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Tangled Schemes

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This is the story of how I died…Twice. Not that I actually remember either time, to be honest. But don't worry, it's actually a great story and it's not entirely mine. This is a story about a woman: Byleth.

It all started with Sothis. Once upon a time, there was a powerful goddess who brought life to humans and the Earth. Sothis was just, strong, and had the ability to turn back time itself. But one day she was killed, and her daughter—Lady Rhea—built a crypt to house and protect her remains for all eternity.

Centuries passed, and a kingdom grew. It was ruled by a King and Queen as kingdoms usually are. But one day, the Queen got sick right before she was going to have a baby. Very sick. She got so sick in fact, people started to look for a miracle…Or on this case, a goddess.

Far away and deep underground in the Holy Tomb, Rhea had locked two remnants of Sothis away to keep their power from humans. The first was a small stone inscribed with the crest of the goddess herself, and the second was the goddess’s own sword—known as the Sword of the Creator. Rhea was away the day the kingdom’s guards took both, and I don’t have to tell you that she didn’t like that at all.

Unfortunately, the magic of the crest stone couldn’t save the Queen…But it did save her child. A healthy baby girl was born, with strange, beautiful green hair and solemn green eyes. If you want a hint, that was Byleth.

In celebration for his child and mourning for his wife, King Jeralt launched a flying lantern into the sky that was decorated with the crest taken from the crypt. It flew over the land, golden and bright, and for that one moment things were okay.

But then that moment ended.

Byleth looked nothing like either parent; her colouring was that of the long departed goddess. Not that anyone knew that but Rhea. And the flame of life that burned in the child made Rhea wonder if her dearest wish could be realized: that one day, Sothis would return. So she broke into the castle, stole Byleth, and just like that—she was gone.

The kingdom searched and searched, but they couldn’t find their princess.

Deep in the mountains, in an abandoned monastery, Rhea raised the child both as Sothis and as her own. Every day she would tell stories of the goddess, singing songs she’d known and trying to coax recognition from the child who had inherited so much. But Byleth would never respond to the tales; in fact, she barely responded at all. The power of the goddess stifled something within her, and she grew up quiet and uninterested in the world outside her monastery walls.

Except for one thing.

Every year on her birthday, the kingdom released thousands of lanterns into the sky, burning with the hope that one day their lost princess would return. And every year, Byleth watched them float by and wondered…

Chapter Text

Claude hung one-handed from the spire, toes at the edge of the roof as he took in the view. Thick forests and broad rivers were gilded by the morning sun, stretching across the kingdom as far as he could see like an old pastoral painting. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The air was still. He couldn’t hear anything from the city that sprawled around the castle he was currently hanging off of.

Whether it was too early or he was too far up to hear the bustle of the people, he didn’t know. All he knew was that it was a single moment of peace, caught between breaths in the dawn’s light, and he revelled in it. But soon enough, the heavy tread of marching soldiers clattering along the road below reminded him of his task at hand—right before his companion testily cleared their throat.

“I believe we haven’t the time for sightseeing.”

“Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten why we’re here.”

Flashing his most disarming smile, Claude swung back to the narrow strip of bricks where the man who had hired him was standing. Seteth looked ill at ease, his pallor taking on a similar tinge to that of his green hair. But whether the anxiety was from the height, the lack of space, or the mission ahead of them, Claude didn’t know. He suspected the latter. Stealing a kingdom’s treasure wasn’t exactly something relaxing, after all.

He didn’t stick around and ask why Seteth looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world though, as enlightening as it might have been. There really wasn’t any more time to waste. So Claude just shrugged, and leapt up to grab onto the next ledge so he could swing himself across with a graceful flip.

The castle roof was architectural clutter that would have made walking to their destination hard enough, but the constant drops, rises, and ledges meant that Claude was forced to perform acrobatic feats just to move forward. He had no idea how Seteth was managing, as rigid as he seemed, but whenever he glanced back the other man was keeping pace.

When they finally stopped above the Chamber of the Sword, Claude could feel sweat starting to trickle along his spine and he rolled his shoulders; he hadn’t expected the approach to be quite so much work. His quilted shirt was great for preventting him from losing his skin in a literal scrape, but the long sleeves were a bit much in the bright sunshine. Claude pulled his collar open to get a little air and crouched next to Seteth, who seemed unfairly unaffected by the heat; even while wearing a navy blue jacket.

Ceramic tiles had already been pulled away at their feet to reveal an old wooden door set in the roof, perhaps used back when the castle was being built. Claude picked up a tile near his heel so he didn’t step on it, inspecting the edges. Neither it nor the door was more than a little scraped; the work to expose the wood had been done with precision and care. There was even debris arranged to prevent rain from running in, something that could have caused a leak and lead to the area being investigated.

Not for the first time, Claude wondered who Seteth was and why the man’s mystery employer had decided to add another person to the theft rather than join in herself. Variables added all sorts of problems when it came to plans of this calibre…and problems usually got a knife between the ribs later. Not that it really mattered; they were going to find out it would be no easy feat to cross Claude von Riegan.

Especially when he planned to double-cross them first.

Seteth finished removing the last of the tiles away from the door before he lifted the handle set into it, carefully working it open as noiselessly as possible. Claude already had the rope tied around his torso, after giving it a quick onceover to check for defects. Falling to his death really wasn’t on his list of approved events for the day.

Then, with Seteth’s jacket draped over the opening to prevent the sunlight from giving them away, Claude held his breath as he was lowered into the Chamber of the Sword. Guards were spread out in a perfect circle below him, faces turned towards the pedestrian modes of entrance at ground level. He almost wanted to laugh over how completely unaware they were that their charge was about to stolen right behind their backs.

The Sword of the Creator: treasure to a kingdom and said to have been owned by the goddess herself.

It was an ugly thing if Claude was being honest, as he slowed to a stop above its pedestal—old-bone yellow and knobby, like it was made from some great beast’s carcass. But no one knew better than Claude about the deceiving nature of appearances, so he took hold of the sword’s grip and lifted it from the iron claws holding it aloft. It was lighter than expected, and he tucked it under one arm as he reached back to tug the rope and signal Seteth.

One of the guards sneezed just as Claude began to ascend, and he cheekily called out to the man as he rose.

“Mind the dust; it’s pretty bad in here.”

“No kidding,” the guard grumbled.

There was a delightful pause before the guard realized what had just happened and spun around, and Claude barely had time for a jaunty salute before Seteth yanked him through the door.

“Are you quite out of your mind?” the other man yelled at him as they ran headlong across the rooftops, scattering tiles. “You alerted them to our presence!”

Seteth moved with less grace and more strength as he dove across the gaps and down from the ledges Claude hadn’t been able to see him take on the way up. Each movement seemed effortless, even as he made leaps that were twice his own body length. In fact, there was something slightly off about the way Seteth moved, as if he had no doubt at all that he could make each jump even as half his focus was on berating Claude for his recklessness.

But Claude had to file that away as something to solve another day when he nearly ran into a chimney because he wasn’t watching what was in front of him.

He grabbed his bow and quiver from where he’d stashed them on the lowest section of the castle roof, juggling his weapons along with the Sword of the Creator he hadn’t relinquished as per the original plan. Seteth hadn’t even thought to ask, they were so busy running from the threat of the guards that Claude had so impulsively called down upon them. It’d be a shame if they got separated before their rendezvous with the buyer to boot.

