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Proof of Life

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“Are you trying to get yourself killed!?”

Claude did not even have the decency to look sheepish when Dimitri whirled toward him, abandoning the corpse of the Imperial assassin and stalking back to the Alliance leader’s side. “No,” he replied, “I was trying to keep you from getting killed.”

“I have armor,” Dimitri growled, crouching down in the fallen leaves to inspect the damage under the moonlight.

“Yeah, and I have silk underwear and a better sense of self-preserva-- h-hey, careful, don’t touch it…”

He shied away, pressing a hand against his side to guard the knife still lodged within his padded coat. "You can not just leave it there--"

"Sure I can," Claude laughed, his humor guttering out into a breathless hiss. "If I yank it out I'll bleed myself dry before help gets here. It can stay in for a little while, at least until you bring Marianne or Merce--"

"Absolutely not!"

The archer winced, shaking his head as if to clear it. "We were just ambushed," Dimitri snarled. "Who knows how many more are lurking out there. You need to fall back."

"I can't walk," Claude pointed out. "There's no way I can get back to camp. But I'm pretty sure I can still fire an arrow if I need to. I can defend myself until you get back with a healer -- I could probably do it better if I get myself into a tree, though I'd need a little help with that, tree climbing's not exactly my specialty..."

"I will carry you, then."

The archer snorted, wan amusement twitching at his lips. "If there are more assassins out there, you're gonna have a tough time fighting if you've got me in arms. Unless you're planning to haul me around under your arm like a sack of potatoes…"

Claude's voice trailed off as Dimitri turned his back. "You're serious."

"I will carry you."

"You don’t have to do this--”

“I will not leave you to die.” He would not suffer another death to his own failings, would not invite another spirit to whisper over his shoulder, would not add another howl to the voices baying always at his heels for more blood when there was already so much he might drown in it if he stopped moving too long--

The archer stirred, breaking him free of those chilling thoughts. Another soft, strained sound broke the silence, a muttered oath he could not quite hear, before a weight settled against his back, arms coiling fast around his neck (but they were real and strong and sure and warm and nothing like the icy claws that pricked and scraped whatever skin they could find).

He cleared his head with another firm shake, hooking his elbows under Claude’s knees and taking up Areadbhar once more as he rose to his feet. “Wow, I don’t weigh a thing to you, do I?” the Alliance leader remarked as Dimitri turned and started through the dark trees. “Back in the academy, there were a lot of rumors about how strong you were, but I never really thought you were that strong...then again, you did throw a spear hard enough to down a wyvern, so I probably should have figured…”

The prince made a quiet sound, ducking under a low branch. Silence crept close, broken only by the sound of his footsteps, his breath, his heart in his ears and the susurrus of whispers that hid within the quiet-- “You can continue,” he said, wondering if his voice sounded so thick in truth or if it was only his imagination twisting it in his ears.

“You sure? Here I figured I’d just be a distraction, talking your ear off while you’re trying to hear enemies on the prowl.”

“I trust you to watch our back.”

“That’s fair,” Claude chuckled. “...this really takes me back, you know? Makes me feel like a little kid again.”

“Did your father carry you like this?” Dimitri asked. He could remember, however distantly, laughing himself as he clung to broad shoulders, the pleasant rumble of words long lost to time (but the same voice now rattled in the stillness and the same face gone pale in death gazed hollowly out of shadows seen from the corners of his eyes)...

“My mom, actually.”

His heart sank. “I apologize -- I did not mean to stir bad memories…”

“What bad memories?”

Dimitri glanced over his shoulder. “Was your father not absent…?”

“What? No, not at all,” the archer laughed. “It’s just hard for a one-armed man to carry a kid around like this.”

Even as he struggled to think of a response, Claude continued on, his voice soft and almost wistful. “It’s not that he wasn’t strong enough, he just couldn’t keep the balance. He used to carry me on his shoulders, instead -- everything looked so different from up there, even things that should have been familiar...it gave me an early appreciation of the high ground, I guess. ...it’s...strange to think that I haven’t seen him in six years. Almost seven now. He was still taller than me when I left, and...the first year I was gone, I kept wondering if that would change by the next time I saw him. I didn’t think I’d be gone so long. I didn’t...think any of this would happen.”

“Who could have?” Dimitri muttered. Besides Edelgard, of course (and the howling rose in his ears at the mere thought).

“...I feel like I should have, though,” the Alliance leader mumbled back. “There were signs. Little clues, puzzle pieces I didn’t know how to fit together until it was too late. I wonder if I could have stopped it, if I’d known. ...not that dwelling on it does any good now.”

