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the warmth of your doorways

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Gronder Field was a nightmare.

This is a war. Claude knows that it means facing friends, fighting them, killing them. But knowing and doing are two separate things, and though it must be done, he doesn’t think there’s any way to make it easy.

Needless to say, Dimitri’s appearance, after all the reports of a death, was a surprise. He didn’t particularly care that Claude was there, wanting only to face Edelgard, but Claude faced him and won - not an especially incredible thing, considering the state Dimitri was in at that point.

And then?

And then Claude captured him, the decision of a moment that he now must reckon with.

It's been a few days since the battle. Just a few, enough time for everyone to rest and heal - enough time for Claude to decide what to do about Dimitri, except he really hasn't.

It feels wrong to keep him captive. He is a person, and a person that Claude once knew, though now he might not anymore. Claude isn't particularly inclined to be anyone's jailer, but if he lets Dimitri go, he has very little doubt that the man will get himself killed. He seems singlemindedly focused on his revenge, enough so that he was willing to go through Claude to get it. It wasn't luck that gave Claude the upper hand, and it wasn't strength - it was strategy, cutting off Dimitri's forces and using the chaos of war and the distraction of Edelgard to take him down.

If Dimitri had been focused on him, Claude's plans would not have worked. But he had tunnel vision, all his anger focused on Edelgard, Claude only getting in the way. And if Claude lets him go now, he will continue on that path, and he will die, just like he would have died if Claude hadn't captured him while he was weakened by his injuries.

Maybe he wants to die. Maybe he doesn't care. But Claude can't see how Dimitri's death will do anyone any good. So let him go because he is an adult capable of making his own choices, or keep him captive because his choices are clearly terrible and self-destructive?

When things have calmed down, as much as things ever do, Claude makes his way to Dimitri's cell. It’s below the monastery, past locked doors, down steep flights of steps. Claude didn’t know these cells were here the first time, when they were together at school. Now he finds himself glad of them, glad that there was some alternative besides killing Dimitri or letting him continue on his path.

He doesn't know what he can accomplish here, but he knows Dimitri has allowed no one to see to his wounds, that he refuses to be at all cooperative. Maybe seeing him will help Claude decide. Or maybe he just wants to see Dimitri, to try to understand what has happened.

He gestures the guards away, waits for them to leave, and approaches the bars. He tried to be sure Dimitri would be comfortable, with a real bed (albeit small) and good food and other comforts, but it is still a cell.

“Dimitri?” He keeps his voice level. Not quiet, not a shout. He does not yet know the best way to act around his old - friend? Were they that?

Well, they were not enemies back then, at least.

His eyes fall on the shape in the cell, and he wonders if what he has in there is a person anymore, really. A feral animal might be more accurate, based on what Claude has seen. The likening to a beast is only made easier due to the heavy fur mantle around Dimitri’s hunched shoulders, obscuring most of his body from view as he sits motionless on the floor of his cell.

They haven't stripped him of his armor, in an attempt not to be too invasive, but his weapons are gone- the dagger in his boot, the other one at his belt, the sword he carried, and the Areadbhar. He is dangerous even without weapons.

Claude has heard from the healers and from the guards. At first they'd tried to see to Dimitri’s injuries, be hospitable, but he'd snarled and snapped at them in a fit of rage, seemingly simply for the audacity of coming closer to him - and, so, not wanting to be murdered in cold blood, the healers had decided not to try anymore. They'd left warm towels and bandages instead, and a small basin of water, which he'd overturned. He threw the second one as well. The third - well, that one he'd used, it seems. Some of his armor has been removed.

There is a bandaged gash at his hip that required the removal of the plating along his thigh, another cut at his bicep, which necessitated that the spaulder went, and then, the worst of it, an arrow that had pierced through the joint of his breastplate and embedded itself in his shoulder. According to reports, he'd torn it out on the battlefield, uncaring, which likely had only caused more damage.

Nevertheless, Dimitri isn't going to die. He's almost certainly suffered worse before, although his self-tending and tendency to throw water basins have certainly made his room a bit less hospitable than Claude intended it to be.

Around Dimitri on the stone floor are irreverently-torn scraps of fabric, dried spatters of blood, and various pieces of armor. He's put the padded undershirt back on, but without the imposing black plating he seems a bit smaller than he had on the battlefield.

Dimitri doesn't look up, nor does he acknowledge that he's heard Claude speak. There's a plate of food untouched by his cell door and more plates of spoiled food piled up in the garbage near where they'd been keeping him.

Claude waits in silence, watching, and finally Dimitri exhales, still staring at the ground in front of him. His voice is hoarse, likely unused to being used after so long in solitude.

“...you're here to take me back to Fhirdiad,” he says, low and resigned. The first words he's spoken since being taken into this jail cell. “You might as well just kill me here.”

It is difficult to see Dimitri like this. On the battlefield it was different - Dimitri was clearly not the boy he had once been, but he was strong, wild, fierce. Disturbingly so, yes, but more alive than he looks now.

That's not all, of course. His voice. His eyepatch. Something as simple as the way he holds himself.

Claude doesn't know everything that's happened. Really, he doesn't know anything that's happened - the last he heard, Dimitri was dead.

Well, perhaps this is a ghost. A revenant. That would explain a lot. Too bad Claude doesn't really believe in that sort of thing.

“You're wrong about that.”

He keeps his tone casual. Not irreverent, because Dimitri deserves more than that, but casual. As if he's speaking to a friend. As if they were back in school, and he was approaching Dimitri about a difficult assignment or a political development that he wanted to discuss.

As if the world hadn't changed around them, and changed them with it.

“Not that they'd even let us close. The Kingdom's loyal to Edelgard, and we're not her favorite people right now.”

An understatement, considering the Alliance has declared all-out war. And there’s a reaction, then. The moment Claude says Edelgard’s name, Dimitri's head jerks up, his eye narrowing at Claude from underneath his unkempt hair.

“I'm not giving you to her. I'm not going to kill you, either. Frankly,” Claude says, and at this he smiles, more than a twist of the lips though a little rueful, “I don't know what to do with you.”

The tension in the room is an entirely different sort now, filled with nothing short of a murderous rage, Dimitri’s gaze intent and burning.

“Then get out of my way,” Dimitri says, lowly through gritted teeth. He moves his legs beneath him as if to stand - but he needs to grab hold of the bed behind him to do it fully. The act pulls at his injured shoulder and he lets out a sharp exhale, but forces his way up regardless - clearly not caring about causing himself further injury. “If you stand between me and her, I will strike you down.”

Claude can see that he's a bit unsteady on his feet. The natural result of nights of little sleep, the refusal of food, the general blood loss. Dimitri breathes short breaths through his mouth, forcing stillness, and Claude watches him.

Claude knows that though the threat seems empty, with these bars between them, Dimitri means it. Claude has seen him now on the battlefield, he knows that Dimitri is dangerous even when unarmed. He knows that Dimitri somehow escaped imprisonment before.

Since the capture, Claude has found reports of entire squads of Imperial troops disappearing while trekking through the mountains. There are other creatures that could have caused such damage, but something in Claude’s intuition tells him that’s not the case.

True, Dimitri is not at his best right now, but there's still a focus to him, a fire that won't ever burn out. A wounded animal is more dangerous than any sort of beast, and Claude knows that Dimitri intends to make good on his promise if given half the chance.

He knew, of course, that mentioning Edelgard would provoke some reaction. It could do nothing less. And of course he already knew that Dimitri would go through him to get to Edelgard, regardless of anything else. This is confirmation of everything he already knew, and so he weathers the tension, letting his smile fall away, letting his voice steady into something more serious.

He approaches the bars of the cell, not because he doesn't think Dimitri is dangerous but because he wants to show that the clear danger will not frighten him away. But that approach gives him a better view of Dimitri, the light from the tiny window near the top of the wall illuminating him.

He looks terrible, and so Claude states the obvious.

“If you tried to go after her right now, she'd strike you down.”

His voice is flat, unsentimental. Dimitri is a warrior, he must know this. Claude would not send a fighter in Dimitri's state out on the field, would not even consider it. He's strong, he's still a danger, he's fueled by something that won't let him fall - but against an opponent in good health, especially one as strong as Edelgard, he would stand no chance.

“Do you really want me to let you go, just so you can kill yourself on her sword?” Claude tilts his head, just a little, evaluating Dimitri. “That wouldn't be of any use to anybody.”

He doesn't expect Dimitri to agree with that assessment. He's too focused, too - obsessed, really. There's no way a few words from Claude will change his mind. But Claude has been able to change many people's minds in the past, so he doesn't intend to give up, either.

“At least have something to eat,” he says, conjuring his usual smile again. “I promise it's not poisoned.”

There’s a long moment of silence, Dimitri’s gaze tracking Claude.

“And what... use am I to you?” Dimitri asks. He takes a small step closer to the bars, perhaps to entertain some form of Claude's discussion. “You're keeping me alive. You have a reason.”

“I have a lot of reasons,” Claude says, and it's the simple truth. Claude learned long ago that there's no point in lying when the truth will do just as well. It's a point of practicality, really - tell the truth whenever you can, because then you don't have to keep track of any lies.

There's no point in lying to Dimitri. Not when Claude would prefer to find a way to convince the man to trust him, at least enough to get those wounds looked at.

“The world thinks you're dead. You here, alive - that's something to work with, for both of us. I'm fighting a war, Dimitri, and my opponent has more resources and more power than I do. I need everything I can get.”

He's won battles, so far, but that doesn't mean they're winning. It doesn't mean things couldn't turn in an instant if he makes the wrong decision, if one of his plans falls apart. He doesn't yet know what use Dimitri could be, especially not if he never wants to cooperate, but if he does -

“If you joined me, if we worked together - well, I guess that's getting ahead of myself, since you haven't even looked me in the eye yet.” He smiles, another rueful little thing. “I thought we got along all right, back at school. I didn't want to see you bleed out on the ground. I didn't want you to end that way.” And that, too, is nothing but the truth. “You deserve better than that.”

Something in Dimitri snaps abruptly and he lunges forward from utter stillness with a speed that he frankly shouldn't be capable of. He gets his fingers on the front of Claude's shirt, the rush of action through with in the blink of an eye.

Dimitri is... unnaturally strong, he always has been. Even back at school, the teachers would sigh and poke fun at him for breaking more weapons than the rest of the schoolyard put together. He'd lose focus and dent a mug in his hand, snap the buckles on his uniform.

It would be nothing, Claude thinks, for him crush a windpipe. To snap a spine.

Claude dismissed the guards. Claude walked closer. Claude was warned.

“I don't.” Dimitri finally breathes, though he still won't look at him, even with Claude in his grip. This is the part where Dimitri kills him - where it all ends.

But Dimitri hesitates, wavering at the last possible moment.

Claude doesn't have a weapon on him. He'd done the math before coming in here and decided it didn't make sense. He'd already planned to dismiss the guards, he'd already planned to talk to Dimitri alone. Dimitri is stronger than him and Claude knew that if it came to a physical confrontation, one dagger would make little difference and could easily be used against him. Or worse, the guards.

So it came down to two choices: come fully armed and keep his distance - Claude's speed and accuracy would win over Dimitri's strength at a distance, especially in this condition - or come without a weapon at all.

It was a gamble, especially considering Dimitri has already shown himself willing to kill Claude. But Claude wants Dimitri's trust, Claude wants to believe that an alliance might someday be possible, and that means making himself vulnerable. It was a gamble, and when Dimitri's hand closes on his collar, Claude thinks that it is a gamble he has lost.

But Dimitri hesitates, and Claude evaluates.

Call for the guard, but he'll probably be dead before they get here. It's hard to see in the darkness, but he thinks some of Dimitri's wounds may have opened with that swift movement - so, strike out at a weak point and hope the pain releases Dimitri's grip. Not a sound strategy either, considering Dimitri's singlemindedness.

If Claude dies, Dimitri has no future either, and Edelgard will have only victory. But that's a kind of logic that he doesn't think Dimitri is willing to entertain right now, not with fury and obsession filling his veins. So talking his way out of this with logic isn't a winning strategy, either.

He doesn't move. He doesn't struggle. He looks at Dimitri, who still can't meet his eyes, and feels like he's baring his throat to a wolf. His only hope is that this wolf isn't entirely rabid yet.

He speaks as though Dimitri isn't about to kill him, steady and quiet and honest.

“I've lost enough friends already. I deserve better than to see you that way.”

Claude does not know the thoughts that might run through Dimitri’s mind in that moment. The emotions in his heart. The regret, perhaps, the sort of regret that Claude often feels when facing a former friend. He doesn’t know what drives Dimitri, what changes his mind.

But something does.

Dimitri's shoulders tremble under the fur of his cloak, his head ducked down. His grip weakens, and he lets go of Claude, pulling his hand back to curl his fingers around the bars that separate them instead. Either his legs are weak or he simply does not wish to stand anymore - Dimitri slides back down to the ground at Claude's feet, a miserable, broken thing.

“Get out,” he finally says, and Claude can hear the effort it takes to force his voice even.

He didn't sigh in relief when Dimitri lets him go, but now he feels his heartbeat slowing. He had no certainty that moment wouldn't be his last, but it wasn't, and that means - something. Even Claude isn't entirely sure what, not yet, but he feels a spark of hope. Maybe it's foolish to feel that way, when all Dimitri has done is choose not to kill him, but here he is alive.

It means something.

He takes one prudent step back, because he's not stupid enough to not learn from his mistakes, and then he kneels down so that they're on the same level. He looks at Dimitri for a long moment. His wounds, his makeshift bandages. He needs a good bath, a good meal, a good night's sleep. Claude wonders how long it's been since he's had any of those things.

There's no use forcing anything. They can't even have a real conversation, not yet.

But they can get there, maybe, if Claude is willing to be patient.

“Eat something.” His voice is quiet, gentle. “I'll be back tomorrow.”

And then he stands and leaves. Dimitri deserves to have something, some kind of control, and if all that amounts to right now is dictating when their conversations end, Claude will give it to him. After all, Dimitri isn't going anywhere.

On his way out, he smiles at the guards, gestures them back in, and neglects to tell them that Dimitri nearly murdered him.

Coming out of the stairway into the sunlight, Claude breathes fresh air and thinks - that could have gone much worse. He could be dead now, or Dimitri could have refused to speak to him at all. It’s the foundation for something, maybe, and Claude has always been patient when it comes to these things.

He’s only taken a few steps before he’s intercepted. Lorenz, with a pinched look of disapproval on his face that Claude is awfully familiar with.

“What are you doing?” Lorenz’s voice is low, the question almost hissed, as if someone might be listening. “What were you thinking?”

“About what?” Claude says, smiling, the picture of innocence. Of course he knows why Lorenz is upset, but it’s much more satisfying to make him say it out loud. He likes Lorenz, but he really can’t resist winding him up sometimes. Okay, most of the time.

“About Dimitri,” Lorenz says, the corners of his lips curling down into a firm frown. “If the Kingdom’s generals find out he’s here - he’s been sentenced, Claude. He’s meant to have been executed. You’re harboring a murderer.”

“This is war,” Claude says, and he doesn’t say the rest. We’re all murderers. “I’m keeping it quiet. Word won’t have gotten out yet. If he’s on our side, having him here will end up working in our favor.”

If.” Lorenz’s displeasure is as clear as ever. “And if he’s not, it’s just as likely that he’ll break out and end up murdering us all in our beds. He’s not well, Claude. Anyone can see that.”

Anyone can. Claude can. But why should that mean they ought to give up on him? He’s an old friend, a classmate, a person, and - just think of how useful he could be. How much he could help their cause.

Claude doesn’t say any of that aloud. He’s not ready to voice any of the plans simmering in the back of his mind, not until he knows whether they’re even possible. He smiles instead, and winks at Lorenz, and says, “I’m working on it.”

This Lorenz expression is just as familiar as the first: frustration, irritation, anger, all shading into the incredibly reluctant trust that Claude has fought so hard to earn. He sniffs and crosses his arms. “I’m telling them to write ‘This was Claude’s stupid idea’ on my gravestone.”

The grin that tugs at the edges of Claude’s lips is genuine. “I’m honored.”

“Come on,” Lorenz says. “We’re meeting in the council room shortly.” He casts one last glance at the shadowed doorway down to Dimitri’s cell, trepidation and uncertainty and, perhaps, a tinge of fear.

Claude pretends he didn’t see it. Lorenz may be right to fear. Claude remembers vividly the speed Dimitri moved with, the strength of his grip, the piercing rage within him. Claude is gambling that this will not go bad, that his plans won’t turn sour on him. He’s gambling that, eventually, Dimitri will listen to reason.

He isn’t afraid. He’s done stupider things in the past, and the important thing is, Dimitri didn’t kill him when he could have.

There’s a chance this will all work out.

Chapter Text

It's been a week and a half.

Claude came back the next day and Dimitri wouldn't speak to him. And then he came back the day after that - and the day after that. And again. And soon, Dimitri realizes that Claude has visited him every day since he'd almost killed him, even if what ensues isn't exactly a riveting conversation. He can't figure out the why of it, and nothing that he's been able to get out of him gives him much of a reason, not since Claude offhandedly mentioned joining forces on the first day.

He does eat, finally, after the second visit. It's been so long and he's starved himself so much that after the first bite, he finds that he's ravenous and consumes the rest of the food on the tray in minutes. His body is unfortunately accustomed to this (quite literal) feast or famine, but he eats again the next day, and the next. Claude is keeping him alive, actively investing resources into making him healthy, and Dimitri doesn't know what to think of it.

And they- well, it wouldn't be accurate to say that they talk, but Claude talks and Dimitri sometimes responds with a word or two. If he's in a bad mood, he'll snarl. If he's in a particularly bad mood, which has only happened once, he'll throw something at the bars.

He still sleeps on the floor, rather than the bed. After a few days, he's pulled the bedding from it to make some sort of nest in the far back of the cell, pitched into shadow by the light that comes through the window.

He's sleeping now, when Claude comes in - just a light doze, nothing more, and the sounds of his footsteps make Dimitri jerk upright, his gaze cold as he watches Claude approach. For the first time, he's wearing the fresher clothes that had been brought to him, with the sticky bloodied garments that he'd worn under his armor balled up in the corner, as if he's an animal trying to hide his weakness.

This time, he speaks first.

“It's you.”

Just 'you', not his name, not yet - and it almost seems like he's saying that to reassure himself. Claude did just wake him up, after all.

“It's me.” Claude smiles, and Dimitri recognizes it for one of his old smiles, the kind that were never exactly real. “I brought these for you.”

In his hands are a roll of fresh bandages, some healing salve, and a book - a travelogue, someone's tales of their journey through Dagda. He doesn't set them down yet, just showing them to Dimitri. Claude doesn't usually bring things when he visits, and Dimitri is appreciative of that fact - it’s likely that he’d refuse them anyway, but today seems different somehow.

‘Since you won't let anyone look at those wounds - well, you can at least change the bandages. Also, I figured you might be getting bored.”

Dimitri doesn't really know what to do with any of that - but he hadn't known what to do in most of this last week and a half, either. Claude has been nothing short of generous and kind, far too kind for someone who Dimitri had almost killed on the first day of this... whatever this was.

Dimitri has decided at some point in the last week that he doesn't care what Claude wants from him. If he's after information, he can have it. Status, some sick way to gloat - he doesn't care. If the other shoe drops and Dimitri does wind up traded to the empire for political gain, then he'll be dead anyway. Released, and he'll keep trying to reach Enbarr. It's out of his control and he has no loyalty to anything anymore, nothing that he wants to protect.

But Claude doesn't ask him anything. Claude doesn't gloat or trade him, or release him - he just talks, and idles away the time, and now he's bringing things for him. When he's feeling particularly sane, Dimitri wonders if Claude is lonely, to try and befriend a beast like him the way he does.

He doesn't feel that way often.

“...hm.”

His fits of rage have prevented some of the healing, as he keeps reopening the wounds, though it would definitely be far worse had he still been on his own. The new equipment is... well, necessary, and a very small part of him is thankful for it.

His armor is now entirely off and has been for a couple of days. Eventually, Dimitri had set it all on the bed, but he keeps the furs around him at all times, as if trying to encourage the likeness to some kind of animal. Either that, or he just misses the cold of his homeland.

Regardless, this is likely the best that Claude has seen him yet - aware, able to process this new information with curiosity rather than hatred and threats, and somewhat calm. Which is maybe why, when he opens his mouth, he says something ridiculous:

“...you can look at them.”

It's an admission, but his voice is still grizzled, anything but weak. Dimitri still doesn't look at Claude's face, and of course Claude would be absolutely insane to trust him enough to do anything of the sort, but Claude was also insane enough to dismiss his guards, stand close to the bars, and not tell anyone after Dimitri almost killed him. If he's feeling up for risking his life in exchange for another small kernel of Dimitri's trust, he's welcome to step inside the cell.

“Just you. No healers.”

Claude seems to watch him for a long time, and Dimitri can practically see the wheels in his mind turning. He wouldn’t trust himself if he were Claude, not when he’s shown that he can turn violent easily, when he’s almost killed Claude in the past. It’s clearly a major risk.

But for some reason, Claude continues to think it over, watching Dimitri as if assessing his current levels of sanity. Dimitri doesn’t blame him: if Claude is being genuine in an attempt to care for him, then it’s a decent opening. Dimitri has never made an offer like this before and it’s the closest thing to trust that he’s shown him.

“All right.”

Claude says it easily, like he hadn’t just hesitated for as long as he did, like he isn’t taking the largest risk of his life.

He waves the guard in, who opens the cell door so Claude can enter. Claude doesn't carry a key - there's no lock on the inside anyway. When the door shuts, he's locked in there with Dimitri, and to compound this possible error in judgement, he sends the guard away with the simple instruction 'come back when I call for you'. The guard doesn't question him. Either he believes in Claude or he thinks it's all beyond his pay grade, because he leaves without a protest.

And then Claude's in the cell with Dimitri, with no easy way out.

“I know some battlefield medicine, but I'm no healer. Can you show me the worst of it? I'll do what I can.”

If Dimitri is surprised that Claude agrees, he doesn't show it. He just keeps his gaze on the ground, the same spot he's been staring at most of the times that Claude comes to visit. He doesn't know why he's offered, really - he doesn't intend for it to be a trap, nor does he particularly see it as any sort of olive branch. Mostly, it's just that Claude has commented on his injuries a few times and it's admittedly difficult to tie an effective bandage with his non-dominant hand without also aggravating the wound on that arm.

But he doesn't want his captor's concern or his pity, and he's dealt with worse injuries on his own, so... in the end, maybe it is somehow subconsciously, about trust. About pushing his boundaries, seeing how far Claude might let him take this.

Which is, apparently, pretty far.

If Dimitri wants to bolt, he has the perfect opportunity right now, with the guard at the door. Claude doesn't carry weapons, he's observed, and he's confident enough that he'd be able to kill the both of them despite the guard's sword and his rigid posture. He could move then, barrel through Claude and make a desperate grab for the soldier there, break whatever bone he could get his hands on, and drag him closer, back toward the bars to snap his neck and steal his key. He could unlock the door, take the sword, and kill as many people as it took until he could steal a horse and... and ride South, probably.

But he does nothing and the moment has passed. Dimitri watches the guard go balefully, before the memory of Claude's words snap him out of his reverie and he remembers that now they're both in here together.

Dimitri grunts and flexes his shoulders back, letting his cloak fall to the floor. Without it, and without the customary black steel of his armor or even the dark bulk of his padded garments, he seems... closer to human than he has yet. His shoulders, while still broad and powerful, are dwarfed by the cloak he always keeps around him and he doesn't look half as imposing without it.

He still doesn't move from the spot where he's been sleeping. If Claude wants to be shown, he'll have to get on the floor with him, near the disorganized swathe of sheets and bedding that he'd pulled off the bed earlier.

"Save your concern," Dimitri mutters, acidic as usual, but he reaches his arms behind his head to grab onto the collar of his borrowed tunic and pull it off in a smooth motion. It sticks on his chest and arm, from where he'd bled through and stained the fabric already, but otherwise comes off easy enough.

From there, he goes still with the garment still on his arms, resting in his lap now that his torso has been exposed.

Of course he has scars. That's to be expected, after five years of fighting tooth and nail and countless deaths around him. Most of his injuries had been self tended, like the ones he's currently suffering from, and while some have healed properly, some haven't and they leave ugly, red intents in his skin. There's... a lot of them, but beneath them is a frame that is undeniably still powerful despite his many injuries, his lack of a proper sleep schedule, his intermittent meals. He's somehow still strong and well-defined, having grown from his somewhat gangly school self into a creature that only survives because of its physical superiority to the men and women it fights.

After a few moments like that, he straightens just a little, tipping his head away from his injured shoulder while bringing his other hand up to clench his fingers around the bandage and rip it away, bringing some of the scabbing with it and causing it to ooze blood yet again.

In the almost-two weeks that he's been here, most of the minor things - the cuts, the scrapes, the bruises - had healed, but there's still a few that stubbornly refuse to close: this one, the gash on his bicep where he'd been cleanly sliced at with a thin blade, and the one at his hip. But Claude had told him to show the worst of it and he does so, looking away and reaching up belatedly to tug his hair aside so it doesn't obscure the view.

This is the deepest, pierced by a serrated arrowhead which had embedded itself under his skin, stopped from impaling him entirely only by the angle that it had hit his armor. Dimitri had ripped it out within moments, but in his carelessness he had twisted it, causing vastly more damage. It's trying to heal even so, but it's deep, and Dimitri hasn't exactly been taking proper care of it.

"Your man," he finally murmurs in an explanation, but there's no blame in his voice - everything was an enemy on a battlefield as chaotic as that one, and it was likely an act of self defense as Dimitri would have killed the man wearing yellows and golds anyway.

He did kill him, he remembers suddenly. The memory brings a sick sense of satisfaction, pooling in his stomach.

"I killed him."

Claude doesn't react at first, but eventually nods, his voice quiet when he responds:

"That's war."

There is a twinge of sadness there, of regret - it is war, and lives must be lost, but they are still his men and Dimitri supposes that Claude cares for them. Still, the choices they made were their own. Dimitri, who has experience with people dying before him, doesn't extend sympathy in the way that he used to.

For what it's worth, Claude doesn't seem to blame Dimitri for it - and how could he? He's killed his own fair share of enemy soldiers personally, and as the leader of the Alliance armies all deaths may as well lay at his feet.

This is what war is, after all.

Claude approaches him and he doesn't bother trying to pretend he's averting his eyes. Dimitri knows that it isn't pretty, but Claude doesn't look away, something that earns a small tidbit of Dimitri's respect.

Dimitri has been through a lot, though it’s partially his own fault, he has no false notions about that. But that’s war, that’s life, that’s what being the sentenced crown prince of Faerghus is.

Claude retrieves a basin of water and a clean towel and sits on the floor next to Dimitri. The man on the floor remains still as Claude draws closer, clearly not in the mood for violent displays like he was the first time that Claude came to visit him. All he does in response to Claude's proximity is turn his head slightly, his good eye tracking the other man's boots as they step carefully around him. The injury is on his blind side, and he has no use for subtlety as he tries to ensure that he can watch Claude work.

“At least you're not infected. Or worse - some of my men use poison arrows.”

Claude wets the cloth and reaches out to clean the wound, moving with slow care.

Dimitri doesn't respond quite yet and for all that he's ready for it, the first press of fingers against his chest makes him go tense with apprehension, a quick breath caught in his throat. But all that Claude does is bring the cloth up to clean his wound, and the accompanying sting of it is nowhere near the sort of pain it caused going in and so Dimitri ignores it, choosing instead to focus on the calmer touch.

It's not like Claude is babying him or treating him with exceptional care. Dimitri doesn't know why the presence of him there puts him so on edge, when he knows that he could easily overpower the man if he wanted, snap his neck and in a single swift blow, destroy the Alliance beneath him. And yet, his heart beats firmly against his chest in something that isn't quite fear, but definitely isn't comfort, either. And he's trying to focus on that, because if he's missing something or if he's forgotten something then he needs to know what it is, he needs to trust his instincts and think because his instincts are often right, so maybe Claude is up to something and maybe he should kill him, and that's when Dimitri realizes-

-he hasn't been touched like this in years.

The thought hits him like a physical blow and he takes a deep breath, pulling sharply away from Claude's ministrations and holding a hand up in a silent stop.

“Why did you come in here?”

He asks suddenly - and yes, he knows that he gave Claude permission, but for him to actually do it? After what Dimitri has done to his men, what he almost did to him? It's not paranoia so much as it is a spike of something else, a realization about the game that Claude is playing, a deeper understanding of his own needs and how easily he thinks that they could be manipulated.

For his part, Claude stops when Dimitri pulls away, sets down the cloth in the basin of water and looks at him. He looks contemplative more than confused, but as always, as he’s been since he first walked into the prison over a week ago, he’s careful. Dimitri knows that he has his reasons, and so maybe the question was a stupid one, but that doesn’t settle the unease in his stomach.

“You won't let the healers in, and someone needs to look at your wounds.” It’s practical and obvious, and Dimitri knows even from their school days that Claude is never without a scheme and so while he’d like to believe him, he can’t quite. Claude seems to note this and continues, baring a little more honesty in the process. “I want you to trust me. Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but someday. And trying to gain your trust without offering my own is a fool's game.”

Dimitri has all the reason in the world to distrust Claude, to distrust everyone. He's been betrayed by everyone, has had his entire world shattered by the betrayal. If Claude were to keep himself completely guarded and to wait for Dimitri to offer his trust first, Dimitri would grow old and die in this cell.

So here Claude is, trusting Dimitri with the his life. He could kill Claude. He might - Dimitri still doesn’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s not impossible. But Claude extended his hand first, so that maybe he could ask Dimitri to do so in turn. Even at the Academy, Dimitri has never been as good at playing this sort of game as Claude, or even Edelgard. He had always preferred a simple politeness, backed up with a firm show of force if necessary. And Claude is - Claude is polite, but he's something else too, and Dimitri can't quite put his finger on what.

Still, Claude's answer seems shockingly honest, so much so that it gives him pause as he has to figure out what to do with what can only be the truth. He mulls it over, slowly easing himself back into how he was sitting earlier with a single, short nod, granting permission for Claude to resume if he likes.

While he does, Dimitri tries to ignore the contact and turn his mind on easier targets - how to escape, how to get to Enbarr, how to impale Edelgard on his lance and throw her from the walls of her fortress. He failed at Gronder Field but he would not fail again. And Claude... Claude is fighting back Imperial forces as well, he thinks, and he's never been one for fighting. He'll want an end to this too, just perhaps in a less visceral way than Dimitri imagines.

When he puts it like that, the answer to why he took Dimitri back with him instead of just letting him die becomes a little clearer.

“...the Kingdom army is fighting a civil war,” he finally says, staring down at the floor. Dimitri had failed to address that - instead, he'd taken the gutted army of those who would still recognize him as king and marched straight South, without a second glance back toward home. He'd do it again, he thinks. “The men and women who would have rallied behind me are dead at Gronder. Even if your plan worked and I felt indebted to you, I have nothing to offer.”

It's probably the most he's said in one go since coming here, and it speaks something to the sanity that he still retains, if he can consider his options enough to know this much. Dimitri wets his lips, letting out a long breath. He's in no position to negotiate, but his stubbornness and his fixation on his own quest still drive him, enough to make demands of the man who really has no business even entertaining this much.

“I want you to give me my weapons. A horse. I'll ride for Enbarr and end this. If you want to trust me, trust me with that.”

Meanwhile, Claude has returned to his task, cleaning Dimitri’s wound, being thorough about it. He can’t use magic obviously, but he moves with the practiced air of a man who has taken care of such injuries before.

“I trust that you would do exactly that, but to succeed? You're strong, Dimitri, and you are likely the bravest man I know. But you are not a god or a one-man army. You would end yourself, with that plan.” The hint of a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “Luckily, coming up with plans is a strength of mine.”

Dimitri isn’t sure what to make of that. He knows that Claude has no personal grudge against Edelgard. He has his ambitions, his ideals, something inscrutable that Dimitri can’t make sense of yet.

“-and you are wrong. Those who fought with you at Gronder fled when you fell and we didn't have the resources to pursue them. If they knew you lived, they would likely return.”

The implications of that aren't lost on him, and Dimitri turns his head sharply as it suddenly becomes clearer, just what Claude might be offering. He watches the pinkened water ripple in the basin, recalculating what he knows of Claude and what resources he may have. Dimitri doesn't hope - he knows far too well to never hope for anything- but the path before him suddenly seems a bit clearer, a fraction easier to see through.

“You would help me?”

It's said a little incredulously - for the first time, caught off guard by Claude's wit. It also seems a rather silly thing to ask the same man who could be living in the lap of luxury or engineering to have his prisoner traded for an immense gain, but is instead kneeling in a cell and wiping clean Dimitri's wounds. In the moment though, it comes as enough of a surprise that he must ask it.

And then of course, there's the rest of the information too, that his allies may still be alive, that they may come back. He would not have to do this alone if that was the case, he could bring an army straight to her doorstep and kill her there, and then-

-then, he doesn't care. If Claude wants the Empire, he can have it. If he wants the Kingdom, it's his. All that matters is ending her, and if Claude will help him...

“How soon?”

Claude smiles again and it still doesn’t seem genuine, but there’s something different behind it now - exasperation or amusement? Something that makes Dimitri suspicious, but he can’t lose his grasp on the kernel of hope that Claude has shown him all the same.

“Our goals are the same. I want the Empire to fall, you want Edelgard's head. We can help each other.”

He sets the dirtied cloth and the basin of water aside and uncaps the healing salve. He spreads it carefully around the edges of Dimitri's wound, making sure not to miss a spot. It should prevent any possibility of infection as well as speeding the healing process - not as quickly as a spell, but better than nothing at all.

“We'll be taking Fort Merceus later this month. After that, we march on Enbarr.”

Dimitri exhales sharply at the touch of the salve on his wound, but relaxes into it, much like he'd grown accustomed to the rest of Claude's care. The simple possibilities that open to him with Claude's planning breathes a new kind of life into him. Once a walking dead man, he feels awake for the first time since he'd stood in front of his meager army those weeks ago.

He's not so prideful as to refuse help, especially when it gets him closer to his goal, and while he'd love to be able to do this himself, he knows that the idea of it is unlikely to happen. In the span of a few moments, Claude has gone from his jailer to his greatest chance at vengeance, and Dimitri nods in understanding as he listens to the plans.

Claude speaks as if taking a supposedly impregnable fortress is a foregone conclusion. If the two of them joined forces, Dimitri thinks, it might as well be.

“...fine.”

He agrees, after a long moment. It will take longer if he has to wait the month, longer still if they have to route an army down through Fort Merceus when a single man on horseback could likely bypass it altogether... but the odds of him making it to Enbarr are admittedly much higher with Claude, even when attacking a fortress made to be the most defensible position in the country.

They have a few weeks to prepare. Can they raise the dregs of the kingdom army by then, he wonders? Can word even get out in time? It doesn't matter - if Claude marches, he'll follow, regardless of how many men he can command into battle with him.

“I'm going with you.”

Dimitri says it presumptuously, as if Claude had even offered it in the first place. He is apparently not very good at remembering that he's currently in a jail cell.

The change of heart must seem sudden, and Claude’s mask slips for a fraction of a second to show his surprise before he relaxes again as he understands the situation before him. Dimitri has a single goal, one that he’s been focused on for the past five years, one that he will stop at nothing to achieve - if Claude can provide him a path to that goal, he will take it, regardless of whatever else that path entails.

Dimitri is a man obsessed, broken in some ways, barely more than an animal in others. But he is strong, he refuses to fall, and he’s a capable ally if he can stay sane enough to know friend from foe.

“We'll get you in fighting condition by then. If you take the field with us at Fort Merceus, word will spread quickly, and those loyal to you will join us to topple Enbarr.” Claude pauses, before smiling again.

“If you're joining us, I'll have to find you a better room.”

A plan begins to form in his mind, his undying drive for revenge reshaping him until he's almost the kind of person that Claude can talk with, can fight with again. As much as Dimitri had known of Claude and some form of war skirmishes happening to the East, he'd assumed that the worst of it was laid upon the Kingdom and that Claude was staying out of it when he could. To hear otherwise though, is... heartening, and now he has something to work toward again that isn't simply throwing himself toward Edelgard until something else killed him.

When Claude says that Dimitri will be set free… well, that makes him look at him, really look at him for the first time, his eye a piercing blue and unaccustomed to hiding his emotions after living on his own for so long. He's surprised - though he suppose that he did just forge an alliance with Claude, and he's... maybe feeling the slightest bit of sentiment as well, to be trusted again with something that Claude really has no right granting him.

(It's the first time he's looked at Claude's face, too - and Dimitri notices the scraps of facial hair, the way his chin and strong brow had grown into his cheeks and makes him look more authoritative, more like a leader. And yet, there is always the unmistakable trace of boyish pleasure in his eyes, the kind of look that Dimitri never quite trusted in school, but now finds that he must.)

Claude is letting him go - to join with him, but letting him go all the same. Dimitri could do any number of things once he's out, but he knows that he'll go along with Claude's plan for now. It's simply the best option for him.

So he nods quietly, just a quick tip of his chin.

“Good.”

Further into Empire territory then, further from Faerghus and its world of troubles - but there's nothing for him back there, and everything further South. Any survivors who can make the journey will join them, and with that they'll have all they need to take Enbarr.

It's too much to take sitting down and so he pulls away from Claude again (these wounds will never be bandaged at this rate) standing in a rush and moving to pace about the cell, each thought forming too quickly for the last to finish. He's getting out, he's going South, he's getting another chance.

Then, it suddenly occurs to him that he has no clue where he is, or where they're even geographically located in relation to Fort Merceus. He'd fought against captivity tooth and nail every moment of his consciousness and so the journey from their battle was a blur and the final destination even less so.

“-where are we now?”

For his part, Claude doesn’t seem too annoyed that Dimitri has pulled away from him yet again before he can get a bandage off, and simply offers the answer with an amused but genuine smile.

“Garreg Mach. Our base of operations. You're in one of the cellars. I guess none of us spent much time down here as students, so it's no wonder you don't recognize it.”

Garreg Mach... Claude is full of surprises, it seems. Dimitri stills for a moment as it falls into place around him - of course he would have a reunion with Claude here, of all places. They once bickered here about Claude's defensive tactics in the mock battle, they once competed their houses against one another in all manner of irrelevant contests for absolutely forgettable prizes.

He reaches an arm out, brushing his fingers against the wall. It feels like a lifetime ago.

“You can have your old room back," Claude continues, “I don't think anyone's using it.”

And further still, because the memories between now and then are marred by another time he'd been up to the monastery, before the other members of his house had found him and convinced him to let them follow him South. He'd trapped and eaten the rats in the kitchen, he remembers, set up a small campfire in the cathedral. He'd never explored much, but the place was good to hide in, away from imperial patrols and other prying eyes.

“I was here before,” Dimitri admits, growing more and more comfortable with the familiarity between them, offering information freely now that he has some reason to do so again, “after I left Fhirdiad.”

After he was forced to leave. Imprisoned for the murder of the regent, sentenced to death - but they both know that part and there's no reason to go further into it. The passage of time isn't exactly the clearest thing in his mind, but he thinks - maybe a year ago was when he left the monastery again? Maybe two? All he knows is that the place was abandoned then.

“We must have-” He cuts himself off before he can finish his sentence, but Claude probably knows what he was about to say. We must have just missed one another. Strange.

“...it's a good place to hold.”

Claude takes that in with some sort of solemn contemplation.

“We knew people had been living here - smugglers, mostly. Bandits. People displaced by the war. No one permanent.”

Dimitri shakes his head, vitriol entering his tone once more.

“They'd gone through most of the treasury by the time I was here. Then when I was here, they came again to strip the inlay from the cathedral. Filth.” His lip curls back in disdain where he once might have had pity. “I killed enough of them to set them off for awhile.”

And to start rumors of the place being haunted by some specter - perhaps the same one who used to abduct students? Rumors that later lead him to leave this place, before someone decided to investigate with an army.

Claude doesn’t react with horror the way others have when Dimitri speaks of his violence. Instead he just nods, understanding, taking it in.

“The monks will be thankful. But despite all that, we're safe here. We have time to plan our attack on the fort, and time for you to heal.” He raises an eyebrow, finally allowing amusement to seep into his expression and tone. “Not that that'll ever happen if you don't let me bandage you.”

Dimitri isn't expecting the sudden light admonishment and it actually surprises him, when Claude has been choosing his words so carefully in the past few weeks. Maybe they're both getting a little more comfortable with one another, he thinks. How odd.

When the other Blue Lions had found him, convinced him to let them travel with him, told him that they'd go South with him, it had been far more... abrasive than Claude's gentle conversation and idle chatter had been. They'd been excited, elated to see him alive - and ultimately, disappointed when he hadn't measured up to their expectations. It had been so long since he'd even tried to hold even a conversation, that the sudden attachment of half a dozen childhood friends and pressures of trying to lead an army had collapsed him under its weight.

Claude hasn't been like that - hasn't given him responsibilities that he can’t handle, hasn't even turned on him despite Dimitri almost murdering him with his bare hands. Claude doesn't know what the past few years have been like for him, but he seems to understand anyway, moreso than any of the others who had met up with him until now.

So maybe that's the reason that he relents and shifts to sit back near Claude's side rather than lashing out into one of his all-too-familiar rages. Claude seems surprised by it, but like he had before, he gets over it quickly and moves to finish tending to him. He unwinds the bandages and begins wrapping Dimitri's wound. He is precise and neat, careful not to make them too tight. While he works, he continues talking about Garreg Mach, as it seems to be a relatively safe topic between the two of them.

“We've rebuilt. It's not quite what it once was, but it's livable now. Safe.“ He secures the end of the bandage and surveys his handiwork, the clean bandage against Dimitri's skin. His eyes stray for a moment to the other scars, wickedly done, poorly healed. Some things can't be fixed. “Better?”

Dimitri nods, reaching out and catching the edge of his borrowed shirt with his fingers and tugging to slip it back on.

If he feels Claude's eyes on him, he says nothing, instead busying himself with his cloak, to tug the massive thing back over his shoulders and fasten it deftly across his collarbone. There's more injuries to be dealt with, but Dimitri has had his fill of Claude's careful hands on him - and he wants to get out of this cell. He can take care of the rest of his wounds in his old bedroom if permitted.

His eyes flicker down to the red-tinged water, the cloth that Claude had cleaned him with, the spool of clean bandages, and he tries not to think about how Claude’s risk has paid off for him.

“Did you get the baths to work again?”

He asks, offhandedly - the water reminds him that it's been far too long since he'd bothered to rinse the blood and grime of the battlefield off of his skin, and just the short cleaning of his shoulder had felt... well, oddly refreshing, enough so that he's curious enough to ask the question.

When he was last here, it hadn't mattered so much. The tepid water left in the pools had evaporated and the mechanisms with which to fill it had been rusted shut. Dimitri hadn't bothered enough to care, then. He was among other beasts, and it hadn't mattered. Part of him still feels the same. But... if he's going to be around men, he may as well act it, even if it's just for long enough to get him in front of Edelgard.

The question makes a small light of pride come to Claude’s eyes, along with something that might be excitement, if Dimitri is reading him right.

“The baths, the kitchens... practically everything is up and running again. Come on, I’ll show you.”

And that's it. That's all it takes. Claude calls for the guard, who opens the cell, and then he ushers Dimitri out - making sure to pick up the book he brought, not wanting it to be left behind. The guard's eyes widen for only a moment. This is, indeed, far above his pay grade. If the commander of their armies wants to simply walk out of the cell with the prisoner, the guard is going to let it happen. He does not quite look at Dimitri, clearly intimidated.

Not a problem Claude has, of course. He waits for Dimitri to exit the cell, then leads him through the warren of the monastery cellars and out toward sun.

Dimitri had entered this cell a dead man. The creature who steps out is - perhaps not alive, not yet, not fully, but he has some new form of purpose now, another ally that he hadn't considered, someone else to extend a hand to him and pick him up off the ground. Dimitri doesn't fully appreciate it yet, not when he's singlemindedly focused on Edelgard... but in time, he will realize the full extent of what Claude is doing and the risk that he's taking, all due to some strange belief that he still seems to have in Dimitri's character.

Dimitri doesn't pay the guard any mind, as if he barely notices the man's existence - instead he trails behind Claude, following him partially up the stone staircase. When Claude opens the door to the outside world, Dimitri goes tense again, pulling back momentarily from the bright light that sears itself into his vision. He steadies himself with a hand on the wall, his thumb brushing along the stone as if to put his mind on a different sensation - but eventually he follows, almost meek as he steps out into the sun.

_

It's easy to tell why there was pride in Claude's voice when he was discussing the renovations. Dimitri had seen the castle in the depths of its disrepair when he'd come back to it and knew just how far gone the building was, after the Imperial army had razed it to the ground. But to look at it now... it's brimming with life. Flowers are blooming, cats are scurrying about - even the people have returned.

He's uncomfortable around them immediately, having not been around crowds for so long, and Dimitri stays close to Claude's heel, furtively glancing at those around him and bristling should anyone come too close.

There are sidelong looks, occasional stares from the people around them. They are more or less used to Claude walking around, often with one noble or another, but Dimitri is something else entirely. He has a particular presence, something intimidating that both draws the eye and makes you want to look away. Claude simply treats it like it's entirely normal for him to be walking with a ghost.

“How long have you been here?” Dimitri asks, glancing up toward one of the ramparts - still crumbled from when it had been destroyed by a catapult, but with new scaffolding built around it to step onto and continue the path around the upper walls of the monastery.

“A few months. As soon as people knew we were here, they began to come back and rebuild.”

Claude leads Dimitri around, pointing out repairs, improvements, the merchants who have been returning. Once, he stops to pet a few of the cats. For the most part, Dimitri is content to trail after Claude in silence, not really offering much input at any of the commentary. In the daylight, with so many people around... it brings back memories that at the time were happy, but now only seem bittersweet. He remembers-

He remembers taking to the training grounds with Felix and Ingrid, sparring healthily and laughing it all off afterward as they passed a waterskin around. He remembers Dedue - sweet, dedicated Dedue - hunched over dutifully in the gardens, the only place where others wouldn't stare at him and whisper as they walked past. He remembers Marianne and Lorenz with the horses on the stable duty before his and Sylvain's, and the jokes that they'd share as they traded off shifts. He remembers wondering if Bernadetta was new in the third month, for how little he'd seen seen her.

He'd killed her, he remembers abruptly. Her eyes had gone wide up on the archer tower as she saw him approach and she'd pleaded with him, stumbling backward and lifting the bow in her shaking hands to aim an arrow at him.

Dimitri had once borrowed a book from her in this hall.

So much of their time spent here uselessly, so many of them dead or soon to be that way. If he starts to look back, he'll never stop.

“What would you like first? A bed, a bath, a meal?” Claude smiles, easy and oblivious to the thoughts in his mind- or perhaps he isn’t, perhaps he’s trying to distract him. Dimitri has never been good at reading him. “You're my guest now, after all.”

Dimitri blinks quickly, snapped out of his reverie and tries to come up with some sort of answer fast enough to get them both away from this place.

“-my room,” he eventually grumbles, nodding back toward the dormitories, “I want to see it.”

Claude nods, acknowledging that, and leads Dimitri back through the monastery, towards their rooms.

_

The dormitories are mostly empty. The monks have their own sleeping quarters, the guards their bunkhouse. The former students and teachers are the only ones who would use these rooms, and their numbers are drastically decreased. But they have been restored, they are in decent repair, and so Claude leads Dimitri to his old room.

“Here, right?”

Claude had never had reason to visit Dimitri's room when they were here together, but their rooms are close enough - only one room apart - that they knew where one another was, and so it doesn’t surprise Dimitri that Claude has remembered where he used to stay.

It's been restored, what damage has been done. Dimitri can see that already.

He walks into the room and... it feels so surreal that he almost doesn't dare to breathe, for fear of breaking whatever spell is over this place. It had been damaged and pillaged by thieves at one point, restored later on, but the bones of it are still here and unchanging. Dimitri slowly slides his fingers along the edge of his desk, silent as he takes in the memories that this place holds.

They'd had to pack in a hurry. With Imperial soldiers storming the gates, the call to retreat had been made. Dimitri had fought tooth and nail against the call, needing to get out there, needing to get at her, but had relented upon the realization that the students needed some form of leadership - and with most of the teachers and the knights still holding everyone at bay, he'd rushed back to his room, to this place, to grab only the necessities so that they could flee.

There's a dusty training sword in the corner, useless to a thief. A broken pair of scissors and a few bent sewing needles on his desk, some of which had been scattered to the ground. A book on the floor - Dimitri slowly crouches to pick it up, gently dusting off the cover as he looks at it - some sort of dissertation on the many treaties that had held the Empire and Kingdom in relative stability, something that he'd once poured through for any sort of information he could learn about his fellow students and the compromises their families had made for peace.

Dimitri lets out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding and drops it back to the floor, shaking his head as he stands.

“No.”

It's too much in here, with the memories of his boyhood days - how naive, how stupid he was, to play along and laugh with them when he should have known, should have done something, should have fought harder-

Dimitri takes a step back, turning with a sweep of his cloak and moving to leave the room, shouldering past Claude to do so.

“I'm staying elsewhere.”

Claude, who has been watching most of this in silence, lets Dimitri push past him. He doesn’t seem offended - he doesn’t seem anything at all, really, his face schooled into a careful expression.

“Most of the rooms are free. You can have your pick.”

He says it with a smile, but nothing in that smile is real. Dimitri knows that what he means is that some of their former occupants are dead, some of them are standing with Edelgard, some are scattered to the winds. The dead ones - dead at Dimitri's hand or Claude's - no one can do anything about. Edelgard's followers will, sooner or later, join them in death.

And the rest?

Maybe they'll come when word begins to spread that Dimitri is here. Dimitri doubts that, but he knows that Claude is banking on it. Why else have him here, if not to bolster his forces with the Kingdom’s own fragmented army?

Dimitri tries not to think about it anymore and turns to move down the hall. He doesn’t need to move far - there are too many rooms with closed doors, rooms that give way to red-carpeted rooms and furnishings, but he knows that there’s one that will be free, and so he moves just one door over, stepping inside and removing his cloak in one smooth motion to toss on the bed, claiming it in a sense.

Sylvain's room. Whether consciously or not, he'd steered clear of Felix's old room and instead settled in one from someone who probably wouldn't mind, if asked. Goddess knows that Sylvain hadn't minded when Dimitri had hidden here after trying to disastrously flirt with one of the girls from another class. He'd laughed instead, and-

It doesn't matter. It was a long time ago.

Dimitri doesn't bother with cleaning up or getting anything in order - what it is now is good enough for his purposes, and so he turns back to Claude with a short nod. This will do.

“My weapons.”

It's almost - no, entirely - like he expects Claude to have nothing better to do than to show him around like this, like he doesn't have an army to run or negotiations to manage. Dimitri is blunt and demanding, nothing like the bashful and polite prince he'd once been here. If Claude doesn't like it, he can refuse.

If the fact that he's asking for his weapons less than an hour after he was let out of a jail cell seems a bit too hasty, Dimitri doesn't notice. He feels too vulnerable without them, particularly in a place with so many people around.

For his part, Claude simply ignores that the demands edge on rudeness with a practiced air that makes it seem like he’s used to that sort of thing, which Dimitri supposes he is.

“They're in the armory. I'll send someone for them.” There’s a pause then, and Claude watches Dimitri for a moment though his focus isn’t on him, not really. Dimitri can see the wheels turning in his mind and wonders what it is: if Claude regrets what he’s done, if he’s having second thoughts, or if he’s simply too busy to keep escorting him around like some kind of guardian.

“...you know, everything is still in the same place,” Claude eventually offers.

The third option, then. Dimitri isn’t surprised. He understands someone excusing themselves when he hears it, and there's no doubt in his mind that Claude has other things to worry about. While he'd be concerned about moving around this place on his own... well, the guards had seen him with Claude as they moved through the monastery earlier, and he's sure that the Alliance leader will quickly get the word out to his people about Dimitri's situation.

Namely, that he's a free man now and that he can have full reign across the grounds here. Not that he particularly plans on doing a lot of exploring himself, but he knows the path to the baths, the dining hall, the training quarters - nothing else is necessary.

“Good. Leave.”

Dimitri doesn't entirely want Claude to go, if he's being honest. He still doesn't want to go out there on his own with so many people around who will be staring, seeing him for what he is, even if they do know that he's allied with Claude for now... but he doesn't want to be the one keeping Claude like some mewling pup who can't even find its own legs. No, he can take care of himself here and what he doesn't know, he'll figure out.

Dimitri doesn't leave a lot of room for argument either - he turns his back to Claude, stepping toward Sylvain's old desk to search through it roughly, the wood protesting on its rails as it's jarred out of position.

_

Claude smiles at the blunt dismissal, amused, but Dimitri doesn’t see his expression. He's succeeded here, Dimitri has chosen to ally himself with them, which is the best possible outcome to any of his plans. He didn't like seeing the other man in that cell anyway.

But at the same time, it was - something of a reprieve. Claude doesn't have much time away from the politics and the strategy meetings and the endless planning. What he does claim for himself needs to be carved out. He can take an hour or two to care for his wyvern, a bit of time to catch up with his old housemates, a moment in the greenhouse. Visiting Dimitri was like that - not outside of politics, but narrowed down to just one small interaction, where Claude was fully aware of what Dimitri wanted from him and he didn't need to balance competing demands.

That's over now, and Dimitri will be part of the war council - Claude will insist on it, though he knows few of the nobles will put up more than a token fight.

