He caught Jeritza staring after her sometimes, in the humid afternoons that dragged on while he stood, silent and unmoving as a statue, outside the training grounds. She would pass by with that red-headed girl from Dimitri’s class, probably on her way to the monastery to pray, from what Byleth understood of her.
Byleth noticed these subtle stares because he had always been perceptive. Even toward glances like this, which seemed to deal with something he did not understand, had never even encountered himself, but saw plainly on the face of his father whenever he spoke of Byleth’s mother. This would be the obvious conclusion for Jeritza’s lingering eyes. And yet, as more time passed in the term, he began to doubt the romantic nature of the swordmaster’s interest.
“There is something…familiar about her,” Jeritza said to him one day when they both found themselves waiting outside the dining hall. They each shared a preference for the solitude that came later, after most of the students and faculty had eaten and only a guard or two, often quietly drunk, remained at the tables.
Jeritza spoke clearly, as always, but the softness in his tone was the closest to hesitation Byleth had ever heard from him. He wasn’t sure how to respond—if the swordmaster was even fully aware of his presence, if the words were meant more for the wind than his own ears.
And there is something familiar about you, he wanted to say but didn't.
Later, they ate dinner across from each other—a wordless, likely meaningless, routine for them, on the nights they discovered each other lingering in the cold shadows, waiting for the warmth and musical chatter inside to abate so they could enter. Byleth found his eyes drawn to Jeritza’s face, his long hair tied back but errant strands of it falling over his shoulder, swaying back and forth with each mouthful of soup. For some reason, Byleth could smell his hair. Not right now—in this moment, there was no breeze and the strong aroma of spiced chicken broth was the only scent floating down the table. And certainly not when they trained, drenched in sweat and smelling of metal and weapon-grease. They had never come close enough outside of these two circumstances for Byleth to do anything more than notice little things about him, like the way he constantly shifted his weight to his right while standing guard, and the nod he always exchanged with Felix when the student came to practice, and least often, the darkly contemplative look that followed after the Blue Lions girl each time she appeared.
All of these things were interesting to Byleth but they did not explain how the sweetness of vanilla and honey tickled his nose whenever he caught himself looking at Jeritza’s hair. In those moments, it felt like the most natural thing in the world for him to step forward and bury his face in the crook of his shoulder, that hair shrouding him from all else, leaving room only for sweetness and warmth. As overpowering as the urge was, he never acted on it. Jeritza was neither sweet nor warm and an embrace like that was reserved for lovers. He had never engaged in such a relationship with another and his assessment of Jeritza told him the other man shared this experience. There wasn’t room for that with people like them, and Byleth had never felt the desire to seek it out, regardless. Actually, he hadn't felt much desire in life at all, past warm food and a soft place to rest his head. Nothing that couldn't be done in a day's work. The future held little importance to him. He had long ago determined he would die in battle, still unfulfilled and wanting, without ever glimpsing a reason for his existence, or the purpose behind his actions each day, carrying him forward into a desolate fate.
He had blinked at her, feeling suddenly as though her blue eyes were looking at something in him that he hadn’t even known was there. For the first time in talking with a student, he felt that their roles were reversed, or at the very least, she was an equal. He found out later that she was the oldest student at Garreg Mach, and in fact, a year older than himself. Yet she fit into her class seamlessly, a constant presence in the abbey and often in the kitchen baking, putting smiles on faces wherever she went. Once, he invited her to choir practice because none of his other students wanted to participate with Ferdinand anymore, who appeared completely oblivious to this fact. He could think of no one better equipped to handle him with kindness. She was firm but gentle and Ferdinand misinterpreted almost everything she said but they worked well together so it became an almost weekly occurrence, with Byleth present only as an observer until the fatal day that Mercedes insisted he give it a try, just one verse.
“Oh, Professor!” Ferdinand exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “You must, you must! I expect someone as artful as you upon the battlefield will surely be just as graceful of a performer off the field as well.”
Byleth proceeded to prove his top student (really second-best, but Ferdinand would bother him for days afterward if he ever heard Byleth say it) thoroughly incorrect. He saw both their faces fall halfway through the second line but neither of them made a move to stop him so he finished off the full verse, voice cracking on the very last word.
