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Sylvain wakes up.

This is something he arguably does every day, but this time, it’s different. Wrong, somehow. He recognizes it before opening his eyes. It isn’t the fact that he’s in a stranger’s bed — that’s a normal occurrence. It isn’t that he has a headache that could rival some of his worst war wounds —that’s also normal. Nor is it that attempting to roll from his back to his side causes an intense pain in his abdomen — less normal, but still not entirely out of the realm of typical wakeup scenarios.

It’s something about the air. It’s heavier, warmer — a little too stifling.

He keeps his eyes closed because he is definitely too hungover to accept an onslaught of light into his life at the moment. His bed is empty — that much he can tell without looking — but given the strange location in which he finds himself, he must have spent the night with someone. Surely that someone is still around.

He tests this theory by asking, "We had fun last night, huh? It’s not every day I get to wake up feeling like I’ve been chewed up and spat out by a demonic beast."

"You’re lucky you’re waking up at all," comes the response in a voice so startlingly familiar, Sylvain opens his eyes and accepts the increased pounding in his head in exchange for confirming his senses.

In a chair by the door of the small room in which Sylvain currently finds himself sits Claude von Riegan. He’s dressed in a manner uncommon to Fódlan, in white and gold silk, but aside from that difference, he looks the same as he did during the battle that ended his reign as leader of the Alliance.

Sylvain attempts to sit up.

"I wouldn’t do that if I were you," Claude tries to warn him, but he’s a few seconds too late.

As soon as Sylvain moves, he feels as though he’s being split in two, right along his middle, the pain so severe, he gasps from the shock of it. It hurts in a way that he hasn’t experienced since the war, and the intensity of the sensation drags horrible memories out from the recesses of his mind. He’s rendered immobile again, staring at the ceiling instead of Claude as he groans through it and attempts to forget about the last time he felt this horrible.

When the worst of the pain subsides, he moves only his arm, shoving the covers off of himself to expose his shirtless torso. He glances down, sees that his abdomen is heavily bandaged, then huffs out a breathy laugh. "Definitely a wild night," he confirms out loud, running his hand along the bandages. "What happened?"

Sylvain turns his head in time to see Claude draw up a leg into his chair, tucking it under himself, his body language as informal as Sylvain remembers. "I was hoping you’d tell me. One moment, I’m getting ready for bed, and the next, I’m being ushered outside because a madman from Fódlan tried to kiss Imad the Fearless’ wife." Claude tells the story as though he’s only vaguely interested in the details, even going so far as to shrug, but his eyes are hard and calculating. "I got there just in time to see you take his axe to your stomach."

"Imad the Fearless," Sylvain repeats slowly, picking at his bandages. "Doesn’t ring a bell, sorry." He flashes Claude a sheepish smile.

It’s the truth, however flippantly Sylvain supplies it. He doesn’t remember anything about anyone named Imad, doesn’t remember the axe, doesn’t even remember crossing the border into Almyra, of all places. He does, however, recall being in Goneril territory on official business and deciding to spend the evening at a tavern in the company of an attractive merchant who happened to be selling some Almyran Pine Needles. If he squints against his headache and really tries to think, he vaguely recollects meeting her wyvern and asking for a ride.

And, okay, he can kind of remember deciding that hitting up the nightlife of another country sounded like just the kind of trouble he wanted in his life. But after that, it’s all a dark blank spot. Not that he minds missing out on the happy memory of nearly being cut in two.

Claude returns his smile while Sylvain is working through his recollection, but nothing in the upturn of his lips is mirthful. "He happens to be my cousin."

"Oh, how nice," Sylvain replies. "I suppose that I have you and your family bonds to thank for saving my life, then."

"Actually," Claude begins, placing weight on the word, "when he found out I knew you, he decided to stick the axe in your skull instead of your gut."

That piece of information hooks Sylvain’s attention more than any discussion about near-death experiences, of which he has had many. His own mortality never quite seems to take him where he wants to go, and his ability to hang on to life is both frustrating and boring. He’d much rather talk about Claude, especially since he knows so little about him and his family matters.

He attempts to carefully shift onto his side; he's marginally successful this time. "Lemme guess," he says in a lilting tone. "Family troubles?"

"Let’s just say you picked a bad time to come pay an old friend a visit." Claude rises as he speaks, crossing the small room to stand beside Sylvain's bed.

Sylvain is cognizant of the fact that he must look as bad as he feels. He can only imagine the bruising under his eyes, the sickly pallor of his skin, the way his hangover makes him contort his face against a constant pounding in his skull. So, naturally, he beams up at Claude as though he’s as right as rain.

Claude studies him. For a moment, Sylvain expects Claude to touch him — squeeze his shoulder or pat him on the back. But all he says is, "You can recover here for a few days."

Then, as though that answers everything, he turns toward the door.

"Hey, wait a second," Sylvain calls. "You didn’t finish your story. How did I escape getting an axe embedded in my head?"

Claude glances back at him briefly, just long enough to flash him another smile that he seems to not quite feel — Sylvain can tell, being an expert in fake smiles himself — and simply leaves without another word, shutting the door behind him.

Sylvain sighs loudly despite the fact that there’s no one around to hear it, then rolls on his back once more. He runs his fingers over his bandages again, carefully attempting to lift them in an effort to see what lies beneath. It’s a painful process because the bandages stick to his raw skin. He has to slowly peel them away, but eventually, he separates them from his body and examines the mess underneath.

His skin is raw and angry and promises to scar by the time the healing process is over, but it’s evident from the way that he can’t see any of his inner organs that he has been healed with magic. It must have been dicey, though, or Sylvain wouldn’t still be in so much pain. By the feel of it, he’ll need another healing session or two to be mobile again.

Just as he has that thought, a woman enters his room with fresh bandages and a plate of food. She sets the food on his bedside table and then helps him sit up. Despite her help, the motion makes him sick; he’s left breathing heavily, with sweat lining his brow, by the time he’s fully upright.

"Heal you," the woman says in heavily accented speech as she begins to unwrap his bandages.

"I’d like that," Sylvain replies with his best smile. "But it isn’t just my body that’s wounded. My heart could use a little attention too."

He’s certain that she doesn’t understand him, but his tone must communicate enough because she pulls back so quickly that Sylvain feels the displacement of air like a slap across his face.

Then he looks up at her and feels a very real slap across his face.

"No!" she exclaims. "Khalid said."

Sylvain has no idea who Khalid is or what exactly he said. If he thinks about it hard enough, he might piece it together, but his headache has been reborn with an intensity he wouldn’t have thought possible, and he can only groan in response. "That’s fair."

Satisfied with the acceptance in his tone, the woman nods and resumes her work.

After she gives attention to his axe wound, dosing him with magic that only manages to take the edge off, she is kind enough to heal his stinging cheek.

He’s left with the headache, though he supposes he deserves that much.

Sylvain never liked Claude.

There were a lot of reasons for his perhaps unfair feelings of animosity for the Golden Deer house leader, none of which had to do with politics. His biggest issue with Claude was how incredibly fake he was.

Like recognizes like, is how the saying goes. Sylvain has never much liked himself, so when he saw some similarities in the way Claude’s smile did not quite reach his eyes and the way he pretended to be so easygoing, how could he like him? Watching him was like having all the worst parts of himself put on display by someone who was admittedly much better at acting than he was.

Sylvain couldn’t stomach it.

Add in the fact that Claude, like the professor, came out of nowhere to claim all the benefits of having a crest with none of the sacrifice, and Sylvain was close to hating him. Might have actually hated him if he were forced to interact with Claude for any prolonged period of time, but Sylvain transferred to the Black Eagles, not the Golden Deer, so they didn’t have much cause to spend time together.

He had been fairly certain that Claude didn’t care for him, either. His smiles always seemed extra contrived when given to Sylvain, and on the rare occasion that they played a chess game together, Sylvain got the impression that Claude distrusted him on a deep level. He had the sense that Claude only played with him to keep tabs on him the way one would an enemy.

It was smart. They did end up enemies in the end, after all.

But there was one moment in the midst of their time in the Academy that Sylvain thought that maybe he had Claude all wrong — that maybe he deserved more than a fake smile and a subtle helping of spite.

