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A Catalyst of Brides

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It wasn’t easy to fluster Byleth. They all knew that; they’d all spent months at the academy watching Sylvain, Hubert, Catherine and Claude attempt to catch her off guard using various methods, and nothing had ever worked. It was only by chance that Hilda was the one that finally realized what it took to get under her professor’s skin.

It was jealousy, of course.

It seemed strange, the idea that generous-yet-unflappable Byleth felt something as common or selfish as jealousy, but Hilda couldn’t think of another word for the reaction Byleth had to the monastery’s latest inhabitants.

She and the professor had been waiting in line for rations when Byleth noticed the visitors. The dining hall was half again as full as it usually was, and the head chef seemed a little frazzled from the extra work.

 “Are we taking students again?” she asked Hilda with a frown, looking at the young newcomers. “It doesn’t seem like a very good time to reinstate the academy…”

Hilda shook her head, glancing around the crowded room. “Oh, it’s nothing like that. These aren’t students, they’re just guests. And…well, they’re prospective brides.”

“Prospective…brides?” Byleth repeated, her eyes going slightly wide. She took a closer look at the latest additions and sure enough, they were all women.

“For Claude,” Hilda explained. “I think it was Lorenz’s idea. I bet Claude is furious. I can’t wait to tease him.”

“Claude’s getting married?” The shock and dismay were so evident on the professor’s face that Hilda did a double take to make sure she wasn’t just seeing things.

“I don’t think he has any immediate plans for it, no.” The pink-haired girl shrugged and cocked her head to one side. “But he is the leader of the Alliance, he has a Crest, and he’s winning the war against the Empire. He’s not my type or anything, but even I have to admit he’s kind of a catch.”

Byleth’s distress visibly worsened and she’d gone even paler than usual.

“Are you okay, Professor? Do you need Professor Manuela?”

Byleth shook her head. “Please excuse me,” she said. “I don’t think I’m hungry anymore.” Then she all but fled the dining hall, leaving Hilda by herself in line to puzzle out just what was wrong…until it came to her. Her dear professor was afraid, very afraid, that Claude was going to marry one of these girls.

A slow smile spread over her face. There weren’t many opportunities for amusement during a war, but this latest development might prove very entertaining indeed.

 


 

Claude’s reaction to the news that a great number of prospective brides had arrived was somewhat…lacking in dignity. In fact, Lorenz was starting to realize that he’d never truly seen his leader angry before, but he was certainly angry now. The pair of them were isolated enough, standing in what had once been the cardinals’ conference room, and Claude’s normally impish expression was now tight with exasperation.

“Lorenz, I don’t think I have to remind you that we’re in the midst of fighting a war, do I?”

Lorenz’s chin came up. “Certainly not. I am of course intimately acquainted with the circumstances and politics that have brought us to this point.”

Claude pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling loudly in frustration. “So why, exactly, did you think it was an appropriate time to bring a bunch of young noblewomen to Garreg Mach?”

For a moment, Lorenz just stared at the Alliance leader in stunned silence. Wasn’t it obvious? In fact, wasn’t it the solemn duty of every Crest-bearing noble in Fódlan? Surely Claude couldn’t be that ignorant of his duties and responsibilities?

“I invited them here,” he said slowly, as though he were explaining something to a particularly obtuse child, “because you must marry. To be frank, you must do so sooner rather than later. You are the last heir of House Riegan. The fact that my father and the other lords have not insisted that you engage in matrimony before now is unforgivably irresponsible.”

“They have insisted,” Claude said in a tone of strained patience, “and I’ve rejected.”

Lorenz shook his head. Now he was the exasperated one. “Forgive me Claude, but that isn’t within your purview. You must marry and produce a Crest-bearing heir, preferably two. You could fall in battle at any point, and if that happens before there is a legitimate heir for your house, everything we’ve accomplished up to now would be for naught. Surely you see that. I will admit that you have some talent as a fighter, and that you have a minor affinity for strategic thinking—”

“Try not to overwhelm me with praise there, Lorenz,” Claude cut in drily.

“—But all it would take is one stray arrow, and all would be lost.”

“Teach wouldn’t let that happen. Even if I were to fall, she would carry you all forward into Fódlan’s new dawn. She shares my dreams and she can make them come true—with or without me.” He looked so fundamentally certain of that fact that for an instant, Lorenz considered…but no, it was impossible. Impressive as she was, Byleth was not an appropriate partner for the leader of the Alliance. Or the king of Fódlan, should the continent reunify. She was the daughter of a mercenary, and while she made a useful figurehead for their resistance against the Empire, her heroics on the battlefield did not erase her humble birth.

“But she could not carry on the Riegan bloodline,” he said out loud. “Only you can do so. Therefore, I have invited the most appropriate and eligible noblewomen from across the Kingdom and the Alliance, in hopes that you may strike up a favorable partnership.”

“Besides,” chirped a cheerful voice from the doorway, “just think how much fun a wedding would be! It would give people something to celebrate for once. And I could handle the dress, and the decorations!”

Claude threw his hands up and turned to look at Hilda. “Don’t tell me you approve of this nonsense,” he said to her.

“You have to admit he’s got a point, Claude. And it could be fun, flirting with all those ladies. Besides, it would be rude of you to send them all home without even speaking to them,” Hilda told him. Then she looked at Lorenz with a sly grin “And Lorenz will no doubt try to console any of the women you don’t pick.”

“I’m not going to pick any of them,” Claude told her as Lorenz tried to sputter out a denial of her suggestion.

“How do you know? You may end up really liking one of them,” Hilda replied, watching him closely. She looked like the cat that caught the canary, and suddenly Lorenz wondered what she knew that he didn’t. He turned his gaze to Claude as well, looking for clues in the leader’s countenance.

“Even if that is the case, now isn’t the time. Any marriage proposals will come after the war.” Then he pointed a finger at Lorenz just as the other was about to protest. “I mean it. It can wait.”

“You will, of course, at least give them a gracious welcome,” Lorenz replied, rising to his full height to pin Claude with a disapproving stare. “Anything else would be discourteous, and offer grave insult to their families—all of whom, may I remind you, are offering us troops and support. These are not people you should alienate, Claude.”

This time Claude threw his hands up in defeat. “Fine, fine. I’ll make the time. But don’t invite anyone else, Lorenz. And you’re in charge of making sure they all get safely home once they’ve been duly welcomed.”

Lorenz smiled, savoring the sweet taste of victory. “I would be delighted to be of assistance, of course.” Then, before Claude could ruin this moment with some clever quip, he took his leave. It was time to organize a ball.

 


 

“I was excited about the ball until Claude said there wasn’t enough food for a proper feast,” Raphael was saying as the former Golden Deer all sat down to breakfast the next day. “How are you supposed to enjoy the party on an empty stomach?”

Leonie tried to hide her grin. “I’m sure some people will manage,” she replied.

“It’s so romantic,” sighed Marianne. “Like out of a children’s story. A prince falling in love after just one dance…”

Ignatz smiled a little and shook his head. “That is romantic, but it doesn’t seem like much to base a life together off of.”

Hilda was watching Byleth through all of this, but the professor said nothing. She kept her gaze on her plate and ate steadily, though Hilda could have sworn she looked…sad.

“He seems pretty against the idea, or at least he was yesterday when Lorenz told him why all these girls had suddenly shown up,” she informed the group, though she watched Byleth out of the corner of her eyes. “Maybe he’s already given his heart to someone else.”

Lysithea swung her head around to peer at Hilda. “Do you think so? He’s never shown anyone any undo favor, at least not that I can recall.”

“Well,” Hilda laughed, “no one but the professor, anyway.”

Byleth looked up at last. “We don’t really speak of anything but the war. Our work requires us to consult one another often, that’s all.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I think you know more about Claude than any of us,” Hilda replied. “He tells you all his secrets, after all.”

That won her a little chuckle. “Oh, definitely not,” the professor said before returning her gaze to her meal. “He likes to keep us all guessing.”

“I cannot picture Claude married,” Lysithea commented thoughtfully. “He’s far too immature.”

“That doesn’t seem very fair, Lysithea,” Ignatz protested. “He’s done so much to ensure our success in battle, and he’s managed to hold the Alliance together when half the lords were against fighting the Empire. He even secured help from Almyra. An immature person couldn’t have accomplished those things.”

“He’s got a point,” Leonie agreed. She grinned at the younger girl. “You just hate the fact that he still teases you about being a child.”

“I fail to see how my age is relevant, when I work harder than—!”

Byleth cut her off. “He’s proud of you, Lysithea. He likes to tease, but he appreciates your work ethic and he values you as an ally.”

Lysithea crossed her arms over her chest and made an indignant noise, but her cheeks were slightly pink with pleasure at the praise.

“Do you think Claude should get married, Professor?” Hilda asked, leaning forward a little.

“I—if—if that’s what he want. If he falls in love, I don’t think anyone could begrudge him a little happiness in such dark times.”

“Love doesn’t usually have much to do with marriage when nobility and Crests are involved,” Leonie said, her mouth twisting a little. “It’s all about alliances and power with them.”

“You sound like Dorothea,” Marianne said quietly. “But some nobles find love.”

“Why are we even talking about this?” Raphael asked. Now that his plate was empty, his mouth was finally available for more than chewing. “If Claude gets married, great! I’ll be happy for him. And if not, that’s fine too. Even if he does have a wife, they wouldn’t really be able to spend any time together until the war is over, right? So we don’t need to worry about anything changing.”

“Of course, of course. I’m just curious about what everyone thinks, that’s all. But you didn’t really answer the question, Professor,” Hilda said to Byleth. “I didn’t ask if you’d support his marriage, I asked if you thought he should get married.”

“I think…” At times like these, Byleth wished she could still her Sothis’ voice. Maybe the goddess could have kept her from getting tongue-tied. She shook her head. “I’m really not the best person to make that call, Hilda. It’s up to Claude. I trust him to make the best decision.”

“If his marriage is inevitable, the obvious solution would be for him to marry you, Professor,” Lysithea announced out of nowhere. Everyone at the table fell silent, and suddenly they were all staring at Byleth. “You are already our principle leaders. You work well together. You both inspire people, and push them past their normal limits. You clearly tolerate and perhaps even enjoy one another’s company. It’s a logical conclusion.”

“Very practical,” Hilda agreed with a smug little smile. “It really is quite sensible if you think about it.”

“The professor and Claude? Yeah, that’d be great!” Raphael said, and beside him Ignatz nodded.

“You do seem perfectly matched,” he agreed.

“He could do worse,” was all Leonie said, but she looked interested in the idea.

“I think you two would make a wonderful couple,” Marianne said with a happy little sigh, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “You really are a good team, and he was so sure you’d come back. He never doubted you, Professor, even when everyone told him you were dead.”

Byleth stared at each of her former students in turn, her eyes wide with shock. Her mouth opened, then shut again, and a faint flush colored her cheeks.

“That’s not—Claude and I aren’t…”

Aren’t what? asked a mocking inner voice that sounded suspiciously like Sothis.

“I have to go,” she said as a bell tolled over the monastery grounds. “I’m late for a meeting with Seteth and Alois.”

“Byleth von Riegan…it’s got a nice ring to it,” Hilda mused, and Byleth had to resist the urge to cover her ears as she fled the dining hall for the second time in as many days. So much for her tough mercenary reputation…she’d just been chased away from a bunch of her own former students by a bit of idle speculation. Though perhaps that shouldn't have been so surprising in retrospect...Claude had tried to warn her all those years ago: life with the Golden Deer was never boring.

Chapter Text

There was something to be said for laying down in a bed that wasn’t covered in books and scrolls.

Claude rested on his back on top of Byleth’s blankets with his arms folded under his head. His eyes were tracing the patterns in the wood above him, though his mind was too busy with other thoughts to really observe much. He had to admit this wasn’t his most cunning hiding spot, but it was a comfortable one. The room was quiet and smelled faintly of tea leaves and some sort of mildly floral soap.

The Battle of Enbarr loomed in the near future. He wished now he’d asked Nader and his Almyran troops to stay and aid them, though he doubted his father would have agreed to spare his best general for much longer. And then there was his mother’s letter…

The door opened. He glanced over just as Byleth noticed he was there. He flashed her a smile that must have looked a little hollow. She had halted in place when she’d spotted him on her bed, and was now studying him—and his false smile—with a raised eyebrow.

“I can sense your disapproval and I reject it,” he said before she could comment.

“Don’t you have a bed of your own?” she asked, switching tack from disapproving to disinterest. She crossed the small room and hung her cloak on a hook before settling herself at her desk with her back to him. She pulled a stack of reports closer and began reading through them, pointedly ignoring the way he was sprawled out in her personal space.

“Sure I do, but people look for me there. I needed a place to lay low.” He stretched out on hers, yawning a bit as he did so. “Getting chased around the monastery by Seteth, Lorenz and a bunch of noblewomen is exhausting.”

She snorted. “If you’re looking for sympathy, you’ve come to the wrong room.”

“So cold! I’m wounded, Teach, I really am.”

Still, she didn’t turn. Claude frowned to himself. They’d played this game before, the one where he did or said something annoying or petulant and she pretended to be bored. But this time something felt off. Her normal air of fond tolerance for his antics wasn’t present; instead, something seemed to genuinely be upsetting her. Someone less familiar with her might not have been able to tell, but Claude could.

“Something bothering you, Teach?” he asked.

“Other than you shirking your duties and attempting to distract me from mine? No,” she said.

He sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and facing her back. “You don’t usually lie to me, my friend,” he said in tones that more genuinely reflected his concern.

She glanced at him over her shoulder at last, just a flash of troubled green eyes. “We’re weeks away from our final assault on the Empire and the monastery is full of young women that think they’re on the verge of matrimony. Matrimony with you. And I got the news from Hilda.”

He felt a quick sting of irritation. “And I found out from Lorenz. At least Hilda would have made it funny.”

“But it isn’t funny.” Byleth’s shoulders were high and tense. For the first time since the earliest days of their acquaintance, Claude got the sense that she was trying to build a wall between them. For some reason, that thought was infuriating. She’d somehow disassembled his own defenses brick by brick, and now she wanted to establish barriers?

I don’t think so, he thought with bite, though outwardly he forced his expression to be calm and patient.

“Just what do you think is going to happen?” he asked.

She turned in her chair to face him. “What’s already happening. The others are all distracted, the supplies are being pushed to their limits, and you’re hiding in my quarters instead of coming up with some devious plot to ensure our victory in Enbarr.”

He placed a hand over his heart as though she’d wounded him. “Who said I’m not coming up with a devious plot?”

She grit her teeth and turned away again, obviously irritated at his refusal to take her worries seriously. She knew he was being theatrical, trying to mask the truth of his own emotions. He could see that, she was getting easier to read every day. But what did she want him to say? That he had to host these guests because they were the daughters or sisters or nieces of their allies and he didn’t have a choice? She had to know that. She was too smart not to see his hospitality for what it was

“What’s really on your mind, Teach?” he asked, and this time some of his own frustration leaked into his tone.

Her eyes flashed his way again. She was still irritated, but there was something else…she wouldn’t hold his gaze for long, her cheeks were slightly flushed…and then it hit him. What he’d read as simple frustration was much more complex. He could see it now that he was really looking: anxiety, embarrassment, discomfort. Her whole body was shouting the truth at him now that he’d recognized the signs.

“These women are really upsetting you,” he said, for once too stunned to express anything other than exactly what he was feeling. It couldn’t be jealousy, could it? He just couldn’t imagine Byleth feeling threatened by anyone, much less a bunch of giggling strangers. “Why?”

Her fingers flexed and then curled. “I…don’t know,” she admitted through tight lips. “But I can’t seem to focus with them here.”

He sucked in a breath, wondering how to ease her…fears? He wasn’t even sure if that was the right word. “Well, try not to worry, my friend. I haven’t lost sight of what’s at stake. And my mind is on victory, not romance.”

She nodded, still reluctant to meet his eyes. He wanted to touch her, to put his hand on her shoulder or tilt her head up so that she had no choice but to look at him…but he didn’t. Instead, still feeling like something was off between them, he stood.

“All I want is to make our dreams come true. I promise you that. These girls…” He waved a hand. “I can’t think of them right now. What we’re doing is so much more important.”

She stood too. “I know. I know how much winning this war means to you. I’m sorry that I let my emotions get the better of me.”

This time his smile was genuine and a little wry. “Don’t be. Frankly, it’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing more of. Now, I’d better get back out there. You were right about one thing: I have been shirking my duties. But if I procrastinate any longer, it’ll be Judith dragging me behind her horse, and I don’t think she’ll be as careful as my father was.”

