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meet me in the afterglow.

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Five years was a long time.

Byleth couldn't fathom it. It was just a blink to her. Five years later, she was still twenty, or twenty-one, or some fuzzy age around there. She had the same haircut somehow, the same ragged edge to her nails, the same memories. Her memories told her that last week, she was in the fully intact dining hall sharing a meal with Lysithea and Annette, who both eagerly chattered the whole meal away once they got on the topic of spells.

In reality, last week Byleth was dead, or something like it.

She didn't recognize Claude at first. He was regal and his boyishness—while it was still there—had retreated behind some battle-worn part of him. She barely recognized her other students, and she only did because she was more primed to meet them and their hair color made them easy to pick out in the dark. As they cleared out the last of the thieves in Garreg Mach, her Deer stood out like a rainbow.

She'd say that she missed them, but to her, it was only just yesterday when she saw them last. And today they were... the same, and yet very, very not. And not just in their hairstyles; they were responsible now. Most were her age or older. They all still treated her like she was their professor though, which was sweet.

Five years was a quarter of their lives. Five years was five times longer than the span she'd known them. Five years upheaved every inch of Fódlan's political landscape. Five years—

Changed everything but her.

 

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Byleth could tell Claude was testing her.

He didn't trust her. He said he trusted her and he wanted to trust her—but he didn't trust her. His smiles were cagey, his questions were too many, and he tried to get away with his prodding by saying, "I'm making sure your skills aren't rusty," but she knew.

She understood on some level—falling asleep for five years wasn't exactly the best explanation for her disappearance. But after weeks of this behavior, it was getting to be, frankly, bullshit.

She'd become the Alliance's mascot, which was the whole reason they were fighting under the banner of the Crest of Flames. Claude had laid all his plans at her feet, then buried her in them so she couldn't escape. She had to be visible, he said, to rally the Knights of Seiros to help. She had to lead battles that were twice as big as the biggest ones she'd ever been part of, he said, because no one else had her mind for strategy. And she had an inkling he was going to make her be the face of much, much more.

Byleth would have helped anyway, but she would have at least liked to know details in advance. Claude cultivated the moments and audiences when he revealed his plans in ways that made it difficult to refuse without seeming petty. She wouldn't have refused, but she would have liked to feel like she had the choice to.

She would have liked if he trusted her enough to say yes.

Byleth was standing in the doorway of his dormitory when she told Claude, "If you don't trust me, please just say so."

He had been slowly rising from his chair, but he now snapped up straight, mouth creased in a frown. "What? Of course I do."

"Trusting me is not the same as wanting me on your side because I'm useful."

Claude studied her closely, green eyes wide, yet under that shrewd gaze, Byleth felt all the more distant. She hadn't changed, but he was five years a stranger. "Do you think that I'm just using you?" he murmured.

He'd always been a schemer. Byleth liked that about him, even if it used to make him a brat; life wasn't fair enough to mind the rules, and it made for a good time when she was in on his tricks. But the trust of an ally wasn't a game and she didn't like being played, so when she said, "You haven't said that you aren't," her note of contempt was audible.

His lips parted in shock. "I promise I'm not."

She didn't believe him. She knew Claude's lying face as well as he knew hers; that twitch of his mouth was the same tell he always had. Again, she understood—he was leader of the Alliance now, and he couldn't necessarily mind her feelings when he had to mind everything on this side of Fódlan and had so many other relationships to cultivate.

Still, it hurt. And few things hurt her.

She walked away wordlessly.

"Byl—"

The sound of her half-formed name jarred her steps. Claude sighed. So it hurt him too, then, to treat her like a piece on Fódlan's chessboard. But maybe that was the sort of sacrifice one made in war.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't realize—I didn't mean to take advantage of your return like this."

"You did, though."

He didn't reply.

 

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They were both good at acting—Claude, due to his natural charm, and Byleth, due to her ability to slip into an unfaltering dead-eyed stare. Nothing really shifted in their behavior, or at least, everyone was too polite to point it out. They had bigger things to worry about, like the Imperial forces encroaching upon them.

War had a way of fucking everything up.

The closer a relationship was, the more complicated it was. Byleth considered that maybe there was a silver lining to their stiffness. She didn't have to worry about letting any impartiality influence her decisions in the strategy room or battlefield. She had, of course, noticed during the last few weeks' worth of meetings and meals that Claude had grown roguishly handsome and twice as charismatic, which made him four times as dangerous; not to her, necessarily, but she was already accommodating to a fault sometimes, at least when it came to matters that weren't life or death. He stood too close and winked too much, but he'd always done that, and now Byleth knew that it was his way of distracting people while he set his schemes in motion. A professional ploy. Nothing more.

