Published: Oct. 1, 2019.
In a fit of impulse, Byleth decides something important: all eight of her students need hugs.
i wasn't even halfway into the blue lions route when the sheer force of my love for these kids drove me to start this self-indulgent silliness.
byleth gives the hugs i can't.
Midweek, midstep, mid-thought--an unfamiliar, but grave concern strikes her. It descends with fiery urgency, an alarm bell clattering its cacophony. So severe in its need to be acknowledged, the burdensome load of this thought stops her dead in the corridor's center. She folds her arms, fingers her chin, and narrows her dull gaze in deep contemplation.
Yes, Byleth thinks. It might seem odd, but yes. Were it a harmful sentiment, it would not have occurred to her, not in regards to them. She wants to convey how she feels.
So, quick on the turn of her heel, she sets off to render it unto reality.
Fortune favors the bold. Immediate acceptance bears her this ideal: down from the second floor, out into the open air, and Mercedes' smile is gentle in the noon sunlight. Not even the intensity marking her teacher's approach diminishes Mercedes' cheer.
"Professor, how nice to see you! Would you--oh!"
Hugs shouldn't be a complicated maneuver. Yet, chin meets forehead as elbow meets chest, and Byleth less embraces Mercedes as she topples her over. (Too much speed, Byleth will determine later. She came at Mercedes too fast for either of them to adjust to the other's movements without prior practice.)
When she herself is stable, Byleth helps to steady Mercedes and asks, "Are you all right?"
"Huh?" Mercedes blinks, dazed. "Yes, I am."
"Good." Byleth draws back, a slight frown marring her stoicism. No injuries from a first attempt at a hug feels a low bar to clear, but physical affection has never been her forte. Jeralt reveled in it while, as a child, she'd dodged all but the swiftest of his head pats. Her experience hovers at near none, and well, it takes time to learn to do anything well. "Don't move."
This time, Byleth angles herself with careful calculation. From the front, like she knows is proper, and her arms held out wide 'til she crooks them to enfold Mercedes in what might be the first true embrace Byleth can recall giving. The slightest shock passes through Mercedes' body.
"You're doing very good work, Mercedes. I enjoy teaching you."
Mercedes' returns the embrace with a vigor that jars; she holds Byleth tight enough to squeeze all the air from her lungs. "Oh my, you too, Professor! Well, not teaching, but being taught! I don't know what spurred this, but I quite like it!" She pulls back to smile broad and bright at Byleth directly. "You must join me for a midday tea like I'd meant to ask you before you surprised me like that!"
"Oh? Are you already occupied?"
"After you, I have seven more students."
Mercedes claps her hands together. "You'll do this to everyone, hug them? That's wonderful! It's a very sweet thought, Professor. I feel special to have been the first."
Byleth won't spoil Mercedes' delight with reality, that mere coincidence guided her to her eldest student so soon after setting off. No, Byleth, would never think to do something so heinous. It'd be the exact opposite point of this exercise. (And is Mercedes wrong? She is special to Byleth. Each and every one of her students is.)
But, that begs an important question: can Byleth rely on coincidence to successfully hug all her students? Not all of them would be so keen to be barreled into by their teacher in a parody of a physical affection then send her off with a wave and smile. She cannot go stumbling around. She needs a plan.
Purpose reignites in Byleth's stride as she parts from Mercedes.
To contend with wily prey, basic tactics deem it necessary for the predator to be as or more cunning. She must carefully survey the environment and contemplate all potential outcomes of a stratagem. So, it is with confidence she settles on an ambush as the most rational course. She means to eliminate her most difficult target before he might become aware of her intent and prepare against her. Felix is the sort one must hunt while he is none the wiser.
Yet, in what is the most perfect piece of irony Byleth has witnessed in all her years, he quite literally passes her his downfall.
One, two, three steps onto the training grounds, and a wooden practice blade whirls toward her. Sometimes, Byleth wonders if Felix's crest imbues him with a mystical sense for amenable opponents, gooseflesh prickling along his arms when she or Caspar pass by in range. Or, this could just be Felix being Felix, flinging weapons at anyone and everyone until someone takes a swing back at him. (Ingrid's voice must be hoarse from the excuses and her back stiff from the apologetic bows.) Or, as a third option, maybe he's only like this towards her.
"Professor, if you're free to wander around, you're free to duel me." Felix leans back easy on the balls of his feet.
