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Chapter Text

Looking back on it all, Jeralt supposed that Byleth's bouts of eccentricity (insanity) could be traced back to even before she was born.

 

"The baby keeps kicking me. Why does the baby keep kicking me?!" His wife had bemoaned on a near daily basis as she'd rubbed a hand over her bulging stomach. "That's good and all, but do they have to do it so strongly? At all hours of the day and night?! I swear! They get it from your side of the family," she'd accused him every single time with a look that could set coals aflame.

 

"Really? My family?" Was what he'd always respond, with a pointed look at the nearest holy object for good measure.

 

Because, truth be told and never mentioned, Rhea could pin him down in five seconds flat if she wanted to, and that she had done it. Without a single strand of hair out of place. In broad daylight. And had just left him there like an errant pebble whilst she'd gone off to attend to her duties without so much as a second look back.

 

The topic of their baby's ceaseless kicking had gone on to the point that it became a common thing to laugh at or rant about to each other or with others who were willing to lend an ear to them.

 

And then, suddenly, Jeralt had found himself assigned with a mission that would take him weeks away from his wife who looked about ready to pop out their kid. He'd left, of course, not because he'd owed Rhea that much or because it was his duty as the Captain of the Knights of Seiros.

 

He'd left, because his wife had looked at him in the eyes and said,

 

"We'll be fine. Get going, Jeralt, because the next time you see our baby and I, you won't have to feel their kicks through my belly."

 

So he'd left. He'd left his pregnant wife with the assurance that he'd have a family when he came back.

 

Only, three months later, he returned to the sight of Rhea standing near his wife's gravestone and his daughter who did nothing but cry and cry and cry in her arms and—

 

"You may leave her in my care," had been the first thing Rhea had told him when he'd approached her. Not 'I'm sorry for your loss' or 'We'll get through this together' or even an angry 'Why didn't you come home sooner?'.

 

Instead, she'd smiled kindly at him and offered to take care of his child whilst all the while never straying her gaze away from his daughter with the air of somebody who'd finally gotten what they'd wanted.

 

She'd looked nothing like the leader who'd saved his life, nothing like the Archbishop who took in orphans and worried over the less fortunate, and not even close to the woman who'd pinned him down because he'd gotten a bit too handsy with his yet to be wife.

 

A shudder had wracked its way down his body at her words and at her eyes.

 

Who are you, his mind screamed even as he took his wailing daughter into his arms and said, quite firmly,

 

"No."

 

It all really went downhill from there.

Chapter Text

Things really did go downhill from there, but in that systematic kind of way where an instruction manual was involved complete with step-by-step procedures and even solutions to any possible complications in order to make sure that the proverbial ball really did go downhill.

 

Problem was, Jeralt had never been one to stick to the manual.

 

Bigger problem was, Rhea was.

 

'You could imagine what went down next,' was what Jeralt would always jot down in his journal after a lengthy rant about Rhea's unorthodox methods to have him leave his baby in her care and not be a large part of his daughter's life.

 

Jeralt was never one to curse but—

 

Fuck. That.

At first, Rhea had been subtle about it. Offering to take his daughter off of his hands if ever he was too tired, giving packages of goat milk to him, and sending caretakers with S+ childrearing skills his way.

 

He'd politely rebuffed each one, except for the milk of course because resources of the non-human kind were to be appreciated. After a lengthy time in the apothecary to have it inspected of any questionable contaminants in it, of course.

 

Eventually, Rhea realized that her passive tactics would never work so she'd switched to the offensive via sending him out on missions that would bring him days or weeks away from the monastery and from his daughter.

 

'Hah. Fool me once, you ain't gettin' a second chance,' he'd written once he was a day out of the monastery, surrounded by his most trusted of men, a baby bag slung onto his back, and his still sniffling daughter strapped safely to his chest and appropriately dressed for the weather.

 

There was a certain amount of danger to doing that, but Jeralt much preferred having his daughter in danger and within his sights over his daughter in danger and out of his sights.

 

And besides, there was a reason why he was called the Blade Breaker. He could still do that and crush bones whilst all the while keeping his daughter in relatively safety.

 

Rhea hadn't liked that one bit, had gone so far as to scold him and to look disappointedly at him when he'd gotten back; still, she'd done it again and gave him another mission the day after, and he'd still strapped his daughter to his chest, rode away, fulfilled the mission, and came back with his daughter in one still crying piece.

 

Rhea learned soon enough that things were definitely not going to go her way, stopped, and settled for giving him big eyes to which he ignored.

 

The cold war between the two of them had gone on to the point of ridicule that even his own men and her nuns had taken to exchanging long-suffering looks whenever they'd butt heads.

 

But, Rhea aside, Jeralt was only glad that his daughter was a relatively easy baby to take care of. If you ignored the hours on end of wailing she did every day. Or the endless creepy staring she did whenever she was quiet. Or the copious amounts of milk she ingested. Or the equally copious amount of shit she shat.

 

Jeralt had heard the horror stories of raising a child, and was only glad that his kid didn't end up with a wiener that could surprise attack him with pee to the face.

 

But the crying. Jeralt could only handle so much of it, and had dragged himself to his most trusted healer and—

 

Huh.

 

No wonder Rhea made eyes at his daughter. She'd done something to her, something that left his daughter with a heart that didn't (never?) beat and—

 

—and he set everything he ever loved and worked hard for aflame. Everything, but the bundle he'd hidden in a cradle high up in a tree just a few kilometers from the monastery.

 

He'd sent in his resignation that same night, made sure to look Rhea in the eye as he did so, and left the monastery with nothing but the clothes on his back, his lance, his mount, and a pouch full of coins.

 

 

 

He knew deep down that he'd be leaving his wife's grave forever, but she'd understand. She'd have probably done the same thing for their daughter, who was now properly back in his arms and thankfully snoozing the night away.

 

For our daughter, he thought, as he rode as far as he could out of the monastery's reach and even farther.

Chapter Text

My daughter, Jeralt came to realize one night as he was in the middle of spoon-feeding his child, does not have a name.

 

It was a terrible thing to realize, especially when his daughter was just a month shy from turning a year old.

 

"You don't have a name," he said, looking down at his daughter who in turn looked up at him as she chewed on her bread crumbs soaked in milk. "You don't have a name," he repeated, much louder this time, but immediately kept his panicking to a minimum once he remembered the company he was keeping.

 

Composed of old friends or not, the mercenary company that Jeralt had recently created in order to earn a quick fortune was still a mercenary group. There were dangers to waking a sleeping mercenary, such as there were dangers to waking a sleeping dragon. 

 

His daughter burped. "Ah," she expressed in agreement before she, almost patronizingly, patted him thrice on the cheek with her stubby hand. "Da-da," she intoned, as if that one word could raise his spirits up.

 

It did, of course, but Jeralt didn't weep this time around like the first time his daughter had called him that.

 

His eyes did tear up just a bit though, but only because of the cold wind that passed by his face and—

 

Oh.

 

His eyes widened.

 

It was a silly thing, more of an inside joke between he and his wife that had started back when they were barely friends and he'd decided to send a missive to her that contained a word he hadn't noticed he'd misspelled until she'd brought it up the next time they'd met to tease him about it.

 

It had been the first time he'd seen her smile like so.  The corner of her mouth had tilted just so, enough to show the white of her teeth, and her eyes had truly brightened in a way that made her seem ethereal.

 

Beautiful, had been his first thought of seeing her smile so freely and so happily. Jeralt had been all too aware of what a beauty she was ever since they'd first met; yet, to see her grin so vibrantly at him made his insides twist as if a knife had been twisted ferociously into his gut.

 

I want to see you smile like that all the time, had been his second, which he'd accidentally voiced aloud and consequently left both him and her blushing like a pair of inexperienced teenagers.

 

And all because of one word he'd butchered in the midst of alcohol.

 

"Byleth," he murmured. For violet, the color that which she adored the most that even a part of their wedding rings held it. "Byleth sounds like a good name, yes?" 

 

"Ba," his daughter, Byleth, replied, before scratching the inside of his wrist in demand for more of that accursed crumbs soaked in milk.

 

Well, Jeralt decided as he fed the blackhole that was his daughter. It's not like you have any choice in picking your own name.

.

..

...

..

.

It seemed, Jeralt observed later on, that Byleth either really liked her name because she took every chance to babble it out to whoever was willing to listen to her, or really hated it because she wouldn't stop grimacing whenever she said it.

 

"Ba-ed," his daughter crowed, before her features twisted into a grimace as if a bird had shat in her mouth.

 

"Aw," one of his men cooed, unaware of how seemingly disgusted his daughter was with something. "Yes, that's you. You're Byleth."

 

"Ba-ed," his daughter repeated as if to agree, grimacing again but this time with a much deeper frown on her face.

 

Jeralt closed his eyes, well acquainted of the impending tantrum that's about to come.

 

"Ba-ed. Ba-ed. Ba-ed. Ba-ed, Ba-ed, Ba-ed," his daughter pronounced, each one getting louder than the one before, voice practically dripping with frustration. "Gad! Gad, gad, cow!"

 

"Is...Is your daughter trying to call for a cow god?" One of his female mercenaries whispered to him as every mercenary within the vicinity took a decent step away from the near-screaming infant on the baby blanket.

 

"I honestly don't know," Jeralt answered truthfully, remembering the time he'd repeated the words back to her and she'd looked at him as if he was the one who'd said something dumb. "But whatever it is, it's not a cow or a god. You and the others would do well to remember that when talking to her," he warned her so as to save them all from being patronized by his daughter.

 

"Midi!" His daughter squawked in the background. "Dodi! Do-di!"

 

Whatever it was his daughter was trying to say, it proved to be quite the entertaining endeavor that neither he nor his company were able to keep their eyes away from.

 

"Was her mother foreign?" Another of his men asked. 

 

Jeralt could only snort to that.

 

What a weird daughter he had. 

Chapter Text

Jeralt had unwittingly assumed that his daughter's eccentricities would eventually mellow out as she grew older.

 

That was, unfortunately, not the case.

 

"Byleth, honey, what do you have there?" Jeralt asked, looking up from the battle schematics once he'd spotted a smidgen of dark blue from the corner of his eye.

 

Without even stopping, Byleth met his gaze, the gleam in her eyes matching the gleam of—

 

"SHE'S GOT A KNIFE!" One of his men cried out, torn between diving out of the way or getting in Byleth's path to stop her.

 

Apparently, in the face of an armed five-year old with one hell of a resting murder face, even the sturdiest of his men would choose to clear out than be in the line of stabbing.

 

"Captain, sir, your daughter—" His second called out to him, but Jeralt was already on the move before he could even hear the end of that sentence.

 

Swiftly, he grabbed the back of his daughter's collar and disarmed her in one simple maneuver.

 

"Kiddo," he started gently, vaguely taking note of how much more simpler it was to disarm with the intent to harm than it was without. "You can't just keep running off like that with sharp pointy objects. You might hurt yourself," he explained to her.

 

By the look on his daughter's face, it didn't seem like an apology or anything resembling such was lying on the surface of her tongue.

 

Instead, his daughter merely raised an eyebrow at him. "How so?" She asked and, where others would have found it as her mocking them what with the uncharacteristic blankness on her childish face, Jeralt understood that she was merely curious if by the twinkle in her eyes was anything to go by.

 

"You could trip and stab your eye out, for one." For emphasis, Jeralt covered one of her blue eyes with his huge hand. "Or maybe hit something more vital. Like an artery, which is something that, when stabbed, would make you lose a lot of blood. And you need a lot of blood to keep on living."

 

It didn't occur to him that he really shouldn't be listing thirty seven ways of how one could maim and/or kill themselves with a sharp blade simply by tripping to his not-yet-prebuscent daughter.

 

(Even a decade later, he still wouldn't get it because he'd be doing the same thing to another girl.)

 

"Oh," Byleth uttered, but there was a small smile curling on her lips instead of the slight widening of eyes in horror that Jeralt had initially expected. "Then I just won't trip," she said as if it was that simple, before she made grabbing motions for the dagger.

 

"It's not that simple," Jeralt wryly answered, keeping a hand on his daughter's head to keep her away.

 

"It is. I've never tripped before, and I won't." The way she said it was strange. It reminded Jeralt of how Rhea would speak of her past as they were sharing a drink on the monastery's balcony. Back when they were friends. Back when he could trust her with nearly anything, even his life.

 

"You don't know for certain," were the words that came tumbling out of his mouth out of their own accord. "Accidents happen. You can never predict the future, and even that's a finicky thing," he said, his wife's grave on the forefront of his mind.

 

Byleth froze.

 

When a few seconds passed in a tense silence, Jeralt worried that maybe he might have crossed a line this time around until, from underneath his large hand, his daughter looked up at him with big eyes and a look he hadn't seen since she was just a crying babe.

 

"We can't," she agreed, her two tiny hands clutching his wrist with a kind of strength that no child her age should possess. After a painful moment, she relaxed her grip. "But that should give us enough reason to become stronger, shouldn't it?"

 

Something within Jeralt crumbled, as it always did when his daughter was involved.

 

So young yet already thinking about troublesome things like that , Jeralt thought with a sigh that rattled his very nerves. He wondered if it was because of the lifestyle they led, but, as much as he wanted to raise his daughter as normally as other parents usually would with their own spawns, he needed to put food on the table more.

 

"Kid." Internally, Jeralt delighted in the way Byleth's face scrunched up in irritation before it was ironed out. "That doesn't mean you have to start now. You can barely lift a sword. Remember last week?" He pointed out that time when she'd flipped a sword up into the air in her attempt to lift it but only managed to end up on her bum.

 

When Jeralt spotted the reddening of his daughter's ears, he'd mentally clapped himself on the back for a job well done. If there was one method to shutting Byleth up and making her back down from her stubborness, it would definitely be to point out anything she was embarrassed about and let her sulk over it for a few days, which was fine for him because a safe daughter was better than one that wasn't.

 

Unfortunately for him, that wasn't the case this time around.

 

"But..." At his daughter's meek voice, Jeralt placed his attention back on her.

 

It was a big mistake.

 

"I want to." Oh no. No, no, no. His daughter was pulling out her secret weapon and, try as he'd like to, Jeralt just couldn't look away. "Let me learn," she demanded in a voice that had a higher pitch than usual, looking up at him with eyes that were definitely bigger than before with her bottom lip sticking out to emphasize the way her cheeks had puffed out.

 

His resolve was weakening. Jeralt could practically hear it being wrenched apart like the cathedral doors whenever they opened.

 

"Byleth," he started, scrambling to compose himself and maybe—

 

"Please? "

 

Fuck.

 

Fuck it all.

 

"Only hand-to-hand," he relented, all too aware of his men carefully watching the scene playing out before them. "We need you to start building some muscle before you can move on to weapons." Weak, weak, weak, was what his mind chanted to him. Some hardcore mercenary you are. "And we start at dawn, you hear me?"

 

Byleth, his devil of a daughter, immediately discarded her mask at the assurance that she'd won and had the smugest look he'd ever seen to grace her face.

 

In retaliation, Jeralt noogied her and found pleasure in the cries of protests and complaints he managed to squeeze out of her.

 

What a weirdo,  Jeralt thought in all fondness, but honestly, what five-year old would ask for combat training when they could be playing?

Chapter Text

"Isn't the captain's daughter a bit odd?"

 

It is a question that's brought up by one of the newer recruits whose blade has yet to be broken in by flesh and blood.

 

Amidst the company's groggy awakening, it rings out loud and true.

 

Can't I have a day , Jeralt thinks in exasperation, looking down at his bowl of venison stew whilst struggling to recall what misdeed he'd done in the past to warrant such unfairness.

 

Still, regardless of his woes, he lifts his head and gives the recruit a tired expression. "Why do you say so?" It had kept a great deal of effort to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

 

It should have been obvious enough to whoever saw them that it was clearly he who could most see how much of an oddball of a tyke his daughter was. Never had he met such a young child who could speak so fluently and act so maturely like his five-year old daughter, and, as curious as he was, Jeralt preferred to not ask questions and take it at face value for the meantime.

 

It wasn't like his daughter would transform into a dragon because, last he'd checked, neither he nor his wife had any dragon-transforming abilities.

 

"Uhm! Well, I don't mean any disrespect. No, sir, captain, sir, just a bit of curiosity," the recruit—Ulyiss? Eunice? Maurice? Ugh— stammers out, whatever courage he'd had to ask such a thing having shriveled up into a small naked being that cowered only in the darkest of corners. "But, well, it's just that, I have a lot of younger siblings and nephews and nieces, and I used to look after some of the children in my village and—"

 

Jeralt zones out at the vomit of words that passes through one ear and comes out the other without so much as colliding with his brain.

 

How does Byleth wake up so early  and still have so much energy after training , he wonders as his gaze strays towards his daughter who is, weirdly enough, doing something so very normally childish.

 

"—Captain, sir, don't you think your daughter is a little bit odd?"

 

Jeralt tears his gaze away from the sight of his daughter picking flowers , what the hell , and graces the recruit with his attention once again. "Do you see what she's doing?" He asks the recruit, just to make sure.

 

Alarmed, the recruit—Chrit!— and everyone else turn to look at his daughter.

 

"Yes? Um she's...picking flowers?" Chrit asks, looking bemused like every other green recruit. "Is something the matter? Are the flowers poisonous?!" Chrit looks alarmed now, about to set down his bowl and rip the flowers out of Byleth's hands.

 

The woman beside him stops him before he could even move a foot, and forcefully drags his ass back down on the ground.

 

"Flowers?"

 

"Byleth's picking flowers?"

 

"Oi, oi, oi. Did any of you do something to the kid?"

 

"Is it a bad omen? Are we gonna get raided?!"

 

His senior mercenaries converse (and worry) amongst themselves; really, he can't blame them, because even he   is unsettled by his own daughter doing such a mundane thing.

 

"Byleth!" He calls out, and is awarded with his daughter's piercing blue stare. "What are you doing there?" He asks for the very wellfare of his entire company.

 

His daughter blinks slowly at him before returning to her task. Just when Jeralt had thought she hadn't quite heard him right, his daughter stands up from her crouch and comes running up to him with a boquet of white flowers with three petals in hand.

 

"...That's a nice thing you got there," Jeralt finds himself complimenting her, unable to find any other words to use. That's what you usually say right? He mentally asks himself, completely unpreprared for Byleth doing such an un-Byleth thing.

 

Byleth's little nose scrunched up for just a moment. "These aren't for me," is her curt answer.

 

Something clicks inside of Jeralt's head. "Are those for me?" He guesses, a warm bubbly feeling welling up inside of his chest at the possibility of Byleth gifting him flowers.

 

That is, unfortunately, not the case.

 

"No," Byleth says, lips in a firm line as usual.

 

Jeralt didn't know until now how one word could make his very insides churn with both disappintment and loathing for whoever was going to receive those flowers.

 

Just as Jeralt had been about ready to shoot glares at the mercenaries who he knew were quite close to Byleth, his daughter expounds on her previous answer.

 

"These are for my friend's sister. She's supposed to have died this year," Byleth explains, as if she was merely mentioning the weather. Yet, there was no denying the way she'd said it in a pitch that was lower than usual and how her eyes had strayed towards the ground.

 

Meek and uninscrutable as it may be, the picture that had been painted is that of Byleth truly sad and, by the black shirt she is currently wearing despite owning a majority of green and brown ones, in clear mourning.

 

Whose sister died? Is the clear message that is silently communicated amongst Jeralt's mercenary company as they look one another in the eye.

 

No one comes forward.

 

Absolutely no one comes forward.

 

"...And this friend of yours is who?" Jeralt asks in slight exasperation, looking accusingly at his men when none confessed. He merely narrows his eyes at the wounded expressions he receives in turn.

 

"Oh, you haven't met him yet," is her airy response. "I'll introduce you guys to one another the next time I see him."

 

Despite whatever prodding he and his men do to Byleth, his daughter remains stubbornly quiet about this mysterious friend of hers and ignores them for the remainder of their trek to their next client.

 

Alarmed and wary of a possible intruder slash stranger stumbling upon his daughter and even befriending her, Jeralt makes the necessary precautions to prevent this friend from approaching his daughter ever again without his knowing. He'd even gone and placed his most perceptive men on night duty on most days of the week, slept lightly beside his daughter every night with one hand underneath his pillow and near his dagger, and issued an order for everybody to keep an eye for anything suspicious and to directly report to him immediately if they'd noticed something.

 

By the end of the month, when nothing out of the ordinary had occured and not a single strange soul had been spotted near their company, Jeralt is forced to relax his hand before tensions string too high that actual damage to their internal affairs might occur.

 

"Maybe she made an imaginary friend," one his men confers with a slight laugh that is soon joined in by some others. "Because, you know, isn't it a bit lonely having no one else your age to play around with?"

 

Jeralt finds logic in those words, despite the ridiculousness of it.

 

Because, for how ever much she acted like an adult, Byleth is still very much a child, and maybe she'd wanted a friend and had decided to make one for herself.

 

Even if she'd imagined said friend to have a sister that died .

 

With no other viable argument, Jeralt chalks it up to that, snorts at his own caution, and decides that maybe he'd bring his daughter to the next village square to have her play around with other children for an hour or so.

 

Still, though it's never brought up again, Jeralt never really does forget about this 'imaginary' friend of hers.

Chapter Text

Where is she. Where is she. Where is she.

 

Jeralt's eyes fleet from one place to the next, in desperate search for his daughter who had gotten herself separated from him in the midst of the chaos.

 

He cleaves through the bandits that stand in his way as if he were shearing through grass, and pays no heed to both the blood that flies everywhere and the cries that echo in the shadows of his steps as he frantically searches left, right, in front, behind—

 

There.

 

He catches sight of blue hair. Relief boils deeply in the space beneath his heart, before a treacherous terror fills his veins to the brim at the sight of a bandit nearly as large as he with an axe gripped overhead.

 

There's a scream bubbling in his throat as the blade of the large axe is aimed for the crown of blue.

 

He sees it strike through, sees the abyss it creates, sees the blood that wells up and spills like the sweetest juice from the tenderest of meat, sees the pearly whiteness of his daughter's skull and—

 

He blinks, feels something tug his insides back, and all that's within his gaze is his daughter turning around just in time, meeting giant axe with tiny sword, and, as if the Goddess herself had gone down and kissed his daughter's forehead, miraculously overcoming the overwhelming power struggle that sends the axe flying and gives her the ample opportunity to dig deep between the ribs.

 

When she pulls her sword with a twist, a splatter of blood lands on her cheek

 

The bandit goes down onto his knees, before his throat is slit, the blood from the sliced artery spraying onto his daughter's face and painting her in a mask of red, and he slumps onto the ground with his life pooling beneath him.

 

Jeralt doesn't think of the implications of such, adrenaline and experience overriding his brain at the moment. Where Byleth stands, he doesn't see just daughter. He sees one of his own, and he runs over to her and watches her back as she watches his.

 

They fend off one bandit after the next, until all that's left is a plain of corpses that surround him and her.

 

The sound of his men cheering reaches his ears. He hears one of them shout out CLEAR!, and he finally drops his bloodied spear onto the ground and kneels down in front of Byleth—his daughter, his only one, his world.

 

His world who is covered in blood and is breathing heavily.

 

Goddess she looks like a mess.

 

His hands hover her shoulder, and he's unsure what to do, but then he sees the look in her eyes and he's reminded—

 

His daughter's never had any nightmares, no matter how much she cried as a babe, cried til' her throat was probably bloody sore, and he had no idea what to do but cradle her and cradle her because all he knew was to hold on and never let go.

 

His daughter never had nightmares, and usually slept through the night like a rock.

 

But her waking periods were a different story, one Jeralt dreaded because there'd be times when she'd zone out, eyes blank, and carefully fixated on the road ahead and no matter how many times he called out to her, she wouldn't budge until he'd physically touched her and—

 

—and Jeralt does the only thing he's known since: he holds onto her and doesn't let go.

 

"Dad, no, I'm dirty," are the first words out of her mouth.

 

Unbelievable.

 

Jeralt wants to laugh, but the one that bubbles in his chest isn't one of happiness so he keeps it restrained.

 

"It doesn't matter," is his gruff reply. "Goddess, I almost thought—I saw it, but, Godess. You're alive. Thank fuck," he manages to breathe out, and feels a tremor beneath his skin and knows all too well that this one doesn't belong to his daughter.

 

There is a feather light sensation on his head, and Jeralt vaguely registers it and doesn't give it much thought because who fucking cares.

 

"I'm fine," his daughter murmurs to him, wrapping her little stringbean of an arm around just a quarter of his torso. "I'm fine, dad. I'm fine. See? Just blood, and it isn't even mine, and a lot of it's on my shirt," she says with a little sigh. "I like this shirt," she admits to him in a sulky manner.

 

At that, Jeralt does laugh. "I'll buy you all the shirts you want, kiddo. Just...are you really fine?" He pulls away to thoroughly inspect her and finds that her self-assesment had been pretty spot on.

 

Aside from the blood that’s practically soaking her through, she looks as if she'd just taken a bath. A very bloody bath, but a bath nonetheless and looks none the worse for wear.

 

He checks twice just to be sure. No bruises, no scratches, and not even her clothes look torn.

 

The sword in her hand is bloodied to the hilt, though, and Jeralt wonders just how many she'd slayed with it.

 

"You're...really alright?" He asks again.

 

His daughter blinks at him before she nods her head. "I just want a bath," she says and, before his very eyes, flicks her sword off of blood in a way that looks as if she's done this every day of her life.

 

Jeralt watches the way the errant blood splatteres across the cobblestone, a few inches away from a pool of blood that bled from a bandit's corpse, and swallows the lump in his throat

 

"Are you..." He doesn't know what to ask, the words getting stuck in his throat.

 

But his daughter always seems to know what's going on in his head, because her gaze flickers to the rest of the corpses near them. Corpses belonging to people they'd killed. Both of them.

 

"Better them than us, right?" The corners of her lips lift upward in a small bland smile and Goddess, he really is a terrible father because he throws his head back and barks out a harsh laugh.

 

"That was terrible," he comments after the wry delight in his heart had died out. "Don't you wanna vomit or something?" He asks just in case, remembering back when he'd had his first kill and emptied even that fancy souffle he'd eaten the morning before into a ditch on the side of the road.

 

Only the worst of moments succeeded one's first kills, after all, and none of his superior and juniors before were exempt from that.

 

But Byleth only blinks. "I am a bit a hungry," she says to the carnage she'd just dealt, to what should traumatize her. She looks down at her stomach that makes its presence known by growling rather loudly. "But bath first. There's a river nearby, yes?" She asks, taking his hand, and leading him off to who knows where to have, as she'd said, a bath .

 

It is once he's soaked through his clothes in the river, looking like some kind of weirdo with red stains that bleed out into pink in the water, that Jeralt closes his eyes and tries really hard not to think over how much shaken he is over his daughter's first kill than she is.

 

A gentle touch on his arm makes his eyelids flutter open.

 

His daughter looks up at him, naked as the day she was born since she still has enough wits about her to to strip and wash her clothes at the same time she's washing herself.

 

"I'm okay," she repeats, patting him on the arm.

 

Somehow, Jeralt finds it in himself to squeeze out the words clawing up in his throat. "And you're not bothered with killing?"

 

Aren't you scared? Is the question that remains unsaid, because never has he ever seen Byleth scared. Sad, yes. Happy, of course. Irritated, at times. But never scared.

 

"If it keeps us alive, then yes," she answers without skipping a beat, looking him straight in the eye as she does so. "And we're mercenaries, aren't we? It's practically in our job description."

 

"I don't recall hiring you," is his automatic response, because as much as a smartass his daughter is, she'd gotten that trait from somewhere and it was definitely from him.

 

Byleth looks at him, in that same way when he'd parroted back at her gad, cow, midi, sodi when she was nearly a year old. "I'm your daughter, aren't I? Shouldn't it be automatic? Like, a two-in-one deal? The company gets you, so it obviously gets me too. No take-backs."

 

Jeralt doesn't quite know how to answer that one, finding himself shellshocked for not the first time by his daughter's hands.

 

We're in this together. You and me, is what she means, and he doesn't know what to feel about that.

Chapter Text

Jeralt has always dreaded the day his daughter would bring home somebody who would be making eyes at her, because he knew deep down that this somebody would then proceed to fall for his beloved daughter’s irresistible charms, and such a momentous event could only end in either of two ways.

 

It’s either this somebody would break her heart and have her develop trust issues, OR this person would court her til’ the ends of the earth, let themselves be beaten black and blue by any concerned family members for her hand, proceed to marry her, give her one or a dozen children, and leave poor old grandpa Jeralt all alone with his canister of booze to warm his cold heart.

 

Jeralt is all too aware of the workings of the minds of both a prepubescent and pubescent human. He’d gone through both stages, experienced both the best and worst that life could offer him during those trying times, slept around a bit (or a lot), and somehow managed to saddle himself with a wife after working his ass off to win her hand in marriage from an overprotective Archbishop.

 

Jeralt knows this intimately and he fears.

 

The only comfort he can give himself is that he has a few more years—a few more years to get his shit together, hatch up several well-laid plans plus their contingencies, and embed into Byleth’s mind that Jeralt would always and will always be number 1 in her heart no matter what and that no daughter-stealing dastard could ever pry that from his hands even if they’d gone dead and cold

 

He has this one comfort, and Jeralt turns to it every time his worries rise.

 

Jeralt turns to it and finds himself relaxing into the delusion of assured providence that all will be definitely well and he’ll still be able to see his daughter and whatever grandchildren she’s popped out or taken in every single day til’ he’s buried six feet underground and next to his wife.

 

He relaxes, and that is his one mistake.

 

Because, in the face of his very much odd daughter, things aren’t always the case.

 

Never has been, and never will be.

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Everything, quite frankly, goes to shit when Byleth turns eight and asks for a pet of her own.

 

“What kind?” Jeralt asks, instead of the intelligent why that he really should have started with.

 

"A dog or a cat," she says, and there's a kind of mullish jut to her bottom lip when she says this as if she'd been denied of something she'd wanted her whole life.

 

Jeralt only delivers what he's seen. "No. They're useless in a fight, pick another."

 

"Then, um, a horse?"

 

"I have a horse. We can share," is his smart reply.

 

Byleth isn't quite happy with that. "Then get me a pegasus so that we don't have to share."

 

"Too expensive. Next."

 

"A lion then."

 

"Sheds too much and might eat you in your sleep."

 

"Fine. What about a deer?"

 

"To what? Make venison out of? If you wanted to start a farm for it, I could have left you at that last village."

 

Byleth makes a sort of horrified sound, as if the very thought of killing animals appal her. Jeralt knows all too well how much of a fucking hypocrite she is because he's seen her eat two and a half deers in one sitting after having nothing for a whole day.

 

"An eagle then!"

 

"It'll fly away before you could tame it, and might die in its cage before it'll learn."

 

"Then what canhave for a pet?" His daughter demands, brows furrowed deeply, and looking far more adorable than scary with those chubby cheeks of hers.

 

Jeralt mulls over that and admits that he may have been unfair about this with her. After a moment of thinking about it, he relents just a bit, "You can have the first thing you find so long as it can help you when your fighting." Then, he adds, "Also, you'll have completely responsibility over this. You'll be the one to feed it, train it, and pick up whatever garbage it's left. I don't want our camp to smell like  poop just because you neglected to pick up after it."

 

Byleth looks up at him with hope in her eyes. "Promise?" She asks, and she's wise to ask that whilst widening her eyes just a tad bit to melt his insides.

 

"If it dies in less than a fifth of its average lifespan, you're never getting another pet," Jeralt finalizes, but doesn't quite disagree.

 

"Deal!" She cheers, before she switches from daughter mode to mercenary mode and jumps at him with a hatchet she'd pulled from some indistinguishable pocket in her back.

 

Jeralt doesn't think too much of it after that. He doubts she'd be able to find anything domestic here in the temperate highlands of Oche deep within the Imperial territory. The worst she could find would be a badger, and he doubts Byleth would even want that.

 

Jeralt, who is quite well-versed in the culture and language of Byleth, knows what his daughter wants in a pet before she even asked and knows that she wants one that: is cute, can kill, and be ridden.

 

There is no animal fitting all three of that description and Jeralt mentally claps himself on the back for being such a genius.

 

The very next morning, Byleth disappears, and Jeralt thinks nothing of it. His daughter sometimes disappears for an entire day to go hunting by herself, and Jeralt is confident that this is just another one of those days and stays back in camp to train his men to the ground.

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..

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His daughter has been gone for three fucking days and Jeralt is freaking the fuck out .

 

Every search party he's sent out so far has come back with daughter-less hands, and Jeralt is just a minute away from abandoning his company and taking matters into his own hands.

 

He already has his lance in hand, its wicked tip glinting quite dangerously amongst the light of the torches that had been set up around camp as a guiding light for Byleth to come to in case she'd gotten lost.

 

He turns to face his men, memorizes each and every face as best as he can, opens his mouth to give off a curt speech, and stops just when he hears the undeniable voice of his missing daughter announcing that she's back.

 

He whips around, prepared to take off and interrogate her of her whereabouts, but stops short at the sight that meets his eyes.

 

His daughter is there, looking no worse for wear if not for a little messy-haired and some sooth on some parts of her skin as if she'd climbed out of a building on fire. The clothes on her back are the same as ever, and the weapons she's armed with are still the same ones he'd gifted to her.

 

The only sizeable and noteworthy difference is the boy accompanying her and wearing an oversized top that drapes down to his knobby knees.

 

He’s also soaked in blood.

 

Whose blood, Jeralt doesn't know, but what he does want to know is what that little shit is doing with his arm around his daughter's shoulders.

 

Byleth, meanwhile, takes one good look at the expression on his face, understands, and irritatingly enough points out, "you promised.”

 

Jeralt remembers promising to let her have a pet.

 

He doesn't recall letting her have some half-feral boy from who Goddess knows where, is probably diseased, and is currently making eyes at her this very instance.

 

Less so heart eyes and more so murder eyes, but eyes nonetheless!

Chapter Text


Instead of the heartwarming reunion Jeralt had initially hoped to have with his daughter, what he gets is an awkward one with them sitting in the medical tent and an unconscious child in between them.

 

This fucking sucks,  he thinks with meaning as he takes the opportunity to inspect his daughter’s terrible souvenir.

 

With the blood cleaned off and clothes exchanged for a fresher set, the image presented before him is a significant improvement from the feral one that the boy had been sporting just before he’d collapsed onto the ground in a dead faint.

 

A significant improvement, but still not a pretty image to look at either.

 

“Where’d you find him?” Jeralt asks in a perfectly calm voice, his gaze taking note of the greasy tangle of platinum blonde hair that tumbles over the bed and the stark paleness of the kid’s skin that stretches taut over his bones.

 

A child that appears to be about his daughter’s age, but looking more like a tiny beanstalk in comparison to her for reasons that don’t look positive if the bruises that are littered about his body are anything to talk about.

 

Jeralt stares particularly hard at the pattern that collars the kid’s neck in a mockery of a necklace. He’s well familiar how bruises so stark can be fashioned in such a way, and he spots the way they diverge into murky rivers that only human hands can create.

 

Kidnapped or not, it’s obvious that this child had been abused and neglected purposefully.

 

“I just did,” is Byleth’s answer in between munches of a roasted pheasant’s leg.

 

“Oh no you don’t,” Jeralt finds himself blurting out, because this is one thing he isn’t letting his daughter cha cha out of. “Byleth, for all I know, you just kidnapped a child. And kidnapping a child is against the law. We could have people we don’t want chasing after us,” he tries to explain to her.

 

If Rhea got any word of Byleth’s existence—

 

Jeralt quickly shuts that thought down, knowing how wild his emotions went whenever he imagined scenarios wherein Rhea would find out and—

 

Okay. He’s shutting it down. Now.

 

Byleth gives him an unimpressed look. “We kill people for a living. I’m sure we break the law at least twice a week these days,” is her bland reply before she snorts in quite the unladylike manner.

 

Jeralt feels a migraine announcing its presence within his head. “That’s not the point and you know it.” He mentally pats himself on the back for not raising his voice. Why do I even love you he thinks with an exasperated sigh.

 

Byleth bypasses his stare to look at the unconscious child. “Nobody will come looking for us,” she says.

 

Jeralt has nothing to say to that because, as much as he wants to both deny it and be proud of it, his daughter has never lied to him. Hide things, yes; Lie to him? Never, and Jeralt has maxed out his skill for sensing when shit’s being thrown out at his face, both the literal and metaphorical kind.

 

Even on the off side that she gets it wrong, Jeralt always has plan Z: migrate to another region, dye their hair, and change their names, no matter how much bitching Byleth may do about having to learn a whole new language.

 

He’s snapped out of his thoughts by the particularly loud sigh his daughter breathes out.

 

“Why do people have children if they’re only going to hurt them?” She questions in a small voice with a little frown on her face. She looks very much like she wants to kill somebody, but Jeralt knows her well enough to spot the way her eyelashes flutter as a sign of how stricken she is over this.

 

Jeralt exhales deeply at this, pinching the bridge of his nose as he does so. He didn't expect having to give this kind of talk to his daughter the minute she came home. He more or less expected her to bring home the carcass of a bear to gloomily munch on after being unsuccessful in her pet hunt, yet Byleth really did go beyond his expectations and brought back a child and questions that Jeralt never wanted  to talk about with her.

 

"Not every parent is like me," he says after quite some mulling over, finding it incredibly ironic that he now falls under the good dad category when he allows his daughter to kill people for money. "Some have children for the purpose of having something that could become great, or to have somebody to look after them when they get old, or to mold them into their ideal person that would inherit everything they owned without worrying about their properties going to the wrong hands," he explains to the best of his capabilities.

 

Byleth's nose scrunches up at that, yet she doesn't say anything. Her gaze continues to stay solely trained on the blonde kid's face, something unreadable swimming in the dark depths of her blue eyes.

 

Unable to cope whenever his daughter gets like this, Jeralt stands and moves over to embrace her, letting her sit in his lap in the process. When his daughter clutches his shirt, he responds by rubbing both the crown of her head and her back.

 

Just when he's about to throw in the rag and mentally admit to himself that he's absolutely  shit at the comforting department, his daughter speaks up.

 

"It was a dark place," Byleth mentions, and Jeralt barely hears it because it's slightly muffled by his furs. "I found him locked inside of a chest and got him out. It was...harder to get him out of the house though, but...he told me that his father locked him in there and just. Just left him."

 

Involuntarily, his arms tighten around his daughter's small frame that trembles just a tiny bit.

 

"I don't want to return him to that place," she tells him in a pitch higher than usual that Jeralt recognizes.

 

His own daughter is begging him, and Jeralt can only count on one hand the number of times she's begged this earnestly from him.

 

He can also count on exactly no  hands the number of times he's ever rejected her.

 

Jeralt's hardly about to add a finger now.

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The boy hasn't spoken a single word since he'd woken up. He doesn't talk, but he sure as hell has caused one hell of a migraine for Jeralt what with his terrible beside manner to anybody who has approached him so far.

 

Without a proper name to call him by, Jeralt has taken the initiative and internally nicknames him Shitface, because that's what Shitface is going get if he doesn't stop growling at his bishops who, thank the Goddess, only snort at his pathetic attempts to bite off their fingers whenever they come too close.

 

Jeralt is only relieved that, though usually nosy, the rest of his men have gotten used to Byleth's bouts of Eccentricity and have reacted accordingly: deciding that this is Jeralt's problem and continuing onto their duties without a second thought.

 

He's just another snarl away from booting Shitface off his bed when Byleth comes marching in, a platter of smoked pheasant in hand.

 

Jeralt watches as his daughter takes in the mess that Shitface had caused: a bowl of soup splattered onto the ground, courtesy of when Shitface had thrown it at the floor after one of the Bishops had given it to him to eat.

 

Jeralt sees the irritated look that passes his daughter's face and begins calculating how long it would take to reach the next village where they could dump Shitface's sorry ass in.

 

As much as he sympathizes with the kid, Jeralt doesn't have enough hands to take care of another child in his company. He already has that one and he can barely contain her.

 

Yet, instead of walking out to eat somewhere else as Jeralt had expected, his daughter only takes the seat next to the boy and begins eating in front of him.

 

From the corner of the tent, Jeralt observes the boy glaring daggers at his daughter but making not move to scare her off. Byleth, on the other hand, only hums a small tune as she chews.

 

This goes on for a few more bites before Byleth looks up to meet the boy's glaring with one of her own indifferent stares.

 

"You're not going back," she informs him in a voice that is her own brand of kind. "I talked to my dad, and he didn't say no."

 

Well, Jeralt forlornly thinks. Guess she's still adamant about the whole pet thing. 

 

Shitface only continues glaring at her, clearly distrusting.

 

"I mean, it's not a yes either, but I'll be the one in charge of you so you're not going to be his problem. Look, I even hunted and cooked a pheasant for you." She gestures to the plate in her hand. "Want some? It's not poisoned with anything."  She chews deliberately loudly for a moment to prove her point.

 

Shitface's gaze flickers to the plate in her hand. His stomach grumbles, yearning for food, but he doesn't make a move to take it from her.

 

His daughter only smiles, eyes in that soft kind of way when she pets his horse and feeds her apples. "Here. You can have mine." She gently offers it to him.

 

Shitface reluctantly takes it with hands that shake just a bit. He stares down at his plate for a moment, with a kind of look that Jeralt knows all too well, before he begins eating bare-handed.

 

At the first bite, Shitface's eyes widen.

 

With each chew, his eyes go gradually glassier.

 

When his swallows, the first tear slips free from the corner of his eye before the impending river follows soon after and flows freely down his cheeks as he eats and eats and eats like somebody who hasn't had a decent meal in ages.

 

Jeralt leaves the tent, unable to bear the sight of a child crying over food of all things, and regrets not going with Byleth when she'd found the boy.

 

He'd have gutted Shitface's father, whether or not there'd be a bounty involved.

 

Later on, Byleth introduces Shitface to the camp as her pet and announces that she'll be the one in charge of providing for him and that if he ever causes trouble, they should all report it to her.

 

His company merely exchange a few bemused and exasperated looks, but they welcome him all the same despite the glaring and scowls they receive in turn.

 

Jeritza , she calls him with a big beaming smile.

 

Shitface—or, well, Jeritza only blinks slowly, his glare softening around the edges, and nods.

 

Jeralt internally wonders what kind of generation his daughter is a part of when children just go accepting that their another's pet.

Chapter Text

Jeralt is startled awake from the middle of an unwanted nightmare.

 

The horror of having the Knights Seiros being replaced with Alois clones is a stark afterimage at the forefront of his mind when he aims his hidden dagger at the intruder with the intention to kill.

 

He stops, of course, at the sight of a head full of platinum blonde hair.

 

"Oh for the love of," Jeralt purposefully cuts himself off, believing it to be too early to start cussing. He will not give in to his inner urges. He's a better fucking parent than that.

 

Jeritza only blinks at the blade just centimeters from taking out his right eye. "Good morning, sir," he greets him in a polite tone, which Jeralt is well aware he reserves for only Byleth and him.

 

As much as Jeralt wants to get things over with, he does have Jeritza to thank for waking him up from that atrocious world. "Morning, squirt. What time is it?" He asks, peering through the hole in his tent to see if the sun has come out yet.

 

"A few hours before dawn, give or take," Jeritza answers with a small shrug.

 

Jeralt, in all his groggy state of mind, can't help but be impressed with how much Jeritza has mellowed out over the years. Gone is the half-feral child who would bare his teeth at anybody who even looked at him; instead, the young man that stands stands before him is a little less emotionally constipated than before and has limited his devastatingly violent tendencies to within the scope of battle and the occasional bar fight.

 

The Jeritza before him is no longer a dull blade with flecks of blood; now, he's as sharp and wicked as the spear he usually wields in battle, courtesy of Byleth who'd parted with a meager portion of her financial share within the company for her 'pet' to be well-equipped.

 

At most times, Jeralt would be proud to see the end results of his daughter's teachings.

 

This is not one of those times.

 

Especially when Jeritza is sporting one hell of a blood stain over where his shirt and pants meet.

 

"What happened?" Jeralt asks, immediately getting up and reaching for his own lance. "Are we under attack? Did you get hurt?" He strains his hearing to grasp for any sound of footsteps sneaking into their camp, yet all he hears is the near unbearable snoring of his men.

 

Jeritza shakes his head, but there's a deep furrow in between his brows to match the tight twist to his lips. "It's Byleth," he says, before turning around and exposing his open palms, which too are covered in blood. "I'll explain along the way."

 

Jeralt is already on his feet at the mention of his daughter. "What's wrong? What happened?" He fires off as he follows Jeritza towards the tent that he, after several lengthy debates with the rest of their men judging for logic, shares with his daughter. Worry churns deep in his gut as he struggles to remember anything odd about his daughter's behavior today.

 

"Earlier at our march, I noticed that she'd been lagging behind. She kept complaining to me that she had a terrible back ache, but I had thought that was because of her sleeping habits," Jertiza explains to him, before they both enter through the flap of the tent Byleth should be sleeping at.

 

Jeralt remembers that. His daughter had been a little irritable as of that morning, and Jeralt had taken mercy on her and let her ride dear old Mercury because she looked like she needed some rest before she keeled over.

 

Jeralt had chalked it up to her finally bearing consequence to her enormous eating habits; he didn't think it would be this   serious.

 

"Byleth, honey?" He calls, kneeling down in order to shake her awake. "Are you okay?" He inspects whatever he can see of her body that isn't covered by the quilts and stills at the splatters of blood.

 

"Huh...?" Byleth groans aloud, blearily opening her eyes as she does so. Her features are twisted into a rare expression of pure anger, but Jeralt doesn't have enough fucks to give to take cover when his daughter is fucking bleeding .

 

"Did you consume anything strange earlier?" Jeritza squeezes his presence in.

 

"...Strange? What are you talking about? We ate the same thing," Byleth deadpans with little amusement. "Did something—" She pauses, her eyes widening as she takes in the sight of a slightly bloodied Jeritza. "Are we under attack? Did you get hit, Jeritza?" There are several questions that follow soon after those two as Byleth jumps into action and immediately begins inspecting Jeritza for any signs of wounds.

 

"It's not my blood," Jeritzs says slowly, allowing himself to be manhandled. "It's yours."

 

Byleth freezes. "...Mine?" She echoes before, almost robotically, looking down at his bloodied clothes then at her own which, too, are stained with red but mostly at the shorts and specifically at her—

 

Something clicks in Jeralt's brain at the sight of blood staining the pale skin of his daughter's thighs.

 

Ohhe thinks. Oh .

 

"I-I'm bleeding," Byleth stammers out, the mortified expression on her face only emphasized by how pale she'd gone.

 

"You are, and you need medical attention immediately," Jeritza agrees, wrapping his (bloody!) hand around Byleth's wrist, and about to drag her to the healer's tent.

 

"What? No! Jeritza, no. I'm not bleeding, I'm bleeding," his daughter— a young woman now, Jeralt's mind helpfully supplies as he's internally breaking the fuck down—protests as she digs her heels into the ground to stop Jeritza from dragging her out into the open.

 

Jeritza only looks at her like she's a complete idiot.

 

Jeralt sits down on his daughter's bed roll, making sure to avoid looking at the blood spots just behind him.

 

Jeralt doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

 

He settles for putting his face in his hands.

 

"Yes." Jeralt hears Jeritza say slowly and unsurely. "Which is why you need a bishop's help."

 

At the silence that follows, Jeralt looks up and sees the gobsmacked expression his daughter shoots at Jeritza.

 

"What she means is," Jeralt cuts in for both his and his daughter's sake. "That she's menstruating."

 

Jeritza stares blankly at him.

 

"She's having her moon blood," Jeralt elaborates, just in case Jeritza didn't get the term at first.

 

The young man still doesn't.

 

Holy shit, Jeralt thinks, looking down in disbelief at Jeritza who has absolutely no fucking clue as to what's going on. He doesn't know.

 

"Okay," Jeralt breathes out, trying to calm the shaking in his fingers. "Okay. Here's what we're gonna do. You two, go grab some change of clothes. We're gonna head down to the river and get yourselves cleaned up. Byleth, you go first while I explain to Jeritza here about..." He trails off and grimaces when he can't find the proper words.

 

His daughter shoots him a grateful look before she swiftly gathers a change of clothes and goes sprinting out of the tent.

 

Jeritza looks worryingly after Byleth, but Jeralt clamps a heavy hand on his shoulder to stop him from giving chase.

 

I can't do this , he's mentally screaming in his mind as he seats both himself and Jeritza on the ground. "Okay," he starts for about the third time. "What do you know about moon blood?"

 

"...The moon bleeds?" Is Jeritza's apprehensive answer.

 

Jeralt only presses his lips together, steels his resolve, and begins explaining as helpfully as he can to a clueless child.

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Later on, Jeralt watches on as both his daughter and Jeritza wash the bloodied fabrics together. There's a respectful distance between the two that he very much appreciates, but what makes his chest go all warm is when he sees Jeritza open his mouth to say a few indistinguishable words that makes his daughter look up in surprise at the other child before a small smile breaks out on her face and she bumps her shoulder against his.

 

If peace would have an image, Jeralt decides as he leans back on his seat, it would be this.

Chapter Text

"As you all know," Jeralt starts in a raised voice. "One of the upper echelons of the esteemed nobility of the Adrestian Empire had decided to grace us lowlives with a job."

 

Several of his men snort at the sarcasm in his voice, but all look eager because a high noble hiring them meant a high pay.

 

"Our client this time is Marquis Vestra, the current Minister of the Imperial Household.  It appears his eldest son has decided to play hooky and has run off past their territory's borders. He says that his son is most likely hiding away somewhere in the neighboring town before he plans on sneaking into Kingdom territory," He details with a bland voice. "We've been paid generously to capture this boy. Not  kill, you hear me? I'm looking at you Chrit. If we deliver this kid in two parts, we'll be paying with our heads, got it?" He looks pointedly at the aforementioned man who huffs amidst the laughs of the rest of the company.

 

"If they wanted him alive, they should have issued an Alive Only condition," Chrit mutters petulantly as he shrinks into his seat. "How was I supposed to know that?"

 

"I'll brief you on the kid's appearance once we reach Brione. For now, gear up!" At his command, his men shout out their reply before they all waltz off to do as their told.

 

Jeralt's gaze lands on his daughter, and he frowns at the blank-eyed stare he sees in her eyes. Though it had been a common enough occurence when she'd been younger, these episodes of hers had dwindled down as she grew older that it eventually became a rarity.

 

To see strikes him with concern, but Jeralt knows better than to ask her about it. His daughter wouldn't give him a straight answer, anyways.

 

Instead, he claps her on the shoulder. "C'mon, you. We're heading out."

 

It snaps her out of her daze and brings her back to him.

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If there is one thing that Jeralt can give the Vestra boy, it's that he's a cunning little fucker.

 

The Vestra spawn had managed to slip right under their noses in the crowded town of Brione when they'd spotted him a day into their tracking. They'd managed to lure him out in the open forest, where Jeralt would be waiting with the rest of their cavalry units to chase after him.

 

Quick as he may be on his feet, the Vestra boy has no chance of escaping especially when Jeralt has a mighty fine steed to lord over him.

 

He pulls sharply on the reins in his hands, swerving away from the ball of reason magic that narrowly rips a new one in his shoulder. "How vicious," he can't help but laugh.

 

With the advantage they have, they eventually manage to capture the Vestra boy.

 

"Release me," the Vestra boy seethes in a low venomous tone that matches the poison of his eyes. He's been tied up with rope that's been enchanted to not burn. "I demand that you release me this instance."

 

As his men set up camp behind him (because they'd be no better than easy pickings if they were to travel this late and this tired, especially with the current turmoil that the Empire is in), Jeralt crouches down to meet the kid's gaze.

 

"Sorry, but you're out of luck. Your father hired us to bring you back, and we're not about to start getting a dirty spot on our record just yet," Jeralt retorts as he aims his best unimpressed look at the kid who looks to be around his daughter's age.

 

"My father? Hah," the Vestra boy sneers. "As ever, he can't get things done, so he decides to hire some mercenaries to do the job for him," he scoffs.

 

Suddenly enlightened, Jeralt is infinitely thankful that his daughter isn't this much of a handful.

 

"Kids these days," is his only mutter, before he leaves one of his men to guard the Vestra boy as he goes off to help his men set up camp.

 

It's only when they're all sitting down and eating their fill does Jeralt actually take notice of the looks his daughter had kept sneaking at the Vestra boy. His worries only grow when, after a moment, his daughter gets up from her seat and walks over to join the Vestra boy who is glumly seated just a few feet away from them after having denied any food offered to him.

 

Out of sheer companionship, he and Jeritza share a look.

 

When Jeralt looks back, his sees that his daughter is now attempting to feed the Vestra boy, only for the little fucker to simply close his eyes and turn his face away from the spoon.

 

"Maybe," Jeritza starts, his face twisting unhappily. "She finds him attractive." He sounds as if somebody had taken an arrow, split it in half, and stabbed him with both ends

 

Jeralt heavily slams his bowl on the table and narrows his eyes at Jeritza.

 

"I mean, he is attractive," Jeritza comments offhandedly. "But in a rat kind of way."

 

I can't , Jeralt thinks, torn between laughing and raging at the current state of events.

 

After several more attempts at being fed, the Vestra boy finally snaps "I don't want your food. I want to be released," he stresses.

 

Byleth merely puts the spoon and plate down. She folds her hands over har lap and looks the Vestra boy in the eye. "Whoever you're chasing after," she starts, and the young noble loosk startled. "You won't be any good at the state you're in now," she finishes.

 

"What are you talking about?" The glower he sends her makes Jeralt's hypothetical hackles rise.

 

Jeralt is just about to get up and give the piece of shit a good scaring when Byleth speaks up once more in a calm voice.

 

"And what will you do once you reach them?" Byleth asks. "Convince them to come back? Stay beside them? The only thing you're going to be is a burden to them."

 

"By—" Jeralt's call dies out in his throat when Jeritza puts a hand on his shoulder and shakes his head.

 

The Vestra boy bares his teeth. "You'll never understand," he snarls. "You're just a mercenary, what would  you know about loyaly?"

 

"I know enough that you should trust them to come back," is Byleth's reply, which leaves the Vestra boy reeling back as if he'd been slapped. She places a hand on his shoulder and, when Jeralt thinks she's about to comfort him, pushes herself up so that she's towering over him. "Study. Train. Do whatever you can do so that when they do come back, you'll be the hand that guides them forward," she says, eyes soft, before she brings out her knife and easily slices through his bindings. "Now eat. Or I'm shoving that into your mouth, and you won't like it when I get creative." Her words are more playful than threatening, but only those who know her well enough are aware of that.

 

When his daughter returns to her designated seat between him and Jeritza, Jeralt turns to face her. "What the hell was that," he demands.

 

His daughter manages to look questioningly up at him. "...Ah? Oh. He looked like he was chasing after somebody. I just tried to dissuade him before he got himself killed," is her answer, before she returns back to getting herself another plate of food.

 

Yeah, but how did you know? He thinks, but knows it's a lost cause when his daughter starts eating. "If he runs away, you'll be the one capturing him," he warns.

 

Byleth only nods with a small smile that looks almost eager.

 

The Vestra boy attempts escaping three times before they finally return him back to his household.

 

Jeralt accepts the pay with a polite smile before he turns his attention to where his daughter should be.

 

She's not getting another one , Jeralt thinks with meaning as he watches Byleth pat the Vestra boy's head with a fond smile.

 

"I can't wait to see what you'll be like the next time we meet," she says as she takes her hand back before it's reason magicked out of existence by a displeased kid.

 

Oh goddess, let it not be true , Jeralt thinks in horror, remembering Jeritza's words. When he checks, Jeritza looks just as displeased as he is.

 

Jeralt shoots a suspicious glare at the Vestra boy before he grabs his daughter by the arm and leads her the hell out of this place and far from that Vestra rat.

Chapter Text

Dammit , Jeralt thinks as he stares deeply at this month's ledger and at the two missives spread out on the table.

 

It's just his shitty luck that the company gets two perfectly high-paying jobs that are literally towns away from each other and are in need of immediate aid. It seems that word of their deeds had spread amongst Fodlan's nobility after the Vestra incident, because Jeralt has never received so much missions from them within a year .

 

"Problem?" His daughter's voice nearly sends him leaping from his seat, but he manages to retain whatever image he has left.

 

"Would you stop that," Jeralt huffs, shooting her an annoyed stare to which she responds to with a small amused smile. "I'm having problem between choosing which one to accept. Both are high-paying jobs but they're too far from each other and, well, why don't you just read them?" He gestures defeatedly to the letters.

 

Wordlessly, Byleth picks up the one from House Gloucester that details the protection of one of their villages from poachers who'd overstayed their presence. Then, she turns her attention on the one from House Fraldarius who'd requested for their help in quelling a minor skirmish in Itha.

 

"Can't we do both?" His daughter questions as she lines up the missives next to their ledger. "I mean, we need both of the pays right? And since we can't travel from Sauin to Itha in two days' time, why don't we split the company into two groups? We're large enough to do that now," she suggests, eyes flickering to every detail.

 

Jeralt gives her an incredulous look. "But then that would diminish our strength," he points out. "We might fail both of our jobs if we're not at our full power."

 

"You know as well as I do that our men are capable enough," his daughter argues in a calm voice, before she flips over the letter from House Gloucester and draws a line in the middle. "Look, both missives said that they'll be sending us some reinforcements to help us out, and we're all aware what both houses are known for. House Gloucester has an abundance in mages, while House Fraldarius are aplenty with their lance-wielding cavalry,” she says, drawing skewedly as she does so. "If you bring sixty percent of our cavalry, forty percent of our footmen, and thirty percent of our healers, you'll do just fine in handling those poachers especially with those mages' help."

 

Jeralt peers at the battle schematics she'd doodled, and his eyes widen at the reasoning of it all. "And if you bring most of our armored units, you'll be fine with bringing most of our offensive mages," he continues on, finally picking up on her train of thought for once .

 

His daughter beams. " Yes . As for the rest of our men, we can just split them. Jeritza and I can handle the group for Itha and provide for most of the offensive short-range while our long-range fighters are being shielded by our bulk. You can take the group for Sauin and some of our trackers, since that's what your best at, right?" The cheeky smile she directs at him is enough to make him laugh.

 

Still, Jeralt takes a few minutes to think this through. His daughter's scheme had certainly been well thought over, and they really did   need the money to continue their nomadic lifestyle.

 

Just to make sure, Jeralt rolls out his own map of Fodlan and inspects the most likely route Byleth's group would be taking on the way to Itha. So long as her group traveled on the edge of Fraldarius and Fhirdiad territories, they wouldn't be encountering any major establishments governed by the Church of Seiros.

 

I'll have to tell my men to keep her from straying, Jeralt thinks to himself as he rolls the map back into his pouch. I can't believe I'm going to agree to this, is his final thought before he turns to face his daughter who eagerly looks up at him.

 

"Okay," he gives in. "Okay, fine. We'll go with your plan. Just make sure you and Jeritza have each other's back, okay? And do keep yourself safe," he stresses.

 

His daughter firmly nods. "You can count on me," she promises in a serious voice.

 

Jeralt merely sighs at that, but certainly trusts her on that because his daughter has proved herself to be capable enough time and time again.

