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lily of the valley

Chapter Text

Night has fallen entirely by the time Hilda is pounding through Blutgang Woods again, Dorte's breath hard and fast as they leap over roots and duck beneath branches. Hilda's torn her dress and there's a forest's worth of twigs caught in her hair, her legs aching from too much time in the saddle.

But they're nearly there, Hilda reassures herself as they speed through the woods. Gray clouds are swirling overhead. Nearly there. If she can just reach the manor...

Maurice Manor is starting to come into view. Distant shouting, crackling torchlight. And...Hilda blinks. A shimmering orb of light, twinkling between the trees, vivid against the gray sky. 

Hilda leans across Dorte's neck as they tear forward. The house is encased in what looks like a giant bubble made of pale, shimmering light, and the mob is gathered outside it. Not all of Acheron's cronies have arrived yet, but those that have are pounding on the orb, pitchforks, torches, and swords crashing harmlessly off the shield. Two figures are standing on the front walk, obscured by the translucent light.

Hilda braces herself as Dorte pounds towards the bubble, but they pass through its shimmering embrace unharmed, and Hilda leaps off the horse's back, panting as she dashes towards the figures. 

Flayn is standing in front of the house, her hands outstretched and folded over one another, her hair and dress flying as if caught in a strong wind. Her eyes are closed, her lips moving soundlessly. As an axe crashes against the bubble, she flinches. 

Seteth is standing behind Flayn, hands on her shoulders, face grim. He looks up as Hilda approaches. "Hilda?"

"I'm back," Hilda chokes out, reaching for the axe across her back. "What's happening?"

"I do not know," says Seteth, looking back out at the gathered crowd. "But this mob is calling for the head of the beast...for Marianne's head."

"Acheron…" Hilda pants. "He found out about her, somehow, and he wants her dead. I came to stop him, but…"

"Flayn will not be able to keep this up much longer," says Seteth darkly. "I have given her what power I have, but my magic is only a fraction of hers. And when her shield falls, Maurice Manor will be defenseless."

"No, it won't be," says Hilda. "It'll have me."

As if on cue, Flayn gives a little sigh, slumping backwards. Seteth catches her as she collapses. "Now that Flayn has used all her strength, the shield will only last another ten minutes at best. We must rendezvous with the others in the manor, and make some kind of plan. Fleeing is impossible - there is nowhere we can bring Marianne and the others where they will be safe from persecution."

"Do you think Marianne's uncle will help?" Hilda asks him as they turn to run up the front walk, Flayn's head lolling against Seteth's shoulder.

"Margrave Edmund?" Seteth shakes his head. "I doubt it most sincerely. He does not care enough for his niece to jeopardize his own safety - and even if he did, I doubt word will reach Edmund in time."

"Figures." Hilda yanks the door open and they sprint inside.

"Flayn's down?" Claude asks at once, hopping forward. "Oh - Hilda?"

"Hilda?" The soft, growling voice is music to Hilda's ears. Marianne is standing behind Claude, wearing the blue ballgown, her face a picture of shock. "You came back…"

"Of course I did," says Hilda. "I wouldn't leave you - "

"We gotta make a plan," says Claude, cutting the reunion short. "We're outnumbered and outmatched."

Leonie's in her full form, the suit of armor towering over everyone but Marianne. "We gotta stand our ground and fight. To protect everyone."

"I can fight too," says Hilda. "But none of the rest of you can, so - "

"Here." Claude nods to Leonie, and she pulls a sheet of furled paper out of her helmet, spreading it out on a side table. "We've gotta treat this as a siege for now. Leonie and I just finished boarding up the last of the first-story windows, and I don't think anyone'll be climbing higher than that. That leaves two main entrances - the front and back door. Back door's a narrow entrance, hard for more than one person to get through at a time. I say we barricade the front and post Hilda and Seteth to guard the back while Leonie goes out there to thin the herd."

"Uh...Seteth, too?" Hilda asks.

"I am perfectly capable of fighting," says Seteth. "This is not my first battlefield."