“The past drives you forward. That seems reason enough to keep it in mind.”

“...who told you that?”

He nearly stumbled at the question, casting a bewildered glance at the man behind him. “I mean...yes, the past is important, but it’s...it’s not something you should ever dwell on too much, unless you’re trying to avoid repeating historic mistakes. I don’t think that’s likely to happen here, all things considered. The past shapes us into who we are at any given moment, but...but it’s our aspirations that should be pushing us forward and shaping who we become.”

“...aspirations?” Dimitri repeated.

“What do you want to accomplish?” Claude pressed.

“I want Edelgard’s head--”

“Do you have any sense of self-preservation?”

“Says the man who took a knife in the side,” he snorted.

“Better than taking it in the neck,” the archer shot back, “which is exactly what would have happened to you if I hadn’t intercepted that assassin.”

Now he did stop, wishing he could turn to look the man in the face. “You knew he was there?”

“Not...exactly? Something just felt...strange. I didn’t know he was there until he dropped out of that tree. You lunge at any threat in Imperial colors; that knife would have been in your throat if I hadn’t made him reprioritize his targets.”

He was shaking, now, hard enough that Claude’s arms tightened to keep his grip (but all he could feel was the cold grasp of ghostly fingers closing around his throat and the ice freezing the breath in his lungs the harder he tried to breathe). Lurching forward again, he struck off into the dark, chasing the cold light spattered across the forest floor while the cries grew louder and louder around him…

The Alliance leader’s voice broke through the din, soft and strained yet somehow deafening compared to the phantom howls. “I don’t know what happened between you two. I don’t know what she did that has you so set on killing her. And you don’t have to tell me. But you’re chasing it like it’s the only thing that means anything. Like next to that, your life doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t,” Dimitri grunted.

“I know a bunch of your old friends and classmates who’d argue with you there,” Claude scoffed. “There’s at least one person back at camp who probably would’ve killed me if I’d let something happen to you out here.”

“Felix hates me.”

“Ingrid doesn’t, though, and she does hate me. So.”

“I cannot stop. The dead too far outweigh the living.”

“...that depends on how you weigh them.”

He slowed as the trees drew close around them, snuffing out any trace of light. “What way is there besides counting the bodies piled in her wake?” he muttered.

“...if you gave me a choice between retreating to save someone’s life and letting her get away, or staying to kill her and dragging an extra corpse off the battlefield, I’d fall back without hesitation.”

“And give up your chance to make her pay!?”

“There’ll be other chances. So long as you’re alive, there’ll always be another chance. But if you throw your life away and fail? She gets away, and another body’s added to the pile.”

Dimitri swallowed hard, picking his way one step at a time down the shadowed path. “I don’t want to be like her,” Claude mumbled. “I don’t want to throw lives away without a thought, just to get what I want. I’ll find some other way. I know...I know I can’t avoid killing. But as much as I can...I’ll keep the loss of life to a minimum. And that means keeping you alive, too.”

“Better to leave me to my own pursuits.”

“Not if it means watching you throw your life away. The dead can’t change anything: only the living can. So when I saw you at Gronder...already injured and exhausted, but still dragging yourself after her rear guard...you would’ve died. And I couldn’t just let you. ...sorry about shooting you in the leg.”

“You already apologized for that,” Dimitri reminded him.

“Still feel bad, though.”

He snorted, feeling his lips twitch up in vague amusement. The branches overhead at last began to thin, dappling the ground with just enough light to see by...but he did not recognize the trail. Frowning, he pressed on, scanning the trees for any trace of firelight, any sign of their camp...but he found only darkness. Had he gone astray somewhere…?

The stillness of the air unnerved him. “Claude?”

Silence. Looking over his shoulder...his gaze drifted down to the marks spattered along the path behind them, glistening black under the moonlight. “Claude?” he called again (and the word rang heavy in the dead air, sinking beneath the rising whispers closing in around him). “...please say something,” he begged. Anything, anything --

A low groan rose at his back, and his knees nearly gave out at the rush of relief that flooded through him. “Are we there yet?”

“...no,” Dimitri admitted. “We should have reached camp by now…”

The archer stirred, sluggishly raising one arm. “Is that a clearing up ahead?”

Securing his grip, the prince hurried on, breaking through the brush into a narrow glade. But still, he could see no trace of their encampment -- how far off course had he gone? Had he still damned Claude to death…?

“Turn right.”

“Come again?”

