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The Eisner Returns

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The Eisner House Crest

In winter, frost spreads across Fhiridad's castle like decorative vines. The patterns in the ice twist and crack, leaving long, leaf-like, images painted against grey stone. The mountain walls were meant to hold snow, Dimitri thought, because the castle was always prettiest when there was a blanket of white over it.

He normally loved the ice and snow. It was not a surprise, he was told it was because of his Blaiddyd blood. His old nanny used to say it was because he was gentle as soft snow, so much so that when he was born a light blanket of white fell across all of Faerghus, like the spirit of winter itself kissed their Kingdom when he was born.

"Ye were a miracle child." His nanny used to brush his hair, "A soft an’ gentle babe o’ snow born on the solstice day itself. The bells rang aw thon day whan ye were born. We dancit i’ the street at the guid fortune, because the goddess herself blessit us."

He hadn't been allowed to speak to Nanny for a while now, and he had long ago learned that he was neither gentle nor soft, and most certainly not a blessing. He was a curse, an unwanted blight on the Blaiddyd name, the one that shouldn't have survived, who had stolen life from the more worthy. He must work to make up for his existence, to find justice as an apology for his continued life.

He was well aware the celebrations in the streets weren't for him, that he shouldn't be allowed to want to be part of it.

But...he was selfish, and he couldn't wait to watch the dancing in the streets, the gentle blankets of snow across the buildings, the warm bonfires burning in their irons, the happy laughter as citizens clanked their mugs and laugh, musicians playing in the streets. It was the solstice, and his birthday, and his uncle had confined him to his office, ordering him to finish his studies in architecture. He should be content, he should. He needed to study, and work, and to strive to be better.

But in his heart he was selfish, and he wanted to be out there.

So he leaned against the open windowsill, his hands gripping slippery stone. He thought he could do it, it would be hard, but he could. He'd climbed out this window before when he'd spotted Sylvain needing to be stopped from doing something, though he'd never tried with ice covering the stone before. It was dangerous, it was foolish, he should turn around, be a good prince, be a good nephew, a good son, and study.

But he heard the music and laughter and his heart yearned.

So he slipped one foot out the window, then another, hands gripping tight against the sill before descending. One brick at a time, one step at a time. Keep a tight grip. Don't look down. It's not that slippery if you don't pay attention. Just hold on to the bricks. You're almost there. Don't fall.

And this was foolish, beyond foolish, and it shouldn't have worked. Not even Sylvain would have tried it. But, slowly, Dimitri found out he was desperate enough to descend four levels of icy stone wall from his window to the ground. And when he did, he let out a shaky, terrified, breath. His hands were cold, and his cloak was covered in snow, and he was shivering with anxiety.

Still, he made it.

He shuddered, pulling his hood higher over his head, letting the anxiety give way to satisfaction as he made his way, on solid ground, around the corner wall and into the street, happy that the guards were all drunk on kuprik and cider.

It still surprised him how close the city was to the castle walls. He only had to walk through a small courtyard to get to the main gates of the city, a patch of grass and flowers that surrounded the castle like a moat, but instead was snow, winter flowers, and a few hedges for decoration. Thanks to Lady Luck, there were no guards patrolling the area like they would normally do, so he was able to slip out with no problem.

Dimitri couldn't stop the look of awe that passed his face when he walked right into the bustling city, a place so much more busier than normal thanks to the Winter Solstice celebration that was happening for the next few days. Decorations colored in blue and white were hanging off shops and benches, some even wrapped around the large fountain where children would rush around and play. The Prince had always wanted to run around that fountain and splash in the water - but there was no water flowing out of it at this time of year, instead it was filled with snow and ice. That didn't seem to stop some other kids though.

"The castle is busy today."

"Many of the maids have been running around with their heads cut off!"

Dimitri pulled down his cloak as he passed the two guards, eyes downward and hoping they didn't recognize him.

Most of the main events of the festival were being held tomorrow. Dimitri was looking forward to experiencing the games and challenges for the first time. He didn't think he'd dare participate, just in case someone recognized him, but he'd love to watch. The day after that was the Solstice Ball, which he didn't like because it was boring, but he'd have to go with Uncle Rufus anyway because he was a Prince and 'had duties he was responsible for as a price of his birth'.

Dimitri sighed as he weaved through the crowds. Today was mostly for socializing. Lots and lots of people came into Fhirdiad for the festival. Shops and restaurants held special sales, people flocked through the streets, unique goods were bought and sold. The little Prince had wanted to experience the city at one of its most crowded and happy times.

He passed some of the city guard, head held low and hood over his eyes. There were so many people in the city during this time that the guard had to be bolstered by paid mercenaries. Dimitri had never met one, but he had heard that they were a rough, uncivilized bunch. He hoped he would get to set eyes on one.

He held on to his hood, making sure it didn't fall as he snuck along the outer wall. Keeping his head down so no one would notice, Dimitri watched the crowd, trying to find the best place to weave himself in without becoming too noticeable or knocking back his hood. His feet crunched against the snow, boots sinking as he creeps along.

All around him was laughter and well wishes. Friends who had gone too long without seeing one another shared greetings, long missed relatives hugged one another after long years apart. There was a clink of mugs, and whoops of laughter and joy. He distantly heard a declaration of merriment as a barrel of cider was smashed open with an axe.

Dimitri spotted a vendor with rows of sweet rolls and cinnamon buns, hot and fresh from a small iron oven behind them, fire still burning as it doubled as a source of warmth. Dimitri's stomach rumbled at the sight, a stark reminder that he hadn't eaten at all yet. He licked his lips, wanting nothing more than to trail over and ask for a sweet, but only took a single step forward before he remembered he'd packed no coin.

Disappointed, he stepped back, placing his hand on the wall and trailing along it again to find a better place to break into the crowd.

Finally, seeing something he was interested in, Dimitri hopped through the crowd and into a side street full of vendors with various crafts on display. The one that had caught his attention had a beautiful suit of armor on a stand in one corner. It was positioned so that its hands rested on the hilt of a silver sword with a blue gem in the cross-guard. Both pieces were polished to a brilliant shine, and the Prince couldn't help but want to reach out and touch them.

"What are you doing?"

He whirled around, cloak flying and his hood falling back. Just behind Dimitri stood a girl with teal colored hair and big lavender eyes. She was dressed in plain clothes, but had guards on her elbows and knees that might have been too big for her. In her hands were two of the sweet rolls Dimitri had been admiring earlier. His stomach gurgled at the delicious sweet smell.

The girl narrowed her eyes suspiciously at him. She had icing on her face. "You weren't planning on stealing anything, were you?"

The boy paled and immediately brought his hands to his body as he hunched himself over with guilt despite not doing anything wrong. "N-No! I would never steal!!"

His fingers fiddled with one another as he looked at the girl with the suspicion in her eyes. Dimitri could already feel himself sweating under her gaze and was picturing her calling for the guards before he was dragged away into the dungeons for crimes he hadn't committed. Or worse, he'd be dragged to his Uncle and do taxes forever!

Just the thought made the boy hunch over more while his hands began to rub together instead, already feeling a phantom pain spread over his knuckles and up his wrists in aching pulses. He swallowed, "H-Honest! I just wanted to touch it! I didn't know it was bad, I'm sorry! I won't do it again!!"

The girl blinked, munching on one of the treats in hand, but never taking her eyes off him. "That's something only bad guys would say."

Dimitri gulped and shook his head, blond hair whipping against his cheeks. "N-No! I'm not a bad guy!"

But the girl's eyes only narrowed further, watching him as she chewed on her treat, eyes unblinking. His own lips trembled, icy irises trailing to the sweet in her hand. He didn't remember what they tasted like, but it was plump, and warm, with steam still rising from it. He thought it would be warm in his empty belly.

His tongue snuck over his lips, stomach growling in protest.

The girl sized up, "So that's it."

"W-What's it?" Dimitri sank in on himself, shamed.

Her eyes flickered over him, like she was studying every inch of him. It's not unlike how he met his uncle, with eyes flickering over him over and over again, studying every nook and cranny of him, trying to size him up and evaluate his worth. Dimitri wished he could sink further into his clothes, hiding behind the fine cloth. It's a poor shield, but a shield nonetheless.

"Your clothes are too expensive for a normal urchin," The girl stated, taking another bite of her treat, "You have to be a thief."

"W-What?" Dimitri jerked back, "N-No."

"Then you're something worse." The girl leaned in, expressionless face on him, "So, what are you up to?"

"No! I'm not up to anything, I swear!"

The girl leaned back, fist on her chin. "Hm. I don't believe you. I'm going to follow you until I find out what you're doing."

Dimitri sputtered, stepping back and making her eyes narrow again. "Wha-Why?! I truly haven't done anything!" Except sneak out his window and climb down icy castle walls when he wasn't supposed to go outside . The Prince began to sweat.

"Because you're hiding something. And we're supposed to be helping catch bad guys." The girl pointed at herself with a sticky finger.

He tried to sidle away, but true to her word she was following him. "But I'm not a bad guy!" And who was this 'We' she was talking about?

The girl perked up. "If you're not a bad guy, are you lost? I could take you back to your parents."

Dimitri felt the question like a blow. The girl watched him shrink into himself and she felt terrible, though she didn't know why. "Um. Are you okay? Are you hurt?" She looked around, flailing for something to fix this.

She held out her other hand with the one sweet roll she had left. "Do you want this?"

Dimitri's eyes immediately zeroed in on the sticky, gooey treat and felt his mouth water. Swallowing, the boy looked away with a shake of his head, "N-No! It's fine!! I'm not hungry!!"

She blinked, watching him refuse to look at the sweet roll while his trembling hands went to his shirt, twisting and pulling at the fabric just above his stomach. His eyes would look to her for a second before glancing away again, his face scrunched up and body tense as they both stood in silence. The girl sniffed and pressed the treat against his mouth, smearing a little icing on his chin.

Dimitri recoiled but she merely stepped forward again, sticky treat pushing against his lips once more. The bun was still warm and the Prince could smell the flavors he couldn't properly taste. He tried his best to ignore it, but he'd accidentally licked his lips out of nervousness and was cursed to feel the sweet icing on his tongue.

"It's okay. I've already had six." She urged the roll closer, "Eat it."

Chapter Text

Dimitri didn't know how he could say no to such a bold command, especially with the treat right in front of his mouth and his stomach rumbling. So he reached up, careful to avoid touching the girl's hands as he grasped the gooey, warm treat between his fingers.

Satisfied, the girl pulled her hand away, leaving it behind. Her lavender eyes watched him intently, unblinking. So he took a tentative bite of the sweet. It was warm. So warm on his tongue, and soft in his mouth. And when he swallowed he could feel it warm his insides all the way down to his empty belly.

The girl nodded, satisfied, and that was all the encouragement he needed to take another bite. And another. And another. Until it was all gone and sat warm and soft in his otherwise empty stomach. He wanted to lick his fingers clean, rid them of the sweet cream and spice left behind, but his uncle's disapproving face flashed in his mind. No, no, he wouldn't do that. That was improper. He'll wash his hands in the snow. But only after he thanks the girl for her gift.

"Thank you." He kept his hands held up, turning to face the girl, "That was very kind of you."

"I upset you." The girl said simply.

What an odd thing to do, giving him a wonderful gift just because she thought he was upset. It was very kind of her, he thought, not something he'd seen for a very long time, "No. It was all a misunderstanding. I'm not upset with you. It was still very nice of you."

"I'm Byleth." The girl nodded, accepting his apology. Her eyes were on him still, watching, and it took Dimitri a moment to realize she was waiting for him to give her his name.

He panicked for a moment, not sure what to say. He couldn't tell her who he is. No, then she'd call the guards and they'd catch him and take him to his uncle, and then his uncle would know he snuck out and...and...it would be awful! He'd have to go through his Uncle’s personal etiquette classes again! But he couldn't pick a name too different from his own. What if he forgot it? Or she called him and he didn't respond?

"D-Dima!" he found himself responding in a panic, a long, long, abandoned nickname finding its way to his lips.

"Dima." She nodded, committing his name to memory. "Well, Dima, I can't let a little kid like you wander around the fair by yourself. You might get into trouble. Or worse, you might get kidnapped." Byleth actually looked excited at the prospect of saving someone from a kidnapper.

Dimitri looked at the girl. She couldn't have been much older than he was. He had to stop himself from nervously twisting his fingers into his shirt, they were still sticky from the sweet bun.

"Um. It's okay. I can take care of myself. You should go and enjoy the festival." Even so he was looking around for would-be kidnappers now. Dimitri would get in big trouble with his Uncle if he was taken.

Byleth shook her head. "No, can’t do. This is my job."

Dimitri really doubted such a thing, seeing as she couldn't be more than a few years older than him at most. He found it doubtful she was involved in anything that would make her an official protector of anyone.

'I was her age.' Glenn flashed by his side, kneeling in the snow, his milky, dead, eyes on him and his voice a poisonous whisper in his ear, 'And I was was charged with protecting your ungrateful life. And I died.'

He froze, feeling the blood drain from his face. His hands were still sticky with the remains of the sweet, unearned and taken practically from this girl's mouth. What was he doing here? Sneaking out of the castle when he was supposed to be confined for his own safety? Was he really that ungrateful? Was he really that spoiled?

He needed to go back.

"No," he muttered hollowly, because he couldn't breathe. All these people were suddenly too much, he needed to be alone for a moment, then he needed to go back. He needed to go back and study. He needed to be the best King he could be so he could avenge Duscur and all that died there so that they might finally rest in peace and stop haunting him.

"No." He looked back to her, "I can find my own way home."

Byleth grabbed his sticky hand with hers, the combined icing making Dimitri stare and wonder if they'd become stuck. "You can't leave yet—the festival only just started." The Prince's eyes flickered to Glenn glaring at him then back to Byleth whose own lavender orbs glittered with interest.

And just when he planned to turn her down and pry their icy fingers apart, Byleth tugged him gently towards the square, "You can't get kidnapped with me here—Father put me in charge."

Dimitri frowned, looking back to see where the ghost of Glenn still stood. "B-But how can you keep me from getting kidnapped? You're just a kid."

She looked at him and shrugged, "So?"

"So," his brows furrowed. "We're small and vulnerable and weak."

Weak.

The word echoed in his head as they passed in front of a shop where Glenn was now standing, eyes trained on him as they made their way towards the fountain.

"We can't possibly fight off a bad guy."

Byleth huffed, her tiny hand gripping his tight when she stopped to give him a leveled stare. "Can you see the future?"

"W-What? No!" He was so confused now.

"Then how do you know?"

Dimitri felt his jaw drop. He had no defense for that kind of insane reasoning, so he let her pull him along.

"Come on. I saw a booth with pasties I wanted to try earlier." Byleth seemed to have forgotten she was supposed to be escorting Dima, but he didn't have any idea what he wanted to do. This wasn't how he had expected today to go at all.

"I didn't bring any coin with me." She looked at him in surprise.

"Are you sure you're not a thief? Who doesn't bring money to a festival? Well, it's fine. My father gave me some money as payment for my good work." She puffed out her chest proudly.

"N-no. I couldn't possibly ask you to—" Dimitri was interrupted when a large hand landed on Byleth's shoulder. His eyes followed it up a muscled arm to a well armored body and a gruff looking face. Stern eyes looked down at the pair.

"Miss. What are you up to?" Dimitri was terrified. Was this the kidnapper Byleth had talked about? He had to keep her safe, she was an innocent. Gathering up his courage, he put on a brave face and stepped in front of the girl. The stern looking man raised his eyebrows.

"Oh. I'm escorting Dima because he's lost and I don't want him to fall into a life of petty thievery." Byleth looked up at the man, face and eyes placid. Dimitri looked back at her, entirely confused.

"Ah, of course. Good job, Miss. Your father asked us to let you know he wants you back before it gets too dark out tonight." Byleth nodded and waved at the man before turning and dragging Dimitri away towards the pasty booth.

Behind them, the mercenary smiled. He couldn't wait to tell Jeralt of his daughter's new friend.

Dimitri breathed as he let himself be dragged by the strange girl— Byleth he reminded himself. Suddenly, it seemed far better to stay by her side and away from large, gruff-looking men. Even if they were friendly, apparently. Still, the scare was a bit much.

Byleth pulled him up to a stand with a row of fresh dumplings, the sweet smell of apples rising from them as the vendor pulled them from the oven. Beside them were large barrels where other children poured themselves soft cider. The girl pulled him up, still holding his hand, and raised to fingers as she approached the vendor, "Two please, and cider."

"Twelve coins," the vendor grunted.

She paid, despite his protests that he needed nothing, that the treat she'd already given him had been enough. But he found the bun and a mug shoved into his hands. They were both so warm, steam rising melting away the cold so easily. He found himself dragged along to the nearest bonfire, sat on a stone bench next to band, lively dance music filling the air as his new companion dug into her treats.

He nibbled at his own sweet, at least enjoying the heat of them, his stomach finally easing its long ache as he devoured more sticky goo and apple. He took a sip from his cup, washing down the food, eyes sliding to his company. She'd long finished her dumpling, drowning it down with quick swigs of her drink. It was not at all proper, and his uncle would have had a fit if he'd met her.

"So..." he started nervously, not wanting to know nothing of his companion if they were going to spend time together, "...who was that man?"

"One of my father's men," she answered once she’d finished her swallow, wiping her lip with the back of her hand, "He's a mercenary."

Dimitri blinked, honestly surprised. He supposed he shouldn't be, given her straightforwardness and her manners, but somehow he still was. He supposed he never pictured someone as small and thin and young as her traveling with sellswords. He’d always pictured big, muscled, scary men and women that would tower over even his knights. Thinking about it, though, he felt silly for ever having thought that. "T-That sounds nice. I'm sure your father must be a very good mercenary then."

Byleth's face had been relatively impassive for the short time Dimitri had known her, but at the mention of her father, her eyes lit up. "My father is the strongest there is. He never loses a fight, and people come from all over to work for him, and we have jobs lined up all the way until next year. After the festival we're going all the way to Daphnel to hunt bandits, and he said that I might be strong enough to help now."

Dimitri was both impressed and worried. "Help? You're going to hunt bandits?" She nodded enthusiastically. "That's... are you scared?"

She shook her head. "I've been asking him to let me help for ages. But he said I wasn't ready." Dimitri wondered what kind of skill she would have to have to actually work with a mercenary troupe. Glenn spoke again in his ear. ‘It doesn't matter. She'll die too.’ He turned to look at the girl sitting next to him as she kicked her feet and took another big gulp of cider and realized he really didn't want her to die.

She turned and caught him staring. "So if you aren't a thief or a bad guy, what are you?"

Dimitri ducked his head, trying to think of something, anything, that he could tell the girl that would be plausible. He couldn't very well tell her the truth, but he also didn't know anything he could reasonably say that wouldn't have him right back in the castle.

"I..." He licked his lips, the music still playing in his ears. "I'm an apprentice."

"Oh?" Byleth tilted her head, eyes narrowing in suspicion, "Doing what?"

"Taxes," Dimitri hastily answered. It was true, he was technically apprenticing under his uncle right now, and taxes were the only things his reluctant mentor cared for. Taxes and commerce. It didn't seem like too much of a lie, did it? It wasn't too far out of the realm of possibility?

"Oh." Byleth blinked, eyes flickering over him again. "That explains your nice clothes, then. I thought you had stolen them."

"No." Dimitri swallowed, because had she really been so certain he was a thief. "Why would you… had… how would I even have a cloak my size?"

"The other option was that you paid for it in blood money," Byleth told him bluntly, reaching up to tug at his coat with her sticky fingers. "It's a really nice cloak. I thought you stole it from some noble boy or that you were a child assassin."

"You're… really weird," Dimitri frowned at the girl as she swung her legs with a shrug.

"I guess." He certainly wasn't the first one to tell her that. A lot of adults thought the same too, but after some time the people who felt this way usually got used to it. "But I suppose you aren't so suspicious now. Sorry for accusing you."

"It's fine," Dimitri frowned. "You were being vigilant."

She nodded and pointed to another stall, "That one has little candies—we should get some!"

The Prince looked at her curiously "You're still hungry?"

Byleth bought a bag of hard little candies. She shared them with the Prince as they explored the stalls. There was a well-known street lined with blacksmith shops whose business it was to make any object a person could desire—so long as it was made of metal. Today that street was host to craftsmen from all over the world. It was quickly apparent that the pair of them shared a liking for weapons, and they found themselves bouncing from booth to booth admiring various swords, shields, lances, and the like.

It was as they were standing in a crowd watching a smith from Brigid hammer away at a delicate knife that Dimitri heard a familiar voice.

"Shut up, Sylvain. We can go back after I pick up my sword."

"Come on, Felix. Your sword isn't going anywhere. Who knows where they'll be if we don't go now. There were three of them, that's enough for both of us!"

Oh no.

Chapter Text

Dimitri felt a spike of pure terror. He froze, body tensing as his eyes flickered over the crowd, trying to find a familiar head of red hair, or a pale boy with dark hair. He found them weaving in the crowd not far away, trying to maneuver  towards a nearby blacksmith’s shop. His blood turned to ice, and, much as he treasured them, he couldn't let them spot him.

He forced himself to look away, drawing his hood up and hiding his face as best he could, hands shaking. He kept his eyes down, not wanting to risk even looking at his friends. If he thought the goddess would answer his petty pleads he would have prayed.

But the goddess doesn't answer prayers. He learned that the hard way.

"Thank you again for the food, but I have to go," he stated, giving in to his anxiety. He didn't wait for Byleth to respond, turning his back on her and weaving his way through the crowd, his breath becoming harder and harder to catch as fear constricted his lungs.

Stupid. He'd been stupid. This whole plan was stupid. He should have known he'd get caught.

He broke from the crowd and gasped, trying to breathe again. His hands found the base of a stone statue and he leaned against it, trying to catch his breath with heavy pants. When he thought he had caught it he straightened, ready to flee away from the blacksmith as far as he could go. Maybe he should go back to the castle and climb back up before he was caught? It was only a matter of time.

A hand rubbed his back between his shoulder blades. He spun around with a yelp, pressing back against the statue. There she was. Byleth was looking at him as if she'd been suddenly enlightened.

She balled up her fist and slapped it into her other hand. "That's it. I should have seen it before. You're on the run from someone. Are they dangerous? Describe them to me, and I'll go beat them up." She turned away as if to head back into the crowd and discover his pursuers herself.

Dimitri reached to grab her wrist. "No! No, it's nothing like that. I just… don't want them to see me, okay? I think I'm going to head back. I was… supposed to work today, but I really wanted to come see the festival," he sighed in resignation.

Byleth let out a huff. "Well, if you think you have to." Dimitri stared, did he just see a pout? "But everyone deserves to see the festival. All the really fun events are supposed to be tomorrow, are you going to come?"

Blue eyes found the ground, staring at the cobblestone path, the stone long worn away by the passing crowd. He toed the stones, biting his lip. He could see his step-mother's shoes out the corner of his eye, the same fancy heels his father had bought straight from Adrestia especially for the trip to Duscar. If he dared to glance up he could see her cracked and peeling skin, burned and blackened.

He swallowed, "I… I don't know if I should..."

"Why not?" Byleth asked, because of course she did, "Are you scared to go out?"

He bit his lip, sucking in a breath, the cold air freezing his lungs. She had hit the mark. Maybe not for the right reasons, considering her previous predictions, but she was right. He was scared. He was so scared, terrified even. His uncle would know. And he'd get in trouble. And, what's worse, the more fun he had the more guilty he felt, because he should want to work as much as Uncle Rufus wanted to, and he should be grateful. But instead here he was, and he was scared.

What did he even have to be scared of? Nothing was as bad as Duscur.

"I..." He wanted to deny it, but he couldn't. He found his eyes looking up, meeting his companion's eyes, and the words died on his lips. She was staring at him intently, head tilted, and the hood didn't feel like shield enough for that gaze. So he did the only thing he could, tell the truth. "Yes, a little."

"Well, that's okay then. Because I'll be here. So you can come enjoy the festival, and I'll protect you." Dimitri couldn't tell if she was really being serious, but she didn't seem to be laughing at him.

"Do you… really think I can? I don't — there's other things I should be doing. It's not right for me to be here." He looked down at his shoes, hiding his face.

One of her feet appeared next to his own, a plain boot next to his expensive fitted shoe. She had stepped closer, and next he saw teal hair obscuring his vision. Dimitri looked up to see Byleth was bending sideways, trying to see his eyes.

"I already said. Everyone deserves to come to the festival. You're a kid so you should enjoy it. I'll be here, too, so you don't have to be afraid." Her eyes lit up. "If your boss's thugs come after you again, we'll hide you. It'll be fun."

Dimitri knew he should do the responsible thing. He knew that he should work, and get his papers done, and please his uncle, and the dead. But Byleth seemed so sure that it was hard not to believe her. Even when she was so obviously mistaken about his employment.

"...promise?" he asked, eyes flickering over her.

"Yes." She nodded confidently. "It'll be like a big game of hide and seek."

He didn't know what hide and seek is, but it sounded fun.

It was a terrible idea. It was a very terrible idea. But… he wanted to be here. He really, really, wanted to be here. It was the most he'd been outside since Duscur, and… and he really wanted to have fun again. And Byleth...she was so confident, it made him want to be confident too. So he nodded, twisting his hands together, "...okay."

Her eyes brightened and her lips twitched.

It occurred to him, suddenly, that she was a girl. This shouldn't have been surprising, he's talked to girls before, but they were El and Ingrid, so they didn't count. El and Ingrid were El and Ingrid, and Byleth wasn't them.

Were girls that weren't El and Ingrid always as pretty as her? El and Ingrid were pretty, of course, very pretty, but they were pretty the way El and Ingrid were pretty. Byleth was pretty a different way.

"Great. I'll escort you back to—"

"No! No, no." Dimitri raised his hands to stop her. "There's no need. You've done enough. You don't need to go out of your way, I'll be fine going back myself." Byleth gave him a look that said she didn't believe him, and he didn't blame her, the way he'd run off before had clearly worried her enough to make her chase after him.

"Really. We're not far from my home." That was a lie, they'd put a good distance between themselves and the castle as they walked through town today. The Prince felt bad telling it, but he really didn't want her to know where he was going. "And anyway, didn't that mercenary say you were supposed to be back before dark?"

Byleth looked up. The sky was only just transitioning into twilight. She still had some time. She looked back down, saw Dimitri fidgeting with his shirt again, and shrugged. "If that's what you want." Dimitri felt a weight lift off his shoulders.

"Okay!" Despite himself, he was starting to feel excited. "Um. Tomorrow, do you want to meet at the fountain in the square?" She nodded, and his cheeks flushed.

Feeling brave, he took her fingers. Byleth looked down curiously at their hands and then back up to his face. "I-I want to thank you for today. I, um... I had fun. So… Good night! I'll see you tomorrow okay?"

Embarrassed, Dimitri let go of her hands, backed up a few paces, waved at her, and then ran away.

He didn't see her wave back and say, "Me too."

Getting back into the castle, as it turns out, was a bit harder than getting out of the castle. The citizens were starting to get drunk, now, and though it was starting to become dark it seemed that the captain of the guard was wise enough to save his more dutiful guard for the times when drunks would be wandering about. Sneaking past them was...very difficult, and he found himself once again having to press against the outer wall until a brawl broke out and distracted a few.

And then he found that the only thing worse than climbing down four levels of frost covered stone wall was climbing up that same wall under cover of night. It was terrifying, and so cold that he could feel the wind like knives stabbing into his skin as he climbed higher and higher and higher.

"It's not Duscur," he reminded himself, because nothing was as bad as Duscur.

If he looked up, he found Glenn watching him from the roof, if he looked down he saw his father staring from the ground. The window was the only safe place left to go, and he aimed for it.

When he made it inside, he was shivering, and the room was cold. The fire had gone out long ago, and no one had bothered to check on him in that time, it seemed, too busy with everything else he supposed. He shivered again, moving to the fireplace to throw logs into the hearth and light a crackling fire, holding his hand over it until it warmed his fingers.

Satisfied, he grabbed his long forgotten book, settling on the carpet in front of the flame to study. It wasn’t proper, but he was cold, and if he got back to the desk before anyone checked on him, which they hadn't done in hours, he'd be fine.

It was two hours later when someone finally opened the door to the office. A young maid scurried in to find Dimitri curled up in his chair, face down in his book, sleeping. His little form looked cold, with his pale skin and hunched shoulders—she had to resist fawning over him and getting him a blanket for fear the King Regent would punish her. Instead she crouched next to the boy and shook his shoulder very gently.

"Your Highness...? It's time for dinner." The little Prince shifted sleepily, lips almost blue from his climb outside. But the maid didn't know that as she gasped and restrained herself from pulling him into a hug. "Prince Dimitri, please wake up."

"...Mmmm… Byleth..?"

The maid cooed and couldn't stop herself from petting the boy's hair until he woke up with glazed eyes. She smiled and helped him up, allowing him to grab onto her hand as they walked out of the room towards a warmer area. She knew she'd get in trouble for showing any sort of affection—but she couldn't help it. The poor Prince needed affection, Rufus be damned!!

Please no one tell him she thought that.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Dimitri woke up more excited than he had in a very long time. He rushed to get ready for the day, this time thinking ahead and choosing some plainer clothes, though he couldn't do anything about the quality. Afterwards he sat alone at breakfast, as usual, thinking about what he and Byleth would do today. He had prepared some money from his own stash that had been hidden away coin by coin. The Prince intended to pay her back for all the treats she had gotten him yesterday.

A smiling maid took his breakfast tray away, happy to see him in such good spirits, as he left the table and hurried to see his Uncle. No one was more surprised than the King Regent that they actually met at the base of the stairs to his tower office. "Uncle! I'm ready to start my work for today!"

"Quiet, boy." Rufus scowled at his nephew with suspicion. He was far too excited.

"Ah, forgive me, Uncle." Dimitri straightened up, trying to curb his enthusiasm so as not to upset his uncle with silly emotions, or worse, make him suspicious enough to replace work with remedial etiquette. "I merely wish to see to finish the reports on the Barley Gross."

"Your math is so poor that you'll probably take all day just to finish those reports regardless." Rufus turned away, still suspicious, but at least pacified with the idea that Dimitri was simply getting too excited for something that obviously wouldn't happen.

Dimitri's wanted to clutch his shirt, just to feel like his fingers were doing something, but that would be rude and his uncle was right there. So he resisted, waiting for the King Regent to finish gathering his papers. 

"You will be finishing the barely count." The man pulled out a stack of papers, "As well as the potato yields, the seed, and the lumber tax. When you're done, I want you to read up on Leicester Theory and then tell me why that would not work for Faerghus' economical situation. When you're done with that you'll go over the history of tax debates between the Church and Voltaire Fraldarius.”

Dimitri didn't tell his uncle that he'd rather just speak to Voltaire while he was in the castle.

His uncle led him to the small office he had set up just for Dimitri's studies. Once the door was open he shoved the papers in the prince's hands, and then shoved him inside without another word. The door slammed behind him, and there was an audible clink as it locked. "I will send a maid with your dinner tonight. I expect those reports done by then."

Dimitri didn't look back, just waited for the sound of his Uncle's footsteps to fade away before he rushed over to the desk to dump the pile of papers. The stack tipped and spilled over, some of them fluttering to the floor as he rushed to the window and opened it. A crisp breeze whipped through his hair wildly, making him unconsciously grip the rim of the window as if afraid he'd be blown away.

It had snowed sometime last night, a common occurrence at this time of year. If anything, it was more surprising that it wasn't snowing now and keeping them all inside. But the days of the festival had always been lucky enough to be spared a Faerghus winter. No doubt they'd get their traditional blizzard a week after all the celebration was over with.

The Prince looked around, noting it was almost the same as yesterday—except he could see an extra guard or two walking the grounds. But they were already loud enough for their voices to reach his ears, roaring laughter and talks of many more drinks before they walked into the gardens.

Dimitri decided now was the time to climb, before another rotation came through.

He wasn't spared from the icy walls today either. His fingers were still sore from the day before, but he didn't have time to worry about it unless he was going to get caught by passing guards below. So he climbed down quickly. At least this time he was more sure of himself, having climbed the wall twice now. It didn't take long, except that in the last few feet he lost his grip and fell backwards with a yelp into a bush.

Fortunately, no one saw or heard him, or noticed when he popped his head stealthily above the leaves. Dimitri's fingers hurt. He looked down at them to find them red and stiff from the cold and the climbing. He fished some warm wool mittens from his pocket and put them on, feeling a small bit of relief right away. The little Prince pressed himself against the castle wall so he could begin the process of sneaking out of the grounds. 

He was nearly caught twice. There were more guards today. Perhaps the guard had been increased because there were so many more people in town. He had to dive behind a large potted plant at one point as a pair of guards strolled by. Another time he had actually had to dip into one of the tool sheds that dotted the castle grounds. Eventually, he made it to one of the less frequented side gates, and when the guard moved away to patrol the wall, Dimitri took his chance and slipped through.

His freedom secured for the moment, Dimitri ran for the town square. It was still relatively early, and he realized that he and Byleth hadn't agreed to a time. He pulled up his hood as he entered the square, determined to wait for her if he must.

He decided to wait at the foot of the biggest bonfire, just next to the statue of Loog. He found a nice spot just next to the slowly building fire, taking a seat on one of the still vacant benches and perking up to wait for his companion to be. Just to be safe, he patted his side, making sure his hard earned savings were still there. 

Satisfied with the feel of his money pouch safely hidden within his clothes, he double-checked his hood, making sure it was still covering his face nice and neat. He glanced around, making sure no one recognized him, before finally relaxing and folding his hands in his lap.

Now all he had to do was wait.

This was the longest he's gone doing absolutely nothing for months. He hadn't realized just a few seconds of sitting down and doing nothing could feel so good. The day had barely started and it was already one of the best he could remember in a while.

He couldn't wait for Byleth to get here.

The nervousness from yesterday seemed almost like a distant dream with how much he was anticipating seeing his new… friend?...Was she a friend? His new friend? Whatever she was, he couldn't wait to see her.

All around him the festival was already coming to life. Today there were knife throwers, and jugglers, and odd men spitting fire and lifting barrels by the dozens. He could see an outdoor stage being set up for a play in the distance, and beyond that he could make out where they were setting up for the games, already collecting tree trunks for the Caber toss. Yes, there was a lot more to do today.

He wondered if any knights would joust? He hoped Rodrigue won if they did.

Over by the corner, an old bard was sinking the tale of Loog and the Maiden of the Wind, children gathered at his feet as he strummed his lute all too dramatically. His song filled the square with lively background noise, accompanied by vendors setting up and early risers milling about.

Yes, it was going to be a good day. He'd make up for yesterday's nervousness. He was determined.

"Dima!"

The voice pulled him away from the bard's song and he was suddenly face to face with Byleth who had a grilled fish on a stick. She nibbled at the creature's fin like one would a sweet while holding out two more sticks, one with lamb and the other—"I got dire wolf meat. Wanna try it with me?"

He stood, staring at the food then her body and wondering where she even packed it all. He took the lamb stick hesitantly, "Dire wolf? I didn't know they cooked that."

Perhaps it was a commoner thing? The meat did look a little stringy.

She shrugged at his comment, nibbling at the fish's body before tearing away some of the meat. "It smells good. Like potatoes covered in spices."

What an odd flavor, not that he could taste it. "Oh. I'm sure it's… different."

"Festivals like this always have different foods to try." They started to walk aimlessly, somehow comfortable enough together to just enjoy the sights without a real target in mind, even though they had only just met.

It occurred to Dimitri that this girl had probably seen a lot of these festivals. "You've been to a lot of different places, haven't you? What are they like?" The life of a mercenary sounded like a big adventure, like being a pirate or one of the heroes in a story book.

Byleth took another bite of her fish. "Hmp. Most villages look about the same. Farms, grass and stone houses, and the like. The fairs are fun, but I've always wanted to come to Fhirdiad's because it's the biggest." 

That was kind of a let down. "Surely there's more to it than that." She tilted her head in thought.

"The small villages have small festivals, but everyone knows each other so it's more… intimate? They don't really celebrate the solstices in Adrestia, and only some of the houses in Leicester do. So some years we didn't celebrate at all either. We're usually too busy on a job to notice." They had stopped to watch a group of street performers juggling swords and playing music on a large flute that was supposedly from Almyra.

Nearby a man next to a booth yelled to advertise a game of skill. Throw three balls at a stack of weighted cans to earn a prize. Byleth turned towards Dimitri, challenge in her eyes. "Want to try?"

"Okay." Dimitri nodded, curious. He'd never actually been allowed to play these games with the booths before, even before his Uncle Rufus took over custody. Father always said he had to watch his strength, and even when he was allowed into the crowd he had to be princely.

Though, now he had a hood.

They walked up to the game, and this time Dimitri was proud to be able to pay for his own round. The man grinned, handed both him and Byleth the balls, "Ye get three shots. Knock ‘em down and ye get a prize."

Byleth didn't wait for him to even finish before tossing the ball into the cans, hitting it right in the center and knocking them perfectly down. Dimitri, following suit, tossed his own ball at his own cans. His aim was not nearly as accurate, but he hit the bottom left can so hard it knocked the rest off balance and to the ground.

Also the ball smashed into the wall and bounced back with still moving intensity, smacking his chest as he reached up to catch it. "Ow."

Chapter Text

"Are you all right?"

Dimitri looked to Byleth who stared at him with a very tiny frown. He rubbed his chest and felt a pang there. Except he knew it wasn't from the ball, it was from embarrassment. "I-I'm fine. I just threw it too hard."

"I'll say!" The game vendor laughed, now leaning against the counter as he looked down at them. His amusement only made the Prince turn red. "I never seen anythin' like that before!"

His raucous laughter continued as he picked up the cans and ball, leaving Dimitri feeling even more ashamed of himself. He balled his fists and thought about running away, but a small hand reached out to the sore part of his chest with a gentle pat.

"Do you need a bandage? I'm good at wrapping things." She just learned a month ago and this seemed like a great time to put her new skills to use.

"N-No! That won't be necessary. I'm fine, really." He flailed his arms in front of himself, fending her off. Did she actually look disappointed? Dimitri tried not to think too far into it. Instead, putting his attention to the prizes that were being set on the counter.

"There you have it! And boy did you guys earn them." The vendor smiled as he placed two small teddy bears, one for each of them, on the countertop.

Byleth picked up her bear and tapped the other one with it. "They're twins." Dimitri hugged his to his chest, now feeling flushed for another reason.

Byleth was already looking around for the next thing. "What else do you want to do? There's things happening all day."

Dimitri looked around. There were a lot of games, any of them would be fun. An arm reached over his shoulder, pointing at an obstacle course a little ways away. "What about that one?" Dimitri turned and looked at Byleth incredulously. The obstacle course was a Trust Walk.

"You wanna do that?" He paled as he watched a few other kids pair off before an adult blind folded them. Some children were already spinning in place, laughing as their best friend stopped them by the shoulders before they were guided to the start of the course.

The Prince couldn't help but pale at seeing the obstacles placed before them. Small fences decorated in blue flowers leading most of the course around like a maze, walls and rocks strategically placed, a balance beam to walk across, and the end having giant haystacks where one could hear the beehhhhh-ing of goats.

He swallowed, "Are you sure? It looks hard..."

But when he turned to look at her, he could see the determination set on her face - the girl's large eyes sparkling like blue fire. 

"Yes."

She really, really, really wanted to do it. And Dimitri didn't have it in him to say no to her when it was so obvious that she wanted to participate very badly. So he nodded in agreement, letting himself be dragged along when Byleth immediately grabbed his arm and dragged him towards the giant course. As they approached, the man handing out blindfolds spotted them. "Come on then! Sees if yous can gets through!"

Byleth walked up, taking one of the blindfolds from him and holding it between her hands delicately. She turned to him, holding it up, "Do you want to lead? Or should I?"

He gulped, not wanting either to be perfectly honest. He didn't trust himself to lead her through without bumping into something, or breaking something. But at the same time he felt nervous at the idea of being blindfolded, facing the dark all alone. It was up in the air which one was worse.

Then he looked up at Byleth. She still held onto that blindfold, eagerly presenting it to him and waiting for his answer, letting him decide what he wanted to do.

When was the last time anyone had done that?

"You lead." Dimitri trembled, "I trust you."

For a moment she looked a little less confident. Like maybe she was afraid she was going to end up bruising his shins on one of the painted crates in the middle of the path. Only for a moment though, and then she looked at him with raised eyebrows as she held up the blindfold. "Are you ready?"

He nodded, looking nervous, and then his eyes were covered and he was disoriented almost right away. As if that wasn't enough though, she took his shoulders and spun him around in circles like she had seen the other kids do. Dimitri stopped unsteadily, and might have fallen if someone hadn't been standing beside him to hold on to. 

He heard her voice close to his ear. "It's okay. I'm right next to you. You're at the front of the course. Just follow my voice. Walk slowly forward."

This was more nerve-wracking than a simple game deserved, but Dimitri followed her instructions, his hands constantly moving, trying not to bump into anything. There were other noises, background sounds coming from the festival around them. He could hear someone yelling out the results of one of the jousting contests, and another advertising the dire wolf meat on a stick. He blocked them out so that he would just hear Byleth's voice, softly telling him where to go, when to turn, how many steps to take.

"You're wasting time. She's wasting your time. You shouldn't be here, having fun ." Dimitri's father's voice cut through his concentration. Dimitri started to sweat, he could feel the pace of his breathing start to pick up.

"Here you are, playing a game, while the rest of us are dead. You should be— "

"STOP!" Byleth's voice cut through his panic and his father's voice vanished. He heard her sigh of relief. "You're about to trip over a rock. Turn and walk towards my voice. That's it. I'm right here."

Dimitri only had to take a few more steps before he heard the girl sigh in satisfaction.

"We made it. Now we're going straight, watch your feet."

He felt like a tiny toddler learning to walk for the first time. Stumbling, clawing at the air, distressed noises coming out of his mouth where in other situations he would have dared to release. But, to Dimitri's relief, Byleth didn't comment on any of this. She didn't laugh or even tease as she guided him through the twists and turns.

"Okay, we're about to walk up a ramp. You're doing great, Dima."

The sudden compliment almost made the boy stumble, though it didn't help that the start of the ramp was raised slightly higher than the ground. But he kept his balance well enough, not wanting to tumble off the side and look like a fool. A small hand touched his arm and he held his breath.

"Are you okay?"

Dimitri nodded, not trusting his voice at the moment when the concerned touch stayed in place for one more second before leaving him feeling cold again. Then he felt hot breath on his ear and his entire body went rigid.

"We're halfway there," she sounded confident and happy—he really liked it when she sounded happy. "Just a bit more and we'll win."

The blond gulped, nodding his head and hoping she'd see it and understand. She made a sound that was something like approval, warm breath hitting his neck and sending whole goosebumps down his skin. He gulped, listening intently for his next instruction.

"There's a ring of goats up ahead," Byleth told him, "We need to wait for them to go around and be quick when we go."

He nodded, waiting, straining his ears to listen carefully as tiny hooves clapped against the ground and the goats made their tiny 'baaah' sounds as they passed by. Byleth told him to "go" quickly, and he took off, not running, but walking quickly as he could. 

Then he heard a quick "Stop" and stopped himself, footsteps frozen. They waited again, same as before, and he took off the moment Byleth gave him the go-ahead, speeding past the tiny kids.

"There's a barrel, go right." Byleth was next to him again, and he found his feet slowing as he did just that. It took him a moment for his thoughts to catch up and realize that he hadn't even thought about it before turning right, just going with the girl.

Weird.

"Okay. This last part is going to be hard. But we… need to hurry." Dimitri noted a hint of worry in her voice. Or was that laughter? He couldn't tell and he wished he could take the blindfold off so he could look.

"I'm going to take your hand and lead you up a step to the balance beam. I'm going to lead you across and then we're done." Oh no. This was it. This was the part where he would fall and make a fool of himself. He felt a warm hand grasp his fingers and lead him forward. She instructed him to step up, and he noticed again an odd lilt to her voice.

"Byleth? What's happening? " He was standing on the beam now. He didn't know how high up but he could feel her hand holding his from below.

She slowly started to lead him forward. "It's a straight line, Dima. Just put one put in front of the other. But… hurry a bit? The goats have noticed you."

"What?! Byleth!" He heard the sound of clattering hooves on wood and moved faster. Why did it have to be goats? They were a menace! He was sure they were going to bump him off the beam and then chew on his clothes.

In his haste, Dimitri reached the end of the beam without noticing. With a yelp he fell off the edge and into someone's waiting arms.

Gentle hands caught and wrapped around him while he felt her body shake with laughter. At first he was embarrassed to know she'd seen him run away from a pack of goats, but then he heard her laughs and immediately focused on how nice it sounded; nice and pretty.

"Are you okay?"

Her hands grasped the back of his cloak while he laid against her, awkward in her arms while his legs felt tangled up. He sputtered and tried to stand, ankles criss crossing with energy as he tried to overcorrect himself. Then he realized he was having trouble because there was a goat chewing on his pant leg.

"H-Hey! Get off!"

Byleth laughed again and it only made it seem ten times harder for the poor Prince. He wanted to hear it again, he wanted to see her expression when she did it. Dimitri needed to know if her eyes were prettier when she expressed her happiness. He wished this blasted goat would get off him so he could!

The goat, an obvious menace to everything good and decent in the world, baah-ed from on top of him, sitting on his leg with its whole body, deciding he was a nice seat. He wanted to knock it off, but he didn't dare to shove it off when it could get angry, or eat his whole pant leg! Blasted goats! 

"Byleth! Help!"

His fingers scrambled to get the blindfold off without knocking back his hood. Byleth chuckled quietly at him, stepping forward to shoo the blasted menace away, "Alright, that's enough, shoo."

But the goat, stubborn, ripped a bit of his pants let instead. Dimitri felt a distressed whine build in the back of his throat, because there was no way in the world that Uncle Rufus wasn't going to notice that his pants were ripped. No way. He snatched the blindfold off, throwing it away in a last ditch effort to rid himself of the evil.

Somehow, that worked, the goat jumping up and abandoning his pants to go bounding after the blindfold. Dimitri stared at his ripped pants, cold fear entering his heart. His uncle was going to notice. There was no way he wouldn't. He was going to be in so much trouble. There was no way he'd get away with this. This was simply unacceptable. He was going to end up with his uncle smacking his ankles or something now! That was going to hurt, he just knew it.

Then, Byleth laughed.

Blue eyes snapped up to watch the girl as she giggled, trying to hide her smile behind the back of her hand. All thoughts of his uncle and all the fear and anxiety died there, his mind too busy trying to take in the fact she was laughing, smiling, because of him.

She… she sure looked pretty like that. Not El or Ingrid pretty, or Patricia pretty, some other kind of pretty. He didn't know what kind of pretty it was, but it made his heart twist a bit.

Byleth helped Dimitri to his feet, still catching her breath as the game handler clapped his hands. "What a spectacular ending! You had me at the edge of my seat, let me tell you. And your prize..." 