 

He takes a good long look at Byleth, all fifteen-years old of her and growing into the same beauty her mother was at each passing day, and nearly retracts his original decision.

 

Instead, he settles for patting her on the head. "All grown-up, huh?" He murmurs in a wistful tone.

 

Byleth looks up from under his large arm with her dark blye eyes, and grins. "But I'll still always be your kiddo?"

 

He chortles. "Stating the obvious now, are you? What happened to that tactician brain of yours, huh?"

 

He supposes he deserves the elbow to his gut for that one, but he just couldn't resist.

.

..

...

..

.

It's been a month and a half since Jeralt had last seen his daughter, and he desperately misses her for each day he doesn't catch a glimpse of her blue head.

 

"Oi, oi, oi. What's that you got in your mind, captain? Thinking about that girl you left back in the village?" One of his men teases him with a shit-eating grin on her face. "Oh, what would Byleth think if she heard about the little orange thing you took under your wing?" She cackles.

 

"I was thinking about my daughter, asshat," Jeralt snaps with no real bite, but his thoughts do  stay to the young huntress who'd pleaded to him to take her in as an apprentice for as long as he'd stay in Sauin.

 

Something about Leonie had endeared to him. It was like looking at younger version of himself, bullheaded and full of bravado to hide the cunning and patience that laid underneath. She was eager to learn every trick he could teach her, and Jeralt just couldn't resist tempering such a beautiful blade; it would practically be a sin to leave such a thing to waste in rust.

 

Really, Jeralt thinks, unable to keep the fondness swelling in his chest. Byleth would have liked her. And maybe Leonie would have liked Byleth as well. Jeralt could imagine it now, the two of them conversing about what to hunt for as they walked side by side down a dirt-covered path.

 

He would have loved to bring her along, but Leonie had a duty to her family and village to stay. He couldn't possibly take that away from her and make her choose.

 

"Captain is cheating~ Captain is cheating~" His men sing in dissonance

 

"I did not cheat," Jeralt snarls at them, giving each one a glare that only makes them laugh harder. "If any of you breathe a word of this to my daughter, I'll have you hanged, you get me?" He smiles at them with all his teeth and delights in the shudders he gets from them.

 

"Sheesh, we were just joking, captain," one of them grumbles, and Jeralt gets close enough to smack him at the back of the head for his back-talking.

 

With his men's friendly banter drowning out what would have been a silent journey, they eventually reach the designated meeting spot with the Itha group at the outskirts of Conand.

 

Jeralt's quick to recognize the company's flag that is raised high over a nearby camp, and he breathes a sigh of relief when he spots Jeritza at the forefront with a few of his men.

 

"Jeritza!" He calls out to, leading his steed towards the teengaer who's head immediately snapped up at being called out. "It's been a while," he grins before he dismounts old Mercury to pat the young man on the shoulder.

 

"Captain," Jeritza greets him. "It's good to see you. We were able to accomplish the mission," he reports.

 

Jeralt can't help but notice the choice of his words. "Were there any troubles?" He asks because he knows better.

 

At Jeritza's visible falter, Jeralt already expects the worst.

 

A sudden weight on his back draws his attention from a slightly frazzled Jeritza. When Jeralt checks, his heart nearly leaps into his throat at the sight of his daughter grinning up at him as she hugs him from behind.

 

"Woah there. A bit affectionate now, aren't we?" He can't help but say in surprise, because it's rare for his daughter to deliver out physical affection, especially with such a happy gleam in her eyes.

 

Jeralt turns around to properly return the hug, but he pauses when he notices something very odd and very bad about his daughter.

 

"What is that?" He very nearly demands, a fluttering feeling his chest that is definitely not in the good way. "What are you wearing ? "

 

I look away, Jeralt thinks, unable to look away at all the skin his daughter's showing for every horny shitbag to prey upon with their greedy eyes and debauched minds. I look away, and this is what happens.

 

He'd just understood that his daughter was growing up, but wasn't she growing up too much?

 

"Hm?" His daughter hums, looking down at the sorry excuse of an outfit that she's currently sporting. "Oh. Are you talking about my new outfit? I bought it from a merchant that was traveling from the Empire. Isn't it neat?" She asks, turning around to display how the entire thing just hugs her like a second skin. "It was pretty effective when I wore it in combat. Everybody kept getting distracted by my boobs and stomach that they didn't even see my sword," she smiles happily at that.

 

Boobs? Stomach? I don't want your body being the last thing people sees when they die! Jeralt rages in his mind, seeing red as he imagines Byleth's victims getting in a good oogle before they're slayed.

 

He lifts his gaze to stare deeply at Jertiza, who, for once, can't seem to meet his gaze .

 

"I couldn't stop her," is his feeble attempt at an explanation, but Jeralt is not fucking taking it.

 

"Byleth," he starts in a calm voice. "Don't you think it's a little revealing? You're practically showing the enemy most of your vital points," he tries to explain to her in a non-hostile manner.

 

"That's why I have the important parts armored," Byleth argues, pointing at her torso and wrists. "I'm fast enough to get out of anybody's striking range, but I made sure to protect my torso and arms because I'd be at a serious disadvantage if I get seriously wounded there. Besides." She looks up at him with eyes bigger than usual and her bottom lip jutting out just a bit. "I really like it."

 

Pathetic, is Jeralt's assessment of himself because he crumbles . When he looks to Jeritza, the young man is giving him a look of sympathetic suffrage.

 

"You'll need something over that," Jeralt relents.

 

"I dropped by a tailor shop in Conand and placed down a commission for a cloak," Byleth beams. "I'm planning on dropping it at an armory once it's finished to have chainmail sewed into it for extra armor. Maybe I should get some stockings to cover up my legs..." She trails off. "A lace doily design would be nice, huh."

 

No, is Jeralt's honest opinion. That would be a disaster.

 

Something clicks in his mind at the realization of his daughter's terrible fashion sense.

 

Maybe, he realizes. Maybe, if she dresses horrendously, they'll notice her outfit more than her body.

 

It's a terrible thing to hope for, a terrible thing to subject his daughter to. But, if his daughter wanted to keep the outfit, then Jeralt would do his best to sabotage it as best as he could.

 

"Okay," Jeralt agrees, like the terrible father he is. "Okay." He'll settle for just viciously maiming those who'd dare to look at his daughter with malicious eyes. "Did anybody get injured in Itha?" He finally asks, remembering that he's also the leader of a mercenary company.

 

He takes in the sight of his men who'd assembled a few minutes ago. He knows all of these shitheads well enough that they all assembled not because they wanted to greet him, but because they wanted to see what his reaction would be to his daughter's new ensemble.

 

His thoughts come to a sudden halt when an unfamiliar face comes within his sight. Perturbed, he slides his gaze to the person standing next to the stranger and sees another unfamiliar face.

 

This goes on for a while and, when Jeralt is pretty sure that he hadn't just forgotten what some of his men looked like, he concludes that there are strangers in his company.

 

He turns to his daughter for an explanation, because only she has the balls to pull up something like this.

 

Byleth merely aims a languid smile at him. "I found some capable people who were willing to join our mercenary group."

 

Jeralt doesn't miss how these 'new recruits' shudder at Byleth's disarming smile, and takes pleasure that at least they're making fearful eyes at her instead of malicious ones.

 

"Don't worry. Jeritza and I tested them all, and they all have potential," Byleth reassures him, as if that was even the biggest problem in the first place. "Oh yeah, wait. I want you to meet somebody." She surveys the new recruits with a sharp eye, clearly looking for someone.

 

And then, suddenly, Byleth pulls one of the new recruits forward by the arm.

 

"This" she starts, pointing at the stout man whose features had twisted into an almost panicked expression at being grabbed by her. "Is Miklan, and he's going to be my second pet. Say hello to my dad, Miklan," she urges him.

 

Miklan— his daughter's second pet, what the fuck —hesitantly meets his eyes. "H-Hi," he greets him.

 

"What," is the only thing Jeralt can utter. "What," he repeats, because this can't be.

 

Jeralt looks at the rest of his men who had accompanied Byleth to Itha, the men who were supposed to be supervising her in his stead.

 

None of them are able to meet his gaze.

 

Traitors, Jeralt accuses, channeling his inner Rhea. Useless traitors that should be beheaded at dawn.

 

Chapter Text

Jeralt comprehends maybe a day too late that Byleth's most recent pet, Miklan, is also Miklan Anschutz Gautier of, you know, House fucking Gautier.

 

"How," Jeralt questions, seated next to Jeritza who is violently stabbing into his vegetables with a fork that'd already bent a few moments ago from the force of his thrusts. "How did Byleth even convince him to become a mercenary?"

 

The two of them are unable to tear their gazes from the young woman in question who, for once, is not seated between them but instead next to Miklan who doesn't seem to know what to do with her attention on him.

 

"It was after we finished our mission," Jeritza begins in an eerily calm voice. "And the captain of the unit sent by House Fraldarius decided to treat us to some drinks for a job well done. We agreed, of course, because what idiot would pass up on some free drinks, yeah?"

 

Jeralt pats Jeritza on the back, knowing that he'd done right in raising both him and Byleth.

 

"All was fine, at first, but then that guy." Here, Jeritza points at Miklan with an elegant finger. "Decided to start a fight with Yoland 'cause Yoland just bumped into his chair. 'Course, Byleth was having none of that and jumped in before that guy was about to get some punches in, and she just...seemed to know him? And on a first-name basis?"

 

"She knew him?" Jeralt raises an eyebrow at that, because as far as he knew, he'd never seen the ginger-haired man in his entire life.

 

"Yeah. Called him Miklan, first son of House Gautier. But it didn't seem he liked that at all because he just laughed and said, ' First son? Is that all I'm known for these days? Not heir?' " Jeritza recounts, deepening his voice in a mockery of Miklan's. "And then he just...sat down with his buddies again, and went back to drinking. It was pretty depressing to look at," he comments with a small frown. "And then Byleth decided to join in. The two of them began talking, and it just became sadder to look at because he suddenly began crying and sobbing about crests and how terrible of a big brother he was because he tried to kill his little brother. On multiple occasions. And just because he was jealous. And then the rest of his buddies began crying, and they all did this little group hug that lasted for way too long, to be honest."

 

"Yeah, okay, I see now why it's so depressing," Jeralt agrees. He was well aware of how much the Kingdom valued those who were born with crests over those who weren't, but to see how much it fucked up a person's life was certainly enlightening.

 

"It seemed like Byleth took a, well, liking  to him because she suggested that he and his buddies should join the company if they weren't happy with their lives." And there it was. The Byleth Contingency. "He was against it, of course, and began babbling about his duties to his house, but then Byleth made a compelling argument that he had a duty to himself first and foremost before he did to anybody else, and then said something about, and I quote, 'getting his shit together while away from his brother' and that seemed to convince him to, just, disown his house? I guess? 'Cause he and his friends joined the company the week after, and Byleth had us running out of Itha as fast as we could before any Gautier dogs could catch us."

 

"Goddess," Jeralt breaths out. His daughter? Byleth? Managing to convince a noble to retire from their house, when she could hardly paint her toe nails without sticking her tongue out? What the fuck? Wasn't Jeritza enough? Wasn't having one pet enough? What the fuck was up with his daughter and nobles? Was it a complex? Did Rhea curse her or something?

 

"If you'll excuse me, sir. I believe I should start training the new recruits." Jeritza stands up from his seat, having emptied his plate in the duration Jeralt was having his internal meltdown, and strides towards Miklan and Byleth.

 

Jeralt watches in silence as Jeritza drags the former noble, who's nearly twice his size, to an open field nearby and tosses him a training lance.

 

After some time, Jeralt can wholeheartedly conclude that, though Miklan takes the proper stance and seems to know how to wield a lance, he's absolute shit at fighting with it.

 

"Hey! Pause!" Jeralt calls out, interrupting Jertiza attempt at taking Miklan's arm off for the sixth time. "You! Who the hell taught you how to fight like that?" He directs at Miklan who flinches.

 

"Ugh, my...tutors, sir," Miklan answers reluctantly. "I've been taught since I was five."

 

What the fuck, Jeralt thinks, because who the hell teaches their kids to fight at five? Oh yeah. I did, Jeralt remembers. "Well you're shit at it," he says bluntly, because the kid needed to hear it before he got himself killed . Besides that, why didn't his tutors just stop when it was clear he was hopeless at it?! "Switch your weapon. It's obvious you're not meant to fight with a lance."

 

Jeralt doesn't miss the way a dark shadow eclipses Miklan's features. He sees it in the furrow of his brows and the tight twist to the young man's mouth.

 

Okay, damage control , Jeralt amends as he steps forward to give a comforting but mostly awkward pat on the large man's arm. "Hey, yeah, no, kid. Don't look so glum. I didn't mean any harm. I do this to all my men. It keeps them from dying, really, so chin up."

 

He can practically feel the stare Byleth is shooting into his back, but he presses on.

 

"You're shit with a lance, but so what? It doesn't mean you're shit at everything. Try something else, and hey, maybe it'll work out for you." Jeralt shrugs, before he reaches for a training axe and wraps Miklan's hands around it. "Here. Try it out. Maybe you'll like this one better," he suggests, before he takes a step back and shoots Jeritza a pointed look.

 

Without a moment to spare, Jeritza is already on the move and pounces on Miklan who stumbly blocks the attack.

 

Miklan loses, of course. Badly, at that, but that's to be expected since his opponent is Jeritza and Jeralt has seen the young man violenty tear through the enemy ranks a couple of times and come back without so much as a tear in his bloodied clothes.

.

..

...

..

.

Later on, after Jeralt has watched Miklan get beaten to the ground several more times, he finds himself seated next to the aforementioned noble boy who's currently being treated by one of their senior bishops.

 

"Don't worry," Jeralt reassures the younger man. "You won't have to live the rest of your life with a swollen mug. Trilla's an expert at his job," he grins good-naturedly, hoping to crack the ice because hey, if he couldn't get rid of Byleth's newest pet, might as well build a bond with him, yeah? It worked for Jeritza, after all.

 

Miklan actually cracks a small smile at that—the first one Jeralt's ever seen.

 

"So you do  smile," Jeralt crows teasingly, delighting at the flush that travels up the former noble's neck. "But, honestly, kiddo. What the hell were those tutors of yours thinking? Making you wield the lance when you just weren't cut out for it," he sighs, resting his chin atop his open palm as he gazes lazily at Miklan who'd immediately tensed up at his question.

 

Jeralt can’t help but remember dumb old Alois who’d tried so hard to emulate him back then when he was just a wee squire. It had been hilarious at first, but one near-death experience had been enough to see that Alois was better off with an axe than a lance.

 

"It's...a really long story, sir," Miklan admits, rubbing the back of his neck and apologizing when Trilla snaps at him to stay the fuck still or else it's his nose that'll be taken off next.

 

"We have a lot of time," Jeralt informs him, tilting his head towards his daughter sparring with Jeritza. "Those two will take a while. I'm sure we can talk about you in the meanwhile."

 

Miklan hesistates, and Jeralt really doesn't blame him. It's a part of his life's story that he's just about to divulge to an utter stranger, after all.

 

"It's a tradition of those born to House Gautier to be trained in the works of lances as soon as they're able to run," Miklan confesses after a long while, after his wounds have been patched up and Thrill had scurried off to maybe flirt with Chrit. "I'm...sure your daughter has informed you of my identity."

 

"Jeritza did, actually, since my daughter has a tendency to keep a few secrets from me," Jeralt wryly corrects him. "But yeah, I do. Miklan Anschutz of House Gautier. Eldest son born to Margrave Gautier."

 

"...Yes. That's right," Miklan confirms. "But you're forgetting one thing. Though I was born the eldest son, I lacked a crest to rightfully inherit what should have been mine," he explains, the tone of his voice growing colder at each word. "Before my younger brother was born, my father had groomed me with the proper education to inherit House Gautier. To make up for my mistake of having been born without a crest, my father assigned tutors to me in order to teach me how to wield a lance so that, by some miraculous chance, I could wield House Gautier's Heroic Relic, the Lance of Ruin, and be recognized as the rightful head of the household despite my crestlessness."

 

Jeralt stays silent, listening and watching every twitch of the former noble's eye.

 

"I was trained brutally each day by my tutors. Yet...it didn't matter in the end, because eventually, my father got the heir he always wanted. The son who was born with a crest. My younger brother," Miklan mutters bitterly, his features twisting into one of pain and envy. "Everything I worked hard for just...just, wasted ."

 

"Hm," Jeralt hums. "And your father still had you continue your lessons with the lance?"

 

Miklan nods. "I had already started, after all. Might as well finish it and become useful as a knight for the Kingdom once I turn 21," he says it in a kind of voice as if he was mimicking somebody.

 

"Yeah, but...you're terrible with the lance. Didn't any of your tutors bother to report about this to your father?" Jeralt tries to find any kind of reasoning to Margrave Gautier pushing his son towards a path he clearly wasn't meant to walk on.

 

Miklan merely shakes his head. "My father was well aware of my lack of progress. Still, House Gautier has been known to produce outstanding fighters adept with the lance. To produce anything less than that might as well bring disgrace to the family name," he recites.

 

"Disgrace, misgrace," Jeralt huffs, unable to restrain the irritation that seeps into his voice. "What does pride matter if you find yourself face first into the ground and dead? Nothing ." He looks Miklan straight in the eye at this one. "I don't mean to bash on your old man or anything, boy. But if you're going to be in this company, you're gonna have to follow by my rules, you hear me?"

 

"I...Of course, sir," Miklan acquisces, surprisingly obedient despite his intimidating appearance. "I have no plans of leaving just yet.”

 

"Good. Anyways, this company abides by four rules," Jeralt begins, lifting a finger for each one. "First, my daughter's eccentricities are to be immediately reported to me before any action is to be taken. Second, the gold weighs more than any life under your blade so no hesitating when doing the deed. Third, if you have a problem with anybody, you deal with it swiftly because any company can fall like soggy bread if some of its members aren’t united. And fourth, try to keep yourself and the rest of us alive so always watch each other’s backs in the middle of battle and no stabbing any daggers into anybody's backs, or I'll be the one to personally behead you, clear?"

 

Miklan appears a bit dazed. "Have you beheaded anybody?" He asks of all things.

 

Jeralt guffaws loudly at that.

 

"Miklan, kiddo," Jeralt wipes the tears from his eyes. "I'm an old man and a mercenary to boot, what do you think?" He queries, the corners of his eyes crinkling with mirth.

 

Miklan shrinks into himself, which makes quite the amusing sight. "I can't tell," he honestly answers.

 

Oh Goddess, Jeralt thinks, torn between pity and admiration. "Are you sure you still want to become a mercenary?" He asks.

 

Miklan merely smiles at him, one that is half-amused and half-mocking. "What else do I have to return to?" He replies with, before his gaze slides back to the duel, eyes going blank in the same way his daughter usually does when she's deep in her thoughts. "I can't go back...Not yet...I'm not worthy enough to face him just yet," he murmurs in an almost regretful tone.

 

Jeralt doesn't have to be a genius to know who exactly Miklan is talking about. He's heard from Jeritza how Miklan had drunkenly sobbed over being a murderous older brother, and that is something Jeralt definitely doesn’t want to touch quite yet even with a 10-feet pole.

 

“Well.” Jeralt forces himself to sound a bit cheerier than usual. “Noble or not, crest or crestless, it doesn’t matter. This company will still accept a person like you who has nothing and no place to return to,” he grins at the gobsmacked expression he garners from the young man.

 

Then, kindly, Jeralt merely returns to watching Byleth and Jeritza’s attempts at play-maiming one another. He doesn’t speak another word about what he’d just talked about with Miklan, and merely spends with the rest of he afternoon in companionable silence with the young man who too doesn’t say anything

Chapter Text

Seriously, Jeralt thinks in exasperation. Just what is up with my daughter bringing home pets with horrible fathers. He's sensing a pattern here, and he's not sure if he likes it or not because he isn't quite yet ready to parent any more miscreants.

 

"Byleth, this is the last one," Jeralt says once they're all seated and digging into their respective meals. "You're not getting another after this one." He points his fork at Miklan who freezes to attention at being indirectly mentioned.

 

His daughter actually has the gall to pout at that. "I can't?" She asks, voice pitching higher than usual.

 

It's the same exact voice she used when she begged to have Jeritza and to keep her sorry excuse of an outfit.

 

The only difference this time is that Jeralt is going to a raise a fucking finger in the originally zero amount of times he's denied Byleth's request.

 

He will not be pushed around this time, dammit.

 

"No. You can't," he says in the firmest voice he's ever mustered to her.

 

"How come?" Byleth asks, and oh Jeralt can practically see the gears in her head turning and know that she's prepared to fight tooth and nail for it, regardless of the scene they'd make this time around with everybody watching as they yell at each other and eventually bring their verbal argument to blades.

 

Desperately, Jeralt decides to use the age-old technique he'd always use with squires that were too witty for their own good.

 

He throws emotion at her.

 

"Because what about Jeritza and Miklan then?" He asks, slightly jutting out his lower lip in mock fashion of his daughter's pout. It probably looks fucking terrible on him, but it works on Byleth and that's all that counts. "Haven't you've ever taken their own feelings into account? Did you take Jeritza's feelings into account when you decided to go take in Miklan as another pet? Did you think he was happy with the decision?"

 

In the background, he can Miklan mutter, "when did I agree on becoming a pet?"  but he goes mostly unnoticed and/or ignored.

 

"What," Byleth utters, eyebrows raised. She turns to Jeritza. "Is this true?" She asks.

 

Over Byleth's head, Jeritza meets Jeralt's gaze.

 

You owe me, Jeralt screams in his head, hoping that it would telepathically reach Jeritza's mind. I've fed you, sheltered you, let you sleep beside my daughter, and you've repaid me so far with what? By enabling her eccentricity!

 

Jeritza seems to get it, because he purses his lips before nodding stiffly.

 

"I...wasn't exactly happy with your decision, but I respect it," Jeritza admits, keeping his gaze far away from Byleth's probing one. (Hook)

 

"Jeritza..." Byleth murmurs, reaching for Jeritza's hand, but the man in question merely moves his hand out of the way. (Line)

 

Jeritza's eyelashes flutter ever so slightly as he continues eating. (Sinker)

 

Byleth caves in. "Okay, fine," she agrees sullenly. "I won't get another one. Only Jeritza and Miklan will be my pets," she huffs, before proceeding to poke and prod at her meal to express how unhappy she is with her decision.

 

"But I don't want to be your pet," Miklan protests, and mostly ignored once again by the general populace.

 

You have yet to learn , Jeralt thinks as he gazes pitifully at Miklan, who looks to him for answers that can only be learned in due time. Then, when Jeralt looks at Jeritza, he gives the other man a proud nod.

 

Jeritza returns the nod, looking a bit smug if the quirk to one side of his lips is anything to go by. He bumps his shoulder against Byleth's, and the girl immediately brightens up when she sees that he's finally paying attention to her once again.

 

Jeralt didn't think it would actually work, but it did, and all because Jeritza had been all too proud to wear his hypothetical collar for Byleth and wasn't all that willing to share his owner with a third pet .

 

What is this generation becoming , Jeralt can't help but think in fascinated horror.

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...

..

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It's been a month and Jeralt, for the life of him, honestly can't get it.

 

Miklan is a good kid. A bit temperamental and rough at times, yes, but that's probably due to the amount of anxiety Margrave Gautier had given to him with his fucked-up noble parenting.

 

Miklan can act tough all he wants around others, but Jeralt has seen so much more of his true nature. He's seen how the young man stammers out apologies when he does even the littlest of mistakes, how he's barely able to keep his nerves together when a lady (be it of the mercenary kind or not) approaches him, how he always makes it a point to give a little coin when a street child asks for it, and how he rushes head-first into battle like some kind of idiot in order to protect somebody's back.

 

Miklan is a good kid, which is why he can't quite understand why Jeritza has been nothing but an utter asshole to Miklan.

 

Is it because Miklan is also Byleth's pet? Is that it? Is he making a complete ass of himself just because he's fucking jealous ?

 

Unable to keep quiet anymore, Jeralt calls out Jeritza on his foolishness in private for both of thier sakes.

 

"Just what the hell is your problem, Jeritza?" Jeralt snaps, leaning against a tree and keeping his arms crossed so he won't shake the boy's brain out.

 

Jeritza frowns. "Problem? Sir, I don't—"

 

"Oh, cut the crap," Jeralt cuts him off. "I've seen the way you act towards Miklan. It's like looking at a younger you all over again, trying to get into everyone's pants just to cut their dicks off," he says as eloquently as possible, giving the younger man an unimpressed look. "I've tolerated it long enough. Either you spill and do something about it, or I'll have to do something about you ."

 

Jeralt doesn't mention his daughter. Byleth can claim responsibility over Jeritza all she wants, but there are things Jeralt won't force her to do—especially towards a friend she's nurtured for years .

 

Jeralt hasn't quite turned into a complete monster just yet.

 

"It's...more personal than that, sir," Jeritza reluctantly admits after some time.

 

"Then what is it? What's your problem with him? Miklan has been nothing but polite with you the entire time." Subservient is  the word Jeralt had wanted to use, and he isn't kidding. Though Miklan has never won a fight against Jeritza, he never takes out the consequent tantrum that happens afterward on anybody and even seeks out Jeritza's advice like a junior would a senior.

 

It would honestly be adorable, if it weren't for Jeritza being so cold.

 

"With all due respect sir, I can't find it in myself to be polite to somebody who's tried to murder their younger sibling," Jeritza scowls, looking down at the ground like a petulant child.

 

Jeralt is sensing a story here; one that he has to touch for the sake of his company's wellbeing. "How come?" He asks with a sigh at the end, tiredly seating himself on the ground and gesturing at Jeritza to do the same.

 

Jeritza slowly does so, but not without a longing look back at their camp. "Has Byleth told you anything about me?" He asks.

 

"Not that much," Jeralt confirms. It's been something that has bothered him quite a bit, but he has sensibly kept his hands off of Jeritza's past after he's seen the boy cry over food of all things. Jeralt doesn't exactly want to set the boy into hysterics for remembering something evidently painful.

 

Jeritza exhales deeply. "Before your daughter found me, I lived with my father. He...was the farthest thing you are to Byleth," he confesses, and the way he describes such a thing makes Jeralt's heart ache for a moment. "But, before that, I had a mother and sister too. I have little memories of them now, but I remember well enough that they were beautiful and kind and whatever time we spent together was filled with nothing but warmth and happiness." He fiddles with the gem of his necklace, a far-away look appearing in his eyes. "I was probably around nine when they left. I knew exactly why they had to leave, and I even told my own mother to leave me behind to buy them time, but," He clenches his necklace in a tight and shaky grip. "But I didn't expect her to really leave me behind, and all I can remember from that time was being so mad and betrayed  at them at that time." He clenches his necklace in a tight and shaky grip.

 

Jeralt stays silent.

 

"I wasn't really mad that they left. I was mad because why didn't they take me with them? Why didn't my mother even try to convince me to come with them?" Jeritza's voice cracks ever so slightly at the end, and he swallows the lump in his throat to compose himself. "They knew very well what my father was like, especially to me. He'd yell at me over the stupidest of things, and it only got worse when my mother and older sister left."

 

Jeralt sees the angry twist Jeritza's lips, the sorrowful furrow of his brows, and the hauntingly darkness in his eyes.

 

Jeralt remembers Jeritza when Byleth brought him home. A boy in a bloodied shirt too big for him, and dark bruises littlered atop the expanse of his too pale and too tiny body.

 

For all that Jeritza has grown like a weed and surpassed Byleth in size when they both reached puberty, Jeralt remembers a boy so much smaller than his daughter and thinking that there was something cleary wrong about that.

 

It makes Jeralt furious just recalling it all.

 

"I honestly don't know what would happen to me if Byleth hadn't gotten me out of there," Jeritza tells him in a soft voice, the dark look on his face gradually softening into one of wonder. "For that, I'm eternally grateful to her, because who knows what kind of life I'd be living now if she hadn't."

 

"Thank you," Jeralt says, scooting closer to the young man. "For telling me this, I mean. I appreciate it." Awkwardly, he pats Jeritza on the head and marvels internally at the softness of his hair. "So you mean to tell me that your problem with Miklan is that he'd been a shitty older brother?" He asks, just to make sure of his conclusion.

 

Jeritza nods, then leans into his touch with a sigh. "Yes. I'm ashamed to admit it, but it reminded me of my feelings towards my mother and older sister," he confides.

 

Jeralt closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and opens them. "I understand where you're coming from, kid. Really, I do. But you're directing your anger out on the wrong people," he imparts with the gentlest voice he could muster right now. He looks down at Jeritza who still avoids his gaze. "You shouldn't be angry at Miklan or at your older sister for the things that had happened to you. It's that shitty excuse of a dad you should be mad at, really," he advises.

 

"I know," Jeritza blurts out in a small voice. "I know that, but...I can't just let it go ."

 

Comfortingly, Jeralt pats him on the back. "Just remember that Miklan and your older sister are humans too. Children, at that, and most children are powerless to do anything in the face of their parents, believe me," he explains. "They also make mistakes like we do and aren't exactly perfect."

 

Jeritza hums a low note in his throat.

 

"Look, some of your anger at Miklan can be warranted. I mean, he fucked up big time as a brother," Jeralt consolidates. "But that doesn't mean you should hold it over his head forever. What matters is that he's accepteed that he was a horrible older brother, and is now trying to make up for it because he wants to be a good older brother," he then elaborates. "It doesn't matter what kind of bad things older siblings have done to their youngers siblings. All that matters is that they're willing to go through any lengths to be forgiven for what they've done wrong, that they're trying to reach out again no matter what, and that they're striving to be better than their mistakes."

 

"Miklan tried to kill his younger brother," Jeritza points out with a deadpan stare.

 

"Yes, and he knows that was wrong and is now trying to be a better person so that he can make up for it once he meets his younger brother," Jeralt replies.

 

"So...I can beat him up as much as I like if he ever gives up trying?" Jeritza asks.

 

Jeralt can tell that he's serious about this. "Is that all you got from our talk?"

 

Jeritza cracks a smile, which is a rare feat in itself. It looks more sarcastic than earnest, but Jeralt knows him well enough to recognize it as the real deal.

 

"No. I...I get it. Thank you," Jeritza expresses his gratitude. "I'll try not to kill him," he amends, looking thoughtfully back at the camp.

 

"At least," Jeralt utters wryly before he gets up and stretches his poor aching bones. Goddess am I old, he internally laughs. He reaches out to pat Jeritza's head, wondering what the hell is he using for his hair to get it to be this soft, and can't help but fondly think that for all his bloodthirstiness and mature appearance, Jeritza is still really just a kid.

 

He's snapped out of his thoughts when he feels a hand on his ankle. He looks down to see Jeritza looking up at him with an unyielding expression.

 

"But, sir, I wasn't joking," Jeritza tells him and, before Jeralt can ask him about what, he bulldozes on. "I really am grateful to Byleth. I'll do anything for her," he says with a kind of steel to his voice that rivals even the most devout followers of the Church of Seiros.

 

There's a look in his eyes that Jeralt understands all too well, something that has gradually died out since he set everything he ever loved aflame. There's not a sliver of malicious intent in it; only pure admiration that makes the hue of his eyes brighter than anything.

 

It's like looking at his younger self—aware of what pain this world is capable of, yet willing to go through any hurt for someone else.

 

Jeralt appreciates Jeritza's swearing his undying loyalty to his daughter, really, but—

 

"I'm sure," is what Jeralt starts with, once he finds his voice. "She'll want you to live for youself, first and foremost."

 

It's what Jeralt wants for him as well.

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...

..

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Did he really, Jeralt thinks as he watches Jeritza beat Miklan into the ground for the second time this morning. Get anything from our talk.

 

Just as Jeralt is one step away from throwing his arms up and giving up, he pauses when he sees something unorthodox.

 

Usually, Jeritza would leave Miklan on the ground. Maybe put in a snide remark or two to mock Miklan.

 

Instead, today, Jeritza holds his hand out to the fallen Miklan.

 

Jeralt sees that Miklan is just as shaken as he is because the younger man stares at the hand hovering just two feet away from his face.

 

"Well?" Jeritza raises a slim brow. His voice isn't mocking or anything. It's as dull as he usually is with mundane things.

 

With trembling fingers, Miklan slips his hand into Jeritza's and allows himself to be hauled up.

 

"Widen your stance," Jeritza corrects him, for the first time. "The short distance between your feet makes it easier for me to push you over." He walks a few feet away from Miklan, then faces him once more with his training sword held out firmly before him. "Again," he demands, taking Miklan's shellshocked silence as the opportunity to immediately leap at him with vicious intent.

 

Miklan goes down hard again, and Jeritza merely pulls him up to his feet and demands a repeat until Miklan finally doesn't go down at the first strike.

 

"Oh," his daughter murmurs, a hand to her open mouth. "They're...getting along?" She says it as if she can't quite believe what she's seeing.

 

Jeralt is inordinately pleased that he'd managed to one-up his daughter this time. He wraps an around around his shoulders and laughs into her ear.

 

"Isn't it good?" Jeralt watches as his daughter looks up at him, those blue eyes of hers as wide as the smile she aims at him.

 

"Definitely better than before," is her answer, before she shrieks when he noogies her in the head.

 

"If you knew something was up, then you should have done something about it!" He complains to her with no real fire in his voice.

 

"...Yeah," his daughter agrees, looking back at Jeritza and Miklan who are both smiling when their weapons clash. There's a wry smile painting her lips as her gaze softens. "I really should have." Then, her expression hardens. "And I will."

Chapter Text

His daughter has been acting odd as of late. By that, Jeralt means odder than usual, which in itself is quite the feat.

 

He notices that, whenever they frequent whatever old musky tavern they stumble upon during their treks, his daughter always goes for the stool near the bar counter in order to chat up the local bartender.

 

His daughter socializing with complete strangers is already a sight that's out of the norm; the fact that she continues to do so despite ending up with a displeased expression on her face only makes Jeralt's hypothetical hackles rise in alarm.

 

"What is she asking about?" Jeralt had asked one time, after Jeritza and Miklan had been shooed away by Byleth to have one of her private conversations with the bartender.

 

Jeritza and Miklan had shared undecipherable looks, the bond they'd forged after their bumpy start having become strong enough that they could have a brief conversation merely by looking at one another.

 

"We're just as clueless as you are, sir," Miklan had answered for the both of them, looking quite bemused and concerned as he stared at Byleth's back. "We asked before, but she wouldn't tell us anything..."

 

Jeritza had merely raised his glass and took a long deep drink from it. The fact that he'd been so willing to get wasted then had been enough to speak of how displeased he was to be shut out from Byleth.

 

This becomes a routine for a couple more weeks, a routine that Jeralt anticipates with growing dread as he waits for the tipping point to come.

 

It does, one day, when his daughter approaches him in the privacy of his tent, and requests for a temporary leave.

 

Jeralt stares unblinkingly at her, wondering if he'd heard her wrong the first time.

 

"Just for two weeks," his daughter says, confirming his suspicions, as she looks off at the entrance of his tent and far away at something that Jeralt wishes he could see as well. "I'd...like to take a short vacation, if that's okay?"

 

Jeralt is absolute not okay with this. "No," he says, firm and unyielding. His daughter can ask for anything else, but this—this is something he can't ever give to her.

 

"It can be your belated birthday present to me," she smiles cheekily at him, but it comes out looking more awkward with the atmosphere that's steadily growing tenser at each passing minute.

 

"Miklan," Jeralt merely responds with, giving her a pointed look to which she sheepishly rubs the back of her neck at. "What even brought this on, Byleth? Aren't you happy here in the company?" He asks, because he has to so that he can immediately remedy that. "Is there something wrong?" He pushes, because he has to know why. Why does she want to leave? Why does she want to go? Isn't it enough being here?

 

"It's not that." Byleth shakes her head. "I...I just have to do this." She pauses, and it's apparent that she's fumbling for words. "I'd at least want to know what I can do with my life," she murmurs.

 

Jeralt remains unconvinced. "Bullshit," he calls her out on, but his right arm trembles just so at the tiny truth he hears laced into her words.

 

"I can't be a mercenary forever," his daughter argues, yet her voice remains soft and tame, as if she's speaking to a predator that could pounce any time.

 

Jeralt can't blame her. He eyes her like a hawk would, finding any weakness in her to make her give this one up. Just this one. "And how will you make money then?" He nearly snaps at her

 

"That's what I want to find out," is her immediate reply. She raises her gaze to meet his, her eyes the same blue they'd been since she was just a little babe crying for something as he rocked her to sleep in his arms. "That's why, will you let me go?"

 

Jeralt doesn't want to let her go. Not ever. She's the only thing he has left—the last and only thing he has left of his late wife, so how can his daughter think he can just let her go so easily? Just like that?

 

He's snapped out of the storm in his head at the sensation of something warm pressing up against him. When he looks down, it's to the sight of his daughter wrapping her slender arms against his huge frame with her face buried in his chest.

 

"Dad, I...please," his daughter begs, sounding so very sad and so very young that Jeralt wonders how could he have forgotten that she's only sixteen. "I have to do this. I can't—I don't want to go, but dad, do you want us to live like this for the rest of our days?" His daughter asks.

 

The word yes gets clogged up in the middle of his throat, and Jeralt can't find it in himself to force it out because as he thinks about it, really thinks about it, is this how he wants he and his daughter to live like? On the run from the church and killing people for a salary? Is this what he wants, until he's old and gray and probably gets felled by a blade that's swifter by his then rusty one? To leave his daughter alone just because of his own cowardice?

 

Jeralt knows not when he'll die, knows not when this accursed blood running through his veins will cease to function and let him be, but does he want to wait around like a coward until it does?

 

Jeralt can't say yes, because it'd be a lie, and Jeralt can't lie to his daughter for all the secrets he keeps tucked away from her sight.

 

He can't, and that's his mistake. His weakness. Because, for as much as he loves his daughter, he loves her alive more than anything else and keeping her locked up alongside his fears won't do her any good.

 

He pulls away from his daughter, memorizes the warmth from her embrace, and looks grimly down at her.

 

"One week," he barters.

 

"Two weeks," his daughter replies, looking up at him with a determined set to her lips.

 

"A week and a half," he pushes.

 

Byleth hesitates, pursing her lips as she ponders over it. "12 days, and I get to leave before dawn tomorrow."

 

Jeralt doesn't quite like that deal, but he doesn't really like her leaving at all and so he relents because at least it isn't two weeks .

 

At his sigh and reluctant nod, the smile that blooms on his daughter's face is so beautiful that it almost hurts to look at.

 

She hugs him once more. "Thank you," she murmurs quietly, squeezing him tightly to convey how grateful she is for this opportunity.

 

Jeralt holds her for as long as he's able to.

 

She still leaves the next day, with a small bag slung over her shoulder and a vow to meet the company in Ravalka at the promised time.

 

As she disappears into the dense foliage, his daughter doesn't once look back at the people she's leaving behind.

 

Jeritza and Miklan are tense statues on either side of him, their jaws clenched and looking like they'd want nothing more than to chase after her.

 

Sighing, Jeralt claps them on the shoulder and smiles humorlessly at them when they look at him.

 

"Come on," he tells them. "We still have some work to do."

 

And hey, maybe they could get wasted in a couple bars on the road.

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Ravalka, for all its colorful streets and dazzling lights against the background of a night sky, pales in comparison to the breathtaking sight of his daughter leaping into his arms with an exclamation of, "Dad! "

 

Jeralt catches her, of course, and embraces her tightly to his chest. Her hair, coarse and rough from traveling winds, brushes itchily against his nose, but he only burrows his face into it even more, inhaling deeply to reassure himself that this really is his daughter in his arms and not just some dream his mind had cruelly conjured up.

 

Her breathless laugh tickles his neck. "I'm back," she tells him in a voice that's warmer and softer than usual.

 

Jeralt doesn't say anything, only holds her for a few moments longer before he pulls away to let the others have their turn in welcoming her back.

 

Most of his men clap her on the back and eagerly ask her where she's been, while some of the more braver ones give her a brief hug.

 

Jeralt watches his daughter, who gasps loudly at being embraced by Miklan who, on a normal day, would try to avoid as much physical contact as he could with any woman for fear of messing up. Even Jeritza manages to crack a fond smile for his daughter after he's done holding her in his arms.

 

Jeralt feels a sudden fullness in his heart at the scene that spreads out before him—a kind of fullness that he'd only ever shared with his late wife, one that he never imagined he could ever feel again without her on this land.

 

'We'll have a family,' he remembers her saying as she'd fondly patted her pregnant belly. 'A big one. A happy one. Won't we?'

 

Right now, at this moment, Jeralt can't deny her words because that is what this is.

 

A big and happy family, albeit a bit bloodier and more dysunfctional than the usual kind, but a big and happy family nonetheless.

 

He's snapped out of his thoughts when his daughter calls out to him, the blue of her eyes brighter than usual against the lights on the streets.

 

"Let's hit the tavern!" She announces. "The captain's treat!" She beams a cheeky smile at him amidst the cheers of his men at her declaration.

 

"Oi! Who said I'll be paying?" Jeralt demands, but it's not like he hadn't thought  of hitting the tavern as soon as he'd seen his daughter's hair in the crowd. "Fine, fine! But only for the first round! You're on your own after that!" He huffs, rolling his eyes at the sounds of displeasure his men make.

 

As they make their way towards the cheapest bar they could find, he turns to look at his daughter who's skipping alongside his confident strides. "What'd you do on that vacation of yours?" He asks with raised brows.

 

His daughter glances up at him, the makings of a playful smile on her lips. "Se~cret," she tells him in a singsong voice, playing with the small braid in her hair.

 

Jeralt eyes the plum ribbon woven into the tiny braid over her shoulder, a dark feeling curdling deep in his gut. "Did you hook up with anybody?" He asks, well aware that she's around the same age he was when he decided to whore himself out for the heck of it.

 

It's a miracle I'm not diseased , Jeralt thinks, unable to look at all the fun times he's had before with anything but fondness.

 

His daughter just laughs.

 

"Oh Goddess, you made sure to drink the teas, right?" Jeralt asks, fumbling in the dark crevices of his memory to check if he'd made sure to pack those in her bag before she'd left.

 

He may be old, but that doesn't mean he's ready to be a fucking grandpa!

 

"Relax. I didn't sleep with anybody," his daughter assures him. "I just traveled around."

 

When he eyes her suspiciously, Byleth only shakes her head before moving onto Jeritza and Miklan who are only too eager to talk with her.

 

They eventually reach a bar that suits the palate of their coin pouches. For once, Byleth doesn't go straight first to sit by the bar counter; instead, she chooses to lounge lazily by a booth between Jeritza and Miklan who both look more like attack dogs than human beings what with how they crowd her.

 

With a shake of his head, Jeralt takes the seat by the bar and orders his promised first round. As his men cause a minor ruckus behind him over the drinks, Jeralt nurses his own whilst he asks one of the bartender for whatever grapes have ripened in the vineyard.

 

"Oh, you haven't heard the big news?" She asks, blinking owlishly as she sets down the glass she'd been cleaning to lean over the counter.

 

Jeralt merely raises an eyebrow at her.

 

"Well, I don't know 'bout you, but it's been the talk of the Empire for days! Apparently, two of the Emperor's children have been kidnapped," she tells him with a deep frown.

 

Jeralt chokes on his first sip. "What?!" He coughs out, beating his chest to alleviate the ache.

 

"I know! It's insane! Apparently, somebody snuck into the Imperial Children's villa and managed to sneak off with the two youngest!" She exclaims.

 

The man seated beside Jeralt leans in to join the conversation. "Yeah. I heard about that. My father's in the guards, and he said that whoever did it couldn't have been real. There weren't any tracks or signs of breaking in. Well, aside from all the guards stationed there being slaughtered that is," he confides to them, grimacing. "If it weren't for Princess Edelgard's testimony that somebody did sneak in, you would have thought it was a vengeful ghost!"

 

"Oh my...I pity the Emperor. His entire life is just spiraling down, isn't it? First, the Insurrection. Then, his children dying one after the other because of some illness going 'round. And finally! When he only has three left, two of them go and get kidnapped!" The bartender cries out, hugging herself. "I can't imagine my little ones being kidnapped so easily like that!"

 

"It truly is a tragedy for the Empire," the man murmurs, tipping his drink back to guzzle it down his throat. "Oh, by the way, have you heard about what happened to Count Varley? Hah!"

 

A ghost , Jeralt thinks, drowning out the rest of that particular gossip. His gaze slides to rest on his daughter. He remembers that time she'd brought back Jeritza, and the promise she'd made to him that nobody would go after them. And nobody did.

 

If you've done it once, is the beginning thought. You can do it again.

 

There's an inkling of suspicion that blots his reason. He sharpens his gaze on his daughter who laughs heartily as she pushes a flushed Miklan over a table and lines a few mugs of beer across his large body.

 

Jeralt watches as his daughter looks meaningfully at Jeritza who stands opposite of her at Miklan's knees.

 

He watches the sly smile that appears on her face, before Chrit gives off some kind of signal and both her and Jeritza are slamming mugs full of beer into their belly like some kind of idiotic teenagers about to get a rude visit from Mr. Hangover in the morning.

 

Nah, Jeralt thinks, relaxing his shoulders when he sees his daughter scrunching her nose at Jeritza who looms victoriously over her with a smug grin. No way.

 

His daughter couldn't have done that. To sneak into the Emperor's household, much less the Imperial Children's villa, should have taken years of planning to sneak into. And by the hands of one person? A sixteen-year old girl? Who grumbled irritably when there wasn't a second serving for breakfast? Hah.

 

Jeralt snorts into his drink. Maybe he's just getting paranoid again.

Chapter Text

This, Jeralt can wholeheartedly and shamefully claim, is his fault.

 

It had been his idea to travel to the region of Sreng as a way to put as much distance between the company and the Adrestian Empire, which still had yet to get its shit together after its internal conflict with its missing children and the war it had just ended with Brigid and Dagda.

 

The company could have gone to Morfis, but Jeralt didn't want to go anywhere near whatever the fuck was going on between House Gloucester and House Riegan just to catch an eight hour boat ride to some desert country.

 

And he may have wanted to keep Byleth seperate from Leonie for the time being, because he didn't want his daughter getting any ideas that since she couldn't have any pets, she could probably have apprentices of her own.

 

Jeritza and Miklan had just warmed up to each other; he didn't want to deal with the poor sod that would be thrown into the middle of that mess.

 

And so, here they were, cutting through Kingdom territory and freezing their asses off just to get to Sreng. He'd spent a good portion of the company’s wallet to arm his men in furs, but even the precious sight of his daughter bundled up in her furred cloak hadn't been enough to deter his men from keeping their bitching.

 

“How the hell did you guys live like this?!” Chrit may as well have cried out, shivering as a cold wind blew by

 

Miklan, acting as Jeritza and Byleth’s shield against the chilly breeze, merely raises his eyebrows. “It’s actually quite mild today," he comments. "We'd be in real trouble if there was a snowstorm going on."

 

"It gets worse?" Jeritza mutters in disbelief.

 

"It does," confirms a man from the Miklan Band—a term that Jeralt had jokingly coined in one of his drunks stupors. He calls Miklan's friends that, because, aside from the fact that they were devout enough to just abandon their previous lives in order to join the same mercenary company as him, they all wore the same matching bandanas.

 

As if having sensed Jeralt's thoughts, the Miklan Band adjusts their bandanas.

 

In unison.

 

As if they'd practiced for it.

 

Jeralt swears that the Miklan Band must share some sort of telephatic link because this cannot be fucking possible .

 

Maybe they share one braincell, Jeralt wonders, his only reprieve in the face of this ridiculous weather that's, for the life of him, nearly frozen his eyelashes off. That's the only logical conclusion .

 

"Sir," Jeritza suddenly calls out to him, snapping Jeralt out of his bored musings. The young man has stopped walking in favor of shading his eyes with a hand as he looks up at the dark sky.

 

"Hm? What is it? Are you tired?" Jeralt asks, steadying his ride to a stop. Poor Mercury, he thinks, patting the mare's neck. Jeralt eyes his surrounding with a grimace, knowing that it would do more harm than good for the company if they were to set up camp here.

 

"No," Jeritza denies, squinting at whatever has caught his eye. "I...There's smoke. Coming from that direction." He points northeastward with an elegant finger.

 

Jeralt narrows his eyes at where Jeritza is pointing at and sees only goddamn snowflakes.

 

"He's right. I see it too," Miklan agrees, his eyebrows scrunching down as he stares up at the sky.

 

Jeralt eagerly perks up. "Could there be a town nearby?" He asks, looking at their resident Kingdom members.

 

Miklan and his band of stooges exchange bemused expressions.

 

"I don't remember there being a town this far north of Fhirdiad,” Miklan mentions, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “But then again, I haven’t exactly gone trekking across Faerghus before,” he adds dryly, to which the Miklan Band laugh at.

 

Byleth and Jeritza share a grimace.

 

“Well,” Jeralt starts. “Anything’s better than catching hypothermia. Let’s go ahead and check it out, and hey, maybe for once, we’ll get to sleep on beds!” He announces, adjusting his hold on the reigns to better steer his steed. “Lead the way, Jeritza!” He orders.

 

Jeritza snaps a nod, tightening his hold on his cloak as he obeys his orders.

 

His men are cheering amiably to one another at the possibility of a warm bed and even warmer food in their stomachs.

 

In all honesty, the entire company looks like a bunch of idiots what with snow on their heads.

 

And I’m the idiot leader , Jeralt realizes in a deadpan voice.

.

..

...

..

.

Which brings them to here: their feet sinking in the snow as they watch a literal blaze of death and destruction before their own eyes.

 

We're idiots, Jeralt thinks in exasperation. Fucking numbskulls.

 

“Hey,” Miklan hollers to catch their attention. He’s inspecting a carriage that’s sitting idly by the side of the road, the emblem of the Kingdom of Faerghus emblazoned starkly on the white door in its brilliant shade of blue. “It seems like an ambush” he says uneasily, his lips set in a firm line. "And on very important people too."

 

Jeralt merely raises his chin in acknowledgement, his gaze fixed solely on the corpses strewn upon a path leading deeper into what seems to be damnation itself. Yeah, he thinks, amidst the combined roars of flames and cries of people. Won't do any good to get into this mess, he decides because, as heartless as it may be, this wasn't any of their business.

 

Beside, even if they did join the fight, their mercenary company would just land their busted asses in the middle of some dumb politics that could have them prosecuted as the pepetuators of this whole dumb scheme.

 

Jeralt is not looking forward to being jailed and meeting Rhea anytime soon, thank you very fucking much.

 

With that in mind, Jeralt raises his hand to call off the retreat and—

 

"We have to help them!" His daughter declares as she unsheates her sword with a sharp pull.

 

Then, without any word, his daughter just charges into the fray.

 

Jeralt gaps, caught off guard by his daughter's sudden spontaneity.

 

"As you say!" Jeritza barks, his hand already tightly gripping the handle of his lance. He throws off his heavy cloak and chases after Byleth's footsteps into the blaze

 

"Oh, Goddess," Miklan complains under his breath, but he unhooks his battle axe and rushes after the two with the Miklan band hot after his heels

 

Fuck, Jeralt thinks, as he's left alone with the rest of the company who, like him, look on helplessly after the ones who'd just run off. Fuck, fuck, fuck, is his only train of thought. "Those little—! After them!" He eventually yells out, getting off his horse and tying her reins around a narrow tree. "Attack anybody but the Kingdom soldiers! We don't want to have our heads rolling, do we?!" He demands, tightening his belt of saggers around his waist and brandishing his lance. "GO!" He roars, rushing into the flames to go after his dumb fuck of a brood.

 

In the middle of this hellhole, Jeralt can hardly see anything; still, he keep running north because where else can he head off to? He'd seen his daughter run north, so where else can she be?

 

He passes by bodies of soldiers, both of which bearing uniforms that belong to two entirely different factions that he recognizes.

 

The Kingdom of Faerghus, and Duscur.

 

A flash of black catches his eye. Believing it to be his daughter, he swerves westward and braces through a thin wall of flames that a man his age should not be jumping through, dammit!

 

When his boots slam onto the ground, he's sorely disappointed to see that it hadn't been his daughter who had caught his eye—instead, what stands before him are a trio of men dressed up creepily in black robes and masks with long beaks.

 

What the fuck,  Jeralt thinks, nearly dropping his lance at the ridiculous sight.

 

The one in the middle seems to be in too deep in his monologuing, since he doesn't even notice Jeralt's sudden presence. Meanwhile, the other two creepy fucks are standing on either side of a large man who appears to have been forced onto his knees.

 

From what Jeralt can see, it appears that the two creepy fucks are holding blades to the kneeling man's throat.

 

Seeing how ornately decorated the kneeling man's cloak is, Jeralt supposes that this must be one of the very important people that Miklan had been referring to.

 

Okay, Jeralt says to himself, with the assurity that these men in black are the  bad guys in this particular situation. Okay. I can do this, he peps himself up, because this is something he really needs.

 

Placing the handle of his lance in his mouth, Jeralt bites deeply to keep it in place despite the fact that he's been warned several times by his bishops to stop putting such a heavy thing in his mouth.

 

He unsheathes two daggers from his belt and, with a deep breath, surges in.

 

With a flick of his wrists, his daggers fly true and burrow deeply into the wrists of the two creepy fuckers. While the two cry out in pain and drop their respective weapons, Jeralt is already leaping over the kneeling man's head and is grabbing the two creepy fuckers' heads in his hands.

 

The inhumane blood coursing through his veins sings harshly when he bashes the two creepy fuckers into the ground. The sickening crack he hears makes a thrill shoot up his spine.

 

When he lets go, his fingers come back sticky with blood.

 

Just to make sure, Jeralt rises from his crouch and removes the lance from his mouth in order to drive the blade into the mens' skulls one after the other. The sickening squelch that comes after rings loud and true in the sudden silence.

 

The song in his head grows louder with delight.

 

Jeralt spots a bit of brain matter that slides off the elegant arc of his lance's blade  and thinks that, okay, maybe he had gone a bit overboard there.

 

"You!" The one who'd been monologuing yells.

 

Jeralt merely rests his gaze on him. He tilts his head to the side. "Me," he replies none too intelligently. His eyes catch the swirl of reason magic gathering up in the creep's hand and, with a simple thrust of his arm, he drives his lance into the man's chest.

 

"Y-You," the man manages to gurgle out, bloodily coughing out what must be his lungs.

 

"I'm getting real tired of this," Jeralt sighs, yet, mercifully, he swiftly slides blade to the right where the man's heart should be.

 

With nothing to hold him up, the man crumbles to the ground like a puppet that had its strings snipped off. His body convulses for a few moments before coming to a complete stop, signaling his death.

 

It's one of the quickest death Jeralt could ever give to whoever was unlucky enough to face him.

 

With that done, Jeralt turns to face the kneeling man.

 

"You alright there?" Jeralt asks, standing at arm's length from the man just in case.

 

The man merely stares up at him with wide eyes—eyes, Jeralt takes note of, that are a startling shade of blue. His mouth is parted slightly, and Jeralt can't really blame him for being so surprised because it's not every day you get ambushed and saved from near execution from a complete stranger.

 

After an awkward moment of sizing each other up, the man suddenly blinks a few times and snaps his mouth shut. "I," he begins in a voice that's throaty and rough, as if he'd been strangled by a belt. "Yes, I'm quite alright," he answers with a nod. When he tries to get up, a pained expression flashes across his features.

 

Taking pity on the poor man, Jeralt shoulders the man's arm and helps him up to his feet. Jeralt's hand finds its way to the man's chest to better assist him; it's because of that, he notices the nasty wound that the man is sporting across his chest.

 

Goddess,  Jeralt thinks as he sucks in a sharp breath, his eyes gauging how gouged up the flesh appears to be. "We'll have to get you to my healers," Jeralt decides because, even if the man hadn't been executed on the spot, he'd have probably died from excessive blood loss in a matter of time.

 

"No," the man grunts out, clutching his torso. "My family's still out there. I have to look for them. Goddess knows what these demons might do to them."

 

"Can you even walk?" Jeralt deadpans, removing himself from the man's side to prove his point.

 

The man staggers, yes, but he holds himself steady. "I can walk," the man stubbornly affirms.

 

Jeralt gives him his best unimpressed stare, but the man remains unaffected and even tries to walk deeper into the maze of flames.

 

Fuck nuggets,  Jeralt curses in his head as he reaches down to pluck out his bloody daggers from his kills. "Fine, wait, you've proven your point," Jeralt huffs, striding up to the man. He grabs the man's hand and wraps his, surprisingly calloused, fingers around his own lance. "Here. Use this. You know how to at least use it, yes?" He asks, gaze flickering up to meet the man's startled one.

 

The man nods, and that's good enough for Jeralt.

 

"Let's go," Jeralt declares, brandishing his daggers in a defensive position just in case anybody decided to ambush them from within the covers of the flames.

 

You better be safe , Jeralt thinks, hoping that the strength of his worries would be enough to convey his thoughts to his daughter.

Chapter Text

I'm getting real tired of these bozos, Jeralt internally snarls as, in the real world, he slashes through a man's carotid artery. He grimaces at the spray of blood that hits his cheek and, just because he's petty, he makes sure to step real hard on the dead man's chest as he walks across.

 

"You doing okay there?" Jeralt asks, turning to face his impromptu partner.

 

The other man manages a wry smile as he heavily leans against his lance for support. "I've unquestionably seen better days," he pants.

 

Stubborn idiot,  is Jeralt's opinion of the man. "Well, just hang in there," Jeralt encourages, tapping his index finger against his thigh as he impatiently waits for the man to catch up to him. "I'm sure we'll be able to find your family in this hellhole," he huffs, kicking away some anoying debris to clear the way.

 

And, as if the Goddess herself took pity on them, they eventually stumble upon an entirely new battlefield within the blaze.

 

Amidst the chaos of it all, Jeralt manages to spot a few of his men holding their own against those creepy bastards in black. He catches a glimpse of Miklan and Jeritza teaming up with a few knights dressed in blue in order to fend off those weird assailants.

 

Jeralt has but a moment of relief before his eyes take in a scene that has fear immediately flooding his tongue.

 

"Byleth!" He roars out, body already on the move to get to his daughter who has her back turned to a man hefting a giant axe over his head.

 

I won't make it! Jeralt cries in his head, desperately reaching his hand out as if that would instantly make up the distance between him and his daughter's killer.

 

He sees Byleth turn too late— remembers an abyss in the pearly white of her skull, her life's blood welling up from it as the blade sinks in deeper and deeper and

 

Jeralt hears a brief whistle of wind, feels something breeze past him in the same speed as a loose arrow, and watches as, suddenly, a thick lance embeds itself through the man's skull.

 

That's my lance, Jeralt realizes as he regards how his daughter's would be killer stumbles back in surprise at being fucking lanced  through his brains, his hold on his axe loosening, before he follows his weapon and tumbles to the ground in a very much dead collapse. Holy fuck, Jeralt thinks, stiffly looking over his shoulder to stare at who he'd initially assumed to be baggage.

 

His impromptu partner meets his gaze from where it had been trained on its target. The man manages a smile despite the visible trembling in his legs.

