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Chosen Paths

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Byleth rocked unsteadily in her precarious position sprawled intimately atop Jeritza.  She tightened her hold and dug in her heels to gain balance, while her dagger continued to waver dangerously at his throat.

‘Well, this is awkward...’  She observed.

Jeritza’s keen sense of self-preservation kept him still - frozen like a stone beneath her, although his shock and consternation at the sudden turn of events was obvious.  He remained deathly silent, his mouth hanging open in alarm, his breathing decidedly ragged.

Byleth continued to squirm against him for several long minutes until she finally managed to get herself a proper ballast - maneuvering her knees, so they were eventually astride him and safely on the ground.   She lowered her weapon and loosening her grip on him a little.

‘Phew.’  She puffed.  ‘That was harder work than I expected.’  She wiped her brow and stared down at Jeritza curiously.  ‘Now then, Jez…Rita…  do you intend to commit any violence?’  She asked, seriously.

‘If you don’t get off of me right now, then yes.’  He managed to growl out faintly in reply.

‘Fair enough.’  Byleth rolled slowly to one side and ended up flat on her back on the dock, her eyes closed, but her knife still clutched tightly in her hand.

Jeritza sat himself up with a huff and shuffled a few safe feet away from her in evident relief.  ‘You’re drunk.’  He accused flatly as soon as he had enough breath back to speak.

‘Well, no shit.’  Byleth opened her eyes and turned her head slightly so she could stare back at his accusing face.  ‘Why in the world did you attack me?’

‘Attack you?’  He spluttered indignantly.  ‘I wasn’t assaulting you, you stupid girl!’

‘Was it some kind of affection then?’  Byleth’s eyes widened, and she began to smile, a tentative little beam in his direction.  ‘You could have just asked for a hug, you know, there was no need to grab me unawares.  I could have hurt you!’

Hubert was having a very hard time managing to stay quiet and hidden behind his crates.  His shoulders were shaking with the effort of not laughing out loud.

‘I was trying to prevent you from falling into the lake.’  Jeritza insisted contemptuously.  ‘Although right now, I am inclined to dump you in there myself and be done with you.’

‘Oh.  Right.’  Byleth sounded disappointed.  ‘I don’t think I would have fallen in.  I just wanted to splash my face with some cold water as it is unfathomably hot for some reason.  I can’t seem to feel the tip of my nose either.’  She added mournfully.

‘Have you never been drunk before?’  Jeritza asked.

‘Nope.  It’s… kinda interesting.’

‘I see.’ 

Byleth turned her face skyward again and shut her eyes, settling into silence.  ‘It’s a bit like being in a boat.’  She observed thoughtfully to herself after a short while had passed.  ‘Rocking and swaying…  Nothing staying properly still.  I know I’m laying down flat, but it doesn’t feel like I’m tethered – more like I’m floating.’

Jeritza merely grunted and continued to stare at her unblinkingly.

‘Are you still here?’  Byleth sounded surprised.  ‘I assumed you would have disappeared by now, you know… all enigmatic and mysterious like.  I suppose you haven’t given me the usual lecture on how you don’t want to be friends yet, though…’

‘You talk too much.’  Jeritza stated blandly.

Byleth gasped and then burst into giggles.  ‘No-one has ever accused me of that before!’  She laughed.

‘I was planning on inviting you to spar this evening.’  Jeritza continued doggedly.  ‘I have been observing your sessions with the students, and I think it is time.’

‘I’ve noted you watching.’  Byleth groaned loudly as she rolled carefully onto her belly to face him directly.  ‘You spend as much time watching me fight as you do following me on my patrols.  Am I really that interesting?’

‘No.’  Jeritza pulled his knee’s up to his chest defensively.  ‘So will you spar with me?’  He asked, impatiently.  ‘Not tonight, you are too drunk, but tomorrow night?’

Byleth sighed unhappily.  ‘That’s all people ever want from me.’  She lamented.  ‘To take on the Ashen Demon and prove they can best me.’

