Annette’s the one who suggests they go into the village that night. Morale boost purposes only—she swears on Seiros. Definitely not for the all the pastries and sweets the villagers have made for the occasion.
Surprisingly enough, Byleth agrees without hesitation, and so they end the war council on that note. The girls are already bounding up to Byleth’s side before Sylvain can even scoot his chair back. How do they move that fast?
He chuckles to himself as he watches her try (and fail) to squirm out of the swarm of excited giggles and grabby hands that is Dorothea, Annette, and Hilda. Sylvain catches her eyes, and she gives him a pleading look that practically screams “Please save me!”
“Ladies, ladies!” Sylvain exclaims as he pushes past them and slings his arm over Byleth’s shoulders. “As much as I hate to do this, I’m going to need to steal the professor away. We have some, ah, prior engagements.”
He punctuates his suggestive words with a teasing wink and mischievous smirk. Dorothea rolls her eyes.
“Fine, Professor,” she relents reluctantly, “Sylvain may have come to your rescue this time, but we will get you all dressed up before tonight.”
“And worry not, Dorothea,” Sylvain begins, “I’ll make sure to take the utmost care of whatever you put our dear professor in when I’m undressing her tonight.”
“Sylvain!” Byleth huffs indignantly as she elbows him lightly.
Annette wrinkles her nose in disgust.
“Sylvain, you are the last person in the world the professor would sleep with,” Hilda scoffs.
“You wound me, Hilda,” Sylvain replies, his free hand splaying across his chest in feigned offense, “but really, we gotta get going.”
He sweeps Byleth out of the room, arm still draped comfortably over her shoulders as the two of them make their way downstairs.
“Thank you for helping me out back there,” Byleth says with a small smile, and Sylvain can’t help but grin right back.
“All in a day’s work, m’lady.”
Byleth laughs softly, and Sylvain feels his heart flutter at the sweet sound. She gently shrugs his arm off, and Sylvain finds himself longing to hold her again.
“I’m going to the cathedral to see if Dimitri wants to come with us tonight,” she tells him, and though he hates himself for it, Sylvain feels his heart sink.
“Care to join me, Sylvain?”
It’s a tempting offer—a few more stolen moments alone with her—but he knows, once they reach the cathedral, all that will be lost.
“Thanks, Professor,” he answers, “but I think His Princeliness would much rather see you alone.”
Sylvain is certain he hears a hint of disappointment, but then again, he could just be imagining it for his sake.
“I’ll see you later tonight, then,” Byleth says simply before turning forward to continue down the stairs. Sylvain keeps his eyes on her until she disappears around the corner. He lets out a deep sigh as he runs his hand through his hair. Goddess, he has it bad.
“Stop drooling,” Felix mutters as he brushes past Sylvain, pulling him out of his reverie.
“Huh? Wha—Felix! Shut up!”
It’s early evening when he sees her next, standing by the gatekeeper, the two chatting away happily. Byleth has somehow managed to avoid the other girls. She’s dressed in a simple, long sleeve, cream blouse tucked into fitted, dark brown pants. Her mint green hair is braided loosely, and she’s got an easy air about her that just seems to dissolve all his worries the longer he gazes at her.
“You like her, don’t you?”
The voice that chimes from behind him is soft and airy, a sound similar to the smallest church bells tinkling in the wind.
“Oh, Mercedes,” he greets awkwardly. “How long have you been standing there? I totally wasn’t star—”
“You were, though,” she giggles. “It’s okay. Your secret’s safe with me, Sylvain.”
He lets out a defeated sigh.
“Nothing gets past you, Mercedes,” he chuckles. “Yeah, I like her...I—I think I might even—”
“Guys! Let’s go!” Annette shouts impatiently from the bottom of the stone steps, cutting Sylvain off. “C’mon! The sun’s going to set soon!”
“Oh, right! Coming, Annie!” Mercedes calls down as she hurries to join Annette, who’s already tugging Felix along with her toward the front gate.
Sylvain feels a gentle tap on his shoulder and turns to find Byleth at his side.
“Oh, hi, Professor. Where’s Dimitri?” Sylvain wonders as he takes a quick look around them.
“He, um, won’t be joining us tonight,” she responds sadly, eyes downcast.
“Hey,” Sylvain says gently, and, in a moment of boldness, he cups her face in his hand and tilts it up just enough for their eyes to meet. “None of that now. We’re going out to have a good time, and you deserve to enjoy yourself as much as the rest of us. Dimitri will come around eventually—I promise.”
She smiles at him; it’s nothing more than a small tug at the corners of her lips, but it warms his heart. And if he could freeze time, he would stay in this moment forever.
“Yeah,” she breathes, “you’re right.”
“Of course, I am,” Sylvain teases. He moves to lower his hand back to his side, but Byleth takes it in hers before he can, fingers intertwining with his. She pulls him down the stairs, and he stumbles after her, nearly toppling down the steps as he tries to keep up.
“H-Hey! Professor, slow down!” he laughs heartily, an unfamiliar warmth bubbling up in his chest.
“No can do, Gautier! We have to get there before sundown—Annette’s orders!”
By the time they reach the small village nestled in the foothills below Garegg Mach, the sun has already begun its descent, painting the sky a radiant gold.
