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Home is where the Heart is

Chapter Text

Silence falls.

It crashes and washes through the ruined hall like a waterfall, deafening and crushing, once Anankos's last shuddering breath withers away, a roll of thunder of a dying storm which has been raging through this land for far too long.

Silence falls. The pillars crack and creak, fine dust pouring from the gashes in the ancient stone, ticking the time.

Silence falls, astonished and triumphant in a way no victory march could ever compare. Corrin feels frozen on the spot, her weary bones still rattling at the sound of Anankos's dying wail, the Yato - no, the Fire Emblem - clasped tightly in her trembling hand. Slowly, so slowly, she turns her head to cast a glance to her companions and she sees the same wary disbelief painted in the wide eyes and slack jaws of the handful of men and women who had been brave enough to believe, to challenge, to leap in the dark abyss.

It strikes her in that moment, in the deadly silence that follows their victory, that they probably never believed they would come out victorious in this fight, that they would survive this encounter.

It strikes her in that moment, that she never did.

The silence stretches, loops around her throat, crushes her windpipe as it whispers the same question in her ear, over and over again.

And now what?

But before the silence can take hold of her, before quiet fear can submerge her completely, a voice of silk and water dispels the silence.

“You made it, Corrin.”

Corrin whirls around, giving her back to the spot Anankos had been standing in moments prior. Her back tingles, a spot between her shoulder blades burn as instinct shouts at her, scolds her for her naivety with Xander's voice, and for a second she's paralyzed, expecting an attack that will never come; but then her eyes meet Azura's, ruby against gold, and the silence drowns in the wide smile splitting the Vallite princess's elegant features in half. She feels her own face shift, and a mirroring smile morphs into existence without any need for her input.

“Yes, we made it. We're free.”

It's as though they had been waiting for her to come out and say it, pronounce her judgment. The silence dies in the gleeful cheers of Elise and Sakura as they hug and dance, flag colors and clothing styles utterly forgotten in their joy, and burns to cinders in the spreading, roaring wildfire of laughter and clattering weapons as they fall to the ground, one by one, metal on stone singing a staccato rhythm to which the two youngest princesses dance and twirl, a song of hope and peace.

It takes nothing for Corrin to be engulfed and pulled under the celebrations. She lets people pull her into hugs, regardless of the color and shape of their armor, she allows them pat her in the back, and she doesn't complain even when it feels like her spine is splintering under the force of their blows, but simply smiles wider as their ragtag group of heroes of every social status and country starts moving, leading the way back, out in the open, out of the silence.

They're on the threshold of the wide, decaying hall when she catches a glimpse of the one shadow who has been awkwardly standing at the edge of the impromptu party, teetering just out of reach as though uncertain whether or not should he dare try to join in, whether he would be able to blend in - to fit in - or if the inky black of the suit of armor he dons like a second skin would stain and smudge the happy picture unfolding in front of his eyes. Siegfried still rests in his hand, but his fingers are lax around the hilt, as though torn between the instinct to grip it and his will to drop it. The split tip of the blade droops lazily, scrapes against the stone tiles in a soft, tired cry nobody hears over the sound of the jubilant hollers and bellows of retainers and nobles demanding for a full fledged party at camp.

Trapped in the very middle of the bubble of joy surrounding her, Corrin watches as Xander finally turns his back on the moving victory march, his cape swishing like bloodied water behind him, and trudges away in the darkest corner of the hall, exhaustion - a tiredness that goes beyond the mere physical strain - blatant in his slow, dragging steps. Corrin can only watch, her smile dimming and panic rising in her chest, Xander fall heavily to a knee, head bowed and Siegfried propped at his side against the ground like a crutch.

Corrin's eyes go wide and her mouth is already parted, teeth clenched and tongue hissing on the harsh sound of his name, her hand stretched back when Camilla appears in front of her and wraps her own hands around it, warm purple swallowing black, her lithe but firm frame shielding the sight of Xander's huddled form from prying eyes - Corrin's eyes.

Camilla smiles sweetly at her, but Corrin catches sight of something bitter - something sad - simmering at the bottom of burgundy eyes that have seen too much.

“Don't worry, darling, he'll catch up later.”

Corrin's retort dies on her lips and Camilla grabs her chance to strengthen her hold on her arm so she can sweep Corrin out of the room, out of this forsaken castle with its ruined paintings and halls, where only shadows dwell, ever regretful, ever doubting, ever wondering.

Before Corrin can get stained and pulled in by the looming darkness, Camilla drags her away, to the light and safety she belongs to.


It takes hours for camp to finally quiet down, sleep settling in when exhaustion, perhaps a little aided by the flowing alcohol, finally tips the scale against the triumph and lulls the tents into a silence which is not tense and alarmed but languid and satisfied. Peeking her head out of her tent, Corrin grins to herself at the sight of the sleeping mixed camp, truly, finally peaceful for the first time since it came to life.

She fully slips past the flap and steps onto the lush grass, the emerald blades tickling the soles of her bare feet in the most soothing of manners, and it feels like a greeting, a welcome back. The breeze, delicate and chill just the right amount to be refreshing without forcing her to fetch a coat to throw over her short-sleeved night gown, tangles and brushes her hair, kisses the silvery tresses like a mother braiding her daughter's hair for the first time.

A pang of melancholy lathers her tongue, thick and deliciously bittersweet. Mother. The word sounds foreign to her, having had no practice as a child to test the syllables roll out her lips, but as she thinks of Mikoto she knows it's just the right one. Their moments together might have fleeting, stolen instants, their memories together wiped from Corrin's brain like dandelion seeds scattered by a breeze, but that doesn't mean they weren't real. The connection between them, the love and affection in Mikoto's eyes, of a mother for her daughter, she wishes she could drown in them every day.

But perhaps that's what makes them so special, she ponders as she slowly wanders out of camp, her gown slithering against the grass with every step she takes towards the lake nearby. Perhaps, basking every day in that affection would soon take away the magic, make her grow entitled to it. Perhaps, for the sake of Mikoto's memory she has vowed to cherish from now on, it is better this way.

The water is cold where it licks at her ankles, the hem of her gown now thoroughly dark and damp and heavy as it soaks and floats around her, swaying softly with the gentle ebbing of the water.

Home. A word that is familiar in form and sound, but not in meaning. Not anymore. Not when there's so many inflections and interpretations to it, and the meaning changes with every different idyom and accent. Corrin has never been particularly proficient at languages after all; that is Elise's most prominent talent, second only to her skill to save lives. Corrin would be lying if she claimed she never wished to share Elise's ability to take up accents and languages like they were nothing, to allow her endless cheer and curiosity to breach through language and cultural barriers like they weren't even there. Leo can put up tough front and chide Elise for her childish behavior all he wants, but Corrin sees the proud spark in his eyes when Elise suddenly switches to another language during their conversation, just enough to throw him off balance.

As she slowly kneels into the water, her gown spreading and blooming in a watery halo around her form, her thoughts take a turn that had become horribly familiar in these past months. Her soft smile dims as jealousy towards her little sister - and yet not sister - seeps into her chest and poisons the little bubble of joy their victory had brought forth.

Family.

Home.

Belonging.

Things she thought she had, with her Nohrian siblings.

Things she had thought she'd earn back, with her Hoshidan brothers and sisters.

She reaches down and spoons up a handful of clear water in her cupped palms.

No matter the choice she'd take, they would unavoidably slip from her grasp like water trickles through the gaps between her fingers, like words whispered against a windstorm, like lightning streaking the clouded sky.

Her now empty hands curl into fists and slam down; a million droplets soar into the air for a split second, and a million Corrins stare back at her in their reflection.

Her jaws tightens as the corners of her eyes burn with longing for something she doesn't know the name of. She rises her chin and fully takes in the scenery in front of her.

Valla. Her kingdom. Her home. Her birthright she has conquered back, a ruined expanse of land that rests in a whole another dimension from the one she has always lived in, where hidden truths lie, never to be revealed again.

Her kingdom, they say. Her home, they say.

Her grave, she says.

She tries, though. Tries desperately to see the beauty in this ravaged land inhabited by nobody, to see familiar shapes in the trees or ruins or find familiar scents in the winds. Sometimes, if she tries hard enough, she thinks she can hear the sound of a laughing voice, a man with a laughter full of care and love, softer than Xander's, kinder than Ryoma's.

She tries to picture him, from time to time. Ruby red eyes, like hers, are always the starting point, and the one feature her poor creative skills are not budging on. All throughout their journey across Valla, Sakura has gone to great lengths to provide her with many papers, beautifully crafted sketches of a man with soft features and pointy ears and scarlet eyes. The hair and clothes change shape and color with every clone of the mystery man, but the fond smile in his eyes stays the same.

”If-If you can't remember, I-I will keep going on un-until I get him right. I-I swear I will help you, big sister!!”

Her heart clenches at the thought of the stack of sketches lying on her desk, wondering if she can find her father in the trace of a brush and ink on parchment and she can't even recognize him.

Something rustles behind her, delicate feet pad through the grass. Any other time she would have bolted to a defense position, clutching her sword or her dragon stone or both, but the steps are quiet and yet not silent, an announcement rather than an attack, and the tension in her shoulders ease. Then a voice whispers in the night.

You are the ocean's grey waves…

Corrin smiles as Azura inches closer, her bare feet wading the shallow water with a grace Corrin could never hope to even come close to. She's reminded, for the briefest moment, of that one memorable first encounter at the lake in Hoshido, where fate’s wheel set in motion under the setting sun and never stopped again.

Corrin's memory is not admittedly the best, but she distinctly remembers thinking the girl of the lake gave off an otherworldly aura, with her unusual sapphire hair and jaded eyes of gold that stared at an another level of reality. A beauty of another world tinted of loneliness and sadness, and she'd felt instantly drawn to this girl in a way she had never experienced with anybody else before.

The same blood flows through Corrin's and Azura's veins. The same circumstances brought them to Nohr and Hoshido, and then switched them. Corrin had clung to Azura like a drowning woman to a lifeline, had grasped tightly at the string of fate binding them together to keep herself grounded, to keep moving forward.

Corrin allows the song to wash over her, a soothing balm for her restless, aching soul as th entrancing notes flow past Azura's lips and strike at her heart. She barely dares to breathe and just listens to a song as ancient as time, an intangible relic of a past Corrin she holds no memory of.

...Lost in thoughts, all alone.” Azura finishes with a graceful twirl, speckles of water dancing around her. She sinks to her knees in the water, beside Corrin, and she finally smiles up at her. “Isn't that what you're doing?”

Despite herself, Corrin snickers. “Yes, I suppose.”

“Couldn't sleep?”

Corrin hears the unspoken ‘you too’, but she doesn't acknowledge it. She shrugs. “No. It was… too quiet.”

It's too quiet, and the noises of the questions in her head, the choice she postponed and now she has to face are yelling at each other in her head.

Azura's eyes narrow ever so slightly, and not for the first time Corrin wonders whether she can read people's minds.

Most likely it's just Corrin being very predictable and readable.

“Do you want to stay?”

Corrin's focus shifts once again to the empty land surrounding her. Nobody has inhabited these fields, this whole dimension, for decades. There's nothing worth to be tied with in this land. Nothing familiar to call home.

This will always be Azura's home, Corrin reasons. She grew up cradling the knowledge of Valla, the memories of her mother and father dancing in the royal gardens held tight to her chest. Valla is part of Azura, and Azura will always be part of Valla.

But Corrin… Corrin owns nothing of Valla. Wouldn't even know of its existence had she not been told.

There is nothing for her here.

Slowly, she shooks her head. Azura sighs, and she sounds unsurprised, almost relieved.

“You have a tough choice in front of you. Again.” The Vallite princess chuckles with her melodious voice of snow and raindrops and lays a delicate hand over Corrin's shoulder, squeezing lightly. “But I'm sure your heart will always know the right answer.”

Azura's gaze is full of fondness and pride, and Corrin can't stand it. She hurries to avert her eyes and instead hangs her head low, stares at the Corrin in the watery surface, rippling and broken and scared.

“I… I never really thought of… what would happen once we beat Anankos. What to do next.”

It hurts to admit it out loud. It stings and leaves a bitter taste in her mouth as she hears Leo and Takumi's teasing snickers in the back of her mind, their remarks that a good tactician should always plan three moves ahead.

Azura shakes her head, her grip on Corrin's shoulder growing slightly tighter. A faraway look crosses her features.

“Neither did I.”

They stand there as a companionable silence wraps itself securely around them, only broken by the whistling breeze and leaves and rocking waters.

“You're going back to Hoshido, aren't you?” Corrin asks, her voice thick with emotions she doesn't want to dwell onto.

“Yes.” Azura's reply is nearly instantaneous. Her voice is as soft as always, but her eyes are hard and unwavering. She clearly did not forget the abysmal treatment the Nohrian court used to reserve for her, and neither she did forgive. Corrin nods, not knowing what to say to that.

“And you're returning to Nohr.”

Azura doesn't ask, she states. States it as though it's the most obvious choice, like there's no doubt. Corrin flinches and hunches her shoulders protectively, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. From what she feels she has to protect herself from, she doesn't know.

She expects Azura to protest, object, try to make her see reason, to convince her. So when the older princess opens her mouth to speak and takes a breath, Corrin panics.

“It's just that… Nohr is by far the one who was most damaged by Anankos's schemes. I… I want to be there to help my-”

The word siblings gets stuck in her throat, and she nearly chokes.

“I mean, Xander and the others. Nohr really needs all the helping hands it can get. And then,” she takes a deep breath to calm herself. “Then there will be finally peace.”

She doesn't dare to look at Azura straight in the eye. Will she think Corrin is abandoning her? Will she scorn Corrin for choosing the same court that had mistreated Azura so badly over her own blood?

But Azura does not do any of those things. Her hand slides down to wrap itself around Corrin's and squeezes, delicate and playful, and Corrin knows she's not being forgiven because there's nothing to forgive in the first place.

So when she does dare to meet Azura's eyes and finds her beaming - or at least, as close as Azura's usually aloof countenance can get to beaming - Corrin is not really surprised.

“As long as it's your own choice, the path you walk on will always be the right one.”

A timid smile curls the corners of Corrin's mouth. “... Will you walk it with me?”

And as Azura finally abandons her composure and pulls Corrin close into her arms - so close, so gentle - Corrin can't help but feel like she's finally home.

Chapter Text

It's with a heavy gait, and even heavier heart, that the Crown Prince of Nohr turns his back on his celebrating allies and seeks refuge in the darkest corner of the ruined hall. The sword in his hand lies down and drags and screams against the stone floor, begs for rest, longs to join its brothers and sisters of silver and steel as the pang happily to the ground.

Instead, Xander's grip on Siegfried tightens and his steps grow longer, his stride more determined.

Not just yet.

His eyes scan the familiar darkness, search for a glint or a spindly shape amidst the expanse of black he would recognize everywhere. And then they find it, right against the wall, a contorted and splintered mass of black metal vaguely shaped like woven thorns and pointed spears.

He falls to a knee, Siegfried propped against the floor at his side, and with a hand of lead he hooks his gauntleted fingers around the thin metal to lift it from the ground. It's light in his palm, and yet the weight that settles in his chest is unbearable.

The victory march at his back drifts away, the hollered songs and jubilant shouts grow more and more distant as the little army Corrin has gathered retreats. He knows a few gazes linger on his still form, whether concerned or distrustful he can't tell and doesn't bother to try, but nobody calls him back, and for that he is immensely grateful. Camilla probably has a hand in that, and he makes a mental note to properly express his gratitude to her on a later time.

Slowly, he lets Siegfried slip from his grip and drop to the ground with a deafening, defeated clatter. Just as slowly, finding peace and comfort in the familiar gesture, he undoes the many, leathery harnesses keeping his clawed gauntlet fastened to his right arm. The piece of armor quickly joins Siegfried on the floor, where it lies, dead and unmoving.

His mouth dries and his throat tightens as he runs a gloved thumb along the mangled metal, traces what remains of the royal crest amidst a bundle of misshapen thorns and cracked spines. The two, elegant strings of black gold that used to embrace his father's broad and wise forehead like a halo are now broken, the tips brutally cleaved off from the impact, leaving only edges as sharp as blades ready to dig and tear into skin until they taste blood. The drop-shaped ruby that used to dangle just below the crest, the representation of the Dusk Dragon's watchful eye, is nowhere to be seen. The short chain most likely snapped the moment the crown fell from Garon's head during Anankos's attack.

Xander is no expert, but has seen his fair share of swords and armors being broken and repaired, and he knows even the most formidable blacksmith Nohr has to offer will not be able to fix the garbled tangle of iron and gold in his hand. Broken beyond repair like the man who last wore it, the crown which had sat at the head of countless kings and queens, Xander's proud and glorious ancestors, has to be melted and reforged anew.

His hand trembles as he brings the broken relic of a past he has failed time and time again to his forehead, the question that has been buzzing at the back of his mind for quite some time - for years, decades - now rising in volume and drowning all other thoughts.

Why?

What was the reason for this massacre? For all these years of corruption and useless cruelty? Was Father's madness solely Anankos's responsibility, or had Father willingly bowed to the fallen dragon's spell, all sense of honor and pride and justice forgone in his unquenchable thirst for blood and destruction?

Who had spoken that fateful night in the throne room, Anankos or Garon?

A violent shudder runs down his spine, makes his teeth clatter painfully together.

But alas, these are foolish musings, with no aim or purpose to themselves beside making Xander's heart heavier and and his resolve weaker. There is no point in dwelling over questions that will never have an answer. Father is gone, has been long gone, but the wounds he inflicted on Nohr and its people - here Xander tries very hard not to think about his family, his siblings, but his heart is weak and treacherous and the faces of all his brothers and sisters, both alive and dead, flash in the forefront of his mind - are still open and deep, festering and decaying with every second Xander wastes pondering over meaningless what ifs and perhapses.

Pain sets his nerves alight as his fingers curl around the jagged thorns and the sharp spikes dig into the flesh of his palm, deep enough to draw blood through the thick leather of his glove; he reaches down to pick Siegfried and the discarded gauntlet, his knees trembling despite himself as they struggle to support the invisible weight pressing down on him from above. He absently wonders how long will it take for his bones to finally shatter and give way under its unrelenting force, and whether he'll be able to shove Camilla, Leo, Elise and Corrin out of the way - to safety - before it crashes down on them all.

He stands, and there is nothing regal in his hunched posture - shameful and weak, he can still hear Father's booming voice, twenty years younger but not any less intimidating, reprimand him - or in the loose grip around Siegfried's hilt. His gaze wanders, flits around what once had to be a truly majestic throne room, far wider and better lit than the one in Nohr, until it settles to the gaping hole in the wall where Anankos had made its last stand, after it swallowed Garon whole.

He looks up at the darkened sky, so reminiscent of Nohr's ever lasting night and yet so different, and he surprises himself when his scattered and twirling musings take an unexpected turn to someone he had barely allowed himself to think for longer than a decade. Below him, the mass of people bringing Corrin in triumph spills from the wide archway at the castle's entrance. Her platinum blond head, easily recognizable even from this height, glints joyfully in the moonlight, and at the sight his hold on the crown grows tighter as a plead escapes his lips.

“Mother, guide my steps.”


The trek back through Valla's territory to the Bottomless Canyon, though no longer infested by those pesky undead soldiers of Anankos, still takes three more weeks to their ragtag army. Had they not kept sending scouts ahead for the entire duration of the journey the army, still tired but reinvigorated by the victory and the lack of any enemy in sight, would have proceeded to a much more quicker pace, but both Xander and Ryoma expressed their worry for some lingering troops and traps Anankos might or might not have set up before his demise, and Corrin wholeheartedly agreed to keep scouting ahead to avoid any unwanted incident. She would much rather getting there slower, but alive.

That, and she's starting to feel a certain sadness at the prospect of splitting up. Although tensions between Nohrians and Hoshidans never truly quelled, there is no questioning some sort of bond, of camaraderie, is blossoming between the two parties as they grow more and more unguarded and welcoming towards each other with every passing day.

Soldiers mingle now, exchange liquor or recipes or training techniques. Laslow and Subaki once kept the whole camp entertained for an hour as they sparred, a flurry of fluid movements and awe-inspiring dodges that had Corrin gasp and sigh in amazement every three seconds, and it's not uncommon to find Elise, Sakura, Hana and Effie huddled together in some corner of camp, playing whatever game Elise concocted that day or simply watching Hana and Effie spar. On top of that, Odin - aided by Hinata - will always be all too happy to offer his epic recount of the daily chess and shogi matches between Leo and Takumi, much to his liege's embarrassment and Niles's coy amusement.

The only one who doesn't seem willing to mix in with the crowd is Xander, to absolutely nobody's surprise.

