Byleth wakes up.
This particular fact is not unusual. Some days, before bed, Byleth wonders if he'll live through another night. Every morning he wakes once more, he's always surprised to see the sunrise. This time, however, Byleth wakes to a dark chasm of green and black, lights blinking behind his eyes.
The Holy Tomb.
Byleth sits up faster than a shot, his head ringing in protest. He groans at the vicious headache tearing into his skull with what seems like greedy delight, as the pain only worsens when he thinks on it too long. His eyes widen as he sees that the throne he's splayed out before is not entirely empty.
A girl steps down from her seat on high, steps delicate and light. There is a certain air about her that makes her seem ethereal despite how young she looks. "Sothis," Byleth breathes, "I've missed you."
Sothis comes to a stop in front of him and yanks at his left ear with bony fingers. The vicious pain starts up once more. "You FOOL!" Sothis booms, and Byleth mentally adds going deaf to what seems like a intensive list of injuries. "What in the world were you thinking, getting yourself hit like that?!"
Byleth forces his limp body off of the ground and pushes himself to his feet. "I have to go back," Byleth breathes, "are they safe? Are they okay? Did I move Dima in time?"
Sothis frees his throbbing ear to pull at both of his cheeks mercilessly instead. "You, massive, idiot!" She emphasises each word with a tug to his face. "You moved the princeling in time, but you had go to and die for it, didn't you?"
"IT'S NOT FINE!" Sothis finally frees his cheeks as well to yank on her hair in frustration. "You used all your divine pulses! All of them! Is that even possible?"
Byleth swallows. "So what now?"
"Now?" Sothis pushes him down on the floor to sit properly, then gathers all of her robes into one hand before joining him. "Now, you die, I suppose."
There is a long pause. "And you don't even care, do you?"
"As long as Dima and the rest are okay, I'll be fine."
Sothis punches him in the arm. "How selfish! They clearly love you! How can you speak of your own life with such disregard!"
Byleth blinks. "I'm sorry, Sothis. To you as well."
"You'd better be," she huffs. "Well, luckily for you, you're not actually dead." She opens her mouth to say something, then firmly shuts it.
Byleth doesn't know what to say to that, so he waits for Sothis to compose herself first. "You are aware that when you were first born, you had no heartbeat? Even now, you do not possess one. And then, later on in life, you had learned that I had granted you, ah, a divine pulse, so to speak. That pulse is quite literally the only pulse you possess. So when it runs out, and you die, you die for real. That was what was supposed to happen in theory- and yet, the proof against such a claim sits right in front of me."
"...So I'm not dead?"
"But you should be," Sothis concludes. "You and I are as one. I would know if you were truly dead."
Byleth blinks. "I feel dead."
"Oh, hush, you really did die. That Edelgard is quite strong in that form. Hegemon. How terribly ironic."
"Are my students dead?"
Sothis shrugs, and a swirl of potent fear churns Byleth's gut. "I told you, you and I are one. I cannot truly see without your eyes. I do not know anything you do not know."
"I have to go back," Byleth repeats, grasping Sothis' hand. "Please, you have to help me."
She hums in response, but still grips his hand back tight. "Don't you think I've tried? It seems as if fate had other plans for you, though."
"What do you mean?"
Sothis takes a breath. "If you're supposed to be dead, and you're with me, of all places, that means you really were not meant to meet your end there. And yet, you had used up all of your divine pulses. Which means-"
"Don't interrupt me!" Sothis chides, looking distraught. "Which- Which means you're about to wake up."
Byleth wakes up.
This particular fact, is not unusual. Some days, before bed, Byleth wonders if he'll live through another night. Every morning he wakes once more, he's always surprised to see the sunrise. However, the man hovering over his face is quite the unusual sight.
Especially since he's been dead for over five years.
"Hey, time to wake up," Jeralt says.
Byleth stares up at his father's face, eyes wide. If he had a heartbeat, it would have halted in this moment, at the sight of a dead man walking.
