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at least i have my friends

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“I simply cannot comprehend it,” Lorenz says with a frown as he stares at the cash register. “How did it break? What were you doing?”

Claude holds his hands up innocently from his spot near the baked goods display case. “Nothing! It was working just fine, but now suddenly the drawer’s stuck.”

Lorenz groans and presses a few buttons on the touchpad attached to the register. The register makes a sound like it’s trying to open the cash drawer, but nothing happens. From over in the kitchen area, a suspicious Lysithea raises an eyebrow.

Lorenz bends down to get a closer look at the drawer. As soon as his back is turned, Claude whips out his phone and opens the camera to take a video. Lysithea makes an exasperated face and mouths something likely akin to What did you do now?

It only takes a few seconds of waiting with the phone pointed at the back of Lorenz’s confused head for Claude to get the payoff he was hoping for: the drawer shoots open, making a loud ca-ching sound, and hits Lorenz square in the nose. Claude cackles and ends the video. Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he can see Lysithea smacking her forehead with her hand.

Lorenz whirls around, rubbing his throbbing nose. “Claude!”

“Sorry,” Claude says without looking up from his phone as he sends the video to Hilda. “Last night Hilda and I finally figured out how to rig that thing. Had to show her the results.”

Lorenz rolls his eyes and stands up, pushing a few strands of sleek purple hair out of his face. “Her shift starts twenty minutes from now, does it not? Why not at least wait until she got here?”

“She was bored at home, apparently,” Claude replies, chuckling at Hilda’s response, a succinct but incredibly apt LMAOOOOOO TYSM KING!!!!

Lorenz sputters hopelessly before eventually turning around and walking over to the coffee-making area. Claude’s the one on register duty anyway.

“Claude, I swear,” Lysithea says as she wipes down the kitchen. “Someday, one of your childish pranks is going to backfire on you. Big time.”

Claude pouts. “Aww,” he says in his most patronizing baby-talk voice, “is the baby gwumpy fwom being at wowk fow too long?”

Before Lysithea can attempt murder, a customer walks up to the counter, forcing all three of them to act on their best behavior. Lysithea settles for making a throat-cutting motion at Claude with her finger. Claude doesn’t feel particularly threatened.

This is how they spend most of their days at their shared workplace, a locally-owned coffee shop called the Fell Star Café (Claude still doesn’t know what the name means, and at this point, he’s too afraid to ask). After the initial rush that lasts from morning until early afternoon, it’s usually pretty slow, so Claude has had to make his own fun in order to pass the time. Frankly, he’s not quite sure how Lorenz still falls for his schemes, but he’s not complaining—it sets the stage for what he and Hilda have planned for tonight, which he hopes will be an especially memorable workplace prank.

Sure enough, at four o’clock, Lysithea leaves and Hilda clocks in, greeting Lorenz with a boop on the nose. Together, they spend most of the evening in relative peace. Whenever there aren’t any customers to serve, Claude and Hilda meet somewhere Lorenz can’t hear them to discuss their plan. Barring that, their conversations vary wildly from one minute to the next, from current events to inside jokes about being gay. Lorenz always seems mildly scandalized by their casual remarks, though Claude has seen him chuckle at them more than once.

Time seems to slow almost to a halt as he and Hilda wait to spring their plan into action, but finally, the clock hits 8:30, half an hour before closing, and there isn’t a single customer in the café. The moment of reckoning is upon them.

“I’m gonna go to the bathroom,” Hilda says nonchalantly, heading toward a doorway that leads to a hallway of employees-only rooms, including a bathroom, some storage rooms, and an office. “Be right back.”

Lorenz, who has been leaned up against said doorway, raises a confused eyebrow. “Didn’t you just go to the bathroom a half hour ago?”

Hilda stops in front of him and scowls. “It’s none of your business how often I have to pee. I drank a lot of coffee today, okay?”

Lorenz rolls his eyes and moves out of the way so she can get through. “Fine. Go.”

Once she’s out of the main area with the door closed, Claude turns to Lorenz, who seems to be dwelling on Hilda’s behavior—not good. Time to improvise. “Heeeeey, Lorenz,” Claude says, sidling up next to him. “Since Hilda’s gone, there’s something I’ve been meaning to speak with you about.”

Lorenz frowns and resumes leaning against the door, his arms crossed over his lavender-colored apron. “And what would that be?”

