After so long — after everything — it still came down to this.
Ichor pooled around the body of the Hegemon, the cracked, warped thing that might, in another world, have been Dimitri's sister. He yanked the dagger from his shoulder with a grunt, and tossed it into the mirror-dark liquid. Oily tendrils slid up its blade as if hungry for Dimitri's blood. He watched, nauseated, while the professor pressed a palmful of light to his wound.
How had he once believed Edelgard’s death would silence his ghosts? They clamored louder than ever. Some snarled at him for daring to offer their enemy quarter; some shrieked laughter at his naiveté. Others berated him for his failure — surely if he'd tried harder, fought better, he could have captured the Emperor alive —
The professor tapped Dimitri’s elbow. When he shook off his headache and looked down, they offered their hand.
Dimitri took it, smiling past the chaos, the grief, and the trembling post-battle fatigue, and let Byleth pull him from the throne room.
The remaining soldiers lay dead or dying. Ingrid, Sylvain and Felix corralled those willing to surrender in a corner of the grand hall. Marianne and Mercedes administered final rites to the casualties.
“Your Highness — !"
Dedue leapt to seize Dimitri’s shoulders, shedding Ashe and Annette like raindrops as he searched for injuries. His gaze pinned on the blood drying around the crack in Dimitri’s armor. “I’m fine,” Dimitri said, nudging him back with a weary smile. “It’s been healed.”
“So … the Emperor?” Annette asked. She crept around Dedue’s side, eyeing the open door. Ashe, bolder, slipped straight past Dimitri and into the throne room — and bolted back out into Annette’s arms with a strangled scream. Dedue started, but while he wavered towards his friends, he would not loose his grip on Dimitri’s shoulders.
“She’s dead,” Dimitri explained, too sick and exhausted to say more. He frowned at Dedue’s worried look, at the professor’s stare. “I’m fine. She’s dead. We're both — you're unharmed?" Dedue nodded. “Then it’s done.”
"One of us should look at you," Marianne said, appearing at Dimitri's side silent as a ghost. He flinched — his boot skidded on the tile, and he pitched sideways. His ears rang, the world at once grey and glaring in colors he couldn't name.
Dedue caught him. "Your Highness," he said, the worry plain in his voice.
The professor reached for Dimitri’s elbow. He jerked it away and swayed in the opposite direction, saved as Marianne braced her shoulder against his side. Fueled by a flare of petty spite, Dimitri forced his feet back into line. "I'm fine," he whined.
"Your Highness — "
"Don't 'your Highness' me." Dimitri's tongue felt wrong, too thick in his mouth. His speech slurred around someone else's teeth. He tipped forward and planted his hands on Dedue's chest, struggling to focus on his sea-grey eyes. "It's done. You p-promised me — an answer — "
"Please sit down." Marianne's voice wormed in at Dimitri's edges. He paid her no mind, too focused on dredging up this thing he half-remembered through the ringing haze and the pulsing grey glare in his one good eye. His head sagged against Dedue's breastplate, cold steel, unyielding to the fire beneath Dimitri's skin.
"Marry me," he said.
His knees hit the floor. He collapsed in a clatter of bones, all the parts of him unbound. He retched, fire boiling from his guts as darkness welled up like oil to drown him. Someone scooped him up and kept him from shattering. One last voice followed him down, cry of a bird to its dying mate —
A rocky outcrop overlooked the low-lying road to Enbarr. Dedue perched atop it, silhouetted against the yellows and oranges of the darkening sunset. Dimitri climbed up to join him, frowning at the half-finished plate on his friend's lap.
"You're always pestering me to eat. You'll need your strength tomorrow."
Dedue huffed. "I suppose I should take my own advice. I can put up with rations a little while longer. For your sake."
Dimitri giggled at Dedue's put-upon dryness, and nudged his elbow. "Once we have real meals again, I'll give you a feast to make up for it."
They sank into a comfortable silence as Dedue chewed through the rest of his meal. By the time he'd finished, the sky to the west burned a deep crimson, and the first stars emerged from the brilliant deepening blue overhead. The rock beneath them remained warm as the air cooled. Their knees rested against each other. Neither of them moved away.
"Did you need something from me?" Dedue asked at last.
"Not exactly." Dimitri sighed. "In case I don't get the chance to say it tomorrow … happy birthday."
"I always remember."
Nervousness fluttered in Dimitri's chest. He drummed his fingers against his knee. " … would you … ah … share my tent tonight?"
Dedue gave Dimitri an unreadable look, but he soon softened. "I would like that."
They had shared bedding more than a few times on the long march from Fhirdiad to Enbarr. Never for any lustful purpose, despite the cruder rumors circling among the infantry — simply for the comfort of sleeping beside a trusted friend. To reassure each other when ghosts and demons tormented their rest.
"I have a question for you," Dimitri said. His gut twisted, but he couldn't put it off any longer. Not with the possibility that this would be their last night together.
"If I asked you to marry me, would you accept?"
Dedue went very still. Dimitri's pulse thundered at the back of his throat.
"Ask me again when this is done," he said. "To make such a promise only to lose you — it would break my heart."
That wasn't a 'no'.
He clawed through tar until the world focused, blinking gummy eyes clear of crusted debris. Flickering candlelight filtered past his lashes, threatening to crack his skull. He groaned and flopped his head to the side to escape it. The migraine redoubled.
Pain meant he couldn't be dead. Shouldn't the Goddess have harsher torments for the corrupt than a battering hangover? A deep red canopy hung above his head, and he lay on a softer cushion than any infirmary cot, which meant he must have been moved to a proper bed … moved from where? His memories smeared through color and sound, lacking chronology or logic.
His bones ached. His skin squeezed his flesh like an overripe fruit; needles of lightning crackled in his joints, and a foul, sticky fuzz lined the inside of his mouth. He swallowed against the worst of the throbbing, drew a breath, and levered himself up onto his elbows.
Something wet popped in his chest. Gray snow clouded his eye. A star exploded at the base of his spine, sending white-and-purple shards streaking through his torso. Dimitri grit his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut until he could breathe. Suffering Saints, what had knocked him down so badly? A bout of plague? He didn't remember —
The haze cleared from his eye. All other thoughts ground to a halt.
A familiar figure slumped next to the bed, reclining in an armchair too small for his frame. Dedue's head tipped sideways against his shoulder, and his silver hair fell loose over his face. Ghoulish nightmares lurched through Dimitri's mind's eye until he saw Dedue's crossed arms rise and fall.
