomatic facades it seemed, but there was tension in their stances and an intensity in their shared gazes.

Jeralt cleared his throat, taking his chance to speak up.

“For what it’s worth, I’ve had my time to grieve. The memories I have... They'll always sting, but the pain has dulled over the years. I would have no problem staying here again, if it was asked of me. As for being a professor… well, I’ve had apprentices and squires before. It couldn’t be that big of a leap,” he said with a shrug.

Two sets of green eyes regarded him, one more approving than the other. Seteth gave him an appreciative nod before turning back to Rhea.

“Well? There you have it. He is not opposed to the idea.”

Rhea continued to watch him, a small frown tugging at her lips, and Jeralt prepared for her refusal. What he'd said all those years ago must've really stung her if she was denying his help at such a crucial time. But her frown vanished, along with the coldness in her eyes. She tilted her head as if deep in thought, considering him now with curiosity, maybe even fascination.

The sudden change made Jeralt wary. Something had occurred to her, and whatever it was, it was powerful enough to override her earlier aversion to his presence.

“... Very well. I suppose if Jeralt is willing, we have our answer. And we cannot afford to delay our students’ education,” she murmured, almost to herself. “Perhaps... this truly is the will of the goddess.”

Seteth’s gaze lingered a moment more on Rhea, unreadable, before he turned back to Jeralt.

“Excellent. We owe you a debt of gratitude. With that settled, I can show you the chambers you will be staying in, just down the hall. Our other professors, Manuela and Hanneman, are close by, which should make it easier to collaborate with them. Please, follow me. You can spend the night here, and tomorrow, the three of you can discuss which house you wish to head.”

Jeralt nodded, moving to follow Seteth as he led the way out of the audience chambers. Rhea, too, turned to leave, retreating silently to her office.

Another time, Jeralt thought. I’ll be able to talk with her privately another time.

Still, he felt he’d need to watch himself. At first, Rhea had been adamant in her resistance to taking him on as a professor. Then she’d gotten that odd look in her eye, and just like that, he was in. The sudden change didn’t sit right with him.

He used to think the world of Rhea. Last he’d seen her, though, he'd been terrified of her. Terrified of what he thought her capable of doing. Sure, there was no proof, and maybe it was as she’d said all those years ago -- maybe he’d been too consumed by anguish to see or think straight. Maybe he’d just been looking for someone to blame, and it didn’t matter how outlandish the charge was so long as he could be angry at something for the loss of his family.

But he’d had a feeling he couldn’t shake, and over his ridiculously long and dangerous life, he’d learned to trust his gut. Now, once again, his gut was trying to warn him.

Rhea was up to something. He just didn't know what.

 

---

 

The announcement that Jeralt Reus Eisner would be the new professor for one of the houses was... shockingly unshocking, as far as Khalid was concerned.

Still, when Manuela had handed down the news to Edelgard, Dimitri and him, he knew the race was on. She’d said Jeralt would be meeting with each of them before the professors reconvened to decide which houses they would lead -- that meant it was up to him to crank up the charm and reel the old captain in for the Golden Deer.

Edelgard and Dimitri planned to do the same, of course. The both of them had jumped to enlist his services as a mercenary; the chance to learn from Jeralt firsthand, and for free, would be too good for them to pass up. Khalid couldn’t blame them, but he also couldn't let them win, if he could help it. He had his own motives for trying to get Jeralt, after all. If he could benefit from the old knight's expertise, foster a long and lasting 'friendship,' and hell, maybe accrue a number of favors for the old man to repay down the road, all the better.

Nothing against Hanneman or Manuela, but he doubted they would prove as useful as Jeralt in a pinch.

All he had to do now was wait his turn. From his spot leaning against one of the stone pillars bordering the courtyard, his eyes drifted to the opposite end of the lawn, where Dimitri was doing his best to sell his class to the former captain -- albeit in that earnest, overly polite way Dimitri had.

Hopefully Jeralt wouldn’t be too interested in mentoring one of Fodlan’s future royals. Khalid couldn’t exactly gauge Dimitri’s success with Jeralt's back turned to him, though.

With a patient exhale, Khalid turned away from the pair, peeking around the corner of the pillar into the Golden Deer classroom. He knew he had at least one advantage the other house leaders didn’t. If nothing else, he could probably call Leonie over and have her reminisce with Jeralt a bit. Playing on nostalgia never hurt, did it? He sincerely hoped her fondness for Jeralt wasn’t one sided, though, or that move could easily backfire.

Won’t know unless I try, Khalid mused, eyes finally zeroing in on the orange-haired girl. She was leaning against one of the tables, absentmindedly waxing the string of her bow while Raphael appeared to be talking her ear off about something -- likely food, if Khalid had to guess. Still, she was around and ready to be called on if he needed her. Good.

He gave the rest of the room a quick scan, noting the new girl still hadn’t made an appearance today. He doubted someone who’d been training to be a nun would be a late riser, and it wasn’t like she could’ve gotten lost -- she’d grown up here, and her room was right around the corner. So what was keeping her?

And I thought our little introduction feast had gone pretty well, too.

It had been a bit strange, trying to make conversation with someone so taciturn, but the group had managed just fine. Byleth hadn’t appeared to be overly bothered by the attention, either. But then, it was hard to get a grasp on that girl. Frustratingly so.

She had a masterful command of her emotions that he both admired and resented. He hid his intentions behind a good-humored front, one that distracted others from his walls while he tore down theirs. But her? She was as impregnable as Fort Merceus, the Stubborn Old General, and she did nothing to hide it. Anything could’ve been going on in her head, and no one would be the wiser. It made him uneasy.

He’d have to hunt her down after this business with Jeralt and find out what she was up to. That girl already had enough secrets as far as he was concerned -- he wouldn’t abide her sneaking around all year. Besides, what kind of house leader would he be if he couldn’t account for his fellow students?

The clink of shifting armor caught Khalid’s attention and his head snapped back to the courtyard, signature easy smile slipping on as he met eyes with Jeralt. The grizzled former knight gave him a nod as he approached, and Khalid pushed off the pillar, turning to fully face him.

“Well, well. Scored a teaching gig here, did ya? Color me shocked. Not that I’m complaining,” Khalid shrugged.

“Not yet, you're not. That might change if I take up your class, though. I’m a big fan of surprise drills,” Jeralt replied, crossing his arms and raising a brow as he gave Khalid a once over.

Khalid found his smile widening a bit at the appraisal. No doubt Edelgard and Dimitri had been formal as usual, so a more relaxed approach was sure to stick out. At the very least, he was sure he had Jeralt’s curiosity.

“Drills, eh? Well, I don't know about all that, but I’m a big fan of surprises myself. And I’ve got a feeling I could surprise even you if given the chance,” he said with a playful wink. “But I guess I’d better give myself a proper introduction before all that. I’m Claude von Riegan. I’m from the ruling house of the Leicester Alliance, but don’t worry too much about all that madness. You’re trying to decide which class you want to lead this year, right? I bet you’d like ours. We’re not as… difficult as the other two.”

Jeralt snorted at that. “How do you figure? If the students are anything like the reigning lords of the Alliance, dealing with all the bickering would be difficult enough.”

“I’ll give you that our class is a little on the energetic side," Khalid hummed, nodding, "But come on -- one look from you and I’m sure they’d quiet down in an instant. Besides, I got the impression you liked when people said what they’re thinking. ‘Better a bickering militia free to speak their minds than blind followers,’ right? Isn’t that something you told Leonie back in the day?”

Jeralt’s brows furrowed together, a deep frown settling on his face.

“Leonie…? Leonie… Wait. Leonie Pinelli? You know her?”

“Know her? She’s one of this year’s students!” Khalid replied with a laugh, jerking his thumb around the pillar and toward the classroom. He tried not to feel too smug when Jeralt’s eyes followed the movement and widened in recognition. “She’s a pretty hard worker, but I bet you know that already. Really wants to follow in your footsteps, I think. All the rest of them are pretty driven, too. Care to know more about them?”

Jeralt gave a thoughtful hum, one hand moving to rub the beard around his chin before he nodded, and Khalid had to say he felt pretty damn victorious. Nothing was confirmed yet, but he could see Jeralt was definitely interested.

From their spot in the courtyard, Khalid began to run down the roster of the Golden Deer, pointing each one’s spot in the classroom out when he could and giving a brief based on his own knowledge. He was warning Jeralt about the consequences (and fun) of treating Lysithea like a child when a flash of cobalt hair approaching from the left and the click of heels on stone caught his attention, and he broke off.

“Ah, well look who decided to show up. I was beginning to wonder if we’d scared you off,” Khalid drawled, arms crossing as he gave Byleth a faux-stern look. “And just where have you been, young lady? I’ve been worried sick.”

Byleth came to a halt outside the class doors. For a moment, Khalid thought he could see an ounce of reluctance in her body language, but when she turned towards him, she had the same inscrutable look she’d maintained all day yesterday. Was she even capable of making another expression? He was starting to wonder.

“I was fishing and lost track of time. My apologies,” she replied, giving him a small bow of her head before her eyes shifted to Jeralt.

“Fishing, huh? That’s your excuse? Hm. I guess I’ll let it slide this time. But since you’re here -- Byleth, this is Jeralt Eisner,” Khalid waved a hand toward Jeralt. “He’s the one me and the others were talking about last night at dinner -- the one that helped save my tail during the orientation. He was a captain of the Knights of Seiros, though, so you’ve probably heard of him, right?”

Byleth stared at Jeralt a moment before her gaze fell to the ground. “... I think so.”

“You… What do you mean you ‘think so?’" Khalid's brows furrowed in a moment of genuine confusion. Was she messing with him? She had grown up at the monastery, right? There was no way she hadn't heard of him.

"I would’ve thought you… You know what? Never mind. We’ll talk about it later,” Khalid sighed, reaching up to run a hand through his hair in exasperation. As much as he wanted to grill her, Jeralt was the priority at the moment. Byleth seemed to sense her dismissal, and with another wordless nod, she turned on her heel and entered the classroom.

“Sorry for the distraction,” Khalid shook his head, eyes lingering on Byleth a moment longer. “That would be Byleth. She’s a bit of a latecomer to the class, so I don’t know much about her yet. I guess she grew up in the monastery, so I would’ve figured she’d heard of you, but… well, she’s a bit of an odd one.”

He glanced up at Jeralt, wanting to make sure he still had the former knight’s full attention before he continued his speal about the Golden Deer, but... his next words died in his throat.

Jeralt Reus Eisner, legendary captain of the Knights of Seiros, the Blade-Breaker himself and one of the most imposing men Khalid had run into this side of the Fodlan-Almyra border... looked absolutely stricken.

He was fair-skinned to begin with, but his face was even paler than it had been only moments ago, lips hanging partially open in a small, slack-jawed gape, eyes wide. If Khalid hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the man had just seen a ghost.

Khalid turned back to the classroom, following Jeralt’s gaze to Byleth. The girl seemed oblivious to the stir she’d caused, having quietly taken a seat by Marianne and Hilda, the latter of whom was trying to draw her into a conversation.

Does he recognize her from somewhere? How can that be? If she’s around our age, and if I'm doing my math right, she probably would’ve been brought to the monastery after he’d left, right? Did he know her parents before they were killed or something?

He felt a little like a dog who’d just found a bone, but as much as he wanted to pounce on this strange turn of events and start gnawing away, to ask Jeralt what the deal was, he held back. Now wasn’t the time to blatantly pry into the man’s history, let alone a part of it that was already so shrouded in mystery -- and, apparently, emotion.

That could come later, when he’d won the man over as a teacher.

He knew he couldn’t brute force this. He needed to be patient.

Byleth may have been Fort Merceus, but Khalid was willing to bet Jeralt was more like Fodlan’s Locket. Intimidating and dangerous? Sure. Well defended? Definitely. But if he hung back and observed, waiting for the opportune moment... he was sure he’d find a way in.

“... Well, anyway-”

“Thanks,” Jeralt interrupted, voice curt and low. When Khalid turned back to the man, he looked a bit more like his usual stern self, but there was something darker there now, too. It wasn’t too obvious in his tone, but Khalid could read the physical signs. The tension in his shoulders, the intensity in his gaze... the balled fists. Jeralt had gone from shock to quiet fury in the blink of an eye. “I think that will be all. I’ve made my decision.”

Before Khalid could voice a reply, Jeralt turned and stalked away, clearly heading somewhere in a hurry. Khalid watched him go, his festering curiosity tempting him to follow, before he sucked in a deep breath and leaned back against his old spot on the pillar with a sigh. He wasn't confident he'd be able to tail the Blade-Breaker without getting caught.

Whatever Jeralt’s reaction to Byleth meant, all he could do now was hope it would play out in his favor.

Chapter Text

Rhea had clearly been expecting him.

When Jeralt stormed into her office, she had already been turned in her desk chair to face the door, hands folded delicately over her lap. She hadn’t even been doing anything, as far as a quick glance could tell him, other than staring down at the floor.

Listening.

Waiting.

And when he filled the space she’d been staring off into so pensively, he saw her take a deep breath. Her eyes closed briefly, as if she were bracing herself, before opening once more and sliding up to his face. It wasn’t overt, but when their gazes met, he thought she looked… sad. Wistful, even. In that moment, though, he didn’t give a damn about her sadness. He cared much more about the hint of guilt in her expression, just barely visible beneath the cracks in her solemn mask.

“Tell me about Byleth.”

He’d intended to keep his voice even, but the demand came out more like a growl as he glowered down at Rhea.

Say it , he thought. Admit it.

Rhea watched him a beat longer, mint eyes drinking in his face, before her head dipped down and she rose from her chair.

“Walk with me, Jeralt.”

Part of him wanted to block her way as she moved for the doors of her office. Whatever was happening, whatever this was, it had gone on far too long, and he wanted answers now. He was owed answers, damn it!

Despite himself, though, he silently fell in behind Rhea as she led the way out of the audience chamber. After all, this wasn’t the sort of conversation either of them wanted to risk others overhearing. In the hallway, a few scattered monks greeted the archbishop as she passed, and she managed to respond pleasantly enough. Still, Jeralt noted that as she turned into the stairwell leading up to her private floor, her head was bowed, hands clasped tightly before her. She was dreading this conversation, he realized -- probably almost as much as he dreaded hearing what she had to say.

At the top of the steps, as she led him to her private quarters, a dark-skinned young man who had been sweeping the hallways took notice of their approach. The bright smile he gave Rhea quickly faltered when he noticed Jeralt following along behind her.

“Cyril.” Rhea paused outside her doors to call to him, and the boy was at her side in an instant, broom in hand.

“Yes, Lady Rhea?”

Jeralt held back a snort. The kid sounded so eager for her attention, and the admiration in his voice was clear as day. He hated to admit it, especially now, but once upon a time, Jeralt had probably not been so different.

At first, Rhea had been nothing more than a job to him. If he protected her, he'd get paid and move on to the next job. Simple as that. But he’d been young then, and one of the most important rules of mercenary work -- to expect the unexpected -- had not yet sunken in.

He hadn’t been ready for the ambush. Nor had he been ready to die -- but because of his knee jerk response to jump in front of Rhea, he very nearly had.

And in return, Rhea ended up saving him. She'd nursed him back to health, even after his fellow mercenaries had already declared his wound fatal and written him off. And despite the fact that he’d been little more than a dumb kid at that point, she’d requested he stay by her side.

He had agreed. How could he have denied her after what she’d done for him? She had seemed so kind back then, almost otherworldly. And years later, after he’d learned the gravity of what Rhea had done to save him, of the long-lasting effects he would be living with, he’d remained by her side, dedicated to her wholly and completely. He’d thought the world of her.

And even so, it all went up in flames.

“You may resume your sweeping duties later. I have another assignment for you.” At Rhea’s words, Cyril straightened up. “Go to the bottom of the stairwell, and assure that no one comes to disturb us. Jeralt is an old friend of mine, and I would dearly like to catch up with him.”

“Uh…” Cyril’s face scrunched in confusion, and he gave Jeralt another critical glance. “Are you sure, milady? I’d be happy to attend to you and your… friend…”

Again, Jeralt had to suppress a snort. If he wasn’t in such a damn hurry, the kid’s transparency would’ve been amusing. As things were, though, he wasn’t exactly in a jovial mood.

“Thank you, my child, but I’m sure we will manage on our own. However, it is important to me that we have our privacy. I trust you will help us in that regard.”

“Of course, milady! As you wish,” Cyril responded with a deep bow. Before hurrying off, though, he gave Jeralt a dark look. The silent warning was clear -- and Jeralt almost laughed in the kid’s face for his audacity. Cyril seemed tenacious, he’d give him that; but to Jeralt, he didn't come off nearly so fearsome as he likely wished he did. More like a hissing kitten trying to puff itself up.

As Cyril disappeared down the stairs, Rhea continued into her quarters before making a fluid motion to the doors. With a clenched jaw, Jeralt followed her suggestion. It took everything in him not to simply slam the doors shut, and he still brought them together with much more force than was likely necessary before securing the large, sliding bolt lock.

“Now then…” he trailed off expectantly, rounding back to Rhea.

Standing in the center of her room, Rhea remained silent. She was half turned away from him, still as a statue as she once again seemed to stare off into nothing. Jeralt was about to do something that would demand her attention when she finally replied in a controlled tone.

“Byleth is a ward of the church.”

Jeralt scoffed.

Stolen by the church, more like,” he spat, eyes narrowing as he took a few more steps toward her. Rhea’s shoulders tensed at his approach, and it was then that she finally turned to look at him, a hardness in her gaze that had been notably absent before.

“A ward of the church,” she continued evenly, “brought in when it was found she had no parents to raise her.”

“No par-!” Jeralt cut himself off and turned to storm along the edges of the room, keeping a good bit of distance between him and her. He kept his mouth clenched shut, teeth grinding together in an effort to keep from yelling. He couldn’t be too loud -- even with their attempts to find privacy, he knew the walls had ears here. And Rhea may have trusted that Cyril kid to keep others away, but Jeralt was sure the boy would also be keeping an ear out for any alarming noise coming from his mistress’s floor.

Even if, by some odd chance, screaming didn’t bring the guards down on him, Jeralt didn’t want to risk his problems becoming known to the whole monastery. Especially not this.

After a few breaths to steady himself, he turned back to Rhea but kept his distance lest he do something truly stupid, matching her hard look with one of his own. “She could’ve had me .”

For a moment, he thought Rhea might play dumb with him. She must’ve considered it for as long as she watched him, must’ve wondered if she could get away with feigning ignorance. Well, she could deny all she wanted, but he knew. He’d have to be a fool not see it -- Byleth was almost a spitting image of Sitri.

In the end, Rhea thankfully decided to spare them both the trouble of denying.

“Perhaps so. But you left,” she said.

Jeralt’s lips curled in a contemptuous snarl -- was she actually trying to imply this was his fault?! Again, he had to swallow the urge to yell, instead settling for a heated whisper as his eyes burned into the woman before him.

“You told me she was dead!”

Rhea said nothing to that, reverting to wordlessly watching him once more, and he thought he could see a bit of the sadness from before creeping back into her gaze. Or... maybe it was pity. That thought only infuriated him more.

He’d known. All those years ago, he’d known. Something had been wrong, he had felt it. And yet she’d denied. Denied, and deflected, and deceived. And now, after so long, she had the nerve to show remorse? Pity? But only after he’d caught her in her lie, and she had no choice but to come clean. After he’d already lost the chance to raise his daughter.

Jeralt shook his head in disbelief and started pacing in circles at his end of the room, unsure what to do with himself. He rolled his shoulders, as if he could shrug off the rage building inside of him with each passing second -- he had to find some way to get rid of all this furious energy before he ended up doing something he regretted -- but the thoughts kept coming, flashbacks from back then, building his anger up.

He'd thought, after over two decades, he had been able to move on. Yet now, all his memories were flooding back, and the emotions tied with them were as raw as if they’d happened yesterday.