That is, until Hilda invited herself to tea one day.

"Look, whatever's happening with you and Claude is not my business," she said, though her active gesturing seemed to imply it was, "but if there's anything I can do to… fix? Take the edge off? This weirdness? I'm all ears."

Byleth coughed lightly into her cup. "We just need some time to get familiar again."

It was a little bit of a theme across everyone, really. Like Ignatz and Raphael catching up with the news in their respective families and Raphael wondering why Ignatz never visited despite his invitations; or Cyril being shy around Lysithea and tearing through entire reams of the monastery's supply of paper to write her a letter but none of them came out good enough; or even Hilda enjoying Marianne's fresh confidence a teensy much and was pushing new fashions onto the girl too aggressively. Change took time—to happen and to get used to.

Hilda bit her lip, twiddling her thumbs as if considering her words. "Claude… cares a lot about you. And honestly? He's grown up so much since our school days. He doesn't even spike Lorenz's tea anymore, and Lorenz has gotten ten times as exasperating now that he has responsibilities, too. I'm tempted to do it—um, but I won't, of course."

Byleth had to smile. "How unusually gracious of you."

"Hah, well, I've already told both of them they're idiots." Hilda flapped her hand. "Especially Claude. He's no fun moping—that's why I came to talk to you in the first place. You really got to him, Professor."

"Moping?" Claude from five years ago loved to complain. But the one she knew now? She can't imagine him moping like a boy again.

"Like I said, he cares a lot. He just… doesn't know how to show it. Or at least, he thinks he has to be this… strong, unshakable Leader Man. But he pulled together the Alliance, so he's doing something right."

Ah, not knowing how to express something—"I know how that feels."

"Whaaat? Are you always pretending to be strong and unshakable, too?"

"Well, no." It was different. Byleth had always been this way—muted in her emotions and even her fear, which was what made her such a terror on the battlefield. But ever since her dad died, it was like there was a fissure in her somewhere letting new feelings sneak through. She knew because those feelings always hurt, and she wondered if everyone else always really felt that way. It was a nuisance, more than anything else—nothing she couldn't handle—but it was a part of her now. A part she didn't want to share with the wider world yet. "Sometimes I am, I suppose."

"Huh. I never would have guessed."

 

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Lorenz put his fist down at the roundtable. "Putting all our faith in our professor is not a strategy."

Nodding, Byleth crossed her arms. "I'm flattered, Claude, but that isn't a plan."

"It always works though," Claude muttered. He blew out a puff of breath that made that lock of hair in front of his face flutter. "Look, I do have a plan that will keep both House Gloucester appeased and give us control of the Great Bridge of Myrddin, but… I need to get responses back from pretty distant territories. Messengers are taking awhile."

"Care to share where?" Lorenz asked.

"I don't want to get hopes up…"

"Aha—you have no plan."

They'd already gone through this part of the argument once before, so at this point, the meeting was going in circles. By the end of it, nothing was decided, but it was implied they were at least relying on Byleth again. It wasn't unreasonable; she was part-goddess, after all. And secretly... she could turn back time if her strategies went awry. No one knew the full grasp of her power, not even her.

Byleth could handle the fights, but the way people were making her out to be a big, damn hero to fall back on—that made her the most uncomfortable. What would happen if she was gone one day? Or worse, if she was turned into one of those beasts, like Miklan? And it wasn't as if she understood a lick of the kind of political maneuvering that could bring disparate lands together, the kind of magic Claude had, and that was just as important. He gave himself too little credit on that front. She found out recently how many lines of communication he kept with allies around the Alliance and beyond, and the number alone made her head spin.

After the roundtable, she stopped by Jeralt's office just to glance in. A pang struck her chest at first sight. The books, the dusty furniture, the shut curtains—all was in order and he was still dead, just like the last time she looked. Feeling tears, she reached up, but it was a phantom wetness around her eyes.

Breathing in, then out, the moment passed.

Footsteps approached. She looked up. Claude stood in the doorway.

He tugged at his collar, something sheepish creeping up his expression. "I didn't… put too much on your shoulders again today, did I?"

She shook her head. "It's fine."

"I hope you're not just saying that." When he stepped into the light, the bags under his eyes came into relief. His hair was messier than usual—one side sticking up a little as if he'd slept on it funny.

