Manuela's words danced through her head again and again, circling the corners of her mind in an endless waltz. 'Never,' she'd said, 'heal a deep puncture wound that hasn't first been Restored.' Over and over they spun, ringing between her ears ad nauseum. She remembered that seminar so vividly. At the time, it had occurred to her that if she was going to browbeat her students into learning at least a rudimentary healing spell, it would behoove her to do the same. But by the end of the session, she'd left wondering when the hell it was going to do any good if she wasn't going to attend enough of them to learn Restore.
But she did know, at the very least, that you don't fucking heal a deep puncture wound that hasn't been Restored. Manuela had explained that most slash damage could be safely healed with magic, but if you were stabbed, closing the wound before it could be cleaned was inviting nothing but infection. Dirt. Bacteria. Someone else's blood. Spit. If the actual stab didn't kill you, then disease would almost certainly swoop in to pick up its slack.
Bitterness washed over her, sinking into her skin and spiking her nerves with ice cold anger. Which of the healers on the field had missed that particular seminar?
Dimitri was still fighting for every breath he took. His cheek burned against her skin where she pillowed his face with her thighs, but Byleth refused to move it away. She slid her fingernails through the knot of bangs adhered to his forehead, peeling them back and letting her knuckles press to his blazing forehead.
Why hadn't he just told her?
It was a foolish question. She knew why he hadn't told her, or anyone else. He didn't seem particularly moved to talk at all unless it was to say something designed specifically to hurt someone's feelings. Mostly hers. Whenever he'd sustained this particular wound, he'd borne it in silence, all the way from the entire march back to the monastery up to the very moment he collapsed face first in the grass. The sight of his sprawled body, wracked with spasms, would haunt her dreams.
He was still spasming even now, tiny little tremors seizing his limbs every few minutes. Even his fingers twitched against her bare leg. Briefly, she reached down to squeeze them, clutching his hand before she let him go to reach for a wet rag. The basin of water at her hip was growing lukewarm the longer it sat, but it was still colder than his fevered skin. She submerged it entirely, then squeezed it out with a tight fist, water sloshing back into the bowl with a violent splash. Byleth draped it across his forehead and leaned backward, closing both her eyes.
Just as quickly as she'd unwound, Byleth sat up again and glanced over to see Mercedes slip into the infirmary. She made her way over to the bed and leaned over Dimitri's prone body, one of her hands drifting along his naked back and coming to rest just beneath his shoulder blade. "How is he doing?"
She frowned mildly, tilting her head down and peeling the rag away. "...About the same," she admitted. Mercedes simply nodded, obviously not surprised by this news.
"Well, that's not necessarily a bad thing." Her voice was as gentle and sweet as ever. "Until his condition starts to deteriorate, we can take it as a good sign." Byleth decided to let those words be a genuine comfort. If not for her (and Manuela's) efforts, she was sure Dimitri would already be dead. She nodded shortly, her left hand gravitating towards the back of his head and sifting through his damp hair.
Byleth stayed silent as Mercedes examined him with care. She pressed her fingers to his neck for a good half a minute, felt at his forehead, then leaned forward to examine his wound. The very sight of it was enough to make Byleth flinch. As she feared, Mercedes pinched at a bit of gauze poking up from the open hole in his skin and began to peel it out.
Her stomach revolted dangerously. She swallowed and looked away, closing her eyes as the overpowering smell of infection assaulted her.
It wasn't the wound itself, really. Byleth had seen a lot of wounds in her day, and she'd long since inoculated herself to the sight of blood and other people's insides. Sometimes even her own. She'd had years to forge an iron stomach for death -- it was only life in the aftermath of violence that left it brittle as glass.
Slowly, she forced herself to look. Mercedes was already disposing of the ruined gauze, but Byleth still caught sight of it before it vanished into the trash, soaked red and streaked with yellow, the smell of it turning her stomach yet again. It mystified her that Mercedes could handle it with such unflinching grace.
The wound itself wasn't that big, but it was deep. Someone had caught him with a lance when his back was turned, breaking clean through his armor and piercing hard enough to scrape bone. The edges of the wound were angry and red, and she could make out odd streaks around the broken skin. It had been completely sealed when they first hauled him to the infirmary. Manuela had been forced to slice it open with a scalpel to even begin treating it properly.
Once more, the lesson of her seminar repeated itself in her head as she watched Mercedes clean the wound with painstaking care. Skilled healers really were a breed all their own. Only when she was satisfied did she take a fresh piece of gauze and soak it in antiseptic, then began the process of packing his wound a second time.
Byleth had to look up at the ceiling, her chest convulsing as she tried not to heave. "Uhm...professor?"
"Yes?" Her head remained tilted backward so she could inspect a particularly interesting stain on the ceiling.
"You can step out if you feel like you need to."
