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31 Days of Flufftober 2021

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Welcome to my Flufftober 2021 collection! I started posting these drabbles on Tumblr just to see how they turn out, and now I feel good enough about posting them here on Ao3! I aim to post at least once a day and complete all the prompts for this year, but of course I can't guarantee anything lmao. Still, I hope you join me for the ride~

Check out the main event Tumblr here for the list of prompts, guidelines, and fluff from other people! I will also still be posting my drabbles on my Tumblr if you want to check me out. :3c

Table of Contents

 

Day 1: Winning a teddy for the other (Claude/F!Byleth, 946 words)

  • Byleth has her eyes on a giant wyvern plushie, and Claude is going to win it for her no matter what.
  • Set post-timeskip, established relationship

 

Day 2: Sneaking Out Together (Claude/F!Byleth, 833 words)

  • Byleth catches Claude sneaking a wyvern out of the aviary late at night.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 3: Lazy Sundays (Claude/F!Byleth, 568 words)

  • On one dreary Sunday in Derdriu, Claude and Byleth do absolutely nothing together.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship

 

Day 4: Sparklers & Fireworks (Claude/F!Byleth, 897 words)

  • Claude invites Byleth to watch some mages conduct a magical experiment, only to get more than they bargained for.
  • Set post-timeskip, ambiguous relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 5: Watching the Sunrise (Ignatz/Marianne, 1110 words)

  • Marianne wants to show Ignatz a special sight. Ignatz is trying his best not to screw it up.
  • Set post-timeskip, relationship is half-established, half-pining, or something to that effect.

 

Day 6: Fireman's Carry (Claude/F!Byleth, 1012 words)

  • A Str-screwed Claude tries to impress Byleth by carrying a wyvern on his back. Things don't go as planned.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 7: Meddling Friends (Claude/M!Byleth, 2783 words)

  • When the professor is acting unusually cold towards Claude, Hilda ropes the rest of the Golden Deer into her investigation.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic (although Hilda certainly isn't!)

 

Day 8: Cooking Lessons (Raphael/Leonie, 1533 words)

  • Leonie helps Raphael out by giving him cooking lessons, but they end up cooking up something more.
  • Set post-canon, developing relationship

 

Day 9: Text Messages (Seteth/Manuela, ~1255 words with some leeway due to images)

  • Seteth accidentally texts a meme to Manuela, Flayn's choir instructor. From there, their text messages include topics such as the benefits of being a marine biologist, Squid Game, and lolcats.
  • Set in a modern AU, developing relationship
  • Rated T for swearing

 

Day 10: Pillow Fight (Dimitri & Sylvain & Ingrid & Felix, 1304 words)

  • Dimitri's bed is big, but not big enough to house four children without arguments.
  • Set pre-canon, no romantic relationships but lots of childhood friendships

 

Day 11: Love Notes (Claude/F!Byleth, 2149 words)

  • Claude leaves a lot of notes for Byleth in the advice box, and Byleth does her best to answer them.
  • Mostly set pre-timeskip, with a scene post-timeskip, developing relationship

 

Day 12: Sleepy Kiss(es) (Dimitri/Dedue, 652 words)

  • Dimitri doesn't want to go to bed just yet, so Dedue has to bribe him with kisses.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship

 

Day 13: Pillow Morning Talk (Claude/F!Byleth, 1467 words)

  • Claude awakens to a beautiful song, courtesy of Byleth.
  • Takes place in Under a Shared Sky/my harpy AU, but you don't need to read that fic to understand this. More details in chapter notes.

 

Day 14: Slow Dancing (Dimitri/Marianne, 1620 words)

  • Dimitri helps Marianne practice her dancing for the White Heron Cup, even though Marianne doesn't think she deserves it.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship

 

Day 15: Silly Traditions (Mostly Claude & Golden Deer, with a dash of Claude/F!Byleth and Hilda/Marianne, 2855 words)

  • Hilda asks Claude to help braid Marianne's hair, then her own hair, then the rest of the Golden Deer's hair. Claude doesn't actually mind it all that much, until Byleth enters the picture.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 16: Falling Asleep Together (Claude/F!Byleth, 1039 words)

  • Claude decides to take a nap with his wyvern, only to wake up to a surprise.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 17: Domestic Fluff (Lorenz/Lysithea and mentioned Claude/Byleth, 1448 words)

  • Lysithea never thought that her future would contain pancakes with Lorenz and possible grandkids, and yet here she was.
  • Set very post-canon, established relationship

 

Day 18: Costumes (M!Byleth & Sothis & Rhea, 2192 words)

  • At Askr's harvest festival, Rhea encounters the professor and a girl that is suspiciously reminiscent of her mother.
  • Set in the Fire Emblem Heroes universe

 

Day 19: Flowers (Yuri/M!Byeth, 2377 words)

  • Yuri and Byleth start a garden in Abyss.
  • Set pre and post timeskip, developing relationship

 

Day 20: Secret Crush (Felix/Bernadetta, 2171 words)

  • Bernadetta has a crush on Felix. Which would've be fine if she didn't also write a self-insert story about him, and Sylvain didn't figure it out.
  • Set pre-timeskip, mostly pining going on

 

Day 21: Knuckle Kiss(es) (Dimitri/Dedue, 1152 words)

  • Dedue gives Dimitri a kiss on the knuckles, and Dimitri is determined to return the favor.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship

 

Day 22: Flirting at Work (Claude/F!Byleth, 1203 words)

  • Claude can't stop talking Byleth's ears off, even while they're fighting bandits.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship
  • Rated T for canon-typical violence

 

Day 23: Hold Me in Your Arms (Claude/F!Byleth, 842 words)

  • Byleth, shaken by the most recent bloody battle, turns to Claude for comfort.
  • Set post-timeskip, ambigious relationship, can be read as platonic
  • Rated T for mentioned character death

 

Day 24: Caught in the Rain (Claude/NB!Byleth, 1423 words)

  • During a sudden downpour, Byleth follows a strange song to find Claude.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 25: Cuddling & Snuggling (Claude & Dimitri & Edelgard, 5918 words)

  • Claude the raven laguz doesn't seem very friendly towards Edelgard the leopard laguz and Dimitri the boar laguz. The latter two try to change that, to varying degrees of success.
  • Set in a laguz AU I've been thinking about for a while
  • No romantic relationships, just friendships between the three lords

 

Day 26: New Hobby Together (Marianne/Hilda, 1301 words)

  • Marianne regrets everything when Hilda catches her adorning pegasi with her handmade accessories. But as it turns out, they might end up with a new hobby together.
  • Set pre-timeskip, pre-relationship, can be read as platonic

 

Day 27: “I’m cold” - “Here, have my jacket” (Marianne/M!Byleth, 1182 words)

  • Byleth and Marianne are out on a horseback ride when they come across a stray dog.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship

 

Day 28: Soothing Baths Saunas (Claude/F!Byleth, 2243 words)

  • Claude's scars prevent him from enjoying the sauna to its fullest, until Byleth interrupts him one night.
  • Set post-timeskip, ambiguous relationship, can be read as platonic
  • Rated T for non-sexual(?) nudity

 

Day 29: Up Against the Wall Kiss (Claude/F!Byleth, 2311 words)

  • Claude and Byleth venture into the Almyran Royal Crypt to retrieve a family heirloom. They should know by now that something's going to go wrong, but as long as they're together, they can prevail through anything.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship

 

Day 30: Fall Asleep in My Lap (Rhea & Sothis, Claude/F!Byleth, 2589 words)

  • Sothis, the goddess of Fodlan, comforts one of her daughters, who is having a hard time. While in the present day, Byleth tries to apply that advice to herself.
  • First half is set in the distant pre-canon past, second half is set post-canon
  • Rhea & Sothis as a mother and daughter relationship, Claude/Byleth as an established couple

 

Day 31: Holiday Traditions (Claude/F!Byleth, 6024 words)

  • Claude, Byleth, and their children embark on a dangerous trip known as the Demon's Pilgrimage. Along the way, Claude tells a story behind this journey, and the family encounters more than a few surprises.
  • Set post-canon, established relationship
  • Rated T for violence

Chapter Text

Byleth wasn’t the most emotional woman in the world, but Claude prided himself in knowing her various tells. Such as how her eyes brightened whenever she saw a friend, how her normally stoic face perked up whenever she heard good news, and how her gaze lingered on her favorite dishes in the dining hall. And if she displayed all three signs at once, then, well, whatever caught her attention was definitely worth it.

Unfortunately for Claude, her object of interest for today was a giant stuffed wyvern hanging in a ring toss booth, just begging to be won. It was white in color, the same hue as his beloved mount, but that was about it for similarities. Whereas Claude’s wyvern was sharp and angular and ferocious, this thing was made of round curves, soft fabric, and an adorable fanged frown.

Byleth didn’t say anything of course. Not that she needed to. She simply stopped in her tracks and stared at the plushie, her lips slightly parted and her green eyes churning with desire. 

Claude might’ve been able to pull her away from it with a tug, but he wasn’t so heartless to deny his girlfriend of her newest fixation. He glanced at Byleth, then at the stuffed wyvern, then back to her. 

“It is pretty darn cute, isn’t it?” He shot her a lopsided smirk.

Byleth peeled her eyes away from the wyvern, but it was obvious that she was still thinking about it. Claude didn’t wait for a reply before he patted her on the head.

“Leave it to me, Teach. That wyvern will be yours in no time!”

Byleth snapped out of her plushie-induced daze with a flurry of blinks. “Are you sure? Games like these are designed to waste your money...”

Claude chuckled as he gave her a gentle nudge. “Like I said, don’t worry about it! How hard can this be for a master archer?”

His reassurance lightened her expression somewhat, which was all the encouragement he needed. Claude sauntered over to the stall, dropped some coins into the awaiting man’s hand, and received five rings in return. In order to win this game, all he had to do was throw a ring onto any bottle. However, if he wanted to earn the giant wyvern toy, he had to land a ring on a special red bottle in the center. It was definitely a difficult target, as expected for the biggest prize, but Claude was nothing if not determined. He wasn’t about to let a dinky bottle get in between him and his girlfriend’s happiness.

The first ring soared over the bottles and landed off to the side. That was fine. Claude was just testing his strength, the ring’s weight, the direction of the wind, stuff like that.

The second and third ring bounced off the bottles with an annoying clang. That was also fine. Claude still had two rings left.

The fourth ring almost settled down on the red bottle, but it danced away at the last possible moment. An Almyran curse escaped Claude’s mouth before he could help himself. Now that the pressure was on, he fingered his last ring as he surveyed the battlefield in front of him. Perhaps he shouldn’t have acted so cocky earlier…

He turned to look at Byleth. At first glance, she remained as emotionless as always, but Claude prided himself in knowing her various tells. A corner of her lips twitched upwards as she directed her gaze from the fifth ring to Claude’s face.

“A kiss for good luck?” He held out his hand, which still clung to the ring.

That hint of a smirk grew into the faint smile as Byleth placed a hand on his. “You don’t need luck. I know you’re just showing off.”

She pushed his hand back. Claude laughed as he gave the ring a twirl. “Ever the perceptive one, aren’t you?”

Without missing a beat, he flicked his wrist and released his ring into the unknown. The ring, their last hope, flew straight towards the single red bottle in a sea of green. It got caught on the bottle’s neck, jumped around for a few heart-stopping seconds, then quieted itself on its esteemed crimson throne.

The man running the game could scarcely believe Claude’s ‘luck’, but there was no denying the results. He relinquished the wyvern plushie to Claude, who then gifted it to Byleth. The stuffed wyvern was ridiculously big in her arms, and Claude was concerned that she would have trouble seeing what was in front of her, much less walk safely with it. 

“Uh, do you need help there, Teach?” He asked, barely suppressing his amusement.

“I’m ok.” She replied, her voice was muffled from speaking through the wyvern. Claude was about to suggest that maybe she wasn’t ok, but she managed to adjust her grip so she could peek over its head and move without tripping over its tail. “Thank you for the plushie.” 

Now that her face was unobstructed, Claude could soak in the warmth of Byleth’s smile. It wasn’t the biggest smile ever, yet he felt sincerity and joy radiating from her regardless. Gods, she was so cute when she was happy. 

“Hey, anything for you, darling.” Claude smiled back. He leaned forward to smooch her on the cheek, only for the wyvern to get in his way. Oh well. There would be more opportunities to kiss her later. He recovered from his fumble by wrapping an arm around her waist instead and leading her onwards.

(Unbeknownst to him, that stuffed wyvern would keep getting in his way, including when they slept together, but it was still worth it in Claude’s opinion.)

Chapter Text

Some nights, Byleth couldn’t fall asleep easily. She supposed that was due to her mercenary upbringing, which occasionally required her to keep odd hours. And whenever she didn’t need to stay awake for a mission or guard duty, she liked to burn off her energy by aimlessly wandering around. 

There really was no need for such restlessness now that she was a professor at the Officer’s Academy, yet old habits were hard to break. At least the monastery was a safe place to roam at night, with plenty of interesting sights to see. She spotted cats prowling around the empty grounds, windows awash with orange candlelight from late-night studiers, a cloudless starry sky filled with twinkling lights and a full moon…

The one sight she didn’t expect happened near the wyvern aviary. Byleth heard a suspicious sound coming from over there, and made her way over to check it out. She arrived just in time to see Claude leading a wyvern out the door, all saddled up and ready for flight.

“Gah!” Claude jumped back when he noticed her, then settled down. “Oh. It’s just you, Teach. Warn a guy before you sneak up on them next time, ok?”

Byleth narrowed her eyes by an imperceptible amount. She wasn’t about to get distracted from the main issue at hand by his joking attitude. “Where are you going with your wyvern?”

“Oh, we’re just taking a midnight stroll around Garreg Mach. Like you.” 

Byleth folded her arms across her chest. “With a saddle?”

“With a saddle.” Claude nodded.

The two of them stared at each other for several long and wordless seconds, waiting for someone to make a move. It was only until the wyvern let out an impatient huff that the silence was broken.

“Fine, you caught me.” Claude sighed. “Turkey and I were just going to visit a nice secluded spot in the mountains that can only be reached by wyvern-back.”

That answer didn’t do much to alleviate her concerns. Byleth continued to stand in his path with an unamused expression. “Why do you want to go there? The reason better not be related to poisonous mushrooms.”

An airy laugh escaped Claude’s throat. “Well, when you put it that way, what do you want to hear?”

“The truth, Claude.”

His smirk vanished in an instant as he fell silent once more. Byleth didn’t consider herself a hard teacher, but if Claude’s machinations were going to put someone in danger, she wouldn’t hesitate to stop him. Yet from his muteness and the brief vulnerability that flickered across his features, she had a feeling that he wasn’t plotting anything nefarious for once. 

“Alright. The truth is… I just wanted to go stargazing.” Claude mumbled under his breath. “It’s the perfect weather for it, and the spot I mentioned is an especially good place to look up at the stars. There’s no one to bother you, for one thing.”

Byleth noticed him fidgeting under her watchful gaze. Claude may be adept at lying, but that just meant the times he told the truth all the more obvious. And this was definitely one of those times, even though she never pegged him as someone with such a calm hobby.

“You know that students aren’t allowed to take school wyverns out of Garreg Mach without faculty supervision.” Byleth pointed out.

“I know that. Why else would I resort to sneaking Turkey out?”

“So that means that I should come with you.”

“Wait, what-” 

The rest of Claude’s sentence came out as intelligible nonsense. Byleth would’ve been amused if she wasn’t serious about what she said. She waited until Claude regained his bearings before continuing on.

“Flying a wyvern to an isolated location so late at night can be dangerous. As your professor, your safety is my number one concern, and I cannot allow you to proceed all by yourself.”

“But are you sure that ‘my safety is your number one concern’?” Claude winked at her.

“What do you mean?”

“Ah- nevermind.” Claude shook his head. “I... honestly don’t mind if you come with me, although do you really want to? We’re just going to sit around for a little while. Or a long while.”

“I don’t mind at all.” Byleth tried to force a smile on her face, but the most she managed was a twitch of her lips. Still, she was being sincere. She didn’t want to have regrets if Claude got into trouble without her, and admittedly, spending time with him seemed better than continuing her wanderings alone.

Claude took a moment to study her impassive face before he let out a sigh. “Well, it looks like I have no choice in the matter, huh? Hop on.”

Byleth heeded him without another word. Turkey’s saddle was only meant for one person, yet she and Claude were able to squeeze onto his back anyway. After making sure that everyone was secure, Claude spurred his wyvern up and into the inky black canvas of starlight above them.

Chapter Text

Today, a dull grey overcast blanketed the entirety of Derdriu. They weren’t the kind of clouds that threatened rain and thunder, but they nonetheless blocked the sun and enveloped the Riegan manor in a heavy, life-sucking haze.

Which was fine by Claude, if he was being perfectly honest. He welcomed any excuse to lounge about on a couch, with a book in hands and his wife resting on his shoulder. Although Byleth looked like she was reading along with him, he could tell that she was really just basking in his presence. Just like how he basked in hers.

He moved an arm to flip a page, shifting Byleth a bit. She grabbed onto him to keep her head on his shoulder, and didn’t let go even when Claude lowered his arm back down. It seemed like with each small gesture of his, Byleth sank further into their embrace, until she was practically pinning him down. Which, again, was fine by Claude, but what was she going to do if he actually needed to get up?

“Hey, By?”

Byleth let out a quiet hum of acknowledgement.

“Did you want to do anything today?”

Her green eyes widened, as if she was appalled that he wanted to disrupt their comfortable position on the couch, but soon returned to their sleepy, half-lidded state. “What did you have in mind?”

Admittedly, Claude hadn’t really thought of anything. He was just asking to gauge her reaction. But he still managed to recite several ideas with a smirk on his face and an arm draped around her shoulder.

“Well… I heard that a famous dance troupe is in town. Wanna catch a show?”

Byleth turned her attention towards the windows. The clouds haven’t budged an inch, as expected.

“Mmm… Maybe later.” She mumbled out.

“How about we visit the market then? I bet the fishermen caught something tasty today.”

“They catch something tasty everyday.”

“Or we can just fly around the city?”

“It might rain.”

Claude shot Byleth an amused glance. He was about to say that the clouds outside didn’t look like rain clouds, but there was no need to argue with someone who wasn’t serious. Her eyes shone with quiet laughter that coaxed a chuckle out of his own throat. 

“Ok then. No outdoor activities whatsoever.”

With that, they drifted into a comfortable silence once more. Claude felt his eyes glazing over the words in his book, reducing them to an intelligible blur. He was more entertained by how he wound Byleth’s hair around his fingers and how Byleth nestled against him so closely, he could feel her breath on his neck.

His smile widened as he moved to get up. “Well, if going outside is out of the question, I do have some paperwork I need to take care of.”

Byleth whined as she clung to him, forcing him to remain on the couch. “Don’t go yet. The papers can wait.”

“Wait for what, exactly?” Claude fired back, even though he already knew the answer.

In response, Byleth sprawled all over him like a large and affectionate cat. His book fell to the floor as she bowled him over, but Claude didn’t mind getting sandwiched between her and the couch. His beloved wife, with all of her warm hugs and nuzzles and gentle pecks on the cheek, gave him the perfect excuse to laze about for just a bit longer.

Chapter Text

The wintery nights of the Pegasus Moon usually chilled him to the bone, even after all these years. Claude couldn’t help it, as someone born and raised in the Almyran heat. Yet as he stood on the ramparts of Garreg Mach, he could barely feel the night’s biting cold around him. Only the anticipation for a certain someone that was supposed to arrive very soon.

“Claude?”

And there she was. Claude turned to meet her quizzical gaze with a smile.

“Teach! Thanks for showing up!”

She nodded back, but confusion was still plain on her face as she approached him. “I don’t mind being out here so late at night, but what are we here for?”

Claude briefly considered leaving her in the dark for a bit longer, just for dramatic effect, but on second thought, he might end up losing her interest that way. Besides, he wasn’t a heartless man, at least on the inside. His smile widened as he gestured to the fields outside Garreg Mach with a flourish.

“Constance, Lysithea, and Annette wanted to show us the fruit of their latest experiments, but it’s best seen at night and in a wide outdoor space. Hence, why I called you here today.”

Byleth let out a contemplative hum. “Constance, Lysithea, and Annette? That’s a rather… explosive combination.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Claude shot her a cheeky wink. For a moment, he worried that he let slip too much, but Byleth looked like she was still in the dark. Good.

“Where are they? And their experiment?” She asked as her eyes wandered towards the rest of their surroundings. Try as she might, there was no one else besides Claude and Byleth.

“They’re out there, somewhere.” Claude waved in their vague direction. “Their experiment isn’t something you want to get close to.”

Byleth folded her arms across her chest and squinted out at the snow-covered fields. “And just what is their experiment? You haven’t told me anything about it yet.”

To that, he just flashed a knowing grin. The flicker of annoyance on her face made him feel even more smug, but he didn’t have the chance to relish it for long. In the distance, sparks of light on the ground caught his attention. He watched them blaze for a little bit, then glanced back at Byleth to hold up three fingers.

“You’ll find out in three… two… one…”

As soon as he lowered his last finger, a high-pitched whine, followed by an explosion, rang out behind him. He whirled back around just in time to see a cluster of red lights twinkling high above them. They blinked out existence soon enough, but another explosion created more brilliantly colored pinpoints for their viewing pleasure. And another. And another. The faraway team of mages kept launching these pyrotechnics until the night sky was filled with dazzling sparkles and glimmering mist that rivaled the stars themselves.

“Claude…” He could barely hear Byleth over the din, but he could see her mouth moving. “What are these?”

“Constance calls them ‘fireworks’. They’re basically flares she and the others modified with magic so they can produce all sorts of shapes and colors. Ideally, we would use them as signals during a large battle, but…”

He trailed off, partially because he didn’t know what else to say and partially because Byleth was paying more attention to the fireworks. So instead of trying to finish his sentence, Claude just kept on watching the show.

The trio of mages really outdid themselves, in Claude’s opinion. Some of these fireworks were arranged in a simple circle, others took the shape of stars, and as the show continued, a few of them formed more complex figures like letters, Crests, even the insignia of the Golden Deer house. He couldn’t imagine how a small package of magical powder and a bit of flame could create such wondrous results.

Although, as he snuck a peek at Byleth, the fireworks weren’t the only beautiful things tonight. Each explosion illuminated her face in hues of white, gold, red… No matter the color, her look of awe quickened his heart and painted his cheeks with a warm blush. Claude would be just as happy watching her faint smile and the fireworks reflected in her eyes, or perhaps even happier.

Byleth eventually noticed how Claude stared at her, but when she tilted her head to face him, he didn’t flinch away. 

“They’re too pretty to use for combat.” She mumbled, her words forming wisps of steam in the frozen air.

“... Yeah. That’s what I was thinking.” Claude replied back, sans any of his usual humor. “But they would be great for celebrations, wouldn’t they? Maybe like the end of the war? That’ll give the mages plenty of time to perfect them.”

Byleth nodded. “And it would give us something to look forward to.”

Claude would’ve agreed with her if it weren’t for a bang that drowned out his voice. Well, it wasn’t like he needed to say anything anyway. Judging from the pensive look she gave him, Byleth already knew how much he loved this experimental show, and how much the end of the war meant to him. To all of them, really.

With nothing left to say, Claude simply opted to hold onto her hand and enjoyed the fireworks, the promise of a new dawn, alongside Byleth.

Chapter Text

Ignatz honestly didn’t know what to expect when Marianne asked him to come with her in the wee hours of the morning. He thought that maybe she needed his help with caring for an injured animal, or perhaps she spotted some nearby enemies. The latter wouldn’t surprise him, seeing as they were marching towards their next battlefield.

But no. If Marianne noticed any danger, she would’ve brought more people than just Ignatz. The two of them weren’t carrying any weapons either. It was just him, her, and her sable pegasus that carried them towards the top of a tall hill.

Or… What if Marianne was leading Ignatz to such a secluded spot for more... private reasons? Like a confession of some sort? His cheeks burned at the very thought, even though he wouldn’t be completely opposed to it. Marianne had always been such a kind and gentle soul, and watching her blossom throughout the last five years was one of his greatest joys. She went from being a somber wallflower that could barely look him in the eyes into a lovely and composed woman that invited him to this outing without hesitation. And he would be delighted to keep on watching her, to grow alongside her. The only thing holding him back, he supposed, was the war that waged all around him. He couldn’t ask her to love him when his life may be taken the very next day.

Yet if Marianne really was planning what he was thinking, what was he to do? His face must have been so flush with embarrassment, it radiated enough heat to catch Marianne’s attention.

“Ignatz? Are you well? Your face is so red…” She turned around to ask.

“Ah.” Ignatz instinctively raised a hand to his cheeks. “I’m fine, truly. The wind is a bit chilly up here, that’s all.”

Marianne shot him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry. But we’re nearly there. I promise.”

Ignatz felt the urge to ask her where was ‘there’, exactly, but didn’t trust himself to speak without accidentally blurting out his earlier thoughts. Plus, they were actually almost there. A few beats of a pegasus’s wings later, Marianne and Ignatz arrived at their destination on top of a hill.

“Oh! This is…”

He almost tumbled out of the saddle in his excitement to absorb the details of his surroundings. From their vantage point, he saw endless swaths of forest down below, with mists still clinging to their canopies. A fiery speck among those trees indicated the location of their campsite, dirt roads winded around trees before being swallowed by the fog of distance, and an even more distant lake reflected a splotch of sky amidst the greenery. On the horizon, golden rays wreathed the rising sun like a crown, and the encroaching dawn painted the skies with beautiful shades of pinks and purple and oranges and blues that spurred his imagination. 

Ignatz was almost too stunned by the magnificent sunrise to finish his sentence. It was only when Marianne took a step closer that his tongue started to work again.

“Marianne, this is wonderful.” He managed to say. “How did you even find this view?”

She fidgeted in place for a moment. Ignatz worried that he said something to offend her, but her answer, uttered as a whisper, put his fears to rest.

“Um... I took Sigune for a ride because I couldn’t fall back asleep, and stumbled upon this hill. I… thought you might like it, so I tried to find you as fast as I could, before the sun had fully risen. I’m glad that we made it in time…”

By now, Marianne was right next to him, her serene face accentuated by the dawn’s light. She really was a beautiful woman, perhaps even more beautiful than the sunrise before them. Again, Ignatz double checked himself before he could blurt out some sort of foolishness that would sully the atmosphere.

“I’m glad too.” He paused to mull over his next words. “Was there… a particular reason you thought of me? I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, I just… wasn’t expecting this.”

Marianne turned to stare at him with wide eyes. “Oh. I guess I wanted to repay you for when you showed me the sunset at Garreg Mach. I know that was a long time ago, but…”

Now it was Ignatz’s turn to gasp. “Oh! I’m honored that you still remembered that, but I didn’t need any repayment. Even so… Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.”

When he punctuated his gratitude with a smile, Marianne smiled back. His chest was thumping so loudly, he thought it might break free and let the whole world know how he was feeling. How much he adored Marianne, and how much he wanted to capture this scene for eternity…

“Oh.” He uttered for the third time. “I should have brought my drawing tools with me. This would make for a beautiful painting.”

“That’s true…” Marianne nodded as she returned her gaze to the sunrise. “But I don’t think there’s enough time to go back and grab them... I’m sorry. I should have thought about it.”

Gripped with concern, Ignatz shook his head like a man possessed. “It’s not your fault, Marianne. Besides, not every sunrise needs to be drawn. Sometimes it’s better to just sit back and enjoy it with you.”

Ignatz didn’t even realize what he said until he noticed how Marianne’s mouth formed a surprised ‘o’ shape. He felt his face burning up again as he stammered and pushed his glasses up a little higher.

“A-ah. I mean to say, it’s better to just enjoy it. N-not that I wouldn’t enjoy it with you, Marianne. It’s just that…”

A soft giggle, akin to the most soothing of lullabies, wiped out all other thoughts in Ignatz’s head. Marianne’s smile widened as she took him by the hand.

“Well… I would like to enjoy it with you too. If you don’t mind…”

The warmth from her touch flowed through Ignatz like liquid fire, but in a good way. It suddenly felt like everything was alright in the world, they were where they needed to be, and the words that formed on his tongue were the right words to say. 

In an unwavering voice, Ignatz said, “Of course I wouldn’t mind. Not at all.”

Ignatz and Marianne proceeded to sit down on the earth and look towards the rising sun. They exchanged no more words between them as dawn turned to morning, but they didn’t need to. The occasional peeks at each other and light squeezes of their hands conveyed everything their hearts wanted to say, and then some.

Chapter Text

Claude shouldn't have let the professor's comment on his lack of strength get to him. He knew that he wasn't as strong as some of his other classmates, like say Raphael or Leonie, and that his real assets laid in his quick reflexes and sharp mind.

Yet here he was, loitering in an alleyway with a juvenile wyvern. His partner-in-crime for today, named Wren, was a good deal smaller and lighter than his fully grown counterparts. Yet he still commanded an intimidating aura thanks to his reptilian golden gaze, wickedly curved talons, and the antlers sweeping behind his head. Most people would give Wren a wide berth, so by that logic, anyone would be impressed if Claude could wrestle him into submission. Right? Right. No one, especially not Teach, would have to know that Wren was basically a big winged puppy in reality.

“Wren. Look at me.” 

Claude snapped his fingers in front of the wyvern’s face. Wren jerked his head up, the tip of his tongue sticking out slightly. Well, no one’s going to notice that detail while Claude was handling him.

He grabbed the sides of Wren’s snout and stared at him squarely in the eyes. “This is your big moment, boy. If this works out, I’m going to feed you so many treats that you’re going to be sick of them. But if it doesn’t work, then Teach is going to force feed me a diet of rocky burdocks for the rest of the school year.”

At the word ‘treats’, Wren stuck out his tongue even more. Claude could’ve sworn that he started drooling too, but that wasn’t important. What mattered now was the familiar cadence of footsteps in the distance. If Claude memorized her schedule correctly, Teach should be passing by here any minute now.

“Do not blow this for us.”

Claude punctuated his last words with a bop on Wren’s nose before hefting him onto his back. Even though Wren wasn’t at all close to his adult size, he still bore down on Claude like a sack of bricks. Luckily, he remained limp as Claude maneuvered him into a (relatively) comfortable position. His muscles were already starting to ache; he couldn’t imagine how much more he’d hurt if Wren fought against his grip.

With great effort, Claude stepped out into the open and right in Byleth’s path. To his surprise, she was accompanied by Raphael, but the big guy shouldn’t pose any problems to his scheme.

“Heya- oof! Heya Teach!” Claude grunted out. He would’ve also waved at her, but his hands were currently occupied by the wyvern on his back.

“Claude?” Byleth stopped in her tracks. “What are you doing to the wyvern?”

Claude never would’ve imagined that even smiling would be so hard, but he supposed everything was going to be harder while carrying a wyvern. He wasn’t even able to stand still, with how his body swayed and his knees knocked together from exertion.

“Oh, you mean this guy? He got loose from the wyvern aviary, but I managed to wrangle him into submission. So now I’m bringing him back there.”

Byleth raised an eyebrow, which was quite a reaction from someone as emotionless as her. “All by yourself? How did you manage that?”

“It’s simple, Teach. I’m stronger than I look.”

She had no response to that. His professor just stared at Claude, then at Wren, then back to Claude. Did she believe him, or did she see through his impeccable performance? Claude spared a glance backwards and noticed that Wren was still sticking out his tongue. Well, maybe Claude could say that Wren was just that exhausted after their fight…

“Wow! No kidding!” Raphael’s booming voice interrupted Claude’s thoughts. “Do you need any help? I can carry him the rest of the way!”

Claude flinched inwardly at that remark. As much as he liked him, he couldn’t let Raphael take all the credit. “Er, thanks but no thanks. I should be good.”

“Are you sure?” Byleth crossed her arms across her chest. 

Uh oh. That simple gesture, coupled with her continued incredulousness, meant that she didn’t buy his lie. But before Claude could spin more white lies, Raphael took a few steps forward until he was dangerously close to him.

“Still, you did a great job in catching the wyvern! I know I would’ve gotten a lot more scratches handling the little guy! Guess I shouldn’t underestimate you, not that I ever did!”

Raphael gave Claude a congratulatory slap on the shoulders, which was inadvertently the straw that broke the camel’s back. Claude crumpled into a heap of sore muscles on the ground. And as if to make matters worse, Wren remained on his back to lean over and chew on his braid.

“Oh man! Claude, are you alright?!” Raphael exclaimed.

Claude grunted in response. He couldn’t see what was going on, but he heard Byleth sighing above him.

“Raphael, please take the wyvern to the aviary. But don’t strain yourself like Claude did.”

“On it, professor!”

Claude should be relieved when he felt Wren being lifted off of his body, but the crushing despair of defeat still encumbered him. He couldn’t even bear to look Byleth in the eyes as she crouched down next to him.

“Feeling stronger yet?”

Another groan. Claude’s mind raced with panic and witty comebacks alike, but as it turned out, he didn’t need any of that. He sensed some nearby movement, and finally raised his head off the ground. In front of him, Byleth held out a hand.

“Come on. Let’s get you to the infirmary. Just to make sure that you didn’t hurt yourself too badly.”

A concession like this would normally have Claude’s cheeks burning like flames, but instead, he felt oddly at peace. Maybe it was because his sore muscles tempered the indignation he was supposed to feel. Or maybe it was Byleth’s calming voice and mild expression, devoid of any annoyance or pity, that put him at ease. Whatever the reason may be, Claude did not hesitate to accept her outstretched hand.

Chapter Text

Hilda knew that something was wrong with Claude the moment he walked into the classroom, several minutes late, but she never imagined that it would be this bad.

In her opinion, the bags under his eyes, his vacant stare, and his sad, poorly-formed braid were already enough reasons for concern. But throughout today’s lesson, he didn’t speak a single word. He just kept his head down, only glancing up when the professor said something important. And speaking of the professor, Byleth hardly acknowledged Claude during class. He didn’t even look at him, much less call on him for answers or opinions. It was as if the Golden Deer house leader didn’t exist in his eyes.

What was up with them today? Claude and Byleth used to be as thick as thieves, always talking about schemes or secrets or whatever was on today’s menu in the dining hall. Well, Claude did most of the talking, but same difference. Now, there was some kind of frigid, insurmountable gap between them, wide enough to flip a once-amicable relationship on its head overnight.

Hilda couldn’t stand it, but she also couldn’t do her usual sleuthing right now. She still had lessons to go through, and a problem this big required finesse anyway. Simply approaching either Claude or the professor with her festering questions would do more harm than good at this stage. Instead, she waited and watched, gathering clues that would help solve this mystery. Even though the long hours of observing this sad state made her want to do something to help them. And she was usually the kind of gal that was content to just sit back and let the show unfold!