From behind his back the man pulled out two large bags of candy, one for each of them. Byleth's eyes lit up when she took hers, and Dimitri suspected that was her motivation all along. He sighed and shook his head.

She already had her hand in the bag. "What's next? I chose this one, so you can pick the next."

Dimitri looked around, unsure, until he heard a cheer coming from a little ways away. He led Byleth over to a section of city park had been roped off, with a crowd surrounding the edges. Inside the ring, a girthy man hefted a bale of hay with a pitch-fork and tossed it high over a beam that had been placed over his head.

Dimitri couldn't help his grin.

Chapter Text

"Do you wanna do that?" Byleth asked curiously, her attention switching back from Dimitri to the set of strength-based challenges. She stared as one man not too far off picked up a large log, only to toss it as far as he could while the crowd cheered. "I think this is an adult game..."

Dimitri watched one man raise his arms as the crowd roared with approval and grinned. "I still want to try it."

Byleth was surprised by his boldness and couldn't bring herself to say no. Instead she looked around for whoever was in charge and dragged Dimitri towards them.

"If you think you can do it, then I believe in you, too."

That had caught the boy off guard. His other friends would have laughed (well, they would have if they didn't know about his monstrous strength). But Byleth had believed in him so easily that it made the boy confused. He didn't think he'd ever had anyone believe in him before.

"Y-You really think I can do it?"

She shrugged. "Well, we won't know unless you try."

The boy sucked in a breath, determination swelling in his chest. With this rare bit of boldness fueling his determination, he marched forward, intent to try. He wanted to do this, wanted to prove her faith in him was well-placed. He didn't know why it seemed like the most important thing in the world right then, but it did.

So he walked up to the contest runner, hands wringing around one another and teeth digging into his bottom lip, hood falling to his nose as he spoke, "Excuse me, I'd like to try."

The man turned, looking down at him with a surprised eye. Then he looked very amused, a sly smile spreading across his lips, "Ye sure thar little fella? Ye migh’ hurt yeself."

"I'm sure." Dimitri nodded, Byleth stepping beside him.

When he spotted her, the man's eye became more sly, like he'd somehow deciphered some grand secret. His eyes flickered between them for a moment, becoming deep, "Well, fer be it fer A tae stop ye. But don' blame A if ye get hurt."

"I won't." Dimitri said, because this was the only thing he'd ever been absolutely confident in. The Blaiddyd strength was well known, and he'd been snapping pure steel in his hands for years. Tossing a cedar trunk was nothing compared to that.

He could do this.

He could.

He'd show Byleth, he'd prove she was right.

Dimitri dusted off his hands as he stepped up to a tree trunk that was almost five times his size. The crowd surrounding the ring had quieted to murmurs as he stepped forward. But now there were excited cheers. While he knew his strength wouldn't fail him (it never had, even when he wanted it to), Dimitri had never tried to use it in front of an audience before. He was so nervous he thought about turning and running right back to the castle to do audits and fill out paperwork for the rest of his life.

He chanced a glance up from under his hood to look at Byleth. She stood near the man that had let him in, and while he still had a hard time deciphering her expressions, this time he saw excitement on her face. She wanted to see what he could do, and he realized he was excited to show off for her. He wanted to see her face when he succeeded.

So the little Prince leaned forward and picked up a caber that weighed twice as much as he did. It was heavy and unwieldy, much much taller than he was, and he had to step backwards a bit just so he wouldn't fall down and get crushed by the tree. 

There was a gasp from the crowd as he wobbled, and then a great cheer as he finally stood straight.

Dimitri thought he might be deafened by the sound of it, and he hadn't even thrown yet. He could see some people actually jumping with excitement, and he could feel himself going red from more than just exertion.

He had to stop himself from looking at Byleth again. Balancing the caber was no easy task when it was so much taller than he was. So instead he took a breath, and then a few quick steps forward. He hurled the tree trunk with all his might and it flew into the air far far higher than it had any right to. Certainly higher than any of the adults who had thrown so far. 

The crowd went silent as the caber flipped on its head and landed some ways away. People at the far end of the field had to dodge out of the way as it toppled over and smashed through the roped off ring.

A few more moments of surprised silence, and then every witness to the throw jumped up in an explosive cheer.

His chest heaved, his breathing loud in his ears compared to the cheering crowd and rush of excitement. The Prince had never realized how loud people could get. With the combination of alcohol and high spirits, he never expected it to be so thrilling, so breathtaking!

The best surprise of all was that they were cheering for him! Dimitri's mouth was turned upward in an ecstatic smile, his heart pounding like thunder in his chest as he took in the surrounding group of people throwing up their arms and taking celebratory drinks.

It was nice. He really liked it.

"Dima!" He swung his head to see Byleth running up to him, eyes wide with amazement as she grabbed his arm and shook him. "That was amazing!!"

His smile grew wider, bashful. "O-Oh? Really?"

"Of course," she beamed, her smile making his heart suddenly jolt in his chest. "You have to be the strongest person I've ever seen!"

A strange feeling of pride swelled in his chest, and he couldn't help but shift in place, "Thank you!"

"I don't know why you're so scared of your boss’ thugs." Byleth nodded, clenching her fists in excitement, "You could take ‘em. I bet if we get you a good brawling teacher then you'd be unstoppable."

Dimitri beamed at her, "You really think so?"

"Of course." Byleth nodded, hand on her chin now as she looked him up and down, "You're thin, but strong. You'll have the element of surprise, and no one can take your weapon."

His uncle, who barely tolerated lance training, would hate the idea of him learning to fistfight properly. But, on the other hand, Dimitri could possibly convince him by mentioning that he couldn't break any equipment if his hands were all he was using. He'd still have to learn to use a lance, and that was honestly his preferred weapon, and a sword as well, but it wasn't a bad idea. "I think you're right!"

It was then that he realized that people were surrounding them, wanting to meet the winner of the contest. He sank back into his hood then, reaching up to adjust it, not wanting anyone to see his face.

"We've got a clear winner!" Someone tossed a bag of gold at his feet, "To our champion!"

The crowd cheered again, most taking large chugs from their drinks. Byleth picked up the coin purse, jingling it in her hands. "We should do something with this."

His heart leapt at the idea, an idea taking root and growing in his head. He looked her up and down, suddenly wanting to thank her for everything she'd done for him. "We could buy something pretty with it."

Byleth looked surprised. She had been thinking about spending the money on a feast. Instead she took Dima's hand and placed the pouch in it. "They're your winnings to do what you wish with. Do you want to go shopping now?" 

They were being crowded in now. Some people were reaching down and patting Dimitri on the shoulders or head in congratulations and he was having a hard time keeping his face hidden. Instead of trying to answer over the noise, he took Byleth's hand and pulled her through the ring of people. In a moment they were free. Their audience stayed behind the drink and re-tell each other the story of the small boy who had tossed a caber higher than any full grown man. By the end of the day the story would have grown so that he had thrown it so high the birds had to get out of the way.

Dimitri still had Byleth's hand when they stepped into an alley full of jewelers carts. In his other hand was the pouch full of coins. Despite being a Prince, he never had much money for himself. When something was needed it was bought for him, and since his uncle had taken charge anything deemed unnecessary had been denied. And now he had some money, but he found he didn't want to spend it on himself.

The only question was how he was going to find out what she liked.

He tried to remember the things Ingrid would wear then pushed that thought away when he realized his friend didn't really wear such things. He pictured El next, but he couldn’t remember what she had liked. It felt like ages since she had left.

Dimitri frowned, realizing he didn't know many other girls and decided to try the first cart he saw. Stepping up, they noticed it was run by an old crone and her many differently colored crystals.

"Blue for sincerity, trust, dealing with a betrayal and recovery!" The woman held up a handful of azure colored stones while her other wrinkled hand brushed over the ones hanging from the top of her cart and making them tink tink tink together. "Green for new beginnings, progress, spiritual growth, and fertility!"

Dimitri almost asked what the last word meant but noticed Byleth didn't seem all that interested and politely declined before leading her to another cart filled with rings and bracelets.

This time he watched her eyes as the large man mumbled shyly about his wares. Most of them were silver and gold and were quite decent craftsmanship, but Byleth didn't seem to care for any of it.

"Are you looking for something specific?" Byleth asked when they went to their third cart, this one full of pressed coins with jewels embedded in the middle.

"N-Not particularly..." Dimitri smiled nervously, "I guess I'm waiting for something to jump out at me."

Why was this so hard? 

He tries to think back, to figure out what he knew about other girls. He thought of his step-mother, then, and what she liked. He ignored the flash of her burning, cracked, peeling face and tried to think back to the good times. She had liked fancy shoes. But that wouldn't work, because Byleth was a mercenary. She had like those fancy bottles of wine his father had imported, but that wouldn't work because Byleth was too young.

It hit him, then.

Brooches!

His stepmother had really liked brooches. She adored them, and she had a whole collection of fancy brooches that she kept in this little display jewelry box with a glass top. Aunt Cornelia had taken them a long time ago and he hadn't seen them since, but he could still vividly remember them.

Renewed, Dimitri tugged at Byleth's hand, leading her towards the nearest cart that seemed to be selling brooches. The woman in charge perked up as they approached, mutely indicating towards her wares. Dimitri took the time to study each and every one. They were all pretty, and a lot of them were shiny. There were little brooches of strange symbols, and animals, and little shapes.

The prince glanced back hopefully at Byleth, only to see her staring away, watching nothing in particular as she waited for him to finish browsing. He could feel himself deflate a bit at that, disheartened now that his seemingly brilliant idea had been foiled. He was about to give up and try looking elsewhere when he spotted one brooch in particular.

It was a simple one, made out of ivory. A simple lion with a blue painted mane and a little blue tassel hanging off the edge of its carved tail. It wasn't made of expensive metals, nor did it have jewels, but it was delicately carved, and very pretty. The detail alone made it something he would have been proud to wear.

"This one." He found himself picking it up and holding it up to examine. Would Byleth even like it? She didn't seem to like anything else here. But, then again, he didn't know what she liked besides food, and he wanted her to remember him.

Yes, he just wanted to give her something to remember him by.

He checked again to see that Byleth had wandered over to the next cart to poke at a dangling wind chime with shining bluish crystals. It gave him an idea. He leaned conspiratorially towards the owner of the cart.

"Please. It's a gift for my friend, and I want it to be special. Can you add something to it so that she'll think of me when she wears it?" He didn't know how much a commission like this would cost, so he dug a big handful of coins out of his pouch and placed them on the table.

The jeweler's eyebrows shot up at the request, and she eyed the pile of coins and then the boy's 'friend' in question, still placidly sifting through the next cart's wares. She looked back at the little boy, staring back at her with such a cute hopeful face.

"...I think I can come up with something. But you'll have to wait. You can pick it up this evening." She was rewarded with a bright smile that made her heart melt. She would work extra hard for this adorable child and his first love.

"Thank you! I'll see you tonight then!" Dimitri practically skipped to where Byleth was squinting at a bent spoon dangling on a fishing line. It was being advertised as one of the Prince's own spoons bent as a toddler while in a fit. 

She shifted her attention back to Dima as he approached. "Did you find something?" The smile on his face made her feel inexplicably warm.

He nodded. "I think so. I'm going to think about it and come back tonight." He hoped that was a good enough lie.

"That's smart. No wonder you're an apprentice tax-man. You seem to be good with money."

Normally, such a compliment about doing taxes well would have annoyed Dimitri seeing as it reminded him of his uncle. But hearing it from Byleth sounded a lot nicer and more sincere. It made him swell up with pride and for once, he didn't think about the King Regent's sneer or how Dimitri worried he'd turn into him one day.

"T-Thank you!" He bounced once on the heels of his feet and found himself staring at her with a goofy smile.

Chapter Text

"What do you wanna do next?"

He blinked, "O-Oh? You want me to pick?" The caber toss had been his idea along with the shopping, surely it was her turn. But when he brought this up, she shook her head.

"Watching you in that game was really fun, I wanna see what else you pick."

Dimitri blushed and wondered if this was what it felt like with someone who actually wished to spend time with him. No obligations or niceties, just pure interest. The thought only made his heart beat a little faster.

"O-Okay," his hand twitched, suddenly wanting to hold hers for fear she'd suddenly change her mind and run. "Let's go back to the square. There's lots of stuff to do there."

Byleth nodded in agreement. "Sound logic, we'll surely find something interesting there."

The girl reached out her hand, holding it up for him to take. By now, Dimitri had held her hands a few times, but somehow it felt different now. Now it was something he wanted to do more than anything. His eyes flickered over her, studying her face, her outreached hand, everything. Yes, there was absolutely nothing else he wanted more in the world than to take her hand.

Summoning his courage, he took it.

It was as warm as every other time he took her hands, the heat radiating through his mittens and onto his hands. She smiled, leading him back down the alley and towards the square, none the wiser to the way his heart leapt to his throat and lodged itself there.

They entered the square to find the music louder than ever, songs leaving lips, and happy cheers as a crowd surrounded a dancing couple. Curious, Dimitri tugged on an adult's sleeve, drawing their attention, "What's going on?"

"We just got a proposal!" the adult cheered, clapping their hands, "How romantic!"

"Oh!" Dimitri perked up, watching the couple dance. The woman was laughing loudly as the huge, heavy-set, bearded man lifted her from the ground and twirled. There was a blade in her hands, and a spoon dangling from the hilt. Both laughed loudly, joyously, messily singing alone with the music.

 

'And I would bring you rings of gold

I'd even sing you poetry

And I would keep you from all harm!

If you would stay beside me.'

 

"That's so sweet." Dimitri’s heart twitched at the sight of them. He hadn't seen a nice couple dance in a long time, not since his father and stepmother. Other couples started joining in the dancing, some singing along with the song, the music loud and the laughing infectious.

The prince glanced at his companion, and suddenly knew what he wanted to do. Face going red, and heart pounding in his chest, he summoned all his courage and asked, "Want to celebrate with them?"

Byleth watched the dancers with some trepidation, for once not looking very self-assured. "I don't know how to dance."

Dimitri grinned, his confidence bolstered by his recent success, and his excitement about his gift. He tugged on her arm. "It's okay. I'm not very good either, but no one here will care."

She followed him a little reluctantly into the dance, and lucky for him, because as soon as the wall of bodies closed around them he heard a familiar voice rising over the crowd. "I didn't see who threw it, but there's only one person I know who has that kind of strength. Come on. I just want to see if he's here."

Ingrid!

In a panic, he pulled Byleth close, wrapping one arm protectively around her waist as he spun them around while looking out for a familiar blonde braid.

Byleth's eyes widened at how close they were, having only ever seen people dance like this when they were married or in love. It confused the poor girl as Dimitri held her like this, especially as they spun and spun and she found it quite exciting.

Byleth didn't notice her friend scanning the crowd as they weaved through it, too busy enjoying how her hair whipped around and how Dimitri held onto her in a secure hug. She wasn't sure why it was amazing, but she was impressed that he wasn't crushing her considering how strong he was during the caber toss.

Suddenly he dipped her when they danced close to a pair of old women sitting on a bench and tittering away. He was looking around wildly for something while he lowered her to the ground, making her outright laugh.

Dimitri snapped his gaze to her, as if remembering they were dancing instead of running and hiding. The sound of her laugh made his mind go blank for a moment and he couldn't help but stare at the big grin on her face as he held her. Then the old women started to giggle and point at them and he blushed before pulling her up and dancing away.

"I never knew dancing was so much fun," Byleth grinned as he led them through a group of couples.

"O-Oh!" Dimitri brightened a bit as they twirled with the crowd, his heart speeding with the rush of the exercise and the thrill in her voice. His cheeks took on heat. "I like dancing too! I'm glad you're having fun!"

"I really am," Byleth promised. 

There was a cheer as the leading men, and some women, lifted their partners. Dimitri took it as his cue to lift and twirl her again, landing her back on her feet as the flute music hit a high note. The song would be coming to a close soon, and the dancing would probably end, based on the lyrics the groom-to-be was hitting, but the young prince found that he didn't want the song to end. He wanted to stay here with her, dancing and having fun forever.

"That makes me happy to hear Byleth," Dimitri confessed. "This wouldn't be half as much fun if you didn't like it too."

The girl graced him with the prettiest smile he thought he'd ever seen.

From next to them the engaged couple finished the song in unison, singing the last lyrics together in a joyous high note. Blue eyes found themselves looking over towards them as they gave one last twirl, and the man dipped his new wife-to-be, kissing her deeply right next to them. Dimitri watched them in awe, then found his eyes going back to Byleth.

He wondered what it'd be like to give her one of those.

The prince blushed, shaking his head. No! No, no, that was silly. Byleth was his friend and he shouldn't be thinking things like that. It was inappropriate! Just because she was funny, and smart, and nice, and cared about what he wanted, and made him want to be braver...

...Oh no...

He had a crush.

Sylvain would never leave him alone if he knew.

No no no. That couldn't be. You didn't get a crush on people you'd only known for two days, right? He was just, ah… cooped up? He remembered overhearing some adults talking about him when they thought he wasn't nearby. They had said it was a pity he had been cooped up, that he needed to spend time with people his own age. He had agreed with them, having not seen his friends in weeks, and not being allowed outside the castle. It was one of the reasons he had decided to go to the festival in the first place.

So was that it? Byleth had come along and given him attention when he needed it? These last two days had been more fun than he'd had in months, since even before—

The song ended and he turned his mind away from painful memories and back to the girl standing in front of him. Both of them were breathing hard from the dancing. She looked at Dimitri with sparkling eyes and he knew that if nothing else she was definitely his friend and he wanted her to stay here with him forever. 

"That was fun! We should do that again sometime, Dima."

"Y-Yeah." His hands still held onto her, not wanting to pull away. "We should."

Her smile only grew wider and his heart fuller. Dimitri was about to suggest maybe another dance when a few of the adults began to coo over them.

"Oh, how sweet. Did you two have fun?"

"Yes!" Byleth was quick to answer while Dimitri immediately lowered his hooded head to hide his blushing face. They tittered over them and told them how cute they were before Dimitri took hold of Byleth's hand and quickly dragged her away.

The adults laughed in their wake, making Dimitri feel even more embarrassed as they rushed towards an area where kids were taking pegasus rides. Both stopped to catch their breath, Byleth's focus now on the flying horses with a wary gaze while Dimitri huffed to himself, wondering if there was a chance they could dance later. Preferably without adults watching.

"What do you want to do now?" The Prince asked between breaths, glad to see Byleth wasn't questioning their retreat.

She touched her stomach instead, "I'm a little hungry."

"Oh." Dimitri looked up at her, then looked around at the many stalls selling food. It seemed strange to him that she could eat so much in so little time, but he wasn't going to judge her for it, she just had a big appetite, especially after all the things they've done today. "I'm sure we'll find something you like here."

Byleth nodded eagerly, looking over the stalls herself. "Something warm."

He nodded, keeping his eyes out for something warm. But everything seemed to be warm, due to the winter weather, so it didn't really narrow down the choices at all. "What do you want?"

"I don't know." The girl shook her dark head, squinting at the stalls before turning to him, "What would you like to eat?"

He didn't know, he couldn't recall what most foods taste like anymore. The memory of tastes died with the ability to taste itself, and none of it came back. So long as it was warm and had a decent texture, he was fine with it. Though he did remember one thing… "I like cheese."

He didn't remember the last time he actually had cheese, but he remembered he liked it.

"Alright, then we'll get something with cheese then." Byleth nodded, leading him down the street with the most food vendors, eyes peeled for the food in question.

The first thing they found with cheese was from a modest vendor half way down the street, with a big pot of some kind of cheesy soup with bits of green and potatoes and maybe ham? He was not sure, but it was the first thing they saw, and it was warm, and it looked cheap enough. The vendor only asked them to return the bowls after and gave them a generous portion of the soup. 

There was a row of benches set out just for people to rest with their food, and both companions took a moment to simply sit and eat their meals. Cheese is gooey, and fun to eat, he thought, with the way it was all melted and warm and just gooey . He thought that was why he used to love cheese so much.

He wished he could taste it, but he’d take what he could get.

Bodies warmed up after their meal, they returned their bowls and strolled peacefully through the stalls as the sky got darker. Soon they were glad for their hot meal, because with the night came an icy breeze. Byleth shivered and put her hands in her coat pockets.

"Oh. Here, take these." Dimitri removed his mittens and pushed them at her. She looked down at them in surprise.

"Won't you need them?"

He wiggled his fingers. "No. I'm plenty warm. And my coat is thicker than yours." His had an expensive fur lining, as opposed to the normal filling that hers had. She took the mittens and put them on, immediately feeling better from the leftover warmth his hands had left.

"Look!" Dimitri grabbed her elbow, and Byleth looked up and noticed the red glow coming from the square. They followed it to find a large bonfire. People gathered around it, getting warm and drinking cider or beer from nearby vendors. Before Byleth could even ask, Dimitri had already gone to one and ordered them both large mugs of warm cider.

Together they stood and watched the dancing flames, enjoying the crackle and listening to the mumble of other groups of people. Byleth turned to Dimitri to say something when he snapped up, suddenly remembering something.

"Stay right there! I'll be right back!" He handed her his mug and ran off into the dark, leaving her staring in confusion at where he disappeared into the alleys.

Chapter Text

Byleth frowned slightly before looking down at her gloved hands, noting that the pretty blue fabric felt nice and soft against her fingers. There was fur trim along the edges and she briefly wondered what kind of animal it was.

A dire wolf? No, their fur was too coarse and not very fun for clothing. Lamb? Fox?

She gasped, a snow lion?

That certainly made her mind spin in a frenzy of ideas and images, all of Dima going out and to hunt and kill a gigantic snow lion just to make these gloves. She could see it, he was certainly strong enough—and he was probably the same age as her when she went on her first hunt, maybe a little older.

Byleth smiled at the gloves and wiggled her fingers again, thinking about how hard Dima must have worked to take it down. He probably didn't even have a sharp weapon, just his bare hands and guts. She flexed her hands and smiled at how warm they were against the fur, then remembered Dima's warmth was probably there too. She blinked thoughtfully as it felt like they were holding each other's hands again. It was nice.

"I-I'm back!" 

Byleth looked away from her hands to stare at the boy who was out of breath for the millionth time that day. He had his hands behind his back and his face was flushed deep from running, but otherwise, he looked okay. She patted the spot next to her with an expectant look.

"Where'd you go?"

Dima dug his boots in the stone, shifting in place as he stared at the ground for a bit. He peaked at her through his lashes, crystal blue eyes shining in the firelight. Shadows danced across his face, the hood hiding most of his features from the rest of the world and giving him...an air of mystery, she supposed.

He bit his lip, and Byleth wondered what was wrong. Had his evil bosses found him while he was away for those few moments? Had he run into some thugs? Curses, she shouldn't have gotten distracted by warm mittens. "Are you okay?"

"Yes! Yes." Dima puffed up, voice confident. "I just went to get something."

"Oh." Byleth perked up in realization. "The thing you brought earlier?"

"Yes." Her companion nodded firmly. Then he moved his hands from behind his back, bringing them together and holding them up to present her with a tiny box. "It's a present! For you!"

It took a moment or so for the girl to realize what the boy was saying, and a moment longer before she realized what he meant. Her eyes widened just a bit, lavender irises staring at the tiny box in question. She had, of course, gotten gifts before, from her father and occasionally one of his men, but never someone her own age range, and never something so small.

It was thoughtful, and he hadn't needed to do it, and it was… sweet, especially since he could have used that money on himself.

It made something warm and unfamiliar bubble within her. Dima seemed to make a lot of unfamiliar things happen to her. Like laughter, or lots of handholding, and tons of strange twisitings in their body, and dry throats, and jitters.

She must have kept him waiting too long, because he was starting to get nervous, biting his lip and shifting on his feet, looking away from her in shame. Trying to correct her mistake, she reached over and delicately plucked the box from his hands, opening it to see what was inside.

It was a pin of some sort. A small thing, shaped like a lion. White, with a blue mane, and glittering eyes of blue gemstones, another brilliant stone of all different colors beneath it's paw. Those stones glimmered in the firelight, shining warm.

She didn't need it. It wasn't practical at all. She didn't even think it had enchantments on it. But in that moment she didn't think there was anything else she wanted in the world than to pin it on her coat. So she strove to do just that. "Thank you. Could you help me put it on? The mittens will make it hard."

He put on such a brilliant smile that Byleth was taken aback for a moment, an odd feeling fluttering in her stomach. "Of course! Do you like it? I wanted to give you something to thank you for..." 

For what? Thinking she needed to protect him? Showing him around when she thought he was lost? Giving him sweets when he had no money? Playing games with him? Giving him confidence? Making him feel warm?

"For being my friend." That was the obvious answer. He thought there was something else as well, but he couldn't say that.

Dimitri raised the brooch up towards her chest, and his face got to feeling very hot. He kept moving his hand to different places, but all of them felt very improper. Byleth raised her eyebrow at him, and pushed his hand in with her mittened one, helping him choose a place and making him squeak. He had to fight not to close his eyes as he pinned the little lion above her left breast. When he was finished, Byleth reached around him and made him squeak again in surprise with a tight hug.

"You didn't need to give me a present for being your friend. I had fun today too. Thank you again, though, I'll treasure it." 

Dimitri thought he might melt. He let out the breath he didn't know he was holding and forced himself to step back before he actually crushed her in his own hug.

"There's another thing. Tomorrow is the Solstice Ball. If you wear that, I'll be able to recognize you right away!" He normally hated the ball, but if she was there he knew it would be different.

Byleth blinked in confusion. "Would you not otherwise?"

"O-Oh, well!" Dimitri blushed at his haste to invite her without thinking. "I-It's a masquerade. Everyone puts on masks and no one knows who the other is."

The girl touched her face and tilted her head. "I've never worn a mask before. But it sounds like fun. Are you going to wear one too?"

"Yes." Normally he hated wearing masks, it was just another thing to cloak his true face. The true face hidden beneath his soft exterior. But it was a blessing this time, because Byleth wouldn't know he was a prince if he wore a mask. "It's blue and pretty like your eyes—"

He squeaked, catching himself before going on by turning his head and scrunching up his shoulders in anticipation. "You don't have to come. I-It can be a bit boring."

"No, I want to," Byleth said while touching the lion brooch on her chest, a warm energy filling up her chest again. "I want to dance with you again."

"Th-Then we shall most certainly meet there tomorrow night!" Dima perked up, a pleased smile on his face. "And we will share a dance! All the dances you wish!"

"Yes." Byleth nodded her head, hair tickling her neck, fingers coming up to touch the brooch. "I would like that very much Dima."

The boy preened, hands poking at one another and firelight dancing across his body. He preened, pleased by her words. "Then we shall meet then!"

Recognizing this as the beginning of a goodbye, Byleth nodded in acceptance, lips twitching upward. She patted the lion brooch. "Yes, I would like that very much. Thank you, Dima, I had a lot of fun today."

"Yes," Dima breathed, nodding. "I had a lot of fun too! You...you've been a fantastic friend Byleth. I haven't had this much fun in a long time."

"I'm happy to know you had fun." She took note of that last fact with the slightest bit of concern, but brushed it away under the weight of the other confessions. "You've been a fantastic friend as well. I will treasure this friendship forever."

She knew she couldn't stay, being a mercenary, but it was nice to feel like this. It was nice to have this. But she'd always have a place in her heart to treasure these moments. It was fun, and she hadn't felt like that before. Maybe… maybe she could convince her father to come back someday, just to see him one more time after tomorrow.

"As will I." He smiled, and it looked so brilliant against the firelight that she could say nothing. "I have to go now, but I look forward to seeing you again. Goodbye, Byleth, have a nice night."

"Goodbye, Dima." She reached over to give him a quick hug. "I'll see you soon."

Chapter Text

The Crown Prince of Faerghus scanned the crowd of masked people in the Great Hall, more out of habit than with any actual hope that he would actually find her.

Dimitri had given up ever seeing Byleth again. It had been three years since their time at the Solstice Festival. He remembered the heartbreak when she never appeared at the ball. A small, scared part of him had thought that she had forgotten or abandoned him. A larger part was hopeful that something else had happened to stop her. Perhaps her mercenary troupe had moved on, or her father had forbidden her from coming. She would never do that to him on purpose, right?

So every year since he had looked for her in the crowded ballroom, but he never saw her again. He had to squash down the fear that something had happened to her on the road. Being a mercenary wasn't a safe job after all. Instead he had hoped that their troupe had simply been unable to travel to Fhirdiad in the winter months.

He was standing on the raised platform next to his uncle when he caught a glimpse of a familiar splash of blue pinned to one of the masked girls next to the buffet table.

The prince jerked in place, earning a reprimanding look from his uncle, making him still once more. Back ramrod straight, Dimitri pressed his mouth into a thin line as he scanned the crowd again.

His eyes were wide and hopeful, the long-extinguished candle suddenly roaring like a wildfire overtaking a ship. Where was it? He just saw it. He was sure of it!

He stepped down into the crowd, politely pushing disguised people aside to get to where he thought he saw her. He had to stop and make pleasantries a few times, promise a few anonymous girls some dances. So when he got to the table, there was no sign of her.

Dejectedly he turned around, about to go back to where he knew his uncle was glaring at him from above, and bumped right into her. She was in a group with some men asking for a dance while she snacked on the food on her plate, paying them no mind at all.

He froze for a moment, not quite believing it was really her. But, no, it could only be her. His fond childhood crush that he held so sweetly in his heart. The one he had given up on ever seeing again, content to hold the memory of her fondly in his heart. Nothing more than a tale of first love shared with children.

He swallowed, steeling himself and summoning all his courage before approaching her. "Excuse me? I believe I might recognize you, Lady. Does your name happens to be Byleth?"

She turned to face him, and his breath nearly left his lungs. Yes, yes, it's her . He could tell even with the mask. And she had grown somehow more beautiful in the years since he'd seen her. She seemed smaller, now that he was grown, but her cheeks had filled more, and her hair had grown. She was a young woman now, in truth. But that all seemed irrelevant when facing her eyes.

"Ah!" He smiled at her. "It is you! I am unsure if you recognize me, but we spent a festival here together some years ago! It's me, Dima!"

Byleth's eyes narrowed. She recognized him as the young man who had been standing bored up next to the Regent for most of the night. She wouldn't admit she'd been staring at him for almost as long. Her eyes swept over him, then came up to meet his behind his own mask, and there was a flash of recognition. Dima's eyes hadn't changed. Those bright blue eyes still looked at her like a puppy waiting to be praised. 

A small smile curled her lips. "Dima. I was hoping I'd see you here."

The others surrounding her knew that they'd been beat, and made themselves scarce, so the two of them were left alone in their own little world.

Dimitri felt his heart ascend to the heavens. "You remember me."

Byleth let out a soft puff of air that the Prince could only interpret as an exquisite laugh.

"Of course I do. You're my dear friend."

Butterflies were flapping like mad in his stomach as he felt the tense coil of worry unfurl. All those years of waiting, watching, and hoping that Byleth would come back. That they'd meet again and share happy memories while making new ones.

"Yes!" He let out a relieved laugh. "Yes of course! My dear friend!"

Then she smiled, and it was better than he ever remembered. He felt his heart swell at the sight of it, and it made his own smile all the easier to keep on his own lips. She brushed a hand over his, eyes meeting him. "It's good to see you again. How have the years treated you?"

"As well as expected." Dimitri kept the information purposely vague. The truth was, he hadn't had a pleasant few years. Between his Uncle's apathy, the isolation, the nightmares, the ghosts, and Dedue's distance, it all seemed to fall apart around him.

But, right here, right now, that all seemed to melt away with her smile. "And yourself? You've grown quite a bit! I take it you've been well?"

"Yes," Byeth nodded, "my father and I have been doing very well."

"That eases my heart to hear," Dimitri admitted, happy that at least this one person he cared about had had good, happy years.

Byleth picked up a cube of cheese and popped it in her mouth, the act quickly drawing Dimitri's eyes and making him suddenly feel taut.

She swallowed. "I wasn't expecting you to be here."

Her glance flickered to the platform where his uncle sat. Dimitri spared the king regent a glance, feeling his hard gaze on the back of his neck. It was questioning, demanding he return to his spot and stay still as instructed.

Dimitri turned back to Byleth, taking a step closer in hopes of hiding his uncle's gaze from her.

"W-Would you like to step out on one of the balconies?" He tugged a little at his collar for added effect. "It's quite stuffy in here."

Byleth frowned just a bit, and for a moment Dimitri is very worried that he had upset her. But, mercy of mercies, she nodded, "Yes, some fresh air may do us good."

Knowing full well that he would be punished for this later, Dimitri nodded and held out his arm, ignoring his uncle as he hadn't since he first met the man, in favor of escorting his friend towards the nearest balcony. He could feel the king regent's stare burning into his back, but for the first time in three years he couldn't find himself caring. 

It was strange to be so confident as to have not even a shred of doubt, but that's how he felt about his decision to step into the night air just outside the ballroom, the cold air kissing his face as they two step through the giant archway. Yes, he wouldn't regret this decision later. Even if he was locked in the offices for days. It was all worth it to see the moonlight touch her face, kissing her skin and leaving stars in her eyes.

Byleth studied her surroundings, finding the view that overlooked the snow covered garden serene and beautiful. Though she wasn't a huge fan of the cold (especially winters in Faerghus of all places), she couldn't help but find herself feeling warm at the sight.

With the air so crisp and most of the capital's lights out, the vision of sparkling stars up above was that much clearer. Perhaps it was fate that they met again during the festival? To share in this tranquil moment as the full moon haloed around them.

Dimitri cleared his throat, drawing her gaze from the sky above. Byleth examined his face, and determined it had grown up quite handsome. She noticed that he was flushed and wondered if the cold was already getting to him. The chill was quite bitter despite the beauty before them.

"Ahem." His eyes couldn't seem to meet hers. "It's nice out tonight, yes?"

Byleth huffed out a laugh at the bland topic. "It's beautiful." She leaned on the balustrade and looked out over the city. "I've always liked this city. I wish I could have spent more time here." 

Dimitri shuffled up next to her. He finally worked up the nerve to ask her a question he'd been meaning to ask since he saw her again in the ballroom. "Why did you come back?" What kept you away?

She seemed startled by the question, and had to pause in order to think of an answer. "...My father's—my work—has mostly kept us out of Fhirdiad. Winter is not a good time to be camping in the woods here. Even if by chance we were in the area, I'm not a noble. I wouldn't be allowed at the ball." She remembered the festival years ago, when she learned she was too common to gain entrance.

His brows knit; he hadn't been aware of that rule. Thinking back on it though, it must be true. Only nobles and the upper classes ever came to the ball inside the castle. His uncle used the event to gather support and promises for coin. He thought back on those nights spent hoping to see her face in the crowd. Things would be different once he was king, he thought. "What changed?"

Byleth smiled a little again, her eyes glittered in the starlight. "I accepted a position that apparently elevates me just high enough, it seems. Someone must want to stay in the church's good graces." An icy breeze lifted her hair and she shivered, wrapping her arms around herself.

Dimitri couldn't stop the cynical smile from spreading across his face, thoughts of his Uncle Rufus complaining of taxes and making unions with nobles and the church. Especially the church as of recent—perhaps it was because he was going off to the Academy soon? His uncle wouldn't have passed up a chance to make ties if the prince was going to a place where other important nobles and families go to be trained.

Blasted. He couldn't stop his fist from clenching, thoughts of his uncle invading his mind even after his daring escape.

"O-Oh? I hope it's not too forward of me to ask what kind of position it is?" Dimitri needed to redirect the conversation, lest the face of his sour uncle ruined his night.

Luckily Byleth had been too busy gazing out at the landscape to notice his inner annoyance.

"I was offered a teaching position at Garreg Mach Academy," she said while running a hand along the banister.

"Teaching?" Dimitri moved closer to her side, wishing to lean against the rail in a friendly manner. She looked so at ease, so relaxed and he wished to be the same; but years of court manners and rules were practically burned into his skin. It made it hard to keep his arms from stiffening at his sides at all times—like some statue awaiting to be placed in the yard. "That's amazing! It's quite an honor to become a professor at Garreg Mach."

Byleth didn't look at him, her face hesitant and thoughtful. "Yes. The Archbishop was quite insistent."

He couldn't stop his gasp, quite amazed that his beloved friend was given the job by the Archbishop herself!

"That's wonderful news!" Dimitri beamed at her when she looked at him. "I'm happy you're doing well for yourself."

Byleth bumped him with her hip, not sharing the same courtly compulsions he did. She didn't notice his blush as he wobbled into the railing and held onto it and his hand fell next to hers. "And what of you Dimitri? Years ago I believe you said you were studying taxes? I saw you up there next to the Regent, and I've heard he values people who have a way with coin. Do you work with him now?"

Dimitri couldn't help the sardonic look that crossed his face. As much as he had studied economics as his uncle wished, he doubted his skills would ever be good enough for the King Regent. "Ah—About that. Byleth, I have something I should tell you."

That made the woman pause, her familiar blank face was somehow strange and warmly nostalgic at the same time. "What is it?"

Dimitri swallowed, unable to continue to hold his eyes with hers and instead chose to focus on his hands. Particularly, the one closest to hers. 

"A-Ah… well..."

He tapped his pinky lightly against the stone banister, its clean grey slate looking even more pristine with the powder of white snow coating the top. The blonde stared at the small snow print his finger left, finding courage as he focused on it.

Now if only he could get his voice to work.

Byleth moved closer, her shoulders brushing his as she used his body to shield herself from the wind. "Don't tell me you've become a tax collector."

Her voice was monotone, but Dimitri could catch the hint of joke there. The poor boy was stuck with his uncle at all hours of the day, tax jokes were a constant topic.

He smiled, though it looked wavered as he pressed his pinky finger hard into the stone, not realizing he was causing it to crack. "N-No, nothing as...silly as that."

His gaze slid over to her and he couldn't help but relish in how her shoulder brushed his, but what concerned him most was her shivering. Dimitri took off his fur cape and draped it around her shoulders. She smiled gently at the gesture and he was glad to find his courage again.

"Byleth, I'm—"

"Your Highness!"

The prince froze in place, horror stricken on his face as a new person joined them with a loud proclamation of his title. 

His secret.

Dimitri turned back towards the balcony entrance. Dedue, his best friend, the traitor, strode through the door. The Duscan's face was as emotionless as usual, but the prince could tell he was annoyed.

Dedue stopped in front of them and bowed. He acknowledged Byleth first, then turned to Dimitri. "Your Highness. Your uncle has sent me to return you to him."

Dimitri could feel himself turning red. Why, today of all days, did Rufus care how he was spending his time? He turned to Byleth to apologise, only to meet eyes with the glint of suspicion.

Byleth hugged the cape tighter around herself as she narrowed her eyes at her old friend. "Your Highness?"

"Er. T-that's what I was about to tell you. I'm—uh—" Dimitri's courage failed him under her steely gaze.

Dedue, noticing his leige's discomfort, came to the rescue. "May I introduce Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, Crown Prince of Faerghus?"

Did he say his rescue?

No. Dedue did not come to save him—he came to stab him straight in the heart and give the dagger a nice twist. Dimitri just wished his friend would toss him over the balcony and end his misery already. Taking a deep breath, the male turned back to his friend and gave her a proper, princely bow.

"I apologize for not telling you earlier." He kept his head lowered despite tradition commanding he only did this for a second, as royals such as him should never lower themselves for anyone. "But it's true. I-I am Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, Crown Prince of Faerghus."

Silence. The dreaded silence that kept his head lowered in shame. The creeping sensation of guilt gnawed away at him, clawing up his back like a wretched demon with sharp, scraggly nails that left his skin burning with regret as it burrowed itself into his shoulders. He could already hear it whispering into his ear, delighted in his humiliation and begging him to mess up more.

Byleth shifted in front of him, becoming a little uncomfortable the longer the crown prince bowed to her. Even Dedue seemed at a loss and even cleared his throat, hoping to gain Dimitri's attention.

"Your Highness...?"

The blond swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut as it felt like his life at the palace—along with his princely persona—came barreling down on him like a thunderous calvary. It destroyed everything in its path and took down what shaky ground he was on with the woman in front of him. And now the life he hated was desecrating the lie he loved—

"You better go," Byleth whispered gently. He dared to look up and found her gaze blank, but wary. "I'm sure it's important if your uncle is calling for you."

He straightened, hair falling into his eyes and hopefully hiding the deep shame that welled up in them. "Y-Yes. Of course. Excuse me."

Dimitri turned to leave, his heart hurting at the thought that this was probably the last time he'd talk to her. Probably the last time he'd be able to even see her again.

A hand caught his wrist and he stopped, looking over his shoulder in shock as Byleth held tight to the gold button sewn into the sleeve. She looked unsure, eyelashes lowered and hiding any emotions he would have been able to read.

"Perhaps… we can speak again?"

Dimitri turned slowly, eyes investigating for any sign of what she might be thinking. As if he might spook her, the Prince slowly took her hand off his sleeve and held it in his. Byleth's fingers were cold, so he wrapped them up in his as he stared at her. She stared back, blank-faced, but she didn't try to take back her hand.

Making a decision, Dimitri pulled her to him. She stumbled in surprise and put her hand on his chest as he leaned over and put his mouth to her ear. "Meet me by the garden entrance at midnight." 

Byleth shuddered at the warmth on her neck. She pulled back to look up at him, and nodded.

Dimitri smiled as he released her. He took a moment to cinch his cape tighter around her shoulders before he turned and followed Dedue back into the ballroom.

Byleth watched him go, hands clutching at the front of the fur cloak just as she had all those years ago and her blood rushed loudly in her ears. She'd forgotten how much this shocked her, how much her chest tightened with warmth long after Dimitri had left.

She swallowed hard, wondering if she could find a place to hide until midnight. A place where she could calm down and sort through these strange feelings.

In the meantime, Dimitri felt as if he was walking on air. Adrenaline was a wonderful thing and something he'd only felt in battle—but this was different from the lust for blood. This was something almost new and exciting!

The prince practically beamed, startling some of his guests as he passed them and wished each a friendly hello. Dedue watched quietly, face carefully blank as he studied the once sullen Dimitri glow with happiness.

It was… refreshing.

Chapter Text

The Crown Prince made his way back to his Uncle, where he was pulled back to his proper place at the man's side. The King Regent side-eyed him harshly, and Dimitri knew that he was in trouble. But even then, his heart was light and his mood good. He couldn't keep the smile off his lips even as he was forced to stand there and greet the guest, all of whom were once again displeased to attend the Winter Solstice Festival to find the drinking hall's tables and ciders gone for the fourth year in a row.

His mood must have been infectious to the lords he greeted, though, because they seemed slightly less displeased with the party than they had the last few visits. And the greetings seemed quicker and less dull as he went through them. It seemed to Dimitri that nothing could ruin this night for him again.

So he stood tall by his Uncle, lighter than air and heart full for the first time in...well, it must have been years since he last enjoyed his birthday. By the time King Regent and the Prince were both settled on the dining hall thrones, he wasn't even stiff from standing, settling into the fur of his seat with a content sigh.

"This entire event is dull and pointless," Rufus grumbled from beside him, leaning back against the seat, sinking into the old lion pelt. The older man watched the crowd with a displeased look. "I thought you were sensible enough to find this waste of resources unpleasurable as well, but it seems you're in a pleasant mood."

Dimitri hummed, "Yes, Uncle."

"How needlessly vague of you," Rufus snorted, eyes narrowing on the dancing crowd. "I didn't rid this event of alcohol just to find you giving me half-formed answers, boy. Tell me about the girl."

Dimitri jerked, heart nearly stopping. "Excuse me?"

"I'm not stupid, boy." Rufus turned to face him, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "If you're going to take an interest in a girl, then tell me her prospects, or if you even plan to do anything more than take her to bed."

"Uncle," Dimitri gave a scandalized gasp, "I would never."

"Good, then I haven't raised you completely witless. We don't need bastards complicating the gene pool." Rufus leaned on his hand, eyeing his nephew. "Now, quit playing dull, boy, tell me about the girl so that I can plan around this."

"I… I… you..."

"Speak up, you half-wit," Rufus scolded, "I know your governess raised you better."

Dimitri choked, red faced. Why? Oh why was his Uncle doing this now. Dimitri swallowed down the embarrassed lump, sputtering out an answer, "S-She's a teacher at the academy..."

"Not completely devoid of wit, then." Rufus actually nodded in approval. It was such a shocking sight that Dimitri wasn't even sure he'd actually witnessed it for a moment. He stared, wide eyed, as his Uncle snorted, "Well? What else, boy?"

"Sh-she was a mercenary before..." Dimitri responded, mind blank, unsure how this was happening because Rufus didn't approve of anything he doid. "Archbishop Rhea herself hired her."

"A direct connection to the Archbishop?" Rufus sat up, seeming pleased, folding his hands together in that way that Dimitri learned long ago was a terrible sign for his person. "Excellent. Practical skills, negotiation skills, lecturing, and ties to the Church and Archbishop herself. Yes, yes, if we can gauge her ability to reign in nobility… we don't want another Cornelia. But the dull wits of Faerghus court would adore a former mercenary. If I can..."

"Uncle, please." Dimitri despaired. "We haven't… well… this is new..."

"I need time to gauge her nevertheless," Rufus scolded, his eyes finding Cornelia in the crowd. "We don't need to make the same mistake I did, boy. We can't waste a queen's position on someone that will become like the Cow one day. We need someone who will stay sensible after marriage."

*~*~*~*~*

Byleth chanced another look at the Prince, noting he seemed to be enduring a harsh lecture that made his face shift through various colors of red and pink. The sight made her smile and she hoped her theory was correct and that she would get to see such expressions while she was teaching.

"What house are you from, dearie?"

On her right was an older woman wearing expensive-looking jewelry and an old dress that was no doubt in fashion many years ago. But Byleth didn't find that the other guest was trying too hard—merely dressing as she wished to enjoy a night out.

"My house?" Byleth shifted in her seat, hoping not to offend.

The woman chortled, "Your family name. I'd love to know of the noble house bold enough to woo the future king."

Byleth blushed. "Woo?"

"Oh, I remember when I was young." The old woman touched her cheeks as she dazedly remembered her youth and all the boys she dated. "I wasn't as spunky as you, but I sure could cut a rug!"

Byleth couldn't stop her smile from forming. "You must've had a lot of fun."

"Oh, dearie," she patted Byleth's hand affectionately. "I had three suitors trying to court me at once! Two of them had crests."

Byleth nodded, unsure what a crest had to with any of this but felt it would be rude to interrupt the woman in her musings.

"Now, mind you—I could be sitting with my stuffy family as they try to impress the royal family, but I like it over here." The old woman smiled. "So much quieter and fewer chairs to navigate. Why, I remember this one time—"

Byleth nodded politely as the older woman went into a long story about one particular ball, going on about how the food was and the dull dancing. While her dinner companion talked, Byleth chanced another peek at Dimitri and was glad to see the boy was finally given a break to eat the first course.

"I'm sorry, dearie, I never caught your name?"