“Probably not,” Byleth agreed with a quiet laugh. He laughed too, and he almost reached up—almost tucked her hair behind her ear—but he forced himself to leave before he could give into that powerful urge.

 


 

Sylvain had drifted back to the monastery the same way many of the academy’s former students had, once rumors of Byleth’s return had begun to spread. He had been surprised to find reconstruction well underway when he’d arrived at the monastery with Ingrid and Felix in tow, and even more surprised that the former Golden Deer had been the ones organizing it all.

And Claude! Back in their school days, he had seemed so nonchalant, one of the only boys at the academy that Sylvain ever thought was truly his competition when it came to wooing the ladies, only Claude had never seemed to spend much of his energy on things like that.

That part hadn’t changed. There were eligible young women everywhere, just hoping for one of his charming smiles, but he didn’t seem to notice at all.

But a lot of other things about Claude had changed. He had matured and stepped into the role of Duke Riegan as though he had been long prepared for it, though he’d only been the heir for a few short years. Though still just as quick with a joke or scheme, he also had an unmistakable air of purpose. That combination of easy smiles and competent leadership was turning out to be pretty potent as he and Byleth drew more and more allies to themselves.

Allies that now seemed to include a bevy of attractive young noblewomen. It was enough to make a guy green with envy, only Claude didn’t seem too interested. Sylvain just couldn’t figure it out. Almost every single girl of noble birth from the Kingdom and the Alliance had come running as soon as Lorenz had invited them, and Claude just carried on as though they weren’t there.

It was unfathomable behavior In Sylvain’s opinion, but he didn’t intend to squander the opportunity the same way their golden leader was. So, ignoring Ingrid’s protests and Felix’s exasperation, he set to work.

News of a ball in honor of all the lovely guests was music to his ears. A ball was the perfect place to fall in love. And he would come across as sweet and charming in comparison to Lorenz’s overly- formal bumbling.

“This is idiotic,” Felix muttered as he watched Sylvain dig through his wardrobe. “This is no time for a ball. We should spend this time preparing for the next battle. That’s all that really matters.”

“There’s more to life than fighting, Felix. Damn, I didn’t pack much formal wear. I didn’t think I’d need It.”

“You don’t need it. This whole thing is a farce.”

“Just wait until you fall in love. I’m sure you’ll be singing a different tune then.”

Felix made an unimpressed sound. “Or maybe I won’t sing at all,” he replied, “and maybe it wouldn’t change anything else, either.”

Sylvain finally stopped rummaging through his clothes. He looked up at his friend, his brow furrowing. “What does that mean?” he asked, genuinely baffled.

Felix looked away and crossed his arms tight over his chest. He looked angry, but there was a telltale flush in his cheeks. He hated to be embarrassed or caught out, he always had, but Sylvain couldn’t figure out what was bugging him this time.

“Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. If you’re going to insist on making a fool of yourself in front of a bunch of power-hungry harpies, be my guest. I have no interest in participating.”

Then he stood up and strode out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him. Sylvain stared at the closed door and wondered why his friend had seemed so hurt, and knowing he needed to find out soon so he could fix it.

 


 

Back in their academy days, Ignatz had harbored something of a crush on Marianne. At first he’d just wanted to put her at ease. But as the year had progressed he’d found himself feeling more and more drawn to her. And then one day he’d been walking through the greenhouse when he’d spotted Marianne and Hilda, tucked away in a hidden corner, whispering together and sharing stolen kisses.

His crush hadn’t disappeared right away, but he wasn’t an idiot either: Marianne and Hilda had looked very happy together, and he knew he couldn’t compete with that.

A few other girls had caught his attention through the years, but he hadn’t really pursued a romance. His parents had relied on him to protect their business as the war had picked up speed, and that had kept him busy right up until the millennium festival. He’d sent a couple of mercenaries to take his place now that he was a full-fledged part of the Alliance resistance, and since then the war had taken up even more of his focus.

But he couldn’t deny the small rush of excitement he’d felt when he’d spotted Mercedes among the newcomers.

“You’re here!” he said as he strode up to welcome her. “And you’ve cut your hair.”

“Oh! Hello, Ignatz. It’s so nice to see you. Yes, I thought shorter hair would make a nice change.”

“It looks—you look lovely,” he told her. She blushed and smiled her pleasure at his compliment.

“Are you here for Claude?” he asked as their feet automatically took them in the direction of the cathedral.

“No, I just happened to run into one of the groups on my way. I thought I’d offer my services to the professor, now that she’s in charge of the Church.”

“She’ll be happy to welcome you,” Ignatz assured her, feeling a great sense of relief when she told him she wasn’t a potential suitor. “I think she feels a little out of her depth, even with Seteth trying to help.”

“I’m sure she has so much to do, what with all the battles she’s been fighting, too. It must be overwhelming,” Mercedes agreed. She smiled at him again. “You look well, Ignatz. I like your new hair, too.”

His ears turned red but he smiled back. “Thank you. I—I know you just arrived, but I was wondering…there’s a ball in a couple of days to welcome all the visiting noblewomen…and I would be honored if you’d be my date.”

He could hardly look at her as he stumbled through the request, but when he did finally risk a peek, she was smiling at him.

“That sounds wonderful,” she agreed. “I’m sure we’ll have a lovely time.”

“Yes,” Ignatz agreed, his relief and delight making him a little lightheaded, “I’m sure we will, too.”

“It seems strange to have a ball for all these women, though. I’d heard that Claude and the professor are inseparable. And they always seemed so fond of each other when we were students.”

“It seems to have been Lorenz’s idea,” Ignatz told her as they stepped through the cathedral doors. “But I think Hilda has plans of her own.”

 


 

Hilda had no plans. She wanted to have plans, but she was a little stumped. Obviously Claude couldn’t take Byleth to the ball as his date without upsetting all the women that had traveled here just to meet him, but pairing Byleth off with someone else didn’t seem appropriate, either.

Hilda was just trying to stir the pot for her own amusement, but the fact that their Leader Man and the professor were perfect for each other was too obvious to ignore. Especially when Claude’s eyes went all soft and warm whenever he smiled (actually, honestly smiled for once, no bullshit) at Byleth, or the way she blushed whenever she caught him staring at her.

The idiots were in love, they just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe they didn’t even realize it. Therefore Hilda intended to make this whole prospective bride mess so uncomfortable and awkward that they would be forced to admit it to each other and everyone else.

It sounded good on paper, anyway, but so far she hadn’t accomplished much.

Oh, teasing them both was certainly fun, but the ball was now twenty-four hours away and, for the first time that Hilda could remember (minus a five-year nap), Claude and Byleth hadn’t been seen together for an entire day. Could it be possible that she was doing more harm than good?

No, no way. I got Marianne to fall in love with me. I can get Claude and the professor to realize how they feel about each other too.

And the first step was to make sure that both parties looked their best for the ball.

Claude wasn’t too difficult. He knew that putting on a little finery for an occasion like a ball was just another part of being a leader. Besides, his personal taste was a little on the showy side anyway, so she didn’t have to meddle much to make sure he was going to look his best. And he had really great hair. That always helped. She insisted that he let her style it on the evening of the ball, and he’d grumbled a little but agreed, so she was feeling confident in that area.

Byleth was another story. It wasn’t that she wasn’t beautiful, because she was. It wasn’t that it would be hard to enhance her natural charms, either. No, all the trouble came from trying to convince the professor that Hilda should enhance those charms. She just didn’t seem to see the point.

“I don’t mind wearing an appropriate gown and shoes, Hilda, but there’s no reason to go to extremes. This isn’t an official Church function, and I’ll just be a bystander,” she said.

“Nonsense. This is a rare chance to have a little fun, and you’ll feel more confident if you know you look your best,” Hilda insisted for what felt like the five-hundredth time. “Besides, a lot of our guests are curious about you. I don’t think you’ll be allowed to just be a bystander.”

“You’re not going to give up on this, are you?”

Hilda shook her head, already grinning wide as she sensed her impending victory.

“Oh, very well,” Byleth relented with a sigh, “but try to keep it simple.”

Hilda was true to her word…mostly. It was just that she found the most charming dress: A subtle grey gown trimmed in misty lilac, which complimented her unusual hair color.  And then there were the lovely, silvery sandals which would lace all the way up the professor’s glorious calves, making her look even more like a goddess. A necklace of white fire opals with matching droplet earrings and an appropriately elaborate hairdo would complete the look. Hilda was very proud of her selections. She had Mercedes and Marianne help her let out the bodice so that it would fit Byleth properly, and now all she needed to do was wait until it was time to have the professor put it all on.

“You’re going to look like a moon goddess,” she sighed happily. “I can’t wait to see the final product.”

Byleth looked wary but didn’t argue. And once Claude sees her, he won’t be able to look at anyone else, Hilda thought, careful not to let her professor catch any hint of these private musings.

Chapter Text

Claude had thrown Lorenz out of his room at least twice before finally barring the door. He didn’t usually lock himself away; as leader, he felt it was important to be available to anyone that might need him. But Lorenz had pushed him past his normal tolerance for nonsense. He had more than enough on his mind without being pestered to death about suitable brides for the future of the Alliance.

And, though Lorenz couldn’t possibly have known it because Claude had kept his lineage to himself, it wasn’t as if he could choose with nothing but the best for Leicester or even Fódlan to consider; as the crown prince of Almyra, his choice must be made with his homeland in mind too. Not that he was too hung up on those facts. He’d never exactly done things by the book anyway, why should his hypothetical marriage be any different?

Besides, there were plenty of other things to worry about. He still had no idea what had caused the obliteration of Fort Merceus, meaning he had no idea how to protect them from a repeat attack. Then there were all the details that still needed to be planned before their upcoming assault on Enbarr. Issues like those made Lorenz’s endless pestering about a comparatively trivial matter hard to hear with his usual forbearance. In fact, it was starting to make him want to tear his hair out, or else climb onto the back of his wyvern so he could make his escape.

As soon as he did, however, he knew Judith would drag him back by the ear. Not that this knowledge stopped him from daydreaming about escape with almost frightening regularity…but there was nothing for it. He’d always known that ruling meant he’d have to grin and bear all manner of unpleasantness.

He dressed for the ball, taking his time and enjoying a few rare moments of privacy. But it couldn’t last: he’d forgotten he’d agreed to let Hilda dress his hair until a knock sounded on his door. With a quiet sigh, he opened the door to admit her.

“You really should keep this room a little tidier,” she said when she entered, glancing around at the books and paperwork that covered all of the flat surfaces in the room, including his bed. “It’s not becoming for the reigning Duke Riegan, after all.”

He glanced around. “But I need all this stuff. No point in putting it away when I’m just going to drag it all back out again a few minutes later.”

“I guess that’s true…I’m just glad you’re the Leader Man and not me. This all looks like way too much work.”

Claude gave her a wry smile and then sat himself in a chair as Hilda pushed aside a stack of books so she could spread out her combs and shears.

“So, are you excited? There are lots of pretty ladies waiting to dance with you,” she said as she went to work.

“I’m excited for it to be over,” he shot back. “I’d rather celebrate the war being won.”

“And soon enough, we will be. But just imagine—after tonight, you may be announcing your engagement on the eve of our victory over the Empire!”

“Why is everyone suddenly so keen on marrying me off?” he asked.

“Well, Lorenz and Sylvain probably just want to get you out of the way so there’s less competition. But most of us…I think we just want to think about something happy for once. Victory has been sweet, but the cost is so high. A wedding doesn’t have the same strings attached.”

Claude only hummed as he thought her answer over. Hilda let the silence stretch for a moment or two, and then asked (in a voice way too obviously innocent, he noticed), “What does the professor think?”

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair before he could stop himself. After their earlier discussion, he hadn’t let himself wonder, and he certainly hadn’t asked her what her opinion was. Maybe it was cowardly, but he didn’t think he could bear it if she suddenly decided that it would be a prudent decision for him to spend his life with some virtual stranger.

“We haven’t discussed it,” he said.

“But you discuss everything!” Hilda replied, sounding just a little more aghast than he thought the situation truly merited. What was she up to?

“Not this.”

“Well, any girl you do pursue is probably going to feel a little jealous. You’ll have to be careful about how much time you spend with the professor from now on.”

“That’s not exactly feasible,” Claude replied. “We’ll need to work closely together even after the war is over. We both have a part to play in shaping Fódlan’s future. And anyway, there’s no point in thinking about that, because I’m not going to pursue anyone until the fighting is done. It wouldn’t be fair, not when I’m still needed on the front lines.”

“Methinks you protest too much, dear leader,” Hilda mused as she added some sort of cream to his hair.

He sighed. Lately it felt like the only place he could win was on the battlefield. But before he could make any further remark, Hilda stepped back.

“There. You look great. You’ll have to beat your brides off with a stick after they get a look at you now.”

“I’ll have to remember to bring one,” he said, but after he’d seen how expertly she’d styled his hair, he relented. “It looks good. Thank you, Hilda.”

“Anything for you, Leader Man,” Hilda replied with a mock salute. “And just in time, too…the ball’s about to start, and true love awaits.”

He threw a book at her as she danced out of his door, laughing.

 


 

Byleth knew almost as soon as the ball started that at some point she’d retreat to the Goddess Tower. There were a lot of women in the room, all chattering excitedly as they waited for Duke Riegan to arrive. The myriad perfumes were enough to make her head spin, and some of them wore skirts so full that it gave her the impression of claustrophobia. Or maybe it was just that the idea of watching Claude flirt with and charm all these ladies was strangely painful. Imagining it left her chest feeling hollow and cold.

Leonie found her, pushing past a group of Alliance girls giggling into their champagne glasses as they talked about how handsome Claude was.

There you are! I thought you had skipped out and left the rest of us Deer to muddle through,” she said as she stopped in front of Byleth.

“I’ve had worse ideas,” Byleth replied. “I hadn’t realized how many Lorenz had invited until they all gathered in this room.”

“No kidding.” Leonie made a face. “It seems like such a waste of time and resources.”

They both grew quiet for a while, and then there was a burst of music and Claude stepped into the room. His smile was wide and welcoming as he formally greeted the guests, but Byleth could see it wasn’t a true smile even from across the dance floor. He looked strained and nervous under his polite mask, and he seemed to be scanning the room in search of someone in particular.

Some warmth returned to his expression when their gazes met, and he gave her a small wave. Then, dutifully, he allowed Lorenz to begin the introductions. A few minutes later, Byleth spotted him leading a woman with auburn hair onto the dance floor.

Suddenly Felix stepped in front of her, blocking her view. He bowed to her.

“May I have this dance, Professor?” he asked. She took his hand with some surprise. A moment later, Felix was leading her through the steps of the dance with all the same precision and grace as his fighting. Before long, she was even smiling, surprised at how easily she moved when led by such an expert partner.

He didn’t speak much, which suited her just fine, but he smiled back at her when the song ended.  He bowed to her in gratitude.

“I thought I’d save you from Sylvain, but that was quite enjoyable,” he told her. “Thank you, Professor.”

She thanked him in return, and then Ignatz requested a dance. After that, Sylvain did get her onto the dance floor, and Raphael—who had never learned the formal waltzes this kind of party called for—simply picked Byleth up and spun them both in slow circles, making her laugh quietly.

Lorenz appeared and bowed over her hand, asking her for a waltz in such formal tones that Leonie began teasing him. He too was an expert dancer, though his posture was so stiff and correct that she had to admit Felix had been the better partner.

And then, just before Lorenz could claim her for a second dance, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“May I cut in?” Claude asked, and when it looked like her partner might protest, he winked at Byleth and added, “I’ll have to cause a terribly inappropriate scene if you refuse, Lorenz.”

“Oh, very well,” Lorenz sniffed. “But then you’d better dance with some of the Kingdom noblewomen.”

“I’ll get right on that,” Claude replied, already spinning Byleth away with a playful flourish. Then he tugged her toward him and leaned in to put his mouth close her ear. “You look incredible, Teach.”

She shivered, and her ‘thank you’ came out sounding a little breathless.

Raphael may have physically lifted her off of her feet during their dance, but it was in  Claude’s arms that she truly felt like she was floating. They didn’t say much, but his green eyes were glowing as he looked down at her, and she knew that she was smiling up at him almost helplessly as her body was flooded with joy.

“You seem happy,” he said, his voice soft and wistful. “You show it so much more than you did back in the academy days.”

“Well, you’re a better dancer than you were back in the academy days.”

