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slow to mend

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The weeks after Rodrigue’s death are emotionally complicated.

Dimitri’s dark trance has finally broken, which makes the ground feel solid under Byleth’s feet again. It seems to have the same effect on the rest of their party-- morale has improved with their prince no longer snarling at anyone who tries to speak to him.

The war still feels like an uphill struggle, but the slope is getting less steep every day.

Byleth has gotten enough out of Felix to know he’s handling his father’s death as best as one could hope for. Byleth keeps an eye on him, watching for the cracks she missed with Dimitri five years ago.

Thankfully, it’s clear that she isn’t the only one. Sylvain has become ever-present, even disappearing into Felix’s room at night. Byleth keeps expecting Felix to turn him away, but he never does.

She starts to wonder, as she watches them, if maybe Dimitri would accept her help now. His mind is on the mend, but he still spends so much time alone, sleeping little and only bothering to treat his injuries enough that they won’t fester.

Byleth remembers the days after Jeralt died. Dimitri had been her lifeline then, promising his sword to whatever revenge she sought and quietly tending to her while she grieved. He found her sitting at her father’s grave in the rain, once, and then came to find her every time it rained for weeks.

He took care of her when she needed him. She wants to do the same for him.

* * *

It isn’t often a battle goes on long enough that they exhaust their healers. Yesterday’s fight was one of those times. Byleth’s fingers feel numb without the hint of magic flowing through them, and Mercedes was so exhausted she slept through breakfast this morning. Most of them have a few cuts and bruises they’ve left to heal the natural way, and Byleth is no exception to that.

Neither, it seems, is Dimitri.

Byleth doesn’t see him for the first few hours of the day. After battles, she always helps Manuela in the infirmary, even if she’s completely tapped out on white magic. She spends the early morning applying poultices and splints, until her empty stomach drives her out.

She has lunch with Felix and Sylvain, comforted by their affectionate bickering. Sylvain has a bruised shoulder and Felix is pretending not to be doting on him.

Once she’s eaten, she decides it’s time to track down Dimitri.

She isn’t happy with how she finds him.

He’s in the training grounds, and it’s obvious that he shouldn’t be. She remembers the arrow that grazed his temple yesterday, and it looks like he hasn’t even washed the blood out of his hair.

“Oh, Byleth. I thought you were spending the morning helping the infirmary?”

It’s a balm to her nerves to hear him talk to her like a person and not a vengeful ghost from a tragic play. Still, all is not well.

“It’s already lunch time. Have you eaten today?” she asks, frowning.

“Annette brought me breakfast on her way to check on Mercedes,” Dimitri says. Byleth makes a mental note to buy more of Annette’s favorite tea. That woman is the bedrock of this army.

“There’s still blood in your hair,” Byleth says, cutting right to the point.

“Oh,” Dimitri says, lifting a hand to his right temple. Some of the dried blood comes away on his fingers, and he grimaces when he looks at it. “My apologies, I must look rather alarming.”

“You didn’t get the wound healed yesterday, did you?”

“There were higher priorities for the healers at the time,” Dimitri says, and Byleth wants to argue, but he’s right. He still needs to prioritize his health more, but there were bigger problems than minor flesh wounds yesterday.

Byleth sighs and reaches up to brush the blood-crusted hair away from his temple. Some of the hair has stuck to the wound; Dimitri winces ever so slightly.

“Can I wash your hair?”

The question clearly takes Dimitri off guard. He blinks at her for a moment.

“What? Why?”

“It isn’t clean, and it’s in your wound. If I wash it and put it up, it will stay out of the injury so it can heal.”

Dimitri’s face has gone a bit pink, and he shakes his head. “That isn’t necessary.”

“Dimitri. Your body needs to be maintained as much as your weapons do. If it would make you uncomfortable, that’s one thing, but if you’re worrying about burdening me, then please, don’t.”

“I’ve had worse. It will heal.”

“I think our soldiers could do without seeing the crown prince of Faerghus wandering around covered in his own blood.”

Dimitri hesitates for a moment, then sighs. Byleth knows she’s won.

* * *

For the sake of not getting too many weird looks, they leave the training grounds and head up to Byleth’s quarters. With Annette and Mercedes in her social circle, she’s been gifted quite a few different mixtures for taking care of her hair. All they need to grab along the way is a pail of water.

It’s hardly Dimitri’s first time in her room, as she often hosts people here for tea, but without that familiar context he looks lost. Byleth gathers her supplies and organizes them on her desk, moving her journal out of the way.