‘I assumed that you like to train.’ 

‘I do...’  Byleth sighed again.  ‘I also know that I will learn a lot from working directly with you.  It’s just… it would be nice sometimes, to be challenged simply to a game of chess or… anything else instead of a fight.’

There was a long silence.

‘I… can play chess.  If you would prefer it.’  Jeritza finally offered.

Byleth exhaled a little laugh.  ‘I don’t actually know how to play chess.’  She admitted.  ‘Not much time to learn on the road – it’s all staying alive and moving around constantly.’

Jeritza shook his head in bewilderment.  ‘You are quite possibly the most odd and confusing person I have ever met.’ 

‘Says the stalker in the scary mask…’ 

‘I am not stalking you.’  Jeritza retorted.  He paused for a second, and his voice lowered, became softer.  ‘I… need to seek your help… with… something.’

‘Oh?’  Byleth raised herself on her elbows and gazed at him in interest.  ‘Well, why didn’t you say so sooner?  Of course!  I will help you in any way that I can.’

Jeritza frowned.  ‘Why would you?’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’  She shrugged.

‘But you don’t even know what it is yet.’

‘True, because you haven’t told me what it is yet.’  Byleth looked puzzled.  ‘Are you sure that I am the drunk one?  You are saying some fairly obvious things, you know.’

That did it.  Hubert snorted out a loud laugh that echoed around the quiet lake.

Byleth and Jeritza glanced over at the chuckling barrel, neither in the least bit surprised.

‘I will tell you what I require tomorrow when we train.’  Jeritza said stiffly as he got to his feet.  ‘… Or play chess, or whatever it is you wish me to do.’

‘Hug?’  Byleth asked, hopefully.

‘Please don’t be drunk.’  Jeritza added, ignoring her.  ‘Now I think you should go back to your room.  You are still rather too close to the water.’

‘Oh, I will just lay down here for a while…’  Byleth rested her head on her arms and shut her eyes.

‘Are you unable to get up?’  Jeritza inquired.

‘I could get up!’  Byleth retorted.  ‘If I wanted to…’

‘Hmm.’  Jeritza moved closer and bent down to poke her on the shoulder.  She didn’t move.  ‘I don’t believe you can.  I will carry you to bed.’  He decided.

‘You need to buy me dinner first.’  Byleth giggled.

‘That’s not what I… I didn’t mean… Oh fine.  Stay there then.’  Jeritza straightened up and turned quickly away, leaving her sniggering happily to herself.

‘You.  Make sure she gets back to her room safely.’  He ordered Hubert as he marched past his hiding spot.

‘Of course.’  Hubert agreed with a small bow at the scowling man who hurried away at a considerable pace.

‘Well, well… wasn’t that interesting!’  Hubert commented as he approached Byleth carefully.  ‘I never thought I’d get to see a look of abject terror on Jeritza’s face.  You have quite excelled yourself tonight!’

‘Oh.’  Byleth looked up at the new arrival, her previous giggles turning into a sad frown.  ‘I scared him?’  She sighed.  ‘I shouldn’t be surprised.  That often happened before I came here.  Hence being named the Ashen Demon, I suppose.’

‘Come now, Professor.’  Hubert sat himself down by her side.  ‘Jeritza is hardly the easiest person to get along with in the first place.  I can’t help but be intrigued about what he requires your aid for, though.’

‘I’m sure you will do your little spying thing and try to find out.’  Byleth noted.

‘You could just tell me about it once he’s told you.’  Hubert suggested. 

‘I wouldn’t ever break a confidence if one was requested.’  Byleth replied heatedly.

‘Not even for a hug?’  Hubert smirked.

‘Pfft.’ Byleth snorted.

‘Should I be jealous, Professor?  You seemed awfully keen for a hug from our swordmaster and yet turn me down without a thought!’

‘Any affection from you would only be motivated by manipulation.’  Byleth accused as she struggled to sit herself up and glare at him.  ‘I know that, and since I know that and I’ve told you that I know that - then we both know that it won’t work.  Or… something like that.’  She drooped a bit in exhaustion.

