Actions

Work Header

From Grace

Chapter Text

I: White Clouds

            A week has passed since the murder of Jeralt Eisner, blade breaker and former captain of the Knights of Seiros. It has been just as long since Byleth has last been seen outside her chambers. Her teaching duties have been pawned off onto Catherine and Seteth who have taken turns lecturing and training the students of the Blue Lion house. It is evident that they are trying their best, but it is just as evident that they do not have the same affinity for teaching as Byleth.

            Despite himself, Dimitri dozes during Seteth’s bland teachings and struggles to match up to Catherine’s ridiculous expectations. From what he can tell, he is not alone in his difficulties. Sylvain has sulked throughout every class after Catherine threatened to have him ejected from the academy. Felix has stormed out of two group training sessions with Seteth. Annette has taken to wearing a brace from the strain of taking so many exhaustive notes. Mercedes has brought cupcakes to every class as a consolation for the awful lectures, but the sweets go untouched. No one dares to answer any questions or participate in class. They have all retreated into their respective selves. In a way, their isolation is a show of solidarity with their grieving professor.

            Annette has arranged a group study session to understand the mind-numbing complexities of Catherine’s intricate technique for their exam tomorrow. Dimitri is the only Blue Lion not in attendance. His nightmares have been growing steadily worse.  Keeping up with his studies is the least of his concerns. He spends all his free time battling his ghosts in the arena until his exhaustion gets the best of him.

            This night is no different. He hacks at training dummies until they lay in strewn heaps across the floor. He has been asked incessantly to refrain from demolishing the dummies, but his rage always gets the better of him. In the moments when his emotions untether, his strength manifests beyond his hands. He annihilates everything in his path. It has been months since he has sparred with a partner. Too often, he finds himself hungering for the hum of battle and the sting of blood on his tongue.

            As Dimitri strikes down the remaining dummy, a vision of his father’s murder streaks through his memory. He throws his lance to the ground and knuckles his eyes until the memory fades. All he can muster is a whimpered, “Please.”

            When it finally passes, he looks upon the destruction he has created and flees. He does not return his weapon to the rack.

            Outside, the fiery pink hues of dusk burn through his skin and set his soul ablaze. He sweats, but it fails to cool him. Ghosts claw at the shell of his skull. They stir his blood until it scalds. He is drowning upright. He is only seventeen.

            Hushed conversations drift on the stale wind. He passes a trio of whispering friends. They giggle behind flat palms. He does not recognize them, but they wave. They bat their eyelashes and puff their lips. Their stares burrow beneath his temples and then he is walking so fast he is nearly running. He can barely breathe, yet he cannot stop moving. The dormitory rooms are blurs in his periphery. His feet move to an unheard command, spurring him towards the steps that will lead to the second floor, to the privacy of his room in which he can come completely undone.

            As the pieces and pawns of the evil that has haunted him for so long reveal themselves, it is getting worse. The anxiety. The pains. The voices. He is getting worse.   

            Ingrid has voiced her concern. Sylvain has voiced his concern. Annette, Mercedes, Ashe, even Felix, who refuses to call him anything but a boar, has voiced their concern. They are all concerned by what they do not see. If they saw the truth of him, they would not be concerned. They would be horrified. He is a husk of human being. More of him slinks away with each day.

            Dedue is the worst of them all, constantly telling of herbs to remedy afflictions of the mind, even offering to retrieve some from the Archbishop personally, but Dimitri is unwilling to entertain the notion. His affliction is not of the mind, but of the soul.

            It is as Dimitri begins to descend the steps towards the greenhouse that he catches sight of her. She is standing at the end of the dock, holding a fishing rod between both her hands. It is a strange twist of fate. If he had descended the other side of the steps, closest to the dormitory, he never would have spied her.

            Byleth is free of her typical accoutrements. She wears only a thin shirt and grass stained pants. Her hip is free of the Sword of the Creator. For a moment, he is certain that he has impressed her image onto another woman. She looks nothing like the awe-inspiring warrior he knows her to be. She looks just like everyone else.

            Dimitri watches from the top of the steps as she reels in her line. When she pulls it out of the water, he sees that it is devoid of a hook. He watches her rub at her face. He hears her curse. The sun is to her back. It adorns her with a halo of gold. Looking at her now in such repose conjures his notions of her when they first met; otherworldly, inhuman, ethereal.

            Something twinges within the cavern of his chest. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t soothe either. It simply is.

            The steps slap against his boots as he takes them two at a time. He rushes towards the dock. A bird chitters and chides. He thinks better of his pace and slows. He stops. The dining hall is just behind him. Its windows are dark and glossy, yet vapid concern pierces his lungs. In the color of his mind, he can imagine Dorothea’s face smushed up against the gloomy glass and her twinkling eyes at the sight of him rushing to Byleth’s side. Then, he pictures Sylvain beside her and develops a stomachache.

            The two have been relentless ever since someone had let slip that Dimitri met their professor atop the Goddess Tower the night of the ball. Sylvain has been giving him inane tips in the art of flirtation. Dorothea wants to write an opera. Both are so enamored by a fiction that they refuse to listen to the truth. Nothing happened that night.

            Dimitri considers fleeing, but the fishkeeper is eyeing him. The man juts his thumb to the array of rods and gathered bait on the table beside him. Dimitri shakes his head. The man raises his eyebrows. He jerks his thumb towards the dock with pursed lips. Dimitri’s face blisters into a blush and his shoulders creep up to his ears. The fishkeeper doesn’t smile, but his mirth ekes out into the wrinkles around his eyes.

            “Best not keep her waiting, your highness,” the fishkeeper says with a demure bow of his head.

            Dimitri rubs his forehead. He detests that everyone comes to the same, wrong conclusion. Condolences are his only concern in approaching her. Of course, he has already given them with a compounded promise of joint revenge, but knows from his own experience that they are easily forgotten.

            Squinting into the setting sun, he steps onto the dock. He is unprepared for it to sway beneath his feet. Up close, he can see that the wood is worn and in desperate need of repairs. His stomach seizes as the current reverberates up through his knees. Moving water is something he avoids, preferring the stagnation of pools and ponds to the unpredictable whims of moving bodies.

            “Hello, Dimitri,” Byleth says. Her level voice, so similar in tambour to the drone of the monastery bells, abates his momentary worry. She squats beside a small box. Her body hides its contents from his sight. Jingles ring out as she rummages through it.

            “Hello,” he says. “How are you?”

            Whatever she desired, she has found for she stands and brandishes a hook in her hand. When she turns to him, she keeps her head hung low and looks out from underneath her lashes. The expression is guarded, but it does nothing to hide the red tint to her puffy eyes and the glistening streaks across her cheeks.

            “Still here,” she says.

            A rod made of colorless wood and covered in petty scratches juts from her hand. There are two blue splotches at the bottom, resembling hastily made handprints. At her feet is a newer, lacquered rod, but its line is wrapped tight and untouched.

            “Sometimes that is all you can do,” he says.

            She hums low in her throat. Her fingers work over the line and knot it through the eye of a hook. The breeze carries the stink of fish.

            “Have you come for a reason?” she asks. She stoops low and plucks a fat, squirming worm from a can beside the box.

            “I wanted to—”

            The hook pokes into her thumb. She curses and pulls her hand away. The worm falls to the dock. Blood wells in the wound. Her blood drips. It stains the wood and the worm with a crimson flare. Dimitri’s eyesight turns fuzzy. The ground sways beneath him. The water slaps at the dock. It is black as moonless night.

            “I’m sorry,” Byleth says. He focuses on her and the fuzzy outline of the sun around her. She sucks on her injured finger like a child nursing a papercut. “You were saying?”

            “I wanted to see how you were doing,” he says and speaking banishes the encroaching dark. “How you are truly doing.”

            Her thumb still parts her teeth, but her lips have gone still around it. She shakes the rod at him.

            “This was my father’s.”

            She says nothing else and he feels like a fool. Of course, it is her father’s. How many times has he ventured by to see father and daughter fishing side by side? Nearly every night, dinner had featured the option of fish, fresh caught by the Eisners. Ashe had called them the scourge of the aquatic. Slyvain had often waxed poetic about how he sympathized with the plight of Byleth’s trophies, having been hooked in similar fashion. Byleth had always smiled at the off-kilter rhyme, Dimitri remembers. But he doubts she ever will again.

            “After, Duscur,” he says without much thought, needing to remedy her empty, scooped-out expression. “I spent two days in my father’s closet, among his clothing. He left other things behind, but his clothes smelled the most like him. I did not eat or drink or sleep. I thought if I waited long enough, he would return...”

            A chill ruffles his spine as he trails off. There are a few details he decides not to share. Like how he’d wept and shrieked every time the attendants attempted to remove him. Or how he’d broken the wrist of one of the attendants when they’d tried to remove him by force. Or how he’d crushed a wayward rat beyond recognition with his bare hands. Or how he’d gouged deep, bloody ruts into his arms to quell the screaming in his head and how, only when he’d fallen unconscious from the blood loss, had they been able to drag him out.

            Byleth closes her eyes and the dark smudges beneath them become all the more noticeable. The rod trembles in her grasp. Her fingers are white at the knuckles.

            “Does it ever stop hurting?” she asks.  

            To another, he might have lied. But not to her.

            “Never,” he says.

            Her head dips in a solemn nod. Her brow furrows and her lips press together and he fears she might cry.

            But she doesn’t. She sighs with her body. When she bares her eyes to him once more, no grief glimmers in the corners.

            “Will you bait the hook?” she asks. She flattens her hand up against an invisible wall and he can see a smattering a fresh scabs dotting her fingers and palm. “I’m sick of stabbing myself.”  

            He agrees. She hands him the rod and then stoops down to retrieve the worm. She wipes it against her shirt so that it leaves a gooey, bloody trail. When she drops it into his hand, it is clean of blood except in a few wrinkles of its fatty body.

            Almost immediately, he fumbles with the hook and the worm falls through his fingers. It squirms along the splintered wood of the dock until Byleth scoops it into her hand. A flicker of bemusement dances in her eyes and lifts the corners of her lips. Heat crawls up from the back of his neck so he massages it. He looks to the horizon and hopes for the blaring sun to boil the embarrassment from the veins.

            “Forgive me if I’m wrong but, you’ve never fished before, have you?” Byleth asks.

            There’s no point in asking her how she can tell. He’s always been atrocious at hiding his uncertainty.

            “No. Most of the rivers near Fhirdiad are too monstrous or frozen for fishing,” he says. 

            “I’ll help you,” she says as she takes the hook from him. She spears the worm through its side and then laces it quivering, bleeding body round and round the hook until it has no hope of ever escaping. She returns it to him once the worm is thoroughly dead.

            “Cast it out,” she says.

            Though he’s passed by the pond enough to know what he should do, he hesitates. He fears catching the hook in her hair or snapping her father’s rod in a gust of uncontrolled strength.

            The rod is taken from him in silence. It is these moments of silence that he likes best about her. She never fills the dead air with empty words. Her silence gives him peace of mind.

            The reel hisses as she spins it until the line is slack. Then, she whips the rod so that the line arcs over their heads. After she has sent the hook sailing into the water, she hands the rod to him. He takes it without question. The gentle current of the water buoys the line.

            “And now we wait,” she says and she flops down onto the edge of the dock. Her short legs dangle just above the water. She shoves the box of fishing gear aside and pats the space beside her. It is difficult to sit while clutching the rod, but he manages. He does not hang his legs over the side as she does. His would surely plunge beneath the surface and he has never enjoyed getting his feet wet.

             Byleth leans back over her hands. She shakes her head so that her hair hangs loose and free over her shoulders. He stares out over the rippling water instead of into the flecks of gold in her irises.

            “Do you remember the fishing tournament?” she asks. The breeze rustles his bangs into his eyes so he blows them away with a huff before he says, “I remember Ingrid complaining that you bested her by an embarrassingly large margin.”

            “I wouldn’t say it was embarrassingly large,” she protests, but she boasts the smallest of smirks. It has been a slow process, but, little by little, she has opened up to him. Or he has gotten better at reading her. He isn’t sure which is closer to the truth.

            “I caught this massive fish, bigger than I’ve caught before, or after. And I was so excited."

            Dimitri imagines her with a look of impish excitement, but dislikes the way her face contorts in his mind’s eye. Her excitement is surely more subtle, he thinks. Perhaps, a flush of color across her cheeks or a sparkle in her eye, and maybe, if she were truly exhilarated, the hint of a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

            “So I rushed to tell my father and I remember holding up my hands to show him the size—” In tandem with her story, she leans forward and spreads her hands a good distance from each other. “—and he just laughs and pries them further apart and says, ‘Let me know when you catch one this big.’”

            Her expectant stare cues him to laugh. It isn’t that the story lacks humor, but that he hasn’t laughed on his own since he was a child. If he wasn’t expected to maintain a healthy social life, he wouldn’t laugh at all. But laughter is one of the few things that sets Byleth apart from the others. With her, he doesn’t mind forcing up a laugh, especially if it conjures one of her elusive smiles. In fact, there are a lot of things he doesn’t mind doing to elicit her smile.

            She smiles now and he takes the sight of her, smiling and resplendent in the setting sun, and bandages it over the gaping chasm within his chest. He rationalizes it as a memory of a time when his presence did not bring another sorrow.

            The sounds of the merchants closing up their shops swells over the water. Dimitri listens to the shuffle of feet and the slam of windows until the soft whisper of slumber catches his ear. At his side, Byleth has fallen asleep, sitting straight up.

            Soon, the sun has curved below the horizon and Byleth has curved with it. She leans against his shoulder. Her hair spills over his back. There is the tiniest hint of a bow in her lips.  He sits stiff and still. He is certain that if he moves, she will wake. She looks peaceful. She smells like a meadow of lilacs, rich and earthen.

            He wants to dart away, and he wants to stay. He knows he does not deserve such simplistic intimacy. Especially from her.

            But his eyelids gain weight. His head droops. He loses track of his hands. His breaths come slow and smooth. The breeze coming off the water is a lullaby. It envelops him until he is warm and content.

            And then there is a nibble on the line.

            Dimitri yanks up. He flings his arm up to the heavens. The rod goes with it. A fish, silver as steel, rockets from the water, tethered to the end of the line. It crosses before the setting sun in a mockery of an eclipse. The rod snaps clean in two. Dimitri’s mouth fills with sour dread. The fish sails over his head and falls to the dock with a watery slap.  

            Byleth jerks awake. She nearly knocks him into the pond as she scrambles after the fish. She scoops it into her hands. It is silver and glinting as it jerks against her fingers. Its eyes are a bulbous black. Its mouth puckers open and closed. To Dimitri, it looks like it is screaming.

            Half of Jeralt’s rod lies at Byleth’s feet. The other half is trapped within the mashing of his fingers. Shame spasms his fingers and the wood splinters.

            “This is… I can’t…” Byleth stammers. She looks from the fish to him and then back again. Her fingers strain pale against the fish’s slimy scales.

            “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean… It’s difficult to—"

            “No, it’s not that,” she interrupts. She eases the hook from the fish’s mouth. Blood dribbles along the fissures of its scale. “It’s a platinum fish. Jeralt always wanted to catch one.”

            The quiver of a smile shimmers through the usual mask of her face.

            “This is a sign,” she says.

            Dimitri clenches his teeth. In all the ways he’s tried to honor the unjustly dead, he has never received any such sign. Yet, Byleth receives a rare catch on her first attempt. Despair comes easily. She is right in saying the fish is a sign— it is a sign of her divinity and his damnation.    

            “Will you share it with me?” Byleth asks. She jiggles the gasping fish towards him.

            Her question rings hesitant, but her face is smooth and unbothered. He feels his own grow hot. It is a simple request, but it twists inside him to a place deeper than his brief frustration.

            There is potential in her proposal. In her joyful company, it would be easy to ignore his own faults. He can imagine himself sharing the fish with her, admiring the finesse of her hand as she debones it, standing clear as she grills it over the fire, watching the light of the flames liquify the heavy bags beneath her eyes, lying about the taste of it, saying he enjoys it thoroughly,

            And maybe, maybe he would walk her back to her quarters. Maybe he would thank her again for the treat. Maybe he would relish the sight of her beneath the watery moonlight. Maybe he would realize there was truth in Sylvain’s constant, unrelenting teasing. Maybe he did feel something beyond respect for her. Maybe she felt the same. Maybe she would take his hand and he would take hers. And maybe she would blush and say, “I wish I was another student here and not a professor.” And maybe he would kiss her.

            Maybe. But probably not.

            Starring into the mire of her stone-gray eyes, he realizes that he has found relief in Byleth’s absence these past few weeks. She has become an uncomfortable reality in his life, a desire he knows much better than to have.

            “I… Seteth assigned an arduous reading,” he says. He curls his toes inside the heavy leather of his boots to stomach the sting of lying.

            “Ah, of course,” she says, and the glitter in her eyes grows dull. In her hands, the fish has stopped squirming. “Another time, then.”

            Dimitri nods and then he leaves. As he climbs the steps to the nobles’ dormitory, his mouth sags and his hands will not be coaxed from tightly held fists.

Chapter Text

            The Flame Emperor’s hand has been revealed and her army marches on Garreg Mach. The forward scouts predict the might of Empire will be upon them come sun up. The fortifications have been raised. The students are well aware and well prepared for the fight ahead, but know that it will be different from their skirmishes against faceless bandits and thieves. This will be a fight against peers they broke bread beside and friends they did not get to exchange goodbyes with.  

            “What do we do, Professor?” Mercedes asks. Her hands are clasped over her heart and her gaze is fixed on the floor. She has been in a constant state of prayer since that night in the Holy Tomb. The pious sight of her makes Dimitri sick.

            “We kill them,” he says. His voice comes out like a distant thunderclap, all fury and threat. He is done repressing the beast within. He could not shove it back even if he so desired.

            The Blue Lions stand in a semicircle around their professor and they all shudder at his proclamation. Byleth is the only one who gives no reaction. She only stares with her new eyes like stained glass. Everything about her looks different, but she has not changed at all. Reality has been torn asunder. War is on the horizon. The wrongful dead wail for their tribute. And she appears completely unphased by it all. Not even a blessing from the Goddess can break through her mask.

            “What? How can you say that?” Annette cries and Dimitri realizes he has lost himself in the unwavering placidity of his professor’s face.

            “If you are unwilling, then you should have fled with the merchants,” he says. His arms are a tourniquet over the acid hate in his chest. It bleeds through easily, but he does not let it all drain out. The full wrath of it is for Edelgard alone.

            “And the boar finally reveals itself,” Felix mutters.

            Dimitri does not stiffen at the moniker as he has in the past. For the first time, he cannot deny that it is a fitting title. After all, only a wild beast could enjoy the snapping sensation of a man’s skull shattering between its fingers.

            Byleth is staring at him. There’s a crinkle to her lips that doesn’t last beyond a quick shimmer. He does not shy away from her gaze, but he doesn’t meet it either. The pinnacle of her head, where her hair flows like seafoam, draws his eye while she continues to stare and stare.

             “Tomorrow will be difficult, but we cannot hold back. If Edelgard wants a war, we have no choice but to give it to her,” she says and still she stares. It is rude, unbearably so. He knows she has been raised beyond civilization and beyond manners, but she has proven herself to be adept at picking up on social cues. Yet she stares at him unabashedly, no matter how he molds his face in disdain.

            Felix draws her attention with a pointed question about defensive maneuvers for the battle tomorrow. When he’s free of her, Dimitri turns to Dedue and finds an expression equal to the one he’s just been released from. The weight of Dedue’s dedication has become insufferable. Each day is a new torment of lectures about what he should be eating and how long he should be sleeping and why he should be taking medicine and doesn’t he see that he’s only hurting himself? No matter how Dimitri protests, Dedue does not let up. If anything, his protests only enhance Dedue’s mother-hen nature.

            “Please, get some rest,” Byleth says, her conversation with Felix over. “You’ll need all your strength for tomorrow.”

            Nobody speaks. In the filtered dusk, she looks like a lost saint, forgotten to the whims of time. Divinity is etched into the very soul of her being. It had lain dormant in the time before she cleaved the sky atwain, he knows, but it is unignorable now that her form has been remodeled in the visage of the Goddess.

            “Dismissed,” she says.

            The dismissal moves through the group like a ripple in water. Sylvain is the first to leave, folding his arms behind his head and offering a chipper goodbye that clashes with his wary frown, followed by Felix, then Ingrid, and then the rest.

            Dimitri moves to follow, but Dedue wavers in his path, hindering his escape like a felled log across a forest path. Liquid sunlight catches in the gold heart dangling from Dedue’s earlobe. It flashes and blinds.

            “Dimitri?” Byleth asks. “Will you stay a moment longer?”

            And then Dedue is gone, melting like mist into the twilight. His heavy footsteps do not disturb the settling silence as his hulking shadow slithers away. There is unparalleled grace in his huge mass that Dimitri cannot help but to watch. 

            “I know it’s been hard for you,” Byleth says.

            Hedging around the issue has never been her style, as it is for most. Once, her bluntness had been refreshing, but now he can only scoff.

            “Dedue put you up to this,” he says as he turns to glare.

            “Yes, but I was planning to speak with you regardless.” A frown mangles the calm of her mouth. Discomfort has become a staple for her as emotionlessness once was. Events of the past week seem to have made the expression easier for her.

            Behind her, the sunlight is dying. Motes of dust shimmer in the weakening rays as a cold breeze sweeps through the classroom. Strands of lank hair hiss across the bridge of his nose.

            “Speak.”

            The brusque command strips the varnish from her eyes and, for a glimmering moment, he hears himself laughing and shattering the porcelain mask of the Flame Emperor beneath his foot, sees himself lunging at Edelgard, screaming at Edelgard, launching his lance at Edelgard, feels himself slipping through steady hands and plunging into the uncertain abyss; all within the emerald of her eyes.  

            But then it is gone and the shield rises again beneath the rind of her flesh. She is as impassive as ever, a stone fashioned into the likeness of a woman, when she says, “You are letting your lust for revenge corrupt who you are.”

            This is not the first time the sentiment has been expressed to him. Dedue has taken him aside at every opportunity to suggest the same. But they are both wrong. He has never been more himself.

            “And?”

            A lament of his supposedly degraded morality or the risk to his royal ascension is his expectation, having endured infinite variations of both from Dedue, but he receives neither.

            “And it scares me.”

            Not concerns. Not worries. Scares.

            And she lets him see it, furrows her brow and slants her mouth and permits her eyes to simmer with the possibility of unshed tears. The Ashen Demon has retreated and a scared woman has taken its place.

             The cathedral bells ring out, heralding the coming night. They sing a simple tune that mimics the melody of a lullaby he has long forgotten until falling silent once more. Once, the holy air of the monastery had carried the chance of penance. Now, it only stifles. 

            Byleth’s lips purse on the verge of new articulation, but he speaks over her intentions and says, “That is rich coming from the woman who led her class into battle against certain death for the chance of revenge.”

            Her watches her arms fold over her chest and hug tight so that her sleeves strain against the coiled muscle beneath. Her hair hangs loose and limp over her face. In the dimming light, she is aged to the point of pity.

            “I was going to resign,” she says. She delivers her words in a strict meter and the restraint in her voice makes his fingers curl. She shares nothing with anyone, least of all him. Her secrets are her own. He does not want them. “I packed up my room, drafted a formal letter. But Rhea begged me to stay. When I refused, she threatened you.”

            A week ago, the notion of holding enough worth to Byleth to justify a threat might have made his thoughts swoon. But whatever feelings he may have harbored went up in flames at the weight of Byleth’s hand on his shoulder, pulling him back, restraining him from his destiny, ignoring the whims of the dead.  

            “Am I supposed to be flattered?” he sneers.

            “No,” she says. “I made a mistake. It almost cost me my life and countless others. I would not do it again if given the chance.”

            But she is lying. He can see it in the jut of her chin and the clench of her jaw. It is the very same tension he sees in his own reflection by candlelight, after the nightmares have torn him from the comfort of sleep.

            She is hungry for revenge, just as he is. And she will starve without it.

            Gesticulating wildly to herald the intensity of his coming words, his hands take on a life of their own. He demands, “Do you not wish to strike down every single one that had a hand in his death?”

            “Yes, but—”

            “And you cannot live with yourself knowing that they still infect the world with their depravity.”