He laughed. “Ouch! Way to hit a guy where it hurts, Teach.”

They danced in silence for a few moments, neither really sure of what to say in such an intimate embrace, with so many eyes on their every move.

“You know Teach, if I’m honest, I never really saw myself getting married. I know if I don’t, I’d be ‘failing in my noble obligations,’ or however Lorenz would put it, but my dreams are so big that I just kind of…set that possibility aside,” Claude said at last, perhaps attempting to smooth things over between them after their last discussion.

Byleth hummed in agreement, considering her own future. “I’d never given it any thought at all.”

He didn’t seem too surprised by this admission, though he gave her fingers a small squeeze. “And now that we’re talking about it? Do you picture yourself getting married someday?”

She closed her eyes, trusting him to lead her as she tried to imagine what being married would be like. To have such a deep connection, to utterly rely on someone as a partner, friend, confidant…to have a lover, to cherish someone and be cherished in return…

Before she could answer him, the song drifted to a close. Her eyes popped open in time to see that Lorenz was already approaching them with a look of determination on his face.

“I suppose we’ll have to table this conversation, Teach,” Claude said, eyeing Lorenz wearily. “Looks like I have to get back to work.”

He gave her an apologetic smile as Lorenz took him by the elbow and pulled him toward a lovely young lady from the Kingdom territories.

Once he was gone, swallowed up by the crowd, she took the opportunity to slip away, escaping the crowded ballroom and plunging into the cool night air. There was an echo in her mind, a memory more than a voice, that said, “Ah…I see... The Goddess Tower waits for you.” As her feet carried her in that direction, Byleth found herself wondering what Sothis would have made of tonight’s events. No doubt she would have teased Byleth for being so emotionally obtuse.

But she couldn’t help it. It was hadn’t been so many months ago, minus her five-year slumber, that the idea of love and marriage would have been so foreign to her as to be impossible to imagine. In twenty years, she’d barely witnessed that type of relationship, usually only catching glimpses in the villages that had hired her mercenary group. And even now, with her life so full of people that she cared for and wanted to protect, she didn’t really know what love should feel like.

Except…that wasn’t exactly true. Even as ignorant of love as she was, she knew what she felt for Claude was far deeper and more profound than what she felt for anyone else. The idea that he might share his life with someone else hurt her in a way she couldn’t describe. All she wanted, the only thing she could picture when she thought of marriage, was to be with him for all the rest of her days.

Well, of course that’s love, whispered her memory of Sothis, sounding impatient even in Byleth’s imagination. Silly child, you’ve been in love with that boy since you found him waiting for you in this very spot.

Byleth went to the window Claude had been standing at when they’d reunited, touching the sill as the memory of his smile came flooding back.

Choose me, she thought, knowing it was a selfish wish but unable to stop herself from making it. Marry me.

It wasn’t the right night for wish-making, at least according to legend, and she was alone…yet she hoped that wherever Sothis now was, she could hear this silent plea.

 


 

“Has anyone seen the professor?” Leonie asked, searching the crowded dance floor to no avail. Marianne and Hilda stopped whispering and looked up, both frowning thoughtfully.

“Now that you mention it, it has been some time since I’ve seen her,” Marianne said.

“We should ask Raphael. He’s so tall, it should be easy for him to spot her, even in all this,” Hilda remarked, gesturing to the crowd.

“I’ll go find him.” Leonie had already zeroed in on the big blonde. It wasn’t hard to guess where he’d be, after all: if there was a buffet table available, Raphael was sure to be nearby. She crossed the distance between them quickly, weaving through the glittering crowd and tamping down on her feelings of self-consciousness. There were so many soft, feminine ladies around…Leonie always felt out of place in company like this.

“Leonie! That’s a nice dress!” Raphael called as he spotted her making her way toward him. She smiled up at him, grateful for his praise.

“Hey, Raph. Can you see the professor anywhere?” she asked. He looked around the room and then shook his head.

“I can’t see her, but wait—hey, Claude!” he bellowed over the din of the crowd. The Alliance Leader’s head snapped up at the sound of his name, and Raphael beckoned him over. A moment later, he’d managed to make his way over to them.

“That’s quite a set of lungs you’ve got there, Raphael,” he said with a theatrical wince and rub of the ears. Raphael grinned at him.

“It’s cuz of all my muscles,” he said, but before Claude could ask him how exactly that worked, he asked, “Have you seen the professor? We can’t find her.”

“Uh…no, come to think of it. Not in the last hour or so.” Claude’s eyes fell on Leonie. “Is something wrong?”

She was quick to shake her head. “No, I’m sure she’s fine. I just thought Raphael might be able to spot her since he’s so tall. She must have gone to bed.”

“Bed? But there’s still a dessert on the way,” Raphael said, sounding dismayed. Leonie gave him a comforting pat.

“You can have her share. And mine, if you want it. Anyway, sorry to drag you into this, Claude. I’ll go see if I can find her, I know you’re kind of stuck.”

He grimaced slightly. “I guess it would be bad manners for me to disappear too. But don’t worry, I think I know where she’s at. No need to send out a search party.”

“Claude,” Leonie said slowly, eyeing him with suspicion, “what are you up to?”

“Me?” Claude gave her his most innocent smile. “Nothing at all, I promise.”

He left them with a jaunty wave, moving back into the crowd and stopping to chat with several groups of young ladies. He put on a good show, but Leonie wasn’t at all surprised when, fifteen minutes later, Lorenz found her and asked if she’d seen him.

“He was just here,” she said. “I’m sure he’s just making certain he’s had a chance to speak with everyone. He can’t be far.”

She only felt a little bad for lying.

Chapter Text

Claude climbed the steps of the Goddess Tower, feeling such a strong sense of déjà vu that for a moment the whole situation took on dream-like quality. They always seemed to find each other here. He had no doubt that Byleth would be in the chamber above, and a few more turns of the tower stair proved him right.

She was wrapped in starlight.

It was a silly, overly-poetic thing to think, even in the privacy of his own mind, but it captured the moment so perfectly that he couldn’t help it. In that gown, with delicate strands of hair falling loose around her face and her eyes soft with memory, she truly looked like a goddess. His heart seemed to stop for a moment in his chest, just as it had a few months ago when she’d found him here on the day of the millennium festival.

Then she turned and saw him there in the doorway, and it resumed beating again almost painfully fast.

“Claude,” she said. “Shouldn’t you be at the ball? Lorenz is going to be very cross with you.”

“He’s always cross with me,” he replied, stepping toward her. It was like she was exerting some powerful pull on his body; he couldn’t have stayed away if he tried. Not that he cared to. “My friend, why are you up here all alone?”

“It’s peaceful here. And…I have good memories of this place.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “me too.”

He couldn’t shake the sense that he was dreaming. The feeing was intense, helped along by the isolated atmosphere of the room. It seemed to take a long time to reach her side, but he didn’t mind. He wanted this time, wanted the moment to stretch out as long as possible. They were so rarely, truly alone.

“You look so serious,” she murmured as he drew near.

He reached out and caught her hand. “This feels serious, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she admitted, watching him lace their fingers together. There was a hint of fear in her eyes when she glanced back up at his face. “Have you made your choice?”

“My mind was made up a long time ago, my friend.”

It was true, he realized as he said it. So true that it didn’t seem to him as though any other option was possible. And yet there was this strange sensation…this feeling of something changing between them at a fundamental level. And, under that, there was an alarming feeling of fear; it was as though this one, last dream was too much to hope for. As though wishing for it was asking the gods for just a little too much.

“I understand,” Byleth said, breaking into his thoughts. Her tone was resigned.

“I don’t think you do, not yet. But I meant what I said to Lorenz about waiting until after the war is won.”

Byleth’s fingers twitched in his. He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand in slow, comforting sweeps.

“There’s still some time then,” she murmured, more to herself than him.

He didn’t answer. After a long, silent moment she looked up at him, her lips curled into a wry smile.

“You and your secrets,” she said, sounding exasperated but fond. He smiled back.

“One day, you’ll know them all. I promise.”

“I have one for you this time. You asked me earlier if I could picture myself being married,” she said, gently pulling her hand out of his and turning back toward the window. He turned with her, following her gaze to the stars. “And I think tonight, for the very first time, I can picture it. But it still seems…impossible.”

“Well, that’s the interesting thing about life, Teach,” he said. “Sometimes the impossible ends up being possible after all.”

Was that his sudden, wild hope talking? Could she possibly have pictured herself being married to him tonight? That seemed like the most probable answer, but even if it was so, their timing was off. If she said she wanted him, wanted to be his wife, he didn’t think he could wait until the war was over, and he that was something he had to do. Until Fódlan was safe—at least until it was unified and somewhat stable—his personal desires had to be set aside. He couldn’t give himself to her completely until that came to pass, and until things were settled in Almyra as well. If he left things half-done, his father’s people might decide that their splintered, war-weary neighbor was ripe for invasion. Only Claude could keep that from happening.

“We should get back,” she said at last, meeting his eyes again.

“Probably,” he agreed. He was reluctant to leave this starlit haven of theirs behind, but he knew she was right.

“You go first. I’ll wait a while and then follow, so people don’t think we snuck off together.”

“Did you just come up with a scheme? Very devious, Teach. You’re learning,” he quipped with a grin. It turned into a chuckle when she rolled her eyes at him in a near perfect imitation of Hilda. “I’ll see you soon?”

She nodded, smiling that little smile that he liked to think was just for him, and he headed back down the stairs.

Don’t worry, my friend. I won’t let anything keep us apart for long, he promised. Then, with a fortifying breath, he slipped back into the ball and prepared himself to face Lorenz’s inevitable wrath.

Chapter Text

“Despite your childish antics,” Lorenz informed Claude the next morning, “you seemed to have made a very good impression on most, if not all, of our guests. And after observing your interactions very carefully, I think the choice is obvious.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” Claude muttered. Lorenz decided to ignore his companion’s more superfluous comments.

“I can make arrangements at once as I am well-versed in the etiquette of courtship and the arrangement of proper dowries. You won’t have any cause to complain, I assure you.”

“Aren’t you putting the cart before the horse, Lorenz?” Claude asked, leaning back in his chair and linking his hands behind his head. Well, perhaps he wasn’t taking this seriously, but Lorenz certainly was.

“A speedy resolution to these mundane matters is highly desirable. If you’ll permit me free reign, I can have your wedding organized before we make our push into Enbarr. I’m sure the professor would be happy to assume the role of archbishop in order to officiate the proceedings, and many of the appropriate guests are already present—”

“Lorenz—” There was a warning note in Claude’s voice, but again Lorenz chose to ignore it.

“I’m sure Earl Filbert will be delighted to hear that you have chosen his daughter. After his early sympathy for the Empire, this will go a long way in repairing his standing among the other Alliance lords. I couldn’t have chosen better myself, had you left it up to me.”

“But I haven’t chosen Earl Filbert’s daughter.” Claude stood up. “And until this war is over, I’m not going to tell you—or anyone—who I have chosen.”

Lorenz sputtered a little. “That simply won’t do! Of course you must tell me of your choice. This union is of vital importance to the Alliance—no, to all of Fódlan. The match must be vetted, to ensure that none of the powerful families in the land have any cause to protest, and of course her good health and breeding must be determined…this is one of your most important responsibilities as leader!”

“This conversation is over, Lorenz.” Claude was already striding out of the conference room. “And don’t bother bringing it up again,” he added over his shoulder, “because you’re never going to get a different answer.”

 


 

“It must be Maria Terese, don’t you think? They looked so wonderful dancing together, and he seemed to enjoy their conversation ever so much,” Mercedes said with a dreamy sigh. She, Marianne and Hilda were just sitting down for afternoon tea in the gazebo behind the dining hall.

“Ah, but I saw him speaking with Isabella, that Kingdom noblewoman with the beautiful hair? She blushed every time he looked at her, and he was very gentle with her and didn’t even tease as much as he usually does,” Marianne said.

“She’d bore him to tears, Marianne,” Hilda protested. “I thought he looked interested in Margaret. She’s a duchess in her own right, and they talked about the need for church reform for a long time. I didn’t understand half of it, but Claude seemed impressed.”

“She was a little…intimidating,” Mercedes said, searching her memory for Margaret’s face.

“Yes, I agree. I think he was more interested in the topic than Margaret herself,” Marianne added. Mercedes sipped her tea and tried to remember if anyone else had caught Claude’s particular notice when the sound of rushing feet interrupted.

“Mercie! Mercie, you won’t believe what I just heard!” Annette cried as she spotted the little group. Her voice was breathless with excitement.

“Oh Annie, there you are! I tried to find you earlier, to invite you to tea, but—” Mercedes began, but Annette waved her off.

“I was just making my way back to my room from the library when I heard—Claude found one of those noblewomen in his bed naked after breakfast!”

Mercedes’ eyes widened and she could feel her cheeks flushing. “Really?” she asked, knowing she shouldn’t enjoy the gossip but unable to stifle her curiosity. Annette nodded, pleased that the three other women were reacting the same way she had to this bit of salacious news.

Hilda burst into giggles after a moment’s stunned silence. “That’s certainly one way to get a man’s attention! What did Claude do?”

“I think he told her to watch out for the vials of poison he’d left there,” Annette replied, causing Hilda’s giggles to turn into outright laughter.

“That sounds like him,” she managed through her mirth.

“What in the world was she thinking?” Mercedes mused. “I’d have died of embarrassment! And now the whole monastery must know…”

“Sylvain says there’s no justice in the world,” Annette agreed with a little giggle of her own. “Just wait until the professor hears!”

That made Mercedes pause. “Oh, I do hope she doesn’t, or if she does, that she isn’t too hurt.”

“Hurt?” Marianne inquired.

“They just seem so close,” Mercedes said, trying to explain something she’d noticed without having the proper words for it. Was there a word for the connection people had when they understood one another so fundamentally that they barely needed to speak aloud? Perhaps there was in some other language, but Mercedes couldn’t think of one in her mother tongue. “They always seemed to work well together at the academy, but now…it’s different.”

“Forget the professor,” Hilda interrupted. “I want to be a fly on the wall when Seteth finds out.”

 


 

Escape via wyvern was looking more and more appealing, Claude thought as the blessedly now-clothed young woman left his room with an air of injured pride. He never would have thought that winning a war against Edelgard and the Empire would be the easy part.

 


 

Cyril was dusting the furniture in the Archbishop’s quarters when Claude swept past in the third-floor corridor, heading for the private courtyard that overlooked the inner monastery grounds. He had a face like thunder, and the younger man wondered if it had anything to do with finding a naked stranger in his bed.

It sounded like some teenage boy’s fantasy, but it must have been embarrassing, and rumors had already been dogging the Alliance Leader’s heels for days even before this girl had jumped into his bed. Cyril didn’t envy him at all. Girls seemed like more trouble than anything else. If Claude had come up here, it could only mean that he was seeking refuge. Most people didn’t bother with this area, now that Lady Rhea was gone.

He finished up with the dusting and put away his cleaning supplies, but before he headed down to the audience chamber to begin his next set of chores, he found himself stepping out into the courtyard.

“Are you okay, Claude? Or—Your Grace?” he amended, remembering all at once that Claude was a powerful duke now, and not just a student at the academy.

“Just Claude is fine,” the older man said, waving off any official titles. “I’m fine, just a little…done with present circumstances.”

“Okay. I’m glad you’re okay.” Cyril found himself at a loss and decided the only thing he could do was leave quietly, but he paused after a few steps. “You shouldn’t have to get married if you don’t want to. Especially not to some stranger. I’m never going to get married.”

Claude favored him with a tired smile. “Never say never. But as it happens,” he added, spreading his arms in a conciliatory gesture and shaking his head, “I agree with you. No one should be forced into marrying.”

Cyril nodded, pleased that Claude understood. “Lady Rhea never married.”

“No. I suppose she felt as though she already had plenty of children to look after with all the students running around the place.”

“And she was fine with it,” Cyril agreed. “Not being married never upset her, and I know she thought of Seteth and Flayn as family. Besides, love doesn’t seem so great. It looks…” He made a face. “Distracting. And inconvenient.”

That got a laugh out of the older man. “A shrewd observation, but I don’t think it’s something that can be helped.”

“You mean you can’t control it?” Cyril asked, horrified. He definitely didn’t like the sound of being held hostage to something so impractical as love.

“Not if it’s really love. At least that’s been my observation,” Claude replied, looking amused by Cyril’s reaction. “And most people seem to enjoy it.”

“Most people are idiots,” Cyril shot back before remembering who he was talking to. His ears went red. “Ah, that is—sorry, sir.”