She turned, knowing she never gave it. Perhaps it was her father's wariness weighing on her, but she'd grown into the habit of keeping her name out of conversations. But this older woman seemed nice, harmless even. 

"It's Byleth." The old woman raised her brows, as if urging for more. "E-Eisner. Byleth Eisner."

That made the woman pause, dazed eyes now sharp and studying. "Hmmm. Eisner you say?"

The name tickled at her brain, Byleth could see it in her face and she briefly worried if she should have given it at all. Perhaps she could distract her? 

 "What other balls have you been to?"

"Oh, I've been to a great may balls in my day." The woman smiled fondly, a nostalgic gleam in her eyes. "From Adrestia to Leicester. They're all so terribly dull. Faerghus used to have much more lively balls, with drinking and fighting and brawls for days. Why, during my first ball no less than nine men went home with a broken bone! But ever since King Regent Rufus took over that's stopped. These days we're lucky if a Faldarius will do more than make snide comments, and that's simply sad."

The woman fanned herself, looking wistful at the thought of balls long past. "And on the Prince's birthday as well! It's not often we're blessed with a Solstice child, much less a beloved Blaiddyd Solstice child. Why, I remember the year he was born, the parties hadn't stopped long past the festival. And every year after that was just as grand! Truly, this is a waste of such a wonderful celebration."

"It's his birthday?" Byleth asked, surprised.

"You must be new to court," the woman mused, eyes gleaming. "It's certainly brave of you to approach the prince when you're new! But that spunk seems to have worked for you! Well! I wish you the best of luck! Now, tell me something; what about you, dear? Have all your balls been this dull?"

"I haven't been to one before." Byleth tilted her head, humming her answer. "My father and I were not often able to attend such events. It is only recently I have been allowed to one, with my new position in the Church."

"So I see," the elderly woman hummed, suddenly looking very interested in the conversation.

Byleth nodded, taking a sip of her water as she grew nervous beneath the old woman's gaze. She was quickly beginning to see how ill-equipped she was in dealing with nobles. Already it seemed this passive old lady had all the ammo she needed to send the court into chaos.

"Your family must be quite devoted to the Church if you've decided to work with them." The woman's eyes seemed to gleam a little too brightly for someone of her age. They were youthful and full of mischief. "Perhaps you have family there?"

Byleth shook her head. "No. My father and I aren't particularly religious."

That seemed to make the woman even more excited, like she'd just discovered an unwrapped gift hiding in plain sight. "Ah! An Eisner, and one who doesn't follow the Church! How interesting!"

Byleth swallowed and stumbled for her water again, unsure why her last name seemed significant to the conversation. Perhaps the woman was confusing her with another noble line?  That must be it.

"We don't have many from Faerghus who follow in the old ways," the woman sighed sadly. "Before we became strong allies with the Church and after we gained independence."

She puffed up, as if a young warrior again on her way to battle. "Back when the nobles of the north fought with honor and purpose. They ruled in their own way—a way as harsh and strong as the winter winds. They were true retainers to the King and to this kingdom."

Byleth was interested, but only half listening. She had just noticed Dimitri starting to look around the hall, possibly looking for her, and she shrunk back and hid a little further in the corner. She wasn't sure she was ready to face him again so soon—even if she had so many questions now.

The old woman noticed, and took a guess about her hesitation. "Now now. There's no need to be shy. You were so forward earlier, there's no need to try and hide. Unless that's your plan? Leave him wanting a little?" She wiggled her eyebrows.

Byleth instantly felt heat crawling across her face. "Wha—I—No—"

The crone was clearly enjoying her discomfort. She patted Byleth's hand. "It's alright, dear. I know times have changed. Now, when I was a lass your age, I would stride right up to the man I wished to court and—"

"Granny! You're not bothering someone else with your stories, are you?" A pretty young blonde woman with a braid stopped at their table. "I'm so sorry, miss. Grandmother will keep this up all night if you let her."

Byleth straightened up in her seat and shook her head. "No.  She's no trouble, honest."

"Oh, come now, Ingrid!" The old woman waved her hand at her granddaughter as if she'd committed a faux pas. "This is an Eisner!  I'm merely sharing with her the stories of her heroic house."

"'Eisner?" 

Byleth's name didn't seem to ring a bell with Ingrid, and for that she was grateful. "I don't think I've heard of that house."

Her grandmother looked scandalized and the next thing Byleth knew, the woman was pulling out a fan with fur trim and doing different gestures with it that seemed to signal some weird, noble code. Wait, was that a blade built in?

"Honestly, Ingrid! What is that father of yours teaching you!? To not know of the great House Eisner!"

The blonde woman looked sheepish, but stood her ground gallantly. "Father takes my studies quite seriously.  You know how much taking care of our lands means to him."

Ingrid's grandmother let out a noise that sounded like a cross between a whistle and a scoff—except it seemed to come more from her nose then her mouth.

"Foolish boy. Does he not know that the stories behind the lands are what inspire the people?  King Lambert inspired such people. House Eisner used to mean something in these parts!"

Byleth shifted in her seat. "I-I'm sorry. I think you must have me confused with another person. My family isn't from a noble house. We're just traveling—" what was a polite way to say sell-sword? "—fighters. I just happened to get a position in the Church."

That only seemed to interest the old woman more as she fanned herself, eyes gleaming from behind her furred fan. "How peculiar. Traveling fighters, you say?  Perhaps it would interest you to know that House Eisner has been empty for years—their family all but vanished."

Oh no. Now it was worse—now the woman was jumping to conclusions.

The young woman, Ingrid apparently, pinched the bridge of her nose. "Granny… no more of your conspiracies. She doesn't want to hear them."

"Don't be such a stick in the mud, Ingrid. You'll never attract my great son-in-law like that." Ingrid rolled her eyes at her grandmother's chastisement—Byleth thought she'd heard it before.

Granny rubbed her hands together in excitement, having trapped someone who had never heard her stories before. "Now, no one knows exactly why the Eisners left. It's been generations since their land has had one of the families living on it. What's peculiar is that the King and his family have never absorbed the Eisner lands into their own. The Eisner titles are left open. The Eisners always had a habit of showing up when they were wanted. 

“That old grump Rufus—("Granny!" Ingrid looked at the head table to make sure the Regent didn't hear)—pushed to take their assets a few years back and there was such a pushback from the nobility he had to give it up. Everyone knows that old miser wants the Eisner fortune for himself."

Byleth was listening with interest. She didn't really know much about her family history. Even getting her father to talk about her mother was a chore. Perhaps they were some very diluted cadet branch? Wouldn't that be something?

"Why do the other houses respect the Eisners so much?" Her question made the old woman (Brunnhilde, Ingrid had whispered to her—as if it were a common occurrence for her grandmother to skip her name in favor of a good tale) gleam with with excitement.

"Respect doesn't even begin to describe how much House Eisner means to Faerghus. You can talk to any major house in this room about them and you'd get many different tales of their great deeds."

"Granny, please," Ingrid groaned as she sat down, knowing they were in a long haul. Perhaps the blonde felt at fault and thus made it her obligation to try and save Byleth? The look on her face seemed to indicate as much.

But Lady Brunnhilde ignored her in favor of pointing to a grumpy looking redhead, stern lines running under his eyes as he spoke in whispers to who Byleth could only assume was his wife.

"The House Gautier has a story of when one of their ancestors was traveling through their lands on a hunt. The Lord and his secret mistress had purposely left the group to 'share a moment' in a cave—"

"Granny!"

"—only to end up being surrounded by hibernating bears!" The old woman bounced in her seat, eyes bright and alive. "There they were, naked! No weapons to protect themselves from the angry beasts, and who is it that comes to save them?"

Byleth blinked, enthralled. "An Eisner?"

"An Eisner!" Brunnhilde clapped her hands in delight. "Though we don't know of her name, we know she was an accomplished axe wielder and hobbyist bear wrestler—so taking down a whole cave of bears was nothing for her!"

The old woman leaned forward, brows wiggling slyly. "Let's just say the Lord of the House Gautier gifted her quite handsomely."

"Oh Goddess," Ingrid groaned.

Byleth catalogued the story to tell her father later. He would probably get a good laugh out of it. "I'm afraid I'm pretty mundane by comparison. I'm not sure I want to be one of your Eisners. It sounds like I'd have a lot to live up to."

Brunnhilde cackled loudly and slapped her knee, causing Ingrid to look around and blush, embarrassed by proximity. "My goodness do you ever!" 

She pointed at another man, this one with wavy black hair and shrewd eyes who was laughing with a group of other noblemen. "Fraldarius over there likes to tell this one himself. Too bad I'm going to steal his thunder."

The old woman leaned forward with interest. "Now, the Fraldarius family has served the Blaiddyds for ages. The two families share close ties. Rodrigue there and our old King Lambert—Sothis protect his soul—were best of friends since they were children. Generations back, long before anyone remembers, the story goes that the Fraldarius and the Blaiddyd decided to run away together. Rodrigue claims that they were just boys aching for adventure, but..." 

She raised her eyebrows and gave the two younger girls a knowing look. Ingrid groaned and covered her face with her hand.

"Whatever the reason, the two young men boarded a ship, intent on sailing around the world. Not long after they left, their ship capsized in a great storm. The two of them washed up on a foreign island, no supplies save for the detritus that washed up with them. They were doomed to die together." Granny sighed wistfully, and Byleth wondered just exactly she was picturing in her head.

"Apparently weeks went by, when suddenly one morning the two men—a King and his Hand looking all bedraggled and unkempt—woke up to find the Eisner leaning over them. Somehow he had managed to track them down on a deserted island, and brought them back to the safety of the homeland. It's said that neither one of them could stand the sight of the ocean ever after."

Granny looked meaningfully at Byleth. "There's dozens of stories about the Eisners swooping in to save the day."

Byleth couldn't help but laugh, picturing her father in the last story—standing over the Fraldarius man and a cobbled together image of King Lambert (probably a spitting image of Dimitri). She could see his stale gaze, mouth formed into a slight frown before he told the two 'idiots' to get up and come home already.

"Grandmother," Ingrid injected by placing an arm on Byleth's shoulder. "Though your stories are delightful, I'm sure Lady..."

"Just Byleth."

"Lady Byleth would like to meet more people her age."

Granny Brunnhilde harrumphed, but didn't look all too offended as she waved at them. "That's fine, you two go be friends. Make sure to form strong ties with the Eisners, dearie. I'll just sit here and take a breather. It's been so long since such excitement has taken hold of me."

Ingrid gave her grandmother an amused smile and nodded. "Thank you."

Then before Byleth knew what was happening, the blonde girl was urging her to stand and walk with her. Unsure what to do, she allowed it, but not before giving one last nod to Granny Brunnhilde, who responded with a wink.

When they got a little ways away, Ingrid turned to Byleth with her hands folded together in front of her chest, her face all apologies. "I'm so sorry. Granny Brunnhilde can get a bit out of control, but she means well."

Byleth waved the apology away. "It's fine, really. Your grandmother is charming. The stories were fun to hear even if they don't really involve my family."

Ingrid had resumed walking. She was looking around the room, though Byleth wasn't sure for what. "You're certain? I suppose it is a bit far-fetched for a long lost Eisner to suddenly appear at a ball." She sighed happily. "It sounds like a fairy tale."

Byleth huffed out a little laugh. "I'm afraid I'm just a commoner who has had a little bit of luck and now I get to spend this lovely evening with all of you."

"A commoner?" Ingrid seemed surprised at that. "I thought for certain with how interested Granny was with you that you must have been Dimitri's mystery girl. She has a habit of appearing where the gossip is the thickest." The look on Ingrid's face seemed to imply that she was impressed, but didn't approve.

Byleth wasn't sure whether she should be revealing that she actually was, apparently, this “mystery girl” that everyone was talking about. She wished she had taken more steps to be less noticeable. She kept her mouth shut as Ingrid seemed to have found what she was looking for.

Chapter Text

"Felix! Sylvain!" Ingrid waved at two men standing near the wall, a taller redhead and a lanky young man with black hair. When they turned to look at them, Byleth immediately realized that these two were most likely part of the Gautier and Fraldarius families pointed out to her earlier.

The redhead greeted them first, smile wide and eyes sparkling at the sight of them.

"Ladies!" Ingrid immediately stiffened, distaste clear on her face as the redhead gave them both a lavish bow and wink. The blonde stepped away before her friend could do anything else, but it only gave him a chance to take Byleth's hand and press a soft kiss on her knuckles. "And you must be the prince's infamous girlfriend."

Infamous? Girlfriend?

She couldn't help but feel her cheeks turn pink at this. Surely the ball wasn't so dull that all these nobles preferred to talk about her and Dimitri than enjoy a dance or good food?

"Sylvain!" Ingrid slapped his hands away like a protective guard. "I just had to wrestle her from my Grandmother and her tall-tales! I don't need you doing the same!"

The redhead laughed, shrugging his shoulders and giving them a lackadaisical grin. "Tall-tales? Me? I was merely greeting our dear friend's new lover to the fold."

Ingrid scowled. "And what makes you think Miss Byleth is that girl?"

Said girl should have piped up and told them that they were both right and wrong about her. Yes, she was a friend of the Prince's (at least she hoped she was), but his lover? That was as much a stretch as her being a lost noble of the House Eisner. Just as she was about to point this out to them, the one named Sylvain was already closing in with a creeping smile.

"Well, for one, she'd been holding his Highness' cloak." The redhead pointed to her abandoned table where the cloak laid neatly on the back of her chair, Blaiddyd symbol peeking out beneath the folds. 

"Two." Sylvain reached out and gave a gentle tug on the brooch hanging off her front. "This looks oddly like a crest of the Royal Family. A lion if I'm seeing it right." He leaned close to give it a good look, but she couldn't help but feel he was looking at much more than just the brooch a young Dimitri had left behind long ago. "You can't find these in shops anywhere, it looks specially commissioned and very expensive."

Ingrid gave off a huff of disapproval at his actions and tried to push the teen away, but Sylvain easily dodged her and slid an arm along Byleth's shoulders. He spun her around gracefully before stopping so they had a full view of the ballroom. "And finally—the most damning evidence of all."

Byleth was glad her poker face held as he leaned down to whisper in her ear, hot breath kissing the shell. "The crown prince hasn't been able to keep his eyes off you the moment you came into view."

Byleth stood stock still, like a deer caught in a hunter's sights. From across the room, Dimitri glared at her—or more likely at Sylvain with his arm wrapped around her. She wondered if the royal family had the ability to kill on sight. He looked as though he was ready to cross the room to perform murder, but he appeared to be stuck in a discussion with the Regent and a group of old men about something… royal… she supposed.

Sylvain chuckled as he noticed the Prince's gaze as well, but instead of releasing her the redhead brought her even closer. "Well well. I've never seen him so interested in a girl. Honestly I was starting to worry."

"That's enough, Sylvain." Ingrid came to Byleth's rescue by putting her arms between the two and prying them apart. "You're going to scare her away."

"She'd be better off if she was." The black-haired boy crossed his arms and glared at her. "The boar is too dangerous to be left alone with normal people."

"Felix." Ingrid was clearly exasperated with her two friends. "Can't we just be happy for them?"

Byleth finally found her opportunity. "Ah. You've got it all wrong. We… Dima—His Highness and I—We're not like that."

"Oh." Sylvain's lips formed into a foolish grin, almost juvenile as if he were performing a prank on someone. "She calls him Dima!"

He practically giggled before Ingrid gave him a swift punch to the arm, the thud sounding painful, but the redhead merely laughed it off. "Easy now! Easy!!"

But this only spurred Ingrid on more and she gave him another punch, and maybe one more for luck.

The one named Felix scoffed then stepped around them to further scoff at her. "You're a commoner, aren't you?"

Byleth blinked and gave him a nod.

This answer didn't seem to make the boy dislike her any more then he probably did, perhaps not one to worry about ranks and bloodlines like most that gathered there. "Then you have chance. Run now before you get pulled into something you can't understand."

Byleth blinked then grew annoyed that she was being told what to do. She was an Eisner (not the Noble Eisner—the best kind of Eisner), no one told her what she could and couldn't do.

"I… appreciate the advice. But Dima… Prince Dimitri and I are just friends. I don't plan to lose touch with him for years." Not like last time. She had no real friends to call her own, she wasn't about to lose the only one she had made so far.

Felix just glared at her before looking away. "Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you when it blows up in your face." Byleth couldn't help but wonder what this man's problem was with Dimitri. From the way Ingrid acted, she thought they were supposed to be friends. Which reminded her...

"Um. You all are the prince's friends, right? Do you happen to know if he'll be attending Garreg Mach next year?" The three turned to her, each with somewhat surprised looks.

Felix quickly regained his composure. "And why do you want to—" but was interrupted by Ingrid. 

"Yes. He is. We all are, in fact." 

And then it was Sylvain's turn. "But don't worry. I'm sure he'll write you letters proclaiming his devotion to you every day. I know I would." Ingrid elbowed him in the gut.

Byleth's eyebrows drew in, she wasn't sure whether she should be excited or disappointed. "Oh. He won't have to. I'll be there as well."

That got Felix's attention. "I thought you were a commoner. What purpose do you have to go to an officer's academy? Do you want to be a knight?"

Byleth shook her head. "No. I'm going to be a professor there."

The three friends stared at her in shock, all of them completely silent for the first time since she'd met them. 

A grin grew on Sylvain's face and he laughed. "Oh man! I love a good taboo romance!"

Ingrid turned a shade of angry red that stuck out against her hay-colored hair, punching him in the arm roughly. "Sylvain!"

"What? I'm serious!" Sylvain held his hands up in surrender before hissing and rubbing his arm, "It's not my fault that Dimitri is hot for the teacher. Honestly, I didn't think he had it in him."

"Sylvain," Ingrid growled, "this isn't funny!"

"Hey, man, it's no big deal! As long as they don't get caught..." 

Syvlain was cut off by another sharp jab to the side, this time by an equally frustrated Felix. He yelped, rubbing that side now, "Okay, okay, I get it, we're in for a year of pining and I shouldn't pick on him. Goddess, happy now? What's the big deal? They could just wait until he graduates and get back to it."

Ingrid groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Sylvain, just… just stop."

"Dima and I are not like that," Byleth felt the need to remind them. "We're just old friends that haven't seen each other in a while."

Sylvain side-eyed her, hand rubbing his arm with a look on his face that read as disbelief. Ingrid gave him a warning glare before turning back to Byleth.

"Oh, you don't have to explain yourself to us." The blonde gave her a friendly smile. "We're just more surprised than anything—His Highness has never mentioned you before."

For some reason this statement didn't make Byleth feel any better. In fact, it kind of stung and made her pulse hurt once. This pang that reverberated in her chest felt nothing like earlier when Dimitri had pulled her close and whispered so delicately to her ear.

"I'm sure he had his reasons," Sylvain quickly cut in the moment Ingrid realized her mistake. The blonde quickly covered her mouth, guilt crossing her features.

"Y-yes! Prince Dimitri doesn't share everything with us, after all!"

Felix sneered at this. "The boar doesn't need to share anything. Not when he can just take it away like the brute he is."

"Felix!" Ingrid turned to hiss at him while Sylvain stepped back in.

"So, how did you two meet?"

Maybe it was because Byleth suddenly felt defensive, but she wasn't comfortable sharing the story with these three. If Dima hadn't shared the story than why should she? It was their story, and those days they spent together were theirs and theirs alone. It was strange, but she felt a little selfish, which made no sense to her logically. Other than the fact Dima hadn't told them she had no reason not to share.

Unless he didn't tell them for a reason. Thinking about it, with how Sylvain and Felix acted she suddenly wasn’t surprised he hadn't told them, though it seemed strange that he hadn't mentioned her to Ingrid. Then again, it had just been three days, maybe… but no, he had recognized her on sight, so it wasn't that he forgot her. Maybe he just feared she'd let the information slip to the two boys?

"We met three years ago." Byleth shrugged, deciding a vague answer was better than no answer. "During this festival, actually."

Sylvain raised a brow at that, looking very much surprised, "Really?"

"Yes." Byleth frowned, suddenly unsure of herself. "Why would that be surprising?"

"Because the boar rightfully isn't allowed outside the castle and hasn't been for four years. With few exceptions." Felix crossed his arms, eyeing her, "We three are lucky enough to barely see him, so these two always keep an eye on him at every ball. I don't recall seeing you."

"I didn't go to the ball that year," Byleth answered simply. "Or any of the balls. I was at the festival in town."

"He snuck out!" Sylvain suddenly burst out, grin spreading wide across his face. "Oh Goddess! He snuck out! I'm honestly so proud of him!"

"Sylvain, hush!" Ingrid quickly pushed them all a little further away from the crowd, noting one or two nobles looked back at them in confusion.

Once they were safely out of listening distance did she turn her wild, eager gaze onto Byleth.

"Did he really? Did Prince Dimitri really sneak out to meet you?!"

Byleth suddenly felt less defensive and more unsure, worried perhaps she shouldn't have shared at all by the way two of the three were looking at her. She was suddenly reminded of Lady Brunehilde and wondered if every noble was like this.

"N-not exactly. We just happened to get along and..." She tried to gesture with her hands, but it was half-hearted at best. So far, it was sounding more and more like they had been meeting in secret like some couple hiding away from overprotective parents.

But it hadn't been a secret. Not to her. It'd been a memory she held very dear and had been happy to share with her father, the only person she could really share it with.

Ingrid seemed to think the former though, a wistful smile on her pretty face. "Oh, that's so sweet!"

Sylvain smirked. "Who knew he could be so smooth? And at such a young age, too!?"

Felix made a disgusted noise, shaking his head and crossing his arms. "He got you young… watching you two over the next year is going to be unbearable."

"Oh, come on, Felix, look at the bright side." Sylvain threw an arm around the younger boy's shoulder, causing said boy to turn his glare fiercely onto the redhead. The older boy barely seemed to notice, grinning as he spoke again. "Think of all the times we're going to get to tease him! Oh, there will be no mercy."

"Don't you dare." Ingrid turned to scold him. "You will not ruin this for Dimitri."

Byleth got the distinct feeling that it was far too late to convince these three that there was nothing—that there was no affair going on between her and Dimitri. Her chest twisted and heat overtook her cheeks at the idea with pleasant bubbling in her stomach. She banished the thought away, letting the heat die as she forced herself to focus on the group, which had fallen into an argument about how acceptable it would be to mock their crowned prince.

The soon-to-be professor risked a glance back towards the thrones, where, to her horror, it seemed that Ingrid's grandmother had moved to speak to the King Regent, who seemed all-too-interested in what the lady had to say. Beside him, a pinkish Dimitri sat upon the Prince's throne, his hands gripping stone so hard that a crack had formed in one of the arms. Behind his throne was the tanned servant that had come to fetch him earlier, reaching a goblet towards the prince, who quickly grabbed it and downed the whole thing in one go.

Oh no, that poor thing.

Perhaps she'd been staring for too long and he finally saw her, or maybe the prince sensed her gaze on his sullen form. Either way, he looked up and her lavender eyes met cobalt blue like the sky meets the sea. They shared the same shades of emotions—anxiety, stress, panic, and an intense longing to go to one another.

"Why don't you go talk to him?"

Byleth jumped as hot breath tickled her cheek and turned her head to find Sylvain using his lanky form to lean over her like a lurking shadow.

"I'm sorry?"

She wasn't sure if she heard him correctly, too busy staring at her poor friend as they both seemed to suffer together. But Sylvain merely grinned, the same boyish grin that was becoming synonymous with mischief.

"Hey, there's no need to be shy!" He used his position from behind her to take her hands and hold them up as he led her forward. Byleth almost stumbled, but quickly adjusted her pace to the redhead's long strides as he practically glided her across the room and towards the crown prince and king regent.

Chapter Text

When Byleth had come to the ball, she had expected a great many things. From feeling out of place around the nobles to fading into the background as the irrelevant commoner she was. What she had not expected, and could not have expected, was to find herself being dragged before the King Regent of the Kingdom.

There was a part of her that still hasn't quite accepted the fact that Dima was actually the prince. It just hasn't registered to her yet. Well, it certainly was now that she found herself weaving through the crowd and right up to the throne.

The throne sat elevated above the rest of the hall, a set of steps carved into the side of a mountain leading to the throne, also carved into the side of the mountain. From her place at the bottom of the stairs, they looked… intimidating up there. 

Dima's eyes had gotten wider and wider, and his face paler and paler, as the two of them approached. His fingers cracked stone as he gripped the arms so tight that it gave way. Beside him, the vassal poured more cider into the goblet, but Dimitri didn't seem to have the will to reach for it in his growing panic.

The King Regent seemed to catch sight of them and turned away from the twittering old woman, turning his stern gaze onto her. Byleth was a hard woman, and she'd seen the worst that humanity had to offer, the roughest and toughest of thugs, the most bloodthirsty of assassins, the most twisted of madmen, but the sheer cold contempt that the King Regent leveled her with seemed special somehow.

"Ah, young Lord Gautier." The regent slid back against the fur acting as a comforter, leaning against his hand lazily, bored eyes on the redhead. Even his voice sounded like it wanted nothing more than to cause her ears the most inconvenience. "Come to waste the evening away offending the ladies of the court?"

Sylvain gave his most charming smile, beating his fist against his chest and giving a quick bow. "Greetings, King Regent Blaiddyd, I hope you are having a good Solstice Festival. I have come to greet His Highness Prince Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd on the eve of his birth."

The regent snorted, "Of course you are."

Then his eyes turned onto her, a gleam entering them. From her place two steps below his throne, Lady Brunnhilde fanned herself quickly, her own eyes gleaming. "I see you brought a guest."

Sylvain made a flourish, "This, Your Majesty, is Lady Byleth Eisner, whom I have had the pleasure to meet tonight. I thought it would only be proper for us to come to greet His Highness, seeing as we haven't wished him a happy birthday yet."

The King Regent's eyes stayed on her, his face less disgusted and more… conspiring. While she tensed under his gaze, Dimitri was looking between his Uncle and Byleth, clear panic on his face as he tried to think of a way to salvage the situation.

He had to do something, anything to get his beloved friend out from under Uncle Rufus' scheming eyes. No doubt whatever Lady Brunnhilde had told him had made him start to think a little too much about this mysterious girl who'd fallen into their laps.

"Lady Byleth Eisner."

The King Regent's voice seemed to raise at her last name, causing most of the court to stop what they were doing and turned to watch the spectacle. It made Dimitri extremely nervous, especially as the nobility began to whisper.

Perhaps he should have noticed that this was the first time he'd learn of her last name. A fact that should have delighted him to no end, and even make him pause and think about the name itself. Its origin even.

But he was too panicked right now. Byleth was in trouble and it was all his fault and why did everyone have to stop and look at them!? Why was Sylvain such a MORON!

Byleth, finding the silence a little awkward, did her best to mimic Sylvain's bow (and ignored the redhead's giddy smile at the sight of her bending over a little too far).

"I wish you a Happy Birthday, Prince Dimitri." She stood straight and decided to spare the poor boy a smile. "I can only hope each one is better than the last."

And that we may share them together.

Dimitri sat up straight in his throne, hands unclenching the stone, which revealed thick indents left behind from the grip. His lips twitched upward nervously, eyes going softer for a moment. "Thank you..." 

He trailed off for a moment, and Byleth could see his lips forming to say her name, but he paused, catching himself, before continuing, "...Lady Eisner, your words do this heart well."

The King Regent caught his pause, sending his nephew a brief side eye. The stern man quickly let his eyes fall back to her, though, settling with something calculating. "We thank you for your greeting, Lord Gautier, Lady Eisner. Tell me, how fares your night?"

"The ball is very pleasant as always." Sylvain smiled, looping his arm with hers and grinning at Dimitri. "Lady Eisner and I have been sharing stories of Faerghus' glory!"

Dimitri looked rather like he sucked a lemon at that.

"Don't kiss up to me, you know it won't work," King Regent Rufus snorted, dropping the niceties and eyeing her person. "Tell me, Lady Eisner, have you come alone? Or can I expect to greet your family tonight?"

Byleth frowned, shaking her head, now seemed as good a time to try and correct any possible misunderstandings before this could get anymore out of hand then it had, "I'm afraid my father is not attending tonight. He wishes to enjoy a night of levity before being employed by the Church again."

The Regent narrowed his eyes. "And what of your other family, Lady Eisner?"

"I have no other family, Your Majesty. It is just my father and I." Byleth didn’t understand the King Regent's curiosity with her. She glanced at Dimitri, to find his eyes bouncing between the two of them as well. Sylvain still had his arm in hers, and seemed to be enjoying the show.

"So you came to the ball without an escort? That's bold of you. A young lady such as yourself shouldn't be at an event like this alone. Perhaps I should assign someone to you."

Byleth felt a bit panicked as she gets stared down by the Regent. He seemed to have a lot of practice being intimidating, or maybe that was just how he was naturally. "I can protect myself, Sir. I know self defense."

Rufus raised a brow. "Is that so? How unusual. Still, some things just aren't done. Now who shall I choose?"

Dimitri opened his mouth, but was immediately interrupted by the Regent. "Not you, boy, you still have work to do. And besides, how would it look?" His eye roamed the hall, and eventually landed on Sylvain, who was standing close to Byleth with a grin on his face. 

The Regent sighed. "At least I can believe you won't leave her side, Gautier. But I hope you won't betray my trust. I don't want her errant father angrily breaking down my front door tomorrow."

Sylvain grinned, giving a most improper salute while the King Regent gave back an annoyed sneer.

"Don't make me repeat myself, Gautier." Rufus' gaze slid back to Byleth and she couldn't help but feel on edge. "And no impromptu bear hunts."

Byleth felt her face become flushed while Brunehilde practically shuddered with delight, her fan all but flying from her hand as she jerked it wildly.

Dimitri gave his uncle a confused look, unsure what kind of warning the man was trying to convey. He felt he was the only one who didn't understand as even a few nobles seem to whisper with knowing smiles. Even Sylvain's father had stood up from his seat to stare, as if he'd just seen a dragon enter the court and wreak havoc on the turkey.

Sylvain, having caught up quite quickly despite just learning of Byleth's last name, couldn't help but feel it was his birthday instead of the prince's. Surely, this day could NOT get any better.

"Come, Lady Byleth Eisner." Oh, the gasps from the nobles who hadn't been paying attention until now was quite delicious. "Allow me to keep you company for the rest of the night."

"It seems excessive to give me an escort for the night." Byleth frowned as Sylvain led her back towards their corner, where she could already spot a fiercely glaring Ingrid set with her arms crossed and foot tapping. Oh dear, it seemed she had already designs to slay Sylvain.

"Eh, it's just a power thing, don't worry about it." Sylvain shrugged. "He just did that to let you know he's keeping an eye on you, y'know? In a way that'll keep the old crows happy and make him seem polite. Not that anything can make him seem polite. Everyone knows Rufus is an asshole and everyone knows he knows we know. Man, Lambert did a really good job keeping that fact hidden, Goddess rest his soul."

Byleth raised a brow at him. "So you're not planning on ‘escorting’ me all night?"

"Oh, I'm doing that." Sylvain winked at her, a sly smirk on his lips. "I'll end up missing out on flirting with some pretty girls, but hey, King Regent's orders! Can't disobey! Besides, I'm sure we'll have plenty of fun."

"I don't want to spend all night with you," Byleth told him bluntly, her mind floating towards her plans to meet Dima come midnight. No, she would not miss that. It had been years and she wanted to spend time with her friend, not this strange, flirtatious boy.

"Ouch." Sylvain clutched a hand to his heart. "You wound me."

"I'm not even going to stay the whole night." Byleth looked away from him, humming softly. "I'm going to leave after midnight. Then you won't have to worry about me."

Sylvain blinked and couldn't stop himself from patting her arm affectionately. "Aw don't be like that. How can I not worry about my friend finally meeting the girl of his dreams?" He laughed when Byleth blushed and glared up at him (he assumed it was a glare—her furrowed brows looked like they had barely lowered).

"You keep insisting we're a couple and we're not." Byleth felt her mouth go dry at that last part and frowned, wondering why the word had sounded so bitter. "We're good friends."

"Uh-huh," Sylvain smiled, knowing denial when he saw it. Or perhaps it was naivety? This girl seemed to be new to emotions from the way she displayed them—which meant Dimitri was a much better ladies’ man than they thought. "Regardless of your relationship, I still want to help you."

Byleth exhaled as the redhead steered her towards a less crowded part of the ball room, eerily aware of the many eyes that seemed to follow them. "You have a funny way of showing it."

Sylvain laughed, a noise that echoed a bit and caught the sullen Prince's attention, making him slouch in his seat much to his uncle's disdain.

"Trust me, this will all be over soon. Now that you got the hard part out of the way and everyone knows you, you can bet that there will be wedding bells not too far off."

She glared, annoyed at how many times she had to say it. Annoyed at how many times it hurt to say it. But he waved her off before she could.

"Just let this poor, unfortunate, handsome noble take care of you." They stopped by the wall and he took her hands in his and gave them a sweet kiss. He winked. "You and Dimitri will be in each other's arms by the end of to—EEEEEIII!!"

The redhead was jerked away by the ear, Ingrid holding it tight while she rounded on him. "Are you insane!?!"

"Owieeee," Sylvain whined pathetically. "Ingrid, that huuuurts."

"I cannot believe you would do something so foolish! So absurd! So outrageous!" Ingrid jerked him down to her level, fierce glare drilling into him. "I know Felix has no regard for Dimitri's feelings, but I thought you would be a decent friend for him."

"Hey! That's not fair!" Sylvain pried himself from her, standing with a single hand covering his wounded ear,."You're not the only one that cares about him Ingrid, I'm just trying to help."

"By dragging Byleth in front of his Uncle so that he can be exposed and thrown into further isolation again?" Ingrid hissed, hands on her hips. "You've got the entire court in a rile. If Rufus wasn't regent then there'd already be ten broken bones just for that stunt alone! You've drawn everyone's attention on poor Byleth, and now Rufus has one more thing to use against Dimitri. We barely see him as it is, Sylvain!"

"Hey, hey, calm down." Sylvain held up his hands. "I'm trying to help him. Look, after what I did, even if Byleth and Dimitri don't work out, Rufus is totally going to hold off on arranged marriages for a year. You know what happens after that? Dimitri is of age and takes the throne, that's what, then at least his married life isn't miserable." 

A heavy silence passed over the group, with Felix walking up making a vaguely impressed noise, "Don't tell me that was actually your plan? Sounds like you just made it up."

"I did." Sylvain grinned wide, hands finding his hips. "But that's a nice perk, isn't it?"

Ingrid's glare didn't lessen at all. If anything it only got harsher, her face twisting in displeasure. "Except now everyone has their eyes on Dimitri and Byleth, what if—"

"Excuse me?" A soft voice interrupted them hesitantly. The group all froze, tensing as their eyes all flickered towards the new arrival.

Chapter Text

She was a small girl, pale and blue-eyed, with red hair done in double braids. She looked up nervously, hands wringing around themselves and teeth biting into her bottom lip. Her eyes met Byleth's, and for a moment the mercenary thought she'd run away. 

Then, she steeled herself, a glint of determination entering her as she squared her shoulders and tried to make herself stand taller. "My name is Annette Fantine Dominic, and my Uncle told me to come over here and pull your hair, but I wanted you to know you're very pretty and I hope you have a nice day! Oh, and also I'm a better mage I guess? Please don't be mad at me! I didn't think I'd be doing this ever!"

Byleth stared at the girl, watching her practically vibrate with nervous energy as her small hands clenched in front of her and her cheeks puffed up like rosy bubbles. The mercenary had to resist the urge to reach out and pinch them, knowing it would be quite rude to do such a thing. She wasn't Sylvain.

Instead she turned her full attention on the girl Annette, finding her way of complimenting people quite odd.

"Thank you." She paused, finding that perhaps it was more odd that she'd rarely complimented anyone. "I'm… sure you're an accomplished mage."

Annette seemed to still, her petite shoulders less shaky and her mouth set in a determined jut. "Y-Yes! Um, thank you!"

Sylvain gave Ingrid an incredulous look. "Is this how women make friends?"

Ingrid scowled while Felix rolled his eyes.

"Idiot. She just said her name!" Felix gestured towards Annette. "She's a Dominic!"

"Oh."

...

"And that means...?" The redhead gave an unsure smile as Felix groaned and pointed to Byleth.

"She's an Eisner! A Dominic," he gestured to Annette and back to Byleth, "an Eisner."

"Oh." Sylvain blinked. "OH! The Dominic-Eisner Rivalry!!"

"Wait!" Ingrid rounded on her friends, eyes wide. "So then she's really an Eisner?! My Grandmother wasn't just gossiping?!"

"What's going on?" Byleth frowned, turning towards the petite girl, raising a brow. For her part, the girl puffed up proudly, standing tall with renewed determination. It took everything in Byleth's power not to inexplicably push her over. She was just so… tiny, it would be easy, even with how tall she was trying to make herself.

"I'm here to prove that the Dominic line are the best retainers the Blaiddyds have ever had." Annette announced proudly, hands clutched in front of her. "And though we aren't necessarily high nobility, I'm going to prove that I'm the best! You may be very pretty, Lady Eisner, and I'm sure you're very smart, and talented, and accomplished! And you must be very special if Dim—His Highness likes you, but I'm still going to win! On my honor as the heir of House Dominic!"

"You sound determined," Byleth stated evenly, actively resisting the urge to push her over. "I'm sure you'll accomplish many great things."

"I will!" The girl nodded. "I won't rest until I've become the Royal Court Keeper of Faerghus’ Tradition and Magics!"

"That sounds very ambitious." Byleth nodded, not understanding fully, but wanted to be encouraging to the petite girl and her dreams. "I hope you succeed."

"Thank you!" Annette beamed. "I hope you succeed too, Lady Eisner! Gosh, you're so nice! I'm glad we're rivals now!"

"Yes." She wasn't sure why she agreed to become this girl's rival, but she couldn't stop the automatic response. Besides, she found the girl too cute to say no to. Byleth just wanted to squeeze the breath out of her.

But just as her first ever rivalry started, a new one appeared as Felix cockily stepped right in front of Annette—a superior air about him as he looked down at her.

"So, if you're a real Eisner, then you must be good with a weapon? All the stories have an Eisner as a master at certain techniques." The male suddenly leaned in close, sharp eyes searching hers while his arms crossed tight across his chest. "So, what is it?"

Byleth suddenly wished Annette was back. Instead of a ginger kitten, now she was facing a prickly alley cat.

"Father trained me in different areas, but I usually prefer the sword."

Sylvain and Ingrid let out a collective groan at the mention of her weapon and Byleth couldn't help but feel she just made a big mistake.

"Excuse me?!" Annette spoke up, ducking past Felix. She stood there, pout on her lips, looking braver than she had all night. "Young Lord Fraldarius, forgive me for overstepping, but you already have a house rival."

For a moment Felix looked quite scandalized, like he couldn't believe such a tiny girl would dare to stand up to him, especially one from a retainer house. Then he scoffed, crossing his arms to glare at he., "I'd hardly call the Gautiers rivals. I need a challenge. Their family hasn't even gotten close to the bucket this year."

"Excuse you?" Sylvain spluttered from his spot, turning red as he faced his friend. "What did you just say?"

"That you're hardly even a challenge enough to give a passing thought, much less to declare a real rival," Felix scoffed, crossing his arms. "I need a better challenge to cross my blade with."

"Well! I just got my first rival!" Annette puffed up, trying to glare at Felix. But she was too cute for it to be effective. "Don't you upstage me when I finally get a chance to prove the Dominic name! Th-that's… rude!"

And, all at once, the entire court descended into chaos.

Byleth wasn't sure what was happening—one moment everyone had been welcoming and pleasant despite being just a commoner who shared a name with some hero house—then the next they were all shouting and talking over each other about buckets and rivalries? 

Is this what politics was like? She could see why it was considered rude to talk about such things during family gatherings—just one look on all their faces told her enough. Things were going to get nasty.

In fact... Byleth scanned the room, noting a lot of people were watching them, some even looked excited as the group’s voices rose higher and higher. Now they were drawing an audience, one old man was chuckling and clacking his cane against the ground, as if egging them on. Lady Brunnhilde was no longer fanning herself, but gripping the tool tightly between her hands and twisting it until it creaked.

Uh oh.

She knew these looks. It was something she'd seen many times in the pubs when traveling with her father. It was The Itch. Something that could only be scratched by a good, heavy fist.

Byleth took a wary step back and glanced over at Dimitri who was watching intently—even the King Regent was rising out of his seat. Clearly he did not want a fight to break out in court, but it might have been too late by the way Annette seemed to be poking Felix in the chest.

Byleth took the moment of distraction to sneak under Sylvain's arm as he pointed at Felix. "We've just been going easy on you. Just you wait, but this time next week that bucket will be sitting by my front door where it should be." 

She put her back against the wall as Felix scoffed back, "So will this be the twentieth, or the twenty-third failure this season?"

Byleth was sliding sideways, trying to catch Dimitri's eye as Annette pointed at Felix too. "Don't ignore me! How's your magic? I bet I'm way better at magic than you!"

Dimitri saw Byleth and nodded to the side, where a doorway lead into the depths of the castle, probably meant for servants. At that time, Ingrid pushed into the group and rolled up her sleeves. "I'm tired of all of you! We're trying to have a nice night and now I'm going to have to knock you all down to the ground where you belong."

Byleth tried to head for the doorway, but it was too late. As these things tend to happen, it started when a chair flew through the air and smashed against the wall just above her head. No one knew who threw it, and it didn't matter. The bell had been rung and the great Solstice brawl had begun.

What happened next could only be described as pure chaos.

A man who must have been Felix's father was desperately trying to reach their group, obviously intent to stop the madness before it began, only to run into another man who must have been Sylvain's own father and met a fist to the face. From there, a large, red-bearded man let out a mighty howl. "For the treeeeees!"

Then the man picked up his table, turned to a very specific group, and threw it—dessert and all— straight at the family seated. From across the hall, Byleth could see Felix punch Sylvain straight in the face, knocking him over a table, only for Annette to blast him with a very impressive wind spell. Ingrid somehow decked another full-grown man, knocking him out and sending them flying. 

Another woman let out a mighty yell as a table went flying. Then there was a small, hairy man with a giant drinking horn flying through the hair, wielding the horn like a mighty war axe and smashing the bone so hard against another man's head that the poor fellow went down in that single hit.

King Regent Rufus stood, calling for them all to stop, but it was useless. The room was madness as food flew and impromptu weapons smashed against opponents. The regent visibly pinched the bridge of his nose, obviously giving up and sinking back into the throne, looking rather sour. He said something to the vassal at his side, who then began writing in a thick notebook. 

The madness went on for several minutes, with someone somehow ending up in the rafters and angrily tossing goblets at the crowd, and silverware were flying everywhere as a song of angry cries and howls filled the air. The only ones unaffected were Lady Brunnhilde and a few other elderly attendees, who all watched with heavy amusement. It was truly more like a bar brawl than a ballroom, and Byleth could only watch in astonishment.

Rufus turned to scold at Dimitri, who had also been watching with a small smile on his face for whatever reason. The prince's face fell at whatever his uncle said, but he nodded and stood, reaching one hand out to his vassal. The tanned man nodded, reaching back to grab a decorative lance from the wall and handing it over to the prince.

Dimitri held the lance firmly, face grim, as he took the lance end and slammed it into the ground, causing it to ring so heavily in Byleth's ears that she swore the echo of it vibrated in her soul. "Stop! In the name of your prince!"

And, all at once, they did. Time may as well have stopped for how fast every single noble in the room stopped what they were doing, dropping weapons and chairs and turning to salute and bow. Even the man from the rafter stood at attention. Even a man hanging upside-down from one of the bone chandeliers let himself fall so that he might bow.

Dimitri rubbed his forehead. "I know you are all having fun, but my uncle, your King Regent, reminds you all not to break the furniture."

No one spoke, waiting on their Prince to continue with bated breath. Wondering if he was going to tell them off, or worse, tell them to stop. All the while, said Prince was rubbing the bridge of his nose (a horrible habit picked up from Uncle Rufus). Dimitri sighed, but couldn't stop the small smile form on his face at all the destruction in the ballroom.

I'll be stuck in the office the whole week because of this.

But it seemed worth it—even if Felix had suddenly fallen onto his butt when Annette performed another wind spell behind his back.

The girl jumped onto a table and clenched her eyes shut with determination. "The House Dominic is House Eisner's true rival!!"

Then someone from the crowd (possibly her uncle) cheered her on and the fight started again. Though, this time with less furniture-smashing and more bone-breaking. Their healers were going to be very busy tonight.

Dimitri scanned the crowd and spotted Byleth edging towards the door again, only to be stopped by a large burly man three times her size. The Prince could only jolt forward the moment he saw the man's fist raise, ignoring his Uncle's shout for him to stop as he desperately weaved through the crowd.

The blond successfully dodged kicks and threw solid punches to make it to Byleth, his heart racing with worry as he caught sight of the large noble bring down his meaty fist. But before he could reach out to stop him, his beloved friend was already in action. Feet quicker than from anyone he'd ever seen, he stared in awe as Byleth sidestepped the attack at the last second.

The woman turned her head slightly to look at the noble in the eyes, her own lit with a bright fire as she slammed her leg down over the arm then jabbed her elbow right as his head jerked downwards. Dimitri could practically see the stars circling around the man's head as he stumbled back with a goofy grin.

"Nice shot…”

"Thank you." Byleth brushed a lock of her hair behind her ear, straightening her headband as she stood up and fixed her dress. Around them the fight continued, drawing out everything around him. Dimitri, knowing very well that he couldn't make his uncle any less angry than he already was at him, motioned for the woman to follow him, ducking down as goblets flew by them, and leading her out the servants’ door.

Compared to the chaos inside the drinking hall, the muted servants’ hall seemed peaceful. They could still hear the dull roar of rival houses brawling out three years of repressed grievances, but they were now safe from being dragged into the danger again.

"Are you alright?" Dimitri turned to ask her once he was certain they were safe, checking her over to make sure she had no cuts or bruises. "I know that Faerghus balls can get… intense… especially since they haven't been able to brawl in a while."

"It certainly wasn't expected." Byleth shook her head. "Are… all nobles like this?"

"Faerghus is a special case, I'm afraid," Dimitri chuckled, trying to hide the sound behind his hand. He knew he shouldn't be amused by this fact. His uncle tried to warn him that such things should be discouraged within their court, but it was just so Faerghus he couldn't help it. "In this country , a noble gathering without at least three broken bones is considered a dull affair."

The woman made a surprised noise, glancing back toward the direction of the muted noise, frowning lightly before turning back to him. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Dimitri shook his head. "I was terribly miserable before the brawl broke out. Now everyone is happy and I've escaped my uncle for the rest of the eve. Truly the greatest gift for the celebration of my birth is to escape the party meant for me."

Byleth laughed, and the sound was like a heavenly choir to Dimitri's ears. "I'm sorry. It's not funny that you don't get to enjoy your birthday. If it's any consolation, I've had a great time so far. It's definitely been different than what I expected."

