Chapter 23: There’s Always a Catch

With no classes to worry about on Friday morning, Monica stayed in the dining hall for a few extra hours after breakfast. She forgot to ask Linhardt about his favorite flavor of ice cream, so she didn’t know what to request when it came time to prepare his birthday desserts. The head chef allowed her to help bake a cake to make up for it, for they both know that cakes paired well with ice cream regardless of flavor.

“Ooh! That cake looks delicious, Monica!” Annette squealed as she walked by the counter to see Monica applying the last bit of vanilla frosting. “Can I have a piece?”

“Not yet,” said Monica. “We’re saving it until Linhardt takes the first slice. Have you seen him?”

Annette murmured to herself, blinked a few times, and then said, “Oh, I get it! Today’s his birthday! I think I saw him in the garden a few minutes ago.”

“Thanks, Annette! I’ll be right back.”

Monica went out to inspect the hedge maze and the two gazebos but didn’t find Linhardt until another student pointed her toward the dorms. As much as she wanted to steer him toward the dining hall to get his cake right away, she wanted to try to convince him to visit Bernadetta’s room first. “Happy birthday, Linhardt!” she chirped, walking with her hands behind her back and trying to match Linhardt’s slow-paced stroll.

“Monica! I’m surprised that you knew,” said Linhardt. “I’m also wondering why you’re walking like that when it doesn’t look like you’re carrying anything.”

“Oh! Uh, um…well, I…” Monica dropped her hands to the sides, proving Linhardt right. “I did make something for you, but since you’re headed in this direction anyway, let’s go see what Bernadetta’s up to.

“All right…this had better be worth it.”

Monica darted ahead and knocked on Bernadetta’s door. “Hello? Bernadetta? Are you in there?” she asked.

After a bit of shuffling around, Bernadetta answered, twisting the doorknob slightly. “Monica?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Linhardt’s on his way, too.”

“Perfect! Just give me a minute, okay?”

The door clicked shut for another moment while Monica waited for Linhardt to catch up to her. Just as he arrived, Bernadetta opened the door and handed him a teddy bear with a green letter “L” stitched into its chest. “Happy birthday!” she said, sounding more fearful than excited when Linhardt examined the bear, with her hoping that he wouldn’t find anything to criticize about her newest creation. When she saw him cuddling it, she smiled a little.

“His fur feels a little prickly,” said Linhardt, “but I think he’ll still make a good bedside companion. Thank you for the gift, Bernadetta.”

“A little p—” Bernadetta had to stop putting herself down when she realized that Linhardt liked his new bear. “Oh! Uh…I mean, you’re welcome.”

“This is pretty good, Bernie,” said Monica. “I’m impressed! Maybe we should leave you alone to ‘study’ more often.”

Linhardt tucked the teddy bear under his right armpit and looked at Monica. “Now, you said you had also prepared something for me, did you not?”

“Yeah! Well, I wanted to get you some ice cream,” she said, “but I don’t know how to make that, and I don’t know what flavor of ice cream you like, so I helped make you a cake instead.”

“All is forgiven…for now,” he replied, grinning at the prospect of free birthday cake. “Will you come join us, Bernadetta?”

“Maybe just this once,” said Bernadetta, not telling either of them just how long she planned on staying out of her room.

When Monica and the others returned to the dining hall, Byleth, Leonie, and Jeralt had joined Annette in the cake line. She had expected her teacher to show up because it was part of her duty to remember her students’ birthdays, but she wondered what Leonie and Jeralt were doing with her.

“Hey there, birthday boy!” said Annette. “Got any words for us before you take the first slice of cake?”

“Today has to be a big deal if you can even get Bernadetta out of her room,” said Leonie.

Almost everyone laughed, with Bernadetta, understanding that Leonie wasn’t trying to be mean to her, joining in later.

“In the interest of keeping things short and sweet – no pun intended,” Linhardt said after everyone quieted down, “I’d just like to say ‘thank you’ to everyone for coming out here today. Honesty, I wasn’t expecting so many of you to show up.”

“That just means you’ve got lots of friends here,” said Annette, “and that can never be a bad thing.”

