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Part One: Vermillion Twilight

Horsebow Moon

Chapter One: Unravelling Secrets


More often than not, Linhardt found themself spending most of their time not in his room or in class in the library. And as such, he became quite familiar with the others who did the same. At least, he became familiar with their faces, it’s not like he ever bothered to talk to them. The library was not somewhere one goes for social engagements. 

Rather suspiciously, as more and more troublesome events began to unfold, Seteth had been marking more and more books as “restricted” or “unsuitable”. In particular, books related to Linhardt’s very own quest. Seteth’s marked increase in paranoia, while understandable given what befell his own sister, was no less extremely frustrating.

However, on this particular day, Linhardt spotted an opportunity. Taking a risk he would not normally take. There was, in fact, someone else in the library that day. Claude von Riegan, one of the Library’s other usual inhabitants. Despite his easy-going demeanour, Linhardt knew enough to be able to tell that was not all there was to him. 

The Knights were all out on a mission, the professors busy with work, and most of the students had gone into town for some routine shopping. But Claude, as it appeared, had not gone with his classmates, and instead was here as he so often was.

Claude did intrigue Linhardt, but what was more intriguing was the book that Claude was currently reading. They recognized it as one that Seteth had recently plucked out of his hands. Claude was sequestered away, obviously not wanting to be bothered, but Linhardt had no reason to pay it any mind. Casually, and without any sort of pretensions, Linhardt slid themself into the chair opposite Claude at the table he sat at.

“Not to bother you, well; actually it seems I am bothering you regardless. That book. When you are finished I would quite like to take a look. I was...cut off last time and was not able to finish it.” He said, his expression rather blank as he looked at Claude waiting for a response.

Claude looked up from his book, regarding Linhardt with an even gaze. One did not need to know Linhardt well to know that this was completely bizarre behaviour. Claude had rarely known Linhardt to actively seek company, especially here in the library, not that he minded. Claude himself had always been fascinated by this son of an Adrestian minister, whose intelligence had few peers at the monastery but who had, as far as anyone could tell, zero ambitions other than to study Crestology. 

However Claude suspected there was more to Linhardt than that. Sometimes he caught a sort of subtle melancholy in the other boy's eyes when he thought no one was looking. Plus, they had such elegant hands. "Let me guess. Seteth swooped in like a hawk to snatch it up, right? I know that feeling," Claude said, pointedly closing the book in front of him.  "I'm afraid I can't let this book out of my sight without something in return. It took some expert scheming to get it away from Seteth in the first place." He smirked, a gleam of mischief in his eyes as he met Linhardt's gaze across the table. "So, what's your best offer, Linhardt?"

Linhardt suppressed a frown as best they could. Keeping their face as blank as possible as to not give anything away. Troublesome, very troublesome. But he found that he didn’t mind a challenge from Claude. Claude wasn’t being merely obstinate or obstructive, Claude clearly had a goal, which Linhardt could appreciate. Even if Linhardt was perceived to have few ambitions; he at least still knew how to achieve those few ambitions that he had.

Linhardt held Claude’s gaze, letting his eyelids droop to feign disinterested annoyance. “You are right about that. It seems that Seteth is our mutual foe in this pursuit of knowledge.”

While it was clear that Claude wanted something; what he wanted exactly was far less clear. Claude was the one with the information, and so what could Linhardt possibly offer in return? “It depends on what you’re after. I can’t say that I have much to offer in the way of material incentive to the heir of house Riegan.” Linhardt said in their usual lilting drawl. Linhardt threw up his hands in a motion of mock defeat. “I have nothing on my person to offer you. Nothing before you but little-old-me.”

Claude rubbed his chin, as though considering Linhardt's words. Actually, he'd been hoping Linhardt would say something like that. The perfect setup. He loved it when a plan came together. Especially a vague plan that had taken shape in his mind over the last thirty seconds. That little gesture punctuating Linhardt's statement really sealed the deal.

"Just you, huh? That'll do." He gave a wry grin. "If you want to read this book, you'll have to read it with me. Not here, though. For one thing, Seteth might show up if we take too long. For another, there's nowhere comfortable for two people to sit."

Claude wasn't sure entirely where he was going with this if he were, to be honest. Maybe he just wanted to see Linhardt's reaction. Would they balk, or play along? ...or would they be legitimately interested? It was a brave new world, Claude thought to himself. He was already eager to see how it would play out. Those pretty hands...that melancholy gaze. Claude was dying to know what laid behind them. And he was possessed with a peculiar surety that he would be able to lift those spirits of Linhardt.

Linhardt responded rather evenly. “Why yes, that seems most prudent. Avoiding Seteth must be our top priority as we are intending on defying at least one of his strict rules.” Linhardt has not been planning on this specifically, but the opportunity was too good to ignore. They had a suspicion that an unpleasant revelation might lie in the pages of that book.. And so occupying himself with the enigmatic Claude seemed like the perfect way to soften the blow. 

“Where do you suggest we go? Somewhere suitably secluded for our illicit activities?” Linhardt placed emphasis on the appropriate words, his grin becoming a little more daring. Linhardt noticed how Claude’s eyes seemed to follow his hands, and so he finished his sentence with a flourish of his slender fingers.

It became apparent to Claude that Linhardt was intentionally flirting now. That little move with his hands gave it away. He stood, tucking the book under one arm, and gave Linhardt a secretive smile. "Come with me and find out." Linhardt’s question was a very good one, there weren’t exactly many places within the monastery where they could be suitably away from prying eyes. He led the way out of the library and down the stairs. Linhardt rose and followed Claude, uncharacteristically energized. He stayed about a half-pace behind Claude as he leads the way. 

Claude steered their path past the training grounds into the woods beyond. The sun would be up for another hour or two yet, there was plenty of light to read by. On slow afternoons, he often enjoyed naps on a soft, mossy mound under a particular tree--nothing like napping outdoors in the fresh air. 

As they walked, he glanced sidelong at Linhardt and lifted an eyebrow, smirking. "So. At least one, huh? Are there more of Seteth's rules you'd like to break with me, too? "

Of course, Claude caught on to his obvious allusion. The question now was how far Claude would string him along? Claude, despite his flirtatious nature, didn’t seem the type to actually want a quick hook-up in exchange. It seemed more likely that Claude just wanted to see if he could get the ever-sullen and disinterested fellow student to dance a little for his amusement.

Linhardt pursed their lips thoughtfully. “I mean, you have a bit of a reputation for skirting around the rules against ‘fraternization’ amongst the students. I don’t doubt that someone who spots us might get the wrong idea,” Linhardt strode ahead, sitting down at the base of a particularly shady and comfortable looking tree. They let their long legs splay out to the side, watching Claude with the eyes of an observer. “If we break one rule already what’s the harm in adding more to the list?” Linhardt kept it vague, testing the waters, more curious how Claude would fill in the gaps.

Linhardt was being unusually personable. Maybe this book was really that important to him--important enough that he'd feign interest in socialising and flirting when he really wanted nothing more than to do his research in peace. Or...perhaps they were really interested in him? He had to find out.

"I'll have you know that any 'fraternizing' I've done has been completely proper and well-intentioned." He sat down beside Linhardt under the tree comfortably,  casually, as though this was something the two of them did every day. He didn't think he'd ever been this close to the mage before—close enough to take in the details of his face, and the colour of his eyes.

"But who cares what other people think? This is about the rules we want to break together." He let the proposal linger for a moment, sitting close enough that their shoulders touched. "For the sake of learning, of course," he added. "I think you and I have a lot more in common than I'd thought."

"He rested his hands upon the now closed book on his lap"Claude was curious about how long it would take for Linhardt to insist they return to their scheduled reading, though he kept watch for any signs of discomfort.

“I do wonder how similar we really are,” Linhardt said, reaching a hand to cover Claude’s where it rested on the book. Linhardt observed Claude’s reaction, he seemed taken off guard by Linhardt’s advance, which they found surprised them  But Claude, of course, retaliated before Linhardt could even dwell further on it. 

 "So, is this secluded enough for you?"Claude asked as he nudged Linhardt playfully with his elbow.

“I would say so, yes.” Linhardt met Claude’s eyes and gave him his sweet smile. It was actually quite pleasant to sit with someone like this, Linhardt thought. Naps were usually a solitary activity, but this, with the warmth of another person nearby, Linhardt felt a blissful nap would come even easier. But despite that he did not feel even a bit drowsy, they were far too distracted by Claude’s rather soft-looking lips; his thick, dark, curls and the charming braid that framed his face. 

Claude's eyebrows lifted, seeing that smile come out like clouds parting to reveal the moon at night. It lit up Linhardt's face in a way he'd rarely seen, if ever.  

When Linhardt's thumb embarked to pry up his palm, Claude renewed his left hand's grip on the tome with a smirk. "Trying to distract me into giving up the book, huh? Not so fast."

Linhardt let out a minute gasp, their cheeks flushed but managed to recollect himself before getting lost in the sensation. Linhardt has in fact miscalculated. With how overly sensitive his senses were, allowing Claude to touch his hand was a huge opening. Feeling Claude’s calloused fingertips against Linhardt’s comparatively soft skin sent pricks of electricity that lit up his nerves. 

Claude’s lips spread further into a satisfied grin. "You see? We have all kinds of things in common. An interest in forbidden Church literature, a penchant for outdoor napping, and now your crafty scheme to get your hands on the book without having to pay my price." He winked. "I'm impressed! Really."

Linhardt was forever incapable of telling a lie. Even if he could conceal certain emotions and intentions; They could never falsify them. So even if They were near certain his feelings were being toyed with, he was being genuine. Linhardt’s lips turned down into a small pout. “I was not intending to weasel out of our deal, merely move this little exchange along a bit. Although I do appreciate the compliment.” Linhardt had to break eye contact for a moment. The look of admiration and interest in Claude’s eyes looked nearly sincere causing a small burst of hope that they hastily quashed down. “I thought that reading this book along with you was the price...” Linhardt smirked. “Unless...there is something else you need from me to seal the deal?” Linhardt was running out of guesses as to what Claude’s rue intentions actually were. The remaining possibilities being almost equally thrilling and frightening to dwell on.

Claude was still unsure as to Linhardt’s actual feelings about this little exchange. Was he enjoying the company? Or was he in fact eager to take the book and be rid of Claude? But what Claude was sure of, was that Linhardt’s cheeks had filled with a flattering blush and that the rush of colour made his companion even more alluring.

