The Ghost of Her Wounds
“She was never one for much emotion, for her unique heart failed to even beat. But their reluctant eyes as they pointed their weapons toward their former teacher, whom they used to greet, admire, and love, made even her motionless heart waver with remorse.
For the first time, Byleth Eisner, the formidable Ashen Demon, felt weary about war.”
A Claude/Byleth oneshot | 3384 words | Read on AO3 here! | or not ↓
Dawn. It was Byleth’s favorite time of day—when the sky was young, flushed with hues of pink, purple and blue, when the hours ahead brimmed with bright potential, and when the ever-busy world seemed to slow down, at least for a little while. Dawn reminded her most of the journeys during her early years as a traveling mercenary, when she traversed through the great cities of Fódlan’s three territories, from Fhirdiad to Derdriu to Enbarr, with her father Jeralt. Five years had passed since his untimely death, but the years had not made her miss him any less deeply.
After nearly a year of incessant fighting and warfare, the decisive battle of the Great War of Fódlan crept ever closer, and day by day Byleth found herself lured outside by the early morning zephyr. The feeling of the crisp breeze dancing across her skin seemed to be her only solace during difficult times of war, marked only with bloodshed, pain, and loss.
She always stood at her favorite spot, right in the middle of the colossal stone bridge outside Garreg Mach Monastery’s holy cathedral, overlooking the golden amber valley below that disappeared into the mist. Something about that particular spot made her feel at the center of the world, and it had become almost a morning ritual for her to watch the wyvern and pegasus riders make their morning patrols in the cotton candy sky.
But as her steady gaze drifted to the horizon, her mind drifted to the young students of the Officer’s Academy five years before. In the present year 1185, Garreg Mach’s Officer’s Academy was no more, since Emperor Edelgard von Hresvelg of the Adrestian Empire, a student herself, ascended the throne and turned her blade to the Church of Seiros, declaring war. Ill-prepared for the ambush that appeared on its doorstep, the Church of Seiros fell with Garreg Mach and its Officer’s Academy. As quickly as a rug would be pulled under their feet, friends became enemies, roads diverged, and backs were turned to join their sides of the war, many void of much choice for their stances.
It pained Byleth to remember the students so full of life, so eager to prepare their first steps into the world, starkly contrasted with the hopes and dreams that left their eyes as they fell, one by one, under Byleth’s own sword.
She was never one for much emotion, for her unique heart failed to even beat. But their reluctant eyes as they pointed their weapons toward their former teacher, whom they used to greet, admire, and love, made even her motionless heart waver with remorse.
For the first time, Byleth Eisner, the formidable Ashen Demon, felt weary about war.
“Something on your mind, my friend?” inquired a voice from Byleth’s side.
She jolted, but eased into a smile as Claude, her beloved friend and ally, came to join her. The warm familiarity of his presence shone a light in her chest like how a torch would light a cave, relieving Byleth from her moment of darkness.
“Oh?” Claude raised an eyebrow. “But you don’t look like a mirror to me.”
Before he even finished his sentence, Byleth scrunched up her face in disgust—oh, she saw that coming. Predicting Claude’s punny jokes was now her sixth sense after spending so much time with him these past several months.
“You’re slipping, Claude,” she warned. “That wasn’t even funny.”
“C’mon, you still gotta rate my delivery.”
“Okay, fine. A one out of ten. And I’m being generous.”
Claude laughed, with his vivacious, emerald eyes twinkling with a boyish charm that Byleth inevitably couldn’t help smiling at. Unbeknownst to her, to see the corners of her lips upturned at him was Claude’s real purpose for all his awful jokes.
Claude von Riegan, the charismatic and tactical leader of the war and of the Leicester Alliance, dressed handsomely in gold with his royal Almyranesque garb, adorned with colorful tassels and an intricately embroidered cloak that draped over his robust body. Byleth felt as if it were just yesterday when he was her student in the Golden Deer house that she taught as their professor. In five swift years, the mischievous boy she once knew had grown into a man’s body, with a beard, longer hair, and an even more overbearing array of jokes up his sleeve. But he had also grown to be a force to be reckoned with in his own right—a masterful tactician and indomitable archer—yet personable and kind to those he led. Byleth, proud of who he had become, couldn’t help taking a little credit. He was under her guidance, after all.
