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To see Byleth smile was akin to fire being lit in his veins.

Dimitri sought out to see it at every opportunity he could—and, if it meant shadowing his Professor from a reasonable distance in which he thinks he wouldn’t be spotted—well, so be it. He follows behind diligently, in the shadows, a finger to his lips and his eyes must be void of all the usual softness he upholds, because every person who sees him, their mouth open with a question or greeting, is quick to clamp it shut, eyes wide as they scurry off, far from where Dimitri stood in the shadows.

Strangely, he can’t find it in him to even want to apologize.

Like many other days, Byleth carries a bucket, and Dimitri knows exactly where she is going.

He follows her in what he hopes is full of stealth, and ponders for a moment whether or not he could pass the Assassin exam. Dimitri has to stop a booming laugh; he’s sure it would bounce around and cause his presence to be known to the one he doesn’t want it to be known to.

She makes her way down the Entrance Hall steps, inclining her head to every person that calls out to her. Dimitri can see the thrill in each of their faces—she acknowledged me! they all exclaimed. He couldn’t disagree with them, as he, too, found himself overjoyed every time their eyes met, every time her eyes softened and her lips curled, just the tiniest bit, and—

“Ah!” a gasp rings out, effectively pulling Dimitri from his inner monologue.

He watches from behind a pillar as Byleth sets down her bucket, squatting to the ground to help one of the young squires pick up his scrolls and books.

“Professor!” he squeaks, clearly frazzled. “I can pick it up!”

Byleth must give him a look, because he presses his lips together immediately, his face redder than humanly possible. “You… are you studying hard?” she skims her eyes over the papers as she asks.

Dimitri watches as the boys shoulders sink lower—the sight makes him want to walk forward and out of his hiding spot, but something about the way Byleth straightens the boys’ papers and tucks them back neatly into one of the tactical books has him stopping in his tracks.

“It’s… hard. Isn’t battle just… battle? Swinging swords and thrusting lances, flinging magic? Why must I worry about tactics…”

Byleth chuckles as she slides the book across the floor to the boy. “You are just a child.”

“Well—yeah! I am!”

“Battle is more than just battle. You could, one day, be a great tactician, could you not?” she inquires, strumming her fingertips against the cover of the book before retracting her hand.

The boy narrows his eyes, and Dimitri can see the way he dislikes how true Byleth’s words are.

“If I… study.”

“If you study.”

“Professor, it’s hard!”

Byleth picks up her bucket as she stands, offering a hand to the boy; he takes it, allowing himself to be pulled up and onto his feet, much like a child should. The sight tugs hard at Dimitri’s heart. “You know when my classes end, child?”

“My name is Robin! And I do!”

“Robin,” Byleth corrects herself. “Then, come to me after class. I will help you.”

Dimitri leans against the pillar, arms crossed over his chest. His heart feels warm, and he is sure his smile is wide. He hears the way the boy sputters and says that there is no need, he will study hard, and he hears the way Byleth chuckles and insists, cutting off the boys protests with a pat on his head.

With that, she walks through the grand doors, stopping to chat with the gatekeeper who says, dutifully as always, nothing to report, Professor!

Dimitri peels himself away from his hiding spot, fully aware he could get caught—she is mere feet away, nodding along with whatever it was the gatekeeper was telling her—but… Dimitri bends swiftly, picking up the pile of books that still lay by the child’s feet. “Robin, yes?” he asks.

“Ah—you—Your Highness! Yes!”

“Dimitri,” he corrects, but finds that it falls upon deaf ears. Dimitri sighs, but it would not be the last time this happened, so he tries to think nothing of it. Instead, he offers Robin the books, carefully placing them in the child’s skinny arms. “You should take her up on her offer,” he tells him, and copies the motion of patting his head.

Much like Byleth, he leaves it at that, walking away with light feet, muttering a quick greeting to the gatekeeper as he passes by, opting to not take the stairs quite yet. Dimitri scans the area, spotting her almost immediately as she buys from the Eastern merchant. He leans against the stone slabs, watching from above at how she buys all of the most expensive bait, as she tries to offer the merchant more coins, because she knows how expensive blowfly and herring bait are to come by, and what they bring on the end of her line.

“No need, Professor! Your purchase is enough. Don’t give me that look. Go on, now,” the merchant insists, laughing as he waves away the hand that holds the extra coins. “Good luck today, Professor!”

Dimitri watches as she walks away, and he doesn’t miss the way she slips the extra coins into the merchants pockets, unnoticed.

A smile, once again, tugs at Dimitri’s lips as warmth spreads throughout his blood.

Dimitri hides quickly as she turns around, making her way back up the steps and turning left toward the fishing pond. He peeks from behind the wall to make sure it is safe before following. Dimitri isn’t certain—but he could have sworn the gatekeeper chuckled as he passed, but now was not the time to ponder about such things, no matter the irritation that itched at the back of his throat.

For a fleeting moment, he feels rather silly—but the image of Byleth’s smiling face flashes in his mind, and a wave of something warm evades his chest, refusing to leave.

And so, Dimitri walks along the same path his Professor did, pausing at the closed off stairs as she talks to the fish-keeper. He stoops down behind the wooden crates and barrels, and it is a wonder how she has never seen the sunflower yellow of his hair or the royal blue of his attire.

In a way, it is not truly a wonder—Dimitri can see, just barely, the concentration in her expression as she hooks her bait, flinging it into the water. It doesn’t take long for her line to get a bite; it never does. He watches as she lips the fish, an indescribable look on her face as she unhooks it and then sets it down into her bucket.

There is a triumphant look on her face as she successfully uses up all her bait, one giant fish along with four other medium sized ones, and a couple of smaller fish. Byleth thanks the fish keeper as she leaves, and it is then Dimitri realizes how easily he will be spotted if she keeps walking forward, and—

As if the Goddess felt his turmoil, a familiar voice (Flayn, his mind provides) calls out, “Professor!”

Dimitri breathes out a sigh of relief. He doesn’t wait to hear the conversation; quickly, he rises from his stooping position, ignoring the way his legs tingle with sleepiness as he makes his way back to the Entrance Hall once again.

