"He's not very..." Lorenz trails off, and Claude waits patiently for the young Count to decide which of the thirty-odd less-than-flattering adjectives he's contemplating applying to the object of their discussion to use, "...subtle."
Claude dips his head, acknowledging this. "True," he agrees, because he's long learned that the trick with Lorenz is you have to tell him when he's right, the moment he's right. Claude absently sorts the scouting report he's been skimming into the pile he's planning on taking back to his quarters for closer inspection and waits for Lorenz to continue, because the other trick with Lorenz is you have to listen to everything he wants to say, the moment he wants to say it.
Hilda complains about how high maintenance he is—Claude had barked a laugh at the fact that she'd been the one to point that out and had been promptly socked in the shoulder for his trouble—but Claude honestly doesn't mind. After days of nothing but trying to appease nobles who will never be made happy, if all it takes to satisfy an old friend is to freely acknowledge when he's correct and listen to what he has to say, Claude is more than willing to do so.
Lorenz shifts his weight where he stands a few steps back from Claude and the floorboards creak under his idle movement. Claude quirks an eyebrow Lorenz can't see as he sorts through more paperwork. Time has done a number on the Gloucester heir—softening his sharp edges, armoring his sensitive undersides, rendering him kinder and wiser and just better in a way that truly makes Claude proud to stand at his side—but he's still a noble to his bones. He outright tsks at nervous tics like that.
"Lorenz?" Claude prompts, frowning as he tries to do some mental math over the numbers he finds in one of the ledgers. He gives up after a moment and sorts it into the pile with the scouting report, as if he's going to have a clearer head for sums five hours from now.
"I don't trust him," Lorenz rushes out, moving to stand in Claude's peripheral. Only the familiar purple sheen of his armor keeps Claude's instincts in check, and the hidden dagger he keeps sheathed at his ribs remains undisturbed.
Claude says, "Okay," sensing Lorenz has more to say, and also because—he doesn't have a better response. He can weave a thousand lies at the drop of a hat to convince the Alliance lords that he totally definitely absolutely has everything under control, but when faced with the simple honestly of Lorenz's statement, his pool of silver-tongued responses dries up.
Lorenz steps closer, circling around to the opposite side of the desk and planting one hand flat over the document Claude's reading to collect his full attention. Claude doesn't like that. Lorenz so rarely demands all of Claude's concentration these days, knowing—as all the Golden Deer do—that Claude is constantly spinning about ten plates at any given moment, and none of them can afford to drop.
Claude looks up, not bothering to school his features.
Lorenz says, "Claude," slowly, carefully. "He will ruin everything you've accomplished."
Because Lorenz isn't the only one with tricks, and he might not be able to track a person's expressions and decipher their meaning the way Claude can, or read a room with the skill and efficiency the way Claude does, or determine someone's hopes and dreams and fears and ambitions just at a glance the way Claude's had to, but Lorenz has been shoulder-to-shoulder with Claude for too long not to know what makes him tick.
Anything Claude has achieved—every scrap of territory he's snatched back from the Empire, any noble he's managed to sway to their cause, all the small victories he's pulled out of nowhere—is due to the Golden Deer. They're a unit. A team. Claude could never have come this far without them at his side.
And even if he could—he doesn't think he'd want to.
Lorenz knows this. Lorenz knows that Claude knows this.
Lorenz also knows how ambition burns in Claude's gut—how it shakes and rattles for attention in the back of his mind, how badly he wants to change things, how ardently, desperately he needs to usher in a new era. Lorenz knows that Claude would do anything—go anywhere, fight anyone, out maneuver every last player until he alone stands victorious—if it meant seizing his dreams.
And they all know that Dimitri is a wild card—a threat. An unpredictable variable that could send all of Claude's carefully arranged plans tumbling away in an instant.
Claude bows his head, looking back at where Lorenz's hand is still splayed across the document, bearing his weight on his knuckles as he leans on the desk, staring sightlessly down.
Risk and reward. Claude's a gambler—he has to be. He's never had the stability to be anything else.
Lorenz's hand stays planted.
How much are you willing to risk? goes unasked, but Claude can hear it clearly all the same. Practical Lorenz, always trying to rein him in. How much reward could he possibly bring?