Dimitri opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a loud chime that reverberated through the stone walls. The great clock in the front hall was finally tolling midnight. 

When the final bell died away, Dimitri smiled and held out his hand. "Well. That's convenient. I didn't have to come and snatch you away from the party after all. Come, I know a way out to the gardens from here. No one will notice us but the servants, and hopefully they'll keep it to themselves." 

He stopped as he realized what he was saying, a look of embarrassed surprise passing over his face. "Uh. T-that is, if you still want to. We can go back to the ballroom if you'd rather. The fight is probably dying down now."

Byleth shook her head, embarrassed too. She took his hand and noticed immediately how warm it was. "No, it seems I've gotten to spend more time with everyone else at this ball than the person I came here to see." She felt her ears go red at the admission.

Dimitri smiled down at her and it was like a ray of moonlight shining into her eyes. He tugged on her hand to pull her down the hall. "Come on then, let's go get some fresh air."

Chapter Text

Byleth allowed the Prince to lead her by the hand all the way to the gardens, feeling the warmth of his pierce her own hand as they stepped outside to find it lightly snowing out. Dimitri hummed at the sight before leading Byleth through some small gates and through tiny spots of flowers until they arrived at the garden.

Before her stood a tall wall of leaves and brush, much like the wall of a maze that kept children out from the center of the area. This one had a large, arched opening with vines and thick leaves that was able to stay alive despite the heavy winter and constant snowfall in Faerghus.

Dimitri didn't seem to pay it much mind though as he led Byleth into the gardens, past mostly rows of bushes before turning a corner or two into the center of the garden where they were surrounded by beautiful winter flowers and a quiet fountain sat in the middle of it all.

Byleth herself couldn't help but stare, finding the area beautiful with the fresh layer of snow lightly covering everything around them. As Byleth was mesmerized by the flowers, Dimitri was unable to stop himself from drinking in the sight of her with a little smile on his face.

"Do you like it?"

Byleth blinked, giving the area one last look before nodding to Dimitri. "Yes, it's beautiful."

The moon was large and bright in the sky, giving the two more than enough light as they wandered aimlessly through the courtyard. They left a trail of footprints in the snow as they passed through more flowered arches, unknowingly giving themselves more privacy. The snow dulled all the other sounds, making it seem like they were truly alone and far away from everything else. Dimitri kept hold of Byleth's hand, their fingers laced together and swinging by their sides as they walked.

Finally, Byleth broke the silence. "So… a prince?" 

Dimitri groaned and shut his eyes. "I truly am sorry. It's not as if I wanted to keep it from you. When we met I was not supposed to be out of the castle. I was trying to stay hidden. And then, with everything else, I honestly forgot that you didn't know."

Byleth nodded. "I wasn't really angry with you. Just surprised. It's not often that you find your old friend is going to be the next King." Dimitri breathed a sigh of relief.

"And are you… really an Eisner?" It had hit him just before the brawl broke out, when the Dominic girl had declared her rivalry. An Eisner, here? Now?

Byleth hummed, and tilted her head to rest on top of her fist. "I honestly don't think so. My family name is Eisner, but it's just my father and me. We're simple sell-swords, not warriors of legend. It's hard to imagine the stories I heard having anything to do with me." 

Dimitri looked at her askance, not offering his opinion that he found it very easy to imagine her in the grand legends of the old Eisners.

They paused under a stained glass window. The lights from inside shone out, decorating their path in brilliant colors. Music filtered out from a vent in the top. The ball must have resumed. Byleth's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "How long will the party go on?"

Dimitri made a contemplative sound. "Usually until everyone either goes home or falls asleep under the tables. We have some time yet." 

The Prince turned to her with eyes half lidded and the corners of his mouth turned up. He let go of her hand just long enough to give a small bow before he offered it again. 

"Lady Eisner, may I have this dance?"

Byleth blinked in surprise, lips parting just a bit. She stared at the offered hand, at Dimitri's slight bow as he held it out, and suddenly felt very inadequate, "I still don't know how to dance."

"I can lead." Dimitri glances up at her through his lashes, head still bowed and hand still offered to her, "I cannot boast I am the most accomplished dancer, but I know enough that I believe I can lead."

It was a tempting offer. She was at a ball, after all, and she had yet to dance with anyone. And now there was no one but she and her first and only friend, standing beneath the moonlight in this lovely garden. She doubted anyone will disturb them for a while with the brawl going on, and Dimitri cut a dashing figure in this light. She may never get another chance to dance with a prince, friendship or no, so it seems silly to turn down such a perfect opportunity.

She placed her hand in his.

Gloved fingers curled against hers and Dima stood tall, smiling so brightly that it made something inside her constrict. He pulled her closer to her, and my, he'd gotten taller than her hadn't he? Last time she'd been the taller one, but now he stood a good inch or two taller at least.

He pulled their entwined hand above shoulder level, his other hand finding her waist, "Just follow my steps, don't worry, I won't step on your toes."

Nodding in compliance, she did as he said, copying his stance. Once they were settled he started humming along with the tune and swaying their bodies in time with it. It was a slow dance, with relaxing movements, back and forth and comfortable. The sound vibrated through his body, tingling against her skin. It was an easy song to dance to, she thought, and she let herself become comfortable, trusting Dima to lead her in this particular dance.

The prince smiled, his fingers curling just a little bit tighter as he slowly broke from two steps to four. Byleth almost stumbled as he pulled her forward, her foot catching on the snow but Dimitri was quick to keep her steady. He didn't comment on it, something Byleth was thankful for, but the slight bit of embarrassment didn't seem to matter as he pulled her more towards the middle of the area.

"You're doing well," Dimitri praised, making her feel flustered as he added one more step, this time a gentle turn in place.

Byleth was glad to say she was catching on quick, but none of the steps seemed to be registering. Instead she could only focus on the hand curled in her own and the one planted firmly in her waist. Beneath them the light of the stained glass window shone brilliantly against the snow covered ground, all while snowflakes slowly fell around them.

Dimitri spun her again, this time a little faster as he let out a laugh, pure joy spreading across his lips that she couldn't help but reflect. Her lips lifted and her heart started to make her feel strange again—the constant ba-bump ba-bump acting like a tempo to their winter dance. She felt cold flurries kiss her cheeks and lashes, her skin was going numb from the cold and the spinning, but her body felt too warm—oo on fire to worry about it.

Byleth just wanted to focus on his large hand holding her own, how his body seemed to lure her around with ease, and how his smile made her feel like she was walking on air.

Then he lifted her, just as he had when they were children—his smile making her heart practically want to burst from her chest. Byleth couldn't stop the smile that seemed to form into a bigger one, or how she laughed brilliantly with him when they spun around again and again; more focused on enjoying themselves then following a particular dance.

"Ah!" Dimitri made a surprised sound, spinning her around and letting her feet hit the ground, "Byleth! Make that expression again!"

Byleth paused, confused for a moment, thinking back. Only the laughter playing through her mind. So she tries to recreate her smile, just as it had been for the twirling, "This one?"

"Ah! Yes!" Dimitri smiles brilliantly, looming over her slightly. The light of the stain glass hits him, making him shine in blues and whites and golds, the snow hitting his cheeks, catching in his hair and lashes as he stood against the winter wind. He didn't shiver even a bit, standing there like he was part of the falling snow. 

A Staryk , she recalled the stories shared between the mercenaries on cold winter nights over an open fire, white and gold winter spirits that can walk the snow untouched . They can make silver sing, and turn it into gold at a touch, and they're as inhumanly strong as they are beautiful . He looked like one now, she thinks, standing pale and strong against the winter.

"I don't think I've ever seen you make that expression before!" He spun her around again, and how strange she didn’t feel the cold at all when he held her like this. He laughed, and was one of the most lovely things she thought she's ever heard, "It's downright mesmerizing!"

Byleth blinked, allowing the silence of falling snow to continue around them as they stilled in their dance. Her heart was tumbling in her chest like a ball falling downstairs—thumping against her ribcage in a beautifully painful rhythm. She felt like she was lost in a moment in time; nothing else around them mattered then the way their hands held onto one another or how their eyes refused to stray.

She must have been staring for too long because Dimitri was starting to blush and fidget, a nervous energy suddenly about him as his hand clenched hers.

"M-My apologies," he swallowed hard and his smile grew hesitant. "That was very forward of me."

She couldn't help but keep watching as he began to tremble like a leaf as more fumbled self-reprimands spilled from his lips when Byleth didn't reply. Feeling he'd been suffering enough, she brought his gloved hand to her cheek and leaned into it, a sense of ease washing over her the moment his hand made contact.

"It's okay." Byleth's voice was barely above a whisper, but the crisp winter air was quiet enough for the Prince to hear. "I don't mind smiling for you."

Dima shuddered, body easing in visible relief. He smiled, pink cheeked as he glanced down, unable to meet her eyes for a moment. His thumb unconsciously brushed against her cheek. His blue eyes eventually travelled up, meeting her own as the snow fell against his flushed cheeks and eyelashes again. He swallowed, gathering his courage, "Then I want to see if I can keep making that expression."

And then she was in the air and spinning once again, round and round and round, Dima holding her up and spinning her over the entire yard. Byleth gave a surprised laugh, which caused the prince to return it with his own laugh as he spun faster. From her place above him, he seemed to be drowning in moonlight, shining brighter than she thinks even a winter sprite could.

Dima must have gotten dizzy with his own spinning, because he somehow missed a small stone gargoyle that was hidden in the snow, causing him to trip back with a surprised yell. His back hit the snow, sending large piles flying every which way, and Byleth found herself landing on top of him and the wind knocked out of her. His arms hand instinctively wrapped around her as they fell, keeping her in place as they landed in the snow. 

Now they lay there, high off dizziness and happiness and the sheer absurdity of what had happened, Dima let out a loud and half disbelieving laugh, his arms still wrapped around her, "Are you alright, Byleth?"

No, because something odd was happening to her heart. She was pressed to him, hands on his chest, wrapped in strong arms. He was...so strong. He was very strong. She pushed herself up, staring down at him who was pillowed by the snow. No, a winter sprite wasn’t right. Rather, he was a winter king laying in his bed, and she's been dragged to his realm.

"I am unharmed." She murmured.

His eyes were on her still, face so flushed and pink that it stood starkly from the white world around him. Her mask has fallen off, and he realized that for the first time after three years of separation, he was looking at her bare face, which was just as beautiful as—No, “beautiful” just wasn’t enough to describe Byleth. He couldn’t find any words to… 

Dimitri licked his lips, breathing hot breath against her, "We should get up."

"Yes." She agreed.

But they didn't. Something hung heavy in the air, keeping them in place. It was the warmth, she thought, because the world around them was freezing, but his arms were like being clothed in a cloak of fire. She was content to stay here, and he was content to let them sit for just a moment longer.

Byleth reached towards his face after a long moment, then hesitated. Dimitri blinked, curious as to what she was doing until her fingertips brushed the crevice between his mask and cheek. He started, forgetting he'd been wearing it during the whole ball.

"May I?"

Dimitri gulped, suddenly feeling anxious at the thought of her seeing his face. Sure, she'd seen it when they were children, her quick hands pushing back his handcrafted hood to catch a glimpse. 

While she was laying bare to him, he was still in hiding. He felt like the scared little Prince again, not wishing to share his home life for fear she'd turn away and run. This mask was the last thing that separated her from his royal life and he feared it'd ruin everything they had once she pulled it away.

But then she leaned closer and he quickly forgot his insecurities to focus on her sparkling eyes that looked like jewels on her neutral face.

" Please? "

Dimitri broke. He broke so quickly that he was sure he should feel ashamed of it—but just seeing Byleth plead for him? It was the moment Dimitri knew he wouldn't be able to deny her anything. So he nodded, feeling a tight gripping at his heart as she brushed his cheeks gently before removing his mask.

He held his breath, eyes wavering before looking away as Byleth stared down at him in silence.

Her cold fingers caressed Dimitri's cheek just under his eye. "You're so beautiful, Dima. It's hard to imagine you as that cute little boy I met at the festival." 

His arms tightened a little around her as he huffed out a laugh. "I feel as though that should be something I say to you." 

His eyes reflected the starlight as they turned back to meet hers. She propped herself up on his chest with one arm while the other hand moved lightly around his face and into his hair as she brushed his bangs out of his face. Dimitri shivered and let out a breath. His hands moved down until they rested on her hips.

Byleth was knocked out of her reverie as her hand traveled down to his neck and she noticed that his shirt collar was wet. They were still lying in the snow! Instantaneous heat crawled up her face as she noticed their ignominious position. "Oh, Goddess. I'm sorry." 

She broke out of his hold as she sat up, straddling him for a moment before climbing to her feet. "Please, let me help you up." She held out her hand to him. 

He took it with a smile on his lips. "It's quite alright. No harm done." 

Byleth hauled Dimitri to his feet, and he stumbled a little with legs cold from the snow. He ended up much closer to her than she meant him to be, with her arms on his chest and his wrapped around her waist. Their body heat mingled between them, fighting off the cold from the snow. He looked down at her with a peaceful expression as one hand traveled up her side and his fingers came to rest at her neck.

Byleth felt herself shiver, though whether it was from the cold or from Dimitri's touch, she wasn't sure. She could only stare at his face while his long fingers caressed her skin and tangle themselves in her hair.

"Byleth..." He leaned in, their foreheads brushing against each other while his hot breath fanned across her lips. Dimitri hesitated, his eyes dropping to her mouth then back to her curious orbs as he swallowed hard. "M-May I...?"

Chapter Text

A sudden sound of something crashing pulled them out of their daze. Both turned to see a stone vase shattered across the ground, shards mixed in with clumps of soil and roots buried in pure white snow. Behind it was a woman in servants attire, her hands up and eyes wide in shock at what she'd just done. Then Dimitri heard another hushed voice and realized, to his utter embarrassment, that there was another maid crouched behind another, large stone vase.

"O-Oh dear!" The woman looked between the mess and the Prince with panic before she tried to curtsy. "I-I-I'm so sorry, yer Highness! I didn't mean ta interrupt!"

Dimitri brought his hand up to cover the bottom half of his face, eyes shut tight with embarrassment as heat rose to his cheeks and ears. "N-No, it's quite alright."

Byleth took a step back, putting space between them as their hands fell to their sides. They looked at each other awkwardly, flushes on both of their faces as each one tried to think of a way to put the other one back at ease.

Eventually, Dimitri held out his arm for Byleth to take. He coughed into his other hand. "Shall we continue our walk then?" Byleth put her hand in the crook of his elbow and nodded as she averted her eyes. He pressed her hand, trying to relieve her of some of the awkwardness as they started to walk again.

They moved in silence, with just the accompanying crunch of snow as each one was lost in their own thoughts.

Dimitri stared ahead, feeling like a little boy caught in the middle of doing something bad as he heard the servants harsh whispers from behind them. "Are they leaving?"

Byleth spared a glance over her shoulder to see the two maids scurry around the mess, one hitting the other in the arm and glaring.

"No. I think they're going to clean it up."

Dimitri frowned, gripping her hand tight as they turned the corner. Once they were out of the servants' line of sight the Prince allowed his shoulders to fall as he let out a forced laugh.

"Well, that was certainly embarrassing." He ran a hand through his hair while his eyes stayed on the ground.

She stared at him, noting he was trying to sneak a peek at her from beneath his lashes but was caught each time. "Yes. But it was nice before that."

"O-Oh?" That made the Prince straighten a little, though he was still too shy to look at her.

Byleth just hummed in reply as she stepped a little closer to his side. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and was taken aback by how handsome he was. The light from the windows haloed his hair and face. He had a small smile and a twinkle in his eye as he turned and caught her looking.

"Come, I just remembered a place I'd like to show you." He turned her down a path through the hedges. 

They weaved around flower beds and past a training ground Byleth decided she wanted to come back to later. She wondered what it would be like to spar with Dimitri, and got excited about putting his strength against her skill.

Eventually he stopped her in front of a lily pond surrounded by cattails. There was a small fishing pier reaching out into the water, and a great oak with a swing hanging from its branches. Statues of old heroes, their faces worn away by time, decorated one side of the park.

"I used to come here with my friends a lot when we were little. It's one of my favorite places on the castle grounds." Dimitri looked around the grounds wistfully, suddenly feeling nostalgic.

Byleth could see why, with the way the statues still seemed in fine shape despite years and years of worn from the weather. The area was beautifully maintained as well and the swing hanging from the oak's mighty branch was probably a delight for small children to use for hours on end.

But what she really liked was the pond, with a few fish swimming lazily beneath its still surface. Though she was sure it was just as pretty during the day, she couldn't help but prefer to be here at night. The pond acted as a mirror to the sky, its cold surface reflecting the many thousands of stars that spanned across the sky. Gentle snowflakes fell to its surface, but even it couldn't ripple the image of the full moon on its surface and making Byleth feel she was looking into another world.

She looked to Dimitri, finding that he was waiting eagerly on her opinion but was also trying hard not to show it.

"It's lovely. I guess you have many fond memories here?"

The Prince nodded, smile as bright as the moon that shone in the sky as he led her towards the row of statues. "Yes! This place was the perfect getaway from tutors and work. I remember running through here with Sylvain and Felix—playing with sticks and pretending to be gallant knights."

He led Byleth over to the swing and she sat down, pushing herself back and forth a bit with her toes as he continued.

"There was one time we were playing Loog and Kyphon. I was usually Loog, and Felix liked to be Kyphon. Sylvain, for whatever reason, liked to be the villain. He pretended to be a dashing rogue with an eyepatch and a chip on his shoulder." Dimitri chuckled at the memory. "Anyway, this one time, Felix and I had him backed out onto the pier, our sticks pointed at his chest. He lunged forward, picked up Felix, tossed him onto his shoulder, and yelled 'If you want your sidekick back alive you'll surrender!'. Then Felix elbowed him in the back of the head and they both fell into the water." 

He laughed as he told the story, and Byleth couldn't help but think about how handsome he was just then with that carefree smile on his face and the burden of the years off his shoulders.

"That sounds amusing, it must have been quite a sight." Byleth encouraged, wanting that smile to remain. Even when he had met him three years ago he seemed to always be weighed down by burdens, so to see him so carefree was good.

"Oh! It was!" Dimitri laughed, "They were both soaking wet! And Felix as wearing new shoes as well. He was so furious, like a wet kitten. He, of course, completely blamed Sylvain for the misfortune and spent the rest of the even chasing him with his stick. I, of course, tried to stop it, but Sylvain ended up slipping on some mud and falling face first, once again tripping poor Felix after him. 

“Meanwhile, I stood completely unscathed by the adventure, and had to escort them both back, covered in mud, to the castle where our fathers were drinking wine with a Lord from Leicester. Oh, their faces!"

He hadn't stopped smiling through the whole story, and his voice only got higher and more excited as he recounted in detail what happened next, and the three fathers desperately trying to save face.

Byleth was happy to listen, but she found her eyes dancing across the lake and over statues. She hummed as he finished his tale, recounting how it had somehow ended in Felix and Sylvain being forced into renewed lessons in proper tea etiquette. 

"What is this place?" Byleth asked softly, wanting to know the name of the place that held to many fond memories and could ease his troubles so.

Dimitri, still proud and happy, waved his arm, "Ah! An excellent question! This is the Lake Of Kings! Each of these are my ancestors!"

He gestured at a large statue in the center of the lake, "That is Loog, first King of Faerghus, and after him is King Aurora, She-Wolf of the North, and next to her is King… oh, no, I must stop before I turn this into a history lesson."

Dimitri shook his head, "Only the Kings and some specially revered heroes are allowed statues here. My friends and I used to camp here and swear we'd all be great enough to earn statues here one day. Ah, we were so silly then."

Byleth blinked, wondering what Dimitri's statue would look like if they were to make one. Would his hair be as long as it was when they were children? Or short like it was now? Would he bare scars? Tired lines or happy ones? Would he still have his wonderful smile?

Folding her hands in her lap, she quickly decided to pull herself from these thoughts. "Your friends are quite interesting—I never expected to be bowing before a King and a Prince tonight."

Dimitri's mouth twitched as he let out a frustrated noise. " Sylvain. " He clenched his fist and huffed, "I'm so sorry about that. Sylvain likes to do things to get a laugh at my expense and it seems you were caught in the crossfire."

"No harm done… I hope." Byleth tried to shrug off, only to frown as she realized that there might have been misunderstandings afoot, "Though the King Regent is now likely under the impression that I'm from a noble house. It is not so, I am a commoner." 

Dimitri tilted his head at that, looking rather curious, "But didn't you and Miss Dominic end up starting off a rivalry tonight?"

"I don't see how that's relevant." Byleth shook her head, "But I'm sure she was mistaken as well."

Dimitri hummed, a curious sound. He tilted his head further, studying her for a moment, before his eyes lit up in sudden understanding. He perked up, opening his mouth to say something, only to be cut off by a loud clang and a shout in the distance.

"You don't want to fight me, Dominic!" Was that...her father's voice? It was, that was Jeralt's voice. What was he doing here? "Not only can I out fight you, but I can do it with a crippled hand and drunk on a full keg! Now tell me where my daughter is!"

"I won't stand here and take such an insult from you !" Another man shouted, "I don't know where your daughter ran off to! You tell me where my niece is! She was last seen with you! You fiend! "

"I told you, the kid attacked me, it's not my fault she ran off after." Her father made a scoffing noise, "This is why I avoided the court, I don't have time for this."

Chapter Text

Byleth felt the blood drain from her face. She grabbed hold of Dimitri's sleeve, getting his attention from the shouting. "That sounds like my father." 

Dimitri raised his eyebrows. "He sounds angry. Did you not tell him where you were?"

Byleth nodded. But he was already deep in his cups by then, so he might not have been paying attention.

The Prince sighed. "Well, it sounds like he's about to get into a fight with Lord Dominic. If his daughter was excited to meet an Eisner I can only imagine how bad her uncle might be."

Dimitri took her hand and helped her to her feet. "We should probably go before something else gets destroyed. My uncle is already in a bad mood after the ball earlier." 

Together they left the pond and followed the shouts to the front courtyard where two middle aged men were squaring up against each other in the middle of a crowd. Byleth recognized her father at once. Jeralt's face was ruddy with drink. His sandy colored hair was tufted out in all directions like he'd been running his fingers through it, and his soft brown eyes were half lidded and angry looking as they glared at the ginger haired man Byleth assumed was Lord Dominic.

"A' came here tae save my daughter from ye stuffed shirts and nae Dominic is going tae stop me." He sneered at the other man. 

"I don't know where she is. But I'm not about to let a fool Eisner rampage about the castle like a drunken bull." The crowd was quiet, holding its breath for the first punch. 

Before any blows could be exchanged however, Byleth pushed through the crowd with Dimitri in tow. Jeralt saw her and his eyes lit up. "Byleth. Ye're safe!"

"I'm perfectly fine, Father. Why are you here?" Byleth tried to keep the frustration out of her voice.

"A' was orderin' ‘nother drink when one o’ the castle folk bust ‘nto the tavern, yellin' ‘bout how the Prince was going tae marry an Eisner lass. How was A' not supposed tae come?"

Byleth marched up to him, grabbing his arm from where he'd already readied it to punch the assumed Lord Dominic. "Father, you're drunk, we should go before you do something you'll regret in the morning."

Her father swayed a bit on his feet, cheeks slightly flushed. His eyes eyes caught Dimitri, and the fire in them was suddenly even more alight as he caught sight of the blonde hair, pointing an accusatory finger at him, "Say, ye're the fuckin prince!"

Dimitri jumped at her father's large hand in his face, blinking in astonishment, "Ah, yes, a pleasure to meet you, Lord Eisner."

"A'm no a lord." Her father huffed, glare set, "A dinnae have lands or a title."

"Father, you're being aggressive towards a prince." Byleth stated evenly, sighing, "That will be terrible for business if we ever wish to work in the kingdom again."

"I didn't want ye to find out this way, Byleth." Her father looked at her before looking back at Dimitri, poking him in the chest, "An’ I especially didnae want ye tae meet a damn Blaiddyd. Crazy fuckers th’ lot of them."

"How dare you lay a finger on the prince!" The assumed Lord Dominic howled, throwing down his shield, "You have just proven yourself a most unfit retainer! Let us settle this like true Faerghus men, Eisner!"

"How dare the prince lay a hand on ma daughter!" Jeralt turned to spit at him, "A’ only have one."

But Lord Dominic had already rolled up his sleeves and took the first swing. Her father, not one to hold back, stepped out of the way and took his own, landing a hit in the Dominic's chest. Byleth could only watch, wide eyed, as the two men were suddenly drunkenly brawling in the middle of the crowd.

What, in the name of Fodlan, had happened to her father?

Byleth watched in horror as the two men threw punch after punch, whether dodging or taking it to the gut or jaw or either way, the men seemed to be able to handle it despite their wobbly legs. But Byleth could tell Lord Dominic hadn't been in a decent brawl for a while, while her father was in one whenever the pub got too rowdy and they hadn't had work for a week.

She knew that they were drunk and not really aiming to kill or maim—but it was still embarrassing.

The main issue was jumping in to stop it. While Dominic could throw a decent punch, her father didn't seem hindered by the hits and merely responded with quick jabs that he shouldn't be using outside the battlefield.

"F-Father! Stop!"

But the crowd had drowned out her shouts when Jeralt took a punch to the jaw but merely turned his head and act like it was nothing (it would have looked cool if his knees weren't knocking together). She turned to Dimitri, hoping for some kind of help or advice, but he didn't get the chance as the crowd suddenly went quiet on one side then part to make way for the King Regent.

"Oh no..." Dimitri groaned under his breath as his uncle took center stage to sneer at the two fighters.

"Well, well, well." King Regent Rufus sneered as he clicked his heels, watching the two brawlers, "So this is the great Eisner man? And here I heard that your house were supposed to be sensible."

"Ah, ye must be th’ King Regent." Her father grunted, punching the Lord Dominc particularly harshly and sending him stumbling back a few feet as he turned to face Rufus, "A'm gonnae regret sayin’ this i’ the morning, but a’ heard ye were a right prick."

The King Regent snorted as several in the crowd gasped, "Bold."

"Someone had tae fuckin’ say it. Thas a’ways been tae Eisner job if A’ remember right." Jeralt placed his hands on his hips, "A’ know a prick when A’ see one."

"Father." Byleth hissed, making her way over and grabbing his arm. 

Her father made a grunting noise, pulling his arm away to wrap around her shoulders, pulling her close, "Keep yer hands aff ma daughter. A already burnit a church when she was a babe, A can burn more."

"Father!" Byleth stopped him, holding him up so he wouldn't sway as much. She turned her eyes on the King Regent, "Forgive us, Your Grace, my father must have had a keg too many. I will make sure he doesn't destroy anything else."

"Uncle." Dimitri stepped up, trying to come to her defense, "Lord Eisner is no more drunk than anyone else. I'm sure a slight or two can be forgiven… given the outrageous rumors that must have led him here."

The King Regent glanced at Dimitri, his eyes bright and accusatory as he glared at the blond. "Yes, I wonder how such rumors came to be." Dimitri stiffened under his uncle's gaze and immediately felt guilty for all this trouble, whether or not it was his fault.

Byleth struggled to keep her father still while he pointed at the king and prince. "Ma daughter ain't marryin' anyone."

She pushed his hand down only for him to lift it back up to point with more vigor until she grabbed his wrist and held it down. "Father! I don't know what you've heard—"

"Apparently enough." Rufus snorted while gesturing to the guard on his right. "See that Eisner here gets a proper bed. He's in no shape to return to...wherever he's staying and it'd be unkind to force his daughter to shoulder him."

"Uncle?" Dimitri looked to the King Regent questioningly, knowing he didn't allow just anyone to take up one of the guest rooms. That meant they'd have to alert the staff to make a bed, start a fire, warm the mattress with coals, and generally waste time and energy.

But the King Regent ignored his nephew in favor of grumbling to himself about costs and how alcohol should be banned outright. "And see that Lord Dominic has his jaw checked—that looked like a mean right hook."

The guard started to lead Jeralt away. He growled at people as they passed, but clearly he was losing steam. Byleth bit her lip and looked at Dimitri.

"I should probably go with him… so he doesn't punch anyone else." 

Dimitri gave her a worried look, but nodded in agreement. "Yes. I shall meet up with you later." 

Rufus frowned at the prince and sneered. "You'll go with them now. She needs an escort and her father clearly isn't up to the task." 

Dimitri looked at him with surprise and confusion before narrowing his eyes. He spoke in a low voice to his uncle as Byleth and her father got some distance away. "What are you scheming, Uncle? This isn't like you."

"Think, boy!” Rufus snorted. “If they really are Eisners then being on their bad side is more trouble than being on the bad side of pack of dire wolves. Furthermore, she seems sensible enough for you to marry. She even seems to like you for some reason. Finally, if you two get married then that will bring the Eisner lands, and their fortune, under the Blaiddyd name." 

The Regent made a sour face, like he was about to say something he would regret later. "The only conclusion is to cozy up to them for now. If they turn out to be false then there's no real harm done. We can always turn them out."

"Uncle. " Dimitri jerked, blinking up at the older man, "Are you suggesting that you wish me to marry By—Lady Eisner for their interest revenue ?" 

"They've been sitting on that building fortune for over a hundred years." Rufus clapped his hands together, chuckling darkly, "All that gold, all the growing resources on their lands… even if you somehow manage to ruin this I can still find a way to reacquaint them with their lands and not only earn the approval of this court, but create the perfect excuse to open their vaults again. Do you know what that means, boy?"

The prince groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose, "Back taxes?"

"Good, you're not completely dull." Rufus hummed, looking away, "Marriage is, of course, preferable, but I have to make contingencies for your very likely failure."

The prince's face twisted at his uncle's harsh words, shoulders sinking as he let out a breath. Rufus scolded at the visible display of mood, wrinkling his nose, "Don't be like that, boy. Straighten up. I'm not here to baby you. Honestly, you're too spoiled for attention. You'll never catch that girl like this. Honestly, I'm surprised someone as seemingly sensible as her granted you even a moment's attention. Good job on that, by the way, it's the most politically savvy thing you've done with your princehood thus far."

The prince's shoulders only sunk further. Behind them, one of the guards made a sympathetic noise, only to be elbowed by another, shutting them up as the uncle continued to scold his nephew, "And I most certainly hope you don't think I've forgotten your most unacceptable behavior tonight. I had thought you were becoming half sensible, but I've clearly been too soft on you. Once you're done escorting the Eisners to their rooms I want you back in my offices. I'll straighten that attitude out."

"Yes, Uncle." Dimitri sighed, hands clenching, "As you wish."

"Then away with you," Rufus shooed with a dismissive hand. "I have a mess to clean up and I don't have time to be watching you stumble over basic things."

Dimitri bowed, hoping more so to hide his furrowed brow then to show respect, before turning on his heel to catch up with the little family. The prince didn't have to move too far as the guard helping Jeralt along was having some… trouble.

"Father," Byleth hissed while smacking Jeralt's arm when the man tried to trip the same soldier supporting his weight. "Stop that! He's only helping!"

"Hate how damn clean this place is," Jeralt grumbled as he stuck a clumsy foot out again, as if trying to get the poor soldier to fall and scuff his armor. Thankfully the guard was patient and seemed to avoid falling over with the drunk hanging off his shoulder. "Tay many damned rules, nae enough tae drink."

"You've had enough to drink," Byleth frowned. Everything her father was spouting out only seemed to worry her. He talked as if he'd been to Faerghus Court before and had an idea that their name really meant something here. He wasn't even denying that they weren't the same Eisner that everyone thought they were—an action that only made her realize that perhaps they were...

"Here, let me help." Dimitri piped up, going to her father's other side and letting his arm hook over his shoulder. The prince lifted Jeralt up slightly, giving the guard less deadweight to deal with as they went into the castle.

Jeralt blinked at the prince, eyes showing slight surprise before he slumped in both men's arms—forcing them to do all the work. "Yer pretty strong for a kid."

Dimitri merely laughed. "Yes, it can come in handy in times such as these."

In the entrance hall they passed Felix, Syvain, and Ingrid. Sylvain was nursing a black eye, and Felix's shirtsleeve was ripped all the way to his shoulder. Ingrid somehow still looked pristine. She eyed the party carrying Jeralt with confusion. "Who is that?"

Sylvain took the ice pack off of his face so he could blink. "I don't recognize the one in the middle, but Lady Byleth is with them so maybe she knows him?"

Felix growled as the guard led them down the hallway where the guest quarters were located. "We missed something, didn't we?"

Just behind them there was a delighted cackle, and all three friends jumped to the side, scared out of their wits. Ingrid turned to glare at her grandmother. "Granny! Mom told you to stop sneaking up on people."

"My dear Lady Brunnhilde!" Sylvain immediately turned on the charm. "You make everyday brighter with your presence. Do you mind telling us what's going on?"

Chapter Text

Granny Brunnhilde grinned like a villain whose plans were all finally coming together. "Kids these days don't know how to use their eyes. Here you are licking your wounds when your friend over there needs your help. Come here and let Granny fill you in."

"Oh no." Ingrid groaned, slumping over in defeat, "Granny, what did you do?"

"Now, barnebarn, dear granny has done nothing." Brunnhilde snapped open her fan, flapping the fur lined accessory quickly, daring to hide her grin, "The only thing she has done was bearing witness to the first real ball this Kingdom has had since dear Lambert, Sothis rest his soul, was tragically slain by those..."

"I'd like to remind the Lady Brunnhilde that Prince Dimitri has softness in his heart for all people ." Sylvain cut in, grinning ruefully. "But, please, tell us the news we've missed during our… contest."

"You can just say you lost the duel for the bucket, dearie." Granny fanned herself, "But, here, Granny heard the most interesting news from Old Nanny. Oh, you'll never believe. Her girls spotted a most ‘romantic’ moment between his Highness and the Eisner girl tonight."

Granny then snapped her fan closed, "And the unconscious man? Oh! That's her Lord Father! The Eisner man himself! Who is reportedly drunk off of three whole kegs of hard cider and ran here straight from the tavern only to start a brawl with both Dominics! But, that's not the most interesting part, no no, Rufus is setting them up for tonight. Yes! In the guest rooms! You know what that means, yes? Hmmm? We may be seeing a transfer of lands soon. And with that, some wedding bells if Rufus has his way."

Sylvain gaped, though he tried to take this news with humor. "W-Wow, Dimitri sure moves fast."

Ingrid punched his arm, making the redhead whine about how someone had already stepped on it earlier and didn't need any more abuse. "You're lucky I didn't pull it off then!"

She turned to her gentle, sweet, gossiping granny and smiled, "How can you know about all this? You were in the ballroom cheering on Lord Powell as he was thrown by Lord Forrester."

Brunnhilde sniffed and gestured with her fan in a secret code that women are seemingly taught while growing up. The action caused Ingrid to blush, as if reprimanded for daring to challenge her dear granny. "I have my ways, dearie. Why! I knew when the prince's mother, Sothis rest her sweet soul, was pregnant before anyone else!"

"But that's besides the point," Granny huffed while pointing with her fan at the small group as they disappeared up the staircase to the guest area of the castle, Dedue already not far behind. "Things are about to get very interesting! So you three best try hard not to ruin it for the prince."

"Granny!"

She fanned herself, a sad look on her face. "The poor boy has been through so much already. He needs a pretty little wife to take care of him."

"Or she can take care of m—" But Sylvain interrupted his own words with a yelp as Ingrid stomped down on his toe.

His voice echoed off the stone walls and following the small group up the stairs. Dimitri decided to ignore it, somehow knowing the redhead deserved it.

They didn't have too much trouble getting Jeralt up the stairs, not with the prince holding him, but the man was babbling about things that merely confused him. The man talked of hating Faerghus traditions and rules that he'd purposely broken during his time in court, but Dimitri couldn't help but wonder when the last time the man had even been to the castle. It was starting to sound like a very long time considering most of the things he snarked on hadn't been done in many, many years.

But Dimitri nodded and listened, not wishing to make the man unruly as they climbed the stairs—Byleth behind them, adding in and trying to shush her father whenever he insulted something about the royal family. It was when they reached the top that Dedue appeared at Dimitri's side, bowing.

"Your Highness, I have just been informed of our… guests. Which room shall I prepare for them?"

The Prince thought for a moment, "The Green Room for Lord Eisner and the Blue Room for Lady Byleth."

Dedue looked surprised, and rightly so, seeing as those were the best guest rooms they had to offer. They were mainly reserved for visiting royalty, but Dimitri couldn't help but want to give it to them. Plus, his uncle never specified which room they could have AND he did tell the Prince to cozy up.

"Yes," Dimitri smiled boldly. "Those two rooms will do just fine."

"Fookin Blaiddyds." The man hanging off the prince's shoulders hissed as he was lifted again, "Tae lot of ye weres always too damn strong. Ole Pan shoulda stayed on tha mountain says A."

Dedue narrowed his eyes at the drunken man, but was content to lead the they party up the stairs to the requested rooms. The man grumbled more as the Duscan threw open the doors, moving to help the prince settle their new guest in. Dimitri gently dropped the man on the bed, earning a grunt from him.

"A can take oof me own shoes." Jeralt stumbled as he tried to kick off his heavy boots, forgetting that they were belted in his drunken state, "Don’ need no… no… Blaiddyd burnin em or somesuch."

"His highness will not burn them." Dedue muttered as he tried to remove them anyway.

"I am so sorry about my father." Byleth spoke up, turning the prince away from the grim task. The young woman closed her eyes for a moment, trying to let the long string of curses fade away from her ears, "He doesn't normally get drunk… well… he doesn't around me anyway. But he's not normally this bad when he does. I don’t know what happened."

"There is nothing to worry about." Dimitri's lips quirked, ignoring Jeralt's demand that Dedue put his shoes back on so that he could take them off himself, "This is quite normal for a Faerghus ball, I'm afraid. I'm sure we've had much worse tonight than a broken jaw."

While Dimitri entrusted Dedue to look after Byleth's father, he led her next door to the blue room. True to its name, the room was decorated in a rainbow of blue hues. He had always liked this room, it gave him a calming feeling of being under water.

Byleth seemed to agree, as she sighed and spun in a circle so she could see it all. She turned back to Dimitri, who was standing near the door. 

A blush crept across her cheeks, and she thought she saw a matching one on his. Both of them standing as though they were suddenly shy of each other.

Byleth stepped closer to Dimitri, leaning forward to take his hand as she looked up into his face. His eyes met hers without blinking. "I had a great time tonight, Dima. I wish it wasn't coming to an end. Who knows what will happen tomorrow."

Dimitri found it hard to speak now that they were alone again and he was suddenly remembering everything they'd done that night. Meeting up, talking on the balcony and sharing a wonderful moment, dancing beneath the moonlight and even...

"I-I had a wonderful time, too."

His gaze flitted to her mouth then back to her eyes, suddenly remembering how he'd almost asked for a kiss.

"She seems sensible enough for you to marry. She even seems to like you for some reason."

His uncle's voice seemed to echo in his head and he truly wondered if the king regent had been serious. Him and Byleth? Married? W-Why! That was just silly!

Dimitri's eyes looked back at her mouth, feeling his own go dry while his hands started to clam up in hers.

"P-Perhaps you'd like to join me..." He blushed, quickly adding. "T-Tomorrow! Join me tomorrow for-" What did women like again? Blasted. He was never good at this. "Weapons training?"

WHAT NO, IDIOT!!

But it was too late, he was already babbling about his lance work and current swordsmanship training Felix was putting him through. Then he was bragging about Felix and he wasn't sure how he'd gotten to that, all the while Byleth stared up at him with the patience of a saint.

"A-And you can see how well balanced he is!" Dimitri smiled as his head grew dizzy at his own stupidity. "He manages to make swinging a sword look like an art and—"

Byleth moved to stand on the tips of her toes, going in to plant a sweet kiss on the Prince's cheek and immediately silencing him. She smiled and gave his hands a squeeze.

"I'd love to join you during your training."

"Th-That will be simply wonderful!" Dimitri spluttered out, trying not to show just how relieved he felt that she'd agreed. He was still not sure he's done things right, per se, but he obviously hadn't completely failed to entertain his dear friend either. Perhaps, if he was lucky, he could spend the day with her without the needless drama of court brawls. "I very much look forward to it."

"As do I." Byleth gifted him with one last fleeting smile as she turns to face her temporary room, "Good night, Dima."

"Yes… good night, Byleth." Dimitri bid her a final farewell as she closed the door. He stood there for a long moment, waiting, before finally reaching to touch his cheek, where the skin still tingled with the feel of her lips.

His heart thumped in his chest, and despite all the losses of the night, everything felt worth it for that feeling against his cheek.

Byleth rested with her back against the door. She'd kissed him! Well, only his cheek, but she still couldn't believe she'd done that! 

All night she'd felt the pull towards him and in the end she couldn't restrain herself. If she was being truthful, she hadn't wanted to let him go at all. She was both glad and disappointed that she had been able to close the bedroom door.

As she began to peel off the layers of clothes necessary to go to a ball, Byleth walked across the deep blue carpeting to the balcony doors set in the outside wall and opened them, suddenly feeling a bit too hot.

'The Lady Eisner'. It was a fun thought, even if she still had a hard time believing it was true. But her father had indeed been acting strangely since he had gotten here. Was it possible that her father had some hidden double life that she wasn't aware of?

Thinking on it, Byleth didn't know a lot about Jeralt's past. He was stubbornly tight lipped about it. She was suddenly regretful that she hadn't pushed harder for the information instead of just accepting things as they were.

Byleth climbed into the fluffy down bed and sighed. She couldn't remember if she'd ever laid in anything so comfortable. All the days events began to overtake her and she found herself quickly drifting off to sleep, blue eyes and blonde hair filling her dreams.

Chapter Text

Cold, crisp air brushed against tall oaks and pines; branches clawing at the sky as they stood strong against the winter winds. Their roots weaved out in sturdy hooks, all tangled throughout the very misty mountain they stood proudly on.

But while the snow-covered mountaintops made a breathtaking view of the kingdom, it was what laid beneath the mountains that brought true wonder. To dungeons deep and caverns old, they burrowed deep and held sturdy despite the lack of use over the many years. Myth had it that those sprawling caverns held many treasures and relics of unknown origin, all ready for the taking.

Yet they were never touched by the original occupants, merely tossed and forgotten in favor of the rush of a hunt or adrenaline of a fight. No, the people of this mountain lived for battle and when they weren't battling, they were enjoying the peacefulness of their castle built into the mountain.

But now it was too peaceful—no longer housing anyone or anything other than feral beasts and wandering travelers unlucky enough to reach that far up. Now there was only memories covered in dust to match the home, he could no longer feel the warm love and happiness that once housed within this place.

No one to say hello after a long day. No one to greet him if he were to go home. No one to see him grieve over lost loved ones buried deep in their cold tombs.

Jeralt opened his eyes to see a green canopy above him, its gold and yellow designs catching his eyes for a moment before he sat up. He paused, allowing the dizziness to pass before he looked to the side and out a very large window.

He blinked, unsure when the inn had such a great view of the Capital then suddenly remembered what happened last night.

"Shit."

He was an idiot and they had to get out of there now! Now! Before they were lassoed into pointless politics or worse…

Fuck, what did he do? Shit. Where were his goddess damned shoes? 

Jeralt looked down at his bare feet, his head pounding with the remains of a hangover. It's been a long time since he's felt like that. Alcohol just hasn't burned as well since he'd been given Rhea's blood, and even then the hangovers were usually gone fast. Shit, he must have drunk that whole tavern out. Fuck, fuck, fuck, why did he...

Oh, that's right, the song. The great story of 'The King Beneath the Mountain', the grand ole story of his father's grim death and burial in the family tomb. Jeralt used to pass that body all the time, holding that sword, a jewel shining bright from the hilt. Goddess preserve him, his father would have hated that song.

And then that servant burst into the tavern to gossip with their barkeep sister and he'd been a storm of anxiety and panic since. 

Damn it all, he even fist fought a Dominic.

Two if you counted the little girl.

At least the old man would be proud.

Jeralt sighed, leaning against the wall, fighting off the headache the formed beneath the brow. Now he was less sure that it was a hangover and more sure that it was the remains of a whole night's sudden stress. Fuck. He should have warned Byleth about this. Now she's gotten caught up in a bunch of nonsense. And here he was, starting up the ole family traditions when he didn’t even have a land or title anymore.

Goddess, was the old house still there? Shit. No, don't think about it Jeralt, focus on your daughter and the mess she's landed in because you're too emotionally strung out to tell her anything about the past. She doesn't even know her mother's name, much less that she shouldn't even look at a Dominic unless she wants to start a fight. Or not to look at a prince, apparently, or she'll make 'em want to get hitched.

How the fuck did she get practically politically engaged in one night? What happened to that Dima friend she was tal—

Shit.

Jeralt took a deep breath before making his best attempt at standing up straight and opening the door. He immediately regretted the action, as it was apparently time for the maids to be bustling around, cleaning up from last night and getting everything ready for the day. The activity made him feel a bit queasy, but he fought it off. Now, he needed to find his daughter, steal a horse, and get them both out of town before anyone was the wiser.

The smell of pork wafted across his nose. Jeralt reorganized his plan. Breakfast first, and then they'd escape. If he was lucky, maybe they'd have ale somewhere nearby so he could take the edge off. He thought he remembered where the kitchens were, and carefully headed in that direction.

Mercifully, Jeralt didn't come across anyone he knew on his way down to the kitchens. Apparently he was worn enough looking that either everyone thought he was a servant, or they were just taking pity on a hangover old man. The kitchens were warm, and oddly enough exactly how he remembered them. He thought that was probably a trait of kitchens everywhere - they never really change. 

The old soldier grabbed a few rolls and sausages, and placed them in a napkin, then he stopped a young boy who was setting up a tray for someone else. "Kid, have you seen a young woman, not from here? I hear she caused something of a ruckus last night. Goes by By-(Sigh) Eisner?"

The kid smiled, he was missing both his front teeth. "Yes, Sir! The lady and His Highness the Prince are said to be in the training yard waving sticks at each other. I'm told it's quite a sight!"

Jeralt groaned. "Shit."

"Would you like me to show you the way?" The kid asked, his little tongue pressing against the gap as he spoke and causing a lisp.

He shook his head, "I know how to get there."

Taking his tiny bundle of breakfast, Jeralt located the back door that led out of the kitchens and promptly walked through—mouth set in a grim line as he went to find his daughter. Unfortunately, the moment he opened the wooden door to the outside, he was greeted by the fucking sun.

"Shit." He shielded his eyes with a hand and scanned the area, noting that he was in one of the courtyards that littered this giant castle. He scowled, trying to remember how many there was but could only feel the pounding headache and light nausea.

"Guess I'm stuck with a migraine." Jeralt scowled as he began to trudge across the grounds, convinced his hangover was more from stress then the alcohol from last night.

The man decided to forego the pretty pathways made from white stone that waded through gardens like a maze; instead he just jumped over walls and fences, ignoring some scandalized looks from a servant or two until he finally made it to his destination. Jeralt didn't even have to see it to know he arrived - the sounds of people grunting, yelling, and swinging weapons clear to his ears before he even jumped the last stone fence.

