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Nightingale

Chapter Text

But that wild music burthens every bough,


And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.


Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,


Because I would not dull you with my song.

 

***

 

Years ago, Sakura would nestle in the gardens with Mother to sing with the rising of the sun. Little bird, Mother had called her teasingly, the two of them curled into the deep shade of the willows, mother stroking daughter's hair and humming a low melody, daughter trilling an accompanying harmony light as air. The beginning of a bond took shape then, a little girl with a woman made family through circumstance, and Sakura cannot recall ever feeling closer to her surrogate parent than in those precious mornings together.

In later years, she would perform at gatherings in front of family and friends, diplomats and envoys. True to her upbringing, she sat proper, straight-backed and legs tucked neatly in seiza while plucking the strings of her koto with her ivory pick. Sometimes Azura accompanied her - her older sister was always mesmerizing, twirling fluidly with her music in rivulets of silk and water. Being scrutinized made Sakura's heart pound, but she wasn't shy to sing; Azura taught her the right way to do it, right from deep in her belly where the breath stirs. She doesn't fumble with words while her voice rings clear as spring water.

Then Mother dies, and Azura is gone.

After the war, Sakura swaps the koto in her room for the Fujin Yumi, mounted in its place next to her festal. Hinoka, too, hung up her naginata; unlike Sakura, who had finally taken up arms, Hinoka can no longer wield hers. Instead, her room is littered with scrolls, the long lines of ink trailing across parchment in Ryoma's sharp writing serving as a painful reminder that this was the role he both lived and died for.

Nowadays, the sisters make a habit of meeting before the sun peaks over the horizon in companionable silence; Hinoka straps her younger sister into her gear before she settles in with her parchment and her ink, and Sakura lets arrow after arrow fly until her fingers are plucked raw.

Sakura doesn't perform, and Hinoka doesn't train. They instead don roles that don't quite fit, and while she wouldn't dare to complain, Sakura has never been more acutely aware of what it feels like to have her voice taken from her.

 

***


"It's been nearly a year," says Yukimura, "and King Xander has requested a formal renewal of our peace treaty."

"As if we have an alternative," sighs Hinoka, rubbing her eyes and turning a page of the book she's currently perusing for notes. "Where exactly does King Xander want to hold the talks?"

"Izumo." Yukimura purses his lips. "Archduke Izana will mediate."

"Good."

That seems to be that, because Hinoka turns back to her work. Her charcoal pencil scratches noisily against her parchment, the sound a testament to her poor penmanship. Chicken scratches, Takumi used to joke, while Ryoma would scold the imprecise and blotchy brushstrokes of her calligraphy. She never did try to get better after she took the throne.

"I think it would be wise we go over what concessions we would like to propose pulling from Nohr."

The scratching stops. "Concessions," echoes Hinoka blankly.

Yukimura clears his throat. "I believe we should withdraw some of the aid we provide to redirect it to our own citizens, and focus on rebuilding domestically. We have spent enough time wasting our resources on a foreign power, Your Majesty. Now is the time to regroup."

"Feeding the starving in Nohr is not a waste," Hinoka points out. "It is one of the most basic forms of goodwill Hoshido can offer at very little sacrifice to ourselves. You also know the state of things there is not exaggerated."

"They suffer, just as we suffer," he says, voice as tightly wound as his posture. "But this is one bargaining chip we have, Your Majesty. It is one that should not be so easily dismissed."

Hinoka glances to Sakura at her side, who looks back at her uneasily. "Are we in any position to demand anything from Nohr? Our military forces are still in shambles from the losses we took, and our coffers are filled with Nohrian gold."

"We may meet their aid publicly with gratitude, but that doesn't make the responsibility of our recovery any less theirs-"

"Sending our surpluses from the harvests isn't what's impeding our recovery," shoots back Hinoka.

"Perhaps not," Yukimura says, voice level, "but it's not putting it in favor with the merchants who would export it before and during the war, many of whom support the crown where Nohr does not. We're receiving a number of complaints on the Merchants' Guild's behalf to lower taxes on-"

"That is an issue of a domestic nature, and not something we can bring to the table with Nohr, Yukimura. They can't wave one of their staves and wish away their problems any more than we can." She resumes her writing.

The adviser bristles. "I am glad you are willing to see to our internal affairs yourself, Your Majesty, and your neutrality is a testament to your growth as a leader. But perhaps you should draw on your once tempestuous nature and show strength on this matter. They plant the seeds for whatever unrest sprouts on our soil."

Hinoka's eyes flash, and she opens her mouth with a growl, but Sakura's quiet voice cuts her off. "They would just throw more gold at the problem, Yukimura."

Yukimura turns to look at her warily. "Lady Sakura?"

"Their solution is to fund us so we might afford to lower taxes," Sakura says. "That only puts us more in their debt, doesn't it?"

"They're obligated to pay it for the havoc they've wrought on our country - I would hardly call that a debt!"

"You're angry," notes Hinoka tiredly, running her hand through her choppy red locks. "And I understand why. But Sakura is right. The more we depend on Nohr for gold, funding, whatever, the more we're obligated to them, and the less reliable we're seen to be by our citizens, especially when we're outsourcing our problems. We're a proud people, Yukimura. You know that."

Yukimura quiets at that. "I..." He bows his head. "It is... frustrating, to watch our country bend to conquerors, and have the fallout of their rule rest on your shoulders. I did not mean any offense."

"And you've caused none," Hinoka says quietly, placing her charcoal pencil down neatly and fixing her gaze on him. "But they held an axe to my throat, and threw Sakura in jail. We'd be fools to forget that we were once at their mercy even if we don't wear their chains. Don't think I've forgotten, Yukimura."

The adviser smiles, cracking through the worn lines on his face. "I have not forgotten that even with a pen instead of a naginata, you remain as fiery as ever, Your Majesty."

"I wouldn't say that," mutters Hinoka bemusedly, flexing her fingers and clenching her hand. "I really AM losing my muscle, you know."

"You have it where it counts," reassures Sakura.

Hinoka grins back, then turns to Yukimura, expression solumn again. "I'll see what I can do about appeasing the merchants, but I'll have to discuss it with you later. In the meantime, let's draw up a list of things we can bring to the table when we do that diplomatic 'waltz', did they call it..."


***

 

Summer in Hoshido sets the countryside ablaze with bursts of color, hills rolling with bright summer blooms and vivid green fields beneath clear skies that stretch gloriously, endlessly blue. In contrast, Nohr is almost startlingly bare. Skeletal tree branches stretch black cracks against a stark canvas of overcast grey. Even the mountains cut sharp lines on the horizon with high peaks that look like they could puncture a hole in the blanket of clouds.

This is the place where Corrin grew up. The sister warm and bright as sunlight, and she chose this place over home. Sakura could not thrive in such darkness, could never understand how she could make such a choice at all.

Summoned at the king's request to be an ambassador of peace to precede the treaty renewal, or so his scribes wrote, she and Hinoka suspect her role is less about fostering goodwill and more about placating the nobility nipping at his heels. Nohr had been starving under Garon's rule, that much had been obvious. Even with their new king ruling with an unclenched fist and even with Hoshido's aid, the people don't easily forget what it feels like to make their living by fighting; Sakura knows that even if she plays little part in the negotiations, she can, at the very least, remind them of why they make for Izumo at all.

Sakura peers down as her steed descends from the thickets of white, revealing more of the somber landscape in greater detail. The roads of Nohr cut clean through the rocky terrain and snake through to the inky black fortress of Krakenburg Castle.

An easy path to follow in flight, she thinks, now that archers don't stand ready to shoot them down.

Her pegasus lands smoothly, making for the square in front of the castle and slowing down to a trotting gait; lining the perimeter of the gates are guards, and in the center, bowing politely, is an unmistakable green crown of hair.

"Welcome to Nohr, Lady Sakura; you are certainly a welcome sight. I do hope the journey here was forgiving."

Sakura takes Kaze's gloved hand as he helps her down from her saddle. "Th-thank you, Kaze. It is good to see you again."

He squeezes her hand with a smile, a familiar one, and her heart aches only a little. He continues, "I am sure you are exhausted from your travels, milady. I can show you to your accommodations."

"No need. We remember it from our last visit during the coronation," says a frigid voice from behind them.

"Hana," starts Sakura, letting go of Kaze, but the young samurai has already turned away stubbornly to help Subaki haul their belongings from their mounts, and she turns back to Kaze, bowing her head. "I-I'm sorry."

"There is no need to apologize. I understand Lady Hana's feelings."

I'm not sure you do, thinks Sakura, but it's a moot point. "I think they r-remember the guest wing. They should be fine finding it. I should go greet the king..."

"I'm afraid King Xander was delayed on his tour," says Kaze. "He's expected to arrive tomorrow."

"Isn't that a little rude?" cuts in Hana, and Subaki shoots her a warning look, before continuing in her stead in a carefully neutral voice. "Lady Sakura expected to be received as a member of Hoshidan royalty. Is this truly all? Just a smattering of guards at the gates and a Hoshidan ninja to escort us to our rooms?"

Kaze frowns. "Without King Xander, a proper reception would be impossible. Did you expect that the remaining Nohrian royalty would simply parade Lady Sakura through the halls of Krakenburg?"

"It's what we came here to do, isn't it?" Hana points out.

"If it was," says Kaze levelly, "we'd be poor hosts to do so right after a week-long journey."

"Oh, so we'll be doing it later, then-"

"Hana," says Sakura again, quietly, and Hana falls silent. She turns to Kaze. "Thank you. I w-wouldn't want to be received with a big crowd right now, e-especially without King Xander to receive me properly."

Kaze's gaze softens. "Of course, milady."

"S-so he'll be back tomorrow?"

"He was expected to arrive from Macarath today, but meetings ran late. He expects to depart in the morning and should arrive in Windmire tomorrow evening. The remaining royals would be happy to entertain you until then."

She blinks. "O-oh, I don't want to impose..."

"It's no imposition."

The low voice cuts through from behind Kaze, and Sakura cranes her neck to see past him.

In front of the castle gates in glinting black armor stands the second prince, though the intimidating figure he cuts contrasts the amused expression he's wearing. He is a little taller than she remembers - face a little less round, blonde hair now tickling below his nape - but then, the last time she saw him was when his brother was crowned king, and before that was when she had an arrow pointed at his heart. There was no malice in his face then, not when it glanced off his armor, nor when he rode past her to cut down enemies likely more worth his while.

"P-Prince Leo." She bows deeply, curtain of hair falling from behind her ear, hiding her face.

"Please, there's no need for that."

She straightens and tries to smile, hoping her expression is right. "Thank you for your kind gesture... But if you don't mind, I think I will retire to my quarters with my retainers."

"Ah. I imagine you'd rather not do more than what's expected of you in this strange country."

Sakura inhales sharply. "I-I didn't mean to offend-"

"You haven't, Princess Sakura, so please be at ease," he says. "I'll have a servant fetch you to join my family for dinner. I hope eating, at least, is on your list of priorities?"

Her face burns. "Y-yes. I-I would be honored to join you."

"You'll have to put up with my sisters fawning over you," he drawls, lips quirked, "so I can assure you there's little honor involved. We'll summon you once it is time."

And with a small bow, he turns on his heel and strides back through the castle gates without looking back, leaving her standing with Kaze and his guards. But a thought snaps her to move, and she nearly trips on the steps to rush after him and manages to call out, "U-um, P-Prince Leo! W-will Corrin be... Joining for dinner?"

Leo stops, turns his head around to meet her with his own measured gaze. "Yes, that was the plan."