Claude kept Linhardt's hand held fast as he waggled the book like bait, just out of the mage's reach. "Oh, it was. But now that you're offering..." A sly smile crept onto his face. "I am curious to see what other...interests we might share. Aren't you?” 

Linhardt’s hand twitches in Claude’s grip but he doesn’t try to pull away. Claude’s hand is so warm, and the contact feels so nice. In a moment of intoxication, Linhardt shifts his hand’s position and intertwined his fingers with Claude’s, holding on a little too tightly. “Better be careful about what you suggest, it would be a shame if I ended up with the wrong idea now wouldn’t it?” Linhardt said, meeting Claude’s smirk with a grin of his own.

Claude’s eyes flicked down to their intertwined hands, but he kept his tone even as he continued. “Well, as it happens, I don't have anywhere else to be for a while. How about you?"

“I  am free for the time being. I dare say this is even more interesting than just another nap.” Linhardt only just managed to keep his usual tone, even as his eyelids began to droop and his breathing grew heavy. He leans in a little closer, ignoring the book and absorbing Claude’s intense gaze.

As Linhardt grew closer, it all started to crash into place in Claude’s head, and in a moment of quick thinking, he put up one hand to gently push back on Linhardt’s shoulder.

"...okay, time out." His tone was gentle but firm as was the gaze that studied Linhardt’s face. He put the book down entirely in the grass. He didn't unlace his fingers from Linhardt's, though. "I like a good mystery as much as anyone, but before we get any further down this path, I have to ask. Why did you agree to all this?"

Linhardt blinks, letting himself be pushed back by Claude’s gentle hand. It took Linhardt a moment to process what was happening.  It didn’t make sense. If Claude really did just wanted to mess around or play with him. Another brief flicker of hope flared up in his chest.

Linhardt replied. “I wanted that book obviously. But since you clearly wouldn’t give it up without something in return, I figured I’d indulge in my unfortunate little crush, however futile,” he said with a dry scoff, breaking eye contact with Claude at last. “Although I still have no idea what you could possibly be after. ” His fingers gripped Claude’s hand again, trembling slightly.

Claude watched Linhardt turn away with a sinking feeling. Did Linhardt really think...that Claude would just play with him like that? It wasn’t the most outlandish assumption but...Linhardt’s eyes just look so sad.

"...a crush, huh?" He kept his tone light, but gently teasing, not sarcastic or mocking. He felt Linhardt's hand tremble in his and squeezed a little, just enough to show he wasn't going anywhere. He hadn't expected to find this kind of vulnerability beneath Linhardt's usual dispassionate pragmatism. "Linhardt, believe it or not, for once I didn't have a plan. Sure, at first asking for an exchange was just for fun. But the rest? I enjoyed it. I am enjoying it. And I really would enjoy reading with you, too." He chuckled. "To be honest, I wasn't sure that you really wanted to be here. I'm sorry if I made you feel like you had to indulge me just to borrow a book. Say the word and I'll happily hand it over. But..."

He smiled, hoping to coax Linhardt's smile back out as well. It was such a sincere, subtly charming smile, like a flower that only bloomed once a moon. "I may be after your secrets, but more than that, I'd like to get to know you better. You're a fascinating guy." He lifted Linhardt's hand as though he were going to escort him to the dance floor, leaning forward just a bit. "Would you do me the honor of getting cozy under this tree and delving into the Church's deepest, darkest mysteries with me?"

Claude, didn’t actually have a plan? This wasn’t just some scheme after all? Could he really—

Linhardt had to think carefully, lest he risk blurting out even more embarrassing vulnerabilities. Linhardt let out a short amused huff. “I see now. How interesting that we both assumed that...” he muttered, nervously pushing his hair behind his ear with his free hand. “Of course I want to be here. I never exert effort unless it’s for something that interests me.” Linhardt ran his thumb along the back of Claude’s hand, his fingers fluttering as he thought.

“For now I will choose to believe you.” if Claude had just been looking to play around, Claude wouldn’t have stopped to make sure it was what Linhardt really wanted. 

Claude’s smile was comforting, and Linhardt felt a little more at ease. But still, they did not like being at a disadvantage. “I think you have heard enough of my ‘secrets’ for now,” he then pulled himself closer, leaning his shoulder into Claude’s. “And like you, I like the allure of a good mystery. And right now you are just as—if not more fascinating than whatever the church might be hiding.” He smiled again, finally. “So I might as well, saves some effort to explore both at once, wouldn’t you say?”

The light touch of Linhardt's fingers on Claude’s skin was relaxing and enticing at the same time, like a natural companion to the soft grass and cool breeze. "You drive a hard bargain. Though I'm flattered to rate so highly on the list of things that interest you."

He gently extracted his hand after a moment in favour of settling his arm around Linhardt's slender shoulders, retrieving the book with his other hand and opening it up across his lap so they could both see it.

Linhardt scarcely had a moment to miss the warmth before he was suddenly pulled closer. He gave a little involuntary shudder before leaning into Claude’s warmth. He could feel Claude’s defined shoulder and chest muscles, even though the cloth of his uniform, and it felt very nice.

 "And maybe you're right--I did learn something about you today, it's only fair that you learn something about me. Anything, in particular, you want to know?"

Linhardt’s eyes first fell to the book briefly. His fingers traced over the aged pages of the book shared before them, the words starting to build up in his mind. The book was an old chronicle, of the first Great War. Written by one of the first crest scholars while the original 10 elites were still alive.

“Tell me, Claude. What did you think when you were first forced to take a life? How did you really feel about it?” Linhardt asked, his eyes then turning to meet Claude’s gaze. While it might seem a bit out of nowhere, it was something that had been bothering him. The horror of killing refused to leave his mind. And Linhardt was curious if perhaps the laidback seeming Claude would have an unexpected answer. 

Sure Linhardt could ask about Claude’s mysterious background, his frankly bizarre sudden appearance as the legitimate heir of a house not known to have any heirs as long as Linhardt had been aware. But that didn’t matter to Linhardt, none of that nobility nonsense really did. What mattered was trying to free up this tangled mess of painful thoughts in his head even if only a little

Claude blinked, taken truly off-guard for the first time this whole conversation. He leaned his head back against the tree, considering how best to answer. Unlike most of the other nobles here, his childhood had not exactly been peaceful. Even after coming to Fodlan, Judith and his grandfather had warned him to beware of assassination plots, and his parents' letters all reminded him what was at stake if he revealed too much about himself to the wrong people. It was exhausting, frankly, and more than a little unnerving. And the first time he'd had to take a life—well, it hadn't been alongside his Golden Deer classmates. He tried not to let himself tense up thinking about it; he knew Linhardt would feel it if he did, and didn't want the mage to think he was upset at the question.

"...to be honest? I was furious." He watched a few puffy white clouds drift across the sky for a moment before turning back to meet Linhardt's gaze again. "Furious that I had to do it just to protect myself. That anyone would put me in that position, to begin with. Desperately glad the victory was mine. That I walked away and they didn't. And...a little nauseous." He admitted the last part with a rueful shrug, not at all convinced that he was helping. 

Hearing Claude’s answer, he felt a little of that worry fade away. Since most of his classmates had taken to the death so easily; Linhardt had even started to think that he was the one who was out of sorts after all.

Linhardt’s eyes softened while Claude met their gaze again. He couldn’t help it, he was so incredibly relieved. If Claude had simply been callous about killing, Linhardt wouldn’t know what to do with himself. Except perhaps resign himself to the fact that those he loved were all capable of senseless killing. 

Linhardt lifted his hand from the book and touched the side of Claude’s face pondering momentarily. “That’s what I felt, well— mostly the latter part. Nausea, overwhelmingly .” He had been dreading Claude’s answer, his classmates’ reactions all rattling about in his head. Especially that of those who took victory in stride without even a moment’s pause for the person whose life they had just ended. “It is simply something that I can not seem to push from my mind. Ever since my class’ first assignment; and even when I’m reading these old war records,” he paused, glancing away, his lips turning down into a small embarrassed pout. 

"Linhardt, you could have asked me anything. Why this?"

“I suppose...I simply wanted to know if—” he blinked as he found his thoughts. “To confirm if we were also similar in that regard.” His voice returned to its lilting cadence for those few words. But regardless, his genuinely thrilled smile came back to his lips.

Claude felt a rush of relief at seeing Linhardt’s smile again. He tilted his head to lean into the touch, wishing he could just change the subject, or end the conversation in a more daring way. But he wondered whether Linhardt would still feel the same knowing how Claude had taught himself to bury those feelings and adapt. After the first assassin, he'd had to face the facts: his life was not a safe or peaceful one, due mostly to factors beyond his control, and he would have to survive--and to fight--to rise above it someday. It wasn't right, but it was true, and that was that. He hated to give Linhardt a reason to stop smiling again, but though he might be cagey, he didn't want to mislead. Not about something this important.

"Well...that was the first time. Not the only time." He frowned in thought. "Don't take this the wrong way, Linhardt, but are you sure the Officer's Academy is for you? Much as it's in my personal best interests for you to stick around," he flashed a quick grin, "I have a feeling we're going to see significantly more bloodshed before we graduate."

“If you found a way to suppress those feelings after your first kill, that seems reasonable to me. Perhaps it just means that you are stronger than I am, in that way.” Linhardt said, his fingers beginning to wander slightly on Claude’s face. His thumb stroked Claude’s cheek, feeling the very light stubble, his fingertips digging into the short and curly hair near his ear. The tactile sensations helped occupy him and calm his mind. Linhardt felt confident enough to indulge in some of his behaviours that might come off as “weird”, given how Claude hadn’t rebuked him for his socially incoherent topic change.

“Well, nominally I came here to get a little freedom from my parents. I also wanted access to the library and the Crest scholarship that gathers here. In the absence of any dedicated research institute...” They trailed off. “And well, someone had to keep an eye on Caspar,” he muttered under his breath, the words tasting bitter on his tongue.

The part of Claude's mind that was always scheming and filing away information thought, of course, this is the perfect place for Crest research, and wondered what that tone said about Linhardt's true feelings about Caspar. But Linhardt's fingers against his skin felt like feathers and silk, and he couldn't help getting badly distracted from what, he reminded himself, was supposed to be a serious conversation. About serious things. Right?