Sitri. His sweet, wonderful Sitri. She had been so excited to be a mother. That was all he’d been able to think when he’d finally been allowed into the birthing room. The image of her laying there, soaked in her own blood, cold and pale and lifeless, would stay with him forever. Her loss had been a hard blow. But their child -- their little girl -- was something else to deal with entirely.

He’d been afraid she was dead, too, when Rhea had slipped her into his arms. As silent and still as Sitri, save for the almost imperceptible rise and fall of her chest. Jeralt hadn’t even bothered to name her, partly out of grief. Sitri should’ve been there. She should’ve named her. But the other reason he hadn’t was because… he’d been scared.

Surely the child was so silent because it was weak. Unhealthy babies could linger for days after their births before finally succumbing, and he… he would not have been able to bear giving it a name, giving it his heart, only to have it quietly pass a few days later, to be taken away from him and thrown in the ground alongside Sitri.

He’d tried to distance himself at first in preparation. Tried mentally steeling himself for the time when he would pluck the child from her crib only to feel the cold stiffness of death in her tiny form.

Yet even as he told himself to expect the worst… he hadn't been able to stay away. Each morning, the first thing he did was check on her. Each night before he slept, he was at her crib peering down. After every meeting, every training session -- every single moment he had to himself -- he would go to her. And each time he found her warm and breathing and alive, his heart had swelled a little more.

It wasn’t right for a newborn to be so silent, he’d kept reminding himself. Something had to be wrong. The child would die soon, the cynic in him had warned, and he shouldn’t get attached. But the longer the little girl persisted, the more he found himself holding her outside what the bare minimum of her care necessitated. He began drinking in the details of his child’s face, marveling at how her little fingers could wrap around one of his and grip it so firmly.

He even began speaking softly to her, little one-sided conversations meant only for her. You're tough, kiddo. A fighter, he had told her once before putting her down for the night. Your mom would be so proud.

But he’d wanted reassurance. He’d told Rhea of his concerns one day, idly wondering if maybe his daughter’s weak heart was to blame for her silence. He’d nearly panicked one night when he’d felt how weak her pulse was, and had frantically tried to check her heart rate to no avail. Only after what felt like hours of watching her chest continue to rise and fall had he felt comfortable putting her down for the night, but he had still hardly slept a wink, getting up every now and then just to check she was still breathing.

Rhea had quickly told him not to worry. She’d offered to have the child be monitored for a few days by some of the most skilled healers at the church’s disposal. And despite his fears concerning his daughter… Jeralt had almost declined.

He couldn’t fully understand it himself at the time, but he’d noticed something… off about Rhea. In truth, she’d been acting strangely since Sitri’s death. What had happened in the birthing room was still a mystery, and he’d always meant to ask about the strange blood stains that had seemed to crawl up to Sitri’s chest, but there had never been a good time -- Rhea had been so distressed after Sitri’s passing, and he hadn’t wanted to bring it up before she was ready.

Still, he’d handed his daughter over, ignoring the voice in the back of his head urging him not to. It had felt wrong for some reason, and he hadn’t liked the strange smile Rhea had given his daughter when she was finally settled in her arms, but he’d done it anyway because this was Rhea. Aside from his child, she was the closest thing to family he had left in this world. Who could he trust if not her?

But Rhea had the girl sequestered, and suddenly, even he was limited in how often he could see her. He’d tried to be understanding at first, but as time stretched on and the “observation period” became more than “a few days,” he began to get antsy. He was the girl’s father, and yet Rhea’s hand-picked staff turned him away, even as Rhea was allowed to come and go. His complaints to Rhea went unheeded; she'd only give him one of those serene smiles of hers and tell him to trust in the Goddess, for she was watching over the child now.

That was the last straw.

The day before it had all gone to shit, he’d tried to demand the healers hand his daughter back over to him, but what had they done? Warned him that Lady Rhea would not be happy with him. That Rhea had not yet allowed them to release the girl into his care. Rhea. They’d spoken as if she was his daughter’s guardian, not him.

He’d very nearly forced them to hand over the child, but had stopped himself. He hadn’t wanted to cause a scene, or get taken away by his own knights. Jeralt had quickly realized he would need to find a quieter way to get his child back -- even if it meant tricking everyone around him and leaving the church behind.

The only reason he'd walked away from those accursed 'healers' was because he'd thought he would have time to plan. Now he knew better.

He should’ve just forced his way into the nursery. Even if it meant causing a scene, or fleeing the monastery with the knights on his heels and spending the rest of his life on the run, he should’ve done it. Because when he was awoken in the middle of the night by an out-of-breath Alois, some terrible part of him knew it was already too late.

Jeralt had run through the halls and across the monastery bare foot, in nothing but his nightwear, towards the distant orange glow in the sky. He’d tried to look through the crowd for the healers who’d been watching over his daughter, but there was too much chaos, too many people rushing around trying to throw water and dirt on the burning building, too many knights coming to him for direction.

He’d had to act as captain and coordinate the fire response, even when all he’d wanted to do was grab hold of every person around him and shake them until they told him where his daughter was, until he heard that someone, anyone, had thought to grab her -- that she wasn’t still inside as he watched the flames begin to eat away at the tower that held her nursery.

Hours had passed as they’d fought the fire down. The sky had been beginning to lighten with the approaching sun and Jeralt had been utterly exhausted when Rhea appeared out of the crowd. She had seemed out of place as she approached him, too poised and collected amid the surrounding turmoil. Some of the healers she had tasked with watching his daughter were in tow behind her, and he’d looked between each of them, searching their arms for a tiny, swaddled form, and finding none.

The church bells had rung out, marking the changing of the hour, as Rhea had given him the news. Something about collapsed beams. Something about blocked hallways. His eyes had drifted from her to the charred husk of the structure’s tower only a few feet away, and time seemed to stop around him.

He’d stood tall through it, as he always did -- as was needed and expected of him as captain of the knights. Yet inside… inside, he’d felt himself crumbling.

“You had a building lit on fire,” he hissed through clenched teeth, finally tearing himself out of his memories and turning back to Rhea. He was almost shaking now, fists clenched at his sides. “As what-- a cover?! Just so you could take her away from me?!”

He hadn't bothered to question her back then, because of all the things she could have kept from him, despite all her secrets, he hadn't imagined she would lie about something like this. But it was possible, wasn't it? One of her lackeys could have started the fire, and taken Byleth away in the commotion. Or maybe they'd used some secret passage. This whole damn place was riddled with tunnels, and even he had never been able to find and explore all of them.

“Tell me,” she jutted her chin at him, regal almost to the point of defiance in the face of his anger and grief, “If it meant protecting someone precious to you, would you not have done the same?”

His brows knit together, and the edges of his mouth, already pulled down in a deep scowl, sank even lower. The lengths he would go to for the ones he loved was not the issue here.

“And who exactly were you protecting when you faked the death of my child?!” He couldn’t bring himself to whisper anymore. He only hoped his voice didn’t carry down to that little servant of hers at the bottom of the stairwell.

“... Her.”

Jeralt blinked before recoiling at the one word response, head jerking back in confusion.

“What?”

“I was protecting her.”

"From who?! Who, in Goddess's name, did she need to be protected from?! Me?!"

He'd said the last part rhetorically, incredulously. And so when Rhea's quiet response came, he was almost unable to process it.

"... Yes."

He blinked. Then blinked again. The anger he’d barely been keeping in check slowly swelled to dangerous new levels, and for a second, he actually saw red. Yet the longer he looked at the woman before him, the mixture of disgust and hatred he felt began to just... dissipate. And in its place came a strange emptiness that he could not explain.

He’d spent centuries at Rhea’s side. Even if she hadn’t told him everything about herself, he had been largely upfront with her about… everything. His past. His worries and fears. When the time came, he'd told her of his love for Sitri, and eventually, even the nervous eagerness he’d felt when he learned he was going to be a father. She had been privy to it all. He’d put his life on the line for her on multiple occasions. And still, this was what she thought of him?

Rhea’s face contorted, as if it had pained her to admit that to him, and she went back to staring mournfully at the floor, but her apparent shame did nothing to ease the blow. For all the pain in his chest, she might as well have shoved a dagger into his heart.

“... You honestly think I would have harmed Byleth?” he asked, voice practically a whisper as he pointed a finger to his chest. He hated how weak he sounded in that moment, but for once, he couldn’t bring himself to act strong. He’d never been one to wear his heart on his sleeve, but this… this whole conversation was cutting him too deeply, deeper than any spear or sword or axe ever had, and he couldn’t hide the wound. “You think I would have hurt one hair on her head?”

“No, Jeralt,” Rhea quickly replied, and he couldn’t understand how she somehow managed to sound just as hurt by all this as he was. She shook her head before meeting his gaze again, expression strained. “I never questioned whether you would be a good father to Byleth. You would have loved her and protected her, no matter the cost, or what you had to do. And… that was exactly the problem.”

Jeralt had no response for that. All he could do in his wounded state was stare at Rhea, all the heartbreak and confusion no doubt bleeding out over his expression. Rhea took a cautious step towards him, her eyes silently pleading with him, begging him to understand as she continued.

“Sitri was important to me too, Jeralt. She thought of me as a mother, and… over time, I saw her as a daughter. When she was on death’s door, begging me to do what I could to save her child, I couldn’t refuse, and I-- Jeralt, I--” Her normally serene voice had begun to tremble with emotion when she stopped herself. She seemed to flinch, a hand coming up to cover her mouth -- whether because she was disgusted with herself or because she was starting to say too much, Jeralt couldn’t know.

Either way, Rhea took a moment to calm herself. Her hand fell away from her face as she took a deep, steadying breath, and she pressed on.

“You would have done anything to protect your child. We both know that. And after Sitri’s death... we both know that you began to see me in a different light. I did everything I could for you, and for Sitri, and for your child. I gave your daughter… everything in order to save her. And yet… you began to look on me with suspicion.”

As she spoke, the glimmer of desperation, that longing for understanding, began to disappear. Ever so slowly, bitterness began to seep into her tone. Her eyes darkened, gaze becoming steely.

“You saw me as a monster -- even when all I did was try to help. You made that clear, at least, before you left!” She spat out the last part almost venomously.

To say he had taken the fire hard would have been an understatement. He’d done his duties and publicly kept up his behavior as Captain of the Knights of Seiros, but in private, he had fallen apart. His quarters began to fill up with empty bottles of just about any and every type of alcohol he could get his hands on, and he’d isolated himself, preferring to stew in his misery rather than be subject to the pitying looks of his friends and comrades.

Being alone so much in the days after the tragedy had given him a lot of time to think. About Sitri, and the strange blood stains on her nightgown, some of which had seemed to bloom from around her chest. About their unnamed daughter, her strange silence and weak heart, and how she’d been kept from him in her final days. About Rhea and her increasingly off putting behavior since Sitri's death.

At some point, on a day he’d taken off, Rhea had requested his presence. She’d called him up to her room, apparently to "comfort" him and “counsel” him to take time away from the monastery. That had been the day he’d thrown every one of his half-baked suspicions and wild accusations in her face with a drunken vitriol. And clearly, his words still stung.

“You would have taken her from me, and don’t bother denying it. The one who held the heart of the most precious person in the world to me -- and you would have stolen her away, like a thief in the night!” Rhea moved a hand over her own heart as she continued, speaking quicker and louder with each sentence until she was almost yelling. “As if you didn’t owe her life to me to begin with!”

Now that was too much to hear. Squaring his shoulders, Jeralt met Rhea’s glare head on.

“So you figured you’d take her away before I could, is that it?” he asked. “Because you thought her life was owed to you?”

“She would not exist if not for me,” she replied, as confident as if she were pointing out that water was wet.

Jeralt scoffed, looking Rhea up and down in the ensuing silence, as if seeing her now for the first time.

I was right. All those years ago, I’d been right. And in more ways than one.

He’d heard enough. And he had nothing more to say -- nothing that would make any difference, anyway. Nothing that would change things between him and Rhea now. So he turned away and marched to the doors. As he began to undo the bolt lock, though, he heard Rhea step closer.

“Where are you going?”

He threw her a contemptuous look from over his shoulder as he gripped the door handles.

“I’m going to Byleth, I’m telling her everything, and we’re leaving. This is over, Rhea.”

He had just cracked the doors open when Rhea’s hand flew in front of his face, forcing them shut again. He turned, surprised at how quickly and quietly she’d closed the distance between them, and out of an old warrior’s habit, his eyes instinctually looked to her other hand for a weapon. There was none, of course, and he felt oddly guilty for even looking. Even now, he didn’t think Rhea would stoop to murdering him, not really, but… he was still wary. He couldn’t trust her anymore -- that much was clear.

“What we have discussed does not leave this room,” she hissed. “And you will not mention a word of this to Byleth.”

“And what makes you think you can stop me?” he replied lowly, straightening up to his full height. “I don’t want things to get bloody, Rhea, and I don’t want to fight old friends. But if you think I won’t take on this whole monastery to get to her, you’re wrong. I’m her father .”

“... Yes. You're her father,” Rhea conceded, voice lowering before she added, “Just not in any way that counts.”

His brows sank lower, eyes narrowing dangerously.

“What is that supposed to mean?” he growled.

“I think you know what it means, Jeralt. You saw her today, so tell me: when she looked upon you, was there a hint of warmth in her eyes? Fondness for a parental figure? Recognition, even?”

Jeralt clenched his jaw, and said nothing.

“I thought not. No matter what you may think, Jeralt, the bottom line is that Byleth does not know you as her father. You are nothing to her. And how difficult would it be for her if a stranger barged in and started throwing around these kinds of claims? Think for a moment: If you sincerely tried to rip her away from Garreg Mach, the only home she has ever known, do you think she would come along happily? Or even willingly?”

It was like Rhea was taking the invisible dagger she’d shoved into his heart earlier and slowly twisting it. The only reason Byleth didn’t know him was because of her lies, he wanted to shout back at her. It wasn’t like he’d knowingly abandoned her! He’d thought she was dead!

But what angered him the most was that... Rhea was right. He hated it, and even hated her in that moment, but she was right. Byleth didn’t know he was her father. Hell, she’d barely recognized his title as the Blade Breaker when they’d been introduced. To her, he was nobody. And even if he defied Rhea as he’d threatened to, repeated word for word everything that had been discussed in this room… would Byleth even believe him when it was his word against Rhea’s?

His shoulders slumped. No. Of course she wouldn’t. At this point, Byleth would choose Rhea over him every day of the week.

“... Why did you let me stay?” he asked hoarsely, rage starting to give way to exhaustion. “You knew I would see her. You knew I would find out. So why?”

To his surprise, Rhea’s expression softened, but only just. Those haunting mint eyes of hers roved over his face -- looking for what, he did not know -- before she removed her hand from the doors and stepped back.

“Do you still wish to stay here? To act as a professor?” she asked quietly.

He gave a short, humorless snort, not even bothering to hide his disbelief.

“Do you really think I would leave her now?”

Again she looked him up and down, expression unreadable. Then, before his very eyes, she donned the persona of the ever calm, ever patient, and ever wise archbishop that so many others knew her as. Her back straightened, hands once more clasping delicately before her, and she gave him the same sort of serene smile she’d given him once so long ago.

“Then I trust you have made your decision regarding which house you will be leading, Professor. Please inform Seteth, Hanneman and Manuela of your choice as well.”

With that, she waved her hand in dismissal and turned to walk towards an ornate vanity at the far end of the room.

So that’s it? He thought, still frozen in place as she walked away. After all this, you’re still going to keep secrets from me?

It was jarring to look at her now, knowing how things used to be. There had been a time when Rhea could have ordered him to fall on his sword, and he would have done it gladly. Despite titles and duties, he had once considered this woman a friend. She had been his confidant, and to a certain extent, he had been hers.

In the end, centuries of service don’t count for much, I guess.

He turned away. As he opened the doors to her bedroom, though, he heard her call out once more.

“Jeralt.”

He froze in the doorway, but did not turn back to look at her.

“... Watch over her well.”

He didn’t reply, instead beginning the march back down to his quarters. He’d notify Seteth and the other professors of his decision shortly. First, he had to write a letter.

Chapter Text

The pounding at her door was a rude awakening. Sleep dazed, Byleth practically tumbled out of her bed in her haste to respond. Something must have been seriously wrong for someone to be battering at her door before the sun had even risen. Yet when she opened up, the grounds were still. She wasn’t greeted by a frantic messenger, and the bells weren’t ringing out a warning of trouble.

The only thing she saw was a hulking form, shrouded in the pre-dawn gloom.

Byleth’s grip on her door tightened, and she almost slammed it shut again. The silhouette of the figure wasn’t that of the familiar knight armor, and though the monastery was generally a safe place, common sense dictated that strange people skulking about in the dark and pounding on doors couldn’t lead to anything good.

But then the figure spoke.

“Byleth.”

She froze, then squinted, giving the man a closer look before her grip on her door relaxed some.

“... Professor? What are you doing here?”

“Change into your loungewear and report to the training arena,” his rough voice commanded. “We’re going to be doing some exercises.”

It took Byleth a moment to register the order before she let out a small exhale.

Is this what the next year will be like? Surprise training sessions at the break of- actually, before the break dawn?

Feeling herself deflate, Byleth rubbed the crust from her eyes and muttered a quiet affirmative. Instead of leaving to startle the next Golden Deer awake, though, the professor lingered. In the darkness, she could make out his brows wrinkling together, but that was all. She could only wonder what kind of look he was actually giving her.

She still wasn’t sure what to think of Professor Jeralt. She assumed he was a decent man, given how so many others felt about him.

After it had been announced Jeralt would lead the Golden Deer, Alois had stopped to congratulate her, and Byleth had soon realized where her vague familiarity with Jeralt’s name had come from. As Alois had gushed about how lucky she was to have Jeralt as a teacher, he'd launched into a story of how he’d come to be Jeralt’s squire once upon a time. And suddenly she remembered all the stories he’d told her growing up of a great (if a bit unconventional) knight. She’d always thought Alois had made the infamous “Jeralt” figure up, given how silly some of the stories had seemed.

But… apparently not.

And even if she was still inclined to take Alois’s tales with a grain of salt, Jeralt had to be skilled if both Lady Rhea and Seteth had approved hiring him.

Still… something seemed strange about him.

When he’d made his first introduction to the class as their professor, he’d wrangled the chaotic Deer well enough. Despite his intimidating appearance, he’d spoken rather casually with them -- authoritative, but still approachable. Yet sometimes in the midst of the questions and class banter, his eyes had flicked to her. His expression hadn't changed, and yet somehow the weight of his gaze on her had seemed heavier than it was on the others.

No one else had seemed to notice the shift, though, and so Byleth had been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was all in her head. Maybe he had just been waiting for her to speak up more -- she'd greeted him, but she hadn't joined the others in their interrogation of him.

But... Marianne, who had been just as quiet as her, had not gotten the same kind of look.

He’d stared at her in an equally off-putting manner when Claude had first introduced them. Back then, she’d wondered if he had a sensitive nose – she'd just gone fishing, and while she tried to keep clean, she'd wondered if the smell of fish and fish bait had stuck to her that morning.

Yet there had been something more to his expression that caused her to rule out that possibility. Aside from being surprised, he had also seemed… strangely hurt. As if she had personally wounded him in some way within the first second of meeting him. How she’d managed that, she still didn’t understand.

“Byleth...” The Professor finally spoke again, his voice a little softer than before. “Claude mentioned you grew up at the monastery. Is that right?”

She nodded, giving an affirmative hum. The Professor breathed deeply through his nose, arms crossing over his broad chest.

“Bit different from your classmates, then, aren’t you? What, uh… what was it like? Growing up here, I mean. Who raised you?”

… Did the professor really think this was the best time to try getting to know her? Ten seconds after she had rolled out of bed?

“It was… fine, I suppose. I was raised collectively by the nuns."

"Did they ever say what happened to your parents?"

"They were killed by bandits. A knight found me as a baby and brought me to the monastery,” she answered plainly. For some reason, Jeralt shook his head at that, and as her eyes adjusted to the dark, she thought she could see his eyes fluttering shut.