Without thinking, Byleth licked her thumb and reached over to flatten it.

She smiled as Claude reddened. "Er—" It was so easy to disarm him if he was even the slightest bit off-guard. He ran a hand through his hair. "Was it like that during the whole meeting?"

"It's not as bad as when you'd come to class late and the whole right side would be sticking up straight."

"I would hope I've matured for the better," he said, smoothing down his clothes as well, which were terribly rumpled.

"Mmm. You used to be a brat."

He grinned. "A charming brat?"

Leaning against the desk, Byleth was glad to settle in easy banter. Like old times, though she'd kept a certain distance before due to her teaching position; now, they were peers and she'd be particularly brutal. "No, more like the kind I liked to use for target practice."

"Ouch. And now?"

"You're the clever leader of the Alliance. Or I hope you are. From Lorenz's complaints, it sounded like you haven't been doing the best job."

"And you believe him?" Claude clutched his chest as convincingly as if an arrow struck him. "You wound me, my friend."

She arched a brow. "Aren't you concerned about the opinions of your lords?"

"I—ergh—yeah… it's this damn war. If this were peacetime, everything would be different."

"You should share more of your work with the others; it would allow you some rest. Hilda, for example—she's always free and she has her own talent for manipulation. I'm sure it translates to diplomacy."

"Hilda? You couldn't get her to work if—"

"She'd surprise you." These were things she could have only learned from her time as a professor. "And you should talk to Lorenz more. Being dodgy with allies, like we're not already on your side… that's how you erode trust."

Sighing, Claude hung his head. "You're right," he said quietly. "You always are."

Byleth frowned. She wasn't always. And she hadn't realized how low Claude had gotten if he was already like this. "I know you're trying your best."

"My best doesn't matter if it's not enough."

She grasped his gloved hand. "It's enough."

When Claude looked up at her, her chest hurt all over again. Appearances side, there was a weariness and longing in his gaze as they met hers. As if that hope he carried outwardly like a sun was actually a flickering flame at the heart of him, and he was desperately fanning it alive.

"I'm always scared, can you believe it?" he murmured. "Sometimes I want to run away from everything. I'd just have to leap over Fódlan's Throat and be safe. I used to run away from the battlefields when they got too heated, you know… thinking that maybe it was a mistake coming to Garreg Mach to study."

She never knew this. "What changed that?"

His brows furrowed, as if she was asking something obvious. Then gratefully, Claude smiled—a real smile that lit his eyes. "You arrived."

 

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Tensions eased between her and Claude, but not quickly enough, so Byleth did what she always did when two people needed to work through awkwardness: she assigned themselves a joint task.

"Cleaning rubble, though?" Claude made a face. "C'mon, if we can't do a tournament, can't we at least do flying exercises instead?"

Crouched among the piles of broken brick, Byleth stiffened. "Marianne and Hilda are doing them."

"I thought they did them yesterday."

"Um, Cyril and Seteth are, then?" She rubbed her itching nose but only managed to get dirt on her face.

Snickering, Claude bent down to brush it off with his thumb. It was only a gentle swipe along her cheek, but it tipped her off balance, and she had to put her other hand on the ground to keep steady. Oddly clumsy of her.

Still up close, he squinted. "Wait, that's your lying face. Why would you... are you afraid of flying?"

"No," she blurted too loudly. Her stomach dropped as the widest grin known in Fódlan's history stretched Claude's cheeks, and she knew exactly what he was going to say next.

"Prove it."

So half an hour later, Byleth was climbing on the poor waiting wyvern's saddle. She wasn't lying; she wasn't afraid of flying. She was afraid of falling. Flying was fine—probably even amazing, not that she'd done it before. The falling part was the dangerous part. She fell down a cliff once, so frankly she had a right to feel this way.

She was also very clumsy that day, as she accidentally kicked the base of the wyvern's wings sliding onto the saddle.

"Skraww!" The wyvern lurched forward. Byleth grabbed around its neck, faceplanting into it.

On the ground, Claude's eyes widened. "Easy! You'll spook him—Byleth!"

The wyvern reared up. Next thing Byleth knew, her back hit the ground and a mass of scaly limbs spun overhead.

"Easy there, boy—urgk!" Claude fell skidding on his bottom, red gash on his arm. The wyvern snorted and sat down, ears flattened.

Byleth crawled over. "Oh no. I'm so sorry—"

"It's just a scratch." But his teeth were clenched, and he grimaced as she took his arm.

