It becomes apparent to Jeralt very quickly that Byleth’s strangeness is not something they will grow out of.
Some part of him had hoped that leaving the Church and Rhea’s clutches would change them. That they’d suddenly begin to laugh, to have the telltale spark of life in their eyes, to be human. But as they grow, from silent infant to even more sullen toddler, nothing seems to change. They still do not speak. They do not cry, or laugh, or complain. They simply stare, with their vacant eyes, and Jeralt tries his best to convince himself that it doesn’t disturb him.
They never stay anywhere long. Jeralt is believed dead, but his name and face are well known everywhere the church has their fingers in; which is almost everywhere. The threat of being found and news travelling back to Rhea keeps his nerves taut and his feet moving. And it turns out he is not the only one who finds Byleth strange. Coos and babytalk from besotted villagers quickly tun to fearful glances and whispered rumours as Byleth fails to provide any response to their conversation. Children’s offers to play receive nothing but a blank stare. Store owners offers of free snacks or trinkets get no thanks. Mother’s affections are rebuffed. And with all this, the villagers whisper and gossip, and any attention increases the risk of Jeralt’s identity being discovered, so they move on.
Byleth never once complains, or even gives a word as to their constant sneaking out of towns in the cover of night, or hours spent on horseback to avoid curious followers. They simply cling to Jeralt’s shirt and follow.
It is not normal behaviour for a child. But, as Jeralt is beginning to realise, nothing about Byleth can be considered normal.
Byleth is not speaking.
This, in of itself, is not particularly strange. Byleth has never spoken, and Jeralt has become accustomed to having a conversation with them without any real response, save for the blinks and minute tilts of their head he has begun to recognise as something like words. But as their fifth birthday approaches, it is raising more and more suspicion and questions from villagers. A child of five should be at least babbling, the town mothers chide Jeralt when he’s waiting in line for bread, unable to escape. The poor child will be stunted if he doesn’t do something, for Goddess’ sake!
Jeralt glances at Byleth, currently haggling with the blacksmith over the repairing of his sword entirely without saying a word. Byleth is certainly many things, he thinks as they guilt the blacksmith into a fifty gold discount, but stunted is not one of them.
Regardless, it does serve to remind him that some level of vocalisation is expected of Byleth at this point. It seems he was becoming so accustomed to their specific brand of strange he had forgotten what other children were expected to do; so the next night they have in an inn and he’s preparing Byleth for bed, he broaches the topic.
(This ‘preparing’ for bed is really more for Jeralt’s desire to have something resembling a normal parent’s bedtime routine than to be of any real assistance to Byleth. They have proven perfectly capable of working the clasps and buttons of their clothes by themselves. But they show no signs of rebuffing Jeralt’s efforts. He would even go so far as to say they do so affectionately, if Byleth ever did anything with affection.)
“So,” Jeralt starts, sitting cross legged across from Byleth on their bed as they lie tucked in. “I understand that talking isn’t… Something you do, but people are starting to notice, and its suspicious for a kid your age to never say anything. So if you could… Start talking, that would help me out.” The sheer absurdity of trying to reason with a four year old child over such a thing is not lost on Jeralt. But Byleth is themselves absurd, so he figures it is worth a try.
Byleth, predictably, says nothing.
Jeralt sighs. “Good talk, kid.”
Jeralt has lost Byleth.
Which is ridiculous, because Byleth is not the type of child who wanders off. They have always stuck by Jeralt’s leg like glue, just as he has always told them to. Which means that something, or some one has separated the two, and Jeralt’s mind races with the possibilities of who. Had the Church found them? An agent sent by Rhea to return Byleth to her? A regular criminal looking for an easy hostage? Slavers on the search for fresh meat? Whoever they are, they’re dead Jeralt thinks as he keeps his hand on the hilt of his sword and pushes through the crowds of the market, calling Byleth’s name over the chatter. He asks stall keepers if they’ve seen them with such frantic panic they almost back away in fear, but Jeralt currently has no concern over staying inconspicuous. Byleth is gone, and Jeralt will find them. If they have to carve their bloody way through this damn town, then so--
“Oh, that’s your dad?” Jeralt hears someone say among the crowds. “Well, let’s get you back to him! Hey, mist--”
He’s whirling around and slamming through people towards the voice before it can finish, mind devoid of any thoughts but getting to Byleth, when he sees them perched atop the shoulders of a bulky man in a blacksmith’s smock, pointing towards him. People are yelling and swearing at Jeralt for throwing them aside, but he hears none of it as the man blinks in surprise and lets out a booming laugh.
“Well, I suppose he was already looking for you!” He grins, undaunted by the almost feral edge to Jeralt’s behaviour. Stooping so Byleth is on equal eye level with their father, he smiles up at him. “Found them wandering around my stall, and thought there’d be someone worried sick about them. Glad we found you so fast!”
Seeing Byleth’s face as devoid of emotion as ever, placidly seated on a complete stranger’s shoulders after wandering off, the very thing Jeralt had told them never to do, Jeralt’s relief quickly turns to anger.
“What were you thinking!?” He shouts, replacing his panic with indignation. “I was looking everywhere for you! I’ve told you time and time again not to wander off in a crowd, but--”
And then Byleth reaches out their arms to Jeralt, and says, “Daddy.”
Any anger immediately rushes out of his head, mind going blank as he stares at Byleth. Daddy , she’d said. With her arms open, eyes wide and staring up at him, like a regular child wanting their father, like they actually loved him. Tears prick at the backs of his eyes as he takes Byleth in his arms, suddenly so aware of how light they are, how their tiny fingers clutch at his arms, how they rest their head against his chest, completely secure. Like nothing could ever hurt them so long as Jeralt is holding them.
