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Hallowed Grounds

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05/03/1186

The Swing of Things

Dimitri stared at the ceiling in a futile attempt to sleep. He focused on his interactions with the professor to pass the time – how gently he spoke and eventually cradled Dimitri in his embrace.  He imagined what the sight was to an outsider: a towering man in the arms of another, smaller one at night in the pouring, relentless rain.  Dimitri broke down in that moment and sobbed.

How long did the professor hold him like that?  Embarrassed as he was, Dimitri could not help but relish the attention and distinctly remembered the professor’s hand petting his head.  But those warm thoughts were driven away by the remembrance of all the other interactions they had before that point.  The things he said and threatened to do to the professor was nothing short of shameful.  All the ones Dimitri remembered, anyway.  So much of that time was a blur now.

He tried not to think about it, but those memories displayed in his mind.  Instead of resting on a positive note, he saw battlefields and corpses.  He recognized some of the faces on the dead and desperately tried to steer his mind elsewhere, but that was a failure.  He couldn’t help but see friends and family, but also enemies.  

Killing and death clung to his senses – he could smell the rotting and taste the aftermath, as surely as he stood in the field he dreamed of.  It was the same nightmare he always had, or a variation therein – and he identified it as nothing more than a vivid dream.  Still, he was helpless to the visuals before him that refused to change.

Right on cue, the dead started speaking to him, making demands using the disfigured bodies as vessels.

“Avenge us,” he heard them wail in otherworldly voices.

“Kill her,” They chanted over and over.

At this point, Dimitri normally would negotiate with them to appeal to his family.  He did not this time, seeing this unfold in a different light.  Part of him grew tired of their appearance in this way and wondered if the voices of the living – or perhaps, the voices of reason – held more weight than these phantoms.

Their voices grew louder and angrier.  They demanded Edelgard’s life, and her head as a prize.  Dimitri just wanted to rest.  The spirits did not rile his thirst for vengeance, and for that Dimitri was grateful. Dimitri felt uneased by the growing collective malice in response to being ignored.

He sought to give them what they wanted – but after considering what Rodrigue and the professor said, he questioned everything about this.

Dimitri walked past the corpses; surprisingly, they faded into obscurity and the world around him vanished.  Somehow, he managed to transition out of the nightmare and into blanketed darkness.

*

Rodrigue was buried in the cemetery here, and Dimitri went to visit.  The professor stood in front of his father’s grave and Dimitri watched for him to finish, while paying his own respects.

After some time passed, Dimitri approached him for reassurance, “Professor.”

He turned toward Dimitri, but possessed a blank expression, one comparable to when they first met.  His eyes held that sharp edge and his mouth, while not frowning, had deep corners curved in a way that presented immense displeasure.

“I was hoping to talk to you,” Dimitri continued.  This brought back some feelings of inadequacy.

“If you must,” He answered, crossing his arms.

“U-um,” Dimitri touched his forehead. 

“Are you going to ask your question?  Are you so worthless that you can’t even speak?”

“Worthless?  Is that how you see me?” Dimitri asked, baffled.

“Isn’t it obvious?  You’re nothing but a worthless, mindless, pathetic beast.”

Dimitri did not answer.  That vileness perfectly mirrored his inner thoughts, “Professor.  Why did it have to be your face telling me this?  Am I not allowed some peace?”

“You don’t deserve peace.”

Dimitri could not bring himself to respond.  The professor frowned deeply, appearing disgusted, “Five years was not enough.  I can’t wait to be rid of you again.”

Dimitri tightly clenched his eye shut, blocking out the specter in front of him.  It was just another illusion or a dream.  It couldn’t be real, and Dimitri argued, “If you really mean that, have the courage to say it when I’m awake.”

“If I do, will you strike me down?”

“No, I would never –” but he had threatened it many times before.  And meant it.  The professor, or this nightmarish version of the professor, laughed in a dark, mocking manner.  He stepped forward, drawing his sword.

“What are you waiting for?” The professor asked, the sword halfway exposed.

“You aren’t real,” Dimitri said.

“Do you know that for certain?”

“I’m not arguing with you,” He said firmly.

The professor lunged at Dimitri, sword completely drawn.  Reflexes kicked in and Dimitri defended himself, only to realize what he had done.  Dream or no, he now had a lance through the professor’s chest; although he did not know where the lance came from.  The professor dropped his sword.  He laughed again, “I knew you would.”

Dimitri let out a desperate cry and released his grip on lance. The professor stumbled backwards and tripped on a grave marker.  He caught himself on a headstone, enough to slide down to a knee, his elbow rested on the curvature of the headstone while his free hand gripped the lance.  The length of the it extended from his torso, while the blade edge scrapped audibly against the stone.

“N-no!  Stop it!” Dimitri whimpered.  So many emotions swelled, and Dimitri’s head started to pound.

“You will be the death of me.”

Dimitri felt a jolt in his chest.  He awoke drenched in sweat and with a massive migraine.  His heart thumped rapidly in his chest and he quickly swung himself out of bed in a fit of adrenaline.

 He walked out of his room and marched down the hall to the stairs and outside.  Morning dew settled in, but the sun had not fully risen just yet.  Most everyone still slept, and Dimitri only encountered the night watch along the way.  He hurried to the cemetery, where the last dream took place.

He must have had a look in his eye, because the guards sheepishly greeted him or barely acknowledged him.  He didn’t care – all that mattered was confirming the dream was only just that.

He passed the stables and climbed several stairs, eventually making it to where he needed to be. 

He hurried down the last stretch and saw the normal headstones, a few birds, and a lazy cat in the shade.  No bodies.  No one else, really. 

The shock subsided and Dimitri took a deep breath.  He hated how involved his dreams were.

“Your Highness,” An older man’s voice called to him, one that Dimitri recognized instantly.

“Gilbert,” He said.

“I saw you making your way here.  Is there anything you want to talk about?” The older man offered.

“I – just a bad dream,” Dimitri answered.

“I see.  Yes.  I’m sure they will plague you for some time to come.  Believe me, I know.”

Dimitri did not answer.  It had been a day since he formally apologized to his friends, but things were far from normal.  That nightmare completely caught Dimitri off guard because the professor never made an appearance before – never pleading for vengeance or berating him for perceived failures.  Why the sudden change?

“Gilbert,” Dimitri said, “Do you know where the professor is?”

“Hm?” The older man said, “Probably asleep.  The professor is many things.  An early riser is not one of them.”

“You’re right.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him willingly wake up before lunch,” Dimitri recalled the academy days.

“Heh.  He’s not quite that bad,” Gilbert exposed a slight smile, “I imagine you could wake him if you really needed to talk to him.”

“No!  Heavens, no,” Dimitri shook his head, “I wouldn’t want to rob him of sleep.”

“Perhaps.  I wouldn’t consider it an option for most people, but I believe you are an exception.  In truth, you going directly to him might put his own mind to ease.”

“I have to respectfully disagree.  Waking him up to deal with my problems is self-indulgent and rude.”

Gilbert responded, “Sometimes it is necessary for a trusted confidant to sacrifice sleep.  I am sure he would understand.  Just as many of your father’s trusted advisors did before you.”

“You think he’s like father’s advisors?” Dimitri asked in earnest, looking at the fresh burial plot.

“I do.  Everything he’s done suggests as much.  Mostly,” An air of suspicion clung to the last word. Still, Dimitri considered what Gilbert said.  Nothing would make him happier to have the professor a permanent ally for when he ascended the throne.  Though, he did have to ask the one question that plagued him since they met, “Do you know his name?”

Gilbert sighed, “No.  No one knows his name.”

Dimitri frowned, “Why hasn’t he shared that information with anyone?”

Gilbert pondered a moment before revealing, “If anyone knew his identity, it would be Seteth.”

“Seteth?  I wonder why . . .”

“Seteth is as suspicious as they come and it’s possible he uncovered something.  It is the one of two reasons I would have any suspicion of the professor.  Hiding a name is – well,” Gilbert cleared his throat, “normally, there’s history behind that decision.”

“Two reasons?  What’s the other?”

“His whereabouts for the last five years.”

‘Five years was not enough’.  Subconsciously, it must have bothered Dimitri too.

“So, how would Seteth have information?  Could he also fill in the details of the professor’s absence?”

“No one had seen him for the last five years – Seteth claims the same,” Gilbert clarified, “I know for a fact he was the only one who vocalized any complaint about the professor’s teaching role and acted on his concerns.  Which involved a hefty background check.”

“I think I might have known about that, to an extent.  I remember Seteth disapproving, at the very least.”

“Seteth did seem to drop the subject altogether.  Which, he is not one to do so unless he had compelling reason to,” Gilbert explained.

“Why the secrecy?” Dimitri’s frown deepened.

Gilbert chuckled, “Jeralt was the same way.  Maybe the professor inherited his father’s need for discretion.”

“. . . Let us find a different topic.  I don’t like casting this much doubt on the professor, or Seteth.”

“Understood,” Gilbert nodded, “You might find that you have to pry that information out, though.  Shall we pay the professor a morning visit?”

“Not under the premise of ‘prying anything from him’,” Dimitri protested, ‘“And, I would rather wait to clear it with him before I wake him up this early, so I know that it is an option in the future.  Anything I have to say to him can wait.”

“If you insist,” Gilbert said, “How about I show you to your duties?  You might need a hand in relearning such responsibilities.”

Dimitri nodded, “Yes.  I would like that.”

*

Gilbert and Dimitri worked in the cardinal room until lunch time, when Gilbert said, “I imagine our professor is awake if you would like to hunt him down.  It will do us some good to take a break here.” 

Dimitri would be lying if he said he wasn’t overwhelmed by just all the tasks thrown at him.  Though they did not leave that room all morning, the workload barely looked touched.

“Yeah.  Any idea where he would be?” He asked.

“That’s anyone’s guess.  The professor runs all over the monastery on these off days of his.  Ask around.  I’m sure someone can point you in the right direction.”

“Ask around . . .” Dimitri repeated.  Everyone still avoided him, and for good reasons.  Dimitri left without opening a conversation on his hesitancy.  He did not need to hear a lecture on how he was owed loyalty from his peers.  Gilbert meant well, but Dimitri failed at a human level.  Nobility did not matter in this.

He walked to the library first, checking other rooms along the way.  Not finding him there, he made his way to the audience chamber.  The other two professors were arguing about some triviality but hushed when they saw Dimitri.

“Hello,” Dimitri said, “Have you seen the professor?”

“He hasn’t been up here today,” Manuela answered, “Oh, but if you do find him, yell at him for me.  I told him that if he carries on like he has been, that tear will open right back up!  And I hate stitching things up twice.”

“What tear?” Dimitri asked.

“Oh.  At Gronder he managed to let down his guard enough for a spear to hit him.  I think he was – “ She coughed and Dimitri winced at her explanation, “Anyway, give him these.  They’re medicinal herbs that’ll dull the pain.  Like the stubborn mule that he is, he purposefully left them in the infirmary, and I have not seen him since.”

Dimitri took the bag of herbs.  He was with the professor after Gronder happened.  They were together that night – when the professor held him.  How did he not notice an injury?  And by a spear, no less . . .

“I will get these to him,” Dimitri left them, eager to sort this out, and went down to the first floor.  Students unsuited for war still gathered in the academy areas, but the professor was not among them.  Not seeing anyone he recognized, he continued toward the dormitory, but stopped at the training grounds.  As expected, Felix was there swinging his sword around, as well as Leonie, Raphael, and Caspar.

Felix scoffed and barely made eye contact.  Caspar and Leonie stopped long enough to give a garbled greeting, before returning to their own drills, while Raphael did not react at all.

“Has anyone seen the professor?” Dimitri asked.

Leonie stopped her training and shook her head, “Not since this morning.”

No one else had anything to add.

“Alright.  Thank you,” Dimitri said, but thought about the wounds Manuela mentioned, “He wasn’t up here training, was he?”

“Nope.  He wanted to check equipment, but I took that job for him,” Leonie answered.

“Okay.  Good.  I’ll leave you to it,” Dimitri left the training grounds and asked the people he recognized along the way.  They all said practically the same thing – the professor hadn’t been around since earlier in the day.

He walked into the greenhouse and found Dedue tending the gardens.  Dimitri smiled, “Hey.  Dedue.  Do you have a moment?”

“Of course.  How can I help?”

“Have you seen the professor?”

“Hmm,” He nodded, “You actually just missed him.   He helped weed and we had a . . . discussion.”

“That sounds serious,” Dimitri questioned, “Nothing bad, I hope?”

“Just that he should prioritize his own safety a little better.”

“Is this about his new wound?”

Dedue answered, “So you know about that.  Yes.  I’ve seen how he’s been carrying himself lately.”

“Can you explain what you mean by that?”

Dedue nodded, “He has always had a bad habit of taking on too much on his own.  That has only gotten worse.  He also tends to separate himself from the rest of the troops when we’re on the battlefield.  Those two qualities led to his injuries.”

“I see.  That’s good to know.”

“If I may add, you need to stop running off on your own as well.  If you put yourself in danger, the professor will do the same.”

Dimitri did not answer right away, but eventually said, “I will work on that.”

“Thank you.  Losing you or the professor would be detrimental.  Go ahead and find him.  I will be here for a while longer.”

If Dimitri did not pass the professor by the dormitory, then the next logical step would be by the pond.  From there, either the dining hall, the marketplace, or the stables.

Alois was by the pond and stopped Dimitri, “Hello there, Dimitri.  Can you believe the professor?  I was gone for five minutes buying more bait and come back to his bucket half filled!  I still haven’t caught a single fish.”

“Hard to fathom,” Dimitri held back his sarcasm, “Is the professor still around?”