“Your Highness,” the gatekeeper greets him.

Dimitri skids to a stop, and it is there that he can see a particular look on the other’s face, of what little he can see. Dimitri narrows his eyes the tiniest bit, his words careful as he responds: “…Gatekeeper. Good day.”

When all the gatekeeper does is chuckle, Dimitri turns on his heel, his ears burning because surely, he must look… quiet comical. Surely, he muses, as he stands just barely inside the Entrance Hall, hiding there in the shadows of the grand doors, glancing every so often only to see the smug smile plastered on the gatekeepers face.

Dimitri almost abandons it all, tucking tail and retiring for the day, until the familiar click clack of Byleth’s steps against the stone greets his ears. He curses himself silently, because this upcoming moment was the reason why he trailed behind his Professor so earnestly.

“You got some catches there, Professor?” the gatekeepers voice seems to ring out, almost mockingly, against Dimitri’s eardrums.

Byleth hums. “Indeed.”

The gatekeeper laughs, and Dimitri wonders why the man in charge of the doors mocks him so. “Methinks a certain blue lad thinks the same about you, Professor.”

Dimitri thinks he could honestly die right there upon hearing the words.

“Pardon… me?”

Luckily for him, it goes right over Byleth’s head.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Professor. Good job on your catches today, as always.”

“Ah. Thank you, as always,” she says.

Dimitri hears her walk off, and once again he knows exactly where she’s going. He doesn’t think he can bear neither the gatekeepers chuckle nor his smug smile again, so Dimitri turns on his heel, his footfalls quick as he makes his way to the other end of the Entrance Hall. He turns before the Reception Hall, cutting through the Stables only to be granted the view of the east side of the Monastery—the eastern stairway that lies beside the wall of the Entrance Hall.

Byleth is too busy fending off the cats and kittens from clawing at the hem of her cloak to notice Dimitri hide behind the tiny brick wall that juts out from the exterior.

“Ah,” she breathes, her tone dancing on the edge of a laugh. “Settle down, everyone.”

Dimitri doesn’t dare peek, no matter how much his desire tells him to.

There’s a sound of something wet hitting the ground, and immediately, there is a chorus of meows and mewls.

“This is the biggest fish. Is it to your guys’ liking?” Byleth asks, and the answer she receives must be the way the family of felines huddle around the fish, picking it off piece by piece. “I wasn’t sure whether to cook it or not. Should I try next time? I don’t think thunder magic would hurt you guys…”

Ah, Dimitri thinks, bringing a hand up to cover the intensity of his smile. So that is what she was thinking at the pond.

“Hey, now. You must share, Emiya. Don’t give me that look. Let your sister eat some.”

Dimitri listens to his desires. He leans over the tiniest bit, taking a peek.

Byleth holds a tiny, fluffy black cat with a white-tipped tail in her arms, and Dimitri thinks that it must be the smallest one of the litter. Something tugs at Dimitri’s heart yet again, taking in the way his Professor’s hands all but gently hold the kitten. It is so like her that Dimitri cannot imagine it any other way.

He watches as she sits down, plucking one of the smaller fish and laying it in her hand, offering it to the kitten in her arm. “Here, Alice. Eat up. Your brother is a bully. I won’t let you starve.” Dimitri takes shelter again, biting his lip because he is sure that if his smile grows any wider, it would hurt. It’s then that Byleth sighs. “I need to go to town soon. It’s not good just to feed you all fish. Maybe one of my students knows something… about feline diets…”

Is it possible for his blood to grow any warmer? Dimitri can’t help but wonder.

“Ah. All done?” Byleth asks, and this time she allows a laugh to escape. It dances along Dimitri’s spine, sending sparks throughout his nerves, prickling at the back of his neck. He curls his fingers there, trying his best to quell the sensation as he hears the fabric of his Professor’s cloak shift against the stone. “Then, I’ll see you all tomorrow. I must find the others to feed. Don’t give me those looks. Maybe I’ll ask a student of mine to come here and play,” she tells them, and then, “ah, for extra credit?” with a laugh.

***

It’s in the middle of the week a few months later when Byleth leaves the classroom to go find a book in the library, pleading for them to please, self-study until I return, as if the term self-study would apply to even half the people in the classroom.

Once her footfalls fade away, conversation seems to bounce off the walls.

Mercedes turns to Annette, excitement in her voice as she says, “Isn’t it Professor’s birthday tomorrow?!” to which Annette and Flayn gasp at.

“H—Her birthday?!” Annette repeats the words as if it were a fairytale. “Someone as amazing as her even has a birthday, huh…”

“Why, of course. It is the day to celebrate her. She truly deserves it.”

“Birthday, you said?” Sylvain drinks it up, a smirk on his face as he balances back on the legs of his chair, to which Dimitri looks at disapprovingly. “Guess I’ll have to invite her to dinner… maybe even to my room…”

“That’d be a horrible gift,” Ingrid says, flipping through the pages of her book. She tries to self study, but the sound of Sylvain’s voice seems to irritate her enough that she loses the motivation.

Felix’s laugh is a bark as he says, “So horrible, in fact, I bet she’d boot you off to one of the other classes. How would Black Eagle sound to you, Sylvain?”

Before Sylvain had the chance to reply, Ashe speaks up: “Maybe we all ought to get her something?”

Dimitri glances at Dedue, who is now the only one actually self studying. When he turns back to the front of the classroom, he finds that all eyes are on him. “Yes?”

Mercedes sighs exasperatedly as Annette laughs. “I said, what are you going to give her?”

Confused, Dimitri tilts his head before weakly stating: “I thought we were all getting her something, together… as a class.”

Annette seems to burst with her own laughter as Flayn purses her lips. “Well—yeah! But what about you?

“I’m afraid I’m not following,” Dimitri tells them, his heart pounding against his ears. Was he truly so transparent? Was his heart on his sleeve? Dimitri doesn’t remember putting it there, and he doesn’t dare chance a glance.

“Oh, I get it,” Sylvain starts haughtily. He leans forward, all four legs of his chair now on the ground. He points a finger at Dimitri. “His Highness gets to invite the Professor to his room, and he gets to stay? Why not boot him off to some other class?”