"D — " A bubble of mucus burst in Dimitri's throat. His voice caught as if on a hook, strangled to a hoarse whisper, and he collapsed into a bout of coughing. Frustrated, he leaned over the edge of the bed, meaning to nudge Dedue's knee.
His weakened shoulder gave way with a lightning-strike of pain, and the gesture became more of a swat. The room wrenched in a surge of vertigo before Dedue caught him by the elbows, saving him from collapsing onto the floor like a loose pile of flour. "Saints," Dimitri croaked, as Dedue helped him back onto the bed. "'m s'rry — "
Dedue seized his face in both hands, kissed his forehead, and sobbed, choked and nearly silent. “The fever’s broken,” he mumbled. Relief shattered his voice. A bolt of alarm shot through the fog in Dimitri’s skull.
“Dedue? What’s — what’s wrong?”
With his thumb, Dedue smoothed the sweat-sticky hair back from Dimitri’s good eye. A rare smile cracked his face, bitter with tear-stained exhaustion. He pressed his forehead to Dimitri’s. “Nothing at all, your Highness. You were poisoned — it is alright now. You will be alright.”
Poison … memory bubbled up as if through thick mud, and brought with it a dull ache in Dimitri's gut. "El’s dead," he said.
“The body burned, and the ashes scattered.”
Dimitri sighed (coughed, with a wet spasm in his ribs). “I wish it hadn’t come to that.”
Dedue settled back into his seat. His expression darkened. “For your sake, I think it a shame, but I cannot forgive what she did to you.”
“I s-suppose. We could hardly have let her live. Still, a … proper trial … ”
Saints, his head hurt too badly for this. Besides, Dedue had gone still and quiet as granite, which showed his feelings on the subject.
"How long was I … ?"
"Seven days," Dedue said. His clipped speech echoed with exhaustion. His eyes were bloodshot, bruised with sleeplessness and neglect; his hair hung unbound against the side of his face, limp and beginning to tangle. It hadn't been long enough to show, but Dimitri would wager he'd skipped meals, as well.
"Have you been here all this time? Dedue — "
"You were dying."
Dedue's voice quivered as he strained to keep it level. Dimitri snapped his mouth shut.
"For seven days, Fódlan's most skilled healers barely kept you alive. I could do nothing but — prepare to mourn you." Dedue's shoulders bunched and his fists clenched, trembling with all that he strove to contain. “So forgive me,” he muttered at last. His voice broke, and with it Dimitri's heart. “Forgive me this.”
Saints damn the weakness that kept Dimitri from reaching out, from taking Dedue's hand or his shoulder to offer comfort. His fingers flexed uselessly atop the covers. “There's nothing to forgive. I only … I don’t wish for you to suffer on my behalf.”
A quiet sob. “I could not let you die alone.”
What could Dimitri say? What was there to say? “I’m … sorry.”
Dedue reached for Dimitri’s hand. He faltered, but Dimitri had the strength to meet him halfway and twine their fingers together.
“You are alright now,” Dedue said softly, staring at their linked hands. “Do not apologize for that.”
He ran his thumb over Dimitri’s. The delicate touch crackled up Dimitri’s arm; he shivered, sighed, let his head sink back and his eyelids flutter.
“B-before we left,” Dimitri rasped. “I asked you … ”
Dedue released Dimitri's hand, unmoved by Dimitri’s weak grab for his wrist and pleading whine. Gentle as the drift of continents, he pushed Dimitri back onto the pillows. "The doctors should know your condition has changed."
“Wait — ”
“Rest,” Dedue said. “I’ll return as soon as I can.”
“P — promise.”
Dedue leaned over him, swept his hair aside, and kissed his forehead. Another shiver prickled down Dimitri’s spine. “I promise.”
" … alright."
Dimitri's head swam. It was a blessed relief to shut his eyes against the light. Dedue’s brisk footsteps moved from the bed. A door opened, then clicked softly shut again.
For a time, there was quiet.
Like a long nap under dappled shade — not something Dimitri had indulged in for, Saints, years — he drifted. For once, there were no demands on his attention, no guilt to drive him from his bed and back to work. Even the steady thump of his headache grew almost soothing — it drove away the muttering voices. Nothing occupied his mind but blessed silence. Shards of memory drifted into place like leaves to the forest floor, without any effort on his part.
Then the door burst open. His peace shattered into a flurry of movement. Mercedes and Marianne would have been a welcome sight had Dimitri had any less of a headache. Annette’s presence baffled him, while Lysithea’s set him on edge — neither specialized in healing magic, and last he recalled Lysithea had only just surrendered from the Empire’s forces. Even at his best, Dimitri didn’t understand enough of the subject to comprehend the theories they tossed at each other. All the while, Mercedes and Marianne subjected him to the world’s gentlest manhandling, double-checking his vitals and ensuring he wasn’t about to collapse back onto the brink of death.
Dimitri managed to squeeze in a few questions, mostly confirming what he’d already pieced together of his memories, but by the time he could get a word in edgeways he felt about ready to scream. Overlapping voices, so many people touching and hovering, the background noise of his worst moments. His skin crawled with nausea and a rising panic, but the clamor in his head shattered any efforts to form a sentence.
Thank the Goddess for Marianne. She noticed when Dimitri broke into a cold sweat, saw him flinch at skin contact and recoil against the headboard, and met his trapped-animal fear with calm understanding. “You seem stable,” she said, with a gentle steel that cut through the fog of terror. She lifted her chin, speaking to the room. “I believe rest is the best treatment we can prescribe for now.”
Mercedes caught her drift. “Oh, I agree. Annie, why don’t we talk theory outside?”
“Please,” Dimitri croaked.
“Oh — oh, yeah. Sorry, your Highness.” Annette gave a sheepish little wave that Dimitri was too sick and exhausted to acknowledge. “C’mon, Lys.”
“Lysithea,” Lysithea grumbled, but she followed Annette and Mercedes out of the room. Marianne lingered on the threshold, last to leave — less following and more herding, watching the others go before she turned back towards Dimitri.
“Sleep well,” she said, quiet as a dove, and drew the door closed.