Linhardt took the knife sitting by the cake stand and cut the cake into twelve slices – more than enough for the crowd in attendance.

“Would you like some cake, Father?” asked Byleth as she took a pair of small dishes and passed one toward him.

After thinking about it for a second, Jeralt took one of the nearby forks and accepted his slice of cake. “Sure. No point in wasting a good party.”

They all sat down at the table by the door leading to the fishing pond, with Jeralt taking the seat closest to the door so he could see how full the pond was before going out.

“How does it look out there, Captain?” asked Leonie.

“There’s just a few other kids out there,” said Jeralt. “Looks like they’re almost done, so we can go out there once we’re finished eating.”

Annette was the first to finish her cake. She quickly moved to wipe some frosting from the side of her mouth when Linhardt pointed it out. “Hey, Monica… Do you mind if I take an extra slice of this for Mercie?” she asked. “She loves baking cakes and cookies, and I bet she’ll like this, too.”

“Go for it!” said Monica. She looked around the dining hall to see if Mercedes had entered but went back to eating her cake when she didn’t recognize anyone else in the room.

“Captain Jeralt, Leonie, and I are going to go fishing for a little while after this,” said Byleth. “Would any of you like to join us?”

“Sorry, Professor,” said Annette. “I promised Dimitri I’d help him take inventory before we headed out on our mission. Maybe next time?”

“I think I’ll pass, too,” said Bernadetta. “I don’t know the first thing about fishing!”

“Fishing can be quite enjoyable once you’ve settled into a groove,” said Linhardt. “Even if you don’t catch anything, the sound of flowing water can be very calming.”

“What about you, Monica?” asked Leonie. “Do you want to give it a try?”

Monica nodded, uncomfortable with saying anything with a mouthful of cake.

Everyone stacked their plates and napkins in a small column at the end of the table for the cleaning staff to handle. Leonie wanted to help with the cleaning, but she wondered if it would be better to let them handle it to make sure it got done correctly.

After Annette and Bernadetta left, the rest of the group walked outside to the pond. The other students had completed their fishing runs, and the only one standing by the pond was a man wearing heavy steel plate armor with his left pauldron much larger than the one on his right shoulder. He was so surprised to see Jeralt with so many students that he almost fell backward into the water.

“Come on, Alois,” said Jeralt. “You know this water’s no good for bathing.”

Alois stood up, tried to steady himself, and then stepped a few feet away from the pond’s edge to avoid taking another spill. “Of course not, Captain,” he said. “I was just inspecting the water to see how many fish there were before I took my turn, that’s all.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘Captain’ anymore. Catherine’s in charge now.”

“I wouldn’t think of doing such a thing! Not after all the years we’ve served together.” Alois turned and waved to Byleth and the students accompanying her. “Ah! Good morning, Professor. I see you’ve assembled quite the party here.”

“You…could say that,” said Byleth. “I’m sure you’ve already met Leonie, but have you met Linhardt or Monica yet?”

“I don’t believe I have,” said Alois. He reached out his hand for them to shake, trying not to apply too much pressure. “I’m Alois, Knight of Seiros. I have no doubt in my mind that you two will be in good hands with the daughter of the great ‘Blade Breaker’ watching over you.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Monica. “Is Jeralt really that strong?”

“Only one of the best! Why, I once watched him fell six thieves with a single swing of his poleaxe! I would say those dastards barely knew what hit ’em, but the ones that survived barely had enough time to pick up their swords and turn tail.”

“That sounds amazing! Do you think we’ll get to see something like that for ourselves?”

“Not likely,” said Jeralt. “When you’ve been fighting as long as I have, the smart ones know to run the other way when they see me coming.”

There were more than enough fishing rods for everyone to borrow. Byleth challenged the others to see who could catch the biggest fish using the same bait, following the same rules as Seteth’s fishing competition during the previous moon. To ensure that there was enough time for others to use the pond, each person would be given two attempts of ten minutes each, with the larger of the two catches counting.