The truth, of course, is that Lorenz needs to be preoccupied so Hilda can set the trap without raising suspicion, but obviously Claude isn’t going to tell him that. Instead, he pauses for dramatic effect, then says, “So, you’re gay, right?”

Technically, he doesn’t know that for certain, but if Lorenz’s indignant sputtering and beet-red cheeks are any indication, he’d say he’s right on the money.

After a few seconds, Lorenz seems to remember how to form words. “Wh—whatever led you to that assumption?” he demands. “Moreover, why is it any business of yours?”

“It isn’t, really,” Claude admits. “I was just wondering because you always seem kind of shocked whenever Hilda and I talk about that kind of thing, even though you’ve known us since high school.” The primary purpose of this conversation is still to distract Lorenz for a few minutes, but it is something that’s been on Claude’s mind for a while.

Lorenz shakes his head. “How can I not be? You two speak of it so...openly. And neither of you are particularly inclined to wear your hearts on your sleeves.”

Claude raises an eyebrow and rests his hands behind his head. “Is it bad to be open about it?”

Lorenz backtracks. “No, not necessarily; it’s just...well, considering how I was raised, I still have not grown accustomed to hearing it.”

That’s about what Claude suspected. Mr. Gloucester isn’t exactly known for his progressive and accepting nature—or any other positive traits, really.

“I see,” he says with a nod. “Even so much as laughing at our stupid jokes about Hilda being ‘too gay to function’ feels like you’re doing something wrong or disappointing your father—let alone participating in the conversation or acknowledging that part of yourself.”

Lorenz huffs, but he doesn’t seem genuinely upset. “Have you been waiting for a chance to get me alone just so you could psychoanalyze me?”

Claude cracks a smile, a genuine one. “Maybe a little.”

For several moments, they just stand there together in silence, listening to the ticking of the clock. Then Hilda swings the door open with such force that Lorenz, still leaning against it, stumbles and falls into Claude’s arms. Claude tries not to laugh, which becomes significantly more difficult at the look of pure resignation on Lorenz’s face, a look that says, This is just my life, isn’t it?

“Hey!” Hilda snaps. “We’ve got a problem. I think we’re locked in.” Without waiting for a response, she jumps out from behind the counter and rushes over to the front doors.

Lorenz and Claude exchange glances. Claude makes sure to look as baffled as possible. Then they push each other away and follow Hilda out to the front of the café.

Hilda is pulling at the double doors, to no avail. Lorenz grabs one of the handles and yanks it, but the door doesn’t budge. His eyes widen. “What the—?”

Hilda steps back to let Claude into the mix. Claude holds on to the other handle and pulls, but sure enough, the doors are locked up tight. “The hell,” he mutters, for good measure. “What did you do?”

Hilda sighs and puts on her best guilty face. “Okay, I lied. I wasn’t actually going to the bathroom. I was trying to find something in Byleth’s office, but you guys know how cluttered it is in there. So I tripped over something, and I guess I must’ve hit a button, since the controls for the security system are in there too, right? And I heard, like, a clicking sound, so I went and tried to open the back door, and I couldn’t. And those controls are so complicated; I have no idea what button I pushed.”

Lorenz slowly steps away from the door. “Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, this is bad.”

“I’m sorry!” Hilda says. Damn, she’s really good at those puppy eyes.

“I—” Lorenz covers his face with a hand and slowly lets out a breath. “It’s fine,” he says curtly. “You’re fine. It was an accident. Though I’m...not sure what we’ll do now...” Claude can practically feel the waves of Stress™ rolling off of him. He almost feels bad. Almost.

Hilda, on the other hand, appears to actually feel bad, at least a little bit. Claude figures it’s probably because she hates when people are mad at or disappointed in her, even if the person in question is just Lorenz. She shoots Claude an almost pleading glance, as if to say, This isn’t fun anymore. Can we please tell him?

Claude relents. To be fair, one of the best parts of the scheme is laughing when the victim realizes it’s a scheme. “Oh, fine,” he says. “Unlock the doors.”

Hilda shoots him a thumbs-up and bounces off. Lorenz stares at Claude in confusion for a few seconds before the realization dawns on him. “You can’t keep getting away with this,” he says incredulously, his face a strange mixture of irritation and relief.

Claude laughs and rubs the back of his neck. “Honestly, I’ve been wondering how you still manage to fall for it.”

Lorenz shakes his head and puts his hands on his hips. “You know, now I’m just going to think everything is a prank. It’ll be like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ You could have a real emergency, but I’d assume you were joking.”

