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a fool's dance

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“We’re on it, Professor.”

“Hilda, it’s not a mission. Why are you suddenly passionate about this?” Byleth sighs, wishing the girl would show this much effort in her studies.

“I like the idea of pilfering students!” Hilda smiles and grabs another scone, biting in and speaking around a mouthful. In every other situation, Hilda maintains a perfect picture of ladylike elegance, but Byleth has noticed that on occasion, when she is at ease, she would tend to… Byleth watches as another scone disappears.

Claude reaches out to move the platter of tea treats away, withstanding Hilda’s glare with remarkable ease. He must be used to it.

“We’re not pilfering students,” Byleth mutters, feeling defensive. She brushes the crumbs from the table and onto the floor for the birds. “We’re rounding out our house. We could use some more talent; you certainly aren’t pulling your weight.”

Hilda scoffs but doesn’t deny the accusation, and Byleth makes another silent, teacherly note to find a way to tap into that endless enthusiasm and direct it towards something more useful, but Claude interrupts the thought with a hum and a tilt of his head, like he’s really thinking about it.

“Do you have any ideas for students that might be best?”

Byleth smiles. “Yes.” She passes the little sheet of paper forward, her notes outlined.

“Mercedes? Linhardt? Not that I’m questioning your judgment, not at all, but why these students?”

Hilda pulls the note closer to her at Claude's surprise and looks over it. “Caspar?" she gasps. "Any insights you want to share, Professor? This isn’t the list I expected. It looks...

“Caspar has a good heart,” Byleth says easily, remembering his brave if bungled and hardheaded dash into danger just that week, all to protect his fellow students. “He would do well to be paired with Ignatz and Marianne, wouldn’t you think?” She can see the light in Claude’s eyes as it dances with mirth and interest, but she ignores it. “I can see their strengths. I wish to see them grow.”

“You wish to use them to make us grow,” he says, clearly under the impression that he has narrowed down on her true intent. “You’ve finally realized you’ve got the underdog House, and now you want to round it out with,” he spares a glance at the paper. “More underdogs. Probably to impress us with the need for change.”

“Not at all,” she says, at the same moment that Hilda starts cackling. Byleth gets to her feet, pulling the tea tray of sweets towards her. “I will take this, and you two will think about your behavior if you want to be involved in my schemes. I think Lysithea will appreciate these more than either of you,” she says, haughtily, and makes to leave.

“Oh, fine. Professor, stop. We misjudged you.” Byleth turns, shooting Hilda a look, but she only shrugs. “The last guy ran off, we’re traumatized.”

“Claude runs off all the time. He ran off before the last professor managed to start running.”

“That’s Claude, he’s running off towards and away from things all the time, but he runs off with a solid plan behind him, you know?”

Byleth knows.

She takes the tray of sweets with her anyway and ignores their protests. Manage your reward system, Manuela had said. Fine. This was her reward system, managed. She can hear Sothis cackling in glee as she leaves Claude and Hilda groaning behind her.

 

It’s not that the Deer are actually hopeless. It’s that they’re inconsistent. Lysithea pulls her weight and does it easily, her power overwhelming and her drive relentless, Lorenz is much the same, and Claude plots well enough to make up for Hilda’s laziness. But there are those, Byleth thinks, Ignatz and Marianne in particular, that need a bit of a push. 

She sat her father down after the first few days of training proved, eventually, to be going nowhere. There was no cohesion, no cooperation, or barely any at all. Her father merely rubbed his nose and looked over the notes and charts she had provided with his usual deep frown of concentration before saying something very interesting:

“All right, well, when I was captain, I used to do this thing. It’s a good trick. Pair the opposites together. Used to pair Alois with this kid he hated, to teach him to stop freaking talking. Anyway.” He had coughed at her look of disbelief. “Look, see here. Raphael seems like a great, strong, upstanding fellow. He can hold his own in the training halls and carry a conversation too, but Ignatz, right there, he’s got some issues in combat and… he’s really shy. Those two should go together. Lorenz here is a perfect student, I assume, but he’s having trouble… do your notes say, “behaving right?” Right. Stick him with someone who can make him think twice. I say that girl, Hilda. She’s a little demon.”

Byleth had stayed up late into the night reorganizing her notes based on his suggestions, and when she finally decided to gather Claude and Hilda to her, to discuss her ideas, it was with the intention of making them feel some semblance of responsibility for the growth of their peers. And that obviously backfired on her.

Hence her hands full of scones now, and hence Mercedes gasping when she sees her round the corner and nearly trip on a cobblestone’s edge.

“Professor!” Mercedes cries, running forwards to steady Byleth.

Byleth smiles as charmingly as she knows how to, without much practice. “Mercedes, thank you.”

“Of course, Professor. Do you need help carrying that? Come, tell me where you’re going. I can guide you.”

“I am off to the kitchens,” Byleth explains, happy for the turn of her luck. “Are you sure that you want to go all that way?”

“Of course! Here, let me open that door for you!”

Mercedes leads the way, chattering all the while, and Byleth decides she might as well get started, if only on her own. “Mercedes,” she interrupts. Mercedes turns to her with a curious look. “Would you like some of these? We can just eat them together.”

A look of gentle surprise glows over Mercedes’ face. “Yes!” she exclaims, pulling the door open and waving Byleth in. “I’d love that, Professor!”

Byleth senses that she is excited to have someone close to her own age to talk to, and she sympathizes, as a professor in limbo between a student and a faculty member. They make their way to the dining hall, and Byleth lets Mercedes lead the conversation wherever she wants, which is to an interesting subject.

 

“And at the end, you discover that he has been dead all along, and he is in fact the very ghost haunting the castle!”

Byleth nods politely, desperately trying to figure out how a girl could kiss a ghost and not notice he was dead. Or a ghost. “That sounds… so moving,” she says.

“It is! Oh, it’s so delightful, Professor. Let me lend you my copy. After you read it, we can talk about it some more. Although… I feel bad for having told you the ending.”

Byleth rushes to reassure her that no, she still wants to read the story, and that yes, she would still find enjoyment in it even knowing the truth behind the dashing, dark, lonely lover.

Soon, the scones are all gone, and only a few other sweets remain. Byleth offers Mercedes the choice to do with them all what she will and looks on in satisfaction when Mercedes immediately gives them all to a group of students seated beside them.

“Mercedes, have you ever given any thought to joining the Golden Deer?”

“Oh! Oh, I confess… I have. You’re very impressive, Professor. And I feel a great connection to you, it must be that we’re so close in age. I feel my strength will only grow under your guidance.”