“Just--” He chokes out, voice rough with emotion. “Just don’t do it again, okay?”
“Okay, daddy.” Byleth says against the fabric of his shirt.
Jeralt breaks, and starts crying in the middle of the crowd while the blacksmith laughs and comforts him and people stare. It’s the most conspicuous they’ve been in weeks, and he should really be thinking of a good cover story for their identities and reasons for being in town. But all he can think of is tiny hands and quiet voices instead of church agents and back up plans. Byleth settles against his chest, and Jeralt thinks just this once he can let himself simply feel.
Byleth is eight when they first tell Jeralt about the girl in their dreams.
They’ve managed to travel far enough that the Church’s influence is weak, and so Jeralt has begun to settle some. He’s started work as a mercenary, travelling and doing the dirty work for whoever pays him; and he’s even managed to have a few other hired swords join up with him in some sort of company. It’s vague and he isn’t certain whether it’ll stick, but it’s something. And it’s bringing a bit more gold their way, so Jeralt’s not complaining. They can afford the nicer inns nowadays, and the handful of mercenaries that have started to tag alongside are friendly enough.
One of them, a former mother Jeralt suspects, lavishes Byleth with attention and refuses to be put off by their lack of response. Which is fine by Jeralt; the more Byleth learns to interact with others, the better. Her latest strategy to get Byleth to smile at her seems to be gifts; as Jeralt discovers when he walks into their inn room to see his child scribbling with crayons on some scraps of paper.
“Watcha got there?” Jeralt asks as he sets down his sword.
“Crayons.” Byleth answers. They’ve gotten much better at talking, even if they still do so sparingly. “Marium gave them to me.”
Jeralt hums and crouches down next to Byleth to get a better look at just what it is they’re drawing. They’re typically childish scribbles, stick people with names alongside them to identify who they are, and it’s so normal of Byleth something pangs in Jeralt’s chest. The mercenaries they’re travelling with appear in some, with Jeralt himself earning a place in all of them. He tries not to be too smug about it.
But the one they’re currently drawing is quite different; great spikes of green stick out from a childish figure clad in… Some kind of apparel. Far too revealing for a person who looks like a kid, Jeralt thinks.
“Who’s that?” He asks, not recognising them from their travels.
Byleth doesn’t pause in their scribbling, adding some kind of pink tassels to the hair. “The girl in my dreams.” They say simply. “She doesn’t have a name.”
“Huh.” Jeralt replies, brow furrowing. This is the first he’s heard of any girl in dreams. “What’s, uh… What’s she like?”
“Sleepy.” Byleth replies, setting down the crayons and nodding at the page as they decide it’s complete. They hand Jeralt a few papers with him starring in it. He blinks back tears as he thanks them with a trembling voice. He knows it’s likely only something they’ve imitated from other children, having taken Jeralt’s requests to blend in better to heart, but it makes his chest pang regardless.
He doesn’t ask about the girl further.
Byleth takes to drawing with gusto, saying that it helps pass the time they spend waiting for Jeralt and the other mercenaries to come back from jobs. They mainly draw him and the company, handing out the drawings to their respective models with no expression or words, to which they politely smile. Marium is ecstatic to receive her own, and brags to whoever will listen later in the pub about it. Jeralt, competitive nature and dad instincts kicking in, reminds her that he has easily double the drawings she does, and they get in a fist fight that has them both aching and swearing in the morning.
Alongside them, however, the green haired girl continues to appear. Over time Jeralt learns more about her from Byleth; they see her in their dreams most nights, almost always sleeping or half asleep. They don’t seem to ever remember previous night’s conversations. She looks around twelve, and Byleth claims she is irritable, but likes to talk about what they’ve seen on their travels. The sheer detail they give when Jeralt asks is unnerving, and he can’t help but think there might be something suspicious here.
If there’s one thing Jeralt knows, after all, it’s not to trust anyone with green hair.
Jeralt, out of his depth, goes to Marium and asks if this is something he should be concerned about, seeing as she’s the expert on kids. She laughs at him for it, the nerve.
“So Byleth’s got an imaginary friend!” She says, looking up at him from cleaning her sword. “Most kids do, Jeralt. Nothing to be scared about.” He barks that he is most certainly not scared, thank you very much, as he stalks away and Marium cackles.
So this is what normal is, he wonders as he watches Byleth scribble the girl on some sort of stone throne. It certainly doesn’t feel normal to him.
Byleth stops drawing so much by the time they are fifteen, but the girl remains.
Jeralt’s makeshift team of mercenaries has developed into something much more uniform and professional, and while its members rotate and change constantly, Marium is still there. She claims it’s only for Byleth, but Jeralt likes to think there’s something like respect between the two of them. Byleth in question has moved on to other hobbies, such as maintaining their weapons and target practice with the dagger Jeralt had gifted them on their twelfth birthday, but the girl has remained a topic of conversation between the two. Byleth still dreams of her regularly, apparently, and Jeralt is almost certain that’s not normal.
Marium’s concerned hum when he brings it up to her cements his worry.
He’s in his room, reading over the current contracts the company has going, trying to think of some way to bring this up to Byleth when a knock on the door jolts him from his thoughts. He turns, and sees Byleth hovering by the door, head tilted in a way that Jeralt knows is asking for a private conversation.
“Sure, kid.” He says. It wasn’t like he was getting anywhere with his plans anyway. “What’s up?”
Byleth closes the door behind them silently, and gets straight to the point, as they tend to do. “She doesn’t trust Marcel.”
