Rain pelts him as he stares down at the body.
Crumpled and broken, mud sticking to pale green hair and fat drops of water and blood soaking dark clothes. Jeritza would have thought them dead if not for the shaky rise and fall of their chest, the shivering of the cold that must have been seeping down into bones. He grips his sword handle, hand trembling, and knows the best thing to do would be to finish this creature off, this terror disguised as a person, but he finds his strength is not in him.
He is not the man he was years ago, was maybe never a man at all. Something shakes at his core and he swears he hears a voice in his head, hissing and soft, the echo of reverence in her tone.
"Repent." She says, and he blinks the vision of a girl with slitted eyes away. "Repent". She threatens again, sweet and harsh. He falls to his knees, legs jelly, as something unfurls in his chest. He does not know why he cries.
The monster is a man, Jertiza comes to realize, when he is clean and bandaged and laying still. The monster has not woken up, has not made a sound, even as he was dragged back to Jertiza's small cabin, when broken limbs were being set, when wounds were sutured and sewn. Something about him is small and frail, like this, practically mummified and draped in thin white cotton too large for his frame. Jeritza knows that is a lie, knows the monster is all muscle and teeth and claws; he had fought them before, seen what they could do.
There are no more visions of a dead and forgotten goddess but he can hear whispering sometimes. It is quiet and scratchy, echoing in his mind in a way that makes his head ache.
The monster does not move, does not wake, for days and days and days. Jertiza knows if he does not return to the castle soon someone will come looking for him. He knows what will happen if this man is found in his bed. Yet no matter what measure is taken the other will not wake up.
"And what will you do when he does?" The wind seems to say, mocking.
The best answer is to say nothing, so Jeritza does not acknowledge the ghost and finishes packing his riding gear. A raven had screamed over the trees earlier that day, demanding, and it was sign enough. He wonders about the monster as he mounts his horse but does not dwell. What happens will happen and he has already done more than he should.
The goddess hisses at him as he leaves. "Repent. Repent, fool." He does not look back as he rides into the dense of trees. He can feel a void at his back.
It is a six day ride to the capital from his station. Jeritza arrives in four, horse winded and bags under his eyes. His mask, both real and mental, are carefully in place, not a hair straying in his presentation despite the harsh ride and few stops. He must be stone.
The servants avoid him as he hands off his horse and makes his way through the castle's halls. He knows where to go for his summons as it is always the same. A request of his, one of few, to keep him from the main way so he might not run into company or familiar faces as he goes about his business. A small door opens and Jeritza finds himself inside a small tea room.
Empress Edalgard and her vassal are there already, the dark haired man at her side and placing sugars in her drink for her. She eyes him for a moment and he dips his head, as close to a bow as she will get, and she speaks.
"Ah, I was not expecting you so soon." A lie, they both know it, as he had seen the crows following at his back. She motions to the seat across from her but he stays where he is. He always does. It seems to annoy the vassal as per usual but he is granted these small allowances. She gets a sip of her tea and places it down slowly, measured. "Have you anything to report, Jertiza?"
"I do not." The lie spills from his lips and he does not know why. It would be easy to tell of the monster back at his cabin, of the suspected ghost, of many things. He knows if he keeps it to himself he will die. Something holds his tongue for him and he wonders if the goddess followed him with her harsh whispers.
"I see." She nods to Hubert, who goes to another set of doors and opens them, allowing a man inside. He is rough and scarred, nods to the vassal and then to the Empress. He is stiff and uneasy, his clothes telling of a life on the road and not the pleasures of a noble. A mercenary, he would guess. He eyes Jeritza with something like suspicion. "Jeritza, this is Jeralt Eisner. Mr. Eisner, this is Jeritza Von Hyrm. He oversees the eastern forest border."
Ah. The Blade Breaker. He eyes the other with something like interest. He wonders what it would be like to cross blades with him. If the other man could best him. His fingers twitch in anticipation of grasping his blade before he schools himself. Not here.
"I ain't too much for pleasantries. Have you seen anyone? Anyone reported anything? My band and I were moving through the forest when bandits ambushed up. Lost some good guys. My son also went missing." He crosses his arms, face stony and eyebrows drawn together with something like worry. "About your age, dark armor, green hair. His name's Byleth."