Byleth swallows a sigh of relief and launches into a discussion thankfully far removed from ghosts and dead lovers. Within a few days, Mercedes is approved for a transfer.

This begins what Claude fondly refers to as the Glorious Pilfering of Pupils. It will also begin his time on weed duty with Lorenz, she says to him viciously, ignoring his groans and Lorenz’s enraged gasps.

She’s walking back to the training rooms from supervising the first few minutes of that particular pairing on weed duty when she comes across the mask beneath the bushes. She recognizes it, and remembers the stand-offish, rude, unkind man who had told her, on her first day at the monastery, that he had no interest in speaking to her or befriending her.

She considers leaving it there, she even considers stepping on it. But there is something in the air lately, something that feels like mercy. She picks the white mask up and turns it over in her hands. Maybe.

 

“Her face is familiar,” Jeritza mutters, his mask hiding whatever human frown might be currently marking his forehead.

“Who?” Byleth asks, watching him turn and cross his arms as she approaches.

“Professor Byleth,” he says in a cold tone, not surprised and not happy to see her. “I have told you before—”

“Yes, you’re not interested in friendship. We exhausted that particular topic, I remember. But a man in a mask standing around muttering about people’s faces tends to pique the interest.”

He sneers, his voice telling her what he thinks of her interest. “I did not take you for a gossip.”

“Didn’t take you for a stand-around-and-talk-to-yourself type, but there you stand,” she says boldly, carefully lifting an arm to reveal the mask in her grip, managing his ire and disdain with the distraction at the last moment.

“That is mine,” he says accusingly. His hand twitches as if to grab it, but something stops him. Basic decorum, maybe, or what he has of it.

“Why,” Byleth exclaims a touch flatly, “so it is.” She shrugs, fingering the edge of the mask. “Found it on the way in. Do you need it?”

She can practically hear him evaluating whether or not he can spare a mask, just to avoid having to thank her or interact with her like a decent human being. She wonders if he has many masks, or just a few. She wonders if he can spare this one. The bland smile at her lips pulls into something a little harsher than the sweetness she intends, and he glares at it, even under his unmoving mask, ominously.

“I was thinking of Mercedes,” he says. She can take it or leave it; the message is clear.

“Oh, my little student?”

“Older than you,” he mutters. Then takes the mask as she offers it up. He looks uncomfortable, perhaps at his own comment. She wonders why. She knows Mercedes doesn’t do much by fencing.

“What are your duties here?” Silence. “What do you like to do?” she tries again.

“I train. And I train others.”

“Would you like to spar with me?”

He stares at her for a long time before nodding. “One day.”

“I meant right now,” she says tentatively, feeling strangely like she was trying to calm a large and violent horse. “If you’d like.”

“I don’t know if that’s wise.”

She takes a moment to appreciate that he is speaking, and not merely turning away with scoffs and insults, but presses him again. “I would never aim to hurt anyone in a spar, I know many of the faculty have misgivings about my past, but I wouldn’t.”

Jeritza, for the first time in her memory, smiles. It’s a cruel smile, it’s sharp and just slightly empty, hollow. “I see.” Something about it is terrifying. “Then you see why we cannot spar. I do not play games with children.”

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t be a professor here,” she snaps, forgetting her plan to befriend him.

“Perhaps,” he says, still with that rude air to his smile.

“Well, not that this hasn’t been a pleasure,” she says, “but I must be going.” I’ll keep an eye on you, though.

He nods stiffly and pockets the mask, watching her with a strange look as she leaves. It is animosity, half hidden, she is sure of it.

She has been around mercenaries for long enough to know when someone is tensing for a fight, ready to strike. Jeritza is constantly ready, constantly hiding that he’s ready. She remembers their first meeting, his flat stare and cold dismissal, his body language screaming for a sword in his hand.

What does her fellow faculty member at the Academy see in her that is so threatening?

  

She begins to employ her father’s tactics, but she does not create pairs. She has a theory that the pairs will follow when a successful dynamic in the class begins to form.

She begins with Hilda, Marianne, and Ignatz. A group tailored to tap into Hilda’s latent ability to teach anyone anything if she’s annoyed enough. It even convinces her to take on more work, without even noticing, in an effort to demonstrate how to do something just so.  “Let me show you. Move over,” rapidly becomes a common phrase in Hilda’s vocabulary.

Byleth wanders into the classroom early one morning to see Hilda up to her elbows in the training-ground maps, with practice scenarios on the board. Marianne’s face is tear-streaked, but resolved and almost fierce.

“Come on, Marianne. We went over this. The way you look at the map before the battle will influence your positions. Try moving it around, turning it upside down, get a new perspective.”

Byleth walks in, arms full of books, and plops them down on the nearest desk to get their attention. Hilda looks at her with a pout, but Byleth merely lifts a hand with a smile.

“I just had to drop these off, there’s plenty of time before class starts. Carry on.” And she leaves, determined not to make Hilda shy or self-conscious about her self-appointed role as tutor.

She doesn’t even pause later that week, when she passes by Hilda demonstrating for Ignatz how best to use one’s innocent appearance to pull the wool over an enemy’s eyes at dinner. Ignatz is actually paying attention, his hand under his chin, leaning in. Byleth notes that his companion at dinner is Raphael, and judging by Raphael’s curious look, listening too, he is picking up a few things.

However, there is now the problem of Ignatz’s newly perfected ‘innocent act’ as Claude terms it, complaining to her one day over lunch. “He’s got that Hilda thing in his blood now, there’ll be no living with him. He got Lorenz to do the tea for him yesterday at breakfast. Can you believe it?”

She does believe it. They’ve all shown so much improvement, just from teaching each other. Learning from each other and helping one another. She ponders pairing Jeritza with an opposite, to draw him out of that stand-offish, perpetual gloom. She supposes that the job must fall to her.

 

“I said, Professor, that—”

I have no interest in friendship,” Byleth mocks, deepening her voice, staring down his look of affronted outrage with a blank gaze of her own. “I mentioned before that we had exhausted the topic, correct?”

“I value. Solitude.” He grits out.

“I value basic etiquette.” He is silent. “Such as: Good morning, Jeritza.”

He is still silent. And then: “Good morning.” She waits. “Professor.”

Byleth takes it, and leaves. She can feel his stare. Manage your reward system, Maneula had said. Very well. His beloved solitude would be his reward.