            She does not meet his gaze, but looks instead to the vaulted ceiling above. Cobwebs drip from the beams like blood from a broken nose. His euphoric mania withers in uncertainty.

            “I have to believe there is more to life then avenging every single injustice in the world,” she says. “There is more to your life, Dimitri,”

            His hands turn to fists. His mouth becomes full of stinging nettles as his face flushes with horrid heat. She is mistaken. He has no life to call his own.

            “Jeralt deserves better. You are a disgrace to his name.”

            The demons speak through him, accusing her of his own misgivings and faltering convictions. But it wounds her just as it wounds him.

            Beneath the hurt, he finds fascination in watching a flicker of pain twitch across the desert of her face. It is akin to watching light filter through the cathedral in the moments before daybreak, hauntingly beautiful.

            “Get out,” she says.

            It is his turn to stare to the extreme of social reproach. He presses his lips into a thin blade as the vitriol of her command soaks in.

            “I won’t repeat myself,” she says.

            Her voice is reminiscent of Felix’s, but with the added tonal quality of a wound rubbed raw. He doesn’t press her. He turns for the door.

            Just before leaving, he steals a glance back at her. She sits on her desk. Her feet dangle. One toe traces the floor. Mossy hair blocks the stoop of her head and her slim hands mask the light of her eyes. There comes a wet sucking breath that shudders through her shoulders and all at once, he wants to apologize. But he doesn’t. Words are wasted on the living.

            Outside, the winter air is unforgiving. Within seconds, it saps moisture from the meat of his face until his skin burns. Smooth leather soothes the sting as he covers his face with his gloved hands. The swirling night calls to him as he stares into it between forked fingers. Faces leer from brick and tree alike. Some resemble those he loved as he knew them. Others are merely skeletal remains of those he cannot recall.

            “Are you okay?” a timid voice asks from the shadows. He turns and sees Annette lingering like a ghost beside the classroom entrance. Without asking, he knows she has stayed behind to bend the professor’s ear, a question surely sparking like lightning inside that obsessive skull of hers, but the sight of her infuriates him.

            Stiffening his spine and dropping his hands, he commands, “You heard nothing.”

            His words are bared teeth and her concern shatters into liquid fear. She quivers back into the dark. He walks away with the cowering sight of her impressed into his eyelids. The feeling is interlocked pride and shame.

            Voices mutter against the howling wind. They whisper of recompense and foregone glory. Each word nestles into the hollow of his chest, bolstering his resolve. Though the living try to convince him otherwise, he is on the right path. Tomorrow, he will have Edelgard’s head to satisfy the dead. And he will finally sleep soundly beneath the blessings of the departed.

Chapter Text

            Five years is a long time to spend in hell. In the wilderness, time passes without reason. It is night and then it is day and then it is night again, but everything in between is glossy and unreal.

            In the day, Dimitri feeds off the land, taking sustenance where he can find it, and offers tribute to the ghosts that stalk his every step. His nights are spent in communion with the long moldering dead. He promises them their vengeance, but no matter the bodies he stacks for them, they only grow hungrier.

            Thoughts of the past, of his academy days, are kept buried. If they do emerge, in moments when the world is quiet, he remembers only the bittersweet things: Ingrid’s forlorn smile at the reminder of Glenn, Mercedes’ sewing needles bent in half, Sylvain’s biting laugh at the question of a burial for Miklan, Dedue’s flowers in bloom, Annette’s glittering stare at the suggestion of Gilbert, Byleth’s hand on his shoulder, trying and failing to pull him back from the brink.

            Beyond those flashes, he keeps everything else shoved into the places of his mind that he cannot reach. There is only space for thoughts of survival and killing. Even Dedue’s death, which drove him out into the wild to begin with, is a passing memory, one that he only sees in the grips of a nightmare.

            Of his time spent alone, he remembers only the blood he sheds, the monsters he kills, and the loss of his eye.

            It was broad daylight, not even near nightfall. It was hot, unbearably hot. The Imperial scouting party lay like slaughtered deer around his feet. His father stood amid the carnage, a crimson slash across his throat, and his old riding instructor beside him, her head in her hands, blonde hair streaked through with red hanging like the leaves of a willow between her fingers. And it hadn’t been a new sight, but on that day, that hot, unbearably hot, day it had been too much.

            It had been a simple thing to render his eye to jelly. And even as he had writhed in the bloody dirt among the freshly murdered, the dead were unquiet. They wanted more. If he had remained alert, he might have given it to them, might have gouged out the other eye, might have ripped out his own throat.

            When he returns to the monastery, it is a twist of accidental destiny. The rats masquerading as men made camp there, so he followed. It was only natural; a predator on the scent of its prey.  

            They hardly put up a fight and he fells them without breaking a sweat. And then he rests at the top of the stairs, waiting for the scurry of more vermin, but it never sounds. There is only the creep of footsteps on the aged steps. And then she emerges without ceremony or sound.

            When she fell, when the battlefield descended into a bloodbath, he was not there, not even conscious. His bloodlust had ended in a concussion and a broken wrist. They’d restrained him when they broke the news, kept him tethered to a cot like a dog on a leash.

            “The professor is among the casualties,” Dedue had said. “I know she was precious to you.”

            What is the last thing he said to her? He couldn’t remember then and he can’t now, but he knows it was vile, dripping in venom and hate. Even when she doesn’t appear among the horde of the dead, he still takes her death to heart. He will avenge her just like all the others because he must. If he thinks of her, it is as she was before the Goddess, with her dark hair and her ocean eyes, the way she looked that night at the Goddess Tower when he had gotten an inkling of how Sylvain could bear to waste his time chasing after women because there seemed no greater thrill than breathing in the presence of one as lovely as her. And it makes it that much harder, if he dares to think of her.

            But here, in the dusty tower among still-bleeding bodies, she stands and proves to him how his memory has failed. Her hair is longer, wilder, brighter, and her eyes are tinged like a wolf’s, rivaling the moon with their luminosity. She wears no simple garment of modest fashion like she did that night, but bloodied, broken armor, damaged beyond repair. The rest of her is the same. Still small. Still slender. Still Byleth.

            And he has not been Dimitri in so long, has been something, someone, else entirely. He has grown taller, broader, stronger, fiercer. Most do not recognize him. Most cower in fear.    

            But she doesn’t. She stands, shrouded by the soft morning light, and offers her hand. And, for the first time in a long time, his future seems wholly uncertain.

Chapter Text

II. Azure Moon

            The Kingdom army is on the precipice of Alliance territory en route to the Valley of Torment when they make camp in the woods, in a place Byleth claims to know well. Dimitri has every intention of remaining at camp that night and surmising the best way to separate Edelgard’s head from her fine shoulders, but the scouts report thieves and vagabonds laying waste to a nearby settlement and he must go. He must break the cycle of the strong preying upon the weak.

            And it is good practice for the massacre destined to him.

            Byleth trails him in silence, a poor imitation of his shadow. It has been several moons since her return that comes five years too late and she has become a bad taste in his mouth. No matter where he goes, she follows, despite his disdain, smearing her own hands with the viscera of sin on his behalf. She is a silent, unmoving reminder of what he has become and what he could have been.

            “There is good in you still,” she has said in that inflectionless, echoing voice of hers. This had come after his steel façade cracks, after he screams at her to abandon all hope of returning to the past, after he reveals that he wishes every moment of every day that she had remained a specter in his memory, that she had never crawled up from the muck of the river, that she had slept forever and left him to his torment.

            While he and Byleth charge headlong into battle against the marauders, the others remain in camp. Dimitri does not care that they leave the bloody business to him. In fact, he prefers it this way. He enjoys the violence and the bloodshed. It is retribution and it is freedom. The rush of death is the only power strong enough to overwhelm the singeing guilt that assails his heart.

            Soon after engaging the horde of thieves, he realizes that these are not average wastrels. They carry weapons beyond the scope of petty thieves. With burning swords and flaming lances, they reap destruction with ease. The huts and the people smolder and bleed.

            Still, even with their strange weapons, they are no match for him and his thirst for vengeance. Uncontrollable strength, once the bane of his childhood, has become his greatest boon. He can cleave through enemies with little effort, felling villain after villain with only a single hit. His lance draws screams from the air as Dimitri commands it to kill.

            Soon, only the leader of the rats is left, cowering amid the ruins and begging for mercy.

            Dimitri brings his lance back to lop off the thief’s head, but Byleth is faster. She wields the Sword of the Creator like a whip and wrenches his lance to the ground so that its tip is driven deep into the stone. Though he could rip it free with ease, he doesn’t for Byleth holds him back with a splayed hand. The curve of her fingers, so subtle and delicate, is caked in crimson grim.

            “Where did you get these weapons?” Byleth asks.

            “The Empire,” the thief cries and that is enough for Dimitri. His lance is up and arcing for the thief’s jugular, but there is a flash of dark magic and time becomes like glue. The thief shrieks and their arm jerks up, a weapon screeching to life in their hand, but the sound is like being underwater and the movement is slow in Dimitri’s vision. There is a pain, indescribable and crippling across his chest, and then it is gone as if it had never existed at all. He drives his lance through the thief’s neck until blood spurts and coats the ground in a heavy dusting.

            Byleth has fallen in front of him. He does not recall how that has happened, but, on the hill above, he can see the plumes of Imperial knights, watching the carnage like opera spectators and he does not care how she came to fall. He is running for them.

            Then he isn’t.

            The world melts away in a blur of shimmering color that makes his teeth pang. When the haze clears, he stands within a dark thicket of maple, engulfed by the scent of sap and summer.   There is a cabin, dilapidated and unfamiliar, in front of him. There is a babbling brook behind him. The grass is green and verdant around him. There is a splash behind him and Byleth says, “I’m sorry.”

            Dimitri whirls, furious and murderous, but she has collapsed into the stream. The burbling water runs red and murky around her. Beneath the ripples, he can see the gash in her armor. It is a gaping chasm that bears her insides from hip to navel. His howling anger withers on his tongue. He does not even know how she has become so grievously wounded.

            “I’m sorry,” she repeats. Her voice is thinner in the middle, already weaker than before. It is the same tone she took upon their bitter reunion so few moons past.

            “I was thinking of my father.”

            He has no idea what she means or why she has brought them here or where here was. His fury scratches at the back of his throat, screeching to be let loose, but then her eyes, icy and endless, flitter close and she slumps into the brook. Her head dips beneath the water. Her breath ripples the surface. The stream turns her minty hair the color of jade. 

            As the birds sing from swaying branches, he lifts her from the water because he knows he must. Rivets of water stream from her body, her skin, her hair, and glisten like quicksilver over his midnight armor. Her head lulls against his shoulder. Even through the shell of his armor, her warmth tingles. His lance lays forgotten on the grass.

            Moving stiffly, Dimitri heads for the cabin and, though the door is locked, he is inside a few moments and two sharp kicks later. His gaze sweeps the interior and there is a collection of moldering dolls with black button eyes that stare back at him. They are huddled together in a pile of overlaid limbs. It is impossible to tell where one begins and another ends. Cobwebs adorn the roughhewn cotton of their hair. Their stitched grins are faded.

            Blood ekes through the joints of his vambrace and tingles his skin with sickening warmth. He glances around the room, but there is only meager furniture and endless decay. In the center of the room, beside a tiny, rotting dining table, he lays her down. He keeps his back to the dolls, rebuking their accusations.  

             He rushes to remove his gauntlets, struggling over the knotted straps, and then he flings them aside. They slam into the wall. He imagines they dent the aged wood, but he doesn’t bother to follow their trajectory. He is thinking only of her and it is a long time since he has thought so sincerely about any of the living.

            He rends her armor apart with his hands. It snaps like the carapace of a crab. The skin beneath is mangled, but there is a resin around the edges left from hastily performed white magic. Her own doing, surely.

            To the sound of wrenching metal, she jerks awake with a gasp. When her gaze gains focus, she says his name like a prayer. Her hand rises to grip his armored forearm. Her touch is feeble, pathetic. Her eyes eviscerate.

            Blood gushes from her, mingling with the dust and turning the floor muddy red. There is a moth-eaten tablecloth strung over the table. He snatches it and the table upsets, clattering to the floor with a roar to rival a Demonic Beast’s. He wads up the cloth and presses it against her wound.

            She recedes from his touch, as if she intends to burrow through the floor. Her hands latch onto his wrists. They bend the metal into his skin beneath. He does not relent until the tablecloth is soggy with the color of rust and panic begins to gnaw at his frayed nerves. The color is draining from her cheeks. Her eyes suddenly seem too large and wideset within the intricates of her face.

            She is dying and he does not want her to. He has already believed her dead once and that was hard enough. This would be harder. Much harder because it would, unequivocally, be his fault.

            Taking life has become as simple as breathing, but maintaining it chills him to the bone. He knows little of medicine or magic, neither having captivated his interest as a student, but now he recognizes his disinterest as just another of his devastating failures.

            “What do I do?” he asks. His voice does not sound like his own. It has not been his for a long while. Nothing has.

            “Cauterize it,” she says. Her teeth are white as mausoleums within the growing pallor of her face.

            He guides her hand to the ruined tablecloth and pushes it down, silently instructing her to maintain pressure. She winces but does not remove her hand. He knows it is an empty attempt, but, for the moment, it placates him.

            Dimitri stands. His armor creaks and groans around his joints. It has been a long time since he has maintained anything but the sharpness of his lance. His hair has grown long and wild. His face has become sharper and haggard. He can no longer bear to look at himself in a mirror.

            There are logs in the fireplace, faded with age, but they catch blaze quickly after a few strikes of the flint. The sudden, blaring warmth of the fire rushes his senses and, for a moment, he is cemented in time. The heat coaxes the beast from the blackest depths. It would be so easy to kill her, to end the nuisance of her presence once and for all. What is the risk of one more ghost?

            Dimitri’s hand shakes as he draws a dagger from his belt. The flames make it glow while they lick at his hand. He can hear Byleth shifting behind him, but the whispers of the damned clog his ears and stifle his concern.

            When the dagger burns as hot as the sun, he pulls it from the blaze and kneels by her side. The leather hilt that normally carries the Sword of the Creator is wedged between her teeth. The relic itself lies discarded beside her head. Without her touch, it is dull and yellow as bone.  

            He strips her free of the bloody tablecloth and brings the heated dagger to the weeping gash before she gives any indication that she is prepared. Her skin fizzles. The stench of burning flesh is immediate. Her shout is muffled by her self-imposed gag. The agony finds its way to him anyway. It catches him in the chest. The suffering of another has not affected him since the death of Dedue, but this, this takes hold of the wrinkled sliver that is left of his heart and squeezes tight and hard.

            Byleth’s hands fist. She beats against the floor in a frenzied rhythm. He lifts the dagger free and examines his work. Her eyes roll back to the whites. Her lids twitch closed. The wound and the ravaged skin around it are as red as a fall sunset. He brings the flat of the dagger down twice more until the wound no longer bleeds.

            Dimitri sheathes the dagger and sits back over his feet. The jagged metal of his boots bites into his skin at the unnatural position. The small pain numbs the whirling torment in his mind. His thoughts become actions and he goes through them in swift motions. First, he frees her from the constraints of her broken breastplate. He is careful to keep his eye from wandering over the intimacies of her figure, wrapped as they might be. There are a great many aspects of his upbringing that have corroded with his sanity, but desire is still something he resists, for propriety and decency’s sake but also because he is so unworthy.

            Byleth does not wake, but her chest rises and falls in slow cadence. Her breath is weak, but it is there.

            Gently, as gently as he can muster, he lifts her from the ground. She is so light and limp that holding her is like holding fog. Her skin is warm silk, fading fast, against his bare hand.

            There are two small beds pushed against the back wall and he rushes to deposit her in one. He covers her in the ratty, mildewed sheets. He kicks at the hill of dolls at his feet. They tumble soundlessly into pathetic lumps across the floor. He thinks of throwing them into the fire to watch their grins dissolve, but, instead, he retrieves his lance from the grass outside. He closes the door as best he can given its broken hinges.

            Dimitri relegates himself to the unoccupied bed and finds the mattress hard and lumpy. He watches Byleth murmur in her sleep and then he is drifting through the same blackness, exhaustion overtaking his crashing adrenaline.

            He dreams of Glenn. In his dream, the blade pierces Glenn’s chest as it always does, but this time Glenn does not fall and die. He crawls hand over knee to Dimitri’s feet. He begs to be saved. He weeps. The tears are bloody and viscous. Dimitri weeps with him.  

            When the nightmare loosens its grip, he awakens to moonlight filtering through dusty curtains and the jittering of Byleth’s bed. She is shaking so violently that the bed creaks.

            He thinks of crawling into bed beside her, wrapping himself around her and draining her of all the warmth she has left to give, but he does not trust the notion. She is weak and she is sick and so is he.

            Byleth stirs. Her words are punctuated by her chattering teeth as she says, “Camp isn’t far. Go find them.”

            The idea is preposterous. He will not leave her. He would be accused of her murder.

            He stands and makes his way to her to the sound of the crackling fire. Her eyes are wolfish and luminous in the flickering dark. They never flinch away from him. She struggles to sit up. The blanket slips down to her waist. She is vulnerable and soft in the firelight. Despite everything, she reaches for him. Her trembling fingers cast a promise of safety and comfort against the wall.

            There is a hesitation in her stare now that was not there before the war, but has been there ever since their reunion, no matter how he screams and threatens and sinks. It is disgust and horror and longing that refuses to be stifled. He knows because he has felt the same. He wants to break himself against her arms, but there would be nothing salvageable afterwards.

            Felix has called him feral. And maybe feral gets to the core of what he is, even if it is not as gentle as suggestions of mad and insane.

            When he avoids her touch and grabs the headboard of her bed, she falls back to her pillow. She closes her eyes so that the edges crinkle. The floor howls as Dimitri drags the bed from the corner to the fireplace. The light of the flames writhes in her hair. He leaves her to the warmth of the fire and returns to the bed he’s claimed for the night.

            He sits with his back to the wall and he watches her examine the extent of her wound. She pokes at it. Her face doesn’t shift, but he can see the pain in her eyes. Once, he had thought she had simply grown more expressive around him, but the truth is that he had grown accustomed to her mannerisms. Now, it is a wasted talent.

            “Between jobs, this is where I lived with my father,” Byleth says. “I haven’t thought of this place in years, but when that sword cut through me…”

            She does not finish. She shifts from the sheets. Her face tinges white as she presses a hand to her side.

            “Will you do me another favor?” she asks.

            “I have done enough,” he says and it hurts, but he says it anyway. He needs her face to fall and her smile to curdle and her eyes to sour with tears. She must realize that he is beyond her touch. It is easier this way. There is nothing for him except blood and revenge. He cares for nothing but carrying out the will of his ghosts.

            When she stands, he makes no move to stop her. He only watches her feet mark delicate footprints through the dust. She stumbles with every step, and his resolve stumbles with her, but he remains still. Even in the firelight, he can see that her hand is strained white against her side, keeping the pain from spilling out with only the pressure of her palm.  

            She reaches the corner where her bed once sat and leans heavily against the wall. She stoops and then she is huddled against the floor, fumbling with the board closest to the wall. Her breaths are wheezes as she struggles with the nails. She pulls at them with her fingernails and it must hurt, but she does not stop. He wishes she would.      

            It is a slow, torturous sight to behold, but Dimitri remains rooted in place. When she finally pries up the board and reaches beneath it, he releases a silent breath so strong that it rustles the unkempt curtain of his bangs. He cannot see what she has retrieved for she cradles it to her chest, slumping over it to keep it from his sight.

            “I hid this here before the Empire attacked the monastery,” she says.

            He remembers catching her creeping through the back gates the night before the Empire laid siege from the vantage of his window, but he was already too far gone to care. His only concerns had lain with overdue vengeance. Only later, when he stood accused of murderous treason had he wondered where she had gone and what would have become of him if he had gone with her, if he had allowed her to help him instead of pushing her away.

            “My father hated Garreg Mach,” she says. “I was terrified of dying and leaving it behind there.”

            Byleth slides the retrieved treasure onto her ring finger and holds it up to her face, but she grimaces and quickly switches it to her other hand. A smile hovers on her usually stoic face. When she lowers her hand, the smile dissipates. She touches her ringed hand to the blackened skin beside her navel.

            “It hurts,” she says.

            Whatever strength had captivated her is gone. She sways on the ground. Her eyelids flitter like Lindhardt’s during early morning lectures. She sags against the wall.

            The bed groans as Dimitri moves from it. He kneels in front of her, but her eyes stare beyond him. She reaches up. Her thumb brushes the cheekbone beneath his eyepatch. The heel of her hand presses against his lips. The scent of her skin is clean beneath the grime.

            “Goodnight,” she slurs, and she collapses against his chest. He presses his palm to her forehead. The skin is slick with sweat and feverish. He hooks one arm under her neck and the other under her legs and he lifts her once more. When she is in his arms, he can see that the unburnt skin around her wound is mottled with dark, purple lines. He tilts her down to press his hand to the purple lightning. They are molten heat beneath his fingertips. He doesn’t know what they indicate, but he knows it must be dire.

            As he carries her back to her bed, her ring catches in the firelight and sends waves of glittering stars across the room. He begins to lay her down onto the sheets but thinks better of it. He says her name. He jostles her, softly at first, and then roughly so that her head slams up and down against his shoulder. She is unresponsive. Her breath is there, but just barely. If the circumstances were different, he might have thought she was sleeping.

            Numbness swells in place of panic. He sets her down. He slings his lance across his back using the ruined tablecloth and then he wraps her in the sheets. She is frozen to the touch.

            To the sound of rustling bushes and babbling brooks, Dimitri carries Byleth’s comatose body through dense forest and over gnarled roots. The moon is his only source of light and it is waning tonight. It is pure luck that he finds the encampment. He has never been good with directions.

            Gilbert rushes to meet him immediately. At first, the old man yells and scolds, but the anger in his voice shatters at the clear sight of Byleth, limp and pale.            

            Mercedes and the other healers overwhelm him. Dimitri offers Byleth to them willingly. He can’t stand it anymore. He storms off for his tent, but Felix is hot on his heels.

            “What did you do, boar?” Felix sneers.

            Dimitri offers no answer. His tent is in sight. He continues towards it. Felix does not follow. He screams, “How much more blood can you stomach? Will you not settle until you’ve killed every last one of us?”

            Dimitri slips into his tent. He does not wash the blood from his hands. He does not clean his armor. He does not remove his lance from his back. He sits and he waits.

            Later, how much later, he doesn’t know, Mercedes comes to his tent. She pulls away the flap, but she does not enter.

            “It seems she’s slept it off,” Mercedes says. “The Goddess is with us.”

            The flap shuffles back into place. Dimitri watches the shadows dance across the rough burlap. He feels nothing.  

Chapter Text

            Despite the efforts of others, Garreg Mach monastery is still in shambles, and the cathedral is worst of all. The statues of the Saints are mangled and tarnished. Mold and decay have taken root within cracked stone and tile. Stained glass monuments to the Goddess are shattered. Much of the ceiling lays on the floor in a monstrous heap of rubble.

            And it is here where Dimitri chooses to pass his time. His haunts from his days at the Officers’ Academy, namely the training ground and the knights’ quarters, are too engorged with memories of the past for him to linger. Edelgard’s presence is everywhere familiar to him, the dining hall, the courtyard, the classrooms. But not in the cathedral.

            Here, among the rotting pews and disparaged altar, his ghosts are slow to anger. They beg him for Edelgard’s head and bemoan their agony, yes, but they are not as inclined to manifest as abominations of humanity or demand his blood as penance.

            Tonight, the dead do not appear to him in any form, perhaps because their numbers have dwindled by one. Because Dedue has returned. Because Dedue walks amongst the living. Because Dedue, who had been studded with enough arrows to fell a battalion, has come back from the dead. And Dimitri, who for so long has felt nothing but hatred and sorrow, sits back against a pillar before the jagged window that once bore the holy visage of the Goddess and weeps.

            The salt stings at the rawness of his unwashed, wind-burnt face, but he cannot stop the tears from falling. Since youth, he has been prone to bouts of horrid, messy crying, despite his best efforts to restrain the wet emotion. Not even the ravages of revenge could rend that instinct from him, but, now, for the first time in a long time, there is a twinge of relief in his tears. Because Dedue still breathes.  