“Oh no, that was this morning.  He ran off with his fish, but I have no idea where he went after that.”

“Thank you for the information.  Um.  Good luck catching those fish . . .”

“Eh, I ran out of bait so now I will just have to wait until I can buy more.  The professor was a bit mad that I used up all the bait, though.  If you find him, can you give him this?  It’s a specialized one that he might make better use of.  It’s the last one of the bunch.”

“Yeah,” Dimitri accepted the bait and said, “Hard to imagine him mad, though.”

“Well.  There was a certain look in his eye when I told him.  He’s been doing a lot of fishing lately; I wonder if he just needed a hobby?”

“A hobby, huh?”  Dimitri recalled seeing the professor spending a lot of time fishing. 

He left Alois and headed toward the cafeteria.  It was lunchtime, after all, and it sounded like the professor already had a full morning.  Ingrid and Sylvain were in line and Dimitri approached them first.

“Hello Dimitri,” Ingrid said.  Sylvain had a similar expression to Felix but nodded cordially.

“Hello.  Have either of you seen the professor?”

“Nope,” Ingrid said, “We just got here ourselves, so we can’t even tell you if he’s eaten yet.”

“I see.  Thank you,” Dimitri asked the cooks if they knew anything more than Ingrid.

“Sorry.  Not since he dropped off the fish,” She shook her head.

“The fish?”

“Every Sunday, he brings as much fish as he can spare, along with vegetation.  Everyone is sick of fish, but otherwise we’d all be starving.”

That explained it, then.  He was doing food runs . . .

“Although,” The cook said, “I don’t believe I’ve actually seen him sit down and eat for a while, thinking about it.”

“How long is a while?” Dimitri found himself frowning.

“It’s been . . . a few days . . .” She shrugged, “But, I’m not always here.  I’m sure he’s eating . . .”

Dimitri hoped so, and left to search through the common areas, before ending up at the stables.  Not seeing the professor there, he went to the marketplace.  He saw Catherine and Shamir, but still no professor.

Catherine approached, “Hey, Dimitri.  I have a question for you.”

“Yes?”

“Did the professor go that way?” She pointed toward the courtyard.

“I was actually hoping you knew where he was,” Dimitri sighed.

“Ah.  Well, he was here a few moments ago – but as soon as he left, our shipment arrived.  Damned luck, right?  So, Shamir and I were hoping to flag him back down to get his input.”

“Shipment?”

“Yeah.  We have a lot of broken weapons.  We also have a lot of soldiers.  We need to prioritize equipment allocation but lacked the resources to do so until – literately – the second he walked away.”  Catherine exhaled heavily, but then said, “We have time.  It just seems to work out this way more often than not.”

“If I catch up with him, I’ll let him know.”

“Great!  Thanks.  Shamir and I are splitting up – I’m guessing you had business with him as well?”

“I – not as urgently,” Dimitri nodded, “Should I tell him to meet you here?”

“We really need to work out a messaging system.  Uh, yeah.  Back here works . . .” Catherine and Shamir split off in different directions, leaving Dimitri at a loss.  They had better reasons to take up the professor’s time – and it was clear that the dream was nothing more than his mind messing with him.  Dealing with affirmation could wait.

He decided to eat his lunch quickly.  He would not complain any longer – they all had their parts and Dimitri swore to do his in full.

Annette and Mercedes joined Dimitri; those two seemed to have no fear regarding Dimitri’s mannerisms the last few months.

“Don’t mind us,” Mercedes smiled brilliantly, “We thought to say hello.”

“You looked kind of lonely, sitting here by yourself,” Annette sat down with her food.

“Lonely, huh?” Dimitri chuckled.  Maybe he was, “Well, since you’re joining me, I have to ask . . . Have either of you seen the professor?”

“Nope,” Mercedes said cheerfully, “He’ll likely be at choir practice this evening.  7 o’clock sharp.”

“No.  That practice is cancelled,” Annette reminded, “The children’s concert hosted by Dory and Professor Manuela will be tonight at 8.”

“Ohh, right.  Professor will show up for that, then.”

“Choir practice?  The professor?” Dimitri asked.

“Every week,” Mercedes unwrapped her cupcake before touching her actual lunch, “He’s got a lovely voice.  But, Dimitri, you’ve been in the cathedral all this time.  You didn’t notice?”

“I –“ Maybe he was physically there, but mentally?  He didn’t know the practice still gathered, though remember hearing singing . . . “No.  I will have to come listen.”

“He’s shy about it, though.”

“The first time he showed up, you could tell he was just kind of mouthing the words.  The more he came, the more he started to vocalize.  We try not to say anything, though, because he’ll just clam right back up,” Annette explained.

“Professor Manuela tried to get him to star in their production next month, but he ran out before the auditions were started.  He was not seen again until the war council,” Mercedes laughed, “I don’t think he’s cut for opera life.”

“You know, I think I would have done just about anything to see him star in an opera,” Dimitri laughed at the thought, “I was never a big fan of them, but seeing our professor at the center of it would change my mind.”

“Forcing him to go would just make him disappear again,” Annette joked.

“Annie,” Mercedes gasped, “Don’t say such things!  I don’t want to think about that anymore.”

“Sorry,” Annette couldn’t look either of them in the eye.  Dimitri said nothing and Mercedes continued to eat.  Annette recovered and added, “You should come to practice, Dimitri.  It’s a lot of fun.”

“I can’t really sing,” He shook his head.

“Does it matter?” Mercedes said, “In a group, all voices merge together to create a masterpiece, unique every time.”

“I am not going to be the dissonant note in that,” Dimitri still rejected the offer.

“Hmm.  You know enough about music to make a joke about it,” Mercedes speculated, “Perhaps you just need some lessons.”

“I’ve had plenty of those.  Required etiquette classes before I came here,” He explained.

“Then you should be an expert,” Mercedes rebutted.

“I am no expert.  Believe me on that.  My voice is absolutely no good.”

Mercedes looked him dead in the eye.  All emotion from her face drained and they were locked in an uncomfortable stare off.  Finally, she gave and said, “The professor said the exact same thing.”

She went back to her normal self and finished her plate.

“Ready for seconds?” Annette asked, completely unphased by the spectacle that just took place.  Dimitri found some humor in it, but declined, “I really have to get back to work.”

“Oh, darn.  You should come by for practice later,” Mercedes said.

“The concert,” Annette corrected, “8 tonight.  You can at least come to that, right?”

“I’ll think about it,” Dimitri excused himself, returned his dirtied plate, and left the dining hall.  At least he knew where to find the professor in the evening, if nothing else.  Before he returned to Gilbert, he stopped by the professor’s room and knocked on the off chance he was there.

“Professor?” He called, opening the door.  He spent quite some time in this room. 

The professor kept his room tidied as usual.  He set the medicinal bag and the bait on the desk and noticed the birthday card and brooch Dimitri gave him all those years ago.

He remembered the tension that month.  Edelgard’s army marched on Garreg Mach that day, so they never had a chance to celebrate it properly.  His birthday was also the last day anyone saw him for five long, horrible years.

The professor’s birthday already came and went this year, Dimitri realized.  He was too absorbed in his own misery to have given it any thought.  Luckily, he saw a card from Gilbert as well.

A small piece of paper, sitting on an orange/brown journal, on the upper deck of the desk caught his attention.  It held only a single name, ‘Eisner’.

Dimitri couldn’t place the name, but he swore he heard it somewhere.  He left the room and tossed the name in his head on his way back to Gilbert.

He decided to stop by the library first.  On the second floor was a collection of names who had ever lived or had dealings in the monastery.  He searched for the surname and found a collection of folders. The first name was ‘Araleth Eisner’.

He did not recognize the name Araleth.  Her certificate of birth had no family name listed, but the day of her birth was 3/31/1139 – the professor’s birthday.

“Hmm,” Dimitri hummed at the coincidence and studied the birth certificate in full.

Her birth details were listed as:

Surname : N/A

Given Name : Araleth

Mother : Unnamed Pilgrim who died in childbirth while visiting the monastery

Father : Unknown

Named by Archbishop Rhea and given a life as a nun.

On the next page, a certification of marriage – to Jeralt Eisner, on 3/15/1159.  It was officiated and overseen by the Archbishop; her signature graced the document with an elegant message, ‘May the Goddess bless this union.

“Oh!” It clicked just then.  ‘Eisner’ was Jeralt’s last name, and therefore the professor’s.  He just stumbled on clues he desperately wanted for many years.  He then wondered, “The professor’s birthday was the same as his mother’s?”

He turned over to the next page, barely containing his excitement, but it was not as merry.  It was her death certificate – 9/20/1159. 

Reason of death: Childbirth.

“That can’t be right.”

The collection ended with her death certificate, and so Dimitri pulled the next name in the ‘Eisner’ section.  The name belonged to a ‘Byleth Eisner’.

“. . . Byleth?”

The first document in the surprisingly empty folder was a birth certificate.  Sure enough, the certificate of birth read as 9/20/1159.

Mother : Araleth Eisner

Father : Jeralt Eisner

The next page, however, was equally daunting.

It was a certification of death . . . 10/07/1159. 

Cause of death: Perished in the Flames.

 “What is this?” Dimitri found himself exclaiming aloud.  He felt his hopes dwindle.  This was not the information he wished for, nor was it expected.

“The Flames,” Dimitri searched in a different section, and looked at the history of the monastery.  He searched by date and found all the records in the year 1159 and skipped to the tenth month.  A fire was indeed reported that day, month, and year.  It was a notably bad fire, and the details enclosed were not pleasant.

Unable to stomach reading about it, he looked for any other names related to ‘Eisner’, but only the one for Jeralt existed.

No other details in Byleth’s file, either.  The baby was born.  The mother died.  A fire broke out, claiming the life of the newborn . . . and then Jeralt left, probably unable to bear the weight of all that loss at once.  That also meant the professor must have been born afterward, Dimitri concluded.

Something about this timeline felt objectively wrong, but it also struck a nerve in Dimitri – all he wanted was a name, but now he had knowledge of another set of tragedies.  Beyond that, the professor’s file did not appear with his family.  He wondered why that would be.

Jeralt’s folder contained significantly more papers but lacked a birth record.  There were assortments of accomplishments, and even when he became captain (though the date smeared and was now illegible). 

There were secondary copies of the marriage and birth of Byleth, and finally Jeralt’s death certificate, which ended the folder’s contents.  If they added a death certificate, that meant they kept this family up to date, yet still missed a whole person.

His mind raced.  He should not have investigated this.  He should have waited for the professor.  Dimitri left the library with more questions and even less answers; and now it would nag at him until he fully understood the situation.  That would be his punishment for prying.

He finally returned to the cardinal room, where Seteth and Gilbert argued.

“For the last time, that information was gathered in confidence,” Seteth shook his head, “If you really want to know, ask him yourself.”

Gilbert grunted in response.  Dimitri raised an eyebrow, “What is going on here?”

“We all know that you researched this, already.  Why not share in your findings?  After all, His Highness and I have wanted to know our professor’s identity for some time now.”

“That is all well and good, but I’m afraid I cannot say anything more without the professor present and consented,” Seteth did not back down.

“Gilbert, wait,” Dimitri said, “Seteth is right . . . If the professor tells us his story, that’s great.  If not, there’s no need to push for it.”

Seteth nodded with a smile, “That is reasonable.  If that is all, I shall take my leave.”

“Oh, Seteth,” Dimitri stopped him, “Have you seen him?  I have been missing him all day.”

“Did you not cross paths on your way back here?  You probably missed him by ten minutes or so,” Seteth answered.

“I am sensing a trend,” Dimitri sighed heavily.  Had he not detoured to the library, he might have seen the professor instead. 

Seteth left and Gilbert inquired, “I’m guessing your task of finding the professor was in vain?  Don’t feel too bad about it.  He’s hard to track on these ‘free days’ of his.”

“I noticed,” Dimitri laughed, “I can’t believe how much he’s taken on.  I am grateful for it, of course . . . And I do trust him, knowing his name or not.”

“As I suspected, Seteth does know something but isn’t parting with the knowledge.”

Dimitri shook his head, “I wonder why Seteth knows more than we do.  Anyway, we have work to do.  Where did we leave off?”

“You are eager to jump right back into the swing of things, aren’t you?  Very well.”

‘Perished in the flames’, repeated in Dimitri’s mind as he filtered through paperwork.  That phrasing sounded especially sinister, given that it was about an infant.  Despite his attempts, he could not block it from his mind.

‘The swing of things . . . ‘ It was certainly a task, but he would do it.  He had to.  This was his atonement.

Chapter Text

Searching for Answers

Their efforts were but a drop in the bucket.  No matter how much Gilbert and Dimitri worked, they barely dented it.  Neither complained and dutifully carried on.

“We should break for supper,” Gilbert suggested.  Dimitri wiped his forehead, though he remained eager to push on, “There is still much to do.  I ate not too long ago.”

“Did you want to find the professor?”

Dimitri debated on how to answer that.  He then remembered the cook mentioned the lack of the professor’s presence in the dining hall during mealtime.

“If I can find him,” Dimitri laughed, recalling his earlier failure.

“Let’s go and see if he’s queuing for supper,” Gilbert nodded. 

Dimitri added, “Mercedes and Annette mentioned he would be in the cathedral at 8.  If we can’t find him at dinner, I will try there next.”

They walked the hall and talked about their next tasks.  When they were out of earshot of council members, Dimitri asked, “I want to ask something . . .Is there a way to find records of anyone with the family name ‘Eisner’ who was also born in the last 25 years?  They would have to be born outside the monastery.”

“And here I was under the impression you wanted to leave it alone?  You’re trying to find the professor’s birth documents, aren’t you?”