Corrin freely admits it was a childish pipe dream to hope Anankos's defeat would finally break him out of his shell and allow him to openly show the kinder, softer side of himself that she saw time and time again within the safety of the Northern Fortress's walls, but never she had stopped to consider he might actually get worse: he barely gets out of his tent by now, and when he does he always keeps to himself, quiet and imposing like a shadow, the forbringer of an impending disaster. It's been days since Corrin last spoke to him directly - something trivial about logistics she can't really recall - and whenever she catches Camilla or Leo emerging from his tent, their faces grim and jaws set, they are both quick to outmaneuver her inquiries away from their older brother.

By now, the only time she manages to catch a glimpse of him is during marching time, while he's busy barking orders to keep formation and the guard up to the soldiers on the right flank, and she can't say she likes what she sees. They all are tired - heck, Corrin herself feels ready to fall asleep for a thousand years once she gets home, possibly on a proper mattress instead of a bedroll - but she's fairly sure nobody is quite as exhausted as Xander, whose already pale complexion is now bordering on sickly as wide, dark circles surround bloodshot eyes like a poisonous miasma, and a permanent frown wrinkles his brow and mouth, making him appear at least ten years older than he is.

Of course, he does not allow his body to betray how weary he truly feels in front of the soldiers; his form never falters once as he takes the lead of the Nohrian wing of the army, all straight back and squared shoulders and lifted chin, but Corrin knows where to look to see past his facade, and notices his grip on his horse's reins is quite a bit tighter than strictly necessary.

She longs to ask what is weighting on his mind, to beg to share at least a few of his countless burdens with her, but whenever their eyes meet a dark fire blazes in his eyes and her breath hitches, the words she wants to voice suddenly ash on her tongue. Then he turns his back on her and gallops away, and the moment is lost.

So the days pass, and the excited buzzing at camp grows with every mile they gain just as Corrin's heart sinks lower. She does not speak of her troubles and concerns regarding the Nohrian siblings to the Hoshidan, of course. They might have forged a sense of companionship over this last months, but Corrin is not quite naive enough to think all traces of animosity between them is suddenly gone. They have no real reason to find their former archenemy's odd behavior worrisome, as long as they're sure he's not going to attack them.

And yet, sometimes, when she finds herself staring at Xander's cold, retreating back, she thinks she sees Ryoma's gaze closely following hers, just before he closes the distance and pulls her away towards his tent in the Hoshidian side of camp.

She wonders if he knows something she doesn't, but never dares to ask. Whether she hopes or fears an affirmative response to that question, she doesn't know herself.

The day trudge by, hours upon hours of relentless marching through bare lands and ancient ruins, until finally they spot their goal.

“So, you say this rift is going to bring us back to our world?” Corrin says as she carefully walks up to the edge of what is seemingly an endless pit. A chill draft, of a different quality compared to the pleasant breeze permeating Valla's refreshing weather, wafts up from the fathomless depths, causing her hair and cloak to billow behind her. She kneels on the rocky pavement and squints into the darkness, but there's nothing in sight for miles and miles. A shiver runs down her spine, and she can only hope it's not too noticeable from where the rest of the troops are gathered, fifteen feet behind her. She can feel their silent gazes pinning her down, stabbing her between her shoulder blades.

“Yes,” Azura easily falls into step with her, utterly unfazed by the unfaltering attention she's under. Corrin looks up at her, but Azura's attention is focused solely on the Vallite Bottomless Canyon, her features set in an emotionless mask. “Just like it happened when we jumped the Bottomless Canyon, this place is the one portal which will carry us back to our world.” She flinches slightly at her own choice of words.

The wind from below grows stronger, a warning and a lure at the same time. Corrin does her best to ignore the foreboding feeling gnawing at her insides. For an insane heartbeat, she seriously contemplates staying in Valla.

Someone coughs behind the two princesses, claiming their attention. Corrin raises to her feet and turns, only to see Leo approaching them with wary steps.

“Please, wait a moment, Azura. Assuming there is indeed a magical passage to our dimension at the bottom of the canyon, which I don't doubt, how do we know it is in perfect working conditions?” He says, moving as to stand at Corrin's left. She watches him eye the engulfing darkness below with skepticism and, dare she say, fear. It takes her a while to remember he's never been particularly fond of heights. “Didn't you say the link would close once the skies above Nohr and Hoshido changed?”

Several people fidget as concerned whispering breaks out through the ranks, though it only takes Ryoma and Xander a well-placed glare to quell them and to bring the crowd under control. Corrin blinks as the first tendrils of panic and despair seep through her skin, coiling loosely around her heart.

They can't be stranded here, with no escape. She refuses to believe it, because that would mean she has dragged her family - both her families - down with her and she can't-

Azura nods solemnly, meeting Leo's calculating gaze square on with one of her own. “That is true, Prince Leo. However-” and here she has to rise a hand to call for silence, for the crowd's protests are quickly spinning out of control. “Time flows differently in Valla compared to the dimension Nohr and Hoshido rest in. Whilst it's true the path leading from the Bottomless Canyon to Valla is now sealed, probably forever, the same cannot be said about the other way around.”

“But we've been here for months!” Takumi nearly yells, frustration oozing out of his every pore as he too stalks his way towards the edge of the cliff without an ounce of the attention and elegance Leo has displayed. “Isn't it possible for it to have closed behind our backs while we were busy fending off dead soldier after dead soldier?”

“No,” Azura's tone is quiet but firm. “Your world's time is many months ahead Valla's, a single day here roughly corresponding to a week in Hoshido and Nohr. The equinox has yet to dawna and set over Valla, and judging from the stars’ positions, I daresay it will take at least a fortnight longer for that to take place. The passage leading to your homes is still open.”

Many 'ooh's and 'aah's waft from the crowd as realization dawns upon them; Sakura, Elise and Hinoka visibly relax at once along with the rest of the troops, but Corrin's keen draconic senses catch the way Xander and Camilla stiffen, eyes hard and mouth pulled in a thin grim line, and how Ryoma is quick to steal a subtle, but not any less meaningful, glance to the Nohrian Crown Prince. He goes blatantly ignored, at first sight, but upon further inspection Corrin sees Xander's form growing even tauter and rigid, the reins threatening to snap in his fingers.

Most suspicious, indeed.

However, now they have more pressing matters to deal with. She turns to Azura.

“Didn't you once say you used to come here through water? Why can't we do the same?”

Azura's stoic expression finally cracks as a veil of sadness washes over her face. “I'm sorry, Corrin, but only those who carry the blood of Anankos in their veins can activate the royal song's spell and make use of water as a passage.” Her nimble hands drift down to clench over the pendant hanging by her neck. Corrin guesses Arete must have given it to her before she died, the last insignia of Azura's Vallite royal bloodline.

Corrin finds herself wishing she too had something of her mother's to hold onto.

“I see.” She says instead and hurries to avert her eyes before they start burning. Now is really not the time to drown in bitter thoughts, not with everyone present and murmuring. She glances at Leo and Takumi: they both are looking straight at her, arms crossed in front of their chest and two identical sets of unimpressed arched eyebrows. It's ironic how similar they truly can be, once they find a common enemy that lasts enough to allow them to stop spouting more or less veiled insults and jabs at each other.

Corrin cannot allow the still timid - but definitely present - friendship to wither away, locked within a wasteland with no life or hope to be salvaged. She takes a step closer to the edge, relishing in the pain as the sharp rock dig into the sole of her feet.

“Well, then there is only one way. Down.”

“Corrin, please consider the risks-”

“Leo, there is no other way,” Corrin cuts him off sharply, too sharply. Her stomach churns when Leo flinches and his eyes flutter close in well-practiced resignation. “I trust Azura. We've seen first hand the truth of her words, no matter how much outlandish and out of the world they sounded. She knows Valla better than all of us combined, and if she says the path has yet to close on this side then I will trust her judgment. After all the pains we've been through, we cannot dither here.”

Silence follows her words. Leo nods stiffly and takes a step back, which Corrin supposes is meant to be interpreted as him stepping down and submitting to her authority. The sense of guilt grows tenfold as she watches his eyebrows pinch in what seems to be pure agony for a split second, only for his face to return to his emotionless state a heartbeat later. The shift is so quick Corrin wonders if it was real or if she just imagined it.

Heavy, armored steps break the silence, rhythmic and confident as Corrin most definitely is not feeling.

“Well said, sister!” Ryoma's deep voice thunders as he reaches out to clamp a hand over her shoulder, giving it an almighty squeeze through the puffy and flimsy fabric of her blouse. Corrin feels like the bone is splintering under the pressure of his grasp, but all thoughts of pain are forgotten when he peers down at her and pride flickers so blatantly in his eyes and soft smile. “We have all decided to trust you to the bitter end, and you haven't led us astray once ever since. Give us the order, and Hoshido will follow right behind you.”

Takumi's soft scoff is drowned by the roar wafting from the Hoshidan's troops as their voices rise and weapons clang together, chanting Ryoma and Corrin's name like a victory song. Among them, Corrin spots her retainers join in the choir, tired but radiant and proud. Felicia keeps sniffling and wiping at her eyes with the ends of her sleeves.

Corrin can't help but smile as her heart swells and threatens to spread wings to soar out of her chest, but her little bubble of unbridled joy bursts when her eyes roam the much more subdued Nohrian ranks and finds that Xander hasn't moved from his spot, isn't even acknowledging her or the racket coming from the Hoshidan's soldiers. He's not even looking at her; his eyes are closed, a deep frown wrinkling his brow and tightening at the corner of his mouth.

It's not until the Hoshidans have quieted down and more than a few Nohrians have thrown him expectant looks - Elise even goes as far as to softly calling for him, and Corrin doesn't understand why she sounds so sad and defeated, so unlike her - that Xander finally speaks, slow and careful and detached, like he's reciting a speech he has spent hours rehearsing.

“Of course, you have Nohr's support as well, Corrin.” He says with hardly any inflection in his voice; with an uncomfortable jolt, Corrin realizes this is the first time he's directly addressing and speaking to her in weeks. “The path ahead might look arduous and hazardous, and although we can't be certain it will not completely be deprived of risks,” and here he shoots a pointed glance at Leo, who lowers his head, his long bangs falling over his eyes and hiding them from view. “it is also our only available option at the moment. If you claim to be ready to put your faith in Azura's advice, then we all shall do so as well.”

In another time, under better circumstances, Corrin would have felt honored beyond belief to hear Xander, who she has spent looking up to as long as she remembers being alive, claim he is going to trust her with his life so completely. As it stands now, with the dispassionate tone and stoic mask shielding the real Xander from her view, she just feels a deep, bitter sadness cleave her chest in two, heavier and deeper than any sword can do.

Several Hoshidans do not bother to conceal the plain disdain on their faces as Xander's words wash over them, and Hinoka even huffs in annoyance.

“That was stone cold,” she says in a whisper that carries all too well. Corrin does not miss the positively incinerating look Camilla throws at Hinoka, or the wounded flinch of Elise, but Xander pretends he didn't hear the blatant insult and just allows it to slide.

She feels her throat tighten and nods as Xander dismounts in a swift, fluid motion and walks up to where Leo is standing. Distant, unfeeling, cold, the very polar opposite of Ryoma, whose warm hand is still resting on her shoulder. A part of her, the most childish and spoiled one - the one who sounds a little like Elise - feels slightly disappointed Xander isn't even trying to put up a fight with Ryoma for her affections, for the right of being called her brother.

She's tempted to lunge at him, grab him by the cravat and demand to know what in the world is wrong, why is he being so standoffish towards her - or anyone, for that matter, with the only difference being she isn't used to Xander behave any different than his usual gentle and kind self in her presence, unlike everyone else - but then her mature side finally kicks in and the urge is promptly quelled, vanished under the disguise of a fake smile and a nod.

Once they part with the Hoshidans and they make it back to Nohr, she'll get some answers from him. For now, she should not overstep her boundaries in front of Ryoma and his people.

“Alright, then it's settled.” she declares to the expectant army as she gently disentangles herself from Ryoma's grasp. In the crowd, her eyes meet Silas's and he winks at her, a playful grin curling his lips at the corners. Beside him, Kaze nods with a shallow bow. “Everyone, get ready! We're jumping!”

Everyone moves at her command, boots stomping over rock and hooves stumbling forward across the uneven terrain, until they are standing in a line, the Nohrians on Corrin's left and the Hoshidan on Azura's right, with Corrin and Azura right in the middle. The flying units hover above them, ready to dive in at Corrin's word, the lazy flapping of their powerful wings ticking the seconds. A few more flaps, just a few more moments of unity, before Corrin has to give the order.

A gauntleted hand slithers down to cradle her left, causing her to nearly jump out of her skin. Heart thundering in her ears, she glances up to find a smiling Silas.

“Don't worry, Corrin. No matter what happens next, I- no, we are never leaving your side. We're going to make it through, together.”

The words, a whisper so low she can barely hear, are like a balm to her frayed nerves. She lets them sink into her consciousness, allows them to go and fill the void that has been growing since Xander and Camilla started acting more and more distant, and clings to them desperately, a lifeline in a storm.

She smiles and squeezes back and, for the first time since they left Anankos's palace, she allows herself to believe things are going to be alright.

“Now!!”

She fully abandons herself to gravity's pull, and plummets.

Chapter Text

By the gods, Corrin swears she'll never get used to it.

No matter how many times she jumps, there is just no getting accustomed to the lack of support beneath her feet, to the furious wind rushing and howling into her ears, so loud she can't even hear her thoughts anymore, to the queasiness as her organs struggle to keep their position inside her body, her heart leaping in her throat as though it wants to physically leave her chest and get back to safety.

Corrin gasps, though the sound is immediately swallowed whole by the wind, and scrunches her watering eyes close when the air whipping her face becomes too unbearable to keep them open. She does not need to look over her shoulder to know Silas and Azura are right behind her, as Kaze, Felicia and Jakob follow suit; everyone else trails behind, she can only assume, and she feels rather than hears the screeches of the wyverns and the whinnies of the pegasi and horses as their riders dive and leap straight into the bottomless pit.

With her eyes closed it's easy, too easy, to pretend Scarlet and her wyvern are falling beside her, a flurry of crimson and gold and lilac as a trail of snow-white petals flutters behind her.

Her chest clenches painfully as her mind replays her last booming laugh, full of defiance and confidence, and then morphs it into a pained scream when the last of her life escapes her body, like the petals scatter on the wind.

Bile floods Corrin's mouth and burns at the back of her throat. She remembers the unfeeling weight of Scarlet's limp, lifeless body in her arms, the deathly pallor of her cheeks beneath the golden freckles, the cold settling in her flesh, the pained wailing of her wyvern before it flew off to who knows where. She remembers the sorrow contorting Ryoma's features as he fought her revived corpse, no more than a puppet in Arete's hands, and the single tear escaping his eye as he drove Raijinto right through her chest, piercing her still heart. She does not think she'll ever forget the pain that blossomed in her chest at the sight of Ryoma's hulking figure as he cradled Scarlet's unmoving corpse in his arms with a care and gentleness that should not belong to the proud and mighty warrior he is, as though she was made of the same thin rocks she used to decorate her weapons with, before he lifted her - and she's tiny in his arms, Corrin realizes with a jolt. She's tiny without her brazen attitude and wide grin and overflowing charisma - and delicately laid her to rest in the ground, her glimmering spear proudly planted in the grassy terrain now serving as the only mark to her otherwise nameless, lonely grave in a land she does not belong to.

She deserved better.

She and Gunter both deserved so much better.

Corrin doesn't realize bitter tears are welling up beneath her eyelids until she hears Silas's surprised yell, soon echoed by many others, and when she forces her eyes open, blinking fast as to dispel the mist blurring her sight, she soon understands the reason: a thick wall of silvery fog has appeared from seemingly nowhere and is rising up to meet them at an alarming rate. As the tendrils of vapor coil around her form and soon envelope her in an intangible embrace that leaves goosebumps in its trails, Corrin is assaulted by the now familiar wave of nausea she has learned to associate to traveling between the two dimensional planes. The world grows fuzzy, the rocky walls of the canyon melt into the gray smokes, gravity lets up; for a moment she's floating, utterly weightless, into nothing, neither here nor there, just existing. The fog pressing into her feels concrete as it shifts and slips through her splayed fingers, thicker than air and thinner than water.

She takes a deep breath, lets the fog invade her lungs and swims forward into the unknown. It smells sweet, intoxicating, and with every stroke her body grows lighter, disconnected, as though the gas is physically unlatching the wires connecting her soul to her body, one by one.

Still, although it almost feels like it's too much to be bothered with the effort, she keeps swimming, wades her way through with her arms, kicks forward with her legs. She has got to go back. To get home.

Corrin can't say precisely how long they spent crossing the tricky pathway between the two worlds. It might be hours, maybe days, even months. It feels like she's been swimming forever, but the grey, watery fog is unchanged, no sign of thinning out at all.

She's starting to despair the path had truly closed and that they were forever lost in the middle when, with little no forewarning, a bright light pierces the mist.

Relief fills her to the brim and hope flows to her sore muscles as her limbs kick and flail harder than ever, the fog offering less and less resistance the closer she gets to the light. Closer up, she notices now it has a pulsing quality to it, like a beating heart. The rhythm is entrancing, slow and soothing, and thrums through her bones as she plunges right into it and everything turns white.

Then, cold winds and damp air whip at her face, making her reeling in surprise as her wobbly legs land on hard, slippery rock. Her knees scream in protest; they buckle under her sudden weight and before she knows it she's sprawled on the cold stone path.

It takes her a moment for her wild heart and rushing blood to calm down enough to realize the air has changed quality: it's cold and thicker than in Valla, the wind more biting as a light drizzle coats the sky, lightning flashing in the faraway distance. Slowly, she shakes the dizziness away from her brain and raises to her feet.

They made it. The edge of the Bottomless Canyon, on the border between Nohr and Hoshido, lies behind her, its endless depths just as dark and unfathomable as ever. A wide grin splits her face in two when she sees the now all too familiar bridge connecting the two sides of the abyss and the Hoshidan fort several yards away. To think it all began when Garon ordered her to check that very same fort…

She wonders how long ago that was. Between her askew sense of time, most likely due to having spent so long locked within the same four walls, and the different flow of time between dimensions, she would not be surprised if years have gone by since that fateful day.

Something prickles at the back of her mind, a sense of warning, foreboding and threatening, but it's so vague she can't make heads or tails out of it. She just shrugs and decides to leave it for later. She turns to face her companions as they slowly rise to their feet and smiles widely when realization dawns upon them that they did it, they were home. Several people whoop and clap, even going as far as bear hugging each other with that playful attitude only people who stared death in the face side by side could have. Hinata and Odin are by far among the loudest and most obnoxious, but everyone is just too elated to care.

A pang of sadness stains her glee at the thought of parting from the Hoshidans. After the many months spent together, it is going to feel strange not to hear Takumi bickering with Hinoka for every little, sometimes silly, thing as Sakura tries desperately to break the fight, until Ryoma comes in and sweeps them apart. It's going to feel sad not to listen, hidden away from sight, to Azura humming softly to herself as she bustled from side to side, helping out Sakura and Elise with taking care of the injured or practicing with her naginata.

But she has no time to let her spirits plummet down now, nor any true reason. With the peace treaty on its way, sure it won't be long until she sees them again.

At the very least, she assumes Ryoma's coronation will come up soon. Corrin sure as hell does not want to miss it, for both Ryoma's and her sake. She knows for a fact a festant Hoshido is a true sight to behold; being able to enjoy it at its fullest without underhanded attacks would be most appreciated.

So it's with a smile on her lips that she watches the soldiers divide in two groups as Xander and Ryoma vow to keep peace between their nations, swear on the blood of the ancient dragons that flows in their veins, stern and solemn as they shake each other's hand, black against red, with a grip that could easily crush a boulder; Camilla and Hinoka immediately follow suit, rigid but elegant, then it's Leo’s and Takumi's turn, and lastly Elise and Sakura.

Corrin absentmindedly points to herself how strange it is to witness the usual bubbly Elise behave like a proper lady, for once, and instantly decides she likes Elise better as her permanently excited self. The gods know Nohr needs someone with a shred of positive and cheerful attitude within its bloodstained court.

The addition of the younger siblings to the vow feels a little odd and unnecessary to her, as Corrin thinks Xander's and Ryoma's oaths should have sufficed for any witness, but alas, aside from her sudden burst of experience on the battlefield, it's not like she's that well versed in the working of politics. She assumes the two leaders want to properly stress the strength of the fledgling alliance between the two countries. A vow that shall bind each and every one of them to one another.