            The cathedral is silent save for the sniffle of his sobs, but, every so often, a bout of drunken singing or raucous laughter mars the still. Dedue’s return, coupled with the successful capture of the Great Bridge of Myrddin has put the army into a state of euphoria. On his way to the cathedral, Dimitri had stepped over sprawled soldiers and avoided a drunken brawl, all in broad daylight. As he has whittled away the hours in the cathedral, the celebration seems only to have grown. And he hates them for it.

            Through his tears, he glares up at the stark night sky and curses the swelling crescendo of violins and horns. To Dimitri, a punch in the gut would be preferable to the carefree celebration. There can be no merriment while the dead waste away in eternal agony, regardless of any momentary bliss. 

            It is soon after the music dies that the cathedral doors creak open and voices waft like incense on the stiff air. He recognizes them immediately without having to slink from his hunched position. Surely, he would recognize Rodrigue’s refined accent and Byleth’s inflectionless drawl anywhere, even if he were deaf, dumb, and blind.   

            As he listens to the growing conversation, Dimitri can think of no reason why Rodrigue and Byleth would have need to interact, but, then again, he has interacted little with her since her injury. After returning from Ailell, she has not followed him out on his hunts, has barely spoken to him beyond directives and strategies. With her gone, he can once again relish in the rush of a kill without her judging eyes burrowing into his back. When blood coats his hands and human viscera adorns the grass, he can grin without regret and laugh without reprieve. In her absence, he has rediscovered his sadistic mirth and abandoned the lingering questions she had conjured within him. He has grown bolder in his convictions and his methods of defending them.

            “You and I are the same,” he had said to her earlier that day and how she glowered at him! Gone are the days when she would gaze wistfully upon him like he was only a breath away from renouncing the needs of the dead. Now, she only stares out from a blank mask, or glowers when he shouts or needles her.

            Ultimately, Dimitri is glad to be free of her devastating stare, but its absence does tinge a great many things bittersweet. Often, he finds himself barking a command to watch out to the empty air or checking over his shoulder to see if she has snuck after him. In a way, her absence had ruined the thrill of his hunts just as much as it had enhanced them, yet her continued presence at the monastery has ruined everything else.

            In the glowing aftermath of Dedue’s return, Dimitri had wanted desperately to train with the other man, to pretend, however foolishly, that the years had not taken their toll. So, after returning from putting down a group of bandits that had grown too boisterous on the trek back from Ailell, he had tracked him to the greenhouse with intentions to demand his time, but Byleth, having remained at the monastery, had beaten him to it. The air had been so stifling as he stood and watched their tearful reunion, unable to move away from the scene.

            Even now, his stomach roils and the encounter flashes in shattered glass fragments through his mind: Dedue’s trembling fingers curling a strand of minty hair behind her ear, placing a tender white blossom in the divot of her ear, her arms ensnaring Dedue, her face, serene and flushed, pressing against Dedue’s chest, her lips, murmuring, “I’m so thankful. So glad.”

            And the moment Byleth was a mere shadow in the distance, Dimitri had slunk into the greenhouse and sneered, “How touching” because wasn’t it just? Wasn’t it just so sweet that it made his teeth pang? Wasn’t it just so sickening that it narrowed his vision to a red haze? Wasn’t it just so damned wonderful that it belonged in a storybook?  

            When he stumbles into the cathedral and weeps for Dedue, it is because he is so thankful and so enraged that the other man has returned. It doesn’t make any sense, but nothing has made much sense since Byleth crawled up from the river and waltzed back into his life.

            Now, her voice drifts like a forgotten memory on the stale air.

            “Thank you for accompanying me,” Byleth says. Her voice is a sweetness in the dusty air, brushing cobwebs from the abandoned space with every word. “But I assure you, I can handle myself.”

            Rodrigue laughs, the way Dimitri remembers him laughing when his father and Glenn still roamed the earth, and says, “I don’t doubt it, but I will sleep better knowing that you went undisturbed.”

            Dimitri leans back against the pillar, foolishly hoping to be devoured by the smooth marble. He has done his best to avoid Rodrigue. He needs pity from no man. 

            “I hope you will consider what I’ve said,” Rodrigue says and Dimitri considers masking the sound of the older man’s voice with his hands. Everything he says, no matter the context, sounds like a lecture. “I know that I am asking much of you, but, please, he will listen to you.”

            Stiffening at the assumed invocation, Dimitri scowls. He will listen to no living soul and Byleth least of all. Or so he tells himself.

            “Why entrust this to me?” Byleth asks. Her voice is close, another step more and she would be able to see him hunched in the dark, but it draws no nearer. When Rodrigue speaks, his words carry from farther away, softer than they had once been.

            “I know you have only his best intentions in mind.”

             Rodrigue’s footsteps retreat and then recede behind the slamming door. In the resounding silence, Dimitri stands. The groan of his armor echoes.

            Byleth says nothing, but she has the Sword of the Creator drawn when he steps from the shadow of the pillar. A sigh crosses her lips and then she sheathes her relic. In a gauzy dress cast in the dim starlight, Byleth takes on the appearance of a lonesome spirit, come to guide his soul on to the next life.

            Once, it had been suggested that he had an inclination for the poetic and maybe that is why his mind slips so easily into exaggeration and metaphor, but, truly, it is a means of survival, of keeping himself sane when everything feels much too real. 

            “Conspiring with Rodrigue?” Dimitri asks. “I thought you smarter than that.”      

            Nothing moves across her face as she shakes her head. Her eyes are bright, but burdened with the strain of barring her thoughts from him.

            “I didn’t realize you were here, Dimitri.”

            She sounds tired, bored of him already, thinking of others, thinking of Dedue, probably. Her eyes pitch to the ground. Her foot inches from beneath the hem of her dress to prod at a loose piece of rubble.

            “What did he ask of you?”

            When she scowls at him, her lips thin considerably. It is an expression he has seen directed towards the antics of Sylvain and Caspar, but never towards him. Never has he drawn her annoyance. Her ire, yes, abundantly, but never her annoyance.

            Somehow, it is funny to him. One near-mortal injury and she has lost all semblance of patience with him. It is then that he notices the paper wedged between her fingers because she shifts it behind her back in a weak attempt to hide it from him. The sight of it boils his blood and he is upon her only a few beats later.

            The years have given him a great advantage of height. Towering above her, she is a rabbit to his wolf. He pries the paper from her fingers, but she jerks her wrist. The paper flutters to the ground with a shuffling whisper.

            Byleth ducks for it and then he is grabbing at her wrist, yanking her back hard enough that he can feel the delicate bones sliding together. She gasps and her face darkens and she is breathing with her entire body. If she could wield her gaze like the Sword of the Creator, he surely would have been shorn in half by her stare alone.

            “Let me go.”

            But he can’t. He won’t. He wants to bend her wrist until it snaps and pull her to his chest and throw her against the wall and banish her from his sight and let her touch the bare agony of his soul with her warm hands and throw her from the parapets and weep in her arms. His wants are nothing more than passing thoughts. They carry no swell of emotion, good or bad, with them.

            His father’s vanguard flanks her shoulders. Their eyes burn in incandescent reds and blues through the visors of their helmets. Blood leaks from the grates shielding their mouths. Some are missing limbs. Some are missing heads.  

            “She can’t be trusted,” they say in a forsaken chorus. “She wants us to burn for all eternity.”

            He releases her in favor of rubbing at his eyes, forgetful of the patch over his left and the scarred lid beneath. When the dead appear to him, his vision is never hindered.

            “What do you see?” Byleth asks. She touches his shoulder. She looks at him like she cares. Not a shred of previous frustration darkens her brow.

            Instinct drowns his reason. She is too close. She is sucking up all his air. He cannot breathe. With the back of his hand, he casts her aside and she stumbles against the pew. Her knees bend and then she is sprawled over the wood. One arm is strewn over the back of the pew. The other snakes over her chest. Her hand cradles the base of her throat. Her chest heaves and the ghosts fade to his dry, aching want.

            The wind rips through the collapsed ceiling. His hair whips around his face and stings the skin it strikes as it sticks to the wet of his recently shed tears. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he bends to retrieve the paper. It is crinkled and faded. A date is smudged in the corner; 20th of the Pegasus moon, three years prior. It is written in Rodrigue’s swooping hand. It is not addressed to him. It holds no reference to him at all. It is a heartfelt apology written within a birthday wish, for Felix. 

            The paper shakes in Dimitri’s hands. Shame twists like a noose around his neck. When he tosses it aside, it catches on the wind and sails beneath the nearest row of pews.

            “Rodrigue is a sap,” Dimitri says.  

            “And you are a damned fool,” Byleth says. She stands and she is bristling. “At least, Rodrigue cares enough about Felix to apologize.”

            Everything he has done, the atrocities he has committed before her watchful eye, and this is what undoes her, an insult levelled against a man she barely knows. He scoffs, says, “Apologies are wasted on the living.”

            “And what good are they to the dead?” she demands. “They cannot forgive you.”

            The vanguard encircles her once more. Glenn stands among them. He is whole, but disappointed. He cocks his head. The hollow of his eyes ask how much longer he must suffer. Then, they are all gone and it is only he and Byleth once more.

            “I don’t need your forgiveness,” Dimitri says. “All I need is Edelgard’s head. And then—”

            Byleth frowns, shakes her head, steps away from him. He lurches in front of her, stopping her retreat. She will listen to him. She must.

            She feigns left, darts right, but he catches her about her waist. From there, it is a simple thing to sweep her off her feet and pin her against the pillar. She weighs no more than a fistful of owl feathers.

            She does not fight back, does not make a single sound beyond a sharp puff of air. And then she is held prisoner to his whims, trapped between his unyielding arms.

            It is so stupid, so irresponsible, to hold her in such a way, so close and so intimate. Byleth doesn’t struggle, but her body turns stiff and taut in his grasp. Her cheeks dimple from the clench of her jaw. Beneath her coalescing red anger, there is a glint of quickening fear in her eyes and he knows that he is more beast than man. 

            “Do not ignore me,” he says, but the brusque command does not frighten her. If anything, it emboldens her.

            Quick as a lightning strike, she touches his face before he can restrain her. She brushes sticky hair from his face and then he snatches her wrist, slams it back against the smooth column. Her hand fists, but she doesn’t buck his grasp. She says, “You’ve been crying.”

            Sharp breath hisses between his teeth. 

            “What does it matter to you?”

            From far off, there comes a thunderous crash of breaking porcelain and then a shrill screaming. It sounds like Lorenz, but Dimitri doesn’t much care. Byleth doesn’t seem to either.

            “You matter to me.”

            He wants to cry all over again. This is all horribly, awfully wrong. She pushes back against him, not in any way that would free her, but in a way so that she fills his arms and stands nearly flush against him, no longer shying away. She should be flailing. She should be screaming. She should be unsheathing the Sword of the Creator and driving it through his throat. 

            “Leave me be," he says, more petulant than he intended, more a whine than a threat, and he can't let her go. In the span of a few exchanges, he has been defanged and declawed. The point of contact between his hand and her wrist radiates raw jitters up through his arm.

            She stares at him from underneath her lashes. The moonlight catches in the sheen of her parted lips. Her elbow braces his chest, keeping him at an arm’s length. Regardless, it wouldn’t be difficult to shove her arm aside, to take her face between his hands, to kiss her until his lungs popped, to savor her honeysuckle breath until he can taste again.

            Only an animal could think such thoughts in such a situation, he tells himself and then he is above himself, watching himself, huge and hulking, over her slight form. He cannot move. He can only watch as she touches his face with other hand. He cannot feel her fingers push hair from his brow or the warmth of her skin or the raggedness of her callouses. There is only the space in his head where his thoughts converge and nothing else. The marble cracks beneath his fingers. Everything is so wrong. 

            When the doors burst open seconds later, Dimitri is so far within himself that he almost doesn’t notice. But then Felix is screaming and yanking him off her and his mind is too syrupy to protest and the kiss of a blade cools the throb of his neck and still nothing feels real and Felix is snarling, “I say we put it down,” and Sylvain is holding up his hands and saying, “Hold on a second!” and Byleth is shoving at Felix until he backs down and she is shouting, “That’s enough!”

            And all at once, it is too much. As the walls close in around him, Dimitri stumbles back and Felix swipes his blade across the front of his armor so that scrapes the dark metal with a high whine. He says, “I don’t care if you are our only hope of saving Faerghus or not. Touch her again, and I won’t hesitate to cut you down.”

            When he storms out, Byleth rushes after him, shouting some nonsense about a misunderstanding that stirs the dread in the air. In the wake of their departure, Sylvain forces a laugh. The dead circle him like vultures. Their heads lull and the flesh sloughs from their bones. They are all screaming without sound. 

            Dimitri’s mouth goes dry. His head pangs.

            Sylvain doesn’t seem to notice. Or care. He says, “Sorry about that. We heard yelling and, well, Felix can’t read a room to save his life.”

            Dimitri cannot speak. He is shaking all over in the smallest ways. It is like the day he lost his eye. It is all too much.

            And Sylvain keeps blabbering. He asks, “So, trying out a few of my moves, eh?” but the question fades as the dead grow restless. It is easier to act than to speak. Dimitri turns on his heel and returns to his post against the pillar. He sinks down the smooth stone until his legs are bunched against his chest. Even curled around himself on the ground, he cannot stop shaking. 

            Sylvain says something, some sarcastic goodbye most likely, but he leaves. And when he is gone, the dead smother Dimitri in demands of retribution.

            “Why must we suffer?” they howl. “Why do you leave us to rot?”

            His father stands facing away from him. Usually, Lambert’s heavy gaze never leaves him, but now Dimitri has strayed so far from his promise, Lambert cannot even look at him.

            “I haven’t abandoned you,” Dimitri says to his father’s back. “I will always be with you.”

            In the ruins of the cathedral, Dimitri makes an unspoken vow: he will forgo the comforts of sleep, of food, of speech that extend beyond necessity, he will no longer seek out Dedue’s company or Byleth’s attention, he will devote himself fully, wholly, completely to the service of the dead, as he once has, for all those lost, but for his father most of all. 

            “Always,” they say.

            Lambert has turned, slightly, and the moonlight shines through the decayed flesh of his jaw. Dimitri stares at the rotted profile of his father and begins to weep anew. Too long, his father has languished in hell. Through fresh tears, Dimitri promises, “Always.”

Chapter Text

            It is raining. The freezing drops blend with the tears on his face. Rodrigue is dead. Edelgard still breathes. And Enbarr is so far away.

            In the heart of the tempest, Byleth comes to him, speaks kind words, holds him with warm hands, talks him down from certain suicide, pulls him from the screeching winds and hateful rain.

            Nothing is real. Time moves like a cat with a belly too full of milk. He is standing in the storm and then he is not. He is stumbling through the courtyard and then he is not. He is in the dark and then he is not.

            He is in a room, her room, and then he is sitting on a bed, her bed.

            Years pass in the rain that pelts the lone window. He sees himself, impaled on a muddy battlefield. He sees his mother, yawning from the dusty portrait that hangs in Fhirdiad. He sees Dedue, plucking weeds from the dirt. He sees the blood-soaked land of Duscur. He sees Glenn murdered and mutilated. He sees his father—

            “Focus on breathing,” Byleth says and he does. He focuses on breathing until his chest hurts. The air smells like fresh linen beyond the stink of his drenched skin.

            His leg bounces and jitters. It will not stop moving. Moving. Are the walls moving? Are the dead coming for him? They must be; he has forsaken them. He has said he will live for himself.

            “No ghosts,” Byleth says. “Just dark.”

            There is a teacup, two bluebirds painted on its side, in his hands. Chamomile, with two lumps of sugar, the way his stepmother prepared it for him as a child. He can smell it even if he cannot taste it. Byleth made it for him. When? He isn’t sure. Today? Tomorrow? Ages past? He thinks they talked about children in the market.

            His father’s vanguard stands in the dark corners of her room. There are bloody tears in their eyes. They smell like sweat and leather and mud and rain and desert and winter. They say nothing. Their silence suffocates.

            The porcelain cup explodes in his hand. The tea scalds. The broken bits dig into his hand. Small droplets of blood swell and slide along the curve of his palm. His shoulder aches beyond belief. The ghosts have vanished but their faces linger in the shadows of his memory.

            Each bit of porcelain Byleth plucks from his flesh is a promise made to change.  

            “I will be better,” he says.

            The shattered remains end up on the windowsill. When all the bits lay bloody on the windowsill, Byleth gathers them up and tosses them in the wastebasket.

            “I believe you,” she says.

            The cuts scab. His hand aches. He will be better. For her. For Rodrigue. For Glenn. For his father. For himself.

            “May I?” Byleth asks. She touches the thin skin on his forehead. He gives his blessing, for what, he doesn’t know, with a dry mouth.

            In silence, Byleth pulls the wet hair from his face. Her fingers leave tingles in their wake. She ties his hair back behind his head. For the first time in years, he looks out into the world without a mask of heavy hair.

            Her shoulder, damp and musky from the rain, kneads against his neck as she leans around him. He holds her about the waist because it is a simple thing to do; he has thought about it often. She warms his hands. Only when his wet armor lays in hunks on the bedspread does he relinquish his grip. Every part of him is numb. She presses soft cotton into his hands.

            “Try these,” she says. “They should fit.”

            A plain shirt and breeches. When did she get them? Why does she have them? If she explained, he wasn’t listening. He doesn’t ask now.

            “Will you be alright by yourself? For a moment?” she asks.

            He stares. He nods. She smiles.

            The door opens, closes, and then she is gone. He sits alone in her room. It is much smaller than he’d imagined it in his academy days. It is adorned with nothing that could mark it as hers, save for the relic propped against her desk. It so clean that it is lonely. He is lonely.

            A knock on the door.

            “Are you finished?”

            Ah. She expects him to change.

            He doesn’t answer, strips from wet underclothes, leaves the soggy husks on the floor. He puts on the breeches. They sag a bit in the waist. He is a big man, but these were made for a bigger waist than his. He wonders after who they belong. A lover maybe? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything about her life without him.

            Another knock. She calls his name. His wet underclothes lay like molted snakeskin on the floor. He thinks he should hang them up. He cannot stomach the stench of mildew; his sense of smell has grown too strong in the absence of his taste. He drapes them over her desk.

            The door creaks open. He flattens out his wet undershirt so that it is even and smooth over the top of the desk. The rain is the only sound in his head.

            Warm hands touch his bare back. They slip beneath the knotted gauze over his wound, unwrap the linen from his body. Her arms brush his as she unspools the bandage. She doesn’t show him, but he knows he is bleeding, emptying out all over her hands. His skin is warm and slick from the oozing blood.

            The girl didn’t stab him deep. She could have. Easily. It would have been a simple thing to kill him. He was unguarded, unconcerned. Begging for death. And Rodrigue had denied him a coward’s death.

            Dimitri keeps his eye clenched so tight the rest of his face scrunches around it. The ghosts are all around him. He can hear their simpering, but to look upon them would be to come undone. He cannot stop shaking.

            “The rain’s getting worse,” Byleth says and the room quiets. For the time being, with only the sound of her voice, she has banished his ghosts.

            Byleth lays the bloody gauze on the table. She takes his hand, guides him to the bed. When he sits, she kneels behind him and presses a fresh pad of gauze to his back. The pain murmurs.

            As he bleeds, she rubs his arm with her free hand. Her callouses scrape his skin to the point of discomfort. He doesn’t understand why he is here. Why she has stayed. The storm outside is so loud. It won’t stop screaming.

            Her arms ensnare and retreat around him in hasty rhythm as she wraps his wound. He wants her to stop edging away and keep her arms tight around him. He doesn’t care if he bleeds out. If the wound gets infected. If he dies. It’s what he deserves. What he wants. But he wants her too. And to live again. He knows now that he wants that more than anything.

            When she draws away and the air is dull without her, he asks, “Won’t you speak?”

            “What would you have me say?”

            Later, he will be embarrassed by his pitifulness. He will apologize to her and say he was at his lowest, that he had not the strength to act as a man. Later, but not now.

            “Say you will stay,” he says.

            His knuckles strain white against his skin as her hand grazes his shoulder and lingers, for just a moment.

            “Always,” she says.  

            The mattress shifts beneath him when she moves around to his side. She is close enough that he can see the divots between each of her eyelashes and the flecks of gold in her eyes. Her hand moves to his face and it is like being asleep but lacking the ability to awaken as her fingers hook the elastic above his ear. She works it off his ear, but he jerks away before it can sag too far and reveal the scar that even he has not seen.

            Reaffixing the eyepatch is harder work than he expected. His fingers fumble over the straps. Byleth aids him, ensuring that the black fabric isn’t going anywhere. Her apology is in her stare.

            “Does it hurt?” she asks, when she has finished.

            “Not anymore.”

            His knuckles graze her mouth. It is softer, suppler, than he ever could have imagined. He leans closer. Breathes the air straight from her lungs. She touches the jut of his chest, touches the back of his neck, touches the crown of his head, touches the curve of his arms. Warmth blossoms beneath her fingers, zips down along his spine.

            “Dimitri,” she says.  “Don’t do anything you will regret.”

            He has been mistaken, all this time. She does not want him.

            Of course.

            How could she?

            But he will savor the moments she is willing to give. Because everything will only be harder now. Atonement is hard. So hard. He knows even if he has just begun trying. But he will be better. He has to be. For everyone, but for himself most of all.

            Without a word, she steps away. She exhales loudly. She smoothens her hair flat over her skull. She turns down the sheets. She says, “Sleep.”

            Everything smells like her. The sheets, the room, the rain, the wind, the sun, everything.

            Dimitri burrows into her bed without protest. He is tired, so tired, too tired to walk back to his own room. He lies on his side, does his best to ignore the throb in his back. 

            Her fingers dance across his face. She strokes her thumb against his cheek. She hums a hymn that he has forgotten. He wants to hold her hand in his own. He tells himself he needs it only one more time. One more time and he will be satisfied by the sensation. He gropes blindly for her hand, finds it, so small and delicate, and envelops it in his own.

            “Sleep, Dimitri,” she says, but she is smiling. It is just as mesmerizing as the first time he bore witness to it.

            And he does sleep. 

            For the first time, Dimitri sleeps through the terrors of his nightmares.

Chapter Text

            There has been a lull in the war. The Kingdom army holds strong against the Empire after its absorption of the Alliance. Plans are being made to march on Enbarr, but the decision will not be made until the war council tomorrow. And, for the time being, the night is still strong.

            Garreg Mach is alive with the sounds of honeyed music and sweet laughter. A roaring celebration, under the guise of someone’s birthday, is to blame. A windfall of liquor left behind by recently routed bandits also serves to exacerbate the situation. To Dimitri, the prospect of a wild, drunken party is akin to torture. He would like nothing more than to spend his night among stacks of unanswered correspondence, but the relentless pleading of friends had coaxed him into the fray.

            It had seemed inappropriate for him to witness his soldiers and subjects clinging to one another like wild animals, yet they did not seem to care. They greeted him joyously and made chipper small talk and a few women with eyelashes like bat wings even tempted him for a dance. He failed to understand how these people, who less than a month ago had fled at the mere sight of him, held so much goodwill towards him. Between pauses in the music and laughter, he could not help but simmer in the knowledge that he is deceiving them all. He is the same wretch he was before; the only difference is that now he is trying to be more.

            It was a simple thing to return to the solace of his chambers. A pained scowl here. An offhand complaint there. And then Annette asking, “Are you feeling alright?” and Mercedes asking, “Have you taken your medicine?”

            And he had not then, and still has not now, but the lack of herbal calm had nothing to do with his discomfort. It was in a crowd that his entire family had been slaughtered and it is within a crowd that he will never find comfort. Even when he is far removed from the maw of the dense crowd, lounging at his desk and toying with the dagger he had given to Edelgard long ago, his eye makes shapes of the dark. No physical specters appear from the mire, as they have been slow and seldom to manifest as of late, but ghosts of a different kind take form as he is slips into the torrent of reclaimed memory, things once lost to the mud of his mind.

            A girl with corn silk hair and jade eyes humming a sad song and wrapping dirty gauze around his bicep. A lagoon that swallowed him whole, but spit him up before he could drown. A dog with a limp sharing the scraps of a meal. A woman tattooed with the night sky kissing his knuckles, weeping, shrieking. A child pelting him with stones and mud and vicious laughter. A painting of the one who’d held his heart in her hands and hadn’t known it, inscribed into the side of a building above the word incarnate. A throng of screaming children weeping over the corpses of their loved ones. An old man interrupting his commune with the dead, asking after his wellbeing, falling silent with only a single strike.