Oh, well. This is for the best and Dimitri is free, and it is rather odd to have even a moment of regret that they will no longer be able to speak outside the bounds of strategy. It isn't as if Dimitri enjoyed talking to him, in any case.

“I'll be in the council room if you need me.“

And he leaves, trusting that Dimitri isn't going to disappear the moment he turns his back.

Chapter Text

Predictably, Dimitri storms out of the war council.

His frustration had been evident throughout all of Claude's careful planning, boiling over as his input was calmly rejected. Claude knows he's never cared for clever tactics or tricks - Dimitri prefers to take the most direct path, even when it causes him more losses and results in more bloodshed. Likely in his mind, he's strong enough to handle it, and anyone who isn't may as well deserve their fate. Fortunately, most don't agree with him, and while he may be a prince, he has no role of leadership above anyone else and all those who would blindly follow him are far away.

The past few weeks have been something of a blur, and it's difficult to believe that it's almost been a month since Claude had captured Dimitri after the battle of Gronder, held him in a cell for a week, and offered to take Dimitri with him when he stormed Enbarr. It's only been a long handful of days since he'd been granted his freedom, but Dimitri has become something of a shadow in Garreg Mach since.

Claude has been keeping an eye on him, because he’s no fool. Dimitri generally only leaves his room after nightfall, to creep into the kitchens and steal something away to eat throughout the next day. He bathes when no one else is around, opens the creaking doors of the ruined Cathedral after most have left their prayers for the day. He stands there before the altar and talks to people who aren't there, his voice starting as a whisper but slowly growing higher in jagged, desperate pleas. Whoever - or whatever - he's talking to never seems to be particularly kind to him.

As the meeting concludes, Claude sees Dimitri outside the council room, against the opposite wall, darkly glaring at the rest of the council as they begin to exit the room.

Some of the nobles, the less strong-minded ones, can't meet Dimitri's eyes. Others scowl at him, and still others actually look approving. Not everyone sides with Claude, after all, and some openly dislike his plans. They're too clever by half, they say, they're not the mark of a true warrior. Open battle is the only proper choice.

But Claude has always believed that winning is the only proper choice. He carries the arguments, nearly always, because of his past victories and his plans. But they don't all like it.

And, of course, some of them simply don't like the addition of Dimitri to their councils. Claude had insisted on it, as Dimitri is a valued ally, but there were arguments about that, too. Nothing ever seems to go easily in the Alliance, and though Claude is its leader, they are by no means perfectly loyal. Not so long ago, some were on the verge of allying with Edelgard.

Claude lets everyone exit the room before him. Lorenz - often one of the voices arguing against Claude's, but in the end nearly always coming around to his way of thinking - eyes Dimitri with some suspicion as he exits. It's in his nature, but he's also one of the people here who remembers Dimitri as he once was, who sees all the changes, and who is disturbed by them. He's not the only one. But none of them approach him, and whether that's out of fear or disinterest or because Claude has asked them to give him some space is uncertain.

Claude is sure that Dimitri recognizes his former classmates, but he has barely spoken to any of them even so - and when he does, it's typically in this room and with a raised voice. Otherwise, he leaves well enough alone, stays confined to his room doing goddess-only-knows what with his time.

Lorenz moves on, and Claude finally makes his way out of the room. He is straight-backed still, a smile on his face, but god, he's tired.

He stops in front of Dimitri. “Sorry we can't do it your way. It'd be a lot easier, I know.”

Perhaps he’s only flattering himself, but Claude thinks Dimitri feels more comfortable around him than - well, anyone else in the monastery. He sometimes seeks Claude out when he's not in his room, after all. Dimitri must know that Claude is a busy man because he doesn’t bother him when he's preoccupied elsewhere, but he's definitely spent a few hours in Claude's company when not in the war room and seems to prefer to be near him when he's out in the daylight of the monastery. It might be called self-preservation; though none here would harm him and he's in no danger of being locked back up again, having Claude around prevents anyone from approaching him too aggressively.

It could also be... loneliness, maybe. Dimitri has spent the last five years in relative solitude after being groomed and prepared to be a leader for his entire life, always around others, always socializing, polite and gentle with those around him. Perhaps being near Claude reminds him of that person, even if that person is dead, even if the current Dimitri speaks only a few words, and almost all of them are acidic in some way.

Predictably, he scoffs when Claude apologizes to him, lifting himself up from the wall with his arms crossed in front of him. Dissatisfied yes, but somewhat placated by the apology.

“I don't want to hear it,” he says in a low growl, but he doesn't walk away, choosing instead to glare darkly at Claude from under his messy (but thankfully, finally, clean) hair. “If you must resort to such cowardly acts, then I'll go through the gates alone. They won't ignore me.”

“If anything would frighten them into simply handing the fort over, it would be that,” Claude says, laughter in his voice.

Now that the nobles have gone, Claude allows his shoulders to slump every so slightly, allows some of his weariness to creep into his posture. Dimitri, after all, is not likely to use that against him. Some of the nobles would be happy to seize on the slightest sign of weakness, but Dimitri is not that sort of person. He is different now, yes, but he's still straightforward and earnest in his own way and not likely to try to take advantage of a momentary lapse in Claude's mask.

“My plan will work,” Claude continues, “and it's the best way to take the fort with the fewest casualties. Go along with this, and I promise when we get to Enbarr I won't try to tell you what to do.”

Right now, Dimitri is alone and Claude can't trust that any soldiers assigned to him would be able to work with him well. After Fort Merceus Claude is counting on Dimitri's loyalists to flock to his banner - and then Dimitri will be in a good position to do as he pleases. It fits well into Claude's plans: Dimitri attacking the city head-on while Claude's forces find other ways in. It'll work for Enbarr, but not for their next battle.

He wants Dimitri to trust him in this, but he knows they haven't really ever fought together like this before. He'll have to prove himself.

“Just be patient a little longer.”

Dimitri’s nostrils flare at the word, letting out a short and heated breath.

“The dead will not be kept waiting for the politics of men,” he mutters, dissatisfied but ultimately relenting, as Claude has gently managed to get him to do often since arriving here. He starts walking through the halls, motioning for Claude to follow him. “I'll hold you to that promise. For now, I follow your lead.”

Claude follows, because he has nothing else to do.

Well - that's emphatically not true. They march on the fort in mere days. He should double-check everything, talk to his battalion leaders, be sure his weapons and wyvern are ready. He should check in with his housemates, be sure they are ready. He should speak to Seteth and see if he can learn any more about the secrets Rhea was keeping.

But he's tired, and all of that can wait until tomorrow. Or at least for an hour or two. Talking to Dimitri is not a waste of time either, and it's marginally less stressful than some of the other options - which is an odd thing to think, all things considered, but true.

“I won't fail you.”

His response is soft, almost a murmur, because he doesn't think Dimitri really cares about his reassurances. But it's there nonetheless. Claude wants this, has been working himself to the bone for success in this battle and all those to come. He has a goal, he has ambitions, and now providing Dimitri the revenge he seeks is one of those.

It's for Dimitri, of course, because he thinks that is the only way to truly begin to let him heal. It's also for Fódlan, to drag it out of this abyss of war, give it a leader and hope that it hasn't had for years. And if Dimitri is to be king, all the better that the land's freedom comes at Dimitri's hands.

If Claude has his way, Dimitri will be king.

He hasn’t mentioned this to the man himself yet. He doesn’t think Dimitri is ready to hear it, or will welcome it when he does, and their alliance still feels too fragile. But who better than Dimitri? The King of Faerghus, who has suffered at Edelgard’s hand, who has fought hard to survive and find justice. There is no better option - certainly not Claude himself, who has to return to Almyra someday.

Dimitri won’t like it, and in truth he’s clearly not ready for it. But Claude has faith that he will be someday, and until then Claude will clear the path for him. Claude will scheme and plan and make it happen, though Dimitri may hate him for it.

He's not in this for his own glory.

Belatedly, he wonders if Dimitri has a destination in mind or if they're just getting away from the war room. “Where are we going?”

Dimitri doesn't answer the question immediately, but after a long few moments of silence he turns as they exit the long hallway that once used to lead to the infirmary. “I'm going to the Cathedral.”

Claude follows. The quiet of the Cathedral sounds nice right now, after all that arguing, and maybe it'll restore a bit of his energy. People generally leave each other alone there - perhaps it seems a bit impolite to interrupt someone who might be there to pray.

He doesn't go often. He doesn't pray often. His actual beliefs are close enough to heresy that Claude tends to avoid the subject of religion, which is surprisingly easy considering he lives in a monastery and his army is supported by the Knights of Seiros. It just doesn't come up most of the time, and he's happy not to enlighten anyone on his true beliefs.

Besides, though it isn't for him, he knows religion is a comfort and a balm for many. He would never want to destroy that.

“We do have a battle ahead,” he says, voice light. “I suppose a few prayers wouldn't go amiss.”

Anything that might bring them through victorious, after all.

There are losses in every battle. Claude knows it is selfish, but most of the time all he hopes for is victory and that those he cares for will survive. But everyone is cared for by someone. Still, in war there will be death, again and again.

He does hope that Dimitri has enough to live for now that he won't end up being one of those deaths.

A sound escapes from Dimitri that is almost a laugh, but more like a breathy scoff.

“I don't pray to the goddess,” he says, and it doesn’t sound like he’s really admitting anything - more just a statement of fact, correcting Claude's assumption sharply, and what a pair they make, the leader of the holy knights and the prince of the holy kingdom, going to the cathedral to sacrilege in their own ways. “Anyone in this war who does is a fool.”

Once Claude thinks about it, it isn’t surprising that Dimitri has complicated feelings toward his own religion. After all, if the goddess was truly behind all things, then she allowed the Tragedy to occur, she allowed the monastery to fall, she allowed the holy kingdom to be ruled by deceitful tyrants, she allowed Edelgard to get away with this war for the past five years. That would cause anyone to have some doubts.

“Not a fool,” Claude says. “Just a person looking for comfort.”

He's not disagreeing, exactly - Claude doesn't see any reason to pray, after all. But he thinks it does serve a purpose, it does mean something. He thinks Dimitri could use some kind of avenue of comfort, though this clearly is not the right one.

He is fairly sure that Dimitri would say that shattering the spines of his enemies counts as comfort, though, which is also... well, not something Claude can necessarily disagree with, but eventually he's going to run out of enemies.

“Do you pray to something, then?” Claude’s tone is that of mild interest. He's had conversations like this with others, sometimes, who often are reluctant to speak of it. Heresy in the very house of Seiros is difficult to countenance, after all, but Claude isn't likely to go running to the monks about something like that. (Well, about anything, really.) “And why the Cathedral, if not to pray?”

It's a genuine question. He - wants to be able to understand Dimitri. He's always had the sort of mind that wants to learn things, that needs to solve mysteries. It's the same with people, especially those he's interested in. Even if Dimitri doesn't care to understand him.

As Dimitri opens the large doors leading into the inner sanctuary, he is silent, considering Claude’s questions. Claude cannot read him, and does not expect the answer he gets.

“I talk to my father,” Dimitri finally murmurs, his voice so low that it would have been lost to the chatter around them, had the Cathedral not been so silent. “My stepmother. All those who have been taken from me.”

He makes his way down the center of the aisle then, looking up toward the sky through the ruined roof of the once-immaculate building.

“If I don't speak to them, no one else will.”

Claude keeps pace with Dimitri, silent for a long moment as he thinks about that.

“In other lands, there are people who believe that the spirits of our loved ones and our ancestors are always with us,” he says slowly, contemplatively.

It's not just Almyra and Fódlan that Claude is interested in. It's the rest of the world - Brigid, Dagda, everything beyond the oceans. Fódlan is such an insular land, focused on itself, on the balance of the Kingdom and the Alliance and the Empire, focused on the church. It doesn't reach out to other lands, doesn't welcome other peoples or beliefs.

It's why Claude will always be an outsider here, just as he's an outsider in Almyra. These lands don't want to welcome people that are different than what they are used to. He wants that to change, he wants it badly, he wants to make it change.

In this moment, it means that he can hear what Dimitri is saying without horror, without anything but curiosity.

“I've read about them,” he says. “They speak to the dead and believe they're guided by them.”

He doesn't know if the dead speak back. He doesn't know if the dead speak back to Dimitri, or if this is some sort of expression of his loss, his pain. He's not sure it actually matters, in the end, and so he continues.

“They would say that by talking to those you've lost, you're honoring them. Honoring all that they were to you.”

But this is Dimitri, so Claude thinks it's likely that this is more like a haunting.

Dimitri doesn’t seem to have expected that response. He frowns as he thinks, and then finally, he shakes his head.

“The only way I'll bring honor them is with her head on a pike.” It's a determined growl, and his fingers tighten into a fist as he comes to a stop in front of the collapsed rubble over the altar of the church. “The sooner, the better. She took…” His voice trembles here, the word hissed out through his teeth. “...everything from me. I would pay her back in kind, but there is nothing that monster loves.”

Claude can't offer Dimitri comfort. There isn't really comfort for that kind of thing. Claude has been through a lot of things, some of them awful, but he hasn't been through that. All he can offer is what he already has: indeed, Edelgard's head on a pike.

He'll make it happen.

“We'll take all of Fódlan from her,” he says, quiet and certain. “It's not the same, but it's something.”

He knows that Dimitri can't think past that. It's all that he's focused on, all he cares about. But Claude can't help but hope that that will change. For his own plans, of course - if Dimitri is ruined after this, Claude will have no king. But that's not all that matters.

Claude is a schemer, he is the sort of tactician who always has a plan, who has multiple motives, who has schemes within schemes. Sometimes, that means he has to hurt people. But he doesn't want to be a bad person, he doesn't want to be a destroyer. Not like Edelgard, who will ruin anything in pursuit of her goals.

He doesn't want Dimitri to come out of this ruined. Yes, because they need a king, but also because he is Claude's friend, whether he feels the same or not.

“And once we've done that, what would you like to do?” He says it as if it's a foregone conclusion. Yes, of course we'll shatter Edelgard's armies and remove her head from her shoulders. And then?

Dimitri does not seem to have anticipated this question, and Claude can practically hear the gears working as he thinks. Finally, he speaks. “...I'll take back Fhirdiad.”

He's not really answering the question that Claude had asked, but Claude thinks it’s likely he doesn't really know how to answer it.

“Imperial loyalists are likely to run there as their posted forces in the Kingdom will be their only protection,” Dimitri continues. “Bringing my army from the South with the Gautier and Fraldarius armies to the East, it would be easy to pincer them where they stand - and publicly execute Cornelia as she once tried to execute me.”

Just because his plans are straightforward doesn't make them boorish - Dimitri clearly has some sort of mind for tactics, even if he's not quite as practiced as Claude himself. It comes so easily to Claude's lips, then, so easily that he almost says it.

And the throne of all of Fódlan will be yours.

But it's not time yet. Dimitri, clearly, is not in a place where he could hear such a thing and seriously consider it. He's still too focused on revenge, too focused on fighting until he can't fight anymore. Maybe once Edelgard is dead Claude will be able to suggest it, or maybe it will take longer - it doesn't need to be immediate. They'll be rebuilding for some time.

So he'll be patient, and he'll try to get Dimitri back onto level ground. Get him thinking about things besides revenge, thinking about his own life and its worth.

So he doesn't say it. Not yet. Instead, he says: “It's a good plan. I can pledge some support, certainly. We will owe you as much.”

Politics again. Claude can't escape them, and sometimes he doesn't even want to try. It would be nice, though, to have a moment or two to himself.

Hah. Unlikely.

He’s silent again, for a little while, but there is something that’s been in the back of Claude’s mind for some time, and perhaps now he can get an answer.

“You know,” he says, “everyone thought that you were dead. I've always wondered how you managed to escape that fate.”

Dimiti can hear the question in Claude's comment and pauses with a slight wince, as if the thought pains him.

“...Dedue broke into the prison where I was being kept.” He speaks slowly, his voice shaky with grief. “He freed me. And... sacrificed himself so that I could escape.”

To Claude, it seems as if Dimitri is sinking into his regret, his grief, the things that haunt him. He sees Dimitri take a quick breath, visibly shaking it off as best he can and refocusing on the conversation, the facts.

“I assume Cornelia didn't want to lose face with the Empire or to give the people of Faerghus any hope for a king, so she announced my death all the same. She may have even had someone killed in my stead, I don't know.”

Claude steps closer. He isn't really a tactile person, and he doesn't think Dimitri is either, but even so he doesn't feel comfortable letting this pass without something. He didn't know Dedue well - the man was never willing to talk much to those outside his house. Claude can understand why even without knowing him well. He was hated for who he was, where he came from. A familiar feeling.

Even if he didn't know Dedue well, Claude can mourn his loss. He reaches out and puts a hand on Dimitri's arm - nothing more than that. An offer of solidarity, more than anything. No one is coming out of this war unscathed, and it is difficult to see Dimitri's pain and not want to do something about it.

There's nothing Claude can do, of course, except deliver him his revenge.

“She'll panic when word reaches her that you've joined us.” Claude takes some small pleasure in that. “Still, I'm - sorry to hear about Dedue. He was a brave man.”

He doesn't know what it's like to inspire that kind of loyalty, but he can understand why the Dimitri he once knew would do so. He can understand why all that Dimitri's been through, all of his changes, would not change that loyalty.

Dimitri hasn't responded kindly to most physical contact in a long time. He'd snarled away the healers, pulled back from anyone who would even try to touch him, save for allowing Claude to tend to his wound - but Claude rests his hand on Dimitri's arm and he allows it, as one might allow a friend to comfort them. What's more, he reaches his hand up to touch Claude's own and it's... warmer than Claude would have thought, large enough to easily wield a lance, strong enough to be a weapon in their own right.

For a moment, they’re touching, skin to skin.

He's disarmed by Dimitri's quiet acceptance of his gesture. Somehow he didn't expect it. He expected to be shrugged off, snapped it maybe, or worse. That Dimitri would let him offer comfort in this way - well, it's nice.

Claude has always served as something of a rock for those who get close to him. Outwardly carefree and flippant, but always thinking, planning. Holding his own secrets tightly, but interested in those that belongs to others. He wants to learn about the people he cares about, but he isn't always willing to let them learn about him in return. Even his closest friends don't know his whole story. He knows how difficult it can be, sometimes, to let yourself accept comfort from another.

But maybe he's overthinking it.

“His people deserve better,” Claude says. “When the Empire falls, this land needs to change.”

It's the closest he's come to really discussing his true goals with Dimitri - a land where all are equal, where those who are different are as welcome as those who have been here all along. Duscur is part of that. Almyra. Brigid. It's a grand ambition.

Dimitri lets out a long breath and drops his hand, staring deeply into the rubble of the Cathedral. He is thinking, Claude knows, though he can’t read Dimitri well enough to be sure where his thoughts lead.

“How would you change it?” Dimitri asks finally. “When I was - at one time, I thought to bring change through rebuilding.” His voice lowers, the next sentence spit out through his teeth before he masters himself. “The Empire means to bring change through burning everything to the ground. I've not heard of the Alliance way of doing things.”

It's the first time he's really shown curiosity toward Claude for - well, for anything that he's doing.

“The Alliance way of doing things is to argue constantly until someone gets fed up and makes things happen,” Claude says with a grin. “My way, on the other hand, is to bring sweeping change at just the time Fódlan is ready for it. We've been at war for years. The commonfolk are suffering, the nobles are tired. When we defeat the Empire, people will be primed to accept something new - a unified Fódlan. The former Empire, your Kingdom, the Alliance, all working together.”

It sounds impossible, but Claude doesn't think that it is. In the power vacuum left by the Empire, they can build something entirely new. Something better.

“And opening ourselves up. We focus so much on our own problems that we shut out everyone else. Think of what we could learn from the countries we shun - think of what we could improve.” He shrugs, smiling still. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I will make it happen.”

“It doesn't sound ridiculous.” Dimitri says it quietly. “But there's still Fort Merceus between you and that goal.”

And Enbarr, and then Fhirdiad, and then - well, there's a lot of work to be done. Claude doesn’t intend to let himself tire. There are so few that he's told his true goals to. They seem too lofty, too ambitious. Impossible, especially for someone like him. When he does speak of them, part of him expects to be scoffed at. To hear Dimitri's quiet support feels surprisingly good. If Dimitri really believes it's possible - well, Claude could use his help.

“With your strength and my schemes, Fort Merceus doesn't stand a chance.” It's a flippant remark, but he does mean it. Dimitri is one man, but he is driven, he is incredibly strong, he is the sort of man that battalions would fear. Claude believes he could take the fort without Dimitri, and with him? There's little that can stand in their way.

He is hopeful. He has always been hopeful - he has to be, with the sort of ambition that he has. They'll take the fort, they'll take Enbarr, they'll move on from there.

He smiles at Dimitri, as if everything is possible. As if there's only victory before them now.

“I'm glad you're here, Dimitri.”

He says it honestly, with sincerity. He would have mourned Dimitri's death, of course - he did, in fact, when word of it arrived. But he saw it as an unfortunate casualty of war, a sad thing that did not, in the end, affect him beyond his loss of a school friend. Now he is beginning to think differently. The loss of Dimitri would have been a loss to all of Fódlan, yes, but losing this - whatever this friendship is becoming - would have been a grave personal loss, as well.

Claude doesn't have many people he can talk to, and even fewer he can trust. He is, perhaps, not quite there with Dimitri, but they might be. Someday.

It seems to take Dimitri by surprise, and he turns to look at Claude for a long moment.

“Hm.” He doesn't seem to really know how to respond to the gratitude, so he doesn't and eventually turns back to the Cathedral thoughtfully. “How soon will you march to Enbarr after Merceus is taken?”

Back to business. Of course Claude didn't expect any kind of equivalent response from Dimitri, nor is he upset that he didn't get one. He wanted Dimitri to know, he thought it was important that he did. Dimitri is alone here, without his house behind him, with no one but Claude's allies, who are unsure about his presence. But Claude isn't unsure. He hasn't been since the beginning.

He wasn't sure Dimitri would ever choose to ally with him of course, but he was still sure that saving Dimitri was the right thing to do. He didn't deserve to die like that - Claude still believes that to be true, and even more so now. He doesn't need gratitude, he doesn't need an appreciative response to his words. Dimitri, alive and in front of him, is enough.

“We'll need time to heal and resupply,” he says. “A few weeks, at the most. Probably more like a month. We'll need time for any forces loyal to you to join us and integrate with our armies. But if you're antsy, we march on Merceus in two days.”

They're ready. Claude knows they are. And, if he were to be honest, he's somewhat excited to see how their armies fare with Dimitri fighting alongside them.

He can practically sense Dimitri’s impatience, and he sympathizes with it. After everything he’s been through, everything he’s suffered, of course Dimitri wants nothing more than revenge, and of course he doesn’t want to wait for it. But Claude has plans and strategies, and he will keep requiring patience for as long as he must, even if Dimitri hates it.

“...alright. I'll be ready,” Dimitri says, though his shoulders are tense, his mouth set. That reluctant agreement is all that Claude can ask for.

He should go. He has work to do, he has things to prepare. None of them are extremely urgent, but they need to be done sooner or later, and spending his time with Dimitri is not exactly going to help him check things off his to-do list. But he can't regret the time he's spent, either. He feels like - he thinks maybe they understand each other a little better.

But he needs to be responsible. He's a leader.

“I should get back to work.”

A tacit admission that this wasn't work, that this was Claude taking a few moments for himself, choosing to spend them in the company of Dimitri instead of any of the many other things he could or should be doing. That he chose to spend time here, instead of advancing any of his many schemes and plots.

Dimitri nods, acknowledging Claude’s words and dismissing him all at once. Claude swallows his amusement instead of letting it turn to laughter - Dimitri continues to act, in some moments, as if he is in charge here. Claude finds it more endearing than annoying, if he’s being honest.

He leaves the church, but just at the doorway, he finds himself pausing to look back.

Dimitri is silhouetted by the sunlight streaming in the windows. The church is quiet, the light is clear, and for a moment, Claude just looks at him. He was always handsome as a boy. Time and suffering have changed him, but Claude doesn’t think it’s necessarily for the worse. He is still handsome, though far less like a handsome prince and more like - a wild wyvern, perhaps. Fascinating to look at, but if you get too close or make the wrong move you can easily find yourself with its teeth in your throat.

Through luck or cleverness, Claude has avoided that fate. And even with the danger he’s faced, he doesn’t think Dimitri is as far gone as Dimitri seems to think.

Even a wild wyvern can be tamed, with care and caution.

Claude shakes his head at that foolish thought and turns away. He has work to do.

Chapter Text

When it's finally time to attack Fort Merceus, Dimitri is ready. He's itching for it as Claude sends his forces around in accordance with his plans, can barely keep still enough to stay in his position and wait - wait, Claude had told him earlier, with an urgency in his expression that Dimitri thinks is probably justified given how he hadn't waited at Gronder. He doesn't want to wait now. He's tired of patience when he can practically smell the blood in the air and feel his heart beat faster, faster, faster in eager anticipation.

From her mark, Hilda looks at him but her expression is unreadable. Whether she's trying to ensure that he doesn't charge ahead and ruin the plan or she's trying to figure out just what to think of him is unclear and Dimitri doesn't care. He stares at the door, shoulders tense, lance in hand, waiting for the signal. Waiting. Waiting.

Claude's eyes were so green when he came to Dimitri personally and asked him to wait until it was time - so earnest, worried maybe that he would bolt at the first opportunity for blood without a steadying hand on his shoulder, but Claude was needed elsewhere for this plan and no one else would dare touch the feral prince. But Claude had asked and Dimitri had made a vow, and though he doesn't put much stock in vows these days, he intends to keep this one. Even if it means waiting.

Waiting.

Hilda looks away. There's the soft clatter of metal on metal as the soldiers shift uncomfortably behind him. One minute, two, five. Dimitri thinks that his heart might burst.

Then, the piercing shriek of a wyvern cries out from over the ramparts- this is the signal, this is it this is it, this is it - the archers in the back draw back their bowstrings and dip their arrows into the pitch and flame before sending a volley of flaming arrows over the walls, the other pegasus knights and wyvern riders take to the skies over the east side and the gate that Dimitri has been staring at for what feels like an entire lifetime creaks open with a rapid speed that makes it seem as if the mechanism behind it had been broken somehow.

All of the tension he'd been holding, all the anxiety and stress and frustration is cleaned out of him at the first sight of the Imperial guards moving to try and cover the gate.

He runs, and they run with him.

The Alliance cavalry pass him by, the powerful legs of their horses inches from his shoulders as they rush past him into the line of enemy soldiers. The two collapse like an earthquake in a spray of blood, screams, and equine cries as they're brought down. Dimitri is running, one foot in front of the other, faster, faster, moving a hand behind him to take the spear secured on his back and throw, as if he can’t live one second longer without killing something. The strike rings true, spearing one of the enemy soldiers clean through the chest and rooting itself into the ground behind him, keeping him standing in his death.

In his other hand is the Areadbhar, more like a glaive than a traditional lance and he slashes out with it as soon as he's close enough, knocking his opponents back, reaching for his spear and pressing a foot against his victim's chest to stomp down and reclaim his weapon in one smooth motion. Viscera slicks the handle and he tightens his grip on it, feeling the warmth through his glove. Good.

The scent of blood is wretched in the air and Edelgard's troops are all around them. He thinks he hears a familiar voice calling out to him but he can't hear the words above the thrum of blood in his ears, the rising sense of hideous satisfaction that takes everything away from him except for this: the killing, the blood, the way each and every death at his hands is some form of blow to Edelgard herself.

Dimitri's lips part in a wolfish smile and he laughs, spinning and using the blade of the Areadbhar to part someone's head from their neck. It's a high, rakish sound, more monster than man as he pushes forward, deeper into the fort along with Claude's reinforcements and leaving a trail of carnage in his wake.

He catches only a brief glimpse of Claude up above, having been part of the crew that disguised himself and lead an assault to open the gates for the ground troops. Claude seems focused on the battle, but something has his attention - Dimitri follows his gaze to see a dark figure, cutting a lethal profile atop a black horse.

The Death Knight.

He stands above it all, looking down at the carnage and Dimitri feels the man’s gaze pass over him. Not one to disappoint, Dimitri takes the opportunity to shove his lance through a man’s chest, spearing him neatly and snarling at anyone else who may approach him.

Lorenz and Lysithea are leading their own battalions and are too far away to collapse into the Death Knight - they’ll have to leave him be for now, but it’s something that needs addressing shortly. Sensing a challenge as well as what he’s sure would be a crucial blow to Edelgard, Dimitri is more than happy to oblige.

He moves like he was born for this, expertly parrying enough blows to escape from the first part of this battle relatively unscathed, utilizing the additional reach of his lance and the range of his throwing spear to outmaneuver those with swords and axes as he carves a path through the main gate and deeper into the keep. He's getting a little further out now, separated from some of the other Golden Deer, but it doesn't matter - he doesn't need backup like this, and he's more likely to kill any allies who get too close to him than he is to feel grateful.

He sinks the blade of his lance into another soldier in front of him, his lip curling as he twists and watches the woman's face contort with unimaginable pain before it goes blank and she feels nothing at all. Dimitri tilts the weapon in his hand, allowing her to slip off of his blade when he hears it, a piercing scream - Hilda? - coming from somewhere behind him.

'-Claude!'

Dimitri immediately turns his gaze toward the sky where he sees Claude's unmistakable white wyvern losing altitude quickly, on target for a crash land onto the ground - ground that's still largely Imperial territory, as the Alliance was still working their way through the beginnings of the fortress.

He must have been shot down. Dimitri only catches a glimpse of red on an otherwise white creature and his brows knit together as he searches for the one responsible and seeing a ballistae high up on the rampart. He doesn’t see the person manning it but he sees a fist, pumped up into the air in celebration of a shot that rang true.

If Claude goes down that deep into enemy territory, he's going to die.

Dimitri realizes this in the span of a single heartbeat this and his chest goes tight, constricted with the sudden thought of losing Claude on top of everything else that's been taken from him. Claude, with his easy smiles, who had gotten down onto the ground of the cell and busied his hands with healing Dimitri's wounds, despite being the leader of an army. Claude, who had understood Dimitri's need to give penance to the dead, who hadn't criticized him or tried to pull him back - Claude, with his bright green eyes, who had begged Dimitri for patience.

Due to Dimitri's earlier reckless advances, he's the closest person to Claude by a longshot. He turns just for a moment, finding Hilda far behind him in the battle and meets her wild gaze over the frenzy of the bloodshed between them - she nods once at him in a silent agreement and that's all he needs to turn back and plunge deeper into enemy forces while she moves back in turn, calling for reinforcements to follow.

He's not killing anymore so much as he is moving, charging through the crowd where he'd seen Claude fall and using the lance in his hand to push people back. He can't see the other man through the Imperial bodies ahead of him but it doesn't matter - he'll reach him, he will, he won't let anyone else die.

Dimitri doesn't make it far before a sword cuts through his side, slicing thinly through the spaces between the plating in his armor and cutting deeply into him. The sudden sharpness of the pain makes him gasp, instinctively reaching into his belt to grab his dagger and bury it to the hilt in the soldier's eye before stumbling, choking on what he thinks might be blood. Keep moving. Keep moving, slower now, but he can't stop -

- the lancing pain of the wound dissipates almost as suddenly as it had occurred in a tingling sensation that raises the hair on the back of his neck. Dimitri doesn't turn to see that Hilda had managed to rally Marianne, whose focus on him must have been precise and unbroken through the carnage, nor does he see that they've been stopped by the wall of troops that he'd managed to break through, unable to reach Claude like he can. He only uses the healing to push further inward, closer, closer - until he can see the grounded wyvern and just there, between the bodies of the enemy soldiers, a flash of yellow and dark, dark red.

Again, Dimitri takes up his spear and throws it with all his might. The blade of it erupts through the throat of the man about to execute Claude and the soldier falls forward to his knees while the others turn to raise their blades at the sudden new threat.

What follows is simply carnage. Dimitri surges, his crest pulsing power through his blood, and cuts one of the aggressors in half as cleanly as a knife through butter. The next, fast and sure, tries to move in close with a pair of daggers, too close for the lance to be of any use. Dimitri surprises him by further closing the distance between them and reaching out with his hand to wrap gauntleted fingers around his throat and crushing. Another. Another.

It seems like an eternity before he can finally take a moment to evaluate Claude, but in reality it's only a small handful of seconds. Once he's cleared out the surrounding area of soldiers and it's clear that the others nearby are hesitating before trying to push in, he rushes toward Claude's side, falling to his knees next to him and reaching for his shoulders to try and prop him up as he quickly evaluates the damage.

“We need to move!”

He has to practically yell to be heard over the sound of the battle raging around them. Claude is alive, that much is certain, though how long he will continue being so is a little more shaky. He’d been able to dismount before the landing it looks like, and Dimitri sees several bodies of Imperial troops around them with familiar arrows sticking out of them.

But he was surrounded and the enemy had scored enough hits on him to where Dimitri suddenly feels a tremor of fear that he hadn’t been quick enough and that Claude is a walking dead man.

There are cuts and bruises of course, but the worst of it is a deep gash which rips through his side and drenches him in blood - he must have been slashed at, and deeply enough that blood pools to the ground around him.

Dimitri realizes that they don't have time to wait for him to try and stand and hobble out of here, and so he presses his hand firmly against the widest part of Claude's wound - causing pain, but stifling blood flow.

“Put your hand here - press down. I'll get you to the healers,” he grunts over the crash of battle. The promise he makes is going to be quite the feat, given that there's now half a fucking battlefield between them and the others. Dimitri can't even see Marianne through the crowd anymore and knows that they must be out of her magical range. He doesn't know how he's going to do this, but he knows that he must. He'll carry him if it comes down to that.

Claude still has enough sense to listen to him, weakly grasping at his own wound where Dimitri had instructed with one hand, his other arm moving up to Dimitri’s shoulder to try and lever himself up. He’s clearly in no shape to fight, or even to walk at all. The wyvern is nearby, lashing out at anyone who dares approach it- including, Dimitri thinks, the two of them. They’ll have to leave it if he wants to get Claude to safety.

“There,” Claude murmurs weakly against him. Dimitri follows his gaze toward one of the walls of the fort. With that at their backs, Dimitri will be able to defend the both of them until reinforcements can break through the Imperial line and Marianne can get close enough to them to use Physic and pull Claude from death’s door.

Right on cue, Raphael slams into the front of the forces. He's too far away to reach them, too far away to help, but with his fists swinging he turns the tide of battle in that direction for a few moments. Long enough for them to get to safety, maybe, except -

“I'm not sure - I can make it there.” Claude’s legs are weak, wobbling. He can barely move like this and he manages a choked laugh that might be considered rueful if not for the blood on his lips. “Sorry... ugh, how embarrassing. You mind giving me a hand? Maybe two…”

That he is at least conscious enough to speak is a good sign, even if the fact that he can't exactly walk is... well, less good. The plan to move for more cover is good, but they need to move, now.

The soldiers around them are starting to realize that Dimitri's first priority is Claude and not on killing them and it's making them grow more aggressive. As much as he prefers his lance, Dimitri drops the Areadbhar near Claude's wyvern and instead picks up a sword from one of the men he's killed - easier to wield one-handed and to parry the various blows that come at him while he's trying to support his friend. He wordlessly helps Claude take one step, two, but they're not moving nearly fast enough.

Dimitri has to jostle the other man sharply in order to sidestep an axe slash coming his way, relying on his strength and footwork to keep Claude close to him while he steps forward and spears the soldier through the throat with the tip of his blade. This isn't going to work.

Dimitri remembers Claude’s earlier request and can only spare him a glance before he has to pull him out of the way of an enemy blade, wrapping his arm around Claude's waist and pulling him tightly into his chest so that he can parry the attack. He feels the impact as an arrow strikes at his back, sliding thankfully harmlessly off of his armor.

“Hold on.” Is the only warning that Claude gets before Dimitri lifts him to carry. As much as it would likely treat his wound better if Dimitri was able to get an arm under his knees and carry him that way - well, he needs the use of one of his arms to keep fighting off the seemingly-endless reinforcements who have started to realize exactly who they have pinned here.

The leader of the Alliance is a tantalizing target in and of himself, but the undead prince of Faerghus with him? Anyone who could bring the two of them down, hampered as they are, would almost singlehandedly end this war and be hailed as a hero.

So, Dimitri throws Claude over his shoulder instead and moves for the wall. His swordsmanship skills aren't as good as his prowess with a lance, even when unhampered by trying to carry someone on his other arm, and he can't prevent the two of them from taking more injuries. A sword strike slices his cheek open, another blade tears into Claude's arm, he feels the heat from an enemy fireball singe at his cloak, but he keeps moving, keeps moving until he's finally close enough to the wall to use it as cover.

Which is when he realizes that the battle around him had grown quiet.

It's as if all the sound around him has been drained until there's nothing left but his own breathing and the beating of his heart. The attacks from all directions have stopped - there's no soldiers around him for ten paces. The blood from Claude's wound paints his neck and runs warmly down his collarbone from where he has the other man over his shoulder. He can feel something - something achingly familiar, something that still sends a spike of fear through his heart.

The hooves of the Death Knight's horse make a metallic sound against the cobblestone as the hellish creature paws at the ground behind Dimitri. He doesn't look back, not yet - instead, he slowly lowers Claude back to the ground, propped up against the wall, and checks to make sure he's breathing.

“The two of you together? How fortunate…”

The hair on the back of his neck rises and Dimitri meets Claude's eyes. There's no way to communicate all that he wants to say in words, not with the time he has, and so he simply brings a hand up and touches the other man's jaw with his bloodied glove.

“Stay alive.”

And with that, he reaches down to Claude's belt to pull out his dagger and stands, turning to face the man - the creature, the demon who had cornered them both.

_

When they reach the wall, Claude should probably feel relieved, but it's too soon for that. His hand is still pressed tightly against his side, as if to keep his very life force from leaking out, but it's not working that well. He's bleeding heavily, the edges of the world are going gray. He's vaguely aware that he took a few more wounds on their journey, but those are distant, minor things.

He doesn't notice the Death Knight at first. He only sees Dimitri, sees him go tense, and then behind him - that figure.

His eyes meet Dimitri's, and he feels like - he feels something. Some wrenching feeling in his chest, something he could chalk up to fear, to the adrenaline of the battle, but he knows that isn't it. He knows it's far worse than that, it's something that in his absolute foolishness he should have realized before this moment.

He wants to say no, to say stop, to find some way to end this before it begins.

He'll kill you.

Dimitri is already injured, has already left his strongest weapon behind. Claude has nothing - no bow, no arrows, not even the strength to stand and offer Dimitri the support he deserves. He feels sickeningly helpless, because he is certain that Dimitri is about to die right in front of him, and that is unthinkable.

Claude isn't one for praying, but he sends out a silent plea to anyone who might be listening.

Please. Not him.

_

Few people in Fódlan can truly challenge Dimitri in combat. Fewer still can hope to best him. He has trained night and day for nine years to bring justice to his name with a fervor that could only be considered deranged, on top of receiving the best tutelage in the Kingdom since he was barely old enough to hold a wooden sword, on top of a natural aptitude, on top of training at Garreg Mach, on top of a crest which grants him his horrific strength. All of this stacks up and amounts to the beast that he's become, this undying monster that rips its way through anyone who dares raise a weapon to him.

The Death Knight is one of those few people who remains a threat and Dimitri knows it from the start. He doesn't have his lance and he can feel the weariness of the fight and the straggling pain from the injuries he's already received start to weigh at him, all of which puts him at enough of a disadvantage that the outcome of this battle leans away from him. In turn, he's careful with his stance, mindful and precise, and prepares to fight for his - no, both of their lives.

The monster charges. Dimitri sidesteps to parry the blow, but the momentum brought with the horse as well as the massive crescent scythe that the man fights with is enough to overpower Dimitri’s strength when armed with only a standard issue sword. He staggers and is knocked off of his feet from the force of it, the air rushing out of him as he’s slammed onto his back on the ground.

He looks up and sees hooves and rolls quickly out of the way. The horse lands on his cloak, which chokes him for a moment until he can reach up and unfasten the thing, leaving it on the ground and turning to slash at the creature’s legs. With his sword busy, the scythe curves down again with enough force to behead him and Dimitri just barely ducks under it, scrambling backward so that he can find his feet again and move to stand.

He can’t meet this man blow for blow and if he uses his crest then he’s sure that the impact of the blades colliding would snap his sword in two. He’s more nimble due to being on his feet instead of on a horse, but it doesn’t amount to much when a single blow would be enough to kill him.

The only option to tilt this fight in his favor would be to kill the horse first. The Death Knight is too imposing of a figure mounted, and with the shorter range on his sword and the lack of ability to use it to pierce like a lance could, Dimitri needs to bring him down to his level.

Aside from that, every moment he stalls is another opportunity for reinforcements to arrive. At this point, that’s the only thing he’s banking on.

The Death Knight rounds on him again, expertly steering his horse for another charge. Dimitri holds his ground, wishing he could look back to Claude, to see if he’s still alive, but unable to break his focus for a single moment. He holds the sword with both of his hands, tightening his grip and waiting. Waiting.

The opening is there, just before the scythe descends on him. Dimitri pushes himself forward, summoning the power from his crest and meeting the horse’s throat with his blade.

It isn’t what his opponent is expecting. The sudden staggering of his horse makes the Death Knight pitch forward, missing his target and instead hooking his scythe around Dimitri’s shoulder where it slices cleanly through to skin. He uses it for leverage when he smoothly dismounts the dying creature and the blade cuts deeply into Dimitri at the juncture where his throat meets his shoulder, sliding downward and pulling until he thinks that it’s over, he’s dead, he’s failed.

The scythe doesn’t make it that far. The angle is wrong, with the crook of it hooked over his shoulder rather than his throat. It does bite down until it’s stopped by his collarbone and slices down, taking a significant chunk into his shoulder. The scythe pulls him down again with the Death Knight using the leverage to send him to his knees before he pulls it free and grasps the handle with his other hand to raise it high in order to behead the prince of Faerghus.

Dimitri still has the sword in one of his hands. If he uses it to parry the blow, it will break and he’s - he’s not sure if he’s strong enough to keep it from killing him anyway. The pain from his wound is seeping into his thoughts, making him feel sluggish and stupid, but the world is happening in slow motion around him and he’s going to die. He’s going to die without avenging anyone. He’s going to die and Claude is going to die and it’s going to be entirely his fault.

He should have known. He can never save anyone, in the end.

Get up,’ Lambert says, a disappointed snarl. ‘Prove to me that my son isn’t weak. Prove to me that you’re worthy of my name. Get up!

He wants to apologize - he is weak. He’s not worthy of his name. He knows this, but his father can’t seem to accept it.

The scythe comes down.

Parry. Use your crest.

So what if it breaks his sword? Dimitri musters his strength, calling on every fragment he might have and moves his sword up, the blade of the scythe impacting against it. It shatters, the cheaper steel giving way, but it’s enough to drive the killing blow just a few inches off, enough so that the blade slips forward and Dimitri is hit in the throat by the handle instead, just barely lacking the force to knock him to the ground.

’Dagger.’

Claude’s dagger. With his left hand, Dimitri pulls it from his belt. The Death Knight is too close now, and he’ll try to rip the scythe backward to cut Dimitri’s head off from behind, but Dimitri is already moving.

A scythe is a weapon best used at midrange. A dagger, close range. Dimitri moves to his feet faster than he’s ever moved in his life, seizing the only opportunity he thinks he’ll ever be granted and moving, all of his nerves alight as he thrusts Claude's dagger upward and into the jaw of his opponent, spearing him through the neck and driving the blade deep into his head.

The scythe does not hit him. It clatters to the ground as the Death Knight takes a reeling step back, and then another. The man - whoever he is - falls with a heavy sound that rings out in his ears. Dimitri drops the hilt of the broken sword, where it clatters uselessly, and then...

It's quiet again. The sounds of battle are gone. The voices are gone.

He's dizzy suddenly.

He's in full armor and yet he feels achingly cold. Has it always been this frigid out? His armor is heavy. His very body feels heavy. Adrenaline saps away from him and takes his energy with it and he - he has to keep going. More will collapse in on them. He has to keep fighting, but his muscles don't seem to want to work. It's not over, it can't end here, and he tips his head back, focusing his gaze on Claude behind him. Is he dead? Was he too late?

Dimitri's vision blurs as blood drips from his fingers, falling to the stone like the first hush of a rainfall. He turns finally, slowly, taking a single step back toward Claude before his feet give out under him and he stumbles... but doesn't fall.

Hilda, delicate flower that she is, barely manages to keep Dimitri upright by catching hold of his side. She wraps an arm around him, taking on most of his weight and motioning quickly for Marianne to get to Claude. They made it. They're here, he fought them off for long enough that maybe - maybe Claude could live.

Whatever happens next is out of Dimitri's hands, and while he'd ordinarily snarl and shove at anyone who dares to get close to him, now it's all he can do to slump uselessly into Hilda's side, kept from his knees only by her strong arm around his waist.

__

“Claude first,” Hilda instructs, motioning to clear the way so that Marianne can get to him. The Alliance leader’s eyes are closed, his head tipped back into the wall that he’s slumped against and for a brief moment she’s struck by a bolt of fear that they were too late and he’s already dead.

He draws a single feeble breath in and the relief that she feels is palpable, but they’re not out of the woods quite yet. Marianne’s hands start to glow as she kneels next to their leader and Hilda grits her teeth, adjusting the weight of the prince of Faerghus at her side.

Dimitri sags into her, not quite unconscious yet, but not far off. She remembers his ferocity just earlier in battle, remembers his drive to push through the enemy, remembers Claude taking her aside this morning, concern in his eyes as he’d said keep an eye on him.

Hilda hadn’t needed to ask who he was, and she’d protested but Claude seemed so sincere in his request that she’d been forced to relent.

And now she hooks Dimitri’s arm over her shoulder as he bleeds out onto her (gross), her shoulders tense. Raphael and Lorenz are keeping the rest of the forces off of them while they hurry to stabilize the two men, but the enemy forces are dwindling and morale is beginning to fail now that they’ve killed the general.

“Come on,” she urges Dimitri, the first words she’s really spoken to him in years. Hilda jostles him a little with her hip - a bad move, she realizes in retrospect, as he’s moments from fainting from the blood loss. “You need to stay conscious. I’m too weak to carry you off the battlefield.”

“...I will.”

It’s not very convincing, with his head slung low and half of his weight on Hilda’s shoulder, but she supposes that it’s better than no promise at all. Her nose wrinkles as she looks at him, covered in grime and blood. He used to poke fun at her for skipping training.

The memory is painful enough that Hilda shakes it away, instead focusing on the here and now.

“What were you thinking, rushing in like that? Just like at Gronder. You must really have a death wish.”

Dimitri doesn’t respond and Hilda doesn’t blame him. Realistically she knows that if he hadn’t done as he did, then Claude would be dead and then where would they be? With a half-crazed former prince and a bunch of squabbling nobles and no leader to unify them.

But even so, it was a gamble. They could just as easily have both been killed in there. Hilda would love to say that her self preservation instincts are better and that she wouldn’t have done the same… but in her heart of hearts, she knows it isn’t true.

And maybe - maybe that means that she finds herself in a position of grudgingly respecting the half-dead man currently hanging off of her shoulder.

What a world they live in.

“He’s stable,” Marianne tells her, referring to Claude as the blue-haired woman moves to stand, blood staining her fingers, “but we need to get him off of the battlefield. Dimitri too…”

Hilda nods while Marianne moves closer to her and she can see the sweat sheen on her brow. How much magic has she used already, just to keep these two alive? She seems exhausted, the dark circles under her eyes almost reminiscent of how she used to look back at the Academy.

Marianne slowly reaches for Dimitri next. The prince snarls at the first brush of healing magic and reaches out to push her away instinctively, his palm weakly slapping against Marianne’s shoulder.

“Hey! We’re saving your life here, idiot,” Hilda chastises, shaking him again.

She glimpses something that looks like sympathy in Mariannes eyes and when Dimitri lifts his arm to try and push her away again, Marianne catches his wrist in her hand, able to hold him off easily in his weakened state.

“I know…” Marianne whispers to him, a private sort of confession that Hilda wonders if she’s supposed to be hearing. The mage slowly bends her knees so she can meet Dimitri’s gaze despite his downturned head. “I’m sorry. You just have to endure a little more.”

Hilda doesn’t know what to think of that, but Marianne is treating him like one might treat a wounded animal prone to lashing out and it’s working, Dimitri is going slack against her, his arm going limp and magic glows at Marianne’s hands once more.

There isn’t time to heal all of it and get Dimitri back on the front lines again. It’s all that Marianne can do just to keep the life threatening injuries at bay, just as she’d done for Claude. She closes the wound at his throat, her fingers expertly weaving magic through Dimitri’s skin, and looks over him for anything else that might kill him.

With Claude unconscious, Lorenz backs up toward Hilda, allowing his battalion to take the brunt of the combat for the time being.

“We’ve all but won,” he tells her and she nods. “We need to pull out and get our main forces back to camp to position ourselves and cut off any Imperial reinforcements that may be sent.”

“You think they’ll try to take it back?”

“Do you think Edelgard is the type to admit defeat?”

Hilda frowns at that, but Lorenz is undeterred. “Leonie has captured Caspar von Bergliez. Between that and the Death Knight, the forces here are ready to surrender. We can leave the rest to our footsoldiers; preparations must be made.”

He has a point. And without Claude to make them, they’ll need extra time to fully convince the nobles and other high ranking military officers of what to do.

Dimitri stirs and Lorenz looks at him, his expression contemplative but unreadable. In the end, he says nothing.

The call to pull back and circle around is made. Raphael moves to pick up Claude’s unconscious body, moving him out ahead of the rest of them while Hilda half-carries Dimitri back through the courtyard and toward the camp where the medical tent is waiting. They’re slower than the others due to her being encumbered like she is, but Lorenz was right when he said that the battle was over. No one moves to strike her in the back, no one even approaches them.

When she looks over her shoulder, she sees a graveyard: bodies everywhere, blood streaking along the stone, the Alliance and Almyran forces piecing through the wasteland of it all, spearing through any Imperial troops that may still draw breath on the ground. There are dead horses and pegasi as well, but Hilda catches a glimpse of something white and red at the other gate.

Claude’s wyvern, haggard and injured but alive and allowing itself to be carefully lead by Marianne. Of course. Hilda fights back a smile and turns back, continuing to press forward with Dimitri in tow.

It happens when she’s near the gate, almost through, and it’s too sudden for her to react.

The sky lights up like a thunderstorm but there are no clouds. She doesn’t have the time to look behind her before it strikes and the both of them are thrown from their feet at the sudden force of light that pierces through the sky and strikes the main body Fort Merceus, exploding it into a pile of rubble, shrapnel, and blood.

Chapter Text

Claude is able to cling to consciousness only long enough to know that Dimitri is victorious, and that he is terribly wounded. The world slips away from him after that. He doesn't see the Alliance forces arrive. He doesn't see Marianne, exhausting her spellcraft to stabilize him and heal Dimitri. He doesn't see their victory, taking the fort that has been impregnable for years. He doesn’t see the destruction that follows.

He wakes in the healers' tent. Marianne's magic healed his wounds, leaving him with only silver, quickly-healing scars, but it can't restore the blood he's lost. He'll have to let his body do that, and be thankful that their next battle won't be for weeks. In the first moments after waking, he's disoriented, uncertain of where he is - it's been a long time since Claude has woken in a place like this.

Usually, he's quick enough to avoid any damage this severe. Usually, he comes away with only minor wounds.

There was nothing usual about that battle.

“We won?” It comes out scratchy, his throat dry. It's the first question he asks of the healer waiting at his bedside, though he doesn't actually need an answer. If they hadn't won, he'd be dead now, or captive, and not blissfully alive and free of chains. He's still rather lightheaded, though, so the quiet affirmative, followed by a glass of water, is appreciated.

And then all his memories of the battle come flooding back. He was barely there, at the end, and doesn't know how much of what he remembers is true. So his next question is more urgent, the answer more necessary.

“And Dimitri?”

He could have fallen. Claude saw him defeat the Death Knight, but he was injured, and the battle wasn't over yet. Claude remembers, with awful clarity, Dimitri telling him to stay alive. His hand, briefly, on Claude's jaw. Their eyes meeting.

His own belated realization.

“Where is he?”

The healer grunts and looks, long-suffering, toward the tent flap, where Dimitri's shadow is just barely visible in the fading sunlight. He is sitting on the ground like a guard dog in his bloodstained clothing, a silver lance resting lightly on his shoulders.

Everyone who wants to get in skirts very delicately around him.

His head lifts momentarily, likely at the sound of his name, but he stays outside while the healers fuss around Claude. Now that he's woken up and can give the healers responses, they’re full of questions and evaluations and medicine he doesn’t want to take. After awhile it peters out, though, and they return to their many other duties.

It's only then that Dimitri finally gets up, digging the heel of the lance into the dirt and using it to pull himself back into a standing position. He turns, and reenters the tent, his eye on Claude.

“You survived,” he says, though perhaps it's more accurate to say that they both did. Dimitri moves a little closer and the healers still inside make it a point to scurry out of his way. “Any permanent damage?”

“Only my pride. I can't say anyone's ever thrown me over their shoulder like a potato sack before - well, not since I was a kid.” Seeing Dimitri alive and - relatively - well is a relief. Claude had at least had his worries soothed by the healer's clear irritation at Dimitri's presence, but actually seeing him is miles better. He looks tired, he's still wearing bloodstained clothing, but he's alive and awake and moving around, which is more than Claude can say for himself. Even sitting upright leaves him lightheaded, and the small table beside the bed is littered with unpleasant potions for him to drink that are meant to speed his body's recovery.

He looks at Dimitri for a long moment. Thank you feels flippant to say. He's not sure Dimitri will accept it, anyway, though Claude certainly feels it.