In an instant, Byleth hardened, the glass of her fragile stomach tempering itself in the fire of her impenetrably bullheaded sense of stubbornness. "No," she said, so firmly that Mercedes had the nerve to giggle at her. "I trust you to take care of him. I know you know what you're doing better than I do, I just-"
"You don't have to explain it to me." Mercedes smiled for her, which she only noticed when she finally summoned the courage to lower her head. "I understand."
The sharp, medicinal smell of antiseptic was overwhelming, but, frankly, it was a welcome change. Byleth breathed a little easier, her shoulders going slack and her hand curling against the back of Dimitri's neck while she watched. Mercedes was as methodical as she was gentle. She finished packing his wound and dabbed at the torn skin around it with the corner of a clean rag.
"There. I think that should just about do it." She stood and reached down, lifting the thin blanket up and resting it over Dimitri's back. "If you feel like his fever has spiked, or his spasms worsen, come and fetch me right away."
"I will. Thank you, Mercedes."
She took her leave, and silence once again reclaimed the infirmary. Dimitri hadn't so much as shifted beneath Mercedes' attention, moving only when he breathed, or when his body gave an involuntary jerk against the bed. She tried to let it be enough that Mercedes thought he was stable. Her ribs opened up around a deep sigh, and she slumped forward and dragged her thumb down the side of Dimitri's face. If nothing else, this was the closest she'd physically been to him in five years. A microscopic victory at best, but one she’d take nevertheless.
A bead of sweat rolled down the crease between her thighs. For a split second, Byleth considered reaching beneath his head to wipe it away, but it struck her as pointless when his fever wasn't even close to breaking. Besides, she'd peed in the woods one too many times to get precious about an injured man sweating on her.
In the quiet of the clinic, Byleth studied his face. If she had nursed any hope that it would be smoother in sleep than it was in the waking world, she was only ever going to be disappointed. No doubt he was consumed by pain, even if he wasn’t conscious of the fact. She could see it in the hard set of his mouth and the grit of his teeth. His eyebrows were furrowed just as deeply as they were when he was cutting someone down, whether that be with his tongue or his lance. Byleth frowned right back at him and traced one of them with the tips of her fingers, gazing down at his remaining eye and wondering what else he would lose before the war was done with him.
Her hand dipped into the water once again. She scooped the rag out and wrung the excess from it, drawing it over to Dimitri and curling it tightly around her fingers. Like that, she traced the curve of his jaw, down to his throat and along each of his shoulders. It was remarkable how much he had changed. Half a decade would do that to a person, she supposed. He'd always been taller than her, but once upon a time, he hadn't been much bigger. He’d been wiry with young muscle, strong but slender, a perfectly respectable boy with a perfectly respectable physique.
There was so much more of him now. He stood so much higher than her that the top of her head scarcely reached his broad shoulders. Even without the thick fur of his cape shrouding him, he was thick and bulky, as if his seething anger demanded that he take up more of the world by force. Byleth dragged the cloth along the curve of his bicep and sat back, her shoulders brushing against the wall behind her.
Five years. For Byleth, it had been a scant few months. He'd transformed seemingly overnight. The last vestiges of youthful optimism that once glowed across his face had been chased deep into the stark shadows beneath his eyes. His smooth voice now carried the gravel of betrayal and scraped against his throat with every hateful word he spoke. His face used to light up when she stepped into his line of vision.
The way he looked at her now cut better than flint ever could.
She rinsed the cloth yet again, wringing it out between the punishing squeeze of her fingers, and draped it along his back. A small tremor jerking through his frame was almost enough to distract her, but as her gaze fell upon his face, she went still in an instant. His eyelashes jumped against his cheek.
For several seconds, Dimitri did nothing else. He blinked once, sluggish, then tilted his head and stared back at her. The bright blue of his iris was rimmed with a thick haze of disorientation. He seemed only dimly aware she was there at all before it seemed to hit him at once, his eye growing wide and his lips parting faintly.
The soft awe in his voice destroyed her. He sounded the way she'd wanted him to when she found him alone in the monastery, chained back by shadows and enshrined in the corpses of Imperial soldiers. This time, he looked at her like she was sunlight; like bathing in the glow of her would bring him redemption. This time, he didn’t flinch away in the fear that her purifying light would burn his cursed body to ash.
Just as quickly as her chest swelled with hope, it scattered like shrapnel. A sharp clarity returned to his eye that narrowed at her face, his hands curling into claws and dragging his nails against the bedding.
The accusation and despair were more familiar, but it didn't sting any less than it had the first time. Byleth slumped over him, exhaling softly and drawing her hand away from his back. There was little for her to say. She fell silent, her eyes following his face as it contorted into a rictus of pain, and he finally went slack in her lap.