“Sorry,” Claude called to Seteth as they finally hit ground level and sprinted for the bridge, even as he felt no such remorse. “But no harm done, right?”

An arrow bounced off the stone wall next to Seteth’s arm, and Claude’s head snapped up to see a squad of mounted guards bearing down on them. King Jeralt the Blade-Breaker was in the lead, lance pointing straight at the two thieves as Captain Alois thundered alongside of him, axe glinting in the sun.

“You were saying?” Seteth said, giving Claude a look that could have taken moss clean off a boulder.

“Okay, slight miscalculation. You can lecture me as we run.”

Chapter Text

Inside the cold stone walls of Garreg Mach, Byleth woke to her mother singing next to her bed—as she had every morning for as long as she could remember.

Each day without fail, Rhea would be there at her side; repeating the now-familiar song until Byleth opened her eyes. There was no other way their days started. If Byleth kept her eyes closed after waking, Rhea would keep singing: as if time was stopped for all but the two of them. Byleth had tried it once, just to see how long it would last. She’d fallen back asleep trying to outwait her mother, who was still there and still singing hours later.

Rhea being there in the morning was simply an unavoidable fact. Like the sun rising. On good days, she would sit on the bed instead of in the chair she’d brought in for her own use. On bad days she wouldn’t look Byleth in the eyes.

But she must have been in a very high spirits that morning, for she was running her fingers through her daughter’s hair in rhythm with her singing when Byleth finally blinked up at her. The words that meant nothing, but were supposed to mean everything, trailed off as Rhea finished the last verse and let the final notes hang in the air.

“Good morning, my star,” Rhea said, cupping Byleth’s cheek. “Who do you feel like, today?”

Always who, never how. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue; nor was it a joke shared between parent and child. Byleth had spent her first years responding to the question with confusion. What do you mean? I’m me. I’m your daughter. But Rhea would only smile sadly and shake her head. And the next morning would ask her again. Soon enough, Byleth learned the answer that was acceptable—even though it too seemed to be wrong.

Who do you feel like, today?

“Myself.” Byleth replied at last, as she had every morning, and waited for the usual disappointment to cloud her mother’s eyes. But Rhea only smiled and sighed fondly.

“You won’t, soon.”

She said it with such sweet conviction as she smoothed out the last of the tangles from Byleth’s hair, like announcing the next day would be spring. The cloying scent of the lilies she always wore in her elaborate headdress settled over the room, and Byleth could feel it like a weight. Rhea heaved another happy sigh, holding Byleth’s face in both hands so she could press a kiss to her forehead.

“…So very soon.”

And then she left, still humming as she swept out the door with a flutter of robes.

Byleth rubbed her arms at the sudden chill that crawled over her skin, and didn’t flip back the covers until she could no longer hear her mother’s voice echoing down the hall. Rhea had never responded like that before, and she had never before laid out an outfit similar to her own on the dresser, all robes and ribbons. There was even a golden crown. Byleth pushed it aside to dress in the same practical black clothing she wore every day, the unease in her chest growing heavier.

What did it mean?

Did it have something to do with Byleth’s birthday coming soon? Rhea never marked it any other year, choosing instead to celebrate on the goddess’s holiday. Byleth only knew her true date of birth from accidently stumbling upon some of Rhea’s writings. It had been the only time she had seen her mother angry, her pale green eyes hard as stone as she snatched the papers away. Byleth may have even forgotten when it was if it wasn’t for the lights that floated by every year…

Her concern only grew when she saw her mother at breakfast. Rhea had removed all the ornaments from her hair, and had traded her robes for a travel-ready dress. A light pack was already filled with a day’s worth of food and set near the door; a dark cloak hung over a chair. After a long pause as she took everything in, Byleth lowered herself into the remaining vacant seat and spooned some hot oatmeal into her bowl.

“I know you must have questions, my dear star.” Rhea sat down across the table in her strangely plain garb, even her long green hair—slightly darker than Byleth’s own—pinned back. “But the time for them is not now. I promise I will answer all when I return.”

Byleth’s spoon clattered against her bowl when her arm jerked, and Rhea laughed gently. She reached over and tilted Byleth’s chin, wiping a speck of oatmeal from her daughter’s face with a handkerchief, eyes still amused.

“Yes, I’m going out. Only for a day or two at most, but I have something I must retrieve. It is a…birthright of yours.”

The amusement faded from Rhea’s eyes to be replaced by a longing so deep and fierce that Byleth felt a shiver run through her again. She steeled herself so it wouldn’t show, gaze dropping to the table. Rhea never left the monastery. Rhea had never left Byleth alone for more than mere minutes, but now she was leaving for an entire day? The oatmeal felt leaden in Byleth’s stomach from the disquiet in her thoughts, but she nodded dutifully and Rhea released her chin at last.

“Stay inside while I’m gone, my star. We’ll speak later.”

Byleth carried the pack and cloak to the main gate of the monastery, walking in silence next to Rhea. She handed them over when her mother was at last ready to leave, and endured another minute of desperate entreaties that she would stay out of sight. The sense of something wrong hovered at the edge of Byleth’s mind the entire time. So much so that she felt a rare surge of emotion, of relief, when Rhea finally entered the forest and was lost to view.

When Byleth returned to her rooms, the beribboned robes lying on the dresser made her stop short. The questions she had been thinking all morning clamoured for attention as she picked up the star-blazoned crown. She stared at it for several minutes, fingers unconsciously twitching as she turned it over in her hands.

Then she abruptly dropped it on the floor and turned on her heel. She walked out of her room. She walked down the hall. Soon, her strides increased until she was running, full tilt to somewhere she didn’t know. When she saw the garden from the upper window, she turned, nearly twisting an ankle as she tore down the stairs. No one could see into the garden unless they climbed the wall around it, and Byleth needed to clear her head.

It was the only way she could find the answer to the question of the robes, and what they meant for her future.

Chapter Text

Trying to outrun horses was not a good idea.

But that was exactly what Claude and Seteth were doing.

It wasn’t even so much of an idea as a necessity, as they barrelled through the forest, ducking branches and jumping ditches to escape their pursuers—who were being a lot more persistent than expected. Claude had bet on the fact that as livid as the king might initially be about the theft, Jeralt was known to be a sad figure of a man since the loss of his wife and daughter. Bereft. Quiet. Dull. Nothing like the glory days of his fierce youth, and therefore unlikely to continue the pursuit past the initial charge.

That, Claude had been one hundred percent correct about. What he hadn’t been correct about was Alois Rangeld.

He’d known that Alois was the captain of the guard. A loud, boisterous man that had a really big axe and certain zest for his job: someone who would regardless support his king and return to the castle when the thieves proved too much trouble. What Claude hadn’t known was that Alois was close enough to Jeralt where he considered himself a big brother to the missing princess. A fact Alois had made abundantly clear as he pursued Seteth and Claude through the forest, bellowing for them to return the sword and what was going to happen if they didn’t.

Okay, Claude really hadn’t thought Alois would have threats that violent, to be honest.

Nor had he realized how much the kingdom associated the Sword of the Creator with the princess; the king and Alois had both reacted like he had kidnapped a child instead of stolen an ancient relic. While an entire chamber dedicated to the sword and round-the-clock guards was overkill for a weapon that had never been used to the kingdom’s benefit…it seemed fitting for something that had an unquantified emotional value.

They could have done without the throwing axes, though.

