A/N: Wow guys! So many follows and favs! I am so grateful for all of your support and encouragement! Thank you very much! Fun fact, turns out 'professor' is one of those words where, if you type it enough, it starts to look reeeeeal weird. Now enough rambling on my part. Without further ado, the conclusion!

Byleth moved before her mind fully registered what was happening. With one hand, she shoved Claude out of the knife's path, while the other other shot out and wrapped around the attacker's wrist and twisted. There was a curse and a gasp of pain, the blade falling from the assailant's hands and clattering to the stones below. The figure jerked backward, stumbling out of the alcove's deepest shadows and into the alley's limited light. It was a man, scarlet wraps fastened over his nose and mouth, limiting his features to a swathe of pale skin and glittering, beetle black eyes. It was the same man she had seen conversing with the bartender back at The Asp's Den.

He pulled a second knife from his cloak and swung it at her, the weapon whistling angrily as it sliced through the air. She moved aside, his scarlet wraps winking at her from the reflective surface of the blade. They were the same crimson as the pigment of Monica's hair. The same crimson as the blood that had poured from her father's back.

Just like that, Byleth was no longer fighting in a storm drenched back alley. She was in the courtyard of Garreg Mach, fending off a red-haired assailant with intent to kill.

A sound escaped her lips, a sound that was somewhere between a scream and a snarl. Rage blinded her, burning through her veins like dragon fire. She twisted to the side, allowing the knife to slide past her before she struck, catching the attacker under the chin with her elbow and snapping his head backward. The man grunted, stumbling about in a dizzy attempt to regain his balance. Byleth wasn't going to give him the chance. Lunging forward, she palmed her enemy's forehead, her fingertips lodging in his hair as she shoved forward, using her momentum to push him into the ground. There was a woomph of airas the man's breath left him, bludgeoned from his lungs by the force of his fall. Before he could regain any bearings, Byleth's fist descended and her enemy's nose broke with a resounding crack. In the back of her mind she was aware of the counter reverberation that rattled her bones, though this didn't stop her from unleashing a second blow. Then a third. Then a fourth.

Thud!

Byleth couldn't see the man anymore, just Monica's coy smirk as she drove her blade into Jeralt's back.

Thud!

Red splattered. Her father's blood watered the stones below.

Thud!

"Teach!"

Jeralt was gone. He was gone and she was alone.

Thud!

"Teach, stop!"

How dare that witch take her father from her! She would kill Monica! Kill her!

The professor's hand went to the knife at her side, drawing it from its sheath and lifting it above the crumpled form beneath her.

"Byleth!"

A hand closed around her wrist, preventing the professor from driving the dagger into the flesh of her enemy. Her head snapped around, fists clenching as she poised to strike whoever dared to get in her way.

Emerald green eyes. Messy dark hair. Rain-drenched, tawny skin.

Byleth blinked as the courtyard melted away, the alley taking its place with disorienting clarity.

"Claude?" she whispered. The young man nodded.

"Hey," he said quietly, releasing her wrist. "Welcome back."

Slowly Byleth turned to the prone form beneath her, its chest rising and falling still, but the face a bloody mess. It wasn't Monica at all, but the snake from The Asp's Den. The young woman's eyes drifted to her knuckles, cut and bloodied from the countless blows she'd rained upon the man's flesh.

"I…" she trailed off, her head spinning. What had she been doing?

At that moment the sounds of shouting and clinking armor broke through the pattering rainfall and a second later a patrol of the Knights of Seiros rounded the corner. There was a moment's pause as the squadron took in the scene, posture wary as their eyes darted over the shadowed forms crouched in the gullet of the alley. Fortunately, Claude was already steps ahead.

"Oh, hey there! Great timing!" he called, moving slowly so as not to startle the knights. Mutters rippled through the patrol as the soldiers regarded him, though a moment later a man stepped forward, his face impossible to read behind the plains of his helmet.

"Claude? Is that you?" the man called.

"Yes!" Claude confirmed, the relief evident in his tone. The knight shook his head as the rest of the patrol relaxed.

"What in blazes are you doing out at this hour?"

