The entire ordeal at the Holy Tomb had been nothing less than one betrayal after the next, only the most obvious of which had been the revelation of the Flame Emperor’s true identity as being Edelgard herself. Byleth had watched as everything came apart around him, just this once unknowing what to do next.
Dimitri had gone nearly insane during that confrontation, not to mention the fury that had overcome Rhea, making her seem nothing like the kind and caring soul that Byleth had come to know in his many months at the monastery. And, throughout it all, Byleth hadn’t even heard anything from Sothis, never mind having a revelation from her. The throne in the Holy Tomb had called out to him, but as Sothis had explained before their merge, he no longer heard her voice inside of him.
Everything felt like betrayal, one way or another, so much that when Byleth laid in his bed that night, staring up at the ceiling of his room blankly, he wondered if he could keep trusting the people still left around him. The monastery really didn’t seem all that inviting anymore, knowing that people like Monica, Tomas, and even Edelgard -sweet, passionate, righteous Edelgard- had infiltrated it with dark intentions.
Byleth wished he could ask his father for advice. He wished he could turn back time a hundred times over, hoping for one eventuality, one bifurcating path where he would get to save his father from Kronya’s blade and ask him what to do next. Jeralt would have known what to do. For the largest part of Byleth’s life, he’d known what to do. And Byleth felt like, right now, his father was the only person he could still trust- not that that trust would do much when he stared at a gravestone.
A cold draft infiltrated Byleth’s room from the crack in his window, heralding the arrival of winter in Garreg Mach. Byleth should have been content in just burrowing under his covers and sleeping his worries away, but somehow, despite everything that had happened today, his mind still couldn’t rest. He felt antsy, like something was slithering under his skin, keeping him awake and anxious. He knew that with this mindset, he wouldn’t be able to sleep, and so, finally, he decided to get up and take a walk around the monastery.
With the recent events plaguing Garreg Mach, a curfew had been enforced for the students, and so Byleth encountered nobody but soldiers on patrol as he exited his quarters, and strolled towards the greenhouse. The monastery was huge, and with his leisurely pace, Byleth was sure he could tire himself out before the sun rose. For when it did, Byleth would have to attend meetings, and make decisions, and pretend that he had not been shaken by the events of the Holy Tomb.
But all that could wait for the sunrise. Bathed in moonlight now, staring at its reflection on the still waters of the fishing pond, Byleth allowed himself to feel insecure.
He strode up the steps from there to re-enter the monastery, cutting through the dark and empty dining hall to walk towards the reception hall, at which point he immediately turned left to enter the Officer’s Academy. Throughout it all, not a single soul bothered him, and Byleth could only feel grateful for the comforting solitude.
The Academy was predictably empty at this late hour. All of the torches had been turned off, and the classroom doors had been locked up, but Byleth’s heels clicked on stone as he leisurely walked down the stone walkway anyway. Lost in thought, he didn’t realize he’d stopped until he was faced with the two-headed eagle adorning the entrance of the Black Eagles classroom.
He stared at the red emblem for a while, letting himself feel something that felt strangely like grief. It wasn’t the same mind-numbing sadness that had crushed his heart when Jeralt had been murdered. This grief felt much quieter- more subtle, muted, different. And yet, when he thought of Edelgard in that black and red armour, when he thought of the crazed look on Dimitri’s face, he couldn’t help but grieve. He felt like he’d lost something in that tomb that he never even knew he had.
Byleth blinked, and something moved in the corner of his eye.
In the darkness, it was difficult to tell what had just silently entered Byleth’s field of vision, and so his heart skipped a beat as he spun, his hand going to his waist to grab the Sword of the Creator. He remembered too late that he’d left it behind in his room, but relaxed when the clouds above shifted, casting moonlight upon the person standing a dozen feet away from him, waiting. His stance loosened when pale green hair, similar to his own, came into view, only one of Rhea’s eyes glinting in the light as the rest of her body remained cast in the shadows.
“Sweet child…” she murmured, her voice a croon that was carried on the frigid wind. “You’re still here…”
It felt like an odd choice of words, but Byleth didn’t think about it too much as the archbishop moved forward towards him, a gentle smile frozen on her lips. He cocked his head slightly, waiting to see what she wanted from him. Perhaps she’d come to mourn with him.
(Or perhaps she wasn’t mourning at all.)
“The events that transpired at the Holy Tomb today must have shaken you quite a lot,” Rhea started, stopping in front of Byleth. She glanced briefly at the Black Eagles emblem on the entrance to the classroom, and immediately turned back to Byleth as if having been burned by the sight. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in such a contemplative mood.”
Byleth thought of what to say. He could talk about Edelgard, and share his grief with Rhea, who would surely understand the pain of having lost not only a great friend, but also every good memory of them. However, the way Rhea had rejected the sight of the Black Eagles banner made it seem like a poor choice of conversation, and so, Byleth filled the silence with something a little safer.
“I suppose I won’t be getting that revelation after all,” he mumbled, despite knowing that Sothis could never have spoken to him on that throne even if she had wanted to.
“A shame.” The smile did not fall from Rhea’s face. In fact, her expression seemed so still that it made Byleth a little nervous. He couldn’t read her at all. “We were so close… So close to hearing her once more…” She blinked softly, letting out an airy sigh. “If only that wretched girl had not interfered… I would have met with her once more… My dearest wish, it would have been…”
She interrupted herself, Byleth not daring comment on what seemed to be a string of intimate musings.
“That wicked girl… interrupting a holy ceremony like that… interfering with the coming of the Goddess herself…” Finally, Rhea’s expression changed, and suddenly, the air around her seemed to get colder. The expression in her narrowed eyes reminded Byleth of the one he’d watched bloom across her face as she unleashed her rage and curses upon Edelgard. It was the same expression that had shaken Byleth’s faith in her in the first place.
“We will discuss what to do next when we convene in the morning,” Byleth decided to interject, hoping to steer the conversation away from Edelgard.
“Yes… In the morning, we shall officially return the declaration of war upon the Empire, and begin planning our march to crush that insolent wench barricaded in Enbarr.” Rhea’s voice had become tight. “If she thinks she can run from divine judgment, then we will just have to prove to her how wrong she is. No one can escape the fury of the Goddess. No one.”
It felt like a poor time to comment that Sothis never felt like the vengeful, raging deity that Rhea often made her out to be, and so, Byleth stayed quiet.
It seemed to work. Rhea’s expression smoothed out all of a sudden, and Byleth released a breath he hadn’t remembered holding at all.
“Come, my dearest professor,” she suddenly beckoned, turning around to leave. Her heels clicked and echoed in the arches of the Academy. “I’d like for us to walk together, and pick up where we left off last.”
“What do you mean…?” Byleth frowned, not remembering having unfinished business with Rhea. She seemed unbothered, though, already heading off.
Sighing, Byleth figured he had no choice, and simply jogged to catch up.
Rhea silently led him across the monastery, through the gardens until they reached the gazebo that hid the entrance to the Holy Tomb. Upon the archbishop’s approach, the gazebo pillars glowed, and the stones caved rhythmically to create the staircase that led them down, underground.
“Let us proceed,” she hummed, turning briefly to give Byleth a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
And yet, Byleth followed, for no other reason than because he wanted to believe.
The stones raised up again behind them, locking the two of them into the darkness, alone.
The Holy Tomb had not changed in the last 24 hours, not that Byleth had expected it to. Blood stains still stained the stone floor where countless Empire soldiers had been slain, but the bodies had been removed, at the very least. The magical lights lining the Tomb flickered as Rhea passed them, ignoring all the coffins and marching straight for the Throne that sat upon the tall dais. Byleth followed, feeling a strange sense of déjà vu, and finally understanding what Rhea expected of him.
And so, when she stopped in front of the myriad of steps leading up to the Throne, Byleth knew that she would ask him to climb them, and sit upon the Throne once more. Rhea seemed to know, too, that he knew, and simply gave him a soft, warm smile.