“Right. Bandits,” he mumbled under his breath, and in the scant light, she saw his face scrunch up. The reaction made her blink, but frankly, she wasn’t awake enough to want to ask about it.

“... I should get ready,” she said, pointedly starting to close the door on him.

“Hm? Oh… right. I’ll, uh, see you at the training grounds,” he replied quickly, and Byleth fought down a small sigh of relief when she heard the clank of his armor as he walked away.

She'd already had her doubts about being a student, but now it seemed she would be stuck with a professor that she just… couldn’t get a read on.

It will be a long year.

 

---

 

Byleth was used to waking up early, but not like this.

The morning chill was doing its best to keep her alert and awake, but she couldn’t suppress a yawn as she looked up at the sky framed in by the training arena. A pastel pink was starting to seep in from the east but she knew the sun hadn’t yet climbed over the distant mountain peaks. Most of the monastery remained cloaked in shade, the last clinging darkness of night, just as most of its residents remained cozy in their beds.

All except the Golden Deer.

Leonie was the second to arrive at the training grounds, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed despite the early hour. That didn’t come as a surprise. She had been thrilled when Jeralt announced himself as their new professor, and her excitement had evidently not waned. Another old apprentice of his, if Byleth understood right.

“Good morning, Byleth! I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be here yet. I rushed to get ready as fast as I could! Are you excited to get started? Jeralt is an excellent teacher, trust me -- with him on our side, we’ll definitely win the mock battle!” she gushed, clenching a determined fist. “Hey, while we’re waiting for everyone else, do you want to do some warm ups?”

What Byleth wanted was to get a little more sleep, but that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon, and she guessed it would be rude to deny Leonie’s offer. So, with a small exhale, she stood and brushed herself off.

“Why not?”

Raphael and Ignatz were the next arrivals, wandering in while she and Leonie were doing stretches. With minimal prompting from Leonie, the two boys joined in, Raphael doing stretches to Byleth’s right and Ignatz quietly sneaking around to her left. Hilda, Marianne, Lorenz and Lysithea were the next ones to join them, but none of them seemed particularly eager to do any jumping jacks, instead taking up spots on the nearby steps and murmuring quietly amongst themselves.

Other students Byleth couldn’t remember the names of slowly began to trickle in, some opting to join in Leonie’s warm-ups and others groggily finding places to sit. Claude was the last to appear, accompanied by Professor Jeralt.

As their house leader meandered into the arena, his eyes drifted over the class, taking them all in. When his attention landed on her, he gave her the usual grin she’d begun to expect from him and sauntered over.

“Oh boy… S’pose I should’ve expected this,” he said through a yawn. Stretching his arms wide, he gave a small grunt before adding, “He did warn me, after all…”

Byleth cocked her head, letting her silent question hang in the air -- what had he been warned about? Before Claude could answer, though, Professor Jeralt interjected.

“Don’t worry, kid. I promise not to run you all too ragged. Not today, anway,” Jeralt said, walking to the far end of the training grounds and motioning for the Deer to gather round. “That said, as future commanders, nobles and knights, you should always be at least a little prepared for the unexpected.”

“I… suppose that’s true enough,” Lorenz reluctantly agreed. “But Professor, why could these exercises not wait until a more reasonable hour?”

At the far end of the arena, racks of training weapons had been pulled out. Jeralt made his way over to a stand of wooden training lances -- blunted for safety, but still perfectly capable of causing harm if one was determined enough -- and plucked one off the rack. After giving the lance a quick spin, he planted the end of it into the dirt.

“If you want to win the mock battle -- and after that, if you want to win the Battle of the Eagle and Lion -- you’ll have to work for it.”

There was a muffled groan from Hilda, but a sharp look from Jeralt quickly regained the silence, and he continued.

“I’m sure some of you have trained with weapons before, or practiced your magical abilities, but using your skills in battle is different than going against a test dummy or a tutor. It’s not just about you out there -- you have to know about others’ strengths and weaknesses, too. You have to know how your allies handle themselves, what they can take, and be able to spot when they might be in trouble. Watching out for each other is critical, and if you’re aiming to become leaders someday, it’s especially important that you learn all you can about the strengths and weaknesses of others -- those you fight with and against.”

“I see!” Lysithea said with a nod. “The more we learn about each other, the better we’ll be able to work together in the mock battle!”

Jeralt nodded, but an uncertain noise from Raphael drew his attention next. “Don’t get me wrong, Professor, I’m all about training! But… did you have to wake us up this early?”

“I suppose we could’ve waited a bit longer, but then we’d be competing for space with the other houses -- I know Manuela and Hanneman both plan to start some basic training today, too. It’ll be a bit easier to focus if we have some time to ourselves. Besides that, though...” Jeralt’s gaze panned over the group, appraising them.

“... We’ll have some element of surprise if the other houses don’t know what we’re capable of. I told you all you’d have to work if you want to be the best, and waking up early to get an edge on your opponents is one way to do that. So show me you’re willing to put in the time. Show me that no matter what surprises come your way, you’ll still come out on top.”

He jutted his chin out, a silent challenge, as his sharp gaze continued to sweep over the class.

“Show me how badly you want to win.”

As the words left Jeralt's mouth, Byleth noticed the change in the air. The class began to fidget and murmur, forgetting their earlier grogginess. Suddenly, everybody seemed eager to show off what they could do -- well, everybody except Hilda, who seemed more resigned than motivated. Even Byleth felt more awake. Gruff as he seemed, Jeralt certainly knew how to rouse a group, she’d give him that.

In the past, Byleth had never cared about the mock battles or other house exercises. Why would she? They happened every year, and it had never made much difference in her life who won or lost.

Lately, though, the reality of becoming a student was starting to sink in. She was going to be in a battle. A fake one, yes, but a battle nonetheless -- with more serious ones to follow, knowing the nature of the monthly missions. And if Byleth’s dreams were anything to go by, she had to be prepared.

She hadn’t had any more visions of the house leaders recently, but there had been others. Some of them were no more than flashes, too brief for her to recognize anything or even remember much of them. But some… some she couldn't get out of her head.

In one of the clearer visions, she'd seen an expansive port city, hushed save for the persistent sound of waves lapping against the docks. In the distance, dawn was breaking, and as the light poured over the surrounding hills and farmland, she had seen an army approaching, carrying a banner she could not make out.

And there had been another… One far more troubling, in no small part due to the familiar setting. The village below Garreg Mach had been little more than a smouldering ruin, the plumes of smoke and bloodied streets so real that she’d wrenched herself awake in alarm -- but not before seeing the monastery in the background, burning upon its lofty hill.

“Alright. To start off with, I want you all to grab a weapon from one of these racks. Whichever one you favor most. Any archers should grab a close-range weapon for back up. Magic users should grab one, too. Until you build up your magic reserves, you don’t want to risk being left defenseless, so you should familiarize yourselves with at least one traditional weapon,” Jeralt said, eyes drifting to Marianne and Lysithea. With a shrug, he added, “And who knows? You may have a hidden talent with one of them.”

The Golden Deer moved to grab their practice weapons of choice, and after some initial hesitation, Byleth found herself gripping the leather-bound hilt of a wooden sword.

While they were currently only training with the mock battle in mind, more battles would come, and she had to be ready. If she worked hard enough, grew strong enough, acted diligently enough, then maybe... well, she hoped some battles could be avoided altogether.

Jeralt eyed each weapon the class chose before nodding. “Good. Now we can have ourselves a little tournament.”

“A tournament, you say?” Claude, who had once again fallen in at Byleth’s side with his usual smile, lifted a brow. “I like the way you think, Teach. Is there a prize at stake?”

“Oooh, yes! There should be a prize! A good one, too! You know, to keep us motivated,” Hilda piped up, suddenly a bit more enthusiastic than before. There was a small chorus of agreement from the rest of the class. 

“A prize? Well… I didn’t really have anything in mind, but... sure,” Jeralt replied, a contemplative frown appearing on his face. “How about… I buy the winner one thing from the market -- within reason!”

“How generous, Teach! And it can be anything we want?”

“Within. Reason.” 

Claude’s grin widened, and Byleth noticed a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“ALRIGHT! I saw a guy selling Duscur bear meat last time I went! Aw man, I’m drooling just thinking about it!” Raphael boomed, slamming his training gauntlets together with a loud CRACK that caused a few students closest to him to flinch. “Better brace yourselves, everyone! That meat’s as good as mine!”

“While I admire your enthusiasm Raphael, I’m afraid I’ll be winning today,” Lorenz said. “As the future leader of the Alliance, I strive for excellence in everything I do. I also saw a rather exquisite collection of tea leaves at one of the merchant stalls, and I fully intend to-”

“Forget about tea! Someone was selling a collection of advanced level magic books! Do you know how much those cost?!” interrupted Lysithea.

“Let me stress again that I’ll buy ONE thing WITHIN REASON,” Jeralt cut in, only to have Lysithea turn on him with a stubborn huff.

“Professor, while technically you’d be buying multiple books, you’d also technically be buying only one collection! And it’s a very reasonably priced collection considering the material it covers!” she contended, crossing her arms with a nod.

Just like that, every other student began to argue their case, too. Hilda insisted that there was a stylish hair clip in town that, while expensive, was still reasonably priced for the materials and craftsmanship that went into it. Ignatz timidly muttered about supplies, and Marianne mumbled something about a present for someone named Dorte.

Byleth watched it all in silence, feeling halfway between amused and sorry for the professor when Claude nudged her with his elbow.

“What about you, By? Don’t you have something you want to force the professor to buy?” he asked with a rakish grin.

When she shook her head and murmured, “Not really,” he gave her a skeptical look.

“Nothing? Really? You didn’t take much time to think about it. Come on, everybody wants something! You’re not a nun anymore! You can treat yourself!”

“I can’t think of anything right now,” Byleth answered with an honest shrug, but that didn’t seem to please him. The twinkle she’d seen in his eyes earlier was fading, and despite the smile he still wore, something about his expression had changed. It seemed... less genuine than before.

“What do you want?” Byleth asked, grasping at straws to keep the conversation going. She was supposed to be befriending him, after all.

“Oh, me? Hmm…” He brought a hand up to grasp his chin and pouted, as if vexed by the question. “I dunno. A nice nap and some warmer weather would be nice.”

“... The professor can’t buy those.”

“Eh, yeah. I can’t think of anything right now,” he replied with a shrug and a wink before walking away. While he tried to help Leonie and the professor settle the rest of the class down, Byleth looked on in silent confusion.

He’s still smiling. So why do I feel like that interaction went… poorly?

Once order had been restored, Jeralt announced the first match up. Byleth followed the rest of the class to the nearby steps as Lysithea and Marianne took up positions, Lysithea readying a training bow while Marianne limply held a wooden sword, looking miserable all the while.

“Ready. Set… Marianne, have your sword at the ready.” At Jeralt’s instruction, Marianne winced but did as she was told, taking up a shaky stance and grasping her sword more firmly with both hands. “Good. Now… ready. Set. Go!”

Lysithea let her blunted arrow fly and Marianne sucked in a breath, face twisting with fear. She didn't dodge, instead flinching and letting out a soft whimper when the arrow bumped against her forearm.

“I yield!” Marianne yelled -- well, more like spoke loudly, but from what Byleth knew of the girl, it was the equivalent of her yelling. Across the training arena, Lysithea froze in the middle of reaching for another arrow, eyes wide with confusion. Marianne, on the other hand, had her eyes clenched shut, hands shaking as they gripped her sword.

Jeralt, who had taken a seat on the steps with the rest of the class, was frowning at Marianne. He stood and motioned for Lysithea to stand down before he started towards the quivering girl.

“You yield, Marianne?” he asked.

“I’m sorry… I’m sorry, Professor, I…”

Marianne’s voice trailed off, murmuring something too quiet for Byleth to hear. Jeralt continued forward as Marianne ducked her head, hair falling over her face. All Byleth and the rest of the class could do was look on in silence as Jeralt spoke quietly with her. The once easygoing atmosphere was now fraught with tension, and even Lysithea glanced nervously between Marianne and the rest of the class, as if to ask if she’d done something wrong.

After another few moments, Jeralt nodded and gently took the wooden sword from Marianne’s grasp, motioning for her to rejoin the others. Marianne nodded back, hands tightly clasped together as she shuffled back to the steps, head still hanging low.

“Marianne has yielded. Lysithea advances,” Jeralt said, turning to follow Marianne back to the group. With a blink of confusion, Lysithea also followed the two back to the steps, eyes glued to Marianne’s back.

“Geez, Lysithea. For such a little thing, you must pack quite a punch,” Claude piped up. His cheery tone cut through the tension like a knife, and his smirk only grew when Lysithea rounded on him with a little stomp.

“Oh, don’t you start with that!”

“Yeah! I wouldn’t think it by looking at you, but you must be pretty strong!” Raphael joined in with a wide grin of his own, flexing one of his arms. “We should work out together sometime!” 

While Lysithea huffed and scolded the boys on one side of the group, Hilda and Leonie murmured quiet encouragements to Marianne, who had taken a seat a little ways off from the rest of the class, head still low.

Byleth didn’t know Marianne very well, having only met her a few days ago, but... she seemed like the type of person who might appreciate flowers. I'll pick a few from the greenhouse for her when I get the chance.

“Alright, let’s move on.” Jeralt gave a clap to get the group’s attention again. “Leonie. Raphael. You’re up.”

As soon as Leonie heard her name, she shot up, training lance in hand, and beamed at the professor. “I won’t let you down, Captain!”

“I don’t know, Leonie,” Raphael bellowed, lurching to a stand as well. “I REALLY want that bear meat!”

The next few matches passed without as much fuss as the first.

Despite knocking the lance out of her hands at one point, Raphael couldn’t manage to get a good hit in before Leonie grabbed her weapon again. Their match ended when Leonie thrust her lance into Raphael’s chest, aiming right at his heart. Jeralt commended Raphael for trying to disarm an opponent with more reach than him, but said they’d have to work on his speed.

Lorenz and Claude were pitted against each other next, each bearing some semblance of a smug little smirk before the match began.

As Lorenz worked to get within striking range, Claude would dance away, sending a volley of arrows in quick succession to keep his rival too busy dodging to follow. Yet Lorenz was apparently following their professor’s advice, paying close attention to Claude’s body language. He seemed to recognize each time Claude was ready to let loose an arrow, which helped his reaction time immensely. As the match went on, Lorenz’s evasions became quicker, and he started to encroach on Claude faster.

But Lorenz wasn't the only one watching his opponent closely. When the Gloucester heir tried to make a final rush, Claude took aim at his head. Just as Claude seemed to release his arrow, Lorenz twirled to the side -- but Claude hadn’t actually taken the shot.

Instead, he'd made a quick motion to let the arrow spring forward without actually releasing his grip on it, and in the time Lorenz took to dodge the nonexistent attack, Claude had quickly pulled the arrow back and realigned his aim before landing a shot right in Lorenz’s gut.

Jeralt praised the both of them for their technique, and with a two fingered salute to Lorenz, Claude sauntered back to the steps. Lorenz followed along, trying to hide his disappointment -- and doing a rather poor job of it, in Byleth’s opinion.

Hilda and Ignatz’s match was… something. Before the match even started, Hilda was playing the pity card, moping about how unsuited for battle she was and how hard it was to swing an axe around. Byleth might’ve bought into the act -- Hilda did look rather delicate for this sort of thing -- but something about her tone seemed… disingenuous.

Despite having an arrow nocked and ready, Ignatz hesitated as Hilda stumbled forward, giving a few clumsy swings in the air. She just wanted to take a few practice swings, she had said, and Ignatz lowered his bow, not noticing that Hilda had slowly begun to close some of the gap between them with her ‘practice swings.’ He'd turned to Jeralt after a few seconds, asking if the Professor would let Hilda pick a different weapon and restart the match.

Even Byleth flinched a bit at what followed.

In a motion akin to some kind of spinning dance move, Hilda swung the axe around with what looked to be all her might just as Ignatz looked away. Conveniently for her and not so conveniently for Ignatz, the move ‘accidentally’ sent her careening toward her opponent, and poor Ignatz’s ribs took the brunt of the hit.

As soon as Jeralt determined Ignatz would be okay, aside from some bruising, he reminded the boy to never take his eyes off an opponent or underestimate them. Hilda helped Ignatz make his way back to the steps, apologizing profusely, but somehow her insistence that, really, she hadn’t realized what she’d been doing or known he’d been standing that close didn’t have Byleth convinced.

“Next up, Lysithea versus Byleth. Take your places.”

With a deep breath, Byleth hauled herself to her feet and walked to one side of the training arena.

She didn’t like that people would be watching her, especially when it had been so long since she’d last held a sword, but hopefully she would still have some muscle memory. Adjusting her grip and getting into a ready stance, Byleth took one last steadying breath before looking up at Lysithea. The small girl had an arrow nocked, ready to aim and shoot, and a determined frown on her face.

Hopefully she isn’t as fast as Claude. I don't know if I can keep up with that kind of speed.

At Professor Jeralt’s word, the match began, and Byleth started forward at a curve -- she didn’t want to charge Lysithea straight on and give the girl an easier shot.

Lysithea held back, frown deepening as she aimed, arrowpoint following Byleth. She was taking her time, waiting for her shot, but when she finally loosed her arrow, it missed. As Lysithea went to grab another, Byleth took the chance to sprint forward, closing the distance. It felt strange, running with a sword after so long, but it was still somewhat familiar. She was rusty, but her body remembered some of what to do and how to carry itself, at least.

Thankfully, Lysithea was slower than Claude at preparing a follow-up arrow, and didn’t seem to think to move away as Byleth charged. She also fumbled nocking her next arrow, and Byleth realized in passing that she may not have been very practiced with bows.

Within striking distance, Byleth swung her sword forward. Lysithea finally jumped away, eyes wide. Despite managing to dodge the first attack, though, there was no recovering the space that she’d lost. She abandoned her bow, letting it clatter to the ground as she moved to grab the sword she’d also armed herself with, but Byleth pressed forward with another slash. Lysithea yelped as the blunted blade struck her knuckles, and her back up weapon slipped out of her fingers.

With a final swing, it was over. The tip of Byleth’s wooden sword hovered just under Lysithea’s throat. Both were frozen, staring into the other’s eyes, but Byleth had a hard time reading the look Lysithea was giving her -- some mix between annoyed glare and nervous regard.

“Byleth advances. Good job you two.” Their staring contest ended at the sound of the professor’s voice. With a quick glance at Jeralt as he approached, Byleth lowered her sword and watched as Lysithea rubbed her bruised knuckles.

“Good match. Is your hand alright?”

“Hmph,” Lysithea huffed, eyeing Byleth up and down. Now that she no longer had a training sword at her throat, her plucky attitude seemed to have returned in full force. “Don’t patronize me. I know I was blundering with my bow. I just need more practice! … And I’ll be fine.”

There was a brief silence as they waited for Jeralt, and Lysithea grumbled something unintelligible. Then, louder, she added, “I’d have won if I was allowed to use magic, you know.”

“... Maybe next time we’ll see.”

Lysithea gave another huff and turned away, but Byleth saw a small smile creep onto her lips.

“Not bad,” Jeralt said, coming to a stop before them. “Lysithea, I don’t think I have to tell you to practice more with your side weapons. As for you, Byleth,” Jeralt quirked a brow, giving her an appraising look. “This isn’t your first time holding a sword, is it? Who have you trained with?”

“Some of the knights taught me about swordsmanship.”

Jeralt frowned. “I see. Are you aiming to become a Knight of Seiros? Is that why you enrolled at the Officer’s Academy?”

“No...” Byleth’s eyes fell to the floor, and she fidgeted under his prying gaze. “Lady Rhea said it would be too dangerous for me to become a knight. I… I don’t know why she wanted me to enroll here.”