"We also need a lookout," Claude continues. "Marianne, you'll be able to move much more quickly around the manor than those of us without limbs. I know you're not much for fighting - "

"Sorry," Marianne mumbles.

" - so that'll be your job. Keep a lookout from the upper levels and keep us all connected. Besides, you're the one they're after. It's better if you don't show yourself." Claude runs a spoke down the parchment. "Of course, I don't think any of this will be enough. We don't just need a plan. What we need is something downright diabolical. A scheme."

"A scheme," Hilda repeats flatly.

"What I'm best at." Claude rolls up the map. "I've got my best poisons ready to go. None of 'em are fatal - but we're not trying to kill these people, after all. Still, if they start puking or their faces get covered in boils, then they'll retreat, and we'll thin their numbers. I call that a win."

"Most of them aren't soldiers - just people," says Hilda. "Hopefully, if we show we're a real threat, they'll turn tail."

"The shield will fall soon," says Seteth urgently, glancing towards the door. "We have no more time to plan - we must act."

"Right. Lysithea, Raphael, Ignatz, Lorenz, with me. Hilda, Leonie, that barricade. Seteth, lock Flayn up somewhere safe and then help them. Marianne, get upstairs and keep an eye out. You remember those codes I taught you? Tap 'em out on the pipes if you see anything of note." Claude twists his base, looking around at them all. "We're gonna win this."

Are we? Hilda wants to ask, but she doesn't, only salutes. "Gotcha, Your Highness!"

"Never call me that again. Now, move!"

They all rush off to their assigned stations, Hilda's blood pounding in her ears as she drags furniture down the hall to block the heavy front doors. Strength is no obstacle for Leonie, who hauls an armchair over each shoulder and adds them onto the pile. Still, at a time like this, the thought of getting her to do all the work doesn't even cross Hilda's mind (okay, it does, but she immediately dismisses it.) Seteth reappears without Flayn and joins them, and they don't speak as they get the barricade into position. It crowds halfway down the hall when they're finished - nobody's getting through those doors, Hilda notes with satisfaction, even with a battering ram.

Claude peeks out the back door as they reconvene. The rest of his squad all have bundles tied to them, and Hilda decides there's no time to ask why. "Okay, nobody's looking this way. You've all got your orders. Claude Squad, let's go!"

"Claude Squad?" Hilda can't help a guffaw, despite her terror.

"At least call us the Golden Deer," Lysithea groans.

"Golden Deer?" Hilda asks.

"Mythical protectors of Leicester since time immemorial, the traditional name of the Duke's personal guard," says Lorenz. "My goodness, Hilda, you call yourself a noble?"

"Deer or no deer, it's time to move," says Claude stiffly. "See you all soon." 

"Be careful," Marianne says softly.

Hilda swallows. "You better not die. Any of you."

"'Course not." Claude beckons with one spoke, and they all hop out into the dark, swallowed by the grass as they sneak to their positions. Flayn's shield is still shining, but not as brightly as before, and as Hilda watches through the open back door, it flickers.

"Less then a minute," says Seteth grimly. He's clutching an old-fashioned lance in both hands. "And then…"

"We'll be fine." Hilda draws her axe. "We better be."

"Hilda…" Marianne takes her free hand. "I just wanted to say that...I'm so sorry. Because of me, you're all in danger."

"Hey." Hilda squeezes her hand. "We're all doing this willingly. To protect you. Because you're our friend. Because we want to keep your goodness in our life. Got that?"

"Right…" Marianne's smile is heavy. "I...I better go keep watch. I'll see you when...when it's over."

"Holding you to that." Hilda watches Marianne rush off towards the staircase before turning her face to the gathered crowd. There's a clanking sound as Leonie rides up along the side of the house, mounted on Dorte and with lance in hand.

"Here we go," Hilda mutters, and as if on cue, Flayn's barrier gives one last, bright spark and fades. The crowd recoils as one in shock, but doesn't surge forward.

They're not willing to make the first move. A good sign.

Hilda steps forward through the doorframe. She watches all the gathered faces turn towards her as one.

"My name," Hilda calls as she stands on the porch, slinging her axe across her shoulders, hearing her own heartbeat slamming in her ears, "is Hilda Valentine Goneril."