This one gave Byleth no chills. It really felt like Rhea was watching him fondly, lovingly, and yet, the sudden change in behavior made Byleth wonder if perhaps she was seeing something he didn’t.
“Go,” she simply said, and Byleth did.
The steps did not feel like a grueling climb, and Rhea followed him a few steps behind as he made his way up the dais. The Throne expanded in size as he neared it, and again, Byleth felt the familiar pull of Sothis’ presence beckoning him into the cold stone seat. Only driven by instinct now, he approached the Throne and caressed its stone armrest gently, as if handing out a greeting upon returning home.
And, under Rhea’s burning, adoring gaze, he sat.
“This moment that was robbed of me earlier today…” Rhea whispered, her voice shaking as she approached Byleth. “Let us turn back time, and win it back for us.”
She stopped in front of him, and Byleth glanced up. His body felt lethargic, as it always did when he caught the strings of Sothis’ power, and so he watched, on the verge of sleep, as Rhea smoothed her hand through his mint-coloured hair and cupped his cheeks tenderly. They locked gazes, and this time, despite the lethargy, Byleth saw it. The glint that was not meant for him, the love that did not exist for him.
Rhea was looking through him entirely, and seeing something else entirely.
And that’s when the first cold sweat broke on the back of Byleth’s neck.
“Let us remain here until we hear it,” Rhea murmured, her voice simultaneously putting Byleth on edge and sapping the strength from his bones. “The revelation of the Goddess… the voice of my Mother… I want to hear it. I’ve wanted to hear it for so long…” She ran her thumb against Byleth’s cold skin in circles. “So, give it to me… Give me what was stolen from me so long ago…” Rhea looked him in the eyes, and her mouth split into a wide, near-manic grin, her fingernails digging red marks into Byleth’s cheeks. “Give me my Mother back.”
That was all it took for Byleth to push her hands away from him, and stand up, even though he swayed with the exertion of channeling the Goddess’s power.
“Sit down,” Rhea commanded, immediately pushing him back down on the Throne with a shove to his chest. Her touch now burned through Byleth’s simple cotton nightclothes, a stark contrast to the chill of the stone as his back hit the Throne again.
“Rhea, what are you doing?” he asked, trying to get up only to be locked in place by her body as she stood right in front of him. “What's this about?”
“I want to see her… I have longed to hear her voice again… and you.” Her pupils dilated all of a sudden, a strangled noise making its way out of Byleth’s throat at the near-feral look it gave her. “You’re the last piece of the puzzle… the last pawn to move in place.”
Byleth didn’t even try to negotiate with her. The bad feeling building slowly had shot up exponentially, and he didn’t know what to do, other than run away. So, shoving Rhea away from him in a burst of adrenaline, he tore himself off of the Throne, and lunged towards the steps.
“You shall not escape!” Rhea called out from behind him, and Byleth barely had time to put his foot on the first step before the archbishop rushed at him, grabbing his neck and tugging him back.
Byleth grunted and undid himself from the grab, ducking to dodge when Rhea reached out to grasp him by his clothes or hair again. Before he knew it, his battle instincts had kicked in, and he spun in a low leg sweep, hoping to get Rhea off her feet long enough to give him a head start.
However, Dimitri’s offhanded note about Rhea from earlier that day rang out loudly in his head as the archbishop skillfully dodged the sweep, and countered with a kick of her own that caught Byleth in the solar plexus, winding him. He stumbled back, mourning his lack of protective equipment and weaponry, all left back in his room in a naïve moment of belief that nothing on monastery grounds could harm him.
(The real danger had been in front of him all along, and Byleth didn’t understand how it took so many betrayals for him to understand that at last.)
Rhea let out a war cry and lunged at him to grab the collar of his shirt, and Byleth took her wrist immediately, twisting himself out of her grip and then trying to land a kick on her side. Rhea blocked it expertly, and the grin never left her face as she grabbed Byleth’s leg, and kicked the other knee, sending him sprawling to the floor.
Byleth recovered by rolling to the side, avoiding the pointy heel that came crashing down where his abdomen was a moment ago. He got to his feet and immediately found himself parrying a jab at his face, whipping the hand away from him and ducking under a hook. Rhea’s onslaught did not stop, and true to Dimitri’s analysis of her stance, she did fight like someone with an extensive military background. Byleth couldn’t let his mind stray into that field of thought for now, as he had to focus every part of his attention on not getting hit by the archbishop.
Her eyes seemed far away, looking past him, past the Holy Tomb, stuck in a time and place beyond Byleth’s lifetime, and he shuddered, not sure how to stop this madness. Without a sword, his specialty weapon, he would be unable to protect himself as effectively, and even then he wasn’t sure he could willingly cut the leader of the Church of Seiros. Even just trading blows with her felt wrong somehow, as if he was performing an act of desecration to the faith, but Byleth had no choice.
Although he had an inkling, he actually had no idea how far Rhea would go to achieve the delusional goal she’d set for herself.
“Archbishop… Rhea…” Byleth finally tried to call out to her in a brief moment of rest where they broke apart on either side of the Throne, panting. “Come to your senses! Tell me what’s gotten into you.”
“Let me hear my Mother’s voice!” Rhea roared, the subtle shift of her nondominant foot being the only warning Byleth got before she lunged at him again. “Sit on the Throne so she may come alive through your body, and so that I may be reunited with her once more!”
“That’s not how it works,” Byleth tried, interrupted when he ducked another hook, only to get caught with a knee to the abdomen. He doubled over, his stomach rising up in his throat, and couldn’t recover before a painful jab of Rhea’s elbow to his neck sent him sprawling into the dirt, tasting blood. “Sothis and I are one now,” he choked out, spitting out some blood from his split lip, and his eyes widened minutely when Rhea grabbed him by the throat and slammed his head back against the ground.
Byleth saw darkness for a second, and when he came to, Rhea had knelt over him, one hand over his throat, the other pinning his dominant hand down. Her hair cascaded past her shoulders, tickling Byleth’s face, and her clothes were askew from the fight. It all only gave her a wilder look, a more unpredictable aura.
“If she is within you, then we must wake her,” she murmured, her grip tightening on Byleth’s throat. The latter choked on his saliva, his free hand desperately clutching at Rhea’s wrist in a poor attempt to get her off. “I have to hear her… Hear her voice… feel her love…”
“Rhea-” Byleth interrupted in a desperate attempt to talk himself out of this strange, and dangerous situation. “Listen… to me. Sothis is gone. She… gave me her strength and-” he wheezed as breath escaped his lungs, his lips numbing painfully. “-She’s gone, she won’t talk to me, Rhea… Rhea, she’s gone, and I- I’m what’s left-”
“She’s not gone.” Rhea simply shook her head, her smile turning amused as if she was simply chiding Byleth for an amateur mistake. “She still slumbers inside of you… Within the Crest Stone you possess, she still lives, and this Throne is where she used to dwell. And when you sit, she will come forth, beckoned by the memory of her home… of me…”
“Rhea-” Byleth wheezed, struggling weakly, realizing he had no issue out of this chokehold. His options were running out, as was his life, and he thought fast in the absence of anything else.
Letting go of Rhea’s wrist, he channeled all the magical energy he could muster into the palm of his left hand, and slammed what was possibly the weakest Thunder spell he’d ever conjured into Rhea’s throat above him.
The Archbishop screamed as the unexpected shocks wracked her body, her grip loosening on Byleth when clonic, seizure-like twitches took hold of her limbs. Byleth wasted no time in swinging his weight sideways, rolling the two of them over, and getting Rhea off of him. The sudden rush of air in his lungs made him dizzy and robbed him of sight for a second, but he stumbled to his feet regardless in a clumsy attempt to get a head start away from Rhea. When his sight returned, he glanced back just long enough to see the Archbishop pushing herself up on her elbows, lingering arcs of electricity bouncing visibly across her body as she rode out the effect of Byleth’s spell. He wasted no more time with her, and instead, stumbled towards the steps leading down from the dais.