The tipping point arrived when Byleth caught sight of Claude nodding off. Admittedly, Hilda was at first glad that he finally glanced at Claude, but her eagerness turned into dread as their professor strolled over to his desk with a stony, unamused expression.

Claude was so out of it, he didn’t notice Byleth looming over him until it was too late. Byleth rapped on his desk to get his attention, causing Claude to jerk his head up.

“I think you need to leave,” Byleth stated in an icy voice.

Claude widened his eyes, but didn’t respond back. Seriously, what was going on between them?! A Claude without any kind of comeback wasn’t Claude at all! Hilda was overcome with the urge to step in and speak in his stead, but before she could jump out of her chair, Claude started to pack up his things. His somber expression throughout tugged at Hilda’s heartstrings like a harpist’s deft hands, yet she couldn’t do anything for him. Not while their cold-hearted professor stood in her way.

And just like that, he was gone. Byleth returned to the front of the classroom and continued his lessons like he didn’t kick Claude out moments ago. The oppressive feeling in the air was thick enough to choke on, but no one dared to comment about it until they could break for lunch. Once the Golden Deer sans Claude fled to safety in the dining hall, Hilda was free to inflict her many grievances onto her classmates.

Please tell me I wasn’t the only one who noticed how rude the professor was to Claude!” She exclaimed while spinning a fork between her fingers. This issue was firing her up so much, she didn’t feel like eating.

“Er, I think everyone noticed. Especially after he kicked Claude out for dozing off,” Lysithea replied.

“Can’t say I blame him for doing that though,” Leonie said through a forkful of salad. “Claude may not look like it all the time, but he usually takes classes seriously. Today though… Today he was just sad.”

“But why?!” Hilda furrowed her eyebrows. Curse Claude for making her care so much! “Not only was Claude completely out of it, the professor had to go out of his way to make him even more miserable! I mean, he didn’t call on Claude at all today! He barely even looked at him! Except when he told him to leave, of course. So whatever’s bothering Claude must also be bothering the professor…”

As soon as her last sentence left her mouth, everything fell into place. Of course! It was so obvious! Delighted by her revelation, Hilda slammed her hands on the table, making plates and silverware jump in place.

“I get it now! They had a lovers’ quarrel!”

Practically everyone sputtered and recoiled in shock. Only Raphael remained unaffected, as he was too busy downing a large steak.

“Hilda, how can Claude and the professor have a lovers’ quarrel when they are not even an official couple?” Lorenz piped up. Then, in a lower voice, added, “Yet.”

“They don’t have to be an actual couple to fight like one,” Hilda huffed. “And a spat does explain everything! Claude probably lost a ton of sleep over it, which is why he’s so tired today, and why the professor is acting so mean!”

A lull in the discussion gave everyone else enough time to ponder over it. Hilda mentally patted herself on the back for figuring out the answer with so few hints to go on. And people actually thought she was as air-headed as she pretended to be!

“So…” Ignatz mumbled out. “If Claude and the professor did have an argument, what can we do about it? I don’t want them to fight during class or anything...”

“Yeah. The professor gets sidetracked with enough tangents as it is.” Lysithea scowled. “We’re going to seriously fall behind if neither of them act like adults and come to an agreement in time.”

“Or, uh, m-maybe we should just leave them alone,” Marianne said, barely above a whisper. “I think getting involved will make things worse…”

“Nonsense, Marianne! How can we make things worse?” Hilda asked rhetorically. “But to fix this mess, we need to find out what they were arguing about in the first place. Hm…”

It only took her a brief second to make the next leap in logic. “Claude and the professor were fine with each other yesterday, so something must’ve happened last night or early this morning. Did anyone see them doing anything then?”

“Oh, I heard Claude visiting the professor this morning.” Raphael responded through mouthfuls of meat.

Hilda nearly knocked over her cup of water in excitement. “You did?! Why didn’t you mention that earlier?!”

“Iono. They were real quiet about it, and I was heading towards the training grounds.”

As frustrating as it was to have such a big reveal dropped in her lap without warning, Hilda could work with this. She could definitely work with this. Besides, it was hard to stay mad at Raphael and his earnestness. She twirled a strand of hair in her fingers as she thought out loud.

“Hm… If Claude was being sneaky this morning, then he must’ve had something to hide. Something like… a love confession?!”

“Hilda, must you make everything about romance?” Lorenz rolled his eyes.

“That’s rich, coming from a lover boy like you.” Leonie sneered.

Lorenz turned to Leonie with a glare as sharp as daggers. “Excuse me? There’s no need to drag my personal proclivities into this conversation!”

“Guys, this is serious!” Hilda interjected before another fight brewed under her nose. “If the professor jilted Claude, we’re looking at a bonafide disaster here! There’s no way those two can make it up on their own! They’re going to need a professional relationship counselor! Stat!”

“And I suppose that relationship counselor is you?” Lysithea scoffed.

“Of course! Who else knows Claude and the professor like the back of their hands?”

Ignatz coughed lightly. “Uh, not that I don’t doubt you, but this might be the first time I’ve seen you take charge…”

“Well, someone has to straighten out this mess.” Hilda flipped her pigtails back with a flourish. “And who knows? Maybe the two of them will be even closer by the end of it! Come on, guys! We gotta fix this right now!”

“Wait, now it’s ‘we’?”

Unfortunately, by the time Leonie uttered her retort, Hilda was already racing out the door. The Golden Deer, minus two of their star members, stared after her in collective shock.

Even more surprisingly, it was Marianne who broke the silence. “Um… Should we go after her?”

“... Yes. That is probably a good idea.” Lorenz sighed out.

 


 

Although Hilda initially thought she had to undertake this task by herself, she was glad that her classmates ended up following after her. Many hands lighten the load, as they say, and she was going to need all the hands she could get to mend the rift between Claude and Byleth.

Hilda announced her presence by slamming the classroom doors open. As expected, the professor was at his desk preparing for the next lesson. His eyes widened a bit as he glanced up, but he didn’t react otherwise.

“Professor!” Hilda shouted. “I can’t believe you rejected Claude after he came crawling to your doorstep! How could you be so heartless?!”

Byleth, very slowly, set down the paper in his hands. “... Come again?”

Hilda would’ve yelled at him more if it weren’t for the timely intervention of the other Golden Deer. Lorenz in particular stepped in between Hilda and Byleth to defuse the situation.

“You must pardon Hilda’s, erm, brazenness, but she is only speaking out of concern for Claude and you. Please, you must explain why you have been acting so cold to our house leader.”

Somehow, Lorenz’s cool and collected demeanor put a lid on Hilda’s emotions. She simmered down in order to let Byleth explain himself. Not that he said much at first.

“Did it seem like I was acting cold to him…?” Byleth muttered while resting his chin in his fingers.

“Hate to say it, but yeah. Most definitely,” Leonie chimed in. “Why else did you kick Claude out of class for nearly falling asleep?”

“... That wasn’t why.” Byleth shook his head. “He wasn’t feeling well, so he needed to be excused.”

“Well of course he isn’t feeling well! Anyone would feel under the weather after getting spurned by their crush!”

The room fell completely silent, save for the heavy thumping in Hilda’s chest. She still had plenty to say, but Byleth’s bewildered expression froze her tongue in place. He… really didn’t understand what she was talking about. Was it possible she was barking up the wrong tree all this time? But Claude’s infatuation with the professor was so obvious, and this was a perfect excuse for what happened today…!

Finally, Byleth replied back, in an unusually quiet tone. “You think… Claude has...”

Before he could finish his sentence, the doors swung open once more. In sauntered the man of the hour himself, Claude von Riegan, looking a fair bit peppier than earlier this morning. And a lot more confused, judging from how his green eyes flitted over everyone huddled around Byleth.

“Ah, Claude,” Byleth said, lacking any insecurities now. “Are you feeling any better?”

Claude nodded back. Hilda still was suspicious of her abnormally quiet friend, but Byleth’s most recent remark put a lot of things in perspective.

“Wait... Claude, are you sick?” She asked, somewhat fearful of the answer.

Claude hesitated for a long while, completely fixated on Hilda like a deer caught by a hunter. She returned his unerring stare with her own until he spoke up for the first time in what felt like ages.

Yeah.

His scratchy voice, devoid of its usual volume and bravado, made Hilda’s heart sink like a rock. She was wrong. Claude didn’t get into a fight with Byleth, he was just ill. And honestly, Hilda couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or relieved. Like, why did Claude try to keep this hidden for so long? She honestly didn’t get it. Hilda loved everything about being sick besides the sickness itself because people pitied her, went out of their way to do her chores, all that good stuff.

“So I did not mean to act coldly to him today.” Byleth shot Hilda a pointed look that made her shiver. “I was simply sparing Claude from any exertion, and allowed him to see Manuela when he could no longer stay focused.”

“But if you’re that sick, shouldn’t you be in bed…?” Ignatz asked.

Claude waved off his concern regardless. “Not that sick. And I didn’t want to miss class.

“Pfft! As if classes are worth it!” Hilda folded her arms across her chest. “You should’ve told us! That way, we could take notes for you while you get some rest!”

It’s no big deal. Really. I feel better after visiting Manuela.

“Wow, Hilda, did you actually offer to do something to someone?”

“And!” Hilda decidedly ignored Leonie to continue on. “By keeping things to yourself, you made us worry to death! Like, I totally thought that you and the professor got into a lovers’ quarrel!”

At that, Claude’s jaw hung wide open, then closed shut as a smirk grew on his face. Choppy laughter, broken up by coughs, escaped his lips before he could help himself.

Oh gods. You thought that Teach and I-

His laughs gave way to a raucous coughing fit. It sounded like he was dying, even though he had a big smile on his face. “Ow. My throat.

“Don’t hurt yourself over a joke, Claude.” Byleth stated as he reached into his coat pocket. “Here. Have one of these.”

Hilda was about to say that she wasn’t joking, not in the slightest, but she became more interested in the small object that Byleth placed in Claude’s hand. He unwrapped it to unveil a piece of candy that he immediately popped into his mouth. No, hold on, that was a cough drop. Since when did Byleth carry cough drops around?

“Professor, you keep candy on your person and didn't think to offer them to the rest of us?” Lysithea gasped out Hilda’s unspoken question.

“They’re cough drops, not candy. You can have one when you’re sick too.”

Lysithea opened her mouth like she was going to say something before Lorenz spoke over her. “Anyway, I am glad that this misunderstanding could be cleared up. But Claude, I must say that I agree with Hilda’s earlier point. Your health is very important to us, and anything we could do to provide relief is no burden at all.”

Marianne nodded. “Yes. Please don’t try to hide your illnesses… My healing spells can’t cure sickness, but I can at least pray for your wellbeing...”

“I-I think I have some tonics that could help too,” Ignatz chimed in.

“Same here,” Lysithea stated in an unusually terse manner, only to be overshadowed by Raphael.

“And don’t forget me! I know a recipe for a great chicken soup that’ll get you back on your feet in no time!”

“Er, maybe you should let someone else do the cooking though,” Leonie said, barely containing her laughter. “Like me. I also have some recipes for soups that are great for sore throats, so combining them all together is sure to do the trick!”

“See, Claude?” Hilda joined in. “There’s no reason to hide your sickness from us! Or anything, really! We just want to do what’s best for you, cause that’s what friends are for!”

Claude stayed silent, mostly because he was still sucking on his cough drop. However, his pensive face, mixed with traces of incredulousness and even fainter hints of gratitude, told them all that he needed to say. The aloof leader of the Golden Deer had learned his lesson, and more importantly, felt the sincerity and affection behind each one of their declarations.

“But I do have to admit,” Lorenz said, “I am enjoying the peace and quiet that comes with Claude’s loss of voice. Perhaps our classes can actually be productive for once.”

Claude’s expression quickly morphed into a scowl as he balled up the cough drop wrapper and flicked it in Lorenz’s direction. It smacked him right in the forehead, drawing an indignant yelp out of the purple-haired man.

“That’s enough,” Byleth stated. “The class is long overdue to start, so let’s take our seats. And please do not ask too much of Claude until he recovers.”

Hilda could’ve sworn that the professor and Claude exchanged a knowing look, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared. Oh well. Now that she knew that they were still on very good terms, Hilda was rest assured that the rest will come later. For now, all she and the Golden Deer had to do was support these two hopeless men however they could, even as oblivious as they were to their own relationship.

Chapter Text

Considering that he was a knight up until not too long ago, Raphael thought that he was doing a fine job at his sister’s inn.

Sure, it took a while to get used to everything. Raphael had to exchange his armor for an apron, his gauntlets for a broom, and his daily training routine for a set of domestic chores. He also had to admit that a small part of him would miss knighthood, but he was happy to help Maya with the family business too. Especially since their grandfather passed away recently, leaving him and Maya as the sole proprietors of the inn.

Through their combined efforts, the comely inn known as Kirsten’s grew and grew. Raphael’s reputation as a war hero apparently attracted many prospective customers, and although he didn’t really understand why, he wasn’t going to complain about it. More guests meant more money, which meant they could stay afloat for a little longer. Or a lot longer, as it turned out.

As time passed, old friends showed up at the inn alongside the flood of guests. Raphael and Maya accommodated people like Ignatz, Lysithea, Seteth and Flayn, even Queen Byleth and King Claude. In comparison, Leonie Pinelli the humble mercenary didn’t stand out very much, but Raphael was always happy to see her regardless. Even if she did accrue a massive drinking tab at his inn. 

Maya had actually started bothering Rapheal to do something about it, lest Leonie drank them out of business, yet he didn’t have the heart to turn away his former comrade-in-arms. Leonie became indebted in the first place to repay her village’s generosity. Rapheal wasn’t about to deny her necessities such as a meal and a bed just because her coin was running low. They had promised each other to help one another out, to lighten the load for everyone, and Raphael intended to keep that promise no matter what. He didn’t even mind if Leonie couldn’t ever return the favor, although he knew she would get there. Eventually.

“Hey, Raph,” Leonie said during one of her visits. “Did you get a new cook recently?”

“Nope! The opposite, in fact!” Raphael answered while wiping down a table. “One of our cooks went on vacation, so I’m taking over for her for a bit!”

Leonie glanced down at her half-finished meal, a bowl of beef and vegetable stew. “Ah, that explains things.”

“Huh?” Raphael couldn’t help but look a little crestfallen. “Do you not like it?”

“No! I do!” Leonie exclaimed. “It’s better than the last time you tried to cook for me. But…”

“But?”

“It’s definitely not up to par of what an inn should serve.”

Raphael let out a deep sigh. He knew that his cooking skills were lackluster, despite his love for food. He made efforts to improve so he could help out in the kitchen more, but if someone as voracious as Leonie noticed the discrepancy, he hadn’t improved enough.

Speaking of Leonie, she offered up a smile to counter his dismal expression. “Hey, I got an idea! How about I give you some cooking tips?”

Raphael perked up almost immediately, but there was still some hesitation in his voice. “Really? You’d do that for me? But you’re a mercenary, with jobs on the road and all that!”

“I’m actually in between jobs right now, so I don’t mind staying here to help you for a bit. It’s the least I can do for you after you’ve helped me out so many times.”

“That isn’t something you need to repay though.” Raphael chuckled. “We’re friends, after all.”

“Yeah? Friends help each other out, and your cooking definitely needs help.” Leonie smirked back. “Come on. I know that your sister’s been chewing on you for letting me and my drinking tab slide. Cooking lessons will at least get her off your back.”

Raphael paused in his cleaning to turn the dirty rag over and over in his hands. He was well aware of how stubborn Leonie could be, so he supposed that he can’t change her mind on this. Still, her debt was a cause for concern, and cooking lessons weren’t nearly enough to repay it. He didn’t want this obstacle to loom over this simple favor, and their friendship, like a dark rain cloud. 

He looked back at Leonie, who was eagerly anticipating his answer. Well in that case, he just had to shove the thought of debt aside and focus on the fun times ahead, yeah? 

“Alright. It’s a deal.” He said at least. “But I don’t want you to think of this as repayment for anything. Just one friend helping out another. Okay?”

“Sure thing!” Leonie stuck out a hand for him to shake, and Raphael graciously accepted it.

 


 

According to Leonie, Raphael’s problem was that he was using both too many kinds of ingredients and too many ingredients overall. Which sounded like nonsense at first. How can food taste worse with more food? 

But when Leonie prepared a stew her way, with less vegetables, thinner chunks of meat, and only a pinch of spices, Raphael was utterly gobsmacked by the result. Her creation tasted so much nicer and cleaner. The few ingredients she did use augmented each other instead of blurring together into a dull, flavorless slop. Best of all, he used less supplies this way, which was sure to please their budget.

Raphael was sad to see her go a few days later, but he couldn’t begrudge her for moving on. They had fun together, and Raphael would hate to tie a mercenary down with her debt. Instead, he vowed to keep practicing his cooking so that he would knock her socks off the next time she visited.

Except Leonie still wasn’t very impressed during her next stay. Now Raphael was having trouble with the freshest ingredients? He always used the oldest stuff that was about to go bad so he wouldn’t waste anything, but the ever resourceful Leonie taught him a few tricks to make old food taste like new. And how to brown meats without burning them. And how to bake the perfect loaf of bread. And how to use every part of a fish for multiple dishes. And-

And before they knew it, Raphael had done it. He made something that Leonie truly enjoyed. Ironically, he managed to succeed with the dish that kickstarted all these cooking lessons: a simple beef and vegetable stew.

“Mmm! Raph, you did a great job!” Leonie grinned in between bites. “I love it!”

“And it’s all thanks to you!” Raphael responded with his own smile. Yet underneath his joy, he felt something akin to… Melancholy? Forlornness? 

While he tried to understand why he felt sad as well as happy, Leonie noticed how his smile diminished. “Hm? Is there something wrong? I didn’t upset you somehow, did I?”

“No. Not at all.” Raphael said instinctively, then sighed. Leonie’s voice helped him figure out his puzzling emotions, which explained a whole lot and nothing at all.

“Well, actually…”

“So it is my fault?”

“Not in the way you think! I’m just a bit sad that our cooking lessons are done and over with. Which means that you paid off your debt, which means you have no reason to stick around.”

Leonie stirred her stew, deep in thought. “Huh. I didn’t think that my lessons were enough to fully repay you. But even if that were the case, I don’t mind staying with you and teaching you more tips in the kitchen. Free of charge, of course.”

“Huh? You want to stay here?” Raphael blinked in astonishment. “But you’re a mercenary!”

“Yeah. I thought I was, anyway.” Leonie shot him a lopsided smirk. “But I’ve been thinking about settling down for a while. I can’t keep traveling and fighting my entire life, and there aren’t many jobs during peaceful times anyway. More than that, all those cooking lessons with you made me realize how valuable a warm home and a close friend is. And I can find both of those things in Kirsten’s, with you.”

Her heartfelt sentiment colored Raphael’s cheeks a fierce pink color. Truthfully, he felt the same way. He also grew astonishingly close to the wonderful and kind Leonie, to the point where he would miss her terribly if she left again. Hearing his feelings returned, in a much more poetic way than he could ever manage, filled him with the urge to jump for joy and hug her.

But he also didn’t want to knock over her bowl of soup, so Raphael just put a big smile on his face and said, “Well, I’m glad you feel that way, cause I feel the same! Stay as long as you want!”

That proclamation drew some unexpected laughter out of Leonie. “Really? You mean that?”

“Yeah! Of course!” Raphael threw his arms wide open. Actually, now was a good time for a hug.

As Leonie stood up and threw herself at him, the comforting scent of beef stew and a good friend(?) washed over him. Raphael didn’t hesitate to pull her into a tight embrace, even in the middle of the inn’s dining room.

“Welcome to the family, Leonie!”

Chapter Text

Thursday Sept 16 • 7:14 PM

Seteth: Manuela, thank you again for staying with Flayn until I could pick her up from choir practice. You went above and beyond your duties as her instructor, and words cannot express how grateful I am for your accommodation.

Manuela: np

Seteth: Np?

Manuela: no problem

Seteth: To prevent future confusion, perhaps you should type out full sentences instead of using abbreviations. (deleted)

Manuela: say if you want to thank me with more than just words

Manuela: do you happen to be single?

Manuela: asking for a friend

Thursday Sept 16 • 8:44 PM

Manuela: hello??

Friday Oct 1 • 5:56 PM

Seteth: 

Seteth: Flayn, could you please explain the meaning of this video?

Manuela: this is how you reply after ghosting me for two weeks??

Seteth: Shit (deleted)

Seteth: My apologies, Manuela. I meant to text my daughter. Please delete my messages and forget this ever happened.

Manuela: oh im not mad at you

Manuela: this is l i t e r a l l y the funniest thing ever

Manuela: poor sety needs a lesson on memes?

Seteth: I do not need a lesson on memes. And please do not call me ‘Sety’.

Manuela: you say that

Manuela: yet here you are in my messages asking your daughter what a tiktok video means

Seteth: This video is from Tumblr.

Manuela: who even uses tumblr anymore!! i thought it was dead!!!

Seteth: My daughter and I still use it.

Manuela: anyway

Manuela: the joke behind this tiktok is simple

Manuela: very beautiful

Manuela: very powerful

Manuela: a meme lesson for you, free of charge. youre welcome

Friday Oct 1 • 11:07 PM

Manuela: you get why thats funny right

Saturday Oct 9 • 10:31 AM

Seteth: 

Seteth: Flayn, I sincerely hope that you did not want to become a marine biologist because of internet memes.

Manuela: lmao you did it again??

Seteth: Fuck (deleted)

Seteth: My apologies for bothering you once more, Manuela. I promise that I won’t repeat this mistake in the future.

Manuela: wait you arent going to delete my number are you?

Seteth: I would prefer not to, in case I need to contact you regarding Flayn’s choir schedule, but I cannot keep accidentally messaging you when I mean to message her.

Manuela: but i dont mind the memes

Manuela: really

Manuela: your cluelessness is a b s o l u t e l y adorable

Seteth: I do not appreciate being made fun of.

Manuela: im not making fun of you!!

Manuela: this is your problem sety

Manuela: you need to lighten up. thats why you dont understand these memes

Seteth: Lightening up is not my problem. I already allow Flayn a great deal of freedom on the internet, provided that I am able to check her social media on occasion.

Manuela: and then you pester her about memes you do not approve of

Saturday Oct 9 • 11:45 AM

Manuela: hello?

Seteth: Apologies for not replying back sooner. I had personal tasks to attend to, and I was also thinking about what you said. 

Seteth: I do not disapprove of her jokes, but perhaps I give her that impression because of how often I ask for explanations. I truly do not get the humor of this generation of children.

Manuela:  

Seteth: Please do not tease me, Manuela. This is a serious matter.

Manuela: oh sety

Manuela: you really do need to relax

Manuela: how about this? you can send me memes that you dont get, and ill do my best to explain them

Manuela: and i promise i wont tease you too badly ;)

Saturday Oct 9 • 12:58 PM

Manuela: hey sety i was being serious that time you know

Seteth: Apologies for the wait. I was compiling several recent memes from Flayn. I have 3 of them to share with you today.

Seteth:  

Manuela: oh come on you haven’t heard of squid game

Seteth: I have heard of Splatoon, yes. Flayn plays it all the time.

Manuela: not that squid game!!

Manuela: its a popular netflix show that has nothing to do with squids

Manuela: so the joke is that people like you who dont know about the show assume that its about squids using underwater computers

Manuela: or something like that

Seteth: I see.

Seteth:  

Manuela: lol!!

Manuela: youve seen crazy car mods right? Looks like someone put a bunch of crayfish in their car

Manuela: which i approve of btw

Seteth: And I do not approve of it. I shudder what to think if Flayn did this to her own car when she gets one.

Manuela: then dont let her get a car

Manuela: that was a joke btw please let your daughter have a car 

Manuela: anyway what else you got

Seteth:  

Manuela: ok you got me with this one

Manuela: theres probably a science joke in there and im not a science teacher

Manuela: i know someone who is tho. you know hanneman?

Seteth: Please do not show Hanneman these memes. I do not want my name attached to them.

Manuela: i wasnt going to tell him who sent them to me but ok fine

Seteth: Thank you for your help anyway, Manuela.

Manuela: np

Manuela: you can keep sending me all the memes you want btw

Manuela: anything to save my star singer from her clueless father

Seteth: I am not clueless. I am simply unaccustomed to modern Internet humor.

Seteth: If you do not mind me talking to you for a bit longer, it feels like the internet has changed so quickly. Back then, we had Lolcats, Rickrolling, Newsgrounds, and other jokes that were easy to understand. Now, I am baffled by every other image my daughter sends me.

Manuela: the jokes havent changed that much sety. everything is as silly and random as it was back then. 

Manuela: its just your tastes have changed but thats normal. youll get used to it

Seteth: Thank you, Manuela. I must confess that it’s nice to talk about this to another adult.

Manuela: np

Manuela: tho now you got me wondering, how old are you

Seteth: I am 39 years old.

Manuela: no way??

Manuela: before i thought you were m u c h older than me, but when you started talking about lolcats i was like wait a sec

Seteth: Do I really act that old? (deleted)

Manuela: and you still havent answered my question btw

Seteth: Which question?

Manuela: are you single

Seteth: I fail to see how that is relevant to the conversation at hand.

Manuela: im just saying if you want to ever talk about memes in person, im always up for a drink

Saturday Oct 9 • 3:22 PM

Manuela: shit did i scare you off again

Seteth: Not exactly. I was just considering it.

Manuela: either you learned how to joke really fast or youre actually into me??

Seteth: I do not know how to respond to that. All I am saying is I am not adverse to the notion of talking to you face to face. Perhaps about other topics besides memes.

Manuela: ofc we can talk about other stuff!

Manuela: are you free tonight?

Seteth: Not tonight, I am afraid, but we can meet up some other time.

Manuela: kk 

Manuela: looking forward to more invigorating discussions from you sety ;)

Chapter Text

Dimitri’s bed was big. Like, really big. Big enough to fit four children tuckered out by a full day’s worth of play, and yet they still found reasons to fight with one another.

“Sylvain, get your feet out of my face!”

“My feet aren’t anywhere near your face!”

“Yeah? So what are these?”

Ingrid grabbed Sylvain by his feet, which were only a few inches from her nose, and twisted them. Although she didn’t pull at them hard enough to seriously hurt him, Sylvain nonetheless yelped and yanked his feet out of her grasp, inadvertently kicking Dimitri in the process. 

The young prince grunted in response, but otherwise didn’t react much. Felix was curled up right next to him, and he didn’t want to wake his sleeping friend. Even though his other two friends might end up doing so with their brewing argument.

“Honestly, Sylvain! Would it kill you to sleep right side up?” Ingrid asked, green eyes fixated on his feet in case they got too close again.

Sylvain glared back without a hint of remorse. “I would if someone didn’t snore in my ears!”

“I don’t snore!” Ingrid exclaimed, then shot Dimitri a pleading look. “Do I snore?”

Dimitri fidgeted under his sheets. He didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want Ingrid to feel bad either. She did get quite loud sometimes, though that just meant she was getting really good sleep, right?

Unfortunately, Ingrid took his silence as a yes. Her pout deepened further as Sylvain chuckled to himself. “And I don’t want to breathe in your stinky breath all night too!”

“My breath doesn’t stink!” Ingrid glowered at him.

“Yeah. Now you’re just making things up.” Dimitri agreed.

“Or maybe I just have a sensitive nose.” Sylvain said, wrinkling his aforementioned nose.

“You do not!” Ingrid scoffed. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have screamed when the maids drew water for a bath today!”

“Hey, you would scream too if you knew how rough those maids are with their scrubbing!” Sylvain flipped his body around so he could bicker with Ingrid face-to-face.

As the two of them fought some more, Felix stirred by Dimitri’s side. His furrowed eyebrows indicated that he was probably somewhat awake, but was still trying to fall back asleep. Dimitri, sympathetic towards Felix’s plight, turned his attention back to the troublemakers.

“How about this? Felix and I will move to another bed so you two will have enough space to sleep apart.”

“But this is your bed, Your Highness!” Sylvain protested. “If anything, you should kick Ingrid off!”

“Why me? Kick Sylvain off!” Ingrid shouted back.

“Yeah. Kick Sylvain off.” Felix mumbled through his half-sleep. That drew surprised stares from the other three Faerghus kids, but Sylvain managed to get over his astonishment quickly enough.

“Seriously, I’m not the problem here! If you kick me off, Ingrid’s going to hog everything! I’m the only one standing in between her and bed domination!”

Ingrid snorted derisively. “That’s not true!”

“It is! Look at all the blankets you’re already hoarding! And who’s pillow do you think that is?”

Sylvain gestured towards the ill-begotten pillow in Ingrid’s arms and the mounds of fluffy blankets all around her. She must have subconsciously grabbed at both of those things during their argument. While it was true that Ingrid could get a little greedy at times, Dimitri still didn’t think that warranted her exile from his bed. Truth be told, Sylvain didn’t deserve it either, even with all his attitude. If only there was some way to make them all get along…

“Fine then!” Ingrid huffed as she shoved some (not all) of her blankets aside. “And you can take this back too!”

That was the only warning Sylvain got before Ingrid chucked the pillow at his head, but it was apparently enough of a warning for him to dodge it. With a soft thump, the pillow collided into Dimitri’s face instead. The room fell deathly silent during the split second his eyes were covered up, and when it fell away, he saw shocked expressions from everyone. Including Felix, who woke up just in time to see Ingrid hitting Dimitri with her pillow.

“Oooooh.” Sylvain taunted in a sing-song voice. “Guess who’s in trouble now!”

“I’m sorry, Your Highness!” Ingrid gasped out. “I meant to hit Sylvain! Honest!”

Dimitri sighed as he gave Sylvain back his pillow. “It’s quite alright. Can we please just go to sleep?”

“Sure! After Sylvain holds still for a moment!”

“Oh? Are you challenging me to a pillow fight?”

“Guys, please, it’s getting late-”

Dimitri’s plea was cut off by more feathery smacks of pillows. Ingrid managed to nail Sylvain this time, but that wasn’t much of a consolation. Especially since, after a few back-and-forths, Ingrid somehow managed to hit Dimitri again. Felix, ever the protective one, jumped in to defend his prince’s honor, further adding to the late night chaos.

Before Dimitri knew it, his bedroom was consumed by screams and shouts, kicking and punching, and pillows flying everywhere. He held back at first, still trying to keep some semblance of peace, but he soon realized that there was no actual animosity between his friends. Ingrid, Sylvain, and Felix all had smiles and laughter on their lips as they walloped one another. 

Their fun was contagious too, as it turned out. When someone’s (there was no telling whose) pillow bonked Dimitri for a third time, a mischievous grin slipped onto his face as he grabbed a pillow of his own and brought it down on the nearest person.

Now that the crown prince himself joined the fray, it seemed like it would never end. Yet it did, when Dimitri’s Crest made his pillow explode all over Sylvain. Their laughter came to a halt as a flurry of feathers silently drifted all over them. Then it restarted, louder and brighter than before.

“My apologies, Sylvain.” Dimitri said in between giggles. “Are you hurt?”

“Nah. Not at all.” Sylvain brushed some feathers off of himself. “But if I was defeated by His Highness, I guess that means I’m getting kicked off the bed?”

“Nonsense.” Dimitri shook his head. “You can still stay. Maybe we just need to make some changes to our sleeping arrangements.”

“And clean up all these feathers.” Ingrid pointed out.

Sylvain and Felix also concurred, leading to a joint effort to remove every last trace of their impromptu fight. With four pairs of hands working together, the feathery mess was taken care of in no time at all. From there, Dimitri and the others rearranged themselves so Sylvain wouldn’t bother Ingrid and Ingrid wouldn’t be able to steal anymore blankets or pillows. 

On any other day, the Faerghus quartet might’ve stayed awake a little longer to chat or joke some more, but their earlier fight wore them right out. They fell asleep as soon as their heads hit their pillows, with arms splayed over one another and bodies nestled in each other’s warmth.

 


 

“They look so peaceful like this, don’t they?”

Lambert nodded at Rodrigue’s statement as all of the gathered parents watched their children slumber in peace. They had heard commotion coming from Dimitri’s bedroom, and passed by there to see if they needed to intervene, but the chorus of laughter ultimately convinced them otherwise. Besides, they would rather have the kids burn off their energy and pass out instead of staying awake all night doing Goddess knows what else.

The King of Faerghus’s gaze lingered over Dimitri, Ingrid, Felix, and Sylvain one last time. In his heart, he hoped that they could remain like this forever, curled up in blankets and steadfastly attached to one another. As he moved to close the door, such sentiments caused him to whisper some parting words, akin to a prayer.

“Sleep well, children, and let nothing come between you.”

Chapter Text

In the corner of Garreg Mach’s cathedral sat the advice box.

It was a plain and unassuming thing, yet it was frequented by students and staff alike. Every week, Byleth would find numerous slips of paper inside, asking for advice spanning all sorts of topics. And although she was just a mercenary-turned-professor with little knowledge in the ways of the world, she tried her best to answer them anyway. Even if she couldn’t give good advice all the time, at least she could get to know her students and colleagues a bit better.

Apparently, her answers were good enough. Too good, even, because she was soon the only person that responded to the advice box. 

Byleth honestly didn’t mind it. Sure, sometimes the additional workload was a bit much, in terms of both the number of notes and their difficult subjects. But as she dolled out more and more advice, her answers sprang to mind faster and her hands scrawled out words quicker. She also started to understand the advice-seeking populace on a deeper level, even though these messages were anonymous. Not only did she recognize people’s handwriting, she could guess at their identity based on the topics they broached.

Linhardt sought to find the best places to nap. Lorenz almost always talked about tea. Both Sylvain and Dorothea harbored romantic worries, in entirely different directions. Cyril couldn’t write, and instead resorted to drawings to illustrate his frustrations. Flayn wanted her brother to leave her alone, while Seteth wanted to keep a closer eye on his sister. And Claude… 

Claude didn’t use the advice box in the intended manner, so to speak. All of his questions were about Byleth rather than himself. What kind of hobbies she had, what food she liked, what places she visited… Yet Byleth answered them all the same. She had no reason not to, and she knew that if she confronted Claude in person about his notes, he would just use the veil of anonymity to dodge her interrogation. 

So it surprised Byleth when she read over a paper with Claude’s handwriting, but a different and more earnest subject than usual.

Sometimes I find myself homesick, but I can’t really talk about it in public because people aren’t exactly fond of where I come from. Do you have any ideas on how to get rid of homesickness? Secretly, of course.