“Right.” Frowning, Dimitri followed the vague instruction. “Another half step. See the deer path?”

He hadn’t, no. But now that he knew what to look for, he could see the place where something had passed through. “Follow that. Camp shouldn’t be far.”

“How do you know?” he asked, starting down the trail even as he spoke.

“Stars,” the archer mumbled.

“...what of them?” Dimitri pressed.

“...I like them. Charted them since I was a kid. I can...find my way by them, when I can see them. And I’ve been to that spot. Just had to get my bearings. Camp’s under the Serpent’s Coils.”

“I am not familiar with a Serpent constellation.” Not that he was overly familiar with many stars, aside from the Blue Sea Star where the goddess made her home. “Can you show me?” The trees were thinner here, and when he turned his gaze up he could see the moon...

A weak tremor went through the man slumped across his back. “I would, but...it’s hard to keep my thoughts together. S-sorry”

“No need to apologize,” the prince replied, picking up his pace as the glow of firelight appeared through the trees. “Camp is close now. Hold fast.”

The archer’s shuddering breath was all he received in reply.

Ingrid accosted him just beyond the perimeter of their temporary base, spear at the ready as she demanded his identity; Dimitri managed little more than a guttural sound to announce himself, striding past her while she fumbled her way through a greeting. Crossing the camp at a pace barely short of a run, he shouldered his way into the medical tent -- and nearly bowled Marianne over in the process, staggering to a stop as she stumbled backward into a cluttered table.

"Di...Dimitri?" she called. "Do you need something?"

He could not hear Claude breathing anymore.

"Help."

-----

They took Claude from him. And then they sent him away.

They were kind with it, if nothing else. Mercedes escorted him out of the infirmary while Hilda leapt into action, calling rapidfire orders to Marianne that he could not parse; and when he tried to protest, the bishop reassured him that they were all experienced hands with treating injuries, and finally promised to inform him when their work was done.

He could find no argument. So he let her go.

And in the stillness that followed her departure, the whispers eddied up once more.

In a desperate bid to distract himself, he roved around their encampment, circling it twice (each time skirting the edges of the watch fires where Lysithea and Felix stood guard rather than risk the nobleman’s usual ire) before Gilbert caught him skulking past the cookfire on his third round; he settled to scrounging through the remnants of supper, less out of real hunger than to placate his retainer...yet he found it difficult to sit still while the man laid out their plans for the days ahead: the northward march, the liberation of Fhirdiad -- it was nothing more than sound washing over him, drowning out the other voices but leaving nothing behind…

“Dimitri?”

He jerked at the unexpected call, glancing over his shoulder -- and scrambling to his feet as Marianne bowed to him and Gilbert both. “Please excuse the interruption--”

“Is he alive?”

She smiled gently, nodding and folding her hands before her. “He should be fine, with enough rest. Hilda asks that we delay breaking camp for a few more days...”

“The longer we delay, the greater the risk of foul weather impeding our progress,” Gilbert protested. “We are marching on borrowed time as it is, and our supplies are running low; if we do not reach our allies in Fraldarius territory soon--”

“We will wait,” Dimitri cut him off.

“Your Highness--”

“That is an order,” he growled.

Gilbert offered no further argument.

Turning his back on the firelight, Dimitri nodded to Marianne, following in her wake as she walked back toward the infirmary. "How bad is the wound?" he asked.

“He was lucky,” she murmured. “It was deep, but it missed anything vital, and we removed the knife without doing more damage -- it got caught up in his undershirt, rather than tearing through, so Hilda was able to tease all of it out together.”

And here he had thought the Alliance leader was only being flippant.

“He needed a few stitches from Mercedes,” she continued, “but he should be out of danger. If he rests, that is.”

“May I see him?” he asked as she lifted the flap leading into the medical tent.

Marianne paused, fretting with the thick canvas. “He should be sleeping,” she cautioned.

“I will not wake him,” Dimitri swore. “I...I need to see. Please.”

Glancing over her shoulder...she nodded, gesturing for him to follow when she stepped inside. Ducking after her, he offered a grateful bow, creeping along the row of cots she pointed down and scanning beds both empty and occupied--

He hardly recognized the man lying under the pale sheets. He might have walked past, had a vague prickle of familiarity not given him a moment’s pause. Gone were the teasing grin and cavalier air, the veil of mystery and boundless energy; all the remained was ashen pallor, silence, stillness (and he stared, transfixed by hope and horror both, waiting for that phantom to draw breath because he saw no trace of life there, just another ghost)...