There's a small intake of breath from the gathered crowd at the sound of her surname.

"That's right," says Hilda. "You all ever heard of my big brother, Holst? You might know him better as the new Duke Goneril. Six foot six and three hundred pounds, all solid muscle. Duke Riegan's protégé, and first in line to be the next leader after him, as a matter of fact. Retired general of the Leicester Army. Can kill hardened soldiers with his bare hands. Faces down entire armies without breaking a sweat. Once arm-wrestled a bear and won. Known to some as the Wall of Goneril. A man that makes the Almyran king wet his pants in fear. And I'm that man's little sister. I have had that man down on his knees crying for mercy."

Nobody speaks. Nobody's breathing. There's only the night air, thick and still around them, and the darkening clouds overhead.

"That's all," says Hilda, lowering her axe and resting it across both her hands. "So I'm just letting you know...if you want to get to this house, or hurt anyone inside it...you're gonna have to get through me first."

There's no answer at first, and then a rustle, and one of the men at the front of the group turns around, pushing through his fellows and sprinting off into the trees. It's the cascading stone that starts an avalanche - another follows, and then more, and then the crowd ripples as half of the brave beast-hunters suddenly remember urgent things they'd rather be doing.

"Cowards," says Hilda, returning her axe to her shoulder. "I thought so."

There's only about a quarter of the mob remaining when the first wave has fled, and most of them, Hilda notes grimly, are wearing armor and holding real weapons. Hired soldiers of Acheron's, probably, who know the battlefield.

Speaking of, Hilda can't see Acheron, but she expects he's hanging back, letting others do his dirty work. Smug pig.

As if on cue, a reedy voice rings out from somewhere in the crowd. "Enough delay! Charge! Find me that beast!"

There's a roar, and the mob surges forward towards Maurice Manor. Hilda grits her teeth as she readies her axe, and the first man to reach her is slammed across the chest with its blunt end. He doesn't get up again.

"We should try not to kill them," Hilda manages as she staggers back a step. "But we might have to - "

"I can make no such promises," says Seteth, his face dark as he digs the butt of his lance into another soldier's ribs. "It is our lives or theirs."

Hilda whirls as she sends another soldier tumbling to the ground. "Yeah."

There's utter pandemonium unfolding around them - Claude's specialty, Hilda supposes as she watches out of the corner of her eye. Ignatz and Raphael are jabbing themselves between the cracks of armor, leaving howls of pain in their wake. Lysithea's perfume-bottle body and Lorenz's teapot have been filled with Claude's most potent toxins, and they hop up into soldiers' faces, spray, and flee, leaving their victims clawing at their eyes. Claude himself darts among the chaos, slamming into knees and ankles and leaving them vulnerable to Leonie's flashing lance.

Hilda loses track of how many men fall to her axe - and she thinks, or maybe hopes, that none of them are dead, but it's too chaotic and it's hard to be certain. Shouts and screams echo around her, and blood stains her axe's blade and sprays over her dress, and -

"We can't hold them back!" Claude's shout rings through the night. "Time for Plan B!"

"Plan B?" Hilda yells as she kicks a man in the stomach, smacking him over the head with her axe's handle as he folds. "What's - "

"Stay back towards the manor!" Claude yells. "It's time to use the talents I gained as a candelabra!" Hilda catches a glimpse of him through the grass, his candles alight - 

- and he hops onto a barrel, and then the world lights up with flame, following a trail of oil and forming a ring that arcs across the manor lawns, causing several soldiers to fall back, screaming - 

"It's a trap!" one of them shouts. "Fall back!"

"Fire?" Hilda gasps. "Seriously? Claude, we'll roast alive!"

"Haven't you seen the storm clouds overhead?" Claude calls. "The rain'll put it out before it can reach the manor! Er, I think! Probably!"

"If my house burns down, Claude, I will kill you," Seteth grumbles as he drives his lance through a soldier's leg.

Leonie yells a wordless war cry as she plunges towards a group of soldiers, driving them back from the manor. The others are impossible to see, lost in the dark shadows between the orange tongues of flame.