"I don't know if 'stronger' is the word I'd use... But enough about me." He pulled Linhardt just a little closer. "You did agree to get cozy, remember?" His hand slid from Linhardt's shoulder to the back of his neck, where Claude gently tangled his fingers into the mage's soft hair while he leaned forward to press their lips together in a light kiss, pausing ever so briefly at the last second to give Linhardt a chance to stop, if he wanted.

Claude...hadn't really planned that, either.

Linhardt probably should have been offended that Claude was basically ignoring him and trying to distract from their conversation, but that was absolutely the last thing on his mind now. When Claude answered and pulled himself closer, Linhardt’s eyes fell shut just as Claude leaned in to press their lips together. Maybe Claude wasn’t “stronger” in that way, but he was certainly bolder, going for what Linhardt had been wanting to do since they first sat by the tree together. 

Claude’s lips were even softer than he had imagined, causing Linhardt to let out a soft gasp that boarded on a moan. When Claude paused, asking for permission, Linhardt grinned. “Yes, I did promise that,” Linhardt muttered against his lips before continuing the kiss. 

What was the point of dwelling on things he couldn’t change right now anyway? Especially now when the sensation of Claude’s hands and lips on him crowded out any other thought. 

There was no space left for planning even in Linhardt’s mind now. Linhardt’s right hand then moved from Claude’s cheek to tangle in his hair, his left arm went to loop tightly around Claude’s waist pulling him even closer.

Claude tried not to feel like he had to be careful as if Linhardt was made of porcelain. It was just a faint impression in the back of his mind, a thought conjured by Linhardt's delicate features and slender frame. Linhardt's arm snaking around his waist and pulling him closer helped dispel the notion, and in a moment, Claude's other hand abandoned the book in his lap to meet small of his back. This close, the mage smelled like grass and sunshine, ink and parchment. He dared to lean a little harder into the kiss, taking a long moment to enjoy the warmth and the pressure, the feeling of Linhardt's fingers tugging at his hair, just before pulling back with a slow smile.

"So, any idea how many of Seteth's rules we've broken so far?" he murmured, resting his forehead against Linhardt's and suddenly feeling more relaxed than he had in weeks.

Linhardt was glad that Claude didn’t seem to be holding back, what with how delicately he had been treating them this whole time. It was still a fairly tame kiss, but pleasant all the same, and Linhardt savoured it the whole time. The taste, the smell, the tactile sensations from their tongues briefly brushing together, to Claude’s hand tangled in Linhardt’s hair.

“Not nearly enough if I’m being honest,” Linhardt said with a short huff. A little annoyed that Claude had pulled away, but understanding all the same. Linhardt appreciated the chance to catch his breath, keeping his eyes closed as their foreheads rested against one another. “If we stay out here long enough we could just add breaking curfew to that list.”

The idea of staying out here long enough to break curfew sounded pretty appealing to Claude. When was the last time he'd just let himself lose track of time? "Not enough, huh?" He smirked. "I'm sure there's something we can do about that." 

Linhardt let the hand in Claude’s hair fall to his shoulder, fiddling with the bright yellow house leader cape on the way down to rest his hand on Claude’s chest. Already Linhardt’s thoughts were drifting back towards dark places. “But in the end; it doesn’t so much matter the rules we break as it matters who we are breaking the rules with, no?” He gave Claude’s nose an affectionate little nudge with his own as he spoke.

Claude grinned, his eyes crinkling at the corners just a bit as he felt about to melt from the endearing gesture. "Point taken." He turned to press Linhardt up against the tree, gently but firmly, before leaning in for another kiss. With one hand resting on the wide trunk just beside Linhardt's head to steady them and the other lightly pinning him to the tree, he closed his eyes.

Linhardt let himself moved against the tree, eyes falling shut, keeping one hand on Claude’s lower back to keep him close. He let out a satisfied sigh as their lips met again, not minding the uncomfortable bark texture when Claude was occupying his senses again. Linhardt grinned against his lips, his right hand moving to Claude’s open collar. He brushed his fingertips over Claude’s throat, gliding down his collarbone, giving a bit more of that feather-light touch that Claude seemed so fond of. 

Claude chuckled, low and deep in his throat, at the touch of Linhardt's fingers, a sound not of mirth but of enjoyment. Right now, he felt like he really could stay here all day, letting Linhardt explore as much as he wanted. Even as Linhardt seemed to be restraining himself for the moment, it was clear that his fingers were eager to push further under that loose collar.

Linhardt’s touch made the raging torrent of thoughts in his mind calm, even if only for a moment. All of the stress and responsibilities of his life felt distant and almost trivial compared to the fascinating mage that seemed to find himself to be a worthwhile use of his attention.

After a little while, though, he detected the telltale signs of Linhardt starting to get sleepy. He pulled back again, bringing up a hand to gently push a stray bit of hair out of Linhardt's eyes. "Ah, I knew I couldn't compete with napping forever." He sighed dramatically in mock injury, then met Linhardt's gaze with a crafty gleam in his eyes. "Mark my words, Linhardt, I'll figure out a scheme to become more interesting than sleep one of these days."

In all honesty, Linhardt desperately did not want to sleep, not when Claude was so warm. But Claude was right, that warmth was also pulling him into drowsiness. Linhardt met Claude’s mischievous grin with one of his own, taking hold of Claude’s hand and gently moving it. “You are more interesting, quite frankly, but sometimes I don’t have a choice,” Linhardt said, pushing himself off of the tree and leaning his bodyweight fully into Claude. He pulled one leg out from under them. With one hand on Claude’s chest, the other on his back, Linhardt guided Claude to lie down with him on the soft grass, still comfortably in the shade. “I can at least choose with whom I take my naps.” He said, looking down at Claude while suspended above him.

Claude didn't resist, letting Linhardt push him down into the grass. "Coming from you, I think that's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me."

Linhardt savoured that moment for a bit, quite enjoying the look of Claude splayed out under him. “And I think I will nap...right here...” he said, patting Claude’s chest pointedly. 

Claude watched Linhardt’s look of satisfaction, amused to see a bit of his own mischievous glint reflecting in his eyes. But instead of commenting on it, he stretched slowly and lazily under that gaze, almost basking, as though he didn't intend to move from this spot until Linhardt was good and ready to let him. “And who am I to deny you your choice of pillow?” Claude, said, moving one hand behind his head while wrapping the other around Linhardt’s shoulders. Linhardt let out a satisfied sigh, placing his cheek against the space just below his collarbone, Linhardt’s hand rested on Claude’s chest near his own face. 

"You know, I always like a good nap under a tree like this. Warm sunshine, fresh breeze. It's an honour having the King of Naps himself here to share it with. I'd bow, my liege, but I have a feeling I'm not going anywhere for a while."

Linhardt let out a soft melodic laugh. “I think how you are now counts well enough as showing fealty to your Liege, ” he said, playfully brushing his fingertips over Claude’s cheek. Linhardt did feel completely at ease, although he could scarcely believe it. Even if this was only a passing moment, even if the suggestion behind their words never played out, Linhardt was content at that moment. “And you are correct. You are not going anywhere until I finish my nap. I command it~” Linhardt purred, his breath tickling against the exposed skin of Claude’s chest.

Claude closed his eyes and ran his hand once through Linhardt's soft hair before letting it rest again around his shoulders. "Anything you command shall be done, my liege."

He let himself drift off to sleep, lulled by the rhythm of Linhardt's breathing and the chirping of birds overhead. He wasn't sure where this was going, if anywhere, but right now it didn't really matter. There was a certain comfort in feeling safe, and while he knew he'd never feel truly safe until his dream was realized, lying here with Linhardt to nap in the woods was a pretty close approximation, even if only just for a little while.

For all Linhardt knew, this could be the only time he got to off doze in Claude’s arms like this, and so he wanted to savour it. The last thing he wanted was to wake up, especially not by the chill of evening sweeping in as the sun slid below the horizon.  Linhardt, not having much in the way of body fat to insulate him was quite vulnerable to even a mild chill and as such found himself shivering himself awake while still clinging to Claude.

He awoke with a few slow blinks, taking in Claude’s peaceful expression before shifting into an upright position to fully take in their surroundings. Judging by the angle of the sun, it was well past curfew. Which meant that they would have the monastery guards to contend with if they wanted to avoid consequences. 

“Claude,” Linhardt said, pawing at Claude to make sure he was awake. Despite how nonchalant they had been, Linhardt did not much like the idea of being caught outside in the dark during such a dangerous time. “ Claude .”

Claude's eyes snapped open abruptly, and for a split second, he thought he was in danger. He took in Linhardt's worried face and insistent tone, and relaxed again. "Whoa, okay, I'm awake, I'm awake."

He sat up and glanced around, then up at the sky. "Oh, whoops. I guess it's probably after curfew by now, huh?" He sounded pretty casual about it, despite the tense atmosphere around the monastery lately and the earlier curfew specifically for their safety. He yawned and ran a hand through his hair, which was at this moment less 'artfully dishevelled' and more 'a mess of tangled curls.' How did Linhardt manage to keep his hair in order even after sleeping all day? Would the mysteries about him never cease?

Linhardt frowned, not at Claude’s relaxed tone about the curfew violation; but about how irritatingly handsome he still was even when running a hand through his messy hair. He was far too handsome in general, and at this moment Linhardt found his highly distracting.  

"Sorry, I hope I didn't cause you to sleep through any classes or anything."

Linhardt rolled his eyes and got to his feet, brushing off some blades of grass and turning back towards the monastery. 

“I assume that you must have some sort of tactic to get us back inside without being detected?” He drawled, pointedly avoiding looking at Claude for the moment while he thought. “I don’t care about missing classes but I would rather not have to endure extra chores as punishment for a curfew violation. Waste of precious energy.”

"Not to worry, Linhardt, I always have a scheme." It did not escape Claude's notice that Linhardt was suddenly acting much less affectionate and open than earlier. And for the moment, Claude had no clue as to why. "Besides, you must have slept through plenty of curfews in your time, right? I can't count the number of times someone's asked 'where's Linhardt?' and it turned out you were off snoozing somewhere. That's what earned you the napping crown, you know."

Linhardt shrugged again. “I don’t actually enjoy sleeping overnight outdoors if I can avoid it. If I’m missing at night I’m probably just somewhere in the monastery.” Even if it was a tease, Linhardt’s nature compelled him to just reply logically as usual. Flirts were fun but inaccurate information was more irritating than Claude’s still distractingly handsome face.

