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Aimed Without Hesitation

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Without even looking up, Dimitri knew that Claude had entered his office when the door shut slowly behind him. His black leather shoes clicked distinctly on the polished marble floor as he approached the desk where Dimitri was working, steps deliberately slow as to let Dimitri appreciate the full echo of his heels on dark cracked stone. He could read Claude like an open book after so many years spent at his side as his partner, in all senses of the term.

So, when he glanced up from his work to watch his approach, he knew to expect the slow sway of his hips, the jingle of the decorative buckles on his slim-fitting pants, and the easy smile on his face. His hooded eyes glinted in the light as he approached, his sly expression roaming across Dimitri’s tired face before making eye contact with him. Dimitri watched him approach, pen still poised to annotate the contract laid out before him, but his hand unmoving as he secretly drank in the sight of his partner instead. Claude seemed to appreciate the attention, running a hand through his hair, and then dropping that same hand to Dimitri’s desk to trace the mahogany idly as he circumvented it to Dimitri’s side.

Dimitri followed the feathery drag of his fingers over all his documents and watched as they came closer and closer before finally jumping over to his jaw, tipping his chin up. Dimitri swiveled his leather desk chair to face Claude when the latter stopped right in front of him, planting himself between Dimitri’s spread legs with one final click of his heel on marble. Dimitri let him, unshaken by Claude’s smouldering gaze.

“I was in the middle of doing something important,” he finally said, holding eye contact with Claude, who only seemed more amused at his comment.

“Do me instead; I’m important, too,” he replied without skipping a beat, dropping his hand although his eyes gleamed with the thrill of a challenge.

Dimitri lifted his eyebrows in mild disbelief for a few seconds before letting out a snort.

“That must have been one of your weaker attempts at seducing me,” he chuckled, leaning back into his chair comfortably, watching Claude shift his weight onto his right hip to shove both hands in his pockets, thus tearing down the imposing image he’d made for himself in the minute it took for him to walk to Dimitri.

“I dunno,” Claude shrugged idly. “I thought I was being pretty clever.”

“It was a rather cliché pick-up line, to be frank,” Dimitri argued with clear amusement in his tone, making an obvious move to look Claude up and down. “And what is it that you’re wearing? Is this part of your seduction plan as well?”

“Don’t you like it?” Pulling at the bottom of his black knit sweater, Claude stretched it out, his tan skin exposed underneath all the tears and holes in his chest and sleeves. There were more gaps than wool on the garment, which gave Dimitri a near-perfect view of the tattoos decorating Claude’s body, black lines crossing his chest like slices of a blade or strokes from a brush, and most notably, the arrow on his sternum which extended upwards onto his throat. The tip of the arrow, like the petals of the rose inked into his shoulder, disappeared under the long velvet choker hanging down for Dimitri to grab like a leash. He twirled the velvet around his fingers and pulled lightly, Claude unhesitatingly stepping forward to take a seat on his thighs instead.

“I did not say I did not like it,” Dimitri replied casually, keeping one hand on the end of the choker and slipping another one just underneath the hem of Claude’s sweater to press his chilled fingers against the warm skin of his hip. Claude visibly shivered at the contact, but did not otherwise lose his composure, looking much too satisfied with his current position.

“You’re killing me with these mixed signals, Dima,” Claude chuckled lowly, his voice deep and deliberately husky as he played his part. Dimitri played along easily, having years of practice to rely on as he relaxed, letting his partner put his hands on his shoulders.

“I have done nothing to discourage you. I simply wonder what the occasion is for you being so dressed up,” he admitted frankly, enjoying the cool touch of dark red silk on his skin when Claude ran his hands up and down his sleeves. He, too, itched to touch, but he knew the rules of the game; rules that were not in his best interest to break.

“You said you’d take me out tonight,” Claude reminded him, his tone suggestive as he ran his hands over Dimitri’s collarbones, smoothing out the lapels of his black vest before running down to the hem, and pulling it down as well. “Work has been rough recently, and I wanted a night out for us before we have to go back to business.” Adjusting his clothing exposed a part of Dimitri’s collarbones, showing off the word tattooed across them in elegant loops, the one that Claude could never get enough of admiring. Dimitri knew that for a fact because his partner’s eyes immediately jumped to his inked skin, gaze tracing the letters. “How about it,” Claude touched the tattoo as he read it out, “Prince?”

“I don’t recall ever promising you that,” Dimitri frowned lightly, letting go of the choker to instead hold onto Claude’s hips with both hands. His thighs were starting to hurt, but he would never even dream of complaining. “I have a lot to do. This contract has to be reviewed before the meeting with the new cocaine suppliers tomorrow, and I have to follow-up with Felix on the progress made on tracking down the rat that cut the last batch with fentanyl.”

“Felix is a grown adult, and your highly competent right-hand man,” Claude argued, pouting as he busied himself idling with Dimitri’s hair. He pushed back the blond strands that had fallen out of Dimitri’s high ponytail, curling them behind his ear to expose the small black crown tattooed on the lower edge of his right eye, stylized to match the spade tattooed on the lower edge of Claude’s left eye. “Hunting someone down is easy for someone in his position, since he has, at his disposition, all of the resources belonging to one of Fódlan’s largest groups of organized criminals. Felix can do it on his own.”

“I never doubted his skill, Claude, I just-”

“Let Felix take care of the cocaine problem. Focus on something else.” Claude’s lips turned up in a smile that had a bit of a cold edge to it. His hands stopped playing with Dimitri’s hair, one of his elbows curling around his neck instead and the other cradling his jaw as he leaned into him. “Like, let’s say… sending a congratulations card to Seteth, the Minister of Justice. I hear that his daughter is turning twelve this Friday, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to remind him that we know she exists.”

“I don’t believe I even know the girl’s name,” Dimitri scoffed, rolling his eyes but inevitably falling upon the sight of Claude’s lips, hovering so close to him in this position. Claude clearly noted the object of his attention, because he planted his knees on Dimitri’s chair and pushed himself off of his thighs, instead lifting himself a little above him. Dimitri happily slipped both of his hands under his sweater, grabbing his waist firmly to support him.

“It’s Flayn, dearest,” Claude chuckled, running his thumb just underneath Dimitri’s jawline, catching with the pads of his finger the tip of the sunset tattooed on the column of his neck. “I’ll write the letter, though, if you agree to take me out tonight. I’ll even gift her a pair of gold earrings for the occasion. Girls like that sort of stuff, right?”

“The girl is twelve, it hardly takes as many karats to satisfy her,” Dimitri scoffed, running his hands freely up Claude’s back, feeling the firmness of his muscles underneath his hands, and tracing his shoulder blades where he remembered there being the antlers of the huge golden deer tattooed across Claude’s entire back. With his hands so high up his clothes, the bottom of Claude’s sweater had rolled up, exposing his abdomen, and between that and the large tears in his sweater, he may as well not have been wearing one in the first place. Dimitri felt that knowledge sink in as Claude rolled his eyes at him, leaning into his face.

“Dima,” he said firmly, his breath caressing Dimitri’s lips. Even though he’d had this with Claude for years, Dimitri could never get over the anticipation of this final moment of separation, these last few seconds that Claude liked to tease because he knew that the wait drove Dimitri crazy. “I’m trying to distract you. You’re not working with me here.”

“My apologies,” Dimitri chuckled, pushing him closer by his shoulder blades and tilting his head up. “Consider me distracted.”

They met in the middle, and Dimitri realized that Claude’s kisses would never get old.

Claude knew just what to do, as usual, tilting his head a little more so that his neatly-trimmed beard did not tickle Dimitri’s chin at this critical moment. In the same manner, Dimitri knew that when their kisses began to deepen, he had to remove a hand from Claude’s back and grab his jaw instead. Like magic under the pressure of his hand, Claude let out a soft moan, and Dimitri pushed right in to run his tongue inside his mouth. Like a constant push and pull, a dynamic of power shared between the two, they kissed, heavy and unashamed until they were breathless, and their little noises of pleasure became low gasps for air.

At that moment, Claude ran his hand through Dimitri’s hair and pulled at the elastic keeping his ponytail up, letting his golden hair cascade down to his shoulders. It was the perfect length for him to tangle his fingers in and pull, tilting Dimitri’s neck to expose it. Dimitri let him, holding onto the back of Claude’s neck as he pulled away from his lips and breathlessly bit the underside of his jaw instead.

“Claude,” he gasped out, a spark of pleasure arching up his spine at the pinch that came with the bite. Claude hummed appreciatively, pulling the skin with his teeth until it was painful and red, and then running his tongue over it to soothe the burn. Neither of them needed to see it to know that it would bruise soon enough- Claude had never been merciful when it came to marking Dimitri’s skin, not once in the half-decade they’d spent together.

“Hmm… Again,” Claude demanded, tugging at his hair again for good measure as he moved down, forgoing leaving more hickeys on his neck to instead kiss his way down to his collarbones. There, he busied himself with sucking another bruise onto the bony prominence, clearly enjoying how Dimitri visibly shivered and let out a gasp when he gave little kisses to the bright crimson skin. With his mouth clearly busy, he used his only free hand to roll the buttons on Dimitri’s vest between his fingers, fumbling idly until they popped.

“Claude-” Dimitri’s breath caught in his throat and he choked on the end of his name, biting his lips to muffle another breathy moan. One of his hands continued to caress the nape of Claude’s neck while the other moved away from his back and instead slid to the front, to his abdomen. The movement drew a pleased hum from Claude, who finished his violent masterpiece on Dimitri’s collarbone before licking his way back up to his lips.

He barely got a kiss in before Dimitri shoved his fingers into the waistband of his skin-tight pants, and although he only managed to get a little bit in without unbuttoning them, Claude reacted by arching his back into his touch and rewarding Dimitri’s efforts with a pleased hum. His hands grabbed the front of Dimitri’s vest, bunching the fabric and letting cool air hit more of his overheated body.

“Oh,” he panted out, all of his earlier eloquence out of the window when it came to Dimitri’s touch. “Oh, yes, that’s good-”

“If you want to go out tonight-” Dimitri interrupted himself by biting on Claude’s lower lip, drawing another whimper from him as he simultaneously popped the button on his pants. “If you still want to, we’ll have to do this fast.”

“Fast has its charms,” Claude laughed, his husky voice rumbling low enough in his chest for Dimitri to feel it as he undid the zipper. “Mmm- Dimi, ah- Dimitri, fast sounds really- ah- good right now.”

“Hold still.” Arousal shot right through him at the sound of his name, and he let out a growl of his own, swallowing Claude’s staccato of breathy gasps with a greedy open-mouthed kiss. Claude enthusiastically responded, and when Dimitri finally slid his hand into his boxers, he arched his back deep against his touch and let out such a lovely whimper that Dimitri could not help but devour him whole.

They finished with ease and plenty of time to spare, taking a moment to wind down after they’d both finished on Claude’s abdomen. Cuddling Claude on the desk chair was a little awkward, and Dimitri wondered if it was worth dragging him to the leather couch in the corner of the room to hold him for a little while, but he also knew that if he made himself comfortable around his lover right now, he’d never get anything else done.

“Good?” Dimitri asked softly, still catching his breath as he caressed Claude’s hair. Crumpled against his bare chest, Claude let out a content hum, breathing deep and letting out a sigh.

“Yeah,” he mumbled. “Yeah, that was good.” Shifting, he pulled away just enough to be able to look at Dimitri, a genuine little smile on his lips. “It's been years, and I still can’t get enough of you.”

“That’s promising,” Dimitri chuckled, pressing a tender kiss to Claude’s forehead and lingering just a moment too long. “We still have a lot of time ahead of us, so it would be a shame if you were tired of me already.”

“I would never,” Claude hummed lightly, and Dimitri knew to believe him.

“Alright, enough sentimentality.” Patting Claude’s back, he shifted him on his thighs to make sure that he could get off the chair without losing his balance. “If you still want to go out, go get changed. I will tie up whatever I have left to do, then change as well, and meet you at the entrance downstairs.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Leaving a short kiss on Dimitri’s lips, Claude stood, re-doing his pants and wincing as he manipulated his sticky sweater. “I’ll be ready in twenty.”

“I will make my way as soon as I am able,” Dimitri promised, re-buckling his belt as he watched Claude walk away, hips swinging like when he first came in, although much less deliberate this time. “Oh, I nearly forgot. Claude?”

Humming to indicate his acknowledgement, Claude continued to saunter towards the door, only turning to look at Dimitri with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes when he touched the handle.

“I liked the sweater,” Dimitri simply said, and watched as Claude’s pleased expression lit up the entire room.

…-…-…-…

“I said that I liked the sweater,” Dimitri reiterated with a little more exasperation as Claude slipped into his personal dark blue sports Shelby, Dimitri closing the door behind him before rounding to slip into the driver’s seat. “But that did not insinuate that I would want you to wear it in public.”

“Why, jealous?” Claude teased, opening his black blazer a little to show off the new sweater he’d picked underneath, ripped from top to bottom with parallel tears aligned in columns. It barely covered any part of Claude’s upper body, his tan skin contrasting heavily with the white wool and making it even more obvious that he wasn’t wearing much. Thankfully, when he relaxed, the waist-cropped blazer fell to cover his chest and part of his forearms, leaving him with sweater paws that were more holes than wool.

“No, rather, I am concerned,” Dimitri corrected, starting the car and leaning back into his leather seat to enjoy the subtle purring of the engine. “You are painfully aware that it is dangerous for you to go out with so much of your skin showing.”

“Hence the blazer. There’s no chance of anyone seeing my back while it’s on, and you still get to look at me like the total snack I am,” Claude argued, buckling himself in as Dimitri pulled out of the parking garage of their office building. He waved cheerfully to Ashe, the valet boy sitting at the exit, and Ashe waved right back despite the glass being tinted. Claude expected his eyesight to be good- nothing less to be expected of one of their most talented hitmen.

“You take far too many risks for someone in your position,” Dimitri sighed, although he already sounded defeated. The moonlight fell through the glass and hit his eyes, focused frontward as he drove them through the dark streets of Garreg Mach City, their kingdom. His irises, usually a clear blue, shone like ice in the light, and Claude appreciated how good he looked with his hair pulled back into a half-ponytail, leaving the lowers parts to rest upon his shoulders.

“Taking risks is how we’ve made it this far, Dima,” he chided, reaching out to pinch the diamond earring on Dimitri’s right earlobe and rolling it idly in his fingers. “No one becomes a criminal overlord by playing it safe.”

“Undoubtedly,” Dimitri scoffed, but glanced sideways at Claude with an affectionate little smile anyway. It warmed Claude’s heart, to be on the receiving end of his affection. Anyone else would be shaking in their boots before him, the name Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd carrying an unmistakable threat of danger whenever it was pronounced. To Claude, though, the name sounded like home.

He curled his hand on the leather handle of the shifter, and Dimitri put his right on top without hesitation, interlacing their fingers as he switched gears and sped down the highway.

The nightscape of the city whirred past them, streetlights illuminating Dimitri’s face rhythmically before he was plunged back into obscurity. In silent moments like these, Claude liked to clandestinely admire him, watching how the shadows on his jaw shifted when he clenched his teeth, and following the occasional bite of his lower lip. Claude appreciated the sight of the hickey on his jaw, now violently purple against otherwise smooth skin, displayed clearly like a message of power and vulnerability all at once; that one of the most powerful people in Fódlan could be brought to his knees by the lips of a single man. The other hickey, the one on his collarbone, was more intimate in purpose, hidden now under the high collar of the black striped shirt he wore, delicately patterned gold trim speaking volumes about the complexity of his outfit.

With nothing but the faint rumble of the engine to fill the air, Dimitri drove them down a familiar road, weaving between the rare cars also out so late. If they were out for business, Dimitri’s personal bodyguard Dedue would have driven them, but for date night, there was no use for bodyguards. Claude liked that best; being able to share a quiet moment with Dimitri, without having to think of their cocaine shipments and territory disputes and myriad of other problems for once.

Eventually, they pulled up to a large hotel, isolated from other similar establishments and brightly bathed in the golden shine of spotlights to attract attention. People in expensive designer clothes stood around the entrance, waiting on pickups or chatting with drinks in their hands. The water fountain at the entrance lit up in warm tones as they rolled in, a crisply-uniformed valet approaching them as Claude rolled down the window.

“Good evening,” the young man greeted, bowing lightly to make eye contact with Claude. “Welcome to the Adrestian Empire.”

“We’ll be driving ourselves to the garage,” Claude said to him without missing a beat. “We’re here to see Edelgard.”

“Of course.” Seeming unsurprised by the request, the valet unclipped a black keycard from the set at his waist, and handed it to Claude. Claude knew it well, despite it being nondescript and unadorned, and handed the valet a few folded bills in exchange. “Enjoy your evening, sirs.”

Claude merely nodded to him and rolled the window up again just as Dimitri drove off. They took a turn into the parking garage, Claude handing the black card for Dimitri to tap against the reader to let them in.

“I’m surprised you decided to take me here,” Claude admitted as they entered the dimly lit garage. “I thought you still refused to talk to Edelgard if it came to choice.”

“I don’t particularly enjoy it, but you know that she and I have come to a mutual understanding ever since the rise of that group of criminals with the absurdly long name.”

“Those Who Slither In The Dark?” Claude snorted, knowing the mouthful of words to be a running gag between the members of the Blue Lion mafia.