The Alliance heir chuckled. "That is actually quite the interesting story, but one best saved for another time," he responded. "The professor and I have had ourselves a bit of a situation."

"Professor?" the knight inquired, his eyes scanning the darkness. Byleth was suddenly hit with the near overpowering urge to slink back into the shadows as the weight of the patrol's eyes settled across her shoulders. She could feel her limbs trembling, her mind still caught somewhere between reality and the courtyard where her father had died. Yet it was not for nothing that she was called The Ashen Demon and even as her heart quaked, she schooled her features into a mask of passable calm. Only then did she lift her hands and lower the hood from her face, her fingertips leaving smudges of blood across the fabric.

"Apologies," Byleth called, somehow managing to keep the tremor from her voice. "My student and I needed some fresh air and stumbled into some…trouble." The woman refused to allow her gaze to slide sideways. Refused to take in the bloody mess that was their assailant's face. Instead she merely gestured, keeping her eyes locked straight ahead. "This man attempted to rob us and has been incapacitated as a result. Still, we would appreciate it if the knights could take the situation from here."

The patrol leader nodded, his chest swelling importantly.

"Of course, Professor," he said. "We will ensure this dastard faces the consequences of his actions! Though, if you don't mind my saying so, you seem to have done a good number on him yourself."

Byleth pressed her lips together, uncomfortable with the attention being drawn to her handiwork. As if sensing her discomfort, Claude stepped forward, successfully shifting the focus back to himself.

"Anyone with a sense of self preservation knows better than to sneak up on Teach," he stated. "Especially when she has one of her precious students with her. Isn't that right, Teach?" Claude glanced back at her and winked. Byleth nodded stiffly, unable to conjure up the energy to do much more than that. The young man turned back to the patrol. "Right. On that note it's been a long evening and the professor here needs her rest. She can't go sculpting our impressionable young minds without proper sleep and all," Claude stated. "I trust fine knights like yourselves are more than capable of finishing things up here?"

The knight pressed a fist to his chest, relinquishing a slight but respectful bow in their direction.

"Of course, but please allow us to send you back with a proper escort. Lady Rhea would be beside herself if something were to happen to you, especially so soon after the captain's death." The man blanched as the words left his mouth and he immediately gave a second, swift bow in Byleth's direction. "Ah, apologies Professor. It was inconsiderate of me to speak of the matter so freely."

Byleth waved him off, ignoring the way her heart lurched painfully in her chest.

"An escort would be lovely," she said, going so far as to smile, the forced expression feeling out of place. She saw Claude glance at her, but pointedly refused to meet his gaze. He had seen too much of her aching soul already that night and the thought of being alone with him, of allowing him the opportunity to share in her misgivings and pain…

"Would that really be so bad?"

Sothis. A whisper.

Byleth ignored her. In her peripherals she saw Claude look away, his small frown swallowed instantly by a charismatic smile.

"As much as I love the feeling of cold water in my boots, shall we be off?" he asked, nodding in the direction of the monastery. The knight signaled three of his men to break off, the patrol falling into easy formation around them.

Byleth stayed quiet for the return trek, content to let Claude chatter animatedly with the knights, keeping their attention on himself. It wasn't long before they were stepping safely through the gate into Garreg Mach, the enclosed walls a welcome sight after the evening's excitement. The marketplace was deserted at this hour and as such it was unusually quiet. The only sounds were the ever-present patter of rain and the displeasure of a distant stray cat, yowling its ire at the clouds. The patrol bid them farewell, making sure to give the professor their condolences before vanishing up the stairs into the monastery proper.

Byleth was aware of Claude's attention shifting back to her, a question forming on his lips. Well she was not going to give him the chance to ask it. Better to start the queries herself and ensure the conversation stayed well within comfortable territory.

"Are you alright?" she asked. "That was a rather close call."

