"...Oh come now, Takumi. You can't avoid me forever."
"It doesn't have to be a permanent arrangement."
"It won't be."
"Ugh...fine, sorry. I'm not angry with you, so don't get worried, I guess."
"...That doesn't really alleviate my worries."
"Okay, suit yourself."
He holds the body of his mother and her blood runs through his fingers like water from broken porcelain, and it saturates the air with hints of metal and the beginning stages of decay and—
And this is a dream, Takumi, only a dream, you know this—
He looks up and sees ruins. Colors are dulled, bodies and limbs are flung under and over collapsed buildings and stalls, and it looks so perfectly decrepit that it couldn't possibly be real. Pale people, his people, move jerkily like marionettes to tug at corpses, mouths opening mechanically for shrill screams, and they can't be real either—
He wants to drop his mother’s body and pinch his own skin, tear at his hair, to wake himself up and end this—but she is lead in his arms, and he’s sure that if he let her go he’d never be able to see her again.
Feel the fabric of her clothes and reach back to taste the air, this is a fake, Takumi, designed to frighten and plague you, nothing more—
And his fake sister—his displaced sister—doesn't look like anyone's sister anymore. Her Nohrian armor is split for dragon wings, towering and smooth and as sharp as steel, still speckled with their mother’s blood.
This is your doing, Takumi, all your doing—wake up and end it, hurry, wake up—
He doesn't scream—his arms move but he's sure he's not telling them to—and his mouth breaks into a small grin and he feels something in him jerked downwards and then—
—It's too late now, sweet prince, it's too late .
"Was it one of the nightmares?"
"Should I call for Elise or Sakura? They might be able to help, a bit."
"No, it'll be fine...thank you, Leo."
"Okay. Get some rest."
"Yes, thank you."
Nohr is falling to pieces at Leo’s feet, and Takumi is absolutely helpless to do anything about it.
"I hate being part of the enemy," he says to Leo, once.
"Technically we're not enemies anymore," Leo responds. But there's something cutting and dry in that comment that Takumi doesn't miss. Luckily for him, he's been working on his tact, and says nothing about it.
Takumi’s realized the funny thing about tact is that it often requires hiding his true feelings. There are certainly many things that he wants to tell Leo: I'm sorry that it had to end like this. I wish there was something more than I could do. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to fall under the rule of Hoshido.
A sigh. “Just when I thought you’d fallen asleep.”
“Nothing...I don’t know. Nothing. It’s fine.”
When he's first stolen away to Hoshido and introduced to the royal family as their long lost brother, nothing registers. Hinoka's eyes are kind and open, but they are not Camilla's—just as Ryoma's strength and Sakura's innocence and Corrin's compassion are not Xander's or Elise's. Takumi smiles for them and does his best to nod along as he's reintroduced and paraded around as the long lost prince, but he can still feel the Nohrian steel of his armor and the shortness of his hair, compared to the other Hoshidan men.
He steps into the first few booths of the festival with the second prince, Leo. Prince Leo is everything Takumi could have expected of Hoshidan royalty—long hair the color of spun gold tied up tight in a smooth ponytail with a few wisps settling around his cheeks, eyes bright but reserved and observant, shoulders straight in his deep red festival garb (hand-tailored by one of his retainers, Takumi would learn later), his voice soft but clear.
"Have you tried any of the street food yet, Prince Takumi?" Leo asks. He's holding what looks like a fish-shaped piece of bread in a napkin.
"No," Takumi says, but stares at him for another reason entirely. "And...and just Takumi is fine."
Unfortunately for him, Leo catches on quickly.
"Ah. You're wondering why it is that I'm not calling you brother like the rest of them."
Takumi feels his ears turning red from how easily he was found out. "Yes, but not that I mind," he says quickly.
Leo nods, nonetheless. "Walk with me? And try a bite of this."
Takumi complies, taking the pastry from Leo and following him as he steps towards the center of the festivities.
"To put it bluntly, I'm not a prince of Hoshido."
Takumi stops mid-bite and stares. "What?"
"I'm the same as you, Prince Takumi. I was stolen away from my kingdom at a young age, and brought here to Hoshido to be raised as a Hoshidan prince. However, there is no Hoshidan blood in my veins—you'd understand, then, why I can't call you brother as naturally as the others."
"Where were you...originally from then, do you know?"
"I'll tell you if you take a bite of the taiyaki."
"The pastry you have in your hands. Try it and I'll let you know where I'm from."
Takumi stares at him but obeys, albeit reluctantly. It's filled with something unexpectedly sweet and thick on his tongue. He hadn't expected a paste inside it—it tastes like some variation of the pies that Elise always tries to bake, unsuccessfully.
"...This is very good."
"Well of course. It's one of my favorites."
"Your blood, then?"
Leo pauses for just a moment longer with an expression that Takumi can't quite pin down, before he sighs. "Nohrian."
Takumi nearly drops his taiyaki. "Nohrian. Really?"
(He tries to picture Leo in the hallways with Elise, conversing with Xander and being on the receiving end of Camilla's hugs. When he looks carefully Takumi realizes that Leo's hair is the same gold as Xander's and Elise’s, but his eyes catch the sun much too easily for Takumi to picture him in the halls of any Nohrian castle. Every fiber of his being screams open fields and sprawling gardens and excess.)
"As Nohrian and as noble as the current ruling family," Leo hums. "Your...foster siblings, correct?"
My real siblings , Takumi wants to correct him, impulsively, but manages to clamp his lips shut in time. He knows Leo wouldn't appreciate it.
"How did it happen? If you—if you know, of course."
Leo shrugs. "I don't remember, I've only heard the stories. But I do know that the Hoshidans took me because the Nohrians took you."
It's big news. Takumi lets it sink in, and takes another slow bite of his taiyaki. He notices that Leo already bought another and is picking at its head with his fingers.
"I'm sorry," Takumi finally says, since it sounds like Leo's displacement is definitely partially his fault. "But that sounds terribly hypocritical of them."
"Oh, yes, most definitely," Leo says dismissively.
"I'd have expected Hoshidan values to stand against that, actually."
"Maybe they do. But values are only ever relevant when people wish them to be," Leo says.
Takumi turns to look at him, curiously. Though he doesn't know Leo well yet, he can sense something bitter in that sentence. Leo stiffens almost imperceptibly—just a hint, in his jawline—before he takes a careful step away. "It's been wonderful meeting you, Takumi, it has, but I must go check on my siblings. If you'll excuse me—"
Takumi watches him weave away through the crowd until his ponytail disappears with a swish behind a large blacksmith's forge. He pushes the last of the taiyaki into his mouth and stands there, thinking quietly and making every effort to exude to the Hoshidan commoners that he belongs.
"...There's no reason to be ashamed, Takumi."
"Just mentioning shame is enough to imply what you're actually thinking, Prince Leo."
"I thought we were friends now."
"Hah. Well, yes. But this..."
"Sorry. You just really don't need to know what these dreams are like."
It’s a stranger dream than the others, because he isn’t quite there inside his body. There’s something ragged and quiet about the version of himself that he sees, with blood caked on his neck and seeping through his clothes in a way he’s sure he’s never looked before, and something about the press of his eyelids over his eyes looks inexplicably strange and final.
Everything feels muted. Takumi becomes acutely aware that he isn’t experiencing this moment through any of his senses, but rather through his heart and head. He doesn’t hear Hinoka’s screaming or feel Corrin’s arms around his shoulders, but he knows it’s happening the same way he knows that Leo is a distance away, frozen, still on his horse and blood still on his hands—and for some reason the look on his face almost feels funny to Takumi. It’s starting to sink in just what’s happening—and he know he shouldn’t laugh, but the sight of Leo standing so directionless and lost just seems so impossible that it’s funny.
He can still, in some strange way, feel the drop of Corrin’s tears on his cheeks, and he wants to shake her a little bit for being so soft, they are still in the middle of a goddamn battle, but he feels that it might be unfair to her since he seems to be a little more clearheaded than the rest of them at the moment.
It does surprise him that Ryoma cries, though. Takumi can feel the tears there, on his brother’s cheek, as he clenches his jaw and digs his heels in and Raijinto’s electricity crackles in a way Takumi knows is searing into his skin. Something about that particular sight feels strangely unexpected and makes his heart break.
He realizes that it’s something deep inside him that’s mourning as he dies. And even though it’s too late now, he feels regret that he couldn’t have been just a little more for them—
(The strangest in this moment is Leo. Takumi doesn’t know what to think of the fragility and fury in Leo’s eyes, the way enormous craters and fissures split the cobblestone floors as trees of gargantuan sizes claw their way up into the room—how he shouts something too garbled for Takumi to understand and how his magic churns the earth and spears all their enemies until the battlefield falls quiet and Leo is standing at the epicenter—silent and face turned up, countless bodies decorating Brynhildr’s branches like autumn leaves.)
"What are most of the nightmares about?"
“Um, I don’t think you’d want to know.”
“What, are they actual secret fantasies?”
“Wh— no . Don’t tease me, Leo.”
“You weren’t giving me much to work with—I made the best guess I could.”
“Ugh...no, they aren’t. They’re too embarrassing to tell you.”
“Curb your curiosity. I can feel it all the way from here.”
The Hoshidan sun is kinder than the one he'd grown up with—it's coaxing but not scorching, welcoming but not suffocating.
Takumi tries turning his face up to it again, but is hit with a sudden wave of vertigo. He’d always considered himself a good equestrian, but apparently that doesn’t apply to pegasi. He swallows and looks determinately at Leo's back, and not at the trees and hills and rivers speeding by under them.
"Do you always go this fast?" he asks, as loud as he can without letting his nausea overwhelm him. Leo turns slightly—a large gust of wind blows his ponytail against Takumi’s cheek, and Takumi has to fight the reflex to splutter.
"Is this fast? I'm trying to take it a little slower for you. Let me know if you'd like it a little lower, or slower."
"I...don't know. Maybe."
Takumi tries looking down again, and feels a dangerous lurch in his stomach. He fights the urge to just bury his face into Leo's back, so he wouldn't be forced to face the fact that he's aloft hundreds of feet above the ground. "M-Maybe both."
"Understood. Tobiume—" Takumi feels a shift as Leo guides his mount down, just slightly. One of Tobiume's black wings brush by a treetop, and it sends reverberations and lurches down to them that make Takumi shudder. "Try looking up," Leo says, nudging backwards at Takumi with his shoulder. "Looking up and out."
He obeys, hesitantly. Leo's right—of course he's right—the landscape sprawls out in front of them like the raised storybook Leo had showed him a few days ago in the Hoshidan collections, dotted with pink cherry blossom trees and large showers of weeping willows and rolling hills and sharp, sudden peaks of mountains. He suddenly feels very anchored in the world, his arms and legs heavy in a way he’s never felt before.
Takumi turns his face up higher, eyes wide, exploring the feeling. He barely notices how his center of gravity is shifting too far until he feels himself tip backwards with a surprised yelp. Leo, without even looking, reaches back and grabs his collar.
"Okay, don't get too excited," he says, and laughs.
"Takumi, do you sleep?"
"Why would you leave him alone?" Takumi yells. His blood is running cold in his veins, his heart clenched into a knot. From inside the door he can still hear what sounds like choked whines, uncharacteristic but undoubtedly from Leo.
"This has been happening more and more often the past few days," Felicia says, eyes wide. "He'd always told us to stay away. We thought—"
"Why would you listen to him?" Takumi knows it's an unfair question—he knows Felicia and Jakob aren't in positions where it's acceptable to disobey orders from the king, but the old part of him still needs someone to blame.
He draws back and slams his shoulder into the door again. He can hear Leo yelling something, presumably at him, but it's garbled and cut off and he takes that as permission to ignore it.
He draws his foot back and gives the doorknob a solid kick. It doesn't budge. Something thuds and shatters behind it. The panic at the back of his throat rises.
"Here—here—" Felicia steps forward and pulls a key ring out of the pockets of her dress. Takumi isn't given much of a chance to glare at her before she finds the right key, jams it in, and turns. She hangs back, peeping around the doorframe, while Takumi charges in.