"Father," Byleth breathes, and Jeralt gives him a confused look.
"What's up with you, kid? I know it's early, but you seem really out of it. Hurry and put on your armor." Byleth, still in shock, cannot do anything but comply. Even as he steps behind a screen to change, his eyes never leave his father's figure, as if he would completely disappear the moment he left his sight.
When Jeralt sees that Byleth's finally in full armor, he nods. "Were you having that dream again?"
Byleth cannot do anything but stare openly, but then he clears his throat. "Father," Byleth repeats. "Father, you're here..."
Jeralt gives him an odd look. "This is our house. Of course I'm here."
As quick as Byleth is to swallow his sobs, a tiny whimper leaves his mouth before he can suppress it. Jeralt, sharp as ever, catches the sound. He turns on Byleth with wide eyes. "Kid, what-"
"Father," Byleth sobs. "Father, father, I-"
"Byleth, are you crying?"
"I had the most awful dream, and-"
Jeralt does not hesitate to gather his child in the cradle of his arms. "Why are you crying? Kid, this is the first time I've ever seen you cry!"
"You died, and-"
Jeralt shushes him gently. "Are your tears for me? There's no need, kid. I'm right here." His father reaches up to brush one of his tears away, thumb rough against his cheek.
"I'm so, so tired..."
"It's alright, kid. I think you can take a quick nap for another ten minutes or something, get a glass of water, calm yourself down. You have all the time in the world."
Byleth almost laughs, because ha! How terribly ironic. Despite time being quite literally at Byleth's fingertips, it had always seemed to slip out of reach during important moments.
"Hm? Good grief. Everyone is already waiting outside."
One of the mercenaries his father leads bursts into the room, looking out of breath. "Jeralt! Sir! Sorry to barge in, but your presence is needed!"
They do a double take when they see Byleth's face. "K-kid! Are you crying?! That's never happened before! Wait 'til the others hear-"
Jeralt steps in front of Byleth to shield him from view, scowling at the mercenary. Byleth hurriedly wipes at his eyes, blinking away any stray tears and getting rid of any expression whatsoever on his face. He's quite good at that, after all.
They march out the door, hands on their weapons, and Byleth feels nervous for some reason. Was it because he was just crying? Was it because he was tired? He had no clue, until the sight of three very familiar people caught his eye.
Claude. Edelgard. Dimitri.
Byleth takes in a shuddery breath once his gaze rests upon them. They look so young. Looking at their soft faces and their big eyes is like a slap to the face.
How is this possible?
"When I tried to send you back," Sothis begins, at the back of his mind. "This happened. Incredible. We're about seven years into the past!"
Byleth doesn't flinch, but it's a near thing. They're so young. It's almost jarring to see Dimitri with two eyes, to see Claude's baby face clean of facial hair, to see the future emperor with ribbons in her hair still.
He wants to gather this Dimitri into his embrace and protect him. This boy had already suffered so, so terribly, and there was no way to protect him from that, but Byleth could still protect him from battles yet fought, suffering yet waged, future trauma. He wants to protect Claude, who fought desperately to save his people, who called to them in times of trouble, who handed them his relic with a smile.
He doesn't know how to feel about her.
Byleth can't help but resent Edelgard, feel a sickening sense of recoil build in his chest the longer she stands next to Dimitri and Claude. He can't look directly at her without seeing someone who started a war, without seeing someone who had caused not only the pain of someone Byleth held so near and dear to their heart, but also the deaths of tens upon thousands of people across Fòdlan. The grim hands of Hegemon. Reckless abandon. Arrogance. Whatever was wrong or right, did one person have to decide it for the rest of the country?
Byleth didn't know everything.
There was no question in Byleth's mind, knowing what he knows- Lady Rhea was one of the most suspicious of them all. There was no doubt that she had her own plans for Byleth- likely, when he sat upon that throne, Rhea was expecting something would happen. And Dimitri definitely did not have clean hands either. Not only that, but Byleth was willing to bet anything that Claude had bloodied his own hands to keep his people safe.