One foot in front of the other, Byleth’s breath echoed loudly in his ears, his neck pulsing with the bounding of his blood but his heart remaining suspiciously silent in his chest. Even through the dizziness and the nausea and the taste of blood on his tongue, he pushed onward, eager to put as much distance as possible between Rhea (Rhea, gentle Rhea, the loving Lady Rhea, Jeralt had been right about her, too) and himself.
He’d only taken a few steps onto the stairs when agony suddenly exploded in his back, and Byleth let out a surprised cry of pain as the momentum of the throwing knife now embedded in him caused him to lose his footing, and lurch forward on the steps. His ankle twisted on the next step as he tried to catch himself, and the next thing he knew, Byleth’s face made contact with the stone.
The fall down the steps felt like a lifetime. Every impact with the stone tore noises of pain from Byleth’s throat, bruises blooming on his skin and blood pouring from his battered limbs. Breath was forced out of his lungs with every smack against the stairs, and in the milliseconds of reprieve where he bounced away from the ground, he only breathed in dust. His head hit the ground countless times, his neck craning painfully, and try as he might, he couldn’t decide which part of him to protect most with his broken limbs.
When he finally, finally fell to the bottom of the steps, and rolled once before settling on his side, Byleth barely felt alive. He coughed out the dust and then whimpered when his ribs- cracked, if not shattered- spasmed painfully. His vision was blurry in one eye, nearly blinded in the other with what Byleth realized was blood dripping from his hairline. The back of his neck was completely soaked as well from a gash behind his ear, his mint hair turning an ugly terracotta where the blood seeped into the strands. There was buzzing in his ears that prevented him from hearing anything but the sound of his own desperate breaths and noises of pain, and when his hearing came to, the first thing he zoned into was the sound of rhythmic steps, heels clacking on stone, slowly coming closer.
Anxiety spiked inside of him, and Byleth tried to get up, but as soon as he moved, his limbs failed him, and he slumped back down to the ground. He couldn’t breathe, and he couldn’t move, and he couldn’t think.
And Byleth had never really had to feel anything beforehand. He’d never really thought of his own emotions in the past. So, when he finally identified the emotion that possessed the very marrow of his bones at the sight of Rhea’s heeled shoes coming to a stop before him, he could not help but sob.
He was afraid.
For the first time in his life, Byleth felt overwhelmingly, all-consumingly afraid.
The next morning, the Archbishop and the Professor were declared missing.
The monastery had been in an uproar for several days now, but Dimitri could not care less. There had been talks of sending search parties and spies to all corners of Fódlan to find the Archbishop and the Professor, but the Crown Prince was not convinced.
As he swung his spear, savagely tearing a strip out of a training dummy, his mind could only conjure the thought of Edelgard, holding the two of them hostage right below their noses.
“She took everything I loved from me,” he grunted out loud, slashing at a dummy that wobbled on its post at the sheer strength of his attack. Unsatisfied, he let out an anguished battle cry, and turned around to throw his spear into the dummy furthest from him. It pierced the dummy’s head cleanly. “And when I learned to love again, she took that away as well. Curse that snake of a woman! Curse her with all the Goddess’s might!”
The tattered dummies around him said nothing to that, and Dimitri fell into silence, trying to catch his breath.
“I will find them…” he panted out, needing to hear himself say it out loud. “I will find them, and when I do, I will destroy anyone who dared harm them.” His heart swelled protectively at the thought of the Professor, his home room teacher who was everything to him- especially a friend.
The thought of never seeing him again… The thought of Byleth becoming one of Dimitri’s ghosts as well… It felt too overwhelming for the young man to even consider. He would not be able to live in a world without his dearest Professor. He had to find him.
The sadness that had built up throughout his training session finally washed over him, sapping the strength from his aching limbs. Suddenly losing all heart, Dimitri walked over to the spear still embedded in the dummy’s head, and pried it free. It felt too heavy in his grip, and so he left it leaning against the wall as he stalked out of the training grounds. His feet dragged him across the monastery, fellow students pointedly avoiding him as he glared murder at his own shoes, and climbed the steps towards his room.
The dormitory hallway was empty, likely because in broad daylight, people usually vacated to their activities. Classes had been put on hold in light of the Professor’s disappearance and Edelgard’s declaration of war, so Dimitri and the other students had to get creative if they ever wanted any time to pass at all. Days seemed to drag on without end, time trudging through mud with the uncertainty of the current situation bogging everybody down. The knights could not agree on what step to take next, and Seteth was beyond swamped with work (and grief) in the wake of Rhea’s disappearance at this critical time. The teachers had tried to bridge the gap left behind by Byleth, but it seemed like nobody’s heart was neither into teaching, nor learning.
And so, the students of the Officer’s Academy wandered around the school grounds like ghosts without purpose, praying for something, or someone, to break.
Dimitri had nearly made it to his room when suddenly, a door opened nearby. He lowered his gaze, unwilling to interact with another human being when he felt so overwhelmed, but when footsteps began to come towards him, he knew he couldn’t avoid it.
“Hey there, your Princeliness.”
“I am not in the mood for idle chatter, Claude,” Dimitri sighed, brushing past the Golden Deer house leader as the latter stopped before him.
“You didn’t even listen to what I had to say. Who says it’s idle chatter?” Claude pouted, following Dimitri.
“What could you possibly have to talk about right now?” Dimitri frowned, slowing down nonetheless, if only because Claude actually seemed to want to say something. “The only important thing now is to find Edelgard, and rescue the Professor and the Archbishop.”
“Interesting that you immediately thought of Edelgard as the culprit,” Claude hummed in thought, glancing over Dimitri’s shoulder for a hint of his expression. “What makes you say that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Dimitri balked, halting in his steps to turn towards Claude. The latter immediately deciphered the stormy expression on his face, dark clouds poorly veiling the anger simmering beneath the blue of his eyes. “She’s responsible for everything… She was responsible for Duscur, the murder of my family, and she’s responsible for this war… so of course, she’s responsible for the disappearance of the two, most key individuals in this war she’s prepared!”
“It’s easy to jump to that conclusion, isn’t it?” Claude nodded, putting his hands up defensively when he saw Dimitri’s posture become rigid. “Hey, hey, sorry, don’t get offended. Your train of thought is logical, but it’s just that… I don’t think anything about these circumstances is logical.”
“What do you suggest, then, Claude?” Dimitri asked with no small amount of exasperation. Thankfully, this only seemed to spur Claude on, as the young man etched a smile in return to Dimitri’s glower.
“I just think we should consider options outside of the box. Because, although current circumstances lead us to believe one thing, we should never forget to glance at the big picture.” At the sight of Dimitri’s deadpan, Claude just shrugged. “Don’t worry too much about it. I have faith that we’ll find the Professor soon. After all, I get the feeling that he’s a little hard to kill, that guy.”
“Claude…” Dimitri chewed on his lip pensively, locking gazes with his fellow house leader, who did not seem the least bit concerned as he should be. “Do you… do you know something?”
“Nothing worth sharing right now,” Claude shrugged, and went around Dimitri to head down the hall.
Dimitri caught him by the wrist, and stopped him in his step.
“Claude,” he repeated, unwilling to let his voice shake. “Please. Please, if you know something…”
“Like I said, it’s an idea not worth sharing right now.” Claude didn’t turn to expose his expression to Dimitri’s, but his voice had evened out, cueing to Dimitri that Claude was being just as serious as him. “But as soon as it becomes worth sharing, you’ll be the first to know, Dimitri. I promise.”
And with that, he slipped his wrist out of Dimitri’s slack grip, and slinked down the hall, footsteps muffled by the carpeted floor.
Dimitri let him go, without any words to say.
