Warnings: internalized homophobia.
Outside the Realm of Gratitude
It is past midnight.
Lorenz knows this because this is the precise time he has set for himself to bathe since the very first day he came to the Officers Academy, six years ago now. A time when the bathhouse is empty and dark, when the only people roaming the shadowed grounds of Garreg Mach are guards on duty or professors tending to their last nightly tasks. There is never anyone within the bathhouse after midnight, although the doors remain open, and Lorenz likes it that way. He has always preferred it that way.
It is past midnight within the rebuilt walls of the bathhouse, and the fire heating the sauna is burning merrily; and behind the wet-wood door that Lorenz pushes open, Claude is sitting with his eyes closed.
They don’t remain closed for long. Just long enough for Lorenz to feel like his stomach has dropped level with his naked knees, and then he is treated with a green look of surprise. He barely has time to appreciate the rare—so rare—sight of Claude being taken unaware before a fleeting smile graces Claude’s lips.
“You’re awake late,” is all he says.
Lorenz’s ability to speak, it seems, has taken a leave of absence.
Claude doesn’t seem to mind. Of course, he must be used to this—just because Lorenz scorns public baths doesn’t mean that Claude does, and he must have done this many times before, with the rest of their former classmates if not with Lorenz himself. He looks entirely unbothered, sitting there in the steam; the harsh summer sun has marked his skin where the edges of his armor lay, golden on one side and darkly-tanned on the other. When he shifts, sitting straighter, the hem of his undershirt rides up his middle.
“You’re awake late,” Lorenz manages to tear out of the crushing heat in his neck.
Claude lets out a laugh, and Lorenz has the absurd, the infuriating urge to flee, the very same he feels when it is Byleth Claude looks at this way. But Claude shifts from the middle of the bench to the far side of it, leaving room for Lorenz to sit. He gives Lorenz a smile that looks at least halfway sincere. It must be the fatigue doing away with the dungeon keep of his true self.
Lorenz sits gingerly. He is wearing nothing apart from a towel and his own underclothes, and every inch of his exposed skin burns. Steam condenses over him in silver drops, stinging the cut at his left shoulder that has not had time to heal fully.
His body is made of so many scars, now. He counts them when he wakes up and before he sleeps: three over his ribs, one deep and near-fatal gash at his right thigh. And innumerable amount of nicks, slashes, burns over his back, for mages do not fight fairly. He should know, having chosen to become one in spite of his father’s wish to make a knight of him.
What a sight he is, now. His younger self, ignorant of many things, would think him the lesser for each wound.
“How’s that looking?” Claude asks suddenly.
Lorenz usually has enough presence of mind not to jump at the sound of his voice, but he usually is not near-naked beside a near-naked Claude. His elbow knocks into the hard stone wall, gone wet with the vapor.
Claude is looking at the wound, he realizes. Not, in fact, reading his thoughts.
“Manuela was so kind as to let me keep my sword,” he says. His voice threatens to break; he clears his throat. “With strict instructions not to use it for the next two weeks, lest I find myself bound to the infirmary bed.”
“She does like you a lot,” Claude laughs.
He has always kept his hair short, save for the one braid when they were younger. The braid is gone now, replaced by a handsome beard, and Claude’s longer hair curls in the damp air over his brow and temples. He slicks it back with one hand in mirth. Lorenz feels out of his own skin with how much he wishes to touch as well—either that hair or the beard lining Claude’s sharp jaw, or even that tan line of sun-brown where his shoulder meets his chest and the leather tunic Claude wears to combat ends. It has been replaced with soft yellow fabric, the shape of which is just slightly off. His neckline runs lower, shows off the line, shows off the smattering of black hairs over his chest.
Lorenz doesn’t move or breathe. How could he? This is the very reason he comes to the bathhouse after nightfall, or sometimes well into the night, when the only sounds outside are cracking watchfires and the growls of a guard’s wyvern. That he never fully realized it as a teenager changes nothing: he is guilty of this, of looking and wanting and imagining, now and then. Now, especially, for he does realize. He does know.
This guilt sits down his throat like bile. His clenches his fists, keeps his legs tightly locked together, crushed by the shame he has managed to stave for months since coming back here. He cannot stave it now.
“What about your injuries?” he says, dry-voiced.
Claude sighs. “None to report now,” he says, conversational. “Just scratches. The luck of wyvern-riders—sometimes I wish all of you would just be up in the air as well.”
“Reason Magic is unstable at best even from the ground. What foolishness.”
“I know this,” retorts Claude, but his frown is without true heat. Lorenz feels burned by it anyway.
He looks aside, to the hot stones overfire. He picks one of them up, created more steam. Claude’s silhouette blurs in the effluves, and for a moment, silence is broken only by the sizzling stone.
Then Claude says: “I haven’t thanked you yet.”
Lorenz’s lungs are afire. Like the stone is sitting there in his chest, filling his body with heat.
“For coming back,” Claude adds, unneeded—undeserved as well. “I know we were never on the best of terms.”
“I couldn’t very well let you mess things up as you please.”
The words ring untrue, and Claude laughs them off quietly.
“Your father has been a staunch opponent of my rule,” he says. “You always sang his praise, so I never expected to see you show up as my ally.”
Lorenz could draw an endless list of things Claude doesn’t know about him or his father. Starting with the shameful thoughts ringing through Lorenz’s mind now, which his father would surely scorn and despise with double the strength Lorenz does, and ending with Count Gloucester’s involvement in ridding the world of Duke Riegan’s first heir.
If Lorenz had known five years ago—about the feelings and about the plot—well. This is yet another thing to despise his younger self for.
“Your thanks are unneeded,” he replies tightly. “My father would see us subjugated by Edelgard, on the chance that she may raise his status and widen his lands. I disagree with his vision.”
“Of course you do.”
There’s nothing to read in Claude’s voice. They enjoy the steam for a moment longer, or at least Claude does, in a silence that only a stranger would call companionable. The glistening stone walls feel to Lorenz as though they are inching closer, the door leading out shrinking, the air around them both thinning. When Claude rises at last, Lorenz looks resolutely down. He would close his eyes, if he did not think Claude could take one look and guess the ugliness of him that way.
What a mind Claude has. What a heart too, so well-hidden and preserved that Lorenz once thought it non-existent. It is painfully clear to him now just how obtuse he has been.
Claude’s step drag before him, his bare footfalls quiet over the wooden planks. The air he moves rushes hotly over Lorenz’s legs. The wound in Lorenz’s shoulder, bothered by the moving steam, stings anew.
Within a heartbeat, Lorenz has looked up.
Claude has his profile to him. The sauna is wide enough for a dozen people to sit, but the door is by Lorenz’s side, so Claude stands very near. In a second his head tilts sideways and down to meet Lorenz’s eyes, never facing him in full.
It very nearly looks as if he is unsure of himself.
“Thank you,” he tells him. “For being by my side, even though you distrust me. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
Lorenz sits in the corner of the bench, with his legs strained together and his arms linked before him, with his fingers dug into the meat of his own sides until they ache. His wet hair weighs so heavily that he feels he should bend the neck and bow; his back plows under it, pushed down by something that is not quite guilt and not quite devotion. Something much more selfish.
Claude chuckles before Lorenz can answer, turns away, opens the door. As he crosses it, he says: “Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll see eye to eye. I hear I grow on people. Maybe you’ll learn to tolerate me, too.”
I do, Lorenz thinks.
He can’t say it yet—he will never be able to—but the truth sits on the stone of his heart.