He stands and stretches, brushing off some grass of his own. "Anyway, this time the plan is pretty simple. There's a secret passage that leads back into the library. All we have to do is get to the entrance without being spotted by the guards. With a bit of surveillance and good timing, possibly a convenient distraction, we'll be golden."

He started to walk past Linhardt but paused. "Hang on. Don't move." He reached out and plucked a stray leaf out of Linhardt's hair, then handed it to him with a grin. Linhardt took the leaf, not even having time to react to Claude’s cheeky gesture. Letting the leaf fall to the ground he stooped down to grab the book that brought them there in the first place, before falling into step with Claude again. He kept close to Claude’s side, with his hand clutching the book tightly to his chest. 

Linhardt could only keep up the calm and sociable affect up for so long, and after being just woken up he had scarcely the energy to maintain it. “I’ll just let you lead the way master tactician if we get caught you have to take my extra chores,” he said before his voice broke into a long yawn. He trusted Claude to have a plan, but unknowns always bothered Linhardt the most. He didn’t know how getting back into the Monastery would play out, nor did he know where things with Claude would go, if anywhere.

"Master tactician? Sheesh, who came up with that one?" Claude wondered if perhaps Linhardt was just grumpy from only just having woken up. Or perhaps from over-sleeping, as Linhardt seems grumpy and dour most of the time. 

 Claude glanced over at Linhardt as they walked through the trees, back toward the monastery walls. Linhardt looked cold, but he also looked irritated, so Claude refrained from putting an arm around him. Instead, he laced his fingers together behind his head as he casually strolled, like they weren't currently breaking yet another rule, and took a deep breath of evening air. "So, you don't like camping?" he asked. "Bundled up in a blanket under the stars, picking out constellations. It's good for the soul." It also keeps assassins guessing when you don't always sleep in your bedroom. 

“Camping is tolerable if the tents are adequate. I was just a very sickly child, so I tend to avoid things that would wear me out if I can.” Even though they loved to nap, They’d always deeply despised being confined to a sickbed. “Stargazing, however, is another matter. That I quite enjoy. ”

"Stargazing is a thumbs up, huh? Would you look at that, even more interests we share!"

Indeed, lying out in a field, curled up in blankets while watching the stars sounded lovely; That is, if there was someone he fancied out there with him. Like perchance Claude...before he got carried away.

"Then again, I guess we'll get plenty of sleeping outdoors next time we head out on the march, so maybe you've got the right idea after all. Warm and cozy, safe behind walls. There's something to be said for that, too."

Ah, marching Linhardt did not want to think about when they would next have to be dispatched to quell whatever silly rebellion, or cleanup whatever slovenous bandit raid and he shuddered at the thought. He clammed up a little bit, unable to think of what to say or how to communicate what he wanted. Instead, they let their torso droop to the side, his shoulder nudging against Claude very lightly. They kept walking through the woods, the Monastery now practically looming over them. 

Claude spared Linhardt a curious glance at his growing proximity. But before the banter could continue, Claude put a finger up to his lips to signal quiet. He crouched behind a tree, pulling Linhardt by the hand. With careful eyes, he watched the walls until he could pick out the patrols both on the ground and up in the towers. The entrance to the secret passage wasn't that far, but they would have to lift a heavy trap door, and the treeline didn't extend all the way there

He hated to cause a stir when everyone was already on edge, but he didn't want Byleth getting mad at Linhardt. Or worse, Seteth getting mad at Linhardt. This whole excursion was technically Claude's fault, after all.

"...Ready?" he whispered, close to Linhardt's ear. "How do you feel about casting a little magic to distract the guards into going over...there?" He chose a spot and pointed: a little grove of trees on the other side of the grounds, already conspicuous for the abundance of bushes at its edge. "Nothing fancy, just something to attract their attention."

“I’m sure I can think of something,” Linhardt said before regrettably having to let go of Claude’s hand to ready a spell.

He searched around until his eyes landed on a suitably large boulder nearby, and then glanced to where Claude indicated. With a thrust of his hand into the air, the boulder behind them disappeared and then reappeared directly above the conspicuous grove. The loud cracking of tree trunks sounded out across the grounds, followed by the fall and crunch of trees. 

Glancing to Claude, Linhardt saw that he was all but transfixed for a moment. That look of countless ideas flitting through his mind; Linhardt couldn’t help but feel a little smug at that reaction. Claude was now thoroughly reminded that Linhardt, while soft-spoken and bookish, was also a powerful mage. Ingenuity and creativity could outmatch even the strongest warrior or the most powerful weapon.

Linhardt then grabbed his hand as the saw the guards heading in the direction of the flung bolder. Claude broke from his trance and readied for their sprint. "Now!" he hissed and ran for it. Linhardt held on to Claude’s hand as tight as they could, the two of them ducking down as they left the treeline behind. When they reached the walls of the monastery, Claude released Linhardt’s hand and crouched down in the grass. After a few moments, Claude’s hand found the concealed latch of the trapdoor. He braced his shoulder against the wall and heaved the heavy door open to reveal the earthen passage beyond. "Go, quick!”

Linhardt was admittedly impressed by how easily Claude lifted the trapdoor despite his willowy appearance. They nodded and hopped down into the dingy passageway. He let out a grunt of disgust, quickly lighting a harmless firelight with his right hand, the large tome still under his other arm. He sent the light into the air above his head where it flew around in a lazy circle, shining flickering light all down their path. 

Claude hopped down into the passage after Linhardt and carefully closed the door after them. "Whew! Victory!" He brushed the dirt from his hands and laughed, unconcerned about the stuffy, dusty environs. "That was some A+ scheming material, Linhardt, I'm impressed. Better than I could have imagined." 

Linhardt had begun to walk down the passageway ahead of him. Claude glanced up at the flickering lights shining overhead and watched the shadows they made dance down the tunnel and over Linhardt's features. "Oh, that's convenient. Good thinking. Pretty, too."

“Now, where exactly does this passageway lead to?” Linhardt asked, his eyes searching around what he could see of the tunnel.

Claude skipped up behind him, staying about a half-pace away. "It comes out near the library and the faculty offices, behind the building. From there, it's a hop, skip, and a jump back to the dorms, and no one need be the wiser about our little rendezvous.”

Linhardt smirked briefly at Claude before he switched the book to his other arm, leaving the hand nearest to Claude open for the holding, but not making any other move. “Must be an evacuation tunnel of some kind then. Doesn’t look terribly used...” He muttered, slowing his pace just a little to match step with Claude. Even if he still wanted to be able to glimpse Claude out of the corner of his eye while they walked, he desperately wanted to be out of the tunnel.

Linhardt deliberately falling back in step with him prompted Claude to pay a little more attention to his body language. He looked uncomfortable with the tunnel and he'd moved the book for no obvious reason. Maybe he didn't like the dark. Or the dirt. Or both.

“Well if we are spotted together on the way back, it might start a rumour or two.”

"Rumors, huh? What kind of rumours?" He rubbed his chin, as though pondering the question. "Oh, you must mean the ones about the giant man-eating goblin that lives under the monastery. You know, I never did figure out how it was supposed to have gotten around so fast without getting detected..." He gasps, turning toward Linhardt with eyes wide. "You don't think it uses these very tunnels , do you?" He grabbed Linhardt's hand and started to run. "I can hear it gaining on us right now! Run, Linhardt!"

Linhardt let out a scoff. “I am not about to run unless absolutely necessary,” he said, holding the book against his chest with both hands and increasing his pace again. Perhaps Claude was trying to help, but Linhardt just found it draining. The tunnel was damp, sticky. The humidity was high and it just felt like he was being covered in a layer of grime. It was a heavy, putrid feeling that reminded Linhardt of things he didn’t want to remember. 

Along the tunnel walls, he searched for an exit, anything like a ladder or the handle for a door. He quickened his pace, sending up a few more firelights, causing them to break into smaller flickers of lights that dispersed like fireflies. “Just tell me when we are close. I imagine I’ll need your help to open the door!”

Claude held up both hands in surrender, letting Linhardt get ahead of him for a moment before catching up again. "Alright, I admit it, I'm having a little too much fun. The exit's not much farther."

Sure enough, soon the firelights illuminated an old iron ladder up ahead. Claude jogged forward and clambered up, pushing open the trap door to let in the moonlight and fresh air. He climbed the rest of the way to the surface and then turned back to hold out a hand to help Linhardt up, given that he had a book to carry. "All joking aside, I'm sorry--this whole mess is my doing. I'll make it up to you, I promise."

He gratefully took Claude’s hand and let himself be hoisted out into the moonlit monastery, taking in another huge breath and staggering forward. “Oh...thank the goddess...” he muttered, taking a few moments to breathe and try and rid himself of the oppressive drench from the tunnels.

After a few moments, he turned around, raising his eyebrows at Claude. “I mean it was your doing, but I did agree to it all. Regardless, you did get us back in the monastery without being detected.” He gave Claude a small grin, turning himself in the direction of the dormitories.

“But still, I do welcome you to make up for the terrible inconvenience of keeping me out after curfew and then dragging me through some filthy hole in the ground .”

Claude would have to remember Linhardt’s distaste for dark damp places, and so he filed it away in his mind. For the moment, he wanted to make sure that Linhardt’s night ended on a high note.

"Your wish is my command, my liege," he said, finally giving Linhardt that bow he'd promised earlier. "Merely speak it, and it shall be done." He came up from the bow to meet Linhardt's gaze with a roguish smirk.

Linhardt blushed again but didn’t look away. Claude was just as enchantingly handsome in the moonlight, and Linhardt found him just as difficult to disbelieve. Although he wondered if Claude was simply making fun of him, there was one way to know for sure.

Linhardt then met his gaze unblinkingly. “Kiss me,” he said, with a level of confidence that astonished even himself. While they were still somewhat secluded between the large buildings away from the dorms. “And then...escort me back to my room. And there we can part for the night.” He almost felt foolish, but he enjoyed it, even as his hands clenched nervously over the book on his chest.

Claude felt a pang of disappointment at the thought that this...whatever it was, was almost over. He wanted to see that smile light up Linhardt's face again, and hear the little gasp that, he was beginning to learn, meant he'd found a sensation Linhardt liked. Something about that confidence--the way Linhardt's quiet, lilting voice gave the 'commands' as though he really were royalty--was both endearing and alluring. But then again, it wasn't as though either of them was going anywhere anytime soon, they had the rest of the academy year ahead of them. Patience was a virtue after all.