Byleth had no doubt that fate would change no matter which hand he had taken.
But seeing a young Dimitri standing in front of him now, desperately pushing away his own ghosts and hiding his trauma from the world, any other option fell away.
Byleth had to prevent this war.
"So, what will you do?" Sothis asked him, as the figures of his former students approached. "Will you let that bandit kill Edelgard this time?"
I doubt she'll die, Byleth thought to himself. Sothis laughed in response.
"Well, we'll see, won't we."
"Please, forgive our intrusion." Byleth startled at how much softer Dimitri's voice was. "We wouldn't bother you were the situation not dire."
"What do a bunch of kids like you want at this hour?" Byleth's father demanded, voice more stern than he had remembered.
Byleth immediately assesses his soon-to-be students. It was a habit he'd picked up after monthly missions, so he'd know when to push them onto Mercedes or Annette, or even Sylvain. A few scratches here and there, nothing too serious, but were Byleth still capable of healing he would still patch them straight up.
"You are," Sothis interrupted his thoughts.
Even without seeing her, Byleth knew she was rolling her eyes. "Eloquent as always, aren't you? Try it out."
Still confused, Byleth raised a hand and a heal spell washed over the students. Byleth blinked in surprise. He didn't see that coming.
"Thank you," Dimitri said, looking at Byleth with wide eyes. "You're a healer?"
Byleth, not ready to be addressed, shrugged.
"Smooth," Sothis said, cheerful.
"A-anyway, we're being pursued by a group of bandits. I can only hope that you will be so kind as to lend your support. Uh, again, I mean."
Jeralt gave Byleth an odd look before turning back to look at the kids. "Bandits? Here?"
"It's true," Edelgard replied, and it took Byleth everything he had not to flinch. "They attacked us while we were at rest in our camp."
Claude decided to speak up as well. "We've been separated from our companions and we're outnumbered. They're after our lives... Not to mention our gold."
Sothis hummed. "Well. This is awfully familiar, is it not? Memory eludes me now, but isn't this exactly what they've said before?"
Byleth feels as if it's word for word. He doesn't remember everything, but he remembers that next, he and his father would be dragged into battle to help fight off the bandits, so that they would not reach the village. All he remembers was feeling distinctly annoyed, disoriented, and quite tired from a lack of sleep.
With the lure of battle guiding him forward, Byleth steps into battle, sword drawn.
Compared to all the battles he's fought recently, these bandits are laughably easy. Byleth takes to fighting like a bird takes to flight, and he needs to let off some steam, so he allows his sword to sing for him. Battle is the perfect way to stop Byleth from thinking.
It's like clockwork, slipping back into battle with the three of them. Of course, Byleth knows Dimitri's fighting like an extension of his own sword. But extensive research on Edelgard's moves, and fighting alongside Claude during that port siege, as well as the many mock battles they'd fought over time, Byleth knows how to direct the three of them as well. He knows how Edelgard favors protecting her left side, and how Claude will back off if he was getting flanked. He knows Dimitri's tendency to take on all of the burden, so Byleth runs with him to the front lines and covers his back while he runs ahead.
One of the bandits swings their axe at Dimitri's head, so propriety be dammed, Byleth yanks the back of Dimitri's shirt so he's repositioned behind him. Parrying the move, Byleth ducks to slide his blade into the bandit's chest. He thinks he hears a whistle from behind him, but he's not entirely sure.
Soon enough, the bandit leader Kostas makes a true appearance, so Byleth turns to make eye contact with Claude, and nods in the leader's direction. Claude blinks before nodding back, notching an arrow and letting it fly. As soon as it hits Kostas, distracting him, Byleth steps forward and knocks him in the forehead with the hilt of his sword. Kostas hits the ground so hard it almost reverberates. Byleth sighs. Hopefully it'll keep him under for a little while.
