They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. They also say 'a pound of flesh' whenever they mean a debt is owed to a particularly ruthless collector. Byleth had always thought that was interesting before; now she just found it fitting, if not a little morbid. Two phrases with wildly different meanings somehow managed to dovetail into a perfect encapsulation of her predicament. A pound of flesh was the price her cure demanded, the pain of its harvest the only suitable cost in the face of such negligence.
Her side twinged hard enough that she slid her hand to it on instinct, squeezing against the tender throb of phantom discomfort. Dimitri had not even come to collect the debt she owed him, and she was already taken with imagining how much it was going to hurt.
Byleth let her hand fall away. She clenched it shut at her thigh instead, lifting her head and gazing up at the pile of rubble and debris that bubbled up from the cathedral floor. As far as damage went, she still found it odd even now. The rest of the cathedral was more or less in tact. It was as if whoever had come to wreak havoc here just threw a pile of trash at the front of it on purpose, a monument of mockery to be left in their destructive wake.
Dimitri still wasn't here. She tilted her head back further, following the dusty streams of sunlight that filtered in through the windows. The higher the sun rose, the brighter the interior became, and the more people would soon come flocking to all the pews that hadn't been ruined in the chaos. She'd hoped to speak to him alone, but that was assuming he came at all. It was entirely possible he saw her standing there and turned back around to go find somewhere else to brood.
Just a few more minutes. If he didn't show up by then, she would go searching the monastery for him. He'd done that for her once before. Such effort was the least she could do for him now.
As she stood there, shifting back and forth from one foot to the other, it was more than a few minutes that came and passed her by. Byleth frowned and slid backwards a step, spinning around to leave the cathedral when her chest lurched uncomfortably. She nearly jumped out of her skin to see Dimitri standing right behind her, staring down his nose at her and squinting like a hawk. "What are you doing here?"
A small part of her was tempted to demand that he tell her how long he'd been there watching. It was unsettling to think he'd been able to take her so thoroughly by surprise. Then again, he had been a murderous vagrant for the past five years, so perhaps it should be less of a shock that he had cultivated the ability to evade detection so easily. Byleth met his frigid gaze and drew up higher, her back touching the blade of the Creator's sword. Maybe if she succumbed to spinelessness, she could use the sword as a substitute.
"I was waiting for you," she finally said.
Dimitri did not hesitate. "Go away," was all he deigned to say to her, a brief flicker of annoyance narrowing his sharp eye.
Her feet planted harder beneath her, the roots of her will leaching into the polished floor of the church and anchoring her in place. If he wanted to be alone that badly, then he could have stayed in his room. She pressed back into her sword, the comforting warmth of its glow bleeding through her jacket and bolstering her determination to have this conversation right here and now.
"You've been avoiding me since you recovered from your infection. I want to speak with you."
Silence roared between them. Byleth was reminded of that cold winter night in the captain's quarters, and of the stillness that had filled the room like water. She would not have thought the summer's silence could be as thick as the one beneath the Pegasus Moon, but it stood to reason -- the humidity of the jungle could choke someone just as quickly as an avalanche.
This time, as with the last, Dimitri was the one to break the heavy quiet. "Speak, then," he muttered, folding his powerful arms across his chest. The way he stared at her reminded her of a red wolf being needled at by a rabbit: one errant word, and the rabbit would find itself locked in his jaws.
"You need to stop being so reckless."
She'd rehearsed what she would say here so many times. Composed speech upon speech in her head, sure that one of them would be the exact right words in exactly the correct order to bring him back from the darkness in which he'd entrenched himself. But even so, despite her efforts, she was not at all surprised that her tongue went so firmly off script. She'd come here to apologize, and here she was standing at the front of the room to lecture a class of one.