"Whatever you say," he murmured, approaching and cupping Linhardt's face in one palm while he wrapped the other arm around Linhardt's waist, pulling him closer despite the book between them. Considering how this little escapade had started out, the book still keeping them just barely apart was oddly fitting.  Regardless, Claude leaned in to deliver the requested kiss, pressing his lips against Linhardt's with renewed vigour.

Pulling Linhardt close confirmed what Claude had suspected earlier; his skin was chilly to the touch. Claude did his best to warm the mage up in his embrace, starting to understand why Linhardt wouldn't have wanted to sleep outdoors at night if he could help it; it seemed he was pretty susceptible to cold. 

Linhardt’s arms relaxed as he leaned into Claude’s warmth again. One of his hands fell from the book and clung to Claude’s sleeve. He did not want the kiss to end, but their current location was far too public for his comfort. It was possible that still that they might be spotted on the way back to the dorms. But he did not mind,  especially not now after they were safe back in the monastery. 

Linhardt returned the kiss, leaning in to exploit their minor height difference before reluctantly pulling away. A small smile lingered on his lips as he grabbed Claude’s hand again and started to tug him back towards the dormitory. Claude was still intrigued, viewing Linhardt like a code he had yet to crack. He wasn't sure how long it would take to uncover all the layers and figure Linhardt out completely, but he intended to do it. And it seemed like the process would be entertaining, especially if he kept finding things like Linhardt’s apparent hidden penchant for ordering his dates around.

“And now, it is about time that your liege retires for the night,” Linhardt said, their voice cracking and breaking into a sudden yawn. It was now twice that Claude was so willing to follow Linhardt’s demands. It was still few enough to be a fluke, but perhaps after a third time, he could start to depend on some consistency.

Claude found it baffling that Linhardt could still be tired after all that napping. He put his other hand in his pocket as they walked, feeling both relaxed and refreshed by their little adventure.  Claude himself certainly wouldn't be tired anytime soon, after sleeping through most of the afternoon.

As they approached Linhardt's door, Claude stopped walking. "So," he said, "did you think I would forget that you never actually held up your end of the bargain?" He glanced meaningfully at the book Linhardt carried.

Linhardt let out a loud groan; the promise of his bed was now just within reach, and Claude had that now-familiar look of mischief in his eyes. 

 “That again?” Linhardt replied, his voice bordering on an exasperated whine. “It’s not exactly my fault alone that we didn’t get around to finishing this book together.” He scoffed.  “I am not about to let you have it back to just dangle out of my reach again.”

Claude cocked his head a little, resting a hand on one hip. "Linhardt, is that really what you think I meant? And here I was, thinking you were just playing hard to get." 

Linhardt shook their head. “Why would I waste my time playing hard to get, or any such nonsense?” He sighed. “I understand now that you like to dance around things and have your fun. But if you want me to understand something, you’re going to have to be direct about it.”

Claude lifted a hand in defeat. "Message received. I was kidding about the book. Keep it, read it to your heart's content. If you ever do want company reading it, though, I'd love to hear what you have to say on the topic, combined with all our copious research. You're a brilliant guy and you know a lot more than I do about the magic side of things, and I bet if we put our heads together, we can really come up with some juicy theories."

Linhardt’s cheeks warmed at Claude’s accolades, averting his eyes briefly. “I have to say that there is more of yourself that I would like to understand. From what I know so far, I have to agree that our minds together could come up with some staggering breakthroughs.”

Claude then lifted Linhardt's hand in his own, as though to remind them he was holding it. "And, I meant what I said about enjoying myself today. So if you ever want to... explore my secrets again, you know where to find me. " He finally let go of Linhardt's hand to gesture toward the stairs next to Linhardt's room, where his own was just one door down from the top of the stairwell.

“I suppose that I have no choice but to believe you.” Linhardt met Claude’s gaze. “I may even be compelled to seek you out again myself. To dig in and explore those secrets of yours.” His accompanying smile was a little too soft to be a smirk, but still just as warm as the feeling that still lingered on his palm.

 




Chapter Text

 31st of Wyvern Moon, 1180, Gronder field, Adrestia.

 

Somehow, even more than before, Linhardt was finding it difficult to even look forward to the mock battle. Not that he had at all in the first place. Battle, violence, and bloodshed in any form was never their strong suit, and so really this was no different. Sure it was a mock battle and no one was (supposed) to die, but there would still be injuries. There would still be accidents. And when weapons are in play, even training ones, lives can still potentially be lost. 

Professor Byleth had, thankfully heeded Linhardt’s complaints and allowed him to focus primarily on healing. He did not mind learning Reason magic as well, he found it enthralling. But what he found less appealing was the destruction brought by the lightning flung from his fingertips. One does not easily forget the smell of burning flesh. Far too eerily similar to the smell of a freshly hunted deer roasting on a spit over a fire.

After the long march, the Black Eagles class and their battalions began to set up in the southwest corner of the designated field. After arriving, Edelgard and Byleth promptly called all of the officers in training for a strategy meeting. Linhardt stood rather close to the professor’s left, Caspar there with them. While they waited, Linhardt’s gaze was still trained on somewhere distant.

“Linhardt?” A voice pulled them from their daze, turning towards the sound, Linhardt saw that it was, of course, Caspar. Caspar, who was more than enthused about the day’s plans. But looking at him now, that boundless energy seemed to be weighed down by just the slightest hint of concern.

“Mm? What is it, Caspar?”

“Nothing just...you seem a bit distracted. Everything alright?”

Linhardt had to resist the urge to scoff. “Everything is fine I was simply...reminiscing,” Linhardt then turned to look at Caspar. “The last time I was here, it was when I was visiting your family for the summer,”

“Oh!! That’s right!” Caspar grinned. “Yeah, we were what, 9? 10 at the time?”

“I was still 10, but you had just passed your 11th birthday. It was around this time of year, actually.”

“Oh, duh, of course, how could I forget?”

It was a fond memory. This part of the field had permanent battlements for the annual mock battle, but beyond laid many grassy knolls and waves of grain fields. “Your father showed us these battlements back then.”

“Oh yeah, he did. Told us all about how the mock battle went back in his day,” Caspar said with a groan.

“I would think that you’d have been thrilled to hear tales of such exploits.”

“Yeah sure, maybe the first couple times! But you don’t get it. Actually living with the guy? I swear, he told it just about every chance He got. Same with my brother! Totally annoying.”

Linhardt raised an eyebrow. “Well, now, you will have your own story to add to theirs.”

“Damn right I will! And mine will be ten times, no a hundred times cooler than either of theirs!”

“Your Aunt Fleche graduated last year, and there’s also your uncle Randolf to compare to,” Linhardt smirked.

“Linhardt!”

But before Caspar could fully retort, Edelgard called them to attention, drawing their focus back to the professor.

“The battle arrangements are as follows,” Byleth began, her eyes focused as she directed the group’s attention to the map she held. “The house positioned in the north is the Blue Lions. They have a river to cross and so on their Fliers can make it over that bridge quickly. Most likely some of the Golden Deer will meet them in battle first,” she said, then pointing to the east. “The Golden Deer has one of the more advantageous starting points, in that their movements are not too restricted by the tress, nor limited by the river. They are a house focused on Archery, and so we would do well not to let them take control of the Ballista in the central mound,”

“We have the best defensive position, here in the southeast, but it means that we could very easily have both forces bearing down on us at once. And so, I want to focus on taking the central defensive mount before we can be cornered.”

While Byleth explained, Linhardt let himself see it as a chessboard, predicting all the possible outcomes. Not too many of the paths lead to victory that he saw. Or more, none was any outcome that he liked.

Edelgard nodded, turning her eyes from the map to their professor. “Understood. You can count on us to secure victory today,” something close to a smile teased at the edges of Edelgard’s lips. The kind of expression that Linhardt found most fascinating. 

“Everyone will be participating in this battle, and so I expect everyone to use what they’ve learned to the best of their abilities.”

A chorus of approving cries from their classmates rang out, although Linhardt did not raise his voice. Caspar shoved an excited fist into the air while tugging on Linhardt’s sleeve. 

While everyone bustled about with preparing their weapons and mounts, Linhardt took the map into his hands with Byleth’s permission.

In the east, he found another source of his hesitation. Claude, not only was he on the other side of this battle, (however ‘mock’ it may be) he was the Leader, and would almost definitely be leading the strategy along with the class’ own professor. How odd it must be for Byleth to be facing her twin across the field, Linhardt wondered. Far worse than what Linhardt was feeling, surely. 

Linhardt felt...strange. Thinking about how the day after their date, Claude had greeted him when they passed by each other between classes. And how in the time since, they had shared several meals together. As it turned out, they had a decent amount of favourite meals in common. When they found each other in the library, Claude would always stop by, and ask permission to sit next to him. Even if more often than not, they read their books in silence together, Linhardt found those times incredibly enjoyable.

But now, Claude was the enemy. And he had the opportunity,(or perhaps...the obligation?) to use what he had learned about Claude in order to get an edge in the battle. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, all the more incentive to do his best to end the battle quickly in whatever way he could.

Byleth had a very clear strategy, and Linhardt had no desire to override that, but Byleth did assign him to be close at her side, and so he still had ample opportunity to pester her. Especially as the countless possibilities of the battle threatened to overwhelm his mind.

“Professor, with all due respect,” he began as they got into position, all surrounding the pedestal-like mound at the southwest corner. “Securing the ballista from the golden deer is a good move, assuming that the golden deer will make that move at all.”

“Correct. It is possible that the golden deer will anticipate this. And even try to flank us.”

“Yes, that is my primary worry.”

Byleth then turned to Linhardt. “You know warp, and your range is very impressive. With you by my side, you can send me to the rearguard to then reverse our formation.”

He blinked. Glancing back at the units and battalions behind him, he quickly saw what she meant. How physical units were positioned on each ends, their supporting battalions also balancing out the magic users in the main body.

“I see. I am at your disposal then, professor,” he said, mildly impressed. Versatility, not just raw strength, that was something he could admire. 

“But Linhardt,” Byleth then turned back to him once more. “I may be your teacher but that does not mean that you cannot offer your opinion. Do not hesitate to suggest any strategy you see fit to.”

She turned back away, just as the fanfare for the beginning of the battle started to waft down from the cliffs overlooking the field.