“Then you recognize that name.”

“Yes.  I do.  Seteth already spent time and effort collecting such information but let me be perfectly frank.  Nothing exists for our professor beyond eyewitness reports of deeds.”

“Back when I met the professor, some of Jeralt’s men were about to tell me his name, but never completed it.  None of those mercenaries could give an answer?”

“If they could, they elected to lie.  It may have been an order from Jeralt.”

“Do you think Jeralt purposefully kept the professor’s identity a secret?  But for what purpose?  We can trace them back to each other, so what would they have to gain by hiding all of this?”

“Actually, we cannot trace the professor to Jeralt,” Gilbert corrected, “Not by birth or by surname.  The professor doesn’t exist on paper and therefore cannot be connected to Jeralt Eisner or his other family.  It’s as if the professor doesn’t exist.”

“Araleth and Byleth . . .” Dimitri reflected with a hint of sadness.

“Unfortunate, that.  Pardon me for saying, but a newborn who perished has more paper trail than the professor.  Jeralt hid details and now Seteth is following through.  What secret is so grand that they felt the need to conceal it?”

Dimitri shook his head.  He felt his forehead tighten with frustration, “I do not know.  To be honest, the more I think about it, the more confused I become.  I should just put this to rest until the professor clarifies this.”

“I wonder if he will.”

“I will try to talk to him.  He’s dodged the question every time it’s come up, though.”

“Exactly my point.  It seems you and I have both already looked into the Eisner family as a recourse – what exists of it, anyway.”

“I noticed some oddities about those files,” said Dimitri, “For example, the professor shares the same birthday as Araleth.”

“Does he?” Gilbert had not notice that detail, “How strange.  It might be nothing more than coincidence.  Or, it might be something else.”

Dimitri stopped walking and crossed his arms.  He tried to think of an alternative reason.  Gilbert clarified his concerns, “It seems that Jeralt did all he could to erase this child.  Jeralt could have used a birthdate he already knew in place of the professor’s actual one, to further this eradication.”

“But why?” Dimitri asked, feeling his frustration surfacing.

“Honestly, I cannot think of a single good reason.  There is something obviously wrong about the entire affair.  I approve of the professor by his character.  Everything he has done and continues to do has brought great fortune.  And yet this entire pull is out of the ordinary, questionable in its very nature and contradictory to the professor’s normal behavior.”

“Whether or not the birthday is wrong is conjecture at this point.  Still, the rest doesn’t make any sense.  I hope there’s a genuine good reason for all of this.”

They were at the cafeteria and mutually disbanded the topic.  Shamir noticed Dimitri and approached, “Hey.  The professor said he’ll be at the cathedral at 7.”

“Oh.  Thank you for telling me.  I’m guessing you found him and handled the weapon supplies,” Dimitri smiled.  She nodded.

“He also wanted to give this to you,” It was a report detailing materials purchased and forge details, “Requisition is in place for the blacksmith.  If you’ll excuse me,” She left without another word. 

“Ah, the weapon situation,” Gilbert reached for the paper, which Dimitri surrounded, “I see.  He’s favoring recovery of iron and steel over specialty ones such as silver and brave.  A choice to make sure everyone is armed.  That leaves us only a handful of expertise weapons.”

“So, you knew about this as well,” Dimitri inquired.

“I did, yes.”

“What should we do with this report?”

“Review it.  We have the power to veto this and propose a different solution.  It can wait until later.”  Gilbert tri-folded the document and stuck it in his breast pocket.  They lined up for dinner and conversed.

In the time they spent together, they avoided bringing up the ‘Eisner Family’ problem and instead focused on kingdom ones.  Once they finished dinner, Dimitri and Gilbert traveled together to the cathedral, constructively arguing about the professor’s proposed weapon solution. 

Once they reached the cathedral, Dimitri finally saw the person he searched for off and on all day.  Gilbert sat in a pew and read over the report while Dimitri approached him.  The professor was talking to a man and a child.  The man sat on a stool while the professor healed his shoulder wound.  A brilliant white and blue light emanated from the professor’s palm.  

The child excitedly spoke in a high-pitched voice, “Isn’t that right, daddy?” The kid said, “You can do a thousand push-ups and sit-ups!  Look!  Look!  I can, too!  Just like you taught me!”

The child then proceeded to put his hands on the ground and put his body in a full upside down ‘V’ position.  His ‘push-up’ was more of him wiggling back and forth. 

“Son . . .” The man shook his head.  The professor smiled at the child’s attempt to show off.  The kid bounced back to his feet, then pointed at the professor, exclaiming, “Your turn!”

“Son!” the father said more forcefully, getting embarrassed. 

The professor shook his head and said, “Oh, no.  I am incapable of doing that.”

The kid jumped around and ran to a pew, “I’m going to go do some training!” He said gleefully.

The professor finished healing and the father stood up, thanked the professor for his help, and chased after the hyper child.  The professor laughed at the scene and, to Dimitri, it was the purest view.

He suddenly remembered his feelings toward the professor taking a similar turn five years ago, at the Goddess Tower.  Or, before that even when Dimitri first witnessed the professor’s sincere smile.  Those same feelings overtook him, and all Dimitri could focus on was how amazing he found the professor.

The professor initiated conversation, “I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

“Yeah,” Was all Dimitri could manage.  He stared at the professor, just appreciating the man.  A sense of longing incapacitated him, overriding everything else for a short time.

It did not help the professor wore his warlock attire since switching personal focus, and those robes hugged his body and exposed muscle details that his normal armor would otherwise cover.

“Well, here I am.  What did you need?” The professor said with a compassionate tone, barely breaking Dimitri from his trance. 

What did he need, again?

Dimitri wondered what thoughts were going on behind those beautiful eyes fixated on him.  The professor did not fidget under the staring contest.  He stayed even keeled through it, patiently waiting for Dimitri to vocalize.

Unfortunately, they did not have an infinite supply of time and the kids gathered before the pews.  The professor gently touched Dimitri’s arm and pointed to where Gilbert sat, “The warmup is starting soon. Shall we sit?”

Dimitri nodded, still utterly dumbfounded.  They walked and the professor promised, “We can talk after.”

Gilbert noticed the change and stood, “I shall take my leave.  We can pick up tomorrow.”

“Not sticking around?” The professor asked.

“Oh no, too much to be done.  You two enjoy yourselves.”

“This will last at most two hours,” the professor argued, “You don’t have that much time to spare?”

“Afraid not,” Gilbert remained firm.  Dimitri wanted to say something, but Gilbert interjected, “The future king and the acting archbishop watching kids sing a concert is good for morale.  I am not needed.”

Gilbert left quickly after and the professor saw why he was so eager to leave.  Annette and Mercedes greeted them.

“Hello there,” Mercedes said.

“Glad you could make it,” Annette said, “By the way, was that my father just now?”

“Yes,” The professor said, “He will not be joining us.”

“Ah,” She pouted.

“I tried,” The professor said.

“You’re fine,” Annette assured, still exposing her hurt, “Mercie and I were going up to help set up, anyway.  Maybe next time.”

“You two want to get music stands?” Mercie asked.

The professor nodded.  Dimitri hesitated.

“I’m not sure that I should be around kids,” he mumbled, “I might scare them.”

Mercie gave him a concerned expression, “I don’t think you would look all that scary to them.”

“I don’t feel confident about that.”

“We’re not pushing you into anything that you’re not comfortable with,” The professor said, raising an eyebrow, “Right?”

Mercedes cackled, “You’re too funny, professor.  Annie, are you coming?”

“Yup,” They left to help set up.

“Getting laughed at was not the response I was looking for.”

“That laugh of hers was a bit sinister.”

“Mercedes has always been a tad evil,” Dimitri chuckled at the professor’s conclusion.  The choir members helped the children set up in the mostly vacant chapel.  Byleth wondered if there was a task that Dimitri could participate in, understanding where his hesitancy came from.

Then again, they both probably could use a break, so Byleth took a seat and left room for Dimitri.  They settled in and wordlessly watched them prepare for the concert.  Dimitri rehearsed how to approach the professor on the information he stumbled on.

He remembered all the concerns about his health, too, but waited to bring it up.  He did, however, look the professor over to find the wound.  It was as he thought – the professor had no obvious signs of being injured, though that was not too surprising. 

After the stands and music sheets were in place, Manuela hushed the chattering children, who gave her undivided attention.  At the wave of her hand, they ‘ommed’ in harmonious unison, then did a warmup.  Families started filling the pews; knights, maids, nurses – all sorts of members vital to the church’s success.

A mother who rocked a crying babe, probably around 6 months old, said to her husband, “I cannot get her to calm.  I might have to leave.”

“Is she hungry?” The father asked.

“Fed her ten minutes ago.”

“Poopy pants?”

“No . . .” She patted the child’s behind and said, “Dry.”

“Bedtime?”

“I thought it would be okay.  She had a long nap but if not she could fall asleep here.”

Byleth listened to the cry.  Something in him knew the answer, “Her first tooth is coming in.  She’s feeling discomfort.”

“What?  She’s too young for that,” The mother stuck her finger in the child’s mouth and felt a bump in the gums, “. . . Honey?  Do we still have a teether in that bag?”

“A teether?” He dug around and found something she could use.  The child calmed down as it brushed against her incoming tooth. 

“How did you know that?” The mother asked, “We have two older children and their teeth did not come in this early.  Well, thank you!”

“Do you have kids?” The father asked.

“No.”

“Ah. You’ll be a natural parent when the time comes,” The father chuckled.

“I don’t think I’m going to be a parent,” The professor spoke quietly.

“It happens, whether you’re prepared for it or not,” The dad winked and the mother took her seat with the pacified infant.

“Not with my taste,” he mumbled even quieter and no one heard.

Dimitri stated, “You really do have all the answers . . .”

“Not really . . .”

Dorothea and Manuela began to address the audience, greeting them and expressing gratitude for all in attendance.

The audience stilled, the lights dimmed, and the kids began their routine.  It was a standard concert.  The children were decent, if you considered their developing voicing still had a ways to go.

It was a good thing the professor sat on the side of Dimitri’s patched eye; if he had constant visual on the professor, Dimitri would have ogled the entire time.  He looked over periodically and was surprised that the professor kept his focus on the production.

Dimitri had the feeling that the professor had a bond of sorts with these kids.  Thinking about it in those terms, Dimitri began to understand the professor a little more.

The audience applauded between songs.  Halfway through the next song, Dimitri looked over and noticed the professor’s eyes growing heavy.  His head bobbed as he started to give into sleep.

Dimitri lightly nudged him.  The professor woke and looked at Dimitri.  He yawned, covering his mouth, then rolled his shoulder blades.

He stayed awake through the rest of it, yawning occasionally and shifting to remain conscious.  Manuela and Dorothea once again took to the front and presented a closing ceremony and last thanks, before dismissing the children to their families.  The light in the cathedral returned and chatting filled the room.

The professor stood up and pointed toward the outside of the chapel, toward the tower.  They dodged the crowds of united families – the atmosphere was joyous and celebratory. 

They could still hear their merriment from outside, but they were alone under a calm evening sky.

“45 minutes,” The professor said, “Understandable.  Kids don’t exactly have that great of an attention span.”

“How long do these normally last?”

 “With Manuela and Dorothea in charge? Something like three hours.  They do love a lengthy drama.”

“You come to these often, then?”

“For the shorter ones, I do.  Gilbert wasn’t wrong with what he said earlier . . . The ones who don’t fight are often left in anticipation when we depart, so it’s good to ease their anxiety while we’re here.”

“So, you come here to boost morale?”

“It’s also enjoyable.  Not very many chances to just sit down and not focus on anything.”

“Do you like opera?”

The professor shook his head, “Not really.  I like the plays more, but those always end up with song and dance too.  Can you imagine that in real life?  Suddenly breaking into a song after every emotional experience.”

“Not at all.”

“It’s really immersion breaking, if you ask me.”

Dimitri smiled, “I didn’t see that one coming.  Do you ever perform?”

“Not a chance.  I’ll leave that to the professionals.”

Dimitri remembered the dead stare as Mercedes said early, and baited him, “Surely, you’re on a professional level by now if you’re showing up to practice.  You should sing in front of an audience.”

“Oh, no,” The professor crossed his arms, “I am no expert.  Believe me.”

Dimitri laughed in response as Mercedes was proven right.  They did have similar responses and it filled him with more joy than it should have.

“Are you finished?” The professor said, though he smiled as well.

“I’m sorry,” He said catching his breath, “It was just something Mercedes said earlier.”

The professor sighed, “Mercedes.  Should’ve known.”

“Oh, yeah?” Dimitri asked.

“Well . . . It’s nothing, really.  I just don’t want to perform.”

“Hmm,” Dimitri felt very little sympathy, “You chose me for the Heron Ball, remember?  Now you know how it feels to be put on the spot like that.”

“Oh, hush.  If you hadn’t reacted the way you did, I would’ve chosen someone else.  Too funny not to at that point.  You won that, remember?  You’re welcome,” The professor joked along.

“Just as I captivated the judges, you can captivate the audience.”

“Only if you join me.”

“Not on your life.  My voice isn’t very good – though word has it, you have a lovely singing voice.”

“Damn it, Mercedes,” The professor cursed, “It’s not that great.”

“The fact that two opera stars are pushing this much tells me otherwise.  Can you imagine the morale boost from that?”

The professor clicked his tongue and had a menacing look in his eyes.  Dimitri knew that meant the professor was on the losing end of the argument.  Dimitri was far from done stirring the pot, “It does feel good to be on the other end of this.  Now I see why you enjoyed my suffering through the dance so much.”

“You’re playing with fire.  Just remember that.”

“Not the first time I’ve been burned.”