It settled into its frame with an explosive click, but, thank the Goddess, it left the room quiet. Dimitri sank back into cool freshwater silence. His ears rang, and his head ached, and for all the fever had broken, hot chills pricked at the inside of his skin. His body craved warmth and muffled sensation, so he drew the covers up over his nose, curled up on his side, and wrapped his arms around himself.
Better this than huddling beneath the roots of a toppled tree, feverish and freezing, dirt for a bed and leaf-litter for a blanket. Better this than collapsing onto cobblestone in a pool of his own bile and someone else’s blood.
Saints, he hated being sick.
He cracked his eye open when the door creaked, ready to hiss at whoever had disturbed his meager peace — and quieted at the shape of the shadow on the threshold. The worried itch drowned in a wash of relief as Dedue resumed his seat at the bedside.
Dimitri wormed a hand out from under the covers. Dedue took it, his palm warm and dry against Dimitri's clammy cold sweat. Dimitri squeezed. Dedue squeezed back.
“Marry me,” Dimitri croaked.
"We'll talk when you've rested," Dedue said. That’s not an answer, Dimitri almost complained, but Dedue brushed a lock of hair back from his nose and tucked it behind his ear, and the thought dissolved in gentle fog. “I am here.”
He meant, All will be well.
He meant, We are safe.
He meant, Sleep.
His hand dangled into cold, empty air. The realization jolted him awake, and he kicked off the blankets and scrambled off the bed before remembering that his body was currently in full rebellion. His knees buckled, and he collapsed into a tangle of sheets, limbs, and aches.
“Dimitri,” said … not the voice he wanted, but one he recognized. His eyes skated over the professor's dark-robed silhouette, searching — the room had too much red, red sheets, red walls, red-cushioned chair and a writing desk of red wood. It suited Enbarr, he supposed, but it reeked of blood — why was he in Enbarr? Because El was dead. El was dead, and …
"Where is he?" he croaked, teetering on the edge of panic. "What did you — ?"
"Dedue is asleep," the professor said. The sky outside the room's window was pitch black — a proper time for sleeping. Dimitri sagged onto the floor.
"Asleep," he echoed.
"He's catching up on his own rest. He needs it."
Rest. Dedue was safe, and resting. He'd left Dimitri's bedside to sleep.
Dimitri sighed. His eyes drifted shut. The relief was warm, and the floor was cold. Maybe he'd sleep down here.
"You can't sleep down there," said the professor.
Dimitri groaned, but he accepted the professor’s hand up, and their help crawling back onto the bed. He flailed for the covers he’d kicked off before burrowing back into his cocoon, damn what the professor or anyone else might think. His dignity could take a long walk off a short pier; comfort was too precious to give up.
“ … I’m sorry,” said the professor, so quietly Dimitri might have mistaken the words for one of his visions. He cracked his eye open. “I didn’t realize the blade was poisoned. Not until it was too late.”
Dimitri wrinkled his nose. “Not your fault,” he said, muffled by the comforter.
The professor drew a long, quiet breath. “No. I suppose not.”
“ … Dedue's resting,” Dimitri said again, for the comfort of the words.
“Yes,” said the professor. “He’s nearby. We’ve been taking care of him, too.”
The thought settled warmth like eiderdown around Dimitri’s heart. “Good,” he sighed, and buried his nose under the covers.
Safe in that reassurance, he slipped back into sleep.
Hushed voices seeped into the dark. Like blood to a wolf, the sound quickened Dimitri's pulse, and his eye flicked open before he could will it to stop.
Sunlight slapped him across the face. Saints, it wasn't even direct — the square of the window landed somewhere around his legs, but the ambient brightness revived his headache as a revenant thirsty for vengeance. His flinch forced a hiss through his teeth, and the voices fell silent.
The beast recoiled —
— and settled, with a purr that rolled like thunder through the back of Dimitri’s skull.
“How are you feeling?” Marianne asked from somewhere outside Dimitri’s field of vision. He turned his head; his spine popped, and a shock shot down his neck. He ran his tongue over his teeth, which had grown some kind of foul moss, and grimaced.
“Less like a coal for the flames of Hell,” he croaked. “Still bad.”
Marianne hummed. “Could you sit up for me?”
It shouldn’t have been an issue, but if not for Dedue’s steadying hand on his back, he would have collapsed back onto the bed. “Thank you,” he rasped.
“May I?” Marianne asked, one hand paused mid-motion. Dimitri nodded, and she pressed two fingers to his pulse. Her hands were cool and callused, her touch steady; his skin didn’t crawl the way it so often did. Healing magic threaded through his veins like meltwater, and the edge drained off his headache. Whatever Marianne found, she nodded and sat back, hands folded neatly on her lap. “Do you need anything?"
“Nn." Dimitri wrinkled his nose. "Water. Food. Clean my teeth.”
Dedue rose swiftly. "I'll go."
"You don't — "
The door closed. Dimitri stared at the wood, mouth hanging open, then closed his eye and ground his knuckles against his forehead. “I wish he wouldn’t do that.”
“He cares for you,” Marianne said, her brown eyes shadowed. Her soft voice carried an undercurrent Dimitri couldn’t make out. “This week has been … hard. For all of us, but … Dedue has been frantic over you. He’s hardly left your side.”
The thought hit Dimitri like a spear to the gut. "I … oh."
“Speak to him,” said Marianne. In the same breath, she ordered, "Lift up your shirt," a steady command that had Dimitri reaching for the hem of his shirt before he realized he'd moved.
His shoulder twinged as he shrugged the nightshirt over his head. He rolled it with a wince. His fingers found another scar, smaller than one would expect for a wound that had laid him out for a week … not that one more mattered on his ruined torso. Marianne, Cethleann bless her, laid a hand on his back without a flinch, or a frown, or a click of her tongue, though her palm rested on a silvery knot of tissue where several long gouges met in a haphazard criss-cross.
“Take a deep breath, please.”
Glad to be turned away from dark thoughts, Dimitri obliged. Fluid crackled as his lungs bottomed out, but only then — far better than his clouded memory of coughing until his throat bled. Marianne hummed, audibly concerned, but only moved her hand and asked for another breath. Dimitri didn't understand why she needed to hold up a pinprick of magelight before his good eye, or ask him to track her fingertip towards the edges of his field of vision. He could not fathom what she needed with a small vial of his blood, nor what the shifting sigils she held over it meant.
Whatever Marianne meant to test, the answers satisfied her. She sat back and opened her mouth, but closed it when Dimitri shook his head. "Dedue will want to hear," he explained. "There's no need to repeat yourself."
