All Byleth can think, whenever she sees Dimitri, is I should have been there for him.
He had already been falling to pieces when she'd vanished. In her absence, he's broken. She'd barely recognized him when they were reunited, an eye missing, hair long and uncombed, face sallow. Abrasive and cynical and obsessed with revenge. And then Byleth actually witnesses him talking to himself, under the impression of hearing voices, and her concern skyrockets.
If he'd had even one person with him…if she'd been there for him…
What she wouldn't give to turn back the hands of time that far.
It quickly becomes an unspoken agreement among those in the inner circle—comprised of Byleth's former students and several top figures among the Knights and monastery—to hide how unstable Dimitri is. Their revolution, if you can call it that, is as new as the coming spring; the Kingdom of Faerghus and the Knights of Seiros are both resting all their hopes on the prince. For them to learn he doesn't care about the ideals he once swore to protect would be a death blow to their coalition.
It helps that he almost never goes out in public. He doesn't train anymore—instead, he "hunts", slips away from the monastery to plague nearby bandits and Imperial patrols. When she finds out, Byleth assigns Cyril and Mercedes to discretely follow him each time he does; Cyril because of his sharp eyes and wyvern, Mercedes because she can keep Dimitri alive.
She doesn't ask them to stop him or bring him back. Byleth doubts they could. In her darkest moments, she wonders if anyone can.
So they hide Dimitri, and say he's working when people ask why they haven't seen him. He's healing from his injuries in the last battle. He's praying for success. The residents of Garreg Mach swallow it, but despite all their efforts, whispers do eventually start.
Byleth doesn't know why, but for some reason, Dimitri haunts the cathedral at night. She'd like to believe it brings him a sense of comfort, but that's likely just wishful thinking. In any event, one day she is walking past a group of soldiers, and hears: "…talking to himself. He sounded like a madman."
"Seriously?" one of his friends asks, and Byleth stops. She scans her environment. She had been preparing to leave the training grounds after her spar with Felix; dinner is approaching, and the area is rapidly emptying. The only ones within earshot are herself and this small group. She recognizes two of the faces as the ones guarding the cathedral the night before. She starts towards them.
"I was there too. Just about jumped out of my skin when he started."
"Yeah, and you know the rumors of what he's been doing these past five years, right? Makes me wonder…"
The man stops as he catches sight of Byleth. She doesn't say anything. She just levels her "scary blank professor stare", as Annette once called it, at him until he drops his eyes. She turns and does the same to each of the other three individuals, who all balk in turn. It is calm, deliberate. She lets the seconds tick by, dragging the silence out.
"Do not repeat such things," she finally says, when she's judged they've squirmed long enough.
The soldiers hasten to assure her they won't, they're so sorry, and salute before scurrying away. Byleth watches them go, rubs her forehead, and sighs.
That night, she goes to the cathedral with no real plan in mind except that she has to do something. She wants to help Dimitri so badly it hurts, but she doesn't know how. Everything she's tried has been spurned—invitations to meals, teatime, even sparring. He doesn't even attend their war meetings or do his share of paperwork. It's as though he has no use for anything that isn't revenge.
But maybe, if she's there, the soldiers will think he's talking to her instead of the ghosts in his head. That would be better than nothing.
Byleth nods at the guards as she passes through the cathedral's entrance. She closes her eyes and inhales. The scent of incense faintly lingers in the air. Her shoulders relax a fraction.
Despite not being raised religious, she's always liked it here. There's just something so peaceful about it. Curiosity invited her to study the teachings of Seiros, and faith came after. Learning that Sothis had been the goddess all along just sealed her newfound faith, and the calm she feels when she's here has only increased since.
Now there's just rubble where the altar was. The shards of broken stained glass have been swept away, pews brought in, holes plastered, but the cathedral is no longer what it once was. And yet the sense of peace remains.
Dimitri is standing near where the altar used to be, his back to her. He is unmoving, his head bowed. In the dimly lit interior, his fur mantle and hunched shoulders make him seem like a massive, hulking lion. As she approaches, Byleth picks up words: "…don't look at me like that, Father…please, I swear, I'll bring you her head soon…"
Her footsteps echo loudly in the grand space. Dimitri stops shorts. His head turns and his single remaining eye glares at her, an ice-blue dagger. "What do you want?"
It comes out as a growl, and even though she should be used to his demeanor by now, her heart twists. She thinks back to a ball, a talk with a smiling young man at the Goddess Tower, and the absence of that man makes her want to weep in a way she only has once before.
