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From Grace

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I: White Clouds

            A week has passed since the murder of Jeralt Eisner, blade breaker and former captain of the Knights of Seiros. It has been just as long since Byleth has last been seen outside her chambers. Her teaching duties have been pawned off onto Catherine and Seteth who have taken turns lecturing and training the students of the Blue Lion house. It is evident that they are trying their best, but it is just as evident that they do not have the same affinity for teaching as Byleth.

            Despite himself, Dimitri dozes during Seteth’s bland teachings and struggles to match up to Catherine’s ridiculous expectations. From what he can tell, he is not alone in his difficulties. Sylvain has sulked throughout every class after Catherine threatened to have him ejected from the academy. Felix has stormed out of two group training sessions with Seteth. Annette has taken to wearing a brace from the strain of taking so many exhaustive notes. Mercedes has brought cupcakes to every class as a consolation for the awful lectures, but the sweets go untouched. No one dares to answer any questions or participate in class. They have all retreated into their respective selves. In a way, their isolation is a show of solidarity with their grieving professor.

            Annette has arranged a group study session to understand the mind-numbing complexities of Catherine’s intricate technique for their exam tomorrow. Dimitri is the only Blue Lion not in attendance. His nightmares have been growing steadily worse.  Keeping up with his studies is the least of his concerns. He spends all his free time battling his ghosts in the arena until his exhaustion gets the best of him.

            This night is no different. He hacks at training dummies until they lay in strewn heaps across the floor. He has been asked incessantly to refrain from demolishing the dummies, but his rage always gets the better of him. In the moments when his emotions untether, his strength manifests beyond his hands. He annihilates everything in his path. It has been months since he has sparred with a partner. Too often, he finds himself hungering for the hum of battle and the sting of blood on his tongue.

            As Dimitri strikes down the remaining dummy, a vision of his father’s murder streaks through his memory. He throws his lance to the ground and knuckles his eyes until the memory fades. All he can muster is a whimpered, “Please.”

            When it finally passes, he looks upon the destruction he has created and flees. He does not return his weapon to the rack.

            Outside, the fiery pink hues of dusk burn through his skin and set his soul ablaze. He sweats, but it fails to cool him. Ghosts claw at the shell of his skull. They stir his blood until it scalds. He is drowning upright. He is only seventeen.

            Hushed conversations drift on the stale wind. He passes a trio of whispering friends. They giggle behind flat palms. He does not recognize them, but they wave. They bat their eyelashes and puff their lips. Their stares burrow beneath his temples and then he is walking so fast he is nearly running. He can barely breathe, yet he cannot stop moving. The dormitory rooms are blurs in his periphery. His feet move to an unheard command, spurring him towards the steps that will lead to the second floor, to the privacy of his room in which he can come completely undone.

            As the pieces and pawns of the evil that has haunted him for so long reveal themselves, it is getting worse. The anxiety. The pains. The voices. He is getting worse.   

            Ingrid has voiced her concern. Sylvain has voiced his concern. Annette, Mercedes, Ashe, even Felix, who refuses to call him anything but a boar, has voiced their concern. They are all concerned by what they do not see. If they saw the truth of him, they would not be concerned. They would be horrified. He is a husk of human being. More of him slinks away with each day.

            Dedue is the worst of them all, constantly telling of herbs to remedy afflictions of the mind, even offering to retrieve some from the Archbishop personally, but Dimitri is unwilling to entertain the notion. His affliction is not of the mind, but of the soul.

            It is as Dimitri begins to descend the steps towards the greenhouse that he catches sight of her. She is standing at the end of the dock, holding a fishing rod between both her hands. It is a strange twist of fate. If he had descended the other side of the steps, closest to the dormitory, he never would have spied her.

            Byleth is free of her typical accoutrements. She wears only a thin shirt and grass stained pants. Her hip is free of the Sword of the Creator. For a moment, he is certain that he has impressed her image onto another woman. She looks nothing like the awe-inspiring warrior he knows her to be. She looks just like everyone else.

            Dimitri watches from the top of the steps as she reels in her line. When she pulls it out of the water, he sees that it is devoid of a hook. He watches her rub at her face. He hears her curse. The sun is to her back. It adorns her with a halo of gold. Looking at her now in such repose conjures his notions of her when they first met; otherworldly, inhuman, ethereal.

            Something twinges within the cavern of his chest. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t soothe either. It simply is.

