A/N: Hey all! Absolutely love this game and the characters! I knew as soon as I finished my Golden Deer run (first run, Fear The Deer), that I had to write a fic. I adore Claude and everyone in the Golden Deer path so I just had to write this. I played through as female Byleth so that will be the perspective this story is from. This takes place shortly after the events of The Cause of Sorrow.
There was no denying that The Asp's Den was a piss poor excuse for a tavern. From the whiskey stains dotting the floor, to the pungent smell of sour ale, to the incessant drip, drip, dripping of the leaky roof…everything about the place screamed of neglect and disrepair. It was the sort of tavern where drinks played compliment to a main course of shady dealings and questionable intentions. What few occupants there were stayed carefully inside their cobweb dusted booths, too occupied with their own business to be minding anybody else's.
It suited Byleth's needs perfectly.
She had placed herself at the fore of the pub, seated on an uneven barstool that tilted back and forth whenever she shifted her weight. A thick cowl was pulled low across her face, hiding her features behind a blanket of shadow. Hoods and cloaks were commonplace in The Den, attracting no more attention than a monk's robes would in the monastery. It was not unusual for characters of questionable repute to darken the tavern's door, characters who liked to keep any distinguishing features to themselves.
Learning to blend in with one's surroundings had been one of the first tactics Jeralt had taught her. It was an imperative strategy for missions that required a finer grasp of stealth and subtlety. Of course, this wasn't a mission and Jeralt was…her father was…
Byleth swallowed thickly, her fingers tightening around her ale mug as she brought it to her lips and took a long swig. She would be taking a different sort of leaf from her father's book that night. The professor winced as the alcohol slid down her throat, tasting like bile and smelling even worse. Yet it was not doing enough. Byleth still felt as though someone had filled the Jeralt shaped hole in her heart with shards of shattered glass that shifted and cut with every breath she took.
Frowning, she set the tankard back on the bar with a little more force than was necessary, the resulting clunk drawing the barkeep's attention. He was a big man, bald and barrel chested with eyebrows thick enough to rival the mustache that consumed his upper lip. Once his eyes were on her, Byleth tapped her index finger twice on the mug's rim and said in a curt tone:
The bartender's eyes narrowed but he said nothing, instead whisking her glass away and busying himself with refilling it. The professor knew it was not the wisest thing to be visiting an establishment like this one alone. Yet at the moment she could not stand the thought of being anywhere near the monastery or the pitying glances that awaited her within. She supposed she could have taken Alois up on his offer to drink at an actual, reputable pub… Or joined her original mercenary troupe for a night of toasts and accolades in Jeralt's honor. Byleth's throat tightened. No matter what any of them might imply, her father had not died a hero's death. He had died to a knife in the back, one she had seen coming and been powerless to stop. Byleth's fists clenched as she furiously blinked away the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks.
She was The Ashen Demon, and demons didn't cry.
The bartender chose that moment to return, depositing her beverage on the counter in front of her with enough force to slosh a portion over the brim.
"Thank you," Byleth said shortly, sliding a coin across the counter toward the burly man. He slapped a meaty palm on top of it and trundled off to help a patron whose face hid behind elaborate scarlet wraps.
The professor brought the mug to her lips and drained the contents in one go. Jeralt would have been proud.
The beverage pooled like magma in her stomach, burning the edge off her grief and temporarily alleviating the shards where her heart should be. As her inhibitions began to drown in a pool of potent spirits, Byleth decided there was nothing to stop her from purchasing more of it.
"You are being a fool!"
Nothing that is, except that. Really it was lamentable how impossible it was to be alone when one had a goddess living in one's head. Gritting her teeth, Byleth did her best to ignore Sothis's reprimand, wishing she could cover her ears and be done with it.
"Cover your ears? Truly?" Sothis made a disgusted sound. "You must cease this self-deprecating behavior at once! I understand that you grieve, but this is a foolish way to go about doing so!"
