At seventeen, Sylvain finally screwed up the courage to leave home.
And, as such things always went, it seemed like a great idea as he was riding away from Gautier with any supplies he could fit in his saddlebags, all the coin he could get away with, and a half-assed plan about what to do once he was far away enough that nobody knew his face.
A kind of euphoria carried him through his first few weeks on the road, tinged with a sour desperation. He swung wildly between paranoia about being recognized (found, scolded, dragged back by his ears, thrown back in the gilded cage), and unfettered enjoyment of his new-found freedom, all the more manic for the feeling that it would be yanked away from him at any moment.
He didn't really sober up from his dark glee until some doxy he took up with at an inn stole all his money. The innkeeper threw him out on his rear, and took his horse as payment for the bill that Sylvain had supposedly incurred. Indignation rose to Sylvain's throat like bile as he rose from the dirt of the road, and he had the name 'Gautier' halfway off his tongue before he choked it off. And just like bile, it burned all the way down as he swallowed it back.
So instead, Sylvain picked up his saddlebag that the innkeeper had been kind enough to let him keep, and his sword--because like hell was he going to take a lance when running away from home--and decided it was time to act like a responsible, inconspicuous commoner, and get a job.
Sylvain thought it was going to be a lot harder than this, if he was honest.
It was just, hey, how hard could it be to get a job as mercenary? Commoners did it all the time, and most commoners didn't benefit from the thorough training and combat instructors Sylvain had been subject to since he was old enough to heft a lance without tipping over. And he was a dab hand with a sword, too. It was just expected from a nobleman, even one without the kind of fixation on swordplay that Felix had (and when would he even get to see Felix again-- a niggling voice began, before he stopped that thought the way he would cut the head off a snake).
But the mercenary captain Sylvain had given his pitch to wasn't privy to Sylvain's full schooling, so Sylvain didn't completely begrudge that man's air of skepticism.
And as long as Jeralt was looking Sylvain over like that, it meant he was still considering it. Even if it seemed like his eyes bored into Sylvain like a hot poker, and sifted through the ashes looking for embers. Sylvain just gave his best shit-eating grin in response, because he knew everybody got burned on him eventually, so if it was a fight Jeralt wanted to see in him, the old guy would see it.
"What's your name?" Jeralt asked.
"Jose," he replied smoothly, because it was the lie he'd used in this town, and he couldn't switch off now, standing in Jeralt's mercenary camp. The town was still too near for that.
Jeralt snorted softly; maybe he didn't believe Sylvain, maybe he just found the name funny. 'You don't look like a Jose,' the doxy who'd stolen his money had said as she sat in his lap and poured him wine. But sure, he could say it was his name true enough, and it gave him a private laugh that anyone who thought they had their measure of him would be wrong.
"Kid, come here," Jeralt called out, twisting away to aim it towards the far end of the camp.
Whoever Sylvain was expecting to come when called, it was not anyone looking like her. He didn't think mercenaries were even allowed to look like her. Sylvain gave an appreciate once-over, starting at the gorgeous legs clad in lacy tights, skimming over that tantalizing flash of her stomach, up over her ample chest, and finally settling on her face, and the large blue eyes that peered at him. Sylvain was starting to think that Jeralt ran a completely different operation than he initially assumed, but hell if he was complaining.
He grinned at her, too, though with a very different quality than he'd reserved for Jeralt. Alas, she didn't seem to appreciate it any more than Jeralt did; her face was completely neutral, almost unnaturally so. It threw Sylvain off to not garner any kind of reaction from a woman, even if it was a negative one.
"Alright, Jose, let's see what you can do," Jeralt said, and nodded at the pretty mercenary.
"Aw, you're just gonna make me ruffle up a girl this pretty?" Sylvain said, not taking his eyes off her as she unsheathed her sword. If Jeralt was hoping that Sylvain would find the sight of a woman so distracting that he wouldn't be able to handle his sword right, the old man was gravely mistaken.
Still, Sylvain managed to be caught flat-footed by the ferocity with which she came at him. He'd barely had time to square off before he was parrying off a flurry of strikes, testing him for any opening with a strength that belied her small size. He found himself sobering up quickly in the face of this assault, and with every inch of ground he lost, the blankness of her expression seemed all the more taunting. Did she even take him seriously? Shit, was Jeralt having a laugh at him right now? Was this some kind of kink, seeing young bucks getting stomped into the dirt by a vixen in lacy tights?