            The steps slap against his boots as he takes them two at a time. He rushes towards the dock. A bird chitters and chides. He thinks better of his pace and slows. He stops. The dining hall is just behind him. Its windows are dark and glossy, yet vapid concern pierces his lungs. In the color of his mind, he can imagine Dorothea’s face smushed up against the gloomy glass and her twinkling eyes at the sight of him rushing to Byleth’s side. Then, he pictures Sylvain beside her and develops a stomachache.

            The two have been relentless ever since someone had let slip that Dimitri met their professor atop the Goddess Tower the night of the ball. Sylvain has been giving him inane tips in the art of flirtation. Dorothea wants to write an opera. Both are so enamored by a fiction that they refuse to listen to the truth. Nothing happened that night.

            Dimitri considers fleeing, but the fishkeeper is eyeing him. The man juts his thumb to the array of rods and gathered bait on the table beside him. Dimitri shakes his head. The man raises his eyebrows. He jerks his thumb towards the dock with pursed lips. Dimitri’s face blisters into a blush and his shoulders creep up to his ears. The fishkeeper doesn’t smile, but his mirth ekes out into the wrinkles around his eyes.

            “Best not keep her waiting, your highness,” the fishkeeper says with a demure bow of his head.

            Dimitri rubs his forehead. He detests that everyone comes to the same, wrong conclusion. Condolences are his only concern in approaching her. Of course, he has already given them with a compounded promise of joint revenge, but knows from his own experience that they are easily forgotten.

            Squinting into the setting sun, he steps onto the dock. He is unprepared for it to sway beneath his feet. Up close, he can see that the wood is worn and in desperate need of repairs. His stomach seizes as the current reverberates up through his knees. Moving water is something he avoids, preferring the stagnation of pools and ponds to the unpredictable whims of moving bodies.

            “Hello, Dimitri,” Byleth says. Her level voice, so similar in tambour to the drone of the monastery bells, abates his momentary worry. She squats beside a small box. Her body hides its contents from his sight. Jingles ring out as she rummages through it.

            “Hello,” he says. “How are you?”

            Whatever she desired, she has found for she stands and brandishes a hook in her hand. When she turns to him, she keeps her head hung low and looks out from underneath her lashes. The expression is guarded, but it does nothing to hide the red tint to her puffy eyes and the glistening streaks across her cheeks.

            “Still here,” she says.

            A rod made of colorless wood and covered in petty scratches juts from her hand. There are two blue splotches at the bottom, resembling hastily made handprints. At her feet is a newer, lacquered rod, but its line is wrapped tight and untouched.

            “Sometimes that is all you can do,” he says.

            She hums low in her throat. Her fingers work over the line and knot it through the eye of a hook. The breeze carries the stink of fish.

            “Have you come for a reason?” she asks. She stoops low and plucks a fat, squirming worm from a can beside the box.

            “I wanted to—”

            The hook pokes into her thumb. She curses and pulls her hand away. The worm falls to the dock. Blood wells in the wound. Her blood drips. It stains the wood and the worm with a crimson flare. Dimitri’s eyesight turns fuzzy. The ground sways beneath him. The water slaps at the dock. It is black as moonless night.

            “I’m sorry,” Byleth says. He focuses on her and the fuzzy outline of the sun around her. She sucks on her injured finger like a child nursing a papercut. “You were saying?”

            “I wanted to see how you were doing,” he says and speaking banishes the encroaching dark. “How you are truly doing.”

            Her thumb still parts her teeth, but her lips have gone still around it. She shakes the rod at him.

            “This was my father’s.”

            She says nothing else and he feels like a fool. Of course, it is her father’s. How many times has he ventured by to see father and daughter fishing side by side? Nearly every night, dinner had featured the option of fish, fresh caught by the Eisners. Ashe had called them the scourge of the aquatic. Slyvain had often waxed poetic about how he sympathized with the plight of Byleth’s trophies, having been hooked in similar fashion. Byleth had always smiled at the off-kilter rhyme, Dimitri remembers. But he doubts she ever will again.

            “After, Duscur,” he says without much thought, needing to remedy her empty, scooped-out expression. “I spent two days in my father’s closet, among his clothing. He left other things behind, but his clothes smelled the most like him. I did not eat or drink or sleep. I thought if I waited long enough, he would return...”