“The Snakes, yes,” Dimitri huffed amusedly, ignoring all the empty parking spots and heading towards the back of the garage instead. “I still marvel at how they expect people to refer to them by that ridiculous designation instead of something practical like their colloquial name.”

“Don’t say that to any of their faces, or you might get stabbed,” Claude hummed lightly, leaning back into his seat. “To think that it was the disaster brought upon by their rise to power that brokered peace between you and Edelgard.”

“Peace is a very strong way of putting it,” Dimitri argued, finally stopping in front of a sliding iron gate at the back. The was an inconspicuous card reader on the lamppost next to it, where Dimitri tapped the black card to allow the gate to open. “We tolerate one another because both the Lions and the Eagles want to see the Snakes burn for what they did.”

“Hmm.” Claude knew that Dimitri was alluding at something very particular, and he felt his gut twist in an uncharacteristic moment of anxiety. Dimitri’s hand on his tightened, as if feeling his discomfort, and Claude followed the grounding ache of Dimitri’s rings pressing on his knuckles to pull himself out of it. “Good, I guess. At least you’re talking again instead of sending assassins at each other every other weekend.”

“It would be a shame if I did not eventually reconnect with her. She does control most of Fódlan’s underground arms trade, and with recent tensions with the Snakes, it is in our best interest to secure a steady supply of firearms for our men.” Turning to Claude, he gave him one last squeeze before using both of his hands to turn them into a parking spot. “Besides, I know how much you like coming here. It would be a shame if my dislike for my stepsister got in the way of your enjoyment.”

“Oh, you spoil me. I’ll enjoy tonight, then.” Grateful for the smooth subject change, Claude unbuckled himself, and stepped out of the car before Dimitri even turned off the engine. He took a few steps to stretch his legs, feeling a breeze at his ankles when his loose fabric pants shifted, and untangled the chains hanging at his belts while Dimitri locked the car to join him.

“Come,” Dimitri invited him, holding out his arm. Claude let out a pleased hum at the sight of him, especially appreciating the tightness of his black slacks around his thighs. Ignoring his arm, he grabbed him by his golden belt buckle to pull him forward, and leaned upwards to drop a quick peck to his lips.

“Now, we can go.” He carefully schooled his expression, knowing to lid his eyes just a bit for the smoky eyeshadow to show and to give him a seductive look. He took Dimitri’s arm and pressed himself close, trying to make himself as small as possible as they walked towards the door at the back of the small parking lot.

This was a game they had been playing for many years, nearly half a decade, and one that Claude was fortunately (or, unfortunately, in truth) excellent at. Dimitri always played along, no matter how many times he voiced his disapproval in private.

They opened the door leading out of the garage, and the silence was immediately swallowed by the sound of raucous laughter and noise.

They stepped inside, Claude blinking a few times to get used to the smoke wafting in the air. It smelled like a mix of cigarettes and incense, not wholly unpleasant and very distinctive of the brightly-coloured area they’d entered. Around them, men and women spoke and laughed loudly, their voices a steady buzz above the sound of gambling games and a faint hum of trap music in the background.

“Hello Mr. Blaiddyd,” the bouncer at the very front greeted them politely as they approached, obviously recognizing Dimitri as a high-profile individual. “Are you here on invitation?”

“I do not require an invitation,” Dimitri replied sharply. “Edelgard will find out that I am here eventually anyway.”

“And this gentleman?” the bouncer asked, glancing at Claude.

“Accompanying me. Inconsequential.” Rehearsed, steady, even if Claude knew that he was far from inconsequential to Dimitri. He batted his long eyelashes at the bouncer, who seemed not to care.

“Very well,” the man continued, putting a plastic box in front of them. “Here you are.”

Having been in Edelgard’s establishment many times before, Claude knew exactly what to do. He first undid the holster at Dimitri’s belt, setting down the black Glock he carried at his waist whenever he went out. Then, he pulled an extra magazine out of his pocket, subtly caressing Dimitri’s leg as he fished for it, dropping it into the box. Finally, he unclipped a sheathed knife from his waist, and left that in the box as well, effectively ridding Dimitri of his weapons as the man himself just stood, looking bored as he tapped away at his phone.  

The last thing to go into the box was Claude’s cellphone, Dimitri pointedly slipping his own back into his pocket and daring the bouncer to confront him. The man stayed professional, however, accepting that this was all that he would be getting from the pair when Claude stepped back and wrapped himself around Dimitri’s arm again.

“Enjoy the evening,” he simply wished, stepping to the side to let the two of them enter the gambling den. Despite not being dressed in suits, Claude knew that they fit right in, as the clientele for this part of the establishment was different than the upscale one above ground. In fact, most people around him were dressed in shirts with unbuttoned collars and leather jackets, women parading around in short skirts and boys in mesh tops. The staff themselves were dressed in all red, thin see-through veils delicately falling over the women’s faces and masks hiding the men’s, making them easily noticed as they moved around to serve drinks to patrons. Claude knew that he’d chosen his outfit well when he noticed a few eyes on his exposed collarbones and the small of his back, and he shook his head to ruffle his slicked-back hair subtly as to let a few strands fall against his jawline.

The decor never changed, which made it feel a little homey to Claude. It was arranged to reflect traditional Morfis esthetic, with red paper lanterns hanging low from the ceiling and bright LED lights twisted into flowers and tigers casting an orange glow upon the players conglomerated at the blackjack tables. Rice paper divider screens decorated with plum trees and cherry blossoms were interspersed to separate the game tables, silhouettes of lithe bodies visible behind the ones illuminated by backlight. Cigarettes, bills and mahjong tiles littered the tables and floors, people stepping over them uncaringly as they moved to share drinks around roulette tables. Dimitri himself pulled a cigarette out of the packet in his pocket as they approached a poker game, Claude waiting until they had stopped at the table to pull a lighter from his own pocket and light up for Dimitri.

Eyes immediately went to them, because obviously, it would be difficult to ignore the arrival of the underworld’s fiercest mafia boss at a game table. The players finished their round before turning to him, as did the dealer.

“So, the Prince has joined us tonight,” she greeted with a lilt in her voice, her smirk vaguely visible under the red veil. “It’s an honour.”

“I’ll fold,” a heavy man at Claude’s right declared, putting his cards down on the table. Claude recognized him as the head of Edelgard’s international exportation activities, mostly because he’d worked with his son, Ferdinand, on several occasions in the past. “I’m done for the night anyway.”

“Not so lucky anymore, huh, Aegir?” another man at the table snorted, blowing a puff of smoke out to the side, and tapping his ashes into a crystal ashtray held out to him by a young man standing behind him. Claude hadn’t seen him before, so he must not have been important.  

“Do not rest on your laurels for too long,” Dimitri advised, taking the ginger man’s seat once he got up to leave, and carelessly tossing the buy-in sum in rolled-up bills on the table. Claude slid into his lap smoothly, leaning over to grab the cards that the dealer placed in front of him, and holding them up to show Dimitri.

“Still carrying that pretty thing around with you, I see,” a woman across from them hummed, running her eyes over Claude’s rose tattoo. Claude searched his impeccable memory, identifying her as the daughter of a construction contractor who frequently worked with the Blue Lion mafia on their real estate placements. “All these years, and you still haven’t gotten tired?”

“Not in the slightest,” Dimitri replied casually, as if he was telling a joke. “Now, please begin. Let us determine if your luck will hold.”

The poker game began slow, and then eventually picked up as Dimitri collected better cards. He wasn’t a terrible poker player, but in reality, Claude was his ace. Hardly anyone ever paid attention to Claude when he only held Dimitri’s cards for him, but he had fantastic observation skills and always knew when to fold or when to call. With subtle taps of his fingers on the cards, Claude advised Dimitri on what to play next, and as always, this strategy made it easy to dominate the table.

Claude was thankful for Dimitri, in reality, because he loved playing psychological games and people-watching, but would risk his personal safety if he showed up in these establishments by himself. Hiding in plain sight at Dimitri’s side always allowed him to enjoy himself while remaining safe, especially since he knew that Dimitri would overturn the earth and the heavens alike should anything ever happen to him. Dimitri had given him everything when everything had been taken away from Claude, and to this day, he did nothing but give. Claude oftentimes felt like he didn’t deserve him.

Which is why he won the next round for him with a well-timed flush, and then leaned against his ear as Dimitri leaned forward to collect his chips.

“I’ll get you a drink,” he suggested, itching to get up and look around as well. It was late enough after their arrival for the novelty to have worn off, so he knew that no one would blink twice if he separated from Dimitri now.

“Something strong, if you would,” Dimitri accepted, making a show of slipping a few bills into the waistline of his black fabric pants when Claude stood up, firmly squeezing his ass to send him off in front of the wide-eyed patrons nearby. Although it was all part of the act, Claude genuinely felt the thrill of being spoiled, and the sway of his hips was very deliberate as he walked off towards the bar.

He weaved through drunk patrons and tiger statues, scanning the large open area to note if he knew anybody. Going out often gave him the chance to observe important people in vulnerable states, and it was a fantastic opportunity to learn to manipulate powerful men and women. Whatever it was that made them tick- money, alcohol, drugs, sex- Claude knew he could offer, and knowing how to play his cards right at important moments could often make the difference between success and failure.

People feared Dimitri because he looked dangerous. However, people never feared Claude, because he looked completely harmless, and that’s what made him dangerous.

He sidled up to the bar, trying to find a bartender who would be free in the hustle of the late night, careful not to make eye contact with anyone who may get ideas about his intentions. In the ambient noise and the constant thrum of people around him, he didn’t realize he was being touched when a hand finally tapped a few times on his shoulder.

Claude spun around a little too quickly, putting his guard up for just a second before lowering it right back down when he saw who had caught him.

“I apologize for touching you. I don’t suppose you heard me when I first called you.”

“I don’t mind it when it’s you, Edelgard,” Claude assured the woman in front of him, returning the small smile that she greeted him with. She was dressed elegantly, her slim red dress tastefully falling off one shoulder and hem pooling around her heels. Crimson flowers adorned the line of her collarbone, a stark contrast to her pale skin. Her long platinum hair had been pinned up into an intricate bun, a carefully woven array of braids interspersed with pearls and ruby hairpins. She looked beautiful, as always, and Claude knew to be wary of her, especially when she looked so stunning.

“I was not aware that you would be coming to this part of town tonight,” she continued, putting an elbow on the bar counter to claim her space. Nobody around her approached, glancing at her in awe before electing not to say anything- a wise move, in Claude’s opinion.

“It was a last-minute thing,” Claude shrugged. “Dima’s head has been buried in paperwork for weeks now, and I decided to do something about it.”

“Well, you two are always welcome here,” Edelgard said, and Claude knew she was sincere.

Not many people knew the truth about Claude’s identity other than the ones who were involved, such as Dimitri, Felix and Dedue. Edelgard was one of those people, and so although Claude would never be able to trust her considering that she led their rival mafia, he came quite close.

“Let us have a drink,” Edelgard suggested before Claude could restart the conversation, turning to the bartenders. “Monica!” she called out, waving over a bartender with hair as red as the crop top and shorts she wore. Underneath the veil over half her face, Claude saw her mouth open up in surprise before she rushed over.

“Lady Edelgard,” the woman crooned, devoting all her attention to her boss. “What a pleasure to see you here.”

“Please get us a drink, Monica.” Edelgard then turned to Claude, whose attention was fully on the bartender. The girl also followed Edelgard’s line of sight and made eye contact with Claude, and despite her gaudy uniform and demeanour, Claude realized that he was being observed. “Does Dimitri drink brandy?”

“He does,” Claude nodded, glancing at Edelgard to be polite but keeping Monica in his peripheral vision. The girl didn’t look away from him, silently observing with her hands crossed on the bar. “Whichever one you like will be fine.”

“Three times for brandy, then,” Edelgard ordered, the bartender’s attention finally snapping away from Claude to her. “I recall there being a Reserve cognac somewhere here, if you wouldn’t mind finding it.”

“Of course,” Monica exclaimed in glee, much too enthusiastic for Claude’s liking. She walked off to look for Edelgard’s choice of drink, and when she was gone, Claude managed to relax a little.

“You look beautiful, by the way,” he permitted himself to say, knowing that coming from anyone else, Edelgard would’ve rejected the compliment. Claude wasn’t trying to appeal to her, and they both knew it. “Is there an occasion?”

“A charity auction run by the Garreg Mach University Hospital Center,” Edelgard replied, delicately tucking a fallen strand of hair behind her ear, her long diamond earrings catching the light. “They’ve just finished upstairs, and so, my presence is no longer required. I decided to take a breather here before heading back up.”

“Strange how we feel most at home when we are underground, huh?” Claude remarked, finding her comment humorous. “There’s no living in the light for people like us.”

“Come now, that is a little dramatic, isn’t it?” Edelgard raised her eyebrows, amused by his claim. She looked a little innocent in the dim orange glow of the paper lanterns, neck exposed and bare save the delicate crystal necklace dipping into the curve of her chest. Her carefully manicured nails drummed rhythmically on the mahogany counter, exposing how relaxed she felt even though she still carried herself with indelible poise.

Of course, just like Claude, she was dangerous in all her innocent glory.

“I’m just playing with you,” Claude finally conceded, shoving his hands in his pockets. At that moment, Monica came back to them, setting down three crystal snifters on the counter, and handing a bottle of caramel-coloured cognac to Edelgard.

“Is this the one you wanted, Lady Edelgard?” she asked, and Claude saw her eyes dart to him while Edelgard read the label on the bottle. “Aged 7 years at least, retrieved from Minister Edmund’s collection after the dissolution of the Leicester province and its territories. I took the liberty of warming the glasses for you.”

“I was not aware of its history,” Edelgard hummed lightly, handing the bottle back to Monica so that she may serve, and Claude recognized the subtle apology in her words. He didn’t say anything to indicate that he accepted it. “It seems fine.”

“Here you are, then,” the girl offered, pushing the first glass towards Edelgard. She then poured a good amount into the two others, and her expression turned pleased as she slid them towards Claude. “And here is for your guest and his master.”

“That will be all, Monica,” Edelgard sharply said, noting how Claude’s expression had tightened. She could read his subtle expression well, more than Dimitri would ever be, and Claude scolded himself for letting his emotions show in front of someone as perceptive as Edelgard.

“I have high hopes for this,” Claude joked to divert the attention off his discomfort, leading the way towards the poker table where he’d left Dimitri. “There was never a bad batch of spirits to be found in the distilleries of the old Leicester province.”

“I’ve heard that many times from the inhabitants of ex-Leicester territories,” Edelgard hummed in agreement, a little more subdued. Her red stilettos clicked gently as she followed Claude, undoubtedly observing him. Whether sizing him up or out of concern, Claude didn’t want to know.

“You can take away the borders of a nation, but you cannot take the spirit from it.” Claude mumbled solemnly, and then took a deep breath, turning to give Edelgard a grin. “Get it? Spirit? Spirits?”

“Very funny, Claude.” Despite her deadpan tone, Edelgard did seem amused by his silliness, and the smoke-filled air around them seemed to lighten just a little.

“Alright, come on. He’s at the poker table over there,” Claude indicated with a tilt of his head, and took a few steps to get a head start on Edelgard.

As he approached the table alone, Dimitri glanced up, something softening in the lines of his face.

“Fold,” he called out, putting his cards down on the table and instead swiveling on his chair to open up his lap to Claude. Claude slid right in, leaving the warm glasses of brandy next to the stub of Dimitri’s last cigarette, and wound his arms around Dimitri’s neck to lean into his ear.

“Got you a drink, and a visitor,” he murmured, biting Dimitri’s pierced earlobe lightly before drawing back. Dimitri put a hand on top of his head to scratch at his scalp and curiously looked behind Claude, although the latter could tell the exact moment he spotted Edelgard because the grip in his hair tightened near-painfully.

“I said I wanted a drink, not a headache,” Dimitri groaned under his breath, Claude biting his lip as not to burst out giggling.

“Stop that,” he chided, careful not to be overheard by the other players continuing the round that Dimitri had folded. “She’s dressed up nice and she’s in an even better mood. Tonight’s your chance to make civil conversation with your stepsister.”

“What if I do not want to do that?” Dimitri murmured between gritted teeth, following Edelgard’s advance as she approached the table, brandy in hand.

“How many times will I personally have to mediate a truce between the Eagles and Lions?” Claude rolled his eyes, knowing that Dimitri would be unsettled by the dark undertone to his joke. As he guessed, Dimitri just sighed and slipped his hand off of Claude’s head, instead sliding it underneath his blazer, and resting his hands on the tattoo on his back through the holes in his sweater.

At that moment, Edelgard stopped at his side.

“Good evening, Dimitri,” she greeted, drawing the attention of all the other players as well. “I heard you had come on short notice tonight, so I apologize for taking so long to come and greet you.”

“No apology necessary.” For all the hate he claimed to have for his stepsister, Dimitri was actually quite civil with Edelgard. Tensions between the Eagles and Lions used to run much higher before Claude had resurfaced, five years prior, and the period of time between the fall of the Leicester province and his rescue by Dimitri had been dark for all of Fódlan. In those five years where Claude had disappeared, the country had been on the brink of a civil war, power shifting between organized crime groups and governments thrown into disarray by the largest-scale terrorist attack of the century.