 

"You—" Jeralt cuts himself off, truly at a loss for words. Then, remembering the situation, he throws the man a quick shout of thanks before he's running off to check on his daughter.

 

When Jeralt sees that Byleth is relatively unscatched, he brings her into a tight hug and cradles her head against his chest. "Goddess, you reckless—" He stops himself from cursing. "Don't ever do that again, you hear me?" He demands from her when he eventually pulls away from her.

 

His dumbass of a daughter smiles wryly at him, and Jeralt knows that she's as hopeless of a case as he is when it comes to considering their safety in the middle of fighting.

 

A sigh escapes his body. "Really," he breathes out, exasperated but fond all the same with her antics. He turns his gaze to what exactly had distracted his daughter enough to leave her vulnerable to a sneak attack from the back, and thinks, Ah.

 

From behind his daughter, a man lays slumped against a tree. The Kingdom uniform he wears is tattered and so soaked in blood that Jeralt can hardly recognize what should be blue fabric. His eyes are closed but, thankfully, his chest rises and falls in a slow yet steady pattern.

 

Jeralt slides his gaze to the young girl kneeling next to the unconscious man. She'd have made an adorable sight, if not for her bood-splattered blonde hair and clothes.

 

Her wide eyes are a familiar shade of blue, and Jeralt is able to piece together the puzzle before his daughter's savior staggers up next to him.

 

"Dimitri," the man breathes out, finally succumbing to the pain from his injuries as he falls to his knees. He sounds so heartbreakingly relieved to find his daughter that Jeralt can't help but empathize with the man.

 

"Father!" The girl—Dimitri cries out, immediately getting up to her feet to barrel into her father's arms.

 

The man grunts from his injury being jostled, but he makes no move to push his daughter away from him; in fact, he only brings her closer to him, looking very much like he'd die before he ever lets her go.

 

It's a touching scene, really, but Jeralt turns his attention back on the fight at hand. He walks over to the corpse of what could have been his daughter's killer and, without remorse, slams his boot on the head as he gets a good grip on his lance. He makes it a point to viciously twist his lance a few times before jostling it free from the fucker's skull.

 

He turns to his daughter and points firmly at her. "Stay," he tells her. "And for the Goddess's sake, you better listen this time."

 

His daughter pouts but nods. "If you see any of our healers, send one my may, won't you?" She asks, gesturing to the clearly injured men behind her.

 

Jeralt agrees then, with a flick of his bloodied lance, jumps into the fray.

.

..

...

..

.

When they've managed to successfully drive off the rest of those black-robed soldiers, Jeralt efficiently divides his forces so that one would be setting up camp whilst the other would be scouring for any lingering survivors in the dying blaze. Seeing how many were injured, Jeralt has the medical tent set up first so that his healers could immediately be put to work.

 

By the time the camp's been set up and the remaining Kingdom soldiers have been bandaged up and put to rest, the scouting them led by Jeritza arrives with negative results.

 

"This is all that's left," Jeritza reports, a twist in a corner of his mouth. "We didn't find any more survivors."

 

"I see," Jeralt murmurs, his mind filled with nothing but conspiracies. This was a planned ambush, he believes. The enemy knew how many soldiers were going to be brought, and prepared accordingly. This can't be the work of some fortunate no-name mercenary group. "Tell Miklan to meet me in the medical tent once he comes back," he orders Jeritza. "The rest, go get yourself checked up!"

 

Jeralt waits for his men's acquiesced response before he makes his way to the medical tent tent where his daughter and the targets of this whole muck are at.

 

At least none of my men are dead or seriously injured, is Jeralt's relieved thought when he enters the medical tent and sees that most of the patients are Kingdom soldiers. Good thing I made sure to up their training then. It had been a decision that Jeralt had made when he saw that his daughter was going to be a handle and he needed all the help he could get in keeping her contained.

 

His gaze is immediately drawn to his daughter who's sitting in a dark corner. His gaze slides to where she's looking at, and he sees the man whose name he has yet to ask for with his daughter snoozing into his side. The two are seated next to the unconscious man that Jeralt recognizes as the same one who'd been slumped next to the tree before.

 

Having assessed Byleth for any injuries an hour ago, Jeralt briefly waves at his daughter before he strolls over to the other father-daughter duo in this camp.

 

"Hey," Jeralt greets amiably enough, catching the other man's gaze as he settles down on the other side of the unconscious man. "How are you doing?" Jeralt asks, his eyes straying to the other father's bandaged chest.

 

The man's hand, the one that isn't placed protectively on his daughter, rubs his chest. "Your healers say that I'll live yet, but that I made the injury worse by moving, so it'd take about two weeks to heal even with faith magic," he answers with a small laugh.

 

Jeralt hadn't really gotten a good look at the other man in the blaze; now, though, with the sooth and blood washed off, Jeralt can admit that his eyes hadn't been tricking him then and that the man truly is handsome. In that contrasting noble yet rugged kind of way.

 

If his wife were alive to witness this very moment, he's sure she'd have muttered a quiet damn under her breath because, yeah, damn.

 

Feeling a flush build at the back of his neck for his embarrassing thoughts, Jeralt coughs into his hand to maintain some semblance of composure.

 

"Well," Jeralt starts, managing to meet the other man's gaze. "Considering that I was there to witness you doing so, I can't help but believe their evaluation. It'd be hypocritical of me to tell you to not do that the next time your injured, but, well, don't," he advises, but amends a moment later, "unless, of course, you've been separated from your child. Find them first then get to somewhere safe."

 

The man's blonde brows are raised high, just a few inches short from his hairline. He looks more amused than the annoyed that Jeralt had assumed he'd be. "A fellow father, I assume?" His eyes flicker to where Byleth is at.

 

Jeralt snorts. "You have no idea," he huffs, but he looks over to where his daughter is now sitting in attention. She'd probably surmised that they were talking about her and, oddly enough, looked vastly interested in their conversation. "That's my daughter, Byleth. Ah." Jeralt pauses, realizing that the other man must be as clueless as he is to the other's identity. "I forgot to introduce myself, but the name's Jeralt. I'm the leader of this mercenary company."

 

"The Blade Breaker, I'm aware," is the man's response, to Jeralt's surprise.

 

"I see my reputation has preceded me, huh," Jeralt comments, his insides turning with suspicion. It seems he'd been correct to assume that this man was a noble, because only those of nobility and some members of the Church knew the name behind his epithet and vice-versa.

 

The other man only chuckles. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Jeralt. This is my son, Dimitri." He gestures to the dozing girl—er, boy by his side. "You may call me Lambert. Words cannot express my gratitude for your presence and actions today," he introduces himself with a hand to the chest, tilting his head a bit in a mock bow. "I hope to repay your efforts once we reach the capital, if you'll accept accompanying my men and I there, that is," he ends.

 

Jeralt would have brushed him off right then and there. He'd accept accompanying Lambert and his guards to Fhirdiad's gates, yes, but beyond that would be a no go. He didn't want his company to meddle further in what seems to be some political strife between Lambert and some other noble who didn't fancy him being alive. He'd like to live a quiet and peaceful life with his daughter, thank you very much.

 

Yet, the name Lambert made alarm bells ring loudly in his mind. It was enough to distract him as he ponders over the vaguely familiar name.

 

Jeralt is ripped violently from his thoughts when he hears somebody call out to him. He twists his body to look behind him, and spots a sweaty Miklan making his way towards him.

 

"Sir! You needed me?" Miklan asks, his gaze fleeting to the unconscious man, then to Lambert, then finally back to Jeralt himself.

 

"How was your search?" Jeralt questions, already knowing the answer when he sees the grimance that scrunches up Miklan's features.

 

"Nothing positive, I'm afraid. The only Kingdom soldiers left alive are the ones here," Miklan reports.

 

"My wife," Lambert pipes up, brows furrowed deeply. "Has my wife been found?" He asks.

 

"I-I'm sorry," Miklan suddenly stammers out, which makes Jeralt's eyebrows rise. Miklan hasn't stammered for quite some time and even if he did, it was usually around women. "We didn't find your wife, but neither has her body been found amongst the dead," he explains.

 

"...I see," Lambert exhales, expression dreary. "Could there be a possibility that she's been kidnapped?"

 

"There could be," Miklan answers.

 

Jeralt hears the silent but that comes after, and remembers the untouched carriage they'd first stumbled upon before the battlefield. If there's a possibility that she'd been kidnapped, Jeralt deduces. Then she might have gone willingly. Jeralt hadn't seen any signs of tampering to get the carriage door open, neither had he seen any broken windows, which would only mean that Lambert's wife must have left her carriage out of her own volition in the middle of such chaos.

 

Jeralt is snapped out of his musings when he hears a definite thump . When he checks, he's met with the sight of Miklan kneeling on one knee with a hand over his heart and his head bowed.

 

"I am glad that his Majesty and his Royal Highness are alive and well after such an ordeal," Miklan proffers in a low yet booming voice.

 

What.

 

“What,” Jeralt most definitely did not squeak, but what?

 

“Miklan,” Lambert greets warmly. “Do rise. It’s fortunate that our paths have crossed again. I almost didn’t recognize you.” He gestures to Miklan’s short hair. “I’m glad that you are doing well. I’d feared the worst when I heard from your father that you’d left your household.”

 

Miklan stiffly nods once he’s standing upright. “It was better for all that I left the House. My fa—I mean, Margrave Gautier has a more suitable son to inherit the title, and I’ve found myself in better hands,” he confers, looking at Jeralt with bright eyes and a smile.

 

Jeralt is momentarily distracted by the warmth that blooms in his chest at Miklan’s admission, but returns to the matter at hand.

 

Just as Jeralt is about to raise a question, his daughter decides that now would be the perfect time to join one of the strangest conversations that Jeralt has ever partaken in.

 

With only one look at his face, Byleth smiles widely. “You had no idea he was the King of Faerghus, huh?” There’s mischief and amusement playing in her blue eyes.

 

Jeralt narrows his eyes at her. “And you knew?” He shoots back, defensive.

 

“Of course,” is his daughter’s instantaneous reply. “I make it a point to keep up to date with Fodlan’s nobility. It wouldn’t do us any good if we aren’t familiar with our potential high-tier clients,” she croons teasingly.

 

Jeralt merely huffs. This is the thanks I get for raising you, he thinks, but does remind himself for the nth time this decade to actually update himself on the current nobility of this half-century.

 

“...You weren’t aware?” Lambert inquires, eyes wide.

 

“I wasn’t,” is Jeralt’s dry reply before he corrects himself. “My apologies for not recognizing you, your Majesty. I really did mean no disrespect," he apologizes, the scripted words Alois had pounded into him two decades ago flowing out with as much ease as a stream. He tilts his head in a small bow for emphasis.

 

Lambert hums, frowning for some reason. “It is quite alright. Other men have done worse than be unaware of my identity," he reassures. "However, if that's the case, then let me properly introduce myself." Lambert straightens his posture, squaring his shoulders back and puffing his chest out. "I am Lambert Egitte Blaiddyd, current ruler and King of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus," he introduces himself once more, his chin angled in a way that made him look regal and every bit the royalty he was. "I personaly hope that this doesn't change your mind of accompanying my men and I to Fhirdiad," he adds with a smile.

 

Fuck, fuck, fuck, goes Jeralt's thoughts. It's just my dumb motherfucking luck.

 

Swallowing his grimace, Jeralt musters a polite and very much neutral expression. "Of course not, your Majesty. We'll gladly escort you and your men back to the capital." Because only an idiot would refuse royalty.

 

It was, in some way, Jeralt's resignation to further trouble.

Chapter Text

As much as he has enjoyed all the accommodations that his Majesty had generously provided to them during their stay in Fhirdiad, Jeralt just honestly wants out of the capital.

 

It's been three fucking weeks already. It's the longest Jeralt and his company have ever stayed in one place, and it's not like they can just up and leave since his Majesty had personally requested for their continued presence within the capital, specifically the caste where, you know, the royal family lives.

 

It's moments like these that makes Jeralt sit down and wonder how exactly has his life come to this.

 

In addition to that, his paranoia is just centimeters away from bursting through the roof. It's only worsened by the fact that officials from the Western Church have been going in and out of the the capital to check up on his Majesty's situation.

 

It's only a goddess damn miracle that Jeralt hasn't yet encountered any of them; just to be sure, though, he's made sure to warn his men to steer clear from any person wearing the official robes of the Church.

 

Oh, but we'll find you, Rhea's voice croons lovingly in his head. You assumed we wouldn't know? Has the scriptures of the Church ever lied, for have I not warned every soul that the Goddess watches over us all? Did you really believe that I wouldn't find out about your little secret?

 

Fuck you, Jeralt thinks back as he viciously pushes those thoughts to the back of his mind and locks them up in a chest.

 

"Are you okay?" His daughter asks him, which snaps him out of his train of insane thoughts.

 

Sighing, Jeralt reaches over to nibble on a baked treat that's grown stiff from Faerghus's terrible cold. "I can't say for certain. I'm just not comfortable being cooped up in a single place for so long," he explains. Then, because he truly cares, he asks, "how 'bout? How've you been holding up?"

 

His daughter's entire expression brightens up with the wide smile that stretches her lips. "Perfectly! Fhirdiad's one of the biggest places you've brought me to, and I've been having a grand time exploring the area," she chimes.

 

Jeralt raises his eyebrows. "And you haven't gotten lost yet?"

 

"It's because she has his Royal Highness as her guide," Miklan interjects, slowly turning his spoon in the amber liquid that's supposed to be their tea.

 

Their tea has a slight bitter punch to it and the color looks so similar to a warm brew of beer that, if Jeralt closed his eyes, he could imagine drinking that.

 

Goddess, he bemoans. I want a fucking drink so bad, I'm willing to give away any part of my body. And he would, if he could, but Miklan has been adamant in not letting anybody from their company have even a single sip of alcohol since they might do something foolish in their drunken states and offend his Majesty.

 

"Well, Dimitri is a good guide," his daughter cheekily comments, bringing Jeralt back to the conversation at hand.

 

"His Royal Highness should. He's lived here his whole life," Miklan huffs, putting emphasis on the crown prince's title, something which Byleth waves off. "And you really shouldn't encourage him to sneak out of the castle without any Knights accompanying him," Miklan warns with narrowed eyes.

 

Byleth snorts. "He doesn't need an armada of flashy knights when he has me." Then, the corners of her eyes crinkle when she smiles impishly. "Khan," she teasingly addresses Miklan.

 

Miklan only flushes.

 

Jeralt turns to Miklan with an unimpressed look. "Yeah. What's your deal with the whole new name thing? And why have you started wearing a mask? Did you strip and take a bath in a fountain here before? Because you look absolutely ridiculous." He doesn't hold back on his barbs because Miklan really does look ridiculous, and he should know that.

 

Miklan flushes even brighter, which only emphasizes his black mask that covers everything from the nose up.

 

Jeralt can admit that it's a pretty mask, since it seems to be made of malleable steel and decorarated with some swirls of gold paint towards the edges but—

 

—cool or not, the mask looks absolutely ridiculous on him.

 

Jeritza, after having finished a biscuit from the consolidatory basket of treats a knight had delivered to them courtesy of his Majesty, slams back his cup of tea then proceeds to explain, "It's because his younger brother is here at the capital and staying in the same castle as us."

 

The one he tried to kill, Jeralt remembers with a grimace. On multiple occassions.

 

"Oh, Dimitri introduced him to me" Byleth pipes up, resting her chin atop her interlocked fingers. "He's a bit of a smooth-talker, but otherwise, Sylvain is quite adorable," she says this as a sweet smile spreads across her face.

 

"...He is," Miklan mutters, looking down at his lap.

 

Byleth reaches over to comfortingly pat his head.

 

"And Margrave Gautier just let his son come to the capital? Alone?" Jeralt asks with a furrow of his brows, his opinion of the bastard sinking even lower. You've already lost one son, can't you fucking take better care of the one you have left? He thinks with no little amount of spite.

 

"Actually, Sylvain came here with Glenn's family and fiancee," Byleth elaborates.

 

"And Glenn is?" Jeralt also wants to know since when has his daughter been this much of a social butterfly.

 

"Glenn had been the unconscious knight you'd found. The one that his Royal Highness had been with," Miklan informs. "Currently, he's recovering in the castle's medical wing. He'd been the most heavily-injured of the Kingdom Knights that survived, and he hasn't woken up yet," he sighs.

 

"He's the heir to House Fraldarius, and the son to the Shield of Faerghus," Jeritza adds.

 

Jeralt perks up at that. He recognizes that moniker, which Rodrigue Fraldarius had earned through warfare, and he feels pretty proud that he remembered it.

 

Jeralt had made sure to better acquaint himself with the latest news about Fodlan's nobility; he doesn't exactly want another fuck up of a mess like this one.

 

Speaking of recent news, Jeralt recalls a particular topic that he has to talk about with these three.

 

"I'm not sure if any of you have heard of this yet," Jeralt starts, reaching for another muffin because damn were those chocolate ones good. Goddess bless the baker who made this. "But they're calling the whole incident the 'Tragedy of Duscur' because of the corpses of Duscurian soldiers that were found alongside the Kingdom ones. The majority of Fodlan believe that Duscur had planned to assassinate his Majesty, but, honestly," he pauses to take a big bite. "Do you believe this horse dung?"

 

Miklan and Jeritza merely grimace, but they shake their heads. His daughter, meanwhile, only snorts.

 

" What about those men we fought back there? The ones dressed in black? I'm sure we've killed a couple of them for their bodies to be found," Miklan questions.

 

"That's the thing," Jeralt sighs. "None of their bodies were found when the Kingdom sent soldiers to retrieve the bodies of those who've fallen. All that were there were Kingdom and Duscur corpses."

 

His daughter narrows her eyes. "Then there's something definitely going on. This feels like one big ploy for some grand scheme happening in the dark," she speculates.

 

Jeralt agrees, because ain't that a fuck load of truth.

 

They mull over it for a couple of minutes, letting everything sink in as they enjoy the free food and drinks.

 

Unable to bear the sudden sourness of the atmosphere, Jeralt turns to Jeritza. "Hey, how are you doing with those pegasus?"

 

Jeritza's gaze flickers to him. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he lies like the liar he is.

 

This time, Jeralt gives him the unimpressed look. What's up with his boys being so secretive with him these days? It's not like he'll rat out those times he caught them wanking off or anything equally embarrassing. The worst he'll do is pull their pants down in public, and that's only if he's drunk. "Really," he dubiously comments, peering suspiciously at Jeritza.

 

Byleth, his definite favorite of the trio, butts in. "Oh! He's enjoying spending time with them, I'm sure! I've seen him and one of Dimitri's friends grooming a pegasus once, and he was cooing at it!" She croons, clasping her hands together in delight.

 

"Ow, hey! Why'd you kick me?" Miklan complains, scooching away from Jeritza.

 

"...You could have stopped her," is Jeritza's petty response. There's a redness to his ears that hadn't been there before, and Jeralt's heart swells when he sees it.

 

"It's a shame you can't ride them," Jeralt brings up, just to save Jeritza a world of more pain if he hasn't yet found about out this. "Pegasus only accept female riders, after all."

 

"Well that won't be too hard," Miklan pettily huffs. "He already looks and acts more like a woman than Byleth."

 

This time, both of his legs get kicked by the aforementioned parties.

 

Jeralt merely hides smile into his cup of tea as he watches them argue amongst one another.

.

..

...

..

.

"Ugh," Jeralt groans as, for the third time in a row, he slips out of the cozy warmth of his room and into the chilling cold of the castle's halls.

 

The moon outside casts an ethereal glow through the windows, lighting up the path for Jeralt to take without any fears of stubbing his toes into anything remarkably pricey.

 

Usually, he'd go done to the kitchens to rummage for anything warm for his stomach as he'd pass the time; however, this time, Jeralt doesn't feel like sitting in another stuffy room that would make him feel suffocated and trapped like a damn rat.

 

Seeing that he's wrapped himself up with his heavily-furred cloak, Jeralt decides that the gardens outside might do some good for his mental state. The gazebo where he'd shared tea with his brood earlier this afternoon sounds like a good place to wait for the sun to rise

 

When he steps out, the cobblestoned ground feels like ice underneath his bare feet. It sends an uncomfortable tingle up to his knees, but Jeralt welcomes it.

 

It makes him feel rooted, reminds him that he's here, and tells him that the world is still so very much alive.

 

Thank the Goddess it isn't snowing, he thinks as, with a hum, he strolls past rows of flower bushes and ornately-sheared topiaries. He believes his wife would have enjoyed this place more than he does, and smiles at the memories of her gifting him a bouquet of flowers whenever he returned .

 

Jeralt spots the gazebo, which is situated nicely in the center of the garden, and stops in his tracks when he sees that it's currently occupied.

 

His Majesty sits by the center table that half-filled with stacks of documents. Dressed in a much simpler and more comfortable outfit than his usual regal one, he looks somewhat different—enough for Jeralt to see past the man who had sat on his throne and appeared every bit the Wolf King he was epitheted as for the fierceness of his features whilst he'd offered his sincere gratitude and awarded them free accomodations in his castle.

 

His Majesty right now looks very much like the man who'd sat by his injured men with his son snoozing in his side—more human than king.

 

I should go somewhere else, Jeralt decides, not really wanting to disturb his Majesty. When he turns around to make a silent escape, he catches sight of a knight looking right at him. Shit, he internally curses when the knight walks towards him.

 

"You're up early," the knight greets him politely enough, but Jeralt isn't a fool. He's played the interrogater a couple of times to know when he's being interrogated.

 

Suppressing a grimace, he smiles blandly at the knight—Gustave, if his memory serves right. "Couldn't sleep, actually. Thought I'd go out for a walk, but seems like the gardens is being used by his Majesty. I'll just hit the kitchens instead," he assures.

 

The knights nods before pausing. "You're...the Blade Breaker?" He asks, peering at him.

 

Jeralt nods wordlessly, itching to get out of here. He wriggles his toes, and he's suddenly very much conscious of his bare-footed state.

 

"Then it's nice to meet you, Blade Breaker. I am Gustave Dominic, Baron of House Dominic. But you may call me Gustave," he introduces himself, his hand placed over his heart as he bows. "You have my deepest gratitude for coming to his Majesty and his Royal Highness's aide."

 

A Baron guarding the King so late at night in the gardens, Jeralt muses, recalling a saucy novel that Alois had lent to him. The whole plot of it was overall cheesy, but Jeralt had enjoyed the more risque parts and the humor in the dialogue. Okay, back to reality, he decides, since it's none of his business if the Baron and the King were out so late at night.

 

Alone.

 

In the Gardens.

 

Jeralt is suddenly very much interested in what kind of face nobles make when caught fornicating in the gardens.

 

"Just, ugh, doing my job?" He answers lamely, clutching his cloak tighter to his chest like some underdressed maiden. "Well, it was nice to meet you, but I really have to go." He makes a stiff about face and readies himself to scamper off.

 

His hopes are, unfortunately, dashed when Gustave grabs his shoulder and says, "It seems like his Majesty has noticed your presence."

 

True enough, when Jeralt looks, he sees his Majesty looking at them.

 

Awkwardly, Jeralt raises a hand and waves.

 

Not knowing if he'd done the right thing or not, he watches as his Majesty makes some sort of signal to Gustave before Jeralt finds himself being escorted to the gazebo.

 

"Your Majesty." Gustave bows to the King who smiles and offers him good evenings. Gustave returns the pleasantries before he excuses himself.

 

Jeralt watches his back. Traitor, he accuses, before warily turning his attention back to his Majesty.

 

"Good evening, Jeralt," his Majesty greets him with a cordial smile, then motions for the seat adjacent to him. "Why don't you take a seat? I'm sure your soles must be freezing. What possessed you to walk out barefooted, anyhow?" He asks with a raised eyebrow.

 

"It's a force of habit," Jeralt answers, drowning whatever memory he'd had of him and Rhea chatting on the walkway leading to the chapel in the middle of the night with no shoes on. "And good evening to you as well," he returns, looking off to the side.

 

Huh. So they have calendulas here , Jeralt thinks as he gazes at the orange flora with great interest, very much aware how uncomfortable the silence between him and his Majesty is.

 

A cough catches his attention and, when he looks, he sees his Majesty pouring two glasses of wine from a bottle that had definitely not been there before.

 

"Would you like a drink?" His Majesty offers the half-filled wine glass to him, thumb and forefinger pinched elegantly on the stem.

 

Not one to deny a free drink, Jeralt graciously accepts the first glass of alcohol he's had in weeks. Fuck Miklan, he viciously thinks. "Thank you, your Majesty," he says.

 

His Majesty frowns, which makes a panicked flutter erupt within Jeralt because oh no had he done something wrong?

 

"Please, call me Lambert," his Majesty insists. "Any man who's saved my son and I from death has earned the right to call me by my name."

 

Jeralt purses his lips. "I hardly think that's appropriate, your Majesty," is his reply.

 

The expression Lambert makes afterwards resembles the face that his daughter would make whenever he'd deny her a third serving of food.

 

"Then," his Majesty starts, voice pitched a note lower. "You may call me by my title in public. However, when it's just the two of us, you must call me Lambert. I believe this to be a fair compromise," he offers.

 

Jeralt hesitates, because to build a friendly relationship with a King of all people is a risky move, but he knows a losing battle when he sees one.

 

"If that's what you want," Jeralt concedes, then, just because the King had insisted, "Lambert."

 

The pleased smile that raises Lambert's cheekbones high is entirely unfair, because it makes the man look undeniably handsome especially in the moon's light.

 

Unable to bear such a sight, Jeralt redirects his gaze back to the calendulas as he takes a sip of wine. "Pardon me for asking, but what is your next move concerning the Tragedy?" He asks, most curious.

 

Since he isn't looking at the King, he doesn't see Lambert raising an amused brow at him. "There is no need to apologize for asking a question concerning my kingdom's affairs," he assures him. "But, for now, I've sent a missive to the chief of Duscur to inform her of what had transpired as of late. I've also detailed a request to enter their territory in order to deliver the corpses of her people, as well as an appointment for a much needed meeting concerning the incident," he explains. "I'd found it odd that corpses of their soldiers were found in the blaze, when I recall that only those masked invidivuals had ambushed us...Whatever organization is behind my attempted assassination, it is in my belief that they were attempting to create discord between Faerghus and Duscur," he confides with an almost furious expression twisting his features.

 

Jeralt nods slowly, agreeing with the King's plan to take it slow and keep his actions to a bare minimum in order to not starte the true enemy in the dark. "And the Queen Consort? How's the search for her?" He inquires after another sip, watching Lambert's reaction.

 

As expected, an expression bordering between sad and mournful crosses the King's face. "My wife has yet to be found, but her carriage has been discovered and it doesn't appear to have been forced open by anybody. It was, in fact, unharmed and unbloodied as if...those who attacked had orders to not attack her," he shares, observing the way his wine moves when he rolls his wrist in languid circles.

 

Jeralt hides his wince with a generous helping of wine. He'd had expected as much since Miklan had reported the same thing before, but to actually hear it from Lambert certainly made the whole affair much grimmer.

 

"My most trusted advisers have speculated that my wife may have had a part in the Tragedy but, foolish as it may be, I can hardly bring myself to believe their words," Lambert sighs, looking up at the night sky. "My wife may have been cold at times, but she has been nothing but kind to my son and accomodating to the citizens of Faerghus, always putting their needs before her own and even giving up a portion of her allowance for them." There's a bitter smile playing on his lips when he says this, and Jeralt knows that Lambert must have really loved the queen to be able to wear such an expression.

 

"She sounds like a lovely woman," Jeralt compliments.

 

"She is," Lambert agrees in a soft voice.

 

"And your son? How's he holding up?" Jeralt asks, because although he's heard his daughter's stories about the crown prince, all of which had been joyful ones and not exactly ones concerning how the boy had coped with his mother's disappearance.

 

"Dimitri had been devastated when he found out because, although Patricia wasn't his birth mother, she trated him as if he was her own son," Lambert shares with him; then, the King looks at him with an almost gentle smile. "Your daughter's presence, however, has proven to be a most helpful distraction for my son, and I have her to thank for preventing him from wallowing in grief while I was busy with my position."

 

Jeralt feels a flush building at the back of his neck for the indirect compliment. "Im glad your son is doing well then," he settles with. "But, if your wife isn't your son's mother, then..." He trails off, not wanting to be rude or nosy.

 

Lambert merely smiles another sad smile. "Patricia is my second wife. Dimitri's mother had been my first, and I lost her after she'd born Dimitri. She'd been too weak from the epidemic that plagued Faerghus, and the stress of childbirth had only made her condition worse," he elaborates kindly.

 

Oh, Jeralt thinks. What a small world we live in. Then, before he could slam the words back in his heart, he spills out, "I lost my wife to childbirth as well."

 

Lambert's eyes widen and he leans forward on the table. "I wasn't aware that the Blade Breaker had been married," he admits.

 

Jeralt snorts. "Well, I didn't know that people still called me that," is his response as he smirks teasingly at the King.

 

The King must be surprisingly weak to alcohol because, for some reason, his skin is flushed from his cheeks, to the tips of his ears, and finally down his neck.

 

Jeralt wonders if his chest is as red as his cheeks are, but crushes that thought before it could possibly delve into considerably dangerous territory.

 

It's a cute look though, Jeralt can admit in the privacy of his thoughts. It makes Lambert look younger and a bit idiotic, but in a cute way.

 

What the hell kind of wine is this? Jeralt wonders as he suspiciously eyes his empty glass. The taste is unfamiliar but welcoming to his tongue, but he's only had one glass and he already feels this buzzed.

 

It doesn't stop him from reaching for the bottle of wine and filling his glass once more. And, just because he's polite, he fills the frozen King's glass as well.

 

He raises his glass to Lambert. "To our beloveds," he offers, grinning.

 

Lambert stares at him for a while, before he coughs into his fist then raises his glass as well. "To our beloveds," he agrees with a smile, clinking their glasses together.

 

What happens after that, Jeralt isn't quite sure. He remembers that they talked some more, chuckled every now and then, drank even more wine, before the memories eventually dissolve into a blurry mess.

 

When he wakes up the next morning, Jeralt finds himself cocooned in covers of his bed and staring blearily up at his brood looking down at him with mixed expressions.

 

He takes one look at Byleth's grinning face, Jeritza's deadpanned one, and Miklan's exasperated one; thinks, fuck this, and goes back to sleep.

 

The day after, when a geared up Jeralt and his company arrive in the throne room to offer the King their thanks and to bid goodbye, Lambert raises a hand before they could start their words of parting.

 

"I have a request," he says.

 

No, is Jeralt's first thought, because he's not spending another fucking day in this cold Kingdom and fattening up on its delicious treats.

 

"I'd greatly appreciate it if you were to accompany my men and I to Duscur. You have proven yourself capable enough in serving as our additional bodyguards for the duration of the trip to and back from Duscur," Lambert rationalizes with a firm and unyielding expression.

 

No, no, no , is Jeralt's train of thoughts as, politely, he bows his head. "I appreciate the offer your Majesty, but I believe my men and I have already—"

 

"You will be paid finely for your services, of course," Lambert interrupts him and, with a wave of his hand, the man standing next to him approaches Jeralt and hands him a scroll.

 

Jeralt vaguely recognizes the man as the Shield of Faerghus and, on any other day, he'd have been much more interested in the man than on a piece of parchment but—

 

Wow, Jeralt thinks, staring down at the amount written at the very bottom. His gaze scans through the rest of the document, and sees that though there are some rules to be followed, most of the benefits greatly outweighs the cons .

 

Again, Jeralt looks back at the amount detailed below.

 

Jeralt likes to think that he's above wordly desires, but he has a company to manage. A company with thirty something blackholes to feed, shelter, cloth, arm, train, and provide medical aid to.

 

In the end, Jeralt is only a man. A man who is very much in need of coin.

 

A man who foolishly accepts the job.

 

The smile that Lambert sends him makes him feel like a fucking rabbit that had finally been caught by the wolf.

Chapter Text


As much as Jeralt wishes to watch the inevitable fallout that is the current Gautier heir finally catching an impressively evasive Miklan on this ship, he can't, because he's too busy clutching onto a rope for dear life and bending half of his body over the ship's railings in order to puke out yesterday's dinner.

 

It's not Jeralt's finest moment, but he can't help it if he's fucking seasick of all things.

 

Why did I agree to this, Jeralt bemoans in his thoughts as he stares blearily at the dark depths of the ocean, looking for answers. Oh yeah. Because I'm a greedy asshat, that's why.

 

"There, there," his daughter coos comfortingly to him as she rubs circles on his back. "Just let it all out. You're doing great," she cheers for him.

 

As much as his daughter's presence warms his heart during this trying time, Jeralt honestly feels humiliated for appearing this utterly wrecked in front of her.

 

Before he can wallow any further in his mortification, the ship sways ever so gently with the waves' rockings and Jeralt feels the effects of such in the form of unbearable nausea that shoots straight down to his poor gullet.

 

After a short episode of dry heaving, Jeralt accepts the jug of water his daughter hands to him, gargles, and spits it out before he miserably crumbles on his ass and leans forbodingly against the wooden railing.

 

"Is he alright?" Jeralt vaguely hears somebody ask, and he rolls his head to look up at the person. It takes him a few moments to put a name to the man with dark hair and clearwater eyes.

 

"You're...Duke Fraldarius?" Jeralt manages to acknowledge, squinting at the sun's rays blaring out from behind the other man's head.

 

"And you're the Blade Breaker," is the other man's response. "I insist that you call me Rodrigue though. You have done me a great deed by saving my eldest son's life," Rodrigue says as he bows his head in respect.

 

Son? Jeralt wonders, looking at his daughter for answers. When he sees her mouthing a name, it clicks. "Hey, ugh, it's no big deal. Us fathers have to have each other's backs, yeah?" He blurts out, his brain to mouth filter sinking into the drain with his ability to stand on two feet on this accursed deathtrap.

 

Rodrigue laughs loudly and brightly. "Not many would share your sentiment, much less a mercenary of your caliber," he remarks.

 

"Well," Jeralt starts with the perfect comeback in mind, before his insides decides that nope, nope, nope. He manages to safely bend over the railing and watch his vomit fall into the ocean. "Ugh," he groans after gargling and spitting once more.

 

"Do you need some help?" Rodrigue's concerned voice could have rang as loudly as the monastery's bells at this point.

 

"It's okay. I've got it covered," his daughter assures.

 

Jeralt really does appreciate his daughter's willingness to look after him, but he has to draw a line somewhere for his damaged pride. He's a cool dad, okay!

 

"No, it's okay, By. You can go. I'm sure you have better things to do than watch your old man puke his guts out," Jeralt shoos his daughter with a wave of his hand.

 

His daughter's face scrunches up into an expression he's never seen before; a mixture of pained and angry. "There's nothing more important than you," she insists.

 

Jeralt's heart swells at her declaration, the back of his neck warming up in tandem. "And I feel the same way with you," he tells her. "But I can handle this. Now shoo. Go. Somebody has to help, ah, Khan hide from the Gautier heir and his friends," he reminds her.

 

It takes a few more prods before his daughter reluctantly leaves his side to go join Jeritza in protecting Miklan's identity from his persistent little brother.

 

"I'm assuming that this Khan character truly is Miklan in disguise," Rodrigue pipes up with a quirk of his lips.

 

Jeralt huffs and looks away. "Miklan? Sorry. I don't know who that is, but Khan  has been one of my most hardworking men in the company." And here, he peers fleetingly at the man with sharp eyes. It takes a lot more than a funny personality for Jeralt to betray any of his men, no matter how ridiculous Miklan's plan is.

 

Rodrigue merely tilts his head, similar to how a curious bobcat would consider sparing the life of a potential prey for it had already had its fill. "Mhhm," he hums nonchalantly as he leans against the wooden rails. "How blessed he is then, to be a part of your company," he comments offhandedly.

 

If only you knew , Jeralt thinks wryly, recalling those times when Miklan and his friends had been no better than battered ducklings when his daughter had decided to recruit them. And also that first month when Jeritza had been savage to Miklan.

 

"You know," Rodrigue begins casually. "It can be considered a capital offense to perjure information to his Majesty."

 

Goddess, Jeralt sighs internally. "Then it's a good thing I'm not a citizen of this Kingdom," is his careful answer. "Besides, what his Majesty and I know, that's only between us." The look he shoots the noble is clear. It's none of your business.

 

Rodrigue snorts, which he hastily amends by covering his mouth. "Pardon me, it seems my amusement got the better of me," he politely apologizes. "I see now why his Majesty is so—ah. Never mind that," he laughs.

 

Jeralt gazes at him with no less suspicion than a minute ago. "How's your son doing?" He asks in a bid to change the topic.

 

Rodrigue smiles, and Jeralt knows then that the other man is aware of the sudden change of topic. "Glenn is doing well, thank you for asking. I'm sure word has reached your ears that he'd awoken a few days prior to our voyage. He'd insisted on accompanying us on our expedition to Duscur, but he'd suffered more than a handful of injuries to warrant being confined to bed for a few weeks," he informs.

 

Jeralt nods; just as he was about to excuse himself, a sudden commotion coming from another part of the deck captures his attention.

 

"Where could he have gone this time?!" Cries a young man who looks to be about a year younger than his daughter. Jeralt immediately recognizes him as Miklan's infamous younger brother—Sylvain Jose Gautier, if his memory serves him right—for the unique red-orange coloration of his hair.

 

"I'm not sure," answers a young girl who loosely wears her blonde hair in a pair of twin braids that is slung over her shoulders. "We saw him go above deck, didn't we?" She asks, looking around.

 

"I...cannot recall," admits his Royal Highness with a sheepish smile.

 

"Well I, for one, believe that it's a lost cause," snorts another young boy who has his arms crossed over his chest. "If that man doesn't want to be found, then he doesn't want to be found. We shouldn't waste our efforts in going on a wild goose chase after a coward," he jeers.

 

"Yeah, well, asshole or not, he's my brother," Sylvain scowls. "Just because you have yours back," he begins through clenched teeth, shoulders visibly shaking. "You know what? I'll go look for him on my own. Don't bother trying to help me," he huffs, turning on his heel and stomping back below deck.

 

"Felix..." His Royal Highness turns to look at his friend with sad blue eyes.

 

"Why would you say that?!" The girl demands, looking torn between scolding the boy and going after Sylvain. "You know how much this means to him!" She exclaims with quite a deep furrow between her brows.

 

"Yeah, well, it's dumb," Felix sneers. "Sylvain should save himself the pain and just give up! Honestly, he shouldn't even be the one running around, begging for a talk! It should be the other way around!" He complains, then with a roll of his eyes, he turns on his heels and stalks off with a mutter of, "what a load of bull."

 

"Felix! Hey! We're not done talking!" The girl calls after with an angry flush to her cheeks. She's already hot on Felix's scampering heels by the time his Royal Highness decides to go after Sylvain.

 

"Another son of yours?" Jeralt asks, seeing the resemblance between Rodrigue and that Felix boy.

 

"Another handful, you mean," is Rodrigue's dry quip. "But yes. Felix is my youngest child,  but it seems he's taken after his mother as has my eldest, Glenn, in terms of personality" he sighs, running a hand through his hair.

 

Jeralt, who's very much well-acquainted with cleaning up one's embarrassing adolescent act, merely hums. "U-huh," he agrees half-heartedly. "And you believe it's a good idea to have brought the children with us?" He asks, because, well, it've have probably been better to have left them back in the Kingdom.

 

Rodrigue purses his lips. "His Majesty had been adamant on bringing the crown prince along. Concerning the circumstances, I find it rational to not separate the only Royal Family members that we have left," he muses. "However, it'd been his Royal Highness's decision to bring his friends along and, well, my King has always found denying his child a more difficult conquest than Sreng," he chuckles.

 

Oh yeah, Jeralt realized, remembering the rumors of how scarily  brutal Faerghus had been in subjugating the region of Sreng. 

 

"Besides," Rodrigue adds, looking straight at him with sharp eyes. "It'd have been more dangerous to leave them in the Kingdom, what with the rats around," he mentions offhandedly.

 

"I'm sure Baron Dominic is having a wonderful time doing pest control," Jeralt snorts.

 

"That he is," Rodrigue agrees, before his attention is drawn by a yelling Kingdom soldier. "Ah. It seems like his Majesty is looking for me. If you'll excuse me," Rodrigue politely says as he bows. "I enjoyed our talk today. I hope you'll be open for another one some day, Blade Breaker," he grins, and ah , Jeralt finally catches a glimpse of the beast lurking beneath the other man's genteel exterior.

 

"If you can catch me, Shield of Faerghus," Jeralt returns with his own grin full of teeth.

 

Rodrigue's grin turns impish. "Oh, call me Rodrigue. Like I've said, you've saved my son's and the Royal Family's lives. You've definitely earned the honor."

 

Jeralt resists the temptation to roll his eyes. Kingdom nobility, really, he internally remarks as his thoughts stray towards a certain blonde King. "Then goodbye, Rodrigue," he bids, turning his back on the man to signify the end of the conversation.

 

The boat rocks again and Jeralt swallows the urge to dry heave because Goddess damn it all!

.

..

...

..

.

'Before I die,' Jeralt recalls his late wife saying in a soft and very much sad voice. 'I'd at least like to visit Duscur. They say the blooms there are unmatchable...It'd be great if all three of us could go there together, right?' And then she'd smiled in such a way that had made Jeralt's heart ache because, deep down, they both knew the truth.

 

His wife would have never left Rhea. She'd loved her too much to leave her alone whilst she herself had gone off of an exciting adventure with the family she'd made, loved her too much to abandon whatever opportunity she could have had outside of the Church, loved her too much to let herself be caged in like some kind of prized bird.

 

Once, Jeralt would have shared the same sentiments as her. Once, Jeralt would have burned down the world so long as Rhea had commanded it, because he'd trusted her with his life.

 

Once, Jeralt would have been glad to call Rhea— family.

 

But that is neither here nor there anymore.

 

E ven to this day, Jeralt wonders if his wife would still love Rhea if she had lived long enough to know what that snake had done to their daughter.

 

No heartbeat , Jeralt thinks, as he watches his daughter beam so vividly at the crown prince of Faerghus when he'd presented a tiny Duscur rose to her.

 

There's a whole field of Duscur roses, of all shapes and vibrant colors, blooming before them, yet his daughter looks so delighted at being gifted with just one tiny thing. No heartbeat, yet still so alive. And it's a relieving thought that swallows him whole and makes him wonder what if—

 

An unexpected touch to his shoulder snaps him out of his thoughts, and he stiffly turns to look over his shoulder.

 

A piercing blue gaze meets his own lax brown one, and Jeralt beats down the sight building in his throat.

 

"Your Majesty," he greets, before he looks back at his brood playing along with those noble children. He spots the young blonde girl— Ingrid, as Jeritza had told him when he'd asked—hand a freshly-braided flower crown to Sylvain with a pointed look. He watches as Sylvain's cheeks flush a bit, before he approaches Felix who glowers darkly at him.

 

Though Jeralt can't hear whatever words are being passed between the two boys, he knows that the little conflict they'd had a while ago must be resolved because Felix closes his eyes and allows a grinning Sylvain to put the flower crown atop his head.

 

"It is a blessing to be able to see our children smile and have fun like so," Lambert comments with a pleased smile as he gazes lovingly at his only son. "As a parent, this is the only reward worth reaping from peace, do you not agree?" He questions.

 

Watching his daughter laugh at her's and Jertiza's feeble attempts of a flower crown whilst Miklan tries to guide them through the motions, Jeralt can't help the warmth that embraces his heart. "Yeah," he finds himself agreeing in a quiet voice.

 

"Father!" His Royal Highness calls out to as he ambles towards them, bringing with him a small boquet of Duscur roses that's held together by a small white ribbon.

 

"Dimitri," Lambert greets warmly, reaching out to rest a fond hand on his son's head. "How have you and your friends been faring?" He asks in a gentle voice.

 

His Royal Highness's cheeks flush as he shyly looks at his feet. "We've been having a splendid time, father. Thank you for allowing us to take a break here," he answers in a small voice. "The flowers here are as beautiful as the one in mother's garden, and I couldn't resist picking a few to give to you," he admits, brandishing the small boquet to the King.

 

Jeralt is silent as he watches on in quiet envy as the father and son exchange quite a heartwarming scene.

 

He recalls a memory when his daughter had come running towards him with a boquet of wild flowers in hand, only to have his hopes dashed when the flowers weren't for him but for the dead sister of her imaginary friend.

 

If he had a handkerchief right now, Jeralt would be viciously pulling on it with his teeth as he lamented over how his daughter could be so uncute in scenarios that were already clichedly cute!

 

Even up to this day, his daughter had never once given him a flower!

 

"Thank you, my son," gratifies Lambert as he accepts the boquet of roses and tucks them into the belt of his grand attire. "I will be sure to keep them safe whilst in my care," he assures. "But, for now, we'll have to continue our embarkment to Cordaea. It would be rude to keep the Chief of Duscur waiting."

 

"Oh," his Royal Highness murmurs, appearing sullen at the realization that they would have to leave such a beautiful field so soon. "Can we come back here once you're done?" He asks.

 

"There will be no guarantees," is Lambert's honest response. "After all, it'd be best to return to Faerghus as soon as possible. We can't leave our Kingdom in Gustave's hands for a day longer," he reminds.

 

"I see..." His Royal Highness continues to remain sorrowful, which is only highlighted by the way he looks down at his feet with his hands clasped behind his back.

 

Ah, Jeralt realizes, finding the whole thing very much familiar . It'd be so easy to replace the figure of the crown prince with the image of his daughter; only, instead of looking down, his daughter would be looking up at him with wide blue eyes and a trembling pout as she'd pleaded for him to let her do this and that.

 

Better luck next time, kiddo, Jeralt thinks in consolation, concluding that such a weak tactic would never work on his Majesty. If the crown prince wanted things to go his way, he should have used those soft features of his to his advantage instead of hiding it.

 

However, Jeralt's unwavering belief crumbles alongside his Majesty's firm expression.

 

"Unless, of course, you and your friends would rather stay here and wait until my talk with the Chief has finished," Lambert proposes kindly. "Just promise me that you and your friends will remain only here in Giurgiu, alongside with some of Jeralt's men."

 

Almost immediately, his Royal Highness's sullen expresson transforms into one of utter delight. "Of course, father! I will not disappoint you!" He agrees all too willingly. "If you'll excuse me," he politely says before he bows and runs off to deliver the good news to his friends.

 

Jeralt turns an accusing gaze towards his Majesty. "I don't think this is a good decision, your Majesty," he provides with as little judgement as he's able to seep into his voice.

 

Lambert twitches but steadily avoids his gaze. "Nonsense, Jeralt. I'm sure it will do well for our children to enjoy ourselves," he decides. "Besides, I hardly believe Duscur holds any ill intentions towards us. They've allowed us to enter their territory with a small army of our own, so I doubt they'd risk antagonizing us now of all times."

 

"And if they do?" Jeralt counters with a raised brow.

 

"Why," Lambert starts, finally meeting his stare with a small smirk. "I've hired your company for a reason, haven't I?"

 

It takes an embrassingly long moment for Jeralt to realize which company he'd been referring to.

 

"So, your plan is to leave my men and I to guard them, while you and your Knights go off to meet the Chief?" Jeralt double-checks.

 

"Not quite," sighs Lambert, but there's a hint on amusement playing across his features.

 

Jeralt furrows his brows. "Not quite?" He parrots, thoroughly confused.

 

"Not quite, because you're coming with me," Lambert corrects.

 

What, Jeralt thinks none too intelligently.

Chapter Text

It had taken surprisingly little to convince his company to go along with his Majesty's plans.

 

In fact, his men had only nodded and had given him a thumbs-up without so much as a word of protest.

 

A thumbs-up!

 

Jeralt honestly didn't know whether to feel insulted or not.

 

And the worst of it all had been his daughter's reaction to receiving the news. His daughter had only shiftily glanced between Jeralt and Lambert, her features twisting into an expression that was decidedly unimpressed, and had given him her best really look that made him feel as if he had done something wrong this time!

 

And then she'd sighed in exasperation and given him a thumbs-up.

 

A fucking thumbs-up!

 

When Jeralt had informed Jeritza of the sudden change of plans, the younger man had gained an enlightened expression as if he'd finally understood something he couldn't quite grasp on before.

 

What was it that you'd understood?! What made you look as if the Goddess herself had answered your prayers?! I really want to know!  was what Jeralt had screamed in his head back then, hoping that his thoughts would telephatically travel to Jeritza's mind.

 

It, unfortunately, had not, because Jeritza had merely clapped him on the back then proceeded to focus his attention on teaching Ingrid how to properly execute a two-action skewer with a lance in the midst of the flower field.

 

Miklan— bless his soul —had been the only one who'd reacted normally. Miklan had nodded sadly, looking for all the world like a kicked puppy, before his entire demeanor had brigthened up when Jeralt had rewarded him with a pat on the head.

 

I should really re-orient who my favorite is , had been Jeralt's last line of thought before he bid farewell to his company and followed after his Majesty's party.

.

..

...

..

.

"Welcome," the Chief of Duscur, Rayowa, greets them with an eagle-eyed stare. "I believe that you have something to share with me, aside from the corpses of my fellow countrymen that were coincidentally found in your land," she continues without missing a beat, expression settled on neutral territory.

 

"A pleasure to meet you as well, Chief Rayowa," responds Lambert with a cordial smile. "Not one to beat around the bush, are you?" He laments with a tilt of his head.

 

Chief Rayowa barely blinks. "Mannerisms are reserved for those with a difference in power," is her explanation. "You and I are of equal positions. Rulers of our land, leaders to our people, warriors who've tasted the spill of blood—enlighten me, how else should I treat you, King Lambert, if not how I would treat myself?" She inquires with a raised brow that would have seemed mocking on anybody else but only made the Chief appear like a righteous being that had descended from above.

 

I should stop reading Byleth's pocket books , thinks Jeralt when his thoughts began to take on a more flowery detail. Despite so, he couldn't really blame himself because Chief Rayowa certainly looked like some goddess of war had decided to come to the realm of the living to play at being human.

 

"I would have it in no other way, Chief Rayowa," Lambert reassures. "Your straight-forwardness is well-appreciated, since it means we won't have to dilly-daddle as our respective courts would demand, hm?"

 

At this, Chief Rayowa cracks. a small smirk.

 

"Concerning the incident," Lambert begins, leaning back into his seat to better accentuate his great build. "I would like to know if you and your people truly had any involvement in it," he questions.

 

What, thinks Jeralt, looking at his Majesty as if he'd just grown two heads. Why would you ask that? Nobody in their right mind would admit to trying to assassinate you, the King of Faerghus!

 

Chief Rayowa merely tilts her head. "And if I say yes?"

 

"Then you will understand why the people of Fodlan have started calling the incident, The Tragedy of Duscur." Lambert smiles disarmingly, but his eyes are a different story. "The people believe that Faerghus will subjugate Duscur, as it had with Sreng, but they are wrong," he continues, smile widening, as he leans his cheek against his knuckles. "Faerghus will annihilate Duscur and its people for their attempt to assassinate the Royal Family," he corrects.

 

Nearly every Duscur soldier in the room reacts aggresively to that, brandishing their weapons against the King who merely eyes their blades with something akin to amusement.

 

"...Your Highness," sighs Rodrigue, who has been standing next to the aforementioned man's chair since the start of the meeting.

 

In response to the threat, Chief Rayowa calmly signals her soldiers to return to arms rest. "Then Duscur will answer your declaration of war with everything it has," she proclaims then, with a cross of her arms over her chest, she smiles. "But, it's a shame, for my men and I have played no part in your assassination. It would have been most fun to be able to meet you head-on in warfare, your Majesty," she concedes.

 

Jeralt eyes the woman who has enough balls to say such a thing.

 

"Likewise, your Honour," Lambert exchanges pleasantly enough, as if he hadn't nearly waged war against another region.

 

"The corpses of my people that were found in your, ah, Tragedy of Duscur," Chief Rayowa snorts. "Belonged to soldiers that were believed to have gone missing in action years ago. As such, to be found in your territory after quite some time—they are no better than deserters , and their actions cannot reflect what our Duscur wishes to impart to your Faerghus."

 

"And what is it, exactly, does Duscur want from Faerghus?" Lambert questions.

 

"Peace," says Chief Rayowa. "Duscur wants nothing but peace from Faerghus. For all our love of fighting, I speak for the people of Duscur that we truly want no blood to be shed between our lands, especially when the instigator of such a conflict will have no part in our war," she reveals.

 

Lambert's gaze sharpens. "So you believe that there is another party that wishes for Duscur and Faerghus to go to war?" He inquires.

 

Chief Rayowa sharply nods. "For years, villages of Duscur have found themselves suddenly attacked by foreign men dressed in the uniforms of your knights," she informs.

 

Jeralt and Rodrigue share a wide-eyed look.

 

"I assure you, your Honour, that I've sent none of my men to Duscur within this decade," Lambert rebukes.

 

"I know." Chief Rayowa nods. "No knight of Faerghus would ever wield weapons forged from the Empire," she assents.

 

Lambert jolts at that. "The Empire? You claim that the Empire has had a hand in this?"

 

"No," she denies as she closes her eyes. When she opens them, it's hard not to liken her eyes to that of a raging inferno. "I claim that whatever party that has tried to create dissent between our two lands—they clearly have ties to the Adrestian Empire. It is not yet to my knowledge if the Adrestian Empire itself plays a part in it," she confides.

 

Holy shit , realizes Jeralt as the puzzle pieces begin to piece together.

 

It's not hard to imagine the Kingdom and the Empire going into war if word ever gets out that the Emperor tried to assassinate the King , of all people. If such a thing were to happen, then that would leave both factions open to the Leicester Alliance who could easily nitpick either one of them.

 

Chaos would befall Fodlan; no matter the winner of this war, one thing would be certain: there would easily be hundreds of thousands of casualties.

 

"Why haven't you've contacted the Kingdom about this then?" Lambert asks with furrowed brows.

 

"Because then, our enemy would know that we we re aware of their presence," explains Chief Rayowa. "It would be best to have your Majesty come here and meet me, where there are fewer traitorous ears listening in on our every word."

 

"Are you saying that there are traitors in my ranks?" Lambert queries.

 

Chief Rayowa merely raises a brow. "Are you saying that there aren't?"

 

Lambert merley purses his lips at that. "You are fortunate, then, that my son and I survived our assassinations, because if not..." He trails off.

 

"The blame would have fallen on the people of Duscur," finishes Chief Rayowa. "And, as you've said, Duscur and its people would have been annihilated by the fury of the Kingdom," she concludes.

 

A tense silence pervades the atmosphere in the room.

 

"You knew." Lambert breaks the silence. "You knew...and yet?"

 

Jeralt can't blame Lambert for sounding this disbelieving; even he is unable to believe such a risk the Chief of Duscur was willing to take—and all for tricking their common enemy?

 

What, Jeralt shakily thinks. What leader would be willing to risk their people?

 

"It was a gamble that I was willing to make because, either way, Duscur would have fallen to ruin had you actually been assassinated," says Chief Rayowa simply. "The enemy that we share is a smart one, managing to stay hidden for centuries within Fodlan, clearly waiting for an opportunity to strike. It's just Duscur's misfortune that they've decided to use our region to create a commotion within the ranks of Faerghus."

 

"You are familiar with them," realizes Lambert.

 

Chief Rayowa lifts her chin as she frowns deeply. "Vaguely, at best. They are the reason as to why the dissapearance rates of the people of Duscur have been steadily climbing over the past years. Every time my men and I have come close to grasping them, they always somehow manage to slip out and flee," she scowls. "They are like a cockroach that does know when to die."

 

"They are kidnapping your people?" Lambert asks. "But why? Whatever for? Slavery has been abolished in Fodlan and in any nearby region for centuries. They can't possibly monetize from that."

 

"We have not yet found the answer to that one, your Majesty," bitterly answers the Chief.

 

Lambert leans forward, resting his elbows on the table and entwining his hands together as he comprehends this new information.

 

"And how do I know that you are not lying?" Lambert asks.

 

"I would not lie to myself," replies Chief Rayowa in all seriousness. "And I have the evidence to prove it. Corpses of those who've raided my villages, their Kingdom uniforms, their Empire weapons, and notaries from my spies dating months back," she lists. "I am telling you here and right now, your Majesty, that I am not your enemy. I am the farthest  thing from that, and it would do us both a great boon to believe in my words," she advises.

 

"Say that I believe you," Lambert brings up after a moment of deep contemplation. "What then? I assume that you've thought over this for quite some time."

 

Chief Rayowa grins, the one gold canine in her teeth gleaming unsettlingly. "You assume correct, your Majesty. Warriors who charge headfirst are always the ones who die young. Those who plan ahead, however, live to see the next day, don't you agree?"

 

Lambert raises his brows. "Your point?"

 

"Let the world believe that we are at a cold war," suggests Chief Rayowa. "Let Fodlan believe that Faerghus and Duscur are at each other's throats. Let them believe that it was Duscur that had truly launched the assassination, so that our enemies' defenses will sink lower and lower with the passage of time. Let them believe that they had succeeded in sowing dissent in our ranks and relations when, in reality, that is the farthest thing from the truth."

 

"An act," utters Lambert with wide eyes, before he composes himself. "I see. You wish to fool our enemy, first and foremost, especially when we hardly know anything about them," he concludes.

 

Chief Rayowa nods. "We know not of their identity, of their location, of their numbers. It would be wise to play along with them and, when they finally reveal themselves, we turn the tables on them," she elaborates.

 

"Hm," muses Lambert, bringing his fingers to his chin as he mulls over this compromise. "A secret alliance between the Kingdom of Faerghus and the region of Duscur...How fantasy-like," he comments. "I cannot, however, go back empty-handed to the Kingdom if we plan to keep up this act of ours. The gossip mill might twist our meeting today into one of amity, since you welcomed me into your land with open arms and bid me goodbye without any incident."

 

The Chief narrows her eyes. "What do you propose, then?" She questions.

 

Lambert smirks. "A political hostage would do," is what he says.

 

From where he's standing on the other side of Lambert, Jeralt can clearly see the way Rodrgieu turns to his Majesty with the clearest 'NO! ' expression he's ever seen in his life.

 

Chief Rayowa looks to be considering this proposition; however, before she could voice out her agreement to such an inane suggestion, a Duscur soldier bursts into the room with a loud slam of the doors.

 

"Your Honor!" Cries the man in between desperate pants. "We've received a message from our scouts! Those dogs from Faerghus are launching another raid of theirs on Giurgiu!"

 

It is then that the soldier realizes that the aforementioned dogs from Faerghus are actually present in the same meeting room as her Honor.

 

"K-King of Faerghus," the soldier stammers out, but, before he can so much as apologize for his rude actions, Jeralt has already crossed the room and is now gripping the man's shoulders in a death grip.

 

"Giurgiu's under attack?" Jeralt demands. When the soldier doesn't answer, he gives the man a good shaking to snap him out of his trance. "Oi! Answer me!"

"Sir, yes, sir!" The soldier exclaims in one go.

 

Jeralt lets go of the man with a string of muttered curses beneath his breath. "Your Majesty!" He nearly barks out, looking at the man for permission, because damn it all! Why does shit always happen when he isn't there to protect his brood?!

 

Lambert nods. "Go. We'll follow behind," he allows, and that's all Jeralt really needs to hear before he's bolting out of the room and into the stables.