Well, he wasn't quite stomped, but Sylvain did end up flat on his ass, panting heavily and easily disarmed, with the woman still devoid of any expression as the tip of her sword came up under his chin.
"That's enough," Jeralt called her off.
She nodded and sheathed her weapon, wandering off back towards camp without giving Sylvain a backwards glance.
Jeralt, with a lopsided grin on his face, offered Sylvain his hand, and Sylvain took it as graciously as he could under the circumstances.
"You did alright," Jeralt said.
"I got crushed," Sylvain said.
"Yeah, you were always gonna get crushed," Jeralt said. "Just wanted to see how much of a fight you'd put up."
Sylvain rubbed the back of his neck where sweat was tickling past his collar, and gave a self-deprecating little huff.
"And?" Sylvain asked, grinning at Jeralt and ready to take rejection with a joke and a smile.
But Jeralt shrugged--the motion moving his massive shoulders like an earthquake rolling a mountain--and gestured towards the camp.
"Welcome to the business, kid. We're going to make a mercenary out of you yet."
Sylvain swaggered into the tight circle of mercenaries gathered around the campsite like he belonged there. There was always a risk of walking into a viper's pit when joining a new group, and if that was the case, Sylvain was ready to show fangs too. But there was no point alienating the people who would be watching his back from now on.
He noticed the pretty girl who'd kicked his ass wasn't there. The handful of mercenaries around the fire--sharpening swords, watching the meat skewered over the fire, one of them rolling up a cigarette--were all men, so Sylvain skipped right to male bonding as his opening strategy.
"Oh man," he laughed, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder towards the circle of trees where he'd just been tested, "does everyone who joins this outfit have to get his ass kicked by the captain's hot piece first?"
The mercenaries exchanged glances between them. They knew something Sylvain didn't, and now he felt sweat trickling down his back again. His grin remained fixed.
"Hope Jeralt didn't hear you talk that way," one of the mercenaries said, not even looking up from where he was cleaning under his nails with a dagger.
"Why not?" Sylvain asked, his curiosity genuine.
"That was his daughter what kicked you into the dirt," another one put in--the one sharpening his sword in long, slow strokes of the whetstone. He had a sad face, but that seemed more like the general construction of his face, not any deep sentiment.
Sylvain sputtered, turning his head as though Jeralt might appear at that very moment to skewer him with a pitchfork.
"But they look nothing alike!" Sylvain hissed, and the mercenaries laughed, because they guessed Sylvain did say something untoward about her to Jeralt, and now they were enjoying his misery.
Well, that was one way to play at their sympathies.
"We don't know nothing about that," the first mercenary said, smiling as he continued to clean his nails. He didn't even look up. "Jeralt says she takes after her mother. But maybe she's a foundling he took in."
"Most places," the second man said, "they drown children what look like that. Blank faces. Empty souls. Either don't look you in the eye, or stare right through you."
"Changelings," another said with an air of agreement.
Sylvain had heard about this superstition in some remote villages, where children who seemed touched in the head were drowned. He'd just never expected to hear it spoken of openly. He would have thought an inclination towards infanticide was the kind of thing people just didn't bring up in polite conversation, but he was learning something new about the common folk of Fodlan with every passing day.
He didn't try to grin his way through this. He was so repulsed, he knew it would just look unnatural.
"Brave man, to raise a changeling," the man sharpening the sword said. He spoke in between the hiss-and-snickt of his whetstone, plying himself to the rhythm of it like hypnotized. "Paid off in the end, I suppose. Now he's got a demon at his beck."
"She didn't seem that bad," Sylvain put in, and this didn't exactly garner him disapproval from the assembled mercenaries, but they had an air like they knew better and he would learn otherwise soon.
"Haven't seen her on a real battlefield yet," the man said, shaking his head. Then, after another slide of his whetstone, added in an ominous undertone, "Ashen Demon."
Sylvain did what he always did, and charmed his way into the bosom of the mercenary company as easily as he might charm his way under the skirts of a village girl. People all had their little levers, baked into their personalities, and if you knew which ones to pull, you'd get the result you wanted.
With the rank-and-file of Jeralt's mercenary company, Sylvain was the new guy, and slotted himself into their expectations religiously: young, a little goofy, prime victim for hazing. He accepted all the worst chores with only perfunctory complaining, and in the evenings, he told stories of his own foibles with women. Not necessarily stories of conquest--though most of the mercenaries were men, there were quite a few stony-faced women among them--but they were always pleased to hear him tell of how any of his entanglements with women ended up blowing in his face.