"I'm not..." Claude sighs, spearing a gloved hand through his hair, sentence trailing off. He feels terrible, but knows he looks worse. Marianne's anxious glances have long-since stopped wounding his pride and have started serving as a barometer for how obviously he's caving under stress. If he can fool Marianne, he can fool anyone.
Marianne, as it happens, had not approved of her concern being used this way, and when she'd realized what he'd been doing, the resulting earful from Hilda had rung in his head for days.
"Just check in with us once in a while," she'd snapped, hands on her hips—not even close to matching his height but yet always somehow managing to look him dead in the eyes. "We're all in this fucking thing together—so maybe let us help you!"
"I don't trust him, Lorenz," says Claude, because he doesn't, and Claude hasn't gotten this far by lying to his friends.
Lorenz arches an eyebrow.
"You want to," he says. It isn't a question.
A muscle tics in Claude's jaw—he's seventeen again and watching the Prince of Faerghus run drills with the rest of Blue Lion House, caught up in such single-minded curiosity that he'd actually felt his breath catch because there's something there and Claude knows it and he just needs to look harder—
Claude swallows somewhat noisily.
Lorenz withdraws his hand.
"I trust you," he says, "to make the right decision."
Claude nods, looks up. Lorenz meets his stare with the balance of a throwing knife—even and smooth and freshly sharpened.
"And you need to trust me," he adds, never altering the careful cadence of his voice, "if I come to you, and tell you things have gone too far."
Risk and reward.
"A chancer," Hubert had noted, smirking in that way of his that always drew a snarl from Claude—Claude, who could keep his cool in a room full of rioting nobles but one fucking look from Edelgard's second had him reaching for his bow—
Gronder burns in his mind's eye—ashes to ashes to ashes again. At his side, Lysithea had stood as tall as she could on her bad leg, pale skin paler still beneath the contrast of blood splashed across her cheek, but her hand had been absolutely steady as she'd raised it against Hubert, a luna spell locked behind her teeth, magic flickering across her fingertips.
At his feet—prone and exposed save for where Claude had been doing his best to block him from sight—Dimitri.
"What are you going to do with him?" Hubert had asked—words cool and easy but always tasting like a taunt. Claude couldn't give the order to Lysithea—his tongue caught hopelessly in his jaw as he'd struggled to make a plan against the steady thrum of Dimitri Dimitri Dimitri Dimitri Dimitri Dimitri in his mind.
"Claude," Lysithea's voice had never wavered—not once—even as Hubert's own hand twitched, a banshee spell playing across his fingers. She'd glanced at him—eyes like salt rock. Had said, "Claude," with more urgency.
Hubert had lifted an eyebrow, and Claude knew this was stupid—Gronder was burning and Dimitri was dying and nothing was going as planned—
"Going to keep him?" Hubert's eyes had glittered in the firelight. The battlefield was on fire and the Emperor's lapdog had wanted to trade barbs about pets. Claude would have thrown up if he had eaten anything that day. "Another plaything for the Alliance?"
Dimitri had shuddered at Claude's feet—whole body pulling taut and then just dropping—and Claude had fallen to his knees to haul him closer before he had even known what he was doing—
"Claude!" Hilda had screamed at him from across the battlefield, and that had finally kicked something over in Claude's brain and he had barked a command at Lysithea, whose slender hand sliced through the air, cutting off the bite of Hubert's magic as he let his own spell fly—
That was a week ago.
Lorenz is staring at him, expecting an answer.
Claude gathers up all the remaining documents on the desk—maps and letters and reports and ledgers and treaties—and drops the entire stack in his read later pile.
"Yeah," Claude's voice is unexpectedly hoarse, and he coughs to clear his through. "Yeah, Lorenz. I hear you."
Claude can't read Dimitri.
Which is—strange, for lack of a better word. Bad is the easy, catch-all, appropriate response. Anxiety-inducing might be closer to the truth. Thrilling is closer still, but even he can hardly stand to admit that to himself, though Hilda's eye rolls suggest he's not hiding it terribly well.
"You're disgusting and I hate you," she'd told him, her words leaking so much honest affection Claude felt like his chest might burst. She'd gripped him tightly in a hug, adding: "if he hurts you I'm going to fucking eat him," before merrily skipping off.
So Dimitri remains a mystery—a very tall, often silent, always lost in thought sort of mystery.