She heard him scoff at her, but before he could seize the opportunity to speak himself, Byleth opened her mouth once again. "This cannot continue, Dimitri. You would be dead if Mercedes and Manuela hadn't saved you--"
"Spare me your haranguing, Professor. I am well aware." He leaned backwards, tilting away from her as his pale face drew into a scowl. "It is hardly as though I am ungrateful."
"Ungrateful?" It was the last thing that passed her lips before she lost her ability to construct sentences.
Truth be told, that was so far outside the realm of what she’d expected him to say that she had no idea how to respond. She stared at him, her face moving so little it could not even hope to betray the absolute bewilderment that swirled in her belly. Here he stood, freshly plucked from the brink of death, a scorpion so mad with pain that it would stab itself in its blind need to lash out at the world that so betrayed it. If he kept up this way, he would die by his own venom before he ever had the chance to sting Edelgard, and he thought she was angry because he didn't thank Mercedes with a fucking fruit basket?
Roughly, Byleth shook her head and stomped forward into his space. "It isn't about gratitude, it's about you throwing your life away. You're so hellbent on doing everything by yourself. Why? You have an entire army at your back. Let us help you."
It hurt. She'd once accepted that if she faltered, Dimitri would take her hand into his; that he would help her lift her sword and ensure that they saw her vengeance through together. He had not only her, but the army of Faerghus behind him, ready and willing to do the same. If he fell, her hand would cover his, and Sylvain's, and Annette's, and Felix and Ashe and Ingrid and even Mercedes. Not a single one of her Blue Lions would hesitate to reach out and help him carry his lance, no matter how heavily it dipped beneath the weight of tombstones and regret. And he rejected them at every turn.
Dimitri made no attempt to respond. For what felt like a small, uncomfortable eternity, he did little more than stare at her. His eye lingered on one of her irises, then the other, like he thought he could divine from one of them a truth the other was trying desperately to hide.
Finally, he closed his own, his arms unwinding and falling loose at his sides. When he opened it again, the full brunt of his frosty gaze hit her with the force of a cold front. "Suppose," he murmured, tilting his head, "that you are a fish, professor."
Byleth reared back as violently as if he'd slapped her, but Dimitri continued without flinching.
"Suppose you are a fish, and there is a shark whom you will do anything to destroy. And suppose that, in the vast darkness of the ocean, there is no way for you to know that there isn't a whale waiting within the depths, poised to devour the shark before you can reach it. What would you do, Professor? Knowing that you cannot and will not be satisfied with the taste of whale."
Words had never hurt so badly in her life. They pierced without mercy, cold and hard and sharp and as pitiless as a real blade.
Dimitri moved forward, forcing her to retreat one footstep at a time. "I've seen what it means to be denied. I will not let anyone rob me of my satisfaction. I will destroy anyone who tries to stand between me and that woman, even if that person is you. You ought to understand that better than anyone."
Heat flared between her ribs. As deep a frown as she'd ever made dug itself across her mouth, and she clenched both hands into fists at her sides. "That's not true," she snapped, her cheeks burning hot and stinging. "I don't understand. If I had to choose between you and my own need for revenge, I would have given up pursuit without hesitation."
That certainly was enough to give Dimitri pause. He fell quiet, his eye flickering up and down her face, no doubt to suss out a lie. Then he snorted, his arms gliding back up to cross at his chest a second time. "I believe you," he told her, so candidly that she was taken aback. His tone was not even accusatory. But then he continued. "And yet, all you have in your defense is an empty hypothetical. How very hypocritical of you to criticize me for a choice you never had to make."
Byleth sucked in a sharp breath. What could she possibly say to that?
The desire to defend herself was maddening. To refute what he'd said and argue that they were different. But she knew it was pointless, and worse, it wasn't productive. Debating the merits of their respective paths of revenge wasn't why she had come here.
She swallowed it, with some effort, and lowered her head without breaking their gaze. "Alright. Fine. You're right," she conceded. "It does no one any good to focus on what-ifs. That wasn't my point."