And more than that, too. Dimitri is tired, dirty, he looks like he's been through a thousand battles, but Claude has to accept with a weary inevitability that he still thinks Dimitri is handsome. That's certainly a fact that anyone would have agreed with in their school days - a perfect prince, blond hair and blue eyes, polite and chivalrous and brave. Dimitri now is wildly different, but no less attractive for it. Anyone would think so - right?

’Anyone would think so', Claude thinks to himself with some humor. Am I really that stupid?

Claude lies to others, but he's never been the sort to lie to himself. He sets that aside for now, though.

“Hey. You saved my life.” He says it matter-of-factly, a simple fact of the reality that they now inhabit. Whatever else has passed between them, that is the truth. Claude says it aloud to make it real, to make it something that Dimitri can't ignore. He may truly believe that he is nothing but a monster made for revenge, but he did this thing. He saved Claude.

Dimitri's eye flickers downward toward the ground, not quite sure how to take it at first. “So I did.”

Silence stretches between them, and Claude doesn’t have any idea what Dimitri is thinking. Not really. He can guess, but what can he possibly know for sure? Before that battle, Claude would not have thought Dimitri would save his life - would risk his life and his vengeance for it. Maybe it was gratitude. Maybe it was nothing more than instinct. Maybe it’s something else.

Claude doesn’t know. He can’t even begin to guess. He is only thankful.

“The rest of the Imperial forces crumbled like vermin without their leader,” Dimitri finally says. “But as we were pulling our forces back - something attacked the fort.”

Claude’s head is still heavy with weariness, his body still aches, but this forces him upright and aware. “Something?”

“Beams of light,” Dimitri says, seeming to struggle to describe what happened. “They destroyed what was left of the fort. The wounded who were on the battlefield. Anyone left.”

“How is that possible?” It’s a rhetorical question, Claude is well aware Dimitri doesn’t have the answers. Likely Hilda or one of the others will be here soon enough, now that he’s awake. Maybe they’ll know more.

Maybe they won’t.

For a moment, Claude feels a rush of frustration, his desire to find all these mysteries and drag them screaming into the light of day almost overwhelming. He wants to get up from this bed, stride out of the tent, shake Seteth until he answers all of Claude’s questions.

This plan is immediately nipped in the bud by the knowledge that he is not, in fact, currently able to get up from the bed. Even sitting up straight makes his head spin, and he reluctantly settles back against the pillows.

As always, he will have to have patience.

How annoying.

“And our forces? You said we were pulling back.”

Dimitri nods, a firm movement. “Few of our men were left. Mostly injured enemies, but-” There's a pause, and he continues: “Caspar von Bergliez was among them. He had been captured and taken to a cell in the fort. We found his body in the wreckage afterwards.”

“I see.” Claude raises one weary arm, pushing his hair back from his face. He needs a bath - he can feel dried blood in it. Probably his own. “It’d been awhile since I'd seen him.”

He says it like it was a chance meeting, like they weren't destined to end up on opposite sides of a battlefield. Like Claude won't now be mourning this defeated enemy, this old friend from school.

They weren’t close. But this is another name he remembers, another face he used to smile at in the halls of the monastery. Gone, torn to shreds on the wheel of Edelgard’s ambitions and whatever it is that slithers in the darkness of Fódlan.

Caspar didn’t deserve this. But did any of them?

Claude sighs, tired. Really, in this moment, he can only be thankful that their forces are intact, that his friends are alive, that they both survived. That Dimitri is here. He needs to rest - he needs to really rest, to sleep without thinking about their next move, recover without worrying about the competing demands of the Alliance nobility. But that's not a reprieve he's going to get, so he takes what he can from this moment: both of them, here, alive.

And now that Dimitri has shown himself on the battlefield, his loyalists should flock to his banner. They can combine their armies, and nothing in the Empire will be able to stand against them.

The beds are nestled so neatly together that there isn't much room for chairs - there are stools off to the side of the room where healers can grab and drag over for longer procedures, but for the most part, they do their job standing. Dimitri seems weary though, and he sits on the edge of the other man's bed, careful not to jostle him.

Claude doesn't protest. He’s watching Dimitri now, too tired to dwell further on Caspar, on the Fort, on the dangers they now face.

There's a wicked-looking scar that starts at Dimitri's throat and extends its way down beneath the collar of his shirt, where the scythe had hooked him and dragged, narrowly missing his carotid - hell, narrowly missing taking his head clean off. The scar shines a bright white with magic, but there are more - other wounds that weren't as vital to heal and so, haven’t been taken care of. The cut on his cheek, a few more slashes to his arms and torso, things that it looks like he's hastily bandaged himself and then left alone.

Claude is in a similar condition, though with more tended magic. Dimitri looks over him for a moment, assessing the damage quietly now that he's a bit closer and for the second time since he woke up in Claude's cell, the ghost of a smile flickers across his face.

“I'm glad you survived.”

That draws a smile from Claude, too, a real one. Though he has friends now, more than he ever imagined, Claude is more used to people wishing he was conveniently dead than wishing for his survival. Even those who know he's necessary generally don't want to say that sort of thing aloud. He doesn't need to hear it, of course, but coming from Dimitri it... makes him happy.

It's foolish. Claude isn't really inclined to this sort of thing - he has so much to think about, so much to manage. But maybe it's all right if he lets himself enjoy a few kind words from an unexpected friend.

“It came pretty close, there. I don't mind saying I'm glad we both made it through.” As he speaks, his eyes follow the path of Dimitri's scar, realizing how close it had come. How lucky they are, really. Both of them.

Claude raises his hand, brushing his fingertips against the bandage on Dimitri's cheek. He wonders if this will be allowed, and he knows he shouldn't push Dimitri's boundaries, regardless of what unfortunate realizations he might have come to on that battlefield. It's entirely self-indulgence that lets him reach out, and he's ready to draw his hand back immediately if Dimitri is uncomfortable. “You ought to let someone take a look at these.”

Dimitri stiffens for a moment when he feels the brush of Claude's fingertips sliding gently over his bandage - it's on the side of his good eye, and so he can see the movement as it happens, but he doesn't pull away. His breath stills and for a moment Claude thinks he might get angry. Claude still remembers his reaction to the healers at the monastery.

But he doesn’t.

“It's wasted on me,” Dimitri says in protest, with disdain for those who would dare to try and help him darkening his tone. Claude knows what he must think of himself: that they don't know what kind of beast he is, they don't know what he's done, the people he's let die, they don't know that it would be better for the world to let him fall to meet the flames that await.

In truth, it's a stupid reason. The magic will replenish, it's not like he's using up an extremely limited resource - it’s just an excuse to punish himself.

Claude lets his hand fall. He doesn't want to push it the limits of what Dimitri will allow from him.

Now that he's admitted it to himself, Claude is already deciding how to handle his unwelcome emotions. He has no illusions that Dimitri would respond well to anything that Claude might voice, and he doesn't want to - well, to be brutally honest, he doesn't want to scare Dimitri away. Not from their friendship, not from their new alliance. So while he might allow himself a moment of weakness (like that touch, or the way his eyes linger just a moment too long at the spot where Dimitri's new scar disappears beneath his shirt), that's all he'll allow.

“You don't think you deserve any sort of balm.” He says it with deceptive mildness, as if he isn't just straight up calling Dimitri out, right here right now. “No small comforts, no healing, no friendship. Am I right?”

Claude doesn't expect Dimitri to like this conversation, but it's something he needs to hear. Now is as good a time as any, when they've just both nearly died.

“I would give you all of that, if only you would take it,” Claude says, eyes steady, voice steady. “I don't care what you think you deserve.”

It seems that Dimitri didn’t expect that from Claude. It’s true, ever since Dimitri had woken up in that cell, Claude had tried to be as patient and understanding as possible with him, only offering Dimitri the gentlest of challenges if he needed to nudge him in another way.

Claude has built the solid foundation of a friendship beneath them both - a friendship strong enough that Dimitri had almost died trying to keep him alive. This isn't enough to rattle it, but it is enough to make the familiar spark of anger ignite in him and Dimitri stands suddenly, his brows drawing together.

“I'm not -” His fingers tighten into fists, the soft touch from earlier forgotten. “For all your talk of schemes, you're a fool. If you knew half of what I'd done, you would have had me killed at Gronder. I know what I am - and you know me now as well, enough to know that you should stay your hand from me.”

Claude settles back against the pillows, letting them keep him upright. He looks at Dimitri, and he doesn't look away.

“Where I'm from, strength is valued above all else. Victory in battle. Nothing else matters nearly as much.” He says it and he smiles, a faint thing. “I never really belonged there, but it's part of me still. Perhaps that's why I don't fear you, Dimitri, and why I don't care what you've done.”

He can't keep Dimitri from storming out in anger - he can't keep Dimitri from doing anything right now, when Claude isn't even able to stand up. But he doesn't fear for his life or safety. It wasn't so long ago that Dimitri's hand was at his collar, that Claude was not sure if he would survive the next few seconds.

Maybe he is a fool, but he's already made his decision about Dimitri.

“I only care who you are now,” Claude continues, quiet and steady. “You are the man who saved my life, and nearly died doing so. That man deserves all that I can give him.”

He doesn't expect Dimitri to agree - not with any of this. But Claude wants to say it, and he believes Dimitri needs to hear it. Maybe he won't believe it, but perhaps he will remember it, and perhaps he will believe it someday.

The tension doesn’t leave Dimitri’s shoulders, but he also doesn't walk away. For a long, empty moment, he is silent, gaze on Claude.

“...Dedue said the same thing,” Dimitri finally murmurs, looking away. For all that it seems he wants to fight this and more, the memory of his friend - perhaps even his closest friend - sobers him and leaves his tone something soft, almost vulnerable. “I saved his life when I was thirteen, and he - I couldn't -”

He steels himself, forcing it back, allows the pain to bring him the familiar heat of aggression. When he looks back up, his gaze is sure, his posture set. “People around me die. I can't stop it, no matter how strong you think I am. Consider yourself lucky today that you did not meet the same fate he did, and forget the rest.”

“I consider myself lucky to have met you,” Claude says with sincerity, for all that he is weary and his voice reflects that. They could argue for hours about this, he thinks, and likely Dimitri would be happy to. He is so set on pushing away all that Claude offers, so sure that he deserves nothing. Claude knows this isn't something that can be fixed in a few moments, with a few words.

That's all right. It's not the first time that Claude has decided he's in it for the long haul. He is persistent, and he is certain, and he will try to find the right words, the right gestures, the right emotions to make Dimitri see that he does not need to damn himself forever for what has happened in the past.

“The whole army must know what you did by now. Of course, some of them are probably pissed, but I'm betting there'll be more than a few who see you as a hero, no matter how you grumble about it.” He grins. “You might not like us, but you can't stop us from liking you.”

Dimitri just stares at him, confused more than anything else. He looks at Claude as if Claude is, in and of himself, a surprise - constantly throwing him off balance, refusing to let him settle into his familiar patterns of anger and self-hatred.

He can't stand there and gape at Claude forever, though, and so eventually he lets out a growl of frustration, crossing his arms in front of himself - with a wince - and glaring.

Of course, Claude is immune to his glares by now.

“Fine,” he says, almost aggressively. “You're a damn fool, but if you truly won't let the matter go, I'll do as you insist.” Dimitri moves to sit on a nearby bed, turning his murderous gaze on a nearby healer, one who has been trying very hard not to obviously eavesdrop on their conversation. “You. Come here.”

The healer looks as though he fears any approach will end with his head bitten off, and not metaphorically. But he walks over to them, presenting himself as at their lords' service, ready to heal all of Dimitri's small injuries. There are many, but it won't take that long - most of them are not terribly serious.

Claude doesn't gloat. He isn't really that sort of person. Instead he's simply pleased, pleased that Dimitri has allowed himself to be cared for even if it's only because Claude badgered him into it. It's something, a first step, a small step. Claude will gladly badger him into it each time, if that's what it takes.

He watches the healer work, and he feels a wave of weariness wash over him. He should rest, probably, but not until he knows that Dimitri has been taken care of. Dimitri waited outside his tent while he recovered, is here now, and before that - before that, he'd put his life on the line for Claude's.

It's not something Claude can say about many people.

“Thank you.” He knows Dimitri only did it because Claude forced him into it, and so - gratitude. “Though the scars do look dashing.”

...gratitude, with a topping of his familiar flippant nature. Although, in this case, he's only speaking truth.

Dimitri stares toward Claude quizzically from over the healer's head while the man gingerly pokes and prods at his various injuries. “...I see,” he says, clearly having no idea what to do with that comment. “I doubt many would agree with you.”

Claude's teasing smile slides into something a little more gentle. Of course Dimitri wouldn't be used to compliments, wouldn't agree with them. Claude already knows he only sees the worst aspects of himself. And yes - he can be frightening, he can easily intimidate. He's scarred and damaged, prone to scowls and snarls.

But he's a lot more than that. Claude doubts he's the only one who would be able to see that.

“You might be surprised.”

He considers how honest to be. Not about himself, of course - that's not something to entertain - but about the world in general, the way people react to Dimitri. Most of the girls at the Academy had crushes on him, and no few of the boys. He's different now, yes, darker and more dangerous, but if he really thinks that doesn't increase the appeal for some people... well, Claude supposes Dimitri hasn't really had a chance to learn that sort of thing, with all he's been through.

“I think you're going to end up with your share of admirers, Dimitri,” he says, settling on something both truthful and safe.

Though Claude doesn't think Dimitri is quite in a place to appreciate that right now, he's sure it'll come. And that's something Dimitri deserves, too. Regardless of Claude's rather foolish and unexpected feelings, he wants Dimitri to find someone who will understand him, and someone who he can care for in return.

Dimitri scoffs out a laugh, and it leaves his mouth before he can really stop himself. “As if that's something I'd concern myself with.”

The healer continues his work and, much to Dimitri's irritation, reaches tentatively up to lift the bandage from his cheek. The touch is different, cruder than it was when Claude had touched him and Dimitri draws his head back sharply, glaring at the man with an intensity that could melt steel. The healer pauses, rooted to the spot, before Dimitri relents again, staring off toward the fabric wall of the tent while the tickling magic knits his cheek back together.

Claude can practically see Dimitri deciding that this sort of conversation has gone on long enough, and choosing to change the subject to something that he's more comfortable with.

“You should get better at fighting at close range,” is what Dimitri decides on, in the end.

Claude lets Dimitri change the subject. That one was getting a little too close to home, anyway. Someday maybe Dimitri will change his mind - or he'll complete his revenge and realize he's got to start thinking of his future, which should probably include some kind of royal consort. Claude isn't really in a rush for that part to happen.

“Ideally, I'm on a wyvern's back up in the air somewhere,” Claude says. “Close range isn't really something I end up having to deal with that often.”

This was - well, an outlier. And his bow works well enough, and he's got a dagger (well, he did, he's probably not getting that one back). Back at the academy he practiced with an axe from time to time, but he never really invested the time to become skilled. He had a lot of other things to worry about.

That part is still true.

“But yeah, you're probably right. I'll try to find time, and someone to train me.” Someone he can trust. Hilda? No, she loathes doing any kind of extra work. Lorenz would never let him live it down. Leonie, maybe, for all that she'll scoff at him.

He doesn't know if having a close-range weapon on him would have saved him in that fight - in the end, it might all have been down to Dimitri's bravery. But it certainly wouldn't have hurt, and Claude's never been one to shy from extra work if he thinks it's necessary.

“I will.” Dimitri offers it easily, as if he's already considered it. Perhaps, Claude thinks, he has. Or perhaps it’s only a whim. “Maybe you can show me how to better use a bow in return.”

The healer finally finishes his work and steps away, relieved that Dimitri had been at least somewhat distracted throughout his tending and had kept most of his attention on Claude. He brings back a small cup with some sort of potion in it and offers it hesitantly toward Dimitri who takes it without another glance, holding it between his fingers with a thoughtful frown.

“Gladly,” Claude says. He likes the idea of teaching Dimitri something in return - and he's awfully pleased that Dimitri offered to teach him, even if it was just a whim. Claude hadn't really considered it, because Dimitri doesn't exactly seem to have the temperament of a teacher. Claude wouldn't have thought he would want to do something like that. But he's happy to accept, pleased that Dimitri thought to offer it.

When he's interested in something, Claude is a good student - diligent, curious, and a fast learner. He isn't exactly interested in this, there's a reason he's never bothered to devote much time to it before, but it would be helpful, and if Dimitri is the one teaching him he imagines he'll be more inclined to pay attention.

Claude has another - possibly better - idea. “Or I could teach you to ride a wyvern.”

Another skill that would be basically useless to Dimitri, whose fighting style is far more effective up close - but there's something to be said for riding a wyvern in times of peace, too. Maybe Dimitri would like it. Maybe, up in the sky, he'd be able to forget about what was weighing him down for a little while.

But the thought of that draws Claude's expression into lines of concern.

“Do you know what happened to mine?” he asks. “Is he... all right?”

The wyvern was alive when Claude last saw him, albeit angry and injured. But Claude missed the entire end of battle thanks to blood loss-induced unconsciousness, and he hasn't been able to leave the healers' tent since. He knows if the wyvern is alive, it's probably been tended to, but - he hasn't had anyone to ask.

Dimitri nods once. “I went near the stables when I was out earlier. I saw it - not closely, but enough to see that it was moving. That's all I know.”

“Good.” Claude relaxes a little. The first thing he's going to do when he feels well enough to walk around is check on the wyvern. They're tough creatures, so if it was able to get back here and is now moving around, it'll probably be fine, but Claude wants to make sure, anyway. Besides, his wyvern isn't terribly fond of other people - he'll have to make sure it lets the healers close enough.

He just hopes there's no permanent injury. Claude can ride other wyverns, of course, but he'd prefer not to.

“I've never seen a wyvern that color before,” Dimitri admits offhandedly. Not a surprise, really. The wyverns in Faerghus are a brownish-black color, darker than the southern ones but not nearly as stark of a difference as Claude's own.

“They don't come out that color often, I guess,” Claude says. Even in Almyra, where wyvern riders are common, a pure white hide like that is something Claude's rarely seen. “He was cast out for it - I think they usually are. Animals don't always know what to do with difference, though really, people are no better.”

He didn't hand-raise the wyvern - that would have been impossible, for so many reasons - but Claude likes to think that they're kindred spirits. That maybe they both knew that immediately, and that's why they get along so well. But of course, wyverns are animals, so he's probably just amusing himself by thinking that.

“I'll take you to meet him when I'm upright again.”

“If you like,” Dimitri says. He finally drinks the potion that had been offered to him, downing it in one large gulp and wincing at the bitter taste. Were he a more petty man, he'd likely have glared at Claude for that, as if to tell him this is your fault - but in the end, he simply sets the glass on the table and lets out a pained exhale through his teeth. “You should rest. I'll leave you be.”

“I should,” Claude agrees, albeit reluctantly. He is tired, and he needs to rest or else it'll take even longer before he's in good enough shape to get up and walk around and do everything that needs to be done - and the things that don't need to be done, like check on his wyvern and train with Dimitri.

But, of course, he finds himself oddly reluctant to send Dimitri away. 'Oddly', hah, as if he doesn't know why, and that's all the more reason to send him away. Claude's already in trouble, he doesn't need to make it worse by making Dimitri uncomfortable and setting back his own recovery.

“But - hey, I'm glad you came by,” he says, as if Dimitri hadn't been waiting outside the tent, as if Dimitri didn't seem to be just waiting for a moment to check on him. But Claude thinks that's normal - Dimitri has few friends, and Claude likes to think he's one of them. Besides, it was his life Dimitri nearly died for out there. Perhaps 'friendship' isn't the right term for what's between them, though Claude isn't sure what is. “I'll be up and about in a few days, mark my words.”

“I don't doubt it.” Dimitri moves to stand. He nods toward the other man once, meeting his eyes and for a split second, Claude thinks about the last time Dimitri looked at him like that. If things were different, only slightly, then the two of them would be dead now.

It's a heavy thing to think about.

Dimitri turns and leaves then, picking up his lance on the way out and moving out into the darkness of the early evening. Claude watches him go, letting his eyes and thoughts linger for longer than he ought to.

There’s so much else to think about, and he’s so tired.

Not long after Dimitri leaves, Hilda slips in through the flap of the healers’ tent. She looks tired, too, though from what Claude can see she received only minor injuries. Good. He’s had enough bad news already.

“Hey,” she says easily, taking a seat on the end of his bed with no hesitation. She is casual and friendly with him in a way Dimitri isn’t - but Hilda is casual and friendly with most people, and she and Claude have had years to come to understand one another. It’s a relief just having her there. “Lorenz and I have been taking care of what we can. Things are kind of in disarray - Lorenz told me to come give you a full report, but,” she shrugs, “you know he’s gonna come give you another one anyway. So I’ll skip that.”

Claude smiles. He knows it won’t be long before he has to face all the questions, all the problems, all the thorny difficulties that the leader of the Alliance must untangle. Having a tiny bit of extra time to just be is the gift Hilda is giving him.

Fort Merceus, the destruction, the deaths, where to go from here - Claude will need to decide all of it. But right now he’s so tired, emotionally and physically and mentally exhausted, Dimitri’s visit a balm and another thorny difficulty all in one. Though in this case Claude is doing it to himself.

“Maybe I’ll just start telling them to come to you for all their decisions,” Claude says, and Hilda makes a horrified face.

“I will abandon this army,” she says, and smacks Claude’s leg lightly. “I can’t believe you almost died and left this whole mess to me.”

“You mean, you can’t believe I almost died and left this whole mess for you to dump on Lorenz,” Claude says. He is expecting Hilda to smile, or even to laugh, and she does - but only for a moment before her eyes turn serious.

“I can’t believe you almost died,” she says, and this time she isn’t teasing.

“I’m alive,” Claude says, his voice gentler now. He has always tried so hard to survive, but mostly for his own sake. Over his life, there have been enough people that wanted him dead that survival felt like a protest, felt almost like a spiteful thing. See? You can’t kill me, no matter how many assassins you send. But now he thinks, he could have died. He could have left people behind who missed him.

Hilda. Marianne. All of his Golden Deer. Judith, even.

Dimitri.

It’s almost as if Hilda knows where his thoughts have traveled - and maybe she does. She plays harmless, but she’s about as observant as Claude, and she’s always been able to see through him the way so few others have.

“I really thought you were losing it, taking him in and letting him fight like that. He barely spoke to any of us, he was - like an animal, I guess. I didn’t think he cared about any of this, just killing.” Hilda looks at him, not smiling. “But he saved you.”

Claude can’t quite look at her. He’s afraid that she’s seeing too much, and so he looks at his hands instead, and only belatedly realizes that’s a tactical error. Now she’ll definitely know something’s up. He’s too tired to beat Hilda at this game right now.

“He’d probably agree with you, you know. He doesn’t think much of himself. But Dimitri isn’t a monster, he’s just - lost.” Claude meets her eyes. There’s no point in dissembling. “He’s still a good man, underneath all of that. He’ll make a good king.”

Hilda sighs. “Oh, Claude.” She doesn’t seem surprised by Claude’s admission that he intends to give the throne to Dimitri. “Him?

“He was raised to be a king -”

“Not that,” Hilda cuts him off, and she crosses her arms, looking down at him in the healers’ bed with something that seems like resigned amusement. “You. And Dimitri.”

Claude realizes immediately what she’s saying, and he wants to protest, except - well. She would see through him. She already has.

“You know there are attractive people out there who you didn’t lock in jail cells, right? Who have probably bathed more than once in the past five years? Who don’t growl and snarl like they’d be happy to bite you in half?” Hilda is judging him. Luckily, Claude is used to it.

“Yeah,” he says with a grin. “But I like this one.”

Hilda laughs, and he has to laugh too, because he knows it’s ridiculous, he knows it’s foolish of him, but while Claude may be intelligent and capable of commanding armies, he seems to run into trouble when it comes to command over his own heart.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “I don’t think he’s even considered the possibility, and I won’t let it become a problem.”

“I’ll worry if I want to,” Hilda says, and she pats his leg. “This time I’m worried about your terrible taste.”

“That’s fair,” Claude says, and then he hears voices outside the tent. Familiar ones - some of the Alliance nobles. Goddess, he’s too tired for this.

Hilda reads it on his face, and she stands. “Get some rest, I’ll run interference. They don’t actually need you right now, they just need someone to listen to them complain.” She rolls her eyes. “You better remember I’m doing this for you, Claude. You’re gonna owe me big.”

“I already do,” Claude says, and she grins at him before leaving. He watches Hilda disappear through the tent flap, and he lets his weary eyes close, and he tries not to think about anything except sleep.

Eventually, it works.

Chapter Text

Claude is still recovering.

They've delayed their departure back to Garreg Mach due to the various injuries sustained at Fort Merceus, something that is both a blessing and a curse. The men need time to recover, Claude needs time to recover, but every day that they stay here is another day that they delay moving on Enbarr.

It's close now. So close he can feel it in an electric hum through his teeth, a whisper in the back of his mind that starts at night and grows louder, louder. The waiting would be unbearable except that there are things that must be done around camp and to be quite honest, Dimitri himself hasn't made a full recovery yet either. But still, if the armies could leave tonight, he would go, and the knowledge that they aren’t makes him tense and irritable. It's so close, close enough to almost touch it... and yet, still out of his grasp. He knows that Claude is sympathetic but he also knows that Claude is trying to run the Alliance from a hospital bed and that his sympathies only extend far enough for him to beg for more patience.

Dimitri is through with patience. Edelgard is waiting for him at Enbarr.

But they don't go, not yet, and so eventually Dimitri swallows his desire for isolation and starts to help. The wreckage of the fort needs to be scavenged through, bodies - starting to decompose now in the warm southern sun - need to be set into the mass grave, weapons need to be cataloged, losses need to be counted up and detailed in reports. He can't help with all of it, but when he can lend a hand and be generally unnoticed in doing so, he does.

Claude is out of bed late into the second day and Dimitri is there for it. Of course he's there for it - what time he hasn't spent sulking alone or sneaking in help where he can, he's been lurking along the edge of the hospital tent, ensuring Claude's safety, his recovery, and... well, just talking to him. Claude is the only person he really talks to around here.

So, when Claude gets up on shaky legs like a newborn foal, Dimitri is there. He doesn't offer an arm to him, not unless Claude asks for it, but he's there nevertheless, watching as his friend takes the first few steps since the Alliance’s attack.

“The men are making preparations to move out,” he reports, though surely Claude has people giving him updates every moment of the day. Dimitri just likes talking to him about this sort of thing. It makes him feel useful and Claude always seems to have an interesting perspective on matters.

“The wreckage of the fort is thorough. There’s nothing left for us here but to move on.”

Claude seems uneasy, but he doesn’t reach for Dimitri’s arm. Whether it’s pride or his own concern at looking weak to his potential enemies, Dimitri doesn’t know, but he seems unsteady enough that Dimitri still stays close by.

“You're not wrong,” Claude says with a sigh, “I was hoping there would be something to find from the wreckage, but…”

But there’s nothing, Dimitri knows. No surviving prisoners to interrogate, no secrets in the catacombs, no letters or books that they might have been able to pilfer. Not even any evidence of what kind of weapon had been used to cause such destruction. Of course Claude would hope that there’d be some kind of information, anything he could use - but with a weary inevitability, they must admit that the beams of light had eliminated anything that they may have learned from their victory.

Sensing the end of this disappointing conversation, Claude says, “Anyway, I'm not up for much more than a short walk. Will you come to the stables with me?”

Dimitri isn’t surprised at the request. Of course Claude would want to check on his wyvern after seeming so concerned for it during their earlier conversation. Without thinking, he extends an arm to help Claude make the trip, but the other man shakes his head.

“No. I’ll be fine.” But he doesn’t sound entirely sincere. Claude’s brow furrows, and he rectifies a moment later: “Just... don’t wander too far.”

But he makes his way out of the tent regardless, blinking in the brightness of the sun. And with that, the two of them walk to the stables. They go slow so that Claude can be sure of each step, but true to his word, Claude doesn’t ask Dimitri for support. Instead, he seems to make each step deliberate, looking around as if he is trying to give the impression of surveying the camp instead of carefully ensuring the surety of his step.

On the way to the stables, Dimitri doesn’t speak or try to drum up a conversation, which seems to not sit well with Claude, so after a few moments, he asks, “I know it's only been a few days, but have you heard from any of your men?”

The question makes Dimitri frown, glancing away.

“I haven't.”

Still, it's almost too early to expect anything. They're on the opposite side of Fódlan from his Kingdom, and even if they've gotten word by now (unlikely, but not impossible) and even if they've mobilized and sent word ahead (even more unlikely) he doubts that a message would have made it in this narrow amount of time, at least not one that would have been sent without the utmost urgency. Dimitri suspects that they'll hear something within the week, but he's not disappointed to have not heard anything yet.

He's not sure if he'd be disappointed if he never hears anything, truly. He hadn't treated his former companions well in the short time he'd known them again and the idea of all of them rejoining once more, looking to him for leadership, expecting him to take direction... it's exhausting just to think about.

Despite himself, Dimitri thinks about the prison cell. About how things were simpler then, and about how strange and foolish he is for thinking of it in such terms. These past few weeks with Claude have been good for him, he doesn't need an onlooker to tell him that, and part of him is at loathe to accept more responsibilities that take him away from this... whatever he's been doing.

A large part of him doesn't think that he's earned it. He hadn't earned it last time and he's done nothing since to deserve his countrymen's devotion. The kind of guilt that they give him just by asking for commands is... hard.

It's not a matter of whether he's ready for it, though, he knows that. He has to be ready. The circumstances give him no other choice.

“If they were to come to our aid, they would leave the Eastern lands open for the Imperialist dogs to press in. Then the entire Kingdom would be hers." Dimitri spits it out, feeling the familiar, comforting rage spark and then fade. They're close. They're so close. “We cannot expect a large number, if we expect anything at all.”

“Anything will help.”

Claude murmurs in that inscrutable way of his. They turn into the stables, large and varied given the different mounts of the army. Past the horses, before the pegasi - Claude slows down even more, approaching the white wyvern. It's sleeping, or it seems to be, but when it catches his scent it raises its head.

It's hard to read the emotions of a creature like a wyvern, but it lets out a low, whining rumble, and leans out of its enclosure to press its head close to Claude and huff, breathing in his scent. It eyes Dimitri with a little more wariness, but it's more than clear that it is glad to see Claude.

“Hey, there you are,” Claude says, speaking to it softly, like a beloved pet, resting his hand on its snout. “I'm so glad you're all right. Come meet my friend - Dimitri, this is Hyacinth. Hyacinth, Dimitri.”

Claude has named this beast after a flower. Dimitri frowns.

He has had horses in his life - several, in fact, some of whom were his own personal steeds - but he'd never grown attached to them. Horses were smart and loyal, but not so much as another human, and others had mostly taken care of them so Dimitri had never come to see them as a pet or companion.

Wyverns are... different, in a sense. Dimitri has always thought them smarter than they were given credit for and fiercer than any other kind of mount. They cut an imposing figure in the sky and Dimitri thinks that if he were someone else with some sort of other training, then he'd have liked to know what it was like to have one at his command.

But he isn't and he understands that. Still, Claude's familiarity with Hyacinth makes him think about what it might be like.

He doesn't react at first to the introduction, warily watching Claude pat at the creature's snout. He'd stopped riding horses after the one he'd used to escape from Faerghus had bolted from him, and in the back of his mind something whispers that the animals can smell the blood and rot from him and are skittish because of it.

“He isn't injured?” He asks carefully, keeping himself a few paces away.

The wyvern definitely doesn’t seem skittish. Maybe it's the fact that he is a large predator - even if he recognizes Dimitri as one also, he'd see him as competition rather than a threat. The creature doesn't seem to be paying much attention to Dimitri anyway and focuses on Claude instead, but now and then his narrowed eyes will flicker to the man standing near his master. Keeping an eye on him.

Claude looks Hyacinth over, getting as close as he can without climbing into the enclosure. Even if he manages to fall in somehow, Dimitri doubts he’d be able to get out again.

“His wing's been healed,” Claude explains, “he'll have to keep off it for a few weeks - he'll probably be grouchy, he hates getting grounded. But I think he'll be ready for our next battle.”

Dimitri nods in response. Good. It will be their most important one yet, and to have Claude unmounted or even on a wyvern he knows less well would be a detriment. He's a capable enough rider that it would have been mostly fine, but it’s it's entirely possible that the battle will rest on such small things.

Claude seems to realize that Dimitri is keeping his distance, and he sizes up the two of them - man and wyvern.

“You can come closer. He won't bite.”

Dimitri eyes Claude for a moment as if trying to guess just how confident he is that the wyvern will stay calm - it would be a sorry moment if he were to have a hand mangled before they march - but after a few seconds he nods, slowly tugging at the fingers of his glove on his right hand, never breaking eye contact with the beast.

When the glove is off he takes a cautious step forward, his hand partially raised for Hyacinth to inspect and perhaps to sniff at, if he's so inclined. Dimitri holds it there, still and quiet, his eye never leaving the creature before him.

“You remember me,” he murmurs toward the wyvern, though it's not likely to be a pleasant memory: Dimitri showing up at a time of pain, hauling its master up and carrying him off to leave the beast for dead. He considers that too late and frowns slightly at the thought. When he speaks next, it's addressing Claude.

“He fought well back there. A lesser beast would have been easily killed.”

The wyvern deigns to stretch its neck and sniff at Dimitri's fingers, after a moment. It still eyes him as if it doesn't trust him, but it doesn't make and move to snap at him. Claude places one hand on Hyacinth's neck, pleased.

“He's fierce. He had to be, to survive on his own.”

Claude watches the two of them as Hyacinth takes a breath and huffs it over Dimitri - harmless, only enough to blow his hair back, but wyvern breath is not at all pleasant. It's about the least dangerous type of disapproval the wyvern could show, so that's… something.

“Hey, now. I said this is my friend, right? Be nice.” Claude chastises, before looking at Dimitri, apologetic. “Next time I'll bring some treats for you to give him.”

Dimitri's nose wrinkles and he finally looks away, slightly repulsed at the stench. He doesn't meet Claude's eyes, instead drawing his hand back in a moment of... well, he's not sure if it's frustration that he'd been refused or the letdown of being right about these types of creatures not liking him, but whatever it is, he's not going to push the issue.

“Unnecessary.”

He doesn't need to be friends with Claude's wyvern, just like he doesn't need to be friends with any of the other Golden Deer or anyone else in Claude's army, for that matter. Dimitri busies himself with putting his glove back on, every bit as petulant as the creature before him. They could almost be mirrors of one another, but Dimitri doesn't seem to notice.

“That's enough. I'll-”

“-my lord, your highness!”

The sudden shrill noise has Dimitri looking upward sharply, turning to see the threat fully with his good eye. It's a woman - a short one at that - dressed in the light riding leathers that a pegasus knight might take, wearing no discernible colors, but with a bag at her hip that she digs through as she approaches.

She brandishes a letter finally, and Dimitri glances away, taking a step back so that Claude can deal with whatever business she brings him. Instead, she offers the Alliance leader a short bow on her way straight to Dimitri's side, where she bows again, deeper this time, with seemingly far more respect, and presents him with a piece of parchment, sealed with the unmistakable Fraldarius crest.

“I am from the Galatea Pegasus Company,” she starts, breathless as if she's been running, “Here at the behest of Duke Fraldarius.”

She waits for a reaction or for him to even take the letter but he doesn't, not quite yet. The woman doesn't look up quite yet from her bowed position, or she might see Dimitri staring down at her in a mixture of surprise and... well, and something else.

It takes him a long while to react to this unexpected messenger. With her small size and lean build, he wouldn't be surprised if she was the fastest in the entire fleet. She'd have had to be, to travel so far in such a short amount of time.

Finally, he takes the parchment - reluctant, uneasy, but he has little other choice. Dimitri glances toward Claude over her head and has the sudden feeling that whatever is in that letter will mean the end of this time that they share together.

“It seems you were right to expect word so soon.”

Claude watches this scene silently, polite as ever when she moves past him, but thoughtful. Dimitri doesn’t want to know what might be going through his mind save for perhaps the satisfaction of being correct about getting word so early.

“It's a bit of a surprise, I must admit,” he says to Dimitri’s hesitation, before gesturing towards the letter. “You ought to open it.”

He smiles then and Dimitri doesn’t have the stamina to try and decipher what that particular smile might mean for him.

“...yes.”

The woman straightens and stares at the ground, present until dismissed, while Dimitri breaks the seal with a gloved hand and slowly unfolds the letter. He scans over the contents first, his lips pressed in a thin line but his face otherwise unreadable as he goes back over it a second and then a third time.

Whatever news is inside has an odd effect on him. Dimitri straightens his back slightly, taking in a deep breath and setting his shoulders back. Just the slight shift in posture makes him look... more regal, more like the prince he'd been five years ago and less like the beast that found itself locked in Claude's prison cell earlier this month.

When he finally speaks, his voice is soft.

“...they're abandoning the Kingdom.”

They hadn't wanted to before, even when Dimitri had demanded all available men leave Faerghus to march to Enbarr. They're your people, they'd told him, but he hadn't listened then and he'd taken everything they'd been willing to give and then dashed it onto the rocks at Gronder Field. Why would they do such a thing now?

“The Duke and Margrave are surrendering their territories and riding South. All loyalist forces are…” His brows furrow, but his voice is incredulous and soft. “They're going to Garreg Mach.”

He scans the words again, as if there's some hidden message that he should be uncovering, something that he’s missing. The words Death Knight, Alliance, proud of you - they all jump out at him but none of them seem to make much sense to him anymore. He feels suddenly, like he's on the precipice of a cliffside where even the softest brush of wind could send him spiraling down into the depths.

The Kingdom is Imperial territory now, is what this letter means. He has men - thousands of men - traveling to fight and die at his side. He's murdered countless others, women, children, his hands are stained red and he's failed so many people and...

He takes a breath, and then another, too fast. He never thought himself one for anxiety but his thoughts are racing now with the ramifications of Rodrigue's words and the responsibility that suddenly weighs on his shoulders, heavier than anything he's ever had to carry. They must win - if there was no choice before, there's even less of one now, with an entire nation hanging in the balance of everything he does.

Claude, to his credit, listens to Dimitri’s words silently, but the smile has faded from his face in favor of an expression that is far more calculating. With Dimitri indisposed, Claude has the presence of mind to turn to the messenger with a nod.

“Go, and find food and take your rest. You are welcome here.” His words are a kind but firm dismissal. Dimitri barely notices as she takes her leave.

He's thinking about the letter and all that it entails and what they're both going to have to do from now on. Rodrigue had correctly assumed that Dimitri's alliance with Claude was a mutual one, presumably leaning back on the older man's desire to ally with him back at Gronder, a desire that Dimitri had ignored in his bloodlust. With that assumption, the Duke has sent troops to Garreg Mach to bolster Dimitri's forces and to help Claude... and, Dimitri supposes bitterly, if Claude had been holding him hostage, then the Kingdom troops would be utilized to break Dimitri free of whatever chains the Alliance leader kept him in.

It works out neatly that way, ties up loose ends and prevents them from losing more men just from digging their heels in while the Empire lays waste to the Kingdom. If he's thinking things through, it's a tactical move and one that only hinges around him due to his status as a figurehead.

Goddess, it always comes down to bloodlines, doesn't it? If he were a peasant, nobody would raise armies for him. Nobody would expect him to lead, nobody would take him captive instead of simply killing him. Dimitri feels very suddenly, and not for the first time, as if he has been thrust into a life that he will never be able to deserve, no matter how hard he works and how much he does. Maybe - maybe there was a chance for the boy he was to have earned this kind of loyalty, but now…

There’s a hand on his arm suddenly, a warmth that draws him out of his thoughts and back into the present. Bright green eyes watching him.

“Look at me.” Claude's voice is quiet but sincere, as if he’s already thought of this and rehearsed what he wanted to say. He carries the weight of leadership as well and he knows, he must know how it weighs on him. ”They believe that this is the best chance they have - that you are the best choice they have. And I agree with them. You are a king, Dimitri. You always have been.”

Dimitri doesn’t respond for a moment. His eye is dull, gazing faraway, but the contact of Claude touching him has been unexpected enough that it, coupled with the gentle demand of attention, manages to pull him back to the present, lifting his chin to look directly at Claude's insistent expression.

“...I don't deserve this.” His voice is soft and thin - trusting, like his vulnerability is a very fragile gift he's offering to the other man and one slight misstep will break it.

It might be easier to see it Claude's way: that Dimitri is the best card that Rodrigue can play from a bad hand. In killing the Death Knight, he's become something of a topic of conversation around the camp and he'd be a fool to ignore how people are beginning to look at him differently. What was once revulsion and apprehension seems to now blend into respect and maybe an odd degree of admiration. He doesn't deserve that either.

Dimitri takes in a ragged breath and looks away, his eye sinking shut.

“I never asked for it.”

Claude reaches up, presses his fingers to Dimitri's jaw, turning his face to look at Claude again. It’s a sure movement, unlike the more hesitant touches of the past, and Dimitri doesn’t resist it - why would he?

He's forced to look back at Claude and so he chokes down the rest of his emotions and does, trying to school a look on his face that's less open, so he can look at the other man without breaking down.

“None of us asked for it. We were born into this and given this responsibility we may not deserve. But since we haven't yet changed the world, it's what we have to live with. We have to do the best we can.”

For a long moment, Claude is silent, considering - but when he speaks again, he takes a deep breath, his voice lighter, giving more away than he might mean to.

“You were always told you deserved this, right? You were born to this. I was born to this, too, but I always knew no one thought I deserved it. But that's what other people thought of us. That's their biases, their blind spots. It doesn't matter whether either of us deserves it. This power is something that we have, something that was given to us. And because we have it, we end up having to use it.”

Claude smiles, and if it's not quite genuine, it’s close enough to it that Dimitri has to believe in his optimism, if nothing else.

“We can't change that. But I know you, Dimitri. They're not wrong to believe in you.”

For so long, Dimitri has felt nothing but rage - rage, built on a foundation of immense guilt, as deep and vast as an ocean inside of him. He's drowned himself in it until it collected in his lungs, reminding him with every breath what he's done, who he's let die, what's he's allowed to be taken. It's a poison as potent as any of the small things that Claude used to cook up and it's been eating him from the inside out for nine years until he's hollow and vast and so, so empty.

In that moment, Dimitri wishes that the two of them could have traded births. That Claude could have been the one born into a monarchy here, that he could have taken the reins of power and used them thoughtfully, carefully, and without feeling this way. Claude deserves this more than him, he's better at this than him, and the fact that he's had detractors and people in his life telling him otherwise makes Dimitri's blood boil in an entirely new way. Claude wouldn't have given into the emptiness like this, he thinks, Claude wouldn't have become a beast.

It doesn't occur to him in the moment how much of an admission that had been for Claude, that this is the most he's learned about his struggles in the entire time he's known him. All he feels is an aching dread, a crushing burden, and Claude's warm fingers pressed against his cheek as his only lifeline.

Dimitri slides forward then, slipping his arms underneath Claude's own and embracing him. It's an action that he doesn't think much about, he just does it because he needs the comfort, and Claude is warm and sturdy and has already given him so much but Dimitri makes him give even more with a face buried in his shoulder, his breath hot and hitching faintly against Claude's throat.

Claude freezes for a moment in an uncharacteristic pause that signifies that whatever Dimitri has done has thrown him off balance. And for someone like Claude, who makes it a point to never be thrown off balance, this feels… significant.

Dimitri knows he's overstepped as soon as it happens - he doesn't know how badly, but he knows that it wasn't expected and that he probably should have given some kind of warning. But what would have sufficed? Any hesitation and he wouldn't have done it at all, he'd have pulled back and forced out some sort of gruff response and tried to piece together how to lead an army on his own.

Still, when the moment is passed, Claude moves to wrap his arms around Dimitri, holding on to him, one hand on his back and the other tangled into his hair. He murmurs something nonsensical, something like it will be all right or you can do this. He doesn't let go.

What's done is done, and Claude is returning the embrace at least. It's stiff, but it's not like Dimitri is complaining, being the one who threw himself into him in the first place. Claude isn't shoving him off and the fingers in his hair feel... nice, being close enough to hear Claude whispering in his ear feels nice. It's been ages since he's been this close to someone. Probably Rodrigue, before the Academy but he'd dismissed it then, having been already on his path to uncovering the truth about the Tragedy.

But all things must come to an end and he doesn't want to overstay his welcome in Claude's arms, so Dimitri pulls back after a few fraught moments, feeling... rather awkward, if he's being honest. He avoids eye contact, taking a step away and flushing faintly as if only just now realizing what he's done and how weak he'd looked.

“...apologies. I shouldn't have -”

Well, they both know what he did. Dimitri takes in a deep breath and stares toward Claude's wyvern, a silent witness to this whole affair, and fights back a small wave of jealousy at the beast for not needing to be in this position.

In the end though, he pulls himself together as well as he can. He wants to be a peasant instead of a prince. He wants to ride to Enbarr and clear his mind of everything except his desire for Edelgard's head.

He wants to be Claude’s prisoner again.

“You've been a good friend to me,” he finally says, finding his resolve and clinging to it like a man lost at sea, “I haven't earned your generosity, but one day I hope to repay you.”

Claude smiles, letting Dimitri break the hug without any protest.

“I'm not doing this to be repaid," Claude says, reaching out to catch hold of Dimitri's upper arm this time - or rather, the shirt that he's wearing. His tone is simple, matter-of-fact. “I'm doing this because I believe in you. Even if you doubt everything, remember that. It doesn't matter what people think of us - whether they put us on pedestals or grind us into the dirt. We make our own futures.”

Claude lets go of Dimitri's arm, but keeps looking at him, steady.

“And I will always be your friend.”

We make our own futures, and for a fleeting and vulnerable moment, Dimitri believes him. He believes that this is the way Claude would rule, with a dismissal of those who would criticize him and an iron heart to forge ahead in the path he believes to be true. It's a sentiment that Dimitri is both envious of and afraid of at the same time - he sees the danger in it, but also the possibility of living without being fettered by chains, and the promise of freedom is almost enough to make him want to cast them aside and join Claude in his way of thinking.

He can't, in the end. Maybe that's why Claude is the better leader.

Dimitri's mouth feels dry. The promises that. Claude is making him echo something familiar in the back of his mind, playful promises shared as a child and whispered between himself and his childhood friends - friends who he'd lost, who he'd forced into a battle they didn't want to fight in, and then abandoned. Friends who, even now, ride for Garreg Mach to support him.

He'll never in his life be able to repay that kind of debt. He'll never be able to deserve these promises that Sylvain made, that Ingrid and Felix made, that Claude is making now. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he thinks that maybe it's not about deserving, but about a bond, freely given and expecting nothing in return.

He hears that thought in Claude's voice.

“I would fight,” he starts, breathless for some reason he can't quite place, eager to make promises when he feels this much, “a hundred Death Knights for you. Were I born a noble in the Alliance, I would let nothing keep me from your side.”

He doesn't reach out to touch Claude in turn, though part of him wants to, as if he could somehow convey the immensity of the gift he'd been given with a mere brush of his fingers. He isn't in Claude's service, he never can be. That he should be so close and yet so distant from this man before him fills him with a different kind of grief - mourning, perhaps, a lifetime that he could never have.

Again, Claude seems caught off guard. Again, his smile seems to fracture, but he keeps the expression as best he can and again, Dimitri thinks that he’s overstepped. He can't take it back now though, and so he continues:

“...but I'm going to lead them.” He says it quietly, as if he's only just figuring it out for himself. “I have no other choice.”

In the end, Claude doesn’t admonish him for his promises of loyalty. He simply takes a breath and composes himself, before slipping his smile back on, to where it would take someone who knows him as well as Dimitri does now to see through it.

“No one has ever said anything like that to me before.”

From any other person, he would assume that it was a lie. From Claude, it would have seemed like a lie, had he not said it so quietly and with his weak little smile. It makes Dimitri take a moment outside of himself, losing focus on the leadership role he needs to take and thinking instead on the life that Claude must have lived, to have no one pledge loyalty to him - to have nobody believe in him.

What a lonely life it must have been, he thinks, and he's angry suddenly, at the thought of a small dark-haired boy with nobody beside him, truly beside him. Claude deserves so much more than that, just from what he's done for Dimitri already. He deserves more than anything Dimitri could give him, but in that moment Dimitri decides that he'd give him anything.

“I'll say it to you again.” It's soft, reverent. Dimitri would go on a knee for him if he thought that it might make a difference, but he suspects that Claude would just laugh it off.

But, more to the point, he tries to refocus on the task at hand and what they both must do. Dimitri takes a moment to himself, centering and realigning on the present. Claude believes in him and will help him and although Dimitri is still hellbent on marching on Enbarr, a rising part of him feels as if he cannot disappoint his ally, even if it means taking up the mantle of leadership once more.

When he looks to Claude again, it's with a newer resolve. He will try.

“I'll send word back to confirm with an estimate of our departure. They'll arrive at Garreg Mach before we will, so I will demand that they make camp outside of the monastery in the interim, so that we may be present for the mediation of our armies.”

“I should be well enough to ride within a day or two,” Claude says with a nod that Dimitri can't read. The projection seems optimistic, but Dimitri isn't going to argue with moving out sooner than he thinks is probable. “We can leave as soon as that, and perhaps even ahead of the rest of the army. I'd like to meet with your commanders, communicate our plan to them. We can do this.”

Dimitri nods, looking back toward the main camp, as if to assess how soon all of them could move out. A day or two does seem optimistic, but he seems determined to see it done and he's not the type to take no for an answer after he's been promised something. They'll get back to Garreg Mach, he'll face his allies once more and try to do better by them, and then-

then.

“We will.”

He won't leave it to Claude alone, Dimitri is determined to do this together. Then, take back Fhirdiad and the rest of the kingdom, then... then, he doesn't know, but Dimitri is keenly aware that Claude will likely have an answer for him. Dimitri still doesn't think too far past killing Edelgard and what that will bring to him, but he knows that it won't be the end of him, if all goes well.

In a month's time, he'll have her head or she'll have his. Either way, it will be over.

In the meantime, Dimitri turns back toward Claude, suddenly remembering his injuries now that Claude has insisted that he could ride in a day or two. They probably should have gone back by now, but with the letter and the conversation that had ensued, time had gotten away from him and now he feels a spike of concern and a small bit of guilt for keeping him so long.

“We should head back to the tent. I'm sure you're exhausted.”

Claude doesn’t look great, if he’s being honest. What time they’ve spent out here has seen him to be flagging, leaning against the gate of the enclosure, looking paler, more exhausted. Dimitri is sure that his sudden embrace likely hadn’t helped matters.

At the very least, Claude doesn’t seem to protest and instead nods, grimacing in a self-deprecating manner.

“Ah... yeah, I guess I'm not doing so great,” he says, at least trying to remain cheerful despite everything, “would you mind helping me back? You don't need to do it the whole way. Just - let me lean on you a little. I hate being an invalid.”

The last part is murmured more to himself than to Dimitri, who isn’t particularly surprised that Claude has apparently stayed out too long for his ailment.

Still, being asked for help isn't quite something he's expecting though he supposes it's not completely out of the pale. Claude has already shown that he doesn't give a damn about traditional conventions and definitely doesn't seem to share the ego of the squabbling nobles who surround him. It's all the same to Dimitri, who doesn't hesitate and instead moves forward to duck down and wrap an arm around the other man's waist so that Claude can in turn put an arm over his shoulder. It might be easier, he thinks, to carry him back but Claude certainly has some semblance of pride and people might talk.

Well, people are likely going to talk anyway but he doesn't care about them. Claude might, but Claude is better at diffusing this sort of thing than anyone Dimitri knows, and since he's the one who asked then he's clearly already calculated the risks.

“It's only for a few more days,” Dimitri murmurs. Reassurances shouldn't come that easy to him but they do, and as much as Dimitri would see this as a weakness on himself, when it's on Claude he only sees someone in need of assistance. He doesn't think on that too hard though, and instead begins the task of helping his friend back to the medical tent. “We can go slowly.”

Claude leans on Dimitri's shoulder and takes his time, making sure every step is placed with care.

“Thanks. I can't imagine what I'd do if you weren't here. Crawl back, I guess.” He laughs, as if it were a joke, but he's more than a little serious. “Once I've rested, I'll begin preparations for our return to Garreg Mach.”

And the next part is quiet, softer, solely for Dimitri - not that there's anyone else who could be listening.

“We're almost there, Dimitri. Just a little longer.”

Dimitri knows that it’s not the healer’s tent that he’s talking about.

He lets out a quick breath through his nose at the thought. He's known it, he's been practically bouncing on his heels, eager to be moving toward Enbarr with every step, every minute, every second - but it hasn't been acknowledged other than others telling him to be patient.

But now, Claude tells him we're almost there and he feels anticipation lance through his heart like a blade. The shock of it turns his fingers cold and they tighten slightly around Claude's waist just to make sure he still has any feeling in them at all. He feels incensed suddenly, a panther closing in on its prey, a shark that smells blood in the water.

Just a little longer.

“I know.”

The words feel like fire licking out of his mouth, low and almost growled out of him. It needs to be soon. It needs to be almost. He's waited nine years, he can't wait much more and he knows it and Claude knows it, how he wants to crawl out of his own skin with the desire of it.

Dimitri swallows hard, his throat fluttering, and he imagines, as he's imagined a hundred times before, stepping into her throne room and coming face to face with her. He wants it so badly he can barely breathe.

“They know it too.” It's a bit quieter, gritted through his teeth - an admission, but not one that makes him feel vulnerable, simply a statement of fact. He focuses another deep breath, works himself through it. “They're getting louder every day.”