Jertiza thinks of the monster in his bed.
"I have not seen anything and no one has reported finding anyone to me."
Jeralt frowns and doesn't seem to believe him but accepts the answer anyway, shooting a quick glance at Edalgard. This isn't over, his body seems to say, even as he bows deep to her and thanks her before taking his leave the way he came.
"Mr. Eisner is a very skill mercenary. Please keep an eye out for his son, Jeritza." The Empress says, an order despite the framing. He nods to her and leaves, knowing she needs him no longer. Eyes follow him as he goes.
Jertiza is no more than a few steps outside when he has to press himself into an archway. He hopes not to be seen, heart beating in his ears as he presses himself against the wall. Small steps echo before pausing next to his hiding spot. It feels like he is breathing too loud.
The footsteps continue, a woman and her husband who pass by. She seems confused, short bob of hair and kind eyes. Her belly is plump and round, glowing with health from the pregnancy. That was much too close. She would have too many questions for a boy who died long ago.
When Jertiza crawls from his hiding spot, calmed down, he stares at where the pair went and wonders. Why here? Why now? Was that red haired noble taking good care of her? Did she want to marry him? Want to bare his child? Did she-
"Ah, Jeritza." He startles as a soft voice pulls him from his thoughts, whirling on whoever spoke his name. He sees green hair with big curls, sharp eyes, small frame. It is almost an unwelcome a sight as seeing... her. But not as much. The girl-who-is-not-a-girl gives him a kind smile, far kinder than he deserves. He is always surprised to see her, in pretty dress and well cared for, the only thing showing she is not like the others here the iron shackle around her neck, sealed with magic and glowing with runes.
He does not answer her.
"I'm glad I was able to catch you before you left! Would you like to join me for tea?" She offers, she always offers, with warmth he does not deserve in her eyes. Not after what he had done.
"No." And he moves to go. She does not stop him, only stares after him with a pitying frown until he is out of sight.
He makes it back to his cabin in seven days time, held up by storms. Or so he tells himself as he stares at the cabin with dread, wondering what awaits him inside. Nothing would be... for the best. Jeritza can pretend it was madness that claimed him, finally, and there was never a monster or a ghost haunting him.
It is quiet and dark when he enters. A chill is in the air and the clouds above promise snow, so he builds a fire. His bedroom door is closed firmly. If he is stalling in opening it then it should worry no one. This post is empty aside from himself, the closest town a full day's ride away. There is no one here to rush him as he takes the time putting away his things, checking his larder for the coming snow, washing up, placing more wood in the fire.
Eventually he must enter his room, he needs to change and the tiredness leeches into his bones from his ride. So he opens the door- to find the monster still asleep, unmoved from the last he saw him. There is the temptation to grab his sword and push through the beast's throat, to throw him outside and not worry about him any longer. Instead, he undresses sloppily and pulls out something clean. His bed is... tempting. It is colder in here, even with the fire slowly warming his cabin, and his blankets are thick and the bed plush. He was not one to care about such luxuries but when they were presented... it was hard to pass up habit. Even if he was a tool of the Empress, she had made sure to give him more than just the most basic to fill his needs.
It was likely that the monster would not wake up from one night of sleep in his bed. All of the riding he had done had made him sore, or maybe he was growing weak, as he had left as soon as his audience with Edalgard was completed. The idea of curling up in the chair in the living room where he had been resting before was unappealing.
He also blamed the ghost, the goddess, softly berating him in words he could not catch, much like a mother would, or maybe a frustrated older sibling, even if she was cold.
So Jeritza crawled under the blankets and curled up, back to the monster, and surprised himself by how quickly he fell asleep.
Dreams were not unusual to Jeritza. They crawled under his skin and haunted him with visions of his deeds. This one, however, makes his hair stands on end and goosebumps prickle as he was far too... lucid. The smell of smoke and burning flesh was absent as well, rousing more suspicion than relief.