"Oh." She fiddles with the sleeves of her robes.

He watches her for a moment. "Would you prefer not to meet her yet?"

Sakura's eyes widen as she looks up at him. "I... What?"

"It's understandable," he says smoothly, "if you're uncomfortable. You could dine with just me, or with Elise and Camilla. Corrin can handle a little waiting until you're prepared."

She flushes again, because really, it shouldn't be this easy to disarm her. This isn't how things are done in Hoshido. He shouldn't brazenly single out and lay someone else's feelings bare to see-

But she had asked, and there's no judgement in his eyes, nor pity. He's trying to be accommodating, she reminds herself, and steadies her voice. "I will eat with your family, Prince Leo. Please do not disappoint your sisters on my account."

His eyes bore into hers as if he's trying to decipher something, but he simply nods, and turns back to the castle.

She sighs, turns back to see Hana and Subaki watching her from the bottom of the steps, and then bows to Kaze. "We'll take our leave and retire to our quarters. Thank you."

Kaze bows back. "It's my pleasure."

The moment they step into the halls, and Sakura is certain they're out of earshot of Kaze, she turns to her retainers with an unmistakably grim expression.

Hana winces. "I overdid it, didn't I?"

Subaki says, "Lady Sakura, truly, we're sorry-"

"The only part I'm cross about," she says, voice low, "is whether or not you actually know where the guest quarters are, because I have no idea."

Hana looks at Subaki uncertainly. "Um. I was bluffing."

Subaki smiles. "You're both fortunate," he says, "that my memory is, in fact, perfect."

 

*** 

 

"Do you play any instruments, Sakura?"

The question - more like an absentminded chirp than a question, really - comes from the young blonde princess, kicking her bare legs in the ceramic pool of the gardens where they lounge, the surface rippling with each movement. It's been one week since Sakura arrived, and while summer in Nohr is not nearly as sweltering as in Hoshido, it's still balmy and warm enough that the cool of the water is a welcome respite.

It's not the hushed whispers in the halls nor the delicately-worded slights from the king's council that unnerve Sakura. She had steeled herself for the pitfalls of Nohrian political intrigue, and besides, Xander has been surprisingly fastidious in quashing backhanded behavior in his presence, clearly holding little affection for the dog-eat-dog environment fostered under his father.

No, it's the amount of time spent with the royal family that throws her for a loop, countless meals and strolls and soirées with at least one of them ever-present at her side, even without an audience present. Sometimes they discuss Hoshido, and Sakura had practiced and rehearsed those answers, but other times it's as mundane and unassuming as asking her dietary preferences or her taste in her room's interior design.

Now, it seems, is one of the latter conversations. "O-oh, well, I play - used to play - this one instrument back in Hoshido," starts Sakura.

"Oh!" Elise turns her whole body to face Sakura - as she always seems wont to do, her attention is fully on whatever seems to have captured it. "What kind of instrument? Did you bring it with you?"

"N-No, I'm afraid not." Sakura's own legs are folded with her arms wrapped around her knees, feet curved over the edge with her toes barely skimming the surface of the water. The tiles lining the bottom are patterned inky dark, deep lilacs and violets. She can barely see the bottom.

Elise pouts. "Oh." She kicks her foot again underwater, watching the streams of bubbles burst against the surface. "What is it? Drums? Strings?"

"Strings," says Sakura.

"I play strings, too!" She reaches her arms out, measuring the distance between her hands. "It's about this big. It's called a violin. Do you have those in Hoshido?"

"Um... We have something a little bigger than that, called a shamisen."

"Oh, you should bring it next time you visit!" Elise quips. Of course, Sakura could never know if and when that could be, but she nods all the same. "We use a bow to play the violin."

"A... Bow?"

"Not that kind of bow," laughs Elise. She holds out her hands again. "It's a stick, about this long, with lots of horse hairs strung on each end. And you rub it against the violin strings, and voila!" She snickers at her own joke.

"I'd love to hear it," says Sakura honestly.

"Well then, why don't I play it for you?" Elise beams. "And you can play your instrument for me!"

"I don't think you have it in Nohr," Sakura murmurs.

"Well then, maybe I'll visit you, and you can play for me then, okay?" says Elise.

When Sakura doesn't answer, Elise threads her arm through hers, nestling closer and resting her head on the other girl's shoulder. "Would that be okay? If I visited you in Hoshido?"

A week ago, perhaps Sakura would have found an excuse to avoid her, even now still might avoid her sisters when she could afford to. But Elise doesn't have a malicious bone in her body - she could be possibly the least cruel Nohrian in the country - and even the dull ache she feels when she sees her holding Corrin's arm like this in the halls isn't enough to warrant rejecting her. "I-I'd like that."

"Me too," beams Elise. She scoots back, shakes out her legs so the water scatters on the pool's surface in fine droplets, and rises up to her feet. "C'mon, I'll show you my violin!"

Elise reaches out her hand, waiting, and Sakura takes it tentatively.

It's been a year since Sakura has touched her koto, and she hasn't once desired to since. She assumed, perhaps, that she could no longer would, having gone so long without wanting to try.

But when Elise plays for her, she has to turn her face away so the Nohrian princess doesn't see her cry.

 

***

 

In Hoshido, it would be hard to wander Shirasagi's halls after dark, wooden planks that creak with even the lightest of steps and sliding doors that shudder when opened. The high ceilings and the stone and marble chambers of Krakenburg, too, carry sound easily when met with the clack of steel-sole boots and sharp heels Nohrians are so keen on wearing, but in her slippers, Sakura is silent. She wonders if this is how Elise sneaks about after dark like she boasts in whispers over dinner, briefly wonders if Corrin ever discovered the castle like this when she was first taken by Nohr.

Then she remembers King Xander explaining to her one evening, quietly, how Corrin was a glorified prisoner.

It's hard to avoid Corrin after that, a girl who never knew how loved she was. With her two brothers and sisters as her anchor, could Sakura fault her for refusing to cut them out of her life? She could not betray her siblings, not for anything. But she grew up knowing Hinoka's fierce dedication, Takumi's clumsy kindness, Ryoma's warm candor. Corrin never did, never would, and it only makes Sakura sad for her.

She follows the torches lining the stairwell leading down into the library, intent on a bit of late night reading to help lull her to sleep. She sorely misses the comfort of her futon, and it's been hard adjusting the impossibly plush feather beds that seems to swallow her whole, something that shocked and bewildered the royal siblings when she voiced it.

She's not alone, she notices, when she peers through the stone archway of the entrance. Sitting by the fire, crown of hair illuminated gold with the flickering of the flames, is the unmistakable figure of Prince Leo.

"What are you reading?"

The question comes out in a whisper. Leo lowers his book and cranes his neck to see Sakura peering over the edge of the pages curiously.

"Princess Sakura. I didn't expect to see you here so late." He adds, "You needn't whisper when we're the only ones here."

"O-oh." She glances to her side, to see all the empty aisles, rows of shelves stuffed to the brim with thick age-worn texts, with no patrons to open them. It almost seems a waste, she thinks, but she knows the second prince has probably lavished his attention on them all at one point or another. "D-do people not use this library so much?"

"Not at this hour, though I admit I rather enjoy the solitude."

"I-I haven't seen it very busy during the day, either..."

"Have you been to the library often?" he asks curiously. "I rarely see you wandering the halls in your leisure."

She nods absently, eyes still roaming the spines on the shelves, muted colors flashing with the flickering candle lights lining the walls. "I-I like it here. It's... Quiet, and peaceful."

The corners of his mouth quirk. "Perhaps we do have something in common, then. Please, have a seat."

She slides into the cushioned seat across from him, folds her hands neatly across her lap. "Y-you didn't answer my question."

"This?" He shuts the book, hands it to her. She runs her fingers over the embossed cover. "Tome of the Arcane. A spell-crafting book, but mostly theoretical."

"I don't read much about spells nowadays," she confesses.

"Yes, you don't much seem the type." Seeing her confused expression, he adds, "I mean no disrespect, of course - I've merely heard you're more drawn to the more regenerative side of magic, if the stories are true."

Her eyes widen. "Th-there are stories about me?"

He smiles. "Of a princess that drags men on the brink back from death's doorsteps."

"That sounds rather violent..."

"Yes, well, Nohrians have a penchant for twisting our tales to be a little macabre." He takes the tome back from her. "I'm more curious as to what you do read here."

"Um, well... I've been reading up on farming, what with the trade agreements..."

His lips quirk. "A Hoshidan from a land famed for its fertility, wanting to learn about our farms? I'm not sure it would be of much aid to you when our ground is dead and buried. Pun nonwithstanding."

"It doesn't always have to be that way," she says, brows furrowed. "W-we've made improvements to the parts of Hoshido that suffer from similar issues. It's not unheard of..."

He stretches his arms behind his back, leaning back into his chair. "Perhaps, but we've spent decades trying to improve growing conditions, Princess Sakura. Your land is more naturally predisposed towards farming, with weather that compliments your agriculture. With so little sunlight, there's really not much to be done here other than trade what our land is rich in for what we need."

Sakura frowns. "Mining gemstones and trading alloys is a finite solution. And it's dangerous work, besides..."

He leans forward at that, eyes twinkling. "So you've been reading up on our resources, too."

She swallows, suddenly uncomfortable under his scrutiny. "I... Y-yes, I suppose so..."

"Don't be so nervous," he says. "I'm rather impressed."

She blinks. "You are?"

"Xander brought you here to serve a symbolic purpose," Leo says. "I assumed you'd not pursue much beyond that role. But you're using your time here to your advantage, gleaning what you can with what's available to you. There are many texts here you won't have access to back in Hoshido, after all."

That doesn't sound particularly shining, either, making her sound like a spy. "I-I hope I haven't intruded or crossed any lines in doing so, Prince Leo."

He cocks his head. "Why would that be intrusive? As I said, it's an advantageous use of your time. I would do the same were I hosted at Castle Shirasagi, after all. There is no shame in bettering oneself for a cause."

She can feel heat creeping up the back of her neck. "I-I'm honored by your kind words... B-but I really am doing only what's expected of me."

"You're doing what you can to aid your sister," he says appreciatively, "as I do when I learn to better serve my brother. Learning, and adapting. Just because it's expected, it doesn't make it less admirable."

Her cheeks tinge pink. Well. There's not much she can say to that. They are not the circumstances she would have hoped to have to adapt to, all things considered, but that's not a discussion to have now, not when he is trying, in his own way, to be kind.

He clears his throat, shifting his gaze away. "But I digress, and I'm sure you didn't come all the way down here for me to flatter you. Is there something I can help you find? Or would you like me to escort you back to your room?"

"O-oh, no," she says. "I was just... Wandering, and curious what you were reading, um, when I saw you."

"I see."

They watch each other for a moment. He's waiting for her to either speak or leave him be, she realizes.

"I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you," she starts, but he holds a hand up.

"Stop apologizing, please. Are you simply looking to pass the time?"

She can hear the subtle invitation in his question, and alarm bells start to ring in the back of her head. She should be aware of how this looks, alone with a Nohrian prince, and without their retainers. She hadn't anticipated finding him here, but she wasn't lying when she said she enjoyed her time in the Krakenburg library, and she doesn't quite want to go just yet.

He gives her knowing look. "Don't force yourself. I won't be offended should you sit on the other side of the room."

She shakes her head, flushing bright. "N-no. I-I do like talking to you, P-Prince Leo. I-if you don't mind me intruding on your space..."

