A nameless ward with a pimply face is the first to muster the courage.
It is a terribly unimpressive and forgettable kiss, largely because it takes place in the thick of night when Byleth is deep asleep. Or unconscious, some might say (and by some, she means Jeralt). The only reason why she remembers it at all is because she’d woken up to the very image of him crouched over her bed, his cracked lips pressed up against hers.
She isn’t revolted by him, but she isn’t necessarily pleased either. It’s only when he leaps away with a yelp and hops towards the door like a frog that she realizes she might actually pity him.
Needless to say, when Jeralt discovers this little tryst, he promptly sets out with his boot to beat the ward until his back is covered in welts and bruises that look like they’ll never heal. “Don’t ever come back again,” he’d barked -- it was the only time Byleth ever heard her father bark -- and sent the ward running miles off down the coast until he was two villages away.
She thinks she must be in trouble, so she waits to get reprimanded, but Jeralt’s anger is pointed elsewhere. “That’s called assault,” he states, almost matter-of-factly, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “We’ll have to put a lock on your door.”
The next day, Byleth meets Claude von Riegan, who offers her a hand and a smile. “You really helped us out there.” He does a little mock-curtsy, which elicits nothing but an eyeroll from Edelguard and a chuckle from Dimitri. “You have my thanks.”
Byleth has never been comfortable around strangers, let alone royalty, but when she sees that Jeralt is watching them from a distance with a discerning eye, she feels just a little bit safer.
She takes Claude’s hand and shakes it. His grip is firm and warm.
“It’s getting late,” she says, looking at the sky. “We should get going.”
When Jeralt’s not around, Byleth learns to fill her time: she logs her classroom grades, keeps track of her students’ progress -- and by students, she really means Lysithea -- and goes to dinner with Sylvain because she figures he can use some guidance. From the numerous complaints she’s received from his peers, male and female, she thinks a bit of tough love will do him good.
But Sylvain is on his fifth anecdote about yet another one of his conquests -- “let’s call her Dory, y’know, for the sake of professor-student confidentiality,” he says, oblivious to the fact that a trained monkey could figure out it's probably short for Dorothea -- who isn’t content to let him, well, get away with being him.
As it gets dark, Byeth thinks it’s probably about time for him to run out of stories, but it turns out he has plenty to spare.
They finish their meal and take their meeting to the courtyard, where the sky is dark blue and there are plenty of stars blinking. Sylvain is on the tail-end of yet another anecdote, this time involving a boy named “Fae” and his stubborn attempts to weasel out of their nightly trysts for the sake of training.
“I mean, come on,” he says. “Just be up front with me, am I right?”
Byleth looks unimpressed with the whole shtick, maybe a little peeved. She’s had to sit through hours of his misgivings and hasn’t been able to get in a word edgewise. “Are you really as shallow as you seem?”
Byleth thinks she ought to feel just a bit more resolute to give him a helpful dose of paternal counsel, but she finds that she feels sorry for him.
“Aw, please don’t give me that look professor.” Sylvain turns his back to her, gazing up at the stars. “I know that look. I invented that look.”
They share a breathy stretch of silence as Byleth thinks of something effective to say -- something that might get him on the right track without being utterly overbearing. With Sylvain, it’s always a game of finding the right balance.
She puts a hand on his shoulder, trying not to overstep her boundaries. “You’re a good person.” And then: “I know you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Byleth decides she ought to let him figure it out on his own time -- that feeling sorry for him, lecturing him, and making a fool of him will do him no good. She thinks, and maybe it’s because of the night and the stars in full bloom, he’s smart enough to save himself.
Sylvain looks like he’s trying to ascertain exactly what she’s thinking but gives up when the silence between them stretches too long.
He lowers his face and presses a gentle kiss to her temple: it’s chaste, tender, and utterly bereaved of any romantic affliction.
He grins. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Still, Byleth blushes, but figures it’s not a kiss worth dissecting. She bids him good night and returns to the library, where she finds Claude awake, pouring over a table of scrolls and open books.
“Hey teach,” he greets her with a smile, his eyes darting to her cheeks, which are still stained pink with a blush. “Hot date?”
Her answer is clinical and cold, as if she’s reciting a grocery list, and Claude picks up on her inflection before she needs to explain herself. In spite of that lackadaisical look on his face, he’s pretty fast on the uptake. “Come on. It’s getting late. I’ll walk you to your room.”
Byleth smiles just a little bit. “That’s my line.”
He comes around the table’s bend and offers her a hand. “I know.”
They share a moment, their gazes meeting under dim candlelight, and for only a second, Byleth lets herself forget about Sylvain, her professorly duties, her obligations to Rhea, and the pimply ward who’d stolen her first kiss.