Claude,” the older man insisted. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hide out up here for a little while. Can you keep it a secret?”

“Sure I can. Just don’t mess anything up, I spent all morning cleaning.”

“You have my word,” Claude promised with mock-solemnity. Cyril turned to go again, but looked back one last time.

“If you do have to get married, it should at least be with someone you like.”

Then he left, wondering why Claude had looked so wistful just before the door had closed between them.

 


 

“Can’t you do anything about this?” Seteth asked Byleth when she and Claude had joined him in his office a couple of hours later. He was looking more frazzled than normal. “I can’t have naked women running around the monastery while Flayn is in residence!”

Byleth looked at Claude and raised her eyebrow, but he just lifted his hands in a helpless gesture.

“I didn’t ask her to show up naked in my room,” he said, sounding almost like the boyish young student she’d first met in Remire. “If anything, we should be lecturing Lorenz. He was the one that invited them all.”

“You told her to watch out for poison you left in your bed,” Seteth replied, nearly sputtering in outrage. Byleth had to bite the inside of her cheek to smother her urge to smile, but Claude made no effort to hide his mischievously satisfied grin.

“It worked, didn’t it? She left pretty quickly after that.” He winked at Byleth. “Whatever gets the desired result, right Teach?”

She made very sure that her tone was bland and disapproving so she would appear totally immune to that wicked charm he was so good at wielding. “That was a lesson for the battlefield, not the bedroom.”

“Ah, but all is fair in love and war…” Then, when both Byleth and Seteth gave him equally unimpressed looks, he gave up. “Alright, alright…it won’t happen again if I can help it.”

Seteth thanked him and they walked out of his office. Once they were well out of earshot, Claude trailed to a halt and stuck his hands behind his head.

“Yeesh, I haven’t been lectured like that since—”

“Breakfast?” Byleth asked sweetly.

“I was going to say the academy,” he finished with an exaggerated wince, “but Judith did sort of lay into me this morning, didn’t she?”

“She still seems a little upset that you didn’t tell her who ‘Nardel’ really was.”

“I think she’s more upset with herself for not guessing earlier, but maybe you’re right. I’d better try harder to smooth her ruffled feathers.”

“I don’t think you need to worry. She likes to henpeck you a bit from what I’ve seen.”

“And I like to provoke her. It’s a beautifully symbiotic relationship, wouldn’t you say?”

Byleth gave him the smile he was so clearly trying to wrestle out of her, but then she sobered. “Claude…about that woman…it occurs to me now that if she could get into your room without being noticed, there are plenty of other sensitive areas someone could sneak into while the monastery is so busy. And some of these girls have come from families that used to support the Empire.”

He nodded. “You’re right, we should take more precautions against spies while we’re hosting so many unfamiliar guests.”

“There’s just one more thing I want to say, though I feel like this should be obvious: please stop falling asleep with vials of poison on your bed,” she said, and he laughed and crossed his heart with his index finger.

“You’re always looking out for me, Teach,” he teased. She sighed.

“And you’re going to drive me into an early retirement,” she shot back. Then the monastery bell rang, reminding them both of the time. Claude blew out a quick breath and scratched the back of his head.

“Duty calls, my friend. See you at dinner?”

She nodded and he left her alone in the hallway. Then she sank back against the wall and sighed. Vessel for a goddess or no, Byleth had never been particularly religious…but she was going to offer a prayer of thanksgiving when all these visiting ladies were gone.

Chapter Text

Now that the ball was over and it was clear that Duke Riegan was not on the verge of announcing his engagement, many of the noblewomen were preparing to leave. The courtyard outside of the entrance hall was full of dust and noise as various groups packed their carriages for the journey home. Felix watched the chaos with a sense of relief: it would be nice to have the monastery back to normal. Sylvain was watching too, uncharacteristically silent as a bunch of Kingdom girls harangued their attendants.

“I could have ended up with one of them, if things had gone differently,” Sylvain said, his voice devoid of emotion as he stared. Felix glanced his way, his lips twitching down a little with distaste.

“You would have been miserable,” he replied, not bothering to spare his friend’s feelings.

“I know.” The redhead nodded, his face grave. “I always knew a marriage like that would make me miserable. But what I didn’t realize,” he said, turning so that his whole body was facing Felix, “was that there was a whole different future right in front of me.”

Something wild erupted in Felix’s chest. It felt like hope, and he immediately tried to squash it back down into the box he’d wrestled it into so many times before. He had thought that they were about to have this conversation a hundred different times over the years, but it had never happened. He didn’t want to end up bitterly disappointed again when it turned out all Sylvain meant was that they could be roving mercenaries or some other impulsive whim of the kind.

Something of his internal struggle must have shown on his face, however, because Sylvain frowned and said, “Felix—”

But before he got any further, Ingrid jogged over. “Felix, Sylvain…is that…Petra?

Both men turned to look. Sure enough, the Brigid princess had just come through the main gates and was passing through the chaos in the courtyard with hardly a glance. People parted for her as she walked toward the entrance hall, whispering about her strange clothes and tattoos. She looked almost wild, surrounded by so many Fódlan girls in their proper attire, but the effect was arresting. Even Felix, as uninterested in women as he was, had to admit that she had become a beautiful, confident woman in the past five years.

“Isn’t she allied with Edelgard?” Ingrid asked.

“Something must have happened,” Sylvain replied, sounding curious. “Someone had better go find Claude. I have a feeling he’s the one she’s come here to see.”

“We’ll go,” Felix said, stopping Ingrid before she could run off again. He shot a look at Sylvain. “There’s something I need to say to you.”

They left the entrance hall, moving swiftly through to the reception hall. A few groups lingered at the tables that lined the sides of the room, but no one paid them any attention. Next they entered the hallway that branched to the graveyard, cathedral and classrooms. Felix turned toward the steps that would take them to the faculty offices and audience chamber.

As soon as they turned into the stairway, however, he stopped and whipped around to face his friend. Sylvain nearly slammed into him, not expecting the sudden halt, and he gave Felix a confused look.

“Felix, what are you—”

“I care about you.” The words burst out of Felix almost without permission. Sylvain blinked at him.

“I care about you, too—”

“Stop talking,” Felix ordered. “I need to get this out. I care about you. That’s why I’m always so angry when you take risks on the battlefield, or when you…Or when you flirt with women I know you don’t really want.”

He took a deep breath, ignoring Sylvain’s wide, stunned eyes, and ended his confession with, “I love you. I have for a long time. I thought you’d get married and I’d get over it, but it never happened and I couldn’t stand it anymore…I needed to say it.”

He found he couldn’t look at his friend, too afraid that he’d see disgust or rejection on the other’s face. Sylvain made one quiet, desperate noise, and then he pulled Felix’s face around to his with shaking hands and kissed him right in the stairwell.

“And you’re always calling me an idiot,” Sylvain said with a quiet laugh when he pulled back to see Felix gaping at him. He kissed him again, softer this time. “I love you too.”

They stood together, processing everything that had just happened, barely even touching but closer than they’d ever been. It took a long time for them to remember the reason they’d ended up on the stairs in the first place.

“Oh yeah! Gotta find Claude. Library?” Sylvain suggested.

“That was my idea,” Felix agreed. “And then I think we have a lot to talk about.”

 


 

Petra tried not to remember her days as a student at the academy as she and Claude walked to an inner courtyard in search of some privacy. It was painful to think of all the bonds she had made here that were now in tatters. Even now, she had returned only out of duty to her homeland, and not because of any particular desire to be drawn deeper into Fódlan’s conflicts.

She could sense Claude’s mind racing as they finally came to a halt in a small grassy area, a quiet spot that was sheltered from view by high hedges and contained a pretty little gazebo.

“Your Highness,” he said, his tone respectful. “It’s good to see you looking so well.”

“You also look well,” Petra replied, matching his careful, formal tone. “Fate hasn’t been giving you much kindness, but you are triumphing.”

He smiled, still polite. Still wearing a mask.

“Forgive me,” he said after a moment, “but last I heard, you were fighting for Edelgard personally and Brigid had declared its neutrality. Since that’s the case, I have to admit I’m a little surprised to see you here.”

“I have…much personal sympathy for Edelgard. I am understanding her reasons for fighting. But I was coming to Fódlan the first time as a hostage, and I have fear that the Emperor does not care for Brigid. It is too far away and she has much worry for her own land. Also, Brigid does not want to be a vassal state to the Empire, and as Brigid’s princess…”

“I understand,” he said gently. “This must be hard for you.”

“Forgive me, I must be forward.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a ring. “Even in Brigid we are hearing of your search for a bride. And I am thinking you will have sympathy for my people, and treat us with honor. I have come to…” She frowned, trying to remember the proper phrase in this messy language of his. “I have come in pursuit of your hand in marriage.”

Claude reached out and took the ring from her, turning it this way and that so it caught the sunlight. Petra held her breath. This was not the path she would have chosen for herself, but if it was her fate she would see it through with courage.

“This is beautifully made,” he said as he examined it. Petra smiled with pride, thinking of the craftsmen at home that worked the metal so patiently.

“Our people have much skill.”

“I’d like to see Brigid someday,” he said. “But…as a guest, not as a consort. I’m sorry, Petra. I can’t accept your proposal.”

Relief crashed through her like a tidal wave. He handed her back the ring, smiling ruefully at her jubilant expression.

“I…I apologize, I know joy is an improper response, but…”

“This was a duty, not a desire,” Claude finished. Petra nodded, grateful that he understood her so easily. “Your Highness, I know I haven’t won this war yet and I am not asking you or your people to fight for us, but…if the Alliance is victorious, would you consider a treaty of mutual friendship? I wish to open Fódlan up to the world beyond its borders, to destroy the old prejudices. A pact between these two nations would go a long way toward making that dream a reality.”

“I will be bringing this idea up to my people,” she promised. “I cannot decide by myself, but such a thing would be bringing me much happiness.”

When he smiled at her again, she could see that the mask was gone. “It would bring me happiness too,” he said. “And I hope you’ll rest and enjoy our hospitality for a few days before you return home.”

Petra agreed with a heart much lighter than it had been when she’d arrived.

 


 

Ignatz had gone into battle many, many times. Yet as he marched forward under their new banner, the one proudly bearing Byleth’s Crest of Flames, he felt an unfamiliar sense of nervousness churning in his belly like acid. He guessed that it probably stemmed from having something new to live for.

Mercedes was ahead of him in the column, walking with the other mages just behind the metal wall that was the heavy armor division. Every once in a while he spotted her white veil fluttering a little in the wind, and his nervousness increased. The goddess wouldn’t be so cruel as to bring them together again, only for him to fall on the battlefield…right?

He liked to think she wouldn’t, but of course thinking one knew the mind of the gods was downright blasphemous. Or had been, under the old regime. In these new times…well, who knew what direction Byleth would take the church.

He slipped his fingers under his leather jerkin, touching the pouch he’d hung around his neck. He could feel the ring he’d asked his parents to send, the one he meant to give his sweet Mercedes. After this—after Enbarr—that was when he’d ask her. Maybe he was moving too fast, but they could have a long engagement. He just wanted her to know that he was completely hers, even if she wanted to wait.

And they were so close to the end now. Already he could make out the tallest buildings of the Empire’s capitol city. If they could just win here…

Everyone seemed confident. Some of the soldiers were even laughing, joking that they’d go see the opera preform tomorrow night after they’d won. The falcon knights and wyvern riders were bantering back and forth whenever they flew within shouting distance of one another, though they were also careful to keep watch for any surprises as Claude was up there with them on his great white wyvern. But under the bravado, Ignatz could sense that he wasn’t the only one harboring some anxiety. They hadn’t lost yet, but it was Edelgard that was waiting for them. If she lost here, she lost everything, and she would fight them like a cornered tigress.

When they made camp that night just a few miles from the city walls, Mercedes came and found him. He had a little fire going and was already brewing tea over the flames. She smiled at the sight and showed him the little cakes she’d brought for them to share. Then they sat together on the hard ground, and she leaned against his side and put her head on his shoulder.

How strange it was, to be so full of joy when battle awaited them both in the morning. He wrapped his arm around her and kissed her hair, deciding not to think about anything at all except the perfect feel of her body pressed to his.

 


 

Claude stroked a brush down his wyvern’s flank, whispering endearments to her in Almyran. She stretched her neck out to its fullest, rumbling low with pleasure at his ministrations. He laughed and pressed his face against her smooth scales. She always managed to lift his mood.

“I’ll take you home soon, my star,” he crooned to her, setting the brush down so he could scratch the spot just behind her jaw that he knew was her favorite. She nudged him gently with her snout, asking for more, and he obliged. It was late and he should be heading off to his bedroll, but he didn’t think he was going to get much sleep tonight. He was pretty sure Edelgard wouldn’t be sleeping either.

My dreams are in reach, he reminded himself. The fighting is almost done.

He stepped back from the wyvern, knowing he’d at least better let her get some rest before the battle tomorrow. He murmured a soft goodnight to her and left her to bed down, then he stepped out of the stable tent and looked up at the stars. Normally they soothed him, but tonight he was more restless than usual.

He tried to pretend that he didn’t want to go in search of Byleth. She needed to sleep before the battle too, if she could, and there was no privacy in an encampment. Even if all they did was sit across from one another at a cook fire, everyone would know by dawn. And anyway, they’d talked the tactics for this battle into the ground at least three times already. There wasn’t anything left to say.

You’re a shit liar, kiddo, said an inner voice that sounded very much like Nader.

Okay. So maybe there was one thing left to say. But it still wasn’t the right time.

He picked his way slowly back through the camp to his own tent. It was identical to everyone else’s except for the Crest of Flames banners hanging on either side of the entrance flap. He slid in through the entrance and stretched, wondering if maybe a book might help him wile away the next few sleepless hours, when a shadow moved in the corner.

There you are,” Judith said, sounding exasperated. “I thought you’d be with your little battalion of Deerlings, but none of them had seen you since making camp.”

“I helped the scouts for a while, then saw to the wyverns…Judith, no offense, but what in the world are you doing in here at this time of night?”

“Your beloved Teach had a message from the Emperor,” she replied. “I think it upset her, but it’s hard to tell with that one…”

“From Edelgard? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” he demanded, feeling a pang of unease. He was instantly more alert than he’d been only a heartbeat before.

“I just told you we couldn’t find you, boy,” she said with an annoyed toss of her head. “And when it started to get late she said it didn’t change anything so there was no use bothering you about it.”

“I should go see her…is she still awake?”

“She was when I left her an hour ago. I suppose you’ll have to go see for yourself.” She gave him a shrewd look. “She’s something special, I knew that right away. And she believes in you just as much as you believe in her, if that’s possible. But it’s a hell of a thing you’re asking her to do, killing her former students.”

Claude hung his head. “I know.”

“I think she needs you right now. But be careful with her.”

Then, quiet as a shadow, Judith slipped out of the tent flap and disappeared.

Chapter Text

Claude found Byleth’s tent pitched near the rest of the Golden Deer, as unremarkable as his apart from her Crest, stitched in gold thread, over the entrance. Her cook fire was little more than embers now, and no lantern burned from inside the tent, but some instinct told him that she was awake.

“Teach? Can I come in?” he asked, leaning close to the tent flap.

“Claude,” she said, and he could hear the imminent refusal in her voice, but he could also hear the anguish, so he wrapped his fingers around the flap and twitched it, giving her a chance to prepare herself before he barged in anyway.

When he did duck into the tent a moment or two later, he was met with a sight he hadn’t glimpsed in years.

Byleth was crying.

The last time he’d seen her like this, it had been in the stormy, unsettled days following her father’s murder. Foolish boy that he’d been back then, he could think of nothing to do but drift back to her quarters over and over, listening to the sounds of her grief though the closed door and wishing he could tear Fódlan apart town by town, stone by stone, until he’d uncovered her enemies. Now that he was a little older, a little more familiar with mourning, he knew there was little he could do that would ease her pain, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave her now that he was here.

His eyes searched the small space. A moment later he spotted the letter, an innocuous bit of curled parchment on her camp desk. Even in the darkness he recognized Edelgard’s bold handwriting spread across it.

Byleth was sitting on her bedroll. Her gear had been set neatly aside and she was wearing a simple linen tunic and leather trousers. Her hands were open and resting in her lap, palms up and fingers slightly curled, and she was bent forward slightly as her tears dripped down her cheeks.