Byleth herself never had a place to call home, much less felt homesick. In fact, throughout her entire life, Garreg Mach might be the closest thing to a home for her. So she had to mull over his question for a long time. During meals, during training, and during classes, although she tried not to stare at Claude while they were together. She couldn’t exacerbate his feeling of loneliness by singling him out.

At the end of the day, back in her bedroom/office, she stared at Claude’s note once more. Thanks to her ruminations, she had the faintest inkling of what to say, yet the exact way to phrase it still eluded her. Byleth sighed inwardly as she leaned back in her chair, coaxing a green-haired phantom from the depths of her mind.

“It isn’t enough to write a response, is it?” Sothis murmured. “You wish to do something for him as well.”

Byleth nodded back. She had always been a woman of action, so conveying her sentiment solely through words was unknown territory for her. True, she had gotten a lot better since the start of the school year, but she still found herself at a loss from time to time. Like now.

“Well, why can’t you do both?” Sothis offered her a reassuring smile. “A proactive attitude is sure to make up for an inadequate response, even though I have faith in whatever you write. Plus, I doubt that Claude will mind a breach of confidentiality just this once.”

Despite being an amnesiac, Sothis’s advice always rang true. Byleth set her quill to parchment once more, and under her friend’s guidance, penned out an answer.

It may be difficult to alleviate homesickness entirely, but relief can be found in small ways. You can eat food, read books, or sing songs from your home. But more importantly, be sure to surround yourself with friends. Good company will make you feel less lonely, no matter where you or anyone comes from.

On that note, please join me for tea tomorrow after class. You do not have to share your grievances out loud, but I would like to help you relax if I can.

The day after she posted her response, she invited Claude to tea like she promised. Claude, as expected, didn’t comment on the reason why he was invited, but when Byleth served him a cup of Almyran Pine Needle tea, he flashed a smile that reached his eyes.

 


 

Claude still pestered Byleth for personal details, but now his inquiries were interspersed with actual questions. And as the sole caretaker of the advice box, Byleth dutifully answered him, no matter what they talked about or how she had to follow up her replies with actions.

A certain someone has been confiscating interesting books before I could get my hands on them. Now, I’m not asking you to get them back for me because I can do that on my own . I’m just wondering what’s the point of hiding valuable knowledge that could be used to better everyone’s lives?

Knowledge is power, and power can be abused in the wrong hands. In addition, I’m certain you understand how some people keep secrets to stay safe, rather than for selfish reasons. In order to ply these secrets out of someone, you have to prove yourself trustworthy in their eyes.

However, I must admit that a certain someone can be a bit overbearing at times. If you promise to not provoke him more than you usually do, I’ll see if I can convince him to loosen his restrictions.

I usually like to downplay my abilities so my opponents will underestimate me. But lately, there have been too many villains showing their faces around here and committing crimes right under our noses. Do you think that I need to switch up my persona? Maybe to something fiercer so our foes will think twice before crossing us?

If you pretend to be someone you’re not, you will eventually lose yourself, and therefore the battle. It’s better to play to your strengths, even if they are visually less impressive. But if you wish to become stronger to protect those close to you, you may want to start with putting extra effort into classes and training. I can also help you enroll in more advanced seminars.

Garreg Mach Establishment Day, and a wondrous night full of feasting and dancing, is almost upon us. The only problem is I’m not exactly an expert at the Fodlanese noble style of dance. Mind giving me a few pointers so I don’t embarrass myself on the dance floor?

I cannot guarantee that I can make you a master overnight, but I’ll see what I can do. Just know that if this is an elaborate scheme to get a dance out of me, I would have happily accepted an invitation during the festival proper.

Teach, how are you feeling? You don’t need to reply back, but just know that all of your beloved students are here for you. If you want to talk, I’m all ears. If you want a shoulder to cry on, I’ll gladly lend mine. If you want to exact vengeance, we’re at your beck and call. Just don’t be afraid to reach out to us, ok?

To be honest, I’m scared of how this battle will turn out. Yeah, we’ve been in tough scrapes before, but we’re fighting against one of our classmates to protect a place we’ve called home for the past year! This is why I try not to take things personally. Otherwise I find it difficult to focus on what really matters. Case in point.

Anyway, I’m going to try my hardest to stay safe. So will you do the same? I have so many dreams I need to fulfill, but I don’t think I accomplish them without you by my side   the world I want is nothing if you aren’t there it’d be nice if we can see them come true together.

Had Byleth checked the advice box one last time before Garreg Mach was invaded, she would’ve seen Claude’s last note as the leader of the Golden Deer House. She might have given him the reassurance that she would make out of this fight intact. But on that fateful day, she couldn’t return his message, nor could she return to him at all.

 


 

Five years. That was how long it took for Byleth to come back to the advice box.

To her surprise, it was full of notes waiting to be answered. Byleth was at first confused as to how that could be, when Garreg Mach had been abandoned for years, but she soon found out that people have been dropping off messages whenever they searched the monastery. If her heart was fully functional, it would swell with pride and adoration for all her friends, who never stopped believing in her. Instead, Byleth brought the box to her desk and started sorting through them.

There were actually a lot from Claude, now archduke of the Leicester Alliance. Judging from the dates at the top of each slip, he made the effort to visit Garreg Mach at least once a year.

Where did you go Teach? I know you’re not dead, yet there’s no trace of you where you fell. 

Wherever you may be, I hope you remember our promise to reunite at the Millennium Festival. Although there probably won’t be any feasting or dancing five years from now. Still, I better see you there.

My grandfather passed away, which makes yours truly the new leader of the Alliance. It’s a scary thought, I know, and admittedly I’ve been having serious doubts about this whole thing. The roundtable lords don’t trust me at all, and Edelgard’s been making ‘great’ progress in the Kingdom of Faerghus. What would you do if you were in my shoes?

A lot of people think I’m crazy to think that you’re still out there, but I know in my heart that you can’t be dead. I mean, you cut your way out of eternal darkness once before. A tumble off a cliff shouldn’t stop you, right? Don’t prove me wrong, Teach.

It’s been harder to keep in touch with Lorenz since his father’s being pressured by Edelgard. I know he refuses to follow in his father’s footsteps, but I have to admit that I’m still a bit worried that he can’t make it to the reunion. And the same goes for Lysithea, although House Ordelia isn’t as staunchly aligned with the Empire yet. Maybe it’s only a matter of time though…

But they still believe in you. They told me as much. If you can return from the ‘dead’, they will do their damn best to return to us too. After all, there’s nothing that can stop us Golden Deer from breaking our promise.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. And it’s true. My heart is definitely fond of you, and it aches with every day that passes by without you.

Actually, I think I’m in love with you   is it weird to be in love with a missing person I haven’t see in years? I don’t want to say anything in case you never come back. I don’t think my heart can handle that. But when you get this message, let me know. 

Byleth’s hands froze as she stared at Claude’s most recent advice box note. He did his best to redact parts of his message, but if she held the slip up to the light and squinted, she could make out those scratched out words.

Claude was in love with her.

All the time spent replying to the advice box didn’t prepare for this. Her cheeks blazed like a pair of flames as she pondered over her reply. He was in love with her. And she wanted to say that… she was in love with him too.

But what was she supposed to write? Was there even a good way to capture all of these buzzing, bubbling emotions on paper? Byleth doubted that even Sothis could string her thoughts into something coherent, if she was still here.

Sothis. She once told her to take action if words weren’t enough. So that was what she will have to do. Without wasting any more time, Byleth threw her quill down and hurried out the door, to where Claude awaited her response.

Chapter Text

Despite being hunched over these papers for most of the day, Dimitri was nowhere near close to finishing them.

He had been staring at them for so long, his eye was starting to hurt, but he couldn’t retire for the night yet. The deadlines for these proposals were fast approaching, and after he was done with these, there were still other projects to outline and more policies to implement… It seemed like a king’s work was never done, yet Dimitri wouldn’t have it any other way. He knew that maintaining their hard-earned peace would be no easy task, and if enduring sleepless nights was the price he had to pay to avoid bloodshed, then he would pay it gladly. 

However, there were others that were not glad about his refusal to sleep. His husband, Dedue Molinaro, counted among them. He didn’t voice his concerns directly yet, but he made his qualms known through more subtle methods. Like how he brought him food when Dimitri forgot to eat again, how he engaged in domestic activities within eyesight, and how his judgemental gaze bored into his back throughout the long hours spent by his side.

Dimitri couldn’t ask for a more patient partner, even though he was well aware that his work habits were the source of Dedue’s frustration. The Kingdom of Faerghus had to be constantly cared for like a child, especially right after a devastating continent-wide war, so the two of them were left with scant precious time for each other. A lesser person wouldn’t have stuck with Dimitri and his sea of paperwork for so long, but Dedue was no ordinary man. He was cherished, irreplaceable, and slowly approaching the limits of what he could tolerate.

“Your Majesty.” Dedue said for perhaps the dozenth time. “It is getting late. Please, retire for the night and come to bed with me.”

“Not done yet.” Dimitri mumbled back, even though he could hardly hide his fatigue from Dedue anymore. His vision kept swimming, occasionally blacking out, and his quill kept slumping in his grip, marking his papers with wayward trails of ink.

“Your Majesty.” Dedue repeated in a sterner voice. “The papers will still be here when you wake up tomorrow. You must rest.”

“At least allow me to finish this page.” Dimitri sighed. 

“That is what you told me last time. And the time before that.” He heard Dedue’s heavy footsteps approaching him. “If one page is giving you so much trouble, perhaps it would be best to take a break from it.”

A pair of strong arms wrapped around Dimitri’s shoulders and chest. Dimitri sighed again as he nestled further into his embrace, his quill abandoned on his desk. As determined as he was to complete his work, Dedue’s loving presence always shook his resolve. Or sometimes washed it away entirely, like now. 

Dedue leaned down and kissed his forehead to seal his fate. “Please, Dimitri.”

The mere mention of his name, from the man who so rarely used it, sent a tingle up his spine. Dimitri brought a hand up to Dedue’s face and gingerly stroked his cheeks. He would kiss him back, but he lacked the energy to even raise his head and meet his lips.

So Dedue had to do it in his stead. He placed soft kisses on Dimitri's cheeks next, then to the tip of his nose, before finally settling on his mouth. Dimitri let out a soft, sleepy moan as they remained like this for quite some time. Dedue was so warm and gentle, like a familiar blanket, he almost wanted to fall asleep in his arms. 

But there were better places to fall asleep than in his chair. Once they broke apart, Dimitri made a great effort to stand up.

“Alright. You convinced me.” He whispered. “Just this once, mind you.”

“Of course.” Dedue flashed a knowing smile as he led Dimitri to bed.

Chapter Text

For once, Claude wasn’t awakened by the fear of being watched or some other unknown danger, but a quiet, lilting tune.

The delicate song that filled his bedroom was light and airy in tone, reminiscent of the dawn and perfectly suited to herald a brand new day. Though it lacked any words, each note resonated with an abundance of heart. He could also tell who sung it by its pitch alone, but if he kept his eyes closed, he could almost pretend that he was about ten years younger and back in Almyra. His sister, Tarazed, often woke up bright and early to practice her singing, which usually roused the rest of the royal family in the process. 

This melody didn’t make him want to smother his ears with his pillow though. Rather, Claude laid in bed and pretended to be asleep to enjoy it a little while longer. He was only forced to face the music when the singer stopped and presumably looked at him.

“Good morning, Claude.”

Claude opened his eyes at last, and caught sight of Byleth on her perch. The morning sun’s rays wreathed her like a golden aura, making her appear more beautiful than usual. In fact, she was so breathtaking, Claude nearly forgot that she had greeted him.

“Morning, Byleth.” He stretched his limbs over his head, but didn’t sit up yet. “How did you know I was awake?”

“Your feathers were twitching.” She stated, if that explained everything.

And it did. Claude brought his hands to the feathered crests sprouting behind his ears. Curse these things for giving away his thoughts so easily. After removing/hiding them for so long, he was still getting used to the fact that they were there and that people could actually see them. Whenever he wasn’t wearing a hat, at least. Although if he felt more embarrassed about being found out than frightened for his safety, he must be acclimating better than he thought he was.

Claude smiled as turned back to Byleth. If she could read his mood from his feathers, Claude could say the same for her, in all of her grey and feathery glory. Right now, her plumage was slightly fluffed up but still sleek, a sign that she was content, and immaculately kept, a sign that she had preened recently.

However, Claude couldn’t tell what prompted her early morning singing. Not from her feathers, nor from her impassive human face. As far as he was aware, this was a new habit of hers. So it looked like he had no choice but to ask her outright. At least this way, he could change the subject from his own feathers.

“What about you?” Claude said. “What’s got you awake and singing so early in the morning?”

Byleth’s eyes widened a bit, the first emotion he saw from her today. “Did I bother you? I’m sorry.”

“Oh, I wasn’t bothered. Not at all.” Claude flashed her a reassuring smile. “In fact, you sound as lovely as ever. I could listen to you sing all morning, but only if you’re up to it of course.”

“I was just singing for practice. And because I wanted to.” The faintest of blushes tinted her cheeks pink. Claude supposed that meant he wasn’t going to get an encore today, but that was fine. As much as he would like to stay in bed, he really couldn’t afford to laze about.

“What kind of song were you singing, by the way? It’s not one I recognize.”

“It’s… nothing, really.” Byleth muttered back. “Just a song I made up. Were you expecting something?”

“Not really. Although…”

Claude trailed off mid-sentence. He usually didn’t open up to anyone about his life in Almyra for a variety of reasons, so he had no idea why he almost mentioned it just now. Maybe Byleth’s song put him in a nostalgic mood, or he was so comfortable in her presence, he just couldn’t help himself. Whatever the reason may be, it wasn’t good enough to hold him back. Claude trusted Byleth, and he promised her that there wouldn’t be any more secrets between them.

“One of my sisters gets up early to practice her singing, like you. She’s a siren, actually, so she kinda has to keep her voice box in good shape. And she practices with Galdrs as well as random songs, to thank the spirits for a beautiful new day. I think your singing is a lot better than hers though, if only because you’re actually considerate of the people sleeping around you.”

Claude drove his point home with another smile, causing Byleth’s blush to deepen. He neglected to mention that he also enjoyed her singing more because she was a much nicer harpy than Tarazed, but there was no way to word that without giving Byleth concern. Oh well.

“You don’t need to keep on praising me, Claude.” Byleth said through her burning cheeks.

“But it’s true. I don’t want to lie to you anymore.”

“Even so…”

A bit of her blush faded away as she took on a pensive look. “I guess I wasn’t just singing for myself. I know you’ve been having trouble adjusting to my presence, so I thought that a song in the morning would calm your nerves. Plus… it’s a nice thing to wake up to. A sign that we both made it through the night.”

Even though she said what she said to reassure Claude, her words caused him to freeze up anyway. It was true that he didn’t sleep well when Byleth was in the same room as him, even though he was the one who suggested that in the first place. A lifetime of getting attacked in his sleep made him acutely aware of every footstep, every rustled feather, every breath that wasn’t his. Constant danger, both in his nightmares and in the waking world, made him rely on the dagger he always kept under his pillow. 

But he was getting better. He hadn’t pulled his knife out on Byleth since their first night together. Actually, he didn’t even think about his knife at all last night. He managed to get some (relatively) restful sleep for once, and woke up without breaking into a cold sweat, like a normal, well-adjusted person. He couldn’t say that Byleth’s singing was the sole cause for his improvement, but it definitely helped. And to be honest, he wouldn’t mind if she continued to begin each day with a lovely serenade, for both their sakes.

Claude couldn’t give a voice to every one of these thoughts though. He may have made great strides in transparency, but he very much remained a private person at heart. So instead, he just smiled and nodded. 

“Yeah. It is nice.”

With that, he fell silent as he laid in bed, gaze still fixated on the harpy in his room. Byleth may look like she didn’t pay him any attention because she started preening herself again, but Claude noticed how the corners of her lips curved up a little bit.

Her rhythmic movements and the peaceful, wordless atmosphere that descended upon his bedroom almost coaxed him back to sleep. Yeah, it would be nice to get some more rest, after everything that happened recently….

“Claude?” Byleth piped up. “I’ll leave you alone if you need more sleep, but it is time to get up.”

“I know.” Claude mumbled as his eyelids drooped shut. “Maybe just five more minutes…”

“Tch! Don’t fall for his lies, Byleth! Five more minutes will mean another half-hour wasted!”

That raucous cry definitely didn’t belong to Byleth. Claude snapped his eyes open just in time to see Sothis lunging at Claude in an effort to wake him up. Although the ghostly girl merely phased through his body, he nonetheless sat up out of astonishment.

“I wasn’t lying! I really was ready to get up!”

“Only because I threw myself at you!” Sothis harrumphed. Now she sat at the end of his bed, with her arms folded across her chest and her wings angled to make herself look more threatening. “But are we going to waste anymore time arguing? We have much to take care of in regards to the mole!”

“Yes, mother. As you say.” Claude shot her a cheeky wink as he stood up. The way Sothis stewed in frustration was delicious, but she was right. There was a lot of work to be done to keep Byleth, himself, and everyone he cared about out of danger. 

And, theoretically, to end the need for this strange sleeping arrangement, but that was honestly the last thing on his mind. As Claude glanced Byleth’s way once more, he found himself filled with renewed vigor and ready to face the day ahead of them, with her by his side.

Chapter Text

“One, two, three… One, two, three…”

Underneath the shade of a giant tree, Marianne danced to a song only she could hear. Her feet moved in large, languid circles and her hands held onto an invisible partner, yet her forlorn gaze was glued to the ground, as if it were the most important part of her routine. 

And in some ways, it was. She needed to keep an eye on her feet, lest she tripped over herself again, and she needed to memorize these steps for the upcoming White Heron Cup. Marianne didn’t know why the professor chose her out of all the Golden Deer to represent the class, but she wished she didn’t. She was no good at dancing, much less dancing in front of a panel of judges. She was clumsy, awkward, and painfully shy. She lacked the grace and composure that all dancers should possess. No matter how she looked at it, there was no way a feeble wallflower such as herself could win this competition.

Yet here she was, practicing anyway. Marianne may be a terrible dancer, but admittedly, she liked to dance. Whenever she was by herself, of course. She couldn’t place why she enjoyed it so much, but if she had to hazard a guess, it was because her mother and father once guided her through these motions, long ago. By following the path laid out by her long-deceased parents, she was reminded of simpler, happier times. Before tragedy struck, before she was adopted by Margrave Edmund, before she was about to make a fool of herself-

“.. One, two, three- Ah!”

She did it again. Marianne tripped over her feet and fell to the ground, which inflicted dirt and grass streaks on her dress. So overcome with humiliation, she wanted to lay where she was until the end of time or until the earth swallowed her whole. Whichever came first. But before she could completely sink into despair, a friendly voice, followed by a rush of footsteps, called out to her.

“Marianne! Are you alright?”

Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, the crown prince of Faerghus, entered her vision. Although he and Marianne have chatted on several occasions, they didn’t know each well enough to warrant the look of concern on his face. Or did they?

“I-I’m fine.” Marianne replied, decidedly not fine.

“Is that so? Here, allow me to help you up.” 

Dimitri stuck out a hand. Marianne was inclined to refuse it at first, as she preferred to lay in the grass some more, but his worried expression eventually convinced her to take it.

Once she was on her feet, Dimitri released his grip on her. “If I may ask… Were you dancing by yourself just now?”

Marianne was suddenly overtaken by the desire to sink into the ground, but try as she might, she couldn’t disappear so easily. She was forced to just stand there and blankly stare at Dimitri, her red cheeks betraying the answer she didn’t want to give.

Dimitri must have noticed her unease, because he flashed her a reassuring smile. “Please, do not be embarrassed. I should be the one apologizing for my intrusion. But your movements were so captivating, I could not look away once I caught sight of them.” 

At that, Marianne forced herself to refute his unwarranted praise. “A-ah. My dancing isn’t that good. You must have seen how I tripped over myself…”

“One small mistake does not ruin your entire routine.” Dimitri shook his head. “And you still dance more beautifully than me, that’s for certain.”

“Not beautifully enough…” Marianne muttered under her breath.

Dimitri blinked. “Pardon me?”

“I’m not- I’m not good enough for the White Heron Cup.” Marianne stammered out. “Th-that’s why I was practicing… But at this rate, I’m going to let everyone down.”

“I see…”

A brief pause in the conversation allowed Marianne to succumb to dark thoughts. Dimitri must be reconsidering his opinion of her and her dancing. She should just excuse herself now, maybe retreat to her room and hide under her blanket, yet her legs refused to move. Then again, as the Golden Deer’s representative, she supposed this special kind of torture was inevitable. She just wished her silent judgement didn’t come from Dimitri, of all people…

To her surprise, Dimitri broke the silence with an outstretched hand and a warm smile. “I may not know much about dancing, but I feel that practice would be easier with a partner. Do you permit me to join you?”

Marianne stared at his gloved hand in dull amazement. He was offering to help her? Why? She hadn’t done anything to deserve his kindness. In fact, since he was the leader of the Blue Lion house, it would benefit him more if he left her to suffer. Nothing about this made any sense…

He must have taken her pause as a no, because he retracted his hand ever so slightly. “Er, I apologize for overstepping our boundaries. It was not my intention to make you uncomfortable.”

“No. Wait.” Marainne said before she could stop herself. “I… I’ll dance with you. It’s ok.”

She didn’t know what possessed her to accept his help, but as she took Dimitri by the hand, the bright smile on his face made that reason irrelevant. Told her that everything was going to be fine. That she had nothing to fear.

With that, Marianne picked up her feet and started to dance once more, this time with an actual partner in her arms. And said partner was surprisingly gentle, especially when she considered the rumors that surrounded him. Dimitri held onto her as if she was made of porcelain, yet guided her through the slow, sweeping movements with confidence. Confidence that was sadly misplaced at times. He occasionally made the wrong step, yanked her in the wrong way, and even trampled her foot once, but he always did his best to correct his mistakes.

So they danced on. Her feet marched in tune with his boots, her hands clung to his ebon gauntlets, and her gaze focused on his face instead of the ground. Marianne’s doubts about Dimitri, about herself, faded away with every step they took together. She may prefer to dance alone, but she had to admit that dancing with Dimitri wasn’t… bad. His gentle touch, his kind blue eyes, his faint smile, everything about him told her that he enjoyed being with her. Even if Marianne still didn’t think she deserved any of this.

The two of them ended their dance without any tripping, but with a flourish, a twirl, and a pose. Marianne’s body hung in Dimitri’s grip, dangerously close to the ground, before he brought her back onto her feet. 

“You did a marvelous job, Marianne.” Dimitri beamed at her. “You scarcely needed my help.”

“I-I only did so well because of you.” Marianne shook her head. “You… are not as bad as you claimed.”

“High praise coming from someone as gifted as you. I’ll gladly take it.” Dimitri chuckled. “As the kingdom’s sole prince, I am expected to pull my own weight in the ballroom as well as on the battlefield. But my Crest-given strength leaves me… woefully ill-equipped for the former, shall we say. Frankly, I am amazed I didn’t crush your foot the one time I accidentally stepped on it.”

“Oh.” Marianne spared the aforementioned foot a glance. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”

“That’s a relief to hear. I would hate to sabotage my rivals so far out from the White Heron Cup.”

Marianne blinked at what he just said. “Rivals…?”

“Ah. I neglected to mention this earlier, didn’t I?” Dimitri said as he sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. “I am to represent the Blue Lions house in the upcoming contest. Although from what I witnessed, I’m going to face some very stiff competition from the Golden Deer house.”

Oh. Marianne didn’t know how to respond to that, so she simply gaped at Dimitri. If she had known this earlier, she wouldn't have accepted his help so quickly. But on the other hand, she also wouldn’t have partaken in a wonderful dance with him, one that lacked any major screw-ups…

“So… If you knew I was going to be your opponent, why did you offer to help me?” Marianne eventually said.

Dimitri hesitated, his sheepishness morphing into a pensive look. “I suppose… I still wanted to help out a friend, even if it means my generosity will be used against me. Is that so bad?”

His sincere statement, although a bit naive, nonetheless tugged at Marianne’s heartstrings. He considered her his friend. Even though they only talked a few times, even though she shouldn’t allow herself this bit of happiness, in case her dark clouds of misfortune also affected Dimitri. 

Yet she didn’t want to let him down, so she pushed all that negativity aside and shook her head. “No. It’s not bad. Thank you…”

“You’re welcome.” Dimitri’s gentle smile made her heart flutter. “Truth be told, I’m also improving my own skills this way, so I guess I’m not as altruistic as I seem. With that in mind, would you permit me a second dance?”

He extended a hand towards Marianne again. The earlier doubts she tried to shove aside nagged at her consciousness in an almost unbearable way, almost causing her to run far away from him. Yet, when she forced herself to stare deeply into those sky blue eyes, her anxieties seemed to shrivel away, like a bunch of seaweed under radiant sunlight.

She may not deserve such kindness, but she wanted it anyway. Marianne answered back by placing a hand in his, and without another word exchanged between them, they renewed their dancing once more.

Chapter Text

Braids were pretty popular in Almyra, among men and women and kids and adults alike. And why wouldn’t they be? They kept long hair out of one’s eyes, taught the fine motor skills needed to craft and shoot arrows, and gave a hectic family such as Claude’s a reason to sit down and enjoy some quiet bonding time. In fact, the braid that he wore right now was the same kind of braid his mother would pleat on lazy afternoons, nestled among blankets and pillows and blissfully ignorant of the world outside their room.

So Claude was surprised that hardly anyone wore braids in Fodlan. Out of all the students in the Officer’s Academy, only Marianne, Ingrid, Petra, and Claude himself had a braid. However, Marianne’s skinny braid over the top of her head barely counted one, and Petra’s long and luscious braid from Brigid was more indicative of her foreigner status, much like his own tiny braid. Which left Ingrid as the sole Fodlander with a braid that would fit right into Almyra, although Claude probably shouldn’t tell her that to her face.

He didn’t mind the lack of braids though. Sure, some haughty nobles (Lorenz) scoffed at his strange hairdo, but most others didn’t comment upon it. If Claude had to hazard a guess, his many other peculiarities drew their attention away from his braid, leaving him free to keep it for as long as he liked. And he definitely planned to keep one of his few mementos from home for a good while longer.

But as it turned out, just because people didn’t talk about his braid didn’t mean they hadn't noticed it. Claude found that out one morning, before Teach arrived in their classroom to start the day. While the other Golden Deer milled about and chatted amiably, Hilda was trying to tie Marianne’s hair up in its usual hairdo, but couldn’t even make the tight braid needed to secure her bun in place. Claude thought that such a task would be easier for Hilda the fashionista, but the way her fingers flailed about and tossed blue tresses at Marianne’s face proved otherwise.

“I-I’m sorry for being a bother…” Marianne muttered to Hilda, eyes half-closed out of regret.

“You’re not a bother!” Hilda retorted. “Every girl has an off-day once in a while! Honestly, it’s incredible that you’re able to do all your hair by yourself! If I had even an ounce of your talent, I would be taking this world by storm! So I guess I ought to learn a thing or two from you, huh?”

She said that, yet she still fumbled about uselessly until she gave up and shot Claude a pleading look.

“Hey, Claude! You’re good with braids, right? Mind helping us out?”

Claude blinked, not understanding what Hilda said. It took him a few seconds for her words to finally register in his mind, but he still didn’t get why she was asking him of all people. 

“What makes you think I’m good with braids?” He laughed out loud.

“Uh, cause you’re wearing one right now?” Hilda gestured to the right side of his face.

Claude laughed again as he gave said braid a twirl. “This old thing only takes like five minutes to make. It’s nothing like Marianne’s hairdo.”

“Yeah, but it’s still something.” Hilda pouted. “But if you won’t help us, then it looks like Marianne will have to suffer under her unruly hair until someone else takes pity on her.”

At that, Marianne’s gloomy expression somehow darkened further. As much as Claude wanted to prove a point to Hilda, he couldn’t do so at Marianne’s expense. A sigh escaped his lips as he got out of his chair and walked over.

“Fine. Looks like it’s up to me to save the day. Though I can’t copy your old hairstyle exactly, so I might have to improvise a bit. Is that alright?”

Marianne gave him a slight nod in response. She looked a bit happier already, which was all the motivation Claude needed to carry on.

To be honest, Claude wasn’t that great of a hair stylist. The only hair he ever braided, besides his own, belonged to his parents, and he eventually grew out of that too. So Claude had to rely on vague recollection of hairdos he had seen on other women, such as his half-sisters, cousins, and members of the royal court. Regardless, his fingers moved swiftly, following muscle memories he thought were long forgotten, sweeping and tucking Marianne’s soft blue locks until he came up with something respectable.

The end result, a pair of braids tied into a bun in the back, wasn’t anywhere close to Marianne’s usual style, nor was it as well done as the braids of his childhood. Yet Marianne thanked him with a small smile as she gingerly touched her new hairdo, and Hilda’s eyes sparkled so fiercely, they kind of scared Claude.

“Claude! Why were you being so modest before?! I bet you could make a killing at doing people’s hair if you weren’t already the next Duke Riegan!”

“It’s nothing special. Really.” Claude let out an airy laugh. “I bet you can become as good as me, or even better, if you make an effort to learn.”

“Yeah, but that takes time.” Hilda whined. “And that still won’t help me with my own hair. Hey, speaking of which, could you braid my hair too?”

Once again, Hilda’s words caught him off guard. Claude gave her a quizzical look, and Hilda fired back a cute, doe-eyed stare.

“But your hair looks fine. Do you want me to ruin it?”

“You aren’t going to ruin it, silly!” Hilda waved a hand to brush off his concern. “And I have to have braids to match my best friends!”

He thought that she just meant Marianne at first, but to his surprise, she gestured at Claude as well. She really did consider him a friend, huh? Even though she barely knew anything about him. Then again, it should’ve been obvious from how Hilda trusted Claude to fix Marianne’s hair, and now her own.

With a show of faith like this, how could Claude turn her down? He smiled and grabbed a strand of Hilda’s pink locks. “Alright. Do you want a braided bun like Marianne?”

“Nah. Give me some pigtails, like what I have right now. Except, you know, braided.”

“So much for trying something new.” Claude chuckled under his breath. “But I’ll see what I can do.”

Hilda laughed quietly alongside him, but he got to work anyway. He had to admit, there was a certain irony in giving a Goneril braids based off of his Almyran childhood, although it wasn’t like anyone besides him was going to notice. Still, he used this secret delight to guide his fingers through the repetitive motions once more. Once he was done, Claude flicked the pair of braids at Hilda’s face.

“All done. What do you think?”

I think it looks great, but what do you think, Marianne?”

Hilda showed off her new and improved pigtails to Marianne, whose face brightened almost immediately. “You… I-I mean, they look very pretty.”

“Aw! Thanks, Marianne!” Hilda gave her hair one last flourish before letting them go. “And thanks to you too, Claude!”

In his humble opinion, it seemed like Hilda was more pleased about Marianne’s praise than her pigtails, but Claude couldn’t complain. He never could have imagined that someone besides his parents would be happy over his handwork. And he most certainly couldn’t have imagined that the other Golden Deer wanted to join in on the fun, yet a booming voice from the other side of the room proved him dead wrong.

“Hey, Claude! Can I get a braid too?” Raphael suddenly chimed in, nearly startling Claude out of his seat.

“But, uh, you don’t have much hair to work with?” Ignatz asked in an incredulous voice.

“That’s ok. There’s enough for me to figure something out.” Claude said. 

“Hey, I got an idea!” Hilda piped up. “How about we all get braids from Claude?”

Her suggestion, as expected, produced quite the commotion throughout the classroom. Some people like Lysithea and Leonie just sighed and shook their heads. Others, like Ignatz, looked downright confused. And of course, Lorenz had plenty to say on the subject.

“My hair is already at the pinnacle of fashion! Experiment with your own hair if you must, but I will not allow Claude to sully perfection!”

“Oh, Lorenz, no.” Hilda struggled to hold back laughter. “Your hair is far from perfect. As the Golden Deer’s resident fashion expert, I say you’re the one that needs a makeover the most!”

Leonie, sensing an opportunity to bully Lorenz, changed her mind in an instant. “And shouldn’t we all match to show our, uh, unity? Point is, you don’t want to be left out!”

“Why, I-”

“Hey, if Lorenz doesn’t want a braid, that’s fine with me.” Claude interrupted Lorenz before he inadvertently started an argument. “I doubt that I’ll even get to him before Teach shows up.”

“Yeah, now that you mention it, where is the professor?” Raphael wondered out loud.

Lysithea scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you guys see the memo on the chalkboard? It says that she’s going to be at a meeting for most of the morning, and we’re supposed to be independently studying instead of goofing off.”

Claude glanced to the front of the room, where there was indeed a note from Byleth explaining her absence. Huh. He must have missed that. If he had known earlier, he would’ve spent the morning elsewhere instead of here. Then again, he supposed that braiding hair was also an acceptable alternative to classes…

He turned his attention back to his friends and shrugged. “Hey, we’re not goofing off. We’re engaging in some quality team building exercises. Or something to that effect.”

“And I bet your hair will look gorgeous after Claude works his magic on them!” Hilda exclaimed. “Pristine white and silky smooth hair like yours deserves something special, not that they don’t already look great!”

“W-well I think it’s fine as it is. Who needs fancy hair, anyway?” Lysithea stammered out. Her sudden meekness, combined with the slight blush across her face, raised several flags in Claude’s mind, but like Lorenz, he wasn’t going to push the matter if she was at all hesitant.

“How about we just start with the actual volunteers?” He said instead as he strolled over to Raphael. His thick and sandy blond curls grew close to his scalp, providing quite a challenge, yet Claude dug his fingers into his hair and braided away.

Well, braid them as much as he could. Claude only managed to weave a few stubby braids that stuck out like little trees. Nonetheless, Raphael was immensely grateful for his makeover, and showed his appreciation with a big hug. At least he released Claude before he crushed his ribs though.

Next on the list was Ignatz, who volunteered himself after seeing how much his friend enjoyed his braids. Since his hair was longer, Claude was able to give him a braid in the back. For Leonie, whose hair was nearly as short as Raphael’s, Claude pleated a pair of tiny side braids over her temples. The once-reluctant Lysithea ultimately acquiesced when it became her turn, and got a lovely half-up, half-down braid. Hilda profusely complimented both Lysithea and Claude for a job well done, causing the former to blush some more.

Seeing most of his classmates in braids left a funny feeling in Claude’s heart. Because braids were so commonplace in Almyra, they also carried some cultural significance. Mainly, if someone allowed you to braid their hair, they basically considered you their close friend. After all, while their back faced towards you and your hands were on their head, you could easily choose to hurt someone instead of braiding their hair.