            There’s more, of course, the sing of metal, the bite of blood, the cold embrace of midnight, but these are all a ripple in the roaring wave. He was a monster, is one still, but he is doing his best to atone. Memories of past mistakes serve as a reminder that the path he treads now is the right one.

            A knock at his door nearly sends him toppling to the floor. The dagger shoots out from beneath his fingertips and impales itself in his desk. When he rips it out, a small scar mars the wood.

            “Dimitri?”

Byleth. Her voice is smooth and sweet, even dulled by the thick door.   

“Annette told me you weren’t feeling well.”

             For far too long, Dimitri stares at the dark wood, imaging Annette skipping up to Byleth and flashing those big doe eyes of hers and cooing, “Aw, Byleth, Dima’s not feeling well. You should go see him.”

            Unfortunately, the nickname was not a fabrication of his imagination. Ever since he has approved Annette’s notion of him as an older brother of sorts, she has taken to the demeaning nickname. No amount of disdain has persuaded her to drop the affection.

            Another knock.

            “Are you in there?’

            He has half a mind to send her away. Not because he doesn’t want to see her, but because of the dastardliness in Annette’s having sent her here. Ever since the details, the completely innocent details, of his night spent with Byleth during the storm have somehow become public knowledge, Mercedes and Annette have convinced themselves of Dimitri’s infatuation with their former professor. Since his return, they have been absolutely relentless.

            Day after day, they have connived ways to force him into Byleth’s presence. Yesterday, they had convinced him of an impromptu war council and, when he entered the meeting room, he had discovered that Byleth had been convinced of the same. The day before that, they had arranged for the former members of the Blue Lion house to take tea in the courtyard, only to threaten and subdue everyone except for Byleth and himself into skipping it.

            They take so much joy in their fumbled matchmaking that he hasn’t the heart to tell them he has already suffered her rejection. And besides, despite her disinterest in him, he enjoys the time spent with her, ill-gotten or not, even after everything. Even after last week.

            It was an accident, entirely. He hadn’t even been looking for her, but heading to the library and had stumbled upon them entangled and kissing in an alcove. He hadn’t recognized the man, but assumed him a merchant of some sort, from the soggy shape of his body and the haughty jut of his mouth.

            He hates the memory, but he thinks of it often. He is jealous of the delicate way the man had held her and cannot keep from remembering the haze in her eyes, her flustered, breathless apology, the taut coil of her legs around the man’s waist. The next morning, she had sought him out, offering loose explanations for her behavior, but he waved them away in good humor. He tells himself he is happy that his poor nature has not impacted her ability to find happiness; no matter how it hurts.

            Of course, Mercedes and Annette are none the wiser. Byleth’s business is her own and he cannot bring himself to harbor ill intent towards her. Rejection stings, but he will honor her wishes above all else. He would give her the world if she asked.

            “I’ll leave if you want,” she says. He imagines her speaking directly into the door, pressing her full mouth up against the sanded wood. “At least let me know that you’re alright.”          

            Dimitri stands, leaving the dagger on the desk, and runs a hand through his hair, only for it to catch in the small tie holding back the bulk of his hair. The style is still an unfamiliar burden on him, but so many have told him it makes him more approachable, so he endures.

            Cursing, he yanks the hair loose and pulls it back as he opens the door. She smiles weakly at him, her lips a thin line. There are shadows lingering beneath her eyes. She raises a hand to him, a steaming cup that stinks of angelica clenched between tight fingers and a small basket hanging from her wrist. With her free hand, she reveals the contents of the basket, fresh rolls, glazed and shiny.

            “Mercedes asked me to bring these to you,” she says.

            Dimitri cannot help but scowl. He has asked Mercedes and Annette not to involve the others in his treatment. It is a much better story that divine grace and strong will guided him from the dark, not a handful of roots yanked from the mud. 

            Swallowing his glare, he takes everything from her and gives his thanks, yet she remains, staring. There is a haze about her face, something slightly off in the lean of her stance. When he steps back with the intent to bid her goodnight, she mirrors his movement, drawing the tiniest bit closer. She stares.

            “Would you like to come in?” he asks.

            She nods, steps past him without a word. Her passing imbues the air with lavender, fallen leaves, and something heavy, sour, unfamiliar. He leaves the door open.

            As she sets about his room, he sets the rolls on his desk and takes the cup between both hands. He warms his face in the hot steam. When he sips, it stings. Even without his taste, it puckers the insides of his cheeks and prickles at his tongue. It is exceedingly bitter. It always is.

            “My father always cut that with fresh squeezed grapes,” she says. Her stare extends through him. Her words tingle with a slight stumble. “Or mulled wine.”

            The notion of the great, unflinching Jeralt suffering from similar ails is profound, but Byleth doesn’t allow him to dwell on it. She moves through his room like a visitor from another world, dragging her hand along every surface and crevice she can. Like a mist, she glides her hand over his desk, his books, his armor, his headboard. Only when her hand alights on the fur of his bedspread does she stop and swirl her fingers in the smoothness of it. 

            “I’ve never been here before,” she says. Her words ooze with the emotion that is lacking from her face. He unclenches his jaw and sips at the drink again. On the second taste, the sting of it is not so overwhelming.

            “Is that Fhirdiad?” she asks and she is pointing past him, pointing to the map tacked over the bulk of the wall.

            It has been so long since he has registered the map as anything other than a constant fixture, so long since he has gazed upon it in wistfulness, so long since he has acknowledged it as home that he had forgotten it was there. It had been his father’s once, a long time ago.

            “Castle Fhirdiad, yes,” he says.

            She stands, moving to the yellowing ink as a moth drawn to flame. The tip of her pointer finger smooths along the map, rounding corners, climbing stairs, traversing halls. When her finger slips off the crinkled paper, she turns over her shoulder, saying, “I want to see it all.”

            Though his stomach twists, he says, “I’ll take you, when this is all over.”

            “I’d like that,” she says, but her face shows nothing of the sort. It is like when he first met her and apathy glinted like ice in the vast sea of her eyes while disinterest hardened the shape of her flesh to the point of inhumanity.

            And again, she is moving, slipping past him to hover over his desk. The dagger, bent from its sudden insertion into hard wood, draws her hand. Then, she is spinning it on the tip of her pointer finger, pressing it hard against the pad. There is a crack of anger that wrinkles in the corners of her eyes. He expects blood.

            Though she has voiced nothing on the topic besides tepid agreement, he knows she does not approve of his decision to meet with Edelgard. Even now, while she is so expressionless and blank, her eyes glimmer like a coiled snake. For someone so eager to push forgiveness, she seems to reserve none for Edelgard. Always, there is a disconnect in her words that forces a clear divide between the student she once taught and the emperor waging war.

            But he has to believe Edelgard can be reconciled with, he has to try, no matter how futile.  

            “If she meets you, what will you say to her?” Byleth asks. The dagger has fallen still in her hands. Her eyes droop to its hilt. A shock of loose hair casts a shadow over her brow.  

            In the years he has known her, Dimitri has been afraid of her only once, when she had stepped free of the sky to strike down Solon without a shred of mercy on her enlightened face. Looking at her now, in the dim light of his bare bedroom, he is reminded of that day, not of the fear exactly, but of the heat behind his eyes when she had turned and extended her hand to him with divine retribution coloring her anew.  

            “I am unsure,” he says now. “Something to make her see reason.”

            Byleth drops the dagger to the desk so that it clatters and, as the sound rings through the still room and out into the empty hall, she says, “She told me I made a mistake, choosing you over her. Said you were unhinged, dangerous.”

            A stiffness blossomed in his chest at her words. Even then? When he had tried so desperately to conceal the chasm within him? Edelgard had recognized his suffering and done nothing? Despite everything they had been?

            But it did not change anything. Once, she had been a cherished friend. Once, he had loved her. Maybe he still did, in the way that one loves the translucent memories of childhood. And he would try to end her tyranny, for the girl, for the friend, she had once been.

            “I told her she was wrong,” Byleth says. “She didn’t like it much.”

            “No, I don’t suppose she would have,” he says, but it is feeble, crumbling beneath her attention.

            With eyes like forest fires, Byleth sweeps up the length of his form, slow and deliberate. He doesn’t see her slip her hand into the basket and rip a piece of sweet roll free, he is too fixated on the smoldering in her gaze, but he knows she must have, when she moves before him and brandishes a torn morsel just before his mouth. Heat rises between her fingers, tickles his nose.  

            “Here,” she says, pressing it just to his lips. “Taste.”

            And he does, but there is nothing distinguishable, only the hint of something. Something sweet and clean. It is the first thing he has tasted in so long that he is sure it is a mistake. 

            “It’s good,” he says and she smiles, slow and small. Her eyes push ever so slightly closed. Then, her hand, sticky with glaze, touches his face, traces the curve of his cheek, leaves a slick of sugar in their wake. As heat blurs his thoughts, he imagines her fingers coming to rest on his mouth again so he could suck the sweetness from them. But then, the weight of the sky is breaking overtop of him.

            He splits, somewhere between here and there, and she is prying at his eyepatch with her fingers smelling like honey. The sweetness scalds. Her thumb flicks the jutting bone just beneath his mangled eye.

            From the wall, hands jut and grope, watery and ephemeral, shifting like worms up against each other. He closes his eye, tries to find his center, recalls the sting of medicine on his tongue, breathes as evenly as he can muster, wishes the visions would leave him entirely.

            “Does it hurt?”

            The words will not come so he shakes his head, mutely, dumbly. Her hand lingers against his cheek, her thumb traces up and down his cheekbone. It is so black behind his eyelid that it feels like falling. He hates himself, hates her, because it doesn’t make sense. This is what he wants, her so tender and so gentle, so why is his skull fracturing in two? Why can’t he find his fingers? Why has the air turned so thick?

            “I wasn’t there for you,” she says, “but I’m here now.”

            Her words resonate more than the cathedral bells ever have as her hand radiates warmth against his face.

            When he opens his eye, the hands still extend from the wall, but they are bent at the wrist, limp like hanged men and swaying on an impossible breeze. And Byleth among them, bright and stark against their mottled flesh. In her light, they wither to husks and then they wither to nothingness.

            “Dimitri?”  

            With her so close, he can smell the whiskey on her tongue and finally the blank of her face and the droop of her stance makes sense. Her breath is an entire continent between them.

            “You’re drunk,” he says, accusing her of acting on feelings she can’t possibly feel. There is too much standing between them: five years spent apart, bodies stacked for the sake of the dead, a grievous injury, a soft refusal voiced in the symphony of the storm, a merchant kissed in the black of night, and too many unanswered questions. 

            “I—”

            The starry backlight in her eyes fades. Her mouth tightens. But her hand stays latched against his face and he nearly asks her to stay, to continue to intoxicate him with her proximity and keep the ghosts at bay. Nearly.

            “I’m sorry,” she says and then she is retreating from him, practically fleeing, so that her fast steps echo in the hall when she runs from the room. The memory of her hand on his cheek sizzles.

            For a moment, he convinces himself he has imagined the entire encounter, but, no, the basket of sweet rolls and the half full teacup leering up from his desk attest to the reality of the situation.

            The time it takes for him to close and lock his door, strip down to his nightwear, and clamber into bed passes in a single lurching blink. The split brought on by Byleth’s touch has deepened so that half of him exists within the dense weight of his body and half of him hovers above, in the space where night and shadow coalesce. There is the him existing here-now and the him teetering on the edge of the mania left by Byleth’s drunken advances.

            In her absence, he muddles the encounter until he can scarcely remember the sensation of her affection. Her words, “But I’m here now,” circle his head like a swarm of gnats as the thin remnants of the dead keep watch over his slumber.

Chapter Text

            Enbarr is conquered. Fodlan is united. And Edelgard is dead.

            Her death came as Areadbhar broke through the bars of her ribcage, punctured her heart, left her slumped, just as Dimitri had once dreamed, but it did not feel like victory. Even when Byleth led him from the bloodied throne into the light of day and rapturous applause, it did not feel like victory.

            It probably never will.   

            Tomorrow he will be officially coronated. It seems like a dream when only a few days ago he had stood before the monstrosity of Edelgard and saw only a future that could have been his. But he is not permitted time for reflection.

            Fhirdiad is alive with a rollicking celebration. Liquor flows freely and music enchants the air. Dorothea and Manuela stage an impromptu performance atop the grand staircase in the great hall, singing hymns and arias and anything they can manage. Nobles and commoners alike go mad at the sound of their nightingale voices. If his thoughts weren’t so occupied, even Dimitri would have enjoyed it.

            But there are declarations to be made and counselors to be appointed and treaties to be drafted and crowns to be fitted and territories to be visited and dissidents to be appeased and knights to be praised and commoners to be addressed and everything is so overwhelming that Dimitri keeps a running list in his mind lest he forget everything and doom his reign before it has even begun.

            Now, he flits between nobles of all kinds, charming them as best he can manage. Until an advisor, an old, bloated turkey of a man, calls him away to suggest he began to charm their daughters instead. Dimitri obliges because he knows dissent would be seen as a sign of instability, even though it should be just the opposite.

            They come to him one after another, waiting patiently in the lulls between songs. They are all dressed in the colors of the Kingdom, dark blues and silvers that are too heavy for their frail frames. A few of them tremble in his arms, others stare unabashedly at the patch over his eye, one even having the nerve to ask of its origin, but most simply play at being coy, pursing stained lips and angling their faces to catch the light at flattering slants.

            The one he endures now is of the coy variety, inclined to wandering touches and haughty laughs; no surprise given she is a distant relative of Sylvain’s. She is pretty and meticulously put together with the curls on her head and the pleats of her skirt falling just so. If she had a bit more girth about the waist, she could have been one of Gilbert’s carved dolls.

            Sylvain has assured Dimitri that he could have her, could have any of them, if he wanted, because even the chance of a royal bastard is better than no association at all. But Dimitri is not Sylvain. He does not love this doll of a woman or any of the others and that makes all the difference. 

            So, even as he dances with noblewomen that look like fine china and hang off his every limb, he searches for Byleth, longing for the weight of her hand in his again. Within careful steps and gentle music and the thought of her, he is endlessly lost.

            Sometimes, from within the shifting masses of nobles, he catches sight of her, resplendent in the conjured light, and, sometimes, she catches sight of him too and flashes the briefest of sharp smiles, all teeth and thinned lips. He burns when she softens for the nobles that bow to her and kiss at the rings on her hand, knowing they would fall to their knees and lap at her feet if given permission.

            The announcement of the next Archbishop has come as a surprise to everyone but her it seemed. Somehow, she has fallen effortlessly into the role, despite her usual stoicism. Adorned in a dress of pure white and inlaid gold, she looks to have stepped straight from the stained glass of Garreg Mach’s cathedral. Her hair is up, a rarity, and coiled around the filigreed rungs of a diadem. If the whispers were to be believed, Rhea had commissioned it before the war, soon after Byleth had stepped from the sky.

            Attention pulled from the dance, Dimitri steps on his partner’s foot, mangling the stiff bridge beneath the brunt of his heel.

            “I am sorry,” he says, but the woman only titters and waves away the offense, despite the cling of wet tears in the corners of her eyes. She flutters her lashes until the moisture is gone, leaving only brown irises and shaded tawny lids. Black striations of eyeliner streak far off towards her ears, mimicking the rounded eyes of a cat.

            In another life, he might have been intrigued by her dark makeup and the steel glinting in her eyes, but now in this life, not now.

            Another revolution around the dance floor and then Byleth is in sight once more. She smiles at him, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.

            Rhea hovers at her side like a reflection in a shadowy water. Devoid of her usual headwear and finery, Rhea seems practically austere in a simple white frock. She is gaunt and pale as the moon, but, even so emaciated, her presence is palpable.

            Men and women alike crowd her, pressing close-mouthed kisses to her bare hands and fixating on her as vultures drawn to carrion. Sometimes, he thinks she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Sometimes, he thinks she resembles the garter snakes that made Felix shriek on their trips to the south.

            As he spins his partner in the slow manner the routine calls for, Dimitri meets Rhea’s eyes above the horizon of the devout. She nods once in silent, apathetic acknowledgment, and Dimitri finds himself blushing. He has had little interactions with Rhea outside of his former role as student and those interactions had been rife with uncertainty and embarrassment.

            Nobles and royals could never make him as nervous as Rhea does. There is a slippery darkness beneath her sculpted piety, exposed by the hesitation in her empty smiles, so familiar that he grows queasy in her intimate presence. He cannot trust her because he recognizes the signs of sanity on the verge of breaking.

            Which is why it is all the more upsetting that tomorrow, Rhea will perform the blessing for his coronation. Because Byleth has refused to do so, even though he had asked her personally, even though he had told her he could think of no greater honor than her affirming his ascension to the throne, future Archbishop or not. 

            The song dwindles to a close with metered applause. Dimitri bows to his partner, thanks her for her time, greets the next woman seeking his attention, but finds himself lacking the proper introduction at the sight of her. Among the somber palettes of the women hoping to impress, Hilda’s vibrant dress, coordinated to match her pink hair, is a bit of an eyesore, no matter how well she wears it.

            “Hilda,” he says. She scowls at him and her hands fist on her hips.

            “Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?”

            He blinks. It has never occurred to him, though it absolutely should have, that his former classmates could be among the throng of potential suitors. Many hailed from prestigious houses that would be a great boon to his reign. In fact, Hilda was probably at the top of the list, given the influence of her family and her ties to the former Alliance. Though, her petulant attitude and frank unwillingness to exert herself would be taken against her. So, perhaps, he could argue against her as a wife through an examination of her personal qualities and—

            “Hello? Earth to Dimitri?”

            Ah, he’d gotten too invested in mounting a case against her. It had become a habit in the past few months, since his return to the public eye, when women had been thrown at him incessantly.

            People stare as Hilda’s expression grows sour and red.  

            “Er, would you allow me to—”

            She snatches at his hand before he finishes, leading him into the next dance without pause and shouting, “Sure thing!”

            As he stumbles, Hilda falls perfectly into the rhythmic motion, gliding along the floor with him in tow. Over the musical swells, he hears snickers. He scrambles to follow her striding movements, but can not quite match up. While he is not a bad dancer, not when Edelgard’s tough lessons are still drilled into his head all these years later, he is a novice compared to Hilda.  

            Once it might have been a surprise to learn that Hilda was a much more proficient dancer than him, but that was before she swept the White Heron Cup at Byleth’s insistence. The stubborn, lazy girl is one of the best dancers to ever grace the halls of Garreg Mach, despite her insistence otherwise. Remembering her heated protests at the prospect of hard work, Dimitri cannot help but smile.

            And then he nearly mashes her foot into the stone underfoot.

            “Yeesh,” she says. “Shouldn’t you be better at this?”  

            He blushes and mumbles, “Apologies.”

            Following the misstep, he is careful in his motions, keeping his feet far from hers, even at the cost of looking foolish. She says nothing else, only smirks and continues to lead him in silence.

            Dancing with her is not an altogether unpleasant experience, she doesn’t demand more than he can supply and she takes control so that he can simply trail in her wake, but she is resistant to his grasp, always edging away from him, so that it is nearly impossible to move without great strain. But he persists, unwilling to be bested by Hilda, of all people.

            They round the stretch of the floor with the view of Byleth and Dimitri stares over Hilda’s pink pigtails, searching for the splash of mint among the dour blues. Only Rhea braces the sea of nobility, stony and resolute among the offered devotions.    

            “Byleth left a little while ago,” Hilda says.

            Heat creeps up his neck and spills out over his face. He’d believed himself rather skilled at admiring Byleth discreetly from a far. Is he truly so obvious?

            To the tune of the cellos, Hilda hums and continues through the dance as if she had said nothing at all. Sweat drips from the nape of his neck, seeping into the hem of his regalia.

            Have the others noticed? Sylvain and Dorothea are always teasing him and Mercedes and Annette have convinced themselves of his attraction, but they are ultimately harmless. No, it is the magistrates and the advisors who he fears; they would only grow more resolved in their efforts to find him a wife. And they are well within their authority to draft a proposal, with or without his permission.

            “You should talk to her, tonight, before everything tomorrow.”  

            He would like nothing more than the chance to speak with her, about anything really, but it is impossible. To leave now would be social suicide.

            Hilda leans close, her breath hot against the side of his face, and says, “I might have an idea.”

            Mischief dazzles in her eyes and he can only remember all the pranks and hijinks she and Claude orchestrated during their academy days. The day they managed to dye Lorenz hair an unflattering shade of yellow is one no onlooker can never forget.  

            Dimitri should refuse her help, but he also knows she is apt to go through with whatever scheme she has conducted anyway. So, he remains silent, giving her no indication one way or another. When her quizzical expression drops into a smirk, he isn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly isn’t for her to step away and shout, “Oh, I’m feeling rather woozy!”

            She touches the back of her hand to her head and then she’s dropping forward, eyes rolling back into her skull as she falls into a dead faint. He catches her, just barely, and she is so limp that he is instantly convinced this is not part of her plan; Hilda has genuinely fainted.

            The music screeches to a stop. There are shouts and murmuring all around. He shifts her dead weight more fully into his arms so he doesn’t drop her. He is on the verge of raising the alarm and sprinting to the infirmary, when a quiet voice says, “Oh my.”

            Demure Marianne steps from the bulk of the crowd with one hand pressed over her heart and the other reaching for Hilda.

            “What’s going on?” Dimitri demands as Marianne feathers her fingers through Hilda’s bangs. Marianne shakes her head and sighs.

            “She will be okay so long as we get her to the infirmary,” Marianne says.

            And then she is moving through the crowd without a glance back at him. He stands still for a moment, Hilda heavy in his arms, before he realizes he’s meant to follow.

            The masses part smoothly before him. Some offer their assistance, but he denies them as politely as he can, assuring that Hilda has only fallen faint from overexertion. Whatever has befallen Hilda would surely only be exasperated by a crowd.

            Music begins anew and the people fall back into their dropped social patterns, though their eyes never leave his back. As they approach the exit, Dimitri catches sight of Dedue, standing nearly a head taller than everyone else, by the doors.

            “Keep them pacified,” Dimitri says as Dedue shoves open the massive door. Dedue nods and then offers a smile, sincere and honest on his broad features. Before he can question the expression, Dimitri is already through the door and Dedue is tugging it closed.

            As the door slams, Hilda jerks awake and wriggles from Dimitri’s grasp like a fish out of water. She catches Marianne about the waist and spins the other woman around with a squeal before Dimitri can even register the empty weight in his arms.

            “Aw, you were so great Marianne!” Hilda says, pressing a wet kiss to Marianne’s cheek. Marianne blushes and knuckles her hand against her mouth. Her eyes look to the ground.

            Anger bubbles like indigestion in the pit of his stomach.

            “What is going—”

            A shout silences him as he turns to Annette’s frenzied approach. He glares as she clasps her hands together and announces, “Byleth’s on the balcony.”

            Dimitri does not move. His thoughts are a stew of sticky confusion. Hilda has tricked him with the assistance of Marianne, Annette, and Dedue..? For what purpose? To inform him that Byleth has run off for fresh air? Do they intend to make him a fool before his subjects? They will surely answer for this. He is not known for his harshness, not since he has quelled the feral side of himself, but he will gladly demonstrate it to make an example of them. His face has never been so hot. 

            Hilda huffs something that sounds like, “Goddess, you are dense,” and then she’s stepping behind him and pounding her fists against his back. It is the most willfully active he has ever seen her.

            “Go!” she shouts. “Move! Do something!”

            Dimitri steps away from her just to make her stop. Her assault doesn’t hurt, but it is annoying. Annette steps before him. With her face doused in layers of dark makeup, she looks much older and sophisticated. Still, even with the rogue and mascara, she resembles Gilbert so much that it is unnerving.

            “C’mon Dima, you couldn’t ask for a moment more perfect than this. It’s so romantic!” she says, beaming so ardently that wrinkles have formed around her lips.

            As realization drips down his back like the chill of cold water, he realizes, Goddess, this is probably most embarrassed he has ever been. Not even the time he threw up on the boots of the entire Alliance delegation as a boy holds a candle to the sharp accusation in Hilda’s crossed arms or the gooey emotion on Annette’s face or the blush Marianne does her best to conceal.