As if on the same wavelength, Ingrid and Felix say unanimously, “Shut up, Sylvain.”

“Are you… speaking ill of His Highness?” Dedue looks up from his work.

Quickly, Ashe says, “I don’t think that—“

“Shut up!” Annette squeaks as she glares down at the thick tome laid in front of her. “I think she’s coming back!”

The classroom quiets down, the only sound resonating off the walls being flipped pages, the scrape of chairs as they go forward. Not long after, they hear the familiar sound of Professor’s shoes against the floor, and then she’s right there, walking into the room with books stacked in her arms. Dimitri glances at the front of the room with his head still inclined, watching the way she stacks them neatly on her desk before surveying the room.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

Mercedes perks up. “Me, Professor,” she says, the soft tilt of her voice parading throughout the silence of the room. Byleth begins walking forward, but Mercedes wastes no time: “Is it true your birthday is tomorrow?”

Byleth skids to a stop, and she’s so close now that Dimitri can see the movement of her throat as she swallows. She chuckles without much heat, bringing her hands behind her back. He can see the thoughts running through her eyes—lie, laugh it off, honesty.

Finally, she nods slowly. “It… is.”

Dimitri can feel a stare at the back of his head. He doesn’t dare glance behind him, opting to reread the same sentence of the book in front of him several times over as if it were the most fascinating thing in all the land. What was this book about, even? Dimitri had no clue.

“Thank you, Professor,” Mercedes says sweetly.

“Was that it?” Byleth sounds exasperated. “No questions about any material?”

“Oh, no, Professor. That was all,” she insists, Annette’s laugh following close behind.

*

Seeing Byleth wear the Blue Lions brooch the next day boosted everyone’s motivation, to say the least. It didn’t look too bad, considering they had all huddled together in the candlelight of the library making it, and luckily enough, Sylvain was so skilled at sneaking out in the middle of the night to go into town to buy some things they’d need from some late-night merchants, and Dimitri tried not to think too hard about why Sylvain was so skilled at sneaking out.

Dimitri found he also didn’t particularly like the way Ashe broke into the classroom at one in the morning to deposit the gift and Dimitri’s handwritten letter upon Byleth’s desk—but, how else were they supposed to surprise her? As Sylvain suggested, Dimitri decided to cut himself some slack, although he didn’t know exactly what that entitled.

Doesn’t it give you a sense of adventure? Mercedes had sighed excitedly, as she was supposed to be on lookout duty. Thankfully, they didn’t get caught being outside of their rooms after hours, although they had a few close calls.

Looking at Byleth now, a rich blue brooch at her breast—Dimitri cannot help but think it suits her.

She acts no different, going over the material diligently, assigning two students to one of the weekly task, one on one lessons in which Dimitri finds that he cannot focus on perfectly with the way she seems to radiate a pure light in front of him. He feels sweat prickle at the back of his neck, startling because she looks up at him expectantly, and—

There is this urge within him.

He clears his throat, pushing the thoughts aside. “I’m terribly sorry, Professor. What was that?”

“Dimitri… are you…”

His heart sinks—perhaps he truly was as transparent as his classmates thought.

“…okay?”

“I’m sorry?”

If the word applied, she looked a bit sheepish. Dimitri watches as she looks him up and down, surveying him, and he cannot help but feel warm. “Are you okay,” Byleth repeats quietly.

“Oh. Yes. I just—it’s—what are you doing for your birthday… Professor?” Dimitri cannot quite believe the words tumbled from his lips. He shifts from foot to foot, nervous laughter itching at the back of his throat as he glanced down at her. Her lips are parted lightly in surprise, her eyes unreadable and he doesn’t wish to curse her, no, never any ill toward her, but Dimitri sometimes hates how he cannot tell what she’s thinking. “Any celebration?”

“To me… it is just another day, so…” Byleth tells him carefully with a shrug, and then, a memory sparks in her eyes, and she smiles. “Once… when I was smaller, though… the band of mercenaries we were traveling with, they put their money together…” She pauses, the corners of her lips twitching as if fighting the intensity of her smile. Don’t fight it, he wants to tell her, please, just smile. As if listening to his thoughts, her smile breaks through until she shows teeth, her eyes crinkling just the tiniest bit. “They put their money together, and bought me a cake, fresh from the bakery.”

Dimitri hums, his own smile lopsided. “And it was… good?”

“Oh, it was delicious,” Byleth laughs, and once again, her laugh trails along his spine, causing tingling sensations to spark throughout his body.

A thought occurs to Dimitri, that perhaps this sensation of falling would never cease.

*

The moon is high in the sky by the time Dimitri finishes seeping ink onto parchment. He rereads the words thoroughly, heart hammering against his ribcage because it sounds as if he is but a boy, pining for the one who would never look his way—and as the thought comes to him, Dimitri cannot help but sigh, since that is exactly his current situation.

He doesn’t think of it. Carefully, he folds the piece of parchment in two, tucking it away safely in his breast pocket. Dimitri throws away all thought of how it is nearly midnight as he heads out the door, and before he knows it, he is already in front of Byleth’s door.

Dimitri stands there, dumbfounded, because this is as far as his mind had planned. He brings a hand up, ignoring the way it shakes as he knocks on the door in front of him. A minute passes with no response—Dimitri knocks again, and again, whispering, professor, are you in there? until he lets his hand fall back to his side.

He comes to the conclusion that she is indeed not in there.

At a loss of what to do, he turns, letting his feet take him wherever they saw fit. His mind races, thinking of where she could be, and yet it is so natural that at the current hour, she could be sleeping. Dimitri pauses at a staircase, thinking that perhaps he will just turn around and head back to his own room, when the light from the greenhouse catches his eye.

A sliver of hope ignites in his chest, stupidly so.

Dimitri takes two steps down at a time, the taptap of his shoes deafening in the silence of the monastery. With the door to the greenhouses slightly ajar, he can just barely see inside—and it is then his heart speeds up, because although the hope had been there, Dimitri hadn’t expected to be correct.

Byleth kneels there, her hands in the dirt, a watering can by her side and a bucket on her other.