 

He's halfway atop his horse when he belatedly realizes that somebody had ran after to him.

 

"What do you want?" He impatiently asks, recognizing the stout female before him as who Chief Rayowa had introduced as her Third-in-Command. Zauna, if he remembers right.

 

"Let me ride with you," the woman requests in a firm voice. "My family's in Giurgiu." And then, without waiting for Jeralt's reply, she hikes herself up to sit behind him on his horse.

 

"...If you fall, I won't hesitate to leave you," is all Jeralt deigns to tell her, before he has his steed loping across Cordaea.

 

It takes a staggering half-hour to reach the border of Giurgiu, and Jeralt is begrudingly impressed with Zauna because damn, her thighs must be made from steel since her upper body had only so much as swayed in accordance with his steering.

 

"Oh fuck," Jeralt blurts out at the sight of Giurgiu up close—or, well, half of Giurgiu, because the other half is too busy burning sky high.

 

"Divines," Zauna breathes out, utterly horrified, as she waits for him to secure his horse's reigns around a tree.

 

"You said it," mutters Jeralt, before his attention is enraptured by the group of what appears to be refugees from Giurgiu a manageable distance away from them. "Hey, look over there!" He points at them and, together, they make their way towards the evacuees.

 

It isn't difficult for him to discern his Royal Highness and two of his friends in the crowd. Amidst the throng of Duscur natives, their pale skin and brightly-dyed clothing practically serve as a beacon to anybody searching specifically for them.

 

"Your Royal Highness!" He calls out, immediately catching the boy's attention.

 

"Sir Jeralt!" His Royal Highness waves him over with his silver lance, looking incredibly relieved to see him. "Is father here?" He asks.

 

Now that he's able to get a closer look of the boy, Jeralt is suprised to see some splatters of blood on his clothes. "He's following behind with some reinforcements from Cordaea," Jeralt explains. "Are you okay, your Royal Highness?" He asks, concerned

 

The crown prince blinks then turns to look down at himself. "Oh. Oh! Yes, I'm quite alright. This, um, doesn't belong to me." He gestures to the blood coating what had once been his pristine white shirt. "We had to do something about those people who dared to impersonate Kingdom soldiers whilst raiding this town," he might as well have spat out, what with how furious he sounded.

 

"Well...So long as none of you are injured," sighs Jeralt, before he assesses Ingrid and Felix who are kneeling beside what appears to be a pair of young Duscur siblings. "Wait, where's that Gautier boy?" He asks, just as the woman behind him makes some sort of high-pitched noise.

 

"Dedue! Adaora!" Zauna gasps, rushing forward to embrace the two Duscur children close to her chest. "Oh, thank the Divines. I'd thought the worst when I heard of the raid," she cries out.

 

"Mother!" The young girl— Adaora  cheers, surprisingly gleeful despite, well, her hometown currently burning. "I'm so glad you're here! Quick, quick! You have to meet big brothers and big sister! They saved brother and mine's life!" She exclaims with a wide, wide grin.

 

"Saved...?" Zauna looks towards his Royal Highness.

 

"Ah, um, we didn't really—" Stammers out the crown prince.

 

"They did," the older boy—Dedue confirms with a nod, before he looks up at the crown prince with a grateful gaze. "Adaora and I had been had been caught by those raiders when they came. We wouldn't be here right now if they hadn't rescued us," he elaborates.

 

"Yes, yes! Big brothers and big sister saved us!" Adaora beams.

 

"I see..." murmurs Zauna. "You have my deepest gratitude, then, for safekeeping the lives of my children," she directs towards the three flustered children.

 

"It's no problem, ma'am. We would have done the same if it were anybody else in need of rescuing," says Ingrid, getting up in order to curtsey properly. At her insistent stare, his Royal Highness and Felix proceed to follow in her footsteps via bowing formally to the amused woman.

 

Seeing that they're preoccupied with one another, Jeralt turns his attention to the rest of the crowd. He notices that most of the refugees are composed of children and elderly, whilst both women and men of able age are working together to put out the fires eating up Giurgiu to the best of their capabilities.

 

A tug to his pants catches his attention. He looks down and is surprised to see Rodrigue's second son who is worrying over his lower lip to a dark shade of red.

 

"Yes?" Jeralt raises a brow

 

"Something...Something happened," Felix mutters, looking very much distressed.

 

Jeralt's insides sink into a deep churning cauldron. "Where's my company?" He asks, miraculously managing to keep his voice calm and composed

 

Wordlessly, Felix points his silver sword at a nearby building that is, thankfully, not covered in flames. Before the young boy can so much as open his mouth to explain, Jeralt is already on the move, his heart hammering a mile away in his throat.

 

"Captain!" Chrit, from where he'd been positioned by the entrance alongside a few of his men, exclaims at the sight of him. "Thank the Goddess you're here! It's an utter nightmare!" He proclaims, features twisted into an expression of fear.

 

Jeralt's heart nearly leaps out of his throat at those words, but he manages to bite out a "save it for later" before he's pushing through the doors and into the brightly-lit room.

 

The first thing his senses pick up on would be the heady scent of blood in the air. In the middle of the room, Jeralt can make out every single one of his Bishops crowding around somebody he can hardly see.

 

"Byleth," he breathes out, knees trembling at the very thought—at the very idea . No, no, no, his mind screams, unable to accept the reality that the blood he's smelling belongs to his daughter.

 

His frantic worrying comes to a crash when he hears a cry of " Dad! " in a voice that could belong to no one else but his daughter.

 

Jeralt nearly gives himself whiplash from how fast he turned his head.

 

"Byleth," he breathes out, voice cracking in sheer relief. You're alive, you're alive, you're alive, his thoughts cry out as he stumbles towards her and brings her lithe frame into a tight embrace. "Goddess, I feared the worst. I thought something had happened to you," he says into her hair, his hands roaming her shoulders, her back, her arms, and her sides to guarantee that she's really here, that she's real, that she's alive .

 

"Dad," his daughter croaks, tightening her grip on his cloak.

 

His daughter sounds awful. Wanting to know what's wrong, Jeralt pulls away to get a good look at her.

 

His train of worries come to life once more when he catches sight of her red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Byleth had never been much of a crier; in fact, the last time Jeralt remembers his daughter crying would be when she was just a little babe suckling on milk-soaked crumbs.

 

Something's wrong, he realizes, looking down at his still crying daughter. Something's wrong.

 

"What's wrong?" Jeralt asks in as soft a voice he could muster.

 

"Dad," his daughter can only whimper, lower lip trembling and looking so very terrified that Jeralt's insides freeze at the very expression because—

 

—because there is very little that scares his daughter.

 

With newfound trepidation, Jeralt scans the room for what could only be the source of Byleth's fears.

 

A sliver of relief enters his system when he sees Jeritza—the blood splashed starkly against the white of his cape—huddling in a corner nearby.

 

"Jeritza," calls Jeralt, but whatever words that should have come next dies a swift death when Jeritza lifts his head and all Jeralt can see is the same haunted look that the young man had worn when Byleth had first brought his scrappy self to camp.

 

When Jeritza shifts ever so slightly, his cape slips off of the being that had been hiding beneath it, and Jeralt catches sight of a shock of red-orange hair.

 

Only, the man hiding beneath Jeritza's cap is not the same man Jeralt had been hoping for.

 

Miklan's brother, Sylvain, sits practically waist to waist with Jeritza on the dirty ground, his knees brought up to his chest, and his face hidden in the valley of his arms.

 

Miklan's brother, Sylvain, is trembling, and Jeralt can't bring himself to care if the kid's fucking traumatized or not because—

 

Miklan.

 

"Where's Miklan?" Jeralt asks, his heart beating thump, thump, thump  at a rate that is bordering on panic.

 

Nobody answers him

 

His daughter only trembles even more in his arms.

 

"Miklan?" He calls out to, hoping that maybe he'd just bypassed the man because, for all his huge build, Miklan had the tendency to blend in with his surroundings if he so wanted to.

 

Again, nobody answers him.

 

Unable to cope with the anxiety building in his gut, Jeralt ushers Byleth to take a seat next to Sylvain before he approaches the group of bishops busily crowding their current patient.

 

"..."

 

There are no words to describe the storm that wells up within Jeralt at the sight of an unconscious Miklan spread atop a white sheet to highlight how battered and pale his sun-bronzed skin is against it.

 

That, however, is not what draws Jeralt's attention.

 

His eyes trace the nasty laceration that stretches diagonally from Miklan's hairline, across the bridge of his nose, and down to his opposite cheekbone.

 

It's a jagged and ugly thing, the flesh of Miklan's face nearly gouged out to the very bone, and a hefty amount of blood still seeps out of it in trickles of tiny rivers that stream down the sides of his face in a mockery of tears.

 

The entire thing looks even worse against the glow of faith magic radiating from his bishops's palms, but Jeralt can hardly bring himself to give a fuck because Goddess.

 

"Miklan," he murmurs, wanting nothing more than to reach out and touch the man—the boy, his mind reminds him—who'd been under his wing for who knows how long, who he'd watched stumble with an axe before he learned how to swing it, who was at his gentlest when only around ragged street children, who—

 

Who is currently laying on what could be his death bed.

Chapter Text

"An inch or two any deeper, and you wouldn't merely be on bedrest, you know?" Jeralt irately informs Miklan the minute the young man opens his eyes.

Miklan blearily blinks up at him. "...Jeralt," he murmurs, looking dazed, before he cranes his head to look at the only window in the room. "Where...are we?" He asks, voice cracking from its lack of usage.

"We're on our way back to Faerghus," generously answers Jeralt. He raises his hand once he sees Miklan open his mouth, effectively shutting up the young man especially he sharply glares at him. "You don't get to talk, you hear me? After that stunt you pulled—do you know how worried we were?" He asks, keeping his voice at a calm and manageable level.

Miklan swallows, which is quite the effort considering how parched he must be right now.

"Jeritza informed me of how you got hurt in the first place. I commend you, really, for keeping your brother safe, but who the fuck drilled it into your dumb skull that the battlefield is an ideal place to have your family spat?" Jeralt demands, lips twisting into a snarl.

Miklan sinks deeper into his covers, but he has the gall to look away from Jeralt in order to inspect the room for any other occupant.

"If you're looking for Byleth and Jeritza, I wrangled them off to bed an hour ago," explains Jeralt after he'd painstakingly calmed himself down via breathing exercises. "You were out like a light for a couple of days, and those two never left your side even once. I had to bring in a piss bucket before they decided to pee themselves silly." To make his point, Jeralt gestures towards a wooden bucket sitting idly by the corner.

Miklan stares at the bucket with something akin to horror.

"Don't worry. The maids cleaned it out a while ago," Jeralt reassures offhandedly. "Can't have you dying from an infection after everything, yeah?"

Miklan doesn't look one bit comforted. "I..." He starts to say, but immediately clams up when the door opens.

Jeralt looks over his shoulder and raises his brows at the sight of Sylvain wobbly opening the door whilst balancing a tray of food by his hip.

"Good evening, Sir Jeralt," the young Gautier heir greets him with an awkward smile. "His Majesty sent me to bring you dinner," he explains, raising the tray for emphasis.

Jeralt nods slowly in response, before he turns his attention back to Miklan who now, for all intents and purposes, looks to be sleeping without a care in the world.

Jeralt, who's spent two years majoring in Miklan studies after having just graduated with degrees in Jeritza and Byleth studies, cannot believe what a dumbass Miklan can be.

"Has...Has he woken up yet?" Inquires Sylvain as he sets the tray atop the bedside table.

Jeralt stares hard at Miklan.

Idiot , Jeralt thinks, even as he lies through his teeth, "Afraid not."

Jeralt feels like an utter asshole when he watches the way Sylvain's entire face just falls.

"I see," murmurs Sylvain before he falls silent. There's a complicated expression that twists his features as his gaze slowly glides across Miklan's form. A deep frown settles heavily upon his lips when he stops to stare intently at Miklan's heavily-bandaged face. "I...If you'll excuse me," he mutters, before turning on his heel and quietly leaving the room.

Once he hears the door slide shut, Jeralt grasps a handful of Miklan's side and squeezes. He sadistically delights in the yelp that's ripped out of the young man.

"What is wrong with you," Jeralt expresses with a scowl. "You were so willing to risk you life for a stupid talk with your brother on the battlefield, but now, when it's safest, you pretend to sleep?!"

"Shhh!" Miklan has the nerve to fucking shush him. Him! "He could still be outside," he brokenly says, wincing at the croak in his voice. He reaches out for the glass of water on the tray and takes a long gulp from it.

Jeralt releases his hold on Miklan and instead massages his throbbing temples. "Why can't the both of you just talk  already? It's obvious that you want to talk to him as much as he wants to talk to you, so why bother running?" He asks with a deep sigh.

As he leans against the headboard, Miklan looks off at the only window in the room. The sky outside is as dark as the waves crashing against the hull of the boat. "I wish to, but," he hesitates. "Whenever I try to, I just—the words just die in my throat," he feebly explains as he twists his fingers atop his lap. "Whenever I look at him, I find myself haunted by all those times I tried to kill him," he confesses with a bitter laugh. "Whenever I close my eyes, I can still hear his cries for help after I pushed him down that well in our estate. I can't—I just—how could I have—" He purposefully cuts himself off, pressing his lips together so firmly that they pale. "I just can't talk to him," he admits.

"Then how," Jeralt begins, crossing his arms over his chest. "Can you find it in yourself to risk your life for the same brother you can't even talk to?" He asks with a raised brow.

He's met with silence, but Jeralt prides himself on being a patient man.

Wordlessly, Miklan picks up the small clutch of Duscur roses sitting next to his pillow. He fiddles with its red-tinged petal for a moment, most likely wracking through his brain for an answer.

Then, in a small voice, Miklan answers, "I'd hoped...that my life would have been worth all the sins I've committed against him."

"Then you're a fool," is Jeralt's blunt response. There's a fire building in his chest that gradually grows stronger and stronger, but Jeralt stokes it with the love he's grown to have for this stupid boy of his. "The dead can't repent for their wrongdoings. If you want to make it up to him, then live and actually do something," he lays it down thick and brutal. Then, because he's petty, Jeralt reaches out to messily ruffle the young man's hair.

Miklan meets his eyes, clearly startled.

"You should have seen what Sylvain looked like when the bishops were healing you," murmurs Jeralt as he drops his hand. "If anybody had seen him, none of them would be able to claim that he'd want you dead."

Miklan looks down at the flowers in his trembling hands. "...Truly?" He asks in a soft voice.

"Truly," confirms Jeralt. "Word of advice, speak to him as soon as you're able to," he advises. "We'll be departing from Faerghus once the bishops give their clear for you to travel. There's a political storm brewing, and I want our company to have absolute no part in it," he explains.

Miklan swallows. "So Sreng?"

Jeralt nods. "Sreng," he confirms.

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..

...

..

.

"I wonder," Lambert begins, fingering the delicate handle of his teacup as he stares into the amber liquid residing within it. "If I'm doing the right thing," he wonders aloud, before finally settling on actually drinking from the cup.

"Hm," Jeralt muses, from where he's seated adjacent to the King with a table full of assorted pastries and a potful of chamomile tea in between them. "Well wonder why you keep inviting me to tea for a talk  of all things," he muses, glancing at the smiling children strolling about the gardens. "You are aware, your Majesty, that you're free to approach me whenever you wish to without having to bait me with food," he drawls.

"Lambert, please. And yes, I'm perfectly aware," says Lambert without missing a beat. "But don't you agree that food and tea make the whole experience better?" He asks with a small smile.

Jeralt merely hums as an answer. His gaze meets Zauna's from across the garden; when the woman nods, he nods back in acknowledgement.

"I'm surprised that General Zauna volunteered her family to be the political hostages," Jeralt brings up instead, reaching for a chocolate muffin because damn were those things fucking heavenly.

Who knew the woman with steel for thighs was a general , Jeralt thinks, finding the whole thing ironically hilarious yet, well, expected.

"My thoughts exactly," shares Lambert, looking amused for some reason. "But General Zauna had explained to me on the way back that, apparently, my son had played a large part in her decision," he confides, gaze searching for the crown prince amidst the bushes and topiaries of flowers. "It's clear to me that Dimitri's aptitude for battle has somehow landed him with an all too willing vassal," he murmurs.

Jeralt turns to look at the aforementioned vassal— Dedue , if he remembers right—speaking about something to his Royal Highness and his friends whilst animatedly gesturing towards the flowers.

"He looks happy," Jeralt can't help but comment, unable to keep the smile off of his face at how infectiously delighted Dedue looks. It reminds him of those times when his daughter had been so excited to show him a new skill she'd just just mastered.

"Then it means that the majority of my people are treating him and his family well here," is Lambert's pleased reply. "I'd worried, at first, that they'd be met with animosity. But it appears that my people have taken my warnings well, for the Molinaro family have only reported how they've been treated with nothing but respect and amity so far," he tells.

"Well, it's only been two weeks," Jeralt points out, munching on another butter cookie. "Snakes have a tendency to strike when you least expect them to."

Lambert smirks. "Snakes? You overestimate foul-natured people, Jeralt. They're more like mosquitoes, really."

Jeralt snorts. "What's this I hear? The King of Faerghus calling a couple of his loyal subjects mosquitoes?" He teases, counting it as a win when Lambert averts his gaze for but a moment.

"No Kingdom is not without its imperfections," asserts Lambert. "And such imperfection originates from its citizens, who are but only human. And though to be human is to denote the continuous fabrication of mistakes, I can hardly tolerate my people's mistakes harming any other human, be they a part of the Kingdom or not."

"You've given this some thought," Jeralt remarks as he bites into a custard.

Lambert chuckles, "But of course. I can hardly lead as a King if blades are all I ever think about."

"Yet you're still able to wield one with such skill," Jeralt mentions, recalling that time when Lambert had managed to fell four raiders at once back at Giurgiu.

"A healthy life is only made possible if there is a balance between the mind and the body," explains Lambert. "That, and I ccould never find it in me to fall back on my training. My tutor had done an excellent job ingraining it into me, if you must know," he wryly adds.

"Heh. Well—" Jeralt pauses when he catches sight of his daughter standing by the entrance to the Royal Garden. From where he's sitting in the gazebo, he can barely make out the expression on her face, but the way she holds herself—lax, soft, complaisant—is all too obvious.

She's watching his Royal Highness and his little entourage of noble children and Duscur siblings interact with one another, looking for all the world like she could stay there forever.

Jeralt's heart squeezes. He'd already informed his company the week before that they'd be departing to Sreng as soon as Miklan was healthy enough to travel; Byleth, of course, had accepted it without a word of complaint, but Jeralt knew his daughter well enough that she'd grown quite fond of this place.

And, truth be told, Jeralt too had grown fond of this place.

Not that he would ever voice that aloud or anything—because then, it would only make it that much harder to leave.

"Is something the matter?" Lambert questions, bringing Jeralt out of his thoughts.

"Nothing," answers Jeralt with a shake of his head. Rule number  one of being a nomadic mercenary, he internally recites. Don't get attached. "Just thinking 'bout what Sreng's like in the summer," he wonders as a cover up.

When Lambert doesn't answer him, Jeralt looks over and sees the King staring aimlessly at an ash tree.

"You okay?" Jeralt asks, concerned. He recalls his conversation with Rodrigue earlier this week—something about his Majesty staying up late to finish some paperwork for the umpteenth time again.

Lambert doesn't appear to have heard him; instead, the King asks, "You're going off to Sreng, correct?"

"That's the plan," confirms Jeralt. "I mean, there's no reason for my company and I to stay here in Faerghus any longer," he explains. "I'm sure Rodrigue or Gustave have informed you that I do plan to leave once Miklan has recovered," he adds.

"Yes," nods Lambert. "I was...informed, but not by my old friends. It was my son, actually. Your daughter had told him that you were planning on embarking to Sreng, and Dimitri told me about it at dinner one time," he narrates.

Huh, realizes Jeralt. His Royal Highness and Byleth sure are close. He directs his gaze to the crown prince, then to his daughter who's still standing by the entrance like some kind of stone statue.

Jeralt narrows his eyes, clearly suspicious.

"Do you really have to leave?" Lambert suddenly asks, and that is something that effectively jolts Jeralt back to the conversation at hand. "Haven't you given thought to remaining...here? In Faerghus?" The King questions, meeting him gaze for gaze.

"And what do you propose I do here?" Inquires Jeralt after a considerable length of speechlessness. "I can't very well be a blacksmith like General Zauna's husband," he inputs just to lighten the suddenly heavy atmosphere.

"Wha—of course not! What made you think I'd ever hire you as a blacksmith?" Lambert incredulously demands, before he flushes a moment later when he realizes that Jeralt had only been joking. "Ah. You jest. My apologies, I just thought, well, that you—" He wisely shuts his mouth.

Aw , Jeralt internally huffs, finding it quite a shame to see his Majesty's apple red blush already beginning to fade away.

"You are a cruel man, Jeralt," mutters Lambert, looking for all intents and purposes like a wronged maiden.

"It's not my fault you take some of my jokes too literal," Jeralt shoots back with an amused smirk. When Lambert huffs and pointedly looks away from him, Jeralt decides to offer an olive branch. "But, yes, if not a blacksmith, then what would you hire me as?"

Lambert looks back at him. "I'd have you join the ranks of my knights, of course. Your men as well, and I'd promote each one of you the titles you so rightfully deserve," he says in all seriousness.

A knight , Jeralt thinks, playing with the word in his mind even as the visage of Rhea appears in brief flashes.

"A tempting offer," Jeralt starts with. Then, just to be a contrarian, he ends with, "But no thanks."

Lambert leans back into his seat with a deep frown marring his features. "I see...And there is nothing I can do to sway your mind?"

"Nope," answers Jeralt with an extra pop to the p . He makes it a point to not glance at his Majesty's face when he reaches out for another chocolate muffin.

And, because he doesn't trust himself, he wordlessly looks over at the blooming calendulas and focuses his attention on eating his treat.

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.

A week later finds Jeralt and his company practicaly freezing in their boots as they bid their final farewells to their accomodating hosts at an ungodly hour in the morning.

"You could have left in the afternoon, you know," mentions Lambert with a concerned furrow between his brows.

"And risk getting mobbed by your rabid citizens? No thanks," snorts Jeralt even as he brings his furred cloak tighter around his frame.

Lambert merely sighs, but there's a small smile playing on his lips to hint at how amusing he'd found Jeralt's little joke to be. "My citizens merely wish to express their gratitude for all you and your men have done in service to Faerghus," Lambert defends. "Have you truly not changed your mind over my offer?" He asks, finally bringing up the topic that they've kept shut for the better part of a week.

"I appreciate the offer, really, your Majesty, but I've already made up my mind," Jeralt answers firmly.

Lambert's expression softens. "I see," he murmurs.

"And you don't have to worry," Jeralt starts, attracting his Majesty's attention once more. "Whatever happened in Duscur, stays in Duscur. You can trust that my men and I will bring whatever transpired there to our very graves," he reassures.

Lambert smiles slightly. "I'd never doubted otherwise," he reveals.

For some odd reason, Jeralt's insides twist. Unable to bear his Majesty's suddenly heavy gaze, Jeralt turns his eyes on his brood bidding their own farewells to his Royal Highness and his friends.

"You remember what Sir Myron said, right?" Ingrid is reminding Jeritza with a firm set to her lips. Her blonde hair is still in its loose twin-braid style without a single hair out of place, despite it being 2 in the morning. "You can't just keep feeding her apples or sugar cubes. She also has to eat a healthy diet of alfalfa or grain," she says, which Jeralt has absolutely no context to understand what they're talking about.

"Ingrid," Glenn mutters with a sigh, placing a hand on his young fiancee's shoulder. "I'm sure Jeritza knows what to do. He wouldn't have accepted if he wasn't prepared," he points out, before directing a sharp stare at the aforementioned man.

"Thank you, Lady Ingrid, for reminding me," says Jertiza, before he meets the other man's eyes with an apathetic expression. "It's a shame, Lord Fraldarius, that we were never able to cross blades, but I assume you're more relieved that I'll be departing today." There's a small smirk playing on his lips when he says this.

Glenn merely hardens his stare into a glare. "Keep your assumptions to yourself, Eisner," he scowls, but his expression softens when Ingrid swats at his arm with a warning call of his name.

"Safe travels, Jeritza," beams Ingrid, and her fiance echoes the same sentiment in a less eager voice

Jeritza, miraculously enough, musters a small smile as he nods.

Jeralt can't quite beat down the smile climbing on his lips at the sight of a happy Jeritza. He directs his gaze over to where Miklan and Sylvain are, and he has to swallow his sigh when he sees Miklan wearing that dumb mask of his.

As if that makes a difference now , Jeralt thinks even as he keep a curious ear out for their conversation.

"I..." Sylvain starts, before he seems to decide otherwise and shuts his mouth. His lips are pressed firmly together, and he looks as if he'd combust if he were to fidget any quicker.

Surprisingly enough, Miklan reaches out to place a large hand atop Sylvain's head.

Sylvain flinches away from the contact, staring up at Miklan with wide eyes as if he's actually seeing his older brother for the first time.

Miklan doesn't appear to be surprised by Sylvain's response; in fact, it looks like he'd expected it because he merely smiles sadly as he drops his hand.

"Sylvain," Miklan starts then pauses. He grips his pants for a moment, an action that Jeralt recognizes as Miklan contemplating over something particularly heavy. Then, shockingly enough, he reaches up to remove his mask. "Sylvain," he repeats, no longer hiding the upper half of his face. No longer hiding the ugly red scar that stretches diagonally over it.

"...Brother," utter Sylvain with even wider eyes.

"You don't have to call me that," Miklan cuts in, squeezing his eyes shut after he does so. "I don't...I don't deserve to be called that by you. After everything I've done. But know that I—" He swallows, before bulldozing on. "Know that I'm glad you're alive," he finally admits.

And then, oddly enough, Miklan cracks his mask in half and offers a part to his younger brother.

Sylvain's eyes fall to the crookedly halved piece. He takes it with one hand, flipping it over to see if there's some sort of secret message written atop it. "What's this for?" He asks when he finds nothing unusual about it.

Miklan licks his lips. "Consider it my promise to you," he finally says. "The next time we meet, we'll talk. By then, I'm sure—I'm certain that I'll be able to talk to you. About everything," he explains.

Sylvain's features twist into one of confusion, but he bites his lips and nods his assent. "Next time—" he starts, clearly struggling with what to say. "Next time, you'll actually explain yourself. I don't—I don't want to hear your sorries anymore. I want to know why you did all those stuff," he demands.

Miklan nods. "Next time," he agrees, before he awkwardly pats his brother on the shoulder.

As Felix comes over to pull Sylvain back to where his brother and Ingrid are, Miklan beats a hasty retreat over to where Jeritza is at and receives a pat on the head from the satisfied blonde.

Well, thinks Jeralt, equally exasperated and proud. That's that, I guess.

Seeing that Jeritza and Miklan have said their goodbyes, Jeralt looks around the area for his daughter. He catches sight of her standing a bit farther away from the group with his Royal Highness for company, and it appears that they're softly exchanging reluctant farewells if the sad smile on his daughter's face and the sorrowful frown on his Highness are anything to talk about.

A bittersweet feeling embraces his heart at the clear sight of two friends bidding goodbye to one another.

Jeralt takes a moment to savor such a feeling.

And then, before Jeralt's very eyes, his Royal Highness brings out a small sheathed dagger that has a pretty blue ribbon wrapped around it.

The crown prince of Faerghus presents the dagger to Byleth, all the while shyly averting his gaze as he does so.

Whatever bittersweet feeling that encapsulates Jeralt's beating heart dies a swift and agonizing death.

His daughter takes the flimsily wrapped dagger with a brilliant smile—something, which Jeralt flushly takes note of, that makes his Royal Highness blush to the very tips of his ears.

Byleth unties the blue ribbon wrapped around the dagger. Then, with deft fingers, she unbraids the tiny braid in her hair before rebraiding it once more but this time with the blue ribbon sitting alongside the plum-colored one.

His Royal Highness only reddens further when Byleth proudly shows off to him the new addition to her hair.

Jeralt, meanwhile, only sees red.

And then, because Jeralt is in the belief that his daughter loves to make things worse for him, Byleth takes his Royal Highness's hand, brings it up to her lips, and delivers a swift kiss to his knuckles.

Jeralt is screaming in his head.

Why?! Why did you have to do that?! You could have just accepted it and walked away! Why did you have to kiss his hand?! Jeralt internally screeches.

His Royal Highness, with a face that could put any crimson rose to shame, wobbles back to his friends with a dazed look in his eyes. They immediately bombard him, but Jeralt hears Sylvain exclaim 'again?!' amidst all the rabble.

Obviously rattled, Jeralt turns to the father who dared to spawn such a, such a— fiend , is all Jeralt can come up with, especially with how frazzled he currently is.

Lambert, meanwhile, only mutters something incoherent beneath his breath.

"You saw?" Jeralt tiredly asks, internally debating  what repurcussions he'd have to deal with if he ever decided to go through with gutting his Royal Highness.

Lambert halts in his mumbling and looks at him, his bright blue eyes gleaming with an indescribable intent lurking within its depths.

Then, too quick for even Jeralt's eyes to register, his Majesty's arm darts out to wrap itself around the entirety of Jeralt's shoulders.

By the time Jeralt has his face smushed against the King's shoulder, he can hardly believe his current situation.

The! King! Is! Hugging! Him?!

To make matters even more disbelieving, Lambert leans further into his ear, his beard scratching Jeralt's freshly-shaved jaw, and murmurs, "Safe travels, Jeralt. May our paths cross once again in the future."

Lambert completely pulls away and just smiles brightly at him, expecting a response.

Jeralt...does not know how to interpret that. Instead, he nods slowly and says, quite dumbly, "Same."

Thankfully, Rodrigue finds it fitting to butt in. "Might I have the chance to bid our good friend, Jeralt, farewell?" He drawls with an arched brow, his two sons falling in behind him.

Lambert continues to smile brightly. "Go ahead," he says.

"What an honor," dryly comments Rodrigue before he turns to Jeralt with a regretful smile. "It's a shame that this is where our paths will have to split," he morosely sighs. "Safe travels, Jeralt. May your company find prosperity in Sreng as it had here in Faerghus," he imparts, bringing his hand out.

This, thinks Jeralt with relief. This I can work with. "I doubt it. Sreng is as dry as a desert, last I heard from Gustave. At most, we'll only be able to earn enough coin for a cool bed and a warm meal for each night," sighs Jeralt as he firmly shakes the other man's hand.

"And yet you're still willing to go there," Rodrigue points out, to which Jeralt shrugs at.

"Father, let the man experience what it's like to get sand in one's breeches," Glenn inserts himself with a roll of his eyes. "Word of advice, Blade Breaker, it's not worth it," he grumbles even as they shake hands.

Jeralt laughs at that. "Oh, I've had my fair share of that when I worked as a Knight of Seiros," he shares, smile tinging with fondness at those particular memories. "Frankly, it's the clothes you have to wear that I hate most of all. You have to wear so many layers if you don't want to get burned by the sun," he complains.

Glenn nods in understanding. "Safe travels, Blade Breaker," he wishes, before stepping back to let Felix take his place.

Jeralt raises his brow at the young lad who sticks his hand out, shrugs, and shakes the little pale limb. "I heard from my daughter that you're already quite skilled at the sword for your age," he comments with a smirk.

Felix bobs his head in a nod. "Of course! I plan on one day besting my older brother. I can't afford to slack off," he says in all seriousness, before scowling at Glenn who snorts loudly.

"Focus on growing taller first, you squirt," advises Glenn as he ruffles Felix's hair.

And then, before Jeralt's very eyes, Felix grabs Glenn's hand and sinks his teeth into the meat. Harshly.

"Why you—!" Glenn snarls, stalking after a swiftly retreating Felix who momentarily sticks his tongue out.

"What a brood you have there," slyly drawls Jeralt as he watches the comedic scene play out before him.

"Would you believe me if I said that Felix was nothing like that when he was younger?" Rodrigue whispers to him behind his gloved hand. "He was such an adorable child too. He'd always glue himself to Glenn's side whenever my eldest was home, and he used to cry over the littlest of things," he confides. "I honestly don't know where all this anger and determinaton to become the strongest is coming from."

Jeralt couldn't help but feel a little envious of Rodrigue. "At least your son went through that phase. My daughter already had fighting ingrained into her brain the minute she could walk," he sighs. "She'd steal my daggers whenever she could until I caved in and began training her. She was five."

They pat each other on the shoulder and, together, share a long-suffering sigh.

"Dimitri," suddenly puts in his Majesty. "Had broken every utensil he held until he turned six and learned to be gentler."

"Your Majesty, in all due respect," starts Rodrigue with the blandest expression Jeralt has seen to date. "Out of the three of us, you got the easiest one."

Jeralt chokes, and has to politely turn away to cough it out.

It takes a couple more minutes before everyone is able to bid one another goodbye. By then, Jeralt has already shook his Royal Highness's hand with a grin full of teeth, endured through Gustave's unimpressed stare as they exchanged goodbyes, and wished Zauna and her family good tidings during their indefinite stay in Fhirdiad.

When Jeralt rides out of Fhirdiad with his company at his rear, he doesn't look back.

He has everything he needs, after all.

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"Jeritza," he calls out to, dumbly staring at the little 'surprise' sitting quite contently in a corner of their caravan—something that his Majesty had gifted to them alongside resources that would easily last them a month or so.

"Yes?" Jeritza answers, holding a basket of winter apples he'd just plucked from a nearby tree. "Is something the matter, sir?" He has the gall to ask.

"What," Jeralt begins, calmly. "Is that?" He points at the baby pegasus who looks decidedly uninterested at Byleth's cooing.

"Ah. That," utters Jeritza, before he approaches the baby pegasus.

Unlike how it had acted towards Byleth, the young animal neighs happily once it spots Jeritza. It whines for attention, and brays joyously once Jeritza strokes its neck.

"She was a gift," explains Jeritza as he feeds the little thing an apple. "From the stable master. I could hardly refuse."

"And how will you take care of her?" Inquires Jeralt, feeling like he's the bad guy when all of his men begin to flock over to touch and coo at the winged foal.

"I know how to," confirms Jeritza. "And you can deduct whatever Mercy needs from my share of the company," he decides as he pats the newly-named Mercy  on the head.

"Even if you do keep Mercy, you can't ride her. Pegasus don't tolerate male riders," argues Jeralt, even though he knows it's a feeble attempt at best.

Jeritza just looks him in the eye, the corners of his lips quirking up into a devious smile. "Watch me," he says.

Mercy, meanwhile, whines loudly as if to assert her owner's claim.

Jeralt just rubs his hand down his face. I knew it was too good to be true, he internally bemoans.

Chapter Text

It must say something about his life that, when faced with a ginormous draconic being covered in feathers in place of the typical scales that bards would sing about, Jeralt merely blinks slowly at the sight of the snoozing beast, thoroughly nonplussed.

 

He stays very far away from it, though. He's used to shaving by death, not actually going through with it, thank you very much.

 

"Okay," sighs Jeralt as he breathes in and out with an interval of seven seconds in between. " Okay. First off, let's set up the perimeter," he decides on, relaying his idea to the rest of his men in a cool and controlled voice.

 

His men, however, only stand paralyzed in their spots as they stare wide-eyed at the behemoth of a bird gone wrong.

 

In a quiet voice, Miklan protests, "But...sir ." He gestures wildly to it.

 

"Look," starts Jeralt. "I'm as freaked out as you are, but there's no use blowing our tops off over it. We accepted the job, so we're damn well going to finish it," he stresses

 

"Are we...going to fight it then?" Jeritza asks in a reluctant voice as he peers up at the creature. He has a firm grip on his lance, though the way he purses his lips reflects how much he hates the idea.

 

Jeralt warily eyes the creature. The village chief who'd given them the job had only specified to keep bandits out of the Sacred Tomb, as well as to protect the Wind Caller, whatever the hell that was.

 

Some kind of statue? Jeralt supposes, looking around the ancient ruins for anything that screams out wind caller.

 

"No," Jeralt finally answers after some time. "Our contractor didn't say anything about fighting off a giant beast, so we'll leave it alone for now," he explains. "Besides, it looks to be in deep sleep. We wouldn't want our graves to say something shitty like Death by Sleep-Deprived Monster, do we?" He wryly asks.

 

"Well," drawls Byleth. "Death by the Wind Caller sounds pretty impressive, if I do say so myself," she puts in with a small laugh.

 

Jeralt jolts. "The Wind Caller? This is what we're supposed to be protecting?" He asks, gesturing at the large being who doesn't look to be in any need of guarding.

 

His daughter shrugs. "I mean...what else is there in this tomb?" She shoots back, pointedly looking around at their near barren surroundings. "He's the only thing that screams wind caller, don't you think so?" She asks, looking towards Jeritza and Miklan for support.

 

As if on automatic, they both obediently nod their heads.

 

When his daughter arches a brow at him, Jeralt concedes but can't help questioning her choice of gender for the horrifying bird creature.

 

"I mean..." His daughter trails off. "Does it look like a she?" She asks.

 

"Well does it look like a he?" Queries Jeralt with a raise of his brows, internally celebrating his victory when Byleth only sniffs and shrugs her shoulders like a petulant child.

 

"Okay. That's enough diddly-daddling! Time to set up the perimeter! I want to make sure that nobody from outside is able to get in ," he demands, slapping each of his men to get a fucking move on.

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"What did I just say?!" Jeralt roars as he viciously drives the point of his lance into an unfortunate dastard's gut. Just to express how undescribably angry he is, he uses the barbequed man to sweep off a few of his fellow bandits.

 

"But, sir!" Chrit cries. "We really did set up the perimeter! Who knew they were lurking in a secret underground passage?!"

 

"What secret underground passage?!" Jeralt demands, stabbing one, two, three more other bandits through their thick skulls. "We're surrounded by sand everywhere! From where could they have climbed out of?!"

 

"I don't know!" Wails Chrit even as he plunges his sword through a bandit's throat.

 

"Dad!" His daughter calls out from somewhere amidst the chaos. "We have a bit of a situation!" He hears her declare.

 

"What is it this time?!" He yells back, driving off his attackers with a powerful swing of his lance. "I'm a little busy here!"

 

"It's, ugh," his daughter reluctantly trails off. "Never mind! You do you!"

 

What does that even mean? Jeralt wonders, inwardly cursing when a spray of blood nearly blinds him. He luckily swerves out of the way, not even giving another passing glance to his latest victim as he throws a dagger straight towards the head of a man that had been sneaking up on Miklan.

 

"Just spit it out!" He snarls, using the falling man's back as a platform to leap into the air and use his lance as a makeshift javelin to pierce through a random bandit.

 

"Thanks, sir!" Miklan calls out to him, which Jeralt responds to with a vague wave of acknowledgement as he pulls his lance out with a sickening squelch from the dead man.

 

"Well...Mercy kind of panicked!" Yells his daughter after a while. "And she got herself stuck!"

 

"What do you mean stuck?!" Jeralt yells back. "And where the hell are you?!" With the number of bandits decreasing by the minute, Jeralt easily scours his daughter waving at him from where she's surrounded by a strew of corpses.

 

Coincidentally, Jeritza's standing next to her. The young man is looking up at the miraculously snoozing Wind Caller's head.

 

When Jeralt nears them, he finally realizes what Jeritza is worriedly squinting at.

 

"Goddess," breathes Jeralt. "How the hell did Mercy get up there?" He asks.

 

As if having heard her name, Mercy whinnies loudly from where she's standing atop the Wind Caller's head. Her already sizable wings flap twice in indignation at the height she's currently at and has to eventually get down from.

 

"Long story short, some bandits found where Jeritza hid her. She, um, panicked and flew all the way up there whilst she was fleeing from her pursuers," explains Byleth, poking the corpses of Mercy's aforementioned pursuers with the toe of her boot. "And now, we can't seem to get her down," she finalizes.

 

Can't we do this after we chase off all the bandits? Jeralt internally grumbles, but he crushes that thought when he sees how worried  Jeritza actually looks.

 

"Okay," sighs Jeralt, because a damn softie for his brood. He removes his bloodied glove and runs the unclothed hand down his face. " Okay . I'll handle her. You and Jeritza go help the others," he delegates, giving both of them a firm stare when they look about to protest.

 

Byleth wordlessly salutes two fingers at him before she grabs Jeritza's arm and drags him back to the fray.

 

After deeming that all of the bandits are preoccupied with his company, Jeralt focuses his attention on the still whinning Mercy.

 

"Hey, hey, it's okay!" He calls out to her. "It's gonna be alright, Mercy! You can do it! Just fly! You know how to do that, right?"

 

Mercy tosses back her silky black mane and peers haughtily down at him, looking every bit the little shit that Jeritza spoiled too much.

 

Jeralt has the vague sense that the pegasus thinks he's an idiot.

 

"Just fly!" He tries again in spite of how much he wants to throttle the winged foal. "Look, if you fall, I'll catch you! I promise!" He emphasizes this by holding his arms out. "See?! I'm prepared!"

 

Mercy brays a loud negative sound that makes Jeralt's insides sink.

 

She doesn't want to get down, he realizes, heart leaping in his throat when he sees Mercy begin to walk circles around the Wind Caller's head. She's planning on sleeping there!

 

"No, no, no! Wait, look! Look what I got here!" Jeralt brings out his secret weapon from his fanny pack. "It's a bisuit! A chocolate one! You like chocolate, yeah?" He waves his last chocolate biscuit in the air, a remnant of the three dozens that had been stowed in the caravan, which was gifted to the company by Lambert.

 

At the sight of the brown treat, Mercy halts and peers interestedly at it. She takes a step forward, her wings beating lightly in tandem.

 

"Yes, that's it, come on down now!" He coaches, waving the biscuit slowly.

 

As if hypnotized, Mercy follows the treat, swaying her head as she does so.

 

Jeralt watches in anticipation as her wings begin to beat faster, hope gradually climbing upwards in his throat. Yes, he eagerly thinks, fearing that if he spoke now, Mercy's courage would perish. That's it. You can do it. Just a little more!

 

And then, for some strange reason, Mercy leans forward.

 

Jeralt has only but a moment to register what's going on before he's heart nearly stops when Mercy decides sliding down would be a much preferable option than simply flying.

 

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Jeralt exclaims, watching as Mercy slips down the Wind Caller's nose bridge. He leaps foward just as Mercy glides off the WInd Caller's beak, catching an armful of Jeritza's baby in his arms just as he falls flat on his ass. "Fuck!" He shouts, more out of pain than anything else.

 

Mercy, meanwhile, slaps him in the face with one of her wings.

 

"You reckless—!" He begins, features twisting into a harsh expression, but his complaints die a meaningless death when a sudden rush of air hits him in the face.

 

Jeralt slowly looks up.

 

A slitted green gaze meets his wide-eyed one.

 

Shit , concludes Jeralt as he stares up at the awakened Wind Caller. An icy sensation sinks deep into his skin when he belatedly realizes that he's within the creature's stepping distance

 

The Wind Caller blinks slowly at him "Seiros?" It asks with a squint of its reptilian eyes. "You're not...her. A descendant, perhaps?" It raises its large head, craning its neck to get a better look at him. "How preposterous though. She'd have never stooped low enough to have taken a mate not of our own kind," it appears to muse. "But to smell so strongly of her...tell me, fleshbag, had Seiros given you some of her blood?" It asks.

 

Though Jeralt is practically quaking on the inside, he swallows down his fear. Be polite, be polite, he tells himself. It's not every day you get to speak to a talking dragon-bird thing, and you don't want to be killed by the first one you've encountered in your life!

 

"A descendant possessing her Major Crest gave some of her blood to save mine," Jeralt answers in a voice that miraculously doesn't shake.

 

The Wind Caller rears back at that. "Impossible. You smell so potently of her...more so than that Wilhelm man," it hisses, before its attention is raptured at something farther than Jeralt. "Ah. And it appears you've brought some company."

 

Jeralt has enough wits to scamper up to his feet, Mercy still in his arms, and to beat a hasty retreat when the Wind Caller's hulking frame rises from the sand-covered ground.

 

"How amusing. It seems you disgusting humans haven't yet learned to shed off your vices," it huffs. "No matter. Only by defeating me can you claim the treasures within this tomb, you thieves! And I don't plan on leaving a single one of you alive!" Its feathers fluff up as it stretches its neck long and high, head rearing back as if to—

 

Biscuits , thinks Jeralt even as he cluthes Mercy tighter to his chest and roars out to his men, "Get out of the way!"

 

His men, thankfully, abandon their current opponents at Jeralt's warning to run off to the side and out of the Wind Caller's sudden blast of cutting wind from its mouth.

 

"Holy shit!" He hears one of his men exclaim at the show of devastating magic.

 

Having just watched an unfortunate bandit get torn to bloody shreds, Jeralt is inclined to agree.

 

"Wait!" Jeralt hollers out when he sees the Wind Caller readying itself for another blast. "We're not your enemy! We were hired to protect you!"

 

"You jest," the Wind Caller scoffs. "You? Protect me? You have to try better if you wish to amuse me." Its eyes then narrow. It raises its head to scent the air, as if having caught a whiff of something familiar. "This smell...To have encountered the descendants of those wretched 10 Elites, how fortunate for me," it says in a delighted, almost excited, voice.

 

10 Elites. Jeralt desperately wracks through his brain before it clicks. Miklan!

 

"Since there are too many of you for me, then it matters not which of you are the descendants," the Wind Caller announces, stomping its clawed feet. "If you die in one of my attacks, then it's your fault for getting in the way of my hunt!"

 

Seeing how futile it would be to negotiate with the Wind Caller, Jeralt orders out, "Retreat! And convene at Kosa!"

 

With that order out, Jeralt runs straight for the caravan where his steed is conveniently hooked to. Jeritza meets him there and takes Mercy form his arms, giving him one last nod before he climbs into the back of the caravan followed by a couple of his men.

 

Jeralt swiftly moves to the front, getting to the driver's seat and pulling the reigns tightly.

 

"Where's Byleth?!" He loudly asks one of his men who's already saddled up on his horse.

 

The man looks back, squints at the rampaging Wind Caller, and shrugs. "She's probably in the caravan!" He yells back before he snaps his horse to attention and has her galloping away in retreat.

 

But I didn't see her, is his concerned thought. A gust of powerful wind that nearly sends him tumbling off of his seat reminds him that there are bigger things to worry about. I probably missed her!

 

Deciding to trust in the belief that Byleth isn't suicidal enough to go against his orders, he snaps the horses before him to attention and has them galloping away back to Kosa Village.

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It's a miracle in itself that though most of his men have sustained some surface injuries from the sharp gales of wind that had chased after their heels, none of them are in any sort of critical condition that requires immediate medical aid.

 

However, Jeralt's heart sinks when he can't, for the life of him, find his daughter amidst the ruckus.

 

"Jeritza, Miklan," Jeralt calls out to as he approaches the young men. The former in question is tending to a whinning Mercy whilst the latter is catching his breath. "Have either of you seen Byleth?"

 

Immediately, both of their gazes snap up to meet his.

 

"Wasn't...Wasn't she in the caravan?" Miklan questions with a furrow between his brows.

 

Jeritza narrows his eyes. "I was in there and I didn't see her get in. I thought she went with you, sir," he explains slowly, looking up at Jeralt for answers.

 

"She wasn't with me," Jeralt denies. "Did either of you see her get in any of the other carts?"

 

At the worried look that the two young men exchange, Jeralt's insides churn.

 

"Everyone!" Jeralt calls at the top of his voice. His men immediately cease their chatter to place their attentions on him. "Has any of you seen Byleth?"

 

Jeralt watches with dread as they all look silently at one another with bemused expressions.

 

Nobody answers his question.

 

Fuck, thinks Jeralt, knowing deep down that he really fucked up this time. Fuckity fuck, fuck, fuck!

 

"Yason!" He barks out. "You're in charge!"

 

His second nods back sharply at him.

 

"Miklan, with me!" Jeralt doesn't even wait for the man in question to stand up. He's already pulling himself astride his steed. "Jeritza, you stay here," he snaps at the blonde when Jeritza moves to accompany them. "If we don't come back in an hour, you and the Miklan Band follow along."

 

Jeritza hesitates but he eventually acquisces. "Yes, sir."

 

"Let's go." Jeralt nods at Miklan who's already buckled up on his own horse.

 

As one, they snap the reigns of their horses and gallop back to the Sacred Tomb with the sun just breaking over the horizon in all its glory.

 

Halfway back to the Sacred Tomb, Jeralt spots a dark blur ambling leisurely through the sand.

 

"Is that—" Miklan cuts himself off when he gets the answer to his unfinished question.

 

"Byleth!" Jeralt calls out to, applying more leg pressure against his horse to make her go faster. When he's near enough, Jeralt practically shoots off his ride and nearly bowls his daughter over when he catches her in a tight embrace. "Goddess! I feared the worst!" He breathes out in relief, clutching onto her for dear life.

 

His daughter sighs deeply into his chest, her arms woving around his waist in tandem.

 

Jeralt holds her for a while longer before he pulls back in order to inspect her condition. Aside from the minimal scratches on her limbs, Byleth  looks significantly better than the corpse Jeralt had initially dreaded to return to.

 

Though, Jeralt can't help but eye the massive chip in her chest armor and the lack of cloak protecting her bare shoulders and back.

 

"You truly have the devil's luck, Byleth," laughs Miklan as he approaches them. "What the hell happened back there? Didn't you hear Jeralt's order to retreat?" He asks after he gives her his obligatory hug.

 

Just as guilt bites into Jeralt's consciousness, Byleth replies, "Oh. I heard it. I just decided to stay behind."

 

Jeralt and Miklan stare wide-eyed at her.

 

"Come again?" Miklan chokes out.

 

"I mean, I had to stay behind in order to clear up the Wind Caller's misunderstanding," she explains slowly.

 

"You," Jeralt starts, tongue suddenly very heavy in his mouth. "You risked your life just to defend us?" He very nearly squeaks out.

 

Byleth nods, finding absolutely nothing wrong with what she'd done. "And also to kill off the other bandits, because otherwise the village chief wouldn't have properly payed us," she adds with a displeased tilt to her mouth at the very idea of not getting paid.

 

Unbelievable , Jeralt thinks even as he rubs a hand down his face. He voices it aloud just so that his daughter knows how he thinks of her actions.

 

Byleth merely tilts her head, a small smile playing on her lips.

 

Jeralt just sighs. "We're going to talk about your poor decision-making skills later," he stresses, giving her a sharp-eyed look.

 

Byleth fidgets; nevertheless, she nods in understanding.

 

At least you know that you did something wrong , thinks Jeralt, already compiling a list of arguments to throw at her in case that she decided to bring out the age-old logic of 'I lived and everything worked out just fine, so therefore you have no reason to be this mad at me.'

 

Miklan whistles a low and mocking tune.

 

Byleth elbows him in the side, shooting a deadpanned stare at the cheekily grinning man.

 

Jeralt allows them to roughouse it out a bit in the sand and, just when his daughter has poor Miklan on his knees with her thighs wrapped viciously around his neck, he breaks them apart.

 

"Okay. You've both had your fun, but back to the situation at hand," Jeralt reminds them. "What happened with the Wind Caller?" He directs to Byleth. "You said something about 'clearing out the misunderstanding' with it, so what? Did it actually listen to you?" He fires off.

 

Byleth winces. "Something like that," is her vague answer. "It's, ugh, why don't we just head back there?" She suggests.

 

Miklan and Jeralt share a look.

 

We shouldn't, is what Jeralt reads on Miklan's face, and it's a good decision to follow but, judging by his daughter's response, it appeared that something had happened. With the Wind Caller, which the village chief had specified to them to protect at all costs.

 

"If we have to," sighs Jeralt as he makes his way back to his horse, trying his very best to ignore the betrayed look that Miklan shoots at his back.

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Jeralt finds out soon enough where his daughter's cloak had disappeared to.

 

"Why," Jeralt starts in a levelled voice. "Does that man have your cloak?" He directs his question to his daughter, even though his gaze never leaves the near-nude stranger hefting out a couple of large chests from a secret niche hidden beneath the sand.

 

Byleth shoots him a wide-eyed look. "I couldn't just leave him naked," is her indignant answer.

 

This just makes even more questions pop out in Jeralt's head.

 

"Why was he even naked in the first place?" Jeralt asks the most critical question in his mind, eyeing the exhibitionist(?) strutting about with his surprisingly pale skin on display for everyone within considerable distance to see.

 

Definitely not a native , Jeralt decides on, because the people of Sreng all had toned skin from the blazing heat and were of dark hairs and eyes. This stranger, on the other hand, looks as if he'd belong perfectly to either Faerghus or Adrestia what with his light skintone and the bright hue of his green hair.

 

"And where's the Wind Caller?" Jeralt queries, looking around for the huge beast, which should be easy enough considering there's nothing but sand everywhere. "Oh Goddess. Did you do something to it?"

 

"Why would you think I did anything?" Byleth sniffs as she crosses her arms.

 

Jeralt gives her a deadpanned stare. "It's always you ."

 

His daughter rolls her eyes, but there's a shadow of a smile that crosses her lips for but a moment before it's gone.

 

"Come on," she says, sliding down a steep dune of sand.

 

"I still don't think this is a good idea, sir," Miklan shares his thoughts

 

"Me too, Miklan. Me too," sympathises Jeralt.

 

Still, the two of them slide down the same dune and follow after Byleth's heels.

 

Once they're near enough, Jeralt notices the strange yet unique ears the half-naked man has peeking out of his long green hair.

 

Jeralt watches in mute fascination as those ears seem to twitch before the stranger turns around to face them.

 

"Oh. You are back," is all the man says, his viridian green eyes narrowing once they land on Jeralt and Miklan. "And I see you have brought back Seiros's pet...and one of the descendants of those pesky Ten Elites," he sneers, glaring particularly at Miklan who squares his shoulders and glares back.

 

"Excuse me?" Jeralt snaps, stepping in front of Miklan to shield him from the stranger's hostility.

 

"Miklan actually disowned his house, so he isn't legally Gautier's descendant anymore" cuts in Byleth as she steps foward. She places a hand on Jeralt's arm—to comfort him or to stop him, Jeralt doesn't know.

 

What he does know, however, is that he really does not like this stranger.

 

"Regardless, he still reeks of filth ," scoffs the stranger. "But at least he recognizes his own bloodline's taint." He sniffs.

 

Miklan flinches, his expression twisting into one of displeasure as his grip on his axe tightens.

 

The stranger only eyes the former Gautier heir as if he were eyeing a bug. "And what of your relation to Seiros's pet? A companion of yours?" He asks Byleth.

 

"He's actually my father," is Byleth's dry reply.

 

The stranger's brows rise. "Hm? Your father?" His aristocratic features twist into one of confusion. "But you do not smell anything like Seiros..."

 

And then, suddenly, his hand shoots out to grab Byleth's wrist, which he brings up close to his nose so that could sniff the pulse there.

 

Jeralt's entire body moves instinctively, attention zeroing in on the stranger who dared to lay his hands on his daughter. It takes little more than a second to unlatch his lance from his back; still, no matter how quick he swipes the lance at the stranger, the man just leans back and narrowedly avoids his strike.

 

Jeralt quickly pushes his daughter behind him. "Hands off my daughter!" He warns, pointing the blade of his lance at the harasser. "And if you breathe another bad word about Miklan, I'll be knocking that smartass head of yours off of your shoulders!"

 

The stranger just arches a fine, unimpressed brow at him.

 

A fire ignites within Jeralt's chest at the other man's nonchalance. "Who the hell even are you?" He demands.

 

His daughter pipes up, "He's actually the Wind Caller."

 

Jeralt's thoughts freeze at that. "...What?" He breathes out, his hold on his lance slackening for a brief moment out of surprise.

 

"He's the Wind Caller," repeats Byleth.

 

Jeralt looks back at his daughter, who meets his stare head-on with a no-nonense expression, then he turns his attention back to, to the Wind Caller.

 

"You're the Wind Caller?" Jeralt asks just to be sure.

 

The stranger's nose scrunches up. "If you are referring to my primal form, then yes, I suppose so," he answers easily enough, his slender and pointy ears twitching.

 

Jeralt feels like sitting down on the ground because this is a lot to take in.

 

"I told you the Wind Caller was a man," Byleth smugly mentions.

 

Jeralt gives her his best unimpressed look. "Not now ," he responds.

 

His daughter only continues to wear a shit-eating grin.

 

"I heard," the Wind Caller the fucking Wind Caller, what the fuck, how did it, he, whatever, go from looking like a dragon to looking like a human?! starts, tapping the large chests by his feet with the sword in his hand. "From your daughter, that you are...mercenaries?"

 

It takes Jeralt a moment to realize that the Wind Caller had been referring to him.

 

"I, ugh, yeah," confirms Jeralt.

 

The Wind Caller hums. "And that you are willing to accept any job so long as the pay is good."

 

Jeralt narrows his eyes. "I don't take any honeypot, raiding, or assassination jobs," he details out, finding comfort in the familiar grounds of negotiation.

 

The Wind Caller tilts his head. "...Such limited options. You are quite picky despite being no better than a simple band of thieves, aren't you?" He tuts.

 

Jeralt sniffs. "Take it or leave it."

 

The Wind Caller hums. "Will a simple escort mission be acceptable?"

 

"And you'll pay for it how, exactly?" Jeralt eyes his daughter's cloak still wrapped securely around the man's slim waist.

 

The Wind Caller snorts. He points his index finger at a chest, bolganone  sparking to life at its tip, before he shoots a ball of it at the chest's lock.

 

Jeralt watches as the rusty old lock melts in itself, dropping onto the sand in a mess of black liquid.

 

The Wind Caller kicks the chest open, revealing—

 

"There are more in the other chests," the Wind Caller informs blandly. "You may take however much you believe is enough."

 

Jeralt stares wordlessly at the gold and gems lying innocently within the chest.

 

The gold and gems stare back at him.

 

Aren't I pretty? They seem to tell him. Won't you make good use of me? For food? For more weapons? For drinks? For a warm bed?

 

Jeralt is a weak, weak man.

 

"I believe we have a deal," Jeralt agrees, putting his hand out for propriety purposes.

 

The Wind Caller eyes Jeralt's hand with disgust before he reluctantly shakes it.

 

Jeralt ignores how the other man wipes his hand down his daughter's cloak. "So, what do I call you? Lord Wind Caller?"

 

The WInd Caller's features twist into one of disgust once more. "Ugh. What a ridiculous title. No. You may simply refer to me as—" He stops, suddenly looking past Jeralt's side. "...You may refer to me as Kosa."

 

Jeralt blinks slowly. "You mean like the village nearby?"

 

The Wind Caller—well, Kosa huffs as he crosses his lithe yet toned arms across his chest. "Like the nearby village? Please. I will have you know that that name is of an esteemed meaning. It perfectly reflects who I am as an intellectual and—"

 

Oh no, thinks Jeralt, Kosa's word vomit going through one ear and passing out through the other without so much as hitting his brain. He points his glare at the treasures that had tempted him so. Another pesky client.

Chapter Text

Jeralt has told his fair share of lies before—stretching from the teeny, tiny white lies that everyone has told at least once in their life, and up to the disastrous ones such as faking his daughter's death to a political figure.

