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They call him ‘smile' like the term is a nickname rather than a request, and he complies with grins that do not reach the eyes. If one were to carve an edge into it then a smirk is what he would hope it implies, but the flinching of teeth is a sure-fire way to bite metal, and the red on his tongue tastes akin to the war efforts that have earned him medals.

He dons gold as though armour pieces could distract from the glamour that is all but an act and leans his head back with a laugh and ten pounds of regret, because she's not here and that's alright but not lately. He wonders in-between breaths “If she could see me now, would she hate me?”.

Yet what he says is “If I need to shut up, then make me.”

And what he thinks is “If this is a nightmare, then wake me.”

Of course, she doesn't, she's gone with the wind and it howls verdant in his ears, and the whisper that taunts him is way beyond his years. But what crashes onto him is no wave, it is lips, and they belong to a person a patron would give tips.

Unimportant.

What is all important rests somewhere much different, a place on no map, and he feels like maybe he should lay off and just take a nap. But he bites the bait and kisses back, inhibitions a thing that he lacks and there is no tact in the way that his tongue moves. Like maybe he just has to get into the groove. Like maybe there's no urgency in the way that the kiss rumbles like the trampling of hooves.

Like maybe he can close his eyes and build his own truth, mint green and fresh.

The tavern stinks.

It sinks into his stomach like a stench of foul air. He shouldn't ought to be splitting hairs but the place sucks, and the wench plays with his earlobe and earring like a sucker, eager to taste other places. He feels wasted and hot, but mostly bothered. She's a damsel but he's in distress and the press of her hand on his junk has him put all his thoughts into the back of his mind trunk.

Because he carries baggage with him.

All of it emotional and this situation was forged on a whim.

He curses devotion, all that it entails, and brings a finger up that's sticky from booze. The maid lets loose and gives it a lick, a real kick to his groin, but he's imagining the point of his authority, the priority of orders rather than asks. The girl raises a flask and he drinks up eagerly, but there is no challenge to the prompt, so he winks. Fake burn and fake flame, and he says his name.

“I'm Claude, should you wish to know.”

She's giggling and kissing the beard that’s yet got half to grow. Whatever she says gets lost in his thoughts, and he's not eager to search for it at the cost of his sanity. Tossed back hair rests with sweat, and a lock falls forward, wet. The wench cares not. He picks at her lips with his teeth knowing he'll get away scot free, can flee at any point.

Back at the joined table two souls rest, a test of patience.

“I never thought he would get drunk before the sun sunk.”

A yawn rings out, loud. True femininity dies with sweet lies and the bitterness of alcohol.

Appalled, her drinking partner raises his glass.

“He is but crass. A birthday fool, and that maiden is just a tool.”

The stool topples under her, and she stands to clink their mugs together. “Cheers, Lorenz. I'll drink to that.”

“You drink like a brat, Hilda.” He listens to the eager chatter, then talks about the scene like the weather. “I would wager he yet beds her.”

She breathes out a slur. Catches herself after. “Now that'll be a round of laughter. I bet against it.”

“You kid”, he mutters. Slays wine and stutters. “Loser pays the tab.”

She means to grab his shoulder but finds his sleeve instead. “Oh you'll be so dead.”

As she watches on her stomach fills with lead, hard and heavy. Because the object of their attention is holding the lass steady – on his lap. And a giggle of girls whispers and shouts as he bridges the gap. There's cheers all around, surround sound, booze and liquor.

They study as he presses his lips to her neck with a snicker. He's laughing, and it bellows throughout the hall, and fellow men begin to etch wounds into his skin with looks. The jealousy cooks under boiling blood, and yet only the drunken joy flows like a flood.

He does not know her name.

This game is one without rules and he doesn't play fair.

He doesn't care.

His drunken stupor has him scream inside “Maybe you would-"

He silences it with a kiss and a “Maybe we should-"

And the maid feeds him mead from her lips, willingly and warm. He drinks it all in like it's the storm after the calm. As though it's all a matter of debate; this is hardly a date, much less so a cause for a race of his heart rate. He's racing time and not at fault for the crime of breaking parts. It's an art form to play the fool in a tarot deck, and he sits centre on stage. Cages his own emotions for his own sake and lets his body grind lazily into clothes and skin. He is, inside, only never what's written on the tin.

She gets a night and he the scars.

The stars refuse to greet him yet.

So he shoulders regret with the brute strength of a man wishing a friend back. As though friend is a word made up of mouths and moans and droughts and stones. Something in the moment from eons ago. A doe and he brought the stacks to the table. If he could wish upon a shattering celestial body he would yearn for-

Scattering thoughts. The hints of a genuine smile rather than frauds. The honey with the sting because she is stern, but her voice can ring in his ears and he wants to put it on repeat and reap it all, the benefits and her body. It needs to be can instead of could because a cannot can not be his reality despite her being an absentee.