They could all tell he was handsome, after all; youthful, and tall, and with a full set of teeth. That kind of thing could breed jealousy and spite. But hearing stories of how Sylvain had a jug of milk thrown at him by an angry milkmaid, or how an incensed father had nearly bludgeoned him for whistling at one of his daughters--well, they could all smirk and think to themselves that they would have handled the situation better than silly Jose.
Winning over Jeralt was even easier than that. The captain appreciated hard work and reliability. And Sylvain might have joked around and played stupid with the rest of the mercenaries, but if Jeralt said jump, Sylvain made sure he was already in the air before asking how high. He couldn't afford getting kicked out of the company, and his position had started out a precarious one.
There were, of course, those in the company Sylvain knew he was never going to get along with, the typical clash of personalities too different and too incompatible for anything other than grudging tolerance.
But Sylvain at least knew where he stood with people, even when they hated him.
He was completely at a loss when it came to Byleth.
It wasn't as though she spent much time with the rest of the mercenaries, either. Sylvain could hardly blame her, considering the things they said about her. But it didn't seem like it was out of any resentment towards them.
In fact, on the battlefield, it was not unusual for Byleth to jump in and intercept blows, or interpose herself between any injured mercenary and their foe. She and Jeralt were good--in fact, they could give anyone in any given fight a run for their money--but while Jeralt snapped off orders and handled tactics, Byleth always already seemed to know what had to be done, and move without Jeralt having to tell her where. It was an almost eerie experience, to witness father and daughter share the same unspoken thought-space, like they were reading the exact same lines in a book. Whatever resemblance Sylvain couldn't pinpoint in their physical appearance, he saw in the way they fought, even when they were at opposite ends of a battlefield.
Not that Sylvain had a lot of time to spend observing them. He did not have the advantage of a horse, or the distance of a lance between himself and enemy. He had a sword, and a set of armor that was not sub-par, but certainly not anything he would have been permitted to wear as a pampered son of nobility.
He stuck close to Jeralt, and took his orders like a good boy, and hoped he wasn't going to screw up too badly before he had a chance to prove himself.
Even so, panic fluttered in Sylvain's chest when Jeralt called him over one evening. They'd spent the day rousting a den of bandits from a mountain pass at the behest of a merchant, and despite the fight turning out bloodier than estimated, nobody on their side had died, and by mercenary standards, that was success. Three dozen well-armed mercenaries, pitted against two dozen bandits with terrain advantage; it was the traps and tripwires that had claimed more casualties, rather than the dull iron of the brigands.
Jeralt had seemed lukewarmly pleased with the way the conflict panned out. He'd given a tongue-lashing to those in the company who had recklessly trundled ahead and straight into traps, but if the lesson sank in, it would be because of the injuries they'd incurred.
But Sylvain thought he'd done fine throughout the conflict, so he did not know what to expect when Jeralt raised his hand to beckon him over. Sylvain had his grin affixed, his gait loose-limbed and careless; so what if he was going to get scolded. He didn't have anything to live up to, no expectations; he was just poor dumb Jose here. Jose couldn't bring shame to a family name he didn't have in the first place.
Jeralt's face was impassive when he looked Sylvain over. Not blank, like his daughter, but stony like a cliff that that nothing but water and centuries could carve into.
"You get yourself checked out by the healers?" Jeralt asked as preamble.
"Naw, I'm fine, just sore," Sylvain shrugged carelessly. "I can take way more of a beating than that, captain."
"Hrm." Jeralt looked him up and down, evidently not trusting Sylvain's medical expertise, but Sylvain really wasn't lying. He'd gotten through the fighting with scrapes and bruises. "You got the one with the axe that was heading for me."
Sylvain's eyebrows went up, because he remembered. He didn't think Jeralt had noticed, but then, evidently, there was no reason to think he hadn't. Jeralt noticed everything on a battlefield, like he had a bird's eye view of it.
"Yeah?" Sylvain said, not sure what trap this would spring. He scratched his arm, trying to look casual, but he had to physically stop himself from squirming.
Jeralt snorted, and it was clear he'd picked up on how Sylvain was moments away from trying to weasel out of this conversation. He reached to settle a hand over the back of Sylvain's neck, holding him like a pup by the scruff. It wasn't a tight hold, or painful in any way. Jeralt's hand was calloused and dry, and the touch itself was just a solid weight meant to keep Sylvain in place.
So Sylvain tried not to stiffen, and when Jeralt pressed a thumb against the back of his head to tilt Sylvain's head towards him, Sylvain gave the old man all of his attention.