“Next time a battle gets rough, I’ll come up with a number just for you.  But only if you wear that lovely dancer robe.”

“Oh.  That’s a hard one.”

“I take it you had a real reason for wanting to see me?”

“I did.  This is infinitely more entertaining, though.”

“Oh, I know it is.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t tease you.  I used to worry about how you take it.”

“I’ve survived plenty of battles.  Do you think words can touch me?”

“Maybe the right words.  From the right mouth.  Preferably in a singsong tone, in front of the entire monastery.”

“Yours?  Should I point you to the signup sheet?”

“Don’t turn this around on me.  They want you, so this is your battle.”

“They outnumber me three to one.  Are you really going to leave me to the wolves?”

“Okay,” Dimitri chuckled, “Phrased like that, maybe I can spare some sympathy.”

Despite the cool breeze, Dimitri felt warm.  On the rare times the professor bantered, it always ended flirtatious.

“Speaking of wolves,” the professor said.  He looked past Dimitri, toward the chapel entrance.  From within, Manuela emerged and involved herself in their conversation.

“Well, isn’t this a treat.  Our prince and our archbishop sat together and enjoyed the children’s act.  I’m glad you could spare some free time.”

“Yes,” Dimitri nodded, “They did well.”

“Of course they did!  Wouldn’t put the little tikes out there if they couldn’t perform.  Formalities aside, professor, I wanted a word with you.  When I went to count supplies, we had a discrepancy with the pain medicine.  Care to explain why?”

“I am not in charge of medical supplies.  Ask someone else,” He suddenly switched to icy again.

“What was the discrepancy?” Dimitri asked.

“Somehow we ended up with extra medicine.  The same given to our professor.”

“What a coincidence.” The professor yawned, “I am well spent.  I think I’ll call it a night and rest.  Doctor’s orders.”

“Don’t you ‘Doctor’s orders’ me!  That’s one hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?  Or, maybe the reality is you put them back instead of taking them, as I actually instructed!?”

“I was only returning what was misplaced.  No miscalculation.”

Manuela huffed, “Why are you being so difficult?  Those were meant so you didn’t have to suffer through much pain.”

The professor shook his head, “I’m not in any pain.”

“Really?”  Manuela pulled a bobby pin out of her hair and dropped it on the ground, “Oh dear, how clumsy of me.  Can you please pick that up for me?”

“I don’t see why the burden of that responsibility falls to me.  In this light, it blends into the stone and I wouldn’t be able to find it, regardless.”

“You wouldn’t be a gentleman and help a lady out?”

“Don’t those pins come in cases?  You can find a replacement easily enough.”

“Hmph.  You really are rude.  Fine.  If you find yourself writhing, don’t come sobbing to me.”

She left the two of them and all became silent once more.  Some of Dimitri’s earlier worries came back and he asked, “You’re not lying about being in any pain, right?”

“I’m fine,” His tone was rife with agitation.

Dimitri pressed his concerns, “I heard from a cook earlier that you haven’t been seen eating in the dining hall lately.  You are taking care of yourself, right?”

The professor shrugged.

“That is not an answer.  When was the last time you ate?”

“This morning. . .”

“That’s still not ideal.  Was it at least a full meal?”

The professor avoided eye contact.

“Well? What was it?”

“I can’t remember something that inconsequential.”

“Hmm.  That’s a strange way of saying ‘I’m lying through my teeth’, don’t you think?”

“Do I need to keep a food log for everyone who seems to think my dietary habits are their business?”

Dimitri crossed his arms, “If multiple people are asking, then there’s probably cause for concern.”

“Should I get a journal and timestamp with signatures after each time I eat?”

“If it’s necessary, then sure.”

“Make sure you do some shopping around.  I expect a gold star for each time I successfully complete an assignment.”

“Why are you being so flippant about this?”

“I’m feeling a bit lightheaded and you berating me is only making it worse.  Not you, you.  Just the general you.  All of you.  I can take care of myself.  Been doing it for quite some time now.”

Dimitri had a moment of DeJa’Vu from the academy days.

“You sure the lightheaded part isn’t due to lack of nutrition?”

“The human body can survive a week or more without food.  I’ll manage.”

“Really?  That an admission, professor? How many days in a row have you gone without food?” Dimitri asked, “Or, have you lost track?”

The professor sighed, “I’ve been eating – here and there.”

“Snacking?  That is not enough.”  Dimitri tried not to get angry, but the professor was being very difficult.  He realized how similar the pair of them were.

“I just don’t have the time for that.”

“So, you have time for choir and plays, but not enough for dinner?  I’m having a hard time with your priorities.”

The professor shrugged, “The infirmary overflow is here, where I bandage wounded soldiers.  The aftermath of Gronder’s been keeping us busy.  Besides, I remember you skipping out on food.  Don’t get ‘holier than thou’ on me.”

“That is true.  I cannot deny that.  The meals I do eat are heavier in protein, though.”

“Well, if we start holding each other accountable, maybe we’ll get somewhere.  Or, we enable each other’s bad habits.  Either which way.”

“That’s one way to look at it,” Dimitri hesitated to ask, but followed with, “Do you want to start having lunch together?”

The professor’s rigid demeanor softened, “Pick a time.  Otherwise we will just keep missing each other.”

“What’s your routine?”

“I don’t have one,” The professor chuckled, “I walk around in a circle, remember things along the way, and get accosted into doing chores by others.  There’s really no rhyme or reason to any of it.”

Dimitri sighed heavily.  The crowd in the chapel thinned out.  The professor shuddered, reacting to the cold; Dimitri gently grasped the professor’s arm and said, “Let’s go back in.  it’s getting cold out and you’re underdressed.”

Byleth allowed Dimitri to lead.  Although they went in to escape the cold, a relentless chilling draft invaded from the crumbling dome.  They sat down in the first row of pews.  Only a few of the candlesticks were still lit.

“I keep hearing that Gronder was bad,” Dimitri couldn’t remember it at all for the most part, “What’s your take on that?”

“I would not repeat it if possible.”

“So, pretty bad then . . .”

“. . . Yeah, it was.” Byleth said.  A drain washed over him and he knew he would not last much longer, “Before it gets much later, what did you need from me?”

Dimitri fell silent, thinking about the nightmare that involved the professor, “I just wanted to see you.  That’s all.”

“Ah,” The professor’s face was warm and inviting, “Well, if that’s all, I’m free for the remainder of the night.”

Dimitri’s heart raced again.  He probably meant until bedtime, but Dimitri pictured a recurrence of his birthday and cursed himself for it.

Instead of pursing it, Dimitri said, “We shouldn’t carry on too long.  You still need to eat and rest.”

“If you’re ordering it, I won’t refuse.”

“Stop being so melodramatic.  This isn’t the same as me giving a command.”

“Is it not?  Will you lay off if I refuse?  No?  Then tell me the difference, my lord.”

“You’re a really difficult man, you know that, right?”

 “Lucky enough for you,” The professor tucked some of his hair behind his ear, “I don’t mind the thought of taking orders from you.”

Dimitri balled his fists, gripping his thighs in the process.  Byleth laughed internally at his reaction, and change the topic, “How’s the kingdom tasks coming along?”

“Oh,” Dimitri paused, “We won’t make too much progress until we take back control.  Otherwise, what we can get done is . . . well, it’s a mess.”

“You’ll get there.”

“Confident as ever, aren’t you?”  He was sounding discouraged again.

“What else should I be?”

“’Humble’ is out of the question, I suppose.”

“As if there were ever any doubt to the contrary.”

“Well, it’s rarely steered you wrong, so not harm in it.  There aren’t many who can claim the same.  I hope you’ll keep that in mind.” 

“Somewhere in the back.  Where people’s names are stored.”

“You forget everyone’s names.  But, I think that was your point?”

“Nothing gets by you,” Byleth winked.

“You can be a bit cruel sometimes.  One moment you’re praising and encouraging, the next, downright insulting.”

“I’m sorry.  I meant nothing by it.  Just giving you a hard time, but I will watch what I say more carefully.”

“Oh?” Dimitri’s own face lit up, “So, humility IS in your grasp!  I have to say, professor, I didn’t know you had it in you!  I’m so proud of you!”

Byleth’s face dropped, “You set me up?”

“Not intentionally, but it did work out beautifully.  You know what they say about when opportunity presents itself.  I accept your apology, by the by.”

The professor puckered his lips, scrutinizing Dimitri.  Dimitri responded by laughing loudly, saying between breaths, “I remember a time where you denied partaking in banter such as this.  Do you realize how much you’ve changed?”

“That is only natural.  You, and all the other students, have all grown in ways I didn’t expect.”

“Yours is by far the most drastic, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“I’m not entirely sure that’s true.”

The last of the families left and the choir members also cleared the vicinity.  They were the only two left in the area, aside from the guards presumably standing watch outside.

“Professor, there is something I wanted to ask you about, now that we are alone.”

“I’m listening.”

“When I went looking for you earlier, I stopped by your room thinking you might be there.”

“Oh, that was you.  I thought Manuela was being passive aggressive about me taking my medicine.”

“Sorry for that confusion.  I wanted to give them to you in person but ran out of time.”

“No worries,” The professor straightened the creases in his robes.  His fingers were long and narrow – and distracting.

“While I was in your room,” Dimitri focused, “I saw a name on a scrap of paper in your room. ‘Eisner’.”

“Oh.”

“That’s Jeralt’s last name, so it should be yours.  Only, I can’t find anything that matches for you.  I know I snooped, and I should have asked you first; but isn’t it time you cleared this up?”

“It might just be.  What did you find?”

“Well. . . Do the names Araleth and Byleth mean anything to you?”

“Yes.  They do.”

“Then you know about Jeralt’s deceased wife and child.”

“Strange.  Where did you find information on . . . on Byleth?”  He had a hard time referencing himself like this.  When was the last time he spoke his own name?

“The library has a certification of birth and death.”

“Ah.  The library.  Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Interesting.  It sounds like you’re . . .  Anyway, there isn’t much point.  No one else bears the ‘Eisner’ surname with any connection to Jeralt. . .which leads to a lot of confusion as to where you fit in.”

“He did that intentionally,” The professor admitted.

“To erase your existence?”

“You came up with this in one afternoon? It’s actually kind of impressive.”

“So, it’s true then?  What’s the point, though?  It’s almost like he wanted to hide you away.”

“You’re on the right track.”

“Care to elaborate on that?”

“Even I’m struggling to piece the full story together.  The person who could explain it best is not here.”

“Jeralt?” Dimitri guessed.

“No.  He had his own doubts, but never got the chance to confirm them.”

“Hold on, what are you talking about? What didn’t Jeralt know?”

Byleth sighed, “I know this is confusing.  I am trying, believe me.”

“I just don’t know why all of this is necessary.  I know you – I’ve been your student and your friend, and many other things.  I’ve been fighting alongside you for a long time.  Hell, I’ve been in your – “

‘bed’ he thought while his stomach turned.  Dimitri changed his dialogue sequence, “There is absolutely nothing holding you back from revealing your name, is there?”

Byleth, growing tired from neglecting his own health, struggled to find a way to explain it.  Dimitri knew about ‘Byleth’ – or rather, the falsified version.  His name was not so easy to give because of it.  He fumbled around trying to preface this information; despite wanting to tell Dimitri everything, Jeralt managed to impede any progress with 25 years’ worth of bullshit.

His father meant well, but damn was he ever paranoid.

“A mountain of lies,” Byleth answered several moments later.

“What?”

“That’s what stands in my way . . . If I told you my name, it would only confuse you.  If I told you the reason why it was such a secret in the first place, we’d be here all night.  And I am passed tired.”

“What would be confusing about a name?”

Byleth rubbed his eyes – where to begin?

“That,” Byleth compared what Dimitri knew to what the truth was.  On paper, Byleth was dead. In actuality –

“ – is unfortunately a very difficult thing to explain.”

Dimitri sighed, getting nowhere.  Then again, what right did he have to hassle the professor over this?

“I guess it’s okay, for tonight,” Dimitri knew the professor needed to sleep soon, “It is funny to me that Gilbert and Seteth have both looked into this.  I’m sure others have as well.  And only Seteth seems to have benefited any knowledge.”

“That would be because he found my father’s journal.  Well, there’s a thought.  All you could ever want to know about my life is in that orange diary.”

“I’d honestly rather hear it from you,” Dimitri insisted, though knowing he could find the answers really caught his interest.  He knew exactly where that diary was, too. 

“I’d still probably end up having to explain it to you anyway,” He yawned.

“I promise not to sneak into your room and find the journal.  Tonight only.  If I still can’t wrangle it from you tomorrow, I make no guarantees.”

The professor chuckled, “You’re free to it.  I have no objections.”

“I’m probably not going to sleep knowing that it exists . . .” Dimitri confessed, “Can I ask you something?”

“Have you ever needed permission?”

“. . . Right . . . What would you do if someone you liked well enough to marry also had no idea what your name is, or anything concrete about your past?  What would you do then?”

“Where did ‘marrying’ someone come from?” Byleth sincerely looked stunned.

“Well, I mean, typically someone like that would have to know all of these things about you.  How long would you keep that information withheld?”

“I am not intentionally withholding it – I mean, not anymore.  It just hadn’t been on my mind.”

“Wait a moment.  You simultaneously didn’t know why he kept these details a secret, but also were privy to this plan?”

“When we first arrived here, my father made it perfectly clear that he did not trust the church.  I trusted his judgement at the time and followed his instructions to not give my name.”

“What was his issue with the church?  Also, I am not part of the church, so I don’t know why you kept it from me.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I accidently almost told you a few times.  And, while you were a student here, you technically fell into the ‘part of the church’ category.”