“Sit down,” she says, gesturing to her desk chair. Dimitri immediately moves to follow her instructions, but she catches the mistake in time. “Take your furs and eyepatch off first.”

“Right,” Dimitri says, taking off his cloak and hanging it on the coat rack in the corner. Honestly, the cloak probably needs a wash as much as his hair does, but one thing at a time. The eyepatch joins the rest of the things set out on the desk.

Now divested of his furs, Dimitri takes a seat in her desk chair. Byleth stands behind him and takes a good look at what she’s working with. Dimitri’s hair is a mess of finger-combed tangles and grime.

“This part will hurt,” Byleth says plainly, dipping a washcloth into the bucket of water. Dimitri just nods, and if Byleth wasn’t so determined to remain gentle with him, she’d feel silly for even mentioning it.

She cleans the wound first. Expecting it, Dimitri doesn’t react to the pain at all.

It doesn’t take long. Once the worst of the blood is gone, she sets the bucket at her feet behind the chair. She grabs a cup from her lined-up supplies and fills it with water from the bucket.

“Lean your head back,” Byleth instructs, and Dimitri does. She slowly pours the water over his head, letting the excess drip down into the bucket. Once his hair is wet, she sets the cup down and grabs one of the bottled hair treatments Mercedes gave her.

This particular mix is a thicker one, made mostly of ground cleansing herbs and mint. It isn’t as floral as some of the other treatments, but she likes how it smells. Honestly, it’s her favorite, the one she usually uses for her own hair.

Dimitri, whose eyes have been closed since she started pouring the water, suddenly looks at her a moment after she uncorks the bottle.

“Oh. It was your hair,” he says, and then turns red when she gives him a curious look. “My apologies, I’ve just noticed the scent of mint about you before. I always wondered what it was.”

Byleth glances down at the bottle in her hands. “Do you not like it? I have others.”

Dimitri shakes his head, which is a bit awkward with the wet hair. “No, I… I like it.”

Byleth smiles and nods. Dimitri gives her a look she can’t quite place, but it’s soft enough at the edges that she decides not to worry about it.

She pours some of the mixture into her palm, then rubs her hands together. Without further preamble, she starts in on Dimitri’s hair. She goes for the roots first, massaging the treatment into his scalp.

Dimitri absolutely melts.

He sighs, and all the tension falls out of his face at once. Something in her chest flutters at seeing him so relaxed. She slows down, letting her nails scratch lightly against his skin.

“Feels nice?” she asks. Speaking breaks the spell, and Dimitri tenses up again.

“Sorry,” he says, shame in his voice. “I feel like I’m taking advantage. That wasn’t my intention. If you’d rather leave, I can do it myself.”

Byleth counters that argument with another gentle scratch, at the base of his neck. It actually makes him shiver, which she might like a little too much. “I like making you feel good.”

From this angle, she can see the way his blush makes it all the way to his ears.

“Oh.”

Byleth hums instead of responding verbally, working the mixture through the rest of Dimitri’s hair. His hair is clean long before she stops, and he looks like he might fall asleep towards the end.

“Dimitri,” she says, and he opens his eye to look at her. She smiles at him, and for once, he actually smiles back. “I need to rinse your hair.”

“Alright,” he says, nodding slightly. He tilts his head back accommodatingly while she washes the mixture out of his hair. It takes a few cupfuls before the water starts to run clean, which is more satisfying than she expected.

“I’m a bit afraid to know what the water looks like now,” Dimitri admits, which gets a fond smile out of Byleth.

“At least it isn’t on your body,” she says, grabbing the comb from her desk. “Ponytail okay?”

“You’re sure you don’t mind doing this for me? I’m feeling a little bit… spoiled.”

“Taking care of you when you aren’t doing well is not spoiling you. You did the same for me after my father passed.”

“That was different,” Dimitri says softly. “The state I’m in is my own fault.”

Byleth stays quiet for a long moment, silently combing Dimitri’s hair.

“I don’t think that matters,” she says finally. “Not to me. You took care of me at my lowest, and I intend to return the favor.”

“You already have, many times over. You owe me nothing, Byleth.”

Byleth frowns and shakes her head.

“I fear I’ve phrased that poorly. It... has never been a matter of owing you a debt. You offered me a friendship years ago, and there is nothing in my life I treasure more. I intend to protect it at all costs.”

She knots the ribbon she’s using to tie up Dimitri’s hair and steps away from the chair. Dimitri turns to look at her.

With his hair pulled out of her face, she can see all the ways time has changed him. What remains of his right eye is swallowed by scar tissue, and he’s lost enough weight to change the shape of his face.

But at least he’s finally smiling.