Byleth wakes to an attack. A body in her bed, grappling her, trapping her with heat. Her heart beats in her ears like a war drum.
She lurches away, pressing her back against the wall. If only she can break free, she can grab the dagger on her side table and...
Mercedes' voice, quiet and raspy, snaps Byleth's eyes open. Inches away, Mercedes stares, her lips parted and her hair mussed.
"Are you all right?" Mercedes asks. Nothing else stirs in Byleth's old room at the monastery, which is the same as always, down to the cobwebs. The only difference is the woman sharing Byleth's pillow.
Byleth's heart doesn't slow. She nods, the pillow scratchy against her cheek. The sight of Mercedes' own cheek mushed against the pillow makes her wish it was softer.
Mercedes lifts the arm she had tucked around Byleth's waist. "I didn't mean to box you in. Would you like to switch sides?" Mercedes asks. Byleth nods again, and Mercedes stands just long enough to let her out. Mercedes slips back under the sheet, holding it open in invitation. "I think we can be forgiven for a late start, just this once."
Before she can ask why, Byleth spies Mercedes' ring. The one she promised to give to someone she loved.
A smile spreads across her face, and Mercedes returns it, her face red. She's gazing up without focus, like she doesn't know where to look, and Byleth realizes she's standing over the bed wearing almost nothing. She hurries to join Mercedes, making her wife giggle.
Her wife. The drumbeat in Byleth's head reminds her that she forgot, that she almost hurt her. Mercedes runs a hand up and down Byleth's side, still so close it sets her on fire, so soft she doesn't know what to do. Their toes brush, their knees, their elbows. Byleth slips an arm between Mercedes and the wall, shielding her. Byleth never sleeps with her back to the door, but she'll have to start.
"My wife," Mercedes whispers.
Byleth's heart clenches, aching despite her joy. She wants to keep that expression on Mercedes' face, but she hurts and she’s loud and she doesn't know why.
"Something's wrong," she manages. Mercedes' smile flips, her eyebrows turning down.
"Oh, no. Was this too sudden?”
She shakes her head. How can she explain? The room is secure, the atmosphere normal—no buzz of magic, no sounds from outside besides the birds. Yesterday, she was able to deliver vows, to laugh and cry with her wife and friends, but she feels as confused and incapable of expressing herself as the first time she woke in this room.
She takes Mercedes' hand, pressing the palm against her chest. Mercedes’ lips move, counting beats as she would for a patient. They shift to prop up Byleth, Mercedes' ear to her chest, and Byleth trembles as she cradles her head there. After Mercedes asks several questions about other symptoms, all of which receive a shake of the head, she rests in the crook of Byleth's neck and strokes her arm.
"You don't seem sick," Mercedes says. "Has it been like this for a while?"
"When I'm close to you," Byleth says, frowning. Usually Mercedes makes her feel safe, as smooth as a pond with no fish, not this whirlpool.
To her surprise, Mercedes laughs. "I'm sorry, I know you're worried, it's just... Love can be like this. My heart has been flying out of my chest all week. There's nothing wrong with you, I promise."
Her calm voice settles Byleth, who buries herself in Mercedes' hair.
"It must be unnerving, having your heart do unpredictable things after not beating for all those years," Mercedes continues. "It's so hard to ignore when it's pounding like that, isn't it?"
Byleth nods. As always, Mercedes understands her better than anyone, better than even herself.
"We can stay here until you calm down, if you'd like. Unless a walk would settle you?" Mercedes asks.
Byleth considers it. Most of their friends who gathered for the wedding should still be around, expecting breakfast in the dining hall before heading out in all directions. Even now, years after they attacked the monastery, it stands at the center of everything. Using it was partly practical and partly so the newlyweds could visit the Eisners' grave. Theirs weren't the only flowers left there, but the offering that blurred Byleth's vision was Mercedes showing off her ring and promising to take care of it.
The graveyard tugs at her. It wars with the fear her friends will leave before she sees them.
But she lies there, letting her heart beat against Mercedes a hundred times. It beats a hundred more, and she realizes it will keep going, alive in her wife's arms.
She holds Mercedes closer, kissing her forehead, her ear. This once, the world can wait.
It can't wait for long.
"I can't believe you two don't get a honeymoon yet," Annette says. She polishes off a leftover pastry while the three of them sit by the fishing pond, legs dangling over the edge.