He paused, quickly scanning the large area before spotting his daughter holding a lance… and the Prince right behind her, also holding the lance .

" Shit. "

 


 

Byleth would have been the first to say she wasn't the best at the use of lances. Her father often used one, and so she had been trained mostly in swords so that they could cover each others weaknesses. That was not to say she wasn't happy to learn however, especially given that was one of the topics she would have to teach once Byleth took up her position as a Professor at the academy. So when Dima had offered to give her some pointers, she had readily agreed.

She was beginning to regret that decision.

Dimitri stood just behind her, their bodies practically touching, as he showed her the best way to hold a lance in a defensive posture. She was having a hard time concentrating as he kicked her legs open into a wide stance, and then bracketed them with his. He leaned over her shoulder to show her where to place her hands and she could smell the soap from his freshly laundered clothes. She hadn't actually heard anything he'd said in the last few moments.

"You're gripping too tight." Dima's breath on her ear broke her out of her reverie. Byleth only just managed to stifle a gasp, but her body jumped a bit all the same. Thankfully, it seemed he hadn't noticed.

"I actually have that problem too. When I get excited, I've been known to snap lances in half." He chuckled, and Byleth could feel the motion on her back. She turned and looked at him incredulously.

He smiled as he adjusted her hands on the haft of the lance. "It's true. Blaiddyds are known for their strength. I have to be careful." 

Byleth remembered the festival when they were children, and how far he'd thrown the hay bale. She swallowed.

"What's wrong with gripping tight for us lowly mortals then?" She thought she knew, but he seemed so confident in what he was teaching, she wanted to hear him say it.

"Just like with swords, you want to be flexible when handling a lance."

Byleth looked at him again, so the two of them didn't notice the approaching figure stomping their way.

"How long have you been training with lances?"

Dimitri smiled, fixing how she was holding the weapon so it felt more balanced in her hands. "I've been practicing with them most my life." A shadow fell over them, but Dimitri continued without a second thought. "I like to think I've developed a delicate touch with my lance."

"Do ya now?"

The prince froze, recognizing the voice instantly after hearing it drunkenly complain about Faerghus for a good twenty minutes. Dimitri turned his head and gulped, seeing Jeralt stand over him with an intimidating glare.

"L-Lord Jeralt!" Dimitri squeaked, breaking the lance in his hands.

Byleth gasped in surprise, watching the steel lance snap from the prince's panicked grip. She turned as well, holding a part of the broken pole in her hands as she looked up at Jeralt.

"Good morning, Father."

He didn't answer, his unreadable gaze trained hard on Dimitri.

Byleth didn't miss a beat, "How are you feeling?"

Jeralt grunted, touching his head at her question but keeping his eyes on the Prince who was sweating nervously. "Worse than when I woke up."

Dimitri stepped away from Byleth hastily, guessing correctly at least one reason for the blazing look in Jeralt's eyes. Jeralt took the opportunity to step between the Prince and his daughter, causing Byleth to raise her eyebrows in surprise.

Then she remembered the last time one of her father's mercenaries had flirted with her. She had actually thought the man was charming, but he had apparently packed his bags and left after one drunken evening in a pub near Gloucester. At any rate, Byleth had never seen him again.

She touched Jeralt's elbow to try to get his attention. "Father, really—" He turned and gave her a dark look, and she shut her mouth. It was still early but he was apparently already over this day.

Jeralt turned back and smiled at Dimitri. The prince shivered in response. That smile made the man look like a demon.

"So, Kid," Jeralt deliberately left out Dimitri's title. "I hear you're good with a lance. Care to show me what you got?"

Dimitri gulped, staring up at the man who he'd been told was more than just an Eisner, but Jeralt the Blade Breaker Eisner. A deadly combination the Prince hadn't expected to face in his life, and hopefully it wasn't his first and last.

"I-I would be honored." He gave the man a polite nod before leading him over to the weapons rack that held all their training equipment.

Byleth began to follow, but Jeralt turned and grabbed her shoulders to guide her towards a different spot away from them and away from what her father had to say to the Prince. She glared, but didn't fight it as Jeralt forced her into a bench that had a good view of the field.

Jeralt returned back to the weapons rack, ignoring his daughter's pout as he picked up a decent looking lance. He touched the tip with his finger and watched a little drop of blood trickled out.

Dimitri swallowed, seeing the man pierce him with a look as red trickled down his finger.

"I won't go easy on you just because you're a prince."

The statement, though threatening in tone, actually made Dimitri feel a bit better. He eyed the man as he picked his own lance, finding his heart wasn't beating so hard in his chest.

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

Jeralt grinned, and this time if it wasn't friendly, at least he wasn't being directly antagonistic. Dimitri must have said the right thing.

The two men stood facing each other, not too far apart. Byleth watched from the sidelines as they each took a different stance. Dimitri stood in a defensive position, like the one he had been teaching her. Her father appeared to be going on the offensive, one leg forward, his lance pointing at the Prince's chest. 

At some unknown signal, the fight started, with Jeralt stepping forward to test the waters with a thrust that Dimitri knocked out of the way easily.

What followed was a series of guards followed by swings of the lance. Byleth's father and the Prince danced around each other, toes pointing where their lances were, then their bodies following suit. The clang of metal rang throughout the yard as their lances repeatedly ricocheted off each other, and it wasn't long before the others practicing stopped to watch the spectacle.

At one point, Jeralt got underneath Dimitri's guard and hit him in the gut with the butt of his lance. Byleth cringed in sympathy as Dimitri doubled over, the wind knocked out of him before Jeralt followed through again with an upwards strike to the chin. 

The Prince stumbled backwards and Byleth thought it was going to be all over, but as her father struck down to finish him off Dimitri miraculously turned to the side, swinging his own lance sideways to hit Jeralt full force across his chest. Byleth could actually hear the breath leaving her father's chest as he was blown several feet backwards.

Both men were forced to stop for a moment to catch their breath. As Byleth looked on, she noticed Dimitri checking the haft of his lance. He didn't have a lot of time though, because Jeralt had already recovered, and was already charging back in.

He went in swinging at Dimitri's legs, hoping to knock him off his feet and end the bout, but instead he was surprised when the Prince jumped backwards and threw his lance at the older man. Jeralt barely jumps out of the way, not nearly so nimble as his opponent. 

The point of the lance was stuck in the dirt, and now Dimitri had no weapon. It only took a few more moments before Jeralt had him on the ground with the blade of the lance pointed at his throat.

"What kind of idiot throws his weapon away?" Jeralt gave the Prince an incredulous look, breathing hard with exertion. 

"One who has nothing to lose." Dimitri smiled, leaning back on his elbows and coughing out a hard breath. Behind Jeralt, Byleth watched as Dimitri's lance crumbled into pieces and fell to the ground.

Jeralt looked back at the weapon, making a mildly impressed noise at the sight of the crumpled metal, "You certainly have that Blaiddyd strength. But damn, that's just ridiculous."

Dimitri smiled despite his chest heaving in a cough, "From you, my lord, I'll take that as the greatest of compliments."

The older man snorted, stepping away from the prince and throwing the lance to rest against the back of his shoulders. Despite himself, he actually was impressed with the kid. He hadn't held back at all, and his highness actually put up a half decent fight and lasted longer than Jeralt had figured he would. If this brat wasn't hitting on his daughter he might actually make a half decent student. 

Jeralt's old man would've loved the fucking kid. Damn it all. That sass in the face of defeat alone would have earned him a drinking horn of his ma's home-brewed cider. And, damn it, this is why he avoids Faerghus, just being here is making him nostalgic. Must be something in the air, making his blood drum in his veins and filling his longs with the fresh taste of early morning fog and home. And that kid, looking up at him like that, looks just like his great great grandfather at that age.

"Yer not have bad kid." Jeralt stepped back, a rolling nostalgia on his tongue, "Not someone I expect have a delicate touch with his lance though."

Someone snorted in the background.

"So it seems." The prince sent a wistful look at the crumbled metal as he pushes himself up, "I had thought I learned better control of my strength. Alas, it seems I was wrong. I have much work to do before I can keep from shattering the equipment."

Oh goddess, was the kid...did he not fucking...? He didn't. 

Truly a fucking Blaiddyd.

Jeralt helped the Prince to his feet. Dimitri was covered in sweat and dust from his fight, and his legs felt weak from the exertion. When Byleth came over as he was trying to dust himself off, he thought she might knock him over again as she roughly grabbed his hand and leaned forward in excitement.

There were stars in her eyes and an attractive flush on her cheeks. "It's my turn next."

"Woah. Back up." Jeralt put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her away. "Give the poor kid a break. I just nearly beat him black and blue." He was ignoring the swelling soreness on his chest, a sure sign he was going to have a mighty large bruise.

Byleth turned a disappointed look back at Dimitri, who smiled at her, but wobbled a bit worryingly back and forth. "If the Lady would like a chance, I won't say no." Byleth huffed out a sigh.

"No. He's right. You'll just have to spar with me tomorrow instead." 

Dimitri's eyes glittered with suppressed laughter. "Yes. I'd like that."

Jeralt stood back, watching the two. He was surprised. Rarely did he see his daughter show any emotion. But in the space of a few minutes he'd seen more than a few cross her face. Most of them directed at the young Prince. His heart clenched in his chest, and he thought it didn't have anything to do with the blow he'd received earlier.

The old man sighed loudly and ran a hand through his hair. "Kid. Do you know where your uncle is?"

Dimitri was taken aback, after last night he thought his uncle would be the last person Jeralt would want to see. "Of course, Lord Eisner. He'll already be working in his office by now. May I ask why you need to see him?"

Jeralt made a face at the name. He looked like he was actually in pain. "I think it's time we had a talk, is all."

Chapter Text

The prince frowned, but shook his head, patting his chest a bit before straightening out. The kid sent a quick look over the various guards and knights over the training grounds, most of whom were pretending not to listen in on them, "I would be more than happy to show you to his offices. I seem to have more than enough time now."

Jeralt waved a hand, "Lead the way kid."

The prince nodded, doing just that. The walk wasn't long at all, the kid leading him to an adjacent tower that housed a large balcony that circled the whole thing, probably making it easy to watch over the castle in all its glory. Back in the day, it had been the spy master's tower, unofficially of course, because there was no spymaster officially. But everyone knew whoever was in this tower probably knew all your business.

The King Regent, unsurprisingly, set himself up in the top room. The prince didn't even bother to knock, simply opening the door to a long series of stairs that lead into the open space that made the room surrounded by the balcony. It was a huge space, doubling both as the office, and as the bedroom, with a king-sized bed pushed against the center wall, two burning fireplaces, and all the glass walls enclosed, with the curtains drawn so that the light made the room bright as the outside.

The King Regent himself sat at a large desk, hunched over a large stack of paperwork. Beside him stood a woman that really wasn't dressed for a Faerghus winter, and Jeralt nearly had to do a double take at the sight of her rather lower hanging collar, even if it was lined with fur. How did her breast not freeze off? The room is warm, yes, but what was she going to do when she walked outside?

"—ants to raise taxes on common labor." The woman finished, fanning herself, "I'm sure you can agree."

"Tell Lord Kleimon." The Regent spoke with such contempt that Jeralt felt it, and he wasn't even the target, "That I gave him Lordship, and I will happily take it away if he ever speaks such foolishness again. Honestly, does he want to start a revolt? Now away with you, cow, I will not hear such things again."

"How dare you speak to me in such a manner?"

"Quite easily, I should think you'd be used to it by now."

Prince Dimitri, a brave soul that Jeralt had given him credit for, coughed in his hands, drawing the attention of both warring parties. They both snapped up, turning to glare at him, "What?"

"Lord Uncle." The kid nodded, not looking fazed, before turning to bow his head in greeting to the woman, "Aunt Cornelia. I've brought a guest to speak with Uncle. Lord Eisner, if you recall."

"Good job, boy." The King Regent's eyes passed over Dimitri. He had tried to dust himself off the best he could on the way up the tower, but there was only so much that could be done.

"You look like you've been rolling around in a field." He glanced at the Lady Eisner, who had clearly not been rolling in a field. Rufus frowned with disappointment. How long did these things usually take? "Go get yourself cleaned up. It's already late and you have work to do."

Dimitri's lips pull back and his eyes hardened just a little. He looked as if he was about to talk back. Rufus narrowed his eyes at the boy and he submitted. "Of course, Uncle."

Nodding, Dimitri turned and murmured something only the girl could hear before he exited the tower back the way he came, leaving the Eisner's in the Regent's company.

Rufus wondered if the boy's sudden growth of a spine had anything to do with the Lady. If so, he applauded the match just a bit more. Dimitri was too soft by half. But he would need to learn that biting back at Rufus wasn't an option.

Rufus turned his attention back to the remaining two visitors with a sneer, only to find that the Cow had sauntered over to Lord Eisner, and was now inspecting him like she was a butcher inspecting a prime piece of meat.

Rufus watched as his, ugh, his wife whom he had made the mistake of marrying back when she had been sensible sundered up to the man, waving that useless fan in her face and giving a sly smile. Honestly, if she wanted to copy Dame Brunnhilde than she could at least be clever and classy about it.

"Well." The cow let a sly smile paint her face, "So this is the legendary Lord Eisner then? My, my, my, the rumors are all true then."

"You’re married." The man stated flatly, crossing his arms and ignoring the cow. Rufus felt something almost akin to a moment of respect at the blunt and no nonsense dismissal. Seeing his wife's face twist into such displeasure was an extra bonus.

Lord Eisner, whom Rufus was already half tempted to return to power just for that slight against the so-called-lady alone, turned to him with a firm grimace and crossed arms, "I have the keys to the Mountain House, I have a coin with the crest emblazoned in it, I know how to get into the Eisner's hidden crypts, and I have proof of my blood. What do I have to do to get my house back?"

"Hardly your house." Rufus hummed, just to see what he'd say. In truth, he was more than ready to return the manor to the man, actually a blood Eisner or no, just to collect the back taxes and get the daughter on track to marrying his nephew and finally turning the court in his favor while also securing a financially beneficial union. But he has never been one to stop if he could negotiate, "Seeing as you're too young to have grown up in the manor, which has remained untouched for a century now."

"I've visited the tombs." The man grunted, "And I can show you the Oakenshield's body. I've got the only keys left to open the crypt. That alone should be proof of who I am."

"How convenient that you should return now." Rufus hummed again, making a show of being suspicious. "And that you just so happen to be lost nobility."

"I didn't need to return to the house before." Lord Eisner folded his arms, turning to glare at the fire, "But now I've got more motivation and no reason to keep my head down. I'm not looking forward to running a manor or lands, but I'm ready to."

"I suppose that I can gift you your manor back." Rufus turned on his heels, hands clasped behind his back, plans already forming in his mind, "Provided you make a public show of these proofs and swear your fealty to the crown. The mountains have been quite difficult to manage without their lord, after all."

"So you want me to go get a family relic?" The lord snorted, "Fine. I'll bring you back Oakenshield's damn sword if that's what you want. Or Pan's lute. I don't care."

Byleth couldn't stop her jaw from dropping. She had spent practically all of last night denying any connection to the famous house Eisner, and here her father was almost off-handedly admitting to all of it. "Father! Wha—" She honestly didn't know what to say.

Jeralt turned to her almost sheepishly. He reached up to rub that back of his head. The Regent still sitting at his desk frowned as he looked between the two of them. "Listen. I know it's a surprise. But I'll tell you about it later, okay?"

Byleth's eyes narrowed. 'I'll tell you about it later' was as good as a promise to not be told anything at all.

Her father turned back towards the King Regent. His face was all business. "When do you need your proof?"

Rufus brought his fist up to his chin as he inspected the other man. "I've been told the young lady has accepted a position at the Monastery for the coming year. I would like everything settled long before that."

Jeralt nodded in confirmation. "Done." He turned to leave without so much as a 'pardon me' and waved his daughter to him. "Come on, kid, we have some preparing to do."

Standing in the dark by the wall, Cornelia seethed.

"If you are all done." Cornelia clicked her heels loudly against the stone floor, stepping forward with scold on her face, "I would like to remind you, husband dear, that Lord Kleimon already has domain near those mountains."

"But not over the mountains themselves." Rufus cut his eyes at her, "Which has left their resources unavailable to us the last century, cow, now shut your mouth before your ignorance becomes too obvious to everyone."

Clicking his tongue, the King Regent made a shooing motion with his hands, "Go on then, come back when you have visible proof of your heritage. I'll make a ceremony out of it and we can get on with everything."

"Fine." Jeralt grunted, cracking his neck, "Just one more thing."

"What? What is it? I'm already being very generous with you." The regent huffed, "State your desire and go."

"I want my daughter to swear fealty in the public ceremony." The rough man smiled slyly, folding his hands with gleaming eyes, "On behalf of all of house Eisner."

Suddenly, Rufus was very interested, looking up with his own growing smile, "You do know, of course, that will bar the Church from accepting your daughter as a part of its order for a permanent position unless she publicly declares her intent to swear to the Church of Seiros and give up her title."

"Oh, I know."

"And that, in doing so, your daughter is not exempt from taxes."

"Yep."

"And that Church immunity will be lost to her?"

"Don't care."

"Excellent." Rufus turned to smile at the girl, "I do hope that Lady Rhea wasn't planning to make you a sister of the church.

Byleth frowned and laid her fist against her cheek, "Not that I'm aware of."

Jeralt did his best to hold back a derisive snort as he slung his arm over her shoulders while leading her out the door. "Trust me kid, it's not all it's cracked up to be."

She shot her father a look as they left the King Regent and his wife, unaware that Cornelia had gone to Rufus' desk again to complain. Luckily they had left before more dry insults were thrown and politics brought up—Byleth wasn't sure she could handle all of that again.

Instead, she kept her eyes focused on her father who seemed to be trying his best to avoid her.

Chapter Text

"So, Lord Eisner."

Jeralt's frown grew deeper and his eyes squintier while he raised his head as if praying to the Goddess for strength. She spoke again when he didn't answer.

"Was this something you were going to keep hidden our whole lives?"

That made her father laugh, his voice echoing off the stone walls as they made it to the end of the staircase. "If only I could!"

She pouted, wishing he was taking this a little more seriously, "Father—"

He stopped, taking her shoulders in his hands and looking her right in the eye. She noted the hint of regret, sadness, and even submission as he tried his best to find the right words.

"Look, kid... I know I've kept a lot from ya—some I don't regret, and others I do." 

He looked away briefly, "This is probably one of the things I regret the most."

Byleth kept quiet, knowing it was rare for her father to share his feelings. This was a big step for him and it didn't even require a barrel of ale.

"I know this is all confusing and I know you're probably mad—"

"I'm not mad." Byleth said quickly, "I can't force you to share, but I had hoped you'd tell me one day."

Jeralt swallowed hard and pulled his daughter in for a hug, his hand going to pet her hair just as he did when she was a child; except this time it was more for his comfort than hers.

"I know… I'm sorry it's taken so long. But I suppose this trip"—home—"to the mountain is a good a time as any."

Byleth relented, excited to finally be learning something about their family history. She wasn't sure about the rest of what happened in the King Regent's office, what did it matter whether she was the one who performed the oath or not? She had no intention of joining the church permanently as a sister. She hardly knew anything about the Church of Seiros. All of that hardly mattered though. Byleth was just happy to be getting any information at all out of her tight-lipped father.

They made it to the base of the tower, and even though Byleth had no idea where they were, her father seemed to have knowledge of the castle and its grounds. She wondered if he'd been there before, working as a mercenary before the was born perhaps. As they wandered into the entrance hall, a familiar ginger head standing next to a pile of luggage turned to look at them.

Annette grinned and practically bounced up to them. She made a small curtsy. "Lord Eisner! Thank you for fighting with me last night." 

Jeralt stuttered, eyes wide. He did not remember fighting with a petite little girl. Had he really stooped so low? "I-What?!" 

Then he squinted his eyes at her, something familiar in his brain. "Wait. You're a Dominic, aren't you?" At that, an older man stepped through the front door, donning his hat.

"Annette, the carriage is read—" His eyes narrowed. " Eisner . Didn't they throw you out last night?"

Jeralt sneered. "As it happens, we've been invited to stay, Dominic ." The two older men took a couple of strides until they were standing toe to toe and glaring at each other, growling insults back and forth. Meanwhile, Annette had come and taken Byleth's hand.

"I've heard from the others that you are going to be teaching at the Academy! I'll be going this year as well. I look forward to learning all of your techniques. It's going to be so much fun!" 

Byleth couldn't help but feel a mysterious frustration, but she smiled back all the same. "And I'll look forward to having you in my class! I hope you're prepared to work very hard."

Jeralt turned away from the red-faced Lord Dominic. "Come on, kid. We'll have to finish our business for the Lord Regent before you can go off and teach anybody." He stepped around the pile of luggage and headed for the door.

Suddenly, Byleth remembered one important thing she'd forgotten in the excitement of learning about her family. "Wait. What about Dima?"

Jeralt grimaced, having forgotten about the Prince during the negotiations. "What about him?"

"Father," Byleth's face formed into what could only be agitation—a look Jeralt wasn't too familiar with considering she'd always just gone along with whatever he decided. It was soon becoming apparent that his daughter was changing; whether it was for the better or for the worst, he wasn't too sure. All he knew was that this was all the Prince's fault and that he was a bad influence.

Shit. And there he'd been, practically swearing her loyalty to the very kingdom said Prince ruled over.

The man's face quickly mirrored his daughter's as he pulled her in close, arm still slung over her shoulders as they walked to the stables. "I'd rather we get this done now." His hand squeezed her shoulder, an overprotective mood washing over him. "He'll be here when we get back."

Byleth's eyes narrowed, "Dima helped us, the least we can do is tell him what's going on."

Jeralt twitched, suddenly wanting to punch the Prince in the mouth. Dimitri wasn't family, he didn't need to know anything. It's not like they're married.

But the look on Byleth's face was breaking him and he didn't want to be given the silent treatment the whole trip up the Mountain. It'd be unbearable. He sighed and scratched the back of his neck, "All right. We'll stop and talk before we leave. But only for a minute."

Byleth sighed of relief. It hadn't felt right to just leave without saying anything after everything Dimitri had done for her since last night. That being said, she didn't know where he was. She could tell her father was impatient to get on. He was getting fidgety.

They paused next to a guard, who looked them over curiously. By this point, everyone had heard of the Eisners. They were the biggest piece of gossip the castle had seen in years.

Byleth wasn't sure of the protocol for this, so she just straightened her shoulders and asked outright. "Excuse me, can you tell me where the Prince's quarters are?" He had been sent to get ready for the day, so that's where she assumed he would be, unless he had finished already.

The guard raised his eyebrows. Normally he wouldn't even consider this request. But if the rumors were true, His Highness and this woman were already secretly betrothed. At the very least, he didn't think she'd be a danger. So he nodded and waved for the girl and her father to follow him.

It wasn't far. Down one chilly hallway and up another curving set of stairs. Dimitri's rooms were in a corner of the castle, a few floors up. The guard stopped by a set of beautiful carved wooden double doors and knocked.

There was a muffled voice from the other side, and the guard opened one of the doors just enough to peek in. "Your Highness, Lady Eisner and her father, Lord Eisner are here to see you." 

Byleth thought she heard the sound of a thump and a quiet curse. A moment later, however, she heard Dima's voice. "It's okay. Let them in."

The guard opened the door fully and ushered Byleth and Jeralt in. She swallowed when she saw him. Dimitri was standing in front of a window wearing a clean shirt and slacks. He had a towel laying over his shoulders and his hair was still damp.

He was rubbing the top of his head as if he'd hit it on something, his face set in a grimace. When the Prince caught sight of Byleth though, he turned toward her and smiled guilelessly. "Hello. To what do I owe this visit?"

Eyes widening, Byleth found her throat suddenly dry. Her gaze trained on the way Dima’s damp blonde locks stuck to his forehead, or how the shirt stuck ever so slightly to his neck. The prince padded forward, bare feet slapping the carpet as he looked up at them, "Do you need help finding your way around? I'm more than happy to show you anywhere you need to go."

"Cool it, Blaiddyd." Jeralt snorted, pushing past her, leveling a glare at the prince, "We're headed out, Byleth here didn't want to leave without saying anything."

Dima's face visibly fell at the news, smile dropping into a disappointed frown, "You're leaving already?"

It was not the worst look Byleth had ever seen on someone's face, or even the most heartbroken. But, in that moment, she decided it was one of the last things she ever wanted to see. She stepped up, ignoring her father's unreasonable dislike, "We'll be back soon."

He seemed to ease with that reassurance. Clearly he was still disappointed, but now he had a bit of spark back, "Ah, that pleases my heart to hear. When do you expect to return? I surely hope I won't have to wait another three years to see you again, my friend."

Jeralt jerked at that, startled by the news. Three years? Again? When had this...

Aw shit, Jeralt realized with sudden clarity, resisting the urge to punch the wall. This was that "friend" she'd made that one time. Goddess above, he'd forgotten about that, though in his defense she hadn't even brought it up but the once.

Shit, now he felt bad.

Byleth chanced a glance at her father, her gaze wondering before she answered. "I doubt we'll be gone that long. The King Regent wishes us to swear fealty before I start my work at the academy."

Jeralt watched as the Prince practically glowed at the news, his smile growing wider as he stepped closer to his daughter, his hands grabbing hers like he was declaring his love right in front of him. The nerve. What was worse was Jeralt couldn't help but admire the little shit for having the guts to do it.

"That's great! The Kingdom will be excited to see the Eisners again!" Dimitri's cheeks flushed slightly as he looked down shyly. "A-And that means we'll get to see more of each other."

"Will we?" Byleth hummed, head tilting, thinking over the news, "I'm afraid I am not very well taught in the ways of nobility." 

"I'm sure you'll learn quickly!" The kid praised her, or maybe it was reassurance? Either way he sounded so earnest that Jeralt just wanted to knock his teeth in, damn him. Didn't he know that Jeralt was supposed to want to punt him off a roof? 

The prince still went on, oblivious to Jeralt’s annoyance, "I'm sure your father will teach you well! And if you need aid I would be more than happy to spare advice! Not that you need it, of course, you seem to have natural charisma, to hear Ingrid speak about your character."

"You think so?" Byleth asked back, frowning, "I'm not sure I fit in at the ball at all. I felt very out of place."

"We all do at first. Faerghus balls are like that." Dimitri reassured, "But, I assure you, to hear Old Nan speak, you were the belle of the ball!"

"Alright, that's enough!" Jeralt cut in as his daughter smiled under the praise. He placed a hand on his her shoulder, pulling her away, "Come on, Byleth, we've got to head out to the old manor and grab one of the swords from the family tomb or something. I'll tell you all about them on the way."

As a method of distraction, it worked. Byleth's eyes lit up at the mention of a family history that she hadn't known she'd had until today. Jeralt would have felt guilty if he didn't want to get out of there so bad.

Byleth squeezed Dimitri's hands and turned with her father to go. "We'll be back soon, Dima. I'll tell you about it when I get back."

"Of course! Don't concern yourself with me. I'll await your return and look forward to whatever you have to tell me." The prince followed them to the door to his suite.

Jeralt wondered how far he could get with Byleth before the guards caught him after he strangled the Crown Prince of Fearghus. With one last squeeze of her hands, Dimitri let Byleth go, and watched them until they descended back down the stairs. 

Chapter Text

Jeralt steered Byleth towards the kitchens so he could get some food, the packet he had made this morning was forgotten at the training yard. He fully intended to add bottles of drink to their provisions.

With packs full of food, Jeralt led his daughter out of the front gates of the castle and into Fhirdiad. They needed to stop at the inn to get their things and for Jeralt to give his crew orders for while they were gone. Hopefully, they'd be on their way by early afternoon.

They were quiet as they traveled into surrounding city as people moved about their day and completed whatever chores needed to be done. The first thing Jeralt did was check on his horse at the inn (having ran the entire way to the castle without it) then set it up to have the steed taken care of while they were gone.

"We're not taking Steg?"

"No," Jeralt took his pack filled with supplies. "The mountain is too steep for horses and the air is too frigid for anything that can fly." He sneered, "Not that we'd ever do that ."

Byleth pouted, having been eager at the brief idea of flying, but she should have known better. Her father was never one for flying, no matter how much she begged as a child. She couldn't help but feel like she missed out on a girlish dream to ride a Pegasus through the clouds.

" No. It's too dangerous, we don't belong in the sky anyways. It's unnatural .” Her father had said.

"How long will it take us to make it up the mountain?"

Jeralt paused, making a thoughtful hum. "Considering it's winter, possibly a week. But I know a few trails that'll shorten the trip."

"So you were telling the truth? You've been to this mountain before?" Byleth trailed after her father as he hefted a large sack over his shoulder, leading her out the stable, "Was it during your service to the Church? Or before?"

"I grew up there." Jeralt scratched his beard, "Had a ma, a father, and a few siblings back then."

"Lady Brunnhilde said no one has seen an Eisner in over a century." Byleth frowned, an itch playing at the front of her mind. Her eyes stared blankly as she sped up to keep pace with her father, "How did you have an entire family and grow up there without anyone noticing?"

"She told you that, huh?" Her father asked as he grabbed her arm, leading her through the gates, passing a party of what must have been nobles as the Lord spoke with a grey haired boy that must have been his son from the way he was patting his head. Jeralt scooted them on past the party, keeping his head down as he answered her, "Should've figured some people couldn't keep their mouths shut."

"What happened?" Byleth asked as the passed the group, falling back into step, "Why hasn't anyone met them? Why haven't I?"

Before her eyes Jeralt seemed to age years, his shoulders slumping and his lips turning toward in the most grim and exhausted frown she'd ever seen on his face, only ever rivaled by the one that itched his face when they'd met the Lady Rhea. 

He readjusted the bag on his shoulder, whiskey eyes turning upwards to the sky, "I'm old, Byleth."

"You are not that old." Byleth frowned, "I suppose. You do not have any grey in your hair."

"No, kid, you don't get it." Her father shook his head, sighing as his shoulders fell, hand reaching up to rub his forehead, "I'm old. Unnaturally old. Something… something happened to me, and now I've been alive too long. My family… our family, they all died a long time ago. My father, well, you've probably heard of him.

“They used to joke that he was 'the King Beneath the Mountain'. You must've heard that bar song dozens of times. Well, that' my old man. Grim fucker too. Played the harp nice, but hard as stone he was. He died in battle with both my brothers, and then my ma and sisters all died in a fire not long after. Goddess, it seemed like overnight I went from a family of six siblings to a family of no one. That must have been the last anyone in Faerghus heard of the Eisners."

Byleth paused in her step, staring at her father's back as he walked ahead and noting just how tired he looked. His broad shoulders seemed to be holding the weight of their family's ghosts on his shoulders, forever weighing him down with regret and sadness. She wondered just how much they'd truly lost—how many other family members she didn't know about that were now buried deep within the mountain. She picked up her pace, now in step with him as he stared at nothing, his mind elsewhere.

She licked her lips, unsure how to proceed. "How...?"

He didn't look at her, just walked in silence until they made it past another inn and stables meant for travelers when the gates were closed at night. Once they were on the dirt path that led towards a fork in the road (left for the river, right for the mountain) did he start to explain.

"I don't even know where to begin… that's another load of bullshit that's really hard to talk about." He sighed, taking the right path that swerved towards a wooded area at the base of the mountain.

She waited as he went silent again, the lines under his eyes looking deeper than she's ever seen them. "We'll be on the road for a while... We don't have to talk about it now."

Jeralt seemed to relax slightly at this, but he still looked sad. "You deserve to know... It… It involves your mother after all."

The young woman made a noise, pausing for a moment. Her father had spoken of her mother once or twice, but only in passing, and he always stopped himself very quickly just as he did, brushing off the conversation with a wave. She looked up to stare at him, watching him scratch at his beard, "You hardly ever speak of her."

"I know, I know..." He continued to scratch in that way he does when he knows he's done something wrong and is trying to figure out how to fix it. "I should have told you about her...a long damn time ago. I should have told you about a lot of things. But every time I tried I would just...I suppose I'm a coward, and I told myself you weren't interested… no, yeah, I was a coward."

"You're not a coward." Byleth frowned, reaching out to touch his arm, "You've never run from anything."

Her father burst into a brief laughter, the sound only dying down after he forced himself to calm down, "Kid, you don't know how wrong you are. All I've been doing the last century is running from things I didn't want to face. This trip? This is the first time that I'm going...going home since before everyone died. And the last twenty years? That was me running too. Yeah, it was to keep you safe, and I don't regret that, but I'd be a damn liar if I said..."

Jeralt stopped himself, shaking his head, hissing before he finally puffed up and fully faced her, "Your mother's name was Isolde. I should have told you that over a decade ago. "

Byleth stared, forming the name on her lips a few times, practicing the symbols before she finally tested it, "Isolde..."

"She... died..." Jeralt shook his head, looking away from her and sucking in a breath before forcing himself to face her again, "There were… complications with your birth. She… well… she asked… you met Rhea already. She was the midwife I guess. And she made a choice, it was between her or the babe, and she begged Rhea to save the babe."

Jeralt looked away again, his feet stopping as he stared at the sky, "Your mother died, and I had two stillborn babes. A boy and a girl. I begged Rhea to save one of you, and she picked you."

Byleth stopped, eyes wide as Jeralt stopped as well and turning to look at her. "I had a brother?"

Her father flinched, but he kept her eyes trained on her as he gave her a solemn nod. He watched as Byleth seemed to mull this over, as if imagining her life if it'd been with another sibling. How they'd probably share things together and tell each other stories or play, even hold hands as they traveled together.... together with their mother.

"Kid...?"

Byleth swallowed and started to walk again, this time sticking closer to her father as a way to comfort her conflicting feelings. "Please… continue."

Jeralt nodded, turning to look ahead again as the path started to get more narrow the further they walked in. Soon they'd start reaching an incline then it'd be a bit rocky, but it wouldn't get bad until another day in. "Rhea managed to bring you back to me, but you were different from most babes. I didn't have to be a father to know your still birth and Rhea's… magic had changed things. You didn't cry, didn't laugh, nothing like a normal baby. It was worrying." He sighed, letting the sounds of the few winter birds sing as they flitted between trees. 

Byleth looked at him, voice soft as she touched the place where her heart should beat. "Is that why...?"

Her father nodded, face grim as she took all this in.

"I don't trust Rhea." Her father admitted solemnly, finally facing her with dark eyes twinged with grief he's long held inside himself. No one could have ever accused Jeralt of being an emotional man, but right here, right now, he bore his soul to his only daughter, finally letting the truth spill from his lips. "Whatever she did to you… why ever she chose you… I don't trust it, Byleth. She was… she did something to you. And don't take me wrong, I'm forever grateful. But there's just something about they way she obsessed over you..."

Jeralt steeled himself, grabbing his daughter's arm, "She created your mother. I don't know how, or why, but she did . At first I thought that was why she was so fixated on you, because you were all she had left. But as the days went on… it became obvious that wasn't it. I had to get you out of there, Byleth. I didn't want her to ever find you. But she has, and that's why we're doing this. If I can't hide you from her, then I'm going to make sure she can't pressure you into whatever she plans. Our family name isn't the biggest, but we're well liked, and she can't do something without making the crown angry, that's clear now."

"So this is all to keep me from whatever you think Rhea is planning?" Byleth frowned, kicking up some dirt with the tail end of her heel. "Why didn't you just take me to the… manor… from the start then?"

"Because I'm a damn fool." Jeralt confessed easily, "Half of me thought it would be safer not to let her know you were alive at all, I didn't want to risk it. Another part didn't know what would happen if Rhea decided to hunt me for breaking my vows to the Knights of Seiros, and you would have been too young to swear to the crown for protection."

"But now I'm old enough, so we can take back the name." Byleth nodded, the pieces of his plan starting to click together in her mind. "And you think that once I swear our house to the crown Dima will protect me?"

"Oh, I believe that boy would move mountains if you asked." Jeralt spit, wrinkling his nose as he kicked up some snow, "Damn Blaiddyds. They've always been like that from the stories. They see someone they like, and something just clicks and suddenly they'd fight a god with nothing but their bare fist if they thought they needed to." 

"And you think he's like that for me?" Byleth tilted her head curiously.

"Among others." Jeralt nodded, "Blaiddyds don't have good sense about them. Don't let that kid fool you, piss em off enough and you'll fight a beast nothing could've prepared you for."

"Why didn't you petition the old king then? Find sanctuary?" Byleth tilted her head again.

"The vows I made, a little. Didn't know if ole Lambert would help me. But the biggest part..." Jeralt laughed, "...was that I couldn't stand the thought of going home to an empty house. I was scared it wouldn't be home anymore."

Chapter Text

The two of them walked in silence for a bit. The heavy atmosphere between them almost suffocating. Jeralt was clearly drowning in the memories of his past life, while his daughter was left to her own imaginings of people she would never get to know in person, but maybe would get to know through the history left at their destination.

Byleth hugged herself close around her father's arm as they walked, wanting to feel close to the only family she had. He was moving stiffly with the weight of his confession, and the look on his was tired and older than she'd ever seen it. It was a lot to take in, and part of her couldn't blame him for keeping it from her. His pain was rolling off of him in waves, and it was clear he had simply been trying to save her from that. Another part of her resented the years she'd spent not knowing about her family. If it was painful, she might have been able to share in the pain with him, helped him lessen the burden of it.

She reached down and squeezed his hand. His was large, and rough with callouses from so many years of fighting. Hers was only a little smoother, but so much smaller as he gripped back. 

"You know, with the two of us there, it won't be an empty house anymore. We can make it a home again."

Jeralt exhaled a shaky breath and squeezed her hand tighter, his mouth formed into a weak smile while his eyes seemed to sparkle with unshed tears. "Y-Yeah. We can, can't we?"

Byleth smiled back, both of them quiet all the way to nightfall until they stopped to make camp. They were lucky it wasn't snowing as they started a fire and started to cook some of the dried meat her father had grabbed for the trip. A calm silence settled over them as they ate, both staring into the fire, dreaming of the things that could have been and how just the littlest decision seemed to make the biggest of differences. She wasn't sure if she could wish it all would change and be as it's supposed to be—with all her family alive and spending time together in their ancestral home.

"You look a lot like her, y'know."

Byleth looked up, her father now staring at her instead of the crackling fire. His eyes were sad, but he had a proud smile on his face.

"I knew as soon as I held ya that you were too pretty to have any of my features."

She touched her face. "I have your nose."

He laughed at that, swallowing his food and shifting in his spot on his bedroll. "Yeah, that you do! Unfortunately, that's not enough to keep the boys away."

Byleth huffed, "I can take care of myself, Father."

" Hmph ." Jeralt took an annoyed bite of his jerky and glared at the fire. "I don't call getting hitched with a Prince taking care of yourself."

Byleth rolled her eyes, "Dima and I aren't getting married."

" Yet ." Jeralt grumped. "Damn Blaiddyds—at least I won't have to worry about that brat hurting you."

"Dima would never hurt me." She defended automatically, knowing in her non-beating heart it was true. Then, as an afterthought, she decided to give him an extra reminder, "And we're not getting married."

Jeralt made a grunting noise, taking a stick and reaching over to poke the firewood, "Then I'm sure you'll be a good bridesmaid for his wife one day."

That made something cold wash through her belly, chilling the blood and filling her with… something. She frowned, sparing a glance to the older man over the fire, "...his wife?"

"He's the prince, and he doesn't have siblings." Her father stroked the fire absentmindedly, "And you saw his aunt and uncle, those two have some fucking issues if I ever saw em. I'll bet they'll kill each other long before they even consider a kid. And even without all that the kid clearly wants affection from someone. "

Byleth swallowed.

"Don't take me so seriously." Jeralt pulled his stick from the fire, dropping it next to him, "He'll probably die alone or something. I don't know."

That was… worse.

Byleth swallowed thick, her eyes settled on the fire. She wrapped her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees, "Father… do you really think he'll end up dying alone? Will I?"

"Of course not." Jeralt scoffed, sitting cross-legged now, attention on her, "Kid, no matter what other people say, you and that kid clearly care about each other. Even if you never marry, and he does, I doubt he'll ever let you be alone. I don't know what you did, but you made a friend of him."

"How do you know?” Byleth side eyed her father, "What makes you so sure?"

"Look, kid, beyond all the family names and loyalty, I like to think I know people." Jeralt huffed, patting his knees, "I wanna hate the brat, because he's a Blaiddyd and a brat spending time with my daughter, but I can tell he's a good kid. I mean, there's something broken in his head, obviously, but he's at his heart I think he genuinely means the best. You can make worse friends than that."

Byleth felt her head sink lower against her knees, eyes lidded as she stared at the crackling fire. She felt the heat wash over her body like a blanket, not too close to lick at her skin, but just far away enough to be comfortable. It was nice to be out camping again, the smell of firewood tickling her nose, the stars bright and beautiful up above. Just her and her father.

But she couldn't help but already miss Dimitri. Perhaps it was because she'd only spent a little time with him, and with how much fun they had, she was already wanting more. How silly of her. She wondered if she was being clingy or weird… surely it wasn't the other thing.

"Something on your mind kid?" She looked up, seeing her father look at her with amusement. "You've been making faces at the fire for a while now."

Byleth shifted, head lifting off her knees as she thought of something. "When did you know you were in love with Mother?"

Jeralt sat back and looked at his daughter. Her look was pensive and he knew why. As a father, it made him want to kick the Prince's teeth in, and he was glad they were out in the field for his own sake—he wasn't looking forward to jail. As far as he was concerned, she was still far too young to be asking those kinds of questions. Still, he'd have to be blind not to see where the wind was blowing.

He breathed out a harsh sigh and kicked another stick onto the fire. "For me it was a bunch of little things. When she was around I was always looking at her, to the point of distraction. When she wasn't around I was thinking of ways to be with her. It was like being around her made the air sweeter, like a drug. And when we were finally together it felt like every step I'd ever made had led me to that moment. People started calling me a soft-hearted sap. Me, if you can believe it. By the time she was pregnant with you I believed it too."

The flames danced and he thought he saw an image of his wife's face. It had been long enough now that some of Isolde's features were blurry. Like everyone else in his life soon the picture he had in his mind of her would fade away completely until he had to make up a new one for himself just to make sure he remembered she had existed.

"She would have loved to have met you."

Byleth grew flushed and a large, hopeful smile appeared. "Really?"

For some reason she never thought about whether or not her mother would like her, or be proud; but now hearing her father say it to her face? It was… amazing. It made her body feel like it was floating on clouds, the feeling kind of reminded her of when she was with Dimitri.

"Of course," Jeralt chuckled, poking at the fire as it slowly started to die. "She would have loved you—even if you're a little too much like me."

Byleth blinked, "I don't mind being like you. You're my hero."

That made her father drop his stick, eyes wide as he looked over the fire like he was about to have a heart attack. In fact, now he was clutching the front of his shirt like he really was. Byleth moved to stand, eyes wide with worry.

"Father, are you all right?"

Jeralt took a deep breath and quickly turned in his bedroll, refusing to face her as his shoulders began to speak. "I-I'm fine." His voice broke like a boy going through puberty. "It's getting late. We better get some sleep."

She almost asked again, but he was already getting into his bedroll, back facing her and the fire together as he immediately shut her out. Byleth bit her lower lip, wondering if she'd said something wrong. It was just hard to hear her father so down on himself—it was an odd thing to see.

Jeralt had always been in control of his emotions, almost as good as Byleth herself (though, his was his own choice—apparently hers had something to do with a strange ritual). But perhaps she just never caught it? As the years had passed, she was starting to notice a lot more things about her father as she got older. Like a child, blinded by their idol, she never noticed just how much he drank.

Sure, he'd spend long nights at the pub after a successful job, and she'd even join, but she never drank as much as he did. Byleth had thought perhaps he was just happy to do so, he was always smiling while drunk after all.

But now she wasn't so sure... Now she wondered if he drank because he wanted to forget.

The thought made her sad. Purposely forgetting one's past seemed like a bad thing. Look at the situation they were in now—perhaps a byproduct of Jeralt constantly on the run, never able to escape the church, never able to escape his name, never able to escape his past.

Byleth laid down, curled up in her cot as she stared at her father's back and wondering if he were truly asleep.

She turned, gaze now on the stars above as she caught a glimpse of a falling star. Sighing, she closed her eyes and made a promise to herself to always be there for her father. He was reluctant to share, but this trip could change that. She just had to be patient.

Then, maybe he could finally find peace again.

Chapter Text

When morning came, it came cold and quiet. The sun was dim against a white sky, and didn't warm much of the body. Her bedroll was cold, and the fire long burned out. Drifts of snow fell lazily from the sky, covering her in its wet blanket. They'd have to start finding real shelter when they rest again tonight.

Her father was already up and packed, his bedroll was hanging from a pack. He was a few yards away, speaking to a fur cloaked man with a slick head of white hair and a league of caravans behind him. Byleth frowned, standing from her bedroll and shivering, pulling her cloak further around her and trekking through the snow to catch up with him.

"—appreciate this Lord Gaspard." She caught the tail end of her father's sentence as she entered hearing range.

"Please, call me Lonato." The man laughed, patting her father's back, "I cannot very well leave you two to walk in the cold. Your girl needs to be at her best when she sees her ancestral home for the first time. It is the least I could do."

"Gaspard, you're the only one I respect in this damn court so far." Her father shook his head, patting the man on the shoulder, "You're a good man."

"Think nothing of it." The man reassured, "I know I wouldn't want my own children to freeze out in the cold. Say? Have I told you about my most recent children? My boy Ashe will be attending… well, he'll be schooling with the prince at Garreg Mach this upcoming year."

"Really? You must be proud." 

"I am always proud of Ashe, yes." The man shook his head, "Do you need anything else, Lord Eisner? I would be more than happy to provide more."

"You're a generous man." Jeralt shook his head, "You've done more than enough. Just drop us off by the mountain's foot and we'll be fine."

"Are you quite sure? I have some more fur you can have."

Jeralt raised his hands to halt the other man's generosity. He laughed, and Byleth thought he looked better than he had last night. Perhaps he had just needed the rest.

"No, really. You're doing us a big favor already by giving us a lift. This will easily halve our travel time."

The other man, Lord Gaspard if she'd heard right, made a humming noise and nodded. "You just have been gone a long time if you'd forgotten how bad the winters can get. Not to worry though, we'll get you home!" He slapped her father on the back.

Jeralt rubbed the back of his head, abashed. "I'm not too big to admit I made a mistake. I was a bit out of sorts yesterday." The two men wandered off, closer to the caravan, leaving Byleth to pack up her things. 

Their silhouettes were blurred by the snow, but they weren't so far away that their voices didn't carry back. She heard a deep laugh that wasn't her father's. "I'll say. I deeply regret not being able to make it to the ball this year. But even so, you and your daughter stirred the pot enough that news of the Eisners come home was sitting next to my plate at breakfast."

"You didn't miss anything worth attention, trust me." Her father promised, his own laugh sounded in the air, "It was just the usual nonsense."