“Do you have any idea of the gravity of this situation?”  Seteth yelled as another of said axes whipped past them at that moment, coming dangerously close to making contact. “This is entirely your fault!”

“I know, I know; but I have a plan!”

“A plan? Now you have chosen to think?”

“Very funny, just follow me!”

As he spoke, Claude altered his course so he was running towards the ravine in the distance instead of parallel to it. Seteth adjusted his own path in response, cursing every step of the way. The rocks in their path forced him to move, until he was out of reach of Claude for the first time since they started running.

Exactly as Claude had intended.

As subtly as possible, Claude pulled on his last reserves of energy to widen the gap between the green-haired man and himself. Just enough to keep grabbing hands away. He couldn’t lose the relic now; not to anyone. When Seteth was running abreast of him but two full arm lengths away, Claude stuck the Sword of the Creator into his belt and took a deep breath.

Then he unslung his bow from over his shoulder, nocked an arrow to it, and ran for everything he was worth.

He broke through the cover of the trees, Alois and Seteth alike yelling as they suddenly fell behind. Drawing the bow so taut it bent like a crescent moon, Claude sucked in ragged gulps of air as he tried to find his shot. His lungs were burning, his arms starting to shake; there wasn’t much time. He saw his target at the same moment he stumbled, and he swore as he threw himself sideways so he didn’t trip and impale himself on the sword.

It wasn’t a sharp blade, but blunt-force trauma could kill him all the same.

Claude let his bow go slack as he kept his chin tucked into his chest, hoping he didn’t lose an ear. The dirt and stones would be taking the skin off his arms if not for the long sleeves he’d been bemoaning earlier, and he mentally apologized as he skidded across the road. The path was slanted downward, and he fought to keep himself from flipping over into a roll that could break his bow and get him captured.

It only lasted seconds, but Claude’s head was still swimming when he finally hit a boulder and his impromptu ride came to a stop. The thud echoed in his teeth. Ringing pierced his ears. Every part of his body but his mouth was screaming, but he had no time to rest.

So he blinked furiously as he lurched to his knees, drew his bow with a mighty heave, and fired the arrow across the ravine in a single movement. It slammed point-first into a tree branch as big around as his waist that was hanging partway over the edge, the arrowhead lost to view: buried firmly in the wood.

And Claude—as Seteth stared in open-mouthed, incredulous fury—leapt after it.

The rope he had kept from his decent into the castle burned against his hands, wind whistling in his ears as Claude sailed across the gap with his jury-rigged grappling line. He couldn’t quite hold in an exhilarated whoop that was partly born of fear, even as a grin split his face at the looks of the two men who had been chasing him. Twisting in mid-air he hit the rock feet first, knees bent to absorb the shock as he bounced a few times for the sake of his ankles. Debris showered down on him, the tree above him groaning from the strain, but the rope held.

Regardless, Claude wasted no time clambering to the top of the ravine as soon as he came to a stop. He sat on a different branch than the one with his arrow sticking out of it, cutting the rope free and waving at Seteth who was still on the other side. The other man’s hands were balled into fists, green eyes narrowed, and Alois was nowhere to be seen. A smug comment in regards to both those things was clearly in order, but Claude saw a flash of white from the corner of his eye just as he opened his mouth—and the comment died on his tongue.

The ravine was too wide for Claude to have jumped unaided. It was too wide for Seteth, with all his unexplained strength, to jump unaided. But apparently, it was not too wide for a horse and a pissed-off rider to jump unaided.

With a great crash of weapons, armour, and broken undergrowth, Alois landed on the same side of the ravine as Claude. He carved a swathe through the vegetation as he did, branches snapping under the combined weight of him and his horse as they charged forwards with the momentum of the leap undertaken. Alois swung his axe through the thicker obstacles that came up, hacking and slashing until he came to a stop just in front of the tree and Claude himself.

There was a second’s pause as the men looked at each other, one stunned and one enraged, and then Claude turned and sprinted uphill with the rumble of hoof beats close behind him.

xxx

Alone on the other side of the ravine, Seteth sighed as the knight and thief were lost to view. No bridges were within a day’s travel, and Claude could be over the border of the kingdom by the time Seteth got to one. Assuming he evaded Alois. Even attempting a similar mode of crossing to the other two men would take too long. There was simply no way Seteth could apprehend Claude and meet his partner by that evening as originally planned.

The canyon where he was supposed to have taken the sword was hours away in the wrong direction—no more than a barely visible shadow to the west—and Seteth stood in the silent forest for a long moment until his shoulders drooped ever so slightly. There was no other way to contact her; he had no choice but to do so in person.

“…She is not going to take this news well.”

Chapter Text

At the edge of the mountains, the forest was thicker than anywhere else in the kingdom. Huge trees that four people couldn’t wrap their arms around towered over streams and overgrown rocks; it was if the trees were trying to merge with the start of the great range. Shafts of light filtered through, pale yellow streaks that illuminated patches of moss. The heavy silence of isolation hung over everything, broken only by the odd chirp of birdsong—and the cacophony of an armoured knight blundering about on foot.

Uncomfortably high up one of the numerous massive trees, Claude listened to Alois crashing around after tethering his horse nearby. The forest was too thick to ride in, and Claude has used the seconds gained by Alois realizing that fact to climb into a cedar and hide. His bright yellow tunic could probably pass for a sunbeam if he kept still, but he kept to the thickest section of branches all the same.

Globs of sap from a cracked section of bark warmed as time passed, turning glossy in the light. Shouts and threats echoed. Alois’s footsteps approached, slowed, and then receded, the noise no longer accompanied by the crack of his axe cutting through the greenery that impeded him. The whickering of his horse was soon the loudest thing, and the sun marched on…even when Alois didn’t.

Standing in a sparse clearing, the captain finally stopped. He stood for a minute, searching the trees, before he sighed so forcefully he appeared to deflate. With his feet dragging and his head down, he turned back.

His polished armour was easy to track within the forest even without the noise of it, and Claude waited until Alois was almost out of sight before easing himself away from the trunk of the tree he was camped in. Cedar bark stuck to his chest like the shedding of a woodsy cat, but he had fortunately avoided most of the sap and was able to brush himself off.

After waiting another couple minutes to be absolutely sure he was alone, he finally selected a sturdy branch and used it to swing to the next tree rather than climbing down. Claude didn’t think it was likely, but there was a chance that the knight-captain had set traps; and Claude wasn’t about to get caught now. He felt a twinge of regret when he remembered the slump of Alois’s shoulders when he’d given up, but it was only a sword and Claude needed it more.

The trees grew so close together that it was relatively easy to travel through them without leaving the canopy, heading deeper into the mountains by way of their branches. Once he made it to higher ground he could get his bearings and start his journey east, hopefully making it out of the kingdom before the king decided to do anything extreme like mobilize the army. Claude had at least a day’s head start, but he needed to use at least part of that lead to rest. His arms were going to fall off soon if he didn’t.

An old oak was bent over a couple trees ahead, its trunk the perfect spot to catch his breath, and Claude flopped down on it with a sigh. What he really needed was an abandoned building, or an inn. Somewhere with a door that would give him a couple seconds warning if someone came after him. But the only inn he knew was over half a day away, and he needed to sleep before then. There was an uncomfortable metallic tang in his mouth from his wild run across the kingdom, and fatigue settling into his thighs.