"When the world is truly peaceful, we'll be able to take the loveliest trip," Mercedes says.
They can't tell Annette who they're fighting yet, but she knows they have a mission for the emperor, just as they know her magic will be potent when the time comes. Before Annette can complain, Byleth stares at the book by Annette's hip. She spent the morning sneaking in pages.
"I know, I know, I'm a hypocrite," Annette says. "Just make sure you give Mercie the best time when you go, okay?"
Byleth nods, even though she's only ever traveled to fight. Before the wedding, she told Mercedes their war wasn't over, and that they could wait to marry until Byleth had a nice life to offer. Mercedes was adamant they support each other now.
Byleth takes her hand with care, receiving a reassuring pressure. Mercedes' strength isn't the concern. When asked if she would put her own goals on hold, she seemed conflicted, but decided that protecting people from those who slither in the dark was the best way to help others for now.
I left Emile, she had said. I can't let them hurt anyone else.
At least they passed a bag of gold to her mother, who did all of the baking for the wedding. Her recipes even caught the attention of some chefs and merchants present.
Byleth lets her thoughts stay in the past for a hazy moment. The reception they meant to keep small, to which Dorothea's singing alone attracted stragglers. The speech Edelgard made with the force of an imperial decree, and her shyer private presentation of a gift. The doilies Bernadetta embroidered, the wine Ferdinand oversupplied, and the arm wrestling contest Caspar and Petra began, to the chagrin of the more bookish men. And Mercedes, her bride, a fountain of white lace and happy tears.
Annette's humming brings her to the present, and she tries to float there while she braces herself for the battle ahead.
Waiting is the hardest part.
"As much as it galls me, we must be patient," Edelgard says while shuffling documents in her palace office. The parchment towers over decorations Dorothea made and an overflowing red plant Petra sent. "Thanks to my uncle's last power play, Hubert has a lead on our enemy's whereabouts, but we lose everything if we do not move cautiously."
Edelgard wields a pen more than an axe these days. With Byleth's academy job finished, she's given up desk time to keep her sword sharp, even if only on the training grounds and against bandits.
"Blue hair suits you," Edelgard says without segue. She sets down her work, both staring at Byleth and not. Byleth fingers the fringe in question, and Edelgard waves a hand over her own shoulder, as if to brush away an imaginary lock of hair. "How does it feel, having your humanity restored?"
Byleth stares into her lap. She flexes her fingers, listening to her heart stutter and quicken.
"Of course, such things are not so easily undone. Forgive me," Edelgard says. Even without her white hair, her face would age her at a glance. Hanneman’s new research team is doing what they can. Regardless, Byleth promised to support her long ago, and she smiles with what she hopes is reassurance.
After trying to shape the right words for a pair of people forged, Byleth says, "I'll make us some tea." Mercedes always says a person can at least do that.
Some mornings, Byleth catches Mercedes praying, her face tense. Other mornings, she sketches the flowers Byleth brings her, or reads books Ferdinand lends her, or mends clothes Byleth tears.
Even though they could dine with the palace residents, she settles into a routine of bringing breakfast into their guest chambers. Whether it features pickled fish or the cloudberry jam Annette sends from the former Kingdom, she enters with a sunrise smile and unloads the tray with her head bowed.
"You know, I used to tell would-be suitors that I was married to the Goddess. I never meant it literally," she says while they eat. Byleth sets down her toast with a frown. Mercedes flushes. "Oh, I'm sorry. Please forget I said that."
She can't. The palace guards won't meet her eyes unless she surprises them by ghosting through the halls, and the crowds in Enbarr's market scatter whispers in her wake like offerings. Some have new names for her, their savior of flame, while others recall the Ashen Demon. But it's been years since Mercedes first scolded Byleth for taking everything on herself, and months since Mercedes warned she would be a demanding partner, to Byleth's pride.
"We don't have to stay at the palace forever. When we're done fighting, I'll follow you," Byleth says.
"Thank you, but that isn’t the problem. Oh, how should I put this?"
Byleth waits with her wife’s usual patience while Mercedes folds and refolds her napkin.
"When I was in a dark place, I used to know where to find solace. Someone to talk to. A light to guide me. I'm trying to be that light for others, but it's so hard to do it for myself, too. I just don't know where to turn sometimes."