Of course, just to spite him, Kostas gets up instantly. Byleth frowns. Maybe he didn't hit him hard enough. He steps forward, ready to draw his sword again to protect Edelgard-
"What are you doing!? Have you forgotten what happened to you because of that girl?!" Sothis shrieks, indignant. The back of his head rings. "Remember, you've got your divine pulses back now. It's seven years in the past! Why don't we watch how this turns out? Besides, your little princeling and Claude are too far to take the blow for her. Let's just watch how this plays out."
Are you actually angry that I died because of her? Byleth asks, confused.
Sothis snorts. "No, why would you ever think- OF COURSE I'M ANGRY!"
Byleth flinches, feeling chided. "You are to stay put and watch, young man." Sothis scolds. "Stay put."
Byleth can only watch as Kostas descends on Edelgard, axe raised in a swing. Byleth's eyes widen as Edelgard whips out a dagger. This, he remembers. However, he was not aware at the time that this was the very same dagger that Dimitri had gifted her when they were children. The dagger Dimitri had found when Jeralt was killed, the dagger that Dimitri had handed back to Edelgard before the final fights.
Could it be that Edelgard had already planned this entire situation out from the beginning?
As Byleth watches the axe swing down, he wonders if it was alright for him to wish that she was at least scratched by the blade. Perhaps even cut by it. There is a certain feeling bubbling up in his chest, a feeling that gnaws at him, his sword hand, his head. Byleth doesn't think that he's ever wished death on anyone, not really, save for Kronya. Perhaps Edelgard as well, when Dimitri would think of nothing but vengeance and the ghosts that would claw at his back. But not as much as others.
"It's called bloodlust," Sothis says. "You should know. You've seen it in your little princeling enough."
The axe swings down. Of course, Edelgard is too skilled a fighter to be felled by one axe. She quickly parries it with the dagger, but the tiny weapon is no real match for the heavy axe. The axe continues down its path, only slightly altered, and slices a good part of Edelgard's left arm. She groans in pain, and sinks partway to the floor before jabbing the dagger into the meat of Kostas' thigh, who howls in pain. Swearing and cursing up a storm, Kostas flees the scene, limping the entire way. Of course, that is when Alois and his knights appear, making the rest of the bandits flee.
"Pity," Sothis sighs.
"What?! Fine. But she's not dead, is she? I bet she'll soon make it so you wish she was."
That may be so, but that wasn't nice.
Sothis scoffs, the sound harsh on Byleth's ears. "And? She killed you, among thousands of others for the sake of some lofty ideals! Because she thought her cause was just, her reign was just! Who is she, to measure lives against one another for a cause? Is it her and her alone that decides the cost of life, the cost of the future? Does she get to decide who lives and dies for her own view of what peace is?! I'll never understand that girl!"
Sothis, please calm yourself-
"I AM CALM!"
Byleth is shaken out of his stupor by Alois running over to his father, heavy armor clanking along with his steps. He's waving enthusiastically at his father, and in turn Jeralt looks as if he'd just witnessed the calamity coming ever so closer, step by step.
"CAPTAIN JERALT! IT'S BEEN AGES!"
"Aw man," his father groans. "Not this again..."
"IS THIS YOUR CHILD?!"
Byleth's about to walk over and save him from Alois' overenthusiastic nature, until someone taps him on the shoulder. He whirls, hand on his sword hilt, to see Dimitri standing there, wide eyed.
"Pardon me, but you healed us earlier, right?" A nod. Dimitri sighs in relief. "Would you mind healing our friend again? She was hurt by the bandit."
Byleth allows Dimitri to guide him over to where Claude's helping Edelgard to sit up properly, hand on her back. With one wave of Byleth's hand, the wound closes up. He can practically see Sothis pouting in the back of his mind.
"It may leave a scar," Byleth replied, voice low and soft. "I am not a skilled healer."
Edelgard shakes her head. "Nonetheless, I am grateful. You are a skilled fighter, though. That much is certain."
Claude grins. "You were quite the force of nature back there! I've never seen anything like it."