Yes, that must be it, a demonstration of trust and faith. She almost wishes she and Azura could participate as well, as Nohrian and Hoshidan princesses respectively, but even Corrin understands why they aren't able to. Perhaps, after they are officially acknowledged as part of Nohr and Hoshido royalty, they will be able to pledge to the peace themselves. She just needs to be a little more patient.

Azura's nervous fidgeting at her side breaks her out of her thoughts. She glances up just in time to catch the older princess cast a wary look in Xander's direction.

“Azura? Is something bothering you?”

Azura shakes her head, though her eyes do not leave the Nohrian royals as they make their way to their waiting soldiers and swiftly climb up their mounts, equine or draconic alike. Azura bites her lip, the tip of her canine digging hard into the soft flesh.

“No, I'm fine. It's just… Xander and his siblings do get truly intense when they set their minds to an objective, don't they?”

Corrin nods vigorously. “Most assuredly. I know they appear cold and uncaring to most people,” her heart clenches as she thinks back to earlier, when Xander had delivered his supposedly uplifting speech in that detached manner. “But in truth, beneath their shell, they're the most passionate and determined people I've ever known. They went out of their way to offer me help and love when I most needed it… and now it's only fair I return the favor in kind.”

Azura's lips curl into a smile that doesn't really reach her eyes. “You truly love them, don't you.”

“Yes,” and the answer comes up to Corrin's lips as easy as breathing. “And I'll never stop doing so. Just like I love you, Ryoma, Hinoka, Takumi and Sakura. You all have a special place in my heart, and I'll never thank the gods enough for allowing our paths to cross once again.”

On impulse, she turns and takes Azura's hands into her own, holding tight, as though hoping all the love she can't put into words somehow can flow through their joined palms and threaded fingers. She used to do this all the time with her Nohrian siblings, whenever they managed to set aside a little of their precious time to pay her a visit at the fortress. Childish, perhaps, but she always liked the idea behind it. Leo had openly teased her about it several times, but his grasp was the strongest of the them all.

The suspicion in Azura's eyes recedes and she returns the grip just as firmly.

“Yes, indeed. And here's to the hope they will cross many more times in the future, for the sake of our wonderful homelands, joined in peace and harmony.”

Corrin chuckles, and it's not without reluctance that she lets go. She takes a few steps back towards the Nohrian troops. Xander is already giving the order to cross the bridge.

“Lady Corrin,” Jakob suddenly appears at her side, and she nearly jumps. He has apparently picked a few tricks from Kaze, because she didn't hear him approaching at all. “We are ready to set out.”

A groan nearly escapes her. She doesn't want it to end just yet. Even if she tells herself that she can't, that it's childish to think this moment could last forever, she can't help but wish these last few moments could last a little longer. Just a little more time in the company of her whole, still living family. Still, she nods.

“Yes, of course. Just a moment.” Then she addresses Kaze, lingering a step behind Jakob and flanked by Silas and Felicia. The four of them have become unexpectedly close-knit over time. She ignores the cry her heart lets out as the familiar figure of an old, weathered knight still is missing from the picture. “Are you sure you don't wish to stay with Ryoma and your brother? You know I wouldn't mind if you did.”

Kaze smiles that bittersweet smile of his - oh, Corrin definitely can see why he is so popular among the ladies, both on and off camp - and swoops in a low, Hoshidan-style bow.

“You have my deepest gratitude for your generous offer, Lady Corrin, but alas I must decline. As both a ninja, proud member of the Saizo line, and your retainer, it is my greatest honor and pleasure to keep serving under your name. My life is, and always will be, at your service.”

Corrin shakes her head and rolls her eyes as the ghost of a laugh curls the corners of her lips. This is only the fifth time she has tried to make him change his mind, but always to no avail. He is nearly as stubborn as Silas, and even she is not dumb enough to argue with the knight who seems to be made of pure determination.

Only Xander might be able to beat him on that front, thinking about it. Whether that's something worth to be praised over or not, that is up to debate.

Her musings are cut short when steps approach from behind her; upon whirling around, she's faced with the whole Hoshidan royal family and their retainers. Sakura is wearing her usual shy smile, her festal gripped tightly in her hands, but the stern and somewhat frustrated faces of Hinoka and Takumi positively make her skin crawl, so she chooses to focus on Ryoma. He doesn't smile, but something warm and sad veils his features, something akin to longing and regret. Not exactly the epitome of joy by any means, but Corrin will gladly take wistfulness over judgment any day.

“I suppose there's no convincing you to stay, sister, is there?”

Corrin smiles and shakes her head. Now she feels a bit hypocritical for griping on Kaze's stubbornness. She really is in no position to talk at all. Between her own natural temperament and Xander's teachings, she just might be the most mulish of them all.

After all, isn't that the exact reason Hoshido and Nohr found themselves fighting side by side, though? Maybe being so damn obstinate is not that bad, all things considered.

“No, I've made up my mind, but thank you all the same. I'll never forget the kindness and support you all have shown towards me since we embarked on this journey together. And yes,” she adds when Takumi’s eyebrow shoots up, “I mean even you, Takumi. You trusted my word when you had no valid reason to and provided invaluable support with your incredible strategic skills. We would have never made it without your help.”

Takumi blushes a deep tomato red that can easily rival Hinoka's flaming hair and coughs in embarrassment. Corrin nearly laughs at how easy it really is to get him all flustered despite his tough exterior. Yet another trait he shares with Leo.

Hinoka snickers quietly at Takumi's expenses and earns herself a truly withering glare that would have incinerated any lesser man or woman. Ryoma, on the other hand, only allows his mouth to curl into a flickering wry smile before he reaches out and places both hands on Corrin's shoulders. They're huge, but delicate, and Corrin feels both incredibly small and incredibly safe in his hold.

Before she can restrain herself, her heart stutters as her thoughts meander to another man who used to hold her in a very similar manner in a past long gone, the very same man who is coordinating his troops across the bridge right now.

“I just want you to know, Corrin,” he begins slowly, as though he is carefully picking and weighing his words. Still, the look in his eyes is firm and unwavering as he meets her confused gaze square on. “That no matter what happens from here onwards, you will always find a home in Hoshido. Should you ever need it, Hoshido will always provide sanctuary for you and your retainers, regardless of their nationality. Under any circumstance.”

Behind him, his siblings nod approvingly, slow and solemn. Hinoka's and Takumi's previous irritation seems to have melted away, leaving only a veil of sadness - she would even call it pity, if only she knew the reason why she is to be pitied - in its place. Their intensity leaves her a little dumbfounded, but she nods firmly when it's clear Ryoma is not going to let go until she gives him a sign that she understands.

“Corrin,” Silas calls out to her, “we really need to go. It looks like Lord Xander is quite in a hurry.”

Behind Ryoma, Hinoka pulls a face. “Rude and with no manners at all. And here I was starting to think Nohrians weren't all that bad. Fool that I was.”

Ryoma's hands slide down Corrin's arms and let go as he takes half a step back. He regards her with unabashed melancholy, a silent apology etched in the premature wrinkles creasing his brow as she finally turns away and hurries to the bridge, where the last remnant of the Nohrian troops are waiting to cross. With no hesitation, her retainers are hot in her trail, following no more than half a step behind their liege.

Her mind races as she nearly breaks into a run to reach the bridge; what does Ryoma mean by that offer? Sure, she's glad to know he's willing to consider her family despite her choice to return to Nohr, that goes without saying… but then what he said about any circumstance...

She's still quite absorbed in her turmoiling thoughts when she approaches the bridge, where Xander and his siblings are still gathered, apparently busy discussing animatedly about something she can't quite catch. If she hadn't, she probably would have been quicker to notice Peri and Laslow had been standing a good fifteen feet away from their liege and were now approaching her, and would have not needed Kaze to surge forward to hold her back as the two retainers drew their weapons and swiftly crossed them together to bar her way through. Caught off guard, Corrin stumbles back, Kaze's arm wrapped protectively around her midriff as he pushes her behind him, placing himself between her and the danger looming ahead.

“What in the world-”

On top of her mount, Peri giggles maniacally as she twirls her spear around, unfazed by Corrin's shock.

“Soorryy~” she drawls out, not looking sorry in the least. “No getting past this point for you.”

“What?!”

“I deeply apologize, Lady Corrin,” At least Laslow has the decency to appear genuinely regretful. “Lord Xander's orders. We have received permission to use violence should you oppose resistance. Please don't make this harder than it needs to be.”

Peri hums in agreement. “Too bad we've been expressly forbidden to kill you or any of your retainers. It would have been soo fuuuun~”

She flashes a downright wolfish grin at Silas, a manic gleam to her one visible crimson eye. In response to the not so veiled threat, Silas raises his spear in a defensive stance.

“What the hell is wrong with you, I swear…” he hisses under his breath, but Corrin pays him no mind.

If Corrin thought her mind was racing before, she now realizes it was nothing but a casual jog compared to the furious storm they've shaped up into right now, flashing to the forefront of her mind, tumbling and crashing over each other like waves before she even has the time to fully comprehend them.

Xander's coldness, Ryoma's offer, all the meaningful and wary glances they exchanged throughout their journey back through Valla, under any circumstance-

Panic rising and heart hammering painfully against her chest, she escapes Kaze's safe grasp and lunges forward, but Laslow is so much quicker on his feet than she is; in less than an instant his hand has latched on her forearm and, with a swift twirl that dazzles her, she's thrown backwards, away. This time Kaze is not fast enough to prevent her from landing in a heap on the ground. Her silver armor, neither Nohrian nor Hoshidan, clangs ominously against the rocky floor.

She's suddenly very aware that the Hoshidans are still there, watching the scene unfold. Humiliation burns the corners of her eyes.

“Lady Corrin! Are you alright?” Felicia breathes out in shock as she kneels and helps Corrin sit up. Her hands are trembling and icy, but the cold does not register with Corrin's mind. Not when she feels like freezing on the inside, body and mind quickly going numb.

“What do you heathens think you're doing?!? Is this the way to treat your princess?”

“She is no such thing.”

Jakob's tirade dies instantly on his lips as two figures calmly approach, the heavy armored plates that flank their midnight-black steeds clicking and chiming with every step. Corrin’s heart stops and Felicia's arms around her shoulder grow tighter, protective. Even Kaze takes a step back and comes to stand between the newcomers and where Corrin and Felicia are sitting, a shuriken materializing out of nowhere in his hand. Peri and Laslow both bow in sign of respect and step aside.

“What…” Jakob only falters for a split second and then clears his throat, his composure regained. It would be admirable if it wasn't so reckless. Corrin would order him to step down, if only she wasn't feeling so pinned under Xander's unrelenting gaze, full of contempt and cold fury. “If I may ask, whatever do you mean, Lord Xander?”

Xander does not pay the overly zealous butler any attention. His face is a mask of stone, cold authority radiating from him in powerful waves as he stares down at Corrin from atop his mount, so tall she has to crane her neck and squint her eyes to make out his silhouette against the stormy sky above. A shiver runs down her spine as she realizes he is King Xander of Nohr, and the resemblance with Garon, for the first time in her life, is striking. She has never felt so small and powerless in his presence.

“Xander…?”

His brow twitches and furrows even deeper, a muscle in his jaw tightens as his eyes narrow, cold and unflinching.

“I mean that Lady Corrin of Valla and her retainers are no longer to be considered citizens of Nohr, as of now.”

A collective gasp explodes around Corrin. She herself feels her lips part on their own accord, though no sound pours out of her gaping mouth. Felicia's protective grip goes slack and her hands fly to cover her own mouth, tears quickly welling up in her beautiful ice blue eyes.

Corrin is quite certain that, had Xander run her through with Siegfried and twisted the blazing blade in the wound, it wouldn't have hurt just as much.

“What?!? Lord Xander, please, please reconsider-”

But Silas's pleas fall upon deaf ears, and are quickly silenced with the smallest flick of Xander's wrist.

“Nohr has no need for man or woman who isn't able to put its welfare above anything else, or whose allegiances are so easily swayed.”

“Nohrian law is blunt on the subject of traitors,” Leo finally speaks up, just as cold and contemptuous as his older brother, which makes no sense at all, they had been fine literally hours ago…”The sentence is death.”

Corrin's vision swims, dark spots flicker in her field of view as Leo and Xander stare down at her as though the don't know her at all, like she's just another bug to crush on Nohr's way to greatness.

It was not long ago that they had offered her the same cold treatment, but back then they had a reason to believe she had betrayed them, and she had a purpose to keep fighting for.

Now, with the looming threat gone, she has no hold to keep herself grounded as the world crumbles away around her, and she's falling, plummeting down…

Suddenly, a white and red blur tears through her dazed state.

“Nohrian scum!!” Hinoka bellows in outrage, naginata at the ready. “Ungrateful and vile! How can you still have the gall to say such a thing after all she's done for all of us? How dare you call yourself Corrin's family when you so readily turn your back on her once she is no longer useful to you?”

A wyvern screeches nearby, and a sudden wind is all the warning Hinoka gets to leap out of the way of Camilla's mount as it lands with crushing might on the rocky platform. Sitting astride the creature's scaly back, Camilla peers down at the Hoshidan princess, disdain written plain on her face as her gloved fingers drum playfully on the handle the axe strapped to her back.

“I would be careful with your words, darling,” her tone is oh so sweetly poisonous. “It does not become a lady of your status to talk so freely of matters she can't even fathom to comprehend.”

Predictably, Hinoka instantly reels back. Corrin distinctly picks up Leo's dismayed groan and Xander quietly hissing his sister's name in warning.

“Do you dare mock me, princess of Nohr?”

Hinoka’s naginata raises threateningly, and that's Corrin's cue to finally snap out of it and act. She forces herself to her feet, her knees so weak and shaky that both Kaze and Felicia reach out to steady her, but she pushes their aiding hands away. She instead approaches Hinoka and grabs her arm, pulling and tugging delicately in an attempt to make her lower her weapon. Hinoka doesn't budge in the least; she merely throws her a quick glance, half surprised and half annoyed, and then goes back to glare daggers at Camilla.

“Please, Hinoka, it is quite alright, I'm ready to accept any punishment-”

“No you're not! You're my sister and if you think I'm going to stand idly while they execute you, you’re sorely mistaken!”

Despite the less than ideal situation, Corrin's heart soars at Hinoka's fiery proclamation of love, and a spark of affection for her hot-tempered Hoshidan sister surges and engulfs her, chases away the cold despair that has been seizing her since they had left Anankos's palace.

A few steps away - and here Corrin nearly jumps out of her skin in surprise, she didn't realize they had closed the distance, stances and weapons ready to jump in her defense. Xander and the other Nohrians surely must have - several Hoshidans roar their approval, Takumi and his retainers probably the loudest out of them all. Ryoma, on the other hand, keeps quiet, arms crossed and head held high in silent defiance as he leers at Nohr's soon-to-be king.

Xander does not acknowledge any of them, though. His narrowed, reproachful eyes bear holes in Corrin's better than any sword or spear can do, and they focus on her and her alone, as though striving to sear her image in his retinas. Beside him, Leo and Camilla stay silent, eyes closed and head slightly bent, still and unmoving like statues.

“However, in light of the present and rather peculiar circumstances, we have deliberated a commutation to your sentence is in order.”

Hinoka's stance grows a little more relaxed, the sharp tip of her naginata lowering ever so slightly, but Corrin feels panic rise once again, dread growing tenfold at the prospect of what Xander is about to say, and her grip on Hinoka's forearm tightens, her fingers digging into the toned flesh with enough force to bruise. If Hinoka is in any pain, she's kind enough not to let it show.

With a slowness that does not fit him in the least, Xander reaches for Siegfried and draws it out of its scabbard. Slowly, painful inch by painful inch, the black blade emerges; the purple stone, imbued with the Rainbow Sage's might, opens its eye, glinting maliciously in the poorly lit morning sky. Corrin's instinct screams at her to unsheath her own weapon, to run, to fight the fate that's about to be thrust upon her shoulders, but she's transfixed, utterly unable to move or to even speak as the blade rises like a rearing serpent, poised to strike her where it knows it will kill, deeper and more effective than any mere physical wound could ever hope to be.

“As king of Nohr, I hereby decree thee, Corrin of Valla, and your retainers guilty of high treason against the Crown, and as such sentence you to exile from the entirety of Nohr's territory for the foreseeable future. From this moment onwards, you are banned from stepping foot into Nohrian land, lest you hold so little value to your life to throw it away on the gallow.”

Corrin's heart stops, her defences shattering under the weight of the blow. The invisible sword sinks into her flesh, drinks and thrives on her freezing blood as all life seemingly abandons her body.

Siegfried slowly descends in a graceful arch until she can feel the scorching heat of its power graze gently at the tip of her nose and lips.

It feels like a kiss and tastes like death.

“This is my parting gift for you, Corrin.” Ruthless in fencing with his words as he is with his sword, Xander does not allow her a moment of respite, does not let her breath and collect herself enough to think. A merciless onslaught of blows, and she is completely unable to defend herself from the assault. “By allowing you and your servants to live despite the heavy charges against you, the scale is now even. Nohr owes you nothing, and you owe nothing to Nohr.”

A stunned silence ensues. Nobody dares so much as twitch as the enormity of what has just taken place slowly sinks in. Corrin can't move, can't speak, can't breathe as something heavy descends upon her and crushes her into the ground, presses on her lungs. She can only watch as Xander swiftly turns his horse around, turns his back on her.

Again.

“Farewell, Corrin. May the gods allow you to lead the long, peaceful life you've always dreamed of.”

And then, with a twirl of deep purple cape and a sharp snap on the reins, he is gone.

Chapter Text

Takumi is seething.

It's not an unfamiliar feeling, not in the least. As Hinoka teasingly points out from time to time for Ryoma's and Sakura's amusement - as though she has any right to talk; he can count on one hand the instances Hinoka didn't let her fiery temperament get the best of her - Takumi has spent the better part of a decade scowling and insulting anything that moved or simply looked at him the wrong way, and the other learning how to put an arrow in their forehead.

False and slanderous claims, obviously; he can be nice and polite as the highly educated prince he is, thank you very much Hinoka, he's just very picky on who deserves to be held in such high esteem for him to actively respect. There aren't many, aside his closest family and their retainers, he deems worthy enough of that amount of praise.

To even think he'd ever grow as close as to tolerate the presence of a filthy Nohrian would have been, not so long ago, absolutely preposterous, ludicrous even. To outright admit he found a worthy peer into one of them, whose company he not only tolerates but genuinely enjoys would simply be out of this realm.

And yet, as he has long learned since, fate is cruel and takes pleasure in throwing Takumi's solid beliefs out of the window and drag him through charcoals just to have a laugh at him as he struggles and flails uselessly in its grasp, fights valiantly a battle he will never win.

The last trick fate has come up with to torment Takumi has a name and a face, and comes with a truly outlandish outfit and a mount darker than the night itself. And, lo and behold, a Nohrian. What a surprise.

Prince Leo.

The name of his arch nemesis, Takumi's rival and evil counterpart. A boy of no more than nineteen springs, like Takumi, with winter in his heart and autumn in his hand, mind faster than lighting and tongue sharper than a sword.

There's no summer in his faded burgundy eyes. Summer never kisses Nohr's lands, never wastes its light on pale and gaunt faces carved in stone and ebony rocks shaped like spears.

It comes easy for Takumi to hate, and even easier to hate him, so that's what he does. He hates and loathes the Nohrian princeling who carries Garon's thrice accursed blood. He despises the blackened, dead roots the other prince summons from the lifeless soil to rain death upon Hoshidan soldiers.

Hating is easy.

Until it's not.

Hating, Takumi is dismayingly quick to find out, does not come as easily as before when he catches Leo's silver tongue fumble ever so slightly in the presence of Crown Prince Xander and Ryoma, strained with the burning desire of acknowledgment and validation. Hatred falters and something akin to laughter swells in his chest when Takumi finds Leo wearing his collar inside out for the third time, and requests a begrudging Oboro to fix it for him. Hatred flees as it finds no space to invade Takumi's thoughts in the peace of a tent and a board in-between, with troops of ebony and ivory and wood for them to command, and a world to explore.

It's in these instances that he sees it, the inkling of summer in Leo's too old, auburn eyes and the crease at the corner of his mouth as it curls timidly upwards, a far cry from the sardonic smirk he dons to shield himself in lieu of an armor. Takumi never acknowledges the new, unknown warmth that floods his cheeks everytime he bears witness to the sun peeking through the black curtains Leo has wrapped his heart in, but it's there, and it's uncomfortable and annoying and yet sweet. He doesn't know what it is, and neither he desires to know.

That's a lie, for with every carefully planned move of a pawn across the board he learns something new about prince Leo he has never known he yearned to.