Claude doesn't see him often—it's only been a week, and three of those seven days saw Dimitri unconscious in Claude's own tent as Marianne did her best to patch him up while Claude bunked with Ignatz and put on a very convincing show of everything's fine that precisely no one in his inner circle had believed—but it's not like Claude doesn't have a million things pulling him in a million directions at any given moment.
Like, the war, for one. And the fact that the Empire is growing stronger every day, and he still doesn't know what Edelgard wants or what's motivating her, or why the Kingdom had been such a frazzled, disarrayed mess at Gronder.
"One of my riders," some minor lord from some minor House that Claude could probably remember if pressed but presently couldn't give less of a fuck about had drawled, "claims he saw Prince Dimitri...surrender himself to the Emperor."
Claude had felt Hilda's eyes snap to his—had seen Lorenz go slightly tight in the shoulders.
Claude had only smiled back—serene, like the image of Dimitri dropping his ancestral lance in the dirt and falling to his knees before Edelgard while Sylvain had fought to hold back a screaming Ingrid hadn't been permanently etched into his memory.
"Well," Claude had replied, all rock cat sharp, "you're certainly welcome to sate your curiosity by taking it up with the Prince."
The meeting had moved on rather swiftly from there.
He has Lysithea keep an eye on him because he's seen her glare take down fighters with the finesse of a blade, and if that doesn't work—her magic can certainly do the job.
"You want to see if he'll attack me," Lysithea had guessed when Claude had given her the assignment. She'd been in the middle of braiding her hair back—some intricate Almyran style Cyril had taught her that made Claude's heart squeeze whenever he saw it. She'd raised one eyebrow. "Am I right?"
Claude had rocked back on his heels. "He can still outlast most physical weapons, if we need to...remove him, magic is the only way," had been his diplomatic answer. Lysithea had stared harder. Claude had coughed. "Also, I want to see if he'll attack you."
Lysithea had only shrugged, tossing the braid over her shoulder.
"Don't be mad when I kill your boyfriend," she'd said, and Claude figured that had been quite enough of that, thanks.
So Dimitri has been in Alliance territory for a week, and Claude has had exactly two conversations with him—both short and awkward and bookended by Hilda grumbling at him, "what the fuck did you expect him to say?" when Claude is predictably disappointed.
"I want to help him," Claude had hissed at her, allowing himself to grow irritated the way he only does when he's with Hilda, mostly because Hilda is always reminding him to loosen the fuck up and show some genuine emotion once in a while, and also because Hilda is the one most likely to irritate him.
"I don't think he wants to be helped," Hilda had answered, fingers spread wide in a gesture of uselessness as they'd argued in the shadow of Claude's tent that Dimitri had still been using, because Claude doesn't have a better place to put him, because Claude has no fucking idea what he's doing. "Horse to water and all that. He's alive, and that's the most you can do for him right now."
Claude has two conversations with Dimitri and learns one thing each time. The first is he can't read him. The other is this:
Dimitri can shutter himself—can simply deny an emotion from appearing on his face. Claude can too, of course, but Claude's always masked the unwanted expression with a more palatable one—trades anger for interest, swaps grief with pride, covers up anything even slightly suspicious with a wink. Dimitri just...blanks. Goes dark. An open book, certainly, but one without any text. Just empty pages.
"Is there anyone you want us to contact?" Claude had asked, hesitant—tense in a way he couldn't remember being in a conversation since he'd been elevated to the leader of the Alliance. "Any allies in the Kingdom? You're not a prisoner here, Dimitri."
Dimitri had looked at him—and looked, and looked—until Claude had actually shifted under his stare, and—
And then—just like that—Dimitri's expression had simply...dropped off.
"No," he had said, and that had been the end of his and Claude's second conversation.
Claude hates that he finds himself curious—hates that it tugs at his old interests, hates that it rouses speculations and thoughts five years too old. Dimitri is not a puzzle to solve, he's a person who needs help, and yet Claude can't not be fascinated. He wants to pull Dimitri apart like a clock, inspect his gears and cogs and parts, and put him back together.
That part he doesn't tell anyone. He is, however, openly fielding ideas from the Deer on what they think about Dimitri's eerily blank veneer.
"It's a warrior thing," Leonie tells him, conversationally, like this isn't a very bad and weird thing to be devoting any time thinking about (it is definitely a very bad and weird thing to be devoting any time thinking about) as she roots around their company's trunk of old weapons. How she doesn't prick herself on a blade or spear tip or arrowhead, Claude has no idea. How they don't have a better system for recycling their used resources he also has no idea, but files it away to solve later.