… and that silence would not last them until Dedue got back. Dimitri pulled the nightshirt back over his head, wincing once again at his creaking joints and the tingling twinge that shot down his arm, and cleared his throat. "There must be a washbasin in here … I, ah, think I'll need help to reach it."
His stomach lurched and his legs quivered when Marianne helped him off the bed. Joints, muscles, chest, sinuses, everything hurt like he’d taken a blow from a siege engine — what on earth had happened to him? The worst of his illnesses as a fugitive hadn’t wrecked him so thoroughly. He would never have survived, if they had.
Head still muzzy, he blinked at the washbasin — an empty porcelain bowl — until Marianne took pity on him and twisted a tap. A pipe sputtered, and hot water spilled forth. Dimitri raised his eyebrows. It wasn’t his first encounter with running water, but it was his first with hot water that didn’t smell of sulfur and didn’t run colored with red iron or green copper.
Once he’d washed the sweat from his face and neck and scrubbed the film from his teeth and tongue, he felt more human. He splashed some water through his hair and finger-combed it into a semblance of order, swiped a hand across his mouth, barely resisted the urge to spit (he was in a room, with a floor, not outdoors wading through grass or underbrush), then remembered that the basin would drain and did it anyway. He accepted gratefully the towel Marianne passed him to dry his face.
“You have no idea,” he said fervently, once he’d set the towel back on its rack, “what a relief this is. We have nothing like this in Fhirdiad … there should be something like this in Fhirdiad. There's no excuse for Faerghus to be so behind. They call us northern barbarians, we shouldn't let them be right — "
Marianne covered her mouth, but the gleam in her eyes betrayed her smile. Dimitri huffed.
Marianne lowered her hand. If Dimitri hadn't already braced most of his weight on the basin, her smile would have knocked his legs clean out from under him. "Even now, you're thinking of your home. It’s … admirable."
Maybe he could blame his burning face on the hot water. Probably not. "Oh," he said. “I … um. Tha-thank you.”
Marianne's smile only widened at his stammering. Dimitri coughed and ducked his head.
"I'd … that is, would you … help me back to the bed?"
It struck a deep cathedral gong in the back of his head, a sneering chorus of useless, foolish, begging help to walk six feet? What are you — but his other option was to crawl, and that would mean leaving Marianne to watch him drag himself across the floor like a gray-muzzled dog until Dedue arrived to pick him up like a sack of flour. He may as well accept the help and make it easier on everyone.
He blinked, and realized Marianne had taken hold of his elbow. If she’d noticed his distraction, she gave no sign of it. “Are you ready?” she asked. Dimitri nodded.
He had to concentrate until his head pounded to put one foot before the other. His legs still shook, and he needed Marianne to keep his balance, but they took most of his weight, and he limped back to the bed mostly under his own power. So there, ghosts … though he collapsed onto the bed with his feet still on the floor, and needed a moment to catch his breath before he rolled over and curled up into a shivering ball. Making that statement to the dead might not have been worth it.
Cethleann save him. His skin burned, each hair and scar and wrinkle picked out in agonizing detail, every muscle alight as if pierced by a thousand pins. He flinched when Marianne’s cool hand settled like a brand on the back of his neck, but the pain drained away as if she’d pulled the stopper from an upended vial. Dimitri slumped, head ringing in the sudden quiet.
“Fuck,” he wheezed.
“I can’t do this too often,” Marianne said. “But I’ll see if Manuela knows of any medicine that can take away pain, or at least help you sleep.”
Dimitri groaned into the pillow. He’d tried sleeping draughts before; if they worked, they made him sluggish and groggy, which in turn made him temperamental, and they obliterated even his meager appetite … but if it helped him back to a state where he could walk six feet without crumpling like soggy parchment, he could suffer it. Better than lashing out at fevered shadows while buried in moldering hay at the back of some abandoned barn. Better than screaming curses at well-meaning strangers until his shaking bony limbs gave out.
He lay still, arms wrapped around himself, breathing through his nose with Marianne’s hand resting light on the back of his neck, until the door’s hinges squeaked and his ears pricked up. More importantly — his nose twitched at the smell of, oh, some spiced meat and a pastry shell. He raised his head, blinking as his eye readjusted to the light. “Dedue?”
“Your Highness,” said Dedue, as he nudged the door shut again with his foot.
“We talked about this,” Dimitri complained, but he couldn’t stop his eyes from lighting up at the sight of the plate in Dedue’s hands. “What is that?”
“A meat pie from the kitchens. Chicken, potatoes, rosemary, basil. I thought you’d prefer something you could hold.” The seasonings didn't mean much to Dimitri, but it smelled like it had come from the Goddess's own hands, and he reached for the plate eagerly as Marianne and Dedue helped him sit up again.
… he was hungry. Properly, honestly hungry, not just dizzy or shaky enough to realize he needed to eat.
"Thamf ymf," he said, around a mouthful of chicken and pastry crust. He did prefer food he could eat without fussing with utensils, something he could put in his mouth while doing something else. It almost surprised him that Dedue had thought of that, but of course he had, being as he was the most wonderful man on Earth.
Dimitri swallowed, wiped his mouth on the back of his wrist, and paused long enough to ask Dedue, "'d you make this? You weren't gone that long."
"Ashe did," said Dedue, as he reclaimed his seat by the bed. After a pleased pause he added, " … from a recipe I gave him."
Dimitri took a bite, then grinned, then had to swipe a drip of sauce from his chin. "Knew iph," he said cheerfully. Damn the migraine; anything was worth Dedue's flush and shy, secret smile.
The meal disappeared more quickly than Dimitri would have liked, but by the time he'd cleaned the sauce from his fingers (ignoring Dedue's silent disapproval and Marianne's raised eyebrows) and drained the glass of water Marianne passed to him, he felt better than he had since … likely since before they'd left for Enbarr. Even counting his lingering aches, he felt positively rested … which, all things considered, was probably a bad sign. Maybe he'd neglected his own rest until a week unconscious on the brink of death counted as an improvement. Maybe he'd learn from that.
"So," Dimitri said, "because I assume I'm the last to know, what happened to me?"
Dedue looked at Marianne. "We — we believe," she said, then stopped, straightened her back, and began again. "The poison turned your body against itself. Specifically, it caused your body to reject its own Crest."