It had been a horrible time for everyone, and especially for the three of them, and so, Claude was glad that they could once again stand side by side without one wanting to stab the other at a moment’s notice.

“Mind if I join a few rounds?” Edelgard asked, glancing up at the dealer, who nodded immediately.

“Of course, Lady Edelgard,” she exclaimed, and a man diagonally seated from them stood up to offer his spot.

“Here, Ms. Hresvelg.” If Claude remembered from his earlier babbling, the man was a luxury car dealer. Important, but not important enough, hence the dilation of his pupils and the hastiness of his movements. “It’s an honour seeing you tonight. You’re as lovely as ever.”

“Empty compliments do neither me nor you any favours,” Edelgard replied mercilessly, accepting the seat regardless. The man fumbled with an apology and grabbed his coat off the nearby hook, running off with a quick bid goodnight.

Claude could only watch in amusement as a few players glanced nervously at the boss of the Black Eagles mafia group, who was delicately rearranging the cards she’d been dealt.

It was fascinating to see grown men and women cowering in the presence of two of Fódlan’s most powerful criminals, the oldest of whom would not even turn thirty this year. Seated in Dimitri’s lap, Claude felt like a king, and for all intents and purposes, he was.

They played the game, with Edelgard in it this time.

In between plays, Edelgard and Dimitri managed to make small talk, and Claude was relieved to see that his lover wasn’t actually being unnecessarily aggressive with his stepsister. The two of them spoke of business, Dimitri claiming that he needed to order a batch of the new model of Adrestian handguns, and Edelgard asking if he was intending on importing Albinean narcotics anytime soon. The rest of the table followed their superficial conversations nervously, and whoever didn’t step out of the game within a dozen turns was a winner in Claude’s book.

Bored by the lack of new people to watch, he finally tapped Dimitri’s knee, subtly grabbing his attention.

“I’m going to go around a little,” he announced in a low voice, downing the last of his brandy. “I’ll see if there’s anyone worth your attention here tonight.”

“We’re here for fun, not for business, Claude,” Dimitri chided, although he did not protest when Claude stood up anyway.

“One and the same, darling,” he grinned, and walked off.

Even though the night was well-advanced at this point, the party had not seemed to die down. In fact, the amount of people in the gambling den had seemed to double, people having left regular bars and parties to gather in the underworld instead. Claude was lucky in that sense, because the sheer volume of people squeezed in the progressively tighter space made it so much easier for him to disappear.

First, he headed to the bar once more, grabbing a drink that was much less pretentious than Reserve cognac now that he was alone, and was glad to see that Monica had disappeared. Anonymous in the crowd around him, he no longer felt observed, and wondered if he could find a free spot on a couch or chaise to sit down and people-watch.

In the end, that’s just what he did. Tucked on a leather chaise, in between a man raucously telling a story to his friends and two girls furiously making out, Claude sat quietly to watch the people around him, sipping his long-island through a straw.

He was in his element.

…-…-…-…

When Claude left, Dimitri turned his attention to the game, trusting his lover to stay safe. Of the two of them, he was the most perceptive and resourceful, so he knew that Claude would be able to take care of himself in the throng of strangers crowded in Edelgard’s underground gambling house.

Speaking of the latter, as the old players left the table and were replaced by new ones, she came closer and closer until she and Dimitri were sitting right next to each other. Dimitri figured that it was deliberate, and that she would be using the cover of the ambient noise to have more sensitive discussions with him in close proximity.

“So, Claude looks well,” she began, indeed choosing a sensitive topic right off the bat. “I haven’t seen him at negotiations recently, so I was beginning to wonder if something was wrong.”

“Nothing is wrong,” Dimitri gruffly answered, accepting the new card dealt to him and rearranging his hand. “He and I decided to keep him out of business meetings, in case word got out to the wrong people that he is still alive. Until the threat of the Snakes has been dealt with, it is unsafe for him to be put in situations where the wrong attention could be on him.”

“Taking him out gambling is fine, then?” Edelgard asked, out of genuine curiosity and perhaps even teasing.

“The attention is not typically on him when we go out together,” Dimitri refuted, bristling. “He plays his role and I play mine, and it has worked for the last five years. I also hope that I am not mistaken in believing that he will be safe in an establishment such as this one.”

“As long as I am head of the Black Eagles, Claude will come to no harm on my property,” Edelgard promised lightly, pushing a few chips forward and calling a raise. “I thought we had established that when we cleared up the bad blood between our groups five years ago.”

“Do not mistake that truce for peace,” Dimitri grunted, matching Edelgard’s bet. “Although we cleared up that my family’s murder and the bombing of Derdriu was not the doing of the Eagles, it still remains that your men killed countless of mine in the five years of dispute that followed.”

“That is the reality of war, Dimitri,” Edelgard chided, her voice firm and unwavering. “You attacked my territories and sabotaged my operations in your misguided quest for revenge after that tragedy, and so I had no choice but to fight back.”

“The Snakes will have to pay in blood for the turmoil they caused this entire country.” The cards in Dimitri’s grip bent under the force of his grip, and he started pulling a new cigarette out of his pocket before realizing that Claude had his lighter. He huffed in frustration and put the cigarette back in the packet, biting his lip instead. “Only when I dismantle every branch of their organization will the dead finally find their peace. My father, Felix’s brother, our mother… Claude’s entire family… They won’t rest until the very last Snake is burned to ashes and scattered in the wind.”

“Calm yourself, Dimitri,” Edelgard sighed, not seeming as stern as before, possibly because Dimitri looked as angry as he sounded. Indeed, a couple of players had left the game, terrified of the murderous look in Dimitri’s eyes, and the rounds had slowed down. “It will take time, but we will find the Snakes and take them down. They continue to commit heinous crimes against the people of Fódlan to this day, and the country cannot know peace until they are eradicated. I share that belief with you, I do.”

“Ironic, that it is up to us criminals to pass judgment upon other criminals.” Not that Dimitri minded. Ever since that night five years ago, when he held Claude tightly in his arms- alive, alive, alive, broken beyond recognition but alive- he had promised himself that he would never forgive the Snakes for their deceit.

“Some crimes weigh heavier than others,” Edelgard commented wisely. “We have built our reigns upon drug trade and fraud, arms dealing and loan sharking, but never once have we crossed the line as the Snakes have. All morality is grey, but staging a terrorist attack and trafficking its victims is distinctively closer to black than what we do.”

“I’ll kill them,” Dimitri growled with finality, rearranging the cards in his hand jerkily as a familiar hatred bubbled up inside of him. He hated thinking of the Snakes and all the horrifying, inhumane things that they’d done in the five years of chaos in Fódlan. Usually, Claude would be pretty good at winding him down, walking him through his anger and out of the near-feral mindset he’d worked himself into, but Claude was out having a good time, living the life that was unjustly taken from him, and Dimitri couldn’t selfishly call him back now. Instead, he breathed through his nose, and put his cards on the table at the call of the dealer.

Royal flush.

“I’ll kill them all.”

“Nicely done,” Edelgard conceded, putting her own lower hand of cards down and getting up. “I believe that’s enough for one night. I’ll perhaps go have another drink somewhere quieter. Will you join me, Dimitri?”

“No, I will decline this time,” Dimitri shook his head, collecting his winnings to prepare to leave the table. “I will find Claude and see if he is ready to turn in.”

Just as he finished his sentence, his cellphone began to vibrate, rumbling heavily against the poker table. The other guests glanced over, likely surprised that he had his phone on him, but Edelgard didn’t say anything about it, so they looked away as well.

When Dimitri looked down at the number that flashed on his screen, he recognized it as his right-hand man’s personal cellphone. He never saved numbers in his contacts, but knew all the important ones by heart, and this one was one of the few that he would never forget.

“What is it, Felix?” he asked as he picked up, frowning. It was past four in the morning, a time at which Felix should have been sleeping, by all means, because neither he nor Sylvain were night owls like Dimitri and Claude.

“Annette just picked up online activity from several high-profile individuals likely affiliated with the Snakes,” Felix’s scratchy voice came from the other side, proving that he’d just woken up. “She says that there’s been radio silence for weeks, and just now, they’re on the move.”

“Is there any conversation that we have been able to retrieve from these individuals?” Dimitri asked, making eye contact with Edelgard, who seemed to understand that something was happening on the other line. She motioned to the side with her head, and Dimitri grabbed his belongings, following her to a quieter corner of the gambling den.

“Nothing distinct,” Felix clicked his tongue on the other side, rapidly typing on a computer on his end. “Encrypted texts only, and phone conversations were not tapped.”

“Is Annette on it?” Dimitri asked, wondering why their hacker had not been able to get anything more specific. Did the Snakes know that they were being monitored? Or perhaps… was this move not a premeditated one?

“She is, but there’s really not much to go off of.” More typing on Felix’s end, and Dimitri could imagine what a mess his right-hand man must’ve looked like, long hair tied in a messy bun and reading glasses doing nothing to stop him from squinting at his computer screen while his tired eyes adjusted. He didn’t want to push Felix, knowing that his nerves must be extremely short because of the rough awakening, but he didn’t like being kept on standby either. “She’s decrypting a few texts… It seems like they’re on the move right now.”

“Where towards?”

“I don’t know!” Felix snapped, as Dimitri expected. “Just stop asking, okay? I’m going to read you what Annette is writing to me, and that’s all I have for you.”

“I’m listening, Felix,” Dimitri assured him, sharing another glance with Edelgard. His stepsister seemed content to wait patiently, her tense shoulders proving that she was in tune with Dimitri’s conversation despite not hearing Felix on the other line.

“They seem to be targeting a person of interest,” Felix recited off his monitor. “Massive mobilization…”

“So, they’re moving in with firepower?”

“Most likely, yeah.”

Edelgard frowned at that, pulling out her own phone as well, most likely texting her own right-hand man- Hubert. Dimitri was surprised that the man hadn’t already appeared next to them somehow, possibly communicating with Edelgard via telepathy. In any case, at this short notice, he hated to admit that Edelgard’s help would be appreciated. If he ended up having to mobilize men in the middle of the night, either on his territory or Edelgard’s, he would need all the help he could get.

“Okay, there seems to be a name here,” Felix announced, spelling it out. “K-R-O-N-Y-A. Annette can’t guarantee that it’s a perfect decryption. It doesn’t seem like a person’s name, at any rate.”

“K-R-O-N-Y-A…” Dimitri repeated under his breath, wracking his brain for answers. “Kronya… Kronya Holdings? That large investment group in Shambhala?” He tried, frowning at thin air.

“I’m looking into it now,” Felix hummed, typing furiously on the other side.

“Hold on,” Edelgard suddenly jumped into the conversation, snapping her head up in a flash. Dimitri met her gaze, and was surprised to note that she seemed thrown off. “Kronya Holdings? The company?”

“It seems like it,” Dimitri nodded, watching Edelgard muse for exactly two and a half seconds before her eyes snapped open with thinly-veiled panic.

“There’s a part-timer here, her name is Monica Ochs,” she said, pushing a button on her phone and putting it up to her ear as well. “She’s the daughter of the co-chair at Kronya Holdings.”

Dimitri’s blood seemed to freeze in his veins, his body so still for a second that his heart even missed a beat.

“Felix,” he finally called, his voice deep, firm, and leaving no room for questions. “I’m at the Adrestian Empire, and I need you here, now.”

“What?” Felix huffed, clearly frustrated, but Dimitri didn’t have time for his moodiness right now. “Why would I-”

“Felix, I need you here now!” he barked into his phone, and he’d barely finished his sentence before he was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot in the air.

“Damn it.” Edelgard seemed to fully understand the situation as well now, hanging up her phone and slipping it into the folds of her dress at her breast. Dimitri shoved his own in his pocket, unsure if he’d even hung up on Felix, and barely got that done before another gunshot rang out, followed by several others, people now screaming in earnest. A few of them around Dimitri and Edelgard began to run off, bumping into them, and the two shared a look to try and figure out what to do next.

The game floor seemed to become hell within the next minute. As Dimitri ran up to the open space again, he noticed how most of the game tables had been overturned, some of the masked dealers crouching behind them with guns, waiting for an opening to fire towards the front. When Dimitri looked for the source of the answering gunfire, he saw black-hooded figures advancing through the crowd, pushing people as they tried to run away to safety. When one of the figures mercilessly gunned down a woman trying to crawl behind an overturned couch, Dimitri knew that they had no time to spare.

“The Snakes are here,” he seethed, wishing he had his weapons on him. Alas, they had all been taken by the bouncer at the front, who was surely already dead. His only consolation was that Claude was still carrying both a knife and a taser hidden on his person, and that he was fully capable of keeping himself safe in the mayhem. “I’ll kill every last one of them!”

“Don’t be hasty, Dimitri!” Edelgard warned him, grabbing his firmly by the arm of his gold-trimmed shirt. Dimitri shrugged her right off, but she did not seem dejected. “We have to wait for backup. I can already count a dozen Snakes in the crowd, and I’m sure that more are coming. Barely half of my staff are armed; there’s no way we can take them on in a gunfight.”

“Speak for yourself,” Dimitri huffed, eyes darting across the open area, analyzing every detail. “Whoever they are here for, it will have been too bad. They’ll get me instead.”

With that, he broke into a sprint, faintly hearing Edelgard calling his name behind him.

He weaved through the thinning crowd, most people either already dead, dying, or outside, pushing people right out of his path with near-inhuman strength in order to go faster. When he broke through, he jumped over the corpse of a big man, a drug dealer if he remembered right, and vaulted over an overturned roulette table just as bullets began to sail above his head.

The staff member crouched behind the roulette table squeaked as Dimitri landed next to him, hands trembling on his gun as if he didn’t even know what to do with it.

“Give me that.” Relieving him of his weapon without a second to lose, Dimitri checked the clip to count his shots, and then cocked the handgun. He waited for the sound of gunshots to move away from his hiding spot before standing, removing the safety and firing at the first black-hooded figure he saw.

The man fell with a cry of pain, blood spurting from the gunshot to his chest, and Dimitri wasn’t able to revel in his victory before more bullets flew his way. He ducked back down behind the table, listening to the thunk of bullets embedding in the heavy mahogany, and counting his seconds to find his opening.

“Dimitri!”

At the call of his name, Dimitri glanced to the side, noting that Edelgard had joined the fray. She was hiding behind a pillar, a gun in her hand as well, and she made eye contact with Dimitri, nodding.

“I’ll cover,” she called out, and when Dimitri nodded, she fearlessly turned around the pillar, and began to shoot at the hooded men. Dimitri jumped out of his spot, vaulting over the roulette table once more and sprinting at the nearest man in black. Split between finding cover from Edelgard’s assault and intercepting Dimitri, the man hesitated just long enough for Dimitri to punch him in the face. The man went down with a cry, alerting his companions, who turned on Dimitri, but not quickly enough.

Felix didn’t oftentimes take to calling him a monster for no reason.

A lifetime of breeding for violence had made Dimitri into a fighter. So, aiming without hesitation, he leveled his gun with the nearest man, and blew his brains out at point blank. 

The man crumpled and Dimitri grabbed his fresh corpse, splattering himself with blood, using it to catch a single bullet before the men realized that firing at close range would only risk hurting their allies. One of the men, having forgotten Edelgard, fell victim to a well-aimed shot to the back, and Dimitri took the opportunity of that surprise to lunge at the next man, disarming him easily and using his own gun to place a shot through the underside of his jaw. He spun around and crouched, using his stability to sink the four remaining bullets in the clip into the abdomen of a man charging at him.

The man fell, and Dimitri quickly grabbed another weapon, throwing the empty gun to the side. He had to duck behind a couch as the remaining attackers recovered before he did, checking his half-empty clip while his attackers sank bullet after bullet into the leather and the bodies of the dead couple lying on it. By the sound of their yelling, they were planning to circle him, and Dimitri could not give them that opening if he wanted to live. Gritting his teeth, he hoped for the best, and put just his hand out above the couch to fire blindly wherever he thought there would be a target.

There was a cry of pain somewhere, so he must not have missed, but a second later, a blinding pain shot through his hand, and he strangled a cry in his throat, retracting his now-bleeding hand. He inspected it quickly, relieved that a bullet had only shredded the skin on top of his hand and wrist, and had not done any actual muscle damage, but the heavy bleeding made his grip on the gun slick and unreliable. It would definitely complicate his ability to aim.

Thankfully, gunshots began to ring out once more from behind him, Edelgard likely having found another weapon to cover Dimitri with, and Dimitri turned on his heel to rise above the couch, just enough to see where he was aiming. He shot down the man closest to him and while the next one was busy with Edelgard, rushed at him. The man tried to split his attention between him and Edelgard, which proved to be a mistake because his aim was completely off, the bullet whizzing a foot past Dimitri’s ear. In a moment, Dimitri had disarmed him, one last shot emptily ringing out towards the ceiling as he wrestled the weapon away from the man, finally managing to loosen his grip by kneeing the man in the stomach, and putting a bullet into the back of his neck. Blood burst to stain the hem of Dimitri's pants and his expensive leather shoes, enhancing the terrorizing sight of the Lions' boss, standing amidst a sea of corpses of his own doing, unbothered by the lives he'd so ruthlessly ended.

Dimitri did not have time to look around for the rest of his enemies. Gunshots rang out from his left and he ducked to the floor, eyes darting to try and find the nearest hiding spot. However, none of the shots hit him, which definitely had been deliberate, and so, he chanced a look backwards, finally noticing the people beginning to enter the gambling den through the garage entrance.