"Not at all. If we're both burning the midnight oil, we might as well have good company."

She gives him a small smile at that. "Th-thank you. Maybe you could recommend me something light..."

 

***

 

Hana sharpens her kodachi - the armory is where she spends her free time when not accompanying Sakura, loathe as she is to share it with the other retainers - and shoots Sakura a frown. "He should praise you. That's all you've been doing this whole visit, studying whenever you're not playing nice with those simpering nobles."

Sakura stops fidgeting with her hands to look at Hana, taken aback. "You think he should praise me?"

"It's a well-deserved compliment." Hana sniffs. "Doesn't mean I like the person giving it," and there, she thinks, that's the Hana she knows.

"You don't like any of the people here," Subaki points out.

"Right on the money as usual, Mr. Perfect."

"I tend to be." He stands a few feet away from them, running his fingers along one of the javelins mounted on a nearby rack. "I would feel more comfortable if we could leave this castle, scout the city to get a better lay of the land, but I suspect we're on house arrest for this visit."

"With good reason," says Sakura gently. "We would be in danger outside the castle." Of course, that doesn't mean their presence in the castle makes them particularly safe under the scrutiny of so many, but they're all vaguely aware of that.

"I don't like him talking about Queen Hinoka," Hana continues in a mutter, running a rag along the edge of her blade. "Comparing monarchs, as if the crown isn't ten times heavier for her. It's not at all fair."

"No, it's not," agrees Sakura. They've had this discussion a dozen times, a back-and-forth that reopens like an old wound. Subaki had explained to them once, quietly in the darkness of their cells, the stages of mourning, as though putting a name to Hana's anger and Sakura's despair would help them both move past it. None of them knew that overcoming grief is less of an arc and more of a continuum; it ebbs and flows, and some days Sakura wakes up and the loss of her brothers feels as fresh as the day she learned of their deaths.

And yet, while helping Hinoka is her duty as a sister and a princess, she finds that the more she works, the more she isn't doing it out of obligation nor some unconditional goodness in her heart. Sakura has had more than enough time to contemplate fairness - after losing her parents, Mother and Azura in Corrin in one fell swoop, having a yumi thrust into her arms in place of her festal, and taking lives she never wanted at all, she has learned fairness doesn't exist naturally in the world. Not when she lost her place in it, and not when Takumi and Ryoma died before their lives really began.

But fairness can be made, and perhaps she can help make it. Staunching the flow of her guilt and shame is too arduous a task - she doesn't even know how far it extends, wouldn't even know where to start. Rebuilding, however, seems infinitely more productive, and if she has to begin the healing somewhere, it is a good place to start.

"Queen Hinoka wears her title as well as anyone could in her position," says Subaki gently. "As do you, milady."

Sakura smiles sheepishly, and finds it isn't forced. "It still feels like I'm wearing shoes three sizes bigger than I should..."

"You're growing into them, and the people are grateful."

Just because it's expected, it doesn't make it less admirable. And she lifts her chin. "W-well. I'll just... Have to do my best t-to prove myself worthy of their devotion."

Hana nudges her with a grin, and Subaki smiles.

 

 

***


"There's no need to fidget so much, dear," says Camilla. "I know this must be uncomfortable for you, given all that's transpired between our kingdoms." The older royal rakes careful, precise fingers through the younger's hair, untangling knots with painless tugs.

Princess Camilla's room isn't at all what she had imagined. She thought the walls would be covered in trophies from battle, mounted weapons in a collection as deadly as Camilla herself. But it's more like Camilla as she appears in her leisure - soft and sumptuous, plush cushions and blankets and rhinestone pillows littering every corner, dip tea candles lining the walls and ensconcing the room in a warm glow.

Despite it all, Sakura shivers. "I..."

"You heard from your sister, I presume. About when we stormed the capitol."

Sakura swallows, mind racing, calculating. "P-Princess Camilla, I-I don't think this is... A good conversation to have." As accustomed to this dance as she may be, she doesn't think she can perform it without tripping this time around.

Camilla runs her ivory comb through a particular snag, tugging gently. "We don't have to, if you would prefer. But if we're going to foster better relations with one another, it's better to clear the air, don't you think?"

"I-I'm not sure it can be cleared," says Sakura.

Camilla leans forward, amethyst eyes trained on her unflinchingly. "What you say here," she says, "will not leave this room, I promise. Don't be afraid to speak your mind."

Sakura exhales. Camilla perhaps sees her as toothless. Most people would look at them and see only a warrior princess and a fragile healer. She is in the right, in this moment, from any angle. Knowing that, she is not afraid. "It's not your word I doubt, Princess Camilla."

"Tell me, then."

"I know you were following orders, b-but..."

"But you love your sister," says Camilla, letting go of the pink lock around her fingers. "Of course. I love mine, too. And if it's to protect them, dear, I'd do anything. Even if that meant hurting yours."

"S-so you don't regret it."

Camilla stalls for a moment at that. Then, slowly, says, "I regret what happened to your family, Princess Sakura. But I don't regret choosing to side with my family, just as I know you would never regret siding with yours. That said... I'm aware my protectiveness can come across as abrasive."

She could laugh at that, but the way Camilla is watching her, even with the promise of clemency, she knows she can't.

Camilla senses this, nonetheless. "You may believe I am violent," she admits. "I was raised violent, it's true. I was trained to murder half-siblings, until I learned that loving them is far more rewarding."

Sakura gapes, stunned. "M-murdering..."

Camilla cocks her head. "Did Azura never speak of it? She wasn't the resentful type, so I imagine not. It was part of growing up in Nohrian court, you see. A way for lowborns with royal bastards to claw their way to nobility, and with my father's blessing."

Xander, Leo, Elise, Camilla, Corrin. Bonds thicker than blood, certainly, to warrant the choice Corrin had made, and yet... "How can you go from wanting to kill your family..."

"...To killing for my family?" The older princess laughs. "That credit goes to my darling siblings. It was... Sixteen years ago, now? You and Elise are the same age, are you not?"

Sixteen years ago. "Did you... Were you..." The words get caught in her throat, thinking of Hinoka, equally vicious with her naginata, and fierce, but never, never...

"I was supposed to," said Camilla softly, placing the comb on the cushion next to her. "It was a week after she was born, and the wet-nurse had gone to fetch dinner. So I slipped into the baby's room, and she was in her crib.

"She woke up. I thought she might cry and reached down to silence her, but her hand caught my finger. And she smiled at me, and something inside me shifted in that moment."

Camilla looks down at her hands, touches her pinky, tracing the pad. "It would have been so easy. She was such a small little thing. So gentle, so sweet. She always has been, my baby sister. I can't imagine life without her."

Sakura looks at her hands, too, heart still pounding. She barely knew her father, her memories of him cloaked in haze and stories told secondhand, but Ryoma had always said he was kind and proud, a bastion of strength for their family, and a man who loved deeply and profoundly. Losing her mother devastated him until he found Mikoto, who mended his heart. She had assumed, perhaps, that Arete had done the same for Garon, that his actions were the result of her loss, but...

"We are allies now, Princess Sakura," says Camilla. "Corrin loves you, and that makes you family to me. I won't hurt you. You don't need to believe me, but I swear anyway, I won't hurt you." She tugs one of the knots in Sakura's hair free.

 

***

 

Three days before her return to Hoshido - just as Leo had warned - Corrin had asked her to tea.

Their clandestine meeting became something of a ritual meeting for them - she, poring over books in the evenings when she could be scarce, and he sitting nearby with his own material, pausing occasionally to offer nuggets of wisdom regarding whatever she was perusing for the night.

Unlike her conversations with Xander, wherein despite his agreeable nature she is still acutely aware of her position in relation to his, Leo is almost welcomingly blunt. Whatever sharp tongue and wit he might liberally apply in his daily interactions with others, she has come to realize any tactlessness is not intended to be so. In a similar regard, he doesn't mind her speaking her own, sometimes even encourages her arguments with what seems to be genuine enjoyment of a tit-for-tat. The honesty it affords her is refreshing after feeling so guarded most of her time in the castle.

Sakura has steeled herself for the predicted conversation since, practiced and rehearsed what to expect and say with Hana and Subaki, who drilled her until she felt reasonably prepared.

She feels less so now that she's sitting in Corrin's room, newly relocated from the Northern Fortress to the main castle. It's sparse and adorned simply with few decorations, and Sakura takes note of Azura's pendant, encased in glass, on the bedside table.

"Will you ever forgive me, Sakura?"

She tears her attention from it and back to Corrin. "For what?" she finally asks, because that's a safe start.

"For everything I did, directly and indirectly. Well, not everything," Corrin corrects herself, her fingers fidgeting in her lap. "I can't expect that. You must have been angry when I turned my back on Hoshido. I did what I thought was best, but I never expected things to turn out the way they did."

"What did you expect to happen?" asks Sakura, staring pointedly into her cup. Delicately painted roses twine around the rim, and she traces them lightly. She never did stroll through the Nohrian rose gardens during her stay. She wonders if they have thorns like these ones, or if they've been blunted. Perhaps she should see before she leaves...

Corrin runs her finger along the rim of her own cup. "I thought I could save more people if I had a hand in manipulating the plans. The way Xander and Leo and Camilla did when they went out on missions, secretly defying the king and subverting his orders... I saw myself as some kind of tactician, working against everyone around me. I wanted to end the war from the inside before it could really begin."

"You didn't, though," Sakura points out.

Corrin nods soberly. "I keep replaying it in my head, over and over, what I could have done differently to turn the tide."

Sakura feels the words bubble up in her chest to her throat, You could have sided with us!  But she knows she can't hold that against her anymore either, not when Corrin wears the black armor of Nohr like she was born to it. In retrospect, expecting loyalty to her birth family after so short a time was, perhaps, her own naiveté.

Corrin, not noticing, continues, "What if I had laid down my weapons when Takumi tried to kill me in Cheve? What if I had been more honest with my siblings and just trusted they would believe me about King Garon? What if I killed him and just... took the fall, and sacrificed myself? But I didn't, and it's too late."

She lets out a shaky breath, and looks up at Sakura pleadingly. "I don't know how to make things okay between us. I know you must have complicated feelings, and I want you and Hinoka in my life, but I'm afraid I've damaged everything beyond repair."

Sakura takes a gulp of her tea, hoping the few seconds it buys her might smooth her nerves. The way Corrin speaks makes her plea seem genuine, and indeed Sakura doesn't doubt her honesty. But even knowing the circumstances of Corrin's childhood, what she asks for is still something Sakura is not sure she can give.

Instead, she asks, "A-are you sorry?"

"Am I... Of course!" exclaims Corrin, flabbergasted. "Of course I am. I don't think I could be more sorry about anything in my life."

Sakura chews her bottom lip. "If I forgave you, would you... stop feeling sorry? And move on?"

"I... No, of course not," says Corrin. "I'll always have my regrets..."

Sakura places her cup down, folds her hands neatly on her lap. "You know... After the war, I spent the first month in Hoshido feeling sorry, too. For everything. For myself, a-and my people... I apologized to Hana and Subaki... I prostrated myself in front of the Dawn Dragon's shrine. I even toured the farmlands with Hinoka, t-to apologize for the hardships they would have in the years to come. Do you know... What they said to me?"

Corrin looks at Sakura steadily, crimson eyes glassy. "...They forgave you."

Sakura gives her a watery smile. "Not quite. They said... They didn't even think to blame me or Hinoka. Th-that there was nothing to forgive at all..."

"Sakura..." starts Corrin.