He learns Leo likes tomatoes, but they're quite hard to grow in Nohr, with its poor soil and lack of sunlight. Takumi refrains to mention they're nearly treated as a weed in Hoshido, as they grow so prosperously the risk of the gripe red fruit taking over other cultivation grows stronger every passing year.

He learns Leo first learned illusion magic to sneak Corrin out of the fortress Garon kept her imprisoned within, that he hates using it in battle unless he's really forced to, that he would glamour Corrin as Elise and Elise as Corrin to let Camilla hoist up Corrin up her wyvern and fly her to the nearest town for a few hours, while Elise stayed in the fortress with prince Xander, 'training’ on the roof.

The smile on Leo's face is genuine and sweet as he recalls the playful sparring sessions between his eldest and youngest siblings and describes how Elise would resort to every trick on the book to get the upper hand against her brother. He smiles as he tells Takumi, who has been wishing them all dead before he even knew their faces or names, how Xander would openly laugh at his sister's antics and gladly throw the match every single time for her sake, the spar always ending with Elise propelling herself against Xander's chest and demanding to be lifted up and twirled around. According to Leo, the ever stern and inflexible Crown Prince never failed to oblige.

Takumi learns that Ryoma and Hinoka's fears of mistreatment were misplaced, that Corrin had truly found a family within the Nohrian court - a bunch of misfit, but oddly functional all things considered. Of course, until Garon came into the picture. At that point all hell was bound to break loose for everyone.

Leo doesn't smile when the previously pleasant chat shifts to the king of Nohr, and proceeds to conquer Takumi's king - the white one, fitting - with a little more aggressiveness than what's strictly needed.

Just like now.

Leo doesn't smile at the sister he loves more than he is willing to admit as he and his siblings banish her from Nohr with a truly unwarranted forcefulness, and Takumi seethes, finds himself wondering if all the nights spent arguing amicably over battle tactics and board games had been a glamour too, if the young man under the black armor had been an illusion, another underhanded trick fitting the Nohrian scum Leo is supposed to be.

His fingers curl into fists, and the piece in his pocket feels heavy.

”Why are you giving it to me?” Takumi asks in confusion, twisting the proffered black queen in his hand. Still a novice in chess he is, he can definitely appreciate the fine, intricate carving and polished wood, the pure gold ornaments glimmering in the candle light. It's an incredibly expensive piece, part of an equally expensive set, probably custom made for the prince.

Leo shrugs nonchalantly, but if he hopes Takumi misses the way his jaw tightens, accentuating his increasingly drawn and tired face, he sure as hell has another thing coming.

“I don't need her anymore.” Leo blatantly lies as he places back the rest of the pieces in their velvety alcoves with a love and care no Nohrian should have, and there's a glaring void surrounding the black king. “Figured I might as well give her to you. I know you'll take good care of her. For all your screaming bloody murder, you're quite gentle while handling frail items.”

He closes the laquered box with a snap, sharp and final, and the sound echoes in the silence like the fall of a guillotine. Leo smirks in that nerve grating way of his, but his eyes are sad when they fall to the ebony figurine in Takumi's palm, longing bubbling in the creases marring his too young features.

“That doesn't make any sense.”

Leo shrugs again. “It doesn't have to. Just, hold onto it for the time being. Consider it a peace offering.”

Suspicion, foggy and shapeless, stains Takumi's sight. “A memento? Something to remember you by?”

Leo does not reply, but his eyes speak loud enough for both to understand.

Now, into the morning drizzle on the border between Nohr and Hoshido, suspicion becomes certainty and strangles Takumi's outraged protest in his throat. He searches, desperately, Leo's face, and there it is, the one crack in the mask, the one wrinkle that betrays the agony Corrin is so freely expressing and venting out and that Leo and Xander and Camilla are instead swallowing, consuming them to ashes from within.

Their gazes meet, and Leo smirks in that nerve grating of his but there's fire in his eyes and pain on his lips.

Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the greater good.

Understanding dawns on him and he instantly rounds on Ryoma, who stands there, still as a statue as he regards the Crown Prince as he turns his back on Corrin and gallops away, followed by his siblings. Ryoma, who knew this was happening, and Hinoka, who was a little too ready to raise her naginata in Corrin's defence when in reality Corrin was only faced with proffered shields.

Ryoma turns ever so slightly, meets Takumi's silent question and steadfast replies.

Corrin crumples, a puppet whose strings have been neatly cut in a single blow. Her hand stretches out, her voice tears and bleeds on the name of the damned foreign Nohrian names. Xander, Leo, Camilla, Elise, Xander, Camilla, Xander...

A shameful spectacle. Several of their Hoshidan fellow soldiers, in respect of their new princess, avert their eyes from the scene. Sakura and Azura rush forward as Hinoka falls to her knees and wraps Corrin's sobbing form in her arms and cape, rubs her arms comfortingly. Azura hums soothingly and Sakura mumbles what Takumi recognizes as a charm to calm nerves, but although the sobs and curses subside the sheer pain in Corrin's tearful eyes is still as vivid, heavy and thrumming like a blight.

Takumi's stomach lurches violently as he watches the dark cape - it's inside out, you fool - flutter past the bridge and vanish behind a bend in the path leading to Nohr, and he wonders if it's contagious.


Elise is seething.

It's not an usual feeling, and she's very proud for that. The gods know she's seen enough rage contort her father's face and leave bruises on Xander, Camilla and Leo wherever it reached them, and it's only because Xander, Camilla and Leo always place themselves as shields between Father and her that no bruise ever bloomed on Elise's skin since the time she was introduced to court.

It's for them that she finds the strength to smile even in the direst situations, it's for them she pushes down the anger and squints hard to find a flicker of light, even in this dark and war-torn country she sometimes finds herself hating. Camilla always says, while combing and braiding Elise's hair with gentle and loving hands, that her cheerful optimism gives them strength and for this she should never give up on it, but in truth Elise knows the only reason she's allowed to be the happy-go-lucky little girl of the group is because her older siblings are always protecting her, always allowing the world's cruelty to taint them so that she can be spared.

There are times Elise resents being the childish one, resents not being able to protect her family the way they always protected her. Still, she smiles brightly nonetheless, even when tears burn at the corner of her eyes and her throat constricts with pain, since she knows it's the only way she has to repay her brothers and sisters for their efforts.

She loves her family, she truly does. Adores them, every single one, with every ounce of her being. She would do anything to ensure their safety, their happiness, to make sure they're finally at peace, after the many and too long miserable years if gloom and fear they had to bear, constantly trapped under the thumb of a manic man with too much power and a bloodstained axe.

She's ready to die to protect her family. She's also ready to kill, should push come to shove.

Therefore, as someone so dedicated to protect what she holds dear, she can understand what Xander is doing. To a certain extent, she could also say she respects the course of action he's decided to take.

That doesn't mean she likes it, though. In fact, she very much hates it.

“It is for the best” he said, but what is the point of it if she can make out Camilla's muffled sobs despite the wind and the flapping of Marzia's wide, leathery wings; what is the point when Leo's shoulders are slouched and hunched in guilt, pain and regret etched deep in the premature wrinkles lining his youthful face, and even Odin and Niles are uncharacteristically quiet and downtrodden as they march at their liege's side, because what even is there to say in the face of such sorrow.

What is the point of it all, Elise wonders, her heart squeezing in pain as she recalls Corrin's desperate pleas to stop, Corrin's tears as she screams their names like her life is depending on it, eyes wide with pain and betrayal when Xander doesn't as much as look at her as she crumples in shock and he gallops away.

Just what is the purpose of it, if Xander himself keeps glancing to the empty space at his right and his eyes hollow and his heart bleeds at the lack of a familiar silver glint, a beacon of light in a sea of dull blacks and purples.

Not for the first time - and she's sure it's not going to be her last - Elise finds herself wondering if they're cursed, all of them, damned to never know more than a fleeting taste of peace and warmth, just to make it all the more painful and bitter when it got ripped from their hands.

It's so unfair.

And Elise is done putting up with it.

It's with that resolution that she gently, but firmly, tugs on the reins of her mount to spur her on. Rose, as the perfectly obedient and groomed steed she is, wastes no time to oblige and shoots forward, stumbling lightly on the uneven mountain path and kicking out pebbles and gravel on her way. Behind her, Arthur and Effie call her name in warning, but Elise ignores them and leads her agile horse through the bulk of their troops - lost in thought as she was, she didn't realize she had fallen so behind, so far from her siblings - weaving nimbly through the ranks until she's filling Corrin's vacant spot at Xander's side. She pulls again on the reins as to match his pace, brisk and firm.

Xander's eyes narrow in suspicion, but he doesn't outwardly protest on her breach of protocol, as though he was expecting her to pull a stunt such as this and was resigned to it. Somehow, his silence manages to stoke the fire raging in her belly to even higher levels.

“Did you really need to be that mean?”

On Xander's left, Leo coughs pointedly. She pretends she doesn't hear and simply keeps glaring daggers at the side of Xander's face, silently demanding for him to acknowledge her and grace her with a reply. He doesn't, of course; he just keeps staring ahead, the dim lights painting deep shadows on his stony and sharp features, though no shade can possibly be as hollow and dark as the one veiling his eyes.

“Well?”

“Elise!” Leo abandons all subtlety at that point. He pinches the bridge of his nose and scrunches his eyes closed. No doubt he's dealing with a raging migraine right now, one of the many that have been plaguing his waking and sleeping hours alike for who knows how long. Elise can't remember the last time she's seen any if her siblings get a full night of restful sleep anymore. “We've agreed-”

“But there was no need to be so drastic!” Elise cuts him off, unable to completely keep her frustration from bleeding into her voice. She can still hear Corrin's sobs in the back of her mind, haunting her, spurring her to keep fighting. “After all she's done for us, after all she's been through because of us, she doesn't deserve to be treated the way you did!”

Leo opens his mouth to retort back, his own anger and exhaustion, both physical and mental, finally catching up to him, but before he can even get more than an angry hiss out Xander finally speaks, and his voice echoes and ripples like it's coming from far, far away, a place older than time, darker than death.

“You know perfectly well the reason behind my actions. We've already discussed this.”

His tone is final, and although Elise knows he has to be one of the most stubborn people who ever walked on this Earth, she also knows she can be just as boneheaded if she needs to. It must run in the family.

“So are you just fine with it? You're going to just shrug it off if Corrin never wishes to see any of us again? You just won't care if she ends up loathing you?”

Xander's jaw tightens and his mouth contorts in raw anger - or agony in its foulest form - and Elise knows she's touched a nerve, one that has been stinging for a while. But when he speaks, his tone is flat, cold. Deadly, and yet dead.

“Yes, precisely.”

The lie rolls off his tongue dismayingly nonchalant, as though he's just too used to having his heart and body so dichotomically disconnected, and pierces through Elise's resolve with far more ease than she's willing to admit. Pain and outrage wash over her and pull her under, and for a second she's tempted to strike him, squarely in the face, just to see if he'd strike her back, if he's still the loving brother she's always known or if Father has finally overtaken him, turned him into the mindless and cruel pawn he tried to make out of all his children.

Tears, fat and scalding, well at the corners of her eyes. It's a mistake, a fatal one, because Xander knows the battlefield like the back of his hand and better than his heart, and he knows all too well when he's dealt a blow that counts. He especially knows how to take advantage of it, and indeed he commands to pick up the pace as he darts forward, Laslow and Peri hot on his trails, and leaves her in the dust.

Leo shoots her an apologetic glance, or whatever comes anywhere near to an apology for Leo's standards, and follows suit their brother. Soon enough the rest of the group has engulfed her again, wrapping her into its protective shell, and her retainers flank her, their presence comforting but also stifling. Her head ducks down and her cheeks flush red in shame, because she has failed Corrin again, couldn't help her sister's case again. She wonders if Corrin felt so dejected when both Xander and High Prince Ryoma turned their back on her, on that day at the border. Her respect for her sister has just grown tenfold.

A gust of damp wind flurries past her, causing her pigtails to whip around and struggle against the ribbons keeping them together. She notices she's at the very back of the formation, a position she hates and that she's always forced to take whenever there are injured to treat.

“Elise.”

Elise lifts her head just enough to peer up at Camilla as the latter glides down in a blur of leather and purple. Her eyes are puffy and her cheeks red, but nevertheless she offers Elise a small, motherly smile Elise is only too happy to cling to.

“Hello, sister.” She sniffs as she fetches a handkerchief from her satchel and angrily wipes at her own wet cheeks. “What a fantastic day, isn't it? Really the best day for a family trip, all together.”

Camilla's smile wavers and her eyebrows pinch in guilt. “Elise, sweetheart, please understand our current situation.”

“I do!” She hisses angrily, shaking her head furiously. “I know what lies ahead, and I hate it, but I hate having to backstab Corrin this way even more! Why, Camilla? Why can't we be a proper family for once?”

Her voice comes out in a strangled hiss despite her best efforts. Camilla regards her for a moment, an enormous sadness souring her apparently sweet smile, and then heaves a sigh lighter than a breeze and heavier than the world.

“I know, darling. I too long for nothing more but to be able to turn tail and hold Corrin tight to my chest, threading my fingers in her beautiful silvery tresses…” Camilla's smile turns dreamy and her eyes unfocus for a fleeting moment. Elise never knows what to think of instances like these when Camilla falls prey to emotions that teeter on the border of obsession, as they both intrigue and scare her. Luckily, these bouts have grown steadily rarer with the most recent events, and in fact Camilla is quick to regather her composure. “But you are aware of the situation we're facing. Would you rather know Corrin safe and sound, surrounded by people who can openly love her and she loves back, or force her to take part in a wretched conflict she has no ties with?”

Camilla's tone never once loses its calm and soothing quality, if not a tad forlorn and melancholic, though Elise still feels a twinge of guilt in her stomach at the veiled reprimand.

“I...I know, but… I'm sure if we just talked to her-”

“She would have insisted to join us,” Camilla cuts in with the same confidence she shows when she strikes an enemy down with her axe. “No, I know it might seem cruel to you, but Xander is right. It's better this way, for everyone involved.”

Rich of her to say when the lines her tears left on her face are still visibly glistening, but Elise doesn't have the time to object, because all of a sudden Marzia lets out a truly frightening cry and Camilla jumps up, now fully alert.

“Stay here.” She orders as the wyvern rises in the air again in a couple of powerful flaps of her wings. “Don't get involved unless it's strictly necessary and keep close to your retainers. I'll warn Xander and Leo.”

“Wait, what-”

But Camilla isn't listening anymore; all her attention is focused on getting to Xander at the head of the party, adrenaline spiking up as thoughts twirl furiously, It's too soon, how did they know...

“Xander!” She yells as she finally reaches her brothers. “They're here!”

Leo hisses a curse he most definitely picked up from Niles and proceeds to readjust the troops as Xander unsheathes Siegfried once again, purple flames engulfing the entire length of the legendary blade.

“Show yourself!”

He doesn't have to wait long: in a matter of seconds wyverns pour out of every crevice in the rocks like vultures on a decaying prey as their riders let out belligerent bellows and brandish axes nearly as heavy as themselves. Camilla squints, tries to catch sight of a familiar face, a former comrade, within the enemy ranks, and is relieved when she recognizes no one among her opponents. Good, she can kill each and every single one of them without a shred of guilt.

The one puny, grey Malig Knight who seems to be leading the wyvern fleet smirks.

“Well, well, what do we have here. The long lost princes and princesses. I wonder how much will their head be worth?”

“Who sends you?” Xander demands, completely unfazed. Of course he is, Camilla reasons with an amused scoffs. After a whole life spent on the battlefield and after slaying a dragon itself, what could a couple of wyverns even hope to amount to?

The Malig Knight doesn't seem to appreciate the Crown Prince's steely nerves. His smirk drops and his beady, dark eyes flash angrily behind his corrective lenses.

“Oh? Are the rumors true, perhaps? Do the children of Garon really not know of the new, fair kingdom of Nohr?”

A weight settles at the pit of Camilla's stomach. She's suddenly dreading to hear what she fears she will.

“Quit your meaningless rhetoric,” Xander snaps, and Camilla knows he's just as tense as she is. “Who do you serve?”

There's a beat of silence. Then the Knight sneers.

“The great king of Nohr, King Iago.”

Chapter Text

Hinoka is no stranger to exhaustion by any means. Ever since her father died by the coward arrows of Nohr and her beloved little sister was kidnapped, sore muscles and burning bruises have been Hinoka's most intimate friends, inseparable partners that woke her up at dawn and kissed her goodnight at dusk. Never she complained about the pain in her limbs, nor about the spoiled nobles who soon took to call her a graceless tomboy unfit to be called princess, for getting her sister back and exacting Hoshido's revenge for King Sumeragi's brutal murder was worth every cutting remark and blister on her hands.

They call her Warrior Princess, and she's - rightfully - proud of it, nor will she pretend otherwise. Unlike the filthy Nohrians, who take pride in their ability to commit unjustified atrocities and act like they are not to blame for anything, she'd never stoop as low as to conceal her nature and thoughts. Royal blood and status be damned, Hinoka swore, the day she officially took up arms and first wielded a naginata, to be as clear as the pegasus feathery wings and concise as the blade she holds. A warrior first, and a princess second.

And perhaps it's this very same vow of blunt honesty the cause of her newly found tiredness that has nothing to do with the gruesome march along the tricky path riding down the mountain, made it even more cumbersome by the increasing rain that pelts the already slippery rock, and all with the void stare on Corrin's face and of the banned - now former - Nohrians that comprise her entourage.

As of now, as the they set camp for the night, Corrin has long stopped crying. In fact, she hasn't said a word since the Nohrian royals disappeared from her sight and life. She wanders through camp, working twice as much as a common soldier to make sure everything is in the right place, takes over the most humble of tasks barely fit for the lowest servant and, whenever thanked, barely responds with a crooked smile that looks like a grimace of unfathomable pain.

More than once Azura, Sakura and Corrin's own retainers tried to approach her, to get her to her tent for some well deserved rest. Each and every single attempt was shot down without a word.

Now, all Hinoka can do is stand outside Corrin's tent and listen to her soft cries and whimpers, her stomach churning in outrage and guilt as her little sister tosses and turns in her bedroll, unable to join the damned progeny of Garon even in her dreams.

Once again, Hinoka is left powerless, too weak - too inadequate - to rescue her little sister from a fate that could be worse than death.

Once again, despite the many vows she's taken since that fateful day king Sumeragi left to never come back ever again, despite her boastful attitude and unparalleled skill with the naginata, Hinoka still can do nothing but watch as her sister is stolen from her again.

Her fists clench at her sides. Her fingernails - chipped, short, like a warrior's - dig into the meat of her palm, punch crimson crescents against the calloused flesh.

Curse them. Curse them all.

Curse them for taking and corrupting everything they touched. Curse them for dragging even Ryoma and Hinoka herself into this poisonous game of lies and betrayal they are masters of, all in the name of 'what is best for Corrin’, of course.

Every Nohrian is the same, at the end of the line. Although the motivation might vary, deep down the modus operandi ingrained into them is unchanged: to hurt, to kill and to lie.

The apple never falls far from the tree, after all, and children born out of scum will always be scum. How could they ever turn out any differently, when it's the only way to live they know?

Wrong line of thought, Hinoka chastises herself. Of all things she wants to feel towards the Nohrians that have haunted her existence for so long, pity is definitely the last on the list.

A soft rustling noise startles her out of her reverie. She whirls around, hand flying to the knife she keeps strapped to her thigh, only to be faced with Felicia's gaunt face and downtrodden eyes, usually so bright and cheerful and now puffy and red rimmed.

“I-I'm sorry, Your Highness,” Felicia stutters weakly and bends into a back-breaking bow so low her rosè ponytail flips over her shoulder and brushes against the dirty rock beneath their feet. “I did not mean to startle or intrude. Please forgive me.”

The strain on the respectful title and the plea for forgiveness betray how truly miserable she is. Hinoka wonders absently whether the young maid is used to grovel in such a humiliating way, even when she did nothing wrong.

From what Hinoka knows of Garon and his cohorts, it is very likely the case. She has no trouble picturing him as he orders a maid or butler who just happened to be there be executed.

That was the man who didn't blink an eye when his own children were slaughtered, to think he would care for a servant is just too unrealistic.

Hinoka lets go of the knife's silvery handle and drops her hand with a short, weary sigh.

“You can relax, Felicia, it's alright. If anything, I was the one at fault, suspiciously standing out of Corrin's tent like some sort of creep. As her trusted maid and retainer, you have every right to come confronting whoever might be threatening your liege, regardless of their social status.”

Slowly, as though she can't quite believe her ears, Felicia cranes her neck up - Hinoka nearly cringes in pain at the mere sight of that hellish posture - and peers up at Hinoka through her short fringe. The young maid blinks owlishly, as though utterly confused by the fact she is allowed some basic respect no human being should ever be denied.