"Yes, thanks to you," Claude responded. A glimmer of mischief sparked through his eyes and he pressed a fist to his chest, executing a grossly exaggerated sweep of a bow. "You have my eternal gratitude, oh wise professor, for saving my exceedingly unobservant a—"

"That won't be necessary," Byleth cut him off, yet if she was being honest, she was grateful for the familiar banter. A witty, impish Claude was a Claude she knew what to do with. "And thank you for your assistance with the knights," she pressed on. "As you know my head is a bit…out of sorts this evening."

The young man straightened, smiling brilliantly at her.

"It was my genuine pleasure," he answered with another wink.

Silence fell as surely as the rain. It was a silence made heavier by the unasked questions filling the space between them. The same questions reflected in Claude's emerald eyes. Byleth knew he was giving her the chance to talk about what had happened, but she had no intention of traveling down that particular road tonight. Or any night, for that matter. Instead she cleared her throat, glancing up the stairs in the direction of the dormitories.

"It's late," she said, putting on her best professor voice and gesturing toward the monastery. "You'll catch a cold if you stay out here."

Claude raised a brow.

"So will you," he retorted, his eyes narrowing as his gaze snagged on her hand. It took Byleth a moment to realize he was staring at her knuckles, the skin still bruised and battered from her skirmish in the alley. The rain had diluted some of the blood, but the gashes stuck out in angry red contrast to her pale skin.

"Teach, you're bleeding."

Byleth took a step back as Claude made to move toward her, the girl sparing a brief glance at her abused knuckles. She couldn't meet his gaze, not wanting to deal with the concern she knew she'd find. There had been enough of it in his voice to guess that much. A pressure was building behind her eyes as the events of the past week weighed down upon her. Emotions she did not want to face frayed the seams of her carefully crafted defenses, and each second she stood here with Claude brought her closer to falling apart.

"It doesn't matter," she said, brushing away his worry like one might an irritating fly. "I'm fine. I'll take care of it in my room."

She had to keep her defenses up; had to keep him from seeing any further behind the mask she wore…a mask that was already cracked and splintered.

Claude snorted and shook his head.

"You know I can tell you're ly—"

"Stop knowing my lying face!"

The words were out before Byleth could stop them. Whether as a result of the lingering Wyvern Venom or simply the exhaustion of the past few days, she didn't know. But as the words began to spew like bile from her lips, Byleth found herself helpless to stop them.

"Stop staring at me like I'm one of your damned battlefield maps! I'm not a strategy book! I didn't ask for you to follow me, and I certainly didn't ask for your concern! You're probably well-intentioned but please, just leave me alone!"

The world had never heard such a deafening silence. Even the cat had stopped its yowling.

Claude stared at her, and though she tried, the professor could read nothing of the emotion on his face. She'd have more luck deciphering the feelings of a boulder. Not that it was surprising. Claude shifted between his own masks with the fluidity of a mountain stream. It was something they had in common.

The silence lengthened between them, a roiling, ugly thing that weighed more oppressively upon their shoulders than the tenacious rain. Then, at long last, Claude simply nodded, and though he smiled at her, his expression could have been carved from stone.

"Of course," he told her. "Good night, Teach."

Byleth said nothing as he walked away, her fists clenching tightly and causing her knuckles to crack and bleed all over again. For some reason, the sight of Claude's retreating back set her lacerated heart to screaming all over again. She had wanted this! She had wanted to be alone!

…Hadn't she?

"Perhaps—'

"You too," Byleth whispered, cutting Sothis off mid thought. "Please."

There was a moment's hesitation before a sigh rippled through her mind like rain across the surface of a lake.

"As you wish," the goddess murmured, retreating from Byleth's thoughts and leaving the professor alone with the weeping sky.

Byleth did not return to her room. Despite how heavy her limbs felt, despite the drink still saturating her mind, her wandering feet did not return to her bed. Instead the professor moved through the monastery grounds, gliding through the storm like a wraith in the night. She refused to think about how she'd yelled at Claude, having shoved regret into the ranks of emotions already held hostage within her. Now she just felt numb. Numb and empty. Part of her registered that her arms and fingers were already feeling a chill on account of the endless rain and persistent wind. But it was only a small part, unimportant in the face of the void slowly swallowing her mind.