            A chill ruffles his spine as he trails off. There are a few details he decides not to share. Like how he’d wept and shrieked every time the attendants attempted to remove him. Or how he’d broken the wrist of one of the attendants when they’d tried to remove him by force. Or how he’d crushed a wayward rat beyond recognition with his bare hands. Or how he’d gouged deep, bloody ruts into his arms to quell the screaming in his head and how, only when he’d fallen unconscious from the blood loss, had they been able to drag him out.

            Byleth closes her eyes and the dark smudges beneath them become all the more noticeable. The rod trembles in her grasp. Her fingers are white at the knuckles.

            “Does it ever stop hurting?” she asks.  

            To another, he might have lied. But not to her.

            “Never,” he says.

            Her head dips in a solemn nod. Her brow furrows and her lips press together and he fears she might cry.

            But she doesn’t. She sighs with her body. When she bares her eyes to him once more, no grief glimmers in the corners.

            “Will you bait the hook?” she asks. She flattens her hand up against an invisible wall and he can see a smattering a fresh scabs dotting her fingers and palm. “I’m sick of stabbing myself.”  

            He agrees. She hands him the rod and then stoops down to retrieve the worm. She wipes it against her shirt so that it leaves a gooey, bloody trail. When she drops it into his hand, it is clean of blood except in a few wrinkles of its fatty body.

            Almost immediately, he fumbles with the hook and the worm falls through his fingers. It squirms along the splintered wood of the dock until Byleth scoops it into her hand. A flicker of bemusement dances in her eyes and lifts the corners of her lips. Heat crawls up from the back of his neck so he massages it. He looks to the horizon and hopes for the blaring sun to boil the embarrassment from the veins.

            “Forgive me if I’m wrong but, you’ve never fished before, have you?” Byleth asks.

            There’s no point in asking her how she can tell. He’s always been atrocious at hiding his uncertainty.

            “No. Most of the rivers near Fhirdiad are too monstrous or frozen for fishing,” he says. 

            “I’ll help you,” she says as she takes the hook from him. She spears the worm through its side and then laces it quivering, bleeding body round and round the hook until it has no hope of ever escaping. She returns it to him once the worm is thoroughly dead.

            “Cast it out,” she says.

            Though he’s passed by the pond enough to know what he should do, he hesitates. He fears catching the hook in her hair or snapping her father’s rod in a gust of uncontrolled strength.

            The rod is taken from him in silence. It is these moments of silence that he likes best about her. She never fills the dead air with empty words. Her silence gives him peace of mind.

            The reel hisses as she spins it until the line is slack. Then, she whips the rod so that the line arcs over their heads. After she has sent the hook sailing into the water, she hands the rod to him. He takes it without question. The gentle current of the water buoys the line.

            “And now we wait,” she says and she flops down onto the edge of the dock. Her short legs dangle just above the water. She shoves the box of fishing gear aside and pats the space beside her. It is difficult to sit while clutching the rod, but he manages. He does not hang his legs over the side as she does. His would surely plunge beneath the surface and he has never enjoyed getting his feet wet.

             Byleth leans back over her hands. She shakes her head so that her hair hangs loose and free over her shoulders. He stares out over the rippling water instead of into the flecks of gold in her irises.

            “Do you remember the fishing tournament?” she asks. The breeze rustles his bangs into his eyes so he blows them away with a huff before he says, “I remember Ingrid complaining that you bested her by an embarrassingly large margin.”

            “I wouldn’t say it was embarrassingly large,” she protests, but she boasts the smallest of smirks. It has been a slow process, but, little by little, she has opened up to him. Or he has gotten better at reading her. He isn’t sure which is closer to the truth.

            “I caught this massive fish, bigger than I’ve caught before, or after. And I was so excited."

            Dimitri imagines her with a look of impish excitement, but dislikes the way her face contorts in his mind’s eye. Her excitement is surely more subtle, he thinks. Perhaps, a flush of color across her cheeks or a sparkle in her eye, and maybe, if she were truly exhilarated, the hint of a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

            “So I rushed to tell my father and I remember holding up my hands to show him the size—” In tandem with her story, she leans forward and spreads her hands a good distance from each other. “—and he just laughs and pries them further apart and says, ‘Let me know when you catch one this big.’”