"How is that even possible?" Sakura exclaims, voice pitching. "Children are growing up without parents, people lost their lands, their homes, their livelihoods! I didn't understand. I felt like they were... J-just treating me like a baby bird with a broken wing, being kind to me because they felt bad for me... And I just hated myself all the more."

Corrin frowns. "Sakura, do you... You know that can't possibly be true. Your people love you."

"I know," replies Sakura. "I know they weren't pitying me, and that they truly love me. But I was looking for redemption from people that couldn't give it to me... No matter how much I apologized. So... All I can do is prove myself worthy by trying my hardest... In whatever way they need me to."

"The best of intentions don't matter without action," translates Corrin, eyes downcast. "I know that."

Sakura shakes her head. "I-It's not just that. I know you had good intentions, and I think they do mean something... B-but feeling bad won't bring Takumi and Ryoma back. There are things we lost in the war that can't be recovered."

Corrin glances to the side, at Azura's pendant. "I know."

"B-but I know... That you also tried your hardest, in your own way," Sakura admits.

"I did, Sakura. I only wish that would mean more."

Well, it doesn't mean nothing, at least. There's no way to compartmentalize her pain from Corrin - but Corrin lost family too, even if it's not the family Sakura would have wanted her to choose.

"And... If you don't mind me saying," pipes up Corrin, hesitantly, "I think... I understand what you mean, about wanting to prove yourself."

Sakura stares at her. "What do you mean?"

"All I wanted was to be there for my family," says Corrin, "to prove I was worth my title as a princess of Nohr. And then I came to Hoshido, and I was enough. Even for a family I never even knew I had, who never knew me beyond vague memories... Unconditionally. I felt so lucky, and so blessed, and yet when we stood on that field..."

"Y-you don't need to-"

"I do love you, Sakura," Corrin says, voice soft, and Sakura freezes, heart lurching. "I know I made a choice that made you doubt that, with good reason. And I may have lost the privilege of that love being reciprocated in turn, but... To me, you're still family. And I'll do whatever it takes to help Hoshido now, whether at these talks, or working from afar where you don't have to interact with me. It won't make up for the things I've done, but if I can take after you, one of the strongest people I know..." She smiles sheepishly. "Maybe I'll at least have a bit more of a family resemblance."

Sakura's takes a deep breath to steady herself, and looks her sister in the eyes. "I-I never stopped loving you, Corrin. Neither did Hinoka, or Takumi, or Ryoma, or Mother. I'm sorry you never got to know them, a-and... I think they would have wanted us to be a family again... But I can't speak for them."

"No, of course not," says Corrin quickly.

"Thank you for apologizing. I-I think, maybe, in time, I can forgive you... A-and maybe when you visit Hoshido," - Corrin looks up hopefully at that - "you can ask Hinoka for forgiveness yourself. I can't guarantee she will give it, but..."

"I understand."

"Your family here is good to you," says Sakura. "I can see why you love them as much as you do."

Corrin laughs. "They're all right, aren't they?"

 

***

 

Leo walks up the stairwell after another long night of reading. He ruffles his already unkempt hair with a yawn, about to make for bed. He stops when he hears a sound, distant and muffled, from the guest wing.

A familiar song, one he's heard countless times on the battlefield in a voice as achingly sweet, but in the native Hoshidan tongue.


***

 

"I am sorry to see you go," Kaze says, from where he stood not quite a month before, while servants bustle around them with her things. Sakura can believe him too, the way his eyes sink when he glances at the Hoshidan flag strapped to her pegasus. Stepping foot in Hoshido, whatever crimes the royal crown had forgiven officially, would be political suicide. The way he looks at Corrin, though, makes her think he doesn't regret his choice.

"Take care, Kaze," she says gently, squeezing his hand, and he returns the gesture.

Corrin gives Sakura a half-hug, eyes warm as her gloved hand squeezes her shoulder. "I hope to keep in touch with you, Sakura. If you need anything, say the word."

"She'll write me for sure. Won't you, Sakura?" Elise nudges her playfully, eyes overbright.

She can't supress a smile. "I-I'll write you, Elise."

"Goodie! Send me some of those Hoshidan sweets you talked about, would you?"

Camilla clucks her tongue. "You have a cavity, Elise. No sweets."

The younger princess pouts as her older sister pinches her cheek affectionately. Sakura turns back to Corrin. "B-be well, sister."

"I will. You take care, Sakura."

"Princess Sakura."

Sakura turns then to see the king, face as smooth and imperceptible as usual as he approaches her, and she bows back with equal measure. "Thank you for your hospitality, King Xander. I-I hope to see you again, should you visit Hoshido once the peace talks conclude."

"The pleasure was all mine." He pauses, gaze flickering to the carriage where both her luggage and various gifts are being loaded for transport, and lowers his voice. "I hoped to bring this up earlier, but preparations for Izumo have been rather hectic..."

She cocks her head. "Wh-what is it?"

"We are grateful for what you've done here," he says quietly, "for what you've done for Nohr, with your presence alone. The talks are a scant few months away, and there is much to be done, but..."

He nods his head ever-so-slightly towards Leo, standing a ways off speaking with Niles. "I have sent a missive to Queen Hinoka. We will be discrete so as not to cause unrest with his presence, but I believe my brother might be of assistance to your kingdom leading up to the talks, in a less-visual and more advisory role, if you would have him."

As if sensing their discussion, Leo looks up and catches her gaze, and she feels herself flush. "W-we appreciate your offer, Your Majesty, b-but... If I may speak freely..."

"Of course."

"I-I don't know," she says slowly, carefully, "if the Hoshidan equivalent of your council would be so welcoming. I-I know Prince Leo is an intelligent person, and of great value, b-but... They may not be so open-minded, and..."

"There is likely to be prejudice," finishes Xander, and Sakura bites her lip. "And, I imagine, a question of his safety. I appreciate your concern. We will not send him should Queen Hinoka refuse, and won't be offended should that be the case. But he is well-versed in diplomacy and strategy, and may provide indispensable insight preceding Izumo to help things proceed smoothly. You have helped us, and we merely wish to return the favor. Please consider having a word with the Queen, should you agree."

Sakura looks at Leo again. He raises a questioning eyebrow.

"I-I understand," she says, turning back to Xander, voice carefully neutral. "No matter my opinion, Hinoka has the final word, s-so... I will see what my sister says."

"Certainly." He bows. "Safe travels, and I look forward to hearing from you and the Queen."

He excuses himself then, and Sakura barely has a moment to let out an exhale before Leo approaches her, expression curious. "What, may I ask, was that about?"

"I-it's nothing," she says reassuringly. "Just talking about how my stay was."

He doesn't much look like he believes that given the exceedingly unimpressed look he's giving her, but it's also so characteristically him that she can't help but snort, and that coaxes him to smile. "Feel free to visit at your leisure, Princess Sakura. The castle was a little less grim in your presence."

"I would like to," she says, surprised that she actually means it. "A-and," she adds, meekly, "I consider you a friend, Prince Leo. One of the few genuine ones I have made in my time here, s-so, um, please, call me Sakura."

"Sakura," he repeats, as if tasting the word, his mouth quirking. "Very well. Call me Leo, then, if you please."

"O-okay. Leo." She smiles. "Th-thank you for everything. Be well."

His gaze softens. "And you, Sakura."


***


Once the Hoshidan entourage are airborne, pegasi wings cutting a clear white streak through the darkened sky, Leo turns his attention to his brother. "Xander. What did you tell her?"

Xander tilts his head to meet his brother's gaze. "Don't concern yourself, Leo. Truly, it is nothing to worry about."

"What I told you was in confidence. I..." He runs a hand through his blonde hair, expression grim. "There are power dynamics at play here, you know that. Hoshido still sees us as conquerors, lording over them. To take advantage of such a thing..."

"I know you intend to do no such thing, Leo, nor do I," says Xander, frowning. "I assure you, I said nothing."

"If you insist," he says, eyes betraying his disbelief, but he stalks back towards the castle gates nonetheless, Niles and Odin not far behind.

Elise whistles, looking up at her older brother. "Wow. You sure made him mad, Xander."

"Yes, well, that seems to be my pastime with most nobles in Nohr these days," he says, ruffling her hair while she yelps in protest. "Let's go inside before we catch cold, littlest princess."

 

Chapter Text

***

 

My love is strengthen'd, though more weak in seeming;

I love not less, though less the show appear;

That love is merchandized whose rich esteeming

The owner's tongue doth publish everywhere. 

 

***

 


Sakura had tried to wield the Fujin Yumi a few months after the war's end, heart battered and sore when Takumi's birthday came and went with little fanfare. Her older brother had always griped at the attention - insisted no parties, no presents, no singing - but he never did neglect to thank them with reddened cheeks when they arranged for all three.

Nobles whispered condolances in the halls of Shirasagi, heads bowed respectfully low. She hated how fragile she surely must have looked to them; their words were so careful and cautious, so gentle when handling her. Like she was an oversoft peach that would bruise.

The ceremony was short. Sakura hadn't really expected much commemoration beyond the sordid eulogy her sister delivered to the public. But when Hinoka's voice finally cracked mid-speech, so did Sakura's resolve to stay. She shoved her way through the procession, and she ran, ignoring the cries of protest, her feet pounding against the hardwood floors, until she stumbled into her room. Desperate for anything to stop her from feeling this way, she wrenched her brother's bow from its lacquered mount, tears sliding down her cheeks and breath coming in shallow gasps, and her fingers grabbed, groped, desperately, at thin air.

The bowstring only appears, Takumi's voice boasted, if it deems you worthy.

She should have buried it, she had thought, with her brother. The Fujin Yumi died with him; keeping it here is like keeping a corpse. And she would have, had Subaki not quietly pried it from her shaking fingers.

It had taken her another three months before she could muster up the will to touch it again. Another three after that to successfully summon the bowstring, the familiar glow and hum of it catching her by surprise, her fingers snapping it almost immediately with her lost concentration.

Now, Sakura lowers the weapon, wiping the sweat beading on her brow and surveying the targets in the archery range scarred with dozens of deep, arrowless punture marks.

"He would be proud, you know," says a voice from behind her, and Sakura, wringing out a few sweaty locks, turns around.

Hinoka regards her sister's handiwork appreciatively, her eyes twinkling. "You've grown into as fine an archer as a healer. I know it's not the path you wanted, but..."

Sakura shakes her head. "I wouldn't have chosen this if I didn't want it."

"Well, it's not what I wanted for you," laughs Hinoka, stepping down into the range. "I wanted you to live a life without ever touching a weapon. I thought you would hate it."

She had hated it, if only because wielding a yumi made her remember those first days of rudimentary training. Back when her path was still so undecided, her heart still untested. Takumi, bandaging her fingers after each session, with gentle scolding and gentler hands. "You only wanted to protect me."

"I did. I still do." Hinoka watches her, voice carefully lowered. "I'm only doing this because of your endorsement. The rest of my advisers have been raising hell, you know."

Sakura reaches up to untie her hairband, shaking her pink locks free, and shoots her sister a hesitant smile. "I know it must be hard... But I think, truly, this is a gesture of goodwill. We'll never learn to understand Nohr unless we try..."

Hinoka ruffles her sister's hair, too, ignoring the sweat and the susprised squeak it elicits with a grin. "I know, little sister. Xander is not an unpleasant man, but he's surrounded by snakes masquerading as advisors. It's hard to tell which missives are scribed with his blessing."

"H-he doesn't much listen to them," explains Sakura. "He listens to his family, above all..."

