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Even from a very young age, Dimitri has never liked social outings — but in all his time as prince of the Kingdom, this year’s Garreg Mach ball stands to be the one he has dreaded the most.

It’s not just that he’s forced to wear a smile the entire night. It’s that quite literally everyone is there and everyone also expects him to be there. Because of course the heir apparent of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus must attend the annual Garreg Mach ball — he must chat with some, greet all the others, and most certainly dance.

And given the fact that Edelgard is currently a student at the Academy…

She would absolutely be dancing as well.

Dancing… No matter how much time passes, Dimitri doesn’t think he will ever think of dancing without thinking first of Edelgard. If six years and tragedy couldn’t absolve him of his memories with her, he isn’t confident that anything could rid her from his mind.

Somehow though, she’s completely blank when she looks at him, as if she was never there six years ago, dancing with him, hand in hand. He is certain that she was the girl that taught him to dance, but for as many times as he has tried to catch her attention, he has never once seen recognition in her deep purple eyes.

Dimitri shakes the worry out of his head. He has a bad habit of ruminating in the past, he knows.

He tightens his shoes and picks himself up to go downstairs, stretching his lips into a smile several times as practice before he presents himself at the ballroom. Fluidly, he turns into the charming prince that everyone knows him for, and he steps into his duty to entertain the party without pause.

He dances with many people that night, but his eyes wander over his dance partners’ shoulders, following the spins and circles of one person in particular. He only realizes his inattentiveness when he almost completely turns his head to follow the bright ends of silver hair and lavender ribbons.

“Hm?” he asks for his dance partner to repeat her question. He knows she’s said something but he admits to himself that his mind has been too distracted to be present. “I apologize,” he adds. “I’m afraid I was paying more attention to your steps than your words. Leave it to me to be a clumsy dancer.”

His dance partner laughs musically. She looks familiar, with slate-grey eyes and cherrywood-colored hair in a short bob — a profile description that he thinks he remembers reading in a scroll once while being schooled of all the Kingdom nobility.

She leans in. “That’s amusing,” she replies, her laugh still tucked into her voice. “I was actually saying quite the opposite, Prince Dimitri. I was only complimenting how well you carry yourself on the dance floor. Compared to you, I feel like the clumsy one!”

He brushes off the compliment. In his experience, returning commendations turns into competitions of praise, each party imparting more accolades onto the other, each additional one more exaggerated than the previous.

“It’s nice of you to join me on the dance floor,” he says instead.

“You’re a very desired man tonight,” she tells him, with maybe the slightest blush. “It is only simply my turn with you right now.” She steps forward a couple steps, foreshadowing a change in direction of their dance. He obliges her, mirroring her feet, and the two of them come toward the center of the ballroom, just under the grand chandelier. Her eyes look over his shoulder briefly and she leans her lips closer to his ear, as if gossiping. “Lady Edelgard is also very popular tonight,” she notes.

Dimitri resists the urge to turn his head to look at Edelgard. He knows she’s dancing with her own partner, and he knows she’s right behind him. He can smell the subtle scent of her perfume wafting in the air — to any ordinary person, indistinguishable from the aroma of winter stew, braised meats, and sweet treats laid out in food display at the corners of the room, but to Dimitri, the only thing his sense of smell can detect these days.

“I wouldn’t expect any lack of company for the heiress of the Adrestian Empire,” he replies to his dance partner, in the same quieted voice.

There is also no lack of company for the prince of Faerghus either that night. As he dances, his toes grow more uncomfortable in his shoes — another sign that he indeed needed to buy a larger set of shoes for his ever-growing body — but he presses on until just five minutes past eleven when he could no longer bear it. Excusing himself after a final twirl with his dance partner, he finds himself a seat, trying not to hobble as he settles himself down for the first time that night.

Here, he smells her perfume. Sharp and strong this time, coming from his left.

“Dimitri,” she greets him, with the shallow intimacy of only a few months together at the Academy. He imagines she only knows his name this well because of years practice in the books, reciting the royalty roster from across Fódlan. She gives him a smile and takes relief in the chair next to him, crossing her legs. “Taking a break? You’ve been up all night, haven’t you?”

He returns a tight smile. “Only for a short while,” he responds, before gesturing to her currently seated figure. “You’ve been dancing from the very start as well, haven’t you?”

They’ve been sharing the same dance floor all night but until now have not said a single word to each other.

She perches her hands on her crossed knee. “Yes,” she affirms. “And while I admit I do enjoy dancing, there is a limit to how much spinning around I can handle.” Her eyes traverse the crowd and upon spotting someone, her eyes brighten. She points a chin in that direction. “But I think our poor Professor has been in even higher demand than the two of us put together. She does not look like she’s having fun, does she?”

Dimitri gazes over in the implied direction and can’t help but smile when he sees the Professor as well — instead of the ever-blank expression, furrowed eyebrows and a repressed frown on Byleth’s face.

“No, she doesn’t,” he agrees.

He glances back at Edelgard. He’s never taken a good look at her from this close until now. She’s changed a lot over the past six years. White snow in place of her chestnut brown hair, callused fingers kept under gloves, a taller and more shapely silhouette that sits rigidly straight.

