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the ground all around, it was always holy

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And all the memories come flooding fast
A wilderness you kinda miss, but were taught you ought to cut it back
So you shut it out, you shout it down, until you’re all white-knuckled
You got a lot to learn, if you’d settle down

 

 

 

Claude has only been a von Riegan heir for two hours when Judith sweeps into his bedroom after the ceremony without knocking, takes him by the elbow and propels him into a dreary room with no windows. There’s only a table, two chairs with unnecessarily high backs, and a pile of books that look like they haven’t been touched in years.

“Is this some kind of unique isolation torture?” Claude asks.

“Sit, boy,” Judith orders, pointing to one of the chairs. “Time for a crash course on the politics of Fódlan.”

Claude sits and tips his chair back, his arms crossed. “What kind of education do you think I had in Almyra?”

“I don't know, but I'll be damned before I let you go off to the Academy next year without knowing everything about Prince Dimitri and Lady Edelgard.”

“I’m very well-informed. For example, I know his royal Princeliness is a natural blond—”

Judith slams two scrolls on the table and lets them unroll towards Claude. The one on the left is a painting of Edelgard standing next to the throne, the blood-red banner of the Adrestian Empire at her back and her lips in a straight line. The second is Dimitri. He's smiling. Heart-shaped face framed by a chin-length bob, a sunbeam falling strategically on his cheek where he sits on some royal settee. There is a golden retriever at his feet and so many tassels on his clothing it looks like he's draped a curtain over his shoulders.

Judith remains standing, hands on her hips as she glares down at Claude. “Very well-informed, you say? Do they have siblings? Who are their retainers? Who are their best friends? What's Lady Edelgard's favourite weapon?“

Claude waves his hands about in a weak plea for amnesty. “Axe! Axe! I know that!”

“What's Prince Dimitri's favourite tea?”

“Oh, come on, Judith!”

“At least memorise their faces so you don't embarrass us all,” says Judith, before she pulls a stack of parchment paper out and begins delivering a lecture on the messy, bloody, complicated history of the continent.

Claude gives Judith a half-smile, looks back down at the paintings. He doesn’t bother with acquiescence, lest Judith start taking him too seriously. He will remember their faces. He could walk out of the room right now and their faces will already have been seared in his memory. The thing is, Claude will stay up too late studying every last fact about Fódlan's heirs, because he wants to know all there is to know about them. He wants to know about that steely set to Edelgard's brow and why she stands like she wants to take her axe to the world. He wants to know if Dimitri is really a dog person and whether that smile is genuine.

He has learned not to question his hunger. Simply, when the chance presents itself, to take what he can to fill it.

My Khalid, do what you must to survive, but never forget who you are.

Claude props his head up on a fist, his knuckles pressing against a place on his jaw that his mother once patched up with a bandage and fiercely whispered words. He traces a finger down that same place near Dimitri’s mouth. These portraits have not aged with their subjects, and there is too much fresh-faced roundness about Edelgard’s cheeks, too much bright innocence to Dimitri’s blue-eyed gaze, for Claude to believe they still look like that now. He is not naive enough to imagine that Edelgard and Dimitri do not have their share of scars either, seen and unseen.

Judith raps her knuckles lightly on the table. “Are you listening?”

“Yes,” says Claude. “Tell me everything.”

 


 

There are three things Claude realises in quick succession, when he meets Prince Dimitri in the flesh for the first time. One: Dimitri's cut his hair short. He looks older, though those bangs still give him the same boyish look he had in the painting, from some angles. The short hair suits him better. Claude keeps this informed opinion to himself.

Two: that smile, against all odds, is genuine. And three: they probably won't be friends.

Seteth introduces them formally before the year’s first gathering in the hall, where Archbishop Rhea will address all the new students. In that little antechamber, Edelgard is the first to step forward and extend her hand to Claude.

“We meet at last, Claude von Riegan,” she says.

Claude raises his eyebrows. “Is that an undertone of pleasure or distaste? Either way, I wouldn’t blame you, Princess.”

Edelgard, to his mild surprise, smiles. The gaze Claude committed to memory one year ago has not so much melted as turned a deeper shade of something. Like there is a world under that sheet of ice, one that is stirring as the weather turns in Fódlan. Then it is Dimitri’s turn to clasp his hand, and it is the fact that his bones are not crushed, his fingers can find a grip back on Dimitri’s hand, that tells Claude this is his Highness’s way of being friendly.

In person, his smile is warmer still than it is in his painting; in person, there are shadows under his eyes that were not there before. In all likelihood, they had not been there when his portrait was painted. He stands tall, the very image of a storybook prince, and gives Claude a small, proper bow. “It’s an honour to make your acquaintance.”