"Why must you torture me so?" he whispered. She could barely hear it, muffled as it was into her thigh. When his words finally registered, her stomach clenched. "I told you once before. I swear I will bring you her head. Just leave me be, I beg of you."
It seemed a gleeful cruelty of fate that she would be rewarded for her decision to live again by vanishing from the surface of Fódlan for so many years. In all that time, the sole memorial of her was nothing more than a specter, a mirage of delirium left to haunt the person she loved most. Her shoulders sank. Her stomach roiled around shards of ice that punctured deeper with each crashing wave of guilt. Gently, hesitation biting at her, she tucked his wet hair back and leaned over him. His eye flickered up to her face immediately.
"Dimitri," she murmured, "I don't want Edelgard's head." It was pointless to argue against some phantom version of herself. There was no telling what his imagined homunculus of her whispered into his ear, but she could imagine that ordering beheadings like a wicked queen didn't even constitute the worst of them. All she could do was try to replace it with the reality of her.
He scoffed at her, even as his body was seized in another harsh convulsion. "No?"
"No." Again she frowned, her fingers slipping across his forehead where his skin threatened to burn through her fingertips. "I want you to stop trying to wage a one-man war."
There was no acerbic response to that for at least a few seconds. Dimitri fell quiet, then launched into motion, lifting himself up onto his hands and crying out as his ruined muscle gave out. He crashed onto his uninjured side, but in her rush to support his back, Byleth managed to prevent him from rolling straight onto the floor.
His breaths came all the harsher in the wake of his struggle. She could feel the strain of his back beneath her palm, his eye squeezed shut and his body shaking hard enough to rattle the whole bed. When he finally spoke again, a poisonous mixture of scorn and disbelief poured from his tongue. "I'm sure you'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Wrinkling her nose, Byleth tilted backwards. "Yes," she said, her voice perfectly flat, "I would."
"Why? So you may taunt me further? Call me a coward again?" Dimitri sneered, even as he curled up on his side like a wounded badger. "I've had my fill of that without inviting it."
A coward? He hallucinated her calling him a coward? A fucking coward -- of all things. Why? He'd slaughtered an entire squadron of Imperial soldiers all alone. When he'd dragged her from the ruins of the church to hollow out a thieves’ den, he'd taken on the bulk of him by his own hand. He was intent to pursue an Emperor utterly without fear, kept only in check by an entire army trying desperately to hold him back. There were a lot of things she'd been willing to call him in the face of his merciless contempt for her, but 'coward' was not, and never had been, among them.
Byleth swallowed and frowned at him harder. "I would never call you a coward."
The short, mirthless bark of his laughter rang throughout the infirmary. "How you lie," he breathed. A wince pulled across his face as another spasm gripped him, one of his hands clutching high up his ribs until his fingers brushed the edge of his wound. She stopped him before he could touch it.
"You need to be still." To her infinite shock, Dimitri actually obeyed. He stopped moving, his hand relaxing in her grip until he remembered himself enough to bat it away. But he made no attempt to argue. He lay there between her legs, his breathing slightly less ragged and the tremors growing less violent.
Minutes passed. His resentful silence was better than insults, which Byleth certainly did not mind. She picked up the abandoned rag and wet it, letting it skate down the back of his neck. She could see that the gauze was soaked through with blood and pus yet again, but she wasn't about to change it and risk making anything worse. Instead, she focused on the rest of him, washing away the sweat from every inch it sprung up.
She'd almost convinced herself he'd fallen back asleep when Dimitri stirred, his nose brushing at the inside of her leg. "But you're right, Professor." He was so quiet that for a fraught moment, Byleth feared she'd somehow absorbed his delusions. "You are always right."
He struggled to move before she could stop him. His elbow dug into the bed, and he fought to turn over until Byleth gave up and helped him ease down onto her legs. She uncurled them and laid them flat against the bed in an effort to keep his wound from touching it directly. If Dimitri was uncomfortable like that, he gave no indication. He simply gazed up at the ceiling, both his hands loose against her calves.
His eye slid shut again, and he went slack between her knees. "I am a coward. I've known since I had the chance to kiss you, and I failed to take it."
Nausea overcame her within seconds. Her insides felt packed with clay that slid all the way up to her lungs, filling them too thickly to even try to speak. He could not possibly mean that. He could only have meant something else. The goddess tower, or the dance, or...anything but that. She'd gone back. She'd made it unhappen.
Beneath her, Dimitri's head rolled weakly to the side, his eye fluttering open and rolling upwards in the direction of her face. "I remember it so vividly. For four years, I had the same nightmare. And now I dream of you." The sweat at the back of her neck erupted from her skin with a sting worse than needles. She held her breath as she listened to him, his voice cracked and thin with pain and exhaustion. "I remember you in the captain's quarters. And I remember your hand on my chest. I remember how it surprised me -- that it felt so delicate. You touched me like you wanted to reach through and take my heart. And then you kissed me."