But not a lot of Almyrans allowed an outsider like Claude to braid their hair. Hardly anyone besides his parents, actually. And he was well aware that braiding hair didn’t mean anything in Fodlan, that people here didn’t think twice about this seemingly innocuous task. Yet the level of trust they displayed, as they placed their fate in Claude’s hands, was not lost on him. Their faith washed away his prior anxieties and put a smile on his face.

Even if he had to wait until Lorenz, the last unbraided Golden Deer, gave into peer pressure before making his move. He had to admit that it felt a bit awkward to touch the hair of his archnemesis, but the tension faded away when he gave him a short braid that was basically identical to his own, except it dangled on the right side of his face. Mostly because that was the best he could do with Lorenz’s hair, but also just to see his reaction.

“Claude!” Lorenz exclaimed, flabbergasted. “Is this a joke to you?”

“But it actually looks good on you!” Hilda laughed out. “Much better than whatever your old haircut was supposed to be!”

“Hmph. If you meant that as a compliment, it didn’t feel like one.”

“Well, uh, I think it looks nice…”

At Marianne’s words, Lorenz instantly softened his expression. Claude was admittedly a little disappointed at how quickly Lorenz got used to his braid, but he wouldn’t have had much time to enjoy his squirming anyway. Mere seconds after Lorenz settled down, the classroom doors opened up to reveal their professor at long last.

“Heya, Teach!” Claude said as he pulled his hand away from Lorenz. “What kept you?”

Byleth didn’t respond right away. She merely glanced from person to person, soaking in all of their newly woven braids. Her azure gaze ended on Claude and his unchanged hairstyle, which painted him as the apparent culprit behind this latest fad.

“I was at a meeting.” She stated plainly. “Why does everyone have braids now?”

“Well, it was actually Hilda’s idea, and-”

“Professor! You should get a braid from Claude too!” Hilda shouted, cutting Claude off mid-sentence.

Claude mentally groaned at her suggestion. It was one thing to braid the hair of his classmates. It was another thing entirely to give Teach a braid. She was already perfect as is, and the thought of sinking his hands in those wavy teal locks quickened his heart and filled him with a peculiar kind of dread. Besides, there was no way she would agree, right? Byleth used to be a mercenary, and mercenaries didn’t dabble in frivolities like braids-

“Sure.” Byleth agreed.

“Wait, hold on-”

He was interrupted yet again by Hilda’s delighted squeal. Through the high-pitched noise, Byleth continued on in a considerably more subdued tone.

“I would be satisfied with any braid you give me, but if I may make a request… I would like two braids, with pink and white ribbons.”

“Ribbons?” Claude repeated after her. Where on earth did this come from? He didn’t peg Byleth as someone with such girly tastes, but he didn’t have the heart to turn her down either…

“Oh! I got some ribbons right here!”

Hilda didn’t waste any time pulling the aforementioned ribbons out of her bag and plopping them in Claude’s hands. Everything was moving so fast, he could scarcely object, or protest, or question how or why this was even happening. All Claude could do was guide Byleth to a chair and braid her hair to her specifications.

Shit. He might’ve done too well, because when he was finished, Claude couldn’t look at Byleth without blushing. Her two braids, intertwined with Hilda’s ribbons, made her look cute . The Ashen Demon. Their stoic and formidable professor. Cute . And pretty, but mostly cute.

Predictably, Hilda kicked up a fuss about Byleth’s new hairstyle. Less predictably, some of the other Golden Deer joined in with their own opinions. Claude was trying very hard not to pay attention to all the praise, lest his burning cheeks betrayed him, but when Byleth glanced his way with her hands on her braids, he couldn’t help but perk up.

“Thank you, Claude.” She said softly. “I… like these a lot.”

Claude forced himself to smile through his blush. “You’re very welcome. And hey, if you ever want braids again, you can hit me up anytime.”

He wanted to smack himself the instant those words left his lips. He could barely control himself around Byleth when she had cute braids, and now he offered to prolong his own suffering by doing it again?!

Fortunately, Byleth didn’t notice how he flinched. She just took his words at face value, gave him a nod, and headed to the front of the classroom to begin their lessons. Though, as Claude’s blush died down and he scanned over everyone, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if he braided people’s hair in the future. Not just Byleth’s, but all of the Golden Deer’s. He may not be in Almyra anymore, but when he was surrounded by a sea of braids, braids that he made, he felt a little less lonely and a lot more beloved.

Chapter Text

“Ah. Here you are, Turkey.”

No response. Turkey the wyvern just snoozed on, but Claude could hardly blame him. This lush and open meadow, on the outskirts of Garreg Mach, was an ideal spot for a nap. Here, the afternoon sun warmed the earth and its denizens, a gentle breeze sang a lullaby as it blew across the field, and Turkey’s body practically sank into green, pillowy grass. 

It was only too bad that Claude spent so much time looking for him. Imagine his surprise when he went to the wyvern aviary to borrow Turkey for some training, only to find him missing. The handlers told him that Byleth, of all people, had beaten him to it. She apparently took the gentle steed out on a flight to improve her wyvern riding skills. Which was a first, but not an unwelcome surprise, had Byleth not brought Turkey so far away from the monastery.

Where was she, anyway? If Turkey was here, then Byleth should be nearby to keep an eye on him. Yet no matter how hard he searched, Claude found no sign of her. It wasn’t like Teach to abandon her responsibility, so did that mean she ran into trouble? Nah, that couldn’t be right. Turkey wouldn’t just take a nap in the middle of a field while his rider suffered. Yet what else would cause her to disappear…?

Well, he had no doubt that Teach was safe, no matter where she was. She was a tough woman with an even tougher sword arm, so it was likely that whatever was keeping her down was in more trouble than her. 

Having achieved a new peace of mind, Claude turned his attention back to the sleeping Turkey. Maybe he had the right idea. A quick nap might be just the thing he needed to refresh his thoughts before continuing his hunt for Teach. And admittedly, it would be a shame to waste both a fine day and prime napping real estate on senseless worrying.

He bent down and lifted one of Turkey’s wings up by an inch. The blissfully ignorant wyvern didn’t move a muscle. Claude mumbled half-apologies and half-reassurances as he lifted the wing higher in order to slide under it. Sleeping in a wide open space left him much too vulnerable, but a wyvern’s wing provided him with just the right amount of cover. Plus, he could huddle so closely to Turkey’s flank, he pretty much disappeared from view. So, under the sun’s gentle rays, atop his bed of grass, and in the warm presence of his draconic friend, it was no wonder that Claude fell asleep in record time.

 


 

The shifting of scales slowly roused Claude from his slumber. He could sense that Turkey woke up on his own accord, not because of any immediate danger, so he wasn’t in any hurry to get up. It was only when he heard a yawn, a human yawn, that he bolted upright.

Peeking out from underneath Turkey’s other wing was... his missing professor? Byleth blinked her bleary eyes as she tried to adjust to the sudden sunlight. It looked like she had been sleeping for a while, with her tousled hair sticking out in all directions and a faint line of drool from her mouth. But the real question was how she managed to slip past Claude? No, actually, how did he manage to miss her entirely? For all of his worrying, he didn’t bother to check underneath Turkey’s massive blanket-like wings. Not even once!

He snapped out of his self-depreciation when he felt Byleth’s wide-eyed gaze on him. She blinked again, like Claude was a fragment of a dream, before the vestiges of her nap faded from her face.

“Claude? What are you doing here?”

It took an embarrassingly long time for Claude to respond. He was still mystified by the series of coincidences that led them to fall asleep in the same meadow, at the same time, and nestled against the same wyvern. One might even say they fell asleep together, but then again, there was a huge wyvern separating the two of them…

“I just came out here to look for Turkey, and thought that this was a nice spot for a nap.” He eventually answered. “But what about you? You’re not a nap connoisseur, at least as far as I know.”

Byleth shrugged her shoulders. “After I did some exercises with Turkey, he fell asleep here and couldn’t be moved. So I decided to wait here until he woke up.”

Which really meant that she fell asleep while waiting for him, but that didn’t need to be said out loud. Honestly, Claude was more touched by how kindly Byleth treated the infamously lazy wyvern, especially since she could be quite the taskmaster to her human students.

Still, Claude couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “That’s our Turkey, always looking for an excuse to nap. There’s a trick to getting him up though. Maybe I can teach you that next time.”

At the mention of his name, Turkey nudged his snout against Claude’s side. Claude laughed again as he gave him a head pat or two or several.

“Next time.” Byleth nodded. “For now, we should head back before more people start searching for us.”

“Yeah. We don’t want anyone else to know about our secret napping spot, right?”

Byleth shot him a funny look, but Claude noticed a peculiar glimmer in her eyes. Did she… actually believe his kind-of-serious joke? That this meadow was now their special hideaway, in a sense? 

He could see why she thought that, since he did offer to teach her more about Turkey’s sleeping habits, and with wyvern naps came the possibility of human naps. Claude was just more surprised by how agreeable Byleth was. He himself wouldn’t mind these ‘classes’, but he never would’ve figured that the stoic, hard-working professor would want to lay down and pass the time with a leisurely nap.

Then again, Byleth was just as mysterious as she was stern, and Claude wouldn’t have it any other way. Once the two of them fitted into Turkey’s saddle as best as they could, the great winged beast catapulted into the sky and back towards home.

Chapter Text

Lysithea never could have imagined waking to an empty pillow beside her and the sound of sizzling breakfast in the kitchen. Then again, she never could have imagined that her future held so much domestic bliss in the first place.

She put on some long robes and a pair of slippers to follow the scent of food. It was fortunate that the two of them had moved into a smaller manor so she didn’t have to walk nearly as much to get anywhere. Lysithea didn’t even mind having less servants under their employ. Doing chores with their own two hands wasn’t all that bad, especially if it meant intimate mornings such as these.

As expected, her husband of 32 years, Lorenz Hellman Gloucester, awaited her in the kitchen. It looked like he already prepped the table for breakfast, with an array of dishes and silverware, a bowl of fruit, flowers arranged in a vase, and a piping hot tea kettle. All that was left to be served was the actual meal, which Lorenz was already working on. One of his hands held a frying pan, and his other hand gripped a spatula that shoveled a freshly made pancake onto a plate.

He glanced up once he was done. Upon spotting his wife in the doorway, he offered up a wide smile. “Ah. Good morning, my love.”

“Good morning, dear.” Lysithea beamed back. “Making breakfast, are we? It’s rare for someone of your status to dirty their hands in the kitchen.”

“Hah! There’s nothing dirty about making food to enjoy. Even a nobleman such as I knows the value of spoiling his dear wife.” Lorenz’s smile didn’t abate under her joke. “Anyway, please take a seat. I will have breakfast ready in just a few minutes.”

Lysithea nodded as she did just that. Her place at the table was specially marked with a small tin that contained her medicine. She wouldn’t have forgotten to take them even if Lorenz hadn’t left them out for her, but his gentle reminder didn’t bother her in the slightest. It was just another sign that he was always thinking of her, no matter the time of day.

She consumed today’s vitamins and pills right before Lorenz arrived with food to help the medicine down. In addition to pancakes, he also came bearing slices of ham, truffles, and a fried egg. The meal itself wasn’t the fanciest thing in the world, since he only recently started cooking for the two of them, but his impeccable plating made it fit for a king. Or the lord and lady of House Gloucester, as it were.

Lysithea grabbed a nearby pitcher of maple syrup and doused her pancakes in it, drawing a sigh from Lorenz. “My love, all that syrup is going to negate the benefits of your medicine.”

“Pfft. Didn’t you just say you knew the value of spoiling your wife?” 

Lysithea punctuated her retort by shoving a forkful of sticky-sweet pancakes into her mouth. At that, Lorenz simply let out another amused sigh. Both of them knew better than to let pet peeves sully a perfectly good morning. Instead, they filled the dining room with peaceful silence, occasionally broken up by an idle remark or two. It was only when Lysithea and Lorenz had polished off their breakfast and Lorenz started rifling through letters that their conversation took a more serious turn.

“Vinicio is settling into the Officer’s Academy well.” He stated while reading through familiar handwriting. “Although he still laments about not being made the Golden Deer house leader.”

Lysithea rolled her eyes at the mention of their youngest son. She loved him, like she loved all three of their children, but sometimes they proved to be quite a handful. “He should have taken the entrance exams more seriously then, and not try to coast on his natural talent and status alone.”

“Indeed.” Lorenz chuckled. “Perhaps this school year will finally teach him some humility at last.”

“I highly doubt it.” Lysithea scoffed back. “The teachers at Garreg Mach are too soft on students nowadays. Vinicio is going to drive them up the walls if they aren’t careful. Now, if this year’s leader was one of Claude’s and Byleth’s children, that would have been a different story…”

“We would never hear the end of it.” Lorenz laughed again. Apparently, there was nothing else of note to mention, as he passed their son’s letter to Lysithea after he was finished.

But the time to peruse that would come later. Lysithea eyed the remaining letters eagerly. “Any correspondence from Iacchus or Evangeline?”

Lorenz’s smirk grew wider as he shook his head. “My love, they have already written to us not so long ago. You cannot expect them to notify us of every single occurrence. They are adults now, unlike little Vinicio, with their own busy lives to lead.”

Lysithea pouted, even though her dear husband was correct. Their two eldest children, who already graduated from Garreg Mach long ago, now possess some very important jobs. Iacchus, the oldest son and acting head of House Gloucester, handled the main manor while his parents enjoyed an idyllic stay in their country manor. Meanwhile, Evangeline, the Gloucesters’ only daughter, was one of the co-founders of a magical academy on the old border between Fodlan and Almyra. That role would’ve been impressive in its own right, but there was also the matter of a certain rumor floating around…

“I’m not as needy as you assume. I just wish to be kept abreast of Evangeline’s courtship with Darius. If they become wedded, then Claude and Byleth will join our family in an official capacity.”

“Does that prospect scare you?” Lorenz smiled through a sip of his teacup.

I’m not afraid.” Lysithea huffed. “But I should be asking you the same question.”

Lorenz placed a hand on his heart in fake offense. “You wound me! Just because Claude and I are friendly rivals doesn’t mean I would object to becoming kin with him! Besides, Evangeline is the more important issue here. If Darius can make our dear daughter happy, then the two of them can have our blessings.”

Lysithea nodded in agreement, but as overjoyed as she was about their daughter’s romantic pursuits, they brought to mind a set of fears she thought she would never have: the fear of growing old. With courtship came marriage, and with marriage came children, which meant... Lysithea might become a grandmother in the near future.

Her, a grandmother! Lysithea didn’t even think she would live long enough to have kids, much less grandkids. And now here she was, faced with that very real possibility. Such a thought sent a shiver down her spine, a feeling that did not escape Lorenz’s notice.

“Lysithea, my love?” He piped up. “Are you feeling alright?”

“I’m… fine.” She managed to say. “I was just thinking about Evangeline and Darius, if they were to have children. That would make us a pair of grandparents, and very old.”

“We are not that old.” Lorenz refuted. “And you still look as lovely as ever.”

“Thank you, dear, but I wasn’t concerned about my aging.” Lysithea smiled faintly. “As odd as it may sound, I’m actually excited about all of this. I never entertained fantasies like watching our children grow up and welcoming new members to our family before. I thought I was going to die young and all alone. 

“But look at me now. Look at us . I’m alive and in good health. I even hear wedding bells for our daughter on the horizon. And it’s all thanks to you.”

Her eyes started to well up as she spoke. She didn’t mean to get sentimental during what was supposed to be an ordinary breakfast, but thinking about her family made her heart swell with pride. She really was grateful to be here, surrounded by friends and one doting husband, and nothing she could say could truly express her happiness.

Yet Lorenz understood her perfectly, and went to her side to hold her hand. “It’s also all because of you . You persevered for so long, opened your heart to us, and allowed us to help you remove your Crests. If you are blessed to have such a wonderful family, then I am blessed to have such a strong and magnificent wife.”

Lorenz leaned in closer. Sensing what he was about to do, Lysithea closed the gap between them and planted a kiss on his lips. 

“I love you, my dear.” She gasped out. “Let us grow old together.”

“Yes. Let’s.” Lorenz murmured back. “But let’s also take our time with it, shall we? We still have plenty of years ahead of us yet.”

Chapter Text

Autumn leaves rustling on the night breeze. Ghoulish decorations beckoning festival-goers to numerous stalls. Glowing jack-o-lanterns guiding costumed Heroes on their quest for candy… Askr’s annual harvest festival was always a magnificent celebration, but for Rhea, these sights didn’t just warm her heart. They showed her that it was possible for humans and dragons to live in harmony, a hope she thought had long flown out of her reach.

Of course, the fact that there were so many dragons in the Order of Heroes shocked Rhea when she first arrived. She was further surprised to learn that the summoner already knew she was a dragon too, among other things. It took her a great deal of time to acclimate to the many twists and turns this world had to offer, but at the end of it all, she couldn’t say that she didn’t enjoy Askr. Even though Fodlan would always be her home, it was nice to let her hair down (or dress up, in today’s case) and interact with people she never could have met otherwise. 

Such as the young dragons. Especially the young dragons. 

So many of them were lacking parental figures, and Rhea was all too glad to take them under her wing. A child with great draconic power but without any role models could lose control of themselves, after all. More than that, ‘babysitting’ the young dragons gave Rhea a sense of fulfillment, the same kind of fulfillment she got from caring for all the orphans back at Garreg Mach. No one should be abandoned and left directionless, like she was when her mother was so cruelly robbed from her. 

And even if a dragon didn’t need her help, Rhea was still all too happy to exchange experiences with them, such as with the Goldoan dragon prince and the half-dragon prophet she met today. There was also a fell dragon dressed in a werewolf costume present at the festival, but she didn’t feel compelled to speak with him for obvious reasons. Barring him, she only had one more festival guest that she hadn’t interacted with yet. Or two guests, rather, since they apparently came as a pair. Byleth, the newest professor at the Officer’s Academy, and…

“Oh? And who is this child with you?”

Rhea studied the girl floating on a broomstick next to Byleth. She wore a cute witch costume that matched her impish demeanor, but Rhea’s eyes were drawn to her pointy ears and vivacious green eyes and hair. She must be a dragon as well, but what dragon would be dragging Byleth around on her hunt for candy? Unless...

Byleth’s gaze oscillated between the girl and Rhea. In a low voice, he said, “Right. How do I put this…”

He was interrupted by an elbow from the girl. After she stopped him mid-sentence, she leaned over and whispered something into his ears. Rhea couldn’t quite make out their words, but the girl’s panicked expression conveyed much. If she was being honest with herself, it was a bit disheartening to watch a dragon make obvious efforts to avoid her. Especially if she was who Rhea thought she was...

Before she could confirm her suspicions, nearby commotion drew their attention. One thing that Rhea disliked about Askr’s harvest festival was all the fighting that took place. And as fate would have it, some pugnacious Heroes were making their way over to rob them of their hard earned treats. 

Beside her, both the child and Byleth slipped into fighting stances. It was one thing for Byleth the hardened mercenary to throw himself into harm’s way, but Rhea wasn’t going to let a young dragon get hurt on her watch. She brandished her staff as stepped in between the duo and the oncoming enemies, much to the surprise of the former.

Amused by startled reactions, Rhea gave them a wry smile. “Please, allow me to make quick work of these ruffians.”

The dragonstone in her staff shone with a brilliant light that enveloped Rhea’s entirety. In a flash, the witchy archbishop had transformed into a witchy Immaculate One, complete with a hat that was now much too small for her gargantuan frame. 

At the sudden appearance of a dragon, the would-be thieves halted in their tracks. It seemed like they already changed their minds, but Rhea blasted them with a breath attack just in case. The group of Heroes screamed and yelped as they fled the scene, and even left behind some candy in their hurry.

She had to admit, letting loose in her dragon form felt marvelous. But what of her onlookers? Rhea arced her neck back towards Byleth and his companion, and saw twin looks of astonishment. Well, the girl harbored most of the astonishment, with how her mouth hung open and her eyes bugged out. Byleth’s bewildered expression was quite tame in comparison, although it was still the most emotion that Rhea had ever seen from him.

Another flash of light, and Rhea was back in her human form. She took a moment to pick up the fallen candy, and held them out to Byleth and his partner.

“Do you want these?”

They didn’t reply back immediately, still caught up in the miraculous transformation they just witnessed. It was Byleth who recovered first, by nodding and taking some candy from her hands.

“Nice costume.” He stated.

“That was not a costume, you fool!” The girl whacked him on the head with her broomstick. “Rhea actually transformed into a dragon! How is that even possible?”

“It’s a simple matter, really.” Rhea smiled as she brushed aside her hair to reveal her own set of pointed ears. They weren’t as long as the girl’s, but the similarities were undeniable. The girl gawked at Rhea for the second time in quick succession, while Byleth unwrapped a candy to eat. 

“I am a Nabatean, or child of the goddess. Much like you, young one. Or perhaps, on this night of trickery, you are not as young as you appear…?”

Her heart ached for the answer that was to come. She had waited for this moment for so long, even if it didn’t come in the form she anticipated. Even if she stumbled upon it by pure happenstance, in this strange realm, and not by her own efforts back in Fodlan.

A pensive look settled upon the girl’s face as she closed her mouth. Rhea’s heart skipped a beat, fearing the worst, yet she still hung on every word that was uttered next.

“You assume correctly. I am Sothis, the beginning, and the progenitor god of Fodlan.”

So she was right. This girl before her really was Sothis. Her countless attempts to revive the goddess had borne fruit in the unlikeliest of manners. Rhea couldn’t help but break out into a wide, enraptured smile.

“Mother… At long last…”

She stepped closer to Sothis, arms open and ready to pull her into a hug, but she froze in place when Sothis frowned and shook her head. “Hm. If you are a child of the goddess, then that makes you my child. Yet I have no recollection of you. Granted, my memories of the ancient past are still hazy, but even so…”

All of her excitement evaporated in an instant. “You… do not remember me? At all?”

In the context of Sothis’s childish appearance, her lack of memories made sense, but Rhea didn’t want things to make sense. She wanted her mother , not someone that looked her with suspicion and distrust. She had gotten so close, yet still fell far from the mark, and she didn’t even know if that was better than not meeting an amnesiac Sothis at all.

A crinkle of a candy wrapper snapped her out of her spiraling. Having finished eating, Byleth took a step forward, placing himself between the two women.

“Lady Rhea, perhaps you should explain what you know about Sothis and how she came to exist in my head.”

Rhea blinked, slightly dumbfounded by his statement. Sothis was living in Byleth’s head all along? She had more questions ready on her tongue, but judging from both his and Sothis’s expectant gaze, there was a better time than now to ask them.

“Very well.” She sighed out. “I shall have to start from the very beginning, from when Sothis first alighted on this world…”

 


 

Rhea told the two of them everything. About Sothis’s restoration and slumber, her untimely demise at the hands of Nemesis, Rhea’s own role in the War of Heroes, the rise of the Church of Seiros, and the many years spent trying to revive her mother. Which led to the Crest Stone of Flames in Byleth’s chest, and therefore the phantom of the goddess made corporeal in Askr.

She had always been a secretive person. At first for her own safety, then out of habit. But there was nothing to fear in Askr, a world where all other worlds converged and many walks of life came together. Here, Rhea’s deepest secrets flowed from her tongue like wine, bringing her a sense of relief she didn’t think was possible. Now, she didn’t mind so terribly much that Sothis’s wary gaze still carried some unease, although she would be lying if she said her heart didn’t yearn for warmth instead.

“And that is all.” Rhea concluded. “I… understand that this is a lot to process. And I acknowledge that I may have been too forward during the festival. Especially to you, Sothis. To have a stranger approach you and treat you like a long-lost mother… I must apologize for the awkward situation I placed you in.”

Silence fell. Byleth simply stared at her, face inscrutable, and Sothis appeared to be deep in thought. Rhea was thankful that neither of them looked upset, but it was too early to tell if her apology was accepted.

“Lady Rhea, why did you not tell my father about how you saved my life?” Byleth eventually asked. “He thought that you did something terrible to me. That’s why he tried to shelter me from the Church for so long.”

“I will admit that that was a mistake in hindsight.” Rhea sighed. “Humans can often be so short-sighted, even a human as remarkable as Jeralt. I thought that he may not accept what I did so gracefully, but my silence proved to be my undoing regardless.”

Byleth nodded, but remained as stoic as ever. Sothis, on the other hand, leaned her broomstick closer to Rhea.

“Speaking of family, I must admit that I do feel some sort of kinship with you, but I still cannot fathom that you are my daughter…”

Rhea casted her gaze downwards. “I understand. Your mere existence in the mortal plane is already enough of a miracle. Asking for the return of my mother may have been too much to hope for.”

“Oh, enough of that!”

Sothis’s sharp rebuke lifted Rhea’s head back up. Once their eyes met, the young girl cracked a toothy smile.

“I may not be able to give you the motherly love you seek, but that does not mean we cannot enjoy some bonding time together! We are at a grand harvest festival, after all! This is not the place to mope over what we do not have! You have been through so much, dear daughter of mine, so now it is time to cut away your regrets and have fun!”

Sothis may not sound like the goddess of old, with her high-pitched voice, but at that moment, Rhea could have sworn that she was being lectured by her mother. Overcome with nostalgia, she smiled back, her heart lighter than ever.

“You are right, of course, but you truly wouldn’t mind having me by your side?”

“Undoubtedly!” Sothis proclaimed. “You are not the wicked witch that your costume would suggest!”

“And what about you, professor?”

Byleth seemed like he was surprised to be addressed, but managed to answer her in his usual collected tone. “Yes, I’m fine. You placed most of my fears to rest by coming forth as you did. It would be my pleasure to spend the night with you.”

For some reason, his response earned him another thwack of Sothis’s broomstick. “Do not word it like that, Byleth! You’ll invite misunderstandings this way!”

“Sorry.”

Sothis let out a harrumph before turning back to Rhea. “Well then! I hope that you are a fan of sweets, because I plan to spend the rest of the night procuring them! Perhaps you can show me how you transformed into a fearsome dragon? My own powers must be as limited as my memories, because I cannot achieve such a shape no matter how hard I try…”

Without further ado, Sothis and her broomstick raced off into the night. Byleth hurried after her, then Rhea, as soon as she regained her bearings. It felt a bit odd, to chase after a girl that was actually her mother reincarnated, but on this festive night, she gladly took Sothis’s words to heart. No matter what form her mother took or what mischief they got up to together, Rhea was going to enjoy every minute they spent as family.

Chapter Text

“So? What do you think?”

Byleth let out a contemplative hum as he surveyed the empty room before him. It bore some trademarks of Abyss, such as damp stony walls and general dingy atmosphere, but it was starkly different from the rest of the underground city in two major ways.

Firstly, there were a great number of containers here, as well as shelves and counters to house them. He spotted small clay pots, cracked vases, watering troughs, even an old bathtub, and everything in between. And despite varying so much in shapes and sizes, they all had one thing in common. They were filled to the brim with dirt.

Secondly, shafts of sunlight poured through a hole in the ceiling, brightening the room considerably. Byleth didn’t want to ask if the hole was created by hand or natural causes, but he couldn’t deny the effect it had. In addition to sunlight, the hole also brought a fresh breath of air that, when combined with the loaminess of the soil, almost made him feel like he was outdoors instead of Abyss.

Not that he didn’t dislike Abyss. It may be dark and humid to an almost oppressive degree, and filled with unsavory denizens, but there were plenty of good things to be found here. Such as a strange kind of serenity that couldn’t be found aboveground, warm-hearted people bearing open arms, and a few of his favorite students, including the young man showing off his latest idea.

“It may not be as fancy as your greenhouse in the monastery, but you have to admit that our set-up is pretty impressive for being underground.” Yuri continued on. “We actually managed to get some dirt, the nice kind of dirt, mind you, and sunlight down here. So now all we need is some seeds and water to get our garden going.”

Byleth’s gaze lingered on the potted dirt some more. He didn’t understand what made dirt the nice kind of dirt, but if Yuri seemed enthused about it, then he was too. And it did seem like a lot of effort was made down here already. He couldn’t begin to imagine how long it took the Ashen Wolves and other volunteers to fill all these containers with soil.

All of their hard work didn’t answer the one question on his mind though. “Why a garden?” Byleth asked.

Yuri recoiled slightly, like he was caught off guard by his remark. “Friend, you should be asking yourself ‘why not’?”

A pause settled between them as Byleth blinked in confusion. Sensing that his joke didn’t land, Yuri covered up the awkwardness with a smile. “People like seeing green things. It’s as simple as that. Of course, growing a garden underground seemed like an impossible suggestion at first, but we’re nothing if not a determined bunch. Perhaps that’s because a certain someone taught us well?”

This time, his insinuation was not lost on Byleth. With a light feeling in his chest, he nodded in agreement and turned his attention back to the future garden.

“It’s admirable that you’re doing so much for your people…” He paused as another question formed on his tongue. “What sort of plants will you grow here?”

At that, Yuri’s smile curved into a smirk. “And this is the part where you come in. As Garreg Mach’s newest and hottest professor, procuring some plants for us should be a piece of cake. But don’t just grab any kind of plant. We need things that can thrive in the shade, for obvious reasons.”

He gestured towards their surroundings, as if things weren’t clear enough. But Byleth understood him perfectly, and gave him another nod.

“Wonderful.” Yuri said. “And just so you’re aware, feel free to drop by Abyss’s new garden anytime. I hear that you have a green thumb of sorts aboveground, so I’d love to see you work your magic down here as well.”

 


 

Gardening in Abyss was vastly different from gardening in Garreg Mach, Byleth soon found out.

Up there, the heat and humidity was controlled by magic to allow all sorts of plants to grow. Every patch of dirt and pot of soil was carefully measured out and allotted to students and faculty, so everyone had the chance to grow something. And their unerring supervision, as strict as it may be, paid off. Whenever Byleth paid Garreg Mach’s magnificent greenhouse a visit, he laid eyes upon plants from all corners of Fodlan and then some, as well as a student or two happily gardening away.

Abyss, on the other hand, couldn’t boast a wide variety of plants like its aboveground cousin. Not only was Byleth restricted to shade-loving plants, he had to pick out hardy plants that wouldn’t mind irregular waterings or the occasional abuse at the hands of novices. That left him with fewer choices than he liked, but they were enough, judging from Yuri’s smile when Byleth presented them to him.

Abyss’s garden also didn’t have things like magic or pegasus blessings to promote growth. Instead, Byleth, Yuri, the Ashen Wolves, and several other Abyss denizens toiled away with their bare hands, and with whatever plants were within their reach. After all, it was senseless to divy up precious resources such as water, nice dirt, willing volunteers, and the plants themselves. As long as the garden was taken care of sometime , it didn’t matter who was taking care of it.

Because of this haphazard system, the garden in the dark grew however it wanted to. Ivy sprawled out of the confines of their container. Ferns unfurled and casted a shadow over smaller plants. The few flowers they could obtained weren’t organized by type, so their differently colored and shaped buds resembled the pallet of a demented artist from afar.

Yet their garden grew . New buds sprouted from the earth everyday. More and more Abyssians started to spend their time here, either working or just enjoying the scenery. They even chipped away at the tiled floor so they could grow plants on the ground too. Byleth used his burgeoning influence and Yuri called upon a few connections to acquire rarer plants such as peace lilies, prayer plants, bleeding hearts, and spiderwort. These remarkable specimens spruced up their little green space even more, making it truly to be proud of.

Abyss’s garden may be different, but Byleth liked it all the same, and not just for the plants. He got to know the Abyssians quite well throughout his frequent visits. Despite being a bit rough around the edges, they accepted him, chatted amiably with him, laughed at jokes he himself couldn’t muster a laugh for. And when they smiled after a job well done, he almost broke through his stunted emotions to smile as well.

Actually, there was one Abyssian that Byleth managed to smile for. The gesture came unexpectedly, while he was trimming back mint leaves with Yuri. They had started to grow edible plants alongside decorative ones to augment their rations, but they didn’t expect their mint plants to grow so voraciously. At least they wouldn’t be running out of it anytime soon.

“Say, Yuri.” Byleth piped up. “How did you become so good at gardening?”

Yuri chuckled under his breath. “What makes you think that I’m any good at this?”

“Well, you are. You handle your tools well, you pay close attention to the moisture and content of the soil, you even know what plants could grow underground off the top of your head.”

Yuri’s scissors paused over the stalk of a mint plant. His lavender gaze met Byleth’s blue one for a long moment, then turned back to his job.

“Don’t go telling everyone this, but I used to be a gardener's assistant back in the day. Picked up all sorts of useful tricks from then.”

Byleth watched him work in silence. His past experience explained a lot about his skills, but not necessarily the forlorn look on his face. Byleth pondered over his next words carefully as he tried to figure out the reason behind Yuri’s melancholy.

“A gardener to an underground lord. That’s a pretty drastic career change…” He thought out loud.

“More drastic than a mercenary to a professor?” Yuri smirked.

Byleth shrugged in response. “I’m just saying you could make a decent living out of gardening. At least it involves less dubious courses of actions.”

“Ah, if only you knew what I was really up to.” Yuri laughed again. “But seriously, I don’t miss being a gardener. The job’s not as leisurely as you think, especially if you were employed by scumbags.”

Sensing his hidden meaning, Byleth nodded in understanding. As a mercenary, he had worked under cruel and selfish people before, so he was well aware of how they could ruin a hobby as peaceful as gardening.

“Besides,” Yuri continued. “If I stayed where I was, I wouldn’t have come here and met you. And that would be a real shame, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Byleth agreed through a smile.

Although he didn’t know he was smiling until Yuri paused again to stare at him. “My friend, are you actually smiling? If I knew that simple flattery was the way to your heart, I would’ve tried it much sooner.”

Byleth felt his smile fade away in an instant, but that only prompted more teasing from Yuri. “Oh come on. Show me that cute smile of yours again. I promise I won’t make fun of you. Not too much, anyway.”

“If we keep talking, the mint will grow back and undo all of our hard work.”

He snipped a stem to emphasize his point. Unfortunately for Byleth, Yuri remained unfazed by his vague threat. Rather, he seemed encouraged by it.

“And now a joke. Seems like today is my lucky day.” Yuri said, then sighed. “But I suppose these mint leaves won’t trim themselves, won’t they?”

With that, Yuri fell silent, save for the sounds of cutting scissors. Byleth appreciated their newfound peace, but at the same time, he also couldn’t stop thinking about what Yuri said to him. As those words replayed in his head over and over again, the faintest of smiles reappeared on his lips as he continued to work alongside Yuri.

 


 

“Well? What do you think?”