"It's my fault that you're hurt. This shouldn't have happened." Taking the knife from her hip, she slashed off a length of her sleeve and tied it around the wound to apply pressure.

"I'm more worried about the emotional damage you gave"—Claude peeked at the collar around the wyvern's neck—"Flappy? Really? Uh, Flappy here."

"I just—got startled." She helped him up and looked toward the stables to see if Marianne was nearby; otherwise, she supposed they could walk all the way to Manuela's for a healer.

"Next time, how about I teach you to fly on Zahra?"

Byleth whirled back around to him. Claude was already grinning through the pain; was he just putting on a brave face again? Although when she looked down, the scratch really wasn't that bad at all and she was probably overreacting. Somehow, she was more banged up after that incident. "I'd prefer if your wyvern didn't come to hate me as well," she coughed.

"It'll take more than a kick from a scaredy-cat. C'mon, I'll sit right behind you. She's strong enough to carry both of us."

 

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The next day, true to his word, Claude hoisted Byleth up onto Zahra, who was a mountain of patience as Byleth scrambled for a hold, and Claude pushed himself up and seated himself behind her. He fixed the reins in front, the scruff along his jaw scratching her cheek as he reached forward. Against her back, she thought she could feel his chest hammering through his shirt.

"Does it hurt? Your heart?" She tried to shift in her seat so she could look over her shoulder but bumped into his chin. They hadn't really thought this arrangement through. "It feels like it's trying to escape."

"…Oh." Claude ducked his head. "Heh, you can tell?"

"I think it's getting more insistent."

His arms reaching around her sides tensed up; actually, all of him tensed up. "It can get like that sometimes."

Must be distracting. "For everyone?"

"Yeah. Well, not all the time, but—"

"When?"

He cleared his throat. "Ah… when you're nervous, for example."

"You're nervous?"

"Hey now, what's with the interrogation, my friend? All-right-hold-on-tight!"

Byleth's stomach lurched as Zahra took off and with a single flap, lifted them above the halls. She clutched Claude's arms with a vice grip. "You did that on purpose!"

His laugh rumbled behind her, his breath a soft breeze against her ear. "That's how all wyverns take flight."

"You barely warned me!" Her vision swam as she looked below. Oh gods. It wasn't the same as when she was high up in a building at all—there was no ground beneath her feet.

"If you admit that you're afraid of flying, I can see what I can do about having Zahra take it slow."

She was trembling worse than Flayn at the sight of fish. There was no way Claude couldn't have noticed. Still—"I am not afraid of flying."

"Oh?" Claude pressed his heel against Zahra's side and the wyvern dove. Byleth shrieked again and she was going to kill him once they were at a non-lethal fall height.

"You can relax." His arm snaked around her middle. From his shaking gasps, he was clearly trying hard not to start laughing again. "I got you. Want to take the reins?"

Byleth shook her head vehemently and only pressed herself against him more. She was going to kill him, yes, but he was also the most solid thing here. If she wasn't utterly terrified, it was kind of nice. Being this close with someone, feeling steadied despite the lack of footing—a metaphor for the whole damn war. She looked at where her hand was gripping now—her fingers were laced through his, where he held her around her waist. When had that happened?

"Claude." Her voice was tiny.

"Hmm?" When she didn't say anything further, she could feel him frown into her hair. "Something wrong?"

Something was extremely wrong. Well—wrong wasn't the right word.

So, maybe Byleth was a little afraid of flying. But she was definitely afraid of falling.

There was the matter of the other cliff—the precipice in her heart that she only knew by its gaping emptiness, by the fact that she didn't know what lay below; all she gleaned from gossip while growing up was that if she let certain feelings tumble down that way, there was no climbing back to the familiar. Falling in love was a permanent trip down, and while love could fade, you'd always bear the scar.

And when she tilted her head backwards to glance up at Claude, there was no mistaking the edge of that cliff crumbling away. Things hadn't felt familiar for awhile with him, besides the awkwardness and his stature and the neat cut of his clothes. She first thought the war pressing around them was making her feel claustrophobic, but it was only ever around Claude. It was his trust that she held at the highest standard, his hand she wanted to hold sometimes, his smile that warmed her inside-out.

She'd seen bloody battles and she'd driven her sword into the guts of monsters without batting an eye, but the particular new terror emerging in her—combined with the knowledge that a hundred feet of empty air currently separated her from the ground—was overwhelming enough to make Byleth faint.

Five years changed a lot.