It takes a second for him to process what's happening. Leaves and dirt are scattered across Leo's floor, over his rugs and piling in heaps and flying in the air like a disgusting mist that stings Takumi’s eyes, and he has to bring an arm over them before he can make out anything else.
Leo is doubled over on the ground, bound and dragged down by thick roots and vines that have broken through his cobblestone floors in a mess of dirt and rocks. As he watches, Leo manages to pull his arm free for a second, snapping the thin vine that had coiled around his wrist, before another large branch shoots up from the ground and loops around his forearm, jerking it back down to the ground. He bites back a yell.
Takumi expects to see some degree of frustration or apprehension at being discovered when Leo looks up, but there's none of that—instead, something new is alight in them, bright and frightened. Takumi sees him opening his mouth to say something, but there are twigs and leaves between his teeth and nothing comes out.
That's the only sign that he needs. He lunges forward and grabs a handful of roots, yanking and tugging at them until they break in small showers of dirt. Leo takes the opportunity to pull away from the ground again, and a few branches and vines break over his back in coarse snaps. The plants don't let up—a wild spray of dirt rockets up from the ground again, accompanied by two thick vines that slap Takumi on their way up and indiscriminately wind themselves around his and Leo's forearms. Takumi hisses but doesn't slow, grabbing and uprooting whatever his hands fall on until Leo finally wrenches an arm free and flings it out.
Takumi grabs his hand and pulls, and the rest of the vines seem to give up and wilt as Leo is dragged out from under them. The room falls eerily quiet.
Takumi's ears ring, and his arms feel dead. He takes the first few seconds afterwards to clear his lungs, catch his breath. He looks down at his hands and sees small wells of blood, dirt, and strained lines pressed in from pulling too hard. His mind is numbed, still processing, barely registering the thin streak of blood staining his palms.
Leo looks worse. Parts of his clothes are torn and there are scratches on almost all of his limbs. His face is matted with dirt and sweat, and as he spits out the leaves in his mouth there is blood dotting the corners. Takumi watched as he gasps for breath and falls back onto the jagged pile of earth and rock, exhausted—and it's only then that Takumi notices the tome clutched to his chest.
It takes an hour for Leo to be carried out and have his wounds cleaned. It’s another few minutes before he has his words gathered coherently enough to explain to Takumi what happened.
"Tomes aren't like ordinary weapons. The reason why we can harness such an irregular degree of magic from them is because the magic isn't human. They're all taken from other sources.”
Leo shakes his head. "Not borrowed. The oldest mages of the earliest kingdoms acquired them through trickery and thievery. Magic—as we know and use it—was stolen."
They're seated around the stone hearth in Leo's bedroom. After Takumi had apologized to Felicia for his rudeness, she'd nodded at him once, curtly, before pushing large blankets and two goblets of warmed cider into his arms. The lack of explanation had confused him until he returned to Leo's room and seen him with his legs pulled up into his armchair, shivering.
Takumi burrows his chin into his own blanket and looks at Leo, waiting for him to continue.
"It's a long history, I won't bother you with all of it now," Leo finally says. His own blanket is gathered neatly at his hips, now that the worst of his shivering is over. "But baseline, all tomes have personalities of their own, retained from the original owner of the stolen magic. Weaker creatures don't yield particularly powerful tomes so they don't have strong personalities, but stronger tomes..."
"Like Brynhildr. Stronger tomes like Brynhildr are...more picky. They hate being used by a master they'd consider inferior to them. It's most likely the residual dignity left from the dragon, or god, or whatever inhuman being the magic had been stolen from."
"So Brynhildr saw you as inferior today?"
Leo quiets. His blinks once, slowly, and turns to stare straight into the fire. His goblet, emptied, is sitting atop a spindly table next to his chair, with Brynhildr beside it, looking deceptively innocent. A part of Takumi wants to throw it into the flames.
Perched on top of Brynhildr is the Nohrian crown, and in the firelight it looks like it could be made of nothing more special than common stone. Takumi recalls, suddenly, the statement that Felicia had made, about how this is becoming a regular occurrence.
"What's the worst that could happen?" Takumi asks. Leo looks up at him, and apparently it's dumb enough question that he smirks and visibly fights a laugh.
"The worst? I become a sacrifice to the gods, for all that we've abused their power."
It's not a response that garners more conversation. They sit there, quietly, staring at the fire and the small streaks of dirt that are left on the floor, not yet ground into the cracks.
(Leo doesn't ask the question and Takumi isn't as good at asking questions but it's still there in the air—the thought—"Why does it have to be you?")
"Have you tried taking tonics and medicines for it in the past?"
"I mean, not really. But it's also never been this bad before."
"Yeah and the...lucidity. I guess."
"...Look, I know you're worried, but it's fine. Thanks."
"Isn't this what you wanted?"
The question is asked in Leo's voice, but Takumi understands now that it’s not him—that whatever Leo he'd claimed to know and understand before is dead inside his shell. This Leo's face is the same but not, his fingers twisted and his eyes fiery red and wide and Brynhildr in his hands is cracking the earth around his feet (and vines are snapping up around his ankles and torso in a sight that almost causes a wave of deja vu to crash in Takumi's chest, that he can’t quite identify, that feels both so familiar and so foreign—).
"All you wanted was a choice, correct?" Leo-but-not-Leo smirks.
He’s shaking in violent jerks, in his arms and legs, as if he can’t decide what direction to go in, and Takumi feels a tightness in his chest when he notices because it’s not at all like Leo to not have control of his own limbs, and maybe it’s that observation that breaks his heart the most.
The stolen Fujin Yumi burns in his hands, and he can practically feel the bow thrumming with the knowledge of the what he needs to do.
Leo’s hand lifts, slowly—Takumi can practically feel a growl rising from Brynhildr before roots and branches tug themselves free from the ground in violent showers of dirt and stone. They rise, as whole trees and tangled plants and vines and boulders, until they hang in the air, poised to shoot outwards into everyone in the hall. Takumi can feel Corrin freeze and stare, can see Xander’s eyes widen and his grip tense on his sword, and Takumi knows that Leo’s addressing him specifically when his red eyes fixate right onto his and he whispers, spits—
"Then choose, princeling."
"I asked Camilla and Sakura about it and they directed me towards Felicia, who told me that this is a salve that some of the children of the Ice Tribe use when they have problems with sleep."
"Here, let me help you with it."
This dream only comes once in a very long while—though Takumi truthfully doesn't remember it as a scenario or a moment. This one only comes in bursts of scattered pictures.
He is sitting on a cold throne, with his hand on the armrests, and the air is still and sharp and carves thin tunnels into his lungs. Something sits on his head, and it feels like the entire world. He knows, without looking, that it's the same Nohrian crown he'd seen on his father's head, and that he'd once imagined on his brothers. Never had he expected for it to be on his own. The fact that it is there—present—feels almost insulting. His understanding and sense that something is wrong increases.
The room is frigid and empty. At the back of his mind, he knows that there's supposed to be some sort of warmth present, and that maybe there's something critical missing or out of place. It hurts him, terribly, to think about.
The large double doors open with a quiet swish. Someone enters the hall—someone tall and poised, head thrown back perfectly and clothes settling around him like water and hair swishing against the small of his back—he’s the victor of the war, the savior and the hero.
"Good afternoon, King Takumi," Prince Leo says, as he dips into a slow bow. "How are you today?"
"Leo, I don't want to try any more of your weird concoctions."
"...Well, fine. I'm just trying to help."
"I know. Thanks."
"...You're still angry?"
"I'm not angry ."
"You're not happy. I just wanted to help you find a way to avoid the nightmares."
"I know . But...ugh."
"Ugh, what ?"
"Stop pushing me! Whatever. Just—just sleep. I'll be fine."
It’s a still dream, this night. Takumi is standing in a pond, with soft waves rippling up to his chest. Ahead of him is a single figure, rooted in the dirt under the water.
Of course it’s Leo. He’s bound upright, against a blossoming tree with flowers and apples the color of his blood and leaves the dull blue-green of his veins. His left leg and parts of his torso are completely covered by thick bark, his thighs and calves incorporated into the trunk like they’re nothing more than paper, his arms threaded into large branches that stretch out far towards opposite sides and flower vigorously, and his head is hanging and he’s silent and pale and Takumi is convinced that everything that he could have possibly given away has already been drained from him.
There’s nothing to this dream but the image. It’s all that stays in his head when he’s jerked awake—and even that slips away, in a few blinks.
"Stop trying to fix me!"
"I'm not trying to fix you, I'm just trying to—"
"You can't stop the nightmares, Leo!"
"You don't know that! You've barely tried!"
"How—what? What ? How can you—I've tried so hard! I've—my entire life—how dare you—"
"Ugh! I can't stand you—stop complaining like a child if you've resigned yourself to them! And if you haven't, then keep trying to find a way for them to stop!"
"Are you kidding me? You barely know me for a few weeks and make me eat a few disgusting pills and get angry at me and give up, because they're not working and I'm not happy that they're not working—"
"At least I'm trying !"
"Yeah, well maybe I don't want to be looked at like some broken bowl!"
"You—ugh! I can't stand this anymore, I'm sleeping somewhere else tonight."
"Fine! Get out! I don't want to be in the same room as you!"
"Fine! I will!"
"The rebellions are alighting across Nohr," Lord Everlyn says, brushing his hand along the side of the table in irritation. "It's not just among the portions of Nohr that are closer to the Bottomless Canyon and Hoshido—they've started spreading. There's unrest in Cheve. Some say that a few cities are going to take up arms against their standing armies soon. Some say that their standing armies will fight with them, and throw your dignitaries out. You understand now, boy king, what the state of your country is? Is it not time to stop playing dress-up, and instead to pass the crown on to real men who actually know what they’re doing?"
The table falls silent, stunned. Takumi is almost too afraid to look up towards Leo—when he does, he sees that Leo's face is meticulously blank and his hands relaxed on the table. That, more than any sign of anger, feels like a stone dropping into his stomach.
He almost makes it to his feet in time before Leo gives the signal for Lord Everlyn to be dragged out of the room. He doesn't struggle, but looks up to Leo, defiantly, until the double doors slam shut behind him.
Everlyn is dismissed, and the rumor spreads among the nobles and through the castle that he had disappeared shortly after. Takumi is filled, in that moment, with a desire to do nothing else but go home.
"...There is one thing that works, I think. Maybe."
"...Are you listening, Leo?"
"...Do you know...any...stories...?"
"I mean, they don't have to be anything special. Maybe just something to...I don't know. Take my mind off...of things. Maybe it wouldn't work, I’m not sure, but—"
"There is a Nohrian one, Camilla always told it to Corrin, I think. It was about a baby bird that was uglier than the rest of its siblings."
"The rest of them were beautiful and golden, and fluffy. But this bird was smaller than the others, and its feathers were scruffy and a dull gray."
"The others made fun of him. They would exclude him from their games and single him out to be picked on by the other birds. This small bird grew on to believe that he could never be loved. But, one day..."
It all happens so terribly fast, Takumi can barely process it—
The gift from Queen Mikoto, his mother, of Fujin Yumi—the soft smile pressed against the corners of her eyes as she pulls him in for a hug—
The dark hum of Ganglari before it tears itself from his side and hangs, suspended in the air, pausing for only heartbeats before something ghostly ripples the air around it and it shatters into dozens of pieces, tearing themselves towards him—
The warmth against his stomach of Mikoto’s blood, the screams, rising—
Another scream, against the sidelines, as Corrin doubles over and spasms and something explodes from her spine in a beautiful arc of ivory and steel and a dragon rises in her place, roaring, and turns towards the nearest target and attacks—
All of this feels like it happens in nothing more than two blinks. Takumi feels oddly distant from all of it, like he could reach out a hand and it wouldn’t be dyed a deep red from Queen Mikoto’s blood, but he still sees and hears everything around him.