Claude sighed again, and a stiff breeze rattled the branches around him. The other trees moved with the wind too, waves of green swaying silently apart from the faint whistle of buffeted leaves. He thought it was pretty, the way the branches filtered the light and made it dance.

Until one of them caught him a resounding wallop across the shoulders.

He let out a surprised yelp at the sting in his back, ducking to protect his head from any more arboreal-based beatings. Another branch cracked down near his ankles, and he scrambled from the oak down to the ground. The wind grabbed at his clothes and he barely stifled another yelp when a greenbrier grabbed them too, pricking his skin with its hooked thorns. Claude made an undignified leap followed by an even less dignified crawl through the undergrowth, ducking and swearing until he found shelter behind an old tree that wasn’t surrounded by blood-drawing plant life.

The wind picked up speed as it whipped through the forest, setting everything outside the haven of the broad pine into a violent dance.

Picking brambles from his trousers, Claude scowled as he looked around. He couldn’t see the oak anymore; it, along with his sense of direction, was nowhere to be found. The debris getting into his eyes didn’t help either. He couldn’t return to his original path the way things were, but walking aimlessly wasn’t an option; there was a chance he could end up going back the way he came, or farther from the border. If the wind didn’t die down soon, he wouldn’t have anywhere to go.

…Except maybe down the path that was right in front of him.

He blinked, staring at the worn dirt road. It was overgrown and definitely unused, but it was just as definitely a road; meaning that it not only was going to lead somewhere, it was most likely going to lead somewhere abandoned. The trees sheltered it from the worst of the wind, and no thorns were in sight.

It was perfect.

To be safe though, Claude pulled the sword from his belt when he stood. He swapped it with his bow—that was thankfully still on his back and unbroken after his fight through the thorns—and settled the hilt near his shoulders. He wasn’t convinced the blade wouldn’t break if he hit it too hard, and he didn’t want to accidentally waste it on an altercation with bandits because it was the first weapon he grabbed. Better to have his bow in hand.

Still, he had faith the sword held a secret of some sort: he just needed to figure out what. And while the Sword of the Creator was too light and dull to be of any use, it did at least make it easy to carry.

Something that Claude was thankful for when the road turned upwards.

Normally, the steep incline would have been nothing for him…but he didn’t normally climb castles, leap ravines, and run from mounted guards beforehand. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he tried to keep himself from panting too obviously, and ignored the shaking in his legs as he kept walking. He just had to put one foot in front of the other, and not get ambushed. Easy. There would be shelter at the end of the road, and he could rest properly then.

As focused as he was on watching where he put his feet, Claude didn’t notice when the trees thinned out. He just kept going, picking his way carefully so he didn’t trip and turn an ankle in his exhausted state; there would be no living down something like having to use the Sword of the Creator as a crutch. Even to himself. It wasn’t until the clouds parted and the light hit him that Claude finally looked up, and when he did his jaw dropped. For a moment he just stood there, mouth open, wondering how what lay before him wasn’t marked on any map he’d seen.

Claude had been hoping to find an inn, maybe a recluse’s hut or a bandit’s abandoned hideaway. He had not expected to find an entire damn castle.

A massive stone wall rose ahead of him, the yellowish stones almost golden in the sunlight. Flat-topped and peak-roofed towers pierced the sky, more of them than he could count at a glance. The main building was set back from the first wall he’d noticed, rising up out of the hills and blurred by hazy wisps. It was a different style than that of the kingdom’s castle: blockier and practical. There were plenty of crenelations and narrow windows, so those in possession of the place could rain arrows down on unwelcome guests.

That last thought snapped Claude out of his reverie at last, and he ducked out of sight from the two towers that flanked the road. There were no guards stationed within view, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there at all.

Picking up a few rocks, Claude crept closer to one of the guard towers as he watched for any sign of life. It was too quiet for people. When the wind blew into his face it brought no smells of smoke or animals, nothing to suggest the place was staffed. Even if it was inhabited by a person or two, they wouldn’t be able to tell if one extra body was camped out in an unused corner.

He just had to make sure he got in unseen.

Climbing halfway up a nearby tree, Claude knotted together a makeshift sling out of a pair of handkerchiefs he kept for that exact reason. Selecting a rock and a target, he slid away from the trunk. It took a moment to find a rhythm that didn’t bring the sling into contact with the branches, his arm working to keep the momentum as he swung the cloth strips above his head. When the rock started to hum, he aimed and let it fly.

His first shot was too high, nearly hitting the battlements. His second was too low. For his third, he carefully selected the biggest and smoothest piece of granite from his handful and fit it into the cloth cradle with utmost care. He took a breath, and then he pitched it at the tower as hard as he could. It sailed through the window and hit somewhere inside, a sharp clack of stone-on-stone echoing in the silence.

There was no cry of alarm from within, or from the wall. No one appeared to check on the errant piece of nature that had just been launched at them. Claude waited on his tree branch for a few minutes longer and, when still nothing changed, made up his mind: he was going to take shelter in the castle, and he was going to get some damn sleep.

That didn’t mean he was going to stroll through the main entrance, though. He climbed over the wall as far from the towers as possible, and set off for the main keep. The continued lack of sound as he approached the second wall reassured him that the place was abandoned. None of the footpaths looked like they’d been used in years, but Claude still picked the most overgrown of all to follow.

Ivy covered the stones in front of him when he came to a stop at last, offering decent handholds to climb the final wall. Claude made sure everything was lashed securely to his person, and started hauling himself up. The mortar was luckily old enough that he could chip footholds out of it with the toes of his boots, since his arms were being very clear about how much he’d already used them that day. He heaved a sigh of relief when he made it to the top, and slung his leg over.

Later, he would blame his exhaustion for not noticing that the garden looked too nice for something that was supposed to be without human influence. As it was, he simply hooked his ever-practical piece of rope over a merlon and slid down the wall into a patch of flowers—at the exact same moment a woman rounded the corner from inside the building.

Claude didn’t even have time to register anything beyond the woman’s pale green hair before she whipped her dagger out of the sheath at her hip, and lunged forward to slam the pommel into the side of his head. Stars exploded in his eyes, and he marvelled at the complete lack of expression is her eyes. With a face that cold, he actually considered himself lucky she hadn’t stabbed him instead.

Then the darkness dropped over his thoughts, and he finally got to take that break.

xxx

Byleth looked between the unconscious stranger sprawled in the garden and the dagger in her hand; all the years spent training on straw-bound dummies had apparently paid off. She hadn’t even thought about what to do about the intruder before she had struck him.

The problem was that she has no idea what to do now.

Rhea or any of the tactical manuals in the bookshelves upstairs would suggest that Byleth kill him. But the thought turned her stomach even as she turned the man over. He was still breathing, his face neither green-tinged nor ashen. It seemed like he was unharmed from the blow to the head, his warm brown skin looking healthier in comparison to her own pallid complexion when she placed her fingers against the pulse in his neck. He even had hair trailing over his jaw, just long enough to be soft—as she discovered when she impulsively touched it. Some of the saints pictured in the monastery books had facial hair, and Byleth found it nicer in person than she had imagined it to be.

She shook herself from her thoughts and sat back on her heels. Her eyes went from his face to his thick tunic, and down to his well-travelled boots. An idea was forming at the back of her mind, and Byleth wasn’t sure if she even wanted to entertain it yet. She was sure that she needed to bind the man so he couldn’t run off before she made that decision, though.