‘I know!’  Hubert replied, biting his lip to prevent his grin from spilling over.

‘My head hurts.’  Byleth complained.  She looked back up at Hubert speculatively, then launched herself at his chest and wrapped her arms around him tightly.  ‘You are getting nothing from me!’  She said, smugly burying her face into his chest.

‘Hardly fair.’  Hubert murmured, but he loosely wrapped his own arms around her.  ‘I suppose we can call it quits if we count the sheer amount of entertainment you have provided me this evening.’

‘Does it hurt?’  Byleth asked suddenly, looking up at him quizzically.

‘Well, you are gripping me a little tightly…’

‘No, you moron… I mean your heart.’  Byleth pressed her ear purposefully against his chest.  ‘I have never been so close to a real live beating one before that I can remember.  It is so… strong!’

‘No, Byleth, it doesn’t hurt.  Not at the moment anyway.’  Hubert replied softly.  ‘Think of it like your breath.  You breathe without paying attention to it – but if you exert yourself or if you are ill, you become aware of it being uncomfortable.  At times like that, it can hurt.’

‘I have begun to wonder if my own lack of a heartbeat is what has made me the Ashen Demon.’  Byleth admitted.

‘You shouldn’t concern yourself with that!’  Hubert insisted.  ‘I have often been called a heartless bastard myself and I don’t take it as anything but a compliment.’

‘See, I told you we were more alike than you realised!’

‘I can see no real benefit to actually having a heartbeat as long as you are alive regardless.’  Hubert added.

‘It’s very soothing.’  Byleth sighed, shutting her eyes.

‘Whoa now, don’t fall asleep on me Professor.’  Hubert gently pushed her away.  ‘You need to get some sleep, but let's get you to your room.  Do you think you can stand up?’

‘Of course!’  She insisted.  ‘Probably…’

Hubert got gracefully to his feet and offered her a hand.  After a few aborted attempts, she managed to scramble up and find her balance.

‘So what did you and Catherine talk about all evening, when you weren’t getting drunk?’  He asked lightly as they started a slow walk back to the dorms.

‘Are you fishing for information?’

‘You know I am, why bother asking?’

Byleth snickered.  ‘Oh… how wonderful Lady Rhea is…!’  She squeaked in a truly terrible impersonation of Catherine’s voice.

‘Ah, yes, I understand that Catherine has a deep regard for the Archbishop.’  Hubert agreed.

‘A deep regard?’  Byleth stumbled a little but righted herself quickly.  ‘More like a full-blown crush!’

‘Be wary of her Professor.  The fact that Rhea has taken an interest in you will not have escaped her notice.’

‘I worked that one out all by myself.’  Byleth nodded.  ‘It is too much to hope that someone might actually seek my company because they like me rather than just wanting to use me for something.’  Her tone was a little accusatory.

‘Ouch.’  Hubert winced.

‘Don’t worry, Hubert, I’ve come to realise that it’s one of those noble things, like lying to each other.  I’m getting the hang of it now, I did manage to extort a free hug after all!’

‘So, you did.  I’m quite proud of your manipulation.’

‘It was nicer than I expected.’  Byleth fluttered her eyelashes up at Hubert, who groaned.

‘I am fully aware that you realise that I also know that your affections to me are just as scheming as mine are to you.’

‘I know!  Right!’  Byleth giggled.  ‘Isn’t it a much nicer way to keep someone on their toes than death threats though Hubert?’  She asked seriously as they reached her door, and she fished for her key.

‘Well, only with certain people who both know the score.’  He pondered.  ‘The rules of engagement are always important to understand.’

Her door finally open, Byleth leaned forward and crushed her arms around her companion once again.  ‘It really is kinda nice, you know…’  She grinned at him before disappearing into her room and closing her door.

‘Drink some water!’  He reminded her, through the partition, glad that she hadn’t witnessed the fierce blush that flooded his face.