“Hey, get off the floor!” The first one to yell was Felix, dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt that was much too large to be his. He looked disheveled and harried, but his grip on his gun was steady, advancing towards Dimitri.

“I’ll sweep the south side, you take the north.” Behind Felix, Sylvain slipped into the open area with both hands on his rifle, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt that was much too small to be his. Ashe, the one to whom he was addressing his command, nodded, looking more awake than all of them combined, possibly because he often kept a night schedule when he had an active assignation on a mark. Next to them, Ingrid waited for them to leave before approaching the nearest dead Snake, searching the body and beginning to clear the evidence of Dimitri's involvement in his death. 

“Sir!” Third to enter and first at Dimitri’s side, Dedue rushed to place himself in front of Dimitri, sandwiching his boss between himself and the rest of their allies. “You’re hurt. Please, allow me to escort you to Mercedes.”

“I’ll go by myself,” Dimitri shook his head, although he appreciated that Dedue helped him to his feet. The adrenaline now began to die down, making him dizzy, only to restart full force when he realized that he’d forgotten something. “Damn it… Claude.”

“Hmm?” Dedue cocked his head to the side, frowning.

“Dedue, find Claude,” he ordered firmly, trying not to feel any fear. Claude was a capable fighter and an excellent marksman, not to mention quick-witted and strategic. Until he had proof of something otherwise, he wouldn’t believe him not to be alright.

“Of course.” Ever-obedient, Dimitri’s bodyguard bowed shortly to him, and then left to sweep the area with Sylvain and Ashe.

Leaving the clean-up to his capable crew of elite Blue Lions, Dimitri approached Felix, who was texting, most likely following up with Annette. Right next to him, Edelgard was texting as well, most likely following up with Hubert.

“What happened here?” Felix finally asked, putting his phone down to glare at Dimitri. “What did you do!?”

“Bold of you to assume that this was my fault,” Dimitri huffed, glancing around the carnage in the gambling den. The ripped paper lanterns cast an orange light on the bodies of Snakes and gamblers alike, blood quickly running into the cracks between the hardwood tiles of the floor. There was an eerie silence pervading the area now, a stark contrast to the scene full of life that had existed only a quarter hour prior.

Edelgard did not seem upset in the least, but she did seem furious, setting her phone down to look at Dimitri.

“Hubert is coming in to arrange for body disposal for the Snakes,” she gritted out, her voice tight. “Once he’s done, Ferdinand will take over to collect the victims and arrange the cover-up with the police.”

“Edelgard,” Dimitri addressed her, eyes going to the blood trailing down her right arm, and smudging on her phone. She had been shot in the bicep by the look of it, badly, and her bloody sleeve morbidly matched with the crimson of her dress. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Elaborate, Dimitri, and be very careful what you say,” Edelgard warned him, not in the mood for games. Dimitri didn’t intend to play with her, though. His concern was valid.

“The Snakes brought a full-on gunfight to your territory, and actually got in past security. That, and you had an employee here who had a very close link to a company that showed up in the conversations of several suspected members of the Snakes.” Dimitri crossed his arms, wincing when his injured hand dragged onto his shirt. “I’d like to hear your explanation.”

“First of all, I had nothing to do with this,” Edelgard defended herself, holding Dimitri’s glare even though she was a solid head smaller than him. “The Snakes are not welcome on my territory, and unless they got in my killing every single staff member on their way, I will be having a very indiscriminate rearrangement of security around these parts. As for Monica, she has been employed here for nearly half a year. She is a younger girl, in college, and she simply claimed to want a part-time job. Her background check was clean at the time of hire.”

“This doesn’t explain how you allowed her, a member of the Snakes, to enter your den and work under your rules, around your people,” Dimitri protested firmly.

Edelgard glared at him for a second longer, and then threw her dress open. The red fabric billowed behind her, exposing her leg, where a holster was strapped with a gun in it. Within seconds, she had it out, cocked, safety off, and aimed between Dimitri’s eyes.

“Don’t you dare accuse me of working with the Snakes.” Behind her, Felix immediately cocked his own weapon, pressing it to the back of her head.

“Weapon down, Edelgard,” he warned, giving the barrel of the gun a firm push to make himself clear. Edelgard held her mark, however, although Dimitri didn’t flinch.

He knew she wouldn’t hurt him. Not when she was in as much shit as he was, if not more. Their earlier conversation seemed to imply that their fight was one and the same, and if Edelgard hurt him now, all her pretty words would have been obsolete.

“If you want to restart a feud between us like the war that raged on for five pointless years, then so be it,” she continued, finger twitching on the trigger guard. “Go ahead and accuse me of colluding with the same people who murdered my mother and yours. I don’t believe it will solve anything, but if that’s all you can come up with, then so be it. Go ahead and believe me to be a traitor and murderer once more, even though we’ve already disproved this once.”

“Weapon down, Edelgard!” Felix warned again, audibly removing the safety from his gun and pressing it tightly between the braids of her done-up hair. “Put it down, now!”

“Go ahead and ignore the real problem, and take your anger out on me instead, Dimitri,” Edelgard sighed deeply, resigned, and then, finally, brought her weapon down, away from Dimitri.

Felix also took his gun away from her, but immediately switched places as to stand on Dimitri’s right, just in case. Even though the relations between the Eagles and Lions hadn’t been the worst in the past five years, it was difficult to forget the bloody hostility that had driven each group to wage war in the five years before that. It was probably in understanding that fact that Edelgard holstered her weapon at her thigh again, letting her dress fall to conceal it once more, even though Felix still held his in his hand.

“I don’t know what I think,” Dimitri finally elected to say, because it was the difficult truth. He didn’t trust Edelgard, he never truly would, but he trusted that there was more to this situation than met the eye. “I will not think of it now. Right now, I need to figure out what their aim was in attacking this place tonight. They said something about a person of interest, but this is a haven of persons of interest, so it could have been anyone.”

“I’ll have Hubert headcount when he gets here,” Edelgard quietly offered, touching the bleeding wound on her arm to finally make an effort to staunch it.

“Step outside for now,” Dimitri suggested, nudging his head at the door behind them. “Mercedes likely parked her ambulance nearby and can stitch you up.”

“Alright.” The gratitude was left unsaid, but when Edelgard turned to go, heeding Dimitri’s offer, he knew that the tensions had lowered, at least for now.

“Felix.” His right-hand man didn’t seem less tense, but that was to be expected of him. “I need to find Claude. I’ll leave things to you for a bit.”

“Get your hand checked, too, because if you lose it to gangrene, I’ll be the first to laugh,” Felix gruffly said, turning away from Dimitri to walk into the scene of the massacre, acting nonchalant as if he hadn't just jumped to defend Dimitri's life with a fervor that betrayed his attachment to his boss. 

Dimitri wanted to be amused by his antics, but now that things were settling, there was a deep sense of unease that blanketed him instead.

He stepped outside the den, into the parking lot, noticing immediately that Mercedes was zooming in and out of her ambulance-van, treating the few survivors who’d made it out through the garage door. Edelgard was amongst them, wrapping a shock blanket around one of the staff girls who was sobbing hysterically.

“Dimitri!” Mercedes called, seeing him walk by. “Are you alright? You’re bleeding!”

“Just wrap it,” Dimitri ordered, wanting to do nothing more than run around to find Claude, but acknowledging that going around with a shredded hand wouldn’t do him any good. Thankfully, Mercedes, ever so understanding, hurriedly rinsed his hand with saline and then wrapped it nicely with gauze and bandage rolls.

As soon as he was able to retrieve his hand from her, Dimitri set back out, towards the huddle of cars further off. Claude had devised a contingency plan in case they ever lost each other during a fight, and had indicated that the two of them should regroup at whatever place would be their extraction point. In this case, it was Dimitri’s car, but as he glanced towards the blue Shelby, he saw no sign that Claude had even dropped by, which meant that he either had not left the compound at all, or had not left it of his own free will.

It was only at that moment that Dimitri acknowledged that something had gone horribly wrong, and that Claude was no longer within his reach. However, past the first wave of anxiety that gripped him, he felt something else- something much more potent, that drove his next steps back towards the den resolutely.

It was fury unlike any other that was kindled inside of him in every moment he spent without being sure of Claude’s safety- and when the time came, may Sothis bless those upon whom he would unleash it.

Chapter Text

The men that had handled Claude all the way into the dark basement had not been very creative with their attempts to intimidate him. So far, all they’d done was string Claude to the ceiling by his wrists, heavy chains purposefully wrapped directly around him as to pinch his skin every time he shifted to find a comfortable spot. He wasn’t the shortest person on the planet, but they had managed to pull taught enough to keep him on the balls of his feet at rest. His shoulders already hurt; it was definitely not an easy position to be in.

Asides from that, however, other than patting him down to remove anything that could potentially be a weapon, they hadn’t done much. To their credit, they didn’t seem to be completely useless. Back at the gambling den, Claude had tried to get back to Dimitri as soon as the first gunshot rang out, but the Snakes had gotten to him much faster, intercepting him at the blackjack table near the bar. Of course having been underestimated because of his vulnerable appearance, Claude had been able to take down a couple, using the knife and taser he kept hidden under his loose pants. He was a decent close combatant, especially with those two weapons in each hand, but without a firearm- his weapon of choice- he was eventually overwhelmed by the sheer volume of attackers, and was clubbed into a daze before being carried off. The long ride he spent packed tightly in the small trunk of the car had done him no favours, either- he had a killer headache, one that put him in a terrible mood right off the bat.

“Comfortable?” one of the three men asked, drawing a laugh from the other two in the room. His voice snapped Claude out of his musings, and he glanced over, trying to identify the masked men holding him captive.

“Not really,” he replied, careful with his words until he learned more. “Is your employer coming? If you’re going to torture me, I’d prefer it to be done sooner rather than later.”

“Watch out,” one of the other men chuckled, making himself comfortable by leaning against the wall. “Kitty has claws.”

“And they are in fact very sharp,” Claude warned them truthfully, not that they seemed to take it as the truth. “How many of your people did I kill before you got your lucky hit in?”

“Don’t get cocky,” the third man warned lightly, not taking him seriously at all. “It just goes to show that the ‘Prince’ of Faerghus trains his pets well.”

That was the first important information, hopefully of many more. Claude stored it in the back of his mind, to think about as events unfolded. For now, he had to continue making conversation.

“Why did you go through the trouble of bringing me back here?” he asked, trying to roll his shoulder and instead pulling something in his bicep. His blazer had ridden up midway, the chill of the underground room caressing the dip of his spine and the bottom part of the incriminating tattoo across his back. He was beginning to lose sensation in his fingers as well. “If you wanted to take me hostage, why not just ask Dimitri for money on the spot?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” one of the men dismissed, and Claude almost retorted. He wasn’t shy to play naïve, as it was a near-impeccable deception tactic for his enemies, but he wasn’t presently in the mood to play at all. “It’s all business. When a man runs such a powerful criminal syndicate that he earns himself a moniker like ‘Prince’, the very first step is to force him out of his territory, and challenge him elsewhere.”

That was the second piece of critical information that Claude kept in mind. Dimitri’s influence extended to all parts of Faerghus, including the territories that were annexed to the province after the Leicester province was dissolved, and so that limited his current location to somewhere east of the country. Knowing that Edelgard wasn’t complicit and that her influence was most prominent in the south of Adrestia, that narrowed it down a lot more. Off the top of his head, Claude would guess that he was in one of the ex-Leicester territories, somewhere on the banks of the Airmid river, and therefore a few hours’ ride from Garreg Mach City.

“That’s all assuming that he chooses to come,” Claude finally commented, intentionally making it sound like it was a thought for himself.

“He will,” one of his captors replied with confidence. “And when he does, we’ll be ready.”

“It’s amusing,” another one mused out loud, clearly looking Claude up and down, his eyes lingering on the skin visible under his ripped sweater. “To think that the boss of the Faerghus mafia would drop everything to rescue his little pet. You’ve been with him for four years, haven’t you? That’s an awfully long time to keep someone like you around without getting bored.”

Claude just rolled his eyes, not dignifying the taunt with a response.

“No sharp words left, kitty?” the same man continued, drawing a chuckle from the other two. He left his spot by the staircase to come closer instead. “What happened to your self confidence?” He stopped right in front of Claude, and although his mask obscured the lower half of his face, Claude could discern the glint of thrill in his eyes. “Is it gone now that you’re reminded that you’re not so important after all?”

Claude silently glared at him, daring him to continue. The man must not have been aware of the dangerous aura wrapped around Claude, because he laughed again, patting Claude’s cheek mockingly.

“Poor thing,” he cooed, his touch unpleasant and unwelcome when it stayed in place. “If you die here, or if the Prince doesn’t come for you, how easily do you think he would replace you?” Moving from his cheek, the man tipped his chin to the side jerkily, as if appraising his face. “You must be quite the catch, though, if he hasn’t thrown you away yet. I wonder…” His voice trailed off, and, possibly trying to take his scare tactic a step further, he put his thumb on Claude’s lower lip, caressing it in contemplation.

And Claude could take torture. He had in the past, countless times, arguably for five consecutive years, so it wasn’t as if he couldn’t play along. However, if there was one thing he couldn’t handle, it was this kind of violence; the sort that objectified him and reduced his existence to something that existed solely for others. He’d suffered for years, shoved into that mold by the people who slaughtered his entire family and had kept him alive only as a trophy, and he refused to be subjected to it again.

Claude would never tolerate violence so intimate against him, because he’d finally learned to love again, and he refused to associate that with anyone but Dimitri.

Giving no warning, he opened his mouth and clamped down on the man’s thumb with all his might.

The man immediately began to scream as Claude dug his teeth into his skin, clearly no holds barred as he felt the iron taste of blood on his tongue. He used his leg to kick the man’s knee in, and then kicked his abdomen with all his might, feeling the joint jerk and crack in his mouth at the sudden movement. He wrapped his hands around the chain keeping him up, seconds away from leveraging himself enough to kick the man again and hopefully rip his thumb right off, when finally, the two others made it to him.

Claude grunted when one of them kicked his back, causing him to fall forward, but didn’t unclench around the man’s thumb. Blood now flowed freely from it, running down in rivulets over the swell of Claude’s bottom lip.

“Hey, let go!” Claude wasn’t sure which one of them said it, but it was punctuated by hands wrapping around his throat and squeezing mercilessly. He shut his eyes tightly, trying to resist the urge to breathe, trying to make the suffering for the other party last as long as possible before finally, inevitably, he had to let go of the man’s nearly-severed thumb in order to gasp for breath.

The men were probably saying something around him, but Claude couldn’t hear them, only aware of the sound of his own gasping in his ears. The grip on his throat did not loosen once he let go, in fact pressing harder on his windpipe as he began to struggle. He blindly tried to kick the man strangling him, but hands on his thigh prevented him from fighting back, his chest burning and heaving with effort. Fireworks lit up behind Claude’s closed eyelids as he began to run out of air, his lips and tongue tingling every time he wheezed desperately for breaths he wasn’t allowed to take. Briefly, he considered that he’d misjudged the character of his captors, and that they’d actually kill him, but despite the inevitable panic settling in his gut, he refused to believe that he’d miscalculated so grossly.

It was faith in nothing, but it was faith nonetheless. With that in mind, Claude eventually began to slip away, his vision and his thoughts both blurring as his lungs and throat clenched emptily. He must have become weaker on his feet, for the fingers painfully digging into his tender skin tightened, delivering the final blow.

It was in pain and out of breath that Claude lost consciousness.

…-…-…-…

He must have made an indication that he was waking, because when Claude opened his eyes, breaths rattling at the back of his throat, one of his captors was next to him already. The other one was on the phone a little further away, and the third one- the one whose thumb Claude had nearly swallowed- was gone.

His shoulders hurt badly- likely that he’d been hanging off of them the entire time that he was unconscious. His headache had tripled, too, now past being annoying, and simply feeling killer. He didn’t even want to think about the state of his throat, so raw and sore that he was surprised he could even breathe properly.

“We nearly forgot that kitty has fangs, too,” the man next to him hummed mockingly, Claude blearily glancing at him when he drew attention to himself. Trying to swallow the bloody spit dripping over his lip was a phenomenal challenge, his throat spasming any time he made an effort. He didn’t even want to attempt talking in this state.

The man didn’t give him a chance, either.

Even before Claude had fully regained his bearings, the man gripped him by the throat again, his fingers finding purchase on his skin and pressing into the same bruises that had surely already coloured between the lines of Claude’s tattoos. Claude jerked in surprise, not having expected a second round, and an instinctive terror welled up inside of him as he stopped breathing again.

“S- to-” He wasn’t able to get a single word in before his body wheezed violently, fighting the obstruction again. The man’s hand pushed mercilessly against Claude’s overstimulated nerves, and although being asphyxiated once was painful, Claude couldn’t compare it to the second time. Now, beyond pain, he felt agony- his body caving in and crumpling, begging for mercy in every loud gasp that left his lips. Although he usually had fantastic control of his emotions, Claude couldn’t help the surge of panic as his vision began to dot again. He struggled weakly against his binds, barely even registering the burning chafe of chain links on his wrists, knowing it was futile but trying anything now, scared, scared, scared beyond anything else.