“What?” Jeralt asks, gesturing for Byleth to take a seat across from him. They do, eyes darting around the room to double check they’re truly alone, for which a swell of pride rises in Jeralt’s chest for. They’ve been listening to his lessons.
“The girl in my dreams.” Byleth states simply. “She doesn’t trust Marcel.” Jeralt waits, thinking they will continue, but they don’t. Of course they don’t.
“...Okay.” He says slowly, trying to think of some reasonable response to this very un reasonable situation. “And what do you think?”
“I agree.” Is all they offer. Jeralt nods, and Byleth takes their leave then; apparently having said all they needed to say. The door clicks closed behind them, and Jeralt lets himself slump onto his desk with an exhausted sigh.
The girl didn’t trust Marcel. Just what the hell was that supposed to mean? Marcel was one of the newest recruits to the mercenary group, lured in by the promise of regular work and more gold. He was a deft hand with a dagger, and sure, maybe a little too gold orientated for Jeralt’s liking, but it wasn’t like he could afford to be picky. And besides, what mercenary didn’t like gold? He was co operative, played nice with the others, and had the skill to actually be of help in a fight. That was all that mattered.
But Byleth didn’t just give out their thoughts on every mercenary who joined them. They hardly ever gave a word about them, be it approving or disapproving. Even Marium had only ever gotten a small handful of vague, maybe compliments, and that was strange enough. For them to think it important enough to speak to Jeralt personally…
He huffs, and makes a mental note to keep an eye on Marcel. Just to be safe, he thinks. Not because he believes some imaginary girl is psychic or anything.
Okay, so maybe the imaginary girl is psychic.
It’s only a week later when Marcel suddenly turns his blade on Jeralt in the middle of a routine fight with bandits, along with a handful of other mercenary members. It seems he’d been angling to take over the group for profit, and had managed to sway others to his way of seeing things. Jeralt cuts him down, of course, and the almost mutiny is ended before it’s begun, but a thought clings to his mind as he burns the bodies.
“She doesn’t trust Marcel.”
He and Byleth don’t speak of it. It is enough for them to meet eyes over the fire to know what the other is thinking. It’s from then onwards the tip offs become more regular. From ulterior motives in new recruits, dodgy contracts, and even safe routes of travel, whoever the girl in the dreams is, she certainly knows what she’s talking about. It becomes common for Byleth to whisper a warning in Jeralt’s ear on the road, or meet him in his room for a quiet caution.
Jeralt asks them once, after they receive twice the reward they’d intended to by handing in a runaway criminal who’d tried to hire them for an escort; all on the girl’s advice.
“What do you think she is?” He asks as they count the coins to share amongst the company.
Byleth blinks at him blankly. “Does it matter?” It’s less of a question and more of a statement, head tilted in a way that Jeralt knows to mean they don’t understand why he’s asking.
“Nevermind.” He turns back to the gold glinting in the candlelight, and tries to think of nothing but the numbers. Not of green hair, or prophets, or sermons, or archbishops.
They are far from Rhea. If this has anything to do with her, it does not matter. Jeralt will not let her have Byleth; that he knows more than anything.
Byleth’s first kill is entirely Jeralt’s fault.
It’d been a routine job by all accounts, really. Hired to protect some noble’s precious daughter while she was ferried between destinations; the details had blurred and been lost over the years. The ambush from bandits had been expected, and remarkably dull. They’d been desperate and badly armed, movements shaky and nervous, clearly untrained and driven to their deeds by simple need for the coin. Jeralt, ever the dutiful mercenary, allowed none to get close to his assigned protection.
Or at least, he shouldn’t have.
He still doesn’t know how one had snuck past him. Perhaps he was simply getting on in years, and his senses weren’t as sharp as they’d once been. Maybe someone had let their station slip. Or it was just bad luck. It doesn’t matter, because the high pitched squeal of terror that breaks through the sounds of battle from the ornate carriage is the only thing that Jeralt cares about in that moment. It takes him barely three seconds to tear open the bandit he’s occupied with and sprint to the carriage, throwing himself through the open door with his sword at the ready. But it isn’t quick enough.
Byleth is standing in front of their charge, dagger in hand and slicked with blood. Their blank eyes stare down at the bandit corpse slumped at their feet. The man’s hands are still outstretched towards them, perhaps in fear, or in a plead for mercy. It hardly matters now. The noble daughter is curled up behind Byleth, hiding in their skirts and sobbing, pressed into the wooden wall of the carriage as far away from the scene as it will allow.
They’d only ever been stationed with the girl as a necessity. Jeralt had thought it the safest place. The least likely to see blood. But here Byleth is, soaked in it. They look up then, eyes meeting his with that damned emptiness.
“Father.” They say, simply, as though they haven’t just killed a man. “Hello.”
Jeralt’s throat burns with bile as he fights the urge to throw up. Instead, he sets about doing damage control; checking the daughter’s condition, removing the corpse, securing the carriage… Byleth watches, gaze owlish as it always is, and Jeralt feels it burn into his back as he speaks to the other mercenaries on continuing the journey. There’s no time to change clothes or clean them before they reach their destination. The heavy iron smell of blood clings to the air like a fog, and it all centres around Byleth.
Later, when the daughter has been safely handed over to her father, and the mercenaries have found safe lodging for the night, Jeralt scrubs Byleth’s hands until they’re almost as red as the blood that once stained them. He remembers his own first kill; a clumsy, desperate thing that had kept him awake and retching for weeks on end. The nightmares had been endless.
Byleth shows none of that.