Byleth receives her next fourteen kisses from Jeralt.
He presses his lips to her hand and tells her with his dying breath he’s sorry. It is the last kiss she’ll receive from him and in the moment the realization is so startling and profound she finds herself overwhelmed. Few understand the depths of her father, except perhaps Alois, and Byleth cannot help but despair when she realizes she will never get the chance again.
She cannot save him, no matter how many times she tries.
His fate is preordained, Sothis chastises her in the softest voice she can manage. There’s nothing you could’ve done.
But for Byleth, this is a nightmare that’s come to fruition. She closes her eyes and tests the waves of time, but Sothis stops her after the thirteenth try. There’s nothing you could’ve done, she says again, sounding very much like a broken record, patient in perpetuity, as if she’s coddling a child. The more you fight it, the more you’ll shift the sands of fate.
As Byleth sits there with Jeralt’s hand in hers, rain drenching her through her robes, she finally sees it is a finality that’s come true.
Let him go.
She watches her father die fourteen times, watches him press fourteen kisses to her hand, and thinks she ought to return to The Beginning and kill the sands of fate with her bare hands.
Byleth doesn’t know she’s capable of such rage, such anger, and when she draws blood from her own palms, she startles even herself.
Claude kneels in front of her and takes her hands in his.
He helps her unclench her fist, one finger at a time, until the rain washes the blood away.
Byleth throws herself into her work after her father’s passing. She prays with Ignatz at the temple, feeds the horses with Marianne, practices the royal etiquettes with Lorenz, trains with Raphael, pries Hilda to apply some effort into her homework, helps Lysithea organize her tomes, and loans Jeralt’s secret spear practices to Leonie.
She’s so busy some days she can hardly catch her breath.
Claude shuffles out the classroom after her when they’re done with lecture, but she doesn’t stop for him. “Whoa, slow down teach.”
She spares a glance over her shoulder. “Something the matter?”
“You know, the usual. Just wanted to ask you if you were sleeping alright.”
Byleth stops short in the halls and turns to look at him, wondering if this is part of some grand provocation or scheme he’s cooked up, but he seems earnest, so she decides to answer: “I’m sleeping, yes.”
Claude’s laugh is listless as he makes his way over, all swagger and indifference, and stops in front of her in the courtyard. “You really have a knack for not answering my questions.”
She pauses before continuing on her way down the hall. “Your questions usually come attached with other motives.”
It takes time for him to digest her comment, but again, he's quick on the uptake. “Hey! Do you truly think so little of me?”
The faintest smile flickers on her face; it’s so quick, even Byleth thinks she might’ve missed it. But Claude doesn’t (of course he doesn’t) and he’s quick to comment: “Ah, there’s that elusive smile. Gotta say I’ve missed it.”
At night, Byleth finds herself in good company with Shamir and Alois, two comrades she drinks under the table without much effort; she figures, even if she were drunk, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. Alcohol has always given her no trouble, a quirk she’s inherited from her father.
“You were his favorite subject to broach,” Alois tells her on his fifth pint of ale. “Once he started talking about you, he couldn’t stop.”
Shamir takes the hint and bows out for the night, not without offering Byleth a shoulder to cry on. Byleth is cordial enough but declines and doesn’t miss the faint little smile that forms on Shamir’s lips. “I thought you’d say something like that.”
Even inebriated, Alois is proper and chivalrous, taking Byleth’s hand in his and pressing a wet kiss to her knuckles: he swears he’ll protect her until his dying breath, as is his honor and duty in Jeralt’s name and service. He makes no puns or jokes, doesn’t crinkle with that toothy smile of his, and in that moment, Byleth truly believes him.
"Thank you," she tells him and means it.
It is the seventeenth kiss she’s received, and she thinks, maybe, just maybe, she’ll be able to sleep easier tonight.
Years go by, the seasons change one too many times, and Byleth’s eighteenth kiss comes from the last man who will ever kiss her.
He’s quick to make it known, as he comes up the steps of Garreg Mach with a fleet of Almyran soldiers following close from behind.
“I’m going to be your last kiss, my friend,” he declares, boldly, in front of all his classmates, in front of all his peers, and in front of Seteth, who cannot help but sigh.
In that moment, Byleth seriously considers burying her head in the dirt like an ostrich, but he cups her face, winks, and presses his lips against hers, and suddenly nothing else in the world matters.
“Jeez, get a room!” Hilda calls out.
Their second kiss takes place the day of their wedding, short and sweet, nothing more than a peck.
