A/N: It's Dimileth week! I have fics for most of the prompts ready to go, and hopefully I can finish the incomplete ones in time. Modern AU was actually one of the harder ones to figure out, but I really liked what I came up with in the end. I hope y'all do too!
There's a gym two blocks from Byleth's apartment, and for every night for the past six weeks, she's gone there. Not because of the location—though that's convenient—or the equipment—which is nice—but because, with a membership, she can go in at any hour and use the free room. So, when she wakes up drenched in sweat at three in the morning, she can throw on workout clothes, walk down the deserted streets to the building, and exercise until her mind goes gloriously blank.
The night clerk, a surly man named Jeritza, doesn't even look up when she walks in or when he scans her membership card. Byleth doesn't expect him to. Wordlessly, she retakes her card, drops her things in a locker, and heads to the familiar room.
It's empty, unsurprisingly. There's only one other person who joins Byleth on her nightly workouts, a blonde man with bags under his eyes. He's almost a foot taller than her and much broader, and practically attacks the machines. She doesn't know his name. Sometimes they wind up leaving at the same time, and he holds the door open, and she mutters a thank you before they part ways. Once, when she lifted her water bottle to her lips and found it empty, he loaned her his. But that's really all the interaction they have. Byleth is too focused on sweating the pain out to talk, and she thinks he is, too.
Tonight, it seems like she got here first. Byleth runs calculating eyes over the machines available, decides on the water rower, and puts her kind-of acquaintance out of her mind. He's as consistent as she is; the times they arrive and leave change, but he's always there to bring almost-solidarity.
So, when five am rolls around and she's packing up, Byleth is surprised that he hasn't shown at all. She frowns, then shrugs. Perhaps he just didn't want to come tonight.
But the next night, he doesn't show up either. Or the next, or the ones following. Her vague curiosity morphs into concern. Worry nags her through the day and night. Her nightmares grow stronger, the red splash of her father's blood vivid against the sidewalk, and even if she exercises until she almost faints, she can't erase the images from her head.
It could be nothing. He could just be getting more sleep, or found a new gym. But it could be something, too. Her intuition tells her it is.
She tries asking Jeritza about the blonde man, but he looks down his nose at her and says that member information is confidential. She tries asking for non-confidential information, like his name, but he's equally unhelpful. And when she goes in during the day to try talking to someone else, none of them know her night stranger's name, either. "Tall, blonde, muscular" could describe half the men in the gym.
It's not like she knows the guy, Byleth tells herself. But—she does, kind of. She knows he drinks flavored water. She knows from his clothes that he's used to colder temperatures. She knows he's a survivor by the scars disappearing under the collar of his shirt and on his arms.
She knows he's like her, a lonely soul who can't sleep at night.
It's a thin, strenuous connections—but a connection all the same.
She has too few of those. And suddenly, it becomes important to know she still has this one.
And as suddenly as he vanished, he's back, exactly a week to the date.
Byleth pauses in the doorway to the free room. The man is running at a punishing pace on the treadmill like he never left. The relief she feels is too strong for their relationship.
She can't help shooting glances at him as she walks to her treadmill, punches in her desired speed and incline. The bags under his eyes are freshly renewed, but his skin is free of blemishes or marks. No signs of physical injury or drug use. That's that, then. He's back and not outwardly harmed. Perhaps she should just be satisfied with that.
But Byleth knows not all harm is external, and if she lets this lie, she'll never know what troubled him. If it'll come back. And this week showed her that she wants. Something. She's not sure what, exactly, but there's something in her that had been reassured by his presence.
When he finally stabs the stop button and his treadmill grinds to a halt, Byleth knows it's now or never. She halts her own treadmill, catches her breath. Then she turns and says, "Hey, are you alright?"
The sound of her voice is like a rock through a window. The man starts, his head jerking up and eyes blinking owlishly. They're very blue. He lowers the towel he was using to wipe off sweat and asks, "Beg pardon?"
"You didn't show up at all last week. I was wondering if something was wrong."
"Oh." He shuffles a bit, looking both surprised and a little touched. "…I was having a bad week. That's all."