            But there’s no use fighting it any longer. They’ve gone to the trouble of spiriting him from his duties, at least momentarily, so it is only polite for him to indulge them.    

            Annette and Hilda coo at his silent departure and he wishes that it had been his ears he had decimated in the burning sunlight that day rather than his eye.

            Thankfully, the gaggle of girls does not follow him in his short jaunt to the balcony. In fact, when he turns, just before exiting, they have all vanished.

            Alone, Dimitri tenses. His fingers bend into the brass handles, melding the metal around them. It has been over a month since they have spoken in private, since that night in his room.

            But, even without words, she’d tended to his wounds after the battle, after Edelgard had driven the blade through the meat of his shoulder, with softness and without a single I-told-you-so. In fact, she had seemed sullen. And listless. Like driftwood lost to the tumble of the sea.

            Between her expression so shrouded in discontent then and every moment since and the hustle to prepare for his coronation, there had never been a good time to ask after that night in his room, before Enbarr lay ruined and before Edelgard lay cold. 

            With everything changing so fast, there seems to be no time to determine the weight of his emotions. He knows he cares for her beyond a physical attraction, fears he might even love her, but he cannot act, not when her soft refusal of him and drunken pursuit of him exist as an incomprehensible dichotomy in his mind.

            So, when he finally musters the strength to step out onto the balcony, he is without a thought towards what he will say to her. It is foolish, but he simply longs to soothe his frazzled nerves in her calm presence and, for the time being, that will be enough.

Chapter Text

            Out on the balcony, there is a chill in the air, and the wind is brisk, but it does not strip skin from bone. For Fhirdiad, it is temperate.

            Music wafts on the crisp breeze. High above the celebration, Dimitri can still hear the swell of voices and violins. The moon is bright and swollen in the sky. There are only a handful of hours left before the date of his coronation will arrive.

            Byleth leans fully against the railing, angling her body towards the courtyard down below. The wind rustles her dress so that it ripples like waterlilies. Strands of hair have come loose from her intricate bun and they whip about her head.

            Though so much has changed, he thinks of their meeting on the Goddess Tower the night of the ball. He had made a joke about the two of them being together forever in that bumbling, embarrassing nature he’d had about him when he still had yet to grow into his shoulders. But she hadn’t laughed. She’d been upset, had even directed a moody scowl at him, until he’d apologized profusely.

            And then Jeralt had been killed soon after. He wondered if the memory of the Goddess Tower was tainted for her, if coming to her in such a similar place will plunge her into the torment of remembered loss.

            Under the watchful eye of the stars, he considers fleeing. The door has closed behind him and announced his presence, yes, but Byleth has not turned to acknowledge him. If he returned to the celebration right now, without a word, she would be none the wiser. 

            But tomorrow he will be king and tomorrow she will return to Garreg Mach and tomorrow this great unspoken thing in his chest will remain an eternal what if

            With so much uncertainty before him, Dimitri doesn’t quite feel like himself when he leans against the railing beside her and says, “So, this is where you have snuck off.”

            Though she still doesn’t look at him, he can see the scowl curling her mouth. Her gaze is focused on the silent courtyard below where the fountain burbles in dim torchlight.

            “I needed quiet,” she says. “I do not—”

            Her face turns as stormy as the summers along the coast, but then she is angling further from him, concealing whatever he might have discovered in her stare. She looks to the clouds that roll over the moon like water. The diadem in her hair is liquidous from the starlight.

            “Never mind. Tonight is a happy night.”

            The wind abates and the whipping strands of her hair fall in frazzled lengths about her face. Though she is more made up and put together than she has ever been, she seems utterly disheveled; Dimitri has known enough of torment to fail to recognize it in another.

            “Speak your mind, pro—” No, not professor. She’s told him too many times for him to forget. Still, her name feels too intimate; a prayer he has no right to speak. “Byleth.”

            Her fingers curl against the stone of the banister. The nails are painted stark white and flecked with bits of stardust. Though attractive, the styling is soured by his memories of her dainty hands coated in blood, both foreign and his own.

            When she turns to him, it is with the same softness she had maintained in the hours after Edelgard’s death, but now, unlike then, it is not for his sake; he suspects, from the slight tremor in her brow, the gentle expression is the only thing keeping her from breaking.

            “I… I’ve been having dreams. Dreams of things that I should not know,” she says.

            He gives voice to the beginnings of a question, but she speaks over him, saying, “Don’t ask me to explain. I can’t. But I, this isn’t the first time I’ve had strange dreams. Before the war, before I came to the academy, I dreamt of a battle. Long ago. And a girl.”

            She hangs her head low, weighed down by whatever darkness haunts her dreams. He thinks of asking after the content but decides against it; if she wanted him to know, she would have told him already.

            Far below, shouts ring out as Caspar chases after a stray cat with a chop of mutton dangling from its mouth. As he loops round and round in the torchlight, his shadow stretches and shrinks on the cobblestone. Once, he almost catches the mutton thief, but the cat darts between his legs and begins the chase anew. Soon, the two race away, Caspar’s yells echoing long after he has disappeared from sight.

            In the silence of Caspar’s departure, Byleth says, “I don’t think it’s over.”

            She sounds so defeated that instinctively, unthinkingly, he takes her hand in his. It feels the most natural thing in the world when her fingers, small and warm and rubbed raw by the brisk Fhirdiad air twist themselves into a tight grip around his. It doesn’t even surprise him that she returns the affection when it is the same she offered to him that night in the storm. Still, his heartbeat seems erroneously strong in his tangled fingertips.

            “Whatever may come, we’ll overcome it,” he says, and he squeezes her hand, gently so as not to break her fingers. “Together.”

            She sighs.

            “Thank you, Dimitri.”

            The time her hand remains in his stretches long and impossible. The whispering waters of the fountain, the murmur of music, the comfortable chill in the air, and the smell of fire and far-off celebration all make for a scene that would have been rather romantic. If anyone else held his hand just so beneath the smoky expanse of night, he might have been overwhelmed with the need to flee, but not with Byleth.

            “I… Byleth…”

            And when it is nearly impossible just to say her name, how can he confess the depth of his emotion to her? The thought, along with the willpower, dissolves on his tongue.

She stares at him. The entire universe seems to twinkle in her eyes. The music from far below has slowed and broadened. It urges him onward, but he cannot continue.

            There is too much standing between them: five years spent apart, bodies stacked for the sake of the dead, a grievous injury, a soft refusal voiced in the symphony of the storm, a merchant kissed in—

            Her head leans against his arm. Loose hairs spill over his plated regalia, snaring in the junctures of metal. Her thumb traces the length of his pointer finger and he can think only of how the mint of her hair clashes with the vibrant blue of his cuirass.  

            “Is this okay?”

            It is more than okay, more than he deserves, but he just nods and mutters a soft, “Of course.”

            Soon, he is so stiff from the awkward position that his back aches. It would be much more comfortable to encircle her with his arm and allow her to lean against his chest, but he is too nervous, too unsure of her intentions. A single untoward motion and she could flee, leaving him emptyhanded and emptyhearted.  

            So, he busies himself with thoughts of tomorrow, reviewing the progression of the day in great detail. There are recitations he must give and actions he must perform with exact precision and perfection or his rule could come under question.

            His cabinet has assured him that no one would be foolish enough to challenge him, not after he led the successful unification of the continent and decimated the greatest military power Fodlan had ever seen, but he is not placated. Above all others, he must prove to himself that he can do it, that he is worthy of his father’s throne.     

            “Dimitri?”

            He hums in response, thinking of the lengthy tenets of divine rule he must cite to Rhea before receiving the church’s blessing over his reign.

            Byleth shifts from his arm to look up at him. All thoughts of tomorrow evaporate. There is only her in the still air, illuminated by the sharp Fhirdiad night.

            “I’m sorry for my behavior when I—”

            She hesitates, mouth twitching as she mulls over her words. She barely reaches the top of his chest. If he wanted, he could engulf her fully within her arms.

            “Invited myself into your room.”

            The phantom memory of her thumb meandering about his face warms him. He lifts his eyes to the night above as he says, “Think nothing of it.”

            Her fingers squeeze tight around his in two quick pulses and then she’s saying, “Forgive me for asking, but, if things had been different, say if I hadn’t been drinking that night, would you have kissed me?”

            His mouth is so dry that his affirmation comes out much deeper than he intends, as if he had just awoken from a deep slumber. Immediately, he wishes he could leap into the air and smother the word before it reaches her, but it is too late. With the great unspoken thing finally spoken, he feels like a schoolboy caught with his eyes caught on a classmate’s exam.  

            The cold stings every bit of his exposed skin. His eyes ache from the bright shine of the stars, but he makes himself stare into them as the silence stifles. His palms sweat and her hand, somehow still within his, is a phantom weight within his fingers.

            “And now?”   

            When he manages to look at her, she smiles.

            Then, she is rising onto tip-toe, standing as tall as she can. Her fingers disentangle from his, rise to grip his breastplate and steady herself. And when her breath tickles his mouth and her eyelids are heavy with dusky promise, she kisses him.

            There are no explosions of light or symphonies of sound that accompany her kiss. There is only the heavy beat of his heart and the weight of her lips against his. In every way, it is simple, but it is also perfect.

            Dimitri is no stranger to kissing, but he thought it would be hard with her, like his feelings for her would overwhelm his ability to act and react. But it isn’t at all. Nothing about her is hard.

            He draws away. Catches his breath. Stares. Leans into her again. Takes her into his arms, but she hisses and bumps against the railing in her attempt to escape his touch. His face falls in a flash of hurt and embarrassment, but then she is drawing his cloak around her, practically disappearing within the heavy fabric, and saying, “Cold.”

            And she rises above the fur and kisses him again, soft and hesitant. He’s careful not to touch her, gripping the railing instead, though he longs to feel her fully against him. But he doesn’t push her. He will take whatever she is willing to offer.

Beneath the joy and thrill, something unspools, drawing the pieces of him further and further apart until he knows he’s touching and feeling and kissing her, but he cannot savor the sensation. He is far away, watching their embrace as an outsider, and longing to be closer.

             Before he floats away into eternal nothingness, a burst of whoops and hoots rises on the stiff air and he comes back together in an instant. Their kiss breaks when he turns to find a small crowd pointing and waving up at them. Sylvain, red hair bronzed by the night, cups his hands over his mouth and shouts. Thankfully, it is lost to the wind. The others are blurred by shadows, but he can make out Felix’s sharp eyes and Bernadetta’s meek stature.

            Byleth laughs and the sound is so sweet that he almost forgets his extreme embarrassment. Almost.

            Sylvain shouts again, loud enough that Dimitri can make out the exasperated finally that echoes. He does his best to ignore Sylvain, lest he scream down at him and further complicate the situation, and focuses on Byleth.

            Her face is flushed, definitely from the wind and maybe from him, and her hands twist in his, squeezing his fingers tight together. His cloak has fallen from her, revealing the pale sheen of her dress to the moonlight once more.

            “Do you want to go somewhere more private?” she asks.

            There is a cautious lilt to her voice that makes him shiver and he is terrified of her touch because he fears disappointing, but he does want to. Goddess, he wants to so badly.

            But he is on borrowed time. It has already been a good while since he left, and a medical emergency can only last so long. They must be asking for him, demanding his presence so that they can continue to sow affection and establish their worth.

            “I should return to the celebration,” he says and he hates the words as soon as they sound so much that he continues, “But after, if you’re willing—”

            “Yes, I would like that very much.”

            She kisses him once more, in parting, to the sound of more shouting from Sylvain, and then says, “I’ll be in my room.”

            And it is hard, damn near impossible, to leave and focus on the fretting and fawning of nobles, knowing that Byleth waits for him. But he manages, somehow.

            The walk to the grand hall is lonely. His footsteps echo despite the growing sound of the celebration ahead of him. Utterly alone for the first time since before the battle in Enbarr, Dimitri finds his steps slowing to a stop in the center of the long corridor. Amid the shadows of his childhood home, he remembers.

            His father, tall and broad, like Dimitri is now, walking just ahead, chiding young Dimitri to keep up or fall behind. The guards, expressionless and mean, dragging Dimitri by the undersides of his arms as he spat and protested his involvement in the death of the regent. Patricia, wraithlike and silent, flitting around the corners, an eye always to her back, always away from him. Felix, weeping and snot-covered, chasing him with a large branch to beat him about the head with for a slight he can’t even recall. In one long hall, so much has happened.

            The great doors open before him and memories skitter like spiders from his mind. Dedue’s massive form dulls the light spilling from the grand hall.

            “The Lords have grown restless,” he says as Dimitri passes back into the party with a scowl.

            Immediately, he is snatched up by a throng of nobility flaunting their wealth about their fingers and necks. They speak to him, asking after Hilda’s health, and he answers, but he doesn’t know what he says even after he has said it. Yet, they continue with their stuffy conversation, none the wiser.

            Dimitri endures the long celebration in a state of disembodiment. He kisses ladies’ hands and debates with lords of the former Alliance, but he feels none of it as the minutes grow long and monotonous.

            While nobles and commoners alike ply at his fraying patience, remnants of his past flit about the warm bodies, not as lingering aggressions or regrets, but as passing visitors, come to enjoy the celebration. Their forms are slick and glistening beneath the crystal chandelier. He fears for his sanity, but Mercedes’ voice rings in his head, assuring him that there exists no certain treatment for his condition, that he must learn to live with it rather than fear it.

            Most of the fragments do not draw his eye beyond a quick glance as they are faceless, formless things that dart in between the partygoers without rhyme or reason. They do not approach him or even acknowledge. They simply exist, gathering unbeknownst to the living around them, seen only by Dimitri’s weary eye.

             But then there’s her, a young girl, spinning alone on the bare dance floor. Though the candles blaze, she is shrouded in dark night. Long brown ponytails trail behind her head as she turns, arms draped around an invisible partner. Her face is tight and contorted in concentration.

            She looks at him and says, “You’ll never learn if you don’t try.”

            Soon after, he calls it a night, referencing the coming morning and long day, but, more than that, he needs to be away from these memories and these slippery-smiled people that refuse to leave him be.

            Dimitri catches Dedue’s eye and then Dedue breaks through the crowd to escort him from the room. It is nice, this unspoken bond between them. All over again, Dimitri is relieved that Dedue is not dead. Until Dedue asks, “Did you have any success with the Professor?”

            “You should know better than to meddle in other’s affairs, Dedue.”

            Dimitri keeps his gaze ahead. He does not need to see Dedue’s small smirk to know that his muttered “apologies” is hardly sincere.

            They walk in silence. Dedue’s stalwart presence keeps the phantoms, or whatever they may be, at bay. Dimitri fiddles with the hem of his cloak, busying himself with the rough-hewn fabric rather than disclosing the mingled giddiness and concern in his heart to his closest friend. He wants to confide in Dedue, but he is unsure how; he has never been much good at disclosing anything to anyone.  

            When the fork between his room and Byleth’s lies before him, Dimitri announces, “I will return to my quarters later tonight.”

            Dedue is quick to bow, but Dimitri catches a glimpse of the smile on the other man’s face before it vanishes.

            As Dimitri continues down the dark hall alone, he keeps watch for the slightest aberration in the stone underfoot. He expects the dead to appear in an instant, trapping him within delusions of shattered honor once more.

            But they allow him to progress in peace.

            Byleth’s room is on the far side of the castle, nestled in the highest reaches of the keep in the north tower. When he was a child, he hated climbing the unending stares of the north tower, fearing that a ragged monster stalked him in the dark descent behind his back. He feels like that again, taking the steps nearly two at a time to escape the lingering blackness until he stands at their pinnacle. 

            Hers lies the farthest away, relegated to a terrible view of the side of the main structure, but it was the easiest to defend, if it came to that. She seemed none the wiser of his intentions, but that was good; she would have raised hell otherwise.

            It is hard not to run to her door and fling himself against it so as to imprint his form forever into the wood, but he does not want to appear overzealous. So, he maintains a steady speed walk and only knocks twice. He manages not to splinter the wood.

            When he knocks, he has every intention of confiding in her the delusions he’s suffered, of suggesting they do not push his tenuous sanity beyond what he can handle.

            But then she opens the door. And smiles.

            Byleth still wears the gauzy dress from earlier, but her hair now hangs free and loose over her shoulders, slightly lank from its previous imprisonment atop her head.

            “I didn’t expect you would be able to free yourself so soon,” she says, stepping back to allow him to pass.  

            The room is meager and bare, but in the few days she has occupied it, she has filled it with her presence. Leather-bound books and crumpled letters dot the surface of her desk while her armor gleams in the corner. A long dress of mosaic greens and golds overlaid atop a field of white hangs from the top of her wardrobe.

            “Ah, Rhea had that made for tomorrow.” Her voice is sour, as if Rhea had commissioned a noose instead of a dress. “I’m not one for dresses.”

            Dimitri knows little of fashion, but he does his best to imagine how the fabric would cascade off her body, how the colors would catch in the cold light of dawn, how the softness would define all the edges and curves of her form, and, for the first time, he thinks, maybe, that it is a good thing she is not the one performing the blessing at his coronation; he might have found himself unflatteringly distracted. 

            “What?”

            Ah, he’s been staring. It’s always been a challenge for him to keep his gaze from her, especially when his mind takes to wandering.

            “You’re beautiful,” he says.

            It feels exquisite to say it out loud, akin to releasing a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. Her blush sends a shiver arcing down his spine, but something in his stomach clenches as if he’s eaten something spoiled.

            And now, faced with everything he could possibly want, he cannot feel his feet. In fact, he cannot feel anything beneath his knees, seemingly floating in a pool of viscous, invisible water.

            The air around him is a stagnant haze from the flickering candlelight or the swirling inside his head, he isn’t sure. Distilled color floats in the haze like smudges on glass. Byleth is a slush of mints and whites and pinks before him. Only her eyes, like sigils of faith magic, remain clear and stark.

            He blinks once, twice, three times until the fog clears and he can watch her move to him with proper sight.  

            When her hands fully ensnare his and she murmurs a command to kiss her, his body reacts, hungry and visceral, as his mind teeters. He crushes her arms in his hands, squeezing tight enough to tattoo his fingerprints onto her flesh, and yanks her up to him, stooping to halve the distance between them. She gasps into his mouth and then her arms are stringing around his neck and drawing him closer.

            Her tongue is soft against the dimples of his chapped lips. Her fingers knot in his hair until it sweeps down into his face and becomes caught within the frenzied back and forth of their lips. She is so warm and so much sturdier than he expected, the softness of her form buried beneath the coil of muscle, and he is losing himself, knowing that he exists here and now, with her, but flittering between future and past.

            She kisses him and he is falling off a horse for the first time while Glenn laughs so hard he chokes. She kisses him and he is suffocating beneath the weight of his father’s crown. She kisses him and he is burning from a demeaning flick on the nose delivered by a chiding Catherine. She kisses him and he is pledging himself to a faceless woman he can never care for. She kisses him and he is looming over her, taking what isn’t his to take, feeling what he doesn’t deserve to feel.

            Byleth pushes him against the bed, straddles him when he stumbles onto it, even when it groans out in protest. Her dress has ridden up around her knees; he knows because it bunches in his hands. Her hands are against his face, holding him, guiding him, and she is speaking through her kisses, whispering little words he can’t possibly comprehend into the sanctum between his teeth.

            Fingers sliding through his hair. Lips smashing against his. Silk catching on his hands. Tongue roiling along the roof of his mouth. Breath fogging up his lungs. Teeth latching onto his lower lip. Hands lowering, lingering, on the expanse of his chest.

            The sensation of her kiss is maddening, desperate and wet and strong and fast, so fast.

            He doesn’t want to stop. Doesn’t ever want to stop, but can’t breathe. Can’t feel the weight of her pressed against him. Can’t sense his hands latched around the soft curves of her waist. Can’t find the edges of himself. Can’t taste the essence that she breathes into him.

            He thinks, stop stop stop stop. He thinks, her her her her.

            Her lips leave his, trail little pecks across his jaw, burrow into his neck, mark him with teeth and tongue. A strangled gasp escapes from mingled pleasure and pain. Pleasure from her. Pain from them, staring, watching, hating. And how they howl and screech!

            The dead. She was supposed to make them go away, but they’re here now. Bellowing. Condemning. They are a gathered mass of suffering, holding the severed limbs and heads of one another in hands and arms and mouths. They curse him for abandoning them to pursue such fleeting sensations. They demand he repent in blood.

            Among them, Glenn is fuzzy, watching with eyes gelatinous from years of decay. His withered hand is over the wound in his chest, and thick, black sludge oozes between the splay of his fingers. The frayed muscles of his mouth move in guttural, intelligible noises of pain.

            When Dimitri pulls away, he takes Byleth’s dress in tatters with him. The sound it makes when it rips is horrid as snapping bone and so loud that it must echo throughout all of Fhirdiad.  

            And then there is only the sound of her breathing, airy and light and exasperated, and his, heavy and wet and frenzied.

            He grips her arms, tight, tighter than he truly intends, until the room around her comes into focus. Her hands rise to cover his. They are so warm, so soft around the rough callouses. Her cheeks are splotched pink. Her chest heaves. Her brow furrows with worry lines.

            “Dimitri? What’s wrong?”

            The dress hangs from her body like strips of paper. Her undergarments are plain, but flattering, accentuating the parts of her he has imagined only in moments of weaknesses. There are no scars peeking from the swaths of skin. She is perfect, divine.

            And he wants her, desperately, selfishly, his and his alone. The dead mock him, remind him of the night in the hidden cabin in the woods, of the sick satisfaction he’d gotten at watching her lurch, wounded and weak, across the room, and how, even then, he’d wanted her. Jeering and sneering, they call him an animal, a boar.

            His name rings out again, but he doesn’t answer. Can’t answer. He cannot stop shaking. Why can he not stop shaking, damn it?

            The dead draw nearer, forming a canopy overtop of them. They drool and they curse and they weep. Glenn is gone, replaced by the poor souls who had died before Dimitri ever got the chance to know them. But he knows their faces. He can never forget their faces.

            Fingers knead at his face and he is certain that they have finally stepped from the veil to drag him into hell alongside them, but no. These fingers are warm, kind.

            Byleth’s face comes into sharp focus as the dead fade away. Her eyebrows are drawn together, but they soften as he gazes fully upon her. His breathing evens until he breathes full and slow. He finds his hands, clenched tight around her wrists, and when he pries his fingers apart, her skin is worn pink where they had clung.

            “You didn’t hurt me,” she says. “You didn’t.”

            He swallows, nods even though he doesn’t believe her. The marks around her wrists grow darker, deeper, purpling from ruptured vessels and damaged flesh and undeserved pain. He should have known better, should have expected this.

            “Are you alright?”

            To tell her the whole truth would be to see himself undone in her eyes, so he couches it in a halfway truth, one that does not revel in the full decay of his soul. 

            “I am unused to intimacy.”

            Byleth nods and her face turns stony and solemn. She rises up onto her knees to hover above his lap and her hands slip from his face to coil around her torso. Without her touch, the tension in his chest unlocks in a flurry of panicked uncertainty.

            He imagines her crossing the room, opening the door, asking him to leave, all in the tatters of her once magnificent dress. He knows if she asks him to leave, he will never be able to stomach looking at her again and the great what if will become the horrid what was for a few moments before it was blown to hell.

            “May I hug you?”

            As an answer, he draws her to his chest and burrows his face in her neck. For a long while, he clings to her, sobering himself with her presence, while she rubs at his back in long, smooth strokes. She hums, something throaty and haunting, and he thinks of all the choir practices he’d snuck into back in the Academy to hear her, of all the seminars attended on topics irrelevant to him to impress her, of all the tea parties attended to watch her, of all the bodies piled to honor her, of all the tears shed to forget her, of all the apologies voiced to befriend her, of all the gifts given to appreciate her, of all the walks taken to be with her.

            But still, despite everything, he is a monster.

            And he thinks of nights in the rain, a kiss almost shared, kisses definitely shared, time devoted, smiles exchanged, touches held, promises made, and he thinks, maybe, Byleth would have him anyway.

            "I want to be with you,” he says.

            She nods, presses a kiss to his cheek, and says, “We’ll go slow.”

            And though he parts from her before the dawn, her promise is enough to get him through the lonely, cold night and the trials of the day to follow.