Claude finds his most roguish wink for him. “I wouldn’t be so sure, Highness. Don’t say things like that till you actually get to know me. But hey, what are the odds? All three of us here together like this in the same year.”

“Until last year, no one even knew you would be coming,” Edelgard remarks.

Claude laughs. “True. And here I am.”

“It is a rare coincidence. I hope we shall get along,” says Dimitri.

Seteth clears his throat. From outside, the low hum of the gathered students is starting to swell, and the peal of church bells rings out clear and bright with the mid-morning sun. “Shall we? Lady Rhea is waiting.”

All through Rhea’s welcome address, Claude stands side by side with Dimitri and steals sideways glances at him. It's not the smile, or the shadows, or the fact that his face has only grown nobler and sharper over the years. It's the way Dimitri stands, ramrod straight and intent. The way he brings his hands to prayer at his chest. The way he looks at the Archbishop like she is the Goddess incarnate. It's the reverence in everything he does, the way he can make something as simple as a handshake and a greeting feel sacred. Dimitri consecrates everything he does in the light of his own sincerity, and that is why, Claude decides, they probably won’t be friends.

That's fine. Claude hasn't come here to make friends with royal princelings. That makes his life all that much easier, if he rolls in dishevelled and sleepy minutes before worship starts on Sundays, if he makes a game of shooting trick arrows on the archery range to amuse Hilda and annoy Lorenz, if he sometimes likes to cut Seteth off with inane questions when he’s briefing the house leaders. Let Dimitri judge him, let him shoot Claude all the small looks of disapproval he likes. It’s nothing Claude isn’t used to.

 


 

The best thing about Garreg Mach, Claude quickly discovers, is the library. In Almyra, books on Fódlan had been limited to badly censored histories, children’s picture books and the occasional cookbook which, while fascinating, only served to make him hungry more than anything else. Finally discovering what Gautier cheese gratin was had put the dining hall up there with the library, for a time, but then the next meal was some pickled vegetable thing that sent Claude running back to the siren embrace of knowledge, which would never let him down.

The second best thing about Garreg Mach is that no one really cares about the curfew.

Yes, there’s one, but as long as the students are all within the grounds by the time the last bell goes, the guards are there more to keep intruders out than to report anyone out of bed. Professor Manuela’s always waltzing in and out at all hours, or sometimes, staggering. Professor Byleth is too restless to stay put in their room. And Claude isn’t the only one who can’t sleep at night, though typically, it isn’t a tall figure with blond hair he sees walking outside the library.

He raises his voice, loud enough so Dimitri will hear him. “Oh look, it's his royal Highness.”

Dimitri pauses. There’s a candle in his hand, half-burnt. Something about the loneliness of the corridor, the faintness of the flame, the night, so wide around them both, makes him seem smaller, until he straightens and steps into the room. “Why are you here, Claude?”

“What, can't a man read in the library?”

Dimitri opens his mouth, then closes it again. He runs a hand over his face and sighs. “I’m sorry. I didn't mean to imply you shouldn't be here. I was simply curious, I suppose.”

“Can't sleep,” says Claude. “You too?”

Dimitri nods. He looks down, looks away, towards the shelves. The library’s well-lit enough that his candle is of no use. He sets it down on a table, carefully perched as far as possible from Claude’s stack of books, then turns his gaze back on Claude. “What are you reading, if I may ask?”

Claude raises his book so Dimitri can see the cover. It's a military history, an account of the War of the Eagle and Lion, written by a minor scribe of House Fraldarius. In it, Faerghus comes off rather the better, as is to be expected.

“Ah. I read this when I was a child… or rather, I should say, I was forced to read it,” says Dimitri.

Claude shoots him a sidelong glance. It’s the first time he’s heard Dimitri admit anything less than picture perfection. “Fun bedtime reading, isn’t it?”

Dimitri’s answering laugh is dry. After a moment, he adds, “I heard you did not grow up here.“

He says this delicately, eyeing Claude with a measured frankness, as though his words have breached some wall between them. As if Claude’s history was a secret not to be acknowledged in the open. How amusing, the proprieties of all these nobles.

Claude simply grins and nods. “You heard right. I got a lot to catch up on.”

Dimitri leans against the edge of the table and folds his hands in his lap. “I am… surprised. I must apologise. I admit I thought you careless at first, but I see now that you care very much indeed.”

Another thing about Dimitri that catches Claude off-guard: he hands out his apologies far too generously. This is already his second one tonight.

“Don't go around saying sorry so easily, your Highness. Or saying such nice things about me. I’ll probably make you regret it.”