“Go to sleep just a little longer, pet,” the man murmured, his voice mockingly low as if wishing him good night. Claude barely registered his voice from beyond the orchestra of his own desperate gasps in his ears, even considering begging for him to stop for a second before reminding himself that he had to put his pride above all else.

He couldn’t cave in, not when he knew for a fact that Dimitri would be coming for him.

He never did end up pleading for mercy, although when his eyesight went dark and Claude felt his body give out limply below him, he considered that mercy had been granted nonetheless.

…-…-…-…

He didn’t want to say that he hesitated before opening his eyes, because that would imply that he still felt some fear upon waking.

And Claude refused to feel afraid.

Instead, when he opened his eyes, he opened them in one go, exasperated to note that there was some lingering heaviness to them, his body exhausted from the sheer stress of being strangled twice. He found his footing as much as possible, the arch of his foot cramping painfully when bore weight on it again, and Claude bit his lip as not to say anything to indicate his discomfort.

He glanced around to locate his captors, and noticed that something had changed.

Now, the two men had retreated, standing on either side of a chair set about six feet from Claude, in his direct line of sight.

On the chair sat a young woman with red hair, typing a text message busily and paying him no attention.

“You,” Claude called out, simultaneously testing his voice and wincing internally when it rasped painfully at the back of his bruised throat. “Monica.”

“Hold on,” Monica raised a finger at him, not even glancing up as she finished her text message. Then, finally, she put her phone down, and crossed her legs, looking up at Claude.

Her eyes were sharp, her expression beyond pleased as she ran her eyes over Claude’s abused body.

“Pleasure to see you again,” she giggled, bouncing her knee. “Your name is Claude, right? Oh, but I’d rather call you what you are; the Prince’s pet. So, how are you, pet?”

“Been… better,” Claude returned her smirk, controlling his expression. She was clearly in charge of the men who’d sequestered him, which meant that she would be the most important person to converse with for information.

“Rude!” she exclaimed, pouting childishly. She looked much younger than Claude, clearly much less of a schemer than he was, too. “I wish you’d appreciate my hospitality. Here, let’s make ourselves comfortable before we talk.”

She removed her flats and set them to the side, crossing her legs again once she was left in her stockings. She also removed the jacket she wore, draping it over the back of the chair, and showing off the blazer and pencil skirt set she wore underneath.

Mirroring her actions, the men at her side approached Claude, one of them bending down to his feet and the other grabbing him by the back of his blazer.

Even if she seemed comfortable bantering with Claude, her actions seemed a little clunky, almost rehearsed. Claude felt the man behind him slide a knife through his blazer, the sharp tip catching on the sweater underneath, and dragging down to split the garment in half. Cool air hit his exposed skin, but Claude wasn’t impressed; forcefully undressing a captive was a textbook intimidation tactic, meant to make the person feel vulnerable and stripped of basic humanity. Monica may have been comfortable, but she certainly wasn’t experienced, picking all of her methods straight out of a book. She may as well have announced that she’d be pulling his molars out next.

“Lemme help,” he rasped out sarcastically, kicking off his leather shoes before the man could even take them off for him. His captor didn’t seem amused, roughly pulling his socks off one at a time, and leaving him barefooted on the frigid cement floor. In the meantime, the man at his back slit the sleeves open, dropping the tatters of his blazer at his feet unceremoniously.

However, Claude felt the exact moment where the man’s eyes fell upon the tattoo that encompassed the entirety of his back through the holes in his top, and he held his breath, hoping he wouldn’t recognize it.

“It’s a curious tattoo you’ve got here,” he commented, and Claude let out a shaky breath when it became obvious that he’d missed the implication. “This golden deer is a gang tattoo, clearly, but I’m surprised you didn’t have a blue lion done to please your master.” The man trailed his hand across Claude’s shoulder blades, tracing the antlers of the large deer, his touch leaving goosebumps on his skin.

“A golden deer?” the second man repeated, sounding thoughtful. Claude felt the ball of stress fall right back in the pit of his stomach at the sound of it. “The Golden Deer were the mafia that dominated the old Leicester province. They were all wiped out when Those Who Slither In The Dark declared war on Fódlan by bombing their headquarters in Derdriu, ten years ago. We seized power from the Deer and toppled the Leicester authorities, eventually leading to the dissolution of the provincial borders and the annexation of ex-Leicester territories to both Faerghus and Adrestia.”

“Hey!” Monica interrupted, crossing her arms and drumming her fingers impatiently on her bicep. “I don’t want a boring history lesson. I’m here to have fun with the Prince’s pet, not learn random facts!”

“Miss Monica,” the second man urged her to listen, by the sound of his tone. “This may actually be important. Let’s see the tattoo.”

Saying nothing, Claude still attempted to resist by planting his bare feet into the ground, although eventually, the man at his back managed to spin him around, scraping his toes on the rough cement on the turn. Claude barely regained his footing before the man roughly lifted the hem of his sweater, exposing the entirety of his back from his waistband to the base of his neck. Claude’s toes curled on the floor, hating feeling so exposed and under scrutiny.

He hated to admit that he was in a little over his head this time.

“It’s a nice tattoo, but let’s move on already,” Monica huffed, and Claude silently hoped that the men would also drop the tattoo and get back to their regular programming of beating him up.

“Just a moment.” Now out of sight, Claude couldn’t tell what the man was doing, but he fell silent for a minute before letting out a hum of deep thought. “Claude. What is your last name?”

“Blaiddyd,” he replied seamlessly despite the crack of his ruined voice, the lie of half a decade rolling off his lips easily. “Like my… master.”

“Unlikely.” At least the man holding his shirt let it go, the flimsy garment not doing much to make Claude feel less observed. He was starting to regret ever wearing the thing in the first place. Him and his stupid thrill in seeing how far he could push Dimitri; if not for it, he would have avoided this disaster by wearing a shirt like every other normal human being around him.

But he loved it when Dimitri looked at him like he was all that mattered in the world, and he wouldn’t be able to stop chasing that feeling, ever.

Since he was relatively unrestrained now, Claude slowly turned back around, wincing when the links on his wrist pinched his skin in between them and pulled, lances of pain shooting down his arms, into his aching shoulders. They were raw and so chafed that they were beginning to draw blood, but Claude had bigger worries now- like how he would lie himself out of this encroaching disaster.

“Dimitri gave me my name when he took me in,” he tried, watching the man scroll on his phone, and cursing the convenience of modern technology. “I’m originally from Almyra, arrived here illegally, and Dimitri protected me by changing my identity completely.”

“Then…” The man with the phone disregarded Monica’s obviously-deliberate yawn and spun his screen towards Claude. “You would claim that this is not you?”

And Claude didn’t need to see too far to recognize the picture on the screen- his heartstrings tugging harshly, to the point of nausea, when he recognized his own face from a decade before.

Chubby cheeks, suntanned skin, unruly beaded hair, bright grin, lanky limbs; a barely-legal version of himself was staring back at him on the screen, making a peace sign for the selfie that the newspaper had used. Claude didn’t need to read the headline to know what it said; something or another about the son of Verdant Wind’s ex-CEO having died from his injuries, days after being rescued from the rubble of the law firm that had buried not only his entire family and friends, but also Dimitri’s father and his accompanying party.

The date on that newspaper was when he saw sunlight for the last time before being taken underground for five years.

“Claude Riegan, right?” Claude hadn’t heard that name in years. Even Dimitri avoided the use of his last name, probably afraid of digging up traumatic memories if he did. The last time he was called that, it was like a label, a title for when others talked about him in his presence while completely ignoring him.

And although hearing it again didn’t give Claude reason to panic, he did feel substantial anxiety at being addressed like that.

“Actually, it used to be Claude Nader,” he bluffed, although the lie sounded weak to his ears as well. “Like I said. It’s Blaiddyd, nowadays.”

“Miss Monica.” The man turned to the young girl, who was clearly bored of listening to them. “I know that you are much too young to remember the war, but it was a critical moment for Those Who Slither in the Dark. We gained much foothold in Fódlan in those five years of conflict while the Eagles and Lions fought one another, one accusing the other for the downfall of Leicester. Our network of cargo movement today extends nationally and internationally because of the free reign we had in expanding during those years of turmoil.”

And by cargo, Claude knew that he spoke of humans, at the time specifically inhabitants of the Leicester territories that fell into such chaos that nobody paid attention to random disappearances. Claude knew this intimately, having been part of that, and having seen the monstrous rise to power that the Snakes had achieved by taking advantage of the country that they’d precipitated into a civil war. Claude had been there, watching wailing mothers be separated from their death-sentenced infants, witnessing young girls and boys being dressed up and sent home with adults over twice their age, counting able-bodied people being marched into shipping containers and put on a boat bound overseas, never to be seen again.

He’d been there, and he knew, painfully and intimately, what the man was talking about.

“I still don’t get what this has to do with me,” Monica huffed, seeming a little placated somehow. “Father said that all I had to do was keep the Prince’s pet company until he finished setting the snare for the Prince’s arrival. I didn’t know he was anyone important.”

“I… think it may be worth telling your father about this,” the man recommended, “It’s not every day that a dead man comes back to life, especially one as high-profile as the only surviving member of the Leicester mafia.”

“Fine.” Conceding, probably to avoid another speech, Monica raised her phone and snapped a picture of Claude, who controlled his expression tightly, knowing that he could not avoid it. “Here. I’ll text my father about it, and he’ll tell me what to do next.”

“A good decision,” the masked man at her side nodded, watching her send her text, and then get up with a bounce in her step.

“Okay!” she exclaimed, her socked feet making no noise as she approached Claude, grinning madly. “Now, it’s finally time to have some fun together. I was told that I needed to keep you alive for when the Prince arrived, but…” Trailing off, she thrusted her hand at the other masked man, who’d stayed silent during the conversation, and the man seemed to understand, handing her his knife. She wielded it with a proper grip, cluing Claude in that this was something she’d done before.

Without another word, she slashed the blade down across Claude’s abdomen, sharp pain blooming where the blade slipped in the gaps between the wool and split his skin neatly. The white sweater immediately began to grow red stains, which seemed to amuse Monica greatly.

“Now, that’s better,” she giggled, and Claude forced himself to swallow heavily, bracing for the worst. He grunted when she pressed the tip of her knife to the spade tattooed under his eye, blood welling up and running down his cheek like the tears he would never shed for her. “I wonder if it’s too early to carve out your eye. Think your master will still like you with an eyepatch?”

Claude didn’t reply, and if she wanted to get angry over his silence, she didn’t have the opportunity to be because her cellphone, left carelessly on the chair, began to ring with an obnoxious pop song.

“Pick it up,” she ordered, not letting go of Claude, trailing the flat of her knife down his cheek before pressing the sharp part to his jaw.

“It’s your father, Miss Monica,” the man informed her, picking up the call, and putting it on speaker as he approached her.

“Hello, father,” Monica greeted, busying herself with making little bloody slits in Claude’s sideburns. He figured he’d just have to shave afterwards, which sucked, because he really liked the mischievous look that facial hair gave him.

“Kronya.” A deep, noticeably older voice replied on the other side, firmly skipping the pleasantries. “What is the meaning of the picture you sent me?”

“I explained in the text, Father,” Monica- Kronya- huffed, as if bothered by having to explain it again. “We successfully kidnapped the Lions’ boss’ pet, but my bodyguards saw the large golden deer tattoo he had on his back, and gave me a history lesson on how he could possibly be the last surviving member of the Leicester mafia. They said that I should ask you about it.”

“You did well to follow their advice,” the man on the other side commended, phrasing it in a way that tipped Claude off on the immaturity of his captor’s character. “He has changed, that is for certain, but it is not difficult to recognize him now that it’s been pointed out. That is indeed Claude Riegan, the Golden Deer heir, the man that we claimed as a war prize at the downfall of Derdriu, and the man who ran away from us five years ago at the Millennium Festival.”

Claude clenched his jaw, eyes darkening, knowing that there was no longer a way out.

“What do I do with him, if he’s so special?” Monica asked, pouting as she drew her knife back, sensing that her father had more to say.

“I am busy in Shambhala at the present, but I will come to see him later this day. Keep him relatively well until my arrival,” the man on the other line ordered. Claude deducted that as Monica’s father, he must’ve been the CEO of Kronya Holdings, although he was unfamiliar with the company and therefore the man himself. “Is he nearby now?”

“You’re on speaker, he’s here,” Monica nodded, taking the phone from her bodyguard and bringing it closer to Claude, not that he wasn’t already hanging onto every word the man said.

“Hello, Riegan heir,” the man greeted, sounding much too pleased. “I don’t suppose you recall who I am. You would have known me as Solon in the years that you spent in Thales’ servitude.”

“I make it a point not to remember those years,” Claude rasped out, challenging the man. In truth, he felt a spark of recognition at the name- Solon, not his real name but most likely a cover- typical of high-ranking Snakes. However, he truly did not want to delve into his memories of those terrible years to try and figure out in what circumstances they’d met. Anyway, half the time, Claude had spent his days under the influence of some illicit relaxant or another, so he doubted that he’d remember Solon if they’d met so few times.

“You must remember Thales, at the very least, I presume.” Claude hadn’t heard that name in a long time, either, and was perfectly happy to keep it that way. Thales- another cover name- was the man who’d retrieved him from the wreckage of his father’s law firm and had paid for his medical care with the intention of trafficking him overseas for a high sum of money when he recovered.

“If I could choose, I wouldn’t.” In the end, for better or for worse, Thales had kept him for five long years, five long years of being hurt and treated like less than human, five long years of being dragged around as a living trophy of the Snakes’ overnight victory over an entire province and its people, five long years of having no choice but to kneel before the same people who murdered his entire family and had stolen his life from him.

Claude hated them with such passion that it rivaled his love for Dimitri. Ever since he’d escaped from Thales five years prior, he’d lived and breathed with hatred for the Snakes and what they’d done. Eventually, Dimitri had come into the picture like a light to his constant darkness, but even from then on, he only existed to do two things, and nothing else; love Dimitri, and tear down the Snakes.

It had not changed, and speaking to Solon, reminiscing the painful memories of his past, only served to make him even angrier.

It was the type of anger that sobered him, that rid him of all his fear and all of his suffering, and that kept him focused on the situation at hand. Solon could not see it on the other side and Monica was not perceptive enough to notice it, but Claude’s expression turned stony all at once, his back straightening as much as possible.

“Thales will be glad to know that you did not perish during your daring escape,” Solon said with an air of finality. “I will admit that you had us fooled all this time… but the truth eventually does resurface, doesn’t it, Riegan heir?”

“It sure does,” Claude answered coldly, his neutral expression tightening just a little. “And so does retribution.”

“Kronya,” Solon called out, clearly having missed the last bit of Claude’s reply. “Keep our guest busy until I arrive, within the next few hours most likely. The ransom note was not sent to the Prince of Faerghus just yet, so you will not have to worry about his involvement for now.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Monica huffed, flipping the knife idly in her hand. Solon hung up on her without a goodbye, and she stowed her phone away, obviously used to it. “I’ll kill him, too, if he comes.”

Claude laughed at that, high, short, and a little incredulous.

“I would like to see you try,” he said, eyes narrowed in challenge. “In fact, you’ve got no chances of winning this, because you’ve already made a fatal mistake.”

“And what’s that?” Monica asked curiously, clearly not believing him, even though Claude was dead serious.

Later, when he killed her himself, she wouldn’t be able to complain that he hadn’t warned her.

“Your mistake is that you took me, and expected Dimitri not to follow.”

The entire chessboard would rise should the king be in check.

…-…-…-…

For all his complaining about Dimitri’s orders, Felix was actually quite efficient when it came to it. As soon as Dimitri had drawn him to the side and had announced that Claude had been taken, likely by a young woman named Monica Ochs, he’d picked up his phone to call Annette in her office and had told her to keep an eye out on the dark web for postings that could possibly match Claude’s description. It was a wise move, knowing that the Snakes conducted most of their business in those crevices of unmonitored virtual space, and an even wiser move, knowing that Claude had been tracked down via the dark web the first time he’d disappeared.

Felix knew that, and was one of the only ones who knew that, so Dimitri was glad that he could count on his involvement to find Claude again. Being taken back by the Snakes not only slighted Dimitri personally, but would pose a huge danger to both Claude’s personal safety and to the frail balance of power in Fódlan. It was unlikely, too, that the Snakes had taken Claude because they recognized him- after all, they’d managed to pass him off as nothing but Dimitri’s expensive boytoy for the four years since he’d re-emerged into the public eye. It was unlikely, then, that just now, in such a short period of time, they’d discovered his identity as the Leicester heir that had escaped them and had been presumed dead for years, and that they’d thrown together an operation to retrieve him.

Logically, it only left the Snakes with one motive to capture Claude- to get at Dimitri. He expected them to send him a ransom note within the next twenty-four hours, not that he intended to wait that long to find Claude by himself.

He shifted gears to speed down the highway, not caring to wait for Dedue and Felix who were following him in the Sedan behind him. They were all headed towards the office, anyway, so he took the opportunity to vent some of his pent-up frustration by letting the speedometer needle shift higher and higher, until the sleeping city around him began to blur. Between the cognac warming up his blood and the sound of his car easily racing down the smooth roads, he found some kind of catharsis, so that when he finally pulled up in front of the Azure Moon Medical Technologies headquarter building, he no longer felt livid, and instead felt focused on his task.