“I’m just going to agree to disagree and move on.  Why did Jeralt distrust the church?  And did you feel similarly?”

“Yes . . . and yes.  Araleth’s death was the turning point for him, I believe – and I always felt Rhea wanted to keep me on a short leash. To be honest, I learned later that Jeralt intended for us to leave the monastery for good.”

“So, what, one day you were planning on leaving us all, without explanation?”  Dimitri’s voice raised.

“At the time and if the opportunity presented itself, yes.  I would not exist on paper and we would leave Fódlan.” 

 “You would be untraceable,” Dimitri’s face elongated with surprise, then transitioned back into frustration, “Why would you even accept a teaching position if you knew you might abandon us?”

“You’re assuming I was given a choice.”

Dimitri was not listening anymore, “I knew it . . . Those first few months, you didn’t even care to hide your disdain for being here.  Well, I guess I now know the truth of it.  So, you went missing for five years.  Did you take your chance then, when we needed you the most?”

“That is not what happened,” Byleth remained calm and firm.

“How can I possibly believe that?  The people I loved left me behind in this hellhole of a world.  They did so beyond their choice.  And you.  You would leave on your own volition.  How can I trust anything you tell me?”  There was a lot of pain in Dimitri’s voice; and unfortunately, Byleth sensed him slipping into that inner darkness. 

“I never followed through on that plan.  I am here now because I want to be here,” Byleth’s head pounded.  He did not want to argue.

“How long do we have you for this time?”

“I am not going anywhere.”

“How do I know that?” His voice mangled with terror and fury. 

“Please trust me.  I intend to see this through.”

“You and I – we,” Dimitri paused, “we slept together.  It’s been a while, so I’m sure you’d forgotten all about that. You said you had interest in coming home with me.  Was this plan still in the works then?  How long have you been lying to me?”

“I remember that night, Dimitri.  I remember that promise.  I never lied to you.”

“I don’t even know what to think,” Dimitri’s forehead wrinkled and he had a pained look, “I need some air,” Dimitri stood up and went for the main doors.

“Dimitri, wait,” Byleth reached for him.  Dimitri yanked his arm away.

“Alone!  I just – I just want to be alone for a while.”

Dimitri stormed swiftly away and escaped the cathedral through the main doors, leaving them wide open to blow more unwanted wind in.

Byleth instantly wanted to chase after him, but vertigo took him by surprise.  The world spun wildly around him, “Ugh.  Why now?”

Byleth took a few steps before he lost footing and impaled his injured side into the corner of the pew. He gasped as the pain electrified his body.  He fell to a knee and held the wound; the stone floors freezing him more.

The world did not stay in consistent rotation.  Byleth found it hard to lift himself.  His body grew heavy, but his head floated, or that’s how it felt.  The rows of benches multiplied and swayed, weaving in and out of focus. 

He climbed on the pews, pulling himself up and pushing himself forward.  He did not gain much ground before faltering again, this time away from the sharp wood.  He collapsed onto the floor, landing on his left side. He used his arm to protect his head from damage.

The frigid ground pierced his skin even through the clothes.  His vision clouded.  His drained body laxed, unable to move anymore.  He would fall unconscious, and someone would discover him.  Or, maybe a short rest would revitalize him.

His breathing slowed.  He could not keep his eyes open any longer.  A five-minute nap was all he needed, he convinced himself, surrendering to darkness . . .

Chapter Text

Raw

Before he realized it, Dimitri propelled himself to just outside the knight’s hall, purely driven by rage. The trust he put in the professor broke in a way that he never thought could and it left him with a bad taste in his mouth. 

Lies.  All lies.  When would they end?

The final bell struck a familiar tune, but something about it rang hollow, reverberating in a soulless tune.

Could he heed to the professor’s explanation?  Five years . . . He thought the empire’s army killed him during the evacuation of Garreg Mach . . . But he survived that.  Where did he go?  And why did he return?

Maybe isolation wasn’t as appealing as the professor hoped it would be.  Maybe guilt weighed him down.  Or maybe he was telling the truth?  Injuries prevented him from returning or something similar.

Either way, hatred consumed Dimitri, if only fleetingly.  He hated being used.  He hated being lied to.  He hated that he could simply be just a plaything for the professor.  Had he seriously misjudged the professor’s intentions all this time? 

He found himself staring down familiar stairs.  The graveyard.  He spent too much time here the last few days. He visited Rodrigue briefly, wishing things ended differently.  The ground was still freshly dug, the brown mound was easy to spot because of it.

That girl.  Her hatred.  Her eyes.  Her brother.  Everyone perished in some miserable manner these days.

“What do I do now?” He questioned the grave, although knew Rodrigue could not answer.  He probably could not hear it, regardless.

He found the professor’s parents’ plot, a previous curiosity overcoming him.  Araleth’s name was faded from the stone, but ‘Jeralt Eisner’ was clear as day. 

‘Eisner’ – the name was accessible all this time, but by the time Dimitri could figure it out, he was too preoccupied with the ‘Flame Emperor’ and her allies to care.  Maybe he could have learned the truth sooner.

He looked at the names of the surrounding plots but did not see the infant son.  A burial urn, perhaps?  There would not be much in the way of remains for someone so small and . . . and burned.

The files did not say where Byleth was buried, but surely it would be near his parents?  Especially given how close in time those deaths were.  Why was he nowhere near his mother – and now father?

Was his name on the stone and faded from weather?  Dimitri inspected it closer; even though ‘Araleth Eisner’ was illegible, the indentation was still there.  There was nothing between her and Jeralt.

‘Seteth might know,’ He thought.

Was there any point in caring now?  He could not stand the thought of being abandoned by the professor.  He never thought of that possibility before tonight.  He planned to leave?  When?  Why?  Maybe it was time to steal that journal after all . . .  Get the perspective from Jeralt, the source of this extravagant plan.

He heard someone humming and found the source from a woman in an off-white dress.  She held a bouquet of ivory flowers in the hands, pressed deeply into her stomach.  Her skin was paler than her dress and shimmered with a mystical glow.  She had waist-length blue hair that curled toward the ends and darker blue eyes that met Dimitri’s unshyly.

“No one visits the cemeteries at night,” She said unsolicited, “Too many of the residents are afraid of ghosts.  Woooo!”

“And you aren’t?” Dimitri didn’t know why he entertained her, although her face did have a resemblance to the professor’s.

“Nope,” She stood before the gravesite of the Eisner couple, alongside Dimitri.  A chill ran down his spine.

“Not a believer in the paranormal then?” Dimitri asked.

“Just the opposite.  I have no fear of them.  You?”

Dimitri shook his head, “I’ve seen enough ghosts . . .”

“Ghosts can be terrifying.  But only if you let them be.  Hmm.  I wonder why they never fixed her name.  it is sad to be erased from history like that.”

“Did you know her?”

“One could say that, I suppose.  So much has changed since she walked these grounds.  For so long, she was a forgotten entity.  Living on only in her husband’s memory.  And now he rests here as well.”

“You seem to know a lot about that . . . And her son?  Byleth?”

“What about the child concerns you so?” She placed the flowers at the base of the tombstone and pulled a single lily from the bunch.  It had a vibrant blue streak through the center, lining each of the six petals.

“I just . . . It’s not exactly what I expected to learn.  I want to know the professor.  And I’m afraid of what that actually means.”  Why was he saying all of this?

“Staring at markers for the dead will not help you.  Listen to him,” She tore off a petal and let it fly in the breeze.

“I’m sorry, who are you again?  I don’t think I caught your name.”

“There is more to a person than just their name,” She twirled the flower and picked off the opposite end.  Dimitri frowned and said nothing.  It was almost as if . . .

“I know what you’re fretting over, dear.  You’re overthinking it,” another petal soared passed Dimitri.

“Were you eavesdropping on us earlier?  This is none of your business.”

Foreboding clouds gathered above.  That night would bring another bout of rain.

“Ah.  Perhaps not.  But I will continue to do so.”

“I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you back off.”

She plucked another from the lily.  It was almost bald now, with two solitary petals at opposing ends.

“I will not.  No one is safe in the dead of night.”

She dropped the lily, leaving only those last petals intact.  Her eerie words gave him a bitter reminder of the dream he had.  The picture of an impaled professor became the forefront of his mind’s eye.

“You will be the death of me.”  The final message from the specter.

The professor.  Dimitri left him there, in the cathedral.  Did the professor wait for him to return?

He was about to excuse himself from the woman, but she disappeared.  The flowers she left had also mysteriously vanished.  Maybe she was simply another figment of his fractured mind, but he could not waste time with that – he hurried back, cursing himself for leaving in the first place.

*

His fingers turned numb and the prickling sensation jarred him awake.  Stone greeted him and he breathed in the air bouncing from the freezing floor.  Byleth coughed violently, chest and throat scorching – how long did he sleep?

Pins and needles shot through every surface area of his skin, exposed or not.  He pushed off the ground to his hands and knees.  Another shockwave lashed out from his side.  He grabbed it as a reflex and a cold wetness seeped through.

He crawled forward, counting the aisles of benches to the back; where he and Dimitri sat at the concert.  Would he return?  Byleth needed him to, even if he came back to yell some more.  He had every right to be angry; but, leaving Byleth behind was a dangerous plight.

He could barely force himself to slither to one row.  He grasped the bench once more and attempted to stand, gasping for air at such a mundane task.

The final bell rang, masking all other sounds.  Even so, he sensed someone from behind.  Before he could prepare, that someone came rushing in and drove a knife in his uninjured side.  Now he had a matching set.

“Ugh!” Byleth yelled.  He twisted his body and held out his open palm, shooting a fireball into his assailant’s face. 

Byleth pulled the knife out and slashed his enemy’s throat while he was recoiling. The unidentified body sank, pooling blood around it.

“Damn it,” Byleth grunted at his new wound and managed to straighten himself out.  He took a moment to cut his caplet and wrap it around the new site, pressing on it.  He sprinted to the door, adrenaline now pumping, and hurried past the gate. 

An unseen archer volleyed him from above the gate.  An arrow burrowed into his back, between his shoulder blades and he dropped the knife as a result.  Fresh, warm blood oozed out his back.  The arrowhead fastened itself between muscle and bones, so it did not drill all the way through.

Byleth located the archer in a balcony before a grand stained glass window and summoned a circle above his head; thunder poured from the center and struck the archer. He was unsure if it killed him, so he conjured another bolt.

 He could not remove the arrow or mend that wound on his own, so he limped forward with each new wound stinging and zapping relentlessly.

At the end of the bridge, Byleth saw a soldier with a lance who wore the polished white armor of the monastery.  He doubted its authenticity and could not afford to be wrong by lowering his guard.

“I have a report for you,” Byleth called out with raspy voice from the halfway point, “Trespassers in the cathedral.”

“You’re in bad shape,” The soldier said.  Byleth stopped moving.  He stood at a disadvantageous spot and felt the whip of the wind lashing against him. “We need to get you to the infirmary.”

Byleth looked over his shoulder – his eye twitched at spiking jolts – to determine the threat level.

“Where is the rest of the patrol?” Byleth questioned, “There should be more men.”

“I don’t know.  That’s a good question.”

‘Stay awake,’ he commanded himself. 

The soldier advanced, saying something garbled by Byleth’s failing senses.  He was slipping, he knew that much, and prepared himself for any possibility. 

‘Dimitri,’ he searched for any signs of him, ‘I really need you right now.’

His panting slowed down, but he drew in long and heavy breaths in exchange.  His shoulders, neck, head, and eyelids weighed down on him, and his body threatened to keel.  Bright red frostbite colored his hands and face.

Storm clouds gathered overhead, he noticed and squinted irritably at it, “More rain.”

He cupped the knife on his belt, assessing the immediate need of unsheathing the weapon – one of the few tools he currently possessed other than magic.

Booming footsteps rushed at him from the cathedral entrance and Byleth adjusted to identify the source, momentarily removing his attention from the soldier.

The new foe, a heavyset aggressor, raised an axe above his head and threw his weight into the downward strike.  Byleth evaded by jumping backwards.  The axe’s blade wedged into the nearby parapet and the man struggled to reclaim it.

A last-minute realization gripped him, and as he feared, the soldier lunged the lance for a back attack.  He narrowly avoided it by lifting his arm and twirling his body away in a subsequent leap.  Mid rotation, Byleth used the vampire light spell of Nosferatu to both stagger the falsified ally and replenish his strength.

As he landed, the axe man evidently forfeited his attempt at retrieving the axe and punched Byleth in the jaw.  His neck cracked deafeningly, and his body forcefully spun around. 

Byleth fell forward and caught himself at the opening between two of the parapets, one hand on each stone slab, staring at the rushing stream and the sharp rock bed beneath him.  The pain from his three existing cuts ripped through him and he shrieked involuntarily – the howling wind wailed from all directions, carrying his cry.

He pushed himself back up, regardless, and attempted to discern the other two’s placement.  If they knocked him off the bridge, he would not survive.  His chances were slimming either way.

He saw the lance coming at him again and protected his body by sacrificing his left arm.  The edge shredded him from his wrist to his elbow – in a counter measure, Byleth retrieved his personal dagger, rushed at the soldier, and drove the it into the only exposed area – between the eyes.

Another scream filled the still night.  Someone was sure to have noticed the skirmish by now.  Even if they did, the other burly man already pincered Byleth and threw him back first into the stone.

As his back hit the stone, he felt the arrow push deeper in.  A chill came over him, but it was different than a normal one.  This wasn’t cold necessarily, but it rippled from the site and spiraled through his body.  Paresthesia formed in each limb and it struck his head.  

He knew it then.  His chances fell to zero.