No change in her expression, Byleth catches the implement and gives a shrug. Affirmation enough for Felix; his responding smirk sears with confidence and nary a beat later, he lunges into a jabbing thrust. As Byleth twists aside, her own practice sword rising to return the favor, a warmth knots in her stomach, an unexpected burst of--fondness? Yes, fondness. Harsh and distant is her Felix, but he is hers all the same.
Ulterior motives restrain her from fulfilling her profession. Rather than demonstrate a technique for him to observe or challenge a lacking aspect of his swordsmanship, Byleth focuses her swordplay on disarming Felix. Already in these scant months, she witnesses the growth in his skill, practical expertise laden atop his innate talent and the fancy footwork resultant from his noble upbringing. Still, she is his elder with a decade plus of battlefield experience, metaphorical pockets overstuffed with what she might teach him yet, so her victory is certain.
She steps in past his guard, and a slippery twist of her grip sends her wooden blade scything up. His practice sword goes flying and before he might dance an escape to race after it, he finds himself trapped by her arms. The position is not ideal, Felix partially turned and the hilt of Byleth's blade dug into his back, but it is a hug.
He is terribly still for a long moment, mouth working silently as his brain struggles to produce what will doubtlessly be a protest. When he regains control of his faculties, he shoves himself stumbling back from her, stares at her with a reddening face, then stalks out through the tall double doors into the monastery's courtyard.
Mercedes might say the goddess smiles on Byleth's efforts. For she barely moves when she overhears one target bump into the next.
"Felix? Are you--"
"Shove it, you animal."
"No, truly, are you all right? You appear feverish. A trip to the infirmary might best be considered, Felix."
"I'm not ill; it's the...the…" Something of a loud exasperated sigh. "That professor, she can't control herself. She's no better than you, so no wonder you get along so well--two pigs wallowing in the mud."
"You shouldn't speak of her like that. It's--Felix, are you absolutely certain you're all right? Felix?"
The whole of whatever Felix retorts gets lost in the distance, his boots stomping as he absconds to anywhere but here, but she comprehends the sentiment: "Go away. I won't talk about it. Shut up. Don't follow me."
Curiosity prods Dimitri in search of her, and once spotted, it ushers him to sidle up beside her. "Professor, excuse me, but I noticed Felix leaving in a rather perturbed state. He claims you"--he gestures vaguely, looks for the right words--"upset him with a lack of control."
A tad biased, but not a wholly erroneous take on what occurred. "I suppose."
"You don't deny it?"
"There isn't anything to deny." She felt an impulse, and she did not deny it. Nor does she believe Felix loathed the hug as much as his foul temper would suggest. If she suspected contact of that sort could hurt him, never would she dare inflict it on him. (Felix is cranky. That's all.)
Felix would fight the comparison with every contentious fiber he possesses, but he and Dimitri are so very akin in their demeanors. Dimitri's naivete gives him a softer impression than sharp-tongued Felix, yet an intense focus characterizes both at their most basic. Such terribly grave young men; she'd like to see them smile.
The smallest of smiles pricks at Byleth's lips. "It's your turn."
A question forms in his open mouth, but goes unfinished.
Ah, is this how the rest will go? Mercedes greets her hug with open glee and all others go tense with the surprise, only able to gawk at her. Dimitri manages a better recovery than Felix, and for a moment so brief that a blink later it is over, his returning embrace is a desperate, tight cling.
"That's all it was," she says.
Like he doesn't realize he is smiling, Dimitri gives an awkward, "I can't say I'm opposed, but...some warning next time, Professor. Please."
"That might have not been the best idea, Professor."
Ingrid lingers outside Byleth's office. Paperwork demanded an unfortunate swap of priorities, inserting its deadlines on top of her impulsive quest. So, it is from her desk Byleth glances up from.
"Come in, Ingrid." Byleth gestures to one of the empty seats positioned in front of her desk. "Give me a moment to finish this. We can talk then."
Ingrid complies, sits with her legs drawn close together and hands fisted on her thighs. Heat radiates from the intense stare she settles on Byleth. Something scalds her tongue with how fiercely it needs to be spoken, so Byleth opts to be brief and signs off a few pages before pushing the stack aside. Eye contact met and returned, and yet now Ingrid's harsh one darts askance as she shifts in her seat, seemingly reluctant to voice her tirade without being prompted.
"What is bothering you?"