"I don't think you understand, there hasn't been a good brawl since..." The man's voice broke, cutting himself off as he changed the subject, "Anyway, the ball has been dull for the last four years. And of course the year I miss it is the year things pick up! The ladies in my inn were twittering all about it! I hear young lord Fraldarius left the ball infatuated with young miss Dominic."

"The rumors have already gotten out of hand and it's been two days." Jeralt hummed. There was a noise, feet hitting wood, and his voice called out, "I'll ride in this one."

"Good, good." Lonato called out, "You and the young lady can keep warm in there. Oh! Lord Eisner! I hear your girl will be a holy woman soon, yes?"

"Hell no. " Her father laughed, "You heard that fucking wrong, she's going to be a teacher. Only for this year."

"Ah! Good! I heard two very conflicting rumors." Lonato laughed, "Your girl may very well end up teaching my boy this year!"

"Probably, with the rumors that'll reach them by then, she'll probably have to teach the Blue Lions House." Jeralt mused allowed, "I'd like to see Rhea try to stick her somewhere else, though. Can you imagine?"

Byleth finished packing her things, hefting the sack over her shoulder before trudging towards the voices. She followed along the side of the caravan, passing multiple covered wagons, their canvas dyed with colors so they could be easily seen in the snow. It wasn't long before she found the one her father was in. Lord Gaspard sat on the driver's bench while her father inside the cart looked out the front opening while they chatted. He saw her and waved her over.

"Byleth, I want you to meet Lord Gaspard. He's kindly volunteered to save our lives before we freeze on the side of a mountain." Byleth nodded at the Lord, not yet knowing what kind of etiquette there was in these situations. "Good to meet you."

"Listen here, Eisner, it's not as though anyone wouldn't do the same. What kind of man would I be if I just left you out here?" Lonato turned to give her father a chastening look, but he just waved it off.

"You need to get out more if you think people in general are willing to go out of their way for strangers as you are. Not that I don't appreciate it."

"I think you're wrong. I had an interesting article handed to me the other day written by a scholar of the mind that said people are inherently good! An expert on the subject!"

Jeralt scoffed. "An expert in nonsense maybe..."

Byleth boarded the cart behind her father, smiling at their friendly bickering.

It was… nice, to see her father getting along with someone. Yes, he got along well with his men, but there was always an air of professionalism, a separation. He was their captain first and foremost, their friend second. Listening to him banter with another man seemingly his age was… it was good.

Byleth settled into the warm caravan as the ride jolts, finding herself in a plush corner. Her father didn’t join her right away, staying outside to bicker with Lonato about the inherent good or evil of man, and whether the essay was "full of shit" as her father believed or "a good commentary on the will of men to help one another provided we are brave enough" as Lord Gaspard firmly believed.

It was fine, let him be distracted for a while, she and her father would have plenty of time to speak once they reached the mountain, an even more time once they reached the manor. Right now she could take time to herself, sorting out her own feelings.

To think, there was a whole mountain full of family she's never known. And that didn’t even include the grave of her mother and brother. She was going to see their house soon, for the first time. 

She was a noble now. A noble. She was going to be living in this manor they were visiting soon. And she was going to have to go to those balls, and make decisions that governs lands. And...and she doesn't know if she has the skills to do this.

At least it was a good excuse to keep seeing Dima, she reminded herself gently. And she could learn all about the apparently massive family she had. And she had a year in the Officer's Academy to learn how to manage students, which would be good practice, she thought.

It had only been two days since Byleth's world had been turned on its head, she realized. Who would have thought her whimsical idea to go to the Solstice ball and find her old friend would end with her having a noble title, lands, a family . She had made so many new friends already. Byleth hugs her pack against her chest as she thinks about Dimitri, waiting for their return back at the castle.

Her mind whirled at thoughts of the future. She tried to imagine what the Eisner manor must look like, and she had a hard time picturing it. She knew that the building was most likely in ruins, but images of other noble houses flitted through her head. She squinted at her father, and tried to see him wearing a noble's frock coat and cravat. The image was just so far from anything she could imagine that Byleth coudn’t hold back a huff of laughter. 

Jeralt turned to catch her staring. "What?"

"What size stockings do you wear?" Byleth's eyes glittered with laughter at the look of confused shock that passed over her father's face.

"Stockings? What?" Jeralt's face dropped after a few moments, settling into a flat look, "Just because I'm taking back the old manor and agreeing to run the place doesn't mean I'm going to wear stockings. My socks are good enough."

"I don't know, Lord Eisner." Lonato hummed beside him, "I think you'd look fine in a good pair of stockings. Maybe have your daughter fashion you a pair with bears in them."

"No." Jeralt growled flatly, "No one would even see them. What's the point?"

And that devolved into a three way debate on the usefulness of stockings at balls, with Lord Gaspard stating, quite passionately, that they were better for keeping the feet warm when someone had to throw a shoe or at the younger Fraldarius brother. It was solid logic as far as Byleth was concerned, though she didn’t know why Lord Gaspard insisted that she was going to want to throw shoes at that man in particular. Her father, however, denied the usefulness of any stockings, claiming them to be nothing but itchy leg warmers that caught on his boot belts.

The debate lasted the better part of an hour, which then devolved into whether or not just wearing muddy boots to a ball would be better or worse to the court.

"Doesn't matter." Jeralt spitted, eyeing Lonato's feet like he's going to throw off his boots and attack him with his shoes. "My daughter will be making the fashions soon."

"Then you best prepare for a lot of stockings." Lonato replied back good humorlessly.

And that was how the next two days worth of travels were spent, keeping warm in Lonato's caravan as the two old men bickered back and forth, the occasional lesson in court of shared history of their two houses thrown her way. From them she's learned that the Eisners were famous for two things, either birthing solemn, "sensible" men like her father, prone to taking up warrior skills, or poets.

The poet part honestly surprised her.

"Oh yes! Mixed in with that dysfunctional family—"

"Hey now."

Lord Lanato continued good humorously over Jeralt's protest, "—of fabled warriors are many accomplished poets of our time. One of your great, great ancestors wrote a particularly saucy ballad about a Fraldarius with shapely legs."

Before Jeralt could stop Lord Lonato from sharing the embarrassing story, their host was already reciting it with an infectious smile.

 

"Long beautiful legs, around my neck,

Bringing me in to your secret place.

So like a bird I start to peck,

And I feel the moisture on my face.

Long beautiful legs, around my waist,

Pulling me inside of you,

And still on my lips I have the taste,

Lick my lips, is what I do."

 

Jeralt looked absolutely embarrassed as Lord Lonato finished the poem in a sing-song voice, his grin mischievous and teasing as her father told the man to 'quit embarrassing me in front of my kid'.

Byleth had found the poem quite fun though and had even asked the Lord if he knew any more. He laughed heartily and gave her a wink that promised more embarrassing tales.

"No, kid. Don't encourage him."

"Oh come now, Jeralt, that story is one of those that simply has to be shared." Lonato made a point of smiling at the man, "Particularly the part where the young lady in question slew the man for his insult."

"For good reason." Her father rubbed his forehead. "I'm embarrassed to be related to the man, I can only imagine how humiliated that poor girl must have felt."

"At least that's the worst it gets… if we ignore stories of even older generations." Lonato's lips twitched, "It's it said that Pan Eisner was born when..."

"No. No, we're not telling that story. It's not true, and I don't want you filling my girl's head with nonsense." Jeralt rounded on her with a grim face, "Don't listen to anything he's saying, kid, it's all bullshit. That never happened. Pan was a normal human being."

"No normal human being would be Loog Blaiddyd's adviser." Lonato claimed, turning back to check on the caravans behind them before setting eyes on her again, "I'm told that sending the goat to declare war against the Adrestian Empire was his idea."

"The goat?" Byleth questioned, suddenly more interested, "What goat?"

"Lord Eisner, you've done this girl a disservice." Lonato shook his head in disappointment, "She doesn't even know about the goat."

Jeralt couldn't stop himself from shrinking a little at the comment, "It really isn't that important..."

"Not important?!" Lord Lonato gasped, looking ready to gut her father where he sat for daring to say such a thing. "It's one of the best stories of the Eisners to tell! Not only that, it was the start of our war with the Empire!"

Now Byleth was definitely interested as she leaned closer and listened to the man tell the tale of how Loog declared war on Adrestia by sending a goat with a letter of declaration of war.

"Something none of those prissy snobs took seriously, mind you." Jeralt grumbled out a few words before his daughter realized he was reciting parts of the letter—most of it including crass insults and talks of one’s mother. Byleth couldn't stop the smile from growing as both men started to recite the best lines of the cursed letter before Lonato continued.

"It was the second letter that really got their knickers in a twist."

Now her father was smiling, looking fondly at the road before them as snow began to fall in pretty bits. "I had to hear that damned story almost every year by the fire—my father was quite fond of it."

Byleth paused, suddenly eager to hear more about her grandfather and other close family ties that she could have met in her lifetime.

"What was Granddad like?"

Jeralt was quiet for a moment, his eyes shooting to Lord Lonato first before he spoke in careful words.

"He was a proud man, proudest I'd ever seen. So serious and so damned determined—my ma could barely handle him." Jeralt started to smile, "My old man was quiet though, much like you and me. It was our other members that would regale in songs that usually ended up with dishes thrown around."

"Dishes?" Byleth blinked, loving the nostalgic look in her father's eyes.

"Aye, we threw a lot of things around in our family. Dishes, goats, bad songs."

"Sounds like a right and proper time." Lonato beamed, leaning forward. He graciously didn't ask about the father, perhaps sensing it was a delicate subject. 

"They never shut up." Jeralt complained, settling back and letting his eyes flicker upward, "Not a damn one of them. It was my father and I just watching the rest of them and their chaos. I wasn't kidding about throwing stuff around."

Byleth wanted to ask him more about it, more about them, the brothers and sisters, but Lonato was right there, and listening, so she didn't. Instead she just let her father speaking himself, sharing the details he could remember about his father.

"He could play the harp." Jeralt recalled, scratching his beard, "That's what got my ma to marry him. That damn harp. He was proud of it too. But he was more proud of his skills with swords and axes."

"Ah, fine weapons." Lonato nodded.

"You take after him that way." Her father looked at her, gaze heavy and calculating, "Yeah, thinking about it, you must've gotten it from him. He was damn good with a sword."

"Is that where you learned?” Byleth asked, resting her chin on her knee, "From him?"

"Yeah." Jeralt's voice was soft. He looked away from her, eyes finding the ground as they rolled lazily along. Lonato hummed a bit, trying to distance himself from the conversation. After a few moments Jeralt looked up again, voice steady, "He taught me. I picked up some other skills over the years, but I learned most of the basics from him."

Her father was quiet again for a moment, silent and contemplative, before he finally spoke again, "I think he would have liked you. He was a quiet man, but he was a proud one, and he loved us a lot. I think he'd have taken to you without a thought. And so would my ma. Ah, my ma, she liked to brew as a hobby. She'd have tried to rope you into learning ciders."

Byleth hummed at the idea. "I'd actually like to learn to make cider." 

"Well you might get your chance. Last I remember, Ma had a still in the backyard. It blew up once or twice, so I'm not sure if it would still be there—or it could have been stolen..." Jeralt's eyes darkened at the thought of thieves desecrating his family home.

Lonato, sensing the dip in mood, came to the rescue. "It would be a simple matter to get a new still in any case. You probably wouldn't want to use an old one anyway; it might taint the brew. And let me just say, Miss Eisner, I would be more than happy to taste test your ciders for you."

Jeralt grumbled good naturedly, his mood recovered. "I'm not even reestablished, Gaspard, and you're already inviting yourself over to my house."

Lonato opened his mouth to reply, when there was a commotion outside. A horse nudged itself close to the front of their wagon, the rider on its back was a young man with silver hair, green eyes, and a smattering of freckles across his face

"Father, a pack of wolves have been sighted to the east."

Chapter Text

Lonato's eyes narrowed dangerously at the mention of wolves. He stood up, growling dangerously, " Direwolves ."

"We are in that area." Jeralt stood beside him, hand going for his lance. "It might not be too late to avoid them if we're smart about it."

"We cannot let them roam close to nearby villages." Lonato shook his head. He stepped down, moving to the boy who'd called him "father", placing his hands on the boy's shoulders and looking him in the eyes, "Ashe, was anyone hurt by them?"

"No." They boy shook his head, "We only spotted them, but they're roaming too close to the roads."

"Then there is no choice." Lonato stated grimly, "We cannot risk them attacking helpless travelers or merchants. If we cannot get rid of them, then we must at least herd them. Ashe, stay with Lord Eisner and his daughter and guard the caravans, I'll take a squadron of my men and we'll be rid of them."

Lonato turned, raising his arm to signal his men. But the boy reached out to grab his arm, stopping him in his tracks, "Please, let me come with you."

"No, Ashe, Direwolves are dangerous alone, much less in packs." Lonato shook his head, turning again to face the boy. His hands rested on the shoulders again, his face crumbling suddenly, and, voice cracking, he confessed, "After losing Christophe my heart could not bear it if you were hurt. Please, stay here."

That made the boy quiet, his freckle-kissed face scrunching up with guilt then to acceptance. "Yes, father."

Lord Lonato smiled and his shoulders seemed to grow lighter with relief as he gave Ashe's shoulders a comforting squeeze. "Good lad. Protect the caravan—keep your hands quick and eyes sharp." He gave the boy one last smile when Ashe nodded, his eyes set with a determined fire.

"Yes, father!"

The Lord gave the Eisners a nod then quickly left to round up some men, the caravan taking a moment to stop as people gathered up some extra weapons and traps in case they would have to hunt down any stragglers. Once the group with Lord Lonato left did the caravan start up again—the threat of direwolves refusing to keep it from it's destination in a timely manner.

Ashe took to riding his horse at their own cart's side, his brow furrowed with worry despite his word to stay strong for his father. Jeralt couldn't help but smile, finding the boy endearing. Why couldn't his daughter like someone like him? Then at least she wouldn't be leaving him all alone for some pretty boy Prince. She'd just go live at a neighbor's house with a sweet boy who probably spent less time posturing at court and more time with his family.

Hmph. Why was his daughter so difficult?

"He'll be all right, kid." Jeralt grunted at the boy, his eyes back on the road as if he were dozing.

Ashe turned to Jeralt, as if surprised he were addressing him. "O-Oh! Yes! I have full faith in Lord Lonato's skills —truly!"

Jeralt raised a brow at the 'Lord Lonato' part and wondered if perhaps the boy was still nervous around nobles. It'd make sense—he was like a little field mouse. Those freckles didn't help.

"Yeah." Jeralt nodded, folding his arms and leaning back against the wooden wall. "And he's got a lot of good men with him. As long as it's not an over large pack then he should be fine."

"Y-Yes!" The boy nodded, a small smile gracing his lips, "Oh! I'm Ashe by the way, Lonato is my faster father. It's a pleasure to meet you my lord! My lady!"

Byleth peeked past her father, eyeing the boy, "I'm not a Lady yet."

Ashe laughed softly, trying to hide the smile behind his hand, "I had troubles as well when Lonato took me in. Oh! I heard you two were at the ball last night! How was it? I've never been myself! I heard Prince Dimitri himself was there! It must have been amazing!"

Byleth giggled and Jeralt had to sit back and take the experience in. He thought he'd never see the day. He watched the boy's cheeks flush and secretly cheered him on.

"It was exciting. I met so many people, there was a fight in the ballroom, I learned about my family..." She kept her time with Dimitri to herself. Somehow she felt that time was for them. "Next year, we should go together, Ashe!" 

This time the flush went all the way to the tops of his ears.

Not far away the sounds of wolves, barking and howling jolts them out of their conversation.

Ashe stared into the woods, his hands tightening around the reigns. He bit his bottom lip, very clearly wanting nothing more than to take his horse and race into the forest after the commotion. With a sigh, Jeralt stood, more than ready to march into the woods and help Lonato and his men take out the pack himself.

He didn't get that chance, however, as a wolf burst through the trees, followed closely by it's pack, racing past the caravan, Lonato himself hot on their heels. The wolves didn't attack the carriage, simply racing past, their heavy footsteps leaving giant holes in their path. The pack was full grown, most of them standing as tall or taller than Ashe on his horse, which reared up and knocked the boy from it's back, rushing off in fear.

"Back! Back! Ye bloody pests! Back away!" Lonato cried, swinging his sword as he cased the animals away from the road, "Men! Control the directions ye bloody fools!"

But his men were far behind him, and he was forced to chase them off the road himself, swinging his sword like a maniac and screaming rage, shouting to scare the beasts off, "Away with you foul creatures! Away!"

Ashe groaned, pushing himself up from the ground, "My horse..."

But one wolf saw the horse and rounded it, only to face the blunt end of the sword's hilt. It yelped, bolting after it's pack, winning at the abuse, "Don't you dare put your foul teeth on Daisy you beasts!

Jeralt jumped off the cart with his lance tight in hand, getting in front of Ashe and his Daisy in case the direwolves came back. Straggling horses passed them as a few of Lord Lonato's men followed after the beast as they rushed away from the caravan. "Guess they aren't too hungry today."

At least it wasn't the Red Wolf Moon - the beasts would always go into a frenzy during the whole month. It was madness on the mountains and Jeralt couldn't help but remember hunting with his father during that month. It'd become a bonding thing between him and his father. Though they hadn't spoken much during those hunting trips - Jeralt had enjoyed them all the same.

Hm. Perhaps he'll start taking Byleth out during the Red Wolf Moon for a father-daughter hunt.

"Looks like we're safe for now." Jeralt gave Ashe a smile, "You did good kid. Got a lot of respect for someone who fights for their horse."

"Ashe! Are you hurt!?" Lonato pushed past the man, fussing over the boy, "Did those pests lay even a single hair of fur on you? I'll hunt them down myself if so!"

"N-No." Ashe shuddered, hands wringing around each other as his foster father held his face between too large hands, "D-Don't worry, I wasn't hurt."

Lonato shuddered, pulling Ashe into a hug and letting out a relieved sigh. "Thank the goddess and all the saints for that." 

The Lord then turned to his remaining men, still holding his son as he glared, "As for you, all of you will be doing drills when we return to my manor! You were supposed to lead them away you fools! If those wolves had been any hungrier than they were than I wouldn't have a son right now! Go on! Get back into your positions! I'll be sure to drill you all."

The men that hadn't chased after the wolves all scrambled to get back into position, no one wanting to anger their lord any more than he had already been. The man visibly deflated after, letting go of Ashe and stepping away, "Forgive me Ashe, Lord Eisner, Lady Eisner. I've lost my temper I'm afraid. I apologize for this delay and for the close call. I promise my men will be punished. Please, let us move along and get you to the mountain before anymore such...inconveniences happen.”

Jeralt shrugged, "At least me and my kid weren't facing them alone. We don't mind the delay."

The longer it took the more he got to hang onto his little girl. Who knows, maybe she'll forget the silly Prince and stay up in the mountain forever and she'll never marry and be happy. And then all the Eisners will rise from the dead and take up pegasus riding.

He couldn't help but feel a strong kinship with Lord Lonato - with his quickness to protect his child from any sort of harm, even growing nervous at the thought of something them away. Perhaps he'd have to have a drink with his new friend and talk over parenthood and how annoying it was to watch your little kids grow into troublesome teens. Ugh, he was starting to feel pathetic.

"We move on - we're less than three days out from our lands and I refuse to die before we get there." Lord Lonato glared at his men before the caravan began to move once more as if nothing had happened.

Ashe had calmed down Daisy enough to hop on, his hand petting her neck as he whispered sweet words to her. Jeralt had jumped back onto the wagon with his daughter while Lonato stuck to his horse, riding along side with his son and the Eisners.

"Lord Jeralt, our land is only a half day out of your way—would you care to stay for a night? We can provide you a meal and talk of old times," He smiled at Jeralt, good mood coming back. "It's the least I could do for this little embarrassment."

"Thanks for the offer, Lonato." Jeralt raised a hand to the man, "And maybe I'll take you up on it later, but right now my kid and I are heading to fetch a relic and prove we're actual Eisners to the Regent. And you know that guy, we don't wanna keep him waiting."

"Oh, well if that's the case I more than understand." Lonato scratched at his mustache, wincing a little at the reminder of the King Regents less than pleasant temperament. "Perhaps another time then. It seems well be neighbors again soon enough, we'll have all the time in the world."

Ashe made a disappointed noise from his spot, clearly having wanted the two to take up the offer so he'd have more time to speak with them. Byleth isn't sure where he's been the last two day, possibly busy leading the men in the back, but she also finds herself mildly disappointed that she hadn't gotten time know him. 

He'll be at Garreg Mach when she's teaching, she reminds herself, they'll have plenty of time then.

"Yeah, so we'll definitely take you up on the offer some other time." Jeralt waved off, scoffing a bit, "And you've already invited yourself over."

"I still expect to try your cider once you've learned to brew, Lady Eisner." Lonato's lips twitched, his hand patting his horse's neck, "I'm sure it will be the talk of the town. But, ah, we best get going. If I knew the King Regent himself sent you then I'd have made us travel faster."

"Thank you for all the help." Jeralt holds his hand out for a shake. The other Lord grasps it, sealing a silent pact between them.

"Never be afraid to ask me for anything, my good neighbor." The man laughed, "Except to betray a Blaiddyd, out fly a Galatea, fight a Conand, or debate a Fraldarius."

"Goddess forbid." Jeralt shook his head, "Come on, Byleth, let's get going."

"It was a pleasure to meet you Lord Lonato," She bowed as she'd see Dimitri done before - making said Lord chuckle in amusement. "And you too, Lord Ashe."

She bowed to him and the poor boy blushed and waved his hands in front of him. "N-No! I'm no Lord!!" Freckled cheeks positively pink, he bowed back from atop his horse repeatedly, eyes shut tight and voice growing squeaky and loud. "I-It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Eisner."

Byleth bowed back and the two fathers couldn't help but grow amused at the sight. Lord Lonato patted Jeralt's back when the two finally stopped bowing and had a small farewell and a promise to meet again. "If your kid wasn't already hitched to the Prince, I'd suggest these two form a union."

Jeralt sobered and let out a loud sigh, "If only..."

Lonato laughed loudly, loving to tease his friend. "Good luck, my friend—those Blaiddyds are a handful."

"Yeah," Jeralt huffed and walked towards Byleth. "Well, so are we Eisners."

That earned another laugh from the Lord as they walked off, all of them waving one last time before splitting up at a fork in the road, the right leading to Lord Lonato's lands and the left path narrowing up the mountain. It was going to be a bit rougher from here on out—they'd have to be careful not to fall off some cliff and sleep forever at the bottom.

Chapter Text

"Well, easy part is over." Jeralt reached over to pat her shoulder, staring up the mountain path with a frown. He sighed, looking very much like he regretted not taking up Lonato on his offer, "Once we step on this mountain...we'll be home."

Byleth frowned, looking up at her father, "That doesn't sound too difficult."

"Going home is always difficult when you've been away as long as I have." Her father sighed, kicking a rock onto the beginning of the path. He brushed a hand through his bangs, sighing again, "And that's just the emotional part. The mountain is steep in some parts, and there's lots of snow, and rams, and sometimes there's Snow Lions. And don't get me started on Gryphons."

"Why did our ancestors build a home here, then?" Byleth questioned, turning to stare at the path that would lead to the mountain, "Why not somewhere safer?"

"This place may be hell, but it's home, it's ours." Whiskey eyes turned upwards, staring at the mountain covered in fog and snow, "Ole Pan was born on this mountain, and so was his mother, and his father, and everyone in this family back to Eisner himself."

"Why didn't they leave?" Byleth turned her own gaze to the mountain. She'd felt nothing looking at it before, but now...something unfamiliar was forming inside her. 

"Well… think of it like this kid." Her father dropped a hand on her shoulder, "A rabbit would be safer if it never left it's barrow, but that's not what rabbits are meant to do."

"But we're trying to go back to our barrow." Byleth frowned, "How is that the same?"

"Because that's what we were meant to do." Jeralt took a breath, "This is our mountain, we were meant to take care of it. Everyone from Eisner to my father. And no one's been here to take care of it for a long time, and that's what makes this hard. I don't think there's a snow lion up there that could stop me once we get going, but if I walk up there and don't feel like I'm home again? Well, that's gonna hit hard."

Byleth frowned again, staring at the mountain as something warm settled in her stomach, "Do you feel like you're home looking at it?"

"I sure do." Her father patted her hair, "But that'll be nothing compared to seeing the house."

Byleth blinked up at the mountain, an uneasy and fluttery feeling taking roost in the pit of her stomach. She was almost positive her father was feeling the same way, except worse—he's actually been up this mountain. Jeralt took an unsteady breath and started walking, his eyes trained ahead and jaw jutted forward as if he were swallowing something very, very bitter.

She followed, steps unsure. "How will we know we've made it to our lands?"

"Oh, you'll know." Jeralt grinned sharply, eyes looking a little wilder than before. "Even if you don't feel the clawing in your stomach—and you will—you'll see the markers."

She frowned and was about to ask, but didn't get a chance as Jeralt moved faster and the path started to steadily climb upwards. Deciding to conserve energy and just allow the mountain to take them into its arms, she followed in silence, eyes trained for whatever markers there may be. Her father didn't talk either, his arms stiff and feet stomping as if he were reclaiming the land step by step. Byleth wondered if she should be worried, his hands were jittery and his back was uncomfortably straight.

Not that she felt any different. It was like there was a strange tingle on the back of her neck the further they climbed, the steep path quickly becoming a hill with a dirt trail, then into loose rocks that had probably been stone steps at some point. They carefully waded up and up and up for what felt like an hour.

Then she saw something she'd never imagined could exist. They've traveled far and wide and see many great things, but Byleth couldn't help but all that paled in comparison to what she could only assume were the markers her father spoke of.

There at the top of an incline, just above the sprouts of trees and foliage was a tall statue, but not just any kind. This was carved right into the mountain! As tall as a castle tower and as imposing as an army, a large stone man stood tall against the rocky face—sword and shield placed in front of him and face looking sharp and grim beneath his elaborately carved face. Grass and flowers sprouted along his shoulders and hands while old nests took refuge in his crooked arms, as safe and comfortable as the people who lived on the mountain itself. She couldn't help but gape, which made her father chuckle.

"Amazing, isn't it?"

"Who..." Byleth trailed off, her eyes on the statue. She didn't want to look away, too mesmerized by the detailed carving on the stone. Whomever made the statue took great care to even add emblems on the shield and patterns in the coat.

"If this is how you're reacting to the gatekeeper than I can't wait for you to see the house." Her father chuckled beside her. He stepped forward, eyes trailing up the large stone structure. His whole body only barely stood a head taller than the statue's carved shoe. He placed a hand against it and looked up, "Hey, old man, I'm home."

The statue didn't move for him, or respond, because that was not what statues do. Statues weren’t living things, and they couldn’t actually watch them, or guard gates. Still, she couldn't help but feel watched by those solemn eyes. She stepped next to her father and stared into its face. Jeralt dropped his hand as she did, shaking his head, "Come on, it's not far past here. The old man is just a greeting card."

Byleth swallowed, wondering what her father would show her next. She trailed after him as he moved silently, kicking snow from his path to make it easier for her, they walked down a twisting and turning path for a few good solid minutes, finally turning past the mountain curve to the other side.

That's when she saw it.

"That's not a manor." Byleth stopped, staring down at the town, "That's a town."

"Manors tend to have towns nearby. Though, it looks like it has been abandoned." Jeralt shrugged, eyes rolling over the town that was completely carved into the stone, eyes flickering upward. He pointed ahead, just over the town, "That's what we're looking for."

Byleth followed his finger with her gaze, looking out towards a bit of jutted mountain. It took a moment to see it, but she did notice it after taking a moment to study it.

The manor was carved straight into the mountain, it was formed like it grew from the stone itself. Many different statues surrounded it, and many more lined up a set of stairs that lead down to the abandoned town. At the top of those stairs was a walkway with a large fire pit in the center, standing just in front of what seemed to be doors. A waterfall fell on one side, suggesting there was a lake or river, she couldn't see hidden behind stone walls, a broken mill sitting at the foot where the water fell into another lake. 

It was a breathtaking sight.

"Damn, it looked better with bonfires." Her father lamented, "And the old mill is broken, gotta get that fixed."

Jeralt gestured her to follow, his steps carefully as he walked closer towards the entrance gates that somehow stood tall as they'd been built. There were a few fallen stones here and there and some overgrowth, but the walls were in otherwise good shape. In fact, most of the town didn't look that bad of shape, mostly the windows and roofs in need of repair, but otherwise livable (from the outside it looked that way at least). Byleth could only assume it was from the craftsmanship of the stone itself and couldn't help but notice some of the stones had the same symbol above each door.

She studied each one, noting some were worn and others look like they'd only been carved into the stone just days before. Byleth didn't recognize the meaning, only knew it was important by the way it made her skin tingle.

"They're wards for protection—mostly superstitious nonsense, but it became a tradition sometime during Pan's years living here."

Byleth stared at one closely, finding that looked like some sort of flower with a circle fully around it. Once she had her fill did they continue up the steps that curved around to hug the mountain cliff. She peeked over some of the edges, taking note of the water falling into a large reservoir below. She could only assume most of this water was used for the mill, blacksmith, and perhaps even bathing—the pool below looking crystal clear thanks to it running over the side of the mountain and taking the minerals with it.

"C'mon," Jeralt hurried her further up, the manor now coming into full view. "We're about to get to the best part."

When the reached the top of the hill, for a moment Byleth could only stare in wonder. A second, smaller gate led up to the main manor. On the other side was an overgrown yard. Snow covered greenery grew other on or over almost every surface. 

Trees lined the man sized wall surrounding the manor. Some kind of vines covered what looked like a wrought iron gazebo, complete with tea table and chairs. It struck Byleth then that she hadn't seen much green in their climb through the town below, mostly just stone—it must have been reserved for the main house proper. 

A stone walkway led through the yard and to the manor itself. Byleth looked up at the facade itself and saw that it was cut right into the mountainside. Elaborate carvings spanned almost the entire thing, and Byleth itched to climb up and inspect them all. Large windows with thick glass panes were spaced regularly across the surface. 

Wide stone columns supported the top of an outdoor entryway. More wrought iron benches lined the walls of stone that eventually made way for a great double door. More carvings adorned every inch, and Byleth ran her fingers over the faded characters, trying to guess their meaning or purpose.

As Jeralt watched his daughter explore what was left of his old home with wonder plain on her face, he felt a tightening in his chest. For the first time since they'd left Fhirdiad, he was beginning to feel at ease. He carefully stepped up to the main door.

"Well? Care to see what's inside?

"Huh?" Byleth turned to her father, not catching his question as she'd been staring at the manor in wonder.

Jeralt smiled, feeling his heart flutter at seeing his daughter so entranced with his family home and all it's fixings—even if it was a bit run down. He held out his arm and waited for her to come to him to sling it around her shoulders. Giving her a squeeze he started to lead her inside. "You should have seen it in its heyday."

The back of his throat tickled and he swallowed hard, knowing it was a sign of some strong feelings coming back to him. Jeralt took a deep breath and led her into the manor, hoping to get into an area where his daughter WOULDN'T see him break down.

Chapter Text

They stepped up the stone steps, past the overgrown courtyard where weeds and wildflowers seem to be taking over, and towards the front door. Byleth studied the heavy set doors, noting they were made of a coppery looking metal and had a minimalist design of lines forming upwards and met at a point much like a mountain.

In the middle of the two doors was an old lock, one that still looked in decent condition as Jeralt pulled a necklace from beneath his tunic. He pulled out a simple looking key and unlocked the doors with a heavy click. Then another click and another, and soon Byleth could hear what seemed like several different locks and gears straining to move against time's rust before both doors swung open.

Jeralt made a soft noise that Byleth could only assume was annoyance before he led her inside. They both paused a moment, finding the home too dark to make out what was around them. Her father cursed and felt around for a torch on a wall before lighting it.

He grimaced when the first thing he noticed was a bundle of abandoned spiderwebs in all corners of the small foyer, along with old overturned baskets and a very dusty floor.

Byleth sneezed while Jeralt turned in place to look at a few old tapestries hanging up on the wall—one looking like it needed the dirt beat out of it and the other was unraveling at the seams.

"Well...this is promising."

Byleth took a step further into the room, a cloud of dust flying from beneath her feet. The whole house was covered with a thick layer, the only disturbances being from the woven webs made by the spiders crawling along the wall, and a few mice that fled from the sudden light. It was hard to see beyond the entrance hall, though if she squinted she could make out a few tables with glass cases on top of them, and a few displays of armor.

"We need a light." Her father walked up to a will, where a horn hung from the stone. He picked the horn from it's iron mount, pulling a match from his pouch. He flicked it against the stone, the match sizzling to life. Moving it inside the horn, the flame grew brighter, and Byleth realized that the horn was a candle holder of some sort. Father made a sound, moving the hold the candle over others like it, at least three candles for every pillar there, and lit every one until the room glowed with dim light.

Like this the room didn't seem so intimidating, just sad. The fire lights flickered and it was easy to see where color hid beneath the dusted tapestries. And everything was still dusted covered, but it was easier to make out what had once been a rather boastful greeting hall.

Her father rubbed a hand over one of the many glass cases, rubbing away a trail of dust to reveal a very impressively forged dagger inside, with a handle shaped like a bear with jeweled eyes. There were more gemstones littering the case, and long dried petals from flowers. The older man hummed, tapping the case, "This dagger was made by my sister. The handle is made out of the bone of a bear she killed on her first hunting trip."

Byleth remained silent as her father moved towards a fireplace sitting and the end of the hall, kneeling down to light it as well. Above the fireplace was an impressive pair of antlers, and above that was a mural of a man forging. Jeralt made another noise as he pointed towards it, "That's your too many greats grandfather, Durin, the one who built this manor."

Curious, Byleth stepped beside her father, her footsteps echoing in the empty hall as she walked. Her eyes remained on the mural, studying the details. It was a bit faded, but the man depicted could still be made out. He was tan, with golden hair woven in braids, and an impressive beard woven with more braids.

Her father made a sound, something like a shudder but not quite, and turned away, "Come on."

She followed her father out the greeting hall and deeper into the home, the man waving out quick explanations to what certain things were, "that's the kitchens" or "that's the forge", leading her past more dusted halls and webbed rooms, lighting candles along the way. 

There were many things lining those halls, shelves filled with books, more display cases, swords and shields and axes hanging on the wall, a table that had glowing rocks that had somehow not been touched by dust. Gold coins littered outside of one door, having been knocked over a century ago in a rush. Byleth even spotted a very pretty necklace shining beneath dust on one table, not yet cased.

"Our family were blacksmiths, warriors, and poets." Jeralt scratched his beard as he lead her down the hall, "Which is good, because one of my sisters loved jewelry and needed a new damn piece every month. That town outside? Mining town once upon a time. Everything in this room was made by an Eisner at some point or another. I never could blacksmith myself. I was a fighter. But dad was proud no matter what we did, and mom was a brewer, so no one minded. I ran off and joined the church when the other males in my family died, and they were still proud."

Jeralt stopped for a moment, frowning, "I wonder if the basement still has any of mom's good stuff… she used to store it in these giant kegs down there."

He shook his head. There'd be time enough for that later. He went from room to room, opening doors and letting out a century's worth of stale air. His daughter trailed behind him, inspecting old pieces of armor on stands and murals on walls. Each crack and brushstroke had a story, and he realized with a shock he looked forward to spending the time telling her each and every one. 

He recalled the path up to the manor, dreading the ghosts he'd find here. Every step had been heavy with the guilty weight of one hundred years of neglected hearth and home. He opened another door. The air sucked in and kicked up dust. He imagined he saw his older sister in the back corner, turned away from him with a book in her hands that she'd just plucked from the shelf. Jeralt gripped the door handle tight enough to make it creak. Then his daughter brushed past him and into the room to where the vision had been. She plucked a book off the shelf, her fingers danced over the embossed cover.

"'A Guide To Traps Most Despicable' by Kili Eisner." Her eyes glittered with excitement at the find.

Jeralt grunted. "Yeah. He and his brother were both known for them. There's loads of books like that all over this place. I must have been forced to read them all when I was a kid." 

Byleth brought the book out with her. As Jeralt turned away he swore he saw the shade of his sister again out of the corner of his eye, smiling back at them. 

They slowly made their way to one side of the manor, and finally to a locked door at the end of a hall. "This door leads deeper into the mountain. If you follow the path straight, it leads all the way to a secret exit on the other side. I'll have to get another key made."

"Who would we get to make it?" Byleth tilted her head, staring at the door, "There's no one else in the town."

"I'm sure we can find a blacksmith in the capital." Jeralt muttered as he passes by the door, "Once we're made lords again we can probably offer pay to some people to move out here and start up business in town again. I'm sure we can find someone interested in a free house and a career in mining. There's a lot of people wanting to start up in someplace different than where they began. Hell, maybe some of my men will take to the idea of being the city guard."

"How will we get food?" The girl asked, skipping a head a bit to look at her father, book clutched to her chest, "This doesn't seem like a good farming town."

"The family probably has some money, and I'm sure there's farming villages down the mountain." Jeralt shrugged, "And once we get some smiths, miners, here then we'll have trade with the rest of the kingdom again. And they'll bring their wives and kids, who'll probably work at inns or here in the manor, or down at the mill. Or they'll run the shops. Trust me, kid, I learned all about it from watching my dad and sister."

Byleth nodded, trusting that her father knew what to do. She trailed a finger along the book's spine, finding the action pleasant and comforting. Jeralt held up the horn, bringing the light higher, bringing the light closer to the roof, where the girl realized that there were murals painted all cross, and dozens of more horns on chandeliers. 

"Where are we going?" The girl asked, eyes landing on her father's back.

"Family crypt." Jeralt stated gruffly, "We're going to go ahead and grab a relic and then...I don't know, get it over with? I don't wanna sit and wait to see the bodies."

Chapter Text

"We're going to see their actual bodies?" Byleth questioned, tilting her head curiously, "We're taking the relics right from their graves?"

"We're not taking, we're borrowing." The blond man insisted as they reached the end of the hall at long last. Her father paused, looking left, then right, before walking over to another. He led her out a door then, into a large, open, cave with a giant pond. It was dark, and enclosed, but water fell from somewhere, and there was just enough light from somewhere to make her think it was falling somewhere outside.

"We'll just pop open one of the tombs, grab a sword, and get out. Or, in my dad's case, just grab the sword." Jeralt said as he lead her into the cave, bee-lining for the waterfall. Byleth clutched her book closer as the got closer, mist spraying in her face as he lead her behind the thick curtain. 

There was a door there, hidden well by the stone. Jeralt held up his key and moved a rock, revealing a keyhole behind it that the key easily fit. He turned it, and a single, large, clank echoed through the mountain. It beat against the air, thrumming heavy against her, and several other large clanks followed as she and Jeralt backed away. 

The door opened on its own, the hinges squeaked loudly, shrieking like something dying before finally settling open. 

Byleth stared down the steep stairs into the tomb, already seeing dozens of statues lining the walls. Jeralt, seeing this, placed a hand on her shoulder, motioning forward, "Go on."

So she did, taking the first steps into the tomb. Something in the air just changed as she did, and it was like the world fell quite all around her. Yet, at the same time, that quite hummed low in her blood, like the statues gazed at her and hummed their approval.

Jeralt walked past her, leading her down the steps with his light. Neither of them said a thing as the descended, letting only the sound of their silence play between them. Not a single words was said until they reached the bottom, where the tomb really began.

Then, finally, she saw it.

The body sat upon a throne, dressed in regal armor, hands folded over the sword hilt, forehead resting against them. A curtain of dark hair hid his face, an equally dark beard all she could make out from it. He looked like he was praying, but Byleth knew he wasn't. She knew he couldn't do anything, for this man was dead. He was dead and resting, with a sword stabbed in the stone before him, a jewel shining from the hilt, and a shield resting next to him.

"Here sits the King Beneath the Mountain." Jeralt laughed as he walked forward, standing in front of the body, "Where he guards the tombs forever more."

Then, her father knelt, reaching out a hand to touch the dead man's knee, "Hey, old man, I'm finally home."

Jeralt stood again, letting out a breath. He wasn't sure how to explain to his daughter about where she was—the real center, the real heart of the Eisner lands. There was just so much of it. He had grown up steeped in the lore, it was never anything that had to be explained. There certainly weren't any books about this place. He chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment, looking down at the man on the throne, before turning back to Byleth.

"Come greet your grandfather, kid." Her eyes widened at the request. 

She hesitated a moment before stepping forward and mimicking Jeralt. He stepped out of the way as Byleth knelt on the ground and touched the man's knee. "I-It's nice to meet you, Grandfather." She stood up quickly, then looked questioningly at her Father. 

He was still trying to find the right words. "My father—" He motioned to the man on the throne. "As the patriarch, and as the best of us, was put here so that he might protect our family—living and dead. Someday, he'll be laid to rest with the others, and someone else will take his place..." 

It suddenly dawned on Jeralt that that someone would likely be him, as he was the last aside from his daughter—and he wasn't going to let himself think of her sitting on that throne, alone in that tomb surrounded by her dead family. 

Jeralt shuddered, breaking himself out of his thoughts. Byleth was looking down at Thorin, but he couldn't tell what she was thinking. He picked up the great carved branch that was leaning up against the side of the throne. "I'm sure he won't mind us borrowing his shield for a while. He'd want us to succeed more than I do. And if the Oakenshield isn't enough proof for Rufus, I don't know what is."

"Oakenshield." Byleth tested the name, looking up at him. She clutched that book like a lifeline, staring blankly before finally asking, "You've mentioned that name before, to the King Regent."

"The old man's shield was a signature mark." Jeralt held up the wood, examining it with a keen eye. An emblem she assumed was the house signal was painted on the front, half worn with time, metal bits jointing out, and a carved inscription in the front that she couldn't make out. Her father ran a hand over it, clicking his tongue, "It's made from a super rare wood the Forresters grow, it's as hard as iron. Dad battered a lot of heads with it. So much so that he got it a special nickname."

"Enough to be recognized on sight?" Byleth steps forward, away from her grandfather, peering at the shield, "That must have been an impressive record."

"He once bashed a gryphon to death with it and presented the body to my ma as his declaration of courting." Jeralt smiled proudly, holding up the shield, "He only used the shield. It was a personal challenge."

"And he lived?" Byleth made an impressed sound, "He sounds like a madman."

"There was never a Faerghus man that didn't go a little mad when they fell in love, if the stories are true anyway." Jeralt hummed, looking down at her, "The most mad stories you'll hear in Faerghus will usually involve ‘he fell in love’ followed by whoever it is doing something completely and utterly stupid. Most of the are kidnapping stories."

Jeralt paused then, before a fond smile spread across his face, "I should explain that to you. In Faerghus you don't ask for permission to marry, you tell the family you're going to kidnap the bride, and if they agree you give them a week and then try to kidnap them. My father, of course, had no problems when he stormed my ma's household. To hear it told, he just bashed everyone there with this shield and knocked them out. Ma had left open a window for him to sneak in, but he just had to show them all he could protect her."

Byleth stared at him a long, silent, moment, "...that's..."

Jeralt grinned at her, patting her hair, "My father was considered one of the most sensible men in Faerghus at the time."

He put his hand on her back and pushed her back towards the entrance. The sudden thought he may get to punch the Prince of Faerghus made him eager to get their business done. They climbed the stairs, and Jeralt took one last look at the man on the throne, sending a silent goodbye before going through the door.

"We should probably stay tonight, and leave early tomorrow. Is there anything you want to see?"

Byleth put her hand to her chin in thought, before her eyes lit up. "What about your old room?" Jeralt raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"An entire family you haven't met yet, and you want to explore your old man's closet?" He shook his head. "It's not going to be that exciting, but come on. I don't know if I even remember where it was. We'll explore more of the house along the way."

As her father turned to leave, Byleth took this last chance to look at her grandfather. The flicker of torchlight catching his sword in a prism of fire. She stared, the colors reflecting off the blade for a second longer before the tomb finally engulfed in shadow.

"Kid?"

She quickly climbed the old stone stairway to the top where her father stood, his face grim looking against the shadows of the cavern. Byleth waited patiently as he led the rest of the way out, but not before she caught a glimpse of the exit's frame. From one end and all the way around the arch of the hidden entrance to the other end was an intricate design of weaving knots and symbols, one of which she recognized as the same above the other homes in the town. She touched it briefly feeling the smooth craftsmanship practically tingle against her skin.

Jeralt grabbed her wrist and pulled her out quickly, his mouth formed into a tight line as he closed the tomb and hid the key beneath his tunic. He glanced at her, nervous now as he noticed her questioning look. "We'll talk about that later."

He really wasn't in the mood to share with his daughter about the Faerghus traditions of Necromancy. 

Luckily, Byleth didn't seem to mind and followed her father through the halls of their ancestral home—taking in all the old items lying around. Wood and stone carvings (mainly of bears and fish), worn tapestries of a coat of arms she assumed was theirs, paintings of scenery, and a whole lotta weapons. Axes, swords, shields, lances, daggers, bows—it seemed their family had it all while also being blasé enough to leave them lying around.

She almost tripped over a pair of steel boots when they came to a door and Jeralt couldn't help but laugh.

"I've been away for so long, I forgot how much we used to hoard here."

Chapter Text

The young woman looked up, stepping over the steel boots and into her father's old bedroom while Jeralt held open the thick wooden door.

It was a mess.

Her father's bed was easily twice as big as any she'd slept in at an inn. But it was covered in several layers of dust so thick she almost didn't notice the color of the blanket beneath. The blanket itself was undone, pushed aside as if her father had just woken and left it, not yet having had the time to make it. There were many pelts pushed to the side, all laying across the foot of the bed. Next to the bed was a small set of drawers, on top of them were a few books and some long rusted daggers, accompanied by another bear carving.

The walls held mounts, all holding weapons withered by years of neglect. It was clear what her father's preferred weapon was based on the number of lances, though there were others. At the end of the wall was a fireplace, on it mounted more wood carvings. There were two small chairs in front of the hearth, and an iron bar and a long emptied pot hanging above where the fire should be, another pelt beneath it. Not far away a shelf with a few books and a lot of different bits of armor.

"My room is a regular rat's nest." Her father walked in, brushing his fingers over some of the dusted wood of the furniture, wrinkling his nose as he pulled his fingers away to stare at the now similarly dust covered digits, "It's going to take an army to clean this place."

"You said that people would bring their spouses when they moved in." Byleth reminded as she took a step towards the fireplace. There was still wood collected next to it, piled neatly in a basket. She set her book on one of the chairs, grabbing the wood and tossing it inside the pit, "We'll hire some servants to help us."

"Not going to make the bed fun to sleep in." Jeralt muttered as he threw the rest of the blanket back. A rat scuttled from underneath it, and the man wrinkled his nose as the ruined sheets. He ripped them off, revealing that the mattress had been protected at the very least.