 

He likes to say he's had enough experience to steel his resolve; yet, he can hardly deny how much of an utter asshole he is when he sees how badly the recipients of his lies react to it.

 

" Goddess ," the village chief breathes out, skin having turned a few shades paler as he shakily takes a seat on a nearby stool. "I-It's an omen! Our Lord of the Desert has abandoned us! Tell me, Blade Breaker, is it really true?! Did you really see our Lord Wind Caller up and fly away from our Sreng?!" He asks, eyes dangerously large and voice pitched high.

 

"Yes," Jeralt gravely bites out, because he'd started this lie and he'll damn well end it. "My men and I had just fought off the bandits when we noticed your Lord Wind Caller had woken up. It barely paid any of us a glance and just...flew off," he repeats the terrible script he'd been given. "You may send some of your sentries to the Sacred Tomb to confirm my story," he adds.

 

The village chief only shakily nods. "I...I will. But if what you're saying is true, and our Lord Wind Caller has truly left then..." The man trails off, expression souring. "Then our village might have an apocalypse just over the horizon!"

 

"...Isn't there a possibility that the Wind Caller may come back?" Jeralt tries to do some damage control, honestly feeling like a monster for subjecting this amount of stress on the innocent man and his villagers.

 

"But why would our Lord leave in the first place?" Argues the village chief. "Our Lord has protected our village for generations! Why would our Lord suddenly wake up now of all times and abandon us at its first action?!"

 

Jeralt wordlessly glances at the village chief's so-called Lord in human skin.

 

Kosa, who is now appropriately garbed in a white tunic dress that billows down to his ankles, merely yawns tiredly from where he's lazily lounging on the caravan's driver seat.

 

"I thank you for your service, Blade Breaker, but it appears my citizens and I will have a lot to discuss over now," sighs the village chief as he rubs his throbbing temples. "I've already delivered your pay to your second, so I hope that we'll part in amiable terms."

 

Jeralt nods. "Good luck," he offers, respectfully inclining his head towards his latest victim.

 

The village chief nods tiredly, and Jeralt takes that as his cue for he and his company to get the fuck out of here.

 

Once they're at a considerable distance away from the village of Kosa, Jeralt turns to face the man seated next to him on the caravan's driver seat.

 

"...Was it really alright to just leave things like that?" Jeralt hesitantly questions, the guilt steadily eating at his insides like some kind of hungry caterpillar on its second leaf.

 

Kosa's viridian gaze briefly lands on him before the man in question gazes far off at the golden sands stretched as far as the eye can see.

 

"It would not do to have more people in the know of my true identity," Kosa explains after some time, pushing his bright green hair back behind the inhumane curve of his ears that had stayed safely hidden ever since they'd entered the village.

 

Jeralt raises his eyebrows. "And yet you've allowed my entire company to know?" He points out. "We're not exactly a 'small group' if you must know," he wryly mentions.

 

Kosa sighs, giving him an unimpressed look. "That is an entirely different manner. It would be both meaningless and troublesome for me to hide my identity in the company of those I had hired, especially considering where we are heading off to."

 

Jeralt internally rolls his eyes. "And that is where?" He asks, because the other man hadn't yet specified where exactly they were supposed to escort him to.

 

Kosa closes his eyes, brows furrowing in deep thought. "Lake...Teutates," he answers in an unsure tone.

 

Jeralt blinks slowly at that. "That's...very deep in Kingdom territory," he notes, already mentally cataloguing what routes the company could take to get there as efficiently as possible. Should we stop at Fhirdiad? Jeralt wonders, tempted by the very idea of the unmatchable bakeries there.

 

Kosa pauses, actually craning his neck to look questioningly at Jeralt. "Kingdom? Isn't it supposed to be Empire?"

 

Jeralt's brows furrow in confusion. "Huh? What are you talking about? I meant the Kingdom of Faerghus, not the Adrestian Empire." At Kosa's blank look, Jeralt realizes where he'd gone wrong. "You don't know the Kingdom of Faerghus?"

 

Kosa shakes his head.

 

Jeralt inhales sharply. "What about the Leicester Alliance? The Adrestian Empire?" He queries one after the other.

 

Kosa frowns deeply. "...I am aware of the Adrestian Empire," he confirms. "The other two though...Those two are new."

 

Jeralt snorts. "New? They've been around for a very long time now."

 

"Well, pardon my lack of awareness, but I have been asleep for quite some time now," sniffs Kosa as he crosses his arms and gives him a withering glare.

 

"Goddess, how long have you been sleeping then?" Jeralt brings up, already having a vague answer to his question. The village chief had mentioned that the Wind Caller had been sleeping for generations , so that could only mean that Kosa would be a handful of centuries-old.

 

Kosa breathes out silently through his nose, the corners of his eyes drooping as he stares at the galloping horses before them. "Centuries...if I believe," he admits. "I can hardly even remember the last time I had woken up. My waking periods in between have all become a blur in my mind."

 

That's...sad , thinks Jeralt, looking down at his hands. He can't honestly imagine a life like that—dommed with longevity, with the added curse of sleeping for such long amounts of time. If Jeralt were in Kosa's shoes, he would be terrified of falling asleep, because how much time would pass whilst his eyes were closed?

 

In an effort to lighten the dreary mood, Jeralt comments, "You really aren't human, huh."

 

Smooth , Jeralt internally berates himself, wincing at how insensitive he must sound.

 

Thankfully, Kosa perceives it lightly. "What gave it away?" He chuckles for the first time, the corners of his lips actually curving up into a barely there smile.

 

Jeralt eases his tense shoulders. "Well, for starters, the fact that you can transform into that giant form a while ago," he banters back. "And also your ears." Jeralt gestures to his own very normal and very human ears.

 

Kosa's smile only widens by a fraction. "A logical assumption, considering the tackiness of your premises," he murmurs, amused.

 

Jeralt notices that Kosa neither accepted nor denied his statement, but he keeps silent about it because it wouldn't do to irate a paying client, especially one that can turn into a giant bird-dragon thing.

 

"How did you wake up, though?" Jeralt asks instead, because it had been difficult to actually understand what Kosa had been blabbering about in the midst of the chaos a few hours ago. "Considering that you've been asleep for so long."

 

"Like I said, I had smelled the blood of Seiros," answers Kosa as he leans back into his seat. "It has been quite some time since such a familiar scent had lingered into my senses, so my subconscious had instinctively reacted and in turn woke me up," he explains. "Imagine my surprise, though, when it was you , a mere human possessing just a pint of her blood, that managed to disturb my sleep," he states, giving him an unamused stare.

 

"I'm...sorry?" Jeralt hesitantly apologizes, not really knowing how to respond to that. "But what about my daughter? Does she smell like Seiros as well?" He curiously queries, believing his daughter to have some semblance of Rhea's blood considering her parents.

 

"No," is Kosa's immediate answer. "She smells different. Older. Far more ancient than Seiros's blood, but new as well. A mixture of fresh spring and aged winter," he describes, before he grimaces. "How did you come to possess Seiros's blood, if I may ask?" Kosa questions.

 

Jeralt recognizes the sudden change of topic but doesn't dwell too deeply into it. He merely stores that particular piece of information to contemplate on at a later date. "Like I said, a descendant possessing a Major Crest of Seiros had donated her blood to me when I was in a dire condition," he replies with.

 

Kosa nods slowly, features twisting into one of discontentment. "Hm. And this descendant of hers...What did she appear as?"

 

Jeralt pauses. "Excuse me?"

 

"Hair color? Eye color? Height? Ears?" Kosa fires off one after the other without a space for breathing.

 

Jeralt frowns but he nevertheless answers it. "Um...her hair and eyes are kind of a light shade of green? And she's around my height. Her ears...I've never seen them before, but I'm sure they're normal."

 

Kosa just narrows his eyes. "Does she have any family members?"

 

Jeralt reels back at that. "I...yeah. She had. A sister. But she's long dead," he stumbles over, licking his lips at the stained memories of his wife and Rhea laughing and murmuring to one another over a cup of tea. Mundane things that will never happen in this lifetime again.

 

Kosa furrows his brows. "A sister?...How odd. What about a mother?"

 

"Dead as well," Jeralt answers this one easily enough, remembering how mournful Rhea looked whenever her mother was brought up into the conversation during their late-night talks on the monastery bridge.

 

"...That sounds about right," mutters Kosa.

 

"...Do you perhaps know her?" Asks Jeralt, suspiciously eyeing Kosa.

 

"Hm...I don't have enough evidence to prove my hypothesis so I can hardly answer that with full guarantee. What did you say her name was?" Kosa asks.

 

Jeralt hesitates—but there are a million questons racing in his head, questions that he's always wondered about but never really voiced aloud because Rhea had been somebody he'd trusted, somebody he'd devoted his blade and will to, somebody he'd bled and bled and bled so much for, so what reason would he have to question her true origins?

 

What reason did he have to question why her blood made them both live so long?

 

What reason did he have to question from where did she discover his yet-to-be wife?

 

What reason did he have to question who she is and what she had done when he had loved her dearly like family?

 

But now—now , Jeralt has a reason and he wants to know why .

 

"...Rhea," he eventually gives in a low, low tone that tastes so very much like betrayal. "Her name is Rhea."

.

..

...

..

.

It's some time after they've all had dinner does Jeralt approach Byleth.

 

"Hey, By, can we talk?" He requests, fiddling with the sheath of one of his daggers.

 

Byleth blinks, but she sets her plate down on the table for it to be picked up after by the unfortunate soul that's assigned on dishwashing duty tonight. "Sure. What's up?" She asks with an adorable tilt of her head.

 

Jeralt breathes in deeply. Stay strong, be firm, he tells himself.

 

"Not here," Jeralt says. "Let's talk at my tent." He leads her to his personal tent, tying the flap close to keep peeping eyes— ahem, Jeritza and Miklan, ahem —out. "I want to talk to you about what you did back then, actually," he finally brings up.

 

"...Back then?" His daughter furrows her brows as a frown paints her lips.

 

Jeralt just crosses his arms, assuming his sternest stare. Game time , he thinks with an internal sigh, knowing that this is something that he has to set straight right here and right now before the dire consequences actually catch up.

 

"When I issued the order to retreat from Kosa, you didn't obey it. Instead, you deliberately went against it," Jeralt reminds her, stretching out the word in a low voice to emphasize his displeasure over it.

 

Byleth's eyes widen in remembrance, mouth slacking open before she regains her senses and presses lips together in a tight line. His daughter wisely maintains her silence.

 

It's clear to the both of them that she's well aware of what exactly she had done and how he clearly feels about it

 

Jeralt sighs, running a hand through his hair. "I don't want to say that I'm mad or anything, but, well, I am. Very mad, actually. Because you didn't retreat when I explicitly said so." He inhales deeply to catch his breath, letting his words sink into her brain.

 

There's a fire building deep in his guts that rises up to meet the blaze in his heart, anger and indignation meeting like long-lost lovers and threatening to climb up the back of his throat in the form of words that Jeralt knows he could never take back if he so much as uttered them once.

 

He muffles it though—suffocates the smoke and flames welling up inside of him—because he knows better than to let his temper get the best of him, because this is his daughter he's talking to. He doesn't want to scar her just because she'd done something wrong. He wants to rectify her mistake, wants to make her see that she can't just so recklessly dive into the most dangerous of situations just because she'd survived through so many.

 

Jeralt wants his daughter to live, and he wants her to understand that through means that don't involve hurting her like some parents would with their own children.

 

He wants to do this right, so he will.

 

"I usually let you do whatever you want on the battlefield, because I trust that you won't fuck up," Jeralt continues. "You want to dive into enemy ranks? Okay. You want Miklan to throw you into enemy ranks? Okay. Fine. I can deal with that. But when I tell you to retreat, I expect   you to retreat, you hear me?"

 

Byleth just continues staring at her feet. "...Sorry, dad," she mumbles.

 

Jeralt's insides melt at the pitiful appearance of his daughter, but he steels his resolve. You can do this , he cheers himself on. "I don't want a sorry this time, By. I want to hear a 'yes, sir' from you," he demands.

 

Byleth just bites her lip, stubbornly looking down at the ground.

 

Jeralt sighs, uncrossing his arms in order to rest them on his hips. "Trust goes both ways, By," he explains in his gentlest voice. "You have to trust me when I say retreat  because, yeah, maybe things worked out in the end for now, but what about then? What if we faced an even bigger threat and you decided to go against my orders again? What then?" He lets her stew in silence for a few more moments, before he forces out his most barest of thoughts, "I can't lose you too, By. You're all I have left."

 

Something seems to break in Byleth's expression at Jeralt's words, an almost anguished look appearing in her eyes that she hides soon enough as she suddenly tackles him in a hug.

 

Jeralt takes a step back, managing to steady both himself and his daughter in his arms.

 

"Hey," Jeralt murmurs, rubbing soothing circles at his trembling daughter's back, internally panicking because this was not supposed to go this way. "Hey, now. What are you crying for?" He asks, caressing her hair.

 

Did I go too far this time? Worriedly wonders Jeralt with a scrunch of his brows. Did I fuck up?

 

His daughter just silently trembles for a few more minutes before she finally utters a word. "Sorry, dad," she croaks out an apology. "I promise.  I won't...I won't do that again. I'll retreat when you say so," she sniffles out.

 

Jeralt pats her on the head a few more times then pulls away from her in order to wipe away the tears from her red-rimmed eyes. "Hey, hey, enough of that," he shushes, swiping the snot that dangerously drips out of her nose. Whatever fire in his system is immediately doused out at the sight of his daughter crying  of all things. "We're okay now, you hear? All I wanted to hear was that you wouldn't do something so reckless again. There's no need to cry anymore. I'm not man anymore," he tells her.

 

His daughter's face scrunches up once more, brows knitting together and mouth curving into a deeper frown as even more tears stream down her cheeks.

 

Jeralt's eyes soften. "What's wrong, By?" He helplessly asks.

 

Byleth just shakes her head, continuing to cry quietly.

 

"Hey, hey, hey," he calls, gently clutching her head to stop it from moving so that he could press his forehead against hers. "By, what's wrong?" When his daughter just shakes her head again, he just sighs and waits for her to let it all out, holding her close and being a steady lifeline for her to hold on until she's alright.

 

"...Thank you," Byleth mumbles once she pulls away, sniffling once more. The entirety of her cheeks are swollen red, akin to that of a ripe apple.

 

"It's no problem, kiddo. It's a part of my job description as a dad," Jeralt replies in an easygoing manner in order to lighten up the atmosphere. He pats her a few more times on the head just for good measure. "Now go ahead. I'm sure you're tired from all of, well, from everything, I guess, and we have a big day tomorrow," he shooes her head, patting her on the shoulders.

 

Byleth nods slowly, rubbing her already reddened cheeks for any stray tear. She rubs her bare arms as she walks towards the tent's flap, stopping just as she has a loose grip on it.

 

"Dad?" Byleth suddenly calls out to, small voice somehow carrying to Jeralt's ears. 

 

"Yeah?" Jeralt answers back, pulling out his bed roll to spread it out on the ground.

 

"...Can you tell me what mom was like?" She asks, her question coming out like a stray arrow and hitting Jeralt straight in the chest.

 

Jeralt...actually sits down for this one. "...What brought this on?" He asks, finding it suddenly so very hard to breathe especially with how viciously his heart twists at the thought of his late wife.

 

"Nothing...You just never really talked about her before, and I wanted to know..." His daughter trails off.

 

Jeralt licks his lips, finding justice in her words because it is true. He'd never really spoke up about his late wife to his own daughter, never really mentioned the mother who'd died giving birth to her—and really, it was only fair that Byleth knew what kind of person her mother had been before, how amazing her mother had been, how beautiful and kind and funny and so full of life that—

 

I wonder how you died , a haunting thought enters his mind. He knows very well how she died, but what had been her last thoughts? What had she felt like then? Had she thought about him in her last moments? Had she any lingering regrets to clasp on to whilst on the brink of death?

 

Courage fails him at this moment, and cowardice seizes his frail, frail mind.

 

"Maybe next time, By," Jeralt eventually settles on. Coward, coward, coward, he screams at himself with utter loathing because it's so selfish of him to be able to keep all the wonderful, beautiful memories of his wife and not share it with the daughter she'd died for. "Maybe when we have the time, after this job, I'll talk to you about her."

 

Byleth purses her lips, gaze cast downwards, but she nods her head nevertheless.

 

"Goodnight, dad," she whispers, exiting the tent without so much as waiting for his response.

 

Coward , a voice in his head tells him, one so very familiar.

 

I know , he thinks, breathing deeply, then he unrolls the rest of his bed and lies down on it, defeated and weary of it all.

Chapter Text

"I believe," Byleth begins aloud, amidst the chirping silence that only dense foliage are carable of. "That we are lost."

 

"Nonsense," scoffs Jeralt. "We're clearly on the right path," he insists, squinting at the old and faded map that they'd gotten back in Rowe, which had been the nearest town to Lake Teutates.

 

"We are lost ," deadpans his daughter. "We've been walking around the same tree for hours.  Look." With her unsheated dagger, she points at nearby tree. "I've been slashing that tree for every time we've passed it," she explains.

 

Jeralt flushes just a little bit when he realizes that there are seven clean lines marring the tree's trunk.

 

Kosa snorts, "It's a miracle, then, that you've been able to get from place to place with a navigator this horrid."

 

Jeralt glowers darkly at the man's direction, to which Kosa responds to with an amused smirk.

 

"We don't usually get lost," Byleth remarks, a deep furrow appearing in between her brows. "Especially when we have a map to guide us. This...This is truly strange," she comments, squinting at their surroundings with a suspicious eye.

 

"Is there something wrong with the map?" Jeritza asks, peering at the map in Jeralt's hands.

 

" I'm not sure..." is Jeralt's reluctant reply as he stares deeply at the map, checking to see if they'd mistakenly gone down a path that somehow kept leading them back to where they came from. Nothing out of the ordinary appeared to him, and Jeralt doubts that it's their senses dulling since their profession demands them to be at their most alert whenever they're on a job.

 

"Well, map or no map," pipes up Miklan, heavily breathing out as he plops down on a tree stump. "It's impossible to see where we're going with how heavy this mist is," he huffs sulkily.

 

... Mist? Jeralt internally wonders, blinking slowly at the redhead. He looks around just to double-check but he sees no signs of a haze falling over his eyes. All he sees is clear image of the same trail they've been trekking down for, apparently, seven times.

 

"What are you talking about?" Jeralt questions. "What mist?"

 

Miklan's brows rise at that. "...Huh?" He vocalizes, an incredulous scrunch to his nose. "What do you mean? I'm talking about the mist that's been here since we entered the forest," he says, giving Jeralt a look that implied he thought that the other man was none too intelligent.

 

Jeralt's eye twitches at that, but he refrains from smacking the back of Miklan's head for his attitude. "There's no mist," he corrects kindly. "There hasn't been any sort of mist since we entered the forest," he goes into detail.

 

Miklan's brows just rise further. "No...That's impossible." He rubs his eyes just to make sure. "There's clearly a mist. It's everywhere." he insists, before turning to the rest of the company. "Can't you guys see it too?"

 

Most of his men shake their heads, sharing bemused looks with one another; though, Jeralt can't help but pay extra attention to, all of his mages raise their hands in agreement.

 

"We see it," one of Jeralt's mages—Yuan , he remembers, since he'd caught the fucker stealing from his chocolate stash that Lambert had kindly added in the caravan—announces. "We thought that the rest of you saw it as well, which is why we didn't mention anything," he explains in behalf of his squadron.

 

"...This is starting to get strange," Jeralt murmurs, unlatching his lance from his back and gripping the handle of it tightly. "This can't possibly be normal. Whatever you guys are seeing, there's definitely something fishy going on, and not the good kind," he scowls.

 

The rest of his company follow his lead, unsheathing their weapons and wielding it before them in case a surprise attack hits them right when they least expect it to.

 

Kosa, who is the only one without his weapon out, merely blinks slowly at the company's response. He calmly turns to Miklan, addressing the man in a surprisingly serene manner, "Descendant of Gautier."

 

Miklan tenses, and Jeralt hardly blames him for reacting so stiffly to the dragon-in-human-skin.

 

For the duration of their journey from Sreng to Lake Teutates, Kosa had been nothing but hostile towards both Miklan and Jeritza, practically spitting insults at their 'accursed' and 'traitorous' bloodline whenever the latter two would attempt to approach him.

 

Jeralt had tried talking to Kosa about it, explaining to him as firmly and politely as he could—even though deep down he wanted to throttle the man every time he snarled an insult towards the majority of his brood—that he couldn't treat Miklan and Jeritza like that every time he so much looked in their direction.

 

It had worked, somewhat, because Kosa had toned down and had instead switched to ignoring their very presences.

 

Up until now, that is.

 

Jeralt inwardly sighs, sending a silent prayer to the Goddess to prevent the inevitable from escalating too quickly.

 

"You can see the mist as well?" Kosa inquires, meeting Miklan's eyes head-on.

 

Miklan, for his part, nods awkwardly.

 

Kosa hums, holding his chin between his thumb and index finger. "Then this can only be the work of an illusion," he concludes. "Those without a sensitive perception of reason magic will immediately fall under its effects, finding nothing out of the ordinary. Considering how it had managed to affect almost everyone aside from the mages and the two of us, then the illusion must be quite powerful indeed," he muses, an excited smile flashing across his lips for a brief moment before it's as gone as it had appeared. "Tell me, Gautier, have you had any training in reason magic before?" He inquires curiously.

 

Miklan averts his gaze, unable to endure the intensity of Kosa's stare. "I've never held a tome in my life," he admits.

 

Kosa's features twist, clearly pained. "Pity," he murmurs. "You have an innate talent for reason magic," he begrudgingly praises, before he too averts his gaze, the tips of his ears twitching twice

 

Miklan's eyes snap up in surprise, jaw slackening into a gawk.

 

Jeritza, who'd been observing the conversation with narrowed eyes, intervenes. "What? Finally ran out of shit to throw at us?" He scowls, pushing Miklan behind him, which is hilarious since Miklan easily towers over him.

 

Kosa raises a brow, his eyelids lowering into an expression of disinterest. "Hardly," he scoffs. "I can easily come up with a hundred different arguments as to why your bloodline should have perished centuries ago, but that would be too draining, descendant of Lamine." He rolls his eyes as he tosses his long hair back.

 

" You, " growls Jeritza, taking a dangerous step forward, his hand already on the grip of his lance.

 

"Hey," Jeralt butts in, one hand on Jeritza's shoulder to keep him in place. "Time out," he says, meeting Kosa's eyes as he does so. There are a million questions running around like scattered ants in his head—Lamine, being the most common one. Jeritza is a descendant of Laminebut he pushes it to the back of his mind because this definitely not  the time and place to have a serious lineage discussion.

 

Kosa just snorts once more. "As much as I despise your ancestors and the blood you unfortunately inherited from them, I do give  praise where it's due," he replies airily.

 

Jeritza merely bares his teeth in response, but he eventually stops when Miklan puts a comforting hand on his other shoulder.

 

"It's okay. Just ignore him," Miklan murmurs, guiding Jeritza to the back of the group and far away from Kosa's sharp tongue.

 

Jeralt shoots them a concerned look, knowing how tough it must be for them to have to endure such a smarmy client, and reminds himself to reward them generously for their continued good behavior.

 

"So, how do we get out of this illusion then?" Jeralt raises the question, quirking a brow at Kosa.

 

“It is simple,” begins Kosa, drawing closer to the tree that Byleth had slashed at. He inspects the marred trunk of it with a critical eye, before he places the flat of his hand atop it and burns a hole right through it. “You merely destroy the source of it,” he informs, taking out a solid black orb from the hollow he’d created, idly rolling the small marble-like object in his hand before he closes his hand and crushes it.

 

Jeralt hears something snap at the back of head; other than that, though, everything stays the same.

 

"That should do it," assures Kosa, tossing the remnants of the orb back into the hollow. "We should be able to safely arrive at Lake Teutates without any sort of misdirection now." He nods once before he begins strolling down the trail they've been trekking. "Well? Will you not hurry along now?"

 

The impatient look Kosa shoots at them is motivation enough to get their feet moving.

.

..

...

..

.

Jeralt peers suspiciously into the dimly-lit cavern that had certainly not been there before, warily eyeing the stalactites that look about ready to collapse from the ceiling and pierce through somebody's skull.

 

"We have arrived," announces Kosa, scrutinizing some indistinguishable markings that had been carved into the mouth of the cavern. "Lake Teutates should be inside here," he confirms, brows drawing together as the firmness in his eyes fade into something soft for but a brief moment.

 

Jeralt glances one last time at the cavern before shooting Kosa a dubious look. "Pray tell why , exactly, did you wanted to be escorted here again?" He asks, which is something he really should have done at the very beginning.

 

It's the gold's damn fault , Jeralt bitterly blames.

 

Kosa turns his head to face him and tilts it to the side to a small degree. "And you ask this now? When your job is about to be finished?" He questions, brow arching exaggeratedly in a way that Jeralt has learned from being in close proximity to the other man that Kosa was trying to be funny . "But, to answer your question, we're here to visit my brother. I believe that he is as past due for an awakening as I was, and I wish to rectify that matter," elaborates Kosa with a wave of his hand.

 

Jeralt stills. "A brother?" He asks for clarification. At Kosa's nod, he continues, "Is he the same as you then?"

 

Goddess, internally breathes Jeralt even as he crosses his fingers. Not another, please. One's already enough of a handful! What would Fodlan do with two of them?!

 

When Kosa merely smirks at him, Jeralt knows very well to expect the worst.

 

Fuck, Jeralt thinks, before he remembers a very important detail. Wait. If this guy is supposed to be Kosa's brother...then is he able to transform like Kosa? At that worrying though, he glances discretely at his daughter who is chatting with Jeritza and Miklan at the flank of the company.

 

"Is it needed for everybody to come to Lake Teutates?" Jeralt suddenly brings up.

 

Kosa blinks slowly, his gaze fleeting to Byleth for just a second, and he gives Jeralt an  almost amused look. "Not necessarily," he answers. "A single escort would be enough, since I doubt my brother would enjoy waking up to a large social gathering," he furtherly explains, a unique quirk to his lips at the very thought.

 

Byleth raises her head, attention clearly enraptured. She lifts her arm, mouth open to speak up for herself and—

 

Too bad , thinks Jeralt whilst he blurts out, "I'll go." When he turns to check his daughter's reaction, he easily interprets the all too knowing frown curving her lips downwards. "It's best if everyone in the company stays together here outside, because there's always the possibility that we were tailed. Besides, I'm the most experienced one out of us all, so I believe that I'm the best one for the job," he bullshits, internally patting himself on the back because hey,  he did a good fucking job pulling that one out of his ass in a fraction of a second.

 

He stares meaningully at his daughter who bites her lip, clearly unwilling, before she reluctantly nods her head in assent.

 

Jeralt smiles, unable to stop himself from walking towards her and ruffling her already messy hair. He pulls away just as she brings her fist up in an uppercut to probably inflict a nasty bruise on his biceps, and he grins smugly when she puffs her cheeks.

 

"We should go then," Kosa speaks up. "We do not have all day. It would be most efficient to awaken my brother before the sun sets," he explains, sharing an indescribable look with Byleth before he turns around and enters the cavern.

 

Jeralt puffs out a sigh. "Welp," he starts, popping the for emphasis. "You heard what our employer just said." He unlatches his lance and, just as he's about to follow after Kosa, is stopped by a hand on his wrist.

 

When Jeralt turns to check, he's surprised to see that the hand wrapped around his wrist belongs to Jeritza.

 

"Exercise caution," Jertiza warns, navy blue eyes sharper than usual as he glares at the dark depths of the cavern.

 

Jeralt's insides melt at Jeritza's uncharacteristic show of concern, which is only highlighted when the rest of his company throw out their own warnings to tread lightly and to keep his lance ready.

 

"I'll be fine," assures Jeralt, squeezing Jeritza's hand as he smiles at the young man before he gently removes it. "I'll be back before you know it," he adds, ruffling Jeritza's sleek platinum blonde hair just to mess with him.

 

Jeritza looks none too pleased with his perfect hair being tousled about, but he doesn't draw his hidden dagger like he usually would with any other stranger who would dare lay an unfamiliar hand on him.

 

"Take care," bids Miklan, waving, and Jeralt messes with his hair as well because he might as well complete the brood.

 

"Come back," pitches in Byleth, her fingers already rubbing the hilt of her sword—a nervous tick of hers.

 

Jeralt smiles at her then at the rest of his company as well, before he turns on his heel and chases after Kosa.

.

..

...

..

.

"Hey," calls out Jeralt, succesfully breaking whatever peaceful silence that had befallen them. "A while ago, what you called Jeritza, was it true?" He brings up, because this is as fine an opportunity than any other.

 

Kosa glances back at him, the ball of fire hovering overhead casting dramatic shadows on the sharp planes of his features.

 

"There is little in this world that can trick my senses," replies Kosa, before he looks back at the seemingly unending road ahead.

 

Jeralt finds his words a little ironic considering that they'd just been tricked by an illusion.

 

"And I can hardly forget the stench of each of those accursed Ten Elites," Kosa spits out, voice lowering to a growl. "That young man in your service is undoubtedly a descendant of Lamine. I am willing to even eat my own feathers if that is not the case," he huffs.

 

Jeralt wordlessly nods, stewing over the newfound information.

 

He'd always wondered from where did Byleth pick up Jeritza from, yet he'd never actively questioned the boy's origins after his daughter had explained that she'd found him locked up in a fucking chest of all goddess-damned places. Jeritza had been too volatile back then—always glaring and snapping at others who dared to approach him, baring his teeth at anybody who'd look his way, and generally being an utter shitface of a brat—so Jeralt had kept quiet and warned his men to do the same. By the time Jeritza had calmed down his dick energy, Jeralt no longer felt the need to trigger any sort of bad memories from coming up, not when Jeritza was on the right track to healing.

 

But Jeralt had always suspected Jeritza to be of noble birth, or at the very least a bastard with some inkling of noble lineage. His features had been too aristocratic and too refined to belong to some baseborn commoner, and the distinct hue of his hair and eyes just screamed noble.

 

Still, Jeralt kept quiet about it because, noble or not, Jeritza was a part of his company and nothing would ever change that. His past was his past; what mattered the most were his present and future.

 

Really, Jeralt thinks in complete exasperation. Only my daughter has the crazy kind of luck to pick up two brats with noble blood as her pets of all things.

 

"How did those two come into your service, anyhow?" Kosa suddenly pipes up, effectively snapping Jeralt out of his musings. "From what I had gleaned from your daughter's history lesson, I am of the knowledge that the descendants of the Ten Elites are all of noble stature," he elaborates. "And yet, why are two of them working as merceneries of all things then?" He repeats his question.

 

Jeralt resists the urge to slap his forehead. "It's...actually a long story. For both of them," he specifies, sighing out loudly just at the very memories of those particular incidents. "It'd be best if you asked Byleth about that. She's the one who brought them home and decided to keep as her pets," he lays it out as bluntly and curt as possible.

 

Kosa stops walking. He turns around, bright green eyes wide and brows cinched together in a perfect depiction of incredulity. "Pets, " he utters in a voice with a pitch higher than usual. "Pardon me, but did I just hear that right?"

 

It never gets old, thinks Jeralt, feeling joy swelling in his heart to have found another kindred soul to boggle at his daughter's severe oddities. "Yes. You did. It was either Byleth coming back to camp with a new kid in tow, or me coming back to camp with a new addition or so to the company," he confirms with a nod.

 

"And you allowed her?" Is Kosa's incredulous response.

 

"What else could I do?" Jeralt shrugs, before he turns his solemn gaze on the floor where a wet puddle has formed from the leaking stalactites overhead. "You should have seen Jeritza and Miklan when they first came to my company. They were both practically children at those times, and they both looked as if anywhere would have been better than where they'd come from," he reveals, before he decides that they'd stalled for too long and picks up the pace once more.

 

He strolls past Kosa, and stops, because this isn't something he's willing to let go of so easily. He looks over his shoulder, his own brown eyes meeting Kosa's vividly green ones, and he holds it.

 

"I don't know what kind of grudge you have against the Ten Elites, but I'd appreciate it if you stopped burdening those two with the mistakes of their ancestors," he says, before he spins his lance once with enough force that a gust of wind picks up from it. "Otherwise, if you harm even a single hair on them, or any of my men, you'll be facing me. And there's a damn good reason why I'm called the Blade Breaker," he warns as politely as he can.

 

Not a good idea to threaten somebody who can transform into a dragon and eat me up, concludes Jeralt once he realizes the weight of what he's done.

 

"Are you...Did you just threaten me?!" Kosa yells once Jeralt is a considerable distance away from the other man. "You...You just did, did you not?!"

 

Jeralt takes very much care to not meet the other's eyes. "Take it as you will," is his easygoing response, even as his mind goes fuck, fuck, fuck, not my finest hour, I've made a big fucking mistake, what the hell was I thinking—

 

"You—" Whatever Kosa was supposed to say dies a silent death in his throat.

 

Jeralt shares his sentiments because he finds himself speechless as he stares up at the grand pair of doors towering at least five times his height.

 

"Is this it?" Jeralt questions, cautiously approaching the doors. His fingers hover uncertainly over the intricate grooves of the iron plating, whilst his eyes track the what kind image the trenches engraved on the door are supposed to make.

 

He stills when he realizes that the image is of a ginormous draconic being with a pair of sharp horns jutting out of the sides of its smooth head and a large one protruding from its forehead.

 

"Is that—" Jeralt swallows, suddenly finding it so very hard to breathe. "Is that your brother?"

 

Kosa says nothing as he stares up at the large mural. He raises a hand, directing the ball of fire to the excessively large door knobs that have mostly likely rusted over with age. He snaps his fingers and the ball of fire suddenly grows in size until its a destructive ball of Ragnarok that explodes on impact.

 

Jeralt mutters a couple swears as immediately brings out his shield to protect his head. "A little warning would have been nice!" He snaps, watching the falling debris cascade around him like a particularly strong rain shower.

 

Kosa cocks a brow at him, a small smirk playing on his lips. "Exchange for your impudent words earlier," he replies with, completely unfazed by the ceiling nearly collapsing onto them from his little stunt.

 

Asshat , thinks Jeralt for not the first or even second time.

 

Without its locking mechanism, the pair of doors easily gives under Jeralt's boot.

 

"Be careful," cautions Kosa, coming up beside Jeralt. "I am sure that my brother has made the precautionaries against intruders, so there may be some phantom guards milling about."

 

Jeralt eyes the dense fog that appears to occupy the entire room itself. "Phantom what?" He utters.

 

"Anima soldiers," replies Kosa. "They are similar to mannequins, only that they are capable of movement out of their controller's will. This is one particular spell that I'd lent to my brother prior to our slumber. It never occured to me that I would be the one facing against my creations," he sighs wearily, massaging his temples.

 

Jeralt hears a sort of clinking sound, like when a box filled with nails is shaken, and he tenses his grip on his lance as he watches a figure jerkily emerge from the fog.

 

"Holy fuck," he blurts out, staring with uncontained horror at the clearly human-like figure with painted over eyes and a gaping mouth. "What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck," he sputters out, taking a big step back because, yeah, what the fuck.

 

"Beautiful, is it not?" There's a pleased smile spread upon Kosa's face as he stares at the jerking nightmare-come-to-life with something akin to adoration.

 

Jeralt turns his horrified gaze on the other man.

 

"I spent quite a lot of time crafting this spell," Kosa mentions, coming right up to the mannequin's personal space in one breadth. "I am quite proud to see that only its movements have degraded over the course of time." He leans out of the way of the mannequin's deadly swipe. "It is a shame, though, that it cannot even seem to recognize its very creator," he sighs, before he grasps the mannequin's head in one hand and proceeds to crush it with his tremendous strength.

 

Jeralt watches as Kosa rips the head out and tosses it far deeper into the mist.

 

Clank, clank, clank . Jeralt hears the poor horrific head make at it clutters to the ground.

 

"You watch our rear," Kosa orders as he summons a large ball of bolganone to light up their path. "I'll handle the vanguard," he grins, suddenly, before summoning bolts of thunder with a mere raise of his hand and shooting them into the fog.

 

Jeralt knows that Kosa's aim had been true when he hears more of those clanking sounds. "Gotchu," Jeralt sounds, twirling his lance a couple of times to warm up his arm and wrist for the most likely tedious battle ahead.

 

It takes a while until they've cleared through the entirety of those phantom guards. They'd hit a couple of dead-ends along the way, but managed to somehow make it to the very center where Kosa's brother could be found peacefully slumbering at.

 

"So," Jeralt starts, staring up with wide eyes at the gargantuan reptilian being curled up into itself like a snoozing dog at the very center of the temple. "I'm guessing this is your brother?" He hazards

 

Kosa doesn't reply; his gaze trained on the sleeping dragon. Steadily and without a hint of fear, he approaches the beast and, once he's close enough, lays his hand upon the creature's snout.

 

"A deep sleeper as always," he sighs, his voice a warm and fond contrast, as he strokes the smooth shells layered upon the soft skin hiding beneath it.

 

Then, suddenly, Kosa pulls just a quarter of his sword out of its sheath in order to draw a small line on his palm. Blood immediately wells up from the cut, which Kosa hastily smears on the creature's nostrils.

 

Ugh, thinks Jeralt with a scrunch of his nose. That can't possibly be hygienic.

 

Whatever Kosa had been aiming for seems to work because the creature's reptilian features twist into a deep grimace as if having encountered a particularly nasty nightmare in its dreams.

 

A gust of wind coming from the creature's nostrils billows their clothes and hair; other than that, though, the creature doesn't show anymore signs of waking.

 

Kosa's brows pinch together, and whatever fond look in his eyes instantly melts into one of irritation that sparks off as volatile thunder at the very tips of his fingers.

 

Jeralt wisely takes a step back because he's not that stupid.

 

"Oi," Kosa growls. "Wake up , you big oaf!" He hisses, knocking none too gently on his brother's snout with hard raps.

 

Another gust of wind comes from the creature's nostrils, but it seems Kosa's knocking did the job because the creature grumbles a few monosyllabic words under its breath before it drowsily opens its eyes.

 

The creature blinks its beady black eyes a few times, clearly groggy and out of its element, but it appears to snap to attention once its gaze lands on Kosa.

 

"...Brother?"

 

Jeralt has to bring a hand up to his ear at its grinding tone. Ouch , he winces, feeling his eardrums practically cry at the assault.

 

"Brother," Kosa greets back with a nonplussed line on his lips.

 

"What...What are you doing here?" The creature asks before it yawns widely, showcasing several rows of sharp teeth hidden within the cavern of its mouth. It has a cute pink tongue though, which Jeralt decidedly focuses on. "I thought you were taking a break in, er, the desert?" He converses with a sort of awkward glance to the side, which coincidentally places Jeralt in his line of sight. "...A human?" He wonders, stretching his neck forward in order to better scrutinize Jeralt.

 

It takes the majority of Jeralt's willpower to hold his ground. He meets the large turtle-dragon's  eyes and nods politely. "Yo," he greets with a wave of his hand whilst the other one is clutching onto his lance for dear fucking life.

 

The creature suddenly rears back its head as if slapped. It blinks a few times, before it looks to Kosa, an aura of helplessness practically radiating from it.

 

Kosa huffs, crossing his arms over his lithe chest. "His name is Jeralt, a benefactor of the blood of who claims to be Seiros's descendant," Kosa introduces with little fanfare.

 

The creature's jaw slackens. "Seiros fuckedhuman?" Is the first thing out of its mouth, its voice rising to an unbearable pitch that literally claws on Jeralt's eardrums. "Seiros? Our dear sis—" Whatever it was going to say is swiftly killed when it jerks back as if burned. "Ow! Hey! That wasn't very nice, Macu— Yeowch! Would you stop that?!" It demands, baring its teeth in a very scary snarl.

 

Kosa just blinks slowly, his eyes half-lidded and an aura of ' are you an idiot? ' radiating off of him. He pulls back his arm, which had been sparking dangerously with what Jeralt recognizes as thoron.

 

Jeralt, for the life of him, can't honestly believe that he's witnessing a family spat between a bird-dragon-turned-human and a turtle-dragon of all things.

 

"I would appreciate it, if you called me by my name, Kosa ," Kosa stresses with a pointed glare.

 

The creature blinks a few times, its gaze switching from Jeralt and Kosa a couple of times.

 

Jeralt can practically hear the proverbial click of a switch going off in the creature's brain.

 

"Oh! Oh, ah, yes! How could I have ever forgotten? Silly me, silly me," the creature stumbles out with a forced laugh that sounds incredibly fake to Jeralt. "It appears that my hibernation has affected my memory, and I mixed up some names," it nervously says.

 

Jeralt is thoroughly unimpressed by the creature's lying. He turns to gauge Kosa's reaction, and sees that the other man is looking at a chipped stone pillar as if it was the most interesting thing to have ever been created.

 

Are you fucking serious, thinks Jeralt with a deadpanned stare. However, considering that their secrets are none  of his business and out of his interests, Jeralt acquisces easily enough.

 

"Of course," Jeralt agrees. "We've all had those experiences."

 

The creature's eyes brighten, its tail delightfully thumping on the ground and bringing up a cloud of dust to which Jeralt has to cover his face to protect his eyes and nose from.

 

"Yes, yes! It's very difficult, isn't it?" The creature hums, clearly pleased at its lie having been bought. "But, er, Kosa, what are you doing here?" It asks with a tilt of his scaly head, its sharp horns gleaming from the natural light seeping in through the cracks of the ceiling.

 

"The situation has changed, brother," is Kosa's answer as he brings out an extra set of clothes from underneath his tunic. "It appears that it is no longer safe for any of us to be sleeping. I will explain more once we are out of this cave, but trust me when I say that we will have to be on the move from henceforth ."

 

The creature seems to shrink in itself. "No longer safe? But...brother, this place...This is my  place," it argues. "And there hasn't been any other intruder aside from the two of you. Can't I stay?"

 

Kosa's shoulders slump down. "If only that were the case," he sighs, sounding pained. "However, do you not value your life more than your comfort?"

 

The creature gloomily hangs it head, contemplating in silence for a few long moments. It looks around its misty abode, eyes yearning and clearly reluctant. "I understand...If that's the case, then it appears I don't have much choice, do I?" It laughs sadly.

 

Jeralt finds himself frowning sympathetically, knowing all too well about the struggles of having to leave one's home out of the blue for the sake of keeping one's self alive.

 

He wonders, though, what could possibly be targeting Kosa and his brother's life. He suspects it has something to do with their unique race, since they can't possibly be human if their curved ears and ability to transform are anything to boast about.

 

Kosa turns to Jeralt and advises, "You should keep your eyes closed for this if you do not wish to be temporarily blinded."

 

Jeralt nods and shades his eyes with one hand, his other still gripping his weapon for any surprise attacks. He steadies himself when the ground suddenly shakes from the creature's sudden rising to its feet, and he's forced to close his eyes when a bright light shines from his peripheral view.

 

His ears pick up on the sound of something akin to a freshly-killed animal being skinned of its fur, and he curiously wonders how ghastly the transformation process must look like.

 

Once the light eventually dies down, Jeralt brings down his hand.

 

He immediately regrets it.

 

"Transforming...is really weird," says the creature-now-turned-naked-man, before it (he?) trips over his long green hair and falls to the ground in an ungraceful heap with his unnaturally pale buttocks out for display. "Damn it! Why's it so much harder to walk on two legs?!" The man complains, managing to sit himself up in a position that perfectly showcases his assets.

 

Jeralt is curiously drawn to the man's crotch, and is somewhat disappointed to see that his dick looks very much human.

 

He's spent many a nights talking with a few of his men about what Kosa's dick might be like, since Kosa couldn't possibly be human. Their theories had ranged from 'hung like a horse' to 'knots' and 'barbs' of all things; so it was honestly a bit of a let-down to be faced with the unexpected normality of it.

 

Though, Jeralt takes note of, not even bothering to hide his ogling. It's a bit bigger than the average human's. He can't wait to report this piece of information to his men, knowing that the ones who found Kosa strangely attractive would greatly appreciate this.

 

"You will grow accustomed to it," Kosa replies, nonplussed, before he tosses the bundle of black cloth in his arms. "Here. Get dressed. Who knows what kind of disease you can get from swinging your penis around in a place as filthy as this," he scoffs.

 

"Hey!" Kosa's brother snaps even as he pulls on the long tunic over his head and allows it to drape over his nude body. "Don't call my home filthy! It's dark and damp, perfect for naps!" He defends.

 

"Perfect for growing molds, you mean," is Kosa's biting reply.

 

"Why do you have to be so mean ," whines the other man as he grabs his curtain of hair and wraps it around his hand several times to keep it off of the ground. This allows his ears, which are as pointily curved as Kosa's, to peek out. "And why do I have so much hair ? "

 

"A consequence of sleeping for centuries," wryly answers Kosa. "And where are your manners? You have yet to introduce yourself to your other guest," he reminds.

 

Jeralt contains the urge to fidget when two pairs of viridian eyes focus on him.

 

"Oh, ugh, yes, I forgot. Again. Pardon my rude behavior," is what stumbles out of the mouth of Kosa's brother as he shakily gets up to his feet. "It's a pleasure to be acquainted with you, Jeralt. I'm Ind—" He freezes, the one syllable stretching out as he stares wide-eyed at Kosa. "—die! I'm Indie! Kosa's brother!" He finishes.

 

Again, Jeralt looks over at Kosa who is currently massaging his temples.

 

I don't even want to know , is what Jeralt decides on because he has enough shit on plate already.

 

"It's nice to meet you, Indie," politely replies Jeralt as he sticks his hand out for a handshake.

 

Indie stares at the hand for a moment, eyebrows raised and drawn together, before his expression clears and he takes the proferred hand to shake it.

 

Jeralt could practically hear his bones grind at the strength Indie invests in something as simple as a handshake.

 

He can only comfort himself with the knowledge that he doesn't have to deal with either of them anymore once this job is over and done with.

Chapter Text

As much as he loathes the idea of his daughter laying gentle hands on a man with quite the peculiar personality, Jeralt can't quite deny how strangely endearing it is to him to watch Byleth settle in a state of tranquility as she braided another's hair.

 

"How's this?" Byleth softly asks as she tightens the lacy white ribbon at the end of Indie's hair.

 

Indie brings the long braid over his shoulder, tracing the tips of his fingers carefully over the simple plait. "Thank you," he murmurs, his voice for once settled at a low volume. There's a faraway look in his eyes that remains for but a few seconds before it vanishes at the same time he turns to beam brightly at Byleth. "Can you teach me how to do it on my own some other time? I'd like to be able to add some more ribbons the next time I do it, and oh, maybe some flowers would be nice..." He trails off, eyes glazing over as he stares at his braid.

 

Byleth touches the small braid in her hair—the one with a plum ribbon intertwined with a bright blue one in her dark locks—and she smiles whilst nodding her head.

 

"It'd be best and easiest, though, if you practiced braiding on somebody else first," she recommends.

 

Indie's eyes brighten, stars practically twinkling in them. He looks towards Kosa with yearning, to which his brother just scoffs at.

 

"Find somebody else to play your unfortunate victim," Kosa sniffs, turning his gaze away.

 

Indie frowns, his shoulder slumping at the cold refusal.

 

Byleth, on the other hand, merely laughs and pats Indie comfortingly on the shoulder. "That's alright, Indie. Jeritza's hair is long enough for that, and I'm sure he'll agree if you just ask."

 

At that particular suggestion, Jeritza snaps to attention, his eyes wide and features twisted into one of affront. "You must be joking," he says in a dangerously low tone, gesturing his opinion with a narrow-eyed glare aimed at Indie.

 

Indie makes a slightly high-pitched sound at the back of his throat, shrinking into himself at murder eyes nearly drilling a hole in his head.

 

Byleth purses her lips. "If that's the case, you can braid my hair, Indie," she decides on, smiling amiably at Indie who immediately brightens up the thought.

 

Jeritza, on the other hand, is none too pleased with that. He stalks forward, squeezing himself between Indie and Byleth so as to keep the latter behind him. "No," he growls. "There's no way I'm letting some strange, debilitated man put his fingers on your hair," he declares.

 

Kosa bares his canines at the insult, eyes flaring a brighter hue in warning.

 

Indie, however, merely puffs his cheeks. "My hands are clean, excuse you!" He insists, even going so far as to show the front and back of his hands. "I keep my hands and fingers in good maintenance, because I need them as much as I need my eyes if I want to shoot my bow!"

 

And then, suddenly, Indie freezes.

 

Kosa drawls, "You forgot your bow, didn't you?"

 

Indie turns his wide, wide eyes at his brother. "I forgot Exhaustie!" He exclaims. In the process of getting up, Indie's bright green hair lands quite the vicious slap on Jeritza's face; however, before the blonde man could so much as retaliate, Indie is already scrambling back into the cave

 

Jeralt watches him go with dead eyes. "Is it safe for your brother to go back on his own?" He questions.

 

Kosa merely shrugs, languidly laying back down on a slab of stone that's large enough to accommodate him. "My brother will be able to handle himself in there. We were able to deal with all of the phantom soldiers, so there is hardly any imminent danger lurking within," he answers, watching Byleth pull Jeritza back to the Miklan Band to prevent him from castrating Indie.

 

Jeralt hums. "Where will the two of you be off to from this point?" He asks.

 

Kosa turns his head eastward, his gaze set on something that's far beyond the lines of trees.

 

"I...am not sure," Kosa admits. "The world has changed so drastically from last I'd truly awoken, so I have yet to determine a destination to trudge off to with my brother."

 

Jeralt rolls his neck, the cricks in his muscles snapping into place at that simple motion. "Why not go to Fhirdiad, then? I've met the King, and I'm sure he'll treat you well so long as you mention that I sent you his way," he suggests, his thoughts and most particularly his stomach straying towards the Kingdom's tasty treats.

 

Kosa sniffs. "I would prefer to distance myself from any pesky political institutions."

 

"Then where else will you go to then?" Jeralt witheringly glares at the pesky man.

 

The look Kosa aims at him is one that Jeralt just knows he won't like what will next come out of the other man.

 

"I believe," Kosa starts, gaze flickering away to gauge a patch of yellowing weeds. "That it would be best if my brother and I stick with you and your company for the meantime," he suggests in soft voice, which Jeralt has come to understand is a nervous tick of Kosa's whenever he asks for something genuinely important.

 

Fuck, Jeralt thinks, hating how accurate his instincts can be at times. "Are you fucking serious?" He delivers in as cultivated as he can get right now.

 

"I do not see any reason for me to be lying," Kosa huffs, still stubbornly not meeting his gaze. The tips of his ears, though, have pinked at the base. "And I do not see any reason for you to refute my request. My brother and I are quite capable warriors, if you must know."

 

Jeralt gives the other man a very, very pointed stare.

 

"Oh, stop it with your looks. Clumsy as he is, Indie is quite the adept archer and I have yet to see any ordinary human match him shot for shot," Kosa proudly boasts. "And you very well know that I'm quite proficient in reason magic and with the sword."

 

Jeralt continues to pointedly stare at him.

 

"Whatever money our efforts earn will of course go to the company's coffers," Kosa nails down, lazily stretching and exposing his pale midrift for the sun's rays. "And I have knowledge of some hidden tombs that we can scourge its treasures of," he grins, his canines on full display.

 

As always, the ugly monster snoozing at the back of Jeralt's mind jolts awake at the prospect of gold like a dog getting a good whiff of smoked meat.

 

"I'm guessing this has something to do with whatever you and your brother are running away from?" Jeralt supposes with a raised brow.

 

Kosa grimaces. "We are hiding, not running away," he specifies. "But yes. All I ask in exchange for mine and my brother's services is protection from our enemies."

 

Jeralt rolls the idea in his head for a few minutes, finding the agreement to be more beneficial on the company's part than on Kosa and his brother's. There are   some disadvantages to it, such as getting two more pesky recruits to break into the company's workings, but, well—

 

"Fine," Jeralt exhales loudly. "But only on three conditions."

 

Kosa's lips curl at that. "Out with it then." He waves his hand in a shooing motion.

 

"You and your brother are expected to uphold my company's rules," firstly lists down Jeralt. "If Byleth is doing anything weird, report directly to me. No cold hands when we're required to kill on the job. Make up and don't break up any member of the company. And keep yourself and the nearest man alive as much as possible," he summarizes, since he'd already briefed the lengthier version of it when Kosa had hired them.

 

Kosa hums as he rolls onto his chest, his back curving in consequence of another long stretch.

 

"It also means that you have to stop treating both Jeritza and Miklan like crap."

 

Kosa freezes in a comical position.

 

"You have got to be joking," deadpans Kosa.

 

Jeralt blandly looks at him.

 

"...Fine ," bites out Kosa, slumping down on the rock. "I'll play nice . What other demands do you have?"

 

Jeralt nods, internally relieved that he's finally managed to convince Kosa to improve his personality. "This is the last one," he assures, to which Kosa scoffs at. "But I'd appreciate it if you'd at least divulge who exactly, these enemies of yours are."

 

Once again, Kosa stiffens at that, his bright green eyes finally meeting Jeralt's.

 

Jeralt sighs, having expected such a reaction from Kosa. "It's only fair if the company and I are aware of who we're supposed to be protecting you and your brother from," he argues.

 

Kosa's expression darkens, his lips curling unpleasantly.

 

Yet, Jeralt has come to know the man long enough to distinguish the underlying fear in the way he grips his tunic.

 

"Would it...be acceptable if I explain it to only you for now?" Kosa requests as he sits up, the long trail of his hair cascading past his makeshift stone bench. "The story I am about to divulge is not exactly a pleasant one..." He trails off, his features pinching towards the center.

 

Jeralt considers it. "You'll eventually have to tell the rest of the company," he forewarns.

 

Kosa nods sharply. "May we talk in your tent, then, for privacy?" He implores.

 

Jeralt shrugs. "Fine by me," he accepts, leading the other man into his own temporary lodgings. He catches a few of his men stare questioningly after them, but he pays them no heed especially when the tent flap falls to a close behind him. "Make yourself comfortable," he offers, gesturing to his bed roll on the ground.

 

Kosa eyes it with distrustful eyes. "No, thank you," he denies, ceremoniously settling down on the bare ground.

 

Jeralt narrows his eyes. "It's clean," he informs, bundling up his blankets to show how white it still is. Killing people isn't just something he's good at, you know? He knows how to kill stains, and he's damn well great at it too!

 

The nerve , Jeralt sniffs his comforter, checking to see if it had any bad odors. When he smells nothing but the flowery detergent he'd bartered down to fifty coins, Jeralt thinks , so sure of himself, that Kosa's nose may be broken.

 

"My sense of smell is perfectly  functional."

 

Whoops. Must have said that aloud , sheepishly thinks Jeralt as he settles down on his own bed roll since his visitor was all too unwilling.

 

"Well?" Jeralt raises a brow, hugging his blankets close to his chest.  "Don't you have something to tell me?" He prods, not missing the way Kosa had tensed at the reminder.

 

"Of course." Kosa maintains a brave front, even going so far as to tilt his chin up. "Keep in mind, though, that nothing but the truth shall escape my mouth. It is up to you whether or not you choose to believe it."

 

"Try me," goads Jeralt with a crooked smirk.

 

Kosa's gaze softens, his eyes curving into amused crescents. "It has been established that neither my brother nor I are human," he begins, to which Jeralt actively nods in response to show that he's listening. "But you have been either considerate or forgetful enough to question just what, exactly, are we if not human," he points out.

 

The unwanted spawn between a human and some poor animal , Jeralt wisely keeps that smart answer in his head for fear of his eyebrows getting singed off.

 

"To put it plainly, my brother and I belong to a race called the Nabateans," Kosa enunciates the term slowly for Jeralt's sake. "A prosperous race that had existed centuries ago and had led the majority of Fodlan's humans to an enculturation of skills and knowledge, since us Nabateans believed your human ancestors to be more than the mannerless barbarians that they'd outwardly displayed," he continues in a tone that's less derogatory but more, in Jeralt's eyes, detached. As if he was merely a viewer behind a pane of glass separating himself from reality. "Us Nabateans had taught these humans how to speak, to write, to domesticate animals, and to invent from nature's resources instead of merely gathering. We taught your kind that there was safety in numbers, which in turn birthed the first human civilization in Fodlan." Kosa pauses, lips pinching together. "Agartha had been its name, and for a short while, our two races co-existed in harmony."

 

Jeralt stays silent, merley observing the way Kosa began roughly wringing his hands.

 

"However, peace had only been a temporary reprieve. Eventually, the Agartheans fell victim to their own vices, their own desires. In the thirst for knowledge and technological advancement, the Agartheans not only warred amongst themselves but also against other human tribes and even against us Nabateans," Kosa narrates, eyes glazing over with the influx of memories surging to the forefront of his mind. "Their first attempt to enslave us had failed, for they came unprepared and haughty. Us Nabateans had managed to drive them into hiding, for my race had never believed in mindless slaughtering when the battle was over and done with. Yet, some time after, they struck again when we had been at our weakest and most vulnerable, and—" Kosa's voice cracks at this part, features faltering and no longer able to hide how pained he must feel. "Once, there had been hundreds of us. Thrice more than the population of Kosa Village. It had been practically impossible, centuries ago, to not spot at least one of my kind amongst a dozen humans, for we had been that aplenty," he murmurs, voice lilting lower. "And yet, today, barely a handful of my race remains on this very earth."

 

"What happened?" Jeralt couldn't help but ask, immediately clamping his lips shut when he realizes how insensitive his question had been. "If you don't mind me asking," he shittily adds, anxiously rubbing the back of his neck.

 

Way to go, dumbshit , he sarcastically remarks to himself.

 

Kosa's gaze lowers to the ground, the vivid hue of his eyes somehow dimming. "You had asked me before, on numerous occassions, as to why I hold so much hate for the Ten Elites," he suddenly brings up.

 

Jeralt wordlessly nods, no longer trusting his mouth to say anything tactful.

 

"There had been a bandit. A man of honorable combat morals, but with little humane values," Kosa starts. "He was one of many victims to the Agarthean's manipulation, yet came to be the most severe one of all for he had led an entire army to drive an entire race to the very brink of extinction," he angrily snarled out. "He'd slaughtered each and every one of my people, even my own slumbering mother who had wanted nothing more than reconciliation with those who had turned their backs on her. But he did not just stop at their deaths. No. He desecrated my own brethren's corpses, used their bones to forge sentient and unmatchable weapons, and even drained my kin's corpses of their blood and turned it into a mockery of wine in order to strengthen the strongest of his warriors, who you all still refer to as the Ten Elites," he spat with such disgust that venom may as well have dripped from his very mouth.

 

"Wait...Leader of the Ten Elites. Are you talking about Nemesis? The Liberation King?" Jeralt questions, having to lean back and hold himself upright by his arms because, well, Goddess, this was certainly a lot to take into account.

 

Nabateans? Agartheans? The first human civilization in Fodlan? The Ten Elites massacring nearly a hundred percent of an entire race? 60% of the Church's doctrine being upheaved like that by a man that could transform into a bird-dragon?

 

This...was certainly going to be a thing. Jeralt could just sense it, creeping out in the same way all things Byleth-related had been.