Mercedes smiled easily, as was her nature, and Ferdinand also made an attempt, although his looked more like a grimace than anything else. “I think you have potential, Professor,” she enthused. And because she did not lie: “I was no good when I first started either. Even your lovely Dorothea was once a beginner, I’m sure. You should keep practicing with us and we can all learn something new together!”
Ferdinand’s feeble smile fell apart completely. He looked as though someone had just insulted his preferred method of brewing tea. “Y-yes,” he mumbled. “Please do, Professor.”
After that, Ferdinand was marginally more tolerable when it came to choir practice, no longer making a scene of himself trying to be the best and loudest. His newfound reticence was probably to avoid association with Byleth’s indisputably bad singing. Byleth started to think Mercedes had done it on purpose. He saw her giggling out of the corner of his eye one time but once she noticed, she quickly composed herself. She flashed him a reassuring smile and carried on. He thought that even if she was teasing him, he wouldn’t mind, because beneath the surface, all he could sense were good intentions. He wasn’t perfect at reading people’s emotions correctly, and he was even worse at understanding the subtleties of them, but Byleth had always been talented at appraising people’s characters, in the general sense. It had helped him and his father many times on the road, like the time that a kindly middle-aged villager had stirred something uneasy within him and his father had politely declined his offered hospitality; twenty miles later, they had picked up a bounty on his head. Apparently he had lured, robbed, and killed several wayward travelers over the course of several months. The two of them would have been fine, but his father began taking Byleth’s intuition a bit more seriously afterwards.
He continued spending time with Mercedes, always through a coincidence (“Oh, hello, Professor. I was just admiring the flowers you planted this month.”—“I don’t often come to the library but I’m trying to track down some specifics about a noble family from the Empire. Would you care to help, Professor?”). At the same time, he began seeing less of Jeritza. There were whole weeks that passed without a sight of him, save for once or twice, very late at night, when Byleth’s night strolls happened to carry him past the training grounds and he saw a shadowed figure looking out over the bridge. He was certain it was Jeritza, even though his hair was black in the night and his face concealed.
For a moment or two, he would pause without thinking, caught up entirely in how still and quiet he was and although Byleth wasn’t unfamiliar to losing himself in thought for long minutes, numb to the world around him, he thought that Jeritza’s introspection was different in nature—more direct than Byleth’s own musings, less of an escape and more of a trap. During the day, when Jeritza stared at Mercedes and Byleth watched him, there was an emptiness in his eyes, like he wasn’t completely there, or maybe he was looking at something unknown to Byleth.
Now, at night, there was something in the way he held himself, deathly still like always, but not as rigid, his posture less fixed—not relaxed, but limp, as though he couldn’t bear to keep the mask up anymore—that made Byleth’s throat tighten, his stomach roll with uneasiness. He didn’t know how to provide comfort, half the time he simply listened as his students shared their problems and came to an answer on their own, but when he saw Jeritza standing there alone, he wanted to be near him. Wanted to close that distance and stand at his side, feel his strong presence beside him. The substantial height and mass Jeritza had on him was not frightening to Byleth. He had become accustomed to facing opponents that physically out-matched him long ago. When the two of them were locking swords in the training grounds, the size difference was just another factor to consider, something that could be handled with the right strategy. But the other times, when they stood outside together, waiting and waiting, Byleth found himself sinking into a sense of comfort as he stood beneath Jeritza, feeling as though he could close his eyes and the swordmaster would still be there, keeping watch.
He wouldn't mind closing his eyes for a long while. Byleth had been so tired lately; he felt dizzy most days and the migraines had become a permanent fixture of his daily routine, sometimes worse and sometimes better but always weighing on him. He had never had the opportunity for much rest before this life and he still didn’t, but it appealed to him now in a way it hadn’t before: the thought of sleeping past sunrise, waking to the warmth of the sun through his shuttered windows, sitting underneath a wide tree and drinking coffee—a beverage introduced to him by Hubert, which he had long considered simply another one of his poisons—while reading, or simply listening to the birdsong. Strange thoughts. Even stranger, when he thought of waking up beside someone else, back pressed against their chest, hands tangled up with each other, and the smell of vanilla and honey enveloping him, a golden hair or two sprawled across the pillow beneath him.
