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You're bound but so free

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"You did not have to accompany me, Your Highness." Dedue meaningfully cast his gaze up towards the sky, studded with stars. It's late, he meant, and Dimitri let a dry chuckle escape as he ran two fingers through his hair and followed his vassal and his large basket of freshly harvested vegetables out of the greenhouse.

"I'm aware, Dedue." Of course he was. But after a rather unfortunate circumstance in which Dedue had scared a female student while tending to the flowers in the afternoon, he had taken to doing most of his work in the greenhouse at times that he was less likely to encounter anyone else. Dimitri had tried, fruitlessly, to argue for a different solution and had finally resigned himself to accompanying him instead.

Dedue grunted softly, acknowledgment. He was headed for the dining hall with a stride so purposeful that even the prince with his long legs had to adjust his pace a tad quicker. This too was something Dimitri needed no verbal explanation for. He knew just as well as the rest of the Blue Lions that their friend and classmate liked to make use of the kitchen, even when it wasn't his turn to cook. This was just his way of helping to keep the stores well-stocked, much in the manner that Petra of the Black Eagles would occasionally make a cheerful appearance with three pheasants slung over her shoulder to offer as ingredients.

At this hour, there wouldn't be any cooks bustling about, or students engrossed in their chatter, making it ideal to quietly leave the vegetables and go. Or so Dimitri assumed, leaning carefully in the doorway to wait for Dedue to return from the kitchen.

His lean hadn't been as balanced as he'd imagined, apparently, because when a high-pitched scream filled the air and was quickly accompanied by several crashes, clatters, and a more muted but no less concerning thud-- the prince had to force a rather awkward stumble to keep from outright falling in his shock.

Instantly, his mind was racing, his hand falling to the sword hilt at his hip. Someone was under attack. He needed to handle the threat, summon the faculty or soldiers on duty, he needed to find Dedue and--

"Your Highness."

Dimitri's grip faltered as Dedue emerged from the kitchen, clearly unharmed and no longer carrying the basket. In its place, however, was a limp girl, looking just as dwarfed in such a large man's arms as the basket had.

This time, no amount of time spent in Dedue's presence would have sufficed to understand this without words, and Dedue himself seemed to recognize this with a sigh. If nothing else, succinct ought to do.

"I startled her. Several pots were dropped. She hit her head. Her breathing is not labored."

"Thank the Goddess for that," Dimitri murmured, continuing to stare down at the unconscious form of Bernadetta von Varley and simultaneously accepting with pinched brows that no... he would not be getting to his studying for that ballista exam tonight.

- - -

It had been a very succinct conversation and a swifter agreement: from what they both knew about Bernadetta, who had just unknowingly confirmed their suspicions, she was prone to panic and negative imaginings without needing much provocation. If, by chance, she regained consciousness before they reached the infirmary, better to see Dimitri's face than Dedue's. Dedue, in fact, had been the one to reluctantly ask this favor of his prince-- and so Dimitri found himself carefully maneuvering the halls with Bernadetta bundled up snugly in his detached cape. The fabric was dark enough so that she wouldn't immediately harm her eyes upon waking, and it lent a bit of extra cushion for her head; Dimitri had never been accused of having a particularly soft and comfortable... well, anything.

If he was truly fortunate tonight, if the Goddess was feeling particularly merciful, he could simply leave Bernadetta in the infirmary with her being none the wiser. Manuela was the Black Eagles' professor, so she'd at least be waking up to a familiar face, and thus be a little more likely to listen to an explanation, of which he'd happily provide to the professor, and--

All too belatedly, Dimitri realized that the trouble with wrapping a tiny girl in his cape and taking care to shield her face was that he couldn't tell precisely when she started to stir. Nor did he consider how well she would (not) take it.

Only years of honing his reflexes and the strength of his own bloodline kept Bernadetta from bucking her way out of his hold to bodily embrace the floor. Dimitri hadn't quite anticipated the sudden strong surge of the bundle he held, but as she regained the ability to speak, bewilderment turned very rapidly into concern.