Byleth was aware. Gods was she aware. And yet, for all of her bullheaded stupidity, she wanted one night where she didn't have to be someone's professor. One night where she could grieve, away from the expectations of Rhea and her knights. Where she could be human and make mistakes and scream and rage against the injustice of what the hell had just happened to her father.
Something within Byleth cracked. The dam that held her grief at bay shuddered in its foundation, allowing a single teardrop to slip through her defenses. It rolled down her cheek before plunging through the air, splattering on the counter and adding to the cemetery of ale stains already marring the wood.
"…There is such pain in you…" Sothis's voice was quiet. Gentle. As though Byleth was a baby bird that might spook if addressed too loudly. "This grief you are feeling…you cannot run from it. If you try to force it away, it will only consume you. Please…allow yourself to be sad. You still have a family of a—"
"Barkeep! Another!" Byleth exclaimed, loud enough to drown out the words in her head. Loud enough that she could not hear whatever the goddess had intended to say at all. It didn't matter. She had no family left in this world. She was alone.
Sothis's sigh in her mind was like a mournful wind through willow trees, yet as the bartender made his way back around, the goddess stayed surprisingly silent. The barkeep raised a magnificent eyebrow and nodded down at Byleth's empty mug.
"Another? Of those?" he asked, his voice a skeptical rumble.
"Yes," the professor answered shortly. The man snorted and shook his head.
"They call this particular draft Wyvern Venom, shipped all the way from the mountains of Almyra," he said to her. "Any more of this will have you on the floor. You really want—"
"If it truly is all the way from Almyra, then I assume it's rather expensive," Byleth interrupted, her tone brimming with impatience. "Am I to understand you're turning down my coin?"
The barkeep considered her for a moment before shrugging massive shoulders.
"I'm not above throwing belligerent drunks to the streets," he told her. "Woman or not."
"I understand," Byleth answered stiffly.
"As long as we're clear," the bartender stated before picking up her mug, and striding away. Byleth pressed her lips together as she waited for Sothis to say something. She could sense the goddess's disapproval in her mind. Feel it like the barest hint of breath on the back of her neck. But when Sothis finally did speak, the goddess's words were merely resigned.
"Very well. Perhaps he may be able to help you as I cannot…"
Byleth frowned. He? Who was Sothis speaking of? Surely not the bartender.
The answer to her question came with the creak of a hinge and the gasp of rain-drenched wind as the tavern's front door swung open and a young man strode in. He glanced around the pub's dreary interior, his head held high despite dripping hair and a sodden cloak. Altogether he painted a picture of natural poise and confidence, looking for all the world like he owned The Den instead of the brooding man behind the counter.
Byleth stared at the new arrival, grateful for the cowl that hid her astonished expression from view.
How in the world had he found her?
Emerald eyes met ocean blue and as Byleth stiffened, the corner of Claude von Riegan's mouth quirked in his trademark smirk. He strode across the room, ignoring the blatant stares he was receiving from the other occupants in their cloistered alcoves. Byleth sighed. Claude had had the sense to trade his flashy academy attire for a plain shirt and dark breeches, but even so there was simply nothing subtle about the young man. Whether conscious of it or not, Claude would always be a brilliant flame while everyone else fluttered about him like moths, dull and clumsy by comparison.
Byleth blinked, her eyes sliding to the empty mug in front of her. For the Goddess's sake she was going to start sounding like Lorenz if such poetic drabbles continued to flounce about her head. Perhaps the Venom was more potent than she'd given it credit for…
The sound of chair legs sliding on wood indicated that Claude had occupied the barstool beside her own, yet he remained out of sight behind the folds of her hood. A beat of silence passed and for a moment Byleth entertained the notion that perhaps Claude hadn't recognized her after all and instead was only here by some bizarre coincidence. It was a theory quickly shredded as The Alliance heir chose that moment to peer into her hood, leaning so far forward Byleth feared he might fall off his stool.
"Striking quite the mysterious figure there, Teach," he said quietly. The corners of his mouth were lifted in the ghost of a smile, but his eyes lacked their usual glint of mischief. Sighing Byleth at last turned to him, taking in the young man's sopping clothes and dripping hair.