Dimitri shakes his head. “You would not be so unkind, surely, as to deprive me the chance to offer apology where it is warranted.”

Claude shifts his weight, looks back down to his book. He’s lost his place. Dimitri doesn’t need to know that. He finds a smile again, says, “Enough talk about me. What about you? Why can't you sleep?”

Even as he asks, he knows that had he caught Dimitri in a different moment, a different mood, had the soft call of the wood owl outside not just broken the dusty silence, he might have earned a politely opaque non-answer and a swift end to the conversation. Dimitri is too polite to say, don’t you know? Doesn’t everyone know?

Of course Claude knows. He’s heard all the stories about Duscur, about the royal family, about how, after that day, Prince Dimitri spent every waking hour with his lance in the training yard, driving point after point into the ground until his hands bled. But he has not heard it from Dimitri himself. And Claude finds, in this moment, he is intensely curious; he wants to know everything about the real Prince of Faerghus, who wears bedroom socks that match his pajamas, whose hair gets mussed and falls in his eyes when the hour is past for proper appearances.

Dimitri's inhale comes tight and shallow, his exhale deeper. His shoulders sag like he is breathing out an incredible weight. He clasps his hands and looks up. “Do you ever worry, Claude? Do you lie awake at night and ask yourself what it means to lead?”

I never worry. It's on the tip of his tongue, but Claude swallows the glib reply, answers Dimitri sideways instead. “Are you sure you should be saying things like that to me, your Highness?”

“If not to a fellow leader, then who else?” asks Dimitri.

That piercing gaze is back on him. Claude shuts the book, makes a show of stretching and letting out an exaggerated yawn. “Well, I should leave you to your insomnia and make a quick exit before someone sees us so cosy together at this hour.”

The slightest tinge of pink creeps up Dimitri’s neck. “Who would come here at night anyway?”

“Linhardt's sometimes here when I come,” Claude says.

Dimitri scoffs. “Von Hevring has better things to do than gossip. He’s too lazy to start a rumour.”

Claude laughs. He doesn't mean to. It bubbles out of him before he can help it, makes him pause a moment to catch his breath, as Dimitri shoots him a strange, lopsided smile. So Dimitri does pay attention to people outside his own house. The knowledge dislodges another little piece of Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd in his mind, turns him another shade of disarmingly human.

“You don’t seem to have a light. We can walk back together,” Dimitri offers, picking up his candle.

“That would defeat the purpose of me leaving first,” Claude points out, very reasonably.

Dimitri raises his candle, straightens and tips his chin up. He says nothing. For a moment, he stands in silence, clothed in all his daylight regalia, more dazzling still in the dark. Dimitri is not the sort of prince that words roll off. He carries too many of them too close to his heart, Claude knows, but perhaps there are things that matter to him more, deeds that will wound him more, if he leaves them undone.

“How chivalrous,” Claude murmurs, and falls into step beside Dimitri.

 


 

He does not know if they are friends now. Some questions, he is happier not to know the answers to. It’s a sign of maturity, surely, and Claude feels rather pleased with himself. Look at him, settling so comfortably into the grey areas. Whatever they are, it’s simple: when they pass each other in the hallways, Dimitri gives him a nod and a smile that’s just a shade less distant than royal, and Claude finds a wink for him that's more sincere than teasing.

Once, Claude bumps into Ashe in the market, where he appears to have bought up a merchant's entire stock of onions. Dimitri likes onion gratin soup, Ashe tells him. Funny. It’s one of Claude’s favourite dishes too.

“Dimitri can't taste a lot of things well,” Ashe tells him, a little bashful. “Not many people know this. So… the more onions, the better.”

Chalk another one up for humanity. Claude files this little factoid away, turns it over in his head until it’s pebble-smooth. In the dining hall, he watches Dimitri tuck into a bowl of spicy stew with no reaction, while next to him Felix is coughing hard enough to make Ingrid whack him hard on the back. Dimitri even licks his spoon clean. What a strange boy, thinks Claude, twirling his own spoon absently in his hand. To not be able to taste a thing, and still diligently finish the whole bowl, and pay his compliments to the chef afterwards.

The night the Blue Lions return from Conand Tower, faces ashen and tight and Dimitri with his arm around Sylvain with blood still drying on one cheek, Claude stays in the shadows. From the balcony outside the cathedral, he sees the whole sorry lot of them stagger in far too late. His knuckles go white gripping the parapet. He isn’t the only one watching. Everyone’s been whispering all week, and everyone knows where they went, but it isn’t until later that everyone knows about the monster they found in the tower, about what happened to Miklan Gautier.