Byleth let out a contemplative hum as he surveyed the sprawling greenery before him. With every pot and patch bursting with foliage, colorful blooms reaching towards sunlight, and the scent of flowers in the air, it was obvious that the garden in Abyss had done well in his five year long absence.

The Ashen Wolves have fared well too. Especially Yuri. Byleth could scarcely believe how he managed to keep up his youthful beauty and mature into a capable leader at the same time. Yet, as they stood together in their garden they grew together, it seemed as if some things never changed.

Yuri shot Byleth a look, reminding him that he had asked a question. He nodded back in haste.

“It’s… nice. To see that some beauty in this world has survived, even in times of war.”

“Glad to hear it.” Yuri said with a smile. “Cause this isn’t just our garden, you know. It’s one of the few things that bring us Abyssians joy, so of course we would do our best to keep it pretty.”

Yuri walked over to a nearby pot of violets. To anyone else, their rich purple hue might’ve outshone his lilac hair, but to Byleth, their colors simply complimented each other well, making them greater than the sum of their parts. Awestruck by both the violets and the man handling them, Byleth couldn’t stop the words on his lips in time.

“I wasn’t just talking about the garden, you know.”

Yuri jerked his head up, eyes wide in shock. “So what are you talking about then?”

Byleth inhaled deeply. As much as he regretted what he said, he couldn’t take them back now, nor could he leave Yuri hanging. He had to finish his sentiment, no matter how embarrassing it was.

“I was… talking about you.”

That bold proclamation hung in the air, although Byleth couldn’t decide whether it was akin to a foul odor or an electrifying energy. Yuri’s face at this very moment was inscrutable, which didn’t help him at all. He could only await his reaction with bated breath, until Yuri plucked a violet from his pot.

“Is that so? I’ve had many people tell me that I’m beautiful, but to hear such praise coming from you… Well, I’m honestly flattered. In a good way.”

Byleth felt his cheeks burning as Yuri stepped closer, the violet twirling in between his fingers. “And I have to say, you’re quite beautiful yourself. Also, in a good way.”

Of all the ways Yuri could have replied, Byleth didn’t expect to be complimented in turn. His blush became even hotter as he said the first thing on his mind.

“You truly mean that?”

“Mmhmm.” By now, Yuri was a scant few inches from Byleth, which didn’t help his rosy cheeks at all. “People love green things, after all, and I see the greenest, most beautiful thing right in front of me.”

He raised a hand to stroke some green locks of hair away from Byleth’s ear. The mere contact sent a pleasant shiver down his spine. Paralyzed with the wonderful feeling, Byleth remained still as Yuri tucked the violet behind his ear, then pulled his hand back, giving his face another gentle caress in the process.

“I meant what I said, five years ago.” He whispered in an uncharacteristically vulnerable way. “I really am glad that I met you. And since then, you have become very important to me. So don’t pull another vanishing act or die on me, alright? We need to survive this war so we can make this garden even more beautiful. Together.”

His warm touch and even warmer words finally thawed the force that froze Byleth in place. He wasn’t as eloquent as Yuri, not by any definition, but he nonetheless took him by the hands and let his emotions flow.

“You’re very important to me as well. So yes, I promise to survive and keep you safe. For the sake of our garden, for Abyss, for Fodlan, and for you.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, do you have a crush on Felix?”

Those unexpected words made Bernadetta leap out of her chair, and might’ve also scared her soul right out of her body if Sylvain’s friendly face didn’t manage to calm her down in time.

Her heart still raced in her chest as she tried to refute him. “H-huh?! Me? W-with a crush on him ? What makes you think that?!”

With a sly smile on his face, Sylvain shook the bundle of papers in his hand. Her latest manuscript, she suddenly realized. Her cheeks blazed like the fires of Ailell as Sylvain read from them to prove his point.

‘There was Sir Phillippe, the Wandering Blade of Raldarius, standing in moonlight that filtered through the forest canopy. Although his raven dark tresses blended into the night, his piercing amber eyes glimmered as he caught sight of Ernesta. Her heart skipped a beat as he stepped towards her, the hilt of his blade flashing silver under the moon’s glow.

“Why did you call me here, Lady Ernesta?” He asked. His husky voice sent shivers down her spine.

Ernesta fumbled her hands as she stared deeply into those honey-colored pools. She could not lose her courage now. If she didn’t confess tonight, she might not ever have another chance to. Taking a deep breath, she sent up a silent prayer to the Goddess before opening her mouth.

“Sir Phillippe, there is something you should know.” Ernesta began. “The truth is, I-’

“AAAAH! Stop! No more!”

Bernadetta pounced on Sylvain to knock the manuscript out of his hands and to slap a hand over his mouth. It barely registered to her that they were out in the public, and her screaming and flailing attracted some wayward eyes. Sylvain, however, was fully aware of these gazes. He allowed the papers to fall away, and did not try to push her away until she ceased her panicking.

Once she was off of him, Sylvain picked the papers back up and shot her a wink. “Bernie, I love your writing and all, but you aren’t being very subtle. You could at least switch the names up a bit more.”

“B-but that would mean I’d have to make so many edits.” Bernadetta stammered. “And it’s not that obvious, is it?! I mean, it’s only obvious to you because you’re friends with him!”

“Yeah, sure. Cause how many other dark haired grumpy swordsmen with a name like ‘Phillippe Iago Raldarius’ do you know?”

Bernadetta stuttered out intelligible noises. The smirk on Sylvain’s face grew wider, but at least he didn’t subject her to more readings of her own manuscript.

“But seriously, Bernie, are you just going to pine after him and write about him until we graduate and never see each other again?”

“Y-yes.” Bernadetta mumbled. “What else can I do…?”

“You could, I dunno, confess your feelings?”

Bernadetta’s veins turned to ice at the very thought. Confessing? Her?! When she couldn’t even talk to Felix without shrieking her lungs out?! The very thought put a fierce blush back on her face and made her heart pound violently.

“W-would Felix like that, even? He’s always so grumbling about your skirt-chasing...”

“That’s just because of me. I could see him being gentle with you though.” A pause. “Most likely, anyway.”

“What? You think he has a crush on me too?”

“Er, I wouldn’t say he has it as bad as you, but there’s definitely something going on.” Sylvain flashed a reassuring smile. “He’s a lot nicer to you than to other girls, and he occasionally talks to me about you.”

Felix? Talking about her?! She felt light-headed just thinking about it, but she refused to pass out in the middle of this very important conversation. “W-what does he say about me?”

Sylvain hesitated again, his smile turning into a thin line on his face. “Well, actually, he just talks about your secret disarming technique all the time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a shot! I can even help you out!”

Because Sylvain was being so nice about this, Bernadetta took his suggestion under consideration. Yet when she imagined herself face-to-face with Felix, her true feelings on the tip of her tongue, she was overcome by the urge to faint once more. Nope. Nu-uh. That wasn’t going to happen, even with Sylvain’s assistance. She could scarcely handle the act of confessing by itself, much less the possibility of being rejected.

“H-ha ha. There’s no way I can do that.” She ended up saying in a trembling voice. “I’m not as confident as you. I’m just a sad, hopeless sack of meat and bones that uses writing to cope…”

“Don’t say that, Bernie!” Sylvain exclaimed. “You’re an amazing writer and an amazing person! If you can write out a confession between Sir Phillippe and Lady Ernesta, a real life confession won’t be a problem at all!”

Bernadetta wanted to tell him no, just because she could write something doesn’t mean she could say it, but Sylvain’s eyes widened with a revelation before she could speak. “Hey, I got an idea! Why do I show this to Felix and see what he thinks? I’ll keep your identity a secret, of course, so there’s no harm done if he thinks it’s garbage! Which he won’t, by the way.”

“H-huh?!” She gasped out. That… was not a bad idea, actually. As long as she didn’t have to do any of the presenting, she might be alright with this, although she could still think of a few snags in their plan.

“Um… Well, you can’t just give him this scene! He has to read everything prior to it in order to understand the romance!”

Sylvain raised an eyebrow at her. “All 120 pages of it? Really?”

“Yes!” Bernadetta nodded. “I-if Felix can’t handle how much I write, then he won’t make a very good boyfriend anyway!”

“Hold on, I thought we’re trying to prove you to him ?”

“The point still stands!” Bernadetta huffed out as she crossed her arms over her chest. “And you better not tell him who wrote this! If you do, I-I’ll probably die of embarrassment, and come back to haunt you!”

“Yeesh, no need to go that far.” Sylvain laughed. “I’m a fantastic secret keeper anyway. For you, my lips are as good as sealed.”

 


 

Later that day, Bernadetta dumped all 120 pages of The Wandering Blade and The Lady of Violets on Sylvain’s lap. And even later, she watched him dump the first few chapters to Felix. They had decided it was better to give Felix the story piece by piece, in case he lost them or he would’ve been too overwhelmed otherwise.

As it turned out, their worries were for naught. Felix consumed the story at such a voracious pace, he constantly requested new material from Sylvain. Which both pleased him, since that meant their plan was working, and exasperated him, since he was the one playing middleman. Bernadetta, on the other hand, was filled with object terror every time she had to hand over the next chapter. What if Felix didn’t like this part? What if he lost interest in it entirely, or worse, figured out the game she and Sylvain were playing at? Yet they were too deep into their scheme to back out now, so they had no choice but to soldier on, the fateful confession scene drawing closer with each passing day.

Bernadetta didn’t get many chances to watch Felix read her manuscript. He usually perused it in the privacy of his room, as he should. Her heart palpated with the mere notion of her story being read out in the open. But the more he became invested in it, the more times Bernadetta noticed him with her papers in his hands. And strangely enough, she wasn’t so frightened by that sight anymore. Perhaps it was because he always had the faintest of smiles on his face as he greedily drank in her words, like they were an oasis in the middle of a desert. During those moments, Felix wasn’t a cranky, unapproachable, teenager that might slice up whoever irked him. He was just… Felix. A nice guy under his tough shell, and apparently a big fan of her work.

In fact, Bernadetta became so comfortable with him, she actually mustered up the courage to speak with him while he was reading. Or rather, hovered around him until he noticed her.

“What do you want?” Felix grumbled as he tore his gaze from the latest chapter.

Bernadetta let out a yelp, but remained where she was. That was progress, right? She could do this! She could hold a whole conversation with him without fleeing or fainting!

“I, uh.” She stuttered, then glanced down at his (her) papers. “I was just wondering what you were reading! That’s all!”

Felix sighed, his expression soft. “It’s something Sylvain gave me. Nothing special.”

Nothing special?! Bernadetta might’ve been upset by that comment if she wasn’t so nervous!

“Well, it seems kinda special, if you’re reading it all the time.” She blurted out without thinking. “What’s it about?”

Felix narrowed his eyes by an imperceptible amount. Too late, Bernadetta realized that she admitted to watching him read her story. How could she have blundered their conversation already?! She wanted the ground to open up and swallow her whole, but to her surprise, Felix didn’t call out her slip of the tongue. Rather, he had an earnest expression as he answered candidly.

“It’s about a mercenary and a noblewoman he must escort to a magical sanctuary.”

“Oh! Neat!” Bernadetta said, as if it was news to her. “A-and do you like it so far?”

Felix didn’t reply immediately, preferring to glance down at the manuscript like it could provide the answer he sought. After an excruciatingly long moment, he met Bernadetta’s gaze again, causing her to flinch in anticipation.

“It’s… surprisingly good, yeah. The fight scenes are written well, the story is interesting, and the two protagonists are… relatable, to say the least. I like how the mercenary isn’t tied up in idiotic chivalrious ideals, yet he’s still portrayed as heroric. And the noblewoman…”

He paused. Bernadetta gulped while she waited. Did this second lull in their discussion mean that he hated Lady Ernesta, and therefore, Bernadetta von Varley? What would she even do if that were the case? Maybe burn her manuscript and forget this ever happened?!

“The noblewoman was irritating at first.” Felix said. “She was so timid and anxious, to a frustrating extent. But then she grew more comfortable around the mercenary, and started to hold her own in battle. And then when she revealed why she was like that, everything made sense. I… actually felt bad for her.”

Bernadetta released a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Whew. Ok. Felix didn’t hate her. It even sounded like he liked her, although he might’ve also said that he used to find Bernadetta annoying?

“That sounds… interesting. Yeah.” She forced herself to say. “So, just out of curiosity, what part of the story are you on?”

“The latest chapter, according to Sylvain.” 

“Wait. You’ve reached the confession already?!” Bernadetta yelled. She didn’t remember giving Sylvain that part yet! But no, she didn’t have to, because she never took it back from Sylvain in the first place! 

And to make matters worse, Felix wore confusion plainly on his face as he squinted at her. “How do you know there’s a confession?” 

Those seven words drained all the color from Bernadetta’s face. She screwed up. She screwed up big time. She outed herself as the author, and it wouldn’t take much more for Felix to figure out that Phillippe and Ernesta were actually the two of them. That Ernesta’s feelings for Phillippe were also Bernadetta’s feelings for him .

“... Oh. I see.” Felix’s voice broke her out of her daze. “You’re the author, aren’t you?”

“AAAAAH!” Bernadetta shouted as she slapped her hands over her face. “Forget everything you just read! I didn’t mean anything by it, and I definitely don’t have a crush on you! AAAAAAAHHH!!”

Her legs, finally freed from her state of paralysis, carried her out the door with blinding speed, leaving behind a very confused Felix. Truthfully, he suspected that the characters in this story were meant to be alternative versions of himself and Bernadetta, but he never would’ve guessed that she harbored a crush for him like Ernesta did for Phillippe. The poor girl was just so shy around Felix, he thought that she was utterly terrified of him instead. Now that Bernadetta so conveniently blurted out the truth though…

A sigh escaped his lips as he tidied up the papers. Everything happened too fast to know how he felt about Bernadetta’s confession, but regardless of their newest mess, she was a good writer. He found himself looking forward to the next installment, whenever that may come. Or if, at this rate, but hopefully he could sort this out the next time Bernadetta came out of her shell.

Chapter Text

Even after all these years, Dimitri still worried whenever Dedue wasn’t by his side. He was a strong man, capable of taking care of himself, yet there were some things that couldn’t be shouldered by one person. Or even if he could , that didn’t mean he should

Take his shopping trip into Fhirdiad, for instance. Dimitri offered to accompany him, but Dedue politely declined, stating that he could handle such a simple task on his own and Dimitri needed to tackle his mountain of papers. While both points were certainly true, Dimitri found himself devoting more time and brainpower to his anxieties instead of said paperwork. 

What if something happened to Dedue? Whether by accident, or by the hands of malicious villains? He already lost his beloved for five years, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing him permanently. And besides, he would’ve loved to venture into the city with Dedue. Perhaps a stroll through the streets, browsing wares and mingling with the citizenry, would do his mind some good. 

But the decision was already made. Dimitri could not hold it against Dedue. Instead, he loitered by the castle’s entrance in a not-so-subtle manner, waiting for his husband to return.

His patience was rewarded with the sight of Dedue’s white hair, royal blue cloak, and numerous bags in his hands. When Dimitri went out to meet him, his eyes widened ever so slightly, but he looked more delighted than shocked to see him.

“Welcome back, Dedue.” Dimitri greeted him. “Do you need help carrying your bags? Please, allow me to assist you.”

“There is no need to concern yourself with them.” Dedue gripped his bags tighter, as if he was protective of them. “I can carry them by myself.”

“That may be true, but I still wish to aid you however I can. It’s the least I can do for you after staying home.”

Dimitri moved a hand to take a bag from Dedue anyway. In one remarkably smooth motion, Dedue grasped his hand, brought it up to his mouth, and gave his knuckles a light yet loving kiss. 

“I do not need any help.” Dedue repeated in a soft voice. “Simply seeing you at the end of a long shopping trip, and being offered aid, is enough for me.”

He let go of Dimitri’s hand, but it still hovered in the air. A fire seemed to blaze through Dimitri’s cheeks as he tried to process what just happened. Dedue’s tender affirmations were nothing new; he had subjected them to Dimitri before. But a knuckle kiss? That was a pleasant surprise, and he couldn’t say he would object to more of them.

The beat in the conversation put a frown on Dedue’s face. “Your Majesty, did I overstep? I apologize for my untoward action.”

“No, you did nothing wrong.” Dimitri shook his head. “In fact, I quite liked being kissed on the knuckles. So you must know what this means…”

Dimitri reached out to Dedue again, this time aiming to grab one of his hands. With a small smile on his lips, Dedue used a bag to block him.

“Please, Your Majesty. Permit me to bring my items inside first.”

Those words snapped Dimitri out of his lovesick trance. “Ah. Of course.” He nodded. “I would hate to be the cause of an unfortunate accident…”

On that note, he didn’t make any more attempts to kiss Dedue’s knuckles until things were squared away. But even after his limbs were freed up, Dedue still resisted Dimitri at every turn. He gently pushed Dimitri aside whenever he tried to grab his hands, he yanked them out of his grip whenever he actually succeeded, and/or he kept himself busy so Dimitri couldn’t bring himself to obstruct him. 

He had to confess, this game of keepaway was slightly frustrating, but Dimitri wasn’t about to give up. He will break through Dedue’s stubbornness and give him a kiss on the knuckles, as he deserved. But perhaps he was going about it the wrong way. While he helped Dedue prepare a homemade dinner with the ingredients he bought today, Dimitri opted to talk to him. Instead of, say, trying to grab at his hands which were presently occupied by a large knife for chopping vegetables.

“My love, why won’t you allow me one kiss on your knuckles?” 

Dedue paused in his vegetable chopping. As he came up with a reply, the only sound that filled the kitchen was the hiss of boiling water.

“Will you stop at just one, Your Majesty?”

Now it was Dimitri’s turn to hesitate. He had him there, admittedly. 

“In addition, a king should not lower himself to his vassal’s level for the sake of a single gesture. A kiss on the knuckle is a sign of devotion to one’s liege, is it not?”

Dimitri couldn’t hold back a deep sigh. He may understand Dedue’s qualms, but that did not mean he agreed with them.

“Firstly, you are my vassal in name only. We moved past those titles when we married each other several years ago. And secondly, a kiss on the knuckle does not have to have that connotation. Is it so bad that I wish to love you in every possible way, traditional definitions be damned?”

More silence. Dedue’s gaze flitted down to his knife and the assortment of vegetables on his chopping board. Then, carefully, he set everything down to turn towards Dimitri.

“So you truly do not believe you are debasing yourself like this, Your Majesty?”

“Yes. A kiss is a kiss, no matter where it is placed.”

“And you will not relent until I permit you a kiss?”

“If I am making you genuinely uncomfortable, I will cease my flirtations. But it would make me a happy man if I could return the kiss you gave me earlier today.”

“Very well.” Dedue sighed and stretched out a hand. “ One kiss on the knuckle. Otherwise, the food may burn while we are occupied.”

“Ever the pragmatic one, are you Dedue?”

Despite his joke, he accepted that offered hand and lifted it higher. Dedue’s skin bore scars and calluses from war, from labor, from all the tragedies in his life. Yet under Dimitri’s affectionate kiss, it was soft and warm, just like its owner. His lips remained on those lovely knuckles for a few long seconds, until he peeled them away to gauge his reaction. To his amusement, Dedue’s cheeks were a ruddy red hue, and not because of the billowing steam around them.

Dimitri decided to press his luck by leaning his head down again. In response, Dedue slipped his hand out of Dimitri’s fingers.

One kiss.” Dedue reminded him, then added, “For now.”

“And later?” Dimitri smiled.

“... We shall see.” Dedue admitted before turning back to his vegetables. Dimitri, gladdened by his success, also resumed his cooking, his mind abuzz with more possible kisses in the near future.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Teach, when’s the last time we were together like this?”

An arrow flew at Claude, and might’ve punctured his chest had Byleth not incinerated it with a fireball in time. “Focus, Claude.”

“No really, I’m serious.” Claude nocked his own arrow to shoot the archer that just attacked him. “I can’t remember the last time the two of us left the palace for anything besides a business trip. Although if it were up to me, I would’ve picked a better date activity than fighting bandits.”

“But fighting bandits is a business trip, of sorts.”

“You know what I mean!”

He let loose a second arrow that struck Byleth’s opponent in the neck. As the brigand gurgled and crumpled to the ground, she glanced up towards Claude, ontop his wyvern. Despite his protests, it really did seem like he was in his element here, with the wind tugging at his cape and sunlight wreathing his lordly silhouette. Not to say that Byleth wasn’t doing as well as him. She may no longer wield the Sword of the Creator, much like how Claude gave up Failnaught, but she still mowed down foes with impunity. Against their combined might, these bandits stood no chance at all.

It was no wonder that Claude was acting so cocky, lamenting about how unromantic their outing was instead of actually focusing on the task at hand. Even so, Byleth wished that he took this more seriously. These bandits may be child’s play compared to the threats they faced during war, but that didn’t mean the two of them were invincible. One mistake could cost them their lives. Or be amended with a Divine Pulse, but that wasn’t the point.

“But you know what else?” Claude shouted above the din of the battlefield. “I spotted a nice beach on the way here. How about we check that out after we’re done?”

Byleth zapped a lunging axe fighter with a thunder spell before she replied back. “We didn’t bring any swim clothes though.”

“Well, we can always go commando.” 

If Byleth looked up, she was sure to find Claude with a big shit-eating grin. Instead, a fierce blush settled on her own face, nearly distracting her from an enemy mage’s gust of wind. Claude had to dispatch him in her stead with a well-aimed arrow.

She did her best to shake that blush away. “Plus, the villagers will probably throw a feast in our honor after we defeat these bandits. Don’t you want to attend that?”

“Oh, I do.” Claude said. “But that isn’t exactly an intimate setting. Too much noise and people, and not enough alone time with you. Same reason why this- hngh! This foray into a bandit’s camp isn’t exactly a date!”

Claude grunted as he pulled his wyvern into a roll to avoid a hand axe thrown his way. While his attacker was distracted by the figure soaring overhead, Byleth struck him in the back with her sword. Once he was done for, she lifted her gaze skyward, to where Claude was readying yet another arrow.

“You seem to be having fun right now though.”

“Only cause I’m with my dear wife.” Claude winked as he released his arrow. It managed to pierce right through a bandit’s heart, despite his brief lapse in depth perception. “But we would have a lot more fun in private, if you catch my drift.”

“The leader’s over this way.”

Byleth dashed off in a seemingly random direction without bothering to reply. The wing flaps of Claude’s wyvern trailed after her, then descended to join her in this final confrontation. The bandits’ leader, a burly, half-naked man with a giant axe, was flanked by several underlings, so Byleth definitely appreciated the backup.

“Eh?! What’sa couple of fancy nobs doing here?” The leader shouted incredulously.

“We’re here to defeat you-”

“Having a date, obviously.”

Byleth shot Claude a Look. He gave her an unrepentant glance back before returning to the bandit leader.

"But hey, listen, I’m sure that all of us would rather be someplace else right now, so how about we make this quick? Come with us quietly, and we won’t have to drag this fight out any longer.”

“Tch! Yer as crazy as yer dumb!” The bandit spat through crooked teeth. “Come on, boys! Get em!”

Their foes let out a war cry before charging forward. Byleth breathed out a sigh as she raised her sword once more, and Claude his bow. It seemed like they had to do this the hard way after all.

Several arrows and sword slices later, the bandit leader was laying in a pool of his own blood, and the rest of his minions were either dead alongside him or otherwise incapacitated. While Claude and Byleth tied up the bandits that had yielded, the former barraged the latter with petty griping. As usual.

“I know I’m going to sound like Hilda, but capturing people is so much work . I mean, I’d rather spare them than execute them, but by hauling all these guys to the nearest jail, we won’t have any time for a real date.”

Byleth rolled her eyes. “There will be more chances to visit the beach. Don’t act like this is our last time outside together.”

“I wasn’t even thinking about the beach this time.” Claude pouted in a cute way. “I’m just saying, we’re all covered in dirt and blood and surrounded by ruffians that want to spill our guts. And soon, we’ll be partying with grateful villagers that’ll shower us with food and ale. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but neither of them are the most romantic of settings. Nor are they exactly conducive to a kiss.”

She straightened herself to look directly at Claude. “You want to kiss?”

“I want a lot of things, but yeah- Mmph!”

Without hesitation, Byleth grabbed Claude’s jacket and pulled him into a kiss. Around them, some of the surrendered bandits groaned, while a few others cheered. Neither Byleth or Claude paid them any attention though. While their lips met, they were wholly absorbed in their own little bubble, free of the sweat, dirt, and blood that caked their entirety and oblivious to the outside world.

Eventually, Byleth pulled herself away from Claude. “Sorry for dragging you into this mess. I hope this makes up for it.”

Claude opened his mouth, but no words came out. Instead, his cheeks radiated so much heat, Byleth could feel them burning. It was very much like Claude to act cheeky during the middle of their work, but then fluster when his flirting was reciprocated. Even though they’ve been married for years now.

A small smile graced her features as she watched Claude squirm in place for a few more seconds, until he regained enough of his bearings to reply.

“Don’t apologize, Byleth. This... actually isn’t so bad.” He leaned in closer. “One more kiss before we go?”

Byleth obliged. As she pressed her lips against his once more, she felt the fire underneath Claude’s skin and his greedy hands wrapping around her back. This may not be their most conventional date/business trip, but as long as they had each other, it was definitely good enough.

Chapter Text

The battle to suppress the Hrym rebellion was a long and bloody one, but in the end, victory was theirs.

Claude breathed a sigh of relief as he circled above the city one last time. It took every ounce of his cunning and a few close calls to save all the commoners, subdue the violent protesters, and minimize damage. Of course, there was still plenty of work ahead of them, such as repairs and the installation of a new governance that wouldn’t incite anymore riots, but for now, it was time to celebrate their hard-earned peace.

He spotted a speck of light green on the ground, and lowered his wyvern into a dive to land next to her. The gust kicked up by his wyvern’s wings rustled Byleth’s hair and cape, causing her to turn around as he dismounted.

“Hey Teach- Oof!”

Without warning, Byleth dashed over and collided into him. Her impact knocked all the air out of his lungs, but he remained upright so Byleth could cling to his chest.

“You’re safe…” She whispered in a trembling voice.

Claude was so caught off guard, he was at a loss for words. If the person on him was anyone else than Byleth, he might’ve pushed them away. But since it was Teach, his dear professor-turned-commander (turned something more?), he allowed her to stay like this for a little while longer. He even placed a hand on her back to comfort her. Sure, the two of them attracted a lot of stares from passerbyers, but Hilda and their other friends came to their aid by ushering those people elsewhere.

Byleth eventually pushed herself off of Claude, although she still remained in his personal space. He was tempted to close the minute gap in between them once more, but instead, Claude used their newfound breathing room to meet her gaze. To his surprise, her usual stoic expression was replaced by a look of deep concern, with wide eyes close to tears and her lips curved into a distraught frown. Hardly anything troubled the woman known as the Ashen Demon, so whatever ailed her right now must be especially dire.

And he may have a clue as to what that was, based on a secret Byleth told him earlier. Claude placed his hands on her shoulders and looked straight into her eyes.

“How many times, my friend?”

Byleth hesitated, but did not avert her gaze. One of her hands crept upwards to hold onto an arm.

“Lysithea twice. Ferdinand once. Lorenz once. And you… four times.”

Her voice cracked. She took a moment to swallow her grief before continuing on. “It’s the most times you’ve died in one battle. And I used up all my Pulses to save you. If you or anyone else had fallen one more time… I…”

“Shhhh. It’s ok.” Claude pulled her in a bit closer, but not so close that he couldn’t see her face. He still had things to say after all. “We’re all safe and sound, thanks to you. If anything, you just reminded me to be more careful in the future.”

Thinking back, he could definitely come up with a few instances where he overextended, or let his desire to win get the better of him, only to be saved by Byleth in the nick of time. He didn’t mean to coast on her godly abilities in order to win the battle, but the mere knowledge of it might’ve subtly influenced him to a dangerous degree. Which wasn’t fair to Byleth. Every death, even those prevented, weighed heavily on her soul, and he shouldn’t be burdening her further.

It seemed like his words provided some relief, with how her muscles relaxed just a tad. Good. She wasn’t completely inconsolable, like how she was after their recent battle at Gronder. Nonetheless, Claude gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

“Are you alright, my friend?” He asked. “Do you need some space or time alone?”

Byleth slowly shook her head. “I’m fine. But if you don’t mind, could you… hold me in your arms? Just for a moment?”

“Of course. Anything you ask.”

Claude draped his arms over her shoulders and pulled her closer. She wasn’t that much shorter than him, but as she was now, so desperate for comfort and with her spirits down low, she seemed very small.

He brought his head closer to her ears so he could whisper words meant for Byleth and Byleth alone. “I’m right here, my friend. Alive and in the flesh. I’m not going anywhere, and I’ll always be with you, no matter what.”

Byleth nodded while her face was buried in his chest. A small movement for a small woman. Yet as she brought her hands around Claude, his heart leapt at how warm she was. Underneath her skin was a veritable bonfire that seeped into his own body, but he didn’t mind it at all. In fact, he was all too happy to bask in it and to sink into Byleth’s arms, much like how Byleth sank into his.

Chapter Text

“Has anyone here seen Claude?”

Much to their dismay, the Golden Deer shook their heads in tandem to falling raindrops. What was once a light drizzle was slowly but surely turning into a proper storm, and as far as Byleth knew, Claude was still out on a scouting mission. He wouldn’t have wandered too far from their base, but anything could happen during bad weather, so it was better to fetch Claude than to be sorry.

“Stay here. I’ll be back shortly.” Byleth told their students before spinning on their heels and heading deeper into the forest. It may seem odd for them to deny any extra help in their search, but they couldn’t risk losing more people. Besides, they were infinitely more experienced at tracking people in the wilderness, even as fat raindrops pierced through the canopy to splash on their coat.

To a mercenary like Byleth, rain was mostly a hindrance. It obscured their vision, chilled the air, soaked their clothes, made roads into a muddy mess, damaged objects left unattended… They could go on and on about the troubles rain wrought. Even so, they knew that rain was a good thing too. Without it, there would be no crops, no food, no life. 

And, disregarding the stress it brought for a moment, rain was also soothing in a way. Back when they lived life on the road, Byleth would often listen to the pitter-patter of raindrops against canvas. Like it was a song telling them to sit back and relax, because there was nothing outside worth getting wet for. Then, once the rain died down, Byleth would leave behind the safety of their shelter to inhale the fresh scent of water, mud, and a world renewed.

Although as Byleth raced through the undergrowth, the rain proved to be more of a bother than a balm. Whatever tracks Claude left behind were drowned in puddles, and any moving signs of him blended in with leaves stirred by the storm. Yet when they stopped to take in their surroundings, their calming memories of the rain returned to them once more. 

They breathed in the damp air. Breathed out furls of steam. Absorbed the sight of hypnotic ripples in rain puddles and the incessant drumming of raindrops on leaves. Their coat may be sopping wet and their boots may be caked in mud, but those annoyances were insignificant to them right now. All that mattered was the alluring song of the rain, almost coaxing them to forget about their wayward student.

Except they wouldn’t be so easily deterred. Mostly because if they listened hard enough, it sounded like the rain’s siren call was an actual song. As in, there was a real human voice behind it. And as impossible as it seemed, there was only one person here that would be singing so deep in the wilderness.

Byleth sprinted towards the source of the song posthaste. It didn’t end up being very far from their location, but what was more unexpected was the sight that greeted them. In the middle of the clearing was Claude, completely drenched and staring up at the heavens with a wondrous song on his lips. 

The melody that poured forth sounded like it was in a foreign language, yet he sang it with such heart and conviction, Byleth felt like he understood it anyway. Its dulcet notes harmonized with the falling raindrops, and its sonorous tone echoed throughout the forest. Furthermore, the rain deflated his once-fluffy hair and made his clothes stick to his well-toned body, transforming Claude into a completely different person. Even his smile as he serenaded the stormy skies was unfamiliar to them. It was… brighter. More relaxed. And it actually reached his eyes.

Byleth could have stood there for ages, listening to his song, but the impromptu performance came to an end when he tilted his head to the side and caught sight of them. With a jolt, the mysterious singer in the rain reverted back to Claude von Riegan, the leader of the Golden Deer House and extraordinarily surprised to see his professor.

“Gah! Teach!” Claude shouted. “What are you doing here?”

Still somewhat entranced by his song, it took Byleth longer than they would’ve liked to reply. “I… was looking for you. Getting caught in the rain can be dangerous.”

“Ah. I appreciate the thought, but I’m perfectly fine. One might even say I’m right as rain.” Claude winked at his own pun. “What about you? It looks like you got soaked too.”

“I’m fine.” Byleth said while suppressing a shiver. Just because they were used to bad weather didn’t mean they couldn’t feel the cold. They didn’t want Claude to notice that though, so they sought to distract him by switching to a different topic.

“What was the song you sang just now? I never heard of anything like it.”

Claude’s cheeky smile fell away in an instant. Byleth almost felt guilty asking after it, but it was too late to take back their words.

“Mmmm. I was kinda hoping you didn’t hear that, but I guess I got carried away.” Claude smiled again, although it looked less earnest than before. “I’ll tell you if you promise not to repeat it to anyone else.”

“I promise.” Byleth nodded. 

Even with the reassurance, Claude hesitated before explaining himself. With a sigh, he said, “There’s hardly ever any rain where I come from, so when it does rain, everyone gets really excited about it. Some people even sing songs as thanks, like the one I was singing.”

“But you’ve seen rain since coming here, haven’t you?”

“I have, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.” Claude shrugged. “Water is a precious thing, you know? All life depends on it, and yet it sometimes just falls out of the sky for free. That’s kind of a miracle in and of itself.”

Byleth nodded again in understanding. They just had that line of thought earlier, during their search for Claude, so it was nice to hear that they shared the same opinion. And speaking of things that were nice to hear…

“Your singing was beautiful too.” They said. “Also a bit surprising, since you don’t sing as well during choir practice.”

“Ouch, Teach. You don’t pull any punches, do you?”

At Byleth’s somewhat bewildered look, Claude chuckled under his breath. “Just kidding. I know what you mean. Let’s just say that I only sound pretty with songs I care about. Which is probably for the best, since we don’t want our divas to raise a fuss about being upstaged, right?”

Another wink, followed by a more earnest expression. “But seriously, thanks. I’m glad you like my little show. Now that you know one of my many hidden talents, maybe I can hold an encore just for you?”

Byleth studied over every dripping and sopping inch of him. As much as they would like to say yes, it would be irresponsible of them to delay their return to their camp. So instead, they walked over in silence, much to Claude's confusion.

“Maybe later.” They replied as they started to take off their coat. “We need to head back now.”