May Garon rot in hell for the rest of eternity. Possessed or not, Hinoka doesn't give a damn.

Hinoka takes a moment to inwardly laugh at the irony of the situation - is she really comforting a Nohrian? Oh, how the mighty fall - and then forces the corners of her lips to stretch into a smile. She can only hope it doesn't look as fake as it feels.

She doesn't need to worry, apparently: Felicia beams in relief and straightens up, hands folded elegantly over her stomach. She curtsies quickly in sign of respect and gratitude.

“Thank you, Princess Hinoka, it's truly appreciated. Back in Nohr, the royal family's orders were absolute, and death was the punishment for those who were foolishly enough to cause discomfort of the king and his children.”

Figures. It takes Hinoka all self control she has to refrain from rolling her eyes in exasperation. “Sounds like a real hassle to me. Though Hoshidian law is indeed strict towards who disobeys the king or queen's commands directly, we still try to keep the capital punishment to the bare minimum. Keeping guard to your liege's tent is hardly motive to warrant a punishment at all to begin with. We treasure the citizens the gods have left in our care, and the servants will forever receive the respect their due for their services, here in Hoshido. That's the way our beloved Mother and Queen, Mikoto, has raised us and we will live by her teachings from this point on forward.”

Her voice grows stronger towards the end of her speech; perhaps too much, because they hear a rustling noise and a soft sigh waft out of Corrin's tent and for a moment both women fear they awoke the finally sleeping princess. However, only silence fills the following moments as they listen with bated breath for noises betraying Corrin's rising, and soon enough they can heave in a relieved sigh. Felicia nods slowly and curtsies again.

“I understand. Thank you, Princess Hinoka.”

“Was the royal family ever unkind to you without reason?” Hinoka finds herself blurting out before she can think twice about it, and she inwardly curses herself at length, because she really doesn't want to know if Prince Xander and Princess Camilla were as much of a monster while around Corrin as they were in the battlefield. She feels like she already knows the answer, deep down, and she doesn't like it one bit.

So she silently prays Felicia will dispel her fears, that she will confirm that yes, they are absolutely brutish murderers and barbaric fiends, with no ability to feel a shred of love or sympathy in the slightest.

She prays desperately, but the Dawn Dragon does not listen to her cries, as always; Felicia claps her hands and tilts her head to the side as a small smile pushes up her plump lips. “You mean the Crown Prince and his siblings? Oh no, they always treated us maids and servants with kindness and respect, even helping us out from time to time, especially whenever they visited lady Corrin at the Northern Fortress. They are really nothing like their father, as long as he's not present to bear his judgment on them. Whenever King Garon was present, they had to keep a cruel facade up to keep him pleased.” Felicia's fond grin fades away, replaced instead by a sad grimace. “Much like what happened today at the Bottomless Canyon, I suppose. I don't think I have ever seen Lord Xander act so coldly towards someone without a more than fair reason, especially someone he holds so dear like Lady Corrin… how strange…”

Felicia trails off, looking thoroughly dejected, and ducks her head down. Hinoka is all too aware of the sudden awkwardness of the situation and crosses her arms in a badly masked attempt to appear casual and confident, all the while shifting her weight from her left to her right foot and the other way around and glaring down to the ground as though the blackened rock had offended her on a personal level.

“I…” Felicia stammers out all of a sudden, “I wanted to thank you personally for what you did today.”

Hinoka's heart leaps up in her throat and panic thrums through her veins.

Please, don't.

“I hardly did anything deserving of praise.”

Felicia shakes her head gently. “With your permission, Your Highness, I disagree. I know for a fact your actions today meant more than words will ever be able to express to Lady Corrin. In the moment she most needed it, you protected her and showed her what being family is.” Felicia sniffles and excuses herself to wipe at the corner of her eye; Hinoka finally remembers Felicia has a twin sister as well, and that she too will never be able to see her family again as long as the exile on Corrin's head holds. Hinoka wonders whether they at least had time to bid goodbye, or if Prince Xander simply cleaved the bond connecting them in two like he did with his alleged affection for Corrin.

“So, thank you, Princess Hinoka, from the bottom of my heart, for giving us all a home to belong to.” The young maid chokes out weakly. “I will be honored to be serving under your family from now on.”

Bile rises and a lump lodges itself at the base of her throat at the declaration of respect and loyalty that she doesn't deserve, and all of a sudden she can't stand to hold the teary and hopeful gaze of the humble maid. She looks away and takes a step back.

“Glad to hear it,” she grinds out through clenched teeth. “Now, since Corrin is asleep I would better… go, yes. We're setting back on march as soon as dawn breaks.”

“Of course,” Felicia doesn't seem to catch on her turmoil or on her blatantly rude dismissal. Hinoka doesn't even want to know the level of sheer disrespect this girl has grown so nonchalantly accustomed to. “I wish you good night and plenty of rest.”

“Thank you… huh, you too…”

She turns away and pretends like she's not fleeing from the hopeful smile and bowed back of the maid, from an awe she's always longed to see in her lost sister and that she doesn't deserve.

Her legs meander through the all too quiet camp, boots booming like thunder in the dreadfully silent night. The few soldiers up for patrol duty salute and bow to her and Hinoka wishes she could return the courtesy, but her jaws are glued together and the fire scorches her throat. She merely nods, stiff and stern, and presses on, allowing her body to carry her to the tent of the one she truly wishes to speak to.

To the untrained eye, Ryoma's tent, the biggest and most elegant on camp, might appear sorely unguarded; Hinoka knows better than to think so, her suspicions confirmed when she feels a familiar itch at the nape of her neck, where Saizo and Kagero are boring holes into her from their hiding spot. She slows down and raises her hands, splays her open palms and fingers open in sign of surrender. Then she takes her knife and places it carefully on the rock at the entrance of the tent, a sign of peace. It doesn't matter whether you're family or not, under no circumstance will a threat be allowed to pass and befall upon the new King of Hoshido.

Hinoka straightens up, deliberately slow, and strains her ear, waits with bated breath the hissing sound of a pointed shuriken flying at her head. Nothing happens.

Hinoka clears her throat, eyeing the strip of candlelight flickering through the flap of the tent. She's apparently not the only one who has trouble sleeping.

The taste of deceit and guilt is too suffocating. A little, serpentine voice unhelpfully supplies inside her head. She thinks it might sound like Princess Camilla.

“Brother,” she calls, wincing at how loud her voice is in the deadly silence of the night. “May I speak with you?”

A beat of utter silence. Then the flap is pulled and Ryoma's drawn face floats in the newly made entryway. He blinks blearily, sleep heavy on his eyelids.

“Of course, Hinoka. Come in.” He says, genuinely warm and welcoming, the faintest trace of a smile dancing on his lips. A twinge of pain stabs Hinoka through the chest as she basks in her blessed luck that gave her such a caring brother who had to reinvent himself as father when he was barely in his teens. She nods stiffly again, does not smile back.

“Thank you.”

He keeps the flap open for her to come through and only drops it when she comes to a halt in the middle of the wide circular space between his desk, where a tiny mountain of neatly stacked papers peaks proudly in the light of the candle flame, and his bedroll. The ceremonial suit armor and Raijinto lie in restful wait a short distance from the bedroll in the corner. She can hardly remember a time he didn't carry them on his person at any time of the day and night.

She hovers, the words she wants to say lodging themselves at the base of her tongue. Her hands fold and wring together, her short nails digging and drawing scarlet stripes over the back of her fingers.

A much larger palm wraps around her own, stilling their feverish scraping and scratching. It's warm.

“Are you alright?”

A rhetorical question. Hinoka looks up at her brother, takes in the tired lines around his eyes and pinched eyebrows. His wild mane of hair falls limply from the string of fabric he's tied it into, a few strands jutting out awkwardly in random directions. She shrugs.

“I don't know.”

Ryoma's brow furrows further, sadness and suffering etched deep in every premature wrinkle.

“How is she?”

She flinches. “About as well as you'd expect.” She snaps, far harsher than she actively wishes to be. “She hasn't said a word the whole day, and last I heard from her she was crying in her sleep and calling for that damned Crown Prince like her life depended on him.”

She spits the Nohrian title like a curse, like a poisonous insult. Ryoma's gentle eyes narrow ever so slightly and his grasp on her hands tightens, but he doesn't reprimand her.

She tugs herself free. He releases her with no qualms.

“Hinoka…”

She turns away from him, but she knows it's useless, he's going to see her tears in her hunched shoulders, into her faltering breaths.

“This is not right.” She breathes. “This is… not the way it was supposed to be. Nohr was supposed to fall and burn to the ground, Garon and his accursed offspring with it. Corrin was supposed to stay and fight alongside us, to sing hoshidan songs of victory on Garon's cold corpse!!”

She nearly shouts. She's rather positive the whole camp can hear her, but she can't care less. Again, Ryoma doesn't stop her. He merely regards her with a solemn sadness that shouldn't belong to such a young man. He looks centuries old and so, so tired.

“I can't do this, Ryoma. The idea of lying to Corrin's face for the rest of her life, to treat her like a prized trophy to trade and keep stowed away… I can't bear it. My hoshidan pride prevents me from stooping so low.”

She hears Ryoma heave in a deep breath. It's almost like time has reversed, and they're suddenly kids again, a young Ryoma berating his foolish little sister as she injured herself for the umpteenth time trying to fly a still untrained pegasus to Nohr.

“Sometimes, even the wisest kings and queens of Hoshido had to lie to keep peace within the country. Secrecy comes with the throne. It's a weight on the soul and a terrible burden on the heart, especially when it is meant to keep dear friends and family in the dark. But in the end, the award is worth the price of such sorrow.”

Hinoka glares at the ground again, fists clenched tightly at her sides.

“Isn't Corrin worth enough for you?”

She is, obviously. Hinoka would literally walk through burning charcoals for her sake, for any of her family's members.

“I came across Felicia.” Hinoka whispers weakly. Unseen by her, grim understanding dawns on Ryoma. “She… she told me she's so grateful, that I showed what family means in the face of Nohr's sudden cruelty, that she's glad she's serving Hoshido now…”

Her breath runs shallow and she has to stop to regather her composure. Ryoma does not pressure her.

“I lied to her, and she was grateful for it! Looked at me like I saved her from the goodness of my heart and it wasn't, it wasn't me, it was that bloody Crown Prince and I… I just… can't.”

Ryoma feels a deep, dull pain stab him through the heart as his beloved sister's strong facade, the mask she's been wearing since she decided to dedicate her life to the spear, finally cracks, and reveals the frail, weary young woman within.

Slowly, making it a point to make enough noise so that she knows he's coming closer and can decide whether to accept him or not - in this sense, she's strikingly similar to the pegasi she's so fond of - he approaches. She stays still, which he takes as his silent cue to wrap a hand around her trim waist and gently pull her to his chest, delicately spinning her so that she can sink her face into his embroidered yukata like she always used to do when she was younger.

Indeed, she does not disappoint him and does just that. He feels the cold tears filter through the thin fabric.

“I hate him,” Hinoka's voice comes out muffled, but the seething loathing is still clear as the crystalline waters of Hoshido's finest hot springs. “He keeps stealing everything from me, only to willingly give it back mangled and corrupted. He should be rotting in hell with his worthy father.”

Her hand curls and fists over Ryoma's yukata. He holds her tighter to himself, resting his chin over the crown of her head.

“I know what you're feeling, dear sister.” He says into her short, crimson hair, all the while rubbing his right hand up and down her back, slow and steady, in an attempt to soothe her. “I will not deny I used to feel much like you are, at first. Perhaps, even more intensely.”

Hinoka scoffs in disbelief, and he chuckles. “I’ve slayed more Nohrians than I can count. Is that so hard to believe?”

“I don't think anyone can match my hatred for Nohrian scum. Maybe only Takumi,” she adds as an afterthought.

Ryoma hums noncommittally, choosing neither to refute or to acknowledge her playful jab. He still vividly remembers the withering look their little brother had thrown at Ryoma and Hinoka as the latter played her part in the farce so flawlessly.

He knows, Ryoma realizes. It wouldn't be much of a problem - in fact, it would be source of pride, for he has always known Takumi is so much more clever and perceptive than the youngest prince ever gave himself credit for - if only he hadn't caught on the fleeting longing in Takumi's eyes as his gaze lingered a second too long on the figure of Prince Leo.

Dangerous, to say the least. A fatal mistake that could bring both Hoshido and Nohr on the verge of a disaster.

“Still,” he decidedly presses on, ignoring the feeling of dread coiling around his throat. “I’ve seen their worth. We all did. And finding an agreement now, a common ground, will allow our people to thrive and bask in the peace we've always desired.”

A memory floats at the forefront of his mind, a memory of a man with death in his eyes and no hope left. He holds Hinoka just a little tighter.

“For the sake of our sister, of both our countries, we must hold strong and bear this burden.”

Hinoka shudders in his hold and her grip on his yukata grows firmer. She looks up, her hazel eyes peeking out from her fiery bangs like the newborn sun at dawn. She nods.

“For Corrin and Hoshido.”


”May I have a word, High Prince Ryoma?”

It takes a special kind of man, Ryoma thinks, to march all the way up to the tent of a former enemy in the middle of the night, alone and - Ryoma's eyes shoot to where the cumbersome scabbard of the legendary sword uses to sit at the hip of Nohr's Crown Prince - apparently unarmed. A fool.

Or a desperate man, who has nothing to lose and all to gain.

His hands are raised in surrender, the obsidian black armor glinting maliciously into the soft glow of fires keeping the joined camp warm and alight. Kagero and Saizo are restraining his arms and pressing their shurikens against the deadly pale skin of his neck, a flick of the wrist away from tearing through.

And yet, despite the blatant threat to his safety, Crown Prince Xander of Nohr barely reacts. He doesn't acknowledge Ryoma's retainers in the least nor does he oppose resistance. His sunken gaze is fixed firmly on Ryoma, and between the pallor of his complexion and the shadows rimming his eyes Ryoma is tempted to think Prince Xander had already passed away and brought back as an undead puppet of Anankos, much like his father.

Only the smoldering embers in his fiery stare, so different from the glassy and unfocused ones of Anankos's invaders, are proof that the man is still very much alive.

Ryoma fully emerges from his tent. Raijinto feels heavy at his waist. He nods.

“Saizo, Kagero, let him go.”

“My Lord-!!”

It takes Ryoma a raised hand to silence his faithful retainers and bring them to an albeit reluctant obedience. The Nohrian is released and the shuriken pulled away, but Prince Xander keeps his arms up in surrender.

“I merely wish to talk,” the man says gravely, “I most certainly do not desire to undermine the feeble alliance binding our countries.”

“Yet, although you openly admit the fragility and unsteadiness of the newborn peace, you demand to be allowed to speak with our soon-to-be king face to face.” Saizo snarls darkly, both his eyes, seeing and unseeing, drilling holes into the face of the man who, not much long ago, was considered the second most dangerous of their enemies, only beaten by Garon himself. “Very rich of you. I don't believe we're quite there in terms of how trustworthy you and your people can be deemed to grant you such a request.”

“You have every right to hold doubts and reserves towards your former enemy, and for such caution I don't blame you. Quite the contrary, I plaud your remarkable zeal. However, I came here unarmed and unaccompanied. It surely would not be the case if the thought of challenging you to a fight was to cross my mind.”

“It could be a trap…” Kagero says, though the faintest flicker of doubt crosses and slackens her features, and the hand holding the shuriken lowers slightly.

“Enough.” Ryoma steps forward towards his Nohrian equivalent. Kagero starts and Saizo reels. Ryoma pays both no mind and addresses directly the opposing prince. “I accept your request. Saizo, Kagero, leave us.”

Both ninjas are clearly about to explode out of sheer indignance and outrage.

“Wait, Prince Ryoma. As long as they stay out of earshot and don't listen, I will accept their presence, if it’s of any help to ease their rightful concerns for their king's safety.”

For an endless moment, the three Hoshidans stare disbelievingly at the Nohrian, wondering if he has truly lost his mind.

Truly a desperate man, Ryoma sentences.

“It's settled then. Kagero, Saizo, please retreat.”

Both ninja nod and in the blink of an eye - though Saizo still manages to throw a last contemptuous glare at the man in black armor - they vanish into thin air, leaving the two heirs to their respective kingdom alone.

“Well, Crown Prince Xander, what do I owe the pleasure?” Ryoma presses. There's no space for pleasantries and formal protocol in their current situation.

Luckily, Prince Xander seems to be thinking along similar lines. His already grim expression darkens further, the ghost of the monster he used to be on the battlefield.

“I'm sure you can easily deduce it.”

A challenge, half hearted and hollow, but a challenge nonetheless. Ryoma's eyes narrow and his hand itches to grab hold of Raijinto. He steps closer, staring defiantly at the taller man.

“Corrin.”

Prince Xander nods solemnly. “Precisely.”

Ryoma's mouth curls downwards in displeasure. “If you're implying I'm willing to trade her to Nohr like a slave-”

“It is my understanding,” the infuriatingly puzzling man cuts him off, and had the situation been any different Ryoma would have never hesitated to run him through with Raijinto. Still, no matter how much disrespect he may be shown, Ryoma has been raised to never attack who does not have a weapon to defend themselves. “That Corrin wishes to go back to Nohr, once we've made it back to our world.”

Ryoma has heard that as well. A bitter pill to swallow indeed. “The decision is hers and only hers to take. But if that is the case, I don't see why you've so foolishly sought me out. Isn't Corrin's wish, ill advised as I may personally think it is, playing in your favor?”

His rebuttal is swift and stoic, and so is his posture, with his back straight and arms crossed. Corrin's choice might hurt like a blade dragged against bare skin, but he'll be damned if he lets it show.

He expects Prince Xander to flaunt Corrin's choice - Nohr's victory, no doubt - in his face like Garon did with Sumeragi's corpse, to show he's every ounce the cold hearted demon his father was.

He definitely is not expecting Prince Xander's expression to twist in the most agonizing pain Ryoma has ever seen depicted on a man's face. He does not expect the other prince's shoulders to sag downwards, his back to hunch, crushed under a weight he cannot carry alone.

“Quite the contrary, Prince Ryoma. In fact, you find me in complete agreement with you, though I suspect the reasons behind our shared conclusion might differ. Regardless, the core of the matter remains: Corrin must not come back to Nohr.”

That piques Ryoma's interest. “What? Why?”

Prince Xander folds his hands behind his back and slowly starts pacing away from the tent, head hanging low a pained grimace stiffening his jaw. He looks like a man who is being dragged to his death sentence.

After the briefest hesitation, Ryoma follows, easily matching his pace to the other man's. The Vallite breeze laughs in their faces.

“In our current situation, I cannot be one hundred percent certain. But if Azura's account is to be believed, more than a year has passed in our world since the time we've travelled to Valla. An year since the disappearance of the entire royal family of Nohr.”

Prince Xander throws him a pointed look that Ryoma returns in full as the gears in his brain speed up, easily coming to the same conclusion the Nohrian prince has.

“You fear an usurper has taken the vacant throne once Garon vanished.”

“The men and women my father has surrounded him with in the later half of his reign…” Prince Xander drawls out the word 'father’ through clenched teeth as though it is painful to even say out loud. “They’re among the most corrupt and morally abject people I've ever had the misfortune to know. Greed and thirst for power or blood - more often than not, both - are their only drives, and the more they got from Garon, the more they craved. They're the ones who had all to gain from my father's tyrannical command. Leeches and vultures building their fortune over the suffering of the people of Nohr.”

Ryoma says nothing, disgusted by the mere thought. Such lowlives would never be tolerated in the poorest areas of Hoshido, much less in the royal court.

The thought of Corrin coming back to such a dreadful homecoming party thoroughly sickens him.

“What do you plan to do about it? Why are you telling me, who will soon take the throne in Hoshido, about the inner turmoils of Nohr?”

Unless he wants to ask for military support to his cause. Hoshido would likely be able to afford it, in terms of resources and number of soldiers to stantiate. Whether or not such soldiers would be willing to abandon their families and help what was once their opponent is another matter as a whole.

“I do not wish to ask a single man of Hoshido,” Prince Xander speaks as though he can read Ryoma's mind with disarming ease. “The conflict that will soon tear Nohr apart is Nohr's problem and Nohr's alone. I would prove to be a truly poor leader to my people, if I were to ask my former enemy to support my cause, wouldn't I?”

Despite himself, an amused smirks fights his way through the shock and curls Ryoma's lips upwards.

“Afraid to let Hoshido into Nohr's inner politics, I see.”

“We may be allies and at peace with each other, and I fully intend to keep true to that vow.” The Nohrian prince replies with a voice of steel. “But the throne of Nohr will be exclusively Nohr's property as long as I, or any of my siblings, draw breath.”