She had come to the monastery because Jeralt had come here. She had stayed because this was where he had been. Now that her father was gone, what reason had she to stay? What did she owe these people truly? What was stopping her from turning around, walking through the monastery gates, and leaving this place of memory and sorrow behind her?

Yet when Byleth's feet finally did stop moving she found she was not at the front gates at all, but the cemetery. Steeling herself, she began to trudge past gravestone after gravestone, moving trancelike toward the one she sought.

The grave was nearly hidden beneath a blanket of flowers, their stems drooping mournfully, the rain dripping like tears from their sodden petals. Carefully Byleth lifted her hand, tracing the letters of her father's name with a single fingertip while her free hand went to the ring sitting heavy in her pocket. "Give it to someone special…" Jeralt had said. What such person did Byleth have now? She had been a quiet child. Withdrawn. Both traits had followed her into adulthood, helping give rise to her title. An ashen demon. Emotionless. Cold. The one person in the world who could love someone like that was gone, destroying her foundations and leaving her alone in freefall.

The girl crouched before the grave, her knees tucked to her chest, fingers resting on the cold stone. She had never felt so small. So young. So lost. Perhaps if she just stayed like this, the ground might take pity and swallow her as well.

Time lost substance as she knelt there, the young woman's eyes the only part of her that remained dry.

"Professor?"

Byleth started, her vision swimming into focus as she surfaced from the murky waters of her thoughts. Slowly she turned, her body protesting after having sustained the kneeling position for so long. She blinked, then blinked again.

There they were. All of them. In various states of disheveled dress yes, but present all the same.

Hilda, her usually pristine pink tresses piled haphazardly atop her head. Leonie, eyes puffy and red. Marianne, her hair drenched and tumbling past her shoulders.

Ignatz's glasses were so profusely covered in drops it was a wonder he could see out of them at all, and Raphael appeared to have thrown his shirt on inside out. Lorenz's attire was absent of its usual accessorizing, and a bleary eyed Lysithea seemed to have yanked clothes on over her nightgown, the material bunching oddly around her petite form. Only Claude, standing near the back of the crew, looked any sort of put together. Apparently Byleth was not the only one who hadn't gone to bed.

The professor stared at her students, bafflement and confusion dancing across her face.

"What are you all doing here? You should be sleeping. We have class tomorrow," she managed, her voice sounding like someone had recently rubbed sandpaper all along the inside of her throat. The students of The Golden Deer exchanged glances, most of which were directed at Claude. Yet it was not The Alliance heir who spoke first, but Marianne. The quiet girl stepped tentatively forward, seeming to steel herself before she gently took Byleth's hand in her own, running a practiced eye over the cuts.

"Let me take care of this, professor," Marianne murmured. Byleth felt herself stiffen and she nearly backed out of the other girl's grip.

"No, Marianne you don't have—"

"It's okay," Marianne responded with enough resolve that the professor quieted, caught off guard by the girl's determination. She relented with a defeated sigh, knowing she'd likely do more harm than good by refusing the girl's assistance. Instead Byleth returned her attention to the rest of the class, the professor mask sliding easily back into place.

"You still haven't answered my question," she said sternly. "Why are you all here?"

"Simple Professor!" Raphael said brightly when no one else spoke up. "Claude said you needed us so…here we are!"

Byleth's eyes flickered to Claude who, for once, looked slightly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken.

"Indeed," Lorenz continued, shaking his head in a familiar disapproving manner. "He likely woke up half the monastery with the ruckus he made banging on our doors like that. I thought we were being attacked."

Lysithea pinned the older boy with a narrow-eyed stare.

"You say that Lorenz, and yet here you are with the rest of us," she stated. Lorenz cleared his throat, his cheeks coloring a bit.

"Yes well, it is my duty to look out for the best interests of our class. It would impact productivity were our professor to take ill on account of this rain and the late hour," he retorted with a most dignified shrug. Byleth hardly heard him as disbelief and exasperation tumbled about inside her like leaves in a wind storm.

"You all came out here, at this hour, in the middle of a rain storm…for me?" she asked. More glances were exchanged. Then Hilda broke the silence.