"A warrior thing," Claude repeats, to prove he's still listening.
Leonie nods, pawing through the trunk.
"Yeah like, you just lose yourself in the fight," she tells him. She makes a soft noise of interest, and he watches more of her disappear as she heaves herself deeper into the trunk.
She resurfaces a moment later, face pinched in triumph as she brandishes a lance at him.
"Knew we had one of these in here," she murmurs, expertly spinning the lance to stab the spear tip into the ground at their feet so quickly that Claude blinks and misses the whole display. Leonie is deadly and delightful and not a day goes by that Claude isn't immensely grateful that she's on their side.
"He'll feel better with a weapon," Leonie explains, offering it to Claude. "I know Lorenz won't like it—" here she rolls her eyes with the resigned affection of someone who could fill several books on what Lorenz won't like, but has decided not to, mostly because she loves him "—but you and I know it'll settle him some."
Claude accepts the lance—clumsily, because he can't remember when he last held a lance in his hands that wasn't the time Raphael made him grip the shaft of the one sticking out of his abdomen during a particularly ill-fated scouting mission while they waited for Marianne to catch up with them—
"It's dull as hell, anyway," she says, shrugging. She's spectacularly unbothered by every aspect of the situation—retreating from Gronder, refusing to pursue the Kingdom or the Empire, bringing Dimitri with them, putting all other plans on hold until Claude figures out what the fuck he's doing—and Claude adores her for it. "Doubt he could do more than use it as a blunt instrument, and that doesn't really seem his style."
His gaze flickers from the tip of the lance—as rounded and rusted and dull as Leonie had said—to give her a look.
Claude says, "his style?" with more disbelief than he thinks he's said anything all campaign, and Leonie flaps him quiet.
"Shut up," she tells him, in that affectionate way of hers. Claude doesn't have a sister, but he thinks Leonie might be the closest he'll ever get. She steps back, pushing hair out of her eyes, giving him a once-over.
"Lorenz give you a hard time?" she guesses, and Claude wonders when he became so easy to read when he remembers—oh right, he hasn't been able to fool any of the Deer for years now. He's not sure he ever really could. He likes that, he thinks.
Claude turns the lance lightly in his hands. It's got a fair heft to it, but he knows it'll weigh less than a sewing needle in Dimitri's grip.
"Not really," says Claude. Then, because it's Leonie, "he's right, and he knows he's right."
Leonie hums in sympathy. "That's always the pits," she agrees, propping her hands up on her hips. She offers him a small half-smile, reaching out to pat his shoulder like he's a horse she's particularly fond of.
"It'll be alright though," say Leonie, calmly, cheerfully. "You know what you're doing."
She says it with such confidence—like it's as easy as breathing. Claude wishes he had an ounce of her assurance. He also wishes he would stop being surprised when people express belief in him and his abilities, but that's a bit too heavy for the current conversation and also not a thought he entertains outside of his own tent, alone, at night, usually at least a little drunk.
Claude hums noncommittally, examining the lance.
"Leonie," he says, as she turns back around to reorder the chest of weapons. "You said it's a warrior thing...like he's losing himself in a fight."
Leonie nods, squatting back down beside chest to start pulling out weapons, making a noise of agreement in the back of her throat.
"Yeah, I mean, battlefield face and all. You just kinda let everything else fall away." She grunts as she hauls a heavy battle-axe out of the chest. "Granted, can't say I've ever looked quite as...numb...as Dimitri does, but I think the principle still stands."
Claude thinks of Dimitri's face when he'd staggered out ahead of the Kingdom's line—has thought of little else since he'd seen it a week ago, actually.
The lance spins under Claude's careful fingers. "But he's not really fighting right now, is he?"
Leonie turns to face him—expression all sharp lines and harsh edges—and Claude has just enough time to regret saying that before she speaks.
"Don't ask questions you know the answer to, Claude," she tells him, lifting a warning eyebrow. "I'm not one of your dumb, stuffy nobles, and this isn't one of your mind games." She turns back to the chest and Claude, well—Claude knows a dismissal when he hears one.
He touches her shoulder as he leaves—a five-fingered apology she accepts with a soft noise—and steps out to into the bustle of camp to find Dimitri.