Dimitri slips inside, and she only glances behind her—no startle, no exclamation.

“Professor.”

“You could not sleep?” she asks, eyes back to her task.

Dimitri makes his way toward her, his gaze focused on the way her hands pluck away weeds and dead leaves and the like. “You couldn’t, either?” he asks, his voice on the edge of teasing. Dimitri can feel lightning in his veins, giddy with the fact she is here, in front of him.

“I couldn’t,” she confirms, turning slightly to drop the dead pieces into the bucket. “I thought… maybe this would tire me out. I got an extra key from Iris, the keeper here,” Byleth explains.

Dimitri hums in acknowledgment, settling down on his knees beside her. His eyes take in the vibrant colors, rainbows upon rainbows littered in deep green. The smell isn’t overbearing, but he can still feel his nose itch the slightest. Dimitri watches Byleth’s hands from the corner of his eye.

“Would you care to help me?”

A weak laugh escapes him. “I’m afraid… I would break something so fragile,” he explains, and finds that he has no clue whether he was talking about the plants, or Byleth’s hands.

“Oh, that’s right,” she murmurs, as if suddenly remembering. “Sorry.”

“No need for apologies,” Dimitri says. A bold moment comes over him as he tells her, “I am content with watching you.”

Perhaps it was a trick of the brain, but Dimitri could have sworn her hands paused in their task.

“I see,” comes her smooth reply moments later.

Dimitri isn’t sure how much time passed as they sat side by side, sometimes gathering the watering can and bucket as they moved to tend to a different section only to kneel down once more. Byleth is thorough, her hands gentle as they brush dirt from delicate petals, as they unearth harmful weeds.

Confidence floods through him as he extends a hand, their fingers brushing as they both reach to brush dirt from a huge, yellow petal.

Dimitri watches her pause, but she recovers quickly. The warmth against the side of his hand was enough, he thinks, and so Dimitri keeps his hands to himself, content as his heart seems to beat inside his ears; each time they move, he settles the tiniest bit closer to her.

He helps her by tipping the watering can occasionally, but nothing more. Dimitri cannot help but feel a bit guilty, simply staying by her side, idly watching as she tends to the flowerbed, but… there is a part of him that doesn’t particularly mind. The warmth from their hands touching is gone, now, but Dimitri didn’t mind, as her entire warmth was right there, beside him.

It’s when she finishes tending to the flowerbed that he speaks up.

“Professor…” he murmurs, watching as she hauls herself up and onto her feet. Dimitri follows suit.

She turns to him easily, eyes meeting his own. “Yes?”

“It… your birthday,” he says quietly, unsure of what words will fall from his lips. “Was it… did you have a good birthday, Professor?”

Byleth hums, the smallest of smiles tugging at her lips. “Yes,” she says, bringing a hand up to the brooch she still wore. “I must… thank you, for this.”

“No, Professor. Not just me—we all… it was from all of us,” Dimitri tells her, and there it is again—this heat, this boldness bubbling in his chest. He has no clue where he conjured it up from, but is grateful for it, nonetheless. “But, if you wish to thank me, I can give you something to thank me for.”

Byleth exhales harshly. He’s caught her off guard, and the fact sends a thrill down his spine.

Dimitri takes the carefully folded paper from his breast pocket, surprised with himself how there is no hesitation as he hands it over to Byleth. “However…” he begins, and this is where he starts to panic internally, because he had never meant to do what his mind already decided upon. “I have another gift for you.”

“Huh?”

“Do you want it?”

“I—“ Bewilderment is apparent in Byleth’s eyes as she looks up at Dimitri, who looks so calm and collected. “Yes.”

“Then, Professor, you must close your eyes.”

For all her skepticism, she closes her eyes even before his sentence ends.

Dimitri stares at her for a moment, simply because he is able to. He extends his hands, curling them as gently as he can against her biceps; there is no surprise upon the fact that her arms are defined, well-toned. If Dimitri was feeling any bolder, he might have sighed a sigh of appreciation—but now, as he is, with what he is about to do, he cannot allow himself to indulge. Steadily, he steps closer to her person, and now Dimitri is able to feel the warmth she gives off seeping into his chest.

“You must keep your eyes closed,” he murmurs, yet it might as well have been a shout.

“Yes,” Byleth whispers.

“Even afterward,” Dimitri insists. He’s closer, now, able to feel each exhale of her breath against his face. “You must keep your eyes closed.”

Yes.”

Satisfied, he retracts a hand from her arm and brings it up to her face, and then more, brushing the fringe from her forehead away. Dimitri leans forward, his lips just barely brushing against her skin. “I wanted… to be the last person to tell you happy birthday,” he confesses, and then laughs the tiniest bit. “Selfish of me, is it not?”

“N—“

Her words stop in her throat the moment she feels Dimitri’s kiss on her forehead. Unconsciously, she reaches forward, the fact that her hands are covered in dirt forgotten in the back of her mind as she clutches at Dimitri’s cloak. Byleth doesn’t go back on her word, keeping her eyes closed even as the gentle pressure of his lips disappear, even as his hands retract, fringe falling back into place, his warmth still lingering on her arm. She barely notices that her hand, which once clutched at his cloak, is now empty.

The greenhouse is quiet, far too quiet for Byleth’s liking. She knits her brows together, muscles tense but she cannot open her eyes, just yet—“Dimitri?” she whispers. As no answer comes to her, she squeezes her eyes shut further, lifting her hands, palms forward—and when her palms make contact with empty space, Byleth finally opens her eyes to find that she is alone, the door to the greenhouse more ajar than it had been moments prior.

Byleth looks around, her legs suddenly made of lead. She blinks a few times, her brow furrowed as she brings a hand to her forehead—there is an immense feeling of disappointment upon the fact that the warmth of his kiss isn’t even there, anymore.

“Oh!” she gasps, suddenly recalling the parchment he handed her. Frantically, Byleth checks the ground, relief flooding through her as she finds it quickly. At first, she cannot do anything but stare at it with wide eyes and a curious mind—this was the first time in her life something like this has happened. Slow, almost tentatively, careful; unlike all the other times, rushed, quick, no room for butterflies.