It ends in a few more. The dragon rears forward and tears the head off the intruder, before turning and fixing a single, soulless eye on Takumi. He only stares. It rears up towards him and roars—Takumi blinks again, and when he opens his eyes this time Ryoma has Raijinto sunk deep into the dragon’s chest and the dragon’s teeth are deep into his throat. They jerk in opposite directions, and collapse. The screams pause, only for moment, in deep shock before a wail rises slowly to take its place, crescendoing into horrified shrieks.
Leo looks up and Takumi can tell in that moment that they’ve crossed something between them—Leo’s eyes are wide and his hands are shaking, stark white and vivid red from Corrin’s and Ryoma’s mixed blood, smudged into his hair and on his face—and Takumi automatically stumbles a step backwards. He can practically feel Fujin Yumi sing in his hands, traitorously.
Takumi tries taking a step forward—
(And maybe this was the moment—maybe it was here that he could have done something, if he could have done anything—maybe if only he had tried harder to approach him peacefully or maybe if he’d dropped Fujin Yumi or maybe if he’d fallen to his knees and looked just as heartbroken and lost as Leo in that moment—maybe this was the second where he could have chosen something else—but he doesn’t. Not this time.)
Leo’s eyes burn, sudden and fiery. "Seize him!" he screams, hoarsely, and the next thing Takumi feels is hands clamping down on his arms and around his torso and then—
There’s a jerk under his feet and his eyes close automatically. When he opens them again, he’s standing in a flat plain, across from Iago and Xander and Camilla and Elise—his siblings—he stumbles backwards and looks around wildly. They’re nowhere near Hoshido anymore.
“Welcome back, Prince Takumi,” Iago says, and breaks into a wide grin.
He wakes up and remembers. His tears sting with cold from the draft that weaves its way in through the tent flap.
Leo is still asleep. Takumi can hear his steady breathing. He turns his head slightly and sees a few sparse strands of Leo’s golden hair, lit white by moonlight.
Takumi rolls back over and wraps his arms around himself. He presses his cheek into his pillow and closes his eyes again—but he knows that he won’t be able to fall asleep again, not tonight.
Leo crooks his finger and says, very soft, "I'd like to show you something, if I may."
The tone of his voice is enough to move Takumi—Leo doesn't often make a point of speaking to him with the same cordiality that he reserves for addressing other people, but Takumi has realized since that it's a mark of nerves on his part. Leo turns and starts down the hallway, and Takumi feels it very natural to follow him.
He's led out of a heavy archway to one of the smaller, more private gardens outside Leo's wing of the castle. It's very different from Hoshidan gardens—the ones back home sprawl open expanses, dotted with blossom trees that smother the ground in white like snow once springtime arrives—but the gardens of Castle Krakenburg are compact and scattered in different pockets, all overflowing in roses and crocuses and hydrangeas to the point where they're spilling out onto the winding pathways. He'd thought, when he first saw them, that they were incredibly unkempt and abandoned—but Takumi has since learned the gentle pleasure that comes with taking a solitary bench and feeling as if he's the only one in the world, submerged in flowers.
The garden that Leo brings him to today isn't one that he'd even been aware of before. There's something very personal about this one that Takumi hadn't felt with any of the others, to the point where he wouldn't be surprised if he bent to smell a rose and instead caught of whiff of Leo's musk. He catches on very quickly that this must be Leo's private garden.
Takumi brushes aside a cluster of deep violet dahlias and casts his gaze around the flowers, suddenly very self-aware. Everything about the space emulates seclusion, and even with Leo leading him he feels like an intruder. The garden itself is quite large and sectioned with twelve radii of black cobblestone paths that all gather at the center in a fantastic tree—and the flowers dip down from high vines and spill out from branches, to the point where each area sectioned off with sidewalk forms tall hedges of smooth green leaves and scattered flora that are almost taller than Takumi.
Leo leads him down one of these paths towards the center, and Takumi is so absorbed in staring at a very large and very beautiful black calla lily that he doesn't notice they're nearing the tree.
"This is all yours, Leo?" Takumi asks, lowering his voice unconsciously, as if he's afraid of disturbing the flowers.
Leo glances back at him for a second over his shoulder before stopping. "It's the innermost garden of the castle, reserved for the king and his closest friends. So yes—for now."
Takumi looks up to catch his expression. The sadness was familiar in that sentence, but Leo doesn't look anything more than pensive now. His eyes flicker down and he smiles.
"It's all very beautiful," Takumi says.
"How does it compare to your Hoshidan gardens?"
"They're impossible to compare. Your gardens feel like they're trying to smother me."
"I suppose that's the intention. But enough. I brought you to see this—"
Takumi looks away from the flowers and towards the enormous tree that Leo's gesturing towards. It is slim and elegant and looks to be very, very old—the trunk knots in different directions and thin branches curve off from it, weighed down by delicate leaves that look uniquely transparent, to the point where they glitter shyly in whatever light they can find. They look like gemstones.
"It's native to Nohr," Leo says, his eyes fixated on the branches of the tree. "Old records say they used to grow everywhere." He reaches up to touch a fingertip to a branch that dips low enough to dangle in their faces. "But at some point they started stripping them bare, for their leaves. The trees never survived, afterwards. This one is the last."
"I'm...sorry to hear that."
Leo shrugs. "Yggdrasil has been the last for centuries now, they say. It's been the king's duty to preserve its health, as a testament to the resilience and beauty of Nohr. I wanted to show it to you because of that...and because it reminds me of you."
Takumi does a double take, his eyes snapping back around to Leo in surprise. But Leo's not looking at him now—though Takumi can sense that he still has his full attention, his eyes are turned to the cascading branches and leaves of Yggdrasil.
"I don't really see the resemblance."
This catches Leo's attention, and he turns back. "I knew you wouldn't. I'm afraid that's the point."
"What are you so afraid of, in your dreams?"
"If you saw them then you wouldn't ask a question that stupid."
"...Then enlighten me."
"Okay, stop. You don't have to strain yourself to care just because our siblings told you to. I'm fine."
Takumi had never seen the Nohrian army mobilized before—he'd barely seen any other soldiers from his solitary confinement, and only heard stories from Elise about their older siblings in battle.
Camilla was a force of nature, she'd said. The stories say that her axe swings like a guillotine, glittering and beautiful, and leaves large meadows of red behind her way. She leads her own regiment, has her own colors in a take on the violet rose and double-crescent of Nohr—a curl of black thorns in the shape of a circle, with a sickle moon emblazoned on the center.
Xander's was the mirror. Takumi had never seen his banner either, but rather had heard it described to him by Elise, as carefully as she had described Camilla's. On his the crescent moon curved the other way and cups a blooming, violet rose. The background of his banners were the color of pitch, like the color of his armor and every soldier in his regiment. He wasn't often spotted at the front of battles for reasons of security alone, but Elise emphasized how his reputation on the field was still paramount.
She would always focus on the look of him from the distance, as she saw it—on the small details that she knew helped Takumi see the scene the best—and always talked of the gold in his hair, standing out starkly as the only unhelmeted figure in a sea of black, how the soldiers would turn towards him like ships to a beacon, how just the sight of him could drive his men to tears in loyalty. He was never known to be as cruel as Camilla, never as ruthless.
"He can make everyone in the army silent just by raising a hand," Elise had said, as they'd sat across from each other that rainy afternoon in a year long past. "He looks so amazing, Takumi! Like the gods of folktales."
When Takumi sees it in person, he can only agree. But then again, when he sees it in person, everything already feels so unreal. He is riding at the head of his own regiment, smaller than Xander's and Camilla's but his own nonetheless, with a banner of his own—a large hunting falcon, wings spread out and beak turned down, screeching towards the enemy with its claws clamped around winding black thorns. Niles and Odin are at his side, jesting as usual, but even their voices sound more distant than they ever have in the past.
Takumi blinks, suddenly. Glenr shifts underneath him, snorting and shaking his mane out, as if sensing Takumi's uneasiness. Takumi reaches down and sets a hand to Glenr's side and closes his eyes. It takes a few deep breaths before he can feel his weight solidly in his own saddle, the tension in his back from the Fujin Yumi's presence, the light bump of his quiver against his legs.
It's another half an hour before Xander gives the order to march. It is Nohrian custom to see off a party towards war, especially if that party happens to contain nearly every member of royalty in the country. However, Takumi can hear the distaste in their cheers, the haughty gazes that catch his eye at nearly every turn.
He swallows and forces his chin upright, and urges Glenr forward.
(But of course his mind still betrays him—it's a quiet thought, but it's there nonetheless—he wonders how the skies look above Hoshido, wonders what Hinoka and Leo and Sakura are doing to prepare for the inevitable.)
(He even, in a moment of extreme weakness, wonders if Leo would be angry if he saw him right now.)
“Sakura’s mentioned to me a Hoshidan folk tale that I might enjoy.”
“Mmm? What’s it about?”
“A princess from the moon that comes down to Earth...”
“Ah. I wonder why she thought that. I would have guessed that you’d hate it.”
“Yes. Well, the story differs depending on who’s telling it, but in the version that Mother told, she didn’t choose to come down to the Earth. She was cast down against her will by others to protect her from a war that was raging between the other gods.”
“Yes. She is raised on the Earth because of that but falls in love with the humans she lives with—her mother, her father, her friends, the emperor. But she’s forced to shed all of those happy memories in order to return to the moon. All because they decided they wanted her back.”
“Wait, wait wait wait—start again from the beginning.”
Takumi obeys. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes for him to finish.
“...What, that’s it?”
“That’s it. Sakura probably meant that you’d enjoy it in an appreciative sense.”
“I don’t know, I don’t find it quite so unbearable. Maybe you’re projecting onto me.”
“...Ha. You’re right, maybe it’s just me.”
The news comes to them through a messenger that comes in running into camp early at dawn, panting heavily and swaying with exhaustion, and it isn't until he's refreshed with water and made to sit down for a few minutes that he catches his breath enough to tell Xander his news.
"Brynhildr has been stolen by the Hoshidans," Xander relays, dumbfounded. Takumi feels something in his heart clench, even as he hears Elise gasp and sees Camilla wrinkling her brow in quiet thought.
"But it's not guaranteed that they can use it, right?" Elise is the first to ask.
"No, they shouldn't be able to. Brynhildr won't simply cast for anyone, they have to be chosen," Camilla says. "Besides, it's Nohrian magic. It's unlikely that Hoshidans would even be able to understand Brynhildr's intricacies."
"That's what I believe, as well," Xander responds, looking equally troubled. "But it's still not enough to reassure me. In all of Hoshido, the chances are high that there's at least one mage powerful enough to tap into Brynhildr's magic."
"Yes, they have—" Takumi begins, but his voice cracks very noticeably and all of his siblings turn to look at him. He sees the recognition register in their eyes, even as he's opening his mouth to continue, "They have Leo."
“Don't let me fall asleep tonight."
"...Takumi, It's not safe to go into battle with little sleep. Your reaction time will be slow and you'll make an easy target, Fujin Yumi or not."
"Don't say you don't care."
"But I don't. If I fall behind, it’s my own fault, you don’t have to concern yourself with—"
“You’re so daft. How could I not care about you?”
“You don’t need to lie to me about this—”
“ How could you think I was lying about this?”
“No, how? How could you discredit me so easily?”
“And what would you have me do? Shake you periodically? Douse you in cold water on the hour to make sure you’re still alert?”
“...I’m sorry, you’re tired. I didn’t notice. Goodnight.”
“No...no—I’m sorry. We can talk for a while. It’s not that late yet.”
“No, you’re right. It’s fine. I need sleep. Goodnight, Leo.”
“Don’t be difficult, Takumi, it’s really not—”
“Good night, Leo.”
He grabs Leo’s wrists, and it’s horrifying to feel how bony and thin they are (because his fingers remember a hint of something else, another time when he’d grabbed him and where his wrists didn’t feel so paper-thin and taut) and Takumi is convinced that the pain in his chest is nothing more than his temper and impatience, but he doesn’t regret whispering to Leo—
“Stop this, no more.