"My room is stuffy. I need a quiet place to work," she says, holding out her stacks of paper like an offering. She brought them with her partially for cover, and partially because there really is too much to do. There are reports to fill, supplies to catalogue, merchants to contact, troops to evaluate. She wouldn't be able to relax if she knew those tasks remained unfinished.
Dimitri eyes her a moment longer, then snorts and walks away, dismissing her. He doesn't leave the cathedral, just moves to the far side and starts pacing over there. Watching him, Byleth realizes that if she tries to approach now, she'll just drive him away. Her conversation dies before it even gets to start.
Alright, she thinks. At least he's still here and hasn't ordered me to leave. I'll take it.
She can be patient. If she needs to wait, to let Dimitri get used to her company again before she tries to speak…she will. No matter how long it takes.
Byleth forms a proper plan and returns the next night. And the night after that. Night upon night, until Dimitri stops scowling at her whenever she enters. He stops moving as far in the cathedral to prowl, and then stops moving away at all. Byleth hasn't heard any more rumors of his madness, so that's one thing achieved. If only the other were as easy.
For a time, she doesn't speak to him at all. It feels horrible thinking of him like a wild animal, but it's the best comparison she can make. Startle it, and it'll run or attack. Once he gets used to her presence, then she tries talking.
She starts with work. Casual questions, asking him about their strategy for defeating the Empire. All his responses are short and unhelpful. "We will carve a path to their heart, to Edelgard's heart, and rip it out of her chest," he would growl, or something similar.
"Barreling ahead with brute force isn't going to work. We need to return to Faerghus, reclaim our territory, get more troops," she would respond, to no avail.
After accepting she's not going to draw him out that way, Byleth tries another. His five years fighting Imperial patrols have given him quite some knowledge about their movements, so asking about that proves a little more fruitful. If by 'fruitful' she means 'she knows where to send groups so he's not hunting alone anymore'.
"How did you lose your eye?" she asks, after a few weeks have passed. Her topics about logistics and strategy are exhausted; dredging up memories of their school year doesn't work; idle conversation about people or the day's events or the future leads nowhere. Asking about his lonely, solitary existence is all she has left.
She's taken to a pew in the front row, on the right-hand side. Dimitri never sits, but she leaves a spot open on her right in case he wants to. He's standing immobile at the rubble, but sound carries well here; the echo of her voice reaches him easily enough. He doesn't spare her a glance as he answers, "Why do you care?"
"Medically speaking, knowing the injury that took it will help our healers if future problems arrive."
He doesn't immediately react to that, so she adds, "And as your friend, I'm concerned."
He snorts. "You think you can be friends with a corpse."
"You're not a corpse, Dimitri."
Byleth waits, but no answer is forthcoming. She's just about resigned herself to another failure when Dimitri's deep baritone resonates through the air. "An ambush. I was travelling along the Airmid River when an arrow suddenly pierced my eye."
"An Imperial ambush?"
"It may has well have been. Their uniforms marked them as soldiers of the Alliance's House Gloucester. Cowardly beasts who support her."
As always when speaking of Edelgard, venom laces his voice. But all Byleth can picture is Dimitri by the river, alone, disoriented, blood gushing from an eye, fighting with teeth bared. No one would have been around to heal him afterwards. Her throat closes. "How did you treat it?"
"I got used to patching up my wounds quickly. This was just a more irritating one."
"Spare me your empty apologies. I don't need or want them."
His tone slams the door on the conversation, and silence regains its hold on them.
They rendezvous with Lord Rodrigue, and there aren't words to describe the feeling in Byleth's chest when Dimitri thanks him. His voice had actually cracked as he'd called him 'friend'. For just a moment, he'd been vulnerable. Byleth had seen a little piece of the goodness she knew was still in him. Now that she has, she won't stop until she's brought them all out and exposed them to the light.
"Good evening, Dimitri," she greets when she enters the cathedral.
Byleth has learned what signifies a good or bad night for Dimitri. Good nights are marked by brooding silence and terse conversation. Bad nights are marked by tuning her out and talking to himself. Really bad nights are marked by him begging his ghosts for forgiveness. Those are the hardest for her, because the urge to hug him is unbearable, and she knows he won't respond well if she tries.
He grunts, which means this will be a good night. Come to think of it, the bad nights are starting to decrease. And he doesn't rant as much on them.
Now that Lord Rodrigue is here, may they decrease even more, she prays.
