Author's Note: Something based on my first playthrough of Three Houses (Golden Deer route), inspired by some of the things Bernadetta did for me on it. Finished August 31 2019.
Bernadetta ran, bow in hand and ready to nock another arrow. She had become separated from most of her battalion in the chaos, and she was ahead of the lines now. She should be further back where her bow could be of more use, but, cut off from the rest of the Alliance army by the remnants of the Imperial Guard, she instead followed behind Byleth across the marble floor of the throne room to very the steps of the throne itself.
She climbed the steps after them, glancing over her shoulder at the scene behind her and checking for any threats. Looking forward again, the two of them crested the staircase and stood at its top, on the large dais.
Ahead of them stood, clad in shining crimson armor and horned crown, the emperor.
Edelgard raised her axe, and Byleth again raised the Sword of the Creator. Swiftly, Bernadetta drew an arrow from her quiver and fit it to her bowstring. "I'll cover you, Professor."
She had known this moment would come someday, as long as she managed to survive long enough to reach it.
She had no special loyalty to Adrestia, and she had not hesitated much in changing classes at Garreg Mach nor in returning to the monastery to keep her promise to Byleth and Duke Riegan. Her parents had never instilled in her much sense of pride in emperor and country while they were busy trying to break her into a good submissive noblewoman. If they had, she would have rebelled against those values as well.
Whatever faith she had still put in her homeland had been shaken by this war. All the blood shed in the name of nothing more than conquest. The trap at Gronder when the Imperial army had set the hill ablaze, sacrificing their own in a vain attempt to stop the advance of Duke Riegan's army, that had chilled her to the bone wondering if, in some other life, she might have been there commanding those ballistae. Edelgard and Hubert using the people of Enbarr as human shields against the Alliance's attack. The whispers of tortures and human experimentation even beyond what her mind, always quick to envision the worst and all too familiar with torment, could imagine, inflicted in the empire's name; for what other reason must they have looted the Holy Tomb, and how else must they have conjured forth the beasts, bearing crest stones on their heads, that now fought alongside the empire's soldiers?
And yet, somewhere, there was some part of her that even now was Adrestian in her heart. The part of her that still remembered her uncle regaling her with the tales of Emperor Wilhelm I until she fell asleep by the fire and the celebrations in Enbarr when the armies of Dagda and Brigid were turned back to the sea. The part of her to whom Adrestia was still her country and Edelgard, in some way, was still her emperor. Though envisioning her as her commanding officer in place of Byleth and Duke Riegan, and as the arbiter of her fate and her soul in place of the Goddess – if truly she meant to supplant Her – was a terrifying thought.
"...You've done well Professor", Edelgard said. "To think you would reach me even here... I'm impressed. I never anticipated even you could make it so far". Glancing to her right, her eyes met Bernadetta's, and, on the emperor's face, she saw a look of scorn. She flinched.
"But no matter. I suppose you think you can defeat me. Is that right? But I will not yield to you. Even if my body fails me, I will continue forward. I will destroy that false goddess 'Sothis'-", she sneered those words, "-and those who serve her, and I will break her vile grasp and free this world from her!".
"Things could have been different", Byleth said. "Perhaps they still could be. Lay down your weapon."
"I cannot. Our paths are set, and this is where they must cross. We'll see which path continues and which does not". Edelgard raised her axe. "Ready yourself, Professor. And steel yourself for death, no matter which of us will meet it."
Byleth tightened their grip on the sword's hilt. Edelgard strode forward, axe raised, and swung it down, Byleth parrying with their sword and shoving her back, her steel boots grinding on the marble dais as she was pushed away. She stumbled backwards as Byleth shoved again, with more force this time, and raised their sword. They swung and cracked it, its chain-like segments extending and whipping at Edelgard, the sword's awful power cutting cracks in the steel she wore like it was brittle glass or porcelain.
Edelgard stepped forward, breaking into a run. She again angled her axe to strike, this time aiming for Byleth's left. Bernadetta froze up, not sure if her target was the professor or her. Instinctively she drew her bowstring and let her arrow fly, calling out 'Right! Right!' as she did, and Edelgard dodged, her armor meeting a sword swing and buckling again under its blade as Byleth moved to meet her.