He comes by her classroom later, in a fleeting, fragile overture of a ceasefire. “You’ve dropped this, it seems,” he says. He drops a little box of tea on the table and walks away. He nearly gets to the door before she realizes that she has neither spoken, nor thanked him.

“You know, this is a really good tea,” she says. “You’re welcome to join me for a cup.” He seems to hesitate, and she remembers, suddenly, the clear feeling she had that he regarded her as a threat. He is still on edge around her, ready to strike. She feels no such way about him.

He leaves, giving only a brief nod before disappearing.

I see, she thinks. Tea with me is no reward.

 

She doesn’t see him for long periods of time, so when he does appear, in his usual spots, she targets him relentlessly. Those are Claude’s words for it, at least.

For of course the students have noticed, and of course they’re evenly split between worried for her feelings, the sanctity of her heart, and cheering her on.

“Professor, you should probably avoid that man,” Lysithea would say seriously, with all the airs of a concerned grandmother with jewels in her hair and a stiff collar. “He’s trouble. I can tell.”

“Professor! He’s kinda cute, with that mask and that kind of gloomy, dark vibe. Go for it!” Hilda, obviously, had no such worries about her professor’s behavior.

They need not worry worry, she’s certain. She ignores Sothis’s distant snort of disbelief, because she has spotted the subject of her thoughts. Byleth raises a hand in greeting, feeling a shock of surprise and satisfaction when Jeritza returns the silent greeting.

Maybe she should spar with him. Maybe that’s the secret to him.

“Professor.”

“Jeritza, what’s this? Two greetings, one of which appears to be unprompted?” is what she wants to say, but she fears frightening him off. “Just Byleth, please,” she says instead, approaching him slowly, overly conscious of and embarrassed by her initial almost jog when he had lifted his hand in turn. “I call you Jeritza, after all.”

“I have noticed that you and Mercedes have grown quite close,” he says, ignoring her. She shrugs. They have, but she’s wary of him and unsure of his intentions.

“Is she a student of yours? I didn’t think she was one for fencing,” Byleth says frankly. “It wasn’t in the goals we discussed.”

“Goals?”

Byleth waves a hand vaguely, unable to keep a fond smile off her face. “She’s bound to be an amazing mage, but we’re training her in archery particularly too.” He does not say anything in response, and she can sense him pulling away. Her curiosity wins out over her instinct to approach him slowly, like she might an injured bird. “Do you know her, then? You said she was familiar.”

She senses that he has closed off now, and she regrets it. He leaves, without saying goodbye. Byleth throws a pebble into the water, a little fiercely, and wishes she had just kept her mouth shut.  

It’s not that the thought does not occur to her, it’s just that it’s almost too obvious. They have similar hair. It curls in just the same way, it’s the same soft, strange blonde color, and Byleth almost dismisses it just because it’s so ridiculous— For whatever reason, Mercedes had not grown up in her father’s home. That much was obvious in her records. Byleth left the dock thinking lightly on the mystery, entertaining the questions as they arose, but putting them from her mind as she returned to the classroom.

Her students have her full attention.

 

By the time Lysithea manages to carry on a conversation or an argument without insulting her opponent into submission, Hilda and Claude return to her sheepishly and ask to see the list again. Smugly, she shows them the same paper they had laughed at only a few weeks prior, Mercedes’ name crossed off neatly.

She leaves the demonic duo to approach Caspar and Linhardt, and Byleth moves Leonie into the mix with Marianne for shopping duties. Then, she sets to work on building Marianne’s confidence in earnest. Byleth catches her frowning dubiously during one of their seminars and takes the opportunity to gently prod her towards the spotlight.

“Marianne, do you want to tell me a reason why Claude’s formation here isn’t ideal?”

“Oh,” Marianne stutters, unable to say anything negative about the House leader. “I can’t. Please, don’t—”

Lysithea, surprisingly, is the one to speak up. “Marianne,” she says, simply. Marianne looks to her and Lysithea merely glares and turns away with a deep frown. Byleth isn’t sure what transpires between them, but Marianne takes a deep breath and haltingly, but correctly, tells them that the wyverns the students are trained on do not cover as much terrain as the ones the Knights of Seiros have trained, and his formation would be overrun with enemies fairly quickly.

Claude does not pause, except to tilt his head and think, he does not falter. He takes his chalk and returns to the board seriously, asking Marianne her opinion of a new idea.

 

The plans progress, her students improve, and Mercedes finds her place amongst the Deer, a Lion in the forest. The groups organize themselves once those more difficult dynamics begin to heal, and within just a few weeks, just like her father said they would, they begin to really, truly change. The students find their paths, they learn who can help them, they teach each other, and Byleth has the pleasure of meeting Claude’s eyes with a triumphant smirk when he witnesses, for himself, Hilda pulling Mercedes aside to quickly, without a fuss, correct her form during a drill.

She watches as he realizes, in a clear rush of enlightened horror, that his weeding assignments with Lorenz have made them almost friendly, that she has effectively made for him a decent rival to keep him on his toes. He’ll forgive her, she knows, but it is a delight to tell her father that night about his look of outrage and betrayal.

 

And on the night of the festival an ancient Relic sword falls into Byleth’s hands, glowing and calling to her as her Deer wipe the Tomb clear of intruders on all sides. She holds it, watches it come apart in her hands like so many teeth, serrated, and dig into the flesh of a man.

Then she turns on the one who would command those who tried to lay a hand on her students.

The Death Knight watches, eyes eerie and cold, as she dispatches the enemy and turns on him.

She doesn’t know how she can tell, but he seems thrilled. It’s like a strange, uncanny dance, the way she faces him, poised and ready to remove his head from his shoulders, the way he watches her, clearly anticipating the strike. She nearly manages to reach him, that feeling of his delight even more clear somehow, his mask not so unreadable with a sword at his head, but he’s gone within a moment. She lands on nothing, the sword still flaming like a torch in the dark.

His obvious anticipation, his delight, it haunts her afterwards. Something about it stays for a long time after he’s gone, after she’s picked herself up, after she’s back in her room with a warm cup of tea and Mercedes for company.

“Something about that Death Knight…” Mercedes begins quietly. Byleth had let her into her room, and they were seated by the window, on the sill, balancing teacups in their hands. Unable to sleep, they stayed awake late in the night, processing the events of the invasion. “Something about him is so familiar.”

Byleth wonders what about a man in armor and a mask that covered his whole face could be familiar. But then, what could it be about a man in armor and a mask that covered his whole face that could be so easily read? “In what way?”

Mercedes shrugs, delicately. “I just feel like I know him.”