It was the truth, at least in part. She still didn’t understand why she hadn’t been allowed to remain a nun. Rhea insisted this was the best way to get close to the students, to possibly find some meaning in her dreams, but Byleth still had her doubts. Despite his friendly attitude, she had a feeling getting close to her house leader would not be so easy -- never mind the other two.

“Hmph… It can be hard to know what’s going on in Rhea’s head. Trust me, I know,” Jeralt muttered the last part with a grimace before adding, “Anyway, go take your seats.”

Byleth and Lysithea walked back to the class and a few of the others called out their congratulations or sympathies to each of them. When Jeralt called Claude and Hilda up, the two rose to their feet, passing Byleth and Lysithea as they returned to the sidelines.

“So you really aren’t half bad with a sword,” Claude said as he walked past with a smirk. “Interesting.”

Unsure what to say in response, Byleth only nodded before continuing to her seat.

Despite Hilda’s best efforts, Claude was the winner of their match. He was not so easily fooled by fluttering lashes and a sweet voice as Ignatz, it seemed, but Hilda still didn’t make their fight easy for him. As soon as she seemed to realize Claude wouldn’t be letting his guard down, she made a comment about how she’d gotten a bit used to the weight of her weapon now. And sure enough, when Jeralt signaled the start of the match, the clumsy movements she’d displayed against Ignatz were gone.

Though she wasn’t able to get as close to their house leader as Lorenz had, Hilda still kept Claude on his toes, dodging arrows and then rushing forward with weighty swings. But her attacks were always just a little too short in reach, and her movements began to slow as the match went on.

In a last surprise effort, Hilda rushed her opponent and threw her axe. From the sidelines, Byleth saw Claude’s eyes widen as he fell backwards to the ground with a yell, barely managing to dodge. Hilda ran forward, poised to leap onto him, but even from the ground, Claude was able to make his shot. He hit Hilda just below the neck, and the match was over.

“Ow! Clauuude! That hurt!” Hilda whined afterward, holding a hand over the point of impact as the two walked back to the sidelines. “I’m definitely going to bruise! Ugh, this is exactly why I keep saying I’m not meant to be a fighter. I’m too fragile for this sort of stuff!”

“Sorry Hilda, but you did throw an axe at my head.”

While Hilda lamented her lost chance at a free hair piece, Jeralt motioned for Byleth and Leonie next.

“Don’t be too quick now,” Claude called in a sing song voice as they both took their spots in the arena. “I’m facing the winner, so try to really wear each other down for me, alright? Remember, there’s no rush!”

Leonie rolled her eyes with a smirk, lance at the ready. Byleth also took up a battle stance, observing how Leonie held herself. She'd never practiced against a lance before. The longer reach of Leonie’s weapon would likely put her at a disadvantage, and Leonie seemed to know this -- she was poised to spring forward as soon as the match began.

Sure enough, when Jeralt gave the word, Leonie charged in with a small war cry. Byleth tried to retreat, moving off to the side to buy herself more time to come up with a strategy, but it didn't do any good. Leonie pursued, and soon Byleth found herself in the corner of the arena. She would need to dart to safety. Maybe she could outmaneuver Leonie. But as she thought that, the orange-haired girl thrust her lance in her path, blocking the way.

The other way, go the other way--

Byleth went to turn, but she saw Leonie shift her grip on the lance. Instinct took over. Eyes wide, she fell into a crouch. Leonie’s lance swung through the air where her head had been moments ago, hard enough that it would’ve left Byleth with a lovely dark bruise across her face if it had made impact.

Though she'd managed to dodge the attack, Byleth didn't have time to celebrate -- Leonie was already preparing her lance for a downward strike. The orange-haired girl was wide open from this lower angle, but Byleth wouldn’t be able to get a hit in or effectively block before the lance came crashing down. Not with her sword, anyway.

So she dropped it.

Unencumbered, Byleth launched herself up and forward, hurling her full weight into Leonie. She heard Leonie grunt in surprise, but there was nothing she could do as Byleth tackled her to the ground. Upon impact with the arena’s floor, Leonie’s lance clattered to the ground beside them, but not because she had given up. Within seconds, Leonie was grabbing at her, one hand curling into the front of Byleth’s shirt and the other landing a blow to the cheek so hard Byleth almost felt her teeth rattle.

While she was stunned, Byleth felt Leonie shift beneath her, trying to use that moment to flip their positions and take back the advantage. Byleth couldn't allow that. Shoving down her shock and ignoring the pain, she swung back, landing a hard punch of her own. There was yelling from the sidelines, gasps from some about the brutish display and cheers from others, but she paid them no mind. Jeralt hadn’t appeared to stop the fight yet. This wasn’t over.

It took some grappling and maneuvering, and several more punches were exchanged between the two, but Byleth was finally able to flip Leonie onto her stomach, twisting her arms into what Byleth remembered from experience was an uncomfortable angle. Any struggling or thrashing Leonie did in this position would only make the pain from the positioning of her arms worse -- or potentially even dislocate them.

With a final frustrated groan, Leonie fell still, forehead thumping against the stone floor.

“Leonie is incapacitated! Byleth advances,” Jeralt called out, followed by a cacophony of cheers. Byleth released her hold on Leonie’s wrists and rolled off her, offering a hand up as the Deer hooted and hollered in the background. With a heavy sigh, Leonie took it.

“I can’t believe I lost… I thought I had you,” she said, shaking her head only to flinch and bring a hand up to her tender cheek. “I wasn’t expecting… that. You’re a lot stronger than you look.”

“I thought you had me, too," Byleth admitted, wincing as she spoke. She and Leonie would both have some bruises after this. "I just acted without thinking and… got lucky.”

“Well… I guess I’ll have to train harder. I won’t let Captain Jeralt down again.” Byleth blinked at the small frown Leonie sent her. “You won’t beat me a second time!”

Before she could reply, Jeralt called their names again and beckoned them back over to the rest of the class. Sharing a final glance, the two picked up the weapons they’d kicked into the corner of the arena at some point and meandered back.

“You both did very well. You have a firm grasp on how to handle a lance, Leonie, but maybe we can work on your defense.” Leonie nodded, beaming up at Jeralt who only gave a nod of approval. When the Professor turned to Byleth, he raised a brow and placed his hands on his hips. “As for you, Byleth… You allowed yourself to get cornered.”

Byleth nodded, quickly glancing away as an unpleasant sensation twisted in her gut.

“Hey, that’s okay,” Jeralt quickly added. “You got yourself out of it. Sometimes quick thinking and a little luck is what it comes down to in a real battle. Still, we’ll have to polish some skills up… If you’re serious about swordsmanship, come see me sometime. I can teach you how to fight against a lance.”

She chanced a peek back at the Professor when he didn’t continue and didn’t call out the next round, only to find him still staring down at her.

... Was he expecting an answer now, or…?

“Hey, before we go at it, mind answering a question for me?” Claude interjected, waving from his spot on the steps, and Byleth turned her attention from Jeralt to him. Claude’s dark brows were furrowed, a small frown on his face as he asked, “Do all the nuns here know how to brawl, or are you just a special case?”

“She said earlier she’d taken swordsmanship lessons from one of the Knights of Seiros,” Lysithea said. “They probably taught her some other fighting techniques, too.”

“Yeah, but which knight taught her to wale on someone like that?” Claude pressed, making a vague gesture in Leonie’s direction. “Suddenly I’m not looking forward to the final match.”

“Too bad, Claude,” Jeralt said, jerking a thumb to the arena. “We’re finishing this.”

With a dramatic sigh, Claude rocked to his feet. “Whatever you say, Teach.”

Byleth let out a small huff of her own, wishing she could at least have a minute or two to rest, but proceeded back to her starting point. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about going up against a lance again, but Claude presented another challenge.

He was clearly more practiced with a bow than Lysithea, able to quickly ready his arrows and send them off with accuracy even while avoiding his opponent. Not to mention he could think on his feet. The only way Byleth saw herself winning was if she got close and ended this as quickly as she could.

Or… maybe she could outlast him. If he ran out of arrows, he would have to rely on the sword at his hip. That seemed like a much fairer fight.

“Hey, I know I managed to make it this far in our little tournament, but I’m really not much for fighting. Go easy on me, will you?” Claude drawled, lazily readying his first arrow. “Half the reason my schemes work are because of this charming mug, so at least try not to leave too many bruises, alright?”

Byleth gripped her wooden sword tight, preparing to surge forward the moment the match began. He’d be able to take his first shot before she could close the distance between them, so she had to be ready. And despite his words, she wouldn’t be letting her guard down.

At her silence, Claude raised his brows. “You know that was a joke, right? Jeez, not so much as a smile…”

“Begin!”

Byleth charged forward. Just as she’d thought, Claude had his bow up and his sights fixed on her in an instant. She had only just veered to the side when his first arrow went whistling by her ear. Rushing him head on made her nervous, but she couldn’t afford to stop -- he’d begun to glide away, determined to keep her from getting too close, and already had another arrow ready.

Try as she might to get within swinging distance, Claude wouldn’t allow it. Just as in Lorenz and Hilda’s matches, when she managed to gain some ground, he only seemed to get faster, both on his feet and with his arrows. It took all her effort to dodge his attacks at closer range, and by the time he would let up, he would have moved a safe distance away yet again.

He always has somewhere to run, Byleth thought, jaw tightening as an arrow grazed against her hip. I can’t reach him. And I can’t keep this up.

He was wearing her down, and judging from the cautious smile he was giving her now, he knew it. She couldn’t get close, and at this rate, her plan to wait until he’d used up his arrows also didn’t seem very promising. She was exerting a lot more energy than he seemed to be. If they clashed swords and she was already winded, that would do her no good -- especially since she wasn’t sure how good he was with a blade.

Byleth paused to catch her breath, to try and think. A few paces away, Claude slowed but did not stop his retreat from her, still slowly sidestepping away. At least he had the decency to look a little out of breath, too.

“You’re pretty persistent, By! But why bother? I thought you didn’t have anything you wanted?”

The images from her vision flashed once more through her mind -- shops and stalls and all their petty stock going up in smoke, bodies littering the market square and blood painting the stone streets.

I want to be strong, Byleth thought, eyes briefly flicking behind Claude when an idea came to her. I want a different future.

Bracing herself for one last push, she started forward again, watching Claude carefully. Whichever way she moved when dodging his arrows, he moved in the opposite direction. She stepped left, he went right, and vice versa. And so she did her best to switch directions -- left, right, left, right. For the most part, she was able to press on in a wobbly but concentrated line of direction. And just like that, she began slowly herding him backwards.

There was only so much space in the arena Claude could backpedal toward before he began to run out. As she began to push him closer to the arena wall, his green eyes narrowed and momentarily left Byleth, glancing at the surroundings, and the smile he’d managed to maintain fell slightly. He was on to her.

His speed picked up, hands flying as he let another barrage of arrows fly, aimed for her left side. Instead of bailing to the right in an easy dodge, she leapt further to the left. A rush she had never felt before -- heady, exhilarating -- washed over her as his arrows barely missed. Her fingers seemed to tingle as they gripped her sword, which suddenly felt so much lighter in her hands.

When she caught Claude’s wide-eyed look, she almost smiled.

She'd seen through his ploy. He’d expected her to go right so that he could sprint to the left and circle around her, allowing him an escape from the corner she’d started driving him into. But instead, with a battle cry and an upward swing, she cut him off.

Claude had only a moment to stumble backward before she brought her sword back down. He managed to evade her follow-up, but now the distance between them had been lost. All he could do was evade her as he pulled out his sword, but even with his blade out, blocking her blows wasn’t enough. With each thrust and swing and slash, she continued driving him back into a corner, cutting off his attempts at escape, and Byleth found that the more she closed him in, the more she felt that unfamiliar rush in her veins.

With adrenaline coursing through her, her attacks came quicker, leaving him little time to think. Finally she had him well and truly trapped, back almost literally against the wall, and that smile she had come to expect on his face was gone, replaced with a grim concentration.

Byleth slashed downward again only for him to block, their two swords pressing against each other as Byleth tried to overpower him and he tried to push back -- then, suddenly, all the air in her lungs left her, and she was stumbling backward.

She’d been too busy focusing on pushing him back, on overwhelming him, to notice what he was doing with his legs. At some point, he’d shifted one leg farther behind to brace himself. The moment he'd seen an opening, he brought his other leg up to plant in her gut.

No…

She scrambled to balance herself, to weakly deflect the next blow Claude sent her way.

No, no, NO!

She reached out, desperate, and by some miracle managed to catch hold of his shirt. She tried to push him back, to pin him against the arena wall and keep him from escaping as she moved to finish things, to press the point of her sword to his gut.

When she felt something press against her, however, she froze.

Claude was as still as she was, barely seeming to breathe as she held him against the wall, but Byleth saw his throat bob in a thick swallow. She couldn’t interpret the intense look he was giving her, and found it difficult to tear her gaze away from his.

After a beat of silence, the corners of his lips began to twitch upwards in a mirthless sort of grin, and Byleth finally allowed her eyes to drift down.

If this weren't a training exercise -- if they were real enemies trying to kill each other -- they would have just run each other through, fating each other to die slow and painful deaths. Byleth's sword was pressed up against Claude's stomach, and the tip of his blade poked uncomfortably at a space between her ribs.

“I think," he murmured, and Byleth met his gaze once more, "this is what they call a draw, By."

Chapter Text

Jeralt had never felt more like a babysitter than he did at that moment.

Sure, he'd had squires and apprentices before. Hell, he'd even looked after a drunken comrade or two. Of course, in the latter scenario he was usually drunk too, and he usually ended up causing more trouble for them all, but the point is he stepped up. Took charge. He kept everyone together, and left no man behind.

Five minutes into this little "field trip" with the Golden Deer, however, and he'd given up on any pretense of leadership. He only had so many eyes in his damn head -- he couldn't keep track of dozens of teenagers at once when they all ran in different directions. So instead, he found the most centralized spot in the village's market that he could and stood there, trying to visually sweep the crowds and at least keep a general idea of where all his students had run off to.

All he could do now was wait, and hope that the "winners" of the first formal training exercise in his house didn't try to empty his coin purse.

The results of the tournament had come as a surprise to just about everyone -- Jeralt included. In all honesty, he hadn’t expected Byleth to get as far as she had. He’d hoped she wasn’t a pushover, sure, but with her upbringing, he wouldn’t have been surprised if she'd done poorly. He certainly hadn't expected her to have combat training, however minimal. Sitri hadn't gotten that privilege, and he had just assumed Byleth would be the same. Although maybe expecting her to be exactly like Sitri was where he’d gone wrong.

Sitri had never been a violent person. Unlike him, she had been soft in almost every way. Jeralt had always attributed that to growing up at the monastery, to hardly ever being allowed to leave. Under Rhea’s care, she'd never been allowed farther than the nearby village, and though she'd heard about the tragedies and harsh realities of the world from others, including him, she had never witnessed them herself.

Her naivete had irked him at first, and he’d pitied her gentle, sheltered existence. How could anyone believe so persistently -- so blindly, he had thought -- that everything would be okay in the end? That the goddess truly cared for each and every human soul when there was always so much suffering? The world was ugly and callous. He would know -- it had transformed him in its image long before he had met her.

Yet even so, she had looked at him tenderly from the start. As if he were some fragile artifact in danger of shattering if not handled with care. No matter how often he’d tried to brush her off or made smartass, sarcastic remarks, she’d never seemed bothered. She’d kept pestering him with friendly words and soft smiles. Looking back, he thought wryly, it was like she’d been trying to gentle a stubborn wyvern.

Why she'd wasted her time on the likes of him he would never understand. Yet slowly but surely, he’d come around. Even started seeing things her way, to a point. There was ugliness and pain and inequality rampant in this world, yes; but there was also joy and laughter and little moments of tranquility to be cherished. He’d grown more and more used to her presence, her voice, her laugh, more eager to see her beautiful smile -- still the most gorgeous sight he’d ever seen -- until one day he’d woken up and realized he didn’t want to live without her.

His cynical side still harped on him for daring to feel like that. You should’ve seen it coming, it had sneered at him after her passing. You should’ve known happiness doesn't last.

And now, decades after he had lost the love of his absurdly long life, there was Byleth.

At first, in his shock, Jeralt had genuinely mistaken Byleth for her mother. When she’d appeared so casually in front of him and Claude, he’d forgotten reality for a moment, forgotten to breath even, and his mind had briefly entertained the impossibility that maybe, somehow, Sitri had never been dead at all. That the empty, glassy look in her eyes when he’d finally been allowed into the birthing room had been an illusion, and that he’d just been imagining the heartbreaking stiffness of her hands when he’d held them for the last time. Byleth just… looked so much like her.

Even her (fake) background -- being raised at the monastery, living a sheltered existence after her parents were supposedly killed in a bandit attack -- was exactly like her mother's.

He still couldn't believe Rhea had reused that old story. For all her secrets and subtleties, Rhea must have lost her sense of creativity over the years to pull that lie out of her-

“Hey, Teach!”

Jeralt blinked, eyes coming back into focus as he noticed Claude waving at him from across the market. The kid, wearing a shit eating grin, pointed to his side when he saw he’d gotten Jeralt’s attention, and when Jeralt’s gaze shifted to what Claude was pointing at, he let out a deep sigh.

Byleth, the subject of most of his recent thoughts, was giving Jeralt the most dead-eyed stare he might’ve ever seen, but... Goddess help him, he couldn’t take it seriously with the felt deer antler headband -- complete with cloth ears -- that was sitting atop her head.

“Help me out here! I’m trying to convince By this has to be her freebie!” Claude practically yelled, drawing the attention of several other shoppers and stall owners. Some of the other Golden Deer who had decided to tag along on the class shopping trip stopped their browsing to stare or giggle. Byleth’s unreadable expression didn’t change at the attention, but her eyes did slide back to Claude.

“You really think I should get this?” Jeralt just barely heard her ask over the buzz of the market. He started his approach, lips pursing when he saw Claude confidently nod his head.

“Of course! I guarantee it’ll help you feel more like a Golden Deer! And it’d be nice to have a mascot for when the monastery starts holding real tournaments,” he replied, sending Byleth wink. “This way we can show our house spirit! Really psyche out the competition, you know?”

Before Jeralt could cut in, Hilda seemed to appear out of thin air, parting the crowd and gliding over to Claude and Byleth.

“Claude, what do you think you’re doing?” she asked, fixing her house leader with an unamused look. Unphased, Claude only gestured to the headband still sitting on Byleth’s head.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m trying to get Byleth to buy this lovely head band. It’s about time somebody started showing a little house spirit around here, if you ask me. In fact, Byleth,” Claude turned back to the girl whose vacant expression had remained unchanged during all of this, “don't just wear it to tournaments! I think you should wear it all the time, for the entire monastery to see- Ooh ! Wear it during the mock battle! I want our rival houses to really fear the deer!”

“Oh goodness, Claude! She is not getting those ,” Hilda said, brows inching steadily downwards as she waved her hand at the headband in question.

“Why Hilda, I’m surprised at you! Here I thought you had an eye for fine accessories! Are you trying to say Byleth can’t pull off these antlers?”

Hilda scoffed at that, rolling her eyes.

“Of course that’s not what I’m saying! They look adorable! But this is her chance to get something for free! She shouldn’t waste that on these!” Hilda reached over and carefully removed the headband before shoving it into Claude’s chest. “If you like them so much, you get them. Set an example, Mr. House Leader. Come on, Byleth! I know a little shop not far from here that has beautiful hair pieces!”

Byleth glanced once more between Claude and Jeralt before quietly following after Hilda, who was already gushing about the color of Byleth’s hair and different ways to style it. After a moment of silence as they watched the girls walk away, Jeralt raised a brow and cast a pointed look down at Claude.

“So. You getting the antlers or not, 'Mr. House Leader?'”

With a snort and a shrug, Claude fluidly placed the headband back on the market stall, much to the apparent dismay of the stall owner.