Ryoma nods again, and with that the short lived tension is promptly diffused. They walk aimlessly, wandering slowly away from camp, but not as far as to lose sight of it, nestled in the shadow of a tall hill. Ryoma's stride is confident and fearless despite the distance, reassured by the hidden eyes of his retainers in the darkness and by the comforting weight of Raijinto at his hip.

Way more disconcerting is that the Nohrian, alone and with no weapon in sight to fend for himself, appears just as brazen and void of any concern for his life.

“If the royal family of Nohr does not wish to request for military or financial support for your upcoming civil war,” Ryoma finally speaks up again after several minutes of pure silence. “Then what is it you're proposing to me?”

Prince Xander comes to an abrupt halt. His face is once again contorted in unimaginable pain, and he hesitates, struggling ferociously with an invisible enemy to get the words out.

“To keep Corrin safe within Hoshido's borders.”

Ryoma had already figured it out, but that doesn't mean he's any less in shock. Only his strict upbringing and firm discipline prevents him from gaping openly at the Nohrian man. The wind blows harder.

“This war will be a turning point for Nohr, one that could make it either rise anew from its ashes or collapse in shambles forever. Though we, on our part, will do all of what is humanly possible to keep the number of lives lost to the bare minimum, there is no guarantee we will be successful in the task.” The Nohrian prince raises a hand to pinch at the bridge of his nose. His hand shakes within the clawed gauntlet. “Corrin is not of Nohr by birth, nor she rejoys in the woes of war. I will not allow her to be dragged in a battle she has no part in.”

“She will never agree to that. It's not in her nature to deny her assistance to whomever needs it. You should know this better than most.”

“I'm aware,” Prince Xander chokes out. “And that's where you will come into play.”

Ryoma does not appreciate how the man seems to be taking for granted his support. He scowls.

“You seem to be awfully sure I will take up your offer.”

It's a bluff, obviously. He spent the better part of his life training to gather the strength he would need to steal his beloved little sister back from the monsters who took her away so cowardly, and even the most recent twists and turns have proved to be no match to his desire to bring her home with him and the rest of their family, to bask in the warmth of the Hoshidan sun as they pray to Mikoto's soul, finally reunited at last.

Garon's eldest lets out a mirthless laugh. “You will, Prince Ryoma. You are an older brother, much like I am. Forgive my brazenness, but I know for experience there is nothing an older brother wouldn't do to keep his family safe. I'm willingly giving up every claim I might stake on her, for virtually nothing to gain out of it. I would dare to say it's a rather advantageous deal for you and your family, isn't it?”

Ryoma, although raised in a rather sane court the way he was - compared to what he has heard of Nohr's, Hoshido's royal court feels like heaven itself - can easily see and acknowledge the excellent manipulative skills of the Nohrian Crown Prince. He wonders idly whether it was the need to escape Garon's control that taught the man so flawlessly well.

“And what would you have me to do, assuming I agree to your plan?”

“Convince her,” the reply is immediate, short and clipped. “Do everything you can think of to keep her well away from Nohr.”

“If she has already taken her decision, there is very little I will be able to do to sway her. She might very well be the most stubborn woman I've ever laid eyes on.”

For the first time since this conversation began, a genuine smile curls the Nohrian's lips upwards and softens his angular features. The fondness in his eyes in unmistakable, and so is the deep sadness veiling them.

“I know.”

Fondness. Or perhaps something else entirely. Just the thought, blurry and shapeless, is enough to make Ryoma's blood curdle. His hand finds Raijinto on its own accord and his fingers clutch desperately at the hilt of the blade. The legendary sword thrums soothingly with crackling, electric power.

Prince Xander's eyes find his and hold his gaze head on, unperturbed. Whether he cares or not that Ryoma is an inch away from unleashing the full power of Raijinto on him escapes Ryoma's understanding.

“That's why, should it come to the worst case scenario and your efforts prove fruitless, I will drive her away personally. Her steely determination is as strong as the grounds of faith and trust it's built on. Its weak points are few and well hidden, but fatal once struck.”

The weathered soldier that has single-handedly cut down hundreds of Hoshido's finest men finally peeks from the cracks in the mask, the Nohrian General that struck fear into Ryoma's most faithful soldiers and lieutenants with his name alone, forebringer of death and doom. Only this time the battlefield is much more valuable than any mere patch of border land.

“You're going to inflict her a wound she'll never heal from.” Ryoma snarls, fear for his sister's well being, both physical and psychological, threatening to submerge him. “She'll never recover from the pain and shock.”

“You're making your sister a grievous disservice,” the damned puppeteer Prince says with faux aloofness that doesn't match the unbridled agony wafting from his clenched and trembling fists. “Surrounded by the warm and unconditional love of your family, her days bright and clear, she will undoubtedly make a speedy recovery and forget Nohr's woes in little time.”

Ryoma is sorely tempted to strike the daft, completely mad prince, diplomacy and peace treaty be damned. To hear the man talk so casually of his dear sister, as though she is just another puppet in his hand, is nothing short of maddening. Raijinto's power surges up in response to his heart's desire to attack and sparks surround the blade. The prince arches an eyebrow, not amused.

“It will kill her, in heart and spirit.” Ryoma spits venomously, fuming with rage.

“Then I trust you and your family will support through the worst of it and quicken her recovery.”

“Even if she were to survive the shock, she might be cursing your name and Nohr to hell.” Ryoma’s voice teeters on the edge of a belligerent yell.

“Then so be it,” on the other hand, the Nohrian's hiss is barely audible over the playful breeze that seems to constantly sweep across Valla's bountiful and empty fields, but the sheer force behind the words is such that even in his incensed state Ryoma is forced to take a step back. “I will gladly take the hit and have her spit my name like a prophanity, basking in Hoshido's sun but alive, rather than wrapped in our family's colors and buried in Nohr's sterile soil.”

The two men glare savagely at each other, chins lifted defiantly and shoulders squared, a silent war of wills with no other sword but their own being taking place, every invisible blow parried and swiftly countered.

In the end, bitter as it is to accept, Ryoma is the first who relents. His right hand finally lets go of Raijinto and drops limply to his side.

“If that is the length you are willing to go to ensure her safety, than you shall have our support. We all will play our part. However, I must ask whether you've really thought it through. She may not want to come back to Nohr anymore, even less to see you.”

“It's a risk I must take. And as for the rest,” a very grim smile flashes through, underlining how exhausted the man truly is, all drawn lines and gaunt cheeks and dark shadows around his eyes. “If all goes according to plan, she may never have to concern herself with my presence again.”

And that's the moment it hits, the instant realization bits its hooked fangs into the flesh of Ryoma's consciousness and injects its venom, slow, but fatal. This time he does gape at the man in dark armor, for the enormity of what this mad man is planning to do is astounding.

“You-”

But the man interrupts him. “My father left a bothersome heritage. By returning Corrin, daughter of Mikoto, to Hoshido, two of the greatest debts he - and by proxy, I - had contracted will be resolved. The third is towards the people of Nohr, and as Garon's eldest son and heir it is not one I will back out of. You will not need to worry about the peace between Nohr and Hoshido; it's already been arranged that, whatever happens from this day on, the alliance our countries have established will never be violated again. I vouch for all of my siblings on the matter.”

“You're out of your mind.” Ryoma mutters in amazement and, to be entirely frank, fear, for a man who can treat everything and everyone, even himself - especially himself - with such amounts of cold detachment can only be either a fool or a genius. Prince Xander smirks darkly, amused despite everything.

“Perhaps. But now I must bid you farewell, Prince Ryoma. It won't be long till the sun rises and we'll be forced to set out once again. And remember, not a word to Corrin.”

“Of course.”

Prince Xander nods, clearly relieved; then turns his back on Ryoma - dangerous move - and stalks away, the dark metal of his armor melting into the thick curtain of the Vallite night until only the faint glow of his pale curls and the purple cape at his back is discernible anymore. Ryoma vaguely wonders if that is a premonition for what is to come.

He stays, watches the other prince as he vanishes into the darkness, dissolves in it as though he always belonged in it. The moon flickers from time to time, peeking out of the royal blue clouds to soak Ryoma in its pale, comforting light. A prayer escapes his lips before he can hold himself back.

“May the gods save us all.”

Chapter Text

The battle is dismayingly short and one sided, to the point Leo is unsure whether it's worth to be called a battle at all.

Despite the numbers and the harsh field playing in their favor, the wyvern riders are easily outmaneuvered and shot down by Niles's pinpoint shots and the combined efforts of Leo, Odin and Nyx. Camilla and Beruka fly back and forth, their axes swinging an flashing ominously as they provide aerial support to whomever needs it and effortlessly slaughter who is fool enough to stand in their way.

A truly poor spectacle. Although it ultimately turned out advantageous for them, Leo can't possibly deny the pitiful show of strength and strategic skill put up by the opposing Nohrian troops - the enemy troops, he forces himself to think, not without a light grimace - is nothing short of disappointing.

I've always known Iago was only good at some hocus pocus and grovelling, but this is too shameful even for his standards.

So he inwardly muses as Brynhildr's power flashes and her spindly and thick roots sprout from the withered ground; in a dark flash they rise and spread around the closest enemy, the branches entrapping the rider in a deadly embrace and piercing the wyvern's wings as though they're made of old, dry parchment instead of thick leather and scales as hard as stone. Both rider and wyvern wail in pain as they crash to the ground in a heap of limbs and metal plating. The sound of bone snapping and flesh tearing is sickening.

“Please…” the man - boy, he can't be older than sixteen - whimpers as he struggles weakly against the branches pinning him to the ground and Leo approaches, free hand already poised above his head, magic power collecting into his open palm, waiting to unleash its force and strike the blow that will snuff the enemy's life. His bulging hazelnut eyes are full of tears on his youthful, flushed face. He looks like he's seen Death itself. He's not too far off the mark. “Please, mercy…”

He has a Southern accent, from the rural areas south to Windmire. One of the very few and small patches of fertile land Nohr has to offer. This boy must have been forcibly recruited from the farms against his will, torn from his home and family, provided with a basic training as wyvern rider and thrust on the battlefield to die fighting for someone else.

The hand clutching Brynhildr tightens, the legendary tome glows with energy, begs to be released and tear into the flesh of the man responsible for this unsightly mess.

Their eyes meet again, and Leo's outstretched hand whips down. Xander's briefing of days past, days that feel like a lifetime ago, echoes in the forefront of his mind.

The roots, rueful but obedient, slacken and slither away, retreat like dark snakes into the dead ground they were born out of. The boy gasps in surprise, the wyvern lets out a gleeful sound and props itself to its lower limbs.

“What-”

“Run,” Leo cuts the boy off harshly. His heart may have faltered and given into these accursed feelings he had been made to vow to stomp out of his soul, but that doesn't mean he's willing to cuddle the boy and explain. If he knows what's best for him he will jump up his mount and make a run for it. “Before I change my mind. You're no soldier; killing you would bring no honor nor glory. Flee away from here, from Nohr, and never turn back.”

He yanks on the reins and sharply turns away from the fallen boy without a second glance, spurs his steed back towards where the battle still rages at its peak. But he's not quick enough to avoid hearing the boy's voice once more.

“Thank you, Your Majesty! May you be blessed!!”

It's not the first time he's been addressed this way, of course. It is customary to openly heap praise and bless members of the royal family at their passage, but this time it's so heartfelt, so genuine, without lingering bile or inintelligible curses hissed with poison on the tongue, that Leo's heart nearly stops right there and then, caught off guard by the novelty of being praised for what he'd done in favor of someone else - an ”enemy!!”, Garon's voice booms indignantly in his head, and he's a ”fool, he's going to kill you as soon as you turn his back on him”, screeches the voice of a woman whose face he tries to forget every time he stares into the mirror - and being appreciated for his mercy instead of the number of lives he'd ruthlessly taken.

His mouth dries and his tongue swells and a suspicious burn prickles at the corner of his eyes. He spurs the horse further, kicks the heels of his boots into the rippling muscles of the beast in the way Xander taught him to never do unless he wants to have his horse hate him, and never turns back. Whether the boy lives or dies in this skirmish is not his business any longer.

He thinks Corrin would be proud.

He hopes Corrin would be proud.

The image of her crumpling on herself, eyes wide in disbelief and lack of understanding, of betrayal is still seared on the back of his lids, haunts his nights and stains his days.

She isn't proud. If things unfold as planned, she will never hear word of this battle at all. Never will she return to Nohr, and she will spend the rest of her days in peaceful sunlight and endless feasts, surrounded by the family she was stolen from and all but amnesiac about Nohr and its accursed royal family. A stain in her memory, a black shadow that will gradually fade into the light of blissful ignorance.

And it's fine. It's the way it's supposed to be.

He gallops into the fray, ignores the silent and heavy looks he garners from Odin and Niles as he joins them again, and Brynhildr glows when she rejoins Siegfried. A cursory look is enough to tell him he was not the only one who realized the youth and lack of experience of the opposing units and whose heart had grown tender. Many men plead for mercy, and Elise has her work cut out for her, mending their wounds with a smile as Effie and Arthur loom behind, just threatening enough to make clear what fate awaited the fool who dared to take advantage and hurt the youngest and kindest princess. There are hardly any injured in their small party.

After more than two thirds of the opposing army has fallen and surrendered, it doesn't take Xander long to force the Malig Knight down on his knobbly knees, both his axe and tome rendered useless in front of Siegfried's might.

“Mercy!” The sallow faced man bellows like the boy he had mindlessly led to certain death. But unlike the boy, his plump form quivers and ripples as he raises his chubby and soft hands into the air, beady eyes crossed to keep track of Siegfried's point pressed dangerously close to his throat. This man has never known hardship. “I am but a humble servant! I was forced to follow the orders of the usurper king, or else he would have slayed me! I have no fault!! Please, Your Highnesses, I implore you and grovel in front of you, spare my life, and you shall not regret it.”

Rage makes Leo's blood boil and twists his insides in tight knots. He has seen this typical behaviour of Iago and his henchmen more times than he can count. Even the young farm boy hadn't had the shameless to beg this openly for his life. To think this is coming from a highly seated general of the Nohrian army makes it even more sickening.

Leo dismounts and steps forward to stand at Xander's right side; on the left, Marzia flutters down to the ground and Camilla gracefully slides down the back of the beast, swinging playfully the axe in her hand with a wide smile that teeters on the unhinged.

“I remember you,” she sing songs mockingly. “You are Roderigo, Iago's faithful servant and shadow. There was hardly a time the two of you could be seen apart, him barking orders and you grovelling to the ground.”

There is a pause. None of the bystanders dare to breathe too loud in fear of the temperamental princess's rising ire.

“Much like you are doing now.”

Roderigo's unremarkable features sag in fear, his short and oily black hair matted with dust and plastered all over his scalp and cheeks with cold sweat.

“Your Highnesses, Your Graces, oh Enlightened Majesty, I beg-”

“Silence.”

Xander speaks calmly, never raises his voice, and yet his order is absolute and rattles through the very ground they're standing on. Everyone tenses up. Xander dismounts, his steps heavier than the world itself, Siegfried still unsheathed and pointed at the throat of the fallen Malig Knight. Tendrils of purple energy coat and coil around the blade like wispy snakes.

Roderigo gulps and scrunches his weasely eyes closed. Nobody moves a muscle. Peri licks her lips like a predator about to sink its fangs into the prey. Elise clutches her staff with fearful eyes. For a moment, Leo can pretend he's back at Father's court, and that he's about to witness yet another execution, yet another officer's head roll to the ground. The familiarity of it all is, if anything, somewhat soothing. That's a scenario he's well prepared to face.

He feels queasy the moment he catches himself musing about that.

“Let the young recruits go.” Xander orders, and the illusion is dispelled; they're a ragtag group of fallen royals without a land and without a home, the dome above their head is made up of steely gray clouds whirling in elaborate patterns no artist could ever recreate and there is no Father in sight. For once, there's no shadow looming. “It is not my wish to spill any more Nohrian blood, especially of young and brave men such as these. Elise, tend to their injuries and their mounts, so that they can leave of their own volition. Camilla, find a fitting place to set camp so we can all rest in preparation for tomorrow's march.”

Elise seemingly relaxes; Camilla clicks her tongue and it sounds like a whip tearing through flesh. Xander throws her a pointed look and she nods before turning away and leading the rest of the group away to set camp. Leo watches her stomp away with Elise and the rest of the troops, and he's glad

“Your Majesty!” The aforementioned man bows and kneels and kisses the ground, overall makes a great show of reverence and servility that makes Leo feel greasy and in desperate need of a bath just by witnessing it. “So gracious, so noble, a true king-”

“Quiet, wretch.” Xander growls as he rounds on Roderigo, in an uncannily accurate impression of Father. Siegfried flashes and singes at the delicate flesh on the man's exposed neck. “If you wish to leave this place as a living man, you'd do better pray you have information of any value to me. Leo.”

Of course, this is his role to play. “Yes, brother.”

All it takes is a flick of the wrist to get Brynhildr's power surge and thick roots bloom out of the dry ground, coiling and twisting around Roderigo's plump form and pinning him to the closest wall of rock. The man gasps and tries to struggle free, but his efforts are vain; in no time he's completely enveloped, reduced powerless and motionless in Brynhildr's deadly grasp.

“Now, speak truthfully and wholly, and we might spare your miserable life. In what condition does Nohr verse?”

Roderigo grunts in pain as a vine twists around his wrist, sinking into the inflamed skin. “The almighty court of Nohr has never been through a more prosperous age. King Iago and Queen Daniela's enlightened rule has- AARGH!”

At the names of the two vilest and most disgusting servants of Father's court, Leo can't quite help a dismayed groan, though the sound drowns as Xander's fist impacts against Roderigo's cheek, the metal gauntlet cutting the soft, stubble covered cheek.

“I can't care less about the state of the court. I want to know about the people living in Windmire and the rest of the kingdom. Find a use for your tongue, or Siegfried will cleave it for you.”

Roderigo coughs and whimpers, blood gurgling out of his gaping mouth. “The kingdom… is in a state of unrest… the Hoshidan troops keep pushing Nohr's army away from the borders, and rebellions keep springing up in major towns and soldiers keep defecting, further weakening the already impoverished ranks. A mandatory enrollment for all young men and women is in place, but the morale is low and quality is waning. Stupid, ignorant fools, easily prey to the prattle of those damned rebels of Cheve.”

Leo's interest is instantly piqued, all exhaustion promptly forgotten. So Cheve had not fallen in Iago's hand just yet…

He and his brother exchange a poignant glance. Leo would swear he sees a triumphant shadow cross his brother's usually stony features, and a manic glint lits up his eyes. But it's a fleeting moment; a heartbeat later Xander is stepping back, Siegfried lowered but still active and ready to shoot dark magic at a moment's notice.

“Very well, it seems there was some worth in keeping you alive, after all.”

“Your Majesty, I implore-”

“Leo,” Xander talks over the prisoner as though he's not even there, “please conjure a restraining cell able to block any sort of magic contact. I'll have Laslow and Peri take turns to guard it for the night. When you're finished here, come over to my tent, we have much to discuss.”

An unusual request, but far from the most outlandish one he had to comply to. It takes nothing to shift Brynhildr's steely vines and branches into a cell, and even easier is to magically isolate it from the outside world. He had cast the same spell on himself and his siblings to escape Iago's scrying more times than he can count.

He nods, but Xander is already stepping away towards where Camilla had set camp, lost in thought of wyvern and lances, of rebels and scarlet suits of armor.


That night, camp is thrumming with a sort of subdued tension, not unlike the one preceding the battle of Anankos. It seems the earlier skirmish has managed to shake the troops out of their uncertain torpor, to wake them to the painful reality that yes, they are at war with their own home country.

Laslow's steps drag across the gravelly floor as he leaves his guarding spot and Peri takes his place, still mildly sulking after Lord Xander explicitly denied her permission to kill the prisoner, or even to 'maim him a little bit’, as she eloquently put it.

Knowing her, Laslow would hold his reserves on whether the blood-thirsty woman would be able to keep her dangerous tendencies in check, but he also knows she holds Lord Xander in too high regard to disobey so blatantly to a direct order of his.

At least, so he hopes.

The camp is quiet upon his return, though candlelight filter through many a tent, and the infirmary is bustling with activity. The fallen and rescued riders apparently have immediately taken to the youngest princess and have been helping her out in whatever way they can. No matter how many times he sees it happen, the sheer power of a well placed smile will never cease to amaze him. He thinks he sees what Odin means when he says Elise reminds him of his mother.