Alois cast his rod into the pond first while the others baited their hooks with fresh earthworms. His first catch, a simple white trout, came to him with little trouble. He struggled a bit more on his second attempt, only to become disappointed when he pulled up a tiny Airmid goby. “For all that work, I thought I was this close to catching the big one,” he said.

“Don’t worry, Alois…you’ll get ’em next time,” said Byleth. “It’s my turn now.” She cast her line and smiled when the bobber made a satisfying “plop” sound as it hit the water.

“Have you done this often, Professor?” asked Monica. “It looks like it comes so naturally to you.”

Byleth pulled a white trout out of the water and showed it off to everyone before tossing it back in. “My father and I used to fish a lot when I was younger. I remember catching my first fish when I was 12. I didn’t really get good at it until after I turned 15. My least favorite part was gutting and cooking everything we caught.”

“You get used to it after a while,” said Leonie. “My dad taught me how to fish when I was little, too. I wanted to learn how to use a bow so I could help him hunt, but he told me I was too young, and he promised to show me when I got older. He taught me some of the basics, but I had to wait until I enrolled at the Officers Academy to refine my technique. After I met Captain Jeralt, I also took some lance training so that I wouldn’t be defenseless if I ran out of arrows.”

“Hmm…this one isn’t as big as the herring I caught for Flayn,” Byleth said to herself, eyeing the Albinean herring dangling from her hook. “but it’ll do. Too bad we can’t keep it.”

Jeralt surveyed the water for about a minute and decided that he would have better luck catching a good fish by standing off to the side of the dock.

“Hey, Leonie…how did you and Captain Jeralt first meet, anyway?” asked Monica. “Was he here when you first enrolled at the academy?”

“Actually, I first saw him a few years before that. He helped us settle a dispute with some poachers who had been encroaching on my village and stealing our main source of food and clothing. When I saw him fight, that was when I decided I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

“Oh! That means you must also have met my teacher well before anyone else! You’re pretty lucky.”

“Unfortunately,” said Byleth as she tried to sit on one of the dock’s wooden posts, “I couldn’t make the trip with my father that day.”

“What happened?” Monica and Leonie both asked.

Byleth spun around on the post she was sitting on, briefly looking at her father as he complained about fishing yet another “damned” white trout out of the pond. “I was bedridden for days with a fever,” she said. “It was the first time I remember being that ill. It was terrible.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard a story like this from you, Professor,” said Linhardt.

“It’s not very exciting, I know. My father kept that part a secret from everyone outside my unit. The mystique of the ‘Ashen Demon’ would lose a lot of its bite if word got out that I missed a big battle because I ‘had the flu.'”

Jeralt was more satisfied with the second fish he caught – an Airmid pike that was a few inches longer than the trout he tossed back into the water. He wondered whether the pond was naturally teeming with trout or if he, Byleth, and Alois unknowingly caught the same fish. “There was no way I was going to let you out there in your condition,” he said. “If your mother were still with us, she’d never forgive me if you went out there and wound up dying because you weren’t at 100 percent. I’d never be able to forgive myself, either.”

Leonie stepped up to the pier and cast her rod into the pond next. A moment after she felt a bite, her fishing rod lurched forward, with her catch determined to finish its meal even if it meant dragging her into the water. “Oh no, you don’t, you fishy freak!” she shouted.

Alois ran behind Leonie and prepared to catch her in case she lost control of the fish. “That’s it, Leonie! Show that fish who’s boss!”

Leonie tried her best to stay grounded during her tug-of-war with the fish on her hook. After spending about a minute fighting to prevent her line from snapping, she triumphantly pulled a Teutates pike from the water to a short round of applause from her peers. “That one was a real pain,” she said. “I think it’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught.”

“It’s certainly the biggest one I’ve seen today,” said Linhardt.

“This pond seems to attract fish from all over Fódlan,” said Byleth. “Sometimes, I wonder how they all end up here.”

Leonie’s second fishing attempt netted her an Airmid pike, which felt like a letdown after she struggled with the Teutates pike. After handing her fishing rod over to the man standing by the booth, she sat down on one of the posts at the back of the pier and waited for Linhardt to take his turn. “Do you still talk to your dad a lot, Monica?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Monica. “Why do you ask?”