Then again, what her point actually was escaped her just then. This wasn't at all how she'd imagined this would go down. It figured, right? Life was rarely so simple. Byleth squeezed her eyes shut and groped for anything more convincing to say, now that he was angry at her and feeling self-righteous about it.
She drew a slow, even breath through her nose and opened her eyes again. "Whatever you may think of me, I'm not here to lecture you about the hollowness of revenge. I'm here because I don't want to see you lose your life in pursuit of it. And neither does anyone else in this building. If you die, then what? Where does that leave anyone?"
Dimitri somehow looked like he'd expected that exact response from her, and he offered her a sharp, mirthless smirk for her trouble. "What does it matter to me? I owe the living nothing. Everyone who has ever loved me is dead."
Emotion burst across her face. Her nails cutting into her palms, Byleth closed the distance between them, glaring hotly at him and jerking one of her arms. "I'm not."
His bright blue eye widened the faintest bit. Dimitri fell still, regarding her with uncertainty in the curve of his eyebrows and the hesitant line of his mouth. Before he could recover, she pushed further another step, and this time it was Dimitri who retreated from her.
"Listen to me. Maybe you don't care about any of us. That's fine. No one said you had to. But which is it? You can't cling to your obligation to the dead at the expense of everyone around you and then be cavalier about your own life. The dead aren't the ones who have to pick you up from the grass."
She pressed forward another step, stubbornness rearing up inside her. For a moment, she felt like she really had replaced her spine with the Sword of the Creator, its hilt keeping her head upright so she could meet his frigid gaze without the temptation to bend her neck.
"I don't care if you don't want to do it for our sakes, but you need to take better care of yourself. What good does it do anyone -- us or them -- if you die from infection before you so much as glance at Enbarr?"
Byleth half-braced herself for Dimitri to bite back at her, but he said nothing at all. In fact, for the first time she could remember, he looked like a chastized little boy, his head shifting down and away from her. She sighed at him, her shoulders slumping and her eyes darting over toward the windows. "Why didn't you tell me? About your wound. It was infected before we even made it back to the monastery. You must have felt it."
In an instant, the demure curve of his posture disappeared. He straightened to his full height, glaring down his nose at her and flinging a dismissive hand. "Why? What would it have mattered? The wound was already closed before we even left the battlefield. What good would it have done if I had told you?" He looked desperately annoyed by this point, one hand pressed to his hips and his mouth pulled into a sneer. "Were you going to rewind time and prevent me from being stabbed in the--"
The grim amusement dropped from his face. He shifted from angry to stunned, his fingers twitching at his hip. "...first place."
The look he gave her made her stomach twist into nothing. Sweat itched at her back, and slight tremors shook her hand where she smeared it down the side of her shorts. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of flesh.
Time to pay up.
"Yes," she said.
She could practically see the blur of his thoughts as he connected the dots. The entire time he stared at her, his mouth slightly open and a mixture of accusal and disbelief warring for room on his pale face.
It took some time for him to compose himself. He swallowed, his eye snapping up to one of hers and narrowing dangerously. "Are you lying to me?"
It was monstrously tempting to take it back, but Byleth refused, all too familiar with those particular consequences. She'd come to do just this: to lance the wound she'd unknowingly inflicted on them both. No one had ever promised it would feel good. Her breath thin and a little ragged, she shook her head.
He didn't seem inclined to believe it was anything other than the truth. He blinked once, slowly, the anger in his face now a blank mask of nothing at all. No doubt he was still sifting through the implications. If he was anything like her, he was now thinking back on the many times they'd commented on how amazingly talented she was on the battlefield, almost as if she could read the enemy's mind. Or all those times she didn't lose even one student, no matter how overwhelming the battle or how outmatched they were by sheer number. Or the way she always seemed to know just where and when reinforcements would arrive.
And now he knew.
"Ah," he said, his lip curling. "To think, in all that breathless wonder I had for you, I thought you had been gifted with divine knowledge of the future. But you weren't, were you? You just had the ability to erase your mistakes."