Using the rope hanging over the wall, she secured him to the old wooden chair she kept just inside the archway so she could sit in the garden when the weather permitted. The bow and arrows he had on him were of no interest to her, but the sword on his back gave her pause. There was something about it that felt familiar…like she had seen it before. Puzzled, Byleth sheathed her dagger to hold the odd blade. It felt…right.

Fingers tapping against the hilt of the sword, she pulled the chair out of the sun and stood across from her captive—and waited.

Chapter Text

Claude woke up with a fiercely pounding headache, tied to a rickety chair in the middle of a clump of chamomile. Directly across from him stood the strange woman who had knocked him out, and in her hand was the relic he had worked so hard to acquire.

Equal parts irritation and curiosity burned under Claude’s sternum as he looked his captor over, thoughts flashing rapidly through his mind even as he surreptitiously tested his bonds. Was this the mysterious employer who had requested his aid? Green hair was rare in the kingdom, but not unheard of. Green hair and eyes were much rarer, though; it seemed like too much of coincidence for her to share that Seteth, who was the only other person he’d met with that colouring.

His annoyance spiked when he realized she’d tied him up with his own rope, but it faded when he also realized what a terrible job she’d done of it. It was almost laughable. The binding holding him to the chair went from his collarbone down to his elbows, his hands behind his back and bound at the wrist; that was it. Not only were his legs free, but she had left the knots right above his hands where he could reach them. It was either an elaborate plan to trick him into complacency, or she had no idea what to do with a captive.

Stretching his shoulders against the rope to get himself some wiggle room, he hid the beginning of his escape behind a smile and cleared his throat. When the woman’s eyes met his, he greeted her as cheerfully as if they were sitting down to tea.

“Hey, sorry I dropped in on you so suddenly. No one answered the door when I knocked.”

The woman blinked at him. Paused, blinked again. “…There’s no one else here.”

“Really? Just you all alone in a big place like this?” Claude raised one eyebrow, keeping his gaze locked with hers as he started to pull at the knot.

“I live with my mother. How did you get here?”

It was Claude’s turn to blink, then. There were several things he took pride in: his archery, his ambition, his ability to read other people like a book…and choosing what other people read from him. Just to name a few. But at that moment, he was more than a little disconcerted to find that neither of the last two items on that list were working on the green-haired woman before him.

Her face showed so little that he was starting to wonder if she felt anything to see. She had the same expression talking to him as she had when she knocked him senseless. And his most disarming smile—that should have painted him as harmless and softened her guard—slid over her without effect, like oil over water.

When she crossed to him and grabbed the chair, pulling him forward in the blink of an eye, Claude might have jumped if he wasn’t tied down. Without visual tells, he had no warning before she was already moving.

How did you get here?” She asked again, ever-so-slightly louder than before.

Claude had to admit, it was discouraging that the first emotion she seemed to be displaying was suspicion. Especially since he’d played Seteth so perfectly! Balanced unsteadily on the front two legs of the chair as she waited for an answer, a position clearly meant to threaten him, Claude decided to try his luck with partial honesty.

“Look, I just walked here. I came from pretty far away and I needed to take a break. I didn’t mean to trespass.”

“You’re a traveller?”

“That’s one way to put it. I would say that I know my way around.”

The woman nodded at his response, as if it pleased her, though her overall demeanour remained the same. “You could take me to the kingdom.”

“Whoa, hold on.” If Claude’s hands weren’t tied together he would have held them out in front of him. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Why don’t you untie me and we’ll introduce ourselves properly before we start talking about going places?”

“No.”

No? You can’t keep me tied here forever, lady Green.”

All he got for his comment was a slight shrug, but Claude wasn’t far enough along with the knots to let the conversation end there. She might hear him chafing at the ropes in the silence if he did. Not to mention he needed to dissuade her from the whole idea of his being a tour guide. He was going to have to crank up the charm; so he took a deep breath, and did exactly that.

“You’re really not going to let me go? Come on, what if I bring on the smoulder?”

He turned his most sparkling, winning smile on the woman as he imbued his tone with just the right amount of teasing. He threw in a wink for good measure when she only stared at him in response, holding it as she slowly looked him over—

—and dropped him.

If it wasn’t for the instinctive twist of his hips that sent him sideways and the chamomile breaking his fall, Claude might have been knocked unconscious. Again. As it was, there were leaves squashed into his face and a flower precariously close to going up his nose. The sharp, usually soothing scent of the plant did nothing to calm him as he tried to avoid inhaling anything physical along with it.

“…Well, you broke my smoulder.”

He was only half-joking, looking up at her impassive face as he sighed. He was pretty sure he broke something, anyway. Rolling to his knees, like a turtle with a chair shell, he spat out a bit of greenery stuck to his lip. The impact had jarred his head and everything else sore on him. Including the new bruises he had to add to that list.

Before he could right himself, the woman pulled him upright again with ease; there were definitely muscles in her arms her hadn’t noticed at first. He was starting to think that maybe she wasn’t a naive shut-in, and that maybe she was a mercenary who just didn’t get out much. At least her hands were gentle when she brushed the crushed chamomile from his face and tunic.

“Why do you want me to take you to the kingdom anyway?” Claude asked, trying to scratch his chin on his shoulder and deciding not to puzzle over what her cleaning him up had been a show of. “A map would be just as good of a guide. Less chatty, too.”

A hint of pink coloured the woman’s cheeks, and she looked down briefly. If Claude hadn’t been actively scrutinizing her expression for some hint to what she was thinking, he probably would have missed it. He supposed that in anyone else it would have been the equivalent of turning bright red and stammering the next three sentences they attempted to say.

“You don’t have a map, do you?” Claude asked, with a sinking feeling in his gut. She confirmed his question with a quick shake of her head, and he sighed. “Okay, well that still leaves why you want to go at all.”

“To see the lights.”

“The lights?”

“The ones that fly.” The woman gestured with her free hand, her fingers moving to represent the movement. “They happen once a year. On my birthday."

“Oh, those lights.”

Claude nodded, even as warning bells started to ring in his head, smiling at her as his hands busily pulled apart the last of the knots. He kept the loose ends held tight in one fist so he still appeared to be tied up as he shuffled back a couple inches. The doorway the woman had originally come from was directly behind him. If he used the chair to trip her up, it would hopefully give him enough of a head start to make up for the fact that he would be in her home territory. Once he avoided immediate capture he could come back for the sword while she was sleeping and get far, far away.

“Sorry, lady Green,” Claude said, “I’d love to help you see them, but I have to be going.”

Leaping up, free from his bonds at last, he kicked over the chair as he ran for the door—

Ssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhuck!

 —and froze, staring at the blade buried in the stonework next to his face. The blade that stretched all the way back to the woman, impossibly segmented but still connected to itself. The glowing, red blade of the formerly dull sword that was radiating so much power that Claude could feel it beating against his cheek in waves like a heartbeat.

The Sword of the Creator, alive in some cloistered woman’s hands.

Green hair. The lights on her birthday. The sword. His mind roared to life with a hundred questions even as everything else seemed to stop. How long had she been out here? How old was she? Did her mother have the same colouring? Did it matter? Why didn’t he know what the missing princess’s name was?

But most importantly: how was he going to have her wield that relic to make his dreams come true?