Claude had been watching.
As a general rule, he spent most of his time watching, collecting data on people and things alike so that when the time came, he could use that data to concoct his schemes and emerge victorious. So, of course, when developments occurred, he only partook minimally in resolving the issue, and preferably watched others do it.
As such, he’d been watching the ins and outs of the monastery for quite some time now, and could tell that something had been off. He never could have guessed that Edelgard would betray them, but he did have a feeling that there had been someone on the inside within their ranks.
And, just like that feeling back then, he now had a feeling that the Professor’s disappearance was not linked to the enemies that could be seen with the naked eye. The timing and circumstances of the disappearance were much too suspect for it to have been anything but an inside job.
Whose inside job this was, however, eluded Claude completely, and he certainly did not want to run around making baseless accusations around the monastery. And so, he observed.
Oddly enough, in the few days that Rhea and Byleth had disappeared, nothing had shifted noticeably. Amidst the chaos of attempting to keep order, there was a calm, like the eye of a storm, and Claude could not tell where the feeling originated. Something was off, in the sense that nothing felt off. With such a troubling development, there should have been something more- something disastrous upon them, and yet, after Rhea and Byleth had quite literally vanished, nothing else had happened.
(It seemed oddly reminiscent of the ordeal with Flayn’s kidnapping, although this time, there was no suspicious professor to find leads on. There was just… nothing.)
Sleepless nights befell Claude like a plague in this period of time. His brain always worked overtime trying to make connections, assumptions, deductions, trying to find pieces that may or may not exist in order to complete the puzzle of their beloved Professor disappearing. He’d heard on a few passing whispers that some people suspected Byleth of having kidnapped Rhea, but Claude had spent time in close quarters with Byleth, whereas those ignorant others had not. He’d seen first hand the warmth and sincerity that drove Byleth to try so hard for his students. He’d felt the love in his heart that made up for the lack of love in his eyes. For most, Byleth may have been a mysterious newcomer, but Claude trusted him, and felt like he’d known him for several lifetimes.
He couldn’t bring himself to believe that Byleth was the one who’d orchestrated this disappearance.
In fact, of the two, he’d be more likely to suspect-
“Come on, Claude,” he suddenly snapped himself out of his borderline-blasphemous thoughts, waving off the imaginary bubble that contained all of his heretic musings away from his face. He sat up in his bed, where he’d been laying with his eyes open previously. It seemed like another sleepless night- his third in a row now. The moon was high in the night sky, and Claude knew he still had several hours left to waste until his body caved in to the exhaustion trailing his every footstep.
Deciding to at least make the best of his time unwillingly spent awake, he pulled on his boots and grabbed his steel bow off its stand. Cracking the door open and making sure no guards patrolled the dormitory hallway, he snuck out of his room, tiptoeing his way down to the monastery grounds.
He avoided heading to the training grounds, as the area near the dorms was usually the most heavily patrolled by monastery watchmen, and instead cut through the dining hall to access the open grounds, with the intention of heading for the stables. They were usually left unguarded for the night, as the horses slept, and nothing of importance happened there, so Claude knew he would have some peace and quiet to shoot some arrows into hay bales there.
He crouched into hedges as he exited the dining hall, ears out for any sounds. However, he didn’t hear anything- not a single clink of armour from a patrolling guard, nor voices from monastery inhabitants. Just… nothing.
Hesitating to adventure into the unknown, Claude stayed crouched long enough to steel himself, and then advanced. He crossed the main walkway and ducked into the hedges lining the gazebo entrance to the Holy Tomb. He then slinked past that area, crouching in the bushes beyond to listen for the next development. The smell of horses already wafted through the chilly air, promising Claude that he was almost home bound free.
He was about to move onto his next hiding spot when suddenly, a chime rang out in the air.
Claude froze again, making himself small behind the hedges, and squinting to see what had made that noise. In the darkness, it was easy to notice how the gazebo had become illuminated lightly, as if exuding an aura, and that small, firefly-like sparks were dancing around it. With surprisingly little amount of noise, the stones tiling the gazebo began to fall away, and Claude held his breath as someone emerged from the depths of the Holy Tomb, into the grounds of Garreg Mach monastery past midnight.
He had to blink twice, even three times, when he recognized the mint of Lady Rhea’s hair in the moonlight above.
The Archbishop walked lightly, her footsteps airy and leisurely as if she hadn’t thrown the entirety of the monastery into chaos by disappearing for nearly a week’s time. Claude couldn’t discern her expression from so far away, but the set of her shoulders against the bounce in her step made her look like she walked with a purpose. She headed immediately in the direction Claude had come from, and he did not dare breathe until she had left his line of sight.
Immediately, his brain began to work, trying to figure out why Lady Rhea was walking the monastery grounds so late at night after being declared missing. She’d clearly been in the Holy Tomb, and Claude could wager that she’d been down there for the entire time she’d been declared missing, but it didn’t seem as if she was being held captive. If she had been down there for some form of ceremony or rite, she would surely have let Seteth know, and Seteth wasn’t nearly a good enough actor to feign the panic etched into the lines of his face these days.
No, Lady Rhea had absolutely no reason to be considered anything but missing, and yet, here she was.
Claude could make no sense of it, at all.
He decided to wait, too curious to head off, and too scared to follow her. He did not wait long- within a quarter hour where his legs cramped up in his crouch, Rhea returned from the same direction in which she’d left, coming closer and closer to Claude. She carried something in her hands this time, and Claude stretched his neck as quietly as he could to get a good glimpse of it, his breath catching when he finally noted what it was.
A bowl in one hand, and a cup in the other.
Claude’s heart beat so loudly in his ears that he was momentarily scared that Rhea would hear it from where she stood.
Thankfully, she seemed absorbed in her task, the moon illuminating her figure long enough for Claude to note that she wore the same clothes as when she was seen last, her hair slightly tangled and dirty. She had a few large spots of blood on her robes, but did not walk like she was in pain. Her expression was neutral, but somehow, it made Claude even more uneasy. He watched in bated breath as she stood in front of the gazebo, the stone structure lighting up before the stone steps fell forward again, and she descended back into the abyss from which she’d emerged.
Claude did not dare move, intrigued and terrified all at once. He waited for the moon to change position in the sky before moving out of his hiding spot, his legs cramping horribly as he sprinted back to his room, all thoughts of target practice having flown out of his head at this recent development. He dodged a few guards near-subconsciously, and when the wooden door closed behind him, Claude realized he’d made it back to his room somehow- although he had no recollection how.
His heart beat so fast he felt like he could be sick. Theories and conclusions swirled like a whirlwind in his head, and Claude knew that he needed to make sense of these thoughts somehow if he ever wanted peace of mind.
Surprisingly, when the adrenaline of the encounter wore off, he found that he could no longer keep his eyes open. Perhaps it was the thrill of this new piece of information, or the horror of what it implied that dragged Claude under- whatever it was, Claude finally found that he could kick off his boots, and get some sleep.
He slept, but did not rest.
The next morning, Claude paid special attention to Seteth. He volunteered to help the man transport some books and reports from his office to the audience chamber, and watched as the usually stoic and stern man dragged his steps tiredly, hopelessly. When offhandedly asked how the search for Rhea was going, he’d replied, with no small amount of hopelessness, that they had no leads yet.
His behaviour cemented Claude’s belief that Rhea was acting on her own, independently of the Church, and that whatever she was doing, she was the only one in on it. And, Claude wasn’t stupid enough to believe that Byleth wasn’t somehow connected to whatever Rhea was up to on her own.
He needed help, because whatever was happening felt way beyond his grasp.
As such, he found himself cornering Dimitri again that afternoon, catching the solemn young man on his way to the training grounds to spar, likely with Felix, who’d been pacing an unusual lot these days.