“He looked excited to fight.”

“Yes, something about that… Something about it is familiar.”

The fact that Mercedes had noticed something like bloodthirst, under all that armor, and then felt it resonate with something in her memory? Byleth brings her tea to her lips, and watches Mercedes gaze out at the moon. It’s interesting.

A mercenary would spot that sort of thing immediately, would see it like the reflection in a mirror. But what was Mercedes?

The next morning, Jeritza approaches her at the dining hall. She does not stare or show her surprise at seeing him, around other people, when he usually avoids them at every cost. He sits down before her, mask obscuring his expression, and frowns.

“Jeritza?” she gives in and asks.

“Prof— Byleth,” he says, bringing his coffee to his lips. She wonders if he rejected her offer of tea a while ago because he prefers coffee. He seems to be really struggling, she can sense a glare somewhere under the mask. She realizes that he does not know what to say, but that he is here anyway.

“Jeritza, I’ve been thinking,” she says, with a feeling like bubbles in her chest. “About that spar we discussed.” It’s the right thing to say, apparently, because he sets the mug of coffee down and nods.

“I want to spar with you,” he says. “I wish to face you in battle.”

“It’d just be a spar,” she mutters, confused by his dramatic tone. “Actually, I wanted to request that you accompany me and my students on a coming mission.”

“I am unavailable in the coming months for anything but instruction.”

“A spar it is, then?”

Jeritza almost smiles normally, his face still inscrutable. “I would like nothing better,” he says.

 

It’s not just a spar, clearly. To him, it’s a lot more than that. He’s as tense as ever, he doesn’t let up for a moment. His form, however, far from being too stiff or too inflexible, seems to operate on a completely different level. Whatever is going on in his head, it does not translate to his movements, to his form, to his poise with the sword.

It ends with her on her back, a sword at her throat, and his eyes wide behind the mask. He’s grinning, less hollow than his smile, but just as sharp and terrifying. “Again,” she gasps, pushing the tip of the sword away. She should be terrified, with a man so clearly on edge above her, with a sword at her throat, but she’s only determined to beat him. She hardly pays attention to the crowd they’ve gathered, filling up the training hall and whispering. “Come on,” she says, standing, out of breath. “Again.”

Jeritza steps back, his grin softening into something almost normal and human. “As you command,” he smiles. “Professor.”

“It’s Byleth.” She gets into position, watches him do the same, and then she pounces. There are cheers as she disarms him and seats herself firmly on his chest. “But I guess,” she says, “since I’ve taught you a lesson, you can call me ‘Professor.’”

He snorts, the smile almost completely human now, and Byleth rolls off, chuckling and out of breath, her fist raised in victory. She’s smug, though all she did was succeed in making it a draw. It doesn’t matter, it was fun.

Her Deer cheer where they’re gathered, likely collecting their winnings from whoever was foolish enough to bet against them.

She is certain that it is this victory, and not their victories against the bandits and monsters, that prompts Caspar and Linhardt to request their transfer to her class, to take their places in the pages of notes she compiles nightly on her Deer.

 

Looking back, if ever there was a golden time at the Academy? That was it.

During those days, The Golden Deer, one or two at any time, could be found lingering too, listening despite themselves as the soft-spoken, gentle Marianne would begin a full literary analysis of The Tale of Grima’s Vessel, which she would argue with unexpected vigor was a romance at its core. Linhardt would take up the position of whatever was the direct opposite of what Mercedes said in response, and the two of them would go at it.

Any night there wasn’t a mission or an exam the next day (and sometimes when there was), the entire Golden Deer house could be found seated and laughing late into the night as the dining hall emptied around them. They would spend entire evenings together, eating, arguing, and annoying the staff by staying far too late.

Byleth, loathe to deny them anything now, offered a deal for the head cook. Her students would take over closing down the dining hall, and cleaning everything up, if they were allowed to stay and…

“Hang out,” Claude had prompted behind her, firmly.

Byleth remembers nodding, staring straight at the head cook. “Let them. Uhm. Hang out. I will personally oversee the clean-up.” The head cook had looked at her suspiciously, before throwing up her hands and declaring the whole affair Byleth’s funeral.

Yes, if ever she lived days like the golden past that bards sung about in ballads and poems, it would have been that time.

 

But then Flayn disappears.

The investigation turns up a remarkable amount of leads, nearly all pointing to Jeritza. It’s difficult, to hear people stutter a little before they confess what they know, and who they know it about. It hurts especially when her own students tiptoe around their conclusions. So she squares her shoulders and comes forward, to the Knights of Seiros, with her findings. When her Deer find the tunnel in Jeritza’s room and Manuela’s unconscious form, she goes in first. Sword drawn, mind clear; she leads the way.

When they finally face the Death Knight, she steps out in front, sword ready, eyes hard, ready for his dance of damnation. He’s overjoyed, she can see it in him. His armor makes him huge as he dismounts his steed and lifts his own sword, and she’s ready. She’s pushed the students back, as far as she can, the labyrinth is clear of the enemy, and they’re safe. It’s just this monster left, and he won’t last.

“Halt,” a voice cries. “You’re having too much fun.”

She can see the change in the Death Knight’s demeanor, his anticipation becoming irritation, his excitement disappearing. “You’re ruining my game,” he growls, his voice unnaturally deep. A horrible sound. She does not let her guard down, uncaring if the dog’s master succeeds in bringing him to heel.

There’s a flash of light and the Death Knight is gone. Without missing a second, Byleth turns on the Flame Emperor, death in her stance.

“You will do well to remember,” the Emperor says, his voice just as distorted as the Death Knight’s. “I will be the one to reforge the world.” And then he’s gone too.

“Praise the Goddess, I suppose,” Lorenz mutters, relaxing from his place by the door.

“He sounds like he’s going to be back,” Linhardt says, lowering his shields slightly now that the coast appears clear.

Byleth looks over Flayn and the mysterious student beside her, where they both lie unconscious but unharmed.

She wonders what would have happened if she had given the Death Knight what he clearly wanted: a fight to the death. A dance, he had said. A game.

She almost wishes she had the chance.

Jeritza is still gone when Flayn returns, hale and healthy, to join her class.

When anyone tries to talk to her about it, she says only that she is happy Flayn is safe. Mercedes confesses that she felt that Jeritza knew her, somehow, that sometimes he spoke to her, unprompted and stiff, but not unkind. She says she cannot believe he would hurt anyone. But he’s gone, and the evidence is plain, Byleth tells her.

Byleth moves on.