Their eyes are blank and haunting; but no more than they usually are. They allow Jeralt his cleaning, but make no efforts to assist or thank him for it, simply letting him carry on. They do not tremble, or cry, or apologise. They just are. As though they don’t care for the blood caking underneath their fingernails. As though the burden of a life does not now weigh heavily upon their shoulders.
As though they feel nothing.
Jeralt swallows his own revulsion; icy with fear and hot with guilt. This is his child. How can he look at them and feel such terror? Such unsettlement, such discomfort? If Byleth notices his feelings, they say nothing; though he doubts they would either way. He finishes scrubbing them and sees them to bed with quiet words of reassurance and comfort that are much more for Jeralt’s sake than Byleth. They stare up at him from their inn bed; the pristine white of the sheets stark against the raw redness of their hands, almost as if they were still coated in blood. Jeralt looks away before he can feel sick again.
“Goodnight, father.” Byleth says, impassive and unfeeling like any other night.
It’s too much for Jeralt. He bids them goodnight and excuses himself from their shared room to find a moment of quiet in the inn’s hallway, finding the nearest window to feel the cold breeze against his face. He closes his eyes, letting the day’s events catch up to him. The cloying iron scent of blood, the cold indifference on Byleth’s face, Jeralt not being quick enough to save them from it, from doing this, from the blood slicking and dripping from their dagger, the dagger he’d given him, his fault, all his fault--
Jeralt vomits out the window. He allows himself a few moments of rawness, of burning bile in his throat, of regret, of wishing that Byleth’s mother were still here to guide him; of being thankful they aren’t, because what would they think of the child they’d made? Would she love them regardless? Or would she be as frightened as Jeralt is? It doesn’t matter. Nothing changes that Jeralt is the only one here, and Byleth is what they are. Cold. Disturbing. Unfeeling.
But they are also his child. And he will be damned if he does not love them the way their mother believed he would.
He latches the window, squares his shoulders, and heads back to their room.
If Jeralt had things his way, Byleth would never have seen the monastery.
But, as he walks alongside them in the pristine white halls of Garreg Mach, he thinks to himself; when has he ever had things his way? Rhea had been practically glowing with joy at his return. Or at least, so she had claimed. But he had seen the way her eyes lingered solely on Byleth, sliding over Jeralt like he was simply part of the scenery. He has no doubt in his mind who her joy is for, and it certainly is not him. Jeralt may not know just why that joy is there, but he sure as hell knows he doesn’t like it, and she wants her nowhere near his child. But he also does not miss Seteth’s suspicious glare or arguing against their hasty reappointments at the church.
He has no doubt neither he nor Rhea will let them out of their clutches a second time. There’s no way out of this; only damage control now.
Byleth, for their part, has been entirely silent and unreadable since they met with the Garreg Mach students. Even Jeralt can parse nothing from their far off looks, and it’s a feeling he hasn’t felt in many years. It is much more disturbing then he remembers. Is he losing them already to Rhea, he fears? Has she somehow sunk her claws deep into them, tugging them away from him, from their f amily?
Have all these years hiding them been for nothing?
Seteth finally shows Jeralt to his room, Byleth hovering alongside them despite already knowing where their quarters are and it being late enough for them to return. Seteth tries to politely remind them of the fact, but Byleth is stony faced and shows no sign of acknowledging it. He sputters, and decides they can escort themselves if they please, some of us have work to do, and stalks off in a huff. Jeralt suppresses a laugh, but only barely.
“Well.” He says, turning back to his child, mirth fading quickly as the day’s events return to him. “We should both get some shut eye. Big day for you tomorrow, kid. Or should I say, professor?” He gives them a smile, but his heart isn’t in it.
Byleth says nothing for a few moments. They simply stare at him, and Jeralt almost asks what’s wrong before they are nodding and turning to leave with a simple goodnight.
He sighs. Normally he would be worried sick about this sudden change in Byleth’s behaviour and follow them for answers. But today has been long and harrowing, and he simply wants to fall asleep and forget it ever happened; if only for a few hours.
So he does just that.
He dreams of her.
He dreams of green hair snaking out in rivulets to constrict and choke around the neck of his love. Her stomach is swollen and fit to burst with a child she will never get to meet. Hands reach out to him, desperate, pleading for him, but he is frozen and unable to even call out. He watches as she is consumed, countless scaled hands pulling her into an endless sea of green that devours her like she’s nothing but a speck. Her outstretched hand is the last to disappear. Still calling for him, still believing he will save her. Why hadn’t he saved her? How could he not see this coming? If only he’d paid more attention, if he’d just noticed, he could have done something, and she would still be here, with him, with Byleth, with--
Jeralt awakes with a start. The bed’s duvet is thrown across the room, his limbs tangled in his sheets, and skin soaked with sweat. His breath comes in ragged pants, and he realises belatedly that he has had a nightmare. Sighing, he hauls himself up and swings his legs over the side of the bed, burying his face in his hands and trying to remember how to breathe properly.
It would appear returning to the monastery hadn’t just brought up unpleasant memories of Rhea, but of Byleth’s mother as well. Walking through the grounds, seeing the very same places they had once frequented together had hurt. The church where they had met, the stables they’d snuck kisses and sweet words in, the gardens they’d made excuses to water together just to have more time with one another, the lake where he’d helped her catch her first fish… Every one had stung deeper into Jeralt’s heart, tearing open a wound he’d thought long scarred over and unable to hurt again.
But Rhea has always had her ways of surprising Jeralt in the worst manner.