These thoughts were unprecedented, unexplainable, unjustifiable. Byleth had never been attracted to anyone that he could recall, no more than a simple passing look of admiration, certainly, but he didn’t know how else to categorize these strange feelings toward Jeritza, that seemed to rise up within him no matter how much he tried to ignore them, or push them away.
He wanted to go to him, stand with him on the bridge and see whatever he was looking at, even if his mind held him somewhere different. He didn’t know how to comfort him but he didn’t think Jeritza would appreciate any words he could offer so it didn’t matter that Byleth was inexperienced, clumsy—he just wanted to stand beside him and let his presence give Jeritza the same strength he drew from the times Jeritza lingered close to him.
Instead, he turned back the way he had come, knowing that there would be no fooling the swordmaster’s sharp senses if he continued over the bridge. By the time he was at the pond, Jeritza’s presence felt as insubstantial as the cold air around him, a faint memory already peeling at the edges, soon to be indistinguishable from a dream.
“Oh! This is mine,” she exclaimed, clutching it tightly to her chest and smiling with relief. “Thank you so much, Professor! I’ve been looking for this the whole month! I was miserable thinking I lost it.”
This was one item he had been certain he would be able to place on his own. “I had expected this would belong to Dedue.” Over the past few weeks, he had learned bits and pieces of Blue Lions trivia from Mercedes’ stories and had begun recognizing more of their names—each time they had talked in the greenhouse, Dimitri’s stoic vassal had come up, always the subject of her glowing praise.
Mercedes blushed, a light pink that drew attention to her pale blue gaze. He was struck suddenly by the likeness between them and Jeritza’s own eyes. “Yes, I can see why. This book was actually part of the library’s collection for some time until recently, when it was removed and locked away into storage. The monks decided that it should be removed on the basis of “prolonged disuse.” But I think that was a lie.” She paused for a moment. Her gaze had fallen away from Byleth, slipped down to the ground behind his shoulder as though she had become overwhelmed by thought. “It was rather difficult to track down at first but I believe my persistence became more trouble than it was worth to them.”
She blinked and the distant look in her eyes retreated, her warm smile rising in its place. “But afterwards, they said I could keep it, so I’m planning to give it to Dedue. Before I misplaced it, I recognized the names of several dishes he had mentioned in the past. I should like to help him in their recreation—he’s a wonderful baking partner. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Byleth nodded, unsure of what else to offer. He glanced around the courtyard. They appeared to be alone. “I am uneducated about political matters. Many of these countries and conflicts are new to me, since coming here. I read many books in the library to understand this place better, but all the stories were the same. The church seems to disregard entirely what it finds disagreeable.” He would have continued, but Mercedes cut him off with a hand, though she was nodding vigorously.
“Professor, you must be careful in saying things like that. The monks already distrust you here.” She let out a sigh. “But you are correct, Professor. The Church says that the Goddess is the only god so there can only be one history. To say differently is to risk excommunication. But how can there only be one story in a world with so many people?”
He frowned. “Shouldn’t you also be careful asking questions like that?”
She shook her head, smiling sadly. “The Church raised me but I will always speak my mind and bear the consequences accordingly. True family accepts that.”
His father had always encouraged Byleth to be honest, in an indirect way. Conversations about their feelings were few and far between for them both but Jeralt had always been good at identifying the times Byleth deliberately left something unsaid. I might not agree with you but I want to hear it, he had told him, gruff but completely serious.
“I like hearing your thoughts,” he said and it was true. He hadn’t thought about it before but the words slipped off his tongue before he could reconsider. Was this how people normally carried on a conversation, sharing impromptu insights like this? He had never felt the need to bring his personal feelings into discussion. His thoughts on battle strategy were useful so he offered them but in an ideal world, he would listen and observe more than he ever spoke. Still, the look Mercedes fixed him with made his chest swell with something warm for a long moment and he had the sudden thought that he never wanted to see any harm befall her. If the Church ever acted against her, he would not hesitate to stand beside her with his sword.