Claude doesn't talk to Dimitri about it. He spends more time in the library at night, reading feverishly about Crests and Relics and sometimes, comparing notes with Linhardt, who blessedly doesn’t care enough to ask why Claude’s so interested. When he looks out of the window and sees Dimitri sleepless in the courtyard, too solid to be an apparition, too pale to be all there, he doesn’t go to him. The next day, he slips Dedue a small container of eye cream and says it’s just something he happened to whip up in between experiments with mild stomach poison.

“Do what you will with it,” says Claude, and walks away with an easy wave.

Dedue does. The next time Claude sees Dimitri, he’s in the greenhouse politely refusing a love letter from an enamoured young lady, and it’s all Claude can do to keep from bursting with laughter, to not step out from behind the thriving pitcher plants and say, let’s give credit where credit is due, this is all my doing—your eyes have never shone quite so bright, your Highness, do you know that? Do you?

 


 

It starts like this: Claude, finding a tattered, chalky notebook left behind in the training ground. The handwriting within is maddeningly neat and the letters are small and sharp. The pages are filled with shorthand he can barely make sense of, little snatches of things like: Lunges 50 x 3 reps. Practised defensive stance. Felix 2x before lunch.

He leaves the book propped up against Dimitri's door with a note. Dear Royal Princeliness, with so many lunges it's no wonder your thighs look like they could choke a man. Felix twice before lunch, huh? ;) Impressed, Claude

Dear Claude, it is imperative that one strengthens the quadriceps to maintain a stable lower body. I trust you understand the importance of this as a highly skilled archer yourself. On occasion, I spar with Felix up to five times before lunch. That was a light day. Thank you for returning my training logbook. Kind regards, Dimitri.

Dimitri’s reply is under his door when he wakes up. Holding it in his hand, reading it again as he blinks the rising sun out of his eyes, Claude finds himself blearily curious if Dimitri had slept last night. If he’d paced up and down the corridor, wondering if Claude was asleep or awake, if Claude was in his room. He looks none the worse for wear at breakfast, but then again, Dimitri always manages, somehow.

He takes the pew behind Dimitri at church and slips his note into his back pocket, none too subtly. When Dimitri turns to shoot him a look, Claude’s nose-deep in his hymnal, solemnly intoning the words of a holy devotion about sacrifice and humility.

Dear Royal Thighness,

Aww, so you've been watching me at the archery range! I'm flattered. I'm also amazed you know what a light day is. You, taking something lightly? Will wonders never cease?

Amused, Claude

 

Dear Claude,

Yes. I find it educational and fulfilling to study the form of those more skilled than I am in various weapons. I am afraid the bow has never been my forte. I can, however, take a number of things lightly. For example, I take your frankly inappropriate tone in this correspondence very lightly.

Sincerely, Dimitri.

This one comes under his door, just like the first. If Claude entertains a momentary disappointment at Dimitri’s lack of creativity with hiding places, it quickly gives way to amusement. How terribly Dimitri, to have no imagination whatsoever when it comes to clandestine note-passing. In the week ahead, Claude takes a particular delight in stuffing notes into Dimitri’s satchel, down his riding boots, tied to the handle of his fancy fishing rod. Dimitri’s notes always come under his door in the dead of night.

Dear Royal Lightness,

Does that mean I succeeded in making you laugh? I shall embroider the fact on the von Riegan pennant and fly it high upon the battlefield at Gronder next month. Asking Hilda to find me some thimbles as we speak.

Industriously, Claude

 

Dear Claude,

I admit nothing. Nobody saw me, as you suggest, laugh. However, I might crack a smile at the sight of you with an embroidery needle in your hand.

With best wishes, Dimitri.

 

Dear Royal Doubtfulness,

Are you saying you don't think I can sew a pennant?

Offended, Claude

 

Dear Claude,

Perish the thought. I believe you are persistent enough, at any rate, to sweet-talk even a needle into doing your bidding.

Yours, Dimitri.

“What are you reading? You have such a stupid look on your face.”

Hilda’s snuck up from behind him at the gazebo, and she’s asking as though she doesn't know the answer, her eyes wide and terribly un-innocent. Claude smiles his most beatific smile, only for Hilda, and slips the note back up his sleeve.

“Only a very dull correspondence of state, from an equally dull member of royalty. Tell me, what would you do if an heir to a rival kingdom dared to cast aspersions on your skills?”

“Hmmm,” Hilda hums. “Fight him?”

“I don’t know if I would win in a fight.”

“Poison him?”

“I don’t know if his stomach can be poisoned. He seems supernaturally capable of ingesting everything.”

Hilda flops down next to Claude and elbows him to make him move aside. Claude lets out an exaggerated yelp that earns him an extra backhand smack on his upper arm.