At that moment, Hilda bursts through the door to the hallway (seriously, can she enter and exit like a normal person for once?), a worried look on her face. “Um, guys? At the risk of sounding redundant, I’m having a bit of a problem. I can’t seem to unlock the doors.”

Lorenz snorts and gestures vaguely in her direction. “See, like that.”

Claude frowns and rushes over to Hilda’s side. “This...isn’t part of the prank,” he says warily. “I think she’s serious.”

Lorenz rolls his eyes. “Of course she is,” he says, but he still reluctantly trails them down the hall and into their manager’s office.

Claude always forgets how cluttered it is. All the boxes, desks, and chairs have been meticulously arranged to allow for a narrow pathway through the room.

Hilda leads them over to the computer desk and taps the monitor in annoyance. “It won’t let me unlock the doors. It let me lock them, but now it wants a password or something. Even the emergency exit is locked.”

Claude stares at the settings on the screen. Sure enough, there’s a dialogue box asking for a passcode, and in another tab is a collection of live video feed from the security cameras.

“Then we simply need to find the password,” Lorenz says. “It has to be around here somewhere.”

Hilda groans and flops into the computer chair. “In this mess? That’d be like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“Well, do you want to be stuck in here all night?”

Hilda shrugs. “I mean, it could be fun. It’d be like a sleepover.”

Claude snorts as he scans the room for any obvious places Byleth could’ve hidden the passcode. “Queen of giving up easily.” Hilda sticks her tongue out at him.

While Claude searches the room, Hilda and Lorenz debate the situation. They close the shop every night, so this shouldn’t be an issue, right? Except that they lock all the doors manually, from the outside, with a key. None of them have ever used this system before, and even the single emergency exit is locked. It would be just like Jeralt—the owner of the café and Byleth’s father—to install a needlessly complicated security system for no obvious reason. He’s a good guy, but man, is he weird.

Lorenz suggests texting Byleth and asking them for the passcode, but it doesn’t take long to shut that down. For one, there’s a chance that they’d get in trouble, possibly even lose their jobs, for messing with the security system in the first place. It’s a small chance, admittedly, because Byleth is the most lenient and chaotic manager Claude has ever seen, and they probably wouldn’t tell Jeralt, but it’s still a chance. The bigger reason, though, is the fact that Byleth is most likely asleep by now—they have to wake up early most days, and they greatly value their sleep, so they’re usually in bed not long after the sun sets. And they’re a heavy sleeper. And they keep their phone on silent all the time. At this point, only the Goddess herself would be able to wake them up before five o’clock tomorrow morning.

Claude soon finds the most likely place for a secret passcode: a locked safe sitting on the floor in one corner, probably filled with important documents. And they don’t have the combination for that, either.

“Well, it looks like we’re stuck in here,” Hilda says, standing up from the computer chair. She seems to have adapted to the situation fairly easily, probably because she doesn’t want to deal with trying to solve the problem any longer. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m gonna go make myself at home. I might as well, right?”

Lorenz opens his mouth to object, but Hilda has already left the room.

He and Claude take a few more minutes to search the office for a paper with the combination. Unsurprisingly, they come up empty-handed. Byleth probably has it memorized.

“Well,” Claude says as he wanders over to the doorway, “if we’re gonna be here for a while, you wanna come raid the dessert case? If Hilda left anything for us, that is.”

Lorenz frowns like he’s trying to decide whether or not to admonish his friends, before finally sighing sheepishly and following Claude out into the main area of the café. He knows any leftover desserts will just be thrown out anyway, since they make the baked goods fresh every morning, and it’s just past closing time.

They find Hilda sitting on top of the counter with her legs crossed and a cherry danish between her fingers. She’s taken off her apron and hung it up on the staff coat rack. Claude and Lorenz do the same and then join her at the display case, where there are still a few scones, one cake pop, and two muffins.

“I had a cake pop already,” Hilda says, “so you two can fight over the last one.”

What results is a heated debate in which Claude and Lorenz both insist that the other can have it. Claude wouldn’t mind, of course, but he’s more interested in a scone or a muffin, and Lorenz is so used to being overly polite and accommodating as a result of being brought up as a Proper Gentleman that he has trouble allowing himself to be selfish. Hilda eventually grabs the cake pop and shoves it into Lorenz’s mouth while he’s in the middle of talking, and that’s the end of that. (Lorenz tries to hide his smile, but neither Claude nor Hilda are fooled.)