She settles down in her usual pew, spreading the papers out next to her. Lord Rodrigue didn't bring just soldiers with him, but money and resources as well. They'd had their first proper feast earlier that day to celebrate. Byleth had sat with her former students, warmth budding in her chest as she'd watched them smile and eat real, good food for the first time in ages.
"Oh, Professor, you look happy!" Mercedes had exclaimed, and she had been drawn into the conversation.
Byleth still can't put into words how much it means to her that her students can look at her expressionless face and see the emotions churning underneath. People have told her since she was little that she was too emotionless, or creepy, or apathetic. Only Father and some mercenaries had been able to read her face, but they'd known her all her life. So, for this group of people, who'd known her far less, to see her heart accurately…it only sealed her love for them.
And of her students, Dimitri was the very first to interpret her face. He'd even been the first to see a real smile.
He'd called it mesmerizing, she remembered.
"Why are you here?"
The gravelly voice breaks through her reminiscence, shattering it like a glass orb. Byleth starts. Her quill is poised over the paper, ink dripping. The blob is quite large; she must have been lost in her thoughts for some time.
She puts the unfinished paperwork aside and looks up at Dimitri. Byleth evaluates his face, gauges whether he's just being hostile or is really in the mood to listen, and decides it's the latter. "Because I don't think you should be alone."
"What, out of friendship? Don't bother. I only need you and your friends to help me kill Edelgard."
"Do you remember when my father died?" she pushes, ignoring the hurt that causes. Her breath hitches slightly. To them all, it's been five years since Father's death; to her, it's been a handful of months. His absence is an open wound in her side, painful and raw.
"I wouldn't come out my room. Hanneman and Manuela had to take over classes for me. But through it all, you and the rest of the Blue Lions were supportive. All of you got me through that dark time...but it was you, Dimitri, who helped the most. And I…"
She stops. Swallows the words that had threatened to escape just then, about how he was just special to her. She's not used to talking so much, except in lectures. She especially doesn't talk about her feelings. She's just not comfortable with it.
"I want to be there for you like you were for me," she finally says.
He's quiet for so long that she dares hope that maybe, just maybe, this reached him. But then he scoffs, and her heart sinks. "You can't help me."
Byleth closes her eyes against the disappointment. Only for a moment. Then she opens them and looks him straight in the face. "I don't intend to stop trying."
A few hours later, Dimitri leaves, but Byleth remains, her mind unable to settle. When Lord Rodrigue appears and entrusts Dimitri to her, Byleth wonders if destiny is trying to tell her something. If it is, it's that she must not fail, and so she amends I don't intend to stop trying to I won't let you down.
Dedue is alive. Dedue is alive, and Byleth openly smiles when the battle is over and everyone flocks to him. He tries to stay nonchalant, but he's clearly touched as they shower him with cries of joy and relief. Dimitri actually attends the celebration feast they hold for his return, and yes, he spends most of it skulking, but it's progress. She even sees him pat the head of one of the orphan children their army picked up, to be sent back to Garreg Mach, in their march.
While their camp at the Great Bridge of Myrddin doesn't have the ingredients Garreg Mach does, the best cooks in the army collaborate and produce food that is of far better quality than their usual fare. To prevent a line from getting too long, several stations for serving the food have been set up, strategically placed by Byleth's careful eye. Her and the Blue Lions' status as army commanders guarantees them their own table, which they bring outdoors and decorate with a vase, holding blossoms transplanted from the monastery's greenhouse. For just a short while, it's almost like old times.
But long before the stars come out, as Byleth is fetching her third plate of food, she spots Dimitri's tall frame moving away. Hastily grabbing the plate, she hurries after him, weaving through the tables and crowds. It's a good thing he's so tall and big, and the prince; people just part for him.
She has a feeling she knows where he's going, and it's correct. There is no grand, ruined cathedral in their camp, but there is a tent they use for worship services and prayer. The guards unlucky enough to be on duty have had food brought to them, but their minds are clearly elsewhere. Byleth gives them a stern look, and they snap to attention. She understands wanting to celebrate, but she will not have their army brought down by a surprise attack.
The tent's interior is large yet somewhat modest. There's a small, cloth-covered table that serves as an altar and clunky benches instead of smooth pews. Still, everything is kept in good condition, the candles are scented, there's even a carpet rolled out.
"Go away," Dimitri growls, without looking back at her, as she follows him to the altar.
She doesn't. Byleth sits on a bench, puts the plate on her knees, and begins cutting her fish. "You left early."
"I don't belong out there."