If anything hasn’t changed, it’s the color of her eyes — a deep purple. But even then, her eyes still look different to him.

Perhaps because she looks at him different. She looks at him like she doesn’t know him. She sees right through him, as if he means nothing at all, as if all she sees is something in the far distance — she lives in a dream and he is not part of it.

There’s a sudden tightness around his chest that he can’t describe, and he doesn’t know where it comes from. But it doesn’t let him breathe and it makes his heart curl.

A thought skirts Dimitri’s mind, and for the first time, he doesn’t hold back the impulse.

“We should dance,” he suddenly suggests.

To this she covers her mouth with a gloved hand to laugh. “Oh, Dimitri,” she chuckles. “What would everyone think? We shouldn’t scare the nobility with the threat of two heir apparents dancing together. It wouldn’t be proper. We would be the talk of the Academy for weeks.”

“We would only be two Academy classmates taking part at the ball.”

“Even still so!” she exclaims lightheartedly.

“Outside then,” he suggests. “Maybe we can chat then, too, without noise and distraction.”

This must have made Edelgard reconsider, because she looks behind her at the crowds of dancing students. She looks back at him. “Well, it doesn’t seem like anyone is looking for either of us, and I have been more than overwhelmed by the number of dances I’ve had to accompany today. We could use a bit of a break outside, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” he agrees. His heart beats once. The thought of time with Edelgard alone feels incredibly risky, but he guesses he had always been seeking to be with her, and her alone. For what reason, though, he hasn’t completely figured out himself. He wants to try though. He wants to help her remember how close they were, how close they should be.

“Let’s go then,” she says, stepping toward the stairs before she pauses and looks back. But then she just shakes her head. “No, Hubert will know that I am just taking respite from the socializing.”

He suppresses the urge to take her hand just then and there, only allowing himself to simply follow her down the spiral staircase until they reach the ground landing. She pushes open the double doors to the outdoor courtyard, and he watches her take a deep breath of the cool night air, her silver hair blown back. The breeze of the night brushes past him, some of the wind slipping under his sleeves. She holds the door and looks back at him, gesturing for him to come forward.

He follows after, and she immediately sits on the edge of the most nearby bench, her head tilted up toward the stars in the sky. She invites him to sit on the bench with her, and he rigidly sits next to her, taking care to not be too close.

She takes a deep breath in first, before rising again and standing before him.

“I’m sorry. I just needed a moment to catch my breath,” she explains. She extends her hand out to him. “Well then, Dimitri, shall we dance?”

“Absolutely,” he agrees, standing up and taking her hand.

Now again at his full height, the difference in their size is incredibly apparent. He feels like he could quite literally just crush her.

Their hands come together, and he hesitantly places his hand on her waist. The touch feels incredibly intimate, and he almost pulls his hand back, but when he checks her face, she barely seems to care how close he is to her. She simply looks up at him with a curt smile, as if giving him a cue — and so then they dance.

He starts with his right foot. She follows his lead. They quickly default to some internal rhythm, to some unheard melody that they share — in sync and orchestrated, as if practiced.

It’s as if they’ve danced before.

Because they have.

About two minutes in, between the slow whirls and twirls, she tilts her head forward. He can see that he’s impressed her. “You’re a very good dancer,” she compliments him. “I wouldn’t have expected this kind of agility and grace from someone like you.”

“Are you telling me you wouldn’t expect the next King of Faerghus to know how to dance?”

“No, I—” Her eyes flit up and down him, as if reassessing his physique. “I only mean to say that it’s rare to see such finesse executed by a body as… big and tall as yours.”

He looks down at her. “I will take that as a compliment.”

She doesn’t shy from his eyes. “It is a compliment,” she affirms to him. She smiles. “You’ve grown to be a very handsome man, Dimitri.”

For a moment, he thinks that she’s given him a hint that she remembers him from long ago, but there’s no softness in her eyes, no sign of history. Then he reminds himself how silly it is that he expects her to remember at all. Ever since he met her again — this time with full head of white instead of oak brown — he has been searching for recognition in her eyes. And all this time, he has found none.

Why would she suddenly remember him now? She hasn’t for the past decade.

He can’t look at her eyes anymore. So he lifts his arm over her head — not difficult to do since her head only reaches his shoulders — and spins her around to transition into a twirl. She follows his lead without missing a step, lifting her other hand from her shoulder, and Dimitri collects his emotions and his breath in the brief second she doesn’t face him.

She spins smoothly back around, her fingers never tangling with his as she turns, and then collapses back into neutral stance. Having executed that perfectly, she hums in approval.

“You were taught well,” she says.

“I had a good teacher,” he replies.

Their energy soon fades after a couple more spins. There is no music to dance to, and they’ve already been dancing all night with other people. She falls into a languid sway with him, her arms over his shoulders and both his arms at her waist.

“I apologize,” Dimitri starts, interrupting the silence.

“Whatever for?” she asks him, looking at him funny.