Byleth's chest tightens like a chain squeezes it. She tore something essential out of Mercedes along with her own false heart, and she can't put it back.
"I'm sorry. You must miss her more," Mercedes says.
A heart isn't the same as a voice to lecture her, to celebrate her victories and question the world. The beat fills that void, so much harder to interpret, forcing her to find the words on her own. But this is what she was always supposed to do. What life would have been like, had nothing been put on her as an infant—or maybe it's too late to turn back time, and she can no longer be a mortal, or a demon, or even a ghost.
The lavender she brought her wife perfumes the air. She takes Mercedes' hand over the table, stroking it with her thumb the way Mercedes does to soothe her. Her skin rubs the ring.
"I'll always be here," Byleth says. It's all she can promise.
Mercedes smiles in the morning light, which streams in shafts as it does in the cathedral.
When the time comes to move out, Byleth can only describe her feeling as relief. Wielding a sword isn't complicated. Having a target gives her direction, and preventing anyone else from being victimized energizes her as much as divine power.
She remains cautious. Unable to turn back time, she's aware of every slip of her weapon, every trap Hubert uncovers, every arrow that shoots past Mercedes' head. A hundred erratic rhythms giving her signals from all sides like she's trapped in her own chest.
A giant fist hurtles toward her, its shadow outrunning her. A burst of wind slices it in two. The pieces thud around her. Annette pants with her arm outstretched as if she rewound the clock.
Not everyone is so lucky. With each secret base they storm, each monster—each device—they fight, someone loses an eye, or a life. Sacrifices she might have once undone. Each ramps up the urgency of their mission along with the care they must take.
At last, Edelgard cleaves her abuser's head from his shoulders, black smoke pluming from what looks more like tar than blood. Her axe scrapes the metal floor.
"Never again," she whispers, hoarse from years of orders. Her heart must be pounding; Byleth is finally grateful to know.
There's always work to be done, but Edelgard shoos Byleth and Mercedes off on their honeymoon. A vow to Dorothea and a breakthrough by the Crest researchers give her plenty to do, and plenty of time in which to do it. Annette tells the couple to relax for once before asking for a souvenir and a written report.
They play with children in town squares and sample pastries from a dozen shops. They hike through forests thick with fog while Mercedes tells ghost stories, claiming bodies hide below each stump. They fish and swim, they ride horses, they lie in the grass to stargaze and get up to do it all again. When the exertion is too much for Mercedes, Byleth sweeps her up, slowed by her weight but buoyed by her giggles.
When her hands are free, they drift to her scabbard. Bandits attack a village where they stay, and their blade and light chase the ruffians off. "Thank goodness we were here," Mercedes says in a way that suggests she wants to be everywhere at once. Between settlements, by the campfire, Byleth listens for signs of trouble along with Mercedes' breaths. In moments when they’re both awake, Mercedes leans against her and hums, and her heart slows enough to be unnoticeable.
At night their lips caress each other, Byleth moving over to Mercedes’ cheek and down to a freckle on her neck, exploring her with what is not quite worship. Healer's hands tend carefully to flesh and muscle, as if Byleth's body was never a weapon or hub.
Every day, Byleth brings Mercedes new flowers, from little white blossoms at a lake's edge to ones with petals like velvet. Mercedes slides them between the pages of a journal. It reminds Byleth of her father, of how his heart must have skipped when her mother smiled.
As for Mercedes' mother, the couple circles back to her new bakery outside Enbarr. She ushers them in with hugs, custard tarts, and the smell of cinnamon. While they eat, Mercedes describes the places they've chosen to roam, and her mother clasps a cheek in awe whenever she isn't offering them more food and tea.
"Thank you, ma'am," Byleth says to all of it.
"Please, call me Mother."
She does, hearing it for the first time in her own voice, as if it's separate from her. There's a twinge in her chest that Mercedes says will keep happening at the oddest things, probably for the rest of her life.
When twilight drops, she excuses herself for some fresh air, following fireflies to a pond. She tosses stones and watches the ripples in her reflection, wondering how someone can go from being a demon to a goddess to a daughter. She half-articulates the question when Mercedes joins her, their hands weaving together.
"You're my wife," Mercedes says. "I'm sorry that's the only answer I can offer, but I'll stand by you while you decide."
Her wife. Byleth tightens her hold, loosening the invisible hand around her heart, and it's enough for now.