Bernadetta von Varley was a joking rumor among most of the students, lighthearted jests told in the tone of the most chilling of ghost stories about a girl who never left her room and if you were to run into her outside of it, you were damned to become the next in her line of cursed dolls. To those who didn't believe such absurd claims, she was merely an odd girl with a tendency to overreact... though given the occasions that he had seen her, slung over Caspar's back and wailing as he took off at a dead run, or fleeing from the slow and purposeful approach of Edelgard's retainer, Dimitri was sure her time with the Black Eagles hadn't been particularly kind.

Those times, her yelps and shrieks of protest had been almost comical, though he'd felt slightly guilty for thinking that. Now, however, Bernadetta was struggling for dear life in his grip, and her cries held a note of what he knew to be terror.

"No, no, no, no, not again, please not again, I-I'll be good, don't l-leave me in here, don't send me away--!! I'm sorry!!"

Dimitri froze for all of two seconds, though it felt much longer as those words seeped in slowly, like acknowledging the sweat cooling on his face when he'd flung himself free of another nightmare. This really wasn't a matter he ought to attend to. Bernadetta was not a member of his House, nor a citizen of the Kingdom. She was a fellow student, yes, but he had no right to pry into her affairs. He shouldn't even be wondering.

He reminded himself of that, sternly, as he dodged a captured arm or elbow or whatever she was trying to swing upwards (frantically enough that he heard part of the fabric tear), and used one hand to tug the cape away so she could see. As he did, he spoke quickly and quietly.

"You have my utmost apologies for startling you, Bernadetta, but you hit your head rather... resoundingly, when Dedue came upon you. Please, for your own sake, don't move about so haphazardly until we reach the infirmary. I'm only here to help you."

Dimitri held no real hope that he'd be able to reassure her so easily and indeed, when Bernadetta's pale and tear-streaked face came into view, she stared at him as though he was merely an apparition and she was debating her sanity-- a feeling that had festered within him for some time, flaring up every now and then; familiar, not welcome.

He had silently counted to twenty before she spoke, if that shivering hoarse whisper that slipped out of her constituted as speaking. "Y-you're... Prince Dimitri..."

"That I am." Perhaps a gesture of humor and goodwill would allay her fears; he could hope, and so smiled down at her. Goddess, but Bernadetta was tiny. Annette was too, of course, but Annette was also so full of vigor that her stature was a mere afterthought. "If you know that much, clearly I need not fear for memory loss."

"Prince Dimitri," Bernadetta repeated, wincing as she brought one hand up to the back of her head. "Oh." Then, faster, more panicked, "Oh. Oh, no no no-- now you've done it, Bernie, you've angered royalty and now he's carrying you to your own execution, why did I even try to sneak out for a snack?! Only terrible things happen when I leave my room!"

To that, Dimitri raised an eyebrow, even as he kept a close eye on her when she gingerly touched her head again. He'd considered putting her down, but she was still clearly disoriented and definitely in pain. She'd have to endure, just a bit longer. "Is being carried in my arms really such a distressing fate? I suppose I can't help if I'm abhorrent to you, but we'll be at the infirmary soon, where no executions will await you."

Bernadetta released a miserable groan, stammering something like a denial of some sort (along with what sounded like a plea to the Goddess for mercy), but she was no longer trying to wriggle her way out of his hold, so Dimitri took it as a victory. The infirmary had finally come into view, the brass plate on the door illuminated by the flaming sconces on the walls. His role was nearly done here, and Dimitri could only pray that Manuela was within as he shifted Bernadetta long enough to bring his fist to the door in a decisive knock.

"Goddess, Kristoph! If it takes you this long to drag yourself here, I can't foresee a very promising ni-- oh."

To Dimitri's relief, Manuela was present in the infirmary.

To Dimitri's subsequent dismay, also present behind her were two glasses shimmering with burgundy wine, barely flickering white candles all around the room, and a feeling of encroaching dread that indisputably weighed more than the girl in his arms.

"... I wasn't expecting company quite this late." Manuela recovered admirably, eyes narrowed as she took in the sight of Faerghus' crown prince standing there with one of her House's students ensconced in his cape and held securely to his chest. "And an unusual pair, at that. Since only one of us apparently gets to bask in a young man's embrace, I suppose I'll take this as a sign and just have the both of you come in and explain to me what you're doing at this hour."