“It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault—none of this is your fault, none of this was ever your fault—
“Elise is not your fault and Xander is not your fault, and they didn’t die to leave you alone—
“And they loved you then, and they’d love you now—even after all of this they’d love you because they are not your fault, what happened to them and what happened to you is not your fault.”
Leo’s eyes clear, just a glint, and he finally breaks his silence.
“Then whose,” he begins—but his voice is too quiet, so he stops and wets his lips and tries again. “Whose is it?”
“I’ve realized what it is about the story that you despise the most.”
“Yes. It’s her inability to choose.”
“Am I wrong?”
“I don’t know. That isn’t what I expected to hear.”
“Really? It felt convincing to me.”
“No, I expected you to say it was because she could discard people that loved her so easily. That’s more mainstream.”
“Oh, I thought of that too, but it didn’t stand out to me. There was something in your retelling of the story that felt particularly interesting—you emphasized how it wasn’t her choice to return to the moon.”
“She was sent down to the Earth against her will and made the best of her situation, but you don’t like that she was told that everything she’d grown to hold dear is insignificant in the scope of the role she’s supposed to play. And she’s forced to shed it, without any say on her part, without the assent of everyone loved by her.”
“You hate her hopelessness, Takumi—that she was doomed from the start, and that the fact that she’s doomed from the start was so consciously chosen by others.”
“Am I correct?”
Leo looks up from his desk, the crown on his head just slightly jostled, in a rare moment of open insecurity.
"It didn't used to be this quiet here, you know," is all he says.
"...You're awake, still?"
"...Did you just wake up from a—?"
"...What was it this time?"
"A bad one."
"I'm terribly sorry."
"No. It's fine."
The arrow shoots free and buries itself deep into Tobiume.
He can’t catch the look on Leo’s face before the pegasus whinnies, pained, and plummets towards the ground.
It’s terrible timing—but Takumi remembers the story that Leo had told him all those months ago, about the time that he had first taken Tobiume for a flight and how they’d both crashed into a persimmon tree, because he’d been too young and Tobiume had been too stubborn.
Takumi wonders, at the back of his head, if they’d fallen as fast as they’re falling now.
"Leo, what do you want to do after the war is over?"
"...Your question confuses me. We'd be impossibly busy."
"Well, I mean yeah, but beside that."
"...Visit the Hoshidan gardens? I've heard about many hardier Hoshidan crop species. I wonder if it's possible to breed a variant that could tolerate a Nohrian climate—maybe then we'd be able to start cultivation in cities with a milder—"
"Oh Gods. Pretend I didn't ask."
"What? It's a productive method of passing time that's still enjoyable."
"I just can't talk to you, sometimes."
It’s too real—they’re much too close this time—Takumi has already grown accustomed to the presence of Leo’s horse at his side during battles, has already known when to expect the violent cracking of earth and spindling of branches from Brynhildr—and maybe that’s what makes the moment so much more tragic—because he knows something in his bones that this is the closest they’ve come and that it’s silly that it could end so quickly—
He catches the last look Leo has for him. Strangely enough, it reminds him of the day just a few weeks ago when they were lost and wandering in the forest, on a day where the sun was soft and bright and threw kaleidoscopes of shadows from the treetops, when Takumi had stumbled on the leaf litter and Leo had thought he’d sprained his ankle. Except this look is much louder—in its desperation and futility—and Takumi is certain that, in this moment, his own expression must look exactly the same.
Takumi isn’t all that good at reading lips. But he thinks he can read it off Leo’s lips—the words—
(Takumi fails him, one last time. His eyes follow the swing of the axe, to the very end.)
He jerks awake violently.
It takes a few moments for him to realize where he is. The sky around him is dark and the slight breeze chills the thin layer of sweat that clings to his limbs, but he's in his tent and can hear the steady footsteps of the soldiers on rounds. He lies back again, and focuses on steadying his breath.
Whatever nightmare he was having already escaped him again. None of the pictures are still in his head—just the faintest pain in his chest, of heartbreak—and it’s enough.
He can also tell, without looking, that Leo is awake and staring—his breathing is slowed but not steady or deep enough to be asleep. Takumi doesn't have the energy to humor him, though. He rolls away, pointedly, to stare at the opposite wall.
He lays there for a long stretch of silence. He senses no change from Leo, and assumes he’s still being watched. A part of him is glad that Leo knows he doesn't want to talk about it. Another part is annoyed of his presence, of the fact that he'd witnessed this moment of fragility, because he doesn’t need anyone else to know this shit about him.
It's almost imperceptible. The faintest rustling sounds from behind him, and then there's the lightest pressure against his back. No sounds, no words—just Leo's fingertips splayed against his spine with no expectations for him to bare himself.
Takumi fights the sudden urge to curl up and cry. It's nearly an hour before he falls asleep again.
He waits until the quiet moment at the end of the day, after Leo has finally escapes from his advisors and lords and people, before he brings up something he'd found in a book from the expansive Nohrian collections.
"Oh," Leo responds immediately, after seeing Takumi crack open the book. "You can't even read that one, can you?"
"No," Takumi concedes. He'd found it in one of the lower shelves of the main library and pulled it because of its beautiful binding. It isn’t written in Old Nohrian, but the images are so uniquely colorful and detailed that he’d tucked it under his arm to ask Leo about later. "Where is it from?"
"An old civilization that used to exist to the south of Nohr centuries ago," Leo says, leaning over to glance at the pages. They’ve taken their places at the roots of Yggdrasil, both of them leaning back against the smooth trunk with their own books. "This looks like an anthology of their myths. But this book in particular looks quite unique—it's hand illuminated, and they've stopped doing that since." Takumi leans back to let him flip through a few of the pages. "The language is now considered dead, but I can read some pieces for you, if you'd like."
"What, you put in all the effort of learning a dead language?"
Leo looks up to throw him a wry smile. "What can I say? I had a day off."
Takumi tries to make his eyeroll as obvious as possible.
“Can you read this, then?”
“Mmm. Let me see.” He stretches out a finger to trace along a string of foreign letters, and he’s so close that Takumi can feel his breath warm his cheek when he speaks. “Oh, I do know of this story. It’s about a sprite that’s cursed with repeating only the words spoken by others. She falls in love with this prideful man, you see—that’s what this part here is. And he scorns her.”
“This line is about him telling her off?”
“Yes. In a way. Look—emoriar, quam sit tibi copia nostri,” Leo reads off. The foreign language on his tongue makes him sound unfamiliar, even though it’s still spoken with the same voice. Takumi glances up. Leo’s eyes are turned down to the page, his dark lashes flicking slowly as he reads, mouth parting and closing as he thinks. “Emoriar—‘let me die’—quam sit tibi copia—‘when I give you power’—nostri...I believe that’s roughly ‘May I die before I give you power over me.’” He taps the line, proudly. “This is spoken by the man. And then the nymph’s response is—”
"Sit tibi copia nostri," Takumi reads, slowly. “It’s the ironic echo. ‘I give you power over me.’”
Leo looks up, impressed—but smiles. “Yes. ‘I give you power over me.’”
"Oh no. What did she do."
"She mentioned your mother. In passing."
"...Have we really become close enough for this conversation?"
"Only if you feel that we are."
"Haha. I can’t say I dislike that response."
"I understand. But no. Perhaps another day."
(And then once he loses it all—he feels the ice coursing through his veins and the roaring in his head of dragons long dead and his fingers and arms and legs are not his own, and his vision burns red with fury and yellow with regret—)
(But the worst part of this—worse than Sakura’s cold hand outstretched on the dirt in front of him, or Hinoka and Camilla sprawled on the ground next to their mounts, or even Xander’s head dipping into the vibrant red blooming from his chest, from where he’s pinned to the tree—)
(The worst part of this is the sight of Leo with his fingers bloody, vines and roots and branches digging into his ribcage and arms like they’re drawing his blood directly for the earth, his eyes wide and red, dirt and mud smeared onto his face with his tears—in the same way that Takumi knows he must look—and he knows that Brynhildr is already reclaiming Leo as Fujin Yumi is reclaiming him. He can practically feel the stare from Corrin’s blank eyes, feel her guilt and heartbreak—)
(Takumi’s arm raises of its own accord and Fujin Yumi’s arrow and string burn his hand until it feels like there’s nothing there left, and he senses something dark in him rattle with rage and indignation and he’s convinced it’s laughing—because it’s not him, he isn’t sure how much of himself is left—)
(“Not like this,” he almost thinks he can hear Leo choke, from across the room, “Not like this, not like this—”)
(He mirrors the sentiment. But his head jerks back in pain as he feels Brynhildr’s thick branches dig into his legs and waist, and he looses the arrow and looks up in time to see the ice blue shaft deep in Leo’s chest, and how his sightless eyes focus one last time over Elise’s splayed form from under her horse, and how he tips his head back and sighs and falls silent.)
(This can’t be how it ends, Takumi thinks, as a thick root digs between his ribs and clamps down, decisively, around his heart.)
“No! N-No, no no—no no no—”
“Takumi—stop, you’re fine, shh—”
“Help me—please, I—”
“I’m here but I don’t—I don’t know what you need, you need to tell me—”
“I can’t—I can’t—”
“Should I call Sa—”
“No! Don’t—no, no no, please—”
“F-Fine I won’t, promise, but I don’t know what to—”
“They’re all dead—don’t—I can’t look at them—”
“No one is dead, Takumi, they’re all fine—it was just a dr—”
“They’re dead, they’re dead, you’re dead, Leo, it’s my fault—”
“No, you’ve done nothing wrong—please—”
“That’s not true. That’s not true, they’re all—”
“It was a dream. It was a dream, just a dream—”
“No, it—no, no—”
“Shh—it’s fine—it’s fine, I promise—feel my pulse, here—I’m alive—here, listen—”
“Listen—shh, no—no more, just listen—”
And the answer is there—but it's so insulting and awful that Takumi doesn't say it out loud. Fortunately for him, one of the advisors says it for him.
Hoshido is popular among the Nohrian populace. They’ve grown more generous after the war, and increased both imports and exports to Nohr. The Nohrian economy is finally gaining a foothold, after centuries—but all of the positive change is attributed to Hoshido. After all, it was Hoshido that sliced out the impurities of the Nohrian royal family. What applies to one Nohrian royal could easily apply to others. King Leo can’t be trusted.
"A part of the country wants to be absorbed into Hoshido as a protectorate," Leo tells him one night as they're sitting by the fire. Takumi keeps his mouth shut, wisely, and does his best to pretend like he’s never considered the idea before. "The richer aristocrats and other landowners are against it. They cite Nohrian pride. And they say that they would rather be burned at the stake than fall completely to Hoshido."
“But that’s only a few?”
Leo turns to look at him, thoughtfully. “The common people don’t trust the royal family anymore. After news of Father’s possession and Xander killing Elise...accidental or not, they’d always known how brutal survival was for us in the castle. I don’t think it surprised them that he killed her, and they seem to believe that it was deliberate...to a degree.”
Takumi looks down and sees that Leo’s fingers are pressed into the armrests of his chair, hard, to the point where they’re searing white.
“Anyway,” Leo continues, “They now have you guys as a point of comparison. After King Ryoma decided to pay more attention to Nohr, many people in the country were...it was the aid, Takumi, they’d been starving and now they’re not, and it’s because of your brother. And your family is so secure and strong, and...”
He trails off, and Takumi keeps his eyes on the fire. He knows that he should be happy, for Hoshido, because these things mean that their people are uniting—but this is not at all how he’d ever wanted it to be, seeing Nohr bowing to Hoshido. There’s a dull pulse of heartbreak at the back of his chest that he knows is there, exclusively, for Leo. He doesn’t know how to bring it up—that Leo isn’t a failure, that it was unfair for him to be thrown into a crumbling country and expected to piece it together again, that this doesn’t make him any less—
Leo is the one to break their silence.
“I’m so very tired,” he says, quiet to where Takumi almost doesn’t hear him.
“...Could you potentially...help me with...?”
“I’m...having problems telling apart—telling apart what’s real and not...”
“Leo...Leo, you’re not dead...?”