“Uh, Teach? What are you doing?” Claude asked.

“You’re going to catch a cold like this, so I’m giving you my jacket. Here.”

Byleth draped their ashen grey overcoat over Claude’s head. They also tried to pat his hair dry, in an attempt to fluff it up to its former glory, but it was much too wet for that. They would need to take shelter, preferably back at camp, before Claude could start looking like himself again.

A faint blush appeared on Claude’s face as he clutched his new coat. Hopefully he wasn’t coming down with any illness. “Not that I don’t appreciate this, but what about you?” Claude eyed Byleth and their own utterly wet clothes.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve traveled in worse conditions. But if you didn’t grow up around rain, it’s better for you to take my coat.”

“That’s, uh…”

Claude sounded like he had a witty comeback on the tip of his tongue, but he swallowed it at the last second. “Well, if you say so. That just means we have to head back quickly, for your sake.”

Byleth hummed in agreement right before Claude hooked an arm around theirs. With little warning, save for a big grin on his face, he dragged them back into the woods, their feet marching together and to the beat of the rainstorm’s song.

Chapter Text

Under the shade of a towering tree, Edelgard Hresveleo walked like a woman on a mission.

It was easy to locate her target, even within the vast arborcity of Garmach. His unmistakable scent had been branded into her brain ever since they were children, and once she neared the training grounds, her sensitive leopard ears picked up familiar grunts of exertion. She strolled through the arches to find exactly who she expected, practicing lunges with a spear in his hands. He appeared to be completely absorbed in his task, as his straightened boar ears and lashing rope-like tail indicated, yet he noticed her presence quickly enough.

“Ah, hello El.” Dimitri Bohrddyd turned and greeted her with a smile that showed off his protruding tusks. “What brings you here? I thought you had magic lessons with Professor Hanneman at this time of day?”

It was amazing how he could speak so clearly when it seemed like his tusks were growing longer with each passing day, but that wasn’t why Edelgard sought him out. Right now, there was another laguz in Garmach that required their attention. Edelgard’s furred tail swayed to and fro as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“We finished early, so I came to talk to you about him .”

Dimitri blinked in confusion. “Who?”

“Claude Rieven.” Edelgard hissed out. “The raven laguz, and Leistorr Archipelago’s chosen ambassador for Garmach’s Sanctification.”

She jabbed a finger skyward, causing Dimitri to look up. Even though Edelgard hadn’t seen Claude specifically, she knew that he was always flying around, so it was fair to assume that he was somewhere above them.

“I know who he is.” Dimitri turned his gaze back to Edelgard. “But I do not understand why we need to talk about him. He seems to be doing fine.”

Edelgard lowered her hand, although her stern expression did not abate. “Maybe on the surface he is. But despite our best efforts to become acquainted, we’ve hardly spoken since the Sanctification year started. He’s always flying around or secluding himself in the library during his spare time. Plus, with how often I find him in his alt form, it feels like he doesn’t want to speak to us.”

“Hmm. I do not believe that’s the case.” Dimitri frowned. “I heard that in Claude’s homeland, it is not considered rude to meet someone in their alt form.”

“That’s because Elmira is mostly inhabited by bird laguz. Us beast laguz cannot understand him when he’s a raven. Claude should know this by now.”

Edelgard’s ears flattened against her skull as she gave her tail an annoyed flick. As frustrated as she was about their lack of communication, she really did sympathize with Claude’s situation. He had moved from Elmira to Fodra a little more than a year ago, and if the rumors were true, he spent much of that time isolated from the general public, doing Goddess knows what. And now he was chosen to take part in Garmach’s Sanctification, a sacred ritual that required a representative from each laguz nation to live together in harmony for one year in order to appease the almighty Goddess of Fodra. 

It was fortunate that Edelgard and Dimitri were close childhood friends prior to the Sanctification, but their tight-knit bond most likely exacerbated Claude’s loneliness. Still, the fact remained that he wasn’t making things easy for the two of them. After weeks of little success, Edelgard had to resort to more drastic measures to reach Claude, which was why she sought Dimitri out today.

“Even if he is actively shunning us, what else can we do but continue our efforts to befriend him?” Dimitri sighed as he leaned on his lance. “We cannot force him to get along with us.”

“Actually, I have a plan.”

Edelgard reached into her pocket to pull out a small vial of pink liquid. It was marked with a small flower, but that label didn’t explain what kind of contents it held. Dimitri narrowed his eyes as he stepped closer to study it.

“What do you have there, El?”

“The finest quality preening oil I could obtain.” Edelgard held it up in the sunlight to cast rosy hued sparkles on the ground. “All bird laguz enjoy a good preen, even ones from Elmira, so we should be able to win Claude over with this.”

Dimitri had no reply for her at first. He just kept staring at the bottle of preening oil, like it was some sort of unearthly concoction. And honestly, Edelgard didn’t know why he was this hesitant. They both had bird laguz friends (plus a pegasus laguz friend, in Dimitri’s case), so they knew how to apply the oil to their fingers and comb through feathers with gentle, rhythmic motions.

“Erm, not to say that this isn’t a good plan, but…” Dimitri trailed off as he straightened himself. “Will Claude allow us to touch his wings? We are still strangers to him.”

“He may be shy, but he’s also a curious one.” Edelgard stated. “This is not just normal preening oil, but plumeria-scented oil from Brejid, a luxury that he most likely hasn’t seen before.”

She uncapped the vial, allowing a pungent smell to waft out of its containers. The two of them sputtered and wrinkled their noses at the sharp smell, although Edelgard was sure that this was the right level of aroma for Claude. After all, bird laguz didn’t have nearly as sensitive noses as leopard and boar laguz.

“Judging from how eager he is towards new foods, I’m confident that Claude will be willing to try a small sample of this. And once we have him in our hands, he will see that we mean no harm to him.”

“An… interesting choice of words, but I agree with your sentiment.” Dimitri nodded. “However, perhaps it would be better if you do most of the preening.”

“Why is that?”

Dimitri fidgeted in place with a sheepish expression on his face. “Well, let’s just say there is a reason why Ingrid doesn’t permit me to preen her wings anymore.”

“You still have problems with your strength?” Edelgard squinted at him. “I thought you got the Grim Crest to help you control it.”

“I did, but I would rather not take any risks during such a precarious situation.”

“Hmph.” Edelgard huffed, blowing a strand of brown hair out of her face. “In that case, I suppose I can do most of the preening. However, you will have to partake at some point. I cannot consider my plan a success if Claude only becomes comfortable around me.”

“I understand.” Dimitri nodded, his earlier embarrassment lightening into a look of relief. “Thank you for obliging me, El. I promise to restrain myself as best as I can.”

“Come now, there’s no need to thank me. We’re friends .” Edelgard waved a dismissive hand in his general direction. He really was still the same kind and earnest boy she met all those years ago, regardless of his station as the prince of Vargus and his overabundance of strength. She had no doubt in her heart that Claude would warm up to him and Edelgard, even if a few of his feathers got accidentally mangled in the process.

 


 

Finding the reclusive raven laguz was a lot more difficult than finding Dimitri because, like its name suggested, the arborcity of Garmach was built around a giant tree. While non-flighted laguz had to use stairs, ladders, bridges, and platforms to get around, bird laguz like Claude could fly from branch to branch with ease. Truthfully, Edelgard could shift in her alt form to climb all over Garmach, but since Dimitri couldn’t do the same, she resigned to a slower and more leisurely pace in order to stay by his side.

In the end, Edelgard and Dimitri couldn’t locate him before their next class. Luckily, their next class happened to be ancient history lessons, with all three ambassadors in attendance and Seteth as their professor. Normally, Edelgard loathed being subjected to the sea serpent laguz’s dull lectures, filled with stuff she already knew about, but today, it worked out in her favor. By boring Claude out of his mind, he became a bit more receptive to Edelgard’s and Dimitri’s advances after class.

“Hello, Claude.” Edelgard called out to him before he shifted and flew away. “May I speak to you for a moment?”

Claude balked a little, like he was surprised at being approached. Still, he stayed where he was with a wary look on his face.

“Sure thing, princess. What do you need?”

Edelgard took a deep breath before she replied. She had been told that she could seem a bit… Cold? Intimidating? Which was a natural bearing for a princess of Adressia to have, but she had to soften herself when speaking to someone as flighty as Claude.

“I do not need anything, per say, but I would like you to hear us out.” She began. “I understand how difficult it is to acclimate not just to Garmach, but to Fodra as a whole. And perhaps the two of us have not been especially accommodating partners for the Sanctification. We would like to extend our apologies if that is the case, and perhaps make it up to you with this.”

Edelgard showed Cluade the pink vial of preening oil. At the sight, his green eyes widened slightly and his wings stiffened, but again, he didn’t move to fly away.

“Is that preening oil?” He asked.

“Yes. Plumeria-scented preening oil from Brejid, to be exact.” Dimitri piped up. “It’s not something easily obtained. El had to call upon a friend to acquire it.”

“And it’s a gift for me?”

“Well, we could give it to you.” Edelgard said. “But we would also like to use a small sample of it to preen your feathers, if you are amenable to the idea.”

Now that their plan was revealed, Edelgard paused to see how Claude would react. He appeared mostly unchanged, with his startled expression and frozen wings, but she noticed a subtle shift in his demeanor. It was hard to tell which way he shifted, however, until the corners of lips turned upwards into a smile.

“Ooooh. So that’s what you guys were talking about earlier.”

“Hm? Were you spying on us?” Edelgard flicked her tail.

“I didn’t set out to spy on you.” Claude shrugged. “But I see and hear a lot of things while flying, and when I noticed you two talking in the training grounds, I thought that this might be interesting and stuck around for a bit longer. Did you not notice me at all?”

“... No.”

“Really? But you pointed to me and everything.”

“That was purely a coincidence.”

“Plus, if you knew that we wished to engage in a preening session with you, why did you pretend otherwise until now?” Dimitri chimed in again.

Claude turned to face him next, seeming nervous once more, but not as much as when they first started. Perhaps he didn’t appreciate being called out. Still, the tension between them evaporated with another flash of a smile.

“Well, I couldn’t gauge how sincere you guys were, or if you were plotting something nefarious.” His voice was light with sheepish laughter. “But now that I can tell that you two really want to get to know me better… Sure. I’ll let you preen me. That plumeria oil sounds nice, in any case.”

He gave his wings a gentle flap, shaking out all of his earlier stiffness. Edelgard suddenly realized how big they were, and how many feathers she and Dimitri had to go through, but they couldn’t take back their offer now. Besides, a bit of time was a small price to pay for their eventual friendship.

“Although… You do know how to preen feathers, right?”

“Certainly.” Dimitri nodded. “Edelgard is an expert at it, in fact.”

“We have friends with feathers, so we’re both quite adept at preening.” She corrected him, resisting the urge to shoot Dimitri a sidelong glance in order to keep her eyes on Claude. “Anyway, where did you want to do this?”

The three of them wound up on an open platform, so Claude could sit in the sunlight while being preened. Edelgard had no idea that ravens could enjoy a good shaft of sunlight just as much as cats did, but then again, there was a lot that she didn’t know about Claude. That was hopefully something she could amend as she got to work on one wing and Dimitri on the other.

His wings were a solid black color, as dark as the night sky, and extraordinarily soft. Edelgard combed through them with ease, lulling Claude into an almost sleepy state of content. He might’ve leaned back into Edelgard’s arms had he not realized who was behind him. And although he kept himself upright after his near mistake, his wings belied his alert stance with how they stretched out and fluffed up, allowing his two preeners access to every individual feather.

As she coated his feathers with the slick, floral-smelling oil, she noticed some subtle markings  on his wings. These barely discernible patterns, slightly lighter in hue, became more obvious when the sun reflected off of them at the right angle. Underneath the warm afternoon rays, the tips of his primaries glimmered a hazy gold, alongside whimsical swirls and spots and a shape that resembled a crescent moon. Actually, Claude bore a pair of crescent moons, one on each wing. Those striking figures gave Edelgard some food for thought as she slowly dragged her fingers through the one on his left wing.

“Claude… Do you have a Crest?” She asked in a low voice.

Predictably, Claude didn’t answer right away, but his stiffened wings told her what he refused to say. She was about to apologize for prying into personal affairs before Claude relaxed and replied back.

“You’re talking about the ones on my wings, right? It’s called the Star Crest.”

“I’ve never heard of such a Crest. Nor have I seen anything like it.” Edelgard absentmindedly traced the golden curved outline. 

“That’s probably because its Crestfruit only grows in Elmira.” Claude said. “But what about you two? I heard that Dimitri has a Crest, while Edelgard doesn’t..”

“You heard correctly.” Dimitri looked up from his preening to nod. “I obtained the Grim Crest from the Crestree of Virdiad, to better control my strength. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be able to hold ordinary objects without breaking them, much less preen anyone’s wings.”

“Wow. I never heard of someone getting a Crest to suppress themselves, but I guess it’s necessary in your case.” Claude chuckled under his breath. “So what about you, princess? Why haven’t you gotten a Crest yet?”

Edelgard bristled under his inquisitive tone, even though she knew he meant well. It was a simple feat to obtain a temporary Crest from the various Crestrees that grew throughout the world, and although getting a permanent Crest required a bit more effort, it didn’t require that much more. Certainly not too much effort for a princess of Adressia, who was expected to rise above the masses to lead the biggest laguz nation of Fodra. Yet Edelgard didn’t care to have a Crest of her own, and wasn’t about to let popular opinion dictate her life choices.

It wasn’t fair to take her frustrations out on a foreigner like Claude though, so she did her best to put a lid on her emotions as she answered him. “I don’t need one. It’s as simple as that. Although I am not opposed to acquiring one in the future, either temporary or permanent, if the situation calls for it.”

“Mmm. It must be nice to live a life where you don’t need a Crest to help you out.”

Claude uttered those words in his usual carefree tone, but Edelgard still couldn’t help but take offense to them. Just because she was lucky enough to not need a Crest doesn’t mean she took her Crestless life for granted. A retort formed readily on her tongue, and she let it slip before she could stop herself.

“No one needs a Crest to live their life to the fullest. Everyone in this world is capable of doing so much, being so much, with their own two hands.”

“Uh, dunno if you noticed, but Dimitri and his Grim Crest are right here.” Claude jerked his head to the side.

“She wasn’t talking about me.” Dimitri rebutted with a gravelly voice. “My circumstances are… unique, so please do not start an argument on my behalf.”

“So who are you talking about, princess?” Claude turned back to Edelgard. “Cause if you think that I can go Crestless like you can, then, heh, that’s a hefty assumption to make.”

Edelgard’s scowl deepened further. “Well, can you? What power does the Star Crest grant, anyway?”

“Tch. Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Claude, I can’t pretend to understand you if you insist on being so elusive.”

“I dunno, you were doing just fine with putting words in my mouth.”

“You were the one assuming things about me in the first place!”

“Edelgard, Claude, please, simmer down-”

“But I’m right, aren’t I? You totally thought I was some useless laguz coasting by on his Crest, without even trying to understand what it does! Without bothering to get to know me! It makes me wonder why you offered to preen me at all!”

“I was trying to be nice -”

“Yeah, and look how that turned out-”

“And whose fault was that-”

“ENOUGH!”

A horrible snapping sound followed Dimitri’s shout, which was immediately followed by a squawk and a flurry of feathers. In a blink of an eye, Claude had shifted into his alt form and jumped back, out of their reach. 

She never noticed how unusual his raven form was until she was this close to him. Just like his wings, raven Claude was covered in dark feathers and hidden patterns that glinted gold in the sunlight. His beak and talons seemed more wickedly sharp than they should be, as if they belonged to a bird of prey. And he was big. Very big. Bigger than any other bird laguz Edelgard had seen before. He might even be bigger than her in her leopard form, although definitely not as big as Dimitri’s boar form. 

Perhaps these abnormalities were characteristic of Elmiran laguz, which would certainly explain why they were so feared in Lisstor. But Edelgard didn’t get a chance to confirm that, because she saw that some of Claude’s wing feathers were broken, and Dimitri’s hand held a fistful of broken feathers.

“Claude-”

Dimitri was cut off by a strangled hiss that made Edelgard’s tail stick straight up. A raven laguz should not be able to make a sound like that. Before either of them say or do anything, Claude alighted from the platform and into the clear blue skies, flying on and on until he was just a speck in the distance.

Silence fell. Edelgard wanted to say something to Dimitri, but she couldn’t even look into his eyes. Not with the terrible realization that this was her fault. Even if Claude unintentionally provoked her with personal questions, she had no reason to retaliate as she did, to continue a losing argument and cause undue stress to Dimitri, which resulted in the one thing he warned against. 

Edelgard wouldn’t be surprised if Claude refused to speak with either of them for the rest of the year. Which wasn’t feasible for the Sanctification, but what were they to do? Her tail writhed on the ground as she sat there, deep in thought, only for Dimitri’s voice to snap her out of her contemplation.

“El?”

“Yes, I know what you’re about to say.” Edelgard sighed. “This is all my fault. I should’ve listened to you when you said you didn’t want to preen Claude, and I should’ve held my tongue.”

“And are you truly sorry?”

Edelgard didn’t answer him directly, opting to let out a hum as she curled her tail around her legs. She always found it difficult to admit to anything wrong out loud, much less apologize. It was times like these that she was thankful for Dimitri, who never judged her for her numerous outbursts and harsh words. Who could understand what she wanted to say without needing to hear anything from her.

Dimitri took a seat next to Edelgard. “I was about to say that you weren’t the only one at fault. Claude should not have pushed the topic when you voiced your unease, and I should not have gotten riled up as I did.”

“Dimitri...”

He held a hand up to interrupt her. “But if you are sorry, then who’s to blame is no longer important. What matters more is fixing the bridge we nearly burnt to ashes.”

“‘Nearly’ burnt?” Edelgard scoffed. “I would say ‘completely’ burnt, over and done with. I doubt that even a gift of preening oil will repair what’s broken.” 

She fingered the delicate glass vial in her pocket, still full of liquid. If lavish gifts wouldn’t work as an apology, what would? Her mind turned that topic on its head, over and over again, until it was as worn as a river pebble, yet she still had no good answer.

It seemed that Dimitri did, however. He placed a gentle hand on Edelgard’s tail as a small smile crept onto his face.

“Maybe you were on the right track though. Except, Claude isn’t the one that has to be groomed now.”

Edelgard didn’t understand him until Dimitri caressed her silky tail much the same way he caressed Claude’s feathers. With a start, she yanked her tail out of his hands and shot him a look of ire.

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Be reasonable, El.” Dimitri said, a hint of laughter in his voice. “If Claude placed his feathers in your hands, it’s only fair that you place your fur in his. What we need to show him, more than anything, is that we aren’t out to get him. Quite the opposite, in fact. And I have to admit, it’s hard for anyone to resist your alt form’s charm for very long.”

That smug grin on his face almost made her disregard everything Dimitri said, but Edelgard knew in her heart that he was right. This would be the easiest way to make things up to Claude, if he wanted to make things up at all. 

“Fine.” Edelgard scoffed. “But you have to let him pet your alt form too, since you’re the one that broke his feathers.”

“I already anticipated that.” Dimitri’s smirk grew wider. “Even though I am sure that Claude will prefer your alt form over mine.”

“Ugh.” Edelgard rolled her eyes. She hated how right he was sometimes. “If this doesn’t work, I’m going to chew your tail off.”

“Heh. I will hold you to that promise, if only because we both know that won’t come to pass.”

 


 

They didn’t get a chance to enact plan B until the next day, when they were forced into the same classroom again. As expected, Claude gave the two of them a wide berth, and was in a hurry to leave after their lessons were over. The only reason why he didn’t fly off immediately was because Edelgard made a big fuss over him by sprinting over and shouting at the top of her lungs.

“Claude! We need to talk!”

Claude had already shifted into his alt form, which was actually taller than Edelgard in her base form. Thus, he was able to stare straight into her eyes with his own piercing green ones. She had to admit that the inscrutable stare of a raven, devoid of emotions but nonetheless filled with cold intelligence and cunning, sent a shiver up her spine.

She had to power through that chill though, in order to make things right. Soon enough, Dimitri caught up to her, lending her the courage to say what needed to be said.

“I… am sorry for how things turned out yesterday. I regret how I crossed a line and made untrue accusations about your character.”

“And I am also sorry for breaking your feathers.” Dimitri added. 

“We are well aware that words alone aren’t enough to make up for what we’ve done, so we would also like to show how sincere we are. With actions.”

A pause. Claude couldn’t speak in his alt form, but he showed that he was listening by tilting his head. That was something, at least.

Dimitri nudged Edelgard’s side, reminding her of the second part of their apology. She sighed before saying those dreaded, yet much-anticipated words.

“I will allow you to pet me while I’m in my alt form. You may even play rough with me, since we did break some of your feathers. Although I hope you do not desire that much revenge.”

“This is not something to be taken lightly, Claude.” Dimitri interjected. “El rarely lets other laguz touch her fur, much less her alt form. You should consider this an honor.”

“In addition, Dimitri will allow you to pet his alt form too.” Edelgard made sure to mention, lest her friend forgot that part of the deal.

“But El’s alt form is much softer than mine, so I would not mind if you focused solely on her.”

“Dimitri!”

She would have rebuked him more had Claude not shifted back into his base form. He flapped his wings a few times before he spoke up. “What makes you think that I want to pet you?”

Dimitri let out a low chuckle. “Well, once you see her, I doubt that you can resist… El? Aren’t you going to show him what I mean?”

“Not here.” Edelgard hissed. Goddess forbid that other laguz saw her and wanted to join in. “Let’s go to the same platform as yesterday.”

The trio of ambassadors headed to said platform in record time. Edelgard was thankful that Claude was curious enough to follow them, even if it was about to be at her own expense. As soon as she was sure that no one else was watching, she inhaled and transformed into her alt form in a flash of light.

True to Dimitri’s teasing, her leopard form was incredibly fluffy to an almost luxurious extent. Her brown pelt was mottled with dark rings and spots, both big and small, creating a beautiful pattern that was the envy of all of Adressia. Edelgard’s tail, which grew a bit longer during the shapeshifting, waved in the breeze like it had a mind of its own. Her lavender eyes fixated on Claude, waiting for the reaction that would decide everything.

“Oh. Wow.” He uttered at last. “You really do look soft.”

Edelgard chuffed and flicked her tail. Claude wouldn’t be able to understand her, but Dimitri could, even though her most recent gesture required no interpretation.

“Don’t you want to pet her?” Dimitri said to him.

“Uh. I guess, since you already went through all this trouble for me…”

He crept forward, wings outstretched and ready for flight should the worst happen. Not that it would. Edelgard stayed in place, still staring intently at Claude, and didn’t move an inch when he set a hand down on the top of her head. That hand clung to her fur for a long moment, as if basking its lavishness, then went down her neck. After he finished his first pet, he brought his hand back to her head and stroked her again, and again, and again, moving further down her back until he reached her tail.

This was... surprisingly nice. It had been a while since she received full body pettings from anyone. After all, Adressian royalty were expected to remain dignified and composed, and pets of any sort ruined that carefully cultivated image. Plus, Claude had every reason to yank her fur, as payback for his broken feathers, yet he didn’t. Instead, he wore the biggest of smiles as he smothered Edelgard in loving caresses.

Things got even better when Claude decided to scratch her behind the ears. A purr escaped her throat as she pressed her head into his hands and wound her tail around her legs. Granted, this did not mean she liked him that much, but she needed to play up her affection to give Claude the time of his life.

“Heh. You like that? How about this?”

He scratched her even more, eliciting louder purrs from Edelgard. She was so ecstatic, she could no longer stand and elected to lay down instead. Big mistake. As soon as she flopped on the ground, Claude flopped down with her, his face buried in her fluffy belly.

“Soooooo soft…” He mumbled through her fur. “You’re like a giant pillow, you know? I bet I could fall asleep on you.”

Edelgard batted his head. He better not fall asleep on her, especially if he was the kind of laguz that drooled in his sleep. Although… 

Speaking of drool, Edelgard arced her neck to give Claude’s hair a good lick. Claude lifted his head up to shoot her an incredulous look, but with his hair sticking straight up, it was difficult to take him seriously.

“What was that about?” He squinted at her. “Were you trying to preen me? Hate to say it, but cat laguz saliva isn’t good for my feathers. Nor my hair, but I guess it’s already too late for me.”

Edelgard chuffed as she lowered her head. Fine. She could live without grooming Claude. Reassured by her non-verbal answer, she settled back on the ground. Claude followed after her by placing his own head back on her belly and wrapping both his arms and wings all around her. He might have said something else, but his voice was muffled by her fur, and to be honest, Edelgard could care less. The sun was sure nice in this particular spot…

A grunt roused her from her half-slumber. Her eyes flitted to a nearby golden boar with sky blue eyes, a formidable pair of tusks, the Grim Crest emblazoned on his forehead in light yellow hue, and a thick black-and-white stripe across his shoulders. Ah. She should have expected that Dimitri wanted to join in on the cuddling, not that she was heartless to deny him. A flick of her tail beckoned him closer, and Dimitri took great care not to skewer anyone as he wriggled under one of Claude’s great wings. While Edelgard was basically Garmach’s fluffiest pillow, Dimitri was like a giant, warm, and perfectly huggable plush toy. If one could get their arms around his massive figure, anyway.

Claude seemed startled by the sudden addition, but didn’t voice any objections. Rather, he shifted to make room for Dimitri, and splayed his wings to cup his two new snuggle buddies. His wing span wasn’t wide enough to completely cover both Edelgard and Dimitri, but they certainly covered enough in Edelgard’s opinion.

The unlikely trio remained in their comfortable state for what seemed like eternity. Dimitri fell asleep in an instant, and Edelgard herself was ready to doze off, but Claude’s mumbling kept her awake.

“It’s… kind of hard to explain what my Star Crest does.” Claude’s voice lacked its usual bravado, making him sound uncharacteristically vulnerable. “Under a starry night sky, I can always find where I need to go. Whether it be my home, the next leg of my journey, or someone that needs me. Course, it’s not like I can use it while I’m part of the Sanctification.”

Was that a trace of bitterness she detected? Edelgard couldn’t blame him for being upset at the circumstances though. The three of them were allowed to venture outside of Garmach once in a while, but never more than a day or two, and never so far away as Lisstor or Elmira. Being confined must be terrible for a raven laguz, who was born to fly, and doubly so for a raven laguz so far away from home.

This was why they had to befriend him. No one should have to feel utterly alone, no matter where they were or who they were with, and she was very glad that they were making great strides after a rocky start.

“Sometimes I wonder what life would be like without my Crest.” He continued on. “I don’t think I would’ve made it to Fodra, for one thing. For the second thing, I met someone through the power of the Star Crest. At least, I think it was through my Crest. I actually got lost in a storm and wound up in the ancient ruins she calls home, but now that I think about it, I’m willing to bet that the Star Crest guided me to her for some reason.”

Edelgard’s ears perked up. He mentioned this mysterious laguz before, but this was the most he ever said about her.

“Yet at the same time, she ended up kicking out of her home because of my Crest. She said I couldn’t stay there and... I believe her. There was something funny about that place that’s hard to put into words, but I really do think that something bad would happen if I stuck around.”

A shudder ran through his body. Edelgard instinctively curled around him, as to ward off his unease. Claude patted her flank as he kept talking.

“It’s kinda ironic that the Crest that led me to her became the reason why I can’t see her again. But I didn’t want our friendship to end like this. So I thought I could find a way to fix things in Garmach’s library. Except, in my quest to solve this mystery, I ended up forsaking some other friends that have been under my nose the entire time.”

He gave both Edelgard and Dimitri another pat, this time with his wings. Moved by his heartfelt sentiment, Edelgard snuggled her nose up against his side. Her whiskers tickled Claude, drawing out soft laughter reminiscent of windchimes.

“Sorry for what I said yesterday.” He confessed. “About the whole Crest thing. I guess you got me thinking about Byleth all over again, and I took my frustrations out on you. Not that I should have.”

So that was her name. Edelgard didn’t recognize it, but the way he said it suggested that he was very fond of her. Venerated her, even. And she completely understood why he reacted the way he did at her thoughtless insinuations. She too would’ve been upset if she had lost Dimitri, then someone rubbed salt in her wound by reinforcing the notion that her Crest, an important and permanent part of her very being, was to blame.

Edelgard purred as she cuddled him some more. Claude didn’t need to be a beast laguz to get at what she was saying.

“Thanks, Edelgard.” He whispered under his breath. “And Dimitri too, if you can hear me.”

A snore from the boar indicated that he could not. Which was fine. Now that everyone’s apologies were accepted and tensions were no longer running high, Edelgard allowed herself to drift into a peaceful sleep. She was vaguely aware of some shifting weight as Claude transformed into his alt form, but she paid it no attention. All she cared about was the warmth from the sun overhead and the odd kind of serenity that could only be obtained from a leopard, boar, and raven slumber party.

Chapter Text

When Marianne started receiving a lot of hair accessories from Hilda, she didn’t know what to do with them at first. The shiny beads, colorful bows, sparkly baubles, and everything in between were… nice. But not really Marianne’s style. She preferred to keep her hair on the subtle side to avoid attention, not that she was pretty enough to warrant attention in the first place. 

Yet most of these adornments were handcrafted by Hilda herself, so she couldn’t just throw them out or leave them to rot in a drawer. Hilda had already asked her what she did with them once before, when she noticed that Marianne wasn’t wearing them. Fortunately, Marianne managed to dodge the question, and Hilda didn’t bother to ask her about it anymore, but her guilt still hung over her like a dark rain cloud that dogged after her, time and time again.

It took her a long while to think of it, but Marianne eventually came up with a way to alleviate her regret, put Hilda’s accessories to good use, and brighten someone else’s day, all at once. She gave everything to the horses and pegasi of Garreg Mach. 

Animals, like Marianne, didn’t really care about looking pretty. They were more concerned about getting fed or getting that itchy spot scratched. But they didn’t mind it when Marianne wove ribbons into their manes, threaded their hair through beads, or enhanced their braids with glittery trinkets. In fact, they were rather pleased to receive so much attention from their favorite Garreg Mach student and, as the trend continued, from their stablemates. 

So Marianne had to keep going, for the sake of their happiness. Everytime Hilda gave her something new, she passed that gift to her animal friends. Everytime Marianne received a nicker of thanks, her heart blossomed with warmth, and her resolve solidified a thousand fold. Her efforts to beautify all of the stables’ residents continued for the next several weeks, until it was pointed out by the person she didn’t want to hear it from.

“Oh, hey Marianne!” Hilda popped up out of the blue, scaring Marianne out of her wits and almost causing her to yank on a pegasus’s mane. Thankfully, the pegasus, named Saltlick, didn’t react too harshly, and just let out an annoyed huff.

“H-Hilda!” She stammered out. “What are you doing here?”

“Just checking in on my best friend.” Hilda shot her a wink before turning her attention to the pegasus next to Marianne. “I love what you did with his mane, by the way!”

Marianne’s eyes flitted to the locks of white hair she had been working on, only to realize that Saltlick bore a yellow bow with a citrine gem in the middle. The same bow that Hilda gave her just a few short days ago.

Much to her dismay, Hilda came to the same realization mere seconds later. “Hey, wait a sec! Is that the bow I gave you?”

Marianne casted her gaze downwards. She had an infinite number of apologies on her tongue, but none of the courage needed to say them. Instead, she stammered out intelligible noises as Hilda walked over to take a closer look.

“Huh. So it is.” Hilda brought a hand up to Saltlick’s ribbon. “But this guy wears it pretty well for being, well, a pegasus!”

Saltlick, unimpressed by Hilda’s ‘flattery’, lunged to bite her long pink pigtails. Hilda backed off just in time. Marianne was about to apologize for Saltlick’s impudence, but the smile on Hilda’s face reassured her enough to forget about it.

Unfortunately, a new set of worries cropped up as Hilda surveyed the rest of the stables and the various other accessory-wearing pegasi. Her gaze flitted from Sugarcube and her glittery pink ribbon, to Peppercorn and her fake red rose pin, to a number of other mounts, then back to Marianne, who still quivered in place. 

“Wow, Marianne. You’ve been keeping busy, haven’t you?” Hilda remarked. 

Marianne forced herself to meet Hilda’s stare, saw her bright and sunny smile, and immediately went back to cowering. “S-sorry.”

“Sorry? What are you apologizing for?

“For wasting your accessories on animals...” 

“Hey, who said this was a waste?” Hilda patted Marianne on the shoulder. “In fact, it’s actually a really good idea! Even animals deserve to look cute every now and then!”

Hilda strolled over to Peppercorn the black pegasus and stroked through her mane. Unlike her ornery stablemate, Peppercorn was all too happy to receive some attention, and nickered a soft greeting. 

“Hm, do you need some help styling the rest of the pegasi in here?” Hilda abruptly asked.

“Wh-what?” Marianne gasped in shock. Hilda rarely offered to help with anything, although she supposed that out of all the chores in Garreg Mach, she would be the most amenable to decorating pegasi manes…

“Yeah, you heard me!” Hilda nodded. “It’s not fair if only a few pegasi get to look pretty! And to be honest, I’ve been meaning to pick up a few hair tricks from you for a while. You know how much trouble I have with braids!”

That may be true, but Marianne still harbored some doubts. “I didn’t bring anymore accessories with me though…”

“That’s alright! I got plenty more in my room!” Hilda said. “And that’s another thing! This way, I get to test out some of my latest things on willing subjects! Be right back!”

Without further ado, Hilda dashed out of the stables, leaving behind a bewildered Marianne. Everything was happening so fast, she could scarcely believe that Hilda wasn’t mad at her. That she actually liked what she was doing to all the animals, and was willing to lend a hand (and a few more accessories). 

To make sure she wasn’t dreaming, Marianne gave Saltlick a pat on his snout. Saltlick breathed some hot air at her, a very pegasus-y way of saying that yes, Hilda was really doing this for her. Not that he cared, since he leaned forward to search for treats in Marianne’s pockets right afterwards.

Hilda came back in record time, with a basket overflowing with all sorts of shiny bits and baubles. Marianne, still stuck in a soupy haze of astonishment, moved slowly at first, but that was alright by Hilda. She had plenty of energy to spare for her friend. After several minutes of diligent work, that surplus vigor ended lifted Marianne out of her fog, allowing her to really focus on the task at hand. To really soak in Hilda’s warm presence and cheery smiles as she fawned over every pegasi they touched and every braid Marianne made. 

Soon enough, they finished embellishing every pegasi present with Hilda’s homemade hair accessories. The past Marianne might have been mortified to see their handiwork so obviously on display, but present Marianne… actually had fun. She was actually glad to see those specks and sparkles of colors all around them. And it was all thanks to Hilda.