Chapter Text

            On the shortest day of the year, the church of Seiros appoints a new Archbishop, three moons after Fodlan has coronated its new king. The date has been marked into every schedule and calendar in his possession since its announcement, but Dimitri is still unprepared; not for the ceremony, but to face her.

            The cathedral has been remastered to the point that it is hard to imagine that it had ever been damaged. The ceiling has been repaired so that the flying buttresses stand strong and new. Twinkling lights, a trick of conjured fire, if Annette was to be believed, dust the ceiling between them overhead like captured stars. New stained glass drowns the sanctum in the colored visage of the Goddess, standing guard over her flock and looking uncomfortably like the new Archbishop.

            People spill out onto the pathways and ramparts outside the cathedral. Children sit on shoulders and adults crane their necks to see the spectacle. The entire crowd is one single organism that reeks of cologne and poverty and gold and dirt. With all its blinking eyes and floundering mouths, it can only gape and gasp at the majesty of the ceremony.

            Dimitri has been given special treatment, a pew right at the front of the sanctum. Dedue crowds the space beside him and, between the two of them, they take up half the wooden seat. A gaggle of children, orphans judging by their mussed-hair and poor clothes, occupy the other half. Every so often, one of the moppets will snicker or whisper too loudly and another will smack them, louder than whatever small noise they had made. Thankfully, Dedue serves as a formidable buffer between the children. Dimitri has never been good with children. They are small, fragile creatures; he is terrified of shattering them beyond repair.   

            In the moments when the children behave themselves and the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony becomes overwhelming, his thoughts flicker back to hymns sung off tune before a wry smile and nights spent making mouths from a mountain of rubble. The cathedral has worn so many different faces that Dimitri isn’t sure which is its true form. The pristine chapel of his academy days? The dusty ruin of the war? The remodeled marvel of today?

            “Not even the tide of unjust conquest could cripple the Church.’

            Byleth stands before the pulpit with Seteth over her left shoulder and Rhea over her right. With their hair a gradient of greens and eyes like arctic ice, they seem a trio of long-lost siblings, each personally blessed by the Goddess. Both Seteth and Rhea wear garments of white, but the color is off, slightly dim and muddy. Only the white of Byleth’s gown is unblemished, so pure and so white it burns.

            The speech Byleth gives, allegedly penned and reformatted an infinite amount of times by Seteth’s hands, has been the subject of strife within her letters, but there is not a hint of disdain on her face as her promises for the future resonate in the holy air of the cathedral.

            “This is the dawn of a new age,” she says and she raises her arms to the heavens. Billows of silk coast from her wrists and catch in the stained-glass light filtering in. The ocean of her hair, meticulously styled and delineated for the occasion, is adorned with wreathed gold and a smattering of lilac and cherry blossoms. Not even the dead of winter can slow the stampede of progress.

            Rhea kneels before her and Seteth follows suit. The motion catches and then Dimitri finds himself stooped alongside Dedue and the rowdy children. Loose strands of hair whisper across his lips, tasting sour and metallic. All around him, the people clap and cheer. There is an old woman nearby who weeps.

            With his head bowed and the sound of rapturous applause in his ears, Dimitri can think only of the last time he’d seen her, half a moon earlier at a hastily called cabinet meeting, and how she’d pressed him up against the back of a column when no one was looking and met his lips in a quick jab of a kiss. And though he’d fretted about in a daze for the rest of her short, chaperoned visit, the affection had gone unnoticed and he’d found himself wishing later that night that he’d taken full advantage of their companions’ indiscretion.

            There are things he longs to do, made ever more ardent by Sylvain’s relentless prodding and suggesting, but he doubts his ability to do them. Thoughts of his own instability and her ascension to Archbishop circle each other like vultures over carrion within his mind.

            The applause ebbs and then, in a flurry of shoving and pushing, Dimitri finds himself at the head of a line to receive the blessings of the new Archbishop.

            “The grace of Sothis be with you,” she says, but she doesn’t look a thing like the Byleth he knows; she looks just like cold, aloof Rhea. For a moment, he sees Rhea’s sharpness about her smile and thinks that somehow Rhea has scooped out everything that made Byleth and replaced it with religious zeal and ardor.

            Byleth’s smile wavers at his silence. He’s supposed to return her words to her, but he cannot, not when the situations he’s imagined unfolding between them to stave off the loneliness without her bloom bright and ardent in his mind. From over Byleth’s shoulder, Rhea’s eyes are narrowed down to slits. Surely, she can sense his sin, his lust for the Archbishop. He chokes through a haphazard response and then he is rushing against the tide of the devout to breathe the crisp winter air. There are murmurs that follow his retreat, but they fall quiet soon enough.

            Dimitri slows to a halt on the bridge. He turns to grip the handrail. He grits his teeth at the twittering onlookers. Cracks feather out beneath his grasp as he stares into the chasm below.

            In theory, it had seemed a simple thing to keep their relationship… tryst… fling? Whatever it was, it was a secret, sparing them both the trouble of dealing with fussy advisors and Seteth and Rhea, but now, it is a crushing weight upon his brow. Celibacy is an unspoken expectation for her now, something she has refused to address, choosing instead to press smudged, lipstick kisses where answers should have been in her letters. She has penned that she cares him, so much that she aches from being apart, but seeing her today, revered and deified, he wonders if she should know better.

            His friends have been no help in the matter. Half of them swoon at the notion of forbidden romance, half of them tease him relentlessly; Sylvain drifts back and forth between the two camps, proving to be a veritable nuisance in every manner of life. Only Ingrid and Felix have said anything worthwhile. Ingrid told him to continue following his heart as it was the only way to be happy. Felix told him that, of all the atrocities he has committed, courting the Archbishop wouldn’t even raise a brow. And to be careful, though that bit of advice had been tossed out over Felix’s shoulder as he stalked away.

            But the worry will not leave Dimitri, especially when the prospect of intimacy makes his mouth water. In the time since their last stolen encounter, Byleth’s letters have grown bolder, entertaining notions of things he has never thought possible. And it is a thrill to enjoy her written intimacies, but the reality of it is too much now that there is the distinct possibility of joining together in flesh and blood.

            Beneath him, the canyon is dark and endless. Fog rises like phantom limbs from the depths, coating the bridge in a thick haze. Once, he had thought the view from the bridge magnificent. Now, he can only wonder what lies at the bottom.

            Dedue’s shadow blocks out the tepid winter sunlight and Dimitri finds lips unloosing.

            “None of this feels real.”

            Dedue hums and Dimitri can hear the ruffle of his shirt as he crosses his arms over the broad expanse of his chest. Well-fed and exercised since his return, Dedue has only continued to grow bulkier. He boasts the sort of form that ancient artists might have dedicated their lives to sculpting.

            “Too good to be true?”

            “I suppose,” Dimitri says, quickly. But that’s not it entirely. It is all too good for him.

            Byleth is willing to risk the sanctity of the church for him, no matter how bloodstained and disgraced he may be. And, somehow, it had never seemed serious until he had seen her ordained.  

            The line dwindles behind him as the sun sets, but he cannot bring himself to move until a bright voice hails him.

            Dimitri grimaces and turns to find Ingrid in her knighted regalia. She fists her hand over her chest and bows to him. He nods at the gesture, but the motion is stiff. He hates all the social nuances that have come with his coronation.

            “All of us are meeting in the old classroom later, after the banquet,” Ingrid says. “To say goodbye.”

            Sylvain had also mentioned something of the sort earlier, but Dimitri has no interest in attending. His old classmates are always finding ways to relive their academy days, usually by recounting tales of their antics, detentions, and successes, but it is a fruitless endeavor. The past can only ever be a memory. They waste their days chasing times when they imagined they were happy.  

            “It is not being torn down,” Dimitri says.

            Wrinkles fissure out from Ingrid’s squinting eyes. The sun makes her hair molten.

            “But it won’t be the same, will it? No more Blue Lions.”

            Dimitri shrugs. The prospect of being the last in a long line of Blue Lions’ classes does unnerve him, but the new house designations and assignments, the first changes of many in Byleth’s planned overhaul, are a necessary revision when the country is now united.  

            “You’ll come, won’t you?” she asks. At his hesitation, she leans a little closer and whispers, “Byleth has promised to stop by.”

            Dimitri crosses his arms and stares off into the abyss below. When he had written, hesitantly, if she believed they would be able to find the time for a few moments alone, Byleth had made no such promises to him. She had only written if I should find myself so lucky.  

            When Ingrid coughs into the front of her fist, Dimitri says, “I will make an effort.”

            Ingrid’s mouth stiffens into a hooked frown, but she nods and says, “Then I will hope to see you there.”

            She takes her leave into the streaming crowd, the heavy fabric of her cape swishing behind her like the tail of her pegasus.

            “Do you truly have no intentions of attending, your majesty?” Dedue asks.

            Truly, Dimitri does not. Only ghosts and dusty memories that he would sooner do away with await him in the old classroom. His academy days, though precious, are a shameful fiction. He does not want to reminisce on the boy he once was.

            “Come Dedue,” Dimitri says. “The banquet will begin soon.”

            And Dedue asks no more questions. His large shadow shades Dimitri as they make their way in silence to the mess hall.

            When they arrive, the hall is mostly empty, save for bustling servants setting the tables. Cyril stands at the head of the room, barking orders to the scurrying mass as plates and glasses and silverware are meticulously arranged. Despite the glut of people, the mess hall seems empty without the massive banners that once hung from the ceiling and displayed the sigils of the three houses. So often, Dimitri had sat beneath the blue satin lion that he had taken its presence for granted.

            Staring into the emptiness overhead, Dimitri says, “Perhaps we should wait out—"

            There is a squeal and a clacking of feet and a flash of mint hair racing towards him. Two arms thump around his waist, capturing him into staying still.

            “Oh, it is delightful to see you!” Flayn says, squeezing her arms tight around him once before moving to greet Dedue in the same way.

            When she finishes, she beams and says, “Come, I will show you to your seats.”

            Nearby, a servant trips and a tablecloth is yanked off the table in a flurry of clanging metal. Dimitri winces as shouts resound.

            “We do not wish to impose,” he says, but Flayn tsks with a shake of her head, saying, “Nonsense! Cyril is just ensuring the final touches.”

            Then, she flounces off through the hall, waving them forwards when Dimitri makes no move to follow.

            “C’mon,” she says. “You will only be in the way if you remain there!”

            Dimitri sighs, but follows, careful to avoid the feet and elbows of the frenzied servants. Each stops to bow to him and each time, he waves them off, telling them to continue. When he finally reaches the table Flayn has indicated, his brow has furrowed him into a headache.

            Flayn pulls out his chair, at the center of the head table, and he sits, Dedue right beside him. Flayn clasps her hands together and then takes a seat diagonal to him. She says, “I tried to talk the chef into preparing fish for the banquet, but he insisted on steak. Can you believe that? There’s a whole pond full of fish right outside and he sends for cows halfway across Fodlan!”

            He has no opinion, having no preference for any type of meat over the other, so he watches the servants finish their duties. Around him, the tables slowly begin to fill as Dedue engages in a debate with Flayn regarding the merits of fish over steak. 

            Dimitri thrums his fingers against the table to the growl of his stomach. He has neglected to eat the entire day, focused on completing the long journey from Fhirdiad to Garreg Mach, and, with the servants receding, the smell of dinner slowly makes its way through the air.

            The hall begins to fill and there is no logical order to the seating. Nobles and commoners, from all over the continent, sit side by side and, though some of the nobles scowl, there seem to be no squabbles about the arrangements.

            A large party enters and the room falls silent. With mingling horror and longing, Dimitri watches Byleth, at the head of the group, make her way across the room to take the empty seat beside him. She smells of rich, heady oil. When she smiles at him, he can taste his heart on his tongue. Should he speak? What should he say? What would one friend with nothing to hide say to another?

            Seteth takes the seat across from his, beside Flayn, and Rhea scooches in on Seteth’s left. It feels an inquisition of sorts. Perhaps they have uncovered the letters sent between he and Byleth and intend to reveal the indecency to the entire crowd. The news would spread in days. It would be a national scandal immediately; a threat to his already tenuous rule.

            But Rhea only smiles with her lips pressed tight together and says, “What a lovely day this is.”

            The table continues to swell with clergy and nobility, monks and knights filling the empty seats to his left, beyond Byleth, and Lorenz and Sylvain and Ferdinand and Petra, filling the empty seats to his right. They twitter amongst themselves about land and horses and women, but the buzz of their voices subsides beneath the honeyed melody of Byleth’s gentle conversation with one of the monks, asking after the health of one of their group.

            There are attempts to draw him into mild conversation, but he fails at each instance, offering only terse, one-word responses. When the food comes, he eats rapturously, devouring the meat and potatoes as fast as decorum would permit. As he gulps from a glass of bitter wine to down the lump in his throat, Rhea asks, “Your majesty, can we expect you will honor the Aerilan Accords?”

            If it is the conclusion to a conversation, he has missed the majority of it. All he knows for certain is that the Aerilan Accords demand the dominant power supply the church with any military might it may need. The entire table stares at him. Rhea’s hand is tight around the stem of her glass, but she does not bring it her lips, only stares with serpentine eyes. So, he nods and says, “My strength is your strength.”

            It is a good answer, he can tell from the silken smile that stretches across Rhea’s face, and he does his best to match that pleased smile as he forces a spoonful of potatoes into his mouth.

            Beneath the table, a foot brushes slow and hard against his, lingering too long against the hollow of his ankle. He jerks upright, thumping his knees against the underside of the wood and nearly chokes. Beside him, Byleth sips from a glass of wine and raises her eyebrows at him. Is she toying with him? Why here? Shouldn’t she know better?

            “Are you alright, your majesty?” Dedue asks.

            Dimitri’s face burns as he swallows and nods. Dedue seems unconvinced, but he does not pester, only narrows his stare into a glare.  

            The rest of the banquet passes in jumbled conversation and flustered bites. Byleth does not touch him again, does not even speak to him, for the rest of the meal and only Lorenz continues to vie for his attention, asking after endowments and allegiances and elections and armaments. Every question is so damn incessant that Dimitri could weep in frustration at it all.  

            When dessert, a puff of sweet cream and walnuts, comes and goes, Dimitri wastes no time in declaring his necessity to leave and attend to pressing correspondence. Of course, there is nothing of the sort, as Dimitri has been certain to take care of everything before the ceremony began, but he will utilize any excuse he can to escape Lorenz and the weight of Rhea and Seteth’s conjoined stare.

            He offers paltry, impersonal goodbyes to the table, avoiding Byleth’s eye entirely, and stands free of them. From there, it is not an easy thing to leave the banquet as numerous nobles clamber for his attention, but Dedue rebukes them so that Dimitri can slink by and out into the corridor. Before he sets off, Dimitri chances a look back to the far end of the hall and finds Byleth entertaining the attention of a noble, a former Imperial judging from her white-blonde hair, completely oblivious to his departure. His recent meal squelches heavy and dense within his stomach and then he is turning on a heel and making haste for the third floor.

            In silence, he climbs the steps, passing by the corridor to his old academy room without a sideways glance. He scowls at the ostentatious doors leading to the royal quarters. Fresh carvings depicting scenes of royal history decorate the heavy wood. They are a new addition, as most everything in the royal suite is, needed after Garreg Mach was ransacked.

            If he had had a say, Dimitri would have protested all the additions to the royal suite, preferring the simple furniture and carpeting of his childhood. But he’d had no say and the royal suite had become a hedonist’s dream.

            The knight of Seiros standing guard at the doors fists his hand over his chest and bows, but the visor of his helmet clanks down over his face. Undeterred, the knight shoulders open the door and chirps, “Nothing to report, your majesty!”

            Dimitri nods to the man as he adjusts his visor and then says to Dedue, “Visit with our old classmates. Give them my apologies.”

            Dedue nods and then bows, a hand fisted over his chest, before taking his leave.

            “It’s a shame about the houses isn’t it?” the knight says as Dimitri passes into the suite. “Though, I suppose it had to be done and I don’t doubt that the professor, uh, Archbishop know what’s best.”

            “Yes, quite,” Dimitri says and closes the door, slumping against the wood as its closing echoes. Today has been much more challenging than expected and being in this room that is both familiar and foreign only compounds his unease.

            This room had served as his home at Garreg Mach, before he’d attended the Academy, since he was just a babe, only a few months old and still wet with the water of the womb. That first visit had kept him trapped for a week in the monastery for his naming and dedication to the Church. He had been forced into a cradle at the foot of the bed. And his mother, his birth mother, had sung lullabies to him while he squalled and kept the entire monastery sleepless and irritable.

            Or so his father had written about once, long ago, in a letter to Cornelia, uncovered in the aftermath of her downfall. His father’s frequent correspondence with Cornelia was not the only secret revealed since Dimitri had ascended the throne, but it is the one that never strayed far from his thoughts. There is no hint of sugary language within the letters to support the idea of an indecent affair between the two, but there is something in his father’s reliance on Cornelia, asking for her opinion and seeking her guidance, that refuses to settle within in him.

            Dimitri stands and then moves to sit at the desk. His skin prickles and he searches the room for the hint of a misty figure, but there is none. It has been a full moon since his ghosts have appeared to him in any true form. Only their voices come to him now, offering spite and hatred at random throughout his day. Still, he is not foolish enough to fall into complacency. Being in this room, where the walls hold memories of times past, puts him on edge.

            Soon after his naming and dedication, his mother had caught the plague and died. He had never known her, could not even find a trace of her within the angles of his face.

            To Cornelia, his father had written of a journal his mother had kept for him, detailing his daily moods, the books she read to him, and her observations of him up until the day she fell ill. No such book had been found, though he had asked, even reaching out to her house to see if it had been delivered to them after her death.

            He rubs at his eye, leaning back in the chair and unlocking the pressure in his spine. His whirling thoughts are a pointless endeavor. There is nothing but headaches to be made from threadbare conjectures about his mother’s life. She married his father, she gave birth to him, and then she died. His father had never spoken of her and Dimitri had seldom thought after her when Patricia had always been mother to him, but it all seems to matter now that there is nothing to be done and everyone who might have revealed the truth lies buried.

            When he slips into temperate dark, he does not notice. Only when hushed voices sound from outside the room, followed by a hearty rap on the door, does he jerk awake and realize he has been asleep. Outside, night has come with watery moonlight.

            Dimitri stumbles to the door, irritated and sleep-stricken, and flings it open without care, only for his heartbeat to stutter and quicken at the sight of his visitor.

            The headdress still adorns her hair. The long gown still accentuates her form. She smiles up at him and there is something cold, something bitter, hiding in the glisten of her eyes. He finds himself angry at her intrusion. The knight stands to the side of the door, watching them, but pretending not to. 

            “May I come in?” she asks.

            The question is unnecessary. Even irritated, how could he refuse her?

            He steps aside and she breezes past. The knight gives him a thumbs up. Dimitri clenches his teeth until his jaw pops and closes the door more delicately than he truly desires.

            When he turns, he finds she has taken up residence on the bed, settling atop the quilted comforter and fumbling with the straps of her shoes.

            “I expected to find you with the others,” she says after working the first one free.

            Dimitri has no response. She of all people should know that he cannot toast to the once mighty Blue Lion house when he has brought about its demise.

            She turns her head to him and her hands raise to the headdress ensnared atop her head. He watches in silence as her fingers knife through the tangled locks. When she tosses the filigreed metal onto her lap, her hair hangs full and wild about her shoulders.

            It seems wrong, somehow, to have her here, so loose and comfortable while so much uncertainty trembles his hands.

            She stands and forks her fingers through the loops of her heels. Then, she moves to the other side of the room, where a chair sits flush against the wall. She discards the headdress and heels on the cushion. When she turns back to him, her fingers have disappeared behind the nape of her neck.

            “Would you have any spare clothes? This dress is horribly uncomfortable.”

            He is stiff, every muscle drawn tight and tense, when he asks, “Is that wise?”

            Byleth purses her lips.

            “Seteth and Rhea believe I have taken ill from stress and Shamir is covering for me.”

            He wants to ask after Shamir’s involvement, dreading the notion that yet another person knows the extent of whatever he and Byleth are pursuing, but cannot muster the words when the dress slinks off her shoulders to lie in a ruffled puddle at her feet. Only simple undergarments keep her dignified. With the headdress peeking from behind her hip, he feels caught in some lurid fantasy, one dreamed up by Sylvain in his youth.

            His mouth is dry. He wets it with the tip of his tongue. He gestures to the armoire where Dedue has taken the liberty of unpacking his things upon their arrival earlier in the day.

            She draws an undershirt free of the folded masses and holds it aloft. The muscles of her back are taut. Her shoulder blades jut like wings. In the glisten of her back, he remembers a moment, years ago, after a swordfaire lesson when she had stripped free of her sweaty armor to reveal the smooth intricacies of her form.

            She had apologized profusely the next day, expressing that she had never known the social constraints of such an action and that Seteth had been sure to set her straight, and Dimitri had made himself forget it to preserve her decency within his mind, though the image sometimes lurked into his nighttime musings. 

            But he doesn’t think ignorance is masking her actions now. She is much bolder than him.

            “What has kept you from joining the others?” she asks and her head bows to button the shirt. Her legs erupt long and milky from beneath it with lacework stockings climbing up to the underside of her knee.

            “I was thinking of my mother.”

            Her face is set in stormy repose as she fumbles with the hem of the shirt, flipping it right side out, saying, “We will find the truth. Rhea’s dedicated herself to uncovering the truth of everything.”

            The sour tone of her voice draws his curiosity, but she says nothing more, only plays with a loose string off the cuff of the shirt. She pulls at the thread, drawing it longer and longer, and then rolls it between thumb and forefinger.

            “That is good to hear,” he says. “But I spoke of my birth mother.”

            The string falls from between her fingernails and he loses sight of it in the backdrop of the room. Slowly, she says, “You have not told me much of her.”

            He does not know much of her. He knows her hair was strawberry blonde and her nose turned up at the end and her eyes were earthen brown and she had an affinity for horses and her name was traditional and that was it.

            “She died when you were very young,” Byleth says like a memory. He cannot remember speaking to her of his mother before, but must have, at some point. Perhaps during a moment of weakness during his Academy days or during a fit of madness during the war. Regardless, the conversation is lost to him.

            “Yes.”  

            Byleth nods. She crosses her arms over her chest. The shirt rides up just above her waist, revealing the shining satin maintaining her decency beneath. He does not stare, though he takes his brief glimpse of the sight deep within the recesses of his mind, holding it there for a later date.

            “That must have been hard.”

            “I cannot recall.”

            The silence stretches and he stands across from her and wonders if they shouldn’t be so far apart and if now is the time to ask after her intentions with him, but Byleth’s stare undoes him so thoroughly that his confidence and concern lie at opposite ends of his being with only impish anxiety remaining in-between.

            “It has been a long day,” she says.

            He nods. Swallows. Fidgets. She does not let up with her staring. Her eyes peel away the clothes and flesh and muscle of him until there is nothing left but dry bones, sizing him up like an opponent in the arena. He wishes she would shift foot-to-foot or sigh or move in some small way to release the intensity of her stare.  

            “Do you not wish me here?” she asks.

            He chews the inside of his cheek. He says, “I have longed for this moment.”

            It is not a lie, but he has longed for it to be softer, sweeter; their reunion an overpouring of affection and sincerity so the memory can warm him during the cold Fhirdiad nights. And though their letters often read like text from a romance novel and led him to believe this moment could only be of that sort, it feels nothing of the kind. 

            “Then why do you glower at me?”

            He tenses because, yes, his eyes are squinted and his mouth is sharp and the expression has been so natural that he is shocked by its existence. Rebuked and remorseful, he moves to sit upon his bed and rubs at his face with the heels of his hands. He says, “The banquet was miserable, wasn’t it? To be beside you, yet apart from you.”

            She is slow in responding, but she does, saying, “I felt much the same.”

            Then, she is crossing the room, her footsteps a gentle patter against the floor, and falling about him the way she had the night of his coronation, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and resting her knees beside his thighs.

            “But we are together now.”