Byleth took in one sharp breath and held it.  He watched the man wriggle the axe from the stone and raise it.  He came to end Byleth.

‘Move.’

His eyes locked on the jagged edge of the axe head. 

‘. . .Move.’

His numb hands would not budge.

‘. . .Pulse . . .’

The world shattered at Byleth’s command.  He exhausted his divine magic at Gronder, so time resumed.  Each second ticked toward his demise.  Out of ideas and unable to move, Byleth closed his eyes in resignation.

‘Dimitri.  I am so sorry.’

A rush of something blew passed.  Nothing hit him and confusion took hold.  He opened his eyes and saw something blue.  He couldn’t make out what it was, but it looked soft.

“S. . .S,” His head slumped.  His airway closed, pinched off.  He nearly lost consciousness. 

‘I can’t breathe.’

Someone grabbed at him.  Reflexively, his right arm flailed to fend off the attacker.  Whoever it was caught the hand and held it to a cold chest plate.

“It’s me,” He said in an anguish of its own.

‘Who?’

The unknown man gently placed Byleth’s hand down and slid his arm around his back.  He lifted Byleth up and a searing agony exploded in his body.  Byleth writhed and wailed; it was an otherworldly sound that echoed endlessly back at them.

“I have to move you, professor,” The man’s voice shook.  They traveled to a destination unknown.  Byleth still could not draw in air properly.  He gasped excessively to regulate but hyperventilated instead.  His throat clicked at each failed attempt to bring in oxygen.

“Professor!?  Hold on just a little longer.”

Every muscle began to spasm at random.  Whoever held him cradled him closer.

‘It’s so cold.’

His lungs seized.  He stopped trying, feeling a pull in every possible direction.  His chest jolted.  And again.  Then everything released.

*

“Help him!” Dimitri yelled in the infirmary, full blown panic setting in.  He set the professor’s body on the bed, unsure what the collective damage entailed.  Manuela, who had readied herself for bed, snapped back awake and attempted a heal.  She screamed for more aid.

The professor’s skin was blue under all the blood.  She grabbed the professor’s wrist.  Then his neck.  And finally his heart.

“What are you doing?” Dimitri bellowed, “Hurry up and heal him!”

“No,” She mouthed.

“There’s no time to wait!”

“There’s nothing I can do –”

“Stop talking and –“

“He’s already gone!” She screeched.

“Gone?” Dimitri repeated, unable to fathom it, “He can’t be gone.”

“I’m so sorry,” She huffed, restraining her own emotions, “There’s nothing that can be done.”

“You didn’t even try!”

“My spell bounced off of him.  In order for it to work, he has to be alive.  He’s –“

“STOP!  Stop it, stop it, stop it!  He’s not . . . he can’t . . .”  Dimitri seized his head, pulling fistfuls of hair.

Manuela closed her eyes tight and exhaled, then she said, “I can try one thing.  It probably won’t work.”

She took off her coat and began chest compressions.  Old fashioned CPR.

“One. Two. Three. Four . . .” She counted as she pressed, then at ten she performed mouth to mouth, spurning as her lips touched the professor’s cold ones.  Dimitri watched in horror.

“What is going on?” Seteth entered the room then stopped at the sight, “What happened?”

Dimitri barely registered the question.  This couldn’t be happening . . .

Seteth inhaled and assisted Manuela, allowing her focus on breathing into him while he did the compressions.

“Go tell Gilbert what happened,” Seteth breathlessly ordered Dimitri, “We need to neutralize the enemy.”

“But I,” Dimitri’s body refused to leave.

“There is nothing more you can do for the professor.  I promise we will do all we can.  We need to stay a step ahead now.”

“No need,” Gilbert said, “I heard all the commotion.  Your Highness, let’s give these two space to work.”

“No – he’s.  I can’t.”

“You have done what you could.  Leave the revival to them.”  He led the reluctant Dimitri out to the hall, who all but dug his heels into the floorboards.  It was a wonder how Gilbert managed enough strength to pull him away.  More nurses and priests rushed by to assist.

“Where did this happen?” Gilbert asked.  Dimitri sighed heavily and crossed his arms.

“The cathedral bridge.”

“Come with me.”

“Yes,” Dimitri frowned.  Being away from the professor gave him a newfound objective, “If any of them still live, I will crush them.”

“If any of them yet live, we need to gather information first,” Gilbert corrected.

“What would be the point?  We know who they are.  Imperial spies.”

Gilbert sighed, “Please show some restraint.  Walk me through what happened.”

Dimitri lowered his head.  Here he was, afraid the professor planned to abandon him – however, in reality, it was reversed.

“I left him,” He confessed, “This is my fault.”

“Left him?”

“Yes!  Like filthy little cowards that they are, they attacked when he was isolated.  Alone.  This is my fault.  This is all my fault!”

“Please don’t blame yourself.  Why did you separate?”

“I was mad at him.  That’s all.  If I could go back and change it, I would.  I can’t.  I just can’t.  if he dies because of this, it will be on my head.”

“You need to compose yourself.  It sounds like you were not aware of any dangers.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I should have known.  There is always danger.”

“What’s done is done – all we can do now is move forward.”

“Without him?  Is that even a possibility?”

“If you wish to save your kingdom, it is.  If you wish to aid Seteth and the knights of Serios in saving Lady Rhea, it is.  Steel yourself, Your Highness.”

“Oh, I’ll steel myself alright,” He said threateningly.  Gilbert recognized his descent. He prayed that the professor revived and quelled Dimitri’s inner demons.

As Gilbert passed familiar faces, he sent summons to the more trusted members of the inner council and gave orders for them to meet at the infirmary and then the bridge.  At the moment, he wanted to contain hysteria to a minimum. 

“You really think anymore would show their faces?” Dimitri scoffed, “One of them wore monetary armor.  We can’t trust anyone.”

“They’ve been doing well at blending in.  As it stands, there is no good way of determining spy versus ally.”

Dimitri muttered something unintelligible under his breath – not even he really knew what he said.  It all started to blur together. 

They were at the bridge and counted two bodies and two weapons.  A soldier with a dagger through his head and the other a man with his body snapped backwards – his hands touched his heels with his chest unnaturally puffed out.

Dimitri heard the professor’s final scream in his head.  It roared so deafeningly and repeated in his eardrums endlessly. 

Something in him laughed.  It was a low rumble at first, as if he found something mildly amusing.  Then it grew louder and more cynical.

“Your highness?” Gilbert was sent on edge by this unusual behavior.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Dimitri quickly frowned, “I only just now realized something.”

“And what would that be?”

“Just focus on your task.”

Gilbert sighed heavily.  None of this was good.  He examined the soldier with the knife protruding from his forehead and said, “This knife is . . .”

“The one the professor keeps at his hip.”

“And him?” Gilbert pointed at the warped man.

“My doing.”

Gilbert shuddered at the brutality but said nothing.  They continued in silence.  Splotches of blood trailed out from halfway across the bridge, marking the spot where Dimitri picked up the professor. He was so focused on protecting the professor, Dimitri blacked out on how he killed the axeman.

Everything else, however, scorched itself into his memory.  The raised axe.  The incapacitated professor.  The fear of losing yet another beloved person.  And how the professor could not identify Dimitri, so he tried to fend him off.  Down to the last, he would claw and scratch to preserve his own life.

The professor made such unnatural noises that Dimitri knew it was the end.  He felt it in his gut.  The professor passed in Dimitri’s arms, but he could not acknowledge the truth just then.  To add the final insult, Dimitri also doubted that the professor ever recognized him.  He was too far gone by then.

He died thinking Dimitri was an enemy. 

They stumbled on another dagger that caught Gilbert’s attention.  It was silver with black swirls on the hilt and down the twisted blade.  Gilbert picked it up and marveled at the unusual shape, “It probably belongs to one of them.”

“So, you found a clue after all.  It would be rude to keep it all to ourselves.  Why don’t we return it?”

Gilbert did not have a fitting response to that.  They continued in silence until Gilbert asked, “Where is the night patrol?  I need to get a schedule on who was supposed to be here.”

“Hmph.”

“Did you see any when you left the first time?”

“I wasn’t paying attention.”

“It’s safe to assume that they’ve placed themselves within the monetary guard.  We’ve known this, however, for quite some time.  They must have added to their own ranks despite our efforts to expose them.”

“Tell me, Gilbert,” Dimitri crossed his arms, “How do we trust anyone in this operation?  We can never truly tell what anyone is thinking or what their true objectives are.  Even you and I had doubts about the . . . the professor.”

“I don’t know.  Hmm.  Does the reason you were upset with him have anything to do with that doubt?”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“Humor me a moment.  Did you learn something?”

“Just drop it!  None of it matters anymore!”

“Maybe it doesn’t,” he conceded, “But it might help ease your mind to talk about it.”

“I should have minded my own damn business.  If I never pushed for an explanation, we would have had a nice night and walked back together.  He was tired.  I should have known.  He owed me nothing.”

“So, I was correct in my assumption . . .”

“Yes.  You were.  What he told me upset me.  But it shouldn’t have.  I made it about me when it should have been about him.  Now look where I’m at.  Back where I started.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Ask Seteth,” Dimitri scouted on ahead.  He really hoped to find an enemy soon so he could properly vent his frustration.  He already went through this loss once – this time, however, would be even worse.

Inside the cathedral, Dimitri found the professor’s first kill.  When Gilbert joined him, he knelt beside the body and examined the kill wound.  He matched it to the blade they picked up and said, “Interesting.  The professor must have taken this blade from him.  The wound has a curve to it that matches this.”

Good,” He said.

“It looks like you were right.  They hoped to ambush him when he had no reinforcements.  Unfortunately, we may not have enough to learn more about who ‘they’ are.”

They returned to the bridge, where Seteth and the members of the Blue Lions, minus Mercedes and Annette, met them.

“Dimitri,” Ingrid made a sorrowful face, “I am so sorry.”

“What happened?” Sylvain asked.

“Is there still a threat?” Felix followed up.

Gilbert answered, “We are still in the middle of investigating.  Three enemies dead.  No sign of anyone else, either.”

“Seteth,” Dimitri asked, “. . . Is he . . .?”

Seteth exhaled, “We could not revive him.  I am sorry to report that your professor is . . . is dead.”

“How did this happen?” Ashe shuddered.

“Tch,” Felix shook his head, “I’m going to look for more intruders.”

“We’ll go together,” Sylvain nodded, “We gotta stay together right now.”

“Agreed,” Ingrid said and Ashe nodded.  The four of them went on ahead, while Dedue stayed with Dimitri.

“How are you?” He asked, even though he knew what to expect.  Dimitri just shook his head and looked off into the distance.

“Gilbert.  Your Highness,” Seteth said, “I know this is probably not what you want to hear at this time, but it will become relevant soon.  About the professor’s identity and the secrets that come with that.”

“What does it matter?” Dimitri asked.

“It matters.  I know that Archbishop wanted him to be buried in the Holy Tomb in the event of his death.  His bloodline is . . . well, he is kin to Rhea.”

“What?” This caught Dimitri’s attention.

“He was likely targeted because of that.  They may come back and try to steal his body.  We cannot allow that happen, under any circumstances.”

“They would . . . steal his body?” Dimitri flummoxed.

“To learn about the Crest of Flames and the power that comes with it.  Yes.  If you don’t want him to be defiled any further, then you need to listen to me.  I know this is hard, but if you ever really cared about him, you will do this one final act.  We must take his body to the Holy Tomb and seal it off until we find the Archbishop.”

“Yes,” Dimitri said, “I don’t want them anywhere near him.”

“Good.  Yes.  We should move him as soon as we can.”

Gilbert frowned, “And what will you tell the monastery?”

“I propose we carry out a closed casket ceremony so they can mourn and pay their respects.  Only a handful of us should know the true resting place for the professor.”

“And will his false tomb read as, ‘here lies the beloved professor?’” Gilbert crossed his arms.

Seteth sighed, “No.  You said you both looked into the Eisner family?  You know of Araleth and Byleth?”

“Yes.  We do,” Gilbert nodded.

“The baby thought to have died in the fire survived.  That child grew up and became your professor.  The professor is Byleth Eisner.”

“Excuse me?” Gilbert demanded, “Why?”

“It all stems back to Jeralt’s decision to flee the monastery.  He felt this place endangered his son, so he took the infant and ran.  As for the details behind that rationale, you would have to talk to the Archbishop to know the full story.  She was the only one present at Byleth’s birth.”

“This story becomes more and more troubling,” Gilbert’s stern face grimaced further.

“No wonder he couldn’t find the right way to explain it,” Dimitri turned away from everyone, “A mountain of lies.”

“Finding the exact truth became both of our goals.  However, both the Archbishop and Jeralt gave him a number a false and conflicting stories, that he could not possibly understand his own life.”

“But you don’t have all the answers?” Gilbert pushed.

“No.  I don’t.  I have a partial understanding.  The Archbishop kept her secrets with her – Jeralt, at least, wrote his down and left them for the professor.  For Byleth.”

“He told me about that journal,” Dimitri confirmed disinterestedly.

“It won’t have everything – Jeralt didn’t know everything.  It is one perspective, but if Byleth told you the journal existed, he would not have minded you reading it.”

“That’s what he said,” Dimitri remained impassive.

“I have no objections, if that was a wish of his.  However, I will probably have to hide that journal away at some point.  Our enemies already know too much, and I cannot allow sensitive information like that to fall into their hands.”

“Go ahead.  I’ve heard enough,” Dimitri walked away from them toward the cathedral, with Dedue following behind.

“Gilbert,” Seteth inquired, “What is your take on his mental state?”

“Troubling.  I will keep an eye on him.”

Seteth shook his head, “Things just took a turn for the worst; however, we must carry on.”