Byleth can’t deny the flutters in the pit of her stomach.

Slowly, she opens the perfectly folded parchment in her hands.

***

Ghosts haunt him.

Every waking moment is cruel upon the occasion that his body allows him to rest—but even his dreams are full of blood and anguish, screams of terror and cries that hurt his eardrums. The throbbing against his temples is constant, harsher than it had been five years ago, and Dimitri cannot help but wonder if the whole world is mocking him. Surely, this is what he deserved—how could he deserve no less?

Her head…

“I’ll get it. I’ll get it,” he growls.

Blood…

“No more. You will not taste it again. I swear!”

Hurts…

“I—I know!” he screams at the stone wall in front of him, fingers digging into his scalp and it hurts, it’s painful, but he knows no other way. Dimitri yanks at his own hair, his breath catching in his throat, raw. “I know it hurts—damn it all, I know, I know, won’t you grant me a moment of solitude?!”

She’s…coming…

He cannot breathe. His vision blurs as he turns to lean against the wall, sliding down, only stopping when he has no other choice. There is little Dimitri can do against his own body shutting down.

*

The next sound he hears upon waking is not the cries of the ones in the back of his head.

It is familiar—click, clack… click, clack… The footfalls are slow, a bit louder each time, and Dimitri cannot help but hate the way the steadiness of those steps sound shrill against his ears. His body hurts, his mind races from one thought to the next, his chest heaves and Dimitri vaguely wonders if he is going to vomit.

She appears before him bathed in light. She is fuzzy around the edges, a ghost right in front of him. The urge to run is strong—after all these years, this is the first time her ghost materialized in front of him. He sees her pause, can feel her gaze on him.

Why…

Byleth walks forward, confident. The urge to flee grows stronger. His mind reels, until she finally comes to a stop in front of him, and extends her hand—such a simple gesture, so much like her it hurts.

Small. Fragile. Delicate, his mind supplies.

How cruel his own mind is.

Dimitri looks away.

“I should have known,” he mutters, “that one day… you would haunt me as well.”

He hates this. He despises it—after all these years, why must she haunt him now? He had waited endlessly, ever since he heard the whispered news of her falling, falling, of her scream losing volume as her body became engulfed by inky darkness.

He waited for her ghost, even as he searched for a day and a half with no rest, only hatred fueling him. He searched, digging up rocks and debris, enough to the point where his blunt nails had split down the middle, expecting her ghost to take form alongside the others, demanding where her justice was, where and when she would finally be able to rest, to be rid of the anguish of losing her life in one fall.

He waited, even as he fought tooth and nail against thieves young and old. He waited, even as he hid for that short amount of time, evading the enemy, and after he was captured and imprisoned, even after he escaped, only to end up exactly where he was now.

Dimitri struggles to stand as his mind reels. He is mildly surprised that he manages to keep balance. His chest heaves as he bites, “What must I do to be rid of you?” Why now, of all times. He chooses harsh words, a gruff voice, a look of distaste.

Hate me. Hate me. Hate me.

She looks at him so forlornly, her eyes so void of hatred.

Dimitri cannot accept it.

“Do not look at me—with—with such—scorn… in your eyes…!”

Shock shows in her face—in the way her eyes widen, the way her mouth falls open the tiniest bit. Byleth furrows her eyebrows, glaring at the ground before she looks back up again. “You… you are… but a pillar… in my heart,” she says the words so perfectly, as if reading from a script. “You never—let me… falter.”

Although the words bring about an air of familiarity, he refuses the feeling. Dimitri takes a rough step forward, snarling down at her, “What in the hell are you saying? I don’t understand. Speak like a beast or get out of my way.”

To his surprise, she does neither. Byleth extends a hand, confidently placing it upon his armor, where his heart beats beneath.

“Everything will be okay,” she tells him.

Never before had the ghosts touched him.

She’s alive.

“Did you… come here to kill me?”

Byleth looks at him curiously before smiling up at him, much like an offer. Something prickles along the back of Dimitri’s neck—familiar, warm. He has not felt this in five years. Slowly, Byleth says, “A flutter in the freeze, pushing forward.

***

Time doesn’t quite feel real around him. A battle here, a battle there—an acceptance of help, their forces strengthened. Dimitri barely sleeps, and he is so uncaring of the fact; his words are harsh, his thirst for revenge constant, because he knows how the ghosts urge.

However, Byleth is there through it all.

She is ever at his side, a constant life force alongside the ghosts, helping him differentiate between what is real and what isn’t although he had never once asked. Dimitri sees the way she looks at him—sometimes her eyes are full of something he cannot decipher, and other times her eyes are full of worry and loneliness, and other times…

He does not ask for forgiveness, even as a blade pierces his skin.

And so, Dimitri does not know what to ask for when another gives up their life for him.

His throat feels raw, his mind even more. A hand cups his cheek, fingers shaking the tiniest bit as the Goddess takes Rodrigue away. Dimitri expects to be lashed out at: harsh words to even rival his own.

“Are you safe?”

The inquiry is what Dimitri expects the least.

The fog clears, just a little bit.

Dimitri isn’t aware of the words coming out of his mouth, only the feel of his throat closing up, his voice cracking.

“There are no sins or punishments on the battlefield,” Rodrigue tells him sadly.

“Don’t die, please, don’t die,“ is his only plead. “Are you to join the ghosts that shadow my every move?” Dimitri asks. If so, he—

Rodrigue laughs, a small hah. “None of us… died for you,” he says, his face pale. His words sound harsh—they are anything but. “I am dying… for what I believe in, just as… they did.” Rodrigue inhales deeply, deep enough for Byleth to see the struggle in his expression, but never pain—not in front of this broken man, who could never escape his own pain. “Your life is your own.” Blood trails out of Rodrigue’s mouth, yet his hand still gently, firmly, cups Dimitri’s face. “My… promise…”

When the glint in Rodrigue’s eyes fades away, the birds that had been hidden among the tree limbs take flight.

*

Byleth looks small in front of him, but he knows she is quite like a looming tower.

“Where are you going?” she asks, yet Dimitri can already see the answer in her eyes. “You—are you… going to Enbarr?”