A groan nearly escapes him at the thought. Before he can hold himself back, his hand slides into the satchel hanging at his hip and rummages, fingers closing in the small stone sitting at the very bottom. The smooth, round gem is warm at the touch, as it has been since the day the evil dragon Anankos fell. Untrained in the magic arts as he is, even he can easily divine the meaning if such a repentine change.

The portal to go home is available, just a wish away from being opened.

Years of carefully crafted lies and subterfuge, of longing and wishing, all of that could finally be undone in a heartbeat. Even now, if he so wished, he could hold the stone tightly, let his eyes flutter close one last time over Nohr's harsh and gloomy environment and a moment later open them only to be greeted by Ylisse's bountiful fields and joyful town, Nohr's woes all but forgotten. Home has never been so close as it is now, literally resting in the palm of his hand.

Still, still-

“Shit.” Laslow curses under his breath as he catches sight of his liege's tent. Light filters through the thin gaps into the fabric and shadows move and shift quite frantically. He's quite sure Lord Xander and Lord Leo are having yet another argument. They're becoming increasingly frequent over these last few days.

Not his problem, not anymore.

Or at least that's what he wishes to say. But the grasp on the stone slackens and his hand retreats out of the satchel on its own accord, sliding down until it finds rest against the hilt of the sword. The metal feels soothing, familiar.

This is also home.

Shit.

He hurries past, head ducked down and scowling fiercely at the ground, so much that he fails to realize someone is standing in front of his tent, likely waiting for him as his shift came to an end, until he feels his shoulder collide with something and nearly tackling it down.

“Hey! Watch where you're going!”

Oh, no.

“Damn, Selena, I'm sorry, I was quite lost in thought and didn't see you.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

Selena shoots him a withering glare and immediately lets go of Odin's outstretched arm - that he has so chivalrously offered to save Selena from an ignominious fall on her butt - as though she was burned. She cocks her hip and arches an eyebrow, flipping a strand of long crimson hair over her shoulder.

“Oh, whatever.” She huffs haughtily, though a moment later much of her temper, always so easily to stoke up and nearly everlasting once it gets going, seems to diffuse, leaving a cold determination in its wake. “We gotta talk.”

He glances up at Odin's surprisingly silent figure. A grim expression clouds the usually cheerful features, one that speaks of whirling doubts and conflicted emotions. Laslow is all too acquainted with the very same issue.

“Fine,” he says finally, as though he doesn't know Selena requires no permission of his to speak her mind. “Let's talk.”

Odin and Selena clear the way - it's his tent, after all, and although they have camped together more times than they can count, it's an unspoken rule that the owner enters first. Basic manners, or at least an attempt - and he leads the way inside. He busies himself with turning on the candle while Odin casts a quick silencing enchantment over the tent. Selena simply undoes Laslow's bedroll and plops on it as though she owns the place.

“Well,” Laslow says slowly when he's checked everything is in place, Odin has sat down at Selena's side and Laslow has resigned himself to take the floor. Never let it be said he can't be a true gentleman. “What is so important to require a meeting in my tent? Or do you finally feel like professing your undying love for me, mon cherie? Cause I'm all for getting swept by the ardent waves of love, but I have to admit three is kind of a crowd even for me.”

Odin snorts and Selena's lips twitch, as though fighting tooth and nail not to curl up in an amused smile. She just crosses her arms and puts her best glower on.

“By the gods, now is really not the time to be playing Casanova for shits and giggles, you dumbass. You know what I want to talk about.”

Without waiting for his answer, Selena grabs her own purse - the most recent she bought in Cyrkensia before the city was laid down by Anankos's invaders - and pulls out a stone, a perfect twin of the ones Laslow and Odin own, respectively. The little gem glints innocently in the dim candlelight, helpless and harmless into Selena's open palm.

“And?”

“And you know what I think about it.”

Yes, he does. It's not the first time this conversation has come up, though never with such urgency. Today's encounter and the confirmation of Lord Xander's worst fears changed everything.

“Selena-”

“We should go. This is not our fight. We know it, they know it. We have completed our mission - with astounding success, if I may add - and now it's time for us to bail and finally get home. You know, the peaceful home we have fought so hard for, even going back in time to make sure it could be saved from certain doom. And did I mention the number of deaths and fights we had to claw through to get there?”

There she goes again, getting all worked up and letting her temper get the best of her. Her tone is harsh as she speaks quicker and quicker, her breath shallow and fast, but there's a flicker of panic, fear in her eyes, a spark of uncertainty in her posture.

She makes a good point and she knows it. Hell, even Laslow acknowledges it. But the crease in her brow speaks not of indifference; it speaks of fear.

Fear that they might die fighting for a foreign land, the way the Scarlet lady has.

Fear that if they don't leave soon enough they'll become too attached, too fond of these calloused Nohrians and their sterile lands and love-starved soul, a polar opposite of Ylisse and its peaceful people.

After all, they might have infiltrated Nohr under fake aliases, but that doesn't mean the memories they made, the bonds they forged with coworkers and - does he dare to say it, to admit it out loud - friends is any less real.

Laslow doesn't say anything. He can't say anything, for the same fear paralyzes his vocal chords. It's with an immense effort that he turns to Odin.

“What do you say?”

Odin heaves a deep, long sigh and crosses his arms, shoulders sagged and head hanging low. “Selena makes a point, I will concede. I would be lying if I said I never thought to just summon forth the darkest arcane powers this Chosen body of mine has been gifted with and use it to get back to our world. I do miss my family, and there's no darkness dark enough to erase that fact.”

Laslow senses the 'however’ coming from miles ahead.

“Still,” oh well, close enough, “the idea of dumping Lord Leo just like this, out of the blue now that we know he and his family can really use all the help they can get, just doesn't sit right with me.”

“Of course I'm not happy to leave them in this mess, too! I genuinely like Lady Camilla, you know? Especially when she doesn't threaten to chop my legs off,” Selena snarls all too quickly, obviously peeved by the implication that she doesn't give a damn about her liege. “But you can't pretend you don't know the situation is incredibly dire and that the plan is suicidal!”

“We still have to see where Cheve's rebels will choose to stand. We can't make assumptions yet.”

Speaking is clearly a mistake. Selena - no, Severa, come on Inigo, get it right - stands up abruptly and instantly rounds on him, hands clenched in tight fists at her side. They're shaking.

“Do you really think Cheve will offer support to the former Crown Prince they spent so long fighting off? After their leader disappeared and died in mysterious circumstances? Be serious, Inigo!!”

Owain stands up too and wraps a comforting arm around Severa's shoulders. Severa growls but, much to Laslow's - Inigo, goddamnit - surprise. He shoots Inigo a warning look.

“Come on now, it is not our time to despair yet. The radiant path in front of us is a winding one, and we, Chosen warriors of Dark and Light alike, have still a long road to journey.”

But his long winded rant falls on deaf ears.

“I don't want to watch them die.” Severa whispers, suddenly tired. “Because you know that's what's going to happen, what Lord Xander is planning to do. I don't want to see it unfold in front of my eyes. I would much rather go back now, so that at least in my memory they will forever stay alive and get their happy ending. Is that so much to ask?”

She slumps ever so slightly against Owain's form, and just the fact she does, that she allows herself to appear less than confident, is a red flag like no other of how truly serious the situation is. Owain looks nothing short of shocked, and Inigo is pretty sure a mirroring expression is morphing on his own face.

He understands what Severa is trying to say, of course. He too doesn't wish to witness the carnage that is about to unleash, to wonder who is going to be next, whose voice he will soon never hear again. It would be easier, so much easier, to do as Severa says and fade away before that scenario can become a dreadful, and dreadfully likely, reality.

For the second time that evening he absently reaches out and pulls out the stone. It's still warm, thrumming with unfathomable magic capable of warping time and space and reality itself, pulsing with enticing promises that will probably never be uphold. His fingers coil into a fist. The decision floats up to his mouth without much hesitation.

“I'm staying.”

He doesn't lift his eyes from his closed fist, and the other two don't move an inch, so he can't quite guess what is going through their minds. It must be one of the sensational times Severa actually stays quiet.

“I know it sounds crazy - and it is, mind you…” his voice quivers, and he's glad he's sitting down, otherwise he would have probably lost his balance and fallen on his ass. The world is spinning too fast and the meager supper he had earlier is dancing a furious tango with his insides. It's just a matter of time until the final casqué comes up and he spills the entire contents of his stomach on the floor. “But I vowed to serve Lord Xander till the end. I just… can't ditch him now that he needs someone at his side more than ever.”

In the many years he's known and served the man, he doubts he has ever seen the prince look as gaunt and zombie-like than he does now. He is putting all of himself on the line, and try as he might Inigo - Laslow - can't simply turn a blind eye on it. At the very least he's going to keep true to his vow, and serve at the prince's side till the very end.

For an unbearable minute, nothing moves and nobody speaks. Then Owain kneels and squeezes his shoulder. He's smiling, but it's a far cry from his usual boisterous and mildly arrogant grin. It's more subdued, a tad fearful perhaps - or maybe that's just him seeing things - but so much more genuine, and Laslow feels an immense gratitude surge up from within, as he finally knows he's not crazy, or at least he's not the only one, to feel this way towards a world that he used to believe was a tale for children to fall asleep too.

“We're in this together, my Chosen brother,” Odin declares. “My sword hand is twitching already.”

They both look up to the third member of their little team. Severa has lost much of her anger, only a deep sadness seems to be left.

“You stubborn fools. What ever did I do to deserve getting stuck in an alternate universe with the two of you?”

But there is no bite in her voice, only fear of loss and abandonment.

“You don't have to stay. If you so wish, you can go back this instant. We're not going to hold it against you. Arguably, it would be the smartest choice you could do.”

“But you care for Lady Camilla and Beruka, don't you?” Odin follows up. “The three of us know all too well what it means to actively change the future. Perhaps, if we stay, we might have a chance to make it right.”

Severa regards them in stony silence for a moment - it serves for a pretty hilarious sight, with the two guys crouched on the floor and she standing at her full height, towering over them - then she huffs and shakes her head.

Fine, good grief,” Selena too collapses on her knees, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I suppose someone has to babysit you and make sure you come out of it alive.”

Laslow beams his most dashing, lady-killer smile and winks.

“Aww, I knew you loved me, deep down.”

He ducks down just in time to dodge the flying pillow aimed at his face.

Chapter Text

There was a time, not even that many years ago, when Windmire's alleys were constantly lit and bustling with activity. From the occasional booths selling food to the several shops that opened early in the morning to make the most out of Nohr's few hours of natural light, the capital's streets and avenues were hardly deserted despite the harsh conditions as people strutted back and forth, determined to keep themselves and the town afloat no matter what.

Now, finally strangled in Garon and his henchmen's choking grip, Windmire is dark and empty upon Xander's return; no guard patrols the unlit and dirty alleys, no salesman boasts about his product to attract a clientele, no one sweeps the street anymore, leaving it coated in dust and dirt fit for the rats that sometimes poke their head from the sewers, sniffing the air full of hope, only to duck back down when it becomes apparent there's no food, no form of life, to be found on the surface.

Xander's insides coil into a tight knot as he watches the foul creature flee from the ghost town. How could Father allow Nohr's condition to fall so low that even rats were steering clear of the town's main street?

He clenches his reins tighter and tugs harder on Alec, spurring him forward. The obedient horse falls in step at his side with no objection of sort. A step behind him, Laslow whistles softly.

“Wow, it's really gotten worse since the last time we've been here, hasn't it?”

Peri hums distractedly, pulling on her own steed. “Yeah, I miss the rows.”

“Just because you enjoyed jumping in and making them so much worse.”

She cackles shamelessly. “I mean, it's not a real fight if blood doesn't flow.”

Laslow lets out long, suffering sigh, right in the moment something moves in the darkness of a nearby alley. The whole party - five people in total, as Xander hadn't wished to take away too many soldiers from the front when he was asked to leave for Windmire at once by Garon himself - freezes on the spot, nerves taut and hands ready to fly for their weapons.

“Who's there?”

Xander's call seems to go unheeded for a long, nerve-wrecking minute, but then two tiny silhouettes dart out of the alley, the filthy soles of their little bare feet pattering on the uneven pavement and lifting small clouds of dirt in their wake. The two kids, filthy and dressed in rags too dirty to discern the colors of the fabric anymore, run as fast as their short, too thin legs can carry them, throwing only a frightened look over their shoulder at Xander. Something silvery glints in the hand of the girl.

“Thieves!” One of the two knights grumbles, waving his spear threateningly at the two fleeting children as they disappear behind a corner, plunging right into a second pitch-black alley. “Probably stole something and now they're going to resell it on the black market. Little wretches.”

The black market that is known to be located in the underground tunnels running beneath Windmire. At this point, Xander wouldn't be surprised if Windmire's entire population decided to abandon the town altogether and permanently settle in the tunnels.

Laslow throws him an uncertain look. “Should we give chase or...?”

It's quite clear he has no desire to do so, and Xander doubts it's due to a mere unwillingness to venture down in the tunnels. For all his flirty manners and clean figure, Xander has long learned Laslow has no qualms to get his hands dirty whenever the need arises.

“No,” Xander finally replies and makes his point further across by averting his eyes and redirect his attention to the road ahead, where the dark frame of Krakenburg looms and hovers threateningly over their heads, stronger and bigger with every step they take. “Leave them be. We have far more pressing matters to attend to, and it would not be wise to make our king wait longer than strictly necessary.”

Laslow nods, visibly relieved by the fact he isn't being ordered to apprehend and possibly punish two kids that are doing all they can to keep the boat afloat and survive; Peri merely shrugs, as though the matter hardly concerned her to begin with. The two generals fume and seem to be about to protest, but after a brief, pointed glare of Xander's they are quick to shut their mouth.

The rest of the march is quick. Tempers already flaring and impatient to get this inconvenience over already, the Crown Prince and his meager escorting party weave through Windmire's venues and roads with little no hesitation, barely sparing a look to the side, lest they stumble upon another unpleasant surprise, another distraction. All in all, it has to take them little longer than forty minutes to reach Krakenburg's gates.

The gates are open, the black wrought iron glinting maliciously in the dim light of the lava pit the king had seen fit to put in the place of the gardens Queen Katerina and Arete used to cherish so dearly, and Xander can see a small welcoming party gathered at the entrance. His stomach lurches in disgust when he's close enough to make out the silhouette of a very well known man at the head of the group.

“Welcome back, Lord Xander, sir! Words cannot express how relieved I am to see you have made it back to Windmire safe and sound.” Iago singsongs ever so sweetly and sweeps into a bow so low the tip of his long, frazzled hair nearly brushes against the paved floor of the castle's entryway. The guards flanking him fall to a knee. “I presume your long journey from the border to the capital must have been rather tiring.”

It had, though it was less due to the sheer length of the trip and more for the shameful state of the roads and the presence of countless gangs of bandits roaming around. Xander decides against revealing all of this to Iago, though, and opts instead to openly ignore the obsequious - far too much for even being near believable - sorcerer and hands Peri the reins of his horse.

“Take him to the stables and make sure all of our mounts are properly groomed and fed. After that, consider yourselves,” he gestures to Laslow, “free for the day. Settle down and rest as much as you need. We will probably leave again quite shortly.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he notices Iago straightening up and narrowing his eye, affronted at being so blatantly ignored, and it takes all of Xander's self control not to smirk. Peri immediately snatches Alec's reins and looks far too happy for her own good for being given horse-grooming duty.

“Yay! Don't you worry, milord, Alec is going to be all refreshed and clean like a calf! Come on, Laslow, let's go!”

Xander watches, quite amused despite himself, as Laslow is single-handedly struggled away by the deceptively frail looking woman, all the while complaining that he had other plans for the night than spending his whole time combing fur and brushing hooves, but for all he complains and pouts Xander can tell he's not really putting all his efforts into escaping Peri's hold. The mercenary swordsman allows her to drag him away, like a well-practiced routine, and by the moment they disappear behind a corner on their way towards the royal stables and their voices fade into the ever present breeze of Windmire Xander already misses them.

Iago clears his throat rather pointedly and closes the distance between them in a couple of steps.

“Allow me to escort you to the castle, milord,” he says, and though he clearly tries to keep down the bitterness it's rather obvious he's still fuming. “Your father will be delighted to know of your return. He's been asking of you with such insistence.”

Iago coldly dismisses the two generals and the guards with a flick of his wiry hand, and promptly steps aside to allow Xander to lead the way to the castle, not without yet another deep bow. Like the first time, Xander ignores the lowly grovelling.

“I must say, Iago, I was surprised to receive such a urgent missive demanding my immediate presence in Windmire. Surely no ill has befallen our king while he was entrusted in your care?”

He fully relishes in the flash of utter panic that twists the sorcerer's pointy face. The man goes even paler than he normally is, to the point he almost glows in the dim lights lining the stone path, and then scrambles into a much more shallow bow.

“Of- of course not, Your Highness. I would never allow any sickness or injury to threaten our glorious king's safety. Quite the contrary, you can rest assured your father has never looked healthier and stronger than now. You will soon be able to assess that much for yourself.”

As they walk, Xander leading with his long and brisk stride despite the long journey and Iago struggling to keep pace with him, Xander doesn't miss the way Iago wrings his hands together, as he always does when he's terrified for wronging the king. He doesn't seem to be lying, however.

Xander nods and allows Iago to order the guards stationed to the heavy ebony double doors to open. A futile effort, since the two men had already pushed the doorway open as soon as they saw Xander approaching.

“I already ordered a hot bath to be prepared for you the moment I received word you were in Windmire, milord. The maids are tending to it as we speak.”

Xander only hums in acknowledgment as they climb the vast stairways towards the southern tower, where the royal private quarters are located. It's hasn't been that long since Camilla, Leo and Elise were granted permission to move there as well; until Elise turned eight and thus was deemed to be fit to be introduced as a princess of Nohr in her own right, Xander was the only member of the royal family to be allowed to live in the royal quarters, a mere few yards from the King's very own room. All his other siblings - and even Azura, for the short time she lived in Krakenburg - used to live in the eastern tower, well far away from the one legitimate son of Garon and heir to the throne. Another way to keep them separated and to stoke up the fires of jealousy and hatred among the concubines, until Garon was satisfied with the three surviving children and stepped in to end the clash among his illegitimate lovers for good.

Xander can only be thankful Elise was too young to remember much of what happened, back then. The haunted looks he still occasionally catches lingering on Camilla's and Leo's faces are harrowing enough.

He fails to realize he and his overly zealous escort have finally reached the prince's quarters and that said escort has been talking nearly non-stop the whole time until Iago clears his throat and opens the door, bowing deeply and with a smile he probably deems flattering but Xander finds repugnant and oily.

“Your father can't wait to finally see you. He sends word to reach him to the Northern hall as soon as possible, so that you may dine together, as father and son.”

That manages to catch his attention. “I see. Are my brother and sisters out of Windmire as well?”

With the skirmish on the borders growing more and more intense and Prince Ryoma getting more heavily and personally involved with the fight, Xander hasn't been able to get in touch with Camilla and Leo for months, much to his chagrin. He only knows both are often sent throughout the country to help with Hoshido's lighter attacks, and something about a rebellion brewing against the Crown.

Iago nods. “Why, yes, most unfortunately. With this accursed war going on and those wretched rebels fanning over the fire, lady Camilla and lord Leo are always so busy they couldn’t make it to Windmire in time to greet your return. As for lady Elise, she's spending an awfully large amount of time at the Northern Fortress as of late, but His Majesty has openly allowed her to do so as long as she does not neglect her royal duties and studies. Alas, her magical prowess seems to even have improved quite significantly as of late.”

He says that as though it hurts him tremendously to be admitting it out loud, and Xander has to summon forth every drop of self control he has to keep a straight face. He merely hums again and turns his attention to the open entryway to his quarters.

Finally, Xander steps into the room; a couple of maids are standing, frigid and stone faced, by his bed, hands folded rigidly over their laps and heads slightly bowed in meek obedience. A gold tray with a bottle of red wine and two silver goblets has been placed over the wide, round table sitting by the large window. They clearly have just finished polishing every inch of his quarters so that it was perfectly fit for his arrival.

“Thank you,” he addresses them quietly, “you may go.”

The two young girls - they can't be older than twenty - bow and quickly retreat out of the room. Iago follows them with his eyes, frowning in displeasure, until they turn a corner and disappear.

“If I may, milord, I will send-”

“That's enough, Iago. I'm perfectly able to take it from here on my own,” Xander cuts him off curtly. He can't quite keep down how the overbearing - and overbearingly unpleasant - presence of the sorcerer is quickly grating on his nerves. Perhaps it's the fact that he's been away from Krakenburg for nearly a year, or perhaps it's the fact that he would rather be anywhere else but in Krakenburg at the moment, he doesn't know it himself. He only knows he wants to get this inconvenience out of his way as soon as he can feasibly get. It's not quite in his authority to openly defy such an urgent request of his father and king, but that doesn't mean he's willing to bear Iago's endless bugging and fake coddling a second longer than he is strictly required to. “Please report to Father I'll be there very shortly.”

