Claude had a lot of expectations about their five-year reunion at the monastery, a lot of different scenarios running through his mind, loops of possibilities and paths to thread. Schemes, some called it (he first and foremost), but he thought of them as plans and contingencies more than anything else. He climbed Garreg Mach's broken stairs, his gaze trailing on the soldiers' skeletons strewn about, his ears perked up for the familiar sounds of the Golden Deer House: Hilda's boisterous charm as she enrolled Raphael into finding a comfortable seat for her delicate posterior, Leonie's ramble about the newest technique she had mastered out of Jeralt's now-ancient teachings, Lysethia snapping at them all to be more quiet so she could focus on her studies, and perhaps even Lorenz's insufferable talk about his presence being the duty of a noble in some way, like he didn't just enjoy everyone's antics as much as Claude did. That was his main expectation: his house, his people, his friends, here as promised.
What he hoped for--prayed for, even, to Seiros, to the blessed land, to Brigid's spirits, to gods and benevolent protectors all over the world, really--what he prayed for was that Teach would join them, too. They were alive. Claude knew that, deep in his soul he knew, but they hadn't been sighted since the attack on the monastery, and he had no real reason to believe today would be any different. But when had reaching for the impossible ever stopped him, really?
Silence clung to him as he climbed, but Claude didn’t worry. Not yet. He was early, excitement carrying him swiftly across Fódlan, and for all his imagined scenarios of striding into the half-collapsed hall to be greeted by the Golden Deers’ cheers, he knew the others were unlikely to have arrived.
Claude had played this day in his mind a hundred different times, through countless hours of daydreaming, and yet not a single one of them had prepared him for what he found at the top of the stairs.
A man crouched by a pile of rubble, broad-shoulders hunched by the weight of the world, a mop of greasy blond hair drooping around his face. Shadows shrouded his royal blue cape, wrapped around him like a shield against the world, letting nothing escape but pants stained by blood and mud, and the powerful gloved hand holding a long, deadly lance.
Cold fingers sank into Claude’s stomach and twisted it. Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd had been executed following a coup in the Kingdom. Claude had made his peace with that, mourned the bright-eyed prince with whom he’d relentlessly flirted (to no avail, damn this dutiful fool) and shared many late-night visions of the future during his year at the monastery, then moved on. He had dreams to attend to, many shared to some extent by Dimitri, and fulfilling his ambitions seemed a better way to honour his memory than to lingering on what could have been. He’d never been one for letting the past burdens slow him.
His boots scuffed against the ground as he came to an abrupt stop, and in the heavy silence, the sound bounced off the walls, as loud as a war trumpet. Dimitri twitched at the sound, and his head slowly lifted. His cheeks had sunken in, hatred and suffering carving their marks into him as surely as the blade that had taken his right eye, now covered by a simple black eyepatch. The blue of his left eye, however, was as clear as ever--a pale winter sky that had always captured Claude completely, trapping him into one utterly useless crush. Recognition flickered through it, only to be crushed by a bottomless pain that shattered Claude’s usual calm.
The nickname escaped him, breathless and urgent, and he rushed forward, his heart hammering against his chest, his hands shaking. The tip of a lance stopped him, less than an inch from his throat, forcing him to lean back.
“Stay back, schemer!” On any other day, Claude would’ve taken that as a compliment, even grinned at the acknowledgement of his nature, but Dimitri growled it, voice rough from disuse (or hoarse from screaming, perhaps?), like a wild beast issuing a warning, and it felt like a blast of heat crackling his skin and choking him. Dimitri glared at him, “I’m not the golden boy you once knew.”
A sharp laugh escaped Claude. No, really? The haggard and almost feral Dimitri before him wasn’t the prim and proper prince of their academy days? He would never have guessed! With a dismissive slap, Claude pushed the lance away and leaned forward, smiling. It was a tight expression, born from years of habit more than any real mirth, but it flowed naturally from him, as much a shield as Dimitri’s angry growl.
“That’s good, because gold is my colour, and you can’t have it.” He extended a hand and hoped Dimitri would let go of the lance to accept it. “I’m glad you’re alive, Your Princeliness, even if you could use a bath or ten.”
“A…” He trailed off, and for an instant Claude thought he detected an upward curve at the corner of his lips, then it was gone, replaced by an angry huff. “Why are you here?”
“Me? Just one scheme or another.” He waved his fingers, insisting for Dimitri to take his hand, but when that only earned him a harder glare, Claude switched tactics and instead sat right next to him, leaning into the thick, stained cloak. The furs stank, but he chose not to comment. “News out there is that you’ve been executed. Have you been hiding here all those years?”