"That sounds … bad," Dimitri said. He looked to Dedue, who said nothing. "But I don't understand what it means."
"You've seen a Crestless individual attempt to wield a Relic," Dedue said.
"Oh," said Dimitri.
"Shit," said Dimitri.
"Indeed." Dedue's chilly expression betrayed nothing, but his hands, resting on his thighs, tensed until they trembled.
By the name of the Goddess.
Marianne cleared her throat. Her fingers tangled in her lap, one forefinger tapping on the back of her other hand. “Y-yes. It was serious. But you seem to be doing better! There's no sign of … recurring symptoms, but I would recommend at least a week of rest."
A week? Dimitri felt Dedue's eyes on the back of his head before he opened his mouth. "I didn't say anything," he protested. " … three days?"
"Five," said Dedue.
"Four," Dimitri begged.
"Five days is the least I would recommend," said Marianne. "Um," she added when both men turned to her. "We still don't understand the nature of the poison. You shouldn't strain yourself."
"Five," Dimitri conceded. "But I'll need something to do, or I might catch fire."
"That can be arranged," Dedue said. Dimitri shot him a look, which he returned levelly. He would give Dimitri about half the work he wanted to stay occupied, but that was better than nothing.
Defeated, Dimitri slouched. "Very well."
Marianne smiled, a small, radiant crinkle at the corners of her eyes. "I trust Dedue will keep you in check."
"As you say, Lady von Edmund," Dedue said, stone-faced and dry as tinder. Marianne —
Marianne laughed, a soft thing that sent Dimitri's pulse fluttering. She bowed slightly to Dedue, and more deeply to Dimitri. "Then I leave him in your care, sir Molinaro. Good day, your Highness."
"Y-you too," Dimitri managed, stumbling over his tongue. Marianne smiled at him — Saints — then turned to go. The door closed softly behind her.
Dimitri reached for the glass of water, found it empty, and frowned into the bottom, stalling while he rearranged his thoughts. He'd been herded like a lamb between sheepdogs, he was certain of that. He wasn't certain whether or not he minded. "That was … something," he said.
"Marianne has been tireless in her care of you. Her expertise provided your cure," said Dedue.
"I see." Dimitri’s frown deepened as he set the glass back down. " … I'm sorry."
Dedue gave him a hard look. Dimitri wrinkled his nose.
"Once again, you've all run yourselves ragged taking care of me."
"You did not engineer that poison, and you did not inflict it upon yourself."
Nausea squirmed in Dimitri's gut. "I offered the Emperor quarter."
"The professor told us as much."
"If I hadn't — "
Dedue cut him off. "If you hadn't, you would not be the man I … "
"The man you … ?" Dimitri echoed.
Dedue stared down at his hands, laced carefully over his lap. "I would not mourn the king of Faerghus," he said quietly. "I would not spend a week by the bedside of the king of Faerghus. But for you, Dimitri, I … "
He trailed off again. Dimitri's stomach, already uneasy, constricted.
"I’ll be crowned soon,” he said. “Do you wish to leave? I — you're free to, with my blessing, but I — "
Dedue shook his head. "No. I … I apologize. I am not making myself clear."
Thank the Goddess and all the Saints. Dimitri cracked a wobbly smile. "Take as much time as you need. I'm going nowhere."
The joke was, perhaps, in poor taste. It didn't land. Sweat prickled on the back of Dimitri's neck in the clammy, suffocating silence.
“I have not stayed with you this long because you are a king,” Dedue said at last.
"Well — no," Dimitri said, blinking. "I made you a promise. One I do not intend to break — "
"No," Dedue said, as yielding as granite. His expression darkened like a winter storm, and his voice took on the knife-sharp edge of cracking ice. "No more talk of promises, of debts owed and paid. One moment you beg me to call you 'friend'. The next you speak of duty and obligation, as if I am an entry in a ledger to be scratched out and forgotten.” He pinned Dimitri with a bloodshot, glittering glare. “What am I, your Highness? Am I someone you would share your life with? Or am I a stone around your neck? A burden of guilt to be shed when the time is right?"
“I — ”
Instinct inclined Dimitri to recoil like a kicked dog, whine and show his belly in hurt confusion; temper burned to growl and snap back until they both slunk off to sulk and lick their wounds … but Dedue’s weighty seriousness forced him to stop, to think rather than react.
Reason recognized a familiar exhaustion, the kind of festered pain that met a healer’s touch with teeth. Dimitri settled his nerves, lowered his hackles, and met Dedue’s eyes with an icy stare of his own. “Friend,” he said quietly. “Always my friend. Never a burden. Forgive my own lack of clarity — I want to be a good friend to you. I want to do right by you, as a friend should. I want you to be happy.”
Dedue opened his mouth. After a moment, he closed it again. He drew a sharp breath through his nose, and — crumpled like a glacier split in two. The stiff line of his shoulders broke and bowed. He buried his face in one trembling hand. His other arm wrapped around his chest, nails dug into his shirt. Dimitri reached out — hesitated — then decided he would rather be shaken off than be absent when he was needed, and settled his hand on Dedue’s shoulder.
Dedue did not shake him off. He raised his other hand to his face. His back hitched with a sob stillborn.
"I'm sorry," he said, hoarse. "I am sorry. My mind is — my mind is not right. It should have been the end — of the war, of the danger, of my fear for you. Instead … " His fingers flicked. The gesture's vagary wrenched at Dimitri's heart. “I am so tired.”
He sagged with the whispered admission, a quiet whimper in his shuddering sigh. Dimitri squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry, my friend. I understand. We don't have to speak of this now."
"No." Dedue rubbed his eyes, sniffed, then straightened and squared his shoulders. "If I do not speak now, I may never find the courage. Time is not a luxury we can afford. I can no longer pretend otherwise."
Dimitri's pulse fluttered in the back of his throat. Softly, he said, "Then speak."
Dedue brushed Dimitri's hand from his shoulder, only to take it in a tight, trembling grip. Dimitri squeezed. Dedue squeezed back.
He raised Dimitri's hand to his lips, and kissed each of Dimitri's knuckles in turn. He turned Dimitri’s hand in his with a grip so gentle it seared like a brand, and pressed another kiss to Dimitri’s palm. Dimitri had never been so aware of his missing gloves — the stinging sensitivity of skin normally guarded, and the battered, war-broken ugliness of his hands.