Chapter Text

Claude swallowed hard, his mouth dry as he tried to take everything in. It had been only seconds, but it felt like days since the dormant blade had nearly shaved off some of his beard. He had been right about the sword having a secret, and his instincts told him he didn’t have the key to use it himself; he needed this woman. Plans he had followed for years were scrapped, shelved, or rewritten in an instant, and he huffed out a held breath.

Escape was no longer an option. He turned around so he wasn’t craning his head over his shoulder, eyeing the sections of the sword that still stretched just above neck height. As non-threateningly as possible he walked back; keeping his pace slow until he stopped next to the chair he had been so eager to leave behind. He set it upright again, dusting it off as solicitously as if it were alive.

“So…what did you say your name was, again?” He asked the woman, hands held up at chest height and palm out as he gently laughed.

“…Byleth.” She dropped her arm, and the sword reverted to its former state of innocuous beige with a crack.

Byleth? Good choice; I can’t think of anything to make out of that one.” Claude tapped his lips mock thoughtfully, his humour coming back at the way her forehead creased the slightest bit at his teasing. “And yet, I must try.”

He needed her trust; an affectionate nickname was a good place to start if he was going to figure out how to charm her for real. It also gave him time to calm his thoughts and nerves. Running from the guards had been less stressful than dealing with her so far.

She watched him in silence. Her hair was almost white in the light reflecting off the stone walls, and it reminded him of something he had seen that morning. Claude smiled, and the perfect solution occurred to him.

“Wait, I’ve got it. Sunshine.”

“Sunshine?” Byleth blinked at him, glancing up to the sky as if expecting to see herself.

“Yeah, Sunshine. Your hair is like the forest when the sun hits it. And it’s a lot easier on the old tongue than Byleth.”

Not to mention if his hunch was correct, he wasn’t about to run around calling her by her real name. He wasn’t sure about the mother she’d mentioned. If she wasn’t the birth mother, well…if Byleth’s birthday was the same, others things might be as well. That could get messy, and Claude liked to avoid that kind of thing.

“Hm.” Byleth absorbed his reasoning after a few more seconds, her almost-teal coloured eyes unfocused. “What’s your name?”

“Ah, right. Claude von Riegan, at your service: your humble guide and a person of no other importance.” He swept a playful bow.

“…Really?” Byleth still wasn’t really looking at him, and by extension wasn’t buying into his scheme.

“Actually, no; I’m also an excellent cook.” Still no reaction. “Aaand since you now know everything about me, I propose we use the rest of the daylight to make for the border.”

“Border?” Those bright eyes snapped to his face, focusing on him in an instant. Whatever state her emotions were or were not in, she was no fool. Too bad. “The lights are not at the border.”

“Of course, but your birthday is a week away.” Claude picked up his bow—that was somehow still unbroken—and settled it on his back once again. “I thought we could do a little travelling and come back later. I was heading somewhere with that sword, you see, and the kingdom doesn’t quite like me right now.”

Byleth’s expression turned so cold and hard that for a moment Claude thought she was going to knock him out again. He took an instinctual step back, and her saw her grip tighten on the sword hilt when he did. Something akin to red lightning crawled over the blade, though it didn’t segment as it had before. Claude froze, and forced himself to stand his ground. When he didn’t move for a minute Byleth relaxed, and the weapon dulled.

“I will take no risks regarding this.” She glanced at a window in the castle to her left, and her gaze was visibly troubled. “I have only one chance.”

Well that was something to unpack later—preferably somewhere else, if Byleth’s concern was anything to go by. Claude stifled a groan. Somewhere else wasn’t going to be somewhere he wanted to be, either. As if it wasn’t bad enough that Byleth was resistant to his charm, she was stubborn and strong. Pushing his luck might lose him everything, not just whatever good humour she might have. She honestly reminded him of the folks back at the inn.

Hm…that was something to consider.

“If you insist on staying within the kingdom, I may know a place.” Claude’s mood lightened considerably as he warmed to the idea he’d just had. “It’s maybe a day from here, quiet little spot. We could lay low for a while; wouldn’t want to overwhelm you with noise and people, right?”

He mentally pumped a fist triumphantly when Byleth nodded her approval of the suggestion, but his celebration was short-lived; he had to scramble to catch up when she turned and walked away. Her stride was longer than he expected from her height, and her lack of facial cues had surprised him again. She was halfway down the hall before he caught up; right before she went into what he assumed was the kitchen.

A pot of congealed oatmeal sat half-eaten on the table, as bland as Byleth’s expression. She ignored it and wordlessly started packing a bag with food and water from a cupboard, before ducking into the pantry. Starting from the door, she methodically went through all the jars and bags to make sure they were well sealed even if she took nothing from them. Claude followed to poke around whenever she wasn’t looking, but found nothing more exciting than dried herbs and flowers that looked medicinal in nature; the stores were mostly grains and preserved meat, simple things that could have been acquired themselves.

“You’ve got a decently stocked castle for two people,” he said as he rummaged through a wooden chest, while Byleth was elbow-deep in another, checking seals himself to hurry things along, “did you hunt all this game?”

“It’s a monastery, and I’ve never been outside the walls. Mother caught the game.” She shook her head, snapping the lid of the chest shut as she changed topics with as little warning as everything else. “I’m done; we should go.”

Byleth’s mother was sounding more and more like someone he didn’t want to meet, and Claude glanced up the high windows to gauge the light.

“Just one thing,” he said, stepping in front of Byleth to stop her from marching out the door. “I don’t know if you know this, but you have the same colour hair as the kingdom’s missing princess. We go out with you looking like this and we’ll never get anywhere. They might cancel the celebration just so the king can question you. Next thing you know your, er, mom, will be involved and it’ll be a mess.”

“You will not discourage me from seeing the lights.”

“I’m not trying to.” Claude pulled the sheaf of dried flowers he’d nicked from the panty out from behind his back. “I’m just saying you should try something…darker.”

xxx

Kneeling over a pail of dye in the courtyard, Byleth watched her soon-to-be guide from the corner of her eye as he massaged crushed flowers into her hair to deepen the colour. The robes from that morning were draped around her shoulders, an impulsive decision she didn’t regret even as they became spotted and ruined. Cloudy, bluish water dripped from her bangs onto the silk and then the grass, staining them both—along with the mismatched leather gloves pulled to Claude’s elbows.

His hands were gentle, even though Byleth had seen the frustration in his eyes when she’d backed him into a corner regarding his taking her to the lights. Every time a strand of hair tangled in the clumsy gloves he apologized and did his best to free it without pulling, even though she had done far worse to him than the pulling out of hair. She could see the lump on the side of his head even through her bangs, and yet he treated her with care.

Byleth wasn’t sure what to make of his kindness.

She knew he wanted something from her, and yet he seemed more genuine than her own mother. Rhea wanted something from Byleth too, her actions always seeming to suggest that every smile was weighed against the day she got what she wanted. But Claude wiping drips of water from her cheek as he told her they were done, with the handkerchief he’d materialized from some unknown pocket, was disturbingly without motive. As if he would have done it even if he didn’t want something.

And Byleth wasn’t sure what to make of that…or of him.

Chapter Text

“Where are we going?”

“I told you, somewhere quiet. Quietest place in the kingdom, in fact.” Claude whistled a sprightly little tune as he vaulted over a fallen log. “Only place that’d quieter would be over the border.”

“Mm.”