“It doesn’t concern you,” Dimitri says, and he sounds much more condescending than he intends.

“It does.”

“Get out of my way. Now.”

Byleth digs her heels into the softened ground, her hands balled into fists. He wants to tell her, loosen your grip, lest your fragile hands shatter, but he holds his tongue. Dimitri can feel himself weaken. In front of her—how could he weaken?

“Do you really think that will appease the dead?”

Dimitri is quick to cross his arms defensively. “Silence,” he bites, tilting his nose to the sky. She looks tinier like this—yet, still… her eyes do not shift, nor does her bottom lip quake. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Death is the end, the dead are powerless—they cannot wish for revenge, they cannot seek it out.” He steps forward, growing weaker. “Hatred, regret, those burdens fall upon the living, the ones left behind.”

Byleth’s eyes are clear as she listens, her hands clenched still. Her gaze is so level that it almost makes Dimitri crumble.

“I must continue down this path,” he insists. Dimitri drops his hands, hates the way his voice trembles, because he knows that although it was barely there, her ears pick up every emotion laced in his voice. “It is far too late to stop.”

Her words are simple: “You’re wrong.”

Dimitri laughs, a raw bark that leaves his throat aching. “Do not waste your breath! Such nonsense, it’s meaningless.” He turns, his heart shaking. “How could I move on with my life for their sake? Those who died, with lingering regret, they… they will not loosen their hold on me so easily.”

In front of her, the iron wall he had built for this particular moment cracks, and it is deep enough that he can’t do anything but invite it to deepen further. “But, you seem to have all the answers…” Dimitri’s voice is quiet, so much that he is afraid this moment of weakness would backfire. “So, tell me… Professor. Please, tell me…” His voice cracks, and Dimitri finds that it is unfair, the way the clouds above do not. “How do I… silence their desperate pleas? How do I… save them?”

“You must forgive yourself.” Her answer is immediate, as if she had replayed this exact conversation, over and over.

The words are strange, eerily so. He looks over to her with a wide eye, and finds no humor in her own. Dimitri knows that the next words on his tongue are dangerous. The rain falls down softer now, as if the sky itself wishes to cleanse away his anguish. “Then… who… or what, should I… live for?”

As the fog lifts, she no longer looks so tiny.

“For what you believe in,” Byleth says the words so earnestly.

“What I…” believe in… “Rodrigue, he said the same, but… is it…” possible? the question dies on his tongue. “My hands, they are stained red. Could one such as I… could a monster such as I truly hope for such a life? Do I… have the right to live for myself?”

Byleth extends her hand, her smile blooming, as if she imagined this exact scene, over and over.

Dimitri knows he does not have the right to take her hand—and yet, how could he deny himself such a thing? Tentatively, he extends his own, cradling the bottom of her hand in one, her knuckles against his palm, and resting his other atop hers, palm to palm.

“Have your hands… always been so warm?”

A memory returns to him, a gentle push into his mind. Dimitri recalls the greenhouse, kneeling by her side, and he remembers feeling so sly—extending a hand to brush the same speck of dirt off a vibrant yellow flower the same moment she had.

“Ah,” he sighs, warmth seeping into his hands. There is no longer any fog at the edges of his mind. “They’ve always been.”

***

Dimitri’s mind is clearer than it has ever been. It is a bit shocking to the people around him, the sudden shift in personality, the softness in his voice that was much like how it had been five years ago—but his shell has undoubtedly changed, and his past behavior remained fresh in their minds.

There is much to do, but he knows that things can never be as they were, yet his desire to do right is pure. Dimitri’s words are true, and as he remembers the warmth from Byleth’s hands, he cannot help but want his whole heart to be in each syllable he speaks.

As their unanimous agree to take back the Kingdom Capital settles among them, a new weight settles upon his shoulders.

It is true—taking back the Capital meant She would slip farther away, her blood would run through her veins longer than he wished, and yet he cannot do anything but tell himself the day would soon come. Even as the night drags on, taking him from slumber, the nightmares on the threshold of his consciousness—Dimitri feels… settled.

Although settled, he felt a bit restless.

His mind goes on and on, from one conversation to the next, and his limbs are on fire. Like this, how could he hope to sleep? Dimitri’s sigh is quiet as he stands in front of his door, running over his choices. He looks back at the heap of armor on the floor, but it was such a hassle, such a task to put back on, that Dimitri shakes his head at the heap before pushing the door open.

The night air felt soothing against his skin.

Like clockwork, his feet take him to the stairs leading to the greenhouse.

Dimitri wonders why this scene looks so familiar. The greenhouse is lit up like a full moon, the door ajar. With furrowed brows, he takes quiet, easy steps two at a time down. When he peeks inside, Byleth is there, a bucket next to her and a watering can on her other side. Nostalgia almost sweeps him off his feet and he doesn’t know why.

As if hearing the door creak, or perhaps the rapid beat of Dimitri’s heart, Byleth turns to the door, hands pausing in their task.

Was it a trick of the light, or had her eyes widened?

“Oh,” she breathes.

“Ah—“

The moment seems to freeze as they stare at each other, tongue-tied. Hurriedly, Byleth says, “Would you care to help me?” as if any other words wouldn’t root him on the spot.

Dimitri slips through the door, uneasiness in his heart. His eyes skim over the lush of flowers and ferns. “I—“

“You are afraid you will break something so fragile,” she finishes his sentence, taking the words right from his mouth.

How—

“Then, would you be content with watching me?”

Dimitri looks at her curiously, and wonders for a moment if in those five years, she suddenly gained the ability to slip into another’s mind. “If… you would be so kind as to allow me,” he says, and quite abruptly, Dimitri feels so out of place without the bulk of his mantle and armor.

Byleth gestures to the spot beside her. “Please.”

And so, Dimitri kneels beside her, eyes watching her hands intently. Every once in a while, he glances to the side of her face, her expression the same, yet something is undoubtedly different. Dimitri takes the watering can in his hands carefully, tipping it where she directs.

A sense of déjà vu hits him so squarely in the chest and he cannot stop his words from spilling out.

“Have we done this before?” It comes out in one breath.

Byleth hums, testing the air, and then shrugs. “Have we?”