His contempt seared the inside of his mouth. Byleth flinched at him, her eyes darting down against her will as his hand lifted to drag his fingertips along his mouth. The anger gave way to something else. To something infinitely worse as he stared at her in betrayal and gut wrenching pain.
"Is that what happened that night? Was I just another mistake for you to fix?"
Fuck, it hurt. She'd known that it would, but anticipation could never hope to be enough to prepare you for that kind of pain. All she could do was bear it. She'd made the decision to offer her flesh as penance. He was the one who had to choose where to take it from, and her heart didn't seem to weigh enough on its own.
She bit the inside of her cheek and shook her head again. "It was a mistake, because it was wrong!"
When she stepped closer to him, Dimitri stumbled back even further, so intent to keep his distance from her that it stung even worse than his hateful words ever had. She had known that coming clean, that tearing open this old wound might come with a permanent scar. But she hadn't been ready for this. For him to look at her with such raw, open distrust.
"You were right, Dimitri. I wasn't granted divine knowledge of the future. All I could ever do was walk the path of a failed present. I never knew what was destined to end in disaster and what wasn't. I just had to make a choice, and if I was lucky, then sometimes I could go back and make a different one. I tried to use it only when a situation was literally life or death, and then- and then I got greedy."
Pouring out this awful miasma of feelings felt akin to trying to purge a poisoned meal, but it wasn't as though there was an alternative. Lance the wound and drain it. Someone had once told her that sunlight was the best disinfectant. She hoped they were right.
Byleth stopped before he could turn and flee from the cathedral entirely, both her hands empty and open before her, begging him not to leave. "It was a mistake because it was selfish. I don't regret kissing you that night. I only regret taking it back. And there's nothing I can do to fix that. All I can do is apologize. I can't even claim that if I could go back and do it all over again, then I wouldn't. Because that's the thing, right? I can't undo what I undid."
She no longer had the breath to fill more words. She slumped forward, her chest strangely hollow for how tight it felt.
"You-" Dimitri's voice brought her back to awareness as sharply as a hand to the face. He was breathing hard, entirely too reminiscent of his time on an infirmary bed. He shook his head at her, his eyebrows furrowed deeply. "I thought it was a dream. I thought it was some- some childish fantasy. Some humiliating daydream inflicted on me for daring to pine for someone who would always be beyond me. And then you died."
He shook his head harder this time, despair gripping at his face. "I thought it was my fault. I thought I was cursed, Professor. I thought everyone I wanted to be close to was doomed to be stolen from me. But...it was real?"
Mutely, Byleth nodded. "It was," she said, her voice wavering. It was all she could say. Such a small thing she'd done, and Dimitri had been left alone to suffer for it for five long years. "I'm so sorry, Dimitri."
He lurched forward a step. That he was even willing to come near her shocked her so thoroughly that she stood rooted in place, her arms frozen at her sides as he took another still. When he was close enough, he slumped forward, nearly collapsing into her arms where she rushed to grip at his back beneath the heavy fur of his cape.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered again.
He said nothing at first. His hands were loose at her hips, framing the bones of the Creator's sword with the tips of his fingers. "How many times?"
"Was it just the once?"
Byleth hesitated, her mouth working without sound. "Twice," she managed after a time. "In the...infirmary."
He huffed so hard she felt it stir her hair, but it almost seemed amused, in a distinctly exhausted sort of way. He tugged her closer, pressing his face to the side of her neck. "Twice now you have kissed me, and I don't remember either one."
"I know. I'm sorry."
Silence seemed to drip down from the ceiling, but it no longer felt malicious. It was the sort that didn't try to fill her lungs when she breathed. She tilted her head against Dimitri's, drawing one arm out from beneath his cape to wind around his shoulders and sift through his hair. How novel, to feel comforted by the quiet for once. She imagined that, were she to listen closely enough, she might be able to hear Dimitri's heart beat.