"You didn't have to do that," Jeralt said slowly. "I could have handled him easily, and you left yourself open trying to protect me. Could have gotten yourself killed if there'd been another man coming around the building, and you were damn lucky there wasn't."
"Yes, sir," Sylvain replied reflexively, like Jeralt was one of the knight-instructors he was used to.
But Jeralt didn't snap corrections. Instead he snorted, and released Sylvain's scruff to ruffle his hair instead. Jeralt's hand was heavy and warm, and the gesture was what Sylvain imagined other people with better fathers would describe as paternal.
"Just watch yourself, kid," Jeralt said. "Don't get hurt on my behalf. It's my job to look out for you."
"Aw, come on, sir, I won't be the new guy forever," Sylvain said, grinning with newfound confidence. "Have some faith in me."
"Goddess help me," Jeralt grumbled, "but a death wish isn't going to endear you to me, so you cut that shit out real quick."
Sylvain laughed in response, but it felt like a warm bubble was growing in his chest.
"No idea what you're talking about, sir," he said, shrugging.
Jeralt dismissed him, and Sylvain went to loiter by the fire, watching as Jeralt called other members of the company over to have quiet talks with them about their performances. He couldn't hear the conversations themselves, as likely nobody had overheard his, but Sylvain watched as Jeralt dispensed advice and friendly shoulder pats.
And there he was, thinking again about how different Byleth and Jeralt were.
Sylvain had gotten used to the simple life on the road. The hard tack was tolerable, especially when they had forage and hunting to supplement it with. And, of course, the fishing.
As far as Sylvain could tell, if there was ever fish cooking over the camp fire, it was because Jeralt or Byleth had gone fishing--together or alternately.
He didn't really understand the appeal of fishing on its own; it seemed like a whole bunch of sitting around to him. But he spotted Byleth with a fishing rod as she headed out of camp one morning, and he thought, what the hell. Might as well see what all the fuss was about, right? Not like they were doing anything else that day, and he knew Jeralt would be down in the nearby village, hashing out details for a job.
He walked towards the nearby lake as casually as he could, hands in his pockets, giving no indication that he was following Byleth. In fact, when he emerged from the trees and reached the shoreline, it was quite a walk away from where Byleth had set herself to fishing.
The nearby village must have built the small pier specifically for fishing; there was a boat moored there, bobbing placidly on the water. Byleth sat on the far end of the pier, her legs dangling over the water as she held the fishing rod. If this was fun for her, Sylvain sure couldn't tell, partly because of the distance, but mostly because she looked as expressionless as ever.
He could leave well enough alone. Pretend he just came out here to stretch his legs, and not bother her. Goddess knew there were plenty of other girls out in the world, all of them plenty more deserving of being bothered by him.
Nonetheless, he rounded the shore and walked the short length of the pier, and without a greeting or an invitation, he plopped himself down next to Byleth.
"Are they biting?" Sylvain asked, giving her a grin.
Byleth's eyes cut to him, cold and assessing, but there was no malice in it. She shrugged--which, if meant to be an answer to his question, Sylvain wasn't sure how to interpret--and then looked back out over the water.
But Sylvain could outrun a lot of things, just not the reflex to try his luck anyway. Without a Crest to flaunt, without a name to fall back on, he still couldn't squelch the instinct to measure just how much affection he could get for the promise of a little material security. He wasn't under any delusions; the town girls who liked to hang on him were drawn by the flash of his coin just as much as his charm, and he thought he could calculate down to the copper how much they'd put up with in exchange. He wondered where Byleth would fall on that spectrum, if anywhere at all. Maybe this would all end with him getting thrown on his ass out of the company, but that was how he got accepted into it in the first place, so it would just be a closed circle. He would move on to the next thing.
"Guess I'm the only one you reeled in so far, huh?" Sylvain asked, swinging his feet over the water. "Not a complete loss, I am a great catch." Not that she would know. Nobody in Jeralt's company knew, and they were deep enough in Empire territory that any news of a missing Gautier heir would be slow to reach.
The flirtation seemed to roll off Byleth's back at first, but then, just as Sylvain was winding himself up for another pass, compelled to get any kind of reaction, she reached out and put her hand over his knee.
Sylvain froze in place.
"You're scaring the fish," Byleth said evenly.
"...What?" Sylvain blinked.
"With your legs. When you swing them," Byleth clarified.