"Of course you do. Dedue is alive, Dimitri, and that's wonderful. But the Blue Lions still aren't complete without you."
There's the rapid sound of stomping boots, and suddenly a shadow falls over her. She looks up. Dimitri is towering over her, glaring down, his broad shoulders obscuring most of her view. The height difference between them is already painfully clear when she's standing; now, with her sitting and him on his feet, he may as well be a giant.
He places his hands on the back of the bench, boxing her in. Her skin prickles with awareness at their proximity. Byleth ignores it. Instead, she narrows her eyes and cranes her neck so she can glare him in the face. "Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd," she enunciates clearly. "Do not try to intimidate me."
"What does it take to be rid of you? Your presence is an irritant. All you want is for things to go back to the way they were before, and they won't. The Dimitri you knew is dead. Stop pretending otherwise!"
"I will not. You can't pretend you weren't happy to see Dedue again. I saw you. The monster you claim to be wouldn't care about Dedue's life."
"I am a monster, Professor. I have taken countless lives in ways that would sicken you if I described them. And when we clash with Edelgard at Gronder Field, I will rip her throat out with my bare teeth if I must. I have become a rabid beast to destroy other beasts, and that's all I can be."
The anger in his voice is real, but underneath it she can hear anguish. Self-loathing. All the things she would slay for him if she could. "It is never too late. All you have to do is decide to change."
"I'll kill you," he threatens.
"Go ahead." She's not afraid. She knows her Dimitri is still in there somewhere. He would never kill her.
His chest heaves with hard breath as his face turns mutinous. Byleth doesn't waver. She just waits, until finally, Dimitri lets out a frustrated roar, pushes away, and storms off. Not to the other side of the tent, but outside.
Byleth drops her eyes to her fish, which no longer looks appetizing. Perhaps she'd pushed him too far. But with what particular battle is coming next, she fears that facing Edelgard might just undo all the progress he's made.
After the Battle of Gronder Field, after the funeral for Lord Rodrigue, after Dimitri apologizes to them all and vows to atone, they return to Garreg Mach. Byleth isn't sure what she'll see when she enters the cathedral that night; she half-expects it to be empty, but no, he's there, in his usual spot. And he's waiting for her. She blinks twice, pleasantly surprised.
"Professor!" he exclaims as she walks up to him. "I was hoping you'd show."
"Just Byleth is fine," she says. It's the same thing she's told all her former students. Byleth doesn't mind still being called Professor, but she wants to make it clear they are her friends and family. She's not their teacher anymore, after all; it'd be a shame if that's all she was to them.
His lips twitch. "Yes, I know, Professor."
He's teasing her. That's good.
"Nightmares?" she asks, settling down on the pew and putting the papers to the side. Dimitri sits on her right. Joy twines through her.
"No, but I expect they'll be there when I go to sleep. I just wanted to delay meeting them." His head lowers, hair falling to obscure his face. "I know my new path is right, but I'm afraid of facing the scorn of my loved ones."
"You forgave yourself," she reminds him. "That's the first step."
"Yes…you're correct. I will simply have to endure until then."
Byleth shakes her head. "No need to endure alone. You can always turn to me for help."
The movement blows a stray lock of hair right into her mouth. She spits it out and tucks it behind her ear. As she does, she notices that Dimitri is following the motion of her hand. Byleth glances at it, then back at him. "Do you want to hold it?"
He starts, his cheeks turning the slightest shade of pink. "Ah…no, you have work to do, I can't inconvenience you…"
Ignoring his protests, she reaches over, tugs off his glove, and takes his left hand. He stops talking immediately. A dazed expression crosses his face.
Five years. Five years with no physical contact from another human being, save injuries. Her touch is the first he's had in half a decade; how monumental that moment in the rain, when he'd murmured her hands were warm, must have been for him. How then, can she ever refuse to offer that comfort again if he needs it?
Besides, she likes holding his hand, she decides. His palm is sweaty, but his fingers envelop hers, curling over her wrist. It's comforting.
She squeezes. He takes a shaky breath, then squeezes back.
And Byleth smiles.
A/N: Hello yes, I blazed through the Blue Lions route and it destroyed me. What an emotional rollercoaster. Dimileth is for sure my 3H OTP.
One of the things I noticed was that, from the timeskip to Chapter 18, Dimitri spends all his time in the cathedral. Cue wild speculations of "what if he haunts it at night because he can't sleep and Byleth finds out and starts hanging out there so he won't be alone." Combine that with my feels at his hearing voices, and this was born.