No. No. No.
Blood rushed in her ears louder than a wrathful ocean, churning and crashing and dragging her down into the depths.
Only the snap of his frigid blue eye brought her back to attention, boring into her, piercing her as sharply as the tip of his lance. "Then I wake up, and you're still gone."
He laughed again, and his whole body jerked with it, as if the very act of being so darkly amused was its own punishment. "I know why you're here, Professor. Will you never tire of mocking me, even five years later? The chance to have you was in my grasp, and I let it slip away. How much longer will you torment me for that?"
As the last of his words left him, he sank into the bed. The bags beneath his eyes looked all the darker, deeper even, none the lighter for having expelled even some of what plagued him so doggedly. When he looked back at her again, flames licked at the backs of her eyes.
"I'm sorry," he whispered to her. "I cannot turn back the hands of time. Every day, I wish that I could. I would have kept you from disappearing. I would have kissed you. I would have protected your father, even if it meant you were not in his office that night. I would have stopped you from saving that vile woman from the axe blade she so deserved. But I can't."
The clay in her lungs pushed higher. Filled her throat and poured over the back of her tongue. Byleth could not speak, dizzy and cold as her fingers clutched at Dimitri's arms. She was back in that cell of hellish flames and shadow, and only now was she learning that she'd never truly escaped it. An intense, unholy fear seized her that if she were to open her mouth, the darkness of Zahras would come rushing out to consume her and the world.
She grit her teeth so hard her jaw felt in danger of cracking. Both her hands moved to cradle his face, and she bent over him as hot shame slid down the slope of her cheek. "I'm so sorry, Dimitri," she whispered.
Byleth crushed his mouth beneath hers. For the first time, he felt feeble beneath her. His lips trembled against her own, but it didn’t stop them from meeting every desperate press. Over and over she kissed him, hard and fast and overwhelmed, a manic need swimming up in her chest to make up for all the kisses she’d stolen back from him. Her fingers curled tight along his jaw, and her hair fell around his neck as she moved to kiss his chin and whisper again. "I'm so sorry."
Distantly, she could feel his fingers in her hair. They slid along the sleek strands with the barest hint of pressure before she pulled back to meet his gaze. Her teeth had sunk so deeply into her bottom lip that it threatened to bleed.
For the third time, he laughed, a deep, mournful one that rattled from his chest. His arm dropped to dangle at the edge of the bed. "You say that in my dreams too. You see?" The effort to stay lucid seemed too much for him to maintain any longer. His head lolled against her thigh, and his eye grew so heavy it slipped shut beneath the fringe of his wild hair. "Even you recognize that loving me is something that must be apologized for."
But Dimitri was already out of reach. Sleep rose up to claim him, his chest stuttering with each labored breath and his heavy body limp against her legs.
The irony did not escape her, that he thought his problems could be solved if the fabric of time was within his grasp. He could not possibly know that that exact ability had been the cause of all hers. Byleth pitched backward, her shoulders hitting the wall and her skull bouncing against it, both her hands tight around Dimitri's shoulders.
She scrubbed a hand at her face and closed her eyes. It was dangerous to consider, but her ability to withstand temptation had vanished beneath the weight of her exhaustion. She couldn't help but wonder how different their world would look if Dimitri had been gifted with the power of the goddess instead. Maybe it would be wildly different. Maybe it would be exactly the same.
Sothis had said that 'fate' was inescapable. That certain things would always come to pass, no matter how hard she struggled against the current of time. Maybe in every timeline, in every universe, she would always choose to buy a moment of selfishness at the cost of Dimitri's trust.
If that was the case, she couldn't imagine a timeline, or a universe, where she didn't love him so much her chest ached, and where that price would ever be worth it.
Byleth did not move when Mercedes returned to the infirmary to check on him. It was only to help her turn him back onto his stomach that her body seemed to re-animate, but her mind remained firmly elsewhere. So much so that she barely noticed when Mercedes took her leave again. It was only in the wake of deep, oppressive silence that she realized she was gone. She couldn't hear Dimitri breathing anymore. Startled, Byleth slid her hand down his chest, groping clumsily until she could feel his heart throb beneath her fingers.
It felt odd to be right back where they'd started. Ironic, maybe, that she'd once reached out to feel his heartbeat because he was alive, and now she was searching for it because it could stop at any moment.
Nothing for it, she supposed. Byleth had to fix this, and the only thing she knew was how she couldn't.
She would do what she could to make amends, to make him understand. No powers. No silence to save face. He had come to her late at night once to check on her as just himself. She owed him the very same.
Every problem was a nail, until the problem was the hammer.
Time to throw the hammer away.