"You're soaked," she said shortly, gesturing to his drenched attire. Claude nodded, straightening as he no longer had to lean to see her around the cowl.
"Ah, yes. It's raining," he responded. "But considering this place has more leaks than there are books in the monastery library, you probably already knew that."
The bartender glanced up at this, his eyes narrowing in irritation.
"Perhaps you'd like to pay for my repairs," the big man grumbled.
"I'd love to," Claude replied, his tone suspiciously bright as he hit the bartender with one of his winsome smiles. "I am Lorenz Hellman Glouster, of the Leister Alliance's House Glouster. Make sure you send the paperwork accordingly."
The bartender stared at Claude incredulously, Byleth's prepared drink forgotten in his hand. The young woman sighed, shaking her head and holding up a coin.
"He's not serious," she said as the barkeep walked over and placed the second beverage in front of her.
"I don't care," the bartender retorted before snatching the coin from her fingers and ambling off.
"Well that was rude," Claude observed quietly. "The man didn't even ask if I wanted anything. Lorenz Hellman Glouster has very particular tastes."
Byleth rolled her eyes but was unable to stop the tiny smile tugging insistently at the corner of her lips. She knew full well that Claude hadn't been planning to purchase anything whether the barkeep had asked or not. The Alliance heir wouldn't have come all the way out here if he had simply wanted a drink. The professor lifted the mug to her lips and took a considerable swig, doing her best not to pull a face as the liquid seared through her. Beside her, Claude's brows suddenly furrowed and he sniffed several times before leaning startlingly close to her. Byleth drew back, her eyes widening.
The young man recoiled, pointing at her ale mug as though it had just done something particularly offensive.
"Goddess's Teeth! Are you drinking Wyvern Venom?" he asked, eyebrows leaping up to give his hairline company. Byleth hesitated and opened her mouth but Claude cut her off. "You can't lie to me, Teach. I know your lying face."
The professor pressed her lips together, allowing a handful of seconds to pass before relinquishing a single, curt nod. Claude released a low whistle.
"Honestly I'm impressed you still have your eyebrows," he stated nonchalantly. "I've heard rumors of Almyrans losing them after consuming too much of the stuff." He grinned before giving a subtle nod in the bartender's direction. "But I wouldn't worry too much. If yours do fall off you could always steal his. I mean really, even if he leant you half of that bristle, I doubt anyone would notice a difference. Ah, on him, of course. Not you. Just want to make sure I make that distinctio—"
"Claude, what are you doing here?" Byleth cut the young man off, pinning him with a look of inquisitive resignation. He hesitated before meeting her gaze, steepling his fingers and tilting his head slightly to the side. Byleth could almost see the tactician behind those emerald orbs, measuring each potential answer and the ways in which she might respond to them. Finally, he shrugged in a way that told her he was about to say something particularly noncommittal. Claude was not the only one with a knack for reading people.
"Oh, I was just concerned that if I left you alone too long you might end up like Professor Manuela," he answered. "The least I can do is make sure you stay upright long enough to get back to your room."
Byleth blinked at him, the mug of Wyvern Venom raised halfway to her lips. The professor's eyes flicked down to the beverage, then promptly returned to Claude. He was sitting close enough to make out her disgruntled expression despite the shadows and poor light. She pressed her lips together, a bit of heat rising to her cheeks.
"Considering the amount of compromising beverage you have consumed, are you truly surprised to hear such jibes?"
Byleth barely ignored the urge to roll her eyes. Of course, Sothis would choose this moment to speak up again. If she, Byleth, did face any painful morning repercussions from tonight's decision making, it was her hope that the goddess might feel them too. Maybe then she would finally get a moment of peace.
"Well now. That's just rude."
"Stop!" Byleth said sharply, slamming her near empty mug onto the counter and bringing her free hand to her head. "Just…stop."
A beat of silence passed. Then:
"…I'm sorry." Claude's voice was surprisingly remorseful, completely void of its previous mischief. "I didn't… I thought that if I could make you smile that maybe, well, maybe it would help. With everything. I clearly miscalculated."