"Seems we share that in common," says Hinoka, unclasping the straps to the training plate around Sakura and helping lift it over her head, "and common ground is important for diplomacy."

"We have more in common with them than I thought," says Sakura softly, taking the plate from her sister and rolling her sore shoulders.

"Yes," snorts Hinoka, "we all have a sister that isn't related to any of us by blood."

Sakura pauses at that, gives her a wary look. "Hinoka..."

Hinoka shrugs, but the nonchalant gesture doesn't quite match the her eyes as she meets Sakura's. "I know how you feel, Sakura, and I respect your choice. But I saw the letter Mother wrote, too. There's no reason we should have expected loyalty from her, all things considered. I'm not especially angry, given that knowledge, but I'm not attached like I once was."

That can't be true, Sakura thinks, but she can't bring herself to contradict Hinoka on this. How difficult it must be for her to discard a part of herself she had cherished enough to fight for for so many years with such a ferocious singularity. It is not her place to ask for otherwise. "I-I won't defend her, Hinoka. It's up to you."

"I know. I'm not here to ask you to change my mind, and that doesn't mean I'm going to be uncooperative," Hinoka says. "If Corrin wants to prove her worth to me, she can do it as an ally of Hoshido. No more, no less."

"I-I think she intends to try, in that regard."

Hinoka's mouth quirks. "Then we'll see how things go."

 

***

 

When Prince Leo arrives, paralleling Sakura's visit to Nohr, it's with very little reception. A legion of Hoshidan ninjas had been posted along winding roads from Hoshido's borders leading to the capitol, redirecting any wandering merchants and travellers from the drafted route to ensure a safe and covert journey in the cover of night.

They stand in the throne room now, Leo and his entourage beneath the golden and red banners of Hoshido, the first rays of dawn breaking and filtering into the room through the glass ceiling, bright beams of light setting them ablaze. Despite what must have been a bumpy journey through the thick forests and rocky terrain of the countryside, he doesn't seem the least bit tired, eyes surveying the throne room with a strange, almost reminiscient look in his eyes.

"You're under my protection while you remain in the castle," says Hinoka. "Word will likely get out that you're here, so..."

"So remain housebound, should an assassin's blade find my heart," finishes Leo.

"Sakura was under the same instruction, if you recall."

"She was indeed," agrees Leo. He glances at her now, at Yukimura's side.

Sakura shifts uncomfortably. "I-I was fine."

"You were, but you were also quarantined. It's an understandable precaution," says Leo, and Hinoka's brows lift slightly, though her face remains impassive.

"That goes for your retainers as well, you understand," says Yukimura pointedly, eyes wary and trained on the two standing behind Leo.

Both men look at their lord, who nods back. "They understand."

"You are being surprisingly cooperative with what you must find to be constraining demands."

"My retainers and I are here by grace of the Queen," he says smoothly. Sakura can see the corner of his mouth lift. "And we are here to serve. We would be remiss to squander your hospitality."

"You're quite right," says Yukimura, clearing his throat. "Guards will be posted at your doors for security. You are free to wander the castle at your leisure, but do alert them if you wish to do so. If you have no questions, our men will escort you to your rooms."

Leo hums in affirmation, gestures for Odin and Niles to follow. They trail behind the guards leading down the halls, eventually disappearing beyond sliding doors.

Once they're gone, the energy collectively shifts and relaxes, and Yukimura turns to Hinoka. "Remarkably cooperative."

Hinoka shrugs. "I don't believe he or King Xander arranged this with ill intent. Do you?"

Yukimura clucks his tongue. "Surrounding yourself with your enemies is foolhardy, and Prince Leo is no fool. That leads me to believe that he doesn't see us as such."

"Yeah, well, he has no reason to. We didn't storm his capitol."

"He doesn't," says Sakura quietly, still watching the door where they had left. "None of them do."

Yukimura arches an eyebrow at her in disbelief. "None of them?"

"Whatever reason they had to fight us died with Garon," insists Sakura.

"Wars between Hoshido and Nohr were fought long before Garon's reign, Lady Sakura," says Yukimura. "He was not the first conquorer their country had in power, and he will not be the last."

Sakura turns to look at him. He isn't wrong, but the way he's looking at her so sympathetically makes her feel he's giving her another gentle lesson, a princess still unlearned. Peaches and bruises. "I don't expect us to have an eternal peace either," she admits, finally. "Perhaps war is out of our hands, and something destined to be. But here and now, we have peace to build on."

 

***


"There were Hoshidan conquerors, too, you know."

Sakura looks at her sister over her cup, eyes widening. "W-What?"

Hinoka sips her own tea neatly, legs folded beneath her, and gazes outside at the gardens, hair lit in a blazing halo in the afternoon sun. "It wasn't Father, or his, but it wasn't so long ago, either. I'm sure Nohrian history books glorify their conquerors just the same. Maybe Garon will have a page calling him the boldest leader Nohr has seen, instead of an instigator of kidnapping and regicide."

"Surely not," murmurs Sakura.

Hinoka shrugs. "People have a penchant for erasing history when it isn't on their side."

"B-but... Hoshido, a conqueror? How do you know?"

Hinoka taps fingers against the ceramic of her tea absentmindedly, eyes glazed with something akin to nostalgia. "I guess when you're a warrior, you get a sense of what a siege is for in name, and what it's for in earnest," she says. "There are usually ulterior motives to these things, even if they don't make it into the scrolls... Glory isn't a profitable enough reason to take independent territories, you know? Mokushu isn't sore at us for nothing."

Sakura bites her lip. "Did we... War with Nohr at that time?"

"Just border skirmishes, I think, but nothing extreme," says Hinoka. "Nohr was a formidable nation, but somewhat isolationist during that period."

She nearly chokes. "Truly?"

"Truly." Hinoka smiles crookedly. "Waters ever change, sister."

Sakura puts her ceramic cup down on the table. "And do you think a lasting peace is possible? Despite our history with Nohr?"

"It's hard to say," admits Hinoka. "I would hope so, but we're a fickle species. There's no telling what makes one spiral into the madness that held Garon before he died."

"You and King Xander seem to get along, at the very least..."

Hinoka laughs. "I didn't think I could ever look at a Nohrian royal without upchucking, but he is surprisingly palatable. We'll cooperate to try to make this peace a little hardier, I hope."

Sakura smiles. "I hope so, too."

"I have you to thank, as well."

"Me?" Sakura cocks her head. "For what?"

"For fostering trust," says Hinoka. "They like you. That makes a bigger difference than you might think." A pause. "And Prince Leo feels at ease here, knowing he has an ally of sorts."

Sakura coughs. "Ally makes it sound so tactical. W-we're friends. I think."

"Friends," repeats Hinoka bemusedly, as if tasting the word for the first time. "I never thought that would happen in our lifetime. Friends with Nohrians."

"I-it surprised me, too," says Sakura, her cheeks flushing pink. "I was scared in the beginning. I mean, I thought maybe their kindness to me was duplicitous, that they were trying to seduce me into... Being on their side, I guess."

"Well, let's not rule that out. I'm sure they did want you to like them."

Sakura shifts her gaze to the sliding doors, left open to the cooling autumn air. Sunlight spreads out on the wooden walkways, decorating them in a fan of colour, dappled and patterned through the gold of the ginko leaves, a crosshatch of light and shadow. "But we got along, somehow. It was baffling, at first..."

Hinoka grins. "How could they not like you? Besides, you do a much better job than I do with diplomacy and playing nice. I'm not keen on war any more than you are, but I might have decked someone on day one."

Sakura opens her mouth in protest, then thinks of what a conversation between her sister and Niles might be like, and shuts it.

 

 ***


With only a month until Hinoka's departure for Izumo, Prince Leo, true to King Xander's word, is at their beck and call. He quietly joins meetings, speaks honestly when directly asked a question about Nohr or his opinion about Hoshido, but doesn't assert himself quite so brazenly as he did back in Nohr, prefering to observe and, no doubt, bounce his less tactful ideas in his head versus in the council room.

When he's not being called to provide his own insight, he's in the Shirasagi library, nose buried deep in a mountain of scrolls. Some of the writings he peruses are in the common tongue, and he keeps to himself on those days; others, however, are scrawled in native Hoshidan, and for those he asks Sakura for her help.

The stark difference between their visits rattles her. Sakura spent only her spare moments in such isolation, the rest of her time parceled and rationed to make her visit as fastidious and efficient as possible, each moment seen as an opportunity to strengthen a bond. Perhaps they thought it pointless to ask Leo to forge friendships with people as likely to trust him as they would convert to worshipping the Dusk Dragon.

Still, she can't help but feel it's a little unfair - she put aside her wants to rub shoulders with people she never wanted to, didn't she? If her visit taught her anything, it was to not underestimate the capacity to surprise and be surprised by others.

She thinks she's going to tell him so, has just about mustered up the courage to confront him when they're together in the library as she patiently translates sections he has copied and highlighted, when his voice interrupts her thoughts. "Queen Hinoka - she cut off one of the advisors today during our meeting when they brought up Nohr's dependance on Hoshido's crops."

She startles, head jerking up to look at him. "D-did she?"

"I got the sense that it was a discussion long overwrought," he says, twirling his pen between his gloved fingers. "Do you know anything about it? Is Nohr, by any chance, overstepping any boundaries?"

"N-no! No, at least, we don't think so." Sakura clears her throat. "We have plenty to spare, really."

He presses. "But...?"

Sakura fiddles with her sleeves, unsure if it is her place to discuss this matter. There's nothing in Leo's gaze but curiosity, though, so she decides it's safe. "...The merchants aren't very happy about it. They used to buy surplus crops for very cheap from our farmers to sell, b-but... Those crops are now being reallocated to Nohr. Hinoka considered a tax on such purchases to allow them to continue such trade, b-but they opposed it..." Hinoka had one of the strongest migraines to date after that particular discussion.

"I see."

"It's nothing to concern yourself with," she reassures quickly. "Hinoka has made her opinion very clear on the matter. We will not withdraw our support."

Leo leans back in his seat. "I do appreciate the show of solidarity, but that advisor isn't entirely wrong. Your merchants will resent you if you take away their means of pulling a profit. If you lose their support, it will destabilize the crown."

At seeing her bewildered expression, he adds, "We've had similar issues in Nohr."

"Y-you have?"

He hums in affirmation. "Xander tried to offer our steelworks to a number of nations impacted by Nohr's invasion, to help rebuild, particularly after the damages done in Cyrkensia and Dia. Our merchants, backed by several investors, cut his proposal down. His reign wasn't stable enough at the time to object." He smiles wryly. "We offered soldiers to serve as muscle in its stead, but that was far less appreciated, as you might imagine."

"B-but regardless," Sakura insists, "Hinoka was very firm that we wouldn't withdraw aid so long as Nohr needs it."

"There is some kindness in that decision," says Leo, rubbing his chin, "but surely she must have some other reason to be so committed to a stance that's both damaging and negotiable on our part. I'm here to offer council, and that is an area wherein I can provide. Why dismiss it?"

Sakura casts him an uncertain look. "I-It's not the value of your council my sister dismisses, I'm sure... Or she would not have agreed to host you, Leo."

Leo drums his finger against the table. "But this aid costs her goodwill. There must be something else she would like. Something from Nohr, in return, to provide support, should the support of her own fall to the wayside."

Several months ago, she might have been alarmed by such a cool calculation - that Hoshido might give way to civil war - but she knows well enough how prone he is to voicing his thoughs in stream of consciousness that she can afford to put it aside. "Y-you've been thinking on this a great deal. Have you considered asking one of the other advisors? I-I can only speculate, besides..."