He was standing in a room which was dark, a single light over top an imposing stone throne. Jertiza had only just gotten his bearings when he realized that someone was sitting there, had always been sitting there, her cheek resting in her hand as she eyed him, unimpressed. She was tiny, a child, sitting on a throne made for a creature much larger. Yes something about her unnerved him to his core. This girl was not a mortal. This girl was something eternal.
"I see. How is it you know that?" Haughty like a spoiled child in her demand. Jeritza found he did not know. How did he know she was a goddess? He drew a blank. It was as if his head was filled with cotton and he raised a brow; he could almost feel her peeling back the layers of his mind to peer inside. Cold fear washed down his spine.
"Not much of a talker, I see. Much like...." She clicked her tongue, straightened up. "Tell me. What are you?"
Jertiza's tongue felt heavy in his mouth but he knew he had to answer. Could feel the words bubbling up his throat and out of his mouth like vomit. He wanted to grind his teeth together and hold them back. Knew that would fail as well.
"I am... a ghost." The truth, his truth, dredged out of him. Saying the words was the same as spitting up sludge. She narrowed her eyes in something like pity. His cheeks burned at her look, both from his emotional gates being torn open and his realization his mask was gone. Bare for her judgment in all ways.
"You are a pathetic creature." She sighed, disappointed but not surprised, it seemed, and waved off his answer. "Now, your name."
"No." Her voice hardened. "Your name."
He found he did not know what she was talking about. Something else slithered up his throat. Something that felt like molten metal.
"Emile." He gagged on that name. Gagged on it and visions of a boy long dead swam to the surface before he pushed them back.
"Thank you." A pleased but wicked smile on her face, pointed fangs gleaming in the light. "Emile, you must understand. You're caught up in fate now. You can't escape this. Repent, Emile. Repent for what you've done."
For such an abrupt ending to his dream, Jertiza wakes slowly. His body feels asleep, disjointed, and he cracks open his eyes slowly. It is warm in his bed, far warmer than before, and the smell of something cooking fills the air and makes his stomach grumble. When was the last time he had eaten? It is as he sits up he feels a wrongness, tries to clear the sleep from his mind to pinpoint what.
Ah, yes, the monster was gone.
Which shook from out of whatever sweetness he had awoken into, causing him to tumble out of his bed and grasp blindly for his sword. His bedroom door slammed open as he moved through it, the wood bouncing on the wall and shaking. The monster is sitting in front of the fire and jumps, glances over with a mild but surprised look. A knife in his hand... peeling potatoes.
Jertiza stares at him, knuckle white grip on his sword, frozen in the doorway. The monster stares back, blinks slowly, face relaxes into something blank and passive before he starts his work again. The potato peeling is one long spiral. The monster nods to him before looking away, drops the peel in a bowl at his feet and slices the potato into small chunks, dropping them with 'plips' into a pot set up over the fire.
Jeritza watches- watches as the monster stirs the pot, peels carrots, drops them in, stirs again. He is rooted to his spot, mind racing and blank at the same time. The monster stands and picks up his scraps, places the knife inside and sets them in his modest kitchen for now. He still has the soft sleep clothes on, warm and loose and Jeritza does not know why his eyes are drawn to that.
The monster approaches. Jeritza readies his blade, so when it attacks he can slice the head off, put this creature and the goddess behind him and move on. It stops in front of him, face still empty, head tilted slightly to the side. One corner of a lip is cracked up, barely noticeable for those who wouldn't know to look. Jeritza knows how to look for such things.
"Hello." It speaks. "Thank you." It continues, and then it backs away with a small nod, moves back to the pot, sits by the fire again to warm it's hands. It looks so human. He wants to stab it. Instead his sword grip slackens and drops to the floor with a clatter. Something eats at his chest, killing him from the inside out, and Jeritza moves to sit in his chair and wonder how he came to this. The fire crackles and time passes, oozing slowly when his eyes are open but zipping by in large chunks when he blinks. A bowl of stew in pressed against his hands, eventually, which he takes and merely stares into.
The monster eats as if starved, bowl after bowl vanishing down his throat. Enough to have fed Jeritza, alone, for days is gone eventually. The pot moved to clean later. His own food is now cold when he, eventually, takes a bite.