"Ah yes," Dimitri added, looking quite flustered. "I forgot to thank you for helping us out, and forgot to introduce myself!" He does a short little bow. "I am Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd."
"Claude von Riegan," Claude says, quirking the side of his lips.
"And I am Edelgard von Hresvelg. Once more, I must thank you for coming to our aid. You are Captain Jeralt's child, are you not? The Blade Breaker. Former Captain of the Knights of Seiros, oft praised as the strongest knight in history. No wonder you were exceptional out there. Did I miss anything?"
Byleth tilts his head to the side. It's still odd for his father to called Captain Jeralt, at least in his eyes. "Captain?" He replies, head tilted to the side.
"You mean you don't know?" Claude asks, intently watching him. "Even I've heard the tales of his blade piercing the night, swift as the wind, breaking blades as easily as he breaks open a flask."
Byleth frowns at that, and Claude, picking up on it immediately, backtracks instantly. "Ah, it's not a bad thing! I was just saying that he's quite strong."
"I believe I've heard stories of you as well," Dimitri continues, hand to his chin. "The Ashen Demon, the Blade Breaker's only equal, striking down enemies with not even a hint of pleasure or hate. Nor a speck of blood on your clothes! The mercenaries that were meant to come with us as battalions all but sung your praises back at the monastery! You were just as exceptional as the stories say!"
Hearing that Dimitri knew of him before they had even met made Byleth feel warm.
"Which brings me to my proposition. The way you held your ground against the bandits' leader was captivating! You never lost control of the situation. It showed me that I still have much to learn."
"Your skill is precisely why I must ask you to consider lending your services to the Empire." Edelgard cut in. "I might as well tell you now. I am no mere student. I am also the Adrestian Empire's-"
"Halt, Edelgard. Please allow me to finish my own proposition."
Byleth definitely remembered this. The students, eager to attempt to endear the idea of Byleth lending his strength to one of their lands, would bicker back and forth to each other. As of now, such a sight was harmless. But Byleth, who knew the events of the future, struggled violently against his own nausea. He could barely hear what they were saying over that terrible ringing-
"Byleth, they're asking you a question! Byleth!"
"Uh- I- I don't know." Byleth then swore violently to himself in his head. Was he allowed to use a divine pulse for this? They seemed to refresh everyday, either way. He was totally allowed to use a divine pulse, right? It was his own power, anyway!
Sothis sighed. "Why are you like this. They were asking you where you were born!"
Then I wasn't actually lying!
"You don't know?" Claude asked, looking surprised. "You just keep getting more and more mysterious as the day goes by..."
"How do you not know?" Dimitri said, incredulous. "Next thing you'll tell us you don't know anything about the Church..."
This, too, was not entirely a lie.
"What?! You live in Fòdlan and you don't know anything about the Church of Seiros?! I'm sorry, but that's just incredible. I almost can't believe it!" Claude insisted, eyes shining as if he'd just laid eyes on a delectable looking sort of prey.
"But you can heal," Edelgard insisted. "Normally people of no faith whatsoever cannot use any healing spells!"
Byleth thought to himself for a moment. "I have faith in my skills. My father. My battalion. That's all."
For some reason, the three of them look absolutely stunned. Was it so odd a statement?
"I suppose you didn't need to tell them where you were born to impress them," Sothis sighed. "It seems as though no matter the time, these three will always be just so taken with you."
Byleth blinks, slow. It's not as if I'm trying to impress them. At this, Sothis laughs.
"Perhaps that is the problem."
No matter how much Byleth prods, Sothis refuses to tell him why she had said such a thing.
Jeralt had taken him aside, explained the entire situation, and then suddenly they were off to the academy, Byleth's ears being talked off by every single person here.
I must do things right this time. I must do things right this time. I have to stop this war before it begins. I have to protect Dimitri. I must do things right this time-
"Please stop, you're giving me a headache, and I am quite literally divinity," Sothis groaned. "Besides, they all want your attention. Why not give them some of it?"
