Byleth was already at Claude's door when she was second guessing herself. Possibly, this was inappropriate. No, it definitely was. Everyone was asleep, probably including Claude, but she was lonely and exhausted and she needed to see a friendly face; no, she needed to see Claude. She was—
She didn't know the words to describe everything she was at that moment. It wasn't like she was any good at words before. The past year had been so much. Too much—the journeying, the secrets, the bloodshed. It was spilling over now. Byleth just wanted to rest, and seeing Claude felt like rest. It always had.
Sighing, she leaned her head against the door to his room.
It opened. She stumbled into something warm.
Byleth peered up, half in Claude's arms. There was a hitch in his breath that told her she should probably move further away, but she swore she felt his grip tighten around her a little when she did. His nightshirt hung loose, flashing a peek of muscle inside its collar. He looked drowsy. She liked it.
"Couldn't sleep again?" he asked.
She shook her head. "You're up, too?"
"Tossing and turning."
"I think I'm supposed to be asking you that." His throat bobbed. "Come in?"
She did. The light of the single lamp was low; he was supposed to be sleeping, after all. The whole room had a golden glow from his bedding, and piles of books stolen from the library filled the corners. All of them, probably, research for figuring out if there was a some ritual or artifact that could help them avoid their next battle completely.
Claude sat back on the edge of his bed, arms dangling as they rested on his knees. "It's nothing… that we haven't already discussed. Just thinking about how we have to defeat Nemesis. A monster of legend only defeated once before… Chances aren't great, I gotta say, but he's also never faced you before."
His smile was plastered and she knew it. But as she drew close to him, she found him gazing up at her in the same way he gazed at the stars, eyes wide admiring something unfathomable. Like, she thought, unsteady on her feet, gazing upon a wish.
"I believe you can do anything, you know," he said. "You even came back from the dead."
"Then why are you acting like I'll leave again?"
She noticed: Claude had been fighting nearer to her than before, had accepted every invitation for tea even when he was obviously busy, was last to knock on her office door when the bells went silent and people started going to sleep—as if she might disappear if he looked away too long. Five years gone had felt like a blink to her, but how long had it stretched for him?
He was uncharacteristically speechless after that; they were both terrible at words today. In the silence, Byleth's hand drifted to Claude's collar. He shut his eyes, leaning into her touch along his neck, and deep in her gut, she felt the snap of a line being crossed. It was a cold night, but his skin was warm, trembling, so very alive with the blood beating underneath.
A chuckle rang in his voice, some attempt at levity. "I don't want to die."
So that was it. "I won't let you."
But Claude wasn't done. "I don't want to die without having kissed you."
He waited, that wish held in his breath as Byleth gazed back, her own breath uneven.
She'd known how he felt and she felt; it was unspoken but there, in the ease and unnecessary closeness of everything they did. She shouldn't be surprised at where she stood now. But hearing it aloud—
Her thumb traced the candlelight that arced along his jaw like a crescent. She wasn't fragile, nor hardly was he. They'd fought side by side. He'd seen her wounded, she'd seen him worse, and still they stood with each other until the battle was done. But she felt fragile then, at the edge of another crumbling cliff as she bent her head down. Claude rose up part-way to meet her. Their lips brushed and she thought she might fall over from the jolt in her spine that bare touch caused, that she drew back before she realized she didn't want to stop.
"Is that it," Claude murmured, gaze lidded. He cupped her face with a calloused hand as her thoughts buzzed. "Do I have to beg for more?" He dragged a finger down her throat, between her collarbone, dangerously low, and just because he did that—
"Byleth." His voice had gone low and a sliver surprised; darkened eyes roved over her face. "Please." As if he weren't already gathering her in his arms. It was a coy please, a haggle—as if asking, how much begging do you want? If Claude didn't have his head tipped up at her so flagrantly, if she didn't know how much he would give for the things he desired, she would have immediately caved in.
But she only tilted her head because she knew she could extract more, and the next, "Please," that rasped from his lips was a proper beg. A shiver passed through her in place of a heartbeat. She clutched him by his shirt and pulled him to her. They might have so little time left; why waste it?
The kiss was hungry, a gasp of all that desperation funneled to a single point. Byleth had a few tipsy makeouts in pubs but she'd never done something like this, where every touch felt aflame; or was it just Claude that made it feel that way? He was as eager as she, his tongue teasing her lips apart. Something else new ignited in her as his hands traveled down her body and gripped around her waist. She wondered briefly, before her thoughts evaporated, if Claude had done this before, not that it mattered. It was easy somehow—some seeking instinct to take more of him and to be taken in turn. He tasted of pine needles, his favorite tea, now cold in a cup on his nightstand; something sweet lingered underneath the bitterness. Maybe that was just the taste of him.
Claude shuddered as she sank onto his lap. They tipped backwards onto his bed, holding fiercely to each other. "Byleth?" he whispered suddenly, as their limbs tangled in his blankets and his hand found itself on her thigh, as if surprised they'd gotten this far. It was just supposed to be a kiss but—
She pulled his shirt over his head.
That began it all—the fumbling of clothes and the cursing of their intricacies as they searched for skin. Claude rolled her over, pressed a kiss to her stomach, and she held him there, fingers raking back his dark hair. "You have no idea—" he started, and she wondered how many phrases he could finish that sentence with. How I wanted you. How long. How much. How often.
She didn't know, but she'd begun to guess. "Then act like it," she found herself saying, and he grinned and moved his mouth further down as he tugged off her skirts. Her stockings came off right after. Before long, she was writhing from whatever he was doing to her in that place no one else had ever touched.
The rest of their clothes came off. There wasn't a plan or goal exactly, or at least, they were taking the meandering way about it. They interrupted each other, pressing their mouths to new places, grabbing and teasing wherever they could to get a pitched reaction from the other. The novelty of what they were doing had hardly worn away—they wanted everything. But mostly, Byleth wanted to hold Claude closer; that was all. Never let go. The hot thrum of his blood bled into her own, as if it gave beat to her own. She'd never felt more alive than against his skin.
And it was Claude, her Claude wanting her back, so much so that he marked her with the urgency of it; she liked it—she wasn't fragile. And she liked him undone especially when it was all her fault and no one else's—oh, did she love him undone, his hair mussed, his eyes ravenous. She loved him. Yes, that was all, she thought, as he rested his forehead against hers, pausing just to look at her: she loved him.
They were already sweaty and smiling when he settled between her legs. Moving together in open-mouthed gasps, they gripped at the sheets and each other with white knuckles, until Byleth thought she might burst. Her head fell back, and Claude kissed her throat as she cried out. Her whole body shuddered, he moaned her name and followed quickly.
They lay there, body draped over body. Her fingers idly twined through his hair as their panting slowed and adrenaline coursed through her. Claude found her other hand with his own, laced their fingers together, and murmured something into her neck that sounded like, "I love you," so softly she wasn't sure she was supposed to hear, like he was speaking to a dream.
And then, more audibly, "We should do this often."
A laugh escaped her and that made his grin go wide in the darkness. The single candle had long gone out, but she could still see him, maybe more clearly than ever before. Byleth reached over to guide his face to hers and they kissed a few moments more with what breath they could spare. After the battle, Claude meant. Because they would win. They would win so they could do this again and again and take all the time in the world; yes, she could spend a lifetime like this, tangled in him.