“Dimitri,” he greeted him with a light smile that he hoped looked like his usual, playful expression. The blond heading his way threw an exhausted glance at him, lips pressed in a thin line, and slowed down long enough for Claude to shift his expression, and address him in a low tone. “It’s become worth sharing.”
With that, he and Dimitri parted ways.
Claude was not worried. He had no reason to be when, right as he tore his gaze away from Dimitri, he’d seen a new fire burst to life in his eyes.
Claude had not even changed into his sleeping attire when there was a knock on the door that night, and he unhesitatingly opened it. Dimitri slinked right in, dressed in his usual combat attire, minus the heavy armour pieces that would’ve made any attempt at sneaking pointless.
“Tell me everything you know,” Dimitri demanded, standing at the foot of Claude’s bed as the latter locked his door, then sat on the mattress.
And Claude told him everything, from the smallest, most useless detail he’d observed, to the strangest, most far-fetched theory his brain had conjured in the day he’d had to think about it. Dimitri just listened, his expression never wavering, and Claude appreciated that he never interrupted.
At the end of his explanation, Claude reached for his water skin, his throat dried out from all the talking. This gave time for Dimitri to push himself away from the desk he was leaning against, and approach Claude.
“So?” he simply asked, as if Claude had withheld answers from him. “What do we do next? Let’s say that you’re right- let’s say that Lady Rhea is linked with the Professor’s disappearance, and let’s say that our biggest clue lies within the Holy Tomb. How will we proceed next?”
“Well, we’d have to get into the Tomb,” Claude mused out loud, handing the water skin to Dimitri, who hesitated slightly before accepting it. “Not sure how to do that, though. I feel like it’s not as easy as a key in a lock.”
“I recall being told, once, that the Holy Tomb only opens to those carrying the blood of the Goddess. So…”
“Perhaps… Those who carry certain Crests may have access to it,” Claude hypothesized. “You and I, we carry Major Crests of the 10 Elites, but there are some of our classmates who carry Crests of the Saints. The blood of the Goddess must run thicker in them than in us, so I’d surmise that they’d have a higher chance of opening the Tomb than us.”
“Following that logic, we’d have to ask someone who carries a Divine Crest, but… the only ones who are known to carry those… are the Professor and Lady Rhea…” Dimitri chewed on his lip. “So, if we go one step lower, to the Crests of the Saints, then we should ideally find someone with a Major Crest.”
“Flayn carries the Major Crest of Cethleann, if I’m not mistaken,” Claude continued on. “I’m sure she would help if we explained to her what’s going on.”
“She might also reveal our plan to Seteth, however. That girl is powerful, but naïve to the ways of the world,” Dimitri warned. “If we are to involve her, we should also involve others, so that there is more to lose should things get out of hand.”
“Wicked manipulation,” Claude hummed, a short laugh escaping him. “I like it. Can’t say I can think of anything else. But… what if we need backup?”
“You’ve seen the Holy Tomb, and I haven’t. You tell me, doesn’t it seem like things could get dangerous there? What if we need to fight, and need reinforcements?” Claude asked.
“Well…” Dimitri tapped his chin in deep thought. “I know that there are security mechanisms in place within the Holy Tomb to deter intruders… They were disabled when we went in there to receive the Revelation of the Goddess, so I don’t know what they would be.”
“So, let’s assume we’d have to fight. Then… in that case, we’d need numbers. Skilled fighters, who wouldn’t rat us out, and would be willing to follow us quite literally into the dark on a shred of a chance that we’d find the Professor…”
Claude trailed off, and then two boys seemed to come to the same conclusion at once. They locked gazes, reading the confirmation in their respective eyes, and then, Claude sighed to break the silence.
“Fine. Let’s do it. And… Rock-paper-scissors decides who talks to the Eagles.”
“I must admit that Prince Dimitri did not make the most attractive offer I’d ever heard,” Ferdinand complained as the Black Eagles began to sit amongst the group of Deers and Lions amassed in the Blue Lions classroom. “There was practically no incentive to follow you all into this undetermined mission, which, I hope you realize, makes you sound extremely suspicious.”
“Oh, stuff it, Ferdie,” Dorothea rolled her eyes, taking a seat next to Ingrid. “I’m sure that Claude and Dimitri are going to explain what this is all about, if you give them a chance. Plus, for me, anything related to the Professor’s and Lady Rhea’s disappearance is worth pursuing.”
“Uh… Wait, do-does that mean I have an option to opt-out from this mission!?” Bernadetta squeaked, glancing clandestinely at the door. “Because i-if it’s all the same to you, I’m, uhh… not too fond of danger, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just-”
“Bernadetta!” Petra put an arm out to prevent the sniper from leaving the classroom. “There is a necessity for you to remain with everyone. If we are able to be helping the Professor, then there is no need to know another reason to fight!”
“Alright, alright, let’s settle down,” Claude called for order, striding to the front of the class while Dimitri closed the heavy double-doors of the classroom, isolating everybody inside from the outside. “Let me explain why you’re here, all of you top students from each class.”
“Um, how long is this going to take? I’m sort of hungry, actually, so I would’ve liked to have lunch while we listen,” Raphael commented, to which Lysithea rolled her eyes, and slid him a wrapped piece of cake. No other commentary was heard from Raphael.
“Basically, we think we know where the Professor is,” Claude cut to the chase, expecting the shocked exclamations and murmurs that immediately rose from the near-double dozen students cramped in the classroom. “And we need your help, in case we have to fight our way through to him.”
“Count me in!” Leonie exclaimed immediately. “I’ve gotta make sure the Professor comes back safe and sound, or else Captain Jeralt would never forgive me!”
“Sounds like a hassle. Who are we even fighting?” Felix groaned, earning himself a disapproving glare from Ingrid.
“We don’t know,” Dimitri bit his lip, throwing a furtive glance at Claude, who nodded. That suspicion did not need to come to light now. “We can’t anticipate what we’ll find where we’re going. All we can do is ask you all to lend us your strength.”
“Of course,” Ingrid nodded. “And I’m sure Felix and Sylvain will be delighted to help you retrieve the Professor.” She punctuated that with a death glare at the two who were now whispering teases and threats to each other.
“How did I get dragged into this when there isn’t even a damsel in distress to be saving?” Sylvain groaned, making a show out of his annoyance, which earned him another smack from Ingrid. “Ow, okay, fine! The Professor’s more important than a damsel anyway!”
“This meeting is a mess,” Hilda complained, checking out her fingernails. “And it sounds like this rescue mission is a lot of work. Can’t you guys just do it while I keep watch, or something?”
“I agree… I don’t think I’d be able to help if I came, anyway,” Marianne murmured, which was drowned out by the sound of the other students stepping in with their own opinion or complaint.
Dimitri let it go on for exactly 27 seconds before he got fed up, and cleared his throat loudly, getting everybody’s attention back to him.
“Alright, listen well. Claude will explain the plan to everyone here. Whoever does not want to be a part of the Professor’s most likely rescue mission, leave this room right now, and don’t speak of this to anyone!”
Linhardt made a move for the door, and found it blocked by Dedue. So, he sat back down, and pillowed his head on his arms to fall asleep.
“Great, glad everyone is on board.” Claude clapped his hands enthusiastically. “There’s not much to say. The gist of it is that we’re going to enter the Holy Tomb, where we believe we’ll find a clue as to the Professor’s whereabouts. There might be traps, or something, though, which is why we need you all to come with us, just in case we need to fight.”
“That’s literally the least detailed plan I’ve ever heard in my life,” Annette complained to Mercedes in a low voice. “What are they learning in the other classrooms, anyway?”
“And how will we enter the Holy Tomb?” Lysithea raised her hand to point out the glaring flaw in their plan. “Isn’t Lady Rhea the only one who can get into it?”
“Not exactly, or at least, we hope not.” Claude shook his head, and turned his gaze to Flayn, who’d been silently sitting in the back of the room so far. Slowly, all eyes followed Claude’s line of sight, until the room in its entirety was staring at Flayn with varying degrees of interest.