Claude was certainly the type to try and circumvent any obvious maneuvers, and so Linhardt was almost certain that he would go for the flank as soon as the opportunity arose. 

“I know that Bernadetta is our archery specialist. But I think we should keep her towards the rear. We will most likely encounter the Golden Deer first, and they have two very powerful mages that might even best me.” And given his only interactions with them, both of them had ample reason to want to take him out in particular. “We need to have a secure rear flank, if we fall victim to a pincer attack, we will be finished.”

Byleth nodded, glancing over the field and back to the eagles. Just as the signal to start began to play, Byleth sent Bernadetta and Caspar to the rear and brought Petra to the front, the young huntress being more than capable of operating the ballista when the time came. The vanguard was now the weaker of the two points, but faster and more precise and Linhardt just hoped that it would work. 

Across the field, in the east among the trees, the Golden Deer got into position. Claude stood with their very own Eisner, surveying what the could see of their enemies with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun.

“Say Teach,” Claude broached. “What’s it like? Facing your own twin sister on the battlefield like this?”

Bileth shrugged. “Not much different than in mercenary training,” they replied, their hand movements almost dismissive. 

“Is that so?” Claude lowered his hand from where it had been shielding his eyes from the sun. “I guess you two already faced each other back in Great Tree Moon too, huh,” Claude bit his lip. It was bad enough that all of them, classmates had to face each other in such a grand mock battle. Hearing the history of the battle that once drenched this field in very real blood, it gave the festivities a kind of bitter overtone. Not only were the golden deer left out of the event’s name(due to the unfortunate circumstance of Leicester having not gained independence at the time,) but what was once a bloody battle for freedom was now just the framing for this...test of skill. Why would anyone want to immortalize such an event of strife and division? The reasoning completely mystified Claude, but then again, just about everything about Fodlani culture and especially the religious institution had been giving him trouble since arriving. What was one more straw to add to the pile?

While they stood there, a third approached from the main group, that person being none other than Hilda.

“Say, Claude, I hope you weren’t serious about sending me to capture that hill earlier,”

“Of course not,” Claude said with a grin, turning back to face her. “Instead, you can put on some of that heavy armour and hold up the rear, isn’t that right teach?”

Bileth replied without turning towards them. “This field is too expansive for that. Hilda will be a striker as her Warrior class.”

Despite this assignment being arguably less work, Hilda still let out a groan.

“Come on Claude, there’s gotta be some other scheme of yours that doesn’t hinge on me, right?”

“Not really, since you so emphatically rejected my suggestion of slipping a mild poison into the enemy house’s rations.”

Hilda only replied with an annoyed scoff.

“Still, Teach, you’ve got a battle plan, right?”

“There is a ballista on the central hill that would be quite advantageous for our class’ specialties.”

“Sure, you’ve got a point there, but it’s a totally obvious move. And I am willing to bet that our Adrestian friends will anticipate that move.So I say, we try to pincer them between us and the Blue Lions.”

“Very well,” Bileth then lowers their hands and turns back to join the rest of the class. 

“Wait, that’s it, Teach? Nothing else to add?”

Bileth didn’t respond and kept walking with their back turned, and simply a dismissive wave behind them.

“Huh,” Claude let out a pondering huff, it now just being him and Hilda on the small knoll overlooking the field.

They were silent for a few moments before Hilda was the one that spoke up. “You are really excited about this battle today, huh? What was it you said? This field is full of possibilities?”

“That’s exactly right. It’s all new to me, and I bet the Adrestians know the place better than me, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take an advantage where I can.”

“Huh. That is something that I totally don’t get. Working hard even in the face of looming defeat. Sounds dreadful.”

“Looming defeat? Come now, Hilda, there is no need to despair! I, the brilliant tactician Claude will surely lead us to victory,”

Hilda turns to Claude with a slight grimace. “I’m not talking about you , Claude. But, there are twice as many of them as they are of us! What’s to keep it from just being a repeat of the first mock battle with everyone just getting exhausted and giving up?”

“There’s no way that will happen, Hilda. Just take a look at the field,” Claude says, stepping behind her and placing one hand on her shoulder, the other hand pointing out across the field. “This field is huge. There is more than enough time for one army to eliminate the other before the Lions even reach us.”

“So either the Eagles defeat us, or we defeat them. And even after that we still have the whole Lions class to fend off,” Hilda let out an annoyed scoff. “Well, maybe the Eagles will just beat us and then I can retreat and take a nice nap,” she said with an exaggerated yawn, all the while subtly leaning into Claude’s touch.

Claude definitely notices this and places his other hand on her shoulder, testing the waters. “Trust me. I have a plan, I won’t let the eagles take us by surprise, you mark my words.”

“Oh? You sound so confident, ” Hilda turns and gives Claude a wide smile. 

“The Eagles may have an ace up their sleeve, but we have one of our own,” Claude said with a smirk.



About a week before the mock battle, Claude had found Linhardt in the Library, as was not uncommon. Linhardt was set up at the table in the corner, face down on an open book open, dead asleep.

Claude gave a small smirk, striding over and sitting down next to Linhardt on the bench. Linhardt did not like surprises, and being woken up forcibly just had to be out of the question. And so Claude instead opted to sit there quietly and read. Maybe the mage would wake up, maybe they wouldn’t, Claude found that it didn’t much matter. Sure, Claude would prefer to speak with Linhardt, with how fascinating Claude found them. But this was enjoyable as well.

After a short while, Linhardt began to stir, making a series of soft noises that Claude had come to be rather fond of. Linhardt was always adorable, but it was moments like these that were particularly endearing.

Linhardt squinted against the light and then their deep blue gaze finally fell on Claude. It seemed to take a few moments for Linhardt to register what he was seeing, but Claude was patient. 

“Good morning, O, Sovereign of the Dreamworld,” Claude said with a rather affectionate smile. “Did you sleep well?”

Linhardt wrinkled their nose while rubbing the sleep from their eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“By now I would think that you’d be used to me, making pilgrimage to the Library as to visit my liege .”

Linhardt shook their head. “No I mean,” Linhardt’s lips turned down into a frown. “You usually sit across from me, and not next to me.”

“Is that a problem? I will gladly change my see if you so desire~”

“No, it’s just...different, and I noticed,” Linhardt then turned back in the direction of their books, but did not touch or look at them directly.

Claude took that moment to ponder Linhardt’s behaviour, a small grin starting to play on his lips. “Well, don’t let me disrupt you. I am here to read, and possibly nap just the same as you.”

Linhardt didn’t respond, still staring down at the books but now less intently. Linhardt looked almost distracted.

“So, what sort of books caught you interest on this fine day?” Claude asked, leaning over to peek at the tome. “Oh, practical platoon tactics. Could it be that your schoolwork finally caught your interest?”

Linhardt shrugged. “You do know what’s happening in a week.”

“I do in fact,” Claude nodded, not pulling back from his closer position to Linhardt. “I wasn’t expecting you to be quite so interested.”

“Well, the professor has been asking me to help with tactics,” Linhardt said. “And well, I find it more appealing than actually being on the field and fighting, it turns out.”

“I can totally see that. Let me guess, this is like one of the puzzles that you like so much.”

“In a way, yes,” Linhardt said, long fingers tracing over a map of Gronder Field’s mock battle area to the right of the tome. “Terrain and enemy troops conspire together to make a puzzle that must be deciphered.”

“That is a fascinating way to look at it,” Claude said, leaning a cheek into his hand.

Linhardt again didn’t respond. 

“You know, I’ve been looking into the same things. It seems like the next mock battle will put our brilliant minds to the test.”

Linhardt still didn’t respond.

Claude frowned slightly but did not push the conversation further. Instead, Claude pulled back and opened his own book. Perhaps Linhardt was grumpy from just waking up? Again, that was likely, but by now Claude knew to suspect something else. But, it would do no good to try and pry it out of Linhardt. 

Claude went ahead and dove into his own book of tactics that he had procured, leaning back and paging through the tome at a leisurely pace. Linhardt, however, did not return to reading for themself. Instead, out of the corner of his eye, Claude saw Linhardt get closer, and turning to look, Linhardt had leaned his head onto Claude’s shoulder.

A flash of heat went to Claude’s face, but he remained composed. This wasn’t that weird, right? Linhardt was probably sleepy. And there was no one else in the Library anyway. Regardless, Claude found himself all but completely unable to focus on the book in front of him, instead, looping an arm around Linhardt’s shoulders. Claude did not have a witty reply, and that was probably for the best. In all honesty, he did not want to risk ruining this moment. 

 

It stung a little bit, remembering the gentle Linhardt that Claude had spent that day in the library with, but Claude couldn't very well disappoint now. Edelgard, while not much the tactician herself was still the wildcard that Claude could not hope to easily predict, but he knew that the last thing she would do, would be to relent.

The trumpet sounded, and the three armies let out their chants for victory before it became a mad rush towards the centre all at once. After that, Linhardt let his mind fade out, simply healing his allies at every given opportunity, staying close to Byleth and even handing out potions. 

But his mind then snapped into complete and utter focus when he spotted from the east, the mass of yellow uniforms, making a clear move to the south to their flank. 

“Professor—” Linhardt yelled before she turned around, and then with a nod, Linhardt promptly warped her to the rear of their formation, taking the stronger rearguard to meet the alliance head-on.

Linhardt was now left just with Petra and their Battalions, and for a moment, he did not know what to do, until he found themself being dragged by the wrist by Petra.

“Do not be fearing, Linhardt. I will protect you, while we go for the ballista.”

Linhardt’s mind then went blank again, but for entirely different reasons. A bit of panic, a lot of bewilderment, but most of all, a thousand new possible outcomes sprouted in his mind at the addition of this new variable. And he found that he didn’t half mind that things were now just getting to be properly interesting. 

So far, so good. As they started to hit bow range from the Eagles and spotted Byleth warping to the front lines, Teach gave the order to split up--archers and Marianne to cover behind the ramparts and trees, Lysithea and Flayn toward the front with their sturdier protectors to distract and sow chaos, Leonie and Lorenz ahorse with their mounted battalions for hit and run shenanigans to draw fire. Crouched beside Marianne behind a tree and searching for clear targets, he spotted something better--Petra and Linhardt dashing out into the open, running for the ballista. "Marianne--now!" He nocked an arrow even as she nodded and began to cast her spell. By the time he had Petra properly in his sights, her magic blossomed out to silence Linhardt's. If it worked, he wouldn't be able to warp Petra or himself out of the center, and they would be easy pickings for him and Ignatz.