“Well, just letting you know, after an embarrassing amount of pleading by the rest of us, Lysithea finally agreed to bake some of her special cakes for us,” Claude proudly announced, rubbing his hands together.
“Really? There’s enough rations?”
“Well, not too much. But I figured having gone this far in the war, we all need a little something to celebrate not being dead.”
“I suppose that’s reasonable.” Byleth smiled cheekily at Claude’s humor. “I’m more surprised you managed to convince her to do it.”
“To be fair, she wouldn’t budge until Felix said he ‘wouldn’t mind some.’”
“Ah.” Byleth and Claude had both suspected Lysithea had a bit of a crush on Felix. “She’s adorable.”
“Sure, until you call her out on it and she turns into a deranged monster of denial.”
The two friends chuckled knowingly with each other. Byleth won’t ever forget Lysithea’s tomato red face and her shrill, verbal assault when Claude teased her about Felix the other day.
“DO YOU WANT TO DIE?” Byleth remembered Lysithea screeching in the dining hall. If Claude didn’t duck away in retreat, she looked as though she was ready to thrust him a critical Miasma hit.
Byleth leaned on the bridge railing alongside Claude, the pair observing the sun’s rays that peeked from below the horizon. Sunrise was nearly over, but that still didn’t discount the beauty before them.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the view from here,” Byleth muttered.
Claude never really had a good look of the view from the bridge these days. With the war nearing its end, he had been especially busy making preparations to soak any of his environment in. But having been raised in Almyra, a neighboring country of Fódlan, he always harbored an appreciation for nature’s wonders, such as the magnificent display that was in front of him. The deep valley below was otherworldly, from the majestic pine trees that looked ever small from where he was, to the coursing river that led into an unknown place obscured from view. It was refreshing to see from a bird’s eye view without having to ride his wyvern for once.
“You sure have good taste in views, Teach. It’s no wonder you’re always out here.”
“Well...“ Byleth drawled, cocking her head to the side. “Sometimes if I’m lucky, I’ll catch Sylvain doing weapon tricks on his wyvern to impress the ladies. That's always a treat.”
“So is that why the guy’s always ‘losing’ his axes?” Claude chortled. “I should’ve guessed.”
His ringing laughter subsided into a moment of quiet that he and Byleth relished, the two silently glowing in each other’s company. It wasn’t long before Byleth slowly lost herself into contemplation again, and she failed to notice Claude’s wandering eyes that traced her, admiring her slightly tousled, mint green hair that somehow still flowed into place past her shoulders. He gazed at her doll-like lashes that naturally curled upward, and the raw sunlight that colored her pale cheeks with gold. Upon Byleth’s visage was a dignified expression—solemn and pensive, yet gentle. She glimmered softly with an ethereal and divine aura that quietly took hold of his heart.
In his youth, Claude never really believed in Sothis, the Fódlan goddess. But for a second, just for a second, he truly thought he was seeing her before his eyes. And she was beautiful.
Although, these days he couldn't help noticing the vibrance usually reflected in Byleth’s eyes had been clouded with a sadness he hadn’t seen since her father died. Like a child pulling on a mother’s sleeve, his instinct nagged at him that Byleth was obstructing her true feelings. She was present, yet simultaneously far away, and Byleth remaining distant from him bothered him infinitely. While Claude usually enjoyed solving mysteries, he didn’t feel particularly joyous about this one.
“There’s something on your mind, isn’t there,” Claude presumed, posing it more as a statement than a question. “You know I’m all ears if you need to talk about it.”
Flustered, Byleth’s ears burned crimson as she refocused her attention. She knew Claude was naturally scheming all the time, but she never understood how he always seemed to see right through her mind.
“No, nothing is wrong.”
Claude smirked at her meek attempt to deceive him. “Well, when you’re bluffing to the self-declared king of deception, you’d ought to do a better job at it.”