The monster seems antsy now, glancing over at him from time to time, shifting slowly in place.
"Why are you still here?" When he speaks, slow and measured, the monster stops his fidgeting.
"There's snow outside."
Was there? Jeritza glanced out the window to see that, yes, it looked like while he had been asleep it had come quite the downpour, thick and fluffy flakes still falling as a thick blanket that coated whatever it touched.
"Hm." He stood, slowly, his joints protesting after sitting in the same position for so long. He had things to do and it did not involve the monster, curious as it was. He went into his room again, collecting his sword as he went and shutting the door behind him. Soon he was dressed, having pulled out one of his thicker pairs of winter boots and pulling a heavier cloak over his frame.
The monster was in his kitchen again when he came back out, scouring the dishes and taking care of the scraps.
"Where are you going?" It asked, quietly, blankly, as Jeritza opened the front door, cold wind sucking the heat from the room and stray snowflakes stinging his cheeks.
"Work." Is all he replied, which the monster seemed to accept even if curious eyes still followed him as he left.
Yes, he had to do his job.
Jeritza returns with blood under his nails and chilled to the bone. He expects his normal routine, falling into the blackness of sleep after to rise and rinse and repeat.
Instead the cottage is warm and glowing from within. He opens his door and for a moment is worried that he stumbled into someone else's home before it catches up with him. The monster had a basic but warm meal ready and it smells like spices and comfort. The monster nods to him and his lips quirk up. Jeritza slams the door behind him.
There is a question in those blank eyes that goes unasked. Jeritza ignores him and goes to wash the blood off his skin. It will stain his soul but that is for later, when he is dragged into hell for his sins.
His meal is slightly scorched but he eats it all anyway, ravenous, and it fills a hole inside of him before it can bleed out and reduce him to nothing.
"My name is Byleth." The monster says this as he cleans up the remnants of their meal, sitting across from him. A chipped tea set sits between them, dug from some back cabinet and dusted off. Jeritza was not even aware he had any tea leaves in the cabin. It tastes watered down and weak but the sting of it going down his throat makes him feel... something.
"I do not care." He hisses, quiet. The monster, Byleth, does not flinch, only frowns and refills his cup.
"You were limping when you came back. Are you okay?"
Jeritza does not answer him, refused to speak to him any longer, even as those sea green eyes seem to stare into his very soul. He thinks he sees a shadow in the corner, a girl with long hair, but she in unclear and it is easy to say his eyes are playing tricks. The fire crackles quietly.
Eventually his body demands rest, so he goes to his bed. To his surprise, a bit later, Byleth crawls in behind him. There is a numbness there. A deep exhaustion. It prickles under his skin like hot irons and he wants to cast the man away. But Jeritza is cold, as cold inside as he is out, and Byleth is warm as he curls under the sheets. He his dreams are pleasant, sharp teeth ripping his throat out.
Disappointment settles in his chest when he wakes up.
"Jeritza." He says, low and careful, staring down into a morning plateful of eggs. The monster smiles, small and fragile. He can see the sharp points of his fangs and wishes for them to sink into his flesh.
It goes on and on, a new routine, forced into his life in slow measures. Jeritza leaves the cabin warm and full, a difference from his old normal. He returns to food, to soft company, sometimes a gentle smile that twists like a knife in his chest. They curl together when it is time to sleep, only for the warmth, he tells himself. One night when sleep won't come he stares at the ceiling and wonders if this is what his life Could Have Been, had he not been what he is how, had it been different. Was this what returning to someone you loved was like? Would he have had kids by now, bright faces smiling up at him and reaching tiny hands? Would he have wanted that? He counts his breaths and Byleth sighs, presses closer, heat against his side.
The specter in the corners goes... vivid. It is like she is slowly fading in from nothing, each day a little more solid and yet not at all. She speaks, sometimes, moves around the house as if floating, watching and waiting. She is the same as his dream, eyes sharp when her eyes rake over him, seeing through him.
Byleth never asks about the blood splattered on his sword or the hollowness of his eyes. Once, a bad day, the other had bandaged a sprained wrist and cleaned his wounds. Jeritza had been quiet, had been appreciative in his own way, had wondered why the other was staying. Wondered why he didn't ask him to leave.