Hilda pushes her bangs off her face, gasping for breath, her limbs sweat-soaked and heavy with fatigue. The fire has thrown Acheron's soldiers into disarray, fleeing and panicking, but many are still fighting on. "Where's...where's Acheron? If we stop him, then…" She trails off as she spies a figure between the flames. It's scaling a tree, and as Hilda watches, leaps from the branches to a third story balcony…

"Someone's getting in the house!" Hilda shouts.

"Give chase, then!" Seteth spears another soldier. "We will try to hold them here!"

Hilda hasn't listened for his answer, is already sprinting through the back door and dashing towards the stairs, two at a time as she plunges heedlessly forward, tripping over her own feet in her haste. Marianne is upstairs, and alone, and she doesn't know how to fight - 

As Hilda reaches the third floor landing, she hears the howl. It tears through her bones, chills her blood - she's only heard that sound once before, when she killed those wolves.

It's the sound of a wounded animal. But it's louder, far louder than the forest wolves.

"No," Hilda pants as she staggers up the stairs, moving faster than she ever has in her life even as her legs scream in protest. "No…"

When she emerges on the fourth floor, it's to a shattered window, glass sprinkled across the carpet. Hilda hadn't even heard it break, her ears filled only with Marianne's cry.

There's blood on the glass.

Hilda runs to the destroyed window, wind whipping her hair as she leans through it. Lightning flashes, illuminating a massive figure in a ripped ballgown lying hunched on the roof, a trail of blood behind it. A man stands over it, sword in both hands and lifted over his head, about to deliver a killing blow - 

"Marianne!" Hilda screams, nearly toppling off the roof as she leaps through the window. "Marianne!"

The fallen figure shifts. "Hil...da…"

Acheron brings the sword down, but Marianne's paw flies up, grasping it. Acheron gasps, trying to tug the sword free, but Marianne's leg lashes out, kicking him hard, and he staggers as Marianne drags herself to her feet, her form towering over him. Acheron takes a few more shaky steps backwards, looking between Marianne and Hilda.

"Marianne," Hilda manages, lifting her voice to be heard against the distant rumble of thunder and the crackle of flames below. "Are you okay?"

"Yes…" Marianne manages. She's clutching her side, though, blood seeping through her fingers and matting her fur with red, and her burst of strength seems to have faded. Rain is starting to fall, heavy droplets trickling down the roof and soaking Hilda's cloak, extinguishing the fires with loud hissing sounds and drifting clouds of gray smoke.

"Ah, Lady Hilda. There you are." Rain has plastered Acheron's perfectly-curled blonde hair to his face. "Now, watch as I slay this foul beast, and take you away to safety!"

"I don't want you to slay her!" Hilda snaps, hefting her axe. "I want you to leave her alone!"

"Don't be foolish, little one," Acheron pants. "I am the wealthy, powerful Lord Acheron! Whyever would a girl such as you prefer a beast over me?"

"Get it through your thick skull!" Hilda shrieks. "I never wanted to marry you, Acheron! And I never will!"

"Lady Hilda - "

"Enough!" Hilda spits. "People have gotten hurt, maybe killed, all because you can't take no for an answer! So here it is - no, Acheron! No, I will not marry you! And I will not let you hurt anyone anymore!"

Acheron pales visibly, lowering his sword. "You...do not...want me?"

"I don't," says Hilda. "And I never will."

Acheron stares at her. "I...I...see…" His head droops slightly. 

Hilda holds her breath. Rain thunders around them.

Then suddenly, without warning, Acheron charges at Hilda. Her axe only just catches his sword, but he overpowers her, and she's too fatigued and shocked to react quickly enough as he grabs her right arm and wrenches it upward, leaving her axe hanging uselessly in her left hand. She screams in pain as he squeezes her wrist, tight enough to bruise, her feet sliding against the rain-slippery shingles.

"If I can't have you," Acheron grunts, "then nobody can!"

"Pig!" Hilda spits, kicking at his ankles.

"Leave her alone!"