"Do you want to talk about it?" she tries, grabbing her own towel and stepping off the treadmill. Byleth's never been good at this heart-to-heart stuff; she feels a bit like she's shooting in the dark.
His eyes drop to the floor. "I…have a lot going on in my life. Personal demons to overcome. Last week, they just…got too strong."
Byleth nods slowly. It's a vague answer, but it lines up with her suspicions. "I'm glad you beat them back."
"Me too." He gives her a small smile, then clears his throat. "Is there…anything you want to talk about?"
Now it's her turn to blink in surprise, freezing in the motions of wiping sweat. "What?"
"Perhaps it's presumptuous of me, but I imagine…there's something troubling you as well? Most people wouldn't come to a gym in the dead of night, unless they were running from something."
She almost says no. Her grief is too close to her heart, too fresh and personal to share. But there's something in his too-blue eyes, something tentative and trying to reach out. If he could open up a bit, why couldn't she?
So she loops her towel over her shoulders and says, "My father died recently. It was a hit-and-run. They still haven't caught the woman," bitch "responsible."
Her tone is detached, factual. It has to be; it's the only way she can bar the gates against the flood of emotions that threatens to drown her. Some of her co-workers, those less familiar with her and their ex-boss, whisper about it. They wonder what's wrong with her, to be able to keep it together as well as she is. Byleth wants to laugh at that. She wishes she was half as composed as she pretends.
She crashed the first week or so after Father's death. Just stayed inside her apartment, crying and cuddling with her cat Sothis. But no matter how much she'd wept, the pain hadn't stopped. So, she'd decided to avenge Father instead. Hired a detective to find his murderer. Focused solely on her work as a PMC to bring in cash. Researched lawyers for when the time came to go to court. If she's setting goals, she won't have to think about the wound Father's absence creates.
A quavering voice pulls her out of those dangerous thoughts. "You too?"
Byleth blinks twice. The man is staring at her with wide eyes, as if she's an oasis in a desert. Something he doesn't dare believe is real. "Me…too?"
"I also lost my parents to a hit-and-run. It was long ago, but it was one of many in a chain of events that…" He stops short. "Suffice to say, it heralded a very dark point in my life, and I've only just started to climb out of it."
"Ah. Those demons you mentioned?"
"Yes." Abruptly, he shakes his head. "My apologies. I know we're strangers, but it's…nice to know there's someone who understands."
The corners of her mouth tilt up. "It is."
He gapes at her smile, and she drops it. She's never been good at them, and it feels like her last one was years ago, so surely it looks strange. "Do you want to get breakfast?" he blurts out. "After we shower and change—separately, of course—"
"There's a breakfast place nearby that has the best tea I've ever tasted. Noblesse Oblige." The proprietor is a little smarmy, and she's not sure why he picked that name in particular, but the atmosphere is soothing and the food delicious.
"Oh! I know the place. My friend Mercedes has recommended it. She and the owner knew each other in college, apparently. Does, um, six work for you?"
"It does. I'll meet you there…" And then Byleth realizes she never got his name.
He spares her the embarrassment of asking, holding his hand out. "Dimitri. And you?"
She takes it and shakes. "Byleth."
"Byleth." He repeats her name as if trying it out. "Lovely name."
She blinks twice, momentarily at a loss for words. Dimitri's face burns, and he stammers, "Ah, sorry. I hope that wasn't too forward of me."
Ah, now she knows what to say. "It was unexpected, but no. Thank you."
They realize they still haven't broken the handshake at the same time. They let go like they've been shocked. Maybe she was—Byleth's hand is tingling, something warm is crawling up her spine, and the feel of his large, callused palm is imprinted on her mind.
She clears her throat. "It'd be prudent to exchange numbers in case something comes up."
"Ah, yes. You're right. I'll just…"
His hands make a vague gesture before dropping limply. Observing him, Byleth is struck by the difference in composure. When he's working out, it's as one certain of how to use his body, in full control of every limb. Here, he seems awkward, a bull afraid of the china shop. And his way of talking is very polite, almost old-fashioned. It's at odds with his appearance.
It's also kind of cute. And he understands.
They separate to grab their stuff out of the lockers, and as she digs her phone out, Byleth can't help thinking…
For the first time since Father died, she's looking forward to the day ahead.