“That’s an understatement . . . What will you do?”

“With the students searching the cathedral and the infirmary still busy, I doubt that they would be so brazen to attempt a body snatching.  I may retrieve that journal.”

“Allow me to join you.  I would like to read Jeralt’s thoughts.”

“To be honest, I am not so sure that I am comfortable with that.  It contains some of his perceptions on Lady Rhea that I am sure you may find distasteful.”

“So, you mean to still withhold information?”

“We can discuss it along the way.  Let’s allow the children time to grieve together.”

*

“Hey!” Felix said with intensified irritation, “So, what did happen?”

“We were told to meet at the second floor,” Ingrid explained, “When all of us gathered, we were told about the attack.  Seteth said you were the one who brought the professor in.”

“Funny,” Felix continued, “You don’t have a scratch on you.  Something smells.  Well?”

“Enough,” Dedue stood between Felix and Dimitri, “We are all upset by what happened.  There is no need to start throwing accusations.”

“I want to agree,” Sylvain rubbed the back of his neck, “But Mercedes and Annette said that you two were together all evening.  Felix is right, though – you don’t look like you were in a fight.”

“We shouldn’t be arguing,” Ashe said, “What if there’s someone still here?”

“Hmph, we’ll get the truth one way or another,” Felix promised.

“You’re right.  For the most part, I wasn’t in that fight.  Not until the end.”

“Oh?  Care to explain yourself?” Felix asked.

“We got into an argument and I left.  You are absolutely right – does that make you happy?  Are you satisfied with that answer?”

“Not in the slightest.  You ‘got into an argument’?  What, he hurt your fragile little ego so you left him to die.  Makes sense,” Felix scoffed.

“I didn’t know there were spies,” The argument sounded weak, even to Dimitri.  What else could he say?

“There are always spies, you dolt!” Felix shouted, “How the hell did you of all people forget that!?  You are incredibly selfish, do you know that?  This whole thing could have been avoided if you weren’t so stuck up your own ass!”

“Felix,” Ingrid reached to calm him.

“No!  I am down sugar coating the truth.  One day and he already monumentally screws up.  You never leave someone by themselves.  Do you know what separates this place from the rest of us?  A long bridge – not exactly a great place to be boxed in.”

Dimitri gave him a dead expression.  He knew Felix was right and that there was no defense to what he did.  He was emotional and let his logical side suffocating in the dark.

“Has anyone bothered to tell you about Gronder yet?  Oh, I bet we were all falling over ourselves to not mention that.”

“Okay, c’mon.  Let that one be,” Sylvain even wanted Felix to calm down.

“No.  I won’t.  Who here knows about the spear?  We were all on the same field – we all saw it happen.”

“That’s enough,” Dedue warned.

“No.  Let him speak,” Dimitri ordered.

“You take one look at Edelgard and you just rush toward her, not caring about anything around you.  You distracted him.  You caused him to stop paying attention to the approaching alliance.  He got impaled watching you run away from the rest of us.  This. Was. All. You.”

“Okay, you’ve had your say,” Sylvain sighed, “there’s nothing any of us can do about it now.”

“What was the argument about?” Felix questioned, “What was so important that you just had to go?”

More tension grew each second Dimitri did not respond.  It all seemed so stupid now, but Felix and the others deserved to know . . .

“I learned that he had plans to leave Fódlan and meant to never be found again.”

“Awesome,” Felix commented, “Right.  Leaving Fódlan doesn’t sound like a half bad idea.”

He pushed passed Dedue and Dimitri, purposefully slamming into the prince.  Sylvain shook his head, “You know, he just kind of disproved himself.  What do we do when we’re angry?  We tend to walk away.  I’m going to go make sure he doesn’t do anything rash – for what it’s worth, Dimitri, learning someone might leave without a trace is worth getting upset over.” 

Sylvain left the cathedral as well, leaving Dedue, Dimitri, Ashe, and Ingrid.

“That’s so strange,” Ingrid folded her arms, “That doesn’t sound like something the professor would do.  Is there any context to that?”

“It . . . it sounded more like his father’s idea,” Dimitri remembered.

“They were very close,” Ashe nodded, “If it was back when his father still lived, I could see them agreeing to something like that.  They were accustomed to a life of travel and maybe wanted to journey beyond the borders?”

“He was a fill-in professor,” Ingrid added, “Maybe neither of them planned to stick around for an additional year?”

“That could be,” Ashe agreed, but Dimitri did not feel much comfort in what they were saying.

“Still,” Ingrid continued, “There’s been many times where I have stepped away due to disagreements.  Sylvain is right about that.”

“Hmm,” Dimitri grunted.

“I think we should discuss this another time,” Dedue noticed the withdrawal on Dimitri’s face.

“You two should head on back,” Dimitri showed a hint of his compassionate side, but overall remained flat, “It’s possible there are still infiltrators, but they won’t show themselves until we’re vulnerable.”

“And what about you?” Ashe asked.

“I hope they try to attack me – I would very much like it if they tried.”

“Easy,” Ingrid shook her head, “I know it’s hard, but you can’t lose yourself again.”

“I will do what I can.”

“We will stay with you and carry that emotional burden,” Ingrid smiled, hoping to encourage, “You are not in this alone.”

“This is not the life I ever wanted,” Dimitri expressed, but moved away from that notion, “You should pay your respects soon.  I doubt there will be much more time before he becomes just another grave.”

Ashe and Ingrid paused uncertain what to do next.

“Go,” Dimitri said more forcefully.

“We should go with them,” Dedue suggested, “Pay our respects and then try to rest.”

“Oh Dedue,” Dimitri said with mock glee, “I will never sleep again.”

He heard the scream throughout the entire conversation.  He doubted the scream would ever stop.  He could only imagine what closing his eye would do.

“You will sleep.  You have to,” Dedue countered, but Dimitri ignored him and ushered them all away.  In the opening between the gate and the chapel, Dimitri stopped Dedue to talk to him.  The other two left the cathedral, feeling unnerved.

The night’s surprises did not end there – Flayn approached the bridge with her ruffled sleeves saturated in blood.  In between her fingers, she held with a similarly soaked arrow, still fully intact.

“Flayn?” Ingrid ran up to her with Ashe following behind, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” She seemed in a state of shock, too, “Have you seen brother?”

“Not in a few minutes,” Ingrid replied, “Are you hurt?”

“It’s not my blood,” Her eyes were glossy.

“Then what happened?” Ashe asked gently.  Flayn jumped, startled at his voice.

“I’m sorry,” He said, “I thought you saw me.”

Seteth rushed to Flayn once he and Gilbert returned with Jeralt’s journal.

“Flayn?  Please, please tell me you’re okay!”

“I am fine.  Brother, I – “ She stammered, giving Gilbert time to catch up.  She offered Seteth the arrow in her hand, “This arrow came from the professor.  It’s what struck him – his heart.”

“Flayn, I don’t – you dug it out?” Seteth held her hand and took the arrow from her.

“She told me about it,” Flayn met Seteth’s gaze.

“Who?” Seteth asked, “Manuela?  Mercedes?”

“No.  I had never seen her before, brother.  She whispered to me what to do to make him breathe again.”

“So, he is well again?” Seteth prayed for a good answer.

Flayn sniffled, “Once I pulled this arrow out, he began to breathe.  But brother, his injuries are . . .” She closed her eyes and failed to suppress tears, “they are worse than mine ever were.”

“I thought you were asleep, Flayn.  You weren’t supposed to see him like this.”

“She woke me up and whispered it to me.  She told me what to do.”

“Where did she go?” Gilbert asked.

“I tried to follow her, but she lost me.  The other healers are caring for his heart wound.  And it is deep, brother – I – it may have been better if I left him the way he was before.”

“Don’t say that,” Seteth assured her, “You did the right thing.  You gave him a chance.”

“A chance, yes,” She cried, “Or undue misery.”

“He is strong.  He can manage a little pain,” Seteth smiled weakly and hugged Flayn tightly.

“What did she look like?” Gilbert questioned again, trying to identify the mystery woman.

“Long, blue hair.  Blue eyes.  Like the professor’s, before the goddess gifted him power.”

“I will see what I can find out.  You said you saw her come this way?”

Flayn nodded, “I thought so.”

“We never saw anyone with long blue hair,” Ashe told Gilbert, “There isn’t anything we can do for the professor, but we can find this woman and thank her for the tip.”

“Or capture her on suspicious behavior.  Ashe.  Ingrid.  Come with me – let’s find our mysterious ‘helper’.”

*

Dimitri halted after Ashe and Ingrid left and pulled Dedue to the side.  They were safely nestled between the two walls and had eyes on all the entrances in case a follow-up attack occurred.

“Are you still hoping to be attacked?” Dedue asked bluntly.

“If it happens, I will gladly end them.  But, no.  That’s not the point.  You heard Seteth.  He wants to take the professor’s body to the Holy Tomb tonight.”

Dedue folded his arms, “I heard.  Will you be up for that task?”

“I don’t have a choice.”

“I think you should rest.  You look pale,” Dedue said with concern. Dimitri chuckled.  Even his laugh sounded off.

“I told you before.  I will not sleep tonight.  Or the next.  Or any of the ones that would follow,” There was a strong piercing gaze from his good eye – an edge that only took form once he fell off the precipice.

Dimitri continued, “You know, I hated the professor for those five years.  ‘He died’ – that is the conclusion everyone came to.  And I hated him for it.  I hated that he couldn’t keep his promise, but I knew that one or both of us would break it eventually.  That’s just how this life is.”

“Your Highness . . . These last five years were not kind to you.”

Dimitri scoffed, “Still not the point.  In those five years, I had to survive on my own.  I accepted that he died in Edelgard’s invasion.  But never once did I dream about him.  I think I know why now.”

Dedue’s forehead creased, identifying where Dimitri’s thought process went.

“I never saw him die.  I was never responsible for his death.  With everything that followed since, I could not linger on it.  Even though I’ve always had strong feelings for him – good or not.  When I was mad at him, my anger amplified.  More so than what should make sense.  But when he smiled or laughed, I never knew such peace existed.”

Dedue closed his eyes.  He figured as much and struggled to find any comforting words.

“I will keep my promise to him, though,” Dimitri clenched his teeth, “I will save my kingdom and help the knights search for the Archbishop.  But I don’t know that I can do much more.  I am just so tired . . .”

“You will find the strength you need to rule the kingdom.  There is no one else who is fit for it.”

“Hmm,” Dimitri forced a smile, “You know, it’s funny.  I’m used to feeling anger or sorrow or any number of negative emotions.  This is the first time I’ve felt absolutely nothing.”

“I think we should return.  Even if you think you won’t sleep, you need to sit down and get something to drink.  Your Highness, please understand that none of this is your fault.”

“Don’t lie to me.  I might as well have killed him myself.  I left him to the wolves.”

Dimitri left the area and walked along the bridge.  Seteth cradled a despondent Flayn, who had her own clothes drenched in blood.

“What happened?” Dimitri asked.

“Oh, you’re still here,” Seteth stood up and helped Flayn to her feet, “You just missed them.  Gilbert, Ashe, and Ingrid all went in search of a woman.”

“What woman?”

“Flayn says she helped identify a way to revive Byleth.  There isn’t a healer in our ranks that matches her description, though, and Gilbert found it suspicious.  She had long blue hair and blue eyes, though none of us saw her pass this way.”

“Then he’s alive?” Dimitri asked, but the description of the woman matched the strange eavesdropper from the graveyard, “Blue hair and eyes?”

“Barely alive,” Seteth corrected, “It’s too soon to know if he can be saved, but Flayn said he drew breath.  Whatever happens now is the will of the Goddess.”

Dimitri felt his own heart beating rapidly.  A betraying feeling of hope basked over him and he prayed to her that Byleth’s life would be spared.

“I will go search, too,” Dimitri said, “Excuse me.  Dedue, help Seteth take Flayn somewhere safe.”

“Alright,” Dedue said, “. . . You aren’t going to visit the professor?”

“I’d just get in the way,” He said, sprinting to the graveyard.  He had a feeling he would find the ‘mysterious woman’ there.

Chapter Text

Melodic Whispers

Standing at the base of the stairs, Dimitri heard a soft humming near the Eisner plot.  He approached her, saying, “I knew that I would find you here.”

“Did you now?” The blue-haired woman chuckled while crafting a crown out of flowers, “How ever could you have known?”

Dimitri was hardly in the mood for games, “You told Flayn how to revive the profess – Byleth.  How did you know what would work?”

 She started shredding the crown and turned to talk to him, “So now you know his name . . .”

“Something tells me you knew it all along.  But I’m more curious about what you told Flayn.”

“There wasn’t much to tell.  I witnessed the attack.  I knew that his mortality clung to that arrow.”

Dimitri shook his head, “You were talking to me when it happened.  If I didn’t make it in time, you sure didn’t – unless you claim to be in multiple places at once.  So cut the act and tell me what you know.”

“I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you.”

“I doubt that.”

“You should go to Byleth.”

“I plan on it.  You should come with me,” Dimitri extended his hand.

 “Probably best that I don’t,” she adamantly refused.

“A knight and a few of my friends are looking for you.”

“They mean to question me, yes.  I don’t believe that’s a good idea.”

Dimitri crossed his arms, “You have to admit that there’s good reason for suspicion.  You play the part of an innocent well-meaning woman exceptionally, but you just seem to know too much.”

“Since when is having knowledge a sin?” She contested, “I simply wanted to allow those who could defy destiny a chance to intervene.  Whether fate has changed or not will be determined soon.”

“Who are you?” Dimitri asked.

“I am your ally.  I do not want the child, Byleth, to die.  Go to him.  And after, sleep.  You will need it.”