The entrance lit up as he unlocked and entered his company’s building, and he skipped the elevators behind the reception desk to instead punch a code into a door at the very back, which led him into the service corridors. There, he entered a code to call a separate elevator, stepping into the black marble-floored cabin when it arrived. The elevator only went to the top, to his private floor, so he didn’t need to touch any buttons, instead redoing his ponytail in the mirrors surrounding him on all sides as it moved to carry him up.

This building had originally been designed by Dimitri’s great-grandfather, the original boss of the Blue Lions mafia as it became one of the strongest underground powers in Fódlan. Over time, its purpose had changed, and Dimitri had simply elected to keep operating his cover business as a medical technology company, just as his father had done before him. He used to handle all of the business for the company while his father was still alive to lead the Blue Lions, but ever since he was thrust into the untimely position at the tender age of eighteen, managing both his legal and illegal assets had proved to be too much work.

These days, he’d delegated his legal business to a woman named Hilda Valentine Goneril, making her the CEO although he officially remained the managing director of the company. Hilda, too, was a rare someone who knew of Claude’s real identity, having recognized him soon after his rescue from her parallel involvement in Golden Deer affairs back when she used to live in Derdriu. It was a bit of a relief, to be fair, that Dimitri had found someone competent to lead the company, whilst not having to hide anything from her. Claude really liked Hilda, too, finding lost familiarity in her typical Leicester mannerisms and vocabulary. Over time, the two of them had worked together to provide employment to people who’d fled the Leicester province torn by war and criminal activity, and Dimitri was glad that he’d managed to make friends with Hilda and some of their ex-Leicester employees, if only to promote a sense of normalcy for the young man who’d spent the entirety of his early adulthood collared like a pet in someone’s office.

Remembering that Claude was back in the hands of the same people who’d stolen his life from him left a sour taste in Dimitri’s mouth, and a weight on his chest. He didn’t want to waste any more time idling, for although he knew that Claude was much tougher than he let on at first glance, he still didn’t like the thought of him having to suffer for Dimitri’s absence.

He exited the elevator when it arrived at the top floor, crossing the carpeted hallway and punching one last PIN into the keypad by his office door to enter the marble-floored room. It was always a bit cold in his office, just the way Dimitri preferred it, but he felt the chill more than usual now that there was a figurative void inside of him as well. Turning on the white spots in the ceiling, he illuminated his office and walked past the leather couch and the rows and rows of filing cabinets to sit at his desk.

He started working on researching Kronya Holdings, having read several articles on its directors and members by the time the lock on his door whirred, letting Felix in.

“Dedue’s outside,” he greeted gruffly, closing the door behind him. The magnetic lock whirred back into place. “He’s cleaning up after your recklessness, because you were tipsy and going over 150 on the highway, and some idiot cop tried to pursue you.”

“I did not notice,” Dimitri shrugged, unconcerned as he continued to scroll the article open on one of his screens. “It’s of no importance. They’ll run my license plate through the database and back off as soon as they see my name on the registration.”

“Young, green cops don’t know to back off,” Felix remarked, approaching him and circling the desk to glance at his work. “So, Dedue’s making sure this one knows for next time, and all the times after that.”

“Good.” Tired of idle conversation, he rolled his desk chair a bit to let Felix lean closer to his screen. “I have been looking at this company for a while, and it certainly looks like something is happening behind its scenes. Kronya Holdings is directed by a man named Tomas Ochs, and Monica, the woman at Edelgard’s game house, is his daughter. Officially, she acts as co-chair alongside her father, but it doesn’t seem like she’s very involved in company affairs.” He scrolled a little bit until they landed on a picture of Tomas shaking hands with the Adrestian Prime Minister on the opening day, dated just over a decade ago. A young child with striking red hair was standing on the sidelines, holding a woman’s hand and grinning brightly.

“Tomas Ochs is not a name I recognize from our list of suspected affiliation with the Snakes,” Felix hummed thoughtfully, his eyes darting across the screen to skim the article.

“Claude hasn’t ever mentioned Kronya Holdings as being implicated with the Snakes, either,” Dimitri sighed, clicking over to the next article he wanted to read. “Not that he has said much about his time in captivity under the man he knew as Thales to me, either. I know that he has done his research, trying to identify the man, but I don’t think he ever did come across his true identity. Could Tomas perhaps be him?”

“Possibly,” Felix shrugged. “In that case, it would make sense that his daughter was the one to kidnap him.”

“Going out tonight was a last-minute decision, however,” Dimitri continued. “I only told Dedue, moments before driving off, so I fail to see how they learned of Claude’s appearance, coincidentally in the same place that Tomas’ daughter worked.” He scrolled the article idly, then closed it. “I believe that Monica took him for his affiliation to me, rather than as a person of interest in himself.”

“If her father is the one who originally took Claude after Derdriu was bombed, then, it won’t be long before his identity as the heir to the Golden Deer is discovered and re-circulated amongst the Snakes. In that case, they’ll set out to finish what they started, and they won’t keep him around for long this time around.”

“I know.” Felix’s words sounded like an ultimatum, but were true, and Dimitri knew it. The second that Claude’s identity was revealed, the Snakes would know that he’d survived his escape from Thales’ household, and would put their original plan for him back into motion. Despite being much older than when he was first kidnapped, Claude was still young, healthy, and attractive. It wouldn’t be difficult to put a high price tag on him and traffic him to a new willing buyer overseas.

“Annette still hasn’t seen anything matching the search criteria on the dark web,” Felix continued, taking the mouse from Dimitri to open up a mapping program, and typing in the address to the Kronya Holdings HQ. A route popped up in highlight, indicating that it was a four-hour drive from Garreg Mach City. “Should we head out to find Tomas and get information directly from him?”

“They will likely not have gone far with Claude, just far enough to draw me out of neutral territory and into theirs. Edelgard’s reach extends to the southeastern parts of the ex-Leicester territories, but her authority isn’t completely solidified there since the Snakes have been fighting back.” Tapping the Great Bridge of Myrddin on the screen, he rang his finger along the Airmid river. “He’s likely somewhere near the river, just out of Edelgard’s reach, but far from ours in the northwest of the old Leicester province.”

“When they identify him, though, they’ll ship him to Shambhala, the hub of Snake activity,” Felix reminded him. “We can intercept them there if we leave now.”

“Byleth would know what to do,” Dimitri grumbled, pursing his lips at the memory of his old friend. He really needed a sound strategy right now, and Claude, who usually advised him when it came to difficult situations, was obviously unavailable. Edelgard would help him if he asked, but he didn’t have anything to ask of her just yet. All in all, Byleth would’ve been the perfect candidate to help him right now, especially considering that he’d been tangled up in the fight against the Snakes since their rise to power.

The man had been instrumental in stopping the war between him and Edelgard five years prior; he was an undercover agent for the national intelligence agency, who followed the Snakes for years before approaching Dimitri and Edelgard separately and convincing them to stop fighting long enough to look at the big picture. After having settled that tentative, shaky truce between them, Byleth had stuck around, both with Dimitri and Edelgard, helping them find their footing and focus their efforts on the real enemy. He’d also helped Dimitri track down Claude when the warrant for his re-capture was published on the dark web the day of the Millennium Festival, and it was in part thanks to his impeccable strategic mind that Dimitri had been able to find Claude, holed up and dying in the alleys of the old Leicester capital.

He and Claude both owed Byleth a great deal, but three years ago, the man had disappeared again on a long-term undercover assignment in Brigid. Even with his impressive network of intelligence, Dimitri hadn’t been able to track him back down, so he unfortunately couldn’t count on his help to find Claude a second time.

“Byleth managed to find Claude the first time because he was on the run at that time. The only piece that he had to anticipate moving was Claude himself, and that’s straightforward,” Felix huffed, as if the week-long efforts to find the escaped heir had been easy, as if Felix himself hadn’t spent more sleepless nights than otherwise helping Dimitri sweep the narrowed-down territories to find Claude before the Snakes did. “There’s more variables now, and it’s especially difficult to see things coming when we don’t even know if they discovered his identity or not.”

“If we move fast enough, it will not matter,” Dimitri crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair to think. “Thinking of this from the beginning… Monica likely noted my arrival at the gambling house, and noted that Claude was very familiar with me. She likely took the impulse decision to mobilize forces and capture Claude, securing him in a location that would be far but otherwise easily accessible to me in the eventuality that they sent the ransom note.” He tapped his finger on his chin, thinking hard as his eyes roved the map open on his second screen. “Felix, do we know of any Snake safe houses or hubs just north of the Airmid river?”

“There’s a few suspected, but none confirmed. I’ll pull them up.” Shamelessly sitting on Dimitri’s desk, over the really important cocaine contract that he certainly should not be sitting on, he began to type on his phone.

“Where would Monica have gone on such short notice?” Dimitri mused out loud while Felix busied himself. “Safe houses require preparation, so it is unlikely that she managed to have one arranged for operation within a few hours of finding out about Claude and I.”

“Here.” Felix handed over his phone and Dimitri accepted it, scrolling through the descriptive list of warehouses and fronts that were under investigation for being affiliated with the Snakes. “Listen, I’m not the best at doing that creepy psychological profiling thing that Claude likes to do on the people you meet, but Monica seems like a straightforward person to me. I looked her up on the drive here, and she’s young and stupid, in my opinion.”

“Very nice of you to bully a teenager, Felix,” Dimitri teased, allowing himself a moment of light-heartedness with his oldest friend and most trusted associate as he mentally ticked off the locations on the list that were implausible.

“A teenager who’s been acquitted of seven DUIs, and who once hit a pedestrian who mysteriously retracted the substantial charges pressed against her within a few days of the accident.” Felix didn’t seem impressed. “Seven DUIs, Dimitri. Nobody’s stupid enough to drink and drive, and whoever doesn’t give a shit, like you, for example, doesn’t get caught seven times.”

“Your point, Felix?” Dimitri sighed, handing back his phone, and wondering where to start his search from the few safehouses he’d picked out.

“Maybe she just took him home,” Felix shrugged, accepting his phone and locking it. “Seriously. A teenager pulls off theft from the most powerful crime lord in Fódlan, what next? I’d bet money that she has her father backing her with actual instructions, so in the meantime, what if she just went somewhere she feels safe to stand by?”

Neither of them had met Monica in person, but Dimitri felt like it wasn’t a terrible analysis at all.

In fact, slowly first and then all at once, he realized that Felix was right- that the abduction had happened on such short notice that it would have been difficult for the Snakes to keep up with the fast pace of their plan, and that they’d likely have to stand by in a safe location until the next steps panned out.

“Felix, you are brilliant.”

“Save it,” Felix clicked his tongue, although by pursing his lips and glancing away towards the wall, he exposed clear as day that he was pleased.

“Find out where Monica lives,” Dimitri ordered, getting back to his computer and pulling his desk phone towards him. “I’ll mobilize Sylvain and his team to check out some safe houses, just in case, and Ingrid should nearly be done cleaning up the crime scene, so I’ll send her team as well.”

“Leave Ashe to me.” Already dialing the younger boy’s number, Felix held his phone to his ear. “Annette’s busy with searching the web, and Ashe is pretty good at- Ashe, it’s me,” he cut himself off as Ashe picked up quickly, diligent as ever. “Monica Ochs, eighteen-year-old female, daughter of Tomas Ochs, both of them co-chairs of Kronya Holdings based in Shambhala. Find out where she lives ASAP.”

Picking up his desk phone, Dimitri dialed Ingrid’s personal number, another one that he knew by heart, hoping that she was almost done with removing all the critical evidence from the scene of the crime at Edelgard’s gambling house. Although the chief of Adrestian regional police, Ferdinand, was part of Edelgard’s entourage, and would protect both of their groups, there wasn’t much he could do if the national guard got involved, hence Ingrid’s critical role in cleaning up the gross evidence of their involvement. In the meantime, Felix got off the phone with Ashe, and on with Dedue, letting him know that they’d be moving out immediately.

Ingrid picked up on the third ring, sounding exhausted but diligent as ever, and Dimitri was momentarily grateful that he had such an incredible team of people around him. He may have been one of the most powerful men in the country, and led one of the largest groups of organized crime in the world, but even as a prince, he was nothing without his people.

And especially as a prince, he was nothing without his king, because although on most days, his king knelt at his feet, there was no one else in the world that Dimitri loved and feared all at once like he did for Claude.

…-…-…-…

The drive to Monica’s house seemed to take forever, because although Dedue was not a slow driver, he also didn’t have a penchant for ridiculous speeding like Dimitri did, and took his road safety very seriously. Now on official business, Dimitri let him handle the drive, instead fitting in the back of the Sedan and reading Ingrid’s crime scene cleanup report while Felix sat in the front, loading clips into the weapons they’d be using later. They’d both changed in between giving orders and setting out, Felix wearing a simple button-up and black jeans, and Dimitri pulling on something that was more official, so that in contrast with his bodyguard and right-hand man, he could establish himself as the authority. The knit wine red cardigan was tied at his waist with a sash, with a simple black shirt underneath and black leather pants. Claude had gifted him the cardigan a year ago on the day of the Goddess’ Rite of Rebirth, so Dimitri felt like he would appreciate it if he showed up in it.

A knight in shining armour, or a prince in a red cardigan. One and the same.

“Here.” Felix turned around, handing Dimitri a holstered 9mm that he clipped to his belt, hidden under his cardigan. It would be his backup firearm, just as he liked it, his primary being a custom-made Desert Eagle that he’d gotten commissioned from Edelgard’s best firearm dealer. It was a gun that suited Dimitri’s fighting style, because he liked to get up front and personal with his enemies before he blew literal holes into them, and it was also the same model that his father had used to teach him to shoot as a child. He pulled on his black leather gloves to cover his bandaged hand and adjusted the cuffs before Felix turned to him once more.

It was a strange mix of sentimentality and practicality that led Dimitri to accept the polished and loaded gun that his right-hand man handed to him next, having missed the heavy weight of it in his gloved grip. He’d missed the subtle sound of leather tightening around the black metal. Recently, he’d left all the field work to his Blue Lion elites, holed up in his office to do paperwork and only going out to meet important people in official discussions, so he couldn’t help but feel the thrill of a fight returning to him as Dedue turned off the car’s headlights, and pulled them over on the side of the quiet street.

Ashe had indicated that Monica’s permanent address was registered in Shambhala, the same as her father’s permanent address, but he’d also managed to dig out records of her throwing endless summer parties at a townhouse in western Ordelia territory. Seeing as the townhouse was only two hours from Garreg Mach City, it seemed more likely for them to head there first.

However, with the lights completely turned off, the townhouse seemed deserted. There were no cars in the street, but Dimitri expected there to be one in the closed garage. There would only be one way to tell, and that would be by walking right in.

Dimitri wasn’t much for subtlety, anyway. His reputation was built on the fact that he only ever advanced, regardless of the obstacles that stood in his way.

“Let’s go,” he ordered, exiting the car and closing it roughly behind him. The door slammed shut, announcing their arrival to the only two darkened houses on the dead-end street, and Dimitri immediately set forth towards Monica’s address. Like a well-oiled machine, Dedue caught up to his left and Felix slid into his right, tying the Velcro holster to his belt as they walked.

“A direct frontal assault, I presume, Sir?” his bodyguard asked casually, walking right next to him, eyes and ears out for anything disturbing the quiet obscurity of the isolated neighbourhood. Dawn would come soon, the sky already beginning to turn a light grey, the winter sun rising late to greet them.

“Yes. Should we encounter people before finding Claude, kill every last one of them,” Dimitri replied easily, crossing through the dew-specked front lawn to cut towards the door. The morning air was chilly, a gentle wind caressing the nape of Dimitri’s exposed neck, ruffling the few strands of hair that were hanging from his ponytail.

“Of course you’d say that,” Felix huffed, not quite amused but not quite exasperated either. “It seems like your recent inactivity hasn’t killed the beast inside of you.”

“You know me better than that, Felix,” Dimitri chided as they stopped a few feet away from the door, not a single light visible through the glass. “Though it quiets sometimes, the beast will never truly rest until I’ve torn every single Snake in Fódlan apart with my bare hands.”

With that, he leveled his gun with the glass, and pulled the trigger.

The glass shattered with a booming noise that rivaled that of his shot, splintering easily under the high caliber bullet. The three of them shielded their eyes against the occasional glass that managed to cross the few feet distance, but immediately after, Dedue rushed for the door and threw his leather-gloved hand into the hole, fumbling to unlock the door.

It was a practiced maneuver that took them less than fifteen seconds to execute, after which his bodyguard threw the broken door open and led the advance into the house. Dimitri followed him, his boots crunching on glass, with Felix bringing up the rear.

The house was dark, but warm, an unmistakeable tell that someone had been there recently. It was of no consequence to Dimitri; in fact, he liked his odds, his heart racing just a little faster at the thought of finding Claude here. At the staircase leading up, Felix nodded to Dimitri, wordlessly separating from them to clear the upper floor. He and Dedue continued onward, weapons out and ready to kill.

The first shot rang out from the living room as they passed in the hallway next to it, a bullet barely missing Dedue’s chest and embedding itself in the wall on the other side. Dedue retreated instinctively before rounding the corner, shooting approximately into the living room to provide cover for Dimitri as the latter made his way around him and actually aimed.