“The odds don’t look good for you, Claude,” she says.

Claude laughs, tips his head back and spreads his arms across the back of the bench. It’s warm in the afternoon sun. The weather grows gentler every day, in the way of summers this far west, where a balmy wind rains verdant green and lavender blossoms at your feet instead of ripened olives, and the sky is so blue Claude can still see it when he closes his eyes. Blue behind his eyelids, blue in the trilling birdsong all around them.

“That’s not the sort of thing I like to hear, Hilda my love.”

Hilda leans against his shoulder and sighs. “Just telling it like it is.”

“I know,” says Claude. “I know.”

 


 

On the morning of the Battle of the Eagle and Lion, the day dawns bright and early on Gronder Field. Edelgard's army takes an early lead, Ferdinand charging forward while Hubert hangs back, blasting swathes of foot soldiers out of their way. From the north, Felix cuts a swift path with his blade and comes for Bernadetta at the ballista, but not before they shoot down Ingrid on her pegasus.

Claude holds everyone back under cover at first, cautiously picking off enemies at the perimeter with their arrows. Strategy in motion. It’s going great. Until it’s not, and Lorenz gets ahead of himself, like he always does, and then Leonie has to go pick up his slack and the rest of the Golden Deer are forced out of position, he and Hilda are holding the fort as best as they can while everything dissolves into chaos.

Hilda does an admirable job of swinging her axe at Dedue, but a thunderbolt from Dorothea out of nowhere brings her down, before Ashe takes Dorothea out with the ballista. It comes down to this, when Claude's the last man standing from the Golden Deer: Dimitri, dodging the arrow Claude lets fly at him. Dimitri, vaulting over a rock to land on his feet, the point of his lance at Claude's throat.

Claude swallows. He raises his hands. “Goddess. Okay, you got me.”

Dimitri doesn't budge. “Do you yield?”

“Yes, yes, I yield! Drop your lance already, will you? I’m finding it terribly hard to breathe right now.”

The ghost of a smile crosses Dimitri's face. He raises his lance a little bit, so the steel tip grazes Claude's throat. Claude swallows.

“You first,” says Dimitri.

Claude smiles back. He lets go of his weapon. The silver bow lands on the grass with a soft thud, and it's only then that Dimitri slowly lowers his lance. He doesn't take his eyes off Claude the whole time.

“You know me too well,” says Claude.

“Not sure I should take that as a compliment,” says Dimitri, and Claude laughs.

That night, all three houses feast together, and the way Dimitri's eyes keep finding that point on Claude's throat makes Claude feel far too warm. As if that gaze could draw—not blood, blood’s too cheap, too easily spilled. There are things Claude guards close to his heart, hands he would never show anyone out in the open. Dimitri’s already won one battle. Claude has no intention of conceding another.

 


 

So if he takes Dimitri by the hand and leads him down the corridor by the flickering light in the sconces, if they dance with shadows and Claude's still laughing when they fall into his room and lock the door behind them, it's only fair. They are both a little giddy, Claude on sugared apricots and waltzes and wine and Dimitri on all of the above and maybe also victory, and Claude wraps his hands round Dimitri's wrists, pulls him back until both of them fall onto his bed.

Dimitri traces Claude’s lower lip with his finger, runs that fingertip down his jaw and onto the smooth sheets. “I didn't think you'd be the sort of person to make your bed,” he remarks.

Claude reaches to flip Dimitri’s hair out of his eyes. The better to see those eyes with. “A time like this, Highness, and you’re talking about household chores?”

Dimitri sits up, straddling Claude’s hips and pinning him down with his knees. He is a sight. Lips reddened, slightly parted, tunic sliding off his shoulder as he catches Claude's hands in his. “Dimitri,” he whispers, voice full of command, raw with want. “Call me Dimitri, please.”

Claude kisses his knuckles one by one, and then he doesn't call him anything at all. And if for tonight, just for tonight, Claude gets to hear Dimitri's voice dip low and dangerous in the shell of his ear, to take him apart so slowly that Dimitri rips a tear in his undershirt in his haste to get it off, to put his mouth to the bare shoulder blade of a future king and catch his ragged exhale in the palm of his hand, well, that's only fair as well.

 


 

“I thought you’d be here.”

It’s too early for this. It’s too early for Dimitri to be at the archery range, looking unfairly handsome for someone who got as little sleep as either of them did last night. It’s too early, but then again Claude’s here too and he’s shooting arrows all over the place, half of them unerringly finding their target, the others wildly off their mark.

“Clever. You’re smarter than you look. Anyone ever tell you that, your Princeliness?”