Byleth stared at him, realizing in that moment that she had spoken those words out loud. Claude obviously thought they had been meant for him. This was exactly why she had wanted to avoid going anywhere that her students, or anyone else from the monastery, might find her. Damn Claude and his perceptive insight. Damn those eyes that were too keen for their own good. She needed to get out of here. Needed to go to a place where no walls loomed over her like a physical manifestation of the world's expectations. Expectations she would now have to face alone.
The dam around her emotions cracked for a second time and Byleth's fingers curled into fists.
The word was laced with concern but Byleth refused to meet Claude's eyes. She could not stand to see the same pity there that she saw in the gaze of everyone else she'd spoken to that day. Not from him.
She needed to get out of here.
Byleth pushed her stool back from the counter, standing abruptly and nearly toppling over as the world shifted beneath her feet.
"Whoa, careful!" Claude leapt upright and placed a steadying hand on her arm, managing to keep her from tumbling to the planks below. "You okay?"
"Fine," Byleth mumbled as the room around her slowly ceased its spinning. "I'm fine."
There was a high-pitched ringing in her ears and her head felt oddly separate from the rest of her body. She had built up a tolerance to spirits sure, but it had been a long time since she had consumed anything stronger than tea.
"Told you," the barkeep growled from where he stood polishing a cloudy ale mug. Byleth ignored him.
"Come on," Claude said quietly, his gaze flicking toward the cloaked patrons eyeing them from their shadowed booths. "Let's get back to the monastery."
Byleth took a deep breath, doing her best to clear away the fog that was beginning to blur the edges of her thoughts. Sothis was right. Justified or not, her behavior this evening had been foolhardy. Better to get back to the monastery now and regret her actions in the morning than stay any longer and make things worse.
"Okay," she replied, before stepping carefully out of Claude's grip and moving toward the front door. The young man fell into step beside her, not physically touching her, but staying close enough to provide a steadying hand should she need it. For this, Byleth was grateful. She would never admit it, but it was taking a ridiculous amount of concentration to maintain walking in a straight line.
As they neared the tavern's entrance, Byleth was dimly aware of Claude thanking the bartender before opening the door and stepping through onto waterlogged streets. Though the deluge had lessoned considerably, rain still leaked from an overcast sky, the bruised clouds bunched together and successfully smothering the moonlight. Because of this, the span of narrow streets that lead back to the main thoroughfare were choked with shadow, making Byleth particularly grateful for the dagger strapped comfortingly to her side. Garreg Mach rose over the town like a distant, stalwart guardian, too much of a way away for Byleth's liking.
"Stay close, Teach," Claude said beside her, clearly thinking along the same lines. "I don't want to lose you in the dark." The Alliance heir's voice was light, but she could tell by his stiff posture that Claude didn't trust those cloistered alleyways any more than she did.
Together the two strode forward, neither saying anything as they traversed the shadows, wary of dark alcoves and the stirring of things beyond their line of sight. Inwardly Byleth cursed her muddled thoughts, the Wyvern Venom making her feel slow and lethargic. She had wanted this, she reminded herself. She had wanted to dull the pain pulsing inside her.
Well she had done it; she had just dulled everything else as well.
Her ears strained as she tried to hear anything over the patter of rainfall, nearly drawing her dagger on a rat that skittered suddenly from a crack in the nearby wall. Claude grinned at that, his bright smile a startling contrast to the otherwise dreary atmosphere.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of rats too," he teased. "No wonder you and Edelgard get along so we—"
It was in his moment of brief distraction that a knife suddenly materialized from the alcove behind Claude. With his gaze fixed on her, the young man didn't see it coming. Byleth's eyes widened as the cruel metal moved with the swiftness of a striking asp, descending directly toward The Alliance heir's back.
Okay well there is chapter one for all you awesome humans! I hope you enjoy it! The plan is to have chapter two up within the next week which should conclude the story. I always plan on writing one shots and then always write too much. Hope everyone was in character and it was enjoyable! Let me know what you thought if you feel so inclined