“Not that I wouldn’t look good in them, but they just don’t have the same magic without Byleth’s stoney gaze peering out from below, don’t you think, Teach?” Crossing his arms, Claude’s eyes drifted back to the direction the girls had disappeared in, and Jeralt noted the kid’s perpetual grin seemed to lose some of its luster. “Speaking of… what’s your impression of her? I honestly wasn’t expecting her to be that fierce in a fight. I swear, if I hadn’t been careful, she probably could’ve knocked me out with one of those swings. And her face? I mean, there were a few times when she was a little expressive, but for the most part she was as blank-faced as ever. Kinda bone chilling, if you ask me.”

“Eh... you can't tell everything about someone just by looking at them,” Jeralt replied, rubbing the back of his neck as his gaze followed Claude’s. “I’ll admit though, I wasn’t expecting her to be like that either. If anything, I’d say be grateful she’s in your house. I’m sure that blank-face will do wonders intimidating opponents on the battle field.”

“No doubts there... But anyway, I guess I better get back to it if I’m going to find something quality for my freebie. Don’t worry, Teach,” Claude said, sending Jeralt one last smug grin before wandering off too. “Whatever I pick, I’ll make sure it’s worth every gold piece you pay for it.”

Jeralt thought he reigned in the scowl he sent at the boy’s back, but judging from the nearest stall owner’s nervous fidgeting, he must not have done a good job of it.

Damn kids. What in the hell did I rope myself into? he thought, beginning to walk through the market himself to keep a closer eye on his scattered pupils. Sure, they seemed like good kids and all, but he was starting to wonder if he’d make it through the year with his sanity intact. I doubt the other houses would be nearly this much trouble...

For all his grumblings, though, he could see potential.

As he walked, he spotted Marianne sitting quietly by a fountain, murmuring something as she fed songbirds with some seeds she must’ve bought. Timid and melancholy as she was, her caring soul would make her a great healer. He wouldn’t be surprised if there was a hidden fire in her, too; all she needed was to find her confidence.

Further away, Lorenz and Lysithea seemed to be discussing arcane instruction books in front of a very impatient-looking merchant. Even if she wasn’t very practiced with a traditional weapons, Lysithea seemed dedicated to the study of reason magic. Apparently she’d shown off some of her abilities during an orientation game, and if what Claude had described to him was accurate, her spells could pack quite a wallop.

And as much as Lorenz could rub him the wrong way -- both because of the kid’s obsession with the ideals of nobility and his own past dealings with Count Gloucester that had left a bad taste in his mouth -- he did seem pretty earnest. At the very least, he was always trying to put his best foot forward. Even if that foot occasionally ended up in his mouth.

“Professor?”

Jeralt turned to see Ignatz approaching him, some kind of wooden box tucked under his arm.

“Hey kid. What’ve you got there?”

“O-oh, this?” Ignatz’s voice seemed to raise an octave and he shifted, as if trying to keep the box out of sight. “Nothing for you to worry about, professor! Just... a silly hobby of mine. But I was wondering if I could head back to the monastery on my own. I got what I came for, so-”

“Ignatz! You headin’ back early?” Raphael’s cheery voice boomed, and Jeralt couldn’t help but smirk when he saw the fistfuls of skewered meats the boy was carrying over. “I’ll come, too! The stall owner ran out of stock for the day, so I don’t need to hang around any more.”

“Oh, uh, no, I mean- I was going back to do some chores, and I-”

“That’s fine!” Raphael said between bites of meat. “I wasn’t doing anything else the rest of the day, so I can help you out!”

“NoreallyIdon’tthinkthat’snecessary-”

Jeralt watched Ignatz scramble to come up with excuses to head back alone, each one brought down by Raphael’s excessive good nature and willingness to help. Both boys seemed to know each other from prior to coming to the academy, and their strengths and weaknesses complimented each other. Jeralt wasn’t sure why Ignatz seemed so hellbent on avoiding Raphael’s company though, and could only give the puzzled blond a shrug when Ignatz finally tore himself away and started back on the path to the monastery alone.

Whatever the issue was, he’d have to help them work through it if they were going to be fighting alongside each other.

Hopefully it’s nothing too complicated. Never was good at talking things out…

As he continued his walk through the market, he passed by a florist’s stall, and his eyes lingered on one plant in particular. The dainty bells of the lily of the valley always reminded him of Sitri. They’d been her favorites. The image of her on their wedding day, beaming at him as she held a simple bouquet of them, was one of his most cherished memories… and he couldn’t help but wonder if Byleth liked them, too.

When Rhea had come clean, and after he’d gotten a glimpse into her madness, all he’d wanted was to take Byleth and leave. He’d lost the chance to raise his daughter, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t still be a family, he’d thought. At the very least, he’d wanted to get her away from Rhea. Whatever Byleth did afterwards, even if she didn’t want him around, would have been fine with him -- so long as she was out of the monastery, and out of Rhea’s clutches.

But Rhea’s words had echoed over and over in his head since their little rendezvous.

“You’re her father. Just not in any way that counts.”

 Those words, and the simple, horrible truth they’d pointed out, had dashed his fantasy of escape like a wave against the rocky shore. The entire conversation had been a slap to the face, but that statement in particular had tormented him the most. 

He was sure it played into Rhea’s plot -- whatever that was supposed to be -- but she was right. He couldn’t say anything to Byleth about her true parentage.

… Not yet, at least.

It burned him up inside to think about all he'd missed, but Byleth was an adult now. She'd gone her entire life without any support from him, without ever even knowing him. What right did he really have to call himself her father at this point? None, probably. But in time, perhaps that could change.

He still had no clue why Rhea had chosen to come clean now, let alone why she was allowing him to stick around. Maybe he played an important role in whatever it was she was scheming -- and she was scheming something, of that much he was certain.

Or maybe, in some twisted, indirect way, offering him the professor position was Rhea’s way of making things up to him. Not that he was even close to forgiving her for everything she’d done, for all the lies she’d told and pain she’d caused him... but as a professor, he would at least have an excuse to be around Byleth -- to guide her and teach her, like a real father was supposed to.

Even if only for a year.

With a deep sigh, Jeralt tore his gaze away from the dainty white flowers and moved on through the crowd. If he was going to make good use of his year, he needed to remember one important thing: Byleth was not Sitri.

He had to get to know the real her, and not rely on his memories of a woman Byleth only physically resembled. He didn’t know much about Byleth yet, but he could already tell there were differences between her and her mother. For one, Sitri couldn’t throw a punch to save her life, no matter how many times he’d tried to teach her. But Byleth? Well, apparently she had no qualms about getting into a brawl -- and she wasn’t half bad, either.

Even if someone else taught her to fight, I still think she gets that from me.

But that was the extent of his knowledge so far. She could fight and she was quiet. Oh, and she’d said something about fishing when they’d first met, too. He would definitely have to try catching her at the pond sometime.

Not a lot to go on, but... it’s a start, I guess.

As the minutes ticked away and the Golden Deer slowly started to reconvene by the fountain with their various purchases, Jeralt continued scanning the crowd for any signs of Byleth, Claude or Hilda. Leonie eventually wandered back with armfuls of scrap linen she’d taken off a tailor, and he asked her if she’d seen the three while wandering around.

When she said she’d seen Claude nosing around a shady looking merchant at the edge of the market, Jeralt pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. He was pretty sure the kid was clever enough not to get swindled or kidnapped or stabbed, but on the off chance he wasn’t, the consequences would fall on Jeralt first.

After ordering Leonie to stay with the others and keep them together, he headed off in the direction she pointed to. Leonie had said the merchant was selling goods out of the back of a wagon in an alley not far away, and when Jeralt finally spotted Claude, he was flipping through a large tome on the back of an open wagon filled with what looked to be antiques. The attending merchant definitely looked too shifty for Jeralt’s liking.

As soon as Claude noticed him approaching, the kid’s pensive look vanished, and he threw Jeralt a lopsided grin.

“Good timing, Teach. I think I found my freebie,” he drawled, carefully closing the book and tapping an index finger on the ornate, leather bound cover. Jeralt’s eyes narrowed as he gave it a cursory glance before raising a brow at Claude.

“... A book of hours?”

“Hey, what’s with the skepticism? I would’ve thought an old Knight of Seiros would be happy to buy something like this for a student.”

Jeralt snorted at that, eyes drifting back to the old tome. Church monks toiled away for years making these books, filled with illustrations and fancy lettering. They were often commissioned by nobles or high church officials, and cost a damn sight more than he could afford to pay. So why was this one just laying around at some market stall? Looking up, Jeralt caught the eye of the merchant, a greedy gleam in the man’s eye that only made his frown deepen.

“How exactly did you come by this, friend? ” he asked, placing a hand on the stall and leaning closer to the merchant. The man seemed to pause as he took Jeralt in -- hopefully he was taking note of just how much bigger Jeralt was than him -- but he quickly smiled and laughed, as if Jeralt was an old friend giving him a ribbing.

“Ah, well, friend , a man has his ways! And he has lots of other friends who have their ways! Ways in and out of all sorts of places, and ways of finding forgotten things! Things no one is around to miss, I assure you.”

That answer is probably the least assuring thing you could’ve given me, ‘friend.’

“Uh, Teach? For what it’s worth, I think this probably was abandoned. It’s not exactly in great condition. I doubt its old owner was around to take care of it.”

The sleazy little man nodded eagerly and clasped his hands, eyes sparkling as he turned his attention back to Claude.

“Yes, yes! Exactly, my boy! I knew you had a good eye! Still, a real treasure, this, very old -- well over a century, my sources say!”

Now that made Jeralt scoff.

“Let me see that,” Jeralt grumbled, brushing Claude’s hand off the cover and sliding the tome closer. The ornate patterns in the leather were well-made -- probably a little too good for a fake -- and the cover did seem to be appropriately aged, worn away at some of the edges. It even looked like rodents had nibbled at it some.

Carefully, Jeralt started to flip through the pages. While some of them were nearly illegible with water stains or other damage, many of the illustrations and much of the texts were still in decent shape. It seemed to be a typical book of hours, telling stories of the heroes’ relics, but… well, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

He hadn’t exactly been a devoted church follower in a long time, and the few times he’d tried to read church-approved stories, he hadn’t been able to pay attention very well. Still, something about the wording of these stories -- especially the ones about the saints -- seemed different from what he remembered. Jeralt paused when he came to one page in particular where a fearsome dragon loomed over the top, streaks of red shooting from its mouth to a legion of dead men at its claws. Below the image in huge, bright lettering was written ‘The Immaculate One’.

Jeralt’s eyes slid back up to Claude, who was watching him closely.

“... Why exactly do you want this, kid? Don’t take this the wrong way, but you didn’t strike me as the religious sort.”

Claude shrugged, grin widening.

“Didn’t I? Hm. Well, what can I say? I’m a student of history. And all the pretty pictures help keep my attention better.”

“The monastery has a pretty extensive library.”

“True, but there’s no way it has everything, right? I’m just trying to broaden my horizons. Isn’t that what we all came to the academy for?”

Jeralt liked Claude. He did. Even before he’d learned Byleth was part of the Golden Deer, he’d been leaning towards choosing them as his house, in no small part because he’d appreciated Claude’s attitude. Despite his antics, he’d seemed like a bright-minded, down-to-earth type of kid, and Jeralt had no doubt he would be a great leader with the proper guidance.

But if there was one thing he didn’t like, it was how evasive Claude could be. Despite the friendly pretense, he seemed to keep people at an arm’s length. Of course, Jeralt had just met him, and Claude hadn’t had much time to get to know his fellow classmates either, so it made some sense. Jeralt wasn’t one to air his dirty laundry in front of people he’d just met either — he had a hard enough time doing that with people he’d known for ages.

Still, he had to wonder: what did Claude feel the need to hide, and why?

Normally Jeralt would let it slide, tell himself it was none of his business, whatever it was. But Seteth had made it clear that one of the responsibilities of being a professor was helping to counsel the students.

He wasn’t sure Claude was ready for a heart-to-heart about the importance of being himself, though. Which was fine, because neither was he.

So with a deep sigh, Jeralt simply turned back to the stall owner and asked for a price. When the little man asked for 15,000 gold pieces, he threw back his head with a laugh.

“Really? You expect anyone to pay 15,000 gold pieces for this water-stained rodent chew toy? I’ll give you 3,000.”

“Wh- 3,000?!” It was almost impressive how fast the merchant’s face went from appeasing to red with outrage. “Absolutely not! That offer is insultingly low! This is a rare find, hundreds of years old! It may not be in perfect condition, but its historical value far exceeds-”

 “You know what I think?” Jeralt interrupted, cracking his neck before leaning closer to the merchant, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I think it’s dangerous for you to have this book. I think you might not know everything, but you clearly know something about this book’s origins, don’t you? Tell me if I’m right: this came from somewhere in the southern Adrestian Empire, didn’t it? A library in an old ruin, probably — maybe, say, an old church ruin?”

The merchant’s tightly clenched jaw and seething gaze was all the confirmation Jeralt needed.

“Hm. Interesting. Because if I remember right, there used to be a branch of the Church of Seiros in the southern Empire. And after said branch tried to lead a revolt, the Empire ordered all literature from the old church destroyed, and the Central Church agreed, saying the Southern Church’s teachings were heresy. And you’ve heard what the church does to heretics, haven’t you?”

Jeralt cocked his head, letting a moment of silence hang in the air for a second. The merchant said nothing, but the look he was giving Jeralt was absolutely poisonous.

“So for you to have this book… especially so close to the Central Church… it seems a little hazardous for you, my friend. And anyone who buys it would be taking on the same hazard. Seems to me that should lower the price significantly. But hey, I get you’re a businessman. You can’t give things away, you have to make a profit to live. So let me adjust my offer: 5,000 gold pieces, and the Knights of Seiros don’t have to know you’ve been trying to pawn off old, questionable writings in their own backyard. Do we have a deal?”

“Pay me and leave,” the merchant spat. With a cold smile and a nod, Jeralt did just that, plopping a few bags of gold onto the stall and motioning for Claude to take the book.

“Thanks for your time,” Jeralt said in parting, ignoring the gesture and curses the merchant flung after him. As he and Claude started making their way back to the main streets of the village, Jeralt could feel Claude’s eyes on him. Finally, when the boy still hadn’t just come out and said what was on his mind, Jeralt looked over.

“What?”

“Uh. Just surprised is all. You’re a pretty decent haggler.” Claude shrugged before glancing down at the tome in his hands. “And if all that stuff you said is true, I’m surprised a former captain of the Knights of Seiros is okay with his student having such, uh... potentially dangerous material.”

Jeralt scoffed.

“The only thing that concerns me is my money going up in flames. The most that would happen is it would be confiscated and burned. Oh, and I guess you’d get an earful from Seteth, too. Just be careful not to leave that lying around, alright?”

“You serious, Teach? You’re not even a little worried I’ll turn into an immoral apostate ?” Claude pitched his voice low, raising a hand and wiggling his fingers with a goofy snarl. Jeralt rolled his eyes.

“You can join the club, I guess. As long as you keep your impious thoughts quiet, and as long as you don’t do anything stupid like start a coup, I think you’ll be alright.”

Claude raised a brow, a curious look flitting across his face before it was replaced by faux exasperation as he threw a hand up in the air.

“Well there go my plans for next Saturday.”

“Hm.”

They fell into a more comfortable silence as they continued their walk back to the central fountain. Jeralt was just thinking of telling Claude to go on ahead while he looked for Byleth and Hilda when the Goneril girl re-emerged from the crowd, an excited gleam in her eye.

“There you are, Professor! I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Come with me — Byleth is waiting for us back at the store! I think she found her freebie,” she said in a little sing song voice, gesturing for him to follow.

“Oh, good. I was just about to come find you girls. Claude, why don’t you-”

“Tag along? I’d love to, Teach.”

Claude grinned, already moving to follow Hilda’s lead. With another roll of his eyes — he had a feeling he’d be doing a lot of that this year — Jeralt trailed along behind them.

Hilda led them to a small jewelry and accessory store, and when Jeralt saw the prices of some of the pieces on display in the window, he felt like someone had punched him in the gut. He’d thought he’d spent a lot on Claude’s freebie, but this was really going to hurt.

Byleth was standing quietly towards the back of the store, looking over a shelf of delicate glass and crystal decorations. When she noticed the three approaching, she looked up, eyes drifting over each of them before landing on Hilda, who made a confused humming noise.

“Hmm? Byleth, where’s the tiara I showed you?”

“It was too much,” Byleth replied, shaking her head. “I found something else, though.”

“Oh? Well let’s see it!”

To Jeralt’s immense relief, Byleth walked over to a small display covered with accessories that looked noticeably less expensive than the more ornate pieces in the rest of the store. After plucking a simple pink headband up and placing it on her head, she turned expectantly to her audience. While she seemed aloof as ever, Jeralt got the distinct feeling Byleth was gauging their reactions.

“Huh… that’s it?” At Hilda’s surprised comment, Byleth blinked. Maybe it was his imagination, but he could’ve sworn he saw her lips tilt a bit downwards.

“Does it look bad?”

“Oh, no! It actually… suits you. Surprisingly well. I just didn’t think that was your taste, is all,” Hilda shrugged. “Personally I would’ve chosen something a bit more expensive since it’s the professor’s treat, but hey -- you like what you like, I guess.”

“Yeah, don’t take this the wrong way By, but are you sure this is it? We can still walk around the market some more,” Claude chimed in. “If you see something expensive that you want, now would be the time to get it!”

These little brats are trying to clean me out! Jeralt thought, glowering at the backs of Claude and Hilda’s heads. Luckily, Byleth shook her head.

“I don’t need anything expensive. I like this,” she said, looking past her classmates to him. With those big, cornflower blue eyes fixated on him, Jeralt’s heart ached.

What he wouldn’t give to turn back the clock and make things different -- to make it so the two of them were more than just strangers struggling to know one another. He should have stolen her away when he could, taken her far from the lies and deceit that had torn them apart like this.

But wishes and wants didn’t count for a damn thing. He knew better than most there was no changing the flow of time; all you could do was weather it, until eventually it wore you down into nothing, or swept you away in its tides.

Still, this year he’d been granted with Byleth was an opportunity. He’d had so much taken from him in his life, and pessimism came easy, but for now... he would try to take a page out of Sitri’s book and be optimistic for a change. Whatever their shared life as father and daughter would have been like, that branch of fate was gone forever. But the future? That was something he could still change.

Shooting Byleth a small smile, Jeralt nodded his approval.

“Looks good, kid. Let’s go pay.”

Chapter Text

It was early when Byleth threw back her covers and slowly pulled herself out of bed. Not as early as when Professor Jeralt had come banging at her door, but early enough that the monastery was still quiet. The only sound filtering in through the small cracks under her door was that of songbirds announcing the coming of the sun -- and, distantly, the loud snoring of one of her neighbors.

The peace would be short-lived, she knew. In a matter of hours, every student would be rushing to prepare. The day of the mock battle had come, and soon the anxious energy of hundreds of students readying to mobilize and the staff attempting to shepherd them would infect the air, hovering over the monastery like a cloud.

She’d seen it many times before. The difference now was that she would find no peace after their departure. Instead, she’d be leaving with them, traveling in that hazy mixture of youthful overconfidence and nerves.

All the more reason to enjoy the tranquility while she still could.

After fumbling through her drawers for a towel, some toiletries and a change of clothes, Byleth stepped outside, breathing in the cool, fresh mountain air as she locked her door behind her. As she’d expected, she was the only one heading for the bath house at this hour -- though she did spot Jeritza as he slipped into the training grounds. He barely spared a glance her way.

Must be getting ready for the madness, I guess.

She had never interacted with Jeritza herself, but from what she’d overheard, people thought him a bit odd and intimidating. “Withdrawn” and “hard to talk to” were some of the other descriptions that had been thrown around, and so Byleth wasn’t sure what to think. On the one hand, she had no real opinion on the man -- they’d never actually spoken, so how could she judge? -- and on the other, there was a strange kind of understanding.

She’d heard those same things murmured about herself, after all.

