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A Vow Remembered

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Part I: Vulnerable

House of the Golden Deer.

Byleth had to admit she liked the ring of it. House of the Blue Lions or house of the Black Eagles felt cumbersome. Like something trying to be what it isn't.

The door opened to her classroom. Her classroom. That would take some getting used to.

"Heya, Teach," Claude called out as he strut in, finding his seat. Ever confident, that one.

She nodded in response, eyes flicking to the seven others who entered the room. The eight were her students.

"So few?"

"You mean us?" Claude asked, gesturing to the other members of his—their—house. "You're looking at the cream of the crop, Teach."

She hadn't meant to say it out loud. Byleth had never been in a school and she could hazard a guess that the lessons her father imparted on her hardly counted for the typical.

"Forgive me," she said, "this is new to me, just as you are new here."

Claude waved her off in understanding, but a purple haired man frowned. "Forgive me, professor, but I harbor some reluctance at your ability. Sure, you saved Claude, something he will always need, but does that make you qualified for this position?"

It was a good question. Apparently the rest of the class thought so, though the way they hid it varied.

"I don't know," Byleth admitted. "But we've a mock battle this afternoon. I'll be participating alongside you, so you will have your chance to judge me then."

A small voice in her hoped they'd find her wanting. Some way to get out of this ridiculousness.

Her, a teacher? Teaching children who would lead the world or bury it?

Like she said, ridiculous.

"Anyway," Byleth sputtered, realizing the room had been quiet waiting on her to continue. "Would you all care to introduce yourselves? I only have a name for one of you."

Claude stood, giving a mock salute. "Claude von Riegan, heir to the Leicester Alliance and House Leader to the Golden Deer." He gave a perfect courtly bow.

The boy behind him rolled his eyes. "Pay that charlatan no mind, professor. I am Lorenz Hellman Gloucester, future leader of the Alliance. I am heir to the noble house of Gloucester and soon to be your best and brightest student."

Byleth nodded, taken aback.

Funny that now he seems wanting to impress you as his professor as opposed to questioning your credentials. That rivalry must run deep.

The girl's voice again.

The train of thought broke with: "Ignatz Victor. I don't have any noble titles but I do like to paint." His face turned red and he sat down, making eye contact with the floor.

The boy—giant—next time him stood, bumping the table. "Raphael Kirsten. I'm from a merchant family like Ig. If you're a fan of meat, professor, then you and I will get along just fine."

A girl in front of him didn't stand, but spoke next. "Lysithea von Ordelia." It was all she said and Byleth couldn't help but stare. A little girl was in her class, a child.

Goddess, she was teaching children to fight. Children that looked younger than she was when she picked up a sword.

You know that isn't true. I see your memories, you were far younger when you first saw bloodshed.

Byleth didn't want to think on that.

"I'm Leonie Pinelli," the girl next to Lysithea said. "I'm Jeralt's apprentice and going to be the best mercenary in the world after I graduate."

Jeralt's what?

Two girls had yet to go. Claude elbowed the one sitting next to him. She groaned threw a hand up in a wave. "Hilda. So this mock battle today, is it optional to participate?"

"Uh, no?" Byleth said, startled.

Hilda groaned again.

All eyes turned to the last girl, a blue haired woman who seemed to shrink with each glance. "Um…Marianne von Edmund." That was all she said.

"Well, nice to have names to faces." Byleth could remember eight names. That wouldn't be hard. Though she knew there were other classes she'd be teaching, plenty of other faces in the Deer and outside. "So next, I want to hear about your combat experience. Anything you've got, I want to know what I'm working with so we can win today."

They weren't going to stand a chance today.

Each student had weapon experience, but that was as far as some went. When Byleth asked how many battles they'd fought in, she'd been met with blank stares. Some had a little one on one combat experience, but none had killed anyone.

Except Claude.

Oh, he claimed he'd never taken a life. But Byleth had been around killers all her life. Some had kind eyes, but if you looked past them, there was an ire that burned. A ferocity that bubbled, simmering until it was ready to burst into a boil.

The students had long left the classroom. She'd bid them to go get ready for the mock battle. She could hardly help, she knew nothing about where such things were kept. It was a decent excuse that gave her a moment to breathe.