Claude’s chest rose. Fell. Rose again. An even, steady rhythm that he found himself mimicking without meaning to. Taking a seat at the bedside (and cringing when the chair creaked in protest), he tentatively reached for the archer’s hand; dulled though it was through his gloves, subtle warmth met his touch, further proof of life no matter how faint it seemed (and he curled his fingers into the man’s palm to keep that reminder close in mind).

Even now, watching the slow rise and fall of the bedclothes, Dimitri could not hear his breath. Silence had long unnerved him, but it felt somehow worse in Claude’s company, given his penchant for idle chatter...so he swallowed back the knot in his throat, and drew an unsteady breath of his own.

“My family is dead.”

The sound of his own voice shook him, however briefly. Strange to think that talking had been easy once. “You questioned why I seek Edelgard’s death. Because she took everyone from me. My father. My mother. My guardians. My friends. All lost their lives in Duscur. Only I survived the slaughter -- the ‘Tragedy,’ as they called it in Faerghus. I saw those responsible, in their masks and robes...so when we clashed with the Flame Emperor, and I saw those same figures...I felt certain that the Flame Emperor was responsible for the Tragedy of Duscur, and all the deaths that followed. When we discovered that Edelgard was the Flame Emperor, I…”

He shook his head, casting a wary glance around the infirmary. But there was no one else around to hear, beyond the man sleeping beside him. “I was rash, perhaps, believing that she had a personal hand in those acts. But she chose to ally herself with those who committed them. And I cannot forgive her for that. The dead cry out for justice, and her blood alone will quiet them.”

His hand shook, and he tightened his grip on Claude’s fingers to steady himself. The Alliance leader might have narrowly avoided death tonight (and he stilled for a moment, watching the subtle signs of his breathing to reassure himself of that fact)...but how many others had died for his pursuit? How many had he left to certain death? How many more had he put to the blade himself? Would their justice demand his head?

I don’t want to be like her, Claude had said. But looking back on it now, Dimitri feared the bodies left in his own wake might well rival hers.

“...I have no aspirations,” he confessed. “Nothing more I expect to see through. Once Edelgard is dead...my own life will repay those I’ve taken.” That would see justice through for them. That was fair.

...was it?

He frowned, looking again at Claude and reassuring himself that the man still slept. So where had that nagging thought come from? Justice had to be paid when the war ended, he knew that to be truth -- and yet somehow, infuriatingly, he knew that Claude would argue the price. He could practically hear the man scoff that spilling more blood would not satisfy anyone, would only harm those left behind (and he had cited Dimitri’s own friends and classmates, hadn’t he, and how had he not appreciated before the way they’d rallied around him, remaining steadfast by his side even when he could not recognize them as anything more than phantoms from his past?).

The dead can change nothing.

What could he change, if he tried to live?

The enormity of such a thought overwhelmed him. Shaking his head, he drew in a slow, unsteady breath, blew it out in an equally unsteady sigh...and resolved to ask Claude, when next he roused, what he intended to do after the war’s end. He had spent so long consumed by the fighting and death that it had become all he knew -- but if he could get a straight answer out of the man...it might offer some insights into what the future could hold for him, as well.

----

He roused to something poking his shoulder.

Dimitri growled, sluggishly dragging his cape closer around him. It was too dark to be dawn, and there was no cause to wake him otherwise--

“You awake, Dimitri?”

The voice was not one he had expected.

Jerking upright, he found Claude watching him, his grin faded but undeniably present. “What are you doing in the infirmary?” he mumbled. “I didn’t think that assassin got you.”

“I came to check on you,” the prince replied honestly.

“Well, as you can see, I’m alive and well. So go get some sleep, would you? You look like shit.”

“I could say the same to you,” Dimitri snorted.

“At least I have an excuse,” the archer shot back (and it was only when a slight warmth squeezed his fingers that he realized he still had Claude’s hand in his own). “Go find a bed. I hurt more just looking at you.”

He didn’t much care for the thought of silence being his only company. But if all he needed was to find a bed… “Fine.” Scooting the chair slightly closer, he slung his arm across the pillow under the Alliance leader’s head and settled in as comfortably as he could.

“Smartass. You know that’s not what I meant.” And yet, he made no further protest, instead nestling in when Dimitri draped his cloak across the covers. “You don’t get to blame me if you wake up sore in the morning.”

“So be it,” the prince mumbled. Curled so close, he could at last hear the whisper of Claude’s breath...and that alone reassured him enough to find sleep once more.