“Oh, my friend,” Claude murmured, his heart cracking as he witnessed her deep despair. He knew he was the only one she’d trust enough to see her like this, and that knowledge carried him to her side. He knelt next to her and took one of her hands in his larger one. Her fingers slipped in between his, lacing them together palm to palm.

“She wants me with her. Begs me to help her reforge Fódlan for the betterment of all. And she says that if that isn’t possible, and if the battle goes against her, I must be the one to…finish it.”

He studied their linked hands in the low light, thinking of Edelgard’s last, desperate attempt to win their professor to her side. Would he have attempted something similar, if their situations were reversed? He closed his eyes and thought, not for the first time or even the hundredth, how lucky he was that she had chosen him—and the rest of the Deer—five years ago.

He shifted until he was sitting beside her on the bedroll. They stayed that way, silent except for her grief, for two or three endless minutes. Then, when her shoulders stopped shaking and her breathing grew easier, he took her chin in his other hand and turned her face to him. He dried the last of her tears with gentle sweeps of his padded silk sleeve.

“I would give you anything in the world, my friend. Anything you asked of me. But it seems all I have to offer is another battle.”

She took one deep breath, searching for her usual calm, and shook her head.

“That’s not true, Claude. I know you’ve given me more of yourself than you have anyone else. You are my friend and ally just as much as I’m yours. Even our dreams are the same.” Her eyes met his, red-rimmed but determined. “Tomorrow won’t be easy, but I made the right choice and I’ve never regretted it.”

He bowed his head, unable to find words for how powerfully humble and grateful this declaration made him feel.

Her fingers touched his hair, feather-light, and she urged his gaze back up to hers.

“I’m with you,” she told him as she stared into his eyes, like she was making a vow to him, “and our new dawn is coming.”

“Byleth,” he started, aching to tell her the truth he was holding close to his heart, but she shook her head before he could continue.

“We should try to rest.”

He didn’t argue. Instead, he spread his cape on the ground next to her. She stretched herself out over her bedroll and their hands found each another again. Then, hoping to offer her a little peace, he began singing to her: it was a lullaby from his childhood, an ancient song about Father Sun and Mother Moon and all their many star children. He wasn’t much of a singer, but the low, soft rhythm of the song and the melodic Almyran words soon lulled her to sleep. It wasn’t long until he followed effortlessly after her into dreams.

 


 

Hilda had just stepped out of her tent and stretched her arms out over her head when Seteth walked past her, entering Byleth’s tent with almost no warning. A moment later he stepped out, his cheeks slightly red, and disappeared again without a word.

“That was weird,” she muttered as she watched him go. Behind her, Marianne emerged from the tent as well, looking adorably rumpled.

“What was weird?” she asked with a yawn. Hilda didn’t answer. Instead she took Marianne’s hand and tugged her over to Byleth’s tent. Carefully, she pulled the flap aside just enough so that she could peek inside, and then she gave a little squeak of joy.

Byleth and Claude were both fast asleep, her on her camp bed and him on the ground, still holding hands.

Marianne made a soft noise, smiling at the sight. Together they backed away quietly, so as not to disturb the couple. As soon as they were back in their own tent, Hilda clapped her hands together and giggled.

“I knew it!” she said. “He’s definitely going to marry her.”

“I really hope so,” Marianne replied, reaching up to brush Hilda’s hair back with a gentle hand.

“Lorenz is going to have kittens.”

“We’ll have to wait until after the battle to see,” Marianne reminded her.

“In that case, bring it on,” Hilda replied. “But I promise you, our wedding will be even prettier than theirs.”

Marianne giggled softly. “And it will have a lot more pink,” she teased, then she soothed Hilda’s playful pout away with a kiss.

 


 

There was no laughter as they battled through the streets of the Imperial capitol. As a professor and tactician, Byleth admired how efficiently Hubert had organized the city’s defenses. As an opposing commander, she wished he hadn’t been such a keen student in his short tenure at the academy.

Battles in city streets were always especially unpredictable, and despite her rather ominous nickname of Ashen Demon, she had no interest in harming any non-combatants. Hubert had taken advantage of that fact, stationing mages on the second or third floors of the residents’ dwellings. Fortunately, Ignatz had taught his snipers and assassins well, and they fought back with precision shots whenever they spotted the tell-tale glow of magic in the windows above the streets. Above them, Claude was leading the wyverns and falcon knights in offensive sweeps all across the city, trying to provide cover for their ground forces as they battled their way toward the Imperial palace.

Edelgard had retreated behind its lovely façade, and Byleth had no doubt that the entire interior of that building was now a cleverly constructed death trap. One she had no choice but to enter if this was ever going to end.

She gripped the Sword of the Creator tighter and fought on.

 


 

Victory came with the rise and fall of a glowing red sword. Perhaps Claude was the only one present that understood what the cost of winning had truly been for Byleth, but he knew all of the Golden Deer would mourn their fallen classmates despite five and a half years of enmity.

And even in their moment of triumph, the work wasn’t done. Hubert’s posthumous letter made it clear that it wasn’t time to celebrate a hard-won peace just yet.

Just a little longer, he promised himself, though he was sick to death of those empty little words.

 


 

Judith and Claude were discussing the best way to approach Shambala with their army when Lorenz walked into the Golden Deer’s former classroom like a man on a mission. For a moment, Judith contemplated escape…but by then it was too late. Gloucester Boy was already talking.

“The war is over. You cannot hide behind that excuse anymore. It is time to choose a bride. Arrangements must be made,” he said to Claude, ignoring the maps of Goneril territory spread across the table. “If Earl Filbert’s daughter is unacceptable to you, there are still many other suitable candidates.”

“You know, Lorenz…over the past few months I’ve really come to respect you. I’ve even started to like you. But if I hear the word bride come out of your mouth one more time, I swear I’ll make you the unwitting guinea pig for my next experimental poison.”

Judith glanced at the boy. His tone was light, almost jovial, but she could hear the promise underneath. He meant every word. That meant he was even more stressed than she’d realized, and who knew how long it had been since he’d gotten a decent amount of sleep?

“Gloucester Boy,” she said, trying to defuse some of the tension in the room, “I really think you’ve exhausted this particular topic.”

“There are already remnants of the Imperial army hoping to incite rebellion. Our allies need a strong show of unification right now, or the Alliance lords will splinter back into their old factions. And our hold on the Kingdom and Imperial territories is tenuous at best.” Lorenz glanced from Judith to Claude. “You know that. You’re far too adept a leader to have missed the signs.”

“Won’t marrying one lord’s daughter over another only cause more problems? And if we’re strictly talking politics, I think it would be far more shrewd to marry one of the Imperial heiresses, as a show of good will,” Claude replied, though his mind was clearly more on the maps than the topic at hand.

“That would show you to be a magnanimous victor, and probably garner us favor with anyone afraid that you’re about to demand heavy war reparations from the Imperial nobles.”

“So you do it, Lorenz.” Claude waved a dismissive hand. “Go marry yourself off to buy us some favor in Enbarr. Besides, once we have destroyed those who slither in the dark, I won’t be of much value on the marriage market.”

“How could that be true? You’ll be the King of Fódlan.”

Claude rolled up the maps he and Judith had been examining and tapped them straight on the table. Then he fixed Lorenz with an even stare.

“No, I won’t. The plan is—has to be—to crown Teach. So you see, Lorenz…you really should have been searching for grooms this entire time.”

“The professor…is to be queen?” Lorenz murmured, stunned. He looked as though he’d just missed a particularly obvious answer on a particularly easy exam. It was such an amusing expression that Judith couldn’t help but laugh.

“And you can strike Nader off of any list of candidates you draw up,” she told him, “because we eloped two weeks ago at Fódlan’s Locket.”

Lorenz was now almost as purple as his hair. “The head of House Daphnel, second only to House Riegan, married an Almyran?”

“Sure did,” Judith replied cheerfully. “And Lord Holst walked me down the aisle. It was beautiful. You should have been there.”

Lorenz made a strangled noise, turned on his heel, and made to leave. Claude called out after him.

“Oh, and Lorenz? I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention the whole queen thing to Teach…I haven’t had a chance to spring that one on her yet,” he said.

Lorenz was nearly running in his hurry to avoid any other shocking news. Judith was still grinning when he’d disappeared and Claude had turned back to her.

“So…when is your actual ceremony?” he asked, looking delighted with her deviousness. She shrugged.

“Whenever you can spare me long enough to make the trip,” she replied. “So let’s hurry up and beat these creeps, shall we?”

“Absolutely,” he agreed. “We should be ready to march in a few days.”

Chapter Text

Hilda was extremely annoyed. She was never the most enthusiastic warrior, and the fact that those who slither in the dark weren’t inclined to stay in their hole and mind their own business was a source of extreme irritation for her. Hadn’t they just toppled an entire evil empire? Couldn’t they have had just a little time to enjoy that fact?

“Ugh. These slithery guys are so inconsiderate,” she complained to Marianne. “But,” she added, glancing around at their subterranean headquarters, “I do kind of dig the vibe in here. Those lights are kind of pretty.”

“You sure have a unique way of looking at the world,” Leonie said in a clipped voice. “Who cares about the lights?”

Hilda made a face at her.

“Please, ladies, this is no time for us to argue amongst ourselves,” Lorenz cut in. He was running his eyes over their strange surroundings. He glanced at Leonie and added, in a much quieter voice, “I have your word that you will stay close during the battle?”

Leonie flushed. “I promise.”

Hilda’s eyebrows flew up. When did THAT happen? She tried to catch Leonie’s eye, but the other girl kept her gaze averted, still blushing.

Before she could ask, and boy did she want to ask, Judith urged them into position to begin the assault. They were one of four groups that had moved ahead of the main army to infiltrate this weird stronghold at its deepest level.

“We’d better get a move on. I’m sure Rhea, Claude and the professor are already starting their advances.”

“I’m ready,” Hilda muttered, gripping her axe. “These guys are messing with my victory party, and they’re going to be sorry.”

 


 

In the end, she never knew exactly what had happened. Lady Rhea and Byleth had disappeared into the central room of the stronghold, and she heard shouting over the noises of battle and the zapping of those weird metal things that seemed to randomly attack. Then Claude was ordering a retreat, his usual tone of command replaced by a desperate urgency that had Hilda scrambling to grab Marianne’s hand and flee.

A second later, the ceiling was crumbling, Lady Rhea had turned into a dragon, and those javelins of light were dropping much too close for comfort.

But somehow it was a victory. And had it ended there, Hilda might not have proposed to Marianne quite so abruptly. But it didn’t end there. Of course it didn’t. So it was only two weeks later that they were deployed against Nemesis himself.

“The goddess herself can’t stop me from marrying you as soon as we put this asshole back in the ground,” she growled to Marianne.

Marianne smiled at her, somehow beautiful even on the edge of a magically noxious swamp. “I agree. I would hate to argue with a sacred order from a divine being, but for you I would defy the goddess herself.”

“Well,” Hilda said, fighting back an embarrassing rush of happy tears, “that’s settled then.”

 


 

Byleth ignored the offers of a horse or wyvern to convey her back to Garreg Mach. Every part of her was sore, and she was tired enough that once in a while a wave of dizziness made her miss a step, but she was not going to leave the wagon behind.

Claude was in that wagon. Claude, Marianne and Mercedes.

She didn’t enter the covered back of the wagon. She wanted to give Marianne and Mercedes space to work. But she kept her ears open as they made their way slowly along the road, hoping to hear Claude’s voice.

He’d stayed conscious just long enough to ensure that Nemesis had truly been defeated. Then his eyes had rolled back into his head. He was carried off the battlefield and straight to the medical wagon just moments later, with their two best white mages holding their skirts up as they rushed to aid him.

Had he opened his eyes since then? She hoped so. Long periods of unconsciousness were a bad sign, she knew that from her mercenary years. But surely with the help of both Marianne and Mercedes, he’d be alright…?

She heard the sickening impact of Nemesis’ crushing blow in her memory and closed her eyes. Stay with me, my friend, she thought, reaching out to touch the linen tenting that covered the wagon.

“Professor?”

Her eyes popped open. Marianne was waving her in.

“He wants to see you.”

She blew out a shaky breath and climbed into the the shaded space.

“Teach,” Claude said as he straightened up from his makeshift pallet with a groan. “You’re okay?”

“Me?” she asked with a small laugh. He entire torso was wrapped in bandages. They covered him from breastbone to hip, more to immobilize his upper body than to cover any gaping wounds. “You definitely got the worst of it.”

He grinned at the echo of his own words from their first meeting. “So I did. It was worth it.” Even on his sickbed, he looked extremely pleased with himself. “I love it when my schemes work.”

“That was a very distracting speech,” she agreed, teasing him gently. “Nemesis was so annoyed by your sappy ramblings that he forgot all about that last arrow.”

He snorted, amused, and then winced in pain. “Sappy ramblings, were they? I’ll have you know I meant every word.”

She patted his arm. “Well, you’re right, it worked perfectly. It gave me the opening I needed.”

Their gazes met, then lingered. He reached up and brushed her cheek with fingers that weren’t entirely steady.

“It’s over,” he murmured. “It’s finally over.”

She covered his hand in her own, cradling it against her face. “It’s over,” she confirmed. “Tomorrow the sun will rise over a brand new Fódlan.”

 


 

“Do you guys really have to go?” Raphael asked as Felix and Sylvain slung full saddlebags over the backs of their mounts. “It just won’t be as much fun when you’re not around.”

“Just think of it this way, big guy,” Sylvain replied, reaching up to give Raphael’s shoulder and affectionate clap, “there will be more food for you.”

“More food isn’t bad, but I don’t mind sharing if you want to stay.”

Coming from Raphael, Sylvain knew that was almost as good as an I love you. “I’m gonna miss you too, Raph, but it’s time we went home. The Kingdom might not exist anymore, but our old lands need our help. It’s been a hard five years.”

“Come up and spar with me some time. Your strength should pose a unique challenge,” Felix said as he joined them. “And I’m sure you’d enjoy the food. It’s very hearty. It has to be, to keep us warm up there.”

Raphael’s eyes lit up at the idea. “That sounds amazing! When can I come?”

Sylvain laughed. He was really going to miss Raphael’s endless optimism. “We’ll write to you as soon as we get everything settled,” he promised.

“Ah, I’m glad I caught you.”

Sylvain glanced around Raphael’s bulk and caught sight of Claude making his way toward them from the stairs of the entrance hall. He was moving a little slower than usual, but he seemed to be well on his way back to full health.

He stopped and bowed to them both, though it had to hurt. “I really appreciate everything you did for us. And everything you’re going to do back in your homes. I can never thank you enough for how hard you fought.”

“Hey, don’t mention it.” Sylvain hated this sort of thing. He didn’t feel like he’d done anything special. Beside him, Felix looked equally uncomfortable.

“All the same…but I suppose we can leave it at unending gratitude if it makes you more comfortable,” Claude said with a half-smile. “And congratulations. What you two have found…I think it’s pretty rare. I’m truly happy for you.”

He let them go after that, though not before ensuring they had extra supplies and hefty bags of gold for their long trip home. After they’d left the town of Garreg Mach behind, Felix shot Sylvain and amused look.

“You blush too easy,” he said.

“If you keep teasing me, I’ll do something that makes you blush, right out here in the open,” Sylvain replied, unable to keep from grinning like an idiot.

 


 

Claude should have been preparing for his own departure. The new unified realm of Fódlan hadn’t settled down completely yet, but he knew that all that remained were a few pockets of token resistance. Once the coronation ceremony had taken place and the new government was up and running, the last few rebels would either be quickly defeated or fade away soon enough.

And there would be plenty of people to help guide Fódlan’s new queen as she donned her mantle of power, though he hesitated over Seteth’s name when he’d compiled a list of Byleth’s potential ministers of state. That man was too used to protecting the church’s secrets, too keen to hide away any information he found distasteful.

But it wasn’t really Claude’s place to choose who helped govern Byleth’s realm. And he trusted her. She knew Seteth as well as he did. If she deemed him worthy of serving the people of Fódlan, it would only be after careful consideration, and he knew she wouldn’t hesitate to remove him from power if that became necessary. He also knew that Byleth would never ask Seteth to do the things that Rhea had. Mysterious as she was, manipulation and secrecy weren’t her style. That was why he knew he could return to Almyra so quickly; Fódlan was in safe hands.

He frowned at himself a little. Thinking about politics, planning his journey home…it was all putting him in a bad mood. What he needed was a distraction, and it wasn’t long before he stumbled across one in the form of Lorenz and his usual, ridiculous hang ups about status, power and marriage.