Flayn is set to join Linhardt cleaning the library and Caspar and Ignatz take over weeding for Lorenz and Claude, and Byleth will only say that she is happy Seteth is no longer beside himself with terror, and that Flayn is safe.

Byleth withstands the strange feeling of shame that accompanies her students worrying for her, but she cannot tolerate it for long. She hardens her demeanor and bears the discomfort, the questions, and she reserves her smiles for her students, for the nights in the dining halls, and for her father.  

She does not walk by the training hall and feel regret, she does not ask the castle guards if they’ve heard a single word from anyone about a man in a mask, she does not feel roiling unhappiness at the smell of coffee.

When Jeralt hugs her, silently sympathetic, she does not betray her feelings. But she holds him tight and wishes that she could stay, safe and warm, in her father’s arms forever.

 

The Death Knight does not stop haunting them, at every turn, seeking out his so-called fun on the battlefield with a mad glint deep within his death’s head mask. There’s a strange energy in him that seeks her out, that waits until she catches sight of his horrible horns, his gleaming eyes, his towering armor, before turning into something like excitement. He lingers, always, and watches. He lifts no hand to attack nor aid the villagers in Remire. He only stands aside and watches, those cold eyes alight with that thing she feels certain is some dark, twisted version of delight.

He watches her, but she cannot spare him the satisfaction of a battle. She never can.

But he never challenges her, it is as though he knows. Soon he becomes but a footnote in her mind as a greater evil reaches out to dig its knives into her back.

 

 

She brushes the tears from her eyes and opens the door, relieved that it is just Mercedes with a tray of food from the dining halls. She lets her into the dark room, and gestures to the desk. Mercedes puts the tray down and comes to hold her hand, grasping it tightly, and Byleth feels the tears coming back.

“Oh, Professor,” Mercedes whispers. “I wish there was something more I could do to help. Grief is torture, I know.”

Byleth smiles, under the tears, and lets her head fall onto her friend’s shoulder. “Just talking helps,” she says honestly. Mercedes guides her to the bed and pushes her to sit, going back to get the tray. Mercedes takes this to heart, and as Byleth eats, she begins to speak.

“I have a little brother you know,” Mercedes says. Byleth waits, watching her, sipping quietly at the tea Mercedes had brought. “His name is Emile. I don’t know where he is now, but I think of him often. It helps, sometimes, to think that… that at least he is safe. Though he is not where I wish he was. I regret him a lot, lately, I think ‘I should have gone back for him.’ But I was just a child, and sometimes things are out of our control.”

Byleth remembers sending time back, over and over, screaming, trying to save her father. She longs to have been the one to rip blood from the monster who did it. She shudders. “Lately,” she whispers, hoarsely, putting that failure from her mind “it helps me to think of him when I was still a child.”

“He must have been an amazing father.”

“He was. He was. He put up with so much, he dealt with so much fear, all on my behalf, but he was—” she sobs, covering her mouth. Mercedes pulls her in again for a hug.

“They’re very worried about you,” she says kindly. “They all want to see you.”

“Just a bit longer.”

“Take all the time you need. I understand. It’s hard to have all those eyes on you, isn’t it?”

“Yes. But there’s—there’s so much to be done.” Sothis had given up so much for her to live, to keep fighting. “They deserve the best of me.”

“They have it. You’ve never given anyone anything less than your best.”

Byleth laughs, resting her head on Mercedes’ shoulder, and sighs. “Soon,” she reassures Mercedes, her eyes slipping shut. “I’ll be back soon.”

 

She awakes to the moonlight and a breeze. Something in her freezes, but she realizes, quickly, that it must be that Mercedes left the window open. There’s a hand on her cheek, then, and in a second she has the dagger she keeps under her pillow at the intruder’s throat, ready to rip it open, pushing the figure down onto the ground. It's only after she's got him pinned that she realizes who it is.

She tightens her grip; a line of blood appears at his neck. “Jeritza?”

“Byleth,” he says. “Your hair is different. So are your eyes.” He reaches out to push her hair out of her face, his mouth open in what looks like… ease. How? The last time she saw Jeritza he had barely managed a human-looking smile, had barely tolerated her outside of a spar, what had changed?

He’s somehow relaxed now, now that she finally has a dagger to his throat, he’s almost at ease. Lazily lying under her with death at his neck. She presses the dagger in deeper, watching the blood well up, before looking into his eyes. That damned mask is still there. “You know most of the truth now,” he says.

“Why are you here?”

“I do not know,” he says. “I don’t.”

“I should kill you,” she tells him, the dagger ready, the blood already sliding down his throat. It would be so easy.

“You won’t be able to. You’ll die trying.” There’s something sharp at her ribs, she looks down, and there, under her nightgown, is a blade. He came ready, and she had merely woken up.

“How did you get inside?”

“Secrets,” he murmurs, his voice like a threat and something else, lazy and familiar. She’s suddenly overly aware of her nightgown, her bedhead, her own confusion. “I wouldn’t push the matter, in your position.” His hand falls from her face to her shoulder, fingering the lacy edge of her nightgown.

She feels strangely defensive, if he thinks the lace is stupid. It had been a gift from Mercedes when she realized Byleth had been sleeping in nothing but underwear. “And if I pushed it?” she asks.

“It wouldn’t be pleasant,” he says, pushing the blade harder against her side in a warning.

“I would die, just to kill you. I would let you kill me as I slit your throat.”

“I almost prefer that end, for you and me.”

“What’s the alternative?” For you and me?

“Your students don’t deserve to find your body,” he says, and she snarls, shoving an elbow into his ribs, uncaring of the blade digging into her skin now. She can feel the blood welling up as it cuts into her, and he seems unbothered by her jab. “I don’t actually have to kill you, either.”

“Under orders?”

He shrugs as much as shrugging is possible from the ground, with a blade at the throat. “I am not to make an enemy of you.”

“Who are you? Why are you here?”

“I am your only equal,” he smiles, that hollow one that had shaken her so many times before. “And I do not know why I am here.”

“So, what is this? Nostalgia? Regret?”

“Not regret.”

“Are you guilty?”

“Of what?”

She pushes herself off of him and leans against the bed, dagger still ready. “I should kill you. I should die killing you.”

“I am not the one behind the kidnappings,” he says, and maybe he lies, but she does not know. “That was all Solon. What would you kill me for?”

“For disappearing, for being clearly some kind of villain. The tunnel was in your room, you must be in league with… Solon.”

“You sound like the heroes in Mercedes’ stories.”