“Oh goodness,” she finally gasped. “You’re all staring at me, aren’t you?”
They entered the Holy Tomb that afternoon, right after lunch time. The down time period between lunch and the early afternoon gave an alibi for most of the students to slip away from their peers and monastery staff, under the guise of taking a nap, or doing some chores. They all met in the stables, waiting for the stable boys to leave after feeding the horses to creep by towards the gazebo, as much creeping as 23 students or varying shapes, size, and subtlety could manage. Thankfully, nobody asked them questions, and they all made it to the gazebo without difficulty.
Despite her earlier reluctance, Flayn was willing, in the end, to fiddle around with the entrance to the Holy Tomb, waving frantically at it and putting her arms around the columns and asking it nicely to open up until, out of the blue, it just did. Linhardt began taking notes before Caspar pushed him down the stone steps that fell into place to create their stairway down into the darkness.
And, Dimitri and Claude, leading the charge, descended into the abyss first.
The Tomb was just as Dimitri remembered it to be. It had been left untouched after Edelgard’s assault a week prior, and the dried blood on the stones was the only reminder left of that horrible day. His grip tightened on his lance as he advanced, Claude holding an arrow half-strung as he advanced next to him. The torches illuminated the Holy Tomb, casting an eerie glow across it, the flickering lights creating moving shadows in every corner. And yet, the expanse of the Tomb before them remained empty.
“So. There’s nothing here?” Felix snorted from the back line.
And suddenly, in a flash of light, the traps triggered, and hundreds of immaterial-looking, faceless soldiers spawned across the tomb, weapons at the ready.
“Nice job, Felix,” Sylvain groaned in a tone that sounded anything but surprised.
And then, the battle was upon them.
By some unsaid agreement, Dimitri and Claude remained close together. Perhaps it was an implicit camaraderie from leading the charge, but the two of them fought back to back, trying to reorient themselves in the chaos of battle.
“There,” Claude pointed out when Dimitri cut down the last ghostly figure rushing at them for the time being. Dimitri followed his finger upwards, until his eyes landed on the dais holding the Goddess’s Throne.
And upon in, standing tall, straight, and quiet, was Rhea.
“It’s her!” Dimitri exclaimed, glancing at Claude incredulously. “But… what could this mean?”
“We have to find out, I guess,” Claude gave him an uneasy smile, reflecting how both of them felt about this. They had no choice, however. As the battle raged on behind them, they trusted their friends to stay safe, and ran for the dais.
Arriving at its base, they glanced all the way up, and Dimitri locked eyes with Rhea. She had a pleased-looking expression on her face, although in its neutrality, it was hard to tell. She looked a little disheveled, a little dirty, her headpiece long discarded to let her tangled mint hair flow around her like a halo.
Somehow, Dimitri had trouble believing in that vision.
“Let’s go,” he prompted instead, and wordlessly, he and Claude began to ascend the steps to the Throne.
“Rhea,” Claude called out, and at the call of her name, the Archbishop turned around and walked off, out of sight. “Wait! Lady Rhea!”
“Lady Rhea!” Dimitri parroted, hoping to get her attention. However, he had to focus on catching his breath, as his calves burned on his way up the dais. It was a long ascent, even moreso with the bad feeling growing in Dimitri’s chest with every step he took. A quick glance at Claude’s pinched expression proved that he felt the same.
And finally, when they reached the top of the dais and came face-to-face with the Throne, everything seemed to collapse in on them. Every bad feeling, every ill omen, every fear seemed to come alive as Dimitri and Claude beheld the spectacle upon the Throne.
Blood stained the stone, painting the armrests, the seat, the back of the Throne. It was painted in strokes, of varying shapes and shades, having dried at different intervals of time. The familiar figure slumped on the Throne sat limply, his body held up by chains crossed on his chest and abdomen, looped around his arms and thighs and constricting his pale, bruised throat. His clothing was ripped, dirty and bloody, stained by the numerous visible (and likely hidden) gashes decorating his skin in between the bruises. Some of his fingers sat strangely against the armrest, abnormally twisted. Blood dripped rhythmically from his parted lips, landing in a large pool collected on his sunken collarbone and shirt. His nose had swollen an unseemly purple, and he was clearly taking tiny, tiny breaths through his mouth.
(He breathed. He still breathed, visibly so, and for now, that kept Dimitri grounded through the horror and nausea welling up inside of him).
The Professor looked absolutely horrible.
And aside from the injuries collected on his body, the worst was to watch how Lady Rhea gently, lovingly cupped his face, rubbing her thumb over one of his prominently bruised cheeks. She murmured something melodic to Byleth, who did not even respond, eyes half-lidded in a semi-conscious state, and then softly set her hand on top of his head, caressing his hair.
“You’ve come to take Mother away, haven’t you?” Rhea finally spoke out loud, though her loving gaze remained fixed on Byleth’s battered, unresponsive face.
And at the edge of the dais, Dimitri took his first step forward, hands shaking as he raised his lance at the Archbishop.
“What kind of… what sick joke is this…? Hah…” Claude’s voice had clearly caught in his throat, although Dimitri gave him credit for even finding his voice at all. He, too, had strung his arrow, but was hesitating to point it at the Archbishop. “Rhea… No… Who are you…?”
“I am the one you call Rhea,” the Archbishop confirmed, continuing to card her hand through Byleth’s matted, bloody hair. The Professor let out a tiny noise at the motion, and that small sign of life had Dimitri and Claude raising their weapons high at the ready, poised to strike down an entire army if that’s what it took to rescue the man before them.
“Whoever you are, let the Professor go!” Dimitri demanded, finding his courage with every expression of suffering he saw flittering across Byleth’s blank face. “I’ll strike you down where you stand for this!”
“Calm yourself, child,” Rhea hushed him, turning her gaze to him as she kept brushing Byleth’s hair out, repeatedly drawing tiny noises from her captive. “He’s fine.”
“He’s not fine,” Claude interjected, swallowing heavily, unsure how to process the horror of the picture before him. Rhea looked exactly the same as she did back at the monastery, with that compassionate expression, but Byleth… Byleth looked ravaged beyond repair, and every second Claude spent without being sure of the man’s status made him just that much sicker. He felt like he would throw up right there on the dais. “Lady Rhea, what have you done? He’s far from fine, he needs medical attention right now. What have you done!?”
“I did it all… all for my Mother…” Rhea closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. “I just… wanted to hear Mother’s voice again… one more time…”
“I can’t let this stand!” Dimitri shifted his stance. “Archbishop or not, you’ve intentionally hurt my mentor, you’ve tortured and sequestered my precious friend, and I will not let you go unpunished for it. I’m tired of letting people get away with hurting those I love!”
Letting out a roar of unbridled fury, not unlike those he reserved for Edelgard, Dimitri charged the Archbishop.
“Damn it, Rhea…” Claude mumbled to himself, putting up his arrow, and aiming past Dimitri’s shoulder. “He’s right. You’ve hurt our Teach, and as his students, it’s our job to avenge him.” He pulled the bow taut until it felt like it would snap. “I’d say I’m sorry about this… but seeing what you’ve done to Teach, I can’t say I am.”
The arrow flew, just over Dimitri’s shoulder, with a course for Rhea’s forehead. The Archbishop raised her hand, crackling with magic, and swung it in an arch to slice cleanly through the arrow, and Dimitri used the opening to thrust his lance at her exposed abdomen without an ounce of mercy behind his swing. The tip ripped through Rhea’s clothes, drawing blood, and Dimitri followed the momentum to spin, and swing his lance at her chest once more.
With a bloodied throwing knife that she took in hand immediately, Rhea parried Dimitri’s swing, and then ducked to avoid one of Claude’s arrows. The two young men seemed to have found themselves on the same wavelength during this fight, each one filling the gaps left by the other, attacking where one covered, as if both of them had united under the same banner just this once- with the intention of saving their precious Professor. The two of them fought mercilessly despite their earlier apprehensions about facing the leader of the Church of Seiros in battle.