“Thank you, Professor,” she said softly, her cheeks tinged with pink once again. “I also enjoy hearing you speak. You are always welcome to come to me for anything, I hope you know. I may be the student and you the teacher, but I care for you, Professor. Just as many of the other students do—and the faculty, as well.”
There was a moment of silence between them and then she pursed her lips and asked him something entirely unexpected—though looking back, of course he should have noticed that Jeritza’s curiosity was not one-sided. He had thought his observation skills were sharper, but perhaps he had been distracted, in a way still unfamiliar.
“Professor, what do you know about the fencing instructor? Jeritza, I believe his name is.”
He had watched Sylvain wave off the concerns of his friends for hours after they got back to the Monastery until Byleth felt like he could approach him and privately offer an apology, his support, even himself as an object upon which Sylvain could fix his anger. But Sylvain hadn’t wanted any of that. “I’m not angry with you, Professor,” he had said, wearing an empty smile. “I understand. There’s no point in dwelling on the past now, right?”
Many social cues were lost on Byleth but he understood a dismissal like that well enough. He left Sylvain alone at the table, the plate before him practically untouched, surrounded by nameless students who didn’t understand what had happened today, let alone that it involved the smiling red-headed boy sitting in their midst.
Despite his student’s words, Byleth continued to dwell. It was in his nature. He passed by his own room without hesitation, didn’t stop walking until he reached the double-doors to the training grounds. His palms were sweating, which was very odd because all he had done was walk across the monastery. Perhaps it was due to the man he thought he might find inside. He couldn’t decide if he wanted him to be there or not, certainly didn’t know what he could say to him—though their conversations tended to be monosyllabic, anyway.
When he stepped inside, his eyes took a second to adjust. Then he saw a man across the floor, illuminated faintly by the orange torchlight, paused in mid-swing. Jeritza stared at him motionlessly for a second before sheathing his sword.
That caught Byleth off guard. He had planned to step forward, draw his own sword and ask if the swordmaster would spar with him, but clearly that would have to wait because Jeritza was still staring at him like he expected him to speak and Byleth did not want to disappoint or bore him, ever. Least of all now.
“I did not mean to disturb you,” Byleth said. It wasn’t what he meant to say but he still wasn’t sure how to put those feelings into words so—
“You did not. I thought you might visit tonight.” Jeritza spoke as clear and sharp as ever, each word a deliberate gesture. “Would you care to spar?”
That was why Byleth had come here, wasn’t it? To swing his sword, either alone or with Jeritza, and chase away the thoughts that hadn’t left him since the afternoon, to escape into the world of blood and metal that he knew better than any friend.
And yet, Jeritza had lowered his sword. He stood there with empty hands and gaze attentive on Byleth. It did not seem like he wanted to fight. Or, Byleth thought. Maybe he did. But he had put that aside, for the moment, when he saw Byleth. Could he read him that well? Byleth didn’t even know what he wanted himself.
He crossed the space between them, stopped a few inches away from Jeritza and raised his eyes to meet his. “I…don’t think so,” he answered. “Not right now. Would you?”
“Not if your heart isn’t in it,” Jeritza replied. He seemed intent on remaining deathly still, even with their faces so close together.
Byleth nodded. He wet his lips and spoke. “I wanted to see you.”
A few weeks ago, when Mercedes had asked him what he knew of Jeritza, he hadn’t known how to respond. It wasn’t much, what he knew. Barely anything. But he had done his best to explain, and because it was Mercedes standing before him, he told her exactly how his heart fell through his stomach each time they spoke, the way he dreamt of Jeritza’s smile, which he had never seen, and how skilled Jeritza was with a sword, somewhat obvious for a man in his position, yet still worthy of mention because Byleth never tired of watching him practice. He even told her about the honey and vanilla.
She had nodded along and smiled when he finished. “I think you should tell him how you feel,” she said. “If I were him, I would like to hear it.”