“That… that is what I am asking.”

“Do you feel as though we have?”

“Professor,” Dimitri sighs, bringing up a hand to rub at his forehead. “I don’t know.”

Again, Byleth hums. “Maybe, one day you will.”

Dimitri says nothing, until Byleth speaks again, seemingly unwilling to let the topic fall.

“We have,” she tells him quietly. Her hands stop in their task altogether, coming to rest in her lap.

“I… see…” he murmurs, thinking that, it explains the vivid memory that had occurred to him before.

“Do you—“ Byleth presses her lips together, her gaze straight ahead.

Unwilling to let the topic go, yet unwilling to speak… Dimitri thinks, fighting his smile. What a peculiar woman. “Professor?”

“Do you remember?” Her voice is the quietest it has ever been.

“Oh, it… it is very… vague.”

Byleth nods vigorously, a strange look on her face as she blinks a few times. He watches as she pushes herself up, snatching the bucket in one hand and the watering can in the other before striding past him.

“Professor—“ He reaches out, the tips of his fingers brushing the hem of her cloak. It shocks him so deeply that he has to curl his fingers into his palm.

She halts, looking behind her, down at Dimitri who is still knelt on the ground. Byleth smiles at him, but Dimitri can tell that her smile is not the same smile she has given him so many other times—and just like that, she leaves the greenhouse without another word.

Even as the moon and sun take turns over the rule of the sky, Dimitri cannot get that unusual smile out of his mind.

***

With a clang, a dagger full of memories falls to the ground.

It was inevitable, of course—they both knew that, even as they walked back to where they had came, even as Dimitri paused in the light that spilled from the open door. Even as he turned, his heart wavering, and especially as Byleth’s hand was quick to curl against his own, causing him to turn.

His eye wide, he looked at her—a question.

Her eyes forlorn, she shook her head—a plea.

Hand in hand, they greeted the cheers awaiting them.

In front of them, a new age of history unraveled.

It hadn’t taken long for the whispers to make their way through the air, ear to ear. In that short amount of time, gossip of the newly appointed King and his mayhaps-queen-to-be circled the Kingdom, the water, maybe even the skies.

Byleth leans against the stone slabs in front of her, mind reeling as she looks upon that same sky. She almost wants to call out, asking, demanding to know if they, too, have heard the peoples talk. Byleth squeezes her eyes shut, recalling the butterflies, the inferno ablaze in her chest.

Do you remember?

It… it is very vague.

She feels much like a jester.

As if in response, the tattered, worn with age parchment seems to burn against her hip, as does the ring it protects. She bites her lip, chest seeming to cave in upon itself because it wasn’t as though she hadn’t tried. Perhaps now, it would be different—Dimitri was much like he was five years ago, but of course, older, and ragged around the edges, plagued with guilt and muddled down with blood that was no longer vibrant.

She swears she can hear Sothis yelling at her, it would very much be different now, you buffoon!

“Come now, my friend.”

His voice caused the inferno to erupt once more.

Byleth turns to him, her fingers itching.

“Tomorrow is yet another early morning—won’t you cease these midnight strolls?” his voice is on the verge of a laugh, and the corners of her lips twitch as he continues, “However, it matters little, yes? You cannot sleep, can you? Well, neither can I.” Dimitri pauses before continuing, his expression troubled. “I—I want you…to know I am sorry for making you do so much, when your battle wounds are not even healed yet.”

Byleth narrows her eyes accusingly. She thinks little of the gash curving on her bicep and more of the nasty wound on his shoulder. “What of yours?”

Dimitri laughs, much like he had five years ago, carefree and boyish. “Do not worry about me…”

How can I not, she ponders, her expression unchanging.

“My shoulder has healed nicely. There is numbness in my hand of course, but it should not hinder me too much.” Dimitri extends a hand, demonstrating; he clenches his hand, and he is almost able to make a fist again without his whole arm trembling.

Here, the air around them thins. She is unsure of what to do with herself—smile and laugh as if the days were endless, or leap off the balcony and pretend her chest never ached for this man in front of her. Dimitri speaks before Byleth is able to make her choice, and she is unsure if she dislikes that or not.

“It… is a lovely night, is it not?”

Byleth hums simply, her eyes ever watchful as she listens to him speak. It is indescribable—the way his voice is full of hope, the optimism of his words, how heartfelt his entire being is.  After everything that he has been through, all the unspeakable, all the times he might have wished for his life to end… Dimitri speaks now of living. It fills Byleth with something warm, something tender, something… something

She wonders when it will end, this sensation of falling.

“I wish to change this world in my own way,” he tells her earnestly.

It is enough to make her want to weep joyously. She smiles at him, giving him all of her own sincerity. Her heart wishes to burst—although it does not beat, it seems to swell with emotion, shaking with intensity.

“Well, Your Grace,” Dimitri is teasing her, she knows, but she cannot help but narrow her eyes at the laugh playing at the edge of his voice. “Things will be busy from now on. Tomorrow is the coronation, first order of business.” He pauses, raising an eyebrow as he looks at her. There is something there, in his gaze, that roots her to the spot. “Once, a professor and student… Now an archbishop and a king. How very far we have come.”

Byleth shakes her head, a smile on her face. “We are still the same.”

“That is true,” he agrees. “To me, you will always be the one who guided me so kindly. My ally through all. My beloved…” Dimitri pauses, taken aback, as if the last few words hadn’t been meant to say aloud—or, perhaps it was because the phrase paired with her seemed so right. Byleth watches as he brings a hand to his chin, tilting his head.

She can feel her stomach drop, the palms of her hands clammy. Her ears burn red-hot.

“Yes…” he murmurs, the corners of his mouth twitching. “My… beloved.”

It was such a simple word, with such a meaning that would tie them together until the lands dried.

“Di—“

“Listen,” Dimitri interrupts her, hands patting at his clothes. He encloses something in his hand once he’s found it, his expression schooled and serious. “There is something I wish to give you before the coronation. Please, give me your hand.”

Immediately, she extends her hand, palm up, and she is thankful that Dimitri doesn’t comment on the fact her hand shakes.