"Byleth is your name, correct?" Alois boomed, practically skipping at Jeralt's side. "Goddess, you look absolutely nothing like your father! That shade of green looks quite familiar, but I don't know why..."
Byleth reaches a hand up into their hair and is shocked when they pull down a pale green coloured lock. Sothis hums quietly at the back of his mind. "I suppose this is quite telling that we're not from the right time. Explains why you still have access to all your pulses again. I wonder... If you called to the Sword of the Creator while in range, would it come to you?"
Called to it?
"Ah, that reminds me! It looks like Lady Rhea's hair, almost!"
Byleth is aware that there is probably a deeper meaning to that. How familiar Rhea treats him, how partial Rhea always was to him, how he had once woken up in her lap to her singing.
But right now, Byleth's too distracted by everyone trying to talk at once, along with the knights all speaking to each other, trying to catch up. It's rowdy, and Byleth's head is already too loud.
"I would be happy to show you around the monastery once we get there," Dimitri is saying, a pleasant smile on his face. "We can get to know each other as we walk!" It's odd to Byleth that they're not walking side by side. Before battle, the two of them would bring up the rear, talking strategy amongst other things. If Dimitri was feeling nervous, he'd take Byleth by the hand. It became a habit later in war, when Dimitri had learned to face his demons head on.
This Dimitri was still yet plagued by his own demons, and could not trust anyone with them, not even Dedue or any of his childhood friends.
Byleth desperately wanted to take his hand and search for easy comfort in their familiarity. It got to the point where Byleth could do that with any of his students- but now, Byleth was incapable of even walking at Dimitri's side.
"It really is Fódlan in a nutshell," Claude added. "The good and the bad. I can also walk you around if you want!"
"Like it or not, we'll be there soon." Claude pouted at Edelgard's words.
"What's wrong with some friendly banter?" Claude asked, still cheerful.
"There is nothing wrong with conversation." Edelgard replied, sticking her chin up in the air.
"Then I'll just keep talking. Byleth, right?" It was odd to hear his name pass the lips of his students, instead of professor. "We've got some great food in the dining hall. We've even got a fishing pond, if you're into that kind of stuff."
Byleth opened his mouth to contribute. "I like fishing." And then closed it.
Sothis groaned. "Way to contribute. Don't you want to get to know them better, to talk it out more? Say something else!"
Luckily for Byleth, Dimitri picked up the slack. "Then I think you'll have fun at the academy with us. You look about our age. We'll have fishing tournaments, I hear. You can catch all the fish you like. It'll be grand. Can you cook?"
Byleth nodded. He could hear Sothis clapping her hands in sarcasm. So he tried again. It was much harder to speak without people who knew his tells, his subtle gestures. "Spicy fish and turnip stew," Byleth said. "Sweet and salty whitefish sauté. Super spicy fish dango, fish sandwiches. If it's got fish, I know how to cook it."
His stomach growled at the thought. How embarrassing! Luckily for him, he had mastered the stoic face long, long ago, and didn't flush when Dimitri grinned and Claude laughed in response. "Forgive us," Dimitri said, a smile in his voice. "When we barged in on your house we prevented you from breaking your fast, haven't we? You can get a meal at the dining hall. We could share a meal together, actually! The way you're talking about these fish dishes is making me hungry as well."
Claude laughed. "Please stop trying to steal him away with the allure of food."
"I'm not trying anything," Dimitri retorted. "I just want to share a meal with him, is that so wrong?"
"Ah, we're here!" Alois announced, voice cheery. "Welcome to the monastery!"
It was like whiplash, seeing the monastery in a full state of repair. There were no bodies littering the area, nor stray arrows, nor crows picking away at scraps. There were no giant holes in the walls and no debris strewn across the flower fields. It stood tall and majestic, a flattering shade of gold in the sunlight. Byleth half expected it to catch fire the moment he laid eyes on it.
He would spend a year here trying to end a war that had yet to start.
Byleth would be lying if he said he was prepared.
Alas, time would not wait for him to be ready.