The war council was becoming too loud.
Since their skirmish with the Black Eagles Strike Force, everyone had become uneasy. The students from Faerghus seemed un-phased. They were apprehensive about potentially killing former classmates, but they didn’t question it. The ones from other classes did. Byleth could see the fear in their eyes when they discussed battle tactics. At first she had scoffed and told them it was the price of war. Over the moons, she watched carefully as their expressions hardened.
Today they had reached their breaking points. The idea of having to kill instead of seriously maim their friends had taken its toll. They were screaming, fighting back and forth with their allies. The conversation was the same: we need to kill them versus we can save them. It was the same conversation Byleth had been hearing for the past few moons. This was nothing new, so why were they trying to debate each side?
“Will you shut up?” Byleth snapped as she looked up from her stack of papers.
She didn't want to listen to them squabble. Their voices were too loud, too needy, and unwilling to accept the truth that this was war and there was nothing they could do about it. The scowl stayed on her face as she locked eyes with each of them briefly.
The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees as they stared at their former professor. The scowl never left Byleth’s face as her eye scanned the room. Some looked appalled, most looked relieved to have the conversation shift. Dimitri kept his lips pursed and remained impassive as he stared at her. She glanced down, unwilling to meet his gaze.
You’re a coward, don’t forget that.
“Please leave. I have matters to discuss with the Professor.”
Dimitri’s voice was commanding, almost like a King, and Byleth fought the urge to smile. She didn’t need his help dismissing everyone but it was appreciated, whether she wanted to admit to it or not. She gripped the stack of papers and glared at everyone as they left the war council room. When the door finally shut, leaving only her and Dimitri in the room, she let out a sigh of relief.
For the first time in hours, the room was quiet. She could hear her thoughts clearly, even if they were scolding her. The headache she had developed was starting to subside. Byleth rubbed her temples as she glanced down at the paper. It was a bunch of maps and suggestions on how to tackle the Empire. She saw it daily. With a whimper, she shoved it to the side and continued to rub her temples.
Dimitri scrambled to pick up the paper that fell to the ground. She might have been upset at this moment but knew she would want the paper eventually. Plus, Dimitri knew he needed to study it to provide anything productive. With the maps overflowing in his hands, he turned to Byleth, who seemed to be close to tears.
“Come with me, let’s go to the balcony. Fresh air will do you some good.”
His tone held the same authority as his previous command. Byleth pushed her chair back and stood up, unable to believe that she was giving into his command. This was her army; she didn’t need his approval or support. Yet here she was, giving into his suggestions like a fool. Her eye glanced up towards him, noticing how worried he looked, and she whimpered under his gaze. How could someone be so supportive of her after everything she had done?
Byleth said nothing in response as Dimitri set the papers down. She wrapped her cloak around her body and led the way towards the balcony. Part of her wished that Dimitri wouldn’t follow her.. She gripped the clasps of the cloak harder as she stepped out onto the balcony. Fhirdiad was colder than she expected, despite having been warned about its frigid temperatures. She shivered, but maintained the illusion of being okay as she stared out to the streets below.
It was a party. The people of Fhirdiad were in their second day of celebration after the Saviour King had reclaimed his throne. Her hands wrapped around the balcony railing to control her anger that was bubbling from the sight below. She turned her attention towards Dimitri.
“Why do you insist on following me? I need fresh air alone,” she hissed.
Dimitri didn’t move. He stood next to her, resisting the urge to reach out towards her and gently rub circles into her back. She had welcomed it during the academy; it was weird to Dimitri that she didn’t welcome it now. He chewed on his lip and clenched his hands as he struggled with a response. What was he supposed to say? They were back to the same old song and dance she had been spewing since their first meeting in the goddess tower.
“The last thing you need to be is alone, Professor,” Dimitri finally offered. He was proud that his voice managed to remain level, despite the sadness.
Byleth scoffed, rolled her eye, and kept her attention focused on the courtyard below. It was the second day of celebration and it had started the night Dimitri returned as their king, and had announced that they had reclaimed the capital and intended to end the war. She clenched her hands as she continued to stare. The laughter and music was louder than the war room. They looked so happy, so relaxed. Were they not aware of the war around them?
Cornelia might have starved, tortured, and kept them as prisoners in the war, but she kept them shielded. The citizens were vaguely aware of the horrors the war brought. It was the ones that went to the front lines, the ones that continued to fight in the name of the King, that had an idea of what the war was. They were the ones who watched as their friends were speared in the gut, saw their look of surprise and horror as they realized they were going to die. They were the ones who saw the arrows in their eyes; how the blood streamed down their faces and they cried in agony as they sucked in their last breath.