He scoffed and turned his head away, upward, as if looking at someone a few feet away. “I cannot hide. I will not rest until every Imperial soldier has paid for their crimes and their blood pools at my feet, soaking my boots as completely as my family’s did.”
Yikes. Echoes of Dimitri’s frantic state in the weeks before the attack on the monastery returned to Claude. He’d turned alternatively brooding or violent, a deep rage simmering under the surface. Edie’s betrayal had hit him harder than most, but all Claude had managed to pry from him was that she’d pay for what happened in Duscur. He didn’t think he’d have more luck today, so instead he gave Dima a little shove.
“You’re a big guy and all, but I don’t think you can take all of them on your own, Dima.”
“Then I must die trying.”
Make that double yikes, then. What a pointless sacrifice that would be! “And waste a pretty face like yours?” Claude asked, forcing a chiding note into his tone. “What if… what if I told you I had a better idea?”
Maybe it wasn’t wise to share any of his plans with Dimitri. He really wasn’t himself--didn’t even sound remotely stable. But Claude’s heart shrivelled a little more every time he glanced at Dima’s pained eyes. He needed to try and help him, would never live with himself if he abandoned Dimitri to the hatred which had so firmly ensnared him.
“A scheme?” Dimitri asked, and the sneer in his voice had lost its sheen of playful bickering from their time at the monastery.
“The biggest of them all!” Claude declared, waving grandly at the air. “Five years ago, the Golden Deer House promised each other we would return here, to meet again. We had no idea what was waiting for us at the time, but… I think they’ll come. Everyone who made that promise.”
Dimitri’s eye squeezed shut and he leaned his forehead against his lance. “We did the same,” he whispered. “The Blue Lions. But they won’t come.”
“Dedue is dead,” Dimitri cut off, answering the question before Claude could even formulate it. His voice had grown rougher, not with sadness but with anger. “Leave me be, Claude.”
Never. Not in a million years. Dima would have to run that lance right through his body before he left him alone now, knowing Dedue was gone. Sure, this good dude had ruined half his flirt plans back in the days, hovering protectively around Dima or dropping in a deadpan tone that he’d grown accustomed to quite a variety of plant-based poisons and effects when Claude had tried to slip him an entirely inoffensive sleep concoction. It had been a game between them: Claude trying to get past the attentive retainer, him thwarting the latest scheme without ever breaking his mask of calm, both of them knowing Dimitri needed no such protection and ordered them to break it off more often than not. He’d been a good man, the sort of ambassador Claude would have loved to count on in his envisioned future.
“I’m sorry, Dima,” he said, the words feeling utterly empty despite their sincerity. “But I’m not going anywhere. I gotta wait here, and not just for the good old classmates. Teach promised too, you know. They said they’d be here with us.”
“The Professor…” Dimitri shook his head and snorted. “They’re dead. Have been for five years. Expecting them is… absurd.”
“And yet here I am, a golden fool, away from the Alliance on the impossible chance Teach will show up.” Claude brought his hands behind his head and leaned against the wall, stretching out next to Dimitri. “I already found one dead man today, so who knows? Maybe the goddess will bless us with another miracle.”
“I’m afraid only the dead haunt me, never the living.”
“Must make for some boring-ass conversation, that,” Claude said, keeping his tone entirely too casual for the sheer level of what Dima had just dropped. For the second time, he thought he spotted the hint of a smile on Dimitri’s expression. Good to know his sense of humour hadn’t died with his appreciation for basic hygiene, then. “Just… Wait for them with me, all right? We used to share dreams, you and I, and I’d like for you to take part in this one, too. Even if only for a day.”
Dimitri didn’t reply, but neither did he get up or leave. He let the lance lean against his shoulder and set his back against the wall, right by Claude’s side, his silence an agreement in itself. Claude couldn’t help his soft smile, and he reached under the fur-lined cloak, setting one hand on the man’s much-higher shoulder.
“You’ll see, Dima, this particular scheme is as good as they get.”
And he’d be damned if he didn’t get Dimitri involved in it and force him to stay by their side, where he could be surrounded with friends once more and would not need to shoulder the burden of grief and revenge alone.