Somehow, raising their weapons against the Archbishop felt far away from committing a sacrilege. In fact, in the moment where they glanced at Byleth to see their friend and mentor blearily watching upon them, despite his advanced state of injury, it felt like they were doing the Goddess’s work.
Rhea was much too well-trained, however, and eventually, the two of them began to tire. Having landed a few strikes on Rhea was good, but not enough to drive her away from the Professor. Strangely enough, though, as she kicked Dimitri back a few feet, she suddenly stilled, and a pensive look appeared in her eyes.
“Well… If Mother has not come yet…” she murmured to herself, glancing sadly down at Byleth’s unresponsive form. Rhea then squatted to be at eye level with Byleth, who barely managed to track her movements with his gaze. “Then… I suppose… I shall return and try again another time. Until that time comes, Mother…” She swept away Byleth’s dirty hair away from his bloody forehead, and pressed her lips softly to it in a tender goodbye kiss.
When she drew back to face Dimitri’s and Claude’s increasingly horrified expressions, her lips were covered in the red of Byleth’s fresh blood, dripping along the curve of her dimples and sliding down the pale column of her delicate neck.
Claude let out a noise of distress at the sight of her monstrous appearance, and Dimitri stayed silent, unable to muster a single sound past the knot in his windpipe.
Wordlessly, Rhea stepped towards them, and Claude and Dimitri put their weapons back up towards her, hands visibly shaking as she got closer and closer and closer.
And then, she swept past them in an instant, before either of them could react, beginning to descend the dais as if she’d done nothing wrong.
Dimitri shifted his stance, clearly intending to pursue her, but Claude’s firm, trembling hand on his shoulder stopped him. The two boys hesitated, the horror of the situation settling between them, but then, a shared glance at Byleth’s slumped figure on the Throne cleared up any indecisiveness they may have had left.
Their weapons clattered to the ground as the two of them dropped everything to rush to their Professor’s side like believers running to serve their god. And in a way, Byleth, in all his broken glory, was the light of their lives, their saviour, their god.
“Professor,” Dimitri squeaked in distress, taking Byleth’s cold face in his hands. “Professor, listen to me, follow my voice. Are you there? Are you awake? Professor!”
“Just hold on, we’ll get you out of these,” Claude promised, his voice tight as he worked on lockpicking the chains looped together. Byleth let out a low gagging noise when a particular move of the chains tightened the loop around his neck, constricting his air flow, and Dimitri’s face crumpled at the sound of it.
“Oh, what I wouldn’t give to take your pain away, Professor,” he murmured, tears barely hidden in the inflection of his voice. “What I wouldn’t give to hurt the ones who hurt you like this.”
Another noise made its way out of Byleth’s bruised throat, a small and frantic squeak of despair. His arms, still bound tightly to the armrests, strained against the chains audibly, and Dimitri could think to do nothing else than thread one of his hands gently into the least damaged of Byleth’s. He clung tightly to his Professor, even when the other only barely squeezed back.
“I’m sorry.” Dimitri bowed his head, letting his heartbeat slow now that the worst of the encounter had passed. “If I’d been faster… Found you sooner…”
“We couldn’t have known,” Claude interrupted his self-loathing commentary, though his face, too, looked a shade paler. “Nobody could ever have seen this coming. Let’s just be thankful we found you at all, huh, Teach?”
Byleth opened his cracked, bloody lips to respond, most likely, but he only managed a raspy exhale instead. His eyes still seemed far away, although he did track Dimitri’s movements when he knelt before Byleth, splaying his hand against his thigh in a grounding act.
“Don’t talk,” he insisted, hating seeing the Professor in pain. “We’ll get you some help, we’ll get you all better, and then we’ll talk. Save your strength for now.”
“Done,” Claude finally announced, the click of a lock heralding the rattle of chains that followed. He began unwinding the chains keeping Byleth captive, first removing the ones choking him tightly. As the silver links fell away from his skin, they left violent purple bruises in their wake. The sight of them made Dimitri breathless with fury.
But, revenge would have to wait another day. What Byleth needed right now was not anger, but comfort. He needed to feel safe again, and Dimitri would set the world on fire if that’s what it took to get there.
The two of them unwound Byleth from the Throne with a delicate and reverent touch that did nothing to hide the franticness of their movements. As the restraints fell away, Byleth began to slump, and Claude came around to support him while Dimitri finished undoing the chains tying his legs.
“Hey, Teach,” Claude called out in a tight voice, visibly shaken when he pulled Byleth against him, and felt blood stain his sleeves near-instantly. “Don’t get upset, but I think we’ll have to carry you out of here. How do you feel about a piggyback ride?”
Byleth made an indistinct noise again, flinching visibly when Dimitri jostled his swollen, discoloured ankles to drop the chains entirely away from him. Dimitri apologized in a whisper, his voice failing him under the grip of emotion.
“I’ll assume you just said you’d love a piggyback ride,” Claude joked, pressing Byleth closer, if only to feel him warm and alive against him. He cradled the older boy’s face gently against his abdomen, feeling his heaving breaths warm up his skin. It was the most comforting thing Claude had felt all day, and he suppressed the urge to just gather Byleth in his arms and never let him go.
And it all felt that much more overwhelming when Byleth slowly, painstakingly put his arms up, and twisted his broken fingers into the fabric of Claude’s tunic.
“Oh, heavens above…” Pressing him closer, Claude cradled his head, and tangled his fingers through his matted strands of hair. Dimitri, at his feet, looked up desperately at him, as if begging him to give him the next order as usual, even if he was in no condition to lead. Byleth seemed to feel his distress, though, and slowly untangled one of his hands from Claude’s clothes to instead reach out towards Dimitri. The Prince met him halfway, reverently cradling his hand and leaning into his lap.
With Claude at his side, and Dimitri at his feet, for a moment still in time, Byleth did not look like a broken man. For a moment, being worshiped so mournfully, he looked like he belonged upon the Throne on which he sat. Byleth looked so quiet and fragile that it felt like he’d disappear if they let go of him for even a second, but although they held him like a man, there was something beyond humanity in the picture he painted. Surrounded by his faithful, Byleth closed his eyes to rest, peaceful at last. Even though they’d rescued him, Claude and Dimitri both felt like they’d failed somehow.
“Alright,” Dimitri finally broke the silence. “We should get him out of here, and get him seen by a physician.”
“You’re a better at close combat than I am, so I can take him, and you lead us out of here,” Claude suggested, sharing a look with the blonde, who nodded.
“Of course.” It did pain him to leave Byleth, but he trusted Claude to keep their beloved Professor safe. He knew, however, that he’d be able to escort the two of them out of the Holy Tomb regardless of all else, for he swore to himself that he’d cut down anyone- friend or foe- who stood in their way.
“Help me get him on here.” Letting him go, Claude waited for Dimitri to switch places before kneeling before Byleth, giving him his back.
“Come, Professor,” Dimitri encouraged, helping Byleth lean forward, and wrap his torn arms around Claude’s neck. Every movement seemed to cause him immense pain, if the tension on his face and the heavy gasps were any indication, and Dimitri could guess that he’d been chained up in the same position for a while- he wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been as such for the whole week.
It made his blood boil with fury- at the perpetrator of this crime, and at himself, for not being able to protect in turn the man who’d worked tirelessly to protect him, to protect all of them.
“Up you go, Teach… Come on.” Even Claude’s usual playfulness was dulled by the concern he felt, and his movements were careful and considerate as he took Byleth’s knees, and helped the man squeeze his thighs around his waist. “Alright, let’s move.”