“Xander and Ryoma—”
“Xander and Camilla and Ryoma and Hinoka. All alive.”
“Safe and well. Corrin is here too. And Azura, if you were going to ask. Your retainers, mine. Theirs. All of them.”
“And I haven’t done anything...”
“You’ve done nothing to hurt anyone.”
“...Haha. A difficult question—but, objectively, no. I haven’t done anything to hurt anyone either.”
“Have I hurt you in any way, Leo?”
“You’d never hurt them, they all know that.”
“No, nothing wrong. You’ve done nothing wrong, Takumi. No one despises you for anything.”
“No. Not her—especially not her.”
It isn't until the second city they enter within the Hoshidan border that they finally notice something is amiss.
"They're welcoming us," Takumi is the one to announce, dumbfounded, as he watches the Hoshidan commoners of the portside town pour out into the streets and cheer. He has to rein in Glenr, who is trained too well to turn on every Hoshidan scent he recognizes, from lunging towards the townsfolk and lashing out with his hooves.
The Hoshidans take them in and watch as Xander dismounts suspiciously and sends trustworthy members of his unit to seek out the leadership in the town. The elderwoman is brought forth, and they have their explanations within the hour.
There is intense unrest within Hoshido. After the consecutive deaths of Queen Mikoto, Crown Prince Ryoma, and Princess Corrin, the Hoshidans were overwhelmed with both impending war and inexperienced, unexpected leaders. Princess Hinoka is acting queen and she is still very well liked among the populace, but the same cannot be said about Prince Leo.
Takumi feels something in his stomach contract as he listens. Prince Leo's decision to enact a draft on all Hoshidan men that are of age, in addition to a startling reveal in public of his Nohrian blood, is sparking rapid suspicion within Hoshidan cities. His policies are considered unreasonable and crippling, and he's quickly becoming known for ignoring all of the royal advisors or other members of nobility.
(It doesn’t sound right, to Takumi’s ear—it’s too reckless for Leo, too inconsiderate and cold, but he doesn’t have the chance to question it.)
"Puppet Prince Leo, all of Hoshido calls him now," the elderwoman says, her voice trembling with poorly-hidden anger. "A vast majority of the people now believe that he works internally with his biological father, King Garon. After all, King Garon often sets similarly unreasonable decrees on his subjects. And the decisions that he's making are weakening Hoshidan morale, in addition to stripping us of farmers that work critical plots of land. Hoshido, for the first time in centuries, is expecting a food crisis because of him. I am convinced that he is working to weaken Hoshido for Garon's taking."
"But if you are so suspicious of him working for Nohr," Xander begins, something displeased still settled at the corner of his mouth, "Why welcome us?"
"Why, that's easy," she says, with a wide blink as if baffled that Xander could ever question it. Takumi feels his breath still when she turns and looks towards him. "Because you have the real prince of Hoshido on your side."
"I—" Takumi stutters in surprise, before catching a quiet warning glance from Camilla and closing his lips.
"And us?" Xander asks, still unconvinced.
"Word has spread in Hoshido of the fact that none of you fully support your father's policies, and we saw it in your merciful treatment of our other cities. Your envoy has already arrived and told us of your desire to feign loyalty to your father in order to expose him of his heinous crimes in front of a large Hoshidan audience. We trust in you."
Takumi is so dazed that he doesn't catch the look on Xander's face as he processes her words—perhaps that's why he's surprised to hear him say, suddenly, "Then we're glad that our envoy has reached you so soundly. Thank you for allowing me to test you on this knowledge, it would be unfortunate for us if this news was spreading so widely, I do hope you understand my reasons. It is a great honor for us to receive your trust in a situation such as this."
Elise's head snaps up to him, surprise evident on her face. Camilla hides hers well under her practiced smile. The woman beams, her face bright, and nods towards Xander.
"Of course, Nohrian prince and princesses. I, too, hope for a future where Nohr and Hoshido may unite as comrades, and not suffer such injustices and troubles as a result of a corrupt king and his prince." And then the elder turns away from Xander and towards Takumi, her lips pursed in what he feels is a smile that he doesn't deserve. "Free Hoshido from the Puppet Prince and his bloodthirsty father, Prince Takumi. Much of Hoshido is ready to see you ascend, beside your true siblings, and take the place that you were always meant to hold."
"...Are you asleep now?"
"You asked a few days ago about my mother."
"You've gotten better at telling when I'm awake."
"You give yourself too much credit."
"I never loved my mother, if that's what you were wondering about. It's definitely not the relationship that you have with Queen Mikoto, not nearly as healthy. But I don't think I hate her, either."
“Do you know the meaning of Yggdrasil, Prince Takumi?”
Takumi can barely process Leo’s words—his heart is throbbing in his chest, too hard and too fast, and Leo is so close that his face in Takumi’s vision is broken into only components of the whole—half-parted lips, downcast eyes, soft down against his jawline—
“Yggdrasil, in our folklore, encompasses all of creation...it spans our heaven and our hell, and all of our other worlds. It’s the one constant that we will have in our lives, in our existence—do you remember when I said that you reminded me of it?”
Takumi closes his eyes, and every breath that he takes sears a cavity in his chest. He feels something jerk from underneath his feet—and then he opens his eyes, to daybreak.
"When I was little, I would do anything to please her. Back then, when there were so many of us competing for Father's love and attention, she was always the happiest when I stood out from the crowd.
"So I learned how to fight for her. I did everything for her. I suppose that was the childish part of me—I was convinced that her attention was love. And maybe sometimes it looked like it. She would buy me toys when I beat the others. She would give me these sweet-smelling kisses when I came out victorious in sparring, the more if I bruised them or broke bones.
"But you know, there was one day when one of the other boys—Noah, if I remember correctly—tried to send an assassin after me. This was after I had mastered the most basic form of lighting magic. I'd struck the assassin, and nearly caused his death. After Noah was found out, Mother demanded that I kill him. Father and the other women were in support. After all, one less son is one less child to compete against."
"...But you didn't do it."
"...I couldn't, Takumi. How could I?"
"Others could have."
"I know they could have. But how could I become like them? At that age, with all of my expectations? I would never wish that."
"You feel the same way?"
"Of course I do."
"Yes...of course you do...but after I refused to kill him, Mother struck me and ordered Father to lock me into a closet as punishment. She was hailed a perfect mother, willing to make all the potential sacrifices for her child's future, even at the cost of his happiness."
"She did it only for the influence it would give her."
"Yes. It wasn't the first time, but it was the one that made the most impact, because this time I could tell. I'd done everything for her, but I make one decision for myself and...well. It definitely proved a point."
They do snap, once.
The treaty is signed, and it’s made official. Nohr is now nothing more than a protectorate under Hoshido’s control, a state that is still recognized in semi-sovereignty but that must default to Hoshido for major decisions. Leo drops the pen afterwards as if it carried the weight of the world, and doesn’t say anything else.
Until that night when they’re both lounging in his private quarters, Takumi at his usual armchair and Leo at his desk—when Takumi hears a sudden harsh rustle of papers tearing and heavy objects thudding onto the carpet.
He stands up, alarmed, his hand jerking automatically to where Fujin Yumi would usually be resting across his back, his own book pushed down onto the ground. But there’s no intruder there—only Leo, standing up from his chair, eyes wide and chest heaving and all of his meticulously ordered documents and reports strewn over the floor.
As Takumi watches, he flings another arm forward. The tips of his fingers catch an ink pot, and it flies and shatters against a stone wall. The sharp sound makes them both jerk.
Leo looks up and finally makes eye contact with Takumi—and he’s seen this look on his face before months ago, from the time when Brynhildr had made a bid for his life.
“I need to—” he starts, his voice so surprisingly quiet that Takumi has to strain to hear. “I have to—Takumi—I need to leave—”
Takumi understands, feels it click in his head almost immediately. He steps around his chair and grabs Leo’s hand from where it’s resting on his desk and jerks him forward towards the door. Leo stumbles a few steps over the carpet and then they’re sprinting, out of the door and down the halls, at a breakneck pace that makes his heart beat too fast in his chest.
Takumi throws open the front doors and doesn’t hear any of the shouting around them or clanging of wood against metal. The only thing he registers is the ice cold rain pelting, suddenly, on his face as his feet squelch in saturated, muddy grass and then wet litterfall at the entrance of the forest. Leo is the one that’s pulling him forward now, his breathing so loud that Takumi can isolate it from the rumbling thunder in the distance, and he feels Leo’s nails digging into the back of his hand with how hard he’s clenching down, hard enough to draw blood and grind tendons.
He doesn’t know how long they run—how far into the forest, how deep—because they’re so thoroughly swallowed up by the pitch black of storm clouds and midnight, and mud sprays against the backs of their legs and their clothes are soaked, clinging to their skin in cold presses like clammy hands, and Leo keeps pulling him forward as if he wants to escape that as well. Nohrian forests are scraggly and void of the heavy flora that Takumi’s accustomed to—he’s scratched by bare twigs and thorny bushes, but everything is already made numb by the freezing rain and he couldn’t care less.
They start slowing down. Takumi looks around to see that they’re completely surrounded by the deep shadows between the trees. There are no sounds around them, no woodland creatures or rustling in the canopy, nothing aside from the rain. It feels as though they’ve found a small, uninhabited corner of the world for themselves.
He’s jerked down, suddenly—Leo’s legs had finally given out, and the surprise was enough for Takumi to be brought topping into the ground with him. Leo’s eyes are closed and he lies back on the ground, wordlessly. In the eerie, murky moonlight his skin looks gaunt and pale, like ivory. The only life in him left is the steady rise and fall of his chest, finally slowed out of its panic, and the near imperceptible chattering of his teeth from the cold.
Takumi lies down next to him. The mud squelches and bends to cup around his body, and though the worst of the rain is blocked by the tree trunk that they’d collapsed besides, a few sparse drops still spill down from the tree branches in a light sprinkling. He tugs their joined hands close enough to press his lips to the back of Leo's hand, and watches as Leo pulls back their interlocked fingers and does the same.
“I never want to go back,” Leo says, his voice so quiet that it sounds like part of the rain.
“I wish I could disappear in this.”
“I wish no one would come after me.”
Takumi feels like he can see exactly what it is that Leo is imagining—the soft afternoon sun years down the line, and his skeleton lying here at the base of this tree, overgrown with grasses and weeds and wildflowers. The image frightens him.
“I’d miss you, if you never existed,” Takumi says, honestly. Rain drops into his mouth as he speaks, clean and sweet.
“That’s not true. You wouldn’t even know to miss me, if you’d never known me.”
“I’d know. In some way I’d know. Like if I read a book that I enjoyed, and that no one would enjoy except for you, I’d feel it then.”
“I hate hypotheticals.”
Leo’s shivering hard enough for Takumi to feel his tremors now. The space between their hands is warm, but Takumi feels it too—the chill, sinking deep into his bones from his soaking clothes, unwiring everything in his body and leaving him numb.
“You can’t stop me from missing you.”
“But it doesn’t make sense, logically.”
“Just because you think it’s impossible that anyone could miss you,” Takumi says, “Doesn’t meant it’s true.”
Leo’s eyes are closed now, his face still turned up towards the sky. His eyelashes are clumped thick and dark, and his hair is plastered both to his forehead and into the mud.
“I’m more replaceable than you’re giving me credit for, you know.”
“No, you’re not.”
“If I brought someone that can do everything I do, reacts exactly as I do, has the same talents and capabilities, likes and dislikes—”
“It’s still not the same.”
“I’m serious. You’re more than just that.”
Leo breathes out, in a soft sigh, and Takumi knows that he doesn’t know how to respond. The sight is almost comical. He wonders if Leo knows that the only reason why he can argue against him so effectively is because it feels like he’s arguing against himself.
(Takumi also knows that, once they go back, he’ll spend hours sitting there with Leo on his carpet, sorting through the documents that he’d torn and flung in his frenzy, piecing everything together as best as they can. But for now Leo’s eyes are pressed closed and mud is caking between and around their joined fingers, and Takumi tries to imagine it drying and solidifying into solid rock.)