He needs some air, he thinks, but the idea of going out and seeing any more alcoves or corners he’d once sat with her in has bile rising in his throat, so he settles for opening a window and trying to not look outside. Even this damn room is pushing it, the itchy sheets and scuffed furniture so familiar to him that he almost wants to throw it all out and sleep on the damn floor. Maybe that way he’d at least get some sleep. No nightmares or trauma to relive. Just a good night’s--
Someone knocks on the door.
Jeralt freezes, every muscle tensing in his body as instinct kicks in. He scans the room for exits and entrances, possible escape routes, makeshift weapons, anything that could be used against him here. He doesn’t trust anyone in this damn monastery a lick (Well, except maybe Leonie; but the jury was still out on that) and a knock on his door in the middle of the night was definitely risking some kind of attack. Luckily, he always keeps a knife under his pillow.
(One of the few the staff hadn’t managed to find in their full body frisk of him. Weapons when seeing the archbishop were forbidden, Seteth had said. But Jeralt didn’t go anywhere without something to defend himself. Least of all to see Rhea.)
He slips it into the sleeve of his nightshirt, carefully as to hide any tells that it’s even there as he tries to school his face into something casual and sleepy looking to answer the door with. A steadying breath. He braces himself, and opens the door, knife ready to snake out at a moment’s noti--
Jeralt just about collapses with relief, sagging against the door frame with a sigh as he lets his hand relax against the knife. “Goddess, kid, you scared me.” He admonishes, getting no apology and not expecting one. Finally gaining some sense of relaxation, he looks over Byleth’s figure, suddenly realising they’re fully dressed and… Is that all their gear? Where the hell did they get that? “What are you doing?”
“We’re leaving.” They say, as though it should be obvious. They extend Jeralt’s sword to him in an offering. For a few long moments he’s at a loss; mouth open and trying to find something to say to such a sure statement.
“I--What?” He eventually settles for. “Kid, no, we--Where did you even find those, did you steal them back? I swear, if someone saw you--”
“No one did.” They assure him. The sword doesn’t move, still outstretched to him.
“Even still, why would you even risk that? This is--”
“You don’t trust them.” Byleth interrupts; something they’ve never done before, and it’s enough to make Jeralt halt mid sentence. It doesn’t take much effort to know who ‘they’ is. Jeralt had been trying his best to keep the emotion from his face from the moment Alois had recognised him, refusing to give an inch to the damn place that’d taken so much from him. But it seems he couldn’t hide it from Byleth. Which isn’t surprising; they’ve somehow always been both discerning and tactless.
Jeralt sighs, letting himself lean against the doorframe completely, already feeling the adrenaline from a possible attack leeching out of him. Once again, he feels exhausted and raw. “Be that as it may,” he says tiredly. “That doesn’t explain any of why you’re here.”
Byleth hesitates for a long moment, eyes darting to the ground in thought as they try to find the words to communicate. “You… Don’t want to be here.” Jeralt simply nods. There’s no use denying it to them, and frankly, he doesn’t have it in him to construct some facade right now. Byleth shifts the many travel bags they’re carrying; a nervous tic. “You… Want to leave. So we will leave.” They’re clearly struggling with why Jeralt is arguing against this, head tilted quizzically like a puppy.
“Not this time, kid.” He says, resigned. Any other time, any other place and he’d do just that. But in the monastery, under constant guard from Rhea and the countless eyes she has everywhere… Well. It’s not an ideal situation. “Even if we could leave this place without being followed, they’d never stop looking for us. No way out of it this time. Best we stay and try to make the best of things.”
Byleth isn’t happy with this answer. He can tell by the way they press their mouth in a thin line, jaw setting and eyes squinting ever so slightly. Already he can see the argument forming in their head, and he reaches out a calloused hand to take theirs, still holding out his sword expectantly. Their hands are freezing, as they always are, and Byleth blinks up at Jeralt in muted surprise at the gesture.
“You’re right. I don’t want to be here, and I sure as hell don’t trust anyone in this place.” Byleth opens their mouth to interject, but Jeralt continues. “But we don’t have a choice. It’s too dangerous to try and escape right now. For now, we should try to just… Get our bearings. Get to know the place. Feel out our options.” God, just the thought of palling around with Rhea and walking around the places his love had frequented makes him feel sick. But, beggars can’t be choosers, he supposes.
Byleth’s hand is tense under Jeralt’s, and they look as though they might continue to argue for a few moments. But then their grip slackens, and they avert their eyes down to the ground once again in something like dejection.
“Hey, hey,” Jeralt soothes, circling a thumb over their hand gently. “What got this idea into your head, anyway? I didn’t say anything about leaving.” It was strange for Byleth to act out on their own like this. Smaller things, sure, but stealing back their supplies, risking being seen, possibly ruining any chance of good relations with their maybe captors? That was weird.
“I…” Byleth starts, then decides against it and falls silent again. Their fingers squeeze around Jeralt’s hand in a motion so slight he almost doesn’t notice. But he does. “I don’t want to stay if it… Upsets you.”
Byleth looks just as surprised at themselves for saying such a thing as Jeralt, and the silence stretches into something uncomfortable. Because it upset him? He’d expected them to cite the possible danger, a lesson he’d taught them once upon a time, maybe claiming their unfinished contracts needed to be dealt with, practically anything but this.
But here Byleth was. Standing at his door with every piece of gear that’d been painstakingly confiscated and secured from them, risking what little freedom and good graces they had in Rhea’s eyes, willing to go on the run for nothing more than because Jeralt was upset.
Byleth has never told Jeralt they love him. But he thinks this is about as close as they’ve ever gotten.