Dimitri supported Byleth’s back as Claude stood, trying not to wince when the Professor let out an audible whimper of pain. His brow furrowed, and Dimitri hated that one of Byleth’s rare displays of emotion had to be wasted on something like this.
“Sorry,” Claude murmured pointlessly, the look on his face crestfallen. “But we’ll be out of here soon, promise.”
“I’ll go on. Just follow me.” Circling so that he was in Byleth’s entire field of view, Dimitri locked his fierce gaze with Byleth’s distant eyes, and made him a wordless promise that only death could break. “You’ll be safe with us, Professor. No harm shall ever befall you again.”
And Byleth gave no indication if he believed him or not, but Dimitri knew he did. Whether it was in the tightening of his hold on Claude’s neck, or in the slow blink of his dazed expression, Dimitri knew that he’d heard, and that he’d believed.
And so, he picked up his lance from the ground and opened up the procession, head held high and back set straight as if he was leading an entire army to victory, rather than just one man to safety.
It all boiled down to the same, in the end.
Although Byleth had drifted in and out of consciousness throughout his seemingly-endless confinement, he had never felt so grounded than when he felt the warmth of Claude’s back against his chest and the digging of his grip on his thighs. Claude felt alive and real beneath him, and Byleth found himself praying that this was not just a fever-induced hallucination. He’d already been through so much- he didn’t think he could survive his own brain playing tricks on him on top of it all.
Still, the way that Dimitri and Claude had spoken to him, had held him… He didn’t want to believe that he had hallucinated all that in his desperate attempt to escape Rhea’s clutches.
He had already begun to replace every single one of her cursed touches with the warmth of theirs. His body, previously on fire and in pain, now felt numb and soothed where Dimitri had held his hands and Claude had held his face. Byleth trusted them so much, it nearly hurt- and in light of recent events, felt like he could trust nobody in the world but them.
And so, despite the lingering embarrassment at the back of his head, he set his cheek against Claude’s neck and closed his eyes, letting himself be carried out. Even now, his mind drifted through consciousness, and in his most awake periods, he could hear the sounds of battle, the worried calls of his name, the hitching of Claude’s breath underneath him. And, most grounding of all, he heard Dimitri, roaring and taunting and giving one battle cry after the next as he fought to keep Byleth safe.
Neither relief nor gratitude could fully express how uplifted he felt at the knowledge of his presence at his side.
Byleth mostly came to once they extricated themselves from the Holy Tomb. Being further away from the magical grounds that had continuously been sapping at his strength for the length of his confinement already helped with his level of consciousness, so when the caress of sunlight brushed his face, he finally opened his eyes, and saw for the first time.
The one who immediately met his gaze was Dimitri, his worried frown turning into a gasp of surprise when he noticed that Byleth was actually tracking him.
“Professor!” he exclaimed, immediately reaching out for Byleth, but hovering a little bit, as if not knowing where to touch him.
Byleth helped him out by undoing one of his hands from Claude’s neck, and reaching out to hold Dimitri’s. The blonde’s face almost lit up at that, and he cradled Byleth’s hand like a treasure as they walked side by side, into the monastery. Byleth didn’t know where exactly they were headed, as he was too focused on the feel of Claude against him, and the sight of Dimitri next to him. Around them, he heard several voices, familiar and unfamiliar alike, exclaiming their astonishment or asking questions, but Byleth was much too exhausted to even try acknowledging them. He let Dimitri and Claude handle the people trying to crowd them, and closed his eyes again.
When he opened them next, he was being laid down gently into a cot in the infirmary. The familiar walls and ceiling gave it away, as well as the smell of medicinal herbs and the chime of white magic lingering in the air.
“Gently, Professor,” Dimitri was murmuring, clearly unaware that he had drifted back into consciousness, helping Claude move Byleth off of his back, into the bed. “You’re safe now, I promise…”
“Be careful, Dimitri,” Claude warned, manipulating Byleth’s limbs with tenderness unlike him. “I think his ribs are damaged. He was breathing strange on the way here. Just put him on his back right here…”
Byleth tried not to react at the softness of the mattress he was laid on, heaven in comparison to the stone seat he’d been chained to for all this time, but his face must have given something away, for the next thing he knew, a hand was brushing his hair out of his face. Through the curtain of his eyelashes, he saw that Claude had sat down at eye level with him to comfort him, and so he relaxed.
“Welcome back, Teach,” Claude hummed, his thumb rubbing above a bruise on Byleth’s cheek before returning to card through his hair. “Had a nice nap?”
“Professor Manuela is on her way to help,” Dimitri reported, sitting on a stool on the opposite side of his bed with a heavy, comforting hand on his shoulder. “Your injuries seem grave, but not life-threatening, at the very least.”
Of course they weren’t, Byleth wanted to explain. Rhea hadn’t wanted him to die, after all. Rhea hadn’t even wanted to hurt him, and the initial fight against her was the reason for most of his severe injuries. The others, he’d sustained as Rhea had grown more and more desperate to conjure Sothis forth, and had resorted to keeping him awake no matter what. Alongside the constant gravitation of his magic towards the Throne, the blood loss had been largely at fault for his poor level of consciousness, although this wasn’t something that a little extra pain couldn’t fix. Rhea had understood that from early on, smiling lovingly at him, at the being that lived inside of him, crooning words of devotion and sweet promises as she slit his skin open and spilled his blood in her mother’s name. Every brush of her hand, every feathery kiss seemed to have seared itself on Byleth’s body, until he could no longer tell where he ended, and where Sothis, Rhea’s object of adoration, began.
Perhaps to her, there was never a distinction at all.
His body gave a violent shudder at the memory of her false visage, one that drew the attention of the two boys standing vigil over him. They rushed to fret over him, worried, and despite the gravity of the situation and the extent of his injuries, Byleth could not help but etch a smile.
His throat felt tight from the extended strangulation, but, seeing the concern on both of their faces, the hesitance in both of their touches, Byleth could not help but want to push himself for their sake. These boys meant so much to him. And from the looks of it, he meant just as much to them. So, for them, for all three of them, he’d have to take the first step towards recovery, and lead the way, as he’d always done and always would do.
“Mi… Dimi- Clau- de…” he rasped out, his throat searing in pain. Seeing their eyes light up, though, he could not help but want to push on. “Did… you did… well.”
“Professor.” Dimitri’s voice sounded tight, close to tears, and Byleth beckoned him over with a simple wave of his hand. “Professor… You’re alright…”
“Oh, man, this is embarrassing,” Claude let out a watery chuckle, also heeding Byleth’s summon. His eyes glistened wetly in the lamplight. “Come on, Your Princeliness, don’t cry.”
“Both… you.” Byleth tried to sigh as fondness for the two of them overcame his entire body, but all that came out was a choked wheeze, and a sharp pain in his broken ribcage. “I’m glad… it was you.”
He opened his arms to the side, and without hesitation, almost like clockwork, Dimitri and Claude slotted into his sides, fitting against him like puzzle pieces meant to be. They both held tightly onto his dirty clothes, their white-knuckled grips speaking volumes about how scared they’d been, and as their Professor, Byleth only had one more responsibility to carry out.
He gently set his hands on top of both of their heads, and cradled them close to him, just firmly enough to return the promise to never again fall apart, and etch it into their skin with the pads of his broken fingers.
When Manuela neared the infirmary a few minutes later to check in on Byleth, she had to interrupt her entrance as not to disturb the scene in front of her.
Byleth’s mint hair was fanned around his head like a halo of the divine, and his arms had curled protectively around his boys. He carded through their hair in tiny, ephemeral touches, caressing Dimitri with his right hand, and Claude with his left. The two were tucked close against him, holding on tightly to his body and clothes as if he was their only purpose. And, despite his many injuries, Byleth had a tiny smile on his lips, watching upon the two boys in his hold with nothing short of adoration in his eyes.
It was the adoration of a teacher for his pupils, the adoration of a man for his treasure, and the adoration of a god for his unwavering believers.