Though he was sure his suspicions were correct, he grew disappointed all the same when her façade slowly melted into her true unsettled expression. Byleth stared out to the horizon yet again, more solemnly than before. Though she didn’t speak, Claude knew her well enough to give her a few minutes. With her reputation as a stone-faced army commander whom people looked to for unwavering assurance, for her to find a moment to confide in someone about herself was few and far between.
“It’s true I don’t remember much about my past,” Byleth began after gathering her thoughts, ensuring her voice remained steady. “But when I was young, I was stabbed in the leg by a thief when I tried to escape him.”
A delicate spot on her upper right thigh dully singed her skin. She idly traced it with her forefinger, knowing well where the scar began and where it ended. At least a decade had passed since the incident, but the ghost of her wound was evidently still there, seemingly never leaving.
“My father took no chances after that—he gave me an iron sword to replace my little dagger as soon as I healed. He actually gave it a name, ‘The Silencer,’ so I’d think it was more impressive than it was,” Byleth reminisced with a wistful smile. “He trained me to kill… and I killed to survive. My first blood was a lowly bandit in the outskirts of Empire territory. And I felt nothing of it.”
Keeping silent, Claude furrowed his brows. He watched Byleth close her eyes, sighing her many months of hidden despondency into the sky above her. Her face, though looking physically like porcelain, revealed shadows of wear and exhaustion.
“You would think after all those years of killing as a livelihood, killing without a second thought, that this war would be easy. But it’s not. It’s different this time, perhaps knowing I helped build the dreams of those kids... and was the same one to destroy them.”
She paused when she realized her voice began to crack, not fathoming how much it could hurt to hear her innermost feelings made manifest into words. Tightening her lips, she continued, straining to stabilize herself.
“But I know… I know we didn’t come this far for me to lose my focus. These feelings... they’re holding me back. They’re just useless. ”
The word escaped her mouth with scorn, as if it were something she spat out on the street. But with every word she uttered, the more she broke, and the more her walls revealed their deterioration. She averted her dampening, sullen eyes to the fog accumulated below the bridge. Blinking hard, she straightened her back, but Claude was no stranger to the act of hiding behind a façade. He himself did it all the time.
With his position as leader of the Alliance, Claude didn’t have the liberty to show his true feelings about the war. His jokes, his cheerful face, and his carefree disposition were all for the sake of the people around him. Maintaining the morale of his soldiers and allies, the ones who bravely hurled their lives on the line for his dream to unite Fódlan, was far more important. But when he was alone, he too grieved the familiar faces of those he saw fall on the battlefield. Just like he was, Byleth was struggling to keep her head above water, and Claude’s chest sunk with her. Even his most unfazed army commander wasn’t immune to the toll of war.
She blinked, shifting to face him. He rarely called her by her first name, and neither did anyone else, but to hear it from him now strangely comforted her.
“I haven’t told you, but I was the one who took down Linhardt at Fort Merceus,” Claude confessed, his jaw tightening. “You know I wouldn’t have touched him if he hadn't already killed so many of our soldiers. I had to. But the sad thing is... I still remember him from the academy. Always in the library, only ever wanted to nap and study crests, and I’m sure that’s exactly what he would’ve wanted to be doing instead of fighting someone else’s war. When his body toppled with my own arrow in his chest, his eyes started glassing over and I just… I don’t know. I don’t know why that affected me so much.”
Claude looked down at his palms that were ragged and severely blistered from years of constant bow and sword handling, despite the gloves he made sure to wear. It dawned on him how he can’t seem to remember what they looked like when they weren’t this way. But he knew his hands weren’t always like this. His hands didn’t have to be. It was only because of the war.
“The reality of war... you and I know it well. People die, by our hand or not. And sadly, our old friends are among those we had to kill. Linhardt, Caspar, Ferdinand, the others that hurt to name—we know none of them deserved to go like that.”
Byleth’s chest twinged at the sound of their names, much like how the old wound on her thigh did. They might have been her enemies of war, but to her, they were still her students, and she loved them still the same—even Edelgard, the one who ignited the war to begin with. Edelgard’s last words, before Byleth struck her final blow with the Sword of the Creator, rang out in her mind.
Your path… lies across my grave. It is time for you to find the courage to walk it.
They haunted Byleth the worst.