Claude had fallen asleep on his shoulder. Five years of war and he was still a sweet summer child, unburdened by the dead. Dimitri ought to shove him off, to get up and leave, to hold his promise for revenge and start on his path to Enbarr, to Edelgard. What good did it do, to waste a night here in Garreg Mach, where the dead's whispers grew stronger than ever? Claude might continue to look forward, to new dawns and beautiful outcomes, dreams and hopes clinging to his yellow cloak and easy smile, but Dimitri had no future; his life was entirely beholden to those who had died when he had survived, and nothing but ghosts and bitter anger hung about him. How foolish, to stay here on the slim chance the Professor returned, to serve as a pillow for a still-soft boy while he waited for comrades who loved and trusted him, people he could rely on to build his envisioned future.
But Dimitri had hunted and been haunted for years, now. Perhaps he could allow himself this one night, however undeserving of it he might be. Just one. When even Claude had to admit their teacher had perished like so many before, then Dimitri would go, carving a path of death through the Empire until he reached Edelgard and tore every limb from her body, one by one, or died trying. Was it too selfish, to give himself this tiny respite? Claude’s weight against his soothed his heart, and Dimitri did not remember when last the throb of pain had seemed so distant, so manageable. It had been like this, too, five years ago. They had climbed atop the nobles’ quarters, laying flat on the roof, Claude’s head on his belly, and as they stared at the stars above and quietly shared dreams, the voices of the dead had rescinded, left him in peace for a night.
He wished that were the case now, but they had grown stronger over the last five years, more insistent with every passing day, every moment Edelgard waged her war and the victims of Duscur went unavenged. Not even Claude could keep them at bay--nothing would but the Emperor’s head on a spike. Still. It helped to know someone had made it through the invasion with his hopes intact, that the blood he’d spill would serve not only to fulfill the dead’s wishes, but to open the path to another, brighter future for those more deserving of it.
Boots scuffed in the stairs--two pairs, one of metal, the other softer, barely audible through the first’s stomping rhythm. Could the Professor--? His hands tightened on his lance’s shaft and he leaned forward, staring at the top of the stairs. His heart hammered wildly. This couldn’t be. It had to be a Golden Deer student, perhaps even one of his own… The Professor had perished, they all knew this, foolish hopes aside. And yet, his breath caught as the top of pale green hair appeared, dust and knots inflicting even more chaos than usual through the mane. For a brief instant, his chest seemed to grow larger, warmth spreading through him.
Then the tip of golden horns wrapped around white hair followed, by their side, and Dimitri’s hope shattered like so many fragile objects in his hands. How could the Professor walk with her? The question flashed through his mind, only to be immediately discarded. It didn’t matter. Edelgard was here. At the monastery. Right within his grasp. A tight ball of fury coalesced in the pit of his stomach, spinning and growing until it burned his throat, erupting into a feral scream. Dimitri leaped to his feet and dashed forward, bringing his lance to bear in one deadly stab.
Edelgard did not move or flinch. The links of the Sword of the Creator rattled through the air as they elongated and wrapped around the shaft, then Byleth yanked hard on it. Dimitri’s eyes widened but he planted his feet into the ground, holding fast. He was stronger than the Professor, stronger than all of them, and rage coursed through him. Dimitri pulled back, snarling and Byleth scowled as they were forced to take a step forward. A red glow coursed through the sword, and Dimitri’s lance snapped within his hands.
He threw the shaft backward, flipped his grip on the pointed hand, and sprang forward with another deep-throated growl. A weight slammed into him from his blind side, sending him rolling on the ground with a second person on top of him. Dimitri slashed horizontally, trying to force them off, then his gaze caught snap of a golden cape and green eyes in his.
Dimitri grabbed him by the throat, his heart pounding. He didn’t want to hurt Claude, but if he stood in his way… Snap his neck, a voice whispered to him. He knew he knew he knew. They’re all with her. The dead clung to him, slinking in his ears, his mind. He growled, at them and him and Claude all at once.
“I have to do this.”
“Dima…” He didn’t pull at the hand, or try to jerk back and escape. Claude leaned forward, one knee tugging at Dimitri’s fur cape, and caught his gaze. “You make a better pillow than murderer. Be… soft.” He stretched his fingers until their tips touched Dimitri’s cheek.
Something snapped in Dimitri, like Claude’s fingers had turned into the focal point of the utter absurdity of it all, his shock and betrayal mixing together, burning where he’d been touched. He flung Claude to the side, scrambling up and backward, one hand still tight around the broken shaft of his lance while he kept the other on the ground. The Professor rushed to Claude’s side as he slammed into a wall. Eldegard hadn’t moved an inch since this had started. She still stared at him, impassive.
“Here he is,” she said, her voice cold as a winter night, “the monster of Garreg Mach.”