“Petra!” Linhardt exclaimed, having to run after her to stay out of the bulk of harm’s way. Just as they crested the ballista mound and Petra began to set herself up, Linhardt felt the buzzing of magic in his veins suddenly go quiet, the sensation of ice-cold chain’s wrapping around him, almost stumbling to the ground. When he opened his mouth, no sound came out.

He made a few panicked motions to Petra. Pointing in the direction of the golden deer mage as he scrambled frantically back to his feet. Petra moved to tend to him but he just pointed again towards the alliance vanguard, signalling for her to target the mage to their south. He gasped, pulling out his Levin Sword reluctantly and using it to steady himself until he could speak again.

Of course, Claude would aim straight for Linhardt. Claude knew what they were capable of. It was only a short while, Marianne likely didn’t have the stamina yet to pull out too many uses of Silence, but it was still a huge nuisance. 

From the north, the Blue Lions were steadily approaching from across the river. He and Petra would be soon overcome. But he knew that Byleth was still executing her plan, and would likely cut through the Deer’s rearguard with Hubert, Ferdinand and Dorothea. 

As soon as he saw Linhardt react to the Silence, he gave the signal and loosed his own arrow at Petra, hitting his mark. Ignatz fired on Linhardt at almost the same time. Ingrid's approaching pegasus battalion suffered the Deer's barrage, too, unable to effectively bypass it with the archers spread out the way they were, while the Eisner twins and their entourages clashed; by the time the rest of the Lions arrived, Byleth had cut through the Deer's rearguard, Bileth and Claude had pulled their remaining forces back into the trees to regroup, and the Deer's harrier tactics with Lysithea and the cavalry had decimated the Eagles' van. It didn't take much longer for Dimitri's forces to mop up the rest, turning the whole thing into a Blue Lions victory.

Claude hated losing, but at least Edelgard had lost too.

 

The battle of the Eagle and Lion of 1180 was at an end. The Blue Lions emerged victorious. But somehow, the mood was light, and the mood rich with camaraderie. It had, after all, been just a mock battle. A display of skill, about among friends. But crouched over Petra’s very real wound from Claude’s arrow, his own wound being mended with a Vulnerary only after he had ceded his surrender.

The dining hall at Garreg Mach Monastery, after the return of the students, now scarcely has ever been more lively. Students from all three classes crowd the tables, sharing in the dining hall’s special that night. It was certainly something to behold. Students who had all been clashing in battle the moment before, now sharing in such jollity.

Linhardt, despite how pleased he was to be done of the battle, was nowhere near being able to stand much more of the clamour of voices. Instead, he waited his turn in line and made a swift exit to go and eat his food in the outdoor eating area under one of the gazebos.

Much quieter, much better. Nothing left to grate on his nerves, just the soothing smell and taste of the pheasant roast with berry sauce that he happened to favour. After leaving, he was able to process what he had seen inside. Caspar had been sitting rather happily with Ashe, and Claude was busy congratulating his housemates by the look of it. 

Lin had done his part in the battle, and now he would get his reward.

Claude, as one of the three house leaders, put a lot of emphasis on maintaining amicable relations with the other two house leaders. And this banquet was no exception. At the far table sat Dimitri, despite the well-won victory, his shoulders were slouched, and as usual, the rather lanky prince appeared to be making as little of a spectacle of himself as possible. One of the many interesting things that Claude tucked away in his mind when approaching him.

“Congratulations on the clutch victory, your Princliness,” Claude said, grabbing Dimitri’s attention with a small start.

“Ah, Claude!” Dimitri’s face went from surprised to a quickly composed smile. “I thank you. But yours and Edelgard’s performance on the battlefield was nothing to scoff at,”

“You’re right about that, if there is ever a rematch, mark my words, the Deer won’t go down so easily.”

A third figure then approached from behind, Claude sensed it and turned before Dimitri even seemed to know. And doing so, he saw none other than Edelgard herself.

“I agree with Dimitri, but I have to say that your formation almost seemed...preoccupied with taking out us Eagles first. Interesting, to say the least. I hadn’t been aware that you and I had developed any sort of rivalry.” Edelgard’s expression was impassive, but Claude detected a particular knowing glint in her eye. The kind of stare that made the hair on the back of his neck prickle just a little. 

“I could say the same for you guys. Going for the ballista right off the bat? That was basically an open invitation for the Deer,” he grinned. “Well, Teach and their sister don’t seem to have a particular sibling rivalry, so I felt a little bad. But, in the end, we just set the stage for the Lions to completely wipe us out,” Claude rounded his grin on Dimitri, Edelgard’s gaze also sliding to him. The attention appeared to make the composure on Dimitri’s face flickered for a moment. 

Dimitri then replied in a mild stuttering tone.“Oh no, it was really all the students and the guidance of our own professors that--”

In the middle of Dimitri’s floundering, a loud voice suddenly sprung up from among the Lions’ table. Caspar, one of the Eagles as Claude understood it had stood up with a tankard in one hand, and one foot on the table. “Come on! Let's hear a toast, to ASHE for totally annihilating me with a million-to-one shot!!”

By Caspar’s side, the aforementioned Ashe seemed a bit flustered and at a loss at how to calm him down. “Caspar! That’s not--” But Caspar ignored him and chugged the tankard loudly.

Caspar let out an amused grin, glancing at Edelgard. “Well, glad to see that your Eagles aren’t all taking the defeat too hard,”

Edelgard nodded. “Indeed.”

The imperial princess was always a mystery to him, seeming cold and detached, but here she was, doing her best to be with her classmates even in the wake of a crushing defeat. Claude could appreciate that, but something tugged at the back of his mind.

“I poked fun at your strategy, but I was really quite impressed,” Claude continued, noticing that out of the corner of his eye, Dimitri’s attention had since been pulled away by one of his childhood friends, leaving Edelgard and Claude talking to one another. “That mage of yours, was really the lynchpin in your strategy, huh?”

Edelgard who had been keeping a bit of a watchful eye on Caspar and his antics, then trained her eyes back on Claude. “You mean Linhardt?” It could have been Claude’s imagination, but he could swear that a minuscule smile began to play on her lips at the mention of their name. “Yes, Linhardt is a very promising student in....their own way,” that small smile chilled ever so slightly. “The professor usually keeps them close at hand to help with her strategies.”

“I see,” Claude replied. “The black eagles sure are an interesting bunch. An imperial princess, a budding strategist and—” he gestures to Caspar who has now somehow landed himself in a headlock from Raphael. “This charming young fellow.”

“Yes, the Eagles are a quite...varied bunch this year. However, I am pleased to find that, we are starting to find a way to work together.”

Her statement was somewhat vague, something that seemed out of Character for the princess. Claude kept his gaze trained on her, watching how her eyes went distant for a moment. “Well, it’s a shame, all the same. The Eagles and Deer got so caught up with each other that we let the Lions walk all over us,” he said with a shrug. “So, what do you say? Next time we have one of these mock battles, how about we team up and just split the reward?” Claude said with a wink.

Edelgard then turned back to Claude once again. “Unfortunately, there is only ever one winner crowned in these sorts of mock battles. Although I do not find the offer uninteresting.”

Claude let out a scoff. “Come on, who cares about the stuffy academy rules or tradition? With the two of us? Next emperor and nest Archduke? We could totally just make a whole new precedent for ourselves,”

Edelgard’s expression was measured. “We will see about that.”

Edelgard then left him with a polite nod, returning to her classmates, leaving Claude to himself for the moment. He then took that moment to look around. Huh. Now that they had mentioned it, Linhardt was in fact nowhere to be found. It then occurred to Claude that Linhardt might have simply skipped the feast entirely. If so that would be quite disappointing. Not many others had the same kind of Analytic mind that Linhardt had. Claude wanted nothing more than to be able to pick apart the day’s strategy and compare notes with them.

Caspar was always with Linhardt, wasn’t he? But Caspar seemed to be more than just a little bit occupied at the moment. Plus, Claude didn’t really have any easily excusable reason to want to seek out Linhardt anyway. And given Linhardt’s general attitudes, it seemed best not to advertise how close they had gotten. 

Claude then took a look around. Peering out the southern dining hall doors, and then walking out the northern side and into the hedges. There is where he spotted a solitary figure sitting at one of the outdoor tables with a plate of the main course.

 "There you are, Linhardt," he said, walking closer with his hands behind his head. "What are you up to out here all by yourself? Plotting revenge on the Lions already?"

At the sound of Claude’s voice, Linhardt looked up from their food eyes quickly focusing on Claude, silhouetted in the evening sun.

“I was...eating my roast pheasant in peace,” he said with a small pout. “At least I was, ” they tried to make their voice sound teasing, but he was a bit too worn down for that. Linhardt instead set his fork down and then pulled back the chair next to them. Linhardt then leaned his chin on one hand and gestured to the empty chair. “Sit if you want to. I had a feeling you would want to speak with me.” And in truth, Linhardt wanted very much to speak with Claude as well.

"Hey, I'm plenty peaceful." Claude sat next to Linhardt, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table. Taking a closer look at Linhardt, Claude saw that the mage seemed somehow more tired than usual. While that was nothing new—it was different this time. Linhardt was drained, not merely sleepy."What made you think I would want to speak with you? Not that I don't, I'm just curious as to why you say that."

Linhardt merely blinked under Claude’s steady gaze, watching the lantern light dance over his face and sparkle in his eyes. “You seemed pretty determined to outmatch me, is all,” they said, fingers flexing and fluttering where they rested on the table in front of him. “Unless you really thought that just Petra and I alone on the ballista was really that much of a threat,” he said with a minute quirk of his lips. “Maybe you had a reason to target me specifically that I was unaware of.”

"You mean aside from warping people all over the battlefield and gaining control of the ballista?" Claude arches an eyebrow. "Seems like plenty to me. Sometimes, one individual can make or break an entire strategy. For instance, that little stunt you pulled switching your rear guard with your van required you. If we'd been able to take you out immediately, your professor would have been in a much weaker position, and that battle might have gone completely differently."

Claude was right. The plan required Linhardt. Even if Byleth had come up with that particular plan, Linhardt had been necessary to hone it into a fine effective point. “That is true. That plus your terror of a dark mage would have made your flank attack a sure-fire success,” he replied, unable to dismiss the facts of his statement. 