It was after Conand Tower, when Sylvain was stalking the halls in a way that made all his friends uneasy. The later it grew, the more Sylvain remembered his brother’s voice echoing off of stone, and the angrier he became, until he found himself in the dark library, surrounded by the history of everything he hated. One by one, he plucked the books on Gautier from the shelves and allowed them to fall to the floor, finding a perverse sense of satisfaction in seeing them mistreated. Eventually, there were books everywhere. As Sylvain was making the decision to use his barely-honed Reason magic to burn them, he realized he was being watched.

Upon turning, he saw Claude tucked into a corner with a book in his lap, observing the scene.

Instead of judgement or amusement, or even concern upon seeing that Sylvain was ready to cast magic within the library, he looked calm. Almost understanding.

"I get it," he had said. "I have some experience with shitty siblings."

There was a lot to unpack in that sentence — a lot of information about Claude delivered so casually — but Sylvain wasn’t in the frame of mind to really consider any of it. He was too bitter, too close to jumping off of a ledge he couldn’t see but knew was right there, looming before him.

"Oh yeah?" he had asked, his hands still held in the air, still ready to unleash fire upon the library. "Did your ‘siblings’ push you into a well? Leave you on a mountain? Did you have to turn around and hunt them down? Shove a lance in their throats?"

Claude did not cower at the anger in Sylvain’s tone. "Not yet," he replied flippantly, looking back down at his book. He made no indication of which question he was answering, but maybe those two words covered all of them.

Sylvain was still furious at the world, at his parents, at the Archbishop, at everyone who so much as looked his way — but something about Claude’s easy tone calmed him enough that he dropped his hands to his sides.

Later, he would think about how he should have looked at that as Claude’s attempt to help, to open up to him in a way he seemed to open up to no one, to steady him. In the moment, however, Sylvain only felt suddenly, overwhelmingly exhausted.

He left Claude to his book and the library to the mess he made. He went to bed, and in the morning, he no longer felt like burning everything to the ground.

He and Claude never spoke of it again.

But when Sylvain went to Tomas to accept his punishment for making a mess in the library, Tomas had asked, "What mess?"

All of the books on Gautier had been neatly filed away, as though never disturbed.

Claude visits him again that evening. The windows in Sylvain’s room are very thin, but offer enough of the outside light for him to see the shift toward night. Sylvain has managed to keep himself in a sitting position, propped up against the headboard, but he’s still more or less immobile.

"I brought you some books," Claude announces as he shuts the door behind him. "Figured you’d be getting bored by now."

"I hope you have good taste in literature," Sylvain replies, watching Claude as he sets the stack on the bed.

"Great taste, actually. Have a look for yourself." Claude points to the books.

Sylvain moves slowly, careful not to aggravate his wound too much, and picks up the top book. Then he frowns and sets it back down. "A language book? Really?"

"You’re going to be here a while," Claude tells him, taking a seat in the chair by the door. "I thought you'd like to learn a thing or two while recovering. Might keep you from getting slapped next time."

"I’m used to being slapped," Sylvain replies with ease. He has the sense to feel a little ashamed at having provoked such a reaction from the healer, but he doesn’t allow that to be conveyed. Then, remembering the healer’s broken explanation, he says, "Wait. Did you tell her to slap me?"

Claude looks at him with that same, assessing stare, but when he laughs, he sounds a little more genuine. "No, of course not. I just told her not to fall for your advances."

"She didn’t." Sylvain sighs. "Regretfully."

"You may want to tone that down around here," Claude warns. "In the short time you’ve been visiting, you’ve been axed and slapped. That might be a sign you should scale back."

"Nah." Sylvain picks up another book: A brief history of Almyra. He tosses it to the side. "Can’t deny who I am, right?"

"Is that who you are?" Claude asks, suddenly too serious for Sylvain’s liking.

"I don’t know." Sylvain smiles at him. "Who are you?"

"Your host," Claude replies without missing a beat. "One-time leader of the Alliance and current resident of Almyra."

None of this says anything about the mysteries that have always surrounded Claude and that extend beyond his now-known Almyran heritage, but Sylvain nods as though it explains everything. "Ah, that’s right. In that case, I’m Margrave Gautier."

"In name only." Claude shifts, setting an arm on the chair’s armrest and resting his cheek on his knuckles.

The back of Sylvain’s neck prickles. He hadn’t realized that Claude was keeping such close tabs on the happenings of Fódlan, though he supposes in retrospect that’s a very Claude thing to do. It doesn’t bother him, per se, but he knows that Edelgard has not done the same with Almyra. She’s too busy fighting the dark forces that, apparently, were the true enemy all along.

It’s a little unsettling — he feels as though Claude has an advantage.

"Names," Sylvain muses out loud in an attempt to deflect Claude's statement. "Speaking of, I learned a new one today."

"Oh?" Claude asks, raising his eyebrows.

"Khalid. That would be you, wouldn’t it?"

"That isn’t a secret." Claude sounds amused.

"Oh, but a person can learn a lot from a name," Sylvain replies.

"Like whether or not they’re nobility? Or have a crest?" It sounds deliberately provoking.

"Sure," Sylvain agrees without any hesitation, despite the fact that the subject of crests is still a sore subject for himself and Fódlan at large. "Or where they stand among the great figures of history of our time." Sylvain picks up the book on the history of Almyra again and holds it up, giving it a meaningful shake.

Claude smiles broadly, but his eyes are cold. "You won’t find me in there."

"Maybe not you," Sylvain replies, flipping open the book. "But maybe a parent? Or grandparent?" He skirts through a few of the pages, then shuts the book with a loud thump.

"Only one way to find out," Claude replies easily.

Sylvain shrugs and flops the book back down on the bed. "Maybe later. I’m a little tired right now. Axe wound, you see."

Claude doesn’t argue. "Of course." He stands and moves to the door. "Rest up. You’ll need your strength if you want to get back home."

"Thanks, nurse Khalid," Sylvain replies with a wink.

Claude doesn’t wink back. He simply leaves.

Sylvain knows he isn’t the best company, especially not when bedridden away from his usual distractions, so he figures that Claude will keep sending the healer and find better things to do with his time than visit.

Claude surprises him by showing up every day.

Initially, their conversations maintain a subtle undercurrent of tension, thanks to the quips and comments Sylvain uses to get under Claude’s skin. He knows Claude will not reveal the secrets he keeps carefully tucked away, just as Sylvain keeps his own truths buried beneath layers of self-depreciation and meaningless flirtations. But he finds a perverse satisfaction in eliciting a tightening of Claude’s smile or a hardening of his eyes.

He likes to see Claude react with displeasure, however minimally he reveals those feelings, because under all his meaningless banter, Sylvain is jealous.

Claude took a beating at the hands of Edelgard, but unlike anyone else who faced her on the battlefield, he was permitted to walk away with his life. And now he sits beside Sylvain with the demeanor of a man unaffected by his losses, comfortably lounging in his silks and wearing his fake smile as though it doesn’t hurt him to spread it across his face every morning.

Meanwhile, Sylvain was on the winning side and still can’t go more than a couple of days without some sort of risky venture to keep himself grounded. When there’s nothing but water to drink, his mind loops back to the war; when there’s no one to exhaust him in bed, he sleeps fitfully. Without distractions, Sylvain is forced to acknowledge that one instance of skirt-chasing led to him turning his back on his family, his territory, and the man who was supposed to be a king. He has no choice but to ask himself: was it worth it?

If Felix were here, he’d tell Sylvain to stop dwelling on the past — what is done is done. But Felix is off being a mercenary somewhere far away, indulging in his own form of distraction. He’s running from his problems in a different way. No matter how he spins it, he’s as messed up from the war as they all are.

All of them except Claude, who was able to return to his comfortable life and slide back into his easy demeanor — who continues onward as though there’s something out there still worth pursuing.

So Sylvain pokes and prods with his words, thinking he’ll reach one of two conclusions: Claude will finally show some of his true colors, or, more likely, Claude will tire of him and find someone else to bother.

He doesn’t count on a third option, the one that emerges on the fourth night of his convalescence.

Sylvain feels a little better for the first time since his arrival. He’s able to sit up with less pain, so he’s cross-legged on the bed by the time Claude knocks and enters the room.

He grins and opens his mouth to deliver the annoying greeting preloaded on his tongue, but Claude raises a hand to stop him.

"Not tonight," he says.

Those words make Sylvain swallow down his own. Instead of cajoling him, he pays close attention to Claude’s movements. His gait is off, though only slightly, and despite the typical empty smile he offers Sylvain, there’s an edge to his expression, a smear of fatigue under his eyes. In all their time at school and during the brief sightings of Claude that Sylvain obtained during their battle, he has never looked this close to affected — by anything.