"Of course, Professor. We weren't just going to leave you out here," she stated before rounding on Claude. "And don't you have anything to add? You're being weirdly quiet."

Claude put his hands up and shook his head.

"Actually, I was going to let you guys take the reigns on this one. You're all doing so well on your own," he retorted, not meeting Byleth's eyes. Guilt curdled in her stomach but before she could say anything, Leonie began to speak.

"Professor I…you know I promised Captain Jeralt I would l-look out for you." She had to pause, swallowing thickly in an attempt to reclaim her voice. "A little rain won't s-stop me from keeping that promise…" The girl wiped furiously at her eyes, her lips pressed into a quivering line. Beside her, Lorenz produced a handkerchief from the folds of his coat, one that was already damp with rainfall. Leonie took it anyway.

"There you go, Professor," Marianne murmured, releasing Byleth's hands and stepping away. "That should feel better."

Indeed, the girl had expertly cleaned and dressed the cuts, reducing the once angry sting to an inconvenient throb.

"Thank you," Byleth said to her, touched at what was an obvious show of bravery for Marianne. These students…they were making it increasingly difficult to keep her emotions in check.

There was a moment's pause in which Lysithea and Ignatz exchanged a few hurried whispers. The young man looked rather flustered, particularly as Lysithea placed a petite hand on his back, giving him a surprisingly strong shove forward. The artist reddened, shooting a last glance over his shoulder at Raphael who nodded encouragingly. Taking a deep breath, Ignatz turned his speckled lenses to Byleth.

"I-it might be presumptuous of us Professor, and of course no one wants to take the captain's place! …But we were thinking, um that is, we thought that maybe, er, you see—"

"Oh, for the goddess's sake," Lysithea interjected with an exasperated roll of the eyes. "What Ignatz is trying to say, is that—"

"We can be your family, Professor! All of us!" Raphael burst out, the grin on his face rivaling the shine of his hair.

"Ah, i-if you'll have us, of course," Ignatz concluded as Lysithea shot Raphael an irritated look. Byleth stared at them, her mouth having fallen open of its own accord.

"What?" she finally managed.

"It's true, we don't know much of anything about your life outside of the monastery," Lysithea began. "So maybe, when the year is over, you'll have someone else to go back to. But for now, as long as we're all together…" the girl trailed off, looking unusually unsure of herself.

Byleth stared at her dripping wet and disheveled class, the lot of them bearing the elements for her. A tiny ember of warmth sparked to life in her chest, defying the chill of the rain. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know how to properly convey the emotions straining at their confines. Despite being a professor, she had never found herself particularly eloquent when it came to situations like this. Tomes and swordplay were of little help here. There was no infallible strategy to fall back on; no ancient sage advice she could apply to summon an appropriate response.

Family…

She stared at the ones proposing this word to her, all of them tentative, all of them hopeful. Perhaps she truly had been brought to this place for a greater purpose, and perhaps that purpose was staring her in the face.

Byleth lowered her head, afraid that if she looked at her students any longer, she might succumb to the pressure still gathering behind her eyes. At last she relinquished a small nod, ensuring her voice was completely together before responding.

"Thank you. I…That is to say…That would be appreciated," she stammered, tripping over the unfamiliarity of the words. A moment later Byleth found herself drawn into a hug, her body stiffening at the gesture.

"If you need anything Professor, you know where to find us." It was Hilda who spoke. Hilda who initiated the embrace.

Jeralt had not often been the type to manifest his love in physical gestures, and Byleth would be lying if she said the embrace hadn't caught her a bit off guard. Still it felt oddly nice to be held and, taking a breath, Byleth found herself slowly lifting a hand and resting a feather-light touch on the girl's back.

"Of course," she murmured.

"You might have more classes in the future, Professor, but we know your original, adorable little Golden Deer will always be your favorite," Hilda stated, the smile on her face evident in the tone of her voice.

"Well alright!" came an exuberant exclamation from above them and the next thing Byleth knew, she and Hilda were being lifted off their feet as Raphael delivered a bone crushing embrace of his own. "Welcome to the family, Professor!"