The transformation from the broken, scared man a few moments before to.. well, to who Dimitri has become - a feral beast searching for vengeance - doesn’t seem to rattle Claude. At the very least, he’s likely used to Dimitri’s mood swings by now, especially when he’s the one to cause them.

The mention of the voices in his head doesn’t seem to rattle Claude much either. He’s used to them as well.

“They'll carry you through it.” Claude supposes. “We'll bring them peace. And you, your revenge.”

And Dimitri agrees, at least partially. He will bring them peace - he's the only one who can, the only one who will still hear them and so he has to. Maybe when this is all over, they'll stop haunting him. Maybe they'll finally rest easy. Or maybe they won't, and he'll have to live with it for the rest of his days.

Not too long ago, he would have figured that the rest of his days would last up until the moment he killed Edelgard. That when it was over, he'd stumble out of the throne room and surrender himself to all those who seek to kill him. He's not so sure about that now, not now that he knows he has to take back Fhirdiad and to lead his friends to reclaim their homeland that they'd abandoned to fight with him. Not when Claude -

Claude. He has to have some plan, but Dimitri doesn't know it. When he's thinking logically, he thinks about how Claude may want to take the Empire for the Alliance, swallow up Edelgard's territory in his own in a grab for power... and that's actually fine, Dimitri isn't helping him for power. He's not even helping him because it's the right thing to do by his people or his friends.

They both know the reason Dimitri is here. There's never been any doubt about that.

“...do you know what she did to me? To them?”

He asks it a little suddenly, his voice still a low snarl. Claude has been letting him follow his army all this time, has been encouraging him and helping him to take his revenge, but does he even know why? Of course, there was the attempted execution, the coup, that may very well be public knowledge, but beyond that... does Claude understand the weight that Edelgard had hung around his neck, or is he simply encouraging Dimitri like this because it's the right thing to do?

“Tell me.”

Claude’s voice is even but insistent. Will his reasons even change anything? Even if they were insignificant, Claude can’t back out now without risking the wrath of the Kingdom army - and Dimitri isn’t so foolish enough to think that Claude would change his mind at a few words anyway.

No, what Claude is doing goes beyond Dimitri’s motivation. Helping Dimitri, whether he believes in him or not, surely has something to do with whatever is up his own sleeve, but Dimitri has decided a long time ago that he doesn’t care what that is as long as their goals are aligned.

So maybe the reasons don't matter to Claude - maybe Dimitri should have kept this hidden for longer, pushed it down and kept on, but... he knows how irrational he can seem at times, he knows that Claude letting him join for his own reasons and that Claude likely doesn't care what Dimitri's feelings on the matter are, but the truth of it of it... the why is important to someone like Dimitri, who hates to kill but is so very good at it.

“...my father was beheaded in front of me,” he finally admits, taking care to keep his voice even, “when I was thirteen. My stepmother burned. The knights, Glenn... the last thing I heard in that blaze were their screams.”

Claude is obviously familiar with the Tragedy, he knows what happened, but still - to know of it and to hear it from someone who was there are different things entirely. Dimitri continues, his voice growing more and more incensed.

“I saw them - I didn't know them, but I saw them. I knew they weren't from Duscur and nobody listened to me, and my people committed a genocide -” Dimitri grits that word out from between his teeth with all the hatred in his heart as his voice turns low and shaky, “- against the wrong nation.

His grip on Claude's side is so tight it's likely painful now, but he doesn't relent, continues with all the rage, all the feral anger, all the loathsome guilt that has been following in his footsteps ever since. It was his fault. There's no other explanation.

“Dedue was the only one I could save. And now, even he - ”

Dimitri cuts himself off abruptly, unable to go down that path or he might lose focus. Edelgard. He needs to talk about her. This is why he's doing this, why any of this even matters.

“She allied herself with the ones responsible and she knew they'd done it. She didn't care. It was her own mother and she didn't care, and I…”

He feels like he can't breathe. It always gets like this when he thinks about the depth of Edelgard's betrayal. When Dimitri speaks again, his words are quiet, almost inaudible.”

“...I was her friend. Her… her stepbrother. I thought that I - but it didn’t matter.”

Dimitri goes silent then, unable to explain how it hurt him. How she hurt him, to destroy him in that perfect and insidious way that she had. How she’d sent Cornelia after him. How she’d taken everything.

Claude listens carefully without reacting, and when is seems like Dimitri is finally done, he is calm, reverent and careful with this very delicate, very dangerous thing that Dimitri has given him.

“You were thirteen.”

Claude ignores the too-tight grip of Dimitri's arm around his waist. He stops their progress, pulls away and lets Dimitri quickly reorganize them both so that he can look at Dimitri properly, even if Dimitri won’t quite meet his eyes.

“You were betrayed. It was no one's fault except those that betrayed you. And we will make her answer for her crimes. You will.”

Dimitri stares blankly at the ground and nods emptily and knows all the while that if Claude were in his shoes, he would feel the same guilt. He knows enough of Claude to know that the other man cares deeply and viscerally for others, even if he likes to pretend that he doesn't half the time, and Dimitri knows that if Claude was responsible for this - for what had happened to Duscur - he'd never forgive himself.

Like this, under Claude's gaze and with everything dredged up like a scab that Dimitri can't stop picking at, he feels very acutely as if he's going to cry. The emotion washes over him in a wave and he can feel the telltale signs of his throat closing up, his chest going tight - but he holds it back, clenching his jaw shut and taking in a deep, steadying breath.

“I will.”

It's the only thing that keeps him rooted to the ground. He will. He will.

“Because of you, I will.”

It's soft, but it's something he's known for awhile now. If Claude had left him, he would have died on Gronder Field, this much he knows. If Claude had had him killed, if Claude had let him go - the only reason he's alive right now is because Claude had the sense to take him captive and let him settle enough to talk to him in that silver-tongued way of his and to get under his skin.

He knows that, he's appreciative of it... and maybe Claude can take some form of pleasure in this, that he's helping to right this wrong. Maybe Claude can appreciate his goals now, instead of simply trying to see them through for his own reasons.

“And I'll be there,” Claude promises, “after.”

It reminds Dimitri that there is an after, that there will be Fhirdiad, and then - he doesn’t know. Then he’ll leave or he’ll die or any number of things will happen to him. Kingship has never seemed within his grasp, even now with Rodrigue guiding his army closer. He’s not that person anymore. He doesn’t think he ever can be.

Still, Claude looks off over the preparations of his army in the growing dusk. “It won’t be long now,” he says, soft, reassuring as he’s always been.

Dimitri nods once, barely a movement but an agreement all the same. It feels good to think about it in those terms and to take the fiery heat that his guilt and rage brings and to hold it inside of himself like a hot coal that sears his ribcage black. It feels good to breathe out the familiar heat and to know that it will keep burning until Edelgard is dead. It's what keeps him moving, and when he gives himself into it then he doesn't feel hollow or empty anymore, just driven.

He would be cruel like this - he would walk away and go to hunt, his fingers twitching with that old familiar urge to kill something until the beast inside of him is at last sated - but Claude is standing on unsteady legs before him and Claude has pulled him out of the fire enough times now that Dimitri is beginning to suspect that he likes the way the warmth of it sparks and crackles against him. As strong as Dimitri is and as weak as Claude is, the other man is an immovable object before him and he will not be so easily swayed by Dimitri's bouts of wrath and bloodlust.

The thought of that, that someone will still be here after everything, reaching out to him with an open palm and an impossible smile... it tethers him, binds him to Claude's fingers and goddess, he knows that he's setting himself up for failure, that should he let Claude die then nothing would stop Dimitri from bringing down the sky upon everyone in Fódlan, but he can't help the way he is brought to heel by the last person he would ever have suspected.

Or maybe it's not so much of a surprise that this impossible person, who simultaneously ignites and tempers the fires within him, can keep him like this: stoking the flames but keeping him grounded all the same, encouraging, promising, watching him with his unreadable expression and his deep green eyes.

Dimitri was born and raised to be a king, but for one traitorous moment he thinks that he would be happier as a kept animal, so long as Claude is the one at the other end of the leash.

The thought churns in his stomach and he's been silent for too long. Dimitri ducks his chin down, embarrassed almost, and moves to try to grab at Claude again and offer his support.

“...we need to get back.”

They came too close, he thinks, and he doesn't know where it leaves him. As a child, he'd liked to experiment with holding his hand out to a boiling teakettle, pressing his fingers as close as he could get without touching to feel the waves of heat and moisture radiating from its angry steel. He remembers playing with the danger of it, fascinated at how just a small centimeter of distance was all the difference in the world. He remembers pressing too close and burning his hand on it one fateful day, leaving red stinging welts that kept him from swordsmanship lessons for a week.

He remembers thinking that it was worth it, just to know how it felt to touch, just the once.

Chapter Text

A few weeks find them back at Garreg Mach once more: a place of safety, a place to plan and recover, a place to gather strength before their next attack.

Enbarr. Edelgard. It's so close now, only a couple of weeks away. Claude has been talking to the nobles of the Alliance, planning with the commanders, waiting for the last of Dimitri's forces to arrive. Then they'll be ready - then there will be nothing left to do but march on the Empire's capital.

For Dimitri, Claude knows, it has been a stressful couple of days. At one point, he was eager to return to Garreg Mach so that preparations for marching on Enbarr could be made more quickly and he could meet Edelgard all the sooner, but as their travels put them closer and closer to the monastery, Claude could see Dimitri dragging his feet, often lost in thought and with a look in his eyes as if he were dreading something.

Claude had urged him on - of course he had - with promises of how he would support Dimitri, how Dimitri would make a good leader, how this was achievable, and he tried to ensure that Dimitri never lost sight of the true goal, the march to Enbarr and all it entailed.

In the end, of course, Dimitri had faced his friends again. He'd been gruff, impatient, but under Claude's watchful eye, he'd been... tolerable. Annette had barreled into him for an embrace and everyone in the room went quiet, watching warily as Dimitri slowly and stiffly returned the gesture. So far, so good.

Since then, it's been a whirlwind of progress. While Claude coordinates the Alliance forces, Dimitri takes on his leadership role and attends the councils of the Kingdom forces, supervising their training, helping them in organizing his troops and managing for the distribution of supplies. He works tirelessly but in the angry animal way of his, still difficult to approach, still snarling at those who speak out against him, but... well, it's progress.

What's more, the people of Faerghus seem used to it and while it may have sent someone else recoiling on their heels, those who came to Garreg Mach - particularly those in Dimitri's inner circle - have barely even flinched. Mercedes makes him tea when he's too stressed, Annette brings extra pencils and paper and maps to their meetings so that she can give them to him if he forgets, and Sylvain says nothing when Dimitri barks at him to change his stance in training, simply does it and excels.

It seems to be working somehow, this partnership of Dimitri and Claude's, and while it’s likely that everyone from the Blue Lions can see a noticeable change in Dimitri since they'd last seen him at Gronder Field, nobody seems to want to be the first to comment on it, perhaps for fear that the progress will be undone if they call attention to it.

For his part, Claude is almost entirely recovered. He's drunk far too many unpleasant potions, been confined to a bed far too long. He pushed himself at first, wanting to be back in time to greet the first of Dimitri's forces that arrived at the monastery. He'd done more than he should have, and because of that he'd spent the first couple of days back in bed. But it's been some time since then and Claude has been able to actually rest. It's odd, but there's never been a place that felt more comfortable than Garreg Mach to him.

Before they came back, before Dimitri's friends arrived and Claude was caught up in the business of running the Alliance forces, Dimitri suggested that they train together. And it's true, Claude could probably use some practice when it comes to close combat. He's an excellent archer, and a skilled wyvern rider, but on the ground? He has some mild skill with an axe, and nothing more. Dimitri is far more accomplished at that.

So it's a combination of things, really. Claude wants to learn because it will be useful to know. He wants to get away from the constantly squabbling Alliance nobles, who come to him for decisions even when he isn't needed… and he wants to steal a tiny bit of Dimitri's time for himself.

It's a selfish impulse. Now that Dimitri's loyalists have arrived - his friends - he has responsibilities and demands on his time. Friends to talk to. People he once cared for deeply and probably still does, somewhere deep under that snarling exterior. He doesn't have as much time to waste on Claude, and that's fine, it should be fine, except Claude misses it. He misses those moments when Dimitri lurked outside the healers' tent, or before that when Dimitri practically shadowed him around the monastery. They still see each other, of course, and he still gets some of Dimitri's time - his attention - but selfishly, Claude wants a little more.

And so he asked that they meet on the training grounds and pleasantly requested that the monks keep others away. For many reasons, Claude doesn't want to be interrupted.

He's checking the weapon he chose, a training axe, but he looks up when Dimitri arrives and he smiles. The closest thing to a genuine smile in awhile.

“There you are.”

While Dimitri doesn’t return Claude’s smile, he seems more at ease than usual and nods in response. Perhaps he, too, has missed the quieter moments they were able to have together before.

Dimitri is wearing simple leathers to avoid being weighed down too much, his hair pulled messily back to keep from getting in his face while he fights. He lingers over the weapon rack before taking up a training sword - the most common weapon one might run into on the battlefield and the one Claude is most likely to fight against.

“I'll not go easy on you just because of our friendship,” he says. It's a warning, but a lighthearted one. Dimitri swings the wooden blade experimentally, checking the balance and weight of it before nodding in his approval.”What do you want to work on? I know that with axes, the problem tends to be the reach. Closing the distance against a longer weapon requires speed and nimble footwork - or an excess of armor.”

It's not as if Claude had forgotten how handsome Dimitri is. Even back in that cell, bloody and unwashed and snarling, it was still easy to see that he was an attractive man. And now - cleaned up, relatively put together, and in the closest thing to a good mood Claude's seen on him - it would be impossible for anyone to ignore, let alone someone like Claude, who's already found himself paying more attention that he should.

So he lets himself look for a moment, with a sense of resigned amusement. Yes, Dimitri is handsome. Yes, he looks particularly attractive right now. Yes, you still have to train with him and get close to him and keep your hands and your eyes completely to yourself. You brought this upon yourself, Claude von Riegan, and now you're going to have to live with it.

Claude accepts that, and then he tries to push it all away. “I've got speed, and my footwork shouldn't be a problem. I think it comes down to practice, really.”

It's rare that Claude's ever off his wyvern in a battle these days. Last time, he didn't even bring a melee weapon along, which was an obvious miscalculation that he should not have fallen prey to. Though it wouldn't have helped much - like his extra bow, it would have been attached to Hyacinth's saddle, and therefore out of reach when he fell. Still, these are all things he can take into account, just in case it happens again.

“I trained with an axe a bit, back in school, but I've had no reason to improve my skills,” he says. Claude isn't embarrassed to admit it. He's had quite a lot on his plate, after all, and he thinks Dimitri knows that stealing this bit of time just to practice something that he might not need is actually quite self-indulgent. “I suppose I'd better focus on the best way to disarm someone with a longer weapon.”

“Alright,” Dimitri says, and he thinks for a moment. Claude doesn’t think he’s had quite as much training with an axe as someone like Hilda, but honestly, it's less that Claude needs pointers on what to do and more that he simply needs to practice what he already knows against an experienced opponent. Dimitri seems to come to the same conclusion and squares off against him, straight-backed and sure of himself as he spins the blade experimentally in his hand. “Most of the Imperial soldiers are going to come at you straight on. Their form is weaker, but they make up for it in strength and the armor they wear.”

Dimitri imitates the soldiers they have both faced, sliding his foot back and holding the wooden blade in front of him with one hand, his other free to balance himself for any sudden movements.

“Disarming seems to be an easier task with an axe - if you can get the crook of your blade around mine, you can just twist and the force will knock it from my hands.”

Dimitri moves then, coming in for an attack - a mockingly slow swing so that Claude can start to get reacquainted with the proper motions he needs to make. Claude thinks perhaps Dimitri is going easy on him.

He thinks first of what he would normally do if being advanced upon by Imperial soldiers. Urge his wyvern into the air and strike from above, drawing his bow before any of them can get too close, dodging their return attacks. But if he has no wyvern, if they've already gotten close enough that his bow is less effective...

Well, then he'll have to get creative. But in order for anything creative to work, he needs to have the fundamentals down, embedded deep enough that he doesn't have to think about how they should be done.

The axe's weight is familiar in his hand, a long-ago familiarity. That makes it easier, and with Dimitri's slow movement, it doesn't take much for Claude to bring his axe to the proper angle. From this stance, he can parry the blow as well as catch the blade. He uses the momentum of his body to turn, catching the sword and pulling it out of Dimitri's hands.

That's familiar, too. He learned this once and never used it. He needs to practice, he probably needs to get a few bruises before he'll remember and be able to do it at the necessary speed for real battle. But that initial success makes him smile.

“I guess I'm not too rusty yet.” He steps back so Dimitri can retrieve his sword and they can try again. “You don't need to be too careful. I learn faster if there are real stakes - and I can handle a few bruises.”

Though, saying that, he does remember that Dimitri is stronger than any normal man. Regardless, Claude trusts him, and even if his bruises end up worse than he'd like, he doesn't think Dimitri would lose control enough to seriously injure him.

Or at least, Claude is willing to take that chance.

The corner of Dimitri's mouth twitches up in a smirk, pleased that he's already gotten this down and perhaps a little amused at Claude’s confidence.

“It's not going to be that easy again,” he warns, before lunging at him, all catlike grace that one might not expect if they hadn't already seen him in battle. Dimitri is fierce but fair, pulling back if it seems like he's too overwhelming, giving away his next attack if he wants to give Claude a better opportunity to counter it. Claude is good, and Dimitri likely knows that, but Dimitri has also trained far more extensively in melee combat. They both seem to be aware of this and so Dimitri avoids unfairly beating Claude into the dirt, keeps a good measure of how they're doing, increases and decreases the intensity and speed of his blows to ensure that Claude can keep up.

In that way, he is a surprisingly good teacher. He's quick and calculating and knows enough of battle to know when adjustments to form need to be made, but he's not so generous as to make it easy in any way.

Just as Dimitri is a good teacher, Claude is a good student. But then, that isn’t surprising, really, not to anyone who knows him well - when there's something that interests him, he devotes himself to it. His flippant nature isn't exactly an act, but it's not all there is either.

So he's persistent and patient, doesn't get frustrated even when he fails. He tries again, tries something new, and Claude's creative mind means that sometimes he goes in different directions - instead of blocking a blow, dropping and kicking Dimitri's feet out from under him, for example. It doesn't always work, and sometimes it backfires badly, but Claude never takes that poorly. Better to know now than in the middle of fighting for his life.

The first time he caught him off guard like that, Dimitri had laughed - a genuine chuckle that made Claude’s heart tremble - and they'd started again with him watching more intently for it, punishing Claude harder for trying.

Dimitri is better at this sort of combat than Claude, and probably always will be, due to his sheer strength advantage. But that's alright. He knows what he's doing and Dimitri doesn't press his advantage when he doesn't need to so it never feels entirely one-sided.

Claude is definitely coming out of here with a couple bruises though, particularly since Dimitri has no problems closing distances after he's been disarmed, getting physical and ramming his shoulder into Claude's chest to knock him off balance.

“Good,” he says after he does it again, and he offers a hand out to help Claude up, satisfied with the workout so far. “You're a fast learner.”

“If you hadn't been born a prince, you'd make a good teacher,” Claude says from his position on the ground. He kind of wants to stay there. He had the breath knocked out of him - not that he's upset about it, but at least in that moment relaxing on the ground seems preferable to matching his strength against Dimitri again.

But he catches his breath and he takes Dimitri's hand, using the assistance to get back on his feet. His axe is still on the ground where it fell from his hand and he doesn't pick it back up quite yet.

A few strands of Dimitri's hair are loose, and Claude wishes briefly that he could simply reach out and tuck them back in for him. He doesn't, of course.

“I'm gonna be worn out after this,” he says instead.

Dimitri tilts his head when Claude doesn't retrieve his weapon straight away and instead watches him curiously through a few strands of hair while they both catch their breath. It seems time for a break, or at least something not quite as exerting, and so he goes a little slack, relaxing his posture with a little nod at Claude's comment.

“When I was younger, the only way I could sleep would be after a hard bout of training,” he explains, and then seems to decide that simply because they’re taking a brief break doesn’t mean they need to stop training completely. “If you get disarmed, it's best to move in close when they don't expect it, where their weapons can't reach. The eyes are the best target on an armored opponent, otherwise just try to knock them off balance like I did to you.”

“Yeah?” Claude says.

That's too good of an invitation to pass up, really. Dimitri's not on his guard, and Claude wasn't either, not until this moment. He steps in close, exactly as Dimitri said - in his personal space, where it'll be difficult to raise that practice sword to block him. But he doesn't push Dimitri down, though he could - Dimitri is larger, but it wouldn't be hard to hook a foot around his ankle and push.

He doesn't. He lifts a hand, neatly pressing those stray strands of hair he'd been looking at behind Dimitri's ear. And then he doesn't linger, even though he wants to, because he knows what it's like to have a warrior's instincts and he figures there's even odds that getting in close like this is going to end with him on the ground again, probably even more bruised than before.

Dimitri seems frozen in place by the sudden contact and Claude backs out of his reach quickly, not quite far enough that Dimitri couldn't grab him if he wanted (only fair, after being that cheeky), but far enough that it can't simply be done on reflex. Claude may not be incredibly strong, but he's fast, and with catching Dimitri off guard like that, he thinks he might have gotten away with it.

Cheeky. Self-indulgent, too, but Dimitri doesn't need to know that. No one does.

“Doesn't seem fair to go for the eyes when you're already down one.” It's gentle teasing, a smile flickering bright on Claude's face. Hopefully it won't sit wrong - hopefully none of it will. It's only Claude, letting himself relax a little and have fun for a moment.

Dimitri... doesn't seem to know how to react to that. He’s still for a moment, staring at Claude. Slowly, he raises his hand, miming the motion that Claude had made to tuck his hair more securely back, as if trying to recall how it felt when Claude had done it. Eventually his hand drops again.

“I see,” he says, and he makes a decision.

Claude gets no warning at all before Dimitri is moving, fast and confident and... sure, maybe he’s still playful but maybe he's a bit embarrassed at the sudden affectionate touch and maybe he's a bit annoyed about the comment on his eye.

Dimitri is aggressive and he knows how to throw his weight around, and his intent seems to be on getting Claude back down to the ground. He does this with his forearm pressed against Claude’s chest, his leg sweeping out to catch his ankle, pushing as quickly as he can to lurch him off of his feet.

Claude, for all that he knows he was unfairly teasing, isn’t prepared for such a sudden and vigorous response. There's not a whole lot he could have done even if he were prepared though, except try to get out of Dimitri's reach as quickly as possible or try to knock him down instead.

Dimitri outweighs him, and while he might not be quite as fast as Claude, he's plenty fast. Claude doesn't want to turn this into a brawl, especially since he knows he probably deserves it - he knew better even while he was doing it. He just couldn't help himself. That's gotten him into trouble before.

He hits the ground hard, wind knocked out of him again, and winces. He was already going to have a bruise there. The wages of sin, he supposes.

He doesn't try to get up.

“Oof. I've learned my lesson - next time I'll let you do it yourself,” he says, a bit breathless but still smiling. But then, that's normal for Claude.

He does, however, remind himself not to get carried away like that again. Just because he wants to touch Dimitri does not mean that Dimitri wants to be touched. Claude knows that, he just - wanted it badly enough to be stupid about it. Dimitri has let Claude touch him before, even when he won’t let anyone else near him and so, he’d thought - maybe...

Dimitri strides over now that Claude is on the ground and crouches down with his elbows on his knees. Claude looks up at him, catches his expression, devoid of any anger or his usual snarling and thinks maybe he misjudged things. Maybe it isn’t that Dimitri didn’t want to be touched - maybe it’s just that they come from two very different places.

Claude didn’t roughhouse for fun as a child, not really, not with other people. He didn’t have friends he could do that kind of thing with. Dimitri, though, growing up with the Kingdom youths - Sylvain, Felix, even Ingrid - surely did. Claude can imagine that most of Dimitri's friendships were solidified in physicality, cemented in the shoves and boorish wrestling that they might get up to in order to resolve any dispute, or sometimes just because it was fun to do it.

That likely changed a long time ago, but maybe Claude's teasing has brought it out again. Dimitri tips his chin a little, a smile still tugging at the corner of his mouth as he looks down toward the other man, and Claude thinks that he read this wrong. That Dimitri wasn’t angry with him at all. Uncomfortable, maybe. Surprised.

But he doesn’t see any anger in that smile.

“Will you?” Dimitri says.

Dimitri is looking down at him more fully now and his smile fades and all of a sudden there’s something - dangerous in his eyes. Claude cannot read him, except that he knows it isn’t anger burning there.

He thinks about how the cats in the monastery play at dominance, getting their opponent on their back and sinking teeth into their throat, and he thinks about how they're already halfway there, with Claude on the ground and not trying to get up anytime soon. He thinks that Dimitri looks particularly like a predator right now and he’s not surprised at all to realize that he longs to be consumed.

“And what if I -” Dimitri’s hands are gloved as he reaches down for his face, and so the brush of his fingers is devoid of warmth, but it’s so, so light, barely a touch at all as he traces the path that Claude's fingers had taken, mirrored on Claude’s skin. He hooks his index finger at Claude’s temple, drags slowly over the shell of his ear, down to his jaw. It's curious, exploratory, and his fingers don't stop where Claude's did - they follow the path down the line of his throat, with Dimitri’s eye following the touch.

He surely can't feel Claude's pulse through his gloves, not with this barely-there touch, but it is jackrabbit quick. Claude keeps himself so, so still.

When his fingers finally brush against Claude's collarbone Dimitri pulls his hand away, all trace of amusement or teasing gone from his expression. Every movement has been slow, unsure, curious.

“-what if I returned the favor?” Dimitri says, finally.

Claude is afraid that if he moves, he'll break whatever spell has fallen over them. Every fiber of him wants, and it's thanks to that feather-light touch, thanks to the way Dimitri is looking at him - as if he wants something too.

Claude has flirted before. Claude has not really tried to hide his appreciation. Claude has pushed, very carefully, at the limits of their friendship. Dimitri has never done so in return, has - each time - refused Claude, whether deliberately or because he simply didn't realize what he was doing. He's never done something like this. Claude isn't sure if he really knows what he's doing, if he knows how badly Claude has wanted Dimitri to touch him, to look at him like that.

He doesn't move. He doesn't want to frighten Dimitri off and it feels absurd to think that, because this is Dimitri.

But still.

“I'd let you,” Claude says, and he means it.

He wants to pull Dimitri down. He wants to topple him over so they're both on the ground, so he can get close, so he can press his mouth to the line of Dimitri's jaw. He wants Dimitri's hand on him again, in his hair, around his neck, he doesn't really care. He wants so much more than that.

He wants just one kiss, so that he'd know if Dimitri had ever considered kissing him.

“I'd let you do just about anything.”

That comes with an easy smile, and with anyone else there might be a sense of plausible deniability - oh, it's just a joke or Claude is never serious. But that's missing this time because Claude is being serious despite his smile. Whether Dimitri will take it that way or not, Claude doesn't know, but he loses nothing by being honest.

It’s too late to turn back now, he thinks, and with the way Dimitri is looking at him, maybe -

Maybe he doesn’t need to.

The silence and tension stretches between them. Dimitri does not look away, not even when he finally speaks.

“I would do,” he says on a breath, rushed and whispering, “everything to you.”

Dimitri breathes in again, shaky, and he lets his legs shift underneath him, leaning on a hip on the hard dirt ground of the training area as he brings a hand to Claude's collar and wraps his fingers into the fabric of his shirt.

(The last time he did this, it had been with the intent to kill him.)

Dimitri pulls then, forcing Claude to sit up so that he can really look at him, so that they can regard one another as equals, without someone on the ground and someone else's animal instincts going haywire at the sight. He's close, still - too close, maybe a foot away from one another and Dimitri’s next breath comes out shaky when he repeats:

“....everything.”

Dimitri’s gaze drops away, and Claude feels exposed, as if Dimitri has seen right through him. The light touches, the teasing, the awkward push and pull of their relationship and everything that Claude has wanted for what feels like a lifetime but has only been a few short weeks. In that moment Claude doesn't know what will happen next but he knows that whatever it is will be significant somehow.

There's still some part of Claude that isn't sure this is real. But Dimitri isn't the sort to play a cruel joke, he isn't the sort to be anything less than earnest, and he looks entirely serious - and maybe a little lost, like he doesn't know what to do and he’s in over his head.

He probably is. They probably both are. Claude's had a few brief relationships - if they could be called that, when all they amounted to were a few nights together. Dimitri, he thinks, likely hasn’t even had that. This is different for both of them, or at least it feels like it could be. No matter what, if Claude gives in to what he so badly wants, things will change.

But Claude has never been afraid of change.

He looks at Dimitri, drinking him in. Then he reaches out and brushes his fingers along Dimitri's chin, drawing his attention, just enough so that Dimitri is meeting his eyes again.

“That's what I want,” he says, quiet.

It's straddling the line between affectionate and inappropriate because Claude does want everything, he wants all the things he's thought of in the dark of night and told himself to stop, that he shouldn't, that Dimitri is his friend and thinking of him that way is unfair. But he’s never quite able to actually stop, and he can't control his dreams, and he wants so much. He wants everything.

But it isn't just that. If this were only physical, Claude could find a way to work it out of his system. It isn’t. It’s that moment on the battlefield with Dimitri’s eyes on his that slid a sword straight into his heart. It’s later, when Dimitri looked at him and said were I born a noble in the Alliance, I would let nothing keep me from your side. It's a collection of small moments, and he already knows it's much too soon to say anything about that, but that doesn't mean he doesn't feel it.

Claude moves slowly enough that, if Dimitri really wants to, he could stop him. He also moves with enough certainty that his carefulness is not an invitation to stop him. He wants this, he wants it so much.

He lets his fingers slide down to curl around the back of Dimitri's neck, a light touch, and then he leans in and kisses him.

Dimitri doesn't turn away from it, not when Claude's fingers are slowly pressing into him, wrapped around the base of his neck and he's leaning in that careful way of his and he's sure, so sure, like he's never been more sure of anything in his life.

The kiss is every sword that's ever bitten into his flesh, every feeling of bright and sharp and here, and it's just as lethal, just as sudden, and even more beautiful. They’re kissing and he doesn't know what this means for either of them but he never wants him to stop, and Dimitri leans into Claude, steadies himself with a palm against the dirt ground and presses back into it.

There isn't a lot of experience behind it but Dimitri makes up for it with a pure and sudden desire, until what was once a tentative brush of their lips turns into a crashing force, with Dimitri bringing his other arm up around Claude's shoulders to keep him close.

Everything. Claude said he wanted everything and that's what Dimitri gives him, all of his feral want at the same time as his tenderhearted need, and when they finally break so that he can breathe, Dimitri keeps his forehead pressed against Claude's own, staying as close to him as he physically can while still catching his breath. But it's not enough, it's not enough for either of them and so Dimitri noses closer, bringing his mouth along the edge of Claude's jaw, teeth scraping against the fine hair of his slight beard.

Claude doesn't know what he expected. A thousand possible outcomes spilled through Claude's mind in the moment before he pressed his lips to Dimitri's, and he hadn’t known which of them might come true, which might be possible. But this - what he gets - is more than he could have possibly expected.

He can't think. Any kind of plots or plans or possibilities fade from his mind, and all that's left is Dimitri. The press of his lips - unpracticed, hungry, perfect. His arm around Claude. The nearness of him, the way he doesn't pull away or even flinch, he just kisses Claude back, like maybe he's wanted this the same way that Claude has. And afterward, all Claude can do is breathe and try to find a way to calm his racing heart. It is, of course, impossible.

“Don't leave me,” Dimitri says, and it's hushed and soft and vulnerable and Claude feels it like a spike through his heart.

Dimitri is still close, so Claude reaches out to slip his arms around the other man. The angle is a little awkward, but he really doesn't care so long as he gets to touch Dimitri. He gets to touch Dimitri.

He didn't really think it was possible.

“I'm right here with you,” he says, soft as Dimitri’s words and far more certain.

Claude doesn't know if this will be the comfort Dimitri needs but he wants to offer it anyway. He does have to leave eventually, but that won't be for months yet - after the war is over, after the rebuilding has mostly been completed. Still, he doesn't want to lie to Dimitri. Not about this. Not when it's so important.

At this moment though, he doesn't want to go anywhere. He can't stay, but - goddess, when Dimitri's breath is against his neck like that, he wants nothing more than to obey him and stay.

“I’m all yours.”

He turns his head, kissing the closest part of Dimitri that he can reach, even if it is just his ear.

Part of him still finds this hard to believe. When Claude walked into the training grounds, he'd known that Dimitri would never want him this way, that whatever glances he stole and flirting he indulged in was all for himself. But this - he doesn't know how it's possible, but he doesn't want to question it.

Dimitri nods weakly, murmuring an affirmation with his mouth still pressed to Claude's jaw, and Claude kisses him again, his ear, the hinge of his jaw, and Dimitri tilts his head so that they can kiss properly, pressing his lips against Claude's and kissing him soundly, licking his way into Claude's mouth with a needy hunger, insatiable and starving for touch. He only pulls away when they finally need to breathe again.

“I knew,” Dimitri murmurs, breathing heavily and brushing his thumb along the nape of Claude's neck. They're still close, not close enough, but then again, Claude doesn't think he can ever be close enough to Dimitri ever again. “When you said you'd be there, after everything. I knew that I could endure an ‘after’, if you were there”

Claude was not in any way prepared for this. There's no way he could have been. He knows, of course, that Dimitri is sincere and earnest, loyal to a fault and also unused to affection and, probably, romance. But somehow Claude hasn’t done the math right in his head, somehow his equation didn't add up to this.

Maybe because he thought it wouldn't happen at all. Maybe because a part of him assumed that if it ever did happen, it would be... a brief moment of solace. Claude giving Dimitri comfort and pleasure and encouraging him to lay down his weapons for a little while. And then it would be over and it would never be more than that.

That would be similar to the few intimate relationships Claude has had in the past - brief, pleasant, and then over. It would have been different of course, because his feelings for Dimitri are different, but that's what he thought it would be like, if it happened at all. He didn't expect this and for once, he doesn't know how to react to it.

He holds on to Dimitri, wanting to pull him closer except there isn't much closer he can come. No one has ever treated Claude like this before. Like he wants to be just as close as Claude does, like he doesn't want to move away even for a moment, like every touch matters. He wants to slide his fingers through Dimitri's hair, he wants to peel every piece of armor off him and then start on the clothing. He wants to press his lips to the scar peeking out above the collar of Dimitri's shirt. The one from the Death Knight.

That part he can do, and so he does, a gentle kiss before he loses a little control and nips at Dimitri's neck. Then he tries, he tries to focus, to get ahold of himself before he ends up doing something he really shouldn't on the floor of the training grounds. Though the door is locked -

No. He needs to focus.

“I'll be by your side whenever you need me,” Claude says. That much he can promise without lying. He does have to return to Almyra - he has to settle things there. But he can promise Dimitri this, that he'll be there whenever he is needed, that even if he goes he'll come back if Dimitri calls. It makes things harder, of course, it divides his loyalties, and he doesn't know if Dimitri will understand when Claude finally explains - but now isn't the time. And Claude can handle difficult.

“You know - I didn't think -” he laughs then, quiet and sincere, and kisses Dimitri, because he can and it's amazing. “I didn't think you even noticed I wanted you.”

“I didn't,” Dimitri admits, maybe a little sheepish. He lets his arm finally fall from around Claude's shoulders and readjusts himself to sit a little easier next to him, then he moves as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, getting up on one knee and swinging his other around Claude's legs, straddling him to rest back on his thighs. They’re closer like this, closer than the awkward side-by-side that they were before, and Dimitri gets his arms easily around Claude's shoulders.

“Not at first. Not until now. But… it was always there, wasn’t it?” He lets a hand fall from Claude’s neck, slowly reaching up to tip Claude's chin upward and catch him in another kiss, chaste and adoringly sweet. The majority of Dimitri’s weight is still on his knees, careful not to overburden Claude though he is - Goddess - distractingly close.

He's above Claude now and can press down against him and dictate the pace of their kiss, his fingers slowly wrapping around the back of Claude's neck, thumb at his pulsepoint. Claude's heart is pounding now, and he is sure Dimitri must be able to feel it even through his gloves.

This is good, it's almost too good, and all Claude wants to do is kiss Dimitri again. No, that’s not all - he wants more, he wants to find every scar on Dimitri's body and kiss it, he wants to taste Dimitri and make Dimitri feel better than he's ever felt before. If he thought that finally getting to be close to Dimitri would make him want this any less, he was incredibly wrong.

He loves how quickly Dimitri learns, how confident he is, despite the fact that Claude is rather sure he hasn't had much practice. It doesn't matter anyway because he's a fast learner - and even if he weren't, his clear hunger is an impossible draw to Claude. Claude has tried not to think about it, he's tried not to care, but something inside him has longed to be wanted for so long. Like this, yes, but - more.

And more is what Dimitri is offering him, immediately, with no hesitation. After. His sincerity, his intense devotion, it's something Claude always tried to pretend he didn't care about. But it makes his heart beat faster, it makes him want to lay that heart at Dimitri's feet and allow him to do with it as he wishes, so long as he keeps looking at Claude like that. Keeps touching Claude like he wants him more than anything.

“It was. For awhile now. I wasn't going to say anything.” Claude doesn't mind admitting it. He's not embarrassed that he fell for Dimitri - he's not embarrassed about his attraction or his emotions. He just didn't want to push them on to a man who wasn't ready, who wasn't interested. But Dimitri, of all people, deserves to know how badly Claude wanted him.

“It's not fair that you're -” he waves a hand vaguely at Dimitri, running out of eloquence, “- well, all I could look at.”

It's mild torture, being so close to Dimitri like this. Claude could reach out and touch him, arch off the ground and press them together, pull Dimitri down on top of him and move against him until all he can think about is Claude. But he knows that it would be moving too fast, even if it's practically impossible to refrain. So instead he kisses Dimitri, letting him set the pace but always asking for more.

He pulls away only long enough to breathe and to speak again, soft and breathless.

“Come to my room tonight. We don't - have to do anything. I just want to see you.”

'Don't have to do anything' doesn't count for kissing, Claude tells himself. That's already on the table. He's not lying if he says they don't have to do anything and then makes Dimitri kiss him until neither of them can stay awake any longer.

Dimitri flushes a little, looking pleased. Claude likes that look on him, but he doesn’t have the chance to enjoy it for long - Dimitri busies himself with tangling his fingers in Claude's hair and kissing him again.

“Okay,” he says when their lips finally part, looking at Claude beneath him, gaze heavy. “I want to see you too. I've wanted - to be near you, even before I knew. I'll only want it more now.”

If Claude had thought about it, he would have realized it sooner. Dimitri spends time near him even when he doesn't have to - outside the healers' tent while he was recovering, often nearby when they were at Garreg Mach before, and even now when they've both got so much to do Claude has often been able to glance up and catch sight of Dimitri not so far away, also hard at work.

Claude thought that it was simply that he was the only one Dimitri trusted at first - that he was the only one Dimitri was really comfortable around. And maybe that was true, maybe that's all it was. But now, he knows, it will be more.

He wants to steal as many of Dimitri's moments as he can. They both have so much to do - they're in the middle of a war, marching on Enbarr in mere weeks, and Dimitri has his men to care for while Claude has the nobles to coddle. They won't be able to spare much time for each other, but Claude wants all he can get.

Their rooms are near each other at least. Dimitri can visit him - or he can visit Dimitri, it doesn't really matter. Claude wants to kiss him, and touch him, and convince him to let go of all his inhibitions, but he wants to do much more foolish things as well. Like fall asleep next to him, or bring him tea in the morning, or brush his hair out of his eyes and talk to him about silly things until he relaxes.

Truly, Claude thinks with a smile, he's in trouble. But that's been true since the beginning.

“Anytime,” he says. “I mean that. I'll take what I can get, but I told you - I want everything.”

Rather more daring than he knows he should be, when Claude kisses Dimitri this time, he rests a hand above his knee. Not quite on his thigh - not too close, not too intimate - but just touching him, indulging his own desire to be closer. Claude isn't going to push too hard, he knows Dimitri's comfort zone is probably far different than his own, but he also knows that there's no use pretending he doesn't want the things he wants.

He doesn't want to get up off the ground, either. He would happily stay here under Dimitri forever, kissing him, wanting so much more. And they are alone here, and the door is locked - but, to be completely truthful, Claude thinks Dimitri deserves much more than the dirty floor of the training ground. Whether that's tonight or another night, Claude doesn't really want it to be here.

“You'd better get off me, or I'll probably end up embarrassing myself,” Claude says and smiles, a bit wry. Maybe a little too much honesty?

There’s something so much like hunger in Dimitri’s eyes just then, so much like it that Claude wants to forget about what he’s just said and pull Dimitri down to him and erase the thought of everything else. But this is still so delicate and new, and Dimitri surely hasn’t had much experience, and Claude needs to at least try to control himself.

Dimitri seems to come to a similar conclusion, and finally pulls away with a short nod.

“-apologies.” He sounds a little embarrassed now, and shuffles backward so he can stand, reaching a hand out to help Claude up as well. When Claude stands, Dimitri doesn't pull his hand away, but instead steps closer into his personal space, closer until they're mere inches away and Claude can feel the heat come off of his skin.

“Tonight,” he promises, leaning in for another kiss, trapping the word between them like all the secrets that Claude is so terribly fond of.

He loves this, he loves how casually tactile Dimitri is. Claude has never really thought he would enjoy something like that, but then, he's never experienced it before either. And maybe it's because it's Dimitri - maybe it's because Claude wants to be near him, too. If this, whatever it is, means that Dimitri will be touching him all the time... well, Claude doesn't mind the thought of that.

There's no way Claude is going to keep a smile off his face for the rest of the day - luckily, he smiles most of the time anyway. Most people can't even tell when it's not real, so they certainly won't be able to tell that this one is entirely real.

Tonight, then. “I'll be thinking about it -” you, Claude thinks, I’ll be thinking about you “- all day.”

Indeed, it'll be a feat to keep his mind on his work. He can afford a bit of distraction, though, they're mostly into the logistics portion of their attack preparation, and Claude's clever mind is less needed for that sort of thing. Still, he'll be embarrassed if he's caught daydreaming about Dimitri instead of paying attention to something important.

He kisses Dimitri again - goddess, he can't help himself, it's truly ridiculous - then pulls away just enough to reach up and smooth back Dimitri's hair. Now it looks less like Claude's hands were just in it.

Not so long ago, he'd said he wouldn't do that again. He thinks that might not apply anymore.

Dimitri moves back just enough to get his hands up to undo the tie in and let his hair down so he can move to fasten it back with all the various strands that have fallen out through exertion or through kissing with Claude's fingers against him. It's just short enough that he'll never manage to secure it all back, but it definitely looks a sight better than it did when he'd first gotten off the ground.

“Go then,” he tells Claude, now that he's managed to finally put some distance between them, “while I can still let you.”

It is much harder to go than it should be. Claude tells himself just one more kiss and then he stops himself because he knows better, there's no way he could stop at one, it's going to be hard enough leaving at all. This is all so new and incredible, and Claude's wanted it - wanted Dimitri - in a way that he's never wanted anyone before.

So he doesn't kiss Dimitri again, no matter how badly he wants to. He forces himself to step away and tells himself that it's only for now, that he'll see Dimitri tonight, that they'll have more time.

He doesn't know how the weeks to come will play out or how much time they'll be able to steal for each other. But it's Claude, so he's already planning and hoping and thinking of ways to steal some moments in the middle of the day. They do see each other often enough, simply in the regular course of things - Claude the commander of the Alliance forces, Dimitri the leader of the Kingdom loyalists.

Maybe Claude can find a way to give them moments alone. Maybe he'll be able to touch Dimitri, to kiss him, to feel the heavy attention of his gaze.

He's getting ahead of himself.

“I'll see you.” He smiles at Dimitri, because if he lets himself get within arm's reach this whole 'leave and get back to work' plan is going to fall apart. But that smile is more intimate, more open than anything Claude's given anyone before.

And then he runs a hand through his own hair, putting it more or less back in order, and leaves before he can give in to his impulses.

Chapter Text

Dimitri is lost in thought for the remainder of the day.

He barely participates in his meeting with Gilbert - though that's hardly anything out of the ordinary when it comes to his interactions with the rest of his household. He's been irritable and stubborn with his friends at the best of times, and when he wants nothing more than to be alone with Claude again the behavior compounds until most of his allies decide to delicately avoid engaging with him or trying to force answers out of him and instead manage to work things out among themselves.

He'll need to be better, he knows but he can't help his sour mood right now, not when everyone around him is a vivid reminder of the one person who isn't. It seems like these pointless meetings take up most of the day and when it's all over, Dimitri forces down a plate of food that Annette brings him and storms back to his room to wait for the sun to set.

Claude. Claude. Claude, who kissed him, who said he’d be here for him, who touched him in a way that he’d never thought he’d be touched again. Claude, who went down on his back on the training grounds and didn’t get back up, who watched Dimitri, vulnerable in more ways than one, and who let Dimitri touch his throat, his collarbone, his mouth -

It’s almost too much to think about. He can’t focus on anything else. Claude’s impossible green eyes. Claude’s smile that Dimitri can read multitudes from, Claude’s soft promises and softer lips. Claude looking at him like he was… well, someone worth looking at. Like he was more than just a beast, covered in blood, like he was something strong and desirable and - and redeemable.

Dimitri doesn’t know what Claude’s plans are and on this day, he doesn’t care. He knows that Claude wants him, he knows that Claude kissed him and Claude wants to see him again. Nothing else matters. What else ever could?

Making the decision to go to his room feels as easy as breathing.

He's still staying in Sylvain's old room at the very end of the hall - Sylvain had taken this rather gracefully and moved into Dimitri's old room in turn, after grabbing a few personal belongings that Dimitri hadn’t even noticed were there.

Dimitri strips out of the clothes he'd been wearing for most of the day and finds himself a simple shirt and pants to change into. Most of the clothing he owns is insulated for the frigid north of Faerghus, with various furs and padding to keep him warm and so finding something that's actually appropriate for such a casual encounter is... difficult, but he manages nevertheless.

He doesn't let himself wonder if it was a joke or if Claude wasn't serious about this. Claude hardly ever seems serious, but there have been a few times when the other man's smile had faded and he'd said something with open sincerity and he thinks that their time in the training grounds together had been one of them. He hopes, anyway, because he's never been particularly good at reading people.

Dimitri loses himself in the thought until the hour grows late and he hears footsteps in the hall outside of their fellow allies returning to their rooms to sleep. It isn't until there's silence again in the hall that Dimitri creeps out, cautious for anyone who might still be around - but of course, there's no one.

He's quiet as he moves down the doors, counting in his mind before he reaches Claude's and Dimitri doesn't allow himself to hesitate before knocking softly - though even that seems too loud in the silent hall around him.

The air feels still as he waits for Claude to answer. Dimitri shifts uncomfortably where he’s standing, recounts the doors to make sure he has the right one, and tells himself that it’s ridiculous to be nervous, that he has far greater things to worry about than Claude’s affections - but all the same, he’s nervous.

It doesn’t matter, in the end. Claude opens the door and looks more cleaned up since their bout at the training grounds earlier. He’s changed his clothing, brushed out his hair, and looks… nice, Dimitri thinks, and he’s allowed to think that. He’s allowed to look at him and think that he’s something to be desired. He’s allowed to let his mind drift to the delicate curve of his nose, the careful waves of his hair, the -

“Hey,” Claude greets him, smiling and pulling back to let Dimitri in after him. With nothing else to do, Dimitri follows him inside and doesn’t turn back when Claude pushes the door closed behind him. “Hmm… I think I should be saying ‘hey, handsome’ instead.”

It’s strange, how this sort of thing isn’t entirely unexpected from Claude’s lips, but hearing it now gives it an entirely different meaning, now that he knows that Claude means it, now that he knows he’s not just being teased, that Claude is actually - goddess forbid - flirting with him.

Dimitri doesn’t know what to do with that. He panics in that moment, folds his arms across his chest, and tries to pin down how he feels about Claude calling him handsome.

He doesn’t think he is - well, he knows he isn’t. He hasn’t had a decent haircut in years, his face is marred by his eyepatch, his scars, to say nothing of the rest of him. Sure, to some it might be seen as attractive, but to someone like Claude, who is so nimble and graceful? To someone as smart and elegant as he is?

Dimitri finally just scoffs, though he thinks that the reaction came too late to be seen as genuine.

“Must you?”

He realizes that it sounds rude a moment after he says it and is hit with a tinge of regret - to compensate, Dimitri reaches out, grasping at the sleeve of Claude's shirt and tugging him over so that they can be closer once more. This is what he's wanted and what he's been waiting for ever since Claude walked away. Dimitri watches him with hunger in his expression, leaning back against the door as he pulls Claude in for a warm kiss.

Back on the training grounds Claude said that they didn't have to do anything and it had been a comfort. Now though, Dimitri wants badly to kiss him. It doesn't have to go any further and part of him wants to spend the night just talking and touching like this, but… but for now, he needs to kiss him with all the earnest desperation that he's been holding onto since he'd first touched him at the training grounds.

Claude seems more than happy to do just that. He leans into Dimitri, letting his body rest against his and pushes him with gentle force against the door. It doesn't feel like an attempt to pin him - it's just the two of them wanting to be closer with all the latent energy that's been building since the afternoon.

When they part, Claude grins, triumphant.

"I really must," he murmurs, nosing at Dimitri's jaw, kissing the line of it and the spot where it meets his neck, "You don't think you're handsome? Don't worry. I've got a 'things about Dimitri that make my knees weak' list I'll read to you sometime."

Dimitri tilts his chin upward at the attention to his neck, giving Claude all the room in the world as his hands move around him, keeping him close and trying to relax a little more into the touch and the warmth of him. And it is embarrassing - even if they were back at the Academy, he'd be embarrassed by someone making such bold statements like this.

It's different because it's Claude, and Dimitri can tell himself that Claude has always been this way but he hasn't. The compliments, the adoration, the sweetness is totally new and Dimitri finds himself reeling at the intensity of being under Claude's affections like this. It's not like he's entirely flattered by it either - most of what comes out of Claude's mouth is ridiculous enough to be playful, but despite himself Dimitri finds himself wanting to play along.

“I'd rather kiss you,” he says and he’s not really talented enough with words or charm to reciprocate and wax poetic about Claude's many redeeming features - perhaps at one point in his life, but now Dimitri shows most things by action and this is much the same. He chases after Claude when the other man steps away, kissing him as promised, before moving more fully into his room and settling near the foot of his bed.

Dimitri doesn't really think about the implications of it yet and he looks up toward Claude and watches his movements across the floor, but realizes suddenly that he doesn't know what to talk about. Dimitri's only two topics of conversation for the past five years have been marching to Enbarr and killing Edelgard - when it comes to smalltalk, he simply doesn't have much to say.

That was different back then too. He frowns and tries to think back on how it felt when they were at the Academy together, when Dimitri could have charmed someone into handing over the shirt on his back, when many of the merchants had their own special discounts for him, when he'd filled his day with inane chatter while maintaining focused on his goal. He's not sure if he can be that person again - he's not sure if Claude would even want him to try - but the thought does bring up memories, and not all of them are entirely unpleasant.

"...does it ever bother you, staying in your old room?" He asks, glancing to the myriad of books that Claude keeps neatly lined up, or the stacks of vaguely important papers loosely kept on his desk. It had bothered Dimitri enough to demand he swap, and even then these hallways seem to haunt him at times. "Surely the leader of the Alliance could afford more luxurious quarters."

Claude considers that and moves to sit near Dimitri on the bed, within arm's reach but not as close as he could get.

"No, it doesn't bother me," he murmurs, tilting his head to glance around his room, "I've traveled around a lot, so I didn't really have a lot of chances to settle in anywhere. I guess this room is probably one of the places I've spent the most time."

He pauses, before adding: "I'm comfortable here."

It makes sense in a way. Dimitri doesn't know of anywhere where the familiarity would bring him comfort - the place he'd grown up is Imperial territory now, the palace he used to live in, the fortresses he used to journey to in order to visit the various kingdom nobles... and here, the place where he'd wasted away too much of his time, grown too complacent, and let Edelgard slip through his fingers.

That it brings some form of comfort to Claude though is nice, though the thought behind it - I've traveled around a lot - isn't something that he'd have expected. Then again, why wouldn't it be? Claude had shown up out of nowhere shortly before attending the Academy and some part of his bloodline is clearly foreign in some way. The idea that he's never had many places to put roots shouldn't come as a surprise.

"You don't strike me as the type who settles easily," Dimitri admits in a quiet murmur. He doesn't know what Claude's plans are, really - he assumes that Claude will go back to the Alliance and some semblance of discussion over how to divide the Empire will consume their waking hours and then it will just be... them, the two rulers of Fódlan.

Dimitri suddenly has to pause as the thought strikes him, how different the political landscape could change if this... whatever lies between them were to become something substantial. Claude has given him a path to Edelgard and given him a small hope for something after his vengeance, and now there's a wealth of possibility with just the two of them as unparalleled rulers over the land.

He's not afraid of being manipulated. It would have been easier for Claude to keep Dimitri feral, to point him toward Edelgard in the end and then let him go off to die in whatever way found him. A gentle reaffirmation, a courtship, dragging him back from the edge… it's too much effort for the same end goal. Three weeks ago, Dimitri would have given Claude all of Faerghus if he'd asked. So... no, as much as Claude schemes, Dimitri can’t see how capturing him has benefitted Claude significantly enough to be worth the risk.