Acheron screams, and the pressure is suddenly released from Hilda's arm as claws grab him from behind, lifting him bodily and flinging him against the surface of the roof. He scrambles to his feet, bringing his sword around as Marianne lowers her head, baring her teeth, and charges him again, knocking the sword from his hand and sending it clattering off the side of the manor. She pins him to the roof with one claw, the other held up above her head, glinting in the moonlight - 

- and then stops, lowering her paw and leaning back.

"Leave Hilda alone," Marianne snarls at Acheron. "Leave this place. And by the goddess, do not ever return."

Acheron only whimpers, staring up at her.

"Hilda," Marianne calls, standing up and turning away from Acheron's slumped form. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm okay," Hilda gasps, axe still hanging loosely from one hand as Marianne walks over to her. "Just a little...rattled…"

"You came back for me," Marianne says quietly, lifting one paw to cup Hilda's face. Hilda rests her hand over it. "Hilda, I…"

Lightning flashes, and Marianne screams, and falls, and Acheron stands over her crumpled form, outstretched dagger dripping blood.

In the next heartbeat, Hilda's axe slams into his chest. Acheron staggers backwards from the impact, slipping off the roof's edge, blood streaming in his wake as he plummets with the axe still buried in him. But Hilda doesn't watch, instead dropping to her knees, reaching for Marianne where she lies prone on the roof.

"Thank you, Hilda…" Marianne breathes. "For coming back...for everything…"

"No, don't talk like that," says Hilda, frantically trying to stop the blood with her hands. There's waves of it everywhere, though, mingling with the blood from Marianne's other injuries, staining the tattered ballgown red. The rain isn't enough to wash it away. "You're gonna be fine - "

Marianne doesn't answer. Her eyes are closed, her breathing shallow.

"Marianne," Hilda repeats, leaning closer. "Marianne, you gotta stay with me, okay? It'll be all right...just keep talking…"

"I wish…" Marianne coughs, red staining her muzzle. "I wish...the goddess...hadn't heard my prayer…to join her..."

"No," Hilda croaks. "You're not going to the goddess. You're staying here with me."

"I want to stay..." Marianne raises one shaking paw. "I'm glad, though...I got to see you...again...and you're with me…"

Hilda clasps her hand in both of hers. "Marianne - "

"Even if this is the end," Marianne gasps out. "I'm happy...the time I spent with you...was the greatest...I ever…"

"Stop," Hilda pleads, her voice cracking. "Stop acting like you're - you're going to be fine! You're going to be fine, and we'll take care of you, and - and don't...don't die. Please, Marianne, don't die…"

Marianne doesn't answer. The slow, shallow rasp of her breath and the pounding of rain on the roof are the only sounds, filling Hilda's ears, her world.

"Please, Marianne…" Tears well up in Hilda's eyes, trickling slowly down her face, mingling with the rain. She doesn't even remember the last time she cried - for real, not just trying to get her brother to share his cake or her parents to raise her allowance. "You can't die. You haven't...we haven't seen the lilies of the valley together. You said you'd show me…I don't...I don't want you to die…" Hilda chokes on a sob. "I want to stay with you, forever, I...I want to dance with you again. I want to feed birds in the garden together, I want to sit on the roof with you under the stars, I want you to tell me things about horses that I don't understand but I'll nod and smile because it makes you happy. I'll even do chores with you, and I won't even complain. I'll do anything, and we'll do all those things together, so please, Marianne, please, stay with me…"

Marianne's paw slips limply from Hilda's hands and falls to the roof.

"No," Hilda gasps. "No, no, please, no...Marianne. Marianne!"

She can't hear Marianne's breathing anymore. She can't hear anything at all. Even the rain has stopped.

Hilda reaches desperately for Marianne's face, turning it to see her more clearly. "You can't do this! Marianne! I - I…"

Marianne is still. There is no breath against Hilda's hand.

"No," Hilda weeps. "No...Goddess, please… "

But the goddess doesn't answer the prayer. She never has.

She only answered Marianne's, even when she shouldn't have. And now the light is gone, the warmth with it, and there is nothing but the deepest cold Hilda has ever felt, buried in her bones, chilling her very heart.