When she shoved her way into the bath house, she wasn’t surprised to hear a few soft voices drifting through the hallways. The monastery staff usually took their baths before the students, especially on certain days -- this one included. Still, when Byleth entered the female students’ dressing room, she paused, a bit taken aback.

She hadn’t expected to see another student at this hour, yet folded neatly on one of the shelves used for storing personal belongings was a set of clothes and toiletries. Whoever the items belonged to must have already been in the bath, and Byleth let out a small sigh as she found a spot for her own things and began to strip. Small talk wasn’t exactly her forte. With any luck, she’d exchange greetings with the person and the two would then be able to bathe in silence, in the comfort of their own thoughts.

Soap in hand, Byleth took a quick breath to steady herself. She strode through the doors to the pool designated for female students -- only to lock gazes with a hauntingly familiar set of lavender eyes.

The house leader of the Black Eagles seemed as surprised as Byleth was. In the middle of rubbing suds into her moonbeam-colored hair, Edelgard froze, eyes momentarily widening.

Byleth froze, too. Edelgard was the only house leader she had yet to be introduced to, and… well, when she’d pictured first meeting the future emperor in her head, they’d both had a little more clothes on.

They couldn’t both just sit there frozen in time forever, though. Byleth was the first to break their shared gaze, uttering a quick, “Hello,” before moving to the pool’s edge and, using the submerged steps, lowering herself into the water. Edelgard made a noise like she was clearing her throat before replying with a quick, “Yes, hello,” and resuming her head scrub.

From there, Byleth found herself at a loss. If it had been anyone else, she wouldn’t care about the silence, awkward as it was. But this was Edelgard. One of the house leaders. She had to find something to say. But what?

It was hard to relax and think, despite the bath house pools usually being one of the most relaxing places in the monastery. The waters were cozy even in the dead of winter, heated by an underground furnace that pushed hot air through spaces just below the floor. Stone pillars etched with sinuous, detailed patterns lined each pool, leading up to vibrant ceilings that were each painted to depict some scene of importance to the church.

The scene above the nun’s pool was St. Cethleann healing the wounded and sick. Growing up, Byleth had always been told to meditate on the scene, and how it represented a nun’s duty to aid others. As Byleth began to lather soap over her arms and torso, she looked upward out of habit, hoping something to say would come to her. Maybe the mural above this pool would inspire something. It had always seemed a bit inane, but that was part of small talk, wasn’t it? Making little comments about things around you to fill the silence?

When she looked up, she saw a figure cloaked in white kneeling on the ground, with four smaller figures also draped in white spread out behind her. Seiros and the other saints, then. As Seiros knelt over an elegant, twisting sword, strange cloud formations rose above her and the other saints. And above the clouds, looking down over them all with feathered wings, was who Byleth could only assume to be the Goddess.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?”

Byleth’s head snapped down to see Edelgard a few feet away, looking up at the painting as well as she ran her hands through soapy hair.

Was she watching me? Or… was she hoping to find something to talk about, too?

“What is?”

Edelgard’s eyes briefly flicked down to Byleth before they focused back on the scene above them.

“The church usually spares no expense when it comes to the maintenance of this place. Especially for artisans. They have statues of the saints gilded in gold, ancient tapestries and painted glass windows that are primed for public view every year. And yet this painting seems to have been botched, and hastily refurbished. ”

“What makes you say that?”

“Do you really not see it?” The question came in such a flat, disbelieving tone that it prompted Byleth to look again, attention drawn back to the one part of the painting that had seemed a bit out of place upon first glance.

“The clouds?”

Edelgard hummed her approval.

“The formations directly over each saint are strange. The pigment is slightly different from the surrounding clouds, as well. As if something else had been there originally, and was later painted over.”

There was a pause as Edelgard sank below the water, rubbing the soap out of her locks, and Byleth took the few seconds to ponder her point. The disparity was, in Byleth’s experience, rather unusual given the quality the Central Church tried to hold itself to. But… paintings chipped and faded, especially older ones, and artists could make mistakes.

Edelgard resurfaced, pushing her long hair back before floating backwards to the underwater ledge lining the pool, which served as a bench.

“Your name is Byleth, isn’t it?” Despite phrasing it like a question, it came out more like a statement of fact. Byleth paused her lathering, blinking over at Edelgard.

“You know my name?”

“Of course. Word travels fast here, as I’m sure you know,” Edelgard nodded, and Byleth saw those lavender eyes briefly flick down her form. Was she being sized up? “And when a nun of Seiros has been pushed into the academy, the rumor mill starts to run wild.”

Some dark emotion reared up in Byleth’s chest, and she glanced down at the water, a curt “Ah,” escaping her lips. This wouldn’t be the first time she was the subject of gossip. Yet there had always been more interesting things to capture people’s imaginations, so she was never really on the forefront of their minds. She was considered an oddity, sure, but one people got used to. After the initial curiosity, she faded into the background -- like a strange piece of furniture or decoration you become so accustomed to seeing that eventually you forget it's there altogether.

The situation had changed, though. Before, people whispered about her being cold, emotionless, whatever -- but there was no exciting hook. It wasn’t like she’d committed some atrocity while wearing her “unsettling stare.” She had stuck to her chores and studies, and that was it. Now, there was something to keep people’s attention. Intrigue. Mystery.

Byleth couldn’t say she was pleased at the thought of suddenly being so interesting.

“So why did you join the academy? If you don’t mind me asking.”

How many times will I need to answer that question?

“Lady Rhea insisted,” Byleth replied, sinking up to her neck to rinse off the suds. She watched the bubble clusters float off of her rather than meet Edelgard’s gaze. “She said I could… become who I was always meant to be.”

“My, my! Lady Rhea must think highly of you, to make such an unorthodox move so soon before the school year.”

Byleth exhaled, softly batting at some of the bubbles. I don’t know what she thinks of me. I don’t know that I ever have.

“I guess so.”

“Well, I’m sure she wouldn’t do such a thing if she weren’t confident in your abilities. Or if she didn't have plans for you. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I asked your name without even giving my own -- I hope you don’t think me rude.” Byleth looked up to see Edelgard sending her a polite smile. “I am Edelgard von Hresvelg. Leader of the Black Eagles. It’s nice to meet you, Byleth.”

Byleth echoed the sentiment with a nod.

“I must say, I have a feeling this will be an interesting year. Maybe we’ll run into each other on the battlefield today -- and maybe I’ll get to see what the archbishop sees in you.” Edelgard’s grin widened, and she sounded almost smug when she shrugged and added, “Or maybe I’ll strike you down, easy as pie.”

The idea that in a few hours Byleth could very well be facing off against this girl, who looked so delicate and yet spoke so sharply, was strange. Though, truthfully, the challenge Edelgard issued was not unwelcome. Byleth actually found it to be… somewhat exciting.

“I suppose we’ll see.”

Edelgard hummed in agreement, and the two fell back into a surprisingly comfortable silence as they went about their bathing routines. Edelgard exited the bath first, offering only a silent nod as she left, and by the time Byleth had scrubbed herself clean and padded back to the dressing room, she was gone.

Byleth dressed quickly, the tingle in her fingertips as they fumbled with her uniform’s buttons foreign but not unpleasant.

She hadn’t expected this feeling of anticipation before the battle, but speaking with Edelgard had sparked something in her. Byleth wasn’t sure if she was eager for the battle itself or just eager to get it over with, but either way, she was restless.

Over the next few hours, the pre-mock battle mayhem unfolded just as she’d known it would. And try as she did to wait out the storm, hiding in the far corner of the Golden Deer homeroom with a book as she awaited the signal to meet at the gates, she found she could not focus. The apprehension that seemed to consume every student every year had finally infected her, too.

At long last, everyone had assembled, all preparations had been made and all pre-battle strategy and faculty meetings had been completed. Yet even when the classes began their march out to the practice field, Byleth still felt on edge, hyper aware of the weight of the wooden training sword at her hip. Lady Rhea had seen her carrying it, yet she hadn’t said anything as Byleth had expected. She’d only cocked her head briefly, studying Byleth with a small frown, before nudging her mount onward with the rest of her entourage.

While some of the students participated in a little interhouse ribbing, Byleth was among those that held back, silently moving along and observing her classmates.

Some were nervous. Marianne and Ignatz’s gazes hadn’t left the ground, the former’s hands clasped gently before her in silent prayer as she marched and the latter tightly clutching his training bow.

Others seemed far less concerned. A green-haired boy, whom Byleth recognized as the one who’d slept through the opening ceremony, looked like he was trying to find a way to consciously walk and sleep at the same time. She also caught a familiar redhead ogling her thighs, prompting her to tug at her skirt and walk faster as she ignored the boy’s attempts to catch her eye.

Many more students seemed to simply be trying to focus on what was ahead. It was only a mock battle, mostly for the benefit of the professors so they could see what subjects to focus on, but there was still pressure to perform well. If not for the personal satisfaction, or the family glory if you were nobility, then at least for the sake of your classmates.

Byleth had no family legacy to be concerned about, and she was not motivated by the opportunity for personal bragging rights, but she felt the battle was important all the same. It wouldn’t feel right to leave everything to her classmates, and beyond that, her dreams lately still troubled her.

The visions had become more frequent, and yet they came and went so quickly it was hard to make sense of them. The disjointed scenes were not always of battles, but the images of war, and the chaos and bloodshed that war inevitably reaped, disturbed her. And despite how much she tried to shake the thought, there had to be a reason so many of her dreams revolved around violence.

She had never been particularly good with emotions, but the image of the monastery and the village burning had affected something at her core. For all its flaws, the monastery was the only home she’d ever known. If it ever fell, the people there -- the knights, the monks and nuns, the servants, the villagers, the orphans, even Rhea -- what would become of them?

Or her?

… She didn’t like to dwell on the possibilities.

 By the time the procession had made its way to the battlefield, the heat of the day had started to set in. Even though they were still nestled high in the Oghma Mountains, there were a few hot and humid days that tended to pop up now and again in the early spring, especially in the lower foothills and valleys. The last thing Byleth wanted was to fight in such uncomfortable conditions, but it seemed she wouldn’t have much choice.

I suppose I wouldn’t have much choice in a real war, either, she mused.

The starting locations of each house had been negotiated at an earlier point by the professors. While the Blue Lions split off with Professor Hanneman and the Black Eagles followed Professor Manuela, Professor Jeralt led the Golden Deer to a small clearing at the edge of a wooded area. When they’d all gathered around in a tight semicircle, he cleared his throat.

“Alright kiddos. This is it -- the mock battle. Remember, I’m mostly here to watch you all in action, so I won’t help you or fight unless another student engages me first. Claude will be the one commanding you this time, not me.” Jeralt turned to Claude and motioned him forward before continuing.

“You have an hour to discuss strategy and make any defenses you might want. Each house leader was given some intel about the area and where the other houses will be, akin to the kind of information a scout might return with. With that said, Claude, the floor is yours. I trust you’ve come up with some kind of scheme by now.”

Claude’s default grin grew a touch wider as Jeralt stepped aside, all attention turning to him. “Thanks, Teach. That I have.”

 

---

 

There really was no greater pleasure than watching a plan come together. Except, maybe, watching an enemy’s plan fall apart.

Khalid had yet to see Edelgard on the battlefield, but wherever she was, she couldn’t have been happy. The future Duke Aegir had been a bit too eager to prove himself in battle, rushing the Golden Deer’s strike team as soon as he saw them, and a decent portion of the Black Eagle House had followed his ill-fated charge. Khalid was pretty sure the only reason Edelgard’s toady, Hubert, had run after them was to try salvaging things.

Too bad that didn’t work out for you, huh, pal?

Khalid gave Hubert one last smirk as the scowling boy began to slither off the field with his classmates, clutching his already-swelling cheek. It was actually pretty fun to watch Byleth and Hilda knock people on their asses -- so long as it wasn’t him they were going after.

“Byleth, you’re on fire! I hardly had to do a thing!” Hilda cheered, unperturbed by the blank look Byleth gave her in return. “Since I’m so useless out here, maybe I’ll just, you know, mosey on back to the others! You two seem to have things covered, so-”

“Don’t even think about it, Hilda!” Khalid used the arrow he’d been twirling around to point at her. At his reprimand, Hilda froze in her tracks before puffing her cheeks and frowning at him. Not unlike a petulant child.

“By and I can’t do this alone,” he continued. “Without you, we would’ve been even more outnumbered, and possibly overwhelmed. So as good as we are, I’d say we’re even better with you around.”

Hilda scoffed, mumbling something he couldn’t quite make out, but Khalid paid it no mind. After another quick glance at their surroundings to ensure no one else was coming for them -- we shouldn’t be this far into the field , he briefly mused -- he turned his attention to Byleth. She was bent over slightly but also scanning their surroundings, carefully watching the nearby treeline from which the Black Eagle students had emerged. Her right hand clutched her training sword, arm stiff and at the ready, while her left hand, glowing with white magic, had moved to hover over a spot on her leg that had already begun to turn a deep shade of purple.

“You okay, By? That spell looked pretty nasty.”

As he called out her nickname, her head jerked towards him, as if he’d taken her by surprise -- or maybe jerked her out of some deep thoughts. Her expression was as unreadable as ever, so he couldn’t quite tell. She quickly blinked and shook her head, though.

“I’ll be okay. I just want to make it hurt a little less so it doesn’t affect my movement.”

Khalid quirked a brow at that. How much pain was she actually in? During the dust-up, she’d let out a bit of a yell when Hubert’s spell had caught her on the thigh, but had continued fighting without showing any signs it was bothering her. He’d just assumed the hit had looked worse than it actually was.

Now that he had a moment to think, though, it would make sense if she didn’t show how much pain she was in. She hardly expressed anything, after all, so why would pain be any different? Still, he wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or concerned about how detached she was, even when injured.

“Good thinking. I hate to rush you, but we should keep moving. We’re a little off course thanks to that charge. I wanted to head north of where the others are and get the Lions to come play, so-” He cut off when Byleth’s gaze flicked to something behind him and, for the briefest of moments, he saw her eyes widen.

He wasn’t sure what he was dodging, but if it was enough to surprise the unshakeable Byleth, he figured he didn’t have time to check what it was. He blindly jumped to the left -- just in time for a training arrow to go whistling past.

“Ugh! Can’t we rest for, like, a second!?” Hilda groaned, but she had already spun around, looking for their assailant.

Khalid’s grin grew as he too turned to search for the shooter, adrenaline giving his fingers an odd tingling sensation as he readied an arrow. Behind him, he heard a small huff and the sound of soft footsteps as Byleth moved closer to him and Hilda.

They’re in the trees somewhere, but they can’t be far.

“Well, well, a fellow archer has entered the ring! Do I sense a would-be challenger?” Khalid called playfully, taking a few easy strides in the direction the arrow had come from. A small breeze blew through the field, but otherwise, things were still. “Aw, come on! You can’t tease me like that and just-”

A glint of light from the underbrush. A quick rustle of leaves, and the faint sound of a twig cracking. Khalid again jumped to the left as a training arrow sprang forth from the nearby forest, quickly shooting off one of his own. The incoming arrow wasn’t meant for him this time though, instead veering far to his right, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Byleth jump out of the way.

Hilda launched forward first, with Khalid a close second. He could hear Byleth following along behind them.

“Don’t go too far into the trees, Hilda!” he called. “We need to stay within each others’ sight!”

“Please! Do you know how much effort it would be to chase him that far?” She called back, pace slowing some to allow him and Byleth to catch up. “I just don’t want to have to worry about this guy taking more potshots at us!”

Before Khalid could retort, another arrow flew out from the bushes, just brushing past his shoulder, and through the foliage, Khalid saw a flash of silvery hair bolt to the east.

Must be that Ashe kid from the Blue Lions. But if he’d take the risk of firing at a group of three just to run off, he might be trying to bait us into something.

“Hilda, let me take point on this! By, watch our backs!” As soon as he got the order out, the girls obliged, Hilda falling back behind him and Byleth falling in behind her. Are the other Lions hiding in the trees? Or are they a bit farther ahead? I’m surprised Ashe can move that fast through all the brush...

His brain ran through different strategic possibilities, thinking back to what he’d been told about the layout of the land. The patch of forest Ashe was using for cover was relatively small and rounded. If they kept following its edge like this, it would turn toward the northeastern field where the Blue Lions had started off. He didn’t want to run headlong into their turf and risk being cut off from the others -- they were supposed to be drawing others into a trap, not be the ones getting baited all over the place.

Still, Hilda was right. They couldn’t let an archer keep trying to pick them off from a distance.

As the forest edge slowly started to turn north, Khalid’s eyes widened as he heard the clack of wooden weapons clashing behind him, and he came to a halt. Another one of the Blue Lions, Ingrid, had come out of the trees at some point. She must’ve tried to catch Byleth off guard to quickly eliminate her, but Byleth had reacted quick enough to parry.

He almost felt bad for Ingrid. She must’ve tried going after Byleth due to her injury, but By was still handling herself pretty well. And now Hilda had changed course and was running straight for the blonde, axe at the ready.

She’s in for some pain.

There was more rustling in the bushes, and almost instinctively, Khalid whirled back around, pulling another arrow back.

“Don’t think I forgot about you,” he yelled, barely dodging one arrow as his own landed hard in the center of Ashe’s stomach.

There was a muffled wheeze as the silver-haired archer crumpled from the force of the blow, and from behind him Khalid heard the sound of a body hitting the ground and a cry from Ingrid. Sure enough, when he chanced a glance back, Ingrid was curled up on the ground and Hilda was pulling Byleth along towards him.

He let himself grin almost genuinely for once. So his little strike team had managed to knock a few more players out of the game. And to think, Lorenz had been acting like a prophet of doom before they’d all taken their places.

Still, the day wasn’t yet won, and Khalid still had some questions he wanted answered. Namely, where were the remnants of the Black Eagle House? And where had Ashe been running too? If he and Ingrid had been acting as scouts, then where was the main force of the Blue Lions?

Then he heard it. Voices, distant at first, slowly becoming easier to make out. He thought he could faintly make out one that sounded like Dimitri, likely barking orders. Far into the forest, he swore he saw a flash of red. Edelgard maybe? Were the Blue Lions picking off the last of the Black Eagles?

Then, rapid footfalls, the crashing of bodies through underbrush--

“Get away from the forest!” he shouted, hurrying to nock another arrow as he leapt back from the treeline. “Fall back!”

He spared a glance to make sure the girls were following suit and frowned. Hilda was putting some distance between herself and the trees, but Byleth had only taken a few small steps backward, her stance taut. Khalid felt a twinge of annoyance, and opened his mouth to order her, again, to fall back.

But then the Fraldarius boy leapt from the bushes, his training sword meeting Byleth’s with a furious THWACK , and with a flurry of movement, he began his onslaught. Khalid had heard of Felix’s passion for swordplay, had known he was supposed to be one of, if not the most skilled swordsman in this year’s crop of students, and it seemed the stories were true.

Byleth was being pushed back. She was barely able to parry quick enough, and Khalid could see the strength of the blows were taxing to block. He took aim at Felix, hoping to give Byleth an opportunity to gain the upperhand, or at least give her a breather-

“Hey, watch it!”

Hilda ran across his path before he could release, swinging her axe up at something to his side, and Khalid quickly turned to see Sylvain Jose Gautier backpedaling out of her range with a shit-eating grin. The redhead must've snuck around and charged while Khalid was focused on Byleth. Internally, Khalid berated himself for forgetting his surroundings.

“Woah there, gorgeous! I wasn’t trying to fight you !” Sylvain said, directing a wink at Hilda. “Just give me a second, hm? Then you and I can spend all the time in the world together.”

“Well doesn’t that just sound lovely! But right now-” An edge cut into Hilda's sickly sweet voice, sharp enough to give Khalid chills, “-you’re making me work.”

She rushed Sylvain, only flinching briefly when he caught her in the arm with a thrust of his lance. Brushing the blow aside, Hilda smashed her own weapon down on Sylvain’s shoulder so hard he collapsed with an agonized shout.