The crows start to gather and Jeritza ignores them. They are do not all come at once. One flies over, his signal, and he ignores it. Then another, a few days later, and eventually they follow him and haunt the outside of the cabin with beady eyes. He is putting them off as he feels like the small peace he has will break. He wonders if Byleth has left the cabin; if the crows had seen.
Jeritza comes home early, one day, a hunt drawn short as his lead was faulty. Words, quiet, cause him to pause in the doorway, barely cracked, listen. His heart thumps and he wonders why it feels like he is going to slit in two.
"-orried about you!" Young, female. It takes him a moment to recognize it as the ghost's, when he dreamed of her. It makes him shiver to hear it again, sharp and loud. He inches the door open, glances inside, finds that Byleth and the ghost has their back to him- good. She curls around his shoulders like a cat as she floats there. He seems to be slowly chopping some type of vegetable.
"I know." Byleth answers, voice flat as it always was. "I'll contact him soon enough."
"'Soon enough, soon enough'!" The goddess mocks, voice pitched low. "You keep saying that!"
"My leg and arm..."
"Are perfectly healed now! Why do you keep putting this off, Byleth?"
"I..." The chopping pauses, it is quiet until the ghost laughs, loud and high pitched, and Jeritza sees Byleth shrink into him himself, shoulders tense and by his ears. The green haired girl tips her head back and cackles louder at this.
"It's because of Emil-"
Lava floods his chest and burns his ears. Jeritza pushes the door open roughly, causing both the girl and Byleth to flinch and jerk to face him. He stares, hard, and he goddess floats away from the green haired man, looking amused after her shock wears off. Jeritza does everything in his power to keep his eyes locked on Byleth, to not look at the girl who hovers.
"Who are you talking to?" He says instead of what he wants to say.
Byleth takes a breath, short and sharp. "Just myself." He fidgets. A terrible liar. His pale cheeks are tinted pink and he can not meet Jeritza's eyes.
Blood catches his attention and Jeritza glances down, sees that the other man has sliced his finger. It oozes slowly, a fat drop looking ready to drip to the floor. He sighs through his nose, forces himself to relax. "You're bleeding."
"Ah? Oh." Byleth flexes his fingers, smearing the drop, glances at it as if just noticing. He turns back to the sink and starts to wash the cut, places the knife with the other dirty dishes. Jeritza watches and watches and watches, till his feet move on their own, and soon he has Byleth's hand in his. His medical supplies are easy to pull out and he bandages him slowly.
His hands are warm in his, Jeritza realizes slowly, and when his work is done he is reluctant to let him go. Glancing at the other, Byleth is looking up at him from under his lashes. They are long, he notes, and the light seems to make his gem green eyes glow and sparkle. The other's pale cheeks are flushed and rosy, too, lips parted slightly and pouty. It is still between them, something... something sparking. Electric. Expectant.
A crow caws loudly outside and Jeritza snaps back to reality, backs away from the other and turns his back. His chest hurts again, that stabbing sensation, and he feels the knife there dig in deeper. He wants to kill this feeling.
It is quiet the rest of the evening, even as Byleth finishes cooking. Dinner is filling as it always is, at least, but when it's finished a hesitant bowl is sat in front of him. Snow from outside mixed with... something. Byleth is looking away, his own, much smaller, serving in his hands.
"It's snow cream." He started, hesitant. "Just... snow, some sugar, a little milk. My father used to make it." He takes a breath, looks like he has more to say, but instead stuff a spoonful of the snow into his mouth and glances at the fire.
It is not as rich or ornate as other sweets but Jeritza finishes every bite.
The next day brings a stock of the larger, which is lacking, yet Jeritza expected as much. Before, with one person, it would have been enough to do for a while yet. There were two of them now and Byleth ate perhaps even more than his horse. Begrudgingly, he will make a trip to town so they can make it through the rest of winter. He asks Byleth if there is anything in particular he needs or wants, seeing his eyes light up before dimming back down. The list is made quickly, at least.