"I don't know if it's my place to say," Ingrid says. She shifts again, uncomfortable in what Byleth discerns is a reprimand for her superior's behavior. Her initial confidence deserts her. "Felix won't really talk to me about it, but it seems like you did something to make him...I don't know...not uncomfortable, but...flustered? Just whatever it was...I wanted to…"
A thoughtful girl, Ingrid. A true teamplayer, Ingrid. With an exasperated sigh, she tends to her troublesome childhood friends, excuses Sylvain from his myriad trysts, eases the tensions aroused by Felix's snappish sarcasm. She is the civilized bulwark containing a flood of too-real consequences and pain. Byleth wishes the world would treat her gentler.
Byleth makes an acknowledging noise.
"You know what I refer to, then?"
An anticipatory moment upon which Byleth does not seize, does not elaborate. (Oh, so easy to tease and set her off kilter. Ingrid is so earnest.)
Ingrid frowns, going tense when Byleth rises and circles around to stand over her. Her eyebrows draw low, confusion warring with stoicism, the need to preserve her faltering strong front. Byleth leans in and gathers Ingrid in close, presses her student's head to her chest and pat, pat, pats her back.
No response from Ingrid, and Byleth retreats. "That's all. I wanted to convey my appreciation for your hard work. For Felix's too. I'm very impressed."
Ingrid gives a perfunctory nod, standing in an uncertain, slow motion. She makes to turn, then whirls back to fling her arms around Byleth in the briefest of embraces.
"I take back what I said," she mumbles before she bolts from Byleth's office.
Dusk brings Annette to her. Legs tucked under her, she sits beside the door to Byleth's private quarters. She flips through a thick tome open on her lap, eyes rapid in their movement as she skims. Byleth stops next to her and waits a moment, then two, then three, before she crouches down to Annette's level.
"Were you waiting for me?"
A yelp bursts from Annette, her head swiveling back and forth in a frantic search for a threat. She sees it is only Byleth and heaves in a deep gasp of air. She snaps her book shut and scrambles up, brushing off her uniform with a hand then tucking it behind her back. "Don't just sneak up on me like that, Professor!"
"I walked right up to you."
"Still, you should have said something…"
"I did." Annette grumbles to herself, and Byleth continues, "What are you doing outside here?"
"I might...have been doing what you thought I was." Her admission comes in an increasingly softer and faster voice. "I wanted to see you."
"For? I was available in my office all evening." Official duties continued to distract her past Ingrid's departure, lesson plans and lending a semi-sympathetic ear to Manuela's dating woes proving unfortunate time sinks. "Is everything all right?"
"Oh, yes, yes! Nothing's wrong!" Annette flails her hands, Byleth's gaze tracked onto that wickedly thick book as it whizzes around. "It's...just…"
And, oh, with how Annette flushes and looks askance, Byleth can piece together the meaning of this interaction. A handful of hours spent neglecting this impulse, and of course, that is more than sufficient for rumor to begin preceding Byleth. "Did you speak to Mercedes?"
Annette bobs her head. "Mercie told me about the hug you gave her, and I didn't want to get left out, so…"
"You can ask for one."
"Please give me a hug, Professor!" Her hands fisted and held out, Annette practically assumes a fighting stance in her enthusiasm. It's with a light smile Byleth wraps her arms tight around her student. (How comfortable she feels already with these motions.)
Into Annette's hair, her fingers idly carding through, Byleth says in a low voice, "I'm very proud of you. Promise me you'll get a full night's rest for once."
The response Byleth gets is as evasive as she expects, but it does not diminish her smile.
Morning dawns with a novel twist in her quest: surely by now the remainder of her students have been spoiled to it by those she's already claimed. It won't be Annette alone given the truth; it'll have wormed out of Ingrid and Dimitri, too, regardless of how tightlipped Felix is in his embarrassment. The untouched last three will be on their toes unless they prove to be more akin to Mercedes than Felix.
Dedue is a void of trepidation, an unperturbed lake's surface, and so truly difficult to gauge where on the scale of Mercedes-to-Felix he falls. He spares her the briefest of glances when she enters into the greenhouse. He moves steadily along the back row of plants with a watering can held in his fist.
"Do you often come here so early?" It'd been on a whim Byleth had peeked into the greenhouse prior to breakfast. (A reward, too, because a gut instinct whispered to her that, oh yes, doesn't her most imposing of students have a gentle disposition towards plantlife?)
Noncommittal: "The keeper is old. He appreciates being able to wake later."
"You volunteer then."