The images flashed through her mind. It wasn’t a stranger; it was Mercedes who had the arrow in her eyes, the blood matted in her blonde hair and her body covered in grim. Annette was over her, her hands moving fast to cast the familiar circles of Heal. Her vision went black before the scene switched. It was Dedue, who had fallen off his horse. There was a loud crack as his armor broke. Dedue didn’t have time to react as the lance pierced through the fragile amour and into his exposed gut. The blood spilled, a haunting crimson, out as he groaned to the pain.
Byleth took a deep breath and gripped the balcony railing. It was better than her hands, which had started to bleed from the pressure of her nails digging into her skin. The balcony was cold, almost too cold. The temperature didn’t bother the people below her. She scoffed at them and turned her attention back towards Dimitri.
Except she wasn’t staring at Dimitri who had been there a moment ago. She was staring at his blank expression, blood smeared across his face. His breathing was shallow and weak. He was gripping her hand, blood pooling out of his mouth. Byleth was hunched over him, sobbing as she tried to cast Heal. It didn’t work, nothing worked. His body went limp as the warmth of his blood soaked through her skin.
No no, not here, not now, not today, this isn't real.
Byleth blinked. Dimitri wasn't dead; he was standing right in front of her with a concerned look on his face. He tilted his head to the side as he studied her expression, causing her to recoil. She knew that look. Byleth hated that look. It left her weak, vulnerable, and unsure of the future. How could she command an army when Dimitri continued to look at her like that, like she was worthy of something?
“Why do you look at me like that?” Byleth asked after a moment of silence, glancing towards the celebration.
The venom that normally laced her tone was absent. Dimitri furrowed his brow. Her change in tone made him nervous. In the past four moons, he had learned to not let his guard down with sudden alterations in her demeanor.
“Look at you like what?” Dimitri asked.
Byleth opened her mouth and clamped it shut. She hadn't realized she had been biting so hard until she tasted the copper on her tongue. She was biting her lip in an effort to prevent herself from crying. She couldn’t ( she wouldn’t ) cry in front of Dimitri. No, crying was weak; she wasn’t weak. She sucked in a shaky breath as she drifted her gaze up towards him.
“Like I’m your everything!” She lashed out.
Dimitri didn’t flinch; she hadn’t expected him too. Her anger was directed at herself, not him. The tears spilled over, blurring her vision.
“Like I’m worthy of your love,” Byleth added, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
If she hadn’t been staring directly at him, Dimitri might have convinced himself that those words were a figment of his imagination. But she wasn’t yelling at him to go away; she wasn’t scowling at him, cursing obscenities and threatening him. Byleth was crying and doing her best not to. Dimitri clenched his hand tightly to prevent him from reaching out and brushing the tears off her cheek.
“I don’t know how else to look at you,” he said.
It was the honest truth. Since Dimitri had stumbled upon her in the Goddess Tower, battered, bruised, missing an eye and with a taste for blood, he had made up his mind. He was going to follow her, consequences be damned. Not only was she the best chance at winning the war, he had faith that his Professor, the woman he had grown to love and cherish, was in there somewhere. He just had to keep digging.
Byleth’s eyes were glassy. The tears spilled over as she kept her gaze locked on Dimitri. She felt nauseous as she continued to stare. She wanted to yell, to scream, to tell him to go away, but she couldn’t do any of those things.
She yearned for his touch. Her hand moved off the balcony rail and made a motion like she was going to reach out and grab him, but stopped halfway there.
Her hands were stained red. She was unworthy of his love, his affection, and his touch. Byleth curled her hands up, her fingernails digging back into her skin. She wanted to feel pain, feel anything that wasn’t overwhelming sadness. It would be easier to be angry but she couldn’t bring herself to succumb to that. If anything, she was defeated.
Dimitri’s hand grabbed hers and pried it open, interlocking their fingers. She froze and stared at his hand. His hand was much bigger than hers. It was warm, despite the cold temperature. She fought the urge to recoil, going against her better judgement to embrace his touch.
“I know you don’t believe me.” Dimitri said. “If I was in your position, I wouldn’t believe me either.” He tugged her hand and pulled her in closer. Byleth nuzzled her head against his chest and closed her eye. The tension in her shoulders dropped with his touch. “I know these past few moons have been difficult after being alone for a handful of years.”
Dimitri paused. There were so many things he wanted to confess but he opted for none of them. The fact that Byleth wasn’t screaming at him to go away was a blessing; he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. In a few moments, Byleth would go back to her stone cold expression and he would follow her around like a lost puppy. For now, he was going to relish in having her wrapped up against his chest.