Dedue’s bullets wreaked havoc on the furniture, couch stuffing flying and glass ornaments shattering, and Dimitri waited patiently for him to stop before aiming. As expected, a man stood from behind the couch, thinking to use the pause in gunfire to shoot, and Dimitri took him down easily with a bullet to the chest that sent the man slamming into the wall behind him, leaving a bloody trail on the yellow paint as he slid to the floor, dead.

Not even waiting for the body to hit the floor, Dimitri turned his gun to the other couch, shooting at it while walking towards it. His bullets lodged themselves in the cushions, and Dimitri rounded the seat, mercilessly shooting the powerless man crouched behind it. As he did so, Dedue began to fire again, and Dimitri turned back to help his bodyguard deal with the newcomers.

“I’ll take them,” he announced, giving Dedue a heads up before going down the hallway. The first man rounded the corner sharply, not expecting Dimitri to be quite so close, and he grabbed the man’s collar, slamming his gun into his nose and breaking it with an audible crunch. He slammed his gun to his face a couple more times, blood flying onto his sleeves, just enough for the man to be dazed and stumble when Dimitri pushed him backwards, into the perpendicular hallway.

Immediately, shots rang out, the man's body jerking under gunfire from his allies that only realized their mistake a second too late. In that second, Dimitri turned the corner, leveling his gun at eye level, and shooting the first man he saw in the shoulder. He took a running start to kick him backwards, shooting the man behind him as well and crouching to avoid the bullets from the third one at the end of the hallway. Dedue rounded the corner at that moment, drawing the third shooter’s attention, which gave Dimitri good time to duck against a bookshelf, doing his best to fit his large frame behind the wood. He took the time to shoot the man he’d incapacitated, painting the carpeted floor with his guts before spinning around and aiming at the last shooter. The man had a bandage wrapped tightly around his left hand, an obvious weakness, and Dimitri aimed for it, successfully blowing his weapon away from him as the man let out a cry of pain. Without giving him a chance to recover, Dimitri rushed at him, switching his gun to his left hand to throw a hook at the man’s face with his right.

To his credit, the man recovered from the hit surprisingly quickly, close combat obviously being his strong suit. There wasn’t much he could do with an injured hand, however, Dimitri easily ducking under his powerful swings and catching his ankle when the man attempted to roundhouse kick him. Sweeping him off his feet, Dimitri dropped him to the ground, kicking him in the ribcage to steady him just long enough to shoot the back of his head. Brains splattered at Dimitri’s feet, just missing the hem of his leather pants, and he crossed over the body before the man even took his last reflexive breath.

“There were gunshots upstairs,” Dedue informed him matter-of-factly as he caught up, the two of them crossing the doorjamb into the dining room. “Felix should rejoin us promptly.”

“We are at the right place, Dedue,” Dimitri breathed out, visually sweeping the dining room and adjacent kitchen before lowering his weapon. “He is somewhere here, I know it.”

“Hey.” Felix’s voice came from the hallway, announcing himself wisely before either Dimitri or Dedue put a bullet in his by accident. “I cleared the top floor. Most of them were down here anyway. No sign of Claude upstairs.”

“Perhaps there is a basement to this house,” Dimitri suggested, glancing at the glass patio door behind the large dining table. “I have not seen any doors, so it might be accessible from the outside.”

“I will lead the way,” Dedue offered immediately, heading for the glass door. Outside, the sun had begun to rise, casting a bloody orange glow on the wooden deck.

Dimitri and Felix followed him outside, circling the tarp that covered the large dug-in pool, and stepping off the patio, into the backyard. As he’d guessed, Dimitri spotted a sloped cellar entrance against the lateral wall of the house, the ivory steel catching the early sunlight with a faint reflection.

“There,” he pointed towards it, the trio immediately heading for it. It wasn’t locked, so Dedue quickly threw it open, exposing a short set of stairs downwards to the basement door.

“Go first, I’ll follow,” Felix offered, following Dedue into the steps. Dimitri stayed at the top, seeing no reason to crowd them in the small space, watching Dedue jiggle the locked doorknob.

Wordlessly nodding to Felix, who leveled his gun at the door, Dedue threw his weight near the slit, loudly banging his shoulder against the weathered wood. He repeated it once more and the door creaked, and with the third time, it swung open.

From his angle at the top, Dimitri couldn’t tell what Felix and Dedue were seeing, but Felix immediately shot into the room, voices rising in pain as his bullets likely found their targets. He entered the room with his gun held up and Dedue followed behind him, Dimitri finally descending the stairs once the passage was clear. Inside, the screaming and gunshots had stopped, only occasional whimpering becoming more and more audible the more Dimitri approached.

Finally, he walked into the basement, and took in the sight before him, his heart finally breathing a massive sigh of relief. He lowered his gun. Everything would be okay.

Around the room, two men had been downed, still alive but incapacitated by Felix’s impeccable aim. In his direct line of sight, Monica had crumpled to the floor, whimpering as she cradled her bleeding arm where she had also been shot.

And finally, arms tautly stretched above his head and secured by coarse chains, Claude stood on his bare tiptoes behind Monica, waiting. He was naked from the waist up, clothes lying in tatters around him, little deliberate cuts lazily dripping blood into the hem of his pants. His head was also bleeding, a blunt traumatic abrasion near his hairline losing blood down the side of his face and neck to colour between the lines of the rose on his shoulder. The tip of the arrow tattoo resting below his Adam’s apple was coloured a violent purple, similar finger-sized bruises circling his throat like a morbid mockery of one of those collars that he liked to wear so much. His nose didn’t look broken but was bleeding, too, the steady stream almost elegantly draped over his lips and dripping slowly off his chin, splashing his bare chest and toes. Small nondescript bruises peppered his jawline and the corners of his mouth, only just beginning to turn a light purple. His shoulders and knees visibly shook, straining in the uncomfortably stretched position that he was restrained in, his upper extremities pale above the wrists and covered in rough friction burns and abrasions below.

Despite it all, Claude made eye contact with Dimitri, and smiled as if nothing was wrong.

“Hey love,” he greeted, his voice rasping harshly between the clinks and creaks of his restraints. “Missed you.”

And Dimitri nearly fell forward towards him, because he’d missed him, too.

…-…-…-…

Claude would never admit how truly relieved he’d been that Dimitri had made it in time. When the sounds of a gunfight had erupted on the upper floors, Monica had called her father, leaving him a panicked message when he didn’t respond, meaning that he was already on his way. She really had expected that she’d get away with her plan with a cute, naïve self-confidence that only inexperienced criminals ever displayed.

More than anything, Claude felt peace blanket his aching body when Dimitri finally put his hands on him, holstering his favourite Desert Eagle to instead calmly unhook the chairs from the ring on the ceiling.

“Here,” he murmured, slowly bringing Claude’s arms down, the chains sliding right off now that they had no tether. They landed at his feet, where Monica had fallen, and Claude briefly noted that Dedue had grabbed her before the pain hit him, and he fell forward into Dimitri. As always, Dimitri caught him, gently massaging his shoulders when the joints locked up, protesting at the sudden release of tension and the change in position. He felt a particularly painful twinge at his right shoulder under Dimitri’s touch, groaning when he realized that it might have partially dislocated from all the weight put on it.

The arch of his feet cramped next, his toes curling and knees buckling when the stretched muscle flattened out against the floor again. That was particularly painful, and Claude felt cold sweat breaking out on his forehead as he bit his bloody lip.

“Ow,” he huffed, chuckling out of the sheer ridiculousness of his predicament. Dimitri seemed to understand, however, wordlessly supporting him while the pain gradually ebbed away, and until Claude eventually stood on his feet again. Only then did Dimitri step away, uncharacteristically silent as he appraised the injuries on Claude’s body.

Claude didn’t dare tell him not to worry, as the worst injuries were the ones that could not be seen.

“Are you alright?” the blond finally asked, gentle in the way that he wiped blood off of Claude’s lips, caressing the skin that Claude had bitten through repeatedly when trying not to make noise.

“I’m fine,” he assured him, pressing a tiny, bloody kiss to the tip of his gloved thumb, a stark contrast to how he’d dealt with the last man who had dared touch him like that. Dimitri took it as the invitation it was meant to be, dipping his head down a little and dropping a soft kiss on Claude’s lips.

When he drew back, a spot of Claude’s blood had smudged on the corner of his mouth, and it was a look that Claude strangely felt suited him.

“Nice cardigan,” he complimented, for a lack of anything better to say, the splatters of blood on the sleeves and his chest speaking volumes about how desperately he’d fought to get to Claude. It was a good look on Dimitri- a bloody monster who was only appeased by the sight of his lover.

“Here, you might need it more than I do,” Dimitri remarked, untying his waist sash and removing the wine red top, instead holding it out for Claude to wear.

“Thank you.” A small smile graced Claude’s beaten face as he slipped his aching arms into the sleeves that Dimitri held out for him, unbothered when he felt the cold squelch of drying blood on his forearms. He twisted his hands into the wet wool, clenching his fists into paws as Dimitri pulled the garment closed and reverently tied it at his waist. It remained a bit too large for Claude’s slightly lither frame, the top of it sliding down to reveal his inked and bloody collarbones, but it covered the tattoo on his back, which was what Claude needed to feel the most right now.

Feeling much less exposed, he finally stepped around Dimitri, and glanced around him.

All the people in the small room were looking at him, having witnessed his disturbingly sweet exchange with the deadly man feared by most, if not all of Fódlan. In particular, Monica, standing with her arms restrained by Dedue, seemed terrified by the display of sheer power that Claude had exhibited, standing still as Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd dressed him with hands so gentle that it could be forgotten that they were drenched in blood. Felix had gathered Monica’s two bodyguards against the wall, both of them silently watching them, clutching at the wounds that left them alive, but completely useless.

“Felix,” he called, adjusting the cardigan tighter so that it covered a little more of his chest and nudging his chin at them. “We don’t need them. Please kill those two.”

“Wait-”

Felix moved much too fast, the first one unable to finish his pointless plea for mercy before he’d leveled his gun and shot his head into the wall, splattering blood on his speechless colleague’s masked face. Without a word, Felix then turned his gun on the second bodyguard, and killed him, too.

“Thank you,” Claude nodded to him, satisfied with the death of those who’d dared touch him without his permission. There was only one person left, now, and Claude pivoted his body to face her, deliberately slow in his movements.

Monica looked pale as a sheet, and Claude pitied the young girl for just a handful of seconds before remembering that despite being barely legal and likely being manipulated by her father, she was also part of the Snakes, and also had a hand in hurting him. She may, in fact, have inadvertently dealt a huge blow to Dimitri and Claude by revealing to her father that the latter was still alive.

And so, she deserved no mercy.

“I’m sorry for this, Monica,” he apologized genuinely, if only for the fact that she had been born to a horrible father, and that certainly had not been her fault. “I’m going to have to kill you.”

“No, wait, please!” she cried out, visibly trembling in fear, and crying out in pain when Dedue tightened his grip around her arms. “Please, I don’t want to die!”

“Well…” Claude pretended to think, approaching her slowly. He heard the sound of rubbing leather behind him, and didn’t need to turn to know that Dimitri was shadowing his every step, likely the reason why Monica looked doubly terrified. “I have a few questions. If you can answer me, I’ll tie you up, but leave you alive for your father to find when he gets here. Deal?”

“What do you want?” she asked, eyes wide and pleading as she stopped struggling.

“Is your father an important member of the Snakes?” Claude first asked, noting that Felix, too, had come closer to hear the interrogation. This was their golden opportunity to gain the upper hand in this underground war that they waged with the Snakes, even though they did not have time to waste. They could not be around when Solon arrived, bringing with him, doubtlessly, more security than they could handle.

“Those Who Slither In The Dark,” she corrected angrily before realizing that she was in too much trouble to give them attitude, and mellowing out. “Yeah, he’s like… pretty up there,” Monica answered, nodding frantically. “He has a say in meetings and things, he, uhh… he mostly manages the organ trade and the movement of people who are gonna end up with their organs removed.”

“Don’t you think that’s a hideous thing to do to someone?” Claude asked rhetorically, watching Monica’s eyes widen slightly before she glanced away, looking guilty.

“Whatever,” she huffed, definitely thrown off by the question, likely never having had to think about it. Claude truly pitied her, which is why he smiled, even though he doubted that his bloody, beat-up smile comforted her any.

“Where is the base of operations of the Snakes?” he asked next, clutching Dimitri’s cardigan tighter around himself when he felt the chill of the basement on his chest. His toes were nearly freezing, but there was no saving his shoes, so he curled them up tightly and bore with it. “Is it in Shambhala?”

“Those Who Slither In The Dark don’t really operate out of one place,” Monica shook her head, looking miffed at Claude’s use of the colloquial name for their organization. “They’re all over Fódlan, mostly working and communicating through the dark web. We don’t really meet one another face to face, so nobody knows who anyone is, hence the cover names.”

“It’s a smart way of compartmentalizing an organization,” Felix gruffly commented, crossing his arms. “Dismantling the Snakes won’t be like taking down a linear organization.”

“Stop calling us ‘Snakes’!” Monica exclaimed, glaring at Felix.

“You’re right,” Claude chuckled at her anger over petty things. “Scurrying around, hiding in the dark web and profiting off of innocent people, you’re more like vermin than anything else. We should call you the ‘Rats’ instead.”

“How dare you!”

“Monica,” Claude cut her off, hoping to get a few more answers before their safe allocation of time was up, and they had to leave as not to risk running into Solon. “I want you to answer this next question carefully, okay? It’s really important.”

She only glared at him, looking murderous, but obviously being unable to do anything about it.

“There’s a man in your organization,” Claude began, already feeling his bruised throat tighten up at the thought of him. “Your father mentioned him over the phone. His cover name is Thales. Do you know him?”

“Of course,” Monica huffed, insulted. “He’s one of the highest authorities amongst us. It would be stupid if I didn’t know him.”

“What’s his real name?”

“I dunno,” she shrugged. “That’s the point of having covers, idiot.”

“Are you sure you don’t know?” Claude hummed, really not wanting to have this conversation without at least getting something out of it. “I said I’d keep you alive, but I didn’t say anything about leaving you in one piece.”

“Listen, I don’t know what you want me to say,” she exclaimed. “I don’t know his name! I’ve met him once, a few years ago, when he visited my father to talk about some trade deals, and that’s all I know.”

“Where does he live?” Claude pushed. “Tell me, where can I find him?”

“I don’t know,” Monica repeated, looking pissed, even though Claude was the only one who could rightfully be pissed. He felt frustration and powerlessness welling up inside of him, but refused to let it show on his face.

“Is he in the ex-Leicester territories?” he pushed on. “In Shambhala? Adrestia?”

“I said I don’t know!” Monica yelled out again, quieting when Dedue gave her a warning shove. “What’s it to you, huh? After my father tells him that you’re alive, he’ll be coming for you anyway!”

“I don’t doubt that he will.” Pursing his lips, Claude felt all his patience drain out of him with that single reminder. He didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to restart living in fear of persecution after so many years of hiding in plain sight, but he had no choice- his ruse had reached an untimely end, and no doubt he’d be higher on the list of the Snakes’ targets than ever before. “You see, Monica… He has something of mine, and I have something of his, and I intend to reach him first before he comes for me.”

“Huh?” Intrigued by the vagueness of Claude’s statement, Monica cocked her head. “What could you possibly have managed to steal from Thales in your position?”

“Important information,” Claude answered just as vaguely, feeling his gut tighten as the words spilled past his lips. He crossed his hands over the cardigan sash in only to hide that they trembled. “Thales always kept me underground somewhere. Even though he secured buyers for me overseas, he eventually changed his mind, and decided to keep me like a trophy instead. He must’ve found it exhilarating, knowing that he’d managed to eradicate not only an entire organization, but also destroy the governance of an entire province overnight, and then keeping the last living member of the all-powerful Golden Deer mafia collared like a pet at his feet wherever he went.”

“Why are you telling me this?” At least Monica had the decency to look disturbed by the frankly horrifying story that Claude was simply glossing over. Between being made dependent on very potent sedative drugs for all that time, and eventually coping by choosing to forget the worst of his memories, Claude no longer remembered all the details, and that was absolute fine by him.

“This was five years of crawling around Thales’ household, getting to know the few spaces I was allowed in,” he continued, not answering Monica’s question. “Five years of staring at the same office, the same bedroom, the same dining room, the same hallways. Of course, at some point, I became familiar with everything. And so, when the time came, I knew exactly where to grab all the critical information I needed before making my escape. I somehow managed to hitch rides all the way to Derdriu before the man realized that I was gone, and that I had taken his secrets with me.”

“But you don’t even know his name,” Monica finished lamely, understanding dawning behind her eyes.

“And I don’t even know his name,” Claude affirmed, feeling a ball of emotion tighten in his throat.

He didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

“He’s thought himself safe for years because you were presumed dead, and now that my father has told him that you’re still alive, he's gonna want to track you down again to kill you? Get rid of you since you compromised him?” Monica paraphrased, getting her answer from Claude’s silence. “Tough luck- you should’ve just stayed where you were, then.”

“Absolutely not.”

It wasn’t Claude who said that, but Dimitri. Not having expected him to get involved, Claude turned to look at him, surprised to see his livid expression. He had his fists clenched tightly, tight enough for his leather gloves to squeak audibly, and had a deep crease in his forehead where he’d furrowed his brow in rage.