It surprises Sylvain enough that he decides to pull his head out of his ass for once and consider that maybe Claude did not get off as easily as it seems.

Maybe Claude’s still fighting something, too.

Instead of offering banter, he holds out one of the thick history books. "Wanna do some light reading?"

Claude nods. He takes the book and brings it to his chair.

It feels like they enter a truce.

From then on, Claude’s visits go smoothly. Sometimes he brings new books for Sylvain, who reads them all despite his previous complaints. Occasionally, he brings board games. And every once in a while, he’ll even bring weapons for Sylvain to practice swinging as he works himself back up to his normal strength. When they tire of those options, Claude helps him learn Almyran, repeating useful phrases for Sylvain to use in the future.

With the clarity of a tentative but shaky acquaintanceship, Sylvain begins to wonder more about Claude and his motives — why he bothers spending night after night with him, coaching him into wellness in both mind and body, when Sylvain has nothing to offer him in turn.

He considers: Is Claude lonely?

And he thinks: Aren’t we all?

After nearly three weeks of this, Sylvain is healed enough to travel. In fact, he’s probably overstayed his welcome, but Claude seems in no rush to kick him out and Sylvain hasn’t exactly been excited about the prospect of returning home to face his shame. Still, he can’t stay in Almyra forever, and he can only stare at the same four walls for so long. Claude may be turning into better company than anticipated, but he’s only around for a couple of hours a night, and Sylvain is tired of being alone with his thoughts.

"I thought I asked you to bring something decent to drink this time," he says to Claude one evening.

Claude is busy laying a map out on the floor. By the looks of the painted terrain and quickly sketched notes, it’s a map of Sreng. "No alcohol for the infirm," he replies without looking up. As soon as the map is flat, he digs in his pocket and pulls out a dark velvet bag.

"You and I both know I’m pretty much healed," Sylvain replies.

"Here." Claude holds up the bag. "Pick your color."

Sylvain has to reach across the map to take it from him, which aggravates the tender scar on his abdomen. He winces, but manages to grab the bag.

Claude raises his eyebrows.

"A little ache isn’t a big deal," Sylvain argues as he opens the bag and dumps out a pile of colored stones onto the map. He begins sorting them, giving himself the black pieces and Claude the white ones. "I’ve imbibed under much worse circumstances."

"I can imagine." Claude gathers his pieces and begins arranging them on his side of the map.

Sylvain follows suit, situating his stone units in various locations on the map, creating small squads of soldiers to await Claude’s first attack. This ‘game’ isn’t really a game at all, but rather, an exercise in strategy. Claude chooses a map of a location in Fódlan or the surrounding areas, and the two of them ‘fight’ atop it until one is left standing. Claude typically wins, but Sylvain has been giving him more of a challenge now that he has started putting in effort.

"I guess that’s all the confirmation I need, then," Sylvain states.

Claude finishes setting up his pieces and looks up at Sylvain with mild interest. "Confirmation of what?"

"My status here in the lovely country of Almyra, of which I’ve somehow seen very little." Sylvain arranges his last pieces, then sits back to level Claude with a bright smile that does not match how he feels about this new conclusion. "I’m a prisoner."

Claude does not outwardly react to this statement. His neutrality makes Sylvain wonder if he expected this revelation.

Sylvain looks for a tell and finds none.

"Yes, you are," Claude answers. "Becoming a prisoner is what saved your life."

"Becoming your prisoner, you mean." It hasn't escaped Sylvain's notice that Claude is the only one who seems to have a vested interest in his confinement.

"Almyra’s prisoner." Perhaps realizing that this is going to be a long conversation, Claude shifts himself into a more casual sitting position, drawing one leg up and resting his arm over it.

Sylvain hums, tilting his head in mock consideration. "I don’t doubt that there are political reasons behind my cozy cell and reasonable accommodations, but I also don’t buy that as the whole truth."

Claude shrugs. "It isn’t a lie."

"Lies of omission are still lies," Sylvain informs him. "Or so I was once told by a woman after she discovered she wasn’t my one and only."

Claude ignores the anecdote. "Generally speaking," he replies in an even tone, "It isn’t called ‘lying’ when you keep information from a prisoner."

It’s too bad Felix abandoned everything to swing his sword. Sylvain can only imagine the look of utter disgust and disappointment he’d receive if he caught wind of this mess — the harsh, uncompromising chiding that Sylvain definitely deserves. Years ago, Ingrid would also have been happy to give him a verbal lashing, but she’s too busy in her position as Edelgard’s knight to concern herself with his antics.

And the one person within reach is watching him so impassively, he might as well be made of stone.

The only one left to tear Sylvain down for getting himself in this trouble is Sylvain himself.

He drops his smile along with the rest of his act and asks, "Why? You yourself pointed out that I’m not all that important anymore."

"You’re important enough."

Sylvain thinks that’s all the information that Claude will be providing for the evening. He begins packing up the pieces, deciding that he no longer wants to play and figuring that Claude won’t mind the excuse to leave, either.

But Claude speaks up again. "Things are complicated here in Almyra. We need Edelgard to resolve some long-standing issues, but she hasn’t answered any correspondence."

Claude’s explanation is too vague to be of much value, so Sylvain does not mention why Edelgard has been too busy to concern herself with foreign affairs. She’s fighting another war on a different front, and she’s perhaps more exhausted than all of them combined.

Then again, knowing Claude, he probably already figured that out.

"But now that you have the man who is supposed to be Margrave Gautier, she will have no choice but to consider you a priority." With all of the game pieces packed away, he tosses the bag on the map.

"Exactly." Claude smiles. "My hands were tied."

Sylvain nudges the map to the side. "You’ve changed, haven’t you?" Claude is still sharp and dangerous, more so now than ever before, but he’s lost a little of his playful charm. Maybe that was the real cost of his loss at Edelgard’s hand.

"So have you," Claude points out, though he doesn’t elaborate.

"Nah." Sylvain stands, then steps forward and holds out a hand.

Claude takes it and allows Sylvain to pull him up. This time, Sylvain makes sure not to wince at the pull of his wound.

"I’m still the same old Sylvain," he adds, releasing Claude’s hand once he’s on his feet. He takes another step forward.

They’re close now. Claude looks up at him without shrinking back. "I think that’s what you want everyone to believe. But I see through that act."

Sylvain rests his hand against Claude’s neck. "I see through yours too," he says as he brushes Claude’s earring with his thumb. "Khalid."

He kisses Claude with the calculated seduction of all his prior experiences. He starts slowly, just a light press of his lips, meant to entice. Claude does not shove him away, so Sylvain kisses him deeper, with measured contact, building into passion. When Claude still does not protest, he wraps his arm around his waist and presses their bodies together, parting his lips and encouraging Claude to do the same with a gentle brush of tongue.

Claude places a hand on Sylvain’s chest.

Sylvain stops kissing him. "Conflict of interest?" he asks with a smirk. He knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but he had to try; after all, it seems Claude has no one to keep him company at night, given how much time he spends with Sylvain

"I know an arsenal when I see one." Claude nudges his way out of Sylvain’s grasp and bends to pick up the map and game pieces. "Goodnight, Sylvain."

He leaves Sylvain alone to reflect on his newfound low.

Despite Sylvain’s foolish attempt to seduce his way out of his imprisonment, Claude still visits him the next evening, carrying the same map of Sreng and the same bag of game pieces.

"What makes you think I want to play with my captor?" Sylvain asks. He’s standing at the thin slits of window, watching as light begins to fade from the sky. He can’t see much of the grounds below, but he is able to see beyond to what he believes is a market.

"Do you have other plans?" Claude asks, knowing full well Sylvain has nothing better to do.

Sylvain doesn’t bother answering. Claude sets up the map anyway. When he’s done, he asks, "How about I sweeten the pot? If you win, I’ll give you a day of freedom."

Sylvain glances at him. "Like you’ll let me walk out of here alone."

"Not alone," Claude replies. "But I’ll let you walk out of here."

The offer isn’t that enticing. Sylvain hasn’t minded his imprisonment as much as he should — at least he hadn’t up until he confirmed he couldn't leave. He’s fed well, given various forms of entertainment, and shielded from the consequences of his accumulated mistakes. Sure, he’s without the distractions that normally keep his mind off of his less favorable memories, but by filling his long nights with language practice and reading, he's usually able to fall asleep without much forethought.