“Whew! Who knew that accessorizing pegasi could be so much work!” She panted out. “And we still have a lot animals left!”

“H-huh? What do you mean?”

“Well, we have to bedazzle the horses too!” Hilda beamed at her. “And the wyverns too, if they’ll let us.”

Admittedly, the wyverns probably wouldn’t mind being accessorized as well, but Marianne held her tongue. Slightly because she didn’t know how to phrase herself, and mostly because Hilda grabbed her by the arm and dragged her outside and onwards to their next targets. 

However, she found herself strangely unbothered by Hilda’s boundless enthusiasm, nor by this new hobby of theirs. She supposed that as long as she was with her dear friend Hilda, who never got upset at her for being herself, everything was alright in the world. And for that, she couldn’t be more grateful.

Chapter Text

A brisk breeze sent dried leaves skittering across the path that Byleth and Marianne were riding on. Byleth’s horse, a large, dappled grey mare, stopped to snort at the intrusion, while Marianne’s mount, the ever-reliable Dorte, continued on nonplussed. Falling behind wasn’t so bad though, in Byleth’s opinion. This way, he only had to look up to see his beautiful wife in front of him, a tranquil, sky-blue angel wreathed by the fiery autumn splendor all around them.

It was hard to believe that this idyllic scene was really unfolding before his very eyes, when the two of them were embroiled in a bitter war not too long ago. When Byleth harbored doubts about how the gentle Marianne would fare amidst destruction and bloodshed. But to his relief, she had blossomed into a woman with a resolve as strong as her kind heart, one that pushed past her inner demons to not only bring peace to herself, but also to those around her. Including one Byleth Eisner, mercenary-turned-professor-turned-commander-turned ruler of a united Fodlan. Her grace was a boon to him during those hard times and, now that she was her husband, peaceful moments such as these, between just the two of them, were the least he could give her.

He stared at Marianne’s back for a little while longer, until she turned her head to meet his gaze. “Darling? Is something the matter?”

“Nothing of the sort.” Byleth shook his head. “I was just thinking of how beautiful you are.”

Marianne let out a soft laugh that reminded him of a ringing bell. “You flatter me, my love.”

“But it’s true.” He replied, faint laughter in his own voice.

“In that case, wouldn’t you want to come closer to admire me more?”

A corner of Byleth’s lips twitched upwards. It really amazed him how much more confident Marianne was. She had come so far since those early days, from wilting like a self-loathing wallflower to mustering enough courage to propose before he could, and now…

Byleth spurred his horse into a gentle canter to catch up with Marianne. Once he was riding alongside her, she flashed a small but sweet smile that filled his chest with a warm feeling.

“That’s much better, isn’t it?”

Not trusting himself to speak without gushing more praise, he simply nodded. The short-lived conversation gave way to a blissful silence that was only broken up by the hoofbeats of their horses and the blustery autumn wind. At the sudden chill, both Byleth and Marianne clutched their jackets tighter, but they didn’t really feel that cold. How could they, when they had each other?

Not long afterwards, a new kind of sound interrupted their lull. Byleth spotted the rustling in the undergrowth first, and placed a hand on the hilt of his sword just in case. Yet he didn’t need to, because out of the bushes limped a dirty and mangy dog.

“Oh no…!” Marianne immediately dismounted to run over to it. “You poor thing! What are you doing all the way out here, all by yourself?”

The dog whimpered in response. Marianne’s hands were already enveloped in the gentle glow of a healing spell by the time Byleth got off his horse and joined her. Or at least tried to join her, as the dog flinched and barked at his imposing figure. 

Byleth froze in place, his mouth pursed into a thin line. He was no stranger to frightened stray dags, but he still had to admit that he was dismayed by this one. Especially since it had no problem accepting aid from his dear wife.

“Shhh. There there now.” Marianne stroked the dog’s matted fur. “It’s ok. This man is my husband, and although he may look a little scary, he would never harm you.”

“You think I look scary?” Byleth raised an eyebrow.

“Well… the dog does.”

Her slight smile, partially made out of jest, alleviated any concerns he had. Still, he kept his distance until Marianne had finished healing the dog. For good measure, she also wrapped the dog with her jacket to keep it warm, raising more flags in Byleth’s mind. Wouldn’t she be cold without it? He would hate for her to become sick because of an act of mercy. It was obvious what he had to do for her, but he couldn’t do it with that dog in his way…

Her job done, Marianne stood up and returned to Byleth’s side. The furry creature in her arms seemed a lot peppier already, and didn’t balk when she presented it to him. As reassuring as that was, Byleth was nonetheless unprepared for what Marianne had to say next.

“We can’t leave this poor dog out here all by himself. We should take him back home with us.”

Byleth blinked in mute surprise. He didn’t mind dogs in their household, since they already had quite a few pets, so he supposed that he was more startled that Marianne wanted to take this particular dog home. A dog that was still unsure of him.

“I don’t disagree with you, but will the dog be alright with that?”

“I’m certain he will be happy to have a roof over his head, even if it’s one he has to share with you. Isn’t that right?”

Marianne lifted the dog up and out so it faced Byleth. He was caught off guard when, instead of emitting a sharp bark, it regarded him with a doggy smile and even wagged its tail a bit.

“See? He’s fond of you already.”

“Very well then.” Byleth sighed out, already thinking about where to put the dog and what items and food it will require. No doubt that Marianne will fall in love with this four-legged fellow during its recovery, and they will be welcoming another family member soon. Which, again, he didn’t mind, at least not this time. He just couldn’t help but wonder when their little menagerie will stop growing…

A gust of wind blew around them, fluffing up the dog’s fur and making Marianne shiver. Reminded of what he wanted to do before the dog interrupted him, Byleth took off his coat and wrapped it around Marianne and her new dog. 

“For you, Marianne.” Byleth made sure it fitted snugly over his wife’s frame. “Since your own coat is currently occupied.”

“Ah.” Marianne gasped as she grabbed Byleth’s jacket. “Thank you, darling, but won’t you be cold?”

“I’ll be fine.” Byleth nodded. “As long as I’m with you, the cold weather means nothing to me.”

To prove his point, he leaned over to kiss Marianne on the forehead. The loving gesture sent a tingle of warmth through his body, and apparently through Marianne’s as well, judging from the blush on her face.

He might’ve given her more kisses had the dog not wiggled and disturbed the moment. Even so, Byleth smiled faintly as he led Marianne and her pet back to their horses. The adoration he held for his wife may keep him eternally warm, but it would still be nice to return home as soon as possible.

Chapter Text

Back when he was a student, Claude didn’t get the hype around the sauna. If he wanted to sit around in a hot room, he would just head back to Almyra, where the desert sun mercilessly baked the land and its inhabitants. Not only that, the idea of loitering someplace with no windows, only one entrance, and a whole bunch of strangers didn’t really sound all that appealing to him. He couldn’t hide a dagger in his towels or smallclothes, nor could he easily escape from any potential assassins. Maybe he could throw a heated rock at would-be attackers, but that was besides the point. The point was...

Well, the other point was that Claude rarely ventured into the sauna during those idyllic academy days. In fact, he only went in there twice, both times at the behest of Byleth. For someone who never even heard of such a thing before coming to Garreg Mach, she enjoyed the sauna quite a lot, and often asked her students and colleagues to join her. However, she quickly realized that Claude wasn’t too keen on the sauna, so her time would be better spent with other people. 

Actually, there was also the fact that Claude outlasted everyone in the sauna by a good margin, including Teach. During those two sauna sessions with Byleth, she had to leave before Claude could really unwind, and if Teach couldn’t stick around, Claude wouldn’t either. That was probably the bigger reason why she stopped inviting him to the sauna, but it’s not like either of them could admit to it out loud.

Anyway, that was then. Now, five years later, Claude could definitely see the appeal of lounging in a hot, steamy room with no expectations or responsibilities to weigh him down. The mountain of work that came with the role of archduke, as well as the general burden of war, made him appreciate any and all ways to destress, including the once unimpressive saunas. And he was definitely going to appreciate it tonight, after partaking in a gruesome battle that claimed so many lives. 

Although using the sauna this late at night was unusual, it was the only time that afforded him the privacy he craved. When Claude was by himself, he could add as much steam as he wanted, take up all the space on the bench, and steam every worry and doubt away. All while wearing nothing but a towel around his waist, instead of the standard issued sauna clothes. 

Granted, there wasn’t any actual rule against wearing only towels while in good company, but there was something else that drove him to retreat here under the cover of night. Something that made him wary about disrobing himself around others, even friends and allies. Something like the numerous scars all over his body, the most prominent one being the giant gash on his chest, courtesy of an assassination attempt around 15 years ago.

Claude didn’t used to be so sensitive about his scars. In Almyra, scars were symbols of perseverance, of the strength and cunning required to survive. But that changed when he moved to Fodlan and became the esteemed heir to House Riegan. Suddenly, all of these scars became markings of a barbaric culture, signs of near-death that no Alliance noble should bear. Especially not the scar across his chest that almost carved his heart out. Thus, Claude had to avoid showing them off in public, lest he invited more questions than he could handle.

That was another big change from his teenage years. With the war came more wounds and injuries, and not all of them healed up flawlessly. These new scars, however, were seen as badges of honor, of a great leader that didn’t hesitate to throw himself into battle alongside his soldiers. This should’ve been a good thing, yet Claude continued to hide himself away unless he couldn’t. He supposed that old habits died hard, even after all these years. 

Back in the sanctity of the sauna, Claude ran his fingers over his scars, both new and old. There were definitely more than expected of an archer, and of a warrior his age, and he was still accumulating them. His hand brushed against a laceration on his side, inflicted by a stray javelin from today’s battle. It may have healed up well, thanks to Marianne’s efforts, but that proof of his close encounter would remain with him for quite some time. Perhaps, hopefully, long after the war’s end, if only because that meant the war won’t actually last for much longer.

He allowed his hand to fall away. Just because it was easy to think about his scars when they were visible to the whole world doesn’t mean he should. Claude needed to relax, destress, relieve himself of his negative emotions so he could face the next problem with a clear head. Sighing, he leaned back and splayed his arms out on the bench behind him. Relax, destress, forget about all of his traumas, past and present…

Only a few seconds after he closed his eyes, a sound at the sauna’s entrance opened them back up. In walked Byleth, wearing a towel around her chest and an expression of dull surprise on her face. If Claude wasn’t so dead tired from the earlier skirmish, he might’ve asked her what she was doing here at this time of night. If his exhausted body hadn’t already melted into his bench, he would’ve scrambled to cover himself up more. Instead, he just stared at Byleth, who stared back at him. A few seconds of wordless eye contact passed, then she nodded, strolled over, and sat down next to Claude.

It was strange how he didn’t mind her presence at all, but if there was anyone that he could be comfortable around, it would be Teach. No one else made him feel so wanted, so trusted, so believed in. And the fact that she didn’t comment about his appearance, that she allowed him this moment of undisturbed tranquility, proved him right. 

Although that didn’t mean she wasn’t curious about him at all. He barely felt her lingering gazes at first, but as time passed, she became less and less subtle, until her probing glances felt like jabs against his skin. Claude perked back up to look at her, and chuckled when she averted her eyes.

“Am I really that interesting, Teach?”

He didn’t know whether Byleth blushed because of the steamy sauna or because of his joking question, but he was willing to bet on the latter. It took a while for her to meet his gaze again, although when she did, her face and voice were surprisingly soft for the Ashen Demon.

“You have a lot of scars.”

His heart skipped a beat. For a dreadful moment, he thought that he thought of her wrong, that she was going to judge him too. But no. She looked at him with understanding and a hint of sympathy, a potent yet gentle cocktail that loosened his tongue.

“Yeah, I do.” Claude admitted. “And I bet you’re wondering where I got them from?”

Again, Byleth didn’t respond anyway. Her vibrant green gaze simply wandered all over Claude’s body, from the stab wound on his shoulder he got when he was 14, to the acid burn on his back from when he was 11, and to the unmistakable kiss from a sword, acquired at the tender age of 8...

“They’re not all from the war, are they?” She finally asked.

Claude shook his head, the fear that gripped his heart taking on a different feeling. “Most of them are from before I came to Fodlan, believe it or not. So don’t worry, there was no way you could’ve prevented them.”

He flashed a smile for good measure. Byleth didn’t seem nearly as assuaged by that as he would’ve liked. Her mouth pursed into a thing line as she lowered her chin, to soak in that wound from the javelin.

“I could have prevented that one.”

“No. You couldn’t have.” Claude shook his head again, this time more fervently. “You were on the other side of the battlefield at the time, and believe me, the other guy got off worse than I did.”

Still not yet satisfied, Byleth gestured to some other scars he garnered from the past few years. “And those?” 

“My friend, please.” Claude said, almost as a plea. “Don’t fret over them. We all have our role to play, and I won’t let my friends get hurt just to preserve my beauty. Besides, it’ll take more than a few scars to ruin my roguishly handsome looks.”

He winked at her to drive his point home, even though he himself was worried about Byleth. He couldn’t let her anguish over old wounds she had no way of stopping. He couldn’t let her agonize over her five-year-long nap, over how Claude was forced to fill big shoes while she wasn’t around. The sauna was a place to relax, after all, and he would be damned if he let her break this unspoken rule.

Fortunately, his efforts succeeded. Byleth let out a thoughtful hum as she leaned back, and inadvertently a little closer to Claude.

“How about the one on your chest, then?” She murmured while holding onto her towel. “Were you also born with it?”

“Huh? No.” Claude squinted in her general direction. “But, wait, are you saying you were born with something like this?”

Claude fully expected her to nod or to say yes or to something of that effect. He did not expect her to slide her towel lower in order to flaunt her naked chest. It was a good thing that he was so utterly drained of energy, and that war sometimes necessitated a lack of modesty among genders. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to notice the faint silvery line in between her breasts. A very old scar, created not by assassins or soldiers or by unfortunate accidents, but by…

“Teach, that’s a surgical incision.” He gasped out loud. 

Everything made a lot more sense now. Jeralt’s diary said that Byleth didn’t cry as a baby, and he had assumed that Rhea was the culprit behind her lack of emotions. So this also had to mean that Rhea was also the culprit behind her scar, one placed directly over her non-beating heart…

“Is it?” Byleth instinctively touched her scar.

“Yeah. You didn’t realize?”

“Not… really.” She mumbled. “I thought that it was the same as yours.”

“Yeah. No. It’s not the same.” An airy laugh escaped Claude’s throat. “I got mine from assassins, some 10 years ago.”

Byleth’s mouth formed a small ‘o’ shape as her hand dropped to her side. While Claude studied that precise cut on her chest, he also glimpsed several other scars around it. All over her body, actually. There were several jagged lines that must have come from a blade of some sort, a bunch of different magical burns, a puncture wound from an arrow she once took in Marianne’s stead…

It didn’t really surprise Claude that a mercenary would have so many scars. In fact, it would probably surprise him more if she didn’t. Yet this discovery put him at ease anyway. Such sights that would be revered in Almyra and reviled in the upper echelons of Fodlan’s society brought him a deeper, more meaningful sense of solace than tonight’s session in the sauna.

“But you know, maybe we are the same after all.” Claude tacked a smile back on his face. “Just a pair of scarred friends that’ll take the world by storm. And, for what it’s worth, look great doing so.”

His second wink made her blush again, but this time, her fluster was accompanied by a small smile. Good. That was exactly what he wanted to see from Byleth. Reassured at last, the beautiful, scar-ridden woman beside him brought her towel back over her chest and fell into a comfortable silence once more.

Honestly, Claude wouldn’t have minded if the two of them stayed like this for the rest of the night. But even a heat-lover like him couldn’t withstand the sauna forever, much less someone born and raised in Fodlan’s cooler climate. Not long after their conversation gave way to a peaceful lull, Claude got the feeling that things were, perhaps, too peaceful, and a glance in Byleth’s direction confirmed his suspicions. The normally pale skinned person was now as red as a tomato, with half-lidded eyes and an obvious look of stupor.

“My friend, you’re burning up!” He grabbed Byleth by the arms and helped her onto her feet.

“Just a few more minutes… with you...” Byleth whispered out. For some unfathomable reason, she resisted Claude’s efforts to carry her out of the sauna.

Actually, her reasons weren’t that incomprensible, but just because she wanted to outlast Claude for a change didn’t mean he had to play along. “Come on, Teach.” He mumbled, voice breathy from exertion. “Don’t burn yourself for my sake. There’ll be plenty more sauna time with me in the future, I promise.”

To his relief, Byleth eventually acquiesced by becoming limp in his arms. As the two of them made their way out, Claude was so focused on their unusual way to end the night, he failed to notice that he promised Byleth more time in the saunas together. Not that he would have objected if he did realize that, though...

Chapter Text

The combined light of Claude’s torch and Byleth’s spell made the Almyran Royal Crypt less dark, but not any less foreboding. 

How long had it been since he last ventured down here? At least 20 long years, during which he attended a prestigious school, fought in a war, ascended Almyra’s throne, and married the love of his life. Yet, here he was, still timid of the shadows shifting around him, the sand that trickled through cracks in the ceilings, and the strange sounds in faraway corridors. His heightened anxiety led him to ponder if all this effort to obtain a family heirloom was really worth it, but they already made it this far. They might as well finish what they started, even if it meant enduring a new bout of dread with every step he took.

What was the point of becoming the King of Unification if he couldn’t face his childhood fears? That was a question he found himself asking the further they ventured into these desolate catacombs, even though he already knew the answer to it. The point was this time, he had Byleth by his side. The other Ruler of Dawn, an uncanny swordswoman, and, currently, another source of his nagging doubts.

“Claude, are you sure that we’re going the right way?” Byleth waved the fireball hovering over her hands to gesture at their surroundings. Which looked very much like the surroundings they passed through mere moments ago.

“Positively sure.” Claude said, mustering as much bravado as he could. “My stubby child legs could only take me so far.”

Byleth let out a sigh that echoed off the stone walls, making it sound eerier than it actually was. “I still can’t believe you used to play in an underground crypt when you were younger. Didn’t your parents provide you with enough entertainment?”

“Oh, they did.” He cracked a tenuous smile. “But none of that could compare to the thrill of exploring the ancient burial sites of your ancestors. Plus, there’s no other humans to torment you down here, except for maybe dead ones. Whenever I needed a break from the aboveground world, I could always come here to get away from it all.”

In the orange glow of twin fires, he spotted a sympathetic look on Byleth’s face. He should have expected as much since, yeah, no amount of levity could make his miserable childhood seem any better. Nonetheless, he couldn’t help but wonder if his facade was slipping…

“Aha! Here we are!” Claude, grateful for a distraction, crowed triumphantly as they arrived at a set of grand doors. They may look like normal stone slabs at first, but upon closer inspection, he could see faint Almyran script carved into their surface, as well as the mechanisms behind its lock. 

He handed Byleth his torch to get to work. Even though it had been two decades since he last finangled with them, his hands remembered the delicate motions required to open the doors. Seconds later,  the entrance to their destination groaned loudly as it swung open, blasting the pair of adventurers with a stale and musty draft of air.

Claude glanced backwards to gauge Byleth’s reaction. She seemed… vaguely impressed, underneath her usual stoicism. Which was good enough. He’ll take it.

The room behind such elaborate locked doors certainly looked like it warranted the security. Claude’s torch, now back in his hands, illuminated a row of grand coffins, each one decorated with intricate paintings that depicted significant events of their life. Surrounding the final resting place of his ancestors were equally splendid treasures such as gilded weapons, fancy headdresses, archaic musical instruments, jewelry and gemstones that sparkled in the firelight… And of course, he would be a fool to overlook the mountain of coins, glistening like golden fish scales.

“So what are we looking for?” Byleth’s voice snapped him out of his gold-induced trance.

“Ah. Uh, it should be right over here.”

Claude stepped over the bounty of treasures to step closer to the tombs, then walked right past them. He could feel Byleth staring after him in confusion as he made his way over to the back of the room. Beyond all the riches, and tucked in an inconspicuous corner, laid what he sought after. He placed his torch in a brazier, bent down to pick it up, then whirled around to face Byleth, who had joined him.

Her verdant eyes scrutinized the small jade wyvern figurine in his hand. Claude honestly couldn’t blame her for feeling so baffled. Although this rich green statuette was hefty enough to fetch a good price at the market, it paled in comparison to basically everything else in this room. Yet he was certain that this little wyvern was what he came here for, with its carved scales worn smooth by incessant handling, glimmering eyes made of rubies, and little nicks and scratches from being dropped one too many times.

“What is this?” Byleth asked, eyebrows furrowed. “Does it have any magic powers?”

“Nope.” Claude shook his head. “It’s just a toy that I dropped here a long time ago.”

Tense silence filled the air. Claude hadn’t told Byleth what they were looking for, in fear of this very moment. Truthfully, it was a family heirloom, having been passed from royal parent to child for generations. It just wasn’t the kind of family heirloom that could cleave mountains in two or make stars fall from the sky, like he might’ve implied.

When Byleth broke the silence, it was with a terse voice. “A toy. We came all this way for a toy.”

“To be fair, it is very precious to me, and I was heartbroken when I lost it.” Claude let out a nervous laugh. “Would you have followed me down here if I told you what we were seeking?”

Byleth folded her arms over her chest, face inscrutable. “I would’ve appreciated some forewarning, at least. And not being strung along like a puppet.”

“Sorry about that.” He sheepishly rubbed the back of his head. “Old habits die hard, I guess. But hey, while we’re down here, you can help yourself to your own family heirloom.”

Byleth took a moment to glance backwards, at all the treasure, then returned to Claude. “Is that really ok? They’re not haunted, are they?”

Claude shot her a quizzical look. He never pegged her as the superstitious type, but he supposed that she would have some concerns in a crypt. His gaze drifted to the rest of the room and all of its golden splendor.

“Can’t guarantee that they’ll be ghost free, but I’m sure that these guys won’t mind lending a weapon or two. You are their great-great-and-etc granddaughter, for better or for-”

A shift in the shadows made his tongue freeze in place. Behind Byleth, in the dark entranceway of the tomb, slithered an impossibly large figure. As it slowly made its way inside, the nearby flames casted an orange glow over its serpentine body, slick with slime and colorless from a lifetime underground. Claude’s own skin grew clammy at the sight of the giant crawler, the Almyran Royal Crypt’s loathsome guardian and his worst childhood nightmare made flesh.

And now it was in the same room as them. Did all their arguing bring it here? He swallowed, an attempt to calm his nerves. Neither of them could make any sudden movements or loud noises, lest they attracted its attention. Lest they incurred its wrath, and its acidic breath that Claude could still feel on his back, even after all these years-

Byleth, sensing Claude’s sudden fear, whirled around. Her face also paled when she spotted the creature, but she wasn’t as afraid as Claude. Rather, she extinguished her fire spell to grab at her sword’s hilt, preparing to slice into the monstrous worm.

Claude couldn’t let her do that. Although it was a horrific thing, it was still the esteemed protector of his ancestors’ remains. The golden piercing behind its ‘eyes’ indicated as such. Plus, they were intruding on its territory, not the other way around. As much as Claude hated this thing, he couldn’t find it within his heart to kill it. It would be better to just leave it alone and hope it went away by itself. Admittedly, at this point, he didn’t have much in his heart besides utter dread, but…

When he tried to tell Byleth all of this, his words came out as a strained garble. Both Byleth and the giant crawler turned towards Claude. The former moved like she was going to turn back around to attack the latter, but he managed to stop her in time with a shake of his head. Thankfully, she understood his wordless plea, and let her hand fall away from her sword.

The giant crawler was still here though. Still snaked around piles of treasure and through the sea of coins to approach the tomb’s intruders. Noxious saliva dribbled from its ghastly, teethed flaps of skin it called a mouth, burning holes in stone tiles and gold alike. Even though Claude pressed himself against the wall in an effort to make himself invisible to the beast, he was sure that his racing heart was loud enough to reveal his location. In an effort to calm himself, he closed his eyes shut and took deep breaths, but he remained acutely aware of the monster’s slithering, the hissing of acid, every instinct telling him to scream and run…

Gods, he can’t do this- please, just go away- go away go away go away-

Hands on the sides of his face made his eyes snap open. He found himself staring into Byleth’s soft green eyes that seemed to glow in the dark. Only for his attention to wander when the giant crawler came dangerously close.

His body shivered uncontrollably. Sweat beaded on the brow of his forehead. Ragged breaths, one step away from screams, escaped his throat. At his panic, Byleth leaned forward, her chest against his, legs intertwined, and her hands holding onto him even tighter. The warm, comforting presence of his beloved wife prompted him to meet her gaze once more. To get lost in those two vibrant pools of jade green, to block out the horrible giant crawler from his peripheral vision.

Byleth mouthed something. Claude vaguely recalled nodding before she pinned him against the wall and planted a kiss on his lips. Closing his eyes, all of his fears melted away as he kissed her back. So lost they were in their embrace, Claude didn’t notice the giant crawler slithering by, mere inches from their legs.

When she peeled away from him to breathe, the monster was gone. All that remained was just Claude, Byleth, and his jade wyvern. Not wanting to risk a second encounter, Claude grabbed Byleth by the arm and yanked on it.

“Come on! Let’s get the hell out of here!”

 


 

They made it out of the catacombs in record time. As soon as they emerged in the afternoon sun, Claude immediately collapsed against a wall and heaved out labored breaths.

“Claude? Are you alright?” Byleth asked as she took a seat next to him.

“I’m… fine…” He said in between pants. 

To her credit, Byleth didn’t say anything else. She just wrapped a gentle yet affectionate arm around his shoulders, calming him down enough to let him speak full sentences. Gods, he really was lucky to be married to someone like her. He honestly didn’t know what he would do without Byleth, whether he was stuck in an underground tomb or on the golden throne of Almyra.

“Why did you do it?” She inquired once he had recovered. “Why did you go back for your toy if you were so scared?”

“Well, I just really wanted it back.” Claude shrugged, a half-cocked smile on his face. “I never stopped thinking about it, you know. Also, I wasn’t that scared.”

Byleth raised an eyebrow. There was no fooling her, although Claude should know better than to joke about it after how he acted down there. Sighing, he draped his free arm around Byleth while he rotated his jade wyvern in his other hand.

“And… I guess I was recently thinking about how nice it would be to pass something down to our kids. This jade wyvern is a family heirloom, even if it isn't as impressive as a Hero’s Relic or an entire kingdom. And now it’s going to come with one hell of a story.”

A pause, as he stopped to consider something. “ If we have kids, of course.”

“When.”

Claude shot an incredulous look at her correction. She couldn’t be suggesting what he was thinking, could she?! At his bewilderment, Byleth let out a huff that vaguely sounded like laughter.

“I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that I… wouldn’t mind having kids. With you.”

Even though he was proven wrong, a blush blazed across Claude’s face regardless. Which was instantly extinguished by a playful tug on his ear.

“But first, you have to stop dragging us into dangerous situations. We can’t have kids if we’re dead.”

“Says the woman whose idea of a date is fighting bandits.” 

Byleth’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Care to repeat that?”

“You know what I said.” Claude brought a hand up to her hair to stroke through it. “And you still love me anyway.”

“You’re insufferable, Khalid.”

“Oooh, using my real name now? Looks like things just got serious.”

“When was I ever not serious about loving you?”

Before Claude could respond, Byleth flipped around to sit on his lap and pin him to the wall again. Even though her brazeness took him by surprise, he managed to muster a silly grin as their lips met for the second time today, and as he got lost in the infinite depths of their love once more.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, being a goddess of Fodlan was an utter chore

The man before Sothis had been prattling about some inane problem for hours now. Although she looked like she was still paying attention to him, with vague nods and the occasional remarks here and there, she had actually zoned out a while ago. Mostly because it was well within her power to fix this matter with a snap of her fingers.

Not that she should , however. Sothis learned the hard way not to give humans everything they asked for so easily, lest they incur more misfortune upon themselves. Instead, she had to wait until this man finished speaking, then give him some sagely advice or a small blessing so he could solve his own issues with his own two hands. Which, as she said, was a complete and utter chore, but it had to be done…

… Or a missile-like object could smash through the ceiling of her temple, scaring the wits out of the man and coating the once-immaculate floor with dust and debris. The pile of rubble stayed motionless for a moment. Then, once the cloud of dust settled down, out popped the head of a young silver-colored dragon, horns still nubs from her immaturity. 

The human stammered out gibberish in his bewilderment, but the dragon paid him no heed. Her green eyes turned to Sothis instead, who wore a remarkable look of calm for having been so rudely interrupted. Nonetheless, the dragon let out a croak and retreated back into the wreckage, as if she could pretend she wasn’t here by hiding herself.

An amused sigh escaped Sothis’s lips. Being a mother may be more difficult than being a goddess, but at least it was never dull.

Sothis stood up from her throne and turned towards the man she was talking to. “Good sir, my daughter and I require some privacy. May we continue our discussion at a later date?”

“Y-yes! Of course!” The man bowed his head so low, she was surprised it didn’t touch the ground. Once he scurried off posthaste, all that remained in the chambers was the goddess and her troublesome child.

Her luxurious robes swept around her legs as Sothis descended down the stairs to meet the dragon. She was still hiding inside the rubble, so Sothis had to move some rocks aside to find her. In the dark hole she created, a pair of emerald eyes peered back at her, apparently reluctant to emerge and face her mother’s judgement.

“Dear Seiros, are you well?” Sothis offered her a hand. “I am not mad at you. I simply wish to see if you are unharmed.”

A pause. Those green eyes blinked, then, out of hole, extended a young girl’s hand. The rest of Seiros soon followed, now in her humanoid form instead of her draconic form, although she was just as dirty and dust-ridden as before.

Her somber expression, on the verge of tears, prompted Sothis to comb through her long hair and brushed some stony flakes off of her clothes. “There, there now. Everything will be alright.”

“B-but I destroyed your ceiling and made a mess…” Seiros replied, voice atremble.

“Hm? You mean this thing?”

Sothis smiled as magic wreathed her hands and the chunks of jagged marble on the floor. In no time at all, the rubble flew back up and filled the hole in the ceiling. The green glow of her divine power sealed the cracks that the once-broken surface, then dissipated, leaving behind no trace of the earlier damage.

“See? No harm, no foul.”

Sothis widened her smile as reassurance, but Seiros still seemed down in spirits. There must be something else eating away at her daughter, probably the same reason why she crash-landed in Sothis’s temple in the first place. Such doubts could not be as easily magicked away like a broken ceiling, but Sothis had other ways of handling problems that burdened the soul.

Kneeling down to meet Seiros at eye level, Sothis said, “What troubles you, my child? Please, I wish to hear what ails you.”

Seiros sniffled a bit. “Macuil was making fun of me again… He said that since my Crest doesn’t do anything yet, you’re not really my mother… ”

Sothis’s heart fell at such a baseless accusation. Macuil, one of her eldest sons, had a bad habit of sharpening his tongue on his siblings, and didn’t quite grasp the ramifications of his words yet. She would need to reprimand him again, but now was not the time for that. Right now, the teary daughter in front of her was her main priority.

“Sweet Seiros, who do you believe? Your foolish brother, or me?” Sothis pulled Seiros closer to kiss her forehead. “You are a Nabatean, and my daughter, regardless if you have fully grown into your Crest.”

Seiros’s expression softened somewhat, but she still seemed quite anxious. “But what if I never grow into my Crest? What if I’m never as strong as Indie or as fast as Macuil? W-what if I’m stuck like forever?”

She burst into tears, a wretched sound that broke Sothis’s heart. Her skinny arms wrapped themselves around Sothis and clung to her with every ounce of strength they could muster. Sothis remained in place to allow Seiros to cry as much as she wanted to, murmuring soothing sounds and stroking her hair, and didn’t move until her sobs died down to sniffling and quiet, ragged breaths.

“Dear daughter, do you want to come to the garden with me?” Sothis inquired once the time was rest. “I wish to show you something.”

Seiros wiped some streaks of moisture off of her face. She seemed confused about what Sothis could possibly be proposing, but that just meant she was all too eager to agree.

 


 

Sothis’s garden was a veritable paradise, as expected of something so deeply cared for by the goddess.

Nestled in a secluded recess of Zanado, rich green leaves, vines, and grass blanketed every inch of the canyon’s stony visage. Delicate, sweet-smelling flowers were interspersed among the sea of green like colorful gemstones. Butterflies and small birds flitted among the foliage, adding some movement to the otherwise tranquil scenery. In one corner, a wondrously blue pond bubbled with an underwater current. Beside it was a large stone, just the right size and shape for sitting, and it was here that Sothis and Seiros settled down.

“Look over here, Seiros.” Sothis touched a nearby cluster of white lilies, most of which were still buds. “Aren’t these flowers beautiful?”

Seiros frowned. “They haven’t opened yet.”

“But they’re still so very precious.” Sothis ran a finger along their elongated buds, then over their leaves. “Their petals are soft and fragrant, even in this state, and their leaves stretch out with pride as they reach towards the sun. Once they blossom, these lilies will become even more beautiful, just like a little Nabatean I know.”

Sothis returned her attention to Serios, whose frown had lessened somewhat. Pleased that her daughter was hanging onto her every word, she turned her gaze to the pond next, where numerous black squiggles swam under its surface.

“And look at these frogs! Aren’t they adorable?”

“Those aren’t frogs.” Seiros grumbled. “They’re tadpoles.”

“But tadpoles are frogs.” Sothis flashed a knowing smile. “You would not deny them of their heritage just because they have a tail instead of legs, and breath water instead of air, would you?”

Seiros’s pout fell away at last, although her expression was still passive, clearly deep in thought.  Her point made, Sothis reached over to hold onto Seiros again.

“This garden, life itself , is full of things that grow, like the lily buds and the young frogs. You do not begrudge them for taking their time, so why should you begrudge yourself? Especially since you bear the Crest of the skies and heavens, a domain that holds even greater power than your siblings. It would be remiss of me to force you into your role when you cannot handle it, wouldn’t it be?”

She pulled Seiros into another hug, where she felt light movement from her nods. Sothis proceeded to smother her with more loving caresses, lulling the girl in her arms into a perfectly relaxed state.

“You are wonderful as you are. And someday, you will grow into the power I have given you and lead the world to a bright future. I know this, as your mother, and from the very depths of my heart. So will you believe in yourself like I believe in you, dear daughter of mine?”

Another nod from the young Seiros. “I will. Thank you, mother...”

“That’s a good girl.” Sothis cooed. “Now, would you like to stay with me here for a little longer? I could use a break from my administrative duties. In fact, I think I’m in the mood for a song, if you care to listen.”