“There it is again.” She points the dagger at him. “How do you know Mercedes?” He does not answer. “More secrets? It doesn’t matter, if you hurt her, I will kill you.”

“Good,” he mutters. “My time is running out. Look after her, and do not die until I can kill you,” he says with an almost kind tone to his voice beneath the flat threat.

“What did you gain,” she asks, nearly pleading. “What could you possibly have gained, coming here?” His mask is inscrutable, his mouth is pulled downwards, and his posture is stiff again.

“A feeling.” She waits for more. “A feeling like being human,” he says.

“You can have that feeling all the time if you stay. You can prove you’re innocent, if you are.”

“No,” he says, and there’s a look of almost pain to him. She can’t tell, not exactly, but she knows his frowns, she knows his scowls, though she cannot see them all. She knows the pull of his mouth now because she does not recognize it. “I am not a human anymore. It’s nearly time.”

In a burst of familiar light, he is gone. She remembers that burst of light… A sting at her side distracts her, and she looks down to see the blood pooling. Her nightgown is ruined, so she shucks it off and begins to wrap the wound, tightly.

Without bothering to get dressed again, Byleth simply shuts the window, latches it, and falls asleep on top of the covers. She dreams of a half-remembered feeling, and wakes with the realization that before she attacked him, Jeritza had been stroking her cheek. That the look on his face really was something different, something she had never seen before.

 

The Death Knight is at the battle at Garreg Mach, but she can spare him no attention. Her attention is on her students, directing them and placing guards around them to keep them safe. She can see Claude fighting his way towards Hilda and Linhardt and feels something in her chest loosen. He’d keep them safe. She is sure of it.

She turns to the swarming beasts and draws her sword.

 

She awakes alone, lost to time.

 

“Professor!” Byleth spins around, sending the bandit she had been trying to gut for firing an arrow dangerously close to Claude’s neck head-first into a wall. She spares the bandit a glance; he’s out cold. She tosses him aside, running to Mercedes and hauling her into a hug.

“Mercedes! Look at you!” Claude crows, still firing arrow after arrow. “Nice hat.”

Byleth really does try to look at Mercedes, but she has her face buried into Byleth’s neck, sobbing.

There is an explosion of sound and a flare of heat, and Lysithea appears, clearing an alley of several bandits. All while watching Byleth nervously.

“Professor,” she says formally. “I am glad you’re not dead.” Byleth holds out an arm that doesn’t contain Mercedes, ecstatic when Lysithea dives forward to join the hug with a barely concealed sob of relief.

“Don’t worry about me, Teach,” Claude says, exasperated but smiling. “I’ll just,” he grunts and shoves an arrow into a bandit’s neck with his hands. “Finish off these guys alone.”

He doesn’t, for Hilda aims an axe at the leader’s head and twirls, cheering: “The gang’s reunited! Just like old times! Hey, Marianne, look! The Professor’s back!”

“Uhm?” Leonie interjects, rolling her eyes. “Lysithea? Quit hogging the professor.”

“No,” comes the muffled sob. “I won’t.”

 

For the Deer it has been five years since the Imperial Army marched on the monastery, five years of grief numbed into acceptance, rallied forth again by the reappearance of their professor. For them it’s been five years of war, of confusion, and of—

“So many taxes,” Lorenz sighs, shaking his head. “All to secure the borders, you see, and keep the Empire docile at the border.” Byleth nods along, trying to understand what a tax was, resolving to ask someone later. Lorenz had grown up well, and strong, but just as incomprehensible. “We were concerned for a while about the people, but the war looming just a river away seems to have impressed on everyone something like the urgency of the situation.”

“It really is just a river away, isn’t it, Mercedes? Isn’t House Bartels just by the old Ordelia estate?” Raphael asks.

Mercedes nods, tapping her fingers against the teacup in her hands. “Yes,” she says. “I must thank you again for your help last year, Lysithea.”

Lysithea waves a hand in an impatient gesture that might be considered rude, but it’s Lysithea. “Don’t even mention it,” she says. “Leonie and I were glad to help, right? What are a few battalions between friends?” Leonie sits down beside Mercedes, confirming she was indeed happy to help with whatever she had helped with, and that’s the last of the Deer, gathered in the crumbling monastery’s dining hall.

With a feeling like happiness, Byleth watches them settle back in with each other, just like they had been, for her, only a day ago.

Claude and Hilda wrangle the Knights into cleaning up the monastery, and Caspar and Linhardt arrive shortly after, together, as always. She pulls them aside, half to explain that no, Linhardt, she doesn’t remember what has kept her alive, or if it had anything to do with her Crest, but please, could one of them explain what taxes were?

 

The look on Caspar’s face is grim, but he smiles tightly when he sees her. “Professor,” he says in clear relief. “I’m glad you came.” She approaches the table he’s got his plans out on, noting how many are drawn up. “Remember the Death Knight?”

The Death Knight’s barely concealed anticipation, his thrill to fight her, his bloodthirsty glare; it fills her mind. “Yes.”

“He’s been spotted in the Forest, with an army of Imperial soldiers. This is our chance to get him out of the way, and to foil his plans if he’s trying—Oh, Mercedes.”

There’s a look like grim determination on Mercedes’ face as she approaches them. “Caspar, it’s always good to see you, but I couldn’t help but overhear something about the Death Knight.”

Byleth shoots her a glance, wondering if Mercedes remembers what she told Byleth that night, five years ago. “Yes, he might have been sent to scout out Garreg Mach. I suppose that means he is still allied with the Imperial forces. Maybe he’s not just a hired attack dog.”

“I see…” Byleth watches Mercedes’ face fall as she looks away.

Caspar looks between them. “What’s going on?”

Byleth looks at Mercedes’ face, closed off now, and shakes her head at Caspar, though she knows he means well.

“It’s nothing,” she says. “Come, let’s gather our forces and move. Mercedes? Do you want to accompany—”

“I have to see him,” Mercedes cries, already turning to leave. “Let’s go, we have to hurry!”  

“What is going on with her? Mercedes? Wait!”

Byleth groans as Caspar runs off, again, but she knows there’s no point stopping him now. He’d always been quite a protective kid. Although, she thinks, already hunting out Claude to plan out an ambush and save Caspar and Mercedes from something probably dire, he is a fine young man now, as father might have put it.

 

Claude flanks from the east, and she takes the south, leading her battalion and Lysithea forward, Ignatz ready to snipe from a safe distance. She hopes they aren't too late, but she has a feeling…

“Emile—” Mercedes is saying something to the Death Knight, earnestly by the sound of it. And the Death Knight is listening.