“Sleep is an impossibility.”

She dropped the tattered crown and clenched a fistful of its shavings.  “I already know about your insomnia and your inner demons,” she blew the fragments of buds into Dimitri’s face as he took a breath.  He snorted and coughed instantly, inhaling the bulk of it.

He grunted at her as he cleared his throat, “What was that for?”

But his words echoed back in the empty space.  The woman had already vanished along with the shorn flower crown.  Who was she?  Where did she go?  How did she keep slipping away without a trace?

After Dimitri sneezed away the last of the invasion, he felt a sapping of his energy.  He yawned despite the circumstances and physically desired nothing but sleep.

‘Professor,’ he thought while his body lagged.  He hurried back as fast as his burdensome body would permit. 

A roaring crash alarmed Dimitri, causing his heart to jump.  Dark clouds rolled in, covering the moon and stars, leaving only flickers of lightening to guide Dimitri’s path.

‘Right. Rain.’ He remembered.

Thick drops assaulted him just as quickly as the warning blitz.  He took shelter in the knight’s hall and sat on the couch by the fireplace, drying off what little rain managed to tag him.

It pattered on the roof steadily and an encroaching breath of tamed thunder accompanied it.  It whined at a low vibration that gradually built momentum, taking its time to culminate.  The fire crackled happily alongside the weather, lulling Dimitri into a false sense of security.

‘I have to see him first,’ he reminded himself, trying to keep his eye open, ‘I have to – ”

*

For some reason, Dimitri stood on the bridge where he found the professor – found Byleth.  Balking over the location, he looked out to the horizons to ease his mind.  The stony riverbed and the monetary structures framed a strangely clear starry sky.

“I never thought about the view here much.  Can’t say I care for it, considering,” Byleth said, standing next to Dimitri.

“Professor?” Dimitri stepped back away from him questioningly, “How are you here?”

“I’m not sure.”

Dimitri looked him over, feeling his skin rumple with goosebumps, “Am I dreaming again?”

Byleth nodded, “That’s as far as I can figure.”

Dimitri knew better than to trust apparitions, “What happens now?”

“I’ve been thinking about that.  I honestly don’t think I have much time left.”

“Until what?” Dimitri asked, feeling a knot swell in his gut.

“Until I either fall unconscious indefinitely.  Or die,” He explained bluntly, “Probably a mixture of the two.”

Dimitri, unable to process what was happening, examined the professor closer.  He could not see anything wrong with whom he spoke.  The antagonistic nature of the nightmare shade had yet to creep forth from this Byleth, though Dimitri hesitated to accept him as real. The professor appeared seemingly fine and without injury, which did little to appease Dimitri’s skepticism.

“I swear, if you’re just another ghost here to taunt me,” Dimitri bitterly trailed off.

Byleth leaned forward on the parapet, arms overlapping on the stone, and gazed outward, “If I were a ghost, don’t you think I’d have better things to do than haunt you?”

“You’re saying you’re not a ghost?”

“Not yet, at least.  Give it about ten more minutes.”

Dimitri winced, “You’re incredibly calm for someone supposedly facing death . . . though that’s actually the most credible part about whatever this is.”

Byleth laughed, “What do you think I am, exactly?”

After a few moments of cautious deliberation, Dimitri admitted, “A hallucination.”

“So, are you in my head or am I in yours?” Byleth joked.

“Please don’t,” Dimitri pleaded as his sanity began to collapse.

“Sorry,” Byleth stood tall then sat on the ledge, facing Dimitri with softening eyes, “I’ll behave.”

Part of Dimitri started to acknowledge Byleth as an actuality but struggled with what that meant.  Byleth looked at him with the same peaceful adoration as earlier, before they fought and before he was attacked.  There was a chance that this Byleth was genuine. This might have been the last chance he had to speak with the professor.

“This is my fault,” Dimitri dropped his guard.

“No.  It’s not.”

“I left you,” Dimitri recoiled, “And I can never take that back.  Do you know how that feels?”

“How many times have I found someone praying alone?  More often than I would like – but before tonight, that area was safe.  As unfortunate as this night has played out, you have to let go and move on.  The ones responsible are probably still be lurking around.”

“I can’t!  Even if I wanted to let go or move on, I can’t just silence it.  I’ll see your body picked over by the vultures until it drives me mad!  I will hear you screaming, waking or sleeping.  I can’t escape it!  . . . So, if you die tonight, then I will too.”

“No.  You will not.  You will continue to live.”

“Only if you do,” Dimitri went emotionless.  Calm.  The clock was ticking and Byleth feared Dimitri would do something stupid if he couldn’t convince him otherwise. 

Byleth hopped from his low perch and opened his arms, “Come here.”

Dimitri looked at the professor, to his outstretched arms and felt his face pulling down.  Byleth worried he might start crying.   

“Why?” Dimitri simply asked, though the single word weighed with multiple meanings.  ‘Why are you asking for a hug?’; ‘Why are you willing to comfort me?’; ‘Why do you still want anything to do with me?’; ‘Why don’t you hate me?’;  But that single word was all Dimitri could muster.

“Just come here,” Byleth beckoned.  Dimitri gave in – in truth, he wanted it more than he felt he deserved – and wrapped his own arms around Byleth.  He laid his chin on Byleth’s head and relaxed as the professor embraced him.

“I’ll be disappointed if you try to follow me into death.” Byleth said, “I need you to remember everyone else who is relying on you.  I will be okay.”  Dimitri did not answer, but Byleth knew he listened. Dimitri squeezed him harder, afraid to let go.    

“I am not the one you need to worry about,” Byleth reiterated, “Try to find happiness.  You have friends who want you to succeed.”

Dimitri’s stomach turned uneasily in effect to rising emotions.  The pressure built up in his restless heart, swallowing his voice.  He could not give a proper response. 

A cool breeze nipped at them while Byleth considered his next words carefully.  Words alone could not correct this – but the wrong ones could throw everything Dimitri achieved into ruin.

“I have no intention on dying without a fight.  Like before, it might take some time for my wounds to completely heal.  I need you to stay strong if that happens.”

“Like before?” Dimitri questioned with a cracked voice.  He pushed back from Byleth and looked at him.

Byleth nodded, “Yes.  Five years, give or take.  I don’t want it to take that long this time around.”

Dimitri’s face contorted.  A crucial piece of information came into place, but with it more questions, “I thought Gilbert said your whereabouts were unknown for five years.”

“Is that what he told you?” Byleth seemed surprised, “I thought I explained what happened . . . perhaps he didn’t believe me, after all.”

“Why didn’t he just say that?” Dimitri’s anger flared a moment, “What happened in those five years you were gone?”

“Nothing,” Byleth looked away, “I was unconscious during all of it.”

“. . . Unconscious . . .”

“Maybe dead.  I’m not sure.  I remember falling and hitting my head on some rocks.  I woke up, drenched, on the riverbed just outside the town.”

“Unbelievable,” Dimitri scowled.

“It does seem unlikely,” Byleth outwardly regretted, “I wish I could have been there for you.  I am sorry.  I don’t want to lose any more years, but I’m not sure I have a choice now, either.”

“No, you misunderstand.  Even if he did not believe you, he should at least have told me your account of things.  I should have been given the chance to determine whether or not I believe you.”

“. . .And?”

“I do,” Dimitri smiled weakly, “But you’re right.  Five years without you was rough.  I don’t want to imagine what the rest of my life would be like.  Let alone live it.”

“I am not sure what I can do.  I am somewhat aware of my injuries and know at least two of them alone would be life ending.”

Dimitri grimaced, recalling the endless blood.

“Now, I also know that, unlike last time, I have the help of the infirmary.  I just need enough energy to recharge.  It may be enough.”

“What are you planning?”

 “If I can,” Byleth stepped back and opened his palm to the open space before him. A golden circle appeared before them.  Patterns and words encapsulated it, but none that Dimitri had ever seen before.

“What is that?” Dimitri asked.  It was divine in nature, he recognized that much.

“Ugh,” The professor closed his eyes and the circle began to shimmer in and out of existence.  “It’s the pulse I need to survive.  But it’s weak.  I am weak.  I am not strong enough to maintain it.”

Byleth allowed the circle to dispel.  Dimitri still didn’t know what it was or how Byleth planned to use it, “Is it a healing spell?  Will you will die without it?”

“Not necessarily, no.  I was hoping for . . . Anyway, I have no choice but to try.  Or, maybe I am meant to let fate take its course.  Perhaps it is destiny that marks this night.”

“Wait, no!  Don’t say that!” Dimitri blurted out, “If you have a way to live, then you must do it!”

“Even if I successfully manage it, I’m afraid it would not change much.  Especially if I can’t . . . hmm.”  Byleth fumbled on how to explain the Divine Pulse.  “Let me put some more thought into this.  I only have a few options and none of them guarantee the results we’re looking for.”

“Can you explain what your plan is?  Maybe I can help,” Dimitri suggested.  Byleth avoided telling anyone about the Goddess’ power, for fear of what that knowledge might bring.  Still, he wanted to open up to someone about it – maybe Dimitri could handle it.

“Suppose I am successful in turning back the hands of time.  What then?  This will play out the exact same way.”

“Turn back the hands of – is that what that is?”

“. . . Yes.”

Again, Dimitri was perplexed by how many questions sprung to mind.  The first one he asked, however, was, “Could you have saved Rodrigue?”

Byleth figured Dimitri might asked that.  He answered, “No.  I overused my abilities in Gronder.  I haven’t been able to summon it since.  It will too late to turn back now for Rodrigue, unfortunately.  I can normally do a few hours.  As I am now, probably an hour at most.” 

“An hour,” Dimitri contemplated it, seemingly accepting Byleth’s explanation.  “That puts you right back in battle . . .”

“Which is why I’m hesitant.  I fear that I would just relive this.  And I’d rather not, if it’s all going to end the same.”

“If I can protect you then you won’t have those injuries,” Dimitri followed the thought path surprisingly well. 

“You will likely not remember this conversation.  For you and everyone else, this entire branch will be undone and forgotten.” 

“I see.  But you’ll remember it?  You’ve done this many times before, haven’t you?” Dimitri observed, “Obviously, there is a good reason to try it.”

“Without a reason to act differently, though, you will follow the same path.  The only merit to this plan is that I will know where the lurkers are.  It is a small boon; one that may not be enough.”

“Then I’d be doomed to repeat that same mistake,” Dimitri shamefully admitted.

“That’s just how it goes.” Byleth downplayed it with a shrug. “Normally, a mistake like this could easily be rectified, but I think that trying a rewind would only result in wasted effort.  And I have to be careful how I use my energy right now.”

“If you think that is the better course.” Dimitri had no idea himself, “But, what do you think will happen now?”

Byleth sat back on the parapet and placed clasped hands on his lap, “My hope is with proper healing I can make it through.  It might just take longer than I want it to.”

“I don’t think we can afford another five years without you,” Dimitri said.

“I know,” Byleth closed his eyes, “I can’t summon the full circle, at any rate.  I will make my decision when the pulse has a charge.”

“How much longer do you need?”

“I am not sure,” Byleth folded his arms with eyes still resting.

“Cold?” Dimitri asked.

“Tired.” He said softly.

Dimitri placed his hands over Byleth’s, and asked, “Can I do anything for you?”

Byleth opened his eyes slightly and smiled, “The tomb where Edelgard first attacked us has a throne.  You remember it, right?”

“The Holy Tomb?” Dimitri nodded.

“Yes.  Take me there.  I might be able . . . to . . .”  Byleth’s head bobbed after his words trailed off.  Dimitri held Byleth’s head up with one hand while still holding hands with the other.  Byleth slipped one hand out and lightly caressed Dimitri’s face.

“We’re close now.” Byleth chuckled, “If there’s anything you want to tell me, do so now.”

“I . . .” Dimitri sighed, “I just don’t want to lose you.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

  Dimitri frowned, “I don’t understand why you give me a passing thought.”

“Stop underplaying your importance to me.  You and I have been through too much for you to hold on to those sentiments.”

“It’s not a sentiment if it’s true.” Dimitri argued and pulled away. “You’re only dying because I abandoned you.”

Byleth exhaled, “I don’t blame you for this.”

“I can’t see how it’s not my fault.  In all honesty, you should hate me.”

“I don’t.  I’ve been foolishly in love with you for a long time. I doubt it’s possible for me to ever hate you.”

Dimitri forcefully rubbed his face, applying the most pressure over his eyes.  With his face still hidden away, Dimitri said, “I will find a way.”

Byleth gently took Dimitri’s hands and lowered them, then reassured, “No, you won’t.”  Byleth pulled Dimitri into another embrace.

“Is it okay to return these feelings?” Dimitri wondered, feeling overwhelmed by the usually emotionally level professor.

Byleth looked up at him with a smile, “I have no objections.”

“Hah . . . Of course you don’t,” Dimitri slowly cupped Byleth’s face, internally struggling with whether or not he should.  Even though Dimitri often misunderstood Byleth, especially in the beginning, he always found Byleth to have an elegance to him.  A certain captivating beauty.

Dimitri leaned forward and touched foreheads.  Byleth enfolded his hands around Dimitri’s wrists and pressed his body into Dimitri’s.  It was unclear who initiated it, but the pair locked into a bittersweet kiss, knowing time ran short.

When Dimitri opened his eye, he stared at a fire.  The rain poured ruthlessly overhead and he remembered where he was.  The Knight’s hall.  He took shelter here at the start of the storm – but what happened to Byleth?  That couldn’t have been just a dream . . . right?

He pushed himself off the couch and went to the double doors.  The concrete and earth drowned in the wrath of the sky, but Dimitri went out into the elements.  With renewed energy, he set out to Byleth.