The young noble was in the conference room. He had spread a map of Fódlan over the table and was writing down a list of names, pausing occasionally to consult a large tome detailing the various great houses and their histories. He’d started with the men of the old Alliance and was steadily working his way through the old Empire families, adding question marks next to names he needed to gather more information on.

“Well well well, if it isn’t my pal Lorenz,” Claude said, dropping into the chair next to him. He kicked his feet up onto the table and cupped his linked fingers behind his head, just because he knew how much his casual posture would bug his companion. He wasn’t disappointed.

“Must you prop your feet up on the table, Claude? Some of us are trying to see to our duties, and your dirty boots do not facilitate a productive work environment.” Lorenz shoved his legs off of the table and straightened his own clothing.

“And what are these duties you’re seeing to so diligently?” Claude asked, leaning closer to the map and list. He already knew what the other was up to, but he also knew that Lorenz hated it when he was nosy. “Ah, of course—that pesky list of possible grooms for Teach.”

“You’re correct…and if you have no intention of being helpful, you are more than welcome to see yourself out.”

“As a matter of fact, I do have a suggestion.”

“A serious suggestion? Or do you merely intend to distract me with one of your asinine schemes?”

Claude gave him an innocent smile. Byleth would have recognized the sharper edges of it, but Lorenz took his expression at face value.

“Oh, very well,” he said with a sigh. “Let’s hear it.”

Claude tapped the eastern edge of the map. “Why not a king for our new queen?”

Lorenz gave a dismissive sniff. “The king of Almyra is already wed, Claude.”

Claude laughed. Who would know that better than him?

“The current king of Almyra is wed. However, I happen to know for a fact that he is preparing to abdicate in favor of his son—and that son is not married. Think about it: if Teach marries their new king, we’ve unified not just all of Fódlan, but the entire continent in one fell swoop.”

Lorenz eyed him, not bothering to hide the suspicion in his gaze. “How would you ‘just happen to know’ that, Claude?”

“Have you forgotten already? I was the leader of the Alliance. Lord Holst and I have a small network of spies on the other side of the border. We had to, so we could be sure the Almyrans wouldn’t attack us in the rear while we were focused on the Empire,” Claude explained. The lie slipped so smoothly from his lips that even he almost believed it. The truth was far less complicated, but why ruin the surprise?

Lorenz had lapsed into deep thought. “If what you say is true, and if the new Almyran king would be amenable,” he mused—

Oh, he’s amenable alright, Claude thought with a private grin—

“Then that would be quite a diplomatic achievement. It would certainly be more politically advantageous than marrying the professor to any of the native nobility, although there may be some resistance to an Almyran match…they’re not very popular in the east…”

“Ah, but what better way to repair years of hostility than a royal marriage? It would ensure peace for a generation. Maybe longer.” Claude pushed himself to his feet. “It seems to me that it’s worth the risk.”

Lorenz paused, searching for a downside to this plan. Then he nodded. “Yes. I shall have to put this to her immediately.”

“Let me talk to her first,” Claude urged him. “I’ve still got to break this whole queenship thing to her. Once she’s gotten used to that idea, we can suggest the Almyran marriage.”

“Scheming again, Claude?”

He lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Call it what you like. I just don’t want to overwhelm Teach with too much at once. She’s already been through a lot.”

For once, Lorenz softened. “You’re correct. It would be better to take such weighty matters one step at a time. Very well, I will keep my peace for now.”

Claude clapped his shoulder with jovial affection. “You’re a good man, Lorenz.”

“…As are you, Claude. Much to my surprise, as are you.”

Chapter Text

Claude’s head tilted back as a breeze filtered in through the Goddess Tower's window, bringing with it the scent of incense, wood fires and roasting meat from the monastery below. He closed his eyes and breathed in, willing himself to be calm. But his heart wasn’t receiving the message: it thumped a bit irregularly every time he thought he heard a noise from the stairwell behind him.

He could pinpoint the exact moment he’d realized that friendship and affection had stopped being adequate labels for his feelings for Byleth. And ever since then, he’d had dreams that at some point he would be standing here, waiting for her just like he was now, with one last request for her. One last dream he hoped she’d help him achieve.

That moment of clarity had been just before Edelgard’s successful sacking of Garreg Mach. It had been the day that Rhea had led them all down into the Holy Tomb. Everything about the ‘revelation’ that Rhea had expected Byleth to receive had felt off, and his nerves had been jangling long before they entered the sepulcher. He’d known without knowing that Rhea had wanted something to happen to his Teach, something that had felt instinctively dangerous to him.

When Byleth had climbed the dais to sit upon the goddess’ throne, he’d barely restrained himself from reaching out to stop her. Wrong, this is all wrong, was all he could think, and the desire to shield her from Rhea’s machinations had been overpowering. Moments later, Rhea’s obvious dismay when Byleth had taken her place on the throne and nothing had happened only confirmed his suspicions that whatever was happening here was not for Byleth’s benefit.

Nothing but Edelgard’s sudden appearance in the Tomb could have stopped him from defying Rhea, with force if she’d made it necessary. But then the scene had dissolved into chaos anyway, and two weeks later both Rhea and Byleth had disappeared. It would be years until he realized the full extent of what Rhea had been planning, and even now the thought that the archbishop had hoped to erase Byleth in order to have Sothis back made his stomach churn with rage.

That moment in the Tomb, just as Byleth reached the empty throne—that had been when the lightning bolt of realization had struck him. His need to protect her at any cost and from any threat, including one posed by the supremely powerful archbishop, had come out of nowhere and was savage enough in its intensity that it should have shocked him, but events had progressed so quickly after that he’d had no time to analyze his response until later.

Even then, he hadn’t fully recognized his emotions. Or maybe he’d deliberately avoided the inevitable label. Two weeks hasn’t been enough time for him to come to terms with his feelings before they became a moot point anyway, but after…

Well, after, he’d had five long years to think about exactly why he’d missed her so much, and held on to his hope that she’d return to him so hard. He’d told her that just before that fateful battle, hadn’t he? I know you and I will meet here again.

The war had done nothing but prove to him what he’d privately known all along. The past few months especially had forced him to stop hiding behind safer terms like respect or deep regard. He’d at last found the courage to call it what it was: love. This led to the further realization that his love for Byleth was indelible, as vital to him as breathing. It brought his heart a kind of joy that was impossible for him not to show; he felt as though every look, every smile that passed between them must be akin to him shouting the words out loud.

Nader is going to have a field day when he sees me, Claude thought with a smile. Then it faded as he realized that he must be on his way to his homeland within the next two days.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have asked Byleth to meet him. Perhaps it was the wrong time to tell her, when it meant he’d have to fly away from her almost as soon as the words were said. But, goddess help him, he’d been waiting for so long. He wasn’t sure he could keep it in any longer no matter what happened next.

Anyway, it’s too late to turn back now, he thought as he heard her steps on the stairs behind him. He took another deep breath and tried to force down the legion of butterflies in his stomach before he turned to her with a smile.

“My friend,” he said as she crossed the room toward him. “I’m glad you came.”

She smiled back at him, her head tilting just a little bit as she looked up at him, and his heart clenched. His fingers did too; he wanted so much to gather her into his arms. But this wasn’t the sort of conversation that should be rushed, and she might not want his arms around her when she realized he was all but on his way to Almyra already.

“I assumed it was important, since you wanted to meet all the way up here,” she said.

“It’s hard to find privacy anywhere else in the monastery,” he admitted. “But we have history here too, so it seemed fitting.”

A hint of playfulness crept into her smile. “That makes it sound a lot more torrid than I remember any of those meetings being,” she commented.

“We’ll have to spice up those bits in our memoirs,” he quipped, though his hand came up to rub the back of his neck. Damn, he was more nervous than he thought.

“We can ask Sylvain. I’m sure he can come up with something appropriately salacious.”

He chuckled and reached for her hand, drawing her closer to him. Her eyes searched his face; no doubt she was curious about his odd mood.

“I have a few things to tell you…and to ask you,” he said.

She nodded. If his serious tone concerned her, she didn’t show it. The only thing he could see in her eyes was the same trust and willingness to help he always saw in her. He swallowed.

“I’ll start with the…less than pleasant news. I…I won’t be able to attend your coronation ceremony.”

He’d expected disappointment, maybe even a flash of uncertainty. But the hurt in Byleth’s gaze made him feel awful.

“You’re leaving?” she asked, and her voice cracked a little on the word leaving. He squeezed his eyes shut in a guilty wince.

“Yes,” he admitted. “I didn’t plan to go so soon, but I received a letter from my mother that forced me to move up my timetable. There’s a situation back home that…well, suffice to say it’s an emergency.”

Byleth’s eyes narrowed a little. “What kind of emergency?”

He lifted empty hands in a helpless gesture. “It seems as though someone—or several someones—have been slowly trying to poison the king of Almyra. He was planning to abdicate soon anyway, and the plot was discovered before the situation became fatal, but…it seems his health is bad enough that he’s unable to continue with his official duties. Now there will be a fight to see who ends up on the throne next.”

“And you have a stake in that fight?” she asked, searching his expression.

“I do,” he told her with a short nod. “The king of Almyra is my father.”

She gave him a small shove. “I should have known you were a prince too,” she muttered. Then she looked up into his eyes again. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say things like that when you’ve just told me someone is trying to kill your father.”

“It’s okay, he’s a tough old bastard,” Claude replied, tugging her hand to urge her to step closer to him once more. “He’s not in danger anymore, at least for now. And my mother has the situation under control. But I have to get back if I’m going to be in time to win the throne away from those trying to take it.”

“My Claude,” she murmured, “King of Almyra.”

The possessive sent his pulse skittering out of control. He squeezed her hand a little.

“I don’t particularly want the crown,” he told her, “but I’m afraid that whoever does want it will be keen to start a war, and Fódlan isn’t stable enough to fight off an invasion just yet. I would hate for the peace we won to be destroyed so quickly just because I’m avoiding my responsibilities. Though…once things quiet down again, I’ll hand the throne over to someone else. My dream was never to be a king.”

“When do you have to leave?”

“Ah…” He looked away, grimacing slightly. “In a day or two. No later.”

She took in a sharp breath. “And…will you…will we see each other again?”

Her voice was so small. She’d ducked her head down and her hair shielded her eyes from him, but he could feel how still she’d gone. Her fingers were stiff and cold in his.

“Oh, Byleth…” he breathed, his heart clenching hard. He let go of her hand so he could tilt her chin back with gentle fingers. Still she wouldn’t meet his gaze until he bent his knees a bit so that he’d dipped down to her eye level. “Of course we’ll see each other again.  Nothing will stop me from coming back. You know that, don’t you?”

A tear slid down her cheek, and he sighed as he realized he’d gone about this all wrong. He’d wanted to start with the news that he’d have to leave so that they could end the conversation on much happier terms, but now she thought might never see him again.

He drew her into his arms and her fingers curled into his shirt like she was afraid he was going to disappear any second—like she was afraid to let go. He wrapped himself around her as best he could, trying to offer her a little comfort while coaxing some warmth back into her skin.

“I will come back to you. I’ll always come back to you.” His fingers fumbled with his pocket. “In fact, there’s…there’s something I want to ask you.”

He was stuttering. Gods, but he was nervous.

He pulled away from her just a little bit, just so he could see her face as he brought his hand out of his pocket and opened it in the small space between them. There, on his palm, was the engagement ring he’d been carrying with him since before they’d stormed Enbarr. Since before Lorenz had invited all those strangers that never even stood a breath of a chance at capturing his heart the way Byleth had.

“Please,” he said, and his voice broke on the word. His hand trembled, just a little, and the sunlight sparkled off of the ring’s central stone. “Please, Byleth…be my wife?”

For a second or two, all he could hear was the rush of his own blood in his ears. His heart seemed to be on the verge of pounding out of his chest. Byleth’s slender fingers came up and took the ring as the silence stretched.

She studied it, her eyes carefully never straying to his face. She was as expressionless as she’d been the night they’d met, and he was on the verge of begging her to say something—anything—when she placed the ring very carefully back in his palm.

His heart stopped in his chest.

“Yes,” she said. Her eyes met his at last, and now she was crying in earnest: huge, fast tears that spilled down her cheeks. Despite the tears, she was giving him the biggest, warmest smile he’d ever seen from her before. It was even more radiant than the one she’d worn after they’d defeated Nemesis together.

“Yes,” she said again, laughing a little the second time the word tumbled from her lips, and she added another ring to the one in his hand: her mother’s ring. She’d told him once that her father had passed it on to her, and now she was giving it to him. That left no doubt: she was truly in love with him too. As Claude’s heart painfully restarted in his chest, he gave into the impulse he’d been struggling to hold at bay for months; his arms slipped around her waist and he lifted her off of her feet so he could capture her lips with his own.

It was hard, when he was grinning so much, to kiss her properly, but after the first giddy seconds passed, it deepened into something much more earnest. He set her back on her feet before one of his hands came up to cradle her head, and his fingers buried themselves into her silky hair. She sighed into his mouth as he parted her lips with his tongue, and her arms wound around his neck as she pressed closer to his body.

“I love you,” he murmured against her lips. “With everything I am.”

“I love you too,” she whispered back, pressing higher on her toes so she could touch their foreheads together. He grinned as he nuzzled his nose against hers, and a tide of warmth washed over him as she closed her eyes and nuzzled him in return. He slid his ring onto her finger, delighted to see that it fit just right. Her mother’s ring wouldn’t fit onto any of his fingers, but he promised to find a chain for it so he could wear it next to his heart.

“The others are going to be insufferable,” Byleth observed after they’d shared a few more sweet kisses. She had already discovered her favorite spot against Claude’s chest, and she pressed her cheek into his shoulder as he gently rubbed his chin against the top of her head. He gave a warm chuckle and she smiled as she felt it rumble through his body.

“About that…I have a favor to ask you,” he said. “I may have convinced Lorenz to ask you to consider marrying the new king of Almyra.”

Byleth pulled back a little so she could see his face. Her brow wrinkled a little in confusion. “But won’t you be the new king of Almyra?”

“Exactly,” he said with a wicked grin. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. “And can’t you just picture the look on his face when I return from my homeland and he finally realizes that he’s spent months arranging your wedding to me?”

“He’s going to strangle you,” she warned him, and he gave a happy little sigh.

“It’ll be worth it,” he replied. He kissed her forehead, then her lips. “But nothing makes me happier than knowing that soon you’ll be my wife.”

“Soon,” she repeated as their kisses deepened again, and it sounded like a promise.

 


 

Ignatz and Mercedes were up with the dawn to see Claude off. They’d both been surprised to hear he was leaving so soon, and Mercedes had insisted that she go and offer Byleth some emotional support. These days, it was hard to imagine one of their leaders without the other. Not having Claude around was going to be strange enough, but Byleth roaming the monastery without Claude at her side would take some getting used to for everyone.

When they arrived in the courtyard where Claude was making his last minute preparations to leave, Ignatz found that he and Mercedes hasn’t been the only ones with the idea of seeing Claude off. All of the former Deer were there, gathered around the white wyvern that their leader had flown into so many of their last battles. Hilda was haranguing him, but the rest of his former classmates only looked a bit depressed.

“But why now? We just won, how can you leave us all now?” Hilda demanded with a frustrated jerk of her arms. Claude was smiling at her a bit ruefully.

“I’m needed back at home,” he told her. “But this isn’t goodbye. You’ll see me again. Probably more than you’d like.”

Hilda sniffed and rubbed at her eyes. “Alright. But I reserve the right to be mad at you until you come back.”

Raphael’s eyes were watering too as he stepped forward and yanked Claude into a hug. “What if you need us? My muscles can’t help you if you’re far away.”

Claude patted the larger man’s back. “I promise I’ll be extra cautious, Raphael. And I’ll come back with some special food supplies just for you. Maybe I’ll bring Garreg Mach an extra chef, and then you can try dishes from my homeland.”

That seemed to cheer Raphael a bit, though his eyes didn’t completely dry. Next, Lysithea and Marianne both said their goodbyes as well, and Lysithea didn’t even complain when Claude ruffled her hair. Leonie let go of Lorenz’s hand and stepped forward to punch her leader in the shoulder.

“I think you owe us all some explanations when you get back,” she said. He chuckled.

“Oh, I expect all will become clear fairly quickly. In the meantime…try to give Lorenz a bit of grounding. You seem to be a good influence,” he said. Leonie opened her mouth, closed it again and nodded with a flush.

“I understand him better now,” she murmured softly. “Hurry back, okay? Lorenz needs me, but she—” she indicated Byleth with a jerk of her chin—“needs you.”