 

"King of Liberation? Hah. What a joke," humorlessly crowed Kosa as he tipped his head back. "Nemesis had been nothing but a scoundred, a fraud who earned none of his wealth or power. Everything that he was famed for had been given to him by the Agartheans for the sake of my people's demise."

 

"That's...That's not the history I know of," Jeralt blabbers out, unable to contain himself. "Nemesis had turned evil, yes, but he'd been good  once. He even earned the Goddess's blessing and received both the Sword of the Creator and the Crest of Flames. And the Ten Elites had fought against him when he'd turned bad," he rambles, every single doctrine ingrained into his mind by Rhea being, well, disproved .

 

"Then your history books are false," Kosa objects without hesitation. "I   had personally been one of the frontliners in the battle where Seiros had killed Nemesis, and I am very   sure that the Ten Elites were on his side. Hresvelg was an exception, though, for he'd turned his back on the King of Subjugation."

 

"Wait," Jeralt nearly squeaks out, bits of newly-acquired informations clicking into his mind. "You fought in the war at the Tailtean Plains?"

 

Kosa blinks. "And several battles before that as well," he adds, as if it was nothing .

 

On the verge of a fucking mental breakdown, Jeralt has enough sanity to ask, "How old are you again?"

 

Kosa furrows his brows. "I do not see how that is of any importance, but...older than a millenium, I am certain of," he answers.

 

Fuck nuggets, Jeralt thinks. I threatened a millenium-old bird-dragon man. The crazy part of his brain scolds him for treating his elders—or, in Kosa's case, supreme-elder—so crassly.

 

"So what, you're hiding from the descendants of the Ten Elites?" Jeralt asks, his brain not quite working with the heavy load of information and conspiracies stringing together into his memory.

 

Kosa scoffs. "As despicable as the Ten Elites are, their descendants are merely irritating bugs. Like an infestation of pest that had been allowed to breed," he sniffs.

 

You could have just said no , dryly thinks Jeralt as he stares at Kosa with dead eyes.

 

"...All of Fodlan then?"

 

"Are you an idiot?" Kosa parrots, remnants of his anger fading away into one of exasperation. "Did you not understand what I had just told you? Nemesis and his Ten Elites had merely been puppets, pawns, that the Agartheans had used in their thirst for revenge against the Nabateans. If all of Fodlan had been my enemy, I'd have never hired your company to search for my addle-brained brother," he huffs, crossing his arms over his chest. "Really. Such preposterous claims you always have. I wonder what inane thoughts do you have crossing your mind on a daily basis."

 

If only you knew . "But didn't you kill the Agartheans?" Jeralt questions.

 

Kosa's features twist into one of frustration. "Not all of them, unfortunately. Somehow, a few always manage to slip out of our grasps no matter the result of each battle we have with them. They are a bunch of slithery bastards who know when and where to pop out of," he hisses. "With their track record, it is to my belief that the Agartheans still live to this very day and are plotting something nefarious."

 

Something nefarious , Jeralt mostly focuses on. Could they...could they be the group that had instigated the Tragedy of Duscur?  He internally wonders.

 

"That's...quite a backstory you have there," Jeralt lamely comments for lack of a better statement.

 

Kosa dryly looks at him. "It is the truth . It matters not to me whether or not you choose to believe it, so long as our deal is still on."

 

"Well," Jeralt starts.

 

Well , he thinks, unable to say anything further.

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As dubious as Kosa's story had been, Jeralt couldn't quite outright deny it.

 

It had made sense, filled out some holes that Jeralt had always wondered about when he'd been younger and less prejudiced in favor of the Church.

 

The King of Nemesis's origin story, the reason as to why none of the original Ten Elites had survived the final battle save for their children, and the weird sentiency of the Heroic Relics that Jeralt himself had seen twitch on ocassion whenever he'd neared one.

 

He remembers that one time Lambert had showed him Areadbhar, the Blaiddyd line's infamous Heroic Relic that had been known to skewer anything from paper to actual steel.

 

It had been a beautiful weapon, Jeralt could attest to that, but there had been something grotesquely unnatural about it that made the blood coursing through his veins boil as if lava had been injected into his bloodstream.

 

And then, when Lambert had allowed him to touch the sacred lance, Jeralt had just been few inches away from grazing his fingertips across the weapon before the whole thing had rattled as if some vengeful spirit had possessed it.

 

"It's okay," Lambert had laughed back then, petting Areadbhar as if it was some rowdy pet. "Areadbhar gets like this sometimes when it's excited, but this usually happens only on the battlefield..." He'd trailed off.

 

Jeralt hadn't known how to respond to that, because weapons shouldn't even be fucking moving in the first place! Yet, he'd played it cool and nodded as if it'd been the most ordinary thing in the entire world.

 

But now— now , to know that Areadbhar had once been alive, had once been a body of flesh and bone and blood, had once been like Kosa and Indie—

 

Jeralt shudders.

 

He couldn't possibly imagine Kosa or Indie being turned into faceless weapons that only knew how to express their emotions through rattling.

 

He couldn't possibly imagine anybody he knew being turned into a faceless weapon.

 

Suffice to say, by the end of the day, the majority of his company had been surprised at the addition of Kosa and Indie in their ranks. Some of his men had shot him incredulous looks, the no fucking way look in their eyes practically burning a hole right through his armor.

 

The situation had only been salvaged when Indie had stepped forward and bowed in an explicitly nervous yet exaggerated mannger. "Please take care of my brother and I!" He'd exclaimed, looking so very in need of support and guidance, and perfectly embodying the helpless persona he'd embraced.

 

Those of sour opinions towards Kosa had lightened up at the very heartwarming gesture, proving once more that thought Jeralt's company was filled to the brim with trained killers, his men were killers with hearts , thank you very much.

 

Still, thinks Jeralt as he blatantly ignores Jeritza's glowering and Miklan's attempts at soothing the younger man. Am I even making the right decisions these days?

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"Somebody's going to die," Jeralt announces with certainty, even as he holds onto the betting buckets. The one of his left has Jeritza x Miklan painted on it in red paint whilst the one on his right has a crudely written Kosa x Indie.

 

"Nobody's going to die," assures Byleth, even as she herself holds up a large placard with the number 1 splattered onto it in a bloody red smear. "And besides, a good battle always clears up the bad air between anybody. Look at Jeritza and Miklan, they're getting along great now!" She beams proudly.

 

"No thanks to your part," Jeralt huffs. "Somebody's going to die, By, and it's going to be one of your pets," he deadpans.

 

Byleth sniffs. "Have some more faith in Jertz and Miks, dad. They're the Ashen Demon's Grim and Beast for a reason, yeah?" She laughs breathily, tucking the small braid in her hair behind her ear.

 

Jeralt eyes the plum and blue ribbon in the braid for a moment, before he forcefully rolls his eyes. "I do  have faith in them, which is why I very well know their limitations. Especially against two men who can transform into dragons , By," he bluntly replies, fixing her with a dead-eyed stare.

 

Byleth merely smiles, her eyes shaped like crescent moons, and Jeralt knows that she's definitely shit-smiling at him.

 

"Let's go, Miklaaaaaaaaaaan!" The Miklan Band roars in unison, each one wearing their signature bandana and a specific few even waving large—

 

Where the fuck did they get that, thinks Jeralt as he eyes the bright red flags being waved around.  Where the fuck did they even hide that?! They're in the middle of a forest, for fuck's sake! And it's not like they could have commissioned that from the nearest tailor's in a day's time.

 

Miklan, of course, just flushed brightly. "Stop that!" He hisses, his scar stretching over his face horrendously to enhance his features in an incredibly intimidating way.

 

The Miklan Band, however, only cheers even harder .

 

" You've got this, Mikky!" One of them cheers, dabbing the corners of his eyes with a yellow handkerchief.

 

"We're rooting for you!"

 

"Fuck 'em up! Fuck 'em up!"

 

"Quite the fanclub you've got there," quips Jeritza with a smirk.

 

"Don't you start," huffs Miklan as he covers his red cheeks with a hand.

 

"Why not," begins Jeritza, his smirk curling even larger across his lips. He leans in closer to Miklan to tap his chest armor thrice. " Mikky? "

 

Miklan goes impossibly redder, spluttering out a few incorrigible protests.

 

Jeralt just watches the proceedings with a perplexed expression.

 

Is this, he idly wonders. Is this how kids flirt these days?

 

He honestly doesn't even want to know anymore.

 

He looks towards the other pair standing across the field.

 

Indie, as it has commonly become over the course of a week of assimilating him and his brother into the company, wears a confused expression on his face before enlightenment seeps through.

 

Indie leans in conspiratorially towards Kosa.

 

"Brother, brother," he calls, not even trying to keep his voice down. "I believe that this is what you call, um shipping, yes?"

 

Kosa blinks languidly at his brother. "Shipping? Whatever are you talking about? There is nothing being delivered to and fro here," he sniffs.

 

"But..." Indie trails off. "Is shipping not the act of pairing two individuals with great compatibility?" He tilts his head. "One of Jeralt's men, um, Cara, explained the concept to me and..." He stops, eyes wide, when he realizes that everybody in the field is looking at him. He squeaks out a high-pitched note then proceeds to hide behind Kosa.

 

Jeralt wonders what the hell this shipping is, but he believes it to be an embarassing term considering how red Jeritza's ears have turned to match Miklan's cheeks.

 

"Okay, enough prattling!" Declares Byleth before any pre-duel casualty could occur. "I believe that our fighters are ready?"

 

Jeritza grins widely after an elegant display of his lance-twirling skills. "Prepare to be slaughtered," he sneers, positioning himself for battle.

 

Kosa rises up to the challenge, excalibur flaring to life around his fingers. "I believe those are my words, child," he jeers back .

 

"Please don't try to slaughter us!" Exclaims Indie as he skips back a few feet. "If you do, then we might actually have to kill you!" He makes clear whilst he keeps a loose and almost relaxed grip on his bow.

 

Miklan sighs a long, defeated sigh. "Nobody's going to kill anyone," he reassures even as he widens his stance and tightens his grip on his silver axe. "But someone's definitely going to be eating dirt today, and it's not going to be us," he confidently declares, eyes sharp and brimming with competitive intent.

 

There's a tense silence that follows after those words, which is only made more prominent by the cold breeze that drifts by.

 

Byleth raises her hand, holds it up for a few seconds, then sharply brings it down. "Begin!"

 

Jeritza is the first to move; no better than a blur of white as he lunges for Kosa, the tip of his lance aimed straightfirst for Kosa's unprotected chest. Just as the blade is a few inches away from grazing a hole into Kosa's tunic, Jeritza suddenly pulls back the attack and expertly swerves out of the way of an incoming arrow.

 

"Get back!" Miklan roars, cleaving apart a sudden burst of bolganone that had threatened to leave a nasty burn on Jeritza's face. The flames harmlessly lick the edges of his gloves, the sensation akin to that of tickling grass, and disappear as a wisp in the wind.

 

Jeralt makes a noncommital sound of surprise at seeing the pure white arrow, which had embedded itself into the ground after having missed its mark, disappear in a shower of sparks. He turns his gaze to Indie who, amazingly enough, summons another arrow of the same kind out of nowhere and notches it to his bow in order immediately launch it.

 

He's fast, Jeralt takes note off. For all his appearances, he's really is a good archer.

 

"Not so fast!" Kosa declares as he, with a flick of his wrists, sends spirals of destructive wind towards Jeritza and Miklan.

 

Jeritza and Miklan manage to avoid getting cut by the cutting gales, yet the same can't be said for their clothing that bear a few clean rips here and there.

 

"Miklan!" Jeritza calls out, irritation curling his mouth into a snarl as he ducks under another set of dangerous wind magic.

 

"I got you!" Miklan hollers back before he, strangely enough, crouches down low onto the ground.

 

Jertiza grins as he easily crosses the distance between them and, for whatever reason, leaps onto Miklan's back in order to use it as a platform to propel himself upwards.

 

Whilst Miklan rolls out of the way of an incoming arrow of light, Jeritza manages a few spins mid-air before he rights himself and outstretches his hand.

 

"Wha—" Is all that Jeralt can manage once he catches sight of the white light encasing Jeritza's hand.

 

"SILENCE!" Jeritza roars as tendrils of white light whip out of his palm in order to ensnare a cursing Kosa who'd been a beat too slow to swerve out of the way.

 

When did Jeritza learn white magic? Jeralt internally wonders, his eyes wide. Better yet, when had he ever shown any interest in it?!

 

Kosa manages to dodge Jeritza's next attempt at skewering him. He leaps back a few feet, gaining enough time to draw his sword and parry Jeritza's sudden lunge.

 

"I'm surprised," Kosa comments blandly, even as he holds his own against Jeritza's merciless strikes. "That you knew any sort of magic."

 

Jeritza grins savagely. "I didn't," is his reply, ducking beneath Kosa's swift jab, and going in for another thrust that his victim unfortunately blocks. "I learned this one especially to shut down your magic," he declares, eyes sharp and his entire frame radiating killing intent.

 

Kosa's brows rise, but his lips do quirk up into a small smile before it vanishes just as quickly as it had appeared.

 

"Saggitae!" Indie suddenly shouts, as he shoots out a torrent of white arrows towards Miklan in order to slow down the other's impending approach.

 

Miklan manages to block most of it with his own axe, though a few graze the unarmored parts on his arms. "Tch." He clicks his tongue, but pays no heed to his bleeding scratches as he swings his weapon at Indie with vicious intent.

 

"Woah!" Indie exclaims, ducking out of the axe's past and taking advantage of his position by delivering a powerful kick to Miklan's knees to send the younger man down. "Gotchu!" He crows, knocking Miklan's axe out of his hand with a deliberate one-two jab to the nerves of his wrist and putting his bow over the younger man's neck in a choke-hold.

 

"Guh!" Miklan utters, struggling for air.

 

"Miklan!" Jeritza snarls, eyes focused on his captive partner.

 

"Your enemy is me!" Kosa snarls back, jabbing straight for Jeritza's wrist to knock the lance out of the younger man's hold. "Now die ! " He roars, aiming his sword straight for Jeritza's chest.

 

Jeritza manages to lean back just in time, the blade's sharp tip scratching high-pitchedly across his chest armor. "You die!" He counters, surging in despite his weaponless state. He sharply chops down on Kosa's wrist, immediately disarming Kosa of his sword, before he aims his fist for Kosa's face.

 

Although he'd been deprived of his sword, Kosa has enough sense to divert the path of Jeritza's punch by deflecting it with his hand.

 

With their weapons out of hand's reach, the two eventually resort to using their martial prowess in settling the score.

 

"Brother!" Indie worriedly calls out, his attention momentarily switching to his brother.

 

A momentary lapse is all Miklan needs to overpower the other. With a determined growl, Miklan manages to throw the bow choking him and turn the tables on Indie by tackling him to the ground.

 

Jeralt watches the battle, which had started out so intensely, eventually divulge into a nasty brawl that's really no better than a playground fight.

 

"At least nobody's dying," Byleth muses.

 

Jeralt shoots her a bland look and wonders just when had his life become so—so weird.

Chapter Text

It starts, irritably enough, when Kosa approaches him one afternoon and nonchalantly mentions that there had been an attempt on the Archbishop's life.

 

Jeralt is very, very careful to mask the faint trembling of his fingers as he continues sharpening his beloved lance. "Is that so?" Is his uninterested response. "Is she dead then?"

 

Rhea's bright green eyes flash in his mind; only, instead of the vibrant ones that he's grown accustomed to, they're replaced by a pair of unseeing and glassy ones that stare accusingly up at him.

 

(Where were you? Why did you leave me all alone? Why did you lie to me?)

 

J eralt's insides twist at the very image, but he miraculously manages to keep his features unaffected.

 

Kosa tilts his head, long green hair tumbling over one shoulder and framing his otherwordly features.

 

"She'll live to see another day. The Knights of... Seiros," he pauses, his mouth curling upward as if he'd found something particularly amusing. "Had been able to protect her before the blade could have grazed her skin, or so the rumors have told," he finally reveals, the tips of his ears twitching.

 

Jeralt nods sharply in response, choosing to stay silent lest he accidentally blurts something out.

 

Kosa, for some odd reason, sits before him. "Are you not at least worried for her?" He questions.

 

Jeralt doesn't look him in in the eye as he says, through his teeth and damned faulty tongue, "No."

 

Kosa hums, sounding unconvinced. "Really? Do you not at most feel an ounce of worry for the Archbishop, whom you have protected for quite some time?" There's an implication in his tone that Jeralt does not appreciate one bit.

 

Jeralt lifts his gaze. He does so not to look Kosa in the eye—he doesn't have the courage to do so, despite how many men he'd looked in the eye as he'd driven his lance into their once beating hearts—instead, he places his gaze on the form of his daughter who is merrily conversing with Jeritza and Miklan amidst the Miklan Band. The way she moves her hands in animated chatter makes warmth bloom in his chest, reminds him that despite all the atrocities he's committed in this foul, foul world, at least he's done one thing right.

 

"...There's a damn good reason why I left in the first place, Kosa," Jeralt murmurs, before he returns his attention back to his weapon and continues to sharpen it.

 

He pointedly ignores whatever expression Kosa is making.

 

He can't quite find it in himself anymore to care when a fuckload had been oh so graciously deposited onto his shoulders.

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Thing is—Jeralt doesn't quite know how he feels towards Rhea anymore.

 

He'd been angry at her. Betrayed, terrified, disgusted, you fucking name it. And he still is, but no longer to such a degree that he'd have risked planting a dagger into her chest if she'd so much as shown her face to him and his daughter after he'd gone through all the trouble of faking Byleth's death and burning his entire fucking home.

 

(And how he'd watched the flames consume the hearth that he and his wife had so painstakingly built with the sole purpose of raising Byleth in.

 

A part of Jeralt had maybe died back then, when he'd allowed everything— his wife's clothes, the books of every pressed flower she'd gifted to him, the large bed they'd commissioned in hopes of sleeping their with their yet to be born daughter, everything —to be ravaged and reduced to ashes.)

 

Point is, the passage of time has healed the very surface of his wounds, has given him the opportunity to reflect and reflect and reflect because why?

 

Why would you do this, Rhea?

 

What did we ever do wrong?

 

Because, for all that Jeralt remembers that haunted look in Rhea's eyes whenever she'd turned her (filthy, disgusting, greedy) gaze onto his daughter, Jeralt can still recall the time when she'd been the farthest thing from enemy.

 

Once, he'd have been proud to call her his savior. His friend. His family.

 

He'd been by her side for over a century, and he'd seen sides to her that he's sure no other being on this earth could ever claim to see.

 

There had been mornings when he'd caught her at her bitchiest—murmurs of wanting to sleep in for five more minutes before he and his wife had to personally drag her out of bed, little noises of displeasure whenever he'd tugged too strongly on her hair as he'd brushed it, and sighs over how great the amount of paperwork on her desk must be before she placed on the serene mask of the Archbishop.

 

Afternoons when she'd been at her happiest—spending serene times with his wife over cups of tea and platefuls of sweets in the rose garden, laughing over even the cringiest of a starstrucked Alois's jokes, and teasingly taunting him in the arena whenever she managed to smack him down onto the ground.

 

Nights when she'd been at her most vulnerable—those times on the bridge with the moon cascading over them, tears a silent stream down her face as she wondered what if? What if she had been quick enough to help them? Would they still be alive now?

 

Jeralt had seen her at her most humane ; so, to depict her as a monster eagerly waiting to dig its claws into daughter's heart-beating-less chest—he just doesn't know what to feel anymore.

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It is, in this flummoxed state, that Jeralt has the entire company trekking across Faerghus in five day's time in pursuit of mere rumors that had detailed the whereabouts of one of the people who'd hired Rhea's most recent assailants.

 

He keeps his men oblivious to his ordeal, though, spouting out some bullshit that he'd felt like the Leicester Alliance would be more willing to burrow out their gold, since the Riegan-Gloucester tension was gradually dwindling down.

 

However, judging by the way his brood and a couple of his men shoot him worried looks, Jeralt hazards that they're well aware that he's clearly agitated about something.

 

It is somewhere at the very border of Eastern Faerghus, deep in Charon territory edging into Daphnel territory, that Jeralt finally catches word that one he'd been chasing after was currently in town.

 

"I'm just going to handle some business in town," Jeralt announces that night once everyone has eaten and is just about to head to their respective bedrolls. His announcement freezes everyone in their tracks. " Alone ," he stresses, latching his lance onto his back just in case he decided to get violent.

 

"Dad," Byleth starts, brows furrowed and lips thinned.

 

"I'll be fine, By." For good measure, he pats her thrice on the head and smiles down at her.

 

His daughter still doesn't look convinced.

 

"Shouldn't you at least have one of us accompany you?" Suggests Miklan as he and Jeritza come to tower on either sides of Byleth.

 

Jeralt is infinitely reminded of puppies as his brood stare up at him. Puppies with platinum, dark blue, and red-orange hides. He idly imagines his brood as puppy versions of themselves and finds the image to be quite... cute.

 

"Nah," waves off Jeralt. "I'm just gonna pick up something from an old acquaintance. I'll be back before you know it." He winks, rubbing his index finger and thumb to relay his meaning.

 

Stubbornly enough, none of them looks convinced.

 

Jeralt smiles fondly at the, bopping each one on the forehead because really . How cute . "If I catch any of you following after me, I'll be tripling your training. For all of you," he cheerfully declares.

 

He delights in how his men pale at the thought of their already strict regime becoming worse.

 

"I'll be off then!" He bids, turning on his heel and heading straight for dear old Mercury waiting next to Mercy who's dozing on quilt blankets that Jeritza had commissioned for her.

 

Jeralt passes by Kosa, pointedly ignoring the narrow-eyed look that the man shoots at him.

 

"Be careful!" Indie shouts, waving at Jeralt who waves back at him before he rides away into the forest.

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Jeralt is ethereally calm when he enters the tavern, shoulders loose against his frame and wearing a smiling mask that means that he’s here to have nothing else but a good time amidst the already tipsy folk.

 

He spots his target occupying a booth at one of the dark corners of the tavern, but he first and foremost makes his way towards the bar to order a pair of beers that hardly dents his ever fattening pouch.

 

He shoots the barmaid a smile as he takes the drinks and strides over to where his prey is currently at.

 

“Mind sharing a table with me?” Jeralt amiably asks, already setting his drinks atop the table where a couple of empty mugs are haphazardly strewn about.

 

The man—Christophe Gaspard, his mind instinctively supplements him with. Former heir to the Lord of the Gaspard region—raises his face from where it had initially been face planted into the tabletop, a part of his greasy blonde hair falling over eyes that are a startling shade of blue-green. “Depends,” is the young man’s scratchy answer. “Are you here to kill me?”

 

Jeralt just smiles harmlessly. “Just a fellow stranger looking to get sloshed,” he lies through his teeth as he takes a seat, pushing one of his beer mugs in the other man’s direction. “For you, who'd been gracious enough to share a table with me,” he proffers, twisting a bit of sarcasm in there to keep the conversation light.

 

Christophe snorts before he briefly glances at the drink, not moving a single muscle to take it.

 

“It’s not poisoned, if that’s on your mind,” Jeralt supplements, taking a drawn out sip from his own drink. The beer sizzles comfortingly in his gut, a familiar heat that he welcomes all the same because it had definitely been a while since he’d last gotten buzzed.

 

Christophe’s gaze snaps up to meet his, which Jeralt meets unflinchingly. “Can never be too safe,” the man murmurs lowly.

 

Inwardly rolling his eyes, Jeralt switches the proffered mug with his own. “And yet you let yourself be this vulnerable,” he comments.

 

The other sits up straighter as he takes Jeralt’s drink. “I’d rather die from a slit neck than from poison,” is all he says before he takes a deep swig. “It’s best to be done with it than to wait it out,” he elaborates, pushing his long bangs out of his eyes.

 

There are poisons that can take you out in your sleep without you even noticing, is what Jeralt selfishly keeps to himself as he hums in agreement.

 

So,” Christophe starts as he leans back against his seat, making it more prominent how truly skinny he is for a man looking to be around Miklan’s age. “What do you want? I find it hard to believe that you decided to sit here of all places for no apparent reason when you could have just sat at the bar,” he snorts, gazing deeply into his drink before his eyes minutely widen. “Unless you’re looking for a shag, which, I’m flattered, really, but you’re not exactly to my palate,” he brings down gently enough.

 

Jeralt doesn’t even bother trying to hide the scrunch of his nose. “You’re not to mine either, kiddo,” he shoots back. He can admit well enough that this brat is attractive, so long as he bothered shaving and taking a bath within the week, but Jeralt wasn’t looking to hook up with someone just a few years older than his daughter.

 

And, well, Jeralt liked his male partners big, okay? He wanted to be the little spoon sometimes too, okay?!

 

Jeralt knows exactly one man who fits his tastes, but he doubts, well, unless—

 

Keep it together, you depraved fucker, he scolds himself, but he can’t help but admit to himself that it has been a while since he’d gotten, well, handsy with someone else in bed. Or in the back of a bar. Or, heck, even against a tree for fuck’s sake.

 

If his wife’s soul were to be looking down on him now, he’s sure that she’s probably smoking a pipe and lamenting how small his game must be.

 

Well sorry if I didn’t want our daughter catching me either balls deep in someone or somebody balls deep in me, dear, he dryly thinks.

 

“Well,” Christophe starts, tilting his head to the side and narrowing his eyes. "What is it then?"

 

Jeralt merely blinks blandly at Christophe's terrible attempt at intimidation. "Hmmm, just wanted to confirm something." He shrugs, aimlessly swirling his drink even as he shoots the other man a grin full of teeth. "I've been hearing word 'bout you lately, Gaspard. Particularly bad ones. Such as having large roles in the Tragedy of Duscur and in the most recent attempt on the Archbishop's life," he says slowly, enunciating the keywords.

 

Christophe flinches back, but he recovers soon enough and bares his own teeth in response. "And so?" He huffs.

 

Jeralt leans forward, inwardly grimacing when his arm lands on an inconvenient puddle of beer. "Is it true?" He asks lowly.

 

Christophe blinks slowly, appearing to process Jeralt's words, before he throws his head back and bellows out a string of loud guffaws.

 

Jeralt waits it out, his fingers itching for his lance but he slams down the urge to gut the young man.

 

Once his laughter eventually dies down, Christophe wipes away the tears staining the corners of his eyes. "Who knows?" Is what he says as he grins, leaning forward until his face is just a few inches away from Jeralt's. "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't," he muses.

 

Jeralt doesn't immediately reply, his mind blanking out for a few seconds— "Five more minutes, Jeraaaalt", "Be kinder to Alois, Jeralt""Could they have been saved...?"

 

( "We're the only ones she has," his wife had murmured to him one night as they'd laid together in bed with their limbs entangled underneath the soft sheets. "She has nobody else to look after her. Only us, Jeralt. Only us."

 

And Jeralt, who'd grown up alone and needy and always hungry, only held her tighter in his arms. )

 

A film of red falls over his gaze and, with his emotions overtaking the rational part of his brain, his hand shoots out to get a firm grip of Christophe's blond locks in order to forcefully slam the young man's face into the table.

 

"I asked a simple question," Jeralt says, managing to keep his voice calm even as his nasty grip on Christophe's hair says a different story. "Is it so much to expect a simple answer in return?"

 

Jeralt swiftly checks to see if his little outburst had garnered any unwanted attention; when the coast appears to be clear, he looks back at Christophe and yanks the man's head up via his hair.

 

"Well?" He prompts with narrowed eyes, gauging the large bruise blooming underneath the other man's right eye. I missed, Jeralt laments since he'd been aiming for the guy's nose.

 

"The fuck is your problem?!" Christophe hisses, flailing in an attempt to pull away. "Goddess, can't you take a joke?!"

 

Jeralt levels an unimpressed stare at the young man and gives him a good shaking to get his point across.

 

Christophe swears quite colorfully at the feeling of his hair being nearly yanked out of its roots. "No, I didn't, you oversized oaf! Only a total lunatic would try to kill the King and then the Archbishop, and, last I checked, my head is still screwed on right!" He snarls, looking more like a dirty stray pup than the red wolf he must have been aiming for. "My friend and I were framed, okay?! How many times do I have to say that we're innocent to get the truth into everyone's thick skulls?!"

 

Jeralt hums, hardly taking the other man's words to heart. He's been a part of the mercenary business for more than a decade and the captain of the Knights of Seiros for even longer, for fuck's sake; he's learnt not to take any piece of information at face value.

 

"Oh really? Who would frame you, then?" Jeralt queries, propping his other elbow onto the table to comfortably rest his chin atop his open palm. He gazes down at Christophe, an intimidation tactic he'd learned from having watched Rhea whenever she'd get into one of her rare angry 'fits' with the other bishops.

 

It's proven to be useful when Christophe flinches, his gaze flickering left and right for a possible way out of the shithole he'd fallen into.

 

Just when Jeralt is about to shake Christophe out of his panic, the young man in question finally looks back up at Jeralt.

 

"Who...Who are you?" Christophe asks in a slightly shaky voice.

 

Jeralt's lips curl up at that. "I'm surprised you hadn't recognized me at first sight, considering what I've done for your Kingdom as of late," he mentions, eyes curving into tiny crescents. "But, since I'm feeling generous tonight, does the Blade Breaker ring any bells?"

 

The response he garners from the other man is incredibly entertaining.

 

Christophe's eyes widen in tandem with his gaping mouth. He stays like that for a few long moments before his mouth slams shut and he's looking up at Jeralt in a much darker light.

 

"Fuck," Christophe blurts out, the seashell-like nails of his fingers digging deeply into the table as he contemplates whether to pull back or stay still. "Did Lady Rhea send you to finish the job?" He asks, voice a higher pitch than before.

 

Jeralt just snorts at that. "I'd cut my ties with the church a long time ago, brat."

 

Christophe stills, his eyes growing impossibly wider. "What? Why?!"

 

Jeralt narrows his eyes, smile disappearing in an instant when he feels his privacy being breached. "I asked you a question first, didn't I?"

 

Christophe shrinks into himself. "Sorry. I just, I can't—" his stammers eventually dissolve once he earns another unamused shake from Jeralt. "Blade Breaker, please, sir, believe me when I say that my friend and I had absolutely nothing with the most recent assassination attempt on His Majesty or Her Excellency! I swear on my honor that we truly were framed!" He beseeches.

 

"I get that part," Jeralt cuts in before the young man could break down into a jumbled mess of begging and ranting. "But who framed you and why?" He repeats his question.

 

"I...I can't say for sure as to who had falsely incriminated us, but I believe that it all started when Cassandra of House Charon and I decided to investigate as to who was truly behind the Tragedy of Duscur," Christophe starts, voice eventually evening out. "We couldn't possibly turn to our parents for help, since that would affect their positions in the ongoing political turmoil after the attempted assassination on the Royal Family, so Cassandra and I decided to take matters into our own hands and, when we'd finally found some leads that House Kleimann had some hand in the attack, well, here we are," he bitterly ends, lips twisting into a dark scowl.

 

House Kleimann ... If his memory serves him right, Jeralt can vaguely recall Lambert complaining about that one particular house during one of their many tea times.

 

"Weren't they the most vocal about subjugating Duscur?" Jeralt asks just to make sure. This is one of the reasons why he'd never been particularly fond of politics. There were just too many names to remember.

 

"They still are," Christophe confirms. "Which is why we believed that they had something to do with the Tragedy of Duscur. However, before we could even build a case against them, we were suddenly held accountable for crimes which! Again! We. Did. Not. Do!" He emphasizes each word with a firm bob of his head. "We were only so fortunate that his Majesty was benevolent enough to simply strip us of our noble titles and banish us from the Main Kingdom," he supplements.

 

"...Yes," Jeralt agrees, his mind taking note of the puzzle pieces laid out before him and which ones fit . "How very benevolent," he murmurs, loosening his grasp on the young man's hair.

 

How very benevolent indeed , because, 17 out of 18 cases, those who were held responsible for even daring to assassinate the Archbishop were to be immediately executed so as to discourage the general populace for trying again.

 

Jeralt is only closely familiar with these guidelines because, out of 17 of those cases, he'd been the executioner to at most 12 of them.

 

And yet, despite that plus their alleged roles in the Tragedy of Duscur that equated to treason against their ruler, to simply be stripped off of their title and be banished—Lambert must have certainly been aware. He must be, for why else would he have spared those two if they were not innocent?

 

But, this only raises the question—why tolerate the presence of the true perpetrators in the royal court? Why incite Rhea's displeasure by mishandling the alleged perpetrators of her most recent assassination attempt? What could Lambert possibly glean from that?

 

Ugh, Jeralt gives up. I really fucking hate politics.

 

When he finally pulls his hand back, Jeralt supposes that the uneasy expression he gets from Christophe is entirely well-deserved.

 

"His Majesty is certainly kind, huh," Jeralt chortles.

 

Christophe relucantly leans back into his chair, one of his hands massaging his most likely aching scalp. "That's...putting it lightly," he concedes. "But...yes. His Majesty is truly a kind ruler. His love for the people is real," Christophe commends, lips lifting up into a small smile as if he were reminiscing about a past memory that he was particularly fond of. "Which is why I hope that his Majesty will be able to uncover the true conspirators to the Tragedy of Duscur and the Archbishop's attempted assassination. People like those...we can't have them freely roam around Fodlan," he grimaces.

 

"Mhhm," Jeralt hums. "And your fellow exile is where?"

 

Christophe's nose twitches at the reminder of his position within the Kingdom. "Cassandra and I parted ways about two weeks ago. From what I understood, she was planning on appealing to Her Excellency of her innocence and enlisting herself into the Knights of Seiros," he answers.

 

Jeralt scrunches his nose at that, but doesn't speak a word of how unnecessarily dangerous it would be to find work in the service of who you'd been accused of assassinating.

 

It must show on his face, because Christophe grimaces as well. "Cassandra has always admired Lady Rhea and believed in Her Excellency's kindness. To dissuade of her such would be like...taunting an already rampaging demonic beast."

 

As much as he wants to reassure Christophe that his friend will be alright in Rhea's hands, Jeralt can't because even he isn't sure how Rhea would react to such an... odd guest.

 

Heck, he isn't even sure what kind of person Rhea is like these days.

 

"How 'bout you?" Jeralt decides to ask instead, because there's no use in dwelling over things that have long gone out of his reach. "Do you have some place to go to?"

 

Christophe thins his lips before he shakes his head. "I've just been living off of the last coin my fa—Lord Gaspard had given to me. I might head off to Empire territory, though, to look for work..." He trails off, his frown deepening with each word. "Why? You hiring?" He flippantly questions, a half-hearted smirk painting his lips.

 

Jeralt tilts his head, considering the young man before him. He knows that, underneath Christophe's current haggardness, therein laid a man that both the Kingdom Knights and even Lambert himself had applauded for his tactical prowess and skill with the bow.

 

The kid's attitude and abysmal skill at intimidation were just two factors that could be easily broken in, if the need for it arose.

 

"Sure," Jeralt acquisces easily enough as he leans back against his seat. Bringing his nearly forgotten mug of beer to his lips, he takes a hearty drink before he continues on, "You seem like a good addition to my mercenary company."

 

Jeralt can't help but laugh at seeing Christophe's gobsmacked expression.

Chapter Text

Seems like the brat was right in being so wary , realizes Jeralt as, with a brutal twist of his lance, he manages to noisily yank it out of one of Christophe's assailants.

 

He eyes the bits of brain and skull fragments that drip down from the blade of his lance and into a puddle of blood, internally bemoaning over how he'd just cleaned that yesterday.

 

"You can come out now," Jeralt urges, flicking the blood off of his treasured weapon.

 

Christophe drops down from the foliage overhead, a few stray leaves managing to stick themselves in between the tresses of his pale hair.

 

Amidst the glow of the moonlight, the bruise on the young man's face stands out starkly against his light complexion.

 

"Sorry for the trouble," Christophe apologizes, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck, as he surreptitiously eyes the corpses of his would be assassins with a complicated expression on his features.

 

Jeralt merely pats Christophe on the head, internally grimacing at how oily it is, and tells him, "Don't worry 'bout it. You're part of the company now, so anybody out for any of my men's lives should already be prepared to lay down their own lives as well."

 

Christophe purses his lips, which eventually smooths out into a small polite smile. "Thank you," he murmurs, ducking his head.

 

Jeralt huffs. "There's no need for thanks," he rebukes, delivering a powerful slap to the young man's back that sends him stumbling forward with a little yelp. "Now 'cmon. We've got to head back to camp," he adjures, making his way over to Mercury who continues to wait patiently and fearlessly by the nearest grove.

 

Once he reaches her, Jeralt gently caresses her back, forlornly realizing how old she's gotten, and hopes that she'll still have a few years left in her because she's been the best stead he's ever had.

 

Mercury neighs, nuzzling into his hand.

 

Resolving to feed her some winter apples once they get back to camp, Jeralt takes her reins and, together with Christophe, leads the way back to camp.

 

About a half-kilometer away from camp, Jeralt catches sight of one of his men patrolling the parameter. Recognizing the ridiculous hairstyle, Jeralt raises a hand to his mouth and calls out, "Oi! Chrit!"

 

Almost immediately, the mercenary in question snaps his attention to his captain's call. Chrit's entire expression brightens up at the sight of Jeralt. "Captain! You're ba—" Whatever Christophe was about to say dies off into a horrified screech that manages to send a few birds flying rapidly out of their cozy nests in the treetops.

 

Jeralt looks back, alarmed, sees only a bemused Christophe, and is decidedly unamused.

 

"Why are you yelling?" Jeralt asks, steadily approaching Chrit who only continues to scream.

 

Chrit slams his mouth shut at the glare he receives from his boss, his eyes wide and terrified and set on—

 

Jeralt pauses, looks down at himself, and notices, oh. That's quite an amount of assassin blood sprayed onto his clothes. He should really bathe in the stream nearby before he manages to catch some kind of bloodborn disease.

 

It seems Chrit's screeching has warranted the attention of the rest of Jeralt's men, who all stumble angrily to where they are, the majority of them wielding their weapons out and wearing the most disgruntled of expressions at being so terribly awoken.

 

It's honestly a ridiculous sight, but only because all of them are dressed in their smallclothes and thin sleeping attires

 

"Oi, Chrit! The fuck's your—"

 

As one, Jeralt's men all take notice of him, appear to process the sight of him bloodied from neck to toe, and proceed to freak out.

.

..

...

..

.

"It's not mine," Jeralt insists for what is probably the nth time.

 

Byleth just shushes him, carding her fingers through his hair and effectively disrupting his loose braid.

 

Like a touch-starved dog, Jeralt angles his head so that he's reluctantly leaning into her warm fingers because of how unexpectedly soothing it is.

 

"It's still best to check if any curses had been placed on you," she tuts him.

 

Jeralt only huffs, pulling away from his daughter to pull on the clean shirt that Miklan had kindly passed to him. He looks up at the young man in question, not buying the innocent expression on the man's face for even  one second.

 

With narrowed eyes, he asks, "Where are they?"

 

Miklan has the fucking gall to blink innocently at him. "Who?"

 

Jeralt scoffs, standing up from the seat his daughter had forced him on before his mages ambushed him with the intent to diagnose and treat.

 

"You know very well who."

 

Miklan shoots a reluctant look at Byleth, who inclines her head at him in acknowledgement.

 

Jeralt watches as Miklan sighs, running a hand through his already unruly bedhair.

 

"Do you even know who you brought home?" Miklan questions, voice strained. "That's Christophe Gaspard, former heir to the Gaspard House. And I say former because he's been exiled for crimes of treason against the Kingdom crown and for attempting to assassinate the Archbishop."

 

Jeralt snorts. "And he wasn't executed? Even after all he'd done?" Jeralt crosses his arms over his chest, assessing both of his company members with a critical eye. "Don't you think the whole thing seems a tad bit suspicious? I understand fairly well how the—" Jeralt halts, snapping his head towards Byleth as he realizes something incredibly crucial.

 

Byleth merely tilts her head, blinking languidly at him in a manner akin to that of a stray cat.

 

"Anyways, he'd have been executed for his crimes irregardless of his nobility," Jeralt concludes at, remembering that neither Miklan nor any other recruit after him knew of the subtle rule of keeping Byleth as clueless as possible of the Church. "I believe that this has something to do with the Tragedy of Duscur. He explained that he and his friend did some digging on the Kleimann House then got into some trouble before they could come up with a substantial case," he elaborates.

 

Miklan purses his lips. "And how do we know that he's telling the truth?" He brings up.

 

Before Jeralt could so much as reply that they don't , Byleth speaks up.

 

"I believe that he's telling the truth," she proclaims, eyes a steely blue flint against her face.

 

Jeralt and Miklan look at her in surprise.

 

Byleth merely frowns. "The Tragedy of Duscur never really made any sense in the first place. Our company knows that the people of Duscur had no hand in the plot, that apparently 'Kingdom' soldiers are raiding villages in Duscur, and that the empire is connected to the people who are trying to create a war between Faerghus and Duscur," she lists down. "So how would an heir of a low-ranking region of the Kingdom be able to gain enough resources to organize the Tragedy? He could be a scapegoat, yes, but it doesn't make any sense as to why he'd try to assassinate the current Royal Family when it had been King Lambert who'd promoted his father to the noble rank of Lord and gifted them their territory in the first place," she details, finishing with a snort.

 

B yleth turns to to Miklan. "You were acquainted with him back during your noble days, weren't you? You should know what he's like."

 

Miklan's features twist as if he'd relieved a particularly displeasing memory. "Yeah. But people change," he protests, pointing at himself for emphasis.

 

"But that doesn't mean he did for the worse." Byleth shoots him a pointed look.

 

Miklan wrinkles his nose in response.

 

Sensing turmoil, Jeralt is quick to diffuse the situation. "Well, no matter what kind of person he is, Christophe's a part of the company now and that's that." Jeralt sends a pointed look at both members of his brood. "I expect you to not cause any sort of trouble with him, are we clear?"

 

He waits for them to mutter out their agreements before he decidedly heads out of the tent in search of his wayward new recruit.

 

Immediately, Jeralt's gaze lands on Jertiza towering menancingly over a miffed Christophe who's currently being inspected by Nadia, one of company's white mages.

 

Swallowing an exasperated sigh, Jeralt calls out, "Jertiza! Lay off the poor guy!"

 

Jeritza angles his glare towards him, the corners of it softening somewhat. "Sir," he acknowledges with a nod; however, there's no indication of him backing off.

 

"Go round up the others. I have an announcement to make," Jeralt shooes him off, quirking a brow at him when it seems like Jeritza's about to give him attitude.

 

"Fine," Jeritza huffs, gracefully turning on his heel to fulfill Jeralt's orders with his long platinum blonde hair swaying from side to side with each step.

 

"Interesting character you got there," Christophe blandly comments, his features slackening into one of exhaustion now that he longer feels like he has to guard himself against such a blatant show of intimidation.

 

"All of my men are," Jeralt corrects, nodding at Nadia when she gives him a thumbs up of approval in regards to Christophe's health. "Haven't I've told you before? We're basically a circus. Only without those elephants or tightrope walkers."

 

Christophe musters a smile at that, making him appear years younger than his current appearance suggests.

 

By the time the rest of his men have gathered at the center of the camp to gauge the 'new recruit', Jeralt is already standing at the very front with his hand clasped onto Christophe's shoulder.

 

"Morning," Jeralt greets cheerfully, delighting in the groans that he receives in turn from his still drowsy men. "To update you guys, I'm fine. And so is our new recruit here, by the way. His name's Christophe, and his background's kinda like Miklan's. Only that he's been framed for trying to assassinate some very important people, so I decided to take him in since he has nowhere else to go and could maybe die in the next week or so," he bluntly says.

 

Jeralt can very well feel the dubious looks his men shoot him, as well as the affronted one that Christophe sends him.

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"Kid, let's be real here. You're dirty. You're hungry. You're living off of the last of your coin, and that's when you decide to go to the Empire of all places? What are you gonna do there? Dance?"

 

Some of his men snicker, making Christophe flush deeply.

 

"Anyways, I don't want to hear any of you giving him trouble. And I mean you, Jeritza. I still remember the shit you pulled with Miklan." Jeralt shoots the aforementioned man a look.

 

Jeritza merely wrinkles his nose. "We turned out fine," he argues, leaning against Miklan to emphasize how 'fine' they are now.

 

Miklan sends him a wide-eyed look first, then at the hilt of Jeritza's sword poking him at where his pancreas should be, and back at Jeralt.

 

Jeralt wisely does not entertain Miklan or Jertiza.

 

Instead, he turns to face the two Nabatean brothers of the company.

 

"Indie," Jeralt calls to. When he's sure that he has the younger(?) brother's attention, he says, in a calm and sure voice, "I'm assigning Christophe under your care."

 

"Eh?" Indie says at the very same time Kosa exclaims, " What? "

 

"He's an archer like you are, and, since you're the only other archer I have in my company, I believe that you're my best bet at honing his skills," Jeralt elaborates, nudging Christophe towards the frozen Nabatean.

 

With trepidation, Christophe nears his assigned senior and appears to shrink into himself when he realizes just how tall and strange-looking Indie looks.

 

"I...I'll be in your care, sir!" Christophe manages to convey in a loud and asserting voice, keeping his shoulders from outwardly trembling.

 

Indie jolts at that, the haze in his eyes vanishing—only to be replaced by a cluster of glimmering stars.

 

The next second, Indie is already clasping Christophe's hands, a wide beaming smile spread across his lips.

 

"Call me Indie! Or, if you want, you can call me big brother Indie!" Indie practically jitters in place. "You can count on me to pass on everything I know to you, Christophe!" And then, his smile widens as if that were even a possibility. "I can't promise, though, that it'll be easy! But I'm sure you'll be able to do it! I'll be in charge of you, after all!"

 

Christophe looks overwhelmed, if his shaky eyes are anything to go by.

 

Jeralt pities the unfortunate bastard long enough until a hand firmly clasps itself upon his arm.

 

Jeralt looks up, meets Kosa's gaze, and immediately blurts out, "This will be a good idea."

 

"It won't," Kosa hisses, the viridian of his irises sparking to life. "You're placing a sentient being's life in my brother's hands. Do you honestly believe that this sounds like a good idea?"

 

Jeralt doesn't. It sounds like a terrible decision; yet, for all Indie is as useful as a soggy sack of balls when it comes to logistics or even strategy, what he has is the ability to cheer up others and motivate them to be the best they can be (the completely opposite of his brother, Jeralt can't help but take note of), which he's sure Christophe will need most after the entire clusterfuck he's been through so far.

 

It also doesn't help that Indie really is good with a bow and with close-distance combat.

 

Though Jeralt hasn't seen it yet, he believes that Indie will be good for a dirty, hungry, poor, and traumatized nobleman's son.

 

So, with that in mind, Jeralt bullshits through a grin full of teeth, "I know it will be a good idea."

.

..

...

..

.

Jeralt guesses that since they're housing a fugitive of the Kingdom, then the first appropriate step would be to get their fucking asses out of Kingdom territory.

 

The second step, of course, entails going balls deep into Alliance territory and checking if any of the nobles were interested in hiring their blades.

 

Jeralt had made very sure to steer clear of Daphnel territory; when asked about it, he'd merely looked off faraway into the distance—reminiscing of a young blue-eyed youth following after his every step in the monastery, swinging her saber and demanding at the top of her lungs to fight her!—and said that it would be best to avoid trouble.

 

With Daphnel out of their choices, Byleth, Jeritza and Miklan had suggested heading over to Riegan territory since, after all, if they were going to look for a job to wet their blades, where else but to the Alliance's Head?

 

At that time, Jeralt had ruffled each of their hairs, drowning in the utter pride he held for all three of them.

 

At that time, with pride clouding his reasoning and complacency rendering his already crapcake of a memory into an utter shitcake, Jeralt had, just maaaaaybe, misplaced a shred of very important information about the area between Gloucester territory and Riegan territory being a bit iffy due to the cold war that the two were still engaging in.

 

He’d only remembered it quarter-way into the trek; by then, he’d brushed it aside, believing that the worst they’d have trouble with would be a group of bandits.

.

..

...

..

.

It’s somewhere around mid-afternoon when Kosa comes to a sudden halt.

 

Jeralt is forced to rein his steed back, lest he trample the Nabatean underneath Mercury’s shiny hooves.

 

“Oi!” Jeralt growls, not really in the best of moods. He’s sweaty, and tired, and hungry, dammit! This forest’s an utter nightmare, because the air’s too humid and there’s barely any gusts of wind to cool off his pits from the heat.

 

“Something’s wrong,” Kosa says, tilting his head back to better scent the air. His irises contract into a tiny dot, his curved ears twitching minutely. “There appears to be two groups of people some meters ahead of us. They...” Kosa’s eyebrows furrow. “They appear to be engaged in combat.”

 

“They could be just bandits fighting over territory,” Miklan assumes, already readying his axe in hand for the forecasted battle ahead.

 

“We can’t tell,” Byleth refutes with a shake of her head. “For all we know, there could only be one group and the other could be—“

 

“Merchants,” Christophe breathes in, his eyes a wide painting against the firm set to his expression. “We should check it out,” Christophe suggests, looking up at Jeralt for permission.

 

Jeralt weighs the pros and cons of such. Seeing that they have nothing better to do, and the probability that they could be rewarded for their efforts...

 

“Why not?” Jeralt shrugs, lightly tapping his foot against Mercury’s side to ready her for a straight gallop. “Ready your weapons, men! I trust that none of you have rusted over the weeks?” He jests, grinning at the roar of, "FUCK NO!" he gets in return.

 

It takes several minutes to reach the conflict; by the time Jeralt and his company have completely breached through the foliage to enthusiastically delve into the fray, it appears that both sides have already incurred casualties in the forms of bleeding corpses(?) on the ground.

 

Jeralt takes one look at the situation, sees the uniform of the Alliance's Order on one fallen man and the dark chainmail and furs on another, and concludes that his daughter's assumption had been right.

 

Again, Jeralt can’t help but muse, glancing at his daughter for a moment. She has good instincts. Must have gotten from me, he can’t help but inwardly brag.

 

Before Jeralt could so much as announce their intention to help, one of the men of the Alliance's Order had beaten him to it.

 

"Goddess save us, milord! It seems that these bandits' reinforcements have arrived!" The knight exclaims as he struggles to fend off a plump bandit.

 

"It doesn't matter!" A man, whom Jeralt supposes must be a noble what with the extravagance of his outfit that's most unfitting for a simple knight, snarls as he swings his sword and delivers a deep gouge to an unfortunate bandit's chest. "We'll just take them down too!"

 

Jeralt raises a brow at that, sharing a glance with Jertiza who'd been conveniently standing near to him.

 

Can we...? Is what his gaze says.

 

Jertiza shrugs, tipping his head towards Byleth who already has her sword drawn and is one minute away from tossing herself at one of the bandits.

 

Jeralt sighs, preparing his lance for the inevitable head stabbing he'll be spending his entire afternoon with.

 

"Indie," Jeralt calls out to, having noticed the trio of bandits sneaking their way to the nobleman's back. "Can you convince them that we're here to help?"

 

Indie blinks, tilting his head questionably to the side, his long hair miraculously still covering the entirety of his ears like his brother's so as to not alarm any stranger as to what he really is; when he follows the direction of Jeralt's gaze, he blinks once more, before he beams. "I got you, Captain!"

 

After bumbling to the very forefront of the company, Indie positions his feet, notches an arrow to his raised bow, and waits for the most opportune time to strike.

 

When it arises, Indie sticks his pink tongue out in concentration and, simply put, fires.

 

The arrow soars through the air with a kind of speed Jeralt has never seen in his entire life until Indie came and proved it possible. A tail of white magic follows in its wake, its lifeforce propelling the arrow forward and forward and forward until—

 

It reaches its mark; or, well, marks.

 

Christophe, who Jeralt believes to have been thoroughly brainwashed into an obedient junior in the face of a scarily enthusiastic Indie in the course of two weeks, claps his hands.

 

Jeralt and the rest of the company do so as well, because it's not everyday you see three bandits being headshotted with only one arrow.

"Holy fuck , " is what one of the nearby bandits curses aloud.

 

Jeralt smirks, waving his arm to capture the attentions of the combatants before him.

 

"We are the Daybreak Company!" Jeralt roars, spinning his lance thrice just for a show of grandeur because hey, it's been a while, okay? "We came to lend our aid to the Alliance's Order! Do you accept?!"

 

The nobleman rips his gaze from where it had been placed on Indie, meeting Jeralt's own steely one with his own. He respectfully steps around his would be killers, allowing himself to be surrounded by Alliance knights.

 

"Do I have a choice?!" Is the man's smartass response.

 

Jeralt grins ferally. He raises his arm, feeling the air around him suddenly grow charged by the very anticipation growing in the hearts of his men, and swiftly brings it down.

Chapter Text

"A long way from the Archbishop's side, aren't you, Blade Breaker?" Are the first words out of the golden-attired nobleman's mouth once the last of the bandit had been slain.

 

Jeralt merely narrows his eyes at what he perceives is a taunt. "It's been nearly two decades since I've retired. I'm surprised that word hasn't yet reached everybody's ears, much less a noble of your stature, surely."

 

And, to tack on his jab at the noble's spy network, Jeralt smiles his most charming of smiles.

 

The nobleman stills for a moment, his hand continuing to clutch the satin cloth he'd been using to clean the blood off of his undeniably gorgeous blade. Then, after leveling the most unimpressed look at Jeralt, he sheathes his newly-cleaned blade back into its scabbard with a sharp click.

 

" Regardless, you still have my gratitude," the nobleman acknowledges, his features ironed out into a solid mask of indifference. "Were it not for you and your men's extra hands, my companions and I would most probably not have lived long enough to see the morrow's sun."

 

Jeralt sees the proferred truce and, with a curt nod, accepts it because he knows better than to look past a gift horse in the mouth.

 

"You have one of my men to thank for that. He was the one who noticed the little ongoing spat you and those bandits were having," Jeralt inclinces his head towards Kosa, who's hovering nearby Indie.

 

By the looks of the healers crowding around the friendlier brother, it appears that Indie had sustained some kind of wound to his shoulder and Kosa, being the closet worrywart that he is, is expressing his concern through harsh comments that Indie pouts at.

 

When Jeralt looks back at the nobleman, he's surprised to see the other man staring so intensely at the scene before him.

 

"That archer of yours..." The nobleman begins, his eyes set on Indie. "He was the one who fired the arrow that managed to fell three men. May I ask for his name?"

 

At that, Jeralt's walls immediately rise up in defense. "My apologies, but I don't just give the names of my men to just anybody , you see," Jeralt explains as firmly as he can. "That's their decision to make, not mine."

 

The nobleman merely tilts his head, gaze fleeting back to Jeralt before it's positioned back to Indie. "Then I suppose it'd be better for me to ask it from the man himself," is his decision before, with a swift and somewhat irritatingly polite 'excuse me' , the nobleman strides towards off Indie.

 

Hah, thinks Jeralt with growing glee as he watches Kosa rear his head up at the approaching nobleman. Good luck with that , he throws in, because, really, with the way Kosa's eyes are flashing that brightly, any poor sod who'd reaped his ire would need it.

 

"Really though," Jeralt mutters with a shake of his head. "He didn't even bother to give his name," he scoffs.

 

"Don't take it to heart, Mr. Blade Breaker," a coquettish voice suddenly pipes out of nowhere. "That's just how he is."

 

Jeralt turns around to face his new conversation partner, and blinks at the somewhat familiar couple(?) that stands before him.

 

The man, whose blonde hair is a shade lighter and length much shorter than Jeralt's, smiles sympathetically at him. "I apologize for Lord Riegan's manners, but, if it's any consolidation, he's honestly like that with almost everybody," he chuckles.

 

"Hmmm, I don't know. Lord Riegan is practically wearing his heart on his sleeve," the man's partner, a woman who's about a head taller than him with hair a startling shade of red tumbling down her back in tight curls, muses in that same coquettish voice. "A bit hard to read, yeah, but he's a relatively simple man once you get a hang of his...ugh, quirks ," she settles on with a smile.

 

Jeralt, as much as he welcomes the better conversation partners, is stuck on one detail.

 

"Lord Riegan?" Jeralt repeats, eyebrows raised high.

 

The pair blinks owlishly at him, before the man smiles in an almost beguiling manner.

 

"Yes. The man you were just talking to is Lord Riegan, next-in-line to inheriting the seat of the Alliance's Head," he confirms.

 

Jeralt's head spins at that. "You're telling me that man is Godfrey von Riegan?" He keeps his voice calm and tempered, even though on the inside he is screaming because what luck! What luck to not only have stumbled upon the heir to the most powerful man of the Alliance, but also to have saved him!

 

Looks like the Goddess is still with us! He internally cheers.

 

"I'm surprised you didn't recognize him," pipes up the man, bringing Jeralt back to reality. "But, well, I can't blame you considering your recent tales."

 

"Tales?" Jeralt repeats.

 

"Hey now," rebukes the woman. "Isn't it a bit rude that we know the man but he doesn't know us yet?"

 

"Ah!" The man exclaims. "I knew I was forgetting something! My apologies, my man, but I tend to get a bit carried away when there's a bit of excitement aha," he grins as he sheepishly rubs the back of his neck.

 

"Really, you," the woman sighs, but there's a fond smile curving her red lips upwards. Then, towards Jeralt, she inclines her head. "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Blade Breaker. We're the heads of the Kirsten Company, but I'd rather prefer you to know me as Rebecca."

 

She sticks her hand out.

 

Jeralt stares at the back of it, a bit dazzled by the well-manicured nails, and finds himself having to compose himself for a moment before he's able to shake it.

 

"And I'm Isaac, her husband," the man introduces himself before they too shake hands. "We were accompanying his lordship on his way to Gloucester territory since our appraising skills were needed for some artefacts that Count Gloucester had been planning to gift," he informs as his blonde brows furrow into a deep crease. "Imagine our surprise, though, when we encountered bandits on a shortcut that hadn't been opened to the public yet and should only be privy to House Riegan and House Gloucester," he muses.

 

Jeralt takes that particular piece of information and stores it in the back of his mind. He's intimately aware of the conflict between those two particular elite houses and has long since decided to keep his hands far away from all of that hullabaloo.

 

Well. Until now, that is, he unfortunately notes with an inward grimace.

 

"Heading back to Deirdriu would be the best thing to do next," Rebecca laments. "As much as I want to see the beautiful roses in Gloucester, we're still several miles away from it and just a couple from Deirdriu. Besides, it'd be more dangerous to travel afoot with the possibility of there being more bandits lurking about." She clicks her tongue, looking irately at the deep foliage that surrounds them.

 

"Hmm," Jeralt muses. "If you're heading back, then I should approach the lord and ask if he'd be interested to have my men and I accompany you back," he suggests.

 

At the couple's bright and hopeful looks, Jeralt feels a tad guilty that he's more interested in what price Lord Riegan would offer for his service than concerned over the other party's wellbeing.

 

Business is business, I suppose , Jeralt muses, his gaze straying towards the pile of bandit corpses yet to be burned or buried. Just depends whether you're on the luckier side or not.

.

..

...

..

.

It had been ridiculously easy to persuade his lordship to hire their services as, well, 'unnecessary footmen' just to quote the captain from the Alliance Order.