"Can you promise me one thing?"
"Are you trying to rope me into agreeing to something I'd regret?"
"That depends on you."
"Hmm...let's hear it, then."
"Leo, if something ever happened where I wasn’t...entirely myself, and if I ever raise a hand against you for any reason...please promise me you'd kill me yourself."
“...Please, if it could only be you—”
“I absolutely—undoubtedly—could never.”
“But you can, is the thing—”
“No. Please never ask me again, Takumi.”
“It’s very hard to admit but I...don’t feel like this life that I’m living belongs to me.”
Takumi looks up. He’s surprised to see the edges of Leo’s eyes rimmed red, the light reflecting off of them, glassy and clear. Leo tries to smile convincingly, but it’s a failure. He seems to know, too, and chokes out a laugh. “Sorry,” he says.
“No, don’t—” Takumi trails off, unsure about how to continue. “I don’t think...I mean, I don’t...you don’t really have to look at it like...”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry for springing that on you. I wouldn’t know how to respond either,” Leo looks down on his hands, and a few strands of hair slip out of his ponytail and fan around his cheek.
Takumi looks down too, and tries not to show how awkward he feels. He tugs a clover from the ground and picks at its leaves. “Do you think about this often?” he finally thinks to ask.
“After you came home, yes. I started picturing you with Sakura and Hinoka...relaxing by the rivers during springtime, maybe sitting in council meetings with Ryoma or visiting the countryside with Corrin...” He trails off, his eyes glazing just slightly. Takumi isn’t sure he’s seen Leo with his guard down like this before, but he doesn’t dislike it. “It was surprisingly easy to do. I even imagined you with long hair...and you looked wonderful.” Leo turns towards him again, a small smile on his face. “I believe it’s jealousy.”
Takumi has to look away to play off the creeping blush he feels at the back of his neck. “I don’t think I’d look like...I mean, I don’t think long hair would look good on me, really. Or not like you.”
“It’ll grow out, don’t worry. Give it time.”
Takumi doesn’t really know how to tell him that it doesn’t feel right if he has it out long, because then he wouldn’t really look Nohrian anymore, as he knows himself to be—but he also knows that sharing this with Leo would bring him no sympathy. Of course Leo assumes Takumi is here to stay, because in his mind Takumi is more Hoshidan than him. Takumi doesn’t really know how to tell him that isn’t the case.
“I’m just so—I’ve just been so happy. And it hurts to think that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be.” Leo raises his fingertips to his eyes, and Takumi watches as they come away, glossy.
He tears the last leaf off the clover in his hands and lets it fall back onto the ground. In the distance he can hear the rustling of tree branches against each other, sees the white petals cascading down onto the ground like rain.
The tent is dark and it's silent outside, and the words out of his mouth don't feel nearly as dangerous as they did before.
"Some of the dreams aren't as bad as others."
Leo doesn't make any noise in response, but Takumi can tell by the hitch in his breathing that he's listening.
"I don't remember most of them anymore. But in some of them, we're happy."
"Yeah. You're in most of them." It's not as embarrassing to admit now, for some reason.
"As an enemy."
"Not always. Sometimes you're a friend."
"But there's one that I remember better than the others. We're not friends in that one."
He can hear Leo rolling over onto his side, to look at him.
"I only remember bits and pieces even now, but I know that we were fighting. Corrin didn’t choose...” He trails off. It’s hard to even imagine—a world where their sister had actually chosen one family over the other.
“So we fight.”
Takumi can practically sense the wave of childish curiosity coming from Leo’s direction, and he has to stifle a sigh.
“Don’t worry, you won.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask about,” Leo says, immediately.
“Of course.” Takumi wonders if he should add in that he doesn’t judge Leo for it, and that he would definitely have wanted to know the same thing if their positions had been reversed, but he decides to just let Leo sweat about it. It’s not like he doesn’t deserve it, even a bit, for being an occasional asshole.
“And what happened to you?” Leo asks, very pointedly.
Takumi frowns. It’s a good question, and one that takes him a while to piece together.
“I’m not entirely sure. I know that we fight, and that Corrin is with you and your siblings, but there’s something wrong with it too.”
“I don’t feel...something about me isn’t right. I can’t move my arms or my legs, and my head is...it feels like it’s both exploding and imploding, if that makes any sense. Except there’s nothing left to explode. And I’m caught in the middle.”
They lay there in silence for a few moments. Takumi gathers his comforter around his chin and stares up at the deepest shadows of their tent.
“What happens to you?” Leo finally repeats, quietly.
“The answer might disturb you.”
“Your consideration is touching, but feel free to disturb me this time.”
“...You kill me.”
This part is true—he does remember this clearer than anything else. The tangle of branches and leaves bursting through his chest is a very sharp memory in his head, because it’s always the last thing he sees before waking up.
Leo falls silent.
(Takumi does feel the urge to tease him, just a bit—See, I told you that you’d be able to do it—but decides against it, this time.)
“I have a few questions for you.”
Takumi looks up from his book on old Nohrian kings. Leo has placed down his work as well and has his chin propped up on the palm of his hand, his eyes staring into the fire. The room is dim, and the shadows play strange shapes over his face.
“What brought you back when you were possessed?”
Takumi feels something in his heart tug, automatically—the familiar guilt, shame—and he fights the urge to sigh. He looks down at his fingers, splayed there on the pages of his book, and tries to focus on the feeling of paper rubbing against his callouses.
“You may have to be a bit more specific.”
“I mean to ask what emotions specifically reminded you of...of what you were supposed to be.”
“Mmm.” He runs his fingers down the page, slowly, as he collects his thoughts. “Well, first, I don’t believe it was any emotion specifically that made me realize...how I was trapped. It was emotion that had landed me there in the first place. Any other feelings usually made it worse. Are you sure you want me to go on?”
“Yes. Because I believe I need to...” Leo trails off, but Takumi can tell it’s not on purpose. Something is off about him tonight, and it’s strange seeing capable, poised Leo losing his grasp over his own words. Takumi closes his book.
“It wasn’t emotion that got me out, I think it was knowledge. That people loved me. And that I was capable of loving them back.” It sounds so trite, but as the words leave his mouth he knows they’re true.
Leo doesn’t respond for a while. He continues staring into the fire, but Takumi can practically see his racing thoughts through his eyes. He has an inkling of what this must be about, but if he’s right, then he shouldn’t be the one to prompt a response. He’s just about ready to open his book again and search for his page when Leo’s gaze flickers over to him, and he asks, his voice so quiet that Takumi can barely make it out—
“Which of those do you think it was that my father lacked?”
"You mentioned before that you still don’t hate your mother. Why don't you...?"
"...What a difficult question."
“I can’t hate her, Takumi. I can’t bring myself to.”
“I know...it’s not...”
“I know it’s not necessarily healthy. I don’t think. But I don’t...know. It’s so...”
“...And you love her still?”
“...Stop, don’t stare.”
“Sorry...sorry. I’ve just never seen you cry before.”
He approaches Xander about it only one time.
"Did you ever find out who the envoy was?" Takumi asks him just once, after dinner when they're washing their faces in large washbins provided by the Hoshidans.
Xander is silent for a minute, running a towel through his hair. "The reports state that it was a female envoy with beautiful and unusual hair, riding alone," is all he says. Takumi feels an inkling of recognition at the back of his head—another one of his supposed siblings, also tucked away in her own quiet corner away from everyone else. But he doesn't remember her name, and he knows that Xander can read on his face that his uneasiness doesn't stem largely from the identity of the mysterious envoy. "You don't believe I should have played along with it," Xander says for him, when it becomes clear that Takumi is struggling with the words.
When put like that, he doesn't want to admit it. It’s obvious that agreeing to it made passage into Hoshido easier, and would be sustainable as long as their father stayed in Nohr, but they both know that isn’t the aspect that concerns them. "I think there had to have been another way," Takumi says instead.
Xander sighs. "I know. My heart is uneasy, too."
Is it because Leo is your brother by blood, and it hurts you to see him insulted and hated in the place of a brother that is unrelated and displaced from the enemy? Takumi wants to ask, but doesn't.
"Because it's a lie that you guys don't believe in Father?" Takumi asks, instead.
"Yes. No. Yes." Xander's brows furrow. "For all intents and purposes, I trust Father wholeheartedly. But because it is you who is asking Takumi, my brother...no. It is not entirely a lie. I believe that Camilla and Elise share similar sentiments. What the envoy said has hints of truth in it."
"And about Leo...?"
He can see the look on Xander's face shift, just slightly. He remembers again of when they'd first heard that Brynhildr was stolen from the weapons vault, and feels his heart tighten uncomfortably.
He can't see it. Leo with his clear gaze, quiet voice rubbed raw in betrayal and horror, the smooth swing of his ponytail that seems intrinsically self-possessed and assured. Takumi can't imagine his eyes darkened, his mouth constantly pulled taut, his shoulders braced for betrayal.
"Tell me one of them."
"Are there recurring characters? Besides me?"
"I don't know."
"What? I'm not obligated to tell you anything. And I'm not going to apologize anymore, for saying it. You have no place knowing this stuff, Leo."
"...I am your friend, you know. Do you remember what that means?"
"Yes, okay, whatever, we chat to pass the time and you find me more tolerable than other people, sometimes—"
"Yes on the first point, the second is questionable. And I'm insulted that's all you can think of."
"The fact that I'm your friend now, Takumi, proves that I care."
"...You don't believe me."
"Haha. Don't take it personally."
It’s unclear whether he’s awake or asleep. Takumi feels both inside his body but also out of it, all at once. It hurts, pulsing against his temples in dull waves—but also feels strangely soothing. This can’t be a bad place.
He recognizes the area around him as the central gardens in Castle Krakenburg—Yggdrasil is in front of him, but it’s not the same as before. Instead of the gem-like leaves and branches that it usually sports, everything is replaced with dark wood and small flowers that bloom a spectrum from pink to white, and that shed petals like snow.
Leo’s fingertips are pressing against the bark of the tree, but he turns around and smiles when Takumi steps up to him. He looks as pristine as he did on the first day they met—his hair bound up neatly and eyes clear—and there’s a silence and peace in him that Takumi hasn’t seen in a very, very long time.
“I’m so glad that we have the chance to speak, one last time.”
(It doesn’t hit him here—not entirely, not quite yet—but he feels the softest ache at the back of his heart that he’s missing something, and that Leo is right when he says this is their final meeting.)
“I’ve missed you,” Takumi says, and it’s true. He opens his mouth to continue but it hurts. It takes a retry before the words come out. “It’s not the same without you.”
Leo hums and looks up, to one of the higher branches. Takumi follows his gaze but sees nothing special. “I agree. I wish we could have had more opportunities to talk. We may have only had a month together, but for some reason I feel that it should have been much longer.”
“Yes. You don’t hate me?”
“Hmm. I don’t know. Perhaps? In a way, yes. You are deeply connected with people that killed my siblings, in an event that catalyzed the country that I love to turn against me. But it’s not hate, even then. I don’t know if I’m capable of feeling hatred towards you, and that’s interesting.”
Takumi dips his head. “I thought you would have hated me.”
“Just because you would have hated you doesn’t mean I would.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“But you’re still sorry?” Leo fixes his eyes on Takumi. The uncharacteristically bright sunlight dims into something that feels more natural. “You still have regrets?”
He can’t look at Leo anymore. “I don’t have anything else, anymore.”
“Then I have to apologize, beforehand, for what I have to ask of you.”
And of course he knows what Leo wants—neither of them need to say it out loud. Because now Takumi remembers where he is and why he’s here, and that this is the Leo he’s been looking for forever. That one outside, facing his siblings in the decrepit throne room, leading his own country to hate him, is only an imposter—an insult.
The flowers suddenly feel suffocating. Takumi swears they’re eating him up—clinging to his feet and shins and knees and thighs—and deconstructing him from outside in. It’s suddenly very hard to speak.
“There’s something that I need you to do for me. A final favor, if you will. It’s a terribly cruel and unfair request, but I believe you’d understand it best.”