Now it was Ignatz’s turn. He moved toward the taller man with a smile.

“Maybe it’s bad etiquette for a commoner to say that he’ll miss a noble, but I will miss you,” he said as he held out a hand. Claude clasped it.

“I expect etiquette in Fódlan is about to receive a major overhaul, but even if it weren’t, there’s nothing wrong with a friend telling another friend they’ll be missed. That said, I’ll miss you too, Ignatz.” Claude winked conspiratorially. “Make sure you get a painting of Teach all done up for the coronation.”

Ignatz chuckled. “If I can get her to sit long enough to do it justice.”

“I have faith in you,” Claude replied, still smiling.

Then, at last, he turned to Byleth. Ignatz took a couple steps back so they were standing somewhat apart from the rest of the group.

“My friend…after our talk the other day, you know how hard I’ll work to resolve the issues at home. Don’t lose faith in me.”

Byleth shook her head, and Ignatz was shocked to see that her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I never will,” she promised. He took her hand in his and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. Then he straightened, leaned in close and whispered something in her ear. For a moment, Byleth’s free hand found and clutched his shirt over chest as if she wanted to physically hold him in place, but she let him go when he turned to address the entire group.

“Take care of Her Majesty for me, would you? I’ll see you all soon,” he said. Then he climbed into his wyvern’s saddle. With a few powerful flaps of those pearlescent wings, they were airborne, and after a final loop of the courtyard, they disappeared into the sky. His escort was taking off in his wake just a few seconds later.

Ignatz turned to Mercedes when they’d gone and found her already reaching for his hand.

“It’s always hard to part with friends,” she said as he took it.

“It is,” he agreed. “It feels like we’ve lost an anchor now that he’s gone. But if he promised the professor he’ll return, I know he’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Chapter Text

The coronation was a beautiful if lengthy affair. Lorenz seemed to enjoy it immensely, but Leonie was glad when it was over, and she could tell that the professor felt the same by the time the last of the feast was cleared away.

She was doing well so far. Claude had been meticulous before taking his leave, providing Byleth with piles of references, thorough analyses of the various social and political situations across all the territories of Fódlan, and the names of many people she could draw to her for even more effective help. Many of those wheels he’d started in motion himself, so communications for the new queen poured in every day. Lorenz and Hilda were often tasked to help her sort through it all.

On top of all those careful preparations, Byleth was a shrewd and even-tempered leader. The nobles and church officials were discovering, as the Golden Deer had years ago, that nothing seemed to faze or ruffle her. She was calm, intelligent and unimpressed by tradition or etiquette. She sliced through to the heart of the matter whenever possible.

But life wasn’t perfect. Leonie knew that better than any of them. Byleth had appointed her head of her personal guard, so she knew that many former Imperial soldiers were on the move in the west, raising dissidents wherever they traveled. It wouldn’t be long before action would have to be taken.

“I’ll see you back at our room,” Leonie said to Lorenz as Byleth stood, wishing everyone a pleasant night. As she headed back to her quarters, Leonie fell in step beside her.

“Are you alright, Prof—Your Majesty?”

Byleth smiled. “Professor is fine. You’re also more than welcome to call me Byleth. Titles are for…” she waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the audience chamber.

“You seem tired,” Leonie observed, not unkindly.

“I am tired.”

“Anything I can help with?”

Byleth let out a short puff of air. “I’m not comfortable with being head of the church and reigning monarch. And I know next to nothing about the church. Seteth is trying to help, but I think I’d better elect a new archbishop. I’d like to find someone that will work with me to reform questionable doctrine in a way that minimizes the shock for the more devout believers. My hope is that Mercedes will accept the offer,  but first I have to make sure it’s correct for me to even make a suggestion. Seteth is searching for precedence.

“Then there are the preparations to move the capital to Derdriu, which are taking much longer than expected. There’s been some resistance from the other regions about the choice of the old Alliance capital, but Garreg Mach is already the headquarters of the Church—and like it or not, the Alliance did win the war. There’s a more tangible resistance building too. Alois and Catherine both brought me reports of Imperial rebels bolstering their strength near the coast. I don’t want to start this reign with bloodshed, but we must secure our new capital.”

Leonie gave a low whistle. “That is a lot to think about.”

“And, on top of everything else…” Byleth trailed off with a little sigh.

She wants Claude, Leonie thought.

As if reading her thoughts, Byleth continued. “Claude has always been better at anticipating problems and moving to counter them. I’m good on the battlefield, good with the action, but planning is his forte. The Knights…overestimate my abilities. They think I can face down whatever might come our way. But it was never just me. I always had Claude, and we always had you.”

“You’ve still got us, Professor.”

Byleth nodded, but her brow remained furrowed. “I just keep having this feeling that there’s something I’m missing.”

“We beat the Empire,” Leonie replied, interjecting a little more confidence than she normally would have in the hopes it might cheer Byleth up. “The odds of that were almost impossible. I’d say we’ve got a pretty good chance of beating anyone else that comes along to stir up trouble.”

Byleth nodded and wished Leonie a pleasant evening when they’d reached her quarters. As soon as the new queen had been safely deposited to her rooms, Leonie sought out Alois. If Byleth was worried, it was time to increase the guard.

 


 

Judith waited until Claude had retreated to his personal quarters to pounce. She’d arrived in Almyra only a few hours before, but one glance had been all it had taken for her to see that the boy was lonely and distracted. Nader’s…enthusiastic greeting had kept her busy in his rooms for a while, but now that the general was asleep, she sought out her old friend.

The younger man didn’t seem too surprised to see her when he opened the door to his solar, but he did give her a knowing look that made a slight flush come to her cheeks.

“I didn’t expect to see you until morning,” he commented as he stepped aside to admit her into his private quarters.

“As to that…don’t expect Nader to rouse himself until midday.”

Claude laughed and gestured for her to make herself comfortable.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of such a late-night visit?”

Judith grinned and pointed to his chest. His hand came up automatically, fingers curling around the ring that he was wearing on a chain.

“Damn,” he murmured. “I thought I’d tucked that into my shirt.”

“I take it this means congratulations are in order?” Judith asked with a raised eyebrow. She knew her smile was a little smug. For a moment, Claude looked as though he meant to clam up. Then his countenance cracked and he grinned. It was so open and boyish that it took her aback for a moment: even with a friend as old as her, he rarely expressed himself so easily.

“We haven’t told anyone yet, but…”

“I’d ask who the lucky girl is, but that dopey grin says it all. It’s your professor, isn’t it?”

“Did you come here just to ask me questions you already know the answers to?” Claude asked. He poured her a glass of wine, though she noticed he was drinking water. Smart, she thought. No doubt the attempts to poison him had begun already.

“As a matter of fact, apart from wanting to say finally and it’s about damn time, I do have some news.” Judith leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and placed her chin on a curled fist. “Lord Holst is preparing to greet your lovely queen in Derdriu, and I’m not the only one that knows it. With him leaving the Locket, I’m afraid your enemies might think it’s the perfect time to ruin all your efforts at diplomacy.”

Claude nodded and rubbed at his jaw, considering possible ways to counteract. “Hilda can defend the Locket if needs be, though I hope to neutralize that threat before hostilities break out.”

“Normally I’d agree with you…but I’m not so sure now is a good time to pull one of your most seasoned fighters away from the queen’s side.”

Claude’s eyes were suddenly very sharp as he studied her face. “What do you know?”

“That group we destroyed in Goneril territory? I’m not so sure we got them all. And before you ask—no, I don’t have any proof. All I’ve got are whispers, hints of their presence in Galatea and Conand. But it’s enough to make me worried. From there, it wouldn’t take them long to get to the new capital.”

He swore in his mother tongue and thumped his fist down on the table. “And in the meantime, I’m stuck here.”

“I’ll keep my ear to the ground, but you had better get a move on, boy. I have a feeling we’ll need our Master Tactician sooner rather than later.”

Claude groaned at the use of the nickname. “And to think this time I was planning on playing nice…”

Judith raised an eyebrow and the younger man laughed. “Well, maybe nice isn’t the right word,” he amended. Then he grew serious once more. “Thank you for looking out for her.”

“The way I see it, looking out for her is the best way of looking out for you, and anyway, I’m invested now.”

He nodded and grew quiet as she finished her wine. She could tell his mind was already running through every possible way to get the outcome he wanted. She drained her goblet and stood.

“I’ll wish you goodnight. Just…try to get some sleep at some point, alright? Collapsing of exhaustion isn’t much of a strategy.”

“I promise,” he told her, though he didn’t put a lot of effort into masking the lie. Well, she’d done what she could. Hopefully the boy would take her advice sooner rather than later.

 


 

“Did you know that in Almyra, the heirs to the throne have to fight for the crown? And I mean fight, as in physically battle one another. And any male in the family is considered an heir, not just the eldest son. They don’t have Crests, either, so basically it’s just a big free-for-all and whoever wins the fight, wins the crown too,” Hilda was saying to the remaining Deer when Byleth joined them for lunch. The girl’s words sent a tendril of unease through her, though Claude was one of the most effective fighters she’d ever seen.

“Turns out, a lot of times they try to sabotage each other before the fight, or even poison or kill one another beforehand so there’s less competition. And any of the men can decide not to take part in the fight, but they’re never allowed to try for the throne again, and usually there’s some shaming Involved.”

“Where did you learn all this, Hilda?” Ignatz asked.

“Cyril! He knows all about it. Lysithea coaxed it out of him when I said I was curious,” Hilda replied, tactfully ignoring Lysithea’s pink cheeks.

“Did you know the Almyran king was going to step down, Professor?” Leonie asked. Byleth glanced up from her food and nodded.

“I’d heard that there had been an attempt on his life and that his health is bad enough that he decided it was for the best,” she replied. “It seems dangerous to leave things uncertain for that long, but Almyra has never been successfully invaded and most of the coups have failed as well, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so hasty to judge.”

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” Lysithea asked. Byleth nodded again, though she could feel her shoulders droop a little when she thought of the tasks ahead. Tomorrow she’d officially enter the city of Derdriu and formally invest it as Fódlan’s capital. There would be a grand procession to the palace and a feast. It was going to be a long day, but at least she wouldn’t be actively fighting for her life the way Claude was.

Perhaps it was better not to think that way. She had no desire to tempt fate after they’d all survived so much.

“Lorenz and Count Gloucester should arrive a day or two after that,” Leonie told her. “And Lord Holst will be arriving from the Locket soon as well. Most of the other major Alliance lords are already there. Do you still plan on traveling to the old Kingdom and the former Empire to receive fealty from those lords?”

“Yes. The war did a lot of damage. I’d rather they stay in their lands and see to reconstruction than undertake such a long journey just to swear a few vows,” Byleth replied. “In the meantime, Lorenz and Seteth can oversee things here.”

The Deer nodded and returned to chatting amongst themselves. Byleth touched the ring she had tucked under her shirt. Would praying for Claude help? Would she only be praying to herself?

I love you, she thought instead, hoping somehow he’d know she was thinking of him in that moment. Please be safe.

 


 

Nader was growing impatient with the royal family. Most of them were dragging their heels on the way to Mahtabah, the capital city. Claude had been waiting there for two months, growing visibly more agitated at every fresh delay. The rest of the heirs weren’t so keen to fight, not after hearing of the kid’s exploits on the other side of the border. He was a formidable foe, and so far none of their attempts to poison or incapacitate him had worked.

“They should just hand you the damned crown and be done with it,” he grumbled to the younger man as they watched one of the royals make a formal entrance into the city. “There’s precedent.”

Claude’s expression darkened. “They’re too afraid of losing face. And it doesn’t help that I’m a half-breed. If they don’t fight for the throne, they’re the cowards, not me with my Fódlan blood.”

“Will you kill them?”

Claude sighed. “Not if I can help it. I’ve shed too much blood as it is. But if they force my hand, I won’t hesitate.” He glanced at the general. “I’ve worked too hard to die now. And Byleth is waiting for me.”

“I’ll see if I can hurry your dear family along then, shall I?”

Claude’s smile was grateful. “I’d appreciate that, my friend. I do have a wedding to attend, after all.”

Nader threw his head back and laughed, startling a bunch of pigeons into flight. “Aye, you do at that. My men and I will round up the stragglers. You’ll be king in a fortnight,” he promised.

Claude watched him leave the palace balcony and then looked down at his royal cousin as the man rode through the city streets on horseback. He frowned a little and touched Byleth’s ring for good luck.

I’m coming, my love…as fast as I can. Hold on just a little longer, I’ll be with you soon.

Chapter Text

Judith followed the majority of Mahtabah to the arena outside of the city walls. Huge stone steps that doubled as seating lead down to the packed dirt of the arena floor. There were brightly colored silk streamers fluttering in the wind, covered in the intricate geometric patterns the Almyrans loved so much, and the excitement of the people was palpable. Beside her, Nader was watchful and tense.

“Don’t worry about the boy, he’ll be fine. After what he’s ben through, this is nothing.”

“I’m not worried—I taught the kid myself, after all,” he said with a laugh. There was too much bravado in it for it to ring true—what was with these Almyrans and their need to act tough? “I just hope no one is up to any funny business.”

Both of them looked down to the arena floor. Claude was there, his usual restlessness held in check for once. He stood still and let his gaze roam over the arena’s occupants. Nader tried to catch his eye by waving, but the younger man didn’t respond.

“Twelve combatants, including Claude,” Judith observed. “And all he has to do is subdue them, correct?”

“Technically.” Nader frowned a bit. “Some will only feign submission, and some won’t give up until they’re killed. Almyra’s throne is a rich prize. Worth dying for, I’d say. But the kid is young and strong, especially compared to some of his uncles.”

“Are there any rules?” Judith asked. Nader shook his head.

“Not really. No magic, but other than that…poison on the weapons, biting, groin shots…it’s all fair game. These things are brutal, but usually they’re over quickly.”

Judith opened her mouth to ask another question, but a huge rumble from the traditional drums drowned out all else. As the sound throbbed away, the battle began.

Almost immediately, the arena was a mess. The contestants were kicking up so much dust and had grouped so tightly that it was hard to see what was happening for a few moments. Then men began to fall, and it was easier to make sense of the action.

Judith had never seen Claude fight with a spear before. She knew he was proficient with axes and swords, and of course he was nearly unmatched with a bow, but apparently he’d paid attention during his lessons about polearms as well. He used the length of the weapon to keep his attackers back, and he made the blade sing with wicked speed. He all but danced with the spear, using swift, wide sweeps to give himself some room before he’d whip or thrust the blade right into his target. The axes most of the others carried could not reach him when he moved so fluidly.

But it ended as it inevitably must: one of his cousins managed to crush the haft of the spear badly enough that the blade became useless. Claude threw the weapon away from him and reached to unsheathe the axe he’d strapped to his back. Chaos descended again.

In the end, he killed three men: two uncles and a second cousin. He’d subdued five more. The other three had been killed by different combatants.

Judith was on her feet as soon as the drums signaled the end of the battle, whooping as loud as she could. Around her, the Almyrans were roaring their approval of Claude’s clear dominance on the field of battle: their new king was strong, brave and clever. His warlike people couldn’t help but approve after seeing his prowess.

Claude dropped his axe into the dirt and lifted a hand to acknowledge the cheers. He made his way to the gates and was released from the central pit. Judith could make out his smile, wide but hollow, and knew he wished that now that this chore had been seen to, he could fly off to Derdriu and his queen.

Not yet, boy. He had his own coronation to attend, and his own government to organize. But he was unarguably a step closer.

She tugged on Nader’s arm. “Come on, let’s go congratulate the King of Schemes,” she said. But even as they made their way toward Almyra’s new monarch, Claude doubled over, vomited what little had been in his stomach to begin with, and collapsed.

 


 

My Queen, (I’m imagining the face you’re making and yes, I do find amusement in your discomfort. You knew that about me when we proposed to each other. Just remember: it’s not annoying, it’s charming.)

(Are you smiling now? I bet you are. I miss that smile. I hope to see it in person soon. Anyway…)

You mean to tell me that Hilda asked Cyril how Almyra would choose its new king, and she still hasn’t guessed the truth? Huh. I would have given her more credit than that.

I thought she might have guessed about me a while ago, but then again…she isn’t the type to—how do I put this gently?—not spread gossip like this as far and wide as she possibly can as fast as she can. Maybe she guessed the Almyran part and not the son-of-the-king part? Oh well. I’m just glad Lorenz is still in for the shock of his life.