Their third kiss takes place in their marriage bed, and their fourth kiss comes in the morning, after he tells her she’s beautiful. “Sorry I made you wait,” he says, and gives her their fifth kiss. And with the softest whisper he can manage, he says, “I missed you.”
Byleth smiles and winks. “I know.”
She gives Claude her promise and he gives her his life.
Claude gives Byleth two more kisses the day after their wedding, and another for good measure as he sets out to take care of kingly matters in Almyra.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
It’s a promise he keeps.
When he returns, he gives her a deep kiss, much too deep for comfort. “Claude, people are watching,” Byleth protests and blushes when she sees a villager clasp her hands over her son’s eyes.
The seasons change but Claude will always be walking swagger and indifference until the day he dies. For now, he whisks her away to their bedroom and makes love to her until morning comes. They don’t leave their bedroom for two days, basking in the warmth of each other’s light. “I could die right now and I wouldn’t care,” he says, pressing two, three, four more butterfly kisses to her stomach.
At some point, Byleth stops counting their kisses, instead, remembering the kisses that matter most.
A kiss on her hand when he introduces her to his family. A kiss on her neck when they’re alone in bed. The kisses of longing after long days away from one another. A kiss of gratitude on her hand when she lets him nap in her lap. A kiss on her cheek when she least expects it, a kiss that makes her flustered, a kiss that makes her blush.
The seasons come and go and the kisses keep coming, even as Claude’s hair begins to gray.
One kiss for good luck before he takes the council floor, and another surprise kiss just for kicks so he can see her blush.
“That’ll never get old,” he tells her with a wink.
But before he can hold court, he collapses and Byleth’s world falls apart.
I should have more time, she tells herself. This isn’t fair.
There’s never enough time.
There are too many things she wants to say but the only thing she can muster is “I’m being selfish,” with her breath caught in her throat, and: “I’m sorry.”
Even as he rests in bed, Claude takes her hand and presses a gentle kiss to her knuckles. “Come on, what’s with that look? Cheer up. I know you want me out of your hair, but I’m afraid I’ve got no plans to leave any time soon.”
She smiles weakly and lets herself hope, “Really?”
It’s the only promise he can’t keep.
He’s only forty, too young to die, and she thinks this must be comeuppance for testing the hands of fate one too many times.
Even as Claude’s grip goes limp, he finds the strength to plant one last kiss on her hand. “I love you,” he whispers. “I hope you know that.”
Byleth gives Claude his last kiss on the day he dies.
Her cry of agony pierces the air and nothing follows in her wake except silence.
She never gets the chance to tell him she loves him back.
She turns back the hands of time a year before his hair turns gray and calls in the medic, who tells her nothing’s wrong.
“Something is wrong,” she insists, and Claude is quick to assuage her fears with a kiss on the temple.
“I feel fine,” he tells her, but when she insists a little too much, he relents and calls in a medic from Almyra to take a look.
“He’s contracted a disease of the lung,” he says, and before Byleth even gets the chance to give herself a little hope, he goes on, “I’m afraid it’s too late to begin treatment.”
She turns back the hands of time again.
It’s a better time, a quieter time, right after they defeat Nemesis and before he can take on his duties in Almyra. Claude is smiling at her, and she is desperate to usher him to the closest Almyran medic, but he just laughs and holds her tight in his arms.
“What’s the rush?” He says, and tries to placate her, but it’s not enough.
When he notices she’s not joking, he relents.
After some poking and prodding, and Byleth doesn’t even blush when she sees Claude half-naked for the first time (“jeez, you’re hurting my feelings here,” he says), the medic tells her there’s nothing there.
“Are you sure?” She asks and the medic nods.
She asks him to check his lungs three, no, four, times and he comes up empty.
“See? I’m fine.” Claude laughs. “You worry too much, my friend.”
Maybe he’s right, she thinks, and lets herself hold out on hope. Maybe in this timeline, he won’t contract the disease. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the chance to live happily ever after.
It’s only when he’s lying in his death bed at forty that she realizes he’s contracted the disease in Almyra.
She turns the hands of time again.
It doesn’t take Byleth long to track him down but she’s too late every single time: he’s already contracted the disease and it’s always too late to begin treatment.
So she goes back to their time after Nemesis is defeated and begs and pleads for him to stay with her in Fodlan, but he refuses her outright. He has goals; he has aspirations; he has plans bigger than them both.
“Aren’t I enough?” She asks, desperately.
In that moment, she sees a look in his eye: one of pity and one of disgust.
He hardly recognizes her, and she realizes she can hardly recognize herself.
“I’m sorry,” he says, turning away. “There are things I want to accomplish before I return.”
No, she thinks, this can’t be how it ends.