So Byleth had resolved to do just that. And he was trying now, he truly was, although he couldn’t help but feel as though he was failing. He took another step closer, for no reason at all other than he saw Jeritza’s mouth twitch as though he was about to speak.
“Are you frightened?” Jeritza asked softly. Their faces were less than a finger’s width apart. “Your heart is beating like a rabbit’s. Like prey.”
He was not sure they had ever been so close before, save the handful of times their battlefield clashes had come to a near-fatal embrace. He could have been dead any one of those times. Byleth met his eyes and spoke evenly. “Yes, I am afraid. But not of you.”
“Everyone fears me. It is only natural.”
“No. I want…I want to fight at your side. Shield you from those that would do you harm.” He paused, watching the other man’s face carefully. As always, Jeritza was impassive. Maybe there was something more in the tightness of his jaw, the furrow of his brows, but any nuance was lost on Byleth—he saw only a puzzle he so desperately wanted to unravel. “I think that these feelings are…” Why couldn’t he say it? He had thought about this, long and often, trying to find the precise words and he had them now, hanging in his mind, and yet his tongue suddenly felt large and unwieldy, his throat scratchy like he had been coughing for days. He tried to speak and no sound came out.
“Love?” Jeritza asked, as quiet as before. There was no anger about him. “Do they feel like love?”
He nodded slowly. “I think so. I’ve never felt like this before.”
“Nor have I,” Jeritza said. “I believe I loved as a child, but those memories have all but disappeared now. Yet you inspire something powerful within me. I am not sure what to call it.”
Byleth understood. He was also at a loss for words. “May I touch you?” he said, and it was innocent enough, but his skin burned like fire as he waited for Jeritza’s reply.
“Yes,” Jeritza said a moment later, hesitation still etched into his brow.
He closed the distance between them, finally, by grasping Jeritza’s empty hands with his own and pressing his forehead into the divot between Jeritza’s neck and shoulder. The other man’s hands were cold but his neck was warm, a faint sheen of sweat against his skin. Byleth thought he could feel Jeritza’s pulse quicken in his throat. The swordmaster fidgeted uneasily beneath him, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He clearly favored his right. The movement sent a few loose strands of hair brushing against Byleth’s forehead. He felt something strange and warm curl in his stomach as he inhaled—somehow, it smelled exactly how he had always thought, like sweet honey and vanilla. How had he known that?
“Jeritza,” he said and the other man stiffened at the sound of his name. Byleth squeezed his fingers in response. Mercedes had taught him that, actually, as a gesture of reassurance. He hadn’t thought about small things like that before, growing up. “Have you met Mercedes before the Academy? I know that you watch after her, and she recently spoke of feeling a connection toward you.”
“Perhaps in another life,” he said slowly, “I may have known her once. There are many times that I am certain of this. But any such life linking us together no longer exists in this world. She is a stranger to me, now, and I to her, as we should remain. Please, do not mention this to her, Professor. She should not waste her thoughts on me.”
Byleth nodded, still pressed against Jeritza. The other man's voice was low and silken, carrying the same elegance of the nobles in his class, and not for the first time, he wondered about Jeritza’s past. The poignant clarity with which he spoke was not unusual for him in the moments between battle, but his words now struck Byleth as an act of defeat. A fate he had resigned himself to and resolved not to struggle against its constraints.
“You have my word,” Byleth said. “Though I wonder if there might yet be time to meet again, in this new life of yours. Because…” he paused, drawing strength from Jeritza’s waiting silence, the knowledge that their rough hands were still interlocked. “I think that I have known you before, in another life. I often feel as though everyone in this world is a mystery, but you have always felt familiar to me. There is nothing I would like more in this life than to fight at your side.”
There was a long moment that passed where nothing was said and the only sound in the room was the crackling of the torches. And then one of Jeritza’s hands slipped from his own to reappear at the base of his skull, cradling his head as though it was unspeakably fragile. “I also feel a sense of familiarity about you. It is different from her…from my sister…but perhaps I have known you before, as well. You will not die by my hand until I am certain of these feelings. We will fight as soldiers in this war together, and when all our enemies lay dying, I will tell you what I have learned.”