“I was wondering why your mother wasn’t there with him when we traveled to Drachen Village last month. Did something bad happen to her? Or something bad between the two of you?”

Monica looked out toward the pond as she watched Linhardt fish. “You know… I hadn’t really thought about it when we went up there,” she admitted. “I was so focused on meeting my father again that I completely forgot to ask where my mother was. A few days after we returned from that mission, he wrote to me and told me that Mother had been staying overnight at her uncle’s house a few towns away, and she didn’t learn that I’d stopped by to visit until after we’d already left.”

“Oof… Talk about bad timing.”

The sound of the fish swimming around in the pond didn’t provide the calming effect Monica hoped it would. She did, however, get a chuckle out of watching Linhardt’s pike try to wriggle out of his hands after he caught it.

“It was my mother’s idea to send me to the Officers Academy in the first place,” said Monica. “She wanted me to get the best education possible, and it was much closer than the best schools near the capital.”

“Have you ever been to Enbarr yourself, Monica?” asked Linhardt.

“I might have visited it once when I was little, but I can’t remember anything about that trip.”

“The first day after my father, Count Hevring, was appointed to lead the Ministry of Domestic Affairs, he invited me to his office at the Imperial Palace. I can only assume it was decorated so lavishly to distract him from how boring and stressful his day-to-day work must be. There was some upside to the visit, though – later on that day, we toured the Grand Library, which I’m told has one of the largest book selections in all of Fódlan.”

“Sounds like my kind of place!”

“I should warn you,” said Linhardt, gently tugging on his fishing rod to pull up another pike, “it’s quite easy to get lost in there. Allegedly, someone went in there to look for books on Crests and wasn’t discovered for two whole days. It’s probably just a rumor, though.”

Monica chuckled again, thinking that Linhardt was talking about himself without saying so directly. After he left the fishing area to sit down on the steps with his teddy bear, it was her turn to step up to the edge of the pier to see if she could beat Leonie’s catch. “Alright… I can do this,” she said to herself. “Time to finish strong.”

Monica tried to cast her line into the pond, but Leonie’s laughter distracted her, throwing off her aim and causing the bobber to land only a few feet in front of her.

“What? Did I say something funny?”

“Sorry, sorry… I’m so used to hearing jokes and puns like that from Alois,” said Leonie.

Alois, who had moved next to Jeralt to chat with him and Byleth while the others took their turns, picked up on it and laughed along with Leonie. “That does sound like something I would say,” he said. “Now I’m starting to wish I had said it.”

Monica waited for Alois and Leonie to stop laughing before casting again. This time, her reel shot straight ahead as far as it could go. When she pulled her catch out of the water, she was appalled by the large, long-mouthed fish she had picked up. “What is this thing?!” she cried.

“Looks like you caught yourself a genuine Caledonian gar,” Jeralt said with a laugh. “With the right seasoning and garnish, one of those could feed a family of six.”

Monica shot another disgusted look at her catch before throwing it back into the pond. “I certainly hope it tastes better than it looks.”

“I wish we didn’t have to toss these fish back into the pond as soon as we catch them,” Leonie argued.

“There’ll be plenty more opportunities to catch fish that we can keep,” said Byleth. “Captain Jeralt and I just wanted us to get out here so we can all unwind before taking our next big trips.”

“I guess I feel a little more relaxed after this. I just don’t want to be lulled into a false sense of security. I’ve never been to the Eastern Church before, so I don’t know what to expect.”

“That sounds almost like what I heard from Hilda,” said Monica. “She didn’t sound too stressed about it, though. Maybe it’s because she has friends there or something.”

The final catch of the competition was an Albinean herring, which Monica was less than eager to dispose of than the gar she had caught earlier. Jeralt, Byleth, and Alois only needed a few moments to convene and decide on a winner.

“It looks like you made the catch of the day, Leonie! Congratulations!” said Alois.

Leonie pumped her fist proudly and once again basked in the applause of everyone at the pond. “What can I say? The water was just in my favor today.”