Apart from that hum, Byleth failed to react and returned to the silence she’d maintained for the last few hours. It seemed she knew enough about the kingdom to know which way the castle was, regardless of never seeing a map. Or at the very least, she wasn’t accusing him of leading her astray—even after his little quip mentioning the border again. She just kept following him through the forest, accepting his directions without comment.

Her gaze wasn’t even on Claude when he glanced over at her, and he wryly noted that it was drawn by just about everything else. He might have joked about the appeal of his face if she didn’t seem so utterly absorbed by the things around her. A stream stopped her in her tracks, resulting in a full minute of playing with pebbles as she dabbled her fingers in the water. One stone was pocketed. A weathered roadside shrine to the goddess was inspected and hesitantly touched. A huge boulder was circled; once, twice, three times.

It wasn’t until he saw the look of concentration on her face as she traced the outline of a carved route marker that an uncomfortable feeling crawled down his spine. The near-reverence with which she inspected hacked knife marks was no longer quaint, it was chilling. Because she looked like she was trying to memorize every last thing she saw.

As if she would never see it again.

“So this place we’re going,” Claude blurted into the stillness, suddenly overwhelmed by the need to talk, “is called the Golden Deer Inn. You’ll see the sign before anything; it has a stag on it, with curving antlers that reach out towards the sky.”

“…I do like deer.” Byleth climbed up a half-rotted stump to inspect the mushrooms on it, before she slid down into the moss on the other side. “How far is it now?”

“Not far. We should be there before the dark.”

They lapsed into silence yet again when Byleth only nodded, and Claude bit his tongue before he could say anything else.

He wasn’t going to gain anything from his usual chatter if she didn’t engage with it. No matter how much he wanted to take his mind off the way he could see the slightest hint of awe glinting in Byleth’s eyes when she saw something new. Even wildflowers were given the dignity of being inspected before she walked through them. He wondered if she knew she had stopped looking over her shoulder ages ago, the fear of what—or who—might follow them being overridden by everything a forest had to offer.

Claude was convinced she was happy, and that he wanted to keep it that way. She didn’t belong locked away in the monastery if something as simple as nature gave her joy. His gaze flickered to the sword. He could offer her adventure in exchange for her help, if only she would follow him…

The moon was starting to shimmer behind the colours of the dusky sky when they turned the second-to-last bend in the road before the inn. Reds and purples bled through the clouds as the sun set, softening the edges of the landscape as the visibility faded. Claude almost lost Byleth a couple times, her dark clothing and dull blue hair blending into the shadows even though she was pale as a ghost. The third time he felt his heart jump in his chest because she’d vanished from sight, he jogged to her side and cleared his throat to get her attention.

“Hey, think you could stick a little closer? I can’t take you anyway if I can’t find you.”

Claude wasn’t expecting her to say anything in response, but he wasn’t expected her to nod and put her hand in the crook of his arm, either. It took actual effort not to jump from the unexpected contact. For some reason his focus was utterly caught by the gesture, and he couldn’t draw his attention away. He swore he could even hear the soft rasp of the calluses on her hands against his sleeve.

“Is it fine?” Byleth asked, and her already light touch started to withdraw.

“Of course,” Claude said automatically, but he also knew that he meant it even after the words popped out. He shook his head and let her draw away though, gesturing ahead of them. “But I guess it is a little unnecessary.”

Three times as tall as Claude was, the sign for the Golden Deer Inn towered over the road markers at the crossing. Painted bright yellow and shaded to look like actual gold, it caught the light until it nearly glowed. Across the field stood the inn itself, a big wooden boarding house that had more permanent residents than guests—and was currently lit up in a way that suggested they were all home. Byleth’s eyes darted between the sign and inn, enraptured by them so much that Claude smiled crookedly.

“Ignatz did the sign; yet you wouldn’t believe how long it took us to convince him he should do art as a trade. You can compliment him yourself in about a minute if he’s around.”

Byleth nodded, falling into step behind Claude as he turned and headed up the roughly paved road towards the inn. He noted the familiar horses and which rooms were lit, mentally tallying up who was going to be inside. There weren’t any carriages or animals in the stables he didn’t recognize, and Claude thought they might just be fortunate enough for there not to be any strangers around. So with luck, they wouldn’t be recognized. At least by anyone Claude didn’t approve of.

“Although…think you could ease off on the armed and dangerous look before we get there?” He waved at the sword Byleth had kept in her hand since they’d left the monastery. “I promise we’re not going to hurt you.”

“What else would I do with it?” Byleth asked. “I have no sheath.”

“You got me there, Sunshine.” Claude mentally cursed as he looked around. The Golden Deer were good folks, but even they might have something to say if they recognized the relic. “Hold on a second.”

Running to the woodblock, Claude grabbed the leather apron that someone had left behind. It was the work of a moment to roll it up in such a way where it could be tied with its own strings, and afford at least a semblance of anonymity to the saw-edged blade. When Byleth only stared him down in response to him holding out his hand for the weapon, he sighed and handed the makeshift sheath to her instead.

“I can’t believe you still don’t trust me,” he said, pretending to be wounded by her skepticism—judging by her continued unimpressed frown, she didn’t buy it. “I’m not going to take it and run off before I get you to the kingdom. I won’t even grab the sword and swim for it the second I get you to the lights.”

“Do you promise?”

“Of course.”

Claude winced at how fast he replied, knowing it sounded dishonest. But he meant it. The Sword of the Creator was useless to him without Byleth, and he had no intention of leaving her behind. Regardless of who she was, or wasn’t; she belonged in the world. He put a hand over his heart when they stopped at the inn’s front door, the gesture cliché but the feeling behind it sincere.

“You have my word. I won’t even think about leaving your side until after your birthday.”

Or ever, he added to himself when she gave the slightest of accepting nods. But he wasn’t going to explain things he didn’t need to, so he turned his saccharine pose of sincerity into a bow, sweeping out his arm. He took hold of the door handle, and grinned up at Byleth through the wayward pieces of hair that had fallen over his eyes.

“Shall we?”

Chapter Text

When they threw open the door, the warm light of the Golden Deer inn engulfed them—followed shortly by the residents. Byleth took an instinctive step back as every person on the main floor rushed towards them, and Claude’s attempt to reassure her was cut off when he was affectionately tackled. Stuck in a headlock that he knew better than to fight, he tried to signal to Byleth that all was well and hoped she knew what he meant.

“Claude’s back!” Leonie yelled, for whose benefit Claude didn’t know since everyone had already seen him. She grinned when he performed an exaggerated wince at her shout, and dragged him the rest of the way inside.

Her red hair had gotten so long since the last time Claude has seen her that it was gathered off to the side in a ponytail. She’d gotten taller too, and she gleefully ruffled his hair once she let him go so the rest of the inn could get at him. They too were all visibly older since he had seen them last, and Claude had to swallow a sudden lump in his throat as they gathered round with smiles and cheers.

Raphael scooped him up into a bear hug that lesser men had died from, and Claude’s ribs creaked before he managed to free an arm and shove Raphael away just enough to breathe. With his lungs taken care of, he submitted to being affectionately crushed and called out greetings as the others laughed at him. Ignatz was trying to be polite about it, but all three girls were openly giggling over the fact that Claude’s boots were a foot off the ground; not that he’d ever accuse Leonie of giggling to her face.

Her caution having turned to curiosity, Byleth closely watched the entire exchange from where she was still standing by the door. Her grip on the sword had loosened and her head was tilted slightly to one side. When Raphael finally put Claude down, the blond noticed her gaze and turned to her with a grin.