"I love you," Hilda breathes, leaning down, closing her eyes against the darkness so she no longer has to see it. "Please, I...I love you." Her lips meet Marianne's cold ones, the briefest whisper.

Warmth fills her, and Hilda can see light welling up behind her eyelids. And as Hilda's eyes slide open again, the balcony is filling with soft, pale yellow light, suffusing Marianne's body, like Flayn's barrier but stronger, brighter.

Hilda grabs onto Marianne instinctively, but the light seeps right through her arms, and Marianne's body lifts into the air. Hilda falls backwards, staring as Marianne becomes little more than a glowing ball of light, a shining star, and then Marianne's figure shimmers, shifts, shrinks, gradually but so quickly Hilda's eyes can barely process what she's seeing.

The light fades as gently as it came, revealing a person floating in its place. The figure of a young woman, pale blue hair streaming down her back, wrapped in the ragged remains of a blue gown several sizes too big for her…

The woman lands gently in Hilda's arms, head falling against her chest. Hilda stares down at her, mind stuttering. The woman gives a soft moan and opens her eyes.

They're gray-brown, and warm.

"...Marianne?" Hilda whispers.

"Hil...da?" The woman blinks slowly. "What...what happened?"

"You're really…" Hilda rests a tentative hand against the woman's face. It's cold from rain and night air, but there's warmth lurking beneath. "It's really…"

"What do you mean? What's going…" The woman's brow furrows. "Why is it so cold? What's…" She looks down at herself, and gasps.

"It's you," Hilda repeats, still dumbstruck. "Marianne…"

"I'm…" Marianne sits up suddenly, staring at her hands. "Am I…you…" Marianne suddenly turns back to Hilda, beaming. "You did it! You really - " She cuts herself off, lurching forward and kissing Hilda. Hilda staggers back in shock, but Marianne is laughing, pure unbridled joy Hilda has never seen from her before pouring off of her in waves as she breaks the kiss and tosses her arms around Hilda's neck. "I'm - I'm human!"

"You are," says Hilda, a little weakly as she reaches up to hold Marianne. She feels smaller in her arms, and the growl is gone from her voice, but she's still warm, still Marianne. "What happened?"

Marianne pulls back slightly, cupping Hilda's face with one hand. Tears are shining on her face. "You did it, Hilda. You broke the curse."

"Did I?" Hilda stares at Marianne. She radiates beauty and happiness, and Hilda's too confused and dumbfounded and exhausted to understand what's happening.

But this is Marianne, Marianne's here in her arms and safe, and Hilda forgets all her questions as she reaches up to rest her hand over Marianne's. "I'm just...I'm just glad...you're alive."

"Don't cry, Hilda," Marianne whispers, brushing away her tears with her thumb.

"You're crying too!" Hilda's laugh mingles with a sob. "I - "

"I love you," says Marianne quickly. "I should have told you before, but - but I love you, Hilda. I do. You're...you're my lily of the valley, Hilda. You were my return to happiness. And now you've broken the curse, and - and you're so, so incredible, Hilda, and I love you so, so much…"

"Hey, slow down. You'll choke yourself." Hilda laughs again, still not understanding, but too happy to care. "You must be freezing in that…"

Marianne looks down at the rags of her gown, sloping down halfway to her waist, and blushes. "Ah, yes…I'm sorry, Hilda. The dress is...ruined. I was wearing it to...to remember you by, and then..."

"Hey, it's no big deal. Besides, it's not your size anymore." Hilda unfastens her own cloak and drapes it around Marianne's shoulders. "There you go."

Marianne tugs it around herself, blushing. It's a cute sight, Hilda thinks distractedly. "Thanks. Um, Hilda…"

"I love you too," says Hilda quietly, brushing Marianne's hair out of her face. "I forgot to tell you that. When you could hear it, I mean."

Marianne leans forward, and Hilda takes the hint, their lips meeting halfway. Marianne's hand lifts to curl in Hilda's loose, tangled hair as Hilda's arms wrap around Marianne's waist, tugging her close enough to feel her heartbeat against her own chest.