Which only leaves how this will end. Barring something tragic happening in Enbarr, the two of them will be left with half a continent each and an affair worthy of the history books. And that means... that means...

"...why did you capture me?" He finally asks, looking over with a curious glance, "at Gronder Field. I would have killed you there - and you had no guarantee I'd ever be of any use to you."

Claude is quiet for a long moment, and then he reaches out and takes Dimitri's hand. It's a simple gesture, almost casual. Dimitri looks to where their hands are joined and Claude slowly tightens his fingers.

"I told you when you were in that cell, didn't I? I didn't want to watch you die."

His tone is flippant but he doesn't look at Dimitri when he says it. Instead, he simply watches where their hands are touching, and it seems like he's holding something back, like he's finally showing some of his vulnerability in response to Dimitri's own brutal openness.

"If you didn't want to help me, I would have left you in that cell until we defeated the Empire. And then - I don't know. But the thought of you dying when I could have prevented it made me sick to my stomach." Claude's voice is soft, honest. "We weren't close at school, but you were my friend. I've killed enough old friends already."

“I wouldn't have done the same for you.”

Dimitri admits it hollowly, and he feels ashamed to even say it. He only had eyes for Edelgard and would have cut through a thousand men to get at her, would have easily tried to kill Claude himself. Claude's hand on his is a lifeline, and he tightens their fingers together even as he tells Claude that he'd have killed him if given half the chance.

“And even so,” he continues, slowly working his way through it, “you didn't have to... to visit me every day. To let me go, to let me follow you around like some…”

Dimitri doesn't know how to finish that sentence and so he trails off, frowning. It's not that this is a charity that he's too proud to accept, but rather he's acutely aware that it's a gamble that Claude didn't have to make, one that he had no business making in the first place. Could Claude have harbored feelings for him, even then? Could that have colored his decisions and made him foolish when it came to their situation?

Dimitri doesn't know. What he does know is that Claude's risky plays have paid off - more for him than for Claude - and that Claude may have single-handedly saved Faerghus. Somehow, he doesn't think that Gilbert would be too happy to hear about that.

When he speaks again his voice is quiet but without emotion, matter-of-fact.

“You probably could have taken all of Fódlan with me out of the picture.”

“What was I supposed to do? Let you rot in there?” Claude answers him quickly, scoffing at the idea. “I don't want Fódlan.”

Dimitri turns to look at him then, snapped out of his quiet guilt by Claude’s admission. If he doesn’t want to rule, then why is he even doing this?

“I want it to be better,” Claude tells him, answering his unspoken question, closing his eyes and taking a steadying breath, “I want it to be at peace, to be a place where people are equal and have equal chances at happiness. But I've never wanted to rule it or to conquer it. I would rather secure the crown for you.”

The air feels very still all of a sudden. Dimitri’s hand goes slack in Claude’s fingers and he opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. What would he say? What could he say?

When he doesn’t respond, Claude continues: “What I did, I did for myself, because I care about you. But I did it for Fódlan as well. This land deserves a king like you, Dimitri.

“You're a king already and everyone in Fódlan knows it, even if they've tried to take it away from you. You're a fearsome warrior. You're strong and you are capable of making decisions and following them through. And - you're just. You've never hated someone simply because they're different from you. You want this place to be better too, and people will listen to you.”

Claude looks down at where he still has his fingers wrapped around Dimitri’s limp hand. He looks so sad like this, without the customary trace of a smile on his lips or the lilt in his voice. Vulnerable.

“I'll crush the Empire, and then I'll give you Fódlan's crown. The Empire, the Kingdom, the Alliance. All of it.”

Dimitri keeps some form of hope until the very end, when Claude says the Alliance, like he's not going to be around to rule it, and Dimitri stands very suddenly, letting Claude’s fingers slip away despite his firm hold.

He still doesn't look at Claude. He doesn't do anything. He feels, in that moment, frozen, like an animal that has just recognized a predator in the distance. Any movement and it will come down on him and swallow him whole. He can scarcely breathe, and for an entirely less-pleasant reason than what he'd hoped, coming into Claude's room tonight. The myriad of feelings that bubble through his chest - shock, understanding, betrayal - layer over one another as his thoughts crash together, and in the absence of a clear winner, he simply stands there with his fingers tight into fists, so tight that it makes his knuckles white.

In this way, he can see how Claude has guided him toward leadership. He can see now, the conversation that they'd had back in Fort Merceus, Claude saying they're not wrong to believe in you, Claude with his impossible belief and his friendly face and his manipulation, all this time, pulling at some strings to make this more palatable. None of us asked for it, he'd said sadly with the weight of someone who'd known just how much of a responsibility leadership was - and now, suddenly, Dimitri hates him for those words, for saying it when he knew what he would be giving Dimitri this whole time.

The king of Fódlan. Claude is offering him everything. More power than any man or woman has had in hundreds of years. No - not offering, giving, a gift like this that nobody could ever - that he could never -

“Don't mock me.”

Dimitri finally says and he wishes his voice sounded stronger. His heart wavers, held on a string pulled taut between closed fists, and he slowly raises his hands to his face, sinking into his fingers and dragging them up through his hair.

To anyone else, this would be the gift of a lifetime, of a hundred thousand lifetimes. To anyone else, what Claude is giving would be worldchanging. To Dimitri, it feels like a vice and Claude knows that. He was there when Dimitri got Rodrigue’s letter after Fort Merceus, and he knows that.

He turns on Claude suddenly, betrayal finally winning out, evident in his face from the way he's choking back too much emotion, angry and sad and lost.

“-why couldn't you have found me five years ago?” Dimitri demands, louder. It's not fair, but then, none of this is fair. Giving him a crown isn't fair, leaving him to rule alone when he needs someone to stay his hand isn't fair, demanding that he be the person Claude thinks he is isn't fair. “Why couldn't you have told the brat with all his formal training and all his naive ideas of justice that you would give this to him?”

His voice is trembling and he doesn't want the anger to give way into sadness and the fucking guilt, but it comes anyway.

“Why did you let them frame me? Why did you wait - until after I stained my hands with the blood of countless innocents, until after I killed that part of myself? The boy you knew was just. The fool you knew would have been a fine king.”

He'd thought maybe, with Claude by his side then he could have recaptured Fhirdiad, with Gilbert and Rodrigue guiding him he could have even lead Faerghus. He'd accept his coronation with Claude near him, and the two of them could split Fódlan whichever way Claude desired. Together, with someone to support him... it was a difficult future to think about and something that he still had yet to accept fully, but thinks that maybe he could have, in time.

This? This is madness.

“I'm not him.”

He can’t believe he was so stupid as to blindly trust Claude this entire time. To think that Claude’s plans wouldn’t matter to him because he assumed that Claude would be selfish with the spoils of this war, as anyone would be.

Claude at least has the audacity to look hurt. He doesn’t speak to interrupt Dimitri, though Dimitri knows that he likely has a dozen arguments to support his actions. Instead, he just takes all the abuse that Dimitri throws at him and waits to make sure he’s done before he speaks quietly, his voice carefully even.

“I would never have let any of that happen to you if I'd known.”

That’s the only part that he protests against.

The rest - well. Claude steadies himself and keeps calm because someone in this room has to. He had to have known that Dimitri wouldn’t react well to this revelation. He had to have known that this would happen.

“The man I know seeks recompense for the crimes done to him. The man I know understands the pain of betrayal, understands how valuable trust is and how easily it's lost. He understands the suffering of those without power.”

Dimitri looks away, his mouth twisted into a frown.

Claude doesn’t move to reach for him again and Dimitri’s fingers feel cold from where he’s pulled away. The shorter man continues, calm, almost rehearsed. “This land doesn't need the boy you were. It needs the man you are, Dimitri. The man who knows that naive ideas of justice aren't all that there are, but who wants the world to be just anyway.

“There's no one else who can do it. There is one king left in this land, and that's you. Whether you feel worthy or not, they will ask you to take the throne.”

And that - well, of course that's true. No matter what either of them say, it will remain true. When Edelgard is dead, Fódlan will be in disarray, and there will be a power vacuum. Dimitri, the man who will be King of Faerghus, who takes Edelgard's head, is the one everyone will look to.

Finally, Claude looks up. Finally, he meets Dimitri’s gaze and he looks more serious than he ever has in the entire time Dimitri has known him.

“I'm not mocking you, Dimitri. I would have you as Fódlan's king. As my king.”

My king.

Dimitri snarls and wants to hit him suddenly. If Claude had told him this a few weeks ago, maybe he would have. But now something between them has changed and it's changed something inside of himself as well and so he holds himself back. The tension in him has nowhere else to bleed out of, and so he holds it in his shoulders, his fists, his teeth.

He doesn't want it. He doesn't deserve it, he'll never earn it, and after everything he's done he would just lead this land to ruin again. His father tells him that, Glenn tells him that, he knows it's what Gilbert is thinking, he knows that Felix would rather see him in chains, that Sylvain will never forgive him and Dedue...

He thinks about Dedue. He thinks about Duscur and his promise to rebuild it, the only promise he'd ever made for when he was king. He thinks, just for a moment about what is owed rather than what is deserved.

Dimitri knows that Claude is right and that everyone will look to him to lead. They already are. He knows that he owes them a great deal, just like he owes Claude, just like he owes Dedue. And he knows that at one point he'd dreamed of a kingdom where all life was valued, where he could dismantle the oppressive power structures that had wrenched their way into this world and rebuild them.

Dimitri doesn't know if he can do such a thing anymore. Claude seems to think that he can, enough to stake the entire Alliance on it.

Then again, Claude risking everything for him should hardly come as a surprise at this point. He'd risked his own life the first time they spoke in that cell.

“You would be a better leader,” he says finally, disgust still drenching his tone, “you already are.”

Even a child could see that Claude was more suited to the task than he is. He's still angry and he still feels like some sort of sick puppet: broken, made to suffer, and then rebuilt solely for the purpose of dancing on someone else's string.

Dimitri refocuses on Claude, the way he always seems so genuine in a way that Dimitri regrets believing in. His warm eyes - stern now, as if he could convince Dimitri of this truth. His mouth that Dimitri now knows from the inside out. His hair that Dimitri now knows feels soft and warm and -

“Why the Alliance? I don't want it. You - you have to lead them. With me.”

Dimitri doesn't intend for that last part to come out and as soon as it does, he hates how vulnerable it sounds. Don't leave me, he'd begged the moment he first kissed him. The way he looked at him when he'd heard the Death Knight behind him. How he could do this, he'd thought, he really had a chance to live to see his coronation to Faerghus with Claude by his side.

Dimitri wants to steel himself, but there's no steel left in his body. Now he just needs to know - it's only fair to tell him why he's going to be alone again. That way he can at least cut this part of himself out, as he's cut out the rest.

Claude looks away again, honesty weighing on his shoulders and making him just look tired. Without his smile, he looks so, so sad and Dimitri would want to reach for him if he wasn’t so angry, if he didn’t know the exact reason that Claude looks that way.

Is this a ruse too? Is this supposed to make it easier for Dimitri to go with his plans? He’d never have thought that earlier today, but now...

“I can't,” Claude finally chokes out. His voice is trembling and he wavers on a knife’s edge, his hands by his sides clenched tightly into fists. He can’t look at Dimitri. He can’t look at anything, it seems, and Dimitri wants to demand that he does, demand that he stop looking so mournful when this is entirely his fault, but then he says it, a few short sentences that change everything:

“I was born in Almyra. My father is the king.”

Very little could cut through Dimitri's anger - he keeps it as a righteous fury, held close to his heart and uses it to lash out and defend himself, to hurt what hurts him, to protect anything he has. His anger is a barrier and it's a fortress, firm and vast and Claude's sudden admission pierces right through it as easily as an arrow.

Claude is the prince of Almyra.

Dimitri’s shoulders go slack, his hands falling to his sides.

Claude continues, looking up toward Dimitri, pleading now. “They've never trusted me here. The moment they know, the small amount of trust I have will be gone. I can lead now in a time of war, when no one cares. I can't lead in a time of peace, when those differences matter. I'll help you rebuild. I'll do all that I can, I'll stay by your side for as long as I can. But I can't lead. The nobles would revolt - all my work would be meaningless.”

While Claude makes his case, Dimitri has to catalogue everything he's heard of Almyra, which is a shockingly small amount. He knows vaguely of the political structure there, a bit about the culture, but nothing more. He'd been educated on all of Fódlan's geographical neighbors at a young age as is customary for a prince, but he hadn't needed to revisit that education since... well, before the Tragedy. Faerghus has had its own borders to concern itself with, and after the Tragedy those borders had grown even wider and introduced them to an entirely new host of problems.

Sadly, what he does know is tinged in what he's always recognized to be some form of racism. He knows that some have referred to them as beasts, that the country is viewed as war-ready and dangerous - the same things that have been said about Duscur and he knows that to be false. The same things are muttered about Dagda, about Brigid. The same things that are said of every outsider who has ever conflicted with the church or the people of Fódlan.

So he doesn't know much. He doesn't even know what to say to that, really - everything he knows of Claude has to reshuffle around to meet this new piece of information and it doesn't quite fit somehow, whether due to Claude's disposition or simply that it's too outlandish to believe.

But he has to, like he's believed everything else Claude has told him.

“Are you…” He doesn't even know how to say it, and he works around this new and strange fact with apprehension. Claude is - they're both princes. Claude has kept this a secret for so long and Dimitri knows why, but all this time he'd treated him... well, somewhat respectfully as the heir to the Riegan house, but he was a duke then, and now he's - he's what? An equal? He'd always been that. But something about it shifts things between them, like a physical object that had always barred his vision of him had been moved and now Dimitri can see Claude for who he really is.

Dimitri takes a deep breath and tries again.

“...you're the heir?”

The true question is, of course, obvious. Will you be king as well?

For a moment, all of his own complaints and grievances are gone - while he hasn't forgotten or forgiven Claude's desire to make him king, the shock of this eclipses his anger for now and is a much more startling revelation, all things considered.

“I am. They don't trust me there, either.” Claude tries to smile, a wry thing, and Dimitri scoffs.

“Can you blame them?”

Just like that his smile fractures, and Dimitri would feel a pang of regret at lashing out in such a cruel way, but he doesn’t. He can’t, not with how much that Claude has been keeping from him.

“It isn’t - that’s not…” Claude stares at his lap and explains, quietly. “Almyra doesn't trust anyone with Fódlan blood. Fódlan doesn't trust anyone from Almyra. There was no easy way to win, from the moment I was born.”

It makes sense. If Dimitri could be sympathetic in that moment, he’d understand.

He can’t.

“So you lied to everyone.” Claude doesn’t look up and Dimitri feels the familiar comfort of anger brush against his heart again. “To me.”

Claude doesn’t protest - though on further reflection, Dimitri supposes that he’s never actually lied. But what would constitute as lying? Who walks around saying I’m not the prince of Almyra and I’m not going to step down and make you the king of this entire country?

Dimitri feels a dark wave of emotion bubble up in his throat and he thought it was anger, he thought it was the familiar rage of betrayal, but instead it’s - it’s something else entirely.

“I asked you to stay with me.”

Claude looks up, biting his lip. “I told you - for as long as you need me, I’ll - “

“I need you longer,” Dimitri grits out, taking a step closer to him, “you said you were mine.”

Claude recoils as if Dimitri really has struck him. This time, Dimitri feels pity in his heart. Not for the man who lied to him, but for the boy who knew that if he was honest, people would hate him. For the boy who tried to protect himself and only wound up breaking his own heart.

It's coming together now, the smaller pieces are starting to make sense. Claude coming from nowhere, all the rumors, Claude's apparent disinterest for ruling. Why Claude wants him on the throne but refuses to take it for himself.

Claude saved him. Claude brought him back from the edge. And conveniently, Dimitri has the best claim to the throne in all of Fódlan. It's the perfect way to save an old friend while restoring a power structure that Dimitri now knows that Claude could never have participated in, not without creating some dark accusations and possibly even another war.

So then it's... being a good neighbor? Doing all of this, this mountain of work and toil because he wants to help? Dimitri is a smart man when he's not on a rampage and he's capable of seeing things like this for what they really are, but in Claude's case, what could it be but genuine?

“...why would you stay in the first place?” he finally asks. Better to hear it from him now, to be sure. “You've been working for the past five years to give everything to someone else. You could have left and put this war behind you.”

If Claude left back then the Alliance likely would have sided with the Empire. They would have crushed Faerghus together and no one Dimitri loves would have survived. Dimitri thought that he owed Claude enough already, but this - what he's been selflessly working on all this time - this is something that he'll never be able to fully repay.

“My mother really is Duke Riegan's daughter. This place is my home, too.” Claude speaks softly but flatly, as if he’s in a trance. Dimitri can’t really blame him - this is likely the first time he’s ever told anyone in Fódlan the truth about his birth. “I'm not going to just abandon Fódlan. The commoners here didn't choose this war - most of the nobles didn't even choose it. They don't deserve to suffer under whatever rule Edelgard wants to impose.”

When put like that, it makes some sort of sense. Claude doesn’t benefit from staying in a place he could never rule… but then, he’s not doing this for his own benefit anyway. Like this, Dimitri can see the threads that Claude has woven, both noble and underhanded. All to do what he thinks is best, regardless, Dimitri thinks darkly, of who gets hurt in the process.

Even if that person is Dimitri. Even if that person is Claude himself.

“And - I want, someday,” Claude continues, as long as he’s coming clean, “for Fódlan to be able to open its borders. For Fódlan and Almyra to meet in peace rather than through border skirmishes and anger. That will never be possible if Fódlan is destroyed or if it’s constantly in a civil war.”

So it is some sense of altruism. Claude could have easily left, Dimitri thinks - and maybe a saner man would have. Dimitri considers Claude's goals for a moment and thinks about how nice of a world that might be. With less hostile borders, he could ensure times of peace and equality and justice for both of their nations, where they could share their riches and support one another's deficits.

It was a dream that his father had, he remembers distantly, for Faerghus and Duscur. Dimitri remembers painfully little about King Lambert, the real one, but he does remember the gentle speeches he'd been given about fostering peace between nations and offering an open palm instead of a fist. At the time, Dimitri had been more concerned with something else, some horseback riding or music lesson he wanted to do, something absolutely insignificant, but he remembers Lambert's voice.

Lambert would have liked Claude, Dimitri thinks, and it hurts all over again.

“So…. you entrust Fódlan to me and then go back to Almyra,” Dimitri works out, speaking a little slow as it all comes together, “you have your coronation. And then... then you reach a hand out to me from over the border.”

It's... difficult, not to still feel used. It's difficult to understand how convenient this all came together for Claude, and to still feel like Claude's friendship or his attachment or his attraction to Dimitri is a mere coincidence when it's so damningly convenient for him. It doesn't feel malicious when he really thinks about it, but it makes it all seem less genuine.

How could Claude's friendliness not be motivated in some way by the position that Dimitri played in his plans? How could his long and dangerous attempts to gain Dimitri's trust not have been in some small part due to his bloodline? And... can Dimitri really blame him for that, knowing what Claude wants and where his heart is?

“You…” It's soft, it hurts. “...you couldn't do this any other way? You had to - with me, you had to-”

He doesn't even know what to call it. Dimitri doesn't believe it was a lie, but he also can't believe in coincidences this big and he doesn't believe anymore that Claude brought him out of the darkness just out of nostalgia and love for him. It's a selfless reason that Claude has done this and so maybe he shouldn't feel so betrayed by it. It's for the greater good, it's for a noble and just cause, it's for everything that Dimitri once stood for... but he was naive and foolish to even think that this could have been solely for him.

How could he have thought something like that? It's bloodlines and politics and crests. Even Sylvain would have known better.

“You kissed me.”

Dimitri doesn't mean for it to sound like an accusation - but somehow, it still does.

Claude looks at Dimitri for a long moment, taking in the hurt in his voice, the softness in his eye. He looks, Dimitri realizes, absolutely miserable. Not the kind of misery that comes from being caught in a lie, but the kind that comes from being trapped in a world where no one will ever believe you.

“I did.” His voice is soft, fragile. “I don't expect you to believe me. But I kissed you because I wanted to.”

He looks away, looks at one of his many stacks of books, not really seeing them.

“When we captured you I thought, ‘If I can get him on stable ground, he could be king’. I thought it would be a simple thing, because I remembered the boy you were. Then when I visited you I realized everything had been much worse than I'd known. You were so different - but you were still you. I couldn't see you like that and not want to help.

“And I... got attached. I wanted you to be king, yes, I always planned that. But the rest wasn't planned. Why would I plan to want your friendship, to want you, if all I wanted to do was use you? I'm not... I don't do that, Dimitri. I manipulate, yes, and I scheme, but I don't use people like that. I'm not what they think I am.’

Claude spits out that last part, resentful, but not at Dimitri. At himself maybe, at the kind of person he’s had to be and how it makes Dimitri see him. At the world for giving him no other choice but to be this way.

“I care about you. I'm probably in love with you.” Claude says it quickly, like he’s not thinking about it, like he’s too emotional to really care about how he sounds, to carefully pick and choose his words, “I told you before, I can give you a list of the things I like about you, and none of them are 'because I can force him to become king'. You don't have to believe me - I won't blame you if you don't. But you should know that.

“You don't owe me anything. I'll support you whether or not you want to be with me. You have my friendship, always.”

That’s… that’s a lot.

Dimitri nods slowly, still not meeting Claude's eyes or even really looking at him. It's all too much to process, from he could be king to I'm probably in love with you.

In love.

Dimitri raises a hand to press against his mouth as it wells up within him and he just... he doesn't know if anyone else alive will ever say that to him. He hasn’t thought that anyone could love him again, or - or that he could feel something like that, and... and his thoughts stumble together one after another and for a brief hysterical moment, Dimitri thanks the goddess that Claude isn't malicious because Dimitri suddenly has an acute understanding of how easily he could be manipulated just by hearing something like that.

He breathes into his palm, his fingers gripping at his cheek and tries not to laugh because it would be inappropriate but also he feels like he's going insane all over again - his emotions vault everywhere between betrayal and a sudden desire to return the sentiment and feeling like he doesn't deserve this or feeling like he wants to finally push Claude against the bed and stop with this political talk already, and he wants to - he wants to do so many things that he's overloaded with it and he feels like he's going to fly out of his skin.

He needs to get a grip. He needs to focus. He needs to - could he love Claude back? Is he even capable of such a thing? Earlier today, he thought he maybe could have been, earlier today he was begging Claude not to leave him and now he wants to beg Claude for so many more things.

He swallows the lump in his throat and tries to even think about how he can respond to that - any of that, not just the casual confession, but the rest of Claude's story. He doesn't know where to start. He doesn't know how to start.

Claude intends for him to be king of Fódlan. Claude is the Almyran prince. Claude wants peace between their nations.

Claude might be in love with him.

Dimitri closes his eye but all he sees is Claude reaching a hand to him, Claude's fingers against his hair, Claude smiling at him in that open and kind way of his. Claude talking to him in the cell. Claude bandaging his wounds. Acting like the voices Dimitri hears are okay. Taking him to war councils. Hugging him when he needed to lead again. Opening his gates to the Kingdom Loyalists. Reaching for him when he turned to face the Death Knight.

“...I can’t do this.”

It's too much and he doesn't know how to process it, doesn’t even know if he can move through it right now, but if he doesn't do it soon then he'll have to do it when Edelgard is dead within the month and then the stakes will be so much higher, and Claude will leave, and...

He can't think about all of this while standing next to Claude's bed, with Claude watching him and waiting for him to say something. He needs to figure out how he feels about Claude’s plans for him, to figure out what he wants - let alone rationalize why he should have it, undeserving as he is.

He takes a deep breath. It's better that it's all out in the open now, he supposes - though Dimitri doesn't think he's uncovered even half of Claude's secrets yet.

That thought frightens him. Looking at Claude frightens him. Thinking about the next three weeks frightens him.

“I need... time.”

Dimitri manages to grit it out, hoping that it will be enough, that Claude will understand that he’s just put an enormous weight in Dimitri’s lap and maybe he didn’t intend to when they planned to meet up tonight, but this is what happened. It’s for the best, Dimitri thinks, that he found out before they got too far into this. It would have been for the best if it had happened before Claude kissed him, but - well, this is where they are.

Claude nods, rejected, looking acutely like he’s just offered Dimitri his heart at the worst possible time and had it refused. To his merit, he pulls himself together admirably quickly and moves to stand.

“I’m sorry. I told you, you don't owe me anything.” Claude tries another smile, tries to be flippant, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “You don't even owe me an answer.”

“I do.” Dimitri says it quietly, quickly, offering just the smallest argument to Claude's uncharacteristic defeatism. It would be unfair to expect an answer from Dimitri now, but he can see how he's disappointed him all the same, and it hurts to have done so.

“And I will give you one.”

It's a promise, and Dimitri is loyal and genuine and when he makes a promise he always intends to keep it. Even if this discussion keeps him up for the rest of the night, the rest of the week - he'll give Claude his answer. Claude deserves that much and so much more, so much that Dimitri desperately wishes that he could be able to give him.

Maybe someday, he will.

Dimitri turns to go then, moving toward the door and this feels so impersonal, so different than how he felt when he first walked in and they'd kissed and Claude had complimented him in a way that made him feel... embarrassed, elated, adored. He wants to feel that way again. He wants to make Claude feel that way.

But Claude is the prince of Almyra and Dimitri is to be king of Fódlan and their paths have been set since Claude first put him in that cell.

Chapter Text

Two mornings later, a lone figure makes its way up the lonely cobblestone road leading to the gates of Garreg Mach. The figure is hooded, a blue patterned scarf wrapped around their face, covered from head to toe in heavy armor that they carry as if it weighs nothing at all.

The archers stationed on the ramparts of the monastery stand at attention while the figure approaches, half-draw their bows in apprehension, but don't make a move to loose them yet. The captain stands, his hand up and clenched into a fist indicating hold as a ground soldier opens a small door to the left of the giant gate and strides out, confident, sure-footed, particularly with his hand on his sword belt and a dozen archers ready to strike.

"State your purpose," he commands, fingers curled around the hilt of his sword.

The person - a man, it's obvious now - reaches up with an unarmed hand to tug the scarf down over his face, revealing darker skin, a smattering of pale facial hair, and scarred lips.

"I'm here for his highness."

-

Dimitri meant what he said that night - every word of it, even though in retrospect he thinks that he could have phrased it a little better.

Still, almost two days later and little has changed. His thoughts whirl and he tells no one of what transpired between them or what Claude had told him. Who would he tell? The others may want to plan for Dimitri suddenly ruling all of Fódlan, but he doesn't feel the need to grace them with that information when he's still unsure if he's capable of accepting such an offer in the first place. So he keeps Claude's secrets for as long as he can, even though they distract him at all points throughout the day, enough to where the others have taken notice and asked him about it - have you had enough sleep, do you need something to eat, what's wrong? - and Dimitri never knows what to say.

His introspection is suddenly cut short partway through an early evening training session. Dimitri slashes upright at Felix with his training lance, his teeth grit as the wood narrowly misses scraping down Felix's face. The shorter man dodges it, dances around the tip of the spear gracefully, and Annette's squealing voice rings out like a piercing cry in his ears.

"Dedue!"

Dimitri turns and Felix scores a hit on his side, meaningless. The training lance falls to the ground, followed shortly by Felix's training sword.

Annette rushes past him from where she'd been practicing her magic with Mercedes, followed shortly by Mercedes herself. Sylvain moves too, but Dimitri stays rooted to the spot. He sees him, a mountain of a man standing at the gate of the training area still with his bags at his shoulder, his well-worn armor around him.

"Dimitri said you were dead!" Annette tells him, reaching for his hand, pulling him along by it so that the others can surround him happily, "I thought - oh Dedue, I'm so happy!"

Sylvain is laughing, clapping him on his shoulder, Mercedes stays a few feet away with a cheery smile, even Ingrid seems to be elated at his return, and Dimitri just stares, as if he cannot quite comprehend what he's seeing.

"So," Felix starts from where he hasn't moved behind Dimitri, reaching to pick up his sword, "the dog has come to heel to his master's side once again. Good. I was getting tired of babysitting you."

Dimitri doesn't respond - he's used to Felix's barbed words by now.

Dedue is too far away to have heard Felix and smiles at Annette's joy, curling his fingers around her hands with a nod.

"I am not surprised his highness thought that," he says and oh, his voice is so different than the voices that berate Dimitri, it's softer, gentler, and when Dedue looks up over Annette's shoulder and meets his eyes, he seems altogether a different man than the person who plagues him at night. "When we last saw one another, I was certain of my own death as well. It is only due to my fellow countrymen that I survived."

There's a bit more chatter, more 'I'm so happy to see you' and 'where have you been all this time,' but by the time that Dedue starts looking uncomfortable at the constant attention, Dimitri has come to some sort of grips with himself and moves forward.

The other Lions part like water around them, offering a path between the two men that both Dimitri and Dedue move for, until they finally meet one another and Dimitri stands face to face with his vassal and protector for the first time since Dedue threw his life away to save him, years ago.

It's... hard to believe that this is real. It's hard to believe that the Dedue who berated him, who asked him why he let him die - well, isn't. Dimitri doesn't know how to reconcile the man in his head with the man before him and he's lost, for a moment in the implication that the voice he's heard for years may never have been real at all.

Dimitri reaches a hand out, tentative and unsure because Annette can see Dedue, Felix can see him, and if he can touch him -

Dedue seems to understand without needing to be told and he catches Dimitri's shaky fingers in a warm, gloved hand. Real. Solid.

"I apologize it's taken me so long to find you," Dedue says, stalwart as ever, but there's a trace of a relieved smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, "when I heard about your slaying the Death Knight, I was far North of here. It took me some time to discover that you were traveling with the Alliance, and that Claude had stationed them at Garreg Mach."

"That's - that's alright," Dimitri manages to say to him finally, looking him over. The last time he'd seen Dedue, it was with a mass of Imperial guards between them both, Dedue's words fresh in his mind, go, please - an arrow in his bicep, a sword slash at his side, and what felt like an eternity of bodies between them both.

Dimitri had turned away from him to run. He has regretted it for years. Dedue has screamed at him for it in the dark of the night, has been so angry and so sad and Dimitri has devoted himself to avenging this loss, but if he hadn’t lost it after all…

“...how did you survive?” he asks finally, once he can find the words.

The rest of the Lions draw in a little closer, wanting to hear, save for Felix who picks up his sword and resumes training by himself.

Dedue’s story isn’t particularly gripping, but Dimitri finds that it’s good for him to listen to it all the same. The training is done for the day anyway, and so when Annette quietly suggests that they retire to the dining hall for the rest of the story, everyone agrees and off they go.

Dimitri… can’t stop looking at him. Can’t stop reaching for him, as if touching his shoulder is the only way to reassure himself that Dedue is real. Can’t stop glancing at their friends to see them staring at Dedue and ensure that they can see him too and can hear what he’s saying.

None of it feels particularly real, but after a few more hours of reminiscing, when Annette falls asleep on Mercedes’ shoulder and Sylvain and Ashe retire for the night, Dimitri is starting to believe that this might not be a dream. He doesn’t leave with the others. He feels like leaving Dedue’s side at all would be a mistake, after what happened last time.

It’s well into the late hours of the evening, when everyone else has left, that Dedue looks at him, his gaze piercing.

“You’ve changed,” he says in that calm, acknowledging way of his. Dimitri’s brows furrow in response, but he’s not sure what to say to that. Dedue has seen him at his worst, he knows of the things that haunt him - of course he’d see that Dimitri is different.

“I…” he starts, then stops, then tries again. “Much has happened since you - since we parted.”

That much, Dedue knows. He nods, sympathetic, and moves to stand, his armor creaking where it bumps against the dinner table. Dimitri feels a pang of guilt for not insisting that he change out of it earlier, to go to his rooms and unpack and relax, but the excitement of their friends and Dedue’s calm and measured way of storytelling was too engaging for him to really think of it.

“I don’t doubt it.” Now standing, Dedue watches him for a long moment, cataloguing the newness of him - his height, his hair, the dark armor. Eventually, the taller man’s hand lifts up to brush the fringe of Dimitri’s hair aside, frowning as he looks over his darkened eyepatch. “This is new.”

Dimitri pulls back, letting out a scoff and shaking his head as he turns to leave, with Dedue in tow, always behind him, as if they were boys again and Dedue was loyally following him back to their dorms, where they would part on the first floor and Dimitri would think nothing more of it, of Dedue’s unwavering loyalty and how it would get him killed one day -

“Old. It happened years ago. I don’t remember what it was.”

“I see.”

And then there’s a long pause, almost uncomfortable as they move into the cool night air. Dimitri looks up toward the moon, bathing the monastery in light while the stars burn almost as brightly beside it. It’s a good night, clear and not too cold and Dimitri stands on the edge of the balcony just outside the dining hall and looks over the lake, his arms folded across his chest.

From behind him, Dedue speaks again, dutiful and... meek?

“...Claude is new as well.”

That manages to tease a laugh out of him, though it ends with a wince rather than a smile. Dedue always seems to know how to prod at the one thing that bothers him more than anything else.

“Newer than my eyepatch, anyway.” Dimitri sighs and tries to work out what to say, how to say it in a way that won’t give himself away. Not that he wants to keep anything from Dedue, but - but some things don’t need to be said quite yet. Not when he’s still asking Claude for time.

“He… captured me after we fought at Gronder Field,” Dimitri explains, and can’t help but to glance off in the direction of the cellars, where he was held. “He wanted me to help him. He took me as his ally and we took Fort Merceus together.”

“Where you faced the Death Knight.”

Dimitri nods, thinking back on it. Has it only been a few weeks since then? It feels like longer, particularly now that so much has unraveled between himself and Claude, now that Dedue is with him. He remembers the sick feeling of anticipation, his miserable glee as blood had stained his hands again and he knows it’s not over yet, there’s still Enbarr, there’s still Edelgard…

“Claude was struck down behind enemy lines. I saved him.” And that’s… a point of pride maybe, that’s Dimitri knowing that he did something right, even if he couldn’t save anyone else, Claude still draws breath because of him, no matter how much he’s ruined the other man since.

“Of course you did,” Dedue murmurs quietly, encouragingly, and moves to stand beside him, to follow his gaze out toward the lake, “you’re a good man.”

Dimitri closes his eye at the words. A good man. If Dedue only knew the half of it…

But the thing is, he does. He’s always known Dimitri more than anyone else and he’s never willingly left his side. If Dedue can still stand by him, can still say those things after everything that Dimitri has done, then… maybe he could be a good man. Maybe he could even be a good king.

With Dedue alive, Dimitri’s childhood promise to him flares up in his gut and rekindles something warm inside of him. He said he’d rebuild Duscur. If he does nothing else, he must do that, for the dead and for the living. It’s why Dedue follows him, it’s why Dedue will risk everything for him.

“Claude said the same,” Dimitri says on a sigh.

There’s a pause, in which Dimitri realizes that he’s brought up Claude in the conversation again and he knows that Dedue is smart enough to catch it, knows that Dedue is already considering his odd alliance with him.

Still, when Dedue responds, the tone is just as even and measured as everything he’d said before.

“You seem to hold him in high regard.”

Dimitri doesn’t exactly know what to say to that. It’s true, uncomfortably so, but it stings, coming so close after his confrontation with Claude in his room. He’s still angry with him, but Dedue’s arrival has pushed that into the back of his mind temporarily, and beneath it all he just - it’s - he can’t really identify what it is that he feels, but it aches like a loss.

Dimitri, who knows loss more intimately than most, can’t seem to parse why this feels like it and why he can’t seem to let it go.

He knows and respects Dedue, but he also has enough regard for Claude that Dimitri won’t give away all of his secrets. Certainly, he can say some things to him and he intends to confide in the larger man just as they had done in their Academy days, but there are other things that he feels he must hold close to his chest until he can figure out what to do about them.

So he doesn’t respond for a long while and realizes that his silence likely speaks more volumes than any words he can say.

“...he has given me a path to Edelgard,” Dimitri finally says simply, and then continues, his jaw set tight, “and I intend to take it.”

“And after?”

Dedue’s voice is soft but not demanding. Dimitri knows what he wants, even after all these years. He knows that he must rise to it, he knows that his promises to the living must be fulfilled, just as his promises to the dead.

He turns toward his vassal, his shoulders square, and nods.

“After, I claim my birthright and take the throne of Faerghus. I retake Fhirdiad, I rebuild Duscur. Nothing else matters.”

Dedue is stoic and unexpressive but Dimitri still knows him well enough after all these years to see relief crinkle at the corners of his eyes. Still, all he does is nod gratefully and Dimitri realizes that this is the first time he’s said it, take the throne, and finds that he means it. He’ll be king of Faerghus, he’s spent the last few weeks preparing himself for that much.

The rest of the continent? He’s not so sure. But this much - this much, he can do.

"You know I will be behind you every step of the way. Our time apart has not changed my pledge."

This time, it's Dimitri's turn for a moment of relief. He thinks, wildly, that if this man before him knew what his voice had said to Dimitri all these years, he'd cut his own tongue out.

Still. Dimitri falters, remembering Claude's plan for him, remembering his own reluctance. Dedue's loyalty is a gift he could never ask for and would never earn, much like the loyalty of everyone else around him, much like what Claude has been trying to give him.

Dedue senses the change in him but says nothing and Dimitri lets it linger for a long few moments before sighing.

"I feel that I can never be the man they need me to be - that you think I am. I've stained my hands with blood, I've become a tool for the dead. Maybe… maybe years ago when I could remember my father's face, but now…" He trails off, unsure, his voice just a low whisper and Dedue says nothing and Dimitri has to look up just to ensure he's still there. He is - isn't he?

He looks solid but Dimitri is afraid to touch him. There are shapes behind him which seem just as solid, shapes that he knows can't be there. Has this all been a dream? Did he imagine Annette talking to Dedue? Has he been walking through the halls conversing with a dead man again?

"I'm afraid," he chokes out, teeth gritting, "that when I close my eyes, you'll be gone. I've seen you - so many times, and you were never there. And now, you've crawled out of the grave to guide me back to a crown I'll never deserve. I can't avenge you and take the throne both. It will destroy me to see this through."

There's a glimmer of a shadow on Dedue's face. It stretches and shifts, pulling him into the darkness and Dimitri's heart trembles with the dawning knowledge that he hasn't actually been real at all.

"Then don't," Dedue says, his voice lost to the wind as his body flickers, shimmers, and the darkness overtakes him, "if I had died, I would not want you to seek your grave next to mine in the name of avenging me. I would want you to live the life I died for: the life of a king, of the man who will bring peace to this nation, of -"

Dedue is cut off as Dimitri flails a hand forward blindly and strikes at the plating on his chest. Solid enough to bruise his knuckles.

" - your highness?"

Silvery steel spirals out from where he'd struck and Dimitri blinks away the vision, finds that the darkness shrouding Dedue had been only in his mind, which clears itself when he’s made contact. Elation and dread ripple together in Dimitri's chest: Dedue is actually real, and he's losing his mind. Maybe he’s lost it a long time ago.

"...it's nothing," he murmurs, trying to calm himself, to stop his heart from pounding. He swallows bile in his throat and sets his jaw tight, forcing himself to look up toward his vassal. "Forgive me. I appreciate you telling me this. It seems I have much to consider."

“I understand,” Dedue says on a nod, always understanding, always enduring Dimitri’s strange fits like these.

There isn’t much else to say. They retire and Dimitri walks Dedue to his door, lingers outside of it after Dedue has gone in, questions if any of this was real or if it was just some strange fever dream.

He hasn’t had any hallucinations this severe in weeks - a few months even, but he knows it’s possible. Now that he’s starting to recover, he can begin to understand the depths that his mind has gone to and it’s frightening to think that he was ever in such a state. To think that he could fall into such a state again.

But he touched him. He felt so solid. Annette spoke to him, Felix talked about him. He’s there. He has to be. Dimitri finds himself pacing for the better part of the night, reminding himself of the facts, reminding himself of what Dedue (it was Dedue, it was) had said to him.

The next morning finds Dedue outside of the dormitories waiting for him, just as he’d done years ago. Dimitri lets out a long breath, clasps a hand at his shoulder again (real, real, real), and the two of them make their way to the dining hall and to the rest of their day.

_

The work of waging a war is never-ending - which, in this case, Claude finds himself somewhat grateful for. It’s only possible to beat yourself up over your mistakes for so long when there’s always another commander requiring your input, another noble needing your undivided attention. It means that Claude doesn’t have time to be consumed with regret - or it would, perhaps, except that Claude seems to be very good at emotionally multitasking.

As it turns out, he’s perfectly capable of regretting his conversation with Dimitri while engaged in a long discussion over their logistics of sending a troop of pegasus knights to support the Bridge of Myrddin. He even finds it impossible to keep from remembering Dimitri’s mouth on his while reading a scout’s report on Imperial troop movements.

Claude doesn’t let it distract him, at least. He can’t do that, he can’t afford to. All of Fódlan’s fate could end up resting on a single decision, one that he won’t even know until it’s over, and Claude will not let his foolish emotions endanger what he’s trying to do here.

What they’re all trying to do here.

So it ends up feeling like a gentle, self-inflicted sort of torture. He sees Dimitri, of course. They are fighting this war together, they see each other in the council room and in the halls of the monastery. Claude tries to give him space, give him time, treat him with the politeness and care of a fellow commander and a friend, but naturally it isn’t that easy.

Are they friends, still? Or has Claude managed to ruin that with his honesty?

It needed to be done. Claude believes that still, through all the regret. He wanted, wants Dimitri so badly, and after the training ground - after those kisses, Dimitri’s mouth on his, hungry and warm and perfect, Claude knows there was nothing else to be done.

Dimitri has been through enough. Claude could not let things progress without some kind of honesty. He didn’t plan it, exactly, but - well, Dimitri may think he’s manipulative now, may think he’s untrustworthy and a liar, but if Claude had kept everything from him then he would have thought that of himself.

Dimitri deserved the truth, and Claude gave it, and he doesn’t regret that.

What he regrets, he supposes, is the necessity of making Dimitri king. Even if Dimitri hates it, even if he doesn’t want it, what Claude said will remain true: everyone will want it from it. Claude is no different, it’s only that perhaps he sees Dimitri more clearly.

Given time to heal, Dimitri could be a great king. Claude doesn’t think this because of his bloodlines or his upbringing, but because of his strength, his sense of justice, that hidden streak of kindness that makes him who he is.

Claude doesn’t regret wanting to make Dimitri king. He regrets forcing Dimitri to do something he doesn’t wish to do.

He meant it when he said that Dimitri didn’t owe him an answer, but he knows Dimitri’s honesty, his earnest nature. Likely he feels that he does owe Claude that, that he must find a way to respond to the things Claude has asked from him. So Claude gives him time and space, and if he finds himself missing the moments they spent together - well, that is only his fault, after all.

There are more things he regrets. Things he tries not to think of, things he should not have said.

Work helps a little. Not enough.

The monastery has adjusted quickly to the arrival of the Kingdom loyalists. Claude sees the former Blue Lions on the grounds, but rarely has the time or need to talk to them, though they were all reasonably pleased to see him again - and he them. But he hardly has time for even his own friends, and Dimitri is clearly still adjusting to their presence, and so Claude gives them all space.

Even so, he is naturally notified as soon as Dedue arrives at the gates.

Claude ensures that Dimitri was notified, and then - well, then he gets back to work. He’s happy for Dimitri, ridiculously so, he remembers the guilt and pain that weighed him down when he spoke of Dedue. He remembers Dedue, a quiet shadow always at Dimitri’s side, and he wonders how things might have been different if Dedue had managed to remain there. Would he have been a stabilizing influence? Would Dimitri have descended so far without that final apparent death to spur him on?

But what-might-have-beens don’t really matter, in the end. Dedue is alive (a miracle, one Claude would very much like to know more about) and he knows that Dimitri’s emotions must be running high. He is glad, desperately glad that Dimitri has this, that his friend lives, that perhaps another piece of him can begin to heal.

He intends to speak to Dedue eventually, but there’s no rush. Claude believes it’s far more important for him to be with Dimitri, with the other Lions, his friends and allies who missed him like a limb. He expects to seek Dedue out in a few days, perhaps a week, and speak to him about his escape and his miraculous survival and - well, Dimitri.

He doesn’t expect Dedue to seek him out, instead. Later he thinks that was a bit foolish of him. Claude is, for all intents and purposes, the lord and commander here at Garreg Mach, even if politics would technically say that Dimitri (as king-in-exile of Faerghus) is above him. He is sheltering Dimitri, so he is lord here, and so Dedue - proper, serious Dedue - seeks him out.

He comes to Claude during one of the rare times Claude is alone, poring over maps and troop movements in the council room. Claude looks up from his work as the door opens, expecting an Alliance noble or another report from a scout, or perhaps one of his Golden Deer. Instead it’s Dedue, standing in the doorway, tall and familiar.

Claude looks at him for a moment, noticing the changes - the hair, the scars, the air of weariness. They all seem to have it these days, it’s one of the costs of fighting this war, but Dedue carries it more heavily than most. And he would, wouldn’t he? Undoubtedly, he’s been through a lot.

“I hope I am not interrupting,” Dedue says, his voice low but enough to carry across the room to Claude.

“No,” Claude says, “not at all. Come in.”

He stands and comes around the table, intending to greet Dedue with a clasp of hands, to welcome him as a friend and ally. Instead, when he is only a stride or two away, Dedue kneels.

He does it with a grace that Claude feels ought to be incongruous, but suits him perfectly. He rests an arm on his knee and lowers his head, deeply respectful, and Claude stops in his tracks.

Claude is treated with respect, as the leader of the Alliance and commander of its armies, but this kind of thing isn’t common - to say the least. The constant change, the push and pull of Alliance politics, means that while Claude is treated with respect, he is not treated as their liege lord. He never has been, not by anyone.

He’s not sure it sits well with him. Even stranger, he’s not sure it doesn’t. Part of Claude wants to laugh, to act as casual with Dedue as he would have with any student at the Academy, but something stops him. He says nothing, because he doesn’t know what to say.

“Claude von Riegan,” Dedue says, “I wish to express my deepest gratitude for all that you have done for my lord.”

And perhaps Claude ought to have expected that. He opens his mouth to say something - there is some impulse to laugh it off, to say thanks are unnecessary - but Dedue isn’t finished yet.

“I believe that your actions saved his life, and perhaps more than that.” Dedue raises his head, meeting Claude’s uncertain gaze. “I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to do so in whatever way is within my power.”

He falls silent then, looking at Claude, and Claude still doesn’t know what to say.

“You can stand,” he says finally, summoning his usual smile. “And I’m gonna say it now, even though I know it won’t change anything - you don’t owe me any debt, Dedue.”

“You are correct,” Dedue says, though he does stand, slowly and with some weariness. “It changes nothing.”

“Ah well. I had to try.” Claude gestures to the pitcher and glasses on the table. “Take a drink with me? I’m afraid I’ve only got water right now.”

Dedue looks at him for a long, silent moment, and then nods. “I would like that.”

Claude pours them both water, and Dedue sits, and Claude considers him.

“We didn’t talk much at school,” Claude says, an obvious fact. Dedue didn’t talk to that many people outside his house. They exchanged polite greetings, little more. Dedue was always an interesting puzzle, but Claude never had the time to devote to solving him. He doesn’t now, either, he knows.

“We didn’t,” Dedue acknowledges.

“Maybe we should have. Two outsiders,” Claude says, and smiles. “We could have helped each other out.” But Dedue had always had Dimitri, and - in some ways, Claude is envious of that. Back then, he didn’t think he needed anyone, and maybe to some extent he still thinks that, but he can’t help but wonder how different things might have been if he’d had anyone who had accepted him as easily and completely as Dimitri accepted Dedue.

At least, he thinks, he can be certain Dimitri’s rejection wasn’t because of his Almyran blood. At least there’s that. Dimitri, for all that he is, for all that he’s become, has never been the sort to hate people simply for what they are.

It’s a rarer quality than people would like to believe. Claude knows that well.

“If we had been friends back then, there would have been rumors about you,” Dedue says, calm and practical.

And - that’s true. There were already so many things said about Claude, and surely more that he never learned about. He didn’t avoid Dedue because of that, but it’s entirely possible things would have been even more difficult if they’d been known to spend time together. Claude knows well the things people say about the folk of Duscur.

“I love it when people spread rumors about me,” Claude grins. “Anyway, the past is the past. We can be friends now, I hope.”

Dedue eyes him, and Claude thinks he may see some suspicion there. He wonders what Dimitri might have said to him, but dismisses that quickly. Dimitri would not share Claude’s secrets - Claude knows that. He trusts that, completely. But some of the things Claude said to him aren’t secrets at all.

“I want your help with this war, of course. But I want more than that.” Claude leans forward, eyes steady on Dedue. “I want your help when it’s over. I want to change this place - I want it to be somewhere that people like us can live without being hated. Without being treated differently.”

“That won’t be easy,” says Dedue, a vast understatement.

“I know. But whatever happens - with the war, afterward - I think your help will be vital. You’re from Duscur, and you’re the right hand of the King of Faerghus.” Claude is serious, then. “I’m sure you know I want Dimitri to be king of all Fódlan.”

Even if Dimitri didn’t tell Dedue that already, Claude doubts it will come as a surprise. Who else but Dimitri? Claude is the only other possible choice, and that’s never been where his ambitions lie.

“I know you will be by his side. All I ask is that you help him reach out - to Duscur, to Brigid, to Almyra. Dagda, Sreng - we need to break down the barriers between Fódlan and the rest of the world. You, of all people, can help with that.” A man from a hated people, treated as a trusted friend and vassal by the king? Simply Dedue’s existence alone will help with that.

And if Claude could be by his side as well -

But of course that’s not worth thinking about.

“I understand what you’re asking,” Dedue says, slow and careful. “But you don’t need me for that. Dimitri wants the same thing.”

Claude nods. “I know he does. But he hasn’t lived it the way you have. There are things he might miss, things he might not understand.” He looks down at his glass of water, untouched. He wishes it were wine. “And I know that, in truth, I don’t need to ask this. You will help him whether I ask it or not. But I am asking.”

“I will,” Dedue says. “You know that I will. You know, also, that he doesn’t want to rule Fódlan.”

“I know,” Claude says, summoning a smile to his face again, trying not to think about all the words he and Dimitri exchanged. “And if he decides he won’t be, well, I’ll figure something else out. But Fódlan is never going to let him retire to a normal life, even if he doesn’t want to rule - and for all that Dimitri may not want it, he is a kind man, and he feels responsible for his land and for the people he cares for. Perhaps now he feels that is only Faerghus, but I believe he won't be able to stand by idly after this is all over.”

He doesn’t mention the alternative: that Dimitri may not survive this. He doesn’t mention it because he doesn’t particularly want to think about it. He has, of course - Claude hasn’t gotten where he is by not considering every possibility - but Dimitri’s death is not something he wants to dwell on for long.

Dedue, always quiet, is watching him with those rather too perceptive eyes. “You think well of him.”

Claude laughs. “That’s no surprise, right?”

Dedue shakes his head, and there may be the faintest shadow of a smile on his lips. Or Claude could just be imagining it.

“Well, until then,” Claude says, gaze returning to the papers arrayed before him, “I know you don’t need me to ask this of you either, but... please take care of him.”

It feels strange, asking that. It feels strange to think that Claude is the one who has been doing that. It feels strange to have the sensation that he is giving up something.

Dimitri was never his.

He smiles at Dedue, because that’s the easiest thing to do, and it’s rather a comfort to know that Dedue absolutely does not know him well enough to be able to tell it’s fake.

“I won’t keep you. I’m sure he’ll want you near him until he’s reassured himself you’re real.”

At that, Dedue stands. Claude expects a nod - what he gets is a bow, not as low as the first one, but respectful and true. Then Dedue leaves, and Claude is alone again.

He spends some time with his eyes on the door, thinking, before getting back to work.

-

It’s a couple nights later that Hilda knocks on his door.

It’s not much of a surprise. He had a meeting with her and a couple of the other Alliance nobles about increasing the supplies they were sending, now that their forces had grown with the addition of Dimitri’s loyalists. It had gone about as well as could be expected, which means the shouting died down after only thirty minutes or so and Claude had only endured a few muttered aspersions on his parenthood.

They’d gotten the supplies, which is what really matters, thanks in part to Hilda’s genius with men who think they knew better than her. Somehow she always manages to turn their condescension into assistance, a feat which Claude greatly admires.

She waits for his response, which is a bit of a surprise, since he knows she can see the light under his door. Where else would he be? But as soon as he calls for her to come in, she’s pushing the door open, a smile on her face and bottle of wine in her hand.

“Oh, perfect,” Claude says, and retrieves a pair of goblets from his desk. It takes some looking - they’re on their sides, underneath a stack of maps - but he knows they’re clean.

“Thought you might need a break,” Hilda says, with a pointed look at the papers and books spread around the room. It looks like a mess, and it is, but unfortunately none if it is old mess. Claude brings his work to bed with him, a loyal if demanding partner, and there’s always something new and different to worry about.

“I really do,” he says, and she pours them both wine, and they spend a few minutes absolutely eviscerating the nobles they dealt with earlier - their hair, how they talk, one’s officious manner of holding himself. It makes Claude feel much better.

“I’m surprised you knocked,” Claude says after a bit, pouring himself another glass of wine. Two is usually his limit. He doesn’t have much of a head for alcohol, and he can’t afford to be too far in his cups - they’re in the midst of a war, after all, and what would happen if someone came for Claude and he was too drunk to be of use?

Two gets him pleasantly warm and more than a bit tipsy, but not so far gone he can’t do what might need to be done.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be alone,” says Hilda with a knowing grin, raising her eyebrows at him. He rolls his eyes.