He pulls them close, squeezing them to his chest with a trembling strength; half because he wants to, and half so they don’t see the hot tears leaking from his eyes. Byleth doesn’t resist, but he can feel their confusion as they stay stock still. It’s awkward, Jeralt’s sword still in Byleth’s hand sharp and pointy between them, straps of bags pulling and bulky against their arms, and Byleth neglecting to contribute to the hug whatsoever. But Jeralt wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“...We do have to return all that, though.”
The monastery is having some kind of effect on Byleth.
Jeralt tries not to let the terror show as he hovers in the doorway of the mess hall, watching Byleth sit with the students and make small talk. Byleth. Making small talk. If Jeralt didn’t know any better, he’d be convinced someone had replaced them; and even with that he is still suspicious. Byleth does not make small talk, or sit to eat with people, or twitch their lips in the barest hint of a smile at the sight of Raphael shoveling seconds onto Ignatz’s plate, despite his protests. Rhea has him constantly leaving on missions he doesn’t even need to be present for, and everytime he returns Byleth seems even more changed. More… Human.
He’d brought it up to Alois one night, after he’d seen Byleth chuckle while speaking to Leonie, and had demanded he accompany him to the tavern to make sense of it. It wasn’t right, he’d slurred between mugs of ale. Twenty something years of barely a smile, and now they’re laughing to some kid they’ve barely known half a year? Something has to be up. Alois had simply laughed his regular booming laugh, and exclaimed there was no need to be jealous.
Jeralt had promptly knocked him on his ass.
He was not jealous. For one, he was a grown ass man, and petty things like jealousy had been left far in his past. Second, Byleth was his child. Of course he didn’t need to worry about them liking someone more than him! After all, he had the time advantage. There was no way he’d been beaten out already.
But, watching them look at the students with something like fondness in their eyes for the first time Jeralt can recall, he thinks he might have been.
It’s directed towards two particular students at the moment, the sleepy one and the blue haired one. Linhardt and Caspar, Jeralt thinks. They seem to be arguing about something. Linhardt’s bored expression and easy replies imply they’ve rehearsed this argument many times before, which would certainly explain Byleth’s amusement at it happening yet again.
“For the last time,” Linhardt drawls. “My father has the height advantage. Unless your father knows how to exploit that to his advantage, he would most undoubtedly lose in a fight.”
“No way!” Caspar shouts, slamming his knife and fork on the mess hall table, half eaten meal forgotten. “My dad’s the strongest! He could beat anybody’s dad! Edelgard’s, Hubert’s, uh, Anette’s…” He fumbles for more names, eyes roaming around the mess hell to find someone else to list, and finally resting on Byleth’s spectating eyes. “Even the Professor’s!”
Suddenly, Byleth’s eyes aren’t so fond anymore.
“No.” They say, voice their usual impassive tone. “He could not.”
“Yeah he could!” Caspar insists, bravado puffing his chest out. “He’s beaten tons of troops before! And not just foot soldiers! Cavalry, fliers, bea--”
“I don’t care what he’s done.” Byleth states. “He could not beat my father in a fight.” To anyone else, the steady tone they’re speaking in would be no different from their usual. But to Jeralt’s eyes, he can see the tensing in their shoulders, the minute tremble of their fingers as they grow more agitated.
Caspar, however, is completely oblivious. “He totally could! Any time, any place, any weapon, he cou--” He doesn’t get to finish his sentence as Byleth surges up from their seat, plates and utensils clattering with the force of it. They loom over Caspar, face dark with carefully impassive rage, and fingernails screeching into the wooden grain of the table.
“I have watched my father tear through hordes of enemies with nothing but his bare hands.” They say, voice low and foreboding. “He has faced countless enemies of all level of training; from desperate bandits to the best mercenaries money can buy, and not once has he ever lost. My father has bled and make bleed every kind of foe in every land you can think of, and more besides. He has killed with nothing but his teeth and nails. Height does not matter. Weight does not matter. Nothing matters. He has killed them all.”
The mess hall has gone silent. All eyes are on Byleth and Caspar, some in awe, some disturbed, but all terrified. Even Hubert looks suitably nervous. Caspar falls back into his seat with an uncharacteristic squeak, mouth closing with an audible snap. Byleth, looming, dark, and eyes shining with barely contained rage, suddenly looks much less like their professor, and much more like the Ashen Demon they had been known as before.
Then, like a switch has been pulled, they settle back into their seat and return to their usual vacant expression, seemingly satisfied that their point has been successfully conveyed. With a bite of their meal, they then say, “But Linhardt is also correct. His father would win against yours.”
“I told you.” Linhardt says triumphantly, blinking out of the stupor Byleth’s outburst had put them in to attend to the much more important topic of being right.
“Nuh uh!” Caspar blurts, turning back to his friend and resuming their argument. And like clockwork, the mess hall falls back into routine; utensils once again clink against plates, chatter starts back up, and students go back to their normal lives. Jeralt stares, still unsure if what he’s just seen is reality.
“See?” Alois’ voice booms from behind him, making Jeralt jump what feels about a foot in the air with shock. “There was no need to be jealous at all! It seems Byleth respects no one more than you!” Before he even has a chance to defend himself, Alois is off, heading to fetch his lunch and leaving Jeralt behind in a very confused, but somehow very happy mess.
So apparently Byleth drinks tea now.