He smiles at her. "I came to you precisely because your speculation is the most valuable."

She gapes. "M-mine?"

"Are you surprised?" he asks, bemused. "You shouldn't be. You surely know your sister better than anyone."

"But... My strategic acuity is, um... Not really... Up to snuff," she says.

"I'm sure that's not true," he says. "But putting that aside, it's not strategy I need. It's insight as to what she is like as a ruler, and who else is by her side as you are?"

Well, that's true enough. Sakura thinks of their easy conversation and light banter during her archery sessions, her unwavering focus on her charcoal and parchment when she's at her desk.

"What's more, you know who she is as a person, and what will inform her actions."

Sakura opens her mouth, then closes it. What could she tell him that could possibly help him? Her sister is a dedicated ruler - anyone who spends an hour in her presence would know such an obvious thing. She wears her crown and her robes from dawn to dusk, lives and breathes this role that was passed to her.

But it wasn't always so, she reminds herself. She still remembers the day before her coronation. Hinoka had stolen away on her pegasus in the darkness before dawn, leaving the castle in utter pandemonium amidst last-minute preparations - Setsuna and Azama wouldn't say a word as to where she was, no matter how many times they were asked, even by Sakura.

As the sun began to sink, she had, of course, returned. Her naginata was still strapped to her back, her hair a wind-whipped mess of red, clothes sweat-streaked and thoroughly askew, but Sakura remembers her smile most of all, ear to ear, and bigger than she had seen in months, perhaps the first since their brothers had passed.

She hadn't understood at first. Hinoka knew as well as Sakura that they had an obligation to their people, people who needed their only remaining rulers to be ever-present - how could she leave in such a way? But then she recalled Ryoma, even further back, when he left her in charge of Fort Jinya, and the conversation that ended up being their last. Embellished with a parting gift of a cherry blossom comb, and words as warm and gentle as a summer's breeze, it's okay to be selfish. 

How ironic, coming from a man so selfless in his actions. Hinoka knew that the moment she took to the air that day would be her last. When she put on the crown, the world shifted - a marked difference from that free-spirited girl that streaked through the skies to the regal woman grounded to her throne.

Leo is still watching her, and she looks up at him to meet his inquisitive gaze, hoping she's disguised the fresh wave of pain enough so as to avoid inquiry. "I think," she says slowly, "that Hinoka acts with genuine compassion. But... I also think she does what she does for her countrymen... And if she bargains, it won't be for something that inadvertendly hurts Nohr with its absence, but something to strengthen our people."

Leo's eyes widen slightly, perhaps surprised by the steadiness of her claim more than the claim itself, but he nods slowly, considering. He leans back in his seat with an exhale, ruffling his already unruly hair. "A woman of the people. I cannot imagine what could be worth such a headache for the Queen, but I can try and breach the subject the next time we speak."

Sakura nods placidly. "I hope you find the answer you need..."

"You council is appreciated," he assures, eyes closing briefly. Then, cracking one open, he adds, "I clearly allied myself with the right person."

She coughs loudly, and he cocks his head questioningly. "It's... N-nothing. Just... Hinoka said something similar to me. Allies..."

"Is that not what we are?"

She shakes her head. "W-We are, but it just... It sounds so..."

"Tactical." He threads his fingers together and leans forward, eyes glittering. "True. What would you call us, then?"

Her heart skips a beat. He's observing her with amusement - measuring her response as well, no doubt - and she can't help but feel like she made a misstep somewhere. She has taken much less care when treading around the prince, after all, as of late. Friend - that's what she had called him the day she left Nohr. What she so confidently told Hinoka. He had agreed. Had she misunderstood? Was she really a strategic gambit to him, as Yukimura had warned her, or-

"Don't look so upset, Sakura." She looks up, and he is watching her with a strange expression. "I admit I'm... Surprised. I just thought, well... A friend like me, in Hoshido, isn't a particularly sterling endorsement for a person in your position."

She blinks. "Is who I'm friends with a cause for concern?"

"You know it is," he says quietly.

She falls silent.

"You spending time with my family," he continues, licking his lips, as if carefully weighing his words. "In full view of the country... While it was certainly enjoyable to get to know you, it was namely for our benefit." He gestures to himself, as if illustrating the problem in its entirety. "Could I provide even a fraction of that to outweigh the harm my presence inflicts?"

"Is that... Why you've b-been so scarce around us?"

He smiles thinly. "So you noticed. All things considered, surely you see how it's best I'm kept at arm's length."

"T-that's not fair," she says, shaking her head. "What is the point of these peace talks if we're cloaking this alliance in distrust?"

Leo stares at her. "Hoshido distrusts Nohr, Sakura," he says, like he's explaining the sky is blue.

"But I don't distrust you, Leo," she says earnestly. "You're a good person."

There must have been something to her words, because the effect is immediate - Leo just looks at her, completely stricken. She can't recall him ever so rendered speechless, but his expression is so funny she has to bite her tongue to keep from laughing, and whatever tenseness that was present in the discussion swiftly dissolves.

He must have noticed too, because his recovery is immediate. He clears his throat, cheeks flushed in embarrassment. "I didn't expect you to say such a thing. You keep surprising me, Princess Sakura."

"I-I don't mean to..."

"Yes, well." He closes the book he had been perusing, smoothes his hand over the cover. "Bested by a mere compliment. Unbelievable. I'll make a note of it so as not to make such a fool of myself again in front of you."

She smiles. "You don't look foolish."

"See, that right there. Spare me the kindness and let the supposed master stragetist of Nohr beat himself up in peace," he says with a grimace, and she can't hold back her laughter now.

 

 

***


The cold spell turns and leaves shed from their stems. Autumn is at its peak, and suddenly Sakura finds herself entrenched in new responsibility as she readies for what she is told is a brief interim rule - she is, after all, the only royal left to take charge while the Queen is away.

Even still, she feels horribly ill-equipped. Yukimura's briefings are helpful, but the unease is borne from her heart more than anything. She was never meant to sit the throne, not even temporarily.

The trip in its entirety should last no longer than a week, her sister assures her. She's already scribing instructions, insists that Sakura will have aides to guide her through the daily responsibilities that she can't attend to from afar.

In her free moments, she burns incense at her brothers' altars and prays, or sits in the gardens to breathe after long stifling bouts. She has always looked up to Hinoka, her sharp tongue and clear mind and strength of heart, but feels a fresh wave of admiration knowing she has gone through much more than this and somehow came out stronger for it. It was Takumi she modelled herself after at first, but the older she gets, the more she finds herself envying her sister's tenacity and spirit.

This morning, she sits in her room, enjoying a spare moment of quiet with tea, when she hears a knock positioned awkwardly on the frame of the sliding door. "Who is it?"

"Leo." He slides the door open carefully. "My apologies for disturbing you in your leisure."

"It's okay." She moves to stand, but he waves her away, and, hesitantly, she sits back down.

"I received a letter from Xander," he says, holding it out to her. She blinks, and takes it, unfurling it to skim the contents. "It seems his own departure preparations are underway. I've been summoned to serve on the throne in his absence."

"Y-you too?" She blinks. "What about your sister?"

"Camilla is going with him to Izumo," he explains. "As is Corrin. Elise," he says, mouth quirking, "for all her maturity she's managed to muster in the last year, still isn't quite fit for the role."

"Oh." She bites her lip. "W-When are you leaving?"

"A week before Queen Hinoka departs," he says. "It's a longer journey back to Nohr, and I have to be briefed by Xander before he leaves."

"I-I see." Hardly a week left then. "Th-that sounds like quite a great deal of responsibility."

"You're one to talk," he says, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "I've hardly seen you in the library as of late. It's a pity I have to make due with my own poor translations."

She smiles sheepishly. "I can help you now, if you like..."

"No, no. I don't wish to disturb you any further."

"Please," she says, warmly, gesturing for him to sit across from her. He hesitates for a moment, before lowering himself to the table, legs crossing awkwardly in contrast to her prim posture. She pours tea in another small ceramic cup, and holds it out to him. "I-It feels like it's been a while, hasn't it?"

"You've been busy, I imagine," he says wryly, accepting the cup, "so I'll allow the indiscretion of leaving me to my own devices."

"It's strange," she admits. "I'm not really used to being in charge of anything but the shrine maidens."

"Were you now?" he asks, cocking an eyebrow. "I suppose that's no surprise."

She nods. "I took over for my mother. She served as a priestess."

"I'm sorry for your loss," he says immediately.

"Thank you." The words come easier than expected, nowadays. Her death certainly wasn't the freshest one, but still stands out in her mind separate from the others, and isn't oft addressed as of late, despite its significance.

His eyes turn to the Fujin Yumi on its perch. "That bow... That wasn't hers. It was your brother's, wasn't it?"

"I-it was Takumi's."

"You wield it now."

"Yes."

"Admirable to take up his arms."

Her lips seem to move of their own accord. "I had to."

"You had to?"

"There's nothing else I can do to keep his memory alive," she murmurs. "This is all that's left of him." They had spent days combing the area around both Shirasagi and the Great Wall of Suzanoh, but Takumi's body had vanished entirely. They had no choice but to mark an empty grave next to Ryoma's - a few of his personal affects buried in his stead, a poor substitute no matter how she looked at it. 

"I see."

"I failed him," she says softly, and Leo looks at her curiously. She fiddles with the sleeve of her robe. "Our last encounter wasn't pleasant. We fought... I-I told him not to leave, to stay and defend Hoshido, and he ignored me, yelled at me, saying he had to avenge Mother. I should have pushed harder for him to stay, but I'd never seen him like that."

Leo stills for a moment. Then, says, "I cannot claim to know your brother. But based on what I have heard from you and the Queen, his behavior was not his own by the time we crossed paths."

"Not his own?" she echoes hollowly, stomach lurching.

Leo taps his gloved finger against the table. "He was angry. Obsessively so. He called for the death of all Nohrians. I cannot say I fault him for those feelings, given the circumstances, but he cut down soldiers without remorse, spilled blood without hesitation. Do you believe that to be in line with his character?"

Sakura looks down at her hands. "No."

"Your sister tells me he had a penchant for tactics, too. He liked strategy, he liked history."

"He wasn't merciless," says Sakura, throat constricting. "Not the way people recount him being during the war. He was kind, protective." She swallows thickly. "I don't know what happened for him to change so suddenly, but..."

She looks up to see him staring past her, brown eyes focused on something faraway. "Leo?"

"It sounds very similar to my father."

Something in her jerks, involuntarily, away. "T-Takumi wasn't like that."

"Don't misunderstand. I'm not excusing my father," he says, lowering his cup slowly. "He committed atrocities far worse than any in the last century, and his actions, no matter the root, were his responsibility to bear. But there was a marked shift in his behaviour that turned him from stoic to ruthless. As if something changed his personality. Doesn't that sound familiar?"

She cannot recall for the life of her a moment when Garon wasn't the man he was painted to be. She had no memories of her own father, and that, in itself, is proof enough of Garon's treacherous character, but... "When... Did he change?"

"I don't remember myself," he confesses. "I have few memories that could discount the person he was, but Xander claims to remember a different man. In retrospect, I am surprised he lived so long bound by whatever madness held him."

"Did... You ever think to confront him?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because he would have killed us, had we dared."

She flinches. "Camilla mentioned, but I still can hardly believe..."

"Believe it." He smiles bitterly. "We were pawns in a game of a scope we could never have imagined."

"But you did defy him." Subverting the king's orders from behind the scenes - isn't that what Corrin had said, had insisted she had tried to do, too?