Seiros nodded yet again, this time wordlessly. Having received her approval, Sothis conjured a harp from thin air and plucked a lilting tune on its strings. As the crystal-clear tones filled the garden, the goddess of Fodlan’s melodious voice joined in on the song, elevating it to heights unattainable by mere mortals.

“In time’s flow, see the glow

Of flames ever burning bright.

On the swift river’s drift,

Broken memories alight.”

Next to her, Seiros mouthed the lyrics of the familiar lullaby she heard so many times before. With each verse, her head bobbed and her eyes fluttered, until she could no longer resist the alluring call of sleep. She let out a yawn, then slumped over in Sothis’s lap. The harp’s melody paused as Sothis used a hand to stroke green tresses of the slumbering girl, yet the Song of the Nabateans continued to spill forth from her lips and resonate throughout the garden.

“I love you, dear daughter.” Sothis whispered as soon as she finished singing. “Please, be at peace.”

Her fingers brushed the pointed tips of Seiros’s ears as she pulled some hair back. While the young Nabatean snoozed, hopefully dreaming of the promised future, Sothis leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

 


 

The sonorous song from the ancient past still echoed in Byleth’s ears as she roused from her sleep. 

She had been having more dreams about Sothis ever since she became pregnant. At first, she dismissed them as coincidences, but as the moons passed and her baby grew, she couldn’t help but wonder if they were real visions. If some vestige of Sothis remained inside of her, and her impending motherhood awakened these long dormant memories. Or perhaps, more miraculously, the progenitor god was trying to send her a message…

The body beside her shifted and yawned. Byleth felt a warm and hairy arm reach around her chest, which she instinctively clung to as if it were a plush toy.

“Good morning, dear.” Claude mumbled out in a sleepy manner. His hand then moved down to her swollen belly, firm to the touch and heavy with child. “And good morning, little dear. Did you both sleep well?”

Byleth, still pondering over the meaning of her dreams, had no reply for him at first. The awkward pause gave Claude a cause to alarm. He wrapped his second arm around her to pull her into a protective embrace.

“Byleth? Are you alright?”

She let out a tired groan as she flipped onto her other side to face Claude. His furrowed eyebrows and concerned frown was not a pleasant sight to see so early in the morning, so she had no choice but to speak her mind.

“I’m fine. I just had another dream about Sothis.”

“What did she do this time?”

A hush fell over the room as Byleth tried to piece together the fragments of her dream. This one was more vivid than usual, so she had no trouble explaining it to Claude. 

“She was comforting one of her daughters who hadn’t grown into her powers yet. Rhea, I believe. Sothis took her to her garden, talked about some flowers and tadpoles and how she needed to believe in herself, and lulled her to sleep in her lap with a song.”

Claude’s eyebrows knitted together even more, this time out of confusion. “Rhea, huh? I hope that these dreams aren’t signs that what she did to you is affecting the baby.”

“I don’t think they are.” Byleth shook her head. “Although…”

Her fingers started playing with Claude’s hands as she mulled over what to say next. “They made me realize that... Sothis really was a kind mother back then. She was so compassionate, so patient. She even managed to take care of all of the Nabateans while carrying out her duties as the goddess of Fodlan. While I… I don’t know if I can live up to that.”

She brought one hand to her abdomen, as an apology of sorts to her child. Leading a class of students was hard enough. Leading an army through war, then a newborn nation, proved to be even more difficult. Now she was to raise hers and Claude’s child? How could she be a good mother when she still struggled with expressing emotions and articulating herself? 

Claude gave her other hand a reassuring squeeze as he scooched closer. “Byleth, my love, you’re going to do perfectly fine. You can’t compare yourself to a goddess, after all.”

“But I have the powers of a goddess.” Byleth refuted.

“But you aren’t Sothis .” Claude countered back. “You’re Byleth Eisner Al-Mirah. Queen of Fodlan and Almyra, a kickass warrior, the love of my life, and soon to be the best mother the world has ever known. I know this, from the very bottom of my heart.”

To punctuate his decisive statement, he leaned in to give her a quick peck on the lips. In place of her inert heart, Byleth felt their child fluttering within her. The way he phrased himself harkened back to something Sothis said. Maybe…

“Mmm. Maybe that’s what the dream was about.” She murmured. “Sothis wasn’t trying to put me down. She was telling me that I will grow into this, like how Rhea would grow into her power. All I have to do is be patient and believe in myself. And to have a loving husband.”

On that note, she returned his earlier kiss. The gesture painted Claude’s cheeks a rosy hue. For all of his sweet talk, he was still so easy to fluster, even after all their years together.

“Well it’s easy to be a good husband with a wife like you.” He said, voice ladened with adoration. “So what do you say? Shall we tackle this together?”

Byleth had no need for words. Just a hum of agreement. Claude flashed a bright smile as he straightened himself out, then helped Byleth sit up. She would’ve gotten dressed alongside him to prepare for their day ahead, but a stray thought made her stay in bed for a bit longer.

“Say, Claude?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I kind of want to learn how to play the harp.” Byleth replied, much to Claude’s surprise. “I think… our baby would like that.”

She rested her hands on her belly and felt their child kick in apparent approval. Claude stared at the two of them, the gears obviously turning in his head, but he never once looked like he wanted to turn her down.

“A harp sounds lovely.” He eventually responded. “Let’s see if I can scrounge one up for you and the baby...”

Chapter Text

The setting sun painted the snow-covered peaks of Mount Kur a crimson hue, reminiscent of blood. Byleth might’ve considered that an ill omen of what was to come, but she refused to be intimidated by a mere mountain, even if it was one of the tallest mountains in Fodlan’s Throat. Nor would she be frightened by the entrance to a cavern before her, yawning and pitch black and devoid of any hints towards its contents. Her mind was instead occupied by her husband and three children preparing for the trip ahead.

“Does everyone have their masks?” Claude asked while tugging on the band of his mask. It was as elegant as it was fearsome; a stark black and demonically-shaped thing, adorned with golden markings and a crown of antlers.

Byleth nodded as she slipped her own mask onto her face, transforming her pretty face into a visage even more demonic than Claude’s, ashen grey and stoic like her old persona. Their children chimed a chorus of agreement before following her lead. Safiyah, the oldest of the trio, donned a green wyvern-esque mask with a third eye on its forehead, while Darius and Altair, twin brothers, put on masks that resembled a skull and a knight’s helmet respectively.

“And we all have our torches?” Byleth inquired, voice muffled by her mask. “Weapons? Food and water? Flares in case we get lost?”

Although Safiyah responded by touching the hilt of her sword, Darius let out a scoff. “We aren’t going to get lost. I memorized the route of the Demon’s Pilgrimage like the back of my hand.”

“Oh yeah?” Claude shot a smirk his way. “From which book?”

Darius fell silent, keenly aware of the trap presented by his father. From what Claude told Byleth, no one in Almyra had embarked on the dangerous Demon’s Pilgrimage in generations, so any book about that topic would be obviously outdated. Especially since the current rulers of Almyra made some changes to tonight’s ritual to better reflect the modern era they lived in.

Despite knowing this, Darius still quipped back. “Well, it’s not like you or Mama have ever done this before either.”

“But Mama and Baba have also won a war and reconciled entire nations.” Claude’s smirk grew wider. “A quick hike through the mountains is nothing for a pair of heroes like us. Unless you still think you can do better…?”

“Yes.” Darius replied without hesitation.

“Ha!” Claude laughed as he patted his son’s shoulders. “Keep up that attitude and you’ll have no trouble making it through the Pilgrimage!”

Byleth wondered if Darius’s lip really counted as courage, but she supposed she couldn’t complain about it. A sassy tongue would serve him better than a screaming one for tonight.

Besides, his twin brother, Altair, barged in with his unsolicited opinion anyway. “Heh, not that Darius will last very long anyway. He’s going to run off at the first sign of a monster!”

“Will not!” Darius rebutted as he reached a hand into his pockets. “I-I’m not a baby anymore! I can fight as well as you guys!”

“Yeah, and that’s why you still carry your wyvern toy everywhere.” Altair smirked.

“It’s not a wyvern toy, it’s my lucky charm!”

“Uh-huh. whatever you say.”

“Altair, don’t pick on your brother. As long as his magic is up to par, he can bring whatever he wants.” Byleth stated. Although her authoritative voice quelled the argument before it got worse, their bickering did draw her attention to an important matter. Or rather, to Altair’s bare hip.

“But where is your weapon?”

“Eh?” A flicker of alarm crossed his face as Altair glanced down, then vanished under a broad grin and a pump of his fist in the air. “I don’t need it! I’ll beat up anything we come across with my bare hands!”

Darius stared at his brother, obviously unimpressed. “So… You lost your axe again.”

“No! Like I said, I-”

“Should we go back for it?” Safiyah ignored Altair’s ravings to turn back to her parents.

Byleth watched Claude inhale as he glanced up at the sky, obviously thinking the same thing as her. By now, the sun had almost disappeared below the horizon, leaving the five of them in the shadow of the looming mountain. This pilgrimage was already dangerous enough with a 15-year old and two 13-year olds in tow. It wouldn’t do to make it any longer as well.

Moments later, Claude lowered his head and shook it. “Nah. We can’t waste anymore time tonight. So, Altair, you better be holding Darius’s hand at all times. No punching!”

“What? Why?!” Altair pouted. “I can totally take on some demons!”

“I don’t doubt it, but Mama only allowed me to bring you if you were completely safe.” 

Claude gave Byleth a side-long glance, to which she responded with a half-lidded gaze. Just because she gave him that stipulation didn’t mean he could pin the blame entirely on her.

Still, she could use the sudden shift in focus to her advantage. Sticking out an arm towards Altair, she said, “If you don’t want to hold Darius’s hand, you can hold mine.”

To his credit, Altair actually regarded it for a few seconds. Then he twisted his face in disgust and leaned closer to his twin brother, something that Byleth expected but nonetheless was a bit wounded by. Kids grew out of the hand-holding phase too quickly, in her opinion.

“Alright!” Claude laughed as he twirled his mask in his hands. “It looks like we’re as ready as we’ll ever be, so let’s go! We don’t want to be late!”

“Late for what?” Safiyah blinked in confusion.

Claude didn’t reply back immediately, opting to instead slip his mask on. With that simple gesture, the king of Almyra was no more. Standing in his place was a grotesque and vaguely deer-like creature, with antlers pointing towards the evening sky and a sly finger over his lips.

“We don’t want to be late to see the demons, of course.”

 


 

With Claude in the lead, the children trailing right behind him, and Byleth in the rear, the royal family of Almyra began their descent into Mount Kur’s belly.

Even with their combination of torches and fire magic, they could barely see anything around them. However, what they did see wasn’t comforting in the slightest. Jagged stalagmites and stalactites jutted out of the ceiling and floor like razor-sharp teeth. Hot geysers occasionally gushed through cracks in the rock, sometimes a bit too close for comfort. And as Byleth turned a corner, she spotted some bones on the ground, too worn out to determine if they once belonged to man or beast.

It was no wonder that Mount Kur was also known as the Demon’s Domain in the Almyran tongue. Or the Dragon’s Lair. Or the Gate to the Underworld. No matter the nickname, its hellish landscape, as well as the strange sounds and shifting shadows all around them, put Byleth on edge. This was definitely worse than the time Claude took her through the Almyran Royal Crypt, and those tombs were guarded by a giant, acid-spewing worm. If she had to guess as to why that was, it would be because she now had three children to protect, as well as her husband. They may be well-trained for their age, but Byleth knew better than to be assuaged by that alone. It only took one slip-up, one instance of misfortune, for things to go from bad to worse, and if anything should happen to Safiyah, Darius, or Altair-

Why did she agree to this in the first place? Byleth stared at the back of Claude’s head to find her answer. He may seem worry-free, with the speed he trekked at, but she could tell that he was anxious too. He gripped his torch as if it were his only lifeline, his body was tense as he trudged forth, and, most tellingly, he didn’t utter a single word.

Byleth supposed it was up to her to ease the atmosphere, because Claude certainly wasn’t going to show his unease in front of the kids. She shot a quick look behind her before piping up.

“Claude, do you mind telling us the story of the Demon’s Pilgrimage?”

“Ugh, don’t you already know it, Mama?” Darius rolled his eyes so visibly, Byleth saw it through his mask. 

“Yeah! Now Baba’s going to talk our ears off!” Altair added.

“I’m right here, you know.” Claude interjected.

“Is that so bad?” Byleth glanced down at her sons. “And even if we do know the story, it’s worth repeating while we’re on it.”

Claude turned his head to presumably flash her a smile that she couldn’t see. “Couldn’t have said it better myself. Besides, this pilgrimage is rather dull for being, well, a Demon’s Pilgrimage. Not that I don’t mind the peace and quiet though...”

Footsteps on stone filled in the brief lull of the conversation. When Claude spoke up next, he had donned his storyteller’s voice, a voice that once thrilled their children with curious facts and bedtime stories, but now took on a sinister tone in these desolate caverns.

“Mount Kur is known throughout Almyra as being one of its tallest mountains, but if you were to ask any nearby villages about it, they would tell you about its other claims to fame. About its vast deposits of rare ore, about caves like these, that seem to stretch to the underworld itself, and about a curious phenomenon that occurs once a year.”

While he recited this familiar tale, the flames from their torches and magic shone upon veins of metal running through the cavern walls. In the fiery glow, these metallic stripes shimmered like flowing lava, or perhaps streaks of demonic blood. But since they weren’t the aforementioned curious phenomenon, Byleth only spared them enough time to watch the light dance across the walls, then hastened back to Claude before she missed the best part.

“On the last night of the tenth month, much like tonight, one could see a strange speck of light on the distant mountainside. At first, people thought it was just a huge fire, but what kind of fire would only exist for one night a year, on such a precise schedule?” 

“Fires made by demons, of course!” Altair chimed in enthusiastically.

“Shh! No interrupting!” Darius elbowed him.

“But we all know they’re the ones behind the fires!”

“Yes, but building up the suspense is part of the fun, so let me finish.” Claude chuckled. “Anyway, the local villages decided to assemble a band of their strongest men to investigate the light. On that fateful evening, most of them came back empty-handed, but some of them found this very cave we’re walking through right now. And like us, they had to dodge geysers of hot steam, bottomless fissures, pools of water that could melt their skin off, gigantic, man-eating monsters, and so on and so forth… But their efforts were not in vain. Because do you know what they saw at the end?”

Now was the right time for Altair to answer. “Demons!”

“Yep. Demons.” Claude laughed as he nodded. “A whole horde of them, eating and drinking and dancing around a large bonfire. But that wasn’t all. Sitting atop a nearby shrine was a monstrous dragon, with fangs and talons as long as swords, wings as vast as sails, and scales as white as snow. And to the Almyrans’ surprise, the demons were peeling away the dragon’s scales to suck at the blood that welled up.”

Byleth couldn’t help but flinch at that vivid imagery. Perhaps after becoming well acquainted with a real dragon or two or three, the gruesome scene hit a little too close to home. Even so, she didn’t need to react so squeamishly. This was just a story, with no proof that this actually ever happened.

“Despite being so grievously wounded, the dragon spotted the intruding Almyrans and let out an earth-shaking cry. In an instant, the demons attacked and nearly slaughtered all of them. Those that survived fled back where they came from, only to succumb to the same hardships that nearly killed the first time. In the end, only a single person made it back in one piece, and he was only able to recount his fantastical tale before dropping dead.”

A visible shudder rippled through the three children, even though they had all heard this tale before. Their fears were further compounded by a rickety old bridge ahead of them, made of wood and rope and suspended over a deep ravine. At the chasm’s bottom, the glow of lava stood out in the absolute darkness, foretelling their dismal fate if they misstepped.

“Everyone, hold onto the railings and each other.” Byleth told her children and her husband. Once everyone had secured themselves, they took their few tentative steps forward. The bridge swayed, but ultimately held, allowing Claude to continue his tale and ease the tension in the air. Not that the story was any less harrowing than the current leg of their journey.

“So, when faced with enemies that wanted to kill them, the Almyrans did what they do best. They fought back. As much as they could against demons that only appeared once a year, anyway. Yet each time they marched upon them, they were overwhelmed by the cavern’s obstacles and the demons’ unearthly strength. They even tried to ambush them by arriving at the spot before the demons did, but then they never appeared. This bitter struggle lasted for nearly a decade, before someone came up with the brilliant idea to trick them.”

Claude paused to step over a gap in the bridge and onto solid land. He then turned around to help Safiyah, Darius, Altair, and lastly Byleth. Now that the volcanic chasm was behind them, Byleth was free to let out a sigh of relief and move onwards.

“And they tricked them with these masks, right Baba?” Darius touched his own mask as an example.

“Right you are.” Claude nodded. “The Almyrans crafted these scary masks that looked like the faces of demons. The idea was to blend in with their merriment, then strike when the time was right, but they ended up getting a lot more than they bargained for. Namely, they were invited to drink the dragon’s blood alongside them. Not wanting to give themselves away just yet, the Almyrans obliged, and from their ill-gotten gifts, they received unfathomable strength akin to a demon’s.”

Claude had to take a break from his storytelling once again, this time because of large pools of steaming hot water. Although their surfaces appeared tranquil, almost beckoning them into a warm and toasty bath, Byleth knew better than to give into her urges. A single splash would leave her with harsh burns, and a full-body dip would… be unpleasant, to say the least.

While they carefully stepped around the pools, Claude resumed his story. “With their newfound power, the Almyrans turned the tables on the demons and vanquished them. And for good measure, they tried to wringe more strength-enhancing blood out of the dragon, but they stood no chance against the mighty beast. After they fought for a bit, it roared again, this time to mourn for its demonic entourage, and took off into the sky, never to be seen again. Not even when the Almyrans returned to the site next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.” 

A loud hiss from a geyser, akin to the dragon’s cry, punctuated Claude’s story. The group fell silent after it subsided, and not just because they had finished crossing the treacherous pool-ladened field. Byleth and Claude had raised their children on the truth, not on legends that glorified violence, so it wasn’t surprising that everyone was disquieted by this bloody tale.

Yet Claude had to finish it. In a solemn voice, he said, “Over time, the journeys through this cave became tests of strength, a pilgrimage that Almyrans undergo to prove their worth. And who knows? Perhaps someday, someone will find the snow-white dragon and its entourage of demons again.”

“Doubtful.” Safiyah spoke up. “If they wanted to get more dragon’s blood, they should have asked the demons for it. Not murder them.”

“Very true.” Claude sighed mournfully. “But the Almyrans didn’t think the demons were capable of kindness, not after they slew the first party that found them all those years ago. And when you, well, demonize people that are different from you, it’s easy to take one more step towards stealing and murdering.”

Saiyah nodded in understanding. Even though Byleth and Claude tried to create a more open-minded world with their joint reign, human nature couldn’t be so easily changed in such a short time. Nor could Claude so easily forget the traumas of being an outsider, some of which leaked into his response just now.

“Unfortunately, people became much too careless on their pilgrimage, and many lives were lost to this fairy-tale and the lofty prestige it supposedly grants.” Claude switched back to his normal even-handed tone to finish off his story. “My great-great grandfather ended up sealing the passageway and banning the Demon’s Pilgrimage. Which, in my opinion, was a wise decision.”

“And then you and Mama opened it back up.” Darius added.

“That we did.” Claude nodded at him. “We thought it might be nice to revive an old tradition for you guys, and for future generations. With some changes, of course.”

“But, uh, do we have to kill the demons that we find tonight?” Altair asked, lacking his usual gusto. “I want to show that I’m strong, but…”

Claude turned around to offer his son a reassuring smile from under his mask. “Don’t worry about it, Altie. Killing demons isn’t the only way to show your strength. Just making this dangerous journey is enough, so says the King and Queen of Almyra. After all, it takes a lot of courage to cross mountains, reach places unknown, and- Ack!”

He suddenly tripped, dropping his torch and breaking part of his mask’s antler in the process. His fallen torch revealed shimmering streams of spider silk all over the chamber they just entered, including several thick strands wound around his legs. He grabbed at the webbing to tear it off of himself, but it was already too late. Claude’s movements drew a set of dark, orb-like eyes from the shadows above them, which shone orange from the firelight.

“Shit.” He murmured under his breath, and not just because he was still stuck in place. “This guy wasn’t here last we checked.”

Byleth stepped in between Claude and the descending spider monster, sword in one hand and a fire spell in the other. As frustrated as she was by their oversight, she had to take action to protect her family. But should she work to free Claude, or should she defeat this fiend first? And what of her children, who were still very much in danger? She spared a glance backwards and found Darius and Altair huddling against Safiyah, the former also clinging to his jade wyvern for comfort.

The sight filled her veins with fire as the spider’s horrendous shriek drew her focus back towards it. Her decision made, Byleth focused her resolve into her fireball to make it bigger.

“Safiyah! Take your brothers somewhere safe!” She cried out as she flung her spell at the spider. It exploded upon impact, temporarily blinding the monster. Byleth used the few precious seconds she earned to bend down next to Claude, but to her dismay, the spider silk remained staunchly attached to him. She didn’t make much progress before the spider lunged with blinding speed.

Byleth launched another fireball to stop it in its tracks, then charged at it, sword poised to strike. The spider raised a carapaced leg to block that blow. During that brief instant she was taken aback, it lashed out with another leg. She deftly dodged that attack, only to get caught in some webbing. As she fell over, she cursed her mask for impairing her vision, yet she couldn’t stay helpless for long. Byleth immediately sawed away at her restraints with her sword, all while the spider loomed closer.

She tore enough webbing away to roll to the side, right before the spider brought a sharp leg down on her. As she dodged, she caught a glimpse of something flying in the air above her. A squelch, followed by more terrifying screeches, and Byleth blinked at the arrow sticking out of its head. She glanced backwards to find Claude, still immobilized by the webs around his legs, but with a bow in his hands and another arrow nocked and ready.

“Ah! No! My wyvern!”

“Don’t worry! I got it!”

Byleth would’ve thanked him if it weren’t for that distant commotion. By averting her gaze from the spider, she saw Darius’s jade wyvern on the ground and Altair running to grab it for his brother. He was so focused on his mission, he failed to notice yet another strand of webbing right by his feet and ended up tripping over it. Luckily, it didn’t seem like he got entangled by it, but he created enough ruckus to draw the spider’s attention. 

Some desperate cry escaped her throat as Byleth casted more fire magic and Claude shot another arrow to stop it. Both of their attacks connected, but they weren’t enough to stop the spider. It still scuttled towards Altair who, without any weapon or spells at his disposal, remained at its mercy.

No-. This can’t be happening- She couldn’t let it touch her son- She had to keep her children safe- Please-

A gust of green-tinted wind sliced into the spider, stunning it. Out from his hiding place leaped Darius, magic blazing at his fingertips. Alongside him was Safiyah, sword in hand and dashing to Altair’s side. The spider let out another ear-grating sound as it rushed to meet her and jab out with a leg. For a dreadful moment, Byleth feared the worst, and kept a metaphorical finger on her Divine Pulse as she pulled apart the last of the webbing immobilizing her. But much to her relief, a familiar Crest flashed in front of Safiyah as she swung her sword, drawing dark green ichor, then finished the spider off by driving her blade into its head, right next to Claude’s arrow.

One final screech echoed off the cavern walls before the spider collapsed. Blessed silence fell over web-ladened chambers, only broken by labored panting and the dripping of spider blood. As Byleth, Claude, and Altair got back on their feet, Byleth could’ve sworn that she caught a glimpse of something green hovering next to Safiyah. And even though it vanished as soon as she focused on it, she knew deep in her heart who she just saw.

Thank you, Sothis.

“Hyah!” Altair yelled as he punched the spider’s head. Blood and carapace shards splattered all over him, yet they didn’t wipe away the giant grin on his face.

“Ugh. Gross.” Darius wrinkled his nose. “Must you be so barbaric?”

“What? I’m just making sure it’s dead!” Altair turned around to face his brother. “Oh yeah, and here’s your toy.”

He picked up the wyvern figurine and held it out to Darius to take, but his slick, gunk-covered hands made Darius shy away. “Uh, you can keep it for now. At least until you get cleaned up.”

While the twins bickered, Claude and Byleth finally freed themselves from the spiderwebs and rushed on over. “Altair! Darius! Safiyah! Are you all alright?” Claude shouted.

“Yes. We’re fine.” Safiyah pulled her sword out of the spider to wipe the blood off.

“You sure? Gods, I was so worried-”

Despite her insistence, Claude pulled Safiyah into a hug. Darius and Altair weren’t spared from his full-bodied embrace either, even though the latter was still a mess. Byleth didn’t feel the need to smother her kids in hugs, as the feeling of fire had long left her body, but she nonetheless bent down to check them over and hold onto them.

They were alright. Truly alright. Byleth was worried about how her children would fare on the Demon’s Pilgrimage, ever since Claude brought it up, but as it turned out, she had little to fear.

“Did you see how I smashed that spider’s head in?” Altair boasted. “It never stood a chance!”

“Only cause everyone else landed the first blows.” Darius crossed his arms over his chest in irritation.

“You still did well. All of you.” Claude chuckled, then shot Altair a stern gaze. “Though you really shouldn’t have gone back for Darius’s wyvern so recklessly. We could’ve gotten it back later.”

Altair hesitated, like he wanted to counter back, but he couldn’t think of how to refute his father’s words of wisdom. He ended up sighing and nodding, only to quickly replace his resignation with bravado.

“But this counts as passing the Demon’s Pilgrimage, right?” He raised a slimy fist. “We didn’t kill any demons, but a giant spider should be close enough!”

“I… actually had a different idea in mind, but sure.” Claude let out an airy laugh. “Still, I bet you guys want to finish our pilgrimage, don’t you?”

“We have to. We can’t keep them waiting.” Byleth interjected.

“Can’t keep who waiting?” Darius asked. “Are you talking about the demons?”

Claude’s laugh turned into a mischievous sort of hum as he cocked his head. “Mmmm. Can’t say now, but we’re close to the end, so how about we get moving before more spiders show up?”

 


 

Byleth never thought she would be so glad to see the starry night sky overhead and breath in fresh air through her mask. Beside her, Claude, Safiyah, Darius, and Altair looked similarly pleased, but their pilgrimage wasn’t over yet. She could make out the faint glow of a bonfire up ahead, along with eerie laughter that rang out through the tree and rocky crags.

“Demons…” Altair whispered, almost reverently.

“Make sure you all have your masks on.” Claude tapped his own, or more specifically, where his antler broke off during the fight. “The demons will get you if you don’t.”

“But what if we just tried to talk to them?” Safiyah asked. “If they see that we don’t mean any harm, we don’t have to keep wearing these masks.” 

Claude squirmed in place for a split second before laughing off his concerns. “Ha! Good thinking, but just trust me on this one. You’ll see what I mean when we get there.”

Safiyah took the time to mull his response over, obviously doubted what he just said, but ultimately relented. With no further arguments to distract them, the Almyran royal family followed the sounds of celebration, deeper and deeper into the mountainside.

Byleth already knew what was coming, yet what greeted her eyes when she stepped into the clearing did not disappoint her. There really were demons present, with all sorts of grotesque faces, dancing and cajoling around a giant blaze. In the background, she spotted something large and white and flecked with scarlet sitting upon a stone altar. Presumably the blood-giving dragon from the legend, which admittedly surprised her, because she was not told about this part of the festival.

“Oho! You finally made it!” A raucous call snapped her out of her thoughts. Approaching the masked group was a fearsome looking demon, with great curved horns and an intimidating frown. 

No, wait. This man wasn’t a demon. Byleth recognized his voice and arrogant yet open stance from anywhere…

“Took you guys a while to show up. Did you run into trouble on the way here?”

“You can say that.” Claude pointed at his broken antler. “Nothing we couldn’t handle though.”

“Wait, Uncle Baltie? Is that you?!” Altair exclaimed while vibrating in excitement.

The demon that may or not be Balthus (but most likely is) laughed in response. “Who’s this ‘Uncle Baltie’? I’m the Demon King of Grappling! And don’t you forget it!”

“Uh huh.” Darius mumbled, unconvinced. 

It sounded like he was on the verge of prying their whole scheme apart, but luckily for Claude and Byleth, a pair of demons showed up to the rescue. One of them sported long pink hair and sparkling gemstones all over her face, while the other looked like a monstrous wolf, with blue fur and vicious fangs jutting from her snout. Byleth could tell from a glance who this couple was, but how could she not, after knowing them for so long? The real question was why were they here? As far as she knew, Claude had only invited Balthus and a few other people...

“About time you got here!” The pink demon shouted. “We were about to send out a search party!”

“Did you really have such little faith in us?” Claude chuckled. He was probably winking under his mask.

“Baba, Mama, why do you know these ‘demons’?”

The way Safiyah enunciated her last word indicated that she wouldn’t be fooled, so Byleth supposed it was time for them to explain tonight’s party. She met Claude’s masked gaze and nodded, giving him wordless permission to reveal everything. In his trademark frustratingly enigmatic way, of course.

“Well, you see…” He began. “I heard of an interesting story from Balthus and his Kupalan village. Long ago, on the last night of the tenth moon of every year, one of their gods would take the form a snow-white dragon, descend on the tallest mountain in the horizon, and grant his followers unfathomable power. In gratitude, the Kupalans celebrated his arrival with a grand celebration, complete with food, fire, and masks carved to resemble their great benefactor. This continued for years upon end, until demons emerged from the underworld to steal the god’s power.”

During his split-second pause, their children stared at Claude so intently, Byleth was sure that their eyes were bulging out of their sockets. They were smart, so they must already know where this story was heading, yet Claude continued on anyway.

“The Kupalans successfully repelled the first attack, and the next, and the next. But eventually, the demons would prevail. They murdered the dragon’s guardians in cold blood, and would have captured the dragon himself had he not escaped. Still, the dragon god never returned… At least, not until today.”

Claude waved at the white mound that Byleth noticed earlier. Upon closer inspection, it was actually a pile of snow shaped like a dragon. There must be some kind of magic spell to stop it from melting, but it was diminishing in size anyway, thanks to all the people scooping snow into their goblets.

“That’s not a dragon.” Darius pointed out. “That’s snow.”

“Yeah. I want to see a real dragon.” Safiyah agreed, in a rare instance of immaturity.

“Now see, that’s the thing.” Claude turned back to them. “You probably figured out that the Almyran and Kupalan legends were talking about the same event and subsequent massacre, but neither of them say what happened to the dragon after he fled. We do know one thing though.”

“Yep! Kupalans like me got the Crest of Chevalier from this dragon!” Balthus flexed an arm. “Hopefully they didn’t take it by force, but who can really know at this point?”

“Mmhmm. What’s more important is to fix bridges burnt ages ago.” Claude nodded. “After Byleth and I made the connection between the two tales, we talked things over with the Kupalans, and allowed them to hold their ancient celebrations on this very spot. Or rather, hold a new kind of celebration, since we can’t go back to old times, no matter how hard we try.”

Something clicked in Byleth’s mind. She took another glance at her surroundings, to absorb the unfamiliar and demonic faces around her. As she thought, there were more than just Kupalans merrymaking here. In fact, she could pick out all of the Golden Deer in the crowd, plus a few other old friends.

“It’s not just a restoration of a past tradition.” She found herself uttering. “It’s a celebration for all, to forge new bonds that will last throughout the generations.”

“Right you are, dear.” Claude slung an arm around her shoulders to pull her closer. “It would be remiss of me to forget about our friends from Fodlan.”

“Yeah! You wouldn’t have been able to hold this party without our help anyway!” Hilda flipped her ponytail in a way that belied her fiendish appearance.

“Hey, give me some credit for piecing everything together!”

Byleth leaned her head closer to Claude’s ear so she could whisper into it. “And me.” 

“And you, of course.”

A clearing of Darius’s throat prevented their teasing from going too far. “So, if there’s no real dragon, then what’s the snow dragon for…?”

“Oh! Yeah!” Balthus piped up. “Since dragon blood isn’t exactly the most ethical of drinks, we substituted it with some magic snow! Just put some in these special goblets and it’ll turn into wine!”

“Really?!” Altair blurted out.

“Yup! Wanna see?”

“Balthus, do remember that the snow dragon is supposed to be an adult activity.” Claude sighed out. “But you know, we wouldn’t object if you wanted to take the kids elsewhere…”

“Aw, we were hoping that their aunts could spend time with them!” Hilda audibly pouted.

“All three of you can attend to them.” Byleth nodded. “One for each child. You’ll need all the help you can get with this trio.”

The ‘demon’ at Hilda’s side, obviously Marianne, laughed quietly. “I can imagine. But it would still be our pleasure to take them off your hands.”

“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Altair asked.

“Don’t worry about that, little guy.” Balthus brought a hand down on his head to tousle his hair. “Just leave your parents to do their boring adult things while the Demon King of Grappling shows you how to party the Kupalan way!”

With more enthusiastic cries from Altair, along with subtler signs of agreement from Darius and Safiyah, the three kids and three adults wandered away. Byleth’s eyes lingered after them, even as Balthus brought them to booths of festival games. It pleased her to see her sons and daughter having fun without their parents, but she still harbored some concerns from that spider ambush…

Or no. The heavy feeling in her chest wasn’t concern. It was something else, more potent, yet more wondrous than simple doubt.

“Dear?” Claude murmured into her ear. “I didn’t guess wrong when I sent the kids off with Balthus, Hilda, and Marianne, did I?”

“No. You didn’t.” Byleth gave his hand a squeeze. “I was just thinking… Safiyah, Darius, and Altair handled the Demon’s Pilgrimage very well today.”

“They did.” Claude nodded. “I’m so proud of them.”

“Me too. They’re going to do a fantastic job with the world we’re making for them…”

Her voice gave way to the sounds of the party on the last night of the tenth moon. It really was a miracle that she and Claude could coordinate such a spectacle, even though Claude managed to sneak in a few surprises to keep her on her toes. If she was told of this so long ago, during the war that splintered Fodlan, she wouldn’t have believed it. Yet here they were, amidst a revelry that celebrated Fodlanese, Almyrans, Kupalan, and many more. That celebrated friendships, dedication, and the bright future ahead of them…

That future needn’t come so quickly, however. She glanced back at Claude and his dark deer-like mask. Green eyes sparkled underneath as he gave her a shake.

“To toast to our victories today, how about we try some of that magic snow wine?”

“Sounds good.” Byleth curved her lips into a smile. “And maybe afterwards, we can check out some of the games here? I thought I saw a ring toss booth…”

Claude snorted and shook her shoulders again. “What, you want another wyvern plushie?” 

“Don’t you want another chance to show off?”

“Whelp. You got me there.” He huffed. “Just leave it to me, my love. That wyvern will be yours in no time!”