"Agh! Raphael, put us down!" Hilda squawked, pounding her fist against the young man's arm.

"What?" Raphael protested.

"You can't just grab our professor like that, you oaf," Lorenz stated, lifting long fingers to his brow and shaking his head.

"Why?" Raphael asked, setting the girls down and turning toward the noble. "Whenever my little sis looks sad, a hug like that always cheers her right up!"

"Your sister isn't an academy professor," Lysithea stated, crossing her arms. Raphael shrugged, not put off in the slightest by his classmates' scolding.

"Family is family," he stated simply.

Byleth felt a tiny smile blossom across her lips as she watched her students argue. It was a delicate thing, this smile, like the first watery rays of sunlight after a storm.

"Ah, Professor! You look…happy!" Ignatz's comment quieted his classmates and Byleth nearly took a step back as all eyes turned to her. She felt her cheeks heat and gestured desperately about her for a moment, flailing for a subject change.

"Y-yes well, it's late. Quite late," she stated, clinging to her professor mask like a lifeline. "We do have classes tomorrow and you're all losing enough sleep as it is."

As much as she loved them, she needed her students to leave. Her mask was slipping, dislodged by the fervor of her emotions as they strained at their bonds. The longer she stayed here with everyone, the less control she maintained over the mutinous tears. Her eyes met Claude's and the two stared at each other. Byleth hesitated, then, at long last, loosened her emotional vice long enough for regret to bleed through. Please, she thought to herself. Please…

One heartbeat passed.

Then two.

The corner of Claude's mouth ticked upward.

"Teach is right," he exclaimed suddenly, moving to his usual place at the fore of the group. "Besides, with things going the way they have, it's best we keep ourselves as alert as possible. We'll be a liability to everyone if we're falling asleep on the next mission."

"Might I remind you that you were the buffoon pounding on everyone's doors in the first place?" Lorenz scoffed.

"And for that I accept full accountability," Claude responded. "Which is why I plan to end my night of buffoonery with an attempt at responsibility. So!" he clapped his hands together. "Kids? Off to bed with you!"

Despite the house leader's efforts, the first rays of dawn were already beginning to nip at the horizon by the time the students dispersed, leaving Byleth and Claude alone in the cemetery. Their eyes met and Claude's mouth lifted in a slightly hesitant smile.

"Well, good night," he said. "Or good morning rather, all things considered."

Byleth nodded. "Indeed," she said, hesitating only a moment before barreling on, knowing if she didn't say something now, she would miss her opportunity. "Could I trouble you for an escort?" she blurted, the inquiry severely less nonchalant than she'd been hoping. To her relief Claude's grin merely widened and he offered her his elbow.

"Nothing would honor me more," he told her, waggling his eyebrows impishly. Byleth rolled her eyes, giving his arm a lighthearted shove as she fell into step beside him.

The pair spoke little as dawn awoke around them, a palette of brilliant reds and oranges setting the horizon aflame. Morning light spilled across the sky, burning away the thunderheads and transforming the deluge into an apologetic drizzle. Claude blew a breath from his lungs, resting his hands behind his head and staring toward the sunrise.

"Maybe I'll tell Seteth your lecture has been cancelled on account of improper sleep," he said wistfully. "I'm sure he'd understand."

Byleth snorted.

"Lysithea would be horrified," she stated dryly.

"The thought did cross my mind," Claude admitted. "Fortunately, I happen to be a master strategist and already have a stash of sweets set aside for just such emergencies."

"You really do think of everything," Byleth murmured with a shake of her head. Claude glanced down at her, his grin faltering.

"About that," he said. "I don't actually. Not in the slightest."

The professor frowned. "What do you mean?"

Claude hesitated, clearly mulling carefully over his next words.

"Just…that I hope that getting everyone together wasn't crossing a line. You distinctly told me you wanted to be left alone and I went and… well I went and did the opposite of that. I'm sorry," he said to her, his hand combing awkwardly through his hair.

Byleth stared at him, an expression of incredulity on her face. She was supposed to be the one apologizing, not the other way around! How typical of him to be one step ahead, as usual. The young woman shook her head vigorously, sending droplets of rain flying from her damp hair and into the breeze.

