For the Holiday Microfic/Drabble Exchange on LiveJournal. (Yes, I'm a bit behind schedule. :P) My prompt format originally asked for character/pairings and details as well, but I think I'll keep those as a surprise for any non-recipient readers. :P

Recipient: Sara Jaye
Universe: Jugdral, during the Silesia arc
Quote: "It's always darkest before dawn."
Element: Air

Notes: I guess this makes it the first time I've completed and posted a Jugdral fic, even though it's my favorite FE universe and I have a few older WIPs!

The Longest Winter

It was kinda funny, how well they got along: the dancer and the priest. It wasn't that Lord Claude didn't see her as a woman, no, not at all. It was real sweet, actually, that such a serious man could have such a human side to him as well. Because he did find her attractive, Sylvia could tell. She had made a living out of making herself attractive to men, after all (though dancin' wasn't just about that, of course). Perhaps she couldn't read or write script like all the well-educated nobles in the army, but she could read gazes n' faces like the back of her hand, and divine meaning from that faint blush on his face -- more eloquent than the most finely crafted speech -- that betrayed his normally impervious composure (it wasn't from the cold, that was for sure!).

But even in his most awkward moments there was an elegance to his carriage, a solid weight to his presence that distinguished him from most of the other men she had ever known. Unlike the others, he did not try to define her in his own terms, whether as an easy lay, as enjoyable but ultimately forgettable company, or as an innocent in need of saving. He recognized that dancing was her greatest passion, her very life. And yet at the same time, that he saw her as more than just a dancer, more than just a woman, was flattering in another way altogether.

He was nothing at all like Levin, tied down to nothing and to no one. And his words, though carefully chosen, carried with them an air of unstudied sincerity.

She could trust in him not to lie to her.

"What's gonna happen now, Lord Claude?"

That beautiful pegasus knight, Fury's older sister, was dead. Almost as soon as they received the news, the mood of the entire camp had changed from cautious hope to something more akin to despair. It was no time for dancin', not now. Not anymore. And despite the confident, almost brash determination she had confronted Fury with just weeks earlier, there were some distances that could not be breached, griefs and regrets she could not share, words she could not offer in comfort to either Fury or Levin.

"What're we gonna do?" she said, and found herself struggling not to cry, whether from the realization that she had lost, fair and square, or because for the first time since she had joined Sigurd's army, she was beginning to think that they were all fighting a war that could not be won.

He drew her into his silent embrace instead of replying. After a while, he murmured, "When men first walked the land, they knew little about themselves and the world. And for some time they lived thus, blissful and content in their ignorance. But the seasons came and fled, and soon winter descended upon the land like a cloak of darkness. And then, for the first time they knew fear."

She wiped away the tears that had trickled down her face and tried to inject some humor into her voice. "Humankind's first winter, huh? However did we manage to survive?"

"The chiefs of every clan gathered, and came to a consensus: with the old Crone they must strike a deal, else all their people starve or freeze to death."

"And what'd she tell 'em?"

"When the old Crone beheld those men huddled naked at her feet, she took pity on them. 'Humans,' she whispered, her rattling voice low and chill as ice. 'I cannot clothe you, nor can I feed you. But this I tell you: entertain me, please me, and perhaps I shall spare you.' So what do you think the humans did?"

Sylvia shook her head, and his lips quirked into a hint of a smile. "They sang, and they danced. Before the old Crone they celebrated their lives through song and motion, and soon enough a fire lit within their hearts. And as long as just one single person continued to dance, the fire did not die, and Death came not for them, though the nights grew longer and darker and colder."

"They danced?"

He nodded. "Even the Crone's withered old heart began to melt at the sight. So touched was she, that she began to weep, and when all her tears had washed away, the people looked upon her and saw that her face had become that of a young maiden, and the warmth of the sun radiated from the very core of her being. At that they exclaimed in wonder and fear, but she only laughed and said, 'Now I am no longer the Cruel Mistress of Winter, but Lady of Light and Joy and all growing things.' Thus was winter driven away from the land."

She said quietly, "But this is different, isn't it? This time --" She could not bring herself to say it, even now. Mahnya is dead. It was not the first death of the war, nor would it be the last. She knew this. But still she could not speak the words: It's too late, Death has already taken her toll.

Claude looked terribly sad. Sad, she thought, and weary, though he hadn't known Mahnya any better than she had. "Death is not the end," he said. "Just as spring comes unfailingly at winter's close."

Levin or Alec or any other man might have offered gentle, easy reassurances to her instead, and yet somehow she found more comfort in this simple cold truth than in the usual empty gestures and meaningless statements of faith and hope.

"Mm, I get it. So what you're saying is, all we can do in the meantime is -- dance?" She grinned, hoping to wipe away the strange regret in his eyes -- a regret that for once she could neither read nor understand. When he did not respond, she grabbed his hand on impulse, dragging him into a standing position.

She gave a little whirl. "Now, dancin' -- that I can do!"

At that Lord Claude chuckled, a sound that was low and surprisingly pleasant. "Yes," he said. "That's more like it. Despair does not become you..."

She laughed then as well, delighted as a child, her heart full and bursting with song. "Dance with me," she said.

And there it was, that blush again.

She didn't mind, of course. It was rather endearing, in fact.

And if he could not bring himself to dance -- why, she'd just do all his dancin' for him. For Lord Claude and for herself and for everyone who needed it: as they stood together now in the midst of bleakest winter, here on the brink of spring.

In the Japanese, Claude's compliment in their Chapter Four conversation makes her cry. Aww. :) I tried to capture a bit of that sweetness here, though some of my Claude characterization is also informed by his exchange with Aideen in Chapter Five (in which he makes it clear that he's known what's going to happen ever since Chapter Three. Ouch.)