Tossing the dirty blankets aside, he sat on the bed, reaching underneath the headboard before making a victorious sound. He pulled out a bottle with no label, pulling the cork with his teeth and spitting it away before taking a big swing. He let out a satisfied hum, letting it leave his lips, "Ah, mead is still as bland as I remember."

"Hand me the candle." Byleth stood and walked over to him, taking the horn and walking back to the fireplace.

The fire didn't take long to catch on one hundred years worth of detritus in the grate. Byleth stood back, the chill in the room immediately abated and she placed her hands behind her back to explore the room. She picked up one of the carvings, a surprisingly detailed grizzly bear, on the mantle. "Did you make these?"

Her father hummed. "That one I did, but not all of them. I learned from my brother, and some of those are his." He nursed the bottle between his hands. "I haven't made anything in a really long time. I'm probably really rusty at it. I think the last thing I made was a brooch for your mother." 

It was buried with her at the monastery, he recalled. He wondered, now that they were opening up the doors to the estate again, if she would want to be moved here.

Byleth had moved to his large standing bureau, and opened the doors. Ruffling through the moth-eaten, dusty tunics, she paused and pulled out one in particular. Jeralt blanched at the sight of his old formal jacket. Back then it had been the height of fashion, now it was nothing but a source of embarrassment. It was a knee length coat in the family colors of orange and grey, with long cuffs of lace at the wrist and throat and buttons of pure silver. He remembered the accompanying pants were uncomfortably tight. His mother had picked the outfit out.

Jeralt groaned. "Of all the things in here, that had to survive."

"What is this?" Byleth turned the coat in her hands over and over again, trying to begin to figure out how the cuffs and collars worked. "How do you put it on."

"I don't want to hear that from you." Jeralt groaned, taking another swing of his mead. It was terrible mead, and age didn't help it at all. The old man in town that made the stuff really didn't have a talent for it at all. "That summer outfit you have is so needlessly complicated I don't even know what to say about it."

"Is there something wrong with it?" Byleth questioned, looking up from the tunic, frowning.

"I don't know, kid, I'm not a fashion savant." Jeralt waved a hand down at himself, indicating his very practical and most likely not very fashionable clothing, "I don't know anything, I just think it looks complicated. I don't know how you do it."

"You and I will most likely have to wear a lot of very complicated clothes soon." Byleth realized, holding up the coat to examine, "Being nobility."

Jeralt audibly groaned, allowing himself to fall back against the mattress, "No, I won't be doing that. I'll wear something efficient. I'm sure that will make the regent happy."

"Or he'll make you wear formal clothing." Byleth hummed, studying the material.

"I'm going to bed." Jeralt decided right then and there.

Byleth had put on his old coat. The hem reached down to her mid calf. It could have been a dress on her. She sat down on the edge of the mattress next to her father. "What? In here?" He shrugged. 

"Might as well. It's warm, there's a roof over our heads. Just don't think about what's living in the mattress." She made a face and stood up, slapping Jeralt's knee as he laughed. Instead, she went back to the fire and opened up her pack, intending to heat some of their provisions over the fire before coming back and laying down next to him.

"What do you think will happen when we get back?"

Jeralt scratched his chin and stared at the ceiling. "I doubt the regent is one for big showy affairs. We'll probably show him the shield, sign some papers. You'll need to make an oath in front of witnesses, most likely some of the nobility. It'll take some time to gather people and supplies so we can actually move back here, and you're going to the Academy..." 

The number of things that would need to be done to this place to even make it livable was staggering. He wondered how much coin he had saved up, or if there was anything left in the vault here in the manor.

Byleth rolled onto her side, staring eye level with her father. She curled slightly, body using the oversized tunic as a blanket. "Maybe the time at the academy will give us room to figure out what to do and have people moved here."

"It might take a year just to get things repaired." Jeralt groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes, "I really hope we don't have to borrow money from the town. Can you imagine starting out our Lordships by going into debt? I'm sure the blacksmiths and mining will get us some income, eventually, but goddess, I don't want to think about how much it'll cost to move them out here and import food."

"We'll figure it out." Byleth hummed, settling herself into her preferred sleeping position, "We have at least a year to plan it all, and I'll make a little income. And I'm sure Dima will help us."

"Oh… yeah… Prince Dimitri." Jeralt wrinkled his nose, "Oh, he'll definitely help you, kid. Being his friend and all, he'd probably throw money at us to help out if you asked."

"Dima is responsible." Byleth slapped his arm. "Don't joke."

"No joke." Jeralt responded, turning on his side, "I'm serious. But, let's worry about that on the way back to the capital. Just get some sleep for now."

Chapter Text

The next morning the pair made preparations to leave. They stood in the great hall, the light from the windows filtering in so Byleth could see the murals painted along the tops of the walls. Most of them appeared to show men and women fighting in famous battles or against monstrous beasts. "How old is our family, anyway?"

Jeralt hummed distractedly, digging through his pack and making sure he hadn't forgotten anything. "Old. Very old. There's records in the library that go back ages. Probably before the War of Heroes, and we've been here the whole time more or less." 

Byleth looked impressed.

Her father picked up his pack with a grunt and threw it over his shoulder, leading her out the front door before turning back and locking it again. She looked up to the sky, noticing the weather today was clear and crisp. It shouldn't take long to get back to the base of the mountain. "It might actually be faster to visit Lord Gaspard's estate than walk back ourselves." They started out back through the town.

Jeralt pursed his lips. "You're right. He might lend us some horses, and I can pick his brain about finding some craftsmen to send back here to fix the place up while we're gone."

Not only that, but he'd get to avoid dealing with all the steps they'd have to make to become nobility. He'd get to avoid being a stuffy noble again. These were his last days of free roaming. He could pretend he was a mercenary for a little while longer. And his daughter wouldn’t marry some prince.

Jeralt was slowly starting to realize he liked to avoid a lot of things. First his family when he left for the church, then the church when he ran off with his daughter, and now his titles and land. No doubt his father was looking down at him with disappointment. It wasn't really a rare look from his dad—he was hard to please. But he could also hear his voice reprimanding him in his head.

Eisners never ran away. You couldn’t climb a mountain by simply staring at it.

"We'll only stay for a bit, I'm sure the King Regent is growing weary waiting on us..."

Byleth nodded and they both made their way down the stone steps. She took in the surrounding stones and rocky mountain side—water flowing down parts of it and into the pools below in a soothing sound. Each home had a simple, yet unique look to it as they passed and she couldn't wait to come back and explore. Soon they were leaving the gates and Jeralt couldn't help but pause to stare at their home.

"We'll be back soon..." He whispered to no one in particular, making his daughter step closer for a half hug.

"Yes. We will." She gave her father a nod. "And we'll rebuild."

Jeralt smiled, patting her head. "It'll be hard. But life is always hard for an Eisner."

"Is it?" Byleth asked, following her father away from the steps. She looked back at the mountain one last time, and couldn't help but feel a sense of… loss... Byleth then murmured, "You've always made everything look so easy."

She would be back, though, she knew that.

"Only because I've been dealing with it for so long." Jeralt cracked his neck, still walking. The shield hung proudly on his back, proof that they were here, that they found the manor and unlocked the crypt. Proof they were here. Yes, that sounded right. They had been here, and they were coming back.

Byleth felt a strange urge to see the town rebuilt. She wondered if Dima would visit once it was done. She hoped so. He liked swords and lances, maybe he would come to watch the blacksmiths once they started the town up again.

She thought she would love to show him the manor.

"Now, let's get to Lonato's place and take him up on that visit he promised us." Her father waved her along as she turned back to him. He adjusted his sack again, leading her by kicking snow out of her path, "He better have some good food. I'd like something warm after all the jerky."

"He may have stew." Byleth kept behind him.

"Sounds great." Jeralt waved again, "Come on, we've got a day and a half walk to his place, and we gotta get shelter for the night somewhere."

Their journey that afternoon was mostly uneventful. The weather stayed good, if a little chilly. They moved at a good pace, especially since much of it was going downhill instead of up. At one point, Jeralt slipped on an icy rock and fell, shocking Byleth, who fussed over him until he shooed her away. 

More and more he was happy they'd made the trip. Beyond seeing his home, it had been a long time since they had traveled with just the two of them, and Jeralt was finding that at some point his daughter had grown up and become a lady. He didn't know what his opinion about that was yet, though.

After lunch Jeralt discovered what he thought was bear sign going the same direction they were, and so they were forced to leave their path. Faerghian bears, like nearly all other wildlife here, were incredibly large and incredibly dangerous. Being about an hour out of their way was a small price to pay to not be wounded or dead. 

As evening came, the pair began to hunt for a place to rest for the night. Eventually, Byleth pointed to an outcropping of rock set in the hill. It wasn't entirely protected, but it was something over their heads if it snowed again. So they settled in, and started a fire for the night. Jeralt left for a bit, and came back with a rabbit for them to eat for dinner. They spent their time mostly in silence, each one lost in their own thoughts.

After dark, father and daughter sat companionably by the fire, when they heard voices not far away, and the sounds of multiple pairs of boots on gravel.

Jeralt silently moved to his feet, lance in hand while Byleth followed his lead while drawing her sword. Both waited with baited breath as a small group of people came out of the shadows and through the brush. Byleth blinked in confusion when she noticed a few of them in strange headgear. This wasn't normal knight helms and soldier caps or chain mail. These people wore animal pelts with the beasts' heads still attached. Some wore the skins of deer, large horns still attached and branching out from their heads like demons. Others wore pelts of a bear, the muzzle hanging over their heads and shadowing their faces despite the firelight.

They were all quite large too. It was clear their arms were muscled from years of work, but of what, she wasn't sure. They carried heavy weapons and hammers on their backs and sides and she was sure they could break her arms like they were twigs. Byleth gripped her sword tight as they lumbered into the light, a good seven or eight of them starting to surround them like the animals they sported.

Jeralt looked at them all, suspicion in his eyes. "Haven't seen mountain folk in a while—was sure they all but abandoned this place."

One grunted in response while another stepped forward, his large antlers making him look much taller than he was. "We heard there were Eisners 'ere."

"Eisners, huh?" Her father twirled his lance, throwing it around his shoulders, "Rumors go around fast. You lot headin' towards the mountain again?"

"Ours have never left." The one with the antlers nodded, brushing his hands over his arms, "Just pushed to the feet, but if the Eisners soon are coming back than their guards are coming back soon, and the coin will flow, and the beasts will roam. Good hunters such as us can live close to the hunt, yet safe from the teeth."

"Never little need for hunters in these parts." Jeralt nodded, studying them, "They were only just discovered, though, it may take a while for them to get the town running."

"We need not coin." The antlered man sniffed, "We only need the mountain to breath with life. It has only been us for too long. We have pelts, and they will have steel, trade is all we folk need."

"Right, right." Jeralt nodded, "I'm just saying, it'll take a while for things to get moving. You might have to wait a few weeks before we can get builders to help fix houses and such."

"Then we will wait." The man nodded, folding his arms, "And we will hunt, and if the Eisners have truly returned we will present them with bone and pelt and battle."

"Ahh, good ole mountain folk." Jeralt sighed, leaning against a tree, "Always thinking that stabbing someone is the same as being friendly. You're too Faerghus even for a Faerghus man like myself."

"Tis our customs, and tis our ways." The man grunted, "We hunt the gryphons and lions, we present the pelts, they give us what we need in exchange."

"Hey, I'm not saying anything!" Jeralt waved, "You provide a valuable service! I'm sure thanks to you village folk haven't been mauled to death. You've certainly done better than the lord the last century or so."

There was grumbling among the group of mountain men at the comment and one man wearing a brown bear pelt stepped closer, hand gripping his war axe tight in his meaty fist. Byleth stepped to face him, her own grip tightening as they eyed each other. A slur of words rumbled out of the man like a true bear.

"You slightin' an Eisner?"

Jeralt straightened, a sporadic energy shooting into him like a good tankard of ale. Heart pounding and hands itching for something to get out of this negative energy, he couldn't help but laugh at the question. This did not sit well with the group and his daughter was looking at him like he was insane.

"And if I am?"

A stag-man stomped towards the front of the group, "Then you feel our teeth in your neck."

Jeralt tapped the end of his lance on the ground, hoping none of them noticed his old man's shield laying over there by the fire. That'd be a real drag—not when he had some unresolved issues to let out. With his kid being dragged into court, his family name coming back to haunt him, he had a lot of work to do on his ancestral home, and some brat was wooing his daughter away from him. And since there was nothing to burn down, why not fight with some rowdy mountain folk? It's not like they were going to die, they were Eisners after all.

"You'll have to make it past my lance and fists before you can reach that far."

Chapter Text

Byleth grabbed his arm. "What are you doing?" He shook her off and grinned toothily at the hunters. They growled back at him, and the man with the bear pelt made a motion with his head so that the rest of the party spread in a circle, leaving him and the man with the stag-antlers standing in the middle. Byleth thought she saw their eyes reflect the light from their campfire like animals.

Jeralt stalked forward, his lance lifted off the ground and threatening. Byleth followed behind him while gripping her sword, confused but not about to leave him to fight alone. The two pairs stood facing one another in a circle that was half in darkness. 

The campfire cracked, and the bear man lunged first, swiftly followed by his partner. They raised their axes in tandem, and brought them down ferociously. Jeralt blocked the bear man's blow with his lance and followed through with a sideways swing connecting with his opponent's arm. 

Meanwhile Byleth dodged to one side as the stag-man's axe made a furrow in the ground. She strafed to the side and thrust at the man's rubs, but he stepped back and her sword made a hole in the front of his already torn shirt.

Around them the rest of the hunting party hooted and cheered.

The stag-man turned his axe and swung from the ground, spraying dirt at Byleth's face so she was forced to cover her eyes with her arm. He used her distraction to take a step back and swing horizontally at the level of her neck. Byleth lowered her arm and was only just able to duck underneath the blade by falling to her knees. 

Jeralt had been forced back towards their camp by strong consistent blows from the bear man's axe. He felt heat at his back as he nearly stepped into their campfire. Raising his lance across his body, he caught the head of the other man's weapon and twisted his body, throwing the bear man across the flames. The furs on the man's head and back caught fire and he yelled in shock and pain as he tumbled in the dirt

With the bear-man temporarily distracted, Jeralt ran to assist his daughter. Byleth rolled to the side as the Stag-man's axe chopped into the dirt where she had been kneeling. She dug her feet into the ground and lunged, her shoulder connecting with the larger mans stomach and taking them both to the ground. He kicked upwards into her chest, knocking the wind out of her and knocking her back as he put his feet back under herself. As he stood again Jeralt reached Byleth and pulled her to her feet. The bear man soon caught up with him.

Standing back to back and breathing hard, father and daughter raised their weapons again. Again the bear and the stag attacked as one. This time their opponents answered the same way. Jeralt and Byleth each stepped forward, parrying the enemies’ blows. 

Jeralt reflected the bear's axe with the haft of his lance, then spun wide and used the momentum to swing into the other man's head. The bear was knocked sideways off of his feet. He landed some ways away and lay motionless.

Byleth brought her blade up to deflect the stag's downward swing. She danced forward, along the man's extended arm, and got in close. Once inside the man's guard she swung forward and slammed the hilt of her sword into his temple. His head snapped sideways and he crumbled to the ground as well.

The surrounding ring of hunters was completely silent for a moment, before erupting into loud cheers.

Byleth rounded on her father, who was breathing heavily while looking at his downed foe. She poked him in the chest. "What are you doing?!"

"Well, kid..." Her father threw his lance over his shoulder, staring at the downed man, poking him with the tip of his boot before turning to her, "...that was not what's considered a proper brawl in Faerghus, that was them trying to take us out."

"Father." Byleth kept her flat gaze on him, voice devoid of emotion.

"I had a lot of things to work out." Jeralt turned his tired gaze to the circled hunters, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow. He stood up again, holding his lance up, "Anyone else? These two were very good."

"No, stop." Byleth grabbed his arm, stopping him, "They didn't deserve that, and this isn't healthy, stop it."

Jeralt, never quite able to say no to his daughter, deflated a bit, dropping the lance tip against the ground and leaning against it. He stared at the defeated men, whipping a bit of blood from his newly busted lip. With a sigh, he forced himself to straighten out, standing tall over the men, "Sorry about that, they were ready to fight, and so was I. Can't say I feel bad considering they were ready to kill me, though."

A woman with feathers in her hair scoffed, "A man that insults must pay his dues."

"I like you." Jeralt pointed at her, "You guys will do fine in the town."

"Father." Byleth reprimanded the man, stepping past him, "Forgive us, Lord Eisner has been less than in his best mood the last week or so. He's very sorry for causing conflict needlessly."

That made the mountain people pause, now all looking at her instead of angrily at her father. She had to keep herself from grabbing at her sword once more under their gazes.

"He is the Eisner?"

She nodded, swallowing hard as they began to talk among themselves in a language she'd never heard before. Jeralt sidled close and flinched when she shot him a glare. "Sorry, kid, I didn't mean to—"

"You fight well. But we are confused as to why you would insult an Eisner when you are an Eisner?"

Byleth sighed, "My father is working through a lot of things."

That seemed to make them all understand, one even commenting how they fought with a bear last week over a stolen fish. She wasn't sure if she should be concerned about that, but didn't have to explain any further as one of them finally noticed their family shield.

"The Oakenshield."

Jeralt was forced to retreat from Byleth as the mountain folks gathered around Thorin's shield. He glanced at his daughter as he stepped back and she gave him a stern look. Damn. He would have to find a way to make it up to her. He picked up the piece of carved wood, holding it as his father would have.

The old woman with the feathers in her hair stepped forward. "So it's true then, you are the Eisner." Jeralt nodded, reluctantly.

"I've come to take back my family lands and title. Don't get too excited though, it will take time to recover. The manor and town are practically a ruin." 

The crone nodded. "The mountain takes back what we do not use. Why have you come back then, Mountain Lord? Why now?"

Jeralt glanced a bit helplessly at his daughter, glad for a moment she was resolutely ignoring him, letting him clean up his own messes. She was poking at the man with the antlers, making sure he wasn't dead, he guessed. 

The feathered woman saw his look and nodded in understanding. "Ah. We call our young ones mad, but then we turn around and do crazy things for their benefit. Very well, Lord Eisner, I will speak with the others. While you rebuild, we will lend you our strength. Having someone at the top of the mountain again will benefit us all, in any case."

Jeralt brought a closed fist to his chest and bowed graciously, "I'd be honored for the Eisners and the People of the Mountain to work together once more."

The crone mimicked him, though bowing was not apart of their custom—they knew it showed a sign of faith to the Lords of the Mountain they roamed. She looked among their pack and whistled them back to her side, two of them lifting their down friend, before she looked to Jeralt once more.

"Very well. We shall protect these lands and bring aid when you call. May the Mountain guide you."

Jeralt nodded, always feeling weird when these roaming people talked of his home as if it were alive. If anyone believed in the myths of Pan, it was these people.

"May the Mountain guide you."

And just like when they came, they left, allowing the shadows and brush to claim them in its camouflage, no doubt going to tell whoever else was apart of their clan that the Eisners have finally returned. In the meantime, Jeralt had a kid to make up to.

Byleth watched the mountain people disappear into the darkness. Despite the reconciliation she had heard between her father and the feathered woman, she was still tense, half afraid of an arrow darting out of the shadows. Jeralt apparently trusted them enough, despite what had happened. Byleth wasn't sure she could be that forgiving towards people so eager to come at them with axes. Sighing, she returned to the fire. She noticed her father's eyes on her as she knelt and poked the logs at the base with a stick.

Jeralt dropped down next to the fire with a grunt. "Alright. I'll admit that got out of hand. They really did take that Eisner stuff seriously." Byleth gave him a glance that was completely devoid of the emotion he was starting to get used to. 

"That was stupid and unnecessary. Either one of us could have been hurt." Absently, she rubbed the middle of her chest where she had received the stag-man's kick. There would be a bruise tomorrow, and it was going to make traveling uncomfortable.

Her father watched her with a grimace. "Yeah, and I'm sorry for that. I just… needed to release some tension, okay? Those mountain folks, they value strength above almost anything else. When I saw them, I saw a chance to work off some steam. I hadn't meant to drag you into it. So I'm sorry, okay?"

Byleth didn't look at him as she gave the logs a hard poke, tiny sparks flying into the dirt around the base of the fire. Jeralt watched her glare into the flames, her nose scrunched up and her mouth formed into a pert frown. It was probably the closest he's seen her this angry with him, he couldn't help but feel oddly wary of the tense silence that hung between them in the air.

He wondered if he should back away, let her cool off but was relieved when Byleth finally spoke.

"Fighting off a horde of wild, mountain folk is not exactly a healthy way to release tension." Her cheeks puffed a little as she poked the fire again, "You're an adult, not some reckless teenager."

Jeralt blinked, staring at her face and taking in her words before he felt his head fall. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. His own daughter, scolding him! This Eisner never thought he'd see the day.

So he laughed. He laughed out loud and hard while giving his knee one good slap. Byleth almost looked affronted at his reaction and clenched her fists tight to chide him for it. But he was too quick, his arm slinging around the girl's shoulders before pulling her into an affectionate hug. 

"Father!" She huffed, trying to break free.

"I'm sorry," he said between laughs. "I'm sorry! You just sound so much like my father!"

She blinked, anger quickly fading as Byleth watched her his smile grew wider. It wasn't until he really looked at her did she notice the peaceful look in his eyes, a look that seemed to soothe her heart.

"I wish he were here to see you. He'd been so damn proud."

Byleth stared for a moment more before allowing herself to lay against him, her head resting under his arm in a comforting hug. She couldn't help but feel like a child again as he held her, both of them looking into the fire and enjoying the sounds of the forest.

Blasted. She couldn't stay mad at him—not when he seemed so much lighter. And especially not when he placed a hand on her head to ruffle her hair.

"You're alright, kid."

She huffed, "You're alright too."

They stayed like that as the night wore on, Byleth curled into her father's side and his arm across her shoulders as they shared a comfortable silence next to the fire. It wasn't long before Byleth's eyes became heavy with warmth and security. Jeralt felt her relax into sleep and held her tighter for a few more moments before he put his other arm under legs and picked her up.

Byleth grumbled a bit, turning her face into his shoulder and clutching his tunic. It was such a childlike action that Jeralt chuckled. "I'll take first watch, kid. You get some sleep." He carried her over to her bedroll and carefully placed her down. She turned onto her side, one arm underneath her head and he brushed her hair out of her face before standing back up and going back to the fire.

Jeralt whiled away the next few hours thinking about the future he would soon have to adjust to and listening to his daughter mumble in her sleep.

Chapter Text

Morning came with another fresh snowfall and cold ashes by their side. Byleth blinked open her eyes only to meet two, blue orbs staring straight into her. She freezes, unwilling to move as a giant, white, face moves away from her, determining she wasn’t food.

"Hey kid." Her father whispered from her side, "Just waaaaait for it to go away. We're not fighting a fucking Snow Lion this morning."

She could see why, the beast was huge, as tall as a shack, and as broad as two heavy bulls. Its mane was heavy, white as snow, and its paw held lethal claws that could have made find daggers. So she sat there, frozen beside her father, as the lion moved through their camp, silent as the grave, sniffing through their things before deciding they had nothing of interest. With that, it stalked away, leaving behind nothing but paw prints in the snow.

She held her breath until she was sure it was gone. Then, exhaling, she sat up, her father following her example. He stood, digging up his satchel and the shield from beneath the snow, and throwing both across his back, "And that's why there hasn't been anyone on the mountain. Come on, kid, if there's one there's a pride, and I don't want to fight a pride today."

"How long until we reach Lonato?" Byleth asked as her father held out a hand, pulling her to her feet when she took it.

"Just another half day." Jeralt answered, glaring at the tracks, "Come on, I want to get out of here as soon as possible."

They moved quickly, initially using the lion's path to cut through the snow. When the trail moved back up the mountain they continued forward, vigilant in case the lion turned back. Jeralt wasn't joking when he had said he didn't want to fight one. He was beginning to regret his distraction from last night. Today his joints were sore from the exertion and from sleeping in the cold. He glanced over his shoulder at Byleth and noticed she was a bit pale, and moving stiffly. She was hurting too, then, and Jeralt wanted to kick himself. 

Despite everything, though, they made good time. By mid-morning they had made it to a road. The snow here had already melted, making it muddy going, but at least they were getting close to civilization. Soon, they started passing other travelers. They moved to the edge of the road to avoid getting splashed with mud from passing carts and horses. Jeralt estimated it was around noon when they made it into a small village. He stopped and asked for directions to Lord Gaspard's estate while Byleth bought them some bread and cheese to eat along the way. It was only a little way further, he was told.

And so it was that the Eisners—bruised, windblown, wet from the snow, and covered in mud from the knees down—landed on Lonato's doorstep.

"Good Goddess!" Lonato exclaimed as they were presented to him by a very scrupulous butler, who glared at their filthy clothing with a look that revealed that he would like nothing more than to destroy their wear. The lord of the manner stood from his throne at a long table, and fussed, "It's been only two, maybe three, days at most! What happened? You look like you fought an angry bear and lost!"

Jeralt's lips twitched, "Not too far off, but I didn't lose."

"My father insulted 'The Lord Eisner' in front of the mountain folk." Byleth revealed, brushing off her clothing as best she could, suddenly self-conscious. "They took exception to that."

Lord Gaspard shook his head, staring at them, "You thought it was a good idea to fight a group of mountain folk? Were they the friendly sort? Or one of those that try to purge the mountain?"

"Friendly enough." Jeralt waved off the concern, "But we decided after that to take you up on your offer to stay the night. Then we'll head back to the capitol tomorrow."

"So you visited your estate?" Lonato hummed in interest, walking up to them and folding his hands, "I am, of course, more than happy to take you in. My butler will set you up. In the meantime, tell me, how was your manor? Not looted I hope? Rufus wasn't able to get in, if I recall."

"Just dusty." Jeralt reassured, before raising a brow, "Of course the regent tried to get in."

Lonato shrugged. "Can you blame him? How long has it been since the Eisner manor was open?—Ah, you don't have to answer that. But in any case, there's so many legends of treasures just heaped in corners inside that mountain you people call a home. Of course our dear Regent would try to get in."

Jeralt made a face, but it was true. He couldn't blame anyone for trying to break into a ruin. And that reminded him..."You wouldn't happen to know some trustworthy craftsman we could send to the mountain top to get started on the town? The place needs a lot of work." 

Lonato nodded, expecting this. "I can give you a list, but after dinner. You both look like you fell down the mountain rather than walked. We'll get you cleaned up and you can rest for a bit. Ashe is checking on the grounds right now, but he'll be back this evening." He motioned to the butler, who nodded and then walked a wide circle around Jeralt and Byleth before stopping at the entrance to the greeting hall and waiting for them.

A path of boot prints followed them as the butler led them to a pair of rooms already waiting for them. "I'll send some people to ready you each a bath. One won't be enough..." As he turned to leave them, he noticeed their trail. Jeralt was impressed with the man's restraint as he only saw the butler's eye twitch once.

Lonato was generous with them, it turned out, because the butler was completely serious about making them take two baths. He was very insistent, and, seeing as their clothes had been stolen away by the man for "multiple mendings and washings", they had little choice but to take the second bather. This fact had her ather grumbling from behind his screen.

They were also temporarily allowed to borrow some old clothes, leftovers from Lonato's wife and himself. Though the loaned dress was a bit big on her, and Lonato's clothes were just a bit too short on her father. Though at least they were clean, and promised that their old clothes would be returned by the morning. Though the butler seemed unsatisfied with the idea of only having one night to get them clean.

They were both given small, separate, guest rooms to relax in, and Byleth took the time to ease up and rest her body after the toll the last few days took on it, finally having an actually decent bed to rest on. By the time dinner rolled around, both Eisners were well rested and much better off than when they had arrived.

"Well well well," Lord Lonato grinned as they came into the dining hall.

"Don't."

But her father's warning went on deaf ears as the Lord of the manor's grin only grew wider and wider the more he looked them over. He looked particularly tickled when he saw the pant legs on Jeralt stopped just above his ankle, making him look like a school boy who far outgrown his uniform.

"Don't you two just look spiffy." The man was practically giggling as he continued, "Why, I'm sure the King Regent would accept such well-to-do nobles without question!"

Jeralt groaned while Lord Lonato held up his hand in between his laughter. "Wait, wait! One more! One more." He took a moment to settle down—his face looking a little more serious as his eyes flickered over Jeralt's sleeves, noting they hugged his biceps to the point that the sleeves looked ready to rip. Then he just started laughing again while Jeralt rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"Are you done?"

"Yes yes, forgive me!" Lord Lonato chortled while gesturing towards the large dining table. "Come now! Hurry before you outgrow the chairs!"

Byleth smiled at that one, earning a oho and a point from Lord Lonato while her father sent a 'Please don't encourage him' look.

"I didn't say anything." Byleth responded to her father pointedly, because she, in fact, had done no such thing. 

For whatever reason that had Lord Lonato bursting into a quick laughter and her father groaning tiredly. Lonato then gave her a hearty pat on the back, knocking her just a bit forward, "That's a good lass!"

"Why is this happening now?" Jeralt's eyes rolled upwards, like he was beseeching the ceiling for an answer, "Why, when she's surrounded by such bad influences."

"I am a delight." Lonato insisted, holding out his arm, "Now, it would be my honor to escort the lady to dinner!"

"First that damn prince, then the Dominic, and now this guy." Her father rolled his eyes to glare at Lonato, "Goddess knows, if Alois gets to her during the school year..."

Byleth was reaching for Lord Gaspard's arm when the dining hall door opened a crack and pale green eyes peeked through. 

"Oh, you're here!" Ashe opened the door the rest of the way and entered. "It's good to see you safe!"

"Oh, excellent timing, Ashe. I'm sure the lady would rather sit with someone her own age." Lonato motioned for his adoptive son to come forward. "We were about to be seated." 

He turned back to Jeralt, mirth clear on his face. "That leaves just you and me, sir!" Jeralt groaned in response.

"I wonder if that snow lion is still close. I'd rather have a go at that."

"A snow lion! You met one? You'll have to tell me all about it. Now watch you don't tear those pants, I like them." Lonato grabbed Jeralt's shoulder and steered him towards the table, leaving Ashe and Byleth behind.

"Um. Would you like to join me, milady?" Ashe stuck out his arm, a nervous look on his face. Byleth could tell he wasn't used to this, which was good, because neither was she.

Byleth hooked her arm in his and gave it a soft pat. "Just Byleth is fine." 

The boy was ready to protest, clear worry on his face at offending her so she added, "I know you're as uncomfortable as I am at being called 'Lord' and 'Lady'. It'd be much easier to talk if we pretend we're commoners again."

Ashe paused, free hand poised in a thoughtful gesture on his chin as he pondered over this suggestion. "Yes, I suppose that makes sense."

He nodded, as if assuring himself then gave her an earnest smile. "If you don't mind, La—Miss Byleth, then I don't either."

It seemed there were still a few habits he couldn't break, but that was fine. She wasn't here to change him or even become friends overnight, these kinds of things took time. Byleth gave his arm another pat before taking the lead towards the table.

"I'm glad," she let out a sigh. "These kinds of formalities are still foreign to me."

Ashe laughed, a kind tone that reminding her of soft pillows and cuddly animals. It took a lot of willpower not to reach up and ruffle the boy's messy hair.

"I get what you mean." Ashe laughed, pulling out a chair for her at the table before doing the same for himself, "I haven't been to an official court ball yet, but I've been to a couple of more private parties and I'm still overwhelmed!" 

"It must be so strange." Byleth commented as she sat, crossing her hands over her lap, waiting for the food to be brought out patiently, "I was most certainly overwhelmed at the Solstice Ball."

"To be fair, that one is the biggest party in the Kingdom." Ashe laughed at her, taking his own seat, "Not only is Solstice the biggest celebration, but it's also the prince's birthday! I'm not surprised that the court got a bit ahead of themselves! Gosh, I wish I had been there. All those famous lords and knights in one room! And the prince himself! I'll bet he's all regal and sophisticated!"

Byleth felt her lips quirk, the image of Dima fighting his way through the crowd to reach her after she'd been cornered playing in her mind, "He was that."

"I can't wait to meet him!" Ashe perked up, "I heard we'd be going to Garreg Mach in the same class! Oh, I'm so nervous! I don't know how I'll face him. Gosh, I've dreamed of swearing my services as a Knight since I first learned of knighthood, and now I'm going to meet the prince I'll swear to one day! Miss Byleth, how will I survive?"

"Don't worry, he's very easy to talk to." Byleth reassured the boy, patting him on the shoulder, "Just pretend he's not a prince and you'll see."

Ashe's cheeks pinkened. "Oh, I couldn't. I mean he—" 

The boy struggled with finding the right words and then exclaimed, "He's the Prince! He'll be the next King of Faerghus! I've looked up to him forever. I truly hope to be a knight in his service one day." He turned away and looked at the servers bringing out their food as his ears turned red with embarrassment.

Byleth hummed interestedly. She had to admit to herself that she still had trouble thinking of Dimitri as a prince. He was still the little boy she had met at the festival, and then the young man she'd met again at the ball. She wondered, suddenly, if he would still have time for her when he was King. Byleth frowned at the thought as she turned towards her food. She picked up her fork, intending to distract herself with the meal.

"I've been told the students at the academy are treated equally. Perhaps in a few months you'll be sitting at a table with him and chatting just like this."

That made the boy sputter, his fork completely missing the chicken and making a loud clang as it met his plate. "M-Me!?! Sitting with the Prince of Faerghus!?!"

She watched as he came up with a million reasons as to why that was inappropriate for someone such as him, then began to meticulously list them all from worst to the worst things that could happen if he were to dine with Dimitri. She stayed quiet, allowing him to run out of steam and stare at his food for a moment, the tongs of his fork clacking on the plate in a nervous tick.

"B-Besides, I do not wish to embarrass Lord Lonato if I were to make a mistake. He's done so much for me and I can't..." Ashe looked towards the end of the table where their fathers were talking and laughing, Lord Lonato pouring Jeralt more ale to drink. "I can't disappoint him."

There was a strange sort of companionship the young woman suddenly felt for the boy beside her. She reached out, patting his shoulder with intent to comfort him. He seemed to appreciate it, shoulders dropping just a bit, so she spoke, hoping it would help more, "I'm sure he's always proud of you, Ashe. He seems to care for you a great deal."

"It's… that's not the issue." Ashe shook his head, poking his food with his fork, "I know he cares for me, my siblings and I wouldn't be here if he didn't… but I still want to make him proud, and that's different. You can love someone and still be disappointed with them."

Byleth frowned, squeezing his shoulder, "Ashe, I don't think there's a thing in the world you could do to disappoint him."

He shook his grey head again, hair falling into a wild, untamed, frenzy, "Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, is it so wrong that I want to work to make sure I don't? Am I wrong to want to try to be my best for him? I don't think so."

"So long as you realize there's nothing you could do to fail." Byleth looked at her own father. He was grimacing at Lord Gaspard and prodding the table with his finger, trying to make a point in an argument. A warm feeling grew to encompass her chest, and she smiled. 

She was glad they have come on this trip, just the two of them. It had been so long since they hadn't been in the company of a dozen other people, often vying for Jeralt's attention. Beyond the huge revelations regarding their family, she had gotten to know him a lot better as a person too. It was exciting to think of the two of them rebuilding the Eisner name and property together.

Byleth finished her plate and looked to a server to ask to seconds. A little ways away her father did the same.

Dinner passed in comfortable chatter and good company. It was warm from the fire and hearty laughs of the hall, where Lonato insisted he eat within the company of of his staff. The atmosphere was easy. It was different for the few other lords she'd seen, whose servants were always formal and stiff, and whose meetings with her father were terse and to the point. Lonato was truly an exceptional man, she decided. It was easy to imagine how he'd come to adopt a boy from a commoner background.

And it was good to have warm food in her belly again after days of bread, cheese, and jerky.

She learnt a lot about her new… friend, she thought he was a friend, and certainly her neighbor, as well. He was such a genuine and sweet boy, who regaled her with tales of knighthood and chivalry all through dinner. He enjoyed books, stories, and songs. And Ashe even had a few tales to tell about her own family, though he spared no shame in sharing the stories of the great knights of House Gaspard's past either.

And when she went to rest that night, safe in a warm bed, a servant twittering in her ear as she fed the fire, Byleth thought that this was the kind of house she wanted her manor to be. Safe, and warm, and alive with food and songs and good company. 

Maybe Lonato would help them? She thought he would. She couldn’t wait to be his neighbor next year. She was sure that her father and he would get along fantastically. Surely their friendship would lead to good things for the town her father will build.

Yes, when Byleth laid her head down that night and drifted to sleep at long last, it was with hope for the future.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Jeralt and Byleth departed for Fhirdiad atop a pair of horses loaned to them by Lonato with instructions to leave them at the castle for him to pick up at a later time. It had been a happy parting between friends promising to see each other soon. 

Ashe had blushed as he clasped Byleth's hand, telling her he looked forward to seeing her at Garreg Mach. Jeralt had a list of trustworthy craftspeople and some others who might be willing to move to a new town up in the mountains.

It was an easy trip full of lively chatter and good weather. They stayed overnight at inns, one of which Jeralt got riotously drunk at and started a fight when a poor sop had hit on his daughter. He had a black eye the next morning, but was in good spirits nonetheless.

In only a couple days they made back to Fhirdiad, a bit travel worn but in good shape. As they rode up to the castle gate, Byleth couldn't help her smile.

It had only been a little over a week since they had left, but it felt almost like a lifetime ago. Everything had changed so much since she had left these walls, and now she was returning prepared to be a lady of all things. Part of her still didn't believe it, because so many fantastical things happened that it was almost impossible to believe. 

As they rode towards the castle she couldn't help but stare long and hard at the stone walls, knowing her friend was hidden somewhere inside. She couldn't wait to tell him about the things she'd seen, from the statue to the town to all the things her ancestors had made. He'd love the shield, she's sure. She should show it to him as soon as they were done showing the Regent.

They stopped at the palace stables, let in by the guards with after a few exchanged words. A messenger was sent to the Regent, to let him know they'd arrived, and they were told to wait by the steps until a guard could let them through.

Byleth felt an odd impatience at that, shuffling her feet and kicking up dirt as she vibrates with energy. She eyed the shield on her father's back, taking in the elaborate emblem painted into the wood. Was it really that impressive? Was it enough? It was her grandfather's, and the mountain folk seemed to be in awe, but was it impressive enough for a king and a prince?

No, she was sure Dima would love it.

It didn't take long for a guard to come and escort them, first to their rooms. These weren't the same blue and green rooms as last time. Instead they were simple guestrooms, still well furnished but not lavish. There they were asked to leave their things, wash the dust off their faces quickly, and then follow the guard up to the King Regent's office. He was apparently already waiting.

As they climbed the stairs, Byleth had a hard time holding back her nervous energy. All the travel and effort over the past week was finally coming to a head, and she was ready for it to be done so the next stage to begin. Moreover, she wanted to look for Dima. The guard was walking too slow.

Finally they finished the climb to the top of the tower, and the guard bowed at them as they passed through the door. Inside they were met with the usual grumpy face of the Lord Regent, looking up from his paperwork. A familiar blonde head turned away from the window as well, grinning from ear to ear when he saw them. 

Prince Dimitri took an excited step forward. "By—Lady Byleth." 

He smiled sheepishly at the glare from his Uncle. "Lord Eisner, it is good to see you back, safe and sound." He didn't take his eyes off of Byleth's face as he bowed. 

"Dima!" Byleth started to rush forward, but was stopped by Jeralt. He rolled his eyes and looked at the Regent to share a similarly aggrieved look. 

He stepped up to Rufus's desk and lifted his father's shield. "The Oakenshield. So, how do we do this?"

Dima jerked at the mention of the shield, eyes going wide as he turned to stare at it. Rufus, for his part, looked decidedly pleased. The King Regent eyed the shield hungrily, running his fingers over the wood surface with his lips twitching upward and a strangely terrifying chuckle escaped his lips.

"Excellent." Rufus didn't look up from the shield as he said this, content to examine every nook and cranny of the weapon. "The Oakenshield belongs to the last known King Beneath the Mountain, and it is well known that he was put on guard with it. If you have this then either you two are very skilled tomb raiders, or you are genuine Eisners. And since even I could not open the vaults there's no denying it—you are, indeed, an Eisner."

"The Oakenshield, Thorin Oakenshield's weapon itself!" Dima breathed, stepping forward, admiring her grandfather's work. He reached out, trying to touch it, only for Rufus to slap away his hand with a scold. The prince cradled his hand, looking properly scolded, and the hurt look he spared his uncle made something boil inside of Byleth.

"So, what now?" Jeralt asked before Byleth could step forward, "Big ceremony? Feast? Unnecessarily big party?"

"Good Goddess, no." Rufus sneered, wrinkling his nose, "I have both Fraldarius brothers on hand, Gautier is still making a nuisance of himself here, and Lady Brunnhilde hasn't left yet. I'll summon Dominic and that should be more than enough Lords to witness."

Jeralt's eyes narrowed the last name. "Dominic."

"And you won't be fighting him." Rufus sneered again, standing from his desk, grabbing a few papers and turning to the prince, "Boy, come, you'll witness too."

"Wait, we're doing this now?" Jeralt's eyes widened, "Right now?"

"The sooner we get this over with the sooner we can set up your manor and begin producing goods and revenue." Rufus stated simply, walking forward, "Grab your shield and follow me, I'll send a servant to summon the witnesses. Finally, after all these years..."

Despite what Rufus had said, there was very little chance that reinstating an Eisner was not going to become a big event. Jeralt followed behind the King Regent, with Dimitri and Byleth after him. Byleth could almost feel the excitement coming off of the Prince. She brushed her fingers over the back of his hand as they walked together, and he looked down at her with a childish look of wonder before grabbing her hand and squeezing.

The Regent had sent ahead for their witnesses, and they met in the throne room. Word had spread quickly, so what looked like half the staff and guard for the castle as well as any other interested parties were also crowded into the hall, all there to see Byleth and her father swear their oath to the crown.

Byleth edged closer to Dimitri. She didn't think she'd ever had this many eyes on her and it made her nervous. Rufus led them through the crowd and up the stairs to the top of the dias. There, in front of the throne, he gave Dimitri a disapproving glare. Dimitri looked back at him in confusion for a moment before he realized with a start that he was still holding Byleth's hand. He glanced at her apologetically, letting go and motioning for her to stand next to Jeralt before taking his place at his uncle's side.

Jeralt gave a silent, impressed, huff at the sight of the crowd, "Got here fast."

Byleth didn't speak like her father did, too startled as she stared over the sea of people, all watching them. She glanced away, unable to bear the weight of them all at once. But that was a mistake, as that left her to stare at the gathered witness instead. Lady Brunnhilde looked like she had scored the best seat to the greatest drama her as she fanned herself excitedly. Beside her, an exhausted looking Lord Rodrigue stood next to a man who could only be his brother. Lord Voltaire looked nearly identical, with hair pulled back in a ribbon tied neatly in a bow, looked decidedly amused by the happenings. The man that could only be Sylvain's father, Lord Gautier, was busy eyeing a nearby woman in the crowd that she dearly hoped was his wife. Dominic seemed to be the only one in the group she could stand to look at for too long, meeting his flat glare head on.

The King Regent finally spoke after what seemed forever to her, hands still rubbing together as he called over the crowd, "Gathered witnesses, I am not a man easily pleased, nor am I am man of grand speeches. However, it is my pleasure to announce that, at long last, we have found the heirs to Clan Eisner."

There were a few claps and some brief howls of approval. Rufus waved them down, wishing to be rid of the noise, when they silenced he continued. "And, to show faith, they have brought proof of their bloodline. Lord Eisner, if you will?"

Her father sighed, rolling his eyes as he held up the shield, "The Oakenshield!"

There was a roar from the crowd at that, hands clapping and feet stomping. Once again they were forced to wait as whistling and cheering died down, Rufus's own hands never ceasing as they rubbed together in anticipation. Beside him, Dimitri stood, hands folded as he waited with a pleasant smile.

Finally, they all quieted, and Rufus continued, "To commemorate the occasion, it is my pleasure to announce that I shall be granting Lord Eisner and his heir their lands and title back into their safe hands. Ah! But before you cheer! There is more! At the request of Lord Eisner himself, we shall witness House Eisner swear fealty to the crown! Lords Rodrigue, Lord Gautier, if you will?"

It was then that the lords in question moved. Gautier reached to pull a fine cloak of fur from where it set across his arms and walking up to Dimitri, kneeling as he handed it to the prince. Then he stood, moving around to drape it across the prince's shoulders. Once done, he backed away, earning a smile from the boy. 

Then, Voltaire Fraldarius stepped forward, pulling a fine circlet from where he'd hidden it beneath his own furs. The Fraldarius kneeled, then stood to place the crown upon the boy's head, backing away with his lips quirking, like he couldn't believe he'd gone through with all the showmanship. 

Finally, Lord Rodrigue stepped out of sight only for a moment before returning with a rather...intimidating lance made from what looked to be pure bone. He smiled kindly at the prince, walking forward and kneeling as well before handing it off with a nod.

Dima stood, cloaked in fur and crown, holding his mighty weapon, and looking every bit the royalty he was supposed to be.

Byleth's mouth went dry. Here was Dima, her Dima, standing in front of her wearing a crown and furs and it suddenly really truly hits home that he was someone important. That he was a king, or rather would be someday. There was a ringing in her ears, drowning out all other sound except for far away mumbling that might have been her father right next to her as he spoke his oath. She couldn't hear him as she stared helplessly at Dimitri and he stared right back, his expression inscrutable except for a small knowing grin. Her mouth might have been hanging open because he smiled a little wider and chuckled, and oh, she could hear that.

Jeralt nudged Byleth's shoulder and whispered in her ear. "It's your turn. Say the words." Shaking herself, she gathered up her resolve.

"I, Byleth Eisner, do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Kingdom of Faerghus as by right of Sothis established, and that I will be faithful to His Majesty King Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, his heirs and successors, by law in virtue until my dying breath."

Dimitri held his lance forward, touching it to her forehead. It thrummed oddly as it did so, warming against her skin. Byleth heard a ghost whisper in her ear, words she couldn't make out from somewhere far, far, away. But it hardly seemed important, now, with Dima smiling down at her, speaking his acceptance of her oath, "Will you guard our backs, fight our battles, and sing songs in our honour?"

Byleth nodded, finishing her oath, "I would stand at your back, so that the world may never overtake you."

The smile he gave her was more brilliant than anything she'd ever seen, more blinding than even the gem encrusted into her grandfather's sword. Dimitri pulled the lance away, holding it into the air as he turned to the crowd, "Then, from this day, House Blaiddyd recognizes House Eisner as one of their own!"

There was a loud cheer as the hall erupted into thunderous applause. Lady Brunnhilde's fan had not stopped waving as she suddenly she called for drinks in the hall, to which the King Regent whirled on her with wide eyed fury. But it was too late, the servants had gone, and no one could stop the celebratory chaos that rang out as the hall descended into celebration.