“Are you implying I don’t look smart? No—don’t answer. I really don’t want to know.”

Claude grins. Dimitri crosses his arms, leans against the wall, and watches Claude shoot in silence for a while. Claude hits all the bullseyes after that.

“It feels good, doesn’t it,” Dimitri murmurs.

“What, watching me shoot? Sadly, I wouldn’t know.”

Dimitri does roll his eyes then, and Claude puts his bow down to go to him. In the faint pink of morning light, he starts to reach for Dimitri, then hesitates, hovering an arm’s length away; it’s Dimitri who steps forward and puts his hand on Claude’s chest, lets it run slowly down to encircle his waist, and presses their foreheads together. Claude lets his eyes fall closed, just long enough to hear Dimitri sigh softly.

“Feels good watching you train, though,” Claude says, nudging Dimitri’s thigh with his knee, and opens his eyes to see Dimitri flush red.

“In truth,” Dimitri admits, “I cannot say the training ground is my favourite place in the monastery. I have… many mixed feelings, and memories, associated with the lance.”

Claude raises his eyebrows. He hadn’t thought about it, but now that he does, it’s not a surprise to him. It’s not like the archery range is his favourite spot in Garreg Mach either. It’s part of who he is, but it’s far from everything.

“What’s your favourite place, then? You already know mine. Don’t keep it to yourself.”

Dimitri smiles. “I’ll show you.”

He leads Claude back past the common rooms, through the courtyard and the deserted gardens. At this time of morning, only the groundskeepers and the butterflies are out to greet them. Claude knows where they’re going before they get there. He figures it out halfway through, but it doesn’t stop the amusement bubbling up inside him when they arrive.

“The stables. Your favourite place is the stables? This is charming. Very provincial.”

Dimitri walks round to the back and murmurs a good morning to a chestnut horse, a filly Claude’s seen him favour. Claude himself has what can best be described as an on again, off again relationship with most horses, but this one has a patient temperament, one of the few steeds in Garreg Mach who’ll let him groom her and take an apple from his hand without too much cajoling. Her name, if Claude remembers correctly, is Belle. Somehow, it strikes him as one of those things that’s simultaneously unexpected yet awfully Dimitri if he stops to think about it, to ride a horse named Belle into battle.

Running his hand down Belle’s muzzle in painfully tender strokes, Dimitri glances back at Claude. “The horses don't care who I am. They don't know anything about me. I feel free, with them. It’s—it’s like…”

He stops, takes a deep breath and starts again. “The horses are the only thing I know won't break if I touch them. Do you know what I mean, Claude?”

Claude leans against the post next to Dimitri, watches him pick up a bushel of hay and feed Belle, handful by handful. There it is again, that shadow falling across his face. Not quite the storm, but what comes before. The melancholy, the haunting, everything that keeps him up at night.

“Look, I’m saying this with nothing but the greatest respect for you, your Highness—”

“That only serves to fill me with more dread,” Dimitri remarks.

“But maybe sometimes, it’s okay to stop feeling sorry for yourself and, I don’t know. Just do it. Touch something. And let them decide if they're going to break.”

The words come out of Claude all at once, all in a rush. His silver tongue, getting the better of him again; oh Khalid, my Khalid, his mother’s voice, laughing in a faint, long-buried memory, the phantom touch of a hand on his shoulder, something blossoming inside him like the bruise on his cheek. What shall we do? What shall we ever do with you? But he is right, and he will say the things that need to be said, and Dimitri, after staring at him a beat too long in silence, leans a little closer. His knuckles brush the back of Claude’s hand. They do not hurt. This touch is the opposite of hurting. Healing, maybe. Claude does not know where the thought comes from. It hovers in his mind, a delicate winged thing, and then takes gentle flight along with the memory of his mother.

“You know, you should take your own advice sometimes. It’s not bad advice.”

Claude pauses. “What… are we talking about now, exactly?”

Dimitri’s smile breaks open like the clouds scattering from the sky. “Maybe you should let people see you sometimes. And let them decide if they like what they see.”

Claude wants to say something witty, something about how he's an open book, about how Dimitri's had his hands all over him, let alone his gaze. But there is a spark now that flashes in the way Dimitri looks at him, a sure, steady glint Claude glimpsed last night by a sliver of moonlight. In the day, he cannot close his eyes and pretend not to notice it.

 


 

No one’s counting the nights. Claude doesn’t want to start, doesn’t want to think back to after the banquet and call it the first night, because it seems an unnecessary temptation of fate, and the Goddess they all believe in here in Fódlan is—if not fickle, then, at least, too tempestuous for Claude’s liking. So there is no first time, and no second and third and beyond; only nights where Dimitri is in Claude’s bed, and nights when he is not.