 

One look at a nervously(?) smiling Indie and a darkly glowering Kosa had confirmed Jeralt's suspicions over how delightfully their first interaction must have gone.

 

It had, however, been a much trickier endeavor to convince Lord Riegan to retreat back to Deirdriu considering the circumstances.

 

"We have more fighters now," his lordship had said, unruffled by the increasingly frustrated expression growing on the Alliance Order captain's face. "And I am of knowledge that none of us are weak or dull enough to fall to a measly strike. So what is the problem with pushing through?"

 

"My lord, with all due respect, but I beseech you that returning to Riegan territory would be the better approach for us," the Alliance Order Captain says. "And I believe that it would be in Duke Riegan's best interests to learn about the events that had just transpired and to see the..." He purposefully trails off with a meaningfull side glance towards Jeralt.

 

Jeralt, who's been sitting in between the two since this private meeting had started, merely continues sipping his share of Leicester Cortania and pretends to be clueless to whatever his lordship and his dickship were hiding.

 

He already knows what it is, of course. Jeritza had already reported beforehand about the contents of what the Alliance knights had been hastily shoving into empty rice sacks.

 

Plumes and claws from demonic beasts , he recalls Jeritza saying.

 

Frankly, Jeralt doesn't understand the need to hide such a thing, since those kinds of things sold for an above average price in the market and weren't usually any noble's focus when it came to wealth.

 

"I hate to be a killjoy either, my lord, but I have to agree with Sir Josef with this one," Rebecca votes. "Traveling any further would only be dangerous, and I'm not looking to orphan my children anytime soon."

 

Jeralt watches as Isaac lays a comforting hand in the middle of his wife's back.

 

"I agree with my wife as well, my lord," interjects Isaac. "We could always postpone the visit to House Gloucester some other day. The count would understand."

 

To that, Lord Riegan merely leans back against his seat, his sharp features never once wavering from its unruffled expression.

 

"I will not argue with you about our prowess as fighters, my lord," Rebecca starts carefully, eyes narrowing once she notices that she's steadfastly losing the lord's interest. "But let me just remind you once more that no man is immune to the calling of death. And it strikes when you least expect it, as I'm sure you know very well."

 

This time, Lord Riegan visibly reacts to her words.

 

Though he doesn't quite glare at her when he directs his steely gaze to her, the aura emanating from him pantomimes it.

 

"We were all students back then," his lordship enunciates slowly. "We've grown from then."

 

"And we have," agrees Isaac. "But that means we have much more to lose as well. Things that we are duty-bound to, and will never be able to accomplish if we're as good as dead."

 

For a moment, the lord's gaze softens; that gentleness disappears, though, when he turns to look at Jeralt.

 

"And you, Blade Breaker? What is your opinion on this matter?" His lordship asks.

 

Jeralt blinks slowly, pretending to not have watched what appeared to be a rather heated discussion between three...ex-schoolmates? Classmates? Monasterymates?

 

"Your call would be my call," is his answer, even though frankly he'd love nothing more than to prance back to Deirdriu.

 

Byleth hasn't gone there yet , is his main thought. I'm sure she and the boys would love the seafood there. And I remember Kosa and Indie mentioning that they wanted to try as much unique cuisine as they can...

 

Just then, a memory resurfaces from the dark depths of his mind, and Jeralt has to bite the inside of his cheek to refrain from shuddering at the recollection of that zungenwurst, which Lambert had been so enthuasiastic to introduce to him.

 

The taste had been more than fine, really; once Jeralt found out about its origins, however...

 

Well, suffice to say, he spent a couple of days going on a veggie and dessert diet that was really more dessert than veggie.

 

"My lord," Rebecca speaks up once more, effectively killing Jeralt's horrible reminiscing. "I ask that you reconsider your stance. Please ."

 

For a very long moment, Lord Riegan stares at Rebecca, his mouth pinched sourly.

 

And he continues to wear that sour expression of his til' the very next day as the knights badger Jeralt and his company to hurry it up for their so-called arduous journey back to Deirdriu.

 

"What do they have their panties all twisted for?" Kosa grumpily mutters, features set into a dark glower for being awoken an hour too early from his usual schedule.

 

Jeralt chokes on his rations of dried meat. "Who," he hacks out, rubbing his throat. "Who taught you that ?"

 

Kosa fleets his glare to him, which is enough to send a few nosy knights looking away from them. "Does it matter?" He snarls, though he somewhat calms when Indie approaches them with a beaming smile of his own. "Ugh. Get your infectious happiness away from me, you morning dragon."

 

Jeralt chokes again, wildly looking around just in case any of the Alliance knights had heard, and is thankful that the knights are too busy chiding his men.

 

Wait.

 

Wait a fucking minute, is that somebody messing with his daughter?

 

"Oi!" Jeralt calls out in as authoritative voice as he can muster, striding as fast as he can towards where one of the Alliance Knights was gonna get too up close and personal with Byleth. Jeralt doesn't even hesitate to bodily insert himself between the two, stepping harshly on the knight's feet in the process. "You got something to do with her?" He demands, shoulders pressed back to give the other the impression of how much bigger Jeralt is.

 

You wanna fucking hustle, thinks Jeralt as he wears his own dark glare to bore holes into the now nervous knight. Cause I can fucking hustle, bitch .

 

"I..." The man glances at Byleth, but Jeralt steps to the left to block his view once more. His brows furrow; still, his answer is, "No, sir. Just checking to see if one of your men was truly packing."

 

"And we are," is Jeralt's snappish response. "But I don't think that's any of your business, is it?" He lifts a taunting brow.

 

The man purses his lips. "...No. If you'll excuse me then."

 

Jeralt watches as the man retreats back to his buddies with his tail 'tween his legs and thinks, Pussy.

 

When he turns to check up on his daughter, he's immediately met with one of the most unimpressed look he's ever received from her.

 

"I could have handled that, you know," she huffs, resting her arm on the pommel of her sword.

 

He can't help it. He reaches out and ruffles her hair because how can something so cute be one-half of him? He and his wife did really good.

 

"I know," is his lackadaisical response. "But it's been a while since I coddled you, ne?"

 

Byleth pouts, slapping his hand out of her hair. "...Fine. Alright. Thanks, dad," she mutters.

 

Jeralt frowns, scrutinizing his daughter. "Hey, no, what's wrong, By? Did that jackass say something to you?" He looks over his shoulder to glare at the man who's still looking, what the fuck.

 

He bares his teeth and stops when the man finally looks away.

 

"No, it's not that," Byleth denies with a shake of her head. She wraps an arm around herself as she looks off into the distance where the sun has yet to even rise. "It's just...Deirdriu, huh," she mentions in an offhandedly manner that makes Jeralt's insides churn with unease.

 

"Yeah," Jeralt says slowly, carefully. He gauges his daughter's reaction, but his daughter doesn't even so much as give off a tick. "I've been there a few times, actually. And let me just tell you that it certainly earned  its title as the Aquatic Capital of the Leicester Alliance," he smiles, trying to brighten up the atmosphere hovering above his daughter. "I know that the company's never gone there before, but you'll all be in for a real treat," he promises.

 

Byleth says nothing.

 

Instead, she smiles.

 

But Jeralt's perceptive enough to know that it's one that doesn't quite reach her eyes.

.

..

...

..

.

Deirdriu definitely hasn't changed all that much since Jeralt had last seen it.

 

There are a few exceptions though, such as the addition of a several artisery shops in the main road boasting about their products or services through colorful banners.

 

But that's the alliance for you , Jeralt supposes. Always managing to pull the latest trends right out of their asses in the loudest way possible .

 

He makes sure to keep a careful eye on his men, and can't help but smile at the way they all surreptitiously oogle the several shops and stands they pass by. He has to physically reach out and grab the back of Indie's hoodie

 

"We can explore later," he rebukes, making his voice audible enough for the rest of his men to hear. They all snap to attention at that, though a few can't quite hide their sulks.

 

The path trailing to the Riegan Estate is a familiar one, considering that he's gone down these roads several times before as a Knight Captain for the church. With how lost he becomes in his own memory, Jeralt barely registers the minute they finally arrive at their intended destination.

 

"Wait here," Lord Riegan instructs with merely a glance. He turns on his heel in a flutter of golden fabric and with the Captain of the Alliance Order hot after his heels.

 

Jeralt waits until the two are completely out of earshot before he turns on his heel.

 

Ah , he can't help but think with a tinge of exasperation layered atop a smudgen of amusement.

 

"I've never seen these kinds of flowers before," Miklan says, clearly restraining himself from straying from the company and plucking an entire boquet from the Duke's front courtyard.

 

"I think they're marigolds," Aline brings up, a deep trench between her brows. "But they're a bit too big for that."

 

"They look like Dahlias to me," is Yu's response as he creeps closer to get a good look at it.

 

"Ehhhhhh, I don't think so, Yu. Why would the Duke only plant yellow ones then?" Chrit speaks out.

 

"...Why not yellow?" Yason gestures around, where everything looks distinctly more that color compared to any noble estate they've all been to before. And this was just the outside .

 

"Point," Jeritza notes whilst he pulls on the reigns of a curious Mercy eyeing the flowers as if they would be a tasty afternoon snack.

 

And by the goddess did that pegasus put on a lot of weight. How did Jeritza expect her to fly when it was steadily looking more like a cow with wings with each passing week.

 

Jeralt sighs at how his men immediately dissolve into amiable bickering over a flower of all things. He opens his mouth, prepared to end the argument, when his daughter beats him to that.

 

"It's a sunflower, Miklan," says Byleth as she lays a hand on his arm, voice softer than usual. "They're only local to Brigid and Morfis, so the Duke must have had them imported here."

 

Jeralt curiously peers at his daughter, internally wondering when she'd gotten the time to educate herself in plants.

 

He's deprived of the chance to delve deeply into that particular topic when he feels somebody insisently tap his back.

 

"Yes?" He stares at Rebecca's coyly grinning face, unable to help the way his eyes stray towards her husband when he sizzles up next to her and wraps an arm around her waist.

 

How sweet , he thinks.

 

"Quite a bunch you've got there," Rebecca comments with a chuckle. "It's hard to believe that they're all a bunch of battle-harden merceneries with the way they act."

 

Jeralt glances back at his company, checking to see if their bickering had devolved to violence yet. "I doubt many would agree with you on that one," is his wry response.

 

There were a couple of his men with naturally scary faces—Miklan being one of them—though Jeralt had hammered down whatever insecurities they had about their rough mugs since they were certainly more useful when they needed to use a little bit of... mean persuasion .

 

"Hmmm, I suppose not," Rebecca agrees, even if the way she smiles contrasts it. "Though the way your men behave is quite endearing in its own way. It reminds me of my own children. And how much I miss them as well," she sighs, cradling her cheek.

 

" You have children?" He asks, in a bid to change the topic before she could possibly pry his men's backgrounds from his own hands.

 

Rebecca nods animatedly, a switch seeming to go off within her at the very notion of her children. "Yes! Two wonderful darlings that are just too precious and—!" Whatever comes next is delivered in a flurry of words that mashes into an indecipherable mess.

 

Isaac laughs, patting his wife on the head in an effort to calm her excitement. "As my wife has mentioned, we have two. A boy and a girl," he explains. "You must forgive my redundancy on this matter, but I really must thank you for coming to our rescue yesterday. I'd feared that we might have lost our lives were it not for your intervention, and what would have happened to our children then?" He sincerely expresses.

 

Jeralt scratches his cheek, a sheepish tick of his that he'd thought he'd buried long ago. "Eh, if you really want to thank somebody, it should be Kosa. He was the one who noticed the attack." Uh-oh. They were going back to his company, again. Deflect, deflect! "Speaking of, how old are your children?"

 

Isaac beams. "Why, our youngest, Maya, just turned a decade-old the last moon. And our eldest is somewhat around your children's ages?" He glances past Jeralt, his eyes a striking shade of gold.

 

Jeralt blinks slowly, wondering if he'd heard wrong. "Children?"

 

Rebecca's tinkling laugh chimes in the air. "Was it supposed to be a secret?" She questions with a tilt of her head, though the way she smiles is certainly a bit... well . "If so, I apologize, but it's incredibly obvious with the way your gaze keeps shifting back to them since we've met." Then, she goes on to tut him with a waggle of her fingers. "There's no fooling another parent, sir Jeralt, not with the way you're acting."

 

Jeralt chuckles, scratching the scar on his cheek. Though, his eyes do stray towards his brood.

 

"...a bit wrong," murmurs Jeritza, his attention immediately garnered by a sticky Mercy who keeps prodding his waist with a small whine.

 

"I forgot to redo her braids this morning," Byleth confesses in an apologetic tone, but her hands still reach out to untie the maroon ribbons in Mercy's mane to re-braid it. "I'll make up for it at dinner with sweets," she cooes at Mercy who huffs at her.

 

"I think she's getting a bit thick though," Miklan shamelessly announces, only to clamp his mouth shut at the twin glares he receives. "In the wings! I meant in the wings! 'Cause, you know, she's getting ready to fly properly, yeah?" He laughs nervously, swiftly moving to help the other two in the process of tidying up Mercy.

 

Right there.

 

In the middle of Duke Riegan's front courtyard.

 

Goddess, thinks Jeralt, internally massaging his temples because surely surely, he'd raised them better than that.

 

He's just about to correct the merchant couple's mistake that he'd only spawned one thank you very much, when the main doors of the estate suddenly burst open and out comes Lord Riegan haggardly following after an elderly man who

 

"Jeralt!" Duke Riegan calls out in a clearly delighted voice. He hurries, or, well, hobbles over as a testasment to how much his joints has aged.

 

Jeralt kindly meets the man mid-way, stilling when the elderly man clasps his hands with both of his wrinkly ones.

 

Duke Riegan grins, the vibrancy of it not diminishing since the last time Jeralt had seen it. And boy has it been a while since Jeralt had laid his eyes on this crafty bastard.

 

"I'm pleased to have been able to lay my eyes on you one last time before I succumb to these danged body of mine," Duke Riegan laughs with the full force of his body.

 

His son, Lord Riegan, sighs and inputs, "Father has no right to say such a thing when he is still able to throw every new desk out of his window every time he gets mad."

 

Duke Riegan feigns deafness to this and merely continues on, "You have my deepest gratitudes, Jeralt, for coming in the time of my reckless son's need." He shakes his head, the gold circlet atop his brows glinting in the light. "House Riegan cannot afford the loss of its only heir in this time of turmoil, after all," he says gravely.

 

Jeralt, wisely, does not point out that he has another heir. He's heard the horror stories of what had happened to the maids who had dared to gossip about the former Lady Riegan who had packed up all of her breeches and took off running .

 

Jeralt is a gossiper at heart, but he knows the proper time and place to gossip.Especially about his employers.

 

"I'm glad to have been of help, Duke Riegan" he says instead with a placid smile.

 

But Duke Riegan is as insistent as ever. "No good deed goes unrewarded, Jeralt. We are both aware of this. What would you want in return for your help?"

 

Jeralt can practically feel the daggers being shot at him by the Alliance Knights. Yet, he smamelessly rubs the back of his neck and confesses, "Actually, we were just on our way to Deirdriu to see if you had any kind of job to offer us mercenaries."

 

Duke Riegan raises a brow. "So it is true. You really did turn to that kind of lifestyle," he states. "I hadn't believed the rumors at first. The former captain of the Knights of Seiros? A mercenary? Simply preposterous," he daddles on, his tongue definitely as loose as it had been years ago, but Jeralt is aware that if Duke Riegan hears at least one sentence he didn't like, then that loose tongue of his would turn as sharp as the serrated axe he used to wield back in his glory days. "But then I'd gotten word from the Kingdom that the royal family had been saved by a measly band of blood-dripped swordsells...And, well, it's not surprising. Considering with you as their leader, your swords are practically soaking in it."

 

Jeralt smiles at that, knowing it to be a compliment if a bit back-handed.

 

"Tell you what," Duke Riegan begins after his babbling. "House Riegan shall be hosting its annual Leicester Alliance Day in a few weeks' time, and I believe that it'll benefit the both of us if your presence were to be there."

 

Jeralt hears a few sharp inhales from his company.

 

He can't blame them.

 

He's hardly breathing himself.

 

To be invited to such an ostentatious event the very founding day of the Leicester Alliance, which was celebrated year after year and where all members of the nobility and some significant members of the commonfolk gathered.

 

If Jeralt had a fainter heart, he'd have certainly keeled over in shock.

 

A celebration, Jeralt thinks mockingly. More like a political shit fest.

 

Yet

 

To be invited to such a perfect hunting ground for nobles with jobs and jobs with gold—

 

Jeralt would be an idiot to turn that down.

Chapter Text

“We’ll be stealing her for the day!” Beams Alina, her arms wrapped snugly around Byleth’s shoulders.

 

Despite her sunshine smile, her gaze is a tundra wasteland that is enough to silence any protests lingering on Jeralt’s tongue.

 

“You’ll have her back by tonight,” promises Sarie, her tone seemingly gentle whilst maintaining the threatening grip on her sword.

 

Jeralt directs his stare to Byleth. She returns his stare with a bland smile.

 

“We’re going to get our nails cleaned,” is Byleth’s response as she twiddles her fingers at him

 

A few of the males of his company make some sounds of indignation, and Jeralt knows them all well enough to know that they’re indignant at not being invited!

 

“You can come too,” appeases Byleth when one of the mages, Yuan, shoves his billowy sleeves up his arms with Ragnarok’s sickening orange sparks crackling at the tips of his fingers and a pout on his face.

 

The sparks immediately die out.

 

“Fine!” Huffs Aline. “You boys can come too, but only until that, okay?! Us girls have to have some privacy when it comes to dress shopping!” At a noise of protest, Alina corrects herself, “Dress or suit shopping!”

 

“That’s fine,” Jeritza acquiesces, inspecting his own nails to ascertain what kind of treatment would be warranted. “You do yours as well, Miklan,” he says offhandedly, not even looking at the man in question.

 

Miklan hums. “I think mine are quite alright. Jeralt, Kosa, Indie, and I had ours done at that last town we passed by before Deirdriu,” he says, oblivious to his treachery.

 

Jeralt levels an unimpressed look at the rest of his company who shoots him betrayed faces. “I offered , but all you bastards were too hammered to even stand up .”

 

That night had been a particularly rowdy one. In honor of christening Christophe's mercenary status, Jeralt and his company had hit the next nearest town and practically went bananas in the bar when somebody decided to make a competition out of drinking either Kosa or Indie.

 

Jeralt and Miklan had been the only two to wisely back out of the challenge despite the chicken sounds they got. Still, somebody needed to play babysitter, and Jeralt had the obligation as the leader to take up that role whilst Miklan followed because his tolerance had always been particularly low.

 

At the reminder, Christope groans as he covers his face like some maiden.

 

Jeralt can’t blame him. With how wild Christophe had gone that night—stripping down to his small clothes, bar crawling, performing a lap dance for that enthusiastic barmaid who’d shrieked for every time he wiggled his skinny hips—

 

Well, even Jeralt himself feels embarrassed for the kid. And that’s saying something since he’s done a lot more.

 

“Anyways.” Jeralt takes the conversation back by the reins. “I want us all to meet back here at 1800 hours sharp! Any stragglers will be sleeping by the gates, you hear me?”

 

At the various responses of agreements from his men, Jeralt waves them off. He watches them all scamper off to one direction like bloodhounds, leaving in the town plaza with Miklan and the two Nabateans for company

 

Since he isn’t particularly in the mood for anything, Jeralt raises a brow at his companions. “So, where to?”

 

Miklan inspects his surroundings with uneasy eyes, clearly overwhelmed as he always is whenever they visit a new village or town. Kosa looks the same, if by the way he shifts closer to his brother as he peers around with mistrustful eyes are anything to say.

 

Indie, however, is the complete opposite . His eyes are practically shining with the way he regards the colorful banners strung across the lamp posts, the numerous shops placed around them, and even at the water fountain that’s certainly a new addition to the town since Jeralt hadn’t seen it the last time he came here.

 

Yet, though his soul is practically vibrating out of his skin, Indie stays obediently put. He reaches out, though, to tug on Jeralt’s shirt.

 

“Can we go in that direction?” He asks, pointing westward.

 

When neither of their companions voice out their protests, Jeralt shrugs and says, “Go ahead. You can even lead the way if you want to.”

 

Indie grins, and Jeralt has to tap the corner of his mouth to remind him to hide his canines that had elongated from his excitement. 

 

“Yay!” Indie nevertheless cheers after hiding his fangs, then he turns to bound off to where he wanted to go.

 

As they follow after the elated Nabatean, they soon find themselves wandering in the middle of what appears to be a bustling food street, since there are dozens upon dozens of food stalls lined up next to one another on both sides of the street.

 

“Ohhhh,” croons Indie as takes in the sight of the glistening cuisine all laid out in front of him. “They all look so good! Miklan, Miklan, you have to check this out!” Is Indie’s only warning before he grabs Miklan and, with his inhuman strength, drags the startled man to the nearest food stall.

 

“Jeralt,” Miklan calls weakly, eyes a pleading and gooey mess.

 

Seeing that Indie is perfectly capable of enriching Miklan’s experience and that Miklan is somewhat capable of preventing Indie from burning anything down, Jeralt seizes the opportunity like the cold bastard he is.

 

He grins and waves at them. “Enjoy yourselves!” He bids.

 

Miklan shoots him the most betrayed look, but Jeralt is unruffled.

 

Really, he thinks with a shake of his head. That boy should really enjoy this while he can. 

 

After purchasing some fisk cake rolls soaked in some kind of spicy sauce, Jeralt suddenly notices the lack of one another Nabatean.

 

Shit , he thinks, wildly looking around for anybody with a curtain of green hair. 

 

Jeralt is certain that Kosa couldn’t have gone any deeper into the food street, since he hadn’t seen the other man follow after Indie and Miklan, so that must mean Jeralt could (maybe) find him if he retraced his steps.

 

He buys another bowl of fish cake rolls, because hey searching takes a whole lot of his energy, and proceeds to head back to the town plaza.

 

Half-way there, he fortunately spots Kosa and immediately trudges over to him. As he gets closer, he sees soon enough that Kosa is staring into the window of a finely-decorated jewelry shop.

 

“There you are,” sighs Jeralt after swallowing a mouthful of his food. “I thought for sure you went and got kidnapped by some stupid fellows,” he mentions.

 

Kosa snorts. “As if they would stand against my might,” is his reply.

 

“That’s why they’d be stupid ,” reminds Jeralt. When Kosa doesn’t deign him with another response, he follows the Nabatean’s gaze to see what’s got him so distracted.

 

Huh, thinks Jeralt as he appraises a pair of citrine studs with fragments of silver adorning its edges. The design is elegant yet fairly simple, which is what surprises Jeralt. I’d have thought he’d liked something a bit more flashy .

 

His gaze strays to the little price stand sitting daintily below it.

 

“Why don’t you buy it?” Jeralt suggests. The price is reasonable enough, and he’d sold uncut gems of citrine before for a much higher price. 

 

Honestly, why was this shop selling it for such a low price? Maybe they had a cheap supplier…?

 

In usual Kosa fashion, the Nabatean scrunches his nose at him and says, “Why on Earth should I even purchase an accessory that would hardly be seen by any other?” He points at the side of his head, where his curved ears are hidden beneath his long hair. “It defeats the very purpose of jewelry , Jeralt, and it is meant to be flaunted .”

 

Jeralt scratches the scar on his cheek and thinks, are you a fucking idiot?

 

But, for the purpose of not angering Kosa, he says instead, “Why not buy it because you want to?”

 

Kosa rolls his eyes. “That would be a waste of money then,” he ends with a tone of finality, even as his gaze strays back to the earrings.

 

Jeralt stares at the guarded expression spread out across Kosa’s features, and understands all too well that look curdling deep in the viridian depths of the Nabatean’s eyes.

 

Jeralt has seen it so many times, back then, when he’d been nothing more than a straggly street rat that skulked the streets and thrived in the alleys.

 

He’d seen it in the eyes of so many runaways and other orphaned children, even in his very own reflection as he’d stared hungrily into a high-end restaurant before he’d been chased off by the servers.

 

It’s why Jeralt is so greedy these days. Why he lets his men be greedy so long as they’re not doing against their code because, though they may be mercenaries, they’re not honorless .

 

And maybe it’s because of this greed that Jeralt rolls his eyes and marches straight into the jewelry store to purchase it from the hands of a nervous-looking clark.

 

He tosses the elegantly-decorated paper bag to Kosa.

 

Kosa flinches, a panicked expression fleeting across his features. He catches the bag and stares at it with wide, wide eyes.

 

It’s the first time Jeralt has seen Kosa so surprised, and something about it annoys him because Jeralt can hardly believe the man, whom he’d found payin nothing but his daughter’s cloak back in Sreng and managed to paid him a dozen of chests filled with treasure just to bring him to his snoozing turtle-dragon brother, would deny himself something as simple as this.

 

Ugh, Jeralt thinks. Maybe I am getting too soft.

 

“For an old man,” Jeralt starts, daring to poke the middle of Kosa’s forehead. “You sure are a bit dumb.”

 

At that, Kosa’s right eye twitches.

 

Jeralt can very well see the tendrils of black magic creeping up the Nabatean’s arms, but he relentlessly bulldozes on.

 

“You,” he begins again, directing his index finger to point at Kosa’s chest. “Are allowed to buy frivolous things if you want to. That’s what it means to live a little, you know? Take it as your duty to live to the best of your capability in the stead of those who couldn’t.”

 

And then, as he suddenly remembers the majority of a nearly extinct race weighing heavily on Kosa’s shoulders, Jeralt clamps his mouth shut and decides that, maybe, he’d said just a fuuuuucking bit too much.

 

But Kosa doesn’t look up at him. Instead, he carefully opens the little paper bag to bring out a small leather box where the citrine earrings sit prettily atop a tiny cushion when he opens it.

 

Jeralt is hit with the realization at what he had just done and hastily says, “I’ll be deducting that from your cut, by the way.”

 

Kosa glances up at him, viridian shining through the olive of his long lashes as his features set placidly.

 

Then, he scoffs. “You really are—”

 

Before he could so much as finish his response, Indie, thank him, thinks Jeralt who believes he’d been just a few seconds away from being smited, comes bounding over to them with a multitude of food sticks in between his fingers.

 

“Brother, brother! You should try this!” Indie insists, wielding a skewer of what appears to be barbequed chicken.

 

Kosa’s brows furrow and he opens his mouth to probably offer a snide comment.

 

But, as Jeralt himself witnesses, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

 

Because as soon as Kosa had opened his mouth, Indie had taken the opportunity to shove said barbequed chicken into his mouth.

 

Deeply.

 

“Indie,” Jeralt starts kindly, a few minutes later, as Kosa continues to hack out in the background. “I think you should just hand food to people instead of shoving it into their mouths.”

 

Indie sniffs, tears wobbling at the corners of his eyes as he munches on his own food to distract himself from his guilt. He nods gravely, though, understanding his mistake at having nearly killed his own brother.

 

Miklan smiles, a bit pained, as he rubs soothing circles on Indie’s back. “It’s okay. You didn’t mean to,” he comforts.

 

“Miklaaaaaan,” Indie whines, the tears really falling this time. It’s clear that he’s touched to be comforted by Miklan who’s always been a bit apprehensive around him.

 

“I’ll slaughter you,” Kosa hisses in a strained voice, face pale and the corners of his mouth stained in barbeque sauce.

 

 “I’m sorry!” Indie wails, taking the initiative to hide behind Miklan’s back.

 

As the two begin a game of tag around a disturbed Miklan, Jeralt takes note of the fact that Kosa is still holding the stick of barbequed chicken in his right hand.

 

He watches them make a ruckus for a few minutes longer, finally finishing his fish cake rolls, then he moves to break the two Nabateans apart before some building could be torn down in their spat.

.

..

..

.

A couple of days later, Jeralt finds himself with his ass rooted deeply to the ground, sweat practically dripping from every orifice of his body, and struggles to calm his rapidly beating heart.

 

“Fuck,” Josef, that damn Alliance Order Captain who’s also really fucking good with a broadsword, wheezes as he too struggles to regain his composure.

 

“I’m impressed,” Jeralt pants out, knocking his chest a few more times to encourage the blood flow there. “Seems like your position is warranted, eh?” He lets out a bark of laughter.

 

Josef shoots him a withering glare, but the edges of it are a great deal softer than they were hours ago. 

 

Nothing like a good round or seven of clashing blades, eh? This has always been Jeralt’s favorite method of getting to know the other person, by letting their blades and fists speak for themselves—who even needed paltry words to talk?

 

“You ain’t half bad, kid,” Jeralt praises. “With your skills, you’d fit right in my company,” he notes.

 

Josef snorts. “Yeah, right,” he huffs out. “And I ain’t a kid. I’m just a few years younger than you.”

 

Jeralt doubts that. He’s yet to meet anybody just a few years younger than him at this time and age. 

 

They’re all probably dead by now , he thinks. 

 

“And I see why Lady Rhea had kept you so close to her,” brings up Josef.

 

Jeralt, in his moment of fatigue, flinches but disguises it as a shiver from the breeze that drifts by.

 

“You certainly deserved the title of Captain of the Knights of Seiros,” says Josef, a kind of gleam in his eyes. “Why’d you leave in the first place, anyways?” He inquires, looking straight at Jeralt.

 

Jeralt is very, very careful to meet the other’s gaze. 

 

“The pay wasn’t that good,” is his answer.

 

Josef cocks a brow at that, but he shrugs soon after. “Whatever. It’s none of my business.” He kindly lets go of the topic, looking far-off at the region above the trees.

 

And it is in this moment that Jeralt truly sees it. 

 

You’re a good man , Jeralt thinks. He doesn’t say it aloud, of course. He isn’t that senseless.

 

Instead, he says, “good fight!”, with his arm outstretched to offer his right hand.

 

Josef blinks, eyes widening just a bit, but, after a instance, he nonetheless clasps Jeralt’s hand with his own and grips it tightly. “Good fight!” He returns strongly.

 

They have but one moment to share fierce grins before they are interrupted by a shadow looming over them.

 

“I figured you two were still thirsty,” Byleth says in place of a greeting, holding up two skinfulls of water.

 

“Thank you, my lady,” Josef says politely, accepting the offering with a composed smile.

 

“Thanks, By,” Jeralt grins at her, patting the available spot of grass on his other side for her to sit down.

 

Byleth laughs with closed eyes, which Jeralt can tell that she’s rolling underneath her eyelids. Despite it, she takes a seat on his other side but with a considerable distance between them.

 

Smart, smart , appraises Jeralt even as he drenches himself in the cold water. He hears Josef curse at getting splashed, and he laughs at him.

 

Byleth is certainly smart for sitting that far from him, since he’d have certainly wrapped an around her the minute she sat down and given her a big hug to get his ‘disgusting sweat’ all over her.

 

The three remain silent for a while, enjoying the cool breezes that drift by, until it’s broken by a small noise coming out from his daughter's throat.

 

Jeralt glances at his daughter, notices her staring at something, and follows her line of sight to where a figure dressed in bronze and gold had just disappeared around the barracks.

 

Must have been the Lord, thinks Jeralt, since only the Duke and his son were allowed to wear that particular motif within the estate.

 

“Hey,” begins Byleth. “Have you seen any Almyrans waltzing around these past few days?” She asks, features set into a severe expression.

 

As he listens to Josef choking for some reason in the background, Jeralt tilts his head at that. 

 

“It’d be pretty weird if we did,” Jeralt comments. They are in Duke Riegan’s territory, after all, and it’s widely known to be the most Almyran-proof place in the entire Alliance.

 

That’s what they said about Faerghus with those from Duscur , a tiny voice reminds him in the back of his mind. And look what happened. The royal family nearly got murdered, didn’t they? If we hadn’t come to help them, what then?

 

Jeralt knows what would have happened. He’d been there to witness his Majesty’s near beheading, and it would have pushed through if Jeralt hadn’t acted as quickly as he had back then.

 

And maybe it’s the thought of Lambert and his son’s cold and lifeless bodies that drives him to turn to his daughter and ask, “Why? Have you seen any?”

 

Byleth meets his gaze for a short period before she averts it. “Maybe I’d seen wrong. My eyes have been hurting a bit from staying up too late at night,” is her response.

 

Bullshit , thinks Jeralt.

 

Jeralt knows very well that she’s lying, and he suspects that she knows that he knows that she’s lying. He doesn’t point it out, however. They have company after all. Foreign company at that. It’s best to tread lightly in these kinds of situations.

 

So Jeralt turns to Josef and sees the scrunched look upon the other man’s features. He must be concerned over the possibility of an Almyran creeping around.

 

“It’s a possibility,” Jeralt suggests, brows raised suggestively. “It’s best to have your men investigate and tighten up security for tonight, just in case there is an Almyran walking around.”

 

The annual Leicester Alliance Day is just a few days away, so it wouldn’t be that unlikely for a couple of Almyrans to be skulking about, assessing the perimeter before they launch their attack to ruin the celebration where most, if not all, of the Alliance’s nobility will be gathered at.

 

“I’ll take note of that,” complies Josef with a nod, gaze already searching over their surroundings.

 

Man , thinks Jeralt. You’re really hardworking, huh . He internally praises as he bids a goodbye to Josef who excuses himself to investigate the barracks.

 

“Shit.” Jeralt hears his daughter curse quietly for some reason.

 

Just as Jeralt is about to ask her about it, his eyes are fixated on quite the interesting sight.

 

“Huh,” Jeralt sounds out, because really. 

 

Huh. Who’d known?

 

“How long have you known about that?” Jeralt asks, chucking his thumb at the direction of the pavilion, where a familiar blonde and redhead duo are currently spending their time at.

 

Jeritza sits primly, legs tucked underneath him with his gloved hands resting atop his lap. Though he looks as stern as ever especially with his eyes closed, the way those are curved just a bit more is basically Jeritza’s best expression of having the time of my life!

 

Miklan, on the other hand, is kneeling behind him. He looks particularly harried as he frets over Jeritza’s long hair, which has been pulled into a long braid. He’s pushing quite a number of silver pins into it, so as to, as it appears, lift the braid higher on the head. 

 

Miklan mutters something, a curse if it were any judging by the disgruntled look on his face, that is quickly followed by an apology as he gazes down at Jeritza with the most impressive kicked puppy expression.

 

Jeritza languidly opens his eyes, blinks a few times, then tilts his head back to look up at Miklan who promptly freezes with his hands on Jeritza’s head.

 

Jeritza stares at Miklan for as long as Miklan stares back at Jeritza. 

 

Soon enough, Miklan, unable to handle the tension sparking between them, averts his gaze as expected, his cheek tinging pink.

 

A corner of Jeritza’s mouth lifts up into a proud smirk, and the man in question leans his head back into place, clearly satisfied. When Miklan doesn’t do anything, Jeritza pats the hands on his head and rubs circles on the back of one until Miklan finally does something with a rattled expression

 

The scene they paint is an embarassing one. Very much so. In fact, Jeralt can practically imagine the little flowers blooming around them.

 

The very image is enough to make Jeralt feel extremely embarrassed, even if he should have no reason!

 

“I…” Byleth starts after quite some time, clearly as affected as he is by what had just transpired before their very eyes. “I hadn’t really expected this at the start?” She confesses, looking very much surprised herself. “I hadn’t really thought that this was something that could possibly happen...especially with those two.”

 

Ah , thinks Jeralt as he reminisces about the rough beginning between Jeritza and Miklan. 

 

“But I’m glad for them,” Byleth is quick to add. The corners of her eyes crinkling as she smiles gently at the sight. “I’m glad that they were able to find each other this time around.”

 

“Ah,” agrees Jeralt, half-listening by now as he wonders if it would be too late to give them the safe sex talk.

 

Just in case, you know?

 

Although Jeralt had managed to avoid getting any kind of diseases with his hanky-pankying around in the past, it doesn’t mean that the same kind of devil’s luck would apply to his brood!

.

..

..

.

Sleep gradually leaves Jeralt that night and he eventually finds himself blearily blinking up at the ceiling. 

 

Ugh, he thinks, very much familiar with the itch raking its way up his spine. It’s his senses telling him that something is missing and, irritatingly enough, they’re right most of the time.

 

He checks down his clothes, just in case; when that doesn’t seem to be the case, he painstakingly lifts himself up to sit on the bed so as to better survey the moonlit room.

 

His bed neighbour, Christophe, murmurs something incomprehensible beneath as he turns to lay on his side, the covers wrapped tightly around him. There’s a furrow between his brows that digs deeper in tandem with the way he squeezes his pillow close to his chest.

 

Curious, Jeralt gets out of his own bed and creeps closer to Christophe’s to hear his mutterings better.

 

“Mhm, and in a flash...zzz, Kyphon’s...sword flew from hngh...it’s scabbard.”

 

Jeralt’s brows rise at that. 

 

“Nhmm, yeah, yeah, you got it, Asheeee,” Christophe slurs, his expression smoothening out as a small grin slides across his lips. “Kyphon saved...mhm Loog...hmm again,” he grumbles.

 

Aw, what the fuck, thinks Jeralt, his heart practically melting at both the hilarity and adorableness of it all. 

 

Seeing Christophe safely tucked in his dreams, Jeralt turns to check on the rest of the occupants.

 

Indie and Kosa, as ever, are sleeping snugly in the same bed despite there being another available. The two are wrapped in each other’s limbs, their noses grazing, and their long hair fanning out behind them and hanging off the edges of the bed with their extravagant length. 

 

It’s the only time that the two are able to wear such serene expressions, and the very sight of it warms Jeralt’s heart.

 

He looks over at Miklan’s bed, and that heart of his nearly leaps out of his throat when he sees that Miklan is not there .

 

Fuck, thinks Jeralt when he notices that neither Jeritza nor Byleth are in their beds as well. 

 

A deep sinking feel settles low in his gut.

 

Nothing good ever comes when those three are involved, the logical part of his brain tells him, and he doesn’t have to be told twice before he silently treads across the room, wraps his cloak around himself, and promptly leaves the room with only a soft click .

 

The cold seeping from the wooden floors are a welcome comfort to his bare feet, its icy tendrils sinking deep into his skin and soothing what frayed nerves he has at whatever Byleth, Jeritza, and Miklan are up to at this unholy hour of the night. 

 

That sensation continues to stay with him even after he's explored the whole floor. Frustrated, he’s about to head downstairs when he suddenly remembers that there’s a large balcony somewhere in the middle wing that he had, quite dumbly, missed.

 

Immediately, Jeralt sets off with the very present fear of those three bringing back another miserable kid with a sad backstory come morning.

 

It’s a possibility that Jeralt can not let happen again. He has far too many mouths to feed and livers to ruin for his sorry coffers to pay for!

 

To his immense relief, Jeralt spots Jeritza and Miklan at the balcony, sitting a bit precariously on the edge of the marble railings and appearing to have some kind of private conversation considering how close they are to one another.

 

Jeralt, his mind enclosed thickly within a gelatin of drowsiness and stress at getting this kind of shock at this time of the night, doesn’t think much over their close proximity and accomplishes what he will later on look back as one of the most ultimate cock-blocker moves he’s ever committed.

 

He pushes open the balcony door.

 

It is, just to inform, not a silent affair.

 

The door’s base hideously screeches against the cobbled ground outside and its hinges whine quite painfully, which are signs of poor construction and lack of proper oiling respectively.

 

Expectedly enough, this horrible combination of noise is enough to alarm both Jeritza and Miklan. 

 

The two leap apart as if they’d been scalded by the other’s touch, facing Jeralt with very wide eyes and very red faces.

 

When neither of them utters a peep, Jeralt gives them an odd look. “I’ve been looking for you guys,” he says slowly, carefully, and eyes their particularly underdressed states in this kind of climate.

 

Really, Jeralt internally huffs. They couldn’t have bothered to bring out their cloaks in this kind of cold?

 

But who’s he to judge when he prefers traipsing around in the night with no shoes on?

 

Jeritza is the first to speak up, after clearing his throat. “What is it?” He asks, his cheeks and ears stubbornly holding onto its flush.

 

Jeralt is unable to tame his big yawn. “I woke up and found out that some of you were gone from your beds, so I went to look for you guys,” is his answer and, just because he can’t resist it since he’s obligated to be that annoying adult, jokingly adds, “Thought you guys could be fornicating out here in the middle of the night.”

 

It’s a joke, of course. He trusts these two the most to not lay a single hand on his daughter, and also to beat up anybody who so much as looks at Byleth in an inappropriate manner.

 

For some strange reason, Jeritza and Miklan turn even redder to the point that their faces are starting to resemble apples at their ripest.

 

It’s at this point that the gelatin crumbles and Jeralt’s brain is finally free to connect the dots.

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

My bad, thinks Jeralt.

 

The realization must show on his face, because Miklan suddenly has this ‘frothing from the eyes’ look.

 

“It—It’s not what it looks like!” Is what he says of all things, and in such a high-pitched and panicked voice too.

 

“Uh-huh,” says Jeralt, clearly unconvinced. 

 

He knows when a fornication is about to happen when he sees one. He’s not that dumb, thank you very fucking much.

 

Jeralt looks over to Jeritza to gauge his reaction and sees the very complicated expression on the man’s face.

 

Jeralt, who’s read enough pocket books in this lifetime, thinks, Oh fuck .

 

“We really weren’t doing anything,” placates Miklan, before he frantically glances at Jeritza for help. “Right, Jeritza? Please tell—”

 

Miklan must have finally noticed Jeritza’s menacing glower, for he shuts up with a small fearful sound.

 

Uh-oh, thinks Jeralt, desperately needing a chair to sit on to better watch this. 

 

Miklan’s features twist, mouth wide and wobbly and looking very much like he wants to cry. “Jeritza?” He calls.

 

Jeritza looks away, gaze hard.

 

Jeralt has neither the patience nor dignity to deal with Miklan’s subsequent breakdown. Nor is he able to tolerate the violent aura radiating off of Jeritza in dark spikes. 

 

He very much does not want to get in the middle of a bloody beatdown. 

 

With the very intent to leave, he prepares himself to turn on his heel and continue his search for his daughter when he stops.

 

There. In the courtyard that the balcony overlooks. Isn’t that his daughter?

 

He watches as, for some reason, Byleth makes her way into the maze of tall hedges that Jeralt had discovered years ago the Duke had commissioned decades ago to have some criminals who were on the death penalty run into before he’d unleashed his hounds after them.

 

Jeralt is very much not okay with his daughter waltzing into what could amount to a haunted maze.

 

“Hey,” Jeralt calls out to the now silent couple. Miklan looks up from where he’d been silently staring at the ground. Jeritza glances at him. “I saw Byleth going into the maze,” he says.

 

Miklan furrows his brow. “Isn’t that...where the Duke used to torture criminals in before?” He asks.

 

Hearing it come from Miklan’s mouth makes it sound fifty times worse.

 

“Yes,” Jeralt confirms, watching as all the blood drains from the young man’s face. “I believe we should go get her,” he decides and is pleased when the two firmly nod back.

 

Their personal matters aside, they’re sensible enough to push that aside for the sake of Byleth.

 

Jeralt is so very proud of them.

.

..

..

.

Jeralt takes that back.

 

The maze is an absolute nightmare to navigate through, and it certainly doesn’t help that his two companions are being irritatingly unhelpful with their sudden silence, occasional side glances (Miklan), and random bouts of growls (Jeritza). Jeralt performs a miracle in itself by leading them to the middle, where a small and very old gazebo sits in the middle with the moonlight washing over the table set residing within it

 

Jeralt’s eyes light up when he catches sight of his daughter just a couple of feet away from him. She’s noiselessly making her way to the rickety gazebo, and Jeralt makes a move to call out to her when her name dies in his throat.

 

Because, as it appears, Byleth isn’t alone.

 

There is a stranger with her who’s standing in the middle of the gazebo with his back turned to them.

 

Jeralt doesn’t realize he’d zoned out when he suddenly comes back to himself and finds himself being physically restrained by both Miklan and Jeritza behind the safety of the tall hedges.

 

Jeritza, his voice strained, whispers, “Sir, calm down. We shouldn’t act so hastily.”

 

Jeralt shoots him an incredulous look. “Calm down?” He hisses lowly, internally wondering why were they being so quiet of all times now! “Calm down? Byleth’s with some stranger!” He whispers back furiously.

 

“Look closely, sir,” Jeritza insists, hosting Jeralt up so that all three of them could peek over the side of the tall hedge.

 

Jeralt looks, fuming all the while, but he still doesn’t see what it is that Jeritza is implying. 

 

All he sees is that it appears that the man had noticed his daughter’s presence, which ensues the current staring match between the two.

 

“I don’t see it,” Jeralt says. “But I still believe that we should crash them.”

 

“Sir, no,” Miklan stops him, physically restraining him once more when Jeralt makes a move to leap out.

 

How dare you, Jeralt’s eyes scream. I’ve fed you, sheltered you, gave you a job, and allowed you to sleep beside my daughter! 

 

“Sir, yes ,” Jeralt snarls, thrashing in his cage.

 

“Sir, please ,” Jeritza says as he helps Miklan in restraining Jeralt. He’s their boss for fuck’s sake! They’re getting a salary cut from him, those bastards! “She’s with an Almyran . In the Alliance Head’s gardens . Let Byleth handle it. We wouldn’t want to get in trouble just because we destroyed Duke Riegan’s maze in a fit of emotions,” he explains reasonably enough.

 

Jeralt gives him the same look he’d given Miklan.

 

“So what if he’s Almyran?” Jeralt snaps, knowing how unreasonable he must sound but fuck it. “He’s a hot-blooded human who could start fornicating with my daughter anytime!”

 

By his ear, Miklan mutters a, “Wow. If Byleth heard that, she’d ignore you for weeks .”

 

Jeralt startles at that. “I trust my daughter! It’s that stranger  I don’t trust!” He protests

 

Jeritza and Miklan send him a pair of dubious looks, which, okay, fine.

 

It’s not that I don’t trust her, reasons Jeralt. It’s just I don’t trust some of her decisions!  

 

He remembers all those crazy things she’d done growing up: wanting to train at the age of five, that outfit of hers, adopting kids around her age left and right, that outfit of hers, going on that vacation of hers and returning with the spoils of her conquest(?) in her hair, that outfit of hers, wooing Lambert’s son, disobeying his orders to fight some bird-dragon thing, that outfit of hers!

 

And that’s only listing a few!

 

Jeralt is all about his daughter expressing herself and living life to its fullest, but he’s allowed to worry sometimes dammit!

 

“Let’s just wait and see,” Jeritza consoles him, even as he picks a twig from the ground and begins poking some holes in the hedge they’re hiding behind. “Here. We can watch through these. And since the hedges are close enough, we can probably hear them or read their lips.” He gestures to the holes.

 

I can’t believe this, Jeralt thinks, bitter. We’re no better than peeping toms at this rate!

 

Still, Jeralt settles down and peeps through because dammit that’s still his daughter there.

 

Jeralt is mildly relieved to discover that his daughter and the stranger are still gauging each other.

 

“See?” Miklan mutters. “Nobody’s fornicating tonight.”

 

Jeralt digs his elbow deep into the young man’s side, which elicits a yelp from the former noble’s mouth that is muffled by Jeritza’s quick hand.

 

The quiet staring between the two goes on for about a few more boring minutes, before that status quo is easily broken by a word.

 

“Hah,” the stranger breathes out, lips stretched into a painfully strained grin. “To think,” he begins, nonchalantly placing one of his hands atop his belt. 

 

Jeralt traces that movement, knowing all too well that there must be a weapon hidden near there.

 

“That my first meeting with the fabled Ashen Demon would be in the middle of a garden maze. Life sure has a sense of humor, huh?” He laughs, gesturing with his free hand at their surroundings.

 

It’s plain to see that this stranger would rather be anywhere else than here right now.

 

Hmph! Jeralt internally huffs, clutching a part of the hedge. Doesn't he know how blessed he is to be alone with my daughter? Doesn't he know that she inherited her mother's beauty?! Huh?! Is he blind?!

 

“Jeralt,” warns Jeritza, tapping the back of Jeralt’s clenched fist.

 

Jeralt breathes out through his nose and tries to ease the fire stoking deep in his belly.

 

“Hmmm,” hums Byleth in a near inaudible voice. Jeralt can’t quite see the expression she’s making, but he assumes she must be amused judging by the next words that come tumbling out of her mouth. “I don’t know. Meeting an Almyran in the Alliance Head’s gardens isn’t exactly at the top of the oddest situations I’ve landed myself in,” she mentions.

 

The man laughs once more, the spacings between each ha a bit broken this time around. 

 

“So...you’ve caught me. What are you going to do about that then? Have me kneel before the Duke’s feet, make me confess my unjustly crimes, and then slit my throat?” The man suggests in an easygoing manner, though Jeralt catches him glance once at the nearest exit. 

 

He’s getting ready to bolt, concludes Jeralt. 

 

He doubts the man would be able to get away. Byleth has always been fleet-footed since she learned how to run.

 

“But let me just say that it would be an absolute waste to get blood on your clothes,” the man inputs, not making any more moves that would reveal his intent to flee. “The stains itself would already be quite a problem to remove.”

 

“You say that as if I don’t already know the best method to that,” snorts Byleth as she begins making her way towards him.

 

For each step that Byleth takes forward, the man mirrors it with his own backward steps. He only stops when Byleth does, and appears unsure of himself when Byleth merely takes a seat at the table set within the gazebo.

 

“A bit dramatic, aren’t you?” She comments lightly. “However, fortunately for you, I suppose, my plans for the evening don’t include slitting a man’s throat,” she informs him.

 

The man grins, though it’s clear by the way his shoulders are primed back that he isn’t the least bit relieved. “Well, apologies for bothering you, but I best be on my—”

 

The man doesn’t get to finish his farewells.

 

The reason for such is due to Byleth offering him to stay.

 

“Did she just…?” Miklan murmurs softly, unable to quite believe what he’d just heard.

 

“She did,” Jeritza says plainly before pressing his lips tightly together.

 

Jeralt, meanwhile, feels as surprised as the stranger. Indignant as well because Byleth, what the fuck?

 

“Come have a seat and talk with me,” Byleth continues to push. “I’ve seen you a couple of times creeping around the shadows of the estate, I can’t quite deny that you’ve piqued my curiosity.”

 

Jeralt bristles at that, but remains still because Jeritza and Miklan did have a point.

 

He has to trust Byleth on this one.

 

“And I doubt that you’re a servant or prisoner of war being kept in the Duke’s estate,” she adds. “You dress too fine and walk too free to be either of those.”

 

At the mention of the stranger’s clothes, Jeralt takes note of the man’s simplicit and lacklustre outfit, which consists of a white balloon-sleeved shirt and a pair of pants that are, if a bit messily, tucked into dark boots.

 

But his inspection doesn’t end just there. 

 

What the fuck , thinks Jeralt as he stares at the cape draped over one of the stranger’s shoulders.

 

He traces what intricate details he can capture with where he’s squatting from.

 

Gold against bronze.

 

Riegan colors.

 

Jeralt understands all too well the implications of such, but doesn’t delve too deeply into that clusterfuck. It’s too late (or is it early?) for him to be dealing with world-shattering realities like this.

 

Goddess does he need a drink.

 

Pushing that fuckery at the back of his mind, he focuses on the task at hand and continues on observing the suddenly very critical scene happening before him.

 

The man continues to stand awkwardly for a few minutes longer, before Byleth taps the table a few times and makes some sort of threatening expression that is enough to make the man sit with little fanfare.

 

"I could be a thief for all you know," the man stubbornly points out.

 

"Then you'd make for a very poor one," Byleth comments. "The gardens should be the last place you should go to if you’re going to rob a noble’s house” 

 

It makes for an amusing sight to see the stranger splutter, clearly not having expected Byleth’s critical tongue.

 

"I find it a bit offensive, though, that you'd assume I'd regard you as a thief just because I pointed out your heritage a while ago," Byleth muses with no real heat to her words.

 

"Well...why else would an Almyran such as myself be here of all places?" The other man banters, leaning forward and placing his laced fingers atop the table. 

 

"Hmmm. Why, indeed," Byleth says. "But again, I've found myself in odder situations." She shrugs. "So, what would you like to talk about?"

 

Jeralt blinks at the same time the Almyran does.

 

"Pardon?"

 

"We're supposed to be having a conversation, aren't we? We'd be having a poor one if we don't have a topic to talk about." 

 

Jeralt can practically hear the smile inlaid in her words.

 

"I, ah, yes," the man agrees. A lengthy pause follows after that and, to Jeralt's surprise, it appears that the Almyran is even seriously mulling over it. "Then tell me about one of those 'odder situations' that you're so proud of, Ashen Demon," he decides on.

 

Byleth tilts her head, thinking over her experiences. “I suppose I should start with one I’m actually quite fond of,” she muses before her voice calms down somewhat, taking on a serene kind of edge that softens her intonations as she narrates her tale.

 

As Jeralt listens, he realizes that his daughter is talking about that one mission that they took years ago. The one where they had to chase after some Vestra brat.

 

“I don’t remember that one,” mutters Miklan.

 

Jeralt watches for a few more moments, gauging how the Almyran grows gradually more riveted with his daughter’s storytelling. “This happened before you joined,” is his answer.

 

With the sky still so dark and his daughter’s soothing voice the only thing he can hear, Jeralt finds it a rather difficult challenge just to stay awake.

 

Fight it , Jeralt tells himself even as his eyelids droop.

 

A minute later, when he closes his eyes, he changes his tune.

 

Just for a bit , he reassures himself. Jeritza and Miklan will wake me up if anything happens. He trusts in them to do so.

 

Still, he’s surprised that Byleth had even remembered a quest that they took years ago. He should have expected it, though. 

 

Byleth always did have a particularly good memory, just like her mother.

 

And, if Jeralt allows himself to, it’s so easy to hear how his daughter’s voice so eerily resembles that of her mother’s. 

 

It is, like this, that Jeralt finds it much easier but infinitely more painful to remember of a time far gone and no longer within his reach.

 

("Of all the things the goddess could have blessed you with, pretty handwriting wasn't what I'd expected."

 

"Believe it or not, Jeralt, but one day you'll die from eating too much sugar!"

 

"Ah! Jeralt! Look, look! There's a kitten sleeping on a dog! Isn't that so precious?"

 

"Hmmm, if you were to be a flower, it would definitely be a calendula! They mean protection, you know? Because you're always there to protect someone."

 

"Jeralt, hun, be truthful to me. Do I fish too much?"

 

"Hmph! I'm not getting fat! So what if I eat too many meals?! I'm pregnant! Alois deserved what he got to him!")

 

Jeralt only realizes that he’d fallen asleep when he is startled awake from his snooze by the ear-splitting sound of a chair being scraped against gritty tiles.

 

Alarmed and internally cursing himself for being so blithe, Jeralt peeks through the peephole once more and sees that his daughter and the Almyran are now standing across from one another with only the table set separating them.

 

"'Til next we meet, fake-thief," his daughter bids, playfully bowing with a hand to her chest.

 

"'Til next we meet, ye of amusing tales." The Almyran copies her, only performing a curtsey instead.

 

The two share a smile, appearing to have developed some sort of accord during the time that Jeralt had dozed off.

 

“What happened?” Jeralt inquires as he watches Byleth turn on her heel and stride over to the exit. 

 

“She just told a couple more of our exploits,” Jeritza summarizes it smartly. “All carefully edited, of course,” he adds, which Jeralt already knows since he trusts his men to keep any important bits of their jobs to themselves whenever they’d start bragging about it to other non-company people.

 

“Wait!” 

 

Almost immediately, Jeralt bolts back to his peephole to see what all the commotion is about.

 

Shouldn’t it be over by now?!

 

“Is there, by any chance, you’ll come back here tomorrow night?” The Almyran asks, features set into a determined firmness. 

 

Byleth faces him once more, her hips cocked to one side with her hand over it. “I don’t give my time to strangers,” is her seemingly cold response.

 

Jeralt can’t believe it. Byleth is playing with that Almyran! That Almyran who has a very likely and very dubious connection to the Riegan House! 

 

The Almyran in question winces. For a while, he rubs the edges of that little braid he has hanging from one side of his face, then purses his lips.

 

“What if I give you my name?” He proposes. “Would you reconsider?”

 

“...I suppose that would do,” drawls Byeth.

 

The Almyran grins, triumph practically bleeding through the whiteness of his teeth. “Wonderful! It’d be a shame if I lost a valuable source of entertainment just as soon as I’d discovered it!” 

 

Jeralt narrows his eyes at that, disliking this man’s particular choice of words.

 

“I guessin’ now’s the time to introduce myself,” the Almyran chuckles. “The name’s Claude, and what may yours be?” He asks for, definitely pushing it in Jeralt’s notes. “Since that would only be a fair trade,” he adds.

 

Don’t do it! Jeralt screams in his mind, clutching onto his hedge and suppressing the urge to shake it. You don’t owe him anything, By!

 

For once, for once thank the goddess , his thoughts seem to be heard by Byleth since she shakes her head at the inquiry of her name.

 

“We’ll see,” is her curt reply, before she turns on her heel and proceeds to exit.

 

“Hey, wait! That’s not fair!” The Almyran— Claude , if that’s really his true name. Jeralt doubts it—complains, but when Byleth only continues to walk away, he exclaims, “I’m holding on to you to keep our deal!”

 

Jeralt has enough time to catch sight of Byleth casually waving, her green nails gleaming in the moon’s light, before he feels a strong tug at the back of his shirt.

 

“We have to go,” hisses Jeritza, already on his feet. “We don’t want Byleth to discover that we were spying on her,” he advises.

 

Jeralt doesn’t even have to think about it. “Let’s go,” he agrees, leading the run back to their rooms ‘fore Byleth could catch them red-handed.

.

..

..

.

The next day, Jeralt brings the matter up to the Duke.

 

Duke Riegan merely cocks a brow at the topic of an Almyran within Riegan territory.

 

“Hmmm,” hums the Duke, before his gaze strays back to the pile of paperwork that’s his assigned load for the day. 

 

“Oswald.” Jeralt dares for as much as he can. “This is not a simple matter.”

 

“I suppose not,” is the Duke’s responding drawl. “But we don’t have to treat it so significantly.”

 

Jeralt wisely does not mention the bronze against gold motif of the cape that Almyran had been wearing.

 

Jeralt is aware of the implications in that.

 

He is also very much aware of the consequences of mentioning that.

 

“Then, at the very least, what is he to your House?” Jeralt asks. 

 

“A guest,” answers the Duke, glancing at him sharply with those sharp Riegan eyes of his. “A very important and precious one. It would do you and your men good to avoid placing any sort of harm on even a single strand of his hair,” he cautions, tapping his quill within its inkwell.

 

Jeralt stares at the Duke dubiously. 

 

A guest. 

 

Yeah, right, internally snorts Jeralt. If the Almyran had been a mere guest, the Duke would have hardly given a single fuck about him.

 

Regardless, Jeralt nods

 

The Duke watches him for a couple more minutes. Then, without further ado, he brings out a dark bottle of liquor from somewhere underneath his desk.

 

Jeralt eyes the bottle, internally questioning if a man the Duke’s age and health should really be drinking that.

 

The Duke pours a substantial amount in two glasses; one that he pushes away and the other for himself.

 

Jeralt, knowing a bribe when he sees one, accepts it. 