She'd spent ten years learning how to fight and in some occasions, lead. Jeralt's company sometimes housed too many mercs for just him to command, so once she turned seventeen, the burden fell to her to direct. Byleth wasn't fond of it, but her father seemed pleased with her results.

And if there was one thing she knew about leading, it was that you needed your soldiers to both trust you and each other.

Lorenz despised Claude. Marianne never spoke to anyone. Hilda didn't care and didn't hide her apathy. Leonie was too independent. Raphael and Ignatz trusted each other, but not the rest. Lysithea seemed irritated with everyone in the room, Byleth included. And Claude, well, trust seemed like a stretch, but he had a certain respect for each of his Deer. It counted for something, but not enough.

She'd made a mistake picking this house.

The Blue Lions were a unit, loyal as a group. She could see that and it fit with what she knew of Faerghus. Loyal to a fault, loyal to the end. And the Black Eagles…well, that had Edelgard at the head. The woman demanded respect and obedience and she got it.

These eight were the premier class of the Deer. There'd be other classes of Alliance students, but they weren't the elite like these students were. If this was indicative of what she was going to get, then it didn't bode well.

Byleth sighed and planted her face on her desk. She was more likely to journey to the eternal flames and back than meet Rhea's expectations.

"Everything alright, Teach?"

She looked up and saw Claude leaning in the doorway. He had changed from his uniform to expensive leather armor. A quiver hung on the back of his waist, filled with arrows.

"Never better," she said, standing. "Just still trying to catch up with what brought me here."

Claude laughed. "I don't blame you, the grapevine says that Rhea swept you up into this job without much notice."

"That's one way to put it." She walked to him. "Ready to see what your house can do?"

"Our house, Teach. We're your fawns."

Hilda Valentine Goneril hated work. She hated work so much that there was only one thing she hated more.

And that was fighting.

She leaned on her practice axe, wishing she were back in bed. Or at her desk, finishing the hairpin she started last night.

The rest of her classmates were spread out, waiting. Claude and their professor had gone to the center of the battlefield to confer with the other house leaders and teachers. And Jeralt, because he was there for some reason.

Ugh, she hoped none of them knew Holst. She didn't want to hear another lecture from him. That's what her parents were for.

He'd said in a letter that he might come visit her at the academy if he felt that Fódlan's Locket was secure enough. Hilda couldn't deny that made her a little excited.

Though she'd have to watch everyone praise the great Holst Goneril. She could hear it now, "The great Holst, hero of the Alliance! Hilda is his sister, she must be incredible too!" That excitement soured.

"Come, Hilda, look lively. It is unbecoming of nobles of our stature to slouch so."

Lorenz, ugh. "Go harass someone else, peacock." There was no bite in her voice, just boredom.

The nobleman himself, naturally, took offense. "Peacock! Why, Hilda, surely—"

"We're back," Byleth said tersely, walking up to the group with Claude in tow. "We're starting when the horn blows in ten minutes. Let's talk strategy."

Hilda groaned and circled up with the rest of the students.

Claude von Riegan had to admit he didn't like their chances.

Were it just him and Teach against the other house leaders and teachers, he was confident they could make something work. The professor seemed like she had quite a few years of experience under her belt and Claude, if he could allow a moment of arrogance, was clever.

But when the horn blew and he saw Raphael charge ahead without a second thought, he already knew what the outcome would be.

But he stuck to the plan. Ranged students to the forest. He, Ignatz and Leonie dashed into the cover of the woods and nocked arrows.

"Can you see any of them?" Ignatz whispered. He adjusted his glasses and squinted.

"Black Eagles are going to be coming from our left, Lions from the right." Claude looked in each direction, only seeing Raphael dash towards an opposing group of trees. Byleth and the others were skirting that same forest, several hundred feet away from Raphael.

It gave him another lens to see Teach's disheartened look through.

"Raphael's going to give us away," Leonie muttered. "Should we get moving?"

"Yeah," Claude decided. "It's best not to be sitting ducks in battle." He turned around to see Edelgard stepping over a fallen log as quietly as possible. She wore a triumphant smirk that told him all he needed to know.

He certainly didn't like their chances.

Ignatz Victor took an arrow to the stomach.

It was a practice arrow, so the worst he'd have was a blotchy bruise. He groaned, sitting up from the ground hewn with sticks and muck. Bernadetta's arrow had caught him so off guard that he'd tumbled over.