"Jeritza." He adjusting his mask and getting ready to saddle up Mercy when Byleth pauses in the doorway to the bedroom. He holds a fold of paper in his hand, offers it to him slowly. "Would you... sent this to Remire Village for me?" Jeritza looks it over, takes it slowly and unfolds it.
A simple letter, written quickly. Byleth's writing is rough and basic, not the fancy curl of a noble's. "I'm safe. I'm okay. I'll see you. -B. E." Is what it says, a crude drawing of what might be a fan in the corner. He reads it, then once more, then folds it back up and sticks it in his pocket, nodding as he does so. Byleth looks relived, at least, before he steps over to the wardrobe and opens it up. He pulls out a belt, the one that Jeritza had found him in. All of the clothes, even the dark armor, had been cleaned by Byleth, placed inside. Neither of them talked about it.
One of the pouches on the belt is opened up and whatever is removed is forced into Jeritza's hand.
"Here. I know that I..." He sigh, looks away. "If you... need it." Byleth does not look happy about this, quickly places the belt back and exits the room, wringing his hands and stiff. Jeritza finds it to be a ring, a very nice one, most likely a wedding ring. It is delicate and silver, rainbow hued stones glinting in the light. It is a lovely thing, meant for a dainty hand and most likely something precious for the other to even have it.
Jeritza ponders on why Byleth gave it to him. Then he sighs, clicks his tongue. "He wants me to pawn it." Is muttered to himself, a frown tugging at his lips. He huffs and tears off one of his gloves, slips it on a finger for now. A little tight but it is the safest place to not lose it by accident. Byleth clearly does not understand that such things are taken care of. Yet, it is not as if Jeritza has spoken of himself, of what he does and who he is. It seems easier to just keep the ring for now and bring it back with him when he returns, saying he didn't need it. That would be easier than explaining.
It does serve to remind Jeritza, however, of something he has yet to do. He stands, and he does not flinch when he sees that the ghost is watching him now, peering deeply into his being. It is best to not acknowledge her; he is sure that she does not know she can see him. He opens one of his drawers and reaches to the back of it, to an envelope he had nailed to the back when he first moved in. A ring of his own falls out, rose gold with a large ruby gem. It is inlaid with black, smaller black gems surrounding it. It was always tacky to him, too large and staring at it too long made him slightly nauseous.
It is dropped in Byleth's palm before he leaves.
"If anyone comes here, just show them that." Not that Jeritza imagined they would, no one ever came here. Better to be safe than sorry. Byleth nods, stares at him as he leaves.
"Be safe." The monster says, quietly, and Jeritza wonders if he is a monster at all.
The ride to town and back is cold. Mercy moves quickly despite the ice and Jeritza finds himself almost eager to return. A full day to make it to town, a day of gathering his supplies and making sure Byleth's letter would make it to Remire, then a full day's ride back. The air is still and he is anxious, something clawing at the back of his mind, something he is forgetting as he makes his way through the trees.
A white horse is tethered in his stable. The crows perch on every tree and stare, silent.
Hands shake as Jeritza tethers Mercy, unloads her supplies to bring inside. It takes a surprising amount of willpower to not just go inside, to pretend this is normal, that whatever strange feeling inside him is not there. He must remember what he is here to do.
The cabin is warm and smells like food. Byleth is sitting there, calm, and the ghost sits behind him, tense. A man with long red hair sits across from him, a chipped teacup in hand. They all turn to him. Silence.
"Von Hyrm!" The man starts, and Jeritza knows who it is, wonders why he of all people was sent. He seems to radiate sunshine in a way that makes him sick, smile too wide for his face. "Why, sorry for popping in so unexpectedly!" Jeritza ignores him, strips off his gloves to and starts to unload his supplies, packing them away.
Von Aegir eyes him, raises a brow, grin still stretching his lips.
"Her Empress was worried about you after not checking in for so long! But I see you were fine... You husband here was telling me about how you were taking care of him!" Von Aegir beams and Byleth chokes on his tea, coughing softly, which draws the redhead's attention for a moment. Jeritza freezes as well, ice running cold. Husband?
He remembers the ring on his hand, sees it sparkling in the light.
He glances over at Byleth, sees the Von Hyrm ring on his hand as well.