“I do,” Takumi says, and it nearly takes everything out of him.
Leo steps back from Yggdrasil. He looks exhausted but content—resigned but poised.
“I’m so very tired. Can you tell? I’m ready for it all to be over.”
“Whether you believe it or not, I do trust you with the end. I’ve always felt that we were kindred spirits, and that we should have been more.”
Takumi swallows. “I—”
“I’m sorry that I’m leaving you with all the fallout. It’s terribly irresponsible of me. But Hinoka will be the beacon of hope for Hoshido—the end to all of the corruption of the puppet prince’s short reign.”
Leo takes another step back. The flowers that were swirling at his feet have begun to wither away, and Takumi feels the sunlight dimming until everything is cast a deep violet.
“And I’m sorry that we couldn’t have more time together. But I’m greedy.” Leo breaks to laugh. It’s a sound that Takumi clings onto, that he hasn’t heard in too long, but it’s over too soon. “Even a year wouldn’t have been enough. Still, I believe...we could have been the best of friends.”
It’s too much. Takumi jerks forward, whispering, “It can’t—”
But he doesn’t finish the sentence, because he knows that it’s inherently wrong—it can , and it has.
This story will end like this—with his arrow shot straight through Leo’s heart—because Leo is long dead, and this is the only happy ending they have left.
"I didn't take it personally, you know."
"Your not believing me, that is. That I care. Because I would do the same, if our situations were reversed."
"...Then why are you like this now?"
"Because I see you, and I know why. And I feel slightly obligated, now. To help."
Everything is bright red and searing into his eyes and chest and through his bloodstream into the corners of his body—he tries to breathe in through his nose but feels the pain increase in his lungs and heart until he ends up coughing something out through between his teeth, and he's suddenly aware of the fact that his mind is shutting down on him, that something in his body is finally giving up and giving in—
(It's a familiar feeling to him, he recognizes at the back of his head. It's something he's felt before. It's something that he should only feel once, why is it so familiar—?)
Something pushes down at his hand, but when he turns his arm looks miles away and not at all like it's still attached to his body. Underneath the red-hot pain he realizes that red soaks in seas around his sleeves and pools in little ponds in his clothes.
The edges of his sight are dimming. He tries to take another breath but it's no better than the first—the air is still fire, still unsustainable.
He tries again. The same pain, crippling and impossible, like a steel wall. Takumi coughs, and expelling hurts just as much, if not more, than inhaling.
The voice sounds like it's an impossible distance away, but he still hears it there, barely.
"Almost, almost, Takumi..."
‘Almost what?’ he wants to ask.
"Almost to the end...I had one last promise...remember...?"
The end? A promise? He feels his body shudder through another painful breath. It is a beautiful thing that doesn’t really know when to quit, and though he knows at the back of his head that the voice is right and this is the end, he appreciates that his body still sees reason to keep fighting.
"The tree that you'd always wanted to know about...it's name is Yggdrasil...sits at the center of Castle Krakenburg...magnificent, nothing else quite like it...if you hang in there, Takumi, I'll take you, I promise..."
He finally recognizes the blood-tipped fingers at his hands as Leo's. Of course it's Leo. Takumi, at this point, is bemused by how it always seems to be Leo.
He's not sure if he actually says it audibly—"I'll hold you to it, then"—but something soft and dark rolls over his vision in a comforting wave, and he closes his eyes.
“I know why we’re so sad.”
“That’s a bold statement, Leo.”
“I think it’s because our problems can’t be solved.”
“…I take it back, it’s just a lazy one.”
Leo’s laughs, softly. “No, it’s not. It’s because we fixate on things that don’t really matter.”
“I’ve diagnosed us, formally, as pathological mopers.”
His laughter is contagious—Takumi snorts, loudly.
("What is your proposed solution, then, to our unsolvable problems?")
("There is none, of course. There's just us. There will only ever just be us.")
He's standing against the walls of a courtyard that he doesn't recognize, one that's overflowing in typical Nohrian fashion, with flowers clambering above and over each other for sunlight. His body doesn't feel very tangible now—there's something that's tying him down to the ground, but he feels transparent at the same time. He turns to look around, unsure of himself, until something bumps into his legs.
Takumi looks down, startled. It's a boy, no older than five or six. His eyes are still disproportionately large for his face, nose still a small stub compared to what it would inevitably grow into, face and cheeks still round with baby fat. He looks up at Takumi with wide eyes, small mouth working into a pout. Takumi stares back, unsure of what to say or do.
"Are you one of the servants?" the boy asks him finally, his eyebrows furrowing expressively.
"No," Takumi answers, bemused.
"I've never seen anyone with your clothes before."
Takumi looks down, as if he'd somehow forgotten. "I’m...just visiting."
"Somewhere far away."
The boy brightens up, as if this was some common ground. "My mother tells me that I have a sister that's far away!"
Takumi opens his mouth and closes it again. It sinks in, now, where he's seen that particular shade of gold in the boy's hair, and why exactly his oversized brown eyes look so familiar. Maybe the reason why it took him so long is because they're so unexpectedly expressive—he can look into them and see himself, reflected back unbiased and open and true.
The child’s face scrunches into a small frown. "That's Prince Leo to you!" Takumi has to fight a smile.
"I'm sorry. Prince Leo." Takumi wonders if he should make a joke about bowing or kneeling, but realizes that Leo at five years old would have a hard time reading into sarcasm. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Okay, okay," Leo says dismissively, unimpressed. "What's your name?"
"My name is Takumi."
He can't stop himself from laughing this time, even a bit. "Sure."
"Why do you have gloomy in your name?" Leo asks, and raises a small hand to push a lock of hair out of his face.
"My mom thought it would be funny," Takumi says, giving up.
"Oh!" Leo brightens immediately. "You should meet my mother. She wears really long dresses all the time and father loves her a lot. She says that he loves her best."
Takumi blinks. Leo's smile is bright and genuine, and Takumi immediately understands the point of this dream. He digs his fingernails into the palms of his hands. He wants to wake up.
"Would I like her, Prince Leo?"
"Yes, most definitely! Everyone loves her. She's at the other end of the garden, sitting with the other mothers and my brothers and sisters. You can come play with us, if you want."
He looks over in their general direction. Leo may not be taller than the rosebushes as he is now, but Takumi can see over them easily at his height. He spots the other children, lounging around on plush couches and speaking to each other softly with their eyes downcast. Beside them is a tea table, piled high with white porcelain and seated by ladies in the long gowns and black thorns of Nohr's nobility.
One of them looks up, as if she'd known Takumi was staring. She is painfully beautiful—with ice blue eyes that he can make out even from a distance and a cascade of straight, dandelion gold hair that laps gently at her waist. All of her features are small and contained, as if each too afraid to take up much space on her face—the results are a high and thin nose, doe-like but deep set eyes, and a small mouth dyed the same red as the rose pinned to her hair. Takumi feels a physical jolt in his heart when he realizes he’d seen those same high cheekbones and eyes before on someone else, tweaked slightly to fit a longer face, and he’s sure that if she was to curl up her mouth in a smile it would look exactly like Leo’s.
(The only thing betraying her to the stories from the older Leo is the lightest crease against the corners of her lips and the dark pull of her eyes. They promise nothing warm.)
"My love! Leo!" she calls, and her voice carries to them with the depth and solemness of mourning bells. "Come and show us the levitation spell that you mastered this morning." Leo turns as if lit aflame, his eyes sparkling.
Takumi steps back as he watches Leo run back towards his family. He can't see much of their faces from his distance, but can still tell how bright-eyed Leo is, how every muscle in his body is thrumming with the drive to please. He watches as she places a soft, possessive hand on his head.
“Please sleep tonight, Takumi.”
“It isn’t like you to beg.”
“I would, for this. Please.”
He doesn’t understand why he expected something special—why he believed, at the back of his heart, that Leo would die differently. In retrospect it’s almost funny, how selfish he is to expect the universe to make a show of the moment, when it never bothered with anyone else’s death.
It might be because of his inability to think of anything but Leo, the oppressive guilt eating away at his skin and bones like acid, the knowledge that this didn’t have to happen and that there must have been something he could have done along the way to change this—because something feels so terribly wrong about seeing Leo strung up above the Hoshidan throne room in a tangled spider web of Brynhildr’s roots and branches, his sun-kissed hair loose and hanging around his face in delicate curtains and his eyes so unnaturally wide and crimson that they look like pools of fresh blood.
And when they’re surrounded by enemies and the rest of his family charges in readily, grimly, Takumi feels himself lean flush to Glenr and squeeze Fujin Yumi tight in his left hand, to the point where his knuckles are marble pale. He feels oddly distant from all of the fighting, even as he draws back and forces Fujin Yumi’s bowstring and arrow to manifest in time to pierce once, twice through a Faceless’s heart and neck. Maybe it’s because his limbs are sore from months and months of fighting and his fingers reek of blood that he’s sure he’d never be able to get out and there is something terribly mechanical and forced about this whole battle, to the point where it almost feels comical.
He draws and releases Fujin Yumi one more time, right into the mount of a diving pegasus knight, and suddenly feels something slam into him from the side, knocking him to the floor—a thick branch, a component of the enormous trees that are slowly cracking plaster and stone to reach into the throne room like hungry arms. Takumi watches as a few of the larger roots, still caked with freshly crumbling dirt, grow stubbornly into pillars and topple them in heartbreaking cascades of red and gold.
(Leo stares at the destruction sightlessly and Takumi wants to grab him and shake and yell for him to stop—that this is Leo’s home, that he's destroying the last vestiges of everything he’d loved, of the place where he’d been so loved—but it’s too late for hope and miracles so Takumi doubles over and pounds a fist into his chest to shock his tears from spilling over and keeps his head down and charges.)
Xander helps him clear a path—Siegfried’s darkness shooting ahead of him to snap away persistent vines and branches, and Takumi continues running down the throne room, an arm over his head, until he can feel every fiber and muscle in his body humming to him that he’s in range.
It happens exactly how he’d always dreaded and hoped for it to happen.
He jerks upwards, smoothly, Fujin Yumi at the ready and his arrow’s tip already in line with a clean path through not-Leo’s borrowed heart.
Vines twine desperately around his ankles and he feels a converging of flora behind him in its final effort to keep him from destroying its source—
And he releases, just like he’s done a million times before.
It flies true, and sinks into Leo’s chest easily and quietly.
There’s a moment of chaos in the room, when the evil in Leo’s body churns desperately against his skin, as if there was a chance of it escaping and planting itself into someone else. Vines and roots shoot uncontrollably in all directions from Brynhildr, suddenly lost without any guiding power. The summoned monsters all still and every soldier freezes and heaves heavy breaths, eyes wide and waiting for the collapse.
And it comes. Takumi watches the small sigh that comes out from Leo’s mouth, how his eyes close and something imperceptibly clear snakes down from under an eyelid—and then suddenly all of the vines binding his body above the throne wither into black tendrils and he plummets to the ground, stopped from crashing into marble only by Xander’s waiting arms.
Victory is not sweet, nor a relief.
Takumi can’t look at his body. He can’t watch as his siblings crowd Leo—as Xander leans in close to study his face and Camilla brushes golden hair out of his closed eyes and Elise takes his cold hand and whispers, “His hair is ours, Xander—it’s the same—he’s ours—”
It’s too overwhelming. Instead, he closes his eyes and conjures up the warm sweetness of taiyaki on his tongue and Leo standing before him, with an eyebrow arched in amusement and skin glowing and eyes cast out into his populace. And then Takumi turns away and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and feels the tears finally overflow.
Victory is never as pretty as it’s dreamed to be. Hoshido has received a cruel slap to the face—the country’s capital and palace are decimated, and they have lost four members of their royal family in less than a year. Takumi steps out from the palace and sees rows upon rows of empty stores and houses, surrounded with clumps of litter, abandoned by the people he’d danced with not so long ago. It’s too much to bear looking at, and yet there’s nowhere else to look.