This little room has insulated him against everything from which he’s been running.

But there is something that Sylvain still wants. "Does the offer come with a drink and a chance to flirt a little?" he ventures, deciding that if he can have those, he might as well take Claude up on the deal.

"If that’s what you really want."

Sylvain takes his seat on the floor. "And if I lose?"

"You’ve suffered enough consequences for losing already," Claude replies, eyes sharp despite the easy smile on his lips. "Haven’t you?"

Sylvain does not agree, but he nods anyway. "Let’s go then."

They play the game. Sylvain promptly loses.

"Another chance," Claude declares as he sets the pieces back up.

"If you’re going to let me play until I win, then why not just give me the free day without all of this?" Despite the question, Sylvain repositions his pieces, adjusting his original starting strategy.

"It’s more fun this way." Claude says it flippantly, but Sylvain has spent enough time with him now to know that he isn’t flippant at all.

"You’re testing me." This isn’t a new revelation, considering Claude has been giving him books meant to instruct and games that require tactical thinking. Sylvain is caught in the middle of some kind of scheme; he just doesn’t see the end game.

"If I were testing you," Claude replies, "I’d scrap the game entirely and ask you what you would really do as Margrave Gautier facing an invasion from Sreng."

"Easy." Sylvain swipes all of his pieces off the map. He picks up one of them, a lone unit, which he places into Sreng territory.

"Who is that?" Claude looks very attentive now. He sits up straighter, eyes focused on the piece.

"Me. On my way to give Sreng half of Gautier and anything else they want."


"Because I’m tired of war." He slides his piece toward Claude’s troops. "Because it was theirs to begin with." He stops just before he reaches the nearest squad of soldiers. "And what’s the worst that can happen?" He topples his piece.

"Very dramatic of you," Claude observes. He starts packing up the game pieces.

"Hey, what happened to my second chance?" Sylvain protests.

"You won."

The next day, a man who Sylvain assumes is a guard knocks on his door and enters to hand him fresh clothes. By the time Sylvain changes into the loose silks and runs a hand through his hair, Claude arrives wearing finery of his own. Sylvain isn’t well-versed in Almyran fashion, but he recognizes formal wear when he sees it.

"You didn’t tell me this was a date," Sylvain teases. "I’d have done something new with my hair."

"I’d prefer you to be yourself," Claude answers as he holds up two golden bangles. "These are for you."

"A gift? You shouldn’t have." Sylvain holds out his wrists and allows Claude to snap the bangles around them. Claude doesn’t have to explain what they are. Sylvain feels them silencing his magic as soon as they are fastened. "Nice of you to pick bracelets instead of cuffs."

"I said a day of freedom and I meant it." Claude runs his fingers over the bands, his calluses glancing over Sylvain’s skin in the process. Sylvain idly wonders when Claude last shot a bow in battle — if it was his final fight with Edelgard, or if he has had cause to fight again.

"I haven’t used magic since the war ended," Sylvain tells him. On the rare occasions he has had to fight bandits or assist with cleaning up Fódlan’s underground mess, Sylvain has stuck to his lances. His Reason magic leaves a scent in the air that always turns his stomach — the smell of burning hair and singed flesh. "I have no plans on breaking my streak."

"You never know," Claude replies. "Something might move you to action."

"Like a grand escape? Or do you mean a woman?"

"I mean a threat." The words don’t sound as ominous as they should on Claude’s tongue.

"Pretty sure I’m currently living in a constant state of being threatened." Sylvain half-heartedly tugs at one of the bracelets. As expected, it is fastened in place, locked against any potential attempts at removal. "Prisoner and all."

"You're safer in here than you think." Claude opens the door. Sylvain steps over the threshold for the first time since awakening in Almyra.

He's surprised to find himself in a lavish wing of what is unmistakably a palace of some kind. Extravagant rugs line the hall and intricate ornaments hang from the walls. Sylvain knew he wasn’t being kept in a dungeon, and he’s had a hunch about Claude’s overall importance in Almyra, but he’s still surprised that he’s being kept in a place of such wealth.

There are two guards posted at his door. They incline their heads for Claude as he falls in step beside Sylvain.

"You are a gracious host, aren’t you? Sticking me in a palace instead of a prison cell." Sylvain reaches out to touch the wall. "It’s a lot more regal out here than I expected."

"You’re not here to be punished," Claude reminds him.

"That’s right," Sylvain replies, as if just remembering. "I’m leverage."

"In a sense."

Sylvain rolls his eyes. Claude can talk around it all he wants, but he’s using Sylvain to his own ends. Sylvain is a pawn — a well-kept pawn, but a pawn nonetheless.

"And you," Sylvain ventures, "are a lot more important here than you want to admit."

Claude faces forward, seemingly disinterested in this conversation. "I’m less important than you think." He leads them to a set of stairs, which they descend.

"Yet you have the keys to a palace, and the ability to keep a political prisoner."

"Plenty of people have the keys to this place," Claude says. "And plenty of people have the ability to keep political prisoners." He looks at Sylvain with a knowing smile. "If you brought me as a prisoner to Edelgard, would she simply set me free?"

"She did once," Sylvain argues, though he knows the circumstances were different when Claude was spared. In truth, if Sylvain showed up with Claude in cuffs and explained that he needed to be kept locked up for a reasonable reason, she likely would oblige. At the very least, she would have Hubert look into the circumstances.

"All the more reason for her to not make the same mistake twice." Claude leads them down another hall, which finally brings them to a set of large doors. Two posted guards move to open them.

"Was it a mistake?" As they emerge from the palace, Sylvain shields his eyes from the bright light of the sun, which is far more hot and powerful than he imagined. He’s grateful for his loose clothing.

"If she hadn’t let me go, I wouldn’t have you as my prisoner right now. I'm sure she's reconsidering her choices."

"I doubt it." Edelgard and Hubert both respected Claude during the war. Most people did. Sylvain was always one of the stragglers, holding on to his animosity toward Claude because it was an additional attempt at keeping himself grounded.

And now here he is, having to face that alongside his imprisonment.

Claude leads them along tall palace walls until they reach the exit. He and Sylvain pause to wait for the guards to crank open the gates, which move slowly, revealing the outside world bit by bit.

Almyra is beautiful, Sylvain recognizes immediately, although its beauty is entirely different from the greens of the dense forests he left behind in Faerghus. Instead of tall hardwoods, he sees shrubs and slender trees, thriving despite the heat. In the distance are the mountains of Fódlan's throat — the way home.

"Nice place you got here," Sylvain remarks.

"I think so too."

Sylvain pulls his attention away from the view to look at Claude, surprised by a sudden hint of emotion in his tone, those four words carrying more meaning than any others offered to Sylvain. He considers teasing Claude for it, but decides to let it go in the spirit of his free day.

He can give a little, too.

The walk to the bustling market isn’t long, but it is hot, so Sylvain limits his idle chatter until he’s standing at a stall, protected from the sun by the shade of an awning. He takes his time examining spices and dried meats, occasionally asking Claude about their flavors. Many of them are new to him; the Almyran dishes common to Fódlan hardly scratched the surface of real Almyran cuisine.

While Sylvain enjoys a sample of spicy lamb, Claude reaches into one of his pockets and pulls out a set of coins. He holds them out. "These are for you."

"An allowance?" Sylvain asks as he takes them. "Lucky me.’

"You said you were looking for a drink. Alcohol costs money. That’s all you get, so spend it wisely."

Sylvain pockets them, a cheeky reply ready on his tongue. But when he looks up, he catches a man staring at them. As soon as he notices, the man looks away.


"What?" Claude asks, following his stare.

Sylvain knows that Claude wouldn’t miss something like that. What he doesn’t know is the reasoning behind the pretense. "Nothing," he replies, deciding to follow Claude’s lead and play dumb.

After that, Sylvain pays closer attention to the people around them. He notices that he and Claude are the subject of many unhappy looks as they shop. Every time he stops to examine wares, he catches someone staring, and occasionally, he also picks up on the sound of angry whispering accompanying those stares.

Initially, he thinks he’s the subject of contempt. After all, he was almost gutted a few short weeks ago for flirting with the wrong woman, and now he’s a prisoner. But when Claude steps aside to speak to a soldier in hushed tones, telling Sylvain, "Don’t try anything you’ll regret," as he walks out of earshot, Sylvain notices that the stares follow Claude.