Where had she heard that name before? Byleth signals Lysithea forward, deeper into the cover of the trees, and signs for Ignatz to ready an arrow. She creeps forward, slowly, never making a sound, wondering at Mercedes’ fearless stance before the Death Knight, even with Caspar nearby.

“I haven’t seen you in so long. Please, brother, show me your face,” Mercedes pleads. Caspar shoots a look into the foliage where Byleth had not told him she’d be waiting, he looks terrified. She prays he keeps his cool.

Would the Death Knight kill his own sister, if Mercedes’ belief turned out to be true? Could she take the risk? Byleth makes up her mind with a signal to her students, and she darts forward, the Deer falling into position behind her. If Claude is anything like her memory of him, those attempts at an Imperial ambush are long gone.

“Flee…” The Death Knight rumbles, his voice grating and metallic in a horrific way, looking straight at Mercedes. “I will not follow. But if you choose to fight, I will have no choice,” and his gaze moves to Byleth, “but to kill you all.” A shiver goes through Byleth at the sight of that old bloodthirst. That itch to fight, she can still see it in him.

“I’d like to see you try,” she mutters, raising the Creator’s sword. The Death Knight raises an arm in a signal, and when nothing happens, he rears his horse back, cursing. Byleth smiles. Claude had done it.

“It’s just you now, Death Knight. Never try to out-scheme the Golden Deer,” she can dimly hear Raphael hooting. “Now, what was it you used to tell me? One of us will die, but I’ll enjoy this dance… to the death?”

“Of damnation,” Caspar corrects, still visibly relieved at the sight of her and slightly higher pitched than usual. “Dance of damnation. That’s what he says.”

“Mercedes,” the Knight growls, ignoring their banter. “Leave the monastery or face me and die in battle.”

“I won’t,” Mercedes says. “I’ve made my choice.”

“Then do not die,” he says to her. “Until I can kill you.”

Byleth’s ears roar with something unfamiliar and she throws the sword as soon as the words settle in her mind, unseating the Death Knight from his horse and vaulting over it, straight into a familiar position with a blade at his neck. She wrenches the sword from his armor, where it has embedded itself. It’s very good armor, apparently, because he’s still alive. A pierce to the breast would have rent it, however. She notes that for later.

“Jeritza. Take off the mask.”

She can hear Mercedes scream behind her, but she doesn’t listen. She presses the sword deeper under the helm, closer to his neck. “Don’t you want to spar?” she bites out, hurt and a little selfish, she knows, for ruining Mercedes’ moment with her brother. The first in maybe a decade or more. What was Jeritza to her, for her to be this angry?

It was like it had been in that room, long ago, only this time a death’s head stared back at her. She still can’t read him, she still can’t understand him, she still wants to kill him.

“Face me in battle,” he says, his voice unrecognizable, but the cadence underneath… the way the words clipped at the end. It’s all Jeritza. She longs to shove the blade into the space under his mask, but she does not. Instead she stands and levels her sword at him, fully aware of Ignatz and Lysithea poised and ready for any signal, aware of Caspar’s horrified grip on Mercedes. The roaring rage in her head fades away, and the world comes back, and she can hold the bloodlust back too.

“Emile,” Mercedes pleads. “Join us. Take off that mask, come back with me.” Caspar wraps his arms around her shoulders and Mercedes lets him, though the metal of his armor must be uncomfortable.

“You won’t survive against me in battle,” Byleth tells him. “It’s been a great many years since we last fought, and I have powers now that far exceed yours. You’d do well to think of your survival.”

“My life doesn’t matter. I don’t have a soul left to—”

“I only mentioned your survival,” Byleth cuts him off. “I don’t care about your soul. I don’t care to kill you, either. Mercedes is strong, but it might destroy her.”

“She’s accepted her fate,” his horrible voice says, “she’s made her choice.”

“She has,” Byleth agrees, “but she did not make yours. So, Jeritza, or whatever you call yourself now, either come with us or take care not to die until I kill you. Because I will kill you.”

“Why do you not kill me now?”

“Mercedes is the only thing keeping you alive.”

“Then give her this,” he says, holding a jeweled relic, “and I will leave. But if she faces me in battle, she will die. You cannot save me, Professor.” He tosses the relic onto the ground at her feet.

“I can try.”

“Did teaching soften your heart? What did this to you? Death?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” she says, moving her sword away the moment Lysithea’s spells take effect, a silent threat behind her. She can feel their heat like a furnace at her back, but she does not flinch, trusting her student’s control. It must be unbearable in that heavy suit of armor, but he does not show any discomfort. “It was always anticipation, wasn’t it? I thought it was fear.”

His death’s head mask looks at her as he stands, seeming to loom and tower higher than anything she’s ever seen. He seems to block out the moon. She cannot read him, but she can feel that tension. How had she read it so effortlessly in the Death Knight, but so wrong in Jeritza the man? “You thought I feared you?” he asks.

“I see I was wrong now. You’ve only ever wanted to kill me. Are you disappointed that I’m not dead?”

He turns and mounts his horse, too easily for a man in armor. “I am not. You’re the worthiest opponent I have ever faced. I would have been disappointed… to not be the one to kill you.”

“Go, before I change my mind to spare you.”

“You truly think you can kill me,” he says, turning his horse away from them. Lysithea’s spells are still ready and his steed is clearly nervous, but so well trained it does not even buck. “I look forward to testing your strength.”

He’s gone, with that. He makes his choice, and he leaves them behind, looking like a demon out of hell as he rides away, without a single glance back.

 

“Professor? Are you all right?”

It’s Mercedes, lingering at the door like she always does after a crisis. Byleth smiles at her, fighting the strain behind her eyes to welcome her friend. “I should be asking you that,” she says. “Today you lost your brother. I’m sorry that I could not help you save him.” Mercedes only shakes her head and comes to sit beside her, like she did the nights after Jeralt’s death, taking her hands firmly and pressing them between her own.

“I have always been grieving for Emile. I always will. I am…” she sighs, “not used to it, not exactly. But I can bear it. I’m stronger than you know.”

“I know that you’re strong, but it doesn’t mean you should have to be. He’s… I’m so sorry he’s your brother.”

“It’s ok. I’m sorry that you had to love him too.” Byleth stares at her in shock. “I’m sorry, I assumed that must be so. Is it not?”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“What what is? What love is?”

“No, I know love. I love my father, his memory, I love the Deer, I love you. I do not know what it would mean to love him.”