Claude chuckles. "I'll have to tell Lysithea she's become a terror . I'm sure she'll be pleased to hear it."

“If it had been just the eagles vs. the deer, perhaps we could have been victorious,” he smirked. “But, it seemed like we both got taken off guard by our friends in the north. All the better, it meant I got to retreat before the battle was even over,” he rested a cheek on his hand, gazing back at Claude.

Claude sits back. "But you were right—I did want to talk to you. It seems like you didn't enjoy the battle much,” Linhardt presses their lips together. Claude had become quite perceptive to Linhardt it seemed. That idea, like many other things between them, both pleased and concerned him. 

“I just don’t like fighting,” Linhardt said with a frown. 

“But wasn't it at least fascinating to pit our tactics against each other? I thought so, anyway."

Linhardt sighed. “Especially in a situation like that, it would have been more beneficial if our strategies could have worked in tandem. But alas. The tradition of the academy dictated our fate this day. And we both drink from the bitter cup of defeat,” they said, idly walking their fingers along the edge of the table in front of Claude as he spoke.

Claude’s eyes were drawn to Linhardt's not-so-idle movements, long fingers making their way around the table. Claude realized that the two of them hadn't really been really truly alone together since the night they broke curfew and was willing to bet Linhardt was having the same thought.

Linhardt continued. “If you want to test our tactics, we could always just play a round of chess instead. Much less messy.”

 As Linhardt's eyes came up, Claude brought his own up to meet them, his face brightening. "I didn't know you liked chess. Look at that—yet another thing we have in common. What are the odds? " He reached over to lace his fingers together with Linhardt's on the table, looking at their entwined hands as though they were a curiosity to be fathomed.

Linhardt smiles, pleased that Claude had taken the open invitation. They were suitably isolated as for Linhardt to be comfortable enough to indulge in the closeness he had been wanting since that first encounter. 

“At this point, it shouldn’t be surprising that we share more things in common. But that is nice to hear. I am always searching for a worthy opponent,” he said, fluttering his fingertips along the back of Claude’s hand. “Believe me. I will enjoy myself far more when I don’t have to wrench one of your arrows out of my arm,” Linhardt said, leaning his face a little closer and giving Claude a small irritated sort of snarl. 

"Hey, that wasn't me, that was Ignatz. I am to blame for Petra's arrow, though.”

“Well, regardless. I would prefer a clash of wits between us where no one's arrow gets lodged in my arm.”

Claude just stared back at Linhardt. “Has anyone ever told you you're cute when you scowl?"

Linhardt scoffs, eyes darting to Claude’s lips as he moved even closer. “Oh, only when I scowl? What an unfortunate state for this face of mine, then,” they say, voice rich with sarcasm, hoping to distract from the pink tinge of their cheeks.

"I didn't say that. You're also cute when you blush. Like you're doing now."

Linhardt’s scowl deepens, and the blush certainly does as well. They hadn’t had an opportunity to kiss since that night after curfew, and Lin was finding themself leaning towards that urge again. 

But then, much like their last meeting at the library, the sudden sound of voices from behind them caused Linhardt to pull back. A small group of students were leaving the dining hall, some of them possibly even heading in their direction.

Claude glanced back at the noise, seeming unconcerned. For a moment, he thought it was an odd thing for Linhardt to be concerned about—after all, they'd been the one to demand Claude kiss him out in the open—but he'd also expressed discomfort with the idea of anyone seeing them emerge from the secret passage together. Curious.

"Looking for a little more privacy? I know a place." Claude stood, stretching a bit. Today's battle was hard-fought, if unfortunately not hard-won; and at least he learned a lot about his fellow house leaders' strategies and the capabilities of their classes. Next time, he'd have a better idea of how to handle them.

Linhardt stands up with Claude, nodding. “Yes, more privacy would be ideal.”

Even though their second kiss had been out in the open, it had been the middle of the night, late after curfew. And additionally, Linhardt had been more than a little caught up in the fact that Claude seemed so willing to bend to Linhardt’s whims. 

“Oh? What sort of place do you have in mind?” Linhardt steps closer to Claude and glances in his direction.

"You'll see," Claude said, placing an extending index finger over his grinning lips. Linhardt almost frowns but feels the urge to dissipate when meeting Claude’s gaze. Claude then leads the way, toward the eastern side of the monastery grounds, away from the dining hall. It's a few minutes' walk, during which he glances sidelong at Linhardt, strolling with his fingers laced together behind his head. "Care to guess where we're going?"

“I haven’t the faintest clue,” they said, eyelids drooping in mild exasperation. “But you clearly seem to think that I will enjoy whatever you have in mind.”

"Well, I can at least promise that it isn't a hole in the ground," Claude said with a wink.

Eventually, they come to a disused tower with a sniper's nest perched atop it, abandoned as the monastery expanded around it. Claude pushes open the door and gesture, with a little bow. "After you."

As they come to a stop Linhardt glances from Claude to the indicated tower. “Indeed I believe this is...the exact opposite of a hole in the ground,” they reply with a small smirk at the corner of their lips. Linhardt walks ahead of Claude and begins up the spiral staircase. “Now, is it being a place above ground the only reason you thought I’d like it?”

"Not exactly, but I'll let you see why for yourself when you get to the top." He follows Linhardt up. "It's also just a place I like to visit by myself when I want some solitude."

Linhardt takes that in, the fact that Claude was willing to show him a place he usually went for solitude...the meaning of that gesture was not lost on him. His cheeks even tinted pink.

When they reach the top of the tower, Linhardt lets out a small gasp and stands there still just beyond the mouth of the stairs, gazing out at the deepening evening sky, the first stars just starting to become visible.

Claude grins, seeing the look on Linhardt's face, and moves out to the edge to lean against the stone parapet, breathing in the cool evening air. "Well? Does it pass muster?"

Linhardt walks over to join Claude at the parapet, their face rather serene. “Yes, it most certainly does,” Linhardt let out a long sigh of relief, comfortably letting themself droop towards Claude’s warmth.

"Good. Because, if I'm not mistaken, there was a reason you wanted to find someplace private. Of course, I could be wrong—and if so, by all means, don't let me keep you." He glances over with a smirk.

“Ever so observant,” Linhardt replied, his tone dry. “I do wonder what gave myself away,” said with just a hint of bemused sarcasm. Linhardt angled their body towards Claude, eyes drifting down to his lips. “Just allow me to get back into the ‘mood’ as it were,” Lin said, close to feeling relaxed again, the same spark from earlier bubbling back up.

Claude, however, steps back suddenly and pivots, separating them for a moment to put his back to the parapet. “Now, I have to admit, I had a selfish reason for choosing this place, too,” he grins, with his back to the sunset, the deep orange hues instead cover Linhardt, illuminating their skin and causing those eyes to sparkle. “Because now I’m the one who gets to see you all decked out in the sunset’s light like this.”

Linhardt was annoyed for a moment when Claude pulled away, but their cheeks tinge pink when it sinks in. But Linhardt’s embarrassment doesn’t take hold when he sees Claude leaning against the parapet, all but daring Lin to come and get that kiss they so obviously wanted.

“Then I suppose we both have our selfish reasons,” Lin replies, their voice dipping in pitch as they stride over to stand directly in front of Claude, their bodies still several inches apart. Lin places one hand on the parapet behind Claude and stares down at him. “And now I am the only one who gets to see you like this,” Linhardt replies with a smirk.

Claude’s smile is satisfied, pleased when he sees that flush grace Linhardt’s cheeks again. But turnabout does indeed seem to be fair play, as Linhardt abruptly takes the reins of the situation, and Claude has to admit to himself that Linhardt’s words are strangely enticing. He remembers lying on his back in the grass and watching those blue eyes above him take him in, for a longer moment than he would have expected. Huh. Interesting.

“Hmm…looks like I’ve really miscalculated, huh? I guess I’m at your mercy. Whatever shall I do?” He meets Linhardt’s stare with an impish look.

Lin feels another odd surge, of something almost like confidence. The challenge in Claude’s gaze, and the admission in his words. This was now the chance to test whether Claude’s submission was just a game after all. 

Linhardt steps his opposite leg past Claude, taking hold of Claude’s chin. “You have made a grave error, letting your guard down because of my appearance? How foolish,” their cheeks were still red as Linhardt then finally began to close the distance between their lips, his own heart starting to pound. “And now I have no intention of letting you escape,” Linhardt whispered before Capturing Claude’s lips as well.

Claude grins to see Linhardt playing along, letting the mage hold him in place and wax imperious even as they're blushing over it. As their lips meet, he's struck again by how soft Linhardt is, as he slips his arms around their waist and pulls them closer.

Linhardt loses a bit of their commanding edge when finally tasting Claude’s lips again. The slight nervous tension melts away and Linhardt presses Claude back against the stone surface. 

Linhardt places one hand in Claude’s hair, the other resting against his back. Linhardt indulges for a moment, feeling how Claude’s muscular arms rested so gently around their waist, Linhardt’s whims meeting no resistance. 

Claude’s grin doesn’t disappear. It is endlessly fascinating, seeing such a firm character emerge from Linhardt’s docile exterior. It makes Claude wonder whatever made Linhardt act that way. We’re they always so meek? Or had they been more willful and demanding as a child and then something happened to change that? As always, the mysteries just pulled Claude even further towards wanting those answers.

Claude must have been so lost in thought that his lips had gone slack because he was suddenly jerked back down to earth by Lin’s hand tightening and tugging firmly on Claude’s hair. Claude let out a low grunt that quickly became a moan when Linhardt’s tongue teased past Claude’s lips, those slender fingers that Claude could just picture in his mind, at the moment, they had Claude at their complete mercy. Claude’s hands simply dug into the fabric of Linhardt’s uniform, urging Linhardt onward while still leaving all the control in Linhardt’s hands. 

After a time, when they finally come up for air, Claude glances up at the sky. "It'll be dark soon--we should probably head back. Besides, Teach wanted to catch up with me after the feast to debrief after the battle."

Linhardt pulls away, reluctantly, but Claude is right. The stars are beautiful, but they best be heading back. “I suppose my professor will wanting to do the same as well,” they reply, pushing back from the parapet, eyes falling back to Claude. “And I meant it earlier. The next time our strategies clash, I would much rather it be over a chessboard than on a battlefield. So consider that an open challenge invitational,”

"You're on. Next time, Linhardt, we engage in a battle of wits."

Linhardt smiles, gently lacing their fingers together again.