“You want a hug too, miss?” He asked in his always too-loud voice, arms outstretched.

Byleth looked at Raphael, considered, and then—to Claude’s great surprise—nodded. Raphael gallantly let her keep her boots on the ground when she came forward, pulling her into his barrel chest for the relatively gentle embrace he reserved for his sister and Lysithea. Claude was pretty sure Byleth still got the air knocked out of her though, if her quiet huff of breath was anything to go by.

When Raphael let her go she stepped back towards Claude, but her stoney expression was soft around the edges as she glanced around the inn. She waved a hand in a vague gesture, and Claude leaned closer to hear her over the sound of the inn.

“Who…who are they?” Byleth finally asked him, her cheeks tinged pink.

“They’re the finest the kingdom has to offer,” Claude said more honestly than he intended, the lump coming back up in his throat. He quickly coughed a couple times, putting his hands on Byleth’s shoulders and moving her in front of him before anything else slipped from his mouth.

“Time for some belated introductions!” He called out.

“About time!” Hilda said, bouncing up from her chair to reach out a hand to Byleth. “Don’t mind Claude’s awful manners, he’s incorrigible. I’m Hilda, what’s your name?

“It’s—”

“—Far too long for such a short stay,” Claude cut in smoothly, hoping he showed no outward sign of the fact that his heart had just slammed into his chest, “I prefer to call her Sunshine, myself.”

Byleth seemed not to mind the nickname he’d given her, for which Claude was ever grateful. She simply nodded in agreement with his statement as Hilda pouted. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Lysithea frowning at them with narrowed eyes though, and he had to stifle the urge to look guiltily at the sword. Had the wrapping slipped? There was a reason why the white-haired girl was his chess partner. If anyone could guess who Byleth might be…

“You’re unbelievable Claude,” Lysithea complained, stamping her foot and nearly causing him to fall over with relief. “You give this woman a gallant nickname like that yet insist on calling me a kid?”

“But Sunshine is such an apt observation!” Ignatz lit up like the natural occurrence in question, leaning forward to inspect Byleth’s face. “Your skin is practically luminous somehow, and your eyes are so bright! Would you let me paint you? Just a sketch at least—”

“Ignatz!” Hilda shoved the young man away in horror that was only slightly exaggerated. “You do not just ask a strange woman if you can paint her, you sound like a creep!”

“Don’t worry, Iggy just likes painting! You can paint me and my muscles instead if Sunshine says no,” Raphael laughed, as Ignatz turned a deep shade of red and stammered out apologies.

The girls were still tsk-tsking over Ignatz’s comment as they assured Byleth that the boys were really just harmless idiots, and Claude was trying to placate Lysithea when a peevish voice drawled out from an upstairs railing and caused half the people gathered to turn towards it.

“I can tell from the ruckus that a certain someone of ill-repute someone must be back.”

Back ramrod straight, Lorenz looked down at Claude with a frown as pointed as his pale face as he tucked a silk rose into his lapel. His glare focused on the state of Claude’s tunic, fussily readjusting his own immaculate clothing as he posed at the rail. But Lorenz visibly deflated—to Claude’s amusement—when Hilda rolled her eyes, and his dignity took a further hit when Lysithea snorted.

“Oh, give it up Lorenz,” Leonie said, flapping a hand dismissively at him as the final blow that had his shoulders practically slumping. “Come down and meet the new girl.”

“By the Goddess, if I must.”

Something about the comment caught Byleth’s interest, her eyes flicking to Lorenz as her mouth opened, and Claude was relieved when Hilda unintentionally cut her off by loudly clearing her throat. Everyone stopped their friendly arguing yet again, Ignatz physically covering Raphael’s mouth to stifle whatever comment was almost made. Hands propped on her hips and scowling at the now-mostly-silent inn, Hilda scolded them thoroughly on behalf of their “new girl”.

“Ahem! Now that everyone is done being too energetic, I think it’s time for proper introductions, don’t you? The poor thing has no idea who anyone is but me!”

“You’re absolutely right, Hilda.” Lysithea sighed and offered her hand to Byleth. “I’m Lysithea, and I’m the mature one. Don’t let anything Claude tells you convince you otherwise, regardless of my age!”

The others crowded around to offer their own names and contradict each other’s claims, cheerfully offering various hospitalities on behalf of the Golden Deer. By the time Claude managed to extract her, Byleth’s cheeks were pink enough that Claude wondered if they were going to stay that way permanently. She sighed in evident relief when he pulled her into the relative quiet of the kitchen though, and sank into a chair as he began to rifle through the cupboards.

“Raphael is setting you up in the room next to mine, or he will once they’re all done arguing in there” Claude called out, head in the cold storage box. “How about a snack while we wait? I can’t even remember the last time I ate today.”

“Yes.” Byleth was looking at the doorway to the main area when Claude turned, her expression unreadable once again. “Are they always like that?”

“Depends what you mean by ‘that’.” Claude started cutting slices from a loaf of bread after he set a pan on the stove. “Loud? Definitely. Friendly? Usually. You might have got a different welcome if you didn’t come in with me but I wouldn’t put money on it.”

Claude could almost feel Byleth’s gaze switch from the doorway to his back, and he fought to keep from visibly tensing up. If she was searching for something, he wasn’t going to volunteer an answer he hadn’t planned on. So he continued cooking as if he hadn’t noticed her watching, glancing over his shoulder to smile at her as he cracked eggs into the sizzling pan. But Byleth didn’t respond beyond a slight tilt of her head, so Claude shook his and focused on not burning himself.

When he handed her the toast, topped with tomato slices and a fried egg, Byleth took it almost mechanically. Her eyes dropped to her plate in vacant deference, and she stuffed the edge of the bread into her mouth without even looking at it; as if eating were a chore to be endured, rather than something to be enjoyed.

Then, as Claude watched with consternation, she froze. Her cheeks turned the faint pink it had been in the main room again, throat bobbing as she hastily swallowed the bite she had taken before she broke into a coughing fit. She covered her mouth with both hands, the sword dropping under the table. But she waved him back when he rose from his seat, so he sat back down and waited.

“So…are you all right?” He ventured to ask after a minute, once he was reasonably sure she wasn’t about to choke and have her adventure outside the monastery be very short-lived.

“Mm.” Byleth nodded, and sipped from the goblet of water Claude had poured for her. “I…It was unexpected.”

“What was? The egg?”

“Yes. It was so different from what Mother used to make.” She shrugged, took another bite, and chewed thoughtfully before swallowing. “More…flavoured.”

“Flavoured?” Claude almost choked on his own bite of his snack, trying not to laugh and spray food everywhere. “I barely seasoned this! If you think this is flavoured, I should take you to my hometown someday. They have some truly tasty dishes.”

“They do?”

“Absolutely. In fact, come here a minute.”

Before long, the kitchen was in a state of disarray that was going to get Claude scolded within an inch of his life as he pulled out his stashes of herbs and spices for Byleth. He got her to smell and taste them as he described the food they would be used with, rattling on about how much more could be done in the kitchen than boiling or baking. Not even a taste of dried pepper dampened Byleth’s interest. The candles burned low as Claude talked long into the rest of the night, and even when his stock of tales burned as low as the light did, Byleth’s green eyes never left his face.

…Maybe he’d get her over the border after all.