"You weren't out of line," Byleth told him softly. "You and the others… you saved me. I might have lost myself if you hadn't come back."

Claude paused at those words, his usually sharp green eyes softening as he looked at her.

"Teach…" he began, but Byleth waved him off, her face coloring.

"Besides, I should be the one apologizing," she stated, striding stubbornly forward and forcing Claude to start walking again, lest he be left behind. "I lost my head for a moment and you were only trying to help. It was…unprofessional. I'm sorry. Truly."

Claude looked thoughtful, his lips flattening into a ponderous line.

"The funny thing is, what you said wasn't wrong," he said to her. "Sometimes I do get so caught up in predicting what someone is going to do or say next that I almost forget they're human. They're looking for someone to listen to them. To hear them. The last thing anyone wants to feel like is…what was it you said? A damned strategy book?"

To her horror, Byleth felt a flush creep slowly up her neck. Instantly she cast her eyes to the ground, fighting the near overpowering urge to yank up her cowl and hide behind the folds of dark material.

"Something like that," she mumbled.

"Right. I clearly came across like a callous idiot, so I'm sorry for that too," The Alliance heir told her. Byleth nodded, hoping it was still too dark for him to see the flush that had settled across her cheeks. "So, we're okay?" the young man persisted, and though the question sounded nonchalant, there was enough underlying hesitation for Byleth to note its weight. She smiled at him.

"We're okay," she confirmed.

Claude beamed at her.

It was in that moment that Byleth felt a funny sort of flutter in her chest, like the kiss of butterfly wings brushing against her heart. It was an odd sort of sensation, particularly for someone with no apparent heartbeat.

"You alright?" the young man asked. "You've got an…interesting expression on your face." Embarrassed, the professor schooled her features back into their usual pretense of calm.

"Yes. Yes of course," she responded, waving her hand dismissively. To Byleth's immense relief, Claude left it at that.

At last the pair reached the dormitories, pausing just short of the stone stairs leading up to the professor's door. Claude grinned at her.

"Well done, Teach. It looks like you managed to make it back in a proper, upright position after all," he said, dusting off his hands in an exaggerated gesture. "Seems my work here is done."

"Indeed," Byleth said with an exasperated sigh before pressing on. "Thank you, for everything you did for me tonight…" The girl trailed off as her emotions made a sudden, unmistakable bid for freedom. Stubbornly, she shoved them back down. "I didn't realize how much I needed to hear, well, everything that was said." Byleth cleared her throat, gesturing clumsily with her hands. "You are irreplaceable to me. All of you. So…thank you. For being there."

The statement, despite its accuracy, felt foreign on Byleth's lips. While she obviously felt emotions like everyone else, she was not particularly practiced at expressing them. Fortunately, Claude hadn't run off screaming at the embarrassing display, so that had to count for something. He looked at her now, a thoughtful expression on his face.

"You should know, I only gathered the troops," he said to her. "They came up with that family bit on their own."

Byleth tensed. There that word was again. Family. It resonated within her like a bittersweet melody, warm and yet terribly sad at the same time. She swallowed, carefully maintaining her mask of calm.

"Is that so?" she asked. "In that case, what do you think about this family? And about me being a part of it?"

It was a rather personal question, and more forward than she was used to being. Still, it had been an unusual night for emotion and honesty. Perhaps a bit more was not uncalled for. Claude was quiet as he mulled her question over, his green eyes contemplative. A handful of seconds passed before he finally spoke, and when he did, his words were laced with a particularly methodical undertone.

"Our little class comes from very different backgrounds, despite all hailing from Fodlan," he began slowly. "We have commoners and nobles, heirs and mercenaries, artists and warriors…all of us with very complex and contradictory lifestyles. That a group like that could come together and call itself a family, I don't know, it's an encouraging prospect," he murmured.