Like he's a nobody but she's herbal tea.

Like she's a devotee among pine trees.

Because he pines for her, and the signs are all there.

So, he catches his breath and leaps the lass into the air. His walk is a swagger and she would throw daggers into his back, but he's packing a one-night stand as an attack. Maybe because loud lovers are best underneath covers, and he's bleeding too much. So, he uses her absence as a crutch.

He knows he'll see her again.

But there's plenty of doubt about the when.

Their promise is yet years into the then, and not now. And he watches his colleagues – no, friends – and goes out with a bow. Puts on a smile like plaster and prepares his mind for a ‘morrow of disaster.

The girl in his arms heaves a laugh without harm. And watches as one of his friends looks out in alarm. Then they are out the door and into the setting sun, and he feels like a sunset is a dawn on the run. He is needy and the alley narrow, and if he had her his heart would be pierced by an arrow.

But what he holds is a girl without name, and the only thing this reeks of is shame. Piss, even. There are stenches from trenches and he keeps his breath even. Sets her down and grabs her hand to pretend this is more than just the unbending will of someone held hostage by a crown. It's smooth, her skin, and that does the opposite than to soothe. Because the flesh that he imagines is rough and calloused and that should be the truth.

But it isn't.

He holds onto youth and smiles with the white of a tooth. And none of it matters because none of it is more than false pretence, and when he pretends it is with the vigour of intoxication. Like maybe the sky can turn dark enough for him not to see. And maybe the alcohol makes him numb enough so he doesn't flee. And if he concentrates on the will of wyverns he can state that he's free.

Opportunity is a word he knows best, and if he had one opportune moment, he'd greet her with “Friend.”. But all that is here is a wall with a soft bend. And when he presses the lass into the stone it's without end. Like his mouth is connected to hers for the rent, and he ruts against her as though there's guts to be found. As if someone bound them together, then tugged them over his head and told him to drown.

He stares into her eyes with a frown.

They're brown.

And that's too much difference so he closes his eyes, and as she mouths moans against his collarbone it's with the intensity of small cries. He's wise enough to know the highs will be downplayed by the lows.

And yet his breath hitches as her hands palm his passion into stitches. Without sight she's a saint, and no friend should come to mind through that name, but it does. He feels demons in his veins and ash in his arteries and because.

“Because what?”, is what she whispers in shock.

As his gaze opens, she tugs back his hair, just a lock. “...it's my birthday.”

“What does a Duke look for in seedy taverns on such a day?”

Her lips part to speak more, yet he crashes his against them to silence the thought akin to a chore. And his mind yet betrays him, so he raises his chin in defiance.

“You try to forget her through passion and compliance!”

He wonders briefly if such are words from a Goddess, and if such hurt is holy. Then rips at the stranger's clothes to unravel her slowly. No religion rests here, only worship, and he lowers himself as if the test will be worth it. Her breast tastes like the stale ale in his lungs, and all the wafts of smells that the air has become.

Unpleasant.

As though humping a peasant in the dim hours of day is ever more than a drunken fright. The night forgets but bodies don't, and he wants to step back but his body won't. She's tugging and rubbing and his pants are unbuttoned, and he wants to shut them but instead he starts hugging – her.

That girl without name and her colours all wrong, and each moan she breathes is a song sung all wrong. When he clutches her and touches her and starts losing himself it is sweat and stench and stars that take note, and when he whines in reply it’s a quote without hope.

“Byleth...”

If she hears him, she does not show it, and that's the sweetest of poison to not let him know it.

He ought to show off, throw off the tremor in his muscles, but they spasms and let all his body feel rustles.

Like he's a leaf in the wind.

Or an animal freshly skinned.

Removed from himself.

Disapproved by the one on his mind.

And if the lass is kind then she will never mention it all, and she clutches his shoulders and hugs the wall. Guides him through it, breath shallow and shameful. Tides him over with sloppy kisses and sloppier misses. As though there's something funny within it all he starts laughing, and it's wet and worrisome and honey stung.

It's sweet.

She weeps.

Removes her hands and licks it all off, and he scoffs. The air is putrid and private and though he's a person he feels polluted. Like maybe alcohol is a different kind of poison altogether and he's just drawn the death card. Like, perhaps, there's fault in the way of his scheming art. He presses a kiss to her forehead because it's all he's willing to share, but she's laid bare before him and deserves some care.