“Sure,” Claude continued, “Maybe we shouldn’t dwell too much on the ones we had to put down. The war goes on after all, and, y’know—” he glanced back at Byleth, “—we kill or be killed. You know that more than any of us. But even amid the most gruesome of wars, it’s unrealistic, even foolish, to force ourselves to feel free of any remorse, especially when the ones at the ends of our blades used to be our friends.”
Carefully, he pulled Byleth closer to him, extending an arm around her waist to let her rest her head gently on his shoulder. Leaning on him, she felt herself liberated from the baggage she had shouldered since the war began—the baggage that had been heavy for her to carry alone. And she found it ironic that the one to lift her from that burden was the same one who drove her up the wall in her lectures all those years before. The sudden reassurance from none other than Claude evoked a rare strand of tears that slid down her cheek. He had come a long way to become the sole person she ever truly relied on, other than her own father.
“Allowing yourself to feel isn’t always a sign of weakness,” Claude murmured. “It’s just a sign of humanity.”
“Humanity.” She repeated it as though she was hearing the word for the first time.
In truth, Byleth wasn’t completely human. Her unique heart that failed to beat was one she shared with Sothis, the Fódlan progenitor god herself. As a newborn, Byleth neither laughed nor cried. She had no pulse. To her father’s silent horror, she was incapable of any emotion at all until 21 years after her birth, stepping in as the Officer’s Academy’s youngest professor at the archbishop’s request. Byleth’s time teaching, learning about the students, discovering their past, their present, and their dreams for the future, sparked a fire that thawed away her stoic demeanor. The students fell in love with her, and she too fell in love with the students. She began to smile, to laugh, to develop her own dry sense of humor—no thanks to Claude—and to shed her first tears, when she witnessed her father murdered senselessly in front of her eyes.
“Love, happiness, guilt, remorse... they’re the very threads that keep us human.” Claude turned to firmly grasp Byleth’s shoulders to face him. “Allow yourself to feel them from time to time, else you’re no different from a beast.”
Byleth, slowly comprehending his words, took comfort in his earnest, verdant green eyes that pierced through hers. The youthful gleam in his face was alive and well, but intermingled with a new maturity that she grew to love the more time they spent together. He wasn’t just her student anymore. He was her smile, her anchor, and her confidant. He was the healer of her wounds. With him, she felt the most human she had ever felt. With him, everything was going to be alright.
With him, she was home.
Claude smiled warmly at her, more glad than ever to see the light that reemerged in her pale green eyes. That very light was what fueled him to keep going, and he needed to see it more than she would ever know.
“Well, in a way, I’m kinda glad you’re being crippled by tormenting feelings of grief,” he chirped to lighten the mood. “Kind of reassuring to know I’m not in love with a cold-blooded killer.”
Byleth snorted in disbelief that he could be cracking jokes at a time like this. But she couldn’t fight a radiant smile from spreading across her face as she wiped her tears away. Out of all the things in this world she could be at the mercy of, she never expected his humor to be one of them.
“Claude, thank you. I mean it.”
She reached to intertwine his hands with hers. Like his, they were rough and callused from more than a decade of sword wielding, but to Claude, they felt just as beautiful as a swan’s delicate feathers.
He squeezed her hands. “I’m here for you,” he assured. “Just like how you are for all of us.”
Between them, there was a clear longing for each other that they both knew. They communicated it through their playful banter, their eyes, their touch, and their quick, stolen kisses in the cardinal’s room in the dead of night, when they were alone to strategize the war. Their respect for each other as partners had evolved into something much more, and they knew, as well as everyone else around them, that they were in love.
But the two young leaders knew better. During this critical time of the war, overindulging in love was a risk to be avoided. No matter how much Claude’s throat burned to ask her to be by his side as his wife, and no matter how much Byleth yearned to love him freely, now was not the time.
Nemesis, the ancient King of Liberation, treaded the lands of Fódlan once more, and he was coming for them. They had an army to command. They had a dawn of a new world to lead. But at the very least for now, they could promise each other.
“Don’t die on me.”
Claude chuckled. He cupped her face in his hands, playfully squishing her cheeks knowing well she hates it when he does that.
“I won’t,” he promised, gently pressing her lips with his.
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