“As if I would be anything else.” He’s tried not to think about it, he tries to focus on - well, just about anything else, but the look on Hilda’s face bring unbidden memories to the surface. Dimitri’s mouth on his, on the floor of the training grounds.

Everything going wrong.

He wishes Hilda were not quite as observant as she is.

“I did notice he hasn’t been following you around as much lately,” Hilda says, sipping her wine, eyes on him. “Lonely?”

Claude sighs, and thinks about saying nothing. Thinks about changing the subject, and he knows that she would let him if he did. Hilda always knows when he’s hiding something, but she also is never inclined to pry if it’s something he doesn’t want to talk about.

But who can he talk to about this, if not her?

“I did something stupid,” he says, finally.

“Wow! You? Do something stupid?” Hilda’s voice is teasing, but it turns more gentle, and Claude knows that means she’s seen something in his face.

“Actually,” he says, and smiles, “I did a lot of stupid stuff, but I’m just gonna tell you the absolute stupidest.”

“I’m listening,” Hilda says, leaning her elbows on his desk.

“I told Dimitri-” Claude pauses, takes a sip of wine for strength, and continues, “-that I was probably in love with him.”

“Oh,” Hilda says, “Claude.

He knows how stupid it was. Everything else he said to Dimitri - that needed to be said. That needed to be out in the open, before they could do anything else. He doesn’t regret any of it, even if Dimitri hates him for it, even if it means that what little chance they had has already withered on the vine.

But that?

He regrets that.

“I didn’t mean to. It just - slipped out.”

“Did you mean it?” Hilda’s eyes are too sharp, and so Claude doesn’t meet them.

“It doesn’t matter if I meant it.” Yes, he meant it. He should not have said it, he should have cut his own tongue out first, but he knows - he knew then - that he meant it. But Dimitri wasn’t ready to hear it, didn’t want to hear it, and after everything else it was too much. Would have been too much even without the rest.

It’s not like Claude.

“It does matter,” Hilda says, but she knows him well enough that she doesn’t pursue that. “I didn’t think he was the type to avoid you because of something like that, though.”

“Oh, it’s not that. It’s because I want him to be king.” Claude waves his hand, brushing away that little meaningless tidbit. Hilda already knows all of his plans along those lines, anyway. “He didn’t like that. But then I said - the other thing.” He wants to wince, remembering how easily it had slipped out. The look on Dimitri’s face.

He finishes his wine.

“I,” he says, feeling it now, that light feeling in his head, his body, “am an idiot.”

“And you have the weirdest taste in men,” Hilda says complacently, pouring the rest of the bottle into her cup.

Claude looks at her, and she catches his eye, and then they’re both laughing. And it feels all right, even if just for a moment. He may have destroyed any chance he had with Dimitri, but he’s not completely alone. Not anymore.

_

Despite all of this, Dimitri hasn't forgotten his promise to Claude and he hasn't forgotten what Claude wants him to do, who Claude is, how Claude feels toward him. He still doesn't know if he can be king of all Fódlan and he doesn't know if he can be worthy of Claude's affections, let alone reciprocate - but he knows how he feels even after all of that, even if Claude is going to leave someday, even if Claude began their relationship with the thought to use him as an ally.

He still wants him. He still thinks about the day in the training hall, the way Claude kissed him. He still thinks about the excitement he felt in going to Claude's room that night, and he still imagines Claude's hands on him late at night when he can't think of anything else and guiltily satisfies his most brutal need.

Part of him knows that if he wants Claude and if he takes him like this, then he must agree to Claude's plan. And it isn't - Claude would never present him with that, he would say emphatically that this isn't the case, but Dimitri isn't a fool. Claude loves his ideals so much so that he would work tirelessly for years for them to come to fruition - he would leave Fódlan and Dimitri both to claim the throne in Almyra and try to make it a better place. If Dimitri refuses his plan then everything splinters and his dreams are so much further away, and while Dimitri thinks that Claude could maybe still love him after that... he doesn't think he'd be able to live with himself after crushing such a beautiful dream that they both admittedly share.

And so in the end, he must accept. The crown, the fact that Claude will leave, and the fact that Claude loves him... or he accepts none of it, and denying Claude's feelings now somehow feels like more of a crippling blow to him than the prospect of being king.

Dimitri feels like he has no choice and he spends another day angry about that, angry at Claude for putting him in this position and being so nice about it, angry at Rodrigue for subtly beginning to set plans in motion for a Kingdom coronation in two months' time, angry at Lorenz and Hilda for speaking freely to Claude when he feels like he hasn't been able to string together a sentence to him in days. He takes his anger out on Felix and then Dedue in the training area and doesn't think about how Claude had kissed him with dirt in his hair and doesn't think about how he'd almost had him on the ground, right there.

Your form is off, Felix had hissed, and Dimitri threw his training weapons to the ground and stormed out.

Claude. Claude. Dimitri is awake for hours thinking about him, thinking about how he needs to give an answer and how there's only one answer he can give, but the answer will change so many things and make him a person that he doesn't believe he can be anymore. But he - he has to try, for Claude and for Dedue, and even for Felix. If he doesn't, then where would that leave him?

He owes it to his friends. He owes it to Fódlan, and he owes it to the dead. The voices whispering to him through the walls never seem to think that he’s capable of this, but now he has a shred of doubt that they aren’t real, now he has something concrete, something to hold onto. Now, he will do what needs to be done.

Chapter Text

Claude is still focusing on work.

There's a lot of it to focus on. In fact, he never seems to run out of things he needs to do, so it's easy to let it distract him. The fact of the matter is, he isn't waiting for an answer. In all ways, he meant it entirely when he said Dimitri didn't owe him one. He gives Dimitri his space, but doesn't avoid him - what Claude wants, really, is to make it so that whatever pressure there is doesn't matter. So that they can just be friends again.

Of course, it's not exactly easy. He spends a couple late nights angry at himself, angry that he let his emotions spill over in a way that he's never done before. He's never felt like this about someone, and it made him push his feelings onto Dimitri in a way that he now knows is - frankly - asking too much. He's put Dimitri in a bad position, and while he didn't intend to, that doesn't make a difference.

So he focuses on all the endless things he needs to do to prepare for their march on Enbarr. He practices, putting arrows through targets again and again. He collects reports from scouts and spies, he sends messages, he order supplies and surveys troops. It doesn't end. It helps to have so much to focus on.

But he knows that Dimitri is keeping his distance. He knows it's his own fault. He tries not to let it hurt.

It’s not only that, he knows - or so he tells himself. Dedue is back, and Dimitri has responsibilities, friends and vassals who demand his attention. It isn’t only that he’s angry at Claude. Knowing that helps a little.

Tonight, Claude is up late. He has been often - solidifying details, creating plans until he's tired enough to sleep without thinking too much. He's working at his desk, a map spread out before him and sheets of paper covered in small handwriting scattered across it, one candle burning and nothing else. The knock startles him.

He doesn't know who would visit him this late at night. If it was an emergency, the knock would be louder, pounding meant to get his attention. Someone with a message, maybe? He rubs his eyes and gets the door.

And there is Dimitri, quiet and tall, dressed casually and with an unreadable look on his face.

Almost immediately Claude regrets opening the door, but for entirely shallow reasons. He knows he's a bit of a mess. He hasn't been sleeping very well, for so many reasons. His fingers are ink-stained and he's dressed for the bed that he hadn't quite made it to, in loose pants and a soft shirt.

He'd rather look put-together in front of Dimitri. He'd rather - well, look his best. He would have cleaned up, if he'd known, but he didn't expect this.

“Oh - hello.” Sure, Claude didn't expect this, but still he smiles. It's the first time Dimitri has sought him out since the last time they were in his room together. Pathetically, all shallowness aside, Claude is just happy to see him. Perhaps he can mend the damage he's done to their friendship. “You're up late.”

Dimitri does not respond immediately. Not with words.

He kisses Claude in the doorway, suddenly and without warning. There’s so much need in it, all the unease of the last few days, the hours, minutes, seconds it’s been since they last kissed one another, all rolled into one collision that feels as inevitable as the sunrise. Dimitri presses closer with a hand on Claude's jaw, pushing him further backward into his room without breaking the kiss.

There’s no way Claude could possibly have expected this. It throws him off his guard and comes as close to sweeping him off his feet as anything ever has. He stumbles backwards as Dimitri moves into the room but he doesn't pull away, even though he knows he probably should. Don't they need to talk? Shouldn't they figure things out?

But does it really matter, in the end? Claude doesn't need an answer. If Dimitri is here with him, kissing him, it's because he wants to be - and whatever the motives behind that, Claude is fine with it. Maybe Dimitri is just worked up and needs a release, maybe he wants a distraction, maybe he really does want to be with Claude. Does it matter which of those it is, if he's here?

It does. Claude can't really pretend otherwise, but he doesn't want to demand an answer, either. Right now, in this moment, all he can think about is Dimitri, Dimitri's lips on his, his hand on Claude's face. His own hands come up, catching hold of Dimitri's arms, but not to push him away. He holds onto him, pulls him closer, kisses him again. Moments ago he was sleepy, poring over maps and making notes, idly thinking about trying to get some rest. Now his whole body is alive with desire.

He wants to lead Dimitri to the bed, push him down onto it, peel his shirt off and trace the scars he finds with his tongue. He wants more, he wants to know how Dimitri tastes. He's thought about it. He wants to know what he'll sound like when he comes, if he'll cry out, if he'll say Claude's name, if he'll be totally silent. He wants to know what happens when Dimitri loses control. He wants to see Dimitri want him, he wants to feel Dimitri give in to that desire.

He wants - so much more.

He manages to stop himself before he gets carried away, before he does anything more than hold on to Dimitri and kiss him like his life depends on it. He doesn't pull away, not really, he's not sure he can handle any distance between them right now. But he stops just for a moment, just look enough to breathe, long enough to look at Dimitri.

“Hey. You don't have to do this,” he says.

He's breathless, flushed already, still holding on to Dimitri like he’s the only thing keeping Claude afloat. He just needs to know that Dimitri knows what he's doing. He doesn't need the reason yet - he's not sure he wants to know if this is just Dimitri letting off steam or something more. But he needs to know that this isn't - a mistake, a miscalculation, Dimitri trying to save their friendship. He needs to know that Dimitri is actually here because he wants Claude.

Dimitri noses after him when Claude breaks the kiss with a soft noise in the back of his throat. He lifts a hand to Claude's hair, brushing his thumb along the soft waves of it, breathless and flushed with the ferocity of their kiss. After a moment when it’s clear that Claude isn’t kissing him again, Dimitri lowers his head, pressing their cheeks together with the scrap of fabric over his ruined eye scraping against Claude's cheekbone.

“...I accept,” he finally says, whispering it into Claude's ear. “I will be your king. I will protect the weak and rebuild what was lost. I will honor your return to Almyra and meet you as an equal in all things. I will - we will create a peace together, you and I.”

Claude’s heart beats harder in his chest. He didn’t need an answer, he wouldn’t have demanded one, but this, after Dimitri’s anger, after these long days of silence between them - “Are you sure?”

Dimitri steps back, but doesn’t let go of him. Just far enough so they can both breathe, just far enough so Dimitri’s mere presence isn’t overwhelming him, isn’t making his knees go weak.

“I’m... sure of my decision,” Dimitri says, slow, as if he is choosing his words carefully. “I don’t know that I can be the king Fódlan needs, but..” His gaze flickers to Claude, steady. “I’ve spent enough time in the darkness. I may never be the person they - you - want me to be, but I will try.”

Claude raises a hand, brushing his fingers against Dimitri’s cheek, the warmth of his skin a distraction. He wants to say that he believes in Dimitri, that he will even if Dimitri doesn’t believe in himself. It’s the truth, after all, though perhaps Dimitri already knows it. But Dimitri speaks again before Claude can find the words.

“I was devoting myself to the ones I had lost.” Dimitri’s voice is quiet now, and he isn’t quite looking at Claude. Claude wonders if he is haunted, if he is looking at the ghosts that fill his mind, his ears. “But there are those still living who I can protect. Who I must protect.” Unconsciously, he moves against Claude’s touch, pressing his cheek to Claude’s hand. Claude, unable to look away, brushes a thumb over his cheekbone, and Dimitri’s eye flickers back to him.

“I know what your dreams are. I believe in them - in you. I was… angry.” He takes a breath, shuddering, steps closer to Claude, and Claude finds it hard to think. “But I think I understand better now. I’m sorry it took me this long.”

Claude lets his hand fall, he looks at Dimitri, and all he wants in the world, in that moment, is the man in front of him.

“So… I will be your king,” Dimitri says, and he nudges back to capture Claude's lips in another kiss, moving closer toward him, resting his other hand on his hip where he can feel the warmth of his skin through his night clothes. When he speaks again, it's barely intelligible, muttered against Claude's lips.

“But I want you - I need you now, first.”

Claude's emotions are a jumble. He didn't expect this certainly, this quiet acceptance of everything Claude had asked of Dimitri. This decision to take on the same mission that Claude has been working towards, to unite the land and bring it peace. He wanted Dimitri to agree to it, of course, because he didn't want to feel like he was forcing Dimitri onto the throne - but he didn't expect this unconditional promise.

If Claude hadn't already fallen, he would have certainly found himself lost in this moment.

“I'm yours.” He whispers, a puff of breath against Dimitri's lips, and then he's kissing him again, with all the need and desire he held back until this moment. He moves a step closer, until he's pressed right up against Dimitri, the warm line of their bodies against each other. “All of me.”

And really, that's been true for awhile. Claude's not the sort to stray or to look around when there's someone he wants - which is a rare enough occurrence as it is. There's really never been anyone who could stake any kind of a claim on Claude, not for more than a night or two, and now there's Dimitri, and Claude will give him any kind of claim he wishes.

In between kisses, Claude's hands tug at the hem of Dimitri's shirt, pulling it up so he can reach under and slide his fingertips across Dimitri's stomach. He expects scars, he's not concerned about any of that - they've both been in battle often enough, and Dimitri has been through so much, that Claude fears nothing that he might find. He only wants to respect whatever boundaries Dimitri has, except he also really wants to touch him, and so he does.

“Stop me if I go too far.” He's really breathless now. Claude knows that, despite his rather meager experience, it's probably more than Dimitri's. And he wants so much, he's worried it'll be too much - so he has to trust that Dimitri will say something if it gets too intimate, too insistent, too much. Otherwise Claude doesn't think he'll be able to stop himself.

Dimitri hums a gentle murmur of encouragement and leans in for another biting kiss, unable to just - stop kissing him - and pulls his hands back just for a moment, just long enough to reach for his shirt and tug it over his head and drop it onto the floor before pulling Claude close to him again to mouth at his throat, a hungry and insatiable thing.

Claude has seen him without a shirt before, back when they'd first met again, and even though those were vastly different circumstances, he knows what to expect. Dimitri is lean and muscular with the kind of body that's only just recently beginning to recover from having far too many demands on it with too few meals in between. Years of living on the run with no healing magic and picking fights with every patrolling imperial group on the road has left him with more than his fair share of scars and they take a myriad of shapes and colors across his skin: white and faded at his bicep, pockmarked and circular at his shoulder (that fateful arrow from Gronder Field, Claude remembers), raised and pinking along his ribs.

Dimitri doesn't seem to feel self conscious about any of it, though, and continues working down Claude's throat, tongue tracing the dip of his collarbone while his hands drift downward to tug at the offending clothing that is beginning to get in the way of his mouth.

Dimitri pulls back enough to look at Claude from under his hair, his blue eye intense and too far into this to question himself now.

“Should we -” Dimitri’s voice is not quite hesitant, but not quite certain either. “- your bed?”

Claude traces his fingers along the scars he can reach, along his ribs, over unscarred skin. Just touching Dimitri, accepting everything that he feels and wanting more, always more.

“Yeah,” Claude says, his response heated and breathless. This is more than he expected, honestly - but so are Dimitri's kisses. Unpracticed but hungry, and the way he looks at Claude is... well, no one's looked at him like that before.

Claude steps away long enough to peel his own shirt off and drop it on the floor while Dimitri just watches him with an expression that can only be defined as ravenous. Claude has his fair share of scars, though nothing like Dimitri's - he's always had a healer within reach, able to mend his wounds before they get too bad, leaving him with only thin silvery scars stretching across brown skin, memorabilia of arrows that got too close and swords that passed his guard. He's been lucky, or maybe it's just the way that he fights: in the air, arrows from above, dodging everything that he can.

He doesn't think about that. He only thinks about being with Dimitri. The bed is close, since his room isn’t very large. He catches the other man’s arm and pulls him to it, pushing him back to sit on it. Dimitri stumbles back when he's pushed toward the bed, and Claude should probably wait, should probably take his time, but he can’t.

Instead, he climbs onto the bed, straddling Dimitri's lap, which gives him just enough height to curl his hand around the back of Dimitri's neck and lean down for another kiss, and another. He's used to Dimitri being taller than him, but this gives him a few inches of height, and he takes advantage of it to tangle his fingers in Dimitri's hair and press kisses along his cheek and jaw.

“Goddess - look at you -”

He trails his free hand down Dimitri's shoulder, wanting to touch every part of him while Dimitri wraps his arms around Claude’s waist, his fingers tracing slowly up the indent of his spine. Chest to chest like this, with Claude's legs slotted carefully around Dimitri's, Claude shifts his weight just slightly and he can feel Dimitri surging upward as if stung by a shock of electricity, the muscles in his arms tightening around him to keep him close. For the first time, Claude can feel the brush of Dimitri's rapidly-firming cock against his thigh.

“Claude -” Dimitri breathes his name in a rush, tipping his head so that Claude can kiss at his neck, lowering one of his arms so that his forearm is circled around Claude's hips and he can tug him even closer. “I've- I've never-”

This isn’t a surprise. Dimitri's world ended at thirteen, he'd spent the next five years disregarding everything save for his vengeance, and the next five after that on the run and without anyone to give him safe harbor. It's no surprise that he has no experience in relationships, and given his singleminded drive, no real shock that he hasn't simply climbed into bed with someone for warmth in the time between now and then.

It's hard to pay attention to anything but the heat of Dimitri's body, the press of skin against skin, how much he wants to just push himself against the weight of Dimitri and move. But Claude wants this to be good, he wants to make Dimitri feel good. He'd guessed, of course, that Dimitri probably hadn't done this before - but not because he acts inexperienced now.

If anything, it's the opposite, Dimitri's hungry instincts are appealing to Claude in a way he maybe ought to be a little embarrassed about. People have wanted him before, but... just for some fun, a few hours spent together, nothing serious, no particular interest in him. Not like this, where when Dimitri kisses him Claude feels like he would be happy letting himself be devoured, where the sheer burning fire of need they share underlies everything.

Claude's never wanted anyone like this. He's never been wanted like this.

But he also knows, when he can stop and think for a moment (which, to be fair, is incredibly difficult) that Dimitri probably hasn't either. That no matter how much Claude wants - and he does, so much - he has to try to have some kind of responsibility, some kind of care. He wants this to be good for Dimitri. He doesn't want to go too fast, too far, too soon and make a mistake.

Of course, he doesn't want to stop, either.

“It's okay,” he murmurs.

He's not really sure what more to say than that, what kind of reassurance he should give. It's said in a rush against Dimitri's skin, and then Claude places another kiss on his neck. He settles back, pulling away a little, but only so he can trail his hand down Dimitri's abdomen. Only so he can get a little more range of motion, because -

“Can I touch you?”

Dimitri's pants - loose as they are, meant for sleeping in - are in the way. Ideally Claude would like them off, but then he would have to get off Dimitri, and he doesn't particularly want to. He just... wants to get his hands on Dimitri, and if Dimitri has never done anything, then Claude wants to give him everything. They’re both hard, and while Claude just wants to press against him and move together, he also wants more. He wants to give Dimitri all the pleasure he's able to.

“Yes,” Dimitri says, barely managing to get it out. He can't really hold Claude as closely with Claude perched on his lap like this and so Dimitri leans back on the bed with his arms behind him, balancing on his palms so that Claude has the space for everything he wants to do to him.

“Please.”

It's a quiet request and Dimitri bites his lip while Claude works into his pants, his breath coming in a hitching gasp when Claude finally touches him, skin on skin. He's already half hard and he reacts quickly to Claude’s touch, cock twitching into his confident grasp. Dimitri must want to move against him, Claude can tell in the way his hips jerk just slightly at the first touch of skin, the way his muscles go tense with his rippling power, but he holds himself carefully still. It’s a good thing too, with Claude straddling him as precariously as he is - it wouldn’t take much to accidentally knock him off.

Dimitri lets out a soft sound through his gritted teeth and that - that, the inescapable proof that Dimitri is enjoying this, goes straight to Claude's head. He can't quite believe that he's actually allowed to do this, that he's allowed to touch Dimitri, to be this close to him. That Dimitri wants him here. Wants him.

Luckily, his own pants are loose enough that things aren't getting uncomfortable for him quite yet, because right now he'd far prefer to pay attention to Dimitri than to himself. Claude has always liked giving his partners pleasure, and with Dimitri - the look on his face, the way he's so clearly holding himself back, letting Claude touch him - he just wants more. It was never only lip service, saying that he wanted to give Dimitri everything.

He works his hand on Dimitri, slow at first, wanting to set the pace easily for this - because he doesn't know how much Dimitri is willing to allow, because he doesn't want to push him too far, but also because Claude wants to enjoy this. He wants to remember this. He doesn't think this will be the only time - he thinks there's a future for them, and that seems brilliant, impossible - but just in case it is, he wants to remember it.

“I've wanted you so much.” He says it softly, his eyes on Dimitri, his hand wrapped around his cock. He's thought about this before. He's wanted this. He's - well, imagined it quite vividly, much to his own shame. But this is so much more. Dimitri is real, he's here, he's letting Claude touch him.

He slides his other hand across Dimitri's chest, and then leans in, following that path with his mouth, tracing a vivid scar and then leaving it to tease Dimitri's nipple with his tongue. It's a bit of an awkward position, curved inward so he can keep stroking Dimitri, but Claude really doesn't mind. He can't help himself.

Dimitri raises one of his hands, shifting a little to balance on his other hand, to thread his fingers through Claude's hair while Claude pays attention to his chest. His head tips back as he breathes through the pleasure that Claude is giving him, his body just as receptive to touch as Claude hoped it would be.

“How much?” Dimitri asks, too breathless to be coy but asking all the same. Dimitri's fingers tighten in Claude's hair when he hits a particularly sensitive spot and he arches against him, wanting as much contact as he possibly can. “Because I've been - dreaming about you.” Dimitri admits, low like it's a confession, and Claude makes a quick mental note to make him elaborate on that particular statement later.

But first, how much? Claude almost wants to laugh, except he fears Dimitri would take it the wrong way. He presses another kiss to Dimitri's skin, then straightens so that he can meet Dimitri's gaze.

“When I saw you in that cell - when you let me tend your wound - I thought to myself, goddess, he grew up handsome.

Maybe an odd thought, considering Dimitri was not pleasant to him and hadn't taken very good care of himself, but Claude is nothing if not observant. It was an idle thought at the time, Claude noticing that though Dimitri had been attractive as a boy, he was something else now - something even more appealing, perhaps even more so because of the danger he embodied.

“But it wasn't until after that - until Fort Merceus - that I started dreaming of you.”

He wants Dimitri to know how much Claude has wanted him. He deserves to know that. Claude feels certain that few people, if any, have made Dimitri feel wanted in the past few years, and Claude of all people knows how that can become a quiet emptiness inside of you, something you hardly notice anymore until someone says something, until things change and you realize what you'd been missing all this time.

He's still touching Dimitri, slow and even strokes, he has been the whole time - but now Claude starts to speed up to a faster rhythm, watching Dimitri, never looking away. He's uncomfortably hard himself, but he wants this first, he wants to see Dimitri come because of him.

“I imagined what it would be like to kiss you, to be close to you. A shameful thing, when what you needed was a loyal friend, but I suppose I am not the best of men.” Claude's voice is low, intimate. “I've wanted to touch you like this for weeks.”

Dimitri’s breath comes out a little shakier as Claude moves faster and Dimitri's hand in his hair falls to his shoulder, using the weight of his other arm on the bed to move his hips into Claude’s firm touch.

“I didn't know,” he pants out, clutching at Claude's shoulders a little tighter. He's close even from just this much and Dimitri isn't loud but he's vocal all the same, breathy sounds and soft little keens that escape the vice of his throat. “I didn't see it - I wish I had, goddess -”

He finds a solid rhythm and sticks with it, using his arm on Claude's shoulder to pull him closer and fuck up into his fist while keeping Claude close to him, a high flush rising on his cheeks, his chest.

“-please.”

Claude doesn't know if Dimitri's asking for Claude to tell him more or to go harder or faster or if he just wants to beg him in that moment, it just spills out of Dimitri’s throat alongside the other quiet sounds. He’s not sure it matters. Claude is lost in this, so caught up in the look on Dimitri's face, the red flush on his cheeks, the way his body is moving, the sounds he makes. He'd thought about it, of course, but it's nothing like the reality. A pale imitation, if that. He strokes Dimitri faster, wanting to bring him through this, wanting to give him whatever he needs.

“I've got you,” Claude says. He has to struggle a bit to keep his voice even. His own breath is coming faster, the flush in his cheeks harder to see against his tan skin. But all of him is focused on Dimitri, even if his own body is beginning to desperately need some kind of release as well - this first, Dimitri first, Claude has wanted it for so long. “You can let go. I've got you.”

He wishes he could touch Dimitri more, could kiss him, could express all the hunger and desire he feels, but right now Claude only barely has the presence of mind to do what he's already doing. His hand on Dimitri is moving more quickly, faster, harder, wanting only to bring him to the brink and push him over. Claude can think about nothing else except this, except the candlelight on Dimitri's hair and the look in his eyes and goddess, everything about him.

It's so much more than he imagined, so much better.

It doesn't take much longer. Dimitri reaches the sharp edge of his limit and eagerly tumbles over into Claude's waiting hands. He comes, trembling his way through it with Claude as his only witness - his grip on Claude's shoulders intensifies and Dimitri groans, rolling his hips with it as he empties himself between them.

And then it's over and Dimitri is gasping for breath, his chest heaving and soft with sweat. Dimitri tumbles back downward from his crescendo, his shoulders slacken, his grip on Claude's shoulders loosens and Claude watches him catch his breath, content and lazy like a cat in a sunbeam. He can’t look away.

“You're -” Dimitri pauses for a moment, looking for words. Then he smiles, unguarded and showing teeth, before glancing shyly up toward Claude through his hair. “You're amazing.”

It feels incredible just to do that, just to give Dimitri that - that moment of release, of pleasure. Claude can't look away. And his smile afterward... Claude's never seen him look like that. It tugs at his heart in a way he didn't expect, that sudden moment of what seems like real happiness. Did he cause that, was he a part of it? It might be nothing more than the relief of release, but to Claude right now, it doesn't matter. It feels real.

He tucks the compliment - a rare thing, perhaps - away for later, when things are difficult, when he feels like he can't please anyone in this land. It's silly, but... it'll help, remembering that Dimitri looked at him like that, remembering that whatever else may happen, in this moment he feels this way about Claude.

He's almost painfully hard, though, after watching all of that, after touching Dimitri and kissing him and licking the salt off his skin. Claude would be happy enough just bringing himself off pressed close to Dimitri, but to be touched by him - well, that would quite literally be a dream come true.

Dimitri sits up fully and reaches between them to tuck himself back into his pants and regard Claude for a moment.

Then without warning, Dimitri reaches up and flips them, knocking Claude over to the side, taking care that he lands on the bed and not the floor. Claude's shoulders hit the mattress with his calves still dangling off the bed and Dimitri climbs over him, leaning in low so his hair brushes against Claude's face and kisses him thoroughly. When he pulls away, he's still smiling, still a little too pleased with himself, but also realizing again the limits of his inexperience as his fingers trail down Claude's chest.

“I want to - can I do it to you?”

Claude is - well, a bit surprised by the sudden movement. In the softness and pleasure of these moments, he forgot briefly that Dimitri is a warrior, is fast and strong, stronger than him, and certainly has the advantage in close quarters like this. Not that Claude is complaining. He's so used to putting on a show of always knowing what he's doing, always being in control, that being knocked off his guard a bit is actually kind of pleasant. Especially when it involves Dimitri touching him, Dimitri's lips on his.

“You can do anything you want to me.” Claude means for it to come out teasing, provoking, flirtatious - but he's a little more worked up than he thought, and it actually comes out breathless. It's still true, though, either way.

Dimitri has Claude on his back just as he had him a few days ago at the training area. But now, it's - it's even better because now they can touch like they wanted to, kiss, and know that they won't be disturbed.

His hand is still on Claude's stomach and Dimitri's fingers slip further down, hesitating at the hem of his pants while he figures out how to proceed. Slowly, he reaches a hand down over Claude's pants to cup against his cock. Claude takes a breath, holds on to his composure, and does not urge Dimitri on - wanting him to take this at his own pace, to do only what he’s comfortable with.

Dimitri feels the shape and weight of him through the thin fabric of his clothing, growing accustomed to the sensation of just feeling him before adventurously dipping his hand down beneath Claude's waistband to grip at him fully. Dimitri leans in then, kissing Claude soundly, and grows more confident.

“I meant it - I want to do everything do you.” He murmurs it as he strokes Claude, his other arm reaching up to brace himself over Claude's head. Dimitri is so focused that it would almost be amusing in another context, but as he concentrates on nothing but Claude, the force of that attention like this - it’s almost too much. “I don't know how yet... you'll have to show me, but I will.”

Like most things Dimitri says, it's a promise but also vaguely a threat and he uses the opportunity to bite into the side of Claude's neck, sucking a long and stained mark against his skin while he rolls his body up against Claude's own, repositioning slightly so that he can shove a thigh between his legs, hitch it up high and let Claude dictate whatever speed he needs it at.

Claude is already so hard, so aroused from watching Dimitri and touching him and bringing him off, that - if he were honest - he'd say that Dimitri really isn't going to have to do much at all. Just his hand on Claude is enough to draw out a stuttered moan, and Claude makes no effort to stay quiet. Even if he could, which is up for debate, Dimitri deserves to know what effect he's having on Claude.

“You're a pretty fast learner.” His voice is ragged, affection and amusement and arousal all tangled up in it, and he welcomes Dimitri between his legs because all he wants right now, all he can think about is more contact, more pressure, just more. He arches against that pressure, and he thinks about everything they can do, everything he's allowed to do now. He'd so easily written it off as impossible, being with Dimitri like this, but now they're here, and Dimitri's hand is on him, his mouth on Claude's neck, and if he leaves a mark that just means in the morning Claude will know this wasn't a dream.

He moves his hips against Dimitri's touch, trying to control himself, torn between competing desires - he's so close, he wants this so badly, but he also wants it to last, he wants to spend hours tangled up in Dimitri, kissing every scar on his body and learning how he likes to be touched. He wants Dimitri to look at him, only at him, and want him more than anything. He wants - goddess, so much, and he really can't last much longer.

“Ah - Dimitri, more -” There's no chance he can sound anything but wrecked right now, and hungry, and a little desperate. But that's all right, surely Dimitri knows already.

“You're so good,” Dimitri growls out in a low vibration against Claude's throat, shifting down to bite at the other man's shoulder in turn, all teeth and tongue, his hand on Claude's cock moving faster, mimicking what Claude had done to him earlier. He has to use his other arm for balance, so he can’t really touch Claude, as much as Claude would like that - but he can bite, and so he bites yet again, carving a small war path down the skin of Claude's shoulder and chest.

It's absolutely unfair that Dimitri is like this, warm and so close and intense, and Claude would be cursing whatever gods or goddesses there are except that this is his, right now Dimitri is his, his voice in Claude's ear and his mouth on Claude's skin. He says things that Claude didn't even know he wanted to hear, and Claude feels like the singular focus of Dimitri's desire, something that feels impossible and overwhelming and everything he could possibly want.

“I want you again, forever. I want to taste you. I want to touch you. I want you - laid out for me, I want to -” Dimitri bites down again and this time his desire gets the better of him and he breaks skin, just barely. He looks back up toward Claude, apologetic, and runs his tongue over the slight injury, moving his hand faster, tighter, working his body up against Claude's own.

The sharp, short burst of pain that comes when he bites Claude is nothing more than added sensation, counterpoint to the pleasure he feels, making it even sweeter. He arches up against Dimitri one last time, and then he can't hold on anymore, bliss surging through him as he comes, his body bowstring-tense for a moment before relaxing.

For a moment afterward, or maybe for two, Claude can do nothing but breathe and feel his way through. It's never really been like that for Claude before, and he doesn't know if it's because he's wanted Dimitri for this long or because he feels so much more for him than anyone else he's been close to. He doesn't know how to express that, isn't sure he would if he could, so instead once he's caught his breath he tugs at Dimitri's hair, pulling him up for a kiss, messy and tired but still - even now - hungry. Dimitri relents into the kiss easily, kissing Claude deep and thorough, tasting his mouth and leaning into him with a brutally satisfied sound.

He's not sure he could ever get his fill of Dimitri.

“Stay here tonight.” Claude's a bit hazy, caught up in this afterglow of pleasure and affection, but he knows he won't want Dimitri to leave his side even after he's come down. Maybe Dimitri intended to stay from the beginning - either way, Claude wants to be sure he knows that Claude wants him there, wants more time with him, more shared kisses, more quiet words.

They can't exactly go public with this for so many reasons, but Claude doesn't want to treat it like a dirty secret, either. So long as they aren't seen to come out of each others' bedroom with messy hair and bitemarks, so long as they're a little careful, it should be all right.

At least, Claude is more than willing to take that risk.

Dimitri doesn’t look surprised but he does look pleased, and he nods his agreement. He slips off Claude just long enough to find a cloth that they can wipe themselves up with and promptly cleans the messes they've both made before climbing back up into bed, catlike as he maneuvers Claude so that they're both finally laying properly on the mattress. He doesn't fiddle with the blankets, not yet, and seems content to simply stretch out by Claude's side.

“I'll stay for as long as you'll have me,” he promises, hitching up on his side with an elbow on the mattress. The beds are small - they're meant to house a single student, not two grown men - and so Dimitri scoots backward to make a bit more room, taking up a little less space so that Claude can get comfortable. “You... you were incredible.”

Claude finds himself unexpectedly charmed by these small, thoughtful gestures - cleaning up after them, making room for him. Little things that Claude wouldn't necessarily have thought Dimitri would consider. Claude's never had a lover really, nothing permanent, but that's what he wants now. He wants to have the time to figure out how they fit together.

They have a week or so before the army marches on Enbarr. They'll have until then, at least, and… after, he hopes. If everything goes according to plan, they'll be able to make their own path and he'll be able to stay by Dimitri's side while they rebuild together. That won't last forever - he does have to go back to Almyra - but he isn't going to leave before setting Fódlan to right again.

Or before making sure Dimitri will be alright.

He raises a hand, reaching out to touch his fingers to Dimitri's cheek.

“Me? Goddess, having you near and not being able to be close to you during the day is going to drive me crazy, now that I know what your touch feels like.” He says it with a sweet smile, casual and affectionate. It feels impossible to him that he can say things like this, that he can lay next to Dimitri. But that feeling means he'll just do it as often as possible, give Dimitri all the appreciation he's felt this whole time and been unable to share. “You've ruined me.”

And that sounds like more of a joke, or Claude makes it sound that way, but - well, it's not, really, is it?

Dimitri flushes, ducking into Claude's touch and pressing his face against the other man's fingers. The color on his pale skin is striking, and for a moment they’re simply touching each other. Eventually, Dimitri reaches with his free hand and captures Claude's wrist in his fingers, holding him still so that he can kiss at the other man's palm, idly pressing his lips over Claude's fingers, his thumb, worrying his teeth over the callouses that come from stringing and drawing a bow.

“You saved me,” he finally says in return, soft and heartfelt. Dimitri drops Claude's wrist, his gaze flickering up to Claude's face, sincere and with his customary intensity. Slowly, Dimitri leans his head back on his arm where he's still on his side and the corner of his mouth perks up just slightly. “I guess I got the better end of the deal.”

It's lighthearted and it's not at the same time - Dimitri is teasing, but there's something serious to it, a truth that they both are aware of.

“No,” Claude says, quiet and simple, dropping his teasing facade for a moment. “Whatever it takes to bring us to this point - you here with me, alive - I'd do it a thousand times over.”

Dimitri probably would be dead if Claude had not captured him. He'd probably have thrown himself against Imperial soldiers again and again, until a lucky blade pierced his heart, until his unending drive for revenge led to him bleeding out on the ground. But Claude doesn't see that as a gift he gave Dimitri or anything that is owed, because that outcome is simply unacceptable.

If he hadn't captured Dimitri, Dimitri would be dead now. Claude would probably be dead too, killed by the Death Knight at Fort Merceus, his plans fallen apart. And even if he weren't, he'd be... what? Alone, certainly. Trying to fix a land that doesn't want him, trying to make a plan that will hold together even after he's left.

And alone.

He's been alone for a lot of his life, and some of that has been his own choice. But he's never wanted to be, he's always hoped someday to create a world where he wouldn't be, where he would be accepted, and have friends and people who loved him. He hasn't fixed Fódlan yet, but he has friends, and he has - this. Something he never thought was possible for him.

He leans in, pressing his lips to Dimitri's, slow and rich and sweet, without the hurried hunger from before. Dimitri returns the kiss, languid and utterly content in the contact they can share now.

“I'm thinking I came out ahead on this deal,” Claude says, and grins. He regains a little of his flippant nature, light and bright and always seeming to avoid seriousness, even when he's deep in it. “Look what I got.”

And they're so close together already on the small bed, but Claude moves closer, slinging his arm over Dimitri's waist, pressing in close to him, entirely ready to cuddle until he falls asleep. Well - to try, anyway, since Claude's never done that before. But Dimitri is warm, and Claude thinks he might finally be able to sleep decently, at least for tonight.

Dimitri shifts around a little before they can both settle into a comfortable position with Claude pressed warmly against him. Claude knows it’s unlikely he’s ever been this close to anyone before either. He might have thought that Dimitri would dislike it, that having another person pressed in like this would make him wary and unsure… but maybe it’s Claude or maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, Dimitri relaxes against him.

“You have a monster,” Dimitri responds, sleepy. He reaches up to take off his eyepatch, lest it get tangled in his hair or lost in his sleep, and lazily moves to hang it on the bedpost for tomorrow. Without the covering, his ruined eye is still barely-visible in the candlelight, with the predictable ugly scar slashed through the right side of his face. It's deep and bisects his eyelid, which can no longer effortlessly close all the way due to the scar tissue - his eye underneath is milky and unseeing and Dimitri presses that side of his face into the pillow so that he can pull Claude closer, making himself comfortable. “The king of beasts. Hm.”

There's a pause - he's still a little lighthearted about this, even if he's being self deprecating. Dimitri noses forward just a little, pressing his mouth against Claude's temple.

“Your king.”

That's something that Claude will have to work on, he thinks. Something that will take time. Someday, maybe, he can get Dimitri to see himself the way Claude sees him - not a monster at all. Lost, and angry, and broken in some ways, but not beyond repair. Not beyond healing. Incredibly strong, to survive this long. Driven. Loyal.

But that's for another time. That's not something that can be fixed in one night, and Claude is nothing if not patient.

“My king,” he echoes.

It should perhaps have more of a sense of servitude to it, given that Claude will be expected to swear fealty when Dimitri takes the throne, will be expected to serve Dimitri as the rest of the nobles are. Of course, Claude will slip out of it somehow - as a prince of another land, he can't swear fealty to the king of this one. Though he is more than ready to take some vows at Dimitri's feet, unconditional loyalty to Fódlan and its king can't be one of them. He will likely swear fealty for the Leicester Alliance instead of for himself, and few will notice.

So it should sound subservient, because Claude is, after all, technically a servant of the future king of Fódlan, delivering victory and the land itself to him. But when he says it, it comes out - a little closer to possessive. His king. As much as Claude will serve Dimitri, is serving Dimitri, Dimitri is also serving him. Allowing Claude to use him, to set him on the throne, despite his own misgivings. Allowing Claude to care for him, and touch him, and lay next to him in utter bliss.

Claude isn't really the possessive sort. And yet, it is difficult for his heart to think of Dimitri as anything but his.

“Sleep, my king. I'll be here with you.”

“Mm,” is the only sound Dimitri makes, half-asleep already, and Claude lets himself settle too, lets the warmth of Dimitri’s body lull him into a light sleep. It may not last - they’re both haunted in their own ways - but for now he can let himself sleep in Dimitri’s arms.

Chapter Text

The journey to Enbarr has been easy so far. With both Claude and Dimitri available to make plans and work on logistics, plus their various nobles and lieutenants available to shoulder some of the burdens, organizing their trip and setting to march for the heart of the Empire has been seamless, with all of the small snags and errors being dealt with easily and quickly.

It's for the best, because Dimitri is on edge and anxious, the worst he's been in awhile. Most are staying clear of him, only approaching him to ask the most vital questions, with everything else being filtered through Rodrigue or Gilbert or Claude. He's not worried that they will fail, exactly - failure is a possibility and it's one that he's considered before, but it doesn't weigh on him as much as the mounting anticipation which turns his heart inside out with each step closer to Enbarr.

The feeling is poisonous and it slowly infects every part of his body until it's all he can live for, with each breath and each footfall causing it to elevate until he can't take it anymore. He snaps at Dedue and Annette and even Claude, who most definitely doesn't deserve it, and sulks alone for the first few days of the trip. Dimitri tends to himself, saddles his own horse, packs his own equipment, and rides in the lead as he ought to, but separated from the others. In part, this is because he doesn't want to be bothered by them and in part this is because he gets odd looks from the members of his house when they overhear him talking to nobody.

But he has to be ready. They have to be ready.

It's two days into the ride when they have to stop. A recent rain has turned their path into a marshy swamp that the horses have trouble navigating through. Dimitri demands that they push on, give their supplies to the fliers and just leave the horses if they must, but he's outvoted and for a moment, it's like he's his wild self again, full of rage and giving others the concern that he might just take a steed and ride to Enbarr on his own.

He doesn't. He waits as they find solid ground to make camp on while they wait for the coming sun to dry out the ground and he waits as the tents go up even though there's a few hours of daylight left that they're wasting, and he practices throwing javelins into trees while those around him make the necessary arrangements. He waits and Lambert curses him and Glenn hates him for doing nothing and his heart feels like it will burst if it has to beat any longer without Edelgard's neck under his fingers.

Dimitri needs to lead them. He knows this. He promised Claude he would. But he can't - not right now, not when this is so close.

It's almost nightfall when he finally wanders back to camp, the bottom of his cloak caked in mud and looking like the dead as he cuts a line directly to Claude, with everyone around him stumbling over themselves to get out of his way.

“My tent,” he grumbles, casting a withering glare at whatever noble had been trying to engage Claude in a conversation until he eventually shrinks and excuses himself. “Haven't put it up yet. Where are you staying?”

Claude has been busy this trip, much like Dimitri, though he’s been a much better sport about it. Even when Dimitri snapped at him and pushed him away, he’d taken it well and simply let Dimitri act out all of his anger. So now, when he looks at him, it’s with concern, but also a muted reservation. Still, Dimitri coming to him must settle something in his chest, because when Dimitri makes his demands, a look of relief tinges at the corners of Claude’s eyes and he nods.

“Oh - over by that hill.”

He points to a spot a little ways off from the main army, with the tents of his old school companions in a loose cluster around it. If there's an attack, they can protect each other, and there's just enough of an attitude of exclusion that he might be able to sleep the night through without interruption.

There's room, though. They all like a little space, so there's room.

Claude turns back to Dimitri, smiling. “I'll help you set yours up, if you want.” It's an invitation, though he's come at it a bit sideways.

Dimitri nods - while getting Claude to help him set up his tent hadn't been his original intention, he's pleased enough that the other man is willing to spend at least some time with him, given how he's acted for most of this trip. There's a tension in his shoulders that won't bleed out and he glances furtively around the campground before moving back for where he'd left his horse.

“Come on,” he growls, moving away. At least with Dimitri in this sort of mood, nobody is likely to try and steal Claude away from him for some important business as few can really stand to be around the boar prince, much less be willing to risk angering him further.

The horse isn't far. It's an imposing grey Kingdom warhorse, with legs as thick as tree branches and an overly-furry coat to withstand the cold winters of Faerghus. It doesn't like the heat of the South any more than Dimitri does and stamps its disapproval of the muddy ground when Dimitri makes his way to it. He doesn't seem that sympathetic though and simply hooks his fingers into the bridle so that he can lead it over to where Claude's tent is. It goes with him without further complaint, expertly trained - only the best of creatures for the future king.

They make the first part of their journey in relative silence, with Dimitri sulking and thinking of what could come in the days ahead, but he knows that the chance to get Claude alone with him is slim, and so he knows that this may be the best time they can spend together for awhile. Maybe even the last time they might have before this is over... and after this is over too, as he's sure there will be plenty of matters that they both need to tend to once Enbarr is his.

He doesn't like thinking about it - any of it really, but particularly the thought that Claude will be further out of reach than ever, and so he turns to him with a frown, trying to control the annoyance and rage he's been giving in to since the march began.

“...thank you,” he finally says through gritted teeth. For helping him, he means, but he knows it's not just about the help. It's that Claude had willingly walked away from his myriad of responsibilities just to help Dimitri throw a few tent poles together, even though Dimitri has been short with him for most of the trip. He knows that he isn't easy to deal with, but that Claude would be willing to volunteer knowing this... it soothes him, just a little.

“You're the one who got me away from a question about whether someone should make their camp by their infantry or near the healers,” Claude comments with a scoff, clearly not thinking much of the nobles’ irrelevant and stupid questions, “so you’re my hero.”

Claude grins, but his eyes are quick and calculating while Dimitri lets out a snort of air through his nose that could almost be a derisive laugh. Nobles. The Alliance ones will bother Claude for just about anything - not that the Kingdom nobility is much better, but at least the men under his banner will talk to Rodrigue or the Margrave before approaching him with anything as trivial as that.

But that just goes to show how differently the Alliance operates versus the other territories. They're oft described as squabbling nobles and after seeing them in action for the past few months, Dimitri can't disagree - and of course, Claude is constantly at the center of it all. It takes a true genius and expert in political matters to manage the lot of them, and Dimitri has been impressed on more than one occasion at just how effortlessly Claude has been able to deflect, mitigate, and mediate the endless arguments that seem to arise from them all.

“Tell the next one to make their camp in the damned bog,” He shoots back, exasperated. It earns him a bright laugh from Claude, which serves to make him… well, slightly less exasperated.

“I’d like to see the looks on their faces.”

The mud is sucking to his boots now, but the hill will have firmer ground for the tents. He can start to make out the yellow peaks of Claude's allies, with the various banners perched outside of each.

Dimitri realizes a bit belatedly that he should have made camp with his own nobility, but... in truth, they're probably relieved to be rid of him for a few hours. Most of the planning is done anyway, and he's aware by now that Dedue and Mercedes have figured out that the best way to find him is to look for Claude.

So they can find him if they need him, he gets his solitude, and he gets to be near Claude (which doesn't count as breaking his solitude, he has decided). Most of the Golden Deer don't bother him for much - they don't need to, he's not their leader - and they seem fairly savvy on being able to determine whether or not they can bother Claude while Dimitri is with him.

He's not sure how they're developing that sense. As far as he knows, he and Claude have been discreet in this odd and passionate relationship that they've tumbled into, but he's thankful not to be disturbed all the same.

The Golden Deer camp is a loose collection of tents without much apparent planning, just like the class themselves had been. But a closer look shows that the warriors - Raphael, Hilda, Leonie - are arranged around the outer edge, in position to take the brunt of any sudden attack, while the healers and mages are inside. Claude is at the center of course, as the army would simply fall apart without him.

But there is space next to his tent. Maybe deliberate, maybe hopeful, or maybe they just figured Claude needed a little space after dealing with people all day.

“Is right here okay?” Claude asks, gesturing to the space. Dimitri's tent will have to be pretty close to Claude, but - well, that's kind of the whole point, isn't it?

“It's fine.”

Though Dimitri notices the layout of the camp, he doesn't say much about it, wheeling his horse around and giving it the command to stay still while he unloads the necessities from the saddlebags it's been carrying.

Collapsible poles, long swathes of canvas fabric in dark blue, posts to hammer into the ground and a hammer to do it with, an extra bag with various travel items, and a bedroll - Dimitri doesn't need more than that, despite Rodrigue's insistence that he take more equipment or have a better bed be transported in one of the carriages. It's simply easier if all of his equipment can be carried by a single horse, and so while the other Kingdom nobles have a large and luxurious camp, Dimitri's own setup could almost be mistaken for a commoner's, if it wasn't for the Blaiddyd emblem painted into the fabric.

He works on compiling everything first, handing Claude the stakes and the hammer so he can get started while Dimitri steers his horse away to tie up with the others. He doesn't take long though and notices that none of Claude's inner circle seem to be keen on bothering him or even saying hello, which he attributes to his general sour demeanor. With Claude at work, he starts to extend the poles out, twisting the metal to lock it in place.

Dimitri is quiet as he kneels down to secure the poles to the ground, tying them quickly with a thin cord. He thinks about Claude here helping him and thinks about how they had to stop and about how it sets back their plans by a third of a day - not much, not anything insurmountable, but it's so soon that any setback feels like the end of the world.

He grits his teeth together and ties the next pole a little too tight.

“We're almost there.” He's stating the obvious. They both know the real reason he's so tense and it has little to do with the marsh or the horses. “I want to move out at sunrise tomorrow.”

Claude watches him and says nothing for a time, though Dimitri can tell that he’s thinking on something, calculating something out in that smooth and thoughtful way of his. Dimitri has felt his eyes on him throughout most of their short walk to the camp and conversation and he doesn’t know what it means but he can guess that it has something to do with his own sour mood. He hasn’t been very kind toward Claude and while he feels guilty for that, there’s not much he can do except try to let himself be soothed by him, if Claude is even interested in that sort of thing.

“If the ground's dry, we will,” Claude murmurs, glancing up toward the sky. There aren't any rainclouds above anymore, so they should be fine. “With the extra rest everyone's getting tonight, we should be able to make good time. You should rest a little more, too. Have you eaten?”

These are small things, Dimitri recognizes. Tiny, acceptable shows of concern because they can’t be close to one another, because Dimitri is as likely to snarl Claude away as he is to embrace him.

He shakes his head at the question - he's not hungry, he hasn't been hungry since they've started their march. He's had a few things here and there, bites of dried meat and bread, but he doesn't think he's had much of that today, especially not since they made the call to stop.

“No. I haven't thought about it.”

On some level, he realizes that Claude is trying to take care of him. With the tent setting up and the offer of food and the gentle and easy ways Claude moves around him, in his personal space without being overbearing.... A whole army to tend to, a sea of decisions and people who need him to do a hundred more tasks, and Claude takes the time to take care of him.

Dimitri wishes he could be annoyed by it, but he's not. He wants to fold himself into Claude's chest and breathe through the sickness of his anticipation, he wants to talk about what Lambert and Glenn are saying to the only person who won't think him insane for saying it, he wants to be close to him and try to let Claude take more of this burden off of his shoulders, he wants to roar and bite and pummel himself against Claude, who he knows will not break at the sight of his ferocity.

For now, he settles with setting up his tent in Claude's proximity, the other man's presence like a small bandage trying to hold together a gushing wound. It's - it's helpful, he's trying, but it's not enough, not yet.

“I don't want to eat too much,” he admits in a low voice, so that no one can overhear them, “I might be sick with it.”

Claude nods, considering that, accepting it without judgement or argument. “I'll make tea, then. And I've got some dried fruit in my tent. Maybe we can share it.”

It's more small things: the warmth and relaxing properties of tea, a bite to eat that will at least give Dimitri a bit of energy. It's also, somewhat obviously, an invitation to join Claude in his tent. And if he's making tea, it'll be clear to others that's why Dimitri is joining him too. It's a rather simple fiction, but in times like these, that will be enough.

Plenty of their comrades are also spending the evening together, drinking and chatting and trying to take the edge off. Why should they be different?

“While you finish up, I'll get it ready.” Claude reaches out, grips Dimitri's arm for a moment. It's a casual touch, nothing that two comrades in war wouldn't share, but there’s intent behind it. Meaning. Dimitri looks up from under the fringe of his hair and Claude isn’t smiling anymore but he looks… open. Welcoming, sympathetic in a way that doesn’t feel patronizing.

Dimitri has to accept and he nods. As much as he'd growl and snap at anyone else who would offer something as silly as tea, it... actually sounds quite nice, especially with the small amount of food to go with it, and of course, Claude's company. Claude just has a way of calming him somehow, so much so that even a few short minutes in his presence like this makes Dimitri feel a little more at ease, a little more willing to talk.

He continues working on the tent while Claude leaves, making sure that everything is tied down and moving inside once it's ready to lay down the ground covering and then his bedroll over it, with the other small assortment of supplies and clothes he's packed. Dimitri takes the moment there to unclasp his muddied cloak and lay it out so it has a chance to dry to be brushed off in the morning. After a moment's hesitation, he strips out of his boots and armor too, unable to stop himself from feeling the slight relief as the literal weight of it leaves him.

Most of the grime was on the upper layers of his clothing, and so he doesn't bother to change out of the black padded material he wears under his armor. Dimitri loosens the ties as his wrists and waist to feel a bit more comfortable, but otherwise he's not really dressing to impress, particularly not when others in the camp will see him walking over to Claude's tent. It's normal to dress down after a long day of travel, though, everyone does it.

Before he can think any further on it, Dimitri leaves his tent, letting the flap fall back over the opening before moving toward Claude's just adjacent to him, and tugs at the fabric covering the entryway.