“I wish I could tell you. But I’ll tell you this: it hurts me.”

Byleth can feel pain in her chest, in a place where she never had a heartbeat. “I know.”

 

They march on Enbarr, and she regrets many things. She regrets that war was ever an option, she regrets her own strength, she wishes she could lie down and die too, but she never regrets anything like Mercedes’ grim words before the battle.

“I cannot do it. I have thought about it. I cannot. I’m sorry, Professor.”

She remembers looking at Mercedes’ grim face, usually so gentle, and asking: “What can’t you do, Mercedes?”

“I can’t kill my brother,” her old friend replies. “I have thought about it; I’ve been thinking about it without end. I cannot. Don’t ask me to. I will die by his hand first. And I don’t want to die.”

Byleth had pulled Mercedes closer, kissing her hair, gripping her hand. She said: “I will do it then.” And that was the end of the question that had haunted her, too.

When the time came, she plunged her sword into him, and, unable to spare him a moment more than this, laid her hand gently on his mask.

“I’m sorry.”

“No,” he had breathed, and she did not doubt her feeling when it told her he looked at her with awe. “No, I am happy.”

And then she’d lowered him to the ground, not gently, but she did not let him fall. She pressed onwards—

War, she tells Claude later, is never worth it. Do not make it an option for your future. She knows he’s crying; she knows she is weeping too, and it feels more like it wasn't worth it when they discover it’s still not over. There’s still more.

“We can spare a moment,” Claude tells her gently. “Please, you need this. Go say goodbye.”

The Death Knight’s helm is tossed aside on the steps of the palace. Byleth picks it up, sees the bloodstain, the print of her hand on its face. She presses her forehead to its cold surface. She can’t.

“Go,” Claude repeats. “You’ll regret it if you don’t. I’ll be right here, waiting. Like always.” He gives her a push and she goes, step by step, up those horrible, gleaming, bloodstained stairs. She passes Linhardt treating the wounds of Raphael and Lorenz, she passes Hilda holding Marianne and sobbing as Ignatz pulls them both into a hug. There’s so much to take care of, she’s still their teacher, they still depend on her. She can hear Marianne stifling sobs as she passes, can see Lorenz standing straighter, wincing at a wound in his side as she passes. She cannot, if she wants to ask her questions, spare a moment. But she loves them. She doesn’t know what Emile, or Jeritza, or the Death Knight is, not to her, but she knows love.

Mercedes is ahead, just further, and though Byleth cannot look up, she can hear someone breathing shakily as she approaches.

“I thought I was ready,” Mercedes says as Byleth kneels beside her. “But I am not. You are not the brother I left behind, but you are still my brother.”

Byleth reaches out to put an arm around her friend’s shoulder, ready to be the strength she needs, but Mercedes is unmoving under her hands. There are none of the familiar tremors that accompany her sobs, nor the stiff shoulders that signal her stress.

When she finally looks at Mercedes, her face is just as grim as it had been before the bloodshed. It’s almost blank and there’s blood on her cheek. Byleth looks down to the man below and feels a stab of confusion, confusion that becomes regret. She does not know this face, she realizes. She looks down at the grim mask of the Death Knight’s skeletal smile, still in her hands, and it feels more familiar than this man.

“Will you save him?” she asks. Mercedes looks grimmer than ever; her rage palpable.

“He has requested that I do not.”

Byleth stares down at the dying specter below, at Jeritza, at Emile, at this man that haunts her even now, before his death. “Why will you not live?”

“I said one of us would die,” he says, struggling to say the words through the blood in his mouth. “Let me die.”

“I cannot watch this,” Mercedes says, finally showing a sliver of weakness. “I must help the living. Caspar needs me.” Byleth watches her lay a kiss on her brother’s forehead, then on his cheek. “Goodbye, brother. I have always and will always love you. Forgive me for abandoning you again,” she says, and then she returns the embrace Byleth gave her before the battle. “See him off, old friend,” Mercedes says quietly. “I have my duties.”

The Death Knight coughs wetly as his sister leaves, her shoulders shaking now, to find Caspar. “She’s strong,” he says. “Stronger… than I had ever anticipated.”

“You should have let her save you.”

“No,” he says. “There’s no saving me. I regret only hurting her and leaving you.”

“You said once that killing each other would have been a preferable end for us. You have always wanted to leave.”

“No, I would have died in that dance,” he breaths, “with you. Rather than like this, without you. You tore me down… like so much kindling in a flame.”

She hadn’t really felt the grief yet, the pain, but it comes quickly now, for a man she barely knows. “Should I have humored you?”

“No,” he says. “I’m proud to have died by the strongest hand in Fódlan.” He reaches out and puts a hand on her cheek, and she realizes it’s covered in blood. “Don’t cry,” he says. “I never imagined you crying.”

“You imagined this?”

“Constantly,” he grins, that sharpness made worse by the blood on his teeth. It’s hideous. “I always knew you’d be an incredible opponent. The one slain in the dance, that changed every time. But I did think about this. I knew this was how it would end, when I watched you.”

She laughs, choking a little on a sob. “You imagined killing me? How are you so… monstrous, even now, at the end?”

“I have forgotten what it is to be a human,” he says. “I’ve sold my soul to this war,” he pauses, “no, that’s not true. I did not care about this Empire. I just wanted war, battle, and with you gone…”

“You left far before I did.”

“The knowledge of you no longer there, no longer waiting for me at the end, it was…” he breathes a hollow, rasping breath and his eyes fall away from hers, landing elsewhere. “It was unexpectedly difficult. I gave it all away.”

Her hand obeys her, finally, and she presses his gauntlet-clad hand closer to her face, ignoring the harsh metal and the blood. “I’m glad fate gave you your desire,” she says. “All I wanted when I first spoke to you was a friend.”

“Fate gave you so many enemies, didn’t she?”

“And so many friends, too,” she weeps, despite herself. “I’ll be fine.”

“I did not doubt that. I know… there’s so little time left, and yet this stretches on forever.”

“How familiar,” she says, weakly. “I can speed it up. I’ve already killed you.”

“Your mercy runs deep, as it always has,” he says. “No, let me lie here with you.” She puts a hand in his hair, blood soaked and sweat-damp, and strokes it gently for a time. He dies.

She pushes time back, with all her remaining strength, and lowers her head to press a kiss to his forehead. His hand falls into her lap, smearing her with blood, and he dies.

 

He dies three times before she lets him go. When she finally leaves him, the Deer are waiting.