Sitting together at one of the tables, Claude and Hilda end up pulling large crumbs off of their respective pastries and trying to toss them into each other’s mouths. Lorenz watches on with a mixture of disapproval and morbid fascination, snorting loudly when Hilda accidentally launches a blueberry from her muffin right into Claude’s eye (and it hurts, too—that girl seriously doesn’t know her own strength).

Claude plucks the blueberry out of his cornea and flings it in Lorenz’s direction. Lorenz raises his hands up to defend himself and knocks the blueberry to the floor. “Hey!” he yelps, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes.

Once they’ve finished eating, Hilda yawns and pulls out her phone. “So, what now?”

“We do what we always do,” Claude replies smoothly. “We make our own fun. Except since there’s no one else here, we can be as annoying as we want.”

Lorenz raises an eyebrow in concern. “What do you have in mind?”

Ten minutes later, the main area of the café has been cleared of all furniture, save for two chairs, one on each side, that they tipped over to act as “goals.” Claude and Hilda stand in front of them on opposite sides, each with a broom in hand. On the sidelines, Lorenz—who agreed to be their referee after copious amounts of begging—prepares to toss their makeshift puck, an unused coffee lid, onto the floor.

It’s a close one, but in the end, Hilda emerges as the victor of their coffee shop hockey game. It probably doesn’t help that her older brother taught her how to play a multitude of sports, or that she played field hockey for a brief period of time, until she was banned for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

They mess around for a little while longer, but eventually they find themselves lazing on the sofa in the little “chill” area in one corner of the café, which also consists of a coffee table, a rug, and two small plush chairs. The couch is by far the softest piece of furniture in the building, and they all want to be the one to sleep on it. For now, though, they’ve settled into a comfortable arrangement, with Hilda on one side, Lorenz on the other, and Claude in the middle, their shoes kicked off underneath the table.

Claude isn’t sure how it starts, but they end up talking for a little while, telling crazy stories and reminiscing about high school. Claude can’t help but bring up Lorenz’s awful haircut from those years, and Lorenz nearly strangles him, but it’s worth it.

Somewhere along the line, while Hilda and Claude tease each other about their old crushes, Lorenz mumbles, “I had a crush on a friend in high school. A boy.” He says it like a confession.

“Oh my gosh!” Hilda says. “Who? I bet it was Ferdinand.”

Lorenz’s face heats up, and Hilda grins triumphantly. “Oh, it was Ferdinand!” she coos. “I always saw you two hanging out. Good ol’ Ferdie!”

They all laugh, including Lorenz, who chuckles and then seems almost surprised at himself for doing it. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s still a little strange for me. To talk about it.”

“You’re fine. We’ve all been there,” Claude says reassuringly. He was quite a bit younger, but he still remembers testing the word bisexual out on his tongue.

Lorenz blinks. “Is that so?”

“Of course,” Hilda says. “I still haven’t told my parents.”

Lorenz nods slowly. “I see. You two have always seemed so confident in who you are, at least in that respect, that I suppose I never took the time to think about how you got there.” He sighs. “Perhaps I could have entrusted this information to you earlier. But I’m entrusting it to you now.”

“Hey, you’re part of the group too, you know,” Claude says.

“Yeah,” Hilda agrees. “You can talk to us about this kind of thing.”

Lorenz looks like he doesn’t quite know what to say, so Claude flashes a wide smile and puts an arm around both his friends’ shoulders. “Bring it in, gays,” he says with a playful squeeze, and they giggle almost deliriously. If it can bring about a night as freeing as this, then perhaps there’s something to be said for a scheme gone spectacularly wrong.

Together, they talk until they can barely keep their eyes open. None of them are willing to give up the couch, and they’re all too comfortable to move anyway, so by the time they fall asleep, their bodies are already tangled. Lorenz’s head is on Claude’s shoulder, and Hilda, the smallest and lightest of the three, is lying on her side on top of them both, her body stretched out across the sofa, her head in Lorenz’s lap. Claude finds himself with his head leaning against the back of Lorenz’s, one arm wrapped around Lorenz’s shoulder and his other hand resting on Hilda’s hip.

“You know, this was fun,” Hilda murmurs groggily to no one in particular.

As Claude feels himself drift off, surrounded by his friends’ warmth in more ways than one, he can’t help but agree with her.