This is a new development, Jeralt thinks as he catches sight of Byleth seated at an ornate white table, evidently being coached in how to properly conduct themselves at a tea party by some students. Lorenz is critiquing their pinky habits, Ferdinand instructing the correct tea pouring etiquette, and Dorothea simply looks as though she’s enjoying the view. Byleth looks confused, but is taking the advice to the letter; even if it’s stiffly. And they listen, as Jeralt learns when he gets glimpses of them having tea with other students throughout the monastery on his rounds. Dimitri, Petra, Felix, Lysithea… It seems there isn’t a single pupil who Byleth hasn’t sat down for a cup. He even sees them drinking with Cyril, and Jeralt wonders how they even convinced him to stop his chores for the tea in the first place.
Tea had been a luxury not really high on the list of priorities when they’d been travelling mercenaries, but it makes sense Byleth would start partaking now they have a somewhat more permanent housing Jeralt supposes. And they always seem to be enjoying, or at least not hating the process. So he lets it be.
And then Byleth starts acting weird.
Fair enough, what counts as weird for Byleth is becoming increasingly difficult to define, what with their blooming personality and actual emoting. But this definitely qualifies. It seems every time Jeralt has a spare moment in the monastery they’re immediately upon him. (Which isn’t often, thanks to Rhea’s constant missions. He more than suspects that it’s a ploy to distance him from Byleth; he knows it is. But he can’t refuse without drawing suspicion, so he bites his tongue, and heads off with a smile whenever she instructs him.) The second he finishes debriefing with Seteth or one of the knights, he turns to find Byleth waiting.
“Hey, kid.” Jeralt drawls, used to them popping up out of nowhere after twenty odd years of it. “Everything okay?”
They always are, but he can tell there’s something they want to ask, brows pinched and mouth open. But every time, without fail, something interrupts. First it’s Felix wanting more sword practice. Then Alois needing to borrow Jeralt for looking over plans. A sudden disaster in some village Jeralt is desperately needed for, a spat among students Byleth is called to break up, a surprise summoning from Rhea… It seems there’s no end of things conspiring to come between the two, and Jeralt can tell it’s really starting to annoy Byleth.
Still, the extreme measures they take have him… Surprised.
He’s just returned from a patrol to a nearby town to quell the beginnings of unrest against the church, barely stepping through the gates into Garreg Mach when Byleth is swooping in and grabbing their arm. They start dragging him away with an uncanny strength Jeralt has always known they have, but has never had used against him like this. He decides he doesn’t like it much.
“Woah, woah!” He argues, trying in vain to pull his hand back and shooting an apologetic look behind his shoulder to a very perplexed looking Catherine. “Where’s the fire, kid, what’s going on?”
“We,” Byleth hisses through gritted teeth, refusing to slow in their dragging of Jeralt for even a second. “Are going to have tea.”
Well. Of all the things he expected them to say, tea certainly hadn’t been one of them. Lost for words, he simply lets Byleth drag him to the gardens, completely forgetting that he really should be debriefing with Seteth right now, or doing any number of other things. Students and teachers alike stare at the great knight of Seiros Jeralt being thrown about like a sack of potatoes. Which is fair enough. Jeralt can’t quite believe it either.
Byleth places him in a chair so delicate and small he’s afraid it will crack under his weight at a picturesque table holding a porcelain tea set and plate of sweets. They look delicious; which means Byleth didn’t make them. In fact, none of this looks like their work. He recognises the tea set as one of the fancier ones Lorenz will brag over to anyone who’d listen, the tablecloth as Bernadetta’s handiwork, and the sweets most likely Mercede’s and Annette’s. The only part that communicates his child is their fidgeting figure sitting across from him and the forceful journey he’d had here.
Byleth sets about preparing a cup for him, apparently having steeped it in advance as they go straight to the pouring and setting a sweet roll on a small plate for him. They’ve been paying attention to their lessons it seems. Their movements are practiced and smooth, but there’s a small tremble that gives away their nerves as the tea cup rattles slightly against the saucer. Jeralt takes the offered tea numbly while Byleth sets about preparing their own, blinking at the events unfolding right in front of him.
This… Is not what he expected to be doing today.
Byleth seems similarly at a loss for words, silently sipping at their tea and drumming their fingers against the table idly. Jeralt sniffs at his tea experimentally; he’s never really tried it before, but it certainly smells nice. The scent is strong and burns somewhat in his nostrils like a good ale does. He takes a cautious sip and winces at the heat. Soon enough the taste sets in, and he’s… Pleasantly surprised. It’s kind of like a hot beer, he thinks, blinking at the deep swirling reds of it in his teacup. Perhaps that was why Byleth had chosen it, he thinks, glancing up to see them watching him eagerly; though they try to avert their eyes back to their own cup and act as though they hadn’t just been caught in the act.
They sit in silence for a long few moments. Jeralt has no idea why he’s here, and Byleth showing no signs of sharing with him; instead preferring to pick at a jam roll and sip at their tea. He continues to drink his own, counting down in his head the time he’s willing to wait until he asks Byleth what this is about. Three, two, one…
“Okay.” He says bluntly, gesturing with his tiny teacup in a way that has him feeling quite ridiculous. “What’s this about, then?”
“I…” Byleth starts, stubbornly keeping their eyes focused on their jam roll. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“Byleth.” Jeralt raises his eyebrows. He says his child’s name with all the sternness and unsaid questioning of a true father, and their hands still at tearing their pastry at the sound. They square their shoulders and finally meet Jerald’s eyes, looking much more like they’re steeling themselves for battle than answering a simple question.