“It's done.”

Dimitri assumes that Claude has nothing to hide - and also, he's a bit rude - so he comes right in, glancing around at how Claude keeps this sort of place.

On a march like this, Claude can't bring all his books and maps and notes, although he does have a few neatly stacked on a small table and a few more bags with clothing, food, and his bow and arrows in another. It's neater than his room at the monastery because of that.

Unlike Dimitri though, he does use the privilege his position gives him to bring along some extra comforts. Rather than a simple ground covering, he has thick carpets spread across the floor of his tent, cushioning the ground and keeping things warm. There's also an array of pillows of various sizes scattered around. There's no cot, but rather some blankets folded near the side of the tent, giving the impression that when Claude sleeps he'll just wrap himself in them and fall asleep wherever.

It seems… nomadic almost, and Dimitri has never been to Almyra, but he thinks he can see some influences in how Claude chooses to organize his space.

It's comfortable, more than anything. Claude looks up when Dimitri comes in and smiles from behind his table, where he’s got the tea steeping in a small teapot.

“I haven't had tea in years,” Dimitri admits, smelling it in the air.

“I'd scold you for not taking care of yourself, but I'm pretty sure it'd go in one ear and out the other.”

Claude’s voice is light, teasing. He watches Dimitri as he moves inside and lowers the tent flap behind him, not at all trying to hide the fact that he’s admiring the view.

“I don't think that my teatime frequency is an indication of how well I take care of myself,” Dimitri shoots back. Which is true, but also... Dimitri doesn't take proper care of himself and they both know it. Now that Dedue is here, he's seen to more of Dimitri's needs when he forgets, but even he can't force the wayward prince to eat or sleep more often than necessary, and it seems like he can't make Dimitri pack a more elegant sleeping arrangement or a larger tent either.

“Sit down,” Claude says, exasperated, going for the pot, “I'll pour you some.”

Dimitri is appreciative of the environment as he moves closer, sitting down at Claude's urging with his feet tucked underneath him. It's a very cozy kind of place and Dimitri finds that he enjoys the aesthetic of it. It seems to represent Claude in a way that he can't quite put a finger on, but a way that satisfies him all the same and makes him feel just a bit more comfortable.

He'd taken care to sit right next to Claude rather than across from him as another lord or noble might, but he doesn't move in for a kiss or anything of the sort quite yet. He's still thinking about the march, about how long it's going to take to pack up in the morning, and how worse off they'll be if it rains again. He's thinking that if they'd gone a month ago, after Fort Merceus and before all of the Kingdom reinforcements showed up at Garreg Mach, the ground might have been more agreeable and they could have ended the war there and then.

Probably not, but it's something he thinks about.

Just like he thinks about Edelgard at Gronder Field, the way she seemed to look straight through him, as if what she'd done to him meant nothing to her. He thinks about taking her head and putting it on a pike and mounting it on her throne, but it doesn't give him the same satisfaction that it used to.

Here, sitting next to Claude, he just feels tired. They've come so far to get here and he's had to change in so many different ways, to work with others again and to think like a general again and to care so much, and there's still so far to go... just the thought of it makes him weary and Dimitri slowly sags into Claude, leaning his weight against his side with his head tipping to rest on the other man's shoulder.

He sighs, his eye drifting shut.

“The dead are running out of patience.”

Claude struggles to pour the tea under the new weight on him but doesn’t move to unsettle Dimitri, instead responding flippantly, as if it’s completely normal to talk about such things.

“I don't see why. They're dead, they have all the time in the world.”

Claude's response could have easily sent him into a fit of rage, but Dimitri only snorts out a short, irreverent laugh. It feels sacrilegious almost and he knows he's going to regret laughing at Claude's flippancy later, but right now making light of the situation helps to relieve some of the tension that comes from it and he finds that as long as it's Claude who's saying it then it's hard to get angry.

Claude seems to understand that he’s pushed things maybe about as far as they can go, so he pulls back a little, tries for reassurance instead:

“We're almost there. I promise, I'll get you there as quickly as I safely can.” He turns his head so he can press a kiss to Dimitri's hair, which is all he can reach right now. “I promise.”

When it's Claude that promises him things, Dimitri somehow has to believe him.

'As quickly as he safely can' feels like Claude is trying to wrap words around this problem again, like if he can say enough of the right things without technically lying then Dimitri will just go along with whatever he says. It isn't even untrue either, and while there's a skeptical part of him that scoffs at it, the rest of him just feels warmer from being able to tuck Claude's promise somewhere in the back of his mind, where he can revisit it when he's angry about this taking so long.

Dimitri nuzzles into Claude's shoulder a bit more, ignoring his tea for now and reaching out to slip his fingers against Claude's own, their arms pressed together.

“Everything is going to change.”

Everything already has. That's war and they both know it - but it will change even more than this, regardless of who wins and who dies. Going into a battle where nothing is assured is bad enough, but knowing that if all goes well and they win... knowing that then, Claude will make him king and stay for a time before going away to Almyra? Knowing that he can't steal away hours with Claude like he does now, knowing that he'll likely have to stay in Fhirdiad while Claude rides south to prepare and help rebuild, knowing that they'll be separated sooner than Claude wants him to believe...

There's such a strange sense of anticipation and dread coiled in his gut and he doesn't know what to do with it. He needs to kill Edelgard more than anything else in his life, and he wants to bring positive change to their country, but knowing that doing so will unearth the clumsy stability that he's finally managed to find... the conflict makes him feel sick, which makes him feel guilty, which just makes him angry again.

He's tired of it.

Claude tangles their fingers together, leaning into him in return now, taking some small comfort out of their contact.

“It hasn't changed yet.”

Slowly, Claude raises their tangled fingers to his lips, pressing a kiss to Dimitri's pale, strong hand.

“We have tonight. There's nowhere to go, and I'm not going to leave your side.”

Claude's mouth is warm on his hand and his words fill Dimitri with a kind of longing that he hadn't known he could feel. Tonight, Claude says, and all the possibilities start to leak into his mind like a painting in progress - the shadows of Claude's skin, where his elbow crooks, the warm pulse at his neck, the softest edge of the inside of his thigh meeting his groin.

It isn't over yet. None of this is over yet and as much as that tears Dimitri to pieces, Claude's words also excite him and Dimitri smiles to himself before tipping his head so he can lean in and kiss at the forbidden angle of Claude's throat.

The marks he'd left last time are all faded now, as they haven't had much time alone together since the armies had started preparing in earnest for the march. Dimitri likes to think about his teeth worrying bruises into Claude's skin when he's alone, he likes to imagine that a part of him will always be there as long as Claude has that point of pain and the reminder of what Dimitri did to him. It's animalistic, he knows, but he doesn't think that either of them care.

“I'm yours tonight,” he promises against his ear, because he knows that Claude is his too. Dimitri leans further in to get his teeth at the edge where shoulder meets throat and nips at him, not hard enough to leave a mark, not yet, but - teasing at the idea all the same.

They should probably drink their tea. They should probably eat, since Dimitri hasn't really today. But he can't help himself when Claude is so close.

“If you'll help me forget about everything else, I'll just be here, with you.”

Claude smiles and it seems like a genuine smile this time as he tilts his head, allowing Dimitri more access to his neck. As much as Dimitri seems to like leaving marks on him, Claude never complains - in fact, he encourages it in actions like this and how he’s been wearing a lot more outfits with high collars lately.

“That's what I want,” he murmurs, setting his teacup down on the table and turning his whole body towards Dimitri, moving both of them, so that Dimitri is in his arms rather than leaning on his shoulder. So he's facing Dimitri, so he can actually kiss him, long and slow and wanting.

Everything will change. But right now, they're here, they're together. Claude can be his and he can be Claude’s, and just for a little while they can pretend that nothing else in the world matters.

“I want to be the only thing you're thinking about,” Claude tells him, which Dimitri doesn’t think is entirely possible, but is a nice thing to want. Claude has a way of filling his mind and his heart, pushing the anger and the rage out until it’s muted, black and white in the back of his mind while Claude’s touch is an explosion of color.

And so Dimitri nods weakly, returning the kiss with warmth and pressing forward until he's practically crawling into Claude's lap. He's not quite so filthy-minded yet - even when he's thinking about the hidden and sensitive places on Claude's body, Dimitri generally considers them with more reverence than arousal: the perfect curve of his shoulder, the delicate lines of his ankle, the chiseled firmness of his cock. He worships Claude, they worship one another, and he could be content to just touch him sweetly like this for hours.

That's how it starts. Sometimes it stays that way throughout the entire encounter, sometimes Dimitri is taken with a need to own and possess and he pushes and pulls and bites to get what he wants and Claude never seems to mind.

For now though, he's content enough to kiss him sweetly, his fingers at Claude's hip, his mind on Claude's words and when he closes his eye, Edelgard seems so far away.

But always there. Always like a shadow in the back of his mind.

“I only ever want to think about you.”

He murmurs it against Claude's lips and it’s true enough that he would much rather be spending his time in Claude's presence, against Claude's skin, nipping grapes from his long and slender fingers. When he's feeling particularly indulgent he thinks about a different life, where Claude is king of Almyra and Dimitri could be nothing but his consort, there to satisfy him and love him and live for him - such an easy life, he thinks, and he's envious that he's never had the chance at such blissful simplicity.

But he can't. He can't only focus on Claude, not with the responsibility that Claude himself has given him, not with the voices in the back of his mind, and not with Edelgard still drawing breath. He wants to... but he can't.

“I hate everything that takes you away from me.”

Claude leans into Dimitri, reaching down to catch hold of the hem of Dimitri's shirt and adjusting them both enough so he can tug it up and help Dimitri get it off. He's not hurried - not yet, anyway. Claude seems more than happy to let Dimitri dictate the pace here, as Dimitri has done for the majority of… well, whatever this is.

“Tonight I'm all yours,” Claude says, reassuring as he leans in again to kiss Dimitri's neck and nips at the skin there. He doesn't usually leave marks on Dimitri, but 'usually' doesn't mean 'never'. “I've been thinking about you all day.”

With that, he kisses Dimitri's shoulder, a scar stretching down from it, his collarbone. When Dimitri feels teeth, he gasps, reaching for anything on Claude that he can touch, hooking one hand around his shoulder and the other pressed palm-flat against the ground to keep them both balanced.

“You have?”

It's mostly a rhetorical question. Dimitri can't say the same, but he's flattered nevertheless, even moreso when Claude tongues at the scar he'd gotten from the Death Knight. It's not painful, but recent enough that the new magically-healed tissue is still slightly sensitive and he lets out a small sound in response, arching slightly into him.

“...what have you been thinking about?”

He's sure that it's more along the lines of 'Dimitri is an ass' and 'Dimitri is causing problems' and less along the lines of what Claude wants to do to him right now, but... well, they can both pretend. Regardless, he does love to hear Claude talk about him: Claude's feelings for him, his fantasies, what he's thought about... it makes him feel wanted, it makes him feel like as long as Claude is still there and Dimitri is in his thoughts then he's done something right by someone.

It's the same reason he leaves marks, the same reason he tries to take Claude's breath away every time they're alone together. Dimitri doesn't quite think that Claude could ever forget him, not really, but the more he's on his mind, the better.

They're still next to the table, but there's enough pillows and lush rugs on the ground around them that Dimitri feels comfortable enough leaning backward and pulling Claude with him so that they can both lay together instead of the awkward half-sitting that they were doing. He takes care not to elbow the other man while he brings him down and takes an even greater care not to distract Claude from the wonderful things he's doing against Dimitri's chest.

His fingers sneak into Claude's shirt now that it's a bit more accessible, not trying to take it off of him quite yet, but slipping up to feel the lines of his ribs and the muscles at his stomach.

“I was thinking about how I'd get you into my tent,” Claude tells him in a low, tempting whisper. “I was thinking about whether you'd let me touch you. The way you taste when I kiss you... the way your cock feels in my hand.”

Claude never seems to be embarrassed to tell Dimitri exactly what he wants and how he feels. He normalizes it, makes it standard, and makes Dimitri know exactly how much he wants him. He continues now, his voice soft as he works his way slowly down Dimitri’s chest again, kissing scars, running his hand down his ribs - tasting, exploring, and it’s all Dimitri can do to arch just slightly into the light, teasing touch, to spread his legs so that Claude can rest between his thighs.

“I thought about what it might be like to take you up into the air, touch you as we flew.” Claude kisses him then, long and slow, just like his leisurely explorations and Dimitri presses a fluttering hand to his jaw. The next part he says against Dimitri’s mouth, now that he has Dimitri’s entire and undivided attention, “I thought about following you when you left, following you into the trees, pushing you up against one, getting on my knees and sucking you off.”

And Claude pulls back, damn him, and smiles that infuriating teasing smile of it and Dimitri is already hard, already wanting.

“...but I figured you weren't in the right mood.”

Damn him. Dimitri has to restrain himself from just lunging at him then, and he hooks his fingers on the hem of Claude’s shirt, wanting it off, wanting to be as close as he can possibly get to him, and when it’s off he tosses it to the side, forgotten in the moment of pressing Claude back against him.

“I don't know if I could ever be in the wrong mood for that.”

Well... he's lying and Claude was right, but right now it seems like the most desirable thing he can imagine, having Claude in the trees like that, on his knees and - they haven't, they've only been together like this a few times amidst all the preparation for war, and while Dimitri won't deny that he's thought about it, most of the time when he gets Claude alone he just thinks about using his mouth for kissing and their hands for everything else they might need.

Which has been amazing and he has no complaints, but he does think about it, putting his mouth on Claude, having Claude touch him like that... and as much as he wants this to last, he also thinks that it's a very good idea.

“...would you- here?” He asks, breaking their kiss to look up toward Claude, flushing a little that he has to ask, but wanting it enough to push through how embarrassing it is. “Use your mouth, I mean. I've thought about it too - I want to.”

“Yes,” Claude answers, too fast, too eager, and that lights up something wholly new in Dimitri, the idea that not only has Claude thought about this, but he’s eager for it, that he wants - he wants this with just as much of an intensity as he does.

“I would,” he clarifies, “I want to-” Claude raises a hand to touch Dimitri's cheek, stroke a thumb across his lips.

“...I want to know how you taste.”

Dimitri groans softly at that, opening his mouth and pressing the flat of his tongue against Claude's thumb. He draws him in, offers him the barest hint of teeth and suction, and for a moment, allows himself to imagine it, being on his knees for Claude. Claude on his knees for him, kneeling like one might do to pledge servitude, with Dimitri's cock in his mouth and he wants to be there - fuck.

His head tips back and he breathes, letting Claude's thumb slide out of his mouth. He feels too warm for this, despite the cool evening air in Claude's tent.

“Okay,” he murmurs, breathless, “Okay.”

If this is happening, he thinks it should probably happen soon. As much as he loves kissing over Claude's body and exploring him and learning him in long, slow minutes, Dimitri feels acutely like he might not last much longer if Claude wants to keep talking to him like this, and he wants to at least feel... this, what Claude is talking about doing. He still doesn't want Claude to move away from him and he leans up to press another kiss against the other man's mouth, pulling Claude down with him to lay fully flat on his back against the blankets. He does this so that he can use both hands to get between them, clumsily palming against Claude's cock through the fabric of his pants, feeling his need pressing into his hand - and while he may have been slightly concerned that Claude is doing this solely for Dimitri's enjoyment... well, he's not worried about that anymore.

His fingers scramble to the hem of Claude's pants then, shoving a hand down beneath the fabric just to touch him. Dimitri hasn't forgotten what he wanted to do, what they're both going to do, but in the heat of the moment it's so hard not to touch him.

“You're hard just telling me about it.” His voice is soft, panting between kisses. Dimitri has never entertained the idea of being good at talking filthy and so when he says things like this, it's more awestruck than anything, like Claude is this miracle of a person and keeps giving him all these wonderful surprises that Dimitri can't quite fully believe.

His hand is cramped and there's not a lot of space so he allows himself a few short and jerky half-strokes while his free hand starts to work at loosening the hem to give himself some more room to work with.

“Are you - are you going to touch yourself while you do it?”

Claude sighs in pleasure, a stuttering, pleased sound, taking care not to press too far into Dimitri’s fingers, lest he lose himself in the sensation.

“Yeah,” he moans out, trying to catch his breath, “though if you keep doing that, I probably won't have to.”

He reaches down, undoing the ties of Dimitri's pants in turn, but doesn’t move to touch him quite yet. Instead, he reaches to catch hold of Dimitri’s wrist, teeth biting into his lower lip as he urges him down, away, and Dimitri feels a flush of embarrassment for getting so carried away that he’d needed to touch Claude so urgently in the first place.

“Just lay back,” Claude reassures, “let me take care of you.”

At Claude’s insistence, Dimitri moves back against a small pile of pillows and works at tugging his pants down to free him from the confinement of fabric until he's completely naked in Claude's tent - Claude's tent that hopefully everyone around knows not to come into because it's not like there's a lock on the door or anything... but Dimitri pushes that thought from his mind, instead choosing to focus on this handsome creature above him. Claude kisses Dimitri's shoulder again, down his chest, stopping to suck lightly at his nipples before continuing.

This time he doesn't stop at Dimitri's stomach. He moves further down, pressing kisses to his abdomen, his thighs. Still not quite there yet. Claude is teasing a bit, or he's taking his time, or he's doing a little of both.

Dimitri has to bite his lip to hold back a whimper, remembering the thin fabric of the tent wall and trying to restrain himself, but Claude's mouth is already down there and he's already kissing at the sensitive skin of his thighs and it's making Dimitri go crazy with want. He has instructions to lay back but he just can't help reaching down for Claude's face, taking his cheek lovingly in his hand and stroking his thumb along the other man's cheekbone. He's so beautiful, Dimitri can scarcely believe he's his.

“Claude…” It comes out soft, needy, because Claude is teasing now and Dimitri's hips roll up slightly without him really meaning to, and he feels impossibly hard, incredibly desperate for him - for any part of him, for anything that he'd choose to give. His mouth feels dry while he watches Claude, his messy hair, his firm shoulders, the way his fingers and mouth move, everything about him that seems so precise and yet so wild.

“Please.”

Claude smiles at that - that he’s already started pleading with him for it, that he’s already so far gone - and turns his head to press a kiss against Dimitri's palm, a soft, sweet thing.

Then he wraps his hand around the base of Dimitri's shaft, firm without being too tight, licks his lips, and takes the head of Dimitri's cock into his mouth.

Dimitri might have said something once - surely there was something he wanted to say, maybe about how wonderful Claude is and how much he wants to stay here like this forever and how lovely he looks - but everything is pushed from his mind the moment Claude's lips touch his cock and he licks and his mouth is warm and sweet and wet and it makes Dimitri press upward even though he knows he shouldn't.

It's enough to make him want to cry out to the goddess, and Dimitri's other hand moves over his mouth to keep himself quiet while Claude works his divine tongue and his amazing fingers around him. His palm is still pressed against Claude's face, warm from the kiss, and he can feel the other man's jaw opening, moving in turn with the mindless pleasure that's coursing through him and he wants - he needs, there's nothing he wouldn't happily give to Claude right now.

Claude takes more of him in, sliding his tongue against the underside of Dimitri's shaft, making a soft sound of appreciation as he does so, and the vibration is enough to make Dimitri gasp.

“You're so…” He doesn't know what. Dimitri looks down at him, lets his fingers slide up to tangle in Claude's hair and watches, enraptured as Claude dips down again and takes more of him, seemingly calm, casual, like he has all the time in the world... or maybe that's just how Dimitri sees him in that moment, so in contrast with his small, desperate movements.

“...You're beautiful. I could watch you forever. I could-”

Dimitri eventually trails off in a breathless moan, trying to keep himself in check - they're not truly alone at this campsite, he has to remind himself, even if just the sound of his ragged breathing is suggestive enough that anyone who overhears him will know exactly what's going on. He would hope that there's nobody around, but at this point he doesn't care. Anything that isn't Claude between his legs with his perfect, hot mouth on him, is superfluous. This is all that matters now.

Claude takes Dimitri deeper, bobbing his head now, a little clumsy at first but quickly finding a smooth rhythm, in time with his hand at the base of Dimitri's shaft. His other hand fumbles with the waistband of his pants, pushing past the fabric and wrapping around his own arousal, hard and hot and needy. He moans at that first touch, and it's probably lucky that he's rather muffled right now, because that could have been loud.

Claude is stunning in all of his aching need and Dimitri can see now the way that this is affecting him too, his hurried hand jerking at his cock, and Dimitri wants to - part of him wishes that it were him bringing Claude off like this, but the rest of him can't imagine existing anywhere other than under his mouth.

Claude doesn't quite seem to have the composure to stroke himself in time with Dimitri - he can barely do more than wrap a hand around himself and messily jerk himself off, but that's enough for both of them it seems. Dimitri's fingers in his hair guiding him, the harsh breathing and slick, wet sounds in the hollow of the tent, the slide of Dimitri’s cock past Claude's lips, there's nothing more they need than this.

Dimitri doesn't mean to pull at Claude's hair but he does, his fingers tangled in the dark curls of it as the urgency rises and Claude moves faster - he wants to see all of what he's doing, he wants to watch Claude's wrist disappear into his pants, wants to see the reddening around his mouth from kisses and bites and this, wants to see him flushed and messy with his need, but all Dimitri can do is hold on tighter, sinking his teeth into his palm with a desperate sound as he comes.

Dimitri doesn't exactly have the presence of mind to warn him, nor does he really have the experience to know that it's necessary and there's a pang of guilt that he'd forgotten the moment it begins but it's quickly washed away in the eclipsing pleasure of Claude's mouth, his hand, the memory of his tongue on him. Dimitri lifts a leg to press his foot flat against the blankets near Claude's side, using it as leverage to roll his body with the motion of it while he spends himself in shallow gasps and whimpers.

Claude manages to swallow most of it and doesn’t choke on it despite not being warned, instead working quickly to take all that Dimitri could give him, his hand working harder over himself, pulling his mouth off of Dimitri’s cock to rest his face in the crook of his hip with a soft cry as he comes all over his fingers and stomach.

When it's over, Dimitri slumps back against the pillows behind him, his eyes closed, the hand over his mouth moving up to push his hair back from where he'd carelessly let it fall over his face a few moments ago.

“-sorry,” he apologizes belatedly, a little breathless, “you were just so…”

Dimitri takes in a long breath and waves his hand flightily, as if trying to describe how intense and amazing that was - how wondrous Claude himself is - with a simple twitch of his fingers.

Claude seems to understand and smiles, pressing a warm kiss to the top of his thigh before moving to stand.

“You're amazing,” Claude tells him, voice rough with what he’d just done. He retrieves a skin of water and a cloth to clean them off, sauntering partially naked across the tent in a way that demands Dimitri's complete attention. Once he's slightly more presentable - though his lips are still red and his hair still a mess - he smiles at Dimitri.

“That was... yeah. I liked that.”

Dimitri reaches down for his pants and slides them back on before scooting upward to curl into Claude's pillows, patting the spot next to him for Claude to join him. He feels sated, pleased, and for the moment, Edelgard is blissfully absent from his mind. All he can really think about is the warmth of Claude's mouth and hands and how he looked down there between Dimitri's legs with his hand wrapped around himself, flushed and panting and soft press of his mouth against Dimitri's thigh when he found his release.

“I hardly did much,” he responds, a little lighthearted as he shifts so that Claude can be comfortable against him. The tea is cold by now, he thinks, but there might still be some hope for food - and now that Dimitri has exerted himself in this way, he's starting to feel the soft pangs of hunger at his stomach. Soon, he thinks, because now he just wants to press close against this wonderful man and bask in the pleasure of simply being near him.

“I enjoyed it too.” Dimitri tells him, as if that wasn't obvious. “Maybe... next time, I want to do it to you.”

Claude snags a blanket before relaxing with Dimitri against the pillows. He turns toward Dimitri once they’re both situated, sliding an arm around his waist, leaning into his shoulder. Letting himself enjoy the moment, warm and content, as if the world outside this tent doesn't exist.

“I'm not going to say no to that,” he murmurs on a sleepy smile, pressing a lazy kiss to Dimitri's shoulder. “You still want some tea?”

“Don't want you to get up to make it.”

“Come on, come on, you need to eat,” Claude says on a laugh and turns to reach for his pack, which is thankfully nearby and has some bits of dried food in it. Dimitri sighs at the inevitability of Claude taking care of him, but he supposes that it is why they’re in Claude’s tent in the first place.

As they both slowly chew on Claude’s field rations, Dimitri pulls him closer, settling in warmly beside him.

They've slept next to one another in the past, though Dimitri has always been careful to be out of Claude's room by the time anyone wakes up. He doesn't think he'll have that luxury here in tents, where others have to keep watch and could see him clearly leaving Claude's tent at any hour of the night. Which means that he either stays for the entire night and sneaks out when the others are distracted with the morning duties or he leaves before it gets too late.

The idea of spending the night alone is a dangerous one, he knows, and it would be easy for him to fall back into his destructive mindset that he's been in for most of the day. Claude's presence is like a balm that eases his rage and makes the voices that he hears softer, lighter, further away. With Claude, it's easier to focus on the present reality and less on the looming threat of Edelgard or the past injustices that have been done to him.

So then, he should stay. It doesn't take Dimitri much to convince himself about it.

“Is it alright if I stayed the night? You'll have to invent some scheme to get me out of your tent without the others noticing in the morning.”

“Easy.” Claude says quickly with a grin. Dimitri would doubt him, except - this is Claude they’re talking about. Small schemes like this are his specialty. “'Course you can stay.”

And so it’s settled. Dimitri sighs, feels himself relaxing against Claude while they eat together, thinks about how much Claude has managed to change him just like this, to talk him down, to bring him close, and to give him something else to put his mind on. Claude is good for him, Dimitri is coming to realize, and while that’s terrifying for a number of reasons, it’s also nice to lay here and bask in how happy it makes him, just now, just for this.

They spend the rest of the night like that: eating, talking, eventually making that tea and getting to bed early so that they can be up at sunrise, as planned.

Chapter Text

The sun has barely risen and Claude wakes to Dimitri next to him, still asleep, peaceful in the dim light of the tent. A large part of Claude doesn’t want to wake him, doesn’t want to bring him back to the reality of where they are, doesn’t want the day to begin.

They’ll resume their march in a few hours. Outside, only a few have woken so they still have some time. Claude wonders if Dimitri will sink into the same mood he was in the day before, that anger and impatience, that terrible tension. It’s likely, he thinks. All he can do is make sure this day begins well.

He can probably put Dimitri in a pretty decent mood if he tries.

Claude rises and leaves the tent only long enough to retrieve some food - bread and dried fruit, nothing fancy, but the bread is fresh and the fruit he already knows Dimitri will be able to keep down even if his anger twists him into knots. When he returns, Dimitri is awake.

“Morning,” Claude says with a smile, and as Dimitri rubs the sleep from his eyes he pulls the small table over, sets their breakfast on it, and returns to exactly where he was before - by Dimitri’s side, close enough to feel his warmth.

“Eat something. Actually - come here.” Claude leans back against the pillows, still smiling, his voice light. “I'll feed you.”

Dimitri, awake and alert now, arches an eyebrow at that, both playful and a little incredulous at the offer to feed him. He seems to consider it for a quick moment or two before reluctantly moving closer, crawling up toward Claude and moving to sit beside him, pressing a lazy kiss against his jaw and nuzzling in further until he's tonguing at Claude's throat again.

“I'd ask if you were joking, but…” It's clear that Claude's not, despite how playful he's being with it. And Dimitri - surprisingly - doesn't seem to mind.

He has to pull off of Claude's throat to actually eat, but he's sure to press his teeth against his shoulder first, biting down with a sharp inhale and busying himself with sucking a deep mark into Claude's skin while the other man tries to arrange the food he’s brought and ignore Dimitri's cruel distraction.

When Claude brandishes the first small piece of bread, Dimitri hums to himself against the bruise before finally pulling away and admiring his work, the constellation of darker marks he's left on Claude's tanned skin both the night before and now. But then Claude offers him the bite and Dimitri leans in to take it in his mouth, his tongue pressing against the warmth of Claude's hand.

He chews and swallows dutifully, before tipping his head to look toward Claude with a small, tight smile that looks as if he's about to burst into laughter at any moment.

“Are you happy now?”

A smile from Dimitri is enough to stop Claude's heart, a laugh would probably outright kill him. He strokes the back of his now-empty fingers against Dimitri's cheek, affectionate, smiling.

“Oh, I'm getting there,” he says.

He selects another piece of fruit, holds it out. A good part of Claude is amazed Dimitri is playing along - it wasn't so very long ago that he had to keep bars between them, that Dimitri nearly killed him. He remembers it well, that feeling of facing down a feral animal. And it's not gone, things haven't changed that much, it's more that - Claude doesn't fear that being turned on him.

Oh, Dimitri can be angry, can snap at him. At other times he's - hungry, demanding, as intent as a predator. He leaves marks on Claude every time they're together, no matter how gentle or rough they are with each other. And Claude has seen him in battle, as fierce and ferocious as his house's crest, but if anything more dangerous. But here and now, with that smile on his face, his willingness to indulge Claude's playful nature and eat delicately from his hand, Claude is reminded of nothing more than a tamed wolf.

It's likely foolish to think like that. Dimitri is not tame, Claude knows better than to test the limits of whatever control he might have over this man. But for whatever reason, Dimitri sees fit to allow him this intimacy, to lay at Claude's side and come to him for comfort and hungry caresses and whatever else he might need.

Claude does not think anyone else has ever gotten to see this side of Dimitri, and for a moment he is seized with the awareness of how fleeting this could be, how easily he could lose all of it. A stray sword blow, a well-aimed arrow, or simply the collapse that could happen after Edelgard's death, after Dimitri finally gets what he's been living for. This, this moment, this feeling, is delicate and might be impossible to preserve. Claude wants to burn it into his memory, so regardless of what might happen, he'll never forget.

“I wish I had something better to give you. Fresh fruit. Chocolates.”

Dimitri smiles at Claude's silliness and nips the fruit from his hands, calm and careful not to bite at Claude's fingers (which is amusing in and of itself, considering how much he's bitten at other parts of him).

“It wouldn't matter,” Dimitri tells him, after he's chewed and swallowed the small morsel, “I haven't tasted a thing since I was a child. It isn't a hardship. Just -” he flushes but continues on anyway, indulgent, “- it's enough to share this with you.”

Claude strokes Dimitri's cheek again, and though he's smiling, there's a hint of sadness in his eyes now. He didn't know that, though he supposes there was no reason for him to know before now. If Dimitri doesn't see it as a hardship, neither will Claude (indeed, Claude can think of many situations where it would be useful), but it still doesn't seem fair.

Dimitri has been through so much - too much. Claude has always believed that the best way to deal with the weight of hatred, loneliness, pain is to shrug it off, stand tall, and fight to keep it from dragging you down. But he knows well that it's easier to say that than to do it, and Dimitri is so close to his pain, still drowning in it despite moments like these. Maybe after Edelgard he'll have a chance to heal. If he survives it.

But with all that, something like this on top of it - just doesn't seem fair.

Instead of another piece of fruit, Claude guides Dimitri's lips to his own, kissing him - sweet, sweet as he can.

“If I'd known that in school you might have been in trouble,” he teases. “Thanks for indulging me anyway.”

Claude's old hobby of mixing poisons has mainly fallen to the wayside, and he wouldn't use it on Dimitri in any case. Really, he probably wouldn't have back then, either, but it seems a far better response to that admission than unwanted pity or shock. This is just another part of Dimitri, another unfair burden pressed upon him, and Claude has never been inclined to pity.

He'd share just about anything with Dimitri. And he likes that flush on his cheeks, the look in his eyes. Claude hasn't said it again, not since that first time - not since it was so clearly too much, too soon. But not saying it doesn't mean he doesn't feel it, and the tug at his heart when he looks at Dimitri is growing all too familiar.

“Of course.” Dimitri seems all too happy to kiss Claude instead of eating, and he keeps it slow and languid before they part. Claude thinks he might be pleased at Claude’s easy reaction, because of course Dimitri wouldn't take kindly to being pitied - and now it's behind them, another part of Dimitri that Claude is newly familiar with. He wonders for a moment if there's anything more intimate than slowly growing more and more familiar with someone as you spend more time together.

“I would have been in trouble if you took any interest in me at all in school.” Dimitri admits it with a humored huff of air through his nose, reaching past Claude onto the tray to take another bit of fruit for himself.

That draws an honest laugh from Claude. He pushes the small table, and the food on it, closer to Dimitri so he can help himself as he pleases, and then Claude reaches out to run a lazy hand through Dimitri's hair.

“You really think I wasn't interested in you?”

It's true that Claude attended the academy for his own reasons, his own ambitions. It's true that he had a long list of things he was interested in and Dimitri wasn't at the top of it - enough so that Claude did not try to ferret out his secrets. Even he only has so much time in the day, and with the church's secrets so infuriatingly ever-present, figuring Dimitri out had not been something Claude could focus on.

But that doesn't mean he wasn't interested. It only means that he couldn't indulge that interest. He focused on the church, on politics, on his own house, knowing he would one day need their loyalty. He can't regret that now. He would have gotten nowhere without what he did learn. But he wishes he'd had more time. If he had been able to figure Dimitri out... goddess, if he'd been able to figure Edelgard out, who knows what he could have done?

He'd been seventeen years old, alone in a land that didn't trust him, no one to watch his back or help him uncover those secrets. He had no way of learning it all.

Claude tries not to regret that.

But this, at least, he can say with a smile: “You did know about half the students had crushes on you, right? I wasn't immune.”

He didn't - couldn't - spend his time focused on Dimitri. But that doesn't mean he didn't notice him. A future king, young and strong, handsome, with secrets and tragedy in his past? If Claude hadn't had more pressing issues weighing on him back then, Dimitri would have been like catnip. As it was, all he could really do was appreciate the eye candy. And of course he did that.

Dimitri clearly doesn't know what to say to that. “You've mentioned,” is what he settles on finally. He sighs and reaches for the food to eat more, contemplative while he chews. “You could have said something to me. Back then.”

Claude could have. But he knows Dimitri would not have taken it seriously, and so Claude would probably have made sure not to mean it seriously. That and - well, it seems like there are a hundred reasons.

Claude considers, and then he says at least a few of them aloud. “I was pretty sure you liked women.”

He doesn't say Edelgard. He doesn't want Dimitri to think of her, not now, not when they're both relaxed and quiet and he doesn't think Dimitri's got her on his mind for once. Even though that would be the truth - Claude picked up enough back then to notice Dimitri's extra attention to Edelgard, even if he didn't know why.

He trails his fingers through Dimitri's hair again, untangling it with his fingers.

“And even if that turned out to be wrong, I was pretty sure you wouldn't... what? Go to tea with me? Go on a date?” Claude grins, a little rueful. A little sad, even, maybe. For all that his time at school was fun, neither of them really got to be children. Neither of them really got to be the kind of stupid teenager who chases romance. Claude was friendly back then, outgoing, even a little flirtatious if he thought it was necessary, but he didn't actually date. He never really has. “Ah, my young heart was far too delicate to allow itself to be broken by the prince of the Blue Lions.”

His voice is teasing, light, making it into a joke. But of course it's not only that. Claude had to protect himself, he always has. Back then it was even more important, when he was so alone. Maybe he could have dared to have a romantic entanglement with someone else, someone in his house or a commoner, where politics wouldn't come into play nearly as much, but Dimitri?

He really would have been setting himself up to get his heart broken if he'd done anything but admire him.

Dimitri hums softly at that, mulling it over in his mind.

“I don't think I liked anyone,” he says. It's quiet, a little regretful. Claude wonders for a moment what Dimitri’s life might have been like if the Tragedy had never happened. Maybe it could have been nice. Maybe he could have pursued someone he'd been interested in - maybe he would have noticed Claude's eyes on him and sought him out.

Instead, he'd been ruined, irreparably damaged by something that happened to him when he was fourteen and couldn't begin to understand something like love.

Claude doesn’t know what might be running through Dimitri’s mind. He can’t know. But whatever it is, it causes Dimitri to sit up abruptly, pulling away from Claude and taking a deep breath. Centering himself.

He exhales. “...I'm sorry. For how I was.”

Claude knows this isn't a path he wants to go much further down. Dimitri's ghosts are too strong, Claude can't chase them away or defeat them, all he can do is distract Dimitri for awhile. And that seems to be going poorly.

“You had a lot going on. We all did.” Claude shrugs it off as if it doesn't matter. And it doesn't, does it? That was a long time ago. Claude was too wary for romance, Dimitri too focused. And it wasn't as if Claude was in love with him back then - he was just a lonely boy, too observant for his own good, who had an interest that he knew couldn't be returned. Maybe if things had been different, if they'd both lived different lives, they could have tried. Maybe Dimitri would have been interested, too, in that world.

Even now, Claude still can't be sure that Dimitri really is interested, or if Claude is just the first person who's ever reached out to him, offered physical affection and emotional support that he sorely needs. He doubts that, if Dimitri had a choice, he would have chosen Claude of all people.

But right now he is here with Claude, and if someday Claude gets his heart broken - well, he's an adult now. He knows what he's getting himself into. He's made his choice, or his heart made it for him, and maybe it will all turn out horribly, but at least he'll have the memory of Dimitri's lips on his skin, his quiet words of loyalty, so unlike anything Claude has ever heard before.

“It's not like you did anything to me. I just thought you were cute.” He grins, winking in a deliberately ridiculous manner. Dimitri needs a distraction, and Claude is nothing if not good at that. “I think you're cuter now, though. And you let me kiss you, so, improvements all around.”

It's enough to make Dimitri crack a sad little smile, turning back and leaning in for one of the aforementioned kisses, easing himself back against Claude. He doesn't quite fit back in the way that he was laying before, but he tries, pressing his cheek against Claude's shoulder.

“I'm a little concerned by your taste in men,” he finally responds, a few beats too late and sounding more weary than playful, but engaging with Claude again, catching back onto the thread of this conversation where Claude had offered him a hook to take. “And your lack of self preservation instincts.”

That one Claude can't argue, given that Dimitri had been willing to kill him at Gronder, almost did kill him in his cell, and Claude had... what, given him his freedom? Given him weapons? Taken him into battle? Fallen in love with him? Absolutely ridiculous, anyone would think so, likely even Dimitri himself, who has benefited the most from Claude's temporary bout of insanity and his apparent death wish.

Claude is known for carefully laid plans that seem like complete longshot gambles but somehow pay off - so this definitely isn't the first time he's heard that sort of thing. Well, the second part, anyway. No one's ever had reason to comment on his taste in men before, except Hilda, and Claude deliberately decides not to notice that Hilda and Dimitri seem to have similar opinions in that regard.

“Hey, I've managed to survive this long. I must be doing something right.”

He reaches out, catching hold of Dimitri's hand and pulling it to him so that Dimitri's arm is around him. Claude wants to banish all his own wistful thoughts, any might-have-beens that want to slip into his mind. This is what he has, right here, and it could all go wrong, but it hasn't yet. Even if Dimitri is confused about what he wants, even if he's only next to Claude because he wants what he can provide and not him, Claude is the one who's willing to provide it. He's making that choice with full knowledge of what he's doing.

And this - what they have, even if Dimitri's feelings are not the same as Claude's - is so much more than Claude has ever had before.

“And my taste is fantastic - you're just trying to trick me into showering you with compliments. How many times can I tell you you're handsome before you get sick of it?”

He's teasing now, of course, keeping the mood sweet and light. This isn't the time for Claude to look for validation. Maybe someday, if this lasts, he'll try to figure out what (or who?) Dimitri really wants. But for now, when they're so close to victory, so close to the end of everything, what they both need is a distraction. Not just Dimitri. Claude has so much that he just wants to forget, just for another hour or so, before it all falls on his shoulders again.

He just wants to be here, warm and content, with Dimitri's attention on him and nothing else. A selfish impulse, in some ways, but Claude doesn't really care.

“No, that's not what I-” Dimitri is already flushing again, a kneejerk reaction to Claude teasing him, and Claude sees no point in stopping now.

“You are, you know. Handsome - and the scars are sexy. You're an incredible warrior. And tall. Hey - maybe I just like tall guys. Is Sylvain single?”

Dimitri’s brows draw down and he growls in frustration, tightening his arm to pull Claude closer to him and pressing his face into Claude’s hair, hiding his expression and his blush and the possessive anger that flickers into his eye.

“Don't.” He's holding too tightly now, effectively distracted from whatever else he was thinking. “Only me.”

Dimitri's reaction is - oddly reassuring, though not surprising. Claude likes it, that prick of possessiveness in his voice, his arm around Claude. It's validating in a way that he should probably be ashamed of, but he can't quite make himself be. Whatever else might be between them, Dimitri doesn't want him with anyone else.

Which is just fine, of course, because Claude doesn't want to be with anyone else.

Despite his light-hearted exterior and flippant nature, Claude isn't really that much of a flirt, and romantic entanglements have always been rare for him. While he's never been in an actual relationship (and is this one?), he doesn't think he'd be interested in one that wasn't devoted, one where he'd be constantly second-guessing and watching his back. That sort of thing is fine if the feelings involved aren't serious, but Claude's feelings about this, whatever this is, have been serious since the beginning.

“You've got nothing to worry about.” He relents on his teasing almost immediately. He does take note of Dimitri's reaction, though, and his own response to it. He doesn't want to upset Dimitri, but - well, having the ability to get him a little riled up could be useful. In a lot of ways.

After all, it's pretty effectively distracted him.

Claude presses closer to Dimitri, though he's close already, and kisses his jawline.

“For me, there's only you.”

There's no one else he'd rather have next to him and yeah, maybe that is stupid - maybe he is making bad choices. Maybe Dimitri doesn't love him, or can't. Maybe Claude is just a warm body and a friendly ear. Maybe Dimitri is going to implode after he completes his revenge, or maybe he'll no longer need Claude. Maybe it'll all crumble and he'll be left with nothing but memories and heartbreak.

Or maybe it won't. Claude has made his choice, for better or for worse, and he's not interested in changing it.

Dimitri lets out a low, rumbling noise of satisfaction at the reassurance and the kisses, tipping his head down to capture Claude's lips in a searing kiss of his own, passionate and intent on making sure that Claude means that.

“Good,” Dimitri breathes out, kissing him again. He closes his eye and leans into Claude, his mood changed from the lighthearted affection from before, but also from the sad guilt that threatened to envelop him.

“I want to kill everyone who looks at you, sometimes. You're too good for them. You're too good for me,” he says with a low growl, “but I want you anyway. You can't -”

He looks down, pressing their foreheads together, his face inches from Claude's but not meeting his eyes.

“- you can't want anyone else. Not while you're here, with me.”

Realistically maybe Claude should be horrified by that, the quiet violence of Dimitri's devotion, especially knowing that Dimitri does have the capacity to commit any murder he wishes. But what Claude hears, more than the violence, is the devotion. Dimitri probably wouldn't actually kill anyone because of it, but the fact that he says it - that to some extent, he feels it - speaks more of what Dimitri feels for him than anything.

Because if that's true, he has to feel something.

“I don't.” He lifts his hands to cup Dimitri's face, to hold him there so that Claude can kiss him, long and slow. What he'd like to do is argue that he isn't too good for anyone, and certainly not Dimitri, but he doesn't think that would get them anywhere. He doesn't think Dimitri understands how much the things he says mean to Claude, how many years he spent knowing that no one would ever feel that kind of loyalty, that kind of devotion, for him.

He was all right with that, or he'd made himself become all right with it. But now, with Dimitri offering it freely, it strikes to the core of Claude in a way that he thought he'd given up caring about a long time ago.

“Even when you're not by my side, you're the only one I want like this.” He kisses Dimitri again, hungrier this time. “And when we're together - all of me is yours, Dimitri.”

It's true that nothing seems to drive the thoughts completely from his head like Dimitri's presence this close to him. When he says things like that, when he makes it so crystal clear that he wants Claude, it's impossible to even consider wanting anything, anyone else. Claude might tease, he might deliberately rile Dimitri up, but there's no room for anyone else in his affections.

Dimitri goes still, returning Claude's warm and insistent kiss. “So then…” He takes a deep breath, as if he’s working up the courage to continue, as if he’s embarrassed to say it. “- we're lovers.”

Claude has been willing to leave their relationship unlabeled, wanting to avoid making Dimitri uncomfortable with words that he might not be ready for. But truthfully, Claude - both more casual about these things and already certain of his own feelings - has considered Dimitri in that light since their first night together. He's not interested in having any other lover, after all.

But if Dimitri is all right with it, Claude sees no reason to be coy.

“We are,” he says, and it seems he doesn't need to say any more than that. It... gives Claude more joy than he'd like to admit, being able to simply acknowledge it. Knowing that Dimitri has acknowledged it, wants to define what's between them like that. Claude would have been pretty content without it, so he didn't expect that it would mean this much to him. But it does.

He pulls Dimitri in for another kiss, and this time he doesn't stop his hands from wandering, trailing down Dimitri's chest. He's not going to insist on anything, but - embarrassingly, everything Dimitri has said has gotten him a little hard, and he can't resist the urge to touch him, press against him, kiss him.

Well, if he's Dimitri's lover, doesn't he have that right?

“You have no idea how much I want you. Pretty much all the time, but - now, especially.” His voice is wry, more amused at himself than anything, amused that he wants Dimitri again, that he can't seem to control it. But not ashamed, not that at all.

“I think I have some clue,” Dimitri says, and smiles a little at the feeling of Claude running his fingers down his chest, kissing him, telling him that he's wanted. He wraps his arm tighter around Claude, shifting so that the other man can continue touching him, but doesn't quite move to reciprocate yet.

“I don't know how often I'll get to be with you from now on,” he admits softly, sliding his leg up to press against Claude's own, thigh against thigh, and moves to touch his jaw, tugging Claude into another warm kiss before continuing. “Or how often we can steal time like this.”

Claude leans into the kiss, as much as he can in the position he's in, enjoying it. He knows Dimitri is right. There will be a battle soon, and after that - after that, they'll have to retake Fhirdiad, and take care of any straggling forces loyal to Edelgard. And then they'll need to rebuild.

All of that will keep Claude by Dimitri's side, to some extent or another. Likely they'll have to be separated at times, but with Claude as the leader of the victorious Alliance armies and Dimitri as the king, they'll both sit on whatever council is formed, and they'll have some chance to be together.

But Claude has to leave. It won't be immediate, it won't necessarily even be that soon, though that depends on how the rebuilding goes. But it still has to happen. There is no way Claude can stay by Dimitri's side once that comes to pass. He has - thoughts, but nothing concrete yet.

“I'll find ways to steal us some time.” Claude is resourceful. Claude is clever. Claude is also motivated, and he will make opportunities if there aren't any, at least for as long as he can.

He doesn't want to lose this. “But we should make the most of the time we have anyway.”

He kisses Dimitri again, indulging himself, letting his lips move to Dimitri's jaw and then to his neck. This time he does stop there, and very carefully and precisely sucks a love bite onto the pale skin of Dimitri's neck. Claude wants the mark he leaves to go deeper, to be part of Dimitri's heart, his soul, but he'll make do with his skin. That much, at least, he can be sure of.

Dimitri tips his head to let Claude move at his throat and exhales at the slight pain of his teeth and the dampness of his tongue. With a soft sigh, he shuffles to sit up a little more, shifting their positions slightly so that he can get his arm around Claude's waist instead and lifting and pushing him around until Claude can move over and get situated in his lap, facing him.

“How do you intend on making the most of it?” he asks, raising his fingers to trace along the line of bruises on Claude's throat and shoulder. “We don’t have long before it’ll be time to start marching again.”

“I know,” Claude says.

Unfortunately. As much as Claude would like to spend the whole day adoring Dimitri, they have a long day of marching before them - and not long after that, the battle. The morning is already slipping away.

“We should get ready soon. But first -” He's more than happy to settle against Dimitri, make himself comfortable on his lap, pressed close together. Skin against skin, and Claude could get used to this so easily - just having Dimitri near him, within arms' reach, close enough to touch and kiss. He knows it can only be like this during these stolen moments, where no one can see, but that only makes him value it more. “Let me touch you, at least.”

He likes how relaxed Dimitri seems in this moment, how it's almost as if Claude is the only thing in his world. He wonders if he can calm Dimitri before this march begins again, if they can wear each other out enough that neither will be plagued by dark thoughts or the burdens they carry. Maybe.

Better to be sure, really.

Claude's hand slides downward, to touch Dimitri, just as he asked for a moment ago.

“Oh -” For all that he knows that Claude is bold, it seems Dimitri was not quite expecting a hand on him so soon. Dimitri is... interested again, if not fully hard, but at the first touch of Claude's fingers, the interest intensifies and he sits up a little straighter, kissing at the bottom of the other man's jaw. “Are you…”

Dimitri glances downward toward them both to answer the question he was too embarrassed to ask, biting his lip as he sees that Claude is hard too - he's been so for awhile, given how they'd been kissing. Dimitri reaches down with his own hand to touch him in turn - the positioning is a little awkward, but he makes it work.

Claude laughs, quiet and so full of affection he can barely stand himself. “I don't know how many times I'm going to have to tell you how much I want you before you believe it.”

But there's some, well, very clear physical proof. Claude's not embarrassed. He knows Dimitri doesn't understand his own appeal, but Claude wishes it were possible to show him. It's not just physical - Dimitri has his issues, anyone can see that, but his fierce loyalty and strong heart are irresistible to someone like Claude, who has always felt like an outsider. Sometimes the things Dimitri says and does are almost too much, more than he feels like should be possible. Claude would admire that part of him even if it weren't directed at himself, but when it is -

It's no wonder Claude can't even consider anyone else.

“You do this to me.”

He wraps his fingers around Dimitri, stroking him, watching him. Claude does like to give pleasure, and he especially likes giving Dimitri pleasure. Dimitri has had far too little, Claude thinks, in these last few years - maybe before that, too, with so much weighing him down. He likes to see the expression on Dimitri's face, that loss of control, the pleasure he feels because of Claude. He likes knowing that he can do that.

He was already hard, but with Dimitri's hand on him he doesn't see any reason to not be shameless, as well. He moves against Dimitri's touch, a shuddering movement of his hips, and his breath comes faster.

Dimitri moans softly at that, and he gets his free hand around Claude's shoulders, moving both of their hands between them so that he can move a little more freely, turning with Claude in his arm, gently lowering him to his back against the blankets and pillows and crawling over him.

Like this, they can press together easier, the movement is more instinctive, and Claude can just let himself enjoy it while Dimitri presses wet, messy kisses along his throat and collarbones.

“I want you,” he growls, fitting the two of their cocks together in his hand, lightly curling his fingers around the both of them and pressing up slow, sliding against Claude with a fluid roll of his hips. “If I could, I'd have you over and over again, until neither of us could move.”

Now that - that is a fantasy Claude can get behind. Someday, maybe, they can steal an entire night and the following day to themselves, where they can kiss and cuddle and fuck their way through the hours until they fall asleep together with nothing that they need to wake up for. Today is not that day - that day won't come for awhile yet, but still, Claude thinks about the possibility of it, how much he wants it, someday, just once.

He could lose himself in that, in the dream of spending hours with Dimitri, no demands on their time, nothing but the two of them. Talking softly and kissing and finding out how many times he can make Dimitri come before he's too boneless and content to do anything but sleep. Touching and exploring and just being, just the two of them, no world outside to worry about.

Maybe that will be possible someday. It isn't today, but he has this, he has Dimitri above him and his hands, his touch, the movement of his body. It's enough. It's more than enough.

Goddess -” He can't seem to find words, a rare thing, but Dimitri has filled his head with nothing but need and desire. He has a way of doing that, a way that no one else ever has, and sometimes all Claude wants to do is lose himself in it. Lose himself in Dimitri. Forget about everything else.

He arches, moving his hips, feeling the slide of his cock against Dimitri's. Sharp waves of pleasure rock through him, intense and perfect, and he lets out a shuddering sigh.

“You're amazing.”

It's inadequate, words like that, but Claude's not sure that he has words to properly express what effect Dimitri has on him when he's like this. All he can do is curl fingers into Dimitri's hair, drag him into a deep, filthy kiss, and move his hips, urging him on, wanting more.

Dimitri smiles, presses them together again, kissing Claude when he's kissed, tonguing at his mouth and giving Claude everything he could possibly want, even the things that he doesn't know to ask for.

With apparent regret, Dimitri breaks his kiss, and with even greater regret he pulls his hips away from Claude's to slink down his body.

“Tell me if I - if I'm doing this wrong,” Dimitri asks, and he presses his mouth against the hollow of Claude's hip, finding new and unmarked skin there that he can get his teeth into while his hand moves up toward Claude's cock again, stroking at him as he sucks yet another dark bruise into his skin.

Claude wasn't going to push for this, he didn't know if Dimitri needed more time to think about it - to get used to the idea. He's happy just touching each other, just feeling Dimitri's hand on him. But this - as Dimitri moves down his body Claude feels desire tighten in his stomach. He wants this, he wants this badly, and to see Dimitri doing it -

He feels incredibly lucky, and a tiny bit spoiled.

“Yeah - ah -” Claude's breath catches at the bite of Dimitri's teeth into his skin, and he knows he probably shouldn't like that as much as he does, but he can't help himself. He grips the soft rug beneath him, already trying to reclaim some kind of control over his body. This is the first time Dimitri's done this, he knows, and he doesn't want to move too fast or go too far too soon. He has to try to keep a bit of control over himself.

It's not easy, though, not with the sight of Dimitri down there, so close to Claude's hard length.

“You - you sure?”

He wants this, and he wants it badly, but Claude doesn't want Dimitri to feel like he has to. He doesn't want anything between them to feel wrong, or bad, or like Dimitri can't say no if he needs to. Claude likes doing it - he really does - but he knows not everyone does.