That piques Sylvain’s interest, more so than anything else he’s learned about Claude so far. It’s surprising that Claude is widely disliked in his own country, but more than that, Sylvain is curious as to why Claude would bring him out here, knowing that he would eventually pick up on the animosity.

It’s yet another play in Claude’s overall scheme — has to be, because Claude does everything deliberately. The more hints he’s given, the more he wants to understand.

He watches as Claude speaks with the guard, his face a carefully neutral mask. The soldier is less controlled; he speaks emphatically, waving his hands for emphasis. The conversation only lasts a few minutes, after which Claude dismisses the soldier and rejoins Sylvain.

"Everything alright?" Sylvain asks.

"Everything’s great," Claude replies, but Sylvain has seen enough of Claude’s false smiles to recognize that this one is subtly tight, as though it requires effort to maintain. "But we’re cutting this market visit short. This way."

"Aww," Sylvain protests, folding his arms behind his head as he follows Claude. "There goes my free day."

"Not quite," Claude replies, weaving his way through the crowd. "I’m still keeping my word."

"That’s honorable of you," Sylvain replies wrly, knowing that honorable isn’t an adjective many would use to describe Claude — a sentiment that seems to exist here in Almyra as well, as the glares that follow them prove.

Claude shows him how he plans on keeping his word by leading him to a large tent on the outskirts of the marketplace, where the crowds have thinned out and the atmosphere is quieter. "Have your fun," he says, gesturing to the tent. "I’ll wait for you out here."

"You don’t need to keep an eye on me?" Sylvain asks coyly. "What if I try something?"

"Everyone in there will be armed to the teeth and ready for a fight. And I’ll be right out here, so even if you did try something, you’d fail."

Claude’s right, of course. Sylvain wouldn’t make it very far. But Claude also would not have brought him out here if he’d thought Sylvain would try in the first place.

"You know I won’t run," Sylvain replies. "For reasons that have nothing to do with how armed everyone is."

"That's right. Your game piece." Claude mimics the motion of Sylvain toppling his piece with his index finger. "I haven’t forgotten."

Sylvain nudges Claude with his elbow. "You know me so well now."

"Funny how that works, huh?" Claude asks despite the sarcasm that had been evident in Sylvain’s tone.

"Funny is one way of putting it," Sylvain replies as he heads into the tent.

As soon as Sylvain enters, all eyes are on him, watching his every move. It doesn’t feel hostile, at least not compared to the way people stared at Claude, though he wouldn’t call the reception welcoming, either. Thankfully, the atmosphere inside of the tent is calm, even a little cozy, with customers sitting on pillows and sipping at their drinks. Once Sylvain makes his intention clear by approaching the elderly man who seems to run the establishment, they return to their conversations and Sylvain is more or less ignored.

The elderly man, who has both the physique and scars of a former warrior, sits between a large chest and even larger barrel. He does not stand when Sylvain reaches him, nor does he speak. He merely watches Sylvain and waits.

Sylvain fishes his coins out of his pocket. "Drink," he explains in heavily accented Almyran, then upturns his hand to show his coins and communicate that he wants whatever he can buy with them. Hopefully it’s a decent amount — his throat is tired of being so dry.

The man glances at the coins, then reaches to open the chest. He takes out a ceramic cup, uses it to gesture to the barrel, then takes out two bottles, tucking them into his arm. He closes the chest and lines the three options atop it. Once they are laid out, he holds out his hand for the money.

Sylvain places the coins in his palm. The man responds by brandishing the coins at the spread before Sylvain, indicating that he has to choose. Sylvain reaches forward, initially aiming to grasp the cup. He assumes his money will cover several servings of whatever is kept in that barrel, which will allow him to revel in his limited freedom and give him time to find himself an attractive distraction. But he ends up hesitating, hand hovering before it.

He thinks of Claude, sitting outside in the hot sun, the target of so much negativity that it made them leave the market prematurely. Despite the fact that Sylvain is very much Claude’s prisoner, he has to admit that Claude has been kind to him — more than kind, even, considering this little stint outdoors.

"I’m an idiot, aren’t I?" he asks the man, who regards him with annoyance. But he can’t help himself; now that he’s seen Claude outside of that small room, he understands him a little more — knows that his earlier hypothesis of Claude being lonely is correct.

Sylvain understands loneliness far more than he would ever admit out loud.

Instead of grabbing the cup, he takes one of the bottles, nods his thanks, and exits the tent.

Claude has taken a seat in what little shade the tent provides. He looks up as Sylvain emerges, raising his eyebrows. "That was fast."

Sylvain holds up the bottle and gives it a shake. "Figured I’d take it to go. Why sit in there," he points to the tent, "when I could be in the luxury of my room?"

Claude stands, brushing off his clothes. "There’s no company in your room."

"There’s you," Sylvain points out. "Unless you’re going to end our date early."

Sylvain thinks he sees a hint of genuine amusement in the upturn of Claude’s lips. "I thought you’d want to be rid of your ‘captor’ as soon as possible."

"I think you know by now," Sylvain replies as they begin to walk, "I’m a glutton for punishment."

"That I do know," Claude agrees, glancing at the people that they pass.

Sylvain assumes he's watching for threats. "So are you."

Claude looks at him. Sylvain gestures toward the busy market they leave behind as they walk, indicating not the market itself, but the people — and attitudes — within it.

"Maybe," Claude replies in a tone that sounds more like a yes to Sylvain.

Sylvain has made a lot of mistakes in his life. The one that has him welcoming Claude into a palace room that doubles as his prison cell only scratches the surface of a lifetime of fuckups. There are so many, he hardly remembers all of them. Many of them were hookups. Several were minor betrayals made in the name of chasing skirts or forgetting his accumulating problems for a time. A few of them caused friction within his friendships. Others resulted in near-death experiences on the battlefield.

But there is only one mistake that he regrets above all else — the one that keeps him running, flirting, opening unidentified bottles and taking a swig.

His biggest mistake was joining the Black Eagles.

On paper, the move made sense. The mysterious professor was attractive, if blank in expression, and Sylvain liked the idea of sticking one to his parents by leaving the Blue Lions in favor of a different set of nobles, which at the time seemed less riddled with the baggage that came with his childhood friendships. Then Miklan happened, and Felix and Ingrid both refused to let him fight his past alone, leaving Dimitri to suffer the loss of everyone except for loyal Dedue.

This had a rippling effect. Felix and Ingrid had unknowingly chosen sides in a war by following Sylvain's whim to transfer classes, and they both suffered for it. Sylvain had dragged them down with him to such an extent that Felix no longer has a sense of self beyond fighting and Ingrid doubled down on her obsession with knighthood because there was nothing left for her to hold on to. Both had to fight their friends and families. Felix was subjected to a front-row seat to his father's death, and Ingrid was forced to land the killing blow on Dimitri as a last-ditch effort to take him down.

And Dimitri —

Sylvain had never been close to him in the same way that Felix was back before the Tragedy — had never understood why so much of Felix was always tied up with him. But even Sylvain believed that Dimitri deserved better.

Now Edelgard sits upon a throne and Byleth stands beside her, while Sylvain does his best to avoid looking upon the ruins of his life and the ruins he made of his friends’ lives. He does whatever it takes to avoid ruminating — takes on missions that keep him out of Faerghus, prevents himself from tracking down Felix, tries not to run into Ingrid — and chases the end he always thought he would meet during the war.

This should be another notch in his endless belt of mistakes: the way he pops open the bottle and takes a swig of the fiery liquid that burns all the way down, holding it out for Claude to do the same. Predictably, Claude shakes his head and says he doesn't imbibe often. He won't budge even when Sylvain points out the only piece of information people seem to remember about Claude, outside of the whole 'master tactician' title: But you love feasts.

Instead of downing the bottle thereafter, with each gulp more hearty than the last, Sylvain does not turn this day into a mistake, nor does he work toward turning the next into a hangover.

He sets the bottle aside, settles on the floor with his back against the bed, and regards Claude's impassive expression. Claude, in turn, watches him from his favorite chair.

He narrows his eyes, attempting to see through Claude's facade. "Why?"

"Why what?" Claude offers nothing for Sylvain to analyze.

"Why take me out there and show me that?"

"We made a deal," Claude replies, as if it is that simple.

Sylvain turns serious. He drops any pretense of a smile, narrows his eyes, and sits up straighter. For the first time since his arrival — and much longer than that, if he's counting — he takes Claude and this situation completely seriously. "You know what I mean."