Claude had made a break for it. Leonie had drawn a sword to fight Edelgard and Bernadetta, but followed Claude's lead when it became clear she was outclassed.

Ignatz never thought they'd win. They were the Alliance, matched up against the Kingdom and Empire. But he certainly thought he'd last longer than a few minutes.

It gave credence to the feelings of doubt he had about being one of the top Deer. Their exams, written and practical, had earned them places in the academy's hierarchy. There might have been eight of them in their class, but there were plenty of other students who attended the monastery who would serve in battalions to be commanded. But it was his cohort and he that were expected to be representatives of their nation, excel, and lead said battalions.

A woman wearing armor had snuck up on him. How on Fódlan had Edelgard managed to do that? How had he been so distracted?

He trudged back to where the students who were 'out' were instructed to wait. Only Jeralt stood there, standing impassive with his arms crossed, observing the battlefield.

"You out, kid?" he asked, that gruff timbre equal parts soothing and intimidating.

"Yeah," Ignatz said, downcast.

"That makes you the first."

Ignatz wanted to vomit. He didn't belong here.

He was Lorenz Hellman Gloucester. He would not lose.

Sylvain parried his lance with a flourish, jabbing forward for a kill. Lorenz bat away the tip, albeit barely. Sweat pooled at the base of his back, his breathing labored. Combat proved harder than expected.

His opponent, Goddess damn him, was laughing. Sylvain was barely winded.

Envy crept up in his throat for a moment. Sylvain Gautier had trained with a lance since he could walk. Lorenz had studied the lance, sure, but also rhetoric and ruling. Sylvain wasn't originally meant to inherit until his brother had been discovered not to have a Crest. It had been a whole scandal that Lorenz had heard about, something oh-so-embarrassing. He'd pitied the family.

Now, as Lorenz lost more ground, he wondered if he'd misjudged him. This playboy had managed to outclass him in arms while still being destined to rule.

Were it a mere bout at the training yard, Lorenz wouldn't have thought anything of it. But this battle was a measure of pride for the Alliance and his father. It would not do for a Gloucester to lose in the first mock battle of the year.

Sylvain gained more ground and Lorenz felt himself pushed against a tree. Despair coiled in his stomach. But with a war cry, he pushed forward.

Leonie Pinelli thought her house's leader was a coward.

At the first sign of danger, he'd run. Surely had he stayed, they could have fought off Edelgard and Bernadetta. Claude might be a scoundrel, but he was a good shot.

But no. The future Sovereign Duke of Leicester turned tail and ran off.

An arrow clattered off a tree near her. Bile rose in her throat as she looked around wildly for any sight of their leader.

"Leonie, was it?" Edelgard's voice came from behind her. Leonie whipped around, sword at the ready. "You know, we could skip this nonsense if you surrender."

Jeralt was watching her, somewhere. He wouldn't look kindly upon a display like that, not in a mock battle.

Leonie raised her sword, ready to fight.

"Have it your way." Edelgard threw some of her hair over her shoulder and leapt forward, her axe falling with gravity.

Her sword met axe and locked into a contest of strength. Leonie threw a second hand up to brace her blade. Edelgard's expression never changed, stagnant in a look of calculating severity.

An arrow struck Leonie in her thigh. She faltered, and the axe came down on her shoulder.

"Good effort," Edelgard said, dismissive. She turned her back and motioned for Bernadetta to follow her.

Leonie growled. Claude should have been keeping Bernadetta distracted. This was his fault.

Marianne von Edmund detested competition.

It was one of the few things that she felt strongly about. There was no drive in her to be the best, to surpass others. There was no doubt in her mind that those things were unachievable.

So yes, she'd thrown down her sword in surrender when Felix charged her. He'd looked bothered by that, disappointed even. Marianne couldn't bring herself to care.

A breath of healing emanated from her hand over Lorenz' chest. Sylvain had bashed him up well, though that was more the fault of Lorenz for refusing to back down.

The thing with healing, was that it hurt to heal. Some called it taking the stress of injuries healed on as your own. Others just the body's limit for the amount of healing magic used.

Marianne thought it was the Goddess frowning at her using holy power through unholy hands.