“Alright, Annette,” Ashe calls over his shoulders as Byleth and Sylvain finally catch up with the group. “Everyone’s here!”
“It took you long enough!” Annette scolds, glaring playfully at Sylvain.
“Hey, don’t blame me,” Sylvain retorts as he raises his hands up in mock defense. “It’s the professor’s fault. She just couldn’t keep her hands off me.”
“Goddess, Sylvain! Do you always have to be so lewd?” Annette exclaims in disgust before handing him a light, wooden plaque with a square paper lantern stuck on it.
“What’s this for?” Byleth asks as she takes her own share of supplies from Annette, who also hands her two candles, paint brushes, and a wooden palette that holds a messy dollop of black paint.
“The village holds an annual festival to honor those who’ve passed,” Annette informs her. “You decorate your lantern in memory of them, and then set it adrift in the lake.”
Annette pauses for a moment, letting her eyes quickly roam over the group.
“And, well, I thought, with everything going on, it would be good for all of us to come together and just…oh, maybe this was a bad idea...”
Her voice trails off, tears brimming in the corner of her eyes, and it’s Felix who steps forward and rests a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“It’s a great idea,” he tells her reassuringly, and the others happily agree without hesitation.
“It looks like everyone’s starting to decorate their lanterns,” Ingrid notes, and the others follow her lead, splitting off into their own small groups until it’s just Sylvain and Byleth.
“Shall we?” Sylvain asks as he offers her his arm.
“Lead the way,” she says as she hooks her arm with his. They settle under a willow tree, backs resting against its sturdy trunk as they work in silence. The sun’s sinking behind the hills now, leaving golden clouds in its wake.
Byleth has never been the most artistic person, but she tries her best to paint Jeralt’s favorite flower onto the lantern. Daffodils. He always loved daffodils.
“These were your mother’s favorite,” Jeralt said, handing the yellow and orange flower to Byleth. She took it in her small, chubby fingers. It looked like the sun.
“Why?” Byleth asked in that ever-curious manner only a young child possessed.
“Well,” Jeralt began as he pulled her onto his lap, “they symbolize new beginnings—forgiveness, and your mother was always one for seconed chances.”
Byleth looked up at her father, brow scrunched together in confusion.
“I don’t get it,” she mumbled, twirling the flower between her fingers. Jeralt leaned down and pressed a tender kiss to the top of Byleth’s head.
“One day, you will.”
Byleth looks up from her poorly painted daffodils and rubs her eyes with her free hand. Her fingers brush away tears she didn’t even know she’d shed. She glances over at Sylvain, who seems just as absorbed in painting his lantern as she had been. He looks...sad, lips set in a thin line, and she fights back the urge to reach out and hold him.
“Is something wrong, Professor?” Sylvain inquires as he turns to face her.
Byleth feels her face flush with embarrassment at being caught.
“No, no! I was just—I’m sorry,” Byleth stammered. “This is supposed to be personal. I was just curious, but I shouldn’t have—”
“It’s okay,” Sylvain reassures her with a striking, easy smile. “It’s nothing special.”
He lifts up his lantern to show her the jagged line running across it, and she notices that it looks a lot like a scar—Miklan’s scar.
“I thought you hated him,” she murmurs, shifting closer to his side.
“Well, it wasn’t always like that.”
There was a time when they were inseparable, a time so long ago it felt like a dream.
“I used to follow him around everywhere.”
Running down the halls of House Gautier, chasing one another without a care in the world. Summer days spent in their mother’s private garden, reenacting the heroic tales of King Loog until the sun burned the tips of their noses.
“Before anyone knew I had a Crest—before he knew—we were practically joined at the hip.”
A time when the Crest of Gautier was nothing more than some words they heard in passing.
“I thought the world of him.”
A time when all Sylvain wanted was to be just like his older brother. But now, Miklan was dead, buried in an unmarked grave. Even in death, he had been left to be forgotten.
Byleth reaches out slowly and rests her hand on his shoulder. Around them, people have begun lighting their candles and placing them inside their lanterns before setting the lights afloat. Sylvain’s trembling, fighting back tears he always hid so well from the world.
“I think it’s time we let them go,” Byleth breathes softly. Sylvain nods and follows her lead. They light their lanterns together and set them adrift in silence. Byleth watches the breeze carry the lanterns across the lake, admiring their soft glow against the fading twilight.
Byleth looks over at Sylvain. Under the gleam of the lights dancing on the water, his dark, red hair seems to smolder like dying embers.
His teary gaze meets hers, and the world slows to a stop. It’s just them, the thrum of their hearts and the whisper of their breaths.
He takes a step closer, and she can feel the warmth rolling off him, a stark contrast to the chilly night breeze.
“I…” But she can’t seem to find the right words.
A heartbeat, then two, pass before his hands finally meet her waist, and he leans closer, so, so close she can hear his soft breathing, feel his eyelashes brush along her cheekbones.
Her name falls from his lips in a raspy, whisper, and she shivers at the absolute need dripping off each syllable. And then, his lips brush against hers tentatively, and she’s holding her breath as every fiber of her being coils in anticipation.
She rests her hands on his shoulders, running them slowly up his neck and into his hair. She drags her fingernails gently against his scalp, and the faint touch is all it takes to destroy what little restraint Sylvain has left.