After Remire, Dimitri comes and they say nothing, nothing at all, until Dimitri’s kissed Claude breathless and Claude has his hands on the dip of his collarbone, and they say nothing of betrayal, nothing of a village razed to the ground and people who could not be saved. The night that cloaks them is threadbare and threatens to come apart from the outside in.

Tangled in sweat and sheets, Dimitri whispers into the hollow of Claude's neck.

“There is… a darkness, inside of me. I do not know when it will rise up again. I think I might have said, once, that I would not want you to be nearby when it does.”

He stops there. He is so still that if not for the faint warmth on his back, Claude would have been hard pressed to say if Dimitri was still awake, still breathing. No talk of the future, no talk of now, and now—what? Only a brink they both stand at, hand to hand, only a seam between truths. That, too, is coming undone.

“Hey,” says Claude. “I get it. Let me hold it.”

“Hold it?”

“Yeah. I don't want to take it out of you. Or goddess forbid, fix it. It's part of you, right?”

Dimitri’s silent for a long time, then he wraps his arms tighter round Claude and buries his face in his shoulder. He's shaking a little. Claude thinks he's crying at first, then a small, choked laugh escapes Dimitri's mouth, and everything rearranges itself around that sound.

“You are an extraordinary man, Claude.”

In daylight, Claude might have laughed, said, of course. Said, I know, so I've been told, and winked at Dimitri. But here in the dark, with Dimitri covering him, Claude lets himself admit something he has not dared to say before, even to his mother. Even to himself.

“I’m not, really. I'm nothing special. I’ve just been trying to survive, all my life.”

Dimitri's thumb is rubbing small, slow circles on the back of Claude’s hand now, like he could map Claude by his veins, like he could calm a wild, racing pulse with the steady rhythm of his own. “Do you not think that is extraordinary?”

“You think so?” Claude asks, quiet.

“I know so. To survive, that is… often, the hardest choice to make.”

“Yeah,” Claude murmurs. “Yeah, I guess you would know. Listen, I’m…”

Dimitri’s hand ghosts along Claude’s chest, up towards his lips. “Do not say you are sorry.”

So Claude doesn’t. He doesn’t know, in any case, if that was what he was going to say; it is not guilt or regret or worse, pity, that swells within him right now. With an exhale, he lets himself settle against the even rise and fall of Dimitri’s chest. Until this moment, he had not known there were quite so many knots in his back. He had not known the way his shoulders tense, even when he lies in bed. Most of all, he had not known he could breathe quite so easily, with his heart in his mouth like it’s ready to leap.

That night, Dimitri stays in Claude’s bed and Claude wakes from a blissfully sound sleep, opens his eyes to the sight of golden hair spilling across his pillow. He lies still for a while, watches the sun fall on Dimitri’s face. Just like he saw in a portrait, one year ago in that dusty little room in Derdriu. He still remembers how Dimitri looked then. He had promised Judith, after all, and he’s very good with faces, and promises too. This man in his bed is not the prince in that picture. But Claude, too, is no longer the boy in that room.

Dimitri stirs before long, blinks sleepily at Claude and then raises a tentative hand towards him, as if he needs to make sure Claude is real. When his fingers brush Claude’s cheek, Claude feels more real than he’s felt in a long time.

“Hey, you. Want to go get some fresh air?” Claude asks.

Dimitri smiles. “I'd like that very much, I think.”

 


 

So it is that the next hour finds Claude on his wyvern, soaring over an open field, so high he can catch the wind in his fist. It’s a gorgeous morning, the kind historians won’t ever write about because there is nothing for it but the simplest kind of beauty, in the way of ripening summer and daffodils. He turns his gaze downwards, watches Dimitri on the back of a white horse that’s picking up speed, hoofbeats wild and free as they stride out to make the day their own.

Goddess, I love that man.

And maybe it’s only because he’s gloriously airborne, far away enough that Dimitri is an earthbound sun to him right now. Maybe it’s because from up here, the mist over the mountains in the distant east calls to him, calls him home. Beyond, the sea. Never forget who you are. In Leicester, in Garreg Mach, that hasn’t always been easy; right here, in this moment, it is. Maybe that’s why Claude can finally let himself think it, to let himself indulge in the frankly sacrilegious thought that not everything has to be complicated.

He loves him, and all of Faerghus loves him too. It's obvious, watching the Blue Lions with their leader. Ashe is devoted to him. Mercedes heaves a quiet sigh of relief every time he makes it through a skirmish with only minor wounds. Even Felix, who would sooner stab Dimitri in a non-fatal place than admit his affection, would take an arrow for him without thinking. Dimitri will never know just how much he is loved. That handsome, honourable, insufferable fool.