He hurriedly dresses himself after, buttons the pants to shelf whatever plans yet remain. Then pushes away from the grey and stands on dirt. Whatever mirth was with him has long since died, and he refuses the arms that he could catch. Because her frame will not match. She is a hurriedly made painting, and there is nothing wrong with landscapes, but he is tired from feigning interest.

He watches the stars and puts his yearning to rest.

“Sheesh, I'm sorry", is what he can mutter.

But his whole head is a clutter of thoughts, and the firmament is ripe with dots and spots. Within it, eternity lies. And maybe eternity lies but he's willing to wait forever, just not for her. He has ties that bind. For her, there is only never.

“Who is she?”

She asks and his expression turns aghast.

He had hoped for the moment to pass without a confession, but when he speaks it is sounds that are empty, no signs of aggression.

Just oppression of his mind, regression of his self, expression of his tale.

“A friend.”

And it's no lie but it might as well be one, because words like friend don't bend and yet he breaks them to tie them back together. The girl looks to her feet and picks up a feather and busies her hands to draw herself back together. Holds the tiny gift like a present, and he feels stuck in the past, and when she reaches to give it to him it is meant as a memory to last.

“For you. I'd give you flowers but an owl's feather has to do.”

He cradles the thing likes he's at church at the pew.

Then speaks what might be the first prayer in his life.

“I strive for more, you know. My ambitions soar.”

He cannot ever be truly speaking the truth, but this unnamed girl claimed the shame of his youth. And maybe that is enough to let her know more, let her take just a glimpse into his lore. Because she exists in front of him and hanging a hymn up to die sounds like a soft prize to pay for a night-lived lie.

“I don't believe in Gods. But I pray that the odds are ever in your favour.”

When he looks up above the stars shine like a saviour. They twinkle and twist and sprinkle life into the mist. He smiles truthfully for the first time and pockets the feather like a dime. Says thank you after and means it and leaves the lass and the rest of his wit.

Before he can truly quit, he hears her from afar.

“It's a good night for a shooting star. You should wish upon it.”

He wants to turn around and watch the moonlit night cast its will upon the lights, yet when he looks it burns so bright, he is reminded of his heart that once fell. Clutches his chest and promises not to dwell on it.

Too much.

“If I could wish, I'd wish for her touch.”

But such desires lack real weight. They are lofty dreams, and he lets them soar and gives them to fate. If is such a big word. If he were to see her tonight, if her voice could be heard. He dwells on it little but rubs the feather of the bird.

If not tonight, then another day, and one moment in the future all his worry will ebb away.

Until then time marches on, and maybe it is the alcohol talking but he swears he can see a fawn. And one day, not tonight, not lately, the sky will be golden. Until then he has to hold his ambitions for a new dawn. Behind him night yet falls, and he crawls back to the place of no rest. Whatever they planned, he would have failed their test.

Yet when he steps foot into the bar what greets him is a different kind of spar altogether.

“And I swear to you, dear Hilda, I can yet best you in a fight!”

“Show what you might! I will tear you apart, Lorenz!”

He darts around the room like he might be able to run, but the door creaks and croaks and his cover is undone. So he steps over, and looks at the two. Both more drunken than him and with a red hue. Cheeks red and pride dead.

“Claudeee~”, she drawls, and takes a swig of the wine.

He beside her heaves a sigh, tries to stand up, almost falls. “That would be mine.”

“We uhhh, had a bet going.” She flails.

He attempts to grab her mug and fails. “If you could, hahhh, finally wed...I mean bed a lady.”

They are both clearly done, and the man of the hour plops down between them to disclose who has won. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, they will forget everything that morning brings.

“A tie, I guess. I uhhh, confess. But not to more than that.”

“Did you have a nice...chat?”, she asks without missing a beat.

Her partner looks on in defeat. “Do I need to pay for it all?”

“Well, there was a wall...”

They both turn, intrigued.

Their faces scream that they must be fatigued.

“Disclosing more will cost you much. I blew quite a bit of money today.”

She lays a hand on him in a sloppy touch. “Oh screw you, here’s some gold, now talk away.”

And his noble friend chips in and doubles the pay.

“Alright, keep it coming and I'll talk...”

Milking them dry is a cake walk, and he cackles. And as they sit there between patrons yet more intoxicated than them, he looks outside towards the night sky freckles. He watches them shimmer as the dark turns to glimmer.

When dawn falls, he is tired but alive.

What he dreams for is now a much smaller delight.

Something that he whispers into the morning, a:

“I'd like to remedy my wish, if I may.”

“I'd just like to be able to call her friend again and for her to be okay.”

“I ought to ask you before I forget.”

“Because it is, without a doubt, my main regret.”