"I could die now," Bernadetta suggested helpfully. Hopefully, even, if he had to lend an emotion to the tremulous manner in which she spoke.

"No one is dying," Dimitri objected, inwardly wincing as he felt her cringe. Had that been too forceful of a statement? Had he squeezed her too hard, instinctively reacting to the sudden clamors of the dead that plagued him and him alone? "That is-- Professor, if you have a moment, I'd be happy to explain."

"I'm Kristoph," came a surly voice from behind them. This time, Dimitri's hold did tighten as Bernadetta squeaked and he took two steps forward into the infirmary in the event that he had to swiftly hand her off to Manuela first and face this unknown--

Oh. Manuela's... companion.

"You had your chance, Kristoph," the woman in such apparently high demand snapped with asperity, ushering Dimitri further inside. "And my students take priority."

Watching her slam the door shut with such force that he felt the air flee the room, Dimitri was once again reminded of how all women deserved respect and a healthy amount of caution. It was a fact he had always known, having grown up alongside Ingrid, but there were times where he received very strong reminders. Like now.

At the very least, Manuela's ire was not focused on him. She swept past the wine glasses (though not without a longing glance) and gestured to one of the neatly-made beds. Dimitri was quick to set Bernadetta down after he'd unwrapped her, gathering his cape into his arms and clearing his throat.

Before he could launch into an explanation, Manuela was already leaning in to examine Bernadetta for herself, a pensive frown tugging at her lips. "You're pale," she murmured. "And your eyes are out of focus. A fall...?"

"Dedue and I caught her by surprise in the dining hall," Dimitri hurried to say, in no way willing to implicate only his friend in this encounter. He would take full responsibility, as well. "She struck her head upon the counter when she fell. I was worried she might have a concussion, so I brought her here. Professor, I--"

Manuela held up a hand to cut him off, a decisive flourish that he recognized from the occasions where she was the one to conduct choir practice in the Cathedral. "I'm not angry, Dimitri. You did the right thing." She rested a hand on Bernadetta's shoulder. "If she does have a concussion, I believe it's only minor... but I'd like to keep her here for the night to observe her, just in case. As for you, young man, you'll make many a young lady tragically sad if you don't get yourself to bed quickly. Wrinkles can strike at any age, at any time, for those who don't get enough rest."

"I'll risk a wrinkle or three for a fellow student," Dimitri responded immediately, allowing himself a faint chuckle. "But thank you again, Professor. I'll take my leave. Bernadetta--" He dipped into a short bow. "Again, I'm sorry for all that we've put you through tonight. May the Goddess bless you with a swift recovery."

As he turned to go, a soft voice, steadier than before, stopped him in his stride.

"W-wait."

Dimitri turned back, surprised to see Bernadetta (still looking overwhelmed, of course) holding out her hand. When he blinked, she continued. "Your... your cape. I ripped it, so... p-please let me do something about that."

"I could hardly ask you to--"

"Might as well leave it to her," Manuela interrupted, grinning knowingly. "Why, I couldn't even begin to tell you all of the times Bernadetta has fixed many a torn stocking or a dress hem for me, all because of-- well. Stories better sung to a different audience!"

Deciding that yes, she was absolutely correct, he did not wish to know, and unwilling to argue the point in the event that he upset Bernadetta again, Dimitri heaved a sigh of rueful defeat and bundled his cape up to hand back to her. And, politely excusing himself, he strode out of the infirmary, intent on finding Dedue, assuring him that the situation was well in hand, and seeing how much study time he could cram in before sleep.

Two days later, Ferdinand von Aegir presented him with his neatly-folded cape, mended so well that Dimitri couldn't even trace where the fabric had been torn when he held it up to look it over.

"Bernadetta sends her regards," Ferdinand reported dutifully. "And... she has asked me to relay to you that she does not find you... abhorrent? I believe that it would be best for me not to ask for additional clarification."

"I believe that's wise," Dimitri agreed, his small smile hidden as he twisted to reattach his cape.