Dedue's hand slid up Dimitri’s bare arm, hard-worn calluses coarse and so warm. Dimitri swallowed, throat tight, as Dedue rose and leaned towards him. His eyes fluttered shut as a palm cupped his chin. Dedue kissed his forehead; his cheek, beneath the scarred ruin of his eye; the tip of his nose, and —
and stopped, their faces barely an inch apart.
Dimitri blinked. His voice came out a bare whisper. “What … ?”
Dedue’s lashes flickered at the puff of Dimitri’s breath. His gaze dropped away, and he withdrew — only to the edge of the bed, where he sat, spine stiff as Areadbhar's haft. Sunlight glowed golden against the curve of his shoulder and his fine, stern profile.
“What I mean to say,” he said, “is that I love you. As a man, not as a king. Body and soul. In the manner of husbands. Of the — of the flesh, as well as the spirit." His face darkened with a flush. "And if the world were kinder, or if I was more selfish, I would gladly marry you."
" … oh," said Dimitri, because all the love in the world couldn't save him from being a tongue-tied idiot. " … and if the world were kinder?"
“It is not.”
“But if it were," Dimitri insisted. "If we were ordinary men, and nothing mattered but our happiness. What would you do then? What would you want?”
"We are not ordinary men. There is no use dwelling on what cannot be."
"If you insist, your Highness."
Dimitri winced. He deserved that, but the sting wouldn't force him to back down.
“If the world were kinder,” Dedue said, with such bitterness the back of Dimitri’s throat burned, "I would work in my father’s forge. Or I might have taken up a different trade, left my sister to carry the family name. You would be a … merchant’s son, perhaps. I’d mark your visits, wait for you when the passes cleared in spring.” Dedue’s chin sank to his chest, and his voice sank to a whisper. “One year I would ask you to stay through the winter. Perhaps you would agree."
Dimitri opened his mouth at a word that sounded final, but Dedue went on, fists clenched and trembling atop his thighs. His voice grated, as if each word burned his tongue.
“If the world were kinder, I would love your passion, your honesty, without tragedy to bind us or status to separate us. We could join our families, our lives. Share our meals, our home … our b — bed. There could — there could be children — ”
He choked on that. Dimitri waited, mouth half-open, until Dedue turned to glare at him, a wet gleam in his eyes.
“Is that enough?” he asked. “Does it do you any good to know of these — these ridiculous dreams? All that I want that I cannot have? If you had died without knowing the truth, I could not have borne it, but — now it is said. Allow me the dignity of silence, your Highness, and speak no more of this.”
Dimitri had expected … something like this, a glimpse of warmth and hearth-glow through a door that hurried to close again. Years ago, in their Academy days, he might have been content to scratch and pace at the threshold like an abandoned hound, but this time he’d be damned if he’d be left whining in the cold. “Dedue — ”
“A king cannot marry whoever he pleases.”
“Faerghus, your Highness.” Dedue’s tone could have frozen seawater. “Your country would gladly see me dead. No amount of love can change that.”
Then Faerghus can burn, Dimitri could have snarled back, the memory of blood hot and slick on his teeth. The beast in his chest knew no reason, and it would shatter the earth, tear apart the sky, unmake the world at its seams if it meant his friend would never again speak with such resigned despair.
He opened his mouth. The words turned to dust. His headache crashed back in skull-splitting vengeance, blotting out any attempt to rally an argument. He swore under his breath, instead, and pressed his knuckles to his good eye. Light danced in blinding spirals that pierced clean through his skull, or so it felt, and the green-and-purple afterimages flickered against the back of his lid even with his eye closed. Foolish boy, said his stepmother. Saints, you still can’t handle that temper was Glenn. How can you rule when you can’t protect the ones you love? asked his father, all gentle disappointment —
“That has nothing to do with this,” Dimitri snarled. The apparition dissolved into a foul mist, leaving him blinking and gripped by a trembling nausea.
"That has everything to do with — "
"No … no. Not … " Dimitri swallowed the bile in the back of his throat. " … I was talking to my father," he admitted.
"What did he say?" No trace of judgment in Dedue's voice, just a hint of worry that silenced Dimitri's crawling shame.
" … that I should be able to protect you, if I would call myself a king."
"Then he can be silent," Dedue said, scowling at a spot above Dimitri's shoulder. (The ghost hadn’t taken a form, this time. Dimitri didn't mention it.) “I will not live dependent on a king’s protection. Not as your friend, and certainly not as your husband.”
Dimitri sighed, and once more ground the heel of his hand against his eye. “No … You’re right. I hate it, but you’re right. I let my own affection blind me. No matter how I wish it were otherwise, Faerghus isn’t ready.”
… and Dedue knew Dimitri too well. His face tightened with a flinty frown. “But?”
"But … there is nothing selfish about wanting a life with someone you love."
"There is when the fates of two nations ride on our shoulders. Your marriage is a powerful political tool. You should use it to serve your country.” Dedue crossed his arms and looked away. “Not for some anonymous blacksmith’s son.”
“I don't care — ”
“You must care, your Highness. If you die and leave your country heirless, all our work will be undone. At best you will have to contend with protests that you married a man of Duscur rather than a noblewoman who could bear you a Crested child. At worst … ”
“At worst,” Dimitri echoed grimly.
Dedue hunched his shoulders. His crossed arms shifted, a self-comforting grip Dimitri recognized from their childhood. “ … at worst, both our lives will be in danger. Any efforts at reconciliation will be dismissed as my manipulation, not rightful justice. Your people will claim that I — that I seduced you to end the Blaiddyd line. I cannot abide the risk of a second Tragedy. I cannot endanger my people’s justice. And I will not tolerate every fool in Fódlan thinking they deserve an opinion on our love.”
Dimitri hissed a long sigh through his teeth. He'd been groomed for life in the public eye from birth; Dedue hadn't. He loathed the center stage as much as Dimitri thrived in it — with good reason, when Faerghus denied him the slightest decency or good faith. A public marriage would open them, most of all Dedue, to abuse from every ignorant viper who knew nothing of their bond. Dimitri wished he could rip out every filthy tongue that would speak ill of his best and dearest friend, but … that was not, in practice, a viable solution.
And Dedue hated it, which was reason enough for Dimitri to concede.
On the other hand, Dimitri had inherited the Blaiddyd stubbornness sevenfold, and he wasn't quite ready to give up — not now, when they had already come so far.