And up in the sky, Almyra to his right and the Holy Kingdom to the north, Dimitri riding towards a bright horizon, a long dormant dream begins to stir in Claude. A dream so audacious, so impossible, that it’s eluded even him all this time. But if it's Dimitri, maybe—just maybe.

 


 

Then Emperor Edelgard rises up, and the pieces of Claude's dream scatter once again to the four winds.

He does not say goodbye to Dimitri. He does not want to. Wild wyverns can't drag a farewell from his lips. Only a glance across the battlements, only the iron taste of blood in his mouth as he turns away and lets another arrow fly. He does not wait to watch it bury itself into the neck of an Empire brawler. He has no time for waiting, now.

He has no time for anything but the full-time job of surviving, and this work, he knows in his bones.

It is Marianne who brings him the news from the Kingdom. Dear Marianne. Hilda's probably sent her because she knows that of all of them, Claude might feel that he could cry, in front of Marianne. Marianne and her healer's hands, holding the letter out to Claude. A hasty note Gilbert scribbled on the road and entrusted to a messenger. It is sheer dumb luck anything’s made it through from Faerghus to the Leicester Alliance, let alone a soldier in blue livery with a crumpled note in his tunic, shivering with hunger and close to collapse.

“Hilda has him now,” says Marianne. Her voice is quiet, but does not waver. “Prince Dimitri has… Fhirdiad has fallen. Cornelia will send an official letter soon.”

“Let her,” says Claude. “We could take her with our eyes closed. Couldn’t we, Marianne?”

Marianne rests her hand on his shoulder. Claude folds the note up as small as it will go, lets himself lean down over his lap and idly dance the bloodied paper across his knuckles, one by one, before tossing it into the hearth and watching it curl in the fire.

 


 

In one of the histories he’s read, King Loog’s date of death is given as Imperial year 771, twenty years to the day after his victory on the Tailtean Plains. In another, it says he passed away peacefully in his sleep in 769. Yet another, a tract of unknown provenance with binding that would fall apart if Claude breathed too hard on it, claims Loog did not die of natural causes at all but was knifed in the back by his advisor Pan, a treason the official records have all but buried.

Claude does not know which account is true, if any. What he does know is that he will not believe Dimitri is dead, or alive, until he sees proof with his eyes either way. That stories are made to be unravelled. That he is a master, if nothing else, of seeking out that fine line between a half-lie and a half-truth, and walking on it as surely as he makes a bowstring sing. Anthem or elegy, the tune’s still up to him.

At Gronder, Dimitri is a nightmare walking, a shadow of a shadow that Claude only glimpses from a distance.

At Derdriu, he is real and the sky is brilliant and blue. The sea smells of a brand new dawn.

 


 

Later, much later, he will hear all about it. How Dimitri led them into battle with the rallying cry that he would not let Claude die. How Areadhbar was a scythe of light in the city that day, how Dimitri cut through Arundel’s forces like the second coming of Loog himself. A storm breaking upon the Aquatic Capital, so that the sun could shine again.

But in the moment when they're finally face to face, when Dimitri knocks a sniper off his perch and sweeps across the bridge to Claude and says, you’re okay, something comes unwound inside Claude, a knot pressing tight against his ribs that he’s been carrying far too long. How long it’s been, since he’s thought about whether he’s okay, since he’s thought about anything but the delicate balance of the thousands of lives in his hands, and now here Dimitri is in the flesh and the first thing he says to Claude is you’re okay, you’re okay. Hilda’s running down the last of the Empire soldiers and Ingrid’s got Judith, and it is almost too enormous for Claude to echo Dimitri’s words, to say yes, yes I am. He finds a smile to answer him, a wink and an offhand remark about how Dimitri inspires loyalty. It’s only half a joke.

Here he is. How the prince has grown into a king. Here they stand, together at a harbour, as the tide carries the past five years out, and in again.

There isn’t much time after the battle ends. Just enough for Claude to find a scrap of paper somewhere, to scrawl something in a hurry and tie it round Failnaught before he presses his bow into Dimitri’s hand.

He doesn't stay to see Dimitri read it. He knows Dimitri will unroll it later, in the privacy of his tent, and maybe he will imagine Claude touching his face, running a hand down that rugged jawline. Stronger now. Forged in some kind of hellfire. But Claude has a feeling his fingers will settle into their old, familiar groove before long, that once you've traced the shape of your dream so many times, you'll always find your way back.

 


 

Dear Dimitri,

Thank you for surviving. I'll do everything I can to.

That's a promise.

Love, Claude