"Thank you, Marianne," Lorenz said. He accepted the hand she offered him. He looked around the area that they had clashed with the Lions. Byleth and the survivors had fled, leaving the two of them and Ashe, whom had similarly been struck down.

He walked up to them, smiling like he always was. He looked so young to Marianne and she couldn't decide if it was the freckles or the optimism.

"That was quite the fight!" Ashe said, smiling.

Lorenz huffed. "Perhaps for your house." He fell quiet after that, stewing in a rage.

Ashe hesitated and turned to Marianne instead. "How come you threw your sword down?"

Marianne thought for a moment, not meeting his eyes. "I'm no good at this sort of thing."

Raphael Kirsten decided that it had been a mistake to charge in.

He couldn't help it, tactics went over his head. It was never his intention to pretend to be smart, in fact, Raphael would be the first to admit that he was brawn over brains.

That was why Maya was taking over the business, not him.

And that was the smart choice. After all, he was locked in combat with Dedue and relishing ever second. This is what he trained for, this is what he built his body for.

His fists smashed into Dedue's chest as he brushed off the touch of the axe. With each time a fist found purchase on Dedue, the man of Duscur lost ground from the impact.

An unspoken agreement passed between them as they fought past the rules, seeking only to fight for sheer dominance. It was primal, something stoking within them to fight for those they wished to protect. For Maya, for Dimitri.

Raphael pushed Dedue up against a tree and landed another set of punches in his abdomen. Dedue fell to one knee, breathing erratically.

"You fight well." His voice was so low it barely passed over the breathing.

Raphael laughed. "I'm just doing what I'm good at. You're no slouch either, we ought to train together back at the monastery!"

A smile spread across Dedue's face. "I would like that."

Bushes parted and Mercedes and Ingrid appeared, the latter charging toward him.

He charged too, realizing his mistake that he was outnumbered, even with Dedue out.

Lysithea von Ordelia knew the Golden Deer were a bunch of rapscallions and vagrants lumped together in a veneer of unity. But the battle had shown her just how much they couldn't work together.

Byleth had impressed her, to a degree. She'd started off the battle with plans, but that all fell through as soon as the horn blew and Raphael ran off.

Now it was just her and her teacher. Mage and a protector, which was a powerful combination.

But they faced Dimitri, a tired Sylvain, and Felix.

"Stay behind me," Byleth whispered. "What spells have you got?"

"I've some Dark. I can also sling fire."

Did she imagine it, or did a shiver pass through Byleth with her last word?

"Stick to the Dark. I'll make openings for you."

Before Lysithea could protest Byleth fighting three people at once, she surged forward.

Dimitri met her, jabbing forward with a lance. Byleth grabbed the shaft and yanked him forward, jolting to the left as Felix attacked. She blocked his blade, locking their hilts together for a brief moment before kicking him in the shin. Byleth leaned back, narrowly evading Sylvain's strike as Dimitri rounded behind her. This time he hit her with the butt of his lance, making contact with her leg.

She punched him in the face with one hand while arcing her sword down at Felix, forcing him to jump back. Sylvain mirrored his liege on her other side, the two attempting to skewer her like a kabob.

Lysithea brought up a hand. Dark wouldn't do in this close proximity, it was too messy and liable to hit Byleth. Fire ironically would work better in the forest.

But when she tossed the flame, it wasn't Sylvain's scream she heard. A conflagration erupted briefly as she intended.

When it faded, it was Byleth on the ground, panting. She looked terrified. Felix touched his training blade to her neck and the professor tossed her sword down.

Dimitri looked troubled and Sylvain was frowning. Neither of them were singed worse than their clothes bearing some marks.

They turned to Lysithea. "I surrender," she said, lip curling in frustration.

Even their teacher was incompetent.

Byleth Eisner was afraid.

There were a great many things that scared her in life. From the mundane to metaphysical, from spiders to the thought of being alone.

But fire, that was something different.

She picked herself up off the ground as Dimitri and the others continued on to find more Deer or the Eagles. Lysithea fixed her with a glower that tried to burn hotter than the Eternal Flames.

The look didn't work, Byleth wasn't the type to be intimidated by a child. Still the thought of that fire…

She shivered. A burning building was at the forefront of her mind, flames licking up the walls as she cried and cried, coughing and coughing from the smoke. She felt so warm so warm so hot like her skin was melting off like nothing would ever cool her down again and she screamed and screamed so loud so loud—

And then the breeze. Her father's arms.