 

“So long as he doesn’t harm any of my own,” Jeralt declares, bravely.

 

The Duke merely leans back into his seat and takes a long sip of the dark liquid.

 

He finishes the drink though, and Jeralt is familiar enough with the noble’s old habits to know that he’s acquiesced. 

 

“And how are you and your men’s attire for Leicester Day?”

 

Jeralt welcomes the change of topic into lighter areas, but he grimaces at it as well.

 

“About that…”

 

Chapter Text

A couple of days later finds Jeralt in the middle of inspecting himself in the only mirror of the room that he shares with his brood. The dark suit—coal bordering on black for their company’s main color, as commandeered by those who knew nobility best (Christophe and Miklan), so as to avoid copying any other house’s motif—fits him almost perfectly if not for that bit of tightness in the waistline.

 

(It's definitely because of those fucking sweet cream rolls he's been chowing down left and right.)

 

He isn’t complaining though. Christophe and Miklan had gotten these clothes cheap, so the only price to it would be the dyeing and altering of which to their sizes. 

 

Jeralt didn’t even bother to ask where they’d gotten it from, though he suspects they’d bought it from the black market, which meant they were all wearing either stolen or dead men’s clothes, and Jeralt is very careful not to mention that piece of information.

 

He just wonders, though, if the others know about that.

 

Best not to think about it, he decides wisely.

 

Jeralt cocks a grin at himself in the mirror, throwing in a playful wink, before he turns to check on the others.

 

To his relief, it seems that they are mostly done and are just fixing a few small details.

 

“That looks itchy,” comments Indie as he inspects Christophe’s dark suit. He reaches over to tug on Christophe’s collar, and frowns deeply when it doesn’t stretch so must. “Isn’t it a bit tight?”

 

“Not really,” denies Christope, one side of his hair gelled back whilst the rest of his bangs brush over an eye. “I’ve always worn worn clothes like these since I was young, so it honestly feels a bit relaxing to be, uhm, back in these again?” He laughs shakily, running a hand over the dark navy cape that he has draped over one shoulder. “How about the two of you? Were I and Miklan able to meet your expectations?”

 

“You have,” Kosa agrees, for once in a good mood. “I am glad I asked. Neither my brother nor I would be able to handle such uncomfortable clothes.” Here, he shoots a detestable look at their suits. 

 

Jeralt would have felt envious of what the Nabatean brothers get to wear—foreign and flowy black robes that look particularly easy for a breeze to get into—but he doesn’t, for he’s seen the layers upon layers that the two had to force upon themselves for the ensemble to look complete.

 

Not to mention the amount of time they’d spent on their hair , wherein a small portion of the top half had been intricately braided and pinned into an unfamiliar bloom at the back with little pins; their ears carefully hidden of course.

 

Seeing that the three of them are fine on their own, Jeralt turns his attention to the other two.

 

It’s...not looking well, that’s for sure.

 

Though Miklan is already primed for the ball—hair combed to the side with a bit of volume, and his suit as black as the others with a dark cape with red trimmings draped over an arm—Jeritza clearly isn’t.

 

Jeritza has his suit on quite fine, with a white cape that has red trimmings covering an arm; but his long blonde hair cascades his back in an alarmingly untouched river.

 

“Miklan,” Jeralt calls to catch his attention. When he has it, he promptly orders, “Go help him.”

 

Immediately, the two tense up.

 

Jeralt would have let them graciously slink away any other day, but this has honestly got to stop. 

 

Jeralt is willing to bet every hair on his brows that the goddess herself must feel pretty exhausted at having to watch their little game of ignoring and pining.

 

And maybe he’s also just feeling a tad bit guilty at, maybe, maybe! , having interrupted them a few nights ago.

 

Maybe.

 

“Go, shoo.” Jeralt even makes some waving motions.

 

Reluctantly, Miklan strides over to the back of Jeritza’s hair.

 

“...May I?” Miklan asks in a small voice, hands hovering over Jeritza’s unbound hair.

 

Jeritza glances at Jeralt and, for the first time in a long time, glares at him.

 

Ah . Jeralt smiles back, his teeth bared. There’s shitface .

 

Nevertheless, Jertiza grunts, and Miklan takes that as confirmation to start working on it.

 

Jeralt watches Miklan work, calloused hands surprisingly gentle and adept as he’s handling Jeritza’s locks. It appears he already has a style in mind, for his fingers are quick as they pull strands here and there. In barely a handful of minutes, Jeritza’s hair has already been braided up into a high ponytail with a scarlet ribbon.

 

“Pins?” Miklan asks, holding a hand out. 

 

When Indie moves to pull out his own, Kosa stops him and gives him a tray full of it to hand over to Miklan.

 

“Thank you,” murmurs Miklan, shooting a smile at the two Nabateans, before he’s pressing a multitude of those silver metals into the base of Jeritza’s ponytail so as to keep it in place.

 

“I’m afraid this is the best I can for now,” Miklan apologizes, as if he hadn’t just done such a spectacular job in a matter of minutes.

 

Jeritza rubs a hand through his ponytail, before he nods slowly.

 

Miklan’s eyes shine brilliantly for but a moment, lips about to stretch into a grin, before he seems to remember himself and that expression of his dims.

 

Miklan takes a step back as Jeritza stands, the two avoiding the other once again.

 

Goddessdammit , curses Jeralt when he sees that the briefly sweet atmosphere between the two had converted back into its awkward state.

 

Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Jeralt takes it for the progress it is. “Shall we go then?” He asks. 

 

Each of them sounds out an affirmation.

 

“Alright,” starts Jeralt, reaching for his cloak. He’s glad that he’d taken care of it well enough that it could still be worn on formal occasions. 

 

He throws the cloak over his shoulders and shuts the clasp near his collarbone. The heavy fur on the inside is a comforting heat, and he savors it for a few seconds.

 

“Let’s go,” he orders them. 

 

They all exit the room before promptly locking it and giving the key to Jeritza. Since this won’t be another one of their late night outs drinking up to dawn, Jeritza would obviously be the best choice since he's the least likely to be pickpocketed.

 

Jeralt knocks on each one of his men’s doors, informing them to meet out front, and endures their playful leers at his current appearance.

 

“Haha,” he says sarcastically. “This’ll be the only time you’ll see me like this,” he retorts flatly.

 

Finally, he arrives at the females’ room where Byleth had retreated to in order to, as she’d said, ‘gear up’ for the upcoming celebration.

 

As he’d done with the rest, Jeralt knocks thrice and informs them that they’ll be leaving soon.

 

“One minute!” A muffled voice yells from the other side of the door. 

 

“You said one!” Jeralt reminds, and walks away from the complaints of how stingy he is.

 

“Give them some time,” advises Kosa once they finally arrive outside where the cool night’s breeze greets them. “Beauty takes patience. Just because you do not have it, it does not mean you can trample upon theirs.”

 

Jeralt’s fingers immediately shoot out and jab Kosa in the side.

 

Kosa squawks like the chicken he is, leaping away in a flutter of shiny fabric. “You dare!” He roars, viridian eyes flashing, as he holds out his arms, thoron sparking out from his fingertips.

 

Jeralt mockingly waves his fingers at him in response, all too happy to incite his ire. 

 

Eventually, more than a minute passes and a few of his men start to complain over how they’re going to run out of food in the banquet.

 

“Not really,” is what Christophe says. When all eyes turn on him, he merely shrugs. “Nobles always prepare too much food for these kinds of things. Believe me, we’ll have more than enough.”

 

“It’s the desserts you’ll have to watch out for,” Jeralt adds, remembering those times when he had to attend these kinds of things in Rhea’s stead. “They always run out.”

 

For some reason, his men all share knowing looks.

 

“That’s because you always finish them!” Somebody from behind him exclaims, inciting boisterous laughs from his men.

 

“Alina,” sighs Jeralt, exasperated. “You and the girls sure took your sweet ti—” He turns—

 

And promptly freezes, the words dying on his tongue.

 

“Heh,” snorts Alina, her hands boldly on her hips. “We must have done a pretty good job then!” She boasts, smirking widely.

 

Jeralt, though, is too deaf to hear whatever else taunting she makes.

 

It’s as if the entire world had suddenly closed in on him, leaving him the only person left.

 

Him and his daughter, that is.

 

Byleth comes to a stop in front of him. She tilts her head back to look up at him, her rouge-tinted lips curving into a shy smile that matches the way her green-dusted eyelids droop down into crescents.

 

“How do I look?” She asks as she clasps her hands behind her back. She tilts her head, looking expectedly up at him.

 

Jeralt’s throat tightens, and feels the inexplicable feeling of tears building up at the back of his eyes at the very sight of his daughter, her hair styled into a half-updo that falls into waves of dark blue that frame her face in an attractive manner.

 

It's definitely not the dress that he’d been hoping for Byleth to wear, but it certainly doesn’t anymore at this point. Though her outfit may be a simple thing—consisting of a long-sleeved white blouse that’s cinched by a dark brown waist corset, a pair of black pants that are tucked into her signature boots—it's...well.

 

It’s the sudden change of it that makes her seem different.

 

Older.

 

More mature.

 

“I’m still technically wearing a skirt,” Byleth mentions, waving her cape skirt over the front of her legs. The fabric of which is thicker than usual, probably embedded with chainmail, that’s black at the back yet a dark green on the inside. 

 

Jeralt can’t help it. He really, really can’t because, because , if his wife were here, he could practically see a visage of her, her dainty hands—used for writing and fishing and healing—holding their daughter’s shoulders, and her smile as bright as ever as she says,

 

‘You see this? We made this. She is one of you and one of me, and isn’t she just amazing?

 

“Dad?” A touch to his arm jolts him back to reality, and he’s back looking down at Byleth who’s staring up at him with furrowed brows. “Are you alright? You look like you’re about to cry…”

 

Jeralt hastily rubs the corners of his eyes. He swallows down the tightness in his throat when he realizes that she’s right.

 

Fuuuuuuck , he stretches aloud in his brain.

 

“Woooooah,” one of his men echoes. “Oi, come look! The captain’s crying!” He exclaims, beckoning the rest, who all come rushing at him so as to better peer at him with very wide eyes.

 

Jeralt flushes deeply. “I wasn’t!” He denies, wiping the area between his upper lip and nose. “Just didn’t blink for a while,” he tries for.

 

But they all continue to stare at him, gobsmacked out of their tiny minds.

 

“Shoo!” He orders, waving them away. When that doesn’t work, he glares at them, which does its job and sends them further away and pretending as if they hadn’t just flocked to him like gluttonous pigeons to a crumb of bread.

 

Jeralt sighs deeply, running a hand through what loose curls he has on his head. Then, after a moment, he turns to his daughter and smiles softly at her.

 

“Are you alright?” Byleth asks him, lips pinched tight.

 

Jeralt flushes a bit deeper. “Yeah,” is his answer. He scratches the nervousness off of his scar, then places that hand on his daughter’s shoulder so as to avoid messing up her hair. “You look stunning,” he says.

 

Though he’d practiced that line for days just for this very moment, he doubts he’s done a good job at executing it when it counts.

 

Regardless, Byleth’s cheeks pink. Her smiles come back, stretched wider than before. 

 

“I’m glad!” 

 

Jeralt’s smile widens at her. He turns to check on the rest of his men, and his eyes soften when he sees how dashing and gorgeous they all look to him. 

 

They all had taken this seriously, and even did a spectacular job at it.

 

His gaze hardens, though. 

 

The night isn’t that simple, after all.

 

He sharply sucks in a breath, holds it in, and lets it out in a loud puff.

 

All eyes turn to him.

 

“You all know what to do, right?” Jeralt asks, assessing each member before him. 

 

Their expressions harden, and they nod sharply in return.

 

Jeralt nods back. Then, with a turn of his heel, he shouts, “Let’s go!”

.

..

..

.

If there were any kind of battlefield that Jeralt would detest the most, it would definitely be the ones confined within ballrooms. It must say something that, within the span of a few minutes, he’s just about ready to fling open the nearest window and escape this hellhole of perfume-scented air and carefully-crafted smiles that the nobles shoot at one another.

 

It’s a good thing that Jeralt had made it a point to drill the etiquette of surviving this kind of battlefield to his men. They all remain at the latter half of the room, where the nobles’ children and the rest of the less important but still very much significant commonfolk are loitering about, and are distinctly keeping their toes away from the upper half of the room where the nobles are parading around in their extravagant gowns and robes. 

 

And, much to Jeralt’s relief, his men have taken his advice to heart and are currently in groups of either three or four. 

 

After all, any group larger than that would be subjected to criticism, and any lower than that would be a prime target for any other social groups to approach and most likely taunt.

 

Jeralt would never want any of his men to experience the embarrassment of being humiliated in public for having committed just one wrong move in defense. 

 

Jeralt can still remember how the mortification had burned into him at that time; how, for once, he’d been so furious at the impossibility of being able to raise his lance and gut out his own problems.

 

So, just to ensure the prevention of such, Jeralt had taken the liberty of sacrificing himself to Duke Riegan’s care so as to keep the other lords’ and ladies’ eyes off of his men and entirely on him

 

He’s coming to regret that decision when, an hour into the party, the Duke still isn’t finished parading him around as he greets his guests.

 

I’ve underestimated you , thinks Jeralt as, with stinky eyes, he glares at the Duke’s knees that would have wobbled on any other day. 

 

“So?” Duke Riegan prods just as soon as Lord Acheron, a mouse of a man who hadn’t even bothered to return Jeralt’s handshake, is out of their sight. “What do you think?”

 

Jeralt sighs, feeling even wearier at this game of snark that noble that the Duke is so fond of. “You shouldn’t bully him so much,” he is careful to jaunt. “Press too many a buttons and the young Lord will not be any better than a cornered rat.”

 

Duke Riegan snorts. “That child has inherited none of his father’s fidelity nor finesse and all of his maternal House’s ambition. A terrible combination, if I’ve ever seen one.”

 

Jeralt hums at that.

 

“Duke Riegan!” 

 

A holler is made from the other side of the room.

 

Jeralt turns his head to see who has the steel balls to call for the Duke in such an imperious manner, and is very much startled to see a man easily larger than he is striding over to them.

 

Jeralt registers the man’s undoubtedly Goneril pink hair and thinks, Oh .

 

Huh.

 

If my memory serves me right, starts Jeralt as he stares at the bear of a man exchanging delightful greetings with Duke Riegan. Most particularly, he stares at the man’s very much pink beard . Then this should be...Espen Andri-something Goneril?

 

Jeralt can hardly believe what he’s seeing.

 

Oh, he very well knows who the current Duke of House Goneril is. Heck, he’d personally sparred with him a number of times when the brat was still a student back at Garegg Mach Monastery, but to see Espen—little Espen who was as baby-faced as he was vicious with an axe—look so, er, grizzly was such a shock.

 

Who knew people could change so much.

 

A strong clap to his shoulder jolts Jeralt back to reality, and he has to hide his wince when Duke Goneril aims his charismatic smile at him.

 

“And sir Jeralt!” Espen— Duke Goneril exclaims loudly. “What a surprise to see you here! Why, I’d thought I’d never get the chance to see you again after I heard that you’d up and left Lady Rhea’s side!”

 

Jeralt smiles weakly at that. “Life has its ways, Duke Goneril” he says enigmatically.

 

Duke Goneril snorts at that, before he bulldozes on, “And how long has it been since we’d seen each other? Two decades? Two and a half? You have to forgive me, but it really has been so long!”

 

Patiently, Jeralt answers, “Since you’ve graduated from the academy, so about...two and a half decades, yes.”

 

Duke Goneril whistles lowly. “Time sure has passed,” he remarks; then, after a quick glance to the side, he leans down and tells Jeralt, “Why don’t you and I hit the field for old time’s sake?”

 

And then he grins—wide and full of teeth, and Jeralt is reminded of that brash young lad that had dominated every axe tournament in Garegg Mach Monastery until he’d graduated. 

 

And Jeralt, whose fingers have been itching for his lance since this party had started, is very much inclined to agree.

 

“There will be none of that today,” Duke Riegan cuts in like a knife would to soft butter. “This is a time of celebration, if I must remind you?” At that, he directs his steely gaze to Duke Goneril who promptly straightens his back.

 

“I jest, I jest,” Duke Goneril laughs, holding his gloved hands up in peace.

 

Duke Riegan arches a brow at him, clearly unimpressed.

 

“And where is that family of yours that you’re so quick to boast about?” Duke Riegan inquires.

 

At the mention of family, Duke Goneril mellows somewhat. “My wife is currently at home to watch over the Dukedom together with my mother. They send their wishes for your continued health,” he bids.

 

Duke Riegan’s features soften. “Send mine in return for theirs,” he requests. Then, after Duke Goneril has nodded his assent, the placid expression on Duke Riegan is immediately distorted by the deep furrow between his brows. “And what of your children?” He asks.

 

Duke Goneril chuckles. “They’re currently greeting Godfrey. You’ll talk to them soon enough after the first dance,” he assures, even as he surreptitiously checks on the latter half of the room.

 

Curious, Jeralt follows the noble’s line of sight.

 

It isn’t all that difficult to make out the visage of Lord Godfrey Riegan through the crowd, especially with how he’s bedecked in an extravagant attire that’s of the Riegan’s exclusive colors of gold and bronze.

 

And, for some very, very , strange reason, he’s with Kosa, Indie, and Christophe…?

 

Fuuuuuuck , Jeralt internally groans out, noticing the curious stares that the Nabaeteans and an ex-Kingdom noble are garnering from nearby onlookers. 

 

It also doesn’t help that Indie, clueless to the sharks circling around them, is animatedly chattering at Lord Riegan who in turn indulges him with nods and, judging by the way his lips move, short responses.

 

Retreat, retreat , Jeralt tries to telepathically send to them. 

 

It works, somewhat, because Christophe seems to notice the predatory gazes on them and moves to disengage the conversation between Indie and Lord Riegan.

 

Yet, before Jeralt’s own eyes, Christophe halts after a step forward and robotically turns his head to the side.

 

Confused as to why Christophe would stop now of all times, Jeralt moves his gaze to see what has Christophe so captivated.

 

Oh , thinks Jeralt, taking in the shock of pink hair on the two individuals that had just encroached on the group’s imaginary territory. Those must be Duke Goneril’s children .

 

True to the Goneril color motif, the two noble children are elegantly dressed in pleasing shades of pink with delicate fabrics of black lace overlaying the pink silk.

 

“Are you perhaps curious of my children, sir Jeralt?” Duke Goneril suddenly springs out, and Jeralt has to bite the inside of his cheek for his misstep in staring. It must show on his face, since Duke Goneril laughs, “I don’t mind! For my children to have caught the legendary Blade Breaker’s eye, why, I’m quite honored, really!” 

 

Jeralt forces out a polite smile. “Belated congratulations on your fatherhood then,” he offers.

 

Duke Goneril snorts. “Who’d ever thought I’d be a father, huh? Especially with how truant I was back in the Academy!” And then, for some reason, he winces, as if he’d stepped on burning coal. “Oh, my apologies, sir Jeralt. That was rather insensitive of me,” he suddenly apologizes.

 

Jeralt blinks slowly. “Pardon?”

 

Duke Goneril smiles sadly at him.

 

“I didn’t mean to rub my fatherhood in your face, especially when you had lost your own years ago,” He elaborates.

 

Oh yeah . Realization dawns on Jeralt, and he understands what Duke Goneril had meant. Most of the public still believe that my child is dead .

 

He’d honestly forgotten how dramatic he’d been with staging his daughter’s death—burning his house back in Garegg Mach Monastery and angrily slamming his resignation letter down on Rhea’s desk.

 

Oops , he thinks even as he scratches the scar on his cheek. It’s a bit too late to take it all back though , he regretfully decides, since a number of people already knew that Byleth was related to him by blood.

 

Oops , he thinks again because what a big fucking oops it was.

 

Every Kingdom noble he’d ever interacted with knew about it. The Chief of Duscur knew about it. The Duscurian political hostages in the Kingdom knew about it. Heck, he’d just told the Kirsten Company heads about it the other week, didn’t he?!

 

Realizing how much he’d fucked up, Jeralt goes for damage control.

 

“Although the pain is still there and nothing could ever replace the child that I’d lost,” he explains to Duke Goneril with a placid smile. He makes sure to twist a bit of lie in his emphasis of the truth to make it more believable. “I’ve managed to console myself over the years and even found the strength to have another child after I’d left the Church.” 

 

Duke Goneril’s expression brightens at that. “Really? Are they here?” He is quick to ask, already looking around for anybody that could pass off as Jeralt’s child. “Perhaps they can meet my children and, who knows, maybe serve as one of their vassals,” he proposes.

 

Though Jeralt very well knows Duke Goneril is just merely joking , his insides still freeze nonetheless at the possibility of those words becoming true .

 

Thankfully, Duke Riegan is there to fill in the silence on Jeralt’s part.

 

“And how will Jeralt’s child appreciate servitude to nameless masters?” 

 

As Duke Goneril laughs at the offhanded scolding, Jeralt shoots a look of gratitude at Duke Riegan for the quick save.

 

“I see that you’ve lost neither that wit nor sharp tongue of yours, Duke Riegan,” drawls Duke Goneril. “But you do have a point. It wouldn’t do for the Blade Breaker to even think of getting a good night's rest tonight without having known the names of my brilliant children!” 

 

Jeralt smiles when Duke Goneril turns to him; though, this time, it takes very little effort to smile. 

 

It is, after all, quite hard to dislike somebody who adores their children like so.

 

“I would be honored,” Jeralt replies, honestly looking forward to getting to know this one’s children.

 

Duke Goneril doesn’t waste any time in gesturing over to where his children are now hanging out with Lord Riegan and Jeralt’s most recent additions to the company.

 

“The girl is my daughter, Hilda Valentine Goneril,” Duke Goneril introduces. “She’s due to enroll in the Officers Academy in a few years, and has already built herself a charming reputation amongst the Alliance nobility,” he is quick to boast.

 

Jeralt squints at the finely-dressed girl—barely a lady yet, really. From the looks of it, she must certainly have some charm to be able to steal Indie’s undivided attention from Lord Riegan and maintain it , if the way both she and Indie appear incredibly engaged in their talks about, by the way they gesture to their outfits, clothes of all things.

 

Jeralt curiously glances to the side and has to swallow his sigh.

 

Looks like I don’t have to worry about anybody else approaching them , he tries to think positively.

 

After all, Kosa and Lord Riegan are already doing a spectacular job of that by glowering darkly in the background.

 

“The boy is my son, Holst Espen Goneril,” Duke Goneril continues. “He graduated from the Officers Academy just a few years ago, and is already doing quite a fine job as one of my commanders in protecting Fodlan’s Locket.”

 

At the introduction, Jeralt turns his gaze to the young man who, for some odd, odd reason is, well, locked in a one-sided staring contest with Christophe; Jeralt emphasizes the one-sided part because, by the looks of it, Christophe is doing everything that he can to avoid the young lord’s eyes.

 

“They take after you,” Jeralt comments. 

 

Intense. Pretty. Very pink .

 

Duke Goneril laughs, and Jeralt notes how happy he looks these days as compared to when he was younger. 

 

“That’s to be expected, sir Jeralt. They’re half of me, after all,” the Duke says, before he suddenly pauses when it appears that his attention has been captured by something else in the room. “Let’s continue our conversation later on, shall we?” He suggests after a while.

 

Duke Riegan waves him away and, after polite biddings, Duke Goneril takes his leave.

 

The second the other Duke is out of their sight, Duke Riegan turns to him.

 

“So?”

 

Jeralt closes his eyes. “He’s certainly mellowed out over the years,” is his opinion, though it’s in a slightly fond tone. 

 

Jeralt had always been concerned over the hot-tempered and angsty students back when he’d been affiliated with the Church. After all, the inability to control one’s emotions could very well cost one’s life in the battlefield.

 

So, just to get a glimpse of a grown-up Duke Goneril, Jeralt finds it a heavy comfort.

 

“I’m surprised that he hadn’t commented on your youthful appearance despite how many years it’s been since the two of you have seen each other,” Duke Riegan mentions innocently.

 

Jeralt snorts. Youthful. Hah. Fuck you. “I’ve already prepared for that scenario,” he reassures.

 

Duke Riegan shoots him a decidedly unimpressed look. “Good skincare will not be enough, Jeralt.”

 

Jeralt feigns deafness. It’s not his fucking fault that his body decided to not associate itself with wrinkles or grey hair anymore!

 

Duke Riegan rolls his eyes. “Whatever. I know a losing battle when I see one. Come, we still have more guests to greet,” he orders, already making his way to another part of the room.

 

Jeralt, after sighing deeply, is left with no other choice but to follow the old coot.

Chapter Text

Jeralt is trying. He really, really fucking is. But, goddessdammit—

 

He glances to the side, where all the buffet tables are lined up with platters upon platters of food that gleam too much it would be a sin to eat them.

 

Specifically, Jeralt glances at the dessert table where all those little pastries are practically tempting him with how they seem to cry in all their tininess,

 

EAT ME.

 

It takes a lot of willpower for Jeralt to turn his head away and to focus on the conversation at hand.

 

Though he’s internally howling, Jeralt musters a polite smile when it’s his cue to speak. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Margrave Edmund,” he greets the elderly noble.

 

Margrave Edmund’s features are set into soft slopes that give him a gentler image; his eyes, though, are a pair of unfathomable abysses that dissects him with keen intent.

 

“The pleasure is truly all mine, sir Jeralt,” is the Margrave’s seemingly tender response. “I have heard of your acts of valor for our beloved Alliance Head’s heir, and I extend my deepest of gratitudes for your assistance.”

 

Jeralt nods politely, resisting the urge to shuffle anxiously on his feet.

 

“I see that you have finally brought your ward out of your territory,” mentions Duke Riegan in a perfunctory tone, patently staring at the small figure practically plastered to the Margrave’s back.

 

“I have,” agrees Margrave Edmund. “Marianne, if you would introduce yourself?” He coaxes, voice a whole degree softer and gentler than it was a moment ago.

 

Jeralt turns his gaze to scrutinize the young lady who, after an awkwardly long moment of nervously fidgeting, steps out from her guardian’s shadow.

 

Blue , is the first thing that registers in Jeralt’s mind, and he feels somewhat embarrassed by it even though it’s the truth. From the roots of her hair and to the soles of her heels, the lanky-looking young lady is so many shades of blue that Jeralt has to blink thrice to believe what he’s seeing.

 

“Good evening, your Grace,” she greets in a near silent pitch. She curtsies lowly, her gaze carefully lowered to respectfully avoid that of Duke Riegan’s sharp one. 

 

Though, even after that, she still continues to keep her head down, her dark eyes persistently rooted to the floor and looking as if she’s just desperately wishing for the ground to swallow her up whole at this instant.

 

Goddess . Jeralt can’t help but sympathize with her. It must be her first time attending a formal event, because she’s so obviously nervous with the paleness of her skin, the bags underneath her eyes that are only somewhat concealed by makeup, and the conspicuous trembling of her fingers.

 

“I am Marianne—Marianne von Edmund,” she stumbles over her introduction, frightful and embarrassed at her misstep. 

 

Duke Riegan peers at her, critical, then nods slowly.

 

“It is good to finally meet you, Lady Edmund,” he returns, watching as the young lady doesn’t hesitate to return back to her guardian’s shadow at the subtle dismissal. “Well, I am thankful that the both of you appear to be in good health. And will continue to do so even after this party has ended,” he remarks.

 

Margrave Edmund smiles once more. “We will do our best, your Grace. And our deepest thanks for both your concern and time. If you will excuse us,” he requests.

 

Duke Riegan perfunctorily bids them farewell.

 

Jeralt watches as the two walk away and easily blend into the crowd until they disappear into it.

 

“That was short,” comments Jeralt. 

 

Duke Riegan unabashedly snorts. “Only because Margrave Edmund was with that ward of his,” he says, looking distinctly aggravated with the way his lower lip is jutted out. “During our monthly council meeting, I always have to look out for that bastard because of how vicious and convincing he can be if he decided that he didn’t like any one of my ideas.” He doesn’t look even miffed at the memory; in fact, his expression clears up into an excited one. “And how those chowderheaded idiots drink them all up as if it were tea,” he mutters so that the surrounding nobles don’t hear him.

 

“Your character’s showing, your Grace,” drawls Jeralt, amused. “But the young lady with him is to be the Edmund heiress?”

 

Duke Riegan nods. “The Margrave’s wife had died before they could have even conceived a child, and he never remarried in spite of it,” he explains. “The girl is a distant relative of his, and he adopted her after her parents were said to have mysteriously vanished.”

 

Jeralt stiffens. 

 

The Duke must have noticed his reaction for he scoffs. “They weren’t murdered for convenience, Jeralt. Out of all of the nobles here, the Margrave would rather bribe for things to go his way than assassinate someone,” he assuages some of the tension from Jeralt’s shoulders. “Though their deaths were convenient, I did some investigation just to be sure. Her father certainly did disappear—and he did a mighty good job of it too, irritatingly enough, because none of my people can get a trace of where he’d truly last been seen. Her mother, on the other hand,” he suddenly grimaces. “Brutally mauled by a demonic beast, unfortunately enough. No human could have ever torn another to pieces so raggedly.”

 

“Goddess,” Jeralt breathes, just imagining it. 

 

“And I doubt the young lady will survive for long in this kind of environment with that kind of attitude,” Duke Riegan decides cooly. “If she can hardly look me in the eye after greetings, how else will she be able to look at others headon?”

 

You and they are on very different levels of terror , internally deadpans Jeralt, and he would have spoken it aloud were it not for the Duke suddenly cutting him off with an exclamation of,

 

“Aha!” 

 

At the mere sight of Duke’s Riegan’s smile taking a turn for the sinister, Jeralt very wisely clamps his joke.

 

“My much-awaited guest is finally here, Jeralt,” Duke Riegan practically purrs. “Come, come. We’d best not keep him waiting,” he all but snickers, before resolutely carving a path through the nobles who, after getting a good look of his menacing smile, all part away.

 

Who’s the poor unfortunate bastard this time? Jeralt thinks with absolutely no remorse as he follows after the old coot heels.

 

He gets his answer soon enough when he belatedly realizes that Duke Riegan isn’t striding towards anyone; in fact, it looks more like he’s giving chase after a brightly-haired noble who’s impressively weaving through the crowd.

 

But, here in this limited amount of space, there is only so far one can go.

 

Duke Riegan grins as he finally comes to stand before his prey, whom is perfectly cornered against—to Jeralt’s utter glee—the dessert table.

 

“It is good to finally see you,” are the sugar-coated words that come tumbling out of the Duke’s mouth. “I thought for sure that you would never show up, Count Gloucester,” he makes it a point to utter the noble’s name in a drawl.

 

Count Gloucester smiles back, tilting his head in a way that allows his violet-colored hair to frame his aristocratic features.

 

“Good evening, your Grace,” the Count greets as he bows courteously. When he straightens his back, he has a befuddled expression on his face as he wonders aloud, “Now why would your Grace think that to be the case? For an esteemed noble such as I, turning down this celebration for our Leicester Alliance Day would be impossible.”

 

As he discreetly reaches out for a tiny cake, Jeralt internally applauds the Count who’s doing a fantastic job at how calm this Count is in spite of being chased (hunted down) by the Duke.

 

Despite this, Duke Riegan remains unfazed by the implied snipe. “I had just been concerned that you would not show up due to the unfortunate circumstances that had occurred between our two territories,” he elaborates in a pleasant tone. Then, with his smile taking on a mocking tilt, he says in a fauxly helpless voice, “Bandits, huh?”

 

Count Gloucester brows furrow. His features twist into a look of irritation. “ Bandits . Those pesky lots have been a thorn in my side for the better part of the year.”

 

Duke Riegan makes a small sound and, like a shark having scented blood in the way, he goes in for a strike. “Oh?” He intones, raising his brows and widening his eyes. “If so, then why have you failed to bring it up in any of our Alliance meetings?” He questions.

 

He makes a point , thinks Jeralt as he chews on his sweet prize.

 

Impressively enough, Count Gloucester’s expression does not falter even once as he takes on a helpless look. “I did not wish to bother the nobles with my own troubles, your Grace, and so I decided to keep it to myself,” is his explanation.

 

Duke Riegan hums, his smile widening. “But your absence of informing us nearly led to my Godfrey being murdered in cold blood.” Then, as if imitating the Count’s earlier action, he tilts his head. “And, curiously enough, it happened within the trades routes that had not yet been opened to the public and only a few of us would be privy to…” He trails off.

 

Count Gloucester’s brow twitches, but he immediately masks it by furrowing his brows. “Though I had been heartened when I received word of your son’s survival, are you perhaps implying something, your Grace?”

 

Duke Riegan chuckles. “I am not implying anything, young Hermann.” It’s clear that the Duke is intentionally pressing a sensitive button, for the Count’s eyes narrow at the usage reference to his age combined with his own personal name. “I was merely pointing out that you should better share the going-ons of your territory, so as to avoid any innocent bystander to lose their life just because of your mistake,” he points out.

 

Count Gloucester purses his lips but nonetheless nods. “I will certainly strive to do better, your Grace,” he promises.

 

However, by the way Duke Riegan’s gaze narrows, it’s clear that he isn’t satisfied with the Count’s words.

 

“You will do better,” the Duke orders in a frigid tone. “My son would have surely either lost his life or been left with a fatal injury, as Commander Josef has reported to me, were it not for my honored guest’s intervention.”

 

At that cue, with the tiny cake safely in his belly, Jeralt steps forward and inclines his head.

 

“Good evening, Count Gloucester,” he greets politely enough.

 

Count Gloucester’s tone, however, is practically freezing as he utters, “The Blade Breaker.”

 

Jeralt nods slowly. “Yes. I am glad to meet you, Count Gloucester.”

 

“An honor,” is the Count’s lackluster response.

 

…. You must be a pleasant man , decides Jeralt as he appropriately takes a step back.

 

“Well, since it appears that you are in need of help with tidying up those bandits,” the Duke starts with after a moment of silence. “I would be all too willing to send a few of my own squadrons to guard the trade route for the meanwhile,” he offers.

 

“There is no need for that, your Grace,” the Count is quick to reply. “I am perfectly able to assign my own soldiers to guard that route.”

 

“Oh no,” sighs the Duke as he shakes his head. “I do not doubt your capability, but it is more of resting my weary mind from the very thought of somebody succumbing to a bandit’s blade,” he, clearly, bullshits through a morose tone.

 

Jeralt, who is in the middle of reaching out for a flute of strawberry champagne, is intimate enough with the political implications of this to understand what’s about to happen.

 

The Duke is using this to legally infringe on the Count’s territory and better monitor his actions , he muses as he takes a long sip of the sweet and bubbly drink. He’d have offered the Duke a drink were it not for him being banned from anything sweet or alcoholic for the benefit of his health. It doesn’t matter whether or not the Count truly aimed to have Lord Riegan killed, because regardless, the fault of it would fall on him for his neglect in mentioning to the council of a problem he was fully aware of.

 

And now, if the Count didn’t want to dig himself a deeper hole, he would have no other choice but to accept the Duke’s offer.

 

“...Thank you, your Grace,” Count Gloucester concedes, if a bit stiffly. “However, if you would permit me, I would like to raise a matter that has been concerning mine and other nobles of my territory.”

 

“You may,” allows the Duke.

 

“It has something to do with the Empire’s machinations of our beloved Alliance. Specifically, a territory neighbouring my own,” the Count notifies. “I am well aware that House Ordelia is at fault for meddling in the affairs of the Empire during their time of turmoil, but I believe that the decade's worth of time that House Ordelia has paid with for their arrogance is timely enough.”

 

Jeralt averts his gaze from the two. Although he’d heard about it whilst two drinks in at a bar in Bartels, the events of such had left a vivid mark on his mind.

 

And all because House Ordelia assisted House Hrym’s attempt at defecting from the Empire, he thinks, a bit sad as he recalls how a group of miserable citizens that had fled from Hrym had detailed to him about how horrifying it had been when the Empire’s army had taken action and slaughtered most of the citizens from both Hrym and Ordelia in the dead of night before, as the rumors go, subsequently taking over the the two treacherous Houses.

 

“And you bring this up how come?” Duke Riegan questions, though there’s an unpleasant tightness to his lips this time.

 

“Because if we do not do anything about it, it will furtherly weaken and bring shame to our beloved Alliance,” Count Gloucester declares, violet eyes darkening. “Additionally, it has brought further unrest to most of our nobles at the distinct lack of Ordelia children, even young adults, at celebrations such as these for the past years, as you are aware of, your Grace.”

 

“I am aware,” confirms Duke Riegan. “Their letters of declination have always piled up at the corner of my desk every year…”

 

Come to think of it , realizes Jeralt, his hand freezing from where it was about to reach out for another sweet. We haven’t even greeted a single Ordelia.

 

“...But it would be foolish of us to raise our blades now, especially if it meant angering the Empire any further, which we cannot afford at this time,” Duke Riegan sighs at the end, wrinkles deepening.

 

“It would not have to be our blades, your Grace,” Count Gloucester suddenly says just when Jeralt had thought the conversation to be over. “It would, yes, be foolish of us to send out our Alliance’s Order to take back Orderlia, but what if we had an outside party that we could, perhaps, depend on.”

 

At this, he meets Jeralt’s eyes for a moment.

 

As short as it is, it’s enough for Jeralt to think, ah fuck .

 

“This issue will have to be brought up to the others,” supplies the Duke.

 

Count Gloucester smiles brightly, the illusion of roses blooming in his background. “I have already informed the necessary parties beforehand, and they have all given their consent. If, that is, your Grace were to permit it,” he slyly adds.

 

Duke Riegan narrows his eyes. “You have been planning this behind my back,” he drawls, clearly unimpressed.

 

Count Gloucester shakes his head. “Of course not, your Grace. I have merely been preparing for such an excursion so as your Grace will not have to go through the tiresome process of it all,” he explains as elegantly as he can all whilst the Duke is practically boring holes into his head.

 

“...I will consider it,” allows Duke Riegan.

 

Count Gloucester’s smile widens. “That is all I wish to speak to you about, your Grace,” he sweetly imparts before, with a polite excuse me , he bows and takes his leave.

 

Once the Count is out of sight, Jeralt surreptitiously glances at the Duke and forebodes the serene expression plastered on the elderly’s face.

 

“You look mightily calm for having lost to Count Gloucester,” notes Jeralt.

 

Duke Riegan slowly smiles at him. “One loss does not matter, Jeralt, if victory shall be mine at the end of the night.”

 

It doesn’t help that he giggles at the end of it.

 

Jeralt furrows his eyebrows at the Duke’s response, clearly suspicious.

 

“Young Hermann will surely be in for a surprise later, just you wait,” assures the Duke, before he looks over to a servant standing near them. When he looks back at Jeralt, he’s wearing a somewhat apologetic look on his face. “Now, I have something important to attend to, so I’ll be leaving you to your own care for the meantime, Jeralt. Ta-ta,” he bids before he’s off to who knows where.

 

Jeralt watches him go, internally cheering. He reaches out for a creampuff, fully intending to celebrate his newfound freedom.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

You spoke too soon, you old fucker , Jeralt thinks to himself as, with a silent sight, he brings his hand back and turns around to come face to face with a dark-haired noblewoman.

 

Jeralt immediately inclines his head. “My lady,” he greets, desperately wracking through his brain for her name because fuck, fuck, fuck , why were there so many nobles these days?!

 

“Good evening once again, sir Jeralt,” she returns, waving her nicely-trimmed fan a few times before she informs, “I am glad to finally be able to catch you alone in this party.”

 

Jeralt feigns innocence—he’s gone through this kind of dance so many times that he just knows what’s about to happen next. 

 

“And what for?” He questions.

 

The lady’s smile widens, brightens. “I came to give you my compliments of your company’s accomplishments. As well as to tell you that I have been keeping an ear out ever since your timely intervention with the assasination attempt on King Lambert’s head. I have always been intrigued by the people who serve you.”

 

“They do not serve me, my lady,” Jeralt corrects a moment after she’s done with her tirade. “They merely work under me. It is up to them if they want to listen to me or not. Provided that they want to keep their heads before and after any battle,” he adds.

 

The noblewoman’s smile takes on an amused tilt as she says, “I admire a workforce like that. As well as a commander sensible enough to be aware of the proper boundaries between employer and employee.”

 

Hahaha. If only you knew , Jeralt thinks. There ain’t anything proper to my company . Not with their strangely familial dynamic, which had both its pros and cons but, well, Jeralt wouldn’t trade it for a ‘proper’ one.

 

They were mercenaries, for fuck’s sake. Their job description can’t even be described as ‘proper’.

 

“Will that be all, my lady?” Jeralt asks, reigning in the whine that wants to seep into his voice because asjdgebfn he wants those creampuffs! The estate’s chefs kept boasting about them the other night, and Jeralt believes that he should test their credibility!

 

With a snap, the noblewoman’s fan is shut to its wooden frame. “As I have mentioned before, I am an avid listener to the tales and exploits of your company, but I must admit that I am most intrigued by one of your famous men. The, ah, Ashen Demon, if we were to be specific.” 

 

Her eyes darken, and Jeralt does not appreciate that.

 

“I have heard stories of their unparalleled skill with the blade, the glorious warpath they leave in their wake, and their ability to complete whatever task given to them from you,” she beautifully lists down.

 

Jeralt swallows down his scoff. 

 

He’d very much like to correct that his daughter isn’t that unmatchable with a blade, and that she should really train more on her lancework considering that she hadn’t bested him in that area yet.

 

Still, Jeralt wisely keeps his thoughts to himself.

 

“And the rumors truly do not lie about her loveliness matching her strength,” confides the lady, smile softening.

 

“...Thank you, my lady. I’ll be sure to send her your compliments.”

 

The noblewoman laughs. “That would be much appreciated, sir Jeralt. But, I actually want to discuss with you if it would be alright to...borrow her services. Just for a night,” she is quick to say.

 

Jeralt’s entire thought process stops at that.

 

Oh , he thinks.

 

Oh.

 

It wasn’t him she was going to proposition, but his daughter .

 

Jeralt stares at the noblewoman, who’s now averting her gaze with a slight flush on her pretty face. 

 

He clenches down on his tongue. 

 

Don’t burst out, don’t burst out, don’t burst out , he thinks to himself, pushing down the whirlwind of complex emotions just begging to be unleashed because, if he were to unleash it, it could very shame him and his men.

 

And, if he and his men were to be shamed in such a large and noble gathering, it would be bye bye money and bye bye jobs.

 

But is money more important now? The devil in his mind whispers.

 

It’s not , he snaps back. But I won’t drag my men down just because of a little thing like this .

 

The noblewoman had asked nicely, after all, and Jeralt can respect her for that.

 

But it’s not like he’d agree to her wishes.

 

So, very calmly, Jeralt says, “I apologize, but my company does not offer those kinds of services.”

 

The noblewoman frowns, letting her eyes widen. “I’m sure that can be changed for any amount of gold?”

 

Jeralt just smiles, baring just a sliver of his teeth. “The integrity of my men is equal to that of my company’s. I can’t very well let them force themselves just for the company’s coffers.”

 

And he won’t. He’ll never . His men will always have the choice and freedom to fuck whoever they want, regardless of Jeralt’s bitching.

 

Regardless if even if it was Byleth doing the fucking.

 

Jeralt internally grimaces at that.

 

The woman pouts, clearly disappointed.

 

“But my lady is free to ask any of my men and, so long as you do not force them to, then you are free to spend just a night with them,” Jeralt says.

 

Jeralt doubts that any of his men, much less Byleth, will accept though, especially at a night this important where the company’s reputation could be implicated.

 

I trust them to think with the right head , are his thoughts on it.

 

The woman’s expression brightens.

 

“That is good news then!”

 

Jeralt nods slowly, feeling as if a giant chasm had appeared underneath his feet to trap up within it. 

 

He wonders if it had been right to even emotion that, to even bring her hopes up just a bit.

 

Just when he has resigned himself to wallowing in a plethora of his own guilt, Jeralt suddenly hears somebody calling out to him and turns to see whoever is his saving grace

.

..

..

.

It’s not an angel, that’s for sure.

 

Oh no, in fact, it’s the farthest thing from that. 

 

It’s Judith .

 

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck! Jeralt curses aloud in his mind.

 

He must have made some kind of noise, because the noblewoman he’d been having a stressful conversation with must have decided that she wants nothing to do with his anxiety and is quick to excuse herself.

 

“Expect a letter from my head of house,” is all she says, before she leaves in a flutter of ruffled skirts.

 

Jeralt glares after her, absolutely envious.

 

The goddess has forsaken him tonight.

 

“Jeralt!” Judith calls viciously, grin a razor’s blade. “Good to see you after so long! I’d thought for sure you’d have died in some ditch once I heard you’d left!” 

 

And there’s that tongue of hers, one that Jeralt has been undeniably afraid of since she’d been nineteen-years old and chasing after his heels whenever he’d arrived back at the monastery in order to challenge him to a duel.

 

“Lady Judith,” he returns, inclining his head, and keeping his eyes an inch to the left of her face.

 

She’s changed, that’s for sure. Her hair has grown out long enough to be pulled into a high ponytail that cascades down her back, her jaw more defined, and some wrinkles appearing at the corners of her eyes.

 

Still, with just a single glance, Jeralt could still see the great storm in her grey eyes. 

 

It’s not that Jeralt is scared of her , so to speak. 

 

It’s just...to be ambushed at the most random intervals of the day, several times in fact , has left him a bit shaken with the entire ordeal.

 

He’d had honestly thought he’d been rid of her once she’d graduated.

 

“It’s actually Baroness Daphnel,” she corrects him, eyes sparkling. “But you’re free to call me Judith like always. You’ve certainly deserved it, with all those times you’d held your ground against me back when I was still a student!” She laughs in a way as if she hadn’t had her ass kicked every time they sparred. “What do you say to having a duel for old time’s sake? I’m sure the Duke will allow us to borrow his training field.”

 

Jeralt internally sweats, remembering one of their particularly nasty duels where they went 27 rounds that lasted the better part of a day. Rhea had berated him extensively for neglecting his duties for ‘unfairly beating up a student! ’ whilst his wife had watched amusedly.

 

Jeralt is only human; so, when his eyes catch sight of a familiar couple, he is quick to say, “I’m sorry, Judith, but it looks like a potential client is calling for me!” 

 

He stumbles over a few more excuses, bows swiftly, and walks away fast .

 

He’s not fleeing , fuck you.

 

It’s a strategic retreat.

 

“Isaac! Rebecca!” He calls out to, and the fucking relief that blooms in his chest is a staggering when the two look at him with wide eyes. “Good to see you!” He greets, ignoring the adrenaline running through his veins.

 

“Sir Jeralt,” Isaac greets cordially, blinking several times. “Are you alright? You look…” He trails off.

 

“You look handsome ,” Rebecca finishes, smiling brilliantly. “I see you’ve been chatting with Baroness Daphnel. Isn’t she just darling?” There is no teasing to her words. 

 

She means them.

 

She’s a monster , Jeralt wants to say.  A monster who’s haunted my every step in the monastery. 

 

“Have you tried the desserts?” Jeralt asks instead, dodging the question. “The creampuffs are really good.”

 

Isaac and Rebecca share a look. 

 

Jeralt knows that, even as their expressions remain the same, there’s an entire conversation going on there.

 

He internally sighs.

 

“So we’ve heard,” Isaac is the one to answer first, smiling kindly at Jeralt. “By the way, we met your children just a while ago, and I have to say that they all paint such handsome figures,” he compliments.

 

“We actually left our children with them,” Rebecca mentions. “Sir Jeralt, you must meet my little angels. I’m sure you’ll love them,” she insists.

 

“Not as much as we do, of course,” jokes Isaac.

 

Jeralt’s parent senses are tingling, and he just knows that Isaac isn’t joking.

 

“Sure,” he agrees readily. “Where are they?” He asks, looking around.

 

Rebecca beams brightly at him. “They’re over at the back. Why don’t we join them?” She offers.

 

Jeralt agrees quickly enough and he’s soon guided by the Kirsten couple to where their children are at.

 

Miklan is the first one he spots, his reddish-orange hair serving as a particularly convenient beacon at times such as this. He looks to be in conversation with a young man nearly as large as he is, only a sizable head the difference between their heights.

 

“That’s Raphael, our eldest son,” introduces Isaac as they come to a stop from a distance. “And our youngest, Maya, is over there with one of your children, um...Jerlitz, yes?”

 

“Jeritza,” corrects Jeralt, distracted by the way Jeritza entertains an exuberant Maya whose golden eyes—just like her brother’s, Jeralt notes. Just like their mother’s—are sparkling up at him.

 

Rebecca giggles. “She’s a bit enamored with him for now, but I can hardly fault her for that. Your son really is too handsome for his own good. Like the long lost heir of a foreign kingdom,” she compliments. “Why, if I weren’t happy with my marriage, I sure would have taken a shot at that,” she teases, looking up at her husband with darkened eyes.

 

Isaac looks hardly fazed, but he does glance over at Jeritza. “He is quite handsome,” he agrees. “He’d make a good assistant receptionist if we wanted to target the young noble ladies of our district,” he voices aloud, actually considering that idea.

 

Jeralt shoots Rebecca an amused look, but she merely laughs brilliantly at that.

 

As the Kirsten couple converse in their own loving terms with one another, Jeralt sneaks a glance to where Byleth is.

 

His heart stops for a moment when he sees her smiling indulgently at the short young man that, as it appears, she’s locked in conversation with.

 

He restarts it, though, when he notices the way the young man makes some kind of excited gesture, and Byleth corrects it by positioning his arm a little higher with a few quiet words gifted to him.

 

Ah , he thinks, patting his chest a bit to calm his heart. They must be talking about one of her battles .

 

“Who is that?” Jeralt asks, knowing well enough that isn’t one of the Kirsten children. He’s heard too much of their honest and robust son as well as their angelic and so very talented daughter

 

Too much.

 

Rebecca pauses, gaze fleeting to where Jeralt is gesturing at. “Ah!” She exclaims. “That’s Ignatz! A son of a dear of ours,” she notes lovingly. “His parents are merchants like we are, so we communicate frequently to maintain our spoken deals. Because of that, our Raphael is best friends with him,” she informs. 

 

Jeralt nods, accepting her words for what they are. Just then, Byleth’s eyes meet his, and Jeralt can’t help but note warmly how she brightens up.

 

She smiles as she waves at him, causing Ignatz to follow her line of sight with a curious tilt of his head.

 

Byleth must have told Ignatz who he is for the young man’s jaw drops in awe.

 

“We should go and talk to them,” suggests Isaac, offering his elbow for his wife who gladly slips her arm around it.

 

It doesn’t take much to persuade Jeralt, because he’s already ahead of the couple by a few feet.

 

“I see that you three have been holding up well,” comments Jeralt once he’s in their vicinity. 

 

Miklan and Jeritza snap their heads to look at him, surprised at his presence; Byleth, on the other hand, only snorts and walks up to him, her heels clicking audibly with each step.

 

“And you look as if Kosa had tried to clip your head off,” she chuckles. “Are you alright?” She asks, this time with a furrow between her brows.

 

Jeralt feels some weight heave off of his shoulders at her concern. He opens his mouth, prepared to reply, but he’s unceremoniously interrupted by the distinct sound produced by the small bells hung up across the walls of the ballroom.

 

Though tiny in size, the bells create a loud enough sound with their numbers. Immediately, the guests cease their chattering and stand a little straighter in attention, looking over at the entrance that’s closer to where Jeralt is now standing.

 

When the ringing stops, the gigantic double doors are pulled open by the attendants.

 

“Good evening, everyone!” Hails the Duke as he enters the room with his son following after him, the double doors closing behind them in a loud boom . “I’d like to thank each one of you for celebrating our beloved Leicester Alliance Day in my home! To be able to mark the 276th anniversary of its founding with all of you, I sure find myself humbled!”

 

A few laughs ripple through the crowd at that admission.

 

“I apologize for disturbing your merriment, but I wanted to announce something crucial before we have the first dance,” Duke Riegan beams, his wrinkles deepening with delight and innocence.

 

Reminded of how suspicious Duke Riegan had been acting just a while ago, Jeralt narrows his eyes and stands closer to his brood.

 

“I’m sure you’ve all heard of the incident that occurred between my territory and Count Gloucester’s,” Duke Riegan brings up, wearing an expression of agony. He doesn’t even have to specify what, exactly, had taken place, because the rest of the crowd began murmuring their assent and their own theories. “An ill-fated meeting, I’d say, but it certainly brought to light what should really matter me.”

 

Duke Riegan looks to his son and sends him a warm smile, to which Lord Godfrey responds to with a nod.

 

“Though I have all the world’s faith in Godfrey’s strength and prowess on the battlefield, that incident taught me that even the strongest and most robust could vanish like a flickering flame if caution hadn’t been put into place,” Duke Riegan declares. “And so, I have taken the liberty of taking a spare heir in case another incident like this were to happen!” 

 

There’s a distinct moment of stunned surprise in the room.

 

“A spare…?” Miklan murmurs with furrowed brows. “But, doesn’t the Duke only have Lord Riegan? Considering that…” He trails off, purposefully not finishing his sentence with the Alliance ears around them.

 

It is, after all, taboo to talk about Tiana von Riegan, especially around Duke Riegan.

 

However, the Duke himself broaches upon the topic with relative ease.

 

“You all know of my estranged daughter,” the Duke starts with a tilt of his head, his smile still in place. In spite of the relaxed manner that he presents himself with, there’s a cutting sharpness to his Riegan green eyes.

 

A warning.

 

Don’t fucking speak bad of her. Especially now .

 

Even Jeralt feels the shudder that runs down his spine. He clenches his fists to minimize the effects, but even he can see how the rest around him tremble with the frightening aura radiating off of Duke Riegan.

 

“Though her sudden disappearance certainly caused a great deal of vexation for me.” Here, Duke Riegan’s eyes soften. “Not once did I ever say that her inheritance rights were to be relinquished to House Riegan.”

 

“...What is the meaning of this?” Jeritza inquires softly. “Did Lady Riegan return home?”

 

“Not necessarily,” replies Byleth. “It doesn’t have to be Lady Riegan herself that came back...” Her gaze turns past the Duke and Lord Riegan, staring pointedly at the closed pair of gigantic double doors. 

 

Jeritza and Miklan simultaneously make a sound of confusion, before they still, meet each other’s gazes, and keenly look in the opposite direction.

 

Jeralt, however, is gradually comprehending just what , exactly, the Duke is implying.

 

Lady Tiana never lost her rights to inherit House Riegan , Jeralt pieces together. And, so long as Lord Godfrey doesn’t have any children, any child of her line will inherit those rights.

 

“A child…” Jeralt mumbles beneath his breath, realization settling over his features as he finally, finally , understands.

 

That Almyran , he thinks, a flutter of panicked butterflies going absolutely bonkers in his chest. His gold against bronze cape. The Duke’s hostility.

 

It all comes crashing down on him.

 

It’s not Godfrey that had a bastard . Jeralt realizes his mistake. It’s

 

Jeralt is abruptly startled from his thoughts when the Duke speaks up once more.

 

“And without further ado!” Duke Riegan sets forth, dramatically gesturing to the set of double doors. “My grandson!”

 

At that signal, the same attendants by the door take their cue to heave the gigantic doors open as wide as possible in order to generously welcome the newcomer.

 

Jeralt is all too much of the muffled gasps that echo from the crowd, can practically feel how everyone’s eyes are as wide as dinner plates, but he can’t quite blame them.

 

Duke Riegan’s grandson comes strolling in with a confident gait, weighed down in an ensemble of lustrous fabrics in the distinct Riegan colors of gold and bronze, and gold practically dripping from the ends of his clothes and from that one distinct braid hanging by the side of his face.

 

He comes to a stop on the other side of Duke Riegan— equal contenders , is what his position says—and he holds himself in the same easygoing yet uniquely regal manner that the rest of his House do.

 

And it’s clear, with the way all three Riegans of different generations stand together, how remarkably different this new one is.

 

“An Almyran,” breathes out Rebecca, her gaze firmly latched onto the youngest Riegan’s distinctly darker complexion. Though there isn’t any sort of displeasure on her and her husband’s faces, it’s clear that they’re clearly stupefied by the news.

 

Despite the less than warm reaction from the guests, the youngest Riegan doesn’t appear the least bit deterred.

 

Instead, he smiles .

 

“Good evening, everyone,” he cordially greets, not a hint of any lingering accent, as he executes a flawless bow befitting his stature. “I do hope that you’ve all been having a wonderful time,” he briefly touches on.

 

Nobody, of course, answers.

 

They’re all too fucked out of their heads to , internally drawls Jeralt, feeling a little too fucked in the head as well. He should have expected this, he really should have. This was, like, S-class Riegan fuckery at its most typical.

 

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the youngest Riegan proffers, nonplussed by the stark silence he gets in return. He places a hand over his heart and raises his chin, his gaze sweeping over the crowd before it stops in the general direction of where Jeralt and his brood are standing at.

 

For some reason, his clear-cut smile widens, bringing his cheekbones high underneath his eyes.

 

Eyes that are so very clearly Riegan green .

 

“I am Claude von Riegan,” he introduces himself, his voice loud enough to reach even the furthermost corners of the room. “Grandson to the current Duke of House Riegan, Oswald, and nephew to House Riegan’s heir, Godfrey. My mother is Tiana von Riegan, and from her, the blood of Riegan flows strongly through my veins!”

 

As cliche as the words are, Jeralt recognizes the value in them, the meaning of them.

 

It’s the oath that each and every Riegan is expected to say when it’s their traditional rite of maturity to welcome them as true members of House Riegan, their simplified vow to their House that just as their living ancestors carry the strength and cunning of the Elite Riegan, so do they.

 

All that’s missing is an affirmative testimony from the Riegan head, and the rite will be complete, recognizing this Claude as a true Riegan through and through.

 

And, judging by Duke Riegan’s twinkling eyes, Jeralt can hazard a guess that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

 

“You are Claude von Riegan,” Duke Riegan confirms, turning to face him. “Truly your grandfather’s grandson, your uncle’s nephew, and your mother’s son. I see in your eyes and in your hands that the blood of Riegan flows strongly inside of you," he finishes, irrefutably binding Claude to House Riegan.

 

There are several sharp intakes from the crowd, a distinct low murmur rippling through as nobles and significant commoners begin their game of can you believe this?

 

“That...was quite a shock,” Isaac remarks, blinking several times. It takes a while for him to rip his gaze away from the center, but he nonetheless succeeds and shakes his wife back to reality. 

 

“That’s definitely one way of putting it,” says Jeralt.

 

He’s nearly jolted out his skin when he feels a firm hand latch onto his arm. When he checks, Jeralt is only relieved to see that it’s only Byleth.

 

“—early,” is all Jeralt is able to make out of Byleth’s muttering.

 

There’s an uncharacteristic seriousness on her face, but Jeralt chalks it up to her just being shocked at this sudden reveal, especially when she’d met the youngest Riegan a few nights ago and probably thought him to be, well, less important than now.

 

Jeralt follows her line of sight, and feels his gut clench horridly when he sees the matching grins on the three Riegans’ faces as they look to one another.

 

Riegans,  Jeralt thinks with a shudder that he doesn't suppress this time.