"Do I?" Once again, Claude plays at being easy, flippant, barely interested in the topic. But he watches Sylvain closely. He doesn’t look away.

"You took me to a busy market, knowing full well that I'd see everything."

"Don't you think you're reading into this a little too much?" Claude asks, brushing off Sylvain's insight with a wave of his hand. "The market is the closest place to take you to stretch your legs and buy what you wanted."

Sylvain hums in mock consideration. "Is it though? This is a palace. I'm sure there's alcohol in here somewhere."

"Okay," Claude relents, upturning his hands, inviting Sylvain to lay his opinion on him. "Tell me, then. What's your hypothesis?"

"I think…" Sylvain trails off, allowing an anticipatory pause before he continues. "You want me to get to know you."

The reaction that follows this statement is so brief, Sylvain nearly misses it: a slight widening of Claude's eyes, a marginal parting of his lips, a ghosting of surprise across his features. Then Claude shutters his expression once more, and it's as though he never reacted at all.

But Sylvain saw the momentary weakness, and that's all he needs to confirm his assumption.

"I want you to know Almyra," Claude replies after that fleeting hesitation. "To see that Fódlan's view of us is misinformed. I want to plant the seeds of understanding so we can work toward peace in the future."

Hearing these words, Sylvain finds himself in Claude's earlier position — momentarily disarmed due to this candid explanation, to yet another piece of the overall puzzle that is Claude. Who are you, really? he wants to ask.

But like Claude, he is also skilled in pretending nothing is amiss. He grins and points out, "That's another lie of omission. Maybe you want those things, but you don't have to be the one to make them happen. You don't need to spend every night with me — or escort me around the country." He widens his smile. "Do you?"

The answer is no. No matter who Claude really is or what he wants from Edelgard, he doesn't need to see to Sylvain personally. They aren’t friends, and Claude certainly isn’t obligated to him. If anything, Sylvain is the one who owes Claude, considering Claude's effort in saving his life.

But Claude and Sylvain have always had this in common: the inability to offer themselves up directly or to openly say, This is who I am. They skirt the issue and hide behind false smiles — and ultimately reach out to no one, regardless of how much they want to, no matter how much they may need a willing ear or a kind expression.

Claude smiles impeccably. He has always been better at wearing masks than Sylvain, but Sylvain now sees the tension beneath it. He watches as Claude's body language turns defensively casual, a loosening of his posture and an easing of his stare. "You're my responsibility."

Sylvain rolls his eyes. "You and I both know that your only responsibility is keeping me alive. The rest is you going out of your way, whether you want to admit it or not."

He watches for another reaction and wonders if this is what it feels like to be on the other side — to be Claude sitting in a chair across from his prisoner, looking for something that isn't slovenly behavior or a lazily constructed mask. He wonders how easy he has been for Claude to analyze.

He thinks about the map of Sreng and wonders if that, like the books on the Almyran language, is a nudge toward Claude's plans for the future.

Maybe all along Sylvain has been more than a political pawn; maybe he's a piece of the overall puzzle, too.

Maybe Claude isn't lonely at all.

Claude shrugs. "I could treat all my prisoners this way."

"That would be a lot of work," Sylvain replies. "I get the sense that I'm special."

That elicits a light laugh. "The night is long and I've never been one to spend all of it sleeping."

Sylvain mentally tucks away that piece of information. "Is that so?"

"You know," Claude says in an attempt to change the subject. "This is the most energetic you've been since you got here. And you've barely touched your bottle."

He's right. Under normal circumstances, Sylvain would have downed the liquor by now and moved on to other ways of keeping himself busy — or getting himself into trouble. But he has something else occupying his mind now. And that something else is watching for Claude’s next move.

"I'm not dropping the subject. Nice try, though," Sylvain tells him. "Let's assume, for argument's sake, that you're being honest — you don't want me to know you, and you don't want to know me. Why all the special attention?"

Silence settles between them. Claude draws himself back into a more closed off sitting position — shifts so that he's at a slight angle from Sylvain, posture pulled in a little tighter. When he speaks, his voice is as light as it usually is, only quieter now. "All I have ever wanted is open borders. An end to fighting over differences. And now the borders are shut more tightly than ever."

Though it isn't his intention, Sylvain thinks back to the glimpse he managed to get of Claude at battle that ended his time in Fódlan. Claude had spoken to Edelgard and the professor with his usual confidence, as though everything had gone according to plan. And then he simply walked away as though he didn't have the burden of a loss on his shoulders — as though he wasn't crossing a border to never return again.

Claude continues with that same confidence now, only it now strikes Sylvain differently — makes his chest tighten when he considers what must have gone into building Claude’s defenses, that he could see his hopes crushed and still smile.

It bothers Sylvain, because he knows exactly what that feels like. He knows it hurts.

Claude speaks again. "As long as I am alive, I will do whatever it takes to push us back in the right direction. Even if it means babysitting you."

"Or worse?" Sylvain asks teasingly, an attempt to deflect for both their sakes.

"Or worse," Claude agrees too easily, not deflecting at all.

The statement should probably make Sylvain feel as though he was correct in second-guessing his initial impression of Claude; perhaps it should force him to realize that Claude isn't motivated by loneliness, that he'd just as easily discard Sylvain as he would keep him prisoner, if it would further his goals. That Claude, like the rest of them, is so marred by Edelgard's war, he's loosened some morals in an effort to keep himself afloat in the steaming pile of shit that is the aftermath.

But Sylvain understands all too well what it really means: Claude is isolated by his losses. He's doing his best to hold on to what remains of his goals, and as a result, has alienated himself from both Fódlan and his own country. Claude is truly alone, save for his dreams. He makes sacrifices every single day — and will continue until he achieves his goals or dies trying.

It makes Sylvain consider what could have changed, if things had been different between them. He says, "I wonder what would have happened if I transferred to your class."

Would it have made a difference for either of them, if Sylvain had given Claude a real smile? If they had talked about Sreng and Almyra, and if he had tried to see Claude for who he was instead of spurning him for his masks and secrets? Maybe they could have changed the outcome of the war. Maybe Sylvain would still have friends and Claude would not have to consider what even worse could entail when it comes to fighting for his goals.

Sylvain adds, "Would we have been friends?"

"I wonder," Claude muses, then immediately dismisses the idea with a shake of his head. "But probably not. No one trusted me back then."

"You had Hilda." Sylvain says it softly, remembering her final moments on the battlefield. He was there when she fell for Claude; the memory is difficult to bury.

A moment of silence passes. Claude breaks it with an audible inhale, a slight crack in his facade that he attempts to patch with a quiet admission. "I did."

It’s strange, Sylvain thinks, feeling sorry for someone who isn't himself. He can’t remember how long it’s been since he managed to dig up what’s left of his empathy. But here it is, resurfacing in response to Claude. He stupidly feels like doing something for him — moving closer, touching him, trying to show him that he isn't alone in his grief, that despite their current situation, Sylvain is sorry. He's so fucking sorry, for everything.

He merely says, "It wasn't your war."

Claude exhales with more emotion than he's exhibited throughout Sylvain's entire imprisonment. His reply is solemn but firm. "It wasn't yours, either."

Sylvain reaches for the bottle. He takes a hearty drink so he can feel the burn all the way down.

This time, when he offers it to Claude, Claude accepts the bottle and takes a swig of his own.

After Sylvain's day of freedom, something changes. The subtle but ever-present tension that has always existed between himself and Claude dissipates, and the two of them form a fragile friendship. Claude still keeps his secrets and Sylvain continues to avoid talking about anything too serious, but a sense of comfort grows between them. Before long, Sylvain finds himself looking forward to Claude's visits.

He also begins to spend less time thinking about himself and more time thinking about Claude and the situation with Almyra. Hearing Claude talk about what he wants for Almyra and Fódlan — knowing that he is struggling to make his goals a reality in spite of all the factors against him — rekindles Sylvain's nearly forgotten interest in international relations. Back before everything went to shit and Sylvain decided to escape from himself instead of doing anything meaningful, he had wanted to attempt peace with Sreng. Now he finds himself considering that goal once again — and thinking about applying it to Almyra as well.

He hits the language and history books harder than before, deciding to utilize his time to learn more about Almyra — and, by proxy, Claude. Whenever he finishes one, Claude replaces it with another.

Sylvain continues to learn.