"So long as we could without tipping off him," says Leo tiredly. "Any efforts on our part were calculated. We had to protect ourselves, protect each other. We never wanted Corrin or Elise to be part of it. Once they found out..."

"They wouldn't allow you to leave them out," finishes Sakura. Pounding her fists on her siblings' doors, tearfully demanding she be allowed to train as an archer when the gauze and ointment ran dry, and hardening her heart - because being part of it was torturous, but being left behind would surely have been unbearable. Day after day of bloody fingers bound clumsily between sessions. Until they became calloused enough for battle.

She doesn't like thinking of that day on the field. Her sister on the opposite side, how wrong she looked with her sword raised high, how wrong to see Azura at her side, and the legions of strange, foreign battle cries filling the air as their forces flooded the barricades. Subaki, charged with a raider axe, gasping for air as she knitted the flesh in his side together in a race with the seconds ticking away at his life. Hana, tunic stained crimson with blood, pale and unsure of exactly how much of it was her own.

And Leo. Black armor dark against the pale stone walls of Fort Jinya, he had been every bit the villain she saw in her nightmares. Her arrow, pointed at his heart, and his sword missing her by inches as he rode past.

At the time it was shame she felt, not even being a worthy target, a reminder that she was the weak link in her family of fearless warriors. Now the thought that she could have slain him had she aimed a little higher, pierced his throat, makes her sick. Death was familiar - she has seen it countless times amidst clammy fevers and fading pulses, has held countless hands gripping hers tight before falling to the wayside, and she has never averted her gaze. But it was different when she saw it because of her efforts, and not despite them.

"Sakura."

She snaps out of her reverie, looks at Leo; the blond prince is watching her, expression alarmed, and she looks down to see she's gripping her cup tight enough to turn her knuckles white. "I..."

"I'm sorry." He reaches out, as if to touch her hand, then withdraws it. "I shouldn't have brought such a sore topic up in the first place."

"N-No. You didn't do anything wrong..." She swallows, settling into silence.

He waits for her to say something, but when she doesn't, finally he says, "I remember as well."

She looks up at him, startled. "W-what?"

"The siege at Jinya. Seeing you there."

She stares at him, mouth slightly ajar. "I-I thought you didn't know who I was."

He laughs, but it comes out as a harsh, rasping sound. "How could I not? A Hoshidan princess, famed for her prowess with staves, holding a bow like it was the last thing she wanted to do. Different from the stories, far more gentle and frightened. There's no way I could have raised my sword at you and not felt like the monster you saw me to be."

"S-So you ignored me."

"I didn't want to kill you."

"I had my arrow pointed right at you!"

"You didn't want to kill me, either," he says, quietly.

Tears prick at the corners of her eyes. "I could have."

"You didn't."

"I was weak."

"You were not," he says, voice sharp. "You weren't made to kill. You're better than that."

Better. What an odd way of phrasing it from a warrior. "I'm not a healer anymore."

"You saying so does not make your penchant for healing any less potent."

Irritation flares. "And who are you, to decide what path is right for me?"

"I've decided nothing for you," he shoots back. Then breathes out slowly, trying to level his voice. "I am just one man with one opinion, which you may disregard as you see fit. But if your family felt about you the way I felt about Elise joining our army, they would have wanted you as far away from bloodshed as possible."

"I'm not Elise."

"No, you've seen far more blood than she has," he admits. "But your heart is just as kind."

Sakura looks into her cup, the remnants of tea leaves swirling at the bottom. Her heart pounds against her ribcage.

"I'm not trying to undermine your choices," he says gently, brown eyes probing, "and I do respect your resolve. But I've come to know you, and that kindness..." He exhales. "I admire it. It's a trait not everyone is blessed with, and something we could do more with in the world."

Silence. Then, "Hinoka said the same."

"Pardon?"

"I fought with her, too." She hangs her head, letting her curtain of pink hair hide her face. "I insisted I learn to fight properly, asked her to train me. She said no at first, and we fought... I couldn't understand why she wouldn't give me a chance."

"And why, do you think, did she not want to?" he asks neutrally.

"I know, on some level, that she wanted to protect me," she says, brows furrowed. "B-but I was tired of feeling so useless, watching my family ride off to battles, leaving me behind." She tucks her hair behind her ear. "Can you understand how that felt?"

"Of course I can. I spent the better half of my life feeling that way about Xander."

"Then surely you understand wanting to be more than that."

He shakes his head bemusedly. "Had I been blessed with your talents, perhaps I wouldn't be a soldier, Sakura. I chose magic because it was the only path available to me. But you have something beyond that. The capacity to undo the hurt the rest of us inflict is no trifling ability. It has value that is no less than being able to fight."

"I didn't want to fight," she says, voice small. "I wanted to protect my family."

"Ah." He leans forward, resting his chin on his hand. "That, I do understand. But your family surely wanted to protect you as you wanted to protect them, and that feeling isn't borne from pity, is it? Perhaps you understand them better than you think."

It's embarrassing, she thinks, to be taught such a lesson of the heart from someone who once stood on the opposite end of the battlefield, and who, for all intents and purposes, aimed to kill. But if she's being honest, on that day, perhaps she also saw just a boy on a horse, far too young to kill, but forced to nonetheless. Someone she could have been, had she been made to smother her heart the way he had his.

His eyes are warm as he regards her with genuine concern, and she feels a surge of something not quite sympathy, something that makes her stomach flip. But it's not an unpleasant feeling, and she smiles back meekly.

 

***

 

 

 

 


     Dear Sakura,

     It's feels like it's been so long since you visited, I decided to write you first! How are you? Things are the same as always here. It's getting a little chillier, and it rains a lot here when the weather gets colder, so I've been housebound and really bored. Sometimes I sneak out to the marketplace when Xander and Camilla are busy, just to get a change of scenery. Leo usually catches me, but since he's in Hoshido I've got free reign! (Please don't show this letter to Leo.)

     I've been thinking so much about those sweets you mentioned that I tried looking it up so I could make it, but it looks like you need some kind of big pounding bowl and hammer to make that sticky rice stuff - totally impossible to find here. If Xander lets me visit, I hope you'll teach me! I've also been practicing my violin a whole lot. There aren't many songs Hoshido and Nohr have in common, so I'm asking Corrin to get me some sheet music from Hoshido transcribed so I can perform something for you and your sister when I visit. I'm sure it'll be a while til that happens, but I'm using it as motivation to get better when the time comes!

     I hope Leo isn't being a pain for you and your sister. He's actually a really big softie deep down, but tends to come off as, well, a jerk. (Again, please don't show him this letter.)

     Write back soon!

     Love,
         Elise

 

 


Sakura runs her fingers across her koto - now freed from its mount and set on the tatami - and feels the dust on the pads of her fingers, sees it scatter in motes, dancing visible in the beams of the setting sun. The silk strings, the ivory bridge, the inlaid tortoise shell, running across each part as if retracing her history.

She hadn't abandoned it only because of the new role she had to don, but because disturbing her koto feels like disturbing ghosts. She had laid this part of her to rest; waking it felt like letting go of her grief, and her grief was all that kept her grounded in the last year and a half. Use it, she had reasoned, harden and mold it and use it so it can never be used against you. Hadn't she learned that much, curled up in that prison for days on end, wondering which of her friends were alive, quietly mourning them in case they weren't? Yet however much she knew her soft heart was a liability, she couldn't seem to kill that part of herself. She had considered it weakness, back then.

She should be using her picks for this, but her callouses make plucking the strings painless. It's slightly out of tune, but she doesn't mind.


ユラリ、ユルレリ


The familiar words spill from her lips, and she can already feel herself wishing for another voice much sweeter, one that didn't break on the high notes. It's wrong. She should be playing while Azura should be singing, but there's only her left, and who else will keep the song alive in her native tongue?

So she sings, from deep in the belly where the breath stirs, just like her big sister taught her. The strings sound duller without picks, but the notes are right. She knows from her muscle memory.

光去りゆく黄昏

Life and death, fates and what-ifs. Maybe it's true that there was no way to escape the hands they were dealt, but to assume that what happened was preordained only makes her angrier - Azura deserved more from this world than to disappear from it after giving herself to it wholly and completely. She wonders what she could have done to circumvent such unfairness. How she can create a world where little girls don't die in the name of destiny.

Her voice breaks, and she realizes, then, that she's crying.

A voice, quiet, from the doorway, calls her name.

The sliding doors are still open - she hadn't noticed the sun had already sunk beyond the treetops, save for a winking glimmer of orange and purple on the horizon - and a familiar figure stands in the connecting gardens, just a few paces from her doorway, sillouhette even darker against the lilac sky.

"Leo?" She wipes her eyes with her sleeves, moving to stand. "I'm sorry. I-I didn't see you-"

"That song," he says, voice strained. "Azura's song."

She stammers, "Y-yes."

"You sang it in Nohr, didn't you?"

Her heart skips a beat. "Y-you heard me?" Could she explain to him why she had the urge to sing it then? Seeing Azura's pendant would be the simplest reasoning, but not the most genuine. He would see through it. "I-I didn't know you knew it."

"She sang it often, though never in Hoshidan."

She looks at her hands resting on the koto, trying not to feel stung. "I see."

"It's beautiful."

"Th-thank you."

He's still staring at her, lips parted and eyes blown wide, and she realizes he is probably still waiting for an explanation, for a princess crying over a dusty instrument. But she is also sick of worrying and guessing what he might think of her - it's irrational, when he is the one to intrude on a moment that is hers - she shouldn't care to provide a reason for what is making her feel so raw tonight.

Still, she feels compelled to say something. "Leo-"

"You're beautiful," he breathes.

Her heart nearly stops, ears ringing so loud she's sure she misheard him. "W-what?"

He freezes, realizing what he said, and the look in his eyes shifts from awe to panic. His eyes quickly dart towards the path away from the gardens. "That was truly tactless of me. I'll leave you be."

"Leo, wait-"

He turns back to her, eyes boring into hers.

She can feel her face heating. "You... A-about me... D-do you..."

He looks stunned. "Surely... Surely you've known."

She stares back numbly.

"Gods." He laughs harshly, running his fingers through his blonde hair. "I'm a fool. I promised I would never act one in front of you again, but here I am."

"Y-you're not-"

"Don't concern yourself, Princess Sakura," he says, and her heart twists itself into a nasty knot. "I was presumptuous in saying anything."

Why had she pressed him like that? Her one friend from Nohr, and this is how she treats him, even knowing how vulnerable he must have been to say such a thing.

He knows you're a princess of Hoshido before anything else.

"Leo, wait. I..." She swallows. "Y-you know I... I have to... Act in the interest of my country."

His mouth sets into a thin line. "Yes."

"S-so... No matter what, how I feel... Um..."

His brows shoot up at that. "How you feel?"

"...Is irrelevant," she finishes, her voice shaky. "I-I have to put my people, and my country, first."

He lets go of the scroll he had been holding, letting it fall onto the stone walkway with a clatter; in but a few short beats he has already stepped up onto the wooden walkway, not even a meter away from her, drawing in a deep breath. She can't help but shrink back a little, but he takes another step forward, and speaks, his voice low and raw.

"How do you feel?"

Sakura shivers. "I can't s-say."

He draws closer, hesitantly reaches for her arm; she flinches, but doesn't move as his fingers graze hers, tangling them together.

"Please."