            With her so present before him, somehow, his worries and angers seem a little bit less dire. He moves his hands, though they tremble, to her waist, molding them to the supple curves he finds there. She kneads at his scalp, flits her eyelashes, which he sees now have been lacquered with a heavy black coating, and asks, “Can we try to—”

            “Yes,” he says. He kisses her, carefully, slowly, as timid as his first kiss as a prepubescent boy had been. She responds in kind, kissing him closemouthed. Until he is certain the dead will not stray close, he maintains the slow, restrained pecks. Her fingers slip to the nape of his neck, holding him to her with her arms looped about him like a bow.

            When the silence falls so thick that he can hear only the soft pucker of her lips on his and the wind whispering outside, he opens his mouth to her and draws her flush against him. Her soft sigh loosens his fingers from their shackled grip on her hips. One hand he uses to touch her jaw and tilt her back so that he can kiss her full and deep in the way he has seen other couples kiss, and the other he uses to caress her back, knuckling the ridges of her spine through the thin shirt. She trails behind his motions, always hesitating behind every touch he impresses on her.

            She breaks the kiss, maybe to say something, but he fixates on her neck and whatever words she may have envisioned become a sharp gasp. He kisses along the smooth column of her neck, tracing the venous path with the tip of his nose. He has planned this out, steeled himself for each escalation of passion through rigorous imaginings and solitary practice.

            Beneath him, she sighs. Her fingers stay locked within the tendrils of his hair. When he reaches the collar of her shirt, his shirt, she tugs at his hair in a silent plea. He shifts her off him, easing her down against the mattress and angling overtop of her. Her face is tinged and her lips are swollen, but she doesn’t reach for him. She waits, watching with glossy eyes as he fumbles with the buttons of the nightshirt.

            “Is this alright?” he asks and she nods, her breath slow and easy between her parted lips.

            And then he’s tearing at the buttons, ripping them from the fabric without much care, shivering at his own forceful actions. It is one thing when their interactions are dominated by his nervous crush or raw want, but the actual having gores him. There are two Dimitris: the physical body of need and desire, and the mental entity of reason and doubt. And the two muddled so easily when it came to her that he became lost in the mush. 

            Byleth sits up, slipping her arms free of the shirt, and then lies back down, staring up at him through thick lashes. He stares until she squirms under his stare.

            “So beautiful,” he says, though he does not think the words before they escape. She cants her gaze from him and her mouth pitches, disbelieving.

            He presses his lips over the jut of her collarbone and she arches into him, huffing when he nips at the solid bone. There is so much smooth, warm flesh for him to explore and kiss that he becomes dizzy with possibility. He kisses along the length of her collarbones and up the front of her throat and along the curve of her ear and her hand is taking his, moving it off her waist to the swell of her bust, making his fingers curl into a wanton grope.

            It seems too much, too soon, but the way she breathes at his touch is impossible to forgo. He captures her lips, kissing her so that he can take her tiny gasps and heavy pants within him. The edges of him are fuzzy, but he is mostly whole and mostly with her. There is a part of him that bobs in the murk of the past, straining to be free of such physical sensations, but it is easy to ignore.

            She is the one to remove her brassiere, hands fumbling beneath her back until it pops loose, and she casts it aside with a fling of her wrist. He watches it sail, hook off the edge of the wardrobe, and then looks to her. His boyish imaginings have never done her true justice. She blushes and it colors her throat scarlet. 

            “You can… you know.”        

            He does know. And he does as best he can.

            Her breathlessness makes him tremble. He wants forever to touch and kiss and caress every inch of her until she cannot breathe, but she pushes against him, flattening him on his back, undoing the buckles of his regalia and kissing at his neck and running her hands up and down the front of his chest and tickling his nose with her hair and the world feels like it is splitting over top of him.  

            There is screaming in his head, whose screaming he cannot tell, as she teethes at the juncture of his neck and takes his pulse into the hollow of her mouth. The sensation is electric, shocking every inch of him with pure, carnal adrenaline, and he thinks, beastly and selfishly, how he wants her in every semblance of the word, but the screaming won’t let up. It intensifies into haggard sobs when her fingers catch and trace along a raised scar just above his hip. 

            “I’ve thought of nothing but this, you, all day,” she says and he jolts. Had she thought of this, of him, while she’d uttered the sacred vows of the church? Had she imagined him beneath her, trapped by her hands and lips and hips, when she’d promised herself, body and soul, to furthering the teachings of Seiros? Had she looked to him when Rhea had cemented the headdress atop her head, offering an adjacent promise to him of bodily lust?

            Her smile is sharp above him as he squirms. She leans down, captures his lips in a torrent of tongue and teeth. Gone is the shyness she had maintained and gone is his restraint. He holds her by the back of her head, mashing into her as if he could swallow the breath from her lungs and devour her screams. But she isn’t screaming. It isn’t her. He wishes it was. Her voice is so lovely, so much sweeter and huskier than the cooing songs of the nightingales. But she’s so quiet, just little huffs and gasps instead of moans and screams.

            Is he not doing this properly? Doing something wrong?

            His hands move, yank her head back so that her throat is presented taut and shining before him. He kisses, sucks, bites until her voice shakes beneath the smooth skin and rushing blood.

            “Dimitri,” she says. “Don’t.”

            He stops, just breathes hot and heavy above the wet mark of his mouth on her throat. Don’t what? Touch and kiss? Love and want?

            He can stop the former two, but never the latter two. He has loved her since the moment she rose up from the dead, wanted her even longer.  

            She kisses him again, finding his hands and locking her fingers within his. Then, she is shoving him down, down, down, and pining him to the mattress. He rocks up against her, but she presses harder, keeping him docile. Easily, so easily, he could lurch up, take her in any way he wants, because she is strong, but he is stronger. He doesn’t.

           He stays beneath her and suffers her affections, twisting and shifting beneath the weight of her. There’s laughter now, shrill and bright and crazed, chiding him for lying prone and for believing himself worthy.

            Byleth traces kisses off his mouth and down his throat. As the heat of her lips meets with the sensitive skin there, he turns to stare into the room, offering up a better angle for her to utilize. But there is a woman with a face of cobwebs rocking a bassinet beside Byleth’s discarded garb. A breeze flutters the translucent strings of the web and out leers Patricia, Edelgard, his mother all mangled together within the mess. A single word tumbles about between his teeth, bolstered by Byleth’s sweeping tongue on his neck, and it is the same thing Edelgard had sought: desecration.

            “I can’t,” he says between breaths. Repeats it until Byleth hears him and recedes, slipping off him to linger on the untouched mattress by the headboard, arms crossing her chest to cover her nakedness. Her cheeks are flush and her face slack. And with the imprint of his teeth all over her, she says, “Too fast.”

            Not a question. An expectation almost. The woman and the bassinet have vanished. It is only he and Byleth once more.

            Dimitri sits up, crosses his own arms, and says, “No, it is not… I… you’re the archbishop.”

            She stares with her lamplight eyes. Purple bruising dusts along her neck, growing richer and more pronounced by the second.

            “And you’re the king.”

            He says nothing. His chest heaves.

            “If you wish me to leave, I will.”

            The thought of her leaving is just as poisonous as the thought of her staying. He reaches for her and she moves to him, filling his arms with her soft skin and hard muscle beneath. She nuzzles her face against his chest and her fluttering eyelashes tickle.   

            “What if, one day, I am no longer the Archbishop?” she asks slowly, arching her face to him. “That would uncomplicate our situation.”

            “Only barely,” he says, thinking of her common name and nonexistent wealth. “But I can hardly imagine you as anything other than the Archbishop.”

            Her mouth goes flat. Her face smoothens. She stares.

            “Is that so?”

            “Yes,” he says. “And that’s why we—why I—find myself so undeserving.”

            Her hands take his, squeezing tight.

            “Enough with this nonsense,” she says. “I want to be with you. You are kind and loving and driven and good and charming and handsome—”

            The list of adjectives loses its appeal as she snuggles up against him, wrapping her arms tight around his chest. Her breath tickles his neck as his heart strains to be against hers. He wonders if she can hear its whining.

            He wants to ask what to call this thing between them. He wants to say relationship, yet balks because of its certain expiration date as, someday, he will be expected to marry and bear a respectable lineage, despite his qualms with the notion, but does she know that? Does she care?

            She kisses at the curve of his jaw, light and delicate.

            “The next cabinet meeting, I believe I might decide upon an overnight visit,” she says. She takes her hands from his and lays them flat and still over his chest. Her palm is warm over his heart.

            “Yes,” he says.

            And she stays with him until the night softens into early morning, kissing and snuggling and touching all the while.

            When she finally leaves dressed in the garb of the Archbishop once more after kissing him goodbye one final time, he cannot make himself watch, only traces the path she takes on her way out until the memory fades into an uncomfortable, empty sleep.

Chapter Text

            The first year of Dimitri’s rule over a united Fodlan progresses quickly. Each day is a new booked schedule and a new headache of issues. Headway has been made into eliminating the dregs of the empire and a tentative cessation of arms has been drawn up with Almyra, brought into existence by the maneuverings of its newly elected and awfully familiar king, while Brigid and Dagda have agreed to remain vassal states.

            It is peaceful, for the most part. No situation requires Dimitri’s personal attendance, not when his knights are so capable.

~~~

            He speaks to Byleth in letters, and she responds in kind, writing more fully and vibrantly than she ever talks.

            Sometimes, she includes small doodles in the margins of her letters. Often, she draws herself with caricatured proportions and droopy eyes, performing the tasks she describes. His favorite of these is of her fishing into a few squiggles of water and standing beside a pile of fish taller than she stands with a blank expression.

            Sometimes, she includes depictions of her surroundings, like when she roams the continent to bolster relations with the church, or lifelike sketches of animals she encounters. When he asks, she says she doesn’t know how or when she learned to draw, only that she can.

~~~

            A riot breaks out in the heart of former Empire territory. He dispatches the knights to quell the chaos. It takes a moon, but it is resolved without much bloodshed.  

            When the knights return, they report cloaked figures standing on buildings and lurking in shadows, watching the chaos like patient vultures.

~~~

            As a peace summit with Almyra comes to a close, Claude pulls him from Byleth's side, says, “It feels wrong, doesn’t it? Like she should be here.”

            He says no and Claude moves his attentions elsewhere.

~~~

            Over a quiet evening of knitting, Mercedes inquires about his health. He tells her the ghosts no longer speak to him and that they still appear, sometimes, but only in moments of stress. She bobs her head and hums. She asks if he is sleeping. He tells her he struggles and the next day, she adds lavender tea and oils to his regimen.

            Over time, his dreams of death fade until he dreams of nothing at all.

~~~

            He learns that it is easy to touch, but not to be touched. His teeth crack at the affection Byleth gives to him with her fingers, lips, and tongue. And always always always, she asks to touch him, to return the favor.

            Once, he lets her. Lets her do all the things she wants. And it is wonderful, glorious, blissful. But there is nothing beyond the feeling of water over his head when it is finished.

            “You should not be here,” he says. “Should not do these things to me.”

            And he cannot stop from there, calls her things he has ignored: holy, sacred, blessed, divine.

            Cold and distant, she tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Tells him he’s wrong. Tells him he’s a fool to say such things. Tells him to shut up. Tells him he’s cruel. Tells him to stop treating her like glass. Tells him she can make her own decisions. Tells him she is not the Goddess.

            He cannot move when she leaves him, cannot untangle the barbs she has spoken into being around him.

            Only when she returns to him, quiet and repentant, can he move. He takes her into his arms and kisses her brow and tells her he is thankful every day that she deems him worthy of her affection.

            It is their only fight.

~~~

            Petra comes to him once, after a council meeting, after her union to Dorothea has been unreservedly denounced, says, “It is tough. To be loving what we should not.”

            And she is right. And he tells her she is. And she smiles so sad and so little. And they do not speak of it again.

~~~

            Byleth’s birthday approaches. He plans moons in advance, finagling schedules and asking Annette to take charge, supplying her with his grand vision. The end product is a simple, yet thorough tea party with all their comrades who could find the time to attend.

            When the day comes, Byleth speaks little, but drinks easily of the whiskey brought by Sylvain. She offers sharp, full-toothed smiles at the small gifts and trinkets offered to her, even the few from him, and, when she hugs everyone goodnight, she breathes full and deep as if she were preparing to dive underwater.

            Later, in the quiet of his bedroom, she tells him, unprompted, of the years spent without a birthday. Of haphazard dishes prepared by doting mercenaries. Of the teasing from other children. Of the nickname that branded her. Of the love from her father that she could never return.

            It feels like a new beginning, when he holds her hand and rubs at her thumb with his, and she tells him of everything he’s been too unsure to ask.

            But she is drunk.

            And the next day, she does not mention the gasping breaths she took in his arms.

~~~

            Dagda falls into civil war. Refugees stream into Fodlan with reports of mass bloodshed and absolute chaos and unknown figures untouched amid the carnage, watching with black rimmed eyes. 

~~~

            He is the first to write it in the looping, spidery scrawl of a fast hand, wishing her well and longing to see her and saying he loved her. Dedue asks after his health when he sends the letter off to the monastery, noting his sweaty appearance and fidgety behavior.

            He waits a week for her response, barely sleeping, expecting her to reject him fully.

            But the letter she sends begins, I love you too.

~~~

The things she says she loves about him:

His hands

His laugh

His hugs

His ambition

His honesty

The things she asks that he cannot answer:

Do you think this winter will be mild?

Where did you stay all those years?

Have you ever thought yourself married?

Can we ever stop hiding?

Did you love her?

The things she will not speak of:

Her mother

The Goddess

Her five-year slumber

The void

Her dreams

Chapter Text

III. The Beginning

            Dimitri sits on the edge of his bed, listening to the chatter of his thoughts over the pulse of an unbearable headache. He had not slept well after the news of upheaval along the border with Sreng had broken the night before, just as he was taking his dinner. It did not help that the council was amassed in the capital for its monthly session, expecting an immediate response to the threat. And he had done what he thought best, sending reinforcements to maintain the border and a delegation to ascertain the nature of the unrest, but there was only tepid approval from the majority from the counselors. And none whatsoever from the Adrestians. 

            As the sun begins to dim beyond the frosted panes of his bedroom windows, he fists one hand his jaw, keeping his head upright, and uses the other to display a request for the crown’s intercession in investigating a plague upon the wildlife in former Alliance territory. The letter is stamped with the seal of House Gloucester, but Lorenz had raised no such concerns before the council earlier that day. It is a ploy of some sort, but Dimitri has never been keen to the maneuverings of the gentry. He tosses the letter aside and flops backwards onto the plush of his bed, making a note to ask Gilbert of his thoughts on the matter.

            When the request comes to meet on the balcony, he is slow in going, wanting to enjoy a few more moments in solitude.

            But he knows better than to disrespect her.

            So, a few corners turned and blurry ramblings thought later, Dimitri finds himself standing and overlooking the ice-shrouded valley below, withstanding the bitter cold and thinking of things he should not, given the woman beside him. Perhaps it is the joyous announcement of Annette’s pregnancy that morning or perhaps it is his own fetid unhappiness that overrules his better judgment, but he cannot stop the longing, cloying thoughts that paint themselves in his mind’s eye, overtop the waves of snow far below him.

            He sees her, standing before the frosted glass, arms crossed, hair loose, with a silken gown, grand and ornate, drooped off her frame. When she turned to him, the burn of the setting sun glimmered around her form, cast her face in shadow and turned her from woman into electric silhouette. She smiled, bent her finger, beckoned him to her. Made him stoop, held his face between her warm hands, kissed the corner of his mouth, just where his small smile turned back into skin, said, “I love you.”

            And he sees how she compelled him, shed the gown so that her nudeness glowed in growing twilight, scars and softness blending into one cohesive her, and stripped him of his own regalia, pressed her mouth to the places that were jagged, guided him to where she wanted until the edges of him blended into the sky around them and his fingers hardly felt while his heart was so erratic, and asked, “Is this okay? Is this too much?”

            It wasn’t and it was. He was terrified to hurt her, blemish her, tarnish her beyond repair, even if every thinking, breathing, living part of him wanted her in every sense of the word. But he hadn’t said anything. Had let it progress as far as it could until it couldn’t anymore.

            Now, he feels the same tightness in his throat as when the headboard had broken off in his hand and how he’d been unable to breathe, sent into the throes of panic at the sight of her red-faced surprise, her full, swollen lips parted in a flabbergasted “o,” the most severe expression he’d ever seen on her. She had sighed, brought his forehead to rest against the hollow of her neck where he could steady himself in the rich scent of her.

            And he doesn’t remember what she said to calm him, only the slow back and forth of her hand between his shoulder blades and the whisper of her breath over his hair.

            Beside him, in the sharp winter light, Rhea sighs so that the air condenses into a little cloud about her head before dissipating into the thin sky alongside his memories of that night, the last time he had been with Byleth. And Goddess, why is he thinking of it now?

            All day, he had stared at Rhea and doubted her reason for coming being a busyness on Byleth’s part, but it wasn’t until he stood alone with the woman that his mind wandered to these impure thoughts of physical intimacy.

            When Rhea hums a note and looks to him, he fears his body has betrayed him and revealed some tell that has keyed her into his indecency. But she only tilts her head to him in a way that makes her smile seem natural, even though he suspects it is not, and says, “Too many complain of the winters here. I have always found them quite beautiful.”

            Dimitri swallows, nods. Up close, he can see that she has, well, withered is not the nice word, but it’s the best word. In fact, she has slimmed so considerably that he feels as though he is looking through the distant past to the day she had been freed from beneath Edelgard’s thumb. Every inch of her had been jutting bone and her skin thin as parchment, but her face had been rosy as ever and Sylvain had muttered to him, “How can she still look so damn lovely?”

            Rhea doesn’t look quite as malnourished now, but there is a shadow about her, something he cannot place. There seems to be no reason behind her desire to speak with him. Nothing extreme had been revealed throughout the duration of the council, except for the news from Sreng and a few missing children in former Imperial lands, but even with all that in mind, he cannot think of a single thing they might discuss that would require privacy. At least, he cannot think of anything pleasant they might discuss in such a manner.

            “Byleth intends to weaken the church.”

            Dimitri gives no response. He watches Rhea carefully as she speaks, mulling over her words and fearing the worst. If she believed he was manipulating Byleth into working against the church, then there would be a revolt. It was the exact reason why he could not dare to make his love public.

            Once, when they had first begun, he had explained to Byleth the exact nature of the thing, telling her, “There would be rebellion, maybe war. And I cannot bring that to Fodlan once more.”

            And, now, he cannot remember what she had said in response. It is these little things he is always losing; the things that are never important until they are gone.

            “Maybe it is necessary,” Rhea says. “Just.”

            Rhea leans over the railing so that her hair hangs low about her face. Her expression is stony and solemn without a touch of humanity to melt the ice of her eyes. When an errant cloud blots out the sun, he could almost mistake her for Byleth, with their hair and their faces so similar, if he so desired.

            “The world is different than it once was.”

             If he didn’t feel like he was boiling alive inside his flesh, he might have laughed. She couldn’t be more correct. The world had been completely flipped upside down. And his advisors never let him forget it. Often, he felt impressed beneath an impossible tide that forever kept him from progress. This somber, shadowy Fodlan is not the one he desires, but it seems the one he is destined to care for.

            “But she does not know the things she does.”

            There is a sting to her voice, some hidden poison lurking beneath the veneer of concern that cuts through to Dimitri’s beating heart. His fingers ache for Areadbhar. He does his best to keep the quiver from his voice when he asks, “Has something happened to Byleth?”

            A gust of wind sweeps the hair from his face and makes his eyes water. He blinks away the moisture, but it catches on the tips of his long lashes, turning to tiny icicles in the unwavering cold.

            “The role of Archbishop is strenuous for the inexperienced. She is resting.”

            Rhea is slow in choosing her words, mulling over each in brief pauses. There is more. There must be more.

            Byleth has written sparingly of suspicion and paranoia. Little interjections of thought smattered throughout her letters between descriptions of the cat responsible for stealing her fish and laments of her tedious schedule. Things like I find myself thinking I cannot trust anyone and Why must everyone lie when they have no reason?

            “Resting?” Dimitri repeats.

            Rhea does not nod when she confirms the notion, only voices a simple yes, and stares at him. It is the staring he hates and the tiniest pitch of her lip downwards, a blemish of disgust on the woman who had set the precedent for forgiveness.

            Then.

            “I would ask something of you.”

            He keeps his mouth even, gestures for her to continue, and does his best not to bite through his cheek when her eyes bore through him with new intensity.  

            “Do not encourage her. She means well, but she does not understand. The truth would destroy her.”

            Dimitri crosses his arms and shifts his weight. He should know better than to be so blatant in his gesticulations, but he cannot act in any other manner. Rhea has always made him feel like a floundering child. Still, he does his best to smile good-naturedly when he says, “I am afraid it is I who does not understand.”

            “She will want to investigate these missing children. Do not let her.”

            And though his mind lurches into a flurry to uncover the source of Rhea’s concern in the missing children, Dimitri laughs, a clipped, conversational laugh, and uses his hands for emphasis as he says, “I have no say over the wills of the Archbishop.”

            And he doesn’t. He really, truly does not. She had grown mouthy in her affairs, telling him of times when she set this minister or another in their place with harsh words and a harsher stare. And so often, he shares his fears for her safety only to receive a lukewarm nod and promise to be careful in response. But he has no faith that she keeps her promise. She is a master strategist and warrior, but has no care for her own wellbeing. Too many times during the war, he had watched her run headlong to intercept entire battalions on her own. At times, her recklessness had only ever been outpaced by his own. Still, he had learned from experience that even the most stubborn of creatures could be reasoned with and—

            Rhea touches his arm and her squeezing fingers shift the plating over his wrist until it pinches his skin beneath. And within her luminous, merciless eyes, Dimitri finds the knowledge he has long feared; the truth of he and Byleth.

            He knows his smile is slackening and his eye widening, but he is helpless to erase his apparent horror. Behind her blasé expression, Rhea holds the knowledge to destroy every facet of his life.

            But they’d been so careful, so meticulous. There were times when Byleth had come to Fhirdiad, and he hadn’t seen her outside the council chambers, though he had half-formed imaginings of amorous embraces interrupted by a page or counselor or even, once, Gilbert, which had sent him reeling without a proper explanation amid hundreds of suspicious eyes. Only a handful knew, and he trusted them all with his life. But maybe they had blabbed. Maybe someone had seen what they shouldn’t. Or maybe, even Byleth had let something slip. She had a penchant for nonchalance. Maybe it had come out in casual conversation and she hadn’t even realized.

            Maybe after maybe tumbles about in his head until Rhea’s gentle voice, coupled with another squeeze of his wrist, stilts his thoughts into nothingness.

            “You are a good man,” she says. “And you can be a good king, like your father—”

            Her hand moves from his wrist, comes to rest on his cheek. Her thumb flits along the blade of his cheek as her mouth softens into the kind of smile his stepmother used to give him, muddled and distant.

            “—if you only listen to me.”

            Her hand lingers, hot against his face, for a moment, before lowering. Dangling, taut and smooth, at her side. Phantoms of the old him rise in his belly. His fingers hunger for the smooth column of her neck. He feels a skittish beast, half tempted to vault over the railing into the snow far below and half tempted to crush her ribs between his fingers,

            But he is not that man anymore.

            Dimitri exhales, forces a smile, says, “I will consider what you have said.”

            When Rhea speaks, he does not hear her words. He only sees her through the haze of a memory from his academy days.

            Her, Rhea, standing atop the steps leading into the monastery, her arms outstretched, her palms towards heaven. And her, Byleth, heavy as hell in his arms, her eyes closed and peaceful, her hair new and mint splayed over his shoulder. And tears on Rhea’s face as he climbed step after step towards her. And Alois, taking Byleth from him, and—

            Felix told him later he’d bared his teeth at Alois, but he didn’t remember—

            And her, Rhea, trailing the backs of her fingers against Byleth’s slumbering face and saying, “She is risen.”

            Soon, he stands alone in the mounting cold. He does not know when Rhea left, only that she did and that he bid her farewell. He rubs at his face and the cold stings the roughened skin. Dedue calls his name, informs him that dinner sits ready.

            Dimitri dismisses him, striding past with the tight, tangled turmoil of a man lost at sea. He takes the long corridors faster than he should, whipping around corners in a way that will certainly draw sordid talk.