Byleth stepped nimbly out of the way, dodging the emperor's retaliation, and swung, the Sword of the Creator again meeting her axe this time as Edelgard parried. Bernadetta took and nocked another arrow, lining up her shot. She felt a twinge of sadness as she trained her bow on Edelgard's head and pulled the string taught, but pushed it aside as best she could. After all, this was her job; as a sniper, one of her most valuable contributions was to eliminate high-value targets. It had been the same at the Great Bridge of Myrddin with Ferdinand. And it had been the same earlier that day with, as they broke their way in to throne room, with Petra, the commander of the Imperial Guard unit guarding the antechamber.
She ignored the twinge of guilt she felt at her cold-blooded characterization of them as simply 'high-value targets'.
As she waited for her shot, Byleth's sword and Edelgard's axe clashed one more time. Edelgard struggled against it, but Byleth overpowered her and managed to knock the axe from her hands. She drew a sword, but in the split second she did, Byleth had already slashed her right arm once, leaving more cracks in her armor, and then twice, this time meeting her flesh. She cried out, and the professor knocked the sword from her hands as well, and then, exploiting the cracks they'd left in her cuirass, swung and slashed her side.
Again, Edelgard cried out in pain, stumbling and grasping at her side. She fell to her knees, and it seemed like time stood still with the three of them. Bernadetta loosened the string, letting it go slack.
Edelgard seemed so small and broken, even in her heavy crimson armor and the imperial crown of Adrestia. Once, she had towered over her, though she was only a few centimeters taller even then and so much of that was simply how she had cowered in almost anyone's presence, let alone the imperial princess herself. She must not have grown even a centimeter in five years, and now Bernadetta must have grown taller than her. She stood above her, both physically and, having forsaken her country, as one of the victors of this war.
Looking at her now, kneeling before her throne, armor cracked and shattered, it was hard to see only the Flame Emperor, the woman who turned her sword towards the heavens and set the whole world aflame, and not also Edelgard, the girl only a few months older than her who had once confided her greatest fear to her. The friend, though perhaps that word was a bit strong for the relationship they shared, who had gently chided her for the amusement she felt upon hearing that someone she looked up to so much, who seemed so fearless and composed, couldn't swim and feared the ocean.
"...Professor", Edelgard started. Her voice was weak now. "It looks as though... It is my path that will end here... Go on. Claim your victory."
She struggled to keep her head up to look at them. "Strike me down. Do not make this last any longer than it must... Even now, across this land, people are killing each other. As long as I live, so too will the empire fight on, and this conflict... Will go on forever. Your path lies across my grave. So walk it."
Edelgard bowed her head. "If I must fall... Let it be by your hand."
For only a fleeting moment before Edelgard closed hers, Bernadetta thought their eyes met once again, the emperor's expression now weary and defeated, and it made her blood run cold. She couldn't help but wonder what was going through her mind, seeing her here now. If she even remembered her. Oh, of course she wouldn't remember little old Bernie. Or perhaps that was just what she hoped, not wanting to imagine Edelgard too still having fond memories of those few moments they shared at the monastery, before she had left the Black Eagles behind and, in some great cosmic irony, everything had gone to hell.
It was odd, really, how much this affected her, with how used to killing she had become and having seen first hand the emperor's crimes and the deep scars left by her war. It felt different from combat. Emperor or not, criminal or not, she was defeated. She wasn't fighting back and it was no longer about who would survive the next minute. Maybe that was the difference.
She wondered too what Edelgard truly thought as she faced her execution at the hands of the professor she always seemed to have an admiration and respect for, even as she watched them from a distance.
She looked at Byleth, unable to see their expression, but saw their grip on their sword had loosened. They had been so remorseful these past months, forced to kill their former students, though they had not been from their class. So far from the legend she had heard whispered at the academy of an 'Ashen Demon' who cut down foes without emotion or mercy. She wondered what, if anything, Edelgard had meant to them.
Byleth gripped the sword's hilt firmly again and raised it above their head. Somehow, Bernadetta felt almost like she had an obligation to watch. Both not to ignore the truth of it all and to serve as witness to the end of the last Adrestian Emperor.
In the end, she couldn't bear it. She first averted her gaze, then closed her eyes tight as the sword fell.
After the war was over and she could finally go home, wherever home was for her now, she didn't want to leave her room again for a very long time.