            Her expectant stare cues him to laugh. It isn’t that the story lacks humor, but that he hasn’t laughed on his own since he was a child. If he wasn’t expected to maintain a healthy social life, he wouldn’t laugh at all. But laughter is one of the few things that sets Byleth apart from the others. With her, he doesn’t mind forcing up a laugh, especially if it conjures one of her elusive smiles. In fact, there are a lot of things he doesn’t mind doing to elicit her smile.

            She smiles now and he takes the sight of her, smiling and resplendent in the setting sun, and bandages it over the gaping chasm within his chest. He rationalizes it as a memory of a time when his presence did not bring another sorrow.

            The sounds of the merchants closing up their shops swells over the water. Dimitri listens to the shuffle of feet and the slam of windows until the soft whisper of slumber catches his ear. At his side, Byleth has fallen asleep, sitting straight up.

            Soon, the sun has curved below the horizon and Byleth has curved with it. She leans against his shoulder. Her hair spills over his back. There is the tiniest hint of a bow in her lips.  He sits stiff and still. He is certain that if he moves, she will wake. She looks peaceful. She smells like a meadow of lilacs, rich and earthen.

            He wants to dart away, and he wants to stay. He knows he does not deserve such simplistic intimacy. Especially from her.

            But his eyelids gain weight. His head droops. He loses track of his hands. His breaths come slow and smooth. The breeze coming off the water is a lullaby. It envelops him until he is warm and content.

            And then there is a nibble on the line.

            Dimitri yanks up. He flings his arm up to the heavens. The rod goes with it. A fish, silver as steel, rockets from the water, tethered to the end of the line. It crosses before the setting sun in a mockery of an eclipse. The rod snaps clean in two. Dimitri’s mouth fills with sour dread. The fish sails over his head and falls to the dock with a watery slap.  

            Byleth jerks awake. She nearly knocks him into the pond as she scrambles after the fish. She scoops it into her hands. It is silver and glinting as it jerks against her fingers. Its eyes are a bulbous black. Its mouth puckers open and closed. To Dimitri, it looks like it is screaming.

            Half of Jeralt’s rod lies at Byleth’s feet. The other half is trapped within the mashing of his fingers. Shame spasms his fingers and the wood splinters.

            “This is… I can’t…” Byleth stammers. She looks from the fish to him and then back again. Her fingers strain pale against the fish’s slimy scales.

            “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean… It’s difficult to—"

            “No, it’s not that,” she interrupts. She eases the hook from the fish’s mouth. Blood dribbles along the fissures of its scale. “It’s a platinum fish. Jeralt always wanted to catch one.”

            The quiver of a smile shimmers through the usual mask of her face.

            “This is a sign,” she says.

            Dimitri clenches his teeth. In all the ways he’s tried to honor the unjustly dead, he has never received any such sign. Yet, Byleth receives a rare catch on her first attempt. Despair comes easily. She is right in saying the fish is a sign— it is a sign of her divinity and his damnation.    

            “Will you share it with me?” Byleth asks. She jiggles the gasping fish towards him.

            Her question rings hesitant, but her face is smooth and unbothered. He feels his own grow hot. It is a simple request, but it twists inside him to a place deeper than his brief frustration.

            There is potential in her proposal. In her joyful company, it would be easy to ignore his own faults. He can imagine himself sharing the fish with her, admiring the finesse of her hand as she debones it, standing clear as she grills it over the fire, watching the light of the flames liquify the heavy bags beneath her eyes, lying about the taste of it, saying he enjoys it thoroughly,

            And maybe, maybe he would walk her back to her quarters. Maybe he would thank her again for the treat. Maybe he would relish the sight of her beneath the watery moonlight. Maybe he would realize there was truth in Sylvain’s constant, unrelenting teasing. Maybe he did feel something beyond respect for her. Maybe she felt the same. Maybe she would take his hand and he would take hers. And maybe she would blush and say, “I wish I was another student here and not a professor.” And maybe he would kiss her.

            Maybe. But probably not.

            Starring into the mire of her stone-gray eyes, he realizes that he has found relief in Byleth’s absence these past few weeks. She has become an uncomfortable reality in his life, a desire he knows much better than to have.

            “I… Seteth assigned an arduous reading,” he says. He curls his toes inside the heavy leather of his boots to stomach the sting of lying.

            “Ah, of course,” she says, and the glitter in her eyes grows dull. In her hands, the fish has stopped squirming. “Another time, then.”

            Dimitri nods and then he leaves. As he climbs the steps to the nobles’ dormitory, his mouth sags and his hands will not be coaxed from tightly held fists.