"Ah, hardly a week passed and already they look for an excuse to celebrate." The younger Fraldarius Lord sounded oh-so-amused. He stepped forward, a smile on his lips. "I best join the crowd before something breaks."

"That won't be necessary." Dima exclaimed, still smiling. With a quick jerk his slammed the hilt of his lance down, the smile never falling as the hall stopped descending into silence. "Thank you for your attendance! But I'm afraid if we brawl again my uncle will raise your taxes to pay for damages."

That at least got a laugh from the other lords, who all calmed their enthusiasm.

Chapter Text

Jeralt was the first to rise, side-eyeing the rowdy nobles as he held out a hand for his daughter. Byleth took it graciously, giving her father a grateful smile before looking back at Dimitri who's eyes were on her again.

The old Eisner snorted, unable to believe his daughter still denied having any sort of attraction for the prince. It was so obvious that he was sure the whole court was planning a wedding behind their backs. Jeralt quickly turned to stare at the King Regent, suddenly suspicious that perhaps that was happening. The man had been quite eager to push this forward...

No, no. You're getting too paranoid. He chastised himself while turning back to watch his daughter and the brat quickly convene in an intimate-looking conversation.

Blasted! The brat was making her smile like that again. It made him wonder how much longer it would take before he got too drunk to hold back from wailing on the kid. Damn Blaiddyds. They were like wolves and he knew this one would never let go of Little Red Riding Hood now.

The celebration began in earnest despite the King Regent's protests. Prince Dimitri was still wearing the cloak and crown of his office, and Byleth couldn't help herself as she went to him. He handed the lance back to Lord Rodrigue and opened his arms for her, but she wasn't so far gone as to embrace him with a crowd of people still watching. She settled with placing her hands on his upper arms while his supported her elbows.

"Dima." 

He laughed, knowing what she was trying to say. She reached up to pet the furs of the cloak on his shoulder.

"I know. Impressive, isn't it? I've always liked it. I think one of the things I look forward to the most about being king is wearing it all the time." Dimitri said.

Lord Voltaire, who Byleth swore she could not tell apart from his brother save for the ribbon in his hair, and with Margrave Gautier came to take the cloak and circlet back. And so, Dimitri was transformed from a king back into a prince. He watched the items go with a wistful smile before looking back at Byleth and tightening his grip on her arms.

"So now you are Lady Eisner in truth." He would not admit to her how his heart clenched at the words in her oath, promising herself to him. He knew that the oath meant loyalty to the crown and country, but hearing her say his name in that context had moved him in ways he hadn't expected. "What do you and your father intend to do with your new-found nobility?"

"My father wants to restart the town at the foot of the manor." Byleth answered in earnest, that strange bubbling returning as she stared at the prince, "And clean the house. It was quite dusty when we got there, but still intact for the most part."

"That sounds like a wonderful idea." Dima mused, perking up at the thought, "We could start the mines back up and increase weapon production, and open more trade. Oh, and spread employment. I'll be sure to help in any way I can."

"Thank you." The young woman breathed. From the corner of her eye she could see the King Regent heading for her father, but he was already surrounded by other lords, all ready with similar inquiries and questions, though some simply approached wanting to see the shield. Similarly, she could see other, younger people, approaching her. Dima's friends, along with Annette and one or two others.

Sylvain strolled up with a grin so sly it instantly had Byleth on guard, he opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off my Annette, who stepped forward in front of him, cutting off his words as she puffed up, "Young Lady Eisner."

Byleth blinked, "Young Lady Dominic."

"Congratulations on regaining your title." Annette smiled, "You looked very impressive up there."

"Thank you,"

Annette then looked to the blond prince, and suddenly beamed with much more excitement. She made a small noise in her throat, her little hands clenched into fists in front of her as she squealed, "Hello your majesty! It's an honor to finally meet you! I am Annette Dominic! Daughter of… the former Knight Gustav Dominic, and I'm very happy to meet you!"

Dimitri gave the girl a polite smile, both glad and surprised that Annette wasn't intimidated like other nobles. Then he recognized the name Gustav and became entirely focused on her.

"Daughter...? So, then...?"

Annette's beaming smile dimmed and she looked away awkwardly, her body bouncing on the balls of her feet. "O-Oh, yes. I-I've heard much about you from him!"

Dimitri stared, adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed hard before asking his next question. "And… How is he?"

That made the girl stop moving altogether, her eyes downcast and her energy no longer making her body bounce around. "We haven't heard from him... He's gone."

"Oh," Dimitri looked away, pained look on his face. "I'm sorry."

Annette shook her head, eyes flickering back up to him, shoulders deflated just the slightest bit, "No, don't apologise, it's not your fault. He left us both, and it was his own choice."

The air because the slightest bit awkward, and Byleth knew she was missing a lot of context here, which only made her feel a bit out of the loop. Sylvain hissed, wincing a bit as he scratched the back of his head. Ingrid look distinctly uncomfortable, eyes flickering away from the two. Felix himself crossed his arms, turned to the side, and stared straight ahead, physically staring away from the conversation.

"B-But that doesn't matter!" Annette perked up again, forcing herself through the awkward tension in the air and perk back up, shaking a bit, "What's important is that I've heard so much about you! I've been wanting to meet you for years! You looked so dashing up there!"

Dima chuckled, trying to take Annette’s lead and relieve the stress of the last few moments, "I must admit, I've heard stories about you as well, Miss Dominic, and I must say, you're as lively as I imagined."

"Really?!" That seemed to perk Annette right up, "That's great!"

"Aren't we supposed to be kissing Eisner's ass right now?" Felix grumbled, looking annoyed.

"You shut up." Annette turned on her heel, hissing as she pointed threateningly at the other boy, eyes narrowed, "I haven't forgotten the ball you evil, evil… person you!"

Ingrid took a step forward while Annette moved to the side to bicker with Felix. She took Byleth's hand in both of hers. "So you really are an Eisner! Just like in the legends. My grandmother was right! Oh, she's going to be intolerable now." 

Ingrid looked to the side with a pained face, where Lady Brunnhilde stood against the wall, surveying the room. She looked like she was just waiting for her moment to swoop in and create maximum drama. 

Ingrid shook her head and looked back at Byleth with excitement. "But this is great! It's just like a storybook. The Return of the Eisners. " The blond girl giggled. "The only thing that might make it better would be if..." She looked pointedly between Byleth and the prince.

Remembering something suddenly, Byleth turned her head towards Dimitri standing beside her. "That reminds me. While we were traveling, we met Lord Gaspard and his son, Ashe! I guess Lord Gaspard adopted him. Apparently he's also going to be joining your class next year. He's very excited to meet you. He and I got along well since he used to be a commoner as well. I'm looking forward to seeing him again."

Dimitri gave her a brilliant smile, "That's great! I'm so happy you're making more friends."

It was the truth. The prince had always had a feeling that Byleth was a shy girl. Well, shy in some sense. He knew already that she could handle herself in a fight and was quick to adapt to situations when the time came. But he also noticed she tended to stay in the background, preferring to watch and observe then to boldly rush forward. Dimitri liked that about her though, he felt she was wise to watch and study—unlike him. He was just some boar who could never find the right thing to say to help anyone.

Proof of this came from the ugly feeling in his heart when she spoke of this other boy she had so much in common with. Much more than she had with him. But he knew better than to allow such things to get in the way of her making new friends and experiencing new things. That would be selfish of him.

At least he got to see her smile more.

"I look forward to meeting him. I'm sure he's a nice boy."

"You'll like him." Byleth nodded, unaware of the sickening feeling spreading inside him like a slow moving disease. He coughed, trying to banish it as he nodded. The young woman beside him nodded, turning to speaking with Ingrid again, "Speaking of storybooks, Ashe seems to enjoy them quite a bit, he told me all about several he's read. Perhaps you two will get along?"

"If he enjoys stories than we most certainly will." Ingrid perked up, her eyes shining as she perked up with attention, "It will be good to have someone to discuss old books with!"

The ugly feeling died down a bit seeing Ingrid’s excitement. It had been a while since Dimitri had seen her with that spark. The idea of her having someone to discuss tales of valiant heroes again must delight her, with Felix now disgusted with those stories, Sylvain not caring much, and Dimitri simply… unable to. It was good. He was happy that she was excited to meet someone.

He squashed his ugly feeling, trying to kill it by reminding himself that Byleth and Ingrid deserved friends they were comfortable talking to about their interests. So he turned to his other friends, only to wish he hadn't when he came face to face with a very satisfied looking Sylvain.

"So." Sylvain threw an arm around his shoulders "I see you're having fun. Good to see you talking instead of moping like you've been doing all week."

Dimitri sputtered, heat climbing his neck. "Moping? I have not been—I've simply been busy. Uncle has been preparing for this since they left. There's a lot that goes into reestablishing a noble house." Sylvain hummed, not impressed by the excuse. 

The redhead pulled the Prince closer so he could whisper in his ear. "Everyone saw you holding hands." 

Dimitri's eyes widened, and he looked down to where his hand even now touched hers. Neither one of them seemed to find the contact uncomfortable. The heat reached his ears and Dimitri thought he might actually start to sweat.

Sylvain leaned back with a knowing smile. He was enjoying his friend's discomfort. "Honestly I wasn't sure you had it in you. All those times I tried to get you to go out with me and then I turn around for one second and you've got a pretty girl with a famous family clinging to your arm. I'm actually kind of impressed."

"Sylvain." Dimitri always got exasperated when his friend got like this. He had to fight not to pinch the bridge of his nose. "It's not like that."

"Oh?" Sylvain looked genuinely curious. "What is it like then?"

Dimitri gulped, feeling like a deer cornered by a lion. He quickly looked away, but this turned out to be a mistake as his gaze landed on Byleth who was listening to Ingrid tell her of an Eisner tale she read in a book once. So the prince ended up not listening to his friend, and instead merely staring at Byleth's face as it made subtle changes when Ingrid explained something new.

"And then they flew! Someone actually convinced an Eisner to fly and it'd been one of my great ancestors!" His childhood friend gushed.

Dimitri felt his heart rate pick up rapidly when the corners of Byleth's lips lifted.

"Already ignoring me?"

The Prince looked back at Sylvain, face now completely red as he was caught staring at Byleth.

"I-I wasn't ignoring—"

But Sylvain was giving him that discerning smirk. Dimitri knew he couldn't convince him now,  not when the redhead already had his mind made up. He could only hope to stop his friend before he did anything stupid.

"Don't."

"Hm?" Sylvain tilted his head, smile still on his lips. "Don't what?"

Dimitri took a deep breath and tried to look serious despite the growing panic in his chest. "Just don't."

Sylvain had the nerve to play innocent. "I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't done anything."

"Yet." Dimitri finished for him, knowing the older boy well enough to do so. Sylvain has that look in his eye, that look that meant he was up to something, that shenanigans were afoot. Felix, for his part, looked every bit disgusted with the situation as he watched both pairs interact, ignoring the glaring Annette standing next to him. 

Finally, Felix lost his patience, rounding on Byleth, "As impressive as the story of the Eisners infamous hatred of flight is, I am far more interested in a duel. I have fought everyone here except you, now, if you are truly to be our teacher soon, then I wish to test your skills."

"Right now?" Ingrid turned to him, raising a brow, frustrated that her story was interrupted, "Felix, we're celebrating. You can wait."

"So rude." Annette hissed from beside him, "Evil."

"She's going to need to be skilled if she's going to spend time around the boar." Felix found his eyes traveling between the prince and the new lady standing much to close to one another. He snorted. "Much less if she's going to be a teacher."

"Felix, man, I love ya and all, but could you not today?" Sylvain sighed, scratching the back of his head, "I'm sure she's fine. Come on, I like sparring, but it's nice to, y'know, relax and just have fun."

"No." Felix turned to face Byleth, "When are you available?"

"Evil." Annette cried again, stepping forward, "You're evil, Felix!"

"I'm just telling the truth." Felix folded his arms, "It's hardly my fault if no one else is willing to believe me."

"There is a time and a place for dueling, Felix, and a party isn't one of them." Ingrid scolded him, hands on her hips, "And stop calling Dimitri that."

For a horrible, awful, moment Dimitri was sure another brawl was about to break out between his friends, with Felix sizing up on Ingrid and the blonde woman similarly refusing to back down. Beside him, Sylvain was chuckling nervously, clearly not happy with the tenseness of this conflict as he was with their brawl at the ball. Annette sized up Felix as well, puffing up with the will to jump to the defense of just about anyone. 

Luckily for Dimitri, he was cut off by Lord Eisners loud exclamation of, "What!?"

The whole group jumped, whirling around to face the man. Lord Eisner stood in front of a finely dressed man, staring at him with a look of sheer disbelief. Beside him stood a delicate looking young woman, hair tied by a ribbon, a shawl covering her shoulders, hands clasped in front of her as she similarly stared at the man. 

Annette burst beside Dimitri, breathing out a surprised, "Mercie?"

Chapter Text

Jeralt's face was drained of color. Byleth went to him and was followed by Dimitri and the others. Annette stood next to the other girl. They crowded around her father as she put a hand on his arm. "What's going on?" 

He looked at her askance, but seemed to be having trouble with his words. She had caught the attention of the man he had been speaking to, however.

The finely dressed man doffed his hat. "Lady Eisner! I was going to come to greet you next." His eyes moved between her and the prince standing behind her and he smiled. "May I introduce myself? My name is Mister Bartrand. I'm a merchant of some renown here in the city." 

He waved the demure looking girl standing beside him to the front. "And this is my daughter, Mercedes."

The girl curtsied, the picture of elegance. "It's good to meet you." Bartrand grinned, the proud father.

"I was just discussing with your good father here the possibility of a marriage between our two houses." He turned back to Jeralt, even as Byleth's jaw dropped open. "I had heard you were unattached, sir, and Mercedes is a fine young woman. She is accomplished at all the usual homely skills—cooking, cleaning, mending, and the like. I've even had her at the Sorcerer's Academy here in Fhirdiad, where she's been training in the Faith magics. I believe she would be a good match."

Byleth was watching her father's face through all of this, and though it was subtle she could tell that the pallor he had from being surprised was slowly being replaced by an altogether different emotion.

Byleth, in shock herself, touched her father's arm and finally gained his attention. "Father… He's not...?"

He wasn't serious, right?

Surely the man could see that his proposal was absurd. Why, the girl looked to be the same age as Byleth! The man had the gall to ask if Jeralt wished to marry someone his daughter's age! Surely this was a jest? A joke played on people who were the stars of the party?

Jeralt swallowed and turned back to Bartrand, face going from shock to its usual neutral stare. "And just what do you wish to gain from this?"

The question didn't offend the merchant, in fact, it merely spurred him on as if he were haggling with a client. "Why! The knowledge that Mercedes is well off with a wealthy family that can take care of her! With these connections, we can forge a strong partnership and be able to spread our reach across Fódlan!"

Byleth looked at the man, suddenly catching on to what he really wanted. Mister Bartrand wasn't even trying to hide it.

"Mercie!" Annette raced to the girl's side, taking her hands and pulling her towards the group of wide eyed teens. "Come meet my new friends with me."

Sylvain, who was staring at Bartrand with a vaguely impressed, but wide eyed and disbelieving, stare huffed. He shook his head, muttering under his breath, "Wow that was fast."

Bartrand, for his part, rolled his eyes over the group, found his eyes landing on Dimitri in particular, grinned, and turned back to the girl, "Yes, run along, Daughter, make friends."

The girl, who looked very much humiliated, nodded, letting the red headed girl lead her away from the two grown men, where her father’s frown grew deeper and deeper. Byleth found herself caught between two paths, but decided that, whatever happens, it was likely safer to stay by Dima and the others. 

Besides, Lord Rodrigue had approached them, looking every bit as wide eyed as the rest of them did as he approached. The man shared a quick look with Felix, who scoffed and shook his head, before approaching her father and Bartrand, "Pardon my intrusion, but perhaps it is a bit… early to be discussing such things."

Byleth decided to make a tactical retreat, grabbing Dima's arm and pulling him away.

Jeralt watched his daughter go with her new friends, dragging the poor Mercedes with them. Their faces had ranged from shocked to angry, and he was somewhat satisfied to see that the prince's gaze had been downright cold. That had earned him some points in his book. He turned back to Mister Bartrand, who hadn't seemed to notice the atmosphere was against him. Jeralt wondered if that was a good or a bad attribute for a merchant.

He had to rein in his anger, but couldn't keep the stern look off of his face. "I'm afraid I'm… not looking for a wife, Mister Bartrand." 

The other man had the audacity to look surprised, and Jeralt was finding it increasingly more difficult to stop himself from decking him. "Are you certain? Your daughter won't be with you forever, you know. Now that she's a lady with social standing, one of the other nobles is bound to notice her. In fact, I'm sure they already have." 

Jeralt's eyebrows snapped down and he took a threatening step forward. It was a very lucky day for Mister Bartrand that Lord Rodrigue was there to put in arm up to stop him. "Mister Bartrand," the dark haired man gave the merchant a warning look. "Now is really not the time, nor the place. Now, come with me. My son needs a new wardrobe for school and I've been told you are a man to talk to about such things." 

Lips tight, he dragged the man away while sending an apologetic look back at Jeralt, who needed a moment to seethe.

"Goddess." Jeralt hissed under his breath as he ran a hand through his hair. "Blasted."

He had been back for only a few hours and already reminded of how much he hated this place. Nobility, alliances, trickery and backstabbing? Arranged marriages and courtly duties and oaths of fealty?!

BAH!

Give him the open road and fresh air—the friendly atmosphere of comrades in arms who shared one thing in common. The will to fight and live for another day. A thing all creatures shared in common. Something a lot of the people here seem to forget...

Jeralt grabbed a mug off a tray of what he assumed to be alcohol from a passing servant and downed it in one gulp. The poor servant stopped to watch with wide eyes as Jeralt took another cup to replace his empty one.

"Hope there's enough in this place to make me forget what just happened." He turned, not waiting for the stranger to nod or assure him he was right. Right now he needed to have some fun, perhaps some of these people weren't as punchable as that merchant…

Byleth watched her father grab another drink, then stalk off into the crowd. She could see where his path would lead him tonight, and would need to take steps to curb it. But for now there was someone else that needed her attention more. She looked at Mercedes. She was still pale with humiliation, and was clinging to Annette, but she had a smile on her face as she looked around at their little group.

Annette seemed to be trying to distract her. "Mercie! When did you get here? You should have come to see me." The little redhead pouted, making Mercedes giggle softly.

"I'm sorry, Annie. I didn't even know we were coming until a little while ago. We only just arrived." Her father must have heard the news and come straight away. Byleth frowned.

"Lord Eisner was too easy on that man. He deserved to be punched in the face." Felix chimed in, saying what they were all thinking.

"Felix..." Ingrid sighed. "Well, he does have a point. It was very rude, what he did. No one should be...paraded around like that." Mercedes smiled at them warmly.

"He means well. He just wants me to marry into a good family so that I'm well taken care of."

Byleth thought she was being a bit too kind. Dimitri seemed to think so too, as he took a step towards Mercedes. "All the same, I will have a word with him about his actions tonight if you wish it. Just watching that conversation was uncomfortable to say the least. I can't imagine what it was like for you." Byleth's heart felt warm as he offered his assistance.

"Oh, no. Please don't put yourself out on my behalf, Your Highness. It's really alright." She was definitely too kind.

"A-Anyways," Annette jumped in, not wishing to put the girl out by their badgering. "I'm so glad you're here, Mercie! I've missed you!"

"Oh," the sweet girl placed a hand on her cheek and tilted her head as she gazed at Annette with soft eyes. "I've missed you too, Annie. It seems I've been doing nothing but counting the days until we go to the academy together."

"Me too!" Annette beamed, bouncing in place. "Oh, it's going to be so much fun!"

Realization hit her eyes and she took Mercedes hands in her own before turning towards Byleth with a wide smile. "Mercie! Look, Lady Eisner is going to be a professor there! Isn't that amazing??"

Mercedes gasped, "Oh my! How exciting!"

Byleth could stop the look of surprise on her face. "You too? Is everyone in Faerghus coming to Garreg Mach this year?" Dimitri chuckled beside her.

"Don't worry. I've heard the classes are kept small on purpose, and there aren't many more noble born or wealthy people our age in the country. There can't be that many more students. It's actually quite a coincidence that you've met so many." Still, Byleth couldn't shake the feeling that she was going to be kept very busy. 

It must have shown on her face, because he laughed again and wrapped an arm around her waist in a one sided hug.

The rest of the group stared. Mercedes put a hand to her mouth in a silent gasp. "Oh my. So the rumors are true." Sylvain guffawed, Felix rolled his eyes, Ingrid clapped her hands together with delight, and Annette giggled. 

Dimitri hastily tried to recover from his faux pas by removing his arm. "No, It's—"

"It's not like that, yeah. So we heard." Sylvain interrupted the prince with a sly smile.

"It isn't." Byleth tried to explain, "We're just friends."

Sylvain laughed. "Does that mean I can be your friend too—OW!"

Felix gave the red head a sharp elbow to the gut and making the poor boy bend over to wheeze. "So the Eisner girl is as dense as the boar." Felix scoffed and crossed his arms as he looked Byleth up and down. "Perhaps you are perfect for each other."

"Felix! Do not call her dense!" Ingrid hissed, but didn't get a chance to fully reprimand him as Annette suddenly jumped right in front of him.

Chest to chest, the small girl poked him hard as she practically spat fire. "Do you wanna go again? Because the Eisners are my rivals and I'm not gonna let anyone insult them but me and my family!"

For once, Felix looked at a loss for words, even afraid as the girl poked him hard again. "So stop being rude!"

"R-Rude?!" Felix grew flushed and tried to swat the hand away, only for Annette to swat back. Then it became more silly then tense as the two started exchanging insults. Well, Annette did, Felix was just trying to get her to leave him alone.

"Speaking of your students," Dimitri turned away from the spectacle and back to Byleth. "You've met Dedue, haven't you? The night of the ball." He looked around for the man in question. 

Dedue, apparently, often acted as the prince's shadow but the Duscan also had other jobs given to him by the Regent that kept him busy. Tonight he stood by the entrance, taking coats and generally watching over the crowd. The prince caught his eye and waved him over.

"Oh, you mean the man that finally revealed that I was in the company of royalty." Byleth teased, and Dimitri winced in response as Dedue approached.

"Yes. Yes, that was him. Let me officially introduce you. Byleth, I want you to meet my good friend Dedue. Dedue, this is Lady Byleth Eisner." Dedue's face remained neutral, as he had already known who she was. He bowed deeply.

"Lady Eisner. How is your father?" Byleth remembered with a flush that this man had also helped carry Jeralt to bed while he was in a drunken stupor. "Ah...He's fine," She hoped, glancing around looking for the man in question. "It's good to actually meet you, Dedue."

Dimitri continued, motioning towards the other man. "Dedue will be accompanying me to the Academy as well, Byleth. He will also be one of your students." Byleth couldn't help her look of surprise.

"Oh!" Annette bounced up to meet him, standing on her tiptoes as she beamed up at the man, "So you're going too? That means we're all going to be there! As classmates!"

"How wonderful that we should all meet beforehand." Mercedes smiled, folding her hands and looking over the group, "This must be a blessing from the Goddess herself!"

Felix scoffed at the idea, only to find himself on the receiving end of Annette's glare. Ingrid, however, perked up at the idea, "It does seem fortunate we should all meet up like this. This may be a sign of good fortune."

"Good fortune indeed." Sylvain gave a sly smile, winking at Annette and Mercedes, "It's good to know I'll be in the same class as so many pretty girls."

Mercedes smiled pleasantly at the words, not seeming to mind them. Annette, however, stuttered horribly, blushing a deep pink and denying such claims. Ingrid came to the defense of her fellow women by elbowing the redhead sharply in the side, making him yelp loudly. He rubbed his side and hissed, "Come on, Ingrid, I'm just trying to make friends like his Highness over here."

"You sass has been noted." Felix rolls his eyes.

Mercedes folded her hands, turning to Dedue, "Well, I think it's wonderful that we'll all be in class together,l don't you?"

Dedue nodded, face unchanged, "I will be glad to be of assistance to any of you."

"Perhaps then you should all have a toast?" There was a snap of a fan as Brunnhilde appeared at Ingrid's elbow, her sudden appearance making Annette jump in surprise while Sylvain was already bowing charmingly at her.

"Lady Brunnhilde!"

"You," the old woman didn't waste time as she pointed her fan at the red head. "Gather up drinks for everyone—you must all toast on a joyous occasion! It would be bad luck not to!"

Sylvain grinned, not having to be told twice before he rushed off, his hand tight around Felix's elbow as he forced his friend to come help him.

"Granny!" Ingrid was rounding on her with exasperation, "I doubt our luck will change if we drank or not."

"Nonsense, you must all celebrate!"

Chapter Text

It wasn't long before the Felix and Sylvain returned, each with a large tray of drinks. Ingrid eyed them with suspicion. "There are nine of us here. How many drinks do you think we'll need?"

"Hey, we have a lot to celebrate, and we're going to need a lot of luck" Sylvain winked conspiratorially at her and looked at Dimitri and Byleth before holding out his tray. "Guests of honor first."

Dimitri waited until Byleth took a glass, then took one for himself. "I suppose it would be a waste to not cheer to such an event."

Byleth nodded. "The next time we're all together will likely be at the Academy" Her eyes crinkled with humor. "I doubt the Archbishop would condone this on school grounds."

"Great! We're all on the same page then." Sylvain finished passing out drinks, while Felix placed his tray on a table nearby. "Lady Brunnhilde, this was your idea. Why don't you start?" He grinned slyly at the old woman, apparently his partner in crime.

"Alright." The grin she gave back a toothy smile of her own. "To the return of House Eisner. May they last another thousand years!"

The rest echoed. "To House Eisner!" And everyone took a big drink.

The alcohol burned pleasantly on Byleth's tongue, and was sweet with a bit of apple tartness. Byleth gasped as she finished, meeting the others eyes with her finished glass in hand. The Lady Brunnhilde waved her fan, smile on her face as the others finished their own drinking. She smiled, grabbing another glass, "Anyone else have something to cheer?"

"Me!" Sylvain grinned widely, grabbing another glass and holding it in the hair merrily, "To new friends! I hope our class kicks the other classes asses."

"Sylvain!" Ingrid scholded.

"Well, I can't not drink to that." Annette smiled, grabbing her second drink while Mercedes giggled beside her. Dedue, too, grabbed a second glass at the sentiment, and Dimitri smiled so wild and bright at the idea that he didn't even hesitate. Seeing everyone else join, Byleth did as well, which made Ingrid sigh and give in, and Felix grab a glass just to meet the challenge. They all clinked their glasses, once again downing them as they all echoed the sentiment.

The alcohol started to hit a little now, Byleth realizing she was starting to become a little buzzed, and she would have stopped drinking if Annette hadn't called out, "To dreams coming true!" 

How could they say no to that?

So it was that the third round of cheers happened. Which, of course, lead to the fourth as a blushing Mercedes called out, "To finding loved ones!"

And then Ingrid, properly drunk, called out "To a break from marriage proposals!"

And then Felix, also properly drunk, called out "To good fights!"

And by then there was no going back.

"Heeeey Ingrid!" Sylvain slung an arm around his old friend, cheeks flushed and grin wide. "Have I ever told you how pretty you are?"

"Hm," Ingrid scrunched up her nose as she sipped from her seventh(eighth?) cup of finely aged whatever this was, she wasn't sure anymore. "You tell everyone that."

Sylvain whined and rubbed his cheek on top of her head, mussing up her braid. "But I wanna tell you yer pretttttyyy."

"Of course she's pretty!" Annette yelled out, face scrunched up with anger for some reason. "She can be on the stage! I bet she looks even better with makeup!!"

Felix flinched as he stood next to the red head, unable to handle her yelling right in his ear. But he didn't say anything, feeling too dazed to remark upon it. Instead, he focused his eyes on Dedue who was quiet as usual, but had the faintest of smiles on his slightly flushed face. It was quite calming.

"Dedue!" Dimitri gasped happily, "You're smiling!"

"I am?" Dedue looked surprised, but his mouth didn't fall.

Byleth stood a little to the side, smiling quietly at her new group of friends. Somewhere during her last glass a feeling of bliss had washed over her. She wasn't sure she'd ever been happier. Here were a bunch of people. They all had different backgrounds and attitudes, but they put them aside to just be happy drinking together, talking to one another, generally having a good time. She looked forward to spending the next year with them, even if she had to separate herself to be their teacher. 

Dimitri saw her standing there with a slightly dazed but happy expression. Sylvain saw her too, and noticing the flushed look on the prince's face he pushed him in her direction. "Go be with her, man." He only stumbled a little bit.

Byleth smiled and wobbled as Dimitri approached, so he caught her under her arm and brought her close. He chuckled quietly. "I think we both need some fresh air, don't you?" She nodded in response, and he put his hand to the small of her back and led her towards the outer deck.

Neither of them noticed that the whole group had turned to watch them go with smiles on their faces.

The two of them walked together, not stumbling but their steps were just a bit wobbly. Byleth caught herself on Dimitri's chest, leaning against his side and hand resting over his heartbeat, which seemed to be rapid.

"O-Oh." Dimitri's hand was still on her back, keeping her up, but he leaned his cheek to rest against her hair. Together they made a unit that could stand upright, and they made it to one of the doors that lead to the balcony. Thankfully, there were two servants that opened the door for them, so they were able to make it outside without issue.

It was much colder outside than inside, and the balcony was covered in snow, even the gargoyles and stone lions cloaked in piles of it. But despite this, Byleth felt oh so warm with the alcohol burning in her blood and Dima's heat radiating against her own. Still, the prince, probably thinking she might get cold anyway, adjusted his fur coat to stretch and bit around her as well, which only made her warmer as they shared body heat.

They moved until they reached the rails, falling a bit against them and just staring ahead, breathing in the cool hair. The sight of Faerghus was beautiful in the snow, with fires lighting the streets and people milling about. It was lovely like a wonderland, something out of a winter storybook or fairytale.

Dima laughed, his body vibrating with the sound, and Byleth buried her face further into his chest, "You are lovely in the snow."

"Thank you." Byleth hoped she sounded as pleased as she was, "You too."

Cold air puffed out of the Prince's mouth in short bursts, the tempo matching the beat of his heart. He smiled when Byleth looked up at him, then smiled more when she rested her chin against his chest. Shyness all but drowned in drink, Dimitri reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear; his fingers ghosting against the soft shell of skin and making her shiver. He held her closer.

"Cold?"

Byleth shook her head as his hand laid against her neck, his thumb now sliding against her jaw in a soothing motion. "No. Your hands… they're very warm."

His heart seized and he was suddenly fighting off a lump in his throat. For some reason he felt like crying, perhaps he had had too much to drink?

"O-Oh! I didn't… Thank you!" He tightened his arms around her waist and thought about leaning down, maybe even pressing his lips against her forehead... But he hesitated, this strange emotion welling in his heart, "Perhaps it's just the wine." 

Then he laughed dejectedly. "I'm sure my hands are quite cold."

During all the haste of getting on with the ceremony, he'd never put on his gloves, so he was touching her, actually touching her. And her skin was so nice, so smooth and beautiful...

He laughed again and looked away, "T-They're probably as cold as a ghost." He started to pull his hand away from her neck. "I'm sorry—I shouldn't be—"

But she grabbed it and put it back, eyes sparkling and voice loud and bold. "No. I like it—please don't pull away, Dima."

Dima looked down at her with something special in his eyes. "I do not think I could pull back even if I had to." 

He leaned in closer as Byleth's hands slid up his chest and encircled his neck. Her fingers were cold, and he winced, but when she tried to remove them he pulled them back with a chuckle. "You know, I lied earlier." His breath misted in the cold just over the top of her head.

She pressed into him, relaxing into his warmth and humming in response. "When?"

"When Sylvain said that I was moping while you were gone. In fact, I missed you terribly. Is that strange?" His fingers kneaded the back of her neck.

Byleth rested her chin on his sternum as she looked up, not wanting to put any space between them. "No. I thought about you a lot too."

A shiver went up his spine when she smiled. 

"Is that so? I hope you don't find it offensive that I'm glad." He said, and she laughed. It was the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard.

Dima dared to lean down and press his forehead against hers. His eyes watered a bit with an unfamiliar, and yet completely familiar feeling. "Byleth, I hope you know that you are special to me. It's different from everyone else. I think it's been this way for a long time."

Byleth hummed, patting her hand against the back of his neck, "Yes, it is the same for me."

Dima laughed again, his face red and flushed, their bodies rocking from their drunken inability to stand. He rested his forehead against her hair for a moment, resting as his weariness overcame him just a moment, "That makes me so happy to hear, I believe I could eat the world raw."

"I eat a lot." Byleth nodded, her nose brushing against his pink cheek. He laughed more at that, his head throwing back as he laughed and laughed. 

Once he was done laughing he grinned at her, smile showing teeth, "Byleth, you are a delight! I don't know what it is, you make me so happy."

"You make me happy, too." The woman thought what she felt was happiness, anyway. Yes, she was pretty sure she was happy. She had been thinking about him a lot when things were good, and she enjoyed the feelings she had when she thought of him. She remembered three years ago with him clear as day, and meeting him again was easily one of the best things that has happened to her.

Yes , she thought, this is what happiness is.

"That's fantastic." Dima breathed, and his fingers were warm against her skin, and the cloak was warm, and everything was warm, "You are fantastic. I'm so happy to have been blessed enough to meet you, Byleth."

Byleth stared, eyes catching hold of Dimitri's, both of them caught in a quiet spell. There was a gentle winter breeze caressing her cheeks while Dimitri's nose started to turn pink. She suddenly wanted to kiss it, finding the color positively cute and blast it, she just went for it.

Unfortunately she was also drunk, the spirits of the wine making her stumble and miss his cute nose for his soft mouth.

Dimitri froze, his hands now gripping so tightly that she was sure it'd bruise. Byleth felt a heated blush coat her cheeks, but she didn't pull away—she couldn't. His mouth felt so nice and tasted so good.

And then he was pushing forward, eyes closing as he gripped the back of her head and his arm trapped her around the waist. She hummed into the kiss and closed her eyes as well, his heart beating fast against her chest. Though she'd never truly felt her heart beat, just the act of feeling Dimitri's was enough to help her believe it was.

The prince shuddered in her embrace and pulled his lips away only slightly, hot breath fanning her face as he stared at her with lidded eyes. Then she noticed the tear run down his cheek as he laughed.

"I-I'm sorry. I-I don't know what's come over me."

Byleth leaned up again, less clumsy this time as she kissed away his tear. Dimitri whimpered and tightened his hold on her.

She kissed softly down his cheek, paused briefly at the corner of his mouth, then down under his jaw. Her fingers brushed through the hair at the nape of his neck. His breath hitched and his mind swam with drink and an intense amount of feelings. Her lips trailed back to his ear, where she stopped and whispered. "Dima."

Dimitri's eyes snapped open, and he found the strength to push her away, just a bit. He trembled as he gripped her upper arms, using all the restraint he could muster. "Byleth, I—Goddess, you're beautiful. I just—all I want is..." 

He couldn't seem to find the words to finish his sentence, so he pulled her back into his embrace. Her hands landed on his hips as his arms curled all the way around her, bringing her as close as she could go. His breath was hard on the top of her ear, before he leaned back just enough to kiss her forehead, then her nose, then her lips again.

This kiss was much softer. They leaned into each other, melding together. Their hands roamed lightly over the other's back. It seemed like forever before they pulled back and stared into each other's eyes, sharing the air between them. Byleth turned her head and and rested it on Dima's chest, listening to his heartbeat. Her hands climbed up to lightly rest on his shoulders as his fell to encircle her waist again. They stood there, swaying slightly and enjoying each other's presence.

Chapter Text

There wasn't any music, but it almost felt like they were dancing again. Just like last time, with snow and swaying and his hands. Yes, they must be dancing again. She can let him lead again, she'll just lay against him and stay warm and happy and content.

"I think I like dancing." Byleth told him matter-of-factly. Dima laughed at that, he was laughing so much right now. She's glad. She likes hearing him laugh. It's a good sound coming from Dima. He should keep doing it. Forever. Yes, she wants to hear that sound forever.

"I like dancing with you too." Dimitri sways, and they fall a little before he catches them both on the rail again, but he's still laughing, so it must be fine. They're still swaying, and Dima's coat is still warm, and everything is still good. "I want to stay here forever."

"But then we can't...can't..." What were...oh!..."Then we can't go to the academy with our friends!"

"I don't want to dance with my friends. Sylvain steps on toes." Dima stated sagely, nose burying itself in her hair, his heartbeat beating like a drum in her ear, it's own sort of music, "I want to dance with you."

"We're friends though." Byleth blinks, confused, for a moment as she tries to keep her eyes focused, staring at a pile of snow. "Special friends."

"Special friends." Dima confirms, nodding into her hair. His thumb is rubbing circles in her waist, "I only want one special friend to dance with and...and...hold...and kiss..."

That sounded right to her. Yes, she was sure that was right, so she said so, "That sounds right."

"Th-Then I'll only dance with you, and kiss you, and you'll only dance with me, and kiss me." Dima perked up, his chin resting on her head now, "And no...no kissing anyone one else. Only each other."

"Yes." Byleth agreed, finding the logic solid, "That's what makes it special."

"I'm going to eat the world raw." Dima exclaimed with a laugh, "I could fight a pride of lions right now with no fear."

"Don't." Byleth told him with all her wisdom, "You will die, and then we can't kiss."

Dimitri held his breath, eyes lit with bright icy fires. "I won't die. I can't die."

And suddenly he was kissing her again, hands desperate to hold her in his arms as if they were both going to disappear at any moment just by mentioning death. Byleth almost couldn't keep up, his mouth pressing and teeth clattering with hers before he finally pulled away to breathe.

"I'll devour the world raw. I'd kill for you."

Byleth shuddered, his eyes refusing to let her look away as he leaned in to press his forehead against hers. Their lips almost touched again, but Dimitri didn't attempt to move closer. He merely smiled and caressed her cheek while they swayed in place.

"Promise you'll stay with me? Always?"

"Yes." She hadn't even hesitated. Byleth didn't dare to even think of the consequences of agreeing to such a promise—only that she'd do everything in her power to keep it. "I promise."

Byleth once more wrapped her arms around Dima's neck, one hand sliding to the back of his head to tangle with his hair. 

Her mind was too drowsy to think about it, but the darkness in his voice in the last few moments had unsettled her a little. Not enough to let go, she didn't think she'd ever let go. But it was something she unconsciously bookmarked to look into another time.

They stood together, wrapped in each other's arms and enjoying each other's presence for a while more. The snow settled on their shoulders, and Byleth found herself getting drowsy. The warmth and comfort of his arms and the sway of their bodies was slowly lulling her to sleep. She pressed her forehead into Dima's chest as she yawned, and he chuckled and placed a kiss on the top of her head. 

"You can't sleep out here, it's too cold. We should go inside."

"I don't want to walk." Byleth sighed, not opening her eyes. There was no reasons not to sleep, she thinks. Though, logically, she knew she'd eventually froze out here, and Dima would freeze. Still, she couldn't find it in herself to move though, so she didn't. 

Dima left out an exasperated huff. Then, without warning, Byleth's feet left the ground. Dima's hands held her, one on her back and the other under her knees, lifting her into the air easily. Her cheek fell against his shoulder, while her arms scrambled to adjust to her new position and found purchase around his shoulders. Their shared cloak stretched taut around them, forcing her to scoot her face into his neck in order to keep from ripping it, or being uncomfortable.

The prince took a shaky step forward, still swaying quite dangerously in his drunken state, "Don't worry, Byleth, I'll carry you anywhere you need to go!"

"Dima..." Byleth breathed against his neck, making him shiver, and the skin to turn deep red, "I think you're drunk."

"Am I? I think so too." Dima nodded. He moved forward, swaying through the door. Because his hands weren't free, he kicked the door instead, trying to gather the attention of the servants in charge of opening these doors. Unfortunately, Dima was also very strong, and the door just fell off his hinges, falling onto the stone with a loud bang. 

At some point, a fight must have broken out inside, because it looked like everyone had been in a brawl before this, with the way everyone was on the floor like that. Dima didn't seem to mind, though, walking inside and looking at his downed friends, and then up at the nobles who looked over to see what the commotion was. He stared back at them, swaying, before he came to a realization,"Byleth, you're right, I am drunk."

"It's alright, Dima, I'm drunk too."

"Hey!"

Dimitri looked over to see a drunk Jeralt stumbling to the front, broken mug in his hand from losing it in the brawl.

"Ah, Byleth, it's your father!"

Byleth waved while Jeralt glared at the Prince, absolutely NOT liking what he was seeing. "Why are you holding her like that?! Put her down!"

Dimitri pouted and held her tighter, looking like a sad boy whose toy was being taken away. "But… she's my special friend."

Sylvain perked up from a pile of bodies, most of them drunk, others passed out from a punch. He guffawed at the sight, "Special friend?!"

Jeralt groaned, not drunk enough to have the patience for this. At least he was coherent enough to know they were drunk. It was too bad no one else was drunk enough either, the whispers of delight were already starting.

"Yes." Dimitri answered Sylvain, stumbling forward, snow falling from his head. He nearly fell over as he tried to avoid stepping on a man with a beard. Then he stared, realizing Sylvain was on the floor, "Sylvain! You're on the floor! Who punched you?!"

"Tell me about the special friend!" Sylvain called back, standing up shakily, swaying back and forth dangerously. "Telllll meeeee."

"I got to carry her because she's tired." Dimitri swayed, trying to keep straight as he walks, "And I can't dance with anyone else. No dancing. Forgive me, Sylvain, but you only stepped on toes."

"No, tell me the special parts." Sylvain cried. 

"That is special." Dimitri nodded.

"Boy." Rufus' voice cut through the crowd, the King Regent storming forward, "Are you drunk?"

"Uncle!" Dimitri called out happily, "I'm honestly just happy you're speaking to me lately."

Sylvain tripped over Felix as he tried to get to the prince. The black haired boy let out a wheezing breath and a growl as he was kicked in the side. Sylvain stumbled into Dimitri, and nearly took all three of them down to the floor. Fortunately, he managed to grab onto Dimitri's clothes, stretching his shirt at the shoulder (at which Dimitri complained rather loudly) in the process, but stabilizing them. 

"Byleth. Byleth. Dimitri is drunk. You need to tell me what 'special friend' means. I need to know."

Byleth was already half asleep, curled up against Dimitri's chest. She cracked a sleepy eye open and looked at Sylvain. "I can't kiss anyone but Dima. That's what special friends do." 

Sylvain nearly fell to the floor again he was laughing so hard.

Jeralt, on the other hand, was looking around for something to break so it wouldn't be the Prince's face. He settled on a bottle of mead that had been left at a nearby table. He finished it off, then smashed it on the floor. 

"Byleth, you need to let go of the prince now. You need to get to bed." He was trying to sound reasonable, and thought he'd pulled it off pretty well considering he wanted to do murder.

"Put the girl down, Boy. You're making a fool of yourself in front of half the nobility of Faerghus. I taught you better than this, though I see you weren't listening." The King Regent was furious, glaring daggers at his nephew.

The pair didn't seem to want to do as they were told. Instead they just clung tighter to one another. Dimitri laughed. "But this is so much fun! She's warm!" and Byleth yawned sleepily.

"Dima is taking me somewhere so I can sleep." She murmured.

Rufus looked appalled at their answers while Jeralt groaned in despair. It was happening, it was finally happening. His daughter was finally rebelling against him for some boy and Dimitri was not far behind. Oh Goddess, not today.

Jeralt may have been being over dramatic, but give him a break. He was drunk.

"How sweet!" Someone whispered from the crowd. "They're like star crossed lovers!"

Oh no. Oh no no no.

"Their fathers don't want them together, but their love it too strong."

"They said special friends."

"Did you hear that? Lady Eisner and the Prince have promised to only kiss each other!"

It was his worst nightmare come true! Jeralt could only grip his head in despair as the whole damned court gossiped about his little girl. He needed another drink. BAD.

Byleth's one open eye tracked to her father. It wasn't terribly obvious through his drunken state, or hers for that matter, but she could tell he was upset. He was pale, breathing a bit too hard, and his eyes were everywhere but on her and Dima. She nuzzled into the prince's throat to get his attention and spoke quietly into his ear when he looked down at her. "Let me down, please." He raised his eyebrows but complied.

She wobbled a little when her feet were on the floor, from drink and tiredness. Dimitri put a hand to her waist to steady her and she looked up at him. Her lips turned up at the corners just a little, causing a flush to color Dimitri’s ears. Sylvain was still leaning against the prince's shoulder for support, and when she stood up on her toes to kiss Dimitri's jaw Sylvain raised his eyebrows and smirked.

She squeezed Dimitri's hand when he looked at her with a confused smile. Then she actually booped him on the nose, causing half the people in the room to laugh and the King Regent to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration. "I'll be right back." 

Byleth left Dimitri behind, tied down by Sylvain, and made her way to her father. She leaned a bit to one side at one point but caught herself and straightened before she actually fell. When she got to Jeralt he was swaying side to side a bit himself, his bleak gaze settled on his daughter. She smiled drunkenly up at him, before reaching out and wrapping her arms around him in a big hug. Jeralt started, not really sure what to do as he looked around at all the nobility staring back at them. Then he gave a resigned sigh before he rested his chin on her head and hugged her back.

"Father, my friends and I had a few too many cheers to drink to." Byleth explained, face buried into his shirt. Goddess, she was so small still. How was she already getting drunk and starting rumors and getting practically socially engaged?

"Yeah?" He asked, picking her up and letting her sit on the crook of his arm. Her face fell against his shoulder, arms hanging limply from his shoulders. He patted her back, getting a small hum out of her, "Well, I'll have to talk to them later. Right now you need to get to bed."

"I had fun." Byleth hummed again, chin digging into his shoulder, "I like having friends."

And didn't that just kill any remaining anger Jeralt had. He rubbed a face over his hand, sighing deeply. He wished she hadn't started a bunch of court rumors, or caused that scene just now, but he just couldn't be mad at her when she was making friends and having fun for the first time.

Brown eyes flickered over the whispering crowd, then over to her downed "friends", with the prince trying to hug his unwilling Uncle and that Gautier boy hanging off him. The Fraldarius boy swayed onto his feet, hands up like he was trying to calm them down, the merchant's daughter from earlier twirling a glass in her hands and encouraging the affection. Not far away the Dominic girl had her own hands out, running into the prince, throwing her arms around him, which made the prince let out a large, joyous laugh and abandon his pursuit of affection from his uncle in favor of her.

"You give big brother hugs!" The Dominic girl cried out, causing the Gautier to laugh loudly and join the affection. The girl let out a pleased sound, "I knew it."

And, sitting at a table in perfect view of it all, Dame Galatea sat, looking oh so pleased with herself. Her granddaughter sat safely at her side, face resting in her folded arms.