Dimitri places a ring, emerald and silver, with delicate and smooth designs, in the middle of her palm.

Byleth is sure she is dreaming. With wide eyes, she stares at him; the weight of the ring is non-existent, but somehow it feels heavier than ever.

In front of her, Dimitri’s face blooms with color. “Please, I beg of you… Say something!”

I feel faint, she wants to say. Her fingers curl gently, enclosing the ring in her grasp. Byleth intends to never let it go.

Dimitri looks pointedly at the ground, his voice bashful. “If… if you do not wish to accept, please just tell me…” he murmurs, and it is so heartfelt, so void of malice. “I will face the truth and walk away.”

The Goddess grants Byleth her voice back. “That—that’s not it at all…!” Hurriedly, she pats at her pockets, the piece of parchment seeming to burn against her touch. She encloses it in her hand, feeling the parchment and the ring beneath it. Byleth steps forward, praying for her voice not to sway. “You are the moon and the breeze.”

“W—What is… this?”

Another step and she is close enough to touch him. Byleth reaches out, pressing the parchment folded around the ring, against his armor. “Caressing me in my most fragile moments.”

“Uh—I—“ he stammers, eyes wide as he is forced to take steps backward.

Byleth keeps her hand up, pressing everything against his chest, as if it would melt into him. “A ray of light, shining down—a flutter in the breeze, pushing forward.”

Dimitri continues to stammer, his whole facing lighting up as she recites the lines.

“Guiding me along,” she says, brows narrowed as his back hits the stone wall, “never backwards.”

“P—Please, Byleth—“

“You are but a pillar in my heart.” Here, Byleth is surprised how calm her voice sounds, but she can feel the burn against her cheeks, on the tips of her ears. It was the first time he had ever said her name.

“T—That—“

“You never let me falter.”

Dimitri recognizes the words—how could he have ever forgotten? He recalls a late night, unable to sleep, his heart clutched by emotions, his mind plagued by her smile. Dimitri remembers, all those years ago, sitting at his desk, ink seeping into parchment, waxing poetic. He had always found romance novels a bit intriguing—much more helpful than Sylvain’s tips on Picking Up Women, and thus found that, every once in a blue moon, he could morph his emotions into words, filled with bravery from love confessions bound between leather.

He’s stuttering, incoherent words rushing past his lips as the memory seems to unfold, right before his eyes. Byleth’s birthday—the greenhouse, the brush of their hands, her soft voice as she said, I must thank you, for this, and his gentle voice as he chided, it was from all of us.

I can give you something to thank me for.

You must keep your eyes closed.

A thought comes to him: how had I been so bold?!

Her hair had felt soft albeit a bit dry, her skin warm to the touch. The press of his lips against her forehead seemed to ignite something within him, causing his heart to catch in his throat, his face on fire. Dimitri’s boldness dissipated comically; he had fled, leaving Byleth, eyes closed, in the greenhouse.

He remembers washing the dirt from her hand off his cloak the next morning.

“After all these years—“ he chokes up, recalling… something else…

Dimitri remembers, vividly, being a beast—it was not a proud time of his life, but one he would not ever deny. She had appeared before him, fuzzy around the edges because of bleary vision, and he had thought her a ghost. Byleth had recited a part of his own poem to him—you are but a pillar in my heart, you never let me falter. Shame builds up in his chest as he thinks of all the harsh words he spoke to her, from speak like a beast or get out of my way, to you get in my way and I won’t hesitate to cut you down.

He tries to find his voice. “After all these years, you…”

“You… are truly the poet,” she says, teasing.

Dimitri can barely hear her words as he brings his hands to his chest, catching the things he pressed against him once she retracts her own. Gently, Dimitri opens the frayed parchment, emotion seizing his heart because he could see how well she had taken care of it, after all these years. The color around the folds is light, and feels soft to the touch, as if barely hanging on; the edges frayed and worn from continuous use, opening and folding repeatedly.

It takes once glance to see that it is indeed his handwriting.

Against the parchment, the ring stands out very much.

It is silver and intricate, its jewels eye-catching and beautiful, shimmering between luscious colors of purple and the softest orange, much like a sunset.

“Oh.” His breath seems to release on its own as he recalls her question: don’t you remember? How cruel he had been, to be so honest and admit it was vague—how her heart must have wavered, how hard she must have tried her best to smile her usual smile at him. To be in the same place as this poem was gifted, for the moment to be so much like it had been years ago, only to be met with uncertainty…

No wonder that smile had been so unlike the rest.

“I love you,” Byleth blurts out, effectively pulling him from his own mind. Every thought inside his head seems to vanish. “Dimitri, marry me.”

He stares at her, wide eyed, heart thumping against his chest. “I—I apologize, I forgot. I had forgotten. I am sorry, terribly sorry, I—“ Words fail him. Dimitri presses his lips together.

Byleth narrows her eyes, extending her fisted left hand to him, before opening it up, offering the ring he had given her to him. “Make it up to me.”

There is no hesitation. “Yes,” he murmurs softly, his lips tugging up into a sheepish tilt. “I see. Let us… exchange them, shall we?” Upon her nod of agreement, he plucks the ring from her hand and gives her the one she had offered him, along with the worn paper. She tucks it safely away before reaching out first, taking his left hand gently in her own, a look of relief on her face as the ring slides down smoothly.

“You... you owe me another piece of parchment.”

“Another poem?” he asks, his edges all but soft as he watches her gaze at the ring on his hand.

“If you want.” Byleth shrugs. “I would be content with the same one, over and over.”

Dimitri laughs heartily, switching their hands.

Having her hand in his own, he is struck with affection. Dimitri can feel his fingers shake as he guides the ring down her finger. “Your… hands…” he murmurs, glancing at her through his lashes, “Small, fragile… you have saved me countless of times with these very same hands.”

It is not a question, only a simple statement.

“Yes,” she agrees readily, because—it is true.

Dimitri curls his fingers against her hand, and right now, in front of him, she looks nothing like a looming tower, but much like his everything.

“Thank you, my beloved.”

Byleth is quick to beam up at him, that upward curl causing the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

It was not the first time he had ever felt that sensation, and nor would it be the last.