"I've been a moron," he announces to Claude one evening as they read in their respective places within the small room — Sylvain upon the bed, Claude in his chair.

"What makes you say that?" Claude asks, looking up from his book.

Sylvain gives him a flat look, since there are a lot of reasons for him to classify himself as an idiot. Claude cracks a small but genuine smile at that — an occurrence that has become more common within their newly comfortable dynamic.

"Fair enough," Claude teases. "Why now?"

"You're out there getting mean-mugged every day working on mysterious things to try and make the world a better place, meanwhile I'm always three seconds away from a bad decision."

Claude closes his book and sets it on the floor beside his chair. "We all have our baggage."

"Says the guy who still believes in a dream."

There's a heavy pause, during which Sylvain realizes he poked at something raw.

Claude glances beyond him, to where the small slivers of window provide a hint of moonlight. "Dreams aren't always what they're cracked up to be. They come with a cost."

Like friendship and kindness. Claude doesn't have to say it; Sylvain has already seen the proof firsthand.

Sylvain sighs and slumps down on the bed. "At least you're pushing forward as best you can."

"You are too," Claude replies kindly —more kindly than Sylvain feels he deserves. "Though it wouldn't hurt for you to lay off the alcohol so you don't wind up a prisoner in a strange land. Again."

Sylvain laughs. "I've cut back, if you haven't noticed."

Claude sounds completely serious as he replies, "Yeah, you have."

Dreams may not be what they are cracked up to be, but Sylvain thinks he might want to try one on for size again. After spending so much of his life pretending that he cares about nothing, it might be nice to find himself a purpose again.

In the days that follow, Sylvain continues to study, occasionally practicing his Almyran with Claude. He uses these impromptu lessons to try to learn a little more about him — beyond the surface details he already knows.

"What do you like to do for fun?" he asks in Almyran during one lesson. "Besides trying to make peace among nations."

Claude responds with something Sylvain doesn't understand, but it has the ring of a chide.

Sylvain grins at him. "I'm not hitting on you. Yet."

"Then I'm not flattered." Claude winks at him. "Yet."

The flirtation manages to get to Sylvain a little — makes him feel warm and a little elated. That surprises him, considering that he’s more fluent in empty flirtations than he is the language of Fódlan.

He decides not to think about it too hard and presses Claude instead. "Come on. What do you do when you're not babysitting prisoners or reading lengthy books?"

"I like board games," Claude supplies.

Sylvain groans. "Something I don't already know."

"Hmm." Claude leans back in his chair. "I used to do a little woodcarving."

Sylvain raises his eyebrows. "Really?"

Claude nods. "I taught myself as a kid. When you're bored, you learn to keep yourself occupied in all sorts of ways."

"Bored, huh?" Sylvain repeats, though he thinks lonely might be a better-suited adjective for this admission. "Can you show me?"

That's how Sylvain ends up with a block of wood, a chisel, and a new hobby to fill his long days locked inside the room.

"This will be a fine-looking blob when I'm done with it," Sylvain states one day as he attempts to chisel a shape into the wood. He ends up chiseling a little too deeply, taking out a chunk instead of peeling away at the surface.

"Here," Claude says, coming up behind him and lightly covering Sylvain's hand with his own. "Try it like this." He guides Sylvain's hand into a different hold, easing his grip until the chisel is more comfortable in his hand.

It is the first time that Claude has initiated touch, Sylvain realizes. He turns his head to look at him. The contact lingers for a moment too long — long enough that Sylvain feels his heart beat a little quicker, as though years of experience with physicality mean nothing when looking into Claude's eyes.

There’s meaning in this seemingly insignificant gesture — a subtle offering of closeness from a person who keeps everyone at arm’s length. Sylvain doesn’t want to screw it up, so he keeps his mouth shut and turns his attention back to the wood to keep Claude from seeing the sloppy grin on his face.

Together, he and Claude carve away at the wood, slowly giving shape to the space that exists between them.

One evening, Claude does not show up to Sylvain's room.

This isn't entirely unusual. Recently, Claude has missed the occasional evening visit, citing mysterious "work" that keeps him out too late. Sylvain passes the time by chiseling their shared wood carving, which is finally showing signs of progress. Only once he has grown tired and sets the chisel down for the night does he realize that no one has brought him his dinner for the day.

Then Sylvain begins to grow concerned.

Another day passes, during which Sylvain is visited by no one. Claude does not come to check on his well-being. The guards don't provide him with food. Sylvain's jug of water begins to dwindle, so he drinks less in an effort to conserve what remains.

He watches through his slender windows as the marketplace shuts down. He can't see the palace grounds, but he occasionally hears guards yell at each other. He is able to make out enough Almyran phrases to know that the political environment has shifted.

By the third day, he assumes Claude is dead.

Claude wouldn't leave him unattended. The thought plummets him into dread — not merely for himself and his eventual demise without adequate food and water to keep him going, but for Claude, his dream of peace, and the companionship that Sylvain had finally learned to accept from him.

Now considering him lost, Sylvain is forced to acknowledge that what he feels for Claude — that growing friendship, the barely budding affection, and most of all, respect — is entirely unfeigned.

He also has no choice but to accept that he doesn't want to die here, trapped in a room in a foreign country, having achieved nothing toward his renewed goals. He has not yet had a chance to clean up his life, to assume the title of Margrave in more than just name, and finally do some good. He has done nothing but squander his life away — and he does not want that to be his legacy.

Sylvain spends that day pounding at the door and yelling in Almyran to the guards who are supposed to be standing behind it. When that fails, he attempts to use magic for the first time since the war. The silencing bracelets, still on his wrists, prevent him conjuring more than a faint wisp of smoke that immediately dissipates into the air. He then yells out the window, but his calls go unanswered.

That night, he drinks the last of his water in an attempt to soothe his throat of the damage done by continuously yelling. He lies awake with hunger gnawing at his stomach, staring through his thin windows to the sliver of moon in the sky, and thinks about Claude, alone with his dreams, and now likely alone in death as well.

With that harrowing thought in mind, he falls into a fitful sleep.

He awakens to a commotion outside his door. Quickly sitting up, he reaches under his pillow to grab the chisel he placed there, ready to fight whomever finally enters his room. When the door finally creeks open, he raises his weapon and —

Two guards enter. One carries a torch, which he uses to light the candles that line the wall. The other guard carries a large jug and a plate of the best food Sylvain has ever seen in his life. He announces something that sounds like it translates to, "By order of the king," as he hands both to Sylvain.

Sylvain accepts them eagerly. He drinks so quickly, water dribbles down his chin and wets his shirt. Then he sits with his plate and digs in, eating everything given to him despite the inevitable stomach ache that will follow. He's so focused on his meal, he doesn't notice when the guards leave and therefore misses his opportunity to ask questions.

After he finishes and lies back to accept the misery that is sure to come, his door opens again. This time, it's Claude.

Sylvain sits up once again, eyes wide. "You're alive," he breathes, feeling a rush of relief and a desire to touch to confirm.

That desire grows once Claude takes a ginger step beyond the doorway and sways on his feet. Then Sylvain does stand, hurrying to take Claude's arm and steady him. Up close, Claude looks awful — pale with chapped lips and a sheen of sweat covering his skin.

"I am," is Claude's belated reply, his voice hoarse and drained of its usual confidence.

"Barely," Sylvain replies, leading Claude to his bed instead of his chair. "Where are you hurt?"

"I've already been healed," Claude replies tiredly, allowing Sylvain to help him into sitting on the bed.

"You look like you need to be healed again." Sylvain says it lightly, but he’s unsettled by Claude’s condition. He sits beside him and reaches to brush the back of his knuckles against his forehead. He's hot to the touch. "What happened?"

Instead of pulling away, Claude shuts his eyes, accepting the contact. He answers without opening his eyes. "The road to peace is so bloody, it's a miracle anyone finds their way."

Sylvain moves his hand from Claude’s forehead to his cheek, cupping it gently. He has the sense that Claude wouldn't be speaking like this if he were entirely lucid — would not be soaking up Sylvain's touch as though he craves the affection. He handles Claude tenderly, with care he previously thought himself no longer capable of giving.

Softly, he asks, "Were you poisoned?"

Claude swallows. He tilts his head so that it is resting in Sylvain's palm. "Among other things."

"Did you take an antitoxin?" Sylvain asks quietly.