It was sweet of Dimitri to get angry, because all Claude could ever feel in regards to his past anymore was sorrow.

“If you say that one more time, I will not forgive you,” Dimitri spat out, visibly shaking. Claude put his hand softly against his elbow, tugging at the fabric of his shirt, but it didn’t seem to soothe him this time.

Monica, at the very least, seemed to take the threat seriously, and stopped talking. All of Claude’s exhaustion suddenly crashed into him in the silence, his head splitting apart with a massive headache that nearly made black dots spark in front of his eyes. He must have shown it somehow, because Dimitri splayed his hand firmly against the back of his neck the next moment, grounding him.

“Are you alright?” he asked again, visibly worried.

“Just a headache,” Claude reassured him, taking comfort in his touch for a second before leaning away from him. “We should go. It won’t be long before Solon arrives, at this rate.”

“Finally,” Monica mumbled, squawking indignantly when Dedue roughly pushed her forward, dropping her into the chair that she’d sat on at the beginning of her interrogation. “Good riddance.”

“Shouldn’t we get more out of her before we go?” Felix asked, frowning. “This might be our last chance to interrogate a Snake in a long time.”

“She’s low ranking, I doubt there’s anything else that she can tell us,” Claude shook his head, regretting the action when it made him dizzy. “Her father would know more, although it’s impossible for us to take him on, the way things are now. We should regroup and plan our next move on him in the future.”

“Alright,” Dimitri agreed, turning to Monica, whom Dedue had tied tightly to the chair with one of the chairs that had had previous been tied around Claude’s wrists. “And her?”

“I’ll kill her and we can go,” Claude replied nonchalantly, watching as Monica’s pissed expression fell apart.

“What!?” she cried out, her earlier desperation resurfacing immediately. “Wait, you promised! You promised you wouldn’t kill me if I answered!”

“I lied,” Claude said simply, walking towards her, his face set neutrally in an empty expression so unlike him. “I appreciate the answers, though, as minimal as they were.”

“Liar!” Monica screeched, thrashing violently against the links holding her in place. The chair squeaked as it moved back under the force of her movements. “You lying piece of shit, you’re a good-for-nothing whore and I should’ve killed you when I had the chance!”

Claude didn’t dignify her empty insults with a response, instead stopping a few feet in front of her. Dimitri followed, of course, so that when he wordlessly put his hand out, Dimitri unhesitatingly set his personal handgun in his palm.

“I hope Thales finds you and puts you down like he should’ve done years ago. You’re not worth a single coin!” Monica continued, becoming more and more frantic as she saw death coming for her.

“I’m not,” Claude agreed lightly in the face of her venom, loading the heavy gun, and raising it to point between Monica’s eyes. His dislocated shoulder hurt from the weight of the large weapon, although as a trained marksman, he prided himself on keeping his arm steady anyway. “I’ve learned to place the value of my body on top, so that no one can go higher.”

“I wish you had died there, rotting at his feet where you belong!” Ugly last words for an ugly young lady.

“I used to think that, too, on a lot of days,” Claude admitted solemnly, his last confession to a dead woman, and released the safety on Dimitri’s gun. “But not these days. Not anymore.”

And he aimed, without hesitation.

…-…-…-…

“This is a stupid headline,” Claude commented as he returned from the bathroom, slipping back into bed with Dimitri before holding his phone out to him. Dimitri helped him get settled comfortably first, mindful of his dislocated right shoulder that Mercedes had wrapped tightly in a sling, and then looked at the article.

“Developing story,” he read in a low voice, exhausted even though they’d just slept the grand majority of their daytime away after returning from Monica’s house. “Promising future cut short, bright 18-year-old found dead in home after likely invasion by street gang.”

“Where do I even start?” Claude huffed, his strangled voice sounding much better after having slept, even though the bruises from his strangulation wouldn’t even begin to fade for a few days. “Promising future? Not likely. Invasion? She was the one who dragged me into her basement and beat me up, not the other way around. And seriously, street gangs?” Claude groaned dramatically. “We’re the mafia, that’s… at least 30 steps above street gangs.”

“Mhm,” Dimitri mumbled noncommittally, locking Claude’s phone and handing it back to him.

“And I mean, sure, you could describe Monica as having been ‘bright’, but I really would have used other words to describe her, like… ‘sociopath’, maybe.” He shifted to face Dimitri, who’d already made himself comfortable on the pillow, eyelids dragging. “Don’t you think it’s strange how headlines always glorify dead people even though they might’ve been complete dicks in their life?”

“It’s journalism, love,” Dimitri replied, reaching out to pat his arm. “Now settle down. Mercedes said that you need plenty of rest for your concussion, and you’ll pull your stitches if you continue to move around so much.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” Claude huffed petulantly, settling down nonetheless, and mock-complaining when Dimitri drew him into his arms, tangling their legs under the covers. He managed to tuck Claude against his chest, settling him down and then pressing a chaste kiss to his forehead before relaxing.

However, even though Dimitri felt that he could sleep, he still felt the tension in Claude’s limbs, meaning that his lover wasn’t even trying. He wasn’t sure how to approach the issue at hand, though, and that was one of the fatal flaws of their relationship; he didn’t know how to talk to Claude about his feelings, and Claude didn’t want to talk about his feelings.

It wasn’t until Claude detached himself from him, slipping out from under his arms to instead sit on the side of the bed that Dimitri decided to at least try.

“Is something the matter?” he asked, fighting his exhaustion to sit up as well, glancing at Claude’s turned back. Usually, he slept without a shirt, but this time, Claude had decided to throw a loose long-sleeved sleep shirt on, hiding the large golden deer tattooed on his back that he carried like a legacy and a burden all at once.

“It’s nothing,” Claude insisted, although he really didn’t sound like it was nothing. “I’m just thinking.”

“About what happened with Monica?” Dimitri asked, not knowing if he should approach him or not. “It was a lot, I know.”

“Being hurt is fine, I have good pain tolerance,” Claude shrugged, flinching when he forgot about his newly-set shoulder. He cradled his right elbow before continuing. “I guess… I just didn’t want to hear a lot of the things I did.”

“Like what?” Dimitri encouraged, throwing the covers off completely to move over and sit cross-legged behind Claude, not quite touching him, but just within reach. He pressed a kiss to the nape of his neck, hoping it would bring him some comfort.

“Anything to do with Thales,” Claude admitted quietly, sighing and bowing his head. “I haven’t thought about it in years, and now, it just seems like it’s all coming up at once.”

“I won’t let him touch you ever again,” Dimitri promised in a murmur, slowly looping his arms around Claude’s waist, giving him ample time to pull away. Claude didn’t react, though, so Dimitri took the liberty of pressing his cheek to his shoulder, brushing his lips over one of the thorns on his rose tattoo. “I promised you that when we found you in Derdriu, and I’ll promise it to you once more. The Snakes will never take you away from me again.”

“Thank you,” Claude sighed, grateful, but still seeming burdened. “I mean it. I count my lucky stars every day that you managed to track me down when even I didn’t know where I was going. I would’ve frozen to death if Ingrid hadn’t found me during your city-wide sweep operation.”

“I would not have given up on you,” Dimitri said, voice feeling a bit tight. “I knew you as a friend, one of my few. As kids, we were not just heirs to our fathers’ heavy legacies, not just budding business partners; we were friends. So, when I received news that a terrorist attack had killed not only my entire family, but also my friend, I went mad with grief. For years, it was that grief that made me angry and that made me into the monster that earned me the title of ‘Prince’. So, when Annette told me that an urgent warrant for your capture had been posted on the dark web, I clung onto that hope of finding you again, of at least finding some solace from the grief that had haunted me for five years.”

“I’m sorry.” It was a pointless apology, as he had nothing to apologize for, but Dimitri let him anyway because he knew that it would make Claude feel better. “The days blurred in and out in that place. Being underground and never seeing the sunlight was oddly disorienting, so much so that I didn’t even realize it had been five years until you eventually told me.” He let out a self-depreciating chuckle that turned into him clearing his bruised throat, shoulders hunching inward. “Five years. I don’t remember them very well, and I don’t know if that’s good or not.”

“How so?”

“I’m a thinker, Dima,” he chastised playfully, although his tone didn’t sound as light as it usually did. “I need facts, information. I need to know what’s happening around me so that I can devise my plans while taking every variable into account.” He paused, as if trying to phrase his words. Dimitri tightened his grip minutely around his waist, just to reaffirm his presence. “That’s… five years of my life that I won’t get back, and that have so many blanks in them that I’ll never know the real extent of what was done to me. I don’t remember who’s seen me, how they’ve seen me, what they’ve seen me do. Monica took a picture of me and we wiped her phone, but I don’t know if more of them exist out there. I don’t know who has my personal information, and I don’t know for what purpose. There’s so many unknowns in those years that it makes me anxious just to think about them. That’s what Thales took from me; my life.”

His voice cracked at the end of his sentence, and Dimitri didn’t dare interrupt him, instead simply rocking him back and forth gently and hoping that it would be enough.

“He’s back on my trail now, and he knows me better than I know myself,” he continued, letting out a short, bitter laugh that reverberated against his lover's cheek. Dimitri shifted to hook his chin over Claude's shoulder instead. “And as much as we would like not to, we’ll have to face him one day, if only to take him down. I don’t know what I’ll do when that day comes.”

“We can think about it then,” Dimitri suggested, feeling a bit lame for not having anything better to suggest. “It will not be anytime soon, and when it does happen, you will not be alone.”

“I know. Thank you, Dimitri.”

Claude raised his head, turning it just enough for Dimitri to be able to press a kiss to the underside of his jaw, to one of the nondescript bruises there.

“I just want to ask one thing,” Dimitri murmured. “And it’s perfectly acceptable if you choose not to answer.”

“What about?” Claude asked back, tangling his fingers with Dimitri’s where they rested around his waist.

“What you said to Monica at the end,” Dimitri ventured, watching his reaction carefully. “That you took Thales’ secrets with you when you ran, and that he’ll now pursue you to get rid of that liability.”

“I never told you that, did I?”

“No,” Dimitri agreed, hoping he wasn’t pushing it. “It was the first I heard of it.”

“I’m sorry,” Claude apologized again, squeezing Dimitri’s hands. “I didn’t mean to withhold such important information from you. It’s true; the night of the Millennium Festival, he was much too busy entertaining his guests, so he locked me in his study. I remember waiting for him to come get me as usual, but time passed, and he did not return. The sounds of the party faded, but he did not come, which is when I realized that I had a golden opportunity to escape. I easily untied myself and looked through his desk, reading his active files, his contracts, his future development plans, companies he worked with, correspondence with other members… I must’ve spent the whole night there, just reading as much of his things as possible, capturing picture after picture of his information to store in my mind. Then, I broke the study door and made a break for it.”

“Then… All those things that you read…” Dimitri trailed off, hating that Claude had stiffened in his arms.

“I forgot them.” Plain and simple, it was the truth, and Dimitri’s heart ached for the despair he heard in such short words. “I told myself that I had to remember no matter what, that this would help me plan my counterattack, but when the adrenaline faded and the drug withdrawal started, I forgot. My father always used to praise me for my freakishly good photographic memory, but the only time it mattered, I forgot.”

“It’s not your fault,” Dimitri assured him, not sure what else to say. “You were terribly sick for weeks after we brought you back to Fhirdiad. I would never blame you for forgetting everything.”

“Dima, that’s not it,” Claude insisted, an edge to his voice as his frustration seemed to mount. “I didn’t magically forget, it’s just that I chose to.” He bowed his head again, caving under the truth of the admission. “Everything’s in my brain, I know it. I remember being so scared, so focused on my task that I memorized everything out of pure anxiety. My brain's a photo album of Thales' files.” He scoffed, likely at himself. “But I’m being selfish. I can’t remember because I won’t.”

“Claude…”

“I could fast-track this conflict in our favour, expose dozens of people and companies affiliated with the Snakes, save people who even now are in the same position I was, waiting for their lives to be sold over by monsters who think they have a right to people’s minds and bodies. I could even help us take down Thales himself… But if I think hard about it, if I search my memory to find all that information stored in my brain, it’ll mean that I’ll have to remember everything that happened in those five years, and I…” His voice wobbled dangerously. “… I don’t think I’m strong enough to do that.”

“Oh, darling.” Dimitri wasn’t weak for many things, but Claude was certainly one of them, and his heart shattered at the admission. “No one could be strong enough to do that to themselves.”

“How could I not feel guilty for choosing to forget? I’m selfish, aren’t I?” he mocked himself, his shoulders trembling under Dimitri’s touch.

“Well, yes,” Dimitri said truthfully, noting that Claude stiffened, and quickly continued his sentence. “But you spent your entire early adult life being denied selfishness, being denied identity, control and agency. So… I really do not believe you should feel guilty for choosing to be selfish now, when you are finally allowed to be.”

“Hah… well said,” Claude admitted, although he didn’t sound relieved. “I don’t know why you keep believing in me, sometimes. You treat me like a king even though I have yet to do anything to deserve it.”

“There is nothing to deserve. I treat you like a king because I see you as one,” Dimitri assured him, tightening his hold on him. “And if you cannot see yourself as a king, then see yourself as the ace of spades; notwithstanding its name, it is the strongest card in the deck, and it can end the game if it is played right.” Pausing, Dimitri took a deep breath, knowing that Claude was hanging off his every word. “And we will play you right, Claude. When the time comes, you will help us end this war, and none of this will have been for naught.”

“I want to believe you.” Claude’s breath hitched, trying so hard to hold himself together even though he was on his last legs.

Dimitri gave him that push. He was tired of Claude putting on airs for everyone but himself.

“I love you,” he said, without fanfare or embellishment, and let that sink in.

It took three seconds for Claude to burst into tears, shaking himself into pieces in Dimitri’s arms, who held him just tightly enough to keep him together. He didn’t sob, only making noise to sniffle and whimper once in a while, but the fat tears that rolled down his face were proof that it was all enough.

“I love you,” Dimitri reassured him, knowing that on most days, Claude didn’t believe him. He felt emotional, too, just thinking of it. With that thought, Dimitri tugged him into his lap, and Claude let himself be moved, drawing his legs up off the side of the bed and held himself tightly between Dimitri’s legs instead. With the steady pressure of Dimitri’s body curled over his and the weight of their hands locked together, Claude cried.

And in the privacy of their bedroom, far away from prying eyes that constantly sought to find weaknesses to the most powerful men in Fódlan, the two of them entwined, and allowed themselves to break.

…-…-…-…

The orange lights of the red paper lanterns illuminated the hardwood floor, covered in chips, majhong tiles and bills. Raucous laughter and loud cheering could be heard, filling up the air clouded with smoke and incense. Staff members, men and women alike, walked around dressed scarlet from head to toe, bowing with their veiled faces to offer drinks to the patrons crowded around games of poker, blackjack, or roulette. From afar, half-hidden behind a rice paper divider, Edelgard idly swirled the melting ice ball in her tumbler of bourbon and watched her patrons enjoy the young night ahead of them.

She specifically watched a pair of young men seated on the leather sofa across from her spot, playing a tense game of mahjong with a man that Edelgard recognized as being a well-known hitman from Brigid. They looked good, much better than when Edelgard saw them last, two months ago, and that was good enough for her. They seemed to be back to normal, whatever their strange normal was.

Dimitri must have played a critical piece, because Claude, kneeling in his lap, leaned in to whisper something in his ear, his hand slowly running up and down Dimitri’s shirt, which Edelgard realized was a shiny sheer black fabric that let his chest show underneath. She knew that if she went closer, she would be able to see the brand of Dimitri’s unchallenged title right through his shirt, the proof of his dominance over a large part of Fódlan’s underworld.

Dimitri, too, seemed to appreciate whatever Claude said to him, grabbing his jaw firmly and biting his lower lip, which drew loud hoots from the people observing their game. Claude didn’t look like he minded, in fact chasing after Dimitri when the latter drew back to continue his game. He himself wore a very loose wrap-style top that was designed to let most of his tattooed chest show, the black cotton falling off his shoulders elegantly to display his smooth, tan skin like a tantalizing offer, and keeping his back completely covered, safe from prying eyes. He draped himself over Dimitri playfully, somehow looking a lot smaller than Edelgard knew him to be, arms swallowed up by the oversized sleeves. The latex of his black pants caught the light of the nearby spotlight as he moved, readjusting himself for comfort, and that’s when Edelgard caught his eye.

Claude just looked at her from afar for a second, as if wondering what she was looking at, and then finally, raised his hand to give her a subtle salute accompanied by a bright smile.

That would be enough for Edelgard for now.

Raising her glass towards him, she toasted to whatever had made Claude so happy, and downed the last of her bourbon in his name.

Without another glance at the pair, then, she turned around to head in for the night, ready to end her day on that particularly positive note.  

There was a war to be won and money to be made, gambles to be won and prizes to be paid. There were people to be saved and people to be killed, cocaine to be snorted and guns to be loaded. There was sex to be bought and violence to be done, love to be lost and love to be found. The world would continue to turn, the Snakes would continue to fight for dominance over the country, and Edelgard, Dimitri and Claude would continue to oppose them at every step. All of those were undeniable truths, and this was the nature of Fódlan’s underworld.

But at this hour, the sun would soon rise, and Edelgard turned in, knowing that she had to be well-rested for whatever tomorrow brought.