Marianne leans back from the kiss, eyes half-lidded. She only smiles as she looks at Hilda, eyes shining, the color of dust and stormclouds but bright as sunlight.

Hilda holds out an arm and helps Marianne to her feet. "We should get inside. The others…"

"Oh, the others!" Marianne's eyes widen. "Are they…"

"Marianne! Hilda!"

A unfamiliar young man comes panting out of the broken window, trailed by a crowd of people. Hilda instinctively presses Marianne closer, reaching for an axe she doesn't have, but Marianne gasps. "Claude? Everyone?"

"Who else?" the man beams, straightening up and holding out his arms. "Congrats, Marianne. You did it."

"Claude!" Marianne wails, breaking away from Hilda and running towards him. He catches her in his arms, laughing. The others gather around them. "You're - you're all - "

"Normal!" cheers a ginger woman, punching the air with a fist. "It is so good not to clank when I move anymore!"

"At least you had legs!" A man with an awkward violet haircut shudders. "I fancy I shall never drink a cup of tea again."

Marianne laughs through sobs. "I doubt that, Lorenz."

"Wait..." Hilda manages, taking a hesitant step forward. "You guys are…"

Claude beams at her over Marianne's head. "In the flesh, for real this time. Claude von Riegan, crown prince of Almyra and heir apparent of Duke Riegan. Nice to meet you."

"We grew while we were in that cursed state, thank goodness!" says a short, light-haired woman, looking down at her hands. "I cannot fathom being even further behind my peers in development…"

"You're still pretty short," booms a massive man who can only be Raphael. "But I know what you mean. Wonder if Maya'll even recognize me?"

"We can go home," mumbles a green-haired man with lopsided glasses. "Finally…"

"All thanks to you, Marianne. And you too, Hilda," says Claude. "C'mere."

Hilda takes another shaky step before running to join them, tears leaking down her face despite her laughter as she is caught up in their embrace. "We broke the curse!"

"It's over," Marianne weeps. "It's really over…"

Hilda's brow furrows. "But I'm still not sure what we actually did…"

"True love's kiss, I believe it was." Seteth's face is poker-straight, but a slight twitch betrays the ghost of a smile.

Hilda feels her face heat. "Oh. Yeah, I guess that was it."

"Ah, the romance!" Flayn sighs. She's leaning heavily on her father, and looks rather pale, but she's beaming. "Never in my life have I seen such a beautiful tale!"

Hilda looks around at them all again, making sure they're all safe, taking in their human forms for the first time. Claude's beaming, Lorenz is dabbing at his eyes with a lacy handkerchief, Raphael has his arms around Ignatz's shoulders, Leonie ruffles Lysithea's hair, Flayn is laughing, Seteth looks happier than she's ever seen him…

"Wait." Hilda's brow furrows. "Uh...who's that?"

The last person in the group looks slightly abashed, lowering their head beneath a curtain of blue-green bangs.

"Oh, this is my old tutor, Byleth!" Claude tosses an arm around their shoulders. "We dragged them into helping us break the curse forever ago. Teach, say hello to Hilda."

Byleth only nods.

Hilda stares at them. "Uh…what were they?"

"The sofa in the sitting room," says Claude. "Wait, did I never mention it to you?"

"Hold a moment." Seteth pinches his brow. "Byleth, you do not mean to tell me you never revealed yourself as animate to Hilda?"

Byleth slowly shakes their head.

"Unbelievable," Seteth mutters. "We have spoken about this…"

"Well, that's Teach for ya," says Claude with a shrug. "Never talks unless they have something worth saying. Plus, it was hard for them to move around in that form, so they usually just stayed put."

"Uh, okay," says Hilda, trying not to think about all the times she unceremoniously flung herself onto said sofa. Or the time she and Lysithea had a jump-off on it. "Well, I'm glad you're okay too, Byleth."

Byleth nods again.

"Let's all get inside," says Claude. "It's freezing out here."

"Is it safe?" Hilda asks.

"The soldiers saw Acheron's body land, and they all turned tail at that," says Leonie. "Cowards."

"More likely they realized nobody was left alive to pay them," grouses Lysithea.