"Doesn't respond." A mild slur drags out the words; it gives Sylvain the impression that Claude's trying to make himself seem better off than he truly feels. "No antitoxin, no Restore. I'll be alright, though." He takes a slow, shallow breath. "Built up an immunity as a kid."

That drags up that old memory of Claude in the Garreg Mach library — the way he looked at Sylvain as he prepared to burn down half the building, and the words he spoke to him back then. Sylvain parrots them back at him, knowing that his instinct is correct. "I get it. I have some experience with shitty siblings."

The words surprise Claude into opening his eyes and raising his head. He stares at Sylvain with open, if bleary, surprise. And then he laughs. The sound is hoarse and grating, far from happy, but entirely genuine.

Sylvain withdraws his hand. "You need rest. You're burning up." And Claude is clearly in no shape to keep his mask entirely intact. Sylvain may have wanted to see it crack at the beginning of his imprisonment, but now that it finally has, he doesn't want to take advantage of Claude's vulnerability.

"I had to make sure you were alright," Claude explains. "I didn't know if they got to you."

"It takes more than a little hunger to kill me," Sylvain tries to reassure him, though he knows that the starvation isn’t what he had in mind. He’s aware that they are his opposition — the 'shitty siblings' and whomever else doubted Claude enough to want his life.

"I should have known," Claude tries to jest, but it falls flat. He has a look in his eye that reminds Sylvain so much of himself — that harrowed, affected expression that no one should see on their faces. It is the look of a man who nearly lost a battle, barely escaping with his life — a man who has emerged victorious, but at a cost.

Sylvain has had his speculations all along, but seeing Claude as he is now and piecing it together with the events of the past few days confirms his suspicions. He's perfectly happy to keep this information tucked away, unacknowledged, but Claude speaks again.

"I can tell you now." Claude spreads his arms in what would be a grand gesture, if it were not accompanied by a frown and a wince. "I am the newly crowned King of Almyra."

Sylvain takes Claude's hand and gently guides back down, encouraging him to relax. "Do I call you 'Your Majesty' now?" he asks in an attempt to play off his concern.

"Please don't." Claude closes his hand around Sylvain’s. "Not yet."

"Lie down," Sylvain instructs, giving Claude’s hand a light squeeze. "Get some rest here tonight. You can be king in the morning."

There are a lot of good reasons for Claude to turn him down. His reputation, the fact that he has a kingdom awaiting him outside of this small room, and the issue of Sylvain being his prisoner. But Claude is tired in a way that goes beyond wounds and fevers. When Sylvain slowly eases him into lying back on the bed, he does not protest, nor does he attempt to smile. He simply lies down with a burdened exhalation and closes his eyes.

Sylvain lies beside him. He places a hand over Claude's chest so he can feel it rise and fall, intending to watch over Claude throughout the night.

For now, they can be vulnerable together, in this small room, behind a closed door, away from the rest of the world.

"I'll tell you a story," Sylvain murmurs. He begins to speak, hoping to lull Claude to sleep with the steady sound of his voice.

His story goes like this: once upon a time, he was happy.

He has never admitted it to anyone, but it’s true. Sylvain’s origins were happy and carefree. There was a time when his brother loved him, before either of them realized how complicated everything would become. There was a time when he felt he could trust his parents. There was a time Before. Lying beside Claude, he offers it up as an uncomplicated truth, a confession in exchange for the honesty that Claude has shown him this night.

When he finishes, he believes Claude to be asleep. His eyes are closed and his chest is relaxed beneath Sylvain's touch. But then he speaks, too, offering a similar story of his own. "I looked up to my brother once. And I think there was a time long ago when he liked me."

Sylvain listens as the story expands until it reaches the divide, transitions from Before to After, love to hate, brothers to enemies.

And he muses quietly to himself about how he and Claude are still damaged children inside — only now grown up and better at hiding their wounds.

He listens until Claude's voice drifts toward sleep.

And then Sylvain listens to him breathe, in and out, while his heart beats steadily beneath his touch.

In the morning, they awaken together, Sylvain's arm still protectively draped over Claude. They don't talk about it as they pull away from each other to sit up and greet the day, but before Claude leaves to assume the role of king, he turns to Sylvain and gives him a small, meaningful smile.

"Thank you."

"No need to thank me," Sylvain protests as he works out the kinks in his shoulders. "You know I'm always trying to get someone into bed with me."

"Hmm." Claude's eyes are still glassy from his fever, but his words no longer slur. "I wonder if that's still true."

Sylvain considers this, then admits, "Maybe not anymore. I guess I did some growing up in here."

"We both did."

At that, Sylvain smiles. For once, it feels entirely genuine.

After becoming king, Claude is unable to visit Sylvain as frequently. When he does, their time is spent more meaningfully than before. They speak more openly together, about events both current and past. If they no longer feel up to speaking, they read quietly, sitting beside each other atop the bed. When they tire of reading, they work on their woodcarving together.

It's comfortable. Sylvain is almost happy.

Almost, because the experience of being trapped without food and water and nearly losing Claude have made him realize that he wants to do more than waste his life. He's tired of languishing and even more tired of dragging people down with him. He wants to go home and be Margrave in more than just title. He wants to work toward peace with Sreng and Almyra. And he wants to be a better person — a better friend.

It's a time for change.

So when Claude enters his room one day and offers to remove the bracelets that silence his magic, Sylvain gratefully presents his wrists.

"You're being released," Claude explains as he unlocks the bracelets. Sylvain feels the well of magic stir within him as soon as they are removed.

"What an honor," Sylvain teases as he rubs his wrists. "Released by the king himself. You finally got Edelgard's attention, huh?"

"I did, thanks to you." Claude sets the bracelets on the chair. "She's interested in getting her Margrave back, but she's even more interested in hearing all about what you've learned here. Sounds like she might have a plan for you."

Sylvain makes a show of considering this. "Is it her plan...or yours, I wonder?"

"I wonder," Claude repeats, a lilt in his tone.

Sylvain grins at him. "Margave Ambassador Sylvain. Or Ambassador Margrave Sylvain. How do those titles go together?"

"Who knows," Claude replies with a shrug. "Either way, it'll suit you."

"I'll make sure it does." Sylvain takes a deep breath and exhales slowly, considering what awaits him outside of the palace — beyond Fódlan’s throat. "Change feels good. I should have given it a try ages ago." He just hopes he can keep the momentum going — and continue on a better path.

"I think it's time I make a change too," Claude says, looking toward the window as he speaks.

He doesn't elaborate, but he doesn't need to. Sylvain has already seen the change in Claude — the way he accepts small gestures of touch, the way he has allowed himself to act more naturally in front of Sylvain. Claude may never be the kind of person who offers himself wholly and completely to others at large, but Sylvain believes he can continue working toward opening up. And hopefully, he will feel less alone in his burdens.

He has faith in Claude, just as Claude has had faith in him throughout his imprisonment — has guided him on this path to self-improvement.

"I'll miss you, you know," Sylvain says, feeling a little wistful. He's ready to leave this room that has been both a prison cell and, strangely, his ticket to freedom. But he isn't necessarily ready to leave Claude. "We didn't even get to finish our woodcarving."

They both look at it. They've made a lot of headway from when they first started, but they still have a long way to go. "You can't even tell what it is yet," Sylvain complains.

"We'll keep working on it," Claude assures him. His expression is openly fond.

Sylvain imagines his expression is fond, too. "Together?"


They stand side by side and observe the woodcarving — each groove a notch of progress, every shape a symbol of growth.

Sylvain takes Claude's hand.

Claude looks at him. "You're not a prisoner anymore."

"I know," Sylvain murmurs, his heart beating a little faster, just as it had the first time Claude touched his hand.

Claude moves closer. Sylvain leans in.

They meet halfway. Sylvain brushes his fingers along Claude's jawline, then tilts his face upward. Claude rests his hand on Sylvain's chest, over his heart. They kiss chastely at first, handling each other with care.

When they part their lips to deepen the kiss, it feels so incredibly real that it takes Sylvain's breath away.

Sylvain is the one who ends the kiss, keeping it from venturing too far. When they pull apart, he feels light and happy in a way no kiss has made him feel before.

Claude looks a little happy himself.

He asks, "Are you ready?"

Sylvain nods. "It's time to go greet the rest of my life, I suppose. Don't get too comfortable, though. I'll be back before you know it."

"I'm looking forward to it," Claude says.

Sylvain believes him.

They leave the small room together, thinking not of the past, but of the future before them.