Cleanup is messy, disgusting, inhumane, and undignified. It isn’t until hours later that Camilla has the time to hunt him down and smooth his hair and pull him into a solid hug.
“Takumi? How are you feeling, dear?” she asks, her own voice hoarse from crying.
For the first time, he doesn’t mind that he’s completely smothered during her infamous hugs. It saves her from looking at his face—because how is he supposed to answer? Nothing he can think of sounds remotely acceptable.
I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I think this is my fault. I’m not okay.
He finally settles with—
“This isn’t what I wanted.”
“Sorry...were you asleep?”
“Sorry...sorry. Just wanted to...sorry.”
(Takumi does say it once, very clearly—he takes Leo's face between his hands and watches as his eyes widen and his hands come up to Takumi's wrists to either keep them there or tear them off—)
("You can be loved, you know. I'm proof of that. So for me, don't—don’t be a martyr. You could never be a martyr completely—and then what am I supposed to do with your pieces?")
(They're pretty words, purposely convoluted to protect the truth in his heart—Your loss is one that I will never be able to bear.)
(Leo’s features are blurring, and Takumi can barely make it out anymore. Still, he sees the smear of his smile—just pink enough, against his face.)
("Thank you, Takumi.")
(And as the scene fades and Takumi looks up and sees the blue of the sky rushing towards them, signaling the end, he’s fairly certain that he hears Leo’s soft whisper:)
("You’re so interesting. I’m jealous of that—the courage behind your vulnerability.")
"Have you heard of the girl of a thousand nights?"
"Huh...does it involve an old and evil king? And a young girl, stolen away to be the child bride of a man that she doesn't love?"
"That's all I do remember. I think I read it once, in a book from the libraries, but it wasn't one of the ones that we told commonly by tongue."
"Ahh, I see. That makes sense, it originated around our lands anyway."
"Really? That would explain it."
"Yes, they say it's from an island nation that's off the southern coast of Hoshido. Our collections aren't too specific either, but that's all I've heard."
"Why this one in particular?"
"Well, you might not remember, but there was just something about her story that I really enjoyed. I think it was just her character, though, now that I think about it."
"I believe I recall her to be tenacious and stubborn. And clever, though I can't recall why."
"Yes, exactly. She was stolen away at a young age to be a child bride—you were right—but was to be killed at the end of the night if she didn't make the king happy. So she decided to tell him a story, except she made it impossibly long. That way, she would never finish telling it the night before, and she'd have to keep telling it the next night."
"So the king never killed her! Very clever."
"Yeah. I don't know. I think she reminds me of you."
Leo laughs, into the darkness. "I should thank you, for your faith in my trickery."
"You don't need me to feed your ego. But no, I don't think that's why she reminds me of you."
"...I don't know. I think it's her predicament that reminds me a bit of you."
"Like the being called every night to tell a story. And fighting through it, even though she's terrified of dying young and failing herself, because she wants to keep living and providing."
"...Sorry, I know that was embarrassing to hear."
"...No. Don't apologize. I've grown accustomed to it."
"To you and your honesty."
He doesn’t dream often about the fallout of Leo’s death—there’s only one that he recalls, and even then all of the details are blurred. He doesn’t know exactly where he is, but remembers the soft carpet under his palms and the crackling fire warming his limbs. He remembers his family stretched out around him, with Elise’s head in his lap and Camilla braiding her hair and Xander stretched out on an armchair.
Nothing about this dream implies specifically that it’s after Leo’s death—rather, it’s something intangible and thick in the air, as mourning.
It’s Elise that brings the subject up, in a soft voice that’s almost lost in Camilla’s humming and the logs popping in the fireplace.
“What was he like, Takumi?”
He looks down at her to catch her gaze. He can see Xander’s knuckles whitening from tension.
“Leo? I don’t think I knew him all that well.”
“You knew him better than us. Did you guys spend a lot of time together during your...stay...in Hoshido?”
Takumi stares back into the fire. He closes his eyes and sees the glint of long cornsilk hair, with Leo’s spindly fingers threaded through them as he pulls them up into his ponytail. He can practically smell the Hoshidan spring wafting from the open doors, and it makes his heart ache painfully.
“Well, he was always really careful with his hair. He’d have his hair tied up perfectly and then forget something dumb. Like, Sakura would always have to check to make sure his seams weren’t showing, and that he didn’t accidentally put on his clothes inside out.”
Camilla laughs. “That sounds oddly familiar.” Takumi smiles.
“Yeah. And he’d always be reading something in the gardens...he and Ryoma were really close, I think. They talked a lot under the trees, and they just looked so serene...I don’t know. Like a picture. I think Ryoma held his opinion in very high regard...and Hinoka and Sakura loved him, too. They doted on him so much—he’d always call Sakura out to the gardens when her favorite flowers bloomed, and every morning he’d go flying with Hinoka. Corrin...messed with him a lot, but I can tell he loved her dearly.”
“Would we have gotten along?” Elise asks.
“I think so. He was really patient with me...I got lost in the woods the first day, and he looked for me for hours from his pegasus—his pegasus was named Tobiume, I think, the one that I...I shot down. He told me they practically grew up together. He really loved her.”
He doesn’t realize until Camilla brushes her fingers gently across his cheekbones that he’s started crying.
"It's just really unfair," he says, and hates how childish it sounds and how none of his siblings are interrupting him. Now that he's started, he can't stop. "I think the worst of it is that they still call him the puppet prince of Hoshido—I've heard it, the last time we visited, and it's just not true . And he was so curious about you guys...he didn't let it slip often. But he asked me if he had the same hair, the same eyes, how tall Xander was."
Takumi trails off when he feels the familiar pressure prickling in his nose. Elise's head dips further into his lap, and Camilla reaches down to take his hands. He fixes his eyes on the wall and sees Leo’s eyes, red and wide, in his mind.
The silence doesn’t last for too long. It’s Xander that breaks it, in a voice that’s lowered and softer and honest—
“Takumi, you need to remember that no one thinks this is your fault.”
Takumi has to tug his hands free of Camilla’s, quickly, to cover his face as his tears well back up, faster than before. He wants to bite down on his thumb to keep from embarrassing himself by sobbing—but Elise sits up and pulls him into a hug and he can’t really see any reason to hold it in anymore.
“I’m sorry, for before.”
“For saying that I could fix you. That I should. It was incredibly pretentious of me.”
“Hah. It’s fine, it came from a good place.”
“But you understand why...I felt that desperation?”
"You do understand that you’re so terribly important to me now?"
"Don't pretend that you're asleep, Takumi, I know that you aren't."
(It's something that Takumi will keep with him weeks and months later, even after Leo stops smiling at him and instead glares through ruby eyes, cold and unfeeling.)
He leans against the flowering tree and feels his eyelids growing heavier. Beside him Leo is reading a scroll from the Hoshidan collections, with one hand unrolling while the other rerolls at a comfortable distance away, enough for him to skim the emblazoned pictures with a fond eye.
Leo reads only one passage aloud, one of his favorites, and the words tumble over his tongue in soft lilts:
“Your color is a straightforward white,
but still you are known as peony.
What do I hope to gain by walking around you?
Perhaps a measure of your pureness of heart.”
Takumi had joined him in reading through a bit, training his unpracticed tongue in Old Hoshidan, before he'd grown tired and leaned back against the tree for a rest. Leo continued on reading, and would continue reading for the next few hours—Takumi drifts in and out of sleep to see Leo's profile, turned down towards this scroll first, and then a different one afterwards, until the sun dyes the ground a soft orange and the palace servants come to fetch them for dinner.
Takumi wakes up slowly and squints, towards the door. The sun hasn’t started rising yet, and the room is filled with the quiet white noise of night. He stills his own breathing for a moment and listens—and turns, frowning, to check Leo’s bed. The covers are thrown off, his shoes at the foot of the bed gone, Brynhildr lifted from the bedside table.
He sits up, listening first to hear if his instincts catch anything off about the situation, if there was an ambush from the Vallites that woke Leo but didn’t disturb him—but he senses nothing.
Propelled by nothing more than concern and curiosity, Takumi drags a blanket off of his bed and scoots off the side, wrapping it around his shoulders like a shawl before padding towards the door in bare feet. It feels highly unlikely that anyone else would be awake, so he doesn’t bother himself with hunting for his shoes.
The air outside is cool and gentle, chilling his skin pleasantly and playing with the ends of his hair. He’s right—no one else is outside at this hour. He starts walking, directionless, tilting his face into the breeze. Already, he can feel the spring air working out the tension in his neck and arms.
He finds Leo, after a few minutes. He is seated at the very edge of the floating island, his legs dangling off into the sky underneath, face turned up and eyes closed. Takumi can sense the moment that he notices him approaching—Leo’s posture tenses and his eyes crack open, slightly.
“I don’t know. I think. But I don’t remember now,” Takumi says, honestly. He inches next to Leo and eases himself down, crossing his legs. “How long have you been out here?”
Leo turns away from him and looks back out. Takumi notices that he has Brynhildr in his lap.
“I have nightmares too, sometimes.”
“...What was it?”
Leo pulls his knees up to his chest, sandwiching Brynhildr, and ropes his arms around his legs. He presses a cheek against Brynhildr’s spine and frowns. “It was about my mother.”
“It wasn’t anything special. We were just sitting at the table—I think it was breakfast, or lunch. Or something similar, sorry—anyway. I was just very thirsty...I don’t think there was water in front of me. So I kept trying to ask her for some, but she never heard me. So I’d yell it louder and louder, and she still didn’t...” Leo trails off, a faraway look in his eyes. Takumi shifts his legs a bit under his blanket, and that seems to bring him back. Leo turns to look at him. “Anyway. That was it. I’m fine, I was going to head back in a bit.”
“That’s alright. I like being out here, early morning. You can taste it in the air.”
“Mmm,” Leo hums in agreement, before closing his eyes and inhaling deeply. A smile flits across his face. “And hear the birds—you’re right. I enjoy being up this early. The world feels more tangible, now.”
“Liar. You’re never awake at dawn if you can help it.” Takumi laughs as Leo gives him a small and indignant elbow in the side.
“Well, neither are you.”
"No, I'm full of surprises," Takumi says, and can’t quite fight off the cheeky smile that comes over his face. Leo regards him with an exasperated stare.
"Gods help me," he whispers, before turning his eyes to the skies. "He's trying to be funny."
Takumi doesn’t hold back in his elbow. Leo coughs in surprise and bends over, towards him, and his hair tickles Takumi’s neck. Takumi has to fight his reflex to punch Leo at the side of the head for being too close, because he knows that wouldn’t be well received.
They sit in silence for a few moments. Takumi closes his eyes and feels the world lightening, incrementally, behind his eyelids. The birds around them continue to chatter quietly to themselves, and though Takumi doesn’t see it himself he can imagine their elongated shadows flitting between treetops. He can practically feel Leo relaxing into him, until their arms and backs are pressed flush together in warm contact. Takumi yawns and sighs, once, before letting his head fall naturally against Leo’s shoulder.
“Still tired enough to sleep?”
He feels something shifting underneath them—earth turns over gently as a small tree creeps its way up to the sky right behind them, offering them its trunk to lean against. Though he feels the haze already setting in, Takumi has to smile.
“Magic has spoiled you,” he hears, more than feels, himself say.
“Why wouldn’t I use it if it’s there?”
He shifts his arm just enough for Leo to pull out the blanket from around his shoulders and drape it over both of their laps. Leo stretches out his legs and leans his head comfortably back into the tree with a sigh.
“There’s somewhere that I’ve wanted to take you when the war ends and we go home, that reminds me a bit of this—”
“It’s called—wait, how did you know?”
Takumi considers it, dimly, even as his limbs warm pleasantly against Leo’s under their blanket. The answer slips out on its own accord—“Because you're my constant.”
He hears Leo respond with something soft, maybe even surprised, but he doesn’t register it as anything more than fuzz in his ear. Instead, Takumi just closes his eyes and feels the rise and fall of Leo’s rib cage beside his, steady and true, while the clouds and skyline lighten and the flowers spiral open and the new day creeps in around them, as it always does.