Khalid hesitated when he saw Sylvain rolling in the dirt and clutching his shoulder, teeth gritted and holding back whimpers, but the sound of Byleth and Felix’s swords still clacking against one another spurred him back into action. The mock battle stopped for almost nothing short of a life-threatening situation, Seteth had explained earlier. A moderator would probably be along soon to help Sylvain off the field and get him medical attention. Khalid couldn’t afford to be distracted by him.

When Felix managed to dodge the arrow sent his way, Khalid felt his jaw tighten. He’d hoped to get lucky and eliminate a troublesome opponent, but he couldn’t say he was surprised. Felix’s reflexes seemed pretty sharp.

Still, it gave Byleth enough time to shuffle a little farther from Felix, and Khalid finally saw why she’d been so slow to react to his earlier command. She was moving oddly on her injured leg. She'd seemed a little stiff before, but now she was barely lifting her leg at all, so that it almost dragged along the ground. Even so, her face remained largely stoic. There was only a hint of a wrinkle in her brow as she watched her opponent.

Damn. It must be bothering her more than she let on after all.

Khalid hurried to prepare another arrow, anticipating another attack from Felix, and Hilda seemed ready to rush to Byleth’s aid too. Yet Felix paused, his sharp gaze flitting between the three Golden Deer before he sent a withering glare Sylvain’s way. Sylvain had stilled but was still clutching his shoulder down on the ground, his pale face scrunched in pain.

“You damn idiot,” Felix spat at the redhead before taking a few steps to the side, sword at the ready as he circled around Byleth. He was eyeing her like a lion would an injured antelope, but his amber gaze kept flicking back to Khalid.

For his part, Khalid couldn’t help but smirk, a bit flattered by Felix’s wariness. He adjusted his grip on his bow, keeping his next arrow aimed directly at the Fraldarius heir.

He’s circling Byleth to put her between him and me. He wants to use her as a shield… not bad.

“What’s the matter, Felix? You keep looking my way, I'll think you have something to confess to me,” Khalid called, sending a wink the dour boy’s way as he too started to slowly circle around Byleth. “By. Why don’t you give us a moment?”

To Byleth’s credit, she had apparently noticed what Felix was doing as well, and knew exactly what Khalid was asking of her. Despite whatever pain she must’ve been in, she rallied herself enough to bolt away, momentarily giving Khalid a clearer target. But Felix immediately went after her, almost instantly closing the gap again -- Byleth was still moving slowly on her bad leg -- and this time, he was going in for the (mock) kill.

Khalid watched Felix zero in, saw the shift in stance as he prepared to slash his sword into Byleth’s side. But there was a second before Felix’s swing when blue eyes met green. Khalid wasn’t sure if it was luck or circumstance or a moment of genuine, unspoken understanding between the two of them, but when he more firmly grasped his bow and pulled his arrow back, Byleth pitched forward, falling to the ground. Felix’s lunge was met only by empty air -- and an arrow to the chest.

Byleth slowly crawled to her feet, glancing back at a furious, cursing Felix before catching Khalid’s gaze again. Her expression wasn’t really that different from usual, and yet it was. Something in her eyes seemed softer. Grateful, maybe.

... Or maybe he was just imagining what he expected to see.

Either way, Khalid didn’t have time to tease her or revel in their small, shared victory. Across the clearing, from out of the trees they had tried so hard to distance themselves from, the rest of the Blue Lions emerged. Dedue and Dimitri led the way, and Khalid saw Mercedes and Annette following in a group of students behind them. Hanneman brought up the rear, holding back some as he observed his students.

At the disheveled appearance of the prince and his classmates, Khalid couldn’t help but grin. Not that he, Hilda and Byleth probably looked much better, sweaty and bruised as they were, but still.

“Why, Your Princeliness!” Khalid feigned the most aghast tone he could manage. “Having a little secret rendezvous in the woods? Now? Ohhhh, but wait! Judging by those bruises, I’m guessing the future emperor didn’t return your feelings, huh? Sorry buddy. Can’t win’em all.”

“Secret ren-?! What are you going on about now, Claude?” Dimitri’s face scrunched with a small, displeased frown that Khalid returned with a playful wink.

“You’ve got a thing for Edelgard, don’t you? Come on, fess up. You’ll feel better.”

“Claude, please.” The prince’s expression fell flat, and Khalid felt a twinge of disappointment as he watched Dimitri get over his earlier fluster. “This is no time for idle banter. Your defenses are wide open.”

“Oh, really?” Khalid gave a thoughtful hum, making a show of looking around the empty field, turning this way and that before giving a loud, shrill whistle. “I guess it is pretty open out here.”

“... Some of your fighters look to be hurt,” Dimitri continued, eyes drifting to Byleth before they returned to Khalid. “There is no need to continue pushing yourselves. Please, surrender.”

A cool breeze pushed its way through the field then, and Khalid sighed, silently thanking the spirits of the earth for the small comfort. He was used to warm weather, sure, but it was the dry heat of the plains that he felt most at home in. Despite living in Fodlan for over a year now, he still wasn’t used to the humidity that could rear its head from time to time.

Behind him, from somewhere within the southernmost patch of woods on the field, Khalid heard what was probably supposed to be the twitter of birdsong. While he made it his business to learn just about everything he could, he had never studied birds much. He would have to ask Leonie later what kind of bird call she was using, but for now, the song was another comfort, one he was as thankful for as the wind.

With a put-upon sigh, Khalid pulled another arrow from his quiver, twirling it once in his hand out of habit before grasping it tightly. The Blue Lions tensed at the sight, preparing for one final struggle. Dimitri’s eyes narrowed, and he too shifted into a battle ready stance.

“I just can’t get to you today, huh? What a shame. I’ll find a better way to ruffle you up next time.”

“... Is that meant to be your surrender? If so, it’s a rather poor one.”

Khalid glanced between Byleth and Hilda on either side of him, each waiting for his signal. He knew Hilda would moan later about how he’d made her work. At that moment, though, even she couldn’t hide the anticipation in her eyes. Byleth looked much as she always did, the slight strain he’d noticed earlier gone now that she wasn’t being pressed by a relentless opponent. Still, his eyes dipped down to the large, purple-black bruise spread across her thigh.

Best to be safe, he thought, making eye contact with her once more and giving a small tilt of his head to the south. She blinked at him before her eyes drifted slowly to the ground. At first he was afraid she hadn’t gotten his silent hint, but she slowly took a few limping steps backward.

Good, he thought as she positioned herself farther back, behind both Hilda and himself. Byleth had played her role well so far in the mock battle; he’d be sure to tell her that later. For now, though, all he could do was try to make sure she didn’t get beaten up too badly in this final rush.

With one last shrug directed at Dimitri, Khalid flipped his arrow nonchalantly in the air, grinning as he caught it -- and as he heard the rest of the Golden Deer emerge from the southernmost forest, heeding his signal. Oh, the look on Dimitri’s face was delightful.

One plan comes together, and another falls apart.

“Aw, come on, Dimitri. You know I wouldn’t make it that easy for you.”

Chapter Text

When she’d first moved into the student dormitories, Byleth had almost immediately resented her new living arrangements. The only available space had been an empty storage room at the end of what was usually considered the “lower tier” boys’ housing, and it had needed to be deep cleaned before she could even have any furniture moved in. Apparently, a small colony of mice had found it a safe haven, away from the cats and owls that roamed the monastery grounds.

Even after it had been cleaned and furnished, she'd had her doubts. Due to its placement on the ground floor, right on the heavily-used path to the bathhouse and training grounds, Byleth had assumed there would hardly be a moment of peace, what with students coming and going at almost all hours of the day. 

Yet there she was, more or less enjoying her day off with a peaceful study session. It was one of those perfect spring days, not too hot and not too cold, and so she’d opened the double doors to her room, basking in the natural sunlight and enjoying the occasional breeze.

With only a few exceptions, the students had proven themselves to be respectful and mindful of others, passing by quietly in the mornings and evenings. Even now, the distant chatter outside was little more than harmless background noise as Byleth took notes, diligently copying the battalion formations outlined in her Tactics Primer textbook.

The Golden Deer had been riding high following their victory in the mock battle, and though Byleth felt she hadn’t done nearly enough, the others had still showered her with praise at a small celebratory mini-feast afterwards (she was quickly learning Claude seemed to jump on any excuse to throw a party).

The compliments had seemed... genuine. Even Claude came off as sincere when he had thanked her for working so hard. The only person she wasn’t sure about was Professor Jeralt, who had fixed her with another heavy stare when he’d told her she’d done well. His praise had been terse, and he’d looked like he’d wanted to say more, but the man had fallen silent and proceeded to eat his beast meat teppanyaki without looking at her for the rest of the ‘feast.’

… Maybe he hadn’t wanted to criticize her in front of the class during a celebration. Byleth knew she hadn’t been perfect out there. She’d allowed herself to get hit pretty badly early on. Despite fighting through it, and despite the praise from her peers, she still felt she’d been more of a burden than a help. Especially towards the end.

She had to work harder. She had to be better if she wanted to prevent her nightmares from becoming reality. If nothing else, the mock battle had made that perfectly clear.

Professor Jeralt had given the class their first homework assignment -- to read the entirety of the Tactics Primer textbook by the following weekend, when they would begin having practice battles as battalion leaders. She intended to know the material backward and forward by then. Even if the idea of her leading troops into battle seemed a bit absurd, she would do what she needed to do.

As she dipped her quill into the nearby inkwell once more, a shadow fell across her desk, followed by a rapping against her door frame.

"Knock knock! You busy B- oh! Hey, I didn't know you wore glasses!"

When she looked up, Claude was giving her his typical grin, eyes sparkling like he'd just found an unattended platter of sweets as he leaned against her doorway, arms crossed. Byleth lightly pushed her glasses a little higher on her nose.

"They're just for reading. I get a headache without them."

Claude let out a wistful sigh.

 "Look at you. Using your day off to study. So diligent! Just what I’d expect from a former nun.”

“Did you need something?”

Almost as soon as the words left her mouth, Byleth felt a twinge of regret, wondering if she’d come off as snappish. She had always preferred getting to the point of things -- beating around the bush with small talk took too much time and energy, in her opinion -- but that approach hadn’t exactly won her many friends at the monastery over the years.

Really, she’d assumed people would appreciate it if she just asked what they wanted, but to the contrary, they’d always assumed she was trying to get rid of them or that she didn’t like them. And… okay, maybe in some cases that was true, but most of the time it wasn’t.

 If she wanted to befriend her classmates, especially Claude, she needed to remember to go through the motions.

You didn’t even say hello, she internally chastised herself.

But if Claude took offense to her question, he didn’t show it.

“I’m just going around and giving everyone the news,” he said with a shrug. “Teach wants to meet up with everyone individually today to discuss what our study focuses will be.”

“Study focuses…?”

“Yeah. You know, what main subjects we want to focus on while we’re at the academy, what certification exams we aim to take, that sort of thing.” He paused a beat before cocking his head to the side, one brow raised. “Did you really forget about them?”

Byleth shook her head, eyes drifting back down to her notes. Though there were required general courses, every student was given an opportunity to focus on whatever fields of study they wanted -- with counseling and approval from their house professor, of course. It wasn't that Byleth had forgotten about focuses. She just… hadn't bothered giving them much thought.

“I just… assumed I’d go down the bishop track.”

That’s what she’d been working towards even before becoming a student at the academy. It’s what Rhea had been grooming her for, and so she hadn’t bothered looking at the sheet listing other possible certification exams and areas of study that had been passed out.

“Oh… huh.”

She looked back to see Claude giving her a kind of pensive pout, eyes narrowed as he evaluated her.

“... What?”

“Nothing, just- I mean, maybe I’m reading things totally wrong here, but you don't seem very excited about becoming a bishop.”

At that, Byleth could only shrug.

"Most people would say I don't get excited about anything," she murmured.

“I guess that's true. And hey, far be it from me to knock people’s dreams. Like I said By, maybe I just read you wrong. We did kinda just meet. If that’s what you want, go for it,” Claude quickly continued, waving a hand to apparently emphasize his feelings, or lack thereof. “But if I may… if you’re just choosing the bishop path because you feel that’s what you’re supposed to do, that isn’t a very good reason.”

Byleth was quiet a moment, watching Claude closely before responding.

“... There's not much point in studying anything else. When I graduate from the academy, I’m just going to go back to being a member of the church.”

“Okay, but again, is that because it’s what you want, or because it's what you feel you’re supposed to do?”

Byleth wanted to answer, lips even parting slightly as she went to speak -- but she found she couldn’t. Not because she didn’t have an answer, but because the answer she had was one she felt she was supposed to give. Of course it’s what I want, she was supposed to say. Only… it wasn’t what she wanted. Other than keeping her home from going up in flames, Byleth had no idea what she wanted. She couldn't even begin to figure it out, either.

She had never been given a choice about her future. Not really. Rhea had always been there, always dictated what and how she learned and did things. The archbishop had spoken at times as if Byleth did have a choice -- that she was allowed to pursue her interests and passions outside of the church. Yet the pragmatic part of Byleth knew that wasn’t the case. She knew what Rhea wanted her to do -- what she was supposed to do to repay the church, which had taken her in, and Rhea, who had been almost a mother to her.

And for the most part, she had been willing to follow along. After all, what else could she do? Drop everything? Venture alone into a world she knew nothing of, aside from what she’d overheard from knights and merchants and read about in books? No. Her path had always been decided for her, from the moment she’d been adopted by the church. She’d accepted that a long time ago.

Yet why did thinking about it now make her uncomfortable? Like her situation had been laid bare, exposed in a way it had never been before as she stared back into those piercing green eyes?

He doesn’t understand. He doesn't know what it's like to have a debt you can't repay.

She stayed quiet, and after a prolonged silence, Claude seemed to pick up on the fact that she couldn't wouldn’t give him an answer, and he sighed.

“All I’m saying is you’ve got choices, By. Even if it seems like you don’t, you do.” Then, in a flash, his trademark grin slipped back onto his face. There was a strange gleam in his eye as he added, “For instance, you’re pretty solid with a sword. Pretty quiet, too. I bet you’d make a half decent assassin, wouldn’t you?”

His grin seemed especially cold for a moment, despite the levity in his tone. Before she could question it, though, two more figures appeared in her doorway, and Byleth felt her back stiffen.

The prince of the Blue Lions, Dimitri, greeted Claude and her pleasantly enough, flashing each of them a friendly smile. His retainer -- Dedue, she had to remind herself -- was not quite so warm. While he at least offered Claude a respectful nod, when Dedue's gaze fell on her, he only stared, hovering closely behind his lord.

“Claude, Byleth! Good morning! I hope I’m not interrupting anything -- am I?” Dimitri asked. His eyes slid from Claude to her before freezing on her face. Byleth saw his shoulders tense and his smile twist in an odd sort of way, and she blinked, unsure what to make of the reaction. “Oh! I… I wasn’t aware you wore glasses, Byleth.”

Before she could give him the same explanation she'd given Claude, Claude pushed off the doorframe and turned to fully face his fellow house leader.

“Yeah, she likes her secrets, that one. But no, you’re not interrupting. What’s going on? Uh, wait, don’t tell me -- you’re dragging me off for another house leader meeting with Seteth?”

“No. Actually, I was hoping to speak with Byleth.”

Byleth nearly flicked her quill out of her hand in surprise at the same time that Claude barked out a laugh, his eyebrows shooting up as he moved a hand to his hip.

“That so? You know, after the mock battle, I would’ve thought you’d want to put as much space between you and her as possible!”

Byleth glanced back at Dedue, who was still staring at her even as Dimitri let out a quiet laugh of his own.

“Actually, it’s because of the mock battle that I wanted to speak with her.” Dimitri turned to her then. “Byleth, you look well. I take it you’ve recovered, then?”

She nodded, quickly dropping her quill in its inkwell before turning in her chair to fully face him.

“My leg is better, yes. A little white magic and some rest did the trick.”

Dimitri’s face seemed to soften at that.

“Good. I apologize for forgetting myself like that. I truly didn’t want to hurt you, but as I said when we first met, I wanted to lead my house to victory. I couldn’t hesitate to take whatever opportunity I could, and when I saw your bruised leg… but please believe me when I say I never intended to break it!”

“I understand,” Byleth replied with a nod. She paused to look him over before asking, “Did I… injure you?”

Dimitri let out a quiet laugh and glanced away, raising a hand to rub one of his cheeks.

“A-ah, well. Nothing besides a little swelling and bruising. Hardly a problem for Professor Manuela.”

Byleth wasn’t sure if she was happy or disappointed by that. The memory of her fight against Dimitri still sent phantom pains up her leg. To think she hadn't left him with a similar feeling… well, she didn’t want him to be in pain, but she at least wanted to have been a good opponent.

In the final battle between the Blue Lions and the Golden Deer, he had been a force to be reckoned with. Claude had once told her he felt Dimitri forgot his own strength at times, and Byleth had learned firsthand why.

While the rest of the Golden Deer had been busy subduing the remainder of the Blue Lions, Dimitri had gone after Claude. He’d almost effortlessly knocked Hilda to the ground when she'd tried to get in front of him, and had done the same when Leonie and Raphael had tried charging him. 

Though Byleth knew Claude was very capable of evasive maneuvers, he’d stayed planted in place during the final scuffle, rapidly firing off arrows at the prince. It had been enough to keep Dimitri occupied but not enough to keep him from closing in. She hadn’t understood why Claude wasn't dancing around, like he'd done in their training session, and she’d tried to move up beside him, preparing to help defend against the prince’s coming attacks.

“Woah there, By!” Claude had practically yelled, eyes widening as he’d stepped in front of her, effectively cutting her off. “I think you’re about done! Just hang back, alright? Don’t strain that leg!”

That’s when it had hit her. He’d been trying to draw Dimitri’s attention to him, and away from her, on purpose. Because she was injured. Because she’d allowed herself to be injured. And looking back, the Blue Lions had noticed. The silver-haired archer, the girl with the spear -- they’d gone after her because they’d seen her weakness.

She had been in the way, she’d realized. More of a target than a capable fighter. If it hadn’t been for her teammates helping her -- Hilda finishing off the blonde spear wielder and Claude rescuing her from that fierce swordsman -- she would’ve been eliminated.

Is this all I can do? She'd thought, watching Dimitri get closer and closer. Sit back and watch from the sidelines?

The muscles in her leg had started to seize from whatever foul magic had permeated her skin, and at that point it had become a chore just to move. The point of impact was painful, but further down her limb, an unsettling numbness had taken hold. Despite all that, if she focused hard enough, she could manage short bursts of speed without stumbling over herself. She’d done it earlier with the swordsman.

And when Dimitri was finally within lunging distance of Claude, she did it again.

As Claude had finally leapt away from Dimitri’s first attack, she had filled his place, using her sword to sweep the prince’s lance to the side. Then, with her free hand, she'd tried to grab the lance and yank it away. Not that she’d really expected to succeed, but at the very least she’d hoped to buy time for Claude to get a good shot in.

Dimitri had quickly gotten over the surprise of her appearance. He'd jerked the lance back into his control, expression hardening as he’d proceeded to slam the side of the weapon into her bruised leg with all his might.

Everything had gone white.

Byleth couldn’t remember ever feeling such pain, firing through her body like lightning and leaving her in an agonized, crumpled heap on the ground. She also couldn’t remember ever having yelled so loudly before -- in the moment, she almost hadn’t recognized her own voice.

The thunderous follow up was something she also wasn’t familiar with. An emotion as searing and ugly as the white hot pain in her leg overtook her. Byleth hadn’t consciously thought of hurting Dimitri in retaliation. She’d just acted. With a loud grunt, she’d moved, despite the fact that doing so made the pain almost unbearable. As Dimitri went to go around her, continuing his pursuit of Claude, she’d sat up and managed to grab the hem of his tunic even as the world seemed to spin.

He’d whirled back to her in surprise, trying to steady himself as she used what minimal strength she had and her grip on his shirt to pull herself up just a little higher. By the time he moved to shove her off, though, she’d already pulled herself high enough to take a swing.