Byleth shoved the memory down as she walked out of the forest. She saw her father and felt reassured. Around him stood the rest of the Deer, a few Lions and some Eagles. Even Claude had been knocked out of the battle.

Lysithea split off from her with one last reproachful look. Jeralt saw and pulled Byleth aside.

"What was that about, kiddo?" he asked, voice low. Some of the more curious students strayed a bit close but shied away as he glared.

"Just some fire." It was all she needed to say, all she ever needed to say to him.

He nodded, but conflict played out over his wrinkles. "Don't see Manuela about this. I'll find someone in town for you to see about this."

"Dad, I'm fine." And she was, to a degree. She'd stopped heaving for breath, her hands had stopped trembling. Outwardly, she looked fine.

Jeralt fixed her with a look, not believing her. "If you say so," he said, not pressing her. He turned back to the group, several new students having arrived. After a quick head count, he blew the horn.

He addressed the group. "It would seem that we have our winners. To the Blue Lions, winners of the mock battle of the Great Tree Moon!"

The Lions cheered and some of the nicer students from the other houses joined halfheartedly. Edelgard seethed and Claude looked pensive.

Byleth just wanted to crawl into bed.

On the journey back, her students made no effort to talk to her. With the exception of Lysithea, they didn't seem to harbor any ill feelings towards her. They now knew where they stood in relation to the rest of their peers.

It was Prince Dimitri who spoke to her.

"You're talented, professor," he said, falling in step with her as the monastery loomed closer.

Byleth shook her head. "I'm just experienced. There's no talent about it."

Dimitri chuckled. "Come now, professor. There's no need for modesty. Had that fight continued, I'm sure you would have brought the three of us down."

She shrugged. "Perhaps."

They walked in silence for a few moments, the scion of Faerghus visibly struggling with what next to say.

As they reached the outermost wall of Garreg Mach, he finally said, "Professor…should you ever wish to talk, I'd be happy to lend an ear."

Byleth finally met Dimitri's gaze. His expression was soft, almost sympathetic. For a moment, there was something of a kinship that sparked between them.

But then it faded as Dimitri's eyes swallowed up that flare in darkness.

"I'll keep that in mind," Byleth said with no intention of taking him up on the offer. She progressed on, the prince following in her footsteps.

Once night fell, she'd taken a walk to familiarize herself with the monastery.

Curfew was in effect, the students were all in their rooms or near them. The monastery was hardly so strict as to police movements, but they at least kept their charges out of the town after dark.

She sat by the fishing pond for an hour, watching the moonlight catch on the scales of the fish.

Byleth didn't want to face her class tomorrow. She'd heard some of the chatter on the way back. Not from the Deer, but from the other students. They marveled at how…lackluster the Deer were. She agreed with them.

You certainly have your work cut out for you.

Too tired to worry about voices in her head, Byleth agreed with the girl. At least the only direction to go now was up.

Byleth stood up, heading back to the dorms. She'd been shunted into a student's dorm due to a lack of housing for staff. Not that Byleth minded, it wasn't like she'd ever had a room before.

But before she arrived, voices drifted from the level above her. Familiar ones.

"Talk about a battle," Hilda moaned. Her voice was quiet, but drifting. Byleth stopped walking, listening.

There was a laugh. Claude. "Yeah, I won't lie, that didn't go the way I hoped."

"Like, I'll be the first to admit that we aren't the greatest house, but seriously? Even I feel embarrassed after that."

"And here I thought you too detached to care." Even through wood, Byleth could hear the smirk in his voice.

"Ass." Hilda sighed. "What're you gonna do about it? I mean, I don't care what my brother or father think, but I can't imagine your grandfather will be pleased to hear about a loss."

"I'll spin it positively. Something along the lines of pretending to be weaker in order to surprise them later," said Claude. She could almost hear his shrug.

They went quiet. Byleth almost left before Hilda spoke again.

"And the professor? What do you think about her?"

Claude didn't respond for a while. Then, "I expected more."

Byleth walked away after that. Her feet clacked against stone and the duo above's conversation hushed. She couldn't bring herself to care.

They were right, weren't they?

She'd let them down.