            The knight standing guard over his bedchambers offers him a cheery hello, but he ignores her, throwing open the doors with little grace or decorum. He snatches parchment from the drawer of his desk, a pen from the same place, and writes as he stands. His anger, hurt, terror, confusion all mingle together to spur his words and he scrawls in smeared ink, Rhea knows. Did you tell her?

            Then, he folds the parchment and barks a command for the knight standing outside his door to send it on to Garreg Mach, for the Archbishop. Tomorrow, he will write kinder words, but tonight, he takes solace in his quick action. He needs to know that he has not made a mistake in trusting her.

Chapter Text

            It is an unassuming, drooping afternoon on one of those spring days when the thaw has been long broken, but the sky is still gloomy, that the news arrives. Dimitri sits in the throne, holding court when the messenger, dirty and frantic, barely coherent, barely sane, brings the latest.  

             An attack.

            Smoldering ruins where Arianrhod once stood. Bodies charred like hunks of meat. Smoke and ash and death. An unknown enemy to blame.

            Nothing like it before.

            Blades of light falling from the sky. Splintering the earth and blistering the air. The fires still burning.

            We don’t know.

            Few unharmed. Untold casualties. Too many unaccounted for.

            Dimitri is given a list of names, the confirmed dead, injured, and the missing all bunched in neat lines. Too many, he recognizes: Knights of Seiros, devout nobles. Rhea has been marked injured and noted as comatose. Flayn has been marked injured and noted as shellshocked. Seteth has been marked missing. And, when he finally acknowledges her name circled among the missing, he can only nod to the messenger. Areadbhar twitches like a child’s uncertain wave in his grip. Dedue offers gentle comfort. Felix swears death upon the perpetrators. Gilbert advises a level head and clear heart.

            And, after the debates on what to do and the discussions on what will happen and the declaration that the kingdom will not rest until the attackers are found, when Dimitri finds himself alone in his bedroom, he does not cry. Does not pray. Does not eat. Does not sleep. He gathers her letters from the secret place where they hide and reads through them, one by one, running his fingers over the indents of her words over and over and over until all he wants is to kill the way he always has, but so badly that he can taste it, really taste the acrid smoke and bitter blood of fresh kill for the first time since the war has ended.  

            They had been fighting because she had told Rhea of the thing she swore never to tell anyone, writing: she has been my only support in these trying times. And he had written back accusations of foolishness and she had responded with equal vigor. It hurt, a deep, soul-hurt, to quarrel with her. The thought of her as upset and alone in the great hollow of Garreg Mach as he was in the greying cavern of Castle Fhirdiad kept him awake into the night. So, he had written her a promise to discuss the issue in person, after her trip to Arianrhod. But a response never came.

            It might never come.

            He takes solace in the letters written in a gentler time, when she had written of her days and the weather and drawn small fictions of her daily activities. She had never drawn him and it never has bothered him before, until now, when he knows she might not ever. To see himself rendered through her eyes, would be the greatest honor. And it is a selfish whim, but it is the one he clings onto.

            That night, he falls to exhaustion with the letters tear-stained and crumpled about his prone form. When he wakes, restless and dreamless, they sit accusatory in the dim morning light.

            No news comes with the rising sun and he expects no less. He has lived this before; he knows how it must unfold.

            Slowly, days pass. The knights scour the continent for the perpetrators. Suspects arise as reports trickle in, mages with histories of disdain towards the church and conspirators among the ranks of Adrestian nobility, yet a solid, true answer seems unattainable.     

            In the third week, Seteth’s body is uncovered from the wreckage and Dimitri swears he hears Flayn’s keening halfway across the continent. Two days later, he attends the funeral at Garreg Mach and is driven into a quiet mania by the sheer, overwhelming absence of Byleth in the hallowed halls. Afterwards, Flayn catches him in a hug about the waist and sobs into his chest. And he can only loosely wrap an arm around her to keep her steady while he breaks in two.

            That night, he swears to go to the ruins of Arianrhod and claw through the rubble himself for answers, but Felix yells at him when he tries to leave.

            “We do not know who or what did this,” Felix shouts. “For once in your life, stop and think. Think about the consequences.”

            And he does. And he doesn’t go. But it still feels wrong. Byleth would look for him, if the roles are reversed.

            After a month has passed, on the first night of the Great Tree Moon, Dimitri stands beneath the full-bright sky of Fhirdiad, sipping from a cup of boiled angelica and thinking of memories spun happy and nostalgic, and says to Dedue, “If she is truly gone, I will stop drinking this.”

            Dedue sighs and his long, candle-cast shadow shakes its head.

            “She would not want that. You know this.”

            Dimitri does know, knows better than anything. But still, he says, “Perhaps it is what I want.”

            No more conversation floats between them until Dedue takes the empty cup from him when he finishes and says, “There are many who care for you. Please, lean on us when you are in need.”

            Dimitri nods, promises to confide in his friends, but knows he cannot. There was a time when he thought, maybe, it was possible, but not now, not when speaking might unknot him completely.         

            Later, beneath the heavy weight of his duvet, he lies on his side and watches the pulsating stars between a sliver in the curtains and thinks of sharp hooks baited with squirming worms, hot tea taken with aerated scones, wet kisses exchanged with solemn goodbyes, and soft words spoken with undeserved sincerity until he fades. And teetering on the precipice of troubled dark, he is not the sovereign Hero King and hero of Faerghus, but only himself, only Dimitri. And lonely. And insurmountably sad.  

Chapter Text

            The Sword of the Creator is found. Has been found for a long time. Uncovered the same time as Seteth. And Dimitri learns of it by accident when Mercedes comes for a visit and complains to Dedue of how it has been hidden away in the Holy Mausoleum once more. He hadn’t meant to lose himself, but he had. The things he said, the accusations of collusion and threats of war against the church, against everyone truly, he knew, even then, were the very reason the truth had been hidden from him. He was, is, will always be irrational. Unstable. And if it had not been Mercedes, sweet, soft-spoken Mercedes, who had stomped her foot and rebuked him sharply, saying, “We are all hurting,” he might have grown to mean everything he said.

            Somehow, someway, Dimitri manages to not fall to pieces. He has maintained his presence among his advisors and before his subjects. Only those closest to him, Felix, Ingrid, Dedue, look to him with concern, waiting for the inevitable break. But it hasn’t come. If he can help it, it never will. He is tired, but, for Fodlan, he perseveres. And pretends. It is this delusional pretending that keeps him sane best of all. Though never known for an overactive imagination, he finds himself capable enough of it. There is so much he must deny that reality has become a plaything.

            It has been three days since and, not for the first time in these three days, Dimitri cannot prevent his thoughts from slipping. Within the hot waters of a bath, he imagines the Sword of the Creator, her divine weapon, slumbering, yellow and still, in dark, stale air, waiting for a wielder that would never return. Whose decision, he wonders, was it to bury the truth of the thing so deep that it could never reach the light? A collusion of scrambling priests controls the church, given the current Archbishop’s disappearance and the former Archbishop’s coma, but he doubts their ability to agree upon anything, much less something of such a grave nature. Perhaps it is standing doctrine. Perhaps it is a pointless thought. After all, it has been another excruciatingly long day in an excruciatingly long week.

            Dimitri takes a bar of soap from the rim of the tub and rubs at his face until his skin stings. Then, he sinks beneath the surface of the water. In the weightless abyss, his strength and finesse become inconsequential. With only the breath caged inside his lungs to buoy them, his limbs bob like the tendrils of some long-forgotten beast. Lost and floating, he imagines himself reborn amid the watery dark.

            But he emerges the same as he entered.

            Sighing, Dimitri stands from the bath, careful not to lose his balance, and then he listens to the drip drip drip of water plinking from his body back into the still waters. The air is thick with the scent of soap and lavender. Slowly, he dries himself, careful to daub dry the thick scars from fire and war that lash his body like ropes. All alone, he hums to stave off the mania budding in his skull. Humming, he has found, is simple enough to perform with ease, but consuming enough to keep him from dwelling on the simmering darkness. He isn’t sure of the tune, though it is something he has heard often, most likely a favorite of the court musicians that plague him during meals and gatherings. He scrubs at his dripping hair with a small towel, muffling the sound of his mindless humming. Soon, rivets of cooling water cease their journey from the end of his hair to the canyon between his shoulder blades. The towel, he tosses aside, before he opens the door out of the bathroom.  

            Steam precedes him, gusting out into the dark of his bedroom like a wayward ghost. Across the room, the canopy of his bed shifts, beckoning him with the promise of silk sheets within. But, first, before he seeks rest, he turns to the tub and, with hooked fingers, he fishes for the latch. When he finds it, he falls silent as the water glubs down the drain. He waits, watches, until the last of the bath typhoons down into the drain, vanishing with one last wet suck of noise.

            He dresses haphazardly for bed, not caring whether his shirt is right-side-out or backwards and relishing in some sick satisfaction at the thought of his steward’s certain disgust at the sloppy sight of him. Of course, it helps that Dimitri is alone, having dismissed his steward and staff from his quarters indefinitely after the last panic he attack had suffered, nearly a week passed now.

            Within moments after dressing, he burrows into the smooth embrace of his bed, letting the silk cool the parts of him that still burn from the steam of his bath. Sleep finds him easily, but not peacefully.

            In his dream, he kneels beside a stream gnarled with brush and algae. He plunges his bare hand into its black-blue depths and snatches at something, a flashing fish, smooth with slime. The fish fights against his grasp, but it is fiercest of all as he brings its red-sunset belly, stark bright even in the muddled moonlight, to the swell of his lips. Its tail smacks against his ear until his heart thrums in tandem with the whacking. Then, he sinks his teeth through its steely scales into twisted innards that ooze like oil over his tongue. He takes another bite. River slime and warm blood gush from the corners of his mouth and bleed down his chin, dripping back into the raging current beneath him. The fish’s bones snap between the tombstones of his teeth. Even without taste, he knows the marrow within to be sweet. The fish thrashes in its death throes until he eats away its belly up to its spiky spine. When he tosses it aside, its remains sink beneath the muddy riverbank with a squelch.

            The river laps at his waist. He lurches into it for another offering, but falls, splashing into the current, his hapless body becoming one with the river. And thunder breaks overhead and the sky splits into a thousand, brilliant pieces, and as the world ends above him, he drowns.

            So, it comes as no surprise when he jerks awake in bed, a shout mangling his breath. Already, his dream is vanishing into the sleep-addled ether with only the stink of river mist remaining in his mind to prove its existence, but the terror refuses to leave him. It only intensifies when he shifts onto his back and discovers the shadow looming at the end of his bed.

            Instinct drives his hand beneath his pillow to the cold-steel promise he keeps hidden beneath and then the world around him blurs in an invisible wind. He is throwing the knife and stabbing with the knife and pulling it from underneath the pillow and tearing into malleable armor and wetting his hands with blood and waking up and falling from bed and throwing the knife and lurching at the shadow and choking on his fear and throwing the knife and jerking upright and the torment only stops when the shadow speaks to still his hand.

            It happens like this: Dimitri wakes for the last time and he senses the presence and he reaches for the knife and he doesn’t throw it because the shadow speaks in a low, throaty voice that cannot be to say, “Dimitri.”

            And it has been so long since he has heard that voice that he falters long enough for the shadow to take form and when the knife falls from his fingers, he has no thoughts of reclaiming it. It would do him no good, not when faced with the ghost of her. And he chokes back a sob. All pretending corrodes in his mind. She must be truly, thoroughly dead to appear here before him. There is no getting around it.

            “Dimitri,” she says and she is so close and her face is so much like he remembers that he cannot stand it. Horror curdles his stomach, the same as it had the first time his father had appeared to him, so many years ago.

            The first thing he does is gasp aloud. The second thing he does it cover his face with his hands and close his eye, blocking the ghost from his sight. He breathes sharp and fast through his fingers until they are slick with aerosolized spittle.

            She speaks again, but he cannot hear. His mind is filled with the tolling of bells and the buzz of a swarm. Goddess, he wants to die. He wants to be with her. He wants to stop being.

            He cannot breathe. He imagines himself still beneath the waters of the tub, turned blackened and viscous by the open wound of his right eye. If he screams, would anyone hear? Or would the water rush in to engorge his lungs until they popped?

            Her voice, again. Goddess, please. Yes, he had told Dedue he would stop taking his medicine, but that was a bluster at best, a joke at worst. He has been taking it and taking it so diligently to stave off this very moment. His past has left him be, the ghosts utterly silent, almost respectful of his grief. So why must she appear now, when he has just begun to learn how to coexist with the emptiness?

            Warmth prods, touching at his fingers. It pries at the cage he has constructed about his face, one stiff finger at a time, until he is far too weak to maintain the rigidity.

            Her voice, his name. Soft wet against his brow. Crushing weight overtop his waist. His body shakes and his eye burns from the strain of keeping it closed. His mind floats somewhere between the two, denying the truth of his madness.

            “Please, Dimitri. Please look at me.”

            Everything about her voice is wrong, ragged and worn, not soft and subtle like he remembers, but somehow, despite the wrongness, he knows it to be hers. And still, he wants to live in the tambour of her words, curl between the pronunciation of her vowels. So, he opens his eye. He looks.

            She is raw. Wild. Made rough by months spent beneath a tomb of rubble. Her face is pale, yet scratched through with red lines all about her cheeks and forehead. Her nose is dark around the bridge between the embers of her eyes and—

            She steals his hand. Makes it touch her throat. She says, “I’m here.”

            He repeats, “Here.”

            And maybe it is not a trick. Maybe she really is here because the moonlight does not filter through her and he can feel the heat radiating off her skin and her hair is longer and her face is waned like the moon and her jutted cheekbone is blossoming purple and her lip is split and—

            She brings his hand to her face so that he can cup her cheek. For a moment, he dreams of driving the flat of his palm through her temple to put an end to the phantom madness once and for all but, she feels so real. And what if she is?

            “Are you real?” he asks.

            “Yes.”

            He strokes his thumb over her eyebrow, shivering at the tickle of the little hairs against his fingerprint. He isn’t sure of what to do, what to say, even though he has lived this before. Then, he had been hardly a man, hardly human. And somehow, it had been easier to stomach then, in that manic slush of being. But now, what is he if not purely, painfully human? And in love. And so, so relieved that he cries without intention or direction. Her jagged nails tug on his eyelashes when she swipes away the tears that manage to flow.

            “What has happened to you?” he says, voice thick with mush.

            “There will be time to talk later,” she says and she runs the cracked fingers of one hand over his lips and presses the rough fingers of the other to his heart, tapping them to the thrum she must feel beneath.

            “Byleth—”

            “Later,” she says. “I don’t… Please.”

            Her voice is barren, even emptier than it had been when he first met her, practically nothing. He takes her by the shoulders, partly to comfort her, partly to ensure she won’t slip away, and asks, “Was… was it like before?”

            She has never spoken of it, her time beneath the river, but, twice, she had awoken from slumber to ask him about the time and place, like she had found herself displaced in time.

            “Later, please.”

            Her hands slide along his chest, pressing hard against him. Through the cotton of his nightclothes, he can feel the sting of her nails. There is a shame in the arousal her ministrations elicit in him, but there is also an untethering.

            “I need you,” she says and he says, “I thought I would never see you again.”

            Her hands continue, harder than he remembers from the past. She does not look at him when she says, “I thought of you. Only you.”

            And he kisses her, but only after he is certain that she will not wilt with the attention. From there, it is a sloppy exchange of kissing and touching until he no longer cares where she has been and what she has done, but wants only to be devoured, body and soul, by her, in any way she would have him. Because she is real. And here. And alive alive alive.

             When she undresses him, it is with steady intent. When he undresses her, his anxiety gets the best of him and the simple leathers she wears rip apart in his hand. She does not laugh and it is his first indication that something is amiss. Always, she placates his anxiety and tells him not to worry. But not now. She only shimmies free of the rest of her leathers and launches them into the darkness. And then she is on him and he is one with her. And he listens for the short gasps and huffs that have directed him in the past, but hears none. She is silent and close-eyed above him. The sounds he makes are deep, keening, and embarrassing in the absence of even the slightest of her breaths, but he cannot stop himself. It is too much.

            Afterwards, in the haze that always comes after coupling with her, he cannot help but feel slightly used, especially once she disentangles from him and says, in monotone, “I could use a bath.”

            And she could, she reeks of wilderness and battle in the same way he once had, but, in the past, she is usually so quick to wrap herself around him and breathe the air from his lungs. So, as she makes her way to the bathroom and leaves him alone, he sighs into the yawning dark above him, dual happiness and helplessness choking the energy from his muscles.

            Head spinning, he listens to the muffled rush of water from the bathroom. It so reminiscent of the night after Gronder field that he finds himself longing for the past in a way he never though possible. How is it that it was easier then, amidst so much turmoil, than it is now?

            Dimitri sighs again and rubs at his face, only to let loose a groan when his knuckles make contact with the thick tissue over his right eye. In the excitement, he had not even noticed the bareness of it. He reaches for the nightstand, floundering around its cluttered surface until his fingers lock around the eyepatch he had forsaken. He ties it back around his head with a blush, embarrassed that she has been exposed to the depravity of the scar in their shared intimacy. How horrid he must have looked, chuffing like a beast with his old, ghastly wound on full display.

            As the seconds swell longer and the water stops running, he begins to fear a new height to his delusions. Surely, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he has imagined the entire encounter. No proof remains of her presence, only his own, uncertain memories. Until his name echoes from the vast porcelain landscape of the bathroom. He is hesitant in opening the door, half-convinced that there will be no one to greet him on the other side.

            When he sees the tub full and occupied, his shoulders drop from his ears. Though he can hardly see her under the plethora of bubbles that cover the water’s surface and spill over onto the floor, he knows Byleth is there, from the single leg that juts out from the bubbly mess. He closes the door behind her and watches her shift, whorls of steam curling from the tub until only her head floats above the water. Part of him stirs at the thought of joining her beneath the bubbling waters, but another, calmer part keeps him from diving into the tub.

            She does not look at him, only stares straight ahead. Water sloughs off her right arm as she lifts it from the tub. There is an angry flare of fresh bruise over the junction of her arm and shoulder. He hadn’t been able to see it in the dark and now, he can only wonder if he’d exacerbated the injury when she says, “I can’t wash my hair.”

            Dimitri nods, but, realizing she is not looking, says, “I can do it.”

            She only hums, low in her throat, before settling against the lip of the tub. He moves to her side, kneeling beside her in the damp of bubbles that coat the floor. Still, she does not look at him, though he can look only to her as he lathers his hands with shampoo. In the soft light cast by the bathroom’s magelights, he can see the trauma on her face, wrought dark and heavy in the bags under her eyes and the lines etched into her face.

            With hands steadier than he feels, he kneads soap into her hair until it is streaked with froth. He draws his fingers through her hair, careful of each knot he encounters. She keeps her eyes closed through his ministrations and he fears she will begin to fade into mist between his fingers. But she doesn’t, only gasps when his nail catches a particularly troublesome knot and makes no other noise.

            When he finishes, she slips beneath the water and stays submerged so long that the ripples still around her. He dips his hands into the water, shaking them to clean them of the soap. Without thought, he searches from her beneath the surface, retreating when his pinky makes gentle contact with the bump of her nose. And he waits for her to surface, sitting back over his feet and watching for the swish of water to herald her rising. It takes another moment, a few more heartbeats, before, finally, she breaches. Then, she stands. A current of bathwater runs from her hair, between her shoulder blades, and off the set of her hip, curling around scars he does not recognize like the tide curls around islands. He had not noticed them when she lay with him before, but he should have. Something wrong, something awful has happened to her.

            “Byleth, what has been done to you?”

            She gives no answer, only reaches over him for a towel he is too numb to provide. He watches in dumb silence as she dries, the woolen fibers growing damp with each sweep over her body. It is when she brings the towel to her hair and leaves her body bare that he catches sight of the raised whorl just above her hip. A brand of sorts, a curling symbol that he does not recognize. The skin around it is enflamed and stiff when she shifts her weight.

            He wants to ask after it, but knows better. She has been flighty and cagey. Whatever has happened, she is not eager to share. So, he will wait for her to ease and he asks instead, “Does anyone else know you are alright?”

            “No,” she says as she steps free of the tub. She wraps the towel around her chest so that it drapes over her nudeness. He stands, moving to her side when she walks from him into the bedroom, and says, “Then I must tell—”

            She whirls on him, impressing a hand to the center of his chest. Her eyes scald. Her mouth is a tight, white line.

            “No. You must not.”

            He takes her hand in his, rubs at the bruised knuckles, but she rips it from his grasp, saying, “There are ears everywhere.”

            Without a response, he watches her make her way through the room to his wardrobe, watches her yank it open, watches her rifle through the contents until finding something to her liking, watches her begin to dress in a shirt, of a kind and make he cannot determine in the dark. He says, “You cannot stay here forever.”

            She stills, the shirt hanging off her like a shed skin. He cannot see the intricacies of her face, but he can sense her displeasure as easily as he could sense a plume of cold wind.  

            “You would kick me out?”

            Instinct drives him to move to her, drives him to placate, “No, never, but—"

            She crosses her arms and stares him down, stopping the words before he can voice them, when he stands before her. Up close, he can see the exhaustion beneath her annoyance. He opens his arms to her and she steps within them without dropping her grip around herself.

            “If someone has hurt you—”

            “Dimitri, please.”

            For a moment, there is a softness to her voice that lingers in the darkness around them. Her breath is hot against his bare chest. Her arms quiver. He touches a hand to her hair, bringing it through the wet locks in slow, simple strokes.

            “If it were me,” he says, “if it had been me that went missing for months without a word and came back battered and bruised, you would not let it rest until you had answers.”

            Silence follows his words, but she does not pull away. He continues stroking her hair until, at last, she asks, quietly, “Can we at least lie down?”

            He nods, freeing her from his embrace and moving to the bed. He lifts the covers for her, lets her slide into the bed first. She settles on her side, curled in on herself, and he scoots in beside her, taking her into his arms so that her head rests on his chest and her hand lies against his face. She shifts until she doesn’t and then says, “Ask your questions.”

            Dimitri thinks before speaking, considering what information is most important and what questions will engage her cooperation. So, he begins by asking, “Where have you been?”

            When her fingers stiffen against his jaw, he knows he has already made a misstep.

            “I do not know,” she says with a sour voice.

            Then, she concedes.

            “Underground.”

            He rubs at her back, repeats, “Underground?”

            She nods and her chin jabs into his chest, but he does not draw her attention to the blunder. He asks, “In Fhirdiad?”

            “I found my way here.”

            He doesn’t bother to pursue her journey here; he knows firsthand her survival capabilities and will ask of it another time. There were more pressing matters at hand.

            “Who took you?”

            She answers his questions with a question. Her voice is low, nearly a whisper.

            “Do you remember Solon? Kronya?”

            How could he forget when Kronya had killed Jeralt and Solon had cast Byleth into the depths of Goddess knows where?

            “You killed them,” he says.

            Her voice is low when she responds, barely a whisper.

            “Not them. Others like them.”

            The notion is terrifying, but one he has long suspected. Edelgard had aligned herself with many powerful, terrible parties and not all of them had been brought to justice alongside her. The associates of Solon and Kronya were just one group of many that his administration had been attempting to track down.

            “How could they level Arianrhod?”

            “They did not tell me.”

            There is a touch of sarcastic humor within her bitterness, but he makes no attempt to coax out the levity. Instead, he stokes along the stiffness in her back and asks, “What did they want from you?”

            “They failed to mention that as well.”

            This time, there is no humor as her body goes stiff. He works at her tension until she relaxes.

            “I do not mean to be so cross. It is just…”

            He kisses the top of her head, holds her a little closer. He knows he does not truly grasp the severity of all she has revealed, but he knows enough to alleviate his immediate concerns, beyond what had been done to her.

            “It is alright. Rest now. We will speak of it more in the morning. I am just thankful you are—”

            Alive seems too crass a thing to say.

            “—here."

            “I love you,” he finishes. It is not his first time saying it, but this time feels different somehow, more important, like it proved the depth of his bond to her.

            “I love you too,” she says. “So much.”

            And, though her voice is monotone, he believes her. He takes her hand in his, presses the back of it to his mouth, and then lays their intertwined fingers in the small space between them.

            Later, probably when she thinks him asleep, she presses a long, hard kiss against his forehead, squeezing him tight to her like a child would a bear stuffy. And he does not open his eye, only continues his deep slow breathing until it is no longer an act.