His fate is preordained; and she can nearly hear Sothis’s voice inside her, warm and chiding. There’s nothing you can do.
“No!” She cries. “I won’t accept this.”
Again and again and again Byleth turns the hands of time until she wakes up in a world she does not recognize.
She knows instinctively she is in the wrong dimension, and when she sees the spitting image of herself standing before her on the steps of Garreg Mach, she is tempted to bolt.
He grabs her by the wrist before she gets the chance.
He’s taller than her, his shoulders are broader, and his eyes are just a tad more narrowed but the bond between them is undeniable and true. She is him; and he is her. They are one in the same, two souls from two different worlds.
Tears well up in her eyes as she tries to explain she's from another plane of existence, a plane where they should’ve never met -- she’s completely unlike herself, blithering and incongruous, but he doesn’t waver or betray even an ounce of surprise on his face. Instead, he pulls her into his arms and lets her cry until she exhausts herself.
“We share the same blood,” he says with the faintest flicker of a smile. “So I know.”
When she raises her palm, he mirrors her.
When she meets his gaze, she recognizes her own eyes in his.
Those two words can hold more weight than she can ever imagine.
But something dawns on her, a moment of realization both stark and profound. She looks up at him, leans forward on her tip-toes, and plants the quickest kiss she can manage on his cheek. “I have to go,” she says. “I…”
He releases her. “I know.”
He’s the only living family she’ll never see again.
One last time, she says to herself.
One last time.
She winds back the hands of time and keeps a promise to herself.
Forty and looking every penny’s worth, Claude is laying quiet in his resting bed, eyes closed with no breath of air inside him.
Byleth leans over and presses a kiss to his forehead. “Just wait a bit longer for me.”
She sprints to the medic’s cart, procures two needles and two plastic tubes, and carts herself back to his bedside.
Come on, she tells herself, stabbing one needle inside her arm, attaching the tube to the end, and sliding the other needle gently into Claude’s respective arm. They are tethered by one tube and she can’t help but watch in morbid fascination as blood fills it red.
Some time passes and Byleth removes the contraption only after she starts feeling lightheaded and dizzy.
The next few moments are the longest moments of her life.
One last time, she’d promised herself, one last time.
She paces by the window of the room, trying desperately not to look his way, trying desperately to distract herself with something else. She’s chewing on her thumb, doing all sorts of things that feel out of place and out of character.
“It’s getting late. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
Byleth turns to see Claude is awake, forty, gray-haired, wearing that slack-jawed smile, and looking every penny’s worth. She leaps towards him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him into the tightest hug she can manage.
He runs his fingers through her hair. “Jeez, you look like hell.”
She realizes he’s probably never seen her put on such a display of affection and for a moment she considers gathering herself, pulling back, and giving him air to breathe. But she finds it too hard to let him go. One last time, she tells herself again, and smiles. It’s a promise she keeps to herself.
“You must’ve had quite the adventure while I slept.” When he looks at her, he looks at her adoringly and she starts to count all the crinkles in his eyes. “Your hair is a mess.”
She thinks she ought to tell him where she’s been -- there’s so much she wants to tell him, so much she’s been holding in -- but instead she leans against the crook of his neck and relishes the moment.
“Claude?” Her voice is barely a whisper. "How would you feel about living forever?"
“Forever?” Claude seems perplexed by the question. “Why? You’ve got an elixir hiding somewhere in those robes?”
Byleth doesn't waver. “I’m serious.”
He tries to stifle a laugh but considers it. “Well, there’s a lot I want to do and a lot I want to see. Living forever…that’d just be the best kind of caveat, wouldn’t it? Only thing is it could get kind of lonely.” He meets her gaze, adoringly. “But with you, it wouldn’t be too bad.”
Claude brushes a few strands of hair from her face and looks at her, really looks at her, and says, “You been through a lot, haven’t you?”
Byleth holds him tight and nods into his shoulder.
Always quick on the uptake, she thinks, and for once, she’s grateful for it.
A laugh escapes him. “You couldn’t have chosen a younger version of me? You know, before my hair turned gray and I had all these wrinkles? If we’re going to live forever, don’t you want me handsome and suave?”
Byleth knows that there is a pang of truth in every joke he tells.
“I want you,” she says. "That's enough for me."
Claude blushes. “You’ve certainly become bold."
One last time.
She leans in and kisses him again, and again, and again, until their clothes escape their bodies and they’re making love under the thick of moonlight, and nothing else matters.
“I love you,” she says, as they lay next to each other in their most naked and empirical form. “I hope you know that.”
Claude holds her just a little bit tighter. “That's my line."