“I’ve been incredibly busy with my house. I haven’t taken the time to get to know you, and that is important for our nations. Not to mention that for as long as you have been my sister by marriage, our families have not once gathered for even a brief teatime.”

But it’s not even that — Dimitri is apologizing because for how close they had been, they completely lost each other, and for as long as he knew that Edelgard was right there, he didn’t reach out. And for the many times they had met afterward, he still didn’t make a move.

Why does he feel the need to start now? It’s already halfway through the year, and even within these few months, their paths have grown so far apart. What will happen in the next year?

“Oh, don’t worry about that. There will be plenty of opportunity to get to know me,” she assures him. “You’re always welcome to stop by my room and say hello — when you’re not training yourself to death that is.”

If that’s a criticism on how much time he spends with his lance, Dimitri chooses to ignore it.

“How is your father doing these days?” he asks. A personal question, yes, but it’s something he knows she will have something to say for.

She hesitates, but he can tell that it’s not because she’s emotional about the topic. It’s information the Empire is trying to keep to only the ears that need to know.

She doesn’t trust him. That much is clear.

But he wants her to trust him. Just like how she used to when they were young, when she would tell him all her thoughts, all her wishes and dreams without abandon. Now there are walls around her heart, and he hates that he’s on the outside of them trying to look in.

“He’s not in the best health, but he has years left to fulfill his ambitions,” she replies. She looks at him with compassion, her voice softening. “How are the politics in the Kingdom?”

“I’ll have to return soon to be officially crowned,” he tells her. “For now, I admit that I will excuse myself from thinking about those obligations.” He looks at her. “Are you worried about your incoming duty as Empress? You don’t seem like someone fazed by responsibility.”

He can sense that’s not a topic she is willing to disclose, because he can feel her muscles tense at her core. She pulls away from him, stepping back and letting her hands fall from his shoulders.

“Dimitri. What exactly did you call me out here to talk about?” she asks him, her voice suddenly hard.

“I just…” he answers slowly. “I thought we could bond about our futures. We’ll need to be working together a lot, I imagine.”

She looks at him for a long time with an expression that he can’t read. “I apologize, Dimitri,” she says firmly after a moment. “We’ll have to save this conversation for later.” She glances behind her, at one of the windows of the ballroom and gives him a tight smile. “We should return to the party, shouldn’t we?”

She doesn’t wait for him to respond, simply turning to walk back.

“Wait! El—” He doesn’t swallow her nickname in time.

She stops then, almost bristling, swiveling around to look at him. Her eyes fog over.

“El?” she asks, almost cracking. “Who told you to call me El?”

He swallows. “You did,” he says in the smallest voice.

She looks confused, wary, and at the same time, vulnerable. He can’t read her face, so he simply continues.

“Do you remember the dagger?”

But what are the chances she kept it? What are the chances that she even remembers that anyone had given her such a strange gift in the first place?

“I…” she says, and then cuts herself off. Her eyes widen and then — this.

This is the look he wants to see on her face.

“It was you?”

“Yes,” he says, soft and just off his breath, eyes wide, waiting for her next move.

“I…” she pauses, looking down at the ground before meeting his eyes again. “I still have it.”

He smiles and reaches for her hand, but she snatches her hand away from him. Her eyes harden to amethyst. “What were you trying to accomplish by telling me this?”

It’s a question he hasn’t asked himself. She’s right. Why is he so adamant to tell her tonight?

“Nothing,” he answers, but that’s a lie. He corrects himself. “I… I thought we would be friends again.”

“We are friends, Dimitri,” she reminds him.

“We aren’t close like we used to be.”

“Everything has changed since then, Dimitri,” she says. “We’ve changed.”

“I know time hasn’t treated either of us well, but I still love you, El,” he blurts, not caring about the bluntness of his confession. He looks at her, studying her furrowed eyebrows. “I don’t know if you felt the same way back then, but I know that you at least cared for me.”

She shakes her head. “We were children then.” She meets his eyes, and for a moment, he thinks he’s broken through to her because she then says, “There is no doubt that I hold our time together dearly in my memory, but that time we had together was when we still had our youth to experience and act on our feelings.” She steps back from him then, again. “You said you wanted to discuss our incoming duty as leaders of our lands? All I have to contribute to that conversation is that the Edelgard you loved is no longer. I have changed, Dimitri. Nothing can bring me back to where we once were.”

“I’m not asking for you to love me,” he says. “I just want a shorter distance between us. I just want us to be able to rely on each other when times get bad. Life is so fragile, El, and peace doesn’t last forever. I want to know that we’ll be on the same side.”

At this, she swallows. He can tell there are unsaid words on her pursed lips, but it doesn’t look like she’ll share them with him anytime soon.

“I’m still the same, El,” he says, in a last-ditch effort.

She looks at him with empty and haunted eyes. “Maybe that’s the problem,” she replies.

At this, she turns around and walks away.

“You still have the dagger I gave you,” he shouts at her. The words are angry and covered in acid.

He wants her to stop. He wants her to reconsider. And with this last ounce of hope he holds in his heart, he waits for her to turn around and look at him.

But she doesn’t turn around, and she doesn’t stop walking away.