"Come on!" Raphael booms. "I'm looking forward to my first meal in five years - and I'll make it one to remember! Last one to the kitchen gets dish duty!"

"Let's go." Marianne takes Hilda's hand. "Let's...go home."

***

"You have to write to us," Marianne mumbles into Claude's shoulder. "As often as you can."

"I will." Claude pats her back. "I promise."

"And send Almyran souvenirs!" Hilda adds as they break apart. "I'm dying to know what it's like there!"

Claude laughs. "Sure. Soon as I get the chance. 'Course, it'll be Riegan I head for first."

"Be careful," says Marianne.

"I will. But it's high time the missing prince came home and ended this war he started in the first place." Claude looks out at the trees, budding with spring. "It's time to tear down the wall between Leicester and Almyra, once and for all. And then...all the walls. Let a new world come rushing in. Build a new dawn."

"That is the exact kind of ambitious optimism I'd want from my king!" says Hilda cheerily. "Can't wait to see it. Maybe you'll even get Faerghus and Adrestia to stop fighting."

"Maybe. And maybe pigs will fly. Who knows? First off, though, time to settle things with the old man." Claude nods to them all. "You'd all better look after yourselves."

"We're off to our hometown," says Raphael, squeezing Ignatz's shoulders. "To see Ig's parents, and my sister...man, I can only imagine how much she's grown in five years!"

"They'll be so happy to see us." Ignatz smiles softly. "I do hope they're all right."

"I'm sure they are. Maya's tough like her brother!"

"I must return to my parents, as well," says Lysithea. "They're not as young as they were. I shudder to think how they're managing without me."

"I know my father is managing poorly." Lorenz shakes his head. "That fool has long extended this war with Almyra for his own gain - well, I shall be putting a most swift end to that, I assure you."

"I can't wait to see the old village again." Leonie swings an arm. "I gotta get back into shape! Not used to this flesh body."

"Flayn and I have...business to attend to, as well," says Seteth. "It is high time we made the effort to...rectify previous mistakes."

"But first, we will go and see Mother," says Flayn. "It has been so long, after all."

"What about you, Teach?" Claude asks. Byleth only stares at him. "Okay, the usual secret dark mystery adventures. Got it."

"It's a little sad, though," says Hilda. "Everyone going their separate ways…"

"Let's all meet again," says Marianne. "That's a promise...all right?"

"It is." Claude rests a hand on her shoulder. "We'll all see each other again."

There's another cluster of hugs, a few more tears shed, and then groups of horses and carts set out from Maurice Manor, quickly swallowed by the trees. Hilda waves until they're out of sight, then turns to Marianne, who's still looking out at the forest, smiling.

Marianne's wearing a dark blue gown, and her pale blue hair has been elegantly braided and pinned up. There's a lily of the valley tucked in among the braids. Only one, blooming far earlier in the season than usual, but Hilda had found it, just this morning, in the charred remnants of Maurice Manor's garden. A little ray of hope.

A return of happiness.

Marianne sees Hilda looking at her and turns, eyes widening. "Hilda? What is it?"

"Nothing in particular," says Hilda brightly, taking her hand. "Just that you're beautiful."

Marianne's cheeks color, but she doesn't duck her head. "Thank you...love."

Hilda can't help the tinge of embarrassment at how warm the word makes her. "I was wondering…"

"Yes?"

"For now, we've gotta stay at the manor until you get more of your strength back. But when you're ready...I'll show you the world."

"Yes." Marianne looks a little confused. They've talked about this before, after all. "I'm looking forward to it."

"But for now…" Hilda lifts Marianne's hand to her lips, bowing over it. "May I have this dance, Lady Marianne?"

Marianne giggles. "You may."

They walk to the ballroom together, hand in hand; they step out onto the polished white-gold floor together. They fall into a natural, effortless rhythm, the lights shining overhead as they twirl together, laughing, and Marianne pulls Hilda closer, dipping and kissing her, swallowing down her laughter with soft lips, and it's not boring, and it could never be boring. Not as long as they're together.

And the world is beautiful, and warm.

THE END