"Of course," he said softly. "I wouldn't ask you to forsake your people any more than you would ask me to abandon mine. Just … answer me this one thing, and if you wish I will say nothing more — do you refuse because this isn’t what you want? Or do you believe you can hope for nothing better?”
“There is nothing better. I am happy by your side. My heart belongs to you in every way that matters. Let that be enough."
There it was.
Dimitri leaned forward, bright-eyed, resting his elbows on his knees. (Playing dirty, maybe, when he knew Dedue so easily caved to his earnestness, but he meant it.) “It’s not enough when we can have something better. You said yourself that we have no time to spare — what does all our work mean, if we deny our own joy?”
"What would you propose, then?" Still stony, but … cautious. Apprehensive. Inching that door back open, casting a sliver of warm light onto the snow.
Dimitri grinned. "How does 'chief advisor' sound?"
Dedue's head snapped around. He turned to face Dimitri at last, his face blank with shock. " … what?"
"I can't leave Faerghus heirless, but I don't see why I can't appoint you to my council. I trust no one so well as I trust you." Dimitri's blood was up, now, and his thoughts raced faster than he could speak them. "I don't want you as my vassal. I don't need you as my vassal. I need your help to right the wrongs that have been done, and for that, I need you by my side, not below or behind me. 'Advisor' will do, if 'husband' won't." His smile sharpened to a knife's edge. "And you'll officially outrank every idiot, so you can tell them off yourself."
Dedue’s shoulders tensed, drawing subtly towards his ears, but Dimitri could see him thinking — could see that the idea had caught him. "There will be rumors … "
"The tongues of the ignorant flap in any passing breeze. There will be rumors no matter what. Love me in private, but not in silence, the way you wish to, and I will do the same. We can have what we both want without endangering our work."
"Dimitri," Dedue said, so solemn it sent a shiver down Dimitri's spine, "have you ever loved anything quietly?"
Dimitri chuckled, sheepish. "I could do it for you. I would try."
“You would try. For my sake.”
“I would do a great many things for your sake.” Dimitri extended his hand, trembling with nerves he couldn't quite mask. "I've asked so much of you, my friend, but I must ask you once again — trust me. Please."
As it wore on, Dimitri began to wonder if he’d said something wrong — then he noticed Dedue’s shoulders hitch. With a shock, he realized that his friend was weeping.
"Oh — sacred Saints, no — I'm so sorry. I got carried away. It was cruel of me to push you so. We needn't speak of it again — you have every right to refuse — I only — that's all. That's all. I’m sorry." Some blessed last gasp of better nature snapped Dimitri's jaw shut on his tongue. Better that sting than whatever excuse-ridden sewage would have spilled from his stupid, stupid mouth.
“No,” Dedue said. He caught Dimitri's hand in his, Dimitri's wrist in a grip like a vise. “No. Do not apologize.”
Dimitri waited, heart pounding in his throat. Dedue’s grip kept him from drowning in a ringing grey haze. Dedue had moved to stop him, as if Dimitri could have left his sickbed in the first place. Dedue must want him to stay.
“In all this,” Dedue said at last, his low voice shaking Dimitri from the daze of tinnitus, “you’ve said nothing of what you want.”
Dimitri blinked. “What — I want?”
“It matters,” Dedue said, answering a question Dimitri hadn’t realized he’d asked. “What you want from this partnership. From me. Not as the king of Faerghus, but as a man. As Dimitri, who I love.”
“From you,” Dimitri repeated, having apparently turned into a trained starling or one of Brigid’s parrots. Love echoed in the back of his head, love, love, love, a cathedral bell tolling hope that perhaps he hadn’t ruined his most precious friendship. “I — well — I want to marry you. I know it can’t be, publicly, but publicly is just an arrangement with the Church. I can love you in private, but love you I will, because — because you are the most precious person in my life. Because I have never known a goal as noble or as true as your trust. Because you are brave, and thoughtful, and gentle, and kind, and the most beautiful man I have ever seen, and you are dearer to me than my own heart, and I want … I want … ”
Dimitri choked. He would badger Dedue on self-denial, but he could hardly claim to be better about it. The clamor in the back of his head chorused that he did not deserve to love, that he did not deserve to be loved, that he would shatter the strange and fragile thing between them and betray someone who deserved all the kindness this rotten world could spare, and that one day Dedue would turn from him in hurt and disgust and he would break —
Dedue had seen him in all his bloody-toothed violence. Had known him as a beast from the moment they had met. Had held him when he screamed and thrashed in the grip of phantoms, had guarded him when he would not guard himself, had kissed Dimitri’s scarred and broken fingers and the ruin of his eye.
Had trusted Dimitri with his deepest and most secret heart, the rage and grief and bitterness he allowed so few to know. Had taken up arms, against his own gentle nature, for Dimitri’s sake. Had returned to Dimitri by his own choice when he could have vanished into Fhirdiad’s streets, remained with a community that loved and welcomed him.
If he was going to leave, Dimitri reasoned above the noise, he would have already done so.
With his eye fixed on Dedue’s face, he pressed the back of Dedue’s hand to his lips, as a knight would to his lord. Dedue drew a breath through his nose, and his eyes widened, but … his chest relaxed. His shoulders angled towards Dimitri. Emboldened, Dimitri raised his hand to Dedue's shoulder and leaned up — too bold. His balance faltered, and his knees gave out. Dedue caught him, arms encircling his waist. Dimitri's body made the decision to sag into him, to curl up almost in his lap, to let his clammy forehead rest against Dedue's shoulder.
"I love you," he mumbled. He turned his head and kissed Dedue's collarbone, where a dark, deep gouge crept up from below the collar of his tunic. "I want to love you," he added, wriggling up so he could kiss the short, blunt scar on Dedue's chin. He draped his arm over Dedue's shoulders to kiss his cheek, and then the long, thin scar that trailed into his hairline. "I want to eat with you, and laugh with you, and weep with you. Sleep and wake with you every night and every morning. Do the — ” Saints preserve him, his face burned like a teenager’s. “ — t-the things that married couples do in private.”
He pulled himself onto his knees to press his lips to Dedue’s brow, where a blade had narrowly missed his eye. He wobbled — “Help,” he croaked, and Dedue’s hand slid up between his shoulderblades, steadying him.