“Well done, Leonie,” said Linhardt. “Honestly, I didn’t have any delusions of catching the biggest fish today. I like to think of this as an extension of my birthday celebration. Thank you for inviting me, Professor.”

Just as the group put away their fishing rods and prepared to leave, a voice called out to Leonie from the market area.

“Are you almost done hanging out with the Captain and Teach? We’re getting ready to leave soon!”

“Sorry, guys! I gotta run,” she said. “Looks like Claude’s starting our trip a day earlier than I expected. Wish me luck, everyone! Oh, and thanks for the invite, Professor!”

They waved to Leonie as she raced toward the market to meet the rest of her Golden Deer classmates, panting and groaning all the way.

“So much for keeping calm,” said Byleth. “It worked for a little while, anyway. Nobody can say I didn’t try.”

“Promise me you won’t surprise us like that, Professor,” said Monica.

“Hey! The last time wasn’t my fault. We all got caught off-guard by that bell.”

“I should probably be on my way, too,” said Alois as he looked toward the steps leading to the market.

“Did you get assigned to the Eastern Church, Alois?” asked Jeralt.

“I was told it would be a one-time assignment, so I should be back within a week or two. Fortunately, the Golden Deer’s trip is going to take them through Deirdru. I’ve always wanted to see the famed ‘Aquatic Capital’ with my own eyes. It’ll make for a great story to tell my wife and daughter when I come back home!”

When she compared her two rival houses’ monthly missions, Monica believed that the Golden Deer got the better deal between them. At least they don’t have to worry about walking into the middle of an inferno, she thought.

“Well, that sure was fun,” she said, stretching her arms and legs so they wouldn’t get sore. “I’m going to hit the books for the rest of the day. I think I’ve mostly recovered from my rematch with Felix, but I don’t want to risk hurting myself again before our next outing.”

“Okay,” said Byleth, “but don’t forget that we have a special session tomorrow morning, so remember to wake up bright and early.”

“Sure thing, Professor!”

Byleth looked over at Linhardt, who looked like he was ready to take a nap on the steps. “That means you too, Linhardt.”

“I’ll try, Professor,” he replied, “but you may have to send someone to knock on my door a little louder to wake me up now that I have Lyle here.”

“‘Lyle’? You gave him a name already?” Monica joked, pointing to Linhardt’s bear.

“This bear was personalized for me, after all, so it only feels appropriate to give him a name,” said Linhardt.

“I’ll bet Bernadetta will be even more pleased that you’ve grown attached to this bear so quickly.”

Monica and Linhardt left, thanking Byleth for inviting them out to go fishing with her. Byleth and Jeralt walked back to the classroom area on their way back to their office, with some of the students waving to her as she walked past.

“I’ve been wondering for a while what Lady Rhea was thinking when she asked you to teach,” said Jeralt, “but the kids seem to like you well enough. If only we didn’t have to live our lives on the run… I might have enrolled you in school yourself – not a place like this one, but somewhere where you might one day learn to become a real teacher.”

“Do you think I’d be good at it?” asked Byleth.

“Of course, I do. You’re very bright, and you pick up on things easily. I mean, you’ve made it more than half a year at this gig without getting reprimanded. Plus, no one’s gotten seriously hurt under your watch yet, so you’ve passed two major tests right there.”

“Creating lesson plans feels a lot harder than swinging a sword or a fishing rod around. There’s a lot to this job that I know I won’t be able to learn in my first year.”

“The first year’s usually the hardest.”

When they returned to the office, Byleth checked the corner behind the bookshelves to ensure her Sword of the Creator was in a safe place. Without a reliable sheath, she leaned it against the wall next to Jeralt’s spear so that she knew where to find it before going out on a mission. “Good. I think I’m ready to set out tomorrow,” she said.

“If you think you’ll need my help with your mission, just let me know,” said Jeralt. “Catherine and I are guarding the monastery at the moment, but I can still help you out as long as your journey doesn’t take you too far away from here.”

“I don’t think it will…at least not for now. Something tells me this mission won’t end when we set foot in the forest…”

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