“Taking tea is how good relations are formed and maintained. It’s an integral part of any good relationship.” They say, voice stiff with a rehearsed edge to it. Jeralt doesn’t doubt it’s something they’ve regurgitated from a student. Lorenz comes to mind in particular. He waits for them to continue, but they refuse to do so, fingers fidgeting on the table. Fair enough, Jeralt thinks, but just what does that have to do with any of—
Jeralt sets down his teacup suddenly as it starts to slosh tea over the sides from his shaking hand. Byleth… Wanted to spend time with him. To bond with him. That was why they’d been looking for him so often, trying to catch him with a free moment, bugging the knights about their planned outings. In retrospect, it all seems so… Obvious. Suddenly the situation looks so much different, Byleth’s tics from sheer nerves and uncertainty that he will be receptive, the telltale signs of their students handiwork showing the care they’d put into this, the advice they’d sought… For a moment, Jeralt dares to think perhaps they’d been practicing for this.
Not once in the twenty odd years Byleth had been with Jeralt had they initiated something like this. Sure, they’d join him in weapon maintenance or help with some of the mercenary work, but they’d never started it. It was always them taking up the task alongside him without a word. Never any sentiment or emotion; just work.
But here they were now. With an entire tea party painstakingly prepared, and looking more terrified than they’d ever been in front of a legion of soldiers, like Jeralt might say this is pointless, that he was work to do, and leave them there. In fact, they open their mouth with a grim resignation, most likely to dismiss him, when Jeralt finally remembers how to speak.
“What is this stuff, anyway?” He asks, looking down at his teacup to hide soft fondness in his eyes, voice gruff with barely contained emotion. “Never had a tea I liked before this one. Something foreign?”
Byleth practically shines with pride and relief, eyes widening and posture straightening as though Jeralt had just given them the best news in the world. “Ferdinand suggested it,” they say. “It’s from Brigid.” Well, that explains why they’d been talking to that Petra girl so much as of late. They begin telling him everything about the blend, clearly quoting their students in many places, and shows Jeralt the details on the embroidered tablecloth Bernadetta had gifted them while chewing on a sweet roll. Mercedes work, they confirm.
Jeralt nods sagely as he sips at the tea, humming and chuckling at the appropriate places as Byleth damn near gushes about their students. Their eyes sparkle with emotion, voice actually lilting and dipping as they recount Sylvain’s latest female related offence, and Jeralt wonders at how much it changes them.
It was never his choice to come to Garreg Mach. But times like these, where Byleth seems happy, he is almost glad they did.
Jeralt knows something is very wrong the moment the knife slips between his ribs.
He’s been stabbed before, many times, and he knows what a poisoned blade feels like. The burning acid that snakes through his veins from the wound confirms it, while the sudden shortness of breath and flaring agony tells him it’s much more than the weak mixes he’s used to from bandits. His body seizes helplessly as he falls to the ground and he thinks, oh, he’s going to die here.
And Byleth is going to watch.
He curses himself for letting his guard slip. Sure, the kids had just been a student, but that was no excuse. The easy missions Rhea constantly sent him on had softened his skills evidently, and, well… He had been feeling a bit too comfortable as of late. Enjoying seeing Byleth settling so well, starting to relax into their skin, their personality… It’s a shame he won’t get to see more of it, he thinks.
They’re rushing to his side almost immediately, hands frantically holding over the gushing wound and eyes darting across him in a way he knows well. They’re searching for symptoms, trying to figure out the poison, how long he has for treatment, recall the antidote… And he knows the moment they realise it’s pointless. Their face tenses, eyes hardening, and they start moving to tear off a strip of their fabric to dress him, stubborn in their attempts to save him, and it makes Jeralt’s heart ache with a pain that has nothing to do with the poison in his veins.
“Sorry…” He grits through clenched teeth, halting Byleth’s movements. “It looks like… I’m going to have to leave you now.” The mere act of speaking sends pangs of pain through him, and he can practically feel the poison speeding up as he does so, but he refuses to let his child fight until the end for nothing. The agony has him squeezing his eyes shut, groaning with effort to keep his composure. No, he thinks, he won’t let Byleth see him like this. Their last moments with him shouldn’t be him screaming in pain. He needs to keep it together, tell them what he’s been meaning to for weeks, let them know the truth--
And then there’s droplets hitting his face. Poetic, he thinks sarcastically, for it to rain just as he dies. But when he opens his eyes he doesn’t see a downpour; he sees Byleth. Crying. Something they’ve never done once. Not when the kitten they’d tried to nurse back to health once had died, or when their favourite sword snapped, not even when they had to part ways with Marium. Never so much as a whimper has escaped them. And now, here they are; face crumpled and body shaking with grief as tears fall from their eyes. For him.
It’s a cruel kind of happiness Jeralt feels.
He feels his lips curl up in a smile despite everything. “To think the first time I saw you cry… Your tears would be for me.” Byleth’s grip around him tightens, and Jeralt brings up a trembling hand to rest over theirs, wincing at the sheer effort it takes for even such a small gesture. “It’s sad, and yet… I’m happy for it.”
He should be saying so many things, he thinks. That he’s never been thankful to Rhea for anything, but letting them have a class that gave them the joy and companionship Jeralt had tried to for years had made him get pretty close. That their mother would love them if she were here. That the best moments of his life were spent with them in the gardens, drinking tea and gossiping about the knights, and he wishes so badly he’d had more time for them. That nothing has ever made them happier than being able to see them grow this past year. That he is so, so proud of them. That he loves him.
But there’s no time for that. No time for the things he wants to do, wants to say. He thinks of a bookcase’s secret diary, of the ring he’d kept safe all these years for them. It will just have to be enough. So he says the only thing that could possibly convey everything he wants to say; the gratitude, the love, the pride.
“Thank you… Kid.” And as his vision blacks out to the raging fire in his body, he feels his child’s hands squeeze against his, their tears on his face…
Jeralt dies with a smile.