Despite the almost overwhelming pain from her leg muddying the moment, her fist connecting with Dimitri’s jaw had been one of the most satisfying things she’d ever felt. The prince had staggered, stunned by the blow. Byleth had heard voices that sounded like Claude and Dedue yelling in the background. Their yelling only became louder when she struck Dimitri a second time, hard enough that he'd fallen back onto the field, bringing her down with him.

As soon as they’d hit the ground, though, it was over for her.

The fight had gone on around them, and Dimitri had begun to scramble out from under her only a few seconds later. Try as she had to keep a grip on him, the fall and his jostling had sent another fresh wave of pain through her leg -- too much to ignore this time. Dimitri slipped through her fingers, moving to rejoin the fight, and she had remained sprawled out on the field.

The final struggle between the classes did not last long, though Byleth had missed the action. She’d kept her head buried in the grass, clenching her jaw and trying to breath steadily through the pain and the shame. Once again, she had failed to bring down an enemy. Once again, she had only proven herself a hindrance. If it had been a real battle, she would've no doubt been one of the dead and dying soaking the ground with her blood, and she thought once again of the red streets she had seen in the village beneath Garreg Mach, of the plumes of smoke rising from the monastery in the distance.

Is this all I’m good for...? Can I change anything...?

At some point, Professor Jeralt had scooped her up to bring her to Manuela, handling her more gently than she’d believed a man like him capable of. She'd kept her eyes closed, partially to deal with the pain and partially because she hadn't wanted to see the pity and disappointment she feared she would otherwise. As he carried her away, she'd heard her classmates shouting well wishes and thanks after her. Yet even so, she’d felt utterly defeated.

“Aside from wanting to apologize for your injury, there was something else I wished to ask you.” Dimitri’s eyes briefly flicked over to Claude before returning to her. “I was wondering if you might like to spar with us today.”

Byleth blinked, the question catching her off guard, and she too glanced over at Claude. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, though. Guidance? His blessing? She didn't know why she felt like she needed those things from him, but she did. Yet Claude only grinned back at her, as if waiting to hear her answer as well.

It was an innocent enough request... but Byleth fidgeted under the two boys’ gazes.

“... Spar?”

“Yes. I wanted to get some practice in today, as did some of the other Blue Lions. I’m sure they’d be more than happy to have you join us, if that is what you wish. You were a wonderful opponent in the mock battle!”

Byleth blinked, head perking up. Had she heard him right?

“... I was?”

“Yes, of course! You even caught Felix’s attention, which is no easy feat!”

“Who’s Felix?”

Dimitri’s brows shot up before another small smile settled on his face, and he ducked his head.

“Forgive me. I forgot that you weren’t at the orientations with us. He was the black-haired young man you crossed swords with. I’d be happy to properly introduce you, if you’d like. It’s not often that he expresses interest in specific opponents, but I heard him wondering aloud about you. Or rather, about what your fight would’ve been like if you hadn’t been injured, and if…” Dimitri flashed another look over to Claude. “... um. If there had been no interference.”

“Riiiight. I’m sure those were Felix’s exact and completely polite words,” Claude drawled, rolling his eyes.

Byleth glanced again at her textbook, and the notes drying on her desk beside it. She had wanted to get a head start on the homework today... but she supposed getting more combat practice in couldn’t hurt. Lady Rhea had said to get closer to the house leaders, and here was one requesting her presence. It would behoove her to say yes… right?

She looked again to Claude, meeting his gaze. Despite that easy grin of his, she could almost see the gears turning in his head -- though she couldn't begin to fathom what he might be thinking. So she turned back to Dimitri.

“That sounds nice.”

“Ah, wonderful!” Dimitri said, face lighting up. “Dedue and I were just heading over to the training grounds now! Would you care to walk with us?”

“Sure,” she replied, silently noting that Dedue hadn’t relented with his intense staring during this entire exchange. “Let me put things away and we can go.”

As she weighed down her notes and found a bookmark for her textbook, she could hear Claude shifting in the doorway. When he spoke again, it was in a hushed tone.

“Hm. Maybe I was wrong about you, Your Princeliness.”

“Wrong?” Dimitri responded, mirroring Claude’s quiet voice. “About what?”

“I’d thought you were the straightforward, honorable type. But maybe there’s a reason you’re friends with Sylvain.”

Who’s Sylvain? Byleth thought before she heard Dimitri make a strange noise of protest.

“What on earth is that supposed to mean?”

“I think I'm getting a firm grasp on your 'type,' is all I'm saying."

“Claude, with respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s quite enough.”

After wrapping her reading glasses in a soft cloth and setting them atop her textbook, Byleth looked up to see Dimitri frowning, eyes narrowed, at Claude, who only held up his hands with a laugh.

“Aw, come on! Don’t look at me like that, Your Highness! I’m only kidding around! Anyway, I better get going. I’ve still got some running around to do.” Claude glanced back at Byleth, a mirthful gleam in his eyes as he jutted his chin at her. “I’ll come find you when it’s your turn to speak with Teach. Alright, By?”

She nodded, and as he began walking around Dimitri and Dedue, Claude waved a hand in a loose farewell.

“Well, have fun you three! Try not to beat the pulp out of each other while I’m gone.” He paused midstep, adding after a beat, “Unless... maybe you’d like that, Dimitri?”

Claude!”

“I’m going, I’m going!”

 

---

 

Paperwork.

More and more paperwork. Forms upon sheets upon checklists upon briefs. Goddess, he hated paperwork. He would’ve rather been forced to crawl through Ailell on his hands and knees than have to put up with another damned second of this. The feeling of the searing, sharp volcanic rock of the Valley of Torment cutting into his skin would’ve been more bearable than even one more fucking papercut.

Jeralt was sure that, somewhere in the monastery, Rhea was laughing. Okay, maybe not laughing, but at least smiling vindictively to herself. Probably smugly sipping from a cup of tea, too, as she pictured him hunched over this goddess-forsaken desk in this goddess-forsaken office writing up yet another goddess-forsaken lesson plan in enough detail to please Seteth’s meticulous eye.

Did the professors always have to fill out all this bureaucratic crap? Or was I just lucky enough to be hired after Seteth overhauled the system?

With a long sigh, Jeralt put another paper on the ‘completed’ stack and pulled the next form off of the heap by the edge of his desk. He could swear the words were all starting to blur together, and after releasing a deep, defeated breath, he reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. There was something to be said for thoroughness, but this… this gave new meaning to the term ‘painstaking.’

About the time Jeralt was beginning to consider jumping to freedom from his office window, there was a knock at the door. He couldn’t help but groan in relief.

“Come in,” he yelled, leaning back in his chair and rolling his stiff neck and shoulders.

When the door creaked open and Byleth strode in, he perked up in his seat.

“Oh. Hey kid. You here to talk about your-”

Behind her, a fox-faced boy with a shock of bright red hair, a very self-satisfied grin and hazel eyes -- which Jeralt was sorely tempted to pluck out of his skull if he didn’t stop eyeing Byleth's back side like that -- followed.

“-... study goals?”

The boy wasn’t completely stupid, or at least had the presence of mind to feel Jeralt’s gaze on him, because those hazel eyes quickly snapped up to meet his own. And, shamelessly, the boy stepped around Byleth and approached Jeralt’s desk, grin widening as if he hadn’t just been caught ogling another student -- or maybe even because of it.

“Hello, Professor! I don’t know that we’ve ever been properly introduced. The name’s Sylvain -- Syvain Jose Gautier. I asked Byleth if I could walk with her up to your office because I wanted to ask you something. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion.”

He looked and sounded every bit like a polite, well-mannered noble brat, sparkling smile and all. Jeralt knew he was trouble almost immediately.

“... Of course. What is it you’d like to ask me?”

“May I join the Golden Deer House?”

“No.”

Sylvain’s smile fell. He blinked, a kind of bewildered frown settling on his face, as if it was hard to process what Jeralt thought had been a very clear and concise answer.

“Er… Excuse me if I’m wrong Professor, but I thought students were allowed to transfer houses?"

"They are."

"But... you're saying I can’t?”

“Correct.”

A beat of silence.

“Um… why is that, sir?”

Because lusting after another student is not a reason to change houses.

“Because you need written approval from your current house professor, in this case Hanneman. And you have to submit to both Seteth and myself a letter for review, which explains the reason or reasons you’re requesting the transfer. I didn’t see you bringing any such papers in with you.”

For the first time in his short career as a professor, Jeralt felt grateful for Seteth’s bureaucratic process, which dictated that everything should have proper documentation. If there was one way to nip this foolishness in the bud, it was to make the boy put in half an effort. Surely, Jeralt thought, Sylvain wouldn’t even bother with that nonsense. He’d grumble in disappointment and leave, quickly moving on to whatever poor girl next caught his eye, and that would be that.

“Oh, is that all?”

… Or not.

Jeralt had to resist the urge to cradle his head in his hands when Sylvain’s smile returned, even wider than before.

“No worries, Professor! I’ll get on that straight away!”

Sylvain turned to leave, strutting past Byleth and practically purring as he passed her by, “I’ll see you around, beautiful. Think about my offer, won’t you? A meal is always better with good company.”

Byleth’s perpetually blank expression gave nothing away, but her eyes followed Sylvain on his way out, and Jeralt quietly hoped she wasn't the kind to actually be taken in by some smooth-talking pretty boy. As the door creaked shut once more and they both were finally left alone, she turned back to Jeralt but said nothing. A heavy silence stretched out between them, thoughts unspoken hanging in the air before Jeralt finally cleared his throat.

“... Well. He seems like... quite the character,” he began.

“You have no idea,” came her flat reply.

He snorted at that, and found himself releasing a tension he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Good. She's a nun, not an idiot. Intertwining his fingers over his desk, he leaned forward, a wry grin working its way onto his face.

“Is that a warning, I hear? Are you trying to hint that I shouldn’t admit him into our house?” He raised a brow.

“Nothing of the sort. Just an observation.”

He smirked and shook his head before motioning for her to sit on a nearby couch.

“Well, we’ll see if he can gain Seteth’s approval. That’s no easy task, believe me. Anyway, what did you need? This is about your study focuses, right?”

Byleth lowered herself onto the couch with care as she nodded, gaze falling into her lap. Once she'd taken her seat, she began fiddling and tugging at her skirt, posture noticeably stiff.

Odd. He hadn’t pegged her as the type to worry about appearances, but maybe he’d assumed wrong. Or maybe something else was troubling her. Either way, she seemed... tense.

"Is your leg still bothering you?"

"Hm?" Byleth's head jerked up, as if he'd surprised her.

"Your leg," he repeated, nodding to to the limb. "Has it healed alright? You seem uncomfortable."

"Oh," her shoulders slumped a bit, but she shook her head before her gaze returned to her lap. "No. My leg is fine."

Her leg may have been fine, but she didn't deny being uncomfortable, Jeralt noted. She didn't seem eager to speak about what was on her mind, either. And as much as he wanted her to talk to him, he wasn't sure how to tactfully get her to open up.

Maybe she'll feel more comfortable after getting the official nonsense out of the way.

Deciding to leave the matter be for now, Jeralt shoved the form he had previously been working on to the side. He pulled open one of his desk drawers and fished out Byleth’s student file, slapping it down in front of him. Each file, prepared by Seteth, had all the pertinent information known by the church on each student -- or what they “officially” knew, anyway. Jeralt was sure there was more somewhere, if not scribbled in a ledger and hidden away then at least discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors.

“So then, what subjects were you thinking of focusing on? Any certifications you were aiming for?”

Byleth was quiet as she stared down into her lap. She looked about the same as usual, and yet… he could tell she was deep in thought about something.

Maybe I should ask if she’s alright after all…

“Professor…” She spoke slowly before pausing again, as if choosing her next words carefully. Finally, she glanced up at him and continued. “When you were young, how did you decide what you would be?”

Jeralt blinked.

“Me?” When Byleth nodded, he snorted and glanced away. “I hate to tell you, kid, but I didn’t really decide anything.”

“Oh… So you became a knight because you were told to?”

“... Not exactly.”

Jeralt was old enough now that he’d long stopped keeping track of his age. Old enough that he’d started to forget things he wanted to remember, and remembered far too many things he’d rather forget. Yet when he thought hard enough, he could still recall glimpses of his early childhood.

A small farm in the countryside. A woman, his mother, whom he was ashamed to say he couldn’t even remember the face of at this point, and his younger siblings playing outside. The last happy days before it all went sour.

Before the bad winters. Before the poor crops, the unsuccessful hunts and the gaunt faces.

“I did what I had to do. Or, well, what I felt I needed to do for the people I cared about. And eventually I just... ended up becoming a knight,” he continued, leaning back in his chair. “Though, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I ended up having a talent for it. Can’t imagine where I’d be now if I’d taken a different path.”

Well, truthfully, he could imagine it. He’d be dead, without a doubt in his mind. If not from starvation or disease, then almost certainly from old age at this point. But he couldn’t exactly come out and say that, could he?

“I see.” He couldn’t tell if his answer had helped Byleth or not, but she seemed to retreat even further into herself than usual, gaze growing distant. “You did what you had to do for those important to you…”

There was another beat of silence as Jeralt let Byleth work through whatever was going through her mind, but then she let out a deep, quiet breath, eyes falling shut.

“I’m sorry, Professor. I don’t mean to waste your time, but I’m still not sure what I want.”

“Hey, you’re not wasting my time. Part of my job is to help you figure these things out,” Jeralt said, throwing his hands up to show there was no harm done. “So what’s got you mixed up? The certifications? We could focus on what subjects you’d like to learn instead and figure out what roles would be a good fit-”

“It’s not about what I’d like.”

The words in Jeralt’s throat died as he processed what Byleth had said, and though he tried to school his expression, he could still feel a frown overtaking his features, steadily growing deeper with each passing second.

“... What do you mean it’s not about what you’d like?”

Byleth had opened her eyes again, and was watching him evenly now. She nodded, though he wasn’t sure what she was nodding to -- maybe she was just confirming something for herself. Even so, her lips seemed to form an even tighter line than usual.

“It doesn’t matter what I want to do. It’s about what I need to do. But that’s where I’m having trouble.”

Jeralt’s brows furrowed together, eyes narrowing as he tapped a finger on his desk. Byleth was so damn hard to make heads or tails of already, but this was something else entirely.

He wanted to tell her that what she wanted did matter, and ask who had made her feel like that wasn’t the case -- even though he was sure he knew the answer. But that could send the conversation spiraling in a whole different direction than what he wanted right now. So he asked her something else.

“What exactly is it that you feel you need to do, Byleth?”

“I need to protect this place,” she replied, and though it was still hard for him to read into her tone, she answered so quickly and had such a magnitude to her gaze that it actually put him on edge. “I need to protect the people here. I just don’t know the best way to do that.”

He nodded along, trying to guess where this was coming from. The desire to protect one’s home was common, but for Byleth to answer so quickly, he guessed she probably felt the matter was especially urgent. But why? Had Rhea turned her into one of those religious zealots that saw a threat around every corner? ... Or had she actually been spooked by something?

“Garreg Mach has a standing army made up of some of the most highly trained fighters in all of Fodlan,” Jeralt said. “It’s lasted through centuries, despite uprisings and rebellions of all kinds. What makes you think this place needs you to protect it so badly?”

“Because it does.”

Jeralt’s frown deepened, and he searched Byleth’s eyes, trying to find some clue that would lead him to a better answer than “Because it does.” But he could find nothing in that stony gaze of hers. No fear, no anger, no sadness -- no hints.

“... Okay. Let’s say it does need you for protection, then. What’s the problem? What do you need to protect it from?” She went quiet, gaze falling back down to her lap, and didn’t answer. That wasn’t comforting. After a long enough pause, Jeralt tried a different question. “Do you not know how to protect it?”

Without looking at him, she nodded.

“I’ve studied white magic since I was old enough to start casting spells. Lady Rhea says I have a talent for it, and I know she… the plan was for me to become a church official at some point. If I continued focusing on white magic, I could become a much more adept healer, and learn more offensive spells, but…”

Jeralt quirked a brow as she trailed off.

“But you don’t think that would be enough, is that it?”

She didn’t respond, only stared down at her upturned hands. Her silence was answer enough, though.

“Well, then focus on another skill on the side. Fancy certifications aren’t everything, Byleth. I know in noble circles and at the monastery they make it seem like they are, but lots of people who face battle don’t have skills that fit neatly into one class or another. It’s about whatever helps you win and survive.” Jeralt cocked his head, eyeing her for a bit before leaning a little farther over his desk. “This is a time for you to break the mold, kid. Try new things. Like, say, swordsmanship.”

He wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he expected to get from that, but he’d hoped to see one. Byleth came alive when she had a sword in her hand, in a way he simply had not seen otherwise. Sure, she still wasn’t as emotive as your average person, but he could see it in her movements, in the alertness of her gaze as she watched opponents or when she was given feedback -- there was an energy there, and he wanted to feed it, not smother it away.

Byleth’s eyes slid back up to him.

“I don’t think Lady Rhea would like that.”

To hell with what Rhea liked, he wanted to say, but he quickly tamped down that spark of anger. 

“And why wouldn’t she like that?” he asked, evenly as he could.

“She feels the front lines are too dangerous for me. That’s why she stopped allowing me to practice swordplay. She said it was giving me dangerous ideas, and that I was... too 'precious' to put myself in harm’s way.”

Well… Jeralt couldn’t entirely fault Rhea there. Now that he knew Byleth was alive and well, the last thing he wanted was to lose her. Though she had potential, Byleth was still inexperienced, and more than once now he’d found his thoughts turning to their upcoming missions, wondering how she would fare. She didn’t have blood on her hands yet -- most of his students didn’t -- and if she froze up, or had a misstep, or even was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, it could mean her end. Probably the only thing he and Rhea agreed on at this point was wanting to keep Byleth safe.

Still, he would rather she know how to defend herself. Life was harsh, and not always merciful. Shutting Byleth away from the world would not save her if the world someday came rushing to her door.

On top of that, Rhea had to be aware of how Byleth reacted with a sword in her hand, of the liveliness that came over her. Yet even so, she’d shut Byleth down, and that didn't sit well with him.

Byleth may have felt bound to Rhea’s desires, but she also wanted to take up sword lessons again -- even if she didn’t say it outright, he could feel she wanted to. And as her professor, he'd be damned if he let something as trivial as Rhea's opinion get in the way of Byleth's education. Especially when he knew she could blossom into something great.

“Kid... a lot of times what people want and what they need are two separate things,” Jeralt started with a sigh. “I left home when I was young to become a mercenary. I did it to help feed my family. My mom didn’t want me to go -- she was afraid it was too dangerous for me. She wasn’t wrong. It was dangerous work. But if I’d stayed and done nothing, it would have been much harder for her and my siblings. Do you get what I’m saying?”

Byleth didn’t respond, remaining damn near motionless as she watched him. Still, he could tell she was listening at least, so he pressed onward.

“I disobeyed my mother. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love her, or that I wanted her to be unhappy. But it was what needed to happen to help my family survive.” He paused, letting his words sink in, before adding, “Even if it makes Rhea unhappy, if it’s what you feel needs to be done to protect her, and everyone else here, that’s what you need to do, Byleth.”

She glanced away, and he saw her take a deep breath. When she looked back at him, she sat up a little straighter and nodded.

“I understand.”

He hummed.

“Good. So with that, let’s try something out,” he said, reaching over to grab his quill. “We can make a custom lesson plan just for you. We don’t need to focus on certification exams or their specific requirements unless you feel you want to take one down the road. We can just let you focus on building up various skill sets. Say, faith and swordsmanship?”

He raised a brow as she looked between him and the form laying before him on his desk, shifting somewhat in her seat. A beat of silence passed as he waited for her to speak.

“... May I also learn more about brawling, Professor?”

Jeralt felt himself grin wider than he had in a long time.

“Kid, I would love to teach you more about brawling.”