Dimitri bit his lip, calculating his next move. He wanted to face Dedue, to look at him properly. With his mind fogged and decorum long since abandoned, he took the simplest route, and slung one of his legs across Dedue’s lap. Dedue’s wide eyes, blue-grey as spring rain, fixed on Dimitri’s one. His throat bobbed, his breath caught, and his lips parted ever so slightly, but he made no attempt to speak. Dimitri drew a deep breath, let his forehead rest against Dedue’s, and began again with a clearer voice.
“I want to see you to your triumphs, and comfort you through your losses. I want to heal, and grow, and grow old by your side, through frost and through thaw, in sickness and in health, until our hourglasses run empty. I want — I want — I can't promise you an ordinary life, but I can promise you mine. I want to live it by your side."
Icy fear stung between his shoulderblades, but Dedue was warmer than any frozen winter. Here in each other’s arms, ushered in to the hearth, Dimitri could believe they would never want for love or comfort again. He sniffed back his tears and swallowed the stone in his throat.
“Can I?” he asked, small.
Dedue shivered, his breath fluttering wet against Dimitri's face. "That," he croaked, "would make me immeasurably happy."
All Dimitri’s fears crumbled into a gentle-burning joy. When his mind could once again control his tongue, he whispered, “I — I would like very much to kiss you.”
In the same soft voice, Dedue asked, "Why haven't you?"
Dimitri huffed. “I will take no leave that is not given,” he said, wearing the face Ingrid called his ‘affronted cat’. “But — by your leave, I mmph.”
Dedue kissed him.
Carefully, cautiously, little more than a brush of lips, as if Dimitri hadn’t wanted this since he’d first known how. Dimitri fumbled, uncertain where to put his hands or how to keep from squashing their noses — but Dedue sighed when Dimitri kissed him back, unwound as Dimitri melted into him in a messy smear of fevered tears and spit and sweat so many years coming. Dimitri’s fingers twined into his hair, and Dedue clutched at him so he could hardly breathe, and whatever this was far outstripped any guiltily harbored fantasy.
They parted for a gasp of air. Without pause, Dimitri kissed Dedue again, a clumsy mash of half-open mouths that Dedue returned with a choked sob. Again, and again, and again, parting for more than a moment unbearable, unable to tell where one kiss ended and another began until they collapsed into each others’ arms, exhausted, weeping and laughing in equal measure.
If Dimitri died now — if he died now, there would be no more kisses like that, and the thought could not be borne.
"Nine years," he mumbled. "I love you. I love you."
"I want to love you," Dedue rasped against Dimitri's shoulder. "I think I do. But so much depends on — on me, and it crushes any other feeling."
Dimitri pressed his face to Dedue's hair. "Then let me carry for you what I can," he murmured. "Let me share your burdens, as your husband, and your lover, and your partner, and your friend."
"You bear so much already … ”
“And you would be the first to tell me that it doesn’t work like that. You’ve supported me for so long — allow me to do the same for you, and both our loads will lighten.”
“Hah.” A wet chuckle from Dedue set Dimitri’s heart leaping. “I don’t believe your Goddess had any hand in making you. No god could dream up such a wise fool, or such a foolish wise man.”
“Which am I?”
“I haven’t decided.”
Dimitri’s turn to laugh. “Fair enough. I’ve no idea.”
Dedue released Dimitri and leaned back, searching Dimitri's face for — Dimitri didn't know what. He brushed a tear from Dimitri's cheekbone with the pad of his thumb, and smiled, a soft, subtle crinkle around his eyes.
"You may kiss me," he murmured.
"Oh," Dimitri said, blinking like a stray cat caught in torchlight. A buzzing bright snow crept in at the edges of his field of vision, and his skin prickled with nauseous fatigue, but he ignored it for the gift of leaning in to press his lips to Dedue's. To press their chests flush while Dedue's arms once again encircled his back fed a gnawing hunger in the pit of Dimitri's gut, so old and deep he had to sob from sheer relief.
Dizzy with emotion, he hardly noticed as Dedue leaned forward, shifting the angle of their kiss and taking more of his weight until he'd pushed Dimitri flat against the mattress. Lovely in its own way, his body warm and solid atop Dimitri's, sparking thoughts Dimitri had tucked deep in a shameful corner of his psyche — nothing he felt well enough to indulge, not now, but something to be thought of later. He might — bring it out and turn it over like a jewel, sparkling and precious, no longer consigned to a dusty, cobwebbed crack.
"I do love you," Dedue whispered when at last they parted for air. He tucked Dimitri's hair carefully behind his ear, so gently he sent a shivering shock through Dimitri's keyed-up nerves. "Your boldness lends me courage when I would falter. It may not be in my nature, but loving quietly is not in yours … if you can bear my wish for caution, I can be your husband. For you, I will try."
"Tha-at is all I would ask," Dimitri croaked.
Ah — by the Goddess, the stars he saw had nothing to do with Dedue. He rather suspected he'd been tricked when Dedue had laid him back down, but he could hardly argue when he could not sit up again without help.
"You need your rest," said Dedue. Dimitri wrinkled his nose up at him, at least until the movement shot a spike of pain through his skull.
"All right," he whined. He had at least the strength to catch Dedue's wrist and lurch up to plant a messy, poorly-aimed kiss on the corner of Dedue's mouth, over that thin scar he'd neglected earlier.
… the last of his strength. The tense, fine muscles of Dedue’s wrist; the prickle of short, coarse hairs beneath Dimitri’s palm, and the hot rhythm of a pulse — these things remained clear and anchoring as the rest of his senses dissolved into tinnitus and kaleidoscopic grey.
"Don't go," he begged, with the dregs of his lucidity. "Don't … "
Dedue's free hand cupped the side of his face. Blind with fatigue, Dimitri still did not flinch when Dedue kissed his forehead. "I will not," he said. "When you wake, and forever after, I will be here."
He did not mean 'present in the room'.
He meant here, where they could hold and be held, love and be loved, until their time on this earth ran out. With all they'd seen and done it hardly felt like he and Dedue could be in their early twenties — but somehow, they were, and if they were lucky, they would have twice that and more to spend in each other's arms. Dimitri had never thought himself a lucky man, but when Dedue's wrist slipped through his slackening grip only to tangle their fingers together, he felt as blessed as the Goddess Herself.
Dedue pulled the covers up over his shoulders. Dimitri sighed and tucked his chin to his chest. "I love you," he mumbled.
"I love you, too," said Dedue, soft and hoarse. "Now sleep."