“We’re here for you. I’m here for you. You don’t have to keep pushing me away.” Dimitri spoke softly as he ran a hand through her hair. He didn’t miss how her body stilled at his touch. “I know you don’t think that you’re worthy and that you’ve failed us, but you have not. You are worthy.”
Byleth didn’t believe him. She didn’t miss the way that he stared at her. She took it as a look of pity and refused to acknowledge that it was something more than that. She sniffled, readjusted her position, and looked up at Dimitri, her chin resting on his chest.
“Those are pretty words, Dimitri, but they mean nothing.”
She wasn’t angry; she was tired.
“You say you don’t know how else to look at me. It’s easy: I’ll tell you. You look at me like I’m a monster. Like my hands are stained red, like a killer. That’s how you look at me. You don’t look at me like the stupid girl you loved back in the Academy.”
Flashes of five years ago appeared in her vision. She was staring at a younger Dimitri, who wore a bright expression and was so eager to help her. The touches started to linger, developing into brief handholding. She remembered the first time Dimitri kissed her. He was fumbling, red, and clashed his teeth against hers. Byleth insisted on more practice, and by the time they were whispering I love you a couple moons later, they had gotten kissing down pat.
“I am always going to look at you like that, Byleth.” There was a hint of annoyance in his voice as he stared down at her. “You telling me these things will not change it. You are not the only one who has killed, after all.”
They didn’t talk about the war because Byleth refused to talk about it. Dimitri’s other friends and comrades accepted his support, but not Byleth. He had tried, time and time again, but she scowled and slammed the door in his face.
Killing weighed heavily on Dimitri. The voices of his father and Glenn were maniacal every time his lance slashed and took someone’s life. Byleth had been the one to guide him through their first mission that required loss of life. Then, as the war raged on, killing became easier and almost enjoyable to Dimitri. Glenn and Lambert egged him on, encouraging him to succumb to his primal nature.
He almost had. It had been three years since the battle of Garreg Mach and three years since Byleth had disappeared in battle. There had been a siege from the Empire in an attempt to take the capital. He hadn’t thought ; he just acted as he commanded his army to protect the Kingdom. After four days, the battle had been won. Dimitri had been insistent on pushing forward, his desire to slaughter everyone growing by the moment. It had taken Ingrid pulling him back from torturing an Imperial soldier.
“He’s no use to us dead, Dimitri. We need him alive.”
Dimitri shook his head in an attempt to clear the memory. Had it not been for his friends, he would have caved into the darkness. They reminded him to keep going, that he was okay, and that he had to be there for the people of Faerghus. He was their King; he had to act like it. He had his friends, and Byleth had nothing. If he had had nothing, well, he shuddered to think about what he would have become.
“We have both done things we regret. We are in the middle of a war, beloved. All of our hands are stained red. Yet we are doing this to ensure a better future, so that our children will not have to suffer.”
Byleth sucked in a deep breath as she tried to steady her gaze. Despite everything, Dimitri stood by her side. His confidence hadn’t waivered when he found her, broken and battered, hunting down thieves in the monastery. Every time she tried to push him away, he kept coming back. It was one of the things she loved (and hated) about him.
The tears started to grow stronger. She closed her eye as she leaned back into Dimitri, accepting his warmth. It was a rare moment she threw caution to the wind and allowed herself to be embraced by him. She took a deep breath as she felt her body began to shake.
“I’m a monster,” she sobbed.
The malice that Dimitri had become accustomed too was absent.
“No, you aren’t,” Dimitri replied instantly. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “This is war; we are fighting to survive. We are fighting for life . That does not make you a monster.”
Byleth opened her mouth to protest but Dimitri interjected. “I am not having this debate with you, beloved. Frankly, I am tired of going around in circles with you regarding this topic. You have the Church, your beloved Blue Lions and me by your side. Is that not enough?”
It was more than enough.
“Yes,” Byleth admitted, her voice soft. It was easier to admit to than she thought it would be.
“I am with you every step of the way, beloved.” Dimitri pulled a hand free to run it through her hair. “I understand that it is hard to believe, yet I am here for you. No matter what.”
Byleth took a few seconds to recollect herself. She controlled her breathing and sniffled before pulling away from his chest. Her gaze drifted up towards his and a small smile appeared. A warmth spread through her body as she allowed herself to relax. A part of her didn’t believe him. Byleth reckoned that would always be the case.
“Thank you,” she said, breaking the silence.
Dimitri pressed another kiss to her forehead.
For now, she would believe him.