Now that he noticed, his legs were longer than Byleth's, and as they hung over the edge of the pier, the soles of his boots just barely skimmed the water. He'd been unconsciously swinging his legs, sending droplets flying. He'd stopped at her touch, however, the gentle correction flustering Sylvain more than he expected.
Byleth removed her hand and shifted her attention back to the task at hand.
Sylvain stayed quiet for a while, trying to collect himself.
"Are there even any fish in this lake?" he asked.
"I don't know," Byleth said.
"Uh. Then... why are you here?"
Byleth didn't answer out loud. She shrugged again.
But then, where else would she be? In camp, where people fell into uneasy silence around her, and the eyes of the other mercenaries tracked her movements like uneasy rabbits in the underbrush tracking the flight of raptors overhead? They'd made a demon out of her in their own heads, so now they lived with that fear in their chests.
And Sylvain was here, because he had a different kind of demon in his head.
They stayed in silence for a long time, or maybe not long at all, and after a while, having grown restless, he reached out to touch Byleth's knee in turn. He traced fingers over the pattern of her lace, the motion idle. Just something to do with his hand. She didn't even react to it. Maybe she didn't feel it was warranted.
Except for when he traced the stylized whorl of a flower-stem up to her mid-thigh.
That was as far as he got before Byleth looked down at his hand with the tiniest frown on her face, just a faint line between her brows. She took his hand and moved it back down her leg, flattening it against her knee and then patting it kindly, like he was a small child she was allowing to play with her lace as long as he behaved.
"Aw, come on," he goaded with a grin. "I bet we could find something a bit more fun to do." His fingers curled over the curve of her kneecap.
"If you're bored, I can teach you to fish," Byleth offered.
"What makes you think I don't know how to fish already?"
"Even if you do, strategically, you shouldn't admit it," Byleth replied, looking him right in the eye with her unblinking stare, "because pretending otherwise would give you both the pretext to continue spending time with me, and more opportunities to press your advantage."
Sylvain's jaw opened and hung slack for probably longer than was dignified, but eventually he picked it off the ground and adjusted some of his presumptions. And he'd thought she was such an innocent girl, too.
"Is everything tactics with you?" he asked, aiming for joking and overshooting into nervous.
"Tactics are useful when you have an objective to achieve. You came here with an objective, didn't you?"
He'd always just assumed Byleth was around his age, but for a second there, Sylvain felt just like he had after he hit on Ingrid's grandmother the one time, and the old lady packed him off with criticism so mild in its delivery, that he didn't feel the sting of it until days later when he thought her words over.
"You make it sound so adversarial," Sylvain laughed, changing tack. "If you're up for it, why not just say so? We could be having a nice time together."
"Because I'm not interested," Byleth replied.
"Then why give me advice about-- flirting-- tactics-- or whatever?" Sylvain asked, his brows pulling together in confusion.
"Why pick up a sword, if you're not going to kill an enemy? Because sometimes you're just sparring for practice," Byleth said. "Running through the drills is what keeps you in fighting shape."
"Sounds like you were just going to let me dangle on your line knowing full well you weren't going to take me up on the offer," Sylvain retorted. "That's kind of mean, isn't it? I wouldn't have taken you for a tease."
"Then you know your training goals," Byleth said solemnly, "to become better at telling if a woman is genuinely interested in you."
Sylvain was speechless for a good minute. He couldn't tell if she was joking. He was pretty good at telling--he'd been slapped in the face enough times to know when a woman was definitely not interested. But it was hardly his fault that so many could be swayed by a Crest, a title, a promise of a comfortable life, or honeyed words from a poisonous tongue.
She could play aloof now, but would she act differently towards him if he knew who he truly was?
He couldn't imagine her fluttering her eyelashes at him. The image felt so out of character, that his mind revolted against it.
But maybe she was being truthful enough, and this was her way of telling him to fuck off. And hey, he could hardly blame her. He was some nobody, intruding on the quiet time she wanted to spend away from everyone.
He sighed, rubbed the back of his neck.
"I'm sorry for bothering you," he said, and made to rise.
"You're not bothering me," she said. "Sit."
"But-- Are you sure?" He froze awkwardly, one foot up, the other still dangling over the lake; half in and half out. He should retreat no matter what she said, because now he felt he was at a tactical disadvantage, and that was probably the right call. But he didn't know what anything meant with her, and when it came down to it, he didn't know if he wanted to leave at all.
"If you were bothering me, I'd tell you to your face."
The bluntness of the statement startled a laugh out of Sylvain.
"Okay," he said, settling himself back on the edge of the pier. "Yeah. Okay."