Byleth stared at him, suddenly dizzy with the desire to reach out and hold him in place. Because for the breath of a moment, she was certain Claude was going to disappear. That he was going to vanish toward whatever awaited him beyond that sunrise. His eyes had never looked so far away, and they stirred something in her that was somehow hopeful and somber at the same time. Then, quite suddenly, his gaze slid back to hers and the moment was broken.

"And in regards to you specifically? Well…" Claude smiled and winked at her. "It's as Raphael said, isn't it? Family is family, and you're no exception."

It was this statement that was the final straw for Byleth's defenses. The tears she had fought so desperately to contain burst free of their confines, flooding her eyes and spilling down her cheeks. They were the tears of a soul laid bare, and they overwhelmed her like ocean tides on a broken shell.

"Byleth…" Claude hesitated, then took a step forward.

Despite the tempest of emotions whirling within her, she knew that if Claude reached out, if he tried to hold her, there was a chance that who she was might shatter completely. It was an emotional bridge Byleth was not sure she could cross. The night had stirred new and delicate feelings within her. They were like bits of kindling set before a fire: cool to the touch, but with the potential to burn brighter than the stars. Perhaps one day she would have the courage to light that particular blaze. But not here. Not now.

"Turn around," she whispered, her voice giving Claude pause. The young man's hand froze inches from her shoulder, confusion lancing through his eyes.

"What?"

"Just…turn around. Please."

Claude contemplated her, taking in her trembling limbs and the hands clenched in two bandaged fists. Sighing he shook his head, but when he spoke, the words were gentle and full of understanding.

"Sure thing, Teach."

The use of her nickname marked his step away from whatever line had nearly been crossed, a line reminding them of where they stood now and what roles they played. Yet it was a line drawn through sand and sand was a fickle thing. It constantly danced to the call of the waves and the wind, so only the goddess knew how those lines might shift with time.

With Claude's eyes safely set the other way, Byleth at last let her shredded mask fall, exposing herself to all the brutal emotion that came with simply being herself. She felt the pain of her father's death, the stab of her grief sharper than the blade that had killed him. The enormity of that weight nearly brought her to her knees, but as she stumbled, her eyes caught on Claude's back. Amidst the blizzard of her grief, a blossom of warmth bloomed. It was small, frail in the face of all she had lost, yet it rose from that cold defiant. She was not alone. She still had a family here, and the young man who stood before her now…he was proof of that. She did not have to stand on her own.

Almost unconsciously, Byleth moved toward that support, closing the distance between them and resting her forehead between Claude's shoulder blades. It was with a feeling of liberation that The Ashen Demon finally let herself cry. Just for this moment. Just for a little while longer…

If she had been looking, she would have seen a small smile fold across The Alliance heir's face, one filled with enough warmth to put the rising sun to shame.

Byleth finally pulled away as the last drops of rain fell, dashing her hand across her cheeks and clearing her throat.

"I-I think I'll try for a little sleep now," she told him, sliding easily back into her professor voice. Claude seemed to take that as his cue to turn around.

"Makes sense," he said with a grin. "Sweet dreams, Teach. I'll be seeing you way sooner than I'd like to."

Byleth blinked.

"Wha—Oh. The lecture. Yes of course…See you then," she replied, stumbling over her recovery.

"See you then," Claude repeated quietly, his eyes twinkling. Then, with a final wave and a wink, he turned and walked away. Byleth watched him go, her forehead tingling where it had rested against his back, her chest feeling much warmer than it should have after a prolonged night in the rain.

"You see? You are not as alone as you presumed," Sothis said, satisfaction lacing the goddess's words. The professor nodded, her fingers sliding into her pocket and brushing against the ring that rested there. Someone special, her father had said…

"Perhaps not," Byleth answered quietly.

With that comforting thought in mind, she at last retreated into her room, closing the door on the morning.

..

Whooo its done! Sorry that took longer than I thought guys but editing it took longer than I thought. Holy long chapter Batman! Hope it wasn't too long for you guys but I didn't want to split it into anymore chapters. I really hope you enjoyed it and I hope to write more Fire Emblem fics in the future.

Cheers to being a part of this great fanfiction family! Keep being awesome, awesome people! Drop me a line with your thoughts!

~Phoenix