Silence sweeps over the greenhouse interior, soft and pliable. He isn't directly negating her presence, merely prefers few words over many and--teacher or not, she is still something of an unknown to him, so he maintains his distance rather than offend. Too self-conscious, she thinks, ever aware of his ancestry and likely reactions to it. Of all eight placed under her care, he needs the most to be told he deserves and should have better. The crimes of others are not his to bear.
It is from the back she embraces him, her cheek resting against the girth of his torso. He pauses in his activity, tension prickling under his skin.
"What are you doing?"
"What I felt should be done," she tells him. "You're a kind person."
He doesn't respond for a moment, then, "...carry on."
It broaches on the duration of the hug she shared last night with Annette. He does not return it, instead leaning to and fro to continue his watering, but when she leaves, a glance back reveals the slightest upturn of his mouth.
Late in the game, this one presents a truly tricksome challenge. (Truly, he'd be a pain at any stage.) For she must not mislead him, though he will endeavor to misconstrue her intent regardless, but nor will she leave him out. All her students must be accounted for, all her students must get what they deserve.
He, of course, anticipates her. As Annette sought her, Sylvain, too, waits to confront her, his chosen battleground right outside their classroom rather than her private quarters. Arms behind his head, Sylvain is all lean confidence as he gives her what must count as a smoldering grin to other women. "Professor, I've heard about what you've been doing. You don't plan to leave me out do you? Or are you saving the best for last?" A wink punctuates it all.
Odd how with ones such as Felix she strove to break past their barriers, yet with Sylvain, what is freely offered, she feels inclined to deny. And while that is a fully honest sentiment (so long as he affects this philanderous pretense), she can play him to diminish the baggage he insists on lugging into the interaction.
She makes to walk around him. "Or skipping you."
He sidesteps to intercept. "Wait, wait, wait." Too quick and earnest on his reaction to her rejection; it renders his backpedal into his typical drivel even more overtly insincere. "You can't expect me to let an opportunity like this go easily, can you? Any man would be lucky to be able to receive an embrace from you. My charm might be overwhelming, but don't deprive me of such a gift."
She feigns a move to the right, then darts to the left to slip past him.
"Professor, hang on!"
She angles her head back to meet his gaze, arms folded across her chest and an eyebrow arched.
He drags his fingers through his hair, scuffs the ground with a boot tip. "I was only joking around, but I'll quit it. Don't leave me out."
(Ah, so mired in pretense. She likes him best when he doesn't affect such a noxious attitude. She knows well there is more to him than mere inheritance--genetic and wealth both--but she will not reward this particular coping mechanism.)
She gives him a long stare than motions him with a jerk of her chin. It is a warm embrace.
After, as they head into class together, she gives him a gentle bop on the head.
Last, not least. An applicable cliche for her final student.
Ashe neither approaches nor runs from her. He is calm all throughout class; per normal, his arm is up high to answer questions and solicit answers to his own questions from her. He doesn't shrink from her, doesn't covet her nearness in trepidation as she leans over him to explain a passage of assigned reading.
The only variation to routine comes when she cooly requests for him to remain after class, gives him a quick reassurance that no, no, he isn't in trouble. This spurs curious and knowing looks--Felix rolls his eyes, long stride carrying him to safety; Ingrid flushes and pulls Dimitri and Sylvain both into a spur-of-the-moment discussion on the weather, opens herself up to a prodding tease from Sylvain as he flashes a glance back; Dedue watches Ashe with what, for him, might be an amused expression and shadows Dimitri out; Mercedes titters behind her palm, ushers Annette onward with her.
And, then, it is just Byleth and Ashe left in the wide emptiness of the classroom.
He shuffles his feet, discerns her intent without knowing how to approach it. So, she makes it easy on him and spreads out her arms, a silent invitation.
A long pause.
"Is...is it okay?"
She nods, no teasing for a boy so gravely anxious over crossing boundaries. (He still stutters over Dimitri's name, glances at the prince from the peripheral like he anticipates a reprimand.) One step becomes two, and she holds him tight, relishes in her success as she grieves her inane quest's end. It lasts too long, but he kindly tolerates it.
"You know," Ashe says, slowly, "you spooked some of them."
"Was this a bad idea?"
"No, no. I don't think that. Just unexpected...and next time? Maybe try asking first."
Byleth blinks. (Next time? Yes, next time. Dimitri had said that, too, hadn't he?) A smile curves up on her lips. "I'll make sure I do. Thank you, Ashe."
His returning smile is a tentative thing, and she can only reflect it back even brighter.