As for the poisoning incident at the battle of the crown…well, it was only a little poison, my love—nothing to worry about. A few days ignoring the court physicians and mixing my own antitoxins saw me right soon enough. I’m already back on my feet and preparing a council to rule in my stead while I return to you. We’ll have to come back here soon, but in the short term I’m quite happy with my choices.  I hope you don’t mind the quick turnaround, but I’ll need to shore things up here, and besides, I’ve always wanted to show you my homeland. My mother will love you, I know. And my people couldn’t ask for a better Queen. They’ll love you too. Just not as much as I do or I’ll have to use my kingly authority to rid myself of any competition. Joking!

In all seriousness: I do love you. So much. I’ll be with you soon.

I’m yours. Always.

-Claude

P.S.: We really need to do something about Judith’s penchant for nicknames. She keeps addressing me as the King of Schemes…in official reports, mind! The disrespect…Maybe she’ll listen to you?

Oh, who am I kidding? At least she isn’t writing “Boy” on top of all her dispatches anymore.

I love you.

 


 

When the enemy came to take Derdriu, they came fast. Ignatz watched as former Imperial soldiers and black-masked Agarthan mages swarmed the gates and walls of Derdriu. Magic was thick in the air as he shouted for more archers to man the fortifications. He fired volley after volley into the enemies, glad that his fiancée was far away in Garreg Mach. Those that slither in the dark might have hated the Church of Seiros, but they still seemed focused on killing the professor instead of the new archbishop.

Some of the fighting had spilled into the city streets. A small force had slipped in through the quay and allowed others in, though most of the opposing army remained shut out by Derdriu’s huge, carved gates.

“Where’s Her Majesty?” he shouted to Raphael. The huge Knight was hauling barrels of pitch up to the battlements so they could be ignited and dropped over the walls.

“Fighting by the quay! Leonie is with her.”

Ignatz nodded and refocused his attention on their enemies. They hadn’t even realized a true army had mobilized before the attack had started. It hurt to see so many people still opposed to Claude and Byleth’s peace.

And Claude was still gone. He’d left four months ago. Lorenz wasn’t present either, though hopefully he’d return any moment. He’d gone to escort his father back to Gloucester territory once Byleth has ascended to the throne, but he should be nearly back by now.

The defenders were stretched thin. Ignatz found himself wishing for one of Claude’s clever schemes. Somehow they were losing this fight, and if Derdriu fell at this early stage of Byleth’s reign, it seemed all they’d fought for would be lost.

 


 

Byleth had made a serious mistake.

During the war, she’d grown used to fighting with Claude. Her trust in him had been absolute and freeing: it let her range far away from the others to make lightning strikes against key targets. No matter how far she ended up from the front lines, Claude would be there, covering her from above with precision shots, often picking off any enemies that tried to catch her or else clearing the path ahead of her so she could kill an opposing commander.

Without him, that maneuver had become deadly. She’d outstripped her royal guard—even Leonie was far behind—and now the black-masked mages were closing in. They were the last of Thales’ Agarthans, and they were still targeting her specifically. They appeared out of nowhere in this section of streets, and had obviously been smuggled deep into the city in order to create this trap. Byleth had been tricked; the Imperial rebels had been herding her toward this trap from the beginning.

Somewhere behind her, her royal standard dipped and then disappeared completely. Almost immediately, her army began to falter—had their queen been killed? Should they surrender the city? Why else would her standard fall?

Meanwhile, the Agarthan mages were chanting. Byleth’s grip tightened around the hilt of the Sword of the Creator. Perhaps there was still a way out of this trap, if she could just keep cool…

The sword whipped out, the long chain of the blade flicking lithely and catching one of the mages mid-chant. She spun and the chain-blade spun with her, catching another of the magic users even as she felt the air heating around her. It was quickly becoming unbearable, worse even than the fires of Aliell, and her breath seemed to be evaporating from her lungs. There was no air to replace it with, whatever it was that she was drawing into her lungs was searing them from the inside out, she couldn’t even cry out—then a blade cut deep into her shoulder—

An arrow thunked into the mage in front of her. Two more sprouted from the throat of the one next to him. A third mage was already collapsing as an arrow pierced his eye. Byleth sucked in a frantic breath of cool air even as she realized that all four of the projectiles had familiar fletching…

Claude!

His wyvern was already swooping down, his bow discarded for an axe. The blade of it sank deep into the chest of the swordsman that had cut her, and she could see the cold and deadly fury in Claude’s eyes as he made sure her assailant would never rise to attack his beloved again. His wyvern then twisted and caught an incoming assassin with her powerful hind claws, knocking him to the ground as she landed on top of him. He shrieked as his bones cracked beneath her weight, but the sound was quickly cut off by one snap of those sharp draconian teeth at his throat, and he was dead too.

In the brief respite, Claude eyes met hers. Their gazes held for just a second as chaos swirled around them. He’d saved her life, arrived just at the moment of her greatest need—just as he always had. Her heart lurched painfully against the Crest stone in her chest.

But they weren’t out of the thick of it yet. Gratitude, love, relief…it would all have to wait for a few minutes more. As Claude urged his wyvern into the sky again, Byleth spun back toward the last of the mage group that had so nearly killed her. Her sword cleaved through the sixth magic user, and together she and Claude brought down the seventh and final mage of the group. Behind him, from the east, a wave of Almyran wyvern riders had swept over the tops of the gates and were decimating the Imperial rebels below. A few wore the brightly colored uniforms of the Barbarossa, and one of them had even picked up her royal battle standard and flown it high above the city to reassure her troops that all was not lost and allies had arrived—but no one else commanded a great white wyvern into battle.

Immediately, the resistance began to collapse. This mage group must have been the leaders, and with them dead or dying, the rest of the army began to panick. It was as though they had exerted some sort of control over the battlefield, held the troops together somehow with their powers. Once that connection had been broken, Claude’s Almyran warriors and Byleth’s army started carving through the opposition without any trouble. Later she learned that in addition to the wyvern warriors, more Almyran troops had crushed the Imperial rebels against the eastern walls of the city, fighting like demons.

They had saved Derdriu—they had saved Fódlan—right alongside so many of the Alliance soldiers they usually thought of as enemies.

As the Fódlan army helped the Almyrans mop up the last of the fighting, Byleth made her way back to her Deer. Her shoulder was throbbing with agony and she was losing too much blood, but Marianne would be able to patch her up long enough for the royal physicians to arrive with more complex aid.

Marianne rushed to close the gap as Byleth stumbled toward her, and the shivery-numb feeling of white magic soon soothed away the worst of the pain. The blood slowed and, though the wound didn’t knit itself completely closed, it began to scab over. While she worked, Claude’s wyvern landed a few feet away.

He was off the animal and crossing toward Byleth in the blink of an eye. Before she could even finish a breath, he caught her around the waist with one arm and—careful to avoid her wound—captured her mouth in a searing kiss.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get here earlier,” he said, pulling away just enough to murmur the words against her lips.

“Ah, but your gallant rescue made for a very dashing entrance,” she replied with a smile. Home. She felt like she was home now that he was holding her.

“It is going to make a truly epic song one day, but I would have preferred not to find you in mortal peril the moment I arrived.”

The fingers of her uninjured arm threaded their way deep into his hair. His smile was soft and relieved and joyful, and it was just for her.

“My love…once your wound has been properly tended to, would you be up for one more dramatic display today?” he asked, tugging gently on the chain that hung around her neck. She nodded and pressed her face against his shoulder. She could almost feel her heart stitching itself back together as he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

“Claude,” she said as they all began to make their way back through the streets toward the palace. He glanced at her in askance, and she caught his hand in hers. “I never want to be apart like that again.”

He wrapped his arm around her waist as they walked, nuzzling another kiss into her hair. “Never again,” he promised. “I’m never going to let you go again.”

 


 

It was only when the royal physicians were tending to her wound that Byleth realized none of the Golden Deer that had been present—Leonie, Hilda, Marianne, Ignatz, Raphael and Lysithea—had seemed all that surprised by their passionate reunion.

 


 

That evening, the King of Almyra, publicly proposed to the Queen of Fódlan on the steps leading up to the royal palace of Derdriu. The celebrations lasted for two days. On the second of those two days, Lorenz arrived after escorting his father back to Gloucester territory to the news that his queen was formerly betrothed.

 


 

This is perfect, Lorenz thought as he raced through the palace to the queen’s apartments. Even Claude couldn’t have planned it better. I wonder if he was among the Almyran fighters? He’ll be pleased to know that this scheme of his has worked.

He stopped before the large wooden doors that led to Byleth’s private rooms. There he took a moment to smooth down his hair and straighten out his clothing. Once he was satisfied that he wasn’t too unkempt, he requested that his presence be announced to Her Majesty, and a waiting valet conveyed the message.

The doors were pushed open and Lorenz entered the solar. Byleth was there, as were Claude, Hilda, Marianne and Leonie.

“Welcome back, Lorenz, “ Byleth said. He immediately dropped into a bow.

“Your Majesty, I was so gratified to hear of our victory, and that your wound did not put you in danger,” he began. Leonie groaned even as she walked up to him, going on her toes to kiss his cheek.

“You know you don’t have to be so formal,” she said.

“But—but I am addressing my queen, it’s only correct that I…”

Byleth laughed quietly, and all eyes turned to her. She was, Lorenz noticed, glowing with happiness. But should Claude be standing so close to her, when she had granted her hand in marriage to another, to a king no less? He made a mental note to have a private word with the former Alliance leader about the impropriety of his conduct.

“Ah, and allow me to congratulate you on the happy news of your engagement. Marriage to the King of Almyra will ensure the safety of Fódlan’s eastern border for a generation at least,” Lorenz said, unable to keep a satisfied grin off of his face. He also couldn’t resist a peek at Claude—and to his surprise, he saw the other man lace his fingers through the queen’s and bow to him.

“Thank you, Lorenz. We both appreciate your warm approval of our engagement,” he said as he straightened up. He was smirking at Lorenz the same way he had whenever one of his annoying tricks had worked back in their school days…smirking as though, once again, Lorenz had missed something monumentally obvious.

Shock rolled through him from the top of his head right down to his toes. He looked back and forth from Claude to Byleth, then down at their joined hands and the ring on the queen’s finger. Then, belatedly, he noticed the richness of Claude’s clothing, saw the ring hanging from his neck, and remembered the Almyran guards he’d passed on his way to the solar…

“You—it’s not possible. It is simply not possible. You cannot mean to suggest that…that you of all people are the—” he sputtered.

Claude satisfaction was painful to see. “That I’m the King of Almyra?” he finished. “I’m afraid so. Really, I should be thanking you. Our chat about the benefits of this marriage convinced me that I needed to go retrieve my crown in order to qualify as a proper candidate for Byleth’s hand.”

“You—you—I never would have agreed to your scheme had I known that it was you we were speaking of!” Lorenz managed, his voice sounding oddly strangled.

“But your logic was so sound. I was completely convinced,” Claude replied with an innocent look of confusion.

“That was your logic, damn you!”

“Oh. Oh yeah. No wonder it made so much sense.” Claude turned and grinned at his betrothed. “And, all that aside, there was no way I was going to stand by and let anyone else have you.”

“I don’t want anyone else,” Byleth replied softly, smiling up at him with such affection that Lorenz felt another jolt of recognition. She loved him. She truly loved him. And, now that he was really looking, he could see that Claude adored her. Would, if the shockingly open and tender expression on his face was anything to go by, do anything for her.

Lorenz felt his shoulders sag in defeat. He let out a long-suffering sigh. There was no choice now: he’d simply have to appeal to Byleth for a high position in her cabinet. Someone had to keep Claude from running two countries into the ground, after all.

“I…congratulate you. Most sincerely,” he said, and flushed when Leonie, Hilda and Marianne all cheered. Claude wrapped his arm around Byleth’s waist and urged her gently into his side.

“Thank you, Lorenz,” he said, much more sincerely himself this time. “Your support means a lot.”

“May we be dismissed?” Leonie asked, taking Lorenz’s hand. Byleth nodded, still smiling, and the pair of them turned and walked out of the solar. Just before the door closed behind them, he heard Hilda burst into laughter.

“You were right, Claude—the look on his face really was priceless!”

Lorenz bristled, but Leonie laid a soothing hand on his arm. “Ignore her. Let’s go to my quarters. I missed you,” she said.

“She’ll never respect me if—oh, very well. I have to admit, spending the afternoon with you sounds much more appealing than lecturing her.”

“Good,” Leonie laughed, “because I already ordered the tea.”

They’d just sat down together when another horrible thought struck him: he was going to have to call Claude—Claude!—Your Majesty. The thought alone made him groan; luckily, he missed Leonie’s grin as she hurried to hide it behind her teacup.

Chapter Text

"Y’know, it’s probably not too late to just elope,” Claude commented as he and Byleth watched a delegation from Brigid—with Petra at its head—make its formal entrance into Derdriu. The wedding was in three days and the city was packed to the brim with visiting dignitaries and notable guests.

He looped an arm around her waist and she smiled up at him, leaning into the touch. The crowd beneath their balcony ate the romantic little gesture up, calling out their approval to the royal couple. Their story was already making its way into music and poetry, but Byleth didn’t pay much attention to that. She touched him not because it was expected or even encouraged by her subjects. She touched him because she loved him, because he wanted her to, and because they’d spent far too long denying themselves the simple pleasure of it.

“I’m afraid Seteth would disagree with you, my love.” Then her smile widened into an outright grin. “Which probably only makes it even more tempting, doesn't it?”

“You really do know me so well,” he said, his eyes twinkling fondly as he leaned down to kiss her smiling mouth.

They turned their attention back to the parade-like procession of Brigidians. Byleth tilted her head as she watched their colorful group make its way through the streets, accompanied by musicians playing the most enthralling music.

“Were you ever tempted?” she asked, indicating the group with a nod. “I heard even Petra asked you for a match.”

“No. She’s a beautiful person and I admire her tenacity and love for her country, but…” He shrugged. “How do I say this without sounding like a total sap? My heart was already yours, najmay.”

She turned and hid her burning cheeks in the soft fabric of his sleeve, smiling at the endearment. My star.

He didn’t let her hide for long. He tugged her chin up with gentle fingers, and his eyes were full of impish delight. “You were jealous,” he said in the same tones as a boy that had been given a particularly longed-for gift. “Byleth Einser, Ashen Demon and Fell Star, was jealous of a bunch of silly noble girls.”

“Petra isn’t a silly girl,” she protested. He only laughed, still watching her for more signs of discomfort. He was relishing this, she knew.

That’s what you were so upset about back then. You thought one of them was going to run away with me.”

“It didn’t seem so far fetched at the time,” she mumbled, wishing she could hide again. “The whole monastery was full of women who had already decided they’d say yes if you asked them. It was…I…”

He captured her lips, humming softly as she tilted her head back and opened her mouth for him. “And here I thought I’d made such a convincing show of not wanting any of them.”

“I didn’t think I was an option. But I…wished for it. For you to pick me.”

His eyes glowed as he stared into hers. “Ah, By. I had picked you. But I see now I should have been even more obvious about my frankly embarrassing regard for you. Maybe I should have filled your quarters with roses, or hired a traveling bard to regale you with songs about my hopeless love, or—”

She shoved against his chest a little and he laughed, holding her tighter. He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to her fingertips. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time. Well before Lorenz stuffed the monastery full of would-be brides, I can tell you that.” He paused, then added, “You know, I really should have messed with him more. He turned out to be such a hypocrite too, giving me all those lectures on marrying for duty and acceptable breeding. Leonie’s an amazing woman and she’ll make an exceptional Countess of Gloucester, but he didn’t follow a single word of his own advice.

Byleth tried not to giggle, but it failed. Claude was adorable when he was mildly disgruntled. He glanced down at her and his expression melted into a smile.

“I hope to always bring you laughter, my love,” he murmured as he looked at her, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“You,” she told him, “have always been the beginning of everything good in my life.”

Before he could sweep her up into his arms and carry her back to their bedchamber, visiting friends from Brigid be damned, Seteth knocked and then joined them on the palace balcony.

“Your Majesties,” he said, “it is time to greet your guests.”

Byleth smiled at Claude’s dejected mumble of, “Always duty with this guy.” Before Seteth could protest, she pulled free of her fiancé’s embrace and clasped his hand.

“The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can retire to our rooms…” she said, her voice full of promise. Seteth’s cheeks immediately went pink, but Claude only grinned.

“You always do know just what to say to motivate a guy,” he purred in response before following her happily down to the reception hall.