The scrape of his gauntlets against her sword stirred her back to attention. "I live in fear of the day you disappear again," Dimitri whispered. "At times, I am convinced you never came back at all."
"Then allow me to convince you otherwise."
He made a disbelieving little noise back at her. Slowly, lifting his head, Dimitri peered into each of her eyes again, his hands still heavy at her hips. "Your feelings haven't changed? Even now? After everything?"
"Absolutely not. Even now." She frowned, her hand sliding from the back of his head down to one of his broad shoulders. "Dimitri..." He'd once told Byleth that her enemies were his enemies. That he would kill anyone she asked him to, no questions asked. But she knew he hadn’t said those words lightly. She understood exactly what he'd meant. He had said that because he knew that she had friends, and she had enemies, and he trusted her to know the difference between them.
Dimitri wasn't even in a place for that. For him, there was only one point of separation. Everyone was an enemy, or they were dead.
She had needed someone to validate her desire for retribution. She had needed his promise that he trusted her so implicitly that he would kill for her. But Dimitri needed something else entirely.
Byleth closed her eyes and let her lips brush against his forehead. "Please let me help you. I can't fix what I did, but I can promise that I'll spend the rest of my life making it up to you."
He had no answer for that. She didn't expect any differently, of course. Nothing she did could ever erase the anger that simmered inside him. Her lips couldn't soothe his nightmares. If she slid her hands over his eyes, she still couldn't prevent him from seeing the delusions his mind conjured to torture him.
But she could be there for him. Even if she couldn't heal his wound, she could make sure it didn't kill him.
Finally, Dimitri moved again. He stood up a little straighter, the heavy weight of one hand disappearing from her hip. It slipped beneath her chin instead, the metal of his gauntlet brushing sweetly at her skin as he tilted her head upward. A soft gesture, but one that nevertheless caught her breath in her throat. Maybe it was absurd to be nervous with someone you'd kissed two times before, but there was a certain sort of pressure in knowing that there would be no opportunity for redos.
For the first time, Dimitri was the one who kissed her. Her nose filled with the sharp, medicinal smell of eucalyptus and peppermint. It pleased her immensely that Dimitri was actually using the balm Mercedes had given him when she saw that his lips were so dry they had cracked and bled. She tilted her head into it, sealing their mouths together and letting her nails course through his hair.
Somehow, knowing that this was what they would have forever -- that nothing could come and change it after the fact -- made it more nerve wracking, but also more authentic for it. Like a real first kiss that anyone would have. She hoped she never caught the smell of peppermint again without remembering this exact moment in time, and that she could never taste mint tea without feeling the phantom weight of hands at her back and hair beneath her fingers.
As he was the first to instigate, he was also the first to break away. Dimitri tilted his head down, his forehead pushing to her own and his hands sinking down to clutch her back. "...Alright, Professor. You've convinced me."
Byleth blinked back at him. "I did?"
A ghost of amusement darted across his eye, and he twisted his arm back up to let his fingertips brush her pale hair back from her cheek. "The phantom of you never let me touch her."
A bright, genuine smile chased the shadows from her face. Byleth found both of his hands, squeezing them into her own and pressing her lips to the metal encasing them. So many times, she'd wished that she did have knowledge of the future poured into her head. She wished that her 'goddess' granted power was more.
Perhaps fate was inescapable. Perhaps she'd always choose to buy a moment of selfishness at the cost of Dimitri's trust, and she'd always have to pay it back with interest.
But maybe it was only in the wake of such a mistake that she could come to understand exactly what Dimitri was worth to her, and maybe he would always choose to forgive her.
Her shoulders felt lighter for having shrugged off the weight of regret. Byleth closed her eyes and stepped closer to him, her chest flush to him and her lips touching to his own yet again.
There were certain steps to treat an infected wound. Lance, drain, disinfect. Only then could it start to heal.
At least they could heal together.