Iago looks thunderstruck for a moment, unable to process how the prince could be so rude to him, then his mouth curls into a vicious smile that seems to be wishing Xander an extremely painful death and sweeps into the umpteenth bow. If she were here, Elise would probably wonder out loud, at this point, whether Iago's back was in any pain from all the grovelling he was making a show of.

Of course, milord,” he drawls slowly and full of barely hidden spite. “I will relay immediately. With your permission.”

Still bowing, the sorcerer finally scoots back until the door slams shut on him, leaving Xander finally alone with his thoughts.

The prince takes a moment to appreciate the room he hasn't inhabited for an year, eyes roaming over the pristine king-sized, four-poster bed, so different from the bedroll he has grown used to, then to the table by the window. Dark curtains, deep purple and gold to match the carpets, keep the majestic view over Windmire out of the room. A piano lies, abandoned and forgotten for longer than a decade, in the corner. As he caresses the finely lacquered case, he wonders if he can even remember where the keys are. Katerina would probably reprimand him harshly were she to know he had failed to keep his practicing schedule.

He sighs and shakes his head; he must be truly tired if he's wasting time dallying about and getting lost in useless thoughts, especially when Father is waiting for him, and he is simply all too aware that Garon is far from being a patient man. It's never, under any circumstance, a good idea to make Garon wait.

So he strips off the armor, wincing when the familiar weight is lifted off and he finds himself truly naked, more vulnerable and exposed now in the safety of his quarters - of home - than he ever feels on the front line. At the very least, the enemy's intentions are more often than not very clear on the battlefield, with their war cries and swinging swords.

He drops the armor off and places it in the corner, making a mental note to have it ironed out by the following morning, and quickly steps into the en-suite, where a tub full of steaming water is waiting for him, a luxury he hasn't had a taste of since he was assigned on the border. And yet, instead of fully savoring the warmth and the vast array of scented oils the maids have provided, he bathes quickly and unceremoniously scrubs off the exhaustion and dirt from the long journey. In a matter of minutes he's already fully dressed again, the fresh and light silks and linens feeling off and far too light on his skin despite the many layers - shirt, vest, coat - he keeps piling on. He cringes at his reflection in the full-length mirror as he ties the knot of his cravat at the nape of his neck, and for a fleeting moment the Crown Prince fails to recognize himself without the ever present armor and royal insignia. As far as he's concerned, having a one on one meeting with Garon is fully equivalent to head out into a decisive battle with only a few men to fend off a whole army.

He hurriedly places his circlet back on and straps Siegfried at his hip before finally setting out. The added weight, the ever present sense of imbalancement deriving from Siegfried's massive weight and might, always pulling him to a side, dragging him down, is now somewhat comforting.

The Northern Hall, where Garon is waiting for him, is one of darkest and vastest halls Krakenburg has to offer. Never fully lit by the sun's rays under no circumstances, and even less during winter-time, when the already poor light is further reduced and Nohr is left ambling about in the dark for months on end, the previous kings and queens had been quick to abandon it, treating it almost as a fancy dungeon, opting instead to focus the entire of Krakenburg's courtly activities in the few parts of the building that actually receives the sun's blessing, if only for a few fleeting hours. It is strange for Father to be waiting for him in such a gloomy atmosphere.

Then again, it's been a while since Father deigned himself to step into the light; years, in fact, since the last time the King has made a public appearance for the yearly festival in Windmire, always delegating the job to represent him in the eye of the public to his children. Not that Xander ever complained: although the people's growing resentment towards the royal family was blatant, Elise never failed to enjoy and relish in the festivities, even as they grew sparser and poorer with every passing year, and it would always be a source of joy for her older siblings, a breath of fresh air, just enough for them to keep themself afloat once they returned into the court's ever tightening chokehold. Even now, as he hurries past from hallway to hallway in the dark castle, feeling suspiciously as though he is marching towards his impending demise, the mere memory of Elise laughing and jumping around, excited and lively beyond belief, is enough to shoo away the gloom that seems to be filling the stale air like a deadly miasma, the stench of death that drifts from every spot a man or woman or child has met their end, and Xander swears he can still see the blood staining the walls and carpets when he passes.

And of course, there is that other issue…

His short lived smile is long gone by the time he reaches his destination, replaced by his usual frown. Even beyond the heavy mahogany doors, Xander feels Garon's malicious presence radiate in powerful waves through the solid wood and stone, each slamming hard into him like a punch in the gut. His steps grow slow as he approaches and nods to the two guards standing outside, his hands grow clammy and cold beneath the purple and gold silken gloves, and his fist trembles - foolishly, shamefully, he has nothing to fear, all of his siblings are well away, far from Father's immediate grasp should Xander act foolishly enough to incur in his anger, they're safe and sound, he has nothing to fear, not this time - as he lifts it and hits it three times, slow and firm, against the door.

The pause, eternal and all too short at the same time, that ensues is hell on his nerves, until-

“Enter.”

Xander's heart hammers madly against his ribcage; he slowly, but firmly, pushes the creaking door open and slides in, letting it close with a slam behind him. He tries not to dwell on the foul, damp smell.

The room is, understandably, large, even more so considering the only piece of furniture is the long dining table sitting proudly in the middle of it, right under a vast, dragon-shaped chandelier. The walls, previously empty if not for a few paintings of the royals of the past, are now completely covered in grotesque pictures of misshapen dragons, black and white spires intertwining every so often, and dozens and dozens - perhaps hundreds, alone or in oddly shaped clusters - of crimson eyes.

But that is of no importance whatsoever, because there, by the window, Father is standing. His back is turned on Xander, and he seems to be in deep contemplation as he keeps the heavy purple curtain open and stares at the horizon, towards the mountains. He doesn't turn around even when Xander approaches, his boots echoing loudly against the darkened stone.

“Greetings, Father,” Xander greets him as he bends to one knee and lets his eyes flutter close, as it is customary to salute the glorious king of Nohr. “I have come as soon as I received word you wished to see me.”

Garon hums, doesn't even turn to acknowledge his eldest son. Xander waits, all his nerves tense in anticipation.

Then, a slow, deliberate movement, the flutter of a long cape, the metallic creak of the King's regalia against the bare floor.

“You may rise, Xander, my son.”

Xander feels like he's finally allowed to breathe again; he immediately lifts himself up to a standing position. Garon nods and moves to the vast table, taking up the seat at the nearest end. He gestures at the lone chair at the opposite side.

“Take a seat.”

Xander instantly obeys, never daring to avert his attention from the older man. A thousand questions are whirling in his head, wrestling with each other to earn the right of being voiced first.

Whether Xander would have the courage to do so, whether he would dare to doubt the king's intentions simply by exposing his doubts, that is a whole another matter.

By law of our illustrious ancestors, the world of the ruler of Nohr is absolute, Xander remembers Garon telling him once, when he was barely older than ten and made to assist to the execution of a concubine and her offspring, under the grievous charge of insubordination to the King's orders. A suggestion that was kindly provided by Camilla's mother and had immediately met the King's approval.

Garon reaches out and picks up a silver bell from the table. He rings it three times, with such force the usually pleasant soft chime sounds like a shrill scream in the dark, and instantly another door opens, letting a long line of waiters in, each carrying two large cloches, except the last two that were instead tasked with the beverages. With no need for any further order, the waiters set the food and fill the silver plates and pour the wine, only to disappear again as soon as they finish their task, probably already preparing themselves to rush back in as soon as Garon's bell rang again.

With a triumphant smirk, Garon grabs his goblet, swirling it lightly to better appreciate the rich scent of the alcoholic drink, and raises it at Xander's address.

“To your return and our impending victory.” he rasps and takes a huge sip. Xander hastily mirrors the gesture, though he only allows the heavy wine to barely graze and wet his lips before placing the goblet down again. Aside fron the countless poisonings Krakenburg had been the stage of in the past, both he and Camilla had agreed that it would be foolish to nearly suicidal levels to assume any form of alcohol when in the King's presence. A single word out of line could very well mean disaster, and neither is foolish enough to tempt death so openly.

Garon sets his goblet back and sits more comfortably. He pierces his son with his eyes, a malicious, knowing smirk curling his parched lips up.

“So, Xander, my son. At long last, you're here. You should know I don't enjoy being kept waiting.”

Xander tenses up. His hands curl into fists under the table, and he hurries to bend his head down. “My humble apologies, Father. I've rushed back to Windmire the moment I received your missive requiring my presence with such urgence.”

“Hmm.” Garon hums as his attention shifts to the hot venison in his plate. “I have been trying to call you back to Windmire for months, my son, and each and every time you failed to answer to my call. I will not deny I am very disappointed in you, Xander. I am expecting you to show more obedience from now on, son.”

The Crown Prince feels his blood run cold as he sits ramrod straight, ears strained to catch the hiss of the heavy axe cutting through the air…

“My apologies, Father, it will not happen again. The clashes on the border have grown in both intensity and frequency ever since Hoshido's High Prince has taken to fight on the front line. I deemed necessary to stay and aid our forces against such a formidable opponent.”

“Yes, I know all about your prowess on the border,” Garon coolly dismisses Xander's apology, as though bored and not impressed in the least. “You've done well against the son of Sumeragi and that wretched Mikoto. As a matter of fact, perhaps even too well. So tell me, Xander, why is that?”

Again that cruel, mocking smirk. Xander feels his throat go dry and hastily reaches for a sip of wine, just enough to allow him to keep his wits about him and fight off the rising panic. His own, untouched venison is rapidly cooling.

“I'm afraid I do not understand, Father. My only priority is to ensure a swift end to this wretched war before it completely drains Nohr's resources-”

Garon raises a hand to stop him, and the son instantly falls quiet.

“Such admirable dedication to our noble cause, Xander. Remarkable indeed,” he chuckles, wheezing and coughing as he does so. He emphasizes the word 'noble’ with such indecent shamelessness Xander feels an uncomfortable warmth burn at the base of his neck. There is nothing noble in this conflict Nohr has waged on Hoshido, they all know it, they all can see it. And yet, despite the many pieces of evidence proving otherwise, Xander can only cling desperately to the hope that, deep down, Father has a plan, for Nohr and Hoshido both, that this war has a meaning, a purpose worth to fight for, that is not just a whim of a megalomaniac fool.

He hopes and believes and prays, but the deserted streets of Windmire come to mind, the two starving children - they have to be a few years younger than Elise, at most - haunt his thoughts.

“My only wish is to serve Nohr's cause.” He says through clenched teeth, not daring to meet the king's eye lest he did something foolish. “As my duty as Crown Prince requires. I will do what I must to ensure the survival of my country and family.”

Garon's smirk widens as he takes another large gulp of wine, as though amused to no end by something.

“Yes, my son, you are most correct. And yet I have to wonder why you, my son and living embodiment of all that is fair and right in Nohr, would rather spend your time in the company of a wicked Hoshidan than your own father's, your own flesh and bone, to the point you ignored all my previous summonings to instead run to her at every chance you get, not unlike a faithful little dog.”

“I have personally taken over her training,” Xander replies after a beat of silence, after he has made sure his voice would not waver and betray him on the spot, carefully pondering and choosing his words. He's treading on thin ice, extremely thin, and both father and son know it perfectly well. “She is quite gifted, a rare talent we haven't seen in quite some time. However, that talent will only go to waste if we don't nurture it properly. If we wish to harvest her skill to our advantage in the war against Hoshido, she needs to be regularly faced with a worthy challenge.”

Garon scoffs, a malicious glint in his otherwise dull, sunken eyes. “And you think our old dear Gunter doesn't fit the bill, don't you? It's a task you personally - you, future King of Nohr and first General of our royal army - have to take?”

Xander scowls at the unveiled derision and scepticism. For the first time he raises his head defiantly and holds his father's gaze.

“As a matter of fact, yes. Sir Gunter has been a knight of admirable skill in his youth, but I must admit he's quite past his prime. Besides, the old man's heart has grown fond of the little princess, to the point I'm not sure he'd manage to keep a training schedule strict enough to allow her to improve at the required rate. On the contrary, he might even go as far as to actively sabotage her growth, in the attempt to keep her safe within the fortress.”

“And I suppose you would make for a much more impartial tutor for the your dear little princess, wouldn't you.”

The way the king rolls his tongue over the pet name, slow, sordid, almost indecent, makes Xander's skin crawl in disgust.

“Yes,” he eventually manages out, “that is my belief.”

There's another moment of utter silence in which the two men simply stare at each other, wary and suspicious, studying and weighing the other's every little movement or gesture, trying to catch even the smallest misstep in their facade, just enough to unravel it all. Xander's heart is beating so hard he's quite impressed Father can't hear it all the way from the other side of the room.

Unbidden, flashes of his last visit to the Northern Fortress float at the forefront of his mind, treacherous and enticing as they linger on Corrin's trim figure running up to him with unbridled joy and enthusiasm, bare feet flashing underneath the hem of her favorite blue sundress, ruby eyes sparkling of genuine affection as her slim and yet strong arms encircle his waist, pull him close, so close it's almost hard to breathe. He tries to push it away, to forget how perfectly she seemed to fit in his arms as he rested his chin on the crown of her head, tries to forget the lingering scent of lilies and cherries filling his nose.

Then, Garon laughs. It's not an amused, somewhat sarcastic chuckle, this time: it seems like an irresistible fit of laughter has taken over the usually stern and cruel king as his booming voice bounces off the walls, fills the empty room as though several dozens of men are laughing alongside him. For a truly mad moment, Xander could swear he sees the multi-eyed dragons painted on the walls move and laugh as well. A trick of the feeble candlelight, for sure.

“Oh, Xander,” Garon eventually comes down his fit, and Xander instantly notices the reddened blotches on his skin, making it look even frailer and sick than it already is. “So many lies, son. You should be aware I know all. I know how you behave when in her presence, I've seen the look on your face when you talk about her. You… you are planning to abandon me… to betray me!”

Garon's gaze darkens, turns accusatory, all the while his mouth pulls open over yellowed, bared teeth and his fist clenches against the empty goblet in his hand, so tight that the silver has no chance and caves in under the pressure of the King's claws.

“...Father…?”

For a moment, Garon does not respond, too far gone in his outrage. Xander's hand inches towards Siegfried's hilt as he readies himself to spring up to his feet and unsheath the legendary sword should the need arise. Siegfried hums like a purring cat under his grasp, tantalizing and inviting.

But the need does not arise, and just as quick as it comes, the shadow looming over the king fades, leaving Garon looking more tired than ever as he collapses back against his high-backed chair.

“Do not… betray me, Xander, my beloved son. I have poured all my hopes in you, you are the only thing I have left of Katerina…”

Garon lifts a hand, beckons for Xander to reach for him. Xander moves and is running towards him before he can even think about it. He falls to a knee in front of the King, cradles the proffered gauntleted hand in his gloved one.

“Of course, I will never betray you, Father. My topmost priority is Nohr's and our family's well-being. Nothing else matters.”

Garon's hand clutches his own, the claws of his gauntlet digging painfully in Xander's flesh. A heavy cough rattles the king's massive figure, leaving Xander quite baffled.

“You should probably get some well deserved rest, Father. I shall take care of the business in Krakenburg until your health gets better.”

“Tomorrow,” Garon talks as though he hasn't even heard him, his voice already stronger and much steadier. “Krakenburg will host another ball. I want you to attend, and start looking for a possible wife among the attendees.”

That's enough to shock the Crown Prince out of his concerns for his father’s degenerating health. “What? But, Father-”

“No objections. You will partecipate this time, it's an order.”

“My duty on the border will prevent me from a proper courting. I would rather wait until the war is over to-”

“Nonsense!!” Garon thunders and promptly stands up, all signs of weakness and disease entirely forgotten. With his already immense form, he all but towers over his still bowed son, the light casting horrible shadows on his ancient visage, melting and blurring the skin as his incensed eyes burn holes into his son. “A heir to the throne is required to maintain stability within our family. You can choose whether you accept your duty as Crown Prince or you would rather have Elise be married and tasked with the honor to continue our line, but the core of the matter remains.”

Xander pales harshly at the remark, the thought of selling Elise, barely fourteen, to the best bidder makes his stomach churn in horror. Tremors rattle his whole frame as he pictures his youngest sister dragged off and offered as a one-way ticket into the royal family to one of the many unscrupulous cohorts Father has surrounded himself with.

He stands again. He has long overtaken his father in sheer height, by a slim margin, but that doesn't do anything to quell the feeling of being turned back into the shy, scared boy he once was. That's how he feels as Garon stares at him expectantly, and both know the king has already won. He bows again.

“Of course, Father. Your wish is my command.”

Garon grins and waves his hand dismissively.

“Good, son, I knew you would end up seeing reason. You will do what you must, won't you?”

Xander peers up at his father, takes in the sickening smirk, the manic glint in his eye, and wonders where they've gone wrong, when did things change, why-

But it's useless, and he has no time to waste pondering over things that are long beyond his control, not if he wants to keep his family safe.

He will do what he musts, for them, for Nohr. No matter the cost on himself.

“Of course.”


The Crown Prince wakes up with a startle. For a moment, his senses are hazed, confused, and he fails to comprehend why he's back in his tent, or why he seems to have fallen asleep over the empty crates he has taken to use as tables and chairs while setting on camp, or why a light blanket he recognizes as Laslow's has been draped over his shoulders while he slept.

He straightens up, swiping at the cold sweat beaded across his forehead and dampening his hair, and only then his mind starts working again as he remembers Corrin's betrayal, Valla, Anankos, Father...

It was all a dream, then. Or rather, a memory, dating back to only a few months before Corrin was finally allowed out of the Fortress, with all the ensuing, life changing consequences that entailed. Xander had failed, on that occasion, to pick a worthy wife out of the many noble women who had been fawning at the crown he was wearing, and no more word of that agreement had been spoken ever since. Corrin's fateful choice had changed everything, irremediably.

With a soft groan he sweeps his palm over his face and slowly stands up, catching Laslow's blanket before it can fully slide off his shoulders and fall to the ground. The candle, he now notices, has been long blown out, probably by Laslow himself when he came in to check on him, and the soft glow filling the tent is now coming from the timid sunlight outside. It must be early in the morning.

With a sigh, he casts a last glance to the maimed crown sitting on the upturned crate, near the many maps of Nohr that are now scattered in utter dishevelment - some had even fluttered down to the ground - after he shamefully slept on them, won by sheer exhaustion. Ever since he found it on the floor of the abandoned Vallite throne room, Xander has taken to carry it on himself wherever he goes. Never to wear it, only to carry it, to bear its burden alone, until the time is right.

He reaches for it and takes it, hiding it into one of the many pockets of his coat. Only Camilla, to this moment, knows of the plan brewing in his head, and although he's certain she doesn't approve, he's still grateful she isn't openly opposing him and making it unnecessarily harder. The same can't quite be said about Leo, who doesn't know but has very clear - and very correct - suspicion, if the latest row the two brothers had just the night before is any indication of it. But it's fine, the eldest son tells himself with a rueful smile, for in the end, Leo's bright mind will understand. As for Elise… she still refuses to speak with him if not in cold monosyllables whenever he actively poses her a question. She won't miss him.

That leaves…

It is said that no one really knows how dearly they cherish and treasure something until it's stolen away from them. The Crown Prince can confirm that it is, without a doubt, true.

The mere thought of Corrin, with her bright smile and bare feet padding everywhere, ever curious and adventurous, feels like he's being stabbed with a white-hot sword, the blade slowly inching in and out, agonizing and ruthless. He still remembers her scent, her voice as she calls for him - no honorifics, no curtsies, only his name as though it was all she cared about - her laughter.

He still remembers her scream, her pleads to stop, not to leave, and by the gods, it had taken all he had not to turn around right there and then when she yelled his name as though her life depended on him. He still remembers, all too clearly, all too well, and forever will. He's ready to take it all, her scorn, her hatred, her contempt, as long as he knows she's safe, surrounded by the warm and peaceful family she has been dreaming of, even if it will not include him, even if he will turn into a faded shadow, a mere memory to be set aside as soon as something better comes up.

”You've never quite looked at her the way you looked at me or Elise,” Camilla had said, just a few nights ago, before they even left Valla and Xander had first revealed her his plan. The look on her face, so beautiful and yet maimed beyond repair, had been uncharacteristically somber, perhaps even sad. Xander had refused to acknowledge it, but now in the wee hours of the morning, the last one before they reach Cheve and fate's plans will carry him wherever they will, he can admit it to himself, for the first and last time.

To admit that he's in love with Princess Corrin of Valla and Hoshido.