She looks up at him - really looks, for what feels like the first time. Because while she has spent hours sitting only a few feet apart from him during their studies, she had barely registered so much that, looking back, should have clued her in. The way his eyes soften when they look at her, so different from when they first spoke in Nohr, distant and cool when they were little more than strangers, but so warm now.

"I can't say," she whispers.

His other hand moves to graze her jawline. "If you can't say, then I can't do anything."

"I-I know."

"And you're certain?"

She shivers again, not even certain how to answer him. He leans forward, and her breath catches, eyes squeezing tight - but all she feels is soft pressure, feather-light, on her forehead, and when she opens her eyes he's already stepping back from her.

She stumbles on her words, suddenly regretting how she went about all of this. "Leo, I'm s-sorry. About you... I really..."

"I know," he echoes, mouth quirking, but his eyes are sad. "And I do understand. Forget I said anything, Princess Sakura. I was never here." And with a small bow, he steps down from the walkway, his figure disappearing back through the gardens just as the sun winks out.

She sits down as soon as he's out of sight, and breathes once, twice, thrice. Then, carefully, she packs up her koto and stores it away.

 

***

 

The next day, true to his word, Leo behaves as if nothing had transpired the night before; he makes polite banter over their meal, speaks easily to Hinoka about matters of state, and she chews her breakfast absentmindedly as they do. As guilty as Sakura feels, she is secretly, selfishly, grateful for it.

A political marriage is not inadvisable. Hinoka herself had considered the possibility - Xander was still unwed as well, after all - before deciding against it when peace was still fragile and civil unrest a matter for concern. In Sakura's case, she would have been considered off-limits as a priestess, having taken her vows before being wed, but her position as an heir complicates matters.

Regardless. There are far more matches worth his while back in Nohr, she reasons. Women who would be suited to the role of a Nohrian prince's wife, who would be far less trouble than a war-damaged girl from a far away land, who wouldn't leave half their hearts back home. 

"No matter how many times we speak of it, you don't seem to give, Your Majesty."

"There's nothing to give," Hinoka huffs. "I'm getting bored discussing it, Prince Leo."

"I leave in only a few days, you know, and for the record, Xander doesn't like surprises. Your sister," he says, eyes flickering to Sakura briefly, "seemed to think I was trustworthy. "

Hinoka glances at Sakura inquisitively, and Sakura nearly chokes on her mouthful of rice.

"It's not that I don't trust you-"

"Then, if you'll pardon my phrasing, let's not beat around the bush. I'm not here to reject what you have to say, but advise you on how to say it when it matters most."

Sakura shares a look with Hinoka, a silent communication between sisters. Sakura nods wordlessly, and Hinoka lets out an overwrought sigh.

"Ugh. My advisers would kill me if they caught me negotiating with you without them."

He smirks. "A negotiation. I figured."

Hinoka rolls her eyes. "You're insufferable, you know that?" She leans on one arm, cheek in palm, which would all-in-all indicate a casual stance to any passing staff, but she surveys him coolly, and Leo straightens accordingly. "We want to rebuild our army," she says seriously.

Leo hums. "I see."

"You don't sound very surprised."

"I figured it was something like that," he says. "Something to benefit Hoshido without hurting Nohr."

"Interesting phrasing, that. Most wouldn't see an army of a former enemy as toothless."

"But you do, don't you? Because you've come to see us as genuine allies instead of former enemies, and have no intention of harming us."

Hinoka makes a face at Sakura. "Ugh. So smug, this one," she says, drawing a giggle from her sister.

"I don't mean to be," he says, chuckling as well. "But in any case, you want Nohr's blessing to do so, is that right?"

"Just about. The idea is, so long as we keep providing aid and feeding your countrymen, you'll accept our terms-"

"-because why would Hoshido go through the trouble of supporting Nohr, going so far as to withstand the ire of their own merchants, if their aid wasn't genuine?" he finishes, leaning back in his seat.

"It is genuine, you know," Hinoka points out.

"I don't doubt it. May I ask your reasons for rebuilding your army?"

Hinoka threads her fingers together, resting her chin on them as she leans forward. "Morale, for one. Positions in the army are less about fighting and more about serving. There's prospects of glory, to be sure, but there's also pride and honor involved. I'm sure Nohr's army has similar ideals. So long as that's in tatters, it's hard to see Hoshido as a bastion of strength."

"Typical enough. Perhaps more patriotic than Nohr's."

"We're not intending full-scale militarisation," explains Hinoka. "We just want to replenish our numbers. Moreover, serving in Hoshido is more than an occupation. It's about honing one's skills to better the overall group, finding camaraderie, establishing group-think. It's steeped in our culture, our way of life."

"Very well. And what of your merchants?"

"A temporary issue," she says dismissively. "If we can officially begin rebuilding our army with Hoshido's aid to Nohr as the foundation, they won't be able to object openly without severe backlash."

"I see," murmurs Leo. "You certainly have thought this through."

"Of course I have."

"But you're assuming Nohr will accept your terms, and that is a shaky assumption with which to gamble."

Hinoka's mouth thins as she regards him. "You won't?"

"This entire gambit would require that Nohr believes Hoshido wouldn't retaliate," Leo explains. "And if the decision were up to me or to Xander, we would be willing to take that bet, because we trust those on the throne to be acting in the interest of all. But Hoshido has been in isolation for many years - from Nohr's perspective, has remained in a prosperous bubble while the rest of the world has suffered."

"We're trying to change that," retorts Hinoka, exasperated. "Why else would we offer aid-"

"I know," he cuts in, annoyed. "You've no need to convert me, Your Majesty; I am convinced that your intentions are pure. The rest of the country is another story entirely."

"You need the support of the nobles," Hinoka says tiredly.

"We have some of that, thanks to Princess Sakura's visit last summer," he says, eyes flickering to Sakura again, who meets his gaze steadily. He turns back to Hinoka. "The real issue is the common folk, the ones who have lost family in the war."

"The losses in Nohr are no laughing matter," interjects Hinoka sharply, "but incomparable to those Hoshido has sustained."

Leo pinches the bridge of his nose, exhaling. "You're trying to reason with the wrong person. I have seen the damage here firsthand, and so I understand your point of view. A fisherman in Nohr whose drafted son was speared by a pegasus knight, however, has no such perspective - all he will see is his son's killers rising up. Xander's rule hinges heavily on the support of the people - his commitment to them is what distinguishes him from our father."

Hinoka looks down at her plate, jabbing her fish with her chopsticks. "Well, we're at an impasse, then."

"I'm not saying it's impossible," Leo says. "But without support in Nohr beyond the crown, it will endanger Xander's rule, which is still shaky, and that's not a risk Xander can afford to take now."

"Then what's to be done? We can't ignore the merchants-"

"Um."

Hinoka and Leo turn to look at Sakura. She shifts her gaze between the two.

"Would the archduke not be willing to aid in this regard?"

Hinoka blinks. "What, you think we should enlist Izana's help?"

"Enlist doesn't seem to be the right word..." She tugs at a lock of her hair. "I was thinking more along the lines of backing. Le- Prince Leo. You called it a gamble, didn't you?"

Leo watches her curiously. "I did."

"If Archduke Izana vouches for Hoshido's intentions - even agrees to holding us responsible, should we break our word - wouldn't that make even Nohr lend us more credence, tilting the odds more in our favor?"

Hinoka frowns. "Asking the Archduke to hold us responsible is a lot. Izumo's own army is a fraction of ours. He realistically couldn't."

"Then," continues Leo, eyes narrowing, "seek out more."

"What, more nations?" asks Hinoka, surprised.

"Yes. Nestra, Notre Sagesse, the surrounding tribes - if you can get them to vouch for the authenticity of Hoshido's claims, perhaps even Nohr would yield with such support."

"That's putting Hoshido in a really vulnerable position, you know. Surrounding ourselves with allies that have their teeth bared?"

Leo shrugs. "You're viewing it more antagonistically than it is, but that's besides the point. Princess Sakura's solution is a viable one that could potentially move Nohr as it currently stands. If the collective nations outnumbering Hoshido also support Hoshido, you should have a much better shot at your proposal passing. If they believe in you."

"Which they do," says Sakura softly.

Hinoka runs a hand through her choppy locks. "This is risky," she admits. "I'd have to start contacting the independent nations immediately. What's more, I don't know if the rest of the council will go for it."

"If you don't mind me speaking freely, Your Majesty."

"At this point, I obviously don't."

"Both the Hoshidan and Nohrian council are full of dimwits-"

Hinoka and Sakura both cough loudly.

"-who see in short-term losses and gains," he finishes, mouth quirking.

"Warn us before saying that kind of crap, would you?" hisses Hinoka, eyeing the doorway, which remains thankfully empty.

"Bluntly put-"

"Was that not already blunt?!"

"-they will likely see my advice as ultimately being in the service of Nohr, and will reject it on those grounds alone."

Sakura sits up a little straighter, frowning. "I think you've p-proven yourself plenty in our service over the last month."

Leo smiles. "You would see it as such, wouldn't you? You know me well enough to be aware of my intentions-" Sakura's cheeks darken at that. "-but this is about perspectives, and theirs is far different."

"I can't not consult my council on something this big," warns Hinoka. "That's borderline treason."

"You're quite right," he agrees. "So you'll have to sell this as if you came up with it elsewhere. Which is not unthinkable, but it is rather sudden, and that's bound to raise suspicions."

Sakura looks between them, clockwork turning in her head as an idea forms. "Use me, Hinoka."

Hinoka looks at her, startled. "What?"

"I w-wasn't part of these discussions until today... Say you brought me into it, a-and I came up with Leo's rebuttal."

The redhead's eyebrows draw together. "That's also a pretty tall order. Why would they think you'd know how Nohr..." she trails off, understanding dawning.

"She's been there," says Leo, impressed. "She's met with nobles, even the foulest nationalistic ones trying to undermine her, so she knows how they think."

"And she's spent a great deal of time with you in both countries, so she know a royal's perspective," says Hinoka, tapping her chin. 

Sakura flushes, but Leo only hums in affirmation. "It seems you have your trump card, then."

"Okay," Hinoka concedes. "I'll give it a shot. We don't have much time to waste - Sakura, I'll want you to join in on the meeting with me. Could you head down and call everyone together?"

"Of course," says Sakura immediately, rising from her seat. She bows to Leo politely, not quite meeting his gaze, before exiting the room.

Hinoka turns to Leo. "Thank you, Prince Leo. Sakura's endorsement was clearly not given in vain."

"Endorsement?"

Hinoka nods placidly. "She convinced me you were worth hosting when I was ready to reject you. I wouldn't have bothered on Xander's word alone. You must have made an impression."  

"I'd be honored if that were the case," he comments mildly. "She was certainly well-received in Nohr."

"Xander said as much," Hinoka says with a chortle. "I got the sense that he wanted to build on that, based on his missive."

"Did he now," Leo responds, straightening in his seat, eyes narrowed. "I wondered what he might be scheming in sending me here."

"Scheming is not quite the word for matchmaking, but he wasn't wrong, was he?" laughs Hinoka. "Sakura seems taken with you, don't you think?"

"You'll have to ask her, I'm afraid," he says smoothly. "I haven't the foggiest what you mean."

Hinoka looks at him strangely. "Is that so?"

"If you'll excuse me, Your Majesty. I have to prepare for my departure, but I hope you'll update me on the situation once your meeting concludes," he says, standing up, his chair scraping against the wooden floors.

"Of course," she says, watching him make his exit. She looks down at the half-eaten fish on her plate, takes another bite, and swallows. "Shit, he didn't know, did he? Try not to get murdered before the treaty renewal, Xander."