Dimitri licks over the bruise he's left in some sort of apology for hurting him like this, but he looks a bit proud at the new and colorful marks on Claude's skin.

“I am,” he says, and it sounds confident, though Claude knows he hasn’t done this before. He takes a deep breath and soldiers on, looking toward Claude's cock just a few inches away from his face. It's something that he knows intimately now, from all the times he's had his hands on him, or when they've pressed together and rocked until completion. He leans in and licks tentatively down the shaft of it.

That initial careful exploration seems to reassure him that it’s like any other skin he's licked, like the skin on Claude's hip that his mouth was just on, and perhaps the knowledge that it isn't really so different is what spurs him forward into wrapping his lips around the tip of it and bobbing his head down for the first time, his brows furrowed in concentration.

Dimitri quickly finds that he should be using his hands too, and so he wraps his fingers around the base of Claude's cock and strokes him slowly, taking care to breathe through his nose and to keep going slowly, carefully.

Just the sight of Dimitri, his mouth on Claude, is a little overwhelming. Claude has thought about it, of course - he's imagined it, alone at night, his hand on himself. The reality is so much more, though, and Claude bites his lip to keep from moaning too loudly.

It's morning, everyone is waking up and preparing to move on. Anyone could be outside. Part of Claude hates that they need to be careful, that they need to sneak around, that he has to be quiet when all he wants to do is cry out Dimitri's name. He wishes he could kiss Dimitri in public, stand by his side, tell the world that they belong to each other. But that's not possible right now, and so he tries to be quiet, he tries not to attract the attention of the entire camp with his sounds of pleasure.

“Dimitri -” It slips out anyway, but quieter, Claude has only so much self control and he's using most of it to keep from moving his hips, thrusting into Dimitri's mouth. “I could watch you like that for hours.”

Claude, this time, does not have his mouth full, and if he can't make the sounds he'd like, at least he can tell Dimitri how incredible he looks with Claude's cock in his mouth. Claude's voice is breathless, strained, his desire and need clear.

“I - ah - I imagined this. I thought about what it might be like. You feel so good.”

The praise makes Dimitri flush high in his cheeks as he bobs down to try and take more of him, his mouth stretched wide as he swallows the thick length of him as much as he can.

Dimitri has to pull back after a moment of that, breathless, his mouth reddened and slick with saliva, but he keeps his attention on Claude's cock while he catches his breath, tipping his head down to explore every inch of him with his tongue in tentative licks and kisses across Claude's most sensitive skin.

“I've thought about doing this to you,” he confesses in turn, lifting his eye to meet Claude's own while he mouths at the base of his cock. “I want to make you mindless with pleasure every day. You look so beautiful when you're losing control.”

Claude's always been more the sort to say things like that than to be swayed by them, but when it's Dimitri saying it - goddess, he could lose himself in that. And like this, Dimitri looking at him like that, saying those things, Dimitri's mouth on him, Claude thinks he would happily topple kingdoms just for the chance to have this even once more.

Dimitri puts his mouth back on Claude, his breath fully caught, and lowers himself enough to take Claude in just that much deeper, feeling him at the back of his throat and holding there carefully before pulling back and letting his cheeks hollow as he increases the pressure. In his careful ministrations, he's forgotten about his hands but quickly starts to move them again, one working at Claude in tandem with his mouth while the other moves to Claude's inner thigh, his nails pressing into the sensitive skin there and dragging downward just to feel Claude shudder beneath him.

Claude reaches down, tangling his fingers in Dimitri's hair, not trying to push him any further, just needing that point of contact.

“I would have you every day if I could.” He's really breathless now, and getting to the point where talking is going to be more of an effort than it's worth. But he says it because it's true, and because he wants Dimitri to hear it. It's a fantasy, having Dimitri in his bed every night, waking next to him every morning. Dimitri's mouth on him, or Dimitri between his legs, or just touching each other, just moving together. They've stolen what moments they can, and Claude has tried to remember every bit of them.

When Dimitri takes him deeper he knows he won't be able to last much longer. The most he can do is tug at Dimitri's hair, give him some kind of warning.

“Dimitri - I'm close -”

There's no way he could have lasted long, not with Dimitri looking like that, saying those things. Claude's control is shredded, and it's all he can do to keep from thrusting into Dimitri's mouth. He's not going to be able to hold on for long.

Dimitri startles at the little tug of warning, lifting up off of him, barely nodding at Claude's words - but he doesn't go back to him, not quite yet. Instead, he's working up the courage to say something, awkward and shifting a hand down to palm against himself, trying to take the edge off before he just spits it out.

“You can... pull my hair. When you're -” He shakes his head, too embarrassed to say much further but that's alright, he has better things to do - like duck his head down lower and take Claude back into his mouth, centering his focus back on pleasuring him. He moves back to take him as deeply as he can, closing his eye with a pleased hum as he devotes himself to this task.

Claude can't really run with that hesitant permission - request? - right now, when he's so close, but he can file it away for later. He wants to know what Dimitri likes, he wants every little piece of that, and if he can fulfill those desires he's more than happy to. But in this moment he's right on the edge, overwhelmed by Dimitri's attention and the warm wetness of his mouth.

He does tug at Dimitri's hair again, but it's more of an unconscious action than anything, because his whole body tenses, he arches, and then he's coming. Claude barely manages to fling his free hand over his mouth, muffling his cries before they can carry outside the thin canvas walls of the tent. With the warning, Dimitri is able to swallow it down.

It's sudden and intense and perfect, and Claude can't spare a moment's thought to anything except this. He relaxes back against the pillows, breathing hard, face flushed, and only then is he able to focus a little, to make sure Dimitri is all right - he knows that it can be kind of, well, surprising the first time.

“That was... ah, you're amazing.”

He was too lost in his own pleasure to notice before, but he can see now that Dimitri is hard, that he at least enjoyed it that much, and he likes that.

“Are you close?” Claude's voice is a little rough, from his barely-muffled cries. “I want you to come for me.”

Dimitri nods, crawling back up Claude's body. He curls into Claude, mouthing at his shoulder and reaching up to wrap his fingers gently around Claude's wrist and guide his hand downward to help him.

“Close,” he confirms breathlessly, pressing his hips into Claude's fingers.

Claude is tired, and limp with contentment, but he's more than happy to help nevertheless. He enjoys this so much, giving Dimitri this kind of pleasure, knowing that it's because of him. He wraps his fingers around Dimitri's cock and begins to stroke him, moving enough so that he can kiss Dimitri.

“Let go. I've got you.”

His kisses are not quite as hungry as they have been, but they're still full of affection, and Claude's voice brims with admiration. Appreciation, maybe. He's still amazed that he gets to have this, that he gets to touch Dimitri, that he gets to see him like this. That no one else does - and Claude has never considered himself the possessive sort, but the idea of anyone else seeing Dimitri like this doesn't sit well with him.

“Goddess, I love looking at you when you're like this. You should see yourself - you look absolutely debauched. Gorgeous.” Claude's voice is soft now, intimate, and he is watching Dimitri, the way his hair is tangled from Claude's hand in it, his red lips, his need. Dimitri is always handsome, but in moments like these, he's far more than that, and Claude can't look away.

Dimitri presses his lips together when Claude praises him, going flushed with the knowledge that Claude is just as eager for this as he is. With the Claude's fingers sliding over his cock, he closes his eye and shifts his hips into the touch, whimpering helplessly, hiding his face in Claude's throat as he finds his own completion. Dimitri gasps into his skin, rocking forward as he comes and spends himself in Claude's fingers.

Dimitri takes a few moments to fully recover from that, exhaling heavily into Claude's shoulder for a moment before slowly lifting his head with a sated little smile and leaning in to kiss him. It's similar to Claude's earlier kiss, affectionate and gentle, even if it's not quite as passionate as it might have been a few moments before. When he moves backward and breaks the kiss, it's to reach a hand up to press against Claude's jaw, stroking his thumb gently over his cheek.

“I liked that,” he says simply - and of course, it's obvious that he did, but Claude likes that he feels the need to say it anyway, even as he curls closer into Claude's side.

Claude moves only enough to fetch something to clean them with, doing so with relaxed movements. Then he settles back against Dimitri, so they're pressed together, so he can feel Dimitri's warmth and lean in to kiss him. He can still taste himself on Dimitri's lips, and he doesn't mind that at all.

“I did too,” he says.

Not that there was even the slightest bit of doubt about that. Claude feels content, sated. They have a little time before they have to leave the tent, before they have to pretend that Dimitri merely came by for an early breakfast and a discussion of tactics. That he didn’t spend the night in Claude’s tent, curled around him.

For now, he pulls the blanket over them and takes hold of Dimitri's arm, pulling it around him in a rather proprietary way. The simple pleasure of having Dimitri nearby is something Claude can't quite put into words. Maybe it's easy for other people, but though Claude certainly has friends and people that he cares for, he's never had someone he felt this way towards. He wants Dimitri to be next to him, and he wants Dimitri to be happy, and he wants Dimitri to only look at him. It feels so simple, even petty, compared to everything else Claude has been working so hard for, but isn't he allowed to have a few simple desires?

And just for now, isn't he allowed to pretend that there's nothing else weighing them down?

“Stay with me for now. We have a little time.”

Dimitri seems more than happy to keep his arm around him, to press in close to him and rest his nose in Claude's hair, inhaling his scent and letting Claude tuck his chin into his chest, settling back in to the blankets that Claude has brought back around them both. Claude feels... warm and content with where they are, with Dimitri pressed against him in this tent, a room that seems to exist separately from the outside world. If only they could stay in here forever... but it's too much to ask, and Claude knows that once he's rested up a little, nothing could keep Dimitri from leaving it to continue their march.

Dimitri lets out a long sigh then, relaxing further and bringing his hand up to stroke idly at Claude's hair, possessive and affectionate all at once.

Claude holds onto the peace of this moment for as long as he can. By the time the camp outside is truly beginning to wake up, he feels as if he - as if both of them - can face this. That whatever this march might hold for them, whatever lies in wait in Enbarr, they will have these moments to remember.

It has to be enough.

Chapter Text

Dimitri has lost count of the number of times that Claude has promised to get him this far. He can almost hear it now, Claude whispering patience to him in the war council, in the Cathedral, in his bed. It has been something of a mantra between them, Claude begging his patience and Dimitri growling in complaint but relenting anyway.

And now he's here.

Enbarr had fallen easily, crushed under the weight of Dimitri and Claude’s forces together, the Kingdom, Alliance, and Almyran forces outnumbering their foes three to one. There had been a vicious attempt to hold, blood in the streets, more warriors they knew from childhood struck down, but the end was predictable.

Which leaves the castle itself. Which leaves the remainder of the Imperial army, the ones who care nothing for victory and will fight until their final breath, regardless of the odds, to protect their Emperor.

Claude is strategic, because he always is. The Almyrans on their wyverns remain outside the palace, guarding from any stragglers who might seek to pincer them. Most of the Alliance forces tear through the palace, fighting those they find there, trying to stamp out the remnants who oppose them. It's a fierce battle, and it could go against them - but the odds of that are small. There are simply no reinforcements left to shore up what remains, and they are like wounded animals, fighting only to bring as many down with them as they can.

There will be no surrender. Claude and Dimitri both know that. They knew it from the beginning.

Dimitri cannot - will not - fall back and he refuses to stay and fight the rabble with the others. He can feel Edelgard in her throne room like a noose around his throat, pulling him toward her, the tie that binds them together entrancing, consuming, leaving room for nothing else in his mind but the screams of all those she has killed, the deaths that she is responsible for.

Back in Gronder, she looked at him as if he was nothing. Inconsequential. A beast in her path. Now, he will make her see him, now he will make her pay.

“Your highness - “ Dedue calls out, but Dimitri barely hears him, carves a path inward, slams himself against the heavy gate. He’s joined quickly by his vassal, who puts his shoulder to the door and helps him push, while Felix darts in afterward, keeping the soldiers off of the two of them while the wood splinters and crumbles beneath their joint efforts, allowing them entrance to the front of the palace.

“I - I’ll get Claude!” Annette’s voice rings out, but now that the gate is open, nothing could hold Dimitri back and he walks toward the center of the castle like a dead man, barely noticing the men and women who stand to fight them along the way. Between Dedue and Felix and himself, they make short work of the remaining soldiers in the hallway, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake as they move.

Both of his allies know better than to say anything now, as Dimitri lets his lance drag on the floor behind him, stalking closer, unable to be stopped.

Can you feel me, Edelgard? he thinks, hysterically. Another trio of soldiers pour into the hall, hold their arms up to stop him. Dimitri’s footsteps sounds louder than anything else in the hallway and the swords betray the soldier’s sudden trembling as he draws nearer. One takes a step back, breaking formation. I’m coming.

He slashes forward, brute strength overshadowing any form of technique, the superior range of his lance allowing him to spear through the throat of the center soldier without a second thought. The lance swings, the remaining soldiers scream in terror and their cries are extinguished.

I’m getting closer to you.

Another door, this one sturdier. Dedue moves forward this time, hands tightening on his axe as he roars, bringing it down on the steel of the hinges, the bladed impact twisting them beyond recognition and allowing the great door to swing open, revealing the hall, with her - her - her.

She sits in her throne above it all, surrounded by those of her hand-picked Imperial Guard. These are the strongest fighters in the Empire, her men and women who are a cut above the rest, who will fight and die a losing war simply to keep her alive.

Dimitri doesn’t care. He’ll cut through all of them if he must.

There’s a smattering of footsteps behind him and for a moment, Dimitri thinks that there are somehow more reinforcements but there aren’t - Claude himself bursts into the room behind him, breathing hard and glancing through the room, cataloguing all the exits, the entrances, how many guards there are, what must be done.

Claude moves without being told, without trying to confer a plan, landing an arrow in the throat of one. Dedue takes another, and Claude nocks another arrow. They'll keep them off Dimitri, clear a path for him to approach.

The throne room is massive and the clash of steel echoes all around him, but for this moment, when he meets Edelgard's narrowed eyes for the first time since the battle of Gronder, it feels as silent as the grave. He feels his heart beat, his pulse bolting through him, just loud enough to drown out the screams of all those who have died at her hands. He can feel them in the air between them both, weighing him down until he can barely breathe. He thinks, for a half-crazed moment, that she can feel them too. That maybe she's the only other one who can.

Edelgard, who stands slowly to face him, the Aymr clutched in one of her hands. Edelgard, who ravaged his Kingdom and murdered half the countryside for her convictions. Edelgard, who launched the attack which crushed the Academy and the only time he'd ever felt at peace since he was a child. Edelgard, who sided with those who had destroyed everything he'd ever loved and left him like this.

Edelgard, who had taught him how to dance and whose departure from his life was so sudden and so sad for a young boy on the cusp of his first crush, that he'd been inconsolable in his room for weeks afterward.

“...you took everything from me.”

He says it quietly, gritted through his teeth, but she hears him - he knows she does by the way her eyes flicker downward with what he thinks could be a moment of regret... but they're far past regret now.

“Sacrifices were necessary,” she explains, but she seems to steel herself shortly after because her gaze darkens, fingers tightening on her weapon as she slowly descends from the staircase on the throne, oblivious to the bloodshed around her just as Dimitri is. “They still are.”

It's enough to spur him into action and Dimitri moves for her, closing the distance quickly and with each pounding step of his feet against the stone, he thinks about her sacrifices. He thinks about Duscur and he thinks about his father, about the students they'd turned into beasts, about Rhea, about Caspar, about Bernadetta, about the thousands of men and women who had died in Edelgard's flames, and they scream and it sounds just like the clashing of steel.

The relics crash against one another in a burst of light, Dimitri lunging and Edelgard blocking, and he pulls back and moves again - this time, she deflects with the handle of her axe, sliding forward to send it cleaving toward him. Dimitri spins out of the way and the crest stone in the Areadbhar shines as he brings it down, splintering the stone where Edelgard had stood a moment ago.

They clash like that, bone on bone, a flurry of movement through the center of the room. Edelgard strikes the first blood, the blade of her axe blocked by the shaft of Dimitri's spear and so she uses her grip on the hilt to smash it into his face, knocking him back and splitting open a deep gash at his temple.

If anything, the blood spurs him on further and he surges back against her, yanking his weapon from where they were tangled together and scoring the blade down her arm, cleaving through armor and leaving a bloody trail in his wake.

She hooks the curve of her axe over the shaft of his weapon and tries to pull, but Dimitri is stronger with the Blaiddyd crest flaring in his veins and he yanks instead, ripping the weapon from her hands and sending it flying, far past her ability to reach it.

Dimitri takes a step closer to her. Two. There's no fear in her eyes. He's always admired her for that.

Edelgard reaches for her belt, pulling out her dagger - a thin, flimsy thing, a weapon more suitable for a child than an Emperor - and holds it defensively in her uninjured arm, watching him as one might watch a beast circling around them.

But it's just that, the simple action of it, the sight of the weapon in her hands, that strikes Dimitri down to his core and loosens his grip on his weapon.

“You still... after all this time, you -?”

For all of his ferocity, Dimitri's voice is a soft and broken thing.

Edelgard, trained warrior that she is, sees his hesitation, his closeness, and lunges, forcing herself too close for Dimitri's spear to be of much use, and throws herself bodily at him, knocking him off balance and sending them both crashing to the floor.

She uses both hands to drive it down toward his neck and Dimitri has to react faster than he can think or he dies - he lifts his right hand to stop it, to push back against the blade, and feels nothing as the dagger punctures through his gauntlet with the force of her attack, feels nothing as the steel of it sinks deep into his palm, pierces its way between the thin bones on the back of his hand and spears out the other side.

He pushes back with all the strength he can muster, and it’s barely enough to keep the tip of the blade from sinking into his neck too - as it is, it scores a thin line down his throat and he can feel blood well up from the scratch, slip down along his throat like warm rain.

With his other hand, Dimitri tries to grab at her wrist, preventing her from lowering the weapon for the killing blow with all of his fading strength. He tries to call upon his crest again, but it doesn't come - not through the sudden and searing pain that vibrates through his arm and now he feels something, feels the white-hot burst of pain searing through his hand, so intense that he feels a sudden revulsion in his stomach, like he might be sick.

Blood from both of their injuries drips onto his chest. She's watching him but she doesn't really see him, as all of her focus is on trying to drive the knife further down to slice cleanly through his throat and Dimitri grits his teeth with the exertion of trying to keep her at bay and the sudden pain of all of his wounds that makes him feel as if the world was growing dim.

He barely hears Dedue yell - “Dimitri!” - but Edelgard's personal guard are a good deal more powerful than her foot soldiers and they're effectively keeping the rest of the forces back from the two of them, even if they can't assist her.

He hears his father. Glenn. Dimitri exhales and even hears her, the small girl with brown hair who had admonished him for stepping on her feet.

“...El,” he finally whispers, and she blinks in surprise. Dimitri hears her, louder and louder until it's all he can hear, and whatever happened to her, whatever broke her to make her this way, he thinks that in that moment he understands it more than anyone else ever could.

The crest sings in his blood and Dimitri finally feels it and uses the momentum of it to overpower her, his non-injured hand grinding hard enough at the bones at her wrist that he can feel a crack under his fingers and she is forced to let go. Dimitri doesn't think - he can't think as she tries to reach for it again, but he's faster, closer, and uses his non-dominant hand to rip the blade of the dagger from between the bones of his hand and plunge it forward into the divot of her collarbone.

Edelgard's eyes go wide with shock as hot blood begins to pour from the wound. She looks at him and sees him and tries to breathe, but she can't take in a breath through the steel piercing her. The weight of her body sags against him and Dimitri reaches up, catching her in his arms while the fur around his collar goes wet and sticky with blood.

She still doesn't look afraid. She was never afraid. She just looks... resigned.

He holds her until she's gone.

She’s heavy, heavier in death, and Dimitri keeps his arms around her shoulders for a moment more, and slowly moves to roll her gently off of him so that he can move to sit up, unaware of anything about the battle that currently rages around them. Dimitri breathes for the first time as a free man, but he doesn't know if he feels it. Instead, he feels... numb, and he looks back down toward her body, the blood pooling around them both and he doesn't know what to do.

He's done it. It's over. It's over, it's over, it's over, but the relief doesn't come. The weight doesn't lift from his shoulders, it just feels heavy, as heavy as she did.

-

Edelgard's soldiers still fight, but their emperor is gone, and with it their will. Some fall. A few look to lay down their arms. Most fight on, but their numbers are dwindling, and so Claude breaks through their line easily. He glances back long enough to see Dedue joined by Felix, sword stained with the blood of their foes, and Annette, her hands glowing with magic.

His eyes meet Dedue's only long enough to convey his purpose - keep them away. No doubt Dedue also wishes to go to his lord's side, but in this, Claude refuses to give way. The fighting may be weakening, but it isn't over, and there is no better guard to be chosen. Claude turns and makes his way to Dimitri, bow in his hand again, arrows close to his reach, just in case. But he isn't approached.

“Dimitri.”

It seems almost calm here, set apart from the chaos of battle in some way. Claude's eyes rest first on Edelgard, dead on the ground, and his heart hurts. It shouldn't have been like this. Claude doesn't even think her goals were wrong, only her methods, her methods that hurt so many. If only they had been able to talk - but he knows, in his heart of hearts, that she had chosen her path and would not have been swayed from it.

And so it came to this.

He looks then at Dimitri, and sinks to his knees next to him. He's kneeling in Edelgard's blood, but he doesn't care. He doesn't even seem to notice.

“It's over.”

Unwittingly, he echoes Dimitri's thoughts. But is it? For all of Claude's feelings for him, all his affection, all his trust and belief, Claude is well aware that Dimitri's psyche is fractured, fragile, prone to shattering. He was barely more than a beast when Claude captured him, and though he seemed to restore some kind of equilibrium, it was always a delicate thing.

Claude doesn't know what this will do to him.

_

Awareness comes to Dimitri in waves, ebbing and flowing from his consciousness. He feels the piercing pain in his hand, so severe that he thinks he might pass out, but then it drifts further away from him. He hears Claude's footsteps on the ground nearby, hears his voice, his knees crashing into the stone to kneel beside him, and then he hears nothing. He sees Edelgard laying next to him, her eyes open and unblinking toward the ceiling of her throne room, and then he stops processing anything his eye takes in.

In and out. Like breathing.

He doesn't know how long he sits there with Claude next to him, with fighting around him, with Edelgard's body growing colder beside him. Reality is a stone and it sinks deep into him, buried by the voices and by the listlessness and by the realization that he's done it. It's over.

He should be celebrating, maybe, but how can he? He feels more like taking her dagger and slitting his own throat - he'd bleed out then, right in front of Claude and it would be truly over.

There's more to live for. Claude has made sure of that, Claude has spent the last few months carefully cultivating a world in which Dimitri feels obligated to survive in: a world in which he will rebuild Duscur, a world in which he will be king, a world in which he and Claude break down the barriers between their countries and begin to create the kind of place that Dimitri had dreamed about as a child.

Edelgard had dreamed of it too. He knows this now, it's what she started this war for, the belief that the only way forward was through unification. Claude thinks similarly - and how ironic, Dimitri thinks bitterly, that the three of them could have such similar ideals and yet be lead down such different paths. The last time they were all close like this, close enough to reach out and join hands had been... years ago. And now here they are: one dead, one a murderer, and one trying to desperately hold everything together.

It's over, Claude says, and Dimitri isn't sure if it is.

“I…”

It's soft, a whisper. He closes his eye, reaches up with his good hand to fist his fingers in his hair while his shoulders start to tremble. The smell of blood is overpowering, the pain is worse, and the knowledge of what he's done is the worst thing of all.

“I did this for you.” He's not talking to Claude. There are shadows in the room around them, separate from the soldiers, and they move closer to the three of them. He can’t see their faces, but he can name them by their heights, and they come closer, the twin burning coals of their eyes boring a hole into his chest.

It’s over, he wants to tell them, but he doesn’t think they’d listen. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the only way it can be over is for him to die as well. Close the cycle. End the lives of all the beasts that plague this land, not just the ones who lost the war.

He thinks, in a small and tiny voice, that he doesn’t want to die. Not with Claude sitting next to him, not with so many things he could still do. Dimitri doubts they’d understand, knows that they’d think him selfish, for ending one half of it and refusing to see to the rest, but...

“I did - all of this... for you. Please…”

His body wracks itself into silent sobs as he begins to cry. He can’t say any more.

There's nothing for awhile, and then there's Claude. Dimitri feels a hand on his arm and it feels so solid, a physical force that permeates through the fog and touches him. With Claude's hand comes his forearm, his shoulders, his face, and if his touch is real (it feels real, he thinks) then his expression is as well, and he looks determined. It's rare to see that kind of expression on his face - so rare, when he usually wears a myriad of smiles, both genuine and not.

“Look at me.” A command, not a gentle request.

Claude's voice is low but strong, and it echoes in Dimitri’s mind. The shadows pay him no mind, they reach closer, covering Edelgard’s face with their hands, reaching for Dimitri, the ghost of fingers tickling along his throat. It feels lighter than Claude’s touch, but just as real.

End it,” they whisper in singsong, reaching for him, fingers dancing further forward, touching his cheek now, clasping over his mouth. Can’t Claude see it? Why would Claude ignore this?

Claude pushes and pulls at Dimitri, gritting his teeth as he forcibly moves him so that Dimitri is facing him, Edelgard to his right side and out of his vision. Claude keeps his head from turning back to her corpse, the hands keep him from fighting back.

“Dimitri. Look at me.

Look at him.

Claude doesn't wait for Dimitri to respond.

“It's done. You need to stay with me, now.”

Stay with him.

End it.

Stay with her.

Claude’s jaw is tight, determination in his eyes, a brutal realism to his face, to his words, and he opens his mouth again and his voice sounds louder when he speaks.

“Please.”

Dimitri looks at Claude, as requested. His cheek shines with wetness but he's not crying anymore. It's easy to watch him, and with Edelgard on his blind side he can't even see her out of his periphery. In the moments prior, the world had been faded, sunken deep within him - but now there's Claude down here with him in the center of all things, down in the darkness, and when he begs Dimitri to stay, part of him longs to obey.

Dimitri's hand falls to his lap as he watches Claude, and he can hear the rest of the voices begging for his attention too but they seem further away than the man sitting in front of him. Claude is... startlingly present and Dimitri remembers the last time that Claude looked at him like this, before the battle when he'd touched his cheek and they'd exchanged soft words, both knowing that the hours ahead would change everything.

(He doesn't feel better, he thinks. He thought he would. He thought that it would silence the voices. He'd thought a lot of things.)

“I know.”

He speaks slow, each syllable a monumental task. Claude is here, Claude is looking at him, and it would be so easy to let go. Dimitri can feel it, the call of something deeper and primal and simple, where he can sink deep inside himself and think about all the lives that have been lost and how he's ended it, and how that was always going to be the last thing he did.

But Claude is begging him to stay in this grotesque world, this place where he's still drenched in blood that he's spilled, where he hurts from the dozens of cuts and scrapes and bruises and more debilitating injuries he's sustained over the course of the battle, where he's killed her and finished the circle. Claude is begging him to stay and Dimitri loves him, so he does.

His eyes flicker down for a moment and he nods numbly, reaching up to cover Claude's hand on his shoulder with his own. The movement evenly slices through the ghostly fingers on his arm and they fade, dissipate, but the ones on his throat are still there. The one on his jaw relents when he opens his mouth to speak again and he pushes through the darkness, focusing solely on Claude, Claude, Claude.

“...I'm with you.”

He mumbles it, but it sounds like there's not enough conviction behind it. Dimitri's brows furrow and he thinks about Claude in that damn jail cell a lifetime ago. He tries again, more grit to his tone as he fights his way back from the darkness.

“I'm here.”

Something tense in Claude's shoulders relaxes. He raises a hand to wipe the tears from Dimitri's face, smearing a bit of blood there as well. Claude’s hand bisects the last of the ghostly fingers and they fade away from him until Dimitri doesn’t feel them anymore, he only feels the hard stone of the ground beneath him and Claude’s thumb wiping gingerly at his cheeks.

“Stay.”

Claude slips closer, embracing him, anchoring him. In that moment, Claude holds nothing back, and he clings to Dimitri tightly, warmly, until slowly, Dimitri’s arms lift up to touch him in turn, feeling over the folds of his shirt, his armor, and it feels real. It feels solid.

For all that he's still shaken and unsure of what may be real and what isn't, Dimitri sinks into Claude's embrace as easy as breathing. He can feel Claude's own breath against his hair and it feels warm, like the rest of him. Warm and absolutely present and Dimitri blinks slowly as he tries to make sense of it all.

“Don't leave me alone,” Claude begs him, and it's a plea from a boy who's never had anyone he felt like he could ask that of, who's left so much behind, who's always had to stand on his own.

Claude presses his forehead to Dimitri's, and his words are quiet between them.

“I know what you did for them. Now I need you to do this for me. I know it isn't fair, I know it's selfish of me to ask this of you.”

He's still holding on to Dimitri, seemingly uncaring of how Dimitri is bleeding on him, the mess, the fighting still happening. It's winding down, it doesn't matter, it's not close to them - what matters is here. This.

Don't leave me.

Dimitri watches his mouth move around the words and they stir something quiet inside of him, a memory of when he'd said the very same words to Claude himself, the first time they kissed. He remembers the training grounds, the sunlight shining down along the stone walls of Garreg Mach, the dirt in Claude's hair after he'd pushed him down. He remembers feeling elated, adoring, terrified.

And now Claude reflects it back at him, all of the fear of being left alone coupled with the tentative vulnerability of a man who acutely knows how close his heart is to breaking. Dimitri hates that tone in Claude's voice suddenly, he doesn't want to hear him like this again, he'd do anything to keep him from feeling this way, even if it means gritting his teeth and forcing himself to stay grounded for the rest of his life.

It's easier with Claude's touch. With Claude's voice. With Claude's green eyes staring deeply into his own, and Dimitri takes a deep breath and tips his chin forward just slightly to kiss him.

The kiss isn't overly passionate, nor is it particularly deep or adoring. It's simply that - a brush of their lips, Dimitri looking for something to keep him tethered and finding Claude's mouth pressed against his own. Instinct. Muscle memory. He holds it for a beat longer than one might for a more casual kiss, but pulls back after a moment and brings the world back with him.

It's bright and there's suddenly noise, swords clashing and magic being fired off. Dimitri sees Felix out of the corner of his eye, fighting forward and plunging his sword into one of the last guards while Annette covers him. He turns his head slightly to see the rest of the bodies around him.

He realizes, distantly, that they've won the war.

“Claude.”

It's the only word his mouth knows to make.

Dimitri turns back to look at him, biting at his lip and nods once - still fragile, not entirely recovered, but here. With time, he opens his mouth again, sounding out the statement in his head, turning it over in his mind, his brow furrowing as he finally gets it out.

“We won.”

And it means - it means he'll be king. It means that he can retake the Kingdom. It means that he'll rebuild. It means that all of this suffering, all of the violence and blood and senseless death would not be in vain.

“We did,” Claude responds, emotion uncharacteristically choked in his voice as he slides a thumb along Dimitri’s cheek, affectionate, relieved. Dimitri is here - he's here, he's present and he gathers his strength to try and stand, shaky like a newborn calf.

You did,” Claude eventually corrects, bittersweet as he reaches up his arm to Dimitri’s shoulder, keeping him on the ground for a moment as he reaches for him. “Wait. Your hand.”

It’s not that Dimitri has forgotten about his wound - it ignites again into white-hot pain as Claude reaches for it, reaches to tear a piece off of his clothing to gingerly wrap around the gauntlet in a vain attempt to staunch the bleeding until a healer arrives. It likely won’t do much, but they can’t remove the armor yet to see just how bad it is, so it’s all that can be done.

Claude’s eyes are on his wound, careful in his ministrations when he speaks again.

“I can't lose you.”

Dimitri winces as the sharp pain lances back up his arm, reminding him of the true extent of his injury. He can barely move his fingers a few millimeters and even that gives him another spike or pain. With little other option, Dimitri grits his teeth and stays still while Claude wraps his injury with as much care as he can.

In a way the pain is... well, it's something to focus on, something to keep him aware of his surroundings, but Claude's words accomplish that and more. Dimitri lowers his gaze when Claude confesses to him and he thinks again about another time, what seems like years ago, in another life, when Claude had looked away and said I'm probably in love with you. He hadn't known what to do with that then. He hadn't known if he could reciprocate something like that, or even what Claude really meant by it, but when Claude says I can't lose you, when Claude begs don't leave me, Dimitri suddenly realizes that he knows now.

It's only now that he begins to truly understand the depth of Claude's feelings for him. Not that he's underestimated him before, but Dimitri has always felt things so viscerally and it's taken him long enough to learn that most others don't. His heart is an exposed nerve and has been since he was young, and he'd never properly learned how to protect it. What Claude is giving him now... what Claude has given him - Dimitri thinks that he knows it more intimately than either of them would have expected.

“I love you.”

He says it as Claude is tucking the edge of the fabric in on his makeshift bandage to keep it tight. He says it quietly, but calm and with more resolve than he's felt in awhile. He says it because he knows it, and somehow he's known it for too long without saying anything. Claude says I can't lose you, and Dimitri remembers feeling that way when he turned to face the Death Knight at Fort Merceus. He remembers feeling that way when he first saw Claude being shot out of the sky.

Goddess, he remembers feeling that way when his fingers were wrapped around Claude's shirt with the bars of his jail cell between them.

It seems so simple now, like something he's known this whole time. When it's put into words like this, when it's more devotion and need than it is a word that gets passed around in children's books and romantic folk tales, he understands it as well as if he'd written all of those pages himself. He loves him. He needs him.

Claude stares at him, his hands stilled on the fabric, clearly not knowing what to say. There’s surprise on his expression, shock, and he doesn’t seem to know how to respond, so Dimitri lets his gaze flicker downward, too raw to be embarrassed but wishing that it was a better circumstance all the same.

He knows that this likely wasn't the best time - that they're in the middle of the throne room, that they're both still kneeling next to corpses with the fight all around them. But he doesn't - he's not sure if he could have not told him. He still feels numb, a little like he's floating, and he sees no reason not to be honest so he is.

He's not sure if he would have said it just now if he hadn't been in such a state, but he knows that he'd feel it. All he can do is give it to Claude.

“I-”

Claude can’t seem to get the words out, but he clumsily finishes the tie on Dimitri’s hand and reaches out to press fingers against his cheek, turning Dimitri’s face up toward him again.

Then, Claude kisses him. A real kiss, one that’s deeper and more intense than the one they’d shared before, and they’re here in the middle of the throne room where anyone could look over and see but they can’t help it. Neither of them can.

“Dimitri, I love you.”

There’s a certainty in his voice, clarity, and Dimitri latches onto it for something to hold onto.

He's not sure if he would have said it just now if he hadn't been in such a state, but he knows that he'd feel it, he knows that he’s felt it for awhile now and seeing Claude's reaction, gasping as he's kissed with all the love and passion that Claude has given him for months now- he won't regret it, no matter who in this hall might see.

“Thank you.”

His tone is quiet, reverent. He wants to thank Claude for so much - for imprisoning him, for releasing him, for saving him, for reaching a hand down and pulling him out of the darkness and showing him a light that he could walk toward. He wants to show his gratitude in so many ways but he doesn't know how, so he does the only thing that he knows Claude wants from him and moves to shakily stand on his own legs so that he can learn how to step forward again.

Dimitri closes his eye, tension steadily draining from him until he's just exhausted and he wants to be with Claude, and he thinks he should maybe see a healer, but he'd rather just lay down and rest for a week straight. He lets out a deep breath and leans into Claude, looking back up again toward the balcony, where he knows that the people of Enbarr and their armies still in the capitol down below are watching with bated breath to see who steps into the sunlight, who is victorious among them.

He tips his head to look at Claude then, faltering for a moment. Dedue, having cleared the rest of the attendants with Felix, slowly moves behind him and Dimitri can hear his footsteps.

“...what now?”

Dimitri feels like he has to ask, but... it's obvious, isn't it? Just as he'd leaned in, Dimitri pulls back to try and stand on his own, forcing a breath and then two.

“You should go,” he eventually says, answering his own question. “Greet them.”

It's Claude who should go out there. This entire victory is thanks to him, and Dimitri is confident that he would have gotten here with or without him. If he wasn't the prince of Almyra, then Fodlan and all of its territories would likely be his, and this is more his celebration than anyone else's, so Dimitri nods slowly toward the sunlight where it streams onto the balcony, quietly removing himself from the picture.

Claude shakes his head, reaching out to grab at Dimitri’s arm again, keep him close to him, even if they are no longer embracing.

“No. Both of us. You deserve to greet them, alongside me.”

Dimitri knows he could pull away if he wanted to. Claude probably wouldn’t even fight him, but his voice is small when he continues, the truth of his desires coming to the forefront.

“Please. Just stay by my side.”

Like in all other things, when Claude asks something from him, Dimitri relents.

He doesn't think he could deny Claude anything right now. He knows distantly that there are reasons he'd want to be seen here, particularly as Claude's future king, but he ignores the part of him that reminds him of all that is to come and all of Claude's plans for him and instead just nods, taking a deep breath and looking out toward the sunlight.

Dimitri still looks a wreck, and it's obvious that he's battle weary. There's blood on his face from when Claude touched his cheek, blood staining the fur of his cloak a dark red and turning the ends of his blond hair into sticky, wet clumps. Luckily his armor is black or it would be even worse - Edelgard had bled out over him, and right before that, his hand had been impaled just over his throat. There's nothing about him that particularly feels kingly right now, but he thinks that Claude knows what he's doing and so he follows him.

“Alright.”

They move out together, the various Blue Lions who'd fought with them hanging back as guards in case more imperial loyalists are hiding in the shadows. Dimitri flinches in the sunlight but forces himself out anyway, alongside Claude, where he can look over the edge of the balcony and see...

...there's more people than he thinks he's ever seen in his life. Almyrans, men and women wearing the colors of yellow and blue, and people who he recognizes to be commoners from the streets of Enbarr who had come out to see what their future holds. He knows that to some, the sight of him will be a disappointment, but he thinks that to far more, it might be something of a relief. He's proven correct when the cheers start at the sight of them both - it's quiet at first, but grows louder and louder as the word spreads until even those so far back that they can't even see the two of them are yelling and stamping their feet.

Him. Wearing black, drenched in the blood of the Emperor, face obscured by an eyepatch and his unkempt hair, looking nothing like his father or even like Edelgard or Claude. He feels more like a revenant than a king, but he's greeted as if he is wearing the finest jewels and the most refined clothing in all the land.

Dimitri looks to Claude for a moment, clearly caught off guard, but approaches the edge of the balcony all the same, slow and quiet as he takes in the sight of the celebrating crowd below them both. He's cautious and watchful, as if he feels like any moment the crowd will turn and something will change for the worse, but they don't. Carefully, he raises his non-injured hand in an unpracticed motion, a gesture that he remembers his father making plenty of times throughout his childhood.

He doesn't have the sense to understand it yet, but something in him shifts just then, a gentle slide, locking into place as he sheds the skin of an avenger and steps delicately into the shoes of a king. The change is subtle, almost unnoticeable, but when he lowers his hand, he stands just a little straighter than he had before.

“...you would really have me rule,” he finally says to Claude without taking his eyes off of the crowd, incredulous but lightly stepping into the idea all the same, “you would trust me with this.”

Claude smiles, weary but genuine and seems to have eyes for nothing but him, standing there before the crowd.

“I trust you with my heart,” he admits quietly, and only Dimitri can hear him, “I would trust you with all of this.”

When Claude finally turns from Dimitri to look over the crowd, his expression is unreadable. Dimitri thinks he sees satisfaction in his brows, in the tilt of his smile, but it’s tinged with something else - melancholy, maybe, that makes his eyes glisten despite their victory. It seems hollow, bittersweet, so prone to breaking, and it makes him want to wrap Claude into his arms and take him back inside.

Dimitri is silent for a long moment and he feels the weight of that trust wrap around him like an embrace, rather than a burden. He knows he must rise to the occasion and be the man that Claude believes him to be, but with Claude at his side, it feels... inevitable, rather than heavy.

He watches as Claude looks out to the crowd and he thinks about saying something, like this is because of you, or congratulations but the words are lost in his throat. Just seeing Claude finally embrace his victory, seeing him take pride in what he's done and finally look over the end result - it's enough to make Dimitri's heart swell with pride of his own, and he wants to kiss him there on that balcony in front of everyone, but he knows better than to do such a foolish thing as that. He does hook his uninjured fingers against Claude's hand though, a quiet reassurance, a promise of togetherness that goes unseen past the railing of the balcony they're standing on.

A kingdom before him, his kingdom, and he can only look at Claude. Dimitri smiles softly, a rare genuine thing, and turns to move back toward the shadow of the throne room and away from the crowd. There's still so much to do and he intends to do it, but first... a healer, a bed, a bath. Dimitri doesn't particularly care about the order.

“Take a squad and sweep the castle. We want our men to be able to sleep soundly tonight.” He instructs this to Felix, who bristles at being ordered but seems thankful for the dismissal all the same and moves to go with Annette at his heels. Dedue hangs back, ever the watchful guard, and Dimitri lets his shoulders fall as he finally faces Edelgard's body again, red on white on red at the center of the throne room.

She looks peaceful- or at least she might if the dagger were not still embedded in her chest. Dimitri steadies himself and looks for Claude to touch, to hold, to keep him here, even while he swears that her lilac eyes follow him around the room.

“...we'll need a burial,” he finally says, looking away. “There's likely a family crypt somewhere in the city. We will... she can be put to rest with her ancestors.”

Claude stays by him and nods, a quiet and grounding force.

“Yes. A quiet burial.” And then he sighs, squeezing at Dimitri’s good hand while his eyes go to where Dimitri is already beginning to bleed through the makeshift bandage around his other hand, “I regret that I didn't fight at your side. This was your battle, but I could have kept you from injury. Maybe.”

Dimitri follows Claude's gaze down to his injury, frowning at the words of guilt. And it's true, it still hurts - it hurts quite a bit actually, and if Dimitri were in a more stable state of mind then he might be more insistent on getting it taken care of, but there's Edelgard and the crowds and Claude nearby and so many other things that pull his emotions in a dozen different ways, something as trifling as a physical injury is lower on the priority list.

Still.

“You got me here.” There's no doubt in his mind about that. Dimitri knows that if Claude hadn't intercepted his path, he would have died long before ever making it to Enbarr. He knows that Claude is the only reason he's still standing - and what's more, Claude is the reason he's gotten the vengeance that he's so desperately needed all this time. That's what truly matters to him, not some injury that can be healed in time. “And you kept her guards off of me. That's all that matters.”

It's annoying that he can't hold Claude properly right now, but it will come back in time, and with healing. Dimitri leans in a little closer to him then - it's just Dedue in the room with them now, who politely looks away as Dimitri kisses Claude, gentle and sweet.

When he breaks the kiss, it's with a bit of a considering furrow to his brow.

“Though... healing would be nice.”

Claude smiles, and touches Dimitri's cheek for a moment, a brief and affectionate gesture.

“Let's find someone. You must be in pain.”

He leads Dimitri to the door of the throne room, turning their backs on Edelgard's body. They will bury her, and they will have ample time to think about how much things have changed, how many of their friends they've been forced to kill, how much suffering this war has put them through. For now, they should both focus on healing. On finding somewhere to rest.

Calling over the nearest Alliance soldier, Claude instructs her to find a healer - Mercedes, preferably, or Marianne, but anyone will do in a pinch. Then he leads Dimitri to a bench along the wall, cushioned in red, made of fine wood. Probably where petitioners sit while waiting to go before their Emperor. All he cares about is that it's intact and not too bloody.

“Here. Rest.”

Dedue takes up a post nearby, and soldiers are hurrying to and fro, securing the palace and searching it for any resistance left. This area is safe, though, as is clear by the bodies of the palace's defenders that lay scattered across the floor. Claude stays near Dimitri, if not quite as near as before.

Sitting feels better than it has any right to. Dimitri leans his head back against the wall and exhales, closing his eye for a moment while he can. He's tired, he's exhausted, and now the pain is beginning to settle in, like a low throb in his bones. His temple hurts from where it was bashed with the hilt of Edelgard's weapon, his legs are protesting with all the strain he's put on them: the marching, the running, the bruising from catching various blows to his armor. He's sure that his ribs are bruised as well, and through the splitting headache that's beginning to form, Dimitri isn't sure if there's anything on him that doesn't hurt.

It’s here that Claude changes the subject, his tone going light - something to take their mind off of everything that just happened maybe, something to continue to drown out the voices in the back of his mind.

“I always wanted to visit here, you know. To see what it was like. I envisioned it a bit differently.”

Dimitri cracks his eye open to look toward Claude, considering that. He can't say that he's ever had similar thoughts - sure, at a young age, he hadn't known why Edelgard was staying with them, but as his father had explained it later he'd been horrified by the thought of an empire hunting its own princess. He'd thought of Enbarr as a cruel and manipulative place since, and though he knew his stepmother had come from such a place - not to mention Edelgard herself - he'd wanted little to do with it.

The aversion had lessened as he got older and realized that cruelty and manipulation exists everywhere, but still, he'd never particularly entertained the thought of being here next to the throne room in any circumstance except perhaps for negotiations, from King to Emperor.

That time is long past. Dimitri leans forward on the chair then and begins tugging off the impromptu bandages that he’s bleeding through, so that he can tend to the wound with a little more attention and care than they were able to muster before.

“How did you envision it?”

He asks, before gritting his teeth as he slowly tries to remove his glove. The armored plating on the back of his hand had been slashed away on impact, which he's a little thankful for, as it makes the glove more flexible to be removed... but the fabric itself is sticky and drenched in blood, caked to where the threads of the jagged edges are stuck to the wound.

Dimitri shudders but holds his hand straight and still with a tension that makes his shoulder tremble as he slowly and carefully peels off the once-supple leather, wincing as it pulls his fingers in a way that aggravates it.

But then it's off and the injury is... well it's as expected. The dagger had pierced him to the hilt, leaving a gash almost two inches long on both his palm and the back of his hand. It's still bleeding, albeit slightly less dangerously, and Dimitri wrinkles his nose and tries to re-tie the bandage so he can have it be tighter, cut off more blood flow. It isn't going well and after a moment he gives up and offers both his hand and the cloth toward Claude, who has clearly been restraining himself from trying to offer help.

It hurts, but he's not sure if he wants to talk about it. Instead, he tries to think of the current conversation, what Claude had been telling him about.

“I've never been here either. The political situation was always - ah, tense when I was growing up. My father would never bring me on his attempts at negotiations.”

Claude sets the bloody bandage aside and just tears off another piece of his cape - it's ruined anyway. Then he begins to bind Dimitri's hand, more carefully this time.

He seems to understand that talking is a distraction and so he continues the conversation as he carefully wraps Dimitri’s hand.

“I was more interested in the history. The Empire has been around much longer than the Alliance - or the Kingdom, even. I was sure they'd have books and artifacts and all kinds of things that I'd never find in Derdriu.” There’s a pause and Claude frowns. “My grandfather had no interest in bringing me here, though. He only barely acknowledged me, after all.”

Claude secures the bandage, beginning to look weary himself as the adrenaline wears off. He moves to sit a little closer to Dimitri, watching for a healer.

“There. Better?”

“Yes. I'm sorry to have ruined your cape.”

Not that the cape would have been fine otherwise. The two of them are both dirty from the fight, Dimitri a little moreso, but Claude's clothing stains far easier, being a lighter color. The cape was likely beyond saving even before Claude turned it into bandaging, but still - he looked nice in it and it's sad to see it destroyed.

Now that they're both relatively stable, Dimitri leans back alongside Claude, closing his eye again and relaxing against the stone. He's in too much pain to really be able to fall asleep, but he thinks that he might if he were given enough time.

“Perhaps a visit to the imperial library is in order then,” he murmurs on a yawn, slowly sinking down further and further until his head is pillowed against Claude's shoulder. It isn't comfortable with all of their armor on, but at least it's on Claude's right side so that his temple can rest in fabric rather than Claude's shoulder armor.

“...when things have settled down.”

Claude makes a soft sound, like a chuckle in the back of his throat and doesn’t admonish Dimitri for his weariness, despite the fact that there are soldiers who might see them, Dedue who is dutifully standing nearby.

Well. Dedue knows now regardless, there’s no getting around that fact.

“I'd like that. I want to see Fhirdiad, too.”

Of course, they will see it sooner or later, and Dimitri lightens to think on it - the army will be marching to Fhirdiad as soon as everything has been resolved here, as soon as they've had a bit of time to rest.

“You could show it to me.”

He's really going too far just leaning on Claude like this. He is the future king, he can't risk looking weak, but he's so tired that he finds he can't force himself to stay upright. The adrenaline that kept him up throughout the battle - goddess, the burning need that has kept him going for years - is finally crashing and he finds that he can barely keep sitting like this, let alone keep his eye open or keep his head up.

Despite all of that, the corner of his mouth twitches into a smile when Claude mentions Fhirdiad and he thinks of how nice that would be, to show it to him. He knows that Claude's first impressions of it will likely be just as violent as Enbarr, with them needing to retake it in a bloody battle, but maybe afterward, when they can make repairs and get the city cleaned up and returned to its original splendor... maybe then, he can show Claude the place he fell in love with as a child.

“You'd love it.” His eye is still closed but he murmurs it against Claude's shoulder, relaxed and soft. “White stone reaching toward the heavens. Statues of the saints, the goddess... rich blue banners streaming in the sun. I haven't seen it in years…”

Dimitri's voice grows wistful and tapers off as he thinks about it, his home. After the attack on Garreg Mach, he'd returned, but it was short-lived. As much as Dimitri tried to muster supporters, raise an army, he didn't have the time or foresight to protect himself politically and had been betrayed as a result, sentenced and shackled to a prison cell. When he'd left that cell, he hadn't looked back - for over five years now, he hasn't looked back.

Now, with Claude, he thinks he might be able to.

“It sounds beautiful,” Claude admits, “But it's cold, right? I'm gonna complain a lot. I’ll be really annoying.”

Maybe it's all right to be lighthearted now. They won. There's work ahead of them, misery in their recent pasts, but - right now, it's all right to enjoy this moment. Dimitri alive and sane, next to Claude. Their friends, alive. Their country, unified more or less, ready to be rebuilt.

Just for a moment, when no one is looking, Claude rests his cheek against Dimitri's hair.

“Not in the summer,” Dimitri says.

Though Faerghus summers are a good deal chillier than the season down South - it's not what he'd consider cold. Claude might, but he thinks that if there's no snow then there's no real reason to complain about it.

Dimitri likes hearing that tone in Claude's voice. He likes feeling the weight of his cheek against his head and thinking about how Claude and he have survived this, how they have many trials ahead but they also have... this, this thing between them that they both recognize.

Dimitri loves him. And on some level, that makes their bond even more terrifying: Dimitri could lose him like he's lost so many things, Claude will leave, his heart will get broken... but on the other hand, this adoration, this love, it's the first wholly positive thing that he's felt in what feels like forever. It's enough to make him want to keep going even through the rest of this mess, and remembering Claude's hand on his cheek, talking him through it, makes Dimitri want to follow him anywhere.

Even into this new world he wants to build.

“I'll give you our finest furs. Keep you indoors, near a fire. Warm you with our food.”

“Mm… you’ll keep me warm?” Claude teases softly, intimately, but Dimitri doesn’t respond. He's drifting a little now, settling in comfortably and feeling the urging of sleep begin to take him into its grasp. So at ease here, tucked against Claude with his eyes closed and his shoulders finally letting some of the tension drain from them, Dimitri doesn't notice the paired footsteps down the hallway.

Mercedes - that's good, someone has been able to find her to direct her here, she can look at his hand and try to heal what she can - but she's also accompanied by Judith, who marches toward Claude with a severe look in her eye.

Claude straightens quickly, which is enough to jostle Dimitri into opening his eye, refocusing as he sees the two women striding through the halls.

Mercedes either doesn't notice their familiarity or is very good at pretending she hasn't. Judith does notice, her sharp gaze impossible to avoid, but she only rolls her eyes and does not remark on their position.

“Finally,” Claude says with a sigh of relief, “his hand- “

But Mercedes already knows, of course, as if it weren't obvious already by the bloodied cloth around Dimitri's hand. She kneels in front of them on the bench and takes his hand, carefully unwrapping the bandage with gentle movements so that she can see the damage and heal him properly. It stings and she frowns as she looks over it.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” she whispers to Dimitri, quiet like a secret, and he nods while the soft green light envelops his palm.

“I’m glad you are too,” he responds, taking in a sharp inhale as his skin slowly knits itself back together.

While Mercedes heals him, Judith steps in front of Claude, her gaze severe - more severe than Dimitri has ever seen it. He doesn’t hear what she says, he’s too tired and she’s speaking in a hushed tone, and while he wants to care, he wants to know what’s going on, he’s simply too exhausted to push the issue.

She hands Claude a letter and Dimitri doesn’t know the contents of it, but whatever it is, Claude doesn’t seem happy. Again, Dimitri wants to ask, but Mercedes commands his attention, placing her hand on his wrist.

“This part is going to hurt,” she warns softly and Dimitri nods, tensing in anticipation as she jolts another surge of magic forward, one that jostles the bones of his hand back into the proper position from where they’d been displaced by the dagger and Dimitri grunts in pain, his teeth clenched.

There will be more. More healing, more resting, and he assumes that whatever business Judith has, well… they’ll deal with it soon enough. For now, Claude turns back to him while she strides away, tucks the letter into